Fruit Barons of the Amazon
David Murdoch crouched low in the sugarcane, regretting many things. The mosquitoes, for one. And the fact that, while the canes provided excellent visual cover for him to cower behind, the mud they grew in was steadily working its way up his boots and threatening to swallow him like a spoon dropped in poorly made custard. What he regretted most profoundly was ever taking Bicksby’s offer. The man could have hired a personal geologist. Instead he had combed through the top universities, pulling strings and testing for chinks in the academic phalanx. And, like the fool he was, Professor Murdoch had let himself be lulled away with promises of ancient temples and words like epeirogenic. He shifted again and swore under his breath as the canes rattled around him. If nothing else about the current disaster was clue enough, the mercenary Bicksby employed as valet should have been screaming red flag enough. But had he listened? Of course not. Which was why, as what sky was visible above began turning a watery grey, Murdoch polished the lenses on his binoculars and peered across the river.
The mercenary-turned-valet in question was nowhere to be seen. That, of course, merely meant that he was doing his job. Part of the dense undergrowth detached itself and loped across the lawn before re-attaching as part of the stunning collection of ferns in the garden. As soon as the motion stopped Victor Ramshorn was once more lost as part of the scenery. He was entirely at ease with this fact, coupled with the twin machetes strapped to his legs and assorted other blades about his person. He glanced toward the enormous hacienda and allowed himself a moment of silent derision. There was Petersen, crouched behind a stunted bush as though it was some legendary cloak of invisibility. For a man who billed himself as practically native to the area and a superb scout, Victor was left wondering what prey would be lethargic enough to fail to avoid the scout’s attentions. Sloths, perhaps. A quick glance across the river was confirming that even the damned geologist had concealed himself with more success. Victor wove through the ferns to the corner of the porch. From there he was afforded a view of the verdant fields that stretched beyond, trees bending under the weight of pendulous fruit. It would be a waste - such a waste, at that! - but a job was a job, and he for one was in no rush to get on his employer’s bad side. He waved Petersen and a half-dozen forms from the surrounding forest followed, crouched low against the possibility of being seen. It was time.
As dawn was bringing glorious color to the sky and the associated wildlife began raucously chorusing its approval the raiding party’s efforts were brought to fruition. As the morning sun was cresting the horizon it was well-known that Lord Percy Umbril would be taking breakfast at his leisure on the expansive porch. It was therefore with the greatest zeal that Victor gave a shrill whistle, and the interlopers released the first barrage. Pink-orange shapes flew through the air and pelted the pale yellow house and its clean white trim, sliding down the windows and obliterating the lordship’s toast entirely. Footmen scattered as a second wave hit, riper than the first, leaving the porch’s occupants splattered with sticky pulp.
“Outrage!” Umbril sputtered, retreating behind the formerly spotless table. “Take care of this, this indignity at once!”
The footmen traded looks, each trying to walk the thin line between not going first and no longer being in Umbril’s well-salaried employment. Finally the smallest caved, helped in no small part by a shove from one of his companions. He stumbled down the steps and tripped into the welcoming embrace of the garden, reappearing dishevelled a moment later. The great man himself, meanwhile, cowered behind the breakfast arrangement. Lulled into complacency by his rival’s apparent acceptance of the latest fig buyout, Umbril had foolishly breakfasted far from any door to safety. Across the river Murdoch scanned the driveway. A flicker of motion caught his eye - there. The laborers - at least those that feared Umbril’s wrath more than the sight of seed-spattered mercenaries launching a frontal assault on the fruit baron’s mansion - were making their way along the drive, careful to avoid the telltale crunch of gravel underfoot. Murdoch pulled the whistle Victor had given him from the depths of a bulging vest pocket and loosed two shrill blasts, one short and one long. The mercenary’s attention snapped to the west, and at a gesture two of the men behind him melted backwards into the rising morning mist. The lackeys on the porch took advantage of the lightening barrage to take cover behind the low stone border, making the dash to the gardener’s shed singly and in pairs. A bird called from the depths of the forest and the laborers found themselves under assault from all sides. They scattered and split, pouring back in the direction they had come, beleaguered by invisible foes.
Murdoch availed himself of the opportunity to uproot his boots from the gummy morass and slipped to where the canoe lay hidden. He pushed off with barely a splash, fervently praying the sun-shredded mist would hold until he had safely crossed. If a breeze tore the last of his cover away he would be a sitting duck for Umbril’s lackeys. He shuddered again at the remembrance of Bicksby’s instructions that morning.
“Remember,” the baron had said, pipe clacking between his teeth, “Nothing lethal. Lady fortune is fickle, and in a month or two some of you might find yourself in that fop’s livery. I won’t hold it against you, mind - like as not you’ll be mine again by the end of the year. But no maiming, either, for such a lazy good-for-nothings you’re damned expensive to replace out here.”
He treated them to a mirthless grin and stalked off to inspect the fields, leaving Victor to organize and instruct and arm the group. Were he back in London, Murdoch would have thought it a line-up of the police’s usual suspects rather than a selection of Bicksby’s most veteran employees.
Now, paddling as quietly as he could manage, Murdoch wasn’t entirely sure any such demarcation could be made. He had been an idiot of truly magnificent proportions to get involved, particularly having read the papers in the weeks leading up to his voyage. The press left out more than it dared print, which, in consideration of the rags he stooped to in order to find so much as passing mention of the fruit baron, should have been reputation enough. Had he listened to reason? Of course not. He had been half-drunk on promises of research and academic prestige when he should have been wondering why the line of eager applicants was so remarkably lacking. The canoe bumped into the opposite shore, startling Murdoch from his self-recriminations and nearly into the river. A hand appeared from the shadows to haul the canoe halfway onto land, leaving the geologist to stumble forward in desperate hopes of making it to dry land before tipping over. He almost made it when the other hand lifted him by the collar and deposited him on the bank. Bicksby’s minion picked up the paddle and slung the canoe over a shoulder before disappearing into the forest as silently as he had come. Murdoch waited for his heart to slow to a canter before slogging towards the rendez-vous.
The geologist broke cover at a run, dodging between rows of towering plants until at last the mansion was in sight. Victor was where he had promised, orange juice dripping from the twin machetes in his hands. He spun, sending a spray of sticky liquid to join the mud coating the unfortunate scientist.
“See you managed to avoid the opposition,” he grunted, laying into the pile of green-clad fuit at his feet.
“I was informed the alternative might be... unpleasant,” Murdoch agreed.
He hefted one of the freshly skinned papayas experimentally before lobbing it over the roof of the shed. A yelp announced the fruit had found its target, and Victor nodded appreciatively.
“So is this sort of thing a usual request from Bicksby?”
The mercenary glanced over to make sure the question was in earnest. Murdoch didn’t blink.
“You mean ruining his lordship’s breakfast? Or holding the place ransom until he gives in to an exploitative contract letting Bicksby act as middleman for this entire region?”
“We’re holding them captive?” Murdoch squeaked in horror.
“Not technically.” Victor shrugged. “They’re just too afraid of getting a little dirty to move. Mind you I told Bicksby we should just burn the place down, but he’s planning some sort of maneuver with a shell corporation that involves the trees still being present.”
“So then the fruit-flinging is better? Legal?”
“Of course not. We’re destroying his property, eating into his profits” - he punctuated the point with a large bite from hsi latest victim - “and bullying Umbril into signing unfavorable contracts. Give the lawyers a month and the tides’ll turn and we’ll be the ones getting pelted with produce. Most of the men switch sides at least four times a year, only sometimes voluntarily. Half of them would blast everything south of town flatter than a coat of cheap paint if they thought they could get away with it. Bicksby has his choice of volunteers for chores like this, and they both give as good as they get.”
Murdoch threw another papaya, the slick fruit curving shy of its intended target to shatter glasses on the breakfast table. Come to think of it, one of Umbril’s footmen did look familiar, but Murdoch had put it down to the general thuggish resemblance of all the workers. He was pretty sure the specimens in question were no stranger to police inquiries, not that there seemed to be a strong presence of the law in this particular locality. Even had there been, it would no doubt have devolved into another pawn in the fruit barons’ needlessly complex two-man trade war. He grunted and dropped the papaya he was holding, fruit sliding out from between pulp-slicked fingers.
“Have they always been sabotaging one another like this?”
The valet treated Murdoch to the sort of look that prompts one to reconsider life choices.
“Has nobody ever told you that asking too many questions is bad for your health? I’m not a bloody history book.”
But he grinned nevertheless and chucked another handful of orange flesh, sweeping Umbril’s wig off his glistening scalp as the magnate sought to determine if it was safe to emerge.
“They were friends at first, way back at the beginning. Then the usual sort of disagreements, Umbril didn’t agree with Bicksby’s business practices, Bicksby took exception to Umbril’s aversion to risk. They agreed to split assets 50-50 and become two separate businessed. Then in the summer of ’27 Umbril’s fiancée broke off the engagement. Umbril blamed Bicksby, and things got ugly.”
“Uglier than stealing entire fields and the associated peasant labor?”
Murdoch slitted the skin on a papaya, attempted to peel it off, and sent the half-flayed result hurtling in the general direction of the house. He wasn’t much good at it, but he had to admit there was something electrifying about being in the middle of the action, fruit raining down on all sides as both parties slowly morphed into pulp-coated monstrosities.
“Ugly as in the governor called in the army to break up the fight and put out the fires. See, it wasn’t just about Umbril’s lady. She had left him because he chews with his mouth open, but the blockhead refused to believe her letter. He insisted Bicksby must have done something to drive away his lady love. Bicksby was never one to walk away from a slight, particularly from his former friend. More than his honor, though, he was personally hurt. He was hoping his friendship with Umbril might... develop.”
“I can see where having that particular aspect of one overlooked might make someone itchy for revenge,” Murdoch agreed.
“So, instead of talking about it, they went to war. Their actions may have been tamed by the army’s intervention, but I can assure you the hatred still burns strong on both sides.”
Murdoch inexpertly dodged an incoming mango.
“Who’s that on the driveway?” he asked, wiping golden juice from his eyes.
Victor glared at the figure approaching the house. Clad in nondescript trousers and a stained shirt, he could easily have belonged to either side.
“Halt! Who goes there?” one of Umbril’s peons called uncertainly from behind the potting shed.
The man hesitated before continuing towards the house. Without seeming to move, Victor popped into a gap in the rows of papaya trees, dripping machete in either hand.
“Declare yourself, or suffer the consequences!” he snarled.
That seemed to do the trick. The interloper froze, hand drifting to a pocket. Distracted by the newcomer, Bicksby’s minions paused their barrage and Umbril’s men perked up in case it was reinforcements.
“Message for a Mr. Umber-something?”
Umbril’s lackeys, hope ruptured like an overinflated cream puff, slouched deeper behind their cover as a fresh hail of papaya pelted down around them.
“No, sir, away! A papaya war is on!” Victor bellowed, whipping a skinned specimen at Lord Umbril with incredible accuracy.
The courier stood in the driveway, staring at the fruit-splattered men like they had all gone mad. Not, Murdoch thought looking around, that he would have come to any other conclusion if he had arrived at the current stage in the proceedings.
“Should be out of papaya fairly soon,” he called cheerfully, launching one with decidedly less success.
It corkscrewed off into the garden well short of its intended target. Already the mountainous stockpile they had skinned in the darkness was well on its way to disappearing entirely despite steady harvesting efforts from several of Bicksby’s lackeys. Murdoch frowned. Surely they had a job title, or at least names. Not that any in Bicksby’s employ found it worth their while to be loose-lipped, but he wondered why he hadn’t thought about it before now.
“What happens when the papayas run out?” he asked Victor, passing a couple particularly fleshy examples.
The mercenary valet released the missiles and reached for another, to find the stack significantly shorter than expected. He spared it no more than a moment’s attention.
“Pineapples next, boys!” he hollered, to groans from the house and general approval from the fields.