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Distant Shores

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CHAPTER IV

 

The guidebook had called Adelaide the "festival city," Starsky remembered as he arrived once again in the place from which he'd set off on his trip to Coober Pedy. Over breakfast at the airport, while waiting for his VW rental to be completed, he'd passed the time in reading about the city's tourist attractions. Now, driving through the central business district on King William street -- what was purported to be the widest street in any city in Australia -- Starsky found himself overcome with the urge to see some of the sights. He didn't question his sudden desire, but knowing where it came from didn't make it any easier to ignore. He was putting off the inevitable. By going directly to the hospital, his long wait would be over that much sooner. But as he drove through Adelaide, seeing how the city teemed with life and brightness, Starsky just couldn't bring himself to have someone tell him that the man John Jarrett had brought in from the bush...

He cut off the thought. I'll just spend a couple of hours lookin' around, getting the feel of the place. And getting up my nerve...

It wasn't the houses of Parliament that Starsky felt like visiting, though. Instead, he took one of the dozens of roads leading up to the Adelaide Hills, finding himself reminded of the canyon roads of Los Angeles. He climbed to the heights of the city, noting how beautiful the place was. He found a nice restaurant, named Windy Point, where he had some lunch that came with a view of the entire city. His waiter told him that the hills, which were burned dry and brown in summer, became lush and green in the winter. Now they showed only traces of greenery. Still, it was a nice place. If Hutch were here, he'd enjoy it.

After lunch, Starsky took the Glenelg tram to the city beach. The ride on the tram took twenty minutes. Glenelg beach reminded him immediately of Venice -- like its American counterpart, this beach was a place that had once seen better times, but had now grown a little seedy. Hutch would like it here, too. Starsky stayed for an hour, then reboarded the tram, sampled the fish and chips you could buy on it, and washed them down with locally made champagne. He couldn't help imagining the smile Hutch would be wearing if he were along for the ride.

Finally, he couldn't put if off any longer. He asked a constable directions to Pulteney Street. I'm on my way, partner. Last leg of the journey. Or at least, the last clue I've got to follow. Will this be the end of the trail? Or will someone tell me to look in another place for you?

********

Starsky stood staring up at the imposing hospital facade, his heart in his throat. He refused to speculate on what he would learn inside. The clues had led him here, and he knew this was probably where Hutch's trail would end. The bush pilot had found an unconscious man, but Starsky didn't see any alternative outcome other than the most pessimistic scenario. The rigors of the trip had not only given him time to reason and rationalize, they had given him courage. Feeling as if he were playing out the final scene in a long tragic play, he resolved to accept whatever the facts turned out to be.

He shivered in the wind gusting across the hospital steps. For so long, he had refused himself permission to think of Hutch being dead. At least now, finally, I'll know. Resolutely, Starsky entered the building.

A young woman looked up at him from behind the information desk. Starsky came right to the point, bringing out his badge.

"My name is Lieutenant Starsky, Los Angeles Police. I'm looking for a missing person, an American. A bush pilot told me he found a man unconscious in the outback and that he brought him here."

"Oh." The young woman looked uncertain. She reached for a revolving patient roster. "What's the name?"

Starsky swallowed hard. "Hutchinson. But this was a long time ago. June of 1979."

"I see." The receptionist chewed at her bottom lip. "I just started working here. Perhaps Miss Waring can be of help."

"Okay." Starsky was getting used to waiting.

Miss Waring proved to be a woman in her fifties. She peered at Starsky without much interest. "May I help you?"

"I hope so, ma'am. I'm looking for a friend, my partner, who's been missing for a long time. I traced him to Australia and spoke with a bush pilot who told me he found an unconscious man that he brought here, to your hospital, back in '79. I... I just want to find out what... what happened next to my friend."

Miss Waring's lined face did not change expression and Starsky swallowed his emotions. His tension was building, anxiety shortening his patience. He just wanted an answer, an end to it all. He waited while the dour Miss Waring spoke into an intercom, paging a Doctor Samuels.

It did not take long for a response to the page. After a whispered conversation with Waring, a petite, dark-haired woman was introduced to Starsky as Dr. Melissa Samuels.

"Lieutenant... Starsky?" she inspected the name on the badge. "How may I help you?"

If I have to hear that question one more time... Starsky found his reserve of patience and good manners exhausted. "Lookit. How many times do I have to repeat myself here? Either you people can give me some information or you can't."

The doctor exchanged a look with Miss Waring; Starsky was at a loss to comprehend the meaning that passed between the two women, but it made him distinctly uncomfortable.

Dr. Samuels returned her attention to him, all business now. "You say this friend of yours has been missing two years?"

"That's right. Were you working here back then?"

"Yes, indeed, Lieutenant. I wonder -- would you have photograph of the gentleman?"

Starsky nodded and produced the worn snapshot he carried in his wallet. "That's him. It was taken maybe six months before we lost him."

It seemed to Starsky as if she stared at the photograph for an unusually long time. Waring peered over her shoulder at it, then the women's eyes met again.

Do they recognize him? Oh, God... Starsky cleared his throat. He hurt inside, in his head, his heart, all over.

"Have you ever... seen the man before?"

"He's a very close friend?" Samuels was having trouble speaking, too. Or is it my imagination?

"My best friend." With difficulty, he met her patient brown eyes.

"Yes. This is the man."

Starsky gulped, knowing there was more, afraid to ask the question that would bring the answer. "Well?" Doctors never say the person died, they make you guess, blurt it out yourself so you'll believe it. No... please, no...

"This man was brought in here, two years ago. Just as you said, a pilot found him -- unconscious, carrying no identification. We published his photograph, got in touch with the police. It never occurred to us he wasn't an Aussie." Samuels put a hand on Starsky's arm. "Perhaps you'd like to come to my office, Lt. Starsky? Sit down?"

"He's dead." He said the words himself; finally. Then his mind dropped into low gear, closing down. He suddenly didn't want to hear any more details. "No. I don't wanta sit down." He turned away, numb to everything save grief. "Goin' home..."

"Wait!" Urgently, her hand caught at him again and Samuels rounded the desk to halt his departure. "He's... he's not dead. He's here."

Starsky stared down at her uncomprehendingly.

"He's here." The words were soft, their sound comforting, but confusing. "Please. Come to my office and I'll explain."

********

He let her fix him a cup of tea and took the chair she offered before he could trust his voice again. Finally, he swallowed the lump in his throat and asked his question. "You're sayin' Hutch is here? I don't understand. What...?"

"We believe he'd been drugged. He suffered an overdose of barbiturates. By the time he was brought here, he'd slipped into a deep coma, Lieutenant." Her eyes dropped under the intensity of his gaze. "He... has never regained consciousness."

Hot tea splashed over Starsky's hand and dripped onto his pants leg. He looked down, noting peripherally how badly his hands were shaking. Dr. Samuels rose from the seat behind her desk to take the cup from him, wordlessly using a tissue to blot the hot liquid that had spilled.

"His condition is stable. It hasn't changed much in all this time. Your friend has been well cared for."

He looked up into her sympathetic eyes, his vision blurring, his brain still in neutral. "Hutch is alive...?"

"He's in a coma." The words were gentle, damning. "Somewhere far away where no one can reach him."

He blinked, knew tears escaped, didn't care. Of all the possible answers, this one had never occurred to him. Hutch not dead -- but not alive either. Oh, God, still in limbo...

"How? I don't... he can't wake up? Is that it? Why can't you...?" He didn't even know what questions to ask.

Samuels leaned forward, her quiet voice speaking horrors. "We've done all we can. He had been beaten, rather severely, but the neurological studies showed no brain damage from that. A CAT scan revealed some slight scarring of brain tissue, indicating the possibility of a minor stroke. Then we found two puncture marks on his arm. Even with blood serum tests, it was impossible to tell for certain exactly what or how much he'd been given. We tried every known remedy of detoxification, even dialysis. The chemicals are out of his system... but he has not responded. When he was fully stable, he was transferred to the nursing home complex. It's just next door. Whoever hurt him must have been trying to kill him with the overdose. They left him for dead..."

Starsky closed his eyes, reliving the memory of seeing needle tracks on Hutch's skin. Not that... He must have been so scared...

"You don't know what they shot him up with?"

"Apparently some mixture of morphine and barbiturates. I've never seen anything quite like this. But there are all kinds of people using the outback as their private laboratory. It could be somebody was trying out a new combination before pushing it on the streets." She sighed. "At any rate, he's still the way he was when he was brought here. And I'm afraid I must tell you that the longer a person remains comatose, the less likely he will wake up and function."

"But he is alive." Alive... that meant there was hope.

"I've been on the case since the day he was brought in. He's alive. I... wouldn't let him go."

Her words conjured an unsettling vision for Starsky. "You mean he's hooked up to all kindsa stuff?"

"A few things. But it's not so bad. His condition is stable. We've taken good care of him. I knew... there must be someone, somewhere... even if they never found him..." She paused, looking deep into his eyes as if gauging his steadiness. "Do you think you could handle seeing him now?"

********

Starsky followed Dr. Samuels to the nursing home, which was housed in a building on the same property as the main hospital. Finally, they came to a closed door at the end of a long corridor. He was scared, couldn't imagine how it would be, how his partner would look. Starsky willed himself to face whatever he would find inside. It's Hutch. Just Hutch... No matter what, it's still Hutch...

The room was dim, shades pulled, one small light fixture casting strange shadows. Samuels went directly to the bed, pausing to turn up the light a bit. Starsky followed, his gaze still on the doctor, not looking past her to the occupant of the bed. Finally, close enough that he could not avoid it anymore, he closed his eyes a moment, then he looked down.

His eyes traveled over the figure, moving quickly, afraid to rest on any one area too long. Long legs, narrow waist, strong shoulders. "Hutch?" Starsky's voice was a whisper, a plea. So still, so peaceful. The covers draped over the body were sculpted to its contours, outlining. He shivered; the folds of cloth looked too much like a shroud. His eyes fastened on the chest, the motion of breathing giving reassurance to his dazed comprehension. His gaze darted over the body skittishly. Thin, like he used to be, years ago... Beneath short sleeves, bare arms were out from under the sheet. Fair skin, gone so pale...

Starsky wanted to reach out, but his hands were trembling too much. "Hutch..." He breathed the name again, willing his nerves to steady. His fingertips barely contacted the flesh, sliding down the bare forearm. It wasn't very warm, but wasn't as cold as he had feared. Not cold with death, he's warm with life! His fingers reached the hand, curling around it. There was no response to his questing touch.

His gaze moved up finally to rest on the face. The jolt of recognition was physically painful. Patrician features, immaculate profile, perfect lips... Hutch's face. Starsky clung to the quiescent hand as his eyes drank in the sight. It was hard to see; his vision wouldn't focus. The face looked like it had in his dreams, insubstantial, existing in a world where Starsky couldn't make contact with it. And the tubing taped at the nose seemed like a foreign intrusion.

Apparently sensing the direction of his look, Samuels spoke. "He's capable of breathing on his own. That's a feeding tube."

Starsky nodded wordlessly, still looking, his sight coming into sharp relief. The small amount of light in the room seemed to be shining most brightly here, reflected off the pale gold hair, haloing the beautiful head. The features were somewhat slack, the cheeks a bit gaunt. Hutch's face was expressionless, but peaceful. Starsky reached out with his free hand, and Hutch remained; he wasn't a vision or a dream after all. Caressing now, his trembling touch slid over the chin, the smooth cheek, and into the softness of the hair.

"Ah, Hutch..." He realized his voice was broken with anguish, strained with love. It was too much to take in, too hard to believe. There weren't even any bruises or cuts; they'd all healed over time. How could anyone look that perfect and not wake up? So beautiful... living paradox... sleeping... waiting...

Dr. Samuels' voice broke the spell. She sounded wistful, dreamy. "I've tried everything I know. If I thought a kiss would work..."

He nodded. "Sleeping beauty..." The words slipped out, more like an involuntary sob, and Starsky didn't feel embarrassed to have uttered them. His fingers outlined the soft lips. He ached, seeing all of his nightmares come true. Hutch was hurt, Hutch was in need... and he was powerless to help.

The face he stared at wavered under his gaze. The room seemed suddenly overwhelmingly warm.

"Lieutenant?" Samuels had come around to his side of the bed, taking hold of his quivering arm. "Come now. Sit down." She slid a chair forward and pushed his unresisting form into it. Her hand on the back of his neck bent his head down. "Breathe deeply."

"M'okay." Starsky tried to escape the solicitude.

"You're white as a ghost." A doctor's contradiction of his protest, tempered with understanding. "It's a shock, I know."

Still looking downward, Starsky's eyes caught sight of a length of clear tubing that ran from somewhere under the covers down to a bag hanging beneath the bed. After a second, its significance sank in for him. He closed his eyes tight, not wanting to see anymore, feeling as if he were invading Hutch's privacy. Too real, too graphic, too undeniable...

A cup of water was pressed into his hand. He sipped it automatically, looking up at the doctor.

"Better?" Her tone was professional.

He drew a deep breath, shrugged. "I guess." Questions were beginning to surface. "What did you say about a stroke? That means brain damage, doesn't it?"

"From what we can tell from the CAT scan and other neurological tests, there is a tiny amount of scarring in the right brain. That looks to be the result of a slight stroke, which may have been caused by the drug he was given." She smoothed the covers across his chest, the small gesture giving Starsky some comfort. "We can't tell the significance of the scarring without him being conscious. It could result in some motor impairment, or other dysfunction -- we just don't know. His respirations were depressed, but apparently they didn't stop entirely."

Starsky jumped on that statement. "That wouldn't be a good sign, would it?"

The doctor shook her head. "No. If he'd gone without oxygen for very long, certainly there would be massive brain damage. But that's not the case." She met Starsky's eyes and gave him a smile. "The effects of the drug may just eventually... wear off. That's what I've continued to hope for. If he does regain consciousness, and has proper therapy, it might be possible for some recovery."

Starsky tried to focus on the positive. "You think so?" He did not want too much explanation of what she meant by 'some' recovery, though.

Her eyes went to the sleeping form. "People have been known to come out of long comas. We know he's alive in there. Look." She uncovered one leg, reaching in her pocket for a slim instrument and ran it along the sole of the foot. Starsky saw the reflex, the foot curling at the touch. "That's the proper reflex. It shows his brain is functional. Watch his eyes," the doctor directed next. Moving to the side of the bed, Samuels pressed her fist against Hutch's sternum. The eyes crinkled, twinging at the pain. There was even a small groan of reaction.

"He felt that!" His heart leaping, Starsky thought Hutch might be coaxed awake with enough stimulation.

"Yes. There's something in there. The body senses pain."

Something in her tone slowed Starsky's soaring spirits. "But there's never been any indication he's getting any closer to the surface?"

"No. It looks like it should be so simple, doesn't it? Speak loudly, shake him... and he ought to wake up. Of course, doing those things can't hurt. They've all been tried. Our staff is quite up to date on all the latest studies. But there's still so much we don't know about the brain. What keeps someone in a coma when the rest of their injuries have healed? We don't know how much of the world he's aware of. It could be he hears us, but simply can't react." She rested her hand against the side of Hutch's face, stroking his temple. "He may have gone into a type of psychological withdrawal -- as if his mind is telling him it isn't yet time to wake up, or that he's frightened of the world waiting for him. That's, in fact, my own pet theory." She sighed. "He could stay just this way, as he already has for so long, and never progress. If only we had been able to determine exactly what drug he was given..."

Starsky shuddered, remembering what had been done to Cindy, Helen's roommate. "Some kind of narco-hallucinogenic highball," the doctor had called it. Medical science hadn't been able to figure out what would become of Cindy, either. So far as Starsky knew, the girl had never recovered, she was still institutionalized.

And all this time, Hutch had been here alone. The professionals who cared for him had done all they could, but they didn't know him. They didn't even know his name, much less what it took to make him listen, to get through that thick, stubborn skull of his. If Hutch were even minimally aware of voices, he might hear Starsky's... Having something to respond to at last... he might wake up. He could... "Do you think he can hear me? Know I'm here now, I mean?"

"It's possible. But he still may not be able to respond, if that's what you're thinking."

"Hutch." He reached to clasp the limp fingers once more. "What... what if he does wake up though?"

"It's hard to say how much recovery is possible in these cases. I hate to even speculate." She seemed about to stop there, but seeing Starsky's needful look, she relented, eyes returning to her silent patient in the bed. "He receives all the important nutrients through the feeding tube. Do you know approximately what he weighed?"

"Maybe... a hundred eighty pounds." Starsky could see Hutch was now much thinner than that.

Melissa seemed not to think this a problem. "I'd say he hasn't lost more than forty to fifty pounds of his normal body weight," she explained. "There's some muscle tone. He's massaged and exercised regularly, turned every two hours to avoid bed sores, lung congestion. We have an excellent staff and they're very conscientious, particularly with him. He's been here so long, with only us to depend on... the nurses have all sort of adopted him." She broke off, then began again, her voice steadying. "We all want to make sure he's not slighted in any way, so that if he does regain consciousness, he'll have the best chance of recovery."

Starsky latched onto the positive aspects of her dissertation. "Yeah. I thought he'd be... all twisted or something."

"No. That only happens when the brain is technically dead, when the patient is in what we call a persistent vegetative state. Your friend isn't down that far, you can be sure of that." She smiled reassuringly.

"Oh." Starsky had run out of questions for the moment. His eyes stayed on the sleeping features of his best, beloved friend. He didn't want to talk anymore. He just wanted to be here with Hutch and take it all in. And figure out what he should do next.

Samuels seemed to understand. "I'll leave you alone with him for a while. Later, we'll talk about arrangements and any other questions you have." She pressed his shoulder in light, professional comfort, then was gone.

Starsky didn't watch her leave; his eyes were still on the lax fingers he was holding. A deep calm was descending over him, as if, despite the situation, he was finally at peace, knowing Hutch was found. He leaned close, resting his elbows on the bed, bringing Hutch's hand up to his lips, his fingers stroking down the long forearm. He rested his cheek in the large palm held close against his face.

It was going to be all right. He would make it right.

"Hutch. Hutch, I'm here now. I found you, it's okay. You're gonna make it, buddy. Listen to me, to Starsky. You're gonna make it fine."

Murmuring soft words of encouragement, voice shaking with wonder and rekindled hope, Starsky sat beside the sleeping man for a very long time.

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