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By:Jeff Abbott

“How’s the negotiation with the State Department coming?” Ben wasn’t interested in rehashing that conversation; he liked working freelance now and living in Austin. The Dallas office reminded him too much of Emily.

“Another precarious situation. We’re in disagreement on five or six points. Undersecretary Smith is being intractable on the level of training that our security personnel have to have for the next Congo assignment while not wanting to pay a commensurate price. Which is bullshit. Congo is amazingly dangerous right now. They need us and she’s being obstinate, thinking she can handle it with regular government personnel.”

“I’ll talk to her.” Ben didn’t expect the negotiations to be prolonged; the security situation in Congo was deteriorating, terrorism on the rise; the State Department personnel stationed there needed a greater level of protection, and a contract with the professional soldiers of Hector Global was the cheap and fast answer. Hector Global did several million dollars’ worth of business with the State Department each year, providing armed security for its employees; a new rising conflict in Congo was a tragedy, but an opportunity as well. Someone had to protect the diplomats, and no one could do a better job than Hector Global. “If the situation there deteriorates, it might help us close the deal—she’ll get scared.”

“I like scared people because we’re in the business of making fear go away,” Hector said.

“You still want to use that as a motto,” Ben laughed. “Fear is not a good slogan.”

“Whatever. I also suspect she’s stalling so she can get you back up to Washington again.”

Ben moved into another lane, headed north on MoPac, the major north-south artery for west Austin. He exited into the suburb of West Lake Hills so that he could take back roads home to central Austin; the infamously slow Austin traffic had already begun its daily dragging shuffle.

“Ben? Did you hear me?”

“Sam. Don’t kid, you know I’m not ready for—”

“You cannot live in this bubble you’ve created for yourself.” Now Sam Hector sounded less like a client and more like a chiding father. “You just spent five days alone, Ben, at a resort known for catering to people twice your age. Emily would not want you isolating yourself.”

Ben said nothing. He had found it best to endure this kind of advice in polite silence.

“Ms. Smith has asked me about your interests, how often you come to Washington, what food you like to eat. As soon as our negotiations are done, I suspect she’ll ask you out the next time you’re in DC.”

“Does she know I’m a widower?”

“I told her. But not every detail. That’s up to you.”

“E-mail me Smith’s concerns on the contract and I’ll craft our response.”

Sam Hector was silent for a moment on the other end of the line. “Forgive me. I’m only trying to be helpful. We all worry about you . . .”

“Sam, I’m really fine. And I’ll talk to you tomorrow morning.”

“Take care, Ben.” Sam clicked off the phone.

No woman had asked him out in the two years since Emily died, and he had no plans to ask out any woman. He tried to imagine how he’d react to an invitation. He had nothing to give, nothing to share, nothing to say. A slight cold terror touched his skin. He lowered the car’s window, let fresh air wash over his face as he turned off the highway toward home. He clicked on the radio: “A bizarre shooting in downtown Austin today left two dead . . . ,” the announcer said and Ben switched off the radio. He did not like to hear about shootings. Two years after his wife’s death, the very word twisted a knife in his spine, brought back the horrible memory of Emily sprawled dead on the kitchen floor, a bullet hole marring her forehead.

Random, pointless, for no reason, some unknown idiot firing rounds at empty houses. He eased his grip on the steering wheel, tried not to remember.

Ben lived in Tarrytown, an older and expensive neighborhood on the west side of Austin. His house was small by the neighborhood’s increasingly grandiose standards—Tarrytown had been invaded by mega-mansions, towering over the original houses on the cramped lots—but the limestone bungalow suited him. He pulled into his garage just as the simmering storm broke into soft rain. His flower beds needed springtime tending and the yard could use a mow, he thought.

Ben went inside his house and set his duffel bag on the kitchen floor. He grabbed a soda from the refrigerator and headed back into his office. He cracked open the laptop and downloaded five days’ worth of e-mail. Most of his clients knew he was gone this week so there was less than normal. He saw an encrypted note containing the specifics of Sam’s hot UK deal. He frowned at a couple of messages: a request from a business magazine reporter to respond to allegations of security contractor malfeasance involving a company he’d never worked with; three e-mails from people he didn’t know, protesting the use of private security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; and e-mails from six people with military and security backgrounds, looking for work with Hector, asking him for advice and help.