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.