A Drowned Man
Blair's almost panicked yell startled Naomi, drawing her attention from the book she had been reading. Not that her attention had been totally on it; she had been glancing up at least once a minute to check on her young son, who had been paddling, not quite knee deep, in the water of the Pacific. The tide was coming in, and he was getting nearer and nearer her as he made sure little incoming waves never rose above his knees.
He had stopped moving and was staring at a dark shape that was being swept slowly onto the beach by the incoming tide.
A wave splashed against his thighs, and he turned and paddled towards the dry sand of the beach, even as Naomi put her book down and moved down the beach towards him.
As she got closer to the water she saw what the shape was.
A body. A fully clothed body.
She ran the last few steps, reaching the water's edge just as Blair also reached it. She caught his hand and hurried him back up the beach to where she had been sitting; she reached into her purse, pulled out her cell phone and dialed 911.
She was quite surprised at how quickly a police car arrived.
"Yes. The body is down there." She pointed, though it was pretty obvious where - what - it was. One of the two men went down to it.
"I'm Officer Wood. Can you tell me what happened? How you came to see it?" It was fairly obvious to Wood that she was on the beach for a picnic with her son, a boy he guessed was about six, even although on a Tuesday morning he should have been in school.
"You think Blair should be in school, right?"
She shook her head. "I do a lot of travelling, so I home-school him. Part of the school curriculum is physical education. This morning was meant to be devoted to that - getting exercise. In the form of play, yes, but it was still exercise.
"Blair was down at the water's edge, and he saw the... the body being washed in. He yelled for me, and as soon as I realized what it was, I called for the emergency services."
"Did you - " He was cut off by the sound of a siren nearby, and another police vehicle, followed by an ambulance, pulled in behind the car already there. A policewoman joined Wood; everyone else from both vehicles headed down the beach.
Wood nodded a welcome to the policewoman. "Hello, Dawn. I'm just getting a few facts from Mrs. Sandburg."
Dawn smiled at Naomi. "Hello. And this is - ?"
"Blair. I was just explaining to your colleague - he's school age, but I home-school him, and this was a PE morning. It was Blair who saw the body first."
Wood resumed the question he had just started to ask. "Did you check the body at all?"
Naomi shook her head. "The way it was being washed in... I was more concerned with getting Blair away from it. He's not quite eight, and although he's seen one or two bodies when we've been travelling, they've all been prepared for whatever funeral rites were appropriate to the culture of the country we were in. Something like this - I suppose an accidental drowning - I was afraid of how he'd react. It's the first... well, not natural death that he's seen... "
"Since he saw it first, I will have to ask him one or two questions," Dawn said apologetically.
Dawn turned to the boy. "Hello, Blair. Your Mom said you saw the body first?"
"I was paddling. Mom always told me never to go more than knee deep, although I can swim - but she never lets me swim in the sea. There are currents that make it dangerous, and sometimes things like sharks."
Dawn nodded. "This beach is fairly safe, though. It's shallow for a long way out."
"Anyway, I saw a dark shape. It looked wrong for a shark, and then I saw it had arms and legs. But it wasn't trying to swim, it was just letting the water wash it onto the sand. I yelled for Mom because I knew she'd know what to do, but she didn't try to help the person; we came back up to here and she phoned - for you, I s'pose."
"Yes," Dawn said. "She knew there was nothing she could do to help."
Blair was silent for a few seconds, then he said, "Did he drown?"
"But he couldn't have been swimming, because he had his clothes on."
Dawn glanced at Naomi before replying. "The coast to the north is eroding - do you know what that means?"
"The earth is breaking away from itself because it's been very wet or frosty."
"I'm just guessing, but a few miles north of here the ground is higher. There's a path near the edge of the high ground. He could have been walking along it, maybe seen something and left the path to have a closer look, the ground broke away from under his feet and he ended up in the water. If he couldn't swim, or if he hit his head on a rock and knocked himself out, he'd drown."
As she spoke, half of Dawn's attention had been on Naomi. She was aware that the woman was afraid it was a murder victim, thrown into the sea to dispose of the body, and she could see Naomi's relief at the 'possible accident' explanation.
"We were leaving here on Thursday," Naomi said. "Will we still be able to?"
"I don't see why not," Dawn replied. "There's nothing more you can tell us."
And so, two days later, Naomi and Blair moved on. Accident or murder - Naomi never knew. But she was happy to believe, and to leave Blair thinking, it had been an accident.