A TIME TO GROW

 

By Theresa

 

Tick ... CLACK ... Tick ... CLACK ... Tick ...

 

Starsky peeled an eyelid open and glared at the rhinestone-studded tail of the grinning cat clock on the wall. Its fake emerald eyes flicked left, then right, leaving the ornate tail to swish in the opposite direction. It glowed greenly in the pre-dawn twilight, and Starsky grimaced, yanking the layer of blankets back over his head. Hutch had some pretty weird ideas about decorating, he decided, filing the thought away for later use ... like the next time the big blond made an off-the-wall remark about his car.

 

“You awake?” drifted from the sleeping alcove behind him.

 

“Unh unh ...”

 

“It’s 6:15.”

 

“... what are you, a cuckoo clock?”

 

The bed creaked, and the sound of bare feet padding over the hardwood floor filtered through the covers.

 

“ ... a run, then a shower. You’ll be up and dressed by the time I get back?!!”

 

“Um hmmmm ......”

 

“Starsk!” The blankets were pulled away, and Starsky curled instinctively into a fetal ball.

 

“Hey! All right already! I’ll be up!”

 

“You’re sure?”

 

A moment passed as his eyes grew more accustomed to the daylight. “’m sure,” he grunted between clenched teeth.

 

“Good.” The fleece blankets dropped back into place. “Now, what do you want for breakfast?”

 

“Don’t care. Just so it ain’t movin’.”

 

The door slammed noisily in reply, and Starsky relaxed back into the sofa. A couple more winks wouldn’t hurt ... just a couple ...

 

*******

 

Morning mists from the nearby ocean hovered on the silent street as the group waited for the lanky man to exit Venice Place. It would be a short wait; the cop’s daily routine went like clockwork.

 

Miguel Armije pushed his thick black hair away from his forehead and checked his watch. “He should be showin’ up any minute now ...”

 

The door across the street burst open, and a man in a navy blue jogging outfit emerged, stretched elegantly, gulped in several deep lungfuls of the crisp, salty air, and then began the bending, gyrating exercises designed to loosen sleep stiff muscles.

 

Miguel lifted the wrist watch to his ear, listened to the soft hum of the expensive instrument. Must be slow, he decided, then turned his thoughts to the now vacant apartment at 1027 ½ Ocean. He shifted his gaze to the slim teenager standing beside him.

 

“How long will he be gone?”

 

The younger boy hesitated, swallowed loudly. “About ten minutes --- sometimes a little longer.”

 

Across the street the blond man finished his exercises and started off at a slow loping gait, gradually gaining speed, finally breaking into a run and disappearing around a corner.

 

Fidgeting impatiently, Miguel waited to make sure that the jogger wouldn’t return, then turned back to the youth.

 

The boy was trembling, nervously biting his nails. Good signs. It was always best to be a little scared the first time. Too much confidence had been the downfall of many potential Tarantulas.

 

“He, hombre, visto bueno! Just a little initiation. We’ve all been though it before.” Miguel flashed a blinding smile and started across the street. Three other members of the small Venice gang followed, but the youngest held back.

 

A conscience – this one has a conscience. Seeing the hesitation, Miguel silently congratulated himself again. If the boy found it this hard to betray a friendship, then he was definitely the right choice.

 

Checking his watch again, Miguel turned his palm upward toward the youngster. “Para los Tarantulas!” he said, and the three youths behind him repeated the act, showing their own blood-red tattoos.

 

“Para los Tarantulas,” was returned in a whisper, then spoken aloud with a firmness that belied the shaking hand. Miguel felt a smug satisfaction as the boy exposed his swollen wrist, revealing a crimson spider engraved in human flesh.

 

Four pairs of brown eyes focused on the young man, waiting expectantly to see what he would do. Another glance toward Miguel seemed to give him the added strength, and the new recruit led them across the street and into the building.

 

*******

 

Starsky stepped from the steaming shower-tub and draped a towel around his hips. The hot water had turned the tiny room into a makeshift sauna, and the warmth made him yearn for the comfort of Hutch’s sofa again. He yawned loudly, fighting off drowsiness, and reached for Hutch’s shaving cream. Smoothing the lather onto his face, he lazily scraped away the night’s growth of beard. He was in the middle of splashing on handfuls of Hutch’s ultra-expensive after shave when he heard the apartment door open and close.

 

“Hey, Hutch!” he yelled, turning on the cold water in the sink and simultaneously reaching for his toothbrush. “Okay if we stop by Merle’s before work today? I need to check on my car.”

 

Getting no answer, he squirted a long glob of toothpaste onto the bristles and continued. “I mean, he’s had her for three whole days, and there can’t be that much wrong with her. She just stalled once. I can’t understand why he’s keeping her so long.”

 

The silence in the outer room continued unbroken, and Starsky halted in mid-brush, spat and rinsed his mouth. “Hutch?’ He turned to exit, but the bathroom door suddenly exploded inward, its sharp edge catching him on the temple. Yelping, he recoiled, backing away until his bare shoulders touched against the damp bathroom wall. He sagged against it, shaking his head to clear away the fuzzies.

 

Time dragged. A pair of funny mirror images from a carnival sideshow swam eerily before his eyes, and he blinked, finally focusing on the slim, glistening objects clutched in their hands. One jerked forward with frightening speed, and the icy steel of a switchblade buried itself in his abdomen. The first jab was followed immediately by a second, and Starsky doubled over.

 

Dazed, his knees buckled and he sank to the floor, overcome by a sudden draining weakness. Convulsing, he clutched his stomach, holding in his own intestines. The pressure was intense, and he knew they were about to spill out onto the wet bathroom floor. Background voices filtered around the sounds of his own labored breathing, echoed in the base of his brain.

 

“Miguel? My God, what have you done? Starsky?”

 

“We had to ... he saw us!”

 

“Leave him! Let’s get the hell out of here before the other one comes back.”

 

“No. No! Starsky! STARSKY!”

 

Someone was calling to him. He struggled to recognize the voice, but it was too far away. He stiffened, groaning as a knife-edged agony sliced through him. A red blur brushed against his cheek, tenderly lifted his head.

 

‘Hutch!’ His pain-clouded brain reached for the name; his lips soundlessly mouthed the syllable, but as his vision cleared, the red blur coalesced into a large, scarlet spider.

 

Terrified, he wrenched away from the monstrous image, heard the pulsing echo of more voices.

 

“Kiko ... damn you! Come on! Kiko!”

 

Fighting the waves of nausea, unwilling to sink into the cold depths of unconsciousness, Starsky struggled to clear his vision again. When he succeeded, an empty silence surrounded him.

 

Carefully, in halting, jerky motions, Starsky pulled himself to a sitting position. He slumped forward, the wet floor and early stages of shock making him shiver as he dully surveyed the room. Warmth in the form of Hutch’s terrycloth bathrobe hung invitingly a million miles away on the door hook, and with teeth chattering, he crawled toward the half-closed door. He never made it. The room suddenly broke apart into hundreds of tiny golden pieces. Black holes clustered around him, nibbling away at the room until only an inky abyss remained. Frightened, he floundered in the depths, but the monotonous rocking motion soothed away his fears and he relaxed, let the warmth overtake him.

 

*******

 

Flinging his right arm out for leverage, Hutch took the corner of Ocean ad National at a full gallop, increasing his speed for the final home stretch. With the wind whipping his hair back, he crossed the imaginary finish line and immediately slowed into a brisk walk. His lungs burned from the cold air and exertion, and he paced outside Venice Place, alternately coughing and gasping for breath. He checked his watch, angrily noting that the run-in with the two skaters had cost him nearly three minutes.

 

“Damned addicts! Why don’t they support their habit somewhere else – don’t they know it’s illegal to skate on both sides of the sidewalk ... should have given them a ticket.”

 

Stomping his feet in frustration, he took one more gulp of burning air and bounded the airs. He bombed through the door, closing it with a forceful slam and, heaving a relieved sigh, pulled his too-warm jacket over his head. Without a backward glance, he discarded across the sofa.

 

“Starsk?” He rifled through the blankets looking for a lifeless lump, felt mildly surprised when he discovered the couch was unoccupied. “Thought for sure you’d still be snoozing. Why didn’t you start breakfast? I’m starving.”

 

He made it to the kitchen in two strides and helped himself to a glass of orange juice. The fresh-squeezed pulp went down the wrong way, and he sputtered, coughing uncontrollably. The fit lasted several seconds and, when he was in control again, he turned streaming eyes toward the bathroom.

 

“Starsk?”

 

The sound of running water was the only answer.

 

“Did you doze off again in the tub? If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times, it’s dangerous to sleep in a full ...” The door refused to open fully; a large obstruction seemed to be blocking the entrance. “Hey, what are you doing in ...” Poking his head around the door, he froze as his eyes took in the prostrate form.

 

“Starsky?” The name caught in his throat, and he quickly knelt beside his partner. “What ... what the hell ...?”

 

Hesitantly, he reached out to touch Starsky’s face, and the man reacted with a grimace, folding over, pulling his knees and legs upward. His hands pressed harder on his abdomen, and a sudden sinking feeling washed through Hutch as he noticed the spreading red stain on the towel.

 

Fear of what he might find made him pause, but a deeper terror spurred him into action. He gripped Starsky’s wrists, and his partner resisted, feebly tried to pull away.

 

“No ... get them away ... please ...”

 

“Get what away? Starsk, it’s Hutch.”

 

“Spiders ... red spiders ... get them off, get them off!”

 

Whimpering weakly, he struggled to fold over again and, swallowing a sudden surge of panic, Hutch realized that he would have to force his partner to leg go. Starsky was semi-conscious, acting on instinct alone.

 

Praying that it wasn’t too serious, Hutch shoved a knee forward, preventing Starsky from curling further. With his left hand, he braced the shoulders back, finally succeeding in praying Starsky’s hands from his abdomen. The action brought a wavering cry from his partner, and Hutch gathered the suddenly unresisting form close, frantically apologizing.

 

“Jesus, I’m sorry, Starsky – didn’t mean to hurt you – just couldn’t see ... Oh, my God!” His stomach lurched at the sight of the oozing puncture wounds.

 

Easing his partner back to the floor, Hutch reached for a towel and wadded it into a thick bandage. He pressed it hard against the wounds, and Starsky grunted hoarsely. Beneath the terrycloth folds, Hutch could feel the warm blood welling, and he swallowed his rising panic, scanned the bathroom for something to tie the makeshift bandage into place. Spying another towel, he reached up, jerked it from its holder, and tore it into length-wise strips. Wrapping it around Starsky’s body, he tied it tightly.

 

“Hutch?”

 

The new voice startled him, and he turned around, saw the thin figure of Molly Ramos standing in the doorway.

 

“Call an ambulance, Molly,” he said, turning his attention back to Starsky, but a guttural groan from the injured man sent a fresh batch of terror through him. “Never mind the ambulance,” he called to the outer room. “Just run down to my car and open up the passenger door. Hurry!”

 

Listening to the muffled clump-clump of her shoes as she raced down the stairs, Hutch quickly retrieved one of the blankets from the sofa and wrapped his partner in it. Hefting the dead weight in his arms, he carried Starsky down the flight of stairs, gently eased him into reclining position in the front seat. Molly started to crawl in beside him, but Hutch grabbed her, pulled her back.

 

“ ... but I can hold him ... keep him from falling off. Hutch, let me help!”

 

“You can help me by going home. Whoever did this may still be around, and I don’t want anyone else hurt. Promise me you’ll go straight home.”

 

“But Starsky needs ...”

 

“Molly! Please ....”

 

“All right, I’ll go. But you’ll call me and let me know how he is.”

 

Hutch nodded quickly, gave the girl a forceful shove, then ran to the other side of the LTD.

 

“Control, this is Zebra Three. Notify Memorial that I’ve got an emergency – stab wounds in the abdomen. ETA is five minutes.” Without waiting for an acknowledgement, he dropped the mike, shifted the car into drive and hit the siren.”

 

“Hang on, Starsk,” he whispered. “We’re gonna make it.”

 

*******

 

Memorial Hospital boasted some of the finest medical personnel in Los Angeles; likewise its equipment and facilities were the best, but the knowledge gave Hutch no satisfaction. As he entered the ER, he could feel a controlled tension that burst into action as Starsky’s limp body was slide form the gurney to the exam table.

 

“Doctor, BP is 100/60 and falling.”

 

The sterile, clinical words brought his attention back to the center of the room. A nurse was peeling away the blanket and blood-soaked towels.

 

“I’m not getting any reaction,” drifted over from the circle of medical personnel, and another voice mumbled something Hutch couldn’t decipher.

 

Behind him, the doors whooshed open, and another doctor, dressed in surgical green, hurried into the room. The circular huddle of medical personnel migrated to the bottom of the exam table for a quick conference with the new arrival, and Hutch finally got a clear, unobstructed view of his partner.

 

The sight sent an uncontrolled shiver up his spine. Starsky’s eyes were open, staring vacantly into space. He lay on the table surrounded by tubes, bottles and shreds of cloth, and the scene struck a painful familiar chord. Deja vu. His partner was just another nude body in the ER. He’d seen hundreds in his lifetime, even put a few of them in here himself. But now it was Starsky lying here, and the reality of it horrified him.

 

One of the nurses shoved a needle into Starsky’s inner thigh – an arterial IV – and Hutch saw a minor miracle occur. For the first time since he’d been wheeled into the ER, Starsky showed some awareness. He winced as the needle went in.

 

“We got a reaction on that,” the nurse reported.

 

An elderly doctor nodded, returning to the patient’s side. “Good, good ...” he said to no one in particular, motioning for another IV. He plunged it into the skin, and Starsky grimaced, tensing his body and drawing his brows together into a frown of displeasure.

 

“Good, more pain reaction. I think he’s coming out of it.”

 

The announcement was prophetic. The patient on the table was no longer immobile. His head began to loll from side to side, groans burst from his throat and he fought to regain consciousness. The barest tinge of pink appeared in the colorless face, and he opened his eyes, blinked several times, apparently disoriented.

 

Hutch swallowed the lump of fear in his throat, hesitantly called out his partner’s name. The curly head jerked in his direction, and Hutch sighed with relief. This time the eyes weren’t empty – they were alert, confused, frightened. Parched lips mouthed his name, and Hutch flashed a quick reassuring smile.

 

Starsky tried to return it. A hint of a smile creased his lips, but it evaporated immediately as his head snapped back in sudden agony.

 

“Hutch!”

 

The name sprang from Starsky’s lips, a desperate plea for help, and Hutch started forward, knowing he could do nothing, needing only to be close.

 

A strong arm reached out, held him back. “Damn it, let me go or I’ll ...”

 

“Take it easy, Sergeant.” A tiny blonde nurse stared up at him. “We’re doing our best for him right now. You’ll just get in the way.”

 

“I’m sorry. It’s just that ...”

 

It was all he got out. Two orderlies had noticed the struggle and were heading in his direction. The matinee was over; his ticket was up; and his attendance at the next performance was no longer wanted or needed. Gently, but firmly, he was led to the door.

 

*******

 

As it broke the surface of the water, the pebble made a heavy plopping sound, leaving a hundred perfect circles jutting out from its point of entry. Transfixed, Kiko perched on the edge of the dock and watched the ever widening ripples. He was so hypnotized by the changing designs that he didn’t hear the ancient boards creak their complaint at an added weight.

 

“Why?”

 

Startled by the harshness of the monosyllable, the boy turned, found himself staring into the accusing eyes of his adopted sister. He sighed, hefted another stone and let it drop into the murky canal water. The tiny waves expanded, joining their predecessors and multiplying.

 

“What do you want?”

 

“Don’t play games with me, Kiko. I’ve just come from Hutch’s place. Why did you do it?”

 

“It doesn’t matter.”

 

“Yes, it does! I saw you there, saw what you did to Starsky ...”

 

“I didn’t touch him, damn it!” Her brother rose, suddenly matching her vehemence, and Molly grew silent. They stared at each other for a long moment.

 

“Then why is his blood all over your clothes?”

 

Her quiet accusation made him glance down at himself. The dried, rust-colored stains screamed his guilt. Ashamed, he looked away.

 

“Just s’posed to be a test. Run into Hutch’s place, grab a couple things that weren’t worth anything, but nothing went right! Starsky was coming out of the bathroom, and Miguel and Reuben musta got scared or something ... I couldn’t stop them, Molly!”

 

“But you ran! You ran and you left him there to die! Yeah, I saw you, even tried to follow for a while but couldn’t keep up, so I went back to see if Hutch knew who did it. Guess I was still tryin’ to protect my brother, but after I saw what you did to Starsky ...” She choked back a sob.

 

Kiko stood up, started toward her, but she backed away, shaking her head. He read the fear in her eyes, was stunned by the sudden, gut-wrenching knowledge that Molly was afraid of him. “Pete? You believe me, don’t you? I’d never do nothing like that ... never hurt Starsky o purpose. You can’t believe that I’d ever ...”

 

“What do you care what I believe?” Still reversing her steps, she continued until she reached the edge of the dock, pivoted and broke into a run.

 

Alone, Kiko watched her departure with eyes that burned with unshed tears.

 

“Let her go then. Who needs her! Ain’t even my real sister anyway.” He sniffed, blinked back the wetness, furious with himself. A Tarantula did not weep like a woman. It was a weakness to cry; it wasn’t manly. Miguel had said ... He sighed heavily, squatted back down on the small pier. Miguel had lied. Hutch was more of a man than Miguel could ever hope to be – and Hutch could cry.

 

Memories dominated his thoughts: Hutch, pleased and misty-eyed at a ‘Father’s Day’ present from him; Hutch, crying with him and Molly when their puppy had been run over; Hutch, weeping unashamedly at Gillian’s funeral. Yes, Hutch could cry. For that matter, so could Starsky.

 

Starsky! The sudden imprint of the name danced fleetingly through his brain, and he winced, shook his head as the unwanted images began a vivid playback of the morning’s events: Starsky’s fact registering shock and surprise, the sudden, raspy intake of breath, and the horrible popping sound as the knives pierced his skin.

 

The drama began and concluded over and over again for the unwilling audience of one. Again and again, Kiko saw the reenactment, heard the sounds. “Stop it,” was a whisper that became a scream. Dry sobs shook his body, and the boy collapsed to his knees.

 

*******

 

Brown rain droplets, the last remnants of a late morning deluge, dribbled off the hospital entrance overhang and splashed on Hutch’s shoes. He ignored them, glanced at his watch for the fourth time in as many minutes. 2:48. Eight hours. One-third of a day. A whole work shift.

 

Still clad only in his jogging pants and t-shirt, he shivered in the cold October breeze, scanned the line of traffic for a familiar car.

 

Wish Dobey would hurry up and bring my clothes. It’s freezing out here!

 

A screaming siren assaulted his ears, and he craned his neck to see past the oncoming traffic. A red and white ambulance careened around a line of slow-moving cars, screeched to a halt at the emergency entrance of the hospital. Hutch followed it with his eyes, absently chewing on one of the guitar-calloused fingers of his left hand. The attendance expertly removed the stretcher, rolled the small patient into the yawning twin doors. A woman, her young face pinched tight with strain and worry, followed closely behind.

 

Hutch ran his fingers through his hair and sighed.

 

“How is he?”

 

The baritone voice startled him and he turned, gave Captain Dobey a weary smile. “Out of surgery. The doctor says, barring complications, he has a good chance.”

 

“Thank God.” Dobey matched the relived smile. “Here. I brought you a shirt. What are you doing out here dressed like that? Trying to catch your death?”

 

Hutch shook his head. “It’s stuffy in there. Needed some air and ...” He trailed off, shrugged, realizing there was no need for an explanation. He pulled on the red plaid shirt and started into the hospital.

 

“What happened, Hutch?”

 

“I don’t know yet, Cap’n. Starsky was stayin’ over at my place until his car was fixed, doing his best to ‘conserve energy’ as per new department policy. I left to take my morning run, and when I got back – well, you know the rest.”

 

“What about Molly?”

 

“She doesn’t know any more than I do.”

 

“Well, since she was in the area when the attack occurred, I’ll send some men over to her house just to be ...”

 

“No need. Maria invited Starsk and me to an enchilada dinner so I’ll be stopping by there this evening. I’ll talk to her then.”

 

“Whatever you think is best.”

 

“What about the lab men?”

 

“They’re over at your place right now.”

 

The doors slid apart to admit them, and they rode the elevator in silence. Stepping out onto a freshly waxed floor, Dobey continued the question and answer session. “Did the doctors say when we’ll be able to talk to him?”

 

Hutch threw a glance at the hall clock. “He’s been out of surgery for nearly three hours. It shouldn’t be too much –“

 

“Sergeant Hutchinson?” A middle-aged woman flashed a quick smile at him from her nurse’s station.

 

“Yes?”

 

“You can see Sergeant Starsky now. He’s conscious.”

 

“Thank you.” Hutch started down the aisle quickly, then pulled up. “Uh ... ma’am?”

 

“Yes?”

 

Hutch cleared his throat, shrugged his shoulders in slight embarrassment. “Which way?”

 

She smiled again, pointed. “The ICU’s down this aisle and to your right. And Sergeant, don’t stay too long. He’s had a pretty rough time of it.”

 

Hutch nodded, turned to Dobey. “Back in a little while, Cap’n.”

 

“Give him my best.”

 

Despite the hushed atmosphere and tiptoeing personnel, Hutch opened the door to the half-empty Intensive Care Unit and found it humming with noise. The rhythmic “shhh-click-shhh” of full life support equipment, the hissing respirators and gurgling IV’s, the beeping cardiac monitors all worked together in a concerted effort to shatter the funereal silence.

 

Hutch passed several empty beds, then stopped, stared down at his partner’s still form.

 

Starsky appeared to be asleep. His head, resting heavily on the pillow, was turned slightly to the right, displaying an ugly bruise just above his left eyebrow.

 

“Hey, Starsk.” Hutch’s whispered voice rose a concerned octave, and he gently placed his hand on his partner’s cold wrist. “How do you feel?”

 

The blue eyes opened slowly, peered up at him. “Lousy,” barely made it past the dry lips.

 

“So I see, but the doc says you’re going to be fine. A little rest, some TLC, and you’ll be your old charismatic self again.”

 

Starsky reaction was a scornful “Hmmmmph!”, and Hutch grinned, suddenly reassured. If Starsk was grouchy, then all was right with the world.

 

“What ... the hell ... hit me?”

 

“I was hoping maybe you could tell me.”

 

Starsky tried to shift his body, made a sound halfway between a moan and a sigh. “... don’t remember ... happened so fast.”

 

The continued effort to speak seemed to exhaust him. His eyes closed for a moment, and Hutch tightened his grip.

 

“It’s okay, Starsk. Take your time. All I need is one clue – just one, and I’ll nail the asshole who did this to you.”

 

Starsky grimaced, and Hutch couldn’t tell if his partner was smiling or in pain. He mumbled something.

 

“What?”

 

“ ... said ... can’t remember ... ‘m sorry.”

 

“Hey, it’s all right. It’ll come later. You just rest now.”

 

“Mhhhmmmmm ... tired ...”

 

“Sir?”

 

Hutch turned toward the new voice, came nose to chin with a mountain masquerading as an orderly.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Doctor Davis left script orders that this patient isn’t supposed to be have visitors for more than three minutes.” He raised a ham-sized arm, checked a ridiculously small wrist watch. “Yours are up.”

 

Hutch mentally computed his chances of winning an argument with the giant, decided that the odds definitely were not in his favor. “Gotta go now, partner. Take it easy, and I’ll see you tonight.”

 

His words were met by an incoherent mumble, but Hutch smiled to himself. It wasn’t over yet. Starsk was going to make it. They’d cheated the grim reaper one more time.

 

Returning to the waiting room, Hutch found an uncharacteristically nervous Dobey pacing back and forth. “How’s he doin’?”

 

“Okay, I think. He’s still a little groggy, but that’ll clear up soon. Couldn’t tell me anything though – said he couldn’t remember.”

 

The captain nodded, thumbed absently through a year old magazine, laid it aside. “We’ve got a mystery.”

 

Something in the tone of voice triggered an instant alarm bell in Hutch’s brain. “What kind of ‘mystery’?”

 

“While you were in with Starsky, somebody called to check on his condition.”

 

“So?”

 

“That somebody identified himself as Starsky’s brother.”

 

“Nick?”

 

“That’s the name he gave the nurse. Did you call New York?”

 

“Nope.”

 

“I didn’t think so. Neither did I.”

 

“Then who?”

 

“I don’t know, but until we do, I’m posting a round-the-clock guard on your partner. Hey, where do you think you’re going?”

 

Hutch was almost out the door. “Home, then Molly’s, then the streets. You get that guard on my partner, and I’ll call you later.”

 

*******

Miguel Armije cast a wary eye on the shadowed intruder entering the alleyway belonging to Los Tarantulas. He noted the squared shoulders, the defiant walk, felt the tenseness drain away as he recognized him.

 

“Kiko? Hey, man, we’ve been looking for you. You left in such a hurry this morning, we never got a chance to talk. Como va’?”

 

There was no answer. Instead, Kiko continued to advance, finally halting when the two were scant inches apart. If it was supposed to be an intimidating stance, it was working. Miguel dropped his gaze, found his courage somewhere around his knees and met the dark, glowering eyes of the younger boy.

 

“It was only supposed to be an initiation, Miguel ... ‘a harmless little game.’ No one should’ve gotten hurt.”

 

Miguel shrugged nonchalantly. So, it was beginning. He’d had a feeling about this one since they’d first approached him with membership. That streak of conscience was making itself known. “He got in the way, Kiko. Besides, what the hell do you care anyway? He was just a cop – a gringo cop. What does one more dead –“

 

“He’s not dead.”

 

Miguel froze at the news, quickly recovered. “How do you know that?”

 

“I called the hospital, told them I was his brother. He’s alive, Miguel. And by now, Hutch knows everything, including who did it.”

 

“There you’re wrong, my friend. He knows you did it. He doesn’t know a thing about the rest of us.”

 

“He will.”

 

The two syllables echoed loudly through the filthy alley.

 

“And how will he find out?” Miguel’s words were accented by a barely discernible click, a subtle flash of the sharp blade, but Kiko didn’t back down. Disconcerted, Miguel backtracked mentally, swiftly formulated another plan.

 

“I never figured you for a squealer, Kiko.”

 

“And I never figured you for a murdered. You said you were my friend.”

 

“And you think this gringo pig, this ‘Big Brother’ of yours is?” Miguel felt his temperature rising. “Do you really believe he’s gonna turn his back on one of his own kind? Ah, Kiko!” Mock pity replaced the anger in his voice. “So young, so inexperienced, so much to learn of trust. When this ‘friend’ of yours finds out what really happened, you think he’s gonna care about you anymore? No way, man! You’re gonna be no better to him than the lowest garbage in the street. He’ll throw you in the joint without so much as a backward look ... and spit on you! You’re one of us, Kiko – he’s one of ‘them’.”

 

Miguel made a big show of closing the knife, pocketing it. He placed a friendly arm around the unyielding teenager. “Hey, Kiko – amigo –“ His words held a gentle persuasiveness. “Hombre, los Tarantulas – orgullo y honor – we stand together!”

 

For a moment, he thought he’d broken past the stubborn streak of loyalty, but Kiko jerked from his grasp. “’Pride and honor’! You don’t even know what that means, Miguel. It’s too late for Los Tarantulas –

 

“... and too late for your sister if you so much as breathe one word,” Miguel finished.

 

At the mention of Molly, Kiko paled, and Miguel heaved a huge mental sigh of relief. He’d struck a raw nerve, a weakness in the boy’s sudden surge of courage.

 

“If you so much as look sideways at her, I’ll ... I’ll ...”

 

“You’ll what? Turn us in? You’ll already have done that so you won’t have anything left to threaten us with. And, before we’re caught, one of us will get to her. You know we will, Kiko.”

 

“You wouldn’t.” But the words were hesitant, fraught with fear and doubt.

 

“Oh, we would, Kiko,” Miguel lowered his voice to a threatening whisper. “She’s one of ‘them’ too.”

 

The course of the verbal war had suddenly shifted. Kiko was on the defensive, and the outcome was apparent to both. Defeated, he began to back away.

 

“I’m warning you, Miguel ... nothing better happen to my sister.”

 

His words were hollow, reverberating uselessly off the grime-encrusted walls. He continued to retreat, finally turning and breaking into a run.

 

Miguel studied the departing figure, felt a puzzling sense of loss. “Ah, Kiko ...” he whispered to the empty beer cans and garbage. Shaking his head, he swaggered toward the alley exit and headed for home.

 

*******

 

Hutch pushed the blinds up, shot a quick look at the still-threatening sky. Even the weather was on his case today. The past hour had accomplished nothing. The phone call to New York had been useless. As Hutch had suspected, Nick Starsky knew nothing of his brother’s plight.

 

A subsequent call to Dobey had also proved fruitless. The investigation team had scoured his apartment and turned up several clear prints. Unfortunately, the only ones on file were his and Starsky’s.

 

It was a decided puzzlement, and Hutch had sat down to work things through in his mind. He meditated on the problem, retraced the events of the day in particular detail, but this only led to more confusion, more unanswered questions.

 

Nothing seemed to make any sense. Why was the apartment left unscathed? More importantly, why was Starsk the victim? If revenge was the motive, how did the assailant know that Starsky was staying over? And who made the call to the hospital? He stopped at this thought, glanced at his watch. It read 5:00. Funny, the day already seemed a week long.

 

He lifted the receiver again, dialed, and a Memorial Hospital receptionist answered. She revealed nothing new, only stating in hospitalese that Starsk was ‘stable, resting comfortably and no visitors will be allowed in without permission from the LAPD.’

 

Moderately reassured, he hung up, grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. The shrill ring of his telephone brought an about face, and he picked up the receiver.

 

“Hutchinson.”

 

“Ken? It’s Maria. How’s Dave?”

 

“Hello, Maria. Oh, he’s doing as well as can be expected, I guess.”

 

“Have you eaten yet?”

 

“No. Come to think of it, I haven’t eaten anything all day.”

 

“Well, the enchiladas are cooking, the soda’s on ice and the invitation’s still open if you feel up to is.”

 

“Sounds like heaven. I’ll be over in a few minutes. Is Molly there?”

 

“Yes. Why?”

 

“I need to talk to her about this morning, see if maybe she saw anybody around my place.”

 

“I’ll tell her, but she hasn’t mentioned anything to me. See you in a few minutes. Bye.”

 

Hutch hung up again, started back down the stairs. He exited Venice Place, slid into the familiar comfort of his LTD and drove the short distance to the Ramos’ house.

 

Several hours later, a much frustrated Ken Hutchinson emerged into the cold drizzle. His mood had darkened considerably, taking a nosedive with his first encounter with Molly Ramos, reaching bottom as he left the house. He had to admit he’d probably been a bit rough on Molly, but after her first nonchalant, uncaring answer to his question, he’d become puzzled. Trying to draw her out by appealing to her friendship with Starsk had merely closed her mind even further to what had happened this morning. She was adamant in that she knew nothing, saw nothing and did nothing. Period. Stop sigh. Move on.

 

He shifted the large automobile into drive, maneuvered into a line of heavy traffic. He needed to go back to square one and start reassembling the clues. Everything had happened so quickly, there’d just been no chance to sit down and think things through.

 

Starsk, I need you, man. Need your help on this one. He pulled up on the silent plea. Good, Hutchinson. Thirty-six years old and you can’t even operate alone anymore.

 

Thoroughly disgusted with everything and everybody, he made a sharp left on River, proceeded west on National.

 

He had to admit, cruising the streets alone was a hollow experience. It just seemed so natural for Starsky to be by his side ... on the left driving that absurd striped tomato ... on the right driving him completely whacko with dumb jokes – baseball and football scores – trivial trivia. He paused at the thought, smiling at the memory of Starsky’s latest revelation – the names of all the winners of the Calavaras County Frog Jumping Contest. Starsky had related in glorious technicolor the gory fate of each and every loser.

 

He chuckled, remembering Starsky’s love/hate affair with reptiles and bugs. His partner was both fascinated and scared to death of animals possessing more than the standard four legs.

 

He pulled up mentally, listened as the cogs of his brain squeaked forward, clanged noisily into place.

 

What was it Starsky had said this morning? Frogs ... snakes? Spiders! Red spiders!

 

Hutch swerved left excitedly, quickly recovered after nearly sideswiping a baby blue Maverick. He ignored the driver’s four-lettered glance and one-fingered gesture and headed in the direction of Venice Place.

 

“Zebra Three calling Central. Patch me through to Captain Dobey.”

 

After an eternal moment, the voice of his superior filtered through the speaker. “Dobey here.”

 

“Cap’n, it’s Hutch.”

 

“What have you got?”

 

“I’m not sure. What do red spiders mean to you?”

 

There was a long pause at the other end of the conversation, then Dobey came back on. “Commie arachnids ... what the hell is this, Hutchinson, some kind of joke?”

 

“Well, if it is, the creeps who got Starsk this morning are the ones with the punch line. Listen, Cap’n, when I first found Starsk, he was scared of something, kept mumbling ‘get them off me’. When I asked him what he was afraid of, he said ‘red spiders’.”

 

“You’re reaching, Hutch,” came from the little box on the floor.

 

“I know I’m reaching, damn it!” The anxiety and frustration of the day exploded in a tidal wave, crested, crashed and subsided. “It’s all I’ve got to go on, Cap’n. Check it out for me ... please.”

 

There was a patient, metallic sigh, and Dobey responded. “Will do.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

The all-day drizzle had developed into an evening down pour, and Hutch switched on his windshield wipers, made another left and found himself in a familiar part of Venice. He drummed his fingers on the dash, keeping time to the rhythm of the wipers, humming to himself. Waiting – it was the part of detective work he hated most – but it was usually made tolerable by his motor-mouthed partner. He brushed the image aside. No time for that now.

 

He braked for a small rushing river, decided it was time to park and wait out the torrential storm. Casually scanning the sidewalks, playing his cop game by rote, Hutch absently noted the dingy pool hall, its dope addict and alcoholic clientele. He rolled his head toward the right, squinted through foggy windows, and his eyes locked on a splash of crimson. The red design wavered before his eyes, slowly swam into clear focus.

 

“Hutch ...” The radio blurted his name.

 

“Yeah, Cap’n.”

 

“I think I’ve got something for you. Checked with Juvie on this and they say there’s a new Venice-based ...”

 

“Never mind, Cap’n,” Hutch interrupted. “I already know.”

 

*******

The rain spattered noisily against the glass, and Kiko watched it cascade in sheets down the sides of the lighted phone booth.

 

“Hello? Hello! Is anybody there?” The sound of his sister’s voice filled his ears, but his own vocal chords wouldn’t do his bidding.

 

“Hello? Kiko? Is that you?”

 

Silence. Then he gathered his courage. “It’s me,” came out in a high squeak. He cleared his throat, began again. “It’s me. I’ve gotta talk to you.”

 

“I know ... me too.”

 

“I’m sorry about ...” Both voices began the same sentence, and both trailed of fin embarrassed laughter.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah, fine. Have you heard anything?”

 

“Hutch was just by.”

 

He’d know it was coming, known Hutch would eventually find out the truth. But the news hit him hard, knocked his breath away.

 

“He doesn’t know a thing, Kiko,” Molly continued pouring words into his numbed ear. “Starsky’s alive. He’s going to be fine, and he hasn’t told Hutch a single thing about what happened.”

 

“But he knows I was there ...”

 

“Well,” Molly thought aloud, reached for the proverbial straw. “Maybe he’s got amnesia. They get it on TV all the time. Maybe he’s got it and can’t remember anything.”

 

“You think so? Really?” It wasn’t a question, more a voiced prayer, and Molly continued to reinforce it.

 

“It could. Listen, I didn’t tell Hutch a thing. He kept asking me over and over if I’d seen anybody come out of the apartment, but I told him no. You can come home now, Kiko. You’re safe. Everything’s going to be all right now.”

 

“No, not yet. There’s something else I got to get cleared up first.”

 

“But we can do it together. When you come home, we can go to Hutch together, tell him everything and ...”

 

“No, Molly! Just stay out of it, okay? You’ll be safer, and you wont’ get in my way.”

 

“But ... I don’t understand. If Starsky’s going to be okay, what’s the problem?”

 

“Me, I guess. Listen, I can’t explain it right now ... maybe I’m just ashamed to show my face. I‘ve made such a damned mess of things.”

 

“Hey, it’s okay. It wasn’t your fault. I know that now. You didn’t ... couldn’t have known what they would do.”

 

“Yeah, they sure fooled me. Saw a chance to get a cop and Starsky just happened to get in their way. There’s no telling what might happen to anyone who crossed them on purpose.”

 

Outside the phone booth, the downpour continued. Several cars passed, slowed almost to the point of stopping by the furious weather. Kiko cleared his throat. “Molly, stay indoors. Don’t talk to nobody – not even mom. She still thinks I’m staying over at Diego’s house, right?”

 

“Yeah ... but ...”

 

“PROMISE ME, MOLLY!”

 

“... all right, I promise.”

 

“Okay,” his voice reflected immense relief. “I haven’t figured out how I’m going to clear this up yet. If I do go to Hutch ... well, if I don’t get to ... come home ...” He trailed off in a broken sob.

 

“Kiko?” Molly’s voice betrayed her anguish, then regained some of its control. “Hey, brother. I love you ... no matter how I acted this morning. I was just scared for you. You know that, don’t you?”

 

This brought a soggy smile, and Kiko snuffled, held back the threatening tears. “Yeah,” his voice was husky. “Same goes for me too.”

 

“I know.” Her voice was soft, comforting. “You hurry home, okay?”

 

“I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He hung up the phone slowly, as if by holding the receiver, he still had some unbroken link with home. He sighed heavily, cradled the receiver, then heard the heavy glass doors creak open.

 

“Don’t move, punk. Just freeze right where you are.”

 

Kiko swallowed, obeyed the voice. Strong arms grabbed him, pinioned one arm behind his back, shoved the steely barrel of a gun to his ear.

 

“All right. Now we’re going to go for a little stroll to my car, and then you’re going to spill your guts about these ornaments on your wrists and some of your activities earlier today.”

 

For emphasis, one arm was jerked painfully upward, and Kiko reacted with a whimper, began backing from the phone booth, emerged into the pouring rain. He was shoved forward and stumbled, sprawling on the ground, wrenching free of the iron hand.

 

It was an impulsive move, and Kiko regretted it immediately. He regained his footing and ran, scurrying toward the nearest alleyway. He put out a hand to break his speed for the turn, felt the brick wall beneath it shatter into a million tiny stinging bits of clay. At the same time, he heard the echoing explosion of the large gun, so loud that his ears hurt, and he froze, stood like a marble statue as the rain drops pelted his bare head, trickled down his hair and fell onto his already drenched shirt.

 

“Next time I’ll blow your goddamned head off,” the deadly voice said. The hands grabbed him again, twisted him around, and he found himself staring into the eyes of a blond stranger. He cast his gaze downward, unable to meet such raw hatred head on, but the man reached out, forced his chin up.

 

He gazed up at Hutch mournfully, watched as the shock of recognition dawned in the blue eyes. The emotion revealed itself in slow motion, taking control of each portion of the man’s body. The first in the eyes extinguished, the tension left the rigid shoulders, the fierce expression melted. “My God,” came out in a disbelieving whisper. “... Kiko?” Surprise, puzzlement. “I could’ve killed you ... nearly did. What are you doing with those?” He indicated the tattoos, and Kiko looked down at them, then away. He heard his own voice reply.

 

“I didn’t know they were gonna hurt him ... Hutch ... I didn’t know ...”

 

“You ... didn’t ... know .... they were ...” Confusion had replaced the fear, but that changed abruptly. Ken Hutchinson suddenly disappeared behind the face of an angry stranger again. Large hands jerked him up, clamped onto his t-shirt, shook him until his teeth rattled. “You didn’t know! You didn’t know what kind of people prowl the streets like animals? You didn’t care about all the years we’ve been friends!”

 

“He wasn’t supposed to be there!”

 

A stinging slap nearly broke his jaw, and he was propelled into the unyielding door of the LTD. He bounced off it, landed with a splash in the flooded gutter. He huddled there, shivering, then felt himself being hauled up, shoved into the ragged seat of Hutch’s car. He slumped against the door, watching through the steamy windows as Hutch circled, crawled in on the driver’s side.

 

Sounds registered in his fogged-up brain – the pelting rain on the roof, the sloshing of soaked shoes, and the sudden, high –pitched bleep of the police radio.

 

“Hutchinson here.”

 

“Hutch.” The boy recognized the voice of Captain Dobey.

 

“Yeah, Cap’n.”

 

“We’ve been trying to reach you for ten minutes. I’m on my way to the hospital. It’s Starsky ...”

 

“What ... what happened. He was fine this afternoon. I don’t understand.”

 

“That’s all I have right now, Hutch. Something inside went very wrong, and they’re taking him back into surgery.”

 

“I’m on my way.”

 

Hutch pumped the gas pedal furiously, swore as the engine sputtered and choked. It coughed once, twice and died. Hutch ripped the key from the slot, slammed it back in tightly. “Stars, you lousy son of a bitch or I’ll .....” The threat was drowned by the noise of the flooded engine roaring to life.

 

On the passenger side, Kiko was slammed backwards as the LTD jerked into the street. He straightened, grasped the hand rail and held on.

 

“Hutch?”

 

The driver of the car ignored him, kept his eyes riveted on the treacherous streets.

 

“What’re you gonna do?”

 

“I don’t know.” Flat, emotionless words from a stranger. “I just don’t know ...”

 

*******

A musty dampness permeated the waiting room and hovered around the three silent occupants. It seemed to intensify the already stifling odors of alcohol and disinfectant. Hutch sneezed, acknowledged the mumbled “Gedzundheit” from Dobey, and got up to pace the tiny room again.

 

Seven steps. He’d counted them over and over. Seven steps to the gloomy, dim-lit hallway; seven steps back to his uncomfortable chair. The hallway and the chair. They were his only substantial links with reality, the focal points for his weary brain. He blinked, pushed a sudden surge of mind-crippling terror back down and glanced at the slim teenager slumped on the tattered, out-of-date sofa.

 

The detective in him reached out, clutched at the normalcy of doing his job. Seven steps.

 

“I want it all, Kiko. Right now. The whole story.”

 

The boy turned his face upward, revealed a swollen, discolored eye. He said nothing.

 

“Hutch.” There was mild reproval in Dobey’s voice. “This isn’t the time ... or the place for this sort of thing.”

 

“Well, I just happen to think differently,” he responded, letting anger replace the ever-present fear. “What better place for a confession? What better time? My partner is lying in there dying and all because this ...”

 

“We don’t know that Kiko had anything to do with it ... all you’ve got are a couple of ...”

 

“A couple of red spiders,” Hutch interrupted and savagely jerked at a tattooed wrist, held it up for Dobey to inspect. “I’d say his part in it is obvious.”

 

“Sit down, Hutch.” The tired command was ignored, and Dobey’s face hardened with the strain of the day. He heaved his considerable bulk from the creaking plastic chair, started across the room. “SIT DOWN!” was louder this time, more forceful, an indication that Dobey meant business.

 

Hutch met the eyes of his captain, saw past the surface anger, and felt his own anger drain away. He dropped Kiko’s arm, fell limply into the nearest seat.

 

Dobey ran a handkerchief over his face, pocketed it and returned to his chair. He confronted the two figures. “I’m ashamed of both of you. Hutchinson, calm down. I’m worried about Starsky too, but it won’t help the situation one single iota if both of us lose our heads and do something we might be sorry for later.” He indicated Kiko. “Agreed?”

 

Hutch nodded back, sucked in a trembling breath and shot a helpless glance ceiling ward.

 

“And Kiko ...”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Did you have any part in this?”

 

The boy sent a quick glance at Hutch, then nodded. He seemed about to cry.

 

“Take it easy. We just want to find out what happened. Tell us.”

 

Kiko sniffed back the tears, sat up straighter, and very hesitantly related the events of the past week – the invitation to join Los Tarantulas, his excitement at the idea of being part of a real gang, his initiation plans – to prove his loyalty by stealing a few nonessentials from Hutch’s apartment. It was just supposed to be plain, harmless fun. Until this morning ....

 

He paused, sought Hutch’s eyes, received a nod to continue.

 

“I let them into the apartment and started to take some silverware, but Starsky yelled from the bathroom and ... I don’t remember what happened next. Just heard Starsky yell, and when I went to him, Miguel and Rico pulled me away ... and the next thing I knew I was running away with them. I swear Hutch, I didn’t know they were gonna do something like this ... Hurt Starsky ... I didn’t even know he was there ... I DIDN’T KNOW!” He screamed the words, dissolved into a ball of anguished regret.

 

Hutch put out a hand, smoothed a wrinkle in the still damp t-shirt. “Kiko. Hey, I’m sorry. It wasn’t your fault, you just got caught up in something you couldn’t control. We all know the feeling. Come here.” He pulled the boy close, wrapped his arms around him, and Kiko melted gratefully against him, burying his face in his Big Brother’s chest. “It’s okay. I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry ... didn’t mean to take it all out on you like that. Can you forgive me?”

 

Kiko pulled back, wiped his cheeks dry. “Only ... only if ...” He had trouble forming his words. “ ... if you’ll forgive me first.”

 

Hutch felt his own eyes growing damp. “Done!” he whispered, and hugged the boy again.

 

“But ... what if Starsky doesn’t ...” Kiko’s words were muffled by Hutch’s shoulder.

 

“He will! Starsky’s pretty tough. He’ll pull through.”

 

A barely perceptible nod was felt, and the boy again pulled away. “I’ve got to call Molly. Tell her everything.” He raced for the door, disappeared into the shadows of the hallway.

 

Hutch sank wearily into the softness of the torn cushions. “I almost blew it, didn’t I? Almost lost both of them.”

 

“You haven’t lost either.”

 

“Yeah.” Hutch got up, resumed his restless pacing. Seven steps to the hallway, seven steps to the chair, seven steps back to the hallway.

 

A very distraught Kiko met him at the entrance. “No one answers.”

 

“Well, maybe your mom and Molly went out for groceries or something.”

 

The teenager shook his head. “No. I told Molly not to leave the house. She wouldn’t’ve gone anywhere until I called her. Something’s wrong.”

 

A tiny suspicion took root in Hutch’s brain, began to grow, to blossom. He gripped the thin shoulders. “Is there something you didn’t tell us, Kiko? Spill it.”

 

There wasn’t the slightest hesitation. “Miguel said if I told you anything, they’d get my sister.”

 

“Whatdya mean ‘get’.”

 

The look in Kiko’s eyes was all the answer Hutch needed.

 

“All right. Calm down. Run back out to the phone, give it another try.”

 

Kiko disappeared, reappeared a moment later. “Stupid phone must be busted, it kept my dime,” he explained, and Hutch reached into his jeans, pulled out ten cents. The boy rushed off again.

 

“What do you think?”

 

Dobey shook his head. “I don’t know. First, are we sure this gang knows Kiko’s with you?”

 

“No. But they could’ve seen us together. I picked him up in their territory. Lots of people around.”

 

Dobey stood up, stretched the kinks out of his body. “I’ll send a squad car over to check if he doesn’t get through this time.”

 

Hutch nodded his agreement, and for the lack of anything else to do, began his nervous pacing again. Back and forth, back and forth, then an addition, check the clock, repeat, repeat, repeat. Four minutes, five, seven.

 

“Must’ve reached them,” Dobey said in a too-quiet voice.

 

“Yeah,” Hutch agreed, but another worry began to gnaw at him, and when ten minutes passed without Kiko’s return, Hutch left the room. He returned seconds later. “He’s gone. Desk nurse said he stood at the phone for a long time, then hung up and dashed out the door. Didn’t even stay long enough to get his dime,” Hutch held up the tiny coin. “He didn’t get through, Cap’n.”

 

Grateful for a chance to do something besides sit and worry, Dobey took charge. “All right, you stay here, try to get in touch with his mother. Don’t tell her details, just the essentials. I’ll get something going on tracking him down.”

 

“Captain, it has to be me. You know I have to be the one to go after him.”

 

Dobey sighed loudly, plopped wearily back into the uncomfortable chair. “Yeah, I know. But I figured since your partner’s down the hall – well, you just might want to stay here with him.”

 

“More than anything else in the world. But there’s a kid on the streets and, like it or not, I’m partly responsible for him being there. You’ll let me know as soon as you hear ...?”

 

“First thing.”

 

“Thanks, Cap’n.” Hutch managed a thin smile, hurried out the door.

 

The early downpour had slowed to a fine mist, and a north wind sent clouds scurrying recklessly across the evening sky. Every now and again a silver crescent moon appeared through a slit in the cloud blanket. Hutch lowered his gaze and scanned the parking lot for his car. He shivered, hunched over against the biting wind, as he hurried to the LTD. The motor gave him only the slightest bit of trouble, roaring to life after one false start. He reached for the heater switch, slid it past COOL and AIR, swore as the knob fell off near the VENT slot and disappeared into the dark recesses of the floor. A sudden blast of cold air struck him as the mechanism responded to the programmed instructions. Pneumonia was certain, but he couldn’t spare the time to find the switch and reset the selector. He shifted the car into drive, lurched forward, swore again as he missed the first turn off, checked the rear view mirror for traffic, and jerked the car into a complete 180.

 

“That’s one you’d be proud of, Starsk,” he said aloud, then winced at the thought of his partner. Another look into his mirror revealed the reflection of Memorial Hospital. Starsk was back there ... fighting for his life. Hutch sighed, called forth an enormous effort to blank his mind, clear his thoughts. He was powerless to help Starsky, but he could Kiko if he found the boy in time. He gunned the engine and headed for Venice.

 

*******

 

Neon signs blinked their tired messages to the sparse population of the streets, but one individual was oblivious to them. Fear was a constant, keeping a stranglehold on his anger, urging him on, feeding the rage inside him.

 

Kiko clutched the S&W Automatic tightly, smiled to himself as he thought of the east in which he’d retrieved it from Hutch’s apartment. Simple. The key over the door, slip inside, grab Starsky’s gun from its resting place on the closet hook. Easy. His time with Los Tarantulas hadn’t been wasted.

 

He hurried through the streets, keeping to the shadows, searching for the one alleyway where they would be sitting, laughing, smoking.

 

The rage inside tightened its grip as he thought of Molly. He would find her, take her away from them, and then this tiny piece of metal would give him the deciding edge. He’d even the score for what they had done to Molly – to Starsky. And Hutch, he added a moment later. Especially for Hutch.

 

He ducked down the alley, cautiously hugged the side of the buildings, feeling his way through the inky blackness. His eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness, focused on the faint glow of a lit cigarette. His hand tightened o the weapon.

 

“Miguel!” He shouted the name, simultaneously brought the gun up, fired into the air.

 

As the sound of the explosion reverberated in the tightly enclosed space, the cigarette dropped into the blackness of the alley floor. Sounds of boxes shuffling, bodies diving behind garbage cans, aluminum lids clattering noisily came from all around him, and Kiko nodded his satisfaction. He had them right where he wanted them.

 

“The first bullet was in the air, Miguel. The next will be aimed at your head. Where is she?”

 

A loud, lengthy silence greeted him, and he waited, poised to pull the trigger if anyone dared to emerge from the darkness. Finally, a breathless voice answered.

 

“Who’s there? What do you want?”

 

“You know who. Where’s Molly? What have you done with her?”

 

“Kiko? Is that you?” The voice had drawn nearer, and Kiko readied the gun, aimed in the direction of the approaching footsteps.

 

“That’s right, it’s me.”

 

“Hey, man, I haven’t seen your sister in two days.” The disembodied voice had moved again, this time to the left, and Kiko countered, pointed the gun in that direction.

 

“Don’t lie to me, you bastard. She’s not home. She’s ...” The outline of Miguel’s body suddenly became visible, and Kiko’s voice took on a deadly tone. “Stay right where you are, Miguel, or I’ll blow a hole right through you ... leave you here to bleed just like you did Starsky. Now, where’s my sister?”

 

Miguel faltered in the next step, halted his advance and held his arms out in a helpless gesture. “Man, I swear to you, I haven’t seen your sister. None of us have.” His head turned back, and he spoke to the still-invisible members of the gang. “Have we.”

 

A chorus of “No’s” filled the air, and Miguel turned glittering eyes back on the youth. “See?” His voice held a faint hint of desperation, and Kiko felt a sudden burgeoning feeling of power grab him, spur him on.

 

“You’re lying! All of you are lying!” His voice rose to a shrill pitch, and he waved the gun in the air. “Now somebody better tell me where she is or ...” To the left, Miguel flinched, dodged the watering automatic, and Kiko reacted, firing the gun again. The bullet slammed into the building behind Miguel, spraying brick and cement chips helter skelter. Miguel flattened. He lay on the ground screaming.

 

“Don’t shoot me ... please, God, don’t shoot me! I didn’t touch your sister ... don’t even know where she is... please!”

 

Kiko smiled to himself. He’d never known such a feeling. It was overwhelming, a godlike power of life and death, and he was drunk with it; he reveled in it. He stood directly over the trembling, prone figure, aimed the pistol point blank at Miguel’s head, hand tightening on the trigger, squeezing ever so gently.

 

“Goodbye, Miguel,” he whispered.

 

“No ... please ... don’t ...” Hysterical sobs and a fragmented prayer in Spanish brought a benevolent smile to Kiko’s face. The moment was his.

 

Suddenly the area was bathed in the high beam lights of an oncoming car. Kiko blinked, momentarily blinded, then focused on the brown LTD. The car slowed to a stop, and a tall man emerged.

 

“Stay back, Hutch. I’ve got them all, and they’ll tell me where Molly is. You can have what’s left.” Kiko’s head nodded in the direction of the three gang members still huddled in the back of the alley.

 

“And what about him?” Hutch indicated the sobbing, broken Miguel.

 

“I’m going to kill him.”

 

“Why?”

 

Kiko heaved an exasperated sigh. Why indeed? Hutch knew very well what these Tarantulas had done to Starsky. Why was he trying to interfere? “Because of Molly ... Starsky ... you.”

 

“Molly’s fine, Kiko. Captain Dobey got through to your house a few minutes ago. She and your mother went grocery shopping.”

 

“I told you I hadn’t seen your damned sister. Now let me ...” Miguel began a haughty sentence, and Kiko glared down at him.

 

“Shut up, Miguel.” He nudged the gang leader with his foot, and Miguel cringed away, sent Hutch a desperate plea for help.

 

“If you’re doing this out of some sense of loyalty, Kiko, forget it. I don’t give a damn about this scum, but I don’t want his blood on my conscience. Neither does Starsk.” Kiko noticed Hutch edging nearer and nearer but did nothing. “Give me the gun, Kiko.”

 

“No ... damn it, no! You can’t let them get away with what they’ve done.”

 

“They won’t get away with anything, I promise you. Now, give me the gun, Kiko.”

 

The boy felt a slight pressure on his gun hand, felt the weapon being gently removed from his shaking hand. “Trust me, Kiko.”

 

All was silent for a moment, then Miguel began to rise, froze as Hutch sent a scalding glance downward.

 

“I nearly screwed things up all over again, didn’t I? Molly really okay?”

 

“She’s fine. Waiting for you to come home. Are you okay?”

 

“Don’t know ...” He felt a strong, supporting arm snake around his shoulders, pull him close.

 

“Zebra Three ... Zebra Three ...” The nasal voice of the police operator was heard, and Hutch bolted for the car, pulling Kiko with him.

 

“Hutchinson here.”

 

“Hold a minute for Captain Dobey.”

 

“Hutch?” Dobey’s voice came on after a short eternity, sounding tired and distant.”

 

“How is he, Cap’n?”

 

“Out of surgery and stable. He’ll be up and around in a week.”

 

Silence. Then, “That’s fine. That’s just fine. He awake?”

 

“No ... but soon. Have you located Kiko yet?”

 

Hutch wiped at the wetness on his cheek, met Kiko’s searching eyes with a grin. “Yeah, he’s fine too. In fact, the whole goddamned world’s fine right now.” He stopped, and when Dobey didn’t reply, continued. “I’ve got a few things to wrap up here,” he looked pointedly at Miguel and the other three, “then I’ll be there. If he wakes up, wants to know where I am, just tell him I’m helping out a friend. He’ll understand.”

 

The radio went silent, and Hutch replaced the mike, turned to Kiko. “Guess I’m gonna need a garbage truck to clean up this mess,” he indicated the gang members. “Have to contact Juvie and ... I’m afraid I’m going to have to take you downtown with the rest of them, Kiko. I’m going to need some kind of statement, and then we’ll get you home.”

 

“No.” Kiko shook his head, stared balefully up at Hutch. “Not home ...”

 

“But your mom’s worried about you. Your sister will ...”

 

“Will wait. I’ve got a few things I want to say to Molly about leaving the house after I told her not to. But ... there’s something else I have to do before I can go home. Something I have to tell someone.”

 

“Starsky?”

 

Kiko nodded, and his big brother squeezed the thin shoulders.

 

“I know I’ve said this before, but I don’t think it’ll hurt to say it again. You’re growing up, Kiko, and I’m proud of you, very proud.” There was a slight pause, then Hutch continued. “But if you ever pull something like this again, I’m going to personally kick your ass. Comprende?”

 

Hutch’s face was dead pan, and Kiko couldn’t be sure if this was a real threat or not. He decided not to chance it. “Comprendo!”

 

*******

 

Sunlight trickled through the half-closed Venetian blinds, danced playfully across the dark green floor. The room was warm and cheerful, filled with flowers and cards wishing a speedy recovery to the occupant. In the corner, a four-foot tall, four-foot round stuffed teddy bear reposed, gazing at the two men with his soulful plastic eyes.

 

“So Juvie’s taking over the case, huh?” Starsky shifted painfully on the bed, reached for a glass of water.

 

Hutch stopped him with a raised hand, retrieved the glass, held it so Starsky could quench his thirst without using up his sparse strength.

 

“Yep,” he answered, replacing the glass on the bedside table. “It’s out of our hands except for your testimony.

 

“And Kiko’s. Hey, are you gonna ...” His sentence was interrupted by the entrance of Nurse Kelly. She flashed a radiant smile in his direction, held up a glass thermometer.

 

“Not again!” Starsky’s eyebrows knit together into a frown. “You just took my temperature ten minutes ago.”

 

“Thirty minutes ago. Every thirty minutes until we’re sure the fever’s not on the rise again. You had a pretty bad infection. Now, open wide.”

 

Starsky clamped his teeth together, shot her a look of open defiance.

 

“Starsk, let the nurse take your temperature.”

 

Teeth still firmly clenched together, Starsky grunted a negative ”Unh unh.”

 

Nurse Kelly sighed, shook her head and left the room.

 

“Now look what you did. Poor woman, just tryin’ to do her job, tryin’ to make you feel better. Aren’t you ashamed?” Exasperated, Hutch looked away. “You know, Starsk, you’re showing a stubborn side I didn’t know you had.”

 

His partner opened his mouth to reply, immediately shut it again as the nurse returned. She looked pointedly at Starsky, held out the thermometer. “I’ll give you one more chance to change your mind.”

 

Starsky snorted, gave Hutch a smug ‘what can she do’ glance, and shook her head.

 

“Will you give me a hand with him?”

 

“Sure.” Hutch stood up, ignoring the puzzled looks from the bed, leaned over the raised rail.

 

“What’re you doin’? Hutch?”

 

“Never mind him. If you’re going to act like a baby, I’m just going to have to treat you like one.” To Hutch. “Ease him onto his side ... gently ... okay, that’s fine.”

 

“No, you don’t ... you can’t do that! Hutch, what’re you helpin’ her for?”

 

The big blond flashed a huge grin and ignored his partner.

 

Nurse Kelly pulled the sheet down a bit, checked the reading on a different thermometer, smiled sweetly and inserted it.

 

Shocked, Starsky jerked his head up. He looked first at Hutch, then at the nurse. “Hey, that’s not fair!”

 

“It’s my game, honey. My territory. My rules. And anything’s fair when it comes to getting you well. Got that, mister?”

 

Defeated, the curly head relaxed against the pillow. “In more ways than one.”

 

“Good!” After a moment, the nurse removed the instrument, checked the reading. “Down half a degree from last time. Keep this up and we’ll have you out of here in a couple of days.”

 

“Terrific. I’ll miss your pretty face.”

 

Nurse Kelly patted his naked rump and smiled. “And I’ll miss yours.”

 

*****END*****

 

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