UPDATES. I’m working on a crime novel about the murder of an influencer in Amsterdam. I edited Chapter 1 – it took three days to rewrite and edit it, but it feels ok now (not perfect, tho). The first editor told me to shorten the paragraph with Nael’s background because it might be out of place or too much info for the reader. The second editor said to leave it.
The novel is a crime comedy police procedural (and as you’d guess, I know nothing about it, and I don’t live in Amsterdam).
Nael Cocasse had wanted to change his last name many times. It was of French origin, meant “funny,” and was pronounced “koo-kas.” Despite the apparent simplicity, something made people distort the pronunciation, and most of his colleagues often called him “cock-asse.” Initially, it was amusing, and Nael even enjoyed correcting or explaining it, but over time, the line between fun and disrespect began to blur, and the constant ridicule from strangers, neighbors, or colleagues started to bother him.
Just like Nael dreamed about changing his last name, he sometimes fantasized about riding a bicycle to work because that way, he could get to the center of Amsterdam without delay. But Nael was grown enough to understand that dreams and reality are opposites. And today, his reality was woven from broken mirrors, smells of freshly baked ontbijtkoek — a rye cake spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, honey, pepper, and cloves — and long queues of tourists on the road at every turn.
Nael stopped and used his car horn several times, but it meant nothing to the man on the bicycle ahead of him who rode off smugly as Nael was once again stopped at a red light. Having been unable to drive at his usual speed, Nael arrived late to Burgwallen Police Station. He parked his car, walked through the entrance, and took the elevator upstairs. When the doors opened on the third floor to the Special Crime Unit, Nael noticed the shadow of Detective Chief Inspector Panetta.
Nael carefully stepped off the elevator and, eyes fixed on the floor, walked quickly to his desk, hoping to escape his superior unnoticed, but Panetta met him halfway. He was a tall man, in his fifties.
“Cock-asse, how often do I need to tell you that your lateness will not be condoned? What happened today? Why are you so late?”
Well, you have condoned it so far, Nael thought but instead said, “I’m sorry, Sir, I would have been here a lot earlier, but you know how it is.”
“No, I do not know how it is. I’m always on time.” Panetta replied and went back to his office. Nael followed his boss and closed the door behind him.
“I was rounding up a couple of my investigations. Paperwork and stuff,” Nael said.
“What investigations? In fact, never mind… I need you to get to the Old South, Johannes Vermeestrat Street.”
As the Chief Inspector spoke, Nael glanced around his room: he liked to spend time here because Panetta had no mirrors. Although the Chief Inspector always tried his best to look good, he always had one wardrobe malfunction or another. Today, his hair was frayed, and he had a distinct little stain on his collar. Nael kept his observation to himself, as the last thing he needed was more of the boring lectures that Panetta was famous for.
“Understood?” Panetta asked. “I need you to handle this because Gail… well, we all know Gail, don’t we?” After that remark, Panetta nodded his head towards the door. Nael was about to leave the office when Panetta stopped him again. “Wait, one little detail. Did I tell you the anonymous caller said it was a suicide?”
“Can’t you assign that to somebody else then? We are AMCU.”
“Oh, I see… Do we have something more important to do today, Mister Cocasse? Or waiting for a more important crime to drop on your head?” Panetta mocked.
Yes, I do, Nael thought. “What is so special about this one that you must push it on me? Can’t Frankie take it?”
“Frankie is working with another case in a Pipe Museum, and your Gail is already there…”
Nael interrupted, “… my Gail? Okay, but if he is already on the scene, why do I have to go there too?”
“I feel there is something strange about this one. And we can’t trust Gail’s judgment; surely you understand that?” Panetta coaxed.
“Nothing is normal about any murder or suicide,” Nael replied.
“Right. You know what? This conversation is making me want to kill myself right now. Go there and check! And please, please, talk to Enni Hakala! Close the door on your way out.”
Nael rolled his eyes. Welcome to how everyone feels when they speak to you, Chief!
Panetta noticed the eye movement. He jumped from his chair and spat out, “What was that?” as Nael turned his back and ran out of the office.
For the last two years, Nael Cocasse was a part of the regional AMCU task force that worked with atypical murders. He loved his job, even if he walked through the aisle of death daily; the walk that split one side of life from another. He never expected to stay in Amsterdam for so long. He only arrived there in the first place to look after his younger sister when their mother remarried and left Europe for good.
Nael’s childhood was more or less a tragedy. He was born in 1987 in Lebanon. When he was a year old, soldiers invaded their home in Sidon and threatened his mother, Ida — a 24-year-old woman — saying they would burn down the house and kill her only son and her parents if she didn’t tell them where her husband, Imad, was hiding. At that moment, Ida made a decision that changed her life forever, and on the same day, Nael’s father was killed. With the help of her uncle, who had some connections in France, Ida and Nael escaped to Paris. After two years of struggling, Ida became the assistant cook in the large household of the famous journalist Andre Cocasse. They fell in love and Andre divorced his wife to marry the pretty cook from Lebanon. He took Nael under his wing and gave him a new name, provided economic stability, opened doors to a better education and job opportunities. For this, Nael was forever grateful to Andre.
Nael didn’t like investigating suicides as he found that usually, things were just as they appeared to be, and that often reminded him how sad the world really was. He walked around the corner to where he had parked the car and headed to the location: Johannes Vermeerstraat Street, a posh district in South Amsterdam. While driving, Nael slid his phone from his pocket and held down 4, prompting a call to Dr. Chen. The phone rang for quite a while before a click finally gave way to a voice.
“Dr. Chen’s office, how may we help you today?”
“Ehm, it is Nathaniel Cocasse. I’m calling to cancel my appointment for this afternoon; it seems I may be unable to make it on time.”
He heard the sound of the flipping pages of a book, then typing fingers, followed by a short “Okay,” and then a bang that was meant to be the end of the call but was not. Seconds later, he heard a sigh of relief, “At least I don’t have to cover all these mirrors today. That guy is truly something esle…” Nael frowned, ended the call, and focused on driving.
Soon, he came upon the address that Panetta had sent him. From inside the car, Nael could see the lines of people, a couple of men, neighbors, families with kids, a group of tourists with backpacks, and older ladies with shopping bags all gathered behind tape emblazoned with the words DO NOT CROSS. He could also see a police officer secretly taking pictures of the crowd in case it was ever needed for the investigation. Nael always loved to look at the images of people visiting crime scenes: their faces told so many stories. Some of them had been good witnesses, too.
Nael got out of his car, showed his badge to the officer, and ducked under the tape, turning to chat with another officer he knew facing the flock of people near the tape. While Nael was talking, something caught his eye among the curious crowd. It was only a slight feeling, a fleeting suspicion that something was off. Probably nothing, Nael thought.
“Where is Gail?”
“Inside. Hakala is there too.”
“Okay, let’s take a look then,” Nael said. He entered a clean, modern hall. The stone-carved stairs on the left led to the apartments. Nael checked the area near the elevators when suddenly, his body tensed up. He remained transfixed on the spot: his throat was constricting as if he was allergic to the sight he was seeing. He was looking at his own reflection in a big mirror with a gold frame.
A voice above the stairs said, “I always knew you were ugly, but I don’t think that is enough reason to be scared of your own reflection.”
The voice belonged to Detective Gail — one of the laziest detectives known to the world; it couldn’t be disputed. Trying to argue it was akin to challenging basic facts like the earth is round or the grass is green. Nael closed his eyes briefly, managed to swallow, and then willed his legs to move. Damn, it is getting worse, he thought.
Gail stood on the second floor, waiting. He opened his palm in front of Nael to usher him into the bright hall of the chic apartment. From the entrance, Nael could see the living room, which, aside from the size, was not much different from his: almost empty. He walked in. The walls that separated the rooms of the house were covered in a slab of flowing white paint, leaving only one wall covered in rectangular bricks to provide a rustic aesthetic. The window lodged within the stonewall provided sunlight, which was then reflected by the other partitions, ensuring that the entire room was filled with light. At that moment, Nael’s eyes were greeted by the forensic expert, Enni Hakala. Nael walked forward and stopped just short of the girl’s lifeless body; he looked down at it and asked, “How did she do it?”
“Overdose,” the quick reply came from behind him.
Nael raised his head and looked at Gail.
“I was talking to Enni,” Nael said, pointing to the tiny blonde in front of him.
“What was the cause of death?” Nael rephrased his question to the forensic expert.
“I didn’t know you were talking to me, Nael,” Enni said. Her hair was in a sleek bun at the nape of her neck, she wore a light red blush and no lipstick — she looked stunning for her age. Nael didn’t answer; he just watched her precise moves. It was clear she was still angry at him after the night Nael spent with her daughter Erin almost a month ago, who was not much older than their victim.
“Her name is Maryssa Goldsmith, 21 years old. A famous Instagram influencer. She mostly shared makeup tutorials and sometimes vlogged about local celebrities. She lived alone but threw a house party each week. As for the cause of death…” Gail tried to smooth out the tension in the room.
“… we don’t know for sure how it happened. We did find a needle in her left arm,” Enni showed the evidence bag with an outstretched arm.
Nael took the bag and glanced at the contents of the syringe through the plastic film before handing it back.
“Did you find the needle on the floor or inside her arm?” Nael asked no one in particular.
“What does that have to do with anything? Do you think she died but returned to get one last shot?” Gail asked with a smile creeping along the right side of his lip.
Nael wanted to shake his partner, but instead, he put his hands into his pockets and continued exploring the area around the body.
“The needle was still lodged inside her,” Enni said while stretching her hand to collect the evidence bag from Nael. “We also found this blue wig close to her. Nobody knows where it came from. We couldn’t find any more wigs in her closet. And by the way, Gail,” Enni turned around to face a bored Sergeant, “she wasn’t a junkie. Only one stick and only one needle. For now, it’s all I can see, but a post-mortem will show more.”
Nael collected the wig bag and looked over it; the brand was impressed with a defaced logo, leaving the rest unreadable.
“I dunno, guys, it looks like a simple suicide to me. And partying as much as this girl did means zero valuable DNA,” Gail didn’t give up.
“True, don’t hold your breath,” Enni agreed. “We don’t know how many people usually visit this flat… but it seems like a lot. We will run all the prints through the database, nevertheless. Any more questions?”
After Nael passed the wig over to her, then took a notebook from his pocket and scribbled something down, “Time of death?”
“Between 11:00 pm and 2:00 am. My best guess for now,” Enni answered.
“What was that? What are you writing in that damn notebook? It’s all clear as day,” Gail interrupted. He looked worried.
“You see that green chair?” Nael pointed to the only chair in the living room, “You see how it facing away from the TV and towards the victim? That means the victim was probably not sitting on it, so…?” He stopped to let Gail fill in the blanks, but his partner was clearly not following.
“Seriously though, I don’t understand why Panetta sent you here,” Nael said, though the question he wanted to ask was how Gail had managed to make Detective Sergeant. The man couldn’t even detect winter if his leg was stuck in a big pile of snow.
“Panetta called you, but you didn’t answer,” Gail replied, then chuckled. “Or maybe he sent me to monitor you.
Nael nodded and continued, walking around in circles, “What if the killer was sitting here when our victim took the needle? Seeing how the victim is sprawled all over the floor, I believe she was standing in this spot. And if she was standing when the drugs kicked in, what are the odds that the syringe remained intact in her arm when she fell? And why was she standing? Is it some kind of game? Or an execution? Did the killer want to watch her die?” Nael paused before speaking again, “I’d like to know what was inside that syringe.”
“We can’t know exactly what it is until we check it at the lab,” Enni added.
“Okay, make it quick. I’ll be waiting for your first report,” Nael replied as he looked around for a second time, taking in the positions of the furniture to see if there were any signs of a struggle. There weren’t, at least none he could see. He flipped the notebook shut. Apart from the blue wig and the needle in the arm when they found a girl, Nael did not have any other evidence to prove it wasn’t a suicide. He was about to call it a day when Enni Hakala turned the body and drew his attention to something peculiar on the girl’s face, “Check this!”
Nael squatted and looked at Maryssa closely. He almost fell off his feet; he had to look again to make sure it wasn’t… her.
“Detective? Nael? Are you alright?” Enni asked. “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
“I’m fine.” Jarred away from his flashback, Nael answered. “Sorry, I was lost in my thoughts, Enni. Do we know how this happened?” He pointed to the girl’s missing eyebrows.
“No, we don’t. A new trend?” the forensic lady smiled.
“Could the killer have done this?” Nael asked.
Gail began laughing, “The killer? Come on, Cocasse. For all we know, she probably got heartbroken, then shaved her brows and took her own life. I have a daughter myself; I know how it is.”
“Really? Did she also do this?” Nael asked, pointing to the girl’s hand with a burn mark on her thumb and index finger.
“Well, she could. She has gotten this by—” Gail looked around the house. “Ehm… let’s say touching a hot pot?”
“It would have to be an insanely hot pot to do that level of damage. Her hands would have had to be on an open flame for a long time to achieve this kind of burn,” Enni remarked.
“After death?” Nael asked.
“No. What makes it interesting is that the damage occurred before her death.”
“That’s what I’m saying. Girls and social media, they’d do anything for the fame,” Gail postulated.
Nael wrote down one last thing before reviewing his notes. He moved through the house, doing his best not to look at the mirrors as he searched for anything that might give him any clue about what had happened here. He hated to admit it, but Panetta was right — this death was puzzling.
“I don’t think this is a suicide, Gail,” Nael said.
“Wait… She obviously had too much of her own medicine… Look at the kitchen: we found pils, a stash of coke, amphetamines, speedballs, and who-knows-what-they-call-that-shit. You know what I mean, case closed.” Gail mimicked, wiping away something from his nostrils.
“Okay. Let’s go, Mister Case Closed. We’re done here for now.” Nael replied. “It would be great if I could see CCTV from the street, and of course, we need to send a couple of constables door to door. Send the new one. What’s her name?” Nael wasn’t in the mood to argue with anyone. He could still feel his head banging from the excesses of the previous night.
“Yeah, send Zanna. Is she that one from… mmm, Mexico?”
“No, she is local. Interested?” Gail winked.
“Always. But not today.”
As they drove back from the scene, Nael found that he still could not get it out of his head — the girl lying on the apartment floor looked just like his sister. He drove the thought out of his mind, redirecting his attention to the road instead. The thought came back, this time stronger, and he had to park the car on the side of the road to regain his focus. Gail chatted non-stop without objecting to an unexpected pause. When they finally continued on their way, Gail suddenly asked Nael to drop him off on the other side of Skinny Bridge. He didn’t want to say more. Nael didn’t care. He was happy to be left alone. He watched as his partner ran across the road to a café de Magere Brug, making a call.