Monday, 31 December 2007

Episode Two: The Crimson Kipper

Kings Cross can be a forbidding place at any time of day. At eleven o'clock on a Friday evening, it is positively unnerving. Gaudy neon lights flashed over darkened doorways. Green-eyed, snarling dogs scavenged among the litter. Dark, human-like shapes cackled and hooted from the depths of the labyrinthine alleyways.

At first Chelsea had assumed that her unknown admirer might be planning a tryst on one of the overnight sleeper trains departing from Kings Cross station. But there was no departure at eleven o'clock. The first train after the specified time was the 11:03 to Chipplestoke-in-the-Mire, but that had no dining carriage. She had next turned to the restaurant listings of Yellow Pages. Within moments, she had discovered precisely what she was looking for.

In a narrow passageway leading off a side-lane, deep within the maze of sordid little alleyways which sprout like fungus around the diseased heart of Kings Cross, Chelsea now stood in front of a squalid little fish restaurant named The Crimson Kipper.

A dismal light shone through the greasy, steam-streaked windows of the restaurant. As she pushed open the front door a small bell tinkled harshly and a large dog growled in a back room. Aside from a few fat bluebottles buzzing around the desiccated scraps of food on the bare-topped tables, the Crimson Kipper appeared to be deserted.

But appearances can be deceptive.

"You lookin' for something, love?" - the voice rumbled out of the darkness in tune with the growling of the dog.

"I believe I have a dinner appointment," Chelsea said uncertainly.

A large man in impressively stained off-white overalls emerged through the door connecting the restaurant to its kitchen. "We're closed," he snarled and then, eyeing her slowly from head to toe, added, "But I might be prepared to see what I can do for someone as lovely as you, my dear."

"What you can do," said Chelsea, delicately seizing the man by the neck and pressing her thumb against his artery using a secret Aikijitsu death grip, "Is tell me everything you know, and quickly. In two seconds you will lose consciousness. In five seconds you will be dead."

"Ggggghhhhhh…" said the fat man. Chelsea loosened her grip slightly.

"OK, OK," he said, rubbing his throat and wincing, "Gawd luv-a-duck, where did you learn a nasty little trick that?"

"You'd be surprised what you pick up in hairdressing," Chelsea said.

"You," rasped the man, "Must be Miss Bunn. Miss Chelsea Bunn. You should have said. If I'd known, I'd never have given you no bother. Fat Frank knows better than to mess around with an homicidal hairdresser. I got a parcel for you is what I got." He took a small brown-paper package from an inside pocket. Chelsea brushed off a piece of battered fish and examined the package closely. There was no writing upon it. But there was perfume. It smelled quite strongly of sandalwood and coffee.

"Who brought this?" she asked.

"Just a courier," he said, "Some fella on a bike. Something a bit funny about him, there was."

"Hooked nose, black leather, dark glasses?"

"You know him?" asked Fat Frank.

"No," said Chelsea, "Just a lucky guess." - She tore open the envelope and discovered, inside, a small paper package wrapped in a single piece of vellum upon which was written a message in lilac ink. It said simply: "You disappoint me, Miss Bunn. I deliver you a victim, but you pursue a red herring. Your incompetence has already cost one life. Tomorrow it will cost another. Ah well, if it doesn't rain it pours."

She saw now that the package contained a half pound of Arabica coffee beans wrapped in glossy red paper. It bore the label of "Hiram Hartleberry-Smythe's Malabar Emporium (Coffee Purveyors, By Appointment)". At the bottom edge of the label, someone had written: "Two wrongs for Two Rites?"

"How very intriguing," said Chelsea…

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