W is for . . .
The car deposited Peter in front of an ostentatious hilltop manor in WATERKLOOF, its massive windows dark even though the sun was setting and the sky growing dusky with coming night. One might have thought the house was empty. Still, in good faith Peter climbed the steps to the door and rang the bell as the shiny black Mercedes turned in the drive and quietly rolled away.
When Harris opened the door, Peter drew back in surprise. “What?” Harris asked with a chuckle. “You know I live here.”
“I just didn’t expect you to be answering your own door,” said Peter.
“Gave the staff the night off,” Harris told him. “Come in.”
This information gave Peter further pause, but there was no good way to decline, especially now that his ride was gone. Peter stepped onto the dark slate of the foyer and blinked in the growing gloom of the grand house, shadows gathering in the vault of the ceiling, at the top of the sweeping staircase, and in the corners of the rooms. He followed Harris—Peter didn’t even know if it was the man’s first or last, or perhaps only, name—into a large lounge that included a bar topped in black marble at the far end. This was where Harris stopped, though he didn’t go so far as to step behind the bar; the drinks, Peter saw, had been prepared beforehand and were waiting. Harris handed Peter one, lifted his tumbler in a wordless toast, and drank the majority of his Scotch in one go. Peter took a polite sip.
“You didn’t bring your, uh . . .” Harris made a gesture that Peter assumed indicated the absence of Charles.
“You didn’t invite him,” Peter said.
“You’re right, I didn’t.”
Peter glanced over his shoulder toward the door, which seemed very far away of a sudden. “And where is Diane?”
Harris startled Peter by stepping closer and gently removing the glass from his hand, setting it on the bar. “Probably out spending my money.”
Peter’s pulse jumped as he took in Harris’s proximity. The man was two or three centimeters shorter than Peter but no less strong or capable of violence. Peter could smell Harris’s hair, whatever he used to keep the thick, slightly too long strands in place. Harris perpetually looked windswept, like he should be out on a yacht, or rather like he’d only just stepped off one. He even wore a blazer. Who wore a blazer in his own home, unless giving a party? Out of habit, Peter’s eyes ran down Harris, left side then right, for signs the jacket was meant to hide something.
Harris smiled again. “I didn’t call you out here to threaten you, Peter.” He drank the last of his Scotch and set his empty glass beside Peter’s.
It occurred to Peter that, had Harris wanted to threaten him, he probably wouldn’t have bothered to do it so close to home. Unless his men—they used to be Peter’s men, though Harris was the regional head—had refused? Peter tried to remember whether he and Harris had ever had more than the usual infights that came from one person being on scene while the other managed from a distance, but nothing sprang to mind.
So was this just a show of force? Was Harris lording the notion that Peter no longer held any power?
All this was a cascade at the back of Peter’s mind as he silently cursed himself for his slowly eroding skills. His time and travels with Charles were making him soft.
“And yet you came prepared,” Harris went on, slipping his hand under Peter’s own jacket and extracting the gun from the tunnel loop at the small of Peter’s back. Peter would have expected Harris to step away once he’d gained the weapon, but Harris’s arm remained around his waist, as if he might draw Peter into a dance.
“I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to have this,” Harris said. He finally stepped back just enough to withdraw and examine the gun. “Looks like one of ours.”
“A going away present,” Peter told him.
“Seems like I’m not your only admirer.” The gun joined the glasses on the bar. As Peter’s eyes tracked it, Harris smiled and said, “You didn’t think I was going to use it, did you? Peter,” he added, stepping close again, “we’ve worked together a long time. Old friends, right? I’m only sorry you opted out.”
For a moment, Peter thought Harris was going to hug him, and he tensed against anticipation of the contact. But Harris only continued to stare at Peter, searching first his face before sweeping the rest of Peter’s figure with a practiced gaze. “You’re looking fit, anyway. Got a tan.”
“Did you call me here just to, what? Check on me?” Peter asked, his bewilderment transmuting into irritation.
Harris leaned in closer still. Peter realized his choices were to give way or stay put. He didn’t move. In a Scotch-soaked half whisper, Harris confessed, “I called you here because I like you.”
“Does Diane know?” Peter meant it as a joke, but Harris replied quite seriously, “She doesn’t care what I do so long as I fund her shopping and holidays.”
Utter confusion assailed Peter. Was this a trick? Or an honest come-on? An image of Charles tucked up in the hotel in Pretoria flashed through Peter’s mind, but Peter immediately dismissed it in an attempt to keep his wits in the present.
Harris evidently read Peter’s inner tumult as mere hesitation and took advantage of the perceived opening by bringing his mouth to Peter’s. If Peter had had the ability to string together a conscious thought, he would have concluded Harris kissed the same way he managed his agents: firmly and insistently. But Peter’s mind had gone black and empty. His hands moved seemingly of their own volition, taking hold of Harris’s upper arms as if for better leverage and holding tight. When Harris finally broke off his thorough investigation of Peter’s mouth, he asked huskily, “Do you trust him?”
“What?” Peter blinked, trying to clear the fog that had enveloped his brain.
“This . . . friend of yours,” Harris said, “you trust him?”
Charles. Oh, God, Charles. Peter forced his fingers to release Harris and his feet to move back two steps. “This is why I’m here. You want to know about Charles.”
Harris moved forward, but this time Peter matched the motion, keeping just out of Harris’s reach. “Peter . . .”
“Call the car.”
“Call the car!”
Harris obligingly moved behind the bar and took up a two-way radio. “Marcos, get up here. Our guest is ready to leave.” He snapped off the handset before Marcos could reply. Turning a rueful eye to Peter, Harris said, “I would have a long time ago, you know. But you were my boss.” He paused. “You must really love him, to give it all up like that.”
“And you must really hate me, to try and trap me this way,” said Peter. He turned expectant eyes to the front windows.
“You want the rest of your drink at least?” Harris asked. When Peter didn’t bother to acknowledge the question, Harris said, “Your gun.”
That got Peter’s attention. With slow, careful steps Peter walked to the bar and accepted the proffered weapon.
“It wasn’t a lie,” Harris said in a low voice. “I really did like you. I do. And if you ever change your mind . . .”
With a calculating sweep of his eyes, Peter guessed Harris was telling the truth, or at least some version of it. Not that it mattered. He slipped the gun back into the loop at the back of his belt and went for the door as the sleek black car rounded the drive. “Give Diane my love,” Peter said.
He never looked back.
I know what you’re thinking: “Where in Hell is Waterkloof?” A: South Africa. I should add this is probably my favorite installment of my A–Z Challenge . . . And poor Charles isn’t even in it!