She gave Ethan a double thumbs-up.

“When can I see him?”

“It’s looking like he’ll make his rounds after supper now, which should be coming up in the next half hour.”

Ethan struggled to mask his growing frustration.

“Any luck finding my phone and the other things I had with me before the accident? This would include my wallet and a black briefcase.”

Nurse Pam gave a half salute and marched in place for several steps.

“Working on it, Captain.”

“Just bring me a landline right now. I need to make some calls.”

“Of course, Marshal.”

“Marshal?”

“Aren’t you like a US Marshal or something?”

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“No, I’m a special agent with the United States Secret Service.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“I thought you guys protected the president.”

“We handle some other things too.”

“So what are you doing out here in our little slice of heaven?”

Ethan gave her a cool, thin smile.

“I can’t discuss that.”

He could actually, just didn’t feel like it.

“Well, now you’ve got me all intrigued.”

“The phone, Pam.”

“Excuse me?”

“I really need the phone.”

“I’m on it.”

* * *

It was when supper finally came—servings of green and brown goo compartmentalized on a shiny metal tray—and the phone didn’t that Ethan decided to leave.

Sure, he’d slipped out once before, but he’d been out of his mind at the time, suffering from a severe concussion.

Now, he was thinking clearly.

The headache was gone, he could breathe easier and with less pain, and if the doctor had any real concern regarding his condition, maybe the ass**le would’ve given him the courtesy of stopping by at some point during the last ten hours.

Ethan waited until Nurse Pam had left, her parting shot assuring him that the hospital food “tastes so much better than it looks!”

When the door closed, he tugged the IV needle out of his wrist and climbed over the railing. The linoleum floor was cold against the soles of his bare feet. He felt a few pegs down from completely stable, but still light-years ahead of his condition forty-eight hours ago.

Ethan padded over to the closet, pulled open the door.

His shirt, jacket, and pants were on a hanger, his shoes on the floor underneath.

No socks.

No briefs.

Guess I’ll roll commando.

The only pain came when he bent over to pull on his pants—a sharp twinge high on his left side that went away when he straightened back up.

He caught a glimpse of his bare legs, and as always, the nexus of scarring jogged him out of the moment, fighting to pull him eight years back to a brown-walled room whose stench of death would never leave him.

He checked and found the pocketknife still inside his jacket. Good. It was a relic from his early twenties when he’d worked as a helicopter mechanic—more of a talisman now than a functional tool—but it offered some degree of comfort to know it was there.

He stood in front of a mirror in the bathroom, fumbling with his tie. It took him five attempts to get it right. Fingers misfiring and clumsy, like he hadn’t tied one in years.

When he’d finally cinched down a mediocre Windsor knot, he took a step back to appraise himself.

The bruises on his face looked marginally better, but his jacket still bore grass and dirt stains and a small tear across the left pocket. The white oxford shirt underneath was also stained—he could see the smattering of blood near the collar.

He’d lost several inches from his waist over the last few days and had to fasten his belt on the last hole. Still his pants felt too loose.

He turned on the tap, wet his hands, and ran his fingers through his hair.

Fixed his part. Tried to assign it some semblance of order.

He swished with lukewarm water several times, but his teeth still felt mossy.

Sniffed his armpits—stink.

He also needed a shave. It had been years since he’d looked this rough.

He stepped into his shoes, laced them up, and headed out of the bathroom toward the door.

His first instinct was to leave without being seen, and this puzzled him. He was a federal agent with the full authority of the United States government. This meant people had to do what he said. Even nurses and doctors. They didn’t want him to leave? Tough shit. And yet, some part of him was resisting the hassle of an incident. It was stupid, he knew, but he didn’t want Nurse Pam catching him.

He turned the doorknob, opened the door an inch from the jamb.

What he could see of the corridor beyond was empty.

He strained to listen.

No distant chatter of nurses.

No footsteps.

Just blaring silence.

He poked his head out.

A quick glance left and right confirmed his suspicion. For the moment, the place was empty, even the nurses’ station fifty feet down the corridor.

He stepped out of his room and onto the checkered linoleum floor and closed the door softly behind him.

Out here, the only sound came from the fluorescent lights overhead—a soft, steady hum.

He suddenly realized what he should have done in the first place and bent down through the pain in his ribs to unlace his shoes.

In bare feet, he moved down the corridor.

Every door on this wing was shut, and with no light slipping through the cracks beneath the doors, none of the rooms but his appeared to be occupied.

The nurses’ station stood vacant at the intersection of four corridors, three of which led to additional wings of patient rooms.

A shorter hallway behind the station ran down to a pair of double doors with the word SURGICAL emblazoned on a nameplate above them.

Ethan stopped at the elevator right across from the station and punched the down arrow.

He heard pulleys beginning to turn through the doors.

“Come on.”

It took years.

Realized he should’ve just taken the stairs.

He kept looking over his shoulder, listening for approaching footsteps, but he couldn’t hear a thing over the noise of the rising elevator car.

The doors finally separated with a screech that made his teeth ache, and he stepped to the side in the event someone had ridden up.

No one exited the car.

He hurried inside and pressed G.

Studying the illuminated numbers over the doors, he watched as the car began its slow descent from 4, and a full minute had passed—enough time for him to put his shoes back on—before the G illuminated and the doors began to creak open.