Two pirates do battle on an old junk ship in Singapore Harbor. They leap nimbly from deck to rigging, crossing swords like fencing masters. And then one surprises the other, slicing a rope and sending the unfortunate pirate tumbling into the bay. This is how stuntman Angelo Sacchetti dies. Edward Cauthorne was his opponent, a fellow stuntman whose career died along with Sacchetti. He’s selling used cars when two thugs approach him. They’re emissaries from Sacchetti’s godfather, a Mafia don. Sacchetti is alive after all—alive enough to be blackmailing the don—and they firmly request that Cauthorne find him. The search takes Cauthorne back to Singapore, to risk his own life for the sake of the man he thought he’d killed.
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The Singapore Wink
By Ross Thomas
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 Ross Thomas
All rights reserved.
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.
"Christ, it sure don't seem that long."
The smaller man turned to one of the chairs, took out a white handkerchief, flicked it over the seat a couple of times, put it back in his hip pocket, and sat down. His movements had been neat, precise and unhurried. He leaned back in the chair, produced a thin gold cigarette case and took out an oval cigarette. Or perhaps the case was so thin that it mashed his cigarettes into ovals. He lit it with a gold Zippo.
"I'm Salvatore Callese," he said, and I noticed that his suit jacket had no pockets. "This is my associate, Mr. Palmisano."
He didn't offer to shake hands so I merely nodded at both of them. "Are you interested in some particular car, Mr. Callese?"
He frowned at that and stared at me with dark brown eyes that curiously seemed to have no sheen. They looked dry and dead and I almost expected to hear them rustle when they moved. "No," he said. "I'm not interested in used cars. Palmisano here thinks he is, but he's not. What he's really interested in is thirty-five years ago when he could still get it up and he thinks maybe the Caddy out there would help. But you don't get that back with a thirty-six-year-old used car, although I'd say that a lot of your customers might think so."
"Some of them," I said. "I sell a lot of nostalgia."
"Nostalgia," he agreed. "A secondhand nostalgia dealer."
"I just like the car, Solly," Palmisano said. "For Christ's sake, can't I even like a car?"
Callese ignored him. "You're Cauthorne," he said to me. "Edward Cauthorne. It's a nice name. What is it, English?"
I shrugged. "We were never much on tracing the family tree. I suppose English will do."
"Me, I'm Italian. So's Palmisano. My old man was a greaseball; couldn't even speak English. Neither could Palmisano's."
Both of them were in their late fifties or early sixties and Palmisano, despite the left arm that jutted at an odd angle, looked fit and lean and as if he still wouldn't mind a day or two of hard physical labor. He had a long, spade face with a thick-lipped mouth that seemed too wide for the piping voice that came out of it. His nose hooked nicely towards a strong chin and his black eyes were shaded by long grey lashes that blinked a lot, as if in perpetual surprise.
"Are you selling something," I said, "or did you just come by to get in out of the rain?"
Callese dropped his cigarette on the floor and carefully ground it to shreds with a neat black shoe. "Like I said, Mr. Cauthorne, I'm Italian and Italians put a lot of stock in family. Uncles, aunts, nephews—even second and third cousins. We're close."
"Tightly-knit," I said.
"That's it. Tightly-knit."
"Insurance perhaps? It's only a guess."
"Hey, Palmisano, you hear that? Insurance."
"I heard," Palmisano said and almost smiled.
"No, we're not selling insurance, Mr. Cauthorne. We're just doing a favor for a friend of mine."
"And you think I can help?"
"I think so. You see, this friend of mine lives in Washington and he's getting on in years. Not old, but he's getting up there. And just about all the family he's got is this godson."
"It's all he's got," Palmisano said.
"That's right," Callese said. "It's all he's got. Now this friend of mine over the years has built up a fine, legitimate business and naturally he's looking to leave it to somebody close, like a relative, but the only thing he's got like a relative is this godson and the godson can't be found."
Callese stopped talking and stared at me some more with his powder-dry eyes. He had a slice of a mouth that turned abruptly down at the corners, even when he was talking. Two deep creases ran down from his nose to form parentheses around the mouth and a thin, white scar wandered from his right eye, down his cheek, and back to the lobe of his ear.
"Am I supposed to know the godson?" I asked.
Callese smiled; at least I assumed it was a smile. The corners of his mouth turned up instead of down although he kept his lips together as if he felt that his teeth weren't much to look at.
"You know him," Callese said.
"Does he have a name?"
"What about him?" I said.
"You know him then?"
"I knew him."
"Do you know where he is?"
I put my feet back up on the desk, lit a cigarette, and tossed the match at the butt that Callese had ground out on the floor.
"How much have you dug up on me, Mr. Callese?"
The man in the spats made his shoulders move in an expressive Italian shrug. "We checked here and there. We learned a little."
"Then you must have learned that I killed Angelo Sacchetti two years ago in Singapore harbor."CHAPTER 2
It was no news to either of them. Callese took out his gold case and lit another of his oval cigarettes. Palmisano yawned, scratched himself in the crotch, and turned to resume his inspection of the Cadillac. I glanced at my watch and waited for one of them to say something interesting. After a few moments Callese sighed, blowing out a stream of smoke.
"Two years ago, huh?" he said.
I nodded. "Two years ago."
Callese decided to inspect the ceiling. "How'd it happen?"
"You know how it happened," I said. "If you've done any checking at all, you found that out."
He gave me a wave of his left hand. It was a disdainful, rejecting motion. "Newspaper stuff," he said. "Secondhand information, just like your cars out there. I'm not much on secondhand anything, Mr. Cauthorne."
"Just tell his godfather that he's dead," I said. "Tell him he can leave everything to the Sons of Italy."
"You got something against Italians maybe?" Palmisano said, turning towards me.
"Nothing at all," I said.
"How, Mr. Cauthorne?" Callese said. "How'd it happen?"
"It was a pirate picture," I said and my voice seemed to belong to somebody else. "We were shooting second unit. I was stunt coordinator and Sacchetti was number two. The scene called for a cutlass duel on a Chinese junk. The junk was anchored out in the harbor where there happens to be a tricky current. Sacchetti and I were on the stern of the junk, hacking away at each other. Sacchetti was supposed to jump to the rail, grab a line, and lean out over the water while parrying. He didn't parry when he should have and my cutlass sliced the rope. He fell overboard and never came up. He drowned."
Callese had listened carefully and when I was through, he nodded. "You know Angelo well?"
"I knew him. I'd worked a few pictures with him before. He was a top fencer, but better with the épée and foil than he was with the cutlass or saber. He rode well, I remember."
"Could he swim?" Callese asked.
"He could swim."
"But when the rope was cut, he didn't come up." It wasn't a question the way he said it.
"No," I said. "He didn't."
"Angelo could swim good," Palmisano said. "I taught him." The big man was watching me as I put my feet back on the floor, rose, and started to reach into my inside jacket pocket for my wallet. I never made it. Palmisano was suddenly right next to me. His big right hand clamped on my wrist and jerked it down, over and behind my back where he could easily snap it if that turned out to be a good idea.
"Tell him to get his goddamned hand off me," I told Callese in what turned out to be an almost conversational tone.
"Let him go," Callese snapped.
Palmisano shrugged and released my arm. "He could have been going for it," he said.
I stared at Callese. "When did you let him out of the attic?"
"He's been away for a while," he said. "Now he looks after me. It's his first job in a long time and he wants to make good at it. What were you reaching for, Mr. Cauthorne, your wallet?"
"That's right," I said. "It has a card in it."
"A card with a name on it. It's the name of the man who can arrange for you to see the film that was shot when Sacchetti went over. If you want to see how he died, it's all there in living color."
"No," Callese said. "I don't think so." He paused for a moment. "What—uh—what happened to you, Mr. Cauthorne, after Angelo didn't come up?"
"I don't follow you."
"I mean did the cops investigate?"
"Yes. The Singapore police. They ruled it an accident."
"Was anyone else interested?"
"There was a man from the embassy. He asked a few questions, and then, back in the States, there were Sacchetti's creditors. He seemed to have had a lot of them."
Callese nodded his head, apparently satisfied. Then he stared at me again. "What happened to you?"
"I don't seem to be following your questions too well."
Callese let his eyes wander around the showroom and then shrugged. "I mean, no more movie work?"
"I retired," I said.
"Because of what happened to Sacchetti?"
"That might have had something to do with it."
Callese's shoulders moved again in another expressive shrug. "So now you're selling used cars." He made it sound worse than it was, but perhaps not much worse. Certainly no worse than running an abortion mill.
There was a silence for a while. I picked up a paper clip from the desk and straightened it out. Then I began to bend it back into its original shape which is more difficult than it sounds. Both Palmisano and Callese watched me with what seemed to be interest. Then Callese cleared his throat.
"The godfather," he said.
"There is a godfather?"
"He'll want to see you. In Washington."
"So he can pay you twenty-five thousand dollars."
I went on bending the paper clip. "For what?"
"For finding his godson."
"There's nothing left to find."
Callese reached into the inside breast pocket of his jacket, took out a plain white envelope, and tossed it over on the desk. I opened it and took out three photographs. One of them had been taken with an old Polaroid and was beginning to yellow. Another seemed to be a blowup from a 35 mm. camera, and the last was square in shape, possibly the product of a Rolleiflex. The subject in each picture wore dark glasses and sported a new mustache and the hair was longer, but there was no mistaking the profile in the Polaroid shot. It belonged to Angelo Sacchetti who had always been proud of that profile. I put the pictures back in the envelope and handed it to Callese.
"Well?" he said.
"It's Sacchetti," I said.
"So it seems."
"The godfather would like you to find him."
"Who took the pictures?"
"Different people. The godfather has lots of contacts."
"Then tell him to get the contacts to find his godson."
"That won't do."
"It's a delicate matter."
"Tell him to use some delicate persons."
Callese sighed and lighted another cigarette. "Look, Mr. Cauthorne. I can tell you just three things. First, Angelo Sacchetti is alive. Second, there's twenty-five thousand in it for you when you find him. And third, the godfather wants to talk to you in Washington."
"Then there's more to the story?" I said.
"There's more. But the godfather's got to tell it to you. Look at it this way, you find Angelo and you clear your name."
"The accident rap."
"I can live with that."
"Why don't you just talk to the godfather?"
"In Washington," I said.
"That's right. In Washington."
"He'll tell me what it's all about?"
"Everything." Callese rose and stood there as though it were all settled. "You'll go then." There was no question in his tone.
"No," I said.
"Think about it," he said.
"All right. I'll think about it and when I'm through doing that I'll still say no."
"Tomorrow," Callese said. "I'll call you tomorrow. Same time." He started for the office door, paused, and looked around again. "You got a nice little business here, Mr. Cauthorne. I hope it makes a lot of money." He nodded as if satisfied with a good day's work, turned, and walked across the showroom towards the street door. Palmisano started after him, but stopped and spun around quickly to me.
"What's your final price on the Caddy?"
"To you, six grand."
He smiled, apparently considering it a perfectly splendid bargain. "I used to have one just like it except it was green. Real dark green. What do you drive?"
"A Volkswagen," I said, but he was already walking across the showroom for another close look at the Cadillac and I don't think he listened. I don't think he really cared.
Excerpted from The Singapore Wink by Ross Thomas. Copyright © 1969 Ross Thomas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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