James Gunther’s top assistant’s hand fluttered slightly as he stopped collecting the papers left behind by the attendees on the conference room table. He knew what was on his boss’s mind. What his boss had been obsessed with for weeks. And he knew that the man didn’t tolerate or cope well with failure on anyone’s part. “Yes, sir.”
“Since our usual soldiers have proven utterly incompetent in taking out those two detectives, I want you to go to our top contract mechanic.” The way he said “detectives” with such hatred and rage made Bates shudder. He hoped he hid it.
“He’s retired, Mr. Gunther, and living in Amsterdam, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Ask him what he wants, then get it for him. Whatever it takes. I guarantee you he’ll take the assignment. Everyone has a price.”
Bates strongly suspected there were two men who didn’t have a price--the same detectives Gunther wanted gone forever. But who was he to contradict the man who compensated him so generously.
“Very good, sir.” He paused while he thought how to contact the mechanic. “Miss Brown is in Germany on the last day or two of a photo shoot. I’ll direct her to approach him before she returns to California.”
“See that it is done, Bates. Use the special courier. Have the Lear fueled immediately.”
Bates nodded and said, “Yes, Mr. Gunther,” knowing that “it” not only included hiring the assassin, but the end of Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson as well. If that failed, he was certain there would be calamitous consequences for him.
Never one to primp or preen, the tall, trim, late-middle-aged man left his expansive, well-appointed apartment. Early May in Holland was chilly, so he was dressed in a mid-weight jacket, cut to mask perfectly the shoulder holster and Colt .45 on one side and a pouch with his passport and a large amount of money in different European currencies on the other, a heavy green plaid shirt over a bulletproof vest, soft, indigo blue jeans, and Frye boots. He never left his dwelling without being prepared for a possible attack and a fast getaway, even for meetings like this one that promised to be rather benign.
He easily spotted the beautiful and exotic Jenny Brown, recognizable from her covers of numerous magazines, seated at a small table near an open flame heater at the edge of the outdoor cafe where they’d agreed to meet. She was dressed in a knee-length black leather coat whose hem touched the top of her black leather boots. It was impossible to tell what she wore beneath the coat. He casually checked the surroundings and once he determined it was more than likely safe, he sauntered over to her.
“Ms. Brown?” he asked once he was standing opposite her.
The woman smiled, exposing perfect white teeth. “Mr. Conway, it is a pleasure. Please have a seat.”
He appreciated the fact that her voice was as sultry as her eyes, as velvety as her skin. He sat, smiled at the use of his current alias. Gunther’s talons were far-reaching, sharp, and unforgiving. “Shall we get down to business, Ms. Brown?”
She arched her eyebrows. “As you like. I can appreciate your desire to keep this meeting short.” She reached down into the large leather tote bag at her side, pulled out a tan commercial envelope, and slid it across the table to him. “You will find what you need to make a decision, Mr. Conway.”
He stared at the envelope for a few moments before looking back at the well-known face. “As I told Mr. Bates, I’m retired. But he insisted, and I must admit I am curious.”
Jenny nodded. “Perhaps when you see what is in the envelope, you’ll agree to take the assignment.”
“Do you know what the assignment is?”
“Sorry, but I don’t know any particulars except that the envelope does contain some compensation for your time. I do know the contract will involve a trip to California for you. The rest of the information and compensation will be available to you once you arrive in the country. For that compensation, I am authorized to agree to give you anything you want, be it money, artwork, bearer bonds, houses, yachts… anything you might desire. As you know, our… benefactor is capable of obtaining virtually anything.”
The model was correct; Gunther, with his practically limitless resources, had obtained his location despite his best efforts to cover his tracks. He couldn’t help but feel disturbed about this mission. He was unable to shake the feeling that as soon as the contract was fulfilled his own life may be forfeit to cover any connection to Gunther. Certainly, the mogul had always been quite generous in previous contracts, but in this case, the sky as the limit for a pay-off had warning bells clanging away in his brain.
He tilted his head and gave her a dark stare. She gave away nothing, didn’t even flinch at the scrutiny. A very cool customer; no wonder she’s his emissary.
He held up the envelope, saw it was sealed with red wax (he laughed to himself at the pretentiousness of such an outmoded royal action), felt it was thicker than he thought on initially seeing it. He was sure it contained only the bare minimum of information and probably some cash. If he were to guess, it was likely ten one-thousand US dollar bills.
Carefully, he broke the thick seal that had a G in Old English script in the center. Just as carefully, he partially withdrew the contents--a color photograph and a smaller envelope, which he assumed held cash, maybe a few details about the assignment--handling them by the edges. He barely hid his gasp of recognition.
There were two men in the picture, both in profile. The one on the right was blond, quite good-looking and appearing to be much healthier than when he’d seen the detective in passing a few times at the hospital. The blond man was someone no one was likely to forget. But the other one he would never forget…
The man--that cop, for chrissake--who had hunted him down as if he were the grand prize in a million-dollar contest, who had made the connection with that kid and pleaded for him to turn himself in, somehow knowing he had one miniscule scrap of humanity left. Saved his life in a shootout. Hid him from the Feds and Interpol while he recovered from his wound. Kept his promise to escort him to the airport for his flight out of the US. So many “favors” for just a few ounces of his blood.
He could still feel the finger firmly, just shy of painful, poking his sternum, still hear that unique mix of Brooklyn tough and California mellow in his head while they stood at the gate together: “I don’t ever wanna see you again, Callendar, or even hear if you’re back in my country. Remember--I found you once; I can find you again. You got that?”
“I got it because I’ll remember you’re a man who keeps his promises,” he had said before boarding his flight to Rome.
And it was on that flight that he’d decided to retire; he couldn’t risk another fierce, relentless cop coming after him. Seeing the detective’s picture now, any doubts he might have had about that decision were gone forever. Now there was only one thing, an unexpected and worrisome indecision, plaguing his mind.
He completely withdrew the smaller envelope and slid it toward Gunther’s gorgeous intermediary. Then he pushed the photo back into the larger envelope. He laid it down on the table, the tips of his fingers holding it in place. “Though I’m tempted, I must respectfully decline, Ms. Brown. I intend to stay retired. Please tell your employer I do appreciate his exceptional offer.”
A flash of disappointment--and maybe even a little fear--crossed her face before her cool, calm expression returned. “Are you positive, Mr. Conway?” She carefully picked up the small envelope and placed it in the bag.
“Absolutely, Ms. Brown. Nothing can change my mind.”
She reached for the larger envelope, but he picked it up before she could touch it. “Allow me,” he said as he placed it in the flames. In silence they watched it burn, the distinctive smell of photo chemicals incinerating filling their nostrils.
Jenny gave him a lackluster smile, allowing a brief look of contempt to twist her full, painted lips. She retrieved her bag and was out of her chair and gone before he could play the gentleman--not that he tried very hard.
He lingered for a few minutes to plan his next move, a move he had to make, because it was very likely Gunther would send someone after him--that crusty old buzzard couldn’t abide anyone turning him down. He decided an extended vacation in New Zealand and Australia, where he owned homes in several cities--in as many names, of course, that he hoped were so old that not even Gunther’s people could hunt him down--was in order.
After packing, he instructed his local attorney to put the apartment and its furnishings up for sale, with the proceeds to go into one of his numbered Cayman Islands accounts. He was at the airport by midnight to catch his first flight of many to his final destination.
It was on one of those flights days later, from Lima, Peru, to Mexico City, that his indecision from a few days ago became a decision to make a phone call. To his surprise, he truly hoped he wasn’t late.
“Ten-ten, my serve,” said an exuberant Starsky as he bounced side to side. Hutch was his equal in almost everything, except for chess, when he could keep up the patter of mindless chitchat, and pool, so he was enjoying the competition.
Starsky shot a quick glance at the painter savoring his simple lunch and seemingly captivated by the Ping-Pong match. He think it’s some kinda Olympic sport? Yeah, that’ll be the day.
“Hey, Melvin, you know you’re spilling crumbs all over the place. This ain’t no barn, ya know.”
“Come on, Starsk, leave the man alone and let him eat his lunch in peace,” piped up Hutch. “Let’s get on with the game. I wanna beat the pants off you before Dobey sends us out on patrol.”
“In your dreams, Hutchinson,” Starsky replied mischievously.
Hutch rolled his baby blues. “I think you mean nightmares, Starsk.”
“I don’t think so, Rip Van Winkie,” retorted Starsky. “Your britches are the ones goin’ down.”
Melvin mumbled around a mouthful of bread and meat, “Phone’s ringin’.” Ignoring the large number of crumbs that fell, he went back to chewing.
The partners stopped their banter to listen. “It’s mine,” said Starsky as he placed the ball under his paddle.
It took him several rings to uncover the phone. Hitting it with the edge of his palm, he made the receiver flip up into his hand. “Detective Starsky.”
“This is a heads up. You and your partner need to watch your backs. Closely.”
The voice was a gravelly baritone, quiet, not really a whisper. It sounded remote, like it would if the connection was bad or the call was from a very long distance. And it was familiar. Familiar enough to dredge up the still raw, horrifying memory of two days of fear and dread and panic. His brow furrowed, Starsky looked to Hutch, who was watching him with curiosity.
“Callendar?” Both his and Hutch’s eyes widened and Hutch made a beeline for him.
“We’re even now, Starsky.”
“Wait --” The dial tone cut him off.
Slowly, never taking his eyes off Hutch, Starsky returned the handset to its cradle.
Hutch was the first to recover. “What the hell was that all about, Starsk?”
“Uh, pretty sure that was Callendar.” Starsky paused. For a moment, he thought his eyebrows would become one really long one. The ominous chill that accompanied it ran down his spine.
Hutch began lightly tapping the edge of his paddle on his thigh. “So what did he say?”
Hutch’s impatience and uncharacteristic display of nerves pulled Starsky out of his head. “Oh, yeah… Well, he said we should watch our backs closely.” He felt the lively mood in the room fall a few notches.
Hutch shrugged, but continued the tapping. “Don’t we always?” Starsky knew he was really asking if they were in more danger than usual. Hutch’s need for a negative response was on his face, in his voice, in his tapping hand, in his taut body.
Starsky nodded his agreement and tapped Hutch’s upper arm lightly with his paddle. “Me and thee, partner.”
Hutch graced him with one of his reserved-for-Starsky smiles, which served to warm the chill still inhabiting his spine. Then a sense of impending doom crashed into his mind, almost taking his breath away with its sudden and strong appearance.
“Why do you think he called now, Starsk?” Hutch asked before Starsky could shake that suffocating feeling.
“I dunno. Well, he did say we were even. I don’t get that, though. We both held up our ends of the bargain. He doesn’t owe me anything.”
Hutch nodded his head slightly. “I don’t think he believes that. Think about it. Why would one of the top and most prolific hit men in the world call you with a warning out of the blue?”
Starsky shrugged. “You tell me. I ain’t finished my head-peeper trainin’.”
“You gave him something extra.” Hutch paused. When Starsky shrugged again, Hutch said, “You gave him back a piece of his humanity.”
Starsky became pensive at that remark. Hmm… what if Hutch is right? That under the right circumstances, even stone-cold killers can show a little compassion? Like that VC with eyes harder’n granite who had me dead to rights who just turned and ran into the jungle. “Possible. Bound to have happened before, right?”
Hutch arched an eyebrow and nodded. “I like to believe most people are redeemable. So why did Callendar call us now?”
The answer to Starsky was so obvious, he was surprised Hutch hadn’t thought of it. “Maybe… maybe it has somethin’ to do with McClellan? I mean, the man was a dirty dog and we haven’t found who had hold of his leash yet.”
“Starsky, don’t insult the canine species.” Hutch paused and scowled. Starsky could almost see those wheels of thought spinning in that blond head. He wondered if the hamsters ever got tired.
“Whatcha thinkin’, partner?” Starsky asked after a bit.
Hutch exhaled forcefully. “I’m thinking you’re right about a McClellan connection. Whoever is--was pulling McClellan’s strings, has got to be very powerful. And someone used to having his way… and ready to ‘deal’ with anyone who spoils his plans.”
Starsky visibly shivered. The sense of doom became stronger.
“You okay, Starsk?” Hutch sounded both frightened and concerned.
To show Hutch he was okay and to soothe himself, he nonchalantly flipped the hank of soft blond hair out of the trap that was between Hutch’s collar and his neck to its rightful place. “Yeah, yeah. Just had the feelin’ of somebody walking over my grave.”
“Well, I’m feeling a bit creeped out myself.” Hutch finally stopped tapping his leg with the paddle when he moved in to within an inch of Starsky. In an urgent whisper, he said, “I think Callendar knows something is going down, and soon. Look, how many times since Huggy brought us Lionel that attempts have been made on our lives?”
“Aw, crap, Hutch. Too many to count.”
“Well, uh, what’s that expression? Dollars to --”
“Donuts,” Starsky completed immediately. He gave Hutch a cocky smirk.
Hutch came back with a snicker. “Of course you’d know that. Anyway, dollars to donuts that we’re still very much targets.”
“And me without my white shirt with that big red circle on the back. Okay, you’re right, but I sure as hell wish you weren’t.”
They fell silent, eyes averted as they both contemplated their situation, the possibilities, the probabilities, the actions they needed to take.
Starsky broke the silence with, “So, I got no ideas other than the usual. Is there somethin’ we can do different? Or in addition?”
Hutch grinned and patted Starsky’s cheek. “In addition. You know about those new Kevlar vests every uniform and Zebra Unit cops are supposed to wear?”
The mention of body armor suddenly had Starsky feeling like there was something like a shroud wrapped tightly around his chest. “Yeah,” he replied, inexplicably feeling a little short of breath. “Most of the unis in our precinct already have ‘em. Dobey told me the other day that the shipment was short and we should get ours next week sometime.”
“Starsky, we may not have a few days, much less a week.” Hutch said in such an ominous tone that Starsky felt his stomach churn. He realized Hutch must be feeling the same doom he was. Without thinking, Starsky gripped Hutch’s forearm, needing the strength of his partner at the moment. He was alarmed at how tense the muscles were beneath his hand.
“Until we get those vests, we just gotta be extra careful and we’ll be fine,” Starsky said with a conviction he didn’t exactly feel.
Hutch exhaled through pursed lips. “Okay, we’ll be fine. But in the meantime, we stick close together and keep our heads on a swivel.”
Starsky smiled encouragingly but he knew it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Always, partner.” He took a deep breath to calm his own skittish nerves and maybe chase away the doom that refused to exit. He sashayed back to the table. His left hand grabbed the paddle, the right the Ping-Pong ball, which he began bouncing.
“Where we were, Hutch?” he asked with forced enthusiasm.
Hutch returned to his side of the table. “Ten all, your serve.” He paused, then said, “How about we switch from bad horror movie titles to, uh, kooky country-western song titles?”
He smirked. “Kooky? This ain’t 77 Sunset Strip. Anyways, that shouldn’t be hard. Pretty much all of ‘em are kooky.”
“Then you shouldn’t have a problem.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, Blintz?”
Hutch’s lips quirked. “Takes one to know one.”
“Hey! I resemble that remark.”
Hutch snickered. “You should be proud, Starsk, for getting that right. So serve, dummy. I repeat: you’re goin’ down.”
Starsky hesitated for just a heartbeat. The shroud grew even tighter as if it were a boa constrictor readying him for a meal. “I don’t think so, pal. Okay, time for you to eat crow.”
“Better that than Chang Juan’s Oriental Burrito Special you want for lunch.”
“Oh, your plebeian Midwestern taste buds just can’t appreciate the finer cuisines.” Rubbing the ball in small circles on the paddle, Starsky continued, “And the first title in this champeen-ship round is…”--he felt his brain rev to 8000 RPM, the sense of impending doom growing even more--”You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.” With that, he soundly spanked the ball, smashing it to the table surface, as the invisible shroud became even tighter around his torso that his lungs seemed to deflate.
Within seconds, Hutch was at his side again and clutching his upper arms in a grip that transmitted fear and confusion. Starsky was momentarily disoriented but as that cleared, he stared at Hutch, shocked to see him so close.
Starsky dragged in a breath, surprised that it was easy to do. “Hutch,” he whispered to the worried face so close to his that he could see a few gray hairs in his friend’s moustache. He would have giggled but his throat failed to cooperate.
“S-s-starsk, you okay?”
The tremor in Hutch’s voice told Starsky that Hutch was really frightened. No more than me, buddy. Suddenly, his throat became operational. He said the only thing he could think of to calm them both down: “Leggo, Hutch. You’re hurtin’ me.”
Hutch’s neck turned pink. He reluctantly released Starsky’s arms. “What was that all about, huh?”
“I dunno.” Even to himself, he sounded like a little boy lost.
“You picked a really, um, loaded title that certainly wasn’t kooky, Starsky, then you flattened an innocent Ping-Pong ball. What were you thinking, huh? Are you spooked about the warning from Callendar?” Hutch’s voice was gentle yet probing.
Starsky felt his brain return to full awareness and the sense of doom began to shrink. Not ready to face looking at Hutch yet, he glanced over at Melvin, seemingly content to chew the human equivalent of a cud. “Nah. I was thinkin’ about my annual trip to see Ma in a coupla weeks. And dreading seein’ Nicky again.” He smiled weakly and shrugged. “And well, I do miss you when I’m gone. You always miss me then, don’tcha?”
Hutch nodded and said quietly, “You know I do, partner.”
Starsky could hear the concern hidden under Hutch’s mild reply. That concern that was an expression of Hutch’s love for him helped to unravel the shroud. “Now that’s settled, let’s get back to the game. You got a ball?” He waggled his eyebrows.
That intentionally suggestive question drew a smirk on Hutch’s lips. “Sure, I got two, but they aren’t for paddling.”
Starsky gave a dramatic eye-roll. He turned to the painter, still eating the never-ending sandwich, and said with fake petulance, “Some comedian, huh? Not real bright so gotta work blue.”
Hutch laughed at Starsky’s intentional double entendre. “You’re just ticked that you didn’t think of that.” He dug a Ping-Pong ball from his pocket and bounced it to Starsky. “Last one so try not to annihilate it. Your serve, I believe.”
Both his and Hutch’s moods grew lighter but there was a subdued aspect that hung on the edges.
Starsky caught the ball easily and held it against the paddle. “Okay, here goes.”
The game continued, with each player taking turns trying to psych out and smack-talk his opponent and coming up with funny song titles.
The next four titles found the points evenly distributed. Starsky won with My Wife Ran Off With My Best Friend and I Sure Do Miss Him and I've Got Tears In My Ears From Lying On My Back Cryin' Over You. Hutch scored with How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away and I Keep Forgettin' I Forgot About You.
More titles and friendly put-downs suddenly found them near the end of the game.
“Ha! Eighteen-seventeen, my favor again,” gloated Starsky. “You’re goin’ down, Blintz. I’m gonna win that bet.”
“Don’t count your taters before they’re fried, greaseball.”
“Hey, is that a title? Never heard that one.”
“No, dummy, I made it up. Now serve. And you’re the one who’s goin’ down.”
Starsky laughed, but it did nothing to diminish the sense of doom any further, which hung on like a clingy girlfriend who wouldn’t accept a break-up. “We gotta finish this soon. Dobey’ll be out here any minute and he’ll send us out on patrol.” He spat on his paddle and served.
“Aw, Starsky, don’t do that!”
Starsky could hear Hutch racing down the stairs to catch up to him. He finally did at the third floor landing. He clutched Starsky’s arm, effectively keeping him from continuing on. “Will you stop for a minute?” he said scoldingly.
“But I’m hungry!”
“Try telling me when you’re not hungry sometime, just for a change of pace.” Starsky sneered at the comment, but Hutch didn’t acknowledge it and continued. “Chang Juan’s will still be there. Look, I’m serious about getting two of those vests for us ASAP. I got a bad feeling about this.”
Worry radiated from Hutch’s face and body so much so that it sobered Starsky up instantly. “Okay, Han Solo. We’ll just go into the nearest room and call Bigelow,” he suggested, “see if he can track down a couple vests at another precinct. Tell him we’re goin’ on a dangerous undercover assignment.” He patted Hutch’s belly several times.
“Well, that wouldn’t be a lie--ever.”
The partners ducked into the Missing Persons squad room, which was empty except for a uniform placing some files on a desk. Starsky pointed to a phone with a questioning look and the uni responded with a nod.
Less than two minutes later, Starsky hung up after charming the by-the-requisition-form Bigelow for information where they could get two “Kelvin” vests, as Starsky referred to them. “Biggy said he knows that the Sixth has at least five vests that haven’t been given to their unis because two are in the hospital and three are on vacation. I figure we head over there before lunch and we can sweet-talk their req sergeant outta two of ‘em.”
“Wish we could have them this minute, but I guess this’ll have to do.”
Starsky could tell Hutch’s worry was only minimally alleviated. His own sense of doom had eased enough that he thought he could manage to lighten their moods with the right words and attitude. With a brightness in his voice and his arm around Hutch’s slouched shoulders, he said, “Don’t be such a worry-wart, Hutch. The Sixth is only twenty minutes away, if traffic ain’t bad and we go Code Two. What could possibly happen to us in a police station or out in the parking lot?”