We wore our uniforms the day Mike Peralta was sworn in as sheriff of Maricopa County. It nearly made me late to the ceremony.
In the quiet of my forgotten office in the old county courthouse, behind the plastic doorplate that reads “Deputy David Mapstone, Sheriff ’s Office Historian,” I fiddled with the tribal fashion of cops. The tan uniform blouse with epaulets and pocket flaps, the opening above the pocket made for a cheap Cross pen, and the gold-plated “MCSO” letters running parallel on each side of the collar. In one of his moments of cruel whimsy, Peralta gave me two gold book pins for my collar. I refused to wear them.
The shirt had a reinforced grommet to hold a badge. I slipped my gold star out of its wallet case, gave it a last polish, and pinned it on. The five-pointed star proclaimed me “Deputy Sheriff… Maricopa County,” on scrolls cut into the metal surrounding the Arizona state seal. Ditat Deus, the seal says: God enriches. The ACLU is suing to have the words removed.
Dark brown uniform slacks were pressed crisply, and the legs draped to a slight break over the hand-tooled leather cowboy boots, glistening with a regulation spit shine. An off-white felt Stetson sat on my desk. We might be one of the largest urban counties in the United States, but we kept our Old West traditions.
Finally, I pulled on the heavy belt, also highly polished, that held handcuffs, flashlight loop, Mace canister, keyring,
Speedloaders, and the holster that housed my Colt Python .357 revolver. I loudly snapped the leather keepers that held the gunbelt to the pants belt. Ready at last.
I usually dressed like a civilian, although I liked nice clothes more than the average Arizonan and way more than my paycheck could handle. But that day I stood before the mirror and looked something like the young deputy I had been twenty-three years before, when I was a rookie, out on the street for the first time with a veteran named Peralta. I’m six-foot-two and broad-shouldered, with wavy dark hair that goes any way it chooses. Lindsey likes my brown eyes. They don’t look like cop’s eyes, she says. But that day everything else about me looked cop. I tilted the Stetson at a slight angle and locked up the office.
Outside, the miracle of a winter day in Arizona. The palm trees and palo verdes lining Cesar Chavez Plaza sat lush and spring green. The spare modern towers of downtown Phoenix looked puny under the bright blue firmament of dry desert sky. It was nearly perfect: You could barely see some pockets of yellow- brown smog skulking up against the rocky head of Camelback Mountain. The temperature was in the sweet zone of the seventies. Tourists paid high-season prices for days like this.
I crossed Jefferson Street and went through the metal detectors into the County Supervisors Auditorium. Then I saw no way to get to my seat but to cross the stage, shaking hands with the cluster of family and friends of the new sheriff. Sharon Peralta looked ten years younger in a stylish navy pinstripe suit, her shoulder-length hair expensively done. She’d taken a rare morning off from her radio show to be here at her husband’s big day. She smiled to see me in uniform. Their daughters, Jamie and Jennifer, lived in the Bay Area and practiced law. I remembered when they were babies, and I didn’t feel old. Judge Peralta, Mike’s father, courtly and ancient, grasped my hand strongly in both of his and held me before him for a long time, saying nothing. For just a moment, I felt a strange flutter below my breastbone.
Peralta himself had yet to make his entrance. I shook hands with the department brass, most of them not so sure why I should even be up there. Bill Davidson looked, as always, like the Marlboro Man, tall and craggy with a lush mustache turning steel gray. He was the longtime patrol boss. Jack Abernathy, short legs attached to a beer-barrel chest, was in charge of what was now called “the custody bureau”—the county jail. Both wanted to be chief deputy now that Peralta was in the top job. E.J. Kimbrough, his head shaved like an ebony bullet, clapped me on the arm. He was the captain of the major crimes unit, and he was an ally, maybe a friend. I hoped Peralta would make him the new chief of sheriff ’s detectives. Last, the outgoing sheriff, controversial and wildly popular. He brought back chain gangs and housed inmates in tents. I’d been a little part of his show. Now he was off to Washington as the new administration’s drug czar.
“The history professor,” he said, his tone ambiguous, his icy gray eyes unmoving.
I passed the color guard of Boy Scouts and took my place at the end of the stage, where Deputy Lindsey Faith Adams had saved a chair for me. Lindsey favored black miniskirts or jeans. But today, she too wore MCSO tan, her straight black hair parted in the middle and pulled back demurely, her small gold nose stud nowhere to be seen. Even so, Lindsey didn’t look like a cop. And if she weren’t the star of the cybercrimes task force, she’d probably be making big bucks at a dot-com company. She gave my hand a discreet squeeze. I squeezed back and felt the engagement ring I had given her three months before.
It was 11 a.m. on the second Monday of January.
# # #
“So, Mapstone, you ready to take a real job in this department?”
I had to lean over to hear Peralta. The well-worn gymnasium at Immaculate Heart Church must have been filled with a thousand people, all there to wish the new sheriff well. A line of them was snaked around us. The governor, the county supervisors, and the mayor of Phoenix had already come through. But I bet another hundred were lined up behind me. I noticed a bigwig from Phelps Dodge, the managing editor of the Republic, the head of the Phoenix Symphony board. Peralta held me by the arm in a nearly painful grip and repeated his question.
“How about it? Are you ready to take a real job in the department?”
“I like what I’m doing, but you could give me more money,” I said.
“I’ll ask the new sheriff about it,” he said. “I’m sure we could get you an off-duty gig as a security guard at Bashas’.”
He didn’t smile. He never smiled. But he looked happy today. As happy as he could look. Peralta had the surprising bulk of a Victorian armoire. He stood six-foot-five, and if he could have fit into a 48-long coat I would have been surprised. Little of his bulk appeared to be fat. His broad, brown face carried the same impassive expression as always. But his large eyes, where all his emotions congregated, held a little gleam, just like the light hitting the four stars freshly pinned on his uniform collar.
Peralta had spent a quarter century in the department. When I left to go teach college history, he stayed as a sergeant and a comer. During the years I was gone, we stayed in touch as he rose to lieutenant and captain, and I wrote a history book that may have sold a few hundred copies. He had been chief deputy so long that the words “Chief” and “Peralta” seemed inextricably linked. And three years ago, when I failed to get tenure and came home unemployed and more than a little broken, the chief gave me a job in the department researching old unsolved cases. I worked as a consultant, using the historian’s techniques but also carrying a badge. I got $1,000 for every case I cracked.
He snorted to himself, breaking me out of my reverie. “Hell,” he said. “I may make you the new chief deputy.” “I’m not qualified.” I laughed.
“I did the job for ten years,” he said above the din. “I’ll decide who’s qualified. That’d frost these fucking climbers.” He nodded toward a small cluster of brass standing uncomfortably over by the refreshment table.
I tried to change the subject. “This is a great place for the reception.”
“I know you’d rather be drinking martinis at the Phoenician,” he said. “But this is a sentimental thing.”
“You, sentimental? When we were deputies together I had to remind you to get Sharon a card for your anniversary.”
His glare hardened. I was one of the few people who dared mess with him.
He said, “I went to first and second grade here, before they had to close the school. My father went to high school here. Who knows how much longer it will be around before your yuppie friends gentrify the neighborhood?”
He added, “And holding the reception here is not a bad way to shore up my support with the Latino voters.” He arched his eyebrow, a gesture of enormous humor for him. “I’m just a simple boy from the barrio.”
“You’re about as simple as quantum physics,” I said. I nodded toward the people waiting behind me. “You have lots of VIPs who want to congratulate you, Sheriff,”
He ignored me. “See, Mapstone, I know you. You can’t revise your past with me like some professor’s résumé. You always should have stayed in law enforcement. So you took a fifteen-year detour as a teacher? Now you’re back in Arizona, back home at the S.O. Where you always should have stayed. Even if you’re a pain in the ass sometimes and you read too much. Admit it, Mapstone, you’re happy here.”
He was right. The “black dog moods,” as Churchill called them, came less often. I was teaching myself that tomorrow’s misfortune wasn’t an inevitable byproduct of today’s happiness. Lindsey made me feel terrifically lucky. The turn of a new millennium had come and gone benignly, as had my twenty-fifth high school reunion. I was even feeling better about Phoenix, a place that could break your heart if you grew to love it.
The noise picked up, with a mariachi band and the sheriff’s office bagpipers engaging in a merry duel.
“But we need to make some changes in the department,” he said.
“People may not like it. And I’m serious when I say I expect you to step up when asked.”
“Yeah, security at Bashas’,” I said “I can also help carry groceries. I know you’ll make all the right changes for the department, Sheriff.”
“I’m a lawman, Mapstone,” he said. “I’m no politician.” “Well, you did pretty well, then. Getting 70 percent of the vote.”
“Oh, hell, I’d just have to break in somebody new as sheriff if I didn’t do it myself.”
I shook my head, awash with affection for this impossible, stubborn, lionhearted man, and I couldn’t suppress a wide smile.
“What the hell are you so giggly about?” “You,” I said. “Never mind.”
He let go of my arm. “Come by my office tomorrow. I really do need to talk to you about something.”
“A new case?”
He gave his head a half nod, half shake. “Come by. You’ll find out.”
I nodded, then my eyes went to a small, intense flash in the air above Peralta’s left shoulder, and I remember thinking he’d be freshly annoyed that I wasn’t looking him in the eye. Only later would I recall two distinct, terrible cracks sounding above the clutter. Suddenly Peralta fell into me heavily and we both crashed backward hard on the floor.
I felt the quick panic of having the air knocked out of me. Something wet shot into my eyes. My back screamed in pain from the weight that quickly sandwiched it with the floor. A woman gasped and called for God’s help. As my mind refocused and my lungs refilled, I feared Peralta had suffered a heart attack. Then I saw the blood all over us.