Hanging By A Hair

  • Publisher: Orange Grove Press
  • Series: The Bad Hair Day Mysteries , 11
  • Release Date: May 23, 2020
  • Genre: Cozy Mystery
  • Available Formats: eBook and Paperback
  • Digital: 9781952886003
  • Paperback: 9781952886010

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Hairstylist Marla Vail and her detective husband are delighted with their new home, until their next door neighbor—the homeowners’ association president—turns up dead.

Newlyweds Marla and Dalton Vail are delighted by their new home, until their next-door neighbor erects an illegal fence between their properties. Marla’s hopes for making friends are dashed by a resultant argument between Dalton and the man, who is president of the HOA. The situation becomes more tangled when their neighbor is found dead the following day.

Dalton, a homicide detective, suspects foul play, but he’s removed from the case due to a conflict of interest. Now it’s up to Marla to clear her husband’s name and make the neighborhood safe again. Secretive neighbors, tribal protesters, religious zealots, and preppers top the suspect list along with a spurned lover and a greedy nephew. Can Marla unravel the clues and pin down the culprit before he targets her as the next victim?

Suspense Magazine “Best of 2014” Cozy Mystery!

“Marla is short for marvelous. If you like your mysteries ‘cozy,’ you’re going to enjoy every minute you spend with her!” Joanna Campbell Slan, author of the award-winning Kiki Lowenstein mystery series

Awards & Accolades:

Suspense Magazine BTS Award Night Owl Top Pick

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“A pleasingly lighthearted cozy.” — Publisher’s Weekly

“The suspense element in this unusually funny mystery is gripping.” — Florida Weekly

“A new home spells nothing but trouble for newlyweds Marla and Dalton Vail.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Hanging by a Hair is entertaining, enjoyable, and informative.” — Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore

“Funny, quirky, fast-paced with just the right amount of romance and humor mixed in with the mystery. Great series!” — Socrates Book Reviews

“Cohen’s lighthearted approach shines in Hanging by a Hair. Cohen also peppers the novel with numerous references to South Florida.” — Sun-Sentinel

“This is a madcap murder mystery that will have you laughing and guessing until the very end.” — Thoughts in Progress

“A fun, easy mystery read.” — WiLoveBooks

“The author is always keeping you guessing as to where the story will lead you next. Ms. Cohen has just joined the list of my favorite authors.” — Night Owl Reviews

“A must-read for anyone who loves a good mystery but I definitely recommend also to those who like a bit of romance and some intrigue in their stories!” — BTS Book Reviews

“A lighthearted mystery that was a quick easy read.”— Books-N-Kisses

“Highly recommended for anyone who wants a quick read that keeps you interested throughout.” — Open Book Society

“This is the first book I have read in the series. I found it to be delightful. Marla and her family are just fun people. Easy read you can just jump right into. I didn’t know the “whodunit” til the very end.” — Destiny’s Book Reviews

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2014 by Nancy J. Cohen

Marla Vail sat wedged between her husband Dalton in the aisle seat and a young couple on the other side. Her temples throbbed from the stark overhead lighting and the musty odor of old carpet in their community clubhouse. Or maybe her headache was induced by Alan Krabber, president of the Royal Oaks Homeowners Association. He ran their annual meeting with the subtlety of a drill sergeant.

Krabber sat at a long table facing the members. Flanking him to his left were the other Board officers. He addressed one of the residents in an exasperated tone.

“I don’t care how long your sister is visiting, lady. City code says recreational vehicles have to be parked in a side yard, and that includes trailers like hers. They’re supposed to be blocked from view by a solid fence or dense shrubbery.”

“But my sister is only staying for two weeks. It’s not like her trailer will be there forever.” The elderly woman’s voice quaked.

“Doesn’t matter.” Krabber glared at her. “The rules stand. We can’t make exceptions. If you don’t want the vehicle on your property, tell her to leave it at the community center.”

Marla gritted her teeth. She and Dalton had the misfortune to live next door to the president. Alan Krabber had already aggravated them by digging a big hole in his backyard. The open pit, waiting for a propane tank to fuel a standby generator, was hazardous to pets and small children. But that wasn’t the only reason why Marla’s blood pressure elevated. Now Alan had the chutzpah to quote city code when he’d violated it.

Dalton raised his hand after the older lady resumed her seat.

“Pardon me,” he said after Krabber gestured for him to speak, “but wouldn’t those rules also apply to the boat parked in your driveway?”

“Nah.” Krabber’s mouth curved in a disdainful smirk. He was a heavy-set guy with receding brown hair above a wide forehead and wire-rimmed glasses. “My boat is a modest size, and it’s not as unsightly as a trailer.”

“You just said no exceptions can be made. Aren’t you being hypocritical?”

The president jabbed his pudgy finger in the air. “You know, you’ve already complained to me about the construction crew in my backyard and the paved walkway on the side of my house. Why don’t you let this one go, buddy?”

Dalton stiffened. “You can’t condemn a resident’s trailer in one breath and excuse your own transgression in the next. The code applies to everyone. Just because you’re president doesn’t mean you can skirt the rules.”

Marla noticed the tense look on his face and swallowed. A homicide detective in the local police force, Dalton had a tendency to play by the book.

She tugged on his shirt. “Dalton, we’re new here,” she said in a hushed tone. “Maybe we should discuss this with Alan in private.”

He glared at her, a lock of peppery hair falling across his forehead. “No way. Mr. Krabber has clearly stated the code and insisted that woman follow it to the letter. He can’t be allowed to mow everyone over and then do what he wants. If he intends to keep his boat on his property, he has to hide it from view as the code states.”

His face as red as a sunburned tourist, Krabber leaned forward. “You’ve been in this neighborhood for how long now, buddy?” He counted on his fingers. “This is March, and you moved in around the end of January. Things have been just fine without your input. But to make you happy, I’ll consider your objections.”

“You’ll have to do more than that, or I’ll report you to code enforcement.”

A thin guy raised his hand. “You know, he’s right, Alan. Maybe we should take a vote.”

Murmurs of consent wafted through the room. A show of hands reinforced the rule.

Marla breathed a sigh of relief when Dalton resumed his seat with a satisfied grunt. This wasn’t how she’d imagined their first homeowners’ meeting.

He shot her a reproving glance. “What? Someone has to uphold the law, and it might as well be me. Our neighbors agreed that Alan should follow the code, so I’m not alone. The vote went in my favor.”

Oh, joy. Maybe you should run for office. You can ticket people for speeding down the side streets or putting their trash out the night before pickup day.

Dalton couldn’t hold still when they got to the budget. His hand shot up when Gene Uris, the vice president, called for questions. Gene pointed to him with a pained glance, as though he knew a troublemaker when he saw one.

“What’s this line item for security listed at one hundred and forty thousand dollars? Can you please tell us exactly what that covers?” Dalton asked in a polite voice.

Marla, aware of stares directed their way, wished he’d sit through their first meeting without being so vocal. Maybe she should have come alone if she wanted to meet their neighbors in a friendly fashion. Then again, did any homeowners’ meeting exist without contention?

“We have video surveillance around the clubhouse and at the main entrance. And we pay for a private guard from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.” Gene glowered at Dalton. A bearded fellow who looked to be in his forties, the Board member had carefully styled hair and large front teeth.

“Oh, yeah? I’ve never met this guy.” Dalton wagged his fingers in the air. “What does he do, sit in the office all night?”

“He patrols the neighborhood and watches for anything irregular.”

“Why, have there been incidents?”

Krabber snorted, as though Dalton’s attitude was to be expected. “We’ve had a few break-ins, but it was determined some neighborhood kids were involved. And we’ve had thefts from unlocked cars in driveways. Otherwise, our record is pretty good for a community this size.”

“I’m not implying otherwise.” Dalton’s placating tone would have suited a hostage situation. “But this amount of money budgeted to security seems awfully high. Have you gotten bids from different companies?”

“Of course, we did.” Debbie Morris, the secretary, spoke in a defensive tone. She tucked a strand of strawberry blond hair behind her ear. Wedged between the taller men, she looked diminutive with her petite frame.

The fourth Board member, treasurer Cherry Hunter, was an attractive woman with raven hair and high cheekbones. She sat on the far end from Alan Krabber and kept relatively quiet. Shouldn’t she be the one answering questions about the budget?

“Maybe it’s time to reevaluate the need for a night guard,” Dalton persisted. “Some local communities have set up neighborhood watches, for example. I’d be happy to head up a security committee.”

Marla rolled her eyes. Was her husband turning into a political animal? Hopefully people would understand that Dalton meant well.

She tried to smooth things over after the meeting adjourned and members segued into the kitchen for coffee and dessert. March being the month of Purim, Marla had brought store-made hamantaschen. She munched on an apricot-filled pastry while chatting with her new neighbors.

During a break in conversation, she aimed toward Alan Krabber. He stood across the room from where Dalton was engaged with an elderly gent.

The association president wore a dress shirt tucked into a pair of belted trousers. A hint of stubble shadowed his jaw as he stuffed a chocolate chip cookie into his mouth. His flabby neck quivered as he chewed. Her glance rose to the retreating hairline crowning his square face. He kept his walnut hair combed neatly back.

She tapped his arm. “Hi, there. I’m sorry for the fuss about your boat, but I happen to believe my husband is right to support the city code. We have two dogs and are interested in putting up a fence ourselves. Maybe we should get together and exchange ideas since we share a common boundary.”

Normally Marla would approach the woman of the household to make a conciliatory gesture, but her neighbor lived alone. His closest family in the area was a nephew.

Krabber’s gaze turned crafty behind his wire-rimmed spectacles. “Sure, we could discuss it together. Why don’t you come over next time your hot-headed spouse is at work? We’ll have an intimate chat, just the two of us.”

“Who are you calling hot-headed? And did you just hit on my wife?” Dalton loomed over them, his mouth thinned and his eyes narrowed.

“Hey, buddy, loosen up. I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”

Dalton leaned forward, his jugular veins prominent. “If I recall, the first time we met, you made inappropriate remarks to Marla, too. I won’t tolerate that behavior.”

“Hey, you tolerated a lot more by marrying her kind.”

“What does that mean?”

“You should know. You’re not one of them.” Krabber winked. “If I were you, I’d think about saving her soul while there’s still time.”

Dalton’s fists curled, while Marla’s stomach sank to her toes. She couldn’t believe she’d just heard a racist remark in earshot of everyone. In this era of diversity, and especially in South Florida, it was a rare occurrence.

A sudden hush fell over the room, and shocked glances turned in their direction. Marla sucked in a breath to calm herself. She didn’t want to give anyone more fodder for gossip.

“Come on, honey, it’s time we left.” Her body trembling, she took Dalton’s arm. “If Mr. Krabber can’t appreciate the benefit of different cultures living in harmony, it’s his loss.”

Krabber didn’t deign to respond. With a snort of disgust, he turned on his heel and strode to the coffeemaker.

“Alan, what’s gotten into you?” another guy said, trailing after him. “I’ve never heard you speak like that before. You should apologize.”

While people filed around Krabber with murmurs of agreement, a blond woman approached Marla and Dalton.

“Hi, I’m Angela Goodhart. Please don’t mind Alan. I’m sure he didn’t mean to be so rude. He was just trying to get a rise out of you, Mr. Vail, for leading a vote against him.”

Dalton’s mouth turned down. “I should report his remarks. We have witnesses.”

Marla tightened her fingers on his sleeve. “I don’t think so. We’ve caused enough waves. By the way, Angela, I like how you do your hair,” she said to change the subject. “I’m a hairdresser, and I own the Cut ’N Dye salon in town. If you come in, I’ll give you a discount on your first appointment.” She handed over a business card.

“Thanks.” Angela tucked the card into her purse. “What days are you there?”

“We’re open Tuesdays through Saturdays. I have a full client list, but I’d fit you in.” She gave a broad smile. Talking about the work she loved always energized her.

“So you’re married to a detective, huh? It must be difficult to settle into a routine when he works irregular hours. I’ve seen cop shows on TV and sometimes the guys are barely home.”

Marla nodded absently, her attention drawn to Krabber, who’d gotten into a close discussion with some other men. They shot occasional glances her way.

“Marla, I think we should leave.” Dalton took her arm and tugged her toward the door.

“Nice meeting you, Angela,” Marla called.

Before they reached the exit, the treasurer planted herself in front of them.

“You’re onto something,” Cherry said in a slurred tone, making Marla wonder if she’d been drinking before the meeting. Her stick-straight black hair hung down to her shoulders. “That man has secrets to hide. Better not push him. You don’t know what he’ll do.”

Marla got an inkling of what Cherry meant when a plastic bag of dog poop showed up on their circular driveway the next day. She’d just stepped outside at seven o’clock on Friday morning with Lucky and Spooks—their golden retriever and cream-colored poodle— when she noticed the item lying on the asphalt. Hauling on the dogs’ leashes, she veered over to verify her observation. Then she rushed back inside to inform her husband.

“I’ll bet it’s him,” Dalton said, rising from the breakfast table where he sat drinking coffee and watching the news. “Let me get my fingerprint kit. I can prove it.”

“Dalton, that’s absurd. What are you going to do, arrest our next-door neighbor for defiling our property? It’s a prank, that’s all. The best response is to show no reaction.”

He winced. “You’re right, as usual. Man, how did we luck out? He’s such a jerk.”

“We don’t know for sure that he’s responsible. It could have been anyone. Let’s just dispose of the bag and pretend like it never happened. That’ll deflate his balloon.”

Brianna shuffled into the kitchen in her pajamas. Dalton’s fourteen-year-old daughter cringed at the bright light. “Why are you so loud in the morning?”

“Sorry.” Dalton pointed to the tea kettle–shaped clock mounted on the wall. “You’re running late. I’ll have to drive you to school again. Go and get dressed.”

“I’m taking the dogs out.” Marla gave her a warm smile. “Do you want scrambled eggs? I can make them as soon as I get back.” She’d inherited the teen along with her husband. It still amazed her that she had taken on the role of stepmother.

“Okay, and I’ll have whole wheat toast, please.” Brianna headed toward her bedroom.

Dalton opened the garage door, donned a pair of gardening gloves, and threw the offensive bag in the trash. Marla took the dogs out through the garage and strode down the street with them until they did their business. She didn’t go near Krabber’s house, heading in the opposite direction. The street was quiet except for an older couple. She guessed they were dedicated walkers from their running shoes and brisk pace.

She sighed, regarding the pristine neighborhood. They’d been delighted to find new housing since Palm Haven was mostly built out. While construction had started here two years ago, empty lots had still been available when she and Dalton had come looking. Evidently, Alan Krabber had been one of the earlier residents. He must have made out well before he retired, because he owned the only two-story house on the block.

The morning’s incident fled from her mind when she went into work at ten o’clock. Time raced by as it always did on weekends. Friday and Saturday were hectic at the salon. On Sunday, she and her new family went shopping. While she and Dalton had supplied many of the furnishings for their new home from their previously separate households, they still lacked necessities like a lamp table for the living room and a file cabinet for the home office. They enjoyed searching for accessories together.

Finally, she could relax alone on Monday after Dalton had gone to work and Brianna to school. She hoped to catch up on bookkeeping from the salon and to figure out what they needed to do next on the house.

Her peace shattered mid-morning when a banging noise sounded outside. Oh, great. Construction must have resumed on their neighbor’s standby generator. Krabber had been waiting for the propane tank to be delivered. Having a backup power source was desirable in South Florida, where hurricanes could knock out power for days at a time. Marla had considered installing a unit herself until she’d learned about the twenty-thousand-dollar price tag.

She rushed to the window in Brianna’s room and peeked through the blinds. Dirt was still piled in mounds around the hole in Krabber’s backyard, so the noise didn’t originate there. Her stomach knotted as she viewed a couple of brawny men erecting a wood fence between their houses. Her eyes narrowed as she assessed the distance.

Considering how their sprinklers were so far over, toward Krabber’s property, she and Dalton had done a survey. It revealed that their neighbor had erected his path of round stones partially on their land. Dalton had requested Krabber move the pavers to his side of the boundary, but so far, he’d done nothing. And now this!

Back in the kitchen, Marla grabbed her house keys and cell phone. She darted outside to confront the two workmen. Perspiration ran down their swarthy faces. Their truck, parked at the curb, showed no visible license plate.

“Hello, I live next door.” She pointed to her house. “Isn’t that fence going to put our sprinkler pipes on Mr. Krabber’s side of the property? Look, you can see where the heads are located.” The grass cutters had cut a clear strip around them.

The taller guy paused, a hammer in his hand. “You’ll have to talk to the boss about it. We’re just doing what he hired us to do.”

“Do you have a permit?”

The guys glanced at each other, then the first one spoke. “You don’t need no permit for a fence this size. See? It’ll extend from that one already fixed along the rear boundary. If you need to get to your sprinklers, you can come through the gate.”

“I can’t do that! I’d be trespassing on Mr. Krabber’s property. This makes no sense whatsoever.” She propped her hands on her hips. “Are you sure about the permit? I thought the city required one for any kind of construction.”

“Only for fences of a certain length, miss. This here is under the regulation footage.”

Was that true? Could she be mistaken?

She glared at them, but they’d resumed their banging. “I want to see his survey. It should clearly show our property line.” She’d raised her voice to be heard.

The foreman—if that’s what he was—pulled a soiled piece of paper from his pocket and shoved it in her face. “See, we got one.”

Marla squinted in the sunlight. “This looks like a drawing of the fence. If I’m not mistaken, it will intrude on our property. You have to stop construction immediately.”

The laundry room door burst open and Krabber sauntered outside. “What’s causing the ruckus? Lady, I can hear you hollering all the way inside my house.”

“Did you get an official survey before hiring these men? Because I have one, and this fence looks to be on our land.”

“Is that so?” Krabber’s double chin rippled as he spoke, his squirrel-like eyes scrunched under his wide brow. Crumbs dotted his sport shirt.

“See where my sprinkler heads are located? The piping will clearly end up behind your fence. You’re violating the property line, same as with that path there.”

He shrugged. “I just assumed the boundary ran halfway between our houses.”

“Well, you assumed wrong. Your piece of land is smaller than ours.”

“I’ll check into it. Meanwhile, boys, get that fence up as planned. We can always move it later. Then be sure to plant my hedge before you go.”

Marla glanced into his yard and blinked twice. She hadn’t noticed that lineup of potted plants from Brie’s bedroom window.

“You’re not planting ficus, are you? That’s the worst kind of tree to edge your lawn. They’re a nuisance to maintain. The roots will extend toward our house and may end up cracking our sprinkler pipes. I thought those trees were on the city’s disapproved list?”

Krabber jabbed a finger in the air. “Look, nobody can tell me what I can plant in my yard. They’re allowable if I keep them trimmed.”

Oh, right. And you’re going to pay your grass cutters to trim the branches on my side of the fence?

She compressed her lips. These workmen could be lying about the permit. Considering how their truck had no visible tag, she’d guess they were fly-by-night laborers willing to do any job that paid cash.

“I’m calling Dalton.” She whipped out her cell phone. “Your stone path also infringes on our property. This is getting out of hand.”

If Krabber didn’t make amends, she and Dalton would be forced to file a code violation. Marla would rather avoid that unpleasantness. Normally, she wouldn’t bother Dalton at work, but this construction had to be stopped before the fence became a permanent fixture.

The UPS truck chose that moment to squeal to a halt in front of Krabber’s house. He stomped toward the front to retrieve a package while she dialed Dalton’s office number.

Fortunately, her husband was available and made it home within twenty minutes.

Krabber had disappeared inside his house with his parcel. She quickly filled Dalton in on the details and then turned to the workmen, who regarded the newcomer with wary expressions.

“Guys, this is my husband, Detective Dalton Vail with the Palm Haven police force.”

The workmen exchanged startled glances. Her words had the galvanizing effect of making them pack up their tools. Wood planks littered the ground.

The foreman rapped on the laundry room door. “Yo, Mr. Krabber. You’re needed out here.”

Krabber waddled outside, his forehead creased. “Are you still here?” he said to Marla.

“Yes, I am. You remember my husband, Dalton.”

“How could I forget? Whaddya want, buddy?”

Across the street, the garage door rumbled open. Jeanie, a stay-at-home mom, emerged outside. She waved at Marla from the driveway, where she appeared with her two children in tow. Marla waved back, offering a stiff grin. Jeanie set out a lawn chair while her kids—a boy and a girl—stooped over the asphalt to draw something with chalk. Watching them, a wave of nostalgia hit Marla. She’d played hopscotch on the sidewalk in her youth.

Her attention swung back to Dalton, who addressed Krabber in a reasonable tone. “The city requires a permit for any type of fencing. Do you have one?”

“These guys say I don’t require a permit for a fence this size.”

“That’s right.” The foreman shot a dark glance at his partner. “And since the last hurricane, you don’t need approval for any work under twenty-five hundred dollars.”

“That’s hogwash.” Dalton shook his head. “No matter the size or the cost, a permit is required. You’re operating illegally if you don’t have one.”

The foreman turned to Krabber. “We want our money, dude. You can settle this after we leave.”

Krabber scowled at him. “I don’t owe you anything. You didn’t finish the job, and our agreement said payment upon completion.”

The foreman’s shoulders hunched. “You’re not thinking of stiffing us, are you? Because if so, I know what you’ve been—”

“Hey, you’ll get paid. I’d planned to go to the bank later this afternoon. Come back tomorrow. We should have this sorted out by then.”

“Are you guys licensed and insured?” Dalton focused on the two men with laser intensity. “If so, I’d like to see that license. You should know better than to put up a fence without a survey or a permit.”

“Sure, we’ll go get it.” Without a backward glance, they high-tailed it to their truck, hopped in, and sped away before Marla thought to point out to Dalton the missing tag.

Dalton snorted, as though he’d known their type. Returning his attention to their neighbor, he raised his eyebrows. “How about showing us your so-called ‘survey’?” While waiting for a reply, he folded his arms across his chest and stood with his feet spread apart.

Krabber slipped inside his house through the side door and reappeared within minutes. He waved a document in the air, flicking it at Dalton rather fast. Marla caught a glimpse of an official looking paper.

“Here, I have one. So back off, buddy.”

Dalton remained firm, his face as stony as those round pavers on Krabber’s path. “This fence and that trail extend onto our property. Remove them both, or we’ll sue for compliance.”

Marla tapped his arm. “Dalton, he’s planning to put ficus trees near our boundary. See?”

Dalton’s voice rose. “You’re doing everything you can to decrease the value of our property. And when is that hole going to be filled in, huh? It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

Krabber’s face purpled and his veins protruded. “Lots of folks have standby generators in South Florida. We’re following standard procedure.”

“He’s right, Dalton.” Marla spoke in a mollifying tone as her husband looked about ready to pop out of his skin. “If he agrees to move his fence, get a proper survey and permit, and change the location of those stones, we’ll be satisfied.”

“Don’t think because you’re our association president that you can break the rules,” Dalton said. “I know guys like you. You’ll stomp on anyone who gets in your path. Well, I won’t stand idly by while you make an exception of yourself. No matter what it takes, I’ll see that you comply with the law.”

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