Hornet's Nest, стр. 1

Chapter One

That morning, summer sulked and gathered darkly over Charlotte, and heat shimmered on pavement. Traffic teemed, people pushing forward to promise as they drove through new construction, and the past was bulldozed away. The US Bank Corporate Center soared sixty stories above downtown, topped by a crown that looked like organ pipes playing a hymn to the god of money. This was a city of ambition and change. It had grown so fast, it could not always find its own streets. Like a boy in puberty, it was rapidly unfolding and clumsy at times, and a little too full of what its original settlers had called pride.

The city and its county were named for Princess Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz before she became George Ill's queen. The Germans, who wanted the same freedoms the Scotch-Irish did, were one thing. The English were another. When Lord Cornwallis decided to come to town in 1780 and occupied what became known as the Queen City, he was met with such hostility by these stubborn Presbyterians that he dubbed Charlotte 'the hornet's nest of America. " Two centuries later, the swarming symbol was the official seal of the city and its NBA basketball team and the police department that protected all.

It was the white whirling dervish against midnight blue that Deputy Chief Virginia West wore on the shoulders of her crisp white uniform shirt with all its brass. Most cops, frankly, had not a clue as to what the symbol meant. Some thought it was a tornado, a white owl, a beard. Others were certain it had to do with sports events in the coliseum or the new two-hundredandthirty-million- dollar stadium that hovered downtown like an alien spacecraft. But West had been stung more than once and knew exactly what the hornet's nest was about. It was what awaited her when she drove to work and read the Charlotte Observer every morning. Violence swarmed, and everybody talked at once. This Monday, she was in a dark angry mood, ready to really stir things up.

The city police department recently had relocated to the new pearly concrete complex known as the Law Enforcement Center, or LEC, in the heart of downtown on Trade Street, the very road British oppressors long ago had followed into town. Construction in the area seemed endless, as if change were a virus taking over West's life. Parking at the LEC remained a mess, and she had not completely moved into her office yet. There were plenty of mud puddles, and dust, and her unmarked car was new and a striking uniform blue that sent her to the carwash at least three times a week.

When she reached the reserved parking spaces in front of the LEC, she couldn't believe it. Occupying her spot was a drug dealer's set of chrome mags and parrot-green iridescent paint, a Suzuki, which she knew people flipped over in more ways than one.

"Goddamn it!" She looked around, as if she might recognize the person who had dared this perpetration.

Other cops were pulling in and out, and transporting prisoners in this constantly moving department of sixteen hundred police and un sworn support. For a moment, West sat and scanned, teased by the aroma of the Bojangles bacon and egg biscuit that by now was cold. Settling on a fifteen-minute slot in front of sparkling glass doors, she parked and climbed out, doing the best she could with briefcase, pocketbook, files, newspapers, breakfast, a large coffee.

She slammed her door shut with a hip as the dude she was looking for emerged from the building. He was jailing, jeans at low tide in that cool lockup look of six inches of pastel undershorts showing. The fashion statement got started in jail when inmates had their belts confiscated so they wouldn't hang themselves or someone else. The trend had crossed over every racial and socioeconomic line until half of the city's pants were falling off. West did not understand it. She left her car right where it was, fought with her armload as the dude mumbled good morning, trotting past.

"Brewster!" Her voice halted him like a pointed gun.

"What the hell you think you're doing parking in my space!"

He grinned, flashing rings and a fake Rolex as he swept arms open wide, the pistol beneath his jacket peeking out.

"Look around. Tell me what you see. Not one damn parking place in all of Charlotte."

"That's why important people like me are assigned one," she said to this detective she supervised as she tossed him her keys.

"Bring them back when you've moved my car," she ordered.

West was forty-two, a woman who still turned heads and had never been married to anything beyond what she thought she was here on earth to do. She had deep red hair, a little unattended and longer than she liked it, her eyes dark and quick, and a serious body that she did not deserve, for she did nothing to maintain curves and straightness in the right places. She wore her uniform in a way that made other women want one, but that was not why she chose police blues over plain clothes. She supervised more than three hundred wiseass investigators like Ronald Brewster who needed every reminder of law and order West could muster.

Cops greeted her on her way in. She turned right, headed to offices where Chief Judy Hammer decided everything that mattered in law enforcement in this hundred-mile area of almost six million people.

West loved her boss but right now didn't like her. West knew why she had been called in early for a meeting, and it was a situation beyond reason or her control. This was insane. She walked into Hammer's outer office, where Captain Fred Horgess was talking on the phone. He held his hand over the receiver and shook his head in a there's nothing I can do way to West as she walked up to the dark wooden door, where Hammer's name was announced brightly in brass.

"It's not good," he warned with a shrug.

"Why is it I didn't need you to tell me that?" West irritably said.

Balancing her burdens, she knocked with the toe of her Bates hi-gloss black

shoe and nudged up the door handle with a knee, coffee almost spilling but caught in time. Inside, Hammer sat behind her overwhelmed desk, surrounded by framed photographs of children and grand babies her mission statement, Prevent the Next Crime, on the wall behind her.

She was early fifties, in a smart hounds tooth business suit, her telephone line buzzing relentlessly, but she had more important matters on her mind at the moment.

West dumped her load on one chair and sat in another one near the brass Winged Victory award the Inter national Association of Chiefs of Police had presented to Hammer last year. She had never bothered to get a stand or give it an honored place. In fact, the trophy, which was three feet high, continued to occupy the same square of carpet next to her desk, as if waiting for a ride to someplace better. Judy Hammer won such things because she wasn't motivated by them. West removed the lid off her coffee, and steam wafted up.

"I already know what this is about," she said, 'and you know what I think. "

Hammer gestured to silence her. She leaned forward, folding her hands on top of her desk.

"Virginia. At long last I have gotten the support of city council, the city manager, the mayor," she started to say.

"And every one of them, including you, is wrong," West said, stirring cream and sugar into her coffee.

"I can't believe you've talked them into this, and I can tell you right now, they're going to find some way to screw it up because they don't really want it to happen. You shouldn't want it to happen, either. It's a damn conflict of interests for a police reporter to become a volunteer cop and go out on the street with us."

Paper crackled as West unwrapped a greasy Bojangles biscuit that Hammer would never raise to her lips, not even back in the old days when she was underweight and on her feet all day long, working the jail, juvenile division, crime analysis, records, inspections, auto theft, all those exciting assignments women got back in the days when they weren't allowed in patrol. She did not believe in fat.

"I mean, come on!" West said after a bite.

"The last Observer cop reporter screwed us so bad you sued the newspaper."

Hammer did not like to think about Weinstein, the worthless wonder, a criminal, really, whose MO was to walk into the duty captain's office or the investigative division when no one was around. He stole reports right off desks, printers, and fax machines. This collaborative behavior culminated in his writing a front-page Sunday profile about Hammer, claiming she commandeered the police helicopter for personal use. She ordered off-duty cops to chauffeur her and do domestic jobs around her house. When her daughter was picked up for drunk driving, Hammer had the charges fixed. None of it was true. She did not even have a daughter.

Hammer got up, clearly frustrated and disturbed by the mess the world was in. She looked out a window, hands in the pockets of her skirt, her back to West.

"The Charlotte Observer, the city, think we don't understand them or care," she started her evangelism again.

"And I know they don't understand us. Or care."

West crumpled breakfast trash, and scored two points in disgust.

"All the Observer cares about is winning another Pulitzer Prize," she said.

Hammer turned around, as serious as West had ever seen her.

"I had lunch with the new publisher yesterday. First time any of us have had a civilized conversation with anyone from there in a decade, at least.

A miracle. " She began her habitual pacing, gesturing with passion. She loved her mission in life.

"We really want to try this. Could it blow up in our faces? Absolutely." She paused.

"But what if it worked? Andy Brazil…"

"Who?" West scowled.

"Very, very determined," Hammer went on, 'completed our academy for volunteers, highest marks we've ever had. Impressed the hell out of the instructors. Does that mean he won't burn us, Virginia? No, no. But what I'm not going to have is this young reporter out there screwing up an investigation, getting the wrong view of what we do. He's not going to be lied to, stonewalled, hit on, hurt. "

West put her head in her hands, groaning. Hammer returned to her desk and sat.

"If this goes well," the chief went on, 'think how good it could be for the department, for community policing here and around the world.

How many times have I heard you say, "If only every citizen could ride just one night with us" "

"I'll never say it again." West meant it.