The Ambler Warning
The building had the invisibility of the commonplace. It could have been a large public high school or a regional tax-processing center. A blocky structure of tan brick-four stories around an inner courtyard-the building looked like countless others erected in the 1950s and '60s. A casual passerby would not have given it a second look.
Yet there was no such thing as a casual passerby here. Not on this barrier island, six miles off the coast of Virginia. The island was, officially, part of America's National Wildlife Refuge System, and anyone who made inquiries learned that, owing to the extreme delicacy of its ecosystem, no visitors were permitted. Part of the island's leeward side was, indeed, a habitat for ospreys and mergansers: raptors and their prey, both endangered by the greatest predator of all, man. But the central part of the island was given over to a fifteen-acre campus of manicured green and carefully graded slopes, where the bland-looking facility was situated.
The boats that stopped at Parrish Island three times a day had NWRS markings, and from a distance it would not be apparent that the personnel ferried to the island looked nothing like park rangers. If a disabled fishing vessel tried to land on the island, it would be intercepted by khaki-clad men with genial smiles and hard, cold eyes. No one ever got close enough to see, and wonder about, the four guard towers, or the electrified fencing that surrounded the campus.
The Parrish Island Psychiatric Facility, as unremarkable in appearance as it was, contained a greater wilderness than any that surrounded it: that of the human mind. Few people in the government knew of the facility. Yet simple logic had decreed its existence: a psychiatric facility for patients who were in possession of highly classified information. A secure environment was needed to treat someone who was out of his mind when that mind was filled with secrets of state. At Parrish Island, potential security risks could be carefully managed. All staff members were thoroughly vetted, with high-level clearance, and round-the-clock audio and video surveillance systems offered further protection against breaches of security. As an additional safeguard, the facility's clinical staff was rotated every three months, thus minimizing the possibility that inappropriate attachments might develop. Security protocols even stipulated that patients be identified by number, never by name.
Rarely, there would be a patient who was deemed an especially high risk, either because of the nature of his psychiatric disorder or because of the particular sensitivity of what he knew. A patient so designated would be isolated from other patients and housed in a separate locked ward. In the western wing of the fourth floor was one such patient, No. 5312.
A staffer who had just rotated to Ward 4W and encountered Patient No. 5312 for the first time could be sure only of what could be seen: that he was six feet tall, perhaps forty years of age; that his close-cropped hair was brown, his eyes an unclouded blue. If their eyes met, the staffer would be the first to look away-the intensity of the patient's stare could be unnerving, almost physically penetrative. The rest of his profile was contained in his psychiatric records. As to the wilderness within him, one could only surmise.
Somewhere in Ward 4W were explosions and mayhem and screams, but they were soundless, confined to the patient's troubled dreams, which grew in vividness even as sleep itself began to ebb. These moments before consciousness-when the viewer is aware only of what he views, an eye without an I-were filled by a series of images, each of which