Mayor Sam Blocker stood at the podium with a solemn expression and addressed the parents who’d assembled at the Cornelius Bethune High School auditorium for the fifteenth annual New Directions Award Ceremony. The mayor shared the stage with five prominent members of the community. They were there to present citations to various teachers, merchants and neighborhood volunteers. Those citizens had already received their accolades. The final prize of the night belonged to the youngster Mayor Blocker was about to introduce. One of the local professionals on that esteemed panel was the Brickhearst Police Department’s Chief of Homicide, Lieutenant Bess Watson.
To Watson, the line that separated right from wrong was broad and plain to see. Twenty years of fighting crime had taught the forty-eight-year-old survivor the importance of clinging to the values she learned as a child. In many ways, the street wise investigator personified the grassroots principles she strived to instill in the hearts and minds of every cop who served under her command.
Perfectly postured beneath a huge banner with her silky blond hair in a chignon, the Lieutenant represented the best municipal law enforcement had to offer. There wasn’t a wrinkle in her midnight blue uniform. The shine on those rubber-soled shoes was practically blinding. A .357 Magnum and nightstick complimented her statuesque frame with every stride. It would’ve been easy for an uninformed observer to presume such a consummate overachiever was vain and self-absorbed, but nothing could have been farther from the truth.
Though she endeavored to conceal the most basic emotions behind the piercing gaze of those stunning green eyes, Watson had genuine affection for her fellow officers. She wasn’t afraid to lay it all on the line when she believed her people were in the right. The Lieutenant’s loyalty knew no boundaries. It was even at the disposal of her former Captain’s nephew.
The strapping young officer with the wave maker haircut was doing everything in his power to sit calmly in the audience and forget the problems that plagued his fledging career with the Brickhearst P.D. His name was Darius Carter. Although the handsome patrolman had joined the force three years earlier, he was no rookie. Half a decade with the Duval County Sheriff’s Department had prepared him for the rage and desperation that can infect the character of a sprawling southern city. He’d engaged some of the most ruthless outlaws in the state. On more than one occasion, the brawny flatfoot had risked his own life to save others. His skill and dedication to duty were incomparable. He was fearless. Unfortunately, containing the memories that haunted his thoughts would prove to be his greatest challenge.
Living up to the legend of a prominent public servant like Roosevelt Nelms would have been a monumental task for most second-generation cops, but for Carter, it bordered on the neurotic. Born into one of the wealthiest families in Jacksonville, the hopes and dreams of this introspective visionary were often dismissed by an overbearing father. His brother had made a fortune in the entertainment field and his sister was in medical school. Both had earned the praise and respect of the old man.
After the death of his mother, Carter grew up feeling like an alien in his own home. The discouragement he felt seemed to contaminate other facets of his life. A cloud of uncertainty darkened every achievement. Nothing could take the place of the love and acceptance his family denied him.
His father’s disappointment wasn’t the only burden weighing heavily upon the shoulders of this tormented outsider. He’d been assigned to desk duty for the past month. A domestic disturbance that resulted in the deaths of four children affected him in ways he never thought possible. The traumatized patrolman had been relegated to pushing papers and working closely with Lieutenant Watson.
Carter didn’t begrudge a minute spent in the presence of the Lieutenant. She did all she could to nurture his desire to make detective. He couldn’t have chosen a better mentor. Though Watson’s friendship with his uncle compelled her to go the extra mile, she didn’t coddle her ambitious pupil. He was treated like everyone else. With a commanding officer like Bess Watson, that was the best any cop could expect.
The view from the front row wasn’t very pleasant for an embattled peace officer who dreaded what tomorrow might bring. As he paid careful attention to every word the mayor said, Carter wondered what this portly politician had in store for him. His affinity for courting the press was no secret. He didn’t tolerate cops who made him look bad. It was hard for the officer to believe a double-dealing bozo in a three-piece gray suit had the power to end his career, but Blocker’s record spoke for itself.
Although keeping a vigilant eye on the mayor may have been in order, Carter didn’t want to dampen the spirit of this special occasion. He wanted everything to be perfect for the broad-shouldered seventeen-year-old girl waiting backstage.
Bridgett Donaldson struggled to maintain her composure as the mayor paid homage to the miraculous improvements she’d made in her life. When he invited her to come out and tell her story, the curvaceous brunette approached the podium dressed in a pinstriped skirt and violet silk blouse. The audience erupted into a standing ovation.
The grateful young woman wiped her eyes and smiled. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you very much.” When the crowd settled down, she took a deep breath. “All of this is really overwhelming. I never imagined I’d ever see my name on a banner with these beautifully arranged roses and azaleas on the stage. I don’t know everyone up here with me. I’ve seen the Fire Marshal and the Superintendent of Schools on the news. Unfortunately, I’m better acquainted with Lieutenant Watson and Judge Breland.” A few people politely chuckled. “For those of you who don’t know, life hasn’t been easy for me. When I was eight, my parents were killed in a car accident. I spent three years in foster care with people who didn’t know how to love. I was exploited and abused. At the age of twelve, I struck out on my own and learned to survive on the streets. I did everything you can imagine to stay alive. After getting involved with a gang, I was arrested and placed in a juvenile facility. A year later, my father’s sister, Grace, retired from the military and moved here to Brickhearst. Taking me in was more than an act of charity. She literally saved my life. Getting free of those streets is the best thing that can happen to a kid. So, you can bet I’ll be making the best of the scholarship that comes with this award. I want to thank Mayor Blocker and all of you for allowing me to be here tonight. I especially want to thank Aunt Grace for giving up so much for me. And I’m going to make her proud.”
As the audience applauded, the mayor returned to the podium with the New Directions plaque. Friends and well-wishers approached the stage to embrace this extraordinary teenager.
Carter would have been happy to express his sentiments, but he and Lieutenant Watson had a mountain of paperwork to sort through before shift-change. So, amid the gracious smiles and bellowing benevolence, the officers made their way outside. An hour later, they’d arrived at the station and were hard at work in Watson’s office.