Published in Podnahz, 1979 by Otter Limits Press. Typed by Tex
The Sound of Distant Drums
With drums and guns
And guns and drums
The enemy nearly slew ye
My darling dear, you look so queer,
Oh, Johnny, I hardly knew ye.
A squad room is no place to be on a steamy August afternoon. The heat and unrelenting dampness serve to resurrect old odors that would best have been left undisturbed. Too much happened in a squadroom and a few of the things that happened smelled good. Once a woman—a shoplifter by trade — gave birth on the floor between two desks. It is even a fact that cops sweat. A lot. Twenty-one detectives spread over several shifts were in and out of the room all day and all night. They were sometimes too busy for the daily shower good hygiene dictated. And police work being what it was, often a man would bring in his lunch and then not have time to eat it. Tuna fish or salami or homemade meatloaf do not last long when shoved into the confines of a hot desk drawer. Gone as it were, but, olfactory at least, not forgotten.
None of the aforementioned circumstances was helped very much by the fact that, for the eighth time that summer, the air conditioner was broken down. The squad room was no place to be on a steamy August afternoon.
Dave Starsky was there. Sweating and swearing and stinking, he was there. His holster hung on the back of his chair; his shirt sleeves were rolled to the elbows and the shirt itself was unbuttoned halfway down. He gulped can after can of soda and thought with uncharacteristic bitterness of his erstwhile partner. Hutchinson, having had the poor fortune to suffer a badly sprained ankle the day before, was now ensconced at home — where the air conditioning worked and the cold beer was undoubtedly flowing.
No such luck for Starsky. He was stuck in the office, sweating and laboring over the report of yesterday's incident. It was never easy to officially explain the death of a civilian at the hands of a police officer, even when that civilian had been killed in the act of committing a robbery, and had his own weapon leveled at the cop. Starsky had been the target at the barrel end of the robber's gun. He was alive today because his partner had jumped from a pile of packing cases, spraining his ankle and firing at the same time. A heroic act of self-sacrifice and loyalty. Right at the moment, Starsky found it difficult to be grateful. "Goddamn!" he exploded again as his attempt to erase a typing mistake led to a sizable rip in the paper. There was only one other detective in the room, Sergeant Glenn. He was sitting in front of a small, ineffectual electric fan, staring glumly out into the hallway beyond the glass partition. He threw Starsky a look of complete disinterest and went back to his own gloomy thoughts.
Starsky yanked the page from the typewriter and crumpled it viciously. At that moment, his phone rang. He grabbed for the receiver, almost lost it from his sweaty grip, and then shoved it to his ear. "Yeah?" he snarled.
There was a long pause. "Congratulations, Detective Starsky," a cheery voice said finally. "You've just been voted Charming Cop of the Month. For the fifty-fourth month in a row."
"Screw you," Starsky said. He shoved the chair away from the typewriter and propped his feet on the desk. "How's the ankle?"
"It's fine," Hutch replied. "You sound like death warmed over, though."
"Yeah." Starsky sloshed the last gulp of warm soda around in the can before swallowing it. "I'm gonna quit this job."
"Yeah. Gonna tell Dobey to shove it."
He could almost hear Hutch smiling into the phone and it infuriated him. "I mean it."
"Sure you do."
"Screw you," he said again, and slammed the phone down. He left his hand on the receiver and picked it up on the first ring. "Hello," he said politely.
"Hi, Starsky, how're you?"
"Pretty good, Hutch. And you?"
"Never better." Starsky smiled a little. "Good."
"You getting off at four?"
"Want to go have a beer? I have to see the doctor at 3:30 and I could come by there afterwards."
"Sounds good. You buying?"
"See you later," Hutch replied, ignoring the question. Starsky hung up. He slid back the typewriter and tried again so give all the details leading up to the death of one Jeff William McCallister and the injury to Detective Kenneth Hutchinson. Two other detectives came in sat at their desks, complaining noisily to one another about the heat. Starsky ignored them. He also ignored the sound of the door opening again. Bent intently over the typewriter, he slowly became conscious of being watched. He looked up finally. "Yeah?"
The man was dressed in faded khaki trousers and an olive green T-shirt. His dark blond hair was carefully combed back from his thin, pale face, a face dominated by feverish, shadowed eyes. He was sitting in a wheelchair, a battered briefcase resting in his lap. Starsky absorbed all of that immediately and absently. "Yeah?" he said again. "Can I help you?"
"Are you Detective Hutchinson?" the man asked in an almost-whisper.
"No, I'm his partner, Detective Starsky. What can I do for you?"
Instead of answering, the young man worked to maneuver the wheelchair around until he was sitting in the corner between the file cabinet and the wall, facing Starsky. Starsky watched him curiously. He kept watching as the man opened the briefcase and took out a small automatic, pointing it at him. "Please don't move," he said quietly. "I don't want to kill you. But I will. Believe me, please."
"I always believe a man holding a gun," Starsky replied. He gave a cautious look around the room. No one else was even aware that anything was happening. "You just take it easy," he said, loudly enough so that the others would hear.
"What the hell...?" one of the detectives said, starting upwards.
"Stay still!" the man shouted. It was startling to hear the hoarse yell coming from him; he looked so very mild, almost timid. Except for his eyes. His eyes burned.
"Okay, okay," Starsky said soothingly. "Everything's cool, man. You've got my attention. You've got everybody's attention."
The man reached one hand into his pocket and took out a slip of paper. He held it, but didn't bother to look at it; apparently, he had his speech memorized. "My name is John Drayton. I have a bomb in my briefcase and it would blow this whole building to hell and back if I set it off. I hope that everybody will do just like I say, so that I don't have to do that. I don't want to kill any innocent people. Just one guy I want." He dropped the paper and licked sweat from his upper lip.
"I really do have a bomb," he said. "I spent a year setting bombs in Vietnam. I know a lot about them."
"We believe you, John." Starsky longed to lift his hand and wipe the sweat away from his face, but he didn't dare move. The droplets ran down his cheeks, onto his neck, and trickled down his chest. "Talk to me. What's the problem?"
John smiled slowly. In that sweet, good-natured smile there was still the shadow of the person he had once been. But the smile never reached his eyes. "No problem, man. I just have to kill a guy. Soon as I do that, you can do whatever you like with me."
"We'd like to help you."
"Good. Help me. I probably need help. I must be kinda crazy, don't you think?"
Starsky shifted in the chair a little. "I think you're probably very tired."
John nodded. "Yeah. Tired and crazy. So help me. After I kill the cop."
"Who are you going to kill?'
"Hutchinson." John spit the name out.
Starsky kept his face impassive. The other detectives in the room were very still. "He's my partner, you know."
"Yeah? Well, you'll have to get a new partner, 'cause he's dead."
Starsky took a deep gulp of the hot, stinking air. "John, we can't let you just come in here and kill a police officer. You must know that."
"It's either him or everybody in the whole fucking building."
"You make it sound real simple."
"It is simple. What'd you say your name is?"
"You seem like a nice guy, Dave. Let me tell you something. It is very simple. It's like...like the body counts. You remember, in Vietnam?"
"I was there. Nobody who was there can forget it."
John looked pleased. "You're right, Dave. Well, that war was very simple. Every night at dinner, they gave the body count on TV. Twenty-seven good guys and seven hundred sixty-two bad guys. Like that As long as more bad guys bought it than good guys, the day was a victory. That was a simple way to run a war, right?"
"I guess the generals thought so."
"Right." John smiled again. "Right, Dave. And now, see, I'm the general. I got promoted. From sergeant to general. Skipped all the shit in between. What you might call a field promotion."
Starsky was watching the gun; it never wavered, even as John talked. "I understand all of that, John, really. But I don't understand why you want to kill Hutch — Detective Hutchinson."
"That's simple, too. He killed Jeff."
"Jeff?" Starsky remembered and glanced toward the unfinished report in his typewriter. "McCallister?"
"That's right. That pig shot him and now I'm going to kill the pig." There was no emotion at all in John's voice, not even anger. The words were a simple declaration of purpose, not a threat.
Starsky sighed. The words were familiar to him. Old. Tired. He was so weary of hearing them. "McCallister was holding up a store," he explained patiently. "He drew a gun. Reasonable force was used to deter him."
"Reasonable? A slug through the heart?"
"Detective Hutchinson just did what he had to do."
"We all do what we have to, Dave. There's no virtue in that."
Starsky didn't know what to say next. He sat still, sweating, watching John, watching the gun. His gaze shifted slightly. Two-thirty. Hutch would be coming through the door at four o'clock. Well, this absurd situation would be all over by then. They couldn't all just sit here staring at one another for an hour and a half. Christ, they were sitting in the middle of a busy police station. Nobody could hold an entire precinct house hostage. Nuts can do anything, he thought. Kill presidents. Hijack jumbo jets. Snipe at passersby from a university tower. Why should it be so hard to gun down a poor, unsuspecting dumb cop when he walked into his own squadroom?
"John," Starsky said, "this isn't right. You know that, don't you? You don't look like a murderer to me."
John laughed hoarsely. "Just goes to show, doesn't it? I am a murderer. I've killed dozens of people. Hundreds of people. Old men. Women. Little kids. I've killed so often that I don't think it matters anymore."
Starsky finally said to hell with it and raised one hand to wipe away the sweat "That was war. The war is over."
"Over? No, man. It's not over. I don't know about all the other wars; maybe they really did end when the peace treaty was signed. But this war hasn't ended. Not my war and your war. It's still going on. This is the war."
"Dammit!" Starsky bit his lip to hold back the frustration threatening to erupt. "No, John," he said more quietly. "This is a police station. This is Los Angeles. This is now."
John shook his head. "I have no 'now.' They took it away from me." With his free hand he beat upon his legs. "I can't walk, Dave. I can't run away from things anymore. I can't even be a man." He caught his breath and his gaze flickered around the room. "Everybody, be good," he murmured. "Just be good and pretty soon it'll all be finished and you can go on with your lives."
Nobody moved except Starsky. He lifted his foot and rested it against the edge of the desk. "What about your life? Isn't that worth something?"
"I guess it's worth what the government sends me every month. That ain't a helluva lot."
"They don't belong to me anymore. Or I don't belong to them." John's voice was soft and dreamy, but his eyes were fierce. "When I got back from Vietnam, I went to see them. But I found out we were living in different places. Different time zones. I made them...nervous. I got very lonely there in that house with all those people who used to be mine. I felt like the only man in the universe. Did you ever feel like that?"
Starsky nodded. "Everybody does sometimes, John." He could remember with icy clarity the last time he'd had that feeling of total aloneness. Watching Hutch through the glass partition of the isolation unit. Needing desperately to communicate with that one person who could understand that he was afraid. Needing that sense of being together to validate his own existence. And finally settling for an absurd lipstick scrawl across the window. "I know how you feel," he said softly, urgently. "But it's not too late. You can still have a life."
"Jeff is dead." The words themselves sounded hollow and deathlike.
John lifted one hand and wiped his nose. "Damn," he said. "Damn. He took care of me, you know? They only let me out of the hospital 'cause Jeff promised to look out for me. And he did. I can't even go take a leak without his help. And now he's dead. That pig shot him and I'm going to kill Hutchinson." He gave a sigh of unbearable weariness. "After that, I don't care what happens."
They seemed to be going in circles and Starsky was tired. His head was pounding. He glanced at the clock again. Only fifteen minutes had passed. Seemed like a lot longer. The phone on his desk rang shrilly. Everybody jumped.
Starsky looked inquiringly at John, who hesitated for two more rings and then nodded. "Answer it. But...be careful."
Starsky lifted the receiver to his ear. "Starsky," he said.
Dobey's voice was quiet, but firm. "Starsky? What's going on in there?"
"We have a visitor, Cap. He...he intends to kill Detective Hutchinson. He also has a bomb which is capable of blowing us all to another dimension. He says. And I'm inclined to take his word for it."
"I see. What does he want?"
Starsky smiled humorlessly. "Nothing much. Like I said, he just wants to kill Detective Hutchinson and then he'll be on his merry way."
"Think we should evacuate?"
Starsky studied John's face. "Yes," he said after a moment "I'd say so."
"All right. You keep talking to him. Hutch is at home, right?"
"Last I heard. But..."
Dobey paused. "But? You mean, he's coming down?"
"All right We'll catch him. Everything okay in there so far?"
"Uh-huh." He hung up and looked at John. "They know you're in here. And they're going to evacuate the building."
John bit his lip and then shrugged. "I still have you four. The numbers are still with me. Nobody will sacrifice four lives for one."
"Not everything can be reduced to simple mathematics, John. People matter. Feelings matter." Something nagged at him; the question of sacrifice was one he'd never thought much about. There was no doubt within him that he would he would not hesitate to lay down his own life for Hutch. But the other lives....
"And then there's the building itself," John said, as if he hadn't heard. "This building must be worth a lot of money. Buildings are important. Didya hear about that new kind of bomb they developed that kills all the people, but doesn't hurt the buildings at all?" His glance skimmed the office appraisingly. "Big, expensive building. They're gonna let me blow up this whole place just to save one pig? No way."
"John, people are more important than anything. One life is...one life is worth all the buildings in the world. Do you think that Detective Hutchinson wanted to kill Jeff? He had to, that's all."
"Had to?" John spit. "Yeah, he had to. So some frigging store owner wouldn't lose his day's take. Money. They told me it was only twenty-three dollars. Is that the going rate today? Twenty-three dollars?"
Starsky wiped one hand over his dripping face. "You've got it all wrong, man. Your buddy wasn't killed for twenty-three dollars. He had a gun and he was ready to use it. He would've killed somebody."
John was quiet for a moment His face hardened. "I don't believe you. Where's Hutchinson?"
"He's off today."
"Is that true?" John asked the room in general and the others nodded. "Damn." He appeared to be thinking quickly. "Call him," he ordered Starsky. "Call him and tell him to get down here."
"Do it, Dave." The gun moved slightly until it was pointed at Detective Sergeant Glenn. The slender black man only stared impassively at John. Slowly, Starsky reached for the phone and slid it across the desk toward him. He dialed Hutch's number without looking.
"Don't tell him what's going on," John warned. "Just tell him to come."
Starsky nodded, listening to the phone ringing in Hutch's apartment. Maybe he'd already left for the doctor's appointment.
"Will he come if you tell him to?"
He nodded shortly. "Yes." Hutch would come. There would be no question, no hesitation. All he would have to do is say "I need you," and Hutch would walk through fire or flood to get there. Even if Starsky told him that there was a madman waiting to blow him away, Hutch would come if his partner needed him.
The ringing stopped. "Hello?"
Starsky took a deep breath. "Ken?" he said carefully.
"Ken, this is Dave."
"What's going on?"
Starsky was staring at the piggy bank on the desk. "I hate to call you on your day off, Ken, but I wonder if you could come downtown?"
Hutch was quiet for a few seconds. "Something's wrong?"
"Yes, that's right."
"I'll be right there."
Starsky hung up carefully. "He's coming."
"Then all we have to do is wait."
So they waited. Starsky kept a close eye on the clock. One of the other detectives was whistling softly. John tapped the top of the briefcase with two fingers and Starsky wondered if there really was a bomb inside. "John," he said finally. "I have to tell you something."
"I won't let you kill him."
"You can't stop me," John said mildly.
"I will, somehow."
"You'd only end up getting yourself killed."
John snickered. "You got some kind of martyr complex or something?"
"No." Starsky began to slowly and deliberately roil his sleeves down. "No, I don't want to die. But Hutch is my partner and I can't sit here and watch you kill him."
"You planning to throw yourself in front of the gun?"
Starsky gave him a faint smile. "That would be as a last resort."
"You better be damn fast, 'cause I am." The gun exploded suddenly.
Glenn jerked back against the chair, clutching at his left arm. Blood began to soak the sleeve of his yellow knit sport shirt. Starsky and the other detectives started up toward him.
"Stay where you are," John warned. "I could have killed him just as easily."
"Ahh, dammit, John," Starsky said. "You just blew it." The phone rang again and he picked it up. "Yeah?"
"Starsk?" Hutch's voice sounded strained.
"I'm down the hall. We heard a shot."
"Glenn. It doesn't look too bad."
"That him?" John asked.
"I want him in here now. Or one of these other jerks will get it and not in the arm."
Starsky rubbed the back of his neck. "He wants you to join us, Hutch."
There was a pause.
"I've had invitations that thrilled me more," Hutch said finally.
"Well, all right, I'm coming. Low and fast, you think?"
"Huh-uh. I'll handle it."
John gestured with the gun for him to hang up. "That's enough."
"Good-bye," Starsky said softly. The phone went dead. "He's coming."
"He better, or somebody in here dies."
Three minutes ticked by ridiculously slowly. Starsky wondered if everybody else was sweating as much as he was. The smell of blood hung heavily in the room. Glenn was breathing heavily, but was otherwise quiet. "Why don't you tell me about Jeff?"
"I'd just like to know."
John shrugged. "Nothing to say. He was an all right guy. He liked me." His hand moved on top of the briefcase and his fingers formed a fist. "He liked me."
"Why was he in that store?"
"We needed money. We wanted to go up to Washington. Seattle, maybe. There's a lot of opportunity up in that part of the country. But...but we'll never do that, now. Hutchinson killed him."
"Hutch did that to protect me. Jeff was going to waste me."
John's left cheek twitched. "He was?"
"Uh-huh. So if anybody is to blame for what happened, it's me, not Hutch. If you want to kill somebody, kill me."
John shook his head. "I can't. I know you."
Starsky saw Hutch then. His partner, leaning heavily on a cane, was coming down the hall towards the squad room.
John followed Starsky's gaze. "That him? Hutchinson?"
"Yes, that's Hutch."
Hutch might have been a sightseer. He strolled nonchalantly toward them, apparently under the belief that the cane gave him a certain panache lacking in his usual demeanor. Maybe he thought he was a boulevardier attired in top hat and tails on his way to the cafe, instead of a cop wearing blue jeans and an old University of Minnesota T-shirt, walking toward death.
No one in the squad room spoke. Starsky licked sweat from his upper lip, vaguely aware of the salty taste. Too soon, Hutch reached the door and opened it slowly. He stepped into the room. "Hi," he said.
"I'm sorry," John said, speaking to Starsky. "I'm really sorry."
The gun exploded at the same instant that Starsky launched himself out of the chair, hurling his body toward John. "No, don't!" he yelled.
Hutch fell back against the wall and slid to the floor. Starsky grabbed the gun and threw it aside.
John slumped wearily in the chair. "I'm sorry, Dave," he murmured again. "I'm sorry, Dave.... I'm sorry."
Starsky only looked at him. He took the briefcase gingerly, handed it to one of the blue-uniformed men suddenly swarming all over the room, and turned his attention to Hutch.
The blond detective was already on his feet. "You were a little slow there, partner," he said, rubbing at his chest beneath the bulletproof vest. "That hurt."
Starsky tried to think of a snappy comeback, but for once words failed him. He realized that he was shaking and a little cold, despite the sweat still pouring down his face. Instead of speaking, he just reached out and gripped Hutch's shoulder, breathing heavily. Hutch returned the gesture and for a moment they stood together, an island of quiet in the now-noisy squad room.
Starsky turned after a minute to watch as they wheeled John from the room. "Christ," he said. "That poor guy."
Hutch looked surprised. "Poor guy? He was ready to kill."
"I know...but he's scared. Afraid of facing the world alone." He shrugged, trying to shake off the mantle of black depression. John was gone from the room in a moment. The briefcase had been turned over to bomb disposal. There was no bomb inside, just a cheap alarm clock and a couple of batteries.
Hutch watched his partner with concern and then bent to pick up his cane. "Didn't you say something about buying me a drink, buddy?"
"Huh?" Starsky met Hutch's quiet blue gaze and felt some of the fear go. "No." He grinned. "But what the hell. First round is mine."
Hutch smiled back at him and led the way out of the squad room.