Paladin – pal·a·din (noun) Historical
The Paladin is a class of warrior that is fully devoted to kindness and ridding the universe of evil. They are very religious, and have an extremely strict honor code, as well as a soft spot for children and animals. In combat, a Paladin with a cause is almost impossible to defeat.
Paladins fear nothing, for Evil fears them.
Stepping onto the sidewalk outside of my hotel, I inhaled through my nose and held the air in my lungs for as long as I could, before exhaling and hanging a left, as I made my way down the street, with a small bounce to my step.
As far as I was concerned there was nothing better than walking through our nation’s capital in the springtime. If it could be said that history had a scent, you could definitely smell it there. But above that at this time of year was the unmistakable aroma of the cherry blossoms that were in full bloom.
There was something about it that had always put me at ease – had filled me with a sense of renewed hope – which was something I could use right about now.
I’d been called to Washington D.C. by none other than the Vice Chairman to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but considering he was the same man who’d taught me how to throw a football when I was six, I wasn’t so much nervous as I was curious about what he wanted to see me for.
Regardless of nonexistent blood ties, Jackson Herveaux had been like an uncle to me growing up. He and my dad had been brothers in arms from the moment they’d met on their first assignment and that same tie had been forged between me and Jackson’s son Alcide. We had grown thick as thieves from the moment we’d met at his backyard barbecue when we were four years old and had never looked back.
We’d both chosen to follow in our fathers’ footsteps by choosing a life in the military, but our paths had diverged in the branches of service we’d chosen to join.
Al had gone the way of our fathers and graduated near the top of his class at West Point a little less than eight years earlier, while my dreams of being a fighter pilot had me going to the Air Force Academy.
It was ironic, all things considered, but I couldn’t help but wonder what my life would be like had I chosen a different path.
Would I be as fucked in the head as I was now?
Thankfully I’d reached the bar before I could linger on that thought for too long and walking inside it was impossible to miss Alcide’s imposing frame.
Built like his sole purpose in life was to take down the Wall of China singlehandedly, he caught sight of me in his peripheral and turned to face me with a smile.
By the time I reached his side, he kicked at the bar stool beside him and joked, “The Chair Force has finally arrived. Must mean the war’s over.”
“All of us can’t be bullet sponges,” I laughed, taking his offered hand and giving him a half hug before sitting down beside him.
The last time I’d seen Al I hadn’t been in a very good head space. Not so coincidentally enough it wasn’t long after that that was the last time I’d seen his dad.
I didn’t want to think about the reasons why he’d come to me then, but wondering what his motives were for wanting to see me now, I asked, “Did the old man tell you why he wanted me here?”
Giving me a look that all but called me a stupid asshole, Al shook his head and turned back to face his beer, huffing out, “I learned a long time ago to not ask The Major any questions.”
I couldn’t help the smirk I felt forming on my face at hearing him refer to his father as The Major. He was a four star general now, but the nickname we’d given his dad when we were little kids had stuck throughout the years. My dad had just made lieutenant colonel right before we met – which was what we called him because we weren’t the most creative kids around – and since their insignias were identical except for color, whenever we referred to them both, we called them the clovers.
But knowing Al felt like he could and would never live up to his imagined expectations his father had – in spite of my firsthand knowledge his father couldn’t be prouder of his only son – I didn’t attempt to beat that dead horse and only joked, “You’re still pissed about Santa, aren’t you?”
“All night long,” he drawled out, without skipping a beat. Then looking over at me, he smirked, “I waited up all night long to meet that fat bastard and what do I see?”
Having heard the story a million times by then, we finished in unison, “The Major’s ass crack at the ass crack of dawn.”
Al’s Santa Claus bubble burst at waking up to the sight of Uncle Jack in nothing more than his boxer shorts bent over and putting the gifts underneath their Christmas tree.
And Al was sure to burst my Santa Claus bubble about ten seconds after I saw him next.
But now that his grumpy bastard persona was gone, I wanted to keep it that way, so I sat back and spent the next few hours laughing and reliving the good old days with the only brother I would ever have.
Standing outside of Uncle Jack’s office the following morning in my dress blues, I watched his aide – an Army Captain – meticulously arrange the papers on his desk just so before announcing my arrival via the intercom button.
Being the same rank – and in a different branch of service – he didn’t appear impressed by me or the ribbons on my chest.
But that all changed when General Herveaux came out of his office to greet me personally and gave me the same handshake and half hug I’d given his son twelve hours earlier, before he pulled back to look at me and said, “It’s good to see you, son.”
“It’s good to see you too, sir,” I smiled, feeling the little knot in my gut loosening up some at his jovial disposition.
The last time I’d seen him his expression wasn’t jovial.
Nor was any other part of him.
No, the last time I’d seen Jackson Herveaux he was part concerned father and part angry drill instructor.
It was the latter half that was difficult to forget.
But still not wanting to think about any of that, I pushed it from my mind and waited for him to usher me into his office to explain why he’d called me there. Regardless of our differing branches of service, when a four star general says he wants a meeting with any lower ranking military member, that meeting was going to happen.
It was why I was on open ended TDY orders from Scott AFB where I’d been stationed out of for the last two years.
I should probably take Uncle Jack out to dinner to thank him for that.
I hated it there in a way, but only because I hadn’t joined the Air Force to be a paper pusher for Command. Flying had been my passion and I’d wanted to be a pilot from the time I was four years old and my dad had taken me to see the Blue Angels.
But that had all gone to shit when my passion had literally become my worst nightmare. Something I was reminded of when Uncle Jack asked, “How was the flight in to D.C.?”
“I drove,” I answered automatically, with my voice sounding weak even to my own ears, as my eyes dropped to the floor.
When he didn’t respond, I looked up to see the concern on his face, but he just nodded once before turning to his aide and said, “Let them know we’re on our way down.”
With that, he strode out of the office, with the invisible tether pulling my feet along behind him. I knew better than to ask any questions. Al’s words from the night before may have been spoken in contempt, but there was a truth to them.
Even without the four stars sitting on each of his shoulders, Jackson Herveaux naturally commanded attention. When in his presence you stood a little taller. You squared your shoulders and you didn’t fidget. He emanated power and authority and you certainly didn’t question him.
You did as he said without a word of complaint.
Walking through the corridors of the Pentagon for the second time that day, I didn’t have the time to appreciate the significance or history of the building that housed the upper echelon of our nation’s defense. I’d been too nervous on my way in to meet Uncle Jack to do it then, but guessing we were on our way out, I hoped to get the chance at some point before I headed back to Scott.
Stepping onto the sidewalk I was once again assaulted by the scent of cherry blossoms, but I only had a split second to appreciate it before it was replaced by the scent of leather, when I followed Uncle Jack into the waiting town car.
Given his rank and position, he had his own security detail with him at all times when he stepped outside, so I gave no thought to the armed men who climbed into the front seat, with the driver putting the car into gear and merging onto South Washington Boulevard. I sat quietly at his side and merely waited for him to explain why I was there.
So naturally, I was confused hearing him say, “I’ve heard good things about you from the doctors at Scott.”
My lips automatically opened to respond, but they quickly closed again when I couldn’t think of anything to say. I wasn’t all that surprised to hear he’d been keeping track of my progress – it had been his surprise visit and subsequent intervention that had gotten me to realize I needed help – but I’d been given a clean bill of health and declared fit for duty nearly fourteen months earlier.
So I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at and nodded with my explanation of, “I’m better.”
I wasn’t back to normal. I doubted I would ever be back to normal, but I was better.
As much as it killed me to know I would never fly again, I could admit it was a miracle I was even able to function.
Count your blessings and all of that happy horse shit.
“I’m glad,” he nodded in response and then added, “But I hear you’ve gone above and beyond, taking others under your wing and getting them to open up.”
My head bobbed again in affirmation and I smiled, with a small shrug of my shoulders and admitted, “I think I was a bartender in a former life. People just seem to open up to me and spill all of their deepest darkest secrets.”
Despite my clean bill of health and the fact I was only required to be reexamined every six months, I’d been going to the group therapy sessions like clockwork. Not because I felt like I still needed them, but because I could see that I was making a difference for others in the program.
Even now I felt guilty, knowing I had already missed two sessions due to my TDY.
“Your dad was like that too,” he smiled solemnly. “I can’t count the number of times over the years that I’ve wished I had his ear to bend.”
I only nodded once more in response, not having much to say on the matter. My dad had been killed by a roadside bomb three weeks in to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I’d been at the tail end of my second year at the Air Force Academy at the time.
I couldn’t even find any solace in being excused from finals to attend his funeral.
Passing by Arlington National Cemetery at that very moment, I wondered whether or not it was a coincidence Uncle Jack had brought him up in conversation. The last time I had been there was on the day of my father’s funeral, but I was saved from having to think about it hearing him ask, “How’s your mom doing these days? She emails me about once a week, but mostly she just seems concerned I’m not getting enough home cooked meals.”
“Then I guess we’re both in the same boat,” I chuckled and added, “But I get the added pleasure of getting the brunt of her guilt trips that she’s not getting any younger and wants grandchildren before she dies.”
I hadn’t been on a date since before the incident – as I liked to call it – and I didn’t see that changing anytime soon. I needed to make sure my own head was on straight before inviting someone else and whatever baggage they had into my life.
But I didn’t have to wonder why my mom had been pestering Uncle Jack about his dietary habits. She’d been doing it from both near and afar for the last fourteen years, after his wife had been killed in a freak car accident when Al and I had been in high school.
Hopefully mom wasn’t guilt tripping him about dating anyone.
That thought only reminded me that I needed to call her soon. She worried if we didn’t talk over the phone at least once every week, but being an only child – not to mention my previous issues – I couldn’t really blame her.
She was my mom. It was her job to worry about me.
But I hadn’t given any thought to where my words would lead Uncle Jack until he sighed out, “She’s right to want grandkids. I love mine more than I even knew I could.” Then looking directly into my eyes, he added, “And I have you to thank for that.”
We both knew what he was referring to and it had nothing to do with me getting his daughter – Alcide’s younger sister, Janice – pregnant. She was like a sister to me too, so that thought hadn’t ever crossed my mind, but knowing what was crossing her father’s at the moment, I shrank under the intensity of his gaze and looked away as I mumbled out, “No you don’t.”
That was yet another painful memory that I didn’t like to think about.
I’d gone to their house after school one day on a whim. It had only been a month since their mom’s death and because we were like family, I’d walked right into the house without knocking, like I lived there too. My mouth had barely opened to call out his name when I stopped on a dime and bolted upstairs. I’d never been able to pinpoint what it was that made me run up the stairs like my life depended on it and straight into Janice’s room.
The fact I’d never gone beyond the door frame hadn’t stopped me. The fact her bedroom door had been closed didn’t give me pause. My stride had barely faltered not seeing her in the room, with my feet carrying me right to her closed closet door.
Opening it, I found her hanging by her neck from the light fixture, having used her bathrobe tie to form a noose, with her eyes practically bulging from their sockets and staring straight into mine in horror.
I was sure I mirrored her expression on some level.
I’d still been growing at the time, but I’d already been pushing six foot two and the shot of adrenaline coursing through me made it easy for me to lift her up over my shoulder and get the noose from around her neck. I must have walked in on her seconds after she’d stepped off of the small stool I later saw sitting on the closet floor because she was coughing and crying the moment I’d gotten her free.
And that was exactly how Uncle Jack and Al had found us minutes later when they came home.
Both of us, sitting on the floor right outside of her closet and bawling all over each other.
She’d taken their mother’s death especially hard, but none of us ever considered she had taken it that hard. Uncle Jack had gotten her the help she needed and now, more than a decade later, she was happily married with two little rugrats of her own.
And even though I had been the one to find her, I never viewed myself as her savior. Al or Uncle Jack just as easily could have found her in time if I hadn’t been there.
It was an argument I was sure we could have until the end of time, if any one of us could bring ourselves to talk about it on a regular basis, which would never happen since we barely even wanted to think about it.
At all. Ever.
So even though we really were like family to one another and Uncle Jack was like a father to me, I doubted he’d had me sent to D.C. on orders just to get a read on what was going on in my life. He’d already admitted to keeping tabs on my recovery, so perhaps my expression said it all when I silently looked at him in question.
So perhaps he just liked keeping me on my toes because in the next moment he stated more than asked, “You’ve heard of DARPA.”
“The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,” I nodded, spelling out what the acronym stood for.
An agency of the Department of Defense, they were tasked with the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. Independent from other research and development projects, they reported directly to senior Department of Defense management.
Senior management officials like the man sitting next to me.
I knew their headquarters were located in Arlington, but I’d spotted the signs along the highway a while back, indicating we’d left the city limits. And still not knowing what use I could be to him in that context – I’d been a pilot, not an engineer – I baited some sort of explanation from him by admitting, “My clearance was downgraded to Secret after the incident.”
It was why none of the papers I now pushed for Command at Scott were of the Top Secret variety.
Yet another fact that chafed my ass at times.
“I’ve known you since you were still shitting in diapers,” he groused – sounding just like his son, funnily enough – so even though his statement wasn’t true in the technical sense, I didn’t contradict him and he went on to say, “I trust you more than damn near anyone. I don’t need a background check to confirm what I already know.”
There was something about the way he’d said it – that he trusted me without any doubts – that made my chest expand and some of my own self-doubts dissipate.
If a man like Jackson Herveaux had confidence in you, it was hard to not have confidence in yourself.
Admittedly my confidence had been shaken since the incident, but hearing the conviction in his voice worked wonders for my self-esteem, so I acknowledged his words with a small grateful smile.
A smile that disappeared when he dumped a file marked ‘Classified’ on my lap and said, “I need your help.”
Like a father to me or not – Vice Chairman to the Joint Chiefs of Staff or not – I still felt like I was committing treason by even touching the folder. Which was why it sat undisturbed on my lap for a long moment – like it was an unsolicited exotic dancer named The Clap from Club Gonorrhea – before he made me jump where I sat, when he barked out, “Open it.”
“Yes sir,” I automatically replied, doing exactly what he’d ordered me to do because if I was a bartender in a former life, then Jackson Herveaux was a pit bull.
A scary one, when he wanted to be.
There were just a few pages in the file I only then knew was labeled as Project Paladin, but from what I quickly read, they just seemed to be scenarios – what-if type of situations – involving terrorism and assassination plots, pandemics and the like.
So a bowl full of sunshine, it was not.
I still had no idea of what he wanted with me or why he thought I could be of any help to him and my confusion only grew when the town car came to a stop outside of a warehouse in what looked to be an abandoned industrial park.
“Sir?” I asked, asking a hell of a lot with that one word.
The driver opened the door on Uncle Jack’s side at the same time, so he jutted his head for me to follow and ordered, “You’re with me, son.”
Trailing him out of the car and into the warehouse through a door by the loading bay, I kept my mouth shut and my eyes forward. But that didn’t stop my peripheral from cataloging every little thing they lit across.
The armed guards I could see and the ones I couldn’t see, but my senses told me were lurking in the shadows.
The contrast of the pristine interior of the warehouse, in direct contradiction of the decrepit exterior.
It could only mean one thing to my discombobulated mind.
We were in a black site.
I knew they existed, but never in my life did I imagine being in one. My career field – both former and present – didn’t call for it, so I had no idea of what to make of being in one now.
It was enough for my gut to go back to forming knots and that sensation only increased, when we all climbed onto a freight elevator that swiftly carried us into the bowels beneath the building.
But it was during our controlled freefall that I quickly ran back through everything Uncle Jack had said and insinuated from the moment we’d climbed into the car together back at the Pentagon.
He’d heard good things from the docs back at Scott. That I’d gone above and beyond by taking others under my wing and getting them to open up, so they could be helped.
He needed my help.
I didn’t think he’d meant himself, but adding the contents of the file into the mix only caused everything to become even less cohesive in my mind.
Grasping at straws, by the time the elevator doors opened, I imagined perhaps I was in some sort of DARPA Think Tank where one of the Thinkers had tanked themselves with whatever doomsday scenario they’d dreamt up and Uncle Jack wanted me to talk them down.
But none of that made any sense to me either. The military had psychologists and psychiatrists at their disposal. Hell, considering this was likely some sort of DARPA deal, they probably had access to an X-Men type of cyclops.
What in the hell would they need me for?
The fluorescent lights nearly blinded me as we moved as a group down the hallway. White walls met a white ceiling and white tiled floor that looked clean enough to eat off of, so I squashed the childish urge to drag my black polished shoe to mar the surface just a little.
But it all just seemed too antiseptic. It reminded me of a hospital.
One for a bubble boy.
So maybe that was why I was there? So I could burst his bubble, like Al’s had been burst by his dad’s ass crack on Christmas morning circa 1989?
I’d always been naturally inquisitive, which was why it was taking a herculean effort on my part to stay quiet and not ask any questions.
The list forming in my head was already long and it only grew longer when we walked through another set of doors to find several individuals sitting at various work stations. It reminded me of a control center – the hub of something important – thanks to the walls being covered by umpteen flat screens.
I still had no clue what any of it was meant to do.
Or why there was a single chair in the center of the room facing the screens.
It put me in mind of a dentist’s chair, only the last one I’d been in didn’t have wrist and ankle restraints, like that one did.
Granted, I couldn’t have declined Uncle Jack’s invitation to D.C. if I’d wanted to. But that didn’t make me regret coming there any less and I looked over at him, hoping he’d give me some indication that maybe we’d just walked into the middle of a movie set for a remake of War Games.
I could play tic-tac-toe with the best of them.
Instead I watched a short older woman in a lab coat make her way towards Uncle Jack, but she kept her eyes on me while she opened with, “The demi-god with the gift of gab, I presume?”
“Ma’am?” I questioned, again loading the single word with more questions than I dared to ask out loud.
“Cool it, Doc,” Uncle Jack interjected. “You’ve already made it perfectly clear what you think of my methods.”
“And considering he’s here, you’ve already made it perfectly clear what you think of my opinions,” she shot back without any fear.
For being so small, she sure had a huge set of balls.
Undeterred, Uncle Jack just looked at her with a challenging brow and said, “So long as we’re all clear, how’s she doing today?”
DARPA’s Think Tank thinker was a she?
It was an answer to a question I hadn’t yet thought of, but her gender didn’t really matter so much as what they wanted me for.
Unless they wanted me to explain Santa Claus’s nonexistence or play a few rounds of tic-tac-toe, then I wasn’t sure how much help I could be to her. Surely someone working for DARPA in a Think Tank capacity must be some sort of genius.
I was smart, but not that smart.
“About the same,” Doctor Brass Balls replied, still eying me like I was a science experiment before she turned her gaze up at the man who literally towered over her and added, “She’s been praying since she woke up.”
Hearing she was religious, I had even more doubts I could be of any help to her.
The last time I’d been in a church was for my dad’s funeral.
Janice’s wedding had taken place in a church, so yeah.
Weddings and funerals were the only times I walked into one.
But thinking about weddings and funerals and everything in between, I’d finally reached my boiling point and couldn’t stop myself from spitting out, “Why am I here?”
The doctor’s eyes shot back my way, but before she could say anything, Uncle Jack held up his hand to stop her and said, “I think it would be best if you went in blind, without any preconceived notions.”
It must have been my ‘Are you shitting me?’ expression that had him adding, “The people back at Scott – the ones in your group – do you know the ins and outs of their lives going in or do you get to know them first and in time get them to open up?”
I had to consciously pull my lips back into a straight line from the pucker they’d formed at his point, but still I argued, “Surely you have professionals who are better equipped to help whoever she is with whatever it is that’s wrong with her. Why me?”
Rather than answer me, he motioned for me to follow him to the left side wall of the room, where he pressed his hand onto the scanner affixed to the side of a door I only then noticed. Once his handprint was scanned, he entered a security code into the pin pad, causing not only the adjacent door to unlatch, but the entire wall transformed, revealing it was made up of privacy glass.
On the other side was a young woman, with pale skin and long straw blond hair pulled to one side in a thick braid. Kneeling on the floor, in the center of what looked to be a sparsely furnished bedroom, her eyes were closed in what looked like prayer or meditation.
“What is this place?” I asked in a near whisper and took a step closer to the now see through glass, adding, “And who is she?”
I hadn’t been able to take my eyes off of her – mostly wondering what the fuck I’d gotten myself into – so I wasn’t expecting it and literally rocked back on my feet when her eyelids popped open and I was immediately impaled by the bluest blue eyes I’d ever seen zeroed in on my own, just as I heard him reply, “She is the Paladin.”