There were two of them, and they came at Liam McCullough fast and low, both of them screaming as they did.
The one on the right went for his leg, while the other tried to climb up his chair and get to his head.
"Children! Please!" their mother called. "Leave the nice bodyguard alone." Her English was heavily accented, and she switched into her native Brazilian Portuguese, following with a string of speech that did nothing to pull the boy or the girl off him.
He smiled grimly and grabbed them both under his arms and stood up. The little girl kicked at the back of a gilt chair, which fell to the plush carpet with a thud. "Why don't I take the kids outside so they can run around?"
The middle-aged saleswoman who had been showing Zoraida Figueroa hand-embroidered shawls looked relieved. She had been twisting the pearls around her neck with long, elegant fingers as the children rampaged through the narrow store.
Liam and Aidan, his partner in love and business, had been watching Zoraida and her two children for three days by then, while her husband concluded a deal to sell Brazilian rubber to the Tunisian government. Zoraida, twenty-eight, had bonded immediately with Aidan, the two of them chattering away and shopping like best girlfriends.
That left Liam to watch the kids. Joao was four and Morena three. They were like wild animals, spoiled beyond reason. Their mother could not discipline them, and their father was caught up in business so often that he didn't either.
Liam carried them, kicking and squirming, across the hot, sun-drenched street, dodging the onrush of taxis, buses, and luxury SUVs that ignored the traffic signals with impunity. The girl pressed her hand against his chest, and when she grasped the gold ring in his right nipple, he quickly shifted her away.
The air was redolent with sweat and automobile exhaust, and stepping into the cool greenery of the Parc Habib Thameur was like entering another world. The date palms and cork oaks created a leafy bower above, and tiny green geckos and furry, inquisitive gerbils darted through the lush undergrowth. Though it was in the low sixties in the sun, under the trees it was at least ten degrees cooler, and Liam could feel the heat generated by the two squirming bodies in his arms.
Liam set the two kids down on the gravel path and stood up to stretch his back. They immediately ran toward a group of children playing on swings, screaming like banshees.
Liam liked being a bodyguard, but he hated this job. Zoraida's husband, Gilberto, was insanely jealous--with good reason, Liam thought. Zoraida was a dark-haired beauty who oozed sexuality, and she dressed to accentuate her massive breasts and her long, tanned legs. The dress she wore today was cut so low that you could almost see her nipples, and it was so short that when she sat down, Liam had realized she wasn't wearing panties.
Liam was astonished when Gilberto first called to hire them and asked if he and Aidan were gay. Years of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the military had made Liam wary of such questions, but he had stopped lying when he resigned his commission. It turned out that there had been an unfortunate incident with a bodyguard in Canada, and Gilberto would only hire men who couldn't be a threat to his marriage.
The whole deal made Liam uncomfortable. Kids were too unpredictable; they didn't understand about threat factors or appropriate behavior. Hell, since they only spoke Portuguese, he couldn't even talk to them. He couldn't wait for this assignment to finish.
A half hour passed, the two Brazilians tormenting every child they met, before Zoraida and Aidan left the boutique, burdened with shopping bags. Liam called the children, but they ignored him.
They were experts at avoiding capture. When Liam strode toward them, they split up, going in separate directions. He feinted toward Morena, then caught Joao off guard. He grabbed the boy, who kicked him in the shins.
"Ow! That hurt. Stop that."
He was sorely tempted to immobilize the little brat, but that wouldn't go over well with the client. "You want to give him to me, or you want me to go for the girl?" Aidan said, coming up to him.
"Take him. But watch out. He kicks and he bites."
Amazingly, the little boy nestled into Aidan's arms as Aidan cooed to him in some broken combination of English and Portuguese. He looked like the sweetest little angel--until Liam caught him smirking as Aidan turned away.
Morena was darting among the palm trees, using her small size as an advantage to crawl through the underbrush. Liam grew increasingly frustrated as aloes stung his arms and palm trunks bruised his shins.
"Come on, Liam," Aidan called from the limo. "Get a move on."
"I'm going to kill someone here," Liam muttered. "Maybe Aidan. Maybe one spoiled little girl." He swooped on Morena, and she squirmed away from him. He narrowly missed falling on his face.
Her long hair proved her undoing. As she scooted past Liam, he grabbed a handful and used it to pull her toward him. Not the best tactic in child care, but it was effective. He got her under one arm, careful of her flailing arms and legs, and walked back to the limo.
By the time they returned to the Hotel Africa, Liam was fed up. The children had screamed and cried the whole way in the limo, their mother and Aidan ignoring them for chitchat and giggles. Liam had a pounding headache, and he was delighted that the Figueroa family was leaving Tunis that afternoon.
Zoraida set the children up in the living room of the suite with snacks and juice boxes, and Liam stood against the wall, watching them. The food kept the children occupied as Aidan helped Zoraida finish packing, and by the time the bellman had taken all the suitcases downstairs, Gilberto Figueroa had returned.
They all piled into a small airport bus. The kids ran back and forth while their father spoke on his cell phone and their mother gossiped with Aidan. At the airport, Zoraida kissed Aidan and Liam on both cheeks and thanked them effusively.
Gilberto stopped speaking on the phone long enough to pull a wad of bills out of his pocket, held together by a gold money clip. He handed a stack to Liam. "Hazard pay," he said in English only slightly less accented than his wife's. "Thank you."
Aidan and Liam watched as Gilberto led his family and a skycap loaded with bags into the terminal. "Thank God," Liam said as the doors closed behind them. "Never again."
"What?" Aidan said. "That was a pretty easy gig. Just wandering around from store to store with Zoraida."
"For you, maybe. For me it was hell. What a pair of little monsters," Liam said as they walked down the sidewalk to the taxi rank.
"They're good kids. You just have to know how to handle them."
"Morena bit me," Liam said. "If I get tetanus, I'm suing."
Aidan laughed. "Don't be a wimp."
As they prepared to get into a cab, Liam leaned down to Aidan's ear. "When we get home, I'll have to show you who's a wimp."
Aidan laughed, but Liam could see his partner shiver just a bit. Good, he thought.
There was some kind of demonstration ahead, and the cab slowed. Liam could see a cluster of young men with placards clogging the narrow street and hear the low rumble of their chants. "What's going on?" he asked the driver in Arabic, leaning forward.
"They are calling it the Jasmine Revolution," the driver said. "Now it comes to Tunis."
Liam had read news reports of uprisings in small towns all over the country since mid-December. A vegetable seller in the small town of Sidi Bouzid, south of Tunis, had been arrested for peddling without a license, and his cart and goods had been confiscated. After enduring insults and a fine at the hands of a policewoman, the young man, Mohammed Bouazizi, had gone home and set himself on fire.
His story had galvanized hundreds of desperate, downtrodden young men and women in Tunisia. Many of them were university educated but couldn't find work, and they felt that the unwritten compact their parents' generation had made with President Ben Ali--trading political freedom in exchange for economic opportunity--had come undone. They had begun protests against the government in Sidi Bouzid, and the fever had caught.
"The president says he will fire the Interior Minister and free people arrested during the demonstrations." The cab driver shook his head. "No good will come of this, I tell you."
By riding on the sidewalk for a few hundred feet--dangerously close to a storefront selling hammered brass tea urns and an elderly man in a shabby housecoat--the cabbie made his way to a side street and bypassed the demonstration. As they drove, Liam checked the Facebook and Twitter feeds on his cell phone. They were full of reports of protests in and around Tunis.
Liam had no idea what was going to happen. Would the president crack down? Would there be widespread riots in Tunis? He called his police contact, Faisal Qasim, but the call went right to voice mail. Not surprising if Faisal was out handling demonstrations.
By the time he and Aidan got back to the small house they shared behind the Bar Mamounia, just off the Boulevard Habib Bourguiba, it was close to five o'clock. Their little mixed-breed dog, Hayam, jumped and yipped joyfully as they walked inside, then darted past them to pee on the date palm out front.
"Remember, we're meeting Louis and Hassan for dinner at seven," Aidan said, as he closed the front door.
Louis Fleck's official title at the US Embassy in Tunis was cultural attache, though Liam had known for years that Louis worked for the CIA. Until recently, though, he hadn't known that Fleck was gay or that he had a Tunisian partner. A few months before, Aidan had met Louis and twigged immediately. Bold as brass, Aidan had asked if Louis was seeing anyone, and just like that, they'd become a pair of gay couples who got together once or twice a month for dinner and conversation.
Once they were inside, Liam grabbed Aidan's waistband and pulled him close. He leaned down and kissed Aidan hard on the lips. He cupped his broad hand around Aidan's smooth, pert ass. Whatever was going on in the city could wait.
Aidan kissed him back, opening his mouth to accept Liam's tongue. With his other hand, Liam reached up under Aidan's shirt and found his right nipple. He pinched it, and Aidan shivered. He leaned his head back, and Liam nipped at his throat like a horny vampire.
"We'll see who's a wimp now," Liam said. In a swift motion, he pulled Aidan's polo shirt over his head and tossed it to the couch. Then he unbuckled Aidan's belt and unhooked his pants. They dropped to the floor.
Aidan was already hard, his dick straining against his cotton boxers. They were decorated with tropical fish in neon colors. Liam thought they were silly--he preferred simple white cotton jockstraps himself. But they were all part of the charm that was Aidan.
Aidan kicked off his deck shoes and stepped out of his pants. He lifted his right leg to wrap around Liam's as Liam licked his throat and rubbed his five o'clock shadow across the tender skin. Aidan groaned with pleasure.
Liam jerked Aidan's boxers down, catching his dick in them, and Aidan said, "Ouch! Watch it."
"Watch this." Liam sat down on the sofa, still fully clothed, and pulled Aidan down on top of him sideways, so that Aidan's ass was in Liam's lap. He raised his right hand and slapped Aidan's butt.
"Who's a wimp?" Liam said.
"You are," Aidan said, his voice muffled by the sofa cushions.
"Wrong answer." Liam spanked him again. He could feel Aidan's stiff dick pressing against his thigh. He began playing Aidan's butt like a pair of bongo drums, slapping one, then the other, then both in sync.
"Sometimes you need to be reminded who's the boss around here," Liam said.