Tag Archives: ice on the bay

Welcome to Howard County

Fun fact: with over 600 million residents, Baltimore is the largest independent city in the nation. Does that make you scratch your head? When I first moved into the area, it did me. Fortunately, the explanation is simple.

An “independent city” is one that doesn’t exist within the borders of any county. Baltimore County bends all around Baltimore City, enclosing it like a cocoon, except for at its southern tip, where the city abuts Anne Arundel County. The city of Baltimore is entirely independent of any county entanglements, although it’s police department is very much entangled with the state government due to an anti-corruption take-over of the BPD by the state in 1860. Those entanglements persist to this day.

Anyway. The Baltimore metropolitan area now hosts a population of 2.8 million, making it the 21st largest metro area in the United States. The metro area includes the city and six surrounding counties: Baltimore County (the cocoon around the city), Harford County (east), Carroll County (west), Anne Arundel County (south), Queen Anne’s County (east of Anne Arundel across the bay),  and Howard County (southwest). Howard County is, amazingly enough, the setting for my Howard County Mystery series.

Why did I pick that locale? For over 20 years, I’ve lived on the eastern side of Baltimore County. But I’ve worked in Howard County several times, and know the area reasonably well, probably better than I know Baltimore County. Howard County affords me a range of localized settings from the suburban to the rural.  It’s far more rural than Baltimore County, but with areas of reasonably concentrated population. Plus, unlike Baltimore County, it doesn’t wrap itself around a city, so Rick Peller and his associates can move pretty quickly from one area of the county to another as needed.

Then again, there’s rural and there’s rural. I don’t actually think of Maryland as incredibly rural. Although one of the smallest states in the U.S., it’s the fifth most densely populated. While most of that population is concentrated in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. corridor, even most of the state’s rural areas are more heavily populated than the rural areas from which my family hails.

Allow me to demonstrate. Here’s a population density map for Howard County and surrounding areas:

Howard County Population Map

The thicker white lines are the county borders. Howard County is the large area stretching northwest to southeast, with Columbia and Ellicott City as its main population centers. The more rural areas of the county, the lighter orange, have a population density ranging from 101 to 1000 people per square mile.

Now let’s look at Rick Peller’s birthplace, Lockport, New York:

Lockport Population Map

Peller would find the population levels in Howard County familiar, but notice the light pink areas to the east, particularly the location named Dysinger, which is about where Sandra Peller came from. Those areas have a population density of 100 people per square mile or less. That, to me, is what rural is all about. That’s because my grandparents hailed from northwest Ohio. My maternal grandparents lived in the “big city” of Van Wert, while my paternal grandparents had a farm near Scott:

Van Wert Population Map

Rural is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. I consider my Howard County novels to be suburban crime novels, not rural crime novels, even though farms and fields do pop up in them from time to time. The county has some nice open spaces. But you can’t throw a rock too terribly far without hitting someone.

(Maps clipped from the ArcGIS 2012 population map.)

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.

Life Intrusions

Life has a way of intruding on an author’s work.  This happens because, as my wife and editor Kathleen is fond of saying, “Your output is derived from your input.” In ways both subtle and obvious, a writer’s background shapes his writing.

In my case, one such influence dates back to my earliest childhood. For as long as I can remember, the universe has beckoned me. Astronomy was my first love. When other boys might have said they would grow up to be doctors or policemen, I wanted to be an astronomer. My father taught me the constellations and the names of the brightest stars.  In junior high school, I bought a cheap telescope from K-Mart and spent time observing the moon, stars, and sun. In high school I expanded my horizons to cosmology and from there to relativity and quantum physics.

I didn’t actually end up as either an astronomer or a physicist, but my interest in those subjects hasn’t flagged. I have a better telescope today, although still a modest one, and subscribe to Sky and Telescope. I’ve even sold them a couple of essays.

My interest in science and particularly astronomy influenced my literary ambitions, too. In the long ago, I principally read and wrote science fiction. My favorite SF stories to both read and write were those involving the exploration of the universe.

Later I became increasingly interested in mysteries and somewhat disaffected with the direction in which the science fiction genre was heading, but astronomy didn’t get left behind. In The Fibonacci Murders, for example, you’ll find Venus shining in the evening sky, as well as references to the moon and light pollution. Light pollution also figures in the opening scene of my forthcoming novel, Ice on the Bay. My in-progress return to science fiction, Space Operatic, takes place in the inner Oort Cloud.

My other key hobby, bonsai, hasn’t yet worked its way into my writing, but then I’ve only been into the art for about ten years. I have, however, pondered some possibilities. Tomio Kaneko, the Japanese-American mathematician who debuts in The Fibonacci Murders, just might have a son with an interest in bonsai, an art that can yield valuable works through the application of, among other things, sharp instruments.

That sounds about right for a murder mystery, no?