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An Illicit Incident at the Imperial

by Mike Florian

Dr. Ernest Pendergrass was a great scientist and administrator. As the Director of the Biological Institute, he had at least two hundred other scientists working under him and another fifty support staff. His PhD dissertation was on the subject of whale ambergris, which earned him a high-salaried position at a New York perfume company, well before he decided to leave private industry for more secure work with the government.

When the Maritime Pacific Commission met in Tokyo, as it did annually on a rotational basis among Japan, Seattle and Vancouver, Earnest was naturally the head of the science group working for three weeks in the host country prior to the arrival of the Commissioners. It was during this three-week period of intense exchanges and negotiations that Ernest, at sixty-two years of age, fell in love with Hiroku Tanaka.

When Ernest’s four Commissioners finally did arrive and checked in at the Imperial Hotel, they expected a summary of the findings and recommendations going forward. The opening plenary was scheduled for the following morning, and a sense of urgency ensued.

That evening, all twelve Commissioners, four from each country, along with their respective chief science advisors, including Ernest, were expected to convene at the usual opening night of cocktails and canapés. Ernest did not attend. He was holed up in room 2219 with Hiroku. So far, he had not come out of his room for twenty days. He certainly was not going to emerge to attend a cocktail hour, Commission and Commissioners be damned.

Hiroku had been born in Rumoi, Hokkaido, a small town located on the eastern side of the large island. Historically Rumoi was renowned in Japan for its herring fishery. Kazunoko is a traditional staple eaten for centuries by the Japanese during the New Year’s celebration.

Over the years hundreds of thousands of tonnes of herring would swim into the shores off Rumoi and spawn in the acres of eel grass which those fish seemed to favour. The females would arrive first and lay their sticky eggs on the grass. The males would follow and fertilize the eggs hours after the spawn. The waters of the seashore would turn milky white.

Rumoi’s fishermen netted the females as they came in to spawn and harvest the eggs, the prized kazunoko. The fishing lasted for weeks and Hiroku’s family supplied nets and ropes to this huge industry. They were well-to-do, and Hiroku received a fine education at the prestigious Hokkaido University in Sapporo.

When, almost overnight, the herring disappeared, Hiroku, who spoke English rather well, made her way to Tokyo. In the city she easily found work with Consecutive Translation Inc. CTI, as it was known, contracted their translation services with the Maritime Pacific Commission. Hiroku was twenty-four years old when she met the aging scientist.

What Ernest and Hiroku did for twenty days until the Commissioners arrived was well speculated by the young scientists but never known. Each night the elderly gentleman would open the door of the room, look left and right, and scurry down the hallway towards the bank of elevators. He hated the digital bell sound signaling their arrival.

What he disliked even more were the young, uniformed women bowing to him every time he stepped out onto the lobby floor. “Good evening, Dr. Pendergrass,” they would say as they bowed from the waist. God knows what they talked about as he turned to the left and out into the street known colloquially as Smoke Alley. Hiroku loved the local chicken yakitori, and Ernest made certain that his friend upstairs in 2219 had a fresh supply each evening at eleven.

It was during one of these last chicken hunts that he came across his long-time assistant, Dr. Ewan Mackie. “Ernest,” yelled Dr. Mackie as he saw his mentor fumbling through pockets looking for money to pay for the yakitori.

Trains were whizzing by overhead, and Ernest didn’t hear a thing. His mind was on the beauty of Hiroku and his bag of chicken pieces. Decades of science and research were trumped by brain-stem desires. “Ernest,” Dr. Mackie shouted again, the tunnel quieting for a few minutes as the electric trains passed overhead.

The tunnel was lit up with singular light bulbs strung across and above the dozen yakitori stands. Blue smoke filled the area and Smoke Alley served locals and visitors alike. The stands were open well into the morning, but eleven o’clock was the hour that Hiroku seemed to favour, and so eleven o’clock was the hour of Ernest’s mission. He turned when he heard his name and saw the younger scientist walking towards him.

With class and respect, Dr. Mackie did not comment on his boss’s unkempt appearance. The elder scientist sported three days of whiskers. His shirttail hung behind him like the devil’s tail and the circles under his eyes reflected a conflict of emotions.

Ernest took a few seconds to focus on the moment. Ewan grabbed Ernest by the shoulders to emphasize the situation. “Dr. Pendergrass,” he said. “Ernest, the American side came to us with photos from their high-altitude reconnaissance plane they were using for the first time. They showed us photos of the Japanese mother ships indeed harvesting our salmon when over the years, they denied, denied, denied. Ernest we need you upstairs. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for us. We even saw pictures of decks awash with halibut. They’ve been breaking the treaty for...”

“What time is it?” asked Ernest, his fingers twisting the now spotted and greasy white bag of yakitori chicken.

“Eleven,” answered Ewen. “Commissioner Arusoo asked for you to...” He watched Ernest turn and quickly enter the side entrance of the hotel, shirttail flying.

Dr. Pendergrass had a slight feeling of remorse and an ever so tiny sense of burgeoning guilt as he hurried through the lobby towards the bank of elevators. “Dr. Pendergrass, Dr. Pendergrass,” came the cry from the well-heeled concierge trying to catch up to the scientist. “Please be kind enough to pass on to Tanaka-san that her call was not able to go through. Our server malfunctioned. It is now working, and we apologize for the inconvenience.”

Earnest looked at him confused and uttered a “domo,” worried that the yakitori chicken was getting cold and congealing.

Grey-haired Dr. Pendergrass entered the suite and saw Hiroku sitting on the side of the bed. She wore the thin, beautiful, standard issue, cotton kimono present in every room. Although modest as a rule, Hiroku sat comfortably, well aware Ernest had eyes and ears only for her. She knew he wasn’t listening to the chimes of his laptop signalling incoming emails.

“Here, my love,” he said, emptying the bag and offering the chicken pieces on a white plate. Hiroku picked up the chicken and ate, her hands and lips shiny with grease.

Earnest ran to the bathroom, let the water run warm and wetted a small hand towel for her. He loved watching her eat these late-night snacks.

In the morning, the fall weather was clear, cool and crisp. Hiroku Tanaka exited the subway station and walked, pulling her bag alongside. She had an easy, confident gait. At the moment when Tanaka-san entered the huge edifice known as the Bureau of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Ernest Pendergrass, back at the Imperial Hotel, woke to the sound of water running in the shower. The bathroom door was ajar, and he called out to Hiroku. There was no answer. The shower ran cold.

Copyright © 2014 by Mike Florian

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