Chapter 8

When Victoria said she considered Don Diego to be another man, Zorro let the guilt suffuse him... for one second.  In reality, he didn’t have time for useless emotions like guilt.  Zorro had realized long ago that any emotion tended to mess with events.  His love for Victoria was the one emotion he would acknowledge on any given day, and the conversation he’d just had with the tavern owner had ended any hope of furthering a connection between Zorro and the Señorita.  It was a good thing his alter ego was the other man in this case, or he might have chosen to wallow in a jealous depression.

But he didn’t have time for depression any more than he did for guilt.  In truth, he was making sure that Victoria was no longer a target for men like Bishop, so there was nothing to be depressed about.  Plus, he was in effect giving up Victoria to himself which, while confusing, was a far better outcome for their relationship than he had ever considered possible.  The talk they’d just shared had ended some things as well as begun others.

It was, however, more important than ever that his identity never be discovered.

He therefore vowed that this was Zorro’s last adventure.  He couldn’t continue the Zorro legend and simultaneously ensure a normal life for Victoria with Don Diego, so the masked man had to come to an end.  Victoria would continue to be a target for any criminal wanting a reputation if it didn’t.  But to do that, he needed to uncover the truth about Bishop.  A cool head was a necessity for deduction, one completely devoid of emotional distractions, including thoughts of Victoria.

“We have to find that bullet,” Zorro firmly announced, and released Victoria.

“But I can’t find it,” Victoria reminded in frustration, peering again at the smooth wood of the bar.

“That just means we aren’t looking for it in the right place,” Zorro said, sweeping the bar with a critical glance.  “It has to be here somewhere.”  Ignoring his own feelings of irritation, he turned to regard the empty room.  “From what Don Diego told me, he was sitting there.”  Zorro walked to a table set a bit back from the door.  “Bishop was sitting between Don Diego and the door.”  He walked to where Bishop should have been.  “You were standing at the bar--”

“Facing the door,” Victoria interjected, “holding a bottle of wine in my right hand.”

“And you didn’t know the person who had ordered it, and Señorita Caldone was facing you, still wearing her riding gloves during your conversation.”  Zorro swivelled to again take in the room as a whole.  “Noise from the lunch crowd made Don Diego glance up from his book, saw Bishop aiming a gun at you, threw his book, and spoiled Bishop’s aim.”

“The bullet hit the wine bottle instead of me,” Victoria said, getting into the spirit of the moment by pantomiming a bottle exploding and glass flying everywhere.

“In that case, the bullet should be imbedded in the outside of the bar’s counter, there.”

        Zorro pointed right at the spot he’d targeted, but it was obvious by the smoothness of the wood that no bullet had come anywhere near that spot in many years, if ever.

“See what I mean?” said a frustrated Victoria.  “There isn’t a bullet hole, or a hole that has been covered up in a hurry, like someone’s trying to hide something, or even a nick in the wood.  There’s nothing.”

        Zorro grabbed one of the candles and held it as close to the counter as he dared without setting the bar on fire, crouching to stare closely at the wood.  There was still nothing to see.

        Perplexed, Zorro sat back on his heels and stared like Victoria had been staring when he’d found her.  But staring did no good; the wood of the bar remained as smooth as it had ever been, and the bullet remained elusive.

        Then Zorro gave a thoughtful start.  “Something….”  He let his voice trail away as he stared at the bar.

        A silent moment went by.  Then another.

        “Do you see something?” Victoria impatiently whispered.  “What is it?”

        Zorro smiled.  “Besides my legs falling asleep from crouching too long, there’s something niggling at the back of my brain.”

        Victoria smiled with him.  “I know what you mean about crouching.  Just yesterday, I had to lean over a floor rack to select some wine that--”

        “That’s it!”  Zorro stood, set the candle he was still holding aside, and shook his legs to restore the blood flow while beaming at Victoria.  “You’re a genius!”

        “I am?  What--”

        “The wine bottle,” Zorro explained.  “If Bishop’s bullet struck the wine bottle like you say it did, the angle of the gun would still have caused it to hit you.  No, wait, it wouldn’t have,” he instantly contradicted himself.  Zorro whirled back to face the room, slowly recreating the events leading up to the shooting incident.  “Bishop aimed, Don Diego threw the book, it hit Bishop’s hand right when Bishop fired... the gun would have been knocked just a little bit to Bishop’s right.”  Zorro followed the new path of the invisible bullet, then stopped to stand beside Victoria at the bar.  “By all accounts, he should have shot Señorita Caldone.”

Victoria stared at Zorro, as perplexed as he was.  “But he didn’t, and she was even saved from the flying glass because she was still wearing her riding gloves.”  She paused in her recitation, frowning.  “But the day was so hot.”

“And it was noon, a busy time for the tavern.”

“I remember, there was a huge crowd here for lunch.  I was thinking that I didn’t have time for chatting, that I had to start taking lunch orders… but I stayed talking to Tansy, and I wondered why didn’t she take off her gloves?  They must have been annoying, since it was so hot.”

Zorro vented frustration by sighing loudly, and growled low in his throat.  “This just doesn’t make sense.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

Zorro brought a gloved hand up to thoughtfully rub his chin.  “So we have to make it make sense.”

“What do you mean?”

“Give me a reason, any reason, why this might make sense.  The crazier, the better.”

“Oh.  All right.”  Victoria thought for a moment.  “Tansy ducked out of the way of the bullet at the last second.”

Grinning, Zorro shook his head.  “Even I can’t purposely dodge a bullet.”

They were both quiet for the moment before Zorro muttered, “Bishop’s aim was ruined so badly by Don Diego that he missed even hitting Señorita Caldone.”

Victoria sarcastically said, “I know personally that Bishop’s a better shot than that.  Besides, if he missed Tansy, then the bullet would still be imbedded in the bar, but it’s not there.  So that can’t be it.”  Suddenly her head jerked up from where she was staring at the bar.  “Bishop fired, but without a bullet in the gun.”  Then her nose wrinkled.  “Can you do that?”

“Most assuredly,” Zorro replied.  “But then there would only have been a click from the gun, not the roar that several witnesses insist they heard.”

“And there was gunsmoke.”

“Which means there was gunpowder, so there was probably also a bullet in the gun,” Zorro concluded as he looked again at the bar.  “But then, where is the bullet?  And why didn’t it hit the Señorita?”  He considered another scenario, “You threw the bottle into the air, and Bishop shot it like an act in a trick show.”

Victoria rolled her eyes.  “I’m not even going to bother answering that.”

Zorro laughed.

Victoria grew sheepishly apologetic.  “You did say to give any suggestion.  All right, how’s this: Tansy didn’t take off her gloves so she could avoid getting some infectious disease now besetting the tavern.”

Zorro laughed again.  “Should I be glad I’m wearing gloves, too?”

“You’re right; the day the tavern has a--”

“Though there is something about Señorita Caldone’s riding gloves that keeps tickling my mind, more even than Bishop’s bullet.  Why?  Unless… the two are somehow linked?”

Victoria’s eyebrows rose.  “But how can a bullet be linked to wearing gloves?”

“Maybe… the Señorita knew ahead of time not to remove her gloves in order to protect her hands from the flying glass when the wine bottle exploded.”

Victoria’s forehead wrinkled.  “But there’s still no bullet hole in the bar.  If the bullet didn’t hit the bottle or the bar, then it should have hit Tansy, but it didn’t.  It’s like Bishop never intended to hit either me or the bottle or Tansy, so she was never in any real danger of getting hurt like I did.”  She indicated her injured hands.

Zorro rocked on his heels as he mulled that over.  “It definitely seems that Señorita Caldone knew about the exploding wine bottle ahead of time.”

Victoria glanced sharply at Zorro.  “But that must mean…”

“She’s in league with Bishop.”

Victoria gaped open mouthed.  “How can she be?  It’s no secret that he’s the one who shot me before… and though she hadn’t moved to Los Angeles yet when it happened, I’ve told her that story a hundred times.”  He mouth fell open again in astonishment.  “How can she be my friend and in league with the man who shot me at the same time?”

Knowing that Victoria’s emotional upheaval was about to commandeer their deduction, Zorro quickly searched his mind for a distraction.  “If Bishop’s bullet didn’t hit the wine bottle, then what did?”  He walked to the fireplace in the far corner at the rear of the tavern, then turned back to regard the bar.  “Was the bottle hit by an object that someone threw?”

Successfully distracted from her thoughts of her friend and Bishop, Victoria questioned, “Can you throw something hard enough and so far that it will break a bottle?  And wouldn’t the crowd have gotten in the way if something was thrown from way back there?”

“You would think so.  Unless… several other people made certain the crowd that day stayed back, thus clearing a sort of aisle for… what?  An object thrown by hand?”  Zorro was now muttering softly to himself.  “But it’s doubtful someone can throw something by hand hard enough to break a bottle.  Was it something tossed by a boa?”

“What’s a boa?” Victoria asked, but he was going on.

“A bow caster?  No, too obvious.  Was it because of a crossbow bolt?  No, a crossbow is too large, and again too obvious.”

“I would sense a crossbow from a mile away.”

Zorro grinned in unrestrained pride.  “Yes, you do have a strange ability to pinpoint hidden weapons.  I’ve often wished I could take you along when I ride just because of that.”

“Really?”  Victoria basked in the unexpected praise for a moment.  Zorro was still smiling at her when she blurted, “The weapon could have been a slingshot!  Felipe once smuggled one in here inside his shirt, just to see if he could fool me.”

“Did he?”  This story had not been shared with either Diego or Zorro.   He wondered how he hadn’t heard it before.  “A slingshot is certainly small enough to hide.”

“As Felipe proved.”

Zorro pensively continued, “If used correctly, a slingshot can easily catapult a small object long distances, certainly between here and the bar, and with enough force to break a bottle.  So, we’ll go with that idea for now.”  Zorro again regarded the table near the fireplace, then the bar, then the table, then the bar again.  “But that would mean that Bishop was in league with… how many people?”

“There’s Tansy… maybe.”  Victoria sounded quite put out when she said it.

“And the slingshotter makes two.  He or she would have needed at least two more people to hold back the crowd, maybe four.  That makes a gang of six criminals, all working together for… what purpose?  So Bishop could shoot at you but not actually shoot you?”

“He told Diego he’d singled me out because he wanted to gain your attention,” Victoria reminded him.

The mask once again did nothing to conceal Zorro’s wrinkled brow.  “For what reason?”

Victoria shrugged.  “According to Bishop, so he could kill you… as if he could ever kill Zorro.”

Zorro grinned again.  “I appreciate the vote of confidence.”  Then his brow wrinkled once more.  “But that makes no sense.   I beat Bishop soundly on our last encounter.  I didn’t even have to use my sword to do it.  What’s the point of Bishop wanting a rematch?   So I can beat him up again?”  Then he stared apologetically at Victoria.  “Forgive me for the violence, Preciosa, but I was, shall we say, very perturbed at the time.”

Victoria once again barked a laugh of sarcastic amusement.  “You should have killed him.  Then we wouldn’t be having this problem now.”

Zorro remembered her previous opinions towards Bishop when she spoke to Diego at the jail, and wasn’t as surprised by her violent leanings this time.  But it did illustrate a marked antipathy from Victoria towards Bishop.  Which made some sense; he did shoot her.

Zorro stared at Victoria, deep in thought.  “But even if I don’t automatically kill him this time around, how does that mean Bishop will kill me?  Is he planning to use his partners to kill me?”

“Maybe he was banking on the fact that you wouldn’t expect him to have partners in the first place.  He is more likely to act alone.”

“True.  But Bishop is still courting a sound thrashing again, even if the plan always was to involve some fellow criminals.  I definitely have a score to settle with him now.”  His voice grew hard and unforgiving as he spoke.  “I don’t take kindly to anyone using you for target practice.”  A moment later, Zorro again shook his head to remind himself of the problem at hand.  “I just can’t fathom a logical reason for Bishop to return to Los Angeles for something as simple as a matter of revenge, especially when success of that revenge isn’t certain.  I’m still missing a piece of the puzzle.”

Victoria suddenly grinned and relaxed against the bar.  “I love watching you work.  You’ll figure this out just like you always do.”

Zorro’s grin matched her own.  “Your confidence in me is truly overwhelming, Señorita.”  Then his grin soured a touch.  “But the stakes in this puzzle are rather high.  So…”  He again faced the bar.  “What am I missing?”  He thought for a moment.  “Let’s go back to the slingshot idea.  If such a weapon was used, and it had slung something hard enough to break the wine bottle, that something would have landed somewhere near where you were standing that afternoon.”  Zorro walked back to the bar and looked at the tile floor for something that had been turned into a small missile, but saw nothing hard enough to break anything.  “It would have to be a rock, or a piece of crockery, or even a coin.  Maybe it hit the bottle, ricocheted into the bar, then bounced back to slide under the tables?”

Zorro found it immediately, lying innocently under a nearby table.  It was a small rock, rolled smooth and round by some kind of water source, easy to hang onto with only his thumb and index finger, and more importantly, would fit snugly into a slingshot.  “If this rock was slung at you hard enough to break a bottle, it would have had to hit the bar… there.”

Victoria turned to where Zorro pointed.  A slight indentation surrounded by several slivers of loose wood met her probing gaze.  “I wouldn’t have seen it at all if I hadn’t been looking for it.”

Zorro’s smile showed satisfaction now.  “That solves the points of how the wine bottle broke, and possibly why Señorita Caldone wore gloves on such a hot day.  It still doesn’t explain where Bishop’s bullet is.”

Zorro straightened from examining the indentation in the bar just as Victoria threw up her hands to show her frustration.  “I’ve looked!  I can’t find it anywhere!”

Forcing down his own desire to give in to mounting frustration, Zorro slowly drew a deep breath in through his nose and let it hiss out through his mouth.  “I’ve always found that when I can’t solve something, it’s a good idea to take a step back to consider things again.”  With that advice in mind, he physically stepped to the back of the tavern in order to take in the entire area near the bar.  He slowly perused the floor by the bar’s green counter, the bar itself, the counter top that Victoria kept so well polished, the glasses resting on the top of the bar, the shelves rising behind the bar, the dishes decorating those shelves--  “That’s odd.”

“What is?”

“There’s a broken dish right up there near the top of the shelves behind the bar.”  Zorro pointed.

“There is?”  Victoria turned to look.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a broken dish up there before.”

“That’s because I always remove one the minute it breaks,” Victoria answered.  “Broken dishes look untidy, and once when my mother was still alive, a piece of a broken dish fell on one of our helpers and hit her on the head.  She was never quite the same after that.  A few years ago, Diego made me a special ladder that hooks onto the shelves so I can safely climb that high to clean and remove anything that’s broken.”

“So why didn’t you do so this time?”

“I didn’t know there was a broken dish till just now.”

“Is that because it broke before Bishop shot his gun and you didn’t know it was broken?  Or was it broken by his bullet, perhaps?”

Victoria glanced back at him, hardly breathing.  “Maybe.”  She pointed towards an adjoining room.  “The ladder’s in that storeroom there.  I’d get it for you, but…”  Her head bent towards her bandaged hands.

“Be right back.”  A moment later, Zorro returned with ladder in tow.  He carefully hooked it to the tavern’s decorative shelves, and climbed until he had no trouble reaching the broken plate.  He cautiously nudged the pieces of the plate aside… to find himself staring right at a bullet hole with the bullet still in it.  “Aha.”  He pulled out the knife he always carried in his boot, and was about to dig the bullet out of the wood when he stopped himself.  “On second thought, I’ll let Sergeant Mendoza do the honors.  If either you or I show up with a bullet in hand, the Alcalde will claim that we’re using just any old bullet in order to exonerate Don Diego.”

“That’s true, he would.”

Zorro climbed back down to stand beside Victoria.  “I’ll wake the Sergeant.”  He turned to go.

“Zorro,” Victoria suddenly said to the floor between them.

He turned back to face her again.  “Is there something else?”

“I…”  Victoria bit her lip in indecision, then blurted, “I might never see you again, and I want you to know that I--”

Zorro gently wrapped a gloved hand around her bandaged fingers and rubbed her cheek.  “Please don’t, Preciosa.”

But Victoria would not be waylaid.  “I’ll always remember you, Zorro.”

Zorro drew a shuddering breath, fighting to restrain his emotions once again.  “I will do everything I can to absolve Don Diego.”

“I know you will.  I just want you to…”  Suddenly she threw her arms around him.  “Stay safe!  I don’t know what we would have done all these years without you… what I would have done.”

“Oh, Victoria.  Please don’t--”

“I love you, Zorro, even if I never say it again.”  She raised eyes filled with unshed tears to his masked face.  “You saved me in more ways than one.”  She abruptly released him and ran to the front door, where she used the entire bandage wrapping her right hand to energetically shove the bolt aside.  “I’ll wake Sergeant Mendoza.  You shouldn’t be seen as having anything to do with this.”  She paused right as she reached the door handle to whisper, “Adios.”  She yanked open the door with her less injured left hand, and was gone.