A High-Stakes Simulation Adventure Leaves Grayson Thibodeaux the Prime Suspect. . .for Murder Deep in the gritty underbelly of New Orleans, psychologist Grayson Thibodeaux loses everything when his wife leaves him to climb her company’s corporate ladder. He buries himself in his job of creating mind-bending adventure games for businesses as team-building explorations. When his ex-wife’s company hires Grayson’s to create an elaborate game, he doesn’t see how things can get worse. Until she dies during the course of the game he created…making him the prime suspect for murder.
|Publisher:||Barbour Publishing, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Home sweet home.
Long weekends were great for a getaway to think and refocus, but Grayson Thibodeaux itched to get back home. He turned onto his street and let out a sigh — he'd sleep in his own bed tonight. Tomorrow would start a new week, and he could put the last couple of months behind him, especially the past two weeks.
Maybe then he could put the last several years in his rearview mirror.
The drive had been slower than usual, but with Mardi Gras coming next week, New Orleans burst at the city limits with tourists and carnival people. Bright, sparkly greens, purples, and golds lined the French Quarter and beyond. The floats housed in the many warehouses would receive final touches before the upcoming parades.
Tension gripped Grayson as he spied a car parked in the driveway of his home. He didn't get random visitors, and very few people knew he'd even left town, much less when he'd return. He didn't recognize the vehicle.
He eased his truck behind the car, effectively blocking it in. Grayson stepped silently onto the concrete and stared at his front porch. No one there.
Zydeco music blasted from the house next door: an early Mardi Gras celebration in full swing. Smoke from a grill drifted from the couple's backyard, sending a mouthwatering aroma wafting through the garden district neighborhood.
Grayson gently pushed the truck door closed, then headed down the cobblestone path that ran alongside the old house. Even in the waning light, his steps found the stones with no stumbles. He'd grown up in this house, had helped his father place the very cobblestones he now walked on into the sod.
The light by the kitchen door illuminated a man and woman standing on his back porch, their backs to him. The woman had her hands cupped around her face as she pressed against the kitchen window.
Grayson's muscles flexed. "May I help you?" The man and woman spun at the same time, both setting their hands on the butts of their respective side arms.
Recognition came instantly. "Brandon?" Grayson asked.
"Hey." Brandon Gibbons, Grayson's old college buddy and currently a detective with the New Orleans Police Department, removed his hand from his sidearm. Grayson had worked with Brandon when he was a consultant for the department.
"You remember my partner, Danielle?" Brandon nodded at the woman beside him.
Black-as-night hair, brown eyes, and a chip on her shoulder bigger than a boulder — yeah, he remembered Danielle Witz all right. "I do. Hello, Danielle."
Her eyes narrowed. "Thibodeaux." Apparently she still hated his guts. It'd been months ago — how could she still carry a grudge for his not calling her sister after their blind date?
"What're you doing back here?" Grayson asked. It wasn't like Brandon to creep around backyards.
Danielle leaned against the porch's support beam. "Where have you been?"
In a split second, Grayson took in their body language and the microexpressions most people didn't even realize they showed. Brandon's lips were thinned, and he wouldn't meet Grayson's stare. Danielle, on the other hand, narrowed her eyes and held eye contact, dropping her chin as she glared.
"Why?" Grayson stood a little straighter.
"Maybe we should go inside?" Brandon asked, looking quickly at Grayson, then darted his gaze to his partner.
Grayson crossed his arms over his chest as little pinpricks of apprehension pimpled his arms. "Why don't you tell me why you're here, peeking in my back windows?" Brandon met his stare. "I think you'd rather us go inside to talk, Grayson."
This wouldn't be good, but now curiosity nibbled at the edges of his mind. He sighed. "Sure. Come on."
Grayson led the two detectives around to the front door. He unlocked it, then stepped inside and punched in the disarming code on the keypad to his alarm system.
Brandon and Danielle followed him into the cool house. Grayson took a seat in his recliner, leaving the two to sit on his couch. But Danielle didn't sit; she stood behind the couch, facing Grayson. She wore her animosity like a shield.
"So, again, why are you here?" Grayson rested his elbows on his knees and let his hands hang loosely.
"Grayson, I'm sorry," Brandon interrupted his partner.
"For?" His gut twisted.
"It's Anna Belle."
Grayson gripped his hands together and squeezed. "She's hurt? Was she in an accident?" Images of the way his ex-wife drove filled his mind. She often forgot to wear a seat belt. "Is she okay?"
"She's dead." Danielle's words were too flat for the information. She had to be wrong. This was a mistake. Had to be.
"D–dead?" No, Anna Belle was too — well, she was just too alive to be dead.
"I'm sorry, bud. I hate to be the one to tell you, but it's true." Brandon leaned forward on the couch. Empathy did little to soften the severity of his expression.
Anna Belle — dead. She couldn't be — he couldn't — "What happened?" She was vibrant and always driven. She couldn't be dead. Not Anna Belle.
"She died from anaphylactic shock."
Grayson snapped his attention to Danielle. "That can't be." He shook his head. Sure, Anna Belle would take risks, but not with her allergy. She'd always been extremely careful about that and never went anywhere without her EpiPen.
"It's true. The autopsy confirmed it. I'm sorry." Brandon's words registered with Grayson, but he still couldn't fathom the finality.
Numbness spread out from his chest like icy fingers as images of Anna Belle sped across his mind like a movie.
In college, her hair flowing and eyes flashing against Death Valley stadium lights as the Tigers won the national championship. The warmth of her body against his as she hugged him in her excitement.
Her fingertips grazing his cheek as he cried at his father's funeral. The surprising strength of her small stature as she held him up at the grave.
Her unmistakable beauty in her wedding dress as she said her vows to him in the cathedral.
The hardness of her eyes when she told him she was filing for divorce.
"Grayson?" Brandon's voice cut through the memories.
He looked to his friend. "She's always extremely careful about her allergy. She steered far away from anything that could remotely have cherries or cherry juice or even be cross-contaminated with them. She was almost paranoid about it." Privately of course. Not many outside her tight circle of family and friends knew of the allergy.
Brandon nodded. "So we've been told."
"But either way, she always carries her EpiPen. In her purse. In her car. In her office. Everywhere." The woman nearly mortgaged their house with how many she bought and stowed everywhere.
Brandon nodded again. "We've opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death."
Wait, what? "Do you suspect foul play?" That would be the only thing that made sense. Anna Belle would never be so reckless with her allergy.
Then again, who would want to hurt her?
"Why don't you tell us where you've been the past several days?" Danielle interrupted, crossing her arms.
Ahh. Yes. Reality crashed into his racing mind. An ex-husband would definitely be of interest when his wife died in such an unusual manner. Ex-wife. "I went out of town. To St. Francisville."
"What were you doing there?" Danielle's body stood as rigid as her tone.
"Where?" She stared straight at him.
Grayson tightened his jaw. She might just be doing her job, but she didn't have to have such an attitude.
"The Bluffs. And before you ask, I stayed at the lodge there on Thompson Creek."
Brandon sat on the very edge of the couch, writing in a small notebook balanced on his knee. "When did you leave town?"
"Wednesday. About eleven that morning."
"You've been gone, what, five days?" Danielle's eyes were still narrowed. "That's quite a long weekend golf trip."
Grayson didn't reply because there wasn't a question. He knew how this played out. He'd consulted enough.
"Were you playing in a tournament or with a group?" Brandon's pen hovered over the notebook.
"Not a tournament. I played Thursday with some friends of mine from medical school. We had an 8:00 a.m. tee time."
Brandon scribbled. "Their names?"
"Skipper Bertrand, Tom Bridges, Robert Bertram, and Donny Olson."
"What time did you finish up?" Brandon asked.
Grayson lifted a shoulder. "About noon or so."
"And after you finished the round?" Brandon's gaze held an unspoken apology.
"We grabbed lunch at the club."
"All of you?" Danielle interrupted.
"Yes. All of us."
"Then what?" Brandon asked.
Grayson shifted in his recliner. "I went back to my room at the lodge and fell asleep in front of the television." He cut his stare to Danielle. "Tombstone, starring Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell, and I don't remember what channel."
Brandon tapped his pen against the notebook. "Do you remember what time you left the club?"
Grayson's mind wouldn't function right. "I'd guess about one or so."
"And you went to your room and watched television? Fell asleep watching a movie, you say?" If Danielle tried to hide her disdain, she failed miserably.
"Yes. I woke up about six and took a shower."
"Why? What did you do that night?" Danielle asked.
Grayson ran a hand down his face. "I met my friends at the Francis Southern Table. Our reservations were for seven."
"How long were you there?" Her tone matched her facial expression.
"I'm not sure. When we finished eating, we left. I got back to the lodge about eight thirtyish."
"Why didn't you answer my calls?" Brandon asked. "I left you a voice mail."
"I lost my cell phone in Thompson Creek." For the first time in a really long time, he wished he'd had his phone.
"When did you lose it?" Brandon asked.
"Thursday morning. First hole." Grayson shook his head "I figured that was a sign of how I'd be playing that day, but I actually shot two under." Seemed lame now, considering Anna Belle was dead.
"So you were asleep from about one until six, alone in your hotel room?" Danielle took a step around the couch, still staring him down.
Grayson nodded. "I was dozing in front of the TV. I don't know what else to tell you. That's what I was doing."
Brandon shot his partner a hard stare. "What about Friday? Did you play with your group again?" Grayson shook his head. "Only Tom and I played."
"All day?" Danielle pressed.
Grayson shrugged. "Basically a repeat of Thursday. I got up and ate breakfast in the club, then met Tom at eight for a round."
"Did you have lunch at the club when you were done?" Brandon asked. "Or go to a restaurant?"
"The club." Now even Brandon was pushing the envelope.
Grayson shook his head. Enough. He'd been a consultant for the police department, had worked with Brandon many times, for pity's sake. "What happened with Anna Belle, Brandon? She'd always been so careful about her allergy. She saw it as a weakness in herself and hated it. She let very few people even know about it."
"We can't really comment on an open investigation —"
"We're still working on gathering all the facts." Brandon cut off his partner.
Grayson's throat tightened as if concrete filled his mouth, and his memory raced through police procedure. Notification. That's what they were doing here, but as an ex, he wasn't legally considered her next of kin.
Anna Belle had alienated her mother, the only living relative she'd had, but Grayson had liked her the few times he met her. She still lived in a double-wide in Breaux Bridge, about two hours away. He looked at Brandon. "Have you called her mom? Do you want me to?"
"Her next of kin has been notified." Danielle shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
"Her mother is staying at the Darkwater Inn," Brandon offered.
Danielle took a couple of steps toward him. "Did anybody see you at all Thursday afternoon in St. Francisville?"
"I don't know."
"What about the rest of the weekend? What did you do?" Danielle pressed.
He opened his mouth to answer that he'd slept in, then went and toured the USS Kidd, but clamped his mouth shut in that split second before he spoke. The clouds of shock in his mind cleared just enough. He cut his eyes to Brandon. "When did Anna Belle die?"
Brandon and Danielle looked at one another. A volume of unspoken words passed between them.
Finally, Brandon turned to him. "Thursday afternoon."
Grayson shook his head. "That can't be. She was scheduled to be involved with a corporate game with her company at a rented house all day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. It was a controlled environment."
Danielle nodded. "She died during the course of the game, Mr. Thibodeaux." She paused, letting her words sink in. "The game you custom designed for her to participate in."
Just when he thought it couldn't get any worse.
"You need to come to the station with us and answer some questions." Danielle put her hands on her hips. The leather of her holster creaked. "About that game."
"Have you already spoken to my business partner? Colton York? He handled the contract with Deets PR." Grayson tightened his jaw. He'd told Colton that they shouldn't have taken the job. Even worse, Colton and the Deets PR contract didn't allow for the players to fully know they were involved in a game, so they were playing in the dark.
Brandon gave a little nod. "He gave us some basic information and is going to speak with us again. But he said you were the actual creator of the game."
Grayson paused. While he knew he didn't have to go anywhere to answer any questions, he wanted to help Brandon in the investigation. But not tonight.
"I'm happy to assist you in your investigation, but I think it best I wait to answer any questions until I can adjust from the initial shock." Right now, he needed to process.
Brandon nodded, even though Danielle looked ready to spit nails.
"How about I come in Tuesday morning about nine, and we can talk then?" Grayson stood and led the way to the front door. He needed time to process everything.
"Sure." Brandon hesitated at the door. "I'm sorry, man. See you Tuesday." He headed out, Danielle not saying a word as she followed.
Grayson moved his truck to let them out, then grabbed his duffel and clubs and brought them into the house. He made it as far as the dining room before he dropped them on the floor, the thud of his clubs against the hardwoods echoing in his head. He gripped the back of a chair, steadying himself against actuality.
Anna Belle — dead.
The room seemed to be spinning, but Grayson recognized his mind was trying to accept she was gone while his emotions spun off in varying directions. His psychologist's mind attempted to categorize what he thought. To characterize his emotions. The shock and disbelief, then the uncertainty of what he even felt. All normal reactions but nonetheless destabilizing. He forced himself to head to his bedroom.
He could almost see her here, in the room once called theirs. Her long, blond hair splayed across the pillows as she slept, looking more like a porcelain doll than a young woman. Curled up in the chair in the corner with a book, her feet covered in fuzzy socks on the ottoman. Bouncing on the bed and yelling at the TV as LSU lost against Alabama — again. Running across the room in her fleece pajamas after turning off the light to jump on the bed and under the covers, unnerved from watching a scary movie.
Cherished memories assaulted him. The gentle love they shared early in their marriage. Laughter and midnight picnics in bed. The whispers of encouragement. The tenderness of her fingertips on his cheek. Sharing secrets. Making plans. Holding on to each other through the pounding of multiple hurricanes. The sweet kisses and passionate embraces. The loving until the sun rose over the crescent city.
But it all changed. Oh, did it change.
What was once passion mutated into heated exchanges. His trust lost in her betrayal. His honesty discarded with her lies. Lashes meant to cut. Words used as soul stealers. Accusations. Lies. Her deception challenging the boundaries of his forgiveness.
Now she was gone forever.CHAPTER 2
"He's as guilty as Adam and Eve in the garden. I could tell by looking at him." Danielle stomped on the brake at the end of Grayson's subdivision.
Brandon had already heard his partner's ranting about Grayson Thibodeaux and accepted this would be one of the few cases they wouldn't see eye-to-eye on. "Because he didn't break down in tears when we told him she was dead? It was a shock, and you know that's what it was. People react differently to bad news."
"Yeah, but he sure didn't look upset over the information that Anna Belle had been killed." She turned the unmarked cruiser toward the precinct.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stratagem"
Copyright © 2018 Robin Caroll.
Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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