Fatal Game

Fatal Game

by Linda Ladd


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"A tough, no-nonsense detective . . . edgy, clever!"
-Beverly Barton

One Wrong Move

Private detective Claire Morgan has come home from her honeymoon just in time for Christmas at Lake of the Ozarks. And for the sheriff's department, laid low with flu, to hand her a case guaranteed to chill her to the bone.

One Chance To Die

One of the homes in the local Christmas On the Lake House tour-the mansion of an aging rock star trying to turn his life around-has been ""decorated"" with the body of a young woman, arranged as a bloody angel on the balcony above his Christmas tree. There's a piece from a board game, gift wrapped and left under the tree, a hint that connects this murder to other deaths. With evidence of a gruesome pattern appearing, Claire suspects she's on the hunt for a serial killer.

In A Game With No Rules

But the closer she comes, the more certain she is that the killer is playing his game with her, just waiting his turn. The next move might be on Claire herself-or worse, the people she loves . . .

Praise For Linda Ladd's Claire Morgan Thrillers

"One of the most creepy, crawly, and compelling psychological thrillers ever." -Fresh Fiction

"Chilling, compelling suspense . . . be prepared to lose sleep!" -Eileen Dryer

"Exciting, thrill-a-minute!" -Midwest Book Review

"Plenty of suspense and surprises." -Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781601838612
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: 12/05/2017
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt


Beautiful snowflakes were fluttering down all around Detective Claire Morgan Black as she walked up the sidewalk toward the rear entrance of Cedar Bend Lodge. It still seemed strange to have tied the marital knot with Nicholas Black, something she'd sworn she'd never do. But the die was cast and turning out to be one of the best moves she'd ever made. So far, anyway. She walked slowly along, enjoying the magical winter wonderland into which Black had transformed his luxury resort on the Lake of the Ozarks. Her former partner, Bud Davis, had only just now dropped her off behind the hotel after they'd spent a long day working homicide together at the Canton County Sheriff's Department.

The flu bug had slammed the lake environs big time this year, and Claire had agreed to temporarily fill in at Homicide. Even Sheriff Charlie Ramsay had been laid low with the illness, along with a good portion of his staff. Schools had been shut down because of illness in some communities. Good thing Black had insisted on giving Claire her flu shot early. Although work today hadn't been particularly eventful, she felt tired. No homicides turned up, thank goodness, so they had mainly rifled through dusty cold cases from days gone by, murders committed long before either of them knew Canton County existed. Not many incoming calls, either. It appeared that most people at the lake were too busy Christmas shopping to whack anybody.

At the moment, she was cold, and more than ready to make it upstairs where Black and Rico were probably waiting for her. She swiped her card through the sensor and let herself into a downstairs corridor that would take her to the private penthouse elevator. Since her sweetie pie new husband owned the hotel and everything in it, she received many a perk, and there were plenty to enjoy. Claire supposed it was her hotel now, too, since he'd readily put all his holdings in both their names. Not that she wanted to be saddled with all his stuff. She still didn't feel comfortable with all that "what's mine is yours" crap — not yet, anyhow. Pulling off her departmental brown knit cap and scarf and gloves, she headed down the deserted hallway, leaving a trail of snowy footprints on the expensive red carpet. Oh well, snow would melt. When she reached Cedar Bend's rather lavish front lobby, she paused in the big archway and beheld enough Christmas cheer to knock one's boots off.

Cedar Bend Lodge had always been an unbelievably elegant, gorgeous five-star hotel, albeit in its own rustic sort of way. Today it was even more so. The row of giant crystal chandeliers fought off shadows cast by the heavy snow clouds building a gray shroud that hung low and threatening over the lake. At least a thousand crystal prisms sparkled bright pinpoints of light, and the bejeweled cut glass in the huge front doors reflected spots of color across the black and gold carpet. A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows presented Black's guests with a gorgeous view of Lake of the Ozarks, which at the moment looked dark and foreboding and restless — a black and white snow-frozen tableau. It was still beautiful, though not quite as much as its glittering blue sheen under the hot summer sun. Still a sight welcome to Claire's eyes, though, after their long Hawaiian honeymoon.

It was Christmas, after all, and did Claire ever love this time of year. Always had. Not as much as Black did, of course. Her guy had gone absolutely Christmas crazy this year. She stood back and beheld about fifty thousand blinking white and red and green and blue Christmas lights that covered just about everything not nailed down inside the lobby. It was a scene captured nearly everywhere else on the Cedar Bend grounds, too. Yep, nobody did Christmas like Nicholas Black. His holiday spirit made its appearance on nearly everything inside and outside of the hotel if he could find a way to attach it, and he usually did, by hell or high water.

Festoons of pine and pinecones and holly berries and shiny gold Christmas balls lit up the mantels, the bannisters, the tables, the reception desk, and up the bannisters and across the balconies, with pine wreaths everywhere, all of which gave off the most delicious evergreen scent that wafted around in the heater currents and made her feel as if she lived deep in the magical Black Forest. He had ordered Christmas trees put up, all pines, because he loved pine trees. So pine trees of every size and shape imaginable were carried in and decorated, crowned off, of course, by the majestic, towering thirty-foot super tree dead center in the front lobby. Lights had come on and the holidays were sparkling everywhere, and when Black was giving the orders, that really meant everywhere.

Claire stood a moment and smiled at the sheer joy of yonder old-fashioned and folksy Christmas, with all those lights and the twin giant rock fireplaces ablaze with huge logs and happy guests sitting around on leather couches and rocking chairs while sipping hot chocolate or warm apple cider, compliments of the hotel. Home sweet home it truly was, at least until her cabin on her own quiet cove across the lake was finished and ready for them to move back in. She missed the solitude of her place sometimes, no doubt about that, but it did not hold even a fraction of the Christmas cheer inside Cedar Bend Lodge, due to all those bottomless credit cards of her very own and dearly beloved.

Claire was super glad to be home, but it had been great to see all her former colleagues at the sheriff's office this past week. She had missed that kind of law enforcement camaraderie since she'd gone into private investigation with her partner Will Novak. The best part of this week was spending a ton of time with Bud Davis, one of her best friends in the world. Bud and Sheriff Ramsay both. Her badge was back in place, hanging around her neck on its chain. Her Glock 19 was snug in the shoulder holster under her brown winter parka, and her .38 snub nose was strapped in place on her right ankle. Just to be safe, of course. All of that felt familiar, and damn good, oh yes, sir, it did. The office had been so quiet, and nobody in Homicide was complaining. Zero murders or attempted murders were a pleasant thing in Claire's book.

Black should be upstairs, waiting for her, with all the fireplaces in the penthouse roaring. Yep, Black liked his real log fires as much as his Christmas trees. They had enjoyed a long and lovely leisurely honeymoon on the island of Kauai, but she loved the lake more, and just about everything that went with it, so she was in highly content at the moment. Couldn't possibly be happier, in fact. The lake was her true home now, her own private and peaceful haven, and its beautiful wooded hills protected her from the outside world and all the evils that she'd found there. So all was good and fine and beautiful, and she was definitely a happy camper on this lovely snowy day.

Claire took a moment to shrug off her parka and kick snow out of her boot treads. That's when she first espied the horror awaiting her at the other end of the lobby — a large throng of paparazzi. They congregated near the bar and the fancy Two Cedars restaurant. She quickly ducked back out of sight. The last thing she needed was for them to see her and give chase. Her high good cheer zoomed down to the floor and lay prostrate, groaning. Good grief, there were cameras everywhere, already attached to tripods, microphones tested and clutched tightly in grubby little annoying hands. Damnation. What the hell was going on?

Those bloodsuckers had not been at the hotel when Claire left that morning for work, but she guessed she shouldn't be surprised. Photographers had been dogging her and Black since their wedding day, due to the fact that he was the Nicholas Black, the handsome shrink to Hollywood stars and other rich and famous ilk, including philandering politicos. Not to mention the super big and life-threatening trouble he'd gotten himself into last summer. That had been the serious kind, which had delayed their wedding and whipped up the media into pure hysteria, a journalistic furor like you wouldn't believe.

The same creepy gaggle of photographers had trailed them out into the mid-Pacific and drifted around in boats off the private villa where she and Black had attempted to enjoy a nice, quiet time alone so they could lick their collective wounds. After the newlyweds spent a couple of weeks inside, off of their lovely private honeymoon beach, most of the reporters had given up and hightailed it home for their next celebrity stakeout, thanks be to God. Now, however, they were back in force, and she didn't like it. Hated it, in fact. Black was gonna like it even less. He'd had it up to his very sky-blue eyes with publicity and the way both of them had been hounded night and day.

Claire slipped into her parka again and flipped up the hood. She averted her face so the tabloid vultures wouldn't recognize her. There had to be at least fifty of them milling around. Yep, like the hyenas they were, circling a wounded gnu; Claire, of course, being that gnu. But why now? What the hell had happened? And this close to Christmas? Jeez, she loathed them all right, each and every one, no exceptions. Seemed as if they'd been chasing her forever for one reason or another, but her life had pretty much been a super terrible horror story from birth, so she could understand their macabre interest.

Still, she just wanted them to go away, disappear, never to return, and good riddance. They were disturbing Black's guests and the holiday magic he'd worked so hard to provide for them. Black wasn't going to like that much, either, and that was not good. He had been in one hell of a great mood since they'd gotten married, and he'd managed to push down the memories of the terrible things done to him last summer. In fact, since they'd recited their vows, he'd been as happy as a first-time kid at Disney World.

What's more, he had a trip to Disney World planned for New Year's Eve so that Rico could have some fun. Rico was a ten-year-old boy they'd rescued last summer during that horrendous fiasco with the Soquet family of criminal monsters, and he was the only good thing to come out of their Sicilian dark adventure from hell. Rico was living with them now, and Claire was happy he was. He had become an orphan last summer in one terrible moment, and they had brought him home with them. Black was trying to find any of the boy's remaining living relatives, but secretly both he and Claire hoped he could just stay with them. So far, so good on that count. Another thing that brought out lots of Black's big, happy, dimpled-up smiles, something that she did so like to see.

Right now, however, she wasn't so sure what the hell was going on. Something big must have happened to draw these creeps back into their lives. Lake of the Ozarks was not exactly a hot spot for paparazzi or celebrities preening for cameras, unless said celebrities had come to Cedar Bend for secret shrink attention at Black's clinic. Unfortunately, each and every reporter in the lobby looked way too agog and excited for something as simple as that. Never a good sign in Claire and Black-ville. She wasn't so sure she wanted to know what brought them running, either. Usually when the media showed up and created havoc it meant incoming big-time trouble for her and Black, and everybody associated with them. So now the trick was to escape upstairs before they caught sight of her. She kept her head down and walked swiftly toward the penthouse elevator.

One of Black's security people, a huge ex-Marine by the name of Isaac Ward, was standing in front of the elevator. He was as tough as hell and massive, with lots of hard muscles, and probably one of the nicest guys Claire had ever met. When he saw her coming, he pushed the button to open the doors, apparently also aware of the crowd of morons buzzing around in the lobby.

"Thanks, Isaac. What's with all the reporters out there? I thought we shook them off months ago."

Isaac grinned. He was a handsome man with ebony skin, and he was pretty damn intimidating whenever the occasion called for it. Truth be told, he was a real teddy bear under all that gruff, a guy who loved to play video games with Rico. But that sweetness only showed if he really liked somebody. Fortunately, he liked Claire. He said, "I take it you haven't talked to Nick yet."

"Well, I did have some delicious blueberry pancakes and whipped cream with him and Rico this morning. Everything was all good and dandy and smiley then. What happened?" Isaac shook his head, smiling again, rather devilishly this time, as she entered the elevator. "Uh-uh. No way I'm gettin' caught up in this thing. You'll see. Word of warning, though. Nick is in one helluva foul mood."

"No way, Isaac. He's been in a fantastic mood, ever since we got back home."

"Like I said, I'm not sayin' nothin'. You ask him. Just beware the dragon."

Claire had to smile. "Well, thanks for the warning. Maybe I ought to go hide at my cabin until he gets over his miff, whatever the hell it is."

Isaac kept his mysterious expression. All righty, now Claire's curiosity was indeed piqued. Black had been absolutely ecstatic and happy-go-lucky for months now, especially since they got home and he was seeing patients and ramrodding all his clinics and hotel properties around the country. And especially now that they were legally married, which was what Black had always wanted. The icing on the cake? A certain little Rico, who was running around the penthouse, always available for Black to dote on and shower with Star Wars junk. Things at the lake had finally gotten back to normal, if anything about their lives had ever been normal. News coverage had died down about their wedding, and about Black being held prisoner by those three maniacs. He was happy. She was happy. Rico was as happy as any child could be after having watched his parents gunned down. The boy still had nightmares, and so did Black because of a tiny bit of lingering PTSD, but it was rare now. He was good. They were both good. Black had even been in favor of her going back to work at Homicide, which he usually hated. Life was damn good. She wasn't gonna let anything get in the way of that. Not today. Not any day.

When the doors of their penthouse apartment slid open with a whisper of well-oiled efficiency, Claire stepped out and nearly collided with Black's longtime personal assistant, Miki Tudor. The young woman looked spooked, but somehow still managed to come off lovely and put together in a pink designer suit and matching high heels. Ms. Miki never had ruffled feathers. She was much too efficient and organized to let anything discombobulate her. Today, however, she was definitely rattled. There was even one loose lock hanging out of the smooth chignon coiled at her nape. Not a good sign, that.

"I'm calling it a day until Nick calms down," she told Claire breathlessly, pushing past her and stepping into the elevator. "I'll be back in the morning. I'm taking some comp time. I'm caught up, though, so don't worry about things getting behind."

Claire sure as hell wasn't worried about that. "What the devil, Miki? What's going on around here?"

"You don't know yet?"

"Well, I guess not. I've been holed up at the sheriff's office all day. Tell me."

"Oh no, I'm staying out of this. Ask your husband. But be forewarned: ask him gently."

Claire turned quickly when she heard somebody running down the hallway behind them, boots clacking loudly on the marble tiles. It was Rico, and he looked glad to see her. Their little white poodle, Jules Verne, was right on his heels, yapping like crazy, his claws clicking and sliding on the shiny floor as he tried to keep up. Boy and dog had become inseparable since Rico had come to live with them. Rico stopped long enough to give Claire a quick hug around the waist. He was tall for his age, with energy to burn. He was smart as could be, a handsome kid with an unruly mop of curly dark hair and big, expressive brown eyes.

"Nick's really mad, but not at me, so I'm going down to the sweet shop to get some candy canes to hang on our tree," he told her, but didn't elaborate further as he scooped up the dog and raced into the elevator with Miki. The door slid shut with no explanation.


Excerpted from "Fatal Game"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Linda Ladd.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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