from Persona Non Grata — Chapter One
(An unpleasant visitor from the past, Congressman Philip Chase, surprises Paladin in his classroom with news about a former student, Victoria Grant. Guiding Paladin through a folder of classified material, the congressman explains Victoria’s peril as a diplomatic aid in war-threatened Crimea.)
Turning over the photo, Paladin found himself staring at the portrait of a king in full regalia, perfectly posed for a public relations shot. As he studied the face of the king, he saw the same kind of self-importance he recognized in Chase. But Chase at least knew how to conceal it. This man made no pretensions at false humility and obviously saw no need to. Paladin looked up at Chase.
“Pyotr Vasiliyevich, prince of Crimea. Styles himself ‘Peter the Great.’ ” The congressman laughed to himself. “In committee we refer to him as ‘Peter the Mediocre.’”
“Hmm,” noted Paladin, more amused by the man than the joke. “He’s got a crown, a scepter, and everything.” Still there was an intensity about the prince that was not to be taken lightly. This was a tyrant in waiting. He was no joking matter at all. Paladin wondered if the congressman recognized it.
“Well, his position is merely titular in a constitutional monarchy,” clarified Chase. “He really has no political power.”
Paladin shook his head. “Maybe not. But he wants it.”
“Very observant, Smith. Now take a look at the next photo.”
The next photograph was a picture of the prince, in formal wear, at some kind of a royal function, eating dinner. Beside him on his right, looking radiant, sat Victoria Grant. “Your niece always had a knack for making friends,” observed Paladin.
“The prince is actually quite taken with her.”
“And why shouldn’t he be? She looks like a princess.” Paladin dropped the photo. “So, what more can you ask for—success, romance, dreams come true. It’s all like a modern fairy tale.”
“You know as well as I do, Paladin, that Victoria is in over her head here.”
“Who’s to say that?” argued Paladin, fighting his natural instincts. “The truth is it’s none of my business any more than it is yours. She’s an adult now, Chase. Anyway, I still don’t see what any of this has to do with me.”
“Listen, Smith,” Chase confided. “Crimea is a dangerous place right now. The civil unrest is all over the news. But our sources are picking up other chatter—political conflict, government instability, military dissatisfaction. It’s a very unstable part of the world. I’ve been trying to persuade Victoria to return home. But she won’t listen to reason.”
“She always had a mind of her own. Besides, why should she come home? Obviously life is good.”
The congressman slammed his hand down on the desk. “I’m telling you life is about to come tumbling down like a house of cards in Crimea. But the only one she’ll listen to is Ambassador Ian Keller. She practically worships him. He’s smooth—almost hypnotic. Frankly, the man is lecherous—pure filth. But he covers his tracks. Victoria can’t see it.
“As for Prince Peter—his ambition is frightening, unpredictable. But Victoria doesn’t recognize that danger either. All she can see is the charm and power of royalty. I’m afraid of what a young woman in love might do.”
Paladin considered for a moment and then turned the photograph over again to study the face of the girl. He smiled. “You know the trouble with you, Chase? You never had any confidence in Victoria. But I do. She’s not stupid. I really don’t think this is the kind of ‘Prince Charming’ she’d fall for. And even if she did have a crush on him, I wouldn’t worry.” He looked at the congressman. “She’ll get over it by the senior prom.”
Chase was suddenly livid, shouting. “Are you listening to me, Smith? I want Victoria out of Crimea.”
“So order her home!” Paladin shouted back. “Revoke her passport! Send the Marines!”
“I’ve got no authority or legal justification to do any of those things.”
“So go get her yourself.”
“She has no respect for me,” Chase managed to choke out.
“Well, neither do I,” answered Paladin. He stood from his seat. As far as he was concerned, this ridiculous interview was over.
“But I think she respects you.” Chase was quiet now, almost pleading. “I think she would come back if you asked her to.”
Paladin paused, confused. “So—what? You want me to write her a letter?”
The congressman stood to face him. He swallowed. “I want you to go to Crimea and bring her home.”
Paladin froze and looked at him askew. “Are you out of your mind?”