Diego sat unmoving in the quiet cell, his thoughts devolving more and more into chaos as the day wore on. Siesta came and went, but he didn’t notice, nor did he notice how the ropes continued to cut painfully into his wrists. He didn’t once think of Bishop. Instead, what Victoria had confessed filled his thoughts to the exclusion of all else.
She loved him.
That thought made him stupid with sappy affection, but he didn’t care. He would care later, when faced with an unrelenting hangman’s noose, but now his every dream had come true.
The euphoria of that development lasted for hours. Darkness wreathed the cuartel in shadows when the reality of the situation abruptly reasserted itself to come crashing down on his head.
The door to the Alcalde’s office swung aside and De Soto stalked in, carrying a glowing lantern. The light made Diego frantically blink back sudden tears, but he didn’t have any trouble hearing De Soto. “I can’t hang you for murder.”
Eyes clearing, Diego asked, “Bishop lives?”
De Soto scowled his confirmation.
In answer to that expression, Diego sarcastically replied, “You look unhappy that you can’t call me a murderer as well as an outlaw.”
“You may not be a murderer, but I still plan to hang you as an outlaw, caballero or not.”
“I would expect nothing less of you.” This news about Bishop’s life, while interesting, was in actuality little more than an interrupting irritant. “Now, unless you plan to give me my freedom, don’t bother me.” Dismissing De Soto, Diego returned his thoughts to the much more alluring subject of Victoria.
De Soto hated being ignored, as Diego well knew. “She’ll never leave that brigand, especially not for the likes of you.”
Diego’s face grew slack once more, giving no further information. “If you think that my private information becoming public knowledge has somehow demoralized me, think again. In fact, publish it in the newspaper. Unless my lawyer has come, I say again, go--”
“She may love you for now,” De Soto sneered, “but it won’t last. I guarantee you a short lovelife, de la Vega!”
Finally arrested by De Soto’s derisive tone, Diego looked more closely at the man. “I don’t believe it,” he softly exclaimed, noting the light in the Alcalde’s eyes. “You’re jealous.”
De Soto’s bark of laughter exploded into the quiet jail. “Of that harpy? I don’t think so!”
If insulting Victoria was meant to further enrage Diego, it didn’t work. “You’re jealous of me.”
“The day I’m jealous of a bore like Diego de la Vega is the day I fly back to Spain.”
Diego brightened. “I have several explosives that will throw you all the way to Madrid if you need the help.”
De Soto’s wheezy chuckle burst through the silence. “I’d like to see you try.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
Confidence oozed from De Soto. “Your hands are tied behind your back. I’m not worried.”
“I would be if I were you.”
“I tied the knots.”
Successfully rankled, De Soto frowned. “You have one more day, loverboy. If we don’t find that bullet by then, I don’t care if you’re related to the king of Spain himself - you hang. Even loose knots can’t help you then.” His frown deepened to a sneer once more, making him look alarmingly like Bishop. “That harpy certainly won’t.”
Angered at last, Diego’s eyes snapped with barely controlled fury. “Leave her out of this.”
The Alcalde snickered. “Hit a nerve, did I?”
“Why Zorro hasn’t hounded you from the pueblo yet is a mystery.”
“Who says he hasn’t tried and failed?”
“I say. Remember, according to you, I’m Zorro.”
“According to you,” De Soto corrected in delight. “I might just have to hang that harpy alongside you for good measure.”
The expression on Diego’s face darkened. “Touch one hair on her head, and I’ll make sure your death is as slow and painful as I can make it.”
De Soto wheezed a second laugh. “What’s happened to you, de la Vega? Did you wake up this morning and suddenly develop a backbone?”
Diego glared back at him. “Bishop’s threat to shoot Victoria woke me up.”
“Technically Bishop did nothing terribly illegal.”
“Nothing illegal,” Diego gasped into the silence. “He almost shot Victoria!”
“Almost shooting someone is very different from actually doing it.”
“I don’t believe this!” Diego yelled in disgust. “I’m beginning to see the value of a good revolution, especially if it gets you out of office.”
De Soto’s expression grew to mirror Diego’s. “If there’s a revolt, I’ll know just who to hang for starting it.”
“How can I start anything while stuck in here?”
“Not you, your traitorous father.”
“Father would never start a revolt against Spain. But who’s to say that Zorro won’t? Maybe he should be leading that revolt instead of just humiliating you over and over again.”
That wiped some of the arrogance off the Alcalde’s face. “We’ll see how insolent you are when I hang Don Alejandro right beside his revolutionary son.”
Diego’s eyes narrowed in astonishment. “Do you think the Spanish throne will support you no matter what outlandish action you take?”
“As far as it matters, I am the Spanish throne here!”
Was he really as stupid as Bishop? “I bet King Ferdinand would love to hear you say that. It’ll give him a good laugh, right before he has you drawn and quartered.”
“Ha! You forget that I was specifically chosen for this assignment by the king himself.”
“The king must have been half asleep that day.”
Frustration that Diego was not as impressed as he clearly thought he should be shadowed De Soto’s expression. “I was chosen for my obvious skills, de la Vega!”
“Skills that we have yet to see, Alcalde.”
De Soto’s lip curled. “I remind you that it’s hard to act so righteous when on the wrong end of a hangman’s noose.”
Diego’s eyes widened in incredulity. “Ignacio, surely you realize that you’re only as powerful as the people allow you to be.”
“Nobody allows me to be anything, de la Vega. Hanging you will only prove that!”
“You’re deluded if you think hanging me will solve all your problems.”
De Soto’s familiar lip curl was back. “If I’m so deluded, untying my knots should be a simple thing for you, yet you’re still my prisoner.”
“What do knots have to do with any of this?”
But instead of explaining, the Alcalde simply gave his head a scornful shake. “You’re just a man, de la Vega, and a spineless one at that. Even if you convince the people to listen to your insane ideas, they’ll think twice as soon as they’re facing a lancer’s rifle.”
“And if you’re so sure of yourself, why come in here just to bait me?” It was Diego who shook his head this time. “You’re worried, Ignacio, and it shows.”
“Worried?” De Soto derisively laughed. “I finally have Zorro in my jail. What can I possibly have to be worried about?”
“You’re worried that I’m only claiming to be Zorro for Victoria’s sake. You’re worried that hanging me won’t do any good, because the real Zorro is still at large, and very likely extremely angry. Plus, no matter how much you deny it, you’re jealous that someone loves a man you think is a bore instead of preferring you. So by all means, Ignacio, bait me if it makes you feel better. But you’re still worried, and it still shows.”
“And you’re still a bore, de la Vega, a dull, poetry-loving, scientific nerd.”
“You know that calling me names just lends credibility to what I’m saying.”
“You should be saying your prayers!” The Alcalde thumped the bars for good measure. “You hang in twenty-four hours.”
Diego gave a nonchalant shrug. “Hang me if you want. But your worries won’t be over, no matter how powerful you think you are.”
“I’m going to bed, de la Vega, in my own bed, on this side of the bars,” De Soto snarled in lieu of replying. “Enjoy your night in jail.” Without giving Diego the chance to respond, he vanished into his office, shutting the door firmly behind him.
He’d run away, before anything untoward could happen; how typical.
Diego stared out into the darkness converging quickly on the now silent jail, struggling to make shapes of the doors and furnishings. The skimpy blankets on the cell’s only bunk seemed wholly uninviting, but the dark gave him no options but to think or go to sleep. De Soto had taken the lantern with him when he left, and only the moonlight streaming into the cell broke the monotony, making strange patterns on the floor.
Diego contemplated sleep for a second, but quickly found himself dwelling on the Alcalde instead, thoughts of the man’s jealousy paramount in his mind. He didn’t expect that De Soto was jealous of his chosen love; the Alcalde had shown nothing but antipathy for Victoria on many occasions. Diego was simply astonished that De Soto was jealous of him at all. In the past, he’d gone out of his way to highlight the uselessness of the de la Vega heir, as if by emphasizing traits that he deemed pointless, Diego would seem less important, thus increasing his own importance at the same time. Diego might have been unaware of De Soto’s feelings while at the University of Madrid, but there was no doubt of the envy he felt for his fellow student once De Soto had come to Los Angeles. He insulted Diego every chance he got, both to the townspeople at large and to his father in particular.
And now came the ultimate insult; Diego had obviously secured love where the more typically handsome Ignacio De Soto was still floundering. Not only had he secured someone’s love, but that someone turned out to be the paramour of his most hated enemy. It must be galling to De Soto, making him cringe whenever he thought about it. No wonder he predicted an early demise for such affection.
The contemplation made Diego send a very satisfied smile to the cloying shadows on the floor.
The door to the cuartel courtyard abruptly opened and a lancer strutted in, coming to a halt just outside Diego’s cell. He smartly settled his rifle butt into his hands, the barrel resting against his left shoulder. The man said not a word, but instead stood at attention, his tall hat shadowing his eyes as he stared over Diego’s head at a point on the far wall near the barred window.
Ah, a soldier set to guard the prisoner. Diego wondered what they were guarding him from. Did they anticipate that he’d try to escape? Diego de la Vega had been imprisoned many times, and not once had he attempted an escape. He hadn’t even been rescued by Zorro. Of course, now that he’d claimed to be the famous outlaw, certain precautions must be expected. He was fairly surprised that they had assigned only one man to guard him. Should he feel slighted?
Diego leaned back against the wall behind him once again, still thinking about the Alcalde, about Victoria, and about himself. He was determined not to ruin this time by thoughts of Bishop, or the fate that awaited him in only twenty-four hours. In his experience, a lot could happen in such a short time.
He was still happily dwelling thirty minutes later when the guard suddenly arrested his attention.
That single lancer on duty hissed a heavy sigh into the silent jail, a most unnatural show of boredom for a soldier. Next, he shifted his balance from foot to foot, dancing out what must have been stiff muscles. When no one came to investigate the noise he was making, Diego assumed the lancers and Alcalde were fast asleep. At last, the guarding lancer reached slowly for the cell keys dangling from a hook set high on the far wall.
His attention successfully captured now, Diego watched as the lancer quietly inserted the proper key into the cell lock and turned. The door swung open with only a light squeal as the lancer stepped into the moonlight. Brown eyes met Diego’s piercing gaze.
“Felipe!” Diego softly exclaimed.
Felipe immediately placed his finger to his lips, indicating the need for silence.
Diego rose and moved forward to whisper, “How did you get in here?”
Felipe gestured that he’d snuck into the cuartel’s barracks, secured a lancer’s uniform, stolen one of the high hats, and then it was a simple job to make sure to be available for guard duty. From there, it had been almost child’s play.
“That was dangerous, Felipe, and you know it,” Diego immediately chastised. “What if you had been discovered? You know the penalty for impersonating a royal lancer. Still…” His smile belayed the previous statement. “I’m glad you’re here. Well done.”
Felipe’s smile was somewhat tremulous, as if he’d been unsure of his father’s reception to his daring deeds, but basked in the praise nonetheless. He pulled Diego through the cell door, and together they peeked into the empty courtyard. They fell back against the wall as a lancer approached, whistling, then disappeared into the barracks. Both breathed in relief until silence reigned once again.
Felipe’s gestures making no sound, he asked Diego what he planned to do now.
His whisper barely ruffling the air, Diego replied, “Now that you’ve freed me, I plan to take a look myself at the crime scene.” He squinted thoughtfully out the door. “The fact that Bishop wants to lure Zorro into the open by attacking Victoria doesn’t make any sense. Does the man want a rematch? But that would only invite another beating. And why can’t they find a bullet that should be most obvious? There’s clearly something else going on here.”
Felipe shrugged his shoulders inside his uniform, then gestured at Diego’s bound hands, asking how he planned to accomplish all this while restrained.
In answer, Diego drew his hands to his sides, tossing the rope to the floor. “I’ve been free for hours, but I didn’t want Ignacio to know. He thinks I’m Zorro as it is. I don’t suppose you thought to bring a disguise for me, too?”
A sly smile enveloped Felipe’s expression.
“You brought Zorro’s clothes with you? Well done, Felipe.” He touched the coated arm in an affectionate grip. “What would I do without you?”
Felipe’s smile turned knowing.
Diego agreed with the unstated assessment. “You’re right; I would have been hung years ago if it weren’t for you. Where did you leave Zorro’s clothes?”
Using hand signals that only Diego had ever taken the time to remember, Felipe told him that Zorro’s clothes were hidden in the cuartel stables, behind a pile of hay.
“Excellent. I’ll be back before another lancer can relieve you, and you can lock me up then. Wish me luck.” With that, he quietly slipped through the door to the cuartel, evaded the lancer guarding the empty courtyard, and disappeared into the night.