Down the mean streets of East Oxford a man must go

(A short story in the style of Raymond Chandler.)

The dying embers of the late autumn evening were slowly replaced with the stark cold shadows cast by the neon streetlights. I swiveled the office chair to stare out through the first floor bay window. The buildings opposite were silhouetted against an almost dark sky, and huge cumulonimbus clouds were billowing towards me. I figured that a storm was coming, but I didn’t know that it would arrive in the shape of a beautiful woman. The Cowley Road was busy, noisy and rather smelly. All those takeaway joints packed a punch when they had their extractor fans going full blast. It looked like a vivid painting, a combination of Hopper’s Nighthawks and one of Magritte’s surreal streetscapes. My mood was a mixture of melancholy, and laid back laconic introspection. I was a middle-aged private detective, and the current case had me utterly perplexed. Why would anyone murder a small time cook and crook, and steal his secret recipe for a tofu and lentil burger? The victim was found in a large puddle of passata sauce, a courgette was rammed down his throat, and organic baby peppers (one red and one yellow) were sticking out of each ear. One of his nostrils was blocked with a large clove of crushed garlic, and the other with a squashed stock cube. None of this seemed very unusual for the Cowley Road, except for the fact that the killer had scrawled “too much salt” in tomato ketchup across the victim’s t-shirt. The police had immediately concluded that this was a revenge attack by a disgruntled customer, but I knew there was more to it. They had ignored all the culinary clues and that meant just one thing – a notorious chef killer was on the loose in East Oxford.

I needed a strong drink. I reached down to the bottom draw, and pulled out the box of ginger & lemon tea bags. It was a heady brew and I knocked back a slug of the steaming infusion, but didn’t notice the figure that had appeared in the office doorway. It was a broad, and she was broader than Broad Street. She looked like a million bucks and there was nothing phony about this dame apart from the boob job, the fake tan, the bum lift, the collagen pumped lips, the Botox scars, and that wig. It was as if she read my mind, and suddenly jerked the blonde tresses backwards to reveal a smooth shaved skull. I mumbled “alopecia”, and she replied: “that ain’t my name, it’s Gloria”.

I was lost from the moment she pulled that shiny wig off, a dame that could instantly switch from blonde to redhead or brunette was irresistible. I should have known that I was just a patsy, or even a pasty from the way she gobbled me up. It was all about the dead guy, and my investigation revealed that he’d stepped on a lot of toes, and had his fingers in a lot of pies. In fact, the local environmental health officer had issued several hygiene violation notices against him as customers had complained about finding fingernails in their food. Subsequently, that officer was found submerged in a large vat of spicy bone broth. The police filed it as “death by misadventure”, and claimed that he’d slipped on the greasy floor and somehow flew up in the air and landed in the soup. Yeah it was all very suspicious, but I kept my mouth shut.

Months later I gazed out onto another typical street scene. I was in a lonely place, my double indemnity had expired, I’d been through the long goodbye and I needed a big sleep. In the gloomy dusk people were slowly making their way home, and I usually sneered at these poor saps but right now I envied the grinding monotony of their dull lives. I pondered what I might have to eat later on, and something hard-boiled seemed appropriate. I was persona non grata at all the local eateries, despite the fact that the so-called “griller killer” had ceased his activities and was now a cold case. My stomach rumbled as I reached for the bottom draw. There wasn’t anything else to do, except think about ‘shiny wig’, and I never saw her again.

Paul Freestone

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