by CE Fox
"Foiled again?" Pete asked as he strolled in just in time to see Jim give the machine another mighty blow.
"No," Jim growled. He thumped the machine again, then bent down to look into the chute where rumor had it a can of stew was supposed to appear. He thought he'd heard a clunk . . .
"I can do it for you."
Jim threw a warning look over his left shoulder. "Pete, I can do this."
"Well, then, do it so I can get my lunch. I'm starving."
Jim bent over until he was practically standing on his head, trying to see up the chute. And there it was, the silver glint of his can of stew. He knelt down and reached for it with his left hand.
"Jim, I don't think that's such a good idea," Pete warned. "Let me give it a thump."
"Don't worry . . . I've got it," he said with satisfaction. He could feel it with his middle finger. He grunted, lowered himself a bit, then managed to get his hand around the can. He pulled on it, but nothing happened. He scooted a bit to the left to get a better angle and tugged again. The can was stuck fast. "Rats."
"Yeah," Jim said, then tried to pull his hand out. He felt his wedding ring catch on something, so he pushed his hand back in and then pulled again. His stomach sank as the ring caught again.
"What's wrong?" Pete immediately asked.
"Nothing," Jim hurriedly assured him as he twisted his arm and wrist, trying to get past whatever kept grabbing his ring. "It's just a . . . little tight in here."
"Your hand's stuck, isn't it?"
"No, it's not stuck! My ring just caught on something . . . I'll get it . . . ." But after a few minutes of fruitless grunting, twisting, pushing and pulling, Jim sighed. "I can't believe this." He glanced up at Pete, then glared when he saw the wide grin on his face. "Don't say it!"
"Say what?" Pete said innocently.
Pete laughed and squatted down beside Jim. "I can see if I'm ever gonna get my can of soup I'm gonna have to help you out. Let me try something." He grabbed Jim's forearm. Jim immediately stiffened. "Would you relax?" Pete complained. "I'm not gonna rip your arm off. The soup's not that good."
"Funny, Pete, real funny."
Pete smiled as he pushed Jim's wrist to the right, then pulled it back.
"Stop!" Jim immediately yelled. "You're gonna cut my finger off!"
Pete sat back on his haunches and thought a moment. "Okay, I'll get some soap. Maybe that'll help."
"Just hurry up before Wells comes in here."
"You better hope Mac doesn't come in," Pete called over his shoulder as he crossed the room to the sink.
"Terrific. Just terrific," Jim muttered. "My luck, they'll both come in together."
"What?" Pete asked as he returned with a bottle of dishwashing liquid.
"Nothing. Just hurry up, will you?"
"Temper, temper. Don't turn into a grouch just because you're stuck."
Jim glared but didn't say anything as Pete squirted soap onto his fingers. He reached into the vending machine.
"Don't you get stuck, too," Jim said. "One of us is bad enough; we both get stuck we'll have to transfer out of the division."
"Forget out of the division. We'd have to move out of state," Pete grunted as he slathered the soap around Jim's hand. He pulled his own hand out without any trouble. "Try that."
Jim bit his lip and worked his hand around to no avail. "Still stuck."
"Well, partner, I don't see any other way to get you out of there. We're going to have to call the vending company."
Jim shut his eyes and banged his forehead against the machine. "I don't believe this."
Pete checked the number of the maintenance company from the sticker on the side of the machine and went to the phone. He dialed, then after a pause said, "Yeah, this is Pete Malloy, of the LAPD's Central Division. We got a guy with his hand caught in the dispenser of your soup machine in our station. How soon . . . oh, not until then? Well, how about our maintenance guy . . . . the fire department? I don't know, that seems . . . oh, yeah, insurance and liability, sure. Yeah, okay, I understand. No, we wouldn't want to break . . . all right. Thanks anyway." He hung up the phone and dialed again. "Yeah, this is Pete Malloy. Look, Jim Reed's hand is caught in the vending machine in the break room. Yeah, looks like it . . . okay, great. Thanks."
"Don't tell me," Jim said, his heart sinking.
"Okay," Pete shrugged and headed for the door.
"Pete!" Jim yelled. "Don't just leave me here!"
Pete paused. "Sorry, partner, but I gotta get Mac. Communications is calling the fire department."
Jim shut his eyes. "Pete?"
"Shoot me. Just shoot me."
Half the Los Angeles Fire Department showed up. At least that's what it seemed like to Jim as he sat in ignominy on the floor, his hand still ensnared between the jaws of the vending machine from hell. Actually, it was just one engine company, but by the time they arrived, the break room had filled with snickering officers who apparently had nothing better to do than stare at Jim and crack wise. "Shouldn't you guys be out watching the streets?" Jim snapped.
"Oh sure, Reed. But this is a lot more fun," Ed Wells said. He was sitting on a table, watching the proceedings with way too much enjoyment, as far as Jim was concerned. "Besides, I'm on seven and until you quit clogging up the machine, I can't eat."
"We could order in a pizza," Brinkman suggested.
"Anybody wanna give odds?" another officer chirped. "Five-to-one they have to chop off his hand."
The room burst forth like race day at Churchill Downs.
"I'll give you ten-to-one!"
"Ten'll get you twenty they whack it off at the shoulder!"
The fireman working on unscrewing the front panel of the vending machine couldn't hide his snicker. Jim glared at him. "Watch it, buddy. I have a gun," he said softly.
"Yeah, and I got a chainsaw down on the engine. Your point?" the fireman shot right back.
"All right, all right. You win," Jim sighed.
The fireman kept his voice low. "Hey, buddy, believe me, I know how embarrassing this must be. Don't worry, though, we'll have you out in a jiffy."
The fireman unfastened the last screw, then tugged on the cover. It popped loose, but he couldn't move it out of the way since Jim's arm remained threaded through the chute opening. "Here, hold this," he said, letting the plastic cover fall against Jim's face.
Jim floundered around and got his right arm up to steady the cover. He couldn't see anything, but he felt the fireman poking on his arm and hand. "Yeah, here it is. Here's the trouble. You got your ring caught on the end of a bolt sticking out there." Something snapped hard against Jim's finger and he couldn't hold back a surprised yelp.
"Hey, there goes his arm! They cut it off!" someone yelled.
"Hey, Jim, hope it's not your trigger finger!"
"He'll never play the piano again." This last from Wells, complete with melodramatic wail.
Jim wondered where the heck his so-called partner had gotten off to, but between the plastic cover across his face and the sea of firemen's legs all around him, he couldn't see anything besides turnouts, boots, and the words "Careful: Contents Hot".
The fireman pulled on Jim's hand, twisting it a little. "There we go," he said with satisfaction.
Jim wiggled his fingers, then threaded the cover off his arm. "Thanks," he said, putting every ounce of gratitude he could into the single word. He examined his ring finger and aside from a small cut, his finger looked fine. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet amidst the ironic cheers of everyone in the room.
Wells immediately grabbed Jim's arm. "Lemme see the damage," he said. "Awww, widdo Jimbo's cut his finger!"
Jim snatched his hand back. "Wells, go away," he growled.
"At least they didn't have to amputate," Brinkman said, clapping Jim on the shoulder.
Mac's voice cut through the hubbub. "All right, all right, the show's over. Those of you not on seven, get back out on the streets!" The officers reluctantly filed out, leaving Jim alone with his cadre of rescuers and Mac.
And Pete. Jim fixed a glare on his partner. "So where were you hiding?"
"I was, uh, in the back praying for your release," Pete said, his eyes gleaming with a wicked twinkle.
"Thanks, Pete. Thanks a lot. You're a real-"
Mac interrupted before the two got lost in bickering. "Reed, how is your hand?"
"It's fine, Mac," Jim assured him. "My pride is mortally wounded, but my hand's fine."
Mac laughed. "Well, let that be a lesson to you. If you're gonna go reaching into vending machines, take your ring off."
Jim stared balefully at the machine, where the firefighters were putting the last touches on their reassembly efforts. He glanced around at the tables, then back at the machine. "Did my stew ever come out?"
One of the firemen shrugged. "I didn't see it."
"You mean after all this, it's still in there?" Jim demanded, bending down to peer into the chute.
"Reed!" With identical shouts, Mac and Pete grabbed Jim's arms and hauled him back.
Jim pulled his arm away from Pete's grasp. "Hey, that stupid thing's still got my lunch!"
Mac shoved Jim toward Pete. "Malloy, get your partner out of here."
"Roger, Mac. Come on, Penelope, before you fall into another peril."
"I can't believe I did that."
"I can't believe you almost did it twice," Pete countered as they pulled out onto the streets.
"I wanted my can of stew. I paid for it."
"Jim Reed, ever the penny pincher. Nearly severs his finger to save himself fifty cents."
"Pete, it's not the amount, it's the principle of the thing."
"Uh huh," Pete said disinterestedly, hoping to forestall a full-blown rant.
"You put money in those machines, the least you should expect is to get a can of soup out. Machines," he snorted. "The world's gonna be one huge machine before too long."
"How's your finger?" Pete said, not that he was worried. He was simply desperate to change the subject.
Jim flexed his left hand. "It's okay. It's a little sore." He looked more closely at his ring. "Rats, it got scratched." He took it off and tried buffing it against his shirt sleeve.
"You know, it might not be the worst idea if you quit wearing your ring on duty."
"Aw, come on, Pete. So I got it caught one time. I don't want to quit wearing it because of that." He put the ring back on. The scratch still showed.
"I've heard some guys argue that it's better if suspects don't know you're a married man. They think it weakens your convictions."
"What? That's crazy."
"I don't know, Jim. I can see the logic in it, a little. A suspect sees a cop with a wedding ring, figures that the cop is a family man, and so isn't liable to be as aggressive, or stand his ground to the point of physical harm."
"So you think a married cop isn't as good as one that not?" Jim asked, with some heat.
"That's not what I'm saying at all. But think about it from the other guy's perspective. He sees an officer wearing a ring and maybe he thinks it divides the officer's attention."
"I've never let my marriage interfere with how I do my job," Jim countered.
"Hey, I'm just playing devil's advocate here. You're a damn fine cop and I've said so many times," Pete said. He drummed his fingers briefly on the steering wheel. "But if you ask me--"
"I haven't," Jim cut in.
"If you ask me," Pete reiterated, "the bigger risk is to your family."
"Think about it a minute. What if some headcase decides he wants revenge? He sees the cop's got a wedding ring, somehow tracks down the officer's address and . . . ." He didn't finish the thought.
Jim shifted uneasily. "I never really thought of that."
"Well, fortunately, that's never happened to anyone in our Division that I know of. To tell you the truth, partner, I think the greater risk in wearing a ring is the ball and chain that goes with it." Pete turned and aimed a smirk Jim's way.
Jim stared at him, speechless. He looked away, his chin jutting, then finally looked back. "Jean is not a ball and chain. You know, I'm gonna tell her you called her that. See if you get any more pot roast."
Pete laughed. "I'm kidding, partner. Jean's great, and I'm glad you're happy."
Jim grunted and settled back down in his seat. "We are happy."
"I know," Pete agreed easily. "You're happy painting bathrooms and paying your mortgage and balancing your checkbook and fixing the sink-"
"And raising your godson," Jim interrupted.
"Ah, my godson," Pete repeated with a proud smile. "See, I'm the smart one here. I find myself a partner who was born domesticated and who already has a wife and a kid, then I just ingratiate myself into their lives. I get to be godfather and uncle and when the kid spits up, I hand him back to Daddy. And I don't have to pay for his college education."
"Well, Pete, they don't call you the Strawberry Fox for nothing."
"That's right, partner."
"1-Adam-12, 1-Adam-12, possible 502, a red late model sedan, possible Wilshire stolen, last seen traveling north, 1400 block of Valdez. Respond code 2."
"1-Adam-12, roger," Jim responded, then hooked the mic. "We're about three blocks from there."
They rode in silence until they reached the intersection at the 1600 block of Valdez. "There he goes," Pete said as a red Chevrolet rocketed past them. He hit the lights and siren as Jim called in the pursuit.
The driver led them on a roller coaster ride up and down the canyons, until he lost control around a sharp curve. The car skidded into a ditch, then flipped over. Pete braked the patrol car and both officers scrambled out and ran toward the wreck.
Pete was the first to see the flames licking between the front suspension. "Careful, Jim!"
Jim nodded, then hurried around to the passenger side. He bent down and looked in. The driver was unconscious, still belted in, trapped in the crushed passenger compartment. "Hey!" Jim called loudly. "Hey, buddy, can you hear me?"
"Anything?" Pete asked from over Jim's left shoulder.
"Nothing. Get the fire extinguisher." Jim felt Pete's hand press briefly against his shoulder as Pete steadied himself before spinning on his heel and racing back to the black and white. Then Jim was worming through the broken window, trying to make his lean frame even thinner as he inched his body close enough to reach the driver. Gasoline, exhaust fumes and the thick smell of burning oil filled the interior. Jim stretched his hand up and turned off the ignition. The fumes didn't lessen to any extent.
"Hey, buddy, wake up!" Jim said loudly.
No response. Jim tried to push himself closer, but his equipment belt caught on the crushed roofing. He worked one hand underneath him and ripped the velcro closures open. The belt loosened and he was able to slide forward a few more precious inches. He felt the driver's neck. A strong pulse beat against his fingers. "Okay, buddy," Jim muttered, "let's get out of here." He reached up and jabbed the seatbelt release, then worked to free the man from the entangling straps. The man sagged toward him, but when Jim tried tugging on him, nothing happened. The smell of burning oil grew stronger.
Jim heard the whooshing hiss of the fire extinguisher, then Pete's voice. "Jim! Hurry up! The fire's getting too big!"
Jim coughed, then pulled harder on the man, but he was stuck fast. "His legs are trapped!" Jim yelled.
"Get out of there, now!"
Jim shifted his position slightly, then gave one last try. The man moved forward slightly. "All right, buddy, come on, come on," Jim muttered, then tugged again as hard as he could. The man lurched forward, falling free from the snare of metal around his legs. Jim didn't have time to savor any exultation. He got a better grip on the man's arms and fought his way backward as fast as he could. He felt a hand grab the waistband of his uniform pants and with Pete's strong tug, he and the driver quickly popped out of the car. Jim rolled to the side, leaving the man for Pete to drag out of harm's way while he snatched his gun belt out of the now-burning passenger compartment. He scrambled to his feet and raced to safety. About five seconds later, the gas tank exploded.
"That was too close," Jim panted.
Pete didn't say anything, just gave Jim an exasperated look of mingled relief and anger.
Jim held up a hand. "I know, I know. Don't say it."
"Don't mistakenly think I'll be putting you in for any medals for this one, partner," Pete growled.
Jim flashed a grin at him. "Don't be such worrywart. I only get stuck in vending machines."
An hour after they'd finished their reports and got back on the street, Pete was still stewing in silence. Jim kept his mouth shut. As he thought back on the TA, he realized that maybe he had been a little foolhardy in getting the guy out. But he couldn't have left him in there to burn. He was trying to figure out just how to explain that to Pete when Pete suddenly blurted, "Jim, what's that on your left hand?"
Jim looked at his hand, but there was nothing new on it that he could see. "Nothing. Why?"
"'Nothing'. That gaudy silver band on your finger is 'nothing'?"
Jim sighed. "It's white gold, not silver. And okay, message received."
But Pete wasn't done. "You know, I've changed my mind about that ring. Keep it on and look at it now and then and remind yourself why you shouldn't pull such stupid stunts."
"Pete, you trying to tell me that you wouldn't have done the same thing? You would have let that kid burn?"
Pete shifted uncomfortably. "That's neither here nor there."
"Because you're not married," Jim said flatly.
"Because I've learned how to evaluate risk," Pete countered.
"Pete, I evaluated the risk, too," Jim said, forcing a smile to his face just to keep the impatient edge off his words. "I just came to a different conclusion about it. I thought there was time, and there was. I got the guy out, and he's going to be okay. That's the bottom line."
"Is that so?" Pete asked, the question edged with sarcasm.
Jim suppressed a sigh and kept his gaze focused on the sidewalks as they passed by. He felt a quick rush of anger that Pete seemed to be suddenly treating him like a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, but the anger faded to uncertainty the more he mulled over Pete's words. Maybe Pete was right. Maybe even after all this time, Jim still didn't have the right handle on sizing up situations. It'd been a long time since he'd been impressed by cowboy antics like the kind Ed Wells used to pull before he got shot, but Jim knew he sometimes took greater risks than Pete, even now. He was hardly in the same hotdog category as Wells, but what if there was something missing in his makeup, that extra sixth sense that any good cop had of knowing when and where to draw the line? He glanced down at his ring. Maybe he was somehow subconsciously overcompensating, although he couldn't really imagine why he'd do that. He'd never given a thought to how marriage might affect how he did his job. In fact, the whole issue of which makes a better cop -- married man or bachelor -- had simply never occurred to him.
The sudden unwelcome doubts put a knot in his belly. Knowing that he wasn't as bad as the Wells of a year or so back didn't offer him much assurance. Then he shook himself in disgust. He was a good cop, at least as good as anybody with the same brief experience. But if I can't be any more confident about my abilities, maybe I'd be better off driving a truck . . .
"Jim, run that plate," Pete suddenly said.
Jim started, then looked at the plate on the car ahead of them. He'd been so lost in his thoughts that he hadn't seen where it came from. "1-Adam-12, requesting want and DMV on California 377-Ida-Union-Frank."
"1-Adam-12, stand by."
Jim looked the vehicle over, trying to see what was suspicious about it. He came up empty.
"1-Adam-12, 377-Ida-Union-Frank, no want. DMV, 1971 Oldsmobile, Charles Turnbridge, 4411 Eastman Court, Carson."
"1-Adam-12, roger," Jim acknowledged, then bit the bullet as he reclipped the mic. "What's that all about?"
"I don't know. I didn't like the way he passed us. He kept looking over at us like he was nervous or something."
"Black and white fever?"
"Maybe. Let's drop back, see what he does." He let his speed drop off. The Oldsmobile maintained its speed and drew ahead of them. Eventually his turn signal flashed and he turned into an apartment complex parking lot. "Well, that's that. I could have swore something was up with him."
Jim twisted in his seat to watch behind them. "Pete, he pulled in behind us."
"I see him," Pete said as he looked in the rear-view mirror. The Olds was gaining on them at a high rate of speed. "Jim, watch yourself."
Jim lowered himself slightly in the seat as Pete pulled the black and white into the next parking lot. The Olds screamed past the entrance too fast to turn in, and Pete was able to get back out on the street behind it. Pete hit the lights and siren as Jim grabbed the mic. "1-Adam-12, in pursuit, westbound on Jackson at Grant Beach Parkway. A green 1971 Oldsmobile, 377-Ida-Union-Frank. Wanted for speed only at this time."
The Olds clipped the rear bumper of a slow-moving station wagon, then swerved briefly into the opposite lane. The Olds swerved back into his lane, barely missing a head-on collision with a produce truck. Pete stayed as close as safety allowed, and after four blocks of weaving, swerving and near-collisions, the Olds pulled over to the curb. Pete stopped the black and white behind him, but before either officer could get out, the driver bailed out and started sprinting across the empty lot between two derelict buildings. "I got him," Jim muttered, and scrambled out of the car after him.
Jim hated running through empty lots. There were always broken bottles, trash, holes in the ground, all kinds of hazards that kept him looking as much at the ground as up at the suspect. But he tried to keep his head on a swivel as he pounded across the lot. The suspect ducked into one of the buildings, and suddenly Jim realized that the only thing he hated worse than chasing suspects across vacant lots was playing cat and mouse with them in abandoned buildings.
This one looked like a strong breeze could blow it over. His foot brushed against a fallen brick as he climbed the two cracked concrete steps. He paused at the doorway, peeking around the jamb before entering. He slipped inside, hesitating again beside the door, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light. The building smelled of urine, rats, spilled whiskey, vomit and sewage, the foul aroma of the winos and hypes who used it as a flop. Jim could never truly understand the desperation that drove people to live in such places. He was just grateful he'd never had to find out first hand.
A floorboard creaked above his head. He drew his gun, then cautiously started up the rickety wooden stairs that hugged the wall. He winced at each squeaking board under his feet. He reached the landing without falling through any rotten steps. He leaned carefully around to check the next flight before making the turn. Empty. Feeling a little more confident that the stairs wouldn't disintegrate beneath him, he took the next flight a little faster.
As he reached the doorway, he heard more furtive noises in the back of the building. Then he heard the scrape of a window opening, and the rattle of a fire escape. He picked up the pace a bit more, and came through the doorway of a back room in time to see the suspect disappear up the fire escape. He wondered why the suspect would climb up, where he'd most likely get trapped on the roof, but as he started out the window, he saw the answer. Pete was climbing the fire escape below him. Pete silently but forcefully jabbed his finger toward the opposite end of the building.
Jim nodded, ducked back inside and ran down the hallway. He paused at a closed door, listened, and hearing nothing, shoved it open. A fluttering explosion of pigeons startled him. They flew in agitated circles around the room before finding the open window and winging to safety. Jim followed them to the window and swung one leg over the sill. A cracking noise split the air above his head, and a bullet twanged off the iron grating near his foot. He flinched, and caught off balance, succeeded in falling the rest of the way out onto the fire escape. He rolled as close as he could to the wall and drew his weapon, firing it toward the roof's edge. The head and shoulders of the suspect disappeared, but as Jim struggled to his feet, another report cracked from above. Jim felt a tug on his pant leg almost at the same time he heard the bullet clang off the iron railing, but this time he was able to dive back through the window into the relative safety of the rat-infested building.
Ears still ringing from the blast of his own weapon, Jim waited a moment, giving Pete a chance to work his own way up onto the roof. When he finally eased his head out, no bullets rained down, so he climbed as quietly as he could onto the fire escape. The open ironwork provided little cover, but it couldn't be helped. He climbed swiftly up the ladder, all the while praying that Pete had the man good and distracted. Jim's sweating palms threatened to slip off the metal rungs, but he made it to the top unscathed. He eased over the roof's edge. Sure enough, his partner not only had the suspect distracted, but spreadeagled on his face and cuffed.
Jim relaxed and clambered over the roof's parapet. As he put his left hand down to vault over, a sharp pain made him yelp. He jerked his hand back and found a jagged splinter jammed under his wedding ring. He must have picked it up from the window sill below, but he'd been so pumped with adrenalin he hadn't felt anything.
He shook off the injury. "Just a splinter," he assured Pete. He nodded toward the suspect as he showed Pete the rip in his pants. "Coulda been worse."
Pete raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything. He didn't need to.
After enduring the tedious business of the shooting review, Pete sat on the locker room bench watching Jim dig the splinter out of his ring finger with a needle. "If I were the superstitious type, I'd be really worried right now."
Jim didn't look up from his work. "Why?" he mumbled, his voice muffled because his chin was buried against his chest as he hunched over his hand.
"They say three times' the charm. Or in your case, it'll be the curse."
Jim glanced up finally, and when he did he accidently stabbed his palm. He yelped and then glared at Pete. "Look what you made me do!"
"I didn't make you do anything," Pete protested. "It's not my fault your ring caught a splinter on that old rotten wood."
Jim finally got the last bit of wood out. "What's three times' a charm got to do with me?"
Pete ticked off with the fingers on his left hand. "You caught your ring in the vending machine. You got a splinter in the same hand, same finger." He waggled his ringless ring finger. "Third time's on the way, pal."
Jim stood up and tossed the needle into the waste can. "Are you ready to get back out on the streets or are you just gonna sit there and prophesy doom and gloom the rest of the day?"
"I've always been ready, partner. You're the one holding us up."
Pete laughed when Jim grabbed his hat and stalked out the door without another word.
They managed to catch seven, then spent the afternoon serving two felony warrants, arresting a pickpocket, taking the report on a bashed mailbox complaint, quieting down an after-school party of teenagers, and clearing traffic after three fender benders. They also managed to lose a purse snatcher. By the time the clock crept toward an hour left until end of watch, Jim was beat. Pete pulled over in a shady spot in Echo Park. "Might as well get some of that paper work finished while the air's quiet. The rest of those neighborhood complaints can wait for the next shift."
Jim grunted an affirmative. Although he'd been scribbling as fast as he could as they drove from call to call, they still had five more reports to finish up. He handed a stack of forms to Pete, and they sat in the peaceful quiet of the park, the scratching of their pens and the quiet murmur of the radio the only noises interrupting the birdsong in the trees above them.
"Oh, great," Pete suddenly muttered. He shook his pen. "Got another pen?"
"No, I don't have another pen," Jim growled. "Did you plan that? Bring an almost-out pen to work today so I'd have to do all the writing?"
Pete smiled. "No, but now that you mention it, it's a good idea."
"Terrific," Jim muttered.
"You sure are a grouch today."
Jim looked up in disbelief. "Me? Me? You gotta be kidding, Pete. Who was the one who jumped all over me this morning?"
"That was different. That was training."
"Uh huh. Training."
"Uh huh, training," Pete echoed with emphasis. "Somebody's got to make sure you know how to keep yourself in one piece."
"Pete, I'm perfectly capable of keeping myself in one piece."
"What'd you decide about the ring?"
"Your ring . . . are you gonna keep wearing it?"
Jim went back to his report. "Yes."
"Okay," Pete said doubtfully. "Don't say I didn't warn you."
Jim looked up. "Look, the only way I'm going to quit wearing it is if a lightning bolt from heaven comes down and tells me to, all right?"
"Ah, now you're really tempting fate."
"You're impossible," Jim muttered and went back to writing.
Pete laughed, then they both fell silent again, until the dismal sound of an engine cranking and failing to fire caught their attention. "Over there," Pete said, pointing to a Ford Pinto parked along the curb around the corner from them. A woman sat in the driver's seat. She cranked the engine again, then pounded a frustrated fist against the steering wheel.
"I'll go see if I can lend her a hand," Jim said, gladly abandoning the paperwork. He walked across the springy park lawn over to her car. "What's the trouble . . . oh, hey, Ruthie. I didn't know you bought a new car."
Ruth Bannister, Jim's wife's best friend since high school and to Jim's mind a certified man-eater, jumped, then smiled with relief. "Oh, Jim! I'm so glad it's you. And this stupid car isn't mine. It's my brother's, and he told me there's a loose wire somewhere in the engine and it might do this. But I have no idea how to fix it." She scowled at the steering wheel, then looked back at Jim with a smile and a wink. "I know you police officer types don't like getting your hands dirty, but would you mind taking a look?"
Jim laughed. "For a friend of Jean's, I'll risk my manicure. Pop the hood."
She pulled the hood release. It popped up a half-inch and Jim raised it all the way. He looked over the ignition wires, tugging slightly on each one. They looked fine, but he spied a loose wire dangling beneath the air filter. "That's probably it," he muttered. He reached down with his left hand. As soon as he touched the wire, a spark zapped from the body of the engine to his wedding ring, arcing with a loud snap and a puff of electric smoke. He jerked his hand back.
"Oh, Jim, are you all right?" Ruth immediately asked.
"I'm fine," Jim said, blowing on his finger. He yanked his still-hot wedding ring off. The cut on his finger from the morning escapade with the vending machine now vied for attention with an angry red streak that circled his entire finger, following the shape of his ring. He tossed his ring several times in his right hand until it cooled down, then he stuck it in his pocket. "Ruth, I, uh, think I found your problem."
Jim's misadventure with electricity didn't escape Pete's keen eye. "Where's your ring, partner?"
"In my pocket," Jim muttered. "And don't say it."
"It wasn't lightning from heaven exactly, but-"
"So I couldn't resist, sorry." Pete looked anything but contrite.
Jim slumped in his seat and looked again at his sore finger. "This isn't going to stop me from wearing it."
Jim glared. "It's not."
"I believe you, partner."
Jim just stared at him with a narrow-eyed sideways glance.
"Can you finish the reports while I drive us back to the station, or did that spark fry both your hands?"
Jim snatched the reports and his pen out of Pete's lap. "Drive. Just drive."
Jim didn't have his ring on the next day. Pete made no comment. But when the day after that the ring was still conspicuously absent, Pete raised an eyebrow. "That cut still bothering your finger?"
"Your ring. You're not wearing it."
"Oh, yeah. No, I'm not," Jim said absently and made himself a little too busy checking the hotsheet, even though they were the only car rolling on the block.
"Finger's swollen, I bet."
"No. My finger's fine."
"Ring get bent or something?"
A sly grin spread slowly across Pete's face. "Jean told you not to wear it."
Jim didn't answer.
"Admit it, partner!"
Jim made a show of casually looking out his side window.
"Jim, you know you'll have to tell me."
Jim sighed dramatically and rolled his eyes. "Okay, she told me to leave it off. She said she'd rather risk some floozie coming onto me than me coming home minus a finger." He looked at his finger and sighed again. "It feels naked."
"I have the perfect solution."
"Get a tattoo on your forehead. 'Sorry, ladies, I'm taken.'"
"You know what, Pete?"
"You better never get married, because boy, will I ever get even with you when you do."
"You're gonna have a long wait, partner."
"Don't worry. I can be patient."
"And besides, unless a lightning bolt like the one that hit your finger decides to strike me, I doubt I'll ever find anybody to put up with me, anyway."
Jim glanced up at the sky. "Not a storm cloud in sight. Guess your luck's not too good."
"Au contraire, mon ami. I'd say that means my luck is holding out just fine."
"But a happy bachelor."
A woman on the corner caught Pete's attention. She was waving them over. He signaled and pulled up to the curb, rolling down his window. Up close, she was an attractive but distracted brunette, about his own age, with large blue eyes and a generous mouth that looked more accustomed to smiling. "Oh, officers! I feel so stupid, but I don't know who to ask. I just got off the bus and realized I left my purse on the seat."
Pete glanced over at Jim.
"I'll get dispatch to call the bus company," Jim said, grabbing the mic.
Pete stepped out of the car. "Okay, ma'am, calm down. Can you tell me your name?" he asked. He put a hand on her arm to guide her to the bus bench and a snapping spark of static electricity leaped across his fingers. He yanked his hand back. "Sorry about that." He glanced at Jim, who had also gotten out of the car and was now leaning on the front fender. His eyes held that teasing light that usually made Pete want to slap him.
"Lightning strikes," he muttered in a low sing-song just loud enough for Pete to hear.
Pete glared at him, then turned again to the woman. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."
"Judy. It's Judy . . ."
Thanks to my beta gurus, Karen & Susu.