4.  TO CATCH A THIEF
 

     "Hola, Sergeant!"  Diego de la Vega and Felipe reined in.  "Are you and your men out on patrol?"
     "Buenos dias, Don Diego, Felipe," returned Mendoza.  "Not a patrol, an investigation of a robbery at the Papanatas hacienda.  Don León told us about it this morning.  With the alcalde out of town, I'm in charge and doing double duty."
     "Well then, we won't keep you.  Happy hunting."  The two men waved as the lancers rode off.  "Don León is one of the wealthier caballeros in the territory.  I wonder . . ." Diego mused.
     Felipe smiled to himself.  Any crime, no matter how small, always aroused his mentor's interest.  There may be work for Zorro ahead, he thought.

     "But the strange thing is that all the doors and windows were locked," explained Mendoza across a table in the tavern.  "Don León checked them himself before going to bed.  And the thief took money from the desk drawer, silver frames and candlesticks, and several other small items of value."
     "Could the thief be someone from inside the house?" Diego asked.
     "There are only his own family members and two servants that have been living there for years.  We questioned all of them, and no one heard a thing."
     "Were all the windows and doors still locked this morning?"
     "Sí, Don Diego, we double-checked them all.  Everything was still secure.  If the thief came from the outside, how did he get in? And how did he get back out, locking the house behind him?"
     "Were there any footprints outside?"
     "Plenty.  The gardener had been working around the house the day before.  It was impossible to tell if any of the marks were fresh."
     "Quite a mystery."
     "There's more.  This is the fifth hacienda burgled in the last three weeks.  Sometimes the house is locked, sometimes not, but the result is the same:  no one in the house hears a thing, and the thief steals small things of value and disappears without a trace; no one has even seen him.  The lancers are calling him El Espectro."
     "The phantom.  Sounds appropriate."
     "You and your father would be wise to put away your nice things and lock your doors and windows every night until the thief is caught."
     "That's sound advice, Sergeant; thank you.  Now how about some lunch?"
     Mendoza's reply was interrupted by an angry cry from the kitchen. He and Diego sprang up and ran into the curtained back room.  There stood Victoria, seething with fury.
     "Señorita!  Are you all right?"
     "No!" she snapped.  "Just look at this!"  She pointed to the table where there were three flans, each one with its smooth surface marred.  "Mice!"
     "You are afraid of mice, Señorita?"
     "Of course not!  But I resent sharing my profits with them!" she fumed.  "I stayed up late last night making these to serve with lunch today, and now they're all ruined!"
     "What a shame, Victoria.  Where did you put them overnight?"
     "In here."  She opened the lower doors to the cupboard.  "I can't understand how the mice got in.  With the doors closed, there's not a gap big enough for a cockroach to squeeze through, let alone a mouse."
     The caballero squatted down and examined the cabinet.  "How they got in isn't to the point as much as the fact that they did.  Do you have any mousetraps you can set up?"
     "I do have traps set up."  She reached under the cupboard and pulled out one.  "See?  The mice steal the bait and leave the traps unsprung."
     "Are you sure the traps work?"
     "Oh, yes.  Watch."  With the handle of a wooden spoon she tripped the spring, and the trap jumped, clicking abruptly.  "I'm almost ready to get a cat," she moaned.
     Diego grinned, "I don't think you need to do that yet.  Let me see if I can design a better trap for you."
     "That would be a tremendous help," she smiled.  "But please hurry."
     "Señorita, we were just about to order lunch when you screamed," put in Mendoza.  "What are you serving today?"
     Victoria tucked her hand inside the soldier's arm.  "Chili con queso.  I'm sorry, Sergeant--no dessert."

     The following afternoon Alejandro rode from town with the news of the day.  The home of his friend, Don Esteban, had been robbed the night before.  The details were almost exactly the same as the previous thefts, and again the house had been secured.
     "Diego, I'm glad we were warned to put away our valuables.  So far, all the robberies have been on farms and ranchos to the north and east of town.  I think it's very likely El Espectro will try here, too.  Perhaps a word to the wise in the newspaper will help the rest of the pueblo."
     His son nodded.  "A good idea.  In the meantime, I've promised to help Victoria with her mouse problem.  I'll see you at dinner."
     As soon as his father had gone, Diego retreated to his laboratory.  A couple of hours later, Felipe came downstairs and found him putting the final touches on a cage trap.
     The caballero looked up, blinking.  "You know, Felipe, we could use some more light down here; this close work is giving me eyestrain.  Anyway, have a look at this.  There are two things critical to a successful trap.  The first is to provide an irresistible bait--something that will exploit the prey's weakness.  The second is that the trap must be one-way; that is, the victim must be able to enter the trap but not be able to get back out.  Have you ever heard the story of how animal hunters trap monkeys in the jungle?  They put some nuts into a jar with a very narrow neck.  The monkey will reach in and grab a large handful of nuts, but with his fist full he can no longer withdraw his hand.  Yet because of his greed, he refuses to let go of the food.  The hunters can simply pick him up.  Now, I think this will work.  The trap can be baited with food as before, but the mouse has to come completely inside the cage.  This tension pad is extremely sensitive.  When the slightest pressure touches it, the door slams shut.  See?"  He demonstrated, and Felipe gave him a thumbs-up.  "I'll make one more and take them to Victoria tomorrow.  But tonight, Zorro is going to have a look around the neighborhood.  Perhaps he can get a glimpse of El Espectro.  There are only three ranchos in this area he hasn't robbed, and ours is one of them."
     The next noon, Diego rode into town and discovered the tavern buzzing over the mystery burglar and his latest robbery.  He found Victoria in the kitchen chopping vegetables.
     "Here are the traps I promised.  Let me show you how they work."  He set them up and triggered the spring.
     The tavern owner was delighted.  "That's wonderful, Diego; these should take care of my tiny thieves.  If only I'd had a cage big enough to catch El Espectro last night."
     "What?  It was you who was robbed?"
     "Yes.  He cleaned out my cash box.  Fortunately, there was less than thirty pesos in there; I'd just deposited the rest in the bank."
     "I'm so sorry, Victoria," he said.  "Hopefully, the lancers will catch up to him soon."
     "Hmph--I'm not holding my breath.  This thief is smart enough to stay two steps ahead of the military."
     Two steps ahead of Zorro too, he thought.  Zorro was in the wrong place last night.

     Felipe saddled Toronado while listening to Diego's musings.  His older friend was pulling on his black boots.
     "The lancers have been focusing on how the thief is breaking in, and so have I.  But that's not really the important point.  Besides, I think I know how he's doing it.  What I have to do is anticipate his next move."  Buckling his sword belt, he puzzled, "Why did he go to the tavern last night?  It's a departure from his usual method.  Maybe Victoria can supply a clue."
     It was after midnight when the lovely innkeeper finally shut the tavern's front door, covered over the coals of the kitchen's fire, and lowered the chandeliers to extinguish the candles.  She turned toward the stairs, and there was Zorro, standing on the bottom step, watching her with a smile.
     "Buenas noches, Victoria."
     "Zorro!"  Her face lit up, and she ran into his arms.  He caught her in a strong embrace that lifted her from the floor.
     "Querida," he whispered into her dark hair.
     "How I've missed you," she murmured and lifted her face for his kiss.  His lips were warm and tender on hers.  He released her a few moments later regretfully.
     "A crowded tavern is a good dueña," he said with a half-smile.  "Can you forgive me?  I'm here on business, too."
     "The robbery?  I should have known," she laughed ruefully.  "How can I help you?"
     "Tell me everything you can; you may be able to give me a fresh lead.  Did you have any guests last night?"
     "Only one--Señor Cerca from San Diego.  He comes up every Thursday with a wagon full of oranges.  Some he sells to me and the rest at the market Friday mornings.  Then he goes home.  But I've done business with him for several years, and I'm sure he's an honest man.  Besides, he was questioned by the soldiers yesterday morning."
     "Were all the doors and windows locked--the balcony doors?  The upstairs windows?  The kitchen door?" She replied affirmatively to his questions.  "How about the window in the small room in the back?"
     "I keep it locked all the time since I rarely rent that room, but I haven't actually checked it.  I just assumed it was still locked."
     "Let's have a look, shall we?"
     Victoria picked up a lamp and led the way to the tiny room.  The wooden shutters across the window were still fastened by a latch-hook.  "See?"
     "But this type of lock is the easiest to pick."  He withdrew his knife from his belt and inserted the blade between the shutters.  Moving the knife up, he lifted the latch-hook out of the eye.  "I open this kind myself quite often," he added with an audacious grin.
     "That explains how he got in, but how could he lock it again from the outside?" she asked.
     "It's almost as easy.  With two hooked wires inserted under the shutter doors to pull them closed, all he has to do is balance the latch-hook on his knife and gently drop it back into the eye."
     Victoria shook her head in amazement.  "I'm replacing these locks."
     "The kind of bolt you have on the front door is much more effective.  Unfortunately, most of the pueblo's windows have latch-hooks, and they're not at all secure.  I think our phantom locks the windows after himself to make his methods a little more baffling.  Predicting where he's going to strike next is a bigger problem.  He seemed interested only in the haciendas; it surprised me that he robbed you here in town."  He fell silent, thinking.  "It was only money he stole from you, not jewelry or other valuables?"
     "Yes, just the money.  A tavern doesn't have much of value like the bigger houses do."
     "Wait--maybe that's it.  Stolen money can't be traced, but to benefit from the silver and goods, he'd have to sell them.  The items     couldn't be sold here because they'd be recognized.  And the nearest silversmith is in--San Diego!"  There was an excited edge to his voice.  "Maybe it's a coincidence, but--I must go."  He pressed a kiss on her hand.  "Adios."
     "Father, I think we need to put back out some of our valuables.  Are there any that you wouldn't mind too much if they were stolen?"
     Alejandro stared at his son.  "What's on your mind?"
     "A trap for El Espectro.  I've a hunch that he's disposed of the things he stole before, and the lancers need some fresh bait.  Maybe we can help lure him out into the open."
     "Well, let's see.  There's an ugly pair of candelabra from your mother's family that I don't care if I ever see again, and maybe a few other things.  I'll get them."  After his father left the room, Diego turned to his young companion.
     "I've been looking at this whole mystery from the wrong end of the problem, Felipe.  We can find the thief by tracing the thread backwards; if we know where he's selling the silver, we'll soon discover him, too.  I think I know now why he robbed Victoria; he was in town anyway, and it was convenient.  The lure of the tavern's money there for the taking was too great a temptation to resist."
     Alejandro returned with an armful of silver items:  a candelabra, a pitcher, paperweights, vases, and goblets.  "How about these, Diego?  Let's spread them around the main rooms.  It will be interesting to see if your theory works.  You're not suggesting one of us stay awake to watch for the thief, are you?"
     "I don't think that will be necessary, and it might be dangerous.  We don't know if El Espectro is armed or not.  It will be better to let him leave a trail to follow."
     His father eyed him doubtfully.  "If you're counting on the lancers to track him, I'll say adios to these things now."  He left the room, shaking his head.
     Diego spoke again to Felipe, "Catching this phantom is going to be a little more complex than catching mice, Felipe.  We don't know where he's going next; any home could provide enticing bait.  We have to count on his greed not yet being satisfied.  I only hope he'll come here so I can keep an eye on him."
     Felipe began gesturing.
     "Try it with words," Diego encouraged.
     Felipe gave him an exasperated look and then mouthed, "You won't give him to the lancers?"
     "No, I want to follow my hunch about how he's getting rid of the stolen goods.  There may be more than one mouse to catch."

     Four nights later, a furtive figure crept up to the de la Vega hacienda.  He opened the window and went inside.  A few minutes later the intruder emerged carrying a sack.  He ran to the shadows, mounted a waiting horse, and rode away to the southeast.  A dark sentinel silently observed his departure and turned his own horse to follow the first rider.  The stealthy pursuit continued several miles to the ranchhand bunkhouse of Don León.  There the masked man dismounted for a closer look.
     I have you now, Amigo, he thought, and the door is about to slam shut.
 

     Friday morning the plaza was crowded with buyers and sellers of every description.  It was market-day for the pueblo, and men, women, children, soldiers, donkeys, cattle, and sheep all vied for standing room while vendors sold the products of their week's labor.  Señor Cerca had returned from San Diego and was selling the remaining oranges from the bushel baskets in his wagon.  A vaquero weaved his way through the crowd carrying a heavy bag and whispered something to the fruit-seller.  Cerca nodded and gestured to the front of his wagon.
     Suddenly a tall black figure jumped down from the bank roof.  "A little business on the side, Ladrón?" Zorro called out, and slashed the vaquero's sack.  Out tumbled silver items and jewelry.  The exposed thief quickly seized his knife and threw it with deadly accuracy toward the hero, who blocked the attack with the lightning reflex of his sword arm.  The crowd cleared away as the masked man pointed his sabre at the cowboy's chest and backed him up against the wagon.  "A dishonest employee who finances his dreams of owning a rancho with the hard-earned money and valuables of others is deserving of nothing more luxurious than a jail cell."
     Sergeant Mendoza and several lancers ran up.  "Zorro!  What are you doing?  That is Don León's head vaquero, Rodrigo Ladrón!"
     "He is also El Espectro, Sergeant.  And Señor Cerca has been receiving the stolen goods and taking them to San Diego each week."
     "El Espectro?  Lancers!  Arrest those two men!"
     "Adios, Phantom, you're about to vanish for the last time," the hero said, slicing a "Z" on the man's vest.  He saluted, whistled for Toronado, and galloped away.

     "Here you are, Señores," Victoria said, setting a plate of tamales before the de la Vegas, Felipe, and Sergeant Mendoza at the table the following day.  "There's flan for dessert, too.  Diego, your lunch is on the house; the traps work perfectly.  I've caught three mice so far."  As she poured a drink for each man she added, "Enjoy the orange juice, gentlemen; it may be the last for a while."
     Mendoza inhaled appreciatively.  "This looks delicious, Señorita, and smells even better.  Anyway, as I was saying," he continued, "Señor Cerca is Ladrón's cousin, but he's not too smart.  He didn't even realize that the things Rodrigo was giving him these past weeks to sell were stolen.  He'd just bring the money back every Thursday.  If the alcalde believes him, Cerca's jail time will not be very long."
     "It was rather bold of Ladrón to rob the tavern while his confederate was asleep upstairs," Alejandro observed.
    "Rather foolish, actually," Victoria corrected.  "His greed proved to be his undoing; it put a certain someone on his trail."
     "Well, at least the burglaries are over, thanks to Zorro," Alejandro smiled.  "By the way, Sergeant, why didn't you arrest Zorro as well?"
     "Me?  Arrest Zorro?"  The Sergeant looked astonished.  "Th-There were too many people around; someone could have gotten hurt.  My men didn't have their rifles, and there were only a few in the plaza--"  He trailed off with a sheepish grin.  "Amigos, you know I won't arrest Zorro if I can help it, and the alcalde wasn't around to see."
     Alejandro nodded, satisfied.  "Oh Diego, unfortunately the ugly candelabra were among the things recovered from Ladrón."
     "They worked very well as bait for a better mousetrap, Father.  Give them to me.  I think I can put them to good use."
 

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