Disclaimer: ZPI owns everything to do with Zorro and the NWZ cast. I’m just borrowing for the day.
By Linda Bindner
A/N: I realize Patrice Martinez died months ago, but I found out about her passing just the day before I wrote this story. A huge chunk of my past disappeared with her like a poof of smoke. Victoria Escalante was inarguably half of the reason for Zorro’s fight. She anchored him to reality. Sadly, Tavern Victoria will never be the same again.
Not beta read.
“Diego, I’ve been thinking.” Victoria paused in her chore of vigorously wiping the drink glasses to stare in consternation over the bar at the one customer in her tavern.
Diego casually fingered his glass of orange juice and leaned in feigned relaxation across from her. In contrast to his laid-back appearance, warning bells clanged for attention in his mind. He did his best to ignore them; it was often a sign of impending doom when Victoria got to thinking. Usually it meant she once again had theories concerning Zorro’s identity. But it was dangerous for her to spend too much time lost in thoughts concerning the masked hero of the pueblo.
Diego slowly set aside his half finished drink in order to distract the lovely tavern owner. “Thinking often leads to danger, especially where you’re concerned. I doubt Zorro would be pleased if anything were to happen to you.”
“But that’s my point.” Victoria laid her rag on the bar to lean absently against the green counter. “Zorro is who I’ve been thinking about lately.”
“Just lately?” he gently teased. “I assume you spend the bulk of your free time thinking about Zorro.”
Victoria’s smile sent warmth coursing through his heart. “I spend an amount of time thinking about a certain caballero, too.”
“You mean Don Hector?” Diego nonchalantly guessed. “I wasn’t aware that he meant so much to you.”
Her smile became more tolerant than teasing. “It’s his promise to supply the tavern with discounted beef that means so much to me.”
Diego sighed. “It still pains me that Father and I were out of town when you made that deal with Don Hector. It would have pleased Father so much if he was able to be the tavern’s chief beef supplier for another year.”
“Now, Diego,” Victoria admonished. “You de la Vegas have been my main supplier for a long time. Someone else deserves the chance to feed Los Angeles.” She leaned conspiratorially close to whisper, “But I have had some complaints that my beef isn’t as good as it used to be.”
Diego nodded knowingly. “Don Hector doesn’t have the water supply we do. Dry cattle makes dry beef.”
“You sound like you’re quoting your father.”
“I won’t tell him if you don’t.”
They laughed companionably, the sound echoing around the empty tavern.
“What did you want to tell me?” Diego eventually asked as he took another drink. Her blank look prompted him to be more specific. “About Zorro?”
Reminded, Victoria gave a nod. “I wasn’t thinking about Zorro… exactly.”
“Well…” Victoria gave a pensive pause. “What if the lancers shot Toronado instead of Zorro?”
“What?” He jumped a foot from the bar. His shock couldn’t have been more complete than if she’d confessed her undying love for the Alcalde for all eternity.
Victoria put a hand on his arm to stop any further withdrawal. “Hear me out. I’ve just been thinking -”
“Well, stop!” Alarm punctuated Diego’s tone.
Victoria gave a resigned sigh. “I knew this might upset you.”
“Then why did you mention it in the first place?” he demanded. Her words brought a hundred horrifying scenarios to mind. Never had he thought to worry about Toronado in this fashion.
“Listen,” Victoria said in determination. “We both know what Toronado means to Zorro. He means as much to me.”
“I’m sure that will console Zorro a great deal.”
Victoria scowled. “Don’t be sarcastic.”
“How am I supposed to be?” Diego hotly inquired. “You just killed off Zorro’s best friend!” A small part of his brain realized his horrified reaction was doing more to give away Zorro’s secret identity than any scenario he’d encountered before, but his shock was too great to ignore.
“I didn’t kill him,” Victoria softly contested. “I meant to say what if the lancers shot at Toronado rather than at Zorro.”
Diego’s voice was strident when he claimed, “I still don’t see the difference.”
Her voice low once more, Victoria leaned even closer to him. “The difference is that neither the Alcalde nor the lancers have thought to do this yet.”
“Let’s hope they never do!”
“Sh!” She cast a hurried glance around the empty tavern, then leaned in even closer, as if her closeness would preclude his shouting. “I don’t want anyone to hear.”
“You should have thought of that bef- !”
Her grip on his arm turned as hard as iron, stopping him in mid sentence, meaning pouring out of her dark eyes. “I’m saying that it’s always a possibility. I know Zorro would never be defenseless without Toronado, but he’d definitely lose a major asset. Toronado helps him so much. And it’s not like the Alcalde will announce such a plan if he ever gets it. He’ll implement it, and then what? Toronado might die. Zorro needs to be prepared for the worst before the worst happens so he can stop it.”
Diego blinked, arrested by the look in her eyes. They held a distinct sense of warning, as if it was absolutely imperative he understand her true meaning. That expression put a halt to his panic, giving way to the logic he was known for. “Oh.”
“I don’t want Mendoza to get wind of this, or the Alcalde, or... But your family is in frequent contact with Zorro. Maybe… you can get word to him?” she whispered out her suggestion. “I didn’t know who to tell when I thought of this last night.”
“Oh,” he repeated again. A hasty throat clear was his half hearted attempt to push aside his initial panicked reaction to stare hard at her, just now realizing a basic truth. “You know, Victoria, Zorro’s incredibly lucky he has you on his side. He’d be helpless without you.”
Victoria seemed surprised to hear such a thing. “Not helpless, but… I never thought of it that way before.”
“You should,” Diego insisted. “Zorro’s one lucky outlaw.”
“Oh, well, de nada.”
“Anyway,” he went on, “I’ll see what I can do about telling him... though I can’t promise anything. Zorro’s visits are extremely unpredictable, as I’m sure you know. You’re as likely to see him as I am.” He gave her arm a friendly squeeze. “But I’ll be sure to mention it during his next visit.”
Relief shot through her eyes, replacing the urgent sense of warning. “Gracias, Diego! I knew I could count on you.” She went back to polishing glasses, but with a softer expression lighting her face. A minute later, she gave a start of surprise. ”Look at the time! I better prepare lunch. The tavern won’t be this empty for long.” Smiling, she invited, “Stay as long as you like. But don’t forget, por favor.”
Suspicious thoughts as to how much she really knew or didn’t know about him clouded Diego’s mind, but her smile ate through them all. He couldn’t suppress his return grin. “Your fears are engraved in my mind like they were my own,” he assured. “I won’t forget.”
Her smile grew. “De nada. Hasta luego.”
“Hasta luego, Victoria.” Diego tossed a coin on the bar to pay for his juice and headed for the door. If he hurried, he still had time to write his opinion article for the next issue of The Guardian. Perhaps he should write it on how much everyone, particularly Zorro, owed Victoria.
A moment later, he stepped off the tavern’s porch into the Los Angeles plaza, but was arrested by a sudden spike of noise. He casually looked around the small town with an eye peeled for trouble.
Instead, the scene before him promised the serenity typical of a lazy summer’s day. Mendoza joked loudly with three of his fellow lancers near the open cuartel gates. Padre Benitez was picking bunches of grapes from the mission’s special grape arbor to give to the poor. Don Alejandro compared the finer points of two bulls with his friend, Don Jose. Felipe and Dr. Hernandez were lost in a spirited discussion on some kind of medical issue, despite Felipe’s lack of speech. And even now he knew that Victoria was busy in the tavern’s kitchen, concocting a lunch fit for the King of Spain himself.
Breathing deeply, Diego filled his lungs with the dry dust of the tiny California town, inwardly smiling at his sense of well-being. This was what he liked best about Los Angeles, its calmness, its tranquility. This way of life was why Zorro fought so hard.
Then Diego corrected himself: Well, for this way of life... and Victoria.