Broken Ground

Val McDermid

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Broken Ground, by fan favorite Scottish crime writer Val McDermid. In the following passage, we learn of a covered up crime from the 1940s, and flash forward to the Historic Crimes Unit, ready to take on even the most challenging of cold cases.

1944—Wester Ross, Scotland

The slap of spades in dense peat was an unmistakable sound. They slipped in and out of rhythm; overlapping, separating, cascading, then coming together again, much like the men’s heavy breathing. The older of the pair paused for a moment, leaning on the handle, letting the cool night air wick the sweat from the back of his neck. He felt a new respect for gravediggers who had to do this every working day. When all of this was over, you wouldn’t catch him doing that for a living.

‘Come on, you old git,’ his companion called softly. ‘We ain’t got time for tea breaks.’

The resting man knew that. They’d got into this together and he didn’t want to let his friend down. But his breath was tight in his chest. He stifled a cough and bent to his task again.

At least they’d picked the right night for it. Clear skies with a half-moon that gave barely enough light for them to work by. True, they’d be visible to anyone who came up the track past the croft. But there was no reason for anyone to be out and about in the middle of the night. No patrols ventured this far up the glen, and the moonlight meant they didn’t have to show a light that might attract attention. They were confident of not being discovered. Their training, after all, had made clandestine operations second nature.

A light breeze from the sea loch carried the low-tide tang of seaweed and the soft surge of the waves against the rocks.

Occasionally a night bird neither could identify uttered a desolate cry, startling them every time. But the deeper the hole grew, the less the outside world impinged. At last, they could no longer see over the lip of the pit. Neither suffered from claustrophobia, but being that enclosed was discomfiting.

‘Enough.’ The older man set the ladder against the side and climbed slowly back into the world, relieved to feel the air move around him again. A couple of sheep stirred on the opposite side of the glen and in the distance, a fox barked. But there was still no sign of another human being. He headed for the trailer a dozen yards away, where a tarpaulin covered a large rectangular shape.

Together they drew back the canvas shroud to reveal the two wooden crates they’d built earlier. They looked like a pair of crude coffins standing on their sides. The men shaped up to the first crate, grabbing the ropes that secured it, and eased it off the bed of the trailer. Grunting and swearing with the effort, they walked it to the edge of the pit and carefully lowered it.

‘Shit!’ the younger man exclaimed when the rope ran too fast through one palm, burning the skin.

He felt a new respect for gravediggers who had to do this every working day. When all of this was over, you wouldn’t catch him doing that for a living.

‘Put a bleeding sock in it. You’ll wake up the whole bloody glen.’ He stamped back to the trailer, looking over his shoulder to check the other was behind him. They repeated the exercise, slower and clumsier now, their exertions catching up with them.

Then it was time to fill the hole. They worked in grim silence, shovelling as fast as they could. As the night began to fade along the line of the mountains in the east, they attacked the last phase of their task, stamping the top layer of peat divots back in place. They were filthy, stinking and exhausted. But the job was done. One day, some way hence, it would be worth it.

Before they dragged themselves back into the cab, they shook hands then pulled each other into a rough embrace.

‘We did it,’ the older man said between coughs, pulling himself up into the driver’s seat. ‘We fucking did it.’

Even as he spoke, the Mycobacterium tuberculosis organisms were creeping through his lungs, destroying tissue, carving out holes, blocking airways. Within two years, he’d be forever beyond the consequences of his actions.


The snell north wind at her back propelled Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie up the steady incline of Leith Walk towards her office. Her ears were tingling from the wind and tormented by the grinding, drilling and crashing from the massive demolition site that dominated the top end of the street. The promised development, with its luxury flats, high-end shops and expensive restaurants, might boost Edinburgh’s economy, but Karen didn’t think she’d be spending much time or money there. It would be nice, she thought, if the city council came up with ideas that benefited its citizens more than its visitors.

‘Grumpy old bag,’ she muttered to herself as she turned into Gayfield Square and made for the squat concrete boxes that housed the police station. More than a year on from the bereavement that had left her unmoored, Karen was making a conscious effort to breach the gloom that had fallen across her life like a curtain. She had to admit that, even on a good day, she still had a fair distance to go. But she was trying.

She nodded a greeting to the uniform on the front counter, stabbed the keypad with a gloved finger and marched down the long corridor to an office tacked on at the back like a grudging afterthought. Karen opened the door and stopped short on the threshold. A stranger was sitting at the usually unoccupied third desk in the room, feet on the wastepaper bin, the Daily Record open in his lap, in one hand a floury roll trailing bacon.

Karen made a theatrical show of stepping back and staring at the door plaque that read ‘Historic Cases Unit’. When she turned back, the scrappy little guy’s face still pointed at the paper but his eyes were on her, wary, ready to slide back to the newsprint with full deniability. ‘I don’t know who you are, or what you think you’re doing here, pal,’ she said, moving inside. ‘But I know one thing. You’ve left it way too late to make a good first impression.’

Unhurried, he shifted his feet from the bin to the floor. Before he could say or do more, Karen heard familiar heavy footsteps in the hall behind her. She glanced over her shoulder to see Detective Constable Jason ‘the Mint’ Murray bearing down on her, trying to balance three cups of Valvona & Crolla coffee on top of each other. Three cups?

‘Hi, boss, I’d have waited for you to get in but DS McCartney, he was gagging for a coffee so I thought I’d just . . . ’ He registered the frost in her eyes and gave a weak smile.

Karen crossed the room to her desk, the only one with anything approximating a view. An insult of a window looked out across an alley on to a blank wall. She stared at it for a moment then fixed the presumed DS McCartney with a thin smile. He’d had the good sense to close his paper but not to straighten up in his seat. Jason gingerly stretched at full length to place Karen’s coffee in front of her without getting too close. ‘DS McCartney?’ She gave it the full measure of disdain.

‘Detective Sergeant Gerry McCartney.’ He grinned, either oblivious or indifferent. ‘I’m your new pair of hands.’

‘That’s right.’ Two words was enough to nail his origins: Glasgow. She should have guessed from his gallus swagger. ‘Detective Sergeant Gerry McCartney.’ He grinned, either oblivious or indifferent. ‘I’m your new pair of hands.’

‘Since when?’

He shrugged. ‘Since the ACC decided you needed one. Obviously she thinks you need a boy that knows what he’s about. And that would be me.’ His smile soured slightly.

‘Hotfoot from the Major Incident Team.’

The new Assistant Chief Constable. Of course she was behind this. Karen had hoped her working life would have changed for the better when her previous boss had been caught up in the crossfire of a high-level corruption scandal and swept out with the rubbish. She’d never fitted his image of what a woman should be—obsequious, obedient and ornamental—and he’d always tried unsuccessfully to sniff out the slightest improprieties in her inquiries. Karen had wasted too much energy over the years keeping his nose out of the detail of her investigations.

When Ann Markie had won the promotion that brought the HCU under her aegis, Karen had hoped for a less complicated relationship with her boss. What she got was differently complicated. Ann Markie and Karen shared a gender and a formidable intelligence. But that was the limit of their congruence. Markie turned up for work every day camera-ready and box-fresh. She was the glamorous face of Police Scotland. And she made it clear at their first meeting that she was 110 per cent behind the Historic Cases Unit as long as Karen and Jason cracked cases that made Police Scotland look modern committed and caring. As opposed to the sort of idiots who could spend a month searching for a man reported missing who was lying dead in his own home. Ann Markie was devoted to the kind of justice that let her craft sound bites for the evening news.

Markie had mentioned that the budget might stretch to an extra body in HCU. Karen had been hoping for a civilian who could devote themselves to admin and basic digital searches, leaving her and Jason to get on with the sharp end. Well, maybe sharp was the wrong word where Jason was concerned. But although he might not be the brightest, the Mint had a warmth that tempered Karen’s occasional impatience. They made a good team. What they needed was backroom support, not some strutting Glasgow keelie who thought he’d been sent to be their saviour.

She gave him her best hard stare. ‘From MIT to HCU? Whose chips did you piss on?’

A momentary frown, then McCartney recovered himself. ‘Is this not your idea of a reward, then?’ His lower jaw inched forward.

‘My ideas don’t always coincide with those of my colleagues.’ She picked the lid off her coffee and took a sip. ‘As long as you don’t think it’s a holiday.’

‘Naw, no way,’ he said. Now he straightened up in his seat and looked alert. ‘You get a lot of respect from the MIT,’ he added hastily.

Karen kept her face straight. Now she’d learned one useful thing about Gerry McCartney—he was a good liar. She knew exactly how much respect her unit had with detectives who wrestled with intractable crimes in real time. They thought HCU was a doddle. If she nailed a historic perpetrator, she was a media hero for a day. If she failed? Well, nobody had their beady eyes looking over her shoulder, did they?

‘Jason’s working his way through a list of people who owned a red Rover 214 in 1986. You can give him a hand with that.’

McCartney’s lip twitched in faint disgust. ‘What for?’

If she nailed a historic perpetrator, she was a media hero for a day. If she failed? Well, nobody had their beady eyes looking over her shoulder, did they?

‘A series of violent rapes,’ Jason said. ‘He beat the last lassie so badly she ended up brain damaged in a wheelchair. She died only a couple of weeks ago.’

‘Which is why our new evidence turned up. A former street girl saw the story in the paper. She didn’t come forward at the time because she was still using and she didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her dealer. But she had a wee notebook where she used to write down the cars that other women got into. Amazingly, she still had it, tucked away in an old handbag. The red Rover was around on all of the nights when the rapes took place.’

McCartney raised his eyebrows and sighed. ‘But she couldn’t manage to get the number. Is that not typical of your average whore?’ Jason looked apprehensive.

‘Something you might like to take on board, Sergeant? We prefer the term “sex worker” in this unit,’ Karen said. It wasn’t a tone of voice people argued with. Gerry sniffed but said nothing.

‘She did get the number,’ Jason said brightly. ‘But the bag was in the attic where she lives now and the mice have been at it. The edges of the pages have all been chewed away. All we’ve got is the first letter: B.’

Karen smiled. ‘So you guys have got the fun job of going through the DVLA records and tracking down the owners from thirty years ago. Some clerk in the driving licence office is going to love you. On the plus side, the lab at Gartcosh have managed to extract DNA from the evidence that’s been sitting in a box all these years. So if we find a likely lad, we could get a nice neat result.’ She finished her coffee and binned the cup. ‘Good luck with that.’

‘OK, boss,’ Jason mumbled, already focused on the task. Setting a good example, Karen thought. The boy was learning. Slowly but surely, he was learning.

‘Where are you heading?’ McCartney asked as she made for the door.

She wanted to say, ‘None of your business,’ but she decided it was probably worth trying to keep him more or less on side. For now, at least. Till she had the full measure of him and the closeness of his connection to Ann Markie. ‘I’m off to Granton to talk to one of the conservators who thinks she might have seen a stolen painting in a private collection.’ Again that slight twitch of the lip. ‘I didn’t think that was our thing. Stolen paintings.’

‘It is when a security guard got a face full of shotgun pellets in the course of the theft. Eight years ago, and this is the first sniff we’ve had of where the painting might have endedup.’ And she was gone, already planning the route in her head. One of the many things she loved about Edinburgh wasthat it was easier to get places on the bus and on foot than it was to wrangle a pool car out of the division. Anything that avoided the petty exercise of petty power was a plus in Karen’s book. ‘Number sixteen,’ she muttered as she headed for the bus stops on Leith Walk. ‘That’ll do nicely.’


BROKEN GROUND © 2018 by Val McDermid. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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