"To balance Kincaid's cool reserve as an imperturbable observer of human folly, Ms. Crombie gives him a warm, outgoing sergeant in young Gemma James. Like everything else about this first mystery, it's a well calculated move that pays off smartly."
- New York Times Book Review

"Deserves consideration for the year's major mystery awards"
- Mostly Murder

"This talented American debuts with an energetic 'British' mystery... Great continuity, clever plotting, and hidden agendas all contribute to a successful novel."
- Library Journal

"(Crombie) scrupulously observes all the old genre conventions, from the intricate puzzle plot to the closed circle of suspicious parties who are caught up in its machinations…Well calculated…pays off smartly"
– New York Time Book Review

"…ruthless murderer…surprising motive…thoroughly entertaining mystery…Kincaid is likable, intelligent, and perceptive chap.”

"Reminiscent of Agatha Christie."
-- Chicago Sun-Times

"Fans of (Martha Grimes and Elizabeth George) are likely to relish…Deborah Crombie."
–The Baltimore Sun

"This talented American debuts with an energetic British mystery…Great continuity, clever, plotting, and hidden agendas all contribute to a successful novel."
– Library Journal

"Deftly translates the classic English “country house” puzzler to modern times…A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment."
– Houston Chronicle

Scribner - February 1993 - lSBN 0-684-19527-5

Berkley - August 1994 - ISBN 0-425-14197-7


Chapter One

Duncan Kincaid's holiday began well. As he turned the car into the lane, a shaft of sun broke through the clouds and lit a patch of rolling Yorkshire moor as if someone had thrown the switch on a celestial spotlight.

Drystone walls ran like pale runes across the brilliant green of pasture, where luminous sheep nibbled, unconcerned with their importance in the composition. The scene seemed set off in time as well as space, so that he had the odd sensation of viewing a living tapestry, a scene remote in time and utterly unattainable. The clouds shifted again, the vision fading as swiftly as it had come, and he felt an odd shiver of loss at its passing.

The last few weeks' grind must be catching up with him, he thought, shrugging away the faint sense of foreboding. New Scotland Yard didn't officially require newly promoted Detective Superintendents to work themselves into early coronaries, but August Bank Holiday had slipped easily into September, and he'd gone right on accumulating his time off. Something always came up, and the last case had been particularly beastly.

A string of bodies in rural Sussex, all women, all similarly mutilated--a policeman's worst nightmare. They'd found him in the end, a real nutter, but there was no guarantee that the evidence they'd so painstakingly gathered would convince a bleeding-heart jury, and the senselessness of it took most of the satisfaction from finishing up the mountain of paperwork.

"Lovely way to spend your Saturday night," Gemma James, Kincaid's sergeant, had said the evening before as they waded through the last of the case files.

"Tell the recruiters that. I doubt it occurred to them." Kincaid grinned at her across his littered desk. Gemma wouldn't grace a poster at the moment, her face white with fatigue, carbon smudge like a bruise along her cheekbone.

She puffed out her cheeks and blew at the wisps of red hair that straggled into her eyes. "You're just as well out of it for a week. Too bad some of us don't have cousins with posh holiday flats, or whatever it is."

"Do I detect a trace of envy?"

"You're off to Yorkshire tomorrow, and I'm off home to do a week's worth of washing and go round the shops? Can't imagine why." Gemma smiled at him with her usual good humor, but when she spoke next her voice held a trace of motherly concern. "You look knackered. It's about time you had a break. It'll do you a world of good, I'm sure."

"Such solicitousness from his sergeant, ten years his junior, amused Kincaid, but it was a new experience and he found he didn't really object. He'd pushed for his promotion because it meant getting away from the desk and out into the field again, but he'd begun to think that the best thing about it might be the acquisition of Sergeant Gemma James. In her late twenties, divorced, raising a small son on her own--Gemma's good-natured demeanor, Kincaid was discovering, concealed a quick mind and a fierce ambition.

"I don't think it's exactly my cup of tea," he said, shuffling the last loose sheets of paper into a file folder. "A timeshare."

"Your cousin, is it, who arranged this for you?"

Kincaid nodded. "His wife's expecting and their doctor's decided at the last moment that she shouldn't leave London, so they thought of me, rather than let their week go to waste."

"Fortune," Gemma had countered, teasing him a bit, "has a way of picking on the less deserving."

Too tired even for their customary after work stop at the pub, Gemma had gone off to Leyton, and Kincaid had stumbled home to his Hampstead flat and slept the dreamless sleep of the truly exhausted. And now, deserving or not, he intended to make the most of this unexpected gift.

As he hesitated at the top of the lane, still unsure of his direction, the sun came through fully and beat down upon the roof of the car. Suddenly it was a perfect late September day, warm and golden, full of promise. "A propitious omen for a holiday, he said aloud, and felt some of his weariness drop away. Now, if only he could find Followdale House. The arrow for Woolsey-under-Bank pointed directly across a sheep pasture. Time to consult the map again.

He drove slowly, elbow out the Midget's open window, breathing in the spicy scent of the hedgerows and watching for some indication that he was on the right track. The lane wound past occasional farms, squarely and sturdily built in gray, Yorkshire slate, and above them the moor stretched fingers of woodland enticingly down into the pastures. Crisp nights must have preceded this blaze of Indian summer, as the trees were already turning, the copper and gold interspersed with an occasional splash of green. In the distance, above the patchwork of field and pasture and low moorland, the ground rose steeply away to a high bank.

Rounding a curve, Kincaid found himself at the head of a picture-book village. Stone cottages hugged the lane, and pots and planters filled with geraniums and petunias trailed cascades of color into the road. On his right, a massive stone half-circle bore the legend "Woolsey-under-Bank." The high rise of land, now seeming to hang over the village, must be Sutton Bank.

A few miles further on his left, a gap in the high hedge revealed a stone gate-post inset with a brass plaque. The inscription read "Followdale," and beneath it was engraved a curving, full-blown rose. Kincaid whistled under his breath. Very posh indeed, he thought as he turned the car into the narrow gateway and stopped on the graveled forecourt. He surveyed the house and grounds spread before him with surprise and pleasure. He didn't quite know what he had expected of an English timeshare. Transplanted Costa del Sol, perhaps, or tacky Victorian. Not this Georgian house, certainly--elegant and imposing in its simplicity, honey-gilded in the late-afternoon light. A tangle of ivy softened portions of the ground-floor walls, and bright Virginia creeper splashed the upper part of the house like a scarlet stain.

Closer inspection revealed his initial impression of the house to be deceptive--it was not truly symmetrical. Although a wing extended either side of the pediment-crowned entry, the left side of the house was larger and jutted out into the forecourt. He found the illusion of balance more pleasing, not as severe and demanded as the real thing.

Kincaid stretched and unfolded himself from his battered MG Midget. Only the fact that the springs in the driver's side seat had collapsed years ago kept his head from brushing the soft top when he drove. He stood for a moment, looking about him. To the west, a low row of cottages, built of the same golden stone as the house--to the east, the manicured grounds stretched away towards the bulk of Sutton Bank.

Ease seemed to seep into the very pores of his skin, and not until he felt himself taking slow, deep breaths did he realize just how tense he'd been. Pushing his last, niggling thoughts of work to the edge of his mind, he took his grip from the boot and walked towards the house.

The heavy, oak-paneled front door was off the latch. It swung open at Kincaid's touch, and he found himself in a typical country house entry, complete with Wellingtons and umbrella stand. In the hall beyond, a Chinese bowl of bronze chrysanthemums on a side table clashed with the patterned crimson carpeting. The still air smelled of furniture polish.

A woman's voice came clearly from the partly open door on his left, the words bitten off with furious precision. "Listen, you little leech. I'm telling you for the last time to lay off my private affairs. I'm sick of your snooping and prying when you think nobody's watching." Kincaid heard the sharp intake of the woman's breath. "What I do in my off hours is nobody else's business, least of all yours. You've done well to get as far as you have, considering your background and your attributes." The emphasis on the last word was scathing. "But, by god, I'll see you stopped. You made a mistake when you thought you'd climb over me."

"As if I'd want to!" Kincaid grinned in spite of himself at the intimation, and the second voice continued. "Get off it, Cassie. You're a right cow. Just because you've wormed your way into the manager's job doesn't make you Lord High Executioner. Besides," the speaker added, with what seemed to be a touch of malice, "you wouldn't dare complain about me. I may not give a damn about your doings with the paying guests, but I don't think it would quite fit with the corporate idea of country gentility, unless they're thinking of recreating an Edwardian house party. I wonder how you're going to manage this week. Musical beds?" The voice was male, thought Kincaid, but light and slightly nasal, with a trace of Yorkshire vowels.

Kincaid stepped softly backwards to the front door, opened it and slammed it forcefully, then strode briskly across the hall and tapped on the partially open door before peering around it.

The woman stood behind a graceful Queen Anne table which apparently served as a reception desk, her back to the window, hands arrested in the gesture of straightening a stack of papers. Her companion leaned against the frame of the opposite door, hands in his pockets, with a slightly amused expression on his face. "Hello. Can I help you?" the woman said, smiling at Kincaid with utter composure, showing no sign of the fury he had so recently overheard

"Have I got the right place?" Kincaid asked tentatively.

"If you're looking for Followdale House. I'm Cassie Whitlake, the sales manager. And you must be Mr. Kincaid."

He smiled at her as he stepped forward into the room and set down his bag. "How did you guess?"

"Simple elimination, really. Sunday afternoon is our usual check-in time, and all the other guests have either already arrived or don't fit the particulars your cousin gave us."

"There's nothing worse than being preceded by one's reputation. I hope it wasn't too damaging." Kincaid felt surprisingly relieved. She hadn't addressed him by his rank. Maybe his cousin Jack had managed to be discreet for once, and he could enjoy his holiday as an ordinary and anonymous member of the British public.

"On the contrary." Her brows arched as she spoke, lending a flirtatious air to the polite reply, and leaving Kincaid wondering uneasily just what Jack might, after all, have said.

He studied Cassie Whitlake with interest. Hard-pressed, he'd judge her around thirty, but she had the sort of looks that make age difficult to assess. She was tall, as elegant as the curved lines of her desk and striking in a monochromatic way. Her hair and eyes were the color of fallen oak leaves, her skin a pale cream, her simple wool dress a slightly more intense shade than her hair. It occurred to him that she must have chosen the chrysanthemums in the hallway--they would compliment her perfectly.

Throughout the exchange her companion had kept his casual stance, following the conversation with quick bird-like motions of his head. Now he removed his right hand from his pocket and came towards Kincaid.

"I'm Sebastian Wade, assistant manager, or lackey to Lady Di here, depending on your point of view." He glanced quickly at Cassie, gauging the effect of his barb, then grinned at Kincaid as he shook his hand. There seemed to be genuine warmth in his greeting, and Kincaid found himself responding more readily to Wade's engaging maliciousness then to Cassie Whitlake's polished cordiality. A slightly built man in his late-twenties, Wade had butter-yellow hair, fashionably cut , and pockmarked skin over thin, rather delicate, features. His eyes were unexpectedly dark.

Cassie moved quickly around her desk and disengaged Kincaid with a touch of cool fingers on his arm. "I'll show you to your suite. Then when you've had a chance to settle in, I'll give you a tour and answer any questions you might have." Sebastian Wade lifted a hand to him in mock salute as Cassie led him from the room.

As Kincaid followed her into the hall he admired the way the soft fabric of her dress clung to the outline of her body. A hint of some sharp, musky perfume drifted back to him, not the sort of scent he would have expected from one so elegantly groomed. But he had been right about her height--her head was almost level with his own.

She turned back to him as she started up the stairs. "I think your suite is the best in the house. Such a shame for your cousin and his wife to have to cancel their holiday at the last minute. Fortunate for you, though," she added, and again he heard the hint of archness.

"Yes," Kincaid answered, and wondered for a moment how his kindly, guileless cousin had fared under Cassie Whitlake's sophisticated onslaught.

At the top of the stairs he followed Cassie down a hall that ran toward the rear of the house, ending at a door adorned with a discreet, brass number four. Cassie unlocked the door with her own key and preceeded him into the tiny entry. Kincaid couldn't maneuver his bag through the small space without brushing up against her, and the smile she gave him was suggestive.

The entry opened into a sitting room in which Cassie's hand was again evident in the decorating, at least in the choice of colors. The plush sofas and armchairs were a dull gold with rolled arms, buttons and fringes, the curtains were olive green, and the figured carpet combined the two in a fussy geometric marriage. The whole room, which could have been lifted en masse from any middle-class department store showroom, gave an impression of solid, anonymous respectability.

The room's saving grace was the French door at its far end. Cassie followed Kincaid as he crossed the room, set down his bag, and pulled open the door. They stepped out onto the narrow balcony together. Below them stretched the grounds and gardens of Followdale, leading his eyes up to the bulk of Sutton Bank rising in the distance.

"There's the tennis court." Cassie pointed down to his left. "And the greenhouse. We have croquet and badminton and lawn bowling, as well as riding and walking trails. Oh, and indoor swimming, of course. The pool is our star attraction. I think we'll keep you occupied."

"I'm overwhelmed." Kincaid grinned. "I may have a nervous collapse trying to decide what to do."

"In the meantime, I'll let you get settled in. If you want to lay in some supplies, it's only half a mile down the road to the village shop. There's a cocktail party at six in the sitting room, so the guests have a chance to get acquainted."

"I'm afraid I haven't any experience with timesharing. Don't the other guests already know each other, with all of them owning the same week?"

"Not really. New people buy in all the time. Owners trade weeks, or use their time somewhere else, so you never really know who's going to turn up. We have several first-timers this week, as a matter of fact."

"Good. I won't be the only novice, then. How many guests are there?"

Cassie leaned back against the balcony rail and folded her arms, patient with his tourist's curiosity. "Well, there are eight suites in the main house, and three cottage-type accommodations in another building. You may have noticed it to your left as you drove up to the house. I'm using one of the cottages myself right now, the one at the far end." Her spiel of facts and figures came effortlessly, her delivery as smooth as her voice.

She looked steadily and directly into his eyes, and attractive as she was, the calculated and somehow impersonal invitation made him feel uncomfortable. Moved by a perverse desire to ruffle her, to indicate that he was not one to be so easily manipulated, he asked, "Does your assistant live here on the premises as well? He seems a pleasant chap."

Cassie straightened up abruptly. Her voice, as she delivered Sebastian Wade's social condemnation, betrayed a hint of the venom he had heard earlier. "No. In the town with his old mum. She keeps the tobacconist's shop". She brushed her hands together, as if disposing of crumbs. "If you'll excuse me, I've things to do. Let me know if you need anything, otherwise I'll see you later." The smile was brief this time, and held no invitation. Cassie slipped past and left him alone on the balcony.