Meat of the Horse

Meat of the Horse
Chapter Two

Okapi Woman and the Lemon Guy

My name is Ned Alexander. You don’t know about me without having read my first book, On the Eradication of Small Pox and the Intractability of Raccoons. The book recounted an earlier tale and tells the story of how I became a journalist, won a Pulitzer Prize, solved a murder but never told, somehow wound up the favorite son of a special kind of terrorist organization that initiated a program of ironic justice, and became a governor of a prestigious philanthropic organization. All pretty good for a major-league fuck-up, even if I did graduate, by mostly accidental circumstances, from Harvard. 

To explain: I work for a newspaper called the Daily Sun out of Tucson, Arizona. I carry the title “reporter at large,” and it’s a fabulous job. The Sun’s owners probably would have canned me except for two things: My editor, Mike Halloran, likes me, and I won a Pulitzer Prize for my work on a story about an inmate who was executed by the state of Texas—well, kind of.  You’ll have to read the Raccoon book on that one. 

Because of Halloran, and the Pulitzer, the Sun thought it was in its best interest, economic if not always aesthetic, to keep me around. But because I lack discipline, which is true; have a poor work ethic, which is not true; and have an almost Native American disregard of time and its implications, also true, they decided to give me this “reporter at large” thing. Which means that I get to follow all kinds of interesting and wacky stories all over the world, for which they pay me pretty well and cover a good seventy to eighty percent of my expenses, depending on how much Halloran is willing to go to bat for me with Bob, the paper’s chief accountant. In turn, I write great articles, keep the Sun in the spotlight, don’t work for the competition, and pretty much stay out of their hair. Take it all around, the relationship works pretty well for everyone. Seventy to eighty percent reimbursement from the paper is still pretty good, and I make up the difference personally from my position of director of the philanthropic organization. More on that later.

So, as it happens, I’m here in Paris resting up from a time in India and Nepal writing about a series of killings centering on the industry that traffics in the selling of young women and girls for the sex trade. You can read that book, too, if you want. That is, if I ever write it.

So anyway, like I said, I’m here in Paris at the Hotel Nigresko; a little five-star R&R to wash away the skeevier parts of the last four months. One of my major operating principles is that there is no such thing as coincidence; read the Raccoon book if you want to know how I came to this insight. For now, just enjoy the ride. There are a few things in this story that could masquerade as coincidence, to an untutored eye:

First, I’m not supposed to be staying at the five-star Hotel Nigresko at all. Halloran arranged with the Sun Buggers for me to stay at this very nice hotel. This since my recent articles caused the readership of the Sun to soar like Bob their chief accountant’s blood pressure when reviewing my expenses. But when I check in, the hotel is full. The guy at the desk, Francois, looks at me and sees how much I’m in need of a little respite and tells me to hold on a minute and makes a call.

“In my opinion,” he says, “the mix-up is our hotel’s fault, so I have arranged for you to stay at the Nigresko for the same price.” And just like that, even though I’m American and Francois is French, compassion trumps culture. I used to be amazed at stuff like this, but not anymore. It is not until I am in the men’s room in the lobby of the Nigresko that I realize how indebted I am to Francois. There are a lot of really crappy hotels in Paris, but this is not one of them. In fact, with very few adaptations, I could live quite happily in the men’s room. OK: Francois and the Hotel Nigresko, that’s number one.

Second, I come into my hotel early Friday evening and there’s this simply drop-dead gorgeous woman standing alone in the lobby wearing a black evening dress with spaghetti straps; it’s simple but elegant. She’s tall with dark brown hair bobbed at shoulder length, but what arrest my gaze—throws it in jail, in fact—are her eyes. They’re the size and color of an Okapi’s. Yes, I’ve actually seen an Okapi in the wild. And her legs are those of a track star. I look over at her, and she smiles. I’m just about to make my way over and say something really stupid, like “Hi, I’m Ned, I won a Pulitzer Prize, it’s a very big deal in the U.S., you might like to have dinner with me,” when this very dapper middle-aged guy comes out of the opulent men’s room I’ve just exited, strides toward her, gives her a kiss on the cheek, and escorts her into restaurant. I’m getting to be middle-aged, too, but certainly not dapper, I think, as I look down at my jeans and my stained sweatshirt with the name of a center for abused children written in Urdu. There’s a hole in my running shoe where I can see my toe when I wiggle it. I figure I didn’t really have a shot at her anyway. OK, the girl with the Okapi eyes, that’s number two.

Third, I was really tired when I came in, just getting back from asshole parts of Nepal and India, and was looking forward to an early bed, but the track star girl’s woken me up, so I go into the bar for a drink. I sit myself in a place where I can observe them through a window into the restaurant, just as a waiter drops this whole tray of dishes on the floor with a terrible crash. I order myself a Caesar (you simply can’t get a good Caesar in either India or Nepal) and sit, becoming a reporter again. The woman’s mostly got her back to me, but she turns her head and laughs a lot. The dapper guy doesn’t seem pleased. He takes these tight-assed little sips from his wine glass and doesn’t smile. If I were sitting there, I’d be smiling. I’m starting to make up the dialogue between them—it’s a game I play to keep myself amused—when Ufook sits down beside me. I met Ufook on the plane over to India four months ago, and we keep bumping into each other; he was on my plane from Katmandu earlier today. 

“Hi, buddy,” he says, pronouncing it Boody. Ufook’s a journalist, too, but writes about business and software. Turkish, I think.

“Hey, Ufook, long time, no see,” I say. “What’ve you been up to?” 

That’s certainly the wrong question for someone doing surveillance, as he goes on to tell me what he’s been up to for the good part of half an hour. We order more drinks and mystery appetizers. The French will eat anything, and I’ve learned not to ask. 

When I look back at the Okapi woman and the dapper man, they’re bent over the table examining something in the man’s hand. The woman’s quite animated and gesturing with her fork, and the man is motionless and looks like he’s bitten into a lemon. The waiter comes over, seems to get dizzy, steadies himself, and runs from the table with his hand over his mouth, leaking something that looks a lot like Ufook’s and my last appetizer.

Man, now I’m really interested, sitting on the barstool like a jockey. “Hang on,” I tell Ufook as he continues his “what’ve you been up to” chronicles. The woman continues gesturing with her fork and smiling, and the man can’t seem to swallow that lemon. Then it gets better, as five uniformed French police guys, whatever you call them, come to the table. And they’re all bent over the lemon guy’s dinner plate, and some of them are looking like the waiter and turn away; nobody seems to be enjoying themselves but Okapi woman. 

OK, it’s time to make a move, and I ask our bartender, whose name is Luc, what the name of the waiter at the table is. Luc tells me its Andre. By the way, another one of my operating principles is that names are very important, so you get a lot of names in my stuff. If I don’t know someone’s name, I usually make one up. All I’ve got is a pocket full of rupees, and my guess is that Andre doesn’t take his family vacations in New Delhi. I need to go the ATM in the lobby, I tell Ufook, who’s gone back to the story of his recent life. “Keep an eye on those guys,” I say, pointing to the table.

“What am I supposed to look for?” he asks.

“I don’t know, Ufook, you’re a journalist. Observe.”

“Sure, boody,” he says as he orders us another round of drinks. 

I’m always amazed that I can get money out of a machine, but in response to my button pushing, it spits me out six hundred dollars’ worth of Euros that isn’t as many dollars, and I return to my barstool.

“What’s happened?” I ask Ufook.

“Nothing,” he says.

“You’re one hell of an observer, my friend,” I say. In return, Ufook salutes me with his drink and hands me what must be my third Caesar. 

Everyone is standing up now, and one of the French police guys takes out the dinner plate that everyone seems to be so interested in. The others follow him out the door.

“Hey, Luc, can you ask if Andre can come out and talk to me?” I slap down enough Euros to cover our drinks and a healthy tip.

“Sure, Net,” he says and disappears. 

“Thanks, boody,” says Ufook.

“Hey, Ufook, see if you can get me a receipt, those Sun Buggers are hell on receipts,” I say. Luc returns and nods in the direction of the lobby. Andre is waiting for me just outside the kitchen, his composure and color both having returned. 

“Andre, my name is Ned Alexander, and I’m a journalist for an American newspaper and I’m wondering if you can share what’s going on.” I shake his hand, then present him my card with a hundred Euro note. I indulge a brief internal smile as I think of Halloran defending the expense item, E100—Andre the nauseous waiter—with Bob and the Sun Buggers. Andre shows class as he looks at my card but not the money. 

“It is a curious situation, indeed, Monsieur Ned. Never have I seen such a thing. It was a tum on the plate.”

“Tum?” I say. 

“Yes, a tum,” says Andre, holding up his right hand and wiggling his thumb.

“Thumb,” I say.

“Yes, a tum, right there in the middle of his (Andre uses a long French food word I don’t understand) and maybe another bone of a finger.” This is really easy, since Andre seems excited to talk. But I’m confused and trying to orient myself to what I’m being told.

“What is that?” I refer to the unpronounceable French word. And I’m told that it’s a horsemeat dish. “People eat horsemeat?” I ask, displaying my cultural ignorance.

“Oh, yes, in France we eat a lot of horse,” says Andre.

“So, Andre, what you’re telling me is that those people found a human thumb, and maybe a finger bone in the guy’s dinner?”

“Exactly,” says Andre, quite satisfied with his more than adequate command of the English language. The Sun’s going to eat this up, so to speak, I think. I ask Andre who Lemon Guy and Okapi Woman are, and he tells me. 

“Is she his wife or girlfriend?” I ask. Andre demonstrates his class for the second time by cocking his head and looking me straight in the eye.

“What do you think?” he says with that disdain that the French have turned into an art form. I love you, Andre.

“What are they doing now?”

“Confiscating all of our horsemeat,” says Andre, shaking his head. “If you need me further, Monsieur, you know where to find me.” He turns to go.

“Andre,” I say, and he turns back. “Tally ho,” I say, giving him a slight salute. He smiles and walks off with a dignified assurance. If tomorrow night Andre discovers a human foot on a leg of lamb, I’m quite sure he won’t bat an eye as he bows slightly and returns it to the kitchen. 

Drs. Broussard and Lavoisier exit the kitchen. I have their names; you can see now how I write the things I do. They’re followed by the contingent of French police guys who tote about one hundred pounds of freezer bags with what I take to be parts of horses and perhaps other mammals. They exit through the great golden revolving door of the hotel’s grand entrance, leaving the two surgeons in the lobby. There is a brief verbal exchange, a handshake, but no kiss. Why does this make me so happy? Okapi Woman, I like that name better, turns to go, then turns back, smiles, says something briefly, and with a flick of her head disappears through the revolving door powered by her track star legs, leaving Dr. Lavoisier still sucking on the world’s longest-lasting lemon.

I follow her out the door. But on my way, I work it so I come up behind Dr. Lavoisier. “Excuse me,” I say, touching his elbow as I pass him. He grunts at me and moves, letting me pass. I acknowledge it’s childish.

She’s farther up the street than I thought possible, and I have to jog to catch up, but four months of dodging murderous pimps and their thugs has put me in pretty good shape, at least physically. I stop a ways behind her so she doesn’t think she’s being mugged. “Excuse me, Dr. Broussard,” I say. 

“Yes?” she says in English, and she turns around to look at me.

“I would like to speak to you if I could.”

“American?” she inquires.

“Yes. Sorry,” I say.

“How can I help you?”

Wow, I think, if Okapis talked the way they looked, they’d sound like Veronique Broussard. For some reason, I have the urge to tell her I needed an emergency appendix operation. 

Instead, I say, “My name’s Ned Alexander, and I’m a journalist, and I’d like to talk to you about what happened back at the restaurant. You know, the thumb in the horsemeat and all.”

She looks at me for what seems a long time. I am beginning to feel self-conscious, and I think I feel a pain in my appendix.

“I’m not sure I should talk about it,” she says. Occasionally, I surprise myself by doing the smart thing, and this is one of them. I just keep quiet and looked down at my toe in the hole in my running shoe, wiggle it, and wait.

“What’s that on your sweatshirt?” she says finally. Not quite the answer I’d expected.

I look down at it, embarrassed, and say, “Curry, I think.”

With that, she gives this tremendous unladylike snort and laughs uncontrollably. Tears glisten in her giant eyes illuminated by Paris streetlights. 

“No, that’s not what I meant,” she manages through her laughter. “Your shirt says Advani Home for Girls. What is it?”

“You speak Urdu?” I ask.

“I speak Arabic and some Farsi, which is similar,” she says. “I’ve worked in North Africa and did a short stint in Iran.” Then: “Oh, shit, that was my bus, I need to get back to my daughter.” I immediately look to her left hand to see if there is a ring that I missed. Once again, I’m happy out of all proportion to see none.

“Tell you what,” I say. “I’ve got this rented car that’s in bad need of exercise. Let me take you home, and I can tell you all about Advani Home for Girls, how the curry got on my shirt, and stories about Nepalese procurers, Indian pimps, heroic children, small armies of courageous women, and some not as nice people who are not afraid to fight the bastards of the world.” I wait there as she stares at me, hoping that I haven’t overdone it.

“Okay,” she says at last. My my heart leaps, feeling more alive than I have in such a long time, as we walk back to the hotel to retrieve my car.