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By David Ellis
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Table of Contents
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.
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.
Then there was me. Abbie Elliot. What these interesting and gorgeous women were doing with me was anyone's guess. For all the complaints I had about leaving the States and moving to Switzerland, all I had to do was look around at these women to find a silver lining.
"I think for the rest of this trip, I'm going to speak with a British accent." I turned to Winnie. "Bloody good show, love," I tried, doing my best Monty Python imitation.
"And I'm going to be an American," she replied. "Hey, how ya doin'? You got any countries we can invade?"
We got off the private jet—thank you, Serena—bathed in the rays of a welcoming, lowering sun. An SUV drove us to the area of the Côte d'Azur Airport marked PRIVATE AVIATION, where our bags were waiting for us inside.
"Do we have a car?" Winnie asked.
"A car? Cars are so pedestrian, dahling," said Serena in her best Zsa Zsa voice, with a wink at all of us. None of us was poor by any stretch of the imagination, but Serena lapped us several times over. To know her, you'd have no idea how rich she was. She was as sweet and down-to-earth as anyone I knew. But this weekend would be different. She had money, and she clearly planned on spending it.
We followed Serena through a door that led out to a large landing pad—and a large, sleek, silver-and-gray helicopter.
"Serena, really!" said Bryah, with maybe a hint of nervousness. Bryah didn't get out much. Her husband, Colton, was what you might call controlling if you were being polite. If you weren't being polite, you might call him something else. The long and short of it was, Bryah had never been on a girls' weekend like this.
"Why drive when we can fly?" Serena ran over to the helicopter and climbed in. I couldn't believe it—but then again, I could. Money was no object, and Serena wanted us to live a fantasy for four days.
"You couldn't find anything bigger?" I asked.
Once we were belted in, the helicopter lifted quickly, causing a minor rebellion in my stomach. But soon we were soaring over Monaco, and nothing else mattered but the sloping hills of the French Riviera, the blue expanse of the Mediterranean, dotted with yachts and sailboats heading back to port for the evening, and the pink-green sky, against which the sun was beginning its descent toward the horizon.
"Did you know that Monaco is the second smallest country in the world?" Bryah asked.
"Fascinating," said Winnie. She and I made eye contact, suppressing smiles.
"Bryah, honey," I said, patting her leg, "we're going to have fun. Don't be nervous."
A mere seven minutes later, we were landing on a helipad by the beach. We unstrapped our restraints and waited for the pilot to open the door.
"Wait," said Serena. She reached into her bag and removed three overstuffed envelopes, handing one to each of us. I opened mine and found a thick wad of euros.
"What is this?" Winnie asked.
"That's fifty thousand euros each," she said. "Gamble with it. Shop. Do whatever you want. Just promise me you'll spend it."
"Can I buy a car?" I asked. "A small island?"
"How about a movie star?" Winnie asked. "Think I can rent Brad Pitt for the weekend?"
"Brad Pitt? Too old, Win," I said. "One of those younger boys. Zac Efron, maybe."
"You want an athlete," Serena suggested. "David Beckham. Rafa Nadal."
"Rafa, maybe," Win agreed.
We looked over at Bryah, who had remained silent. She considered the money, looked at Serena, and allowed a wry smile to play on her face. "You could get into a spot of trouble with this bit of money," she said.
We all looked at each other, giddy and slightly intoxicated, relaxed and eager, and broke into laughter. Outside the window of the helicopter was Monte Carlo, the playground of the rich and famous. We were all stifled in our own way, mothers and wives living in our adoptive Swiss city, and these four days would be our chance to escape. To live someone else's life.
"Bryah," I said, "I think that's the idea."
IT WAS ONLY minutes before we were at the entrance of the Hôtel Métropole. It was near dusk and it looked like the light had been turned down on a dimmer switch. The air was warm and thick. Porters in gray jackets and hats took our bags and cheerily greeted us, first in German—mistaking the heritage of the blond Serena—and then in English.
The hotel was fabulous. We walked through an ivy-covered granite archway that made me feel as though someone should be trumpeting our arrival. The patterned stone path was lined with candles in ornate glass holders, potted Japanese plants, and tall, manicured pine trees that probably had a fancy name but looked like anorexic specimens to me. The hotel loomed before us, basking in the low light. The next thing I knew, I had a Champagne glass in my hand and the bubbles were tickling my nose as I drank and walked. Someone from the hotel was explaining about a recent remodeling, someone named Jacques Garcia, and I nodded importantly and said, "I love his work," even though I had no freakin' idea who he was. Winnie was sashaying in front of the pack, singing something and waving her arms, probably attracting the attention of all the male porters in her tight green sundress.
"So exciting!" Serena hugged me close and we clinked glasses.
The large, airy lobby smelled and looked like money, from the checkered tile floor to the skylight to the elaborate lamps hanging from the ceiling—picture candelabra covered with tents—to the guests, the men in tuxedos and many-thousand-dollar suits, the women in evening gowns and pearls.
"I could learn to like this," I said.
"Schofield," said Serena to the man at reception.
The man hit a few keys and said, "Simon?"
"Simon?" The three of us said it in unison to Serena. Simon was her husband. Think: rich and dull. Nice enough, I guess, though I never saw the connection between those two.
Regardless, the point was that we were escaping this weekend. Four days, just for us—meaning no husbands. That meant something different to each of us, I thought, but something nonetheless.
"Buzz kill," Winnie sang.
Serena laughed. "His assistant booked it for us. Force of habit, putting Simon's name down."
"I can't wait to see this room," said Bryah.
"Forget the room." Serena clapped her hands together. "We're going to the casino. I feel lucky!"
"Forget the room?" Again, the three of us, almost in unison. We overruled her. We wanted to see this suite we'd heard so much about.
"Wow," I said, as though it were a two-syllable word. The presidential suite, a double penthouse. They called it the Carré d'Or. It sounded like a perfume. It looked like a palace. Fresh roses everywhere. Complimentary Champagne and macaroons. Expensive artwork. A view of half of Monte Carlo. As I may have mentioned, I could learn to like this.
I didn't come from money and I didn't have any to speak of, by which I mean that Jeffrey and I were perfectly comfortable—but we had no summer villas, no private jets. And no complaints, either, by the way. Still, it differentiated me from the others. Winnie had grown up with money in London. Bryah and Serena had married into it. They'd probably seen penthouses like this one before, though the way they scattered like cockroaches to explore it, maybe this was above even their typical expense level.
It was the most opulent thing I'd ever seen. The lounge area, probably suitable for a helicopter landing, was all dark parquet with rich gold and maroon accents. The floor-to-ceiling windows revealed the Mediterranean and a terrace that called out to me. First, I took a peek into a bathroom—marble and sandstone, a delicious ivory-colored tub, a shower big enough for a small family—"Yes, that will do," I decided.
- PRAISE FOR JAMES PATTERSON
- "The prolific Patterson seems unstoppable."—USA Today
- "James Patterson knows how to sell thrills and suspense in clean, unwavering prose."—People
- "Patterson's novels are sleek entertainment machines, the Porsches of commercial fiction, expertly engineered and lightning fast."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Sep 18, 2012
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Grand Central Publishing