Take in the wild beauty of Santa Catalina Island with tour guide and eclectic gift shop owner Whitney Dagner. On the itinerary: dramatic Pacific coastlines, diverse marine life, and murder!
Since returning home from mainland California and finding her groove with the family tourism business, Whitney Dagner's daily routine has become a wonderfully chaotic adventure. She and her nimble kitty, Whiskers, often find themselves at the center of the action on Catalina, from staged treasure hunts to gossipy birdwatchers. But before Whit can get too comfortable in the place where she grew up, a gift shop order leads to a stunning discovery—someone's dead body . . .
One of Whit's best boat tour clients, Leo Franklin was young and newly engaged when he unceremoniously took his own life. Only it doesn't seem like that's what really happened—not after the suspicious activity displayed by his family's old rivals at the scene of his death. As a bitter, generations-long feud between Leo's kin and the local Ahern clan comes to a head, Whit and her police diver not-so-ex-boyfriend must lead a dangerous investigation into years of scandal and bad blood to figure out who's innocent . . . and who's covering a killer's tracks.
Release date: July 26, 2022
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 240
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Something Fishy This Way Comes
For the seventh time in five minutes (and yes, I’d counted) I rolled my eyes as I stared down at my receipts for the day. The older man had said he was here for a gift for his granddaughter’s sixteenth birthday, but he had yet to do anything more than lean on my counter and talk my ear off. He stopped in a few times a week to shoot the breeze, and normally it was okay, but not today.
Running a boutique gift shop on the small island of Santa Catalina, off the coast of California, had been my dream and still was, now that the Dame of the Sea was actually up and running, but I hadn’t necessarily considered the fact that I’d always have to be nice to the locals. Even the ones who irritated me. And I couldn’t kick them out just because I had things to do. Well, not unless it was closing time, which was why I was watching the clock.
Ten more minutes and I could get rid of Manny Jackson and his bird stories of twitching rivalry with another resident on the island. The guy never seemed to run out of stories that constantly cast him in a great light while leaving others looking like underwater barnacles. Or at least that was his intention. In truth, that was rarely how it came across.
“We compared our notebooks of finds the other day, and he didn’t even have a bald eagle on there. Calls himself a twitcher. Not hardly. Right? He’s not a twitcher, right? I should tell him that again, shouldn’t I?” He scoffed and thumbed the side of his nose when I didn’t answer right away. I was not going to get in the middle of that argument.
The wrinkles on his forehead and the graying combover very clearly showed he was of an age where he thought he could do or say anything he wanted. And of course he could, but just maybe not in my store.
If I’d had customers in my little shop of baubles, I’d have shooed him out. But since few people had come in today, I didn’t have an excuse.
“You have to have specific birds to be considered a twitcher?” Not that his conversation had any value to me, but with only seven minutes left, it might make good business sense to interact. He was an infrequent customer, but a customer nonetheless.
Although I had a feeling at this point though that I was going to be ushering him out of the store without one of my gift bags.
“Oh, now, I don’t know about specific, but there are some that are just common sense to have in there.” He went on to list all the birds that were must-haves.
Of course he did.
I tuned back out until the front door opened and salvation came zooming into the store in the form of my best friend and roommate, Maribel Hernandez.
“Hey, Maribel, hey.” There was definitely an edge of desperation to my voice, and I didn’t even try to hide it. “Are you ready to go get something to eat?” I glanced at my clock. Three minutes left.
When I looked back up she had shock and dismay on her face and her hands were clutched together. “We’re not having dinner tonight, Whit—or are we? Did I forget? Oh, man, I hope I didn’t forget. I have a date tonight, but I can cancel it if you need me to.”
And just like that she went from happy to worrywart in two point four seconds. I called it her spiral. Usually it wasn’t that big of a deal and was easy to get her out of. But recently she’d had a lot on her mind with working the front desk at the police station and going to school for criminal justice, and I didn’t want to add to it by making her think she’d forgotten me.
“Slow down, slow down. No need to get in a bunch,” I said.
“But if I was supposed to do something with you . . .” She wrung her hands until her knuckles turned white.
“But it’s not.”
Poor Manny was turning his head at a breakneck speed to keep the speaker in his line of vision. He looked like he was watching a ferocious tennis match instead of a conversation between friends that had gone awry. And how had it gone awry?
Oh right. I’d tried to lie and that never went well for me.
“Yes?” she said and then both she and Manny looked expectantly at me.
Fortunately, I was saved from saying anything else because Manny’s phone jingled in the breast pocket of his short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt.
When he opened his ages-old flip phone, he held up a finger to let us know it was time for silence. “What do you want, Aaron Franklin, you old sea dog? I don’t have time for your shenanigans.” He cocked his head to the side as the person on the phone answered his question. “You didn’t!” Manny exclaimed. “You codger! You never did see an ashy storm petrel. That’s my bird, the one I’ve been looking for. You’re lying to me. They’re on the watch list and you darn well know it.” Another pause where he wiped his brow and squinted his eyes as if he were in pain.
Was he going to have a heart attack? Should I call the emergency responders? I looked over at Maribel, but she looked as baffled as I was.
“I’ll be right there!” Manny barked into the phone, loud enough for several people strolling along the sidewalk out front to turn their heads to look in my quaint little shop.
“You’d better have pictures,” Manny continued. “And don’t you dare scare that thing off. If you are lying to me, I’m going to hang you by your binoculars from the nearest tree. Wait for me.” With that he snapped his clamshell phone closed. There was no prying that thing away from him no matter how old it was. He didn’t like new technology.
“Gotta go,” he said, turning back to us. “Aaron, the rascal, says he saw a bird I’ve wanted in my book for ages, and he’d better be able to prove it before he puts it in that darn book of his.”
“Aaron who you were just complaining about? The one who called you a twit? Why would he even call you?”
“That one exactly. That whole family is a little squirrelly, if you don’t mind me saying so. But that’s not going to stop me from seeing what he’s got out there at the golf course.”
“But if you don’t like him, why do you do that?” I asked. “Can’t you go catch the view of the bird without interacting with him?”
“Girl, I said I didn’t trust him and he was squirrelly, not that I didn’t like him. Yeesh, us birders have to stay together. No one understands us like we do. We might not always see things the same way, but that doesn’t mean I walk away from my brothers. Unlike those Aherns, our mayor being the worst of the lot.”
Okay then, I thought as he took off out of my store, slamming the door closed behind him.
Maribel raised one dark eyebrow. “What on earth was that?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, but hopefully Aaron really saw whatever bird he was taunting Manny with, or there’s going to be a very steep price to pay. Death by binoculars. I don’t think that would be a peaceful way to go.”
Maribel snorted. “Yeah, I’d rather go quietly in my sleep. Just not anytime soon. And if you don’t get involved in anything else that’s none of your business then we should be fine.”
“That was not my fault, and it’s been weeks since I fell down that ravine as I raced to find a killer.” Actually, I’d been pushed, but we didn’t talk about that. I closed the receipts on the computer and then gave her my full attention. “So why did you come by? I thought you had things to do this afternoon.”
“What about dinner? Did I really miss that or were you just trying to get rid of Manny?”
She knew me too well. I shrugged while flashing my teeth in my best smile, and she laughed at me.
“You had me there for a minute. I really thought I had forgotten. With going to school and trying to keep up with my work schedule, I’m forgetting all kinds of things, so it wouldn’t have surprised me if I’d forgotten a dinner.”
“Nah, it was just to get him to move along.” I looked at the clock on the wall, decorated with the mountains on the island and the ocean spread out along the bottom like a carpet. “But I do have to get going. I have a chest to deliver, and I want to get it out of the way so I can go rest. It’s been a long day, even though I don’t feel like I did much of anything.”
My receipts said as much. I was going to have to give some serious thought to upping my game. My grandmother, Goldy Dagner—whose real name was Georgiana, but nobody called her that for fear of annoying her—kept trying to get me to sell different things, but I had had a specific dream when I’d opened this place and it didn’t involve carrying a menagerie of scents and soaps. I wanted to keep most of my stock handcrafted items from the locals, but I wasn’t selling as well as I’d like.
“Enough about me,” I said, not wanting to think about selling and money right now or I’d go into my own spiral. “What did you need from me that had you bustling in here all smiles before I attempted to ruin it with my inept lies?”
“Oh!” She gripped her hands together in front of her chest and rocked back and forth. “I have a date.”
“Yep, you mentioned that.”
She snorted in laughter. “Fine, then, I’m sure I didn’t tell you who it was.”
“Fabian Halston.” She squealed and I barely held in a groan.
Ugh. I glanced at the clock again and realized I should have closed the store two minutes ago. I did not have the time to drag her through the hours of reasons he was not a candidate for actual dating and hadn’t been since we’d both been teenagers. And as far as I knew, he hadn’t changed. Regardless of the fact that he was hotter than an August afternoon, he was also as dangerous as not taking your trash with you after you visited with the buffalo on the other side of the island. Since that was a protected area, you had to take it back out if you brought it in unless you wanted to pay dearly.
But this was my best friend. I couldn’t let her walk into this one blind.
I was wondering how she’d never heard the gossip about him—or if she had and just didn’t care—and was in the process of coming up with the best way to tell her to stay the hell away from the guy when Goldy walked in.
“Fabian Halston—” I began.
Goldy, in her usual way, cut me off with a flourish of her knee-length, see-through swimsuit cover-up. Always dressed for the beach, that was my grandmother. This one was royal purple and left little to the imagination. “Oh girl, you need to stay away from that one. He’s trouble and never hesitates to let you know it with that cheeky smile and those reaching hands. Takes after his uncle Milo as far as I’m concerned. He’s an Ahern through and through, even if his mother tried to pass him off as a Halston.”
“Manny was just in here complaining about Mayor Milo. He’s related to Fabian?” How did I not know that? You’d think on an island with a little over three thousand permanent residents, I’d know who was who and who was related to whom.
“I don’t know what Manny was complaining about, and I really don’t care. I just stopped in to let you know we have a delivery coming in tomorrow. And before you fight me, let me say that I paid for it with my own funds and am willing to let you take it on consignment. So be nice to the deliveryman, and I’ll be in to unpack the shipment. Don’t open it without me.” Then with a flip of her purple cover-up, she was back out the door again, just like the small tornado I thought of her as.
“Now what was that all about?” Maribel asked.
“To be honest, I have no earthly idea. But I’ve been trying to hold in my groan about the guy you want to date, and I just can’t do that, not if I really want to call myself your friend. He’s not really a good guy.”
She brushed her hand through the air as if whisking away my comment. “He doesn’t have to be the one, Whitney Dagner. I can just have an interesting conversation and a good meal out of it. I’m not against exploring my options.”
Putting a hand on my heart, I feigned hurt. “Don’t I give you good conversation? And my spaghetti last night was absolutely divine.”
With her hands on her hips, she laughed at me. “Yeah, and I had to share it with your adorable boyfriend, Felix, who I envy you for but don’t expect to get one of my own anytime soon. However, my choices are limited at the moment. I can’t exactly go out with anyone from the police department right now if I want to be taken seriously. And while I like to take in the town by myself, or with you, I’d really like to hang with someone else who sees things from a different perspective.”
“Hmm. Well, you’ll definitely get that with Fabian. Just don’t be angry if he’s not worth the time for the conversation, and make sure he at least pays his portion of the bill before he steps out to take a nonexistent phone call. It’s his MO.”
She snorted. “Fine, I’ve been warned. I know all about guys like that. Now I have to get going if I’m going to battle your cat for space in the bathroom and wrestle my curling iron away from her long enough to get ready for my date. Be careful with that treasure chest you’re burying. I still can’t forget what happened up at the sanctuary.”
I couldn’t either and worried about it sometimes. “It” being finding another body. But there hadn’t been another murder in months and Catalina Island was a relatively safe place.
“I’ve been properly warned also, then. I’m just hoping I don’t run into Manny and Aaron in the middle of a fight over twitching.”
Famous last words.
After picking up my lovely (but rascally) cat, Whiskers, from my house, I drove my golf cart over to the golf course up the hill. I figured giving Maribel the time and the cat freedom to get ready for her date was the least I owed her since said date was probably going to be awful. It shouldn’t be made worse by looking bad.
Whiskers enjoyed being out and about. There was no reason she couldn’t just come with me since I had to deliver and bury the treasure chest I’d promised to Betty Blakefield for this afternoon. The woman was surprising her husband, Grant, with some kind of dream vacation and had wanted to do a treasure hunt to prolong the anticipation.
I, of course, was totally on board with that, though I wasn’t always very keen on hiding things out by the golf course. I didn’t want anyone to accidentally get nailed with a stray golf ball when following the map my grandfather, Pops—Thomas Dagner—had made.
But that map was one of our best sellers and he loved the thing. So I had recommended it when Betty requested something that would take about an hour to find.
I’d seen Betty and her husband walking by the shop while Manny was complaining on the phone to Aaron, so I had about another thirty minutes before they came out my way. Just enough time for me to get this thing buried and then get out of the way so I wasn’t here for the big reveal.
Parking at the entrance to the golf course, I sat for a second in my flashy autoette, with its stickers and spray paint art, and took out the master map from Pops. I ran my finger over the part of the map for the golf course and found the big red X at the end of the dotted line. A soft breeze ruffled my short hair and brought the smells of the sand and sea to my attention. I closed my eyes, just for a second, to enjoy both scents. So very different from the smog and diesel I’d left behind when I’d moved here from Long Beach.
I’d need to head across the eighteenth hole and go just underneath the trees management had planted at the edge of the green. Hopefully, I could get in and out without encountering too many people. Few carts were parked in the lot with me, although that didn’t always mean anything. Almost anyone in Avalon could walk here. Heck, they could walk just about anywhere on the island if they had the time and the desire. The fewer golfers, though, the happier I’d be.
After clicking on Whisker’s leash, I stepped out of the golf cart and let her frolic as we walked through the artificial turf. She rolled, she clawed, she attempted the downward-facing dog pose to stretch out her spine, and then she trotted. Sometimes I was convinced she thought she was a dog. She’d never pranced, but she was only a few years old. There was still time for that at some point.
The trek wasn’t far, so I used the time to run through the things I had planned for the rest of the week. Dinner with the grandparents and Felix tonight, inventory over the next few days, and apparently accepting a delivery for Goldy, the grandmother who refused to be called any such thing. When my brother, Nick, and I were younger, we’d tried a host of different names for our only remaining grandmother, but she would have none of it and constantly corrected us with “Goldy” until it stuck.
Whiskers and I were at the last bend before the area I was looking for would come into sight, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to get hit by someone’s overzealous or off-target stroke.
Glancing up, I zeroed-in on the location, but instead of just a tree with a small place for a hole in the dirt at the base where I normally buried the box to be found by the customer, I found myself staring at a screaming match between Manny and Aaron, who stood next to Aaron’s golf cart.
I should never have thrown that out into the universe. She’d probably taken it as a challenge and told the moon to hold her beer.
The closer I got, the more I didn’t think they were fighting, though. Manny appeared to be trying to calm Aaron down as Aaron wrapped the strap of his binoculars around his own neck and pulled until I thought he might pop his head off. So, Manny wouldn’t have to hang him by his binocular strap since Aaron was apparently trying to do that all by himself.
Dropping the treasure box at my feet, I ran, dragging Whiskers behind me even as she yowled indignantly. Oh my gosh, this was not good. Maybe Aaron was having a raging fit because he’d lost that Ashy thing that he’d promised Manny.
Weirder things had happened, though I was having a hard time pulling anything up at the moment as my breath sawed in and out of my lungs. Running was not one of my strong suits. Beyond that, I also didn’t want to hurt . . .
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