Charlie Hillier followed the broad earthen path down its gentle slope, marvelling at the oasis of calm in the heart of a city of twelve million souls. The bustle of people, trains, and traffic that he had left behind just minutes before seemed to belong to another world as he glanced up to the canopy of old-growth trees sheltering the path from the midmorning sun. Whether heightened by the lingering effects of jet lag or not, an almost spiritual sensation gripped him as he followed the path onto a wooden footbridge over a babbling stream.
A few minutes later he was approaching a massive archway that led to the Meiji Shrine beyond, a Shinto temple built in honour of the beloved emperor. Passing through the first gate, he noticed a procession of some kind making its way from the main temple beyond. As he got closer, Charlie realized that it was a wedding party, its participants clad in traditional dress as they made their way to one of the side buildings. He paused with the rest of the crowd gathered in respectful silence to watch as the procession crossed the main courtyard. The bride and groom went first, sheltered from the sunshine that flooded the open space by an ornate umbrella and looking resplendent in their traditional wedding attire. While neither smiled overtly as they made their way past, Charlie envied the serene joy evident in their faces. The whole scene unfolded in orderly peace, and the reverent crowd waited until the wedding party had reached the other side of the courtyard before anyone dared to move or utter so much as a whisper. This was Japan, after all.
Continuing on toward the main temple, Charlie passed stalls selling little strips of paper and good luck charms to place on racks outside the temple. Reaching them, he paused to look at some of the handwritten scrawls in a multitude of languages, recognizing the French word for peace and a number of equally altruistic notions in English, as well as wishes for happiness and love. Not particularly superstitious, he nonetheless briefly considered making a wish before moving on to the temple instead, where some sort of official ceremony was going on inside. He watched it for a while, then toured the rest of the complex of buildings before checking his watch and slowly making his way back toward the main arch, or torii, and the path beyond.
Twenty minutes later, he had left the tranquility of the shrine to rejoin the throngs outside Meiji-jingumae Station. Spotting a familiar coffee sign, he stopped in for a cappuccino and took a seat by the window. Sipping the delicious coffee, he looked out the window at the passing crowds and resisted the temptation to rub his eyes. He had been in Tokyo for almost a week — in many ways it seemed much longer — but he was still waking up at five in the morning, his body clock not yet adjusted to the thirteen-hour time difference from Ottawa. Tomorrow would be better, he told himself. He was to start work at the Canadian embassy, and he was intent on getting himself into a routine as soon as possible. The move into his staff quarters would help with that, he was sure. The hotel where they had placed him temporarily was very nice, and not far from the embassy, but after six days of wandering its cavernous hallways at all hours of the day and night, he was finding himself a bit adrift in its enormity and keen to feather a nest of his own in the city he would call home for the next three to four years.
Charlie was just as keen to start work again, though he was a bit nervous about his looming first day, and wondered how his integration would go, it being months after the usual posting season. But he had already briefly met the ambassador the day after he had flown in, and he had felt somewhat reassured. Charlie’s old friend and mentor, Winston Gardiner, had nothing but good things to say about Philip Westwood, not that Charlie could afford to be picky. A few weeks ago, he had been weighing his options for the future in case the Department decided to find a way to let him go. At the very least, his future had seemed bleak, as was any hope of his being posted abroad again, ever. He couldn’t really blame his masters for wanting him gone, or at least safely tucked away in an Ottawa cubicle preparing reports that no one would ever read — not after the mess he had left behind in Moscow. And while he wished things had turned out differently in many ways, he had no regrets whatsoever about getting to the bottom of Steve Collins’s death. Charlie had been whisked out of Moscow in the middle of the night and, after a short debriefing in London, sent back to Ottawa to await further instructions. Days had turned to weeks, then months before he had been assigned to a desk at headquarters — a position that was an obviously temporary measure while they figured out what to do with him.
Then something unexpected happened. It began with a call from Steve Collins’s sister, Sophie Durant, to let him know about an upcoming story in the Globe and Mail on her brother’s death in Moscow. Reading the article, it was clear Durant had embellished the best parts of Charlie’s involvement in the case, and either completely omitted or given a favourable account of the worst. The next call he got was from communications, who wanted to remind him not to speak directly to the media about the Moscow affair, or anything else to do with his work. He didn’t, but the article had taken on a life of its own, and its flattering portrayal, not only of Charlie himself but of the whole department, seemed particularly welcome in the wake of a series of front page stories on consular cases that had ended badly in recent months.
In fact, Charlie had suddenly become something of a poster boy. Before the reporter making inquiries around Foreign Affairs discovered that the shining star of consular services had been relegated to toiling at entry-level work in the bowels of the Lester B. Pearson Building, Charlie’s months-old and dormant request for a posting had been hastily dusted off and revived. Before long, he found himself on a plane — not to one of the three locations he had put in his posting request, but to Tokyo. The fact that it was about as far as they could possibly send him wasn’t lost on Charlie, nor that it was a big enough mission that he could be absorbed without so much as a ripple on the surface. Whatever the reasons, he was grateful for another chance, and eager to show his employer that Charlie Hillier was capable of completing a full posting without causing an international incident. He had every intention of doing just that. Besides, didn’t they say the third time’s the charm?