The main building for the Heritage County Sheriff's Department was in downtown Heritage, just three blocks from the county jail. I had worked in the jail for two years as a rookie deputy and I had hauled prisoners there a thousand times in my five years on patrol, but I had only been in the admin building two or three times since my hiring. Regular patrol services were not deployed from there. It was the home of the administration and a few specialty divisions such as internal affairs and courthouse security. There had never been any reason for me to go there until that day, my first day of light duty after sustaining an injury while on patrol. My left shoulder had suffered torn ligaments during a foot pursuit of a suspect and, as such, I could not function as a patrol officer until it healed. And so I found myself on temporary assignment to one of those specialty services that the department ran. It did not promise to be a good time.
The building was six stories tall, complete with a large underground parking garage. Using my identification card I entered through a side door and followed the signs to a bank of elevators near the center. I rode up to the third floor and exited, following more signs until I came to a simple door that read: CIVIL DIVISION. I opened it up and found myself in a small, windowless office. There were three desks, each with a computer terminal sitting upon it, and a few filing cabinets. The only person present in the room at the moment was a uniformed sergeant who looked like he couldn't be more than a month or two away from mandatory retirement age.
He stood up as I entered, his eyes looking me over. He was wearing the old leather equipment belt around his waist instead of the more modern nylon ones we wore on patrol. Everything had been removed from it except the gun and a single pair of handcuffs. He had five hash marks on his right sleeve, each one of which represented five years of service with the department. His badge was tarnished and dull, looking like it had last been polished when Reagan was in office.
"You must be Mallet," he told me, holding out his right hand for a shake.
"That's right," I told him. "I'm your light duty guy for the next couple of weeks."
"Sergeant Nichols," he introduced himself. "I'm in charge of the operations portion of the civil division. Welcome to my world. I hope we don't bore you too much here."
"Me too, sarge," I said sincerely.
He had a chuckle at that and then took in my attire. "I see they got hold of you last night. Good. Perfect outfit for where you'll be going today. Absolutely perfect."
As per instruction from a phone call I'd received the night before, I was wearing a pair of blue jeans and a long, short-sleeved shirt. My duty weapon — a .40 caliber semi-auto — was strapped into a holster in my waistband. My badge and a pair of handcuffs were clipped into their own holders next to it. The tail of my shirt had then been pulled down to conceal all of this.
"What exactly am I going to be doing, sarge?" I asked him, more than a little nervous at the thought of going out in the streets without my uniform on. I had never received any detective or undercover training, nor had I ever had any desire to pretend that I wasn't a cop while at work.
"Nothing fancy," he told me, waving me to a seat before his desk. "And nothing dangerous either. You're going to be what we call a keeper."
"A keeper?" I said, taking the offered seat.
"Correct," he said. "As you know, the civil division is in charge of carrying out and enforcing civil judgments that have been handed down by the court system here in Heritage County. We do evictions, serve papers, and, in a smaller capacity, enforce collections of judgments. It is this last thing that you're going to be concerned with for the next few days: enforcing a collection order."
"I see," I said, although I really didn't.
"This particular collection did not actually come from the court system though, it came from the County Department of Health. They fined this joint called 'Gonzales Tacos' three grand for cleanliness violations. It's their second offense. They haven't paid, so it's our job to go and get the money from them by any means necessary. That's where you come in. You are going to go to their establishment and station yourself there all day. They're open from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. During that time period you will collect all of their revenue."
"All of their revenue?" I asked, raising my eyebrows a tad.
"That's correct. They have been served notice that they are only allowed to do cash business until the fine has been collected. You will collect everything that goes into their cash register through the course of the day. When they close, you are to count it all, have the owner sign for the amount, and then you bring it back here to me. We'll do that every day until the three grand is collected."
"Wow," I said, already bored in advance with my assignment. "And just how long will this take?"
"Depends on how much business they do," he replied. "If all goes well, should be less than a week or so."
"Great," I said, suppressing a groan. I was going to have to hang out in some sleazy taco joint for a week? That was torture. "So where is this place anyway?" I asked. "I never heard of it."
"It's on 33rd Avenue, just west of 40th Street."
"In Elm Park?" I asked incredulously. That was about the absolute worse neighborhood that the Heritage metropolitan area had to offer. "But that's the city. Why are we handling something there? Shouldn't Heritage PD be doing this?"
"Elm Park may be in the city of Heritage," he told me, "but it's also in the County of Heritage, is it not? The Sheriff's department is in charge of all civil functions in the county, regardless of whether they take place in an incorporated city or not. Heritage PD doesn't have a civil division."
"I guess they don't know what they're missing," I said sarcastically.
Nichols chuckled again. "Wait until you have twenty-nine years on the job like I do," he told me. "Then you'll be begging for a civil division to go work in."
I looked at him doubtfully, thinking that if I ever got to the point that I wanted to do work like this, it was time to retire.
Nichols gave me a detailed briefing on how to go about doing the intense job of keeper. This took about twenty minutes. I was warned of the various scams that the business owners would try to pull in order to slide some of the money out of the register when I wasn't paying attention. I was warned to either find a lunch to take with me or to eat at the establishment I was watching. I was warned to make a register count both before and after leaving to go to the restroom. I was warned not to let anyone distract me from my job and warned that they would try almost anything to do this.
Finally I was sent on my way. I went back downstairs and signed out a portable radio and an unmarked car from the garage. I then headed for the freeway and the Elm Park exit.
The neighborhood surrounding my destination was — as you might have guessed — a primarily Hispanic portion of the ghetto. Lowriders cruised up and down the streets. Low rent apartment complexes abounded, as did liquor stores and pawn shops. All of the buildings had bars on the windows and all of the walls were liberally covered with the colorful graffiti the Hispanic gangs favored. Dangerous looking young men hung out on every corner, smoking cigarettes and drinking forty ounce beers even though it was not even 10:00.
Gonzales Tacos was a small building nestled between a liquor store and a tire shop. It had a small, potholed parking lot out front. A cheap, faded sign proclaimed the name of the establishment. Below that a hand-written sign proclaimed that menudo was available on Sundays. The gang graffiti, while present on all of the exterior walls, did not seem as thick as it was on most of the other buildings.
I parked the Ford Escort I'd been assigned within easy view of the windows and then told the dispatcher that I would be out of the vehicle for the rest of the day. I picked up the bag that contained the sandwich I'd bought at a downtown deli (it just hadn't seemed a good idea to plan on eating lunch from an establishment that had been twice fined by the Health Department) and headed for the front door.
The "Closed" sign was showing and the door was locked. A knock quickly produced a Mexican man of about forty-five or so. He was short but tough looking, with faded tattoos on his arms. "You the cop?" he asked me.
"I'm Deputy Mallet from the Sheriff's department," I confirmed. "I'll be spending the day here."
He didn't look terribly happy, of course, but he was not hostile as he invited me in. The smell of cooking meat and spices filled the air, an aroma that, despite the uncleanliness charges, instantly set my mouth to watering. The dining area was small, consisting of only six tables. A salsa bar — complete with seven different varieties and a huge bowl of tortilla chips — had been set up near the front counter. The counter itself contained a single cash register. Behind it a Mexican woman of about forty or so was busy tending to some pots and pans that were on the large stove. Next to her was a young man of about eighteen. He had gang tattoos on both arms and even one on his neck. He was cleaning the grill with a scrub brush.
.... There is more of this story ...