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What If…?

“Starsky?...Starsky?...Starsk?”

As if hearing something from a great distance, Starsky became aware that Hutch was trying to get his attention and probably had been for some seconds. He shook himself back to the present.

“Sorry. Must have spaced out there for a moment. What can I do for ya?”

Concerned blue eyes looked at him - looked into him in the way only Hutch could – as his partner asked, “Where did you go?”

Starsky shifted uncomfortably. “Oh nowhere in particular. Just driftin’. You know.”

He got the impression that Hutch didn’t believe him: that somehow his partner knew that in his mind’s eye he’d been in an alleyway looking down at the lifeless body of Lonnie Craig. That he’d also been hearing the distressed sob of Lonnie’s mother. In those few brief seconds of flashback, he’d been right back there in that moment. That moment of coming down from the adrenaline rush of stopping one felon and giving chase to another combined with the shocking realisation that the perp that hadn’t got away - the one he had shot - had been a kid. Just a kid.

“Talk to me, Starsk. What’s going on?”

What’s going on is my stomach is churning again and the dull ache around my heart is back, Starsky thought, but didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to talk to Hutch while he was feeling like this. The raw emotions stirred up by the flashback would make it hard to stay in control.

“What’s the time? Is it the end of shift yet?” Starsky asked, hoping Hutch would allow him the distraction, allow him the choice of a chance to deal with his feelings later in a less public setting.

“Yeah, almost. Half an hour to go,” Hutch said, with a slight sigh.

“You think Gordon will show?”

“Not looking likely.”

“Then I say we call it a day. I’m beat,” Starsky added, passing a hand over his face to underline his weariness. He still wasn’t sleeping that well although he hadn’t told Hutch that. He felt Hutch’s hand squeeze his shoulder.

“Let’s get out of here, partner.” Hutch picked up the radio mic and spoke into it: “Dispatch, this is Zebra Three. Show us off duty at 1900 hours.”

As the officer in Dispatch acknowledged the call, Starsky started the engine and then headed towards Hutch’s cottage by the canal. He’d picked his partner up this morning so needed to drop him back home.

“You want to come in for a beer?” Hutch asked as they drew into the little lane that ran alongside his cottage. “I’ll even throw in dinner.”

Starsky was about to say no, but the thought of a home cooked meal was appealing. “All right. Thanks, that sounds good.”

As he headed to his front door and unlocked it, Hutch said, “I went shopping last night and stocked up. Mel’s coming in for a couple of nights from tomorrow. I thought I’d better have some food around the place.”

“That one of the air stewardesses?”

“Yeah.”

“Blonde or brunette?”

“Strawberry blonde.”

“Oh. Friend’s a brunette called Louise.”

“That’s right.”

Starsky nodded and gave his partner a slightly lascivious grin. “Seem to remember both of them were nicely rounded.”

Hutch rolled his eyes but didn’t deny the description. Quickly, Hutch placed his jacket on a hanger in the closet, hung his holster and gun on the back of the door and made his way to his kitchen. A lot more slowly, Starsky slipped out of his jacket and holster and threw them onto a chair. Then he strolled across the cottage to sit on Hutch’s couch. Hutch was back in an instant and offering him a beer.

“There you go. Relax, pal, you look beat. I’ll get started on dinner.”

Starsky nodded and smiled, suddenly too tired to talk. He kicked off his shoes, placed his feet on the coffee table and settled back to sip at his beer. After a few minutes, he put the bottle down on the table and wriggled around until his legs were up on the sofa as well. He plumped up Hutch’s throw pillows and leaned back, finally folding his arms under his head to get extra comfortable. He stared at the ceiling; his eyes tracing the patterns in the stippling above his head. He tried not to let any of the random thoughts that kept popping into his head take hold.

Thoughts - about the shooting, the court-case, coming close to losing it in the interrogation room and almost giving into the temptation to rid the world of George Prudholm - were his constant companions. He wished he knew how to move on. He hated the fact that he was starting to second guess his ability to deal with a similar situation should it occur in the near future.

Would he lose his cool with other suspects if they managed to push his buttons? What if Hutch stepped out for some reason and he couldn’t control himself? Worse than that; what if they were out on the street and something happened and he froze? What if he couldn’t do what he was supposed to do and left Hutch vulnerable?

A tight feeling gripped his chest and his breath stuck in his throat. He felt like he couldn’t breathe for a moment. Suddenly, Hutch was by his side, pulling him into a seated position and then holding a brown paper bag against Starsky’s mouth while his other hand rubbed lazy circles on Starsky’s back and his voice soothed him with calming words. It took a few minutes till Starsky’s breathing returned to normal. He pushed the bag away from his mouth and said, “I’m okay.”

Hutch sat down next to him. “You sure?”

Starsky patted his leg. “Yeah, I’m all right now. Not sure what happened but I’m really okay now.”

“You were hyperventilating, pal. What’s going on? Talk to me.”

Starsky shrugged. “I don’t know, Hutch, and that’s the honest truth. I’m all right one minute and then the next I can’t seem to focus. Maybe I’m just tired.”

“That wasn’t just lack of focus.” Hutch shook his head. “I think it’s more than that…Where did you go to this afternoon when you spaced out?”

Starsky swallowed and looked away. In a soft voice, he admitted, “I was thinking about Lonnie.”

“Oh, I’d wondered if that was it but I’d hoped you’d worked your way through all of that. You seemed better after the memorial service.”

“Yeah, I was.” Starsky turned to look at his partner. “But something’s changed recently. I can’t seem to control the thoughts I keep having, Hutch…I’m…scared…”

“Scared of what?”

“That my lack of focus might get you killed. Or I might freeze and leave you hanging.”

Hutch shook his head. “That’s not going to happen.”

“How do you know that for sure?”

“Because I know you…and more than that I trust you.” Starsky looked doubtful but Hutch repeated himself, “I trust you completely. Now, come and eat dinner and try to put the shooting out of your mind for a little while. Okay?”

Starsky smiled slightly. “Yeah, okay. Thanks.”

Hutch stood, held out his hand and pulled Starsky gently to his feet. Starsky bent down and slip his feet back into his sneakers and then wandered over to the table, where Hutch was pulling out a chair for him.

“Another beer?”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

Hutch grabbed two beers and placed them on the table next to a large bowl of mixed salad, a board holding a crusty loaf, two sets of cutlery and mats. Then he went to the oven and pulled a tray out using a tea towel to keep from burning his fingers. He carefully served up the main course and carried it over to the table. Starsky regarded the plate in front of him suspiciously as Hutch cut two large slices of crusty bread and passed him one.

“What’s this?”

“What does it look like?” Hutch asked.

“It looks like a meat lover’s nightmare! One huge beefsteak tomato and salad. Where’s the meat, Hutch?”

“Lift the lid?”

“Huh?”

“The tomato. Lift the top of the tomato, dummy.”

Starsky slipped his fork under the tomato top and lifted it. Inside he could see what looked like minced beef, onion and carrot.

“Oh.”

“See. You’ve got meat. Now, eat up. Let me know what you think – I thought I might make the same for Mel one evening.”

Starsky piled some salad onto his plate – not as much as Hutch had – and drowned it with some Thousand Island dressing. Then he dug into the tomato and took a bite. He chewed experimentally and decided it didn’t taste half bad. Hutch had obviously thrown in a little pepper and some herbs, which added to the flavour. With more enthusiasm, Starsky had another mouthful mixed with some salad, followed by a piece of bread.

After a few minutes, he nodded at his partner. “Tastes good. I think she’ll like it.”

“Great.”

Conversation turned to their plans for Sunday after Mel had flown out of Bay City again.

“How about a picnic at the park?” Starsky suggested. “We haven’t done that for a while.”

Hutch nodded. “All right. I’ll bring any left-over food. You want to bring drinks and anything else you think we need?”

“Sure.”

Starsky grabbed another slice of bread and wiped his plate clean before stuffing it into his mouth and then sitting back with a contented sigh. Hutch started clearing the plates away. Starsky thought about helping but couldn’t seem to summon up the energy.

“Ice cream?” Hutch asked.

Starsky perked up instantly. “What flavour?”

“Chocolate.”

“Then yes,” Starsky said.

Hutch dished up two bowls of ice cream and sat back down. As Starsky dug into his dessert, Hutch enquired, “So, if I’d said strawberry, you’d have resisted?”

Starsky looked thoughtful. “Nah, probably not.”

“What about vanilla?”

“Vanilla’s good.”

“Raspberry ripple?”

“Mmm.”

“Pistachio.”

“Yeah, ’s’okay. I’d probably eat it.”

“Mint?”

Starsky wrinkled his face. “Think that might be the only one I would say no to.”

Hutch acted as if he were astounded, clutching at his heart at the shock of Starsky’s statement, which led to his partner punching him playfully on the arm. When they’d finished eating, Starsky helped Hutch clear the table and then went to retrieve his jacket.

“You want to stay?” Hutch asked.

“Nah, I’ll head home. See you tomorrow.”

“Be ready for once when I come to pick you up.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Starsky grinned before heading towards the door. He paused and turned back. “Thanks Hutch.”

Hutch nodded. He knew Starsky was thanking him for more than the meal.

“See you, Gordo.”

“See ya, Blintz.”

 

*****

 

A week later, the two of them were on their way back to the Parker Centre when a call came over the radio from Dispatch about a 2-11 in progress at a nearby Mini-Mart. An employee had reported that two men were holding up the cashier at the front desk. There were only a few customers in the store and the employee and her son were hiding in the back room of the store. Starsky slapped the mars light on the roof of the car as Hutch sped up and turned right onto Lexington.  He saw Hutch glance at him and was glad that he had already schooled his face so that it didn’t betray his inner turmoil.

“Good job Hutch can’t see my eyes,” he found himself thinking. His stomach was in knots and unconsciously the knuckles whitened as he tightly gripped the door handle next to him. He’d told himself time and again that he would act just as he had always acted, do what he had been trained to do without hesitation, but what if the perps were youngsters? “I can’t let it make a difference.  It’s not just my life on the line, it’s Hutch’s too. I can’t hesitate for his sake,” Starsky warned himself and then added in his outside observer voice, “Just keep that in mind, Gordo. Your partner’s counting on you.”

Hutch brought the car to a stop a few yards from the front entrance to the store. A black and white unit arrived at the same time. Carefully exiting their vehicles, the police officers held a quick discussion. The uniformed officers would cover the front while Starsky and Hutch swept in from the back of the store and tried to either disarm the perps or flush them outside to the waiting officers.

As they reached the pitted and marked metal door that was the fire exit for the store, Hutch caught Starsky’s eye and asked, “All right?”

Normally, there was no need for verbal communication between them. They had perfected the art of stealthy and decisive action in these situations. That Hutch had paused to check on his partner meant that he had picked up on the undercurrent of nerves emanating from Starsky…as only Hutch could do. Starsky half-smiled at the knowledge that he could never hide anything from his partner. He couldn’t decide whether that was a joy or a curse this time. Starsky gave his partner an emphatic, short nod to reassure him and then Hutch was opening the door and they were moving in silent tandem through the store.

Starsky felt his heart quicken, not unusual in this situation. The adrenaline that came with this aspect of the job was to be expected, but he wasn’t used to the tight feeling that had appeared in his chest or the slight tremor he could feel in his left hand. “Hold it together, you hear me.”

They heard voices up ahead and slowed. They looked at each other, silently agreeing to split up. Hutch moved over by two aisles and then disappeared from sight. Starsky headed quickly down the nearest aisle until he was almost at the end. Then he paused, listening, trying to make out who was where. A few feet away, and partially obscured by a spinning rack of cards, Starsky could just make out the back of a man wearing a black mask. He swallowed as he took a step nearer and then waited, poised for action and awaiting Hutch’s signal.

A voice came from up ahead, just out of sight. Another man was ordering the cashier to throw some smokes and candy into their bag on top of the cash he had already put there. Starsky wondered if they were both junkies or just greedy.

The man in front of Starsky spoke, “Come on! Leave the candy. Let’s get out of here before the cops arrive!” The voice sounded young and scared.

Starsky heard movement and then Hutch was there, saying, “Police! Freeze!”

The youngster swung around, waving his gun wildly, and tried to make a break for it, heading towards Starsky. Starsky found his voice: “Police. Drop the gun! Hands in the air.”

The kid froze.

Starsky was aware of Hutch in the background successfully disarming the older man and cuffing him. The kid still hadn’t dropped his weapon. Starsky could just see his eyes looking at him uncertainly through the holes in the mask. The fear in his eyes was being joined by desperation.

“Drop the gun. Hands in the air,” Starsky spoke quietly and calmly, trying to make sure the uncertainty he really felt was well-hidden. “Nice and easy. Make the right decision. It ain’t worth dying over this.” Starsky silently added, “Please, kid, don’t make this end badly. I don’t want to have to shoot you.” Slowly, the kid lowered his weapon. Starsky kept his eyes locked on the kid’s, trying to will him to drop the gun. The youngster started to bend slowly. “That’s it, kid, nice and easy. Put it on the floor and then get your hands on your head.”

The kid paused and blinked, and Starsky waited. This was the moment when it could all go wrong. What if the kid wasn’t as young as Starsky thought he was? What if he already had a criminal record and decided he didn’t want to go back to jail? What if he thought he was indestructible, like so many youngsters mistakenly did, and decided to try to shoot his way out?

Starsky sensed that Hutch had moved closer to assist, but was still holding onto the other perp. He knew his partner would have signalled the officers outside through the window and knew that they would be on their way in, which would mean one of two things. Hutch would be able to help and the kid would give in quietly or the kid would get startled by the sudden noise and would do something foolish. 

Starsky stood his ground, eyes still focussed on the kid. He felt he couldn’t afford to lose eye contact. “Come on, kid, put the gun down nice and easy.”

The kid blinked again and suddenly nodded. “Yeah, okay, I’m putting it down.”

He quickly dropped the gun on the floor and put his hands up. Starsky breathed a huge sigh of relief as he pushed the gun to one side and cuffed the youngster. He saw Hutch pass the other man over to one of the uniformed officers who had just come in. Then he came over to Starsky and bent to retrieve the gun from the floor.

Starsky carefully pulled the black mask from the kid’s face. He looked young.

“How old are you?” Starsky asked.

“Almost eighteen,” the youngster replied.

“Well, I’m glad you get to see your eighteenth birthday,” Starsky said.

“Me too,” the kid replied softly.

The other uniformed officer stepped forward and Starsky gratefully passed the kid into his care. Before Hutch could say anything, Starsky realised that he felt he was going to be sick and spun around, hurrying away towards the back of the building. Hutch asked another pair of officers to start taking statements from witnesses and that he would be back in a moment then he hurried after his partner.

Hutch found him outside, bent over, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath, which was coming in stuttering gasps. Hutch placed a hand on the small of his back and gently moved his hand in a soothing gesture.

“Just breathe slowly, Starsk. It’ll pass.”

After a couple of minutes, Starsky’s breathing began to return to normal and he straightened up.

“Thanks, pal. I’m all right now.”

Hutch’s face had a soft expression on it as he said, “You did good, partner. You faced down a demon today and you kept your cool with that kid. It could so easily have gone sideways. You handled it just right.”

Starsky swallowed hard then said, “Thanks.”

Hutch nodded. “You ready to go back in and interview the witnesses? Or do you want me to handle it? You could get a lift back with one of the black and whites and start the paperwork if you don’t want to be here.”

Starsky patted Hutch’s arm. “Thanks, but I’m okay. Let’s go talk to some people.”

As they headed back into the store, Hutch said in a teasing voice, “You just don’t want to start the paperwork. I know how much you love doing it!”

“Yeah, ya got me,” Starsky answered with a smile. Then added, “I can’t help it if you type so much better than me! It’s your forte.”

“Oh, is that right?” Hutch asked.

“Yeah,” Starsky said, “Just one of your many talents...for which I’m very grateful.” To underline the thank you he was trying to say, Starsky quickly bumped shoulders with his partner before they reached the end of the aisle and needed to return to professional mode.

Hutch smiled and nodded and then the two of them got back to work, both of them happy with the knowledge that Starsky had faced his inner demons and come through it. Next time wouldn’t be so hard. Even better, maybe there would be no next time but that might be one hope too many.