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.
"I am Jose Gonzales," the man told me, leading me towards the small door that led behind the counter. His accent was very heavy. "This place belongs to my wife and me." We went through the door. "This is Maria," he introduced, pointing towards the woman. "And this," he said, pointing to the man, "is Hector, my son. He and my daughter work here during the day."
I nodded, feeling that telling them I was pleased to meet them would be taken the wrong way. "I'm John," I said instead. "And I'm not any happier about being here than you are with me having to be here. I'll just park myself over there by the register and lay low. You don't play any games with me today and things will go smooth as silk, okay?"
"We're not here to play games," Jose told me. "We just want to get this thing over with."
"Good enough for me," I said, heading over to my position. I passed Hector as I went. He made a point of bumping his shoulder against mine as I went by, his eyes a glare of blatant hostility.
"Sorry, officer," he nearly spat.
"Hector!" Maria hissed at him, delivering a glare of her own.
I returned his gaze, staring into his brown eyes. I'd dealt with a million punks like him during my patrol time and I was far from intimidated. "No problem, Hector," I told him. "Let's just not let it happen again, shall we? Things like that could be taken the wrong way."
He continued to stare for a moment and then dropped his gaze, going back to his task without saying another word.
On the other side of the kitchen was a door that led to the alley behind the store. It opened a moment later and a young Mexican woman of about nineteen came through it. Her form instantly attracted my attention. Dressed in a pair of jeans and a sleeveless shirt, she had the kind of curves that are only given to the young and childless. Her backside was particularly nice to behold and the tightness of her pants did nothing but accentuate it. Her black hair was long, nearly to her mid-back, and was fastened in a simple ponytail. Her breasts were not overly large but neither were they overly small. They bulged from beneath her shirt in a way that made the libido soar to look at them. Her skin was dark and looked very strokable. Her lips were very thick and prominent, the type that men liked to make lewd allusions about. She saw me looking at her as she came in and she stopped, slowly setting the garbage can that she'd been carrying down in its accustomed place. Her face remained expressionless but her eyes remained on me.
Jose stepped over to her and led her over to me. "This is officer Mallet," he told her and then turned to me. "Officer, this is Trista, my daughter. She helps out with the cleaning and at the register."
"How do you do, Trista?" I told her, trying to keep my eyes from dropping to her chest again.
"I'm fine," she said softly, her accent there but not nearly as thick as that of her parents. "You'll be taking all of our money today?"
"I'm afraid so," I said with a shrug. "I'll be standing over by the register there."
She said nothing else at the moment. I took the opportunity to explain the rules of the game to them, basically repeating what Sergeant Nichols had explained to me an hour before. They all listened attentively to me with the exception of Hector, who stood off to the side and practiced throwing dirty looks my way. By the time I was done speaking it was time for them to open up. Jose went and opened the doors where two people were already waiting for admission.
The day went on. I stood my post at the register, keeping as far into the background as I could, watching while each transaction was completed. There were a lot of transactions. A steady stream of customers came into the establishment, most of them Mexicans of varying age. By far the most popular choice of food was the chicken tacos, which Maria and Jose prepared on a large grill. $3.99 would entitle a customer to two of them, which were put on a plate with generous helpings of Spanish rice and refried beans. The plates always came back empty. While their parents did the cooking Hector and Trista switched off between working the cash register and cleaning. I watched them with one eye as they went about these tasks, especially Trista who was much more pleasing to gaze upon. They seemed to do a better than average job of keeping the place tidy. The dishes were rinsed and put through an industrial dishwasher that was run whenever it got full. The tables were cleaned with a disinfectant soaked rag between customers. I saw no signs of the unsanitary conditions that had prompted the fines by the health department, but that was probably, I figured, because they had changed their ways.
Neither Hector nor Trista tried any scams with the money as far as I could see. They conducted a cash only business, which seemed pretty much the norm for the neighborhood anyway, and they never tried skimming any off the top as Nichols had warned me they would. I was pretty much ignored as I watched them go about their business although Hector continued to toss the odd hostile look at me and more than once I saw Trista looking at me as well, although not with the same sort of expression. She seemed curious about me more than unhappy.
It was just after the busy lunch period wound down, returning the establishment to a pace that was almost sane, when she came over to me. She had a glass of soda in her hand that she took a sip from. Her chocolate brown eyes looked up at my face. "Do you want something to eat?" she asked me. "We could make you one of the taco plates if you want."
"No, thank you," I told her, although the smell of the tacos was making me crave them like a drug. "I brought my lunch."
"You sure?" she said, just a hint of teasing in her tone. "Mama makes the best chicken tacos in the world, and it'll be on the house."
"I'm sure," I said.
She shrugged, as if to say "your loss" and took another sip from her soda. "You're kind of young," she said. "The last guy they sent out here was about fifty years old and could barely walk. Isn't this shit detail for you guys?"
"You could call it that," I said sourly.
"Did you piss someone off or something?"
"No," I told her. "I got hurt. I normally work patrol in Lemon Hill. This is a light duty assignment."
She looked me up and down. "You don't look hurt."
"I have some torn ligaments in my shoulder. I can't move my left arm up above my body."
"How'd you do that?" she asked.
"It just kind of happened," I said vaguely, having no desire to get into a discussion of the how of my injury with her.
"Just kind of happened huh?" she said with a cynical smile.
"That's the truth," I assured her, giving a smile of my own.
I ate my sandwich about an hour later. It was a tasteless concoction from a downtown deli. I threw half of it in the garbage can and continued to smell the appetizing aroma of the chicken tacos and the beans. Trista came over again and offered me a drink from the soda fountain. This offer I took her up on.
"Here you go," she said, handing me an icy glass of soda.
"Thanks," I told her, taking the glass.
She smiled at me, showing her glistening white teeth for an instant. "I never talked to no cop before," she said. "At least not when he wasn't harassing me for something."
"Yes, we do love to do that, don't we?"
"Damn right," she assured me. "You seem nice. Are you guys always nice when you're not busting someone, or is it just you?"
"It's just me," I said. "I was sick the day they had the hard-ass lessons in the academy."
That produced a laugh from her. She looked down at my hand for a moment. "No wedding ring," she noted. "Did you lose it somewhere?"
"Divorced," I said simply. "Cops made terrible husbands. Our wives always leave us after a few years."
I chuckled. "Where should I start? Let's see ... we drink too much, we're mistrustful of everyone, we work bizarre hours, we have difficulty communicating with those that are close to us, we cheat. I think that about covers the major malfunctions."
"Which one was it with you?" she wanted to know.
"All of the above," I told her truthfully. "All of the above."
"You cheated on her?" she asked, latching onto that particular reason.
I shrugged. "There are women out there that really love cops," I said. "Sometimes it was hard to resist the temptation."
"I knew you were scum," she said, although she had a grin on her face as she said it.
"Guilty as charged," I told her.
It was at this point that Hector, who had been hovering near the cash register, an unhappy expression on his face as he listened to his sister converse with me, was able to take it no more. "Trista," he said sharply, getting her attention. When she looked at him he began to speak in rapid fire Spanish. It would seem he was unaware that I was fluent in that particular language since what he said was: "Get your ass away from that fucking pig you slutty bitch!"
"Hector!" Maria barked at him from her position near the grill. In Spanish she told him to watch his language or she was going to beat him like he was a ten year old.
He was about to reply back to her when I spoke up. "Yes, Hector," I said in English, "we wouldn't want mama to have to whip your ass now, would we? And is that anyway to talk to your sister?"
All four of them stopped and stared at me in shock and amazement, particularly Hector, who actually blushed.
"You habla Espanol?" Trista said slowly.
"Si," I told her and then continued on in my accented but perfectly understandable version of their language. "The department pays us five percent extra for being bilingual so I taught myself Spanish five years ago with those computer disks that they sell. Not bad for a gringo, huh?"
Jose and Maria continued to look shocked but went back to what they were doing. Hector, still blushing with anger and shame, stomped off and disappeared out the back door. Trista smirked at him as he left, making little effort to hide her expression. She turned to me once the door slammed behind him. "Not bad at all," she said in English.
Things got a little slow in the taco joint around 3:30 that afternoon. Hector, still sullen and uncommunicative, grabbed a mop and a bucket and began swabbing down the dining area. Jose and Maria went about the task of cleaning their grill and their pots. Maria stood vigil at the cash register, sipping from her soda glass. I watched her as she worked, admiring her firm body more and more with each move she made.
"Do you like your job?" she asked me suddenly, breaking a silence that had been in place for the last twenty minutes.
"Being a cop?" I said contemplatively. "Yeah, I like it a lot. It fits my personality pretty well."
"You like to beat people up and haul them to jail?" she asked.
"Is that what you think cops spend their days doing?" I asked.
She shrugged, a hint of a smile touching those puffy lips. "I live in the barrio," she said. "I've seen what you guys do."
I returned her shrug with one of my own. "Sometimes we have to put our hands on people," I told her. "I don't enjoy that particular part of the job. I'd rather talk someone down than fight with them. What I do like about it is that every day is different. I don't know what's going to happen when I go to work each day. I don't know what I'm going to be dealing with. That's appealing to me. I get bored real easy."
"Do you get hurt fighting with someone?" she asked next.
"Yes," I said. "He didn't want to be talked down."
I looked at her, wondering if she was baiting me or if she was genuinely interested. I couldn't quite tell but I leaned towards the latter. "He was a guy that had just assaulted a gas station clerk during a dispute. He'd left the scene before any of our units got there but we had a good description and I spotted him a few blocks away while I was heading to the call. I pulled over next to him and told him to come talk to me for a minute. He took off running like a bat out of hell."
"And you chased him," she said.
"I chased him. He ran through a grocery store parking lot and around the back of the store. He tried to jump a wooden fence there into an apartment complex. I got my hand on the back of his pants just as he went over. His weight going down the other side pulled my arm up and out of its socket."
"So he got away?"
I shook my head. "I hung onto him anyway. The section of fence fell down and he crashed down with it. I managed to get my pepper spray out with my good arm and give him a blast in the face. He got away from me and I wasn't able to chase him any farther because of the pain in my shoulder, but that slowed him down enough that the other units were able to get him."
"Did they beat him?" she asked plainly.
I gave a shrewd smile. "He went to jail by way of Valley Medical Center," I confirmed.
"But you don't like beating people up?"
"There are rules out on the street," I told her, explaining nothing that she didn't already know. "One of them is that if you injure a cop, you're gonna get your ass kicked when we catch you. We have to discourage that kind of behavior you know."
She shrugged again. "I suppose," she told me.
Soon the early dinner rush began and our conversation came to an end. Throngs of hungry people began walking through the doors, most of them ordering the chicken taco plate. The Gonzales family moved frantically at the grills and the register to keep up. Trista and I had time for no further interaction although I watched her as she worked, impressed with the efficiency and grace she portrayed.
At day's end the register contained $1232 dollars and some change. I had Jose and Maria count it with me and sign the paperwork. I then put it in a zippered bag for transport back to the admin building. Hector had already made himself scarce. Jose and Maria went into the kitchen and began cleaning their grills and pots once more. Only Trista accompanied me to the door.
"You'll be back tomorrow?" she asked.
"Afraid so," I said with a sigh.
She nodded, giving me a small smile. "If we have to have a fucking pig in here," she said softly, "at least we get a cute one."
I returned her smile, enjoying the flirtatious look in her eyes. A moment later I went out into the parking lot and climbed into my unmarked car.
Half a block down the street was another taco establishment, a place called Santo's Tacos. It was a local chain that had risen to popularity in the last three or four years in Heritage. They now had six or seven stores scattered throughout the metropolitan area. I had eaten at the South Heritage Santos many times as a patrol officer since they gave uniformed cops half price food. On impulse I pulled in now, utilizing the drive-through lane. It was completely empty despite the fact that it was still early in the evening and it only took me two minutes to get an order of chicken tacos to go. They smelled good but not nearly as good as those prepared at Gonzales Tacos.
The next day I gave in. When Trista offered me a plate of chicken tacos after the lunch rush I jumped at the offer. Maria prepared them for me, throwing in considerably more of the chicken than the regular customers received. She put heaping mounds of rice and beans on the side. They were, hands down, the best tacos — chicken or otherwise — that I have ever had in my life. They made the ones that I'd had the night before at Santos taste like dogshit.
"I told you mama makes the best tacos in the world," Trista said proudly after I'd exclaimed about them for the tenth or eleventh time.
"You weren't exaggerating," I said, cleaning up the last two pieces of chicken that had spilled out.
She took my plate from me when I was done and handed it to her brother, who was still giving me evil glares whenever the opportunity presented itself. She came back over and stood by me companionably. Much to her brother's chagrin, she had been friendly with me ever since my arrival at opening time, discussing everything from books (which I was surprised to learn she had an interest in) to politics.
"So how much money does a cop make anyway?" she asked now. "What do they pay you for going around and beating people up?"
I laughed a little at her reference. Beating people up had become something of a joke between us. "I made sixty-four thousand last year," I told her. "That's with the odd overtime shift thrown in of course."
She whistled appreciatively. "Being a pig pays pretty good," she said. "We only made twenty thousand last year with this place, and that's working six days a week."
"Well, it may sound like a lot, but between my alimony and child support and retirement contributions and house payment and car payment and my second mortgage, and of course, good old Uncle Sam, I end up with about a hundred bucks to make it between paydays."
She soured a little. "At least you got a house and a car and all that other shit," she told me. "We have to rent a little house and walk to work. We had to sell our car after the first fine. That just about killed us. We don't know what this fine is going to do. I mean, Hector and I can go without our paycheck for the week but our suppliers don't give a shit what our money problems are. We have to pay for all that chicken and all those tortillas and the fucking gas for the grill and the fucking lease on the building." She shook her head angrily. "Oh never mind. Let's talk about something else."
This was a subject that I had been happy to leave alone to that point but the bitterness in her tone compelled me to probe a little. "What's up with those fines anyway?" I asked her. "I've been here for two days now and it doesn't look like you're doing anything that the health department would give a shit about. What were the fines for?"
She used an extended stream of Spanish profanity at the mention of the health department. "That fucking place down the street is behind it," she said.
"What fucking place?"
"Santos," she said, spitting out the word like it was some sort of disease. "Oh, never mind this shit. You wouldn't believe me anyway."
"I think you'd be surprised at what I would believe," I told her. "So what's the deal?"
She looked at me, trying to see if I was placating her or not. Apparently she concluded that I wasn't. "We were never bothered by the health department or anyone else until they built that place there," she said. "We used to get the inspections every year and we'd always pass without no problem. And then Santos came along and thought they were gonna take all of our customers away. They got real pissed when that didn't happen. They undercut our prices but that didn't work. People around here want real tacos, not that gringo shit that slime pit makes. So when they couldn't steal our customers away they tried to buy us out. Offered us forty thousand dollars."
"Real generous of them," I said sarcastically. Just from what I'd observed in my two days there, Gonzales Tacos was worth at least three times that on a strictly buy-out basis.
"Yeah," Trista said. "Can you believe that shit? When we told them to go fuck themselves is when the health department started showing up. Not just them either. The fucking fire department inspectors have been here twice a month since then, always nitpicking about something in the building and threatening us with fines. Those cleanliness violations were for improper grease storage and improper refrigeration temperature. Both of them violations were a bunch of shit."
"It sounds like Santos Tacos has the ear of the county administration," I said sadly. "They probably got a supervisor or two in their pocket. Who owns it?"
"Some fuckin' rich white pricks," she said. "They don't know shit about making real tacos. All they know how to do is use their money to fuck over other people."
I nodded in sympathy. "It's the American way unfortunately," I told her. "For what it's worth, I believe you. I've been around county politics long enough to know how things work." And this was true. I remembered an incident a few years before in which I'd arrested the golfing buddy of one of the county supervisors for possession of cocaine. I'd caught him dead to rights, with more than two grams of the drug in his possession. But since this real estate developer had the right connections the case was mysteriously dismissed by the DA two days later and a high-ranking member of the department told me that I should just forget it ever happened.
"Sometimes I think you can just shove America up someone's ass," she said.
"Sometimes I agree with that sentiment," I replied.
As the day rolled onward we continued our sporadic conversations during the slow periods. Hector, of course, continued to glare at me, especially when he saw his sister smiling and laughing at something I said, or when he saw me doing the same in response to something that she said. He kept his words to himself however, seemingly intimidated by the thought that I could understand him no matter what language he spoke in. Maria and Jose didn't seem to be terribly thrilled by the attention their daughter was shedding upon me either. Neither of them said anything in front of me but I believe that there were a few private conversations that took place out of my earshot.
None of this seemed to bother Trista however. She talked of many things with me during these slow periods. She seemed particularly fascinated by where and how I lived. She asked me about my house, my car, my neighborhood, what I liked to do on my days off. I responded to most of her questions honestly enough. I did not give her my actual address since cops live in fear of people finding out where they live, and I did not tell her that I spent a great deal of my off-time downloading and masturbating to Internet porn, since it didn't seem relevant to the discussion. But just about anything else was okay with me. She was an easy person to talk to despite the difference in our ages, upbringing, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. I asked her many questions as well, learning of her home life, which was of a strict Catholic upbringing, and her education, which had stopped at eleventh grade so she could work in the family business. We even talked about her brother, whom she assured me was not nearly as tough as he liked to pretend he was.
"He ran with Norte del Rio for a while," she told me, referring to an infamous Hispanic street gang that ruled in this part of the city, "but mama made him stop hanging out with them assholes the first time the cops hauled his ass to juvie for sellin' weed. He been working every day here since."
"How about you?" I asked her. "You looking for a Norte guy to hook up with?"
"Shit," she scoffed. "I'd rather fuck a white dude. All them assholes join the gang cause they don't know how to use their fuckin dicks."
I laughed, both surprised and delighted by her risqué words. I also didn't fail to notice her ethnic reference. Nor was I about to let it go. "So white dudes are better than Nortes huh?" I asked.
She actually blushed a little, her dark skin turning a shade darker. An embarrassed smile appeared on her face. "Wouldn't know," she finally said. "I ain't never done no white dude before."
"But you've done some Nortes?" I asked.
"A few," she reluctantly admitted. "I went through my teenaged rebellion too. Can't say that I ever got any fun out of it." She looked around and lowered her voice a bit. "However when I did Mr. Delgado who works over at the meat market..." she smiled sensuously. "Let's just say that older men are where it's at, you know what I mean?"
I felt a little stirring within me as she said these words. "Actually I don't," I said with a grin. "But I'll take your word for it."
"You ever done a Mexican before?" she asked me next.
"Just Julie Martinez," I told her. "And she don't really count. She's a cop groupie that hangs out at the bar I drink at. She grew up in Lemon Hill and went to Kennedy High School. It's probably been about three generations since her family has been south of the border."
"She's a white girl then," Trista said. "You gotta try a real wetback sometime. You'll never go back to the white chicks again."
"Maybe I'll do that," I told her.
"Maybe you will," she returned.
The end of the day came around quickly that day. A count of the register proceeds revealed $1406. When added to the previous day's proceeds the amount was $2638 that had been collected so far.
"You're still short $362 Mr. Gonzales," I told him as he signed my form. "Looks like I'll be back tomorrow." In truth I wasn't really too unhappy about this. I was becoming quite infatuated with his daughter and the chance to see her for one more day was something I was looking forward to.
But it seemed that Mr. Gonzales was picking up on this as well and was not as thrilled about it. And he seemed determined to avoid having her exposed to me if he could. "I have about four hundred dollars in the business account," he told me. "I'll write a check for the balance."
"Papa," Trista said, alarmed, "that's the money that we have to use to buy our supplies for the rest of the week!"
"We'll get by somehow," he told her firmly. "We always do." He looked back at me. "Is that acceptable, officer?"
In truth, I didn't really know. I was new to this civil division stuff. A quick phone call to Sergeant Nichols however assured me that it was perfectly fine, although I was instructed to tell Jose that he would be arrested for fraud if his check were to bounce.
"It'll clear," he assured me impatiently as he scratched out the amount. He ripped the check off and handed it to me. "There you go," he said. "All paid off. Now you don't have to come back tomorrow or any other time, right?"
"I suppose not," I said with a sigh. I had him sign one more receipt for me and then I packed up the money and headed for the door. Jose, Maria, and Hector were already off in the kitchen, performing the final clean-up for the night. Trista followed me to the door.
"Well, it was nice talking to you, Trista," I told her in the doorway. "I hope everything works out for you and your family."
"Me too," she said, giving me her smile. She hesitated for a second. "So what are you gonna do now?" she finally asked.
"Now, I'm going to go back to the office and turn all this money in. Then I'm going to go home, open a beer, and climb into the hot tub for a nice long soak."
"A hot tub huh?" she said whimsically. "You know, I've never been in a hot tub before."
She shook her head. "Ain't no fuckin hot tubs in the barrio, man. Are they nice? Nicer than taking a hot bath?"
"A thousand times nicer," I said, looking at her brown eyes. "Maybe you'd like to join me tonight?"
"In your hot tub?"
"In my hot tub," I confirmed. "If you don't mind hanging out with a gringo that is."
She smiled. "How long will it take you go to your office and come back here?"
"About forty-five minutes or so."
"I'll be waiting out in front of the store," she said. With that she turned and headed for the kitchen to help clean.
She was there, just as promised, when I pulled my four-year-old Honda Accord in front of the taco place fifty minutes later. She held a red bikini in her hands. Her hair was slightly damp looking, as if she'd just taken a shower. She had changed into a pair of denim shorts and a half shirt. I admired the smooth skin that was revealed on her stomach as I parked at the curb.
"Nice car," she said as she hopped in the passenger side, more than a little sarcasm in her tone.
"It gets me around," I told her with a shrug. "And I can't afford any higher payments than I've already got."
I pulled away and started heading for the freeway.
"I had to hide this from mama and papa," she said, holding up the bikini. "They would've killed me if they'd known I was going out with the gringo cop."
"Where'd you tell them you were going?" I asked.
"I didn't tell them nothing," she said. "I go out a lot after work. There's nothing unusual about it."
"Good," I said. "The last thing I need is your papa and your brother chasing me down."
We chatted about neutral subjects as I drove us out of the ghetto and into the northern suburbs. I lived in Whispering Oaks, which was one of the nicer parts of the county, the place where many of the yuppies and other professionals lived. Trista looked in wonder at the neat, geometric rows of tract houses as we entered my neighborhood.
Finally we pulled into the driveway of my three-bedroom home. It was located on a corner lot near the main road, which was why I had been able to afford it in the first place. The sprinklers were running through their automatic timed cycle, leaking a stream of water down into the gutter. I opened the garage door with the remote clipped to my visor and pulled into the neat garage.
We entered the house through the garage door, which brought us into the kitchen. Luckily my marriage had left me with somewhat of a cleanliness compulsion and the house was neat. I gave her a quick tour, showing her the highlights.
"Nice place," she told me appreciatively when we were finished. "It's a lot bigger than our house."