THEY TELL ME I will die here. This place I do not know, this dark, dank, rancid dungeon, where nobody wishes me well and most speak languages I don’t understand—this is the place I will call home for the rest of my life. That’s what they tell me. It’s getting harder to disbelieve them.
There are people in here who want me dead, some for retribution but most to establish their own notoriety. It would be a sure path to celebrity to kill me or one of my friends, known collectively as the Monte Carlo Mistresses. That was the moniker that stuck in the international media. More imaginative than the earlier ones—the Gang of Four, the Bern Beauties, the Desperate Housewives. Less chilling, to me at least, than the one that ran on the front page of Le Monde the day after the verdict: Mamans Coupables.
So I wait. For a miracle. For newly discovered evidence. A confession from the real killer. A sympathetic ear to my appeal. Or simply for the morning when I wake up and discover this was all a dream. The last three hundred and ninety-eight mornings, I’ve opened my eyes and prayed that I was back in Bern, or, better yet, back in Georgetown, preparing to teach American literature to hungover underclassmen.
And I watch. I turn every corner widely and slowly. I sleep sitting up. I try to avoid any routine that would make my movements predictable, that would make me vulnerable. If they’re going to get to me in here, they’re going to have to earn it.
It started out as a day like any other. I walked down the narrow corridor of G wing. When I approached the block letters on the door’s glass window—INFIRMERIE—I stopped and made sure my toes lined up with the peeling red tape on the floor that served as a marker, a stop sign before entering.
“Bonjour,” I said to the guard at the station on the other side of the hydraulic door, a woman named Cecile. No last names. None of the prison staff was allowed to reveal anything more to the prisoners than their first names, and those were probably fake, too. The point was anonymity outside these walls: because of it, the inmates, once released, wouldn’t be able to hunt down the prison guards who hadn’t treated them so nicely.
“Hi, Abbie.” Always responding to me in her best English, which wasn’t bad. Better than my French. After a loud, echoing buzz, the door released with a hiss.
The prison infirmary was the length and width of an American gymnasium, but it had a lower ceiling, about eight feet high. It was mostly one open space filled with about two dozen beds. On one side was a long cage—the “reception” area—where inmates waited their turn to be treated. On another side, also closed off and secured, was a room containing medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. Beyond this room was a high-security area that could hold five patients, reserved for those who had communicable diseases, those in intensive care, and those who posed security risks.
I liked the infirmary because of the strong lighting, which lent some vibrancy to my otherwise dreary confinement. I liked helping people, too; it reminded me that I was still human, that I still had a purpose. And I liked it because I didn’t have to watch my back in here.
I disliked everything else about it. The smell, for one—a putrid cocktail of body odor and urine and powerful disinfectant that always seized me when I first walked in. And let’s face it, nobody who comes to the infirmary is having a good day.
I try to have good days. I try very hard.
It was busy when I walked in, the beds at full capacity, the one doctor, two nurses, and four inmates who served as nurse’s assistants scurrying from one patient to the next, putting figurative Band-Aids on gaping wounds. There had been a flu going around, and at JRF, when one person got the flu, the whole cell block got it. They tried to segregate the sick ones but it was like rearranging chairs in a closet. There just wasn’t room. JRF—L’Institution de Justice et Réforme pour les Femmes—operated at more than 150 percent capacity. Cells designed for four held seven, the extra three people sleeping on mattresses on the floor. A prison intended for twelve hundred was housing almost two thousand. They were packing us in shoulder to shoulder and telling us to cover our mouths when we coughed.
I saw Winnie at the far end, wrapping a bandage on an Arab woman’s foot. Winnie, like me, was a nurse’s assistant. The warden ordered that we not communicate, so we were assigned to different cell blocks and different shifts in the infirmary.
I felt a catch in my throat, as I did every time I saw her now. Winnie has been my closest friend since my husband and I moved to Bern, Switzerland, for his job at the American Embassy. We lived next door to each other for five years, mourning the late working hours of our diplomat husbands and sharing each other’s secrets.
Well, not all our secrets, it turned out. But I’ve forgiven her.
“Hey.” She whispered in her lovely British accent. Her fingers touched mine. “I heard what happened. You okay?”
“Living the dream,” I said. “You?”
She wasn’t in the mood for humor. Winnie was a stunning beauty—tall and shapely with large radiant eyes, chiseled cheekbones, and silky, ink-color hair—which made it all the harder to see the wear around those eyes, the stoop in her posture, the subtle deterioration of her spirit. It had been just over a year since the murders, and three months since the conviction. She was starting to break down, to give in. They talked in here about the moment when that happened, when you lost all hope. La Reddition, they called it. Surrender. I hadn’t experienced it yet. I hoped I never would.
“Movie night,” she whispered. “I’ll save you a seat. Love you.”
“Love you, too. Get some rest.” Our fingertips released. Her shift was over.
About ninety minutes later, I heard the commotion as the hydraulic door buzzed open. I had my back turned to the entrance. I was helping a nurse dress a laceration on an inmate’s rib cage when one of the nurses shouted, “Urgence!”
Emergency. We had a lot of those. We had a suicide a week in JRF. Violence and sanitation-related illnesses had been on the upswing with the worsening overcrowding. It was impossible to work a six-hour shift without hearing urgence called at least once.
Still, I turned, as guards and a nurse wheeled in an inmate on a gurney.
“Oh, God, no.” I dropped the gauze pads I was holding. I started running before the realization had fully formed in my head. The shock of black hair hanging below the gurney. The look on the face of one of the nurses, who had turned back from the commotion to look at me, to see if it had registered with me who the new patient was. Everyone knew the four of us as a group, after all.
“Winnie,” I whispered.
“NO. PLEASE, NO.”
I sharply parted the people around me, bouncing off them like a pinball, rushing to Winnie. Two guards saw me coming and moved forward to restrain me as the doctor and two nurses hovered over Winnie, working feverishly.
“Let me see her. Let me…permettez-moi…”
All I could see, between the two guards containing me, was the back of a nurse and the lifeless body of my best friend. The doctor was speaking quickly—too quickly for me to understand—and one of the nurses rushed to retrieve some medicine from the drug cabinet.
“What happened?” I called out to no avail, using the wrong language again in my panic.
I tried again to get around the guards. I just wanted to see her. I wanted her to see me. But one of the guards threw a forearm into my chest and my feet went out from under me. I fell hard to the floor. My head slammed on the tile. The guards dropped down, using gravity to their advantage, pinning me where I lay.
“Please. S’il vous plaît,” I managed. “Winnie…”
Then, between the two guards restraining me, craning my neck as far off the floor as I could, I saw the doctor, a middle-aged man with long gray hair, straighten up, relax his posture, and shake his head at the nurse. He wrapped his stethoscope around his neck and turned toward the nurse who was retrieving the meds. “Marian,” he called. “Il n’est pas nécessaire.”
“No!” I wailed.
He looked up at the clock on the wall. “Le temps de mort…ah, il est quatorze heures quarante.”
Time of death, 2:40 p.m.
“You…you…killed her,” I said, the last words I heard anyone say before everything went black.
DARKNESS, EVEN THOUGH the room was well lit. Cold, even though the room was so humid that my shirt stuck to my chest and sweat dotted my forehead. The blood I tasted in my mouth, the searing pain in my ribs, the bruises on my wrists from the handcuffs that now chained me to the wall—those were real. Somewhere, as I swooned in and out of consciousness, I’d put up a fight. Bits and pieces flashed at me. Kicking and punching. I think I bit someone’s arm. But it didn’t matter. None of it mattered anymore.
I saw it now, what Winnie saw. La Reddition. Surrender. Don’t fight it, and it will be easier. La Reddition was extending her hand to me, but I hadn’t shaken it yet.
Time had passed. Best guess, about ten hours since my best friend had died.
The cell door opened. Boulez, the warden at JRF. Dark hair greased back. Immaculate three-piece suit, tie perfectly knotted. He looked like the politician he was. In America, Boulez would be a city councilman planning a run for Congress. In France, he was a prison warden waiting for his chance to move up in the Ministry of Justice.
“I will not waste our time with pleasantries,” he said, which seemed appropriate, given that his employees had just murdered my best friend and beaten and shackled me.
I looked around my cell, roughly the size of my walk-in closet back in the States, before we moved. Mildew on the walls and ceiling. Dark spots on the concrete floor, like oil stains in a garage—except these were the product of human, not vehicular, malfunction.
This was Le Mitard, the prison within a prison. Solitary confinement, to Americans.
Boulez didn’t enjoy being here. He didn’t like to get his manicured hands dirty. He had a purpose for visiting me, and he was about to get to the point.
“Tell me what drug you used,” he said. “It will be a simple matter of inventorying the contents of our drug cabinet to see what is missing. Easier for us if you just confess.” His English, though heavily accented, was flawless. Most of the educated French spoke fluent English.
I coughed. Blood spattered onto my brown pants.
“I will not ask a second time,” he said.
“Good. So I won’t have to keep ignoring you.”
He blinked his eyes in concentration. His mind took a moment to track what I’d said. Then he grimaced. “Or was it suicide?” he asked. “Each of you had access to the drugs. Either she killed herself or you poisoned her. Which was it, Abbie?”
His delight in saying these words to me was evident. We both knew that neither of those alternatives was true. But he was making it clear that one of them would be the official story.
“Winnie would never kill herself,” I said. “Don’t you ever say that she did.”
“Ah.” He raised his chin. “So, murder.”
He was trying to get a rise out of me. This guy should stay a prison warden forever. There was no better outlet for sadism.
“You would naturally blame her for your predicament,” he said.
I coughed again. Same result. I wiped my chin on my shoulder, not having my hands available to me.
“I’m not going to forget what happened today,” I said. “Someone’s going to pay for this.”
“I have a better idea.” Boulez walked toward me, confidently enough given my restraints. He stood a few feet away, just outside the reach of my legs should I kick out at him.
“Confess to the double murder,” he said. “And what happened to your friend Winnie will be considered a suicide.”
Sure. None of the four of us had confessed at trial. Boulez wanted to be the hero who secured my confession, a piece of red meat he could toss to the carnivorous international media—and to the French voters, when the time came.
“And if I don’t?” I asked.
“Well, you’ve already committed two murders. A third? We cannot imprison you beyond your natural life, now, can we? But there are other ways to punish, Abbie.” He walked back toward the cell door. “I’ll give you forty-five days to think about it.”
“I think you mean thirty, Boulez.” A French law had been passed recently, limiting time in Le Mitard to thirty-day stretches. But everyone at JRF knew there were ways around that restriction.
“Did I say forty-five? Ah, well.” The corners of his mouth curled up. He rapped on the door with his knuckles. It popped open with a buzz.
“Boulez,” I said. “You won’t win. One day I’m going to walk out of this place.”
His eyes narrowed. Then his smile broadened. “Madame, you are the most famous criminal in the history of France. You’ll never walk out of here.”
With that, Boulez disappeared. The lighting, controlled from outside the cell, went out, plunging me into darkness. For thirty days. Or maybe forty-five.
Or maybe for the rest of my life.
All because of two nights in Monte Carlo.
Thirteen Months Earlier: June 2010
JUST OVER THIRTY minutes after leaving Bern’s airport, the jet touched down on the tarmac in Nice so smoothly it felt like we’d landed in butter. Or maybe it was the Champagne, already numbing my senses, coloring everything wonderful. Wonderful is what I had been promised. Wonderful is what all of us, for different reasons, needed. We needed to bathe ourselves in luxury. We needed a four-day dream.
“I am officially on vacation!” I announced to the group, taking the last swallow of my Champagne.
“It’s about bloody time, love!” Winnie reached across the aisle and grabbed my arm.
Serena, seated across from me in the small cabin, raised her empty glass and tossed her long blond hair. “Bonjour, Monte Carlo. And that, my friends, is the limit of my French.”
“Don’t forget Chardonnay and Merlot,” I added.
“Touché,” she said.
“See, your vocabulary’s getting better by the second.”
I looked around at my friends. How did I get so lucky? Serena Schofield, the Amazon blonde—a former U.S. Olympic skier who placed fifth in the downhill at Lillehammer. Bryah Gordon, born in Johannesburg under the oppression of apartheid, the youngest of our clan at thirty-one and the smartest by far, our resident encyclopedia on topics large and trivial, a beauty in her own right with flawless coffee-colored skin and kinky African hair cropped at her chin. And Winnie Brookes, of course, the exotic Brit, the Diva, we called her, as breathtaking as any runway model working today, who, most of the time, seemed utterly oblivious to her beauty.