The Singapore Wink

By: Ross Thomas


Frances Phillips


He was probably the only man in Los Angeles wearing spats that day, pearl grey ones that peeped out from beneath the uncuffed trousers of a grey suit so dark that it seemed almost black. There was a white shirt and a neatly knotted pale grey tie that blossomed a trifle before it ducked behind a vest. There was a hat, too, but it was only a hat.

If either of the two men who came in out of the rain were a customer, it would be the other one, the big man with the tightly cropped grey hair and the left arm that stuck out at an acute angle as if he couldn’t straighten it all the way. He circled the car slowly, opened a door and slammed it, beamed at the satisfying thunk, and then said something to the medium-sized man in the spats who frowned slightly and shook his head.

The car was a cream-colored 1932 Cadillac V-16 roadster that became all mine after its owner, a plunger in the commodity market, made a disastrous guess about sorghum futures. The bill for the restoration of the car amounted to $4300 and the commodity plunger, gloomy and depressed, had apologized for an hour about his inability to pay. Three days later he had sounded optimistic, even cheerful, when he phoned to assure me that a deal had almost jelled and that soon everything would be worked out. It was, around five the next morning, when he poked the barrel of a .32 revolver into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The Cadillac, with a $6500 price on it, was now the centerpiece in the showroom, flanked by a 1936 Ford four-door convertible cabriolet and a 1938 SS 100 Jaguar. I was asking $4500 for the Ford and the Jaguar was tagged at $7000, but any reasonably neat stranger with a clean shirt, a checkbook, and a driver’s license could have had his choice for an offer of $500 less.

The big man, really big, well over six-three, lingered by the Cadillac, not quite ignoring the growing impatience of his friend in the spats. The big man wore a double-breasted blue blazer with gold buttons, grey flannel slacks, a white turtleneck polo shirt, and the ecstatic expression of a crap shooter who has just hit his seventh straight pass. I decided that he was too old for both the expression and the clothes.

The man in the spats frowned again, said something, and the big man took a last, savoring look at the Cadillac before they started back towards my corner office, a glassed-in cubicle that held a desk, a safe, three chairs and a filing cabinet. The big man came in first and he didn’t bother with the amenities.

“How much you want for the Caddy?” His voice didn’t go with his size. It was high, almost piping.

Because he might be a customer, I took my feet off the desk. “Sixty-five hundred.”

The smaller man, the one with the spats, wasn’t listening. After he gave me a quick glance he let his eyes wander around the office. There wasn’t a great deal to see, but he looked as if he hadn’t expected much.

“This used to be a supermarket,” he said. “An A&P.”

“It used to be,” I said.

“What’s the sign outside mean—Les Voitures Anciennes?” He did better with the French than most.

“Old cars. Old used cars.”

“Why don’t you say so?”

“Then nobody would ask, would they?”

“Class,” the big man said, staring at the Cadillac through the glass office wall. “Real class. How much you actually take for the Caddy, no kidding?”

“It’s completely restored, all parts are original, and the price is still sixty-five hundred.”

“You the owner?” the smaller man asked. His r’s gave him away; so did his t’s. He was from the East Coast, either New Jersey or New York but it could have been a long time since he had lived there.

“One of them,” I said. “I have a partner who handles the mechanical side. He’s in the back.”

“And you sell them?”

“Some days,” I said.

The big man turned once more from his lingering inspection of the Cadillac. “I had one like that once,” he said dreamily. “Except it was green. Real dark green. Remember it, Solly? We drove it down to Hot Springs that time with May and that other doll, the one you had, and we run into Owney.”

“That was thirty-six years ago,” the man in the spats said.

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