Heads You Lose

Gemma still wasn’t entirely sure if the holiday was a good idea but, a week after John Halesworth’s funeral, hot sun on her back and blue sea in front of her, she was willing to concede that maybe Danny had a point when he’d suggested that they needed to get away for a bit of them time. ‘It’ll give us a chance to take a breath. Then we can come back, minds refreshed and bodies bronzed and toned – well, mine bronzed and yours toned – and sort out the mess that is currently masquerading as John Halesworth Books.’

            Gemma had been impressed by his use of the word masquerading, less so by the part about sorting out the mess left them by their late boss. Death at fifty-six was untimely enough in anyone’s book (she winced internally at the inadvertent pun) but it had come with Halesworth’s six-shop mini-empire on the verge of collapse following the double-whammy of two years of Covid followed by a sudden steep rise in the cost of living. Together, those two disasters had resulted in book-buying, at least in semi-rural Sussex, collapsing with a painful thud.

            That was for the future though, albeit a future only a few days ahead when their all-too-brief vacation was over.

‘Where shall we go, then?’ she’d asked Danny, thinking Cornwall or the Lakes.

            ‘How about here?’ he’d replied, picking up the travel guide to Cape Town which some customer had presumably dumped on the reception desk instead of placing back on the relevant shelf. ‘It’s an omen.’ He’d smiled that smile of his and when she’d started worrying about the cost, he’d offered to put it on his credit card. She was still worried but they weren’t married yet so that was another worry she could delay, and for longer than a few days.

            Anyway, here she was, sitting on the beach at Bloubergstrand staring alternately at Danny’s head bobbing about twenty metres out in the surf and the cloud-shrouded flat top of Table Mountain across the bay beyond Robben Island.

            She picked up the travel guide that had been left on the desk and read a few pages then glanced again at Danny, now a further ten metres out in the bay ploughing manfully through the choppy waters. He’d been disappointed when Gemma had declined to join him in the sea. The steeply inclining beach and resultant heavy waves had put her off. Swimming was not one of her greatest strengths, one activity that she was happy to concede superiority to Danny. She was therefore equally happy to restrict her own immersion to the pool back at the hotel. So, no ta, she’d said, you’ve got this one all to yourself.

            They certainly had the beach all to themselves. Apart from the occasional vehicle speeding along the road behind them, there was little sign of life anywhere except the restaurant Gemma had her eye on a couple of hundred metres along the beach, which looked to enjoy a certain popularity, judging by the number of cars parked outside. In half an hour or so Gemma thought she’d be more than ready for a tasty piece of snoek. The absence of people venturing outside the restaurant or their air-conditioned cars was probably down to the unseasonable heat as the clock moved sluggishly towards midday. Mid-November temperatures in Cape Town, the guide informed her, weren’t supposed to go much beyond 25 but in the five days they’d been there the thermometer had regularly topped 30 so the locals were staying indoors during the bulk of the day. The phrase “mad dogs and Englishmen” hadn’t actually been uttered in their presence but you could see what the Cape residents were thinking as the two of them sploshed on factor 50 and drove off to explore.

            Gemma suddenly noticed that Danny’s head wasn’t the only object she could see in front of her. Ten metres north of him was a larger smudge in the waves. She pushed her shades up on top of her head and squinted more closely. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to be making much progress through the water. Her first thought had been Shark and her second, Would I have to go and rescue my fiancé from being eaten?            

            However, if this was a shark, it was a very lazy one, doing not much more than simply lolloping about near the surface of the sea. Nevertheless, Gemma hauled herself to her feet and strolled down to the water’s edge.

            ‘Hey, Neptune!’ she called and Danny stopped his forward propulsion and waved at her.

            ‘Changed your mind?’ he shouted back. ‘Come on in, it’s fantastic. Stop you getting sunburnt too.’ Gemma wasn’t getting sunburnt. A lifetime spent with the inconvenient possession of pale skin and freckles had taught her to take great care in the sun, and the factor 50, combined with the t-shirt she wasn’t about to be taking off any time soon, was keeping her skin the colour she preferred it to remain. Danny, being generally quite brown even in winter, was less bothered and therefore, getting browner and yes, redder, every day.

            ‘You’re not getting me in there with that shark,’ Gemma shouted, and laughed.

            ‘Shark? What the…?’ He looked around wildly and started splashing – not so much swimming now as an active avoidance of drowning – towards the beach. But then he stopped again, having finally spotted the non-shark Gemma had seen. He broke off from flailing entertainingly around, bobbed up and down a few times and then started swimming towards whatever it was. Gemma wasn’t sure whether that was entirely wise, although to be fair, not only was it definitely not a shark but most things Danny attempted weren’t entirely wise, so she was used to that.    


The body had been in the sea for a long time but, lying on the beach at Bloubergstrand in the noon heat, it was still clearly identifiable as a white male. What age of white male, Captain Jan de Kock wasn’t qualified to guess. He could, however, make a fairly accurate guess about the cause of death. The absence of anything resembling a head was the sort of clue that de Kock, with ten years as a police officer behind him, could not easily overlook.

            He signalled to two constables to zip up the body-bag and remove the corpse before it got too smelly and fly-infested and turned to the young English couple who’d called in the macabre find. De Kock had had a bad morning and the discovery of yet another murder victim was unlikely to improve things for the rest of the day, especially with the lack of a head to aid identification.  He’d already sent word to the local maritime safety authority to keep a look-out in case the head appeared. It would be helpful if it did, but it would also be helpful if it wasn’t discovered first by a small child or an old age pensioner with a heart condition.

            One of the constables approached him holding a sodden navy-blue passport gingerly by the corner in one latex-gloved hand. Maybe the missing head wouldn’t be required after all. He took the passport and carefully peeled open the cover to determine the name of its owner.

            ‘Is this going to take much longer, Captain?’ asked the woman. ‘We’re starving.’

            ‘A man is dead. It will take as long as it takes.’

            ‘But we didn’t kill him,’ said the man.

            ‘If you say so,’ said de Kock. He didn’t believe for one minute that these two were responsible and he was quite hungry himself but if he had to stand, sweating on this baking beach for a few minutes, then he didn’t see why they shouldn’t too, no matter how public-spirited they’d been in calling the police. They could easily have left the body in the water. Frankly, most people in his experience would have climbed in their cars, driven to a different beach and forgotten all about it. Still, he had to go through the motions.

            ‘What is the purpose of your visit to South Africa?’

            ‘We’re on holiday, Inspector,’ said Danny, smiling cheerfully. Finding himself in the same small piece of the Atlantic Ocean as a headless corpse had, in some way that mystified Gemma, made him even more upbeat than usual.

            ‘Captain,’ said de Kock. ‘We do not have inspectors in South Africa.’ He hadn’t appreciated Danny’s smile, with a corpse in a body-bag currently being loaded into a van a few metres away. Although he also secretly quite liked the idea of being an inspector. It sounded a lot more police-y than captain.

            ‘And we’re trying to have lunch,’ said the woman, butting in on his thoughts. ‘Hopefully, there’s still a portion of fish with my name on it in that restaurant over there. If you want to talk further, you have our contact details.’

            De Kock wasn’t giving up that easily. His own stomach rumbled. ‘A man has been murdered,’ he said. ‘According to this passport a fellow countryman of yours, and here you are at the scene of the discovery. I have every right to arrest you.’

            ‘Hmm,’ said Danny thoughtfully, looking at Gemma’s angry face. ‘You may find you need more than one constable.’

‘You have absolutely no right whatsoever, Captain,’ blasted Gemma, emphasising the word Captain in what de Kock considered an unnecessarily sarcastic way. ‘We’re heading back to England tomorrow and if you wish to talk to us again you can contact us via John Halesworth Books in Worthing, Sussex.’

De Kock looked up sharply from his perusal of the passport. ‘Did you say John Halesworth?’ he said. Danny nodded and de Kock held up the inside front page for the two of them to read. They didn’t need to see the name – it was immediately apparent that the unsmiling face staring back at them was that of their late boss. The boss they’d buried a week ago but whose headless corpse had just been washed up on the shores of Table Bay, 8000 miles away.