Pietro Valdez was having a bad morning. Bad mornings usually found him leaning against Enzo’s doorpost, beneath the shade of his friend’s straw roof, and this morning was no exception. Here he could rest, draw on a self-rolled cigarette, and contemplate the injustices that existed in the world. Inevitably, he would reach the same conclusion as always; that every one of those injustices was stacked against him.
So, maybe he had been a little late setting his nets in the river that morning – just a little, tiny bit late. What did it matter? Pietro had a problem. His whole village had a problem. No matter how early he, or anyone else who fished the river should rise from their beds, Rodrigo – Bang-Sticks Rodrigo – would take all the best fish! Pietro stared along the river bank towards Rodrigo’s moored boat with half-lowered eyes, his head full of vengeance. Of course, Rodrigo’s little dock was busy; Luca, Bang-Sticks’ son and his friend Raul were boxing Rodrigo’s catch, loading it into a dilapidated but durable truck that would take it to market. In the warehouse behind the dock Luiza and Yasmin, Marco’s two girls, would be preparing more fish for drying.
Feeling a pat on his shoulder, Pietro turned to discover Enzo, his friend, had sidled out of his hut to lean against the other door post. Pietro passed his cigarette to Enzo.
“Business is good.” Enzo commented, sharing Pietro’s thoughts.
“Good!” Pietro spat his ire into the dust. “Good! That bastardo was at the eddy pool this morning, blowing up half the fish in the river. What is left?” Pietro’s nets had come in empty, again. So! There was no money, there was no food. Luana, his wife, could hurt him when she got this mad. Again! She had thrown a pot at him and today – he rubbed his shoulder ruefully – she had not missed.
“Matters,” He muttered; “Cannot rest.”
Enzo grunted. “I do not see what you can do. Rodrigo has a deal with Carlos Eduardo, Carlos Eduardo gets him sticks of dynamite in return for thirty percent of his catch. It is business. Don’t say you wouldn’t have done the same deal if you’d thought of it first.”
Pietro shook his head. “He dynamites the fish! Soon there will be no fish at all in the river, then what does the village do? What does Thales do? What does Marco do?”
“Marco goes to work for Carlos Eduardo. Already he is thinking about it. I talked with him yesterday.” Enzo answered. “I am thinking of it myself. Maybe you should.”
“I, Pietro Valdez, work for a gangster who grows fields of Marijuana? What does that make me?”
“Rich? It is very good Marijuana.”
“Or dead. Carlos Eduardo is a very nasty man. His henchmen are very fond of guns.” Pietro muttered. “No, I am a fisherman, not a grower of drugs. I want to feed people, not send them crazy.”
Thoroughly subdued, Pietro fell silent, and together the two men shared their one cigarette, brushing flies away from their faces as they contemplated the vast waters of the river in the morning heat. In such mood an hour might easily pass without either moving or speaking a word, but today Pietro’s attention was drawn to a small commotion behind Bang-Sticks dock, where Rodrigo’s son Luca was preparing for his trip to the market in Almeres, fifty kilometres away.
“What is that?”
“That?” Enzo replied. “That is trouble, my friend.”
A girl dressed minimally in shorts and a t-shirt was attempting to talk to Luca, with limited success. She might have been, as Pietro judged, no older than twenty-four or twenty-five years, and clearly her attempts at flirtation were falling on stony ground. Luca was wiser than his years, and in Pietro’s closely guarded opinion, more interested in Raul than in female company. This was an insult he was saving for that special argument with ‘Bang-Sticks’, when the opportunity eventually arrived.
“She is pretty girl.” Pietro observed.
“She is a ‘Skinny Girl’. Keep away!” Enzo warned.
“That may be difficult. She is coming towards us.”
The girl had abandoned her charm offensive on Luca, and was striding along the riverbank in their direction. Pietro was familiar with the ‘Skinny Girl’ appellation, of course: everyone knew it. A very astute group of young women had banded together in the last three seasons with the sole purpose of taking over the drugs trade on the river. Using their natural abilities to charm they were picking off owners of small to middle-sized fazendas one by one, trusting in the farmers’ deference towards women. Once they found a way into that plain farmer’s bed, though, the women showed no such compunction, and shot them dead at the first opportunity. So far, they had made no attempt to unseat any of the larger drug barons, bigger players unlikely to fall for their fatal game. Knowing their depth, and in regions where police presence was rare, they were thriving happily on the proceeds of farms like the one owned by Carlos Eduardo. Lecherous to a fault, Carlos Eduardo, Pietro thought as he watched the approaching girl’s easy, hip-swinging gait, would be easy meat. Nevertheless…
“You have a boat!” Her voice was sweet, almost a song, and her teeth were many and incredibly white. She flashed her dark, Hispanic eyes at Pietro. “A boat with a big, big motor. That man Luca says”… She stopped directly in front of Pietro, so close he felt the warm whisper of her breath. “You have a big, big motor, yes?”
Pietro was wrong-footed by the girl’s proximity. “I suppose so.” He muttered. No matter that Enzo growled a warning, his friend was already caught in the web. “You want my boat?”
“I need your boat, Pietro, you will help me, I know! You are Pietro, yes? You are a generous man, everybody knows Pietro.”
“You asked Luca. What’s wrong with Luca’s boat?”
“Luca? He has such small motor.” The girl shook her head sadly, holding up a thumb and forefinger to reinforce her point. “Once in a month only, down the river to Minacura! That’s two days each way. Just you and me, two days on the river one way, two days back. You and me, alone, eh, Pietro?” She laughed lightly. “Ah, but can I trust you? I hope I can trust you!”
Enzo snorted. Pietro was experiencing sensations incompatible with the early hour and his abiding sense of grievance. Reason had to prevail. “What’s in it for me?” He demanded.
“What is in it? What is in it??” The girl’s eyes glittered. “You want money too?”
“I have expenses.”
“It is alright, I tease you! Of course there is money. Each run, 150 Real! Think what you can do with 150 Real!”
“Oh, Pietro; so greedy! One-Seventy-five!”
“You buy the fuel.”
“Agreed!” The girl reached up and stroked Pietro’s cheek with long, elegant fingers. “There are police on the river so we travel by night. We will be such good companions! Tonight, eight o’clock, okay?”
“Of course! Why not?”
Pietro was thinking of Luana and the necessity for explanations which accounted for a number of reasons why not. But money was money, and a cash argument would weigh heavily with his wife, as long as he kept her away from his travelling companion.
Eight o’clock that evening found Pietro and his boat moored up on a stretch of river tributary that adjoined Carlos Eduardo’s ranch. The girl, whose name had proved to be Viviane, materialised rapidly from the darkness where forest bordered the water, followed by Paolo, Carlos Eduardo’s ostler. Both were laden with heavy bales wrapped in waterproof plastic, which they dumped unceremoniously into the boat. Pietro could see that Paolo was ill at ease. He kept looking up and down the river, and seemed anxious not to make a noise. No sooner had the first lot of bales been loaded than the pair vanished again, leaving Pietro to distribute his unexpectedly heavy cargo as evenly as he might. Satisfied, he rolled a cigarette, drawing contented smoke as he wondered how easily Carlos Eduardo had fallen for Viviane’s ploys. Eventually, he supposed, the whole village must learn to fear Viviane and her ‘Skinny Girls’ as much as they had feared Carlos Eduardo. If so, at least one advantage was his: he had a ‘big motor’.
Had he noticed the raised voices in the distance? What was the clamour about?
Paolo came bursting out of the trees, loaded with yet more bales. Viviane, similarly burdened, was close behind him.
“Come! We load this.”
The shouting was not so distant any more. The voices were angry.
“All this?” Pietro protested. “It is too much! We won’t get all this through the gorge!” But the bales were already stacked, on top of those he had already distributed. Viviane was specific. “We leave now! Don’t start the motor!”
Pietro recognised the ingredients of a disaster immediately, but his sense of self-preservation persuaded him this was the wrong place to ask questions, so he did as he was told. He cast off his dangerously unstable boat swiftly, as Viviane slipped into the prow, and Paolo melted back into the trees. As he turned into the current he could hear the crashing of angry feet in the undergrowth. It occurred to him that maybe Carlos Eduardo was not so gullible, after all.
In the darkness Viviane’s ashen face was almost luminous. “What do we do?” She cried, clearly no longer in command. “Tell me, what do we do?”
A gun discharged in a burst of venom from somewhere close by. Bullets snicked off the water.
“We start the motor!” Pietro replied quietly. “Stay down, and do not say my name!”
“We have lost them, yes?” Viviane hissed.
An hour had elapsed, in which time neither the owner of the boat nor his young companion had spoken. Upon reaching the point where their tributary joined the main river, Pietro had turned upstream. After a half kilometre battling the current he had tied off his boat at a place where the trees overhung the water, concealing them from view.
“Yes, for now. We are fortunate they had no boats moored nearby. They will be hunting for us downstream, thinking we are making for Minacura.”
Viviane sniffed. “This is no use. If we go to Minacura, we will be following them. Sooner or later we must meet.”
“This boat wouldn’t make Minacura anyway, with so heavy a cargo;” Pietro told her. “Our best bet is to meet up with your gang somewhere further upstream. Maybe you should ‘phone them now?” His comment met with silence. “That’s a good idea, yes?”
Viviane said: “What ‘gang’?”
“Why, the ‘Skinny Girls’. The Skinny Girls gang.”
“I am not ‘Skinny Girl’. I have nice figure, don’t you think?”
A cold hand grasped Pietro’s heart. “Wait a minute! You are not a ‘Skinny Girl’?”
“No. I am a student.” Viviane answered proudly. “I am at university in Brazilia – third year.”
“Then this was – what? You were trying to steal from Carlos Eduardo on your own? No gang to help you?”
“Paolo; he helped me.” Viviane grinned. “He was very helpful! And when we get these bales to Minacura and we sell them I shall be very rich and I shall be able to pay for my last year’s tuition. You help me, Pietro. Then you can be rich, too!” Pietro put his head in his hands. “You. Brave man with big motor – what is wrong with you?”
“Just this. My boat is overloaded, it will not pass the fast water in the gorge on the way to Minacura. All right, maybe we throw some Marijuana in the river, then we have a chance; but Carlos Eduardo is no fool. Right now he is on his cell phone to his buyer in Minacura to tell him what has happened. He is on his cell phone to police in Minacura (who he pays) to tell them what has happened. Viviane, you cannot just sell marijuana on this river, you need connections. You need to make deals, you need time to build up trust! Right now, we show ourselves even five kilometres down river with this stuff and we are dead.”
Viviane fell quiet for a moment before she said unsteadily. “I have done things for this a respectable girl should not do. I cannot fail – I cannot have done what I have done for nothing, for no reason. We can do it. We will do it.”
“No, Viviane. You can’t, and we won’t.”
“Then what can we do?”
“Why are you out so early?” Enzo was surprised to discover Pietro busy with his nets. “Can’t you sleep, my friend?”
Pietro smirked. “Some nights I feel I have not been to bed.”
Enzo glanced cunningly at him. “Ah, the girl. But you did not make the trip with her, no?”
“Wiser counsels prevailed, Enzo.” The fisherman’s eyes were fixed upon Rodrigo’s dock, further up the river bank. “I am a married man.”
“But still…” Enzo followed Pietro’s gaze. “Bang-Sticks is not out yet. If you hurry…”
“Exactly.” Both men were now watching as Rodrigo, appearing by his behaviour to be unusually agitated, shouted and gesticulated at a defensive-looking Luca. They were too far away to hear what was said, but far enough to see two jeeps approaching Rodrigo’s warehouse from the landward side. Carlos Eduardo was being driven in one, in the other were two extremely large bodyguards, both armed with semi-automatic rifles.
Pietro had known they would come, and in his view the timing could not have been better. A stranger girl could not be seen talking to anyone in a village as small as his without arousing suspicion, especially if that girl intended to steal part of the local drugs baron’s harvest. Viviane had been talking to Luca just yesterday, so it was obvious where Carlos Eduardo would look.
Naturally, since Viviane had been seen with Pietro too, he had no doubt Carlos Eduardo would want to follow that up – he was not worried. He had nothing to hide, as long as no-one saw the two bullet holes in his boat. As for Viviane, he was sure she was well on her way back to her university by now, chastened by her experience and no richer than before, but unhurt. And she was getting a good start on Carlos which would get better, the longer he was detained by the discovery of his marijuana, stashed as they had left it last night, in Rodrigo’s warehouse.
Rodrigo? Well, those bales of drugs were still intact, so he would count himself lucky if he survived with only a little roughing up, but Pietro was sure he would get no more dynamite.
© Frederick Anderson 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.