Being a celebrity makes everything more complicated. In the three years since I dealt with Jerry Taybor's twisted revenge plot, and wrestled with my conscience to convince myself that I wasn't somehow responsible for those two innocent men he killed, my career skyrocketed. Ironic that it all really did get a kick-start in Pitsville, North Carolina, with a man who would eventually destroy himself over it. My friends and family have tried to convince me that a man like him would have destroyed himself over something else if it hadn't been for that, but who knows? I mean, a guy gets stabbed in the throat in a bar fight over a song on a jukebox, and his career is over. If his career hadn't been over, if he hadn't lost his voice, if he hadn't played my song over and over again...if, if, if...
I avoided playing anyplace in Bay City or its environs after that. For two whole tours, I ignored the Saddle Bar, which I'd always made it a point to visit at least once every time out before everything happened. I don't know why I picked on Bay City; I'd been getting his phone calls all over the country. But no one died in those other towns.
I never forgot the two police detectives who put their all into helping me, into stopping a killer, and even into crossing over into my world. Ken Hutchinson would be one hell of a singer if the poor guy didn't die of stage fright before getting the first note out of his mouth. When we decided to sing "Lovin' Arms" that night at the Saddle Bar, I thought I noticed a little flash of something in his partner's face--something like disappointment or...or...I don't know. At the time, it reminded me of the look on my little sister's face the day she found out I was dating a boy she liked. It looked like a little jealousy, a little hurt...a little like the way somebody looks when they just got left out of something real important.
His whole expression changed, so fast that I was never really sure if the look I saw was just my imagination, or if it had really been there. He was all excited then, encouraging Hutch, goading him into doing it. I didn't realize that at all those police barbecues, Dave Starsky was usually sitting not two feet away from his partner, singing along. There's another one who would have a nice voice, if he didn't feel compelled to be such an over the top ham when he used it.
Oddly enough, in the last few years, it was Dave Starsky who often flashed into my mind. His smile, his polite chivalry, his impishness and his humor, the New York accent that colored his speech. He was one of the most alive people I'd ever met. He could be horribly annoying, but so endearingly enthusiastic that it was almost impossible to be as angry with him as you wanted to be. I always wanted to write Hutch and ask him what he did when he caught him, after they tore out of the bar that night, Starsky mumbling about putting a dime in the meter and running for his life, with Hutch in hot pursuit. Like a couple of silly kids fighting with each other. Cops who faced death by day and clowned around like children by night. Even in the brief time I spent with them, I could tell their friendship was what held them together. Their shared laughter and affection for each other made the job bearable.
So, when I finally came to grips with playing the Civic Arena in Bay City, I sent them front row tickets and backstage passes. Partly to thank them for their kindness and their concern during one of the worst times of my life, and partly because I wanted to see them again. I wanted to feel the warmth and the joy that seemed to radiate from that friendship one more time.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived in Bay City and found a message from Captain Dobey waiting at my hotel. Detective Starsky was in the hospital, in intensive care, fighting for his life after suffering multiple gunshot wounds. Well, Captain Dobey had said "recovering," but when the rest of the message said that Detective Hutchinson was there almost around the clock, but thanked me for my thoughtfulness, I knew what it meant.
You don't sit vigils around the clock for someone who's recovering. It's when they're not recovering that you either wait minute by minute through a living hell of praying that they'll pull through, or you simply sit a death watch, waiting in a sort of quiet agony for them to finally succumb, as you've known all along they would.
It couldn't be true. Dave Starsky, with his impish grin and those impossibly blue eyes that held so much life and love and kindness in them--he simply couldn't die. If he did, what would be left of the quiet, sensitive, musician-cop who was his partner?
Well, a simple little thing like visiting a sick friend isn't simple when your last album just went double platinum. It becomes a carefully orchestrated operation, akin to a visit by the President of the United States. Security, limousine, overwrought manager on the alert for deranged fans... I should have just snuck out of the hotel, but then my luck with Bay City hasn't been good in the past, and I'm not a lady who likes to tempt fate.
It was four in the afternoon when I approached the ICU. I finally told Cal and his band of human guard dogs to park themselves in a waiting room and let me go on my own. I told him most of the nurses looked relatively harmless, and I figured I could make the journey without my own version of the Secret Service tagging along.
There was a tall blond man at the nurses' station, talking solemnly to one of the older women there--I guessed she was probably some kind of supervisor. I honestly had to do a double-take to recognize Ken Hutchinson. His hair was longer and he had a mustache now, but that wasn't what threw me. Those handsome features were so battered by fatigue and fear and soul-deep pain that I honestly wouldn't have known the man if I'd bumped into him on the street. I would have known, however, that he was a man in pain.
All of a sudden, he looked up. I guess my hovering near the opposite end of the counter finally got his attention. He looked at me blankly for a few seconds, as if he weren't even capable of dealing with me or anyone else. For a minute there, I was sorry I'd come. It seemed like an intrusion on a very intimate, painful situation that had nothing to do with me. After all, I was one case out of how many hundred these men must have handled. The great Sue Ann Grainger was just one more crime victim, one more name on a file folder. The entire world was not in awe of me because of my big hit album. I'd always known that, but it was never driven home as poignantly as it was at that moment. What weighed on Ken Hutchinson's mind--and heart--was so much bigger than fame or fortune or hit records, that it suddenly snapped life into perspective again. Love and life is what matters. Hit records are nice if you can get them, but they aren't what life is made of. Having someone love you so much that your confinement to ICU ravages them that way--what greater gift can you have? Doesn't matter how many people buy your records... I knew right then that Dave Starsky--who probably worried about bills and making ends meet on a cop's salary--was richer than I'd ever been in my life. Richer for having someone ache for him this way.
"Sue Ann?" Ken managed a smile, and there was genuine surprise in his tone as he approached me and we exchanged a brief, friendly hug and peck on the cheek. I had the strongest inclination to hold onto him--he looked so much as if he needed someone else to be strong for him for a change. Instead, I let go, stepping back with a smile.
"Captain Dobey left a message at my hotel," I said. "I wanted to stop by and see Dave, if he can have visitors. I wanted to have a chance to see you both while I was in town, and...oh, I'm so sorry about what happened," I finally said, and for a moment, I thought he was going to cry, but he didn't. He gave me another little smile and a nod.
"Starsky'd love to see you. He'll be really excited to know you came here just to visit him," Ken said, as if the man who had been riddled with some criminal's bullets in the line of duty and lay near death should be honored by a visit from someone who's biggest occupational perils are getting her hotel reservations lost or figuring out how to get around a crowd of adoring autograph-seekers. "Thanks for coming," he added, as if his mind had needed the time to catch up, to figure out what was the polite thing to say.
"How is he?" How do you think? If he were doing well, would his partner look this devastated?
"We thought he was doing better--he, uh, went through a cardiac arrest the day after the shooting, and, uh...he pulled through that, but he was in a coma for a few days..." Hutch pushed his hair back, and I noticed his hand was shaking. His face was an odd color, almost gray-white. His eyes were exhausted. "He came around and he was doing better, but then the infection set in and his fever shot up...he's in and out. More out than in right now."
"I'm sorry. He's strong, though. You can't give up hope."
"Yeah, he's strong...but...he took three bullets. They tore him up pretty badly, and there's just so much a body can--" He stopped talking and swallowed. I could see his eyes filling. It occurred to me then how alone he was. Ready to drop from fatigue, sick with worry...and alone.
"Does he have any family?"
"In New York. His mother knows he's in the hospital, but she thinks he's doing better. Before he got so sick with the fever, he made me promise not to worry her." Ken sighed. "His father was shot and killed in the line of duty, and she's already terribly upset about all this. But it would mean more to him to shield her from seeing him this way."
"Have you slept recently? You won't do him much good if you collapse yourself."
"He needs me. He drifts in and out." He paused. "Would you like to see him? I don't know if he'll know you're here, but if he does...I know it will mean a lot to him."
"You sure it would be okay?" I asked, flicking a quick glance at the nurses' station.
"It'll be fine. Come on."
He took a light hold of my elbow and steered me down the hall toward the room. As soon as we were inside, the reality of what Dave had been through hit me like a ton of bricks. He was pale, but his cheeks were flushed with fever. Hospital machinery was everywhere. A monitor beeped in the background, keeping track of his heartbeat. His dark eyelashes fluttered a little as Ken approached the bed, and suddenly, I could understand why the exhausted man couldn't bear to be out of this room. No matter how wracked with fever or close to death the man in the bed was, he was very aware of his partner's presence. I watched the previously motionless fingers of the hand resting on the bed move slightly, and then saw why--Ken had moved close to the bed. He took a hold of the hand, closing it gently in his larger one.
"Starsk? Hey, buddy, you got a visitor," he said softly, using his free hand to smooth the sweaty curls off Dave's forehead. "Come on, babe. Open your eyes, huh? She's worth lookin' at, trust me," Hutch teased affectionately. In a moment, the lashes fluttered again and Dave's eyes opened, just to slits at first, then gradually all the way.
Opening his eyes was an effort. He was making the effort because of my visit. I felt a lump in my throat, and I felt honored. He might be dying, these might be some of their final minutes together, and they were trying to be the perfect hosts...just for me. Twenty thousand people in the Civic Arena that night would not make me feel so important.
"Remember me?" I asked, incredulous at how lame and useless and superficial the question sounded. You're in unspeakable pain, you're hovering near death, opening your eyes was an effort, but of course, you'll remember the great Sue Ann Grainger. "Couldn't visit Bay City without seeing a couple of my..." Was I really going to say "biggest fans?" I'm starting to believe my own press. "...my old friends," I concluded.
One corner of Dave's mouth twitched a little, and I knew he was trying to smile.
"Moonl...Moonlight..." He mumbled something else, but I couldn't make it out.
"'Moonlight' is his favorite song off your new album," Ken said, squeezing Dave's hand. "But his all-time favorite is still 'Lovin' Arms'."
"He sings it," Dave managed, his eyes fixing on his partner now, somehow accomplishing the smile he couldn't quite manage a moment ago. But looking at his partner, it seemed to just spread over his features, in spite of his weakness and his pain.
"Gettin' warm again, pal?" Ken asked, testing a washcloth that was hanging over the bed rail to see if it was a good temperature. It must have satisfied him, because he used it to cool Dave's face.
"Next time I come through Bay City, you two have front row seats for the show," I said, clueless as to what else to say. "Actually, you oughtta come up to Tahoe when I play there later this year. I can give you a rain check on the tickets and passes, and you can come up to that show. Of course, that means you have to get a move on and get outta this hospital bed," I concluded, hoping maybe, in some small way, I could give the man in the bed a little encouragement. Maybe make him feel as if I didn't think I was visiting his deathbed.
"I'll try," Dave said, his voice barely more than a whisper. "Hutch likes it at Tahoe. He'll be there for sure," he managed, smiling a little. Then his eyes drifted shut again, as if the whole thing had been too exhausting for him.
His words registered with Ken, and after a sick expression passed over his features, he got up and rushed out of the room.
"Hu--" The abandoned hand flopped a little helplessly on the bed, and I walked over, hesitantly, and took it in mine. Dave's face was even more flushed now, and his expression was troubled. He knew Ken was upset, and he knew he wasn't there, and he actually tried to pull his hand away, though he did little more than flex it ineffectively. "Hutch," he managed.
"It's okay, Dave. He just had to leave for a few minutes. He'll be right back," I said, picking up the cloth and cooling off his face.
"Go...Hutch," he breathed, without opening his eyes. He didn't care about cool compresses or visits from celebrities. His partner was upset, and Dave wanted whoever was there--it could have been me, a nurse, anyone--to go find him.
"I'll go make sure he's okay," I said. "You rest now," I added, which was useless, because I knew he wouldn't truly rest until Ken was located and back where he belonged.
I approached the nurses' station, and the same older woman Ken had been talking to when I came in was still there, making notes on a patient's chart.
"Did you see where Detective Hutchinson went?" I asked.
"Just to the men's room," she said, smiling. "You look familiar," she said, looking up at me again.
"Sue Ann Grainger," I said, holding out my hand, which she shook.
"Oh, my goodness. My husband has all your albums! You have to sign something for me to take home to him," she said, finally locating a blank notepad. "Please?"
"My pleasure," I said, smiling. I asked his name and wrote him a nice note. Business as usual. It was almost possible to forget for a moment the horrible reason I was there. Then I had a flash of inspiration. "Would you two like to come to the show tonight?"
"We planned to, but the tickets were sold out by the time we found out about it."
"If you come to the arena tonight, there'll be two front row tickets and two backstage passes waiting for you at the ticket counter."
"You're not serious?" She laughed a little, covering her heart with her hand.
"Absolutely. I had set them aside for Detective Hutchinson and his partner, but since they won't be able to use them, I'd like to see someone have them who'd really enjoy the show."
"Thank you so much. Oh, Donald will be so thrilled!" she effused. Then I caught sight of Ken coming down the hall, and I remembered my assignment from Starsky--to go get Hutch.
"I'll see you both tonight," I said, smiling and turning back to join Ken on his trek back to the room.
"I'm sorry. It was just...what he said in there." The blue eyes were bloodshot, and it was obvious he'd been crying. "Like I'd go without him," he added, trying to put a little humor back into things. Then the smile disappeared. "Like I want to go anywhere without him," he said, new tears filling the beleaguered eyes. "I can't lose him."
"He asked me to go find you. You probably should go back in. I think he's worried about you."
"Sue Ann...I'm sorry about this. I know it was a lot of trouble for you to come here, but Starsky really isn't...up to having company right now."
"It was more than worth it. I'd like to say good-bye to him if you don't mind."
"Sure." He led the way into the room, and Dave's hand was in motion on the bed again, reaching feebly for Ken's.
"Hey, buddy. I'm here." He enclosed the hand in both of his. Dave looked agitated, though he was obviously not up to conversation anymore. "Shhh. Rest, babe. I'm here. I'm right here," Ken soothed, looking at the washcloth a little sadly, knowing it wasn't cool anymore.
"I'll freshen that up," I said, making myself useful. I ran the cold water on it a while, then wrung it out and brought it back to Ken, who warmed it a second in one hand before using it on Dave's face.
"That's it, buddy. I'm here. It's okay."
"Sing," he whispered to Ken, who smiled. Suddenly I regretted that I was there, figuring I'd probably give the poor guy stage fright. Then I had an idea.
"Maybe we could try our duet again," I said, and Ken smiled again. The first big smile I'd seen from him since I got there.
"You wouldn't mind?"
"Not at all. I need to rehearse anyway," I said, pulling up a chair on the other side of the bed.
So, on either side of the hospital bed, Ken constantly bathing Dave's face, never letting go of his hand, we softly sang the full verses and all the choruses of "Lovin' Arms." I could feel a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes for this performance, and I knew that no matter how many concerts or appearances or recording studio occasions demanded I sing that song, I'd never sing it with anyone else on my mind but these two men, and their amazing devotion to each other. I prayed that I would not have to remember Dave Starsky's tragic death at the same time.
When I finally took my leave, I gave Ken a quick last hug and gave Dave's limp hand a gentle squeeze. I don't think he knew I was there anymore, only that Ken's hand had moved, and now the fingers were again moving about on the sheet restlessly.
"Remember, I expect to see you both at Tahoe."
"We'll do our best," Ken said, smiling.
So I went back to my hotel, freshened up, and dealt with a million and one last-minute issues before the show. Went to the arena for a sound check that was running way too late because I'd messed up the schedule with my hospital visit. Got myself all dolled up in satin and leather and sequins, and greeted twenty thousand of my closest friends. Put on one hell of a show, if I do say so myself, one I'm sure the nurse and her husband enjoyed.
Everyone was waiting for "Lovin' Arms." When I got ready to sing it, I motioned to the band to be quiet, and waited until the crowd settled down. I'd made arrangements for candles to be distributed to the audience, and I was betting that someone would have a lighter. Someone did, and before long, I was seeing a sea of tiny points of light in the darkness as each candle was given light by touching the flame of the one before it.
"For a lot of years, this song has been special to me because it was a big hit for me. All my fans know it, and the audience cheers loudest when I sing it. Now, it's special to me because it's Dave Starsky's favorite song. Dave Starsky's not famous; he's a cop. A cop who's lucky to make in a year what a big time star can make in a couple weeks. A cop who puts his life on the line every day for you and me, and now, who might lose that life because some...some criminal put three bullets into his body. If he doesn't make it, there won't be any big national news stories about it, no huge crowd of fans laying flowers outside the door of his apartment. Just the quiet snuffing out of a man who loves life, loves his work, and most of all, loves and is loved by his best friend and partner, who never leaves his bedside now. So while I'm singin' this song tonight, I want you to look at the candles you're holding and say a little prayer for that cop in the ICU room who couldn't come see the show. He's not doing so great, folks, and this is all we can do to help him now."
I sang the song, hearing the echo of Ken's voice in my head, imagining that right about then, he was probably holding Dave's hand, singing it to him again. I think he probably sang more songs than Dave realized, as his high fever made the hours all run together.
When the show was over, I did my duty with the backstage fans and then made my excuses and went back to my hotel. I put in a fitful night's sleep and was relieved when dawn came, and I could head out to the next town. I was learning to truly hate Bay City. The phone rang as I was making the vital decision of what to order from room service.
"Sue Ann, it's Ken Hutchinson. I'm sorry to call so early, but I wanted to catch you before you left." My heart froze, and I wondered if my swallow was audible. I was amazed he'd take the time to call me, of all people, and also dreading with all my heart those awful words notifying me that Dave had slipped away during the night.
"No, it's no problem. I was awake."
"Starsky's fever broke during the night. He's not out of the woods yet, but he's doing better. I...I didn't think he was gonna make it for a while there."
"Thank God," I said, more genuinely than he knew. Twenty thousand people had lit candles and prayed for this, and the news that someone up there was listening renewed my faith in a whole lot of things. Then again, who were we to think our twenty thousand prayers and candles meant anything more than the ongoing prayers of the one devastated man who hovered tirelessly at Dave's side? Who loved his partner more than his own life.
"Thanks so much again for coming by yesterday. I know we weren't exactly great company, but it was good to see you again, and I know it meant a lot to Starsky. He'll be even more excited when he really understands the Tahoe invitation," Ken added, a smile in his voice. "We'll be there."
"I'm counting on it. You take good care of him, now. I'll see you both this fall."
"We wouldn't miss it. How'd the show go last night?"
"One of the best ever," I said, smiling, knowing that was true. Why this miracle happened, I'd never know for sure, but the possibility that we'd played one tiny part in it made the show magical. "But Tahoe will be better, I promise," I added, and he actually laughed softly on the other end of the phone.
After I'd hung up, ordered room service, and gone on with my day, the usual swirl of activities took my mind off Dave Starsky and Ken Hutchinson. Life was going on as usual.
Life was going on...for me--and for Starsky and Hutch.
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