[For those of you who have read Persona Non Grata, these few chapters serve as a brief prologue to the story of Paladin Smith and Victoria Grant – and how their relationship changed irrevocably “seven years ago, this Christmas.”]
One Cold Morning in December
6:00 AM. The alarm blared in the darkness.
Paladin rolled over, slapped the off button and strain to see the clock by his bead side as the fuzzy numbers came into focus. There seemed to be a weird slow motion of awareness as the synapses in his brain passed the numbers down the line to his consciousness. In reality the process — from perception to comprehension — took only a second or two, but the result upon arrival was instantaneous and explosive.
Paladin bolted upright and leaped out of bed in one violent motion. He grabbed the clock, blinked his eyes and squinted at it to make sure. 6:01!!! “No,” he moaned. “What happened?” Had he hit the snooze button in his sleep? Set it for the wrong time? Was his alarm broken? Frankly, it didn’t matter what had happened. He had slept in – again. Again!
Paladin dropped the alarm on his bed and hobbled through the darkness to the wall switch, stubbing his toe along the way. He winced in pain, grabbing his toe and standing on one foot as he leaned against the door jamb. Quick, think. Stumbling to the bathroom, he flipped on the basin light and looked himself over as he grabbed his razor. No, there wasn’t time. He could get away without shaving this morning. He glanced again in the mirror. No, he couldn’t. Last night’s 5 o’clock shadow had grown another 13 hours, but it would have to do. He snatched a comb and dragged it once through his hair. He took in his reflection one last time. Ugh. Give it up. Picking up his tooth brush, he squeezed a wad of Crest onto the bristles, gave his mouth one quick swath, and spit into the sink. That was hygiene for the morning.
Dashing back into his bedroom, he hurriedly pulled a white shirt from the closet, along with a pair of slacks and a tie. He hoped they matched. Reaching into his dresser he clutched the first pair of socks he touched and tugged them onto his feet. “I wonder what color they are,” he thought as he stood from the bed. It was too late to care. Shoving his feet into yesterday’s shoes, Paladin ran from the room without tying them. His scriptures were in the car. A blast of California December air struck him as he opened the he opened the front door and stepped outside. Reaching back inside he snatched the single wool scarf that was hanging from the hat rack. It was cold enough for this this morning.
Barreling around the corner of Zoetrope and Middleton, Paladin screeched the Honda Civic to a stop in front of the church and leaped from the driver’ seat, scriptures in hand. He rounded the car on a dead run and suddenly stopped short. There, standing along the walkway that led to the foyer entry stood fifteen teenagers, like sentinels in the darkness, forming an intimidating gauntlet on either side.
Illuminated only by the street lamp, Paladin froze in place before the stares of that human corridor. They said nothing. Taking a deep breath he smiled in the darkness, and took a step toward the two lines of students. He nodded as he walked between them. “Hi, Max, Cali. Hey, Brandon. Good morning, Ryan, Meghan, Brittany. You too Sandra, Anna. Nice pajamas, Jillian. Ben, you look a little tired this morning. Michelle, you’ve done something to your hair. I like it. JT, how are you doing? Coop. Hey there, Enrique.”
The group stood in place like statues. None of them shifted from position, but the long stare was unrelenting. Paladin continued, “Well, looks like practically everybody’s here.”
“Except a teacher,” said a girl at the head of the gauntlet. The rest of the students began to snicker.
Rolling his eyes, Paladin took the church keys from his pocket. “One little mistake!” he groaned, as he unlocked the door and stepped aside, holding it open for his students.
Once they were all inside, he followed them to the multi-purpose room where the good natured group were all finding seats. They didn’t wait for him to make his way to the front of the class. “Brother Smith?”
“Doesn’t the Church – you know, the Salt Lake City Church – don’t they expect the teacher to be on time for seminary?”
“Well, in some less progressive circles, I suppose so,” answered Paladin with a very serious face. “But you are all part of a pilot program to see if students can occasionally teach themselves, without an instructor interrupting all the time – which is why I was late this morning.”
“Oh, so this was planned!”
“Yes, Jillian, and very carefully too.”
“Like the other four times this year,” said JT.
Paladin paused and winced. “Four times. That many, huh?” He took another deep breath. “I’m sorry you guys. I wish I were more of a morning person.”
“You need to get more sleep,” said Sandra thoughtfully.
“We need to get more sleep,” said Coop. His comment had an edge to it.
“Perhaps, but the Lord will bless you for your attendance – and your patience with a loser of a teacher. Who are we missing today?”
“The Nelson girls are out of town,” reported Michelle. “I don’t know where Darby is.”
“And Mike Foster’s got brohchitis,” said Cali.
“Too bad,” sympathized Paladin. “That leaves Tom and Preston Blue Lake.”
“And they never come,” observed Enrique.
“Hope springs eternal,” said Paladin. “Keep inviting them.” Paladin looked around and his brows furrowed. “Where’s Victoria?”
Through the back door of the room entered a pretty girl, carrying a rectangular box. “I went to get donuts,” she announced.
“Yeah,” said Ryan. “When you didn’t show, we decided to throw a party.”
“Great idea, huh, Brother Smith,” said the pretty girl who was now walking across the front row with an open donut box. She was alert and vibrant, even at 6:20. Her shoulder-length auburn hair was pinned back, framing a perfect complexion, a dazzling smile and a pair of eyes that lighted up the room.
Paladin watched on helplessly. “I can tell I’ve lost all control and it’s my own fault. Why don’t I just turn the class over to you, Victoria.”
“Oh not on your life. Besides you’ve got – 15 to 20 minutes to teach us something. We’ll just eat while you do.”
Paladin knew enough to admit that that idea would never work. No, he’d lost the day. But at least he was here, they were here, and they were a class that cared about each other and could have fun together. Reaching out, he took a donut from the box in Victoria’s hands. She looked up at him and smiled in satisfaction. Her eyes simply danced.
“I tell you what we will do,” Paladin began to explain as he took a chunk out of his buttermilk donut. “If you could all open your scriptures without getting frosting, glaze or powdered sugar on them, I’d like each of us to share what we learned in our personal reading last night. If we all share at least something, it won’t be a bad morning.”
“In the meantime, while you’re finishing your ‘breakfast’, I have a proposal for you.” Paladin dug into his pocket and retrieved a fist full of quarters. Without a word, he walked around the class and placed one in front of every student. Within a minute, in spite of the donuts, he had their rapt attention as he stepped to the front of the room again.
“Brothers and Sisters, once again I apologize that I have let you down. I mean, what kind of a seminary teacher is late five times in one semester? Why, if word got out, I’d probably be excommunicated.”
One of the students, Ben, held up his quarter. “So this is a bribe to get us to keep our mouths shut?”
“No, not quite,” corrected Paladin. Taking a piece of chalk from the front desk, he turned to the board and wrote a telephone number in very large letters.
He faced the class again and smiled. “This is my telephone number. I want you all to write it down and keep it safe. This quarter is enough change for you to call me from the phone booth outside the chapel. If any of you ever arrive at seminary before I do, give me a call, wake me up, and – to coin a phrase — get me to the church on time.”
Max spoke up. “We don’t need your money, Brother Smith. Most of us have cell phones.”
“I don’t,” said Enrique, as he pocketed the quarter.
Paladin looked around in the silence. “Then for the rest of you,” he paused, “consider it a bribe after all.” The students laughed as they got out pencils to copy the number. “You guys deserve a better teacher. I’m not perfect, but I promise to give you the best I’ve got. Because I love you, and I know your Heavenly Father does too.”
Victoria smiled, second seat from the front. But Paladin seemed to sense that the luster had gone. Dutifully she entered his number in her cell phone.
Considering that seminary had begun as a train wreck, class had ended on a good note. It had actually been a nice day.
Paladin shook hands with the teenagers one by one as they left. They were all anxious to get to school. But one student seemed to linger. She was the last student out of the room.
“Thanks for the donuts, Victoria,” said Paladin as he shook her hand. “We managed to salvage that morning together, didn’t we?”
“Yeah, it went pretty well,” she answered. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“No. I’ll see you tonight — at your concert, right?”
She was just past the door when she turned and smiled sheepishly. “Well, I don’t think I’m going to be playing tonight.”
“What!” Paladin said in surprise. “Were you dethroned as first chair or did you break your violin.”
“Neither,” she spoke without apology. “I’ve got a date.”
“Ah, the Prince of Orange County!” Paladin turned and walked back into the classroom.
“You don’t like Jace Packard, do you?” she asked frankly, following him.
“Oh, I like Jace fine,” reasoned Paladin. “I just don’t think he’s the right guy for you. . . for a few reasons.
“Um hmm,” she said with a grin. “So you don’t like him. Is it just that he’s rich or is it because he’s the son of your boss?”
Paladin paused. Sometimes he resented the fish bowl he lived in. It wasn’t really necessary for every student to know that he wrote advertising for one of the wealthiest men in Orange County. “Neither, he sighed. “I just think you ought to be dating somebody your own age, not some college kid. Besides, won’t you get into trouble for ditching the concert?”
“No, my Uncle Phil will fix it.”
“Are you sure? Maybe your influential guardian would want you to be where you’re supposed to be.”
“No, he doesn’t care. And he doesn’t make a big deal about Jace either.”
“Whether he does or not, Jace is still too old for you – and he’s not your type.
“He’s only nineteen,” Victoria defended, “and how do you know what my type is?”
“You deserve better, Victoria.”
“And who are you to say who I deserve. Jace is a nice guy.”
“Victoria,” Paladin stood his ground, “I’ve heard a little bit about Jace Packard.” He turned towards the front of the classroom again.
“So, do you believe everything you hear?” Victoria baited him with an expectant smile.
“Of course not,” Paladin admitted. “In the case of that guy I only need to believe a little. That’s enough.”
Victoria was growing slightly heated. “It’s not Christian to judge people, Brother Smith,”
Paladin didn’t hesitate but took this bait instantly. “Oh, yes it is,” he turned to her. “It’s called good judgment.” He cocked his head and grinned.
“No, it’s not,” she countered in genuine irritation. “It’s closed minded and it’s mean. Admit it. You just disapprove of Jace because he’s not a member of the church.”
“Wrong,” he answered. “I disapprove because his standards aren’t the same as yours. That ought to be a big deal for you and your uncle.”
“Oh, Judas Priest!” Victoria rolled her eyes. “Brother Smith, it’s just a date for heaven’s sake.” She was angry now. Spinning on her heels she was into the hallway before Paladin realized he had pushed her too far.
Running, he caught up with her in the foyer. “Victoria,” he caught her by the arm. “Listen, I’m. . . I’m sorry.” She stopped, but was still seething. “If I’ve been unfair to Jace Packard, I apologize. He may be a nice guy. I hope he is. Because you certainly deserve the best.”
She seemed to be cooling off, but only by a degree or two. “I’ve got to go, Brother Smith.”
“Yeah, I know,” he stepped aside. “Just remember something would you,” he soothed. “You’re different from Jace Packard, Victoria. Nice guy or not, he doesn’t value the same things that you do. And he doesn’t understand the things you do. You’ve been tremendously blessed, Victoria. You know who you are — and so do I. Never forget that.”
Victoria smiled at Paladin blandly and slowly shook her head. “I’ll tell you what I know, Brother Smith. Last summer my parents were killed in a car accident. Some superior court judge awarded me to an uncle I never knew who doesn’t care about me. I haven’t got a real home or any real friends. So sometimes I don’t feel very blessed. And I’ll tell you something else. I don’t know who I am. But Jace Packard makes me feel like somebody. And that’s enough for me.”
Turning away from him, Victoria pushed open the chapel doors and was gone.
Paladin took a deep sigh as he continued to drive home through the evening fog. It had been a long day at Packard Advertising and he had been distracted from his work. Not that he had much responsibility. As an entry level copywriter, fresh out of college, he was pretty much a grunt on the treadmill of Merlin Packard’s financial empire. He wished he could work on the larger accounts. Still, he’d never work on any accounts – he might not even have a job — if he had many more days as unproductive as today.
He was glad when five o’clock rolled around. On the way home he stopped for a burger, but he really wasn’t very hungry. He took a long drive around town and out to the beach. But he was still restless and uncomfortable. He needed to forget for a while. And he knew what he needed to fight off his agitation.
He arrived at Santa Ana Park as the sun was going down. Quickly, he threw on a t-shirt and pulled his bat and mitt out of the trunk. It was never very hard to find a team that was looking for another player. For the next two hours he immersed himself in baseball and managed to think of little else than shagging fly balls in the outfield or connecting with a pitcher’s hanging curves on the edge of the strike zone. It wasn’t until the field lights begin to flick off at nine o’clock that he returned to the world again.
But as he drive home in the gathering fog, the memories of his morning confrontation with Victoria Grant returned in sharp focus. He closed his eyes briefly as if to expunge the recollection from his mind. But the haunting remembrance of it was as inescapable as the December mist which closed around on the road. At length he pulled over to the curb outside of his apartment. He turned off the engine and sat, staring into the darkness for a long time. “What business have I telling somebody who they are or who they might be.” Paladin’s own identity was a mystery to himself.
At length he stepped from his ca rand trudged across the walkway and up the stairs to his empty apartment. Closing the front door behind him he stood silently in the darkness. He had no desire to turn on the lights. The gloom provided him the illusion of sanctuary from the frustrating aimlessness of his life, and the helpless inability to offer direction to anyone else.
He shook his head again in the dark. “My life is pretty worthless,” he thought to himself. Seemed like it always s would be.
RRRING! RRRING! The chime of the telephone cut crossways into his musings. Looking up he stared into the shadows at the illuminated clock on the oven. It was after ten! Making his way to the wall phone across the room he yanked the receiver from its cradle. “Hello.”
For a moment he heard nothing but labored breathing. But then a panicked voice whispered over the wires, instantly turning his blood to ice. “Brother Smith! This is Victoria! Help me Brother Smith! I’m in trouble!”
Chapter 2 – Night of Decision