Blood, Salt, Water

An Alex Morrow Novel


By Denise Mina

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Detective Alex Morrow discovers that the darkest secrets never stay buried as she investigates the criminal underbelly of a seemingly tranquil seaside town.

For reasons she can’t quite explain, Alex Morrow is addicted to watching surveillance footage of Roxanna Fuentecilla — a gorgeous Spanish mother of two, in a tempestuous relationship with her boyfriend, who recently relocated to Glasgow under mysterious circumstances. She is also Morrow’s prime suspect in an investigation that resembles a soap opera, filled with glamorous jetsetters and enough money to interest the highest levels of law enforcement. Until Roxanna vanishes.

Morrow traces Roxanna’s steps to Helensburgh, a sleepy, picturesque seaside community. But behind the idyllic Victorian homes and quaint storefronts, darkness lurks. Home to a man with blood on his hands who is haunted by guilt, a mysterious woman with ulterior motives back in town for the first time in decades, a sexually frustrated restaurateur looking to blow off steam, and a crew of vicious small-time gangsters blindly following orders, it’s a town ruled by base instincts where no one is quite what they seem. And it’s the perfect place to get rid of someone.

When she uncovers an unsettling connection to Roxanna’s job back in Glasgow, Morrow suspects that her missing person is more than a white-collar criminal on the lam — she may also be a victim caught up in a sophisticated conspiracy that stretches far beyond Helensburgh and is more personal than Morrow ever imagined. As the truth rises to the surface and the conflicts that lie beneath Helensburgh’s calm waters threaten to explode, Morrow must find Roxanna before any hope of solving the case disappears with her.

A gripping tale of greed, power, and vengeance, Blood, Salt, Water is a masterful crime novel from Denise Mina that confirms her reputation as “one of the genre’s brights stars” (George Pelecanos).


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All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea–whether it is to sail or to watch it–we are going back from whence we came.

John F. Kennedy


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.

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 onto 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, drove 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. Fucking 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 fucking state of it,' he said, overplaying his interest in the state of the boat because he couldn't watch. 'The paint's all fucking peely.'

Tommy didn't know shit 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.


Alex Morrow's work phone rang loud and shrill on the passenger seat.

'Roxanna's missing, ma'am,' said McGrain, one of her DCs. 'We lost visual at school drop-off yesterday and didn't find her again. She's just been reported missing by an anonymous caller.'

'What? Who called?'

'We don't know. It was a child's voice. English accent.'

'One of her kids?' Morrow was holding the phone on the steering wheel and shouting at it. She was breaking the law, but that wasn't why she was shouting. She was personally invested in the fate of Roxanna Fuentecilla. 'He's done it, hasn't he? Shit. The fucking boyfriend.'

'Well, we don't know who called. Sounds like one of the children.'

'I'll be there in ten minutes.' She hung up and hurried through the mid-morning traffic to London Road Police Station.

The car park was full but she had a reserved space. She got out and locked the car, walking quickly to the back door, giving herself a talking-to. She should calm down. She'd never even met Fuentecilla. Whatever Morrow admired about her was just conjecture. She'd watched a lot of footage but that didn't give a fully rounded picture at all. She was a crim. Remember that. Us and them.

Through the back bar and the entrance to the holding cells, Morrow gave the desk sergeant a quick nod and a hello. She hurried through the locker rooms and cut across the lobby. Opening her office door, she bowled her bag to the leg of her desk, doubled back across the corridor to the incident room and found McGrain. He was leaning on a desk sipping a mug of tea and listening to DC Thankless, a bald, muscled man with an aggravating manner. Morrow didn't like him.

'Jees-ho.' McGrain stood up straight when he saw her. 'That was quick.'

'Come in here.'

McGrain followed her into her office and closed the door after himself.

'This is not a canteen.' She was looking at the mug of tea in his hand.

Embarrassed, he ducked back out, left it on the nearest table in the incident room and slipped back into her office. 'Sorry, ma'am.'

'Sit down.' She pointed to the chair. 'Now, tell me.'

So he told her: they lost visual contact with Roxanna Fuentecilla yesterday after she'd dropped her kids at school. She always came home from her office at the same time but last night she hadn't been seen going into the house. Nothing suspicious though: the lights went on as usual in the front room, the kitchen, her bedroom. Her car wasn't there either but she was known to park in another street sometimes when it was busy.

They had been following her for three weeks; they lost her sometimes and hadn't thought much of it. It would be too expensive to physically follow her, budget cuts had reduced them to doing their own filing and rationing biros, so they'd been relying on CCTV. They watched a lot of street-cam footage. Fuentecilla was not considered a flight risk because of her kids. They were fourteen and twelve, at a good school, clean and fed and thriving. She clearly adored them.

Overnight the CCTV from all the usual sources had been checked. There wasn't a single frame of Fuentecilla yesterday. Then at seven this morning, a call, anonymous, from a phone box in Central Station. A voice, small and young, reported Roxanna Fuentecilla missing since yesterday. When the operator asked if the caller had any idea where she might be, they said they didn't know 'where they've taken her', which suggested more than one person, so, not the boyfriend in a blind rage. Then the phone cut out abruptly.

'One of her kids,' said Morrow.

'Yeah. The English accent sounded posh, kind of drawly. Can't be that common up here.'

'CCTV of the phone box in Central Station?'

'Asked for it and it's on its way.'

'Good. Send me the audio of the call. Notify the chief's office. They'll set a meeting.'

'Yes, ma'am.' And then McGrain was gone.

She shut the door and turned on her computer. It booted up slowly. She felt her customary cheerful serotonin spark, as she did every morning now, at the thought of following Roxanna Fuentecilla, but corrected her chemical self: there was no footage today. Roxanna was missing. She felt as if her favourite show had been cancelled.

The case had become a soap opera for her, a story with a lot of money and super-good-looking people doing fun things and having arguments. Fuentecilla herself was hilariously argumentative. She was from Madrid, from a rich family who'd squandered a fortune. For a number of reasons, not all of them her fault, Fuentecilla had been left penniless and seemed to be trying to set up some sort of mysterious criminal scam involving seven million pounds of someone else's money. She was supposed to be keeping a low profile but was always smashing jars in shops that incurred her wrath, shouting at her boyfriend in the supermarket or bawling in Spanish at other parents outside the school for parking irresponsibly. Her relationship with her live-in boyfriend was stormy; though not actually known to be violent, it seemed inevitable that it would be. Fuentecilla had issues in the area of dispute resolution. Still, seven million was serious money, suggesting she was working with serious people. Morrow shouldn't have warm feelings about her.

The desktop resolved onscreen. Doleful, she glanced at the fresh files of CCTV. She usually clicked on them first but there was no point today. Opening her email instead, she found the emergency call file already there. She plugged in her earphones, clicked and listened.

It was a child's voice, a posh English accent. They spoke calmly at first, the sound almost drowned out by the background hum of the station. When the operator asked them to spell 'Roxanna Fuentecilla' they did so fluently and gave her home address and postcode without hesitation.

'She's been missing since yesterday morning,' the caller said. 'I'm worried she's been killed or something.' At the word 'killed' they faltered and were breathless for the rest of the call.

The operator asked if the caller knew where Fuentecilla might have gone. 'I don't know… I don't know where they've taken her.'

The operator asked again, 'Can you give me your name and address?' But this time the caller hung up.

Morrow felt sure it was one of the kids. She remembered the bakery incident. Not the boy, please not that wee boy.

Police Scotland only went into the bakery to find out what had happened because Fuentecilla was taken from there to Accident and Emergency in an ambulance. Suspected broken ankle, really just a very bad sprain. Morrow and her team had watched the CCTV from behind the counter over and over, just for entertainment: mother and son coming in, boy cowed, mother furious, he must have done something very bad. Roxanna bought and paid for a Victoria sponge cake, pulled it out of the box and hit him in the face with it. Mother and son stood laughing at each other in the shop, bits of cake dropping off his cheeks onto the tiled floor. Then the boy wiped a big lump off his cheek and hit her back and she laughed so hard that she slipped on the cream-splattered tiles, fell over and hurt herself. Morrow thought of his cream-and-jam-smeared face, of laughter tears rolling down his cheeks. Not that wee boy, please.

McGrain was at her office door. 'We've got the film from Central. I can't send it to you without compressing it, d'you want to just come and see?'

'Of course.'

Like a lot of technical things Morrow didn't really know what 'compressing' meant. She worried it might undermine her authority to keep on admitting it so she just followed him to his desk.


Boyd Fraser was chopping fresh mint leaves with a large twin-bladed mezzaluna. In Italy, mezzalunas were the tool of under-chefs with no knife skills but no one here knew that. In Helensburgh, a twee Scottish seaside town, the mezzaluna was a sophisticated novelty.

Feeling himself watched by one particular customer in the café, Boyd chopped for longer than the mint needed, getting into the rolling rhythm, working the green mint oil into a large olivewood board. He wanted to look up and make sure the customer was really watching, but he didn't. They might not be watching, might just have their face pointed in his direction. Anyway, he didn't need their fucking approval to chuck a bowl of tabbouleh together.

He knew a lot of people came to eat here, paid the high prices, because of what was implied by eating in the Paddle Café. Organic, local, farmers' market. Nose-to-tail. Seasonal. All the hollow pro-words he used to give a fuck about. It was an underground movement when Boyd got into it. At one time he'd cared with the same fevered certainty his minister father had for his faith. Past heresy, his father used to say, was the present orthodoxy: the food revolutionaries now found themselves unwilling high priests of a bland new consensus.

His wife, Lucy, got very drunk at a friend's wedding once. Just before she threw up into a rhododendron bush that was older than her grandmother, she said that a café with a mission statement was utter bollocks. Boyd liked her that night. Not just loved her, he always loved her, but he really liked her. If they'd met for the first time that night he would have fallen in love with her, right there and then.

The mission statement was printed on the Paddle menus. Even the takeaway menu had a mission statement on it. Bringing organic eggs blah blah blah. Supporting our local blah blah blah. He knew that the blah blah was their profit margin. Customers only paid five fifty for six eggs because of the blah blah.

Boyd chanced a glance up. The watchful customer still had her eyes trained on him through the glass display case. An older woman, but everyone in this town was old. Sharp greying bob, cornflower-blue eyes, expensive sweater in mustard cashmere. She had a very long straight nose, pinched at the end. Her blue neck scarf was pinned with a Victorian brooch, opals and diamonds, inherited. She was smiling at him, her eyebrows raised in recognition. He didn't know her.

Taking their brief eye contact as a prompt, she stood up and sidled around a display crate of organic local seasonal tomatoes.

'Boyd. It's Susan Grierson.'

He reeled at the sound of her voice. 'Miss Grierson? For goodness… ' He stumbled around the counter to her, a boy again, thrilled to see his old Akela from Scouts, his very first sailing instructor. He sandwiched her hand in both of his, wanted to hug her but knowing it would be too much. 'You're back!'

'I am,' she said, the warmth of her smile meeting his. 'My mother died.' Boyd hadn't heard that and he usually knew these things: the café was a hub of local news.

'Oh, I'm sorry,' he said. 'Me too. My father.'

'Your father? Well, that must have been a well-attended funeral.' She meant his father's congregation, not friends, certainly not family. In fact, the turn-out was poor. Most of them were very old. 'My mother's funeral was pitiful.'

Miss Grierson looked tearfully at the floor, shaking a little, as if she had forced her mother to be old and lonely by going out into the world. Lots of people came back here after a death. Grief and dislocation took them all differently but everyone felt guilty. Sad and guilty. There was no use in it.

Boyd tried to help her out of it. 'So, where have you been living?'

'US. I was in the Hamptons for twenty years.'

'What's that like?'

'Quite like Helensburgh, in fact. Lovely, gentle people. Changed a lot now, though.' She looked sad but lilted her voice, as if trying to lever her mood. 'Then London for a while.' The sadness lingered, joined by what looked like wet-eyed anxiety. 'So… '

'Well, I was in London too,' said Boyd kindly. 'Fifteen years. Glad to get out in the end?' He was leaving it open for her to denounce London, as people who left it often did. It usually cheered them up but she didn't take the bait.

'Where were you living in London, Boyd?'

'Crouch End.'

'I knew it!' She smiled and looked around the Paddle's interior. 'Hamble and Hamble?'

'Ah.' Boyd gave a cheeky grin. 'You've found me out.'

'I knew it! I lived right next door in Highgate. When I walked in here I knew it was a copy. Because of the local produce oath on the menus.'

'I can picture you in Hambles'.'

'You even used the same colour of Farrow and Ball paint.' She nodded at the walls. 'Don't they mind?'

'Well… ' He looked at the wooden shelving displaying retro-style olive oil drums, the tumbling basket of sourdough bread and the string of brown paper bags hanging from a bare nail hammered into the wall. 'They don't know. They would know if they came in but they won't come in.' Because no one came here–at least, no one Boyd was very interested in.

'I'm so glad to be back now, in time for the independence referendum… '

Boyd knew then that she was just back. With three weeks until the vote no one else was glad. Those in favour of independence could hardly wait another minute, and the other side just wanted it to be over. Miss Grierson raised her eyebrows, waiting for him to say whether he was pro or anti. Boyd didn't. He ran a business, for fuck's sake. He couldn't afford to take a public position and alienate customers on the other side. He raised his eyebrows back at her and she changed the subject:

'And I was so pleased when I saw you did gluten-free bread… ' Miss Grierson got that look in her eye then, a look of mild martyrdom Boyd recognised as the presage to the biography of an allergy. He zoned out on the details but she seemed to be hitting all the narrative points.

'… found I wasn't actually coeliac but certainly had a very strong reaction… '

Boyd's mind wandered again. He was thinking about giving up the gluten-free range. A big Waitrose had opened nearby and they did it cheaper. He didn't want to have to listen to this story three times a day any more. 'Allergy bastards', he called them, in his head and to Lucy. 'Allergy bastards bought all the bread today,' he'd say while they were watching telly. Or, 'Had to chuck all the gluten-free out because not enough allergy bastards came in.' They didn't seem able to buy the stuff without telling him about their Damascene journey. He'd spotted a gap in the market. It didn't mean he wanted to keep a chart of their colon function.

Miss Grierson had stopped talking. She looked at him quizzically, sensing his disengagement.

'So,' he said, 'how long have you been back, Miss Grierson?'

She hesitated, probably meaning to tell him to call her Susan, but decided not to, for some reason. 'Recently–going through her things.'


She looked sad. 'No. She was very old. A lot to do in the house, though. Garden's a mess.'

The Griersons' garden was a huge lot in the middle of town, three quarters of an acre. A small estate really. He used to pass it on adolescent runs in the summer. Giant Scots pines with trunks the colour of ginger snaps. A hundred-foot lawn and a big walled vegetable garden at the back. He had been passing again recently, out running or walking Jimbo, but the walls were high and even the hedge breaks were overgrown. He couldn't see in any more.

'Well,' he said, 'you'll know that most of those big gardens have been sectioned and sold off for new builds. Bear that in mind when you're selling—'

'Oh, I'm not selling. I'm moving back.'

Boyd smiled. 'I've moved back.'

'We're all moving back, aren't we? The old pack.'

'Seems that way. I see a lot of old faces in here.'

She touched his elbow in a comradely manner–'Our age… ' Though he was only thirty-five, younger than her by a good fifteen years.

Suddenly conscious of all that needed to be done before lunch, Boyd let his weight shift to his back foot, moving behind the counter. 'Do you still sail?'

'No, our boathouse is empty now. Mother sold them when I left for the States.'

'We have a boat, if you'd like to go out?' The offer was no sooner out of his mouth than he wished it back. He saw her eyes widen, wonder, file the invitation away for possible use later. Boyd didn't sail for company. He was dreading his boys being old enough to go out with him.

'Maybe, another time,' she said. 'Thanks, Boyd, it's kind of you.'

He wanted to change the subject. 'Were you an Akela out in the States?'

'No,' she said. 'I gave it up when I moved. I loved it, though, while I did it. Gave me real confidence.'

'Leader of the pack?'

'I'm not much of a leader, but, you know.' She warmed at the memory. 'It gave me such courage just to go off and do things. Super thing for a young woman to have, that confidence. Good for me. My mother made me do it because I didn't go to uni with my friends, you know, "Do something, Susan!"' Miss Grierson launched into a dull reminiscence about her mother giving her advice and how it was good advice or something, but Boyd wasn't listening any more. He picked up the mezzaluna again, holding it loosely with one hand. It was a prompt to her, to say goodbye, but she was talking without heeding the listener, rolling through a story to please herself, the way old people did.

Boyd raised the mezzaluna slowly, waiting until the end of the story. She got there, looked at the knife and then around the shop.

'So,' she said vaguely, 'd'you have a job for me?'

Very American. Forthright and unembarrassed. Quite unattractive.

'You can't need the money?' He looked at the teenage waitresses on the floor and dropped his voice to a murmur. 'Miss Grierson, the money I pay is crap.'

She smiled. 'Call me Susan, please. No, but I need to do something. I can't bear the thought of working in a charity shop. The people in them are all my age. I like a mix.'

Boyd grinned at her: every second shop in the town was a charity shop. They were staffed by retired people volunteering for a few hours a week. Most of their stock came from post-mortem house clearances and the ring of old folk's homes that circled the town, ornaments and personal effects the families didn't want back, after.

He leaned in and whispered, 'It's the half-dead selling the knick-knacks of the dead to the almost dead.'

They both tittered, she with shock at his maliciousness, he with discomfort. He'd said it often but he wished he hadn't said it now. It was quite nasty, and she was decent, so it mattered.

'That's what people call it here, anyway.' He was lying. The line was his.


On Sale
Dec 1, 2015
Page Count
304 pages

Denise Mina

About the Author

Denise Mina is the author of sixteen novels, including the Reese Witherspoon x Hello Sunshine Book Club pick Conviction and its sequel Confidence, as well as The Less DeadThe Long Drop—winner of the 2017 McIlvanney Prize for Scottish crime book of the year—and the Garnethill trilogy, the first installment of which won the John Creasey Memorial Award for best first crime novel, among others. Mina has twice received the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. She lives in Glasgow.

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