Chapter 1: Escape From the City
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.
Chapter 2: Suspicions
"Wow," Starsky said, allowing himself to fall backward onto the bed. "That old man was right about the restaurant. That was the best steak I've had in a while." Hutch closed the door and locked it behind them, adding the flimsy security chain as an extra precaution. "I gotta admit it was," Hutch said, shrugging out of his jacket. "Once I got used to the animal skulls hanging around the room, the food was well worth the wait."
Starsky grinned as he remembered the interior decor of the restaurant where they had just eaten dinner. The atmosphere had truly been rustic, to say the least. He had enjoyed watching the expression on Hutch's face as his eyes traveled around the room systematically identifying the skull of each mounted trophy. A veritable history of the locality and the people who populated the area was well-reflected in the artwork that surrounded them.
"The only thing missing was an incense burner in the middle of each table," Hutch added. "Which reminds me - maybe I can find one tomorrow."
"I'm sure you can," Starsky commented. "From the looks of those brochures you picked up, there will be plenty of shopping opportunities."
Hutch had opened his suitcase to retrieve a bag of toiletries when he stopped suddenly, his eyes traveling rapidly over the contents. "Starsk, were you in my suitcase by any chance?"
Your suitcase? No, why?"
Hutch was staring at his belongings, a slight frown shading his facial expression. "Well, someone was. I didn't leave it like this."
"You're kidding," Starsky said, moving to stand next to Hutch. Several pieces of Hutch's clothing had obviously been handled, tossed around, and hastily replaced. Starsky knew that not even Hutch packed a suitcase in such a haphazard manner. The two men exchanged a silent understanding before Starsky dropped to the floor, searching underneath the beds as Hutch hurried toward the bathroom. Checking first behind the door, Hutch crossed the small room in three quick steps before tearing open the shower curtain to ensure the tub area was empty.
Starsky was sitting down on the bed when Hutch re-entered the room. "No one outside of the hotel manager knows we're here," Starsky said. "Shall we go have a discussion with him?"
Hutch looked thoughtful as he sat down next to his suitcase. "No," Hutch decided. "I think I'd rather see what else, if anything, happens. Whatever they were looking for, they're gone now. I don't think anyone is going to risk a revisit with both of us here."
Starsky was not surprised by Hutch's decision. "Suppose it was the manager himself?" Starsky asked, speculating further. "I didn't like the way he was looking at you earlier."
"I guess it could have been," Hutch admitted. "Most likely, it was someone associated with the motel or an entirely independent opportunist. My wallet was on me, so there wasn't anything of real value in my suitcase. Nothing seems to be missing anyway."
Starsky turned to his own suitcase, flipping open the lid and quickly inspecting the contents. Nothing had been noticeably disturbed. "And none of my stuff has been touched," Starsky said. "I don't like it, Hutch. It feels like someone was targeting you."
The following morning...
"I think I'd like to do both," Starsky announced, peeking over the top of the brochure at Hutch. "I vote we find the shopping center first, then head out to the caves. We won't be on any sort of schedule at that point."
Hutch nodded as he drained his coffee cup. The little mom-and-pop-style restaurant they had found for breakfast was a one-block walk around the corner from the motel. Awake by 6:30, they had showered and checked out of The Cactus within the hour. Although nothing else unusual had happened during the night, they had both decided it would be wise to find another motel.
A different employee was behind the desk when Starsky dropped off the key depriving him of a second look at the man from the night before. Admittedly, Starsky was a little disappointed. Despite Hutch's overall nonchalance about the desk attendant's behavior, Starsky would have preferred to ask him a few questions.
"The plaza is only about a mile from here," Hutch pointed out. "Once we park, I think we can easily see most of it on foot." As Hutch had predicted, the shopping plaza was at the end of a straight shot through the center of town on a road dotted with stores and friendly-looking cantinas. Hutch enjoyed looking at the assortment of wares for sale on the front sidewalks as he and Starsky cruised by. Despite the mildly unsettling incident with his suitcase, Hutch found himself thinking this might be exactly what both of them needed after all - a break from their usual and stressful routine.
Parking the Torino in the first open space, Starsky locked the car before joining Hutch in front of a sidewalk display of watercolor paintings. Hutch was already immersed in a replica of a desert sunset depicted in brilliant splashes of orange and yellow and swirled together on a background of dark blue. Feeling Starsky's presence behind him, Hutch turned to find his partner was also looking at the painting. "It's nice," Starsky agreed. "If you think you might want it, remember where it is and we can come back for it. After all, this is only our first stop."
Hutch smiled knowing that Starsky was right. Much like a beautiful woman, Hutch was too often easily captured by first impressions. Starsky was confident there would be plenty of other purchase opportunities before the end of their shopping trip. "Just think about it," Starsky said, encouraging Hutch to move along. "Remember - we're looking for an incense burner anyway."
Hutch chuckled as he moved away from the paintings. "That's right. I can admit that I'm in the rare mood to find one of those."
Glancing down the block, Starsky caught an unexpected glimpse of someone who looked familiar. Too late, he realized it was the old man from the night before, partially hidden behind a stone archway and observing them from the safety of the corner. When Starsky looked in Hutch's direction, he was already busy chatting with a young woman selling hand-embroidered linens. When Starsky next looked for the old man, he had disappeared. "Wait here," Starsky half-shouted, launching into a run.
After a short sprint to the end of the block, Starsky looked left and right at the corner, yet the man who'd been standing there only moments earlier had seemingly vanished. Searching the throngs of people milling around the square, his eyes couldn't stay attached to any one individual for too long. Though he hated to admit it, Starsky sensed he had lost his suspect. "Damn it," Starsky muttered out loud. "Where'd he go?"
Rapid footsteps behind him indicated that Hutch had followed him anyway. "What?" Hutch was asking as he caught up with Starsky.
"I spotted that old man from the motel standing right here," Starsky explained, turning in a circle as he talked. Hutch immediately joined his partner in a joint search of the crowd around them.
"So?" Hutch asked. "That wouldn't be unusual, would it? I mean - The Cactus isn't that far away."
"Factor in his behavior last night coupled with someone pawing through your stuff is enough to justify me asking him a few questions." Starsky continued chattering as the two men marched side by side through the plaza.
"Are you sure?" Hutch asked, mildly exasperated.
"Yes, I'm sure! I caught him watching us from the corner!"
Hutch could sense his partner's confidence in what he had seen. Unfortunately, the old man had seemingly vanished. "Well, apparently he doesn't want to talk to us," Hutch concluded. "Whatever he was doing, he's keeping it to himself."
Starsky leaped on top of a wooden bench that allowed him a better view in all directions. After several moments of unrewarded searching, even Starsky had to give up. Frowning, he hopped off the bench and landed next to Hutch. "Looks like he gave us the slip alright," Starsky said.
"You probably scared the hell out of him, Starsk. I doubt he'll make the same mistake twice."
Glancing over Hutch's shoulder, Starsky noticed they were standing in front of the pottery shop that Hutch was intent on finding. "Look behind you, Hutch. At least I found something we were looking for."
Hutch turned to see the ceramic display of his dreams was only a few yards away. The large front windows were laden with a multitude of glazed vases and receptacles of various sizes and colors. A pink neon sign next to the front door was blinking Come In - We're Open. Hutch broke into a smile when he saw how spacious the store was. "Good work, Detective Starsky," Hutch commented. "Now follow me."
Nearly an hour and a half later they left the pottery store with a brand new incense burner for Hutch. Immensely pleased with finding exactly what he wanted, Hutch was looking forward to using it. He took a last look at his newly acquired treasure before folding the sack and tucking it into his vest pocket. "Ok," Hutch began. "Is there anything else you wanted to see while we're here?"
Although Hutch was looking directly at Starsky, his partner had returned to eyeing the crowd around them. Arms folded snugly across his chest, each foot planted solidly in place, Starsky was back to scanning the people around them for any sign of the man from the motel.
"Wanna go bar-hopping and pick up some women instead?" Hutch asked, leveling his eyes at his partner.
When Starsky paid him no mind, Hutch knew he would have to wait out the other man's thought process. Once Starsky was through concentrating on whatever was so all-consuming, Hutch knew he would tune back in. In the interim, it was obvious he hadn't heard anything Hutch had said. "What?" Starsky asked suddenly, looking at his partner.
"Hi. Welcome back. I asked if there was anything else you'd like to see before we leave?"
"Oh yeah, maybe. I noticed a camera shop when we first got here. I can pop in there while you look at your painting again. Or did you decide if you wanted it or not?"
Hutch had thought about it and decided to pass on the watercolor. "I know you take a lot of pictures, Starsk, and I know you like sunsets. I was thinking you could capture something similar with your camera and I could have a nice print made from it. If it doesn't happen this trip, then maybe another time?"
"Sure, I can do that. Getting the right shot just depends on being in the right spot when the sun goes down."
"Fair enough," Hutch answered, sliding an arm around Starsky's shoulders and steering him in the opposite direction. "If we're gonna check out those caves, I think we should finish up and head out to the desert before it gets much later."
Before leaving the plaza, Hutch followed Starsky into a camera shop where he occupied himself with a display while Starsky talked to the clerk about a special type of film. Ten minutes later Starsky had found what he wanted and they were on their way back to the car. Starsky was unlocking the passenger door when something new caught his eye. Glancing down, he saw a small, mostly blue and white dreamcatcher laying face up on the Torino's front seat. As Hutch opened the door, Starsky grabbed it for a closer look. "What is that?" Hutch asked.
"It's not yours? I found it on your side of the seat."
Hutch took the small bundle of leather and beads from Starsky and rolled it around in his hand. "No, I haven't seen this before," he said, handing it back. "It's pretty though."
Puzzled, Starsky studied the brightly colored piece of handiwork. "The car was locked, Hutch. How did it get in here?"
Hutch was quiet as he returned Starsky's gaze. "I don't know," he admitted. "You're positive the door was locked?
"Yes, I'm positive," Starsky replied. "Did you flirt with some girl who might have left you a present or something?"
"Nah, I don't think so," Hutch replied.
For lack of a better idea, Starsky shrugged and hung the dreamcatcher from the rearview mirror. "Well, maybe it will bring us good luck or something," Starsky said, starting the engine and glancing over his shoulder.
As Starsky merged into traffic, the man from The Cactus watched them go from the shadows of a nearby cantina. Pleased that the two white men had accepted the small token of protection, he worried if it could ever be enough. The call of the desert had been strong last night - so strong that he was surprised to see Hutch looking unaffected this morning. That could mean only one thing in the elder man's eyes - Hutch was a spirit of uncommon character and strength. Although knowing so was immensely comforting, he feared it would not be enough to ensure the white man's protection from the malevolence that lurked in the desert.
The moon would enter a new phase tonight, a worry that caused the old man to shudder openly. Clutching a smaller version of the dreamcatcher he'd left in the car, he vowed to pray harder for all of them.
Chapter 3: The Mysteries of Spelunking
"Hey, look at this," Hutch said, hopping over an extra-large crevice in the rocks. Hutch was on his knees trying for a better look at the enormous fissure beneath his feet. "According to the pamphlet, it's been here for centuries."
Starsky was busy focussing his camera lens on a large, scraggly tree in the distance. While it was still only a little past mid-day, he knew the natural daylight would soon begin to fade. He wanted to capture at least part of the progression as it happened. When Starsky next looked for Hutch, he found him on the ground peering intently into an enormous crack in the earth. "Hutch! What in the hell are you doing?" Starsky asked, unsure whether to be alarmed or amused.
"Just looking at what's deeper underground. Did you know the farther you go the more the minerals change colors?" Hutch shifted toward the edge for an even closer look at the area just beyond the surface.
"Hey!" Starsky exclaimed, opting to be alarmed. "Be careful, would ya? I don't want to have to pull you out of there."
Hearing the worry in Starsky's voice, Hutch eased himself away from the edge and stood up. While he knew Starsky was not overly comfortable with heights, Hutch didn't view the hunk of rock they were standing on as anything remotely risky. The question of risk was apparently open to interpretation.
Moving cautiously to stand next to Hutch, Starsky chanced a look at the fissure in the ground. Hutch couldn't stop himself from smiling as the other man peeked over the edge. "I don't need to get any closer," Starsky explained, trying to sound casual. "I can see everything just fine from right here."
"Relax," Hutch assured him. "I believe you." Hutch allowed Starsky time for composure before pushing for more exploration. "How about we take the lower trail from here to the mouth of the cave?" Hutch asked. "We can probably see most of it from that entrance before it gets too dark."
"I like your thinking. 'Cause right now I'll do just about anything to get off this damn cliff.
"Lead the way," Starsky said aloud instead.
Starsky followed Hutch down the rocky, uneven trail to a much less distracting elevation. Relieved to be standing on more solid ground, Starsky looked up to see a large, gaping hole in the earth directly in front of them. He recognized the landmark from a picture in Hutch's travel brochure. They had located the mouth of the main cavern.
Both men were momentarily quiet, absorbed in their thoughts as they studied the size of the hole in the side of the hill. Most other caves Hutch had seen up close were marked by a smaller, less apparent entrance, but shrank dramatically the deeper you traveled inside. This particular cave might prove to be the exception to many rules. Either way, Hutch was looking forward to a little exploration. "So you're going in there, huh?" Starsky asked.
"Yeah, I am," Hutch replied. "You're coming with me, aren't you?"
"Of course I am. I was just checkin' is all."
Hutch had noticed a weather-worn historical marker off the right side of the trail. The sign looked old and neglected - like it hadn't known much attention in many years. "It doesn't look like a lot of people come out here," Starsky commented. "I wonder why."
"I'm not sure," Hutch said, wandering over to the sign. "It's not like it's all that far off the main highway."
Feeling a sudden chill, Starsky looked around to see the sky had clouded over in the few minutes it had taken them to hike down the hill. That in itself seemed odd as it had been so sunny only a short time ago. The wind had also kicked up noticeably sending a flurry of loose sand flying in their direction. "Hey!" Starsky half-shouted. "Let's go inside and get out of this gale. Looks like some sort of storm is about to land on us."
Hutch turned up the collar of his shirt as he sprinted toward Starsky. Pausing long enough to pull two flashlights out of his backpack, he handed one to Starsky before ducking inside the cave.
The mouth of the cavern was wide and spacious allowing daylight to penetrate the interior. Though the available lighting was dim, Hutch could tell the walls were rough and jagged in most places yet smooth as glass in others. A heavy, dank odor became more noticeable the deeper they progressed into the cave. Using his flashlight, Hutch was surprised by the unexpected splashes of color that coated parts of the interior wall. The odd-looking substance varied from wet in some places to powder dry in others.
"Geez," Starsky said softly. "I never would have guessed all of this was here."
"Me either," Hutch commented, squinting through the dim lighting. Hutch was thinking about touching the wall when an unexpected noise startled both of them. He looked expectantly at Starsky, watching as his partner's eyes widened in surprise - a full-blown confirmation they had both heard the same thing. With a nod, Hutch indicated to follow him. Directing the flashlights toward the back of the cave, they cast a beam of light across the darkest part of the cavern before landing on a series of small stalagmites. As Hutch edged to his right, a flurry of movement erupted from the opposite corner as a large coyote leaped up and scrambled past them followed by a pack of noisy, yelping pups.
"Oh my God," Starsky whispered, releasing a deep breath. Bending forward from the waist, Starsky rested his hands on his knees and concentrated on lowering his pulse. With one eye on the spot where the coyotes had appeared, Hutch rested a hand on his partner's shoulder and watched for more. "Sorry, buddy," Hutch said. "That was unexpected."
"No kidding," Starsky retorted, straightening suddenly to his full height. "Hutch, I've determined I don't like walking around in spooky places without my gun."
"Me either," Hutch admitted. "To be fair, the coyote wasn't mentioned in the brochure."
"And as surprises go, that one sucked royally," Starsky added, eyeing Hutch. Hutch managed to smile as he turned his flashlight toward the far wall. "Well, as long as the coyotes have cleared out, we might as well see the rest of the place."
"You first," Starsky snapped. "You're a lot more curious about this sort of thing than I am."
"For your sake as well as mine, Starsk, I promise we won't be in here much longer." Hutch aimed the flashlight at the far wall before advancing in that direction. Moving cautiously, he wondered how many times over hundreds of years a human eye had gazed upon the same set of artifacts. Hutch could see that dozens of petroglyphs covered the interior walls - etchings left centuries ago by some of the area's earliest inhabitants. Hutch was fascinated by the primitive display. As he studied the various artifacts, Hutch thought he understood at least part of the artist's message.
One etching depicted a blazing campfire, another a series of deer running away from a hunter. Hutch smiled at another that was a drawing of a large coyote. As his flashlight landed on the last image, Hutch struggled to identify what it was. The petroglyph resembled the human body although the image grew more obscure above the shoulders. If he had to guess, the drawing depicted the body of a man crowned with the head of some other animal.
Hutch supposed that recreating the image had some profoundly important meaning to its originator. Some ancient souls had thought it was significant enough to document such an image for future generations. Hutch squinted at the carving, trying hard to understand its true meaning. "What is it?" Starsky asked.
"I'm not sure," Hutch admitted. "Looks like a man wearing - I don't know, animal skins?" Starsky took a closer look before adding his opinion. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense, doesn't it? People made clothing out of the animals they hunted."
"But what's this then?" Hutch had moved to the next petrograph - an etching that displayed a group of hunters carrying spears and in obvious pursuit of a similar man/creature.
"Well, that's interesting," Starsky said after a moment. "Looks like someone got thrown out of the tribe. Office politics was alive and well even then, Hutch - just like Dobey wanted you out of town before you chased down Parker with a spear." Starsky's comment invoked an amusing visual in Hutch's mind. "Don't give me ideas," Hutch warned. "I spend enough time repressing them as it is."
The wind outside had picked up noticeably. Starsky glanced nervously toward the entrance of the cave as several small pieces of debris were lifted off the ground and carried out of sight. "We better think about heading back to the car," Hutch suggested, observing the same changes. "Unless we want to wait it out here in the cave, we'll have to make a run to the car sooner or later."
"Nah, I don't wanna stay in here," Starsky said. Retracing their steps to the entrance, Hutch paused to peer outside. Surprised, he couldn't stifle the gasp that escaped him.
"Starsk! Look at that!" Hutch pointed toward the west where an enormous twister could be seen hopping across the ground in search of a place to land. Alarmed, Hutch tried to estimate the distance between them and the funnel cloud as well as the speed it was traveling. It didn't take long to realize the storm was not only moving fast but was also headed directly toward them. "Damn, it's headed straight for us!" Hutch exclaimed. "Starsky, we need to get back to the car!"
"Come on then!" Starsky shouted, pulling Hutch by the arm. Breaking into a hard run, they raced up the trail toward the dirt lot where they had left the Torino. Reaching the car first, Starsky unlocked the door and jumped inside before releasing the passenger door. Hutch threw a final look over his shoulder before diving inside as well and pulling the door shut behind him. Together, they watched in astonishment as the funnel cloud seemed to stall in one place, then turned and lurched directly toward them.
"Get down!" Starsky shouted, shoving Hutch flat against the bench seat and throwing himself on top of him. Starsky covered his head with one arm as he clung to Hutch with the other. The strong wind slammed into the side of the Torino only seconds later, causing the body of the car to shudder and shift sideways. Hutch grabbed a handful of Starsky's jacket and held on as the twister moved directly over the top of them. Starsky could feel the tension in Hutch's body as the worst of the wind broke apart around the car. Having lived through more than a few tornados in his youth, Hutch understood the potential for destruction at the hand of such storms. About the last thing he'd expected to encounter this weekend was a twister in the middle of the deep southwestern desert.
"Are you alright?" Starsky whispered. Hutch nodded. With the wind raging all around them, Starsky tried to listen - gauging as to whether the storm had begun to weaken. A few moments more and he would chance a look. Until then, simple body language told Hutch to stay put.
Once he was sure the wind had lessened, Starsky slowly sat up. Peeking over the edge of the passenger side window, he saw no sign of funnel clouds. Looking next over his shoulder, Starsky saw the twister had already moved at least a mile in the opposite direction. It looked like they were safe for the moment. "It's gone," Starsky said.
Hutch pulled himself upright, his eyes quickly finding the path the twister had taken. "We can't stay here, Starsk. There are too many dark clouds in the area."
"I think we're about halfway between towns," Starsky muttered as he fumbled for the roadmap he'd tucked behind the visor. "I say we either have to keep goin' east, or we turn around and head back to Claremont."
"Keep driving east," Hutch decided. "And we need to hurry - I think I see another bank of clouds forming behind us." Starsky started the Torino, threw the engine into gear, and gunned it out of the dirt lot toward the highway. Pausing at the junction, his eyes landed on what Hutch had already seen. The approaching clouds did look different from the formations that accompanied the funnel - more akin to a solid wall of debris than a funnel cloud as it advanced across the desert.
"Oh damn! Starsky, I think that's a sandstorm! Drive!" Starsky popped the clutch and headed for the highway, pushing the engine into fourth gear in record time. "I don't know if we can outrun it," Hutch added, watching the storm through the rear windshield. "If it catches us, we'll be forced to pull over. You won't be able to see well enough to drive not to mention the sand can ruin the Torino's engine."
"Keep an eye on it then and let me know," Starsky said, pushing the accelerator past 70 mph. "I can't go any faster on this stretch of the road - too many curves ahead." Hutch monitored the approaching wall of sand while Starsky pushed for speed as much as the road would allow. As the minutes clicked by, Starsky noticed the atmosphere around them was looking murky - like too much dust had been lifted off the ground and suspended in midair.
"It's catching us, Hutch," Starsky commented, his eyes moving between the rearview mirror and the road ahead of them. "I think we have to pull over." Having made a decision, Starsky took full advantage of a straight stretch for as long as it lasted. Noticing the highway would soon ascend into the hills, Starsky picked an area near the bottom of the pass as the best stopping point. Aiming for a wide, clear spot off the right shoulder, he slowed the Torino as it left the highway before cranking the wheel and sliding sideways to a stop.
Hutch hung on as best he could as the car left the pavement. Although he trusted Starsky's ability behind the wheel, it wasn't as though the storm gave them other choices. If they kept driving, they would be overrun by the sandstorm. They would have to hunker down and wait it out, the latter being the safest decision. Once the Torino came to a complete stop, Starsky looked intently at Hutch as the wall of sand rolled toward them. "Well, this is a little surreal, isn't it?" Starsky asked.
"Yeah, just a little," was all Hutch could think of to say, his eyes on the storm.
"Jesus, it's moving fast," Starsky added. "It'll be here any minute." With the passenger side of the car only inches away from the hillside, and the other directly exposed to the sandstorm, they waited helplessly as the swirling wall of sand drew closer. Starsky hastily closed all of the air vents, locked the doors, and looked expectantly at Hutch.
"It's going to hit hard," Hutch warned. "The hill will block some of it and hopefully push the rest around us. There's nothing else we can do, Starsk." They watched the advancing wall together, mesmerized by the sheer extent and power of the wind. "Hang on," Starsky whispered. "It's here." The words were barely out of his mouth when a wall of dirt surrounded and engulfed the Torino, shaking the car and extinguishing most of the sunlight. A million tiny pieces of grit smashed into his car causing Starsky to flinch outwardly. Although the impact was external, both men tensed as the force of the wind shook the entire car.
"My God, where's the end of it?" Starsky asked.
"There's no way to know," Hutch replied. "If we're lucky, it'll be over in a few minutes. If not, it could last all night and into tomorrow - maybe longer." Starsky blanched at the idea of the storm lasting into the following day.
"I don't know," Hutch added. "I've only read about sand storms, Starsk. I've not seen one before." Yet another blast of wind hit the side of the car causing the chassis to shudder and shake. Starsky looked at Hutch, his eyes wide with astonishment. "I hope to God this is over before tomorrow."
"Me, too. No offense. I like your face and all, but I can't say I was looking forward to spending the night in the car."
"No offense taken - but God, look at that, Hutch! We can't see three feet beyond the front of the hood." Starsky was right. They had zero visibility in any direction. "So we wait it out," Starsky said.
"Yeah, we wait it out."
More than three hours later, Starsky and Hutch remained trapped in the Torino as the sand storm raged all around them. The wind had lessened to a low, steady hum after evolving into something more akin to white noise than merely bad weather. Although the overall visibility had improved, the air was still too murky to drive safely. Starsky suspected it was also nearly sunset although he couldn't tell for sure with all of the debris still clouding the air. Two hours into waiting out the storm, Hutch pulled a blanket out of the back seat, wrapped it around his shoulders, and casually went to sleep. Although Starsky envied Hutch's ability to turn off his mind on demand, Starsky knew he wouldn't be able to do the same. Perhaps Hutch was right. Maybe he needed to give yoga a serious try.
Starsky yawned and stretched his legs as best he could behind the confines of the steering wheel. It was never easy. Peering ahead through the dirty windshield, Starsky thought he noticed a shift in the shadows a few yards beyond the hood. Blinking hard, he rubbed his eyes and looked again just as a more distinct outline began to take shape. Confused, he watched in fascination until the frame of a man draped in animal skins materialized just beyond the front of the hood. Starsky was looking at a nearly exact replica of the petroglyph he and Hutch had seen in the cave. Alarmed, Starsky grabbed for the headlights and cranked them on full beam, instantly bathing the man/creature in full light. "Hutch!" Starsky shouted.
As Hutch jerked awake, the creature was working it's way closer to the car. "What is it?" Hutch asked, scrambling to sit up. It was then Hutch saw it, too - a living reincarnation of the petroglyph from the cave. Startled, Hutch's breath caught in his throat as he tried to react, prompting him to lay a hand on his chest as he struggled to inhale. Illumination from the headlights reflected into the front seat, glinting off the blonde in Hutch's hair and accentuating the blue of his eyes. Bracing himself, Hutch peered upward through the hand-woven web of the dreamcatcher just as the man/creature began to falter in its approach.
An unsettling sensation pulled at Hutch's emotions - compelling him to move toward the skin-clad figure. More agitated now than fearful, Hutch slammed his fist into the dashboard as he fought with the impossible for control. "Stay away!" Hutch warned. "I am not the one you're looking for!"
The man/creature hesitated briefly, extending an arm toward Hutch as if pleading with him to reconsider. "Stay away," Hutch repeated, half-hissing at the vision before them. "I am not the one!"
As if in acknowledgment, the petroglyph began to shudder, wavering in place until a final blast of wind caused it to drop to its knees in front of the Torino. As the figure in the headlights vanished altogether, Hutch collapsed against the back of the car seat.
Chapter 4: Escaping the Storm
"Hutch!" Starsky shouted, reaching for his partner. Starsky knew the figure in the headlights had vanished. Despite the fear that surrounded its initial appearance, he was still more concerned about Hutch. "Hutch!" Starsky repeated, slapping the other man lightly on the cheek. "Look at me - please!"
Unaware that he was clutching at his chest, Hutch shook his head and forced himself to answer. "Yeah, Starsk. I can hear you." Hutch sat up slowly before lowering his head in his hands as if to quiet an internal commotion. Although he was already sitting down, he felt oddly lightheaded. As if suddenly remembering where he was, Hutch raised his head to look for the mysterious petroglyph.
"Where'd it go?" Hutch demanded, his voice beginning to quiver. "That - that thing! What happened to it?"
"I don't know, and we're not sticking around to look for it!" Starsky answered, grabbing the keys and cranking the ignition. "Hang on, Hutch, 'cause I'm gettin' us the hell out of here!" Although it was almost dark, the headlights had revealed the air was clear enough to risk driving. After what he and Hutch had just witnessed, Starsky was not going to wait for an improvement. The spinning tires produced an additional cloud of dirt as Starsky hit the gas and steered the Torino back toward the highway. One hard left turn later to avoid a large cactus, and the wheels were back on solid pavement. Finding the much-needed traction, Starsky shifted into high gear and pointed the car due east.
Pure intuition was telling Starsky to get away from the caverns and out of the desert entirely. While he didn't understand what they had just seen, he sensed that Hutch had been the target of some sort of unearthly apparition. Although Starsky wasn't much for ghost stories, he was wise enough not to discount what he had seen. Worried now, he glanced at Hutch as the Torino was careening down the freeway. Hutch looked unusually pale despite the near darkness inside the car. Worried, Starsky reached for him for reassurance. "Yeah, I'm ok," Hutch said, rubbing the middle of his chest. "Feels like I got punched is all."
Starsky didn't like that answer. Whatever had happened in the sand storm, they both deserved a reasonable explanation. A variety of ideas niggled at the back of Starsky's mind as he drove - threatening, jabbing, and poking at him as if doing so could somehow help him remember something of importance. In most instances, Starsky was not a man who liked to be pushed although he could appreciate a healthy dose of encouragement. Ironically, it wasn't Hutch who was doing the pushing this time. It was his own deeply ingrained instinct to watch out for his partner that had Starsky feeling unsettled. Something unsavory was definitely underfoot. Much like the trail of a cold-blooded murderer, it was doing its best to stay hidden.
"You can breathe ok?" Starsky asked. He had to be sure.
"Yeah, I can breathe," Hutch answered weakly. "As I said, it felt like I got the wind knocked out of me for a minute. I'm not sure what happened." Starsky wasn't sure either. One moment Hutch had been sleeping, and the next it was like some element of the storm itself had come to life, intent on snatching him from the Torino. Starsky still wasn't certain what had stopped it.
As the sand storm worked its way through the area, the air cleared up enough to make driving conditions reasonable. That being the case, Starsky pushed the speedometer higher, hell-bent on putting distance between them and a badly unsettling experience. "Hey, easy on the gas pedal, Starsk," Hutch reminded him. "I understand why you want to get down the road, but ease up a bit, huh?"
Starsky glanced at the speedometer and was surprised to see they were traveling at almost eighty mph. "Sorry, Hutch. I was thinkin' - didn't realize how fast I was going."
"Just slow it down a little is all. We both want to get out of here in one piece." Knowing Hutch was right, Starsky concentrated on calming himself down. While visibility wasn't perfect, it was decent. There was no reason to suspect any more problems from the storm.
"So, did you recognize our unexpected visitor back there?" Starsky asked, glancing at Hutch. "Have you ever seen anything like that before?"
"What?" Hutch asked, frowning as he rubbed at his chest. Although Hutch seemed more awake now, Starsky suspected he might not remember everything that had happened.
"Never mind," Starsky said, patting Hutch's shoulder. They would talk about it more when Starsky decided it was safe to do so. "Can you look at the map and tell me how far it is to Victorville?" Starsky asked instead. Hutch fumbled for the road map, studying it with the aid of a flashlight. "Looks like Victorville is around fifty miles out of Claremont. We're closer than that, so maybe about forty miles?"
"Sounds like that's where we're goin' then."
Thirty minutes later the Torino rolled into Victorville, another small city on the edge of the southern California desert. "Ok, I chose the last place we stayed and we both know how that worked out. So how about you choose this time?" Starsky said.
Hutch had been doing his best to remain composed as they drove the last few miles into Victorville. After being confined to the car for several hours, it felt like a tall order. He smiled anyway at the sensibility of Starsky's suggestion. "I was just thinking about that," Hutch offered. "Before we left town, Dobey mentioned a place called The Garden Tree. He's stayed there before and liked it. I say we try that one."
"The Garden Tree it is then. Can you find me an address?" With Hutch's help, Starsky located the motel after only one wrong turn. Pulling to a stop in front of the main office, Starsky shut off the motor and turned to his partner. "I have a suggestion, Hutch - more of a direct order actually just in case you want to hash it out." Hutch looked skeptically at Starsky. "I think you should stay in the car while I check us in. Your charming appearance has been known to cause quite a stir in some circles." Hutch dropped his gaze to his lap, embarrassed enough that his cheeks colored to a rosy shade of pink. Not knowing what else to say, he simply nodded. "That a boy," Starsky said, patting him on the back. "If I see any interesting literature, I'll grab it for you."
An hour later, Starsky and Hutch were finishing a much-appreciated supper in the motel dining room. Hot roast beef sandwiches and cold beer were a welcome change from the hours they'd spent waiting out the storm in the Torino. "I'm definitely getting in the hot tub tonight," Hutch announced, wincing slightly as he straightened in his chair.
"Is your back bothering you?" Starsky asked, concerned.
"Oh, a little bit," Hutch admitted. "But it's nothing a hot soak won't take care of." Over dinner, they had discussed the day's experiences at length from their impressions of the petroglyphs in the cave to the life-size version that had visited them at the end of the sand storm. To Starsky's surprise, Hutch did remember most of what happened, although it felt more like a dream to him than reality. Starsky, on the other hand, could not say the same. While he knew Hutch had been asleep only moments before the petroglyph-like figure appeared in their headlights, Starsky had been wide awake the whole time. Most unnerving for Starsky was the fact that the man/creature had fixated on Hutch, a factor he neither liked nor understood.
"Whatever that thing was, it focussed on you, Hutch," Starsky said. "You don't remember?"
"I remember thinking I had to make it stop," Hutch said, frowning as he rubbed his forehead.
"And what made you think it would listen to you?" Starsky prodded. "I know that sounds dumb, Hutch, but something made it stop, and it sure as hell wasn't me." Hutch looked genuinely uncomfortable. As Hutch scrunched his eyebrows tightly together, Starsky recognized that he was struggling to come up with a better answer. "I think I dreamed about something similar last night," Hutch said instead, looking almost shy as he spoke. "I didn't think anything of it at the time 'cause it was only a dream. And I didn't remember much about it until we drove into Victorville."
"So what do you remember?" Starsky asked, pushing gently.
"Mostly I remember the impression that someone was pleading with me. Not a specific individual, or anyone I know. It was more like the desert itself was calling to me - begging me to come home. Odd, I'd say, as we both know I'm from northern Minnesota." Hutch took another sip of his beer, still puzzling over a few remembered fragments of his dream. "It was more like a matter of mistaken identity." Hutch took a moment to study Starsky's expression, evaluating the effectiveness of what he knew was already a thin explanation. Thus far, Hutch's recollections did not seem to register much of a reaction with his partner. "Weird, huh?" Hutch added.
Starsky had returned to thinking about the old man from The Cactus. Something about their initial interaction still bothered him. Starsky was worried that he was overlooking something - something important that would help unravel a puzzle. "Sorry," Starsky said, shifting in his chair. "I was thinking I'd like to talk to that ol' man from Claremont. For some reason, Hutch, I suspect he knows a lot more about this than we do."
Hutch had also thought about the man from The Cactus. Although he'd mostly dismissed the unsolicited attention at the time, he now wondered if he had misread the man altogether. Hutch was used to being noticed by men and women alike. It was something that barely tripped his radar in most circumstances. In retrospect, Hutch wondered if maybe the stranger had been genuinely concerned about something that he didn't understand. What that might have been, he simply didn't know.
"Alright," Starsky said, reaching for the bill. "You bought last time, Blintz. So your money's no good here tonight."
Twenty minutes later Hutch had changed into his swim trunks and had located the pool area. Spotting the hot tub at the far end of the patio, he was relieved to see that no one else was using it. There was no guarantee that would last, of course - an admission that made him feel somewhat guilty. It wasn't that Hutch didn't want to be sociable. He just wanted to ease the soreness in his back muscles.
Hutch lowered himself into the hot, steamy water and reached for the control for the jets. Turning the dial as high as it would go, he stretched his legs and allowed himself to relax against the side of the tub. Dealing with the sand storm had turned into an exhausting experience - something neither he nor Starsky could have anticipated. Despite the unexpected aggravation, they had both survived just fine. Just fine, that is, as long as Hutch didn't have to think too much about the vision that had beckoned to him from the desert.
So I guess we can check sand storms off our list of things to do this weekend, Hutch mused, causing himself to smile. And maybe hallucinations, too.
The bubbling jets quickly worked their magic on Hutch's lower back. As he slumped deeper against the side of the tub, Hutch closed his eyes and allowed the gurgling water to soothe his knotted muscles. Privately, he took a moment to scold himself for skipping the shower before climbing into the hot tub.
Oh well. That's what chlorine is for, Hutch mused.
The warmth of the water made him drowsy. Giving in to the weariness, Hutch closed his eyes and allowed himself to savor a few minutes of true relaxation. If he had been more awake, Hutch might have noticed the enormous white owl descending from the sky and landing only a few feet away. After perching itself atop a wrought iron fence, the bird fixed its large, yellow eyes on Hutch and waited.
Hutch grimaced as he shifted against the side of the tub, realigning one of the jets with the most bothersome sore spot. He sighed as the muscle finally gave up and relaxed, thankful for the small amount of relief.
Ummm, Hutch moaned, arching his back gently. That's been bothering me half the day.
A door opened on the far side of the patio, admitting Starsky as he commenced striding toward the hot tub, a can of cold beer in each hand. As he drew nearer, the owl rotated defensively in his direction. Noticing the unusual bird, Starsky slowed his step and watched the owl's peculiar behavior.
Starsky glanced toward Hutch, wondering if he had any idea the owl was there. Judging by the relaxed expression on Hutch's face, Starsky decided it wasn't likely. Although he didn't know much about owls, Starsky suspected they didn't usually hang out around people. Why this one was lingering so close to Hutch made him instantly suspicious.
Moving mostly on instinct, Starsky broke into a run as the owl spread its wings and launched itself at Hutch. "Hutch!" Starsky yelled, racing to put himself between his unsuspecting partner and an imminent attack. Dropping the beer, Starsky grabbed a patio chair and hurled it at the owl. The chair's metal frame landed squarely in the middle of the bird's chest causing it to shriek and lift itself skyward instead.
Hutch's eyes flew open as the commotion erupted causing him to scramble backward out of the hot tub. Frantically, his eyes traveled back and forth between Starsky and what he could see of the owl as the bird gained steady altitude overhead. "Starsky! What the hell?" Hutch yelled.
Starsky whirled toward Hutch, unsure what, if anything, had happened to his partner before he arrived. "That damned owl was getting ready to land on you!" Starsky shouted back. "I caught it before it did!"
Water channeling off his body in rivulets, Hutch wiped his face with both hands and looked skyward. "You didn't know it was there, did you?" Starsky challenged.
"N - no!" Hutch admitted, feeling suddenly unnerved. "I - I didn't realize anyone else was here."
Starsky forced himself to drop his anger and figure things out with Hutch. Why hadn't his partner realized he was so close to being assaulted? "Never mind, it doesn't matter now," Starsky said, grabbing a towel and offering it to Hutch. "Come on. Let's get you off this patio." Hutch was still looking hesitant as he wrapped the towel around his shoulders. It was then Starsky realized he would need to be more directive. "Come on," Starsky repeated, his voice softening. "I'm taking you inside and the two of us are going to sort some stuff out."
Chapter 5: A Mysterious Coincidence
While Hutch took a quick shower, Starsky busied himself flipping through a magazine he'd found in the lobby. It was the photograph on the front cover that had caught his attention - a picture of Indian petroglyphs remindful of those he'd seen in the cave. Starsky thumbed through the pages until he located the article associated with the cover photo. Reading quickly, he absorbed just enough information to make him more curious. Hearing the shower water stop, Starsky scanned several more paragraphs, picking out a few bits of information he felt were most notable. By the time Hutch opened the bathroom door, Starsky had folded the magazine and tucked it under one arm.
"You're a little underdressed for the lounge, aren't you?" Starsky asked, observing the towel wrapped around Hutch's waist.
"Maybe a little, but I'm about to fix that," Hutch answered. Padding across the room with wet feet, Hutch opened his suitcase. Pulling out a well-worn blue t-shirt and a clean pair of jeans, he dropped the towel and finished dressing while Starsky was using the bathroom. By the time his partner was ready to leave, Hutch was tucking in his shirt and buttoning up his jeans. Grabbing a belt, he laced it through the loops and secured the buckle. After slipping on a pair of sandals, Hutch felt like he was finally presentable.
"After you," Starsky grinned, holding the door open. A short elevator ride later, they found themselves on the main floor of The Garden Tree. As they traveled down the hall and entered the lounge, Starsky noticed the place was rather sparsely populated for a Saturday evening. Selecting a booth in the far corner, they opted to seat themselves on the cushy, vinyl seats.
"Good evening, gentlemen," a tall, dark-haired waiter said, smiling as he approached their table. "What can I start you out with?" The young man was looking directly at Starsky as he spoke. When he turned his attention to Hutch, Starsky watched as his facial expression changed dramatically. Glancing at his partner, Starsky noted that Hutch was doing nothing more unusual than reading the drink menu. It was also the moment Starsky's patience was officially exhausted.
"Ok," Starsky said, reaching for his badge and flashing it at the waiter. "I'm afraid I need to ask you a few questions. Have a seat, please." Starsky stood and gestured toward the booth, demonstrating that he wanted the waiter to sit down between them. The younger man hesitated only briefly.
"You guys are cops?" he asked, scooting across the booth. "Both of you?"
Starsky nodded. "Yes, both of us," Starsky answered, sitting down.
The waiter's attention rebounded immediately to Hutch. Hutch responded by producing his badge and allowing the other man enough time to have a good look at it. "I'm Detective Hutchinson, Bay City PD. This is my partner, Detective Starsky." Hutch wasn't sure why the waiter seemed so nervous, but since Starsky had already shown his ID, he thought it might help to display his as well. "What's your name?" Hutch asked calmly. Hutch waited, hoping he would grow more comfortable with both of them.
"Adriel," the waiter answered.
"Adriel?" Hutch repeated carefully. "Nice to meet you, Adriel," Hutch said, smiling and extending his hand. "Detective Starsky just wants to ask you a few questions, that's all. There's nothing to be afraid of." After shaking Hutch's hand, Adriel looked expectantly at Starsky.
"You seemed surprised - more like nervous - once you got a good look at Detective Hutchinson," Starsky began. "It's not the first time I've experienced the same reaction from other people this weekend. I want to know why."
"I thought he was the Ligai Naabaahil," Adriel answered without hesitation. "And I guess I'm still not convinced that he isn't."
"Who?" Starsky asked.
"Ligai Naabaahil," Adriel repeated carefully. The complexity of the syllables rolled easily off his tongue. "Loosely translated into English, it means White Warrior."
"White Warrior?" Starsky repeated, looking earnestly at Adriel. "Ok, so it's a matter of mistaken identity then?"
"Maybe," Adriel answered, carefully returning his attention to Hutch. Hutch waited patiently, aware the younger man was studying him with an intensity usually reserved for hardened criminals. What Adriel didn't realize was how hard Hutch had to work to keep his own reaction under wraps. Hutch resisted the urge to shout Boo! knowing the waiter would likely clam up or bolt if he did so. As a result, they wouldn't have the information they needed, and Starsky would be furious. Catching himself in time, Hutch smiled warmly at Adriel instead, hoping it would help the younger man to relax.
"My name is Ken Hutchinson," Hutch re-emphasized. "Who is White Warrior, Adriel? And why would you think I'm him?"
"Because you look just like him," Adriel answered. Hutch exchanged a look of curiosity with Starsky. "I do?" Hutch asked. "And how do you know that?"
"All of my people know his image," Adriel explained. "When we need him, White Warrior will come to help us again."
"Your people?" Starsky asked. "Who are your people, Adriel?"
"Dine," Adriel answered proudly, purposefully slowing the pronunciation of the last letter from a capital E to a capital A. "The rest of the world would know us as the Navajo nation."
It was Hutch's turn to study Adriel. He had noticed the younger man was of Indian heritage - a trait that was simply factual. The habit of categorizing people was well within the repertoire of anyone who had worked as a cop. Hutch methodically clicked through several other characteristics he had noted about Adriel. The man was in his early to mid-twenties, physically fit, and just under six feet tall. Should Hutch ever see Adriel in a lineup, he would probably be able to remember his name.
It was then Starsky remembered the magazine he had found in the lobby. While he had originally intended to show it to Hutch, he now wanted Adriel's opinion about some of the photographs that accompanied the main article. "Do you know much about these?" Starsky asked, laying the magazine in front of Adriel. Adriel's eyes dropped to the table, quickly taking in the cover photographs. "Sure," Adriel said. "The Navajo language was not written down until a little more than a hundred years ago. Before that, we only had petroglyphs like these for written communication."
Starsky turned the page to reveal a full-size color photo of a petroglyph that was similar to the man-like creature from the sand storm. "Ah yes," Adriel commented. "A skinwalker - or He Who Shall Not Be Named."
"A Skinwalker? What's a Skinwalker?" Starsky asked.
"In short, an evil spirit," Adriel explained. "A Navajo witch doctor of sorts - someone who was good at one time but fell into evil ways instead."
"Evil ways?" Starsky repeated.
"Yeah, anything - any act - that's pure evil really," Adriel said. "The more gruesome a task, the deeper the level of betrayal, the better in the eyes of a Skinwalker. Starsky took that moment to gauge Hutch's reaction to the photographs as well as the entire conversation. His partner looked exactly the way Hutch often did when he heard something new or unexpected - thoughtful, introspective, and interested in hearing more.
"What does White Warrior have to do with any of this?" Starsky asked, returning his attention to Adriel.
"He's our greatest protector," Adriel explained patiently. "Our people know that when we need him, White Warrior will return to avenge the evil of the Skinwalkers," Adriel explained. "He's the only one who truly can."
Chapter 6: A Flicker of Hope
Two hours later Starsky, Hutch, and Adriel were still sitting together in the lounge. While Adriel's shift had been scheduled to end only twenty minutes after Starsky and Hutch first entered the bar, a kindly manager had properly assessed the situation and excused Adriel from his duties a bit early. A new server brought them an assortment of prize-winning beer on tap followed by two baskets of fries and a complimentary tray of stuffed mushrooms. Although Hutch had noticed Adriel looking sideways at him more than once, the younger man seemed to have accepted that Hutch was not the great White Warrior of his ancestral legends. At least that's what Hutch assumed.
"When did the robberies start?" Starsky asked. "Approximately."
"About six months ago," Adriel replied. "The fires started a couple of weeks after that." Starsky added the information to the notes he'd compiled in a small notebook.
After learning that Starsky and Hutch were both detectives, Adriel decided to confide in them about a series of crimes that had plagued local businesses throughout the county. At first, people made no connection between any of the events. Gradually, people began to notice several unsettling similarities. Many of the business owners were older Navajo people - residents of the city who owned businesses and paid their taxes but were often distrustful of modern-day law enforcement. They kept their heads down and tried to solve many of their problems alone. Unfortunately, a series of robberies and unexplained fires had begun to escalate in the last few weeks. One fire had been set directly across the street at the location of one robbery assumedly to keep the first respondents busy while thieves entered the back door of a store and took whatever they wanted.
Several business owners were close to wit's end by the time someone swore they saw a Skinwalker leaving the scene of one fire. It was then the Navajo people began to fear the worst, worrying that an ancient evil had somehow been unleashed on their entire community. Rumors of a Skinwalker had sparked and spread wildly throughout the area. With no way of knowing how or when it might end, people clutched at their faith and prayed to their ancestors for help - the kind of help that could overpower a Skinwalker.
"And the burglaries and fires were all reported to law enforcement?" Hutch asked.
"I'm not sure about that," Adriel admitted. "Truthfully, I doubt it. A lot of my people just don't believe the white community can help them, especially if they suspect a Skinwalker is involved. It's not that they don't want help. It's more like they don't think anyone outside of the Navajo nation can truly understand how to help."
Hutch was rubbing his chin as he considered the information Adriel had shared with him and Starsky. To say the least, it was a unique set of circumstances. Hutch was motivated to be helpful although he wasn't yet sure how to go about it.
A waiter was fast approaching carrying a large, hardbound book in one hand. Arriving at their table, he handed the heavy volume to Adriel. "Thanks," Adriel said, accepting the book as if he'd been expecting it.
"My pleasure," the other man said, picking up the empty dishes while he was there. "Can I get you anything else? Another beer, perhaps?"
"One more all around," Hutch said, meeting Starsky's gaze. "I suspect we're going to be here a while longer."
"Coming right up," the server announced. As the server walked away, Adriel laid the book on the table and began flipping through the pages. "We have a library here at the motel," Adriel explained. "It's small by library standards, but it does have some books that are great local references. I asked our server to bring this one to me because I wanted to show you something." Adriel seemed to know exactly what he was looking for. Stopping mid-way through the volume, he rotated the book ninety degrees and pushed it toward Hutch. Looking down, Hutch was stunned by what he saw. If he didn't know better, even Hutch would have sworn he was looking at a portrait of himself.
The image in Adriel's book was clad from head to toe in prehistoric-style animal skins and wearing a bear claw necklace - the mark of a true warrior's armor if there was one. A shock of light blonde hair protruded from beneath the furry headdress - the sky blue eyes of a caucasian man stared back at him from the portrait. From the tiny furrow between his eyebrows to the slight lift of his nose, the man could have traded places with Hutch without anyone noticing. If Hutch had ever shared the same likeness, body, or spirit with anyone else on earth, the man in the painting was inarguably the one. Hutch's jaw dropped as his eyes wandered over the photograph. When he had been quiet for too long, Starsky grew nervous waiting.
"Hutch?" Starsky asked from across the table. "What is it?"
Hutch looked up, his eyes wide with astonishment. Starsky could read the remaining emotions in quick succession - confusion and disbelief tinged with a measurable amount of fear. Unable to wait any longer, Starsky reached for the book to see for himself.
"Jesus," Starsky whispered a few moments later.
"No," Adriel countered softly. "Ligai Naabaahil - White Warrior of my people - The Chosen One. Perhaps now you can understand."
Starsky invited Adriel to meet him and Hutch around 8:00 the following morning. With much more to discuss, they had agreed to reconvene the following day. Starsky just hoped the kid would show. Their chance meeting had been extremely enlightening - so much so that Starsky knew Hutch had been greatly shaken by what they had learned. Hutch's resemblance to the man known to the Navajo nation as White Warrior was indeed startling. Neither of them could fault anyone else familiar with the legend for making the same mistake.
In the process of talking to Adriel, they had also learned quite a bit about what sounded like a well-organized crime ring. Starsky knew from experience when a suspicious situation landed right in your lap, you were wise to take a close look at it. "Did you get any sleep at all last night?" Starsky asked, looking at Hutch over another cup of coffee. Starsky had noticed the dark circles that underscored Hutch's eyes.
Hutch took a deep breath before answering. "Oh yeah, I did. It just took some time to shut down my brain. Eventually, I couldn't stay awake any longer."
Starsky knew that much was true. As they were ultra-sensitive to each other's moods, Starsky could almost hear the gears turning in Hutch's head from only a few feet away. When fatigue eventually overtook him, Starsky fell asleep hoping that Hutch could do the same. "Ah, there he is," Starsky said, spotting Adriel as he entered the dining room.
"Good morning," the younger man said, slightly out of breath as he extended his hand to Starsky. "I'm sorry I'm a little late."
"No problem," Starsky said, pleased that Adriel had kept his word. Perhaps they would get a break in this frustrating situation after all.
"Hutch," Adriel added, turning to shake Hutch's hand. "I'm glad to see you again." Observing Hutch in full daylight, Adriel found himself comparing the man's appearance to the moment they had first met a few hours earlier. There were subtle differences, he decided, but not many. Hutch's likeness to the warrior/savior of his ancestors was still downright disquieting.
"We were just about to order some breakfast," Starsky said. "Please join us." Over coffee, eggs, and toast, the three men continued the thread of their conversation regarding robbery and arson throughout the county. Gathering more information, Starsky added a few notes to the log he'd already started.
"I know the owner of the clothing store that was robbed," Adriel offered between bites. "If you'd like me to call him first, I think he'd be willing to talk to you."
"That sounds good. Please tell him that Starsky and I want to help, but we need to see first-hand what we're dealing with."
"He has a pregnant wife and two small children to protect," Adriel added. "The last few weeks have been very hard on him and his family. I think he's willing to try almost anything that would keep his family safe and his business open."
"That bad, huh?" Hutch asked.
Adriel nodded. "And I need to tell you something else. He is also the individual who saw the Skinwalker the night his store was robbed.
Hutch's eyebrows lifted with interest. "Is he?" Hutch asked, genuinely intrigued. "Well, we'd love to talk to him, right, Starsk?"
"Yes, we would," Starsky confirmed, watching Adriel closely.
"I had a feeling you would say that. But before we go... I don't mean to be disrespectful, yet I know it isn't easy for white men to understand the ways of my people." Starsky and Hutch waited patiently for Adriel to continue. "I can't tolerate seeing him or his family mistreated," the younger man added, glancing nervously between the two detectives. "I don't mean to suggest that either of you would do that. However, I can't lead you to him unless I'm sure that you're willing to help me protect him."
"Protect him?" Hutch asked gently. "Protect him from what exactly?"
"From more shallow scrutiny, I guess," Adriel replied. "As I said earlier - I know it's difficult for people outside of the Navajo nation to understand our ways. "I'm just trying to tell you that my friend isn't crazy. If he says he saw a Skinwalker, then I believe him."
"Adriel," Starsky interrupted. "You do remember what I told you Hutch and I saw in the desert yesterday, right?"
Adriel nodded vigorously. "Yes, and that's why I think he'll talk to you, especially after he gets a good look at Hutch." Starsky glanced at his partner knowing that Adriel's comment would be a direct hit to Hutch's tender psyche. Hutch was still grappling with everything he had learned the evening before. Although Adriel had provided a partial explanation, a multitude of additional questions still lingered. Starsky wasn't at all sure where this unusual and thus far unofficial investigation might lead them.
"So Adriel, give your friend a call while Hutch and I wait here. If he's willing to talk to us, we'll all go visit him."
Chapter 7: A Closer Look
The morning sun felt good where it filtered through the window glass and landed on Starsky's arm. As he eased the Torino into traffic, Starsky hoped the clear skies and sunshine would hold for the rest of the day. If yesterday was any indication of life in the desert, he'd seen enough of funnel clouds and sand storms to last him a lifetime.
"The exit is only a couple of miles down the highway," Adriel said from the back seat. "There's a large billboard on the right just before the turn-off. I'll let you know when we're close." Once Adriel's friend agreed to meet with them, he and Hutch thought it was best to do so right away. As they drove, Adriel provided more information about the man they were going to interview.
Jacob Nez was thirty years old. Born and raised on a cattle ranch near Victorville, he'd spent the majority of his life in the same community. After a brief stint in the Army, he'd returned home to marry his high school sweetheart.
"Jacob and his wife opened a clothing and general sundries store in a building he inherited from his grandfather," Adriel said. "The business was doing well until the robberies started. Once the fire happened, people were too afraid to leave their homes. Business plummeted, and things began to tighten for him financially. Unless something changes soon, he's afraid he won't be able to keep the store open."
Hutch looked thoughtful as he listened to Adriel's characterization of his friend. Although Hutch was not raising a family, he could well-sympathize with the other man's plight. There had to be something he and Starsky could do to help. "How do you think he feels about meeting with us?" Hutch asked. "I mean - I know he's agreed to talk about the robbery. But the part involving the Skinwalker? Do you think he will trust us enough to talk about that?"
"I don't know," Adriel admitted candidly. "Although I'd say if he's willing to go this far, he's at least willing to try. I've told him about your experience near the caverns."
Following Adriel's directions, Starsky left the highway at the designated exit and followed the road to a four-way junction. "Turn west here. In another five miles or so you'll see the exit for the Springs."
Minutes later, the Torino rolled into the small community of Sunset Springs. A few people were visible on the sidewalks, most of whom looked with curiosity at the shiny red and white car as they drove by. After parking directly in front of the store, Starsky and Hutch followed Adriel through the front door of his friend's general store where Jacob met Adriel with open arms. "My brother, it's good to see you!" Jacob exclaimed, smiling broadly.
"It's good to see you, too," Adriel replied. It was then Jacob's attention moved suddenly to Hutch. Adriel had not pre-warned his friend about Hutch's uncanny resemblance to the legendary White Warrior. By the change of expression on Jacob's face, it was apparent he had noticed the similarities. Rendered momentarily speechless, Jacob looked again at Adriel, his eyes round with wonderment and brimming with questions. Adriel smiled gently in return as he explained. "Yes, I know what you're thinking, Jacob. He's here to help you."
Once Jacob had adjusted to Hutch's features, he relaxed and allowed himself to be interviewed. Little by little, he described the robbery of his store in detail as it had occurred six weeks earlier - the same night the restaurant and gift shop across the street suffered heavy damage in a fire. While a full crew was busy fighting the fire, thieves broke through the back door of Jacob's store and relieved him of about a third of his overall inventory. Whoever had orchestrated the theft seemed to know exactly what they were looking for as only a select assortment of high-end clothing and a majority of the pure silver jewelry was taken. The register was also relieved of a modest amount of petty cash, all likely accomplished in a matter of a few minutes. Jacob had been assisting with the firefight when the robbery occurred. By the time he realized what had happened to his property, the thieves were long gone.
Wracked with anxiety and unable to sleep, Jacob had been awake all that night searching for answers. Working alone in the dark, he found a set of boot prints in the loose dirt directly behind his store. With the aid of a flashlight, he followed the prints to the end of the block where the trail ended abruptly at the edge of the pavement. As he was turning to leave, the sound of something new caught his attention. Looking up, his eyes landed on a distinct and terrifying image from about thirty feet away. If only for a moment, Jacob wondered if this was how he was going to die.
Upright and facing him on two legs, fangs bared, with a low, rumbling growl emanating from its throat stood the most menacing of figures straight out of Jacob's childhood legends. The wicked, yellow eyes traveled right through him, causing his knees to nearly buckle. The message was clear. Do not follow, do not pursue - do not attempt to solve this crime yourself. The worst will happen if you attempt to go further.
And at least for that night, Jacob had listened. After a short but tense stand-off, the Skinwalker turned its back and hurried away. Jacob went straight home to his family, thankful that all of them were safe. Thus was the story Jacob had shared with his close friend, Adriel - the same story he was attempting to repeat for the detectives from Bay City.
"Jacob, explain to me what you believe you saw that night," Hutch said. "It isn't important whether you think I believe you. Just tell me what you saw and what you believe it means." Jacob studied Detective Hutchinson carefully before replying. While he had no idea if Hutch was anything at all like the heroic White Warrior of his ancestor's stories, the man's sincerity was easy to interpret. With a nod of encouragement from Adriel, Jacob laid aside his most ingrained feelings and proceeded to open his heart.
"I think someone intended me to believe I had seen a Skinwalker. I'll admit I did think he was the Evil One at first sight. Now that I've had more time to step back and analyze things, I think there's much more to it than that." Everyone, including Starsky, looked expectantly at Hutch. Hutch's attention remained riveted on Jacob. "More as in what?" Hutch asked.
"As in why would a Skinwalker care anything about my little business - or anyone else's for that matter?" Jacob asked. "My ancestors knew nothing of the kind of world we live in today - nothing at all about today's worldly goods." Starsky could see that Jacob had scored points for astuteness with Hutch.
"I've had similar thoughts," Hutch admitted, pausing as if to clarify with himself exactly what he wanted to say. "Jacob, I suspect someone is working hard to make both of us think we've seen something that we haven't. Perhaps someone wants both of us out of the way?"
Starsky's eyes remained on Hutch as he contemplated what his partner had just revealed. Hutch had always been good at introspection and the art of listening to others. He should have realized that Hutch would have already composed a working theory about the events of the last two days. "Jacob, do you have any enemies?" Hutch asked calmly.
The younger man looked surprised, then thoughtful as he considered the question. "No, or at least I don't think so," he answered, glancing at Adriel. "Although after the last few weeks, I'm not as sure about a lot of things as I used to be." Jacob paused before adding, "Let's say that I do have an enemy of some kind. Exactly how and why would that involve you, Detective Hutchinson?"
"I don't know yet," Hutch admitted, glancing at Starsky. "While I've certainly wracked up my share of enemies over the years, I don't think any of them know where I am right now."
Starsky realized with a jolt that his partner had also drawn an important conclusion. Both Hutch and Jacob had been targeted in a strikingly similar fashion. As was often the case, Hutch had set aside his fear and personal opinions while he looked at the evidence and uncovered something valuable. It was one of the qualities that allowed Hutch to be so good at his job. "I'm wondering if some of the other robbery victims would agree to talk to me and Starsky," Hutch said. "And if possible, I'd like to interview the people who experienced the fire the night your store was robbed."
"Well, I don't know the exact location of all of the robberies, but I do know of a few," Jacob replied. "The others wouldn't be hard to find. As you know, the fire was right across the street. If I talk to the owner first, I think he'd be willing to meet with you."
Glancing at Starsky, Hutch understood his partner's silence was an extension of mutual agreement. In the last few minutes, Starsky had caught up with Hutch's mindset. Wherever the evidence might lead, Hutch had found a good starting point. "Can you talk to him right now?" Starsky asked, feeling suddenly antsy.
"Yeah, I think so," Jacob said. "Give me a few minutes and I'll see if I can find him. I'll take Adriel with me." As the two men walked away, Starsky turned to Hutch. "Alright, I know you're holding something back," he said softly. "What is it?"
Hutch's best attempt at innocence left Starsky unmoved. For several long moments, it was a quiet standoff until Hutch decided to be forthright. "Alright," Hutch began, looking his partner in the eye. "I noticed something interesting just before we drove out here."
"And?" Starsky answered, holding Hutch's gaze.
"I think someone is tailing us," Hutch admitted, pausing for Starsky's reaction.
As expected, the information made Starsky visibly angry. "Tailing us?" Starsky asked. "Since when?"
"Claremont!" Starsky almost hissed. Hutch knew his partner would not appreciate knowing any information had been kept from him.
"Starsk, I didn't put it together myself until after we got here. Adriel was with us so I decided not to mention it. You know I'd have told you eventually."
Starsky had already been coveting the uncomfortable feeling that Hutch had somehow landed in the crosshairs of something sinister. Hearing that Hutch may have learned something new and kept it to himself did not make him feel any better. Starsky fixed his partner with a look that left little to the imagination. The message was clear. Tell me or else, Hutchinson.
Hutch couldn't stop the smile that threatened to break his composure. Starsky could be so intense at times. "Or else what?" Hutch asked, handing Starsky the challenge. "Cool your jets and I'll tell you when I can - if you behave."
Chapter 8: A Pattern Materializes
Meeting with the restaurant owner had proven to be beneficial. An older man nearing his retirement years, the fire had forced Manuel Cruz to make several unforeseen decisions. Anxious to put the entire experience behind him, he was willing to meet with anyone who could help him put closure on a bad experience.
The fire had heavily damaged the interior of Manuel's restaurant. Proper insurance claims had been filed, the worst of the charred debris had been cleared away, and workmen had started to repair the destruction. Manuel was hoping to reopen by the end of the month if everything continued to go smoothly.
Adriel and Jacob had wisely prepared Manuel for his first meeting with the tall, blonde detective from Bay City. Understanding how unsettling first impressions might be otherwise, they had warned Manuel that Hutch bore an unmistakable resemblance to the White Warrior of ancient tribal legends. The similarities were so striking that it made not discussing it in advance unavoidable. Consequently, Manuel entered the room as prepared as he could be to meet with Detectives Starsky and Hutchinson. Despite a measured amount of careful preparation, a level of amazement still resonated on his face as Hutch stood up to shake his hand.
Starsky watched with interest as Hutch introduced himself. While he now had a better understanding of why some people reacted so strongly to meeting Hutch, he was starting to feel like a roadie out on tour with the latest rock star. About the only thing missing was a throng of screaming young girls in the background.
After another hour of discussion and collecting notes, Starsky and Hutch both felt they had enough information to open a preliminary investigation. Although things would remain casual for now, Hutch had assured Manuel they would implement a formal case should they uncover enough evidence to warrant one.
Manuel appeared to be pleased with the time he had spent with the detectives. After completing their interview, he walked them across the street to his restaurant to see firsthand the repair work in progress. Large, gaping holes were visible in a few areas where the remaining drywall needed to be installed. The drywall repair was waiting on electrical placements, all of which were anticipated sometime within the week.
"What kind of food do you serve in your restaurant?" Starsky asked.
"Mexican cuisine mostly," Manuel answered proudly. "However, I also serve American basics - hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and french fries are what families are looking for when they sit down to eat with their children."
"And tacos?" Starsky asked hopefully.
"Of course tacos," Manuel replied. Manuel was tempted to add that no self-respecting Mexican restaurant could remain open and not have tacos on the menu.
"Manuel makes the best tacos anywhere around," Jacob commented. "I can't wait for him to start serving them again." An hour later, Starsky and Hutch shook hands with Jacob and Manuel as they prepared to leave Sunset Springs. "We'll be in touch," Hutch assured them, hoping he sounded as sincere as he felt.
Jacob and Manuel watched with a growing sense of awe as the detectives walked away with Adriel in tow. While it wasn't clear what their involvement might mean for their immediate futures, both men had accepted the blonde man's unexpected appearance in the middle of their lives. For them, it wasn't a difficult decision, but rather a matter of destiny. The great White Warrior they were taught to revere all of their lives had returned to help them as he'd promised.
"Ok, now what?" Starsky asked.
The Torino was stopped at a four-way intersection with miles of open desert visible in either direction. Hutch was sitting with a road map in his lap with four different areas circled in red ink. The look Hutch exchanged with Starsky cautioned his partner to be patient a little longer. "Adriel," Hutch began, pointing to the map. "Of these locations, which one would you say is the most remote?"
"The most remote?" Adriel repeated, peering over Hutch's shoulder. "Offhand, I'd say the one on the upper right."
"That would be my guess, too," Hutch agreed. Starsky was studying his partner with a sense of mildly renewed suspicion, wary of whatever else Hutch may have been cooking up on his own. He was close to demanding an explanation when Hutch ended the suspense instead. "Starsk, remember when I told you that I thought we were being tailed?" Hutch asked.
"Yes," Starsky answered. Adriel watched in fascination as a new level of communication traveled rapidly between the two men.
"Well, I confirmed that suspicion in Sunset Springs," Hutch added, knowing Starsky would not be impressed. "I didn't say anything until now because I didn't want anyone to know I had noticed. Sitting here, with no one else visible in either direction, I'm a lot more confident that we haven't blown our cover. The flip side is I do think someone is tailing us."
"What did you see?" Starsky asked calmly.
"An old blue and white Buick, a distinctive-looking car if there ever was one, has been everywhere we've been since we left the shopping plaza in Claremont. At least, that's when I first noticed the make and model. I saw the same vehicle parked in Victorville, although not at the motel. And about a half-hour ago, the same car was parked on a side street in Sunset Springs."
Starsky frowned as he listened to Hutch. "It could belong to some tourists just traveling the same direction as us," he speculated.
"Yep, it could. I wish I thought so, but my gut tells me we've got ourselves a tail, Starsky." Adriel was looking a little somber as Hutch turned to him. "Do you know anyone who owns an older blue and white Buick?" Hutch asked. "By older, I mean classic - like from the fifties."
"No, I don't know anyone who owns a car like that," Adriel replied. "It's not something I've noticed around town either." Hutch nodded as if the information did not surprise him. "Ok - if I see it again, rest assured I'll point it out. From now on, you can both be on the lookout for a vehicle that fits that description." Hutch paused, allowing Adriel a chance to process the abundance of things he had learned recently. "Would you like us to take you back to Victorville, Adriel?"
"No," Adriel answered quickly, squaring his shoulders. "No, I'd rather go with you." Hutch looked at Starsky as if gauging his opinion. His partner simply shrugged his shoulders - an outward acknowledgment that having Adriel along was ok with him.
"We don't know what we might be driving into, Adriel," Hutch explained. "It's always possible that things can turn dangerous in a flash. If something does go wrong, our necks are way over the line should anything happen to you. That being said, I can promise you that Starsky and I will do everything in our power to protect you."
Adriel stared into the cool, blue eyes of the man he had come to view as the living example of a modern-day warrior. Despite his hard-earned college education, nothing could truly separate Adriel from the ancient traditions he held most sacred. He was convinced that Detective Hutchinson was indeed the Chosen One in every way that mattered - a man of great strength, fortitude, and honor sent by the Great Spirit in a time of need. Adriel wouldn't dream of missing the opportunity to walk alongside such a man. "I want to go with you," Adriel reiterated. "Please, Hutch. It's important to me. I want to be able to help in some way."
Adriel nearly trembled any time Hutch looked at him too directly. The younger man was not reacting out of fear - it was more like a feeling of reverence washed over him any time he felt himself fall under Hutch's scrutiny. Adriel prayed he would be able to measure up should he be allowed to accompany the two detectives.
"Starsky and I want your help," Hutch said, hoping to reassure the younger man. "I just have to warn you that it won't be without a certain amount of risk."
"I understand," Adriel answered firmly. "Things are risky for a lot of people right now - good men like Jacob and Manuel whose lives have been forever affected by bad circumstances. They don't deserve the awful things that happened to them. If there is anything I can do to help, I don't care about the risk."
Hutch looked at Starsky smugly - an unspoken affirmation passing between them that he had been right about Adriel's attributes. Hutch suspected the younger man had enough determination and pure, raw courage to accompany them into the unknown, not to mention a deeply ingrained understanding of the area and its inhabitants. If Starsky'd had any lingering doubts, Adriel had just erased them. "Ok," Hutch said. "Starsky and I have a couple of ideas we'd like to check out. If you're willing to help us, we'd like to get started."
Adriel broke into a broad smile, pleased beyond words that his wish would be realized. "I'm willing," Adriel answered, unable to contain his excitement. "Where do we start?"
Hutch reached for the road map he had been holding earlier. "Remember the most remote location we were talking about?" Hutch asked.
Adriel nodded. "Starsky and I want to start there."
The red circles on Hutch's map represented a series of home burglaries between Sunset Springs and Victorville. Starsky was interested in the most remote location because he thought it might offer unintentional clues. "People commonly get sloppy if they think they've gotten away with something," Starsky explained. "That's why I want to have a look at that particular ranch - to put myself in the same frame of mind as if I was planning on burglarizing a property. Sometimes you can learn something if you look at things from that perspective."
Adriel appeared intrigued as he considered Starsky's explanation.
"Do you know who owns this particular property?" Hutch asked, pointing to the last red circle.
"Yes, or at least I know who they are," Adriel replied. "I've been to that ranch a few times as a child, but not in recent years."
"Same as before - do you think the owners would talk to us if you're present?" Hutch asked.
"Maybe, although I doubt the owner will be home. After the last robbery, the woman who lives there was too frightened to stay. She moved to Arizona to be with her family until they can decide what to do with the ranch."
Starsky and Hutch both looked thoughtful. "I still say we check it out first?" Starsky said, looking at Hutch for confirmation.
"Yep, I agree," Hutch said. "Depending on what we find, we can work our way through the other locations on our way back to town."
Starsky glanced at the map before shifting into gear and turning south. "How far is the ranch?" he asked, glancing at Adriel in the back seat.
"About ten miles, give or take. If I remember correctly, this place is pretty much the end of the road. Once we're out there, there's nowhere else to go, at least by way of a paved road."
"That almost sounds prophetic," Hutch commented.
Starsky might have laughed if he didn't think Hutch might be right. "So here we go, Adriel," Starsky said. "My best advice is to get a good grip and hang on 'cause we might be in for a bumpy ride."
The half-hearted warning caused Adriel to clamp down on his determination. For too many months, several friends and a few family members had lived with a sense of uncertainty and fear that had profoundly interrupted their lives. The continual worry was never far beneath the surface - ever-present, watchful, and ready for the next opportunity. Adriel had been at a loss as to how to help until the night he met detectives Starsky and Hutchinson. One look at Hutch and Adriel knew what he had to do. "I'm ready, Detective Starsky," Adriel said. "Let's go."
"That's it," Adriel said, pointing to a large, gated access road in the distance.
Starsky slowed the Torino as they approached the long, dirt driveway. Even from a distance, the house wore a certain look of abandonment and disrepair. Pulling the Torino to a full stop, Starsky glanced at Hutch as they both assessed how best to handle their approach. "Wait here," Starsky said to Adriel, climbing out of the car.
"It isn't locked," Hutch commented, joining Starsky at the gate. After lifting an unsecured latch, the entire gate opened easily with just a slight push. Starsky watched in surprise as the heavy, metal gate fully opened, providing plenty of room for the Torino to pass through.
"Saves us the trouble of breaking in," Starsky commented, winking at Hutch as he turned toward the car.
"I don't see any No Trespassing signs either," Hutch added, his eyes traveling over the landscape. "In fact, I don't see much of anything."
After reclosing the gate, Starsky drove toward the one-level ranch house, ever watchful for any sign of activity. A two-story barn was visible about twenty yards away from the main house, a common and necessary structure in an otherwise often harsh environment. "Look familiar?" Hutch asked.
"Yeah, it looks much the same as the last time I saw it," Adriel replied. "Just a little more run down maybe." Starsky parked directly in front of the house, grinning when he saw an old wooden hitching post near the front porch.
"I used to come out here and ride when I was a kid," Adriel commented, guessing what Starsky had observed. "The family who lived here owned several horses back then. Their grandson was a good friend of mine."
"That must have been a fun experience for you," Starsky commented, smiling at the younger man.
"It was. Anything I know about horses nowadays - well, I owe it all to them."
Hutch climbed the steps of the porch and approached the wooden front door. All around him he saw traces of what had once been a happy home. A welcome sign attached to the front door was upside down and dangling by a single piece of wire. The cobwebs were thick and undisturbed in nearly every corner of the porch. Although he didn't expect anyone to answer the door, Hutch still knocked and waited for a response. When there was none, he tried the doorknob and was surprised to find it open. "Hello?" Hutch called out, stepping through the front door. There was no reply, making it obvious that no one was there. "Or at least that's what we're supposed to think."
Starsky and Adriel followed Hutch through the open door and into the great room. "Does the house look anything like it used to?" Hutch asked, turning to Adriel.
"Yeah, it sure does. All of the furniture seems to be in about the same place as when I was a kid." Adriel's eyes traveled swiftly around the room before landing on an antique clock above the fireplace. "I always loved that clock. It looks like it's still running, too."
Hutch walked to the opposite side of the room and peered through a western-facing window. The view was predominantly of the sideyard and barn. As he turned around, Hutch noticed a dusty piece of clay pottery sitting on a table near the window. Reaching out, he ran his fingertips across the smooth, glossy finish, appreciating how hard someone had worked to add such a special touch. Initially, Hutch resisted the urge to pick up the vase. Although his self-control worked for a few moments, the impulse to handle the ceramic proved too tempting in the end.
Starsky wandered to the opposite side of the room where he noticed what looked like a doorway to the kitchen. Entering the hallway, he halted mid-step after spotting a butter knife thickly coated with something and discarded on the countertop - as if someone had been interrupted in the process of making a sandwich. He opened his mouth to warn Hutch just as the situation exploded around them. Too late, Starsky realized they were not alone after all.
As Hutch bent over to put down the vase, a bullet ripped through the air - cutting across the room and shattering the window behind him. Hutch cried out as he fell to the floor, a pile of broken glass landing on top of him.
"Adriel! Get down!" Starsky yelled, pulling his gun and dropping to the floor. Flattening himself against the wall, Starsky called to Hutch.
"I'm alright!" Hutch yelled back. Hearing Hutch's voice was all that Starsky needed. A sense of relief washed over him, releasing his biggest worry and allowing him to focus on the shooter. As Starsky eased his way toward the hall, he heard what sounded like the roar of a motor from somewhere outside. Jumping up, he ran down the hall toward the noise.
Hutch was struggling to free his Magnum from its holster before he rolled onto his belly. Searching desperately for Adriel, he spied the younger man crawling toward him. As soon as Adriel was close enough, Hutch grabbed him by the collar and pulled him to safety behind a sofa. "Stay here!" Hutch ordered.
Adriel nodded, watching in dazed fascination as Hutch, bleeding and wounded, pulled himself to a crouching position. Only then did Hutch notice the four-inch-long shard of glass protruding from his right bicep. Grimacing, he paused long enough to pull it out. Tossing the broken glass on the floor, he gave Adriel one last look to assure himself the kid was alright before leaping to his feet and running after Starsky.
"Holy shit," Adriel whispered, watching Hutch go. Closing his eyes against the fear that had erupted in his gut, he asked, "What the hell just happened here?" Adriel tried to calm himself as he huddled behind the sofa and listened for clues as to Hutch's whereabouts. He hoped there wouldn't be more gunfire. "Ligai Naabaahil," Adriel murmured fearfully, balling each hand into a tight fist. "Beloved Ligai, I'm begging you. Please help us! Please! We need you so much."
Chapter 9: Confronting the Enemy
Starsky turned at the sound of running footsteps to see his partner charging toward him. The surge of relief that encompassed him was quickly overshadowed by the blood he saw running down Hutch's arm. As Hutch was obviously also functional, Starsky would wait for a proper explanation.
"One guy, mid-thirties, dark brown hair - apparently had a dune buggy or maybe an ATV ready to go out behind the barn," Starsky began. "He jumped on whatever it was and disappeared over those dunes. There's no way we can catch him on foot much less in the car."
Unable to overlook the blood any longer, Starsky reached for Hutch to make sure his partner was not badly wounded. Understanding what Starsky wanted, Hutch nodded vigorously before waving him away. Starsky complied - for now. "If you cover me, I can make it to the barn and check for anyone else." "Go!" Hutch urged, positioning himself to provide Starsky's cover.
Starsky turned and ran through the open back door, down the steps, and across the dirt yard. Knowing Hutch was covering his back gave him the confidence he needed to plunge ahead. Reaching the barn, he threw open the double doors, then hesitated, half-expecting to be met by some sort of confrontation. When none came, Starsky dropped to the ground and quickly disappeared behind the heavy, double doors.
Taking his queue from Starsky, Hutch rushed through the back door and across the yard, mimicking the pattern Starsky had just run. Once he reached the same set of broad, double doors, he flattened himself against them and listened. Hutch was about to enter the barn when Starsky interrupted him instead. "All clear, Hutch!" Starsky emerged through one of the doors, taking Hutch by the elbow and pulling him inside. "Sit here," he instructed curtly, guiding Hutch to a nearby bale of hay. Starsky worked quickly to inspect Hutch's arm, ripping open the shirt sleeve for a better look. "This isn't from a bullet," Starsky said, frowning.
"No, it's from the broken window. When the glass shattered, some of it hit me. And Adriel is ok," Hutch added quickly, "but we need to get back in there."
"And we will," Starsky answered, taking a final look at the wound. "We also need to find something to take care of this. We can keep an eye on Adriel at the same time." Helping Hutch to his feet, Starsky paused again just inside the door - looking and listening before either of them ventured out into the open. Sensing that things were still calm, Starsky pushed open the door and headed for the house, pulling Hutch alongside him. "Hurry," Starsky said. Breaking into a sprint, Hutch covered the area between the house and the barn in short order, re-entering the house through the back door. Before calling out to Adriel, both men made a quick, albeit thorough raid on the remaining rooms they had not seen before. Once they were confident there was no one else was in the house, they returned to the living room together.
"Adriel, it's Hutch! You can come out now." Adriel peeked around the corner of the sofa to see both detectives approaching from down the hall. Relieved, he hauled himself off the floor.
"Are you alright?" Hutch asked, helping him to stand.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Adriel said. "A little shaken, but thanks to you and Starsky, nothing worse. How's your arm?"
"It's just a little cut," Hutch replied, brushing off the question. Adriel peered at Detective Hutchinson, his eyebrows lifting in appreciation of the rather impressive simplification. Bending over, he retrieved the bloody shard of glass from the floor and showed it to Starsky. "This is what's responsible for that 'little cut'."
Starsky sighed as he saw the true extent of the razor-sharp piece of glass. "Good God, Hutch," Starsky exclaimed, eyeing his partner more critically. "You're lucky it wasn't worse. Have a seat while we wrap up your arm. Are you hurt anywhere else?"
"I'll find something," Adriel offered, heading for the bathroom.
"Well, someone was here," Starsky said as he finished bandaging Hutch's arm. "And I don't like the fact that they have a head start."
"Neither do I," Hutch admitted. "We apparently surprised them."
"It also means they have something to hide," Starsky added. "And a reason to run... I say we take a better look around the general area before we head back to the motel. They couldn't go that far on whatever they were driving."
Hutch looked at Adriel as if he was suddenly considering a new angle. "What else is around here, Adriel?" Hutch asked. "I mean - if I wanted to hide myself or a lot of something else, where would I go?"
Adriel looked puzzled as he considered Hutch's question. "Well, as I said earlier, there just isn't much out there beyond those hills," Adriel replied. "No paved roads, a lot of sand, and miles of open desert." Adriel's eyes drifted to a side window as he appeared to look deeper into hills. "There are a bunch of caves nearby which I always assumed were part of the ranch. I used to play in them when I was a kid."
Oh great, more caves! Starsky thought, mildly alarmed even before he chanced a look at Hutch. Starsky was refolding what was left of a roll of gauze when it occurred to him that Hutch was deadly serious. If Hutch had asked the question, he would want to know the answer. Oh, damn. He's going to want to find those caves.
As if Hutch had heard him thinking, he turned to face his partner. "Yes, I want to see the caves, don't you?"
"Oh, of course," Starsky quipped. "Forgive me if I'm just a little hesitant to go spelunking again quite so soon. I'm still getting over our last adventure."
"This will be different," Hutch countered.
"God, I hope so," Starsky said, fixing his partner with a determined look. Halfway through his argument, Starsky noted the underlying expression on Hutch's face. It was that familiar, visible conviction that always revealed how deeply Hutch was invested in any case.
"You want these guys bad, don't you?" Starsky asked.
"Yeah," Hutch admitted. "I think anyone who has robbed and terrified an entire community for months deserves to be taken down, don't you?"
Adriel watched in fascination as Starsky and Hutch traded sporadically contrasting opinions. In a short amount of time, he had noticed subtle, but discernible differences between the two men. Each was an independent thinker, yet they were both united behind a singular cause. Each was also brimming with emotions they occasionally wore on their sleeves. And Hutch was a flesh and blood man who bled when he was wounded.
"Do you think you could find those caves again?" Hutch asked, turning to Adriel.
"Yeah, I think so. They're only about a quarter of a mile away - not too far off the main highway."
"I want to look around the house a little more before we leave," Hutch said. "We didn't get far before all hell broke loose. And after that, I want to find those caves."
"Hear that, Adriel? He wants a look at those caves," Starsky teased. "That means the two of us will have to go along just to make sure he doesn't get lost."
Adriel's eyes slid to Hutch as he gauged the other man's reaction. Whatever Adriel had been expecting, it wasn't a warm smile. "I led you into the last one, buddy - I can get you out of the next one just as well. Pay attention, and stick close. That's about all you need to know."
"This way," Adriel said, pushing ahead to where the trail seemed to end at the base of a large hill. "Once we get to the top, you can see the mouth of one or two caves that run alongside the opposite slope."
Crawling uphill at nearly a forty-five-degree angle, Adriel made it to the top with Starsky and Hutch staggered in a line behind him. All three men were noticeably winded by the time they reached the top. Pulling himself upright, Hutch was wiping the sweat off his forehead when Adriel pointed toward a shadowy clump of boulders half-hidden by sagebrush. "That's one of them," he declared, shading his eyes against the sun. "The rest are scattered along the hillside."
The entrance to the cave was so well camouflaged that Hutch struggled to see where Adriel was pointing. If not for the younger man's help, he might have missed it altogether. "And they're deep enough that someone can walk around inside?" Hutch asked.
"Yep, at least that's what I remember. It's been a few years since I was here, but I swear they were room-size."
Descending the opposite side of the slope proved to be a lot easier than getting to the top. Roughly halfway down, Starsky sat on his backside and slid the remainder while Hutch and Adriel managed to stay on their feet. The landing was a little rough, but everyone arrived intact. The same could not be said for the rear of Starsky's jeans. "Ohhh," that burned, Starsky said, wincing as he rubbed the dirt off his butt.
"I can see why," Hutch said. "Thanks to that last maneuver, Adriel and I both know you're wearing blue underwear."
"What!" Starsky shouted, craning his neck to get a look at his backside. "Any blood?"
"Nah, no blood. It's not that bad, Starsk. Just a silver dollar-size hole in your jeans is all." Adriel smirked as he turned toward the cave. Utilizing mostly rote memory and childhood recollections, he worked his way to the pile of dry weeds that covered the mouth of the cavern.
"It looks like someone was trying to hide this entrance," Hutch commented, grabbing handfuls of tumbleweeds and tossing them aside. "Or does this stuff just naturally pile up like this?"
"A little bit of both," Adriel said. "Though I do agree this seems unusually heavy." Little by little, the entrance to the cave was exposed. As they worked together to remove the last of the weeds, the entrance slowly materialized.
"Geez," Starsky said, his eyes roaming the width and breadth of the opening. "How can stuff this size be so hard to see from the outside?"
"It's just one of the mysteries that surround this part of the country," Adriel said. "I used to spend hours out here when I was a kid. I was always finding new places to hide." Unclipping a flashlight from his belt, Hutch paused inside the entrance to examine the loose, powdery dirt at their feet. It didn't take long to find what he was looking for. "Boot prints," Hutch said, pointing with the flashlight. "And those are fairly fresh. Looks like at least one other person knows all about this place."
"I'd say a whole lot of others," Starsky added, following a trail with his flashlight. "It almost looks like someone had a party in here."
"That's possible," Adriel chipped in. "A lot of high school kids come out here to drink and God-knows-what-else. I've only heard the rumors, of course," he grinned.
"Of course," Hutch replied. "So Adriel - if I was out here having the time of my life, where would the party go from here once I was bored?"
"On around the bend. Sort of like apartment hopping for adults... When you get tired of one place, you move on to the next hang-out."
Starsky busied himself sending his flashlight around the perimeter of the cave finding a little man-made trash in one corner, but nothing else of significance. The remainder of the debris looked like natural clutter - a few scattered rocks and sprigs of dead weeds. After leaving the cave, Starsky and Hutch followed Adriel around the base of the hill to the next one - a little smaller, a little harder to stand up in, and with no sign of recent activity. When the last of the brush had been pulled away from the third cavern and they stepped inside, they knew they had struck gold. Starsky whistled appreciatively as their flashlights landed on multiple piles of stacked boxes and an assortment of other goods. A wide variety of crates was cached around the walls almost filling the cavern. "Holy shit," Starsky exclaimed, locking eyes with Hutch. "I don't know how you did it, but your hunch was right on, buddy."
Hutch was quietly estimating the cumulative value as his eyes roamed over the likely stolen goods. Although there wasn't a quick way to estimate the total worth, he guessed the items would have a combined value of several thousand dollars. Whoever had stashed the stuff in the cave would certainly be back. Between now and whenever that happened, Hutch knew they had to find a way to intercept them. "Adriel, how many more caves are out here?" Hutch asked.
"Two - maybe three," Adriel replied. "I'm sure both are smaller than this one though."
"Can we see the entrance to this one from the other caves?" Hutch asked.
"Yeah, probably. Why?"
"I want to know what, if anything, is in those other caves, but I don't want to leave this one totally unguarded. Once we get a quick look at the others, we'll have a better idea how to handle this." Starsky had correctly guessed what Hutch was planning before he verbalized it for Adriel. Now that he was sure, Starsky voiced the next idea. "How about you run over there with Adriel, Hutch. I'll stay here just in case we get any nosy visitors."
"That works," Hutch said. "Adriel, come with me." Hutch wanted to sprint between the caves, but the ever-deepening sand made it difficult to move quickly. Settling for a slower, steady pace, he followed Adriel to the next cavern to find it wasn't much more than a large hole in the earth. After clarifying there was nothing stashed inside, a quick check of the two remaining caves revealed the same. "Well, it looks like someone took advantage of the biggest space and made use of it," Hutch said. "Now that we know more about what we're dealing with, we can call the local sheriff. Although there may be stolen property in other places as well, we have enough evidence right here to launch an investigation."
Adriel looked pleased to hear they had made measurable progress. "I don't know how much of this stuff belongs to Jacob, but it'll be good if we can return at least some of his merchandise."
"That's my hope, too," Hutch replied. "Come on. Let's head back to Starsky." As Hutch and Adriel left, Starsky wandered outside to wait. Glancing at the angle of the sun, he knew they were quickly losing daylight. They would soon have to leave the cave unattended while they reported it, or separate while someone stayed behind to stand guard. Starsky thought he knew how Hutch wanted to handle things. A few minutes later, Hutch and Adriel were trudging back through the sand in his direction. "This is the only stash," Hutch said, pointing at the cave behind Starsky. "Now that we're sure, I say one of us goes to notify the sheriff while the other stays here. What do you think?"
"I think the same," Starsky answered. "What about you, Adriel? Would you like to stay here or go?"
"Stay," the younger man said, his eyes moving to Hutch for approval. "Or do you think I should leave both of you here while I go call the sheriff?"
"No!" both detectives said simultaneously. "No, I'm afraid that's not safe for you, Adriel," Hutch explained. "You've already been seen with us, and judging by what happened at the house, I'm afraid that makes things more dangerous from this point on. Also, either one of us can talk to law enforcement in a way that you can't. Things will go faster if one of us makes the call."
"Do you want to stay here while I go?" Starsky asked.
"Yeah," Hutch answered, "I think that would work. Try the two-way radio first. You're likely to get through a lot easier. I remember seeing a telephone in the house, but we don't know if it works. If you can't get through on either one, I guess Adriel and I will have a slightly longer wait."
"Ok. The radio is probably the smartest bet," Starsky said. "If I'm not back in an hour - maybe an hour and a half or so - you'll know I had to drive to a phone. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Alright. Bring the cavalry," Hutch answered, smiling at his partner. Turning to Adriel one last time, Hutch asked, "Are you sure you don't want to go with Starsky?"
"Yes, I'm sure. I'm staying with you, Hutch." Starsky nodded and was turning to leave when something compelled him to pause and look back. Hutch was watching him go, his eyes reflective of what they both knew was a different level of danger. When Starsky hesitated, Hutch waved him on, an unspoken message passing between them.
Keep going, partner. I'll do my best to hold the line until you get back.
Starsky was cautious as he snuck through the back door of the ranch house. Beretta drawn, he moved carefully between rooms to assure himself that he was truly alone. Noting there was a telephone next to the sofa, he passed it by in preference for the radio. If he could find a clear frequency, he knew that would expedite things exponentially.
Running out the front door and down the steps, Starsky jumped into the Torino and reached for the radio. "Signal 13, signal13," Starsky began. "This is Zebra 3 of Bay City. Requesting urgent back-up for two out-of-county officers. Can anyone hear me? Over." Starsky released the call button and waited, praying that someone would hear him. After pausing for at least thirty seconds, he tried again. "Signal 13, signal 13 - can you hear me? Over." He was about to try for a third time when the radio crackled to life instead.
"Zebra 3, this is San Bernadino County. We can hear you. What is your situation? Over."
Thrilled with making contact with the local authorities, Starsky quickly explained the circumstances and outlined their general location. With his need for assistance granted, it wasn't long before he was talking directly to the county sheriff.
"Sergeant Starsky?" the sheriff asked. "Well, well, well - so we meet again." Surprised, it took Starsky a few moments to realize that he was talking to Sheriff Jacobs, a man he had become acquainted with the previous year. The two had met when Hutch had gone missing and was rescued nearly a hundred miles away in Sheriff Jacob's county. Mildly embarrassed, Starsky hadn't realized they were still in San Bernadino's boundaries.
Sheriff Jacobs was a man with sharp instincts and a knack for understanding something useful when he heard it. In the interest of saving time, he listened intently as Starsky explained the situation. It didn't take long for Jacobs to realize that Detective Starsky was offering him the strongest lead they'd had to date on a burglary ring his department had been chasing for months. "I know exactly where you are," Jacobs said, growing more excited. "And Sergeant - I can't tell you how much this would mean to the entire community if we could nail these guys."
"I understand, Sir," Starsky said. "Hutch and I are happy to help, but I need to warn you that we do have one civilian with us. It's because of his help that we've been able to locate the stolen property. Hutch and I will do all we can to protect him, but the sooner we get him out of here, the better.
"Understood. Starsky, I want you to wait for us inside the house," Jacobs ordered. "My deputies and I can be there in about twenty minutes. And Sergeant, I'll update your Captain about this situation. I know Harold Dobey would want to know what his detectives are up to."
Oh, terrific! Starsky thought, remembering the look of exasperation on Dobey's face just before the man all but threw them out of his office. "Great," Starsky choked out instead, imagining the look of panic on Hutch's face if he could have been part of the same conversation. "Actually, it would help a lot if you could update Dobey for us," Starsky said, deciding to play along. "As I mentioned earlier, we've been away from the department for a few days."
"I'll see you shortly," Jacobs said. "And thank you again. Now get inside the house and wait for us."
"Yes, Sir," Starsky replied.
Hutch turned his attention to the hills behind him, wondering not for the first time what might lay beyond. For some reason, he suspected the view from the top might be potentially informative. If he was going to find out, he had to move fast. It would be sundown in little more than an hour. "Adriel, do you have any idea what's south of here?" Hutch asked, pointing to the tall, sandy bluff that loomed behind them. Adriel shrugged his shoulders as he considered the question. "As I said earlier - a lot of sand and wide-open desert. Beyond that, I can't say I've had a reason to go out there in years."
"I'd like to take a look before it gets dark. I don't want to go far - just up to the top of that bluff so I can see what's behind us."
"Alright, but I wouldn't try to climb it from here," Adriel suggested. "There's a trail around the corner behind that last cave we were in. It would be a lot easier if you go that way."
"Sounds good," Hutch said, hauling himself to his feet. Locating the trail, Hutch proceeded to throw himself into the climb. It didn't take long before he knew that Adriel had been right about the terrain. There was just enough hard pack underfoot to make getting to the top a whole lot easier. Though his quadriceps were starting to burn by the time he reached the summit, the climb had required less effort than he'd expected. A little out of breath nonetheless, Hutch paused to gather his wits and gain control of his breathing.
Damn, maybe I need to cut down on the beer, Hutch thought. Yeah, like hell that'll happen, he concluded, straightening to his full height.
Peering south, Hutch narrowed his eyes and struggled to see across the desert. The uneven ground was broken by an occasional outcropping of rocky, basaltic soil, and a few stray saguaro cacti. There was no sign of anything man-made. Beyond that, Adriel was right. There really wasn't much to see. Turning his attention west, Hutch could barely make out the ranch house - the small, red blotch beside it suggested that the Torino was still parked where they'd left it. In Hutch's estimation, Starsky had been gone long enough to have tried both the phone and the car radio. As the Torino didn't appear to have moved, Hutch was hoping that meant Starsky had been successful in getting through to someone.
Hutch's eyes lingered on the house hoping for a glimpse of his partner. When none was forthcoming, he tried to contain his worry by envisioning what Starsky might be doing.
He's probably looking for something to eat, Hutch thought, the idea causing him to smile fondly. Come to think of it, I wouldn't pass up the chance to eat something either. It's been a long time since breakfast.
A welcome breeze brushed the back of his neck, causing the sweat to cool and stick to his skin. If not for the circumstances that had brought him here, Hutch would have lingered for the view alone. The sun had dropped low on the horizon, sending colors of bright light across the landscape that weren't seen any other time of the day. As yellow faded to shades of orange on the periphery, Hutch watched in fascination as the burst of color stretched as far as he could see. "A sunset like this one, Starsk," Hutch whispered, remembering his pact with his partner. "We need to find another sunset like this one."
Hutch was turning to go when he noticed the outline of a dark silhouette standing on the other end of the dune. Knowing he had walked the same trail only minutes earlier, Hutch did not understand at first what he was looking at. As the silhouette turned to face him, the bottom dropped out of his stomach. Standing thirty feet away was the replicated image of the petroglyph that had appeared to him the day before - a version of the dreaded Skinwalker that Adriel had warned them about.
A cold sweat erupted on his neck and chest as Hutch studied the image staring back at him from the opposite end of the sand dune. The logical side of his brain demanded an explanation while the practical side knew he might be in danger. Reaching for his Magnum, Hutch realized too late that he'd left it at the bottom of the hill. Swallowing hard, he steeled himself as the Skinwalker began to advance. Regathering his wits, Hutch forced himself to analyze his adversary properly.
The Skinwalker presented itself as the outline of a man's body from what Hutch could see - a little taller than himself with long, well-muscled arms. Dressed in snug leggings, the figure was bare-chested with an assortment of animal pelts draped around his shoulders. Hutch winced when he noted the hunting knife sheathed in a scabbard and secured to the waist. A black bandana covered most of the scalp while partially obscuring the man's eyes. "You cops are all alike," came a deep, gravelly voice. "None of you know when to mind your own damn business."
Hutch's eyebrows lifted in surprise at the unexpected comment. Whoever this guy was, he obviously hated cops. Hutch considered trying to distract him with words but decided it would be a waste of time. He was considering how to make a break for it when the other man charged him instead.
Yanking the knife from its scabbard, the Skinwalker raised the blade high overhead as he ran. Hutch was running for the edge of the sand dune when he stumbled on a piece of sagebrush root and fell. Landing hard on his stomach, he rolled to his back just as his assailant landed on top of him. Catching the knife blade in mid-air, Hutch managed to hold him off long enough to land a knee in the man's crotch. Screaming in pain, the man tumbled sideways over the edge of the dune, taking Hutch with him. Wrestling with the knife between them, they traded places - tumbling over and over multiple times on their way to the bottom of the hill. Landing hard, the man was pressing the blade to Hutch's throat when the sound of a gunshot cut through the air. Collapsing on top of Hutch, the man dropped the knife and grabbed for the bullet hole in his thigh instead.
Pushing the wounded man away, Hutch kicked the knife free and hurriedly moved out from under him. As the other man lay writhing in place, Hutch looked around frantically, assuming the shot had come from Starsky. He found Adriel holding a hot handgun instead. Realizing then what had happened, Hutch climbed to his feet and hurried to the younger man's side. "Adriel, are you alright?" Hutch asked, reaching for the gun. The sound of Hutch's voice immediately brought Adriel back to his senses. Releasing his grip on the gun, he looked shaken but otherwise unhurt. "I'm ok, but look at you," Adriel said. Unsure what Adriel meant, Hutch was surprised to see a stream of fresh blood soaking through his shirt sleeve and dripping down his right arm.
"All of that rolling around must have opened the cut on my arm," Hutch speculated. "Hey, I'm alright," he offered, patting Adriel on the shoulder. "I swear, the knife didn't touch me." Hutch was turning toward the man on the ground just as Starsky rounded the corner with several other officers in tow. Just knowing the cavalry had, at last, arrived allowed Hutch to give in to his fatigue and sit back down. "Take care of him," Hutch said, pointing to the man who'd been shot.
Starsky allowed the others to do just that as he landed on his knees next to Hutch. The sight of dirty ripped clothing along with a copious amount of fresh blood had frightened Starsky to the core. "What happened?" he asked, reaching for Hutch's arm.
"He was in a fight," Adriel offered, filling in the details that Hutch might have omitted. "It started at the top of the hill when the guy came out of nowhere and jumped Hutch. They fought over the knife as they rolled downhill - and that's when I shot him."
"That's right," Hutch agreed, noting the look of surprise on Starsky's face. "Without a doubt, Starsk, this guy saved my hide."
"No kidding!" Starsky exclaimed. "Well, I'd say you deserve a commendation, young man!"
Adriel looked nonplussed as he thought about what Starsky had said. "Oh, I don't know," Adriel said, looking almost bashful for the first time since they'd met. "I'd say I had a whole lot of help. I think the One we needed the most heard my prayers after all."
The man Adriel shot turned out to be a key player in a burglary ring that had terrorized the rural communities around Victorville for months. By extorting a few of the deepest fears of Navajo traditions, a small group of men had managed to monopolize an entire population by using their ancestral legends against them. Convinced that a Skinwalker was living among them, people hid in their homes while they attempted to conduct their lives without becoming its next target. Law enforcement had been unable to get a bearing on exactly how they were operating until Adriel led them to the caves in the desert.
Four individuals were eventually arrested and charged with first-degree burglary and arson while a fifth recovered in the hospital. Once he was well enough, the would-be Skinwalker would join his friends in the county jail while they waited for their upcoming trials. He wouldn't have time to enjoy his prized, blue and white Buick for a long, long time. Although a number of stolen items had been lost to the black market, a sizeable amount of property was also returned to its rightful owners. Jacob Nez was able to keep his store open without fear of the future hanging over his head. Manuel's restaurant was planning a grand reopening at the end of the month.
Upon returning to Bay City, Dobey granted both Starsky and Hutch a full week off as Hutch had been injured, and they both wound up working for most of their impromptu time off. Although Dobey had planned to give them a proper scolding, he lost most of his bluster after visiting Hutch in the hospital. Hutch needed to be an inpatient for one night for the doctor to properly take care of his arm. The stubborn, hard-headed detective looked more exhausted and paler than usual lying in a bed composed of white sheets with a unit of blood hanging by his bedside. Dobey simply didn't have the heart to rake him over the coals for pushing the envelope where civilians were concerned.
As for Adriel, Hutch had arranged for a scholarship to the California Police Academy to be reserved in his name. When Adriel was ready, Starsky and Hutch, as well as Captain Dobey, were all willing to sponsor him. After confessing his interest in police work, Hutch had applied for the award for their new friend because he knew good police material when he saw it. Adriel would finish his Associate Degree at the community college in only a few weeks. Once he completed that step, he planned to enroll at the Academy. Starsky and Hutch would be there to applaud his achievements the day he graduated and beyond.
Although both detectives had come to accept the unusual appearance of the fierce, white owl as merely coincidental, Adriel would always see it differently. The great bird of Navajo legend symbolized instead the night that Ligai Naabaahil - the great White Warrior of his ancestors - returned as he'd promised to save them.
Finished - January 7, 2022
All things supernatural cannot be entirely explained. Allow your imagination to fill in the rest. :)