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:
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.
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?
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”