“Silences make the real conversations between friends. Not the saying but the never needing to say is what counts.”
~ Margaret Lee Runbeck
The day was late in breaking, held back behind a wall of storm clouds to the east. As the sky began to lighten, Starsky got the Fleetwood up to 55 and set the cruise control. The hearse’s engine was so beautifully tuned that he could barely hear it. Add to that the faint whirr of the heater and the insulation against road noise . . . all the peace and quiet was downright disconcerting.
Neither of his passengers had much to say. Correction: one of them, the coffin filled with papers that comprised the business records of one Victor Campitelli, would speak loud enough tomorrow, when its contents would be used in evidence against the man. The dirt in that box was guaranteed to put Vic Campitelli and his wife, their three sons and, quite possibly, the family dog, behind bars till the end of time. Based on what he’d read about the case, Starsky thought that Fido stood a chance of a suspended sentence...but only if the pooch rolled over on its owners.
He was just about to share his joke with Hutch when he remembered, with a tiny twinge of conscience, that his partner had been stuck riding shotgun, shut in with the coffin. Glancing up, he caught a glimpse of shadowed motion in his rear view mirror. He raised his right hand, wiggling his fingers in a cheery wave.
Hutch came into view—a mirror image Hutch, the part in his hair on the wrong side—and all of him on the wrong side of a pane of toughened glass. Conversation up till now had been impossible, but Starsky had a sense that maybe it was for the best, what with Hutch accusing him of cheating on the coin toss. Like he would sink so low just to avoid a more-than-five-hour journey in the rear compartment of a hearse.
It hadn’t been their case, not even in their jurisdiction; Campitelli’s empire had been based in Sacramento but his lawyer had finagled a late change of venue. The DA had feared the files and documents, which formed the bedrock of the case, would be vulnerable during transport to the courthouse in Bay City. There had been a lot of phone calls back and forth and, as a consequence, the Sacramento PD had contrived a small but flashy convoy as a decoy. Captain Dobey had been handed the responsibility of making sure the evidence got to his city in one piece.
Hutch rapped sharply on the glass and mouthed something completely indecipherable, then he shook his head and disappeared. He was back a moment later with a piece of paper that he held against the window. Three words had been written on it in red marker: HELP - I’M FREEZING!
Starsky waved again and, having checked the road ahead was clear, he switched his focus to the unfamiliar dashboard. As he’d hoped, but not expected, there was an entire row of buttons with a slider to adjust the temperature in back. They moved with like-new stiffness underneath his guiding fingers even though the car was six years old.
“Bet nobody back there complained before,” he said out loud, like Hutch would hear him. “Better?”
Hearing him or not, Hutch made an okey-dokey with his forefinger and thumb. Starsky saw him duck his head and guessed that he was writing. Another note appeared and Starsky tweaked his mirror till the message was in view. He realized then that Hutch had to be writing backwards and the letters were a little sloppy but the note asked clearly: HOW LONG?
They were not yet at the halfway mark but even if Hutch had his watch and knew precisely how long they’d be on the road, he had no clear view of the outside. Therefore he was blind to any of the signs and landmarks that helped gauge their progress. After a quick calculation Starsky raised three fingers: three hours ought to get them to the outskirts of the city anyway.
Hutch showed him one finger in return—the middle one—so clearly he still had his panties in a twist. Starsky sympathized, but had no plans to stop and trade with him now. They were making good time; why jinx things?
He never found out if Hutch had a different take on things because, all of a sudden, something rammed into the back of them.
He wrestled with the wheel and stopped the car’s alarming shimmy. A quick look in his side mirror revealed a Buick moving up on his left flank. The second it drew level, Starsky realized a gun was pointing at his head.
The passenger got off one lucky shot. Swerving off the road, Starsky ducked, and felt a rain of glass drum on his neck and shoulders. Blindly trusting instinct, he jerked the wheel hard left to get back on the road again and heard the dirt beneath his tires give way to asphalt, but there was no jarring smack of metal against metal. Bobbing up, he saw the Buick coming off the shoulder on the wrong side of the road, heading back toward him.
The road ahead stretched on for empty and unfriendly miles—who’d have thought there’d be so little traffic on a Sunday. Didn’t anybody go to church these days? And what the hell possessed him to get off of 99 in Fresno anyway?
The Buick hit him at an angle right around the front wheel arch. He felt the Fleetwood lift, and turned the wheel hard left to compensate. The two cars matched each other, side by side, as close as two halves of a zipper. Starsky hit the brakes and fell back off the pace before the gunman had him in his sights again.
As he decelerated fast, Starsky flicked his eyes right and saw orchards. Make that miles and miles of orchards. Something greener—denser, more impenetrable—hemmed the road along the left side, like he was heading down the middle of a chute. If he got back up to speed there was enough room for a U-turn that wouldn’t leave him vulnerable . . .
He wondered how far, how fast, he could make it in reverse.
The Buick, bright white like good dental work, had stopped, twenty feet ahead. Starsky popped the gears into reverse and revved the engine, twisting in his seat to get a better view behind him. Hutch was pressed against the glass divider, one hand splayed and leaving sweaty palm prints. In his other hand he held his Magnum ready. Breaking out the windows wouldn’t be his first choice, Starsky knew.
Hutch nodded. No notes needed. The expression on his face was saying, ‘go for it,’ and, ‘whatever you decide,’ and ‘how about we get the hell out of here, buddy.’
Starsky couldn't have said it any better, either. So, with his feet planted firmly on both pedals, he began to lay down rubber. Their friend in the Buick had a similar idea, but showed his hand too early, speeding backward, veering over into their lane, clearly aiming to hit the Fleetwood squarely on the grill. Starsky changed gears once again and, hanging left at high speed, he passed the white car, leaving it behind him in the cloud from his exhaust.
“Wake up, you dipshit,” he yelled. The needle hit the 60 mark in just a few short seconds and then kept on rolling smoothly round the clock.
The side mirror had been obliterated. Starsky had to stick his head out of the broken window to look back and find the competition. Unsurprised to see the Buick gaining, he kept his foot hard down and then scoured the road ahead in hopes of finding some break in the green walls either side.
A mile further on he got what he'd asked for, but not what he wanted: the road became a bridge that crossed a creek. And then after that—terrific—he found himself in wine country. The State Water Project had a lot to answer for: where was the open desert when you needed it? The front grill of the Buick was on the hearse’s bumper as they put the bridge behind them. When they hit the not-so-open road again, the white car moved into the left lane. It slammed up against the Fleetwood’s rear quarter panel.
The effect was startling. The steering wheel was almost wrenched from Starsky’s fisted hands and he fought to keep his grip. The world spun greenly past his field of view—for a moment he considered busting through the vines—and then he was facing the wrong way, staring at the route they had already travelled. But any way ahead was going someplace—backtracking, making tracks—just as long as they were anyplace but here.
The Fleetwood’s engine coughed once, but responded to a hard stamp on the gas. The car was eating up the road again, with the Buick closing fast. As they neared the bridge, the Buick hung to the right, plowing through the hardpan shoulder, losing pace but gaining an unforeseen advantage.
This time when the white car hit, the hearse spun off the asphalt, now turned in a wholly new direction. Starsky saw low vegetation—not vines, thank God—just before it gave way, crushed beneath the heavy vehicle as he rumbled over the uneven ground. The creek—
The creek ran through a natural channel and cut right across his path. A thin blue squiggle on the map translated into something more intimidating this close. From this perspective, it looked like a 3-D model of the fucking Rio Grande. The white Buick was right up his ass and he knew with one hundred percent certainty that one of them wasn’t going to make it.
As it turned out, it was him. For a minute or so more he kept the car on dry land with the gulf below him only inches from his left-side tires. He didn’t even have a hand free to wind up his non-existent window, he thought, and then he was losing it. The Buick zigged, then zagged, and hit him almost at right-angles—and the Fleetwood flipped.
Gravity took charge. The heavy car rolled once, almost in slow-mo, and the Buick followed. Starsky felt its front end landing on the hearse’s underside, adding speed to downhill motion. The hearse hit the water with colossal force. Starsky guessed that this had never been a part of his opponent’s plan, the bastards had just gotten lucky. Then he was gulping ever-shrinking air as icy water rushed in through his open window.
He let go of the wheel, and the second he did, his left hand reached for his weapon, needing something to hold onto. His one conscious thought was that he wasn’t thinking, he was doing. Twisting round, he saw Hutch dimly through the fogged-up glass. He looked okay—he looked dry, anyway—and the rear compartment formed a rigid bubble of protection. The greater danger was the two men waiting for them just above the surface of the water. Starsky knew they needed his immediate attention.
The water filled the space around him with alarming speed, and it was so damned cold that he was glad he had his weapon out already. It felt like his fingers had become locked, frozen into place, but with one—the important one—wrapped round the trigger. He was out almost out of air and all out of options. He banged twice against the glass partition with the gun butt, hoping it translated into, "be right back," and then heaved himself out of the broken window.
The current was as fast as it was cold and in the portion of his mind that dealt with useless details, Starsky factored in the storm that had hit hours before and way off to the east. And yet another part of his mind remembered how surprised when at age 10 he'd found himself in California being rained on.
He was being swept downstream, still below the surface of the water, but he knew which way was up. He let himself drop, felt the river bed beneath his feet and bunched his knees. The pressure in his lungs was building. Just as it began to burn, he launched himself at forty-five degrees towards the daylight.
God was good, but Starsky felt as if he’d earned a break by now. He hit the shore on the right side of a huge mound of excavated dirt and silt. From here, with some strategic prairie dogging, he could see the Buick and its occupants. And, too, he saw the rear tires of the Fleetwood, bobbing up through rushing water like a pair of Loch Ness Monsters.
He frowned, trying to work out if the uneven pitch of the submerged car was a good or bad thing. But then the driver of the Buick opened his door and climbed out. Starsky didn’t have the luxury of calling out a warning. He stood upright and squeezed off two rounds. The driver lurched back, twisted around until he hugged the car, and then slid down the paintwork till he hit the dirt. He didn’t move again.
Starsky scrabbled up the loose slope of the river channel. The passenger was armed, he knew for certain, but he’d disappeared from sight, either ducked below the level of the window or else slipping through the door on his side. Starsky rolled up onto even ground but he still couldn’t see beneath the car; the body of the driver blocked his view. He waited, belly to the ground, his arms outstretched in front of him, his Smith and Wesson steady in both hands, the gun butt resting on a flat rock that sat up an inch clear of the dirt.
“Come on… C’mon, you asshole… Come on…”
As far as he could tell, there was only one way that the gunman could come up on him, and that was front and center. Just for some insurance he switched his gaze right and left, one quick glance each way for every full five seconds he stared straight ahead.
He got lucky. In one of those momentary glances, he saw his opponent sledding on his butt into the water, visible for a brief instant as he cleared the front end of the Buick.
The water had to have been picking up ten pounds of dirt per mile for who-knew how long; it was dark with it, as clear as mud. And if his target left a trail of bubbles, Starsky couldn’t make them out against the foam and flick of waves that rushed by on the surface. He rolled onto his side, elbowed himself up till he could kneel, and scanned the water, waiting for a sudden telltale upsurge.
When it happened his aim was a good ten points off but he had corrected long before the other man’s hands cleared the water.
“Hold it!” he yelled. “Drop your weapon.”
The man stood there, waist deep, like he only waited for a preacher to show up and baptize him. Then his gun hand broke the surface—southpaw, just as Starsky was—but it went no further. Starsky put a round into his shoulder and the man pinwheeled around, and then plunged back into the water. He stayed on the surface, face down, quickly carried downstream with no sign of even trying to resist the flow. One shoe, barely hooked onto his toes, tore loose and sailed off on a separate but parallel course.
Starsky ran back to the wreck. The Buick that had caused it was now making itself useful, acting as an anchor to prevent the water from carrying the Fleetwood farther downstream. The tail end of the hearse had lifted just a little bit more, probably as a result of the force of the current. The Buick’s weight was making sure it didn’t flip completely. Starsky peeled his chauffeur’s jacket off and made a mental note to let Hutch drive the next time. Then he stepped back down into the frigid water and submerged.
And that was when his bubble burst.
Or, rather, he discovered Hutch’s had; the window in the rear door had come loose, not all the way, but just enough to break the seal and let the water in. He could just make out the soles of Hutch’s shoes against the glass as he tried pushing it the whole the way out. It wouldn’t be enough to free him; it was wide enough from side to side, but no more than ten inches top to bottom. The shoes disappeared from view.
Starsky worked his fingers through the gap that had formed at one corner of the glass and pulled, his feet braced on the rear door. Hutch’s face loomed at him suddenly out of the murk.
Hutch puffed out his cheeks and pointed upward, moving that way, and then coming back soon after. Starsky guessed that meant there was still some air trapped inside the rear compartment. So, that made this situation urgent but not critical . . . not yet. He freed his fingers and then jabbed one at the back of his wrist: how long? Hutch’s hand, palm down, rocked side to side, and then he waved five fingers.
Five minutes wasn’t much to work with—maybe five, Starsky hastily amended—so he quit messing with the glass and traced his hands around the edges of the door until he found the handle. It felt wrong, bent over sideways and not turning when he tried to pull it. But, he reasoned, if the metal had been soft enough to bend when hit, then it was soft enough to be bent back to make the lever usable.
Okay, so maybe he lacked Buick’s powertrain but he had all the motivation in the world to get the goddamned door unlocked and open. He expressed frustration in a series of sharp wrenching tugs and then as his air turned to poison in his lungs he launched his head and shoulders up out of the water.
He took three breaths, each one deeper than the one before, and then went back to check on Hutch’s progress. The glass panel stuck out farther now and he could reach in and touch Hutch’s ankle. He latched on—for seconds that they could not afford he simply held on—and then he pulled back and folded his hands round the smooth-edged window. With him pulling and Hutch kicking rhythmically, it broke loose from its seal, drifting downward out of harm’s way.
The situation stifled thought and Hutch thrust his arms through the opening, and then his head, his shoulders . . .
But all the wanting in the world wasn’t going to let Hutch through.
Thinking quickly, Starsky got right up into his face and put a hand on either side of Hutch’s head, drawing his mouth into range. Starsky covered Hutch’s lips with his and Hutch, caught clearly by surprise, opened up to him. Starsky breathed out his last gasp of air and then, hating himself for it, he put both his hands on Hutch’s shoulders, shoving him back into the compartment. His head throbbing, darkness swelling at the edges of his vision, Starsky kicked up and away.
He gulped greedy mouthfuls of the morning air and let the sunlight drive a spike into his consciousness. He was missing something, some key element. No, not a key—a tool.
The Buick sat there, solid as a rock. A weapon first and foremost, then a burden but a blessing, too. Unmoving, and unmoved by the disaster.
Starsky filled his lungs with precious cargo, taking air with him as he plunged back below the water. Hutch had caught onto that part of his plan anyway and met him by the open window. This time he reached out for Starsky, pulling him the last few inches, stealing what was offered, drinking life the way a thirsty man would swallow water. He had all the water any man could ever need.
On the point of blacking out, Starsky tore himself away and when Hutch flailed his arms to catch him, their hands brushed, their fingers interlocking. Driven to explain, Starsky wrapped his hands around his partner’s, bringing them together. He mimed levering, one set of hands above the other twisting down, and to his vast relief he saw Hutch nod once, resolutely.
The moment his head broke the surface of the torrent, he made three quick, clumsy strokes for shore and clawed his way up powdery dirt to solid ground. As urgent as his mission was, he checked the driver first—stone dead—then pulled the keys from the ignition. The trunk was not locked and swung upward, nice and easy.
The driver, or the owner of the car, assuming they weren’t one and the same, had to have spent many happy hours at Sears. The trunk had one huge, well-stocked Craftsman toolkit, together with a foot pump, jumper cables, tarps, a tow-rope, a small gas-powered compressor and, right at the back, a good old-fashioned pry bar.
Starsky took this last, most basic tool, and ran back down the slope, almost forgetting that he needed air to make his plan work. Two short breaths, one longer, and he headed down again.
He banged the pry bar on the quarter panel to let Hutch know he was back and better armed. Hutch peered out at him through narrow-slitted eyes but hung back, as if he expected Starsky’s cure to be at least as bad as his predicament.
Starsky held the bar up with one hand so Hutch could see it and then beckoned him in closer with the other. This time it felt as if the random current brought them into another’s sphere: their touch was more uncertain, the press of their mouths less frantic, but no less essential. Hutch was slow in breaking free but finally he placed one hand on Starsky’s chest and pushed.
It wasn’t hard, the pressure Hutch put on him, just enough for Starsky to remember he was on a mission. He held up a single finger—one more minute—and then let his body rise enough to keep his head above the water as he slipped the pry bar underneath the handle.
He knew that the internal mechanism might have suffered damage when the handle bent. He knew the handle, having been forced one way, might break off when he pushed it the other. He knew they were running out of time. He knew Hutch had faith in him. And knowledge was a dangerous thing; it made people arrogant and reckless.
The sun’s heat on his head was at odds with the water temperature; he was sweating even as his body felt numb, neck to toes. The chill helped him maintain his focus, and his movements were precise, just subtle increments of pressure. He reached down and felt the handle’s new position, tried to turn it. Nothing. He slotted the bar back into the loop formed by the handle and the surface of the door. Instead of constant pressure, he tried rocking it and felt the range of motion of the lever grow.
He fumbled for the door handle. It felt right, almost back into position, and he muttered incoherent prayers to nameless deities and twisted his wrist gently. And the handle turned.
With one huge inhalation, he dived down and pulled the door toward him, using it to shield him from Hutch hurtling to freedom. But that blur of motion didn’t happen and the water was no more disturbed than seconds earlier. Starsky edged around the door and with his hands on both sides of the open doorway pulled himself into the rear compartment. Hutch was almost at the glass partition at the front of the car, his eyes wide, and one hand clawing at his throat.
Starsky couldn’t risk the buddy-breathing trick this time, just grabbed Hutch by the edges of his zippered jacket to pull him to the door. He planted his feet on the doorway’s edge as he maneuvered Hutch’s unresisting body past him. Then he boosted both of them those last few crucial feet.
An eddy near the car’s rear fender seemed to have formed with the purpose of delaying him, but it was shallow there and he pulled Hutch above the swirling water and out onto dry land.
Kneeling beside Hutch, he felt for and found a good pulse in the carotid. He waited with a growing sense of unease for the rise and fall of Hutch’s chest. Two seconds . . . and five seconds more . . . Hutch remained motionless.
Starsky’s nervous fingers traveled down the row of buttons on Hutch’s shirt. He was certain he’d forgotten something pretty damned important—and a little knowledge was a dangerous thing—but he kept searching till he found the spot they’d shown him in his first aid classes. Just as he locked both his hands together to begin compressions, Hutch’s chest rose like an ocean swell.
Relief hit Starsky, rocking him back on his heels. The water running from his hair got in his eyes and blinded him. He wiped it away angrily so he could get a better look at Hutch, who lay there looking up at him like he’d done something wonderful, instead of almost getting them both killed.
He remembered he had yet to hear Hutch say a word—no ‘thank you’ laced with irony, not even an ‘are you okay?’—so he leaned in to get the conversation started.
But Hutch, in sudden proof of his returning strength, hooked one arm round his partner’s neck and brought him into range.
And, for the first time, kissed him properly.
dabc Fin dabc
My tremendous thanks to RebelCat who, with little warning and even less time to execute, performed the beta on this piece. She is one very, very patient lady, and thorough! Any errors that remain are mine – all mine – and I curse myself for my own constant meddling.
Thanks also to Rae for timely input, her general brilliance, and for letting me mess with her without her resorting to violence.