"Used the after-breakfast transition," said DeMaris. "Lots of patients on the move, too many for staff to monitor individually. At some point you really have to give these nutcases a little trust. So we didn't catch on until the post-lunch head count."
"Did he sneak off often, try to lose you?"
"Not until recently. He got away from us twice in the last month. Found him still on the grounds. He knew this property, and he was getting to know the security patterns. Some of our cameras are hidden pretty d amned well. For exercise he liked to run the fence line around the property. We always sent someone with him. He ran fast, good endurance. Some of my day-shift guards brought running shoes to work, liked the workout."
I looked at the rough dirt road on the other side of the fence. Public but unmaintained looked about right. Ruts and rocks, coyote scat, more paw and footprints. There were vehicle tracks, too, difficult to make out on the hard, rough road. "Sounds like he was practicing up for a getaway."
"I think so," said DeMaris.
"You're sure he doesn't have a phone?"
"Our body and room checks are thorough. But someone could have smuggled one in. It happens."
I pictured someone bringing Clay a shovel, and maybe one for himself, and them digging under the fence just enough for Clay to squeeze out. I saw them toss the shovels in the car and hit the road. I imagined them driving fast, laughing low and quietly. Clay smiling. You bet he'd be smiling—the airman flying his coop.
"Just to clarify the obvious, Mr. Ford. When you locate Clay, you contact me. No one else. Here's my card. Use the cell number."
We rode back. Through the trees rushing past I saw a pod of five patients on bikes on the concrete path, led and followed by white- clad Arcadia staffers. The bikes were big-tired beach cruisers with high, swept-back handlebars like I used to ride as a kid growing up on the California coast.
Back in the hospital, Dr. Paige Hulet gave me a folder containing Clay Hickman's medical charts, USAF service record, arrest reports, and a list of friends and family and their numbers.
She escorted me through the lobby and outside, into the bright early-afternoon sun. Mountain sunlight always seems stronger than sea-level sunlight, especially in spring. On a sunny patch of lawn, four partners had squared off for a game of horseshoes, plastic. Concentration, then laughter. Dr. Hulet waved to them as we walked toward the parking area, and two of them waved back, smiling.
"I thank you again for helping us, Mr. Ford."
"Thank you for the work, Dr. Hulet."
We walked at a thoughtful pace. A warm and somehow promising day. Spring had arrived without resistance after another parching winter. Sixth year of the Great Drought. We came to my truck and stopped.
"This would be more than mere work to you," she said. "If you knew him. All my patients are important, but Clay is dear to me. I feel responsible for him."
"In the sense that he served your country and appears to have lost his mind for his trouble?"
"Yes. Yes. I feel as if I personally sent him into all that."
Dr. Hulet squinted up at me. "Iraq. Clay is very closed about what he did there. But I know that he was damaged."
"Where was he stationed?"
"Ali Air Base. He was a mechanic. It's in the file I gave you. Where were you, Mr. Ford, in that war?"
"The door-to-door campaign?"
"A dark chapter."
She peered at me. "How does it make you feel to see Fallujah in the news again?"
Took me a minute to find the words. "Fooled. Pissed. A lot of good people suffered for nothing."
"Are you at peace with what you saw and did there?"
"At peace because I surrendered," I said.
"To the facts of what you saw and did."
I let a moment pass, for some reason unsure of how to say yes.
"I've never been to war," she said. "Yet, I've become a student of what it does to the mind."
"There is nothing comparable."
"No. Mr. Ford, I want to ask a favor of you. When you locate Clay, call me first. Before you call anyone else. Do not call Alec DeMaris until you and I have talked."
"He told me just about the opposite."
"I expected that."
Still squinting up at me, she raised a hand to shade her eyes. A small tear had formed in the corner of one.
This excerpt ends on page 20 of the hardcover edition.