Whitney Dagner is your tour guide to a Pacific paradise that's to die for—only to find it's a place people are also willing to kill for—in Gabby Allan's Much Ado About Nauticaling, first in the Whit and Whiskers Mystery series.
After far too many years in the Los Angeles corporate world, Whitney Dagner has come home to Santa Catalina Island off the California coast to help her brother Nick run Nautically Yours, the family tourism business. Between gift shop shifts selling all manner of T-shirts and tchotchkes and keeping her feline Whiskers in fine fettle, she pilots the Sea Bounder, a glass bottom boat showing tourists the underwater sights of aquatic plants, marine life—and a murder victim?
The self-proclaimed "Master of the Island," Jules Tisdale was a wealthy man with business interests throughout Catalina who was about to be honored as Person of the Year before someone strangled him with his own tie and tossed his body into the water. That someone appears to be Nick, who had a raw deal from Jules and no alibi the night of his murder. To clear her brother's name, Whit will have to investigate Jules' shady associates and not exactly grief-stricken family members—with the unwelcome help of Felix Ramirez, police diver and Whit's ex-boyfriend who's looking to rekindle their relationship.
Release date: July 27, 2021
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
Reader says this book is...: entertaining story (1) quirky supporting cast (1) rich setting(s) (1)
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Much Ado about Nauticaling
Quietly opening my front door to avoid being followed by my cat, Whiskers, or waking up my roommate, Maribel Hernandez, I ran through all the excuses I could give to my brother, Nick, for being late to work—if he was there to ask me why I wasn’t on time.
Maybe I had fallen in the shower. I’d actually done that at least twice in my new cramped shower stall, anyway.
Or maybe I had locked myself out of the house. That I had done three times so far since I’d left mainland California for Santa Catalina Island a month ago.
Perhaps I had been visited by a neighbor wanting to borrow some kale. Not that I had any of that healthy stuff, and my neighbors knew it. I, Whitney Dagner, a self-confessed eater of all things not good for you.
Something would come to me while I zoomed down to the harbor in my flashy golf cart—what the locals called an autoette—passing the tightly packed houses on my street. They came in all colors from dust to fire-hydrant red, and the styles were just as varied. Window boxes filled with cactuses and trailing bougainvillea dotted the fronts, sometimes contrasting with the color of the house and sometimes making the dull browns pop as a backdrop. Some were big; some were little, like mine. And they all fit together like canned sardines on the street with the sea scenting the air.
Bouncing along at top speed (of seventeen miles per hour), the breeze raking through my short hair, I waved to people taking walking tours and others just strolling along our narrow streets. I was especially careful not to plow anyone down in my haste. It wasn’t driving the 405 in Los Angeles, but it could be quite the maze down to the harbor, especially in the summer.
I parked my little zipster at the pier with a screech of tires and then booked it down the wide wood planks. My brother was nowhere in sight, but that was fine with me since I hadn’t come up with anything better than the kale thing. And he wouldn’t have believed that anyway.
A sigh of relief escaped me and then another one of pleasure as I took in my beauty at the end of the dock. The Sea Bounder was a lovely forty-eight-foot vessel custom-made right here on the island. My glass-bottom boat in all her glory. She’d been in our family for years and had done more tours than even I could count. The brass fittings shone in the sunlight, and being near her felt like coming home.
Stepping from the dock to the white deck, I breathed in the ocean air and smiled. This was the life. I’d let go of the stress of the desk job world in Long Beach and moved twenty-two miles across the Pacific Ocean to embrace the calm and freedom of island living. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but I welcomed this second chance to follow my dreams. (Well . . . third, but I wasn’t going to think about that now.)
The boat had a rectangular open-air deck before the sliding door to the interior. Time to clean up and then get ready to sail the open waters. But first I just listened to the wavelets lapping against the side of the vessel and breathed in the salty tang of the sea.
The sun rode high in the sky out over the water as I grabbed a cloth and my faithful bottle of glass cleaner. This was not my favorite part of the job, but it was necessary. I swiped the cloth over the glass insert to start the cleaning process, then stepped inside to the cool, dim interior of my family’s legacy.
The Dagner family had been running tours for generations now and my brother and I were the next in line. Twelve years ago, I’d thought I’d wanted in on the corporate world and had worked at the rail yard. It was time well spent, nothing was ever wasted, but I was glad to have waved bon voyage to that life and return here to sink back into all the things I’d thought I’d wanted to get away from.
While fluffing seat cushions, checking for life jackets in the hulls, making sure the floor was swept and the glass was clean, I hummed a little sea shanty to myself. Something bawdy and full of drinking and thieving references that I’d learned at my dad’s knee over twenty years ago. It made me snicker to think about the words and helped cover the sadness that I hadn’t seen the man for just as long. He’d taken off for parts unknown without an explanation shortly after I’d turned six, so I held onto the good times I’d had with him. My mom had stuck around until I graduated high school and then took off, too. It was harder to hold onto good memories with her since they were mixed with growing up with the anger and bitterness of someone who’d been abandoned, but I tried.
Shaking off the memories, I popped onto the website for Nautically Yours, our umbrella company name, to see our reviews and was rewarded with some very glowing five stars and of course a not-so-five-star from a couple I distinctly remembered from last week. They’d wanted a refund because during their tour on the glass-bottomed boat I hadn’t managed to take them over a whale. In the shallows of Avalon Bay that wasn’t going to happen anyway, and I’d tried to explain that to them as patiently as I explained to Whiskers that sometimes I had to leave the house so my lap was not always open for snuggles and belly rubs.
But apparently these people had taken it upon themselves to blast Nautically Yours. Well, I’d just have to get some people on the island to say nicer things. These tours this afternoon should go a long way toward keeping our reviews positive. I’d make sure the journey was delightful for the two families and all things professional and casual for the Chamber of Commerce people who would be touring in between.
In the meantime, I checked reservations and dreamed of someday. Someday, I was going to get a boat full of people who said nice things and cooed about how awesome the tour was and thanked me for my service in towing them around the island of Catalina.
Someday, people would not let their children run screaming through the boat and jump off the wooden seats I polished every night. I enjoyed children mostly, but the screaming part not so much. But someday would probably not be today. And tomorrow probably wouldn’t be either, from the looks of the schedule. More summer camp trips and big vacation groups. People looking to escape from their everyday lives to our little slice of heaven.
And with it being near the Fourth of July, the family groups were out in full force. They came to celebrate the holiday, renting houses and going out to restaurants, bringing their copious amounts of luggage on the huge ferries that ran several times a day from the harbors along the California coast to the harbor of Avalon. Some people jokingly called the boats “cattle boats.”
I was just thankful for the tourist dollars and the work. Running glass-bottom boat tours was only part of what I did. The other part was running my gift shop, the Dame of the Sea, on Crescent Avenue, which I absolutely adored. So I called the Catalina Express boats the ability to put food on the table and keep my gift shop running and the glass-bottomed boat up to snuff and in tip-top shape.
“Yoohoo!” I heard from outside and sighed. Goldy and Pops were here. Hopefully she had at least stopped to shower before coming here from the beach. Since retiring, my grandmother had taken to sunbathing at all hours of the day and trailing sand behind her like it was glitter.
“Permission to come aboard?” my grandfather asked, and I peeked out the starboard side to see him grinning and saluting like a true sailor. With his Greek fisherman’s hat and pipe, he looked like that guy from the fish-stick boxes in the freezer section, minus the yellow slicker.
“Permission granted,” I answered. “My first tour starts in an hour, and I still have things to do to make sure I’m on time. I don’t want Nick to yell at me.”
Pops lifted a hand to assist Goldy onto the back deck and then was the first one through the door, a frown on his rugged face, crinkling his white and gray beard. “He’d better not be yelling at you. Is he actually doing that?” He stalked down the aisle and sat on one of the benches with his shoulders back. “You just let me know and I’ll take care of him before the tide changes.”
I sat next to him and patted his knee. “Reel it in, Pops, I’m just kidding. He’s been fine. We’re super busy this week, and he’s been hiring more crew to help out.”
“I told you that made sense.” He said it gruffly but ran his hand over the seat over and over again.
“You’re sure you wanted to retire?” I bumped my shoulder into his and smiled.
“Oh, yes. Or at least that’s what Georgiana told me.”
“And it was time, Thomas,” Goldy piped in, walking down the stairs, thankfully dressed in cropped pants and a light sweater instead of one of her many bathing suits. She had killer heels on, too, ones even I wouldn’t have dared to try during my office job days and certainly not on a boat. The woman had decided early on that she was not going to age like everyone else, so we’d never been allowed to call her any of the normal names for grandmother. No Grandma, no Nana, no Grammy or Granny, just Goldy. And Goldy also kept her hair highlighted every six weeks and refused to let go of her high heels.
“Yes, dear,” Pops answered.
Brushing a hand down his arm, she smiled. “We can live now instead of being anchored to this business. It’s in good hands.” She bussed me on the cheek as she walked by, then leaned over the wooden box framing one of the windows in the floor of the boat. “You have a smudge here, dear. You’re going to want to take care of that before the people arrive.”
I held in my sigh and stopped myself from rolling my eyes. I had a feeling that no matter how long we owned the business, my brother and I would never truly be able to get away from being told how to do our jobs. I understood to some extent—Goldy and Pops had run tours for fifty years before handing the business over, and it made sense that they wouldn’t be able to totally let go.
I’d just have to keep that thought forefront in my mind every time she used the white glove treatment on the boat, the semi-submersible, or my gift shop. She meant her advice in the best possible way. I’d have to remind myself of that too. “We have a group tour at three, the private group at five, and then another group tour at eight. I still have thirty minutes.”
“It doesn’t look like you’ve gotten much done here if you arrived on time.” She raised an eyebrow at me. “I heard something about someone whipping along the road as if her tail was on fire not ten minutes ago.”
I had thought I’d gone unnoticed, but in a town this little, where everyone watched out for their own, I had been fooling myself. “I was running a little late, but I’ll still get everything spiffed up in time. No worries.” I wondered who’d told on me. I also knew better than to ask.
Goldy just smiled and placed a kiss on Pops’s forehead. “Then we’ll get out of your hair, which looks divine now that you let Abby cut it, by the way. So much more relaxed than that severe style you had when you got here last month.”
I put my hand up to the layered bob I’d let the girl at the La Fluencia spa talk me into. I loved it too and the natural wave was so much better than all the product I used to put in when I was shooting for a corner office. “Thanks.”
“Of course, dear. I’d never steer you wrong, you know that. Now, Thomas, let’s go so the girl can do her job. This isn’t ours anymore.”
As quick as she came on, she also went off, tiny bits of sand trailing off the bottoms of her sparkly heels. I was going to have to get the broom back out.
“You know you can come back whenever you want,” I whispered to Pops when she was out of earshot. “Give a tour just to keep your hand in. I’m sure Nick wouldn’t mind. And Goldy’s always out on the beach so she’d probably never know.”
With that he snorted. “Oh, she’d know all right, and it’s okay. I have a trip planned to do some fishing and I’m going camping next weekend. I’ll find things to keep myself entertained. Plus, you’re keeping me very busy making all those treasure maps for the kids who come in your store.”
He rose from the bench and I rose with him. After giving him a hug, I waved him off the boat, got that smudge on the glass, and swept the floor one more time.
My cell phone rang fifteen minutes before my first tour group was due. Since it was Nick, I decided I should probably answer it.
“How’s it going?” he asked, not saying hello back after I’d answered.
“Good. We can do this, brother of mine. I promise. I know it’s only my fourth voyage since moving back but I’m not new at this.”
“I know, I know. But I just want it to be perfect. What if something goes wrong and Goldy and Pops feel like they have to come back out of retirement to straighten things out? Those bigwigs who are coming in could make or break us.”
Staring out at the beach through the open window, I brought out the big guns. “You know, ‘bigwigs’ is a literal term that originated in the 1700s. Back then, many European noblemen wore big wigs to showcase their wealth or significance in society. The bigger the wig, the more money they had. Do you think they had to duck under doorways if they had too much money? Did men topple over in their vanity because their center of gravity was all askew?” I secretly smiled to myself as I wiped down the railing. If he was going to be a nervous nelly, then I was going to have to irritate him to get his mind off what could go wrong. It was as simple as that.
Nick sighed and it crackled over the line. Good enough.
My smile grew. “Beyond that beautiful tidbit of the English language, which you did not appreciate nearly enough, I am very much capable of showing some corporate rowdies a good time. So why don’t you run along? Go do what you need to do in Murrieta. As always, it’ll all be well under control when you get back.”
“I hope so. This is important, Whit.”
Reminding myself that this was his livelihood too, I took a discreet breath before answering. “Seriously, Nick. I was doing this for years before I left and whenever I came back for vacation, so I know what I’m doing, just as much as you do. You’re worrying too much over nothing.” It always helped to remind him that I was not a guppy at this whole sailing/touring thing. “And I’ll be fully prepared for the Chamber of Commerce people and their celebratory cruise for the person of the year once I get this three o’clock tour done.” I wasn’t exactly impressed with the person the chamber had chosen, but then no one had asked me.
“You’ll be nice?”
“I’m always nice, oh Great Commander of the Fleet, and I know the benefits of doing a good job when it comes to people who actually recommend us instead of posting online that the tour was not exactly up to snuff.” Like the one-star review I’d found earlier. That information would not help Nick’s state of mind, so I’d keep it to myself. I was a good sister that way.
After a moment, I got a snort from Nick at my comments about being nice. Even better. Soon he’d hang up like I wanted him to.
A light breeze off the ocean ruffled my hair, and I lifted a hand to pat it back down, then decided to leave it. I said I’d be nice, not that I’d be perfect. I didn’t have to be perfect anymore.
“Fine, I trust you,” he finally conceded.
“You’d better. I know this harbor like the back of my hand. I’ve got it covered. I wish you’d believe that. Goldy and Pops do or they wouldn’t have left the business to us to run while she tans all day and he drives around like a maniac on his golf cart.” Only so many full-sized cars were allowed on the island so pretty much everyone else had a golf cart. The waiting list for a real car was rumored to be thirty-five years long. My golf cart—I had to remember to start calling it an autoette again to fit back in—was my pride and joy. It was covered in all manner of bumper stickers from the ridiculous to the profound, and the hood was a watercolor of our logo for Nautically Yours.
Even Nick had to admit it was eye-catching and brought in business.
“I do believe it, it’s just that so much rides on this kind of event. I don’t want it to go wrong. It’s not you I don’t trust, it’s everyone else.”
Well, that was something at least. “Understood, and I’ll head off anyone who is trying to cause trouble. Now, seriously, go fly into the sky like the bird you are and let’s get this show on the road. I have a few more things to set up, then I’m out on the water.”
And with it being near the Fourth of July, the family groups were out in full force so we could definitely do more walk-on tours instead of waiting for reservations. Because of our beautiful weather, the island never went completely off-season. But summer was definitely busier than any other time of year, and it was when we made the money that might have to carry us over the leaner months.
After a few more quickly exchanged warnings, Nick signed off and was gone. Finally. It wasn’t for me to worry about his anxiety over our business, though, because the first of the three o’clock tourists were running up from the beach and they had a plethora of kids in tow. Awesome.
Two hours later, I had made it through the first cruise of the day without a hitch. Even with all the kids and grandmas and parents in attendance, they were a pretty well-behaved crowd—except for the one grandma who kept trying to climb over the ledge and into the box. According to her, she’d been a professional tap dancer in her early years and thought it would be a good idea to try out her skills on the glass at the bottom of the boat.
Wrestling her away from the edge had taken more strength than I would have assumed, but I’d finally managed it with little fuss. And then she’d laughed and smacked my arm hard enough to rock me back a step and told me she was just playing. I’d kept an eye on her for the rest of the trip, just in case. Still, it wasn’t that difficult to handle, so my hope grew for the next two cruises.
After checking over the cabin again, I lowered the gangplank for the bigwigs and stood on deck with my best smile, preparing myself for lots of handshakes and chatting before they’d all ignore me like I was a barnacle on a whale.
I greeted those I knew by name and smiled and nodded at those I didn’t. There were far more of the latter than I had been told, and I was a little concerned about reaching capacity when Jules Tisdale, Person of the Year, and his wife, Tracy, finally came aboard.
“Where’s Nick?” Jules demanded when I pulled the latched door closed behind him and started making my way toward the captain’s seat.
“He had some errands to run.” Keeping it short and pleasant normally worked best with Jules, the self-proclaimed Master of the Island.
The frown on the man’s face was fierce, so I answered it as best I could with a smile.
“The ride will be wonderful. You’re in good hands.” When he continued to frown, I tried another tack. “I promise I know what I’m doing.”
“You’d better,” he said in a threatening tone.
No matter how hard it was, I kept my smile in place and walked away from him. Only then did I let myself grumble and only under my breath. “I do know what I’m doing, Mr. High and Mighty, and I’m going to make thi. . .
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