Suicide Kings
and tousle his hair. He felt the heat and yielding firmness of her body on his back and buttocks, skin on skin, the slight rasp of her bush. Unlike a lot of chicks these days she didn’t shave her pussy. Her pubic hair was on the sparse and wispy side anyway.
    As sunset approached, vast flocks of scarlet ibises, pink-pale from theirseason in the north and long flight back to southern summer, fell on sandbanks and overgrown islands and the dense
on either bank like cotton-candy rain, to feed on mangrove crabs among the tough, gnarly roots knuckling down into black water. Their cries bubbled into a sky being overtaken by bands of orange and yellow.
    With a sloshing of syrupy water a crocodile, what the locals called a
, emerged from the water by the little dock. No boat was tied there now: no need for one. The
was a big fucker, maybe twelve feet long. It dragged itself up by the gravel path and stared insolently at the humans from gelatinous armor-lidded eyes, as if laying claim on them for supper.
    Tom pointed. A pencil of fire stabbed from his finger and crisped a tuft of grass a couple of inches in front of the croc’s sharp snout. Moisture in plant and mud flashed to steam, scorching the animal’s nose and shooting grains of dirt against it. Opening its yellow-pink mouth to roar surprise, displaying impressive teeth, the beast wigwagged its fat tail hastily backward into the water and was gone.
    “Arrogant prick,” Tom said. He raised the finger and blew away imaginary gunsmoke.
    Hei-lian laughed. “That’s more like it. I was wondering why you brought us here to this rustic tropic paradise for the night. Other than the usual security considerations, of course. I didn’t think you went in much for that whole hippie back-to-nature thing.”
    Supernova anger burst inside him. He spun. Hei-lian leapt back like a startled cat. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” he shouted in her face. “What the
    There was more surprise than fear in those wide black eyes. But there still was fear. Colonel Sun, consecrated to service of Guoanbu and country since prepubescence, survivor of decades of full-contact play in some of the world’s most blood-soaked open sores, did not scare easily.
    But Tom was the most powerful ace on Earth, except maybe for Ra. He swatted fifty-ton main battle tanks like bugs. She knew far too well what he could do with
. “Nothing,” she said. She managed to keep her voice almost steady. “I was just making a joke. Trying. Failing.”
    The stricken look on her face stabbed through him like that Kalashnikov slug through the back. He let out a big breath. The anger had already vanished, as quickly as it had lit. It left behind a kind of clammy, shaky emptiness.
    “I’m sorry, man,” he mumbled. “Didn’t mean to rattle you like that.”
You got to
, he told himself.
You can find another woman. But there’s way more at stake here than that.
More than he dared let anyone suspect. Not Hei-lian. Not even Sprout. More than he cared to let himself think about.
    Shaking his head, he turned back to the rail and the river and the gathering birds and evening. “I’m just a little uptight these days.”
    She was back, pressed against him, stroking him soothingly. Mingling sweat made a slick membrane between them. He respected the nerve it took her to approach him.
    “The Sudan?” she said.
    “Yeah,” he said, leaning heavily on the rail. “Wrong war, wrong place, wrong time.” Tom picked up the soda, now past tepid to near hot, chugged half of it. He wished he dared let himself have even one beer to take the edge off. But he didn’t. Hadn’t in the almost decade and a half since he’d . . . come into his own. Nor had he gotten stoned. He couldn’t allow himself to alter his brain chemistry. “Nshombo’s always been hung up on Muslims, especially Arabs. He remembers it was always the Arabs who encouraged the slave trade,

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