Quantitatively, the vineyards of Bas Languedoc produce more wine than the other three great French wine departments combined. Qualitatively, with one or two exceptions, the wine of Languedoc has all the bouquet, body and taste of flat root beer. The considerate host serves an ordinary Languedoc wine only with leftover meat loaf, and preferably to guests whom hed rather not see again.
It is, in the main, really bad juice.
Fortunately for France, the vintners, grape pickers, bottlers and the vast majority of the rest of the population consume the bulk of Languedocs wines. France exports only its great wines from the vineyards of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne, which are justly famous for quality and excellence.
I learned all about viniculture in Montpellier. The first thing I learned was not to drink the local vins du pays.
I was probably the only water drinker in town. However, I didnt go to Montpellier for either the wine or the water. I was there to hide. Permanently, I hoped. I had reached the pinnacle of a criminal mountain and the view wasnt that great. Now I wanted an honest valley to shelter me in its hollow.
I had passed through Montpellier, driving from Marseille to Barcelona, during one of my first bad-check forays through Europe. Outside of town I had parked beneath a huge olive tree and picnicked on cheese, bread, sausages and soft drinks Id picked up in the city. Close at hand, pickers swarmed like ants through a vast grape orchard and far away the snow-tipped peaks of the Pyrenees glistened in the sun. I felt comfortable, at ease, almost happy. As if I were home.
In a sense, I was. This part of southern France was my mothers native land. She had been born here and after she married my father, and following the breakout of guerrilla warfare in Algiers, her parents had returned here with their other children. My maternal grandparents, several uncles and aunts and a covey of cousins still lived within an hours drive of the olive tree. I quelled an impulse to turn aside and visit my mothers people and drove on to Spain.
I had never forgotten that tranquil, enjoyable interlude near Montpellier. And when, at the ripe old age of twenty, I decided to retire from my life as a counterfeit person, dealing in counterfeit wares, I chose Montpellier as my retreat. I was not happy that I had to return there behind yet another counterfeit identity, but I had no choice.
Montpellier, in many ways, was ideal for my purpose. It was not a tourist attraction. It was situated too far inland from the Mediterranean to lure the Riviera set, yet close enough that a seashore outing was available at the end of a short drive.
It was large enough (80,000 population) that an American taking up residence would not excite undue curiosity, yet too small to command a major airport or to entice large hotel operators. There were no Hiltons or Sheratons in Montpellier and its tiny air facility served only light aircraft. The lack of air service or swank hotels weighed in my favor. There was very little chance of my encountering a pilot, a stewardess or a hotel employee who might recognize me.
I presented myself in Montpellier as Robert Monjo, a successful author and screenwriter from Los Angeles, «successful» in order to explain the sizable account I opened in one of the local banks. At that, I didnt deposit all the moneys I took with me to Montpellier. Had I done so, it might have aroused some curiosity as to my actual livelihood. I retained treble the amount in cash, hidden away in my luggage. As a matter of fact, the people of Montpellier were not prone to pry. I was asked only the necessary and perfunctory questions as I went about the business of becoming an expatriate citizen of the town.
I bought a small cottage, a charming and gracious little house with a tiny back yard shielded by a high board fence, where the previous owner had cultivated a minuscule garden. The operator of the store where I bought furnishings for the house lent me the services of his wife, a skilled interior decorator, in selecting the proper furniture and arranging the decor. I fixed up one room as a study and library, reinforcing my image as a writer engaged in research and literary creation.
I bought a Renault, one of the more comfortable models but not luxurious enough to attract attention. Within two weeks I felt at home, secure and content in my new surroundings.
And if God had shorted the Mediterranean Languedoc on good grapes, He made up for it in the people. They were a sturdy, amiable, courteous and gregarious populace in the main, quick to smile and to offer any assistance. The housewives in my neighborhood were always knocking on my door with gifts of pastry, fresh baked bread or a serving from their dinner pots. My immediate neighbor, Armand Perigueux, was my favorite. He was a huge, gnarled man of seventy-five and he still worked as an overseer in a vineyard, commuting to and from work on a bicycle.
He called the first time bearing two bottles of wine, one red and one white. «Most of our wines do not suit American palates,» he said in his booming, yet gentle, voice. «But there are a few good wines in the Languedoc, and these two are among them.»
I am not a tastevin, but having drunk of the good wines I determined never to sample the others. But the people of Montpellier drank more wine than any other liquid. A lunch or dinner was not served without wine. I have even seen wine consumed at breakfast.
From Armand I learned that God actually had nothing to do with Languedocs poor record as a producer of quality wines. Nearly one hundred years past, he said, an insect, the phylloxera, had ravaged all the vineyards of France, almost dealing a death blow to the wine industry. «I have heard that this pest was brought to France attached to the roots of vines imported from America,» said Armand. «But I do not know that to be true.»
However, Armand told me, he did know it to be truth that the great bulk of Frances grape vines were of American rootstock, immune to the wine bug, onto which French plants had been grafted. And, he said slyly after I had gained his confidence, Americans and other nationals probably consumed more Languedoc wines than they were aware of.
Almost daily, he informed me, tanker trucks filled with the cheap wines of the Languedoc chugged northward to the great wine districts, where their cargoes were blended with the choice wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux. «It is called stretching, like adding water to whiskey,» said Armand. «I do not think it is honest.»
Montpellier was a good place to learn about wines, he said. «We have the Wine University of France right here in our city,» he said proudly. «You can go there and study.»
I never visited the university. Since I had no taste for wine, although I drank it on social occasions, I had no yen to acquire a knowledge of wine. I was satisfied with the bits and pieces of information imparted by Armand. He was a good teacher. He never gave tests and he never graded me.
It was difficult for me to stay busy. Loafing is hard work. I spent a lot of time driving around. I would drive to the coast and spend a few days exploring the sand dunes. Or I would drive to the Spanish border and spend hours hiking in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Occasionally I visited Armands vineyard or the orchard of another winegrower. At the end of the first month, I drove to the small village where my grandparents lived and spent three days with them. My grandmother corresponded regularly with my mother, and she was aware of all the happenings at home. I wormed them out of her discreetly, for I did not want her to know I had exiled myself from my family. My mother was well, as were my sister and brothers. My father was still courting my mother, which my grandmother found amusing. My mother had apparently told my grandmother that I was «hitchhiking» around the world, seeking a goal and attempting to decide my future, and I fostered that impression during my visit.
I did not tell my grandparents that I was living in Montpellier. I told them I was on my way to Spain, with the thought in mind of enrolling in one of the Spanish universities. I visited them a second time during my stay in Montpellier. I told them on that occasion that I hadnt found a Spanish college that challenged me and was returning to Italy to explore the universities there.
As I became more satisfied with my life in Montpellier, I actually contemplated resuming my education. Montpellier is the seat of one of Frances twenty academic districts and a small but fine state university was located in the city. I visited the campus and learned that several courses were available to foreigners, although none was taught in English. However, that was no bar to me, since French was a second tongue for me, acquired from my mother.
I also started thinking about getting a job or opening some kind of small business, perhaps a stationery store, since I was growing sleek and plump in the idle, luxurious life I was leading. Even Armand remarked on my increasing stoutness. «There is not much exercise in writing, eh, Robert?» he said, poking me in the stomach.
«Why dont you come to work for me in the vineyards, and I will make you lean and tough.» I declined the offer. Physical labor is not my forte. Nor could I force myself to exercise.
I was still mulling the thought of registering at the university, and the idea of finding some useful employment, when both issues were rendered moot. Four months after taking up residence in Montpellier, I learned a bitter truth: when the hounds have help, there is no safe place for a fox to hide.
I shopped regularly at a small (by American standards) market on the outskirts of Montpellier, a grocery Armand had recommended. I went to the store twice weekly to supply my larder, or whenever I needed something. This occasion was one of my scheduled shopping trips and the store clerk was sacking my groceries when I remembered I needed milk. I told the boy to set my foodstuffs aside (there were others in line) and strolled to the back ot the store for the milk. Returning to the check-out counter, I walked around a shelf of canned goods and saw four men at the checkers stand, now devoid of customers and clerk.
One had a shotgun, another had what appeared to be a short-barreled machine gun and the other two had pistols. My first thought was that bandits were robbing the store and that the employees and customers were on the floor.
But as I wheeled to seek cover behind the shelves, one of the men shouted, «Abagnale!»
I ducked behind the shelves only to be confronted by three uniformed gendarmes, all pointing pistols at me. They came at me from all sides then, men in uniform, men in plainclothes and all pointing a pistol, shotgun, machine gun or rifle at me. Orders cracked around my ears like whip pops.
«Hands on your head!»
«Up against the shelves, spread-eagle!»
«Face down on the floor!»
I had my hands up. I didnt know which of the other commands to obey, but I sure as hell didnt want to be shot. And some of the officers were handling their weapons in a manner that scared me. As a matter of fact, they were scaring their fellow officers.
«For Gods sake, dont shoot,» I shouted. «One of you tell me what you want me to do and Ill do it.»
A tall, lean man with austere features pointed his pistol at me. «Get on the floor, facedown!» he barked. I did as he instructed, helped by several less-than-gentle hands. Rough hands twisted my arms up behind my back and other uncaring hands clamped steel circlets tightly around my wrists.
I was then hauled unceremoniously to my feet and, surrounded by Surete detectives, Interpol agents, gendarmes and God knows what other kind of fuzz, I was hustled out of the store and rudely shoved into the back seat of an unmarked sedan. I cant say French police are brutal, but I will say they handle suspects with undue firmness. I was driven directly to the Montpellier police station. No one said a word en route.
At the station, the austere detective and two other officers, also Surete agents, ushered me into a small room. French policemen have a wide latitude in the handling of criminals, especially in interrogations of suspects. They get right to the point, dispensing with the reading of any rights a criminal may have. I dont think a crook has any rights in France.
«My name is Marcel Gaston, of the Surete!,» said the lean officer in curt tones. «You are Frank Abagnale, are you not?»
«Im Robert Monjo,» I said in indignant tones. «Im a writer from California, an American. Im afraid you gentlemen have made a very serious mistake.»
Gaston slapped me, a sharp, stinging blow. «Most of the mistakes I make, monsieur, are serious mistakes, but I have not made a mistake in this instance. You are Frank Abagnale.»
«I am Robert Monjo,» I said doggedly, searching their faces for a hint of doubt.
One of the other Surety agents stepped forward, his hand balled into a fist, but Gaston put out an arm and stopped him, without releasing me from his fixed stare. Then he shrugged.
«We could beat it out of you, but that isnt necessary,» he said. «I have all the time in the world, Abagnale, but I dont intend to waste too much of it on you. We can hold you until doomsday, or at least until we have located witnesses to identify you. Until then, unless you choose to cooperate, I am going to place you in the cell for common drunks and petty criminals. You can stay there for a week, two weeks, a month, it makes no difference to me. However, you will not be fed and you will have no water until you decide to confess. Why dont you just tell us what we want to know right now? We know who you are. We know what you have done. You will only inconvenience yourself.
«One other thing, Abagnale. If you force us to go to a lot of trouble to get the information you could give us at this moment, I will not forget it. And you will always remember the consequences, I promise you.»
I looked at Gaston and knew he meant every word he had spoken. Marcel Gaston was one tough bastard.
«Im Frank Abagnale,» I said.
I never really gave them the kind of confession they wanted. I never volunteered any details on any of the offenses Id committed in France. But if they knew of a particular caper and outlined it for me, Id nod and say, «Thats about the way it happened, all right,» or, «Yes, that was me.»
Gaston made up a document, setting down a lot of my crimes, the circumstances of my arrest and my interrogation, and let me read it. «If that is essentially correct, you will help yourself by signing it,» he said.
I couldnt quarrel with the instrument. Hed even included the fact that hed slapped me. I signed it.
The affidavit also disclosed how Id been caught. Major airlines didnt serve Montpellier, but it was visited frequently by stewardesses and other flight personnel. An Air France flight attendant, visiting relatives in Montpellier, had spotted me shopping a couple of weeks past and had recognized me. She had seen me get into my car and had jotted down the license number. On her return to Paris, she had sought out her captain and told him of her suspicions. She was positive enough about her identification that her captain called the police.
«Im positive its him. I dated him,» she insisted.
I never learned which Air France stewardess put the finger on me. No one would tell me. I had dallied with several, over the years. I hoped it wasnt Monique, but to this day I still dont know the informants identity. I dont think it was Monique, however. Had she seen me in Montpellier, she would have confronted me.
I was kept six days in Montpellier, during which time several lawyers appeared to offer their services. I selected a middle-aged man whose mannerisms and appearance reminded me of Armand, although he frankly stated he didnt think he could win me my freedom. «I have gone over all the police documents, and they have you dead to rights,» he commented. «The best we can hope for is a light sentence.»
I told him Id settle for that.
Scarcely a week after my arrest, to my astonishment, I was removed to Perpignan and the day after my arrival there I was brought to trial in a court of assizes, made up of a judge, two assessors (prosecutors) and nine citizen jurors, all of whom would jointly decide my guilt or innocence.
It wasnt much of a trial, really, lasting less than two days. Gaston listed the charges against me and the evidence hed gathered to support the accusations. There were ample witnesses available to appear against me.
«How does the defendant plead?» inquired the judge of my attorney.
«My client will offer no defense against these charges,» replied the lawyer. «In the interest of time, we would like to sum up our position now.»
He then launched into an eloquent and impassioned plea for
leniency in my behalf. He cited
«This young man will, in all probability, never see his native land for many, many years, and even when he does return home, he will return in chains and only to face prison there,» argued the lawyer. «I need not point out to this court the harshness of the prison life this young man will have to endure here. I ask the court to take that into account in setting a penalty.»
I was adjudged guilty. But at the time I thought jubilantly that my attorney, if hed lost a battle, had won the war. The judge sentenced me to only one year in prison.
I was remanded to Perpignans prison, the «House of Arrest,» a gloomy, forbidding stone fortress constructed in the seventeenth century, and not until I had been there for a few days did I realize just how lenient the judge had been.
I was received by two guards who brusquely ordered me to strip and who then escorted me, still naked, to an upper floor where I was marched down a narrow corridor devoid of cells as such. On either side were only stone walls set with solid steel doors. The guards halted before one of the metal portals and one unlocked and opened the door. It screeched open with a sound reminiscent of a horror movie, and the other guard shoved me inside the dark cubicle. I stumbled and fell forward, striking my head against the back of the cell, for the cell was a sunken one. I had not noted the two steps leading to the floor. I was never actually to see the steps.
I was in total darkness. A damp, chilling, breath-stifling, frightening darkness. I stood up to grope around for the light switch and cracked my head against the steel ceiling.
There was no light switch. There was no light in the cell. There was, in fact, nothing in the cell but a bucket. No bed, no toilet, no wash basin, no drain, nothing. Just the bucket. The cell was not a cell, actually, it was a hole, a raised dungeon perhaps five feet wide, five feet high and five feet deep, with a ceiling and door of steel and a floor and walls of stone. The ceiling and door were chill to the touch. The walls wept chilly tears constantly.
I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. No light filtered into the cell from any source. There were no cracks in the overhead or walls. The ancient door to my steel and stone box seemed to blend itself into its aperture like a hermetic seal. My eyes did not adjust. The eyes do not adjust to total darkness.
There was air entering the cell. Periodically a cold draft explored my skin like clammy fingers, raising goose bumps as much from the eerie sensation as from the chill. I wondered whence it came. Whatever its channels, they also were dark.
I slumped on the floor, shivering and feeling like Id been
entombed alive. Panic added to my shaking. I sought to calm myself by
rationalizing my situation. Surely, I told myself, this was not to be the cell
I would occupy during the entire year. Probably I was in here for observation.
I discarded the theory immediately. Anyone observing me in this cell would have
France does. Or did.
I was not fed my first day in Perpignans prison. I had been placed in my grim cell late in the afternoon. Several hours later, exhausted, cold, hungry, bewildered, frightened and desolate, I laid down on the hard floor and fell asleep. I slept curled in a ball, for I am six feet tall.
The screeching of the door awakened me. I sat up, wincing from the soreness and cramps caused by my uncomfortable sleeping position. The dim form of a guard loomed in the doorway. He was placing something on the steps inside my crypt. I was galvanized into action as he straightened and started to close the door.
«Wait! Wait!» I shouted, scrambling forward and placing my hands against the inside of the door, trying to restrain its closing.
«Why am I being kept in here? How long will I stay in here?»
«Until you have completed your sentence,» he said, and shoved shut the door. The words clanked on my ears with the metallic finalness of the door slamming against the stone jamb.
I fell back, stunned by the ghastly truth. A year? I was to live in this black coffin a year? Without light? Without bedding? Without clothing? Without toilet facilities? And without God knows what else? It was impossible, I told myself. No man could live in such a dark void, under such conditions, for a year. He would die, and his death would be slow and torturous. It would have been better had I been sentenced to the guillotine. I loved France. But what kind of country was it that countenanced such punishment for such a crime as mine? And if the government was ignorant of such prison conditions, the people unknowing, what manner of men were the French penologists, into whose hands I had been delivered? Depraved monsters, madmen, perverts, undoubtedly.
I was suddenly scared, actually fearful. I did not know how, or if, I could survive a year in this Stygian vault. I still have nightmares from my stay in Perpignans House of Arrest. Compared to Perpignan prison, the Black Hole of Calcutta was a health spa, Devils Island a vacation paradise.
I had not expected prison life to be easy. My one experience behind bars, and then for only a few hours, had convinced me that jails and prisons were not nice places to reside. But nothing I had ever read, heard or seen had ever indicated that imprisonment could be as brutal and heartless as this.
I felt around and located the food the guard had broughc. It was a quart container of water and a small loaf of bread. The simple breakfast had not even been brought on a tray. The guard had simply set the container of water on the top step and had dropped the bread beside it on the stone. No matter, I wolfed down the loaf of bread and gulped down the water in one swig. Then I huddled miserably against the wet granite wall and contemplated the machinations of French Justice.
Mine was not a term in prison, it was an ordeal designed to destroy the mind and body.
The menu in Perpignan prison never varied. For breakfast, I was served bread and water. Lunch consisted of a weak chicken soup and a loaf of bread. Supper was a cup of black coffee and a loaf of bread. The monotonous diet varied only in the time it was served or in the order it was served. I had no means of telling time and I soon lost track of the days, and the guards who served the meals further confused my attempts to keep a mental timetable and calendar by alternating the schedule of my meager rations. For instance, for several days breakfast, lunch and dinner might be served regularly at seven, noon and five, but then, abruptly, dinner would be served at ten a.m., supper at 2 p.m. and breakfast at 6 p.m. I am estimating the times. I really never knew at what hour I was fed, or whether it was day or night. And not infrequently I was fed only one or two times daily. Occasionally I wasnt fed at all during the span of the day.
I never left the cell. Not once during my stay in the hoary jail was I permitted outside for exercise or recreation. If the prison had a day room where prisoners might read, write letters, listen to the radio, watch television or play games, I was not among those privileged to share the facility. I was not allowed to write letters, and if any of my relatives knew I was jailed at Perpignan and wrote me, I did not receive the mail. My requests, made of the guards who served the meals, to contact my relatives, my attorney, the Red Cross, the warden or the American consular authorities were ignored save once.
On that occasion, the guard smacked me alongside the head with his huge hand. «Dont talk to me,» he growled. «It is not permitted. Dont talk, dont sing, dont whistle, dont hum, dont make any sound or you will be beaten.» He slammed the heavy door shut on further pleas.
The bucket was my latrine. I was not given any toilet paper, nor was the bucket removed after use. I soon adapted to the stench, but after a few days the bucket overflowed and I had to move around and sleep in my own fecal matter. I was too numbed, in body and spirit, to be revolted. Eventually, however, the odor became too nauseating for even the guards to endure, apparently. One day, between meals, the door creaked open and another convict scurried in with the furtiveness and manner of a rat, grabbed the bucket and fled. It was returned, empty, a few minutes later. On perhaps half a dozen other occasions during my time in the tiny tomb, the procedure was repeated. But only twice during my imprisonment were the feces cleaned from the floor of the cell. Each time a guard stood by at the door while an inmate hosed out the cell and then picked up the accumulated water in the hole with a mop. Both times I managed a makeshift shower in the spray of the hose, daring the wrath of the guard. Both times the cleaning was performed in absolute silence.
Those were the only times I was able to cleanse myself to any extent during my term, although occasionally I used a portion of my water ration to rinse my hands or to anoint my face.
I was not allowed to shave nor was I ever given a haircut. I am hirsute by heritage, and without the means to curb their growth, my hair and beard sprouted prodigiously. My hair was soon below my shoulders, a tangled, sodden skein, and my beard brushed my chest. Both hair and beard were oiled and perfumed with excrement, for I could not avoid soiling myself in my own wastes.
Lice and other insects small enough to gain admittance to the fetid cell nested in my body hair and feasted on my flesh. I developed sores from my scratching and these became infected from contact with the always present filth. My body soon became a mass of scabs, a living petri dish for the culture of myriad forms of bacteria. In the cramped confines of the hole, shrouded in blackness, I lost my sense of balance and fell often as I attempted to move about, stretch myself or perform simple exercises, nicking or bruising myself against the rough walls or the hard floor and further adding to my wounds.
I weighed 210 pounds when I was received at Perpignan. The tedious diet did not contain enough nutrients or calories to maintain me. My body began to feed upon itself, the muscles and tendons devouring the stored fats and oily tissues in order to fuel the pumps of my heart and my circulatory system. Within weeks I was able to encircle my biceps with my fingers.
I was not alone in my misery. I soon concluded that most if not all of the steel doors in Perpignan prison sealed a wretched inmate.
The stone walls between the cells were too thick to permit talk between adjoining prisoners, but they were by no means soundproof. Unintelligible shouts and curses, screams of pain and anguish, and muffled groans and cries washed softly along the corridor outside almost constantly, sometimes ceasing abruptly only to start again within minutes. The sounds, always laden with despair, permeated the walls of my dank box, filtering through the stone and seeping up from the floor like the sighs and sobs of some beleaguered banshee. Sometimes, however, the sounds had the qualities of rage and anger, reminiscent of the distant howl of a hunting wolf or the defiant yipping of a hurt coyote.
Sometimes the sounds were my own, for in my loneliness I often talked to myself just to hear the sound of a human voice. Or I would stand stooped before the door and scream at the guards to let me out or demand that I be treated like a human being, with dignity and consideration if not respect. I cursed them. I cursed myself. I ranted and raved, wept and screamed, chanted and sang, laughed and bellowed, shouted and banged the bucket against the walls, splattering excrement all over my crate-like cell. I felt I was going mad.
I had no doubt that many of the men in Perpignan were mad, reduced to lunacy by the maniacal manner in which they were treated. I was certain after a few weeks that I would lose my own sanity. I lost the ability to distinguish between that which was real and that which was unreal, and began to hallucinate. I would find myself back in the Royal Gardens, surrounded by my lovely «crew,» dining sumptuously on lobster or roast beef, or strolling along the golden beaches of the Costa Brava, my arm around Monique. Only to regain my reason in the damp dungeon that was reality, wallowing in my own excreta and cursing the fates that had condemned me to Perpignan.
I think that I actually would have gone mad and died a lunatic in Perpignan prison had it not been for my vivid imagination. The creative ability that had enabled me to concoct the brilliant swindles Id perpetrated over the years, and which had resulted in my present plight, now served as a lifeguard.
If I were going to hallucinate, I determined, mine would be planned hallucinations, and so I began to produce my own fantasies. I would sit on the floor, for instance, and recall the image I presented in my airline uniform and pretend that I was a real pilot, commander of a 707. And suddenly the cramped, vile and oozy pit in which I was prisoner became a sleek, clean jet liner, crowded with joyful, excited passengers attended by chic, glamorous stewardesses. I employed all the airline jargon Id acquired over the years as I pretended to taxi the plane away from the terminal, obtain takeoff clearance from the tower and jockey the great machine into the air, leveling off at 35,000 feet.
Then Id pick up the PA mike. «Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Welcome aboard Flight 572 of Abagnale Airlines, Seattle to Denver. Were presently cruising at miles per hour and we expect good weather, and thus a good flight, all the way to Denver. Those of you seated on the starboard side-thats the right side of the aircraft-should have a good view of Mount Rainier below and off in the distance. Mount Rainier, with an elevation of 14,410 feet, is, as you probably know, the highest peak in Washington State...»
Of course I was a hero at times, fighting my huge plane through terrible storms or overcoming dire mechanical disasters to deliver my human cargo safely and to bask in the gratitude of the passengers. Especially the women. Especially the pretty women.
Or I would imagine I was a tour bus driver, displaying the splendors of the Grand Canyon or the enchantments of San Antonio, New Orleans, Rome, New York City (I actually remembered that New York City had enchantments) or some other historic city to a group of rapt tourists, entertaining them with my rapid, witty spiel. «Now, the mansion on your left, ladies and gentlemen, is the home of J. P. Greenstuff, one of the citys founders. He made big money most of his life. Trouble is, he made it too big, and now hes spending the rest of his life in a federal prison.»
In my fantasies, I was anyone I wanted to be, much as Id been during the five years before my arrest, although I added to and amplified my Perpignan impersonations. I was a famous surgeon, operating on the President and saving his life with my medical skills. A great author, winning the Nobel Prize for literature. A movie director, making an Oscar-winning epic. A mountain guide, rescuing hapless climbers trapped on a dangerous mountain face. I was tinker, tailor, Indian chief, baker, banker and ingenious thief. For I sometimes restaged some of my more memorable capers. And some of my more memorable love scenes too.
But always the curtain had to come down on my plays, and I returned to reality, but knowing Id been on a make-believe journey, in my chill, gloomy, dark and loathsome cell.
Walter Mitty in durance vile.
One day the door grated open at an unexpected time and a guard tossed something into my cell. It was a thin, dirty, evil-smelling mattress, hardly more than a tick, but I spread it out on the floor and curled up on it, reveling in its comfort. I fell asleep wondering what model deportment I had exhibited that deserved such a luxurious reward.
I was awakened by the mattresss being jerked savagely from beneath me by a burly guard, who laughed jeeringly as he slammed the steel door shut. I do not know what time it was. It was long before I was served breakfast, however. Sometime after dinner, the door shrieked open again and the mattress was dumped on the steps. I grabbed it and fell on its softness, fondling it like it was a woman. But again I was rudely awakened by a guards removing the tick forcefully from under me. And yet again, at some unknown hour later, the mattress was plopped onto the steps. The truth dawned. The guards were playing a game with me, a cruel and barbaric game, but a game nonetheless. Some of their other mice have died, I told myself, and I ignored the bedding. My body had become accustomed to the smooth stone floor, or at least as accustomed to it as any blending of soft flesh and hard rock. I never used the tick again, although the guards continued providing it each night, in hopes, I supposed, that I would again use it and furnish them more sport.
In my fifth month in Perpignans House of Arrest (a fact established later) there was a tap on the outside of my cell door and then a portion of it slid open, admitting a weak, filtered light. I was astonished, for I had been unaware the door had a sliding panel, so cunningly was it contrived.
«Frank Abagnale?» asked a voice unmistakably American.
I floundered to the door and peered out. Standing on the outer side of the corridor, where he had recoiled from the stench, was a tall, skinny man with an equally bony face, in the act of putting a handkerchief over his mouth and nostrils.
«Im Frank Abagnale,» I said eagerly. «Are you an American? Are you with the FBI?»
«Im Peter Ramsey, and Im from the American Consulate in Marseille,» replied the thin man, removing the handkerchief from his face. «How are you doing?»
I stared at him, astonished. My God, he acted like we were talking over a glass of wine in some Marseille sidewalk cafe. Words suddenly started cascading from my mouth like gravel from a sluice.
«How am I doing?» I repeated his query in near hysterical tones. «Ill tell you how Im doing. Im sick, Im sore, Im naked, Im hungry and Im covered with lice. I dont have a bed. I dont have a toilet. I dont have a wash basin. Im sleeping in my own shit. I have no light, no razor, no toothbrush, no nothing. I dont know what time it is. I dont know what day it is. I dont know what month it is. I dont even know what year it is, for Christs sake.... Im being treated like a mad dog. Ill probably go mad if I stay in here much longer. Im dying in here. Thats how Im doing!»
I slumped against the door, exhausted from my tirade.
Ramseys features, save for an obvious reaction to the odor emanating from my cell, did not change. He nodded impassively when I finished.
«I see,» he said calmly. "Well, perhaps I should explain my visit. You see, I make the rounds of my district about twice a year, calling on Americans in this district, and I learned only recently that you were here. Now, before you get your hopes up, let me tell you now that I am powerless to assist you.... I am aware of the conditions here and of the way youre being treated.
"And its precisely because of that treatment that I cant do anything. You see, Abagnale, youre being treated exactly the same as every Frenchman whos confined here is treated. Theyre not doing anything to you that theyre not doing to the man on either side of you, to the man in each cell in the prison, in fact. Each of them has the same accommodation as you. Each is living in the same filth. Each is eating the same food. Each is denied the privileges youre denied.
"You havent been singled out for especially harsh treatment, Abagnale. And as long as they treat you as they treat their own, I cant do a damn thing about your predicament, not even complain.
«The minute they discriminate against you, or treat you differently because youre an American, a foreigner, then I can step in and complain. It may not do any good, but I could, then, intervene in your behalf.
«But as long as they mete out the same punishment to you as they do to their own, thats it. French prisons are French prisons. Its always been like this, to my knowledge, and itll always be like this. They dont believe in rehabilitation. They believe in an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. In short, they believe in punishment for a convicted criminal and youre a convicted criminal. Youre lucky, really. It used to be worse than this, if you can believe it. Prisoners were once beaten daily. As long as youre not being specifically abused by someone, theres nothing I can do.»
His words fell on my ears like whip strokes across my back. I felt like a death sentence had been pronounced on me. Then Ramsey, with the ghost of a grin, handed me a reprieve.
«It is my understanding that you only have another thirty days or so here,» he said. «You wont be freed, of course. I am told that authorities from another country, which one I dont know, are coming to take you into custody for trial in that country. Wherever you go, youre bound to be treated better than this. Now, if youd like me to write your parents and let them know where you are, or if you want me to get in touch with anyone else, Ill be glad to do so.»
His was a generous gesture, one he didnt have to make, and I was tempted, but only momentarily. «No, that wont be necessary,» I said. «Thank you, anyway, Mr. Ramsey.»
He nodded again. «Good luck to you, Abagnale,» he said. He turned and seemed to disappear in a radiant explosion. I jumped back, shielding my eyes and screaming with pain. It was only later that I knew what had happened. The lights in the corridor were variable power lights. When a cell door was opened or a peephole broached, the lights were dimmed, low enough to avoid damage to the eyes of the prisoner who lived like a mole in his lightless hole. When a visitor like Ramsey appeared, the lights were turned up, so he might see his way. Once he halted in front of my cell, the lights had been dimmed. When he left, a guard had hit the bright switch prematurely. A concern for their sight was the only consideration accorded prisoners in Perpignans House of Arrest.
After Ramsey left, I sat down against the wall and, after the pain in my eyes had subsided, mulled the information hed imparted. Was my sentence nearly over? Had it really been eleven months since I was shoved into this awful crypt? I didnt know, I had lost all sense of time, but I felt he had told me the truth.
I tried to keep count of the days thereafter, to tally thirty days on the almanac of my mind but it was impossible. You simply cant keep a calendar in a feculent vacuum, void of light, where any segment of time, if such existed, was devoted to surviving. I am sure it was only a few days before I returned to just holding on to my sanity.
Still, time passed. And one day the panel in the door opened, admitting the dim light that, with the one exception, was the only light I knew.
«Turn around, face the back of your cell and shut your eyes,» a voice ordered gruffly. I did as instructed, my heart hammering. Was this the day of my release? Or was something else in store for me.
«Do not turn around, but open your eyes slowly and let them get accustomed to the light,» the voice instructed. «I will leave this open for an hour, then Ill be back.»
I slowly opened my eyes and found myself surrounded by a bright, golden glow, too bright for my weak orbs. I had to shut them against the glare. Gradually, however, my pupils adjusted to the illumination and I was able to look around me without squinting and without pain. Even so, the cell was still gloomy, like twilight on a rainy day. An hour later the guard returned, or at least the voice sounded the same.
«Close your eyes again,» he instructed. «I am going to turn up the lights further.» I did so, and when he instructed me to do so, I opened my eyes slowly and cautiously. The tiny cubicle was flooded with a luminous glare, causing me to squint again. The radiance ringed the cell like a nimbus around a dark star, illuminating fully for the first time the interior of the tiny vault. I was appalled and sickened as I looked around. The walls were moist and crusted with slimy mold. The ceiling, too, glistened with moisture. The floor was filthy with excrement, and the bucket, unemptied for some time, teemed with maggots. The odious worms were also slithering around the floor.
It was perhaps another hour before the guard returned. This time he opened the door. «Come with me,» he ordered. I scrambled from the foul cave without hesitation, experiencing shooting pains in my neck, shoulders, arms and legs as I straightened up for the first time since my arrival. I had difficulty walking, but I waddled after the guard like a half-drunk duck, sometimes steadying myself by putting a hand against the wall.
He led me downstairs and into a sparsely furnished room.
«Stand here,» he ordered, and disappeared through an open door that led to another chamber. I turned, inspecting the room, marveling at its size and spaciousness after so long in my moldy burrow, and then stopped as I suddenly confronted the most hideous creature I had ever encountered.
It was a man. It had to be a man, but God in heaven, what manner of man was this? He was tall and emaciated, his head crowned by a dirty, unkempt thatch of hair that spilled to his waist, his face hidden by a filthy, matted beard that fell to his belly. Spittle drooled from the slash that was his mouth, and his eyes were wildly glowing coals in their sunken sockets. He was naked and his flesh was coated with filth, sores and scabs, lending it a leprous appearance. The nails of his fingers and toes were grown out, elongated and curved like the talons of a vulture. Indeed, he looked like a vulture. I shuddered as I regarded the apparition. I shuddered again as recognition loomed.
I was facing myself in a mirror.
I was still horrified at my appearance when the guard returned, clothing draped over his arm and a pair of shoes in his hand.
I recognized the apparel as mine, the clothes I was wearing when I was received in the prison. «Put these on,» said the guard brusquely, handing me the garments and dropping the shoes on the floor. «Cant I shower and shave first, please?» I asked.
«No, put on the clothes,» he said, giving me a malevolent look. I hurriedly garbed my filthy frame in the clothes, which were now several sizes too large for me. My belt was missing. I clutched the trousers around my wasted stomach and looked at the guard. He stepped into the next room and returned with a length of cotton rope. I cinched the waist of my trousers with that.
Almost immediately two gendarmes appeared, one of them carrying an array of restraints. One of them cinched a thick leather belt with a ringbolt in the front around my waist while the other fastened heavy shackles around my ankles. I was then handcuffed and a long, slender steel chain was looped around my neck and the handcuff chain, threaded through the ringbolt and fastened with a lock to the chain connecting my leg irons. Neither officer said a word as they trussed me. One then pointed toward the door and gave me a light shove as his partner led the way through the exit.
I shuffled after him, unable to walk because of the leg irons and fearful of my destination. I had never been chained like this before. I considered such restraints only for violent, dangerous criminals.
«Where are we going, where are you taking me?» I asked, squinting in the late afternoon sunlight. It was even more brilliant than the lights inside. Neither of them bothered to answer me.
Silently, they placed me in the back seat of an unmarked sedan and one climbed behind the wheel as the other seated himself beside me.
They drove me to the railroad station. The afternoon light,
even sheltered as I was in the car, made me dizzy and nauseous. The nausea was
not all due to my sudden exposure to daylight after all these months, I knew.
At the railroad station I was taken from the car and one of
the gendarmes snapped one end of a light chain onto my belt. He wrapped the
other end around his one hand, and, leashed like a dog, I was led and dragged
through the people assembled at the depot and shoved onto the train. The
conductor showed us
The compartment was large enough to accommodate eight persons and as the train filled and all the seats were occupied, several sturdy peasants, at various times, appeared and sought permission to ride in the compartment with us. They seemed oblivious to my malodorous condition. Each time, the gendarmes waved them on with a curt refusal.
Then three vivacious, pretty American girls appeared, dressed in a minimum of silks and nylon and festooned with shopping bags laden with souvenirs and gifts, wines and foods.
They reeked delightfully of precious perfumes, and with a broad smile, one gendarme rose and gallantly seated them on the opposite bench. They immediately tried to engage the officers in conversation, curious as to who I was and what my crime had been. Obviously, ensnared in chains as I was, I was some notorious, terrible murderer, on a par at least with Jack the Ripper. They seemed more fascinated than frightened, and animatedly discussed my offensive stench. «He smells like theyve been keeping him in a sewer,» remarked one. The others laughingly agreed.
I did not want them to know I was an American. I felt degraded and ashamed of my appearance in their presence. The gendarmes finally made the three young women understand that they neither spoke nor understood English, and the three fell to talking among themselves as the train pulled out of the station.
I did not know where we were going. I had no sense of direction at the moment and I thought it would be useless to again seek my destination from the gendarmes. I huddled miserably between the officers, ill and despondent, occasionally looking out at the passing landscape or covertly studying the girls. I gathered from their conversational comments that they were schoolteachers from the Philadelphia area and were in Europe on a vacation. Theyd been to Spain, Portugal and the Pyrenees and were now journeying to some other enchanted area. Were we en route to Paris, I wondered?
As the miles passed I grew hungry, despite my feeling of sickness. The girls took cheeses and breads from their bags, canned pates and wine, and began to eat, sharing their repast with the gendarmes. One attempted to feed me a small sandwich (my hands were restrained so that I could not have eaten had I been allowed), but one gendarme grasped her wrist gently.
«No,» he said firmly.
At some point, some hours after we left Perpignan, the young women, convinced that neither I nor the gendarmes could understand English, commenced discussing the amorous adventures theyd been having on vacation, and in such intimate detail that I was astonished. They compared the physical attributes, prowess and performance of their various lovers in such vivid language that I actually felt embarrassed. Id never heard women engage in such locker-room tales, replete with all the four-letter words and lewd comments. I concluded I still had a lot to learn about women and at the same time I speculated as to my own standing had I been a participant in their sexual Olympics. I made a mental note to try out for their games should we ever meet again.
Our destination was Paris. The gendarmes hauled me to my feet, made their farewells to the ladies and hustled me off the train. But not before Id said my own good-bye.
As I was pulled through the door of the compartment, I twisted my head and smiled lasciviously at the three young teachers.
«Say hello to every one in Philly for me,» I said in my best Bronx voice.
The expressions on their faces buoyed my sagging ego.
I was driven to the prefecture de police jail in Paris and turned over to the prefet de police, a plump, balding man with sleek jowls and cold, remorseless eyes. Nonetheless, those eyes registered shock and disgust at my appearance, and he set about promptly remedying my image. An officer escorted me to a shower, and after I had washed myself clean of my accumulated filth an inmate barber was summoned to snave my beard and shear my mane. I was then escorted to a cell, a small and austere little cubicle in reality, but sheer luxury compared to my previous prison accommodations. &<<•
There was a narrow iron cot with a wafer of a mattress and coarse, clean sheets, a tiny wash basin and an honest-to-john toilet. There was also a light, controlled from the outside. «You may read until nine oclock. The light goes out then,» the guard informed me.
I didnt have anything to read. «Look, Im sick,» I said. «Can I see a doctor, please?»
«I will ask,» he said. He returned an hour later bearing a tray on which reposed a bowl of thin stew, a loaf of bread and a container of coffee. «No doctor,» he said. «I am sorry.» I think he meant it.
The stew had meat in it and was a veritable feast for me. In fact the meager meal was too rich for my stomach, which was unaccustomed to such hearty fare. I vomited the food within an hour after dining.
I was still unaware of my circumstances. I didnt know whether I would be brought to trial again in Paris, whether I was to complete my term here or be handed over to some other government. All my queries were rebuffed.
I was not to stay in Paris, however. The following morning, after a breakfast of coffee, bread and cheese which I managed to keep inside me, I was taken from my cell and again shackled like a wild animal. A pair of gendarmes placed me in a windowed van, my feet secured by a chain to a bolt in the floor, and started on a route that I soon recognized. I was being driven to Orly Airport.
At the airport I was taken from the van and escorted through the terminal to the Scandanavian Airlines Service counter. My progress through the terminal attracted a maximum of attention and people even left cafes and bars to gawk at me as I shuffled along, my chains clinking and rattling.
I recognized the one clerk behind the SAS counter. Shed once cashed a phony check for me. I couldnt now remember the amount. If she recognized me, she gave no indication of it. However, the man shed cashed a check for had been a robust two-hundred-pounder, tanned and healthy. The chained prisoner before her now was a sick, pallid-faced skeleton of a man, stooped and hollow-eyed. In fact, after one look at me, she kept her eyes averted.
«Look, it wont hurt for you to tell me whats going on,» I pleaded with the gendarmes, who were scanning the human traffic in the vicinity of the ticket counter.
«We are waiting for the Swedish police,» one said in abrupt tones. «Now, shut up. Dont speak to us again.»
He was suddenly confronted by a petite and shapely young woman with long blond hair and brilliant blue eyes, smartly dressed in a tailored blue suit over which she wore a fashionably cut trench coat. She carried a thin leather case under one arm. Behind her loomed a younger, taller Valkyrie, similarly attired, also holding an attache case tucked under an arm.
«Is this Frank Abagnale?» the smaller one asked of the gendarme on my left. He stepped in front of me, holding up his hand.
«That is none of your business,» he snapped. «At any rate, he is not allowed visitors. If this man is a friend of yours, you will not be allowed to talk to him.»
The blue eyes flashed and the small shoulders squared. «I will talk to him, Officer, and you will take those chains off him, at once!» Her tone was imperiously demanding. Then she smiled at me and the eyes were warm, the features gentle.
«You are Frank Abagnale, are you not?» she asked in perfect English. «May I call you Frank?»