The Ambler Warningby Robert Ludlum
On Parrish Island, a restricted island off the coast of Virginia, there is a little known and never visited psychiatric facility. There, far from prying eyes, the government stores former intelligence employees whose psychiatric state make them a danger to their own government, people whose ramblings might endanger ongoing operations or prove dangerously inconvenient.
One of these employees, former Consular Operations agent Hal Ambler, is kept heavily medicated and closely watched. But there's one difference between Hal and the other patientsHal isn't crazy. With the help of a sympathetic nurse, Hal manages to first clear his mind of the drug-induced haze and then pulls off a daring escape. Free, he's out to discover who stashed him there and whybut the world he returns to isn't the one he remembers. Friends and longtime associates don't remember him, there are no official records of Hal Ambler, and when he first sees himself in the mirror, the face that looks back at him is not the one he knows as his own.
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- St. Martin's Press
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The Ambler Warning
By Robert Ludlum
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Myn Pyn LLC
All rights reserved.
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 buckled like a film strip stopped before an overheated projector bulb. A political rally on a steamy day in Taiwan: thousands of citizens assembled in a large square, cooled only by the very occasional breeze. A political candidate, struck down in midsentence by a blast — small, contained, deadly. Moments before, he had been speaking eloquently, ardently; now he was sprawled on the wooden rostrum, in a cowl of his own blood. He lifted up his head, gazing out at the crowd for the last time, and his eyes settled on one member of the crowd: a chang bizi — a Westerner. The one person who was not screaming, crying, fleeing. The one person who did not seem surprised, for he was, after all, in the presence of his own handiwork. The candidate died staring at the man who had come from across the world to kill him. Then the image buckled, shimmied, burned into a blinding white.
A far-off chime from an unseen speaker, a minor-key triad, and Hal Ambler opened his sleep-sticky eyes.
Was it truly morning? In his windowless room, he had no way of telling. But it was his morning. Recessed into the ceiling, soft fluorescent lights grew in intensity over a half-hour period: a technological dawn, made brighter by the whiteness of his surroundings. A pretend day, at least, was beginning. Ambler's room was nine feet by twelve feet; the floors were tiled with white vinyl, and the walls were covered with white PVC foam, a dense, rubbery material, slightly yielding to the touch, like a wrestling mat. Before long, the hatch-style door would slide open, making a hydraulic sigh as it did. He knew these details, and hundreds like them. It was the stuff of life in a high-security facility, if you could call it a life. He experienced stretches of grim lucidity, intervals of a fugue state. A larger sense that he had been abducted, not just his body but also his soul.
In the course of a nearly two-decade career as a clandestine operative, Ambler had occasionally been taken captive — it had happened in Chechnya and in Algeria — and he had been subjected to periods of solitary confinement. He knew that the circumstance wasn't conducive to deep thoughts, soul-searching, or philosophical inquiry. Rather, the mind filled with scraps of advertising jingles, pop songs with half-remembered lyrics, and an acute consciousness of small bodily discomforts. It eddied, drifted, and seldom went anywhere interesting, for it was ultimately tethered to the curious agony of isolation. Those who had trained him for the life of an operative had tried to prepare him for such eventualities. The challenge, they had always insisted, was to keep the mind from attacking itself, like a stomach digesting its own lining.
Yet on Parrish Island, he wasn't in the hands of his enemies; he was being held by his own government, the government in whose service he had spent his career.
And he did not know why.
Why someone might be interned here wasn't a mystery to him. As a member of the branch of U.S. intelligence known as Consular Operations, he had heard about the facility on Parrish Island. Ambler understood, too, why such a facility had to exist; everyone was susceptible to the frailties of the human mind, including those in possession of highly guarded secrets. But it was dangerous to allow just any psychiatrist access to such a patient. That was a lesson learned the hard way, during the Cold War, when a Berlin-born psychoanalyst in Alexandria whose clientele included several top government officials came to be exposed as a conduit to East Germany's notorious Ministerium für Staatssicherheit.
Yet none of this explained why Hal Ambler found himself here, ever since — but how long had it been? His training had stressed the importance of keeping track of time when in confinement. Somehow he had failed to do so, and his questions about duration went unanswered. Had it been six months, a year, more? There was so much he did not know. One thing he did know was that if he did not escape soon, he really would go mad.
* * *
Routine: Ambler could not decide whether the observance of it was his rescue or his ruin. Quietly and efficiently, he completed his personal calisthenics regimen, finishing with a hundred one-armed pushups, alternating between left and right. Ambler was permitted to bathe every other day; this was not one of them. At a small white sink in a corner of his room, he brushed his teeth. The toothbrush handle, he noticed, was made of a soft, rubbery polymer, lest a piece of hard plastic be sharpened into a weapon. He pressed a touch latch, and a compact electric shaver slid from a compartment above the sink. He was permitted precisely 120 seconds of use before he had to return the sensor-tagged device to its security compartment; otherwise an alarm would chime. After he finished, Ambler splashed water on his face and ran his wet fingers through his hair, finger-combing it into some sort of order. There was no mirror; no reflective surface anywhere. Even the glass in the ward was treated with some antireflective coating. All to some therapeutic end, no doubt. He donned his "day suit," the white cotton smock and loose, elastic-waisted trousers that were the inmates' uniform.
He turned slowly when he heard the door slide open, and smelled the pine-scented disinfectant that always lingered around the hallway. It was, as usual, a heavyset man with a brush cut, dressed in a dove gray poplin uniform, a cloth tab carefully fastened over his pectoral nameplate: another precaution that the staff took on this ward. The man's flat vowels made it clear that he was a Midwesterner, but his boredom and incuriousness were contagious; Ambler took very little interest in him.
More routine: The orderly carried a thick nylon mesh belt in one hand. "Raise your arms" was the grunted instruction as he came over and placed the black nylon belt around Ambler's waist. Ambler was not permitted to leave his room without the special belt. Inside the thick nylon fabric were several flat lithium batteries; once the belt was in place, two metal prongs were positioned just above his left kidney.
The device — it was officially known as a REACT belt, the acronym standing for "Remote Electronically Activated Control Technology" — was typically used for the transport of maximum-security prisoners; in Ward 4W, it was an item of daily attire. The belt could be activated from as far away as three hundred feet and was set to deliver an eight-second charge of fifty thousand volts. The blast of electricity would knock even a sumo wrestler to the floor, where he would twitch uncontrollably for ten or fifteen minutes.
Once the belt was snap-locked in place, the orderly escorted him down the white-tiled hallway for his morning medications. Ambler walked slowly, lumberingly, as if he were wading through water. It was a gait that frequently resulted from high serum levels of antipsychotic medications — a gait that everyone who worked in the wards was familiar with. Ambler's movements were belied by the swift efficiency with which his gaze took in his surroundings. That was one of the many things the orderly failed to notice.
There were few things that Ambler failed to notice.
The building itself was decades old, but it had been regularly refurbished with up-to-date security technology: doors were opened by chip cards — cards that contained transponder wafers — rather than keys, and major gateways required retinal scans to operate, so that only authorized personnel could pass. About a hundred feet down the hall from his cell was the so-called Evaluation Room, which had an internal window of gray polarized glass that allowed for observation of the subject within, while making it impossible to observe the observer. There Ambler would sit for regular "psychiatric evaluations," the purpose of which seemed as elusive to the physician in attendance as it was to him. Ambler had known true despair in recent months, and not as a matter of psychiatric disturbance; instead, his despair flowed from a realistic estimation of his prospects for release. Even in the course of their three-month rotations, the staff had, he sensed, come to regard him as a lifer, someone who would be interned at the facility long after they had left it.
Several weeks ago, however, everything had changed for him. It was nothing objective, nothing physical, nothing observable. Yet the plain fact was that he had reached someone, and that would make all the difference. More precisely, she would. She already had begun to. She was a young psychiatric nurse, and her name was Laurel Holland. And — it was as simple as this — she was on his side.
* * *
A few minutes later, the orderly arrived with his lead-footed patient at a large semicircular area of Ward 4W called the lounge. Lounge: neither the noun nor the verb was necessarily appropriate. More accurate was its technical designation: surveillance atrium. On one end was some rudimentary exercise equipment and a bookshelf with a fifteen-year-old edition of the World Book encyclopedia. On the other was the dispensary: a long counter, a slat-like sliding window of wire-mesh glass, and, visible through it, a shelf of white plastic bottles with pastel-colored labels. As Ambler had come to learn, the contents of those bottles could be as incapacitating as manacles of steel. They produced torpor without peace, sluggishness without serenity.
But the institution's concern was not peace so much as pacification. Half a dozen orderlies had gathered in the area this morning. It was not unusual: only for the orderlies did the designation lounge make sense. The ward had been designed for a dozen patients; it served a population of one. As a result, the area became, informally, a sort of rest-and-recreation center for orderlies who worked in more demanding wards. Their tendency to congregate here, in turn, increased the security in this one.
As Ambler turned and nodded at a pair of orderlies seated at a low foam-cushioned bench, he allowed a slow rivulet of drool to roll down his chin; the gaze he turned toward them was unfocused and hazy. He had already registered the presence of six orderlies as well as the attending psychiatrist and — Ambler's one lifeline — the psychiatric nurse.
"Candy time," one of the orderlies said; the others snickered.
Ambler made his way slowly to the dispensary, where the auburn-haired nurse was waiting with his morning's pills. An imperceptible flicker — a fleeting glance, a fractional head nod — passed between them.
He had learned her name by accident; she'd spilled a cup of water on herself, and the fabric that was supposed to conceal her acetate nameplate became wet and translucent. Laurel Holland: the letters were ghosted beneath the fabric tab. He'd said her name aloud in a low voice; she seemed flustered yet somehow not displeased. With that, something was sparked between them. He studied her face, her posture, her voice, her manner. She was in her thirties, he figured, with hazel eyes flecked with green and a lithe frame. Smarter and prettier than she realized.
Conversations between them were murmured and brief, nothing that would attract notice from the surveillance systems. But a great deal was conveyed even through an exchange of glances and hovering smiles. As far as the system was concerned, he was Patient No. 5312. But by now, he knew that he was much more than a number to her.
He had cultivated her sympathy over the past six weeks not by acting — she would have been on to that, sooner rather than later — but by allowing himself to respond to her as she was, in a way that encouraged her to do the same. She recognized something about him — recognized his sanity.
Knowing this had bolstered his faith in himself, and his determination to escape. "I don't want to die in this place," he had murmured to her one morning. She made no reply, but her stricken look told him all he needed to know.
"Your meds," she had said brightly, the next morning, placing three pills on his palm that looked slightly different from the usual dulling neuroleptics. Tylenol, she mouthed. Clinical protocol required him to swallow the tablets under her direct supervision and open his mouth afterward to show that he had not secreted them anywhere. He did so, and within an hour he had proof that she had told him the truth. He was lighter on his feet, lighter, too, in spirit. Within a few days, he began to feel brighter eyed, more buoyant — more himself. He had to make an effort to appear medicated, to feign the heavy-gaited Compazine shuffle that the orderlies were accustomed to.
The Parrish Island Psychiatric Facility was a maximum-security center, well equipped with latest-generation technology. Yet no technology ever invented was wholly immune to the human factor. Now, with her body shielding her movements from the camera, she slipped her key card into the elastic waistband of his white-cotton uniform.
Excerpted from The Ambler Warning by Robert Ludlum. Copyright © 2005 Myn Pyn LLC. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Robert Ludlum (1927-2001) was the author of 25 thriller novels, including The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum--the books on which the international hit movies were based--and The Sigma Protocol. He was also the creator of the Covert-One series. Born in New York City, Ludlum received a B.A. from Wesleyan University, and before becoming an author, he was a United States Marine, a theater actor and producer.
- Date of Birth:
- May 25, 1927
- Date of Death:
- March 12, 2001
- Place of Death:
- Naples, Florida
- B.A., Wesleyan University, 1951
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