Disclaimer: Queen of Swords was created by Fireworks Entertainment, and is owned by ContentFilm. This story is NOT affiliated with the rights holders or the show's original creators. No infringement is intended and no profit is being made. This story is for entertainment purposes only.
The author would like to thank Robert Vincent for all his valuable support and input.
Chapter 14: New Evidence
Journal of Sergeant…
Whoops. Almost a month after my promotion and I'm still not used to my rank now.
Journal of LIEUTENANT Lionel Williams, entry 3,027.
October 23rd, 1818.
God, what a month.
With each new victory, a bigger battle always lies ahead. After the successful exorcism of corruption, came the battle to the death with Malcolm. After the promotion, came a resurgence in crime. I became more of a target than ever, with new bandits coming over from Mexico AND America to try and challenge me.
But like all challenges that came our way, we fought them off. We survived and triumphed, the Queen and I, and our friends. It was tough, but we prevailed. We always do.
That's something I've tried to remember as now – with all other obstacles fallen before us – we finally move forward towards our biggest victory of them all. I've rarely felt so confident in my life. The last time I was so sure of this was when I provided detailed, inside movements of Napoleon's movements to the Allied Powers, which ultimately allowed my pal, the Iron Duke himself to boot the French out of Spain for good.
So I've got plenty of good reason to be sure of my chances of success by liberating another realm, another haven…here and now.
I'm going to give the Queen of Swords the means to destroy her greatest enemies. I'm going to save our home again, for my wife and child, and end this latest book with a 'happily ever after', liberating Santa Helena from tyranny and fear, and giving the people back their independence.
But before I do, there's one important question that's gone unanswered for FAR too long. I owe Tessa Alvarado my life, and the lives of all I hold dear. And I'm going to repay her for everything she's done.
Today's the day…when the truth will FINALLY be revealed.
I WILL find out…WHO killed Tessa's father, Don Raphael Alvarado.
Here I am…in Monterey.
Officially, I'm on special assignment for Montoya. I've been here for a week on behalf of my glorious commander to oversee important military business with his official consort, Colonel Raphael, just as much of a conniving, despicable sadist as dear Luis. We've been exchanging hefty tax transfers, hefty munitions and supplies, and all kinds of lovely pleasantries in the Custom House, still ongoing construction.
Montoya and Raphael have had a relationship that's benefited both of them for years. Doing their dirty work and overseeing their shady dealings at the expense of innocent lives makes me sick, but that's not the real reason why I'm here.
It all started at the last get-together we had at the Alvarado Hacienda, shortly after my promotion. All laughs and smiles…then I see Tessa looking at her father's portrait. I offer sympathy, then we start talking about him, and his unresolved murder. During my initial investigations of the Queen of Swords and who's-who in Santa Helena, I learned of Tessa's dad, the rumours, the cover-ups etc, but it wasn't until later when I actually knew Tessa that I knew of her failed attempts to uncover the identity of her father's murderers.
"Let me see what I can do," I offered.
"Lionel, I've tried so many times," she warned gravely. "Whoever was responsible are very dangerous. They don't care about my pain or what I've lost. They will kill to keep the truth buried, and all my attempts have ended in failure and nearly cost the lives of those I hold dear."
"Kid, you DESERVE an answer. I'm GOOD at this. And I OWE you."
"No, you don't…"
"Yes, I do. Do I have your complete trust to at least try?"
Tessa had stared, smiled warmly, then told me I already had it.
So over the last few weeks, along with all the other crap, I've been devoting my spare time to finding out more about Don Alvarado's death. Going over the 'official' reports that claimed that he died in a horse-riding accident, listening to the fearful whispers of people…
And of course, breaking into Montoya's office at night, and leaving the room undisturbed with him none the wiser.
All this has been a risky game, but so was surviving under Napoleon's rule. Besides, by breaking into Joseph Bonaparte's study back in Madrid, I was able to turn the tide of the war. And me actually gaining more power as a lieutenant, and having my own set of loyalists to watch my back and cover up, I was able to unearth quite a few details…
Tessa told me about her Uncle's efforts, the set-up of Don Ricardo (a personal friend of mine) and the man called Raul.
Looking into his background, I can understand why people make sure to forget this guy. Just about worthless in almost everyway. Poor orphan, insignificant vermin, illiterate clod, compulsive liar, notorious troublemaker, greedy thief, evil sadist, vile tongue, Grisham's punching bag…
In a nutshell, dime-a-dozen cliché.
According to character witnesses, Raul was just a lowly private, who thought himself more than what he was worth. Tried to pilfer other soldiers' wages, steal some of Montoya's pillages…and always ended up paying the price. The only reason why he was kept around for so long was like any other rabid dog. He was good at killing.
But for whatever reason, this Raul was present at Don Raphael Alvarado's death. He knew exactly what happened and who was responsible, which led him to desert the army. Tessa sought him out and offered to pay to know the identity of her father's killers.
Good plan, but it went balls-up. By a FLUKE, Raul found out that Tessa Alvarado was really the Queen of Swords, and tried to sell her out to Montoya. Tessa came up with a damn good cover story to fool Grisham and his men – I KNEW there was something weird about that 'being tied-up over a shaman' crap – making Raul public enemy number one in the process.
That's when things got really bad. Raul later attacked Tessa at her own home, wanting to make her suffer, kill her and then ransack her hacienda for the riches. He told her all sorts of messed-up lies about her dad's death. But like the trooper she is, the kid blocked it out and skewered the bastard with a pitchfork.
Annoyingly, though…the truth died with him.
Or so it had seemed. After finishing going over the reports on Raul, I was ready to put my head through a wall. He had no friends whatsoever, no accomplices, couldn't even read or write, making his supposed 'written-confession' blackmail of Montoya as empty as 98 percent of the 'truths' he spewed out…I was ready to call it quits until I found out something VERY interesting.
Turned out Raul had a COUSIN.
His name was Juan, another miserable tearaway, about the same age. Well, initially another miserable tearaway. A life on the run with Raul dragging him by the arm after killing an abusive aunt. Until they ended up in Santa Helena, with Montoya (always desperate for troops) forcibly drafting them both into his militia of killers.
But Juan turned out different. He made up for not going to school by turning himself into one hell of an autodidact. His reading and writing translated into knowledge and intelligence, and he got good. SO good that he became corporal as well as Montoya's personal chronicler. Even married and had a kid.
And according to 'official' records of the day of Don Alvarado's death…Juan was present at the event with Raul. Judging from his family-man status and his record, I hypothesised that he'd be likely and actually willing to help solve the case.
Until I found out that Juan had been declared DEAD. Perished with his wife in a house fire. Bodies were even recovered. I was originally going to accept this latest 'dead end' when I wisely chose to read on. I'm really glad I did.
Because the night this happened…was EXACTLY the same DATE that Don Alvarado was murdered. And the date ALSO matches exactly with the one when Raul's desertion was reported. Furthermore, it said in the reports that no child's body was recovered from that fire. So Juan's boy…was only labelled deceased.
Too many juicy coincidences to overlook, methinks. Granted, it's just speculation…but speculation has served me well thus far. So after gathering what I could, covering up my trail, I began to set to work, with the presumption that Juan had faked his death and was still alive.
That's what I did.
So after weeks of going through time-wasting bandits, beating up killers, chasing leads and paying off useful contacts…I found out what I needed to know. Juan was alive, with his kid, living under false names. They're living in Monterey of all places, the perfect hellhole to hide in so long as you keep your head down. Sadly, Juan's got himself into debt, which is BAD given this town's tax-collectors.
Thanks to people pointing me in the right direction, tracking this deserter down to his address through his financial records, volunteering to oversee the military business in Monterey, using it as the perfect cover-up for my own agenda…it's all coming together now.
This whole business with Raul and Juan, Montoya and Tessa reminds me of all the horrible crap I've had to deal with in life.
Pablo, Malcolm, Grisham…the nameless, faceless piece of trash who murdered my own parents in cold blood…
I've grown up having to accept the fact that my parents' killer was never ever caught…but I'll be damned if I'm gonna let the same thing happen to Tessa. I love that kid, and I owe her. And I'm not coming home until I find out the truth once and for all.
Tessa's long suspected that Montoya and Grisham have been involved in her dad's death ever since the beginning. And I'm sure she's right, I know it. Everything POINTS to it.
And with Tomas covering my tracks, stopping my superiors from even suspecting what I'm up to…it's now time to move in.
END OF LOG.
"You promised me it would be tonight, Diego!" he seethed angrily, grabbing the man's shirt and slamming him against the barrels.
"I'm sorry, Nuño! Raphael's bleeding me dry! You know how his thugs just…!"
"Big deal!" he leered into the owner's face. "Everyone's got thug problems in Monterey! Some more than others! Like me! You said I'd have work tonight! You OWE me payment for the last several shifts!"
"Nuño, I'd never screw you over, you know that! It's just…!"
"I'm desperate! Can't you understand that? I NEED the money! If I don't get it tonight, I'm…!"
The door was smashed off its hinges. Nuño and Diego looked up to the stairs, as the smashed door fell onto the stone steps and was then kicked aside, where it fell to the hard floor and landed with a loud, banging crash. Nuño's arms lost their strength and fell away from Diego's shirt. No longer pinned against the barrels, Diego's body slackened with fear. The two shady accomplices backed away, as a sinister looking, well-dressed man, with three burly accomplices in tow, entered the cellar and strode towards the pair of them.
Their steps 'clomped' on the stone steps, growing louder and louder, rattling Nuño and Diego, who looked to his accomplice, his shaky eyes wanting an explanation. Nuño could only swallow. The only movement his fear-frozen body would allow.
"Sixty reales, Nuño," grinned the bearded felon, tugging at his gold earring. "Where is it?"
"I'll get it to you…"
"Thought so. Get rid of the witness."
"Hey! Hey! I'm just trying to earn a living! I don't even know this guy or you! He just broke into my wine cellar!" protested Diego as one of the towering brutes grabbed him by the scruff of his collar, lifting him off his feet and carrying him away, as the owner shouted, "I'm friends with Colonel Raphael! If you don't unhand me, I swear I'll…!"
The disgusted Nuño shook his head as the rat and his catcher left the cellar to the alley out the back. Then Nuño felt the fist thrust into his stomach and nearly rupture an artery. Then he felt a sharp, bulky elbow drive into his spine and make him eat floor. One of the towering behemoths pinned Nuño down with his foot, the other then grabbed his hair and yanked his head back.
Their shifty leader knelt down to stick his dagger right up Nuño's nostril, glaring, "Neighbourhood protection, living benefits, food, drink, creature comforts, and of course, Raphael not even knowing you exist…quite a bill you've racked up with us, amigo."
"Please, I just need a little more time to…" explained Nuño.
"You've kept us waiting for six months, Judas," sneered the beard, tugging at his earring again. "You asked us to be nice, so we cut you some slack. Now…we're going to cut you into vulture food along with your…"
"No, please! I BEG…!"
But before the impatient thug and his bullies could silence the frightened Nuño, silence fell in the cellar upon hearing the rattling 'wump' that landed just a few feet away from then. Everyone's eyes cast to the bag, doubtless containing gold. Then they all turned their attention to the person who had thrown it.
"There you are, sixty reales," explained Williams, arms folded. "Debt repaid."
The beardy bandit tugged at his earring again, staring at the Golden Lieutenant, "Who the hell are you?"
"I would've thought that was obvious," the American explained condescendingly, gesturing down his uniform. "Your payment's gathering dust, by the way."
The criminal beard stared again, and then stood up to face him, chuckling, "You an American - 'wise guy'?"
"Yeah, I'm a wise guy," Lionel grinned back proudly. "And you're obviously a smart business man, judging from the looks of you. So you take the money, you go home happy, he goes home with a lesson learnt with an obligation to make future payments on time. Sounds like a win-win situation."
"Why are you so keen to pay Nuño's bill?" asked the beard, still tugging his earring, much to Lionel's annoyance. "What's he got that so important to you?"
"That's nothing to do with business now, is it?" The soldier paused before asking intently, "So are you going to take the money and go home a happy man?"
The beard stopped tugging at his earring, glared long and hard at the soldier, then solemnly shook his head.
"No. I want his money. That was our agreement. And he's got to pay for it. But yours is certainly appreciated. So thanks. Boys..."
"Tsk, tsk," said Williams. "You're not even worth one reale, you little asshole. So you should be more than thankful for what you're getting. Sixty-times your value and walking away with your health. You walk away with the gold, he comes with me, everyone's happy. Last chance. Better take it."
The beardy bandit snorted a laugh, grabbed Williams' shirt and drew the knife to his throat.
"Not so wise now, are you, Ameri…?"
His question was interrupted by Williams' grabbing his arm, twisting it to make him drop the knife. Lionel inflicted a fierce punch to his stomach, winding the shifty beard. He collapsed in a heap, huddled and clutching his innards tightly, as one of the big bullies advanced menacingly towards Williams, who just turned, cocked his head slightly, and then head-butted the towering brute right in the face. Lionel's hard head broke the big bully's nose, caving it deep into his face. He fell flat on his back, gurgling deep in pain and shock.
Lionel immediately expected an attack from the beard's other cohort, but it never came. Curious, he turned to see that Nuño had vanished. And he'd obviously left a souvenir. The other mammoth henchman lay on his back, eyes rolled upward and blood pouring out of his head. The bag of gold was gone, but a few coins had spilt out onto the floor, doubtless in the haste of Nuño's escape.
"Great," seethed the Golden Lieutenant in annoyance, drawing his pistol, moving his arm behind him to the right and pulling the trigger. The shot caught the surprised beard right in the chest, making him drop his own gun. His attempt to catch the soldier unawares had failed…completely.
"And you…" pointed Lionel angrily to the beard's body, as he holstered his weapon, "you should've quit while you were ahead…wise guy."
Even though Diego's bar was a rowdy, raucous inn, Williams knew that someone doubtless would've heard the gunshot. Two out of four were dead, which was bad. Diego had fainted after Williams had rescued him from the thug who had dragged him outside. The cantina-owner's attacker had been knocked out from behind and tied up, unable to go anywhere or identify Williams, and the man with the broken nose was too deep in shock to remember anything. So – by a fluke – Lionel would getaway with no one knowing he was involved in a killing at a public place.
Still, things had spiralled out of control. Nuño had gone and taken the money, some of it Williams own, some of it stolen from Montoya and Raphael, some of it Tessa's -which she'd agreed to give because she trusted Lionel. And now, Williams had lost it, along with his only lead on the case.
Having fled the cellar and into the city alleys, the Golden Lieutenant gritted his teeth. Monterey was a maze, and Nuño obviously knew the place like the back of his hand. Plus, he'd obviously killed that criminal, when no one was looking, making him dangerous and unpredictable. And desperate for money, obviously.
But not out of greed. It went much deeper.
The words and actions of Nuño and those butchers spoke for themselves.
Williams had the financial records, the addresses, personal details; all the information he'd gathered and bartered for over the last several weeks. He knew where to find him. Nuño wouldn't get far at all. But the attempted meet-up had been compromised. As he ran through the crowds, taking shortcut after shortcut, following every sign of a fleeing fugitive, Williams knew he had to get him and get the answers before…
The punch greeted him as soon as he ran round the corner into the street. Williams didn't have time to nurse his throbbing mouth as the hands grabbed his jacket, picked him up, pulled him inside to the nearest building and threw him to the floor. Before the American could recover, Nuño had thrust a chair hard onto his chest, pinning him down, with one of the struts pressed against the lieutenant's throat, choking him. Nuño sat down, using his weight to drive the chair's force harder into his chest and throat. Williams grunted and gasped for breath, before daring to open his eyes.
The barrel of Nuño's pistol was staring right back at him, and Tessa's warnings were once more ringing in Lionel's ears.
"Whoever was responsible are very dangerous. They don't care about my pain or what I've lost. They will kill to keep the truth buried, and all my attempts have ended in failure and nearly cost the lives of those I hold dear."
The glaring man continued to do so. Lionel grimaced angrily at him, refusing to be afraid, as his quarry's real personality – his real identity – began to emerge.
"How stupid do you think I am, American?" Nuño whispered, demanding to know. His class was peasantry, but despite his lowliness, he had quite a clean appearance. His face was stern, fierce, yet his green eyes betrayed a hint of humanity. He was of average height, yet strong build, sporting short, tidy black hair that reached his neck and shoulders. He also had a thin, black moustache and beard, and was wearing brown pants and boots, white shirt with short sleeves and ochre waist coat. He had a few hairs on his arms and chest, and quite a few on the back of his neck.
Despite the situation he was in, Lionel was at least grateful that his quarry-turned-captor didn't have a stench.
"I asked you a question, American," repeated Nuño slowly, his aim as steady as a rock. When Williams didn't answer, Nuño explained, "I always know when I'm being chased. You have to in order to survive in Monterey. You think I wouldn't know you'd been sniffing around? Asking questions about where I live and my debts? I hear rumours and whispers just as much as the next devil."
"Well, if you know that much…" grunted Lionel, choking for breath, "then I might as well start addressing you by you real name… Juan."
The Spanish deserter sneered and pressed his pistol right into Williams' face, angered over being called that name.
"I don't know who you are, American," he said venomously, "but I'm good at taking guesses. Your uniform and badge are those of a lieutenant. I've never seen you around Monterey before, so you're obviously not one of Raphael's soldiers. You've sought me out, willing to pay off my debts, meaning you obviously want me alive. My welfare matters enough to you that you're willing to kill my debt collectors…and I strongly doubt anyone else knows you're here.
So that means…you're from Santa Helena. Aren't…you?"
Williams nodded his head slightly, daring to confirm as the pistol remained pressed in his face. Juan studied the American for a few more moments. The wheels in the deserter's head turned in computation. Upon reaching his conclusion, the Spaniard chuckled menacingly.
"There's only one person who knew I was still alive," Juan revealed, his mood now darkening. "It was Raul, wasn't it? That scum-sucking vermin sent you, didn't he? He sold me out and now you're here to bring me in? So he can get a full pardon, a juicy reward and be back in Montoya's good graces? Well, give Raul a message from me..."
Juan cocked his pistol, leered deeper into Lionel's face and stated clearly, "You're crude, inexcusable filth…and you deserve to…"
"Raul's dead," interrupted Williams in a fierce whisper. "He's been dead for over a year."
Juan was genuinely shocked, his eyes quickly widening and looking upward. The deserter allowed himself a brief exhale before renewing his intimidating stance, refocusing on the soldier.
"I don't believe you."
"You've got me pinned down, helpless and at gunpoint," choked Lionel, still managing to remain calm. "I spent all this time trying to find you and was trying to help you back there. Why would I choose to lie now after all that?"
"I don't know what your little game is, American, but Raul never thought things through. He didn't care about finesse or how half-assed his schemes was. As long as he got gold, that was all that mattered to him. So whatever this is all about…"
"Then I'm wrong," interrupted Williams bravely. "And you should kill me now and run. Just like you've done ever since…well, you know."
Juan just stared. There was no antagonism in Williams' voice. Rather, there was an understanding. And something of a respect. And sympathy. Thinking about it all, Juan withdrew his gun completely from Lionel's face, yet remained sat on the chair, still pinning the American. The deserter sat up a little, just enough to allow him to breathe. But still enough to keep Lionel pinned.
"Who are you?" Juan demanded to know.
"My name is Lieutenant Lionel Williams, and YES. I AM from the Spanish forces situated in Santa Helena, California. Neither Colonel Montoya or Captain Grisham know I'm seeking you out, but I'm not here about them or Raul. I'm here on behalf of someone else."
"I've tracked you down, Juan, because I'm here to help you. And I really need yours."
Juan stared again at Lionel. Part of the Spaniard was inclined to hear him out, but most of him…the damaged soul…was highly wary and mistrusting.
"Look," offered the American, knowing that the deserter was waiting for him to continue, "We can't stay here. Someone will have discovered the mess back at the cantina cellar by now. I've got a proposition that will take some explaining. Either we go somewhere more secret and safer to negotiate, or you take a run with all those reales and spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder. Or kill me. Or both. As usual."
"Why should I trust you…'Lieutenant Lionel Williams'?" asked Juan sceptically.
"Because I've essentially resolved your debts. Because I saved your life. And because I give you my word. And from one father to another…my word's all I can give."
The hint of humanity in Juan's eyes suddenly sparked, becoming more visible than anything else he was showing. Hesitance began to form on the deserter's face, and when he realised that Williams wasn't going to take advantage to free himself, Juan slowly stood up and removed the chair from the American, allowing him to breathe properly and get to his feet.
"Thank you," said Williams, rubbing his throat to get the circulation flowing again.
"Don't bother," retorted Juan darkly, as they made for the back door. "I'm the last person on this Earth that should be thanked for anything."
Even though Lionel knew where Juan lived, the soldier realised how important it was to win the deserter's trust. He couldn't just barge in on his home and strong-arm him into helping. Besides, Juan clearly wasn't the kind of man who scared easily, and evidently knew how to survive.
And another crucial factor was that Lionel couldn't really get to Juan's home without help. It in was the lowest of the low, the darkest dregs of Monterey; so filled with crime and vermin that not even Colonel Raphael's men dared to venture. Ironically the most dangerous part of the city was also the safest, so long as folk kept their heads down.
Juan's knowledge of shortcuts and secure routes allowed them both to navigate the maze of dangerous streets and alleys, which made Lionel's journey so much more safer and him all the more thankful for Juan's help. After avoiding criminals and corrupt soldiers, the two made finally made it to Juan's home with no one the wiser.
It was a dump. It was a smelly, rotting little shack that looked utterly decrepit. The roof had holes, the brickwork was crumbling, the front door was hanging off its hinges and the windows were boarded up. An appalled Williams looked to the indifferent Juan, who explained simply, "It pays not to draw attention to yourself."
You've GOT to be kidding me,pal, thought the Golden Lieutenant to himself, as they went round the back and through the door on the other side of the house. The door knob came off in Juan's hand. The deserter sighed, looked at Williams, and then threw it away. Turning to the door, Juan kicked it in, and gestured "After you" to his guest.
The instant Williams had entered the house, though, he found himself flying onto his back. Immediately alarmed, the Golden Lieutenant struggled to fight off the dog that had pounced on him. It barked fiercely at the bewildered American, snapping its jaws threateningly at him.
"Hold him, Toro!" cried out a youthful, yet courageous voice, running into the room holding a frying pan over his head. The eight-year-old then felt a powerful hand grab his wrist and looked up to see his father tear the frying pan out of his grasp.
"Dammit, boy!" snapped Juan angrily, lifting him off the floor and looking him in the face. "I told you to remain in bed before I left!"
"Sorry, papa," he said quickly with apologetic eyes and his feet dangling. "But you said we had to watch out for intruders…"
"I know what I said, Julio!" Juan lowered his son back to the floor and then clipped him round the head. "I taught you how to take care of yourself and how to think! Never to cross the line!"
"This man is my guest," explained the Spaniard, calming down. "Toro, get off of him!"
The Doberman looked to his master, then sniffed the stranger just to be sure. Seemingly satisfied, Toro let Williams sit up, gave the relieved soldier a dubious glance and then walked off back to bed.
It's gonna be all worth it,Lionel told himself, standing up and dusting himself off. It's gonna be all worth it.
"Papa, you said all soldiers are devil's children," Julio protested fearfully. "Why have you invited…?"
The Golden Lieutenant was genuinely shocked and appalled when Julio had said that. Turning to Juan, he saw the deserter trying to hide his shame, who then dismissed, "Past your bedtime, Julio. You've got to be up early for home schooling."
"To bed, boy," Juan ordered, more gently this time. His son nodded obediently and then retreated to his room, looking over his shoulder at the stranger. A confused Lionel could only study the boy as he went downstairs to the cellar where he slept. Julio was a brave kid, questioning and suspicious, yet obedient with a good heart. In some ways it reminded Williams of Theresa.
The American Soldier saw the Spanish Deserter check through holes in the wall and cracks in the boarded-up windows to ensure that they were safe, then shut the broken door, placing the wooden plank across to latch it for extra security. Juan then struck a match to light a gas lamp, providing some dim comfort and lighting in the room.
"When I told my son that all soldiers are devil's children, Williams," explained Juan menacingly, "I was telling the truth. I should know, I was one of them once. But I'm prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt due to your silver tongue. But Montoya also had one. So, with that in mind…just what is this 'proposition'?"
With a bottle of ale on the table, both Juan and Williams had a tankard each to help them discuss. Lionel explained what he already knew about Juan, and how he tracked the deserter down, telling stories about breaking into Montoya's office, dealing with time wasters and contacts. As he listened, Juan lit himself a cigarette and started to smoke. The Golden Boy turned down an offered smoke, explaining that it was a habit he'd never indulged in.
"Golden Boy who drinks…yet doesn't smoke, eh?" snorted the amused deserter.
"Is that a problem?" retorted the American, taking a gulp of booze. He found the ale strong and a little too bitter for his tastes, but still very agreeable.
"What about Raphael? Aren't you worried what he'll do when he finds you're up past your bedtime?"
"My business is next to finished here. In any event, loyalists cover up my footsteps."
"Ooh, you have loyalists," mocked Juan with sarcasm as he drank. "Makes you feel good, does it, American? Proud? Respected? Elite? Like Grisham? Like Montoya?"
"You tell me, Spaniard," Lionel mocked back. "You've had more experience in that department than I have."
Juan angrily slammed his mug down on the table. Then, with clenched teeth and a spray of saliva, retaliated with, "I was dragged out of the gutter and treated like all the other turds Montoya fished out! The only person who was more despised than me was Raul! Don't you dare presume…!"
Juan's rant was abruptly cut-off by an impatient stare from Williams. The deserter snorted and smirked, recognising that now wasn't the time for any tit-for-tat. And that Juan had asked Williams to touch a nerve.
"Touché, Williams," he conceded. "So now you've explained how you tracked me down…you've again stressed that I am important to you. You've settled my debts, saved my life, and reached out to me as a parent. You say you're not here on behalf of Montoya, you give me good news about Raul…but all I've heard from you…is how. Now…I want to know why."
Williams sighed after taking another gulp of alcohol, saw Juan blow out a puff of smoke, still waiting. Lionel returned the stare for a few more seconds before explaining 'why'.
"I need your help with an unsolved murder."
Juan narrowed his eyes and took the cigarette from his mouth.
"Unsolved murders happen all the time here in California, American," snorted Juan derisively. "Monterey, Santa Helena, San Jose, San Diego…we do live under an oppressive Spanish government – where anything goes - in case you hadn't noticed."
"You know damn well what murder I'm talking about," Williams snapped, having had enough of the man's pessimism.
"Can you blame me for having such a lowly view of the world and all the maggots that infest it?" asked Juan, noting Williams' frustration. "After all I've been through? After the number of evil, ruthless bastards who've victimised me? And doubtless you?"
The Lieutenant thought about it for a moment before answering, "Believe me when I say I know and understand what you've gone through. Now, I'm asking you nicely…"
"Williams, if you had any idea the sheer number of unsolved murders I've been part of…"
"Alright," conceded the Golden Boy calmingly, choosing to take Juan's word. "I need to know who murdered Don Raphael Alvarado."
The deserter nearly choked on his beer as soon as he heard that name. He spluttered and quickly swallowed the drink, and beat his chest to try and regain composure. Williams recognised Juan's reaction as confirmation that his theory was (at least in part) correct.
Knowing that there was no point in denying anything now, Juan hesitantly asked, "You're investigating on behalf of his daughter…?"
"Yes. How did you know he even had a child? When she wasn't even in California when it happened?"
"Because…because…" Juan's mood changed completely as his voice trailed away.
"I can't help you," the deserter said, rather abruptly. "Whatever you're offering, I cannot aid you."
Williams kept silent.
"Leave now. Thank you for all your help, Lieutenant, but I don't need your money. Take it and go back to Santa Helena."
Lionel didn't come back with an angry refusal or a question. He didn't stand up, take the money and leave. He just remained where he was and had some more beer. Juan angrily took his pistol from under a tatty, dog-chewed cushion and pointed it at the Golden Lieutenant's impassive face.
"I said 'leave'!" demanded Juan, his eyes welling up with tears. When Williams still refused, the Spaniard cocked the pistol and tightened his grip to stop the gun shaking. Lionel blinked his eyes at Juan and said simply, "Just tell me."
The deserter was more scared than he'd shown all evening. His fear evidently ran deep, and was almost consuming. Juan had done a commendable job in unlearning his compassion to survive. But like the spark of humanity over his son…Juan's compassion was buried, but not dead yet.
"What can you do for me?" asked Juan eventually, still shaking the gun.
"I can get you your life back," Williams swore truthfully. "But I can't do that if you plan on taking mine."
Juan chose to calm down and placed the pistol on the table. Picking up his cigarette from the ashtray, Juan took another smoke and then looked back up at Williams after tapping the end to shake off the excess ash.
"Life had always been a curse instead of a blessing," began the Spaniard bitterly. "Well, you said you knew about my aunt and my cousin…" Lionel remained respectfully quiet as Juan continued, "Being in the army was no different than in our aunt's house or a life on the run after we killed her…
"It was dogs eating dogs in a stupid game for survival. Only change was Montoya was the one who now fed us and held our leashes. I was sick of it. So sick of it when I felt like putting the gun in my mouth and ending it all…
"Then I saw her. It all happened so fast. Laying eyes on her, the passion and ecstasy we shared in that hotel room…
"She was such a beautiful creature, the likes of which I'd never seen before."
"What was her name?" asked Lionel gently.
"Laura…" smiled Juan, his gaze faraway in remembrance. Turning back to Williams, he then explained, "She was one of Don Alvarado's most faithful workers. A woman who grew up in poverty…and loved gardening. He found her, hired her…saved her. That's how I came to know him."
The Golden Lieutenant nodded, as Juan furthered, "I was determined to prove myself worthy of her. With Laura's aid, I taught myself how to read and write. A skill that Raul found stupid and pointless…and Montoya thought he could put to good use when he found out how proficient I'd become. All my reports and gift for forging is what bagged me my promotion to corporal…and doing Montoya's tedious paperwork."
"Such as chronicling reports and filing?" Williams asked.
"More than that. Destroying any evidence that could incriminate him, making copies of files he used for blackmail, doctoring deeds that allowed him to either charge landowners more tax…or usurp them completely."
"Did Laura ever find out about this?"
"She didn't know, and she told me she didn't want to know," Juan darkly insisted. "But she begged me to not follow the path as Raul. He revelled in all the blood he spilt, all the money he pilfered and all the people he wound round his finger with his lies."
I know that feeling, thought Lionel.
"Our love bloomed and we continued to survive. Thanks to Don Alvarado, we were able to keep our relationship secret and earn a quiet little shack just outside of Santa Helena. It was just within reach for me to go to see Laura, then be back in time before anyone could even suspect us.
"I really didn't understand why someone of Alvarado's stature was helping me. I cannot even attempt to explain. Like Laura, he was fond of me, took us both into his confidence. And I really don't know what I'd done to deserve it."
"So what exactly happened next?"
"With the Don's help, and the money we'd both saved, we were finally able to marry. The padre performed the ceremony in secret.
"It was the happiest day of my life…" Juan could see it like it was only yesterday. Laura looking so beautiful and strong, and equally happy as he. Her beautiful cheeks and hair that smelled of roses, her positive smile and sparkling eyes.
Lionel recognised the faraway look again. The more Juan spoke of his past, the more Williams realised that the deserter was just like him.
"Only the four of us – the Padre, the Don and ourselves - would know about the union. Alvarado and Quintera promised to keep our secret. And for years, we safeguarded our marriage successfully. All of it, even the birth of our son…Julio."
"Then let me guess…" exhaled Williams in painful deduction, "Raul found out."
"Yes…" Juan blew out a bitter puff of smoke. "Raul found out. Broke into our house and played his little games, demanding money off us, otherwise he'd tell Montoya. I said no and that I would kill him unless he kept his fat mouth shut.
"Then Raul bought up Don Alvarado and the Padre, threatened to have them hanged too for aiding a soldier commit adultery, having an affair, deserting; all this bullshit that only Montoya would be willing to allow Raul to charge us with.
"Then he mentioned how he had taken care of me. Looked after me and protected me during our years as runaways. And that I owed him. Which was true. Whether I liked it or not…I did owe my life to Raul.
"So I gave in. Not just for my family, but for the lives of the Don and the padre! They'd given us so much, I couldn't…!"
Juan stopped in mid-sentence. Lionel's exterior remained impassive, but he was still hooked word-for-word on the deserter's story.
"Aren't you…?" asked the confused Spaniard.
"I'm not here to judge," assured Lionel. "Carry on."
"Well…I knew Raul couldn't be trusted in any case. And the longer I stayed under Montoya's command, the more poisoned I felt. Carrying out his evil deeds after too long…just to keep my family alive…that was no way to live.
"Montoya HAD to go down. And then…I realised, I actually had the means of doing so."
Lieutenant Williams then followed Juan to the bathroom. Like the rest of the house, it was damp, smelly and disgusting. Williams secretly swore that he saw a rat's tail disappear into the darkness at least twice. He quelled his disgust as the deserter locked the door, who then explained, "No one else knows about this, American. Everyone else thinks this was all destroyed in the fire."
Realising what he was asking, Lionel nodded, "I understand." Juan nodded back, believing the lieutenant. Turning to the alcove where the shattered mirror and wash basin were, Juan put his hands against the wall. It was always a struggle. He pushed hard and made the wall swivel all the way round. Lionel was surprised with what he saw on the other side of the alcove.
A sword in sheath mounted on hangers, a rack with a pistol and rifle, ammunition and a keg of powder...and in the centre of the wall hung a painting of Juan and Laura together, with a little note in the bottom right corner, stuck in-between the gap of the frame and canvas, reading…
To Laura & Juan. Love always. Don Raphael Alvarado.
And underneath that, resting on a shelf at the bottom…was a chest.
"When I arrived Monterey, my 'insurers' gave us this place as part of the agreement," Juan revealed, taking a key out of his pocket for the chest's padlock. "After discovering that this place had been used by criminals for smuggling stolen goods here and there, I'm really glad that I bartered for this. There's secret trapdoors and hideaways all over the joint.
"But this,Williams…" he stressed to the American, unlocking the chest, "is the only thing you're getting let in on. So make it worth my time afterwards."
Juan lifted the lid up, and moved back to allow the Golden Boy to look what was inside.
It was documents. Copies upon copies of military files, tax reports, deeds to land, real insurance documents, written confessions and testimonies; it was an assortment of papers - real and forged - connecting Colonel Montoya, Captain Grisham and dozens more soldiers with all kinds of notorious crime. There was even a notebook containing details of every meeting he'd had with Montoya.
"I am no fool, Lieutenant," explained Juan, as the wide-eyed soldier studied and read what he could. "When it came to Colonel Montoya, I could take no chances. If he ever decided to move against me, I knew I would need a means of protecting myself. And because I'd gained a position where I could actually gain his trust…I knew all his secrets. And gathered evidence I could use against him if he forced my hand."
There was too much information contained within the chest for Williams to read here and now, but just glancing through all the papers and portfolios was enough to convince the Golden Lieutenant that the chest's contents were indeed genuine, and most importantly, would stand up in court.
Able to contain himself no longer, Lionel snapped closed the file he had in his hand, and stood up to get in the deserter's face.
"Juan, this is gold!" the soldier shouted angrily. "There's enough evidence in this chest to charge and execute Montoya, Grisham and half the Santa Helena army on the spot! Everything from murdering and pillaging to littering & not returning library books! Why have you kept this secret for so long?"
"Because it cost Don Horatio his life!" Juan yelled back furiously. Williams backed away a little, his memory seized by that name.
"Don Horatio…directly accused Colonel Montoya of his corruption. Actually confronted him with evidence, which became irrelevant when the governor goaded the Don into challenging him to a duel. A duel which Horatio lost, and his home & land ended up reverting to the state. Everything except his fortune, which had been hidden and protected by his friends. One of them being Raphael Alvarado."
Juan solemnly nodded and shed another tear. "I was the one who gave Horatio the evidence he needed to convict Montoya. We made a deal. I wanted an honest life for myself and my family. I felt Horatio was the one who could actually take the governor down, and rid the army of its corruption.
"And all I did was get him killed. Montoya destroyed the documents, and began seizing Horatio's assets and estate. But Dons Alvarado, Miguel and Hidalgo managed to steal all his gold from under Montoya's nose…"
"I know all about that," reminded Williams respectfully. "I know everything about their pact. But I also know that Montoya never found out about it"
Well, not until long after Alvarado's murder, anyway, the Golden Boy thought, remembering his own investigations and Tessa telling him about the whole story. Best not go into that with Juan.
"It doesn't matter," explained the Spanish deserter, his eyes drifting away. "Montoya was growing all the more suspicious of Alvarado…and wanted to move on to taking his land and fortune. I couldn't risk endangering Don Alvarado, not after everything he'd done for me and Laura. Not after playing a hand in Horatio's death. So I kept the evidence hidden, only using it when I had no choice.
"Then Raul squealed, deciding that he wasn't getting enough money from me. He told Montoya and Grisham about my wife and son. But then I told them about how Raul had actually been pillaging more than his wages. He'd been ransacking hauls and keeping them for himself instead of Montoya, as per the drill.
"We were arrested and brought before the colonel. And was considering hanging us both then and there. Unless…unless…"
Juan's voice started to break. The emotional pain was wracking his throat. The tears trailed, and the horses' gallops, the gunfire and Don Alvarado's dying breaths…flashed before Juan's crying eyes. Williams lowered his head in mourning, and then – not even looking at the deserter – concluded, "Unless you both agreed to kill Don Raphael Alvarado."
A long silence now filled the room, overpowering the stench and degradation of the room. Juan's remorse and Williams' contempt for corruption had now reached new heights. Several more seconds of dark, uneasy tension passed before Lionel dared to ask, "Did you?"
"I wasn't the one who killed Don Alvarado."
Stepping towards the Spanish deserter, the American soldier nodded, "I believe you. But I need to know who did."
Juan thought about the lieutenant's request, and then decided instead on finishing the story.
"After the murder…we covered up. I wrote and filed the 'official' report of what happened. Don Alvarado died in a riding accident. We found his body. All of the Don's workers became unemployed, and we seized all the riches we could find. I'd feared Montoya would seize the land soon after. But, you said you're here on behalf of Alvarado's daughter?"
"She's a personal friend of mine," explained Lionel. "She's long taken over his estate. And she knows Montoya. She's witnessed his malice first-hand and has never believed his lies. It tortures her every night, Juan. The knowledge that her father's murderers still run free, unpunished. Even to this day."
Juan let it sink in and then continued, "I knew that even though we'd carried out Montoya's orders…he'd kill us anyway. That day we'd carried out the murder…I planned to desert that night.
"Laura was unsure, Julio had no idea what was going on. I argued that we had to flee, and that using the evidence, I could strike a deal with the Spanish court and bring Montoya to justice. Even if I did go to prison or face the noose…Laura and Julio would be safe.
"But before we could go, Raul showed up again. He was deserting as well, and he knew about all the papers I'd amassed. He insisted on giving him some as well, to increase the chances of bringing Montoya to justice. I didn't believe him and refused. He threatened my family there and then, and I defended them and vowed to kill him. We fought and I was just about to finish him off when Grisham showed up.
"I should've known Montoya had been on to me since the beginning. He was after the files and wanted all our heads; mine, Raul's, Laura's, Julio's…we were all marked for death.
"One of Grisham's men killed my wife. Shot her right in the back. All the love and loyalty she gave me…I never deserved. She gave up her life to save me and our son.
"Raul got away, and I never ever saw him again. But I knew…that he was on his horse faraway, taking one last look at my burning home…the only safe haven I'd ever had. All my dreams and happiness, my real chance at a normal life…gone forever.
"We caught a glimpse of each other as we fled into the night, going our separate ways over hills far away. While Montoya's dogs barked over their bonfire."
Juan buried his face into his right palm. Williams showed respect by remaining quiet for a moment, before gently asking, "So…how did you fake your death?"
"I was fighting a soldier when Grisham attacked. The roof came down when the fire broke out. The man was buried underneath, I was stuck on the other side. Grisham screamed my name…I thought he'd believed I'd gone. When Julio and I actually fled out through the back door on a horse and cart."
"That's our stupid captain…" muttered Williams to himself. Speaking up again, the Golden Boy said, "The report that was filed said they'd retrieved your wife's body, and another that was burnt beyond recognition. That was presumed yours. No other bodies were recovered. I assume they must have thought the evidence had gone up in smoke, too."
"Well, most of it had," admitted Juan. "But I still had copies not even Montoya was aware of. With the cover of the darkness and all manners of distractions going on…we were long on our way to Monterey before they could even think of finding a trail.
"And that…was over eighteen months ago."
Juan closed the lid on the chest and sat on top of it. Folding his arms, he asked Williams, "I keep all this safe as insurance. If like you, Montoya and his filth found out I was still alive, I'd use this to make them just leave me alone. I've kept my head down since that night, cowering in the darkest corners of this hellhole, because I finally realised…anytime I try to use it as a weapon…it backfires. It's robbed the lives of two good men…and my wife. None of which I deserved, and none of whom deserved to die.
"And even if I decided to use it now…I would surely be sentenced accordingly for the part I played…and my son – the only thing I have left – would be all alone. And would surely fade just like everything else good and fleeting…that came into my life."
The downcast Williams again remained quiet momentarily. When he spoke, it was the first thing that came to mind.
"Juan…I'm so sorry. Please believe me when I say I know what you've gone through."
"Why?" demanded the Spanish deserter angrily. "Why should I believe you, American? With your clean uniform and your cushy rank? You come from a circle of evil, and I'm supposed to believe that you're here on behalf of an innocent child who wants justice? Do you know what it's like to live life on the run? With everyone, even your own family out to kill for no motive other than greed?"
"YES, I DO, you self-centred asshole!" snapped the lieutenant just as angrily, grabbing Juan by the shirt and leering into his face. "How about my own brother? Will that do?"
Juan was genuinely surprised by Williams' reaction. It was the first time all night the Golden Boy had raised his voice. And now Juan could see the spark of Lionel's damaged soul buried deep within.
"You do know. Don't you?"
"Yes," sighed the American soldier bitterly, taking his hands of the Spaniard. "I do. Fleeing, changing my name, losing everything again and again, putting my family in harm's way…been there, done that. More times than I care to count.
"And the only reason why I keep going…is because I'm still needed. And I've felt like giving up. Because I thought there was too much evil to stand against…but for me it wasn't soldiers. It was people who wore masks."
Juan didn't understand where Lionel was coming from, but was nonetheless intrigued as he explained, "I thought all those who hid behind masks were ruthless. Until I met the exception to the rule."
The Golden Lieutenant smiled fondly as he thought back to the Queen of Swords saving his daughter's life from Pablo.
"We've been friends ever since. But my point is this, Juan. I'm not just here to help Tessa Alvarado, I'm here to help you. I'm here to help your son, and I'm here to help all of Santa Helena. Montoya is still in power and he's still oppressing the people just like he did to you and the Alvarado family, and he will never stop unless he is stopped. Once and for all."
"That is your problem, Williams. I'm only protecting Julio. I will not risk endangering him anymore than I…"
"Juan, wake up! You're already endangering him! You nearly got killed tonight over money! Then Julio would've been without his father, with only a mad attack dog to keep him safe on the streets! What in the world makes you think you're better off here in Monterey than you were in Santa Helena?"
The words hit the deserter hard. The shock making the realisation sink in.
"You say you want the best for him," persisted Lionel, "but this? Hiding in a large toilet? Stopping him from going outside and shielding him from the world? Home-schooling and a pet are all well and good, but Julio deserves a proper life! A kid as courageous as that should be in school and be playing with other children! You said you didn't deserve to be married and have help from Dons! Well, you definitely didn't if you carry on doing what you're doing to Julio! He certainly doesn't deserve being condemned to this misery! You both deserve better!"
Juan looked all around him. Then he shoved past Williams and stepped back into the 'living room', before heading down into the cellar below with a lit candle. Lionel followed him, disgusted at water dripping through the ceiling and a few rats scurrying around. Toro had been asleep, but ever-alert and protective of Julio, he shot his head up at the first sign of trouble. When he saw Juan and Williams enter, the Doberman stood down and turned his attention back to the rats, making sure they minded their own business.
Juan knelt down to look at his son, fast asleep on the floor in a large sack, using a pile of straw for a pillow. Julio didn't look unhappy as he dreamt. Instead, he just looked peaceful. Which to Juan and Williams…was nothing short of remarkable.
Julio's father continued to weep, accepting that the Golden Lieutenant was right. Juan was ruining him. And if he wasn't careful…Julio would end up like his dad. Or worse…Raul.
"I meant what I said, Juan," assured Williams in a gentle whisper. "I'm in favour with the Spanish Court. I know the Ambassador. If I told them how Don Alvarado actually died, we would have enough evidence to take his killers to trial. With a written confession, your testimony and a chest full of documents linking Montoya to every crime known to man…we'd purge Santa Helena of its corruption completely."
"And the Royal Court would also hang me for the part I played," the Spaniard pointed out, equally careful not to wake his son. "As well as withholding state evidence for so long. Even if they don't hang Julio, he'll be condemned to death with no one to look after him."
"I won't let anything happen to him," the soldier vowed. "Or you. I'll speak on your behalf. The Royal Court will understand what you did, why you did what you had to, ever since you were a child. I know Raul was a monster, but he's a monster that's long dead, rotting in hell where he belongs. He can't hurt you or anyone else anymore. But the real monsters – Montoya & Grisham – are still out there, still repeating the same damn cycle over and over again, and all that will do is turn out more victims like you, me, our families and friends…and Senorita Tessa Alvarado."
Juan felt Williams' hand touch his shoulder, in support and consolation.
"It has to stop, Juan. All of it."
"How did Raul die? Tell me."
Lionel struggled with what to tell Juan. He deserved the truth, but Lionel couldn't tell him that without compromising Tessa's secret. Tessa had told Lionel that after killing Raul, she and Marta had thrown his body over the cliff where they'd fought. It had later washed up on the beach and found by soldiers, and Colonel Montoya 'officially' filed that Raul had been found and shot dead upon sight for his desertion and blackmail. The Governor had been more interested in using him as a reminder to any future deserters, rather than investigate the cause of his death.
Eventually, Lionel decided on, "Raul tried to blackmail Tessa Alvarado. She was willing to pay for the identity of her father's killers. Raul tried to extort more and then attempted to kill her when she refused.
"The Queen of Swords was in the area and killed Raul whilst defending the senorita."
"The folk hero of Santa Helena?" asked Juan in disbelief.
"That's what happened."
"So Raul died a bully and a coward. That I believe."
"Do you believe everything else I've said and done tonight?"
The two men intently looked each other eye-to-eye. Juan mulled it all over one more time; Lionel's help in resolving his debts, dealing with those 'tax-collectors', his request for help, Senorita Alvarado, the state he and Julio were in, all of the soldier's arguments…
And that he had saved his life.
"If I refuse to cooperate with you…" asked Juan, "are you going to just kill me and take the chest from upstairs?"
"No," said Williams. "That's not how I work. I've either earned your trust or I haven't. But I have to insist that you make a decision for your son."
Juan looked again at his eight-year-old boy, saying, "I had intended to turn myself in after we were all safe. I knew that Laura would survive without me, and in her hands, Julio would grow up safe and become the man he deserves to be. I'm still willing to testify against Montoya even now. I can take whatever happens to me, but I can't risk losing Julio to anything.
"Regardless of what the Spanish Court decides for me, promise me that at least my son will be safe, that no harm will befall him, and that he'll receive the life that he deserves…and I will do what you say, Lieutenant."
"You have my word," saluted Williams, standing to attention. "Now…I need a written confession and I need to know. Who – killed – Don – Raphael – Alvarado?"
Returning to the bathroom, they locked up all papers back in the chest, and rotated the wall back round to keep it hidden. With Toro still protecting the house and Julio, Lieutenant Williams and Juan left and regrouped at the stables. All was now quiet in Monterey and for now, crime and corruption had gone to sleep. In the safe shadows, Juan handed the Golden Boy an envelope and a file containing some papers from the chest, which Williams would need to submit to the Royal Court.
When Juan decided to give Williams the bag of gold back to him, the Lieutenant shook his head. "No. You keep it, you upheld your end of the deal. Besides, Sixty reales. You deserve it more than me. Consider it a token of my trust. I'll be in touch."
Juan looked at the bulging bag of gold in his hands. Another gift from the kindest of strangers.
"Lieutenant…" he called to the departing soldier, "gracias."
Williams stopped for a moment, looked over his shoulder and nodded back, "Gracias." And then the two kindred spirits went their own ways into the night.
Three days later…
"Maria!" groaned Vera impatiently. "Are you coming out from behind that screen or not?"
The frustrated Mrs Williams sighed and huffed, "You mean I actually have a choice?"
"Honestly, Maria!" said Senorita Alvarado, who had lost her patience. "You're being most childish! This is really not ladylike!"
"Alright, alright! I'm coming!"
In the main living room of the Alvarado Hacienda, Maria came out from behind the screen in a really expensive red and black dress, with butterfly sleeves, diamond studded belt, red high heel shoes and black arm warmers made of lace. She was also wearing a beautiful tiara, complete with her mother's necklace.
"Oh, Maria, you look marvellous!" swooned Tessa, coming over to the American's side and dragging her over to the mirror.
"You owe me for this, Alvarado," whispered Maria through wide smiling teeth, as she looked at herself in the mirror. Despite her reluctance, Maria was secretly admitting to herself that the dress was gorgeous, and she looked fantastic wearing it.
"See?" smiled Vera. "I told you you'd look more spectacular in these dresses!"
"And more uncomfortable! It could really do without the corset, it's far too tight! It's no wonder most of the women in Madrid drop like flies! How on Earth can you…?"
"Look," said Senora Hidalgo crossly, with Tessa trying hard not to laugh, "the ball is only two weeks away, and it's very important that you…"
"It's important for me to play dress-up when I've got housework to do and helping Lucia Garcia for market day tomorrow?"
"Play dress-up?" Don Gaspar's wife was indignant. "All the girls in Santa Helena…"
"Vera, these dresses cost from twenty to forty reales!" protested Maria. "Each! For me and Lionel, you're talking about wiping out our life savings!"
"Come now, Maria," reasoned the aristocrat, adamantly. "Ever since his promotion, you've come into more money! You're moving up in the world! You need to look the part. And after that horrible business with that awful Conrad, you deserve something to help you feel better. Besides, Tessa and I have no problem loaning you money. Do we, Tessa?"
"Of course not, Vera," agreed Tessa with her false demeanour. "Look, Maria, I know you've never known life in the aristocracy…" She quickly winked at Maria whilst speaking, "but there's no reason to be nervous of…"
"Tessa, I'm not nervous," denied the soldier's wife, remembering to be careful with what she said in front of Vera. "It's just…having lived a middle-class lifestyle for so long…I've gotten used to…"
A confused Vera cocked her head at Maria, who quickly rephrased her words to, "I meant all this luxury, this fine living, these customs and orders. Is it all that necessary? Really?"
"You're not making any sense at all," groaned the senora. "You're in favour with the aristocracy and you're best friends are among Santa Helena's elite! When you're not doing housework or raising Theresa, you're helping the people and socialising with us and Marta! So you might as well be an aristocrat given your status! You act like this is where you belong, Maria! So why deny who you are?"
Before Maria could think of an answer, Marta came into the living room.
"Senorita, forgive my intrusion," the gypsy servant apologised. "But you have a visitor. He says it's very important."
"Marta!" exclaimed a 'distressed' Tessa, keeping up appearances. "I gave strict instructions that we weren't to be disturbed! Whoever it is that thinks they…!"
Lieutenant Williams entered the room, removing his hat and saluting the senorita. A smile instantly spread across Maria's face and she walked up to her husband to throw her arms round him and kiss him on the cheek.
"Honey! You're home! When did you get back?"
"I arrived back in Santa Helena about three hours ago. Missed you, darling," smiled Lionel kissing his wife, then whispering in her ear, "I've just come over from the colonel's office after reporting about Monterey. Sorry, Maria, but something's come up. I need you to play along right now. I've told Marta."
Maria didn't understand but did as her husband asked nonetheless. He turned to greet Senora Hidalgo before explaining to Tessa in a solemn voice, "Senorita Alvarado, I must speak with you. In private."
"Lieutenant, this is an unwarranted intrusion! I have important matters that…!"
"IT'S URGENT!" snapped Lionel, getting right into the senorita's face. Tessa's mask started to crumble. No longer was she the vain rich girl with petty interests, and the seriousness of the Queen started to break through. Marta, having already been told by Lieutenant Williams what was going on, could only look at Tessa with a mother's eyes. She wanted to be here to give her support over what was going to change her life forever.
And the fact that she couldn't be…was almost as painful as what Tessa's reaction would doubtless be.
Maria looked to Marta, then at Tessa, and then decided to tell Vera that on second thought, she was right and that the new dresses would be worth having. Maria and Marta quickly led Senora Hidalgo out of the room (gathering up the dresses) to leave Tessa and the Golden Boy alone.
"Lionel…" Tessa quietly asked, "what's going on?"
Taking the envelope out of his jacket, he handed it to her. "You really need to read this."
"What is it?"
"It speaks for itself."
Tessa glanced her eyes at Williams then took the envelope from his hand, unfolded the paper inside and began to read it.
I, Corporal Juan, of the Spanish Army forces situated in Santa Helena, California, hereby confess my participation in the murder of Don Raphael Alvarado on the 5th day of January in 1817.
This conspiracy was masterminded by the military governor of Santa Helena, Colonel Luis Montoya, with the full intent of seizing Don Alvarado's fortune and entire estate. The Colonel ordered a party of soldiers to hunt down Senor Raphael during his routine ride through the countryside.
The operation was personally headed by Capitan Marcus Grisham, who lead Sergeant Hernandez, Corporal Martin, myself and Private Raul into the country to pursue the Don. After chasing Alvarado on horseback, Capitan Grisham shot the Don in the back of the head, his body falling off his horse and trampled on. On Colonel Montoya's orders, I filed a false report detailing that Raphael Alvarado had died in a horse riding accident.
With this confession, I submit all other corroborating evidence for the Spanish Court, and hereby surrender myself to the law. I await and accept whatever charge and sentence will befall me.
Corporal Juan, 24th October 1818
Silence fell over the room.
Then Tessa exhaled a painful breath. And wept.
"Is…is…" The confession shook in her trembling hand. Her eyes were locked dead on the handwritten paper, unable to accept it. After so very long.
"Is this genuine?"
"I have every reason to believe it is," nodded Williams, trying to be as comforting as he could. Tessa's eyes then switched to the Golden Lieutenant showing her a folder. He took out the contents and laid them out on the table for the senorita to see, explaining as he narrated.
"Records confirm Corporal Juan's existence and enrolment under Montoya's command. He was believed to have perished in a fire that took place on the exact same date that your father died. The exact same date that Raul deserted. The location, the soldiers present, the date, the signatures at the bottom of the falsified report and this confession; it all ties up.
"Juan was coerced into doctoring the events, to protect his family, whose existence was also recorded. He has a trunk full of documents that can not only prove Montoya's forgery and corruption, but also connect him to almost all the crime in Santa Helena."
Tessa couldn't stop crying as she looked back at Lionel who placed his hands on her shoulders to console the senorita, further revealing, "It's as you once suspected, kid. Montoya was behind your father's demise, and Grisham was the one who pulled the trigger. And now thanks to Juan, we can finally prove it!"
Lieutenant Williams then smiled excitedly, "We've got them, Tessa! We've FINALLY got them!"
Unable to contain herself any longer, Tessa hugged Lionel tightly and broke down, sobbing, "Thank you, Lionel! Thank you!"