13.  THE PLAY'S THE THING
 

     Alcalde DeSoto, Sergeant Mendoza, and the entire garrison of royal lancers stood at attention in full dress uniform as the Monterey coach arrived.  The door opened, and down stepped a short, well-dressed, balding man followed by two younger gentlemen.  The commandant stepped forward with a perfunctory bow.
     "Deputy Governor Frescas, it's an honor to welcome you to Los Angeles.  You will see our pueblo at its very best during the Guadalupe Day fiesta."
     The official looked at DeSoto critically.  "I'm not here to enjoy a holiday.  We can discuss matters privately in your office."  He gestured to the two men behind him.  "My assistant, José Lucha, and my secretary and nephew, Mateo Frescas."  Each gentleman bowed briefly, neither offering a hand to shake.
     "Your rooms are ready at the tavern, Deputy Governor; this way please."  DeSoto indicated the large building across the plaza.
     Frescas did not move.  "Lucha and Mateo will take care of my luggage.  Let's get to business," he said coolly.  The alcalde was a little disconcerted, but agreed and led the way to his office after dismissing his troops.
     Stripping off his gloves, Frescas sat down in a chair facing the officer's desk.  "The arch-criminal Zorro is still at large, and the governor is not at all pleased with this garrison.  Your predecessor failed to capture him--an offense for which I almost removed him from office.  And I am prepared to replace you if you don't have that bandit under arrest by the end of the week."
     DeSoto disliked the tone of condescension; a proud man, he was not easily intimidated.  "I beg your pardon, Deputy Governor; removing me from this post would require the approval of King Ferdinand since it was he who appointed me.  I intend to stay, Zorro notwithstanding."
     Frescas responded calmly, "Haven't you heard?  California is independent from Spanish rule.  You now take your orders from the governor's office in Monterey.  You see, I do have the power to discharge you, and if you fail, I will."
     "You and what army?" the alcalde asked contemptuously.  "This wouldn't happen to be a personal vendetta, would it?  According to the pueblo's records, Zorro humiliated you on your last visit.  Have you returned for a second dose?"  He had successfully riled the diminutive man at last.  Frescas rose to his feet with an icy glare.
     "You will discover which of us is stronger, Alcalde, and it will be you who suffers humiliation this time."  He turned sharply and strode from the office, leaving DeSoto at once both furious and fearful.
     The next morning at the tavern Mateo Frescas knocked on his uncle's door.  The official was known to be an early riser, but both the secretary and assistant Lucha had been waiting downstairs to have breakfast until the older gentleman came from his room.  There was no response to the younger Frescas's knocking.  He turned the knob slowly and found it unlocked.  Cautiously peeking around the door, he called softly, "Sir?"
     The deputy governor was lying on the bed in bloody nightclothes, stabbed through the heart.  His sabre was still curled in his lifeless fingers as if he had tried to defend himself, and slashed in his pillow was a "Z".

     The news of the spectacular and gruesome murder spread quickly throughout the pueblo, and shortly, Don Alejandro and his two sons rode into the plaza and dismounted in front of the tavern.  As they tied off their reins, the body of the deputy governor was being carried out to the church until the funeral.  The alcalde was inside the tavern overseeing the investigation of the violent death, and the nobleman asked him for an account of the facts.
     DeSoto related how the body was found and added, "It's an open-and-shut case.  Zorro has at last showed his true nature; there's no doubt he's guilty."
     Victoria hotly interjected, "That can't be true!  Zorro would never kill a man!"
     "Your affection for the criminal is well known, Señorita, but in this case, you cannot successfully defend him.  Zorro entered through the open window and cut down the man in a duel, leaving his signature.  He also has a motive; the deputy governor was an old adversary who had returned to see Zorro captured."
     The innkeeper mutely appealed to Diego for help.  "Alcalde," he asked mildly, "Didn't you say the deputy governor was found lying on his back in bed?"  When the commandant answered affirmatively, the caballero queried, "But wouldn't he have collapsed forward on the floor if he had been killed in a duel?"
     The logic did not fit into DeSoto's thinking.  "How should I know?  Maybe he fell backwards onto the bed."
    "But why would Zorro confess to the murder by leaving his signature?" pointed out Alejandro.
     "The man's bold as brass and has no sense of shame.  It doesn't surprise me that he would take credit for the crime.  Now if you'll excuse me, I have much to do."
     "Would you mind if I looked over the room, Alcalde?" Diego requested.
     "Yes, I do mind!" the irritated officer snapped, then relented unexpectedly.  "Oh, go ahead; just don't touch anything!"
     When he had gone, the caballero climbed the stairs with Victoria closely behind him.  She opened the sealed room with her extra key.  He examined the window first.  No evidence of entry this way--not a mark on the sill,  he thought.
     "You replaced the latch-hook that used to be on this window," observed the detective, examining the new bolt.
     "Yes, Zorro himself suggested it several months ago.  I don't think the window could have been opened from the outside, but perhaps Señor Frescas opened it before retiring for the night."
     The tall man looked around both sides of the bed.  There was not a drop of blood on the floor, only on the sheets where the victim had been lying.  This man was killed in his bed, concluded Diego, probably while he slept.  He turned to his companion.
     "Was the door locked this morning when Frescas's secretary found him?"
     "No, which was surprising.  He didn't seem like the kind of man who would be careless about such a thing."
     "What happened to his room key?"
     "One of the soldiers found it beside the bed and returned it to me."    "Where do you keep your spare set of keys at night?"
     "Locked in my room with me."
     He reasoned, "Then if the killer came through the door, he must have picked the lock."  Scanning the bare room, he asked, "What happened to the deputy governor's personal effects?"
     "The alcalde allowed Frescas's nephew to take them away.  He said there was no point in examining them since Zorro was the murderer."  She bit her lip and asked hesitantly, "You don't believe that, do you, Diego?"
     "Of course not," he reassured, "but someone killed him.  For your own safety, let's keep the things we've just discussed between ourselves."
 
     Being the editor of The Guardian would serve him well now, de la Vega thought, snatching up his little notebook and pencil.  He found the assistant Lucha at the garrison's stables, saddling a horse for a ride.  Diego introduced himself and asked if the visitor would be willing to be interviewed for the newspaper.  Lucha looked completely disinterested in discussing the murder of his superior, but reluctantly agreed after the editor coaxed him with a friendly smile.  When asked why Frescas had come to Los Angeles, the assistant replied unexpansively, "To capture Zorro.  He had thought about little else since his last visit two years ago."
     "Was he planning on the alcalde's help to capture the outlaw?"
     Lucha snorted, "He was planning to remove the alcalde from office if DeSoto didn't have Zorro under arrest by the end of the week.  The deputy governor didn't have much respect for your commandant.  I believe they had some heated words over the matter immediately after we arrived yesterday."
     "This tragedy will be very hard on the deputy governor's family," suggested Diego.
     "He wasn't married.  His nephew is his heir.  Now, if you'll excuse me, Señor," he said curtly, mounted, and rode off.
     The secretary was praying in the church.  De la Vega stood watching for some minutes and did not approach the young man until he had risen from his knees to sit in the pew.  Again, Diego introduced himself and quietly offered his condolences.
     Mateo Frescas met his eyes frankly.  "Thank you, Señor.  My uncle and I were not close, but it was a horrible way to die.  It seems he made a vindictive enemy of this Zorro."
     The caballero let that remark pass and asked, "If you were not close, how was it that you came into his service?"
     "He was a bachelor, and my father was his younger brother.  My uncle felt he needed to provide a good situation for me as I came of age, but politics is not really my forte," he admitted, "and my uncle is--was not an easy man to get along with."
     Diego privately agreed, having had several encounters with the difficult man himself.  "Who do you think the governor will appoint as your uncle's successor?"
     The younger Frescas reflected, "There are several people qualified to fill the position; the governor could pick any one of them.  Certainly Lucha will be considered a top choice; he's worked closely with my uncle for several years and is extremely competent."
 
     "What did your investigative reporting turn up, Diego?" his father asked him over the dinner table.
     "That there are at least three people with strong motive for killing Frescas:  the alcalde, whom Frescas threatened to ouster for not capturing Zorro; the assistant Lucha, who may have wanted to replace his mentor; and the nephew, who was his uncle's heir."
     Alejandro took a sip of water.  "For that matter, I had a motive.  I certainly had no liking for that petty politician, and he almost used his authority to strip us of the ranch.  Victoria had a motive, too, if she got wind of the deputy governor's purpose to capture Zorro, and she was there."
     "True, but neither of you are killers, nor would you have implicated Zorro.  Motive and opportunity alone aren't enough; the murderer also had resolve.  But the truth will come out somehow.  As Shakespeare observed, 'Murder, though it hath no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.'"

     A shower of pebbles against her window hurried Victoria to open the shutters.  It could only be Zorro, and she was not disappointed as she looked at the ground below.  The masked man gestured for her to come down to open the back door for him.  She shook her head and indicated for him to climb up.  As agile and noiseless as a cat, he reached her window and swung his long legs over the sill.
     The young woman put her finger to her lips and whispered, "The younger Frescas is still downstairs, reading by the light of the fire."
     "And Lucha is still playing cards with the alcalde and the soldiers at the barracks," he returned.  "Perfect.  I need to get into their rooms while they're out."  He picked up her set of keys.  "Will you go downstairs and keep Frescas occupied for fifteen minutes or so?"
     Torn between laughter and exasperation, she hissed, "You really are the limit!" while pulling a skirt over her nightdress and picking up a shawl.  "Most men would think of serenading beneath their lady's window, but you send me out to another man so you can snoop!"
     He grinned appreciatively and pulled her close for a quick kiss.  "I'll work on my shortcomings.  Not too friendly downstairs, mind."

     The next morning, Don Diego and Felipe were part of an army of volunteer decorators busy in the plaza.  They had been asked to hang streamers on the front of the church, and the tall caballero stood several rungs up a ladder.
     "Hand me the red," he told his brother.  "Zorro has discovered who killed the deputy governor and why he did it.  But we need to wring a public confession from him.  Do you have any ideas?"
     Felipe thought a moment.  "All the suspects will be at the fiesta tomorrow; so will the whole town.  It would be a good time and place for Zorro to confront the murderer," he whispered with his scratchy voice.
     "Yes, I think so too," mused Diego.  "Now the yellow, por favor."  The young man obliged, but a jingling sound from the pueblo gates turned his head.
     "Look!" he cried, tapping his older brother on the leg.  Diego followed the direction Felipe was pointing and saw a brightly colored wagon pulled by a pair of horses trot toward the plaza.  The driver waved them a cheerful greeting as he passed and stopped by the fountain.  The unusual conveyance immediately attracted the interest of the townspeople, who took a break from their decorating or indoor work to see what would happen next.
     "I think it's the acting troop from San Francisco," Diego smiled to his brother.  "The padre arranged for them to be here for Guadalupe Day."  The driver, an older man, jumped down and helped from the back of the wagon a woman the same age as himself, two strong young men, and a teenage girl.
     "Greetings from the town of Saint Francis, good people of Los Angeles.  I am Perito Crónica, head of the finest acting troupe in the province--the Players Crónica!" the older man announced with a flourish and elaborate bow.  He introduced to the small crowd gathered his wife, two sons, and daughter.  "Tonight, we will be giving a short benefit performance here in the plaza to whet your appetite for tomorrow's special presentation."  A scattered applause met his words, and he turned toward the tavern.  A shrewd judge of people, Señor Crónica quickly identified Victoria as the inn's manager, and asked permission to use her building's porch as a makeshift stage for his outdoor performances.  She readily agreed, since the tavern would be closed for business the following evening, and tonight's brief benefit would attract customers.
     Diego watched the energetic actor thoughtfully.  "'The abstracts and chroniclers of our time.'"  With twinkling eyes he told his brother, "Hamlet is going to help us solve our problem, Felipe."  Striding across the plaza, he called to the impresario.  "Señor Crónica, welcome to our town."
     The actor turned toward him with a wide smile.  "You are the caballero who was perched on the ladder as we drove in."
     "That's right.  I was wondering if you've chosen which drama to present tomorrow night."
     The visitor gestured grandly.  "Señor, our troupe has mastered nearly every drama, comedy, and historical play ever written.  Do you have a preference?"
     "Indeed I do.  Are you familiar with 'Justice Entangled'?"
     "The tale of an innocent man accused of murder?  Certainly," replied Crónica.
     Diego withdrew a handful of pesos from his pocket and held them out to the other man.  "I'd be extremely grateful to have that drama performed tomorrow night.  If you'd just make a couple of small alterations, I think I can promise you the most unique audience reaction you've ever received."
     "Señor, you are a generous and discerning man.  Shall we discuss it in the privacy of my wagon?"
 
     The important holiday, commemorating the appearance of the Virgin in Guadalupe two hundred fifty years before, began with pre-dawn fireworks.  The morning was given to prayers and worship, but the more exciting activities, according to most residents, began at noon as vendors opened booths in the plaza, selling refreshments and every party memento imaginable.  Gambling, in the form of cards, cockfights, or dice filled every otherwise unoccupied corner.  Alejandro left his younger son to enjoy the company of Don Sebastian's daughter, and approached the alcalde and his guests from Monterey.
     "Buenos dias, Señores," de la Vega greeted.  "I'm sorry that our fiesta is back-to-back with the tragedy of the deputy governor's death.  It must seem strange to you."
     "Indeed it does," Mateo Frescas replied.  "I confess I'm not much inclined to enter into the spirit of the celebration."
     "Understandable.  Alcalde," queried Don Alejandro, "how does your investigation proceed?"
     "There's nothing more to investigate.  It's just a matter of getting Zorro under lock and key for his murder trial."
     "And when will that be?" Lucha asked his host.  "The governor will want to know."
     "I have a patrol scouring the countryside for him right now," DeSoto announced with more confidence than he felt.
     Sergeant Mendoza had the afternoon off, having been on patrol in the morning, and was treating Ana Amistad to every sweet confection for sale.  As they returned to the booth shared by the girl's mother and Señorita Escalante, the widow looked up from shaping tortillas.
     "Oh, Jaime," Carmen protested.  "She'll get sick from so much candy."
     "I don't think so. Besides, I don't know who's having more fun--Ana or me!  The padre has organized some games for the children behind the church.  Can you come and watch for a little while?"  The señora appealed to her friend, and Victoria smiled.
     "Go on; I can manage by myself a bit."  As the lady left with the soldier, Alejandro drew near to order food.
     "What do you have today, Victoria?"
     "Quesadillas--the best you can buy.  Also the only ones for sale today," she added with a giggle.  "The alcalde doesn't appear to be enjoying himself," observed the innkeeper, as she handed him a filled tortilla.  De la Vega turned to follow her gaze across the plaza and watched the officer and his two guests.
     "No, he doesn't.  But entertaining dignitaries is not his favorite pastime, and if those two learned social graces from the deputy governor, the alcalde is going to have a long day."
     "I thought they would leave right after the funeral yesterday.  Why do you suppose they stayed?"
     "Señor Lucha seems just as anxious as Deputy Governor Frescas to see Zorro captured, especially since he believes Zorro to be the assassin.  I think they will both stay until this crime is solved."
 
     When the sky had darkened, the plaza was lit by the warm glow of paper lanterns strung from building to building, and lively music from a trio of guitars encouraged impromptu but enthusiastic dancing.  Most booths closed, as nearly everyone chose to participate while waiting for the play to be presented later in the evening.  Carmen certainly did not lack for partners, noted Victoria; nearly every soldier in the garrison lined up to ask for the next dance.  Mendoza was having a hard time getting a dance himself.
     "What brings such a delighted smile to your face?" asked a voice beside her.  She turned her head and saw Diego de la Vega.  The señorita indicated the sergeant's predicament, and her companion grinned.  "Mendoza will have to move more quickly to stay ahead of the competition.  Why aren't you dancing?"
     "I just cleaned up and changed clothes.  I wanted to wear this new dress tonight," she beamed, whirling around.
     "As always, the epitome of feminine beauty and charm," he gallantly complimented.  "Let me find you a partner."  Seizing her hand and ignoring her protests, he scanned the crowd from his superior height and weaved his way through, bumping into Señor Lucha of the alcalde's party.  "I beg your pardon, Señor; how clumsy of me," de la Vega apologized, brushing the official's jacket into place.  "May I present Señorita Escalante as a partner for this dance?"  Lucha looked as disinclined to accept as the lady looked chagrined, but there was no courteous way to refuse.  He sketched a bow and took Victoria's hand.  As her eyes shot daggers at him, Diego smiled in satisfaction, slipping something into his pocket.

     All the tavern's benches as well as the church's pews had been moved outdoors and arranged in a semi-circle facing the inn's front porch, which Crónica and his family had furnished as their drama demanded.  The one peso charge was considered so reasonable that few people quibbled to pay, and the townspeople brought out their own chairs or blankets on which to sit when provided seating was full.  The alcalde and his guests had front-row positions, and Alejandro and Felipe sat together a few rows back with Victoria.
     "Where's Diego?" his father wondered.  "I can't believe he'd miss the play."
     "If I see him again tonight, he'll hear a few choice words from me," muttered the innkeeper.  Felipe, the only one in the audience who had an inkling what was about to happen, sat tensely and made no comment.  A fanfare sounded, and the murmuring in the crowd hushed.  Señor Crónica stepped out from the tavern and inclined his head majestically at the applause.
     "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight the Players Crónica will transport you to far-off Spain through the magic of the stage.  Watch closely and you will see how art imitates life.  We present to you the exciting drama 'Justice Entangled' or 'The Assassin of Seville'."
     After the story's opening act unfolded before the spellbound audience, the players set up the murder scene.  The old duke was "stabbed" in his bed by one of his underlings.  Then the "assassin" carved the "hero's" initial in the pillow and planted a sword in the dead man's hand.  Most of the audience immediately drew the parallel between the play and the grisly event of three days before, and there were several gasps.  DeSoto and the two men beside him sat as if cast in plaster, so absorbed was their attention.  But when the villain on stage lost a button from his jacket before leaving his victim, Lucha's hand strayed to feel the front of his jacket.  When he realized he himself was missing a button, he looked at his clothes in astonished horror.  Zorro swung down from his vantage point on the tavern's roof and leaping in front of the assistant, pointed his sabre at the throat of the visitor.
     "Lose something, Lucha?" asked the masked man holding up the missing button.  The actors on the stage stopped, transfixed, and not even the alcalde dared make a move or utter a sound.  The assistant blenched, but collected his thoughts quickly.
     "I must have just lost the button tonight.  I wasn't even wearing this suit when--"  He stopped short, but the dark hero finished his sentence for him.
     "When you killed the deputy governor.  Very true.  You were wearing this."  Zorro pulled out a nightshirt, obviously used to wipe off a bloody knife.
     The accused man garbled, "Where did you get that?" and started to rise, but was forced to sit again by the pressure of the sword tip.
     "From between the mattresses, where you hid it lest your room was searched.  And here is your motive," said the masked man, withdrawing from his shirt a leather-bound book.  "Frescas's journal, describing in his own handwriting how you and he had an argument three days before his death, and he told you that you'd be replaced when you returned to Monterey.  That didn't sit well with an ambitious assistant who aspired to one day be the governor of California."  He tossed the diary to the alcalde.
     The younger Frescas exclaimed, "I put my uncle's journal with my things after his death.  How did you get it, Señor?"
     "I took the liberty of borrowing it.  If Lucha had known of the journal entry, he surely would have destroyed it.  He's all yours, Alcalde," Zorro saluted, and disappeared in the dark shadows behind the tavern.  A loud whinny broke the stunned silence, and the sound of hoofbeats faded in the distance.
     DeSoto seized one of Lucha's arms, and Frescas pinned back the assistant's other arm.  "Señor Lucha, you are under arrest for the murder of the deputy governor.  Lancers," the officer called, "take him away."
 
     The drama continued successfully and was a performance which neither the players nor the audience ever forgot.  The concluding festivity of the day was fireworks at midnight, which most citizens stayed up to watch.
     "Well, Alcalde, the governor will be very pleased to hear you have Frescas's murderer under arrest," Alejandro commented.
     "Yes.  The excerpt from the diary was detailed and overwhelmingly condemning.  Faced with the evidence of his own guilt, Lucha confessed everything.  He knew in Los Angeles he could easily pin the crime on Zorro."
     "You see?  Zorro wasn't guilty," interceded Victoria, "and he gave the real killer into your hands."
     "I'll admit Zorro did a good turn for once," DeSoto grumbled, "but it might surprise you to learn, Señorita, that I actually took Zorro's part in an argument with the deputy governor.  One shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but seldom have I met a more ruthlessly manipulative man than Frescas."
     Victoria bit back a comment about looking in the mirror and wished the gentlemen good night as everyone dispersed to his own home.  Nearly an hour later, she wearily climbed the tavern stairs with a candle.  Upon opening the door to her room, a draft from the window blew out her light.  As she leaned out to close the shutters against the cool December air, the mellow notes from a guitar floated up, accompanied by a deep voice singing softly.
     Zorro was serenading.
 

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