Tag Archives: ice on the bay

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?

 

In the Beginning…

Have you ever read a story that completely failed to engage your attention? Probably so. How long did you stick with it? Fifty pages? Ten? Five? My personal low was two pages when reading an old science fiction novel my dad owned. I think I started that book three times over the course of several years and never made it past the second page.

Why does this happen? Basically, it’s a structural failing. You see, every story needs a structure, and that structure can be stated very simply: beginning, middle, end. As straightforward as that may seem, writers don’t always figure it out. When they don’t, the result can be a story in which nothing seems to happen, and when nothing happens, readers quickly get fed up.

So what is this beginning, middle, end thing, anyway? Well . . .

The beginning is where main characters are introduced, the setting is established, and the principal conflict is set up.

The middle is where most of the events play out. Lesser characters may be introduced and additional conflicts may arise. Throughout, the tension increases, the stakes get higher, the challenges become tougher. Even if the characters meet with small successes, things generally get worse for them.

The end is where the main conflict is resolved and loose ends are tied up. Compared to the rest of the work, this part is relatively short for one very good reason: resolution of the main conflict removes the tension and, thus, most of the interest.

Reread that last bit. No tension equals no interest. Books that fail to engage your attention are likely books lacking tension, or at least books with tension well-hidden. Maybe the writer spent the first ten pages providing background before presenting the main conflict. Maybe the initial conflict wasn’t much of a conflict. Or maybe it’s just you. After all, different people have different tastes and interests. Decades back my wife recommended a novel to me that, upon reading, I found stultifying. She couldn’t believe it. One of the main characters had suffered a serious injury and spent most of the novel at death’s door! How could I not be interested? Unfortunately, I didn’t care much about that character for whatever reason, and nothing much else seemed to be happening while he was busy almost dying. Oh, well.

Personal tastes aside, a story’s beginning has an important job to do: it must draw the reader in. To that end, writers employ what is called a hook. The hook is simply something interesting or unusual or dramatic that makes readers want to find out what’s going on. It’s what carries the reader past the first paragraph of a short story or the first page of a novel. It isn’t necessarily the main conflict, although it could be. It provides the vital infusion of tension without which readers won’t become engaged.

If I may, I’ll use my own writing as an example, since I know it so well. The Fibonacci Murders opens with a statement from a key character, mathematician Tomio Kaneko, about why he was involved in a murder investigation. In the course of this short passage, he states that had he not become involved, he would have been spared injury. The main conflict (a sequence of murders that take on a serial killer aspect) doesn’t start immediately and Kaneko’s involvement comes well into the novel. But I needed to get him onto the scene early because of the key role he plays. So I decided to introduce each chapter which a personal statement by him. The opening statement injects some menace because the reader knows that he’s going to get hurt. That point only happens near the end (technically, in the late part of the story’s middle), but its foreshadowing creates an element of tension that (I hope!) draws the reader in.

In True Death, I handled it a bit differently. We first meet a guy sitting alone on the porch of a run-down cabin out in the mountains and through his musings find out that he regards himself as dead. Clearly something tragic has happened to him, but just what will only become clear late in the novel. At the outset, we don’t even know his name. Ice on the Bay opens with an actual crime being committed, a botched robbery at a veterinary clinic. You’ll read that something has gone horribly wrong, but you won’t immediately find out what.

These three examples, different as they are, share a common theme. You meet someone to whom something bad happens, but you don’t get any details about what it was. With any luck you want to know the details, and that’s what pulls you into the story. As the old writer’s addage puts it, “Shoot the sheriff on the first page.” To which I might add, “But don’t reveal who shot him. Or if you do, don’t let on why they shot him.” Give the reader something to worry about, then keep them worried. That’s tension. That’s what keeps them reading. That’s a good beginning.

But, of course, that’s only the start . . .