Starsky and Hutch, along with everyone else in the 9th Precinct, were convinced their jurisdiction was hosting a massive criminal convention. There were murders, attempted murders, assaults of all sorts, robberies, burglaries, and more. What wore on them most of all, however, was the gang of purse snatchers targeting old ladies, several of whom hadn’t survived the violence of being pushed to the ground and kicked repeatedly.
Even with cops reassigned temporarily to the 9th from other precincts, the partners had put in sixteen- to twenty-hour days for almost two weeks. Though physically exhausted, what was worse was their near emotional collapse. They were almost thrilled to get a call about some “fierce intel” from one of Starsky’s snitches, which meant they had the opportunity to be out of the interminable action, at least for a short time.
Hutch, sitting in the passenger seat of the Torino, breathed through his mouth in a mostly successful attempt to not smell the stench of the alley where Alfie had said he’d meet them. He added a silent chant, but that did nothing to quell his nerves and the distressing, soul-tormenting need that niggled at the perimeter of his consciousness. Instead, he turned his attention to Starsky.
The song on the Torino’s radio had Starsky seat-dancing and enthusiastically playing an air guitar, warning him to be careful not to get hit by the invisible “woodstock.”
Hutch was momentarily jealous of his friend’s ability to find joy in the middle of the tragic madness of their job. He laughed despite his sour mood and said, “That’s ‘headstock,’ you moron.”
“I say it’s ‘woodstock,’ ’cause that’s where Joe Cocker played his.”
Hutch chuckled, almost always entertained by the workings of Starsky’s brain and his knowledge of the obscure. He was aware his own spirits were lifting considerably.
“That was Chuck Berry and Johnny B. Goode,” the female DJ said in her trademark honeyed voice. “We’re halfway through the Guitar Heroes Hour on 99-KZAM, 99.3 on your FM dial. I’ll be right back after this word from our sponsors.”
Starsky took a deep breath, not quite a sigh. “You think Alfie’s forgotten about meeting us?”
Hutch hunched up one shoulder. “I don’t know what to think. If his tip is as ‘fierce’ as he claims it is, I’m concerned he could be in trouble.”
“Was thinkin’ the same thing, partner. But Alfie is real good at evasion. At least he learned something useful from his time in ‘Nam as a LRRP. And he knows the alleys and sewer system better’n anybody. Feels safe there.”
“I had no idea. Do you know why?”
“Yeah, well… That’s his story to tell, ya know.”
“How do you know all that about him?”
“He saw me in my fatigue jacket when I was scrounging through some trash barrels lookin’ for evidence when I was putting in my month in Narcotics. You were in –”
“Vice,” Hutch finished for him.
“Anyway, we got to talkin’… well, he got to talkin’. I just listened.”
Of course, Starsky kept his yap shut about ‘Nam. “I just wish he felt safe somewhere that smells better.” Hutch paused. “So Alfie can recon and evade with the best of ’em. That still doesn’t mean he hasn’t run into the bad guys.”
Starsky nodded. “Yeah, I guess so. If he’s not here by the end of the next song, we make like alley cats, okay, Mr. Mistoffefleas?”
Starsky’s read Eliot’s cat poems? “It’s Mr. Mistoffelees. Unless you’re implying I’m infested with –”
“If the flea collar fits, Mister M.” Starsky’s cheeky grin lit up the darkness inside the car.
Hutch’s need diminished a little more. “Fine, Rum Tum Tugger. After the next song, we go on the prowl.”
“Only after a saucer of beer. A big one. Or maybe one of those fancy drinks made with my namesake. You know, with an umbrella.”
“No way! This town can’t take a drunk tum cat on the loose.”
They fell into a comfortable silence while they listened to someone encouraging people to buy something they didn’t need and watched for Alfie to appear.
“Welcome back, good people,” the DJ crooned. “I thought we’d take this in the opposite direction from Mr. Berry’s electrifying picking. Our next hero is folk rocker Neil Young performing solo on a haunting lone acoustic guitar. Here’s The Needle and the Damage Done.”
Hutch gasped at the startling speed of Starsky’s hand reaching for the radio. Without thinking and almost as fast, Hutch reached out, stilling Starsky’s intention of either turning off the radio or changing the dial. He looked at Starsky, and thought he read terror in his friend’s eyes as if he were being chased by rabid dogs.
“Hey! I like that song,” Hutch said, even though the truth was that he needed to hear that song every so often. And he needed it now, he realized. Karma must have tuned in to him.
He watched as the terror quickly morphed into an angry crimson mask, eyes a dark blue fire.
“Fine,” Starsky ground out, making Hutch’s skin prickle with alarm. Without another word, Starsky ejected himself from the Torino and jogged toward the rear before Hutch could open his mouth to ask what the problem was. He turned in his seat to watch Starsky lean his butt against the trunk.
Hutch, though wanting to follow his friend, stayed in the car to feed his need. He listened to the artist’s voice and the guitar weeping their melodic anguish and loss. He was soon panting and perspiring slightly. By the end of the first verse, he was so strongly reminded in so few words of the allure of riding that horse and the inherent danger of being trampled to dust under its proverbial hooves. By the end of the second verse, he inhaled sharply and held the breath until the end of the song.
That’s when he had an epiphany: Starsky was still deeply tormented by their shared experience.
Hutch, trembling from the desired effects of the song and his concern for Starsky, quickly got out of the car and headed for his partner.
He didn’t need to see Starsky’s face to know that he was feeling pain and fear; his body language clearly told the tale. Starsky’s head slumped forward over his chest, over which his arms were crossed. His legs were crossed at the ankles. His body vibrated visibly. What little of his exposed skin that Hutch could see, it shone with sweat, even under the dim lights in the alley.
Hutch joined him, copying his position. After a few moments of edgy silence, he turned his head toward Starsky’s strong, sullen profile. “You wanna talk about it, buddy?” he asked as gently as he could manage, trying desperately to cover his anxiety.
Starsky snorted. “Hate that damn song.” Even though muttered, he was able to convey his emphatic disgust.
“That so? Well, I like it.” That made Starsky, wild-eyed and disbelieving, look at Hutch.
“What?” he said more calmly than Hutch expected.
“I like it. Well, maybe I should say I need it.”
“How the hell could you need that song? It’s… awful!” His voice quaked as much as his body. And Hutch wasn’t sure if the disgusted look was aimed at him or the song.
Hutch heard what Starsky couldn’t say: how he had almost lost Hutch and feared losing him to the seduction of something so captivating. How can I possibly explain this? He drew in a shaky breath.
“Well, I need it because it lets me know I’m not alone. You know, the heroin pretty much eliminated my physical pain, and that was a good thing ’cause I hurt like hell. But I got this incredible… rush from it, too. A… euphoria I’ve never felt before. Or since. I understand how some people get so easily hooked on it. Like Angel.”
Starsky nodded. “Yeah.” He fell silent. Hutch could tell Starsky was debating with himself on what to say next. Then, a heavy sigh. “Heard she left rehab again a couple weeks ago.” It was a whisper that carried the guilt of relapse as if it were Starsky’s.
He’s afraid he won’t be able to help me if I backslide. “Didn’t know that.”
“Huggy told me during the pool tournament at The Pits. You had a date that night. Didn’t tell you ’cause…” Starsky trailed off and looked away.
Crap. Another failure. Hutch decided it best not to continue with this topic. Starsky didn’t need any more salt in that wound. He had paired up with Huggy to help her get clean and stay that way. Like the determined and kindhearted people they were, they persisted despite her high recidivism rate.
Hutch cleared his throat, signaling a return to the original topic. “Sometimes, Starsk, after a really rough case or when things go south, I admit I want a hit. I wanna bring myself out of that, that… muck, and feel good, fantastic, human again. I wanna fly away from it all.” He paused, which made Starsky look at him again. The fear in his friend’s eyes almost choked him. “You understand?”
Starsky gave a feeble shrug of his tight shoulders. “Yeah, I guess. But beer is a better choice.”
Hutch snickered. Turning serious again, he continued, “I remember the damage done to me, to my confidence, to my soul. Until a few minutes ago, I thought that was all that kept me away from the needle.”
“What’s different now?” Starsky asked so softly that Hutch had to read his lips in the semi-darkness to know what he was saying.
Hutch stood up straight and walked around to face Starsky. “That damage was done to you, too, partner. And you were there for me the whole time I was withdrawing, even though I know you hurt just as badly as I did, maybe more. And you’re still hurting and afraid for me. I should’ve known before tonight how much.”
He moved in closer to Starsky. He placed his hand tenderly on Starsky’s neck and drew them together until their foreheads touched. He placed his other hand over Starsky’s heart. The hot tension under his hands melted as quickly as butter on the sun. In turn, Starsky put both his hands on Hutch’s waist.
“You know what’s stopped me every time?”
Starsky shrugged once more.
“You. I realize now that every time I thought about dosing, I thought of you and how much it would hurt you. I couldn’t hurt you like that, babe. Ever. You’re my fix, partner. My shot tonight was your clowning around with your air guitar.” He paused, and was not surprised to see a watery glint in Starsky’s eyes.
“Really?” Starsky sounded doubtful yet proud.
“Abso-fuckin’-lutely. And you’re a helluva lot cheaper than smack.” Hutch was pleased to see Starsky’s mouth start to curl into a smile.
“Who you callin’ cheap, Scrooge?”
“If the low price tag fits…”
The smile finally appeared. “You’re weird, babe.”
Hutch nodded. “And proud of it.” He paused. “You know, you kept, and still keep, my head on straight.” At Starsky’s tiny grunt, Hutch said, “Pun intended.”
Starsky chuckled. “I guess I could get to tolerate that record, since you need it sometimes. Anything you need, buddy.” After a pregnant pause, he added, “Well, almost anything.”
They stayed that way until Hutch straightened, releasing his hold on his friend and protector’s neck but keeping his hand on Starsky’s chest, and said, “I think it’s about time us alley cats start prowling.”
Starsky smiled softly. “Meow.”
“I think we merit a roar, Rum Tum.”
Starsky laughed, the genuine delight giving Hutch a booster shot. “Yeah, but not so loud we scare Alfie away.”
LRRP is pronounced “lurp” and stands for Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol.
The Needle and the Damage Done by Neil Young
I caught you knockin’ at my cellar door
I love you, baby, can I have some more
Ooh, ooh, the damage done.
I hit the city and I lost my band
I watched the needle take another man
Gone, gone, the damage done.
I sing the song because I love the man
I know that some of you don’t understand
Milk blood to keep from running out.
I’ve seen the needle and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie’s like a setting sun.
Many thanks to Suzan for the beta/edit.