"DELIVER US FROM EVIL"

CHAPTER TWO

     Unaware of what had occurred earlier that day, Diego and Felipe rode into Los Angeles that afternoon.  Diego planned to spend a few hours working on the next issue of ‘The Guardian'.  Felipe, as usual, wished to seek out Ana Maria's company.  These plans, however, were soon changed.

     Groups of angry citizens were still mingling in the plaza, outraged at the Alcalde's latest plot.  The de la Vegas were quickly informed of Victoria's encounter with de Soto.  They made their way to the tavern where more people were complaining.

     Victoria noticed them as soon as they walked through the door.  "Diego, Felipe," she greeted them.  "Have you heard?"

     "Si," Diego answered, leaning up against the bar as Felipe did likewise.

     "Can you believe it?" she asked rhetorically.  "I was planning to sell food and drink to raise money for the orphanage.  They are in desperate need of new clothing and shoes.  And the building itself needs a new roof.  But now no one will be able to come."  One of her other customers had brought in another copy of the edict which Victoria handed to Diego to read.

     Diego swiftly scanned the document.  "Do you mind if I borrow this?  I am going to make it the lead story in the next issue of the newspaper."

     "By all means," agreed Victoria, pouring them both a glass of juice.

     "As a matter of fact," Diego continued on, "I am on my way. . ."  He did not finish as he saw that Victoria was no longer listening to him.  She was instead following the progress of the mysterious stranger as he made his way across the tavern.  He was surprised to see a hint of fear in her lovely brown eyes.

     "Did you ever find out why he is here?" Diego inquired, bringing her attention back to him.

     "No," she replied.  "He just pays me the five pesos for his room and orders a bottle of whiskey .  I don't think he has said more than two words to anyone the entire week he was been here."  She did not tell Diego of the rude comments he had made to her.  It was awful enough just thinking about them.

     "Hmm," Diego mused, then took a sip of his beverage.  "Very curious.  I wouldn't worry too much about the Carnaval, Victoria.  Zorro has a way of changing the Alcalde's mind about such matters."

     Victoria smiled at him, a twinkle in her eyes at the mention of her hero.  "You are probably right, Diego," she agreed.  She left to wait on other customers.  Diego nudged Felipe, who was grinning.  They finished their drinks, then headed out to attend to their original business that had brought them to the pueblo.

     Sometime after the sun had set, Zorro rode the short distance from his hideout to Los Angeles.  It was a very cool night, even for February, he thought as the wind seemed to cut right through him.   He pulled up Toronado just outside the outskirts of the small town.  He had no intention of confronting the Alcalde tonight.  That would be exactly what his old schoolmate would be expecting.

     No, Zorro wished to find out what sort of trap de Soto had prepared for him this time.  For indeed, it was a trap.  He observed several of the garrison's lancers stationed around the plaza.  Some were conversing with townspeople, some were smoking and others appeared to be sleeping.  Most of them were loitering in the vicinity of the cuartel.  Ready to spring into action at a moment's notice, Zorro thought.  He urged Toronado forward.
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     It was late enough in the evening for the usual dinner crowd to have thinned out at the inn.  Victoria was clearing dirty dishes from the tables, carrying them into the kitchen.  She hoped for an early night as she was tired.

     The only overnight guest she had was the mystery man.  Victoria, peering out the curtained kitchen doorway, could see him sitting at his table, drinking the last of a bottle of whiskey.  A chill ran down her spine.  He seemed to be waiting for someone or something.  Whatever it was, Victoria knew something bad would happen.

     She nearly dropped the plates she was holding as a dark clad man stepped out from the shadows.  "Zorro," she whispered.  "What's wrong?  Why are you here?"

     He quickly closed the distance between them as Victoria set down the dirty dishes.  "Mi querida," he spoke in a low voice, bringing a gloved hand up to caress her smooth cheek.  "I came to see you."  He leaned down to kiss her lips, a kiss she eagerly returned.  He didn't want her to know that he knew she would be alone tonight with the stranger the only other person in the tavern.  Diego could not check up on her this late at night, but Zorro could.

     They spent the next several minutes, kissing and whispering endearments.  They did not realize that the draperies that separated them from the main room were slightly parted.  Parted enough so that anyone who happened to glance that way would have a clear view of the embracing couple.

     The man observing them felt the hilt of his sword.  Damn, what rotten luck.  His pistols were up in his room.  He knew that he was no match for this Zorro with a blade.  He preferred a gun anyway, much quicker and not as much effort.  But if he went upstairs to retrieve his weapons, his masked target would surely be gone.  Although it appeared the couple in the other room were engaged rather intensely.  Apparently the señorita enjoyed the company of outlaws.

     A feeling that they were being watched spread through Zorro.  He abruptly pulled away from a puzzled Victoria.  "I must not linger," he explained, touching her face.  "Make sure you bolt your bedroom door tonight, querida."  He kissed her one more time.  "Adios, mi corazon."

     "Vaya con Dios," she whispered as he disappeared out the back door.  She held her breath until she heard the familiar hoof beats fading into the distance.  Sighing,  she went out of the kitchen to collect more plates and glasses.  She paused at the curtains when she saw the mystery man looking down at her from the balcony with a sneering smile on his face.  His expression changed to something else that caused Victoria to spin around and go to her quarters.  The dirty dishes can wait, she thought, sliding the lock on her bedroom door into place.

    The man smiled wickedly.  I may not have killed him this time, he mused, but now I know one of his weaknesses
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     Preparations for the Carnaval proceeded as planned as the day drew near.  Felipe and Ana Maria volunteered to help decorate the church and other buildings.  Diego and Don Alejandro had convinced Victoria to go ahead with her plans to help the orphanage.  The elder de la Vega, once he learned of the children's needs, donated a sizable amount of money.

     People were putting up decorations everywhere in the plaza several days before the Carnaval would take place.  There was much chatting and laughing.  The Alcalde watched them with a sour expression from his office window.

     "It's as if they know Zorro will come to their aid and rescind the tax," he grumbled to himself.  He pounded his clenched fist against the wall in frustration, then winced at the sudden pain in his hand.

     It was true, of course, he had every intention of repealing the levy as soon as he had Zorro swinging from a noose.  But it still galled him that the citizens of Los Angeles had so much faith in the masked outlaw.  So far none of his ploys ever resulted in even the bandit's arrest.

     Ignacio de Soto sank down into his chair, a tired, defeated man.  He was very weary of the futile pursuit of the caped criminal.  It had seemed so simple, so easy at the start, arrive in Los Angeles, apprehend Zorro, and then return to Madrid in triumph.  Instead he was wasting his time in this remote colonial outpost, while lesser men moved ahead of him in Spain.

    Well, he was not a quitter, de Soto thought crossly.  He would see Zorro hang from the gallows if it was the last thing he ever did.

     Another bee in the Alcalde's bonnet that afternoon was his idiot sergeant's lack of progress in the investigation of the stranger staying at the tavern.  The man just ignored the bumbling Mendoza's nervous questioning.

     ‘Wham!'  De Soto's fist hit the desktop.  He flinched again as he thought, if you want something done, you just have to do it yourself.  He adjusted his jacket and cravat then strode out of his office, banging the door shut.  He marched purposely across the plaza to the tavern.

     He found his quarry quite easily.  The mysterious man sat at what had become ‘his' table at the far side of the room.  As always, a decanter of amber liquor sat in front of him.

     "Señor, a word, por favor."  The Alcalde came up to the table and stood there, toying with the hilt of his sword.

     The stranger contemptuously glanced up from his glass.  He snorted dismissively when he recognized the man before him and returned to his drink.

     His pointed ignorance only infuriated de Soto even more.  "We can with discuss this here and now," he declared hotly, "or in a cell in my jail.  Your choice, Señor."

     A mixture of boredom and irritation showed on the other man's face.  He had overheard the local people's opinion of the commandante and knew of his pettiness.  "State your business," he conceded.

     "Who are you and why are you here?"  The Alcalde decided to take the bull by the horns.  If the man was a government official sent to spy on him, as he was positive the other man was, he would deal with it later.

     The stranger slowly poured more whiskey into his glass.  He deliberately took a sip then set it down on the table.  "My name is Muñoz," he replied grudgingly.  "And I did not know it was a crime to visit your enchanting little pueblo."  His voice was full of sarcasm.  He returned his interest to his drink.

     "No, it is not a crime," DeSoto sputtered impotently.  "But that does not answer my question.  Why are you here?"

     "I have business here," the man said, heaving a weary sigh.  He had the feeling if he did not satisfy the Alcalde's curiosity, he would soon find himself in the stockade.

     "What kind of business?" DeSoto probed even further.

     "That is between my employer and I," Muñoz responded, tired of this interrogation.  He grabbed his bottle of alcohol and stood up.  "Now if you will excuse me, I have something urgent to attend to."

     The Alcalde was still unsure if the man was an informant or not.  But he sensed he would not receive any  more answers today.  Muñoz had taken a few steps when he turned and faced de Soto.  "We do have one thing in common," he taunted.

     "And what would that be, Señor?"  The Alcalde's interest was piqued.

     "We are after the same man."  The man continued on his way out of the tavern.  He ignored de Soto as he chased after him.

     "What do you mean?" the commandante demanded.  "Do you mean Zorro?"  His questions were met with silence as Muñoz kept walking away.

     Sergeant Mendoza was engaged in a little flirtation with Señora Ortega in front of her new shop.  She was inviting him to supper that evening but they were rudely interrupted before he could accept.

     "MENDOZA!"  The Alcalde yelled as he unsheathed his sword, intending to threaten Muñoz with it.

     "Madre de Dios," Mendoza muttered, annoyed by the intrusion.  He smiled at Leonora.  "It would be an honor, Señora," he said, raising her hand to his lips.

     "Sergeant, get over here!  NOW!"  De Soto shouted at his subordinate again.

    The soldier dropped the lady's hand.  "Excuse me, por favor," he said gallantly.  He then scurried over to where the Alcalde had confronted Muñoz who had also removed his blade from its scabbard.

    "Arrest this man, Sergeant," ordered de Soto grimly.

     "What did he do?" inquired the curious Mendoza.

    "I said to arrest him!"  The Alcalde was beside himself with anger.  "Do as I say or you will be joining him."

     Muñoz smirked at the other man's inability to control both his temper and the lancer.  Mendoza cautiously approached him.  He was aware of everyone's attention focused on him, especially Señora Ortega's.  He did not want to appear cowardly in front of  her.

     "Put down your weapon, Señor," the stout man advised.  He too had withdrawn his sword.  No one was more surprised than Mendoza when Muñoz did as he was bid without a word.  Once he had recovered from the shock, the sergeant moved closer, taking the other man's sword.

    "This way, Señor," he indicated with his weapon.  He and the prisoner calmly walked toward the cuartel.

     De Soto sheathed his own blade, a smug smile of satisfaction on his face.  Now he would find out what this mysterious Muñoz's cryptic statement meant.  He hurried to catch up.

     From the front porch of her tavern, Victoria witnessed the encounter.  As Muñoz passed by her, he leered straight at her.  The evil smirk on his face sent shivers down the innkeeper's spine.
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"DELIVER US FROM EVIL"-CHAPTER THREE