JM Gulvin on New Orleans: The Story Behind The Contract

JM Gulvin on New Orleans: The Story Behind The Contract

A healthy, or should I say unhealthy, trade in human organs, but that was only the half of it. The trouble is, doing what I do and researching as seriously as I do, all you ever hear are the very worst of the stories. Most people who visit the place have no real idea what I mean when I tell them they have to be careful. Back in ’98 the crime rate wasn’t as bad as it is now because of a no nonsense Chief of Police who rooted out much of the corruption. That said there were areas of the city even cops didn’t want to go. I’m talking about three major housing projects – the Iberville, Calliope and Magnolia. None of these existed in the 1960’s which is when the 2nd John Q novel THE CONTRACT is set. Back then the bad guys came from other neighbourhoods but it wasn’t long before the first of those projects would be constructed.

But the city isn’t all bad and it’s a love/hate relationship we have. Before I arrive I always feel a sense of trepidation but that vanishes as soon as I actually get there. I’ll never forget the first time I crossed Lake Ponchartrain on the causeway, a bridge so low to the water you feel as if you’re almost in it. It brings you to the south shore and gradually you close on the city. For me it was I10 exiting at North Rampart Street where you don’t stop at red lights unless you really have to. I was in the French Quarter for the very first time and this was like nowhere I’d ever been. The tight little streets meshed in an unforgettable grid that skirts the crescent of the river. You’ll know from THE CONTRACT how that part of the Mississippi is its deepest, two hundred feet of whirlpools and drags, eddies where the salt has been forced up river. It’s so difficult to navigate there are three separate groups of pilots who cover a different section from the gulf as far as the city.

I love the place and yet I hate it. Watching your back, being careful who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about whilst revelling in the blues, Jazz and Zydeco music that’s really only found in parts of Memphis perhaps and New Orleans. In those days, the FBI field office was deep in the heart of the business district. On my way to see them one morning I passed a street sweeper who took a liking to my leather jacket.

‘Nice,’ he said with that particular glint in his eye.

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘And mine.’

The Feds told me to be in your face. I was a man on my own, driving a rental car and this was a town known for car-jacks. They told me that if I was at a set of lights and some gangbanger rolled up alongside he was bound to give me the eye. Most people lock their doors and look forward afraid they’re going to get japped. I didn’t. They told me to eye-ball those boys right back because the only people that do that are cops and cops are always armed. It worked, fight fire (as they say) with fire, though it was nerve wracking, believe me.

The Quarter in particular is a strange and wonderful place, a community all of its own within a great city. I got to know bartenders, cab drivers, strippers and hookers: a local rock n roll singer/private detective became one of my greatest friends. Gary Hirstius, he passed away in 2012 but I’m in daily contact with his dad who plays music for the New Orleans Saints every Sunday. You can find Gary on a link we’ve created on the Faber & Faber website. Listen to the playlist I put together and you’ll hear what inspired me to write the novel.

The first afternoon I was there I took a walk along the river at Governor Nicholls. A biker of about 50 was playing music and I gave him a couple of dollars. We got talking and he asked where I was from. I He was from Idaho, which was where I’d spent the previous summer and it turned out we were at the same motorcycle rally in the Rockies. It’s that kind of place Noo Awlins, bartenders like Dewy Biggs from North Carolina, who became a friend and the basis for every other bartender I’ve ever written. New York Pete who served me dinner every night then tragically dropped dead of an aneurism. Coco Robichaux who shared a set with Gary at the Margaritaville; Kathleen who cleaned guest houses on Burgundy and another bartender (whose name I’ll keep to myself) with a serious crack habit. For one reason or another they became my friends and I’m in touch with them to this day.

Back in ’98, I was there for the gang squad, though, as it turned out, I wouldn’t use the research until I came to write THE CONTRACT. I didn’t know that then, however, I was just delighted to be riding with the FBI. I’ve never mentioned any of the agents by name until now for fear they’d get into trouble. But a lot of years have passed and I made great friends in John Rook, a grizzled cop from St Charles Parish who’s worked in just about every type of law enforcement you can imagine. Ken Petro, ex US Marine Corps Force Recon, he spoke fluent French and was a sniper in the SWAT team using a rifle he called Excalibur. That rifle had been passed to him from another sniper called Mike Heimbach who ran the gang squad and had a wire on a kid from the Magnolia project who’d murdered nine people before he was 20. Heimbach called the gun “Sweetlips” it’s traditional to rename a weapon that’s been passed from one agent to another. Charlie Mathews was the Special Agent in Charge and his assistant was Mike Kirkpatrick, the only Fed I’ve seen with a gun visible on his hip.

I spent four days with them and a couple of NOPD cops who made up the New Orleans Gang Task Force. This wasn’t the first time I’d done such things, I’d already been out with the armed response teams in London as well as drug squads, murder squads and SO13 the (as was) anti-terrorist branch.

But this was street level FBI and by the time I was done, Dewy Biggs told me he’d never seen a face so grey. I was grateful though, if jaded. “The biggest, baddest, meanest gang in the world” as Petro put it, the FBI don’t let you go out with them unless you’re really lucky and keep your mouth shut. The kid they were interested in was planning to murder a cocaine competitor who was driving down from Atlanta with his girlfriend and baby. It was all set up, none of them, not even the baby would survive. The Feds had a wiretap on the gangster’s phone, his name was Terry but they had tagged him “Soulja” after a polaroid photo was recovered from a crime scene where he was pictured with a key of coke, a Kalashnikov and a cell phone. Underneath he had written the caption “Living the life of a Soulja”.

Almost 20 years later a version of that kid evolved into my 1960’s pimp Soulja Blue who appears in THE CONTRACT. The phone the Feds had tapped was “pay-as-you-go”. When the money ran out they could no longer monitor Soulja’s calls and it looked as though he would throw the phone away. Mike Heimbach came up with the idea of buying him more minutes, then calling the phone so he would know it was working. Soulja picked up and they said they had the wrong number. He never clicked anything was amiss until they arrested him three weeks later. They could not allow the hit, especially when it became apparent that nobody would survive. They already had enough evidence to get him the death penalty so the SWAT team would “roll” – led by Agent Petro.

Before they took him out however, they needed one more piece of surveillance. Shaun Stroud a bodybuilding agent would drive into the Magnolia with me in the car and check out what Soulja was doing. We’re talking the most dangerous ghetto of a place I’ve ever been. Grim looking tenements built behind wire fences where girls as young as 13 give birth to children that would become so lost to the world the Feds refer to them as “Throwaways”.

Shaun told me they used to take probationary agents into the Magnolia and dump them on a potholed street. We’re talking as bad as an inner-city as Chicago, Compton or the worst areas of Brownsville, New York. The probationary agent had to get out alive and all he had was his gun and a radio. By the time I got there the practice had been outlawed because it was deemed too dangerous.

Shaun and I drove in and every eye was turned our way. Spotters on the roofs, spotters at the windows, cell phones ringing and pagers bleeping – there’s Soulja sitting on “his bricks” – the entrance to one of the blocks, his very own little kingdom. The road was so bad we were in danger of popping a tyre and Shaun had sweat on his brow.

‘Jeff,’ he said, as he checked the .38 special in an ankle holster. ‘I got a shotgun in the trunk. If we need to change a wheel, which we might, I’ll stand guard while you take care of it. OK?’

The Contract by JM Gulvin is published by Faber & Faber in April