IT was a lazy, late November afternoon. The noise of the traffic hummed up from the street below, and the sun poured through the window like rye whisky into a shot glass. It was the kind of day that merged with many other similar ones until, before you knew it, there were three days before the fat man in the red suit visited with a ''ho, ho, ho''. Suddenly, the door swung open. A tall, slender woman draped in wool and ermine and dripping with pearls took her place. She had an air about her, like she was from another age. She tapped a cigarette nervously on a silver case. She took quick, short steps towards my desk and sat at the edge of the chair before it. Her eyes flirted with mine, but her lips were pursed. I stood up and said: ''Come in. And while you're at it you might as well have a seat.'' She gave me that sideways glance that always makes schoolboys blush. I didn't. I watched her through the twists of grey smoke from my cigarette, leaned over and struck a match. Her voice was like a bird's song: ''I'll come straight to the point, Mr Spade. I need your assistance in a small matter . . .'' She needed some suits and a tuxedo made, but had no time to find the right tailor and conduct her ''special, urgent business'', before leaving in three days' time. I'd been recommended. ''And besides . . .'' - she paused - ''you're the right size.'' I didn't ask her how she'd got my inside leg measurement. I said: ''Leave it to me.'' Then she was gone, leaving behind a strange mixture of Chanel No. 5 and fear in the air. Outside, the lights of Hong Kong had come out to play. The phone was cold against my ear. ''Hello, Larry? It's Sam . . . Say listen, I need to come and have a woid with you . . . how about now? Yeah? Swell.'' Larry was Larry Mohini of Expert Tailor fame, shop 23, ground floor, Ambassador Hotel Arcade, on the Nathan Road strip in Tsim Sha Tsui. He flashed his smile and his monogrammed collar when I walked in. Sure, he said, he could do a ''good tuxedo, a very special offer'', in two days. Silk/mohair, or cashmere, for anything from $1,800 to $5,000. He said if the lady wanted to do the Christmas special, she'd get no change from $2,200 but would also get a bow-tie, cummerbund and shirt with any collar and the pants would have silk piping. Larry said he could also do six dacron-cotton mix shirts for $720, ready in a day, as a separate deal. He liked to use English fabrics and all-natural fibres for suits, and insisted on triple stitching and tailoring. He also did ladies' silk blouses for $500. He tried to keep prices similar for locals and tourists alike, but had to charge 20 to 30 per cent extra for very big, rush jobs. Next door, in shop 24, Hanover Custom Tailors, Harry Bellani said this was the busy season, from September to December 15. A tux? He said, sure, he could do a tux. He could also do suits and shirts in one day: from $1,200 to $2,000. A cashmere suit cost $2,000. If it was a last moment job, he could do it in a day; all sizes, alterations. He was the man. I said: ''What kind of person comes to your place, Harry?'' He spoke smoothly, like a gentle rush of water in a brook. Most of his clients were regulars who flew in, turned up, then flew out with a new set of threads. He did his best for all, whether they had rich or simple tastes. He said: ''In Hong Kong, there are people from all over the world. It's the place everyone comes back to.'' Next door, at Veena Fashions and Customs Tailors, Harry M greeted me, sat back and offered me a refreshment then helped himself. It went down smoothly. He had presented the Governor with a double-breasted suit, made from measurements that he'd gleaned from press clippings and TV news reports. His tuxes cost $3,000 to $3,500 and that price included a cummerbund set and shirt. The choice of materials: mohair/silk or cashmere, and for the shirts, smooth cotton. For a suit made of English fabric, Harry M said he had to ask for $2,000 to $2,500. ''I'm not a tailor but have a designer's eye,'' he said. He had been in the rag trade for 25 years. After the warmth of the arcade, the night air was a shock. Cold neon lights glared down in obscene lines of clashing colours. Traffic rush passed. I held my own against the jostling crowd. Ilit a tailor-made. Who was the ermine lady? How would I contact her? How was she going to use this information? There were a million and one tailors in Hong Kong - and I had only scratched the surface. What - or who - was she running from? Then there was Dayal Mulchandani at Danson's Inc, shop 10, to consider. Under the glass top of his counter were banknotes from more countries than I could remember were in my school atlas. He had shot from the hip: ''We are without gimmicks. We don't like to play games.'' For the season, a tux job was from $2,800 to $3,000 ''for the average person''. Someone a ''bit bigger'' would need an extra half ''G'', in their wallet. It took three days: ''For tuxes, we have to ask for more time because we have to be careful. Other suits we can do in 36 hours,'' he said. He always tried to do a special price for locals: in particular for the many priests who turned up on recommendation. He also did ball gowns, could have them finished in about 48 hours, but for the most part needed five or six days, depending on the style and material the lady asked for. Deep in thought, I drew in, then exhaled. The smoke cleared, and revealed an ivory-coloured Rolls. A door swung open, and a familiar pair of legs emerged. She spoke quickly, almost breathlessly. Things were going too fast. Before too long, the Fatman would arrive. The Fatman and his helpers. Suddenly, she snapped her head around, gasped and slipped back into the limo. Too late, she said. Time had run out. Then she and the ivory-coloured Rolls disappeared. It was the last time I saw or heard from the ermine lady. Maybe I could have come up with the goods for her but I'll never know. It's a crazy world full of crazy people. Merry Christmas.