I parked the Torino in the alley behind the Pits and we went in the back way. The place was crowded but Huggy had saved our usual booth. He’d started doing that as soon as I’d been reinstated and Hutch and I were grateful.
“Hey, m’ brothers!” Huggy, in the middle of the room, had to shout to be heard over the hubbub. “You guys ain’t back on the streets, yet, right? So no prohibition against alcoholic beverages at lunch?”
“Next week, Huggy.” Hutch’s cheerful tone made me realize he really was looking forward to it. He’d told me so, but I still wondered, considering how burned out he’d been… before Gunther. Hearing his tone now took away the last of my doubts.
“Should I put in an order for two Specials and beers?” Huggy hollered.
“That’d be good, Hug.” I put my hand lightly on Hutch’s back as we made our way through the throng.
“Comin’ right up!” Huggy headed toward the kitchen.
As Hutch slid into our booth, I had a sudden thought and stopped. “Back in a sec.” I knew he figured I had to hit the head but, for once, I didn’t. Instead, I went to the vending machine we’d passed in the hallway. Checking the offerings, I shook my head, and made my way back to Hutch. Scooting in beside him, I sighed. “No Lifesavers in the candy machine.”
With a chuckle, Hutch tsk’d. “We’ll just have to ask Huggy to stock them.” He pulled the partial roll out of his pocket. “These won’t last very long.”
I’d suddenly had another thought so my, “Yeah. I guess,” sounded distracted, even to me. I put the idea on hold - to be pursued after our shift, by myself - and waited for my partner to open the conversation.
“I have a question.” His tone was more intense than I expected.
He must have noticed Diane heading our way with brown bottles and glasses because he shook his head. “In a minute.”
Huggy’s long-time waitress set a bottle and glass in front of each of us with a cheery smile. “Specials’ll be along directly, guys.”
I picked up my bottle and poured. “Thanks, Diane.”
After she’d walked away, I clinked my glass against Hutch’s now-full one. “You sounded serious. Want to wait ‘til after our burgers get here?”
My partner seemed happy with the short reprieve and that got me thinking. What had I said, or done, lately, that had him concerned? And, suddenly, I was afraid I knew. He’d seen the less-than-cheerful memory flash across my face when our discussion, earlier, had come to his lost lover. Oh, shit! I thought. Okay, Starsky, you’ll have to tell him. You’ve put it off long enough.
He might have heard my thoughts, because he laid a hand lightly on my arm before taking his next swallow of brew. “Don’t worry, Starsk, it won’t be an interrogation. I only have a question.”
Swell. A question whose answer might just ruin our friendship, and possibly even our partnership. Damn, and double shit!
Diane approached with our Specials and I used the time it took for her to deliver them, to gather my thoughts. Excuses? A lie? No! Hutch was my best friend. We’d spent the morning talking about my having saved his life a bunch of times. He deserved the truth and, no matter what happened, I had to tell him. If that was what he had on his mind and not something entirely different. I could only wait and see.
As soon as Diane had left, I picked up a French fry but couldn’t put it in my mouth. I set it down, hoping against hope that I was wrong. “Ask, Hutch.”
Casually, he took a bite of his burger before putting it back on the plate. He seemed to be studying the picture on the wall above the opposite side of our booth. “I believe I saw something on your face this morning, when you said Gillian’s name.” He looked at me. “Is there anything you want to tell me?… Anything I don’t already know?”
I mentally gulped. Here it is, the moment I’ve put off and dreaded for the last few years. “Yeah.”
He ate a couple of fries, waiting.
I knew I needed to come clean, finally. But not here. What I had to tell him, and his possible reaction, were going to be much too personal for this public place. I signaled across the room and caught Diane’s eye. “Could you wrap these up for us, please?” I motioned to our barely-touched lunches. “Hutch and I remembered something we have to do.”
“Sure, Starsky.” She came over and took the plates. “Be right back!”
As she scurried to the kitchen, Hutch looked at me curiously. “Something we have to do?”
I stood up and tried to sound less worried than I felt. “Let’s step outside to my office.”
Hutch followed me toward the back hallway, where I encountered Diane and took the bag from her. “Put these on the tab would you, please, Diane?”
She nodded, not too thrilled. “You guys promised Huggy you wouldn’t do that any more.”
I kissed her cheek. “I know, but this came up all of a sudden. Thank him for me and tell him we’ll settle up tomorrow.” She looked skeptical so I kissed her other cheek. “That’s a promise, schweetheart.”
She laughed. “I’ll tell him.”
I opened the back door for Hutch and followed him out.
As we walked toward the Torino, he caught my arm and stopped me. “You’re starting to scare me, buddy. What’s this all about?”
“I’ve got something to tell you and you’re not gonna like it. If you decide to tear my head off, I don’t want you to feel you can’t do it because of the crowd of people around us.”
I continued to the car, unlocked his door first, then rounded to my side. Once we were both settled, the bag of Specials and fries on the seat between us, I put both hands on the wheel and took a deep breath. “The day Gillian was killed… in the afternoon… I went to see her.”
I half-turned to face him and forced the words through my tight throat, making sure to speak clearly. I didn’t want him to misunderstand any part of my confession. “I told you I needed to have Merle check the Torino’s timing chain but what I did, instead, was stop at my bank, draw out all the money I had, and go to Gillian’s apartment.”
He must not have expected that because his expression turned from curious to clouded. I could tell he’d gone into defense mode.
I stumbled on. “I tried to bribe her into leaving town, Hutch. Said I wanted to invest in her boutique…. In Cleveland.”
Hutch shifted so that he could look straight at me, too. His crossed his arms and stared into my eyes. “Go on.”
“I told her I’d seen her in the massage parlor, so she realized I knew what she was doing there.”
I turned more, bringing my right knee up onto the seat. I almost reached out and touched him - wanting the easy contact we’d always shared. But something made me think it wouldn’t be received well at the moment. And, God knows, I wasn’t ready to have him shrink back from me. Instead, I kept my hands in my lap. “I tried to bribe her, Hutch, but she wasn’t havin’ any of it. She told me she loved you, and I could see it in her eyes - she meant it. She really did love you!”
He didn’t say a word.
At that point, I couldn’t have stopped, even if I’d wanted to. “Then she said something I knew was true, but that I’d never consciously thought about. It was something I figured we’d both always felt but hadn’t put into words. She said, ‘You love him, too, don’t you?’”
Hutch grimaced and closed his eyes. God! I hurt so bad for him, I wanted this to end. But I was committed now, and had to finish it. No matter what. I mentally damned the consequences and reached across the space between us. I had to physically unfold his arms before I could grab his left hand. And, to my surprise, he didn’t pull it away. “Look at me, Hutch.”
When he finally did, I took my hand back and put all the feeling I’d always known I felt for him into my next words. “I love you, Hutch. More than anyone I’ve ever known… except probably Terry. Gillian knew I did, and she knew why I was there, in her apartment. She understood that I was trying to protect you.”
Hutch shuddered but he didn’t look away.
“After she promised she’d tell you that night, I headed for the door. She had the last word, then. With tears in her eyes and voice, she asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be Hutch? In one lifetime to have two people love you so much?’”
He squeezed his eyes shut, again, and a tear leaked from each corner.
I opened the bag Diane had made up and ate a cold fry, giving him all the time he needed. I was on tenterhooks but I wasn’t about to push him.
After what seemed like forever, he dashed the tears from his cheeks and looked at me. Yes, there was hurt but, more importantly, there was understanding in those eyes. My heart, which I realized had been holding its breath, decided it was okay to beat again. “I’m sorry, Hutch. I’m so sorry.”
He almost smiled. “For what?” He reached into the bag and brought out one of the Specials. Unwrapping it, he took a bite. It probably tasted terrible but he chewed and swallowed. “For what?” he repeated. “For being willing to spend every dime you had trying to tempt someone out of my life? Someone you were sure would ruin it?”
I looked away. “Somethin’ like that.”
“Look at me, Starsk.” He used my own words to cut through my self-hatred. When I met his gaze, he smiled. It wasn’t his usual room-lighting smile, but it was more than I had dared hope for.
“She loved me…. You love me…. She died.” His thoughts went somewhere else for a few moments but they soon came back. “And, thank God, you’re still here. I don’t blame you for what you did. And I don’t want you to blame yourself for her death, which I’ll bet you’ve been doing ever since it happened.”
“Guess I have,” I admitted. “If I hadn’t confronted her, she might not have tried to leave Al and Olga. At least not that day.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. If she’d told me that night - if we’d gotten her away from that poisonous pair - and managed to stay together, afterward, her former profession could have caused problems for me. For us, even.”
“You’d have weathered them. You’re too good a cop for I.A. to have hassled you over something like that.”
“If the newspapers had gotten ahold of it…”
I didn’t say anything. It was all past tense, anyway.
He shrugged. “Water over the dam, I guess. She died, and it’s over. I did love her. Probably always will. But I’m not going to trade what you and I have - our partnership, our friendship - because you wanted to protect me. I love you too much to let that happen.”
While I tried to get my thoughts back into some sort of order, Hutch wrapped up the remainder of his burger. “Ugh. Those are awful when they’re stone cold.”
I almost laughed. “I know.” Closing the top of the bag tightly, I put it on the floor behind my seat. “Want to go back in and get something else?”
He thought about it before shaking his head. “I’m not really hungry any more. You?”
“Naw. We’ll come back and have a big dinner.”
“We can pay our tab at the same time, partner.”
I did laugh, then. “You got it!” As I dug the keys out of my pocket and fired up the engine, I said a silent prayer. If you’re watchin’ this, Gillian, I have to thank you. From the very bottom of my heart. You were the best thing that ever happened to him, but he’s the best thing that ever happened to me!