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The Game's Afoot at the Arcade Hotel


Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake,

Baker’s man;

That I will Master,

As fast as I can;

Pat it and prick it,

And mark it with a T;

And there will be enough for Tommy and me.

~ Mother Goose’s Melody, 1765


Sarah Sophronia Shaw was the most beautiful girl Scott Garrett Lancer had ever laid eyes on. Granted, being only thirteen, Scott hadn’t much experience in identifying the most beautiful girl in the world. However, in his humble opinion, Sarah held the title - bumping Howard Theater’s Tillie the Tassel down to second place.

The girl’s eyes reminded Scott of his rare taw marble. Depending on the slant of the sun’s rays, the shooter would change from green to light brown to gold. This held true with Miss Shaw. Her eyes were too damn special to simply settle on one color.


Winnie had it all wrong when insisting the good Lord’s golden streets and celestial clouds were the inspiration behind her sweet caramel sauce poured over buttermilk ice cream. Any fool could see it was Sarah’s honey brown hair and fair complexion which led to the creation of Scott’s favorite dessert.


With a heavy sigh and crossed arms, Scott leaned against the wrought-iron fence which ran the perimeter of the Shaw’s back yard and flower garden. He’d just described Sarah Sophronia as a sticky, melting dessert possessing strange, glass eyeballs. The pursuit of romance seemed hopeless.


“Lancer, I’m not ashamed to confess I’ve got sweat running down my ass crack and puddling in my left boot. Why do adults insist on dragging us to these boring parties on the hottest day of the summer while wearing stiff suits we outgrew months ago? It’s torture.”


“Well, George,” Scott shot a grin at his best friend joining in on the surveillance of attendees. “I can’t speak about your parents, but my grandfather was part of the Spanish Inquisition. Does that help answer your question?”


George nodded toward the far end of the yard where Sarah Shaw delicately sat on a wooden bench. “You’ve been staring at her all afternoon. Go over and say hello.


“I can’t. We haven’t been formally introduced.” Truth be told, Scott’s apprehension of opening his mouth with no words to say had rooted his feet by the fence for the past two hours.


Formally introduced? My God, sir, it’s 1860! The time to revolt against antiquated rules is upon us.”

“Right.” Scott rolled his eyes. Not only could George be dramatic, but considered himself quite worldly. “Tell that to Sarah’s maiden aunt.” A finger pointed out the vulture hovering over her niece. “There’s a silver dollar in my pocket betting the woman was first at the counter to buy that ladies' etiquette and politeness book everyone’s talking about. She’s probably read it from cover to cover in a day.”


“Let’s think about this.” George rubbed his chin - the warning sign a decisive military strategy was in the making. “Once the enemy is distracted, I’ll approach Miss Shaw from the left and engage in conversation. If lightning doesn’t strike me then follow my lead whereupon I’ll conduct your required formal introduction.”


Scott raised an eyebrow of scepticism. “Your sacrifice is commendable.”


George’s skill at hide-and-seek proved invaluable as he out maneuvered General Vulture. Scott observed his friend zig past a birdbath, zag around the sundial and crouch behind several rose bushes, undetected. Reaching good ground at the garden bench, Private MacCallister bowed at the waist and was promptly rewarded for his bravery with a sweet smile from the fair Miss Shaw.


And then lightning struck.


Not from the heavens, but from old lady Shaw as she delivered the unexpected ambush - a well-executed boxing of the ears which sent George reeling and Scott into a fit of laughter.


Formal introductions finally occurred and, over the next six years, Scott had the pleasure of several conversations with the most beautiful girl in the world. Their talks grew from silly adolescent views to mature political perspectives on the war. The last time he’d seen Sarah she was dressed in black - mourning the loss of her fiancé, Lieutenant George MacCallister.


*******


As Scott stood across the street from the Arcade Hotel, the apprehension of lacking words and rooted feet spurred the memory of Sarah Sophronia Shaw. Since meeting Emily Browning the night of the viticulturist gala, their correspondences had been brief, generic pleasantries captured in a few written lines. Now, showing up unannounced…


Unannounced? My God, Lancer, it’s the 1870’s! The time to revolt against antiquated rules is upon us.”


“I’m aware of the year, George.” Scott squinted at the warm light filtering through the glass panes of the hotel’s front doors. “To hell with it. I’m hungry.”


Scott discovered little has changed at the Arcade, including the clipped British accent announcing his arrival. “The Vino Boys!”


“Simon.” The maître d' who had adopted Scott and Seth during their late night working dinners was a welcome sight. Relieved the man hadn’t been replaced by a concierge, Scott initiated a smile and vigorous handshake. “It’s good to be back. How are you?”


“Concerned.” Simon frowned while peering over Scott’s shoulder. “Where is Mr. Westcott?”


“Ah. Seth is well and back at the vineyard, busy with expansion plans.”


“And Miss Furlong?”


“Kinsey is back at the ranch, busy with wedding plans.”


“Hmmmmm.” The maî·tre d' tapped an index finger on his temple. “Perhaps expansion plans and wedding plans are somehow related?”


Scott winked. “I believe I saw your name on the guest list.”


“Please extend my congratulations to them both when you return home.” Stepping back, Simon crossed his arms and focused his attention on his one of many adopted family members. “Now, Mr. Scott Lancer, what can the Arcade Hotel do for you this evening?”


“Well,” The empty tables and lack of dinner guests raised a query. “Am I too late for the usual?”


Simon retrieved a gold watch from his vest pocket. “It’s not quite midnight. I believe, sir, you are right on time.”


The Usual consisted of stacked slabs of beef and thick slices of brown bread, complemented with red tomato, crisp lettuce and a generous application of horseradish. A knife inserted from the top held the towering creation upright as it traveled on its plate from the waiter's tray to Scott’s table. A freshly uncorked bottle of wine from the Westcott vineyards assisted in washing down the gastronomical work of art.


With the finesse of King Arthur, Scott withdrew Excalibur from the massive sandwich which allowed a slice of tomato the slow descent off a lettuce leaf and into a puddle of beef juice - a similar sight for Kinsey’s introduction to her first working dinner. Scott smiled between bites. It had been hearty sandwiches… and that damn box of cigars.


********


“Politics. Railroads. Horse breeding. Vineyards. What doesn’t Leland Stanford have his fingers in?” Reaching for a smoke, Scott discovered a different set of fingers had beat him to it. “Halt! What do you think you’re doing?”


Daintily grasped between a thumb and index finger, a Havana hovered above the rest. “I’m having a cigar.”


“And now you’re not.” Scott plucked the belvedere from his cousin’s hand and returned it to its proper place.


“Honestly, Scott. Don’t be fatuous.”


“Fatuous?” A new adjective had been added to Scott’s list of personality traits.


“Fatuous.” The young lady selected another cigar. “It means silly.


“I’m well aware of what the word means, Kinsey.” Leaning forward, Scott took hold of the walking dictionary’s wrist with one hand while claiming her cigar with his other. “And I said no.”


“No?”


“No.” To emphasize his conviction, Scott struck a match and lit the cigar for himself. “No. The word means - no. Besides, a proper young lady shouldn’t sport a green complexion in public. The Ladies' Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness. Chapter nine. Page eighty-three.”


Seth’s chin dipped with a smile in response to the cousins’ banter.


“I’ve smoked hundreds of cigars.” Kinsey’s indignation only caused Westcott’s smile to widen.


“Hundreds?” Scott got comfortable by slinging his arm over the back of the chair and stretching out his legs. “When did you start smoking, little one? At the age of six? Kinsey Rose, before you decide to take up the hours this evening has left with your views on women’s rights, let me suggest a proposition. You prove your worth as a business woman and I will reconsider my stand on your cigar smoking.” Scott’s grin put the finishing touch to his teasing statements.


“I shouldn’t need to prove a blessed thing to either of you. However, I’ll agree to this childish game men insist on playing.” Kinsey pointed to her empty plate. “Digesting that monstrosity of a sandwich should be proof enough!”


“Close. But no cigar.” Scott placed a hand to his chest. “Forgive the necessary pun.”


Eyes rolled. “Sir, your wit suffers from fatigue.” Crossing her arms, the young lady adopted her cousin’s slow exhale while looking at the scattering of documents, lists and maps on the table. “And my brain suffers the same affliction. This is terribly overwhelming.”


Her rare tone of defeat caused Scott to sit up and take notice. “Tomorrow, Westcott and I will continue to speak to the vineyard owners. They’ll come around.”


“Not to worry, little lady.” Seth pointed to the middle of the table. “We have a fresh box of negotiating.”


Viewing Kinsey’s questioning eyes, Scott offered a further explanation. “We discreetly discuss our plans with the owners during the several meeting breaks during the day. Mrs. Stanford forbids smoking in the mansion. We discovered a good Havana gifted to a man helps open his ears to a discussion.”


“And her husband doesn’t balk at being told he can’t smoke in his own home?”


Seth laughed. “I get the impression no one balks at this woman.”


“Gentlemen. George West may have Leland Stanford in his back pocket but perhaps it’s Jane Stanford we need to neatly tuck in our handbag.”


********


Jane Stanford. Like in a game of Three-Card-Monte, Kinsey had put her finger on the Queen of Hearts. Tomorrow night at the Stanfords could confirm how neatly tucked away in a handbag Mrs. Stanford truly was.


“Mr. Lancer, I’ve been asked to deliver this note.” The maî·tre d' presented the piece of paper on a small silver platter as if the message was penned by Queen Victoria.


Simon’s arrival caught Scott with the last bite of the triple-stacked roast beef sandwich occupying his mouth. Nodding and chewing was the best acknowledgment he could muster while wiping his hands on a cloth napkin. Swallowing, Scott plucked the note from the tray - half-expecting it to be Mrs. Stanford’s reprimand for not dining at the Ebner. Instead, the words had been hastily written on a slightly greasy, crumpled piece of torn paper. Scott squinted as he deciphered the chicken-scratch. “Three dozen eggs. Five pounds of flour. One sack of barley.”


A throat cleared.


Glancing up, Scott observed Simon’s finger twirling, a signal to turn the paper over. Obliging the directive, the note was again read. “Your presence is requested in the kitchen.”


The maî·tre d' retrieved Scott’s empty plate and replaced it with an additional wine glass. “The destination you seek would be through the door on your right.” A slight grin intruded on Simon’s professional demeanor as he turned on his heels and left.


Scott donned his own grin while he re-read the note. “Well, George, it appears someone has unrooted my feet for me.” Snagging two glasses in one hand and a Westcott wine bottle in the other, steps taken led to the door on the right.


“Mr. Lancer.” Emily Browning stood in the middle of her domain with hands on hips. “The reasoning behind your customary order of certain indigestion eludes me.”


The night of the viticulturist gala, Scott had confused the Arcade Hotel head chef with one of many young socialites on the prowl. Now, with flour dusting Emily’s hair and sauce splattered on her apron, the hints suggesting her chosen career diminished any confusion. Scott held up the bottle clasped in his hand. “A strong Bostonian constitution pairs nicely with red wine.”


“Your forethought of a second wine glass deserves my appreciation after a long day in a hot kitchen.”


“Allow me to redirect your appreciation to Simon who brilliantly anticipates the needs of others.


“You’ll get no argument from me on that one. He is a wise man.”


“Then it’s time I should learn from the gentleman.” Setting the wine and glasses on the kitchen’s small table, a discarded napkin served as an impromptu prop. Pulling out a chair, the newly appointed maî·tre d' dusted off the seat with the cloth. “My dear lady, your table awaits.”


“Why thank you, kind sir.” Emily’s intention to curtsy ended in an awkward stumble forward when spying her sauce-stained apron. “Sweet Moses! I’m a mess.” A quick tug at apron strings permitted it to be hastily tossed aside.


Scott smiled while an embarrassed head chef seated herself. “I’ve been told, Miss Browning, a properly stained apron is a sign of a good cook.” Wine flowed from bottle to glasses. “Unless the apron belongs to my cousin, then it’s a sign of food poisoning.”


Emily’s laughter erased any lingering awkwardness. “So, Mr. Lancer, your list grows.” Fingers ticked off the titles. “Bostonian. Vineyard Investor. Cattle Rancher. And now, Food Critic.”


“I’d like to think I know my way around a kitchen.”


“Oh? And what is your speciality?”


“Well, let’s see…” Scott sipped his wine and pondered. “I hate to brag, but I’m rather proud of my two-layer yellow cake with chocolate frosting.”


Emily rose and plucked a clean apron from a nearby wall hook and tossed it on the table. “It’s time to put one’s molasses where one’s mouth is, Mr. Lancer.”


Scott pointed at the white cloth gauntlet thrown down in front of him. “You’re suggesting I put this on and bake a cake?”


The challenger’s teasing one word flirted with a taunt. “Afraid?”


“Hardly.” Scott stood, shook out the apron and tied it around his waist. “I hope you enjoy eating crow with a slice of humble pie, Miss Browning.”


“Wait.” Emily’s finger poked the air. “We can’t forget the finishing touch.” Marching to a cabinet with conviction, the young lady retrieved an unidentifiable piece of clothing and gifted it to Scott. “It’s a hat.”


Doubting eyes examined the strange attire. “It’s a pillowcase.”


“All the master chefs of Paris wear them.”


“I’m baking a cake, not a croissant.”


“Ah-fraid?”


“Ho, ho Lancer! The game’s afoot!”


Scott’s eyes narrowed with a grin. No truer words spoken, George.


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