“For anyone who might find this diary or whatever it’s called. I’m William Cordberry. I’m an American photojournalist and I’m sitting in a concrete and brick prison somewhere near Caracas, Venezuela; at least that is what I was told. If found. Please send this document, to Nan McHough at the Herald Bagatelle news organization in New Orleans, Louisiana.” William paused, scratched his scrubby beard and put the nub of his pencil back on the paper.
“How I got here is a bit of a mystery even to me. With the help of another prisoner I have made several requests to my jailers to let me talk to an American government representative, but my requests seem to fall on deaf ears. Either the U.S. doesn’t care about citizens incarcerated abroad or my messages are not being delivered. I fear I may die in this facility with no means of telling my family about my existence or demise.” He wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead.
He put the pencil back on the paper. “Okay, why I am here. I’m charged with drug trafficking and was arrested as a stowaway on a freighter bound for somewhere in South America. I was taken off the ship and brought here to Caracas, the city name relayed to me by another prisoner, and then transported to this prison. Truthfully, I have no idea where it is located. It all started when I was kidnapped in New Orleans, Louisiana, and then severely beaten by a group of men, all because of some photos I shot. Which, by the way, said photos, I did not have possession of at the time. I then witnessed the murder of a night watchman at the Herald Bagatelle downtown building. The murder was committed by the same men who kidnapped me. They then broke into the newspaper building. They were after the photos, or at least the camera and chip. As I remember, the photos were of a truck accident in downtown New Orleans, the truck was pulling a fishing boat.” William tried to remember the detail.
“Apparently, my photos had been, without my knowledge, previously removed from the Bagatelle photo storage area. The men attempted to have me find the photos, but when that didn’t work I was moved to various places in the city while the kidnappers tried to obtain the photos, to date, I am not sure why. Then, after being carted around New Orleans, I was forced onto a freighter and put in a metal shipping container with several bottles of water and a loaf of French bread and a load of farm equipment and unknown to me, apparently several packages of narcotics.
The following is a more or less, a journal, of my life and my present condition. As I write this now, I have been here over two years by my estimation.” William lifted the pencil from the pad and looked at the broken plaster ceiling of his bench area. “Lord, help me.” Because all the proper cells were filled, gringos especially, slept on benches under an extended roof. The benches lined the walls of the buildings inside the prison.
“Whatcha doin William?” Former CIA, so he claimed, operative and long time resident of LaPlata Prison, Peter Stanton, slid along the bench next to William. Peter’s right eye was stitched shut, in his words, “twas cut out during an interrogation and stitched together by a kindly farmer’s wife.” Peter’s baggy clothing belied a once heavier torso reduced to skin and bones. His pants hung loosely off of his six-foot frame.
“I’ve started writing my memoirs.”
“What’s in yer memoirs?”
“Personal history and the story of this place. I’m short on writing materials though. See if you can score some more paper and pencils from your girlfriend.” Peter had a connection to a guard who took bribes from Peter’s girlfriend and smuggled in supplies.
“Okay, you can have my slop today.” William was bordering on starvation, but the constant prisoner’s gruel was little better than not eating at all.”
Peter turned his head sideways to look at William. “You want the moldy bread?”
“Ya, I’ll dip a piece of bread in the slop and bring the rest to you.”
“Fine, but I need more paper and another pencil or two would be nice.”
“I can ask.” Peter acted like he was making a mental note.
William leaned back against the wall. He looked at the 795 marks he had made on the white concrete. “I think its mid October, nights are getting a bit cooler.” William patted the bedroll. “Someone dies see if you can score another bedroll.”
“I think I know where one will soon be available. If I get it, it will cost ya half your rations for a week.”
“I think I can deal with that.”
Two nights passed and Peter again made an appearance at William’s side.
Peter leaned against the stained wall. “My old guard friend said the Captain of the guards was talking about his daughter’s wedding party and needed a photographer. I told my friend that you were a professional.”
William looked up. “Gee thanks, now I will probably get shot or something. Apparently, no relations with the U.S., I think they look for an excuse for an execution.”
“No really, listen maybe they’ll let you photograph the party and bring back some food, you know.” The daily ration of soup and bread barely kept prisoners alive.
“Peter, you don’t understand, if I take a photo and the family or whoever doesn’t like it, I’ll be standing in front of a firing squad.” William put his stubby pencil behind his ear. “Maybe your guard friend will forget about it. Is this the same guy from whom you get me paper?” William put his hand on Peter’s arm. “I think I best keep a low profile. Keep the paper trail going and I can survive a while longer.”
“Yeah. Paper will be here.” Peter patted William’s hand. “Hey, don’t worry. The photo thing will work out. These guys probably don’t get paid enough to hire a real photographer. Besides, I told him I would be your assistant. That’s what you need, a one eyed photographer’s assistant.”
“Oh, great, I’ll have company at the firing squad. They’ll need two bullets.”
“At least you wouldn’t need more paper.” Peter laughed then squatted down and whispered. “We might see a way out of here too. There’s always a way.”
“Wishful thinking my friend. We’ll be lucky if we don’t see an open door to the firing squad.”
“Hey, you’re the man of faith. Start praying.”
“You pray with me?”
Peter stood. “Naw, God and me have an understanding, I don’t bother him with my mess and He doesn’t get in my way.”
“Me thinks you and God need to have a sit down. Maybe your girlfriend could sneak in a Bible?”
Peter shook his head and patted William on the shoulder.
A bell sounded in the distance and men started moving toward the sound. The single file of men stretched across the prison yard. Peter stepped around William. “If I’m gonna get paid with yer slop you gotta pick it up, come on.”
William uncurled from his seated position and stuffed his paper in his bedroll. Peter offered a forearm and William used the leverage to stand. William was at least two or three inches taller than Peter, but it was hard to tell, as Peter walked with a slouch.
The two trudged through the line like snails moving though sludge.
An hour later they were back to William’s bench. “At least the slop looks fresh today, nothing’s moving in it.” William handed his plate to Peter who tipped it up and scraped it over half of a piece of bread on his own plate. The other half of his bread he put in his pocket for later.
Peter glanced at the dwindling line of men. “Did you see the guard nod at me? I think we’re in. My bet is we’ll be eating off a wedding buffet by the weekend.”
“What?” William almost choked on a crumb of bread. “In what? Peter, really, you can be making this “hell on earth,” worse than it is.” Like Peter, William tore his bread in half and put part in his pocket. The prisoners were given only one meal a day, and the saving of bread for later was a practice of every man incarcerated.
That night William slept fitfully, keeping a constant ritual of swatting rats and bugs. He envisioned building a trap for the rats, and having a rat burger some night.
As the first rays of morning broke over the fortress walls Peter loudly whispered.
“William, wake up. We’re being summoned by the guard.”
William sat up on his bench and saw the silhouette of a large man standing in the openings. He had a long baton in his hand. “Just what I needed, a morning beating.” The morning sun was just peaking over the edge of the prison wall. He pulled himself up and followed Peter up the slight rise to the opening.”
The guard addressed Peter in Spanish. Peter translated, “The captain of the guard wants us in the inner lobby.”
They followed the guard to a doorway then down a long hall. William could see a lighted room ahead, but they were told to wait and sit on benches in the hallway. “I guess we wait here before execution.” William took a deep breath.
“I think they only do executions on Friday.”
“Friday, I think.”
“I should trust your calendar?”
Peter laughed “You’re the one who thinks it’s October.”
“I just said the nights were getting cooler.”
Finally, they were pushed into the lighted room.
A rotund man sat a table and appeared to scow at the two prisoners. “Which one of you is the photographer?” He said in accented English.
“I am, sir,” volunteered William.
“We’ll see,” said the rotund man. Then he reached into a box on the table; he took out a small silver camera and slid it across the table. “You will take my picture, a portrait, worthy of publication.”
William quickly looked at the camera on the table. It appeared to be an older Cannon SLR. The likelihood of shooting a portrait with the little camera was like killing a shark with a BB gun.
“The other man,” asked the rotund man. “What does he do?”
“Uh,” William looked around the room and saw a white tablecloth. “He assists me setting up lighting.” He pointed to the tablecloth and Peter picked it up and shook it out. “Peter hold it flat.”
“My portrait. Here, in this room. Now. Use the camera.”
William picked the camera up, slid open the chip door and examined the small smart card. “Okay.” The camera was probably less than ten megapixels but it would have to do. “Sir could you move your chair next to the window, and Peter hold that table cloth. Lift the cloth up so the morning light reflects and fills in his face when he sits in the chair. Sir if you would sit so you are on the front of the chair and peering out the window. Good.” William snapped a photo. He moved Peter and the rotund man around like a ballerina on stage, turning and positioning. William guessed he had shot 30 or so fames and when he paused he looked back at the index. “Peter, look.”
The rotund man wanted to see too, so William turned the screen so the man could see. The man looked at each picture, grunted at some and clapped his hands at others. William had to hold the camera with a tight grip as the man often poked at the tiny screen. Finally, he said, “good. You must be a photographer. You photo people good.”
Peter looked over his shoulder. “I guess prayer works.”
“Sir,” William said as he popped out the card. “Take this card to any photo shop or use it on your computer, pick the ones you like.” He slid the card back into the camera and set it on the table.
The rotund man stared at William and Peter for a minute. “Take them back,” then he turned, put the camera in his pocket and walked out of the room.
William and Peter were pushed back to the prison area, once inside the grounds not another word was said, and the door slammed behind them.
“At least there’s no firing squad.”
William walked toward his bench. “Yet.”