Out of the Mists

 

Chapter Three

 

Huggy sighed heavily as he plucked yet another glass from the antiseptic rinse and dried it.  The lunch crowd was pretty much gone, and the sole proprietor of Huggy Bear’s Restaurant had quite a few things to accomplish before the dinner bunch made their way in.  Of course, the usual dinnertime crowd was more interested in liquid nourishment than food, but that was okay with Huggy.  Generally, the drunker a patron became, the more money he or she spent, and the more profitable the whole transaction became.  Still, sometimes Huggy wished he didn’t have to spend what seemed like every waking hour baby-sitting drunks and arguing with them over whether or not they needed a taxi to take them home.

 

Huggy stared morosely out the front windows of his restaurant, mindlessly wiping the top of the already spotless wooden bar.  He missed the regular visits by his favorite detective team.  Of course, he’d still seen them since Hutch had gone undercover, but instead of coming in together and entertaining Huggy with their unlikely stories and good-natured banter, they came in separately now, careful not to show up at the same time.  Somehow, it just wasn’t the same, and Huggy was more than a little worried.  Starsky had been using him as a combination sounding board/therapist, and his deep-seated fears and worries over his partner had even permeated Huggy’s carefully constructed nonchalance.  It was hard not to worry after listening to Starsky for hours at a time; it was even harder to look into those piercing blue eyes and not feel the tension and concern that radiated from their depths.

 

Huggy’s reverie was interrupted when the front door of the restaurant opened and a short disheveled man came in, allowing the door to slam behind him.  Huggy recognized him immediately and his upper lip curled in disgust.

 

“I thought you left town,” Huggy said with more than a hint of disdain in his voice.  “And if Starsky finds you here, you’ll wish you had.  That door swings in both directions, and I suggest you use it to¾

 

“Hold on, just a minute,” the man replied, his entire body shaking in the beginning throes of what promised to be a bad bout of the DT’s.  “Where’s Starsky?  Have you seen him?”

 

“Now, why would I tell you, even if I had seen him?  It was all I could do to convince him not to kill you after that little stunt you pulled.  You ratted on his partner, man; you might as well have held a loaded pistol to your head and pulled the trigger.  You’re lucky Hutch was in such bad shape afterward.”  The bartender’s jaw muscles hardened at the memory.  “Otherwise, Starsky would’ve hunted you down like the lowlife scum you are.”

 

“Look.”  Mickey extended his shaking hands, pleading.  “I made a mistake.  B-but I know somethin’ now, and I know Starsky would wanna know.  And I thought mebbe he’d be willin’ to front me a little cash, you know, just ’til I get back on my feet¾

 

“Get outta here!” Huggy snarled menacingly.  “I’m gonna do you a huge favor and not tell Starsky you was here.  But I’m warnin’ ya...you show that ugly mug of yours in here again and I’ll personally see to it that Starsky has you to himself for as long as it takes.  And I may just pull up a chair and watch.”

 

Mickey swallowed nervously, the shaking in his limbs even more pronounced.  “H-hold on.  Just gimme a minute.  I have news for him.”  He seemed to struggle with himself for a moment, but one look at Huggy’s face told him he’d better start talking, and fast.  “It’s about Hutch...”

 

Huggy slammed the used towel down onto the bar and, placing his hands on the smooth wooden surface, leaned toward the other, his voice no more than a clenched whisper.  “You have exactly five seconds to start talkin’, Mickey, and after that, I’m gonna tie you to one of these bar stools, call Starsky, and let him come rip you to pieces.  So if you know somethin’, you better start talkin’, and this better be good.”

 

For several moments, there was no sound in the restaurant as the two men stared at each other over the bar.  Finally, Mickey began to speak.  “Hutch’s been undercover, workin’ for Vic Monte, ain’t that right?”

 

He now had Huggy’s undivided attention.  “Assuming that was true, how would you know?  I thought you left town.”

 

“Yeah, well, I’m back.  A-and an old friend of mine runs numbers for Monte and gave me the scoop.  You know.  Thought mebbe I’d be interested ’cause I narked on Hutch before.  Only I figured Starsky’s been good to me, really good, and I thought if I told him this, mebbe he’d forget the past and we could go on like old times.  I...I really need a drink.”

 

Huggy reached behind the bar and pulled out a clean glass.  With a flourish, he tipped it under the tap and expertly filled it with beer, a long stream of foam sliding down the side of the glass to drip onto the floor.  Holding the glass aloft, he took a long draw, his eyes locked onto Mickey’s.

 

“You want this beer?”

 

Mickey said nothing, licking his lips in anticipation.  He nodded anxiously.

 

“Then tell me what ya got about Hutch, and I’ll decide whether or not to call Starsky.”

 

Nothing could have prepared Huggy for Mickey’s reply.  “Hutch’s cover’s been blown.  Monte knows.”

 

The glass shattered as it hit the floor.

 

˜ 

 

 “I understand your concern,” Dobey was practically shouting.  “But Hutch and his partner are the best I have, and if they feel Hutch should still be under, then he stays under!  End of discussion.”

 

“No, this is not the end of the discussion, Captain!” McMillian replied vehemently.  “The Bureau’s reconsidered.  We can map out another way to finish the job and go after Singapore.  Keeping Hutchinson in now isn’t worth the risk.  I’m telling you, Captain, if anything happens to him and we lose his testimony¾

 

“His testimony?  Is that all you care about, his testimony?”  Dobey walked from behind his desk and crossed to the windows, taking a deep breath.  “I know what’s at stake and so do Starsky and Hutch.  And believe me, they want Vic Monte as much as you do.  All I’m asking is that you trust them to do the right thing.  They’re not a couple of dumb rookies looking to go out in a blaze of glory.  And I can promise you this...”  Dobey turned and jabbed a finger in the FBI man’s face.  “There’s not a person in this Department that will be more careful with Hutch’s safety than his partner.  Not me, not you, and not him,” he said, jerking his thumb in the direction of Richardson, who was watching the interchange silently. 

 

“I hope you’re right, Captain, because the Bureau cannot afford to start this over again should something happen.  And I can promise you this,” he added, pointing his own finger in Dobey’s face, “if something does happen to ruin this investigation, we will hold you personally responsible.  Do you understand?”

 

Dobey sighed deeply and returned to his chair, slumping into it.  “I understand.  And I also understand¾” His reply was cut short by the ringing of the telephone.

 

He snatched the phone off the cradle and barked into it, “Dobey here.  I thought I told you to hold my calls!  I can’t¾   Okay, put him through.”  He held his massive hand over the receiver and directed his next remarks to the two men seated opposite him.  “It’s a contact...a friend of Starsky and Hutch’s.  He says it’s urgent and, knowing his track record, I’d say it probably is.”

 

He turned his attention back to the telephone.  “Dobey here,” he said again, only this time much more subdued. 

 

The two men looked on as they listened to the one-sided conversation, noting with alarm the captain’s grip tightening on the telephone as his voice rose with every response.

 

“Go ahead, Huggy.  What?  Are you sure?  Who told you this?  Absolutely reliable?  Does Hutch know?  You can’t—?  Did you try him at—?  You keep trying, I’ll take care of Starsky.”  With that, he slammed down the phone, only to pick it up again immediately afterward and punch a different line.  “Get me Detective Starsky, and I mean now!”

 

A long moment of silence followed, and the agent and DA stared at the captain, watching the play of emotions cross the man’s face.  He appeared to be listening to someone for a couple of seconds, then with a curt, “Well, keep trying, and let me know as soon as you reach him,” hung up the phone.

 

McMillian and Richardson looked at Dobey expectantly as he finally raised his eyes to them.  He spoke without preamble, allowing the content of his message to convey his concern.

 

“Hutchinson’s cover has been blown and I don’t think he knows it yet.”

 

˜ 

 

Starsky returned from the Mexican take-out counter, carrying a grease-stained bag, the contents of which would have given his partner heartburn for a week.  His next stop was to follow up with Huggy to find out what, if anything, he’d heard on the street about Hutch’s arrest and return to Vic Monte’s fold. 

 

Approaching the Torino, he heard the unmistakable squawk of the police radio.  He had left the driver’s side window rolled down just a crack, and Mildred’s voice carried to him clearly in spite of the noise from the parking lot. 

 

“Zebra Three.  Come in, Zebra Three.  Do you copy?  Over.”

 

Hurrying the last few steps to his vehicle, Starsky set the sack on the roof of the car.  After unlocking and opening the door, he retrieved the microphone.  “This is Zebra Three.  Go ahead.”

 

“Starsky?  Is that you?”  Mildred’s voice seemed to have a slight catch in it, and Starsky wasn’t sure if he had imagined it or not.

 

“Yeah, Mildred, it’s me.  You were expecting Cary Grant?”   

 

“I have a patch from Captain Dobey on Tach Two.”

 

“Switching to Tach Two.”  Starsky stood as he waited, and fished through the bags and drew out a taco.  He had just taken a second bite when the radio crackled to life.

 

“Starsky?”

 

“Right here, Cap’n.  What’s up?”

 

“Is Hutch with you?” 

 

Alarm bells went off in Starsky’s head as soon as he heard the strain in his captain’s voice.  Suddenly losing interest in the food, he tossed the remainder of it back in the bag and swallowed.  “Of course, he’s not with me.  What’s going on?  What happened?”

 

There was a brief silence, and Starsky tried to prepare himself for the captain’s next words.  “Starsky,” Dobey began, his voice unsteady.  “We received a tip about twenty minutes ago that Hutch’s cover has been blown.  I’ve been trying to get in touch with him, but there’s no answer at his place and no one’s heard from him.  I think you’d better get over there.”

 

Starsky looked down at his watch.  “He’s supposed to check in in fifteen minutes.”

 

“You want to wait that long?” 

 

“I’m on my way.”  Starsky threw the microphone toward the passenger seat and jumped into the car without another thought.  As he peeled out of the parking lot, the bag of takeout food tumbled to the blacktop, forgotten.

 

˜ 

 

Starsky could see the flashing red lights from the fire trucks as soon as he turned the corner.  Fear ran through him, a tightening band of pressure wrapping around his chest. 

 

He floored the Torino, the cars in his path a blur as he wove in and out of traffic until he finally screeched to a halt, bouncing the sedan against the curb before coming to a rest.

 

Starsky bolted down the canal side walkway, slowing only to push aside the gawkers gathered around the fire department’s barricade.  Slipping between the hastily erected sawhorses, Starsky flashed his badge at a young firefighter attempting crowd control, and watched as two more hauled the hose from their pumper truck through the open door.

 

“That’s my partner’s house—Detective Ken Hutchinson.  Where is he?  Was he in there?”

 

“I don’t know, Detective.”  The young blond shook his head.  “We just arrived on the scene a few minutes ago.”

 

Starsky nodded and spun away, charging through the yard.  Before he made it to the door, the firefighter was beside him, grabbing him by the arm in an attempt to pull him away.

 

“You can’t go in there, sir!  We don’t know how much structural damage there is, or—”

 

Starsky’s face contorted in rage and fear.  “My partner may be in there!”

 

“Look, I’m sorry, but I can’t allow you to—”

 

Starsky’s Beretta was out in a second, leveled at the young man’s chest.  A collective cry went up from the gathering crowd behind the barricades.  The firefighter stepped away, his arms upraised in a gesture of surrender. 

 

Starsky holstered his weapon as he tore through the yard, pulling the collar of his jacket up to his face as a shield against the thick gray smoke pouring out of the house.  He hit the doorway running and leapt over the fire hose. 

 

“Huuuutch?”  Starsky followed the hose through the living room to the kitchen, where firefighters were dousing the last of the flames within the charred ruins of the small room.  He could hear them demanding that he leave, their voices muffled through their breathing apparatus.  Ignoring their warnings, he raced to the bedroom and bathroom, keeping bent over and as low to the floor as he could, to avoid the suffocating smoke that hung like a cloud.  Starsky began to feel its effects, burning his eyes and lungs, and causing him to cough and choke. 

 

Through the thickening haze, Starsky recognized signs that Hutch had been in his house recently.  The clothes he’d been wearing the night of his arrest were carelessly tossed on the bed, his boots kicked off nearby as well.  Starsky dropped to the floor and quickly peered under the bed. 

 

Staggering to his feet, Starsky coughed fiercely, his eyes tearing from the billowing smoke.  Unable to draw sufficient breath, he lurched out of the room to the closet just inside the doorway.  Jerking the door open, his fears were confirmed, as they had been once before, by the swinging holster containing Hutch’s Python. 

 

As the room began to spin, Starsky determined that the firefighters had successfully extinguished the fire in the kitchen, though more were charging in.  When his face hit the carpet, he was still conscious enough to realize he had fallen into something wet and dark.  Starsky’s hand shook as he reached out to touch it, and the last thing he remembered before slipping into oblivion was that his fingertips were covered in blood.

 

˜ 

 

After he was roused, Starsky was treated on the scene for smoke inhalation.  An oxygen mask was clamped over his nose and mouth, and Captain Dobey placed a secure arm under his shoulders and helped him out into the yard, cradling the oxygen canister in the other.  The senior officer wasn’t surprised that Starsky had refused further treatment or to be sent to the hospital for examination. 

 

Sitting the winded detective on the hood of a patrol car, Dobey demanded that Starsky “stay put” for a moment to get his breathing stabilized.  Meanwhile, the captain ushered in the investigating officers once they were given the “all clear” by the fire department.  Dobey returned fifteen minutes later to check on Starsky, and the two returned to Hutch’s cottage to watch as the forensics team gathered evidence. 

 

Still dazed from smoke inhalation and coughing furiously, Starsky wandered about the house, his tennis shoes occasionally sloshing through the residual water from the hoses.  As he examined the condition of the cottage, his trained eye determined immediately that the disarray was not completely caused by the fire department’s rescue efforts.  Overturned plants and furniture in the living room, and books heaved from their case well out of the path of the firefighters and their equipment, spoke of a struggle, as did the telltale stains of blood leading to the door.  The pounding of Starsky’s heart had nothing to do with the smoke that seared his lungs.

 

“Starsky!”  Captain Dobey stepped out of the charred remains of the kitchen and beckoned the detective.  Starsky quickly crossed the room to get his first clear look at the fire damage.  The blaze seemingly started at the stove; the blackened unit was singed, as were the surrounding walls and cabinets in large streaked sections.  The linoleum around the oven was warped and buckled from the terrific heat.  A pot lay off to one side of the room, a dark substance still clinging to the side. 

 

“Starsky, this is Chief Dobson from Rampart.  He’s got some information that might be helpful.” 

 

Starsky nodded at the chief and tried to clear his aching throat.  “So what do you think caused the fire?  What about my partner?”

 

Dobson scanned the room again with an experienced eye.  “While it might look like something on the stove caught fire, we don’t think that’s what happened.  This was arson, and a sloppy job at that.”

 

Dobey raised an eyebrow.  “How can you be sure?”

 

Dobson pointed to different areas around the room.  “See how the scorch marks are generated in one place?  Where the soot is more congested is where someone splashed an inflammatory material—probably a liquid agent—to expedite the combustion.  There’s similar residue throughout the apartment that we’re getting samples of.  Shouldn’t take the lab much effort to pinpoint it.” 

 

Dobson crossed the room, then stooped to pick up the discarded pot by hooking his pencil through the open handle.  “Now, this...this tells me that the occupant—”

 

“My partner,” Starsky rasped, his voice graveled by more than the smoke inhalation. 

 

“Detective Hutchinson, right.  See how there’s something—stew, or maybe soup—clinging to the sides?  It’s still fairly moist.”

 

“So it didn’t burn up on the stove and start the fire,” Dobey interjected.

 

“Right.”  Dobson pointed to a darkened spot on the floor near the stove; a blackened residue lay on some of the warped tiles.  “It looks like the pot and whatever was in it got knocked off the stove and landed in this area, then caught fire.  The pot was either kicked to the other side of the room, or rolled.  Or maybe just got knocked over here when my men brought the hose in and sprayed.  It’s hard to say, and may not be important, other than the fact that it wasn’t the cause of the fire.”

 

Starsky prowled the small room, then stopped, staring out into the living room where the forensics team was snipping carpet fiber samples from the bloodied area by the door. 

 

When Starsky finally spoke, his voice was a whisper.  “But where’s my partner?” 

 

˜ 

 

An APB was issued on Hutch, and Captain Dobey assigned a special task force to begin scouring the city for the missing detective.  FBI Agent McMillian also put a half-dozen additional men on the case and began working diligently with the commissioner and DA to shore up the case against Vic Monte “just in case.” 

 

Starsky immediately hit the streets, operating on sheer determination and desperate adrenaline.  The first day revealed nothing from his and Hutch’s snitches and informants.  It was as if his partner had vanished into thin air.  Huggy called in every favor owed him, and offered a few of his own, for any word on Hutch’s disappearance. 

 

Starsky personally interviewed every one of Hutch’s neighbors, including the half-dozen homes lining the single road that led to the cottage.  The results were all the same: no one saw or heard anything unusual that night until the closest neighbor smelled smoke when he went outside his house and went to investigate.  Out of desperation, Starsky also followed up with the nearby marina, in the event that someone who’d been boating had seen or heard anything and mentioned it to the staff there.

 

The forensics lab’s confirmations offered little hope.  The accelerant used to fan the blaze in the apartment was simply kerosene, which could have been purchased at any gas station. 

 

The bloodstain Starsky found on the carpet was reported as a positive match to Hutch.  With every hour that sped by, the sense of desperation lingering in the back of Starsky’s mind intensified, along with his fear.

 

˜ 

 

By evening, exhaustion warred with the desperation to find his partner.  Starsky went back to the squadroom to review the forensics report and check in with the other detectives assigned to what was now officially designated as an “officer missing” case.  Word of Hutch’s undercover assignment and staged arrest had quickly spread throughout the precinct, and his fellow officers responded instantly with their support and vows of doing whatever necessary to find him.  Starsky found some small comfort in knowing the display of unity stemmed from far more than a need for absolution for some of their earlier feelings of outrage and disgust when they had thought Hutch was dirty.  His partner had earned his coworkers’ respect and admiration years ago, and was worthy of their support now.

 

Starsky could hear the furious exchange well before he even entered the squadroom, and was not surprised when he heard Captain Dobey’s voice.  As he entered, Starsky recognized McMillian’s angry voice in the captain’s office as well. 

 

Without preamble, he joined the fray, his sudden appearance catching Dobey, McMillian, and another man Starsky didn’t know off-guard.  “Have you found out anything about Hutch?”

 

The new man snorted and looked at Starsky crossly.  “We planned to ask you the same thing, Detective.”

 

Dobey stabbed his finger in the agent’s direction.  “What do you think Starsky’s been doing all day, waxing his car?”  After a moment of tense silence, the captain threw his pencil onto the desk.  “Starsky, this is Stuart Endicott, McMillian’s partner.”  When he saw the tension in the detective’s face, he continued in a more reasonable tone.  “You got anything?”

 

It took Starsky a moment to drag his gaze away from the agents to meet his superior’s sympathetic one.  “Nothing.  It’s like he disappeared off the face of the earth.”

 

“You think it was Vic Monte?”

 

Starsky nodded marginally.  “He’s got the most to gain.  It’d be a helluva coincidence if it was somebody else.”

 

McMillian took a step in Starsky’s direction.  “Look, I don’t think I need to tell you how important it is that Hutchinson is found.  Without his testimony, our case against Monte is¾

 

Starsky’s eyes blazed.  “You think I give a damn about your case right now?” 

 

¾circumstantial, and we won’t have a leg to stand on in court.  We need Hutchinson!”

 

You need Hutchinson?  I...” Starsky stood mere inches from the agent’s face, every muscle in his body tensed, ready to strike.  The air was electric as Starsky uncoiled and pulled himself away from McMillian, turned and stormed out of the office.

 

“Starsky!”  The urgency in Dobey’s voice was enough to stop him, but Starsky didn’t turn or acknowledge him further.  Dobey’s voice softened.  “We’ve been here before, Starsky.  You’ll find him.”

 

The detective’s shoulders sagged marginally before he burst open the squadroom doors, his rage barely in check.   

 

˜ 


 

Chapter Four