Dead Men Don’t Hammer Nails

Tel Aviv, Israel,
a Friday evening,
May 1995

“Inspector, she left a note,” said an exasperated Captain Alon. “I don’t see any reason for us to initiate an investigation into a suicide. This is an open and shut case. And besides, she was a prostitute.”

“We don’t know that for sure.”

“She says it in her note.”

Detective Ari ben-Shimon felt anger rise in his chest. He jumped out of the chair, his palms landing on the edge of the Captain’s desk. ““No one cuts their own throat, especially not like that. And I doubt she would even know how to build such a thing.”

“Perhaps her pimp built it for her?” Alon replied. He dropped the case file into the box at his feet.

“That’s an insult,” growled Detective Mustafa Kemal. He walked to the window, his fists clenched, his back to the Captain. “You don’t want to pursue this because she was Arab, not because she was a prostitute.”

Alon shifted in his chair, grinning. “Do you think you could look at me when you speak to me?” Kemal cringed. He turned slowly in the Captain’s direction. “You really believe I feel that way?”

“No, sorry.” A forced smile concealed Kemal’s true thought. “I have to stress what Ari said. We examined the crime scene thoroughly. Note or no note, this was no suicide.”

Alon picked up the phone, his signal to end the conversation. “We have other things to do beside disproving a suicide note.”

Ben-Shimon challenged him again. “What about the partial print?” He figured one more shot was worth it, a lesson every Israeli boy learned early-on in his military service.

“It’s probably hers,” replied Alon.

Three Hours Earlier

The old apartment building on Kibbutz Galuyot Street in the southern reaches of Tel Aviv, where the city merges with Jaffa, dated to the early 1960’s. Never particularly desirable, the neighborhood was poorer than ever and becoming poorer still. The building’s poured concrete exterior was worn and pockmarked from age and lack of maintenance. Across the street was a dusty, sandy park in a similar state of disrepair. Old women sat on the broken wooden benches gossiping loudly in a mixture of Russian, Hebrew and other languages neither ben-Shimon nor Kemal could identify, a common occurrence since the arrival of a million former Soviet citizens a few years earlier. Two old men sat at a chess table intently staring at their pieces and spitting shells from sunflower seeds like bullets at the pavement.

Ben-Shimon and Kemal pushed through the crowd that had gathered in front of the building. They flashed their badges, entering the dusty common hallway. A uniformed policeman stood in front of the door leading to the basement storage room.

They waited for their eyes to adjust to the light level. Inside the dark, musty room was a horrific scene. The elaborate frame of a bizarre structure nearly filled the abandoned space. Seated in a chair suspended from the frame was the body of a woman, naked, a pool of congealing blood on the concrete floor glistening in the semi-darkness. Her throat had been cut cleanly, a long, sharp, kitchen knife dangling from a thin leather strap attached to her right wrist. A complicated pulley system stood sentinel behind the seat.

They didn’t know exactly when the woman’s violent end had come, though the still partially clotted state of the blood indicated it had happened within the past 24 hours. A terrified call from a screaming woman whose children had wandered into the usually locked storage room had summoned them in the hours just before Shabbat.

Kemal covered his mouth and nose with his hand. He gagged slightly. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

“The victim or the structure?” said ben-Shimon. He breathed in the fetid air, apparently unaffected by the sight or smell. No amount of carnage could shock him after what he’d seen as a young soldier in Lebanon some fifteen years earlier.

“Either and both,” replied Kemal.

“You’ll take the photos?” ben-Shimon asked, as if he were talking about attending a family picnic.


Ben-Shimon slipped on a pair of rubber gloves and walked slowly around the strange structure that dominated the room. He inspected the pulley system suspended within it. Nailed to the center post was a piece of paper. Ben-Shimon carefully slipped it through the nail and unfolded it. The writing was slightly smudged and in Arabic. “Mustafa, look at this,” he said.

Kemal slung the camera over his shoulder. He directed ben-Shimon’s flashlight onto the paper. “I ask Allah for forgiveness, I cannot live this life any longer,” he read out loud. “I have made myself a whore. I have dishonored my family. I have sinned before Allah. To save my family from my shame I take my own life. Please forgive me. Laila.”

“A suicide?” said ben-Shimon. “No way.”

“Not possible, it’s haram,” said Kemal. He gazed at the small, delicate body covered in blood. “How could she have built this?” He turned to ben-Shimon. “Why would she have built this?”

Ben-Shimon walked back to the door and pulled the fingerprint kit from his bag. “Let’s see what we find.” He dusted the wood beams that held up the structure and the pulleys suspended from it. He shined his flashlight on the structure looking for prints. One appeared on the left post. “Mustafa, take a look.”

Kemal leaned into the structure, squinting to get a clearer look under the glare of the flashlight. “It could be a thumb. Too big to be hers.”

Ben-Shimon lifted the print from the wood pole carefully then placed the adhesive tape on a lift card and stored it gently in an evidence bag. “Perhaps her suicide was assisted?”

Kemal didn’t respond. He stood in front of the dead woman, staring at her, yet averting his eyes at the same time. Ben-Shimon scanned the rest of the structure for more prints but found none. “Do you have all the photos we need?”

“For now.”

“Let’s go speak to the woman who called it in. The evidence team can finish up here later,” said ben-Shimon. He pulled out his pager and sent a message to the station, then called to the uniformed cop standing at the front door of the building. “Where is the woman who phoned in the case?”

“In her apartment.” He pointed to the door at the second-floor landing.

Ben-Shimon and Kemal climbed the one flight then knocked. A woman appeared as the door opened. She stared at Kemal.

“Shabbat Shalom,” ben-Shimon said. “Excuse me, could we speak with you for a moment?” He pulled his badge from his pocket as did Kemal.

“It’s nearly Shabbat,” she said in broken, Russian-accented Hebrew. “I have to prepare.” She looked Kemal up and down again.

“We only need a moment,” said Kemal, his Hebrew perfect.

The woman’s expression remained stonelike, un-phased. “I’ve already told the first officer I don’t know anything. My daughters found the door open and went inside. You saw what they found. They’re in their rooms now, being punished for going in there to begin with. I didn’t hear anything except them screaming. When I went to see what was wrong and I found that,” she pointed toward the basement, “I called the police.” Someone called out to her from

inside the apartment in Russian. “I’m sorry, I have to go now. She was a kurva anyway. She got what she deserved. If her people had caught her, they would have done much worse.”

Ben-Shimon glanced at Kemal. He saw the look of anger in Mustafa’s eyes. Ben-Shimon shook his head almost imperceptibly. Kemal caught his meaning immediately and maintained his composure. “What do you mean, her people?” ben-Shimon asked.

The woman looked at Kemal again. “She was Arab. One could tell.”

Ben-Shimon wasn’t sure how. The victim was naked, dead, and bloodied from an open gash to her throat. He thought to ask but reconsidered. He wanted to end the conversation for Mustafa’s sake. He and Kemal had known each other since they were eleven years old. He knew, as a Jew, that his interaction with the world was different from Mustafa’s, an Arab.

“Thank you,” ben-Shimon said. “Here are our cards. Please call us if you can think of anything else that might help.”

Kemal and ben-Shimon walked out of the building into the late afternoon sunlight. The crowd had dissipated. The park across the street was empty. “Keep guard on the crime scene till the evidence team leaves, then padlock it,” ben-Shimon said to the uniformed officer.

Kemal looked at ben-Shimon and let out his breath slowly. “Hers was a human life, too.”

“I know.” Ben-Shimon pulled a pack of cigarettes from his coat and slipped one between his lips. He fumbled in his pants for a match, looked around and shook his head. “What do you want me to say? These Russians have a different view of life than we do.” He dragged deeply on the cigarette. “Does this place look familiar to you, the park, not the building?”

Kemal thought for a moment then looked down the street. “Yes, I didn’t realize when we got here. Two or three buildings down. Yes, over there,” he said, “that building.”

“Remember that Russian? The case about the Philippine woman?” Kemal nodded his head. “Her throat was cut, too.”

The Next Day

The station was particularly quiet on Shabbat. There was a skeleton crew manning the phones and a couple officers on duty in case of emergencies. In a country with little violent crime, there was little need for a full staff at a police station on Israel’s weekly day off. That’s what the military police were for, just in case.

“Boker tov,” said the duty officer to ben-Shimon and Kemal as they entered the stationhouse.

“Boker tov,” they responded.

“It’s not your weekend,” she said. “Did you check the schedule?”

Ben-Shimon didn’t reply. She was nosy and a gossip. That was her way of asking them why they were there. He smiled at her and continued down the hall, Kemal at his side, silent as well. They had decided to pursue the investigation, despite the Captain’s objections. “Close the door,” he said as they entered their office. “I don’t like her snooping around.”

Mustafa laughed. “You need to relax, she’s harmless.” He slipped the door shut almost silently. “Did you send out the print for analysis last night?”

“Yes, I put a rush request on it. It will be at least two weeks though.”

The evidence box from the case of the Filipina woman was tucked under Kemal’s desk. He’d placed it there the evening before. He pulled it out, put it on top of the desk, took out the file and sat down facing Ari. Kemal read silently for a moment then took the photograph of the suspect and placed it on the desk. “I remember him clearly now. He was very creepy.”

Ari nodded. “Yes, a real slimy guy. What was his name?”

“Natan Hayat. A Russian.”

“Remind me, why did we drop the case?”

Mustafa thumbed through the report. He stopped at the last paragraph of the last

page. “Due to lack of any hard evidence to implicate any specific suspect, the presiding officer has instructed that the case is to be closed and filed as unsolved.”

Ben-Shimon thought for a moment. “What year was that?”


They both knew who the presiding officer was, and he wasn’t interested in cases involving Israel’s growing population of guest workers. She was probably involved in something illegal, ben-Shimon recalled him saying.

“Perhaps we should take a trip over to the park and find out what happened to Mr. Hayat. See if he’s still around. I think I’d like to chat with him again.”

Kemal closed the file and placed the box back under his desk. “Do you think we should wait till after Shabbat?”

Ben-Shimon shook his head. “No, not in that neighborhood. Those people aren’t observant. They just use it as an excuse.”


Kemal and ben-Shimon walked into the dusty park and sat down on one of the benches. The wooden slats of the seat were chipped and uncomfortable. The park was filled with people, more than it could comfortably hold. Many brought their own chairs, less uncomfortable than the bench Kemal and ben-Shimon sat on. The locals stared at them.

“Why don’t we try those women over there, by the swings?” said Kemal.

“I was thinking the old men playing chess,” replied ben-Shimon.

“No, the women are more likely to talk.”

“All right. Let’s go.”

They approached the women, a group of four surrounded by a dozen children. Though they wrapped their hair in scarves and wore longish skirts, their short sleeve blouses with low necklines showed too much cleavage for them to truly be religious.

“Selicha,” ben-Shimon said. They flashed their badges. “Shabbat shalom.”

“Shabbat shalom,” one women replied. Three of them stood with their arms crossed against their chests. “If you’re here about the murdered woman, we don’t know anything.”

A child, a small girl, tugged at her skirt. “Eema, I need to go potty,” she said. The woman bent down and put her hands on both the child’s cheeks. “Okay, Gali will take you.” She called to another child by the swings, perhaps ten years old. “Take Leah, please. She needs the sherut.”

Kemal pulled the photo of Hayat from his pocket. “Do you know this man?”

The women looked at the photo and nodded. “Yes, yes. He used to live with his family over there,” one of the women said. She pointed to a building across the street from the park.

“Used to live?” ben-Shimon asked.

“They moved away about a year and a half ago.”

“Did you know him or the family well?”

The women looked at each other. One smirked. “No,” she said. “They were very unfriendly.”

“They didn’t like us, looked down on us,” another said. The women exchanged looks again. “They were from Moscow. We are from Samarkand. They thought they were better than us.”

“Where did they move to?”

“A settlement in the territories.”

“They were religious?”

The women laughed again. “They had an opportunity.”

“Has this guy ever returned?” Kemal asked.

The women looked at each other and shook their heads. “No.”

Sunday morning

Ben-Shimon called the Ministry of immigration at 8:30 AM. It took several pass-alongs to arrive at the right person. It seems the Hayat family had become Ba’al T’shuvah, born again Jews. They had returned to the practice of their ancient religion through the guiding hand of the Chabad Lubovitch movement. As a thank you, these impoverished Russian immigrants had been given a house in a new settlement in the territories called Ramat ha’Datim. They’d also never have to work again. The settlement was supported by funds provided by the Chabad so that the men could sit and study Talmud in the heart of Judea all day, every day. Ben-Shimon was consistently amazed by the ability of these people to find a way to milk the system.

What really shocked him as he listened to the clerk on the other end of the line was what had happened to them. About a month earlier the entire family was murdered in a terrorist attack. It was all over the news. He and Mustafa had seen the reports, but he certainly would never have recalled the family name or the name of the tiny settlement. The suspect was dead. Ben-Shimon and Kemal went to Alon’s office and gave him the news. Alon peered over his reading glasses and smiled. “So, I guess…it is…in fact…a suicide.”

Kemal couldn’t contain himself. “Captain. You didn’t see the crime scene, there’s no way. This was murder, a gruesome murder. Whoever did this could do it again.”

“Case closed,” said Alon. He picked up his phone and punched in his secretary’s extension. “Ahava, please get the Government Attorney’s office for me.”

Ben-Shimon and Kemal took the cue as an order and left the office. Ari had sensed Mustafa was right, all along. Since the victim was Arab, and likely a prostitute, the easiest thing to do was to accept the suicide note and close the case. And the case was closed by the same presiding officer who closed the investigation into the murder of the Filipina woman two years earlier, Captain Alon.

One Month Later

Ben-Shimon found the envelop on his desk when he arrived. He had pretty much forgotten about it. “Mustafa, read this,” he said, handing the paper to Kemal.

“The fingerprint belongs to Hayat.” said Kemal.

“How is that possible? He was dead for a month before we found the victim in that basement.”

“The fingerprint matches the one taken when he emigrated from Russia. The expert says it’s an exact match.”

Ben-Shimon considered the situation for a moment. “We have to tell the Captain.”

Kemal laughed. “Really? Because he’s going to reopen an investigation based upon a fingerprint coming from a man who was dead a month before the murder? Remember who he is.”

“Come on.”

Kemal followed ben-Shimon reluctantly down the hall and into Alon’s office. The Captain read the one page report from the fingerprint expert and laughed. “So, this dead man left a fingerprint at a crime scene?”

“It’s a one-hundred percent match,” said ben-Shimon. “Maybe he’s not dead?”

The Captain smirked. “Then who was the man found dead in his bed burned alive by terrorists at Ramat ha-Datim? The whole family was murdered by those animals.”

Ben-Shimon looked at Mustafa from the corner of his eye, sharing inside the anger evident on Kemal’s face. He knew he had to defuse the situation before Mustafa exploded. “Perhaps there was a mistake?”

“Israel Military Police doesn’t make mistakes. And I’m one-hundred percent sure dead men don’t hammer nails. We have a suicide note. Case closed.” The Captain reached for his phone. Kemal stared at the Captain, his eyes lingering, his lower lip trembling, then turned and walked slowly from the room.



To find out what happened next, read: Forgiving Mariela Camacho