Following the breakdown of her marriage, Alex Duggins has returned to her picturesque hometown of Folly-on-Weir in the Cotswolds in order to start afresh. But you can’t outrun the past, as Alex is about to discover when she stumbles across a frosted corpse buried in the snow. The subsequent murder investigation threatens to unearth old secrets – including Alex’s own. As Folly-on-Weir braces for a chilling winter and Alex finds herself top of the police’s suspect list, she determines to clear her name and find the real murderer. But as she begins to peel back the layers of deception that have long-concealed one of the town’s darkest secrets, she herself becomes the target of a ruthless killer who has nothing left to lose. Will Alex be the next snow-covered body to be found in the beautiful hills above the town?
The Alex Duggins series will appeal to fans of Louise Penny and Elizabeth George.
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By Stella Cameron
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Stella Cameron
All rights reserved.
Privacy and peace.
Early the previous year, Alex Bailey-Jones had come home from London to the Cotswold Hills, to Folly-on-Weir, to bury herself in familiar surroundings and to become too busy to live in the past.
So far she wasn't doing so badly, even if she did catch some curious stares from those she had once happily left behind.
Snow covered the frozen leaves and twigs that crackled beneath her feet. The canopy of tree limbs overhead was bare.
The snowfall had dwindled to a fine, icy swirl. She blinked and turned her head aside.
The woods stood on a knoll overlooking the village below. Up here in the surrounding hills there were homes and farms, each one distant enough from the others not to be overlooked.
On the highest point to the west stood what locals called The Tooth – the jagged remains of Tinley Tower, the folly from which the village got part of its name.
The world felt still.
Gray skies slumped on gray-white fields, and on the hills beyond the village. Thin smoke straggled from chimneys and lights through small leaded windows were signs morning came early in Folly-on-Weir. These and the inevitable dog walkers on the village green, a couple of hardy, dedicated souls who threw balls into the snapping air. Their joyful companions were clearly unperturbed by the cold while they dashed back and forth beside the long pond.
Her breath puffed white vapor into the air and she swallowed against a lump in her throat. Gratitude and sadness were strange but familiar companions. This was her future, this place and whatever she made of her life here. It was the only future she wanted from now on and making it count felt like her big chance at healing the past. Thirty-three was a fine age, a great age to hope for a fresh start.
To the left of the main village, obscured by a ridge, lay another smaller, shabbier section known as Underhill. With her single mother, Alex had grown up there, although she'd gone to school in Folly-on-Weir while Lily Duggins worked at the only pub, as she still did.
Despite the dismal morning, honeyed shades of stone showed up warm and inviting on the buildings lining the commons. Corner Cottage, with its thatched roof and single second-story gable caught Alex's eye as it inevitably always did. Some years earlier she had finally been able to buy the little home for her mother, and Lily's quiet pleasure made them both happy.
Emerging from the edge of the woods, Alex looked back between the trunks of old beeches and the snow-etched bark of younger trees and saplings. The hard lines of jagged brambles and sticks of undergrowth stood out against the bluish haze like snapped, fragile black bones. Too bad it had taken shock and loss to open her eyes to these small beauties everywhere she looked.
She saw another shade, gray, fleeting and fleeing. There and gone. A breath lodged in her throat.
Something had moved.
Probably a rabbit or a pigeon – perhaps a stoat. There had been reported sightings.
Squinting into the eye–watering brightness cast by the snow, Alex saw the shadow move again. It seemed to rise for an instant, then fall away, out of sight.
Pricking, a thousand tiny points buzzed from between her shoulder blades, up her neck and into the hair at the base of her scalp. Her own primal warning of menace.
She tied a green woolen scarf tighter around the neck of her heavy black coat and pulled the hood further forward over her short hair before turning downhill again. Time to get on. No time to get hung up on imagined wraiths.
The Black Dog Inn sat to her right and a little back from the village green with a lantern-strung forecourt in front where people ate and drank for a good part of the year. The multicolored lights were on now as they were every morning, a welcoming twinkle no matter the weather.
Very faintly, she smelled wood smoke.
Most mornings Alex walked down the hill to work, but she drove her Land Rover along the narrow road between village and hill dwellers a couple of times a week – when she needed to visit nearby Bourton-on-the-Water, Broadway or somewhere further afield.
She owned The Black Dog now; in fact, it had been when she'd heard Will and Cathy Cummings, the former owners, might have to sell up to clear their debts that she'd decided to come back from London and step in. Now the Cummings managed the place and continued to live on the premises. And Lily, who used to be the Cummings' barmaid, was in charge of the seven guest rooms and reservations for the small restaurant. Receipts were picking up well enough. These things took time but they were going in the right direction.
A good arrangement.
Wasn't it? There were times when Alex noticed quick looks from the Cummings, at her or at one another, that belied the friendliness they showed her openly. Apart from her failed marriage, she was the local success story, the girl from nothing who had made her name as a graphic artist at the head of a department in her husband's prestigious advertising firm. After they married Mike had made her his equal partner in every way. But money and success did different things to different people, and without her knowing it was happening, his search for new thrills had poisoned what she and Mike had. There could be no mending the rift, no matter how much Mike had wanted to try.
Alex couldn't always shake the feeling that there were those in Folly who would have enjoyed seeing her creep home, penniless and defeated. Some folks didn't hold with people who got above themselves ...
She still looked at the pub with a twinge of amazement to think that it was hers. The walk down the hill each day gave her a great view of the place and a lot of satisfaction.
The ground was steep here and Alex took short running steps, driving in the heels of her short boots to keep a solid footing.
An unexpected and icy wind caught her by surprise. Her lips and nose reacted immediately and she put a gloved hand over the lower half of her face.
A moan that built to an agonized wail startled her. She jumped sickeningly hard and, with a pounding heart and her stomach twisting, looked in all directions.
It came again. Pain or desperation – or both. And whoever cried out was in the woods, above Alex now and to her left.
She fingered the mobile phone in her pocket. I think I heard someone yell – they could be in trouble. Constable Frye would come in a hurry and he'd be kind enough, but she'd feel a fool having him search for a sound.
The next thing she heard was whimpering and this time she spun around and started back into the trees. Why hadn't she considered she might be hearing a trapped animal?
Instinct took her to the left. A renewed howl made sure she knew she was going in the right direction. A brief picture of the vicious metal teeth of a gin trap came and went. Those things scared her badly but she knew how to release one of them.
Uphill she saw no other living being. She rarely did at this time of day. Gasping, her mouth open, she leaned into the slope and tried to speed up – and caught her foot under a root.
The fall was spectacular but painless enough, except for the snow and debris that crammed under her hood and into her curly black hair – and her eyes, nose and mouth.
Another time, she would have laughed at herself, but not this morning. First she had to smack her gloves clean, then dig her face and hair out of the mess.
The howling grew steady, an otherworldly, keening knell filled with desolation.
Alex got to her feet, stumbled again in her haste but kept going. She glanced around for any sign of Tony Harrison on his way back from his daily hike into the hills with his dog. Tony worked on livestock at the surrounding farms but his small animal surgery was in the village. He was her closest neighbor on the hill and lived in a red brick house, out of keeping with the local stone buildings, and surrounded by beautiful gardens. She frequently encountered the tall, quiet man on her way to the village. Where was the local vet when you needed him?
Rocketing at her from between the trees came a dog, not big, maybe twelve or fourteen pounds and with unidentified fragments stuck in his woolly, mostly gray fur. He saw Alex, yapped hoarsely and shot away again, his black-tipped ears flapping.
The signal was clear. Follow me. Hot and sweating, then cold enough to shiver, Alex broke into a shambling run, keeping her eyes on the path the dog had taken. She strained, listening for more sounds, either from the dog or perhaps another animal who had been with him.
She tried not to think about stories of dogs howling when their owners were injured – or dead. But one of the visions she hated flitted, semi-transparent, before her. For one dreadful instant she saw that brightly lit corridor, felt the rush of whispering people ... looked into an open grave. Such a small grave. And the wail she heard as a remembered echo was her own.
Alex felt dampness on her cheeks and wiped it away. Silly, silly – how silly to get that image again. It used to be part of an aura she got before a panic attack but she was grateful she so rarely sank all the way into that dark place any more.
Another single howl sounded, much closer this time.
Mounds of shrouded debris made the going hard. Alex resorted to using her hands for balance, gripping anything she could find even though the icy stems slipped through her fingers. Her breath billowed in short, steamy bursts and her throat made raw noises. She couldn't give in to panic.
Steady, moaning yelps had replaced the dog's howling, and when she finally saw him he sat, staring toward her, woolly ears pinned to the sides of his head.
'OK,' she said, trying to soothe him. 'It's OK. Are you hurt? Poor boy. Good boy.' As she got closer, she held a gloved hand toward the dog.
'That lumpy, cold stuff can't feel good on your bottom,' she said. He perched on a heap of snow with rocks and twigs sticking out. 'Silly boy. Come on, I'll find out where you belong.'
He didn't move except to twitch his ears a little away from his gray head. Soft brown eyes stared at her, implored her?
Alex stopped walking – and talking.
Raising his head, the little animal let out another howl.
Red stained the snow behind him. A shocking, rusty scarlet she gradually realized was a huge patch. The more she glanced around and back, the more marking Alex could make out. And some pieces of what stuck through the snow were not rocks but tweed fabric.
Scrambling, desperate, she scrabbled around, pushing snow out of the way, pulling at the material and hearing herself sob.
Let it just be a discarded coat or something. Don't let it be a person. She felt faint.
Her right hand closed around something solid. Stiff and solid. A man's bloodied right hand. The ring finger stuck out at a ghastly angle and must be dislocated or broken.
She couldn't stop to phone for help. Seconds might be all she had to help him. Lying face down, he was too heavy to move even a fraction. All she could do was brush at his face.
Blood-tinged short, almost shaved, graying dark hair.
'Wake up,' Alex said. 'Please wake up. You'll freeze to death if you stay here. Please wake up. Get up!' She started to shake him by the shoulder but stopped, afraid she would hurt him even more.
His thin, fine-boned face was partially visible, covered with patches of blood and mud and bits of debris. Blood even sealed his eyes shut, and she could see more dark red beneath him. Snow had covered some of the congealed blood – there was so much blood. Pulse. That was the first thing. Brown woolen material bunched around the man's neck and she pulled it away at one side to reveal his throat.
Rocking back on her knees, Alex barely registered that the dog was growling. A dart, like some of those kept at the pub for casual dart players, the yellow flight and brass barrel bloodied, leaned crazily from a hole and a jagged tear that must have punctured the carotid artery.
She would never wake the man up.CHAPTER 2
Thanks to the docs James and Tony Harrison, who showed up on the hill in the wake of Constable Frye and half an hour before the heavy artillery from the police, Alex had been released from the cold and horrifying woods to the warmth of the Black Dog.
Doc James was Tony's father and the local GP.
The reprieve from questions wouldn't last long but she intended to make the best of whatever thinking time she could get. The two Harrisons had threatened a Detective Inspector Dan O'Reilly with Alex's impending collapse from shock and probable essential sedation (answering no questions at all for days) if he didn't get her driven down the hill.
As the police car, with its yellow and blue checkerboard motif, had arrived at the pub and drawn around into the yard behind the building, Alex had seen a row of faces at the front windows of the public bar.
Once inside, her mother had been waiting to give her the rundown about the way the news had spread through the locals, but when Alex made herself appear behind the bar, she was still jumpy and wished she could hide.
Hiding, Lily Duggins had assured her, was something they didn't do.
Bloody Saturday morning, as some wag had already dubbed this horrible day, gave the locals too much time to hang around in the Black Dog asking questions and coming up with answers based on nothing but conjecture.
'There you are, Alex,' Major Stroud, long-time retired and a fixture in the pub, announced loudly the instant she appeared. 'About time, too, old thing. You can't pretend nothing's happened forever, y'know. Best way to put silly rumors to rest is with the truth. Tell us all about it.' His nose looked more bulbous and purplish than usual and his small, watery eyes skewered Alex.
Will Cummings, busy changing over beer barrels, gave Alex a sympathetic look. His wife wasn't so calm. Tight-lipped, Cathy Cummings drew beers as fast as she could and slapped glasses under the pours to measure spirits. A slight, blonde woman, her thin face showed how strained she felt. Highly strung, everyone dubbed her, but to Alex she seemed to be overreacting today. Something horrible had taken place but Cathy wouldn't help by going to pieces. Cathy was a little younger than Will, or so Alex thought, probably early fifties to his late fifties or so. She had noticed how he often treated her like a teenager rather than an adult. He was paternal toward her.
'This lot were all milling around outside,' Will said. 'I let 'em in early rather than have anyone freeze out there.'
Usually they opened around ten and it was the coffee and biscuits group until just before noon.
Alex smelled the coffee and freshly baked sugar biscuits, but for most customers a death on the hill was obviously an excuse for a wee, or not-so-wee dram of something to calm the nerves.
Barely contained excitement, only slightly dampened by the serious reaction the customers knew was expected of them, brought the noise level to a buzzing pitch.
Alex rubbed her still-cold palms down the sides of her jeans. Her brain didn't want to track with her eyes and she couldn't think of anything to say. She supposed she really was shocked but couldn't bring herself to pour a brandy.
Will did it for her, setting a full shot glass on the wooden sill beneath the upturned bottles of spirits. Stocky, balding and affable, he was the perfect pub manager. 'This'll hit the spot,' he said to Alex.
She nodded and took a sip; the heat felt good going down. The police who arrived in response to Constable Frye's phone calls had kept her up on the hill for an hour, shivering and watching the clinical official activity around the body, intermittently peppered with questions or left alone to stare at the efficient activity at the death scene. She could have kissed both of the Harrisons when they had come to her rescue. What they had told the detective wasn't far from the truth. She wouldn't have been surprised if she had passed out or thrown up – or both.
Warmth from the fire, and from bodies pressed into the space around the bar, felt good to Alex. The smells of beer and piping hot meat pies were comfortingly familiar.
'I say, Alex,' Major Stroud boomed. Foam speckled a mustache rolled out along his upper lip like iron-gray Velcro. 'We're all on your side, y'know. Not one of us thinks you were more than an unlucky witness, but you do need to bring the rest of us up to date. Was there as much blood as they say?'
Excerpted from Folly by Stella Cameron. Copyright © 2015 Stella Cameron. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I had reviewed the latest Alex Duggins book, "Whisper the Dead" for NetGalley and promised myself to read more of this great series. This is Mystery #1 and am glad I made the purchase. Alex had returned to her childhood neighborhood prior to this and this volume cleared up some things unexplained in the much later volume. Alex and Tony the Vet, who were friends as teens, renew their acquaintance with a bang. They both are present at a discovery of a body in the snowy woods, Alex because she stumbled upon it and Tony to help his father with the post mortem as he is the local GP. They plunge back into a trusting friendship that could evolve into something more while they help with the murder, which becomes murders. Tony is protective of Alex who seems to be impulsive and is not well thought of by the local law enforcement for that reason. The ending was a good one tying loose ends together. I must check into the later book to see how certain people rehabilitate themselves to remain in Alex and Tony's circle and employ( Alex now owns the Black Dog Tavern where her mother worked for years.) Recommended as more than a "Cozy" mystery and quite well done.
I really enjoyed this change of pace from Stella Cameron. All of her books have strong intrigue elements with mysteries to be solved and tension, both sexual and otherwise. This is the first where the mystery is front and center. There is a heroine and hero dynamic to be sure but the focus of this book is the mystery. And the mystery will keep you reading. The book starts with a murder and the narrative plows forward from there. I'm very much looking forward to reading the other books in this series. The main side characters are either charming, funny or both. The stars in the category are the old sisters who run a tea shop. Wonderful. The tension between the hero and heroine is palpable and you will root for them.
I've read most of Stella Cameron's books. Most are fairly decent, quick reads. This one doesn't seem like it's written by the same author. It's slow and contrived. The dialog is stiff, almost childish and bits are thrown in to try to advance the story but seem as if they come out of nowhere. The characters aren't especially likeable, typically nosey and nasty. The type thrown into cozies to make them more interesting but more annoying than anything. I won't buy another from this "new" series.