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©2018 Mike Chapman

Published in September 2013 (First Place, Waterstones Regional Competition)

Short Story: 'Shell Game'

  “I don’t understand,” said Kelvin, staring up at the sculpture. “There’re no shells here, but there’re huge metal scallop shells sitting on the beach.”

  We all have our crosses to bear: mine is my new superior officer, DCI Kelvin – crass, balding and fat.

  I looked at him incredulously. London had sent him here a month ago, but he still knew nothing about the area.

  “The town has a long history…” I started but Kelvin walked away midsentence, crunching unsteadily across the loose shingle.

  “DC Guyton…are you coming?” he called back irritably. I smothered my sharp reply and followed, picking my way carefully around the clumps of leafy plants erupting through the stones. Kelvin showed no such consideration, crushing them underfoot obliviously.

  Perhaps I was being unkind to him. It was still very early in the morning; I’d been awoken at 4am by my wife poking me in the ribs as the phone downstairs rang shrilly. A body had been found on the beach and my presence was required immediately. There’d been no time to make proper coffee; I’d settled for stale instant grains from a dusty jar. Even with that chemical fortification, I couldn’t be cheerful this early. It was the height of summer, but even the sun hadn’t fully risen yet and its pale radiance cast reaching shadows across the tall terraces of shingle.

  The body had been found by the sculpture by a local resident out for an early morning constitutional. It still sat, propped up against the flat, rear scallop shell, serenely staring out at the sun rising over the ocean.

  “What do you think?” Kelvin asked, nodding down at it.

  I didn’t reply. The body was of a middle-aged woman, dark-haired but greying slightly, dressed casually under a thin beige jacket. There was no sign of a struggle and no obvious indicator of death. I would’ve ascribed it to a natural cause, if not for the shabby briefcase that yawned open beside her legs.

  It was full of money but, more precisely, half-full of money: £50 notes bundled together by thick rubber bands. Scrupulously half-full, like some pedant had meticulously measured the case’s interior, before removing exactly half. I wondered what it meant. A death from natural causes would’ve left a full briefcase here; a robbery would’ve left no briefcase at all.

  I was about to say as much to Kelvin, but the sounds of an argument interrupted me. Along the beach, near a cluster of weather-beaten fishing sheds, a few of the attending constables were engaged in fierce debate with a photographer and woman with a notebook.

  The local press. It hadn’t taken long for word to spread. I’d known they’d eventually arrive, but I’d been hoping for more time. As the sun rose higher, the constables would start fending off tourists, swimmers and interested locals. I wondered if we had enough uniforms with us to control the growing crowd.

  “I’ll talk to the press, Guyton,” Kelvin smiled. “It is my case after all.”

  I didn’t dignify that with an answer and turned back to the body as Kelvin crunched over to the peeling black paint and weather-warped wood of the fishing huts. I’d have to do the real work myself, obviously.

I pulled on some latex gloves from my coat pocket and crouched down by the body. From beneath her beige jacket’s zip, a smudge of dark discolouration on her t-shirt peeked out and, sure enough, when I twitched the material aside, a small bullet wound glared angrily out above a long bloody stain that stretched down her whole left side.

  Murder, then, but there was no bullet hole through the jacket. Someone had walked right up to her, slipped the gun under her jacket and shot her, face-to-face, at point-blank range. Someone she knew and trusted.

  The hairs on the back of my neck rose. In all the years I’d worked here, there’d never been a murder. It had always been a peaceful, beautiful seaside town; nothing ever cast a shadow over it. It was exactly the kind of shocking case that could develop a solid reputation for me.

I turned my attention to the briefcase and the cash which half-filled it. The case itself was unremarkable: some generic brand with imitation leather and cheap brass clasps. There were dozens like it. I’d had one as an unimaginative Christmas present years before. I gently picked up a bundle of money. The rubber band was worn; clearly it had been used many times before, but the bank notes were clean and unwrinkled. When I examined them more closely, a strong solvent smell assaulted my nostrils.

  Could they be counterfeit?

  I smiled secretly at the irony. This poor woman hadn’t got what she was expecting, but clearly neither had her killer…