Every Bitter Thing

Leighton Gage

To the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.


Chapter One

It was Norma Palhares who first steered her new husband toward the offshore oil platforms. At the time, it seemed like a judicious course to follow. In the end, it set their marital ship on the rocks.

Jonas would spend only two days a week at home; but the money was good, and he’d only do it for a year or so, just until they had enough saved up to buy a bigger house. But the kids they’d planned on never came, so they’d never needed that bigger house. And, in the meantime, their expenses just kept going up and up. New cars every year, flat-screen televisions all over the house, imported wines, designer clothing, the most expensive restaurants, the finest club in the city, the best hairdressers. Jonas kept bringing the money in, and Norma kept shoveling it out. A year became two, then three. And by the time the divorce became final, they’d been together for more than seven.

Jonas moved in with a colleague and began to do what he’d wanted to do for quite some time-embrace the good life.

The colleague was another petroleum engineer who had taken a small flat on a busy shopping street in the Leme neighborhood, six blocks from the beach. He, too, had recently separated from his wife and, burdened by child support, would have been happy to have Jonas stay on and help with the rent. But Jonas, who’d managed to conceal a bundle of money from Norma and her lawyer, had no kids and no financial problems. He wanted a place of his own.

He settled first in Santa Teresa, taking a small house with a high wall and a big garden. The house, situated in the highest part of Rio’s highest neighborhood, was conveniently located, less than fifty meters from the nearest streetcar stop. The single-story structure was of just the right size: big enough for Jonas’s needs, but small enough to be maintained without a full-time maid. A cleaning lady, who came in three times a week, kept it tidy.

From his backyard, Jonas could look down on the mouth of the bay. The headlands, seven hundred meters below, were so close to one another that a Portuguese navigator had once, on a long-ago January day, mistaken them for the entrance to a river. It was he who’d given the place a name it would bear forever after: Rio de Janeiro, River of January.

The spectacular view was further enhanced by the Christ Statue up on the Corcovado. The monument, almost forty meters in height, was actually four kilometers away, at almost the same altitude as the house. To Jonas’s visitors, it looked like a copy in miniature set into the recesses of his garden among the banana trees.

It was all very lovely, but the neighborhood’s newest resident soon came to a rude awakening: the charm of Santa Teresa was offset by a lack of security. It had become a dangerous place to visit, and an even more dangerous place to live.

After being held up at the point of a gun three times in nine months, Jonas, frightened and fed up, paid the penalty for canceling his lease and took an apartment in Ipanema.

There, smack-dab in the middle of Avenida Vieira Souto, his terrace faced the brilliant yellow sand of the beach. The South Atlantic was only a hundred meters from his front door. Beyond the curling waves, islands floated on a sea of blue. Farther out, the superstructures of ships dotted the horizon. And on weekends, Jonas was treated to the sight of tiny forms, climbers, scaling the gray walls of the Sugarloaf. But unlike the house in Santa Teresa, he hadn’t chosen the apartment in Ipanema for the view; he’d chosen it because the neighborhood attracted many visitors and many of them were tourists. The city fathers didn’t like it when tourists were assaulted, so Ipanema was heavily patrolled, not only by the civil police but also by a special battalion dedicated to the protection of tourists. Jonas Palhares was confident that he’d moved to a place of absolute safety.

His confidence was misplaced.

On the fatal day, a little before noon, he was surprised to hear the doorbell ring. It was thirteen days before Christmas, a holiday he’d planned on spending with his widowed mother in Minas Gerais.

Back in November, on his most recent trip to the States, he’d bought presents for her and his sisters. They were wrapped and stacked in a neat pile on his bed, the final items he’d pack. But before leaving for Belo Horizonte, he had work to do. A leak had been reported, an oil slick was staining the sea around platform P-23, and a helicopter was on its way to fetch him.

The pickup point was Santos Dumont, the little airport not twenty minutes away. There’d be no long cab ride to Galeao, and that, at least, was a blessing.

Jonas’s apartment was in a luxury building. Doormen were downstairs to screen visitors. No one should have been allowed to simply board the elevator, show up in front of his door, and ring the bell. But this was Rio, and in Rio one comes to expect such things. Service personnel tend to be lax. The guy charged with announcing his visitors might have dropped down to the bar on the corner for a quick coffee, or more likely a cachaca and a beer. On the other hand, the doorman might be at his post. And, if he was, the person standing outside in the corridor might be his girlfriend, Chantal. The doorman wouldn’t stop Chantal. He’s used to seeing her come in at all hours.

He went to the door and, without looking through the peephole, jerked it open.

It wasn’t Chantal.

And less than four minutes later, Jonas Palhares’s hopes for an enjoyable future were dashed forever. He was just another statistic, one of Rio de Janeiro’s unsolved homicides.

Chapter Two

In the early years of the twentieth century, the small town of Brodowski, in the heart of Sao Paulo State’s coffeegrowing district, was populated almost exclusively by Italian immigrants. They labored on the plantations, maintained their language and customs, married one another, and largely kept to themselves. In the winter months, Ribeirao Preto, the closest city of any size, could be reached by a single-lane dirt road. But in the springtime, when the rainy season began, the dirt turned to mud, and the mud isolated Brodowski from the world.

A hundred years later, the coffee was gone, replaced by the new century’s more lucrative cash crop: sugarcane. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original residents had been assimilated, the road had long since been paved, and Ribeirao had swollen to more than a million residents.

But one thing hadn’t changed: Brodowski was still a sleepy little town. And yet Brodowski was famous. Famous because it was here, in 1903, that Candido Portinari had been born. Portinari grew up to be Brazil’s most famous painter. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, his work was selling for hundreds of thousands of reais and gracing the walls of some of the most prestigious art museums in the world.

Then, in late 2005, something else happened to put Brodowski on the map: the famous social psychologist Paulo Cruz bought a house there.

Doctor Cruz’s first book, Trabalhando nos Campos do Senhor ( Toiling in the Fields of the Lord), was a weighty tome on Evangelical sects in Brazil. It earned high praise in the world of academe, but the first-and only- printing numbered a mere thousand copies. And more than half of them were pulped.

His second work, released in 1998, under the title Namoro e Noivado (Courtship and Engagement), was a

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