Starsky kept his eyes on the winding highway, alone with his thoughts for the first time since early morning. It had been a grueling few days for him and his partner - a week fraught with too many setbacks and more than one unexpected disappointment. Hours of hard work on a high-level case had all but dissolved on the merits of a mere technicality prompting Dobey to order his overworked detectives to make themselves scarce until the worst of the fallout had a chance to settle. While it would take more than a couple of days to untangle all that had gone wrong, stretching a two-day weekend into four was the best he could do on short notice.
Starsky was careful as he maneuvered the Torino through the sagebrush-covered hills. This far east of the city, the landscape was commonly teeming with wildlife after dark. It wouldn't do to add a collision to the list of problems he and Hutch had already accumulated. As if on cue, a long-legged doe bolted out of the darkness, crossing the highway only yards ahead of the Torino's headlights. Knowing she probably wasn't alone, Starsky braked a little too hard which jolted Hutch awake on the opposite side of the car. Starsky's arm shot across the front seat in time to prevent Hutch from being thrown into the dashboard just as two other deer followed the leader across the road.
"Damn it," Starsky muttered, returning both hands to the wheel.
Hutch opened his eyes in time to see the rear end of each mule deer disappear over the top of the guard rail. Surmising what had happened, Hutch half-smiled as he worked to suppress a yawn. Rubbing his eyes with both hands, Hutch was still blinking away the sleep when he next looked at Starsky.
"Sorry, Hutch. I didn't mean to wake you up."
"It's ok," Hutch answered softly. "I didn't like the dream I was having anyway."
Starsky snickered at Hutch's comment. "Well, let's hope that's the extent of tonight's excitement this side of your dreams."
Hutch blinked a few more times, trying to clear his vision for a better look at their surroundings. "Where are we anyway?" he asked, squinting to see beyond the headlights.
"Oh, I don't really know," Starsky admitted. "This highway was going the right direction so I decided to stick with it. The last signage I saw said we're thirty miles or so away from some form of civilization. We can stop there for the night if you'd like."
Hutch stretched his long legs and pondered what he'd prefer to do. While it would be good to trade the moving car for something stationary, it wouldn't help much if there was nothing to see or do on the other end.
At Starsky's insistence, Hutch had dutifully packed a bag with extra clothing and enough personal items to last him a few days. Any time his partner was hell-bent on going somewhere, it was easier just to go along, not that Hutch cared what he had in mind. They could both use a break, and with Dobey's blessing, they were taking one. While Starsky had grabbed his camera before they left town, Hutch hadn't been motivated to bring anything else along. He was simply too worn out to care.
"How about we just let someone else do the cooking, cleaning, and some of the thinking for a few days?" Starsky suggested back in Bay City. "The desert is beautiful this time of year, Hutch. Let's go that direction and find somewhere new to hang out for a couple of days." Hutch had effectively agreed by following a list of last-minute instructions. Two hours later the frustrations of city life were temporarily behind them along with a boatload of work on their most recent case.
"Dobey wanted us out of there badly, didn't he?" Starsky commented.
Hutch's eyes widened in mock surprise despite his bone-deep sense of fatigue. "Ya think? When was the last time the boss volunteered us or anyone else for a couple of spontaneous vacation days?"
Starsky grinned as he remembered the uncomfortable scene in Dobey's office earlier that morning. "What do you suppose he's more worried about, Hutch? Me kicking down the door to IA, or you pounding the shit out of Parker?"
Hutch pursed his lips together in an exaggerated pretense of a carefully considered response. "Me. I think he's more concerned about me than you. We all know what you might do, but he wasn't quite sure how I would react to that kind of setback." Hutch glanced at Starsky thinking that might not have been what the other man wanted to hear. To his surprise, Starsky seemed to have taken the comment in stride.
"I noticed he was watching you extra close when Parker delivered the news."
"I was aware of that," Hutch replied. "I guess in retrospect I can understand why."
A comfortable silence followed until a new mileage sign materialized alongside the highway. "Five miles to Claremont," Starsky announced. "Sounds pleasant enough. Wanna stop?"
"Sure, let's stop. If we can find a decent-looking place with a vacancy, we might as well. I don't feel like exploring much of the desert tonight."
"Works for me," Starsky agreed. "First we find somewhere to crash, then dinner."
"You sound like a Neanderthal, Starsk."
"You betcha," Starsky chuckled. "And I'll have you know that I'm a damn good one at that." A half-mile inside the Claremont city limits Starsky noticed a modest-looking two-story motel whose neon sign was advertising vacancy. "Look ok?" Starsky asked, pointing at the sign.
"The Cactus," Hutch read out loud. "Yeah, looks fine. Let's give it a try." Five minutes later, Hutch joined Starsky in the motel office as he was finishing up signing the registry. He occupied himself by looking through the tourist pamphlets that covered a small table on the opposite side of the lobby, picking out a couple that caught his eye. One brochure was about cave exploration, the other advertised a well-known pottery shop in the area. Hutch had long enjoyed dabbling in ceramics - so much so that he had considered acquiring a kiln of his own one day. Momentarily satisfied with his new reading material, Hutch joined Starsky at the counter and tried not to look impatient.
The office attendant was an older, native American man who wore his hair long, parted down the center, and divided by two thick braids. As Starsky finished signing them in, he couldn't help noticing that the man was staring rather brazenly at Hutch.
"Are you planning to be in town long?" the attendant asked.
"We'll be here tonight - not sure about tomorrow yet," Starsky added, answering for both of them.
Hutch locked eyes with the man who was now quite openly appraising him.
"Is there something else you need to know?" Starsky asked sternly. The change of tone in Starsky's voice demanded the stranger's full attention.
"Oh no," the man answered quickly, pulling his eyes away from Hutch long enough to hand Starsky the keys. "Your room is around back - you can park right next to the staircase. It's the first room on the right at the top of the stairs. Enjoy your stay, gentlemen."
"Thank you," Starsky said, accepting the keys. "Say, can you recommend a good steak house in the area?"
Starsky watched, annoyed now, as the man's attention automatically drifted back to Hutch. Wondering if he had overlooked something, Starsky casually glanced at his partner. No, Starsky didn't see anything different, unusual, or out of the ordinary about Hutch's appearance.
"There's a restaurant two blocks down the street on the right called The Rustler," the man offered. "Some folks swear it's the best in town."
"Thanks," Starsky said, taking Hutch by the elbow and ushering him toward the door. As they walked to the car, Hutch looked inquisitively at Starsky and shrugged in a manner that dismissed the stranger's behavior. Casting a glance over his shoulder, Starsky noticed the man was still watching them as they climbed back into the Torino.
"For God's sake, Hutch. What do we have to do, tie a bag over your head just to get any peace and quiet?"
Hutch rolled his eyes in an exaggerated response. "Hardly. I don't know what was up with that guy, Starsk. Let's just drop our stuff in the room and go find that dinner you wanted. I'll even buy."
As Starsky started the engine and pulled away from the curb, the man in the office watched from a window until the Torino disappeared altogether behind the building.