Prologue - December, 2014
If Charlie Hillier had known what the evening held in store, he might have done things differently. He wasn't one for melodrama, but he could have made a hell of a speech, flown into a rage, or maybe even broken something. Even a different outfit, which wouldn't have changed anything, would at least have allowed him to say he had done something to mark the end of his former life.
As it was, he had barely given a thought to his usual uniform of a dark suit, white shirt, and red tie when he dressed that morning. The tie was more burgundy than red, with dots small enough not to offend his conservative nature. The charcoal V-neck had been a last minute flourish, regrettable now that he was standing in the drawing room of the Swedish ambassador’s residence, simmering in the collective warmth of more than a hundred guests. They stood eating and drinking in clusters, all sheltered from a late December wind that whipped the snow against the frosted panes of the Rockcliffe mansion that had been decorated with just enough red, green, and gold to reflect the season without looking like a holiday store window. The competing scents of gingerbread and mulled wine added to the festive atmosphere, as did the spirited chatter that rose above the soft chamber music playing in the background.
Charlie stood at the edge of a knot of guests, half listening to the bow-tied man at its centre, but more concerned with the time as he checked his watch again and loosened his tie. He and his wife had been there for hours already, despite his hope for an early exit, which Charlie had been sure to mention several times on the short drive over from Foreign Affairs headquarters on Sussex Drive. She had seemed agreeable enough, and even mentioned feeling fatigued after a long day at the office. But Charlie had been to enough of these functions with her over the years to know better. Whereas he was content to put in an uncomfortable hour or two of face time and call it a night, Sharon LeClair-Hillier was a born networker. There was always one more peer to share the latest gossip with or an interesting new acquaintance to make from the up-and-coming set, and Charlie always seemed to find himself standing in an open doorway at the end of these occasions, like a department store security guard waiting for the last straggling shopper to leave at the end of a day-long sale.
But tonight wasn’t Sharon's fault. They had been well on their way to the front door twice, only to be derailed by one encounter after another. First, it was the Swedish trade attaché that they had first met a week before, at the British High Commissioner’s reception. Charlie couldn't resist internally assigning him the moniker of 'Swedish Meatball' at the time, and nothing in tonight’s encounter had changed his initial impression of Lars Whatshisface. The attaché was young and freshly posted, but surely the Swedish government’s outgoing briefing should have given him a better grasp of Canada’s economic fundamentals. He could perhaps be forgiven for not knowing about Canada’s wealth of medical isotopes, but softwood lumber? As for Lars’s claim of being a former Olympic biathlete, Charlie interpreted it as a transparent plea for attention, and an attempt to compensate for some shortcoming; possibly intellectual, possibly farther south. Poor Lars’s actual experience, Charlie had thought, looking up at the young Swede as he boasted to Sharon, was probably limited to waxing skis for the real athletes.
They had barely extricated themselves from the tiresome Lars when Charlie had found himself face to face with his former director, and, as the two men paused to talk shop, Sharon had slipped off and attached herself to the Swedish ambassador’s entourage. The last time Charlie saw her, she was in conversation with the Swedish number two, which meant she had a shot at the host himself and wasn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. That was almost an hour ago.
Charlie dabbed at his forehead with a paper napkin and finished the glass of wine in his hand. He had lost count after four, and the cumulative effect of the warmth, wine and hors d’oeuvres was contributing to a fatigue that was becoming oppressive. He wasn’t sure how much alcohol Sharon had consumed but, judging by her bubbly demeanour, he knew they would be leaving her Volvo overnight. At least they had nothing on tomorrow morning, he thought, glancing out at the fat flakes of snow falling outside the living room window. They would sleep late; maybe have a little early-morning romp to work off the hangover and put some steam on their frost-rimmed bedroom window, before the short ride over from New Edinburgh in his Honda. On the way back, they might stop off at that new brunch place Sharon had been talking about. It was a recipe for the perfect, lazy Saturday morning and as he stood there, he could almost taste the eggs Benedict.
A distant crash of glassware brought Charlie out of his reverie and, as he loosened his tie another inch, he tried to focus on the nearby conversation. The distinguished-looking man at its center was an architect, describing the various challenges he had faced in updating the structure of the heritage house in which they all now stood. Charlie was about to head off in search of his wife when he heard the man mention the secret passageways that had been uncovered when they started the refurbishment. Sensing the wave of skepticism among the huddled group, the architect gave an enthusiastic wave.
“I’ll show you, if you don’t believe me.”
He set off with his audience, an intrigued Charlie included, trailing behind him and led them out into the foyer and down the main hallway, following the curve of the staircase toward the rear of the house. He paused at a little alcove just to the right of the entrance to the kitchen, as his followers assembled in a pack around him and he placed his hand on a segment of wall paneling at the back of the alcove. With a theatrical flourish, he pressed on the wall and pulled his hand free to allow a door-sized segment of paneling to pop open as he turned to his audience.“Through here.”
The architect paused at the widened eyes of the gathered crowd, and sensed the vacuum created by their collective intake of breath – puzzling since he had yet to reveal the door to the passageway that lay at the rear of the closet. He turned to follow the stares and saw two half-naked figures, frozen in horror and entwined at the waist, standing side-on in the little closet. Lars’s big paws were buried in the flesh of the woman’s buttocks, his pants around his ankles. Her blouse and skirt had converged in a rumpled tangle around her midsection, and most of one breast, including a partially erect nipple, protruded over the top of a lacy bra. The minimalist, lace-trimmed triangle forming the other half of the set was dangling from her left foot, and if Charlie had any trouble recognizing her – there was an unfamiliar glow in her cheek - there was no mistaking the lingerie he had bought for her on their brief trip to Manhattan just a few weeks before.
Spotting her husband standing at the back of the gawking crowd, Sharon LeClair-Hillier’s guilty expression faded and her eyes narrowed as she addressed him in the tone she reserved for those rare occasions when he left the toilet seat up, or forgot to put out the garbage.
“Will you close the goddamned door!?”