Death on the Oyster Bay Trail
Footpath Mysteries #1
by Garnet Beck
Walking on the beach close to Whitstable, Finnegan Bubb discovers the dead body of a man washed up on the shingles. The local police write off the case as the accidental drowning of a day-tripper, but Finn is not so sure.
Unexplained lights at sea; strange goings-on in the ruined castle towers above the cliffs at Reculver; a mystery surrounding the abandoned Maunsell sea forts; and a showdown at Dreamland Amusement Park in Margate are all elements of a traditional English amateur-detective novel, set along the Thanet coast of Kent.
Death on the Oyster Bay Trail is the first in a series of cosy murder mysteries set against a backdrop of footpaths and long-distance walking routes.
Kindle 978 1912226 05 4
Paperback 978 1912226 06 1
Sick of Death
Seaview Holiday Park to Tankerton Skatepark
Distance 0.5 miles
GPS coordinates 51.367° N, 1.076° E to 51.365° N, 1.062° E
Finn did not walk past the body because he was especially callous; he walked past it because he had had it with dead bodies. Had it right up to here. Dead bodies were the reason why he had started walking in the first place.
“It won’t do, will it?”
Barnacle paused from where he had been burrowing into an unsavoury, flyblown mound of dried, black seaweed, which had got flung up beyond the high-water mark on the shingles. He looked up, one furry ear raised at the sound of his master’s voice, but Finn had not been talking to him.
“It won’t do at all.”
He knew that he was going to have to go back; knew that a dead body on the beach was not something that could be ignored, no matter how indifferent you feigned to be. After all, this was Whitstable, for goodness sake, not Mogadishu. Or Margate.
Finn began to retrace his steps, slowly at first, still maintaining the hope that his initial sighting had been mistaken, and then more quickly when the pathetic flotsam of twisted limbs came back into sight and it became impossible to deny an obligation of responsibility. Sensing some unexpected new game, Barnacle had run on ahead of him and was first to reach the body. The small dog barked excitedly, making increasingly short darts back and forth between Finn and the corpse, as though undecided which one offered the greatest entertainment. In his excitement, he made a feint to snap at the prone body, his sharp, little teeth bared.
“No. Bad dog. Shoo!” Finn said, clapping his hands and advancing with more purpose.
Barnacle barked again, but quickly retreated from his prize in the presence of a more-committed claimant. The discarded plastic sole of an old flip-flop, half-sticking out of the tightly-packed shingle offered the potential for just as much amusement-value for him, without any unseemly battles regarding rights of ownership.
In a dog-eat-dog world, to the victor his spoils.
Finn knelt down on the cold shingle beside the body. The pebbles were still wet from where the sea had only recently retreated. There was no question of checking for vital signs––not that Finn was possessed of any superior knowledge of how to go about looking for them. The small brown crab, which crawled almost guiltily out of one of the empty eye sockets, precluded the need to begin even the most perfunctory acts of resuscitation.
In life, the corpse had been a man. Finn judged a relatively young man, based on the flesh that still remained on his face. A tall fellow. A black man. His upper torso was naked, abnormally bloated from exposure to the sea. Waterlogged trousers and one sock and one boot still provided the bare modicum of propriety in an otherwise bleak spectacle of desecration.
“There, there. It’s all right.”
Finn could not have explained why he stroked the dead man’s arm; was scarcely conscious that he performed the act.
“It’s all right. It’s going to be all right.”
The reassurance was more for him, than it was for the corpse. In his experience, words were wasted on the dead. They were words that he should have said several weeks before. They were words that were intended for an entirely different person.
A cold wind suddenly blew in from the sea and it brought with it the first hint of the rain, which Finn would later cite as the reason why he was not able to sleep that night. The fact was he had not been able to sleep any other night since Ava had died. Rain or no rain, it made no difference. There was nothing that could make any difference now. How could there be?
The wind agitated the exposed ridge of the dead man’s trouser leg, puckering the fabric as it might have teased the crests of the white breakers as they rushed and died upon the stony shore. It was the movement, which drew Finn’s attention to the object that was half-sticking out of the trouser pocket. It was a dirty-white piece of material, which might simply have been taken for the lining of the pocket, but for an emblem transferred onto the fabric. Finn withdrew the handkerchief, unfolding it until he had a small, white sail flapping noisily in the wind, like a seagull’s wings. Wet sand clung to the material; wet sand that clings to everything, gets into every crevice; continues to be discovered, long after the beach is nothing more than a child’s distant memory of summer.
“What’s this then?”
The emblem was of a small sailing boat, confidently navigating a moderate sea. The motif was framed by a wreath––laurels? It would seem quite possible––above which two animals stood, unnaturally balanced on their hind legs––no doubt there would be a heraldic term for the pose––as though protectors to a small shield and Latin motto. None of it meant anything to Finn. It was fortunate then that beneath the entire ensemble were the simple words: The Gambia Police.
The pockets might have contained more, but it was not Finn’s place to search them, nor his desire. He knew that he should not be taking the handkerchief, but against the greater backdrop of life and death, it seemed a relatively minor crime. He looked about him but, except for Barnacle and the body, the beach remained deserted. A witness-less crime.
It was raining more steadily now, not hard, but with greater intent. There was a rainbow. It started far out at sea, arching up in a tall halo from the horizon, descending into a pocket of calm water seemingly within touching distance of the shore. The sun reflected off the wet shingles with a strange orange light; a gentle warning that its illumination should not be taken for granted. It would be dark soon. Finn had been out walking longer than he intended.
There would be no one coming now. Not with the rain. Not with it beginning to get dark. Not here. The body had washed up on a headland, which linked directly to the nature reserve. Nature reserve. It was not entirely the misnomer that Finn’s cynical double-take warranted, nevertheless Finn had known the place when it had been simply a boggy marshland resulting from the residual run-off from the local sewage works. Nature reserve seemed like a slightly pretentious description for the small expanse of muddy meadow bisected by a shallow river. Still, it was a pretty-enough green space in a land of grey and concrete. And strangely isolated in an otherwise well-used thoroughfare. Even the more determined walkers along the coastal path tended to be suspicious of its lack of tarmacked pathways and long grass, preferring instead to keep to the longer route around, beside the caravan park and the road.
If Finn had been possessed of a mobile phone this would have been a good time to use it. His friend––his only friend? Contentious––Phil was always berating him for his Luddite adherence to an age when constant communication was not considered the norm. Nevertheless, even now, Finn did not believe the circumstances warranted what, for him, would have represented a sea-change in lifestyle and opinions. After all, how often does someone ever stumble across a dead body washed up on a beach? The likelihood of the eventuality simply did not justify the monthly subscription charges.
“Barnacle! Barnacle! We’re going.”
The little dog returned promptly from the game of ‘chicken’ he had been playing with the beaching waves, his paws struggling to find a purchase, sinking in between the shifting stones and shingle. Finn had no misapprehensions as to Barnacle’s apparent obedience. The scruffy mutt did nothing except what it wanted to do. Clearly Barnacle was only too ready to return home. He was probably cold and, by any reckoning, it was past dinnertime. Barnacle’s fur was wet when Finn stroked him, sticking up in shapeless tufts around his ears and clinging to his flanks, emphasizing his already ratty body. He had something black and sticky matted into the fur on one hind leg, but Finn could not be bothered to stop and extricate it. It was going to require a bath when they got back home, and Finn knew that neither of them was likely to enjoy the experience.
One last look out to sea––the manmade island that had once been the end of Herne Bay Pier was still visible, but would soon fall victim to the encroaching dark horizon––and Finn turned back inland, following the side of the small stream until he reached the solitary bridge where he could cross. He had no sentimental qualms about deserting the pitiful spectacle of death on the beach. He had form as far as that particular action was concerned. He would perform his duty and report the discovery of the body, but the obligation he felt was to the underlying decency of civic society and not to a stranger he had never known.
Finn’s first encounter with sentient humanity did not come until he reached the smooth, concrete peaks and troughs that demarcated the skate-park, which was segregated from the promenade by a thin and temporary metal fence, anchored by sandbags. Even then, he was barely convinced that ‘sentient’ appropriately described the three hooded shapes that huddled close together at the furthermost corner of the park, like one melded golem of teenage vacancy. The now persistent drizzle had evidently been sufficient deterrent to motivate the three skaters to abandon their boards; the dreariness of the homes that awaited their return had prevented them from departing altogether. They were wedded to the place, like the graffiti and the plastic litterbins.
Finn was conscious how he must look to their eyes. Old. Boring. Pointless. Finn knew, because it was precisely how he appeared to himself when he ever chanced to look in his bathroom mirror.
It was Barnacle who broke the ice. Barnacle who bridged a gap between youth and experience; between the corduroy trousers of convention and the branded band-motif sweatshirts of rebellion. The little dog was not a keen observer of the boundaries of social convention. He ran, barking, between a gap in the tubular barriers, did a comedy pratfall on the slippery concrete slope, and then attempted to disguise his athletic ineptness by scooting along, inelegantly, on his bottom; a manoeuvre, which provoked a titter of embarrassed amusement from the three stoics. Finn took advantage of the unscheduled sideshow, calling through the fence:
“Got a phone I can use?”
“Whadya want it for?”
It was a more hopeful response than blank disregard.
Finn was torn whether to admit the truth. He could confess to the discovery of the body on the beach––a strategy, which would be guaranteed to ignite the youngsters’ morbid interest and so secure the use of a mobile phone––but it would also initiate an inevitable juvenile stampede to view the corpse, which he would be powerless to prevent. In the end, he decided that recourse to simple economics might outweigh any other arguments.
“I’ll pay you.”
The suggestion was too tentative. It was an open invitation for any aspiring capitalist.
“A pound! Make it a tenner.”
A tenner! A monthly subscription for a mobile phone was suddenly looking like a more attractive proposition. However, Finn recognised that the offer was non-negotiable. Any quibbling was more likely to be met with a blanket refusal. He reached into his back pocket for his wallet, withdrew a ten-pound note, folding it once lengthwise, and offered it silently across the cultural divide, like a customer waiting at a busy bar. Hooded golem number one rose, grudgingly, to receive the offering; handing over a slim, black object as his part of the exchange.
Finn looked at the device in his hands as though it were a piece of alien technology.
“How do you switch it on?”
“It’ll cost you a tenner if you want me to switch it on for you.”
The brazen opportunism was acknowledged by appreciative sniggers from his two accomplices.
The nascent complaint died on Finn’s lips. He was neither so aged not to appreciate the enterprise of youth, nor sufficiently egalitarian not to believe that knowledge came with a price tag.
Finn returned the phone along with another folded note:
“Just show me how to make a call, Bill Gates.”
“Who?” A frown beneath the hoodie.
“Never mind. Just get it to where I can ring a number.”
The youth pressed four buttons in rapid succession and handed the phone back. At the current rate of pay, Finn estimated his juvenile extortionist must rank in a similar income bracket to a Premiership footballer.
At least the screen was alight now. There was a touchscreen keyboard, with which Finn was familiar, and a green symbol of a ‘traditional’ telephone, which seemed self-explanatory.
Finn dialled 999, pressed the green button, and took a distancing pace away from prying ears as soon as he heard the reassuring dialling tone.
By the time the police arrived, the earlier rainbow and the three golems had long since gone, and the darkness had taken over.
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