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By:Jeff Abbott

Where there were millions at stake, and guns involved, controversy always loomed. He understood people’s concerns about private contractors being used in war, but the reality was that the government was offering big-dollar contracts, and people of both dubious and high integrity went after them. Hector Global was one of three hundred private companies offering security and training services in Iraq alone. Ben was careful to work only with the contractors with good records and highly professional staffs. Many of them, other than his biggest client, were new, staffed by former soldiers and unused to navigating government deals. His guidance made it easier for them to win favorable terms.

There were well over a hundred thousand private security contractors on the ground in Iraq, training security forces and police, protecting facilities and dignitaries. The money was excellent. Ben had helped Sam Hector grow his company into a three-thousand-employee behemoth in the security world, with thousands more independent contractors on call, to provide everything from security to computer expertise to food services.

A soft red 6 glowed on his answering machine’s readout. He decided to deal with the rest of the real world after he took a shower. Technically, he was still on his alone time, he told himself.

Ben showered and rubbed a towel hard across his skin. The mirror showed a bit of early spring sunburn on his nose and cheeks, from his lake walks; he was of Swedish descent, and the sun wasn’t always gentle on his pale, slightly freckled skin. He smoothed out his thick thatch of blond hair with a comb of his fingers, brushed his teeth, and decided not to shave over the sunburn. He dressed in jeans, tennis shoes, and a long-sleeved polo shirt. He reached for the soda he’d left on the counter and then the doorbell rang, a low, long, almost mournful chime.

Two people stood on his bricked porch. Ben had been around enough government agents in his work to recognize them as such—the stance, the careful neutral expressions. One was a petite, dark-haired woman in her early thirties, wearing an expensive, tailored gray suit. She had brown eyes and a mouth set in a frown, and when Ben opened the door, her gaze was so fierce that he nearly took a step backward. The man next to her was thin and silver-haired, expressionless.

Behind them, Ben saw a car, with two thick-necked men in suits and sunglasses standing at attention near the passenger door.

“Mr. Forsberg?” the man said.


Both showed photo IDs. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Strategic Initiatives. It wasn’t a division at Homeland Ben recognized from his consulting work, like FEMA or the Secret Service. “I’m Agent Norman Kidwell. This is Agent Joanna Vochek. We’d like to speak with you.”

Ben blinked at the badges. Kidwell was in his forties, with a hardscrabble face that was alien territory for a smile, dark eyes that gave a glance more calculated than kind, a suggestion of granite under the skin of his jaw.

“Okay. About what?” Ben asked.

“It would be better if we could talk inside, sir,” Kidwell said.

“Uh, sure.” He wondered if one of his clients had messed up, gotten dodgy with a contract with Homeland. But they couldn’t just call him? He opened the door wider. The two agents stepped inside.

“How can I help you?” Ben shut the door.

“Let’s sit down,” Kidwell said.

“Sure.” He went into the kitchen and they followed him, Vochek staying very close to him. He noticed her glance surveying the room, as if mapping every exit. “Would you like a soda or water?”

“No,” Kidwell said.

“Heading on a trip, Mr. Forsberg?” Vochek pointed at his duffel bag.

“No, I’ve just gotten home.” He sat at the kitchen table. Kidwell sat across from him. Vochek stayed standing, planting herself between him and the back door.

“Where have you been?” she asked.

“Marble Falls.” It was a small town an hour west of Austin. “My parents’ condo.”

“Were your parents with you?” Kidwell asked.

“No. They’ve both passed away.”

“Were you alone?” She crossed her arms.

“Yes. Are you going to tell me what this is about?”

Kidwell opened a notebook and rattled off Ben’s full name, his birth date, his social security number, address, and home phone. “All correct?”

Ben nodded.

“You have an office phone?”

“I work out of my home; my cell serves as my office number.”

Kidwell kept his gaze unwavering, as if a thread connected his eyes to Ben’s. “Do you have any other cell phone accounts?”

“No.” He suspected he was about to be dragged into a bureaucratic mud hole; clearly a client had screwed up in a contract with Homeland and he was going to have to endure endless protocol before these two tight-asses got to the point.