It Probably Won’t Kill You

As I have previously mentioned (last week as a matter of fact) I primarily write fiction heavy on suspense, from horror, to mystery/detective fiction, to thrillers. It’s the type of fiction I do best. The primary reason this is true is simple. I’m best at writing suspense fiction because it’s what I’ve practiced over the years. I haven’t tried to write many romances, or westerns, so I’m not very good at them. And I’ve spent most of my time and energy trying to write suspense fiction because it is the type of fiction I have always preferred to read. I was trying to write along with the authors and stories I admired.

According to some sources, I’m not alone in that admiration. Combined, the suspense sub-genres form the best-selling group in all of fiction. By far. Mystery fiction by itself is the best-selling sub-genre in the United States, for all age groups and all genders.

Is it any wonder that most of the best known writers of our generation work in suspense fiction? Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and James Patterson all work in suspense fiction, though in different sub-genres.

So why is this type of fiction so popular?

Because it’s scary.

Most people live lives of varying degrees of tedium, full of monotonous, boring routine. Their day-to-day tasks, while important, are seldom what one would consider exciting. Reading a scary or suspenseful story provides a nice, safe break from that routine.

People enjoy being scared. They enjoy experiencing high-tension, anxious, and frightening situations. We enjoy suspense fiction for the same reason we enjoy roller coasters, whitewater rafting, and sky diving. It shoves the heart rate up, gets the blood pumping, boosts adrenaline levels. We are built to enjoy the trill of the chase. We feel more alive.

Combat veterans—those willing to talk about it—report that while combat was terrifying, they’d never felt so alive as when they were in battle. Time seems to slow down. All their senses are tuned in to everything. They can hear the faintest of sounds, see astonishing detail, smell odors they never would have noticed before. Fear turns up all the body’s senses in an effort to stay alive. And you are truly alive, experiencing everything in total detail.

The thrill of the chase. Unfortunately, in real life, that thrill and the adrenaline rush that comes with it, usually come with a serious risk of injury or death. People die every year from sky diving, whitewater rafting and even roller coasters. (We won’t even count combat.) It’s a tiny fraction of the participants, but that risk is there. It’s why the experience is so exciting. Fear of death or injury.

And that is the great appeal of suspense fiction. Because it is fiction it is a fairly safe way of experiencing the rush of fear. When done well, suspense fiction recreates a little of that sensory aliveness. But, if it gets a little too intense, the reader can always close the book mid-sentence and walk away for a while, letting their emotions return to normal.

Try doing that halfway through a sky dive.

Even the worst case scenario—in which the novel depicts something so horrific, so suspenseful, so overwhelming you simply can’t handle it—the story still probably won’t kill you.

Writing and Editing

The Thing About Genres

I recently finished reading a novel by Tess Thompson, entitled Caramel and Magnolias. I met Ms. Thompson after taking a dialogue-writing workshop from her at a writer’s conference. I was impressed with Ms. Thompson, her advice, anecdotes, and general attitude toward the craft. So I thought I should read some of her work.

It was funny. When I asked her which novel I should read (she had seven published at the time in at least two series) she wasn’t sure which to recommend because she doesn’t write for a male audience. In short, she writes chick-lit.

I have always been of the mind that if a story is good and the author tells it well that it doesn’t matter what genre it is. (Though, to be honest, I do prefer some genres over others. Without some outside reason like many recommendations from trusted friends or a personal relationship with the author, I probably wouldn’t pick up a romance.) But hey, I read Love Story all on my own.

So I dove into Caramel and Magnolias, which is considered romantic suspense, and read it in something like three days. My impression? It was good. Not great, but an entertaining read. I never felt the need to skip over a passage; never wanted to just walk away. Her characters were rendered well enough that I cared about them and what happened to them. It was good.

But my strongest impression had to do with the manner in which she chose to write the story. In short, she chose this novel exactly opposite of how I would have written it.

Let me explain. There are four basic plots in the novel: one follows a detective’s investigation of a shady adoption agency; the second follows a young woman who has given up on love for ten years and whether she will allow it into her life again; the third involves the first woman’s best friend, who is in a loveless marriage and an unsuccessful quest for motherhood; the fourth involves a male bartender friend of the two women and his unrequited love for the married friend. All are interesting. All are very human.

The way Ms. Thompson chose to write the novel, the two love stories—the loveless woman and the detective, and the friend/mother and the bartender—were the primary plots, while the investigation was pretty much a minor subplot.

If I had written this novel, using the same basic plot elements, I would have concentrated mostly on the detective’s investigation, with his affair with the loveless woman as a major subplot. Everything else would have fallen back to minor subplots.

Now I’m not saying my way would be better, or worse. It would just be different. Ms. Thompson wrote the novel the way she did and it is romantic suspense. If I had written in the way I prefer, it would have been a detective novel, possibly a mystery.

The only real difference between the genres is in what the author chooses to emphasize.

To take it another step, add scenes showing the bad guy’s thoughts and motivations to my version of the novel could turn it from a detective novel into a thriller. Add a lot of gunplay, it becomes action/adventure.

My point here is to point out that the sole difference between many genres is simply a matter of what the author chooses to emphasize.


Deception Island released on kindle

41jeDmIOnrL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-46,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_[1]Ladies and gentlemen, friends and neighbors, James Boyle’s new novel Deception Island is now live and available as a Kindle download. The print version will be available June 1.

The authorities say Jason Reynolds’ father drowned in a boating accident on Puget Sound, but Jason doesn’t believe it. His father was a fishing guide. An accident wasn’t likely. Once in town, Jason quickly finds evidence that supports his suspicions: files missing from his dad’s office; a mysterious photo of an Asian man; and a letter threatening to evict his father unless he stops “acting against the interests of Lundgren Corporation.”

Lundgren Corporation. The company behind the company town.

And now they turn their attention to Jason.





novel-in-progress, writing

Deception Island: Chapter Two, scenes 3 & 4 (revised)

Once again, this is the revised version of my previous excerpt of Deception Island. It ends up being about thirty words shorter than the original version.

Jason ran down to the deli a few blocks away to get a couple of sandwiches while Lisa started another load in the washer and folded his dried jeans. Lisa had a 2:30 seminar and they agreed she needed to attend, but until then she would help Jason with his laundry.

When he returned, they unwrapped the sandwiches–a pastrami on sourdough for himself, a turkey on wheat for Lisa and two bags of chips–on the coffee table and sat on the couch to eat. Jason had given away his dining room table years ago to make room for his desk, so meals were taken on the coffee table. For a few minutes they concentrated on their lunch. Because they’d overslept that morning, neither had eaten breakfast.

“Tell me about your dad,” Lisa said, pausing between halves of her sandwich. “What was he like?”

Jason wiped his fingers on one of the cheap deli napkins and thought about an answer to her question. “He was a man.”

“Well, I kind of assumed that.”

“No.” Jason shook his head. “Not just an adult male, but a man. There’s a difference.”

Lisa looked intrigued. “I’m listening…”

“He was strong and tough as anyone. I don’t think he was sick the entire time I was growing up. I know he never set foot in a doctor’s office unless it was for one of us kids, or when Mom got sick. He was a commercial fisherman until us kids came along, then, because Mom thought fishing was too dangerous, managed the cannery until he retired. Both are tough jobs that employ tough people.”

Lisa nodded and took a bite of the second half of her sandwich.

“But the same tough guy never raised a hand against his wife, never belittled us kids when we screwed up, never made us feel stupid. Life wasn’t perfect, by any means, but growing up I never doubted my parents loved each other and that both loved us kids.” He looked at her. “There’s an awful lot of people who can’t say that.”

Lisa hooked an errant lock of hair behind her ear. Her own parents had divorced when she was in grade school. Both remarried within a few years and she’d spent her childhood bouncing back and forth between the households.

Jason smiled as a memory came to him. “We had a dog when I was growing up, a goofy mutt named Festus.”

“Festus?” Lisa frowned.

“Festus,” he grinned. “It was the name of the lame deputy on Gunsmoke; my dad was a big fan.”


“Hey, I didn’t pick the name. I just loved that dog the way a little boy does. He was as much a part of my family as my brother, my mom, or my dad.”

“Like Hector.”

“Like Hector,” he admitted. “Anyway, one day when I was nine or ten, Festus wouldn’t get up when I went to feed him in the morning. He’d never done that before. I went and got my dad, who explained that Festus was fourteen years old, really old for a dog, and dying.”

“Oh man.”

Jason nodded. “He explained to my brother, Jeremy, and me that everything dies sooner or later and that the best thing we could do for Festus was be there so he wouldn’t be scared. My father, the tough guy fisherman, sat down on the floor with us and took Festus’ head in his lap while me and Jeremy knelt down beside him. He held Festus’ head and stroked him and told him what a good boy he was, while Jeremy and I petted his back. We sat there like that until he finally stopped breathing.”

For a few moments, neither of them said anything. The remains of the sandwiches lay on the wax paper, forgotten, unwanted.

“He sounds like he was a really good man.”

For the first time all day, the loss of his father was beginning to feel real. He thought he might prefer the way it was before.

“You’ve never talk about him much.”

“Dad and I were never that close,” he said. “Not as close as I think either of us wanted.”

“Why’s that?” Lisa pinched off a corner of her sandwich and slipped the tidbit into her mouth.

“I don’t know. We just never had all that much in common. I think if my dad and I were just two men, unrelated, we’d be acquaintances, but not really friends.” He looked at her. “Know what I mean?”


“I was the artsy one, the one who took after Mom. Jeremy was the one who took after Dad. He was the football and basketball star, the hunter, the soldier. I sometimes thought Dad couldn’t quite figure me out.”

“What do you mean, ‘figure you out’?”

He paused for a moment, searching for a good example. “It’s easy to show your support for your kid when they’re a running back on the football team. You go to the games. You celebrate their touchdowns. You save their clippings from the paper. That’s easy. How do you show the same amount of support for your other kid who was named editor of the school newspaper? Then editor of the yearbook? There’s no cheering section for that.” Jason shrugged. “I don’t think he ever really figured that out.”

The dryer buzzed.

Lisa was on her feet before Jason could react. “I’ll get it.”

“I can do my own laundry, you know.”

She leaned over to kiss his cheek. “Since you won’t let me come along to help you up there, doing your laundry lets me help you down here. Besides, I’m going to have to head to my seminar soon. You’re on your own after that.”

She hugged him then, kissed him again, and went off to fold his dry clothing. Jason remained on the sofa, staring at the remains of their sandwiches on the coffee table. After a moment, he reached over and began to re-wrap his sandwich. He was no longer hungry.

After Lisa left to attend her seminar, Jason worked on finishing his laundry, then packing the clean and folded clothing into a suitcase, then a second suitcase. He was going to be gone for several days, possibly a week or more, and the weather would be a factor. It was October, which meant he could be looking at everything from sunny days with highs in the eighties, to wind and rain, and even an outside chance of snow. In addition to underwear, jeans, slacks, various shirts and sweaters, he also packed a set of thermal underwear, a pair of wool socks, and a knit watch cap.

Finally, he pulled his only dark suit from its spot at the side of his closet and brushed the dust off the shoulders. Obviously, he didn’t wear it very often. He was more of a sport coat kind of guy, but during his senior year of college his father had insisted that a new graduate needed a suit. They’d spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon shopping the city’s menswear shops before deciding on this particular suit. Despite Jason’s protests, his dad had insisted on paying for the whole thing, including the alterations. He’d called it an early graduation gift.

It had been a memorable afternoon, just himself and his dad, wandering around the clothing shops of downtown Seattle; lunching on burgers and a beer at a hole-in-the-wall pub near Pike Street, then another beer; watching the fishing boats coming in to the docks on the waterfront. It had been the first time they’d spent any serious time together that was less father-and-son and more as simply two grown men sharing an afternoon.

He wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

He slipped the suit into a garment bag along with a couple of ties that seemed appropriate and added that to the pile of luggage near the door. For a moment, he stood there and scanned the apartment, trying to think of anything else he might need. Nothing immediately came to mind.

Lisa had insisted he spend the night at her place. She’d even offered to cook him dinner. He had offered no resistance. As a result, he would be leaving from there in the morning, not here, so he needed to make sure he didn’t forget anything.

He smiled suddenly to himself. You’d think he was going across the country, not just a couple of hours upstate. If he did forget something critical, it wasn’t like he couldn’t come back and get it.

Still, he wandered from room to room, double checking his mental list as he went.

He came to his desk and stood looking at his laptop and briefcase, lying among the piles of paper and file folders. They were the tools of his trade. He wasn’t originally going to take them because he wasn’t going up there to work; he was going up there to bury his father. Now he was having second thoughts. First of all, they were his toolkit in exactly the same way wrenches were a mechanic’s. Without all the contact information, software, and accumulated notes they contained, he would be worthless as a reporter. He almost never let them out of his sight for more than a few hours at a time. Now he was going to leave them in his empty apartment for a week?

What if Debbie called with a question about the Road Department story? He added his briefcase and his laptop to the pile of luggage at the door.

He already felt better, more complete. The sensation he was forgetting something had gone.

As he stood there, wondering what to do with himself for the hour or so until he’d head over to Lisa’s, his eyes fell on the pile of unopened mail sitting on the kitchen counter. He walked over and began to sort through it, pitching the junk into the trash, saving the bills to deal with later, and concentrating his attention on the few items that seemed interesting.

One envelope in particular drew his interest. It was a 9×6 manila, with his name and address handwritten in blue ink on the front. There was no return address. The postmark, though smeared, looked like it said Port Salish. His hometown. His dad’s hometown.

He examined the handwriting again, trying to determine whether it was his dad’s. Unfortunately, his dad was not a letter writer by nature and Jason wasn’t familiar enough with his writing to say whether it was, or not. Still, who else would send him something from Port Salish?

Jason opened the envelope and pulled out a photograph. A young Asian man stood at the stern of a boat. He wore faded jeans, a coat and knit cap and squinted unsmiling into the camera. Behind him on the left lay blue water bordered by dark ridges of forested land. To the right were the crowded boats and tangled masts of a marina. Port Salish harbor.

It was the standard souvenir photo his dad took for all his charter customers. But it was usually given to the customer. Why did he send it to Jason? He flipped the photo over, but there was nothing written on the back. Nothing written on it at all, no name, no date, nothing.

He returned to the envelope, shook it, then peered inside. There was nothing else. He’d hoped there’d be a note of explanation, something at the very least to identify the man in the photo. But there was nothing. Just the photo of an unidentified Asian man.

So why had his dad sent it? Apparently, he thought there was enough significance in the photo itself to make a note unnecessary.

He examined the photo again, trying to see what his dad had wanted him to see. The man in the photo was unremarkable. He looked to be of average height and build and a complete stranger to Jason. He studied the face for several minutes, but couldn’t kindle even a spark of familiarity. There was nothing in the background that caught his attention and nothing strange about the part of the boat he could see. It had to be something about the man. But the only unusual thing he could find was the fact that the man wasn’t smiling. Usually his dad’s clients were beaming when he took their photo. This man wasn’t. If anything, he looked grim.

Muffled voices sounded in the corridor outside Jason’s door. A second later he heard the unmistakable giggle of Trudy Benson. Her husband, Don, wouldn’t be far away. The two were nearly inseparable. They had lived in the next apartment ever since Jason had first moved in and the three had become friends over the years. He needed to ask if they would watch his apartment and collect his mail while he was gone.

He slipped the photograph into his inside jacket pocket and went to talk to his neighbors.


Deception Island: a scene

Okay folks, the following is a scene from the novel I’m currently working on, a suspense thriller entitled Deception Island. (I’ve posted a few excerpts before, some may remember). In this particular scene though, I’m not entirely sure I like how I’ve portrayed what happens, so I thought I’d seek your opinions. So please let me know what you think, or if you have any suggestions or criticism. I thank you in advance.

Now a little background in order to set up the scene.

Jason, the lead character, and his friends, “Danny” (Danielle) and Lisa, are running from both a private army and the police. A source, named Rebecca, tells them she has some documents they need to fight their enemies. Jason and his friends very much suspect it’s a trap, but need the documents. They decide to set up a meeting at a Safeway store.

This is what happens next.

The plan was fairly simple, as the best plans usually were. Danny drove the Volkswagen into town and circled the Safeway parking lot until a spot opened up that gave them an unobstructed view of the north entrance, where the meeting was to take place. Danny had scanned the vehicles in the lot and did not see any that belonged to officers she knew.

Danny was to remain in the car and keep an eye on the vehicles and people in the parking lot.

Lisa adjusted her wig, got out, grabbed a shopping cart and leisurely shopped for the groceries they needed, all the while watching for shoppers who didn’t seem to be shopping, or store employees who were paying unusual attention to what was going on outside the store.

Jason climbed out of the car with Lisa, but instead of going into the store, pulled the hood of the raincoat over his head and went to slouch against the wall between two vending machines, about fifty feet from the entrance doors. He hoped everyone would see him as just another twenty-something slacker, waiting for a ride. He appeared to be fixated with working his cell, but that was just for show. He was actually watching everything and everyone around him.

The store was still pretty busy. It was the tail end of the dinner rush and now most of the customers were lone adults picking up last minute things. A few folks had kids in tow, but they were outnumbered by men leaving with a gallon of milk and loaf of bread, or tired-looking women in business clothes carrying a box of fried chicken from the deli.

Jason scanned each person as they came within view, but saw no ear buds. No one seemed unusually interested in the store’s entryway. No one said a word into their wrists.

It was all perfectly normal.

A text came in from Lisa. Nothing.

It was ten minutes to the meeting. If this was indeed a trap, if Rebecca were working for Lundgren or the cops, their people would have to be in place by now.

He sent a quick text to Danny. Anything?

All clear.

Another text from Lisa. Can’t stall much more.

Finish up and head to the car.


Five minutes later, Lisa pushed her shopping cart out of the store and over to the car. Danny didn’t get out to help her load the groceries. She had more important things to do, like watch for Rebecca.

Lisa finished loading the groceries into the trunk of the Volkswagen and climbed into the passenger seat. The rain continued to fall in a steady, windless downpour. Jason was beginning to feel the chill in his hands and feet.

His Tracfone signaled an incoming text from Danny. She’s here. Your 12 o’clock.

He glanced up and spotted the secretary walking across the dark parking lot, an umbrella protecting her from the rain. She had changed into jeans and sneakers since he’d last seen her and wore a camel-colored cloth overcoat against the chill. She held a manila envelope in her right hand. The other clutched the umbrella handle.

Jason watched as she waited for a passing car, then crossed over to the shelter of the entrance portico, closed her umbrella and glanced around, looking for him. Apparently, his disguise was effective. Her eyes passed over him without recognition and she turned to face the parking lot, waiting.

The flow of customers into and out of the store had slowed by a few degrees. As far as Jason could tell, none of them took any notice of Rebecca.

He sent a text to Danny. Anything?


I’m going in.


Jason took one more look around, saw nothing that aroused his survival instinct, then pushed himself away from the wall.

Rebecca had her back to him, but had shifted a little away from the store’s doorway to get out of the traffic.

He approached her from behind. “Rebecca?”

She started, turned, and broke into a smile when she recognized him under the hood. “Oh, hi.”

“Hi,” he replied and pointedly looked at the manila envelope in her hand. “Those the leases?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a car pull out of the parking area beyond Rebecca and move toward the exit. It seemed to be going a little fast.

Rebecca handed him the envelope. “Every one I could find.”

“No one knows you did this?”

She shook her head. “I was care–”

Someone set off a string of firecrackers. Rebecca grunted and her eyes went wide, then she fell against him. Jason tried to catch her, but lost his balance and went over backwards with Rebecca draped over him. Something smacked the back of his head. As if firecrackers weren’t enough, the delinquents now threw rocks at them. They smacked the concrete and against the side of the store. Someone yelled. Jason found himself staring up at the underside of the portico as stars whirled before his eyes, wondering why kids would do this? They think it was funny? Didn’t they have anything better to do?

Then it went silent.

Someone was sobbing.

Jason tried to push himself up, but his right arm refused to work. No pain. It just wouldn’t do what he wanted.

He managed to slide out from under Rebecca. She wasn’t moving. She would never move again. Part of her skull above her left ear was missing. Jason could clearly see the pinkish tissue of her brain.

He managed to get to his feet, stumbled a bit, then regained his balance. The front of his raincoat was covered with blood. More blood dripped from his right hand and something warm was trickling down his neck.


He looked over just as Lisa leaped from the passenger seat of the Volkswagen, just feet away. “Oh my God! Are you hurt?”

He shook his head.

“Come on!” Danny yelled through the open car door.“We need to go!”

Lisa tried to help him, but he shook her off, picked up Rebecca’s manila envelope and half climbed, half fell into the back seat of the car.

Danny had it moving before the door even closed.

“What the hell happened?” Jason asked.

“Drive by shooting,” Danny said, glancing up at him in the rearview. “They came out of nowhere. There was nothing I could do.”

The initial shock was wearing off. His right arm began to throb and still hung useless. His hand felt like it was on fire and the back of his head ached something terrible.

He was still in better shape than Rebecca.

“Jason, your hand,” Lisa said. Her face was white, her eyes wide and glistening. “Look at your hand.”

He did. There was a neat little hole through the flesh between his thumb and index finger. It looked like someone had stabbed him with a pencil. A steady flow of blood ran across his hand and dripped on to the floor boards.

He’d been shot.


Deception Island: Chapter Four, scenes 1 & 2

More samples of my newest project, currently under revision (again. still).

The memory was as clear and sharp as if it had only happened yesterday.

He and Jeremy sat in the captain’s chairs at the stern of his father’s boat, The Lady L, each of them gripping their rods as if expecting a salmon to jerk them overboard at any second. Their dad sat behind the wheel of the boat, steering around the other fishermen on the Sound and keeping the engine at a good trolling speed. It was Labor Day weekend. Jason was twelve.

The late summer sun was warm on his face and hands and flashed in a zillion tiny jewels among the waves. The sky was cloudless overhead. A light westerly breeze cooled the air just enough to make a sweatshirt comfortable and bore the scent of cedar from the nearby islands to mix with the smells of sea salt and diesel exhaust. The Lady L’s engine grumbled like a tiger purring.

It was heavenly.

“Hey Jason?” his dad called from his seat at the wheel.

Jason turned back toward his father. He thought the man would never look more relaxed, more at home, than sitting there in faded jeans and a flannel shirt, his feet shoved into rubber boots, one hand comfortably minding the boat’s wheel, while watching his sons work their rods. This was where his father was meant to be, not in a shirt and tie in some office above the cannery floor.

“Yeah?” he said.

His dad nodded toward something off the stern on the starboard quarter. “See that twenty-foot Bayliner a hundred-fifty yards out?”

Jason turned back to the stern and quickly spotted the boat his dad was talking about. It was a big, open cockpit number with only a windscreen as protection from the elements; what his dad called a “fair weather” boat. A figure standing near the stern straightened up with a fishing rod and cast his bait out over the stern. His red plaid shirt looked unnaturally bright against the white of the boat.

“I see it,” Jason said.

“What’s he doing wrong?”

It was a test.

Jason glanced to his brother for help, but Jeremy, four years older and a veteran of many such tests, had suddenly grown gravely concerned about the action of his reel. He didn’t even seem aware of the question. Jason was on his own.

What was the guy doing wrong? Jason bought a little time by reeling in some line to reposition his bait. Mentally, he scrambled for an answer. For the correct answer. He knew his dad was looking for one in particular. But what was it?

“It ain’t that hard a question, son,” his dad prodded. “What’s he doing wrong?”

Jason watched the man settle back in a captain’s chair and pour something from a bright silver thermos into a cup. Coffee probably, though something harder wasn’t out of the question. Many fisherman spent the afternoon getting wasted out here. His dad said it was fine as long as they weren’t piloting the boat. Piloting a boat drunk was just as stupid as driving a car drunk; both could get everybody killed. It was one of THE RULES.

Like someone had flipped a switch, he had the answer his dad was looking for.

“He doesn’t have a buddy with him.”

“Give the man a cigar!” his dad said. “Naw, you’re too young, but I believe I will.”

He fished a cigar out of a shirt pocket, then lit it with his lucky Zippo. Jeremy, who had been paying attention after all, playfully slugged Jason on the shoulder. Jason slugged him back.

“Now remind me, son. Why should he have a buddy with him?”

“Because there’s no one there to help him if he gets hurt or falls overboard.”

“Exactly. Rule number one is–?”

Both boys answered together. “Never take a boat out alone farther than you can swim back.”

“And how far can you swim?”

“Not far with a busted head,” Jeremy said.

His dad’s laughter echoed over the blue waters of the Sound.

The islands appeared on the horizon like a smudge of charcoal in the crease of a gray canvas. The whole world was gray. The rain had stopped earlier this morning, but it had left a high overcast hiding the sky behind a curtain of ink-washed cloud. Below it, running to meet the clouds at the horizon, the Sound glistened in the weak light like greasy pewter, its surface only slightly warped by a gentle swell. It was in the subtle crease where the Sound met the sky that the islands now grew.

Jason leaned against the railing just behind the ferry’s starboard bow, his hands shoved deep in his coat pockets against the damp chill, and watched the islands grow as the ferry plowed toward them. It was peaceful. The only sounds the splashing of water under the bow, the raucous scream of gulls, and the steady thrumming of the boat’s powerful engines as they pushed across the water.

He had the exterior deck all to himself this morning. It was well past tourist season. His fellow travelers this morning were all regulars, people whose jobs demanded they ride this ferry early on Tuesday morning. They’d seen the view countless times before and would countless times again; they chose to spend their time in the warmth of the cabin with a coffee and the morning paper.

Jason had seen the view before himself, but was too restless to sit inside and wait
He had also read The News this morning. The story about Stevenson he’d briefed Debbie on yesterday ran on the lower part of the front page, under a byline crediting both himself and Debbie. The story was good. Debbie had kept to the outline he’d already sketched out, but added some nice quotes that really fleshed it out.

He sent Debbie a text now. Nice job on the story.

The reply came within a minute. Thanks. I had help. How are you?

Okay. On ferry now.

Let me know if I can do anything.

I will. Thanks.

The islands were now close enough that Jason could begin to make out individual features: the blunt point of Mt. Shaw, the highest spot on Ebey Island at a whole 450 feet, the whitewater marking the shoreline of Deception Island to the right, the occasional flash of color marking a house among the forest. They were still too far away to see any real detail.

Jason pulled the photo from his coat pocket and looked at it again. He’d probably looked at the mysterious man’s face two hundred times since opening the envelope yesterday afternoon. He still had no idea who the man was or why his dad thought him important.

The man’s identity would be the second question he intended to answer. The first was what had really happened to his dad. He simply could not believe that his father just fell overboard and drowned. He’d even looked up the weather conditions for Friday and Saturday. It had been mild on the Sound around Ebey Island, with temperatures in the low fifties, a steady rain, and winds barely breaking ten knots. His dad would have called it “bathtub” conditions, certainly nothing he couldn’t handle.

And, of course, there had been the rule his dad had drummed into both his boys: you never went out on the Sound alone. Had his father broken his own rule the day he died?

Jason sensed, rather than heard, the cabin door open and close behind him. He glanced over as a tall, powerfully built man in a black overcoat paused to light up a cigarette. He was absolutely bald, not even a shadow of stubble. The man got his cigarette going, nodded at Jason, and leaned back against the cabin wall.

There was no smoking in the cabin, of course.

Jason returned the nod, slipped the photo back into his pocket and turned back toward the islands.

His cell phone chirped that he’d received a text. He fished the phone out of his pocket and opened it. The text was from Lisa, who would be getting ready for school right now.

How’s it going? Her text read.

On ferry now. Be there in 10.

Good luck. Miss you already.

Me too. Call you tonight.

He closed the phone.

The timbre of the thrumming engines changed under his feet. The ferry’s bow began turning as if the captain intended to pass to the left of the island. But Jason knew it was merely the maneuver that would begin their approach to the landing at Port Salish. The captain was positioning the boat.

He had watched countless times as his dad had made the same maneuver heading back from a day of fishing.

Now he would never be able to see it again.

The islands were now close enough to make out details: the ornate Victorian roof and towers of the Lundgren house high above the bay; the baby blue rectangle of the water tower on the upper slopes of Mt. Shaw. Jason could even pick out the jewels that were cars moving along the Shoreline Road.

He could not see the town itself yet because the body of Deception Island was in the way, which explained how Deception Island got its name. The early explorers had thought it was part of the main island. Only when Ebey Island was fully charted was it determined that a narrow channel actually separated the two bodies. Thus its name.

The ferry completed its maneuver, turned to starboard and headed into the channel between the islands.

The smoker coughed behind him. Jason glanced back in time to see him light a second cigarette and drop the first onto the deck. The man caught his eye and shrugged through the cigarette smoke.

Jason turned back to the islands. Now he could clearly see the Victorian castle Lars Lundgren had built on the heights of Lundgren Point where he could keep an eye on his domain. His descendants still lived there as far as Jason knew. The yellow paint certainly looked fresh. A long set of white wooden stairs led from the house to a dock where a launch was tied.

The ferry passed a shoulder of land on the left and began a left turn into Salish Bay. Ahead lay the little town of Port Salish, clustered on a shelf of land and the adjoining slopes at the head of the bay.
The Captain got on the PA system and announced their arrival at Port Salish.


Jason turned away from the rail and started back toward the cabin.

The smoker apparently had similar ideas. He was already gone.


Deception Island: Chapter Three

In which we are introduced to the primary antagonist for the first time:

Chapter 3

Taylor Smith wasn’t actually bald. He did have the receding hairline of many men in their late forties, but actually had quite a lot of hair. He spent several minutes every morning carefully shaving his scalp just like he shaved his beard. It was a habit he’d picked up as a young man in the Marines, continued in his time as a cop, and now was second nature. Trouble was, sometimes he missed a spot, like just above and behind his right ear.

And it drove him batty.

He self-consciously touched the line of stubble now as he took one of the chairs in front of the Director’s desk. It was full dark, well past normal office hours and the lights of Seattle’s business district lit up the windows of the office. It was really quite dazzling.

“Anything to report?”

“Not much,” Smith answered, willing his hand down into his lap. “He appears to be in for the night. He’s probably going up to Port Salish in the morning.”

“I assume there will be nothing to find when he get there.” The old man sipped from a tumbler of scotch, his preferred refreshment this time of night. He had not offered any to Smith and Smith had not expected him to. If he had, Smith would have had to decide whether to shoot him right there.

“Of course.”

The old man nodded, seemed to consider his next question for a moment.

“Do we think he’s going to be a problem?”

“It’s too early to tell. So far, he’s done nothing a grieving son wouldn’t do, but it’s early.”

“How big a problem could this be?”

“Worst case scenario? He has the potential to be a disaster.”

“He’s that good?”

Smith nodded and touched the line of stubble behind his ear again. “You read the paper. You’ve seen his file. He’s very good at what he does. He also has the medium to reach a wide audience and a reputation that will make that audience listen. Just ask Councilman Stevenson.”

The old man snorted. “Stevenson is a moron.”

“A moron that’s won five straight elections.”

The old man downed the rest of his whiskey in a single swallow and set the tumbler on his polished desktop with a thud. “I assume we have contingency plans to deal with this if it does become a problem?”

“Of course. That’s what you pay me for.”

“Really?” The old man peered at Smith. It was like meeting the gaze of a rattlesnake. “Seems to me you were supposed to take care of this problem a couple of weeks ago. Yet here we are.”

Smith refused to be intimidated, but he lowered his hand into his lap again. “It is what it is. We deal with it. This is the wrong business if you’re expecting perfection.”

The old man nodded. Just barely. “So what is your recommendation?”

“We sit tight and continue to watch him. We should know in the next few days how big a threat he’s going to be, or whether he’ll be a threat at all.”

“Either way,” the old man told him. “I want this problem eliminated by the end of the week. Understood?”

Smith nodded. “Understood.”