Diego and Victoria set Felipe's clandestine plan into motion the very next day with an innocent sounding conversation in the tavern at the end of the lunch rush.
“Victoria!” Diego greeted in his higher, affected tones, and sauntered to where she stood behind the bar, meticulously arranging pitchers, bottles, and glasses on the green countertop.
“Diego!” She smiled at him in similar greeting, though she was careful not to smile too warmly. The point of this forced dialogue was to attract the attention of the several customers currently drinking at the bar, not focus too much of that attention on Diego. “Can I get something more for you?” She sent a pointed look towards the table where he had been eating lunch with his father and Felipe.
“Everything was splendid, as always,” Diego assured, letting his bland gesture of welcome grow more affectionate for a moment before shutting it down once again. “I merely wanted to tell you that I found Doña Corazon's column this morning where you had slid it under the door of The Guardian office.”
“Oh, good. I hope it isn't too late for the next edition of the paper.”
“It's not.” Diego drank the last swallow of water in the glass he'd carried to the bar with him. “I'd suggest that you tell her she was right on time if you knew who she was. You still don't know this anonymous journalist?”
“I found her column left behind the bar, just like always,” Victoria told him, playing along with his minor subterfuge. “I've wondered for years who the mysterious Doña Corazon could be.”
“Yes, she guards her identity as closely as Zorro.”
Victoria's eyes momentarily suffused with humor. Still playing along, she casually commented, “And speaking of Zorro, I saw him just recently.”
Right on cue, Diego's grin slid convincingly off his face. “Trouble?”
“No.” Victoria gave a nonchalant shrug. “He'd been out catching bandits, like always, but wanted to see me.”
“I'm not so sure that associating on your own with a known criminal is to your benefit, Victoria.”
Her exasperated expression said everything that she didn't. “You worry too much, Diego. I'm fine. In fact, we talked about you last night.”
“Me?” Diego was surprised, but interested.
Victoria nodded. “He was comparing the bandits he'd just brought in to the few truly good swordsmen he's encountered over the years. He thinks the best swordsman was that English fellow who came to the pueblo...”
“Do you mean Sir Miles Thackery?” Victoria's nod prompted Diego to continue, “But what has he to do with me?”
Victoria leaned comfortably against the bar. “Zorro said that you did surprisingly well against him. Almost as good as you did against the Emissary, I hear.”
Diego endeavored to keep his tone light even as his thoughts darkened. “Fighting for one's life tends to make a difference.”
Victoria's eyes grew dreamy, as if she had missed the way Diego's mouth tightened at the mention of his brother. “He wants to duel with that Englishman again.”
Diego grew alarmed. “Good heavens, why?”
Another shrug accompanied her artless smile. “I guess Zorro enjoys a good fight.”
“You'd think the man would get enough of fighting just from the Alcalde.”
Victoria giggled at Diego's sarcastic comment. “You would think. Perhaps it's just a good sword fight that he enjoys so well.”
“Perhaps,” Diego conceded as he leaned against the bar. His next comment appeared to take Victoria completely by surprise. “Whether he loves a good sword fight or not is beside the point - he just better be careful or someone will beat him someday.”
“No one can beat Zorro!” Victoria staunchly defended in a loud voice full of anger.
Diego laughed and held up a warding hand. “Easy, Victoria! I don't mean to malign your hero! I'm just saying that the odds are against him.”
Her anger visibly receding, Victoria's brow puckered. “Odds?”
“Yes,” Diego ingenuously replied, his own enthusiasm for such esoteric things as 'odds' along with a captive audience too much to resist. “It's simply chance that someone hasn't beaten him already.”
Victoria's exasperation was back, tenfold. “Didn't I just tell you? No one..!”
The hand was up again. “Yes, I know - Zorro's indestructible. All I came up here for was some more water, not an argument about the merits of our local masked legend.” He filled his glass to the brim from one of the pitchers on the counter. “But cheer up - I'm sure Sir Miles will never come back to Los Angeles again.”
Victoria's expression turned sardonic. “No, it's not likely. I heard long ago that he was far from here, though still in California.”
“Yes, it's too bad,” Diego lamented with a shake of his head. “Zorro against Thackery? That's one fight I'd pay to see.”
“And one fight that will never take place,” Victoria firmly predicted. “Zorro only fights when he has to. He's not some sideshow exhibition.”
Diego's irrepressible grin split his features again. “Yes, but what an exhibition!”
“Oh, you!” Victoria's towel snapped at his departing figure.
Diego pondered that conversation as he sauntered back towards his family's table. According to the interest the others at the bar had paid to that conversation, the encounter had gone exactly as he and Victoria had intended.
Z Z Z
And right on cue, only two months, three weeks, and two days later, Sir Miles Thackery dismounted at the tavern's hitching rail, tied his horse, and slowly walked into the tavern, his gaze taking in his surroundings like a hawk.
A moment later, he explained his hawkish gaze away. “Well, nothing's changed around here, I see.” His insolent gaze finally landed on Victoria as his nose lifted and wrinkled just as if he'd smelled something thoroughly disagreeable. “Same provincial help, same rustic environment, same boring military.” His gaze had now landed on the form of Diego standing right in front of Victoria at the bar. “I wasn't finished, I see - same boring caballeros, too.”
Why was it that we thought this would be a good idea? Diego thought as he was forcefully reminded why he didn't like the Englishman. His arrogance rivaled that of Luis Ramone's. But at least Ramone had had a sense of humor to go along with his arrogance. Thackery had clearly left his sense of humor in England.
Diego instantly straightened in response to the slight that had been given to the tavern, to Victoria, and her clientele. It didn't occur to him that he was being baited, but only saw the need to correct this man's interpretations of what could truly pass as 'provincial' in the territories.
But that lady who was the focus of the insult didn't rise to his insult like Diego had, though her hand did flit out to grip Diego's blue jacketed arm in a restraining hold as if she had an intrinsic understanding of what he was thinking at that moment. “Can I do something for you, Señor?” Her voice sounded as if she'd tired of him already.
Thackery walked slowly up to the bar. “I'd ask for your best room, but I know what awaits in this establishment." His nose wrinkled even more when he said the last word, indicating that the best room at Tavern Victoria was far from the caliber that he was used to. “However, I suppose that it will have to do.”
Victoria felt Diego stiffen anew under her hand, but she still refused to respond to Thackery's purposely insolent tone. She therefore smiled all the more sweetly. “I'm afraid that my best room has already been rented for the week. You'll have to do with my second best room.”
Her sweet smile definitely had acid overtones now. Anyone who knew Victoria well had long since realized that the sweeter she became, the more afraid the focus of that sweetness should grow.
Victoria reached for the key hanging behind the bar just as Thackery's gaze landed squarely on Diego.
“Ah, Señor de la Vega, is it?” he asked as if just now realizing who he was. His contemptuous gaze raked up and down Diego, and the way Thackery then wrinkled his nose and sniffed, he'd found Diego wanting. “As I recall, we have unfinished business that I would dearly love to finish right now.”
A sudden tingle crawled up Diego's spine at those words. He distinctly recalled why Thackery might want to deal with him personally, but a private altercation with the Englishman wasn't part of his plans. Playing dumb, Diego's brows gave an interrogative lift. “Unfinished business?”
Thackery's hand gravitated to the hilt of the sword strapped to his side. “Yes. The last time we met, I believe you were in the process of defending this woman's honor.” The way he said 'woman' indicated that a simple tavern wench couldn't possibly have any honor to defend, but it wasn't his business to give a damn. “I, on the other hand, was in the process of ending your life.”
Still playing dumb, Diego acted like he was trying hard to recall the event Sir Miles referred to. “Noooooo, I don't remember anything like...”
Out of patience already, Thackery drew his sword and pointed it straight at Diego. “Perhaps this will remind you.”
This wasn't part of the plan, either. Hands up in a show of surrender, Diego slowly backed away, his eyes wide. “Truly, Señor, I recall nothing of what you refer to.”
Thackery struck Diego on the thigh with the flat of his blade in a stinging blow meant to goad rather than wound. “Then let me refresh your memory: as I recall, you had just sprained your ankle while defending her. You've been living on borrowed time ever since.” His nose wrinkled again. “That oaf Zorro forced me to leave town before I could collect on my loan.” His smile was more smarmy than genuine. “That time is now over.” And he whacked his blade against Diego's other thigh.
Diego's hand automatically went to his thigh to rub the bruised area in a soothing motion. Fully goaded now in spite of the fact that he knew better than to give into his emotions, he opened his mouth to reply.
But Victoria beat him to it. “As I recall, that 'oaf' let you leave the pueblo in one piece.” Her eyes glittered maliciously. “Perhaps you're still too humiliated to fight him again.”
“He'll be the one humiliated when I win.”
It was the extreme amount of conceit in the tone that finally wore down Victoria's self control. But just as she was about to let loose a scathing diatribe about the merits of Zorro, Alcalde de Soto intervened.
“And who might you be, Señor?” he icily inquired from behind.
Thackery turned, momentarily distracted from his current prey. “I am Sir Miles Thackery, here on Zorro's personal invitation to fight him. And who might you be?” His barely controlled vanity insulted without effort.
de Soto wasn't easily insulted, however. “I am Don Ignacio de Soto, Alcalde of Los Angeles. And Zorro is nothing but a bandit not worth fighting.” He gestured at Diego. “If you are brazen enough to provoke my citizens into useless acts of swordplay, then you are clearly a stranger to these parts - you're duty bound to pay the traveler's tax of five pesos.” He waved his hand towards his office in an expansive gesture. “If you will accompany me to my office, my sergeant will...
Thackery's sword swiveled from Diego to poke de Soto in the chest. “You are not the Alcalde.”
Anger instantly suffused de Soto's face at that arrogant announcement. “I hate to inform you otherwise, but you are mistaken.”
Thackery insolently looked down his long nose at de Soto. “I am never mistaken. You cannot be the Alcalde, as I know the Alcalde, and you look nothing like him.”
de Soto's eyes never left Thackery's face. “Alcalde Ramone died in the line of duty two years ago. I have been Alcalde ever since.”
Thackery's smarmy smile curled his lips. “Well. Then let me show you how it's going to be.” He was in the process of raising the sword to an en garde position when de Soto's hand snaked out to wrap effortlessly around his wrist, stopping him.
“That will be quite enough, Señor.” His voice hard, his expression grim, he continued, “Perhaps you are unaware who I am, but I certainly know who you are.”
“Then you know you have only moments to live.”
de Soto gave a dangerous growl and pulled out his pistol to persuade Thackery of his sincerity. “No, you have moments to pay my tax, or go to jail. Which is it to be?”
A brief silence filled the tavern as all eyes riveted to the drama playing out near the bar. Diego heard nothing but his heart beating a painful rhythm in his ears as Thackery sized up de Soto, then sized up his pistol, clearly finding them both more worthy opponents than the caballero he'd just challenged.
Again de Soto threw his arm out in a gesture towards his office. “After you.”
Subdued for the moment, Thackery gave in. Resheathing his blade, he contemptuously said to Diego, “Tomorrow morning Señor. 10:00. Hide, and I will find you. Run, and I will find you. After I torture you, I will kill you. Fight like a man, and I will only kill you.” Then his nose as high in the air as ever, he preceded the Alcalde from the tavern.
de Soto pushed his pistol through his belt and followed, but only after sending a furious glance in Diego's direction, promising swift retribution for such an obviously ill-advised invitation.
Successfully chastised, Diego watched them go.
Go on to part 13.
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