A note from the Author:
--Susan L. Kite
Chapter One –
The two strangers rode into the pueblo while Sgt. Garcia was out on patrol, or they would most likely have been questioned immediately. As it was, the man and woman spoke a dialect of French that Diego de la Vega was slightly unfamiliar with, although he could understand them quite well.
Young de la Vega was dressed elegantly in dark green calzoneros, a ruffled white shirt and brocaded chaqueta. He leaned back casually in his chair, against one wall of the tavern, sipping a glass of wine, studying the pair discreetly through the top of the wine glass. His manservant, Bernardo, just gazed around the room, occasionally glancing at the strangers, before looking elsewhere.
"Marie, what do you expect to accomplish in this dingy pueblo among these backwater people?" the man asked derisively. Diego guessed the stranger's age to be close to his own. His light brown, almost blonde hair and blue-gray eyes contrasted with the black hair and dark brown eyes of his companion. Their conversation elicited a few looks of curiosity as well as some glances of distrust.
Marie laughed, a warbling, musical sound. She appeared to be mulatto, which led Diego to believe that this pair had traveled from New Orleans or one of the islands of the West Indies. Although the woman was ornately dressed, it was not in layers of satins and ruffles as the wealthier señoritas of California wore, but the cloth itself was bright, splashy and bold, even to a brilliantly red headscarf and large ornate earrings.
"Oh, Louis, you have so little faith and patience. I will, with the Vau-daux, entice many pesos from the thin wallets and the fat ones. When the little minds believe, others follow soon after. Perhaps we will start with the tarot cards and then work our way up," she laughed musically again.
Bernardo tugged at Diego's sleeve. They had both just finished a midday meal and were enjoying a little wine before visiting the cuartel and Sgt. Garcia, when this unorthodox pair had arrived. With several signs, the mute conveyed his curiosity of the strangers. Diego just turned slightly to him and murmured, "Wait a moment, Bernardo."
Rising languidly, Diego casually walked over to Marie and Louis. "Ah, señorita and señor, welcome to our pueblo. Do you by chance speak Spanish?" They nodded. Until he knew more about this pair, Diego was loathe to reveal his knowledge of French, somewhat limited though it was. "I noticed that you were speaking French. I might warn you, since France and Spain are not on good terms with each other, those who speak French are usually regarded with suspicion."
"Señor, do you speak French?" Marie asked casually, but her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"No, not really, just enough to say bonjour, and to recognize the language when I hear it," Diego answered brightly. "Let me introduce myself. I am Diego de la Vega. You are....?"
"I am Marie LeMay and this is Louis Aristande. We are visiting from New Orleans. I have always wanted to see California, ever since someone told me how friendly the people were and how temperate the weather is," she said sweetly, noticeably relieved that Diego couldn't understand their earlier conversation.
The caballero suddenly felt the effects of her charm. It was like a physical entity, its warmth as tangible as the rays from the noonday sun. Diego was abruptly conscious of his attention to her physical attributes. Disconcerted, he realized that he had never met a woman who exuded a presence such as Marie LeMay did and he felt like a fly caught in a spider's web. She was smiling seductively at him and Diego felt himself blushing a bit. That, too, shook his composure, and he blinked and paused a moment before saying anything else to the pair.
He could well understand how she was able to elicit pesos from her victims, with that kind of enticing charm. It was almost overwhelming, and Diego corrected his assessment of the fly/spider analogy to a fly/black widow spider analogy. This woman and her junior partner would have to be watched carefully. They could turn out to be more than simple con artists out to take a few centavos from the local peons.
Marie LeMay must have sensed the subtle change in his demeanor, because Diego suddenly felt a chill in that charm. It was a chill like that of the grave and the caballero felt tiny, cold fingers move up and down his spine.
Bowing, Diego smiled and said, "Well, then, welcome to Los Angeles. You will find the people here very friendly. California is a congenial place, señorita, señor, and most of the time the weather is, indeed, marvelous." At that moment, Diego was spared having to say anything else, because Sergeant Garcia came bursting through the door of the tavern.
"Buenas tardes, Don Diego," he boomed, when he saw his friend. "And how are you this fine autumn day?"
"I am very well, gracias, Sergeant. I would like to introduce you to Señorita Marie LeMay and her companion, Louis Aristande. They are visiting from New Orleans." Turning to the pair, he introduced the sergeant to them. Marie narrowed her eyes slightly, assessing the sergeant, almost, it seemed to Diego, as one would assess a side of beef.
"We have found your pueblo to be very congenial, Comandante, and would like to stay, at least for a few days," the creole woman said brightly.
"Oh, sí, sí. You are most welcome," Sgt. Garcia said quickly. Diego was surprised that he did not ask to see their baggage, but then after his experience, he realized that Garcia had probably been taken aback by her seductive charms as had he. "Will you be staying at the inn?" the sergeant asked.
"Sí, Comandante," Louis answered.
Diego interrupted. "You must excuse me, I have errands that must be attended to. Adios." Diego motioned to Bernardo and both left the cool of the inn, walking out into the warm comfort of the October sunshine.
Marie LeMay watched Diego's retreating back for a moment before turning her attention to Sgt. Garcia. The caballero puzzled her, intrigued her and repelled her at the same time. Someone who seemed so languid and ineffectual should have been more malleable and not as resistant as he had been. And there was something about him that made her feel uncomfortable, and those who made her feel uncomfortable usually turned out to be enemies. Sgt. Garcia was saying something to Louis, and Marie returned her gaze to the obese soldier. He repelled her as well, but not in the same way as de la Vega did. Those who were too easily swayed by her charms disgusted her. Marie LeMay had a natural ability to influence people with her charisma, charm or whatever others wished to call her talent, (some had, in fact, even called it a pact with the devil), and over the years she had developed it. It had become part of her livelihood and made her successful at parting the poor and rich alike from their money, as well as some from their lives.
"I must return to my duties, señorita and señor, but please feel free to call on me at anytime, day or night, it you need me," the sergeant said congenially. Smiling brightly at Marie, he turned and left the tavern. The proprietor just stared at the sergeant, who had entered his tavern, and had left again without even trying to wheedle a dollop of wine from him or anybody else.
In French, Marie murmured to Louis. "We must keep an eye on that caballero, Diego de la Vega. There is something dangerous about him."
Louis snorted. "He struck me as a lazy, spoiled rich man's son."
Marie just looked at her companion through half closed eyes and was silent for a few minutes. Finally she said, "Let us go check out our rooms. I will see what I can earn tonight with the tarot cards and then tomorrow we will plan for more profitable earnings."
When they were away from the tavern, Bernardo signed to Diego. "Why they have come from New Orleans to California is to presumably fatten their money belts with local pesos," Diego answered. "But somehow, Bernardo, I feel that there is something more sinister in their arrival. They will have to be watched. I would like you to do that while I ask Father Miguel a question. Be very discreet, that woman has a very powerful method of persuasion."
With a bit of a smile, Bernardo made the sign he used for a woman and pointed to Diego. "By the Saints, no, Bernardo, I am not interested in her, although, I agree, she is very beautiful. But there is something evil about the pair." Bernardo left on his errand and Diego went into the church that sat facing the square across from the tavern.
In the cool dimness of the chapel, Diego knelt down, made his devotions and walked to the stand where the priest conducted mass each morning and evening. Father Miguel turned around at Diego's light step and smiled a greeting. "Ah, Diego, you have just caught me finishing up preparations for evening vespers," he said brightly in his Irish accented Spanish. Father Miguel was the only priest that Diego had ever known who was from the British Isles, and it was his understanding that the padre was well traveled. The priest, by his own admission, enjoyed serving in parishes all over the world, caring little for political animosities or alliances.
"I will only keep you a short while, Father Michael," Diego said in English, using the priest's anglo name. "But I have a question about a term that I heard a little while ago, and wondered if you could enlighten me on its meaning."
"What is the term?" Father Miguel asked, curious.
Father Miguel blanched. "Where did you hear this, Diego?" he whispered, fear in his voice.
"A pair of strangers came into the pueblo at noon time, and I overheard them speaking in French. They are from New Orleans. What is wrong, Father?" Diego asked in concern. Father Miguel's thin face looked even more pinched with anxiety.
"Vau-daux is one of the terms for the so-called form of worship more commonly called Voodoo. It had even infiltrated the Church when I was in New Orleans, and although I tried to put a stop to it, I was unable to. It is insidious, Diego, and these strangers must not be allowed to get a foothold in Los Angeles. You must warn the vaqueros and peons working on your father's rancho to avoid these two and the voodoo," Father Miguel told Diego vehemently. "You cannot imagine how much damage this evil can do. I have seen it destroy individuals and families. Warning must be given and I will begin to do so at vespers."
"How does it do so much damage, Father?" Diego was concerned by the priest's whole demeanor. This voodoo apparently terrified the cleric.
"Do not ask, my son, I do not wish to even discuss it. Just trust me," Father Miguel pleaded.
Diego chose not to dig any deeper for information, realizing that he would probably receive none. "I will leave you now and I thank you for the warning, Padre," Diego said. Leaving the church, he looked for Bernardo, and when found the manservant in the square, he motioned to him.
"Come, Bernardo, we must return to the hacienda," Diego murmured to the mozo. As they rode, Diego elaborated on what he had found out. Bernardo used one hand to make the sign of the 'Z.' Diego nodded, "Yes, Bernardo, I need to know as much of this voodoo as the good padre can tell me and I believe the only way to do that is to ask as Zorro."