Slip of the Knife

A Novel


By Denise Mina

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A brilliant thriller featuring Paddy Meehan, one of the most praised heroines since Temperance Brennan, from “a rising star in the world of crime fiction” (Laura Miller, Salon).

Paddy Meehan is no stranger to murder — as a reporter she lives at crime scenes — but nothing has prepared her for this visit from the police. Her former boyfriend and fellow journalist Terry Patterson has been found hooded and shot through the head. Paddy knows she will be of little help — she had not seen Terry in more than six months. So she is bewildered to learn that in his will he has left her his house and several suitcases full of notes. Drawn into a maze of secrets and lies, Paddy begins making connections to Terry’s murder that no one else has seen, and soon finds herself trapped in the most important — and dangerous — story of her career.


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Terry Hewitt had never been as afraid as he was now. It was being naked that terrified him. He was stripped of all identifying marks, untraceable, ready for his grave.

Terry had been arrested in Chile, seen a woman necklaced in Soweto, stood on the edge of a riot in Port-au-Prince, but here, lying naked in a shuddering car boot, heading into the dark outskirts of Glasgow, he was paralyzed with fear.

Whimpering, his knees tight against his chin, he was aware of how hopelessly exposed he was. He couldn't even cup himself: his hands were bound behind his back, his wrists swelling around the tight binding. The plastic sheet beneath him was scalding his skin. A rough sacking hood over his head restricted his breathing and tiny fibers found their way to the moist back of his throat, making him gag.

The muscles on his neck hurt from the throttlehold that had made him pass out; his eyes ached where blood vessels had burst.

The attack had come from behind as he stood alone and half drunk on his front step.

It had been a good night until then: the celebration of a book deal. The advance from the publisher hardly covered his and Kevin's expenses but a big book of glossy photos and text was expensive to produce. It was Kevin Hatcher's suggestion to cash the entire two-hundred check and take it to the casino, and they had worn their least-crumpled suits, worried that they might not be smart enough to get in.

In the event they were overdressed. It was a Thursday night so the other gamblers were serious players wearing minimum swank to get through the door, scuffed leather shoes, jackets that had seen better days. A couple of Chinese women wore faded silk jackets and sat stone-faced, uplit from the tables, their eyes fixed on the dealer's hands at all times, making swift plays. No one celebrated a win with a grin and a cheer the way Kevin and Terry did. Real players met a win with an anxious gesture, a straightening of their chip stack, eyes searching for the next move.

Terry and Kevin were obvious tourists. Terry drank whisley and Coke, Kevin sipped his lemonade. They lost for a while and then showed their lack of courage by stopping after a big win. They were four quid up on the two hundred. They bought a dried-out Havana cigar from the bar, smoked it between them, and stayed on, watching the serious players concentrate on the turn of the numbers, willing fate to favor them.

Lying in the boot, Terry now remembered the sounds most vividly: standing shoulder to shoulder with Kevin as the dealers swept chinking piles of chips into black-velvet holes, unblinking players clacking their fresh hopes on the baize, the rattling turn of the wheel, the steady rhythm of loss.

Kevin had had several books published already but it was to be Terry's first, the first tangible result he would have of his years of work. It would be something to put on the bookcase, a spine to finger when his confidence and commitment were low, better than a box of yellowing newspaper clippings.

The warm camaraderie of the night had clung to Terry as he stood on the doorstep to his close, swaying slightly and fitting the key. The only warning that anything was amiss was a smell, an unlikely breath, stale, smoky, brushing his left ear. Then the elbow suddenly tight around his neck, pressing on his carotid artery. White bursts of light flashed in his eyes in the seconds it took for him to pass out.

When he came to he was in the boot, bewildered as to who had kidnapped him or why. The first thing he thought of was Kevin—maybe Kevin was playing a mad joke—but Kevin would never, ever have taken Terry's clothes off. Being naked meant it was serious.

Looking for a motive for the attack, he ran through the casino night. He didn't have the money, Kevin had the money. Even if Terry'd had the cash the guy had a car, a big car judging from the size of the boot, and two hundred quid wasn't enough to kill for. He trawled his past for clues. In the last two years he had been in Angola, Liberia, Lebanon, New York, Glasgow. But he was a seasoned journalist, an observer, never participating or intervening, however much he wanted to. No conflict would be changed by taking him out.

But someone was going to take him out. And no one was coming to help him.

Terry remembered a fifteen-year-old prisoner of war, blinking at the scorching midday Angolan sun, a boy with navy blue skin, his pale brown eyes heavy with terror, exhausted. He had trailed passively along the dusty forest road towards his execution, saving his killers the trouble of cleaning his body from an inconvenient floor. Terry watched him kneel before a gun barrel, eyes darting around behind his executioner, looking for an intervention in the second the bullet left the barrel. Terry had interviewed Holocaust survivors, heard how they had hoped in the cattle trucks, knew they were headed for the death camps but hoped they weren't and so waited.

Assassins depend on that hope, he knew that. Hope was the assassin's accomplice.

He wasn't going to trail down a dusty forest road and kneel passively before a gun barrel. He would forgo hope, face the truth and formulate a plan, find a moment he could exploit.

He took three deep breaths, holding them in to slow his heart rate.

There was no talking in the cabin of the car and no radio or tape was playing. It had to be one man, just the driver who had throttled him. Let it be one man.

He rehearsed the end of the journey: car stops, the lone captor opens the boot and makes Terry climb out, shuts the boot—an open boot on an abandoned car would attract curiosity, might look as if it had broken down and needed help—and leads Terry to where he wants the body to be found. And then the shot.

Terry felt the press at his temple, an indent from the bullet tip, heard the drop of his body to the ground, saw a puff of dry red African dust rise over him. He forced himself to breathe in again, slowing his pulse.

Shutting the boot: that was the moment. It was the only point when his captor's attention would be deflected. If Terry was on his feet he could shuffle backwards, away from the car, so the man would have to move in front of him to reach around to the boot hood. Then, with a bit of distance, Terry could throw his weight against the man's back, shove him or knock him over, land on him, try to really hurt him. He wouldn't be expecting resistance if Terry acted passive, if he cried and tried to bargain.

He thought his way through the graceless climb out onto the ground, felt the cold road beneath his bare feet, the night air on his clammy, damp skin. He wiggled his hips, rehearsing the backwards stagger; he'd act as if he was unsteady from the journey.

Beneath him, the car took a gentle turn onto a new road surface, and the noise from the wheels changed to a crunch. Tarmac, soft from the warm day, with small stones pressed in. They were coming to the end of the journey.

Getting ready, Terry remembered why he wanted to live and immediately saw Paddy Meehan's face. She was luminous, touching her fingertips to her long neck, flushing at a compliment. Since they had known each other, from when they were both in their late teens right up until now, Paddy had been an innocent. She had no idea how beautiful she was. And she was fearless, didn't know all the things there were in the world to be afraid of, all the things he'd seen. Hunger and anger and civil war had passed her by. She worried about her mum and her sisters, fought with her brothers, held a small family together at the expense of everything in her life because she didn't know she could do otherwise. If Terry drifted through the world, belonging nowhere, Paddy was tethered to her small place by connections as deep as her arteries.

He was sliding slowly to the back of the car, the rough road surface articulated through the metal: the car was slowing down. The moment of opening the boot. Three steps at most. No more. Act frightened, cry.

His ear was pressed to the floor and he heard the roar of his own hot blood. He began to sweat.

The car drew softly to the side of the road and stopped. The engine cut out. Through the quiet night Terry heard a whisper of breeze skim the bonnet, the chuckle of a burn. A ditch. There would be a ditch nearby if there was a burn. That was where he was meant to die.

The driver's door clicked open. A foot hit the gravel at the side of the road, a pause, and then another. He was stiff, perhaps from driving; perhaps he was old. It was good anyway.

Footsteps down the side of the car, not slow but not in a hurry. He might be reluctant, more likely just tired. Feet scrunched into place behind the boot.

Keys chinking, one selected and the scratch of metal into metal. The mechanism clicked.

The boot sprang open; blue-white moonlight filtered through the weave of the sacking to flood Terry's eyes, making him shut them tight. He forced himself to open them again and took a deep breath, feeling the eyes of his captor on his bare back. Act passive.

A cold, clammy hand grabbed his upper arm, tugging at him to roll over.


"Look, I'm Terry Hewitt. You've got the wrong man. I'm a journalist."


Terry curled tighter over his knees. "Please, for the love of God…" He was glad his face was covered: he was never a good liar. "Don't kill me. You can't. I'm a journalist, for Christ sake."

The cold muzzle of a pistol pressed into his neck. "Get the feck out."

He sat up unsteadily, banging his head on the inside of the boot, the car swaying slightly beneath his weight. "Please, please don't do this. My mother… she's very old."

Gun still tight against his jugular, his captor leaned into his face. Terry could smell the breath, still smoky but fresh now, not stale as it had been outside his front door. "Your mammy and daddy died ten years ago. Get out."

"You know me?"

No answer.

"How do you know me?"

The pistol pressed tighter against the soft skin on his neck. "Out."

Disconcerted, Terry shuffled his naked bum around the boot until he was facing out and dropped his feet over the edge to the ground.


"Sorry." Terry sniffed his dry nose. "I'm sorry. Whatever I've done, I'm sorry."


Terry kept his face to the man. He knew it was harder to kill someone if they were facing you, breathing on you. Even the most hardened assassin asked his victims to turn away.

One bare foot found the rough stones, then the other, and he stood up. Giving a whimper for cover, he staggered, caught his weight, shuffled a step. He was a foot and a half away from the car, he thought, far enough to use his weight against the man's back.

The pistol pressed a kiss into his neck and left.

Gladness and hope flared in his chest. Terry took a deep breath, adrenaline pulsing through him, fingers tingling with excitement. He listened for the shift of the feet, for the step to close the boot.

He didn't feel the muzzle on his temple because it wasn't touching him. He didn't hear the cold metal crack of the pistol shot as it ripped the thick night air and echoed across muddy fields.

Sharp black gravel scattered where his body fell.

The man looked down, saw the eager rush of blood pool under the sacking, watched it seep into the soil.

Judging him dead, he put a foot on Terry's hip and pushed, rolling the naked body into the ditch by the side of the road.

Terry's corpse splashed into the trickling stream. One meaty arm flailed out to the side, the moonlight catching a silver stretch mark underneath. Fingers flexed, twitched into a loose fist, then flowered gracefully open.

His killer reached for his packet of cigarettes, thought better of it, and dropped his hand to his side. He was tired.

The warm summer breeze tickled the tips of the grass on the verge. In the dark field beyond, a small brown bird rose screaming from the ground, circled, and flew away towards the yellow lights of a cottage on the distant hillside.

Terry's corpse relaxed in the watery ditch. For the briefest of moments a white thigh dammed the stream, pooling it into a miniature lake, until it found a path across his groin, over his hip, and continued its passage to the sea.

Terry Hewitt's corpse began the long melt back into the earth, and the world went on.



Paddy took a crouching step from her armchair to the television, pressed the button for STV, and sat back down. The adverts were still on. Dub's long, skinny body was draped across the length of the settee and he smiled a slow, warm grin.

"This is the best point of the entire fucking week for me. The delicious moment just before the music starts and the half-hour car crash begins." He slid his hand under his T-shirt, lazily scratching the skin on his belly. She pretended not to look at his flat stomach and the soft cushion of his pectorals. She was having to do that a lot.

"It's getting worse, isn't it?" she said to the TV.

"No." Dub raised a finger to correct her. "It's getting much worse."

They grinned in unison at the screen as the theme tune started, high-pitched, frantic, followed by the flat titles for George H. Burns's Saturday Night Old Time Variety Show. The graphics were a rip-off of Monty Python's Flying Circus but still they were the most original thing about the program.

A knock on the front door startled them. Dub sat up and looked out into the hall. "That's not him, is it?"

"Doubt it," said Paddy, acting casual as she got up. "Don't turn over though, in case it is."

She pretended not to care whether it was George Burns, but when she was alone in the big hall she straightened her pajamas and fluffed her hair up at the sides. She opened the door.

The man in the close was young, fresh faced behind his John Lennon glasses. His hair was pulled straight back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, loose, thick. The notepad and poised pen were the real clues.

"Hi, sorry to bother you, I'm Steven Curren—"

Conscious of the loud paint job and messy boxes in the hall, Paddy almost shut the door so they were talking through a two-inch gap. This would be the first of a hundred door stops. She'd better get used to it. "Who are ye with?"

"Sunday Mail," he said, a little proud. "When's Callum Ogilvy getting out? Is he coming to stay with you?"

His accent was soft and rounded. Edinburgh or England, Paddy thought, maybe Scottish but educated in England.

"Son," she whispered for the sake of the neighbors, "fuck off away from my door."

"Come on, Miss Meehan, you must know when he's getting released. Where's he staying when he gets out? Is Driver Sean going to pick him up? Is he staying with him?"

He had a grasp of the basic facts but nothing he couldn't have found in old clippings or picked up from office gossip. She waited for him to hit her with something else but he didn't.

"Is that it?"

He shrugged. "Um, yeah."

"This is a bullshit door stop," she said. "You've got nothing to go on. Do the Mail even know you're here?"

"McVie," he explained, eyes dipping in shame. "He said I have to try."

"McVie sent you to my door on a Saturday night?"

"He said to follow up the leads."

She felt for him. A more practiced journalist could have challenged her or made up some fact to goad her into talking. Her own door-stop method had always been to wait until a few journalists had rung the bell and been thrown off the step. Then she'd open her eyes wide and pretend to be a rookie, forced to come here by an evil editor. She'd ask the householder permission to wait on the step for a little while, just so that her editor couldn't sack her. Often they'd side with her against the paper and invite her in. Curren, by contrast, had started combative and then had nothing to back it up. He'd get his face kicked in doing that in Glasgow.

"You're new at this, aren't you?"

"Yeah." He looked excited.

"New to Glasgow?"

He brightened. "Been here a week. Just finished my training. 'Greatest newspaper city in the world.'"

Combative and then suddenly soft; it was the worst possible combination to use when prying into the affairs of very upset people.

"Maybe you should try being more aggressive," she said, imagining him nursing a black eye in the Mail newsroom while explaining where he got the idea from to guffawing colleagues. "When you get to a door try to push it open, swear at them, do something that'll make them think you're in charge. No one's going to buckle under gentle quizzing."

Curren nodded earnestly. "Really?"

"Yeah, Glaswegians really respond to that kind of firm hand."

Curren hummed at his feet. "OK." He took a deep breath, steeled himself, and demanded, "When's Ogilvy getting out?"

"Better. Definitely better."

Confusion flickered on his face and Paddy felt a little bit guilty. In the yellow light of the close he looked young and embarrassed and fed up, while she, content and pajamaed, still had the taste of oaty biscuits bright in her mouth.

She gave him permission to do what he'd do anyway. "Listen, just go back and tell your editor I'm a total bitch and you tried really hard."

Resentment flashed behind his glasses. "I'll tell McVie he's a fat poof."

She tutted. Brutal insults were the custom of their profession, but she didn't like McVie's homosexuality used as a slur. "Nah, don't say that to him, he might get a bit, you know…" she searched for the word, "… stabby."

He grinned. Nice teeth. "Stabby? Is that an intransitive verb? Only in Glasgow…"

"Adjective." She'd never heard of that kind of verb. Even tea boys had degrees these days. "Well, fuck off anyway." She shut the door, felt a pang of guilt at her mis-advice, and called through the wood, "Safe home."

"Thanks," he answered, his voice muffled. "By the way, I saw your Misty column about dope. Brilliant."

Paddy felt vaguely ashamed. She had stolen the argument that no one started a fight in a bar because they'd smoked pot, but that alcohol provided so much tax revenue it couldn't be outlawed.

"Thanks," she said to the door. "It was Bill Hicks's line actually. I took it and didn't give him an acknowledgment."

"Good for you," replied the door. The kid would go far.

She listened as his foot dropped to the first step, followed the echo of his trail as he walked down two flights and left the close. The outside door slammed behind him.

Lucky her. The biggest crime story in the last twenty years hadn't so much landed in her lap as grown up under her feet. Callum Ogilvy and another small boy had been found guilty of the brutal murder of a toddler nine years ago. At the same time Paddy, a hungry young reporter, was engaged to Callum's cousin Sean. It was because of Paddy's investigation that the men who goaded the boys to do it were found and charged. Callum and James were done for conspiracy instead of murder and it carried a shorter sentence. Even she didn't know if it was a good idea to release them, but there was no legal basis on which to hold them any longer.

She hadn't met Callum since he went to prison. She knew very little about him, other than the sanitized snippets Sean passed on from his prison visits and the occasional articles about his life there. Sean wanted her to write Callum's big interview when he got out. Working in newspapers for the past six years, he was savvy enough to know that Callum would be hunted down and eventually caught, probably by an unsympathetic journalist who'd print a picture and ruin what little anonymity he had. Most journalists would have bitten Sean's hand off for the opportunity but Paddy had her doubts about writing it: she couldn't guarantee a sympathetic story, and anyway, Callum didn't want to talk to anyone.

She loitered in the hall, looking down at the boxes of Dub's records and a cardboard rack of her work clothes. Unpacking had ground to a halt a month ago and now they only noticed the boxes when they saw them from an unusual angle.

The ceilings were high in the flat. The early Victorians took tenements seriously, built them on a grand scale with servants' quarters and drawing rooms that could accommodate dance parties, and Lansdowne Crescent was one of the oldest tenements in the West End of Glasgow.

It was a student flat before Paddy bought it. The hall was still purple with canary yellow trim, the detailing on the magnificent cornicing obscured under a century and a half of pasty emulsion. The three bedrooms were painted in colors that would exacerbate a hangover and the kitchen ceiling was so nicotine stained that it was hard to tell whether it had been painted white or kipper yellow.

At twenty-seven, she was in her first home away from her family and she was still gliding around it like a triumphant child in a longed-for Wendy house.

Back in the living room Dub smirked up at her. Paddy could tell by the crumbs on his T-shirt front that he'd stolen some of her biscuits.

"Who was it?"

"A wee journalist from the Mail. Asking about Callum Ogilvy. How's the show this week?"

"Oh, bliss, it's even worse."

"Can't be."

They watched as George H. Burns demanded a welcoming round of applause from the audience, his eyes flashing angry as he backed offstage to the wings. The curtain rose on a sweating ventriloquist with a cow puppet sitting upright on his knee, its impertinent pink udders quivering in the spotlight.

The Saturday Night Old Time Variety Show was arse-clenchingly poor. George H. Burns's compèring style revolved around insulting the audience. He guessed where they were from, told jokes about skinflints from Aberdeen and half-wits from Dundee. His material was obvious, the intervening acts mediocre, the musicians plodding.

"Even the curtains look tired," said Dub.

The viewing figures were spectacular: every single week the numbers halved. But it wasn't really funny. If Burns's career took a nosedive he'd stop giving Paddy money, even sporadically, and she was stretched tight enough as it was.

Dub had been George's manager when the TV company approached them and offered the show. He advised Burns not to host it on the grounds that it would be absolutely fucking shit. Burns, greedy and headstrong, sacked the guy who'd brought him to the brink of stardom and replaced him with a manager who wore shiny suits and couldn't talk to a woman without staring at her tits. Now even he knew the show was crap. He was angry, blaming the producer, the writers, the quality of the acts, but the flaw was in the concept: variety theater needed revival because it was dying, and it was dying because it was patchy and dull. Worse for George, going mainstream had alienated all his comrades on the alternative comedy circuit. Far from being alternative, the circuit was suddenly all there was, apart from guest spots and workingmen's clubs.

"Mother of God," muttered Paddy, dropping into her chair. "Where are they finding these people? Backstage must be like the bus to Lourdes."

"They're all actual performers. Dinosaurs. Actually, mini-saurs. Baby saurs." He lay there, grinning, his chin folded into his neck, the sole pocket of fat on his entire six-foot-two frame. She'd been flat sharing with him for two months and saw how much he ate. She'd always hoped that thin people were lying, that they didn't eat giant meals and keep their figures just the same, but Dub ate peanut butter sandwiches before his dinner, snacked on entire packets of biscuits, and was still rake thin. Paddy felt the hefty roll of fat on her middle bulge as she sat down. It was just unfair.

A slow knock echoed out from the deep hall. Paddy sighed as she stood up again. "Tell him to get lost," Dub said.

But it didn't sound the same, didn't sound like a journalist's jaunty, faux-friendly beat. "I've told him to fuck off." She brushed her hands clean on her pajama trousers. "I'm just after telling him that."

As she stepped back over the boxes the knock was still going, a rhythmic, steady tap on wood, slow and grave. Paddy's heart jolted a warning.

Her hand hesitated on the handle. It could be a lost drunk who'd wandered up the close, or a journalist from a serious paper looking for news of Callum Ogilvy's release date. Or George Burns on a downer. Or Terry fucking Hewitt. God, not Terry, please.

She slipped the safety chain on noisily, hoping it sounded more substantial than it was, and opened the door an inch.

Two unfamiliar police officers, a man and a woman, stood shoulder to shoulder, wearing full uniform and looking grimly back at her.

Paddy slammed the door shut in their faces.

Alone in the hall, her knees buckled. She had shadowed the police often enough to know what a death knock looked like: two uniformed officers, stony faced, one of them a woman, turning up at an unexpected hour.

When Paddy was on night shift she'd arrived at the door with them, faked sympathy along with them, never once thinking they would come to her. With them, she kept her face straight during the interview and sniggered at the jokes in the car afterwards, laughing at the clothes and the décor, at the family setup and undercurrents, dead wives found in a boyfriend's bed, car crashes caused by drink, once a husband found dead in a ladies' changing room at a department store, trying on girdles. They laughed, not because any of it was funny, but because it was sad.

Someone close to her had died. They had died violently, or she would have been called by a hospital, and they had died alone, or a family member would have phoned her. It had to be Mary Ann.

"Dub?" Her voice was high and wavering. "Could ye come out here a minute?"

Dub took his time. When he appeared he stood in the doorway; he was still looking back at the TV. "What?"

"Two police. Outside. I think something's happened."

They looked anxiously at the door, trying to read an answer in the lumpy yellow paint.

Dub came over, standing too close, even jumpier than she was. "Couldn't be a noise complaint? A mistake? The journalist, the wee guy, was he noisy on the way out?"

Paddy pressed her hand to her mouth.

"It could be Mary Ann."

"Let them in then." Dub reached over swiftly, slipped the chain off, and pulled the door wide.

The male officer was a big shed of a man, fat and broad, blue shadow on both his chins, his chest still heaving from the effort of lumbering up the stairs. The woman was blond, hair scraped back so tight it looked as if it had been painted on. She was birdlike: a pointy nose, beady eyes, thin lips. Family Liaison. They always sent out a woman from Family to hold the person's hand when they sobbed.

The policewoman attempted a smile but it withered on her lips and she slipped Paddy's eye. She hadn't done many death knocks, hadn't yet developed the cold skill of looking heartbreak in the face.


On Sale
Feb 13, 2008
Page Count
352 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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