Victoria found the box in her storage room. She hadn't really cleaned it out in some time, but she needed a little more room. The tavern wasn't very busy at the moment so she could take a few minutes to clear one shelf. She stood on the ladder trying to remember what she'd put in those bags on the top shelf and wishing she were a bit taller as it was a reach even from the top step. Trying to grab one item, Victoria overbalanced and fell down to land on an old mattress and something unexpectedly hard.
What is that? she thought as she got up and pushed the mattress up to reveal a chest that she didn't remember being there a few months ago. She opened the lid and looked through the contents. There was a smaller wooden box and she lifted the lid to see a small plaque inscribed with the words "The Ten Potions of Dr. Henry Wayne." Well, that explains it. Three months earlier, Dr. Wayne had had to leave in a hurry after running afoul of the alcalde, not that she minded since the man had actually foolishly agreed to help the alcalde to try to kill Zorro and used her as bait for a trap. Obviously, he'd been in too much of a hurry to remember this chest. She looked at the potions.
"Strength, passion, love," she said, reading some of the labels. Love sounded intriguing. For a moment, she wondered if it would work on Zorro, then she laughed. She couldn't even get the man to stop long enough to do more than kiss her hand; the idea of getting him to stop long enough to drink anything was ludicrous. She'd have a better chance with Diego; then she stopped, embarrassed by that thought.
She sighed. Why did that have to keep happening? Diego was a friend— and a caballero. She shouldn't think of him that way. But the truth was after he'd risked his life to try to rescue her from pirates and after challenging that Englishman to a duel that he was bound to lose, Victoria had had a hard time thinking of him as just a friend. The fact that Zorro was as elusive as ever didn't help matters. Victoria was beginning to think he simply enjoyed flirting with her without any thought of the future. The way he'd teased her about his promise did not speak of a man who meant to keep a commitment. "Please be patient, Señorita," he'd said. How patient was she supposed to be?
But Diego— he was just as impossible. Hadn't he just been off somewhere chasing some mysterious woman? She'd simply meant to tease him when she'd said she heard he'd been involved in a burning romance, since she'd been sure it had been some kind of study or experiment or maybe even a new book that had him disappearing for a couple of days without a word to his father. He could be absent-minded sometimes, so she was shocked when he'd said it had been a woman.
She wondered what sort of woman would have attracted his attention enough to have him disappear without a word. Probably someone who knew all about music and art and literature. Someone well traveled. Someone not like her. However, obviously it had not worked out, and Victoria wasn't going to let it bother her. Diego was her friend, and she was happy with that— most of the time.
Looking at the potions, Victoria wished she knew if such things would really work. She'd never really had a chance to study. The tavern had kept her too busy for her to have much time for reading, though Don Alejandro had let her borrow many books from his library, and Diego was willing to explain things whenever she got up the nerve to ask. However, she knew that she'd never understand half the things he did. Realizing that Diego was sitting in the tavern just now, she decided to take the box to him, hoping he could explain what would make potions like these work. If they worked.
She closed the lid and carried it out into the main room, where he was sitting at a table with Sergeant Mendoza. As she thought, he found Dr. Wayne's potions intriguing even as he was skeptical as to their efficacy. Mendoza though with his less than fond memories of the traveling man was more blatant in his disbelief.
"His gadgets almost killed me twice," he grumbled. "Doctor Henry Wayne was nothing but a crack pot. I bet these things are nothing but colored water."
"Not necessarily, Sergeant," Diego said. "Throughout history many different foods, herbs, minerals have all been reputed to affect moods or skills. While I don't believe that any potion would have the exact outcomes promised on these bottles, I can't say that they are simply colored water, at least without some kind of testing."
Victoria was looking through the bottles. "Here, Sergeant. Strength. It would be perfect for you."
"Victoria, I don't think anyone should actually drink them," Diego protested.
"Why? You don't think they're actually poisonous do you?" she asked.
"Well, no," Diego said, after a moment's reflection. "Dr. Wayne was out to sell his inventions, not poison his customers. I think at worst you might get an upset stomach."
"So, why not try it? Hmm, Sergeant. Wouldn't you like to be strong?" Victoria asked.
"It's ridiculous," he insisted.
Victoria wasn't so sure. "All you can eat for lunch for a week... free," she said, holding out the bottle.
Mendoza's eyes went wide. "All I can eat... for a week... free?"
"Free." Victoria knew she was going to regret this, but she was too curious to mind the cost now.
Mendoza took the bottle from Victoria, as Diego tried dissuading them.
"Don Diego, aren't you curious too?" Victoria asked.
"Yes, but not enough to drink an unknown potion," he said, watching in dismay as Mendoza opened the bottle.
Mendoza smiled as he lifted the bottle to take a swig, but then made a face as he swallowed. Victoria lifted the box off the table for a moment, looking at the other bottles again.
After another moment, Mendoza looked triumphant. "See. Nothing. I win!"
He brought down his hand on the table and it broke in half. Almost convulsively, Victoria closed the lid on the box, as the whole tavern looked around in shock. Mendoza stood frozen, as everyone heard the sudden yell of an all-too-familiar voice, shouting, "Men—do—za!"
Victoria turned to see Luis Ramone standing behind them. She hadn't noticed he'd entered the tavern. She looked at him in annoyance.
"Mendoza, what is going on?" he demanded.
"Um, we were just testing something, mi alcalde," he stammered. "Something of Dr. Wayne's."
"Dr. Henry Wayne? That madman?" Ramone exclaimed, astonishment and derision in his voice. Ramone's eyes focused on the box in Victoria's lap. "Let me see that."
He came forward and held his hand out. Wanting to keep it but not in the mood for a struggle she'd probably lose, Victoria reluctantly handed it over.
"'The Ten Potions of Dr. Henry Wayne'?" he read incredulously. "And what did you take, Mendoza?"
"Umm. Strength, mi alcalde," Mendoza gulped nervously.
Ramone looked from Mendoza to the table to the box with a calculating expression. "I see," he said before looking at Victoria. "Señorita, for the safety of the state, I am confiscating this box and its contents immediately."
"They're not yours, alcalde," Victoria protested.
"Nor yours," he pointed out with a malicious smile. "Dr. Henry Wayne was a dangerous man; it would hardly be wise for me to let such potentially harmful potions remain unsecured."
"Don't be ridiculous," Victoria said.
Ramone looked at the broken table. "I beg to differ, Señorita," he said, before turning to Mendoza. "Come with me, Sergeant."
Victoria looked after him angrily about to follow, when Diego touched her arm. "Let him go. It's not worth it," he said.
"How can you be sure?" she asked. "If there's any truth on those labels, you can bet that man will find a way to use them for something evil. Look at what Mendoza did to my table."
Diego examined the broken pieces. "It could be that the structure was already weakened. There have been several fights in here after all, and your furniture has seen a lot of abuse."
"You could be right," Victoria said with a sigh. "I'm always needing to get it repaired and replaced."
Finishing his examination, Diego picked up the largest part of the table with an ease that surprised Victoria. "Where would you like me to put this?" he asked.
"Oh, you don't have to do that, Don Diego," she said.
"I insist; after all, I was part of the experiment. So where does this go?" Diego asked again.
"The storage shed outside is best," Victoria said.
"All right," he replied heading directly back.
Victoria had to hurry to get in front of him to hold the door. One more trip and the last of the pieces were in the shed, and Diego even moved over an empty table from the back corner into the spot, completely oblivious to everyone's stares.
"Gracias, Diego," she said, as he set the table down.
"It was the least I could do," he said with a smile. Glancing around he noticed the bottle of strength potion on its side near the bar. He went to pick it up and glanced at it. There was a small amount of liquid still at the bottom of the bottle. "Do you mind if I take this with me?" he asked. "I can't help but wonder if it was colored water or if Dr. Wayne used some ingredients that have the reputation of endowing strength."
"No, go ahead, before the alcalde comes back and tries to take it too," Victoria said, as she glared at the front door.
"Gracias, Victoria. Buenas noches," Diego said politely, examining the bottle as he walked out the door.
Victoria found herself staring after Diego. How like him to want to study something he was skeptical about. He always wanted to know how or if something worked. He had such a passion for learning, and yet sometimes such an inexplicable indifference to what was happening in the pueblo. Sometimes she wondered if she could ever understand him and if she would be more disappointed than happy if she did.
Luis Ramone sat at his desk looking over the various potions in the vials. Courage had potential for his next fight with Zorro, but he'd rather act more indirectly especially since he had no idea if that thing with Mendoza was a fluke or not. No, he'd need a test case, something a bit more devious. He looked at the bottle of fear. If he could get that into Zorro—but that wouldn't work. It's not like Zorro actually stopped for drinks at the tavern or that he'd just swallow something because he was asked nicely. However...
Ramone looked down at the bottle of love potion. Everyone knew that Señorita Escalante was infatuated with Zorro and that nothing got him angrier than a threat to her. Now what if she were to desert him for someone completely unlike the masked bandit. Oh, not himself, tempting though the thought was. Though Zorro made a point of not killing, who knew what jealousy or betrayal could drive a man to do?
Definitely someone else, someone equally galling, someone Ramone wouldn't mind seeing Zorro's rage focused on, someone who kept getting in his way. In other words, someone like Diego de la Vega. He might be all intellect and no action, but his newspaper was a constant irritant, one that he couldn't shut down, not after that fiasco when Don Diaz came to inspect it. He'd received direct instructions from the governor backing the press and insisting that de la Vega be allowed to continue running it. And Don Diego did keep managing to print unfortunate truths Ramone would rather not have see the light of day.
Chuckling evilly, he thought this would be perfect. Señorita Escalante had made no secret of her preference for men of action, to fall in love with the town's poet would be rich irony. And Alejandro de la Vega, who could be more vexing than his son, after all his attempts to match his son with the daughters of local caballeros what could be more galling to have his son publicly infatuated with a tavern owner. And if Zorro took his anger out on Diego, well, then he'd lose one of his biggest supporters since Alejandro would certainly not forgive the masked man for injuring or killing his only son.
Yes, this was the perfect plan, and it had the advantage that it would be easy to slip something to the pair of them, as de la Vega spent a great deal of time in the tavern, certainly more time than Zorro did. And that made Ramone think about the situation a little more closely.
De la Vega was always hanging around the señorita, and there was that duel with Thackery. Unusual for a man that couldn't normally be bothered to do more than make a weak protest and who was clearly outclassed by the Englishman and saved by a fluke. Yet when Thackery insulted this particular woman... Perhaps this would be even easier than he thought, if Don Diego were infatuated with the tavern owner but too cowardly to say anything because of Zorro.
Also, it wasn't that long ago that Señorita Escalante seemed particularly upset with the man over Amanda Herrara's presence at the de la Vega hacienda. Could it be that she had some ambitions in that direction herself? Even the most idealistic woman might make an exception for wealth and position. This could get interesting; even if Dr. Wayne's potion wasn't as potent as described, perhaps all he would need for it to do is give them both a push, and infatuation and self-interest could do the rest.
Locking the box into his safe, Ramone couldn't help but laugh all the way to bed.
~to be continued~