He woke the way he liked to wake, to the call of a male quail with the sun already over the mountain, and breakfast already laid out on the kitchen table. He had his fill of thick wheat and oat cakes with clover honey and fierce black coffee and grilled ham and scrambled eggs with Cholula hot sauce and crisp potatoes, and then he went into the den to see if any jobs were offered.
There was one email.
He read it and considered, then told his housekeeper that he'd ride some before leaving for the airport. He went to the stable to saddle Belle.
He disliked taking any jobs in California. It was a bad state, and that was before you considered disarming yourself. But as he savored the Montana air as he rode, he realized that he was pricing himself out of the regular west. There just weren't that many civilized places that could pay $10,000 for a job.
So he flew into San Francisco and sent the reply email from the airport.
The client was Fred Nahon, somebody in electronic security. "You come well recommended," said Nahon, as they shook hands in his living room.
"By whom?" he asked, looking over the professionally designed room.
"Bert Gomez, at Defense," said Nahon. "Said you were something in CentCom during the war."
"I was," he said. "But you don't seem to need anything in that line."
"What is your line?" asked a male voice from the corridor behind him.
"I do odd jobs," he said.
"Will, this is Paladin," said Nahon. "Will is my partner."
"I'm not sure I want to shake hands with a legend," said Will. "What do you do for $10,000, Mr. Paladin?"
"If I understood your email, you're missing your son," he said.
"Jacob's run off," said Nahon. "He's done it before. What I want is not just to find him, and bring him back. I want him to stay."
"I'll need to know more about it," he said.
"Jacob is seventeen. About two years ago he decided he wasn't going to tolerate a gay family. That was how he put it to us. He's got some friends down near Pismo Beach. I'm sure that's where he's run off to."
"And the problem is, getting him to be agreeable," he said.
"What's your opinion of gay marriage, Mr. Paladin?" asked Will.
"I don't know," he said. "I don't know you. You're not trying to be very likeable, and I don't hardly know Fred. If you think I'm going to offer an opinion as an abstract, you're mistaken."
"All right," said Nahon after a pause. "What do you think of our problem?"
"I think I can wrangle it," he said. "There'll be some expense, and I'll need payment up front."
Pismo Beach was bleak as he remembered it. A good place to hole up and contemplate your own self-righteousness. On the way down he tried to remember being seventeen. It hurt.
He found the beach house with four cars in front of it, which was a good sign that they were all there. He rang the doorbell and waited politely. A girl answered the door.
"Hi," he said. "I'm here to ask Jacob to lunch."
"Jacob's not seeing anybody right now," she said.
"If it's alright I'd like to ask you all to lunch," he replied. "Just so you're all with him while we talk."
"Wait here," she said, and shut the door on him. He waited fifteen minutes.
She came back to the door. "Sorry, but he doesn't want to come."
"You know Jacob's under eighteen?"
"You're not his parents."
"Yeah. But I'm not going to leave before we've had a talk. You might as well come have a free meal with me. Otherwise I'll just stay here til he comes out. Once I waited three days for a man to come out. I doubt Jacob can last that long. I mention his age only to let you know it's pointless you calling a cop."
She said "Wait here," again, and was gone for half an hour. She came back to the door.
"Where you want to meet for lunch?"
"The Blue Sea Cafe on Elder Street. You seen it?" She nodded. "OK. I'll leave now and the rest of you meet me there. Deal?"
"Deal. You leave alone and Jacob rides with us. He don't get in your car."
Jacob was a sturdy kid with brown hair and slate-blue eyes. The girl and two other boys were with him. "Order what you like," he told them.
"I'm not going back," Jacob told him.
"Why not?" he asked.
"I don't approve of fornication and sins against God. That's what my father's life is. I won't condone it. I won't support it."
"Do you think that will convert him?"
"That's up to God. I can't save him. I can only save myself."
"I wanted to meet you Jacob," he said. "I wanted to get to know you a bit better."
"Why? Aren't you going to try to drag me back?"
"That's not my job. I'm being paid to have you go back voluntarily and stay."
"Then you're going to fail," Jacob said confidently.
"What are your plans when you turn eighteen?"
"I think that's my business," said Jacob.
"It's a tricky thing, Jacob," he said. "There are several ways I could go about this job. One way would be to offer to put $3,000 in a 529 account. Do you know what that is?"
"I have one."
"That's not a whole lot, but if you're enterprising enough to spend wisely, $3,000 will be a good start towards a degree."
"I'm not for sale." Jacob stared at him fixedly.
"Good of you," he said. "I said that was one way to go about it. Another way would be to ask if you remember your ASVAB scores? I can get you coaching on your MOS of choice by an E5. You'd go in that much better prepared."
"Strike two, mister."
"That's it for me then. I'll just earn my fee by introducing you to the Reverend." He raised his hand and beckoned to an Army chaplain sitting at a corner booth.
"Jacob, this is the Reverend Captain Elliot Sharp."
"Hello, son," said the Reverend. "You don't mind that I know something of your troubles, do you?"
"That my father lives in sin?"
"Most of us have sinners for fathers. But the Book says, " Honor thy father and thy mother" without limitation, you know."
"That's the gimmick? That you Bible-thump me back home?"
"The gimmick, Jacob, is that you have ten more months of your legal minority. You can spend it estranged from your family or you can spend it being tolerant of those who love you, letting them help you find what you want to do."
"That's my business," said Jacob.
"So it is," agreed the Reverend. "And it's also the burden of those who call themselves your family. You may think that doesn't amount to much, but the Bible says otherwise."
"How much are you getting to give this speech?" asked Jacob.
"I'm not getting anything. I thought it a good opportunity to get it off my chest. I've had it on my mind for some time now, since my son was killed."
"Captain Sharp is Stateside on bereavement leave," he said.
"My son, Ryan, wasn't as old as you are, but he was headstrong. Unfortunately he was a libertine, and determinedly unrepentant. I didn't approve of that. Distantly, as I was overseas. I've had time to think, and I think, the family tie ought to be respected. As much as I love my service, I should have been more focused on my own son. Have some sympathy with your father, Jacob. I think you can be said to owe him that much."
"Was Ryan gay?" asked Jacob.
"Yes," said the Reverend.
"If you could have him back now, unrepentant, unchanged, would you?"
"No," said the Reverend. "I don't ask God to resurrect the dead like that. I pray that He forgives them."
"That makes no sense," said Jacob.
"How many friends have you buried?" he asked Jacob.
"None," said Jacob.
"How about you?" he asked the other teens. The girl nodded. "Does it make sense to you?" She nodded again. "See," he said.
The Reverend said, "I think I've said my piece. I'll go now." He left.
Jacob said, "I won't go back. I've made up my mind."
"Well then do me a favor," he said. "Tell your dad so over the phone from that booth. And tell him I'll return the $10,000."
"He paid you $10,000 to bring me back? That's crazy. All you did was talk at me."
"No. He wants you to come home and stay home. But personally, I think you're too much of a man to be swayed back into childhood. You can tell him I said that too."
"You're going to let it go at that? Just give up $10,000 to let me stay here?"
"That's your business," he said. "But as you've made your decision, I'd appreciate it as a favor if you'd make the telephone call now."
Jacob went to the phone. "Fred Nahon. It's Jacob Nahon. Yes... Dad! I saw your man. He says he'll return the $10,000...Listen, if I come back to San Francisco I want my own apartment...We can talk about that..."