1.3 Alenby: Champagne and Chocolate 

1.3.1 Alenby Follows the Green Fedora

Newark International Airport

6:30 pm Tuesday 1 April 1987

Alenby had long felt that diversions of the romantic genre were seriously overrated—hours diverted from the enjoyment of food and wine, and all for nothing but an occasional spasm of pleasure. And he knew that a gentleman whose valise has been mislaid by Air France, who consequently lacks reserves of linens and underwear, and who moreover suffers from a virility deficit sufficient to inspire the nick-name "Marshmallow," as well as colonic problems of a particularly embarrassing nature, would be better off avoiding an entanglement with the weaker sex.

But neither those considerations, nor the seduction of Champagne to be offered in the  Ambassador Lounge on the second floor, deterred him from following the lady with the brown eyes that gleamed like chocolate-coated cherries from under the brim of her green fedora. He followed her as she made her way through the concourse and ascended the stairway leading up to the second floor, even though her supple stride took her along the corridor in the direction away from the Ambassador Lounge.

She was very thin, he’d already noticed that, and the easy swing of her ballerina-length skirt. Perhaps she was an actress, a fashion model? That last was ridiculous, of course. She was too short to be a model....

On the other hand—and his mind accepted this curious fact for the first time—everyone in the airport was shorter than himself, and the women, for the most part, far shorter. Not only shorter, but also thinner by far.

What might be behind this apparent outbreak of malnutrition? If he had not been preoccupied with his pursuit, he might have supposed that people were not eating enough red meat, eggs cheese and consequently running short of high-quality protein.

But the oddities piled up so fast he would have been overwhelmed anyway. The missing valise, the curiously low check-in counter, the short thin people everywhere, and now as he noticed for the first time, the way the short thin people were turned out.

In a word, elegantly. With few exceptions they carried not handbags or attaché cases but body-hugging backpacks, and they wore suits dresses and hats of various countries and fashion epochs, all well cut from attractive cottons, silks and synthetics. He was struck especially by a quick-moving Indian woman in a sari--brilliant in yellow and vermilion that fitted her dark complexion, thin fabric undulating gracefully....

But here was another enigma—no wool. Not one of the short, thin people in the airport wore wool.

Wool: Alenby’s thoughts followed a familiar path. Striding along after the lady in the green fedora, he found comfort in the hang of his flannel slacks and their fluent adjustments to his every movement. He rubbed his knuckle on the lapel of his Harris tweed jacket and felt the soft nubbiness of that most luxurious of fabrics. Why all these little people, though correctly turned out, should spurn wool was beyond his comprehension! He murmured a soothing mantra, one of his most deeply-held beliefs: There is no substitute for wool. He felt calmer.

His quarry slowed down, apparently to make use of some sort of hand-held communication equipment like a mobile phone only much smaller. He also slowed and dropped back a bit. A harassment suit would be damnably inconvenient, what with lawyers and so on and so forth....

 

Actually he felt tired of walking. His feet always felt hot and itchy whenever he walked any great distance. The athlete's-foot remedy, Nodor, had done little to relieve the discomfort and the regrettable odor resulting from that affliction, and prescription medications for the problem seemed to be ruled out by the risk of interactions with the meds he was already taking to keep in top shape.

He felt in a way relieved when he saw the woman in the green fedora slip into one of the Air France offices that lined the corridor, quickly closing the door behind her. He advanced far enough to read the name on the brass plaque: Philippe de Something or Other, Director of Ground Operations.

Did she pause, look back for an instant? Yes, she might have—did so in fact, with a hint of a smile and...ah, there was something ineffably glamorous about chocolate-coated cherries. Of all cherries for the purpose, he felt that the Montmorency was the best variety. One needed the sweetness of chocolate offset by that bracing dash of tartness….

Smiling to himself, Alenby turned about and quickened his steps in the direction of the Ambassador Lounge. He dreamed of Montmorency cherries dipped in a dark, unctuous chocolate fondue. But now, one needed Champagne.

1.3.2 Alenby Distracted

Air France Ambassador Lounge, Newark International Airport

6:45 pm Tuesday 1 April 1987

Deep pile carpet, crystal chandelier, a few short, thin neatly dressed people standing about. Much as expected, except that the place was quite new to Alenby. He didn’t remember any Ambassador Lounge at Newark Airport. Before he had time to worry about this new puzzle, a short, thin waiter with bushy eyebrows materialized at his elbow, bearing a tray of small and exceedingly slim flutes of Champagne.

"Champagne, Excellency?"

Alenby took up a flute, glanced at it briefly, sniffed, sipped...frowned.

"E. Leclerc '84, Excellency," supplied the waiter.

"E. Leclerc," Alenby repeated in a tone that would have been equally appropriate to a finding of E. coli.

 "Frankly," he went on after further consideration, "I am surprised this E. Leclerc was deemed worthy of bottling as a cuve, let alone a vintage." He made to drain the flute, but discovered he had already done so.

"Yes, Excellency, very perceptive of you if I may say so. Most of our passengers, even in Ambassador class, take this Champagne to be the product of a relatively reputable estate, namely Lafayette. Air France has to economize, of course, but it is regrettable that they have chosen to cut here, in the very lifeblood of our service. Will Excellency care for another?"

Alenby accepted a second toy-sized flute and examined it with elaborate attention. The waiter was right, he thought, about the airline’s economizing in the wrong place. Not only did they offer bubbly of less than adequate quality, but they served it in ridiculously small glasses. And another thing:

"Hum, you say this is E. Leclerc’s 1984 vintage?"

"Yes Excellency, the 1984 vintage—"

"But it’s remarkably advanced for an ’84 from the Vallée de la Marne, as I assume this is from the hints of Pinot Meunier in the nose. It's as if it were put up in half-bottles."

"Oh no, not at all Excellency," said the waiter, failing to conceal his surprise at the error. "We receive all our Champagne in bottles. Well, sometimes in magnums, to be sure, but definitely bottles in this case. Regular 37.5-centiliter bottles."

Alenby smiled warily. The fellow must be joking. A bottle is three-quarters of a liter, and 37.5 centiliters is a half-bottle in anyone’s language!

But the waiter’s face wore the stolid expression of conviction in his area of expertise. He wasn’t joking. Alenby was baffled. A bottle equal to a half-bottle? What a contradiction! Another enigma to add to the mystery of the disappearing valise....    

On further consideration he perceived a small area of order. It seemed perfectly correct that half-sized people should be accustomed to Champagne poured from half-bottles into half-sized glasses. Here at last was something that made sense.

"Another, hem, E. Leclerc, Excellency?"

"Thank you, my good man!" Alenby took up a flute—or as he persisted in thinking of it, a demi-flute—with the optimistic feeling that he was about to untangle the problems that beset him.

But the feeling was short-lived.

As he lifted the flute he happened to comment favorably on the enhancement of various common fruits—Montmorency cherry, cape gooseberry, bergamot and so on and so forth—under a glaze of chocolate fondue. Just a light-hearted remark, to which the waiter’s response—bushy eyebrows raised, suddenly ashen complexion—seemed absurdly inappropriate. It was as if one had made some embarrassing gaffe, like taking coffee with dessert instead of waiting for the mignardises.

"Does Excellency realize what he is suggesting?" the waiter asked after he had regained his power of speech. "I must advise Excellency most emphatically that it is company policy to avoid mention of prohibited substances! Pure raw chocolate is permissible, of course, but the candy-chocolate abomination used in glazing—never! Carob, now, carob is possible. Carob-coated cherries, Montmorency cherries if you will, but—"

Alenby recoiled, frowning. Carob? Ridiculous! Carob lacked the unctuous gleam of chocolate, and it lacked that curious kick on the palate delivered by the Valrhona sort of thing. The idea simply didn’t square with the norms of civilized society, let alone its ideals!

The emotional disturbance had its usual effect: He felt an inner snake making a sudden escape attempt by way of his rectum, and he felt the abominable anal stinging and itching familiar to sufferers of colitis or whatever it was he had. But he remained calm. His flight was yet to be called. He still had time to stop in at the toilet to apply the new British medication, R-solace, to the affected area.

 

1.3.3 Enter Cleopatra Kirwan

Air France Flight 004 Tourist Class Boarding Area, Newark International Airport

6.50 pm Tuesday1 April 1987

Cleopatra Kirwan chugged the complementary half-liter of the famously limpid Passaic River water, and right away went back for another. Ah, she needed that potation!

Seeing that just about everyone in the boarding area was sitting down, she sat down too. The exhilaration of action began to wear off, and a worm of worry started tickling at the edge of her consciousness. The sari--maybe she shouldn't have dumped it in the garbage. Of course she had to dump it somewhere, and the women's john looked like the best bet. But without the sari, her flight backpack looked kind of thin. Suspiciously thin? Whatever. She stood up, swung off the backpack, and after assuring herself that no one was watching her, bulked it up with the empty plastic water cups. Sitting down again, she made a mental note to put those cups in the proper recycling bin right away after arriving in Paris.

She was still trembling all over from battling with that stupid sari. No question, it was a super-good disguise, but getting it on and off in the confined space of the john was some production! And lipstick, that was another thing not to try again. The Indian-style dot on the forehead took only a second to put on, but getting it off--that was something else. Never did get it off, just smeared it around so it didn't show too much. Good thing I'm black, she thought, otherwise I'd look like I had some sort of awful skin rash like what prosub users are supposed to get....

Okay, Cleo's thoughts ran on, there were some unanticipated glitches there, but it's working out all right. That face under the green hat was Ada Lynch's, no question. Just like her XPROW publicity picture. Got a really good look at her, and got off a couple face-recognition shots just in case.  Ada Lynch didn't have a clue. Seemed totally absorbed in something, sort of excited....

The boarding call went and people started standing up, gathering up their things and getting in the line to the gate. Cleo did not stand up right away, though. This was her first experience of solo air travel, and she didn't want to make any dumb over-eager moves that might be a tip-off to...what she was up to.

After a little while the line started moving, and she sauntered over and joined it. Breathing normally. Heart rate still up some but within normal limits. She was on her way to Paris, hot on the trail of Ada Lynch.

 

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