Diego wasn't sure what time he had finally dropped off into an exhausted yet fitful sleep. He woke up slowly, glancing over at the clock on his bedside table. Twenty minutes to twelve. He surmised since there was bright sunshine streaming through his window, that it must be nearly noon.
It was then he remembered that Victoria was dead. And it was his fault. He groaned, wanting to pull the covers over his head and not face the unpleasantness awaiting him that day. He wanted to wallow in his own misery, not sure if he could bear to share anyone else's grief.
But, he scolded himself, that would be the coward's way out. And remembering once again how bravely Victoria had sacrificed herself for him, he knew he had to push himself to go on, if for no other reason than to honor her memory.
Diego swung his legs out of his bed and stood up. As he dressed, he noticed the book he had been reading the day before was sitting on the night stand. That's odd, he thought as he buttoned up his shirt. He last recalled seeing it as he tossed the tome onto his desk in the secret cave before he changed into his alter ego, intent on rescuing Don Carlos.
Maybe Felipe had placed it on the bedside table sometime during the horrific previous evening, he surmised with a shrug. Diego finished dressing then made his made out to the dining room.
"It's about time you got up," grumbled Don Alejandro as he sat at the table. Diego noticed the mostly empty plate in front of the old don and marveled that he could eat at all. Or maybe it was just he who had the lump in his throat that made it impossible to even think of food without feeling nauseous.
Then Diego was stunned to watch as the elder de la Vega's face broke out into a large grin. ""You'll never believe it," Don Alejandro said excitedly.
Diego's heart skipped a beat, thinking for that moment that there had been a terrible mistake and Victoria was still alive. But then he remember holding her limp body in his arms, feeling her heart beat its last and knew that it couldn't be true no matter how much he wished otherwise. Shaking the disturbing images from his head, Diego poured himself a cup of coffee and wondered what could have possibly made his father so happy in the midst of such a tragedy.
"Your cousin Rafael is going to be a father!" The elder de la Vega's eyes danced with glee. "Isn't that wonderful?"
Hot liquid burned Diego's fingers as the cup slipped from them. "Wh. . .What. . .What did you say?" he asked in a strangled tone as he caught the cup before it crashed to the floor.
The old don eyed him strangely before repeating, "Rafael is going to be a father." He smiled again. "Isn't that wonderful news?"
"But. . . I. . ." Diego's mind couldn't form complete sentences, let alone his mouth.
"Diego, son," Don Alejandro began, ignoring his son's lack of eloquence, "it's about time you settled down, found yourself a wife." He stared expectantly at Diego. "I want grandchildren!" he added emphatically.
Diego's brain began whirling uneasily with several questions. Why was his father repeating almost word for word the conversation they had had the previous morning? Had grief caused the elder de la Vega's mind to snap sometime during the night? Was he pretending that the day before hadn't happened as a way to cope with the death of the daughter of one of his old friends? A woman he himself considered as a daughter?
He started at the sound of Don Alejandro's voice. The elder de la Vega was eyeing him curiously, just as he had done yesterday. "I'm going to send my congratulations right away," the old don announced after a few minutes. "I'll add your best wishes as well."
"Gracias," Diego said bemusedly. He dropped down into a chair as his father left the room. What in the world was happening? Perhaps his mind was the one had that splintered, unable to deal with the loss of the only woman he had ever truly loved.
He took a sip of his coffee and grimaced at its bitter tepidness. Exactly like the day before, a little voice in his head said. No, Diego told himself firmly as he set the cup down on the table, it's just a coincidence. The de la Vegas' housekeeper, Maria, always made the coffee strong, the way his father liked it.
Diego stood up and pushed away from the table, intent on finding Felipe. If anyone could help him figure out just what the hell was going on, it would be the young man who knew all his secrets, he thought as he strode from the dining room.
An hour later, however, Diego was even more befuddled. He had found Felipe in the exact same place he had found him the day before; the stables; and doing the exact same thing, cleaning the tack with Paco, the stablemaster's son. They had made their way back to the hacienda library where Felipe had brought out his calculus book, opening it to the same page as the previous day.
Diego stared in stunned silence. This couldn't be just another case of disconcerting happenstance, he told himself. But what else could it be? He decided to test his fragile theory.
"Felipe, we did that chapter yesterday," he stated as he carefully gauged the lad's reaction. The youth first look confused then shook his head, pointing insistently at the page in front of him.
So Felipe was under the same delusion as everyone else. Diego didn't know why he thought the young man would be different the rest of the people living at the hacienda. Maybe because the only other alternative would be that he was the one who was hallucinating.
"Felipe, I need to speak to you," he announced as he sat down on the settee next to the now perplexed youth. Diego look to his right then his left before continuing. "Felipe," he said, lowering his voice, "is Victoria dead?"
The young man looked so shocked that Diego was worried that he might faint. Then Felipe shook his head emphatically, the bewildered expression never leaving his face.
Diego's thoughts raced feverishly through his head as he tried to piece this last bit of information into the puzzle. Both his father's and Felipe's actions had mimicked the day before's, except when they interacted with him. And if Victoria wasn't dead, if she hadn't been killed. . .
Madre de Dios! That meant she was still alive. It was as if the previous day had been erased and given a fresh start. An overwhelming urge to see her, to make sure he wasn't going insane, made him jump up from his seat, startling Felipe even further.
"Tell Father I went into town," he instructed the confused lad. But the young man grabbed his arm as he tried to stride from the room. With his free hand, Felipe gestured a bit wildly. But Diego caught the gist of his questions.
"I don't know if it was a dream or a vision or whatever," he replied somewhat impatiently. He had to go to the pueblo. He had to see for himself that Victoria was all right. He had to see her dazzling smile so it could expunge the memory of her still, bloodless face he carried in his mind.
"Everything that has occurred so far today already happened yesterday," he explained. He shook his head. "I don't know how else to describe it to you, Felipe," he said hopelessly. "The French have a term for it - déjà vu. The sense that you have done something before.
"Victoria was killed by that gambler Bishop who was trying kill to Zorro," he stated. He almost laughed as both of Felipe's eyebrows shot skyward. But then he was grimly reminded of what he needed to do. "I can prevent that now," Diego said excitedly. "I know what everyone is going to do. And I can stop it from happening again."
This time, the youth let him leave. Diego's heart was beating so rapidly he thought it might burst from his chest. He could save Victoria. He could. . . He could what, he asked himself derisively. Continue to worship her from afar? Keep snatching a few precious moments here and there and only while a thin whisper of black silk was between them?
Diego stopped in his tracks in the middle of the courtyard. He had been given a second chance and he was going to make the most of it. He loved Victoria and his most fervent desire was to make her his wife. So what if she loved someone else? Especially since he was that someone. Somehow he had to make her see that he was worthy of her love, hopefully without having to reveal his secret at the same time.
A short time later, Diego rode into the pueblo de Los Angeles. The day was still unseasonable warm, he noted as he tied up his mare to the hitching rail in front of the tavern, just as he had done the day before.
The tables on the tavern's porch were filled with the same gentlemen, in the same chairs, doing the same things. Don Carlos, Don Esteban, Don Jose, and the Americano Bishop were playing cards to the right. Don Sebastian, Don Arturo, and Pedro Gonzales, the bank's manager sat at the table on the left, drinking lemonade and discussing local politics.
Diego realized that he had arrived a bit earlier than he had the previous day. And he had forgotten his book. He began to mentally curse himself for his absent-mindedness but stopped short. He had to change the day's outcome. Maybe leaving the book at the hacienda was the just the thing that would save Victoria.
"Buenas tardes, Diego," Don Sebastian called out as Diego cautiously approached the porch.
"Hola, Don Sebastian," he replied, turning his attention to the man who was his father's good friend. Diego sat down on the empty bench beside him just as he had yesterday. He searched his mind for a moment, trying to recall what he had done next. It suddenly came to him and he then inclined his head toward the card players and asked, "How come you haven't joined them?"
The older don shook his head. "I'm not a gambling man," he repeating his words from the day before. He glanced over at his trio of friends sitting with the gambler. "Don Esteban and Don Jose can afford to lose a peso or two, but Don Carlos. . ." He shook his head again. "He's about to lose everything."
Diego was still a little shaken by the eeriness of the situation. He knew what everyone was going to say and what they were going to do, probably before they themselves knew. It was unreal.
"That bad, huh?" queried Diego, not remember his exact words but hoping he was close enough. And once again, he speculated for a moment about Don Carlos's perilous financial status.
"Si, Diego," replied Don Sebastian. "Don Carlos is nearly penniless. The only way he can pay back what he owes is to sell off his land."
"What a shame," Diego murmured, sincerely echoing the same phrase he had used the previous day. He glanced over at the card players again, his eyes narrowing as he focused on Bishop, taking in the man's easy-going countenance. Only he knew that under that blasé attitude was a hot, irrational, and deadly temper.
Then his world turned upside down as Victoria stepped out onto the porch, carrying a tray of glasses and a ceramic ewer. He had told himself that she was still alive, but even so. . . The shock of seeing her, smiling as she bustled about refilling cups and glasses, caused his heart to race and his breath to catch in his throat.
"Hola, Don Diego," she greeted him, her beautiful face filling his vision. She gestured with the pitcher in her right hand. "Lemonade?"
Diego could only nod dumbly. He watched as she set down a glass in front of him then poured the pulpy yellow liquid into it. He made no move to pick it up when she had finished as he was still reeling from the fact that she was alive and well and standing so close to him he could feel her warmth. Could smell the scent that surrounded her, one that always intrigued him, peppers and spices mingled with just a hint of roses.
Then he noticed that Victoria was staring down at him, a concerned frown marring her lovely features. Say something, his brain screamed at him. Tell her you love her, you cobarde. Or at least say thank you, the little voice in his head added sarcastically.
Trembling, Diego reached out and lifted his glass. "Gracias," he managed to croak out. Victoria gave him one more questioning glance before turning and going back inside her tavern.
It was a couple of hours later that the loud groans rose from the opposite table where the card players sat. "Gentlemen, the cards don't lie," Bishop stated in a pleasant yet mocking voice, just as he had the previous afternoon.
Diego watched with a dreamlike fascination as the scene before played out precisely as it had in his memory of the previous day's event. Don Carlos jumping out of his chair then joining him at his table. Diego mouthing his platitudes against gambling, especially with strangers. Don Carlos repeating his accusation of cheating against Bishop, who reiterated his threats against the older caballero.
It wasn't until later when Mendoza had stepped in between the two men, that Diego realized he had another choice to make. Should he just let the situation remain as it was or should he interfere as he had done the day before? And should he intervene as himself or as Zorro?
As he observed Bishop waving Don Carlos's voucher and uttering more threats, Diego decided that the man in black should make another appearance. The arrogant bastard needed to be taught a lesson, that the people of Los Angeles were not just plump pigeons that were his for the plucking.
A short while later, as he had done the previous evening, Zorro peered around the corner of the tavern, viewing once again the recurring tableau on the its front porch. Victoria, who was still a miracle to behold, was trying to convince a drunken Don Carlos to go home. The card game was breaking up and Bishop sauntering over to confront the older man again.
"No man calls me a cheat." Zorro used the gambler's words as his cue to step up onto the porch.
"Suppose we just call you foolishly bad-tempered?" he asked rhetorically. Nervous sweat began to bead up on his forehead and he was grateful that his face was hidden.
A chuckling Bishop pulled out his pistol and aimed it at Zorro's heart. As he had done earlier, the masked man knocked the weapon from the Americano's hand with his whip. And again, the gun dropped onto the table with a thump.
Zorro coiled up his whip as he spoke to Don Carlos, advising him to go home. "And next time, don't play cards with strangers."
He then picked up the pistol and turned his attention to Bishop. "A man who returns verbal insults with a bullet," he began, echoing the same words he had used once before to chastise the insolent man standing before him, "is a most unwelcome addition to Los Angeles. Temper your anger, for next time I won't be so forgiving."
The gambler tossed him a dirty look before walking off the tavern's porch then ambling across the plaza. This time, instead of reaching out and taking Victoria's hand, Zorro stared at the man's back, vowing to not take his eyes off of him until Victoria was safe.
"Go inside, Señorita," he ordered through clenched teeth. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her hesitate as an expression of defiance grew on her face. "Now!" he said a little more forcefully. He would deal with her anger later, he told himself. All that mattered now was that she was out of harm's way.
His gaze still on the Americano as the other man made his way to the livery, he was aware that Victoria had finally obeyed his instructions and went inside. Zorro whistled sharply for Toronado who was waiting on the other side of the tavern. The sound of hoof beats and the neighing of a horse coming from the opposite direction distracted the man in black for a split second from his observation of Bishop. But it was long enough moment in time for the gambler to reach his right hand toward his boot.
"Everybody down!" shouted Zorro. He flattened himself against the dusty ground and was mildly surprised that everyone around him did the same.
He glanced up as a cloud of dust blew across his masked face and saw his father pulling up his horse right in front of him.
"Zorro? What's going. . .?" Don Alejandro's questions were interrupted by a strange popping sound. Dulcinea, the old don's white mare, let out a high-pitched whinny then reared upward. The elder de la Vega, who had been about to dismount, flew off the frantic animal's back.
Zorro could only watch in horror as his father fell against the tavern porch, the back of his head striking the hard wooden planks. There was a sickening thud and the masked man knew before he reached Don Alejandro's limp body. But he felt for a pulse anyway.
There wasn't one.
His guts churning, he realized that he had
just traded Victoria's life for his father's.
Z Z Z
"OTRA VEZ" - DAY THREE