He was surrounded by white. The cobblestone street, the concrete sidewalks, even the plaster walls were washed with the glare of the midday sun. It was as if he were walking in a dream. Yet he knew he was not. The steep grade greedily sucked air from his lungs and the feel of each armpit becoming increasingly damp confirmed the reality of his march up the punishingly long hill. Was that what was intended? Was this to be a penance performed in public with disinterested onlookers unaware of what they were witnessing? Surely not, he thought. The request had been cordial. A quiet lunch the handwritten note had suggested. Just the sort of missive one acquaintance might send to another. What malice could there be in that? Unless of course, he knew.
The wooden sign swung lazily, propelled by the breeze atop the hill. He saw the artist’s rendering of the fish with mouth agape and just below it the words Tia Palmira Restaurante. He had heard of it—a place more frequented by foreigners than locals, who could seldom afford it. Opening the door and stepping inside he was momentarily blinded—his eyes unable to rapidly equalize the disparity between the brilliance outside and the darkness inside. Could this forebode something sinister as well, he wondered.
Perhaps guilt was getting the best of him.
“Yes?” She asked.
“I’m here to meet someone.”
“He told me to watch for you. This way, please.”
He allowed himself to be led past the bar and through the tables that were still mostly shadows to his acclimating vision. Only a few seconds passed before the hostess guided him onto a tiled patio surrounded by immense mango trees—their shade filtering the blinding rays of the sun while their leaves swayed with the hilltop wind and lessened the omnipresent heat.
A man in a white linen suit stood as the hostess and the guest approached his table. The hostess nodded and turned away.
“Thank you for joining me,” the man said.
“Thank you for inviting me,” he answered, taking a seat. “It’s quite lovely up here,” he went on, gazing at the ocean lapping the shore below.
“Have you not been here before?”
“This is my first time.”
“This place comes highly recommended,” the man said, “from our concierge at the hotel.”
“Sometimes hotel personnel are rewarded by local establishments for sending business their way.”
“Are you implying I’ve been duped?”
“Not at all. Just making conversation.”
“Would you like something to drink? As you can see I already have one.”
“Is that a Caipirinha?”
“It is. I’ve been won over by your country’s favorite cocktail.”
The man stopped a passing waiter and said, “Two more, please. One for my guest and a second for me.”
“Best to go slowly,” he said. Cold Caipirinhas and hot days can be a lethal combination.”
“Thanks for the warning,” the man responded. “But I’m well practiced at handling my liquor.”
“Just a friendly observation. One I’ve had to repeat to myself on numerous occasions.”
“Yes. You are a friendly fellow, aren’t you? That’s what my wife says.”
Was that the bait? I won’t take it so soon. “And how is your lovely wife? I assumed she would be joining us today.”
“She was feeling a bit under the weather. Apparently something she ate recently disagreed with her.”
“What a shame. I do hope she’s better soon.”
“I’m sure she will be. She often recovers quickly from these gastronomical indiscretions.”
“Tried something a little too exotic, did she?”
“That’s one way of putting it. Perhaps an appropriate way.”
Just then the waiter arrived with two Caipirinhas. He set them on the table and took away the man’s first glass.
“So, what should we drink to?”
The man said, “How about to beautiful Brazilian afternoons?”
“As is certainly the case today,” he said. They clinked glasses and drank.
The man spoke again. “I hope you don’t mind. I’ve taken the liberty of ordering in advance. One of their signature dishes. It takes a while to prepare, so I—”
“Quite alright,” he cut in. “If you like it, I’m sure I will also.”
“Yes, that seems to be the case, doesn’t it?”
Another probe, is it? I’ll continue to parry. “Well,” he began, “you picked this lovely café, this excellent aperitif, your judgment seems impeccable.”
“Delighted you think so. And fear not, your trust will be justly rewarded.”
He doesn’t know. I’m sure now. He doesn’t know.
The man said, “I believe in balance, you see. Doing what I can to keep things on an even keel. That’s why I asked you here today.”
“Yes, since I’ve decided not to acquire the property you showed us, I thought it appropriate to deliver that little disappointment with the pleasantry of a mollifying meal.”
“How very kind of you. Most would have just called and given me their decision over the phone. Of course, I admit that my hopes were up when your wife expressed a desire to see the villa a second time.”
“Well, frankly, it was the occasion of that second visit that solidified my decision to decline.”
“Oh really. What a shame. Did she simply find it not as attractive as it had been on first viewing.”
“Quite the contrary, actually. She was in fact, particularly effusive about the experience.”
“Then…why have you decided not to purchase the property? Was it the price?”
“No. The price was reasonable. But my wife’s excitement actually had nothing to do with the villa or the grounds.”
“No. It seems her euphoria was brought about by something all together different. Something much more physical. Need I be specific?”
My God! She told him. I can’t believe she told him.
“Please! Let me explain.”
“Oh there’s no need for that. Recriminations and excuses are tiresome. You’ll say you had no intention of such a thing happening…you don’t know what came over you…you were blinded by her beauty. Trust me. I have heard it all before. We are both men of the world, are we not? Certainly it was tawdry, but surely you don’t think this is the first time something like this has happened.”
“It was the first time for me. I certainly don’t make a habit of that sort of thing.”
“Unfortunately, she does.”
“And please believe…I meant no disrespect for you, sir. It was simply…the passion of the moment. As you said, her beauty, well it’s…it’s astonishing isn’t it?”
“Yes. My wife is quite lovely. Of course she is my wife.”
Before he could continue apologizing, the waiter arrived at the table and set identical plates before them, turned, and walked away.
“Ah, lunch has arrived. Please tell me what you think.”
“I truly regret what happened, sir. I never intended to—”
“No, no. Not about that. Tell me what you think of the fish.”
Though he had totally lost his appetite, he silently picked up his fork, pulled off a small piece of flesh, and bit into it. “Hmm. It’s good. Sort of makes the lips tingle, doesn’t it?”
The man put both elbows on the table, entwined his fingers, looked into the other’s eyes and said, “That tingle you feel is the beginning of your central nervous system shutting down.”
“Wha…” He tried to speak, but he could only slur.
The man continued.
“You will next become dizzy. But don’t worry, you will not fall because severe paralysis will immediately set in and you’ll be unable to move. You’ll lose all feeling in your face. Then you may begin to vomit. But you’ll remain fully conscious; at least until the poison reaches your diaphragm, at which time you’ll likely die of asphyxia. I’ve made arrangements with the establishment to rush you to the hospital once they know it’s too late. This café is owned by a local drug entrepreneur. The concierge at the hotel suggested I contact him to help with a little matter that I told him I needed to take care of. A little matter of retribution. He suggested the blowfish…the entrepreneur, not the concierge. Apparently he’s done this sort of thing before for others who have the means to pay. I am used to paying for what I want. This has cost me greatly. But it is worth it. And I guess it’s really nothing compared to what it’s costing you. I hope you enjoyed my wife, and found your time with her worthwhile. Were she here, I’m sure she would smile conspiratorially, pretend that nothing had happened, and tell you goodbye. But since she isn’t here, I’ll do it for her. Goodbye.”
With that, the man rose and left the table.
He continued to sit there, unable to move, as the earth continued its turn around the sun, indifferent to the plight of mortals simply along for the ride. The mango trees no longer shaded him. Once again, and now for eternity, he was surrounded by white.
Joe Kilgore’s short stories have won awards and been featured in magazines, anthologies, creative journals, and online literary publications. He’s also the author of four published novels. Joe lives and writes in Austin, Texas. You can read more about him and his fiction at his website: https://joekilgore.com
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