DEATH IS THE PRIZE IN A TWISTED GAME
An ex-football player is brutally murdered. A National Ballet dancer inexplicably commits suicide. The only link between the two deaths is Dr. Roger Peterson, a famous psychiatrist and bestselling author.
Toronto PI Samantha McNamara doesn’t want to believe her friend manipulated the dancer into committing suicide or that he was capable of the vicious murder. But Roger was sleeping with the victim’s wife—a patient—and her husband intended to go public with a complaint that would destroy the doctor’s life.
When Sam’s fiancé, ex-OPP Inspector Reece Hash, receives a shocking suicide letter from the ballerina, Roger’s unethical conduct unravels. But the psychiatrist could be a pawn in a sick game. As the pieces fall into place, a ruthless killer plunges Sam and Reece into a terrifying nightmare. Their only chance of survival is to outwit a cunning psychopath whose greatest pleasure is the game.
The rules are simple: trust no one and stay alive.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
While working in health care, I became increasingly concerned about the lack of funding for the early detection of mental health issues and the limited resources available for people to seek help. If you look at the key indicators of anti-social personality disorder, it’s frightening to realize the number of people who most likely suffer this disorder. Sure, most of them aren’t going to kill, but the potential risk to society is still high. It is common to read newspaper stories about people suffering psychotic breaks and committing unspeakable crimes. I wondered what life experiences could motivate the collapse of a person’s humanity. The idea for this novel took root. From there, the characters journeyed down a road and I trailed along behind them.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Writing has been a passion for as long as I can remember. One afternoon as a teenager, I chatted with my paternal grandmother about a female detective. Much to my surprise, my grandmother offered suggestions about what she’d like to see. Prior to this conversation, I had viewed my grandmother as slightly boring. Horrible, I know, but I was only fourteen at the time. As she spoke about the type of character that she’d like in a mystery-thriller novel, I saw depths to my grandmother that I’d never appreciated. Sam McNamara didn’t come to life until decades later, but she has the strength, independence, and commitment that I hope would make my grandmother proud. After all, "McNamara" was my grandmother’s maiden name.
IT WAS A gorgeous spring day, and Roger had decided to cancel his Friday psychiatric patients so he could attempt a little cognitive behavioural exercise. The objective was to practise spontaneity, something he usually avoided. His unannounced visit would thrill his lover almost as much as his uncharacteristic impulsiveness.
Forty-five minutes after leaving his Cabbagetown home in downtown Toronto, he pulled off the highway and into the city of Vaughan. Not wanting to arrive empty-handed, he found a flower shop and bought a bouquet of yellow roses before continuing north along a country road toward Brenda’s farm.
Just as he spotted the left turn into her gravel lane, a burping tractor popped into view on the decline of a small hill on the opposite side of the two-lane country road. Roger sat impatiently with his indicator ticking off the seconds. He cursed when he spied a line of traffic approaching from behind the tractor. A Ford truck led the procession and was travelling fast, closing the distance. If the damn farmer hurried up, Roger figured he’d have just enough time to make the turn. He leaned forward, grasped the steering wheel, and waited for his opportunity.
“Come on! Move it!” he yelled.
The second the tractor cleared the driveway, Roger hit the gas and sped into the left lane, confident that the approaching pickup had plenty of time to slow down. Too late, he realized the asshole wasn’t reducing his speed. In fact, the heavy vehicle had accelerated on the hill’s decline. Second-guessing himself at the last minute, Roger slammed on the brakes. The car stalled. Trying not to overreact, he quickly pressed the start button and fumbled with the gears. His foot slipped off the clutch, and the car stalled again.
A horn blared. Brakes squealed in protest. The truck’s locked tires howled against the asphalt, and a sickening odour of burning rubber assaulted Roger’s nose. His heart galloped in his chest as he grasped the steering wheel and frantically jammed his finger against the start button. Turning his head, he saw the front of the giant pickup swerve as the driver tried to steer away from the imminent collision. Frozen, Roger watched in horror as the truck skidded sideways but continued rushing toward his Audi. Drywall flew off the truck bed, breaking against the road. A chunk bounced off the windshield of his convertible and struck him in the face. The back of his head bounced against the headrest, and he flung his arms over his head and closed his eyes with a moan of despair, waiting for the sound of crunching metal as the truck sideswiped him. When the crash didn’t occur, Roger opened his eyes and saw that the pickup had stopped less than an inch from the side of his car.
Blinking rapidly and trying to catch his breath, he looked behind the Ford. One car was in the ditch. Two more had managed to stop on the side of the road. People were climbing from their vehicles and shading their eyes against the sun in an effort to see what had happened. The old man behind the wheel of the Ford leaned on his horn and flipped the bird through his open window.
Roger wiped a trickle of blood from his forehead with a shaking hand and managed to start the car. Anxious to avoid an ugly scene with the other driver, he sped into Brenda’s long laneway, hoping that the hillbilly truck driver wasn’t going to follow and confront him.
There were two cars and a truck in the gravel yard, but plenty of room for his Audi. Wanting to surprise her, Roger parked on the far side of the decrepit garage where she wouldn’t see his car from the house. He got out, peered into the side mirror, and dabbed a tissue against the cut. Satisfied that it wasn’t serious, he reached into the car for the flowers. Bouquet in hand, he strolled to the back of the property, chuckling as he imagined Brenda enthralled by his story of the near miss.
Since he was usually sneaking in and out, he’d never had a good look at the farmhouse and had never been in the backyard. Enjoying the warm spring sunshine, he turned his back on the ugly stone house, and his eyes scanned over the land to the north. Clusters of tall maple and sycamore trees dotted rolling green fields, and colourful wildflowers bloomed in the overgrown brush where crops had once thrived. A charming location and it was hard to believe that downtown Toronto was less than an hour away.
The illusion of beauty shattered when Roger’s eyes drifted to the south where a decaying barn perched about ninety metres from the back of the house. He shuddered and imagined rats scurrying to filthy nests. About forty metres to the right of the barn was a pus-yellow shed. The outbuildings were garish scars against the bright blue sky and emerald fields. Nature only compensated for so much. Brenda may as well squat in a condemned building in the Garden of Eden.
Turning in a semi-circle, he studied the back of the dilapidated farmhouse and the falling-down garage beside it. In spite of the demolition costs, the land’s resale value would be well over two million, more if they sold to a developer. It was a damn shame Brenda’s obstinate husband refused to sell. The idiot had moved his family of five from the city with the intention of renovating the house and three outbuildings. A reasonable man would recognize the futility of trying. Besides, according to Brenda, her husband wasn’t handy. He started projects and left them half-finished, which might explain the blue tarp that covered a portion of the garage roof.
In Roger’s professional opinion, Graham suffered from the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias that made him believe he possessed superior skills compared to everyone else. If she couldn’t convince her moronic husband to sell the money pit, winter would be a freezing nightmare of despair. How could the man subject his family to such squalor? It was selfish, vindictive… stupid. Roger should have no problem outsmarting a man like that, and yet, here he was, skulking around in the middle of the day like he was the bad guy.
If he lived like this, he wouldn’t want anyone to know. He chewed his lower lip. Maybe he should go around front and pretend he hadn’t seen the mess in the backyard. In fact, maybe he should leave. On the other hand, he’d been inside the house on more than one occasion. Now that he’d seen the entire property, he could genuinely sympathize when she complained. Decision made, he headed for the back door, a journey that required agility because of the broken cement stones that were an inch elevated in places along the pathway. At the back entrance, he hoped his knock wouldn’t bash in the screen door that dangled precariously from a single hinge. His fist stopped in mid-air as he heard voices enter the kitchen on the other side of the door. Angry voices.
“She has an active imagination.” Brenda. “You should be proud of her.” She sounded frustrated.
“What are you talking about?” a male voice asked incredulously. “You didn’t even look at it. I’m telling you, there’s something wrong.”
Graham was home. Brenda had told him yesterday that her husband was going away for the weekend. Unpleasant surprises like this were why Roger avoided spontaneity.
“The only thing wrong with her is her brother,” Brenda was saying. “Are you going to do something about Jordan?”
“It was a joke. Lighten up. Isn’t that what your precious Dr. Peterson told you to do?”
Roger jumped at hearing his own name enter the argument.
“Don’t start!” Brenda yelled. “Every time I bring up Jordan, you turn the conversation around and accuse me of cheating on you.”
“Tell me why Dr. Peterson turned you over to another headshrinker,” Graham demanded. “Let’s see, was it a twisted shot at ethics?”
“Graham, I’m warning you. If—”
“You’re warning me?” Graham laughed. “How do you think the College of Physicians would discipline a psychiatrist who reassigned a patient so he could fuck her?”
Roger’s blood ran cold. Another complaint would ruin him. He slid out of sight, glancing around for an escape route. There wasn’t one. Graham would see him from the kitchen window.
Before their friendship had progressed to a sexual relationship, Brenda had introduced him to her husband. All six feet, four inches and three hundred pounds of him. Hard muscle had loosened and fallen to flab, but the man was still threatening. He’d played football with the Toronto Argonauts until three years ago when he’d blown his knee out as an offensive lineman. Now he was a stereotypical embittered alcoholic who guzzled beer and relived the glory days with friends. Over the past year, Roger’s opinion of the odious bully had shifted from indifference to dislike to outright hatred. He had no doubt that the arse would lodge a grievance against him, especially if Graham found him snooping around with a bunch of posies clutched in his hand. He jumped off the back porch to a patch of dirt alongside the house and pressed his body against the fieldstone wall under the window. How had he gotten into this mess?
From inside the house, the arguing was still going strong and their voices drifted out of the open window. He’d missed part of the discussion, but they were back on the subject of the children.
“Oh, right—boys will be boys,” Brenda mimicked in a drawl. “What happened in the city was not okay. What happened at the high school was criminal. When are you going to open your eyes?”
The voice was directly to Roger’s right, in front of the screen door. If Graham glanced outside, he’d see him skulking under the window. Roger repressed his instinct to bolt, stood still, and held his breath.
“The only problem with this family is you,” Graham yelled. “You’re setting such a great example, whoring around with your psychiatrist.”
“Look around you!” Brenda shrieked. “We’re living like animals. The basement is flooded with sewage.”
“And you’re unbelievable. You’re okay letting the kids—delights that they are—live in raw sewage like gutter rats.”
Something smashed on the floor. Roger jumped. Was the argument escalating to physical violence? He had to do something.
“There’s no sewage! It’s the sump-pump or the receptacle. Give me a chance to fix it.”
“Don’t you get it? You can’t fix anything,” Brenda shouted.
“I’ll figure it out!”
“When? When are you going to figure it out? I married a football player. I didn’t marry a farmer. I hate you for forcing me to live like this!”
“So leave.” Graham’s voice moved away from the door and into the kitchen. “Who’s stopping you? Run off with your darling doctor.”
The voices drifted further away from the kitchen, and Roger missed Brenda’s response. He had no trouble hearing Graham shout, “Good! Let’s see how happy you are with him when he loses his licence. Let’s see how many people buy his self-help books when I out him as a cheating fraud.” A door slammed inside the house.
Roger stood on his tiptoes and peeked in the kitchen window. The room was empty. He quickly turned and picked his way across renovation waste piled against the side of the house. Once he reached the path, he broke into a jog. He could get to his car from the other side of the garage. So long as Graham hadn’t exited the house through the front door, Roger knew he could escape unseen.
He couldn’t let the vindictive arse accuse him of seducing a patient. He’d had no idea Graham knew the truth. Why hadn’t Brenda warned him? Roger stopped abruptly beside the garage. He was short of breath, his chest felt tight, and his hands shook. Perspiration poured down his face but he felt cold. He pulled his hair hard, trying to ward off a panic attack. Slowly, the pain in his chest eased and his breathing evened out. He paced in a circle, taking frantic, jerky steps. If the media discovered he’d slept with a patient again, the scandal would ruin him. He had to do something.
Focused on his musings, Roger didn’t notice the young man until he bumped into him. Dressed in football gear, the teenager held a scuffed helmet that was a frightening map of brutality. Mixed with stains of ground dirt were smears of dried blood. The knuckles on the hand that gripped the helmet strap had ugly bruises and bloody scrapes.
The teenager clenched his square jaw, and his eyes narrowed menacingly. “Who the fuck are you?”
No wonder Brenda had complaints about her eighteen-year-old son, Jordan. Roger’s temper rose to a breaking point and dancing black dots distorted his vision. “Watch where you’re going,” he retorted.
The kid looked down at the flowers in Roger’s hand, and his lips pressed together to form a tight smile. “Right. I get it.” The smile turned to an ugly smirk. “No fun playing with the cow when the bull’s in the yard, eh?” The kid leaned into Roger’s face. “I know who you are,” he said in a singsong voice.
Without thinking, Roger shoved him hard in the chest with both hands, but the burly teenager barely moved.
Jordan laughed and held up his hands in mock submission. “Assaulting a high school student on his own property. What do you think that’ll get you, doc? Some time in prison is my guess.” The kid brushed by with a swagger and a nasty chuckle. He disappeared into the house, slamming the back door behind him.
Standing motionless, Roger tried to steady his breathing again. Cloying sweetness from the roses wafted up and his stomach somersaulted. He tossed the bouquet into the garden.
Roger envisioned a media headline and heard a disgusted broadcaster’s voice in his head: Bestselling author and renowned psychiatrist caught seducing a patient and assaulting her teenage son.
Seeing the flowers discarded on the ground, hearing the arguing that still pierced the air from inside the house, and imagining the end of his life’s work, he snapped. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but he had to do something.
Before he could lose his nerve, he marched back to the door and peered inside. He couldn’t see anyone, but it sounded like the voices were coming from below him. He opened the screen door and stepped into a small foyer. The kitchen was to the right. Straight ahead, about five feet from the door, was a staircase. Ten or twelve steep steps led down to a landing with a wall. A second set of stairs descended to the left of the landing, presumably ending in the cellar. The angle of the split staircase prevented him from seeing into the actual cellar.
He hesitated and swiped his hand across the moisture on his brow. Blood coated his fingertips from the cut on his forehead. He didn’t have a tissue and thought again about going back to the car. Just then, he heard the heart-stopping sound of flesh smacking flesh, followed by Brenda crying out. Her voice propelled him into action. He tore outside and frantically searched the yard for a weapon, settling on a rusted pipe that lay in a pile of renovation waste on the right side of the porch. He grabbed it. It weighed maybe ten pounds. He swung the pipe, adjusted his grip, and sprinted back up the porch steps to the door. Above him, the outdoor light flickered and went out. There were loud footsteps in the kitchen, the sound of crashing furniture, smashing glass, and the clatter of falling objects.
Roger leaped off the porch and stood on his toes to peer through the kitchen window. Jordan was leaning against the open fridge door, drinking from a milk carton. Two chairs lay on their sides and the contents of a utensil drawer littered the floor. Judging from the amount of broken ceramic on the floor, someone had smashed most of the dishes. As Roger watched, Jordan hurled the milk to the ground and stomped out of the room. Angry footsteps thumped on the stairs. An upstairs door slammed. The house was silent. Gripping the pipe, Roger returned to the porch, quietly opened the door, and stepped inside. He stood in the entry, straining to hear any sound from the basement. Nothing but silence.
Perhaps Brenda had also come upstairs when he was outside hunting for a weapon. Maybe he could find her and get her out of the house without having to confront Graham. He crept through the main level of the old farmhouse, and the pipe grew slick in his perspiring hand. Heavy metal music now blared from somewhere upstairs. Brenda wasn’t on the main floor. Roger snuck to the back door and took a hesitant step down the first step to the basement landing. Did he hear a whimper? He took another step, leaning down to better hear. Someone was weeping. It had to be Brenda. She was in the cellar.
He tiptoed down the stairs. Halfway to the landing, his foot slipped out from under him. A jolt of panic engulfed him. His left hand hit the wall, but there was nothing to grasp. His feet scrambled against the edge of the narrow stair before he fell to his ass and slid down to the landing. He remained perfectly still, barely breathing, and waited for approaching footsteps. Nothing. Slowly, he climbed to his feet. His tailbone throbbed and his elbow stung. He turned to face the second staircase that descended into gloom. He could smell the stench of sewage. From below him, he heard an irregular clanging that sounded like metal hitting metal. Graham must be fiddling with the sump-pump.
Worried about losing his balance again, he looked around for something to hold onto so he could lean into the staircase to get a sense of how far it descended. Perched on the landing wall was an electrical box, and the rusted metal door was open. He shifted the pipe to his left hand and tugged on the door. It seemed firmly attached to the box so he grasped it, leaned into the stairwell, and peered down. Beneath the fifth step was pitch black. Impossible to guess how many stairs remained before reaching the cellar floor. He couldn’t risk using his cell to light the staircase because he didn’t know exactly where Graham was working. The clanging echoed in the old cellar and seemed to be coming from every direction.
He let go of the breaker box door and transferred the metal pipe to his right hand. Slowly, he descended. He counted seven stairs. The suffocating reek of sewage was stronger, and he struggled not to gag. Two more stairs and he reached the bottom. Cold liquid sloshed across the top of his shoes. He didn’t want to imagine what floated in the water. A flashlight beam illuminated the back wall, about ten metres from the stairs. He could just make out Graham crouched in front of a sump-pump.
Roger’s breath came in small gasps. He could just go back up those stairs, assume that Brenda was safe, and hope her abusive husband wouldn’t act on his threat to ruin him. Against the darkness, he imagined the looks of disdain on the faces of his esteemed colleagues. A public accusation by an irate husband would be the demise of all of his hard work and dreams. Years of medical school for nothing. Massive legal bills to defend his reputation would leave him penniless. He’d lose his house, his car, his friends. Sniggering ridicule would follow him for the rest of his life. He gripped the pipe in both hands and licked his lips, telling himself that it was only a matter of time before Graham seriously injured Brenda, maybe even killed her. He had a responsibility to protect her. He swallowed hard. His mouth was dry. He had to decide what to do. Any minute, Graham could turn around and see him.
Roger took a deep breath and made his decision, knowing it would change his life forever.
L.E. Fraser completed her post-secondary education in Toronto and moved to London, Ontario with her husband, two sons, and three pugs. Raised on military bases, her introduction to unique people and experiences fed a lifelong desire to write. She combines her passion for psychology and criminology in her Perdition Games novels, where the monsters you can’t recognize are more frightening than the ones you can.
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