Night of Decision
Jace Packard had arrived to pick up Victoria at the Chase mansion earlier that evening about five o’clock. Good-looking, athletic, and average in height, the boy sported an open collared shirt and a blazer with a tiny USC embroidered on the lapel. But more than the clothes and beyond his appearance, Jace wore an attitude of entitlement and unspoken confidence that was inbred and difficult not to acknowledge.
When he was led into the house, Philip Chase emerged from his study to greet him and visit for a moment or two before Victoria came down. Not to suggest that Philip Chase regularly greeted and passed the time with Victoria’s dates. But Jace Packard was the son of Chase’s biggest client. And that entitled the boy to the sycophantic treatment worthy of royalty.
“So, how are you doing, Jace?” his smile beamed as he shook Jace’s hand.
“Fine,” Jace answered and glanced up the stairs. “Is Victoria ready?” For Jace, small talk, even with his father’s attorney, was a waste of time.
“Oh, she’ll be right down,” Chase laughed with slight discomfort. “You know how the girls are.” Uncle Phil craned his head and called up the stairs. “Victoria, Jace is here!” There followed a long pause. “Come on in and sit down.” He led the young man to the parlor.
But Jace himself was single minded. “Nah, I’ll just wait here.”
He didn’t have long to wait. As if on cue, Victoria came down the stairs. She wore a trim, orange, knee-length dress and carried a light jacket with a small purse. Her shoulder length hair was pinned back giving a full view of her pretty face accented by those dazzling eyes. She smiled as Jace came into view. “Hi, Jace.”
Jace said nothing as he took her all in from the bottom of the stairs. His gaze surveyed her hungrily as he studied her from head to foot. Then he looked at her and half smiled. “Hi.” He held out his hand and took her by the arm as she came to the bottom of the stairs. Then he deftly moved his hand around her waist. “We’d better get going if we’re going to get to the movie.” He was speaking exclusively to his date. Phillip Chase might just as well have not been there.
It was Victoria who acknowledged her guardian. “Uncle Phil, we’ll be going to a movie and then out to eat, right Jace.”
Common courtesy alone coerced Jace to acknowledge the third individual in the room. “Yeah.”
“So,” Victoria continued, “We shouldn’t be back too late.”
Chase stepped over to the front door to open it. “Oh, don’t worry about it. Just bring her back at a decent hour.”
The Packard boy smiled again and looked at Victoria. “A decent hour. Yeah, that’s easy. See you later.” Without more than a side glance at Philip Chase, Jace walked out the front door with his hand still around her Victoria’s waist.
“Good bye, Uncle Phil,” Victoria looked back and smiled.
Chase smiled awkwardly and watched, as the couple sauntered down the walkway and climbed into the waiting carmen red Jaguar and sped away.
Jace twisted the vintage sports car through the turns of the exclusive community until they came to the entry gates which swung open automatically before them. Peeling rubber on the cobbled bricks, the Jaguar shot past the entrance onto the tree-lined streets beyond. Jace cranked up the volume on the stereo as the breeze from the open windows blew through their hair. Victoria closed her eyes and breathed in the exhilaration. Power, wealth, adventure of youth, and the unbridled pleasure of the moment — these were all part of Jace and his world. He represented the future of opulent privilege in Orange County – and he knew it. He was fun, and Victoria enjoyed his company along with all that perks that came with it. And obviously, Jace was interested in her. With Jace, she could forget that life had visited her with unpleasant surprises. With Jace, she could be happy.
When they arrived at the movies Jace chose the R-rated feature for the evening. “I know you don’t care for a lot of sex,” he explained as he paid the admission. “So this was the only good movie left. It’s a little bit gory and terrifying, but that’s why everybody says it’s awesome.” Victoria assented without complaint. That was Jace. He was older and liked to be in control. That was OK – most of the time.
True to the hype, the movie was violent — and forgettable. But as soon as the lights dimmed, it became obvious that Jace was far more interested in Victoria than the opening credits – which was perhaps understandable. His own overtures in the darkness quickly escalated from casual to intimate, even before the last strains of the main title were through. Victoria found Jace’s affections more than slightly intrusive – particularly in a crowded theater. He usually wasn’t this physical, at least in public. When her lack of responsiveness failed to cool his ardor she began to grow concerned.
However with the initial car crash and the first few explosions, the R-rated feature began to draw Jace’s interest away from her. By the time several people had been brutally murdered, Victoria’s date was totally engrossed in the film. There was enough senseless violence from then on to hold his attention for the remainder of the evening. And that was enough for Victoria to give the movie four stars.
Victoria was famished by the time the movie let out. But when Jace drove past restaurant after restaurant, she began to wonder if dinner was included with the show. “I’d be happy with a hamburger and some onion rings tonight,” she hinted. “Maybe a chocolate malt.
Jace simply smiled as he turned onto Pacific Coast Highway. “Oh, we can do better than that. Tonight’s a special night.”
Jace’s choice of words — ‘a special night’ — were packed with a strange mixture of charm and portent – which made Victoria slightly anxious as well as hungry. But when he pulled the Jaguar into the valet parking of the Atlantis Club in Newport Beach, any suspicion absolutely vanished. “The Atlantis,” Victoria melted. “We’re eating here?”
“I told you. Tonight’s special.”
Exclusive and expensive, the Atlantis boasted the most lavish and exquisite cuisine in Orange County, complete with plush surroundings, soft music, and a spectacular view of the Pacific coast. In the ambiance of such elegant and romantic opulence, any misgiving about the evening was forgotten. This was the Jace she enjoyed going out with. He was rich, fun and unpredictable. And the night was young.
They were led to their reserved table in a corner of the room overlooking the ocean waves crashing on the shore. A waiter appeared out of nowhere and handed them each a menu –without prices.
“Jace, this is wonderful,” Victoria looked around the restaurant, then at the priceless menu. “But I don’t know what to choose.” She was frankly uncomfortable ordering from a bill of fare she knew would be exorbitant.
Jace folded his menu with a smug condescension. “Victoria, tonight, at a place like this, expense is no object.” Then he took charge. “Tell you what. You let me order for you.”
“But I,” she began to protest.
“Trust me,” he cut her off. “I’ll take care of you.” He opened his menu again.
Victoria was uncertain, but relented. “OK.”
Jace looked at the waiter who had patiently waited through this exchange. ”All right,” he cleared his throat. “The lady will have the prime rib.”
“And how would the lady like it cooked?” asked the waiter.
“Ah, medium rare. She would also like a house salad, with. . .” Jace looked at her expectantly.
“Blue cheese dressing,” Victoria answered.
“Good. I’ll have the New York steak, rare, and a salad. Same.”
The waiter took the menus and asked one other question. “And to drink?”
Jace smiled again, only differently this time. “Bring us a bottle of your best cabernet –and two wine glasses.”
Victoria was taken by surprise, but she responded quickly. “And a tall glass of ice water with lemon.”
Jace nodded at the waiter who bowed slightly and vanished like a ghost. His eyes wandered around the room for a moment until he finally focused on Victoria. Smiling he cocked his head expectantly and winked.
Conversation lagged as they waited for their dinner. The wine arrived within a few minutes, as ordered, with two goblets, which the waiter placed on the table. But instead of having the waiter pour the cabernet, Jace took the opened bottle and dispensed it himself – pouring a few ounces Victoria’s glass, and then his own.
“Go ahead. Taste it,” invited Jace as he took a swallow from his goblet. “It’s one of the finest red wines in California. Over 80 dollars a bottle.”
Victoria shifted uncomfortably in her chair. Reaching out, she pushed the base of her goblet away from her, if only a fraction of an inch. “Maybe, when my meal arrives.’
Jace shrugged and emptied his glass. “Victoria, relax.” Filling his goblet, he toasted her and smiled. “Enjoy yourself.”
“I am.” But she wasn’t.
“Um, hmm,” Jace gave a knowing grin and took another drink.
The salads soon arrived, followed by the main courses. Jace made every effort to impress Victoria with his sophistication, as he drank like a legionnaire stranded in the Sahara. Still Victoria’s glass went untouched. “You’re not going to waste that are you?” he challenged jokingly when her prime rib arrived. “There are starving people in Africa who would love to have a glass of Napa Cabernet, 2007.” He laughed at his own cleverness and ordered another bottle.
“Should you be drinking so much,” Victoria contributed. “We could send that next bottle to Zimbabwe.”
“Ha,” very good. “But what a waste that would be. They’d be just as happy with water. Frankly, I’m not so sure you’re sincerely worried about the drought-stricken natives of Central Africa. You’re worried that I can’t hold my liquor.” He smiled as the waiter filled his goblet halfway from a new bottle. “Believe me, I can drink enough for two of us. And I may have to,” he gestured to her untouched glass.
“I don’t really drink,” she excused herself.
“I do,” Jace answered without the least apology. “But I hate to drink alone.” Reaching over he nudged Victoria’s goblet an inch closet to her. But hate it or not, he managed to imbibe alone throughout the meal, and quite handily at that. In fact he drank more than he ate. That, of course, was his right — and he was of age. However, Victoria was not, although he continued to encourage her to join him.
Why Victoria did not partake was even a bit curious for her. Sure, she was a minor, and sure, she was a Mormon. But the roller coaster of her life this year and her relationship with Jace had shaken a resolve based on any of the standard rules. She was young, and full of life, and for the first time in a long time, she was enjoying herself with someone who was interested in her. And it certainly wasn’t as though she had made a promise to her Uncle that she would stay dry tonight. She knew he didn’t care. If fact, under the circumstances, Uncle Phil probably wouldn’t have minded at all if she had been a more gracious dinner companion to Jace Packard. No, it was no commitment to her Uncle that checked her behavior. Rather it was the unspoken influence and expectations of Paladin Smith that kept her stone cold sober that evening.
Every time Jace invited her to drink with him she had thought, Why not? It’s just one little drink. What would it hurt? But each question was countered with Brother Smith’s parting words that morning. “His standards aren’t the same as yours.” So what if they aren’t? What right did Brother Smith have to be Jace’s judge and jury? And so what if Jace was different? There was something exciting about Jace. That’s what she liked about him. Although she wasn’t so sure she liked this side of him. In fact, the more he drank, the less exciting he got. But that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t Paladin Smith’s place to cast a self-righteous verdict on Jace Packard. And even more disturbing, it wasn’t his place to be peering into her soul – pretending to understand her.
Her answer to Brother Smith this morning had been glib and cutting. It was meant to be. But it was just a violent reaction of self-defense. Brother Smith may or may not have known her. But he did believe in her. And that made it difficult to look across the table at Jace and take the wine glass he had poured for her. Victoria shook her head almost imperceptibly and sighed to herself. It really was a dirty trick for anyone to have that kind of faith in you – and to spoil a perfectly self-centered evening of forbidden pleasures and physical gratification.
It was true that Jace made her feel like somebody — but that somebody wasn’t who she was. And she herself was beginning to see and understand that now.
“Jace, would you take me home now?” she asked as dinner came to a close.
“Sure,” Jace responded dully. Pulling his wallet from his pocket he leafed three one- hundred dollar bills onto the table and stepped over to Victoria, offering her his hand. He led her from the restaurant to the entrance, where the valet brought him his Jaguar. It hadn’t occurred to Victoria until now that Jace was in no condition to drive. “Jace,” she suggested, “why don’t we call a taxi?”
Jace smiled blandly as he opened the passenger door for her, and then leaned forward to kiss her. Pulling away, she fell into the front seat and looked up at him with concern. Smiling smugly, Jace shrugged his shoulders and closed the door. Walking with deliberate steps around the car, he reached into his pocket for another sizeable bill, and squeezed the tip into the valet’s hand. He slid into the drivers’ seat, shifted the car into first gear and gunned the engine, propelling the car through the parking lot and out into traffic.
Jace continued to smile as he wove his car in and out of the lanes of traffic heading north toward Santa Ana. He pulled onto the Newport Freeway and accelerated to 90 miles per hour. The speed suited the Jaguar but not capacities of the driver. Victoria glanced over at him. He still wore the unruffled smile. “You like to go fast, Victoria?”
“Not this fast,” she tried to smile. “You’re going to get a ticket.”
“Maybe — but they won’t arrest me. The police know who I am. They know who my dad is. Besides Victoria, this is a vintage Jaguar XK 150. No sense having it if you don’t use it.”
“You’re scaring me Jace.”
“You need to trust me, Victoria. I can handle this car,” he said confidently. “And I can handle a little bit of booze. I’ve drunk more than this and been just fine.”
“Would you please slow down, Jace?”
Gunning the car another tem miles per hour he slowly took his eyes off the traffic in front of him and looked at her. The smile was unchanged.
“Could you watch the road? Please?”
He waited a long second before he returned his gaze to the freeway, swerving around a car in the fast lane as he passed on the left. Up ahead, Victoria saw the approaching off-ramp for the high rent district of Santa Ana Heights. Home, and the end of this sudden nightmare. And then in an instant they raced past it. “Jace, you missed my exit. I want to go home.”
“I’m taking you home – the long way,” the boy drawled.
“Take me home, Jace,” she tried to make her voice firm.
“I will little girl.” The smile was gone. “I promise. I just want to show you something first. It will only take a second.”
Victoria sat slowly back into her seat, filled with a sense of foreboding and fear. She felt the anxiety of a caged animal. She was completely at the mercy of a drunken stranger. She bit her lip as Jace exited the freeway a mile later and turned east, driving away from the lights of the city and past subdivisions of houses, up into the low hills covered with gnarled eucalyptus trees and scrub oak. He slowed to 50 as he swerved around corners, clinging tenuously to the incline of a gravel road. She got a glimpse of a lighted sign that read, “Irvine Hills”, as they skidded past it and continued upwards.
“Have you ever been to Irvine Hills Park?” Jace broke the silence between them. “Nobody knows it’s up here because it’s small and there are no lights. But the view is beautiful.”
“Jace,” Victoria said quietly, “I don’t want to see the view. I’m not feeling very well. Please take me home.”
“We’re almost there. You’ll feel better when you see it. It’s spectacular.” Jace spun his hands on the steering wheel to negotiate a button-hook switchback and then slowed as he neared the summit which gave way to a strip of sloping blacktop 200 or 300 feet long, bordered by a park on one side, and a guard way of small boulders on the other. Jace backed the car on the uphill slope of the blacktop to the edge of the grass, knocking over a trash can at the top of the incline. He hardly noticed. Bringing the Jaguar to an abrupt stop, he put the car into neutral, pulled back on the parking break, flipped off the lights and shut off the engine. All that remained was an eerie silence in the darkness.
“Now look,” Jace pointed beyond the perimeter of foot-tall boulders. There, beyond the steep incline of the hill stretched a vast view of the inland cities of Orange County. The entire panorama sparkled in the night, but it looked somehow unnatural as it hung beyond the gulf of darkness. A low fog was just beginning to roll in from the ocean, giving a haunting appearance to the glittering lights.
“I told you to trust me. What do you think?”
Victoria, however, was not charmed by the lights of the beach cities. “Jace, please take me home.” She pleaded.
Jace moved closer to her. Reaching out he put one arm around her shoulder. The other reached out and took her by the right wrist in a powerful grip. Suddenly she realized how helpless she was – here, alone, and with Jace Packard. “Sh, sh.” He soothed her. “Don’t spoil it. This is our moment. Do you know what I like about this car. The bench seats. They make it convenient for us to sit close.” Jace pulled her next to him. Not until now did she realize how physically strong he was.
“Jace,” Victoria was suddenly terrified.
“Not like bucket seats. Bucket seats get in the way.”
She smelled the stench of wine on his breath as he drew her close and kissed her gently on the lips. But the pretended tenderness was a contradiction to the iron embrace with which he held her. Her right hand was locked in his grasp and her left arm was useless, pinned behind him. She might be able to wrench it free. Yet something told her to stop fighting. Still, resisting the impression, she struggled against him. But it was all in vain as he continued to kiss her, now harder. It hurt.
Panting heavily, he began to press her backward, reclining on the front seat as he leaned over her. The angle of her body forced her legs across the floor onto the driver’s side beneath the center console. She banged her knee painfully against the gear shift – no it was the hand brake. The hand brake! Her body was still stiff with resistance. Relax. With every ounce of concentration she could muster, she forced herself to ease up. As she did so, she felt his grip loosen. To him she was now a willing victim – a conquest of his romantic charm. He released her wrist and moved his hand to embrace her fully. In that second she flailed out her right hand until she felt it – the shaft of the parking brake. Sliding her fingers to the end, she pressed her thumb on the release and shoved the brake forward with all her might. The car lurched as it slipped loose with an audible clank and began to move.
Jace was too enraptured in the seduction to realize the car was rolling forward. Victoria, however was well aware that not only was the car moving, but it was on an ultimate collision course with the bottom of the canyon at Irvine Hills. This wasn’t going to be pretty. Twisting with all her might she grasped the seat belt behind her and hung on as the Jaguar gained speed and crunched over the gravel at the edge of the pavement.
Suddenly there was a grinding sound of metal and a loud pop as the front end of the car skewed to the right and pointed into the air, before it shuddered to a stop. The terrific jolt thrust Jace into the steering wheel and the gear shift. He doubled up in pain, hunched over the driver’s seat and the floor.
Victoria had landed hard on top of him, cushioning her from serious harm. Even so, the collision has left her dazed and disoriented. Shaking her head and taking a deep breath, she struggled to free herself from the jumble of his contorted limbs. Pulling her legs from under him she sat up, shoved open the door and fell to the ground. Beside her fell her purse, which she picked up as she stood shakily to her feet.
She steadied herself against the car which perched at the edge of the cliff. She didn’t understand how. She didn’t care. Then she peered off in the other direction toward the shadows of Irvine Park. Inside the Jaguar she heard Jace stirring with a moan. With one last glance at the car she ran with all her strength into the sanctuary of the darkness.
She was halfway across the small park when she heard Jace’s voice shouting a torrent of profanity into the night. Still running, she turned to look back in the direction of the wreck and tripped, falling to her hands and knees onto the grass. She remained there exhausted and in shock for a several seconds. Think, Victoria. Where was she going? What was she going to do? Then her eyes focused on the small purse that had tumbled to the ground in front of her.
Grabbing it, she pulled out her cell phone and turned it on. 5% battery left. Oh, why now? There was perhaps power for one call. Her fingers reached to dial 911. No. Where Jace Packard was concerned, she couldn’t trust the police. She couldn’t trust her uncle. No, for some reason there was only one person she could trust. She’d entered the number this morning. Why she knew he would come, she couldn’t explain. She punched the number and waited breathlessly. “Please,” she whispered. “Come on. Come on.”
Closing her eyes, she began to cry. “Please, God,” she pleaded.
“Hello,” came an uncertain voice over the phone.
Victoria grabbed at that voice like a drowning woman seizes a lifeline. “Brother Smith! This is Victoria! Help me Brother Smith! I’m in trouble!”
Final installment, tomorrow.