The idea of equality between the sexes is great, in theory.

In practice, well, maybe it still has a way to go.

Back when I first started writing for a living, I did so in a field that was almost entirely the province of the guys. I was a specialist motoring writer and photographer. I lost count of the number of times I turned up to do a technical article and was treated to dubious looks by the bloke in the workshop.

I lost count of the number of times I was asked if I knew what I was doing, too. Or, strangely, if I got bored doing the job.

As if I couldn’t possibly enjoy my work because it didn’t compute that I might actually be interested in cars.

There were those who went a step further and considered that, if someone like me could do it, then clearly the job must be easy, mustn’t it? Then the comments would start about how they wouldn’t mind my job, and what an easy life I must have. These usually lasted until I had to hang out of a moving car to do the very-low-angle car-to-car moving shots, dragging my elbows on the road surface. Oddly enough, people usually decided at this point that maybe they didn’t want my job after all.

I even had one bloke who asked, in an off-hand kind of a way, if he could have some of the pictures from the shoot but only: “if they’re any good.”

This was not his first transgression of the day. Through gritted teeth, therefore, I enquired if he really thought I would have been sent all that way by my editor, if I couldn’t take a decent set of pictures? “No, no,” he said hastily, “it’s just that you’ve got a better camera than I have…”

“Oh, so now the only reason the pictures might be any flipping good is because of the flipping gear I use. Nothing to do with the twenty-five flipping years I’ve been doing this…”*

(*Note. I did not actually use the word ‘flipping’ but something slightly earthier.)

Buying cars, sadly, has never been a walk in the park, either. My sister recounts how, when she went looking for her last car, with her partner, the salesman (and they were inevitably men) would always want to talk to him, or offer him the keys for a test drive.

I recall, years ago, going into a garage to ask for a test drive of one of the cars on the forecourt. The salesman fetched the keys and, as we were approaching the vehicle, remarked, “It’s a good woman’s car, this.”

Me: “What do you mean?”

“Well,” he said. “It’s a good colour…”

Because, of course, that’s all that might conceivably matter to me…

On the test drive, I put my foot down in second gear on a roundabout to see if I could hang the tail out. The salesman went very quiet and held onto the base of his seat all the way back to the garage.

I did not buy the car, ‘good colour’ notwithstanding.

But, I’m just contemplating a change of vehicle at the moment and, foolishly perhaps, I thought things might have changed since I last went car hunting. That attitudes might have become a tad more enlightened.

Sadly, they have not.

Today, I went to look at a car, having made an appointment with the garage, so they were expecting me. Masks, social distancing, hand sanitiser, et al. The car was in reasonable shape but it all boiled down to how it performed on the road. So, could I take it for a test drive?

Er, no, it turned out. The salesman didn’t trust me “in a car you don’t know” in the rain. Plus he didn’t want to get the car dirty, unless I agreed to buy it beforehand.

When I told him there was no way I was going to buy a car I hadn’t driven, he wanted to know if I’d any others lined up to see. Yes, of course I had. One other—a fall-back position if this didn’t work out. He gave me a look and said then I should go and see the other car and come back, at which point (presumably if I then agreed to purchase) he might let me take it out on the road.

I pointed out that I’d come with the money, had it been the right vehicle. He looked me up and down and said he’d been in the business a long time and was “a pretty good judge of character”. Not entirely sure what he meant by that, apart from the fact he thought I was wasting his time.

And, in a way, he was right. Because with an attitude like that, no way was I ever going to buy a car from him.

I think that might be what they call a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The search goes on.

This week’s Word of the Week is lalochezia, meaning the use of bad language to relieve stress or pain. It comes from the Greek lalia, meaning speech, and chezō, to relieve oneself.

Comment on this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.

MIE-title2

It comes as no surprise that dogs have a really good sense of smell. What perhaps IS more surprising is just how much better it is than ours.

Back in 2002, scientists from the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University designed and carried out a study to try to put a dog’s sense of smell into context. For this, they used a substance called n-amyl acetate—an organic compound with a scent similar to apples and bananas. It is commonly found in penicillin, as a paint solvent, or as a flavouring.

The study, documented by Dr James Walker, discovered that a dog can detect such tiny amounts of this substance they are hardly measurable—two parts per trillion, to be precise. That means a dog’s sense of smell can identify chemicals between ten-thousandth and one-hundred-thousandth more diluted than a human is capable of.

So, while a human might be able to tell from a sniff if a cup of coffee has a teaspoonful of sugar added to it, a dog would be able to tell if that teaspoonful of sugar had been added to a million gallons of water.

Or, if you relate this to vision, something a human could see clearly at a third of a mile, a dog would be able to see, just as clearly, at 3000 miles away.

Mind-boggling, isn’t it?

I recall reading, years ago, about cadaver dogs that would indicate for a corpse submerged in nearly a hundred feet of water. Since then, I have heard of drug-detection dogs who can find marijuana in sealed containers immersed in a vehicle fuel tank, or those who smell whale scat from a mile away across a sea inlet. Not to mention all those dogs who sniff out explosives.

More recently, I met two dogs working for my local authority. One of them had been trained to indicate hidden money. When he insisted that a fireplace in one property was a hotspot (pun intended) and it was knocked down, they found £20,000 in cash had been bricked in behind it. The occupants of the house claimed it must be a gift from Santa Claus…

The other dog was trained to help investigate arson by sniffing out when accelerants had been used. A study carried out in 2003 discovered that when tracker dogs meet a human trail at right-angles, they can distinguish the direction in which the person was travelling within five paces. And this is despite all the other scents and smells that have come along since the target passed that way.

All kinds of breeds are used as detection dogs. One of the reasons bloodhounds are favoured a trackers is apparently because those long floppy ears help to waft the odours into its nostrils as it moves, nose downward, along the ground. Dogs can also independently move each nostril, to further help divine the direction of the scent they’re following.

Not only do dogs have approximately 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to around six million for a human, but the area of their brains devoted to analysing those odours is forty times greater than ours, proportionally speaking.

And even the shape of a dog’s nostrils is designed to aid its sense of smell. The ‘comma’ shape allows a dog to exhale through the side slits, which creates a swirling air pattern that helps sweep more of the scent in via the front of the nose. A study carried out in Norway by the University of Oslo discovered that a hunting dog can sniff in a stream of air for up to forty seconds at the time, which covered about thirty actual breaths.

As if all this wasn’t enough, dogs have a secondary olfactory system that humans don’t possess. The vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ, which is at the base of a dog’s nasal passage, picks up pheromones, related to sexual readiness. These signals are interpreted by a different area of the dog’s brain, quite separate from the rest of its scenting capabilities.

You may wonder what sparked this post today about the ability of dogs to detect chemicals by scent alone. The answer lies all around us at the moment—the Covid-19 pandemic. With testing apparently in disarray, the scares about asymptomatic carriers and threats of a second wave, could scent dogs provide part of the answer?

It was reported back in July 2020 that a charity in Milton Keynes, UK, called Medical Detection Dogs was training six canines to sniff out the virus. The charity’s co-founder, Dr Claire Guest, has previously trained dogs to detect various forms of cancer, as well as malaria, E.coli, and Parkinson’s disease. With the increasing scepticism towards vaccines, using the biosensors known to man might just provide a worthwhile alternative.

MDD is continuing its trials, part-funded by the UK government and by public donations, in conjunction with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Durham University. It is hoped they might be able to screen up to 250 people an hour at points of entry into the UK and at testing centres.

Fingers crossed…

This week’s Word of the Week is nefelibata, meaning a cloud walker, one who lives in the clouds of their own imaginations or dreams, or one who does not obey the conventions of society, of Spanish and Portuguese origin.

If you’d like to comment on this blog, you can do so over on Murder Is Everywhere.

Between 1973 and 1986, 13 murders, over 50 rapes, and more than 120 burglaries were committed all over California by the same man—Joseph James DeAngelo. During his extended crime spree, DeAngelo was known by a variety of nicknames, including the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and the Golden State Killer.

As the original name suggests, he began in Visalia, California in 1973 by breaking into houses and vandalising them during his robbery. DeAngelo tended to take small, personal items of low value rather than large amounts of cash or expensive objects, scattering female underwear about the place and even helping himself to food and drink. In 1975, he killed Claude Snelling.

During this time, DeAngelo was a serving police officer, having joined after an internship and going on to work on burglaries. In 1979, however, he was fired after being prosecuted for shoplifting. He had also fought in the Vietnam War and, at the time of his retirement in 2017, was a truck mechanic.

A photo released by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office shows Joseph James DeAngelo, who joined the Exeter Police Department in 1973. (Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office)

Early in 2018, Detective Paul Holes and FBI lawyer Steve Kramer uploaded the unknown Golden State Killer’s DNA into the GEDmatch website. This free online database was founded in 2010 with the aim of helping amateur and professional researchers and genealogists, including adoptees searching for their birth parents. It compared autosomal DNA data files from different testing companies, allowing users to search for relatives who had submitted their DNA, and also became much frequented by law enforcement. (In May 2019, however, GEDmatch increased its privacy guidelines so that users had to opt-in to sharing their data with law enforcement.)

By running a search through GEDmatch’s more than one million profiles, a team of investigators and genealogists were able to identify between 10 and 20 people who shared distant relatives with the Golden Gate Killer. This may seem fortuitous, but if you are of European ancestry and live in the USA, there is currently a 60% chance that a third cousin or closer relation will be in the database already. And this is when GEDmatch encompasses only about 0.5% of the US adult population. Estimates are that, once the GEDmatch figure rises to 2%, the likelihood of finding a third-cousin-or-closer match for those of European descent will rise to 90%.

From this information, the investigative team constructed a giant family tree. By gradually eliminating suspects, they got down to just two. One was then cleared by a further DNA test, and that left only Joseph James DeAngelo.

DeAngelo was arrested in April 2018. The statute of limitations had passed on the rapes and burglaries, but he was eventually charged with 13 counts of murder and kidnapping. He pled guilty to avoid the death penalty and on August 21 2020 the trial judge handed down multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Currently, legislators are looking at the rules surrounding the use by law enforcement of DNA provided to ancestry-type websites. There are arguments to be made for personal privacy versus justice. Nevertheless, as of December 2019, approximately 70 cold case arrests have been made using this method, as well as identifying 11 John and Jane Doe bodies in the USA. This included one case where both victim and perpetrator were identified via genealogical DNA—the murder by James Richard Curry of hiker Mary Silvani (for many years called simply the Washoe County Jane Doe)—nearly 40 years after the crime was committed.

This week’s Word of the Week is nemophilist, meaning someone who is inordinately fond of woods, forests, or woodland scenery and visits them often. The word comes from the Greek nemos, grove, and philos love or affection.

You can comment on this post over on Murder Is Everywhere.

MIE-title2

Every family has those sayings which aren’t quite the norm. The grandmother of a childhood friend used to come out with a stack of them, including the wonderful, “They’re all daubed with the same stick.” And:

There is a certain joy to be derived from a really good mixed metaphor. My father’s favourite is:

By far the easiest way to demonstrate this phenomenon is the illustrate it, so why not click here to see the full illustrated blog over on Murder Is Everywhere?

MIE-title2

Have you ever considered the best ways for you to hide money from your nearest and dearest?

No? Ah, just me then…

Actually, I should state at the outset that I looked into this as a purely hypothetical exercise. (Trust me, that horse has long since bolted.) Researching methods erring spouses use to hide away funds from their partners is something that may have entirely fictional relevance, but it’s an intriguing subject.

A recent survey by a credit card website discovered that twenty percent of Americans who are in a relationship admit to spending $500 or more without the knowledge of their partner. A smaller percentage even confess to holding hidden bank accounts or credit cards.

Scaling up the numbers from the sample the website questioned, this means that up to seven million people commit financial infidelity with their loved ones.

At one point, I would—and did—happily have joint bank accounts with my spouse. Around sixty-six percent of married couples do the same. I handled the business accounts and relied on my partner to handle the personal side, pay credit cards when they were due, and to warn me of any impending situation that might put us into debt.

Now, I’m slightly OCD about not accruing debt. I don’t owe anybody anything and intend to keep things that way. But I can appreciate how easy it is for one partner to bury their head in the sand, particularly during current times when employment in all kinds of fields is looking precarious and many have been on furlough at reduced pay. Just because income has gone down, that does not mean expenditure can be cut to match.

Sometimes, it’s purely a case of mismanagement. One partner can’t resist retail therapy in one form or another, and credit cards provide the means of instant gratification. It’s tempting to squint past the outrageous interest rate charged. Many people do not realise that when a credit card company offers a zero interest rate on balance transfers, either the fees charged for such a transaction or the existing balance will still be charged at the full rate—and those amounts will, of course, be the part of the debt paid off last.

But in other cases, things take a more deliberate edge. These are some of the ways I’ve discovered that some couples keep financial secrets from each other.

To begin with, if any of your income is derived in cash, then it’s all too easy to pocket some of it before it reaches home. Equally, paying for goods by card and asking for an additional sum as cash-back at the till also allows a private stash to be stealthily accrued. The resulting amounts will show on statements purely as spending at a particular store rather than as a cash withdrawal.

If you are salaried, then any new income, like a raise, can be diverted to a new bank account. I am told that the Human Resources departments of most large companies are able to split your pay and send it to different destinations if required. As long as you aren’t trying to avoid paying tax…

Speaking of which, I understand you can overpay your tax and have this excess refunded at a later date. I haven’t yet investigated if this is something only possible in America or if it applies to the UK as well. If so, then obviously you will be able to choose where this eventual refund is sent and what account it goes into.

Opening an online account accessed from an encrypted app allows one partner to open additional bank accounts without tell-tale statements or paperwork turning up at the marital address.

Equally, credit cards can usually be managed entirely online. I don’t think I’ve seen a paper statement for any of mine for some years. Although, as the name implies, this gives you only a line of credit, not a means of hiding assets or squirreling away money.

However, you can buy gift cards, load them up, then stash them in a safe deposit box or some other safe place.

Of course, if any of these shenanigans are discovered, you will still have to hand over the amount the courts decide upon when you reach your financial settlement. Perhaps, in that case, the only way to prevent your soon-to-be-ex from getting hold of their share of the loot is to spend it before they get the chance?

What anecdotes have you heard about the extremes warring couples have gone to in order to keep money out of their exes’ pockets? And does it simply end up all going in legal fees anyway?

This week’s Word of the Week is abibliophobia, which means the fear of running out of things to read.

Read and comment on this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.

Having spent the last twenty years writing about strong women, I love to encounter them in real life, also. So, I was delighted to learn this week of history made by Eileen Flynn. She has just become the first woman from the Irish Travelling community to become a Senator in the upper house of the Irish Parliament.

Eileen and her twin sister Sally grew up on Labre Park, what’s known as a halting site, in Ballyfermot, Dublin. Conditions at the site, a mix of mobile homes and houses, could be poor. “We could go a week without heating,” she reports. Not surprisingly, this had an ongoing effect on the family’s health and on education.

Her mother died of pneumonia at just 48, when the twins were ten years old. For Eileen, hard times were just beginning. Little more than a week after her mother passed away, she was in a serious road accident, breaking numerous bones including her hips, legs, and an arm. She would spend the next two years in and out of hospital.

Losing her mother at such a young age, plus the undoubted disruption caused by the treatment of her injuries, made school life difficult for Eileen. “I was suspended eight times, I was expelled once… but thankfully at the school I went to, the teachers all believed in me.”

That faith was rewarded when both Eileen and Sally became the first Travellers from Labre Park to go on to third-level education. Eileen went to Trinity College Dublin on an access course, then Ballyfermot College, and got her degree in community and youth work at Maynooth University.

For the past ten years, Eileen has campaigned for the Irish Traveller Movement, the National Traveller Women’s Forum, and Ballyfermot Traveller Action Programme, on topics including equal rights, abortion rights, housing, and anti-racism.

According to the last census in 2016, there are over 30,000 members of the Irish Travelling community, and bias against them is still very much a part of life. Eileen admits that, if anyone commented on her country accent in the past, she would claim her father’s home town of Kilkenny. “I’d never say Dublin because of being recognised as a Traveller and being refused [entry].”

When she married her husband Liam White, who is from the settled community in Donegal, she was concerned the hotel would look up her background on social media and cancel the 2018 wedding booking because of her background. “As a Traveller, it’s a fear you have all the time.”

She stood for election to the Seanad Éireann (the Senate) earlier this year but just missed out on a seat. Fortunately, out of the 60 seats in the upper house, 11 are filled with appointees by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheál Martin. Eileen was the only non-party political nominee, as the others are from the three parties which make up the new coalition.

The appointment of a nominee to represent the Travelling community was recommended in a Seanad report from early 2020, after they were granted status as an indigenous ethnic minority within the Republic of Ireland, and it was recognised that they ‘are still experiencing stigma, longstanding prejudice, discrimination, racism, social exclusion and identity erosion.’

Making her maiden speech in the Dublin Convention Centre last Monday, the new Senator Flynn said she hoped to be, “that person that will break down the barriers for Traveller people and also for those at the end of Irish society.” It is her ambition to introduce hate crime legislation in the Republic of Ireland.

I had not come across Eileen Flynn when I created characters from the British Romany and Irish Traveller communities for BONES IN THE RIVER, but I have a feeling Queenie Smith would definitely have voted for her!

This week’s Word of the Week is eudaimonia, from eu meaning well, and daimon or daemon meaning a minor deity or guardian spirit. Aristotle described it as doing and living well, leading to the word ‘well-being’. It differs from happiness as that is a subjective concept, whereas eudaimonia is based on what it means to live a human life well.

Read the illustrated version of this blog, and leave a comment if you wish, over on Murder Is Everywhere.

MIE-title2

I was delighted to be invited by Barbara Bos at the Women Writers Women’s Books website to write a piece on my Road to Publication, from an early longhand novel to my foray into indie publishing, and everything in between.

I have been in this writing game long enough to have started out in an entirely analogue world.

When I wrote my very first novel there was no internet, no social media, no email, no mobile phones, and precious little by way of computerisation.

(I should point out here that I was only fifteen at the time.)

I penned the whole manuscript longhand and my father, bless him, typed it up for me on an electric typewriter—with carbon copies. It did the rounds of the major publishing houses, where it received what is known in the trade as ‘rave rejections’. Everybody loved it. Nobody wanted to publish it.

I temporarily shelved my idea of becoming a novelist and went on to a variety of jobs in my teenage years. But the compulsion to write never quite left me. So, when I learned to drive and bought my first car, an elderly Triumph Spitfire, this led me into the classic car world. And, more particularly, into the classic car magazines.

It wasn’t long before I realised that there were a lot of car magazines on the market in the UK—about 120 at that time—and they were all desperate for good copy. I gave up my job, turned freelance, and discovered I had more work on than I could handle. It wasn’t long before editors starting asking for pictures to go with the articles. So I borrowed a camera and taught myself to use it.

That all began in 1988. I’ve been making a living from words and pictures ever since.

I may have found early success with non-fiction, but I never lost that urge to create my own story rather than retelling other people’s. For much of the 1990s I was kicking around the idea for a crime thriller. Mainly because that was the genre I most liked to read but also because, in the thrillers around at the time, I couldn’t find a female character who really satisfied me.

Mostly, the women in such books were there as the hero’s love interest, or to cook, tend to the wounded, scream in a firefight, or twist their ankle at an inappropriate moment and need to be rescued.

I wanted to read about women who were quite capable of doing their own rescuing, thank-you-very-much.

Enter ex-Special Forces trainee turned self-defence expert and close-protection operative, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox. I finished my first novel featuring Charlie back in 1999. After picking up my copy of the WRITERS’ AND ARTISTS’ YEARBOOK, and searching for Agents (Crime) I began at A. The second agent who requested the full typescript offered to represent me.

With hindsight, I should have spent days in my local library, going through the Acknowledgements sections of my favourite crime authors’ works, looking for the ones who thought highly enough of their agents to name-check them.

If I were starting out now, of course, I’d look at author websites, which often list the author’s literary agent on the Contact page. Or simply resort to Google, or—better yet—go and hang out in the bar at CrimeFest or Harrogate.

But, back then I was a novice, and there wasn’t the plethora of advice, forums, and support groups there is now. Even with the mistakes I made in my early decisions, KILLER INSTINCT came out in 2001.

Since then, I have written thirteen books in the Charlie Fox series, the latest of which is BAD TURN—out in Sept 2019. I’ve also written more than twenty short stories, which have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. I’ve penned a couple of standalone crime novels, one of which is now the first of a trilogy set in the Lake District and featuring CSI Grace McColl and Detective Nick Weston. The second book, BONES IN THE RIVER, came out in May 2020.

When my first publisher was swallowed up by a larger fish in the pond, my early works fell out of print. I reverted the rights and, in 2011, decided the eBook bandwagon was something I ought to be on. I self-published, with immediate success. Ever since, I’ve been a hybrid author with a foot in both independent and traditional publishing camps.

I’ve learned to handle the layout and content side of indie publishing, as well as cover design, editing, marketing, social media strategy, blogging, and advertising. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. But the upside is total control and information flow in an industry not noted for providing the average author with either commodity.

It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning at any one time. Especially when you consider that there’s also the small matter of actually writing the books…

But there is a good deal of satisfaction to be had in knowing what you’re going to be writing next, regardless of whether that’s part of an existing series, branching out into another, or even trying something new.

When I wrote the first book in what has become the Lakes Crime Thriller Trilogy, DANCING ON THE GRAVE, it was intended purely as a standalone title. Then reviewers hinted that they thought Grace and Nick had legs. Soon, readers joined that cry, and I knew I just had to go again. So far, I’ve committed to a trilogy that can all be read independently. After that, well, it’s up to my readers.

But, with Charlie Fox fans clamouring for more—allied to the fact the series was recently optioned for TV—plus another standalone bubbling inside my head, and another series to launch into, who knows what might happen next?

There’s one thing about being an author—it’s never dull.

Read and comment on this article over on Women Writers Women’s Books.

A couple of weeks ago, I resigned myself to the horrors of a new computer.

This is always a nightmare of acclimatising to upgraded operating systems, trusty programs that are no longer available, and incompatible files.

I hate it.

It’s one reason, I confess, that I finally went over to the Dark Side with my last computer and bought a MacBook Air. It’s been absolutely wonderful, and has served me faithfully for the past seven years—far longer, I have to admit, than any of my previous PC laptops lasted.

And it’s not ready for the great parts bin in the sky quite yet. Removing all the accumulated rubbish and rebooting the operating system will apparently see it keep going for quite a while longer. At least, I hope so…

The real problem is that when I first gave myself MacBook Airs and graces, I was not doing nearly as much photo manipulation as I am now, having taken a deep dive into cover design. I need something with a faster processor and now seemed the ideal time to go back to a desktop. So, I’ve bought myself an iMac and, once I stopped cursing at it and threatening to throw it out of the window—and when I discovered how to switch off the dreaded Cloud that seemed to be eating all my files and regurgitating them in corrupted guise—I think I’ve finally made friends with it.

The almost blank desktop screen is strangely calming.

But, I did say ‘almost’ there. Because already four or five folders and icons have crept onto the right-hand side and I know I won’t ever get a better time to bring some organisational order to the way I work.

The question I face is…how?

At the moment I have, for example, a folder marked FICTION. That leads to more folders titled things like CHARLIE FOX SERIES, LAKES TRILOGY, SHORT STORIES, STANDALONES, etc.

Those in turn lead to more folders, one for each title. So, in the case of the latest Charlie Fox novel, I have a pathway that goes FICTION > CHARLIE FOX SERIES > BAD TURN.

So far, so good.

In the {TITLE} folder live all the peripheral documents, such as:

Acknowledgements. There’s nothing worse than the book coming out and you realise you’ve forgotten to thank someone who provided vital information right at the start of the project. I keep a document on the go and drop names into it as soon as they occur.

Jacket Copy. This is the brief book synopsis that normally appears on the back of the book jacket, or on the retailer page. I usually write this before I even start on the book itself, to keep myself tuned to the basic idea. It can be very helpful to run this by interested parties and watch their reactions carefully. If they look intrigued, you know you might just have something…

Metadata. By the time I’ve finished a book and it’s ready to upload, this file usually runs to about 25 pages. It contains every piece of information on the book that I need in order to register the ISBN number and upload it, including keywords, categories, page counts, descriptions, etc. Trying to go through this process without a giant crib sheet is incredibly difficult. I can’t believe it took me so long to put together a template for this file.

Outline. Sometimes this is the kind of thing I could show a publisher but more often than not, it’s my own personal writing outline, with a full character list, back story, and what happens off-camera to explain how the elements of the story slot together. It changes—a LOT—during the course of writing the book. I will usually also have:

Story Breakdown. This is more like a conventional publisher synopsis, with the plot divided into three acts and the turning point of each act noted. This is more of a note on structure than story.

And then I have my Summary. Even if you don’t plot beforehand, I always recommend keeping a summary of the book as you write it. Just a paragraph on each chapter with the main point of action, dialogue and character development. If structural edits are needed afterwards, I note them on the summary to work out how best to incorporate them into the book as a whole.

Other folders in the {TITLE} folder are BOOK, which is where I actually keep my work-in-progress documents. I’ve always written each draft chapter in a separate document, then dropped it into the overall book doc when it’s done.

There’s also a COVER folder, where I keep different versions of the final cover images, including the spine and back cover, hi-res for print use, and lo-res for website or internet use.

Another folder is called EDITS AND FEEDBACK, which is fairly self-explanatory. It’s where I keep all the emails and notes from beta readers, my Advance Reader Team, copyeditor, and proofreader.

A further folder is marked RESEARCH, where I store any articles on related topics, and images that might come in useful while writing, such as this one of the layout of a truck braking system, which anyone who read BAD TURN will realise the significance of.

I also keep any pictures of actors, etc, who have the look of characters in the book. I labelled this one of Everett McGill as ‘Conrad Epps’:

And this one of Oded Fehr as ‘Khalid Hamzeh’:

I also keep a folder for REVIEWS, although I try not to look at them too much. That way, madness lies…

And then there are the folders for book production—PRINT and VELLUM & EBOOK.

PRINT contains the content pdfs for the paperback, hardcover and large print editions, the cover templates and actual full-wrap cover files, and the downloaded proofs. If I’ve used any special fonts, they’ll be in another folder in this folder.

The VELLUM & EBOOK folder contains the Vellum document, which is the program I use to convert a Word doc to ebook formats and print-ready pdf, plus the mobi and epub files for both the ARC and the final versions, and the Vellum-produced cover images to upload.

And that’s about it.

What you have to bear in mind is that BAD TURN is book 13 in the Charlie Fox series. I have another 12 {TITLE} folders in the CHARLIE FOX folder, each of which contains all those elements. Often, when I’m putting together a metadata file for one book, I check back to see how I did something on the last. It involves quite a bit of hopping about and I regularly have so many folders open on the desktop I struggle to work out which is which.

It’s not enough to label a folder COVER, I have to call it BT-COVER just to be sure I know which folder I’ve found. Because, that’s not the only place I keep covers…

In the main FICTION folder, I then have another called COVERS. This is where I keep the PhotoShop files of all the covers I’m working on, the jpg images of the final cover, the original images that make up the different covers, their attributions and picture credits, as well as all the draft versions, and covers I played about with that didn’t quite make the cut. I also keep versions with and without a border. The latter feature is something I realised I needed when I started having covers that were either black or white, to make sure the cover edges are visible on all backgrounds, as you can see from the image below.

The reason these are all together like this is because, when I’m building one cover it’s very important to get the elements lined up with those that have come before it. I need to make sure the author name and series indication is in the same size font and in the same position on the cover. For that, it’s easier to keep everything in one place.

Or, at least, I think it is…

Things have become a little easier since I discovered how to use an Alias on a Mac desktop, which is basically a shortcut. (And I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to work that one out.) But I’m still left wondering, is there a better way to do this? A more logical layout? A better critical path analysis?

What do you use? All advice gratefully received!

This week’s Word of the Week came courtesy of EvKa. It’s trophallaxis, meaning the mutual exchange of regurgitated liquids between adult insects and their larvae. It also means the transfer of food or other fluids among members of a community through mouth-to-mouth or anus-to-mouth feeding. Along with nutrients, trophallaxis can involve the transfer of molecules such as pheromones, organisms such as symbionts, and information to serve as a form of communication.

(Note to self: if asked to ‘communicate’ with EvKa, ask questions on method before agreeing…)

You can view and comment on this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.

MIE-title2

with Elizabeth Hill, James D Mortain, Caroline Goldsworthy, Dawn Brookes,
moderated by Zoë Sharp

The first weekend in June 2020 should have been CrimeFest in Bristol. Sadly, with the current Covid-19 pandemic still on the loose, the live event has had to be postponed.

For the last few years, it has been my privilege to moderate The Indie Alternative panel on Sunday morning at CrimeFest, which allows indie-published authors to showcase themselves and their work. As a hybrid author myself (half author, half digestive biscuit) I still wanted to give these authors a platform, and what better place than here?

So, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to the four diverse and interesting writers below:

Elizabeth Hill

Elizabeth published KILLING THE GIRL in April 2019 and is now busy working on her second novel. ‘We all love a great murder mystery and KILLING THE GIRL explores the reasons why an ordinary woman kills. What pushes her to her limit of endurance and sanity? And could that woman be you?’ Elizabeth is a member of The Alliance of Independent Authors, The Bristol Fiction Writers Group and Noir At The Bar, Bath. She was a speaker at the 2019 Bristol Festival of Literature.

Zoë Sharp: Your debut novel, KILLING THE GIRL, is about a woman who has been living a reclusive life for more than forty years in a large house where the body of a man she murdered is buried in the garden. Now the house is about to be demolished to make way for a bypass and she knows her secret will come to light. It’s an intriguing set-up. What inspired this story?

Elizabeth Hill: I live in south Bristol and there has always been the prospect of a ring road below Dundry Hill. The idea came because at one time there were discussions that this ring road would travel up over the Hill. What if a house was built on its path and what if the reclusive woman who lives there has buried a body? How does she survive being forced to leave her home with the prospect of the murder she got away with coming back to haunt her? What will she do? I loved travelling on that journey with her because I didn’t know what would happen, how she would survive, and who else she would kill. She became more vengeful than I’d originally imagined as she told her story.

Zoë Sharp: You’re already at work on your next book. Will there be a continuation of any characters from the first novel, or do you intend to write standalones?

Elizabeth Hill: My second book is a stand-alone but I want to retain the ‘Killing The…’ theme to give a sense of a series, and to be part of my brand of three novels. All my novels will feature women who have killed, or caused the death of someone. Reasons why women kill as a theme for the mystery novel fascinate me.

Zoë Sharp: What was your road to publication? Did you consider or try to find a traditional publisher or go the indie route right away? And why?

Elizabeth Hill: I tried to attract an agent, but it didn’t work. I had overwhelming praise from two big agents during a webinar featuring my first page that came to nothing. It was the positive response to my writing from my editors that gave me the ‘nerve’ to self-publish. Martin Ouvry teaches creative writing at London Uni so when he said my novel was excellent that was a great endorsement, and the impetus for me to bite the bullet and go for it.

Zoë Sharp: What, for you, are the best and worst aspects of being indie published? What do you enjoy doing the most and what do you find something of a chore?

Elizabeth Hill: Marketing, advertising, and all that happens outside of writing that sucks up my time, but I have to learn how to get my book noticed. The plus side is mixing with other authors and becoming immersed in a whole new world—and a lovely world at that. I’ve met some wonderful people and the best thing is that there is no competition because readers will buy every one of our books—and more.

Zoë Sharp: How do you go about marketing your work and building your readership? What do you find your most useful tool or platform for this?

Elizabeth Hill: I’m still learning this! Various book promotion sites with email lists help. I haven’t built an email list because I don’t blog or write news updates, etc. Experimenting and learning from my mistakes and feedback is key to progress. Learning who I should target with advertising and what I should invest in—but that’s ongoing and will probably change as markets change. I’m on Goodreads and have 103 ratings. NetGalley worked as readers that liked my novel listed it at Barnes and Noble, The Indie Bookstore, and a library in the US.

 Zoë Sharp: What one piece of advice would you offer to someone just writing their first novel and considering indie publishing?

Elizabeth Hill: Write the best novel you can because without a great novel nothing you do will get you anywhere. Get as many people to read it as possible and take their feedback seriously. Then re-write it! Use a story editor and re-write again. Before you publish, use a proof reader and read it again several times. That’s the best piece of advice—write the novel you want to write and then make sure it’s the best it can be.

James D Mortain

James is a former British CID Detective with the Avon and Somerset Constabulary turned crime fiction writer. ‘He brings compelling action and gritty authenticity to his writing through years of police experience. He began writing in 2012, following a chance encounter in a Bath bar with SAS veteran, TV personality and author, Chris Ryan. Using his own real-life experiences within a busy CID department, James creates gripping, fast-paced crime thrillers that will keep you on the edge-of-your-seat until the very last page.’

His first series has become a Kindle bestseller both in the UK and overseas. Featuring Detective Andrew Deans, these books are a chilling blend of police procedural and the paranormal. His latest work, DEAD RINGER, features a new character, DI Robbie Chilcott, in the start of a new urban crime series set in Bristol, UK.

Zoë Sharp: I have to ask, what was it about meeting Chris Ryan that inspired you to start writing? How long did it then take you to write your first book? And were you still a serving police officer at the time?

James D Mortain: I had left the police one month before that fateful meeting and it was actually Chris who suggested that I possessed the knowledge and first-hand police experience that most crime writers would kill for, and, he suggested, why didn’t I give writing a go? My first book, STORM LOG-0505 took around four years to write. I really had no idea what I was doing at the start and didn’t know if I had the ability within me to write a book. It turns out I had enough of a story to create a trilogy!

Zoë Sharp: Before you wrote your latest novel, the first in a new series with DI Robbie Chilcott, you wrote three paranormal police procedurals with Detective Andrew Deans. Why the paranormal element? And why change to your new main protagonist? What was it about the story of DEAD RINGER that needed a new voice to tell it?

James D Mortain: As you would have already discovered, my writing was somewhat spontaneous in nature, and Chris Ryan had told me to write about what I knew and also write about what would keep me entertained. As a police officer, life was about proving facts or disproving explanations through the gathering of reliable evidence. I thought it would be fun to challenge that process via a topic that divides opinion and belief, and cannot be proven one way or the other. I created the new DI Chilcott series acting on the advice of another author who said I could be missing a large chunk of readership that may be put off by the paranormal elements of my trilogy. I plan to continue both series and I have a far away dream that one day, Deans and Chilcott will both come together in a shiny new series.

Zoë Sharp: What was your road to publication? Did you consider or try to find a traditional publisher or go the indie route right away? And why?

James D Mortain: Gosh, my road to publication was pretty rocky. After a couple of years of endless self-edits and professional edits, I took the plunge and queried a handful of agents. To my utter astonishment, I had a response from a big London agent within the first forty-eight hours, requesting the manuscript to STORM LOG-0505. A detailed response followed with fantastic advice on how I could improve the story and an invitation to resubmit my manuscript. I was absolutely delighted and thought I had a fighting chance of securing an agent, but then within the week, I was struck down with viral meningitis and life for me and my family changed in an instant. I was seriously affected by the symptoms and spent the next few months undergoing various brain and physical tests. Unable to work my day-job, let alone re-edit my book, my cognitive abilities were badly inhibited and for reasons I still cannot explain, I didn’t inform the agent I was ill. Needless to say, I lost that chance and so when I was better placed, I decided to forge my own destiny and publish my book independently.

Zoë Sharp: What, for you, are the best and worst aspects of being indie published? What do you enjoy doing the most and what do you find something of a chore?

James D Mortain: The best part of being indie is having total control of your products: from book cover design to pricing and everything in between. The worst part is finding available time and ‘discoverability’—how to get my book before the eyes of potential readers? I don’t find anything a chore. I think it’s a mindset that indies have to have; there is no one element of publishing a book that is less important than the next and so they need equal attention. Get one part of the ingredient wrong and you’ll likely fail. I actually love editing. I hated it at first, because I put far too much emphasis on the time it had taken to write the swaths of text I was then deleting, rather than appreciating just how much better the story had become.

Zoë Sharp: How do you go about marketing your work and building your readership? What do you find your most useful tool or platform for this?

James D Mortain: I use Facebook and Amazon advertising to help with discoverability. Having a series helps to build loyal readership and I’m blessed to have avid readers who simply can’t get enough of Deans and Chilcott. I subscribe to Mark Dawson’s Self Publishing Formula training modules. This is a paid product, it doesn’t come cheap, but the advice and hands-on tuition is priceless. It covers everything from day one of being a writer to advanced advertising. It has certainly helped me to improve my skills and grow my author presence. I now also have a publicist who is great at tapping up press and media leads.

Zoë Sharp: What one piece of advice would you offer to someone just writing their first novel and considering indie publishing?

James D Mortain: Don’t cut corners and don’t rush to publish…and always believe anything is possible.

Caroline Goldsworthy

Caroline describes herself as an Essex girl living in Suffolk. She was born in Chelmsford and moved to Colchester aged three. Going to university in her early thirties, Caroline graduated with a BA in Spanish Language and Linguistics and won a full scholarship for an MA in Language Acquisition. It was during this time that Caroline discovered she really liked writing.

Her debut novel TANGENT, loosely inspired by events in Ipswich 2006, was shortlisted in 2019 for The Selfies Award—a new prize for self-published authors. The second in the series, RECOMPENSE, is out now, with book three on the way. She has also written SYNNÖVE: THE KING’S CUPBEARER, a murder mystery set in 625 AD.

Zoë Sharp: I well remember the Ipswich prostitute murders which inspired your first DCI Ronnie Carlson book, TANGENT. What was it about this case that made you particularly want to use it as the basis for your debut?

Caroline Goldsworthy: I moved to Ipswich in September 2006 and the first young woman, (Tania Nicol) went missing at the end of October. Her body was found on 8th December. In the meantime another woman went missing (Gemma Adams) and her body was found in the same area as Tania on 2nd December. I was taking my Doberman puppy for a walk and a man told me that I was the first woman he’d seen out on her own in ages. I shrugged it off, nonchalant that it was daytime and I was far from the town centre, but… when I got to the far end of Longstrops (the open ground where we walked) the Police were doing a line search on the other side of the hedge. The last two women had been found about 3-4 miles from where I lived. It brought it all home. How close it had come to me was really scary.

I am old enough to have been around when the Yorkshire Ripper was at large and there was one thing that struck me over the difference in the media response to the women. In Ipswich in the mid-2000s they were “Somebody’s Daughter” in the 1970s and 80s, they were considered disposable and that death was an “occupational hazard”. Until the student was murdered – the first “innocent” victim.

So that was in my head melting away. I met someone who was later in the Cutting Edge programme Killer in a Small Town, and I was inspired by the story of Anneli Alderton and her brother’s memories of her. For a long time I wondered why she got off the drugs and the game and then came back to Ipswich.

All of those things went into the melting pot and a story began to form. I spent a summer doing voluntary work one afternoon a week at Iceni (the drug outreach centre) and was further inspired by the women I met there. I knew that I didn’t want the women in my book to be feeble victims. I wanted them strong but addicted to that heinous drug.

Zoë Sharp: You have also written SYNNÖVE: THE KING’S CUPBEARER, a murder mystery set in the early medieval period. Is this going to be another series, and what drew you to historical mysteries as well as modern crime?

Caroline Goldsworthy: I live near Sutton Hoo, which is the site of a Saxon ship burial. The fantastic treasures are in the British museum and copies are in the museum at Sutton Hoo. I was on a guided walk, standing on mound one (argued to be Raedwald’s grave) and the guide was giving such an atmospheric description of the funeral cortege that it was as if I could see her walking towards me. It was very surreal. She started life in a short story and it grew into a novel. I had great fun researching it.

Is she going to make a series? To be honest, I’m not sure at this stage. I left her story as Christianity is making inroads into the pagan beliefs. I am sure Synnöve will have strong views on that.

Zoë Sharp: What was your road to publication? Did you consider or try to find a traditional publisher or go the indie route right away? And why?

Caroline Goldsworthy: I finished writing the first draft of Tangent in 2017. I’d been on an Arvon course in Crime Fiction and Forensics (run by Margaret Murphy and Helen Pepper – they write together as Ashley Dyer).

At this stage I had no idea if I could actually write or not. I had no idea if my writing was any good. I received a lot of positive feedback from that course.

So I did, as everyone does, and tried several agents. I did this far too soon. The book wasn’t polished enough. I did get a full MS request (from a very big agency) but, when my work was rejected at that stage I was devastated. I cried for a week!

Then I got in touch with Ian Hooper at the Book Reality Experience, he took it all over for me with a solid contract with timelines and an agreed publication date. And in December 2018 I had a published book.

Zoë Sharp: What, for you, are the best and worst aspects of being indie published? What do you enjoy doing the most and what do you find something of a chore?

Caroline Goldsworthy: The best part is the freedom and independence. I can write what I want (within reason as I now have readers and they have their expectations of me), but I do get to make things up and sell those stories to people which has got to be one of the best jobs ever. I’m planning a different series for next year which will be released under a pen name.

Zoë Sharp: How do you go about marketing your work and building your readership? What do you find your most useful tool or platform for this?

Caroline Goldsworthy: I really struggle with the marketing side of things. This is the one thing I find a bit of a chore. Despite all appearances I am quite shy and I’m still struggling with the “gosh who wants to know about little me?” I know I have to get past this and I am working on it. I need to spend some time updating the back matter in my books and make sure that there are links to my newsletter page and the other books that I have now written.

Zoë Sharp: What one piece of advice would you offer to someone just writing their first novel and considering indie publishing?

Caroline Goldsworthy: Take it seriously. Publishing is a business and you need to treat it as a proper job.

Once you have written that first book, write another and write a third. Make them a series. Get good covers—research your genre. Get the best editor you can afford.

There are 8 million books on Kindle alone. With one book you will make the merest plop in the ocean. Remember this and keep writing. Readers move on. Make sure you have something for them to move on to. When they love you, you’ll earn their loyalty—but it’s a two-way deal. Take care of your readers and keep writing stories they will love.

PS I wish I’d listened to this advice when I heard it the first time.

Dawn Brookes

Dawn is a British author with a long nursing pedigree and takes regular cruise holidays for research purposes! She brings these passions along with a Christian background and a love of clean crime to her writing. The surname of her protagonist, Rachel Prince, is in honour of her childhood dog, who used to put his head on her knee while she lost herself in books.

Bestselling author three memoirs of nurse training in the 1970s, Dawn worked as a hospital nurse, midwife, district nurse and community matron across a thirty-nine-year year career. Before turning her hand to writing for a living, she had multiple articles published in professional journals and co-edited a nurse textbook.

She grew up in Leicester, later moved to London and Berkshire but now lives in Derbyshire. Dawn holds a bachelors degree with Honours and a Masters degree in education. Writing across genres, Dawn also writes for children.

Zoë Sharp: You have written six novels in your Rachel Prince cruise mysteries, the latest of which is MURDEROUS CRUISE HABIT, and book seven is due out in August. Which came first, the cruising or the desire to write crime fiction? Was it a conscious decision to use the cruise element to give your stories a greater hook to appeal to a segment of readers you felt was perhaps not catered to? What’s the appeal to you?

Dawn Brookes: Cruising came first. I went on my first cruise whilst still working full-time in the British health service in 2006 and fell in love with it.

Yes it was a conscious decision to set the mysteries on a cruise ship. I tended to read in the clean, less graphic murder mystery series and thought it would be fun to use the cruise ship setting rather than the traditional village. There’s a lot of interest in cruising from both seasoned and non-cruisers and because of its international nature both among crew and passengers, I felt it would lend itself to a series.

At first, I had the idea of a murder mystery with the ‘upstairs, downstairs’ appeal of Downton Abbey. The crew provide the stability of characters along with the protagonist whose best friend is a cruise ship nurse. The passengers are the newcomers who bring their issues on board and add to the intrigue. The luxurious setting adds that feel-good factor giving people an escape.

Zoë Sharp: You have also written nursing memoirs, books for children, and you have the first in a new series featuring a private investigator, Carlos Jacobi, in the Derbyshire Peak District. Is this the same Carlos from the Rachel Prince books? Why did you decide to spin him off into a series of his own?

Dawn Brookes: Yes, my first book was a memoir and reminded me of a childhood ambition to write full-time. I decided to spin Carlos off so that I could have a series based on land. As a private investigator he will be able to travel around the UK and abroad. I also wanted to explore writing from the POV of a male protagonist.

Lady Marjorie is popular with readers too. I was going to kill her off in the first book in series but changed my mind and I’m so glad I did. She has her own following.

Zoë Sharp: What was your road to publication? Did you consider or try to find a traditional publisher or go the indie route right away? And why?

Dawn Brookes: Indie publishing was always going to be my choice, though as I wouldn’t have the patience to wait a few years to publish. Also, now I’m older, I don’t have time on my side!

I was contacted last year by an indie publisher and offered a contract but I declined as by that time I was working as a full-time writer. It would take a huge offer to tempt me away from indie publishing.

Zoë Sharp: What, for you, are the best and worst aspects of being indie published? What do you enjoy doing the most and what do you find something of a chore?

Dawn Brookes: The best aspects relate to being in control of my own destiny and owning the rights to my work. I enjoy being involved with the cover design although I employ a designer and I like working with my editor. The worst aspect is that in some quarters it’s still looked down upon and seen as second best although these attitudes are changing.

The thing I enjoy mostly is the creative side, the writing and also the pleasure I get when readers contact me to tell me how much they love my work. Marketing is a chore for me, I do it because I have to but it’s not my favourite. I also found listening to my audiobook chapters to check for errors not to my liking, I’ve passed this on now.

Zoë Sharp: How do you go about marketing your work and building your readership? What do you find your most useful tool or platform for this?

Dawn Brookes: My main marketing platform is Amazon Ads and these, though not as cheap as they were are the most fruitful. I use Facebook ads around launch and at intervals but these tend to have a short life in terms of return for me. I have a website and a social media platform (mostly Facebook) where I stay in touch with my most loyal followers. I write a monthly newsletter to people who have subscribed to let readers know of anything new and about new books.

Zoë Sharp: What one piece of advice would you offer to someone just writing their first novel and considering indie publishing?

Dawn Brookes: Do your homework and invest in editing and cover design. Some things you can do with a little less money, but some things will hurt you if you don’t get it right.

So, it only remains for me to thank my panellists for their time and patience answering my questions. And to say that I’ve read and enjoyed all these indie authors’ latest novels, so if you’re looking for another good book during lockdown, look no further!

This week’s Word of the Week is interrobang, which is the name for when you combine an exclamation mark with a question mark—thus?! Thanks to EvKa for spotting these on fellow author Tim Hallinan’s page.

You can read and comment on this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.

MIE-title2

On Friday, June 5, I received one of those out-of-the-blue phone calls. The kind where, as soon as you pick up the receiver and realise who’s calling, you know why, and you know it’s not going to be good news.

My friend of more than 35 years, Andrew W Neal, had died during the night.

He was not in good health, but this was unexpected news. I’d been planning to see him on my usual trip south for CrimeFest in Bristol (it should have taken place this very weekend). Then the UK went into lockdown because of Covid-19 and all such travel was out of the question.

Now I was too late.

A former pilot, Andrew flew just about anything with wings or rotors, and one or two things where such vital bits had dropped off. His stories were amazing, flying in the bush in Africa with a missing rotor blade, landing on train tracks in South America, crashing after hitting wires strung between trees in Australia. I always tried to persuade him to write some of them down.

And now I was too late for that, too.

Whenever I needed advice for my writing on flying (or indeed, crashing) Andrew was the person I went to. He gave me such help with the helicopter scenes in DIE EASY: Charlie Fox #10, that eventually I made him the pilot in the book. As my tribute to Andrew, here are those three chapters:

Sixteen

The helicopter Tom O’Day had hired for the sightseeing tours of New Orleans was a six-seat Bell 429 corporate model, dressed in the discreet livery of a local oil company. I say “hired” but in fact he probably talked them into lending it for nothing. All in aid of a good cause.

The flights were taking around thirty minutes, taking off from the open top floor of the parking structure next to the hotel, beating north over the city towards Lake Pontchartrain and then circling back over the network of canals and levees that protected the city’s eastern side.

I’d heard the rapid thrum of the rotor blades as the helo came and went all morning, starting around nine-thirty and running straight through like continuous flight ops from a carrier deck. The only break was a short one to refuel, then it was back on station.

The pilot was laid-back about the whole thing. Sean and I had already met him. The guy was a former US Army captain called Andrew Neal, who spoke little and missed less. Although he never mentioned it, we knew from the standard background checks that Capt Neal had actually been at the controls of a Sikorsky Black Hawk that fateful day in 1993 over the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

I assumed his reluctance to discuss his experiences was very much like the members of the SAS assault team who stormed the Iranian Embassy in London many years previously. There are a thousand pretenders to that particular crown. Those who really were there rarely talk about it.

Blake Dyer was booked for the last flight before lunch. We took the elevator up to the roof where O’Day’s Foundation people had set up white marquees to keep potential donors from letting the sun go to their heads. Uniformed wait-staff circulated with trays of canapés and yet more champagne. I wondered if O’Day had bought up an entire vintage to give away over the course of the weekend.

News teams and reporters were among the guests, mingling and interviewing. Must have been one of the few times everybody was happy to see them.

Dyer had a few words with the front man from the local news channel, a bouffanted guy whose expanding waistline was mostly concealed by careful tailoring. He was in full make-up that was wilting slightly even out of direct sunlight. Despite the electric fans blowing from every corner, the marquee was coming up to a midday high temp.

Sean and I stayed out of the way and let Blake Dyer circulate unmolested. He seemed to be enjoying himself, chatting to Tom O’Day himself like the old friend he professed to be, as well as taking Jimmy aside in a godfatherly kind of way. I don’t know what he said to his godson, but Jimmy didn’t look any happier afterwards.

Not that he looked happy before. Maybe he’d finally got wise to that snake Vic Morton, who was constantly by his elbow. I wondered if the bodyguard had been told to stick close and make sure the kid didn’t screw anything up.

Or it might have had more to do with the state of Jimmy’s hangover battling against the smell of jet fuel and the constant noise of the Bell cycling through its turnaround routine. Land, unload, reload, take off again. Efficient and neat. No fuss.

It was apparently left to Jimmy to keep things running to schedule on the ground. He swung by to collect Blake Dyer about ten minutes before our designated flight-time, took him over to gather with Ysabeau van Zant as if unaware of the tension between them. Mrs van Zant was coldly immaculate in a pale blue dress suit that reminded me vaguely of the former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Mrs van Zant was alone, apparently confident that her status would protect her. She and Dyer studiously ignored each other. I stayed nominally between them, just in case.

Behind Jimmy O’Day’s shoulder, Vic Morton’s eyes volleyed back and forth between me and Sean as if trying to spot the cracks he’d undoubtedly caused. I reckoned I had them pretty well plastered over by that point.

You know exactly what you’re trying to do, don’t you, you little bastard?

Sean and I were filling two of the available seats on the Bell. The remaining pair had been earmarked for an old-money banking couple from Boston, but when I looked round I couldn’t see them on the roof.

“Where are the others?” I asked Jimmy O’Day. “They’re cutting it fine.”

Jimmy kept throwing me little sideways glances without turning his head to look at me directly, as if afraid I’d turn him instantly to stone if he did so.

“Um, they’re not coming—heat’s too much for them I guess,” he said, but he sounded as if he was taking no-shows as a personal affront. “Looks like you guys will be able to really stretch out.”

I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.

Because at that moment I felt a ripple through the crowd. I turned. The young baseball star Gabe Baptiste had just stepped out of the elevator. The stunning blonde, Autumn, was on his arm again. I wondered how Tom O’Day felt about their sudden palliness. She was wearing a white dress covered with a huge red poppy motif that should have looked gauche amid the sophistication, but came across as fresh and simple.

Maybe she was part of the reason the newsman abandoned another guest in mid-sentence and swam for the pair of them like a shark aiming to keep ahead of the pack.

Baptiste sidestepped the newsman with practised agility. Instead, he headed in our direction. His bodyguard stuck to his shoulder like a conjoined twin. The guy was built like a gun emplacement in a pinstripe suit.

And where were you last night, hmm?

“Mr Dyer,” Baptiste greeted our principal, a little hesitant. “How you doin’?”

“Good, Gabe, thanks. And please, it’s Blake.”

Baptiste ducked his head in acknowledgement, but his gaze had shifted over to me, and to Sean.

“Just wanted to say thanks, you know?” he said. “For saving my ass last night up here.”

He still had a small dressing just above one ear. I let my gaze drift to his bodyguard. “You’re welcome,” I said, keeping my voice neutral.

Sean didn’t respond. He was frowning as if the inside of his skull was being tickled by a memory he couldn’t quite grasp. After a few moments he shook his head, let it go.

“Been a long time, Sean,” Baptiste said, voice sober. “Didn’t think we’d ever see each other again, huh?”

“I’m afraid I don’t…remember you,” Sean said stiffly. “I’m sorry.”

“No shit—that for real?” Baptiste checked our faces like we were all in on some massive joke at his expense.

“Sean’s recall of names and faces is the only thing affected by his recent injury,” I put in, filling an awkward silence. I added a tight smile. “But, as I’m sure you realised from the…incident last night, he’s as effective an operator as he ever was.”

It might have been stretching the facts a little, but there was no way I was going to admit to anything less in front of a client—past or present.

Baptiste continued to eye Sean for a moment longer, then grinned. “Sure,” he said. “That’s cool. So, we good?” He offered a hand bearing more gold and diamond rings than most of the women present—and that was saying something considering the company.

“Looks that way.” Sean answered the smile with a cooler version of his own—but a smile nevertheless—and gave the ball player’s hand a perfunctory shake.

“Well, shit, that is cool. In that case, I am so riding with you guys.” He glanced at the stoic bodyguard. “That cool with you, Frankie?”

John Franks—the gun emplacement—gave a fractional twitch of one massive shoulder. It might have been a shrug, or he could simply have been troubled by insects. It was hard to tell from his blank expression. I guessed Franks had been employed more for his size than his skillset.

Well, you can’t have everything—where would you put it?

“It OK with you if we take the next ride?” Baptiste asked Jimmy O’Day. And just before Jimmy could answer, Baptiste added casually, “Oh, and Autumn’s coming with me, of course.”

If Jimmy O’Day didn’t like Autumn dancing with Baptiste at the van Zant reception, he liked the prospect of her taking a pleasure flight with the ball player even less. He frowned, almost a scowl. It took a brief look from the blonde, almost too fast to register, to have him backing off, flustered.

He muttered an excuse about needing to redo some calculations—probably the fuel load taking Franks’s sheer bulk into account—and scurried off. Baptiste ignored him with the air of someone who takes it for granted that whatever he wants will miraculously happen.

It made me wonder again about Autumn’s role in the proceedings, though.

Meanwhile, Ysabeau van Zant had been sizing up Autumn with zealous intensity. I could almost see the calculations forming inside her head. If it came to photo opportunities, she knew she would be better to stand as far away from the younger, taller, thinner woman as she could manage.

Baptiste’s face when he realised that Ysabeau van Zant might be on the same aircraft with him was a picture of consternation. I watched him weighing up how much offence was likely to be caused if he backed out now because of it. Too much, clearly.

Ysabeau van Zant came to the rescue of both of them. She showed her teeth briefly to Autumn. “My dear, you must take my place. I’ll go this afternoon. I insist.”

Autumn flashed a sunny smile and thanked her with grave politeness that, in someone with more apparent depth, might have been mocking.

Jimmy O’Day fussed around us, making furious notes on his crumpled list, the deeply scarred pencil notations a visible sign of his inner frustration. I put my hand in my pocket and found a strip of paracetamol still lurking there. With a sudden burst of sympathy, I handed the painkillers to Jimmy. He glanced at them for a moment, frowning, then gave me a fleeting, weary smile.

Overhead came the sudden fast chop of rotor blades as the Bell circled the rooftop and dropped down for another centimetre-perfect landing. After the last round of passengers had been disgorged, the group of us walked out onto the sun-baked concrete towards the waiting helo sitting with its main rotor still turning lazily. We ducked instinctively below the blades as we approached.

“Mind your heads,” Jimmy shouted over the whine from the twin turbines. “And please don’t go aft of the doors when you’re boarding. Wouldn’t want to lose anybody in that tail rotor before you’ve had a chance to let my father talk you out of all your money tomorrow night, huh?”

It sounded forced, like he’d been making the same joke every time, all morning. Dyer and Baptiste gave dutiful laughs the rest of us didn’t feel the need to emulate.

I looked at the mixed emotions on the faces surrounding me. This was not, I realised, going to be quite the fact-finding pleasure flight it was meant to be.

Inside the rear cabin the plush leather seats were laid out in rows of three, facing each other. There was a slightly undignified rush for the honour of helping Autumn up into the cabin. The poppy dress only reached about halfway down her thighs and all the guys in the party jostled for the best view.

I climbed up unassisted and took the centre of the rear seats between Autumn and Blake Dyer. There was a noise-cancelling headset on a hook by the headrest. I put the cans on, adjusting the flexi-boom mic so I wouldn’t heavy-breathe into everyone’s ears.

Alongside me, Autumn strapped herself in. She looked less than thrilled at the prospect of messing up both her hair and her dress in one hit, but managed to don both the harness and headset without anyone needing to push her chest in and out while she thought about it.

Then she settled back and crossed those spectacular legs. The move was followed in minute detail by three pairs of male eyes on the other side of the cabin.

Gabe Baptiste had slumped into the seat by the far window, while his bodyguard, Franks, had folded himself awkwardly into the middle seat directly opposite me, probably because he recognised that his bulk might make us fly round in circles if he sat to one side. He was too big for the harness to fasten around him, even in the land of six-XL clothing as a standard size. He left the thing unfastened and fiddled with his headset.

Sean climbed in last. Jimmy O’Day gave Autumn one last worried look and slammed the door behind us. He looked terrible, but maybe that had something to do with the fact he’d been performing this duty all morning with the mother of all headaches and no ear defenders. He’d know better next time.

Once the door was closed I buckled my harness like a good little airline passenger, pulling the lap-belt tight and low across my hips.

The pilot twisted in the left-hand seat. “’Morning folks,” he said. “We good to go?”

It was clearly a rhetorical question. Even as he spoke the Bell was lifting off as if of its own accord, rotating effortlessly onto a new heading as it rose.

Show-off.

Just before we cleared the edge of the rooftop I glanced out of the door window and saw Jimmy O’Day still standing on the concrete below. There was something a little mournful in his rounded shoulders—the big man’s son reduced to playing the kind of role that normally netted minimum wage and a uniform with a name-tag attached.

By Jimmy’s shoulder stood his bodyguard, Vic Morton, who was staring up at the departing helo with his hand shading his eyes, almost in a parody of a final salute.

I shivered and looked away, meeting Sean’s eyes across the cabin. They were cold and distant.

What further damage was Morton going to do to the pair of us, I wondered, before the day was out?

 

Seventeen

“This is the Lower Ninth Ward,” Capt Neal said, half over his shoulder. “Katrina hit the whole city hard, but I’d say she hit here hardest of all.West of here, the parishes of Jefferson and St Tammany got away pretty lightly. But they reckon that here in St Bernard parish, only three houses were left standing.”

He brought us in low over an area to the east of the Industrial Canal, which he’d been using for his own personal equivalent of a Dambusters run south from Lake Pontchartrain.

“If you stick to the tourist areas—the French Quarter and the Garden District—you don’t get a true picture of how bad things were,” Capt Neal went on. “And how bad they still are.”

As we overflew industrial buildings I thought I could make out water marks still remaining on some of the exterior walls, like a badge of honour.

“It’s the kids who get the worst of it. Hardly any place safe to play. There’s only one school remaining for the whole parish, and fewer buses running means they can’t get to schools further out.”

With our forward speed slowed to a crawl, we craned to look down out of the cabin windows. Seeing the place from the air was effective in a way no ground-based trip would ever have been. In a city where housing tended to be packed in close, here there were only empty concrete slabs to show where houses had once stood. They were surrounded by overgrown lots as nature clawed back what was rightfully hers.

“They’re rebuilding slowly now. But in some cases the insurance companies paid out a fraction of what the houses were worth, and then only after the work’s been done. Not many folks can afford to pay up front.Pretty much the whole of this neighbourhood—everything north of Claiborne—has been derelict since.”

I thought of Ysabeau van Zant’s reconstructed mansion. Charity, it seemed, did not begin at home.

“Why was this area so badly affected?” Blake Dyer asked, leaning forwards in his seat.

“Poverty,” Capt Neal said bluntly. “Most of the folk here didn’t own a car, couldn’t afford a bus or train ticket. Katrina hit at the end of the month—a time when money’s always thin on the ground. So a whole bunch of them decided to stay put and ride it out, like they’d done before. Only, ground level round here can be as much as four feet below the level of the Gulf, and the houses were mostly single-storey homes. Then the storm surge came in, and the flooding, and when the levees broke they were under water. People drowned in their attics.”

He lowered the Bell towards an abandoned house, its front façade delicately adorned with wrought-iron railings. Weeds choked the approach to the gaping front door. Only darkness showed inside, like a mouth opened to scream.

Keeping a wary eye out for overhead power wires, Capt Neal inched the Bell forwards and the engine note rose in pitch and volume. In plaintive harmony I heard the cries of an underclass betrayed, of victims brushed aside and forgotten. It seemed to resonate with the beat of the engines, flung back from the few remaining derelict houses that were still standing. As we gazed down from our air-conditioned, cushioned luxury it wrapped itself around us like a taunt.

“With half the police force gone, New Orleans has one of the highest crime rates in the country,” Capt Neal said. He did not sound proud of the achievement. “We got half the police force and a population down by two-thirds, but there’s still the same number of arrests. Times like these, seems only the lowlifes prosper.”

I skimmed the other faces. Their expressions were largely turned inward, sombre.

“This was a tragedy,” Gabe Baptiste said, as if a news crew was there to record his concern for posterity.

If you care so much, why haven’t you been back before now?

Blake Dyer leaned forwards to catch Baptiste’s eye. “Son, look around you,” he said. “It still is.”

Capt Neal started to take us up, guiding the helo onto a new course.

“I’ll take you out over what’s known as the funnel,” he said. “The storm surge came up the Mississippi about fifteen feet high, as well as into the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and through Lake Borgne, and it all converged in the funnel. Then as the eye passed over, it pushed colossal storm surge down Industrial Canal from Lake Pontchartrain as well.” He shook his head. “This area got hit every which way.”

I peered out of the far window. Below I could see the wide canal, just beyond what looked like the world’s largest scrapyard.

And just as we started to pass over it, Sean—sitting by the near window—went rigid and let out a yell.

Just one word—possibly the word nobody in a low-flying helo ever wants to hear. I certainly didn’t.

“INCOMING!”

You can’t shout something like that to a pilot with combat experience and not expect an instant, visceral response. Capt Neal was a decorated veteran who had lost none of his instincts when he’d returned to civilian aviation. He jinked, almost a nervous twitch of hands and feet on the controls. The cabin tilted wildly and lashed sideways.

I looked left. The view through the side window was almost straight down into the street below. I was just in time to see the streaking exhaust of the shoulder-launched missile heading straight for us.

 

Eighteen

Time slowed, the way it does for me at moments of high-intensity stress. The rocket-propelled grenade seemed to hang in the air, climbing so slowly I was almost certain the pilot’s split-second reaction would get us clear.

It didn’t, of course.

Shoulder-fired RPGs have a relatively low muzzle velocity—around three hundred metres per second. Half the speed of an average rifle bullet.

Still much too fast to miss a large, near-static target less than a hundred metres away—barely a quarter of the weapon’s maximum effective range.

Capt Neal’s manoeuvre saved us a direct hit, but didn’t turn it into a miss.

There was an explosive impact somewhere aft of the cabin. The whole airframe shuddered like a harpooned whale, staggered to the side and went into a violently uneven lateral spin.

This close to the ground there wasn’t much anyone could do, least of all the pilot. He fought gravity and physics all the way down, yanking up on the collective just before contact to bring us in as gently as he could. It was a losing battle.

We made a rough landing—worse than any bike crash I’ve ever had. And I’ve had one or two.

I’d already jammed my head back against the rest to protect my neck, and wrapped my arms tight across my body, but even so we impacted with an almighty buckling whumph that jolted the breath right out of me. I was aware of screaming, male and female, and unsecured limbs jerking around in my peripheral vision.

The Bell continued to spin viciously, ripping the skids loose. The sheer rotational force of the main rotor dragged us round in a horrendous graunching scream of tearing metal on the stony surface. The aircraft kept turning even after we hit, as if trying to screw the wreckage right into the earth. Dead and buried all in one move.

The Bell was wrenched across the ground. It lurched onto its right-hand side. As the rotor blades hammered into the earth and debris they shattered in all directions like flashing daggers in a psycho circus act. One piece sliced through the skin of the cabin right in front of my face. I swear I felt the swish of hot displaced air as it hissed past.

For a second after impact nobody moved. It took that long to recognise we might just have made it down alive, if not exactly unscathed.

The cabin was at almost ninety degrees to vertical, canted over onto its starboard side. I was hanging suspended from my seatbelt and I stretched out my feet onto the cabin wall before releasing the buckle. The turbines were still shrieking and the slop-slop of spilling jet fuel was an acid chemical burn on the back of my tongue. The potential for fire reared up in my mind with nightmare intensity, an intuitive response to a primal fear.

I ripped the useless cans from my head and twisted up towards Dyer, still hanging half-above me. I hit the release for his belt and half-caught, half-slid him onto his feet next to me, then ran fast hands over him looking for obvious injuries. There weren’t any. He was shaken but basically unhurt.

“Blake, you with me? Blake! We need to get you out, sir, right now!”

He baulked. “But, the others―”

“Sir, with respect, they can go fu―”

“We’ll get everyone out.” It was Sean who cut harsh across the pair of us. “Nobody gets left behind.”

He’d cut himself loose. Before I could argue, he’d gripped the interior grab handles and jacked his body, using both feet to punch the upward door open like a giant flip-top sunroof.

The action drew instant automatic weapons fire from outside. He ducked back immediately and swore under his breath.

From what little I could see of the outside world, we’d come down in the middle of the giant scrapyard I’d seen just before we crashed. Ahead of us was a small mountain of crushed cars and twisted trucks. There were even a couple of old yellow school buses.

At a rough guess, the direction of fire was away to our left, which put the helo’s floor between us and our attackers. The 429 model’s corporate spec included a lot of bells and whistles, but I very much doubted battle-hardening the under-shell was one of them. We were sitting ducks.

“Hey, guys—a little help here?”

It took me a moment to realise the calm voice came from the blonde, Autumn. I glanced down, found her crouched against the far door, which was now the lowest part of the cabin. She was leaning over the inert form of Baptiste’s bodyguard, John Franks. He was crumpled against the frame, pale and unconscious, lying half on top of Baptiste. I’d known he was loose in the cabin during the crash, but my responsibility was to my principal, so I’d blanked him out.

Baptiste himself was pale and silent, eyes closed. There was a little blood trickling from a cut above his eyebrow, though, so I judged he was unconscious rather than dead.

But Franks had been the only one not wearing his seatbelt at the time of the crash and had been thrown around the cabin like a medicine ball as we went in hot. The rest of us were lucky he hadn’t crushed us to death in the process.

As it was, to begin with I thought Autumn’s poppy-covered dress had acquired a few more flowers than I remembered. Then I saw the belt she was heaving tight around Franks’s thigh just above the knee, both hands wrapped in the leather, tanned arms taut.

As she shifted position I saw he’d clearly suffered a double compound-fracture of his tib and fib, the jagged ends of the bone jutting out from the lacerated flesh of his lower leg. Even with Autumn’s makeshift tourniquet, he was losing blood fast—too much of it. The broken bones must have severed an artery. He had minutes—if he was lucky.

I met Sean’s eyes. Franks must have weighed a good two-hundred-and-fifty pounds. We didn’t have the sheer muscle available to move him, but—if we wanted to survive—we couldn’t stay put either.

“You’re going to have to leave him,” Sean told her roughly.

“He’ll die.”

“So will we all if we don’t get us the hell out of here,” said Capt Neal. He was still dangling half sideways from his harness in the pilot’s seat. “I don’t suppose one of you boys has a spare pistol, do you? Only, I left mine in my other pants and we got hostiles a’coming in.”

I reached down and took Franks’s gun off his hip. He wasn’t in any state to use it. The gun was a Glock nine. I couldn’t see a pro carrying it empty or safe, but as I handed it past the forward row of seats I checked the weight and slid a finger across the loaded-chamber indicator just to make sure.

“There’s one up the spout all ready to go,” I told the pilot.

“Much obliged,” Neal said, like I’d just passed him the salt. “Might want to cover your ears, folks.”

With that, he swung the gun towards one of the plexiglas windows in what had been the floor of the cockpit beneath his feet and kept pulling the trigger until the action locked back empty—standard US military operating procedure. The Glock held seventeen rounds and one in the chamber. Even with the warning, it was horribly loud inside the tin can cabin.

“That should keep their heads down a little longer,” Neal said with a tired smile. “I’d appreciate an assist with debussing, though. I think I busted both my ankles when we set down.”

Die Easy