I was perusing the lunch menu at the Pelican Club when I let out a howl, which was a bit uncouth even for that unpretentious lodge. This brought forth our waitress, Priscilla, a phenomenon as unusual as my outburst. To get Priscilla's attention is tantamount to hailing a taxi in the rain, as she would rather be gliding down a couturier's runway than punching the parquet at the Pelican.
"Steak tartare?" I exclaimed, still in a state of shock. The cuisine at the club is far from haute, and while I don't mind indulging in one of Leroy's thrombotic blue-plate specials, I draw the line on courting mad cow disease.
"Leroy is upgrading the menu," Priscilla explained.
I should say here that chef Leroy is Priscilla's brother and, along with their father and mother, Simon and Jasmine, the Pettibones are the African-American family of great charm who keep the Pelican aloft, as it were.
"What happened to the hamburger?" I asked. Leroy's hamburgers are among the best in Florida, if not the world.
"Like I said, we're upgrading."
"Before you reach the zenith, may I still order a hamburger, medium rare?"
"How, if it's not on the menu?"
"You order the steak tartare, medium rare."
"But that's a hamburger."
Priscilla put ten beautifully manicured fingernails on her slim hips and spoke as if instructing a not-too-bright child. "Well, a hamburger is what you want, isn't it?"
Leading with my chin, I countered, "Why should I pay fourteen ninety-five for a hamburger that cost seven-fifty, with pommes frites, yesterday?"
"Why? Because if you want to mutilate a perfectly good steak tartare, you have to pay for the privilege, that's why."
And with that, Priscilla moved away with a smile, a nod, and a promise. "I'll be back when you've made up your finicky mind."
My finicky mind was already made up. I'd have the steak tartare, medium rare, though the expensive choice was contingent upon the arrival of my luncheon companion, Vance Tremaine. The meeting had been suggested at breakfast that morning by my father, Prescott McNally, rendering the cost of our lunch a bona fide item for my expense account.
I toil for the law firm of McNally & Son; he is the père, I am the fils. Despite my unceremonious ejection from Yale Law, my father was willing to set me up in a sideline at McNally & Son, known as Discreet Inquiries, where clients who prefer their private affairs be kept private-and who can afford to sidestep the police-are guaranteed prudence. Here in Palm Beach, discretion is the better part of valor and sotto voce is our motto. Ergo, Discreet Inquiries is as vital to Palm Beach society as are the sun and surf.
"Do you know Vance Tremaine, Archy?" the Master of the house had inquired after dabbing at his mustache with a linen napkin. Although we breakfast in the kitchen of our faux Tudor manse on Ocean Boulevard my father dressed for the occasion in a gray worsted suit with vest and a cravat of pale blue silk.
"I know of him, sir. He married Penny Brightworth, who's not very bright but is worth a zillion pennies." My wit is exceeded only by my charm.
"Penelope Brightworth Tremaine is our client, Archy."
"Yes, sir." Mon père is seldom impressed with my wit, especially if it's at the expense of one of our rich clients.
"I received a call from Mr. Tremaine last night and he expressed a desire to consult us on a matter not related to law, per se."
"Discreet Inquiries, sir?"
He nodded. "It would appear so, Archy. He did not want to come to my office so I suggested that you would call him this morning and set up a meeting at a mutually agreed upon venue."
As Vance Tremaine obviously did not want to be seen by his peers consulting with McNally & Son, that would be my Pelican Club-as different from the Bath and Tennis and the Everglades as mousse au chocolat is from chocolate pudding. Father is not amused by my membership in the Pelican but is not oblivious to its usefulness to Discreet Inquiries.
Reprinted from McNally's Dilemma by Vincent Lardo by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by Lawrence A. Sanders Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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