I dig a knee into my prisoner’s throat as the clock in the church tower starts to chime midnight. Beneath me, he growls and thrashes about, but his efforts are futile. I tighten the ropes binding his chest and arms, and then hold up a finger.
“You hear that?”
The man stops struggling. Each of the deep chimes sound through the still night air. I wait for them to end, and then say, “It’s my birthday. Today I’m forty years old.”
“Happy fucking birthday,” chokes my prisoner, and goes back to thrashing about.
“That is kind of you.” I leap to my feet and haul the man’s dead weight over my shoulder. As if out on nothing more than a midnight stroll, I whistle under my breath. The steep streets of the village of Atienza are deserted at this hour. Up ahead, a skinny cat slinks along the laneway, its tail caressing the ancient stone wall.
“I find I’m in a very good mood tonight,” I tell my prisoner, giving him a friendly pat on the rump. “Not only is it my birthday, but I’m going to be married. Fifteen whole years as the Black Fox, but it’s time to hang up my cape.”
“Felicidades,” my prisoner spits. “You couldn’t have retired last night?”
I ignore that. “I never thought I’d be married, because of the…” I swallow and swerve the conversation in a different direction. “I never thought I’d be married, but I saw her, and I knew.”
People say this often, that they fell in love at first sight. For me, it wasn’t quite like that. I met Valeria Hernandez, and I was overwhelmed by a sense of confidence. I was thirty-nine. Falling victim to a curse was a young man’s folly. I would marry Valeria and simply outsmart it.
“Valeria is my destiny. I feel that in my soul.”
“Good for you,” snarls my prisoner.
“But do I love her?” I muse aloud, as if my prisoner has asked me. “Oh, not exactly. What is love, when you respect each other? She likes me as I am, and she doesn’t need to change anything for me. I will find a new hobby. Golf, perhaps.”
I grimace. All right, not golf. But it’s time for me to step out of the shadows and my life as Zacarias to begin.
“As you’re hanging up your cape, Señor, maybe we could come to some sort of arrangement?”
The man’s wheedling tone makes me slow to a stop, and I cock my ear. “An arrangement?”
He tenses on my shoulder, and I sense his excitement. “Think of it as a birthday present. No, a wedding present, for you and your good lady. Something for you to retire on and live out your days in comfort.”
I study the church across the square, black and faceless against the night sky. “What did you have in mind?” He names an obscene amount of money, and I shift on my feet. “That is…very generous of you.”
“No more than the Black Fox deserves,” simpers my prisoner. “For keeping Spain safe all these years. Your exploits have been fine, and many.”
That sort of money could buy a yacht for my wife and me to sail around the Mediterranean in, before returning to her hilltop castillo. I jostle my prisoner on my shoulder. “And you? What will you do if I let you go?”
The man’s voice is syrupy with contrition. “Señor, I have learned the error of my ways. I will live a life beyond reproach from now on.”
I rub my free hand over my jaw. “I was going to hand you into the chief of police. He lives at this address, I believe?” I indicate the nearby white stucco house, all its lights extinguished and shutters drawn.
“You can put me down here,” the man says in an eager whisper. “I’ll make my own way home. Tomorrow, a messenger will come to your house with a suitcase full of money. Used notes. The least I can do for you on your birthday and for your impending nuptials.”
“The very least,” I agree. I drop the man on the cobbles at my feet, and then hoist him up and slam him against a post. “But still not good enough.”
“Wha—what are you doing?” he wheezes, the breath knocked out of him.
Instead of answering, I tie him to the post, and then yank down his pants and underwear. His privates shrink up in the cool air. From behind my mask, I grin at him, my hand drifting to the hilt of my sword.
The man’s eyes widen in horror. “You wouldn’t!”
I draw my sword, and he all but sobs with fear. With the tip of my blade, I tickle the end of his floppy privates. How pathetic they look in this state, like the wattles of an old chicken.
He gasps and twists, trying to escape. “No, please!”
I sheath my sword with a theatrical sigh. “Well, all right then. But I was just starting to have a little fun.” I dig something out of my pocket. A small cardboard sign, which I tie around his dick and balls, yanking the string tight. Maybe they’ll drop off by morning.