Guilty Wives by James Patterson, David Ellis
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.