Category Archives: Mystery

Ice on the Bay Preview

If you’ve been tagging along with me, you’ll know that my third Howard County mystery is in the works, that it’s called Ice on the Bay, and that it should be out later this year. To whet your appetite, I thought I’d post the first scene.

Bear in mind that some editorial changes might be made prior to publication. With that caveat, here you go:


Ice on the Bay
Scene 1

“I’m freezing, Hank.”

His attention on the old house before them, Hank didn’t answer his wife’s complaint. Pale golden light leaked through gaps in the blinds covering the first-floor windows while the second floor slumbered in darkness. Built sixty or seventy years before, the house was a home no more, but a veterinary clinic. A brilliant white floodlight lit the front of the pale blue structure. Hank’s eyes didn’t register the color in the glare; he only knew it because he’d been here two days earlier, casing the place in daylight.

“Hank!” She whispered it fiercely and tugged on his sleeve.

He absently put his arm around her shoulders, but his attention remained fixed on the house. Situated on an otherwise deserted block in a sparsely-populated area, it was relatively isolated and surrounded by winter-bare trees. Wearing white pants, bundled in white coats with white hoods, the pair would be nearly invisible against the house thanks to the glare of the security light. Not that passersby were likely at this hour. Even so, his plan was to enter through a back window, where the trees would muffle any sounds they made.

He started forward, arm still around her, but she didn’t move. “What?” he asked sharply.

“Lights are on inside.”

“Just security lights.”

She leaned into him and shook her head. Her hair, long and thick, lightly stroked his arm.

“You backing out on me, Hannah?” Hank could tell she was nervous just from her touch. He knew her that well. After all, they’d been together for six years, ever since Howard Community College where he had been a pitcher on the school’s baseball team and she an aspiring actress in the theater program. Introduced to her by a mutual friend, he had fallen at once for her radiant smile, golden hair, and shapely body, while she had proven eager, even desperate, to hang on the arm of an athlete, especially one with Hank’s rugged good looks set on a solidly-built, six-foot-four frame. His height perfectly complemented hers, while the alliteration of their given names seemed to add to their mystique: other students regarded them with considerable respect and not a little awe.

Yet they’d ended up neither on the stage nor on the diamond, but here in the chill night.

Now she said, “Of course not.  She sounded far more determined than he knew she actually was.  She was a good actress, but she couldn’t fool him. She wanted out of this, out of the cold, out of the danger, out of the whole business. Only loyalty kept her here. He admired her for that. Little had gone right for him since college. Hannah alone had stuck by him, which he found an unfathomable mystery.  Oh, he knew that at first she had needed his protection, but those days were long gone, and here she was, still with him, defying the urge to run, standing firm by his side when she could have been sleeping warm and secure in a better man’s bed.

“Then come on.” He tugged at her, and this time she moved.

“At least it’ll be warm in there,” she muttered.

They crept through the darkness around the left side of the house and came to the rear. A waning moon illuminated the land, its light dimmed occasionally by ragged patches of swiftly passing cloud. The date was December twenty-fourth, Christmas Eve; the time two-twenty in the morning; the temperature forty-one degrees, although a stiff breeze made it feel much colder. Somewhere inside the house lay their objective: a supply of morphine and ketamine they could transform into cash.

They paused for a minute, checking the four darkened windows that flanked the back door, two on either side. Here, too, a security light revealed their target in detail so they could plan their attack. The light from within, washed out by the exterior glare, shone faint but steady.

Hannah took two pairs of latex gloves from her pocket and handed one pair to Hank. They pulled them on, careful not to rip them, then Hank quietly eased up the short flight of wooden steps leading to the door. He gently rotated the knob a half-turn. Of course it was locked, but it never hurt to check. No sense smashing things when an owner invited them in. Leaning to the left, he felt around the nearest window, examined it in detail, and gingerly tried to push up the lower sash. Again no luck, again none expected.

Hannah tiptoed up the steps while he worked and stood close behind him. “Hammer,” she whispered, pulling the tool from her coat pocket and handing it to him like a nurse handing a scalpel to a surgeon.

He took the hammer and with a swift stroke smashed the pane, then cleaned the jagged shards from the sash with the head. Falling splinters chattered as they struck the floor inside. Once satisfied the opening was clean, he helped Hannah through the window. She moved so quietly she might have vanished, but in his mind Hank could see her go to the door, disarm the alarm system using the code they had been given, and undo the deadbolt. Just as silently, the door opened for him.

He slipped inside and eased the door shut, then took her face in his hands and kissed her on the forehead. She beamed at him, a dog basking in its master’s approval.

The very next instant, the job went horribly wrong.


© March 2017 By Dale E. Lehman.  All rights reserved.  You may share links to this web page, but otherwise copying and redistribution of page content by any method for any purpose without written consent of the author is prohibited.

Under Water

On July 30, 2016 a thousand-year rainfall event triggered flash flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland, demolishing businesses, wrecking cars, and killing two people. A historic strip situated along the bottom of a valley, the town is no stranger to flooding. Major floods occurred in 1868, 1923, 1952, 1972, and 2006 before this latest event.

Rising waters in the nearby Patapsco River produced most of these floods, although the culprit behind the 1972 flood was the remnants of hurricane Agnes, and this most recent flood came top-down rather than bottom-up, due to runoff from higher ground that had nowhere to go but into the historic district.

Flooding being a tragic but inevitable part of the Ellicott City’s history, sooner or later it probably has to figure into some kind of story set in the area. So I say to myself, “Self, it might as well figure into your next Howard County mystery.”

Thus,  the plot wheels are turning in my head. Please bear in mind that this is all very preliminary.

It occurs to me that the flood waters, which gouged out the sidewalks in front of area businesses, exposing the undersides of buildings, might simultaneously reveal something more sinister. The remains of a murder victim? A valuable artifact stolen in the past and never recovered? Documents testifying to some dark and hitherto unrevealed event?

It further occurs to me that a flood might provide cover for a crime. If someone goes missing just then, it might be assumed they fell victim to the deluge.

And finally, it occurs to me that given the number of times Ellicott City has faced down floods, a crime committed and obscured in one flood event could be uncovered as a result of another. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

These being preliminary ruminations, nothing here counts as a spoiler. But I’m pretty sure Rick Peller and crew will find themselves wading into treacherous waters before too long.

It’s the End

In my last two posts I explored two parts of a story’s structure:

  • The beginning, where we encounter main characters, the setting, and the challenges the characters face.
  • The middle, where things become complicated for the characters and tension mounts.

Now we’ve reached the end.

Like the beginning, the end is a relatively short, but for a different reason. Whereas the beginning hooks readers and draws them in, the end resolves the conflicts that carried the reader along. Actually, let’s qualify that. Some conflicts may be resolved in the middle. But the primary conflict can only be resolved at the end. Often a few lesser conflicts stick around until then, too, particularly in a novel. Short stories may only present a single conflict, but longer works will have more.

By definition, the resolution of the primary conflict is a story’s climax, it’s most important and exciting moment. All the tension built up through the middle is released in the climax. In action/adventure stories, this moment is the point when the threat posed by the primary antagonist becomes overwhelming. If the protagonist doesn’t succeed right here and right now, an irreversible catastrophe will result. The terrorists will blow up the building or the aliens will take over the world or the meteorite will crash into the Earth, triggering a mass extinction. In a mystery, the climax often pairs the resolution of the principal crime with mortal danger for the detective or for someone close to them. In a drama, the climax could even be triggered by the protagonist’s own flaws; if they fall victim to their failings, they will loose something important or others will be hurt. In all cases, the climax is the biggest, baddest, most danger-fraught moment in the whole story.

The story’s lesser conflicts can trigger moments like this, too, but generally they are less critical, less intense, and therefore not climactic. They can therefore be resolved in the middle of the story, but if so are usually replaced by larger conflicts or an intensification of the main conflict. The author can give the reader a moment to breath, but only a moment. Tension can’t decline for long, or the reader will wander off in search of a sandwich. But what happens when a lesser conflict persists right up to the climactic moment? Must it be resolved before the main conflict, or can it wait?

In some cases it can and indeed should wait, but order is important. Bear in mind that once the tension is gone, the reader has no reason to keep reading. Conflicts that persist beyond the climax have an inglorious name: “loose ends.” They must be tied up, but because the principal source of tension is gone, they must be tied up quickly. When the business of tying up loose ends drags on, readers rightly get bored and feel that the book should have ended sooner. In the worst case, they may suspect the book was “padded” to make them pay more for it–a feeling that also arises from middles where too little happens for too many pages. Conversely, a book that suddenly ends after a strong climax may leave readers feeling like they were dropped off of an emotional cliff. The less intense resolution to a loose end or two affords  us time to “come down” gracefully rather than plummet. On the other hand, the author of a series might leave something unresolved as a “cliffhanger,” a way of inviting you to the next book in the series where, one hopes, the remaining conflict will eventually be resolved.

You may sense a theme here: writers play on your emotions through story structure. The good ones do it so well that you’re left clamoring for their next book!

By way of illustrating these concepts, I’ll invoke my novel The Fibonacci Murders. Therein, a series of murders takes place, with tension ratched up through an increasing body count, the cryptic nature of the killer’s notes to the police, a mathematical switch he pulls mid-stream, and the discovery that his final crime must be one of horrific proportions. Along the way, a second series of crimes occurs. Less severe than the murders, it nevertheless causes a PR nightmare for the police and is resolved only when the murderer kills its perpetrator. That’s one conflict removed, but it hardly decreases the tension–just the opposite. And then a new wrinkle develops: Tom Kaneko, the mathematician who has been assisting the police, privately devises a plan to find the killer and strikes out on his own, unwittingly placing himself in mortal danger. The killer captures him but must execute his final crime, so he trusses Kaneko up and dumps him in the woods, planning on dealing with him later. Now the climax arrives: the killer is stopped mere seconds before committing a mass murder.

End of story? Not quite. Kaneko is still out there in the woods, injured, bound, and gagged. That’s a loose end: I couldn’t leave him there. Moreover, the detectives had a couple of loose ends of their own to tie up. Keeping Kaneko in hot water until after the killer is foiled allows the tension to drop somewhat less than precipitously and transitions towards resolution of the other, lesser, loose ends. The result, I hope, is that when you’ve read the final sentence, you feel that order has been restored and all is right with the world.

The end.