Past Lying

Val McDermid

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Past Lying, the latest Karen Pirie investigation from Val McDermid. In the following passage, Pirie languishes without a case during the pandemic, but soon finds herself busy and telling herself to be careful what she wishes for.

April 2020

Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie tucked her hands into the pockets of her down jacket. Even silk-lined leather gloves weren’t enough to keep out a night wind that was whipping straight across from the Urals to this Edinburgh rooftop. It had been three weeks since lockdown began, but the novelty of street stillness hadn’t worn off. Looking down across the New Town and beyond from this height, nothing was stirring. It was like the zombie apocalypse without the zombies.

Light and movement caught the corner of her eye, and she turned her head in time to spot a liveried police car slowing for a set of lights. Down by Canonmills, she reckoned. She checked her phone. Three minutes after midnight. It was officially tomorrow. Technically, she could go for her daily walk now.

She let herself back into the sunroom. She didn’t want to think about how a previous owner had managed to obtain planning permission for the roof garden in a conservation area of Georgian buildings. It wasn’t her problem; this wasn’t her flat. Its owner, her – what was he? Karen baulked at thinking of Hamish Mackenzie as her boyfriend. You didn’t have boyfriends in your thirties. ‘Lover’ always sounded wrong to her. It suggested the only thing that mattered was the sex, and while there was no denying she enjoyed that, their relationship encompassed much more. To a cop, ‘partner’ had a whole different set of resonances. And even if she stripped that out of the equation, ‘partner’ implied a much more serious commitment than Karen believed she’d made to Hamish. And ‘significant other’ was downright embarrassing. There simply wasn’t a word for what Hamish was to her.

Except that right now, she supposed he was technically her landlord, even though she wasn’t paying him rent. When the COVID-19 lockdown had been announced, he’d persuaded Karen to move into his flat. ‘I need you to take care of the place,’ he’d said, after announcing he was heading back to his working croft in the Highlands. One of his two shepherds had decided to move to Lairg to spend lockdown with his girlfriend, leaving the croft perilously shorthanded. And no sooner had Hamish returned than he’d bought Duggie Brewster’s struggling gin still and started making hand sanitiser, committing himself even further to Wester Ross.

He’d turned on the charm. ‘You’d be doing me a favour – forwarding the post and making the place look occupied. I can’t help being anxious about being burgled. It’s not like your flat, where the whole block’s festooned with CCTV.’ There was no denying his place was more spacious than her waterside apartment in Leith, and closer to her Historic Cases Unit office in Gayfield Square. What had clinched the deal was Detective Sergeant Daisy Mortimer’s swift acceptance of Karen’s impetuous suggestion they could lock down together. That would never have worked in the confines of her own flat. But Hamish’s place was a different story. They wouldn’t be living on top of each other, thanks to two bedrooms, a study, a living room big enough to house a dining table as well as a sofa and armchairs, a spacious kitchen, two bathrooms and a roof terrace, complete with a garden room.

She’d made the uncharacteristic offer of sharing her space at the end of their first case together. Daisy had been seconded to the HCU from the Major Incident Team in Fife; they’d worked well together and Karen had persuaded her boss to expand the HCU to include her. Daisy had been living alone in a cramped flat in Glenrothes, isolated on the other side of the Forth; in the moment, Karen had thought being in lockdown together was a good idea. It would, she thought, make working together much easier and it’d prevent the two of them from slipping into bad ways. When it came to junk food and eating chocolate ice cream straight from the tub, they could keep each other honest. Or keep each other company.

Three weeks in, she wasn’t so sure it had been one of her better ideas.

She made her way down the spiral staircase into the flat. Daisy was curled up in a comfortable tweed armchair, headphones on, absorbed in yet another bloody Netflix box set. She glanced away from the screen and hit pause on the remote. ‘You OK?’ she asked, peeling off one headphone. ‘Get you anything?’

Karen shook her head. ‘I’m away out. I’m going to walk down to my flat. Just to check everything’s OK.’

Daisy frowned. ‘Will that not take you more than an hour? To walk there and back?’

‘Yeah. Technically, I should stay there till after midnight before I come back.’

Daisy’s frown deepened. ‘I bet nobody would notice if you walked back during daylight hours today.’

‘Maybe not, but I am a polis. I’d know I was breaking the rules. More to the point, you’d know and you’re a polis.’ Karen grinned. ‘One hour’s outdoor exercise a day, that’s the limit. I’m not about to give you blackmail material. I’ll see you in about twenty-five hours.’

It was the absence of noise that she found most unsettling. Even in this side street sandwiched between Leith Walk and Broughton Street, the perpetual sound of traffic had been the background hum to her night walks. Now, the silence was only broken every ten minutes or so by the engine of a car or bus. Then the quiet descended again like a suffocating blanket. It unnerved her, so she’d taken to self- improvement. Headphones in, she was learning Gaelic. Not out of a sentimental nationalism but because some of the locals living near Hamish’s croft spoke it among themselves and she hated to miss out on anything. Besides, she wanted to know what they really thought of her.

Karen cut through a narrow vennel and emerged on Leith Walk. Not another human in sight. A grey cat materialised from a basement, sinuously weaving through the railings. She made a soft clicking noise and the cat approached, rubbing against her leg. She’d never had much time for cats, but these days, contact with anything with a pulse felt obligatory.

Karen bent down and scratched the cat’s head between its ears. It tired before she did and strolled nonchalantly into what would have been the path of a car or a van or a bus in what already felt like the olden days. She sighed and made off at a good pace down Leith Walk. Past the library, past the shuttered shops and deserted bars, not a creature stirring. She passed the side street where her wingman, DC Jason ‘The Mint’ Murray, was locked down with his hairdresser fiancee. She wondered how they were doing. Jason would be playing FIFA on his games console; she was less certain how Eilidh would pass the long days.

Another fifteen minutes and Karen was on Western Harbour Breakwater, repeating, ‘Is toil leam buntàta agus sgadan,’ under her breath, wondering whether she’d ever have to insist she liked potatoes and herring. She let herself into her flat, pulled out her earphones and felt her shoulders settle. This was her domain. It wasn’t that Daisy or Hamish were difficult to be around. It was simply that, like the cat on Leith Walk, she liked company on her terms. She crossed the living room and opened the patio doors leading to the balcony. The night wind made her cheeks tingle in seconds.

In the years she’d been living on the edge of the Firth of Forth, she’d grown accustomed to the night-time light show. Ribbons of red from tail lights and pools of white from headlamps mapping the road network on both sides of the wide estuary. Dots of yellow appearing and disappearing as people moved around their houses on the way to bed, or off to a night shift. Now, three weeks into lockdown, the only constants were the warning beacons on the three bridges that spanned the narrows between North and South Queensferry.

There were still the lighthouses, of course, sending their messages to the boats that weren’t there. A childhood rhyme ran round her head:

Inchgarvie, Mickery, Colm, Inchkeith,
Cramond, Fidra, Lamb, Craigleith;
Then round the Bass to Isle of May,
And past the Carr to St Andrew’s Bay.

Back when she’d learned that, there hadn’t been the brilliant orange flare of the Mossmorran gas cracking plant, an occasional warning of a different kind, its glow sometimes so bright that people miles away called the emergency services to report Fife on fire. But tonight, Mossmorran was nothing more than a tall smudge obliterating a column of stars.

Karen stood in the teeth of the wind for as long as she could bear it, then went back inside. Ten minutes later she was tucked up in bed, reading an old Marian Keyes novel. It was a struggle to grow tired enough to sleep. She missed her work. Running the Historic Cases Unit had always been demanding. That and her night walks, when the rhythm of her feet helped her thoughts to surface, were usually enough to wear her down. But right now, both of these occupations were beyond her reach. There was no active cold case to occupy them; they’d cleared two complicated investigations just before lockdown had started and they’d not had time to develop a new one. All they had were boxes of files of potential cases waiting for them to dig deep and find a loose thread to pull. And it hadn’t yet occurred to anyone in senior management to draft them in to one of the thankless lockdown roles. Or maybe it had, and they’d decided the HCU team weren’t the best option when it came to breaking up illicit gatherings. Either way, right now she was languishing for the lack of something meaningful to investigate, and it didn’t suit her. Was she really one of those people who had no life outside the job?

It was a thought that shamed her.


The stadium erupted in cheers as Barcelona’s star striker slotted home another cracking goal. Jason Murray, La Liga’s leading scorer, ran back to the centre spot, bouncing up and down on the sofa every step of the way. ‘Yaaas,’ he shouted, punching the air with the hand that held the game controller.

His fiancee barely glanced up from her phone screen. Jason scoring yet another virtual goal was infinitely less interesting than her Instagram feed. It was good to have the time to keep abreast of what the stylists she rated were posting in lockdown, but frustrating not to be able to try out their recommendations in the salon. There was a limit to what she could do with her own hair, never mind Jason’s. His ginger hair had a lovely texture, it was true, but there just wasn’t enough of it for the exercise of true creativity.

Jason  paused  the  game  and  leaned  into  Eilidh. ‘Fancy a brew?’

‘You drink too much coffee.’

‘That’s what comes from working with KP.’ He stood up, tossing the controller to one side. ‘Anyway, I’ve only had one this morning so far. You sure I can’t tempt you?’

Eilidh looked up and gave him an adoring smile. ‘Not with a cup of coffee.’

He chuckled and made for the tiny kitchenette. A penetrating chirping stopped him in his tracks. He frowned. ‘Who’s that?’ He stretched across the back of the sofa for his vibrating phone.

‘You’re the detective, Jase. Only one way to find out,’ Eilidh said.

Jason frowned. ‘Unknown number’ usually meant somebody trying to scam him or sell him something he didn’t want. But Karen had drummed into him that, as a polis, he should always answer his phone. ‘You never know when that unknown caller could be the one that breaks a case.’ So far, that had never happened. But this might be the day. ‘Hello?’

Never give anything away to the unknown caller. Another lesson from the boss.

‘Is that Jason Murray? DC Murray?’ It was a woman’s voice. Vaguely familiar but he couldn’t put a name to it.

‘Aye, that’s right. Who is this?’

‘It’s Meera Reddy. From the National Library?’

At once, Jason was alert. Thanks to the boss, he’d learned the library’s extensive resources could be invaluable in cold case investigations. Along the way, he’d found an unexpected ally in Meera, whose fondness for true crime podcasts had made her happy to forge a bond with a real live polis. She never seemed to mind how much she had to explain to Jason, who was grateful for her indulgence. He knew he was slow off the mark, but not so slow that he didn’t pick up on the exasperation he often provoked. ‘Hey, Meera. Great to hear from you. How are you doing?’

‘Ach, you know? Stuck at home by myself and talking to the telly. How about you?’

‘Not so bad. I’m in the flat with my fiancee, Eilidh, so at least I’ve got company.’ He hesitated. ‘Is there something I can do for you?’

‘I don’t know. Are you still on the Historic Cases Unit?’

‘I am. Not that we’re getting much done right now. With lockdown, and all that. The boss says we better not go into the office in case they get us putting on uniforms and chasing down folk breaking the lockdown rules,’ he scoffed.

‘I-I’m maybe wasting your time, I don’t know.’

‘That’s one thing nobody’s short of right now. What’s the matter?’

‘Well . . . ’ Meera’s voice tailed off. ‘It’s something from work. I’m probably getting it all out of proportion.’

‘Are you going in to work, then?’

‘No, no. This was something I stumbled on before we were sent home for lockdown. It’s been playing on my mind. I tried to convince myself I was imagining things, but the more I’ve thought about it since, the more it’s got me worried.’


From PAST LYING. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press. Copyright © 2023 by Val McDermid.

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