Officer John Cooper has been friends with Chickie Brown a long time, but tonight he will realise that his rookie partner Ben Sherman is becoming someone they can both rely on.
John Cooper hated hail storms. More accurately, he hated hail storms when he was charged with keeping law and order amongst the lowlifes of Los Angeles. Hail sent 'em crazy. He didn't know why but it was a proven fact.
It also meant he was cold enough to wear his duty jacket, which he also hated because they were never sized right to fit comfortably over Kevlar and the addition of his broad shoulders made it tight and restrictive. Add the incessant drumming of frozen rain on the roof of the cruiser and Cooper was not in a happy mood.
In fact, he was in the sort of mood that made him long for some dumbass to come by and piss him off. Just so he could take pleasure in smashing them face-first to the sidewalk.
"I'm starvin'," Sherman announced from the passenger seat.
"We had bagels an hour ago."
"They were really small."
Cooper had been riding with Ben Sherman for long enough to be used to his voracious appetite and even in a bad mood, he was amused by the description of the Bagel Factory's giant cream-cheese filled offerings as 'small'. Plus, he was pretty hungry as well.
"How about empanadas?" he suggested. "There's a great little stand coupla blocks East."
Sherman was already unbuckling his seatbelt in anticipation.
"I'm not gettin' outta the car in this shit," Cooper warned him, looking up at the black clouds above them as he steered with one hand. The other hand was hunting in his pockets for money.
Sherman obligingly dived out when they stopped kerbside, using his jacket to cover his precious hair. Cooper considered yelling something derisive about his masculinity after him but that would have involved rolling down the window and getting even colder.
He was somewhat mollified when Sherman returned with a Styrofoam container filled with a mix of empanada varieties. At least the boot could be trusted with food orders.
"Man, these are good." Sherman had already stuffed one whole into his mouth. Cooper wasted no time in doing the same.
"I figure I'd enjoy a tour of South America," he agreed.
"Just to eat?"
"And drink beer."
Sherman nodded with agreement. "Sounds like a blast to me."
"You wouldn't like it; they don't have clean-cut Beverly Hills types south of the border."
"They don't have many in South Central either."
Cooper was amused. "Touché." He munched another empanada. "Okay, your turn for a conversation starter."
Sherman shrugged. "I got nothin' to talk about."
"Raiders game? Top 5 pizza toppings? C'mon, man, I'm bored outta my mind here."
"You talk about something then. I'll listen."
"It's not a conversation when one person stays silent." Cooper started the engine again and pulled away.
"I don't have anything to say!" Sherman protested. "I'm hungover to hell and I'm hungry."
"You've been hungover every day this week. I know you hold your alcohol like a girl but…"
"Yeah, like you don't drink."
"I don't get hungover."
"That's because you're twice the size of me. You're like a bear or something."
Cooper couldn't help but grin. "A bear?"
An embarrassed smile jerked Sherman's lips before he shrugged and looked away. "Your back alright?" he asked after a moment.
Cooper felt his shoulders tighten instinctively. "Yeah, it's okay," he said, forcing the casual note into his voice as if he hadn't even considered it recently.
"That's good." Sherman didn't look at him but Cooper was learning to judge his body language well and he could see the younger man was wary of such an easy answer.
He decided not to offer any further explanation. Sherman was coming to understand the score; he had seen Cooper in pain and he had not made a big deal of it. He had proved himself trustworthy in his reaction, even though he probably didn't realise it.
John Cooper was not an easy man to figure out and he had not expected that he would allow the rookie to attempt to do so. But Sherman's stoic acceptance had meant something to Cooper.
He believed strongly in loyalty. And he was realising that Ben Sherman did as well.
X X X
An hour later, with only a couple of traffic stops to keep them entertained, they were cruising Santa Monica Boulevard on the lookout for hookers they could harass. Sherman was gazing silently out the window, reflecting on the direction his life was taking. He knew Cooper was frustrated by the lack of conversation; his partner hated riding in silence when action was thin on the ground.
"What you being so quiet for?" As expected, Cooper didn't take long to crack. "It's like riding with a stuffed moose head or somethin'."
Sherman couldn't help but smile at that statement. "Stuffed moose head?"
"Knew that'd get you," Cooper grinned. "What's eatin' ya?"
Ben blew out a frustrated breath. Knew he wouldn't be allowed to escape without an explanation. "Daisy ended it," he said. "She's gone back to a guy in New York."
"Shit. I thought you said it was going well."
"Thought it was."
"She just told you outta nowhere?"
"Yeah, just like that."
"Tell me about it." Ben shook his head. "Wasn't what I was expecting."
"That's rough on you, Boot."
"Thanks, man." Sherman recognised that as Cooper's way of saying he was sorry. "Guess she did kinda have that Taylor Swift vibe about her, now I think about it."
"That ain't the kinda vibe you wanna have around you," Cooper declared.
"You know who Taylor Swift is?"
"Boot, I ain't fuckin' prehistoric." Cooper shot him a glare that he didn't really mean. "Wanna get some coffee?"
"Figure I could use the caffeine."
"So, you get dumped, you get drunk?"
"Pretty much," Ben said disparagingly. "Couldn't think of anythin' else to do."
Cooper nodded his agreement, swung the car into the kerb by one of their favoured coffee stands. Waved away the bill Sherman offered him and got out to order. Returned with two supersize coffees and gave Ben his usual order of cream and sugars, miraculously without his typical comment of disgust.
"You shouldn't dwell on it, Boot," he said casually. "That's how she plays, she ain't worth it."
"I know, man," Sherman's voice was forceful. "It's just, y'know, I thought we had somethin' good going."
Cooper nodded, slugged coffee for a contemplative minute. "Lotta the time, it doesn't work out for a reason. Saves you more bullshit in the long run. Even if the chick is hot."
"To be honest, she wasn't as hot as I usually go for." Ben flashed his best player grin but failed to be convincing. "But she was cool. I didn't think she was as shallow as all the others."
"Guess you can never tell for sure. Laurie thought I was an asshole when we first met."
"What were you doing at the time?"
"Arresting her boyfriend."
They both cracked up laughing.
"We can go for beers tonight," Cooper said when they'd calmed down. "You can rant your little heart out. Better than getting drunk alone."
Sherman thought for a second. Nodded, decided he'd been drinking alone for too many evenings. "Alright, cool."
They fell into comfortable silence. It was Cooper's day in charge of the music and he hooked up his iPod. Technically they were not supposed to let anything interfere with radio calls but Cooper had always liked to interpret the rules in his own way.
He enjoyed music and had a pretty eclectic taste, appreciated anything from Green Day to Joni Mitchell, but he kept his work playlists limited to his favourite soft rock tracks to maintain his hard-ass reputation. He knew Sherman was expecting the Chillis or REM or Kings of Leon as usual.
He grinned widely as he found the desired track and cranked up the volume. Taylor Swift's profound vocals filled the cruiser.
"The hell, man?" Sherman looked momentarily traumatised, then couldn't keep a hold of himself and burst into laughter.
Satisfied with his humour, Cooper set a more typical playlist going and they settled down again. Sipped coffee and gazed out at the detritus of life wandering past.
"Asshole rodeo," Ben drawled with a sideways glance at his partner.
"Who'd ever have thought you actually listened."
"I listened to every word you said on my first day."
"And on the second you did the opposite."
Sherman shrugged. "I have a short attention span."
He grabbed eagerly for the squawking radio as it yelled out what sounded suspiciously like a garbage call. Cooper didn't smack his hand away in time.
"6-A-43, show us responding."
"Goddammit, Boot, I told you no fuckin' garbage calls this week," Cooper growled.
"We've been riding around bored forever. Might as well do something."
"If we get a whole day of this shit, I'm gonna kick your ass right back to Beverly Hills."
"Yes sir," Sherman intoned with a grin.
Cooper swung out into the road, burning rubber as he stamped on the gas. "You're contact," he declared. "I don't feel like talking to shitheads."
They could hear the domestic raging even as they pulled up outside the dilapidated clapboard house. The whole street was rough but this place took the prize, from the abandoned trash littering the front yard to paint peeling from the boards and the cardboard patching broken windows.
"Welcome to the real LA," Cooper drawled.
"Quite a palace," Sherman agreed as they climbed out to the welcoming chorus of screamed insults.
Sherman took the lead, banging the screen door to announce their presence but the argument was too loud to hear anything beyond a shotgun. The tiny living room stank of old food, unwashed bodies and that unmistakeable sweet smell of smoked meth. The floor was covered with tattered clothes, pizza boxes and, more worryingly, a few toys.
The arguing couple couldn't have been more than early twenties but they had that look; grey skin, open sores around their mouths, wasted bodies. They appeared twenty years older than they should have.
"Aw, hell, I know these two idiots," Cooper groaned from behind Sherman. "Both meth-heads; always think the other one's smoked their stash."
"Hey!" Sherman raised his voice to be heard over the yelling. "You wanna shut up a minute?"
The man briefly quietened for a moment but his girlfriend took this as her opportunity and immediately upped her own volume.
Cooper's patience was short as ever. "Shut the fuck up!" he bellowed.
That was enough to silence both of them. They looked somewhat surprised to find two cops standing in their living room.
"What's the problem?" Ben took the chance to ask before they started up again.
"This goddam asshole been screwin' ma sister!" the woman screeched.
"Man, she came on to me!" the guy protested.
"The hell she did! Why the hell would she want yo' scrawny ass?"
"Why don't you go ask her? She was grindin' all over me at that party!"
Sherman exchanged weary glances with Cooper, who looked like he wanted to get in a little practise with his nightstick.
"Your neighbours are gettin' tired of the noise you guys are making," Sherman said with feigned patience. "You want me to go ahead and arrest you both for disturbing the peace, I can do."
"Man, you can't arrest us for fightin' in our own house!" The guy crossed his arms across his thin chest and nodded his conviction that he was correct.
"Fuck you, man, me and ma girl just talkin'!"
Ben looked to Cooper for verbal support but Cooper had folded his arms and squared his jaw, his usual pose when he was refusing to get involved in some stupidity. Sherman was dealing with this whether he liked it or not.
"Then talk quietly. Or I'm gonna put you both in cuffs and haul your asses downtown. You understand what I'm saying?"
Man and woman exchanged glances. Silent communication was clearly not their strong point judging by the frowns and hisses that followed. Ben knew the score by now; misdemeanour not committed in their presence meant they shut everyone up and got the hell out of there. That was exactly what he intended to do.
"You understand?" he repeated, quite convinced they had no idea who he was or why he was there.
"Yeah, we got it," the guy muttered. His girlfriend was too busy gnawing at her thumb to answer, her thoughts clearly already with her next fix.
"Any more noise, any more fights, I get called back here again, you're both going in."
Two obedient nods. Two junkies more interested in locating more little white crystals than anything Ben Sherman could say to them. Sherman nodded to Cooper and they both turned away.
Sherman's boot found one of the toys. He turned back momentarily. "Where's the kid?" he asked.
The man shrugged. "She at the neighbour's."
"Do her a favour and leave her there," Cooper growled.
They exited the house, slamming the door behind them. Breathed in fresh air to try and get the stench from their lungs.
"Hey." A grandmother had walked over from across the street. "You gonna take that lil girl?"
"The kid's not at the house, ma'am," Sherman said.
"You 'sho about that? 'Cos you know they keep her out in the backyard."
Cooper frowned. "Whaddya mean, they keep her in the backyard?"
"Kid gets to cryin' or they want her outta the way so they can get high, they stick her out in the backyard for hours."
"Hell yeah, I'm serious. I see it all the time. I even call Child Services but they just say same as always; they get to it when they got time."
Sherman and Cooper were already turning back into the house. The woman had slumped on the filthy couch; her boyfriend was nowhere to be seen.
"The fuck you want now?" she demanded.
"You told me your kid's at the neighbour's," Sherman said. "Now your neighbour's telling me she's in the backyard."
"So what? She playin' out there."
"How old's she?"
The woman got unsteadily to her feet, glaring at Ben. "Five. Why you care?"
"Can we see her, please?"
"What the hell for?"
"To check she's okay." Sherman gave her the hard look he'd been practising. He got plenty of pointers from watching Cooper. "Now."
Standing became too much of an effort. She slumped back down onto the couch, waved a wasted arm. "Knock yourselves out."
Cooper led the way into the kitchen. Paused to stare in disgust at the roaches crawling over every surface. Sherman moved to the back door, shouldered it open.
The kid was at the far end of the small yard, in front of a tall stack of breezeblocks. A little thing with a wild bush of hair that hadn't been cared for in a long while. She was perfectly quiet, very still. Sherman frowned; something wasn't quite right but for a moment he couldn't put his finger on it.
Then he realised. Around the girl's neck was a collar. A dog collar in fact. Attached to the collar was a long metal chain, which in turn snaked across the yard to be secured to the handrail next to the door. In most backyards, a pitbull was attached to a collar and chain like that.
In this backyard, it was a five-year-old girl.
"Coop," Sherman called as he broke into a jog towards the child.
He was in mid-stride when he realised what else wasn't right. In the overgrown grass, he hadn't been able to see it but now the horrible realisation hit him. The girl's feet weren't touching the ground. The chain was hanging over the breezeblock stack. And the child was hanging from the chain.
"John!" Sherman roared as he sprinted the rest of the distance across the yard. "Get an RA here!"
Cooper charged out the back door, relaying the demand into his handset. "What's happened?" he yelled, pounding across the grass.
Sherman seized the child's legs, taking her bodyweight. She was unresponsive but her tongue was not yet protruding swollen from her mouth, always a sure sign of a hanging death.
"She musta been playing up top. Chain's got caught on the blocks when she fell or jumped."
Cooper's fingers were grappling with the collar, fighting to release it. He finally managed to get it undone, Sherman catching the small figure as she dropped. He laid her down, put his ear against her mouth.
"Not breathing, non-responsive." He tilted her chin back, checked her airway was clear now the collar was gone.
Cooper was staring in disbelief at what he held in his hands, then shook himself and reported the update for the RA. Sherman started CPR, focused only on the tiny body before him.
"C'mon, sweetheart, breathe," he urged, feeling how fragile her chest was beneath his hands.
He was vaguely aware that Cooper wasn't helping him but he only realised his partner had spotted the father when Cooper let out an enraged roar and charged across the yard. The father attempted to get back inside the door. Was sent sprawling by the force of Cooper's solid body as he launched an almighty tackle, smashing him to the ground.
"Breathe, baby, please," Sherman realised he was whispering over and over again as he battled to bring life back into the child. He sent air into her mouth again, shaking in his desperation to save her.
His heart was pounding so hard he could hear it. He didn't see Cooper wrestling with the father, snapping the cuffs on him and dragging him up. He could focus on nothing but saving this little girl.
Then he heard it. That little gasp. A tiny cough. Then her eyes were fluttering open and she was dragging air into her lungs. As cries erupted from her, Sherman grabbed hold of her, hugging her to his chest. Her little hands seized his shirt, clung to him.
"You put a dog collar on your little girl?" Cooper was standing over them now, gripping the father by the back of his neck. His expression was burning with fury as he forced the man to his knees. "You left her out here to hang herself?"
Cooper's fist made hard contact with the back of the man's head. The smaller guy pitched forwards, landing face-first in the dirt. Sherman made no move to prevent it. He wanted to do it himself, beat the shit out of the excuse for humanity lying at their feet.
But he couldn't bring himself to let go of the little girl he had just brought back to life.