The Write Stuff: A deadly turn for the worse

A hired killer gets a nasty shock during a gangland hit in this exclusive extract from Blood, Salt, Water by Denise Mina

Illustration: Grant Paterson

She’d been as biddable as a heifer for the two days they had her. She came willingly when they picked her up in the van. She asked no favours, made no appeals for mercy while they waited for Wee Paul to give the final word: kill her or let her go.

At first Iain was pleased that she was passive. He’d never had to muscle a woman before. Then he began to wonder why. She didn’t seem frightened at all, she even smiled sometimes. She only spoke once, to ask a question: How much longer will it be? Slowly they began to realise that she had completely misunderstood what was going on.

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Tommy smirked when he worked it out, nodding at Iain behind her back, laughing at her. It wasn’t funny to Iain. The longer it went on the worse he felt about it. It was dishonourable, but he couldn’t very well warn her or let her go. The deception made him so uncomfortable that a couple of times, in the long last night, he was tempted to just get up and leave. He couldn’t. He had to see the job through to pay the debt. Screw the nut and see it through.

After Wee Paul called this morning and gave Tommy the decision, Iain couldn’t look at her any more. They put her back in the van and drove from Helensburgh to Loch Lomond.

Out of the van under a rain-threatening sky, low grey clouds muting all the colours on the mountains. They marched in single file through high sand dunes, Tommy leading, her in the middle, Iain behind, following a zigzag path through to the lochside.

The sand dunes were industrial dumps, destined for a golf course, neon yellow and very high. She turned to look at the glinting sand and Iain saw the apple of her cheek swell in a small smile. What was she thinking about? About warm holidays on yellow beaches, maybe. Blue seas. Suntans. She still had no idea. Iain put his hand in his pocket and touched the cosh. He wouldn’t hurt her face, she had a nice face. He’d make it as quick as possible.

She flinched at a bitter wind off the water as she stepped out on to the lochside. Then she looked up. Her step faltered at the sight of the boat. She sagged at the knees, lifted her face and screamed a rasping animal shriek, sore on the ear because it was so close.

Tommy spun back, reaching for her mouth to shut her up but she flailed her arms, squawking “NO!” in little breathy bursts. They were astonished by the fight in her. She turned, shoulder-shoving Tommy until she knocked him off balance, trying to get past. Tommy wheeled on his heels, grabbing at her even as he fell. His hand slipped down her hip, he was on his knees and she made it past him.

She got two long steps around him, heading down the dock, running for the thick line of trees.

Iain was a big man with a long reach. He grabbed her upper arm, pulled the cosh from his pocket and turned her to him. He hit her on the jaw as hard as he could.

Her head snapped back on her neck. Her eyes rolled. She slithered to the ground as if filled with sand herself. Then she lay on the dock, gracelessly folded over one of her legs.

An old prison trick. You might hit someone hard, but hit wrong and a man could just turn back to you, angry and ready. For a knockout, the head had to whip around fast. It made the brain bang against the inside of the skull. Make the head move fast enough and you could almost guarantee a drop.

Iain and Tommy stood looking down at her. Tommy was panting, scared. Iain was surprised he didn’t hide it better. They didn’t really know each other, hadn’t worked together before. They were still laying out their stalls. Tommy was doing a TV baddie, swearing, growling. Iain was being the most frightening men in prison: expressionless hard nuts who gave no warning before they went for you.

Looking down at the unconscious woman, he thought of those men. He’d envied them. They never seemed to feel anything. He wondered now if their blank eyes hid a despair so profound it squeezed the air from their lungs. If self-disgust weighed like a brick in their guts. Probably not.

They watched an egg-shaped lump rise on her jaw. The movement of her chest was faltering. Her eyes flickered behind the lids. Unconscious but not dead. The plan had been to get here, drive her to the boat, maybe even get her quite far out on the water before they killed her.

Tommy growled, “Don’t just leave her there. F***ing finish.”

He was right. She could wake up and that would be beyond cruel because it would still need to be done, but she’d know.

Iain bent down fast. It was a mistake born of compassion. A burning-hot needle stab in his lower vertebrae made him groan. Embarrassed, he straightened up. He tried again, keeping his spine straight, lowering himself down on one knee as if he was being knighted. He got all the way down and settled into the pose, shifting his pelvis in tiny movements, forward and back, testing the limits. His sore back was new, the pains random, not yet mapped.

He ground his teeth as he lifted the cosh over his head and brought it down again and again, the way he used to cull fish when he was a boy. He did it on the top of her head, going in through the hair so that he didn’t damage her face. It was the only mercy he could afford her. Whatever she had done, however much Iain needed the job, she deserved to keep her face.

Tommy looked away, affecting disinterest, staring at the boat. He pointed over at the peeling twelve-footer slapping against the dockside on the choppy grey loch. The Sea Jay II didn’t look like much.

“Check the f***ing state of it,” he said, overplaying his interest in the state of the boat because he couldn’t watch. “The paint’s all f***ing peely.”

Tommy didn’t know sh*t about boats. The boat was sound.

It was done. A halo of scarlet bloomed around her head. Iain found he was panting and his knee hurt terribly. His whole body weight was pressing through it onto the rippled concrete.

He leaned over the woman’s body to push himself up, forming a windbreak over her. In the vacuum he glanced at her face, close enough to see her without the swollen jaw or the bloody wound on her head. Quite suddenly he saw her as a woman, maybe a woman he knew once, or loved, he couldn’t place her, but it made her a person and she hadn’t been until now. Until now she had been an awkward chore. One of those things you had to do but couldn’t bring yourself to think about.

Leaning on his hand and bending his elbow to lever himself up brought him closer yet. He felt warmth radiate from her cheek.

Motherly dew from her breath settled on his eyelids. His ear was just inches from her mouth. He wouldn’t have heard her otherwise.

From deep inside her came a sound: Sheila. His mother’s name.

Shocked, he reeled back. As his mouth aligned with hers he gasped and sucked in her warm, wet last breath. He sucked it deep down into his lungs.

Iain scrambled to his feet. He stepped away, hands up, surrendering. No. That was stupid. Shee-lah. Not his mother’s name. Just sounds. From a body. Not Sheila. Shee-lah. Not real.

But his lips were damp with her, his airways full of the screaming of her.

The loch clawed at the dockside. Gulls skirled an indignant dirge high overhead. A handful of sand pattered on her face, lifted by the lamenting wind.

“You finished?” Tommy was keeping his eyes on the boat. “Is that you done?”

Iain opened his mouth to speak but shut it again. He didn’t want to speak because he didn’t know what would come out of him. All the fight she’d had left in her, all her everything, had gone into him. It had risen up, leaving her body, and he had sucked it in. Her soul.

Now she was trapped inside him. She was writhing and angry and flailing and she would burn her way out through his guts.