Show Don’t Tell

My daughter’s teacher asked me to come talk to the kids (third graders) about writing, specifically “show don’t tell.” As a writer, I know when I’m being told rather than shown something. But how do you teach that?

“Tell me a story.” Well, no. We don’t really want to be told stories, we want to be shown them. When I write a play or film script, I don’t have to worry so much about the showing versus telling because I know the end result will be a “show” of some kind. The actors and director will do the showing. But when writing a story or novel, I have no actors, directors, wardrobe people. I have to take a picture that is in my head and put it in someone else’s head using only words. (Well, and hopefully a great cover artist.)

Here is what I told the kids: “We have five senses. And we need to use them all in our writing. We need for the reader to not only know in his or her head, but in his or her heart too. They need to be connected to the main character and the story and feel like they are right there with them.”

Then I gave them this story that I’d written the night before:

Emilie lives on the planet Rigel with her mother, father, brother, and dog. One morning she woke up late and had to rush to get ready for school. She ate her breakfast on the way to school. When she got to school, she realized she had forgotten her science homework. Her teacher made her redo it during recess. Emilie didn’t get to play. After school she went to ballet class and realized she had also forgotten her shoes. She had to sit and watch the other students practice, and her teacher lectured her in front of everyone about being more responsible. By the time Emilie got home, she was ready for the day to be over. She ate dinner, did her homework, and went to bed early so she would not be late again.

It’s all tell. There’s probably a perfectly good story in there, but we don’t know anything about Emilie. How old is she? We only know she goes to school. For someone living on another planet, her world seems an awful lot like ours. We can feel sorry for Emilie in a way, but we don’t feel sorry for Emilie because we aren’t connected to her or her frustration or disappointment or any other emotion she might have due to all this happening to her.

The kids went to town. We talked about the sounds and smells that could be added as details. “Let’s hear the alarm clock and smell the breakfast,” I suggested. “Let’s hear the other kids playing and see the sunlight coming through the window of the classroom where Emilie is stuck working.” We talked about dialogue that might give us a better feeling of how Emilie is feeling. “The way a person talks tells us a lot about them. Instead of just knowing there was a lecture, what if we heard it as dialogue?” The kids mentioned wanting to see more action, use more verbs and adjectives. We diverted into world building for a bit and discussed how to show that Emilie lives on another planet (“Is she human or an alien?” one kid asked, a valid question)—or maybe the writer should just change the setting to Earth if it’s going to be so much like Earth anyway. The kids had lots of great ideas and comments, and I was glad they were so engaged in the activity.

“Show don’t tell” is something we hear a lot, and we all sort of know when a writer is telling rather than showing, but it’s helpful—even to someone like me who has been writing forever—to be reminded, and to boil it down a bit.

  • Remember that writing means taking a picture in your head and putting it in someone else’s
  • Use all five senses when writing
  • Use dialogue to help show character
  • Use active verbs
  • Use adjectives
  • Provide details so readers feel like they can see and be there

Sure, there’s such thing as too much detail, but it’s always easier to take stuff out than go add it back in.

What are your rules for showing rather than telling? And if you’re not a writer, have you ever run into a book that you felt was too tell-y? That talked at you rather than involving you in the story? On the other hand, what books have you read that pulled you in?

A Story in Songs

Today’s walking playlist started and ended with anthems of faith while spanning regret, resentment, and remembering one’s roots through the middle.

1. “Something to Believe In” by Parachute
2. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears
3. “No Son of Mine” by Genesis
4. “Dear Home Town” by Great Big Sea
5. “Should’ve Known Better” by Richard Marx
6. “Rain on the Scarecrow” by John Mellencamp
7. “Rock Me on the Water” by Jackson Browne

There’s a story in all this for sure, one of someone escaping his (or her) past and trying to forge a path to greatness only to hit pitfalls. He regrets some of his choices, has moments of homesickness. Maybe he even returns home briefly to try to make amends. In the end he realizes he can only do for himself; one can’t sit around and wait for things to happen. If he’s going to “make it,” he’ll have to do it on his own. “Should’ve Known Better” points to a romantic subplot of some kind as well.

It’s a compelling story, as I see it, and some day when I have more time and have finished some of these other projects, I may even write it!

Katabatick Ekphrasis

In tandem with the Throwback Thursday parageography posts, I’ve decided to also include a number of the assignments from the course. These are, I’ve found, particularly good creative writing assignments. The first was (as this post is titled) the “Katabatick Ekphrasis,” which means “underground description.” As Doc Parker put in a footnote on said assignment:

“Description-that-has-to-do-with-a-descent…” “Describing in detail an underground locale of surpassing strangeness, or eeriness, or unquotidianity that you have, well, experienced somewhere, somehow.”

The assignment was to be 1000 words.

Per the assignment handout:

Basic Specifications:

1. This the Course’s first and only RealWorld item. In conception—and, it is hope, in execution—it’s not basically a creative assignment: Don’t Make Something Up.

2. A quick duedate. But this is also diagnostic, and Your P & G needs info quickly.

3. You are to describe a place Underground—not, by any means, a usual place, or everyday place where normal life normally goes on in a normal fashion. No, not that. Treat an exceptional spot, one encountered only rarely in the usual business of living.

4. On the other hand, it should be A Place You Are Familiar With, Somehow. Somewhere that you have not read about, or not merely read about, but seen. The old English-teacher ukase—”Write about things you know, dear”—applies here.

5. Describe it in considerable Detail. Your first 750 words are to be spent in telling, with searching precision, What The Place Looks Like. [Diagrams and other visual aids are acceptable and even encouraged, but will not affect the Word Count.]

6. After the description comes what we shall call The Fourth Page—the last 250 words—where you may spread yourself and tell how and why this place is unusual—arcane, horrifying, comforting, challenging, eerie, or whatever, but unusual. Here association and attitude count for a great deal.

7. Some suggestions for places you might know and use: Basement; Mineshaft; Subway; Cave; Sewer; Heating Tunnel; Bankvault; Rootcellar; Hell—but only if you’ve been there.

Adumbrations:

“Please, Sir, why and how are we doing this?” A logical question. Okay; first the Whys:

1. Successful ParaGeography is not merely a pileup, a listing, an agglomeration of improbable sites. It depends for meaningful achievement on the thorough conception and realization of those sites, on MicroCreation as well as Macro-Creation. The Critical Effusion will treat of a Macro; this is to be your first Micro.

2. Not wholly Your Very Own, of course. It’s to be an RW place. Later on, especially in the minicreation, you will find yourself building a small site. But the technique of description—and especially description without narrative—is something that has to be developed and refined. Hence this assignment, which seems a rather large description of what may be a rather small place.

Which leads us, logically enough, to the Hows:

1. As specified, 750 words on description; then 250 on assessment. You may find the first part somewhat of a strain, especially if the Underground Locale is [a] very small or [b] very large. Well, [a] is probably the more intriguing option: it means you’ll have to dig down (so to speak), there. But [b] has its thorny bits, too: how to get it all in? Of course, Your Guide is elastic about upper limits—but he has his little foibles, and he has to read all of these, and you wouldn’t want to infuriate him right off the bat, now, would you? So, there’ll be picking and choosing and aiming for the significant details, &c., &c.

2. Witness a query from a member of the class of—?when? 1988?: “I once was lost in some caves, and I used to play in a sewer pipe. Which should I pick for this assignment?” My initial reaction was the Caves; the Pipe seemed quite challenging. As it turned out, this student, and one other, chose the sewer pipe…with lovely [if that’s the word] results.

3. TFP—the last quarter of the CatEc, The Fourth Page as might be [=250 words], where you set forth the outré nature of your spot—should be The Fun Part. Fear of the Dark? Lovecraftian Things in an unspeakable interior? Trolls that slaver Underneath? The buried antiquity of earlier ages? Dig down, deep, and see what you come up with. And enjoy doing it. That’s an order…

4. “But Sir!“—a polite member of the class, in whose mouth butter would not melt, might cry—”How, oh, How am I to describe this place without moving someone (myself, perhaps) through it? Certainly one of the most efficient ways to describe a locale it to tell what an observer sees in the order in which she/he sees it, no?” “Er, yes,” I would reply. “But wouldn’t that be, uh, narrative, Sir?” To which I can only say, “Damn your eyes, you’re right, but Don’t Make It a STORY, hear?” Curse the Younger Generation away.

5. Oh. He would like the paper typed, or wordprocessed, or…anyway, NOT handwritten, if this can possibly be avoided. He grows old; his eyesight dims; he is withal a pitiful figure who deserves your every indulgence in his sad and sore travail. [Sob.]

These instructions are followed by numerous examples that I will not reproduce here; they are too long to retype. I will, however, note that my description of my grandparents’ basement in their house in Alaska earned me an “A.” Along with these lovely remarks:

“I rather expected plainness before, then the exuberance. But the similes, the occasional pawky phrases, lift the first part out of that. You might stress the snowsuits just a tad more. Or are you flattering me by assuming I’d pick up on their non-existence in Texas? Very skillful. Keep it up.”

It was the start of a beautiful mentorship.

*Note that P & G was Doc’s way of referring to himself as “Proctor & Guide” as we traversed parageographical lands, both established and still forming.

Now, I direct my fellow writers to go forth and do their own Katabatick Ekphrasis exercise! Useful on days when you feel otherwise stuck or unmotivated.

TBT: Parageography Outline #2

More details about this ongoing series, which began last week, can be found here. In short, I’m reproducing the course outlines for Dr. Parker’s Parageography curriculum. This one in particular might be handy for writers who wish to world build.

________________________________

Guidelines for Parageographic Analysis

First, a Pre-Point: AMBIANCE is the Important Thing. [“What?” I hear you cry.]

1. Where is it?
2. When is it?

PHYSICAL

3. Macro: Shape, size, implied map
4. Homogenous or Heterogenous?
5. Ratio of water to land
6. Climate
7. Micro: Features of featured landscape
8. Ratio of nature to artifice
9. Significant flora
10. Significant fauna

DENIZENS

11. Rational inhabitants
12. Homogenous or Heterogenous?
13. Race(s)
14. Sex(es)
15. Monsters
16. Spatial distribution

POLITICAL

17. Homogenous or Heterogenous?
18. Monomphalic or Polyomphalic? Archipelagic?
19. Type of government
20. Divisions
21. Relation of divisions to macroenvironment
22. Relation of divisions to microenvironment
23. Political stresses
24. Physical expression of political structure

RELIGIOUS

25. Homogenous, Heterogenous, or non-existent?
26. Significance
27. Rites
28. Relation to macroenvironment
29. Relation to microenvironment
30. Religious stresses

CIVILIZATION

31. Homogenous or Heterogenous?
32. Relative status to Now
33. Imbalances and Stresses
34. BUTTONS (or Drehdels, or McGuffins)
35. Physical expressions of civilization
36. Typical microenvironments
37. Stable or vectored?

CULTURE

38. Language(s)
39. Arts & Sciences
40. Law
41. Travel
42. Magic (i.e., manipulation of the paranormal)

SOME TOTALLY UNSYSTEMATIC BUT QUITE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS

44.* How is the place supported economically?
45. Does anachronism occur?
46. Does anatopism occur?
47. Can people affect (or effect, for that matter) landscape? [and here I’ve written the word “skerries” for some reason]
48. Is the world cogent and cohesive? If so, why? If not, why not?
49. Is there a pattern or patterns under all this?
50. Any parageographical world exists in some relationship(s) to the world (ours, that is) that produced it. What is that relationship—allegorical, ironical, what?
51. What is the effect of outsiders on the world? [this does not = 48 above]
52. Does the world end?
53. What is the general atmosphere [to speak metaphorically] of the place?
54. Is the world possible, in our terms? Is this significant?
55. How is the world apprehended?
56. Is motion in the world centripetal or centrifugal, or something else?
57. Is there a history to this place? Is this important?
58. Is this a nonce-world, or does it have continuation?
59. Agora-world or Claustro-world?
60. Of course: How does the nature of the place, or space, condition action? Is it, then, Moral Space?

…and just what, came the teeny-tiny voice, IS this MORAL SPACE to which you occasionally refer? Precisely, WHAT?
________________________________

*Note that I am reproducing these as faithfully as I can in terms of layout and exactly Doc Parker’s singular tone. And so I’ve skipped the number 43 because there is no number 43 on the original outline.

Potential Scene from St. Peter Ascends

. . . though it may not make the cut because it is not from Peter’s POV, which has been the standard for the first two books. Still, fun to play around with ideas.

Simeon gazed up at the stonework façade of the house to where the peak of the roof stabbed the clear June sky. Though he couldn’t have said what, exactly, he’d expected, it decidedly had not been this—a large house on a broad expanse of land in the hills of Derbyshire. It wasn’t a mansion or anything, but it was definitely bigger than the through terrace house Simeon had grown up in.

He glanced back at the car and wondered, not for the first time, whether he’d got it wrong somehow. There was only one way to know for certain. With a deep breath, Simeon stepped up and rang the bell.

The man who answered was tall, somber, cadaverous in his coloring so as to suggest he never went outside nor came within shouting distance of a sunbeam. Simeon backed away involuntarily, sure now he had made a mistake. But because the man was staring at him, Simeon felt he at least had to say something, and so ventured, “I’m looking for Mr. Stoller?”

“Mr. Stoller is dead.”

A jolt ran through Simeon, as though a plug had been inserted into the sole of his foot. “What? When? How?” he stammered. Could the news have crossed him going in the opposite direction even as he’d been on the long drive to Derbyshire?

“Who is it, Mr. Wirth?” A woman Simeon knew must be Peter’s mother—same cheekbones and fine eyes taken twenty or thirty years further—appeared, though she had to stretch her neck to see over Mr. Wirth’s arm; it was that or duck down and look under, which Simeon could see she was too elegant to do. Peter wouldn’t have done it either.

“He’s looking for Mr. Stoller,” Mr. Wirth intoned.

“Well, there’s only one of those left,” Mrs. Stoller said, and before Simeon could begin to comprehend that maybe his boss wasn’t dead after all, she’d turned and yelled into the depths of the house, “Peter! Another one of your boyfriends is here!”

Simeon felt the heat rush up the back of his neck and into his face. Mrs. Stoller was shooing Mr. Wirth away and motioning Simeon inside. He obligingly stepped into the entry, which was dim and oddly humid, more so once the heavy door swung closed. It gave Simeon the unpleasant feeling the house was breathing on him. From somewhere—in the echoing space, Simeon could not pinpoint the immediate direction—he heard Peter say, “I only do one boyfriend at a time, Mother.” And as Simeon’s eyes adjusted to the gloom, Peter materialized beside him as though conjured out of dust motes and heavy air.

It struck Simeon that even away from the office his boss dressed attentively. Today it was a collared shirt under a lightweight jumper coupled with neatly pressed trousers. Shoes, too, which was interesting; in Simeon’s house they would never wear shoes unless on their way in or out.

Simeon snuck a look at Mrs. Stoller’s feet. Yes, shoes there, too, though they were moving away from him. She had turned away in evident disgust at her son’s remark. “I don’t want to know what you do.”

Peter ignored her, seemingly engrossed in straightening his watch. “Mr. Martin, to what do I owe this pleasure?”

The thing about Peter Stoller, Simeon reflected, was a person could never be sure whether he was joking. Taking in Peter’s sharp features, his bland expression, Simeon couldn’t tell if he was bored or annoyed or curious. Well, and they hadn’t worked together long, so maybe understanding would come with more exposure.

“Mr. Gamby couldn’t get away himself, so . . .” Simeon shrugged a shoulder and lifted a palm as if the remainder of the sentence were written on the thick atmosphere around them.

Peter gave a curt nod then paused to eye Simeon. “You’re working for Gamby now?”

There was a gleeful second when Simeon thought Peter might actually be upset at the idea, though of course it was truly impossible to discern; Peter might only be interested in learning things at the office had changed again while he was away. “No, sir,” Simeon assured him. “He’s got a new girl. Evelyn. She—”

But Peter had lifted his brows.

“Anyway,” Simeon went on, “you’re needed. Sorry to cut your holiday short.”

Z is for . . .

They walked in companionable silence along the Lake Promenade in ZURICH, sidestepping the joggers as well as wanderers with less purpose, of which they were two. They’d spent the morning visiting a number of old churches, planned to go up Üetliberg on the morrow, but for that afternoon they were at their ease. Peter had forgotten how much he liked Switzerland, its lakes and mountains. I could live here, Peter thought as they strolled. If not Zurich, then maybe Geneva, or someplace a bit smaller like Lucerne.

“What will you do?” Charles asked.

“Hm?” Peter worked to switch his thoughts to new tracks.

“Once we’ve stopped traveling. What will you do?”

Peter didn’t know, though not for lack of thinking about it. But Gordon had recruited him out of university, and Peter wasn’t sure what he might do with a first-class degree in languages. Surely it had been Peter’s facility with languages that had brought him to Gordon’s attention to begin with, and now Peter could only vaguely recall what he’d originally hoped to do after graduation had his life taken a more traditional course. Not teach, God no, Peter’s personality did not lend itself to that occupation. While at uni, he’d had the idea of perhaps working with old manuscripts, doing translations, that kind of thing. He’d even helped some of his professors with such projects. An image of Dr Davidson drifted into his mind, Peter sitting beside him at a long table as they scribbled and debated the exact meaning of something in Ancient Greek. He was old even then, Peter thought. He must dead by now. And the realization he hadn’t ever gone back to see Dr Davidson after Gordon had swept him up into the Agency added a little weight to Peter’s heart, slightly darkening the day.

“You’re very quiet,” said Charles.

“What? Oh. Sorry, I just . . . Was thinking about your question.”

“I might like to give tours,” Charles said.

“Here?” Peter asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Somewhere,” said Charles.

Peter didn’t press the point, though he knew they’d need to have that conversation soon. Where? Where would they go? The world lay open before them, and they’d seen a lot of it. But soon they would have to settle somewhere. And then, Peter reasoned, he would need to find something to do with his time. His life.

But for today: Zurich. The shadows were lengthening and the warmth of the day was giving way to brisker breezes, the water of the lake slowly deepening in color so that soon it would be more black than blue. Surreptitiously, Peter caught hold of Charles’s hand, and when Charles looked up with a question in his face, Peter suggested, “An early dinner, don’t you think? And maybe a long night.”

Peter was gratified by Charles’s blush as he grasped Peter’s meaning. Better still, though, was Charles’s remark that they should probably take dinner in their room.

It won’t matter where we go or what we do, Peter decided. He’d left London and his life’s work for this, and it was a choice he would make again, every day if he had to.

__________________
I hope you’ve enjoyed traveling with Peter and Charles for this A–Z Challenge. If you want to read more about them, please pick up St. Peter in Chains and look for the sequel St. Peter at the Gate due out in June.

Y is for . . .

“I was in YORK once,” the woman said, then interrupted her own dialogue to ask, “Have you ever been to York?”

Peter and Charles stared blankly at her. She’d taken a seat across from them on the train and hadn’t stopped talking since, evidently believing the travel book on Charles’s lap to be an open invitation of some kind. Though Charles had made an effort to remain repressively polite, Peter hadn’t bothered to say anything. But Charles’s accent had set the woman off on a detailed account of her various visits to England.

She was Canadian she’d said, though Peter wasn’t entirely convinced she was telling the truth. Was that a Canadian accent? Most certainly not British, however, since (aside from the accent) any right-minded Brit would know better than to keep going on when the people seated with you failed to engage in your conversation. Peter had hardly looked at her, instead keeping his eyes turned to the window.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked, and then he did glance at her, if involuntarily, because he wasn’t sure whether she was still talking about York or was remarking on the passing countryside.

Charles asked the question for him. “York?”

She laughed. At least, Peter thought it was a laugh, though it sounded like a kind of yelp. “Well, yes,” she said, “but here too. Where are you going?”

The intrusive question made the muscles in Peter’s shoulders tighten. “Not York.”

“Excuse him,” said Charles, “he hasn’t slept.”

Peter threw him a glare.

“Well, no, I didn’t think so,” the woman said. “That you were going to York, I mean. I don’t know about the sleeping. But you’re going the wrong way for York. And your travel book is for Europe.” She pointed to the guide in Charles’s lap.

Observant, thought Peter, and realizing it, he sat up straighter and looked hard at the woman for the first time. She only offered a bland smile in return.

“Well,” said Charles, “I think first we’ll go—”

“Never mind,” said Peter. He scowled at their uninvited guest. “You can tell Gordon or Gamby or whoever sent you that it’s not their concern where we go so long as we don’t come back. Isn’t that right?”

Charles gaped. The woman’s smile remained fixed, though Peter was sure he detected pity in her eyes. “All right,” she said slowly, and whether it was a confirmation or merely a traveler indulging the bizarre antics of a stranger was unclear.

X is for . . .

They chartered a boat in XAI-XAI and went out to the reef to snorkel and fish and simply while away a day. After so many weeks spent going to and fro amongst various historical sites, markets, restaurants, airports, and so on, it seemed suddenly awkward to be in one another’s company with nothing else between them. They often returned to their hotel rooms exhausted and therefore free from the obligation of communicating, as they each understood the other’s need for rest. Their routine was set, the need for talk outside of deciding where to go next nearly nil. And now they sat together in the bobbing boat with nothing to say.

Peter tried to remember what it had been like back in London, those few months living together in one place; what had they talked about then? Charles would fill him in on the various interesting people who entered and exited his cab . . . They’d discuss plans for the weekend and sometimes watch a movie . . . All at once Peter recalled the luxury of stretching out on the sofa, his head in Charles’s lap while some ridiculous romantic comedy unspooled scene-by-scene before his eyes. Charles liked romantic comedies. Peter preferred drama, or the occasional psychological thriller.

Now Peter sat chewing his lip like a pre-teen on a first date, a fishing pole in his hand that he didn’t even know how to use. So when the pole moved, its long stem arching gracefully toward the water, Peter nearly panicked. “Charles . . .”

Charles looked over. “Oh, you’ve got something!”

“What do I do?” Reflexively, Peter’s fingers loosened on the pole, ready to relinquish it.

“Don’t let go!” Charles leaned over and took hold of Peter’s fishing pole with one hand, trying to hold his own with the other. “Take mine and I’ll reel yours in.”

Peter couldn’t stop the juvenile burble that rose in him. “You want me to grab your pole?”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Peter, really?” Charles asked as the exchange was affected.

“Who knew you took your fishing so seriously,” Peter muttered. He realized he was bored, drifting out there with nothing much to do and wished he’d brought a book.

Charles’s face took on a look of concentration mingled with determination. “It’s a big one,” he said. “Need to tire him a bit before we land him.”

Oddly, the remark made Peter think of work, of wearying a mark by luring him through a long tail through the streets before pouncing on him. Now Peter watched Charles out of the corner of his eye while pretending to be interested in the blue horizon beyond the fishing pole. Had all this travel just been a way for Charles to wear him down? All the lists of places to visit, bouncing back and forth over the globe. Peter suddenly had the terrible mental picture of Charles at a party, telling everyone how big a fish he’d reeled in, and the fish’s name was Peter.

“There we are,” Charles said, cutting into Peter’s train of thought, and a kingfish fell to the boat deck, its tail flopping half-heartedly as it gasped for air. “Fifteen kilos at least, I’d say.”

Peter stared at it. “What are we supposed to do with it?”

“There are men at the marina who will gut and filet it for us, probably even cook it if we like.”

“I don’t want it,” Peter said, turning away. “Throw it back.”

He expected protest, but behind him there was only silence. And then, quietly, “You feel sorry for it.”

Peter didn’t answer.

“It’s a wonder you’re not a vegetarian,” said Charles, “if you’re so worried about a damn fish.”

Peter moved fast; he had that much on Charles: speed, fine reflexes. And strength. He grabbed the fish and heaved it back into the water. Then, without sparing a glance for his companion, he sat back down and went back to contemplating the various shades of blue in the sea and sky. He went so far as to begin to name them to himself. Cerulean, he thought in bizarre meditation, azure, ultramarine . . .

He was startled when Charles collapsed heavily onto the seat beside him. “Would you like me to show you how?” Charles asked.

Peter turned his squint in Charles’s direction. “How to what?”

A smile tugged on the corner of Charles’s mouth. “To work a pole.”

“You’re saying I don’t know how?”

“I’m saying there’s no such thing as too much practice.”

A surge went through Peter; he was sure he could feel his very blood begin to move faster through his veins as his heart rate increased. But he remained still, visibly unmoved. He watched Charles until he could see the uncertainty begin to creep in, the brave smile begin to falter. And right before the moment he was sure Charles would give up, turn away, change the subject, Peter pulled him into an embrace. One meant to leave no room for doubt that he knew exactly how to work a pole.

He’s hooked or I am, thought Peter. Then decided it didn’t much matter either way.

_________________
And if you’re wondering, Xai-Xai is in Mozambique.

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.”

“I promise—”

“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.

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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!