This month, Fabulous Florida Writers is pleased to welcome guest blogger Elaine Viets. Elaine has written 12 Dead-End Job mysteries, set in South Florida. The New York Times Review of Books praises her “quick-witted mysteries.” Her bestselling Dead-End Job series is a satiric look at a serious subject – the minimum-wage world. Her second series features mystery shopper Josie Marcus. Elaine won the Agatha, Anthony and Lefty Awards. She was our featured writer on May 9, 2011
"For readers who live far from the beach, Board Stiff is a vicarious Florida vacation,” mystery reviewer Oline Cogdill said.
I wanted my twelfth Dead-End Job mystery to give readers an insider’s view of the South Florida tourism industry, beyond the glamorous beach hotels. On those same beaches, the small companies who rent ocean kayaks, Jet Skis, surfboards, paddleboards and more fight for their lives – and tourist dollars.
Board Stiff started after I read a newspaper story about a beach concession company whose equipment was vandalized right before Spring Break. It was a small step from sabotage to murder – at least in my book.
The big tourist hotels have legal teams, PR firms, ad agencies and more. The small operators navigate a maze of regulations without this help. The bad operators poach on their territory. I talked to paddleboard operators for this book. One was dismissed as a crank by some. Sadly, he’s now out of business. His story has some elements of Sunny Jim’s, the owner of the paddleboard rental company in Board Stiff.
Sunny Jim hires newlywed private eyes Helen Hawthorne and Phil Sagemont to investigate who’s ruining his business in Riggs Beach, a beach town similar to Fort Lauderdale, without the lawyers. He tells the two private eyes: “I keep a trailer – like a lawn service trailer – and rent my paddleboards, but you gotta be good to go out on the ocean. I also give lessons at Riggs Lake: one hour of personal instruction and a half hour of practice for a hundred bucks. The water is quieter and calmer on the lake. It’s a good place to learn. You ever do stand up paddleboarding?”
“No,” Helen says. “I’ve seen guys paddling along on those big surfboard-like things on the Intracoastal Waterway.”
“Stand up paddleboarding is the hot new sport,” he says. “Everybody wants a piece of the action, and I’ve got the best spot in the city.”
Sunny Jim has caught a rival, Bill’s Boards, “poaching on my territory. Giving lessons right next to my space. Even set up a sign like he belonged there. His lessons are cheaper, but he doesn't pay the city to rent the land or buy the license or carry liability insurance like I do. He can afford to undercut me.”
“How come Bill doesn’t have to follow the rules?” Helen asks.
“I’m getting to that,” Jim says. I called the cops and they shrugged and said it wasn’t their problem. Now if I don’t open up early so Bill’s Boards can’t park there, he tries to set up his business again. I’m out there at six a.m., though most of my customers don’t show up until after nine.”
“Sounds stressful,” Helen says. “Did you complain to Riggs Beach?”
“Hah! Rigged Beach is more like it,” Jim says. “I’ve made more than two hundred complaints to the police, the beach patrol and Riggs Lake park rangers. The city commission won’t do a blessed thing. I finally went to a meeting and complained. Put on a suit in Florida. One commissioner said it would cost too much to enforce the rules. What about the fees the city is missing? What about following the rules? The commissioners said they wanted proof that my competitors are poaching. I even stood behind a palm tree and took photos, but the commission said that still wasn’t proof unless I caught ’em when the money was changing hands. I was never cynical about government, but after that meeting, I saw that same commissioner say hi to his good buddy, Bill, my competition. Slapped him on the back and they left together. In public. No wonder the police won’t arrest him.”
Sunny Jim hires Phil to work at his beach location. Helen has an easier dead-end job.
“I want you to sit on the beach with a video camera,” Sunny Jim says. “Like a tourist. You can document my competitors stealing my business. Tourists video everything – even palm trees doing nothing but standing there.”
Helen and Phil take the job. They watch – along with scores of beach goers – an innocent tourist fall off her paddleboard. Her death looks like an accidental drowning. But the medical examiner says it’s murder.
They’ve witnessed a murder, and they haven’t a clue.