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I Saw Three Ships

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Oh, joy! It was Christmas again, and all the citizens made it a point to ensure that a cop’s life was never dull, especially during this festive time of year. Hutch hated Christmas—the same stupid movies about the same stupid people, the same meaningless carols, sung over and over. And if he had to sweat through another heat wave in December, he swore he was going to—

“Hey, Hutch! Look at that!”

Starsky leaned across him and pointed a finger at the bell ringer for the Salvation Army who was dressed in red-and-white Hawaiian shirt and shorts standing in front of the Union Bank down the street from Metro.

“So?” Hutch muttered.

“That’s so cool! A Santa Claus for L.A.”

“He’s not supposed to be Santa; he’s collecting for the Salvation Army.” he shoved his partner back to his side of the seat. “I’m driving here.”

“Don’t be such a grouch. It’s Christmas time.” Starsky, on the other hand, loved Christmas and everything about it.

“Oh, I forgot. Merry fuckin’ Christmas. Hope you’re enjoying the crisp, cold weather. Maybe we can build a snowman.”

“Aw, come on, it’s not what you’re used to, but Christmas can still be fun.”

“You’re Jewish. You’re not even supposed to be celebrating the damned—”

“Zebra Three. Zebra Three. See the officer at 803 South Los Angeles Street. Possible 480.”

Starsky grabbed the handset. “Ten-four, dispatch. We are responding.” He hung up the radio and turned to Hutch. “A hit and run?”

“Must be bad if they need detectives.” At least that ended the Christmas discussion. Hutch swung the car right at the next cross street, and Starsky placed the Mars light on the roof. The address was only a few blocks over, so they were pulling up in a couple of minutes.

Patrolman Joe Timmons met them at the curb. He looked sort of relieved to see them, which was either a good or bad sign. “What’s up, Joe?” Hutch asked, while Starsky looked around for evidence of a crime.

“I don’t know. The victim insisted I call for you guys. Sorry if it’s a—”

Starsky came back to stand on the other side of Joe. “Us? You mean Hutch and me? Why’d he want us?”

“No, no...not you personally, just somebody higher than a patrolman. You just happened to be—”

“The lucky ones. Yeah, yeah. So where’s this victim?”

Starsky glanced around again, obviously not seeing anyone who looked like a victim of a hit-and-run. Not that Hutch saw anyone, either, victim or not.

“He’s over there, on that bus bench.” Joe pointed at the bus stop about a half block up the street.

“Not hurt, huh? I guess that’s good.”

They started toward the bench, Joe keeping them company.

“He’s a nice old man, kinda dingy, though—know what I mean? I don’t think he was injured, or anything, but he insists he was hit. Can’t figure out where.”

Joe sounded a bit puzzled and kind of exasperated, too. But what did he expect two days before Christmas? The loonies always came out to play.

As they neared the stop, the old man stood up and walked to meet them. He was white headed, though his hair was still thick and curly, his step still lively. It occurred to Hutch that Starsky might someday look like this.

“Well, it’s about time. I was beginning to think that rotten car of yours had broken down again.”

Hutch frowned at the insult to his car and at Starsky’s impudent grin. Besides, how did this old man know about his car or its tendency to break down?

“What took you so long? I expected quicker service from you. Why aren’t you driving that snazzy red car of yours?”

Starsky just grinned broader and shook his head.

“You were hit by a car that failed to stop?” Hutch asked, his tone a bit less sympathetic than it could've been.

“Yeah, something like that. What you givin’ this partner of yours for Christmas?”

All three cops were puzzled by the unexpected question.

“What business is that of yours? Besides, what does that have to do with the hit-and-run? You were hit, weren’t you?”

Hutch was looking a little mean, so Starsky tried to smooth the situation. “He just means, what happened, Mr.... What’s your name?”

“Never mind. I just need to talk to you, Detective Hutchinson—alone.” The stare was direct, and the brilliant blue eyes behind the thick glasses conveyed a sense of importance.

“Now, wait just a minute!” Starsky immediately fell into protect Hutch mode. He moved a step closer to the man, somehow ending up between Hutch and the stranger. “How do you know his name, and why do you want to talk to him without someone else there? We don’t know you, mister. This is supposed to be a hit-and-run scene—”

“Can it, sonny. I’m not gonna hurt your partner; I just have something private to tell him. Come on, blondie.” He stepped around Starsky and grabbed Hutch’s elbow, pulling him back toward the bus bench.

Hutch looked a bit helpless and turned, locking gazes with Starsky. Joe waited for the two detectives to decide what to do.

“Hey!” Starsky yelled with great authority.

The stranger paid no attention and continued on his way, dragging Hutch with him. Hutch finally shrugged and waved away Starsky’s attention. This old man was certainly not the usual victim.

They reached the bench and sat down, the stranger leaning in toward Hutch. “Now, listen to me. I don’t know how long I’ve got here, so don’t interrupt me. I know what you think about Christmas and its commercialism, so I’m not tryin’ to change your mind, but you know your partner doesn’t agree with you.”

Despite the man’s warning, Hutch tried to interrupt. “Look, we need to get your statement about—”

“Hush! This is lots more important. You haven’t got Starsky a Christmas present, yet, and I—”

Hutch tried to stand up, but was pulled sharply back down. The look on his face was pure disgust and his voice was sort of a growl. “This is all his doing, isn’t it? He got you to go through all this so I’d get him a present he wants. This is really low!”

“Will you shut up and listen? He doesn’t know anything about this, at least.... Anyway, I’m tryin’ to tell you something to help you. Sometime in the future you’ll be glad I came by—he’s gonna need something to do where he doesn’t have to move around much, and this’ll get him started on a hobby that’ll come in handy.”

Hutch stared at him uncomprehendingly, still suspicious of the stranger’s motive. “What are you talking about—where he doesn’t have to move around a lot? What happens to him?” Despite his suspicions, a little cold wind of dread went through Hutch. His hand shook a bit as he grabbed the man’s arm. “Tell me!” he grated.

“Oh, settle down. You can’t do anything about it, but what I’m gonna tell you will help. Now, you know those big model ships that people put together? The ones that take a long time to finish?”

Hutch continued to stare fixedly, trying to make sense of the odd words. What did model ships have to do with anything? Was the old man just crazy?

“Well, do you?”

The impatient voice cut through his thoughts. “Y-yes. So what?”

“That’s the gift you need to get him. You’ve still got a coupla days to find one. They’re kind of expensive, but it’ll be worth it. Get one that’ll hold his interest.” The man got up, patting Hutch on the arm. “Go on, now. Tell them the hit-and-run was a mistake.”

Hutch watched him in sort of a daze, but then suddenly leaped to his feet and started after him. “Wait! Come back here!” But there was no one around.

Starsky walked up, obviously a bit concerned. “Hey, Hutch, who you callin’?” He looked over the area, but saw no one.

“That old guy. Where’d he go?” Hutch turned in a circle, searching.

“What ol’ guy?”

“What do you mean, what old guy? The one Joe called us down here about, the hit-and-run victim.” As Starsky continued to stare at him, puzzlement clear in his gaze, Hutch began to doubt what he knew.

“You feelin’ okay, buddy?”

“Yeah, yeah. Uh, I d-don’t suppose Joe Timmons is around, either, huh?” Hutch rubbed a hand over his face, his shoulders drooping in defeat.

“No, why? Was he s’posed to meet us here?”

“No, I don’t guess so.” Hutch turned to walk back to his car. “Let’s go.”

*******

As much as he wanted to forget, the ‘Incident’ continued to replay in his mind. Why couldn’t Starsky remember the old man or Joe Timmons or the dispatcher’s call? Desperate, he had stopped by Mildred’s nook and asked to see her call log—there had been nothing there. Had everything just been some figment of his imagination? Sometimes he’d remember the veiled intimation of a future time when Starsky had to sit still, and that little shiver of dread would come over him again. Surely, he wouldn’t have made that up.

Then sometimes he fell back on his suspicion that Starsky had set the whole thing up—it wasn’t beyond the scope of his manipulative abilities to wrangle a particular gift from his Christmas-hating partner. But would all these people have cooperated in such a complicated plan? What if Hutch had just grabbed the old man and refused to let him walk away? What would Starsky have done then?

His preoccupation with all this had caused Starsky to focus worried glances on him and question his attention to the job. Hutch guessed it was a good thing that nothing major went down that day. As they drove around their beat, he found himself noticing the locations of several hobby shops; one particularly large one really took his eye. If he were going to find a ship’s model anywhere, this would be the place. He noted the address and how late it was open. Starsky gave him a puzzled look, and Hutch said he’d thought a pedestrian was one of the wanted faces they’d been made aware of and sped on.

Later that afternoon he came back to the store and looked at the models, surprised when he found that they cost from a hundred dollars and up. He could buy Starsky something really good for that amount. He almost changed his mind and left, but the strangeness of what had happened made him superstitious about not doing as he’d been instructed. Finally, almost angry, he paid over two hundred dollars for one ship, had it wrapped, and left carrying the odd present. He hoped Starsky would like it and not be too confused by this Christmas gift, because that certainly was not going to be the case for himself.

*******

Starsky sat cross legged on the floor by the little Christmas tree he’d decorated in uniquely Starsky style, and excitedly ripped the red and white paper off the large box while Hutch nervously looked on. He stopped to gaze at the illustration of a sailing ship on its top. “What’s this?” He turned the box over and shook it slightly, looking across at Hutch.

“Well, what’s it say?”

“Yankee Clipper Ship. Really?”

“Yes, really. It’s a model you put together.”

“Huh! Then what?”

“Then nothing. You set it up and look at it. Dumb present, huh? I’ll take it back and get you something else.” Hutch reached across to take the box. Stupid idea. What had he been thinking?

Starsky pulled the box away. “Keep your mitts off m’boat. Your not takin’ it anywhere. Looks like fun. Sorta like when I was a kid and put together model airplanes. ‘Course this looks a lot harder than that.”

********

And despite all his own misgivings, Hutch watched the big model ship take shape in Starskey’s living room over the next several months. Starskey seemed to enjoy working on it, even dragging Hutch into helping him on several occasions, until at last it was sitting proud and beautiful, finished with infinite patience, on a bookshelf. After that, It sort of became an expected gift that Starsky looked forward to receiving every now and then. Dread still haunted Hutch when he remembered the old man’s words, but as the years went by and nothing happened, he would have dismissed the whole thing as a strange dream he’d confused with reality, except for one thing. Every year around Christmas he always saw an older version of his partner, wave to him and disappear around a convenient corner, reminding him that something in the future still waited for him and Starsky, something unknown.