Darkness fell swiftly in Caracas.  The heat and humidity of the day still lingered though in the night air.  A tall man picked his way through the filth that littered the narrow alleyways.

     The man was rather well dressed to be in this part of the city.  But he had such a presence about him, as well a magnificent sword, that the beggars and pickpockets left him alone.

     He paused for a moment in front of a noisy tavern, glancing up at its barely legible sign.  It was nearly as dark inside the dingy, foul smelling building as it was outside.  Narrowing his eyes, the man sought out his reason for being at such a disreputable place.  He made his way over to a table, having to stop only once to turn down one of the working girls' offer to buy her a drink.  He merely glared at her and she shrank away.

     Patiently he waited for the lone occupant of the table to acknowledge his arrival.  This man was clothed in what had once been a splendid military uniform.  It was now a shadow of its former self; stained, torn and patched.  His hair hung in greasy locks across his forehead.  A partially drained bottle of whiskey sat on the table in front of him.  He filled his glass with more alcohol and brought it to his lips, pausing when he finally noticed the tall man standing there.

     "Sit down, sit down," he invited, pointing to an empty chair.  He got right to their business.  "Will you do it?"

     The tall man sat cautiously, after eyeing the not so clean chair.  "Do you have the money?"

     "Si," said the nearly drunk man.  He splashed another shot of the amber liquid into his glass, drinking it in one swallow.  "Si, one thousand pesos," he added in a low whisper.  He discreetly pulled a bulging leather pouch from inside his grimy jacket and slid it quickly to his companion, who immediately hid it under his dark cape.  "It is all there.  And don't forget, the reward is yours as well."

     "How did you raise so much so soon?"  The tall man's disgust of the other man was evident in his voice.  "Yesterday you said you were broke."

     "Let's just say I am highly motivated," the drunkard sneered sarcastically then laughed tersely.

     The other man recalled hearing a bank had been robbed earlier that day.  Several people had been stabbed to death including the bank's president.  Looking at his companion, he noted several large reddish brown stains on the uniform.  He had no doubt that there was a connection.

     "Why don't you do this yourself?" he inquired.  "Keep the money for yourself."

     "I cannot," was the reply.  "I am as good as dead if I go back there."  He leaned back and smiled wickedly, having drained another glass of the cheap whiskey.  "No, this is perfect," he explained.  "You will be a stranger, an unknown.  When do you depart for California?"  He glanced up expectantly at the tall man.

     "Tomorrow."  Now that he had the money, he saw no reason to delay.  He was also eager to get out of this hell hole he had called home for much too long.

     The other man began to chortle with glee.  He finally poured his guest a shot of the whiskey as well as another for himself.  He raised his glass in the air, sloshing some of the amber liquid on the table.

     "To the death of Zorro," he toasted.  The two men clinked their glasses together.
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     It was early evening in the pueblo de Los Angeles.  That meant it was suppertime and as usual, the tavern was filled with customers.  Many had already finished their meals, but were still there, lingering over their drinks and conversations.  Some, like the de la Vegas, were still eating, having arrived later than the others.

    The three men, along with Sergeant Mendoza, had been helping Ana Maria and her mother, Leonora Ortega, move into the small building that would be their new home.  First they had assisted the old tailor, Señor Reynoso, in removing his possessions.  He was going to live with his daughter and her family in San Gabriel.  They then carried the Ortega women's belongings over from the tavern.

     Ana Maria and Leonora had declined Don Alejandro's generous offer of supper at the tavern, wanting instead to celebrate their first night in their new home alone.  They had both worked hard, saving their earnings and now their dream had come true.  Understanding their reasons, the elder de la Vega men had to drag a very reluctant Felipe away with them.

     Sergeant Mendoza, however, did take up the offer of a free meal and was regaling them with his tall tales of his military career.  They were laughing at one of his jokes when Victoria came over to their table with a pitcher of orange juice.  She deftly refilled their empty glasses.

     "Gracias," Don Alejandro said.  "A busy night, Victoria?"

     "Si, Don Alejandro," she replied.  "It has been like this every night this week.  I may have to hire more help if it keeps up."

      "Well, I have always said you are the best cook in the territory," declared Diego, looking up from his arroz con pollo, a broad smile on his handsome face.  "Word must be getting around."

     Victoria blushed at his compliment.  "Gracias, Diego."  She was turning to leave when the tavern door burst open, letting in a blast of cool air.  A tall man, dressed head to toe in black, swept into the room.  He removed his cape as he gave the tavern a quick scan.  The man, who carried a pair of black leather saddlebags, strode over to Victoria when he noticed she was holding the pitcher of juice.

     "Wench, where is the innkeeper?" he demanded in a strident tone.

     Victoria nearly dropped the ceramic vessel as she got a good look at the man now standing before her.  She hesitated, a stunned expression on her lovely face.  Diego was puzzled by her odd behavior.  Normally she would have responded angrily to being addressed as a ‘wench'.  Instead she seemed frightened by the man.

     "I am the innkeeper, Señor," she finally replied, her voice shaky.  "May I help you?"

     The tall man eyed her up and down appreciatively.  "A room, por favor."

     Victoria walked slowly over behind the bar.  After setting down the empty pitcher, she removed a key from the rack.  "It is five pesos," she said, raising the price by two pesos. "Just for tonight?" she added hopefully as she handed him the key.

     "No," the man answered tersely.  "My business here will take a little longer to complete.  Is that a problem?"

     "Oh no," Victoria answered.  "It is the first room at the top of the stairs, on your right."  She pointed in its direction.  "Enjoy your stay in Los Angeles, Señor," she tacked on automatically.

     "Not likely," the man snorted.  He took the key and lifted Victoria's chin with it.  "Although it is not without its charms."  She jumped back as though she had been burned.  Diego watched, seething with rage, as the man went up the staircase and into his room.

     Victoria immediately walked back over to their table.  "Are you all right?" Diego inquired, then noted the strange look on her face.  "What's wrong?"

     "I am not sure," she replied, glancing upstairs.  "That man. . ."  She shuddered.

      "What about him?" asked Don Alejandro.

     "I don't know," she began, "there is something about him.  And when he looked into my eyes. . ."  She shivered again.  "I have a bad feeling about him."

     "He's just a traveler, Victoria," scoffed the old don.  He resumed eating his meal.

     "Don't be so quick to judge, Father," chided Diego.  "Remember what they say about a woman's intuition."  He smiled encouragingly up at Victoria, having suppressed his anger.  She smiled back weakly.

     "Well, if you ask me," interjected the sergeant between bites, "I think he looks like Zorro."

     "He does, doesn't he," agreed Don Alejandro, nodding.  "Tall, all dressed in black. . ."

     "That is what I thought at first," stated Victoria.  "Until I saw his eyes.  That man is definitely not Zorro."  She darted another glance upward. "I wonder what ‘business' brings him here."

     "I am sure if it is any of ours, we will find out soon enough," advised the elder de la Vega sagely.  Victoria smiled uncertainly then left to wait on customers at a nearby table.

     Diego stared at her then looked up at the stranger's door.  Victoria was usually a good judge of character.  Zorro might just have to keep an eye on this newcomer, especially where the lovely tavern owner was concerned.  He turned his attention back to his delicious meal as the others had already done.
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     Several days had passed and still no one knew any more about mysterious stranger than they did that first night.  He kept to himself, speaking to no one save the serving girls at the tavern.  Victoria kept reacting nervously around the man.  She would send Pilar or Alicia over to his table when he needed service.  If she was the only one there, she went very reluctantly.  The man would leer suggestively at her and made lewd comments but so far had not attempted to touch her.

     Diego hung around the tavern a little more than usual.  He sensed that Victoria appreciated his presence there.  She even got him to do a few errands for her which he did gladly.

     Soon though the man's novelty wore off as the pueblo began its preparations for Lent.  The pueblo held a small Carnaval the day before Ash Wednesday, with food, music and dancing.  It was a chance to feast and make merry before the forty long days of penance before Easter.  The festival was held every year and this year would certainly be no exception.

     Sergeant Mendoza sat on the front porch of the Alcalde's office.  He was supposed to be on guard duty that afternoon.  In reality, he was half asleep, his feet propped upon the porch railing and his chair tipped back precariously.  Every so often, the portly soldier's head would droop and he emitted an loud snort, causing his head to snap back up.  He was about to fall deeply asleep when. . .

     "MENDOZA!"  The Alcalde's angry shout shook his office walls, shattering the sergeant's peaceful nap.

     Mendoza and his chair fell backwards onto the wooden planks with a thud.  He clumsily scrambled to his feet and bustled into the Alcalde's office.

     "Si, mi Alcalde," the now wide awake Mendoza saluted with his right hand as he rubbed his bruised bottom with his left.  De Soto rolled his eyes and sighed with exasperation at his inept subordinate.  He sat at his desk, toying with a letter opener.

     "Sergeant," he began, "I am not a very popular man in this pueblo, am I?"

     "Oh no, Alcalde," replied Mendoza.  "I would not say that.  I have not heard anything against you for. .. oh, I would say, several weeks now."

     "Yes, well."  De Soto digested this bit of information.  "Still, all in all, they would hardly be sad to see me go."  He rose from his chair and stepped over to the small window that overlooked the plaza.  Staring unseeingly he watched as the citizens of Los Angeles went about their daily routines.  One person caught his eye, however.

     "Sergeant, who is the stranger staying at the tavern?" he asked suddenly, turning to face Mendoza.

     "No one knows, mi Alcalde," responded the soldier bewilderedly.

     "It would not surprise me if that man is a spy," stated de Soto after a little thought, "sent here by the governor to check up on me.  I never should have gone to Monterey to request more men."  The more he pondered it, the more certain, not to mention paranoid, he became.

     "Yes, sent to spy on us, Mendoza," he continued, "wanting to know why we have not captured Zorro.  That blasted outlaw, that nasty smudge on my otherwise spotless career."  He pointed at the confused sergeant. "Mendoza, I want you to find out everything you can about that spy, his name, who he has spoken to, everything you can."

     "I will try, sir," the sergeant replied.  "But he is not a very friendly fellow.  I don't know if. . ."

     "Spare me your excuses, Sergeant," de Soto cut him off.  He sat back down in his chair, picking up the letter opener again.  "I need a way to capture Zorro in front of this informant.  Something that will make me. . .I mean the garrison look good."

     "You have tried everything, Alcalde," Mendoza said resignedly as his commandante search feverishly through his warped mind for a brilliant idea.  The stout sergeant nearly jumped out of his boots when de Soto slammed his hand onto the desk top.

     "The Carnaval," he declared excitedly.  He grabbed a blank piece of paper, dipped a quill in a jar of ink and began scratching out his demented plot.  He paused for a moment, glancing up at Mendoza, who still stood in front of his desk.  He shook his pen at the befuddled soldier.

     "Not a word to anyone, Mendoza.  Someone has been leaking my plans to the people, that is how Zorro always knows how to foil them."  He cast a threatening glance at the gregarious sergeant.  "Not a word, Mendoza."

     "Si, mi Alcalde," gulped the intimidated soldier.  He put his index finger to his mouth.  "My lips are sealed."  He saluted with his other hand and left the office.  De Soto watched him leave, then chuckling fiendishly as he continued setting his scheme to paper.
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      It was not until the next morning that copies of the Alcalde's finished proclamation were posted all around the pueblo.  The lancers had not even tapped the nail into the last paper when groups of irate townspeople began gathering in front of each one.

     Victoria emerged from her tavern to see what was causing all the commotion.  She quickly read the notice hanging on her own front porch.  Boiling over with anger, she tore off the offending document off the pole and marched across the plaza to where de Soto stood in front of the cuartel, resplendent in his full dress uniform.  His men were nervously standing behind him.

     The enraged innkeeper stuck the tattered paper in his face.  "Just what is the meaning of this, Alcalde?" she demanded.  "A Carnaval tax of two pesos from everyone who attends?  A five peso tax on all vendors?"  She shook the notice for emphasis.  "You cannot tax Carnaval.  It's an outrage!"

     "I can and I will, Señorita."  DeSoto tried to swat the document away that she was waving under his nose.  "The garrison provides a service for these affairs, what with all the special patrols, helping with cleanup, and everything else.  We need to be compensated for our valuable time."

     Victoria glared angrily at him, then cast an irate glance Sergeant Mendoza's way.  The nervous soldier tried to smile at her, but failed under her withering stare.

     "This is unfair, Alcalde," she stated, turning to him once again.  "What about people who cannot pay your tax.  They should be. . ."

     "If they cannot pay, they cannot attend," de Soto interrupted calmly.  "And Señorita, if you persist with your protests, you will find yourself cooling off in my jail."  He smiled insincerely.  "Do I make myself clear?"

     "Zorro will hear of this," declared Victoria, tearing the edict in half.  She threw it at the Alcalde's feet then stomped back over to the tavern.  Flicking a gloved finger on both sides of his mustache, de Soto grinned satisfactorily.

     "I hope so, Señorita," he said quietly.  "I certainly hope so."  He chuckled a bit wickedly.  "Come on, Mendoza."  They went back inside the garrison.

     The tall stranger had witnessed the confrontation from one of the tables on the tavern porch. A slight smile touched his lips but vanished almost as soon as it appeared.

     "Gracias, Alcalde," he murmured.
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