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persona-non-grata-novel-stephen-j-stirling-978-1-4621-1450-4Welcome to the official website of author Stephen J. Stirling and the book Shedding Light on the Dark Side: Defeating the Forces of Evil, A Guide for Youth and Young Adults, and the novel Persona non Grata, coming July 2014.

Persona non Grata
Paladin is way out of his depth! Sent to Crimea to bring a former student home, Paladin is soon embroiled in international conspiracy. Close calls and adventure are the norm in this thrilling tale! Find out more…

And All Things Shall Work Together for Your Good

Someone very dear to me had a huge setback – as we all do.  But this setback seemed enormous. She wanted to join the Phoenix Fire Department, and against all odds, had made incredible strides at doing so, over the course of a grueling year.  All of this came down to the final interview – and by all judgments, things looked good.  And then suddenly, tragedy struck – a freak accident and a broken arm.  None of this boded well as a sign to impress the board who would be choosing the final candidates.  The worst kind of incident at the worst time.  And of course, our first reaction is the foolish, knee-jerk response, “How could God do this to us?”

That “God doesn’t do things like this to us” is the first reality which we need to acknowledge.  But, in a more helpful vein, I would like to share another simple reality which we must all, always remember about God, his universe and the Divine arithmetic of the cosmos.  I capsulized it in a short letter.

‘My dear little champion,

Please, don’t be discouraged.  I know that is a lot to ask – but not of you.  You are no stranger to doing the difficult – or the impossible.  Yes, breaking your arm, especially right now, was a pretty rough turn of fate.  But God is also fully capable of doing the impossible.  And he has been doing it for years.

I want you to consider a simple concept with me and know that your Heavenly Father is still with you and that he is still very much under control.

“Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good, if ye walk uprightly and remember the covenant wherewith ye have covenanted one with another.” — Doctrine and Covenants 90:24

The Lord has reiterated this promise elsewhere in the scriptures, but this is the most complete expression of the formula.  Notice and never forget that “all things shall work together for your good. . .”  That is a strange kind of arithmetic where all things – not just the good things, not a bunch of good things mixed with a few bad things — but literally all things will combine to work together for your good.  And I have found that formula to be true.

Of course, there are qualifiers.  We must (1) search diligently, (2) pray always, (3) and be believingBut if we do so and (4) walk uprightly and (5) remember the covenants which we have made, then the promise of the Lord is sure.

My friend, you meet those qualifiers. You always have.  You have therefore earned the right to look to your Heavenly Father with a full expectation that he will keep that promise.  It is ironclad. I know that you have spent a lifetime staying true to your covenants and choosing the right. I know that you have ever been prayerful and searched the scriptures and for inspiration in pursuing the course of your life.  But I also know that right now may be a very difficult time for you to believe that your broken arm can somehow contribute, under the circumstances, to the happy ending we all look for at the conclusion of this story.  But this story will indeed have a happy resolution. That’s where believing comes in – and that can often be the hardest part.  But I know that Heavenly Father will never let you down.  I don’t know how he intends to work out the details, but he always has, and he always will.

Never forget, you are one of my heroes.  You know how to face adversity and do awesome things.  This may be one of the most difficult things you have ever done.  But I know that your Heavenly Father loves you and will not let you down.  Have faith in him.  Take him at his word. Take the scriptures at face value.  And allow the power of the atonement to fix this – yes, even this.  I don’t know how, but I have full confidence that all of this will work, not in spite of the circumstances, but because of them, to bless your life.

My most fervent prayers are with you.  “Stand still and behold the power of God.”’

Well, I wrote that letter a month or so ago – I think.  Within a week or two she will leave for the perfect assignment – on a Wildlife Fire Crew, (you know, forest fires)!  The offer rolled in a few days after her rejection from various fire departments – and the expected verdict, “You’re just too small.”  The Wildlife teams said she was just the right size, with the endurance and drive they need – in fact with all the qualifications they need.  Within the next several days she received more invitations to join other companies. She finally joined a crew operating out of Springerville, Arizona.  The pay, the benefits, the days on and off – everything about the new job was ideal to her situation, and her family circumstances.  Who ever thought the Lord could work out things so perfectly well.  But then again, that’s the way he works things out – all the time. 1+1=3.  That is God’s miraculous arithmetic as he blesses our lives with the impossible.

I anticipate with faith for all things to so work in my life.   May the Lord likewise bless all of us.

###

And Still, There is No End in Sight

Many prayers have been answered as I have struggled through this nightmare of sickness and the miracles of restoration.  Through the power of the priesthood, I returned to the healing process, and hence, to the pathway of normal life.  Radiation continued – and the Chemo therapy moved forward.  Of the radiation, less than fifteen treatments remained.  That dramatic process took the shape of a weekday countdown that went eventually from two hands to one — as the bright crimson, tissue-paper thin skin of my throat repaired itself and cease to “agonize at the slightest touch.”  However, the targeted and focused nature of the radiation therapy continued to burn the cancer away — on the inside.  The final day of the fiery process – half a month ago — ended in genuine celebration.  What I experienced was a genuine miracle.  But in the end, it was only a milestone.  And there was still no end in sight.

Life and the medical treatments progressed on at the clinic.  But new kind of pain now took center stage in a new and singular way.  I had heard chemot was like being sick all the time.  I had heard correctly.  My sore throat continued, accompanied by a constant cough, upset stomach, and taking of medication that made it impossible to get a good night’s sleep.  Prayers and priesthood influence continued to sustain us.  And still there was no end in sight.  To finish chemo was the next big milestone.  And on Monday of this week, I enjoyed my last chemo treatment and I went from that last session to the hospital – (not one of my scheduled milestones) where I remained for the next two days.  Again, my body responded to quickly to transfusions there.  Surprising doctors, I continue to do surprising things. There is no end of the miracles in my life.  And of that — there is no end in sight.

I am home again now.  Therapies continue to be applied at the clinic.  And again there is no end in sight.  I have been so blessed.  And of them I testify.  I bear witness of the constant blessings of a loving Heavenly Father who continues to be my daily comfort, guardian, guide and stay.  I bear gratitude for the heavenward pleas of so many of this world’s angels who have served us with love and goodness.  I thank God for the regular gifts of the Spirit in these times of trial.  And I acknowledge the tender mercies of loving Father in Heaven.  But of course, we all acquainted to with those.

I pray that we may always remember what great things the Lord has given to us – in times of bounty as in times of trial.  May I leave that testimony before heaven and earth.  I know the goodness of God and his children.  And of the reality that there continues to be no end in sight.

Of that certainty and of the certainty that life extends beyond what we know to be as mortality into the realms of eternity I also bear witness with all my heart.  Yes, life can be a struggle.  The pain is intense, on occasion, and growing.  But I am still here.

And of that I also point out — there is no end in sight.

###

OF PAINS AND PRAYERS AND PROMISES

About a month ago I began the therapies of healing designed to literally blast cancer from my body.  If that sounds like a violent process — it is.  It is nothing short of turning our bodies into a war zone between runaway rogue cells (the ones we call cancer), and the technologies of men which take the shape of a medieval torture chamber – with more bells and whistles.  Welcome to modern medicine.  It is our reality in a world where we have abused these poor bodies of ours with such pollutants and poisons that we are subtly killing ourselves.  Cancer today is endemic.  In the face of that battle ground, conscientious and dedicated doctors do their best to wage the good fight armed with the high-tech equivalent of deer skins and stone knives.  Hence is laid out the simple plan of attack.  Kill the cancer – hopefully without killing off the patient.  It is a delicate balance.  And I, along with millions of others, am stuck in the middle.

Let me remind my friends who are following this drama, that my situation was weird to begin with.  The misdiagnosis of my problem from the beginning was a result of normal expectations.  “Nobody gets cancer there.”  A melanoma of the larynx is extremely rare.  I was told that there are only about 90 reported cases of it over the past 30 years.  And of those few there have been no definitive studies. Once identified, after almost a year of neglect, it was fully expected that this aggressive cancer would have had a field day in my unsuspecting body.  The PET scan and MRI surprised everyone with results that the cancer had not spread beyond my throat.  In that I was extremely blessed.  My Heavenly Father has been looking out for me.  But once identified, the cancer quickly made its intentions known, and within weeks, spread aggressively to the cartilage of my throat.  The war was on.

I went into tomotherapy (a very specific and targeted radiation treatment) immediately.  It was intensive and highly invasive – and my reaction to it was radical.  After a little over 20 treatments I was forced to discontinue treatment.  Again, my response was rare.  My throat, both inside and out, was seared with second degree burns which gave my skin the appearance of raw hamburger.  I couldn’t move my neck, I couldn’t eat without pain, and I found it almost impossible to sleep.  Simultaneous chemotherapy was also discontinued.  Everything about my situation seemed to be uncharted territory.  Everything about my treatment and my reaction to it seemed unusual.  My white blood count was extremely low.  My platelet count was also at dangerously low levels.  My treatment had come to a halt.  I was going nowhere and in the greatest of pain.  I was as discouraged as I have ever been in my life.

It was at this point that Diane and I asked so many of you to remember us in your prayers – specifically that I might be healed to resume my treatment.  I believe in fasting.  I believe in prayer.  I believe in the blessings of the priesthood and the power of God.  That was one week ago.  ON that Sunday night, after so many days of pain, frustration and little progress, the comforting peace of the Holy Ghost visited me with the assurance that the effectual prayers and blessings of the faithful would be answered in my behalf.

Last Monday I woke up in the morning to find that the skin in my throat was healed to the degree that I was able to function without pain.  Most of the rawness was gone.  I could move again.  I began radiation two days later, with a countdown of 14 treatments until it is over.  My tests at the clinic continued to reveal my unusual nature.  I persist in being the case that the doctors cannot figure out – with reactions they have not seen before.  Remarkably, my white blood count and my platelet levels suddenly rebounded to optimal levels, without the prescription of invasive drugs usually necessary to make it so.  They were so baffled, they resubmitted my blood work to verify the results – and confirmed what they’d already found – and recommended that my chemotherapy be resumed.

The doctors don’t understand how all this is possible.  But I do.  I am grateful to conscientious healthcare professionals.  I am grateful for modern medicine which offers hope in a peril-fraught world.  I am grateful for the wonders of the human body, which will do amazing things for us if we will just feed it right, and exercise it, and care for it in the way that God intended.  But above all I am grateful for friends, and family, and loved ones, and perfect strangers who will reach out with faith and prayer and the power of eternity to work miracles.  I know that God lives.  I know that He loves us and is an active participant in our lives.  I know that the might and authority of the priesthood are literal.  And I know that the power of Jesus Christ and of his atonement are real.

I believe in miracles.  And I am grateful to all who have been a participant with me in this one.  I continue to ask an investment of your faith and prayers in my adventure.  It is far from over.  But it is well underway.  May we continue to find strength in the things of eternity – and in the love that binds us here in mortality as well.

A Few Musings on Time and Eternity

Strange! For the first time in my life I’ve come face to face with my mortality.  I suppose I’ve been here before.  We’ve all flirted with death – intentionally or unintentionally.  In one way or another we’ve all cheated death, and lived to tell the tale.  But this is the first real instance in which I have been genuinely and realistically threatened with my own demise.  And yet, I have, to this point, been able to contemplate the issue with a calm logic and resolve.  I am not afraid.

Everybody has to die.  I could shake my fist at God and wail that I am too young to die.  But I’m not.  I’ve had a pretty good ride.  Don’t misunderstand me.  My heart aches that I wouldn’t be around to laugh with Diane, to take pride in my children (my favorite people), or to watch my grandchildren grow. There is a lot I would miss, tons of people I would be sorry to say good-bye to, and a few things that I still wanted to do – that never got done.  In that sense, I would regret seeing it all come to an end.  But on the other hand, I know that it will never really come to an end.  I know who I am and I know what I’m about.  And I know that this thing we call mortality is just a little part of life – life that is eternal.  I came from somewhere, and sooner or later, I’m going somewhere.  The only question is — when, which question is now about to be answered by the evaluations and the performance of modern medicine.  And their decision will be a best guess determination.  They may make a prognosis and it may be wrong.  But with cancer – they seem to be right a lot of the time.

Even so, I’m not afraid.  I have no dread of the unknown – because I know.  I have a faith that is unshakable that this is all part of an eternal Plan, and that makes it good.  I’ve never had a test of faith quite like this.  And yet the simplicity of my faith in God and in life beyond this life is so certain that I have not the slightest misgiving over it or doubt in it.  I seem to look upon my own potential passing as the beginning of a journey, and a pretty exciting one at that.  ‘Crossing over’ as some call it, is to me the equivalent of a great road trip – an unimaginable adventure.  My faith is that strong in that untouchable world, because to me it is literally only a heartbeat away.  And with that last heartbeat, I know that I shall still be alive and well, anticipating the remainder of the journey into eternity with a perfectly charted course and a crystal clear view of the way ahead.  Faith is the opposite of fear.  And as I consider the bleakest forecast of the days ahead, I realize I fear nothing.  It is invigorating and enlivening to face the future with absolute fearlessness.

Still, don’t misunderstand me.  I intend to fight for survival.  Our nature is to prefer life to death. I am no different, particularly as I consider my brief journey on earth.  What about all those things I must leave behind, and what of the dreams of life I’ve yet to accomplish.  And most of all what about Diane.  What I would miss the most would be her.  What I would regret most leaving behind would be her.  And my promise to her compels me to stay, that we may enjoy, complete, and wear out this life together.  That determination alone makes me realize how much I love her.  For her, if for nothing else, I need to cling tenaciously to life.  ‘To be or not to be’ has literally become the question in the most powerfully real sense.  As I have resolved before, I have determined again with a will of iron – to stay in this world.  There is time enough for eternity.  And I commit myself to the reality that my place, for now, is in this estate.  If God feels differently he will let me know.

###

The Wonders of Modern Medicine – and of Eternal Grace

The surgery went well.  I was in and out.  And I am now at home, recuperating from the ordeal for the next few days.

I described my nemesis as a lump of ‘mass’ about the size of a marble below my vocal chords.  It turned out to be a very large marble – more like a grape.  Not one of those Food King grapes you get at your average grocery store.  This was more like a Costco grape – you know, those really big grapes that look like they were nourished with steroids.  Except this huge grape was dressed up (appropriately) in a Halloween costume to go trick or treating as a cauliflower.  The monster practically filled the diameter of my entire throat passage.  Looking at the snapshots the surgeon took of it, I don’t see how I could breathe, and I know why I couldn’t talk.

With regards to talking, the ‘mass’ had grown very close to my vocal folds.  In fact the surgeon found it necessary to remove a sliver of my vocal chords with it. And I was anxious to give my voice a beta test as soon as I made my dizzy reentry from anesthesia.  “Hello,” I said – and was pleased with the result. I have tried not to talk a lot since, in order to give my throat and voice box a chance to heal.  So, I’m not sure, at this point, if I’ll ever sing grand opera again.  And trial runs so far indicate that my voice may settle in a tad higher than it used to be and may never be as resonant.  But time will tell.  It’s a little early for conclusions.

And it is much too early for regrets of misgivings.  I feel tremendously blessed, and I do not intend to give a whimper of complaint.  I have struggled and survived a misfortune that 150 years ago would have killed me.  In all likelihood, most of us have.  I can breathe again.  I can talk again.  I can teach again.  I am grateful to a kind Heavenly Father, to a skilled surgeon, and to the faith and prayers of so many thoughtful friends who implored the blessings of eternity on my behalf.  Thank you for your mindfulness of me in my adversity.

Life goes on.  May we all continue to enjoy its bounties – and to bask in the affection of caring friends and the kindness of a loving Heavenly Father.

###

Going ‘Under the Knife’ is Such an Unpleasant Term

Some of you know (though most of you don’t), that I haven’t been able to talk for several months.  It’s one of the reasons I haven’t been too active here for a while.  Interesting!  Losing something so fundamental in life tends to effect almost every aspect of your daily walk and conversation.  As a teacher my voice is the tool of my trade.  But having it reduced to a whisper has made a significant impact not only on my occupation, but my devotions, my personal interactions, and just about everything else.  To realize the simplicity and commonplace nature of the things that are our most cherished possessions, and to recognize how we have taken them for granted – is a truly humbling and truly valuable life experience.

I’ve been having trouble with my throat since last Christmas.  And medical science has taken the better part of a year to finally identify the problem.  Of course, by the time the proper diagnosis was made, the problem had grown into an unpleasant looking mass of stuff that had grown to the size of a marble just below my vocal chords.  In that time, my ability to communicate was reduced to a raspy growl that would make Bruce Wayne proud.  I have managed to continue to teach with a lavalier microphone, and a pocket stuffed with cough drops.  However, even with those helpful crutches, I’ve had to contend with sudden attacks of uncontrollable hacking, and moments when I have had to slip out of the classroom altogether.  At this point (October) my rich operatic voice is little more than a hoarse whisper.  It’s even becoming difficult to breathe.  I don’t think I would be able to teach for another week – as much as I love to teach.  I suppose total incapacity is the only circumstance that could keep me out of the classroom or away from the students whose company I enjoy so much.

On Monday, the last of a long line of  medical specialist, took one look at me and scheduled surgery for Friday to ‘excise the mass’ from the ‘laryngeal area’. (That’s doctor talk.)   He is a very good surgeon and I have complete confidence in him – though I am concerned about any surgery at or around my voice box.  I want to breathe again – and I want to talk again.  But in this life there are no guarantees.

So, without seeming overly dramatic about my upcoming adventure tomorrow morning, (October 30), I would like to ask for an investment of your faith and prayers. If you believe in God, then he will honor your desires for good and bless you – and perhaps even me — for your efforts.  If you don’t believe in God, then I’m sure he’ll appreciate your exertions all the more – and so will I.

May our Father in Heaven be with us all, my friends.  And may the effectual power of miracles change more than one life this week.  Perhaps one of them will be mine.

###

Lindsey Stirling and the Fine Art of Showmanship

Last Saturday, Lindsey Stirling served as mistress of ceremonies for Arizona’s Distinguished Young Women awards.  (“It’s not a pageant.  It’s a scholarship program.”)  It was a return of sorts for Lindsey.  For on that very stage at Mountain View High School, in Mesa, that Lindsey herself was crowned as Arizona’s Junior Miss exactly 10 years ago.  It was also at that same event that she experimented with a new concept in 2005. “I’d like to see if I can play the violin and dance at the same time.”  Well, the rest is history.  Granted, to see that ‘05 pageant performance and compare it to a 2015 Lindsey Stirling extravaganza is a real contrast.  (She plays a lot better and she dances a LOT more.)  Still at the time it was a new frontier — and it blew the audiences and the judges away.  She had found something phenomenal that she has run with and made completely her own.

But last Saturday night, ten years later, when I saw her take that podium as well as that stage, I realized something breathtaking.  Lindsey is not only a talented and exceptional performer – she is also a consummate entertainer who is as comfortable hob-nobbing conversationally with a crowded auditorium as she is sharing her art with a packed amphitheater – and she is capable of doing both interchangeably.  There are a lot of great performers, and not quite as many great entertainers.  But Lindsey Stirling is both and more.  She is a master at the art of showmanship – and that is rare.  It is a discipline that comes naturally to a select few, in a complex blend of talent, a love of the stage, affection for the fans, and pure charisma.  Not many have it — but Lindsey does.  And it is that indefinable quality that has drawn enthusiasts to her from six continents – the mysterious something that is moving a world to fall in love with a dancing violinist.

###

Life in Crescendo – the Lindsey Stirling Symbiosis

Anyone who has seen a Lindsey Stirling performance knows that it is a physically exhausting experience.  One review reported that she stepped out onto the stage for her hour and a half concert “and-she-never-stopped-moving.”  However I have heard testimony that the show is just as draining an experience for many fans.  It is kind of a vicarious exhaustion that reaches out and touches the spectator – in the most intimate kind of synergy.

Likewise, having Lindsey drop in for a week is a blessing, an adventure, and a workout all at the same time.  And in many ways it is a group as well as an individual experience.

Lindsey arrived in Arizona with her crew last Tuesday morning.  Diane picked her up at the hotel.  That might have looked like a relaxing day.  But Lindsey spent a good part of it with someone who needed her — someone with whom she could converse about  important things.  She made a new friend and completely enjoyed herself.  That is a lot of what Lindsey does whenever she can, because to Lindsey, life is about people.

That night she played the national anthem at the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game.  She came home that evening (after a great game) but was on her way early Wednesday morning for Tuscon.  It was my first day of school (another year begins) but I raced home after my last class so Diane and I could get to Lindsey’s Southern Arizona concert.  I hadn’t seen it since the Red Rocks show in Colorado.  But it never seems to get old.

We were exhausted when we returned home at 1:00.  But I can only imagine how tired Lindsey is – or should be after one of those performances.  She and the crew drove to Phoenix the next morning to prepare for the concert at the Comerica Theater.  Another day of teaching for me, and another grueling race to get to the venue where so many friends and fans gathered for another dynamic presentation.  It is awesome to watch that girl entertain.  Anyone who has seen her shoe knows that she doesn’t merely give a concert.  She presents a spectacle in showmanship.  And she did again that night for 5,000 spectators.

She came back to Gilbert that evening, for a few more short hours of family and home.  But it didn’t last long.  Lindsey moves faster than a speeding bullet, and more frequently a locomotive – because they occasionally stop.  We had to have her to the airport by 6 am for a flight to Utah.

That day, Friday, she graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s degree in youth management and psychology.  Her emphasis was in helping at-risk girls.  With Lindsey, it’s always about reaching out to people.

On Saturday she was back on the road.  And tomorrow (Monday) she performs at the Greek Theater in LA – a bucket list item for any artist – where she will end the “Music Box Tour.”  I hope she takes a day or two off to get some rest.  I know that whenever she comes to town for a visit – I always need some time to recuperate.  In the meantime, can’t wait until she drops in again.  It’s good exercise.

###

Persona Non Grata — Prequel (Conclusion)

Chapter 3

Terror in the Park

Jace Packard blinked his eyes and began to unfold from the floor and front seat as the immediate pain of the accident subsided.  His leg continued to ache where he had collided with the steering wheel.  But when he flexed it he realized nothing was broken.  Sitting up in the driver’s seat he glanced at the open passenger door and tightened his jaw in anger.  She was gone.  But she couldn’t go far.

What had happened? Flipping on the headlights and peering forward, he could see nothing but the blank expanse of the California sky.  He opened the driver’s door and stepped out of the car, only to stumble, collapsing to the ground.  Twisting on the gravel, he looked up at the Jaguar, perched above him a foot in the air.  Slowly standing he stumbled to the front of the car and squinted underneath.  There, on top of one of the small boulders, his vintage Jaguar had come to a rest.  The collision had popped his left front tire, destroyed the wire wheel and crumpled the left fender, leaving the front corner of the car perched in the air on top of the stone.  Jace let out a stream of profanity without the least consideration that the big rock had stopped a descent that would have only ended at the bottom of the canyon.

Stumbling awkwardly back to the rear of the car Jace wrenched open the hood.  He rummaged through the compartment, threw the jack out onto the ground and emerged with a tire iron in one hand.  He shook his head and blinked his eyes again in an attempt to see straight and then tripped over the jack on the ground as he returned to the front of the car.  Only then did he seem to realize the futility of his efforts to repair the car or even change the tire.  “Victoria, you wretch,” he screamed, swinging the tire iron into wire wheel.  “Look what you’ve done to my car.”

Peering into the darkness of the park, he staggered over to the driver’s side and reached in to open the glove box.  Retrieving a flashlight he snapped it on and followed its beam — in search of Victoria Grant.

—–

Paladin knew the way to Irvine Hills, but he also knew that it took a good fifteen minutes to get there from south Santa Ana.  He was hoping that if he broke the speed limit and ran every yellow and red light, he might make it there in ten. That was about the best time he could make in a Honda Civic.

Irvine Hills Park!  That was all the information Victoria had been able to give him before her phone went dead. When it did he didn’t waste an instant, running to his car and peeling away to the rescue.  “To the rescue!”  It sounded ridiculous.  As he sprinted out his front door, he’d considered for a split second calling the police.  That seemed the logical course of action.  But as soon as he thought it, something told him not to.  The police might not believe him.  They might ask stupid questions.  They might delay.  He didn’t know.  All he knew was that he was racing into a life or death situation he knew nothing about.

He was off the freeway now speeding through the sleepy suburbs of Irvine Hills.  He had never been to the little park that graced the community’s mountain backdrop. Still, he was acquainted with it.  It was obvious why Jace Packard had taken her up here.  Predictable behavior from a self-centered, ego-driven rich kid who owned almost anything he wanted – and thought he owned all the rest.

At once Paladin found himself climbing the small mountain, weaving his way up the road to the park.  His hands were sweating.  He’d better consider how to proceed.  Should he barrel into the park like the cavalry, horn blaring and lights flashing.  That might frighten away a burglar, but it was perhaps not the approach to take with a rapist, capable of forcing a young woman into violent silence while. . .

No, he decided as he pulled his car to the side of the road at the park’s entrance and shut off the engine.  He’d go on foot the rest of the way.  Hurrying past the sign at the gateway he stopped abruptly and took in the picture some 300 feet away.  A sports car was poised askew at the edge of the sloped parking area, its headlights pointing skyward into the gathering fog of the winter night.  Suddenly, out of the silence, its engine whined startlingly to life.

—–

As her cell phone went dead, a wave of terror swept over Victoria.  She was suddenly completely alone.  She had no more time than to tell Paladin where she was – if he had heard that.  She looked back to the Jaguar in the distance.  Its headlights blazed garishly into the night sky.  Then suddenly she heard Jace bellowing her name from the darkness and momentarily a dull beam of a flashlight flickered alive and began to sweep over the grass, coming in her direction.

Dropping the useless phone, she struggled to her feet and looked around her at the unfamiliar park – looking for a place to hide.

The park was outlined against the mountain with a long arc of trees and shrubs. Running for the sanctuary of their protection she took refuge in a clump of hawthorn bushes.

“Victoria!” she heard his voice out of the darkness a moment later. “I found your purse — and your cell phone.  Oh,” he wailed in mock sympathy, “too bad your phone is out of power.  Looks like it’s just you and me.  There’s nowhere to hide.”

That wasn’t exactly true.  But hiding was going to be a challenge.  Her orange dress offered inadequate camouflage in the chaparral foliage.  In her favor, Jace’s flashlight provided her a constant bead on his location.  And her objective was to maintain as much space as possible between herself and that beam of light. But she had no idea how long she could play this savage game. If she could only move around to the entrance gate, she might get away.  Or maybe, with time, he would give up and stumble downhill himself.  Yet, Jace showed no sign of defeat, as the beam of light continued to move in her direction.

In this challenge between pursuer and pursued, Victoria had a bare advantage.  But that advantage required stealth.  She had to move quietly.  The snap of a twig could give her away. The flashlight beam was now about 25 feet away, meandering its way toward her like the nose of a blood hound.  Then the light began to veer away from her.  Was he losing the scent?  Breathlessly, she watched the ball of incandescence suddenly flickered off.

Whether Jace was attempting to adjust his eyes to the darkness or whether the flashlight had died, Victoria didn’t care.  She took a split second to decide.  Emerging from the bushes, she took one last look at where the light had been as she sprinted towards the entryway to the park.

Turning, she almost immediately plunged into a pair of grasping hands in the darkness as a rasping voice whispered to her.  “Victoria.” One of the hands released her as the yellow ray of the flashlight illuminated the cruel face of Jace Packard.  “It’s been so long.”  Victoria twisted herself free in terror and turned again to run, but in an instant, her assailant tackled her to the ground, as his flashlight rolled crazily in front of her.

“I told you can’t run from me, Victoria,” he laughed. “And there’s no one else here to run to.”

Crouching on all fours, Jace rolled Victoria onto her back.  All the while, her arms flailed on the ground in search of anything she could use to defend herself.  When her fingers fell upon the flashlight, she clutched it and swung upward with all her strength, smashing Jace in the side of the head.

He toppled to the ground with a cry of pain as Victoria struggled up and quickly looked around.  Jace would not be down for long and she knew she couldn’t outrun him.  Then her eyes fell on the headlights of the Jaguar, still point into the sky at the edge of the parking area.  Limping, she ran towards the lights, and her only hope of salvation.

When she arrived breathlessly at the wreck, she took one glance at the bent right front wheel and shook her head.  It might be functional.  It might not.  She pulled the front door open and literally climbed up into the driver’s seat to find out.  Leaning over to the console she turned the key and pumped the gas pedal.  As the car erupted to life she instantly yanked it into reverse and slammed on the gas.  The Jaguar lurched backward with the grating of metal on rock and crashed noisily to the ground.  The squeal of rubber under the hood let her know that something was seriously wrong, but still she gunned the gas as the Jaguar rocked another few feet in reverse.

Turning the steering wheel sharply and grinding the car into first gear she again shoved the pedal to the floor.  It limped a foot or two and then crumpled to the ground atop the twisted wheel, unable to move another inch.  The headlights squinted into the gathering fog, skewed at an angle across the pavement and up onto the grass of the park.  Victoria continued to frantically stamp on the gas pedal, whimpering helplessly as the crippled car rocked back and forth on the sloping ground.

At that instant the door sprung open again. Victoria screamed as Jace lunged at her and grabbed her by the throat as he pushed her back on the front seat.  He smiled, a line of blood trickling down his face from a cut above his eye.  “Seems like this is where all this began, little girl.  So, let’s finish what we started.”  He began to climb on top of her.

Suddenly a pair of hands reached into the car, seizing Jace by both shoulders and yanking him from the front seat.  He fell backward, and lost his footing.  Tumbling sideways, he steadied himself against the flank of the car.  Gripping onto the rear fender he regained his balance and righted himself as he looked angrily into the face of Paladin Smith.

—–

Paladin was filled with instant rage as he jerked Jace from the front seat and shoved him aside like a drunken rag doll.  His fingers balled into involuntary fists as he followed Jace’s path – only waiting for the staggering boy to come to a rest before he laid at least one solid punch into the face of the teenage rapist. But as Jace looked up dully at him, Paladin’s reason finally came into focus. Victoria!

Turning his attention from Jace, Paladin turned toward the front of the car.  But before he had taken one step the young man leaped upon him with a maniacal scream.  Twisting, the two of them fell against the back of the car before tumbling to the ground in a contest of deadly mastery.  They strugggled on the ground behind the Jaguar, rolling dangerously close to the edge of the pavement.  Paladin felt soft shoulder of the mountain beneath them when suddenly he struck his head on one of the large rocks bordering the parking area.  Momentarily dazed he rolled onto one side as Jace stood quickly up, grabbed a fist-sized stone and swayed above him in the darkness.

“I’ll kill you,” he sneered.  He took one uncertain step forward, and then sidestepped, losing his balance, and tripped over the same bolder at Paladin’s head.  Without a groan or cry of alarm he disappeared over the edge, and all was silent but for the whining idle of the Jaguar in the night.  Paladin struggled to his feet and shuddered as he looked out into the blackness.  Walking with uncertain steps, he rounded the car to the open front door where he found Victoria, still coughing and choking on the front seat.

“Victoria,” he said, reaching out to lift her up.  His touch elicited a violent recoil and a gasp of terror. “Victoria,” he soothed, “it’s me.  It’s Brother Smith.”  Opening her eyes she sat up and hugged him with tears in her eyes.  As she did so, he reached in and turned off the ignition.  Breaking the embrace he looked her quickly over. “Are you all right.  Did he do anything to you?  I mean. . . “

She sighed with relief and shook her head.  “No, I’m fine.  Where’s Jace?” she looked around with renewed fear.

Paladin glanced away then back at her.  “He was pretty drunk.  He lost his balance and went over the edge.  He won’t bother you anymore.”

Victoria said nothing but only stared at Paladin with a peaceful smile.  But in a split second her eyes looked past him and widened in pure horror.  “Brother Smith!”  With all of her strength she grabbed Paladin by the shirt collar and pulled him towards her as she fell again to the seat.

Paladin tumbled into the car, just as something ruffled through his hair, missing the back of his skull by microns.  Almost instantaneously he heard the pop of exploding glass and a stream of garbled cursing.  Instant and complete incomprehension engulfed Paladin as he twisted awkwardly to try to make sense this new terror.  What he saw was chillingly surreal.

Jace Packard, scratched and disheveled, but by no means dead, struggled like an enraged animal to wrench a tire iron from the hole in the shatterproof glass of his driver’s window.  (That the cobwebbed window had not been Jace’s primary target was immediately obvious.)  Paladin didn’t hesitate.  His first concern was Victoria. Pulling her from the car, he led her in front of him, in a harried effort to get her away from the boy.

But they had retreated no more than a few steps when Jace finally yanked the iron free with a frenzied scream.  Paladin whirled instantly and backed with Victoria, into the beam of the headlights as Jace advanced murderously towards them.

“Jace,” Paladin tried to coax him, “don’t take this any further.  Just stop and force yourself to think.  And put that thing down.”

Jace Packard shouted like a lunatic. “I’ll put it down all right.  Who do you think you are. . . either of you?  Do you know who I am?”

“No,” Paladin paused deliberately.  “But I know who she is?”

With a shriek of unleashed rage, Jace lifted the tire iron over his head and charged headlong at Paladin, swinging at him with a distorted grunt.  Victoria screamed as Paladin backpedaled awkwardly, eluding the blow by bare inches.  Losing his footing at the edge of the grass, he stumbled over a park trash can and tumbled to the ground.

He hadn’t a second to waste. Groping to right himself amidst the garbage, his fingers brushed across the lid of the toppled can.  Struggling up, he hefted the aluminum shield in front of him with both hands, just as Jace came hacking down with a crushing blow that bent the lid nearly in half.

Jace was on a murderous offensive now.  Advancing with full swing of his outstretched arms he dealt Paladin another merciless blow.  Only the crushed shield prevented the tire iron from ripping him in two.  The predator felt his prey weakening before this relentless attack. Gritting his teeth into an evil grin he swung again.  The backhand practically knocked the lid from Paladin’s grasp.

The power of the strike threw them both off balance.  Paladin almost stumbled to the ground as he turned a complete circle.  But as he righted himself he quickly saw that Jace had staggered awkwardly down to one knee.  This was his chance.  With the full momentum of his spin Paladin swung the lid downward onto Jaces outstretched arm.  He thought he heard a crack as the Jace’s forearm bent into a right angle and the tire iron fell from his grasp.  He screamed in agony, but only for a moment, before he looked up at Paladin with a maniacal fury and rent the air with a shower of obscenity.  He grabbed the fallen crow bar with his left hand and began to rise.  Paladin was still stooped in a backhand crouch with the trash can lid in hand.  It was time to end this.  With all of his strength he swiped upward, belting Jace full in the jaw.  The boy flew backward over the garbage can and fell motionless to the grassy earth.  The tire iron landed on the lawn behind him with an audible thud.

Paladin stood panting with his arms hanging at his side as he dropped the crushed aluminum lid to the ground at his feet.  He became aware of his own heart pounding, and swallowed to realize his mouth had turned to cotton.  “I think I just lost my job.”

An instant later Victoria ran to embrace him, almost knocking him off his feet.  With effort he tore his attention from the boy on the ground to the girl embracing him.  “Victoria,” he said numbly.  The name brought him to reality again, like a splash of fresh water.  “Victoria, are. . . are you all right?”

“I’m fine.”  She clung to him and took a deep breath of the winter air.  Then a smile crept across her face and tears filled her eyes.  “I’m fine.”

She changed the position of her hands, but had no intention of letting go.  He hugged her in return and gently patted her back.  “OK.  It’s OK.  You’re safe now.”

Closing her eyes she nodded.  And then after another intake and exhale of the breath of life, Victoria looked up into Paladin’s face.  He smiled and stroked her hair as she continued to gaze up at him with those beautiful tear-filled eyes.

###

Persona Non Grata — Prequel (continued)

Chapter 2

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.