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,
"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.
"I suggest you do a little research into the life and times of Mr. Tremaine before the meeting, Archy."
After our coffee and chat, I retreated to my micro third-floor suite: bedroom, sitting room, dressing room, and bath, tucked beneath our copper mansard roof. You can't beat the rent: the big O, and I don't mean Jackie.
I called Lolly Spindrift, gossip columnist for one of our local rags, who could tell me everything I wanted to know about Vance Tremaine, most of which was none of Lolly's business-or mine. Lolly is a man of vitriolic tongue who fills his Mont Blanc with acid and his bed with men.
"Lolly? Archy McNally here."
"Archy, what can I do for you? It had better be something naughty, or you can stop wasting my precious time. Lady Cynthia gave one of her charity benefits yesterday that was about as interesting as watching paint dry, and I still have to find a way to make it all sound gushingly chic for the late edition. But I have a feeling you had a reason for calling. Tell me, Archy, what do you want to know?"
"A few intimate facts re: Vance Tremaine."
"Size thirty-four boxer shorts and he dresses on the left."
"Good grief, Lol, not that intimate. Just the facts, please."
Vance Tremaine was from old money, so old the well had run dry. Penny Brightworth was from new money, so new it bordered on the vulgar. Daddy founded a fast-food franchise that enabled the Brightworths to dine elsewhere. Vance graduated from Yale some twenty-five years ago, a young Adonis forced to choose between going to work or marrying money. Penny graduated from Sarah
Lawrence at about the same time, a plain Jane with marriage to an Adonis as her post-graduate goal. Theirs was a match made in heaven.
Vance had an eye that roved with the speed of the Concorde; it was said he cheated on Penny two days after the wedding, his amore being the stewardess on the flight that took the honeymooners to romantic Roma. This, to be sure, is PBR, Palm Beach Rumor, as opposed to PBF, Palm Beach Fact. quot;However, the only PBF I would swear to in a court of law," Lolly once admitted, "is the one that decrees the sun rises over the Atlantic and sets behind West Palm."
Penny doesn't like sharing her husband or her bank account, and for twenty-five years has been threatening divorce every time Vance is caught with his size thirty-four boxers on the wrong side of his knees. Penny has vowed that Vance's next bimbo will also be the proverbial straw. One more time and Vance will be tossed out of their faux Spanish hacienda -- ten acres, ocean view -- and onto the A1A with nary the proverbial pot in which to wee-wee.
"Why the interest?" Lolly asked, poison pen surely in hand.
"I think he's in hot water, Lol."
Lolly laughed. "Last I heard it was cold water that was Vance
Tremaine's undoing. Want to hear about it, Archy?"
Vance arrived ten minutes late. A slim, handsome man with a Palm Beach tan, he looked a good ten years younger than a guy approaching the half century mark. He sat, pulled out a white handkerchief and wiped his forehead, despite the fact that it was cool for November. Vance Tremaine was up to his cojones in cow dip, and I had no doubt that it was them cojones that had gotten him there. He wore a lightweight blue suit and rep tie. I wore jeans, Bally loafers (no socks), a lavender button-down dress shirt, open at the collar, and my tweed blazer with bone toggles instead of buttons.
When Priscilla decided to pay her respects I ordered a Bloody Mary and Vance went for a Scotch on the rocks. "Rather lethal for high noon," I preached.
"I need it, Mr. McNally."
"That bad, eh? And if you're going to bare your soul, the name
There is something pathetic about watching a grown man squirm in his chair. "Do I start from the beginning, Archy?"
"Cut to the chase, Vance, and begin with her name."
Aware that his reputation had preceded him to the Pelican Club, Vance sighed the word "Ginny." He continued with, "A little black dress, sable hair, dark eyes-imagine a young Audrey Hepburn with a bit more meat on the bone."
I refused to imagine any such thing, but the reference and the black dress begged the question: "Givenchy?" When I got a blank stare, I explained, "Givenchy is the guy who designed all of Audrey's lovely black dresses."
"I don't think so," Vance said thoughtfully. "Ginny is strictly off the rack."
Priscilla arrived with our drinks and, fearing we would never see her again, I ordered my steak tartare, medium rare. "But that's a hamburger," Vance cleverly observed.
"Don't ask," I cautioned.
He ordered the tossed green salad with Leroy's special dressing, which I have long suspected to be Creamy Italian via Kraft. Tossed green salads and jogging after thong bikinis on our beach is what must keep Vance Tremaine "fit as a fiddle and ready for love." (If that sounds familiar, you saw Singin' in the Rain, MGM, 1952.)
"Off your feed?"
Vance downed his Scotch as if it were a tonic that would improve his appetite. "I'm off women," he answered with little enthusiasm for the proclamation.
I sipped my drink and encouraged Vance to tell me more.
He picked up Ginny (or vice versa) at Bar Anticipation in West Palm. In case you don't know the establishment, Bar Anticipation gives new meaning to the word sleaze. Perhaps to justify his patronage, Vance interrupted his tale to say, "You'd be surprised at how many people we know bend their elbows at Bar Anticipation." He waved his hand around the now-
crowded room to bring home his point.
Anticipation turned to fulfillment at a local motel, where Vance knew Ginny in the biblical sense -- both Old and New Testaments, according to Tremaine. They dozed off; Vance awakened to the sight of a fellow, hard of muscle and soft of brain, looking through the viewfinder of a 35mm Nikon, the little blue bulb flashing pop, pop, pop.
"I get the picture, Vance."
"So did the guy with the Nikon, and if my wife sees them..." Vance polished off his drink and once again made like Satchmo with the handkerchief.
"How much in return for you in flagrante delicto, in glorious color?"
Just as I thought. Amateurs. A couple of punks who had cooked up a scam as old as a Milton Berle gag. Palm Beach, especially in season, is invaded by these con artists, and their scams run from the sublime to the ridiculous. My cases have included a self-styled financial consultant peddling a Fabergé egg
and kidnappers who called in their ransom note to a phone line with caller ID giving me, and the police, the culprits' phone number and their exact location.
Ginny and friend needed to be taught a lesson and Archy McNally was the perfect teacher for the job. "Leave it to me, Vance," I said as Priscilla brought us our lunch. Vance was so relieved he eyed my hamburger-née steak tartare-with envy.
Upon returning home, I called my friend and occasional partner in fighting crime and pestilence, Sergeant Al Rogoff of the PBPD, then spent the remainder of the afternoon cataloging my beret collection.
That evening, I sacrificed cocktails with the Lord of the Manor and his mate, something I quite enjoy due to the fine quality of his Lordship's potables, in favor of Bar Anticipation. Ginny was there, as I knew she would be. You see, their type of sting is one that requires hitting two or three marks in quick succession and then scampering off with the loot. Word gets around fast, and even the proprietors of Bar Anticipation have their limits.
Sable hair, dark eyes, and a little black dress. If the hair and eyes were the ones she wore last night, so, I assumed, was the dress. I could see what Vance meant by "more meat on the bone." Ginny was more Elizabeth Taylor than Audrey Hepburn, but I'm not complaining.
I wore a three-button blue suit and rep tie, à la Vance, and Allen-Edmond cordovan kilties. Except for the kilties the look was very un-Archy, but business is business.
Commandeering the stool next to Ginny, I opened with, "Givenchy?"
The lady was quick on the uptake. "How kind," she cooed. "But
no. It's from a shop in South Beach. They call it a knockoff."
"A knockoff for a knockout," I retorted, wishing I had a waxed
mustache to stroke. "May I buy you a drink?"
Ginny giggled. "I have always depended upon the kindness of
For this, Vivian Leigh and Tennessee Williams should have risen from their graves and strangled her.
One word led to another, one drink led to another, and Ginny's hand led to my thigh, a territory she seemed to know rather well. All of this led to her motel room, where she plied me with cheap gin and suggestive gestures. When her cavorting failed to arouse her supposed mark, Ginny grew a bit frantic and announced that she was going to adjourn to the bathroom and "slip into something comfortable."
This was my cue to ring down the curtain on this farce. "Forget it, my dear," I told Ginny, "your Richard Avedon ain't showing
That got her attention. "What are you talking about?"
"Snap, snap, pop, pop, five grand, and Bob's your uncle."
"Are you a cop?"
"No, but as we speak, your partner is handing over his photographic endeavors to one of Palm Beach's finest."
The sudden realization that she had been set up caused her to lose her cool and she shouted, "You skunk. You..."
I held her wrists in a firm grip to keep her ruby-tinted claws from gouging out my eyes. "The fix was in all the while," she ranted. "What do you want from me?"
To a woman in Ginny's profession, my retort had but one meaning. Her little hands stopped fighting my grip and she was once again ready to slip into something comfortable. "I wouldn't let him take your picture, Archy," she purred.
"You know why not." She actually blushed as she spoke. Mata
Hari, meet your master. "I like you, Archy."
Al Rogoff was not going to arrest her friend, for it would serve no purpose. Vance would have to press charges, and he might as well have the pair show the photos to Penny as do that. Al was going to put the fear of God in the guy and tell
him and the lovely Ginny to get out of town.
But Ginny didn't know this, so when I said, "And I like you, Ginny. That's why I'm going to walk out of here and forget we ever met, if you hand over the negatives of last night's 'shoot' -- and while you're at it, any other negatives you might be hoping to turn into ready cash."
Knowing a good deal when she heard one, Ginny complied while continuing to make suggestive gestures in hopes of a last minute reprieve. "Can I keep the ones from Disney World?" she asked.
"Absolutely not," I scolded.
I left with my cache, wondering if I had saved Mickey a lot of
Father was in his den. I knocked.
"Come," he called.
He was sitting in the swivel chair behind his enormous desk, reading Dickens. "Yes, Archy?"
"The Tremaine case is closed, sir."
"Very good, Archy."
"Would you like to hear about it, sir?"
"No, Archy. Would you like a glass of port?"
"I think I would, sir."
And that, as they say, was that.
Reprinted from MCNALLY'S DILEMMA by Lawrence Sanders 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.