“Look, you’ll have to keep it between the two of us,” Jihoon shoves his hands in the pocket of his hoodie jacket. Out of uniform, he’s looks surprisingly harmless. Like a high school student you want to buy milkshakes for, rather than a detective sargeant that could break (has broken) kneecaps.
“You still haven’t told me where we’re going,” Seungcheol pouts, but Jihoon wasn’t looking. He pokes at the skin on his neck instead.
Jihoon swats his hand, “You wouldn’t have came if I told you.”
“So when are you going to tell me?”
“When we arrive.”
“What if I just walk away then?”
Jihoon throws him a look, “I know you, you’re a sunken cost kind of guy.”
“It’s human nature and you’re manipulating me,” Seungcheol looks around the neighbourhood. Yongsan-dong was the hillier part of Seoul, made half of stairs and half of streets. Naksan Tower in the distance, Itaewon somewhere to the east. There’s a CU on the corner and Seungcheol could hear the chime as the doors opened, half sound and half imagination. “If we’re staking out a suspect let me get food first.”
“I wouldn’t ask you do work off-the-clock.”
“I thought this is case-related?”
“Stop nagging hyung,” Jihoon stops in front of a block of apartments, looks around for a number, nods, then checks the letterboxes, “We’re seeing a clairvoyant.”
“Wait, what?” Seungcheol bends down to look at Jihoon’s face, “You’re serious?”
Jihoon enters a number and the intercom rings, shrill and sharp.
“You don’t even let Hansol read your horoscope now —“
“Hello?” A man’s voice answered. Even through the crackle, it sounds light and airy.
“Jeonghan-hyung, it’s Jihoon.”
“Come right up!”
The door buzzes and as Jihoon pushes it open, he looks back.
“He’s the real deal. Wait and see.”
“Don’t be too surprised at anything he does,” Jihoon says in the lift, “He cares about that.” He looked a bit shy, a rare expression for him.
Seungcheol’s curiosity expands even further. He is imagining a dusty pink-hued room. Persian rugs, some candles, maybe a dreamcatcher in the corner. Maybe they’ll sit on some cushions, the clairvoyant will take their palms, roll his eyes back and tell them Minho-ssi was killed in the billiards room with the revolver.
The second they got out of the lift, an apartment door opens. The face of a young man pops out, bright and clean. He’s wearing a cream sweater and canvas shorts, pale legs backlit by sun.
He runs forward and pulls Seungcheol into a tight hug as if they were old friends who haven’t seen each other in ages.
“Ah!” He pulls back abruptly, but still close enough Seungcheol could see how lovely he was up close, the kind of face that could fill up a magazine page, “I forgot we don’t know each other yet.”
Seungcheol raises both eyebrows at Jihoon whose expression is schooled into a I-told-you-so face. Jihoon turns to smile at Jeonghan, then suddenly Seungcheol’s side was pinched. He bites back a yelp.
He bows, “Nice to meet you, Jeonghan-ssi.”
“We’re the same age, it’s fine,” Jeonghan waves his hand as if physically sweeping aside the formalities. His eyes take on a twinkle, “Cheollie, do you feel like soju today?”
Seungcheol’s jaw falls open but Jihoon coughed, “Business first.”
“Of course,” Jeonghan smiled, “Please come in.”
Jeonghan’s place was nothing like what Seungcheol had imagined. A very standard 1LDK Korean apartment, much like the one he has himself. A low lamp over a coffee table already prepared with snacks and a bottle of coke zero. No candles, but there is a humidifier puffing in the corner and books everywhere. Novels and magazines and notebooks and post-its. there’s even one on the front door that Seungcheol reads as he takes his his shoes off.
Friday: buy cherries
Strange, Seungcheol loves to eat cherries, but they’re not in season right now.
“I prepared your favourite drink,” Jeonghan turns to him, smile joyous and blinding, “But I can’t remember if you preferred it with ice.”
“No ice is fine, thank you,” Seungcheol bows again, even more confused.
“Please, come take a seat,” Jeonghan sits down on the rug, folding his feet beneath him. He laughs as Jihoon walks across to the other side, “Don’t be shy Jihoonie. Come here.”
“Ah hyung,” Jihoon sighs and then he’s sliding into the space where Jeonghan’s patting, head immediately falling onto Jeonghan’s shoulder. Now he looks like a primary schooler. Seungcheol stands there, unsure of his place. It feels more like a home visit than a trip to get their futures told. Awkwardly he sits across from them, feeling like a son-in-law meeting the parents.
“You have a list of questions right?”
Jihoon takes out his phone, “Here.”
Jeonghan glanced at the list then rummages through a pile next to the coffee table. He rips out a sheet from a notebook and hands it to Jihoon, “I remember them well. This should do it.”
Jihoon passes the paper to Seungcheol, “Have a look.”
Seungcheol reads the notes, growing more astonished with each sentence. Not only has Jeonghan written the facts of the case that were definitely withheld from the press release, there were details about the results of the forensics investigation, an investigation that was still ongoing. There’s a list of suspects, with one name highlighted and a neat bullet-point of his locations on the day the murder took place.
“How is it?” Jihoon interrupted his thoughts.
“I — I would need to go back to the office and verify but,” Seungcheol reached across the table for Jihoon’s phone, cross-checking the paper with the list, “He answered everything you asked.”
Jihoon nods, “Nice.”
“You… really can tell the future,” Seungcheol peers at Jeonghan. On the surface he looks like any other man their age, albeit younger with the way he acted and dressed. There was nothing mythical or magical about him, no ethereal glow or rhyming rituals. He told them the future in the carefree way students passed notes.
Jihoon shoots him a look.
Jeonghan beams, “Yep. But you should still ask the questions so that we can have a conversation.” He placed his hand on Jihoon’s neck, tickling the space under his chin, “It’s better to follow the custom.”
“Sure…” Seungcheol said, increasingly confused.
Over the course of the afternoon, Jihoon seems to sink further and further into Jeonghan’s embrace, letting his hair be ruffled and his nape scritched. His eyes were closed when Seungcheol finally finishes talking.
“That’s everything,” Seungcheol lets out an exhale, his thoughts scrambled and on the verge of hysteria.
“Ah, one more thing,” Jeonghan scrunches his nose, as if recalling a vague memory, “You’ll have to come back and tell me if I was right.”
“I always do hyung,” Jihoon yawns and sits up, stretching his arms.
Seungcheol moves to rise as well, “Thank you for your time Jeongh--”
"Watch your head!"
But it's too late, Seungcheol bangs his head on the lamp, metal against skull. Pain shoots through the bone. He hisses.
"I'm so sorry I should have reminded you earlier," Jeonghan is there by his side, his hand reaching over to caress Seungcheol's skull. The touch is incredibly tender and there's a sentimental look in his eyes that makes Seungcheol uncomfortable with its intense intimacy.
"Have we met before?" Seungcheol asks.
Jeonghan jerks his hand back as if remembering himself. He pauses for a second. "We will."
Once the elevator doors shut, Seungcheol turns to Jihoon, “So you’re telling me your stellar case record is due to this clairvoyant?”
Jihoon winces, "If you have to put it like that. We still have to do the leg work though. And I don't ask him about every case hyung."
Jihoon squints at him, “Well, for one. we were best friends in high school. And two, He doesn’t do it for free, and I love justice but not that much. ”
Seungcheol hums, “I’ve never seen you like that, so soft and buttery.”
Jihoon kicks him on the back of the knee. Seungcheol winces to stop himself from kneeling over.
"He seems to like you, maybe you should go next time."
Jihoon is right. It's one thing to know who the murderer is, but suspects don't walk into a police car just like that. They still have to gather enough evidence to get the warrant, then after the arrest, they have to interview witnesses, archive the footage and wait for forensics. And after that they still have to link and cross-reference, write up the report, and forward it to prosecution.
And if Seungcheol is honest, it takes the fun out of it, to know the answers before the question has even been asked. Call him a martyr, but he likes doing the grunt work, the late hours and the long drives chasing a scent just for the sweet sweet victory when all the threads come together.
So he doesn't think of Jeonghan again for a while, and if he does, its only to ponder at the immense tenderness in the way Jeonghan looked at him.
But a year later, a chaebol's daughter is kidnapped and the ransom demand came with a video that makes Seungcheol want to punch a wall. The entire district office is mobilising and Seungcheol is logging out of his computer when his phone rings.
"She's in Ipae-dong,” the voice says as soon as he picks up, "There's an abandoned Italian restaurant and they're in the walk in freezer."
Seungcheol scrabbles for a pen, "Sir, who am I speaking to?"
"It's Jeonghan," there's the sound of laughter, soft and airy and yes, Seungcheol remembers now, "But you're going to watch the CCTV footage from the north exit of Yangjeong station and ask the kimbap ahjumma if she had seen a black Mercedes. You have time to verify what I'm saying but please get there before 10pm."
"How do you know this?"
"I'm a clairvoyant remember?" Jeonghan giggles, "Oh, and don't forget to come by and let me know if I'm right."
He hangs up, and Seungcheol is left staring at his phone, one more question still on his tongue.
"How did you get my number?" Seungcheol asks. This time he comes with gifts, a formal fruit basket, and just in case Jeonghan had a contrary personality, convenience store snacks and banana milk.
"You gave it to me." Jeonghan says.
"Now I suppose," Jeonghan takes out his phone.
Seungcheol hesitates, "But you know my number already."
"Because you gave it to me some time in the future,” Jeonghan waggles his phone in the space between them. Seungcheol warily takes it, inputting his contact details under Inspector Choi.
“This is weird, so you just, know what’s going to happen?” Seungcheol asks.
Jeonghan loops his hand through the crock in Seungcheol’s arm, guiding him inside, “Something like that.”
There it is again, the casual intimacy that does his head in. Seungcheol unthreads his arm but Jeonghan just smiles, like he expected it.
“Was I right?” Jeonghan sits down at the coffee table. There’s a bottle of coke zero again, and the lamp has been moved to the other side.
“Yeah, about everything,” Seungcheol cocks his head.
“Remind me what I said,” Jeonghan says “It’s validating.”
“You told me to look at the CCTV footage from Yangjeong station, specifically the one on the north exit. You’re insane. They picked her up around Olympic-ro but it was in a blindspot. But at Yangjeong, the camera facing the road caught her face when they rolled down the window to throw out a cigarette. It was like, a 5 second shot around 4pm.” Seungcheol watches Jeonghan’s face, “The ajhumma selling kimbap remembers the car because she yelled at them for littering.”
“What was the car?”
“A black sedan.” Seungcheol huffs, “You were right. And she told us they drove north-east. From there we had a numberplate so they were easy to track. You said they were in an abandoned Italian restaurant, in the walk in freezer.”
“They were. It was so soundproof they didn’t hear us coming until we were charging in.”
“Was that everything I said?” Jeonghan sounds smug, like he already knows what Seungcheol was going to say next.
“Yeah everything, and you were right about every point,” Seungcheol shakes his head, “God, imagine if you worked for the police.”
Jeonghan snorted, “I could never. I don’t have the work ethic for it.”
The sky is dark when Seungcheol gets up to go. Jeonghan walks him to the door and their fingers touch when Jeonghan hands him his coat. Seungcheol tries not to blush but he can feel his ears heating up before his cheeks does.
“Come again,” Jeonghan says.
“I’m starting to think you like me,” Seungcheol deflects.
“More than you think,” Jeonghan’s eyes seem to twinkle with secrets, “And by the way, I prefer strawberry milk.”
“Jeonghan’s really amazing,” Seungcheol says to Jihoon. It’s getting to the end of the year and there’s rumours of some staff-reshuffling and maybe some promotions. They decided to go to their favourite ramen shop for good luck. In the past, there was a correlation between the thickness of the soup and incoming payrises. Today the soup is so thick with collagen it shimmers in the dim lighting. Seungcheol holds his chopsticks like incense and pretends to pray.
“Talking to him is a little like praying to God,” Jihoon comments, already shoving noodles into his mouth, “Except you know your prayers will be answered."
"Isn't he more like an oracle?"
Jihoon laughs, "Well he's more clear than any oracle I've read about.”
“How does he do it? There’s no crystal ball or smoky mirrors.”
“Who knows,” Jihoon shrugs, “Demonic possession?”
“Hyung, good job on the Jung kidnapping,” Hansol places a coffee down on his desk. Seungcheol leaps for it gratefully, burning his tongue on the first sip.
"It's just luck," Seungcheol hisses, blowing on the surface, "Could've been anyone who was assigned that footage." Hansol believes in aliens, but mentioning a clairvoyant was stretching it.
“I guess that’s how it is.”
“Is there going to be a follow-up?” The thought had teased Seungcheol, there was something that didn’t add up. He was moved onto a drug-trafficking case the day after, and the trial preparation was re-assigned to academy grads.
“That’s what I want to talk about,” Hansol scratches his neck, “I’m still a rookie so I want to run it by you first.”
“Go ahead,” Seungcheol drags a chair from his absent neighbour, “Any idea is good.”
“I was reading the case file and on the surface it looks simple. Amateur kidnappers, gets caught within hours,” Hansol pauses, “But the details hyung, it was so well organised. The car was a BMW, same as the one Jung was usually chauffeured in. They even had the numberplate duplicated. The footage was uploaded through layers of VPN and untraceable. Without your luck, I’m not even sure if we could have caught them.”
Hansol takes a breath, “But I had a look at the education and background of the kidnappers. None of them even graduated middle school. In and out of debt, on the welfare system, civil misdemeanours. They don’t fit the psychological profile.”
“So there’s someone behind them,” Seungcheol snaps his fingers. This makes sense, “the jopok?”
“I think so. The Moraeshi Gae has land right issues with Jung Industries. And I know a few years earlier an uncle was linked with the Hyupgaek-tang in Gimpo.”
“Excellent research. What are you thinking?”
“The ransom might be part of a history of dealings, not just a once-off cash grab.”
Seungcheol raises his eyebrows, “Jopok connections is pretty common in petty crime but noticing takes a few years of experience. You have a keen nose kid.”
Hansol grins, “Thanks. What happens now?”
“Jihoon’s still on the case, let him know and he’ll pass it onto Anti-Cartel. If it’s jopok then it’s out of our hands.” Seungcheol pats him on the back, “Keep up the good work.”
“Do you work?” Seungcheol looks around Jeonghan’s space, the room is nicer from last time, More upscale furniture, rug softer, there’s even a painting by the TV, splashes of paint on rough lines. Once again, Jeonghan had greeted him with a tight hug and Seungcheol found himself pleased at the easy familiarity. After a day of sterile work, the warm touch calmed him.
“Mhm,” Jeonghan grabs an aluminium card case and flicks out a business card. It’s solid stock with an embossed flower. Classic and expensive.
Magnolia (Life Consultant) Followed by a phone number. That was all. No address or name.
“I need to make rent somehow. And people love to hear about themselves. I’m never wrong.”
“What do you even tell them?
“Want to see?” Jeonghan walks to the lounge room. This time there’s a bowl of cherries, already washed. A smaller bowl next to it for the pits, and even a tissue box for stained fingers. Seungcheol tries not to think too much about it.
Jeonghan pulls out a drawer from under the coffee table and takes out a deck of cards, “You’re going to make fun of me.”
“Promise I won’t,” Seungcheol sits down.
Jeonghan giggles, “Oh you will. I see it in your future.” He coughs, and then his voice changes, lower, breathier, “I tell the future on one condition. You have to come back and let me know if I’m right.”
Seungcheol cocks a smile.
“Don’t you know whether or not people keep promises?”
“Say it, it helps with the mood.”
Seungcheol dramatically slaps a hand over his heart, “I promise to come back and let you know if you’re right.”
Jeonghan snorts, then he begins.
Relaxing, Seungcheol sits back and watches Jeonghan’s fingers as he shuffles the deck, cards light between his hands. He cuts it in half, flips one hand, and interweaves the two piles seamlessly. Once complete, he brings them up to his lips and places a light kiss on top. He places them down on the table and with a flourish, sweeps the deck open in an arc.
“Hold a question in your mind,” Jeonghan’s voice is like air, so soft Seungcheol leans in to hear him. “Choose three cards, but don’t flip them over. Follow your heart.”
Internally, Seungcheol scoffs. Is this guy for real, he thinks, and to be annoying, taps three consecutive cards at the end.
One corner of Jeonghan’s lip twitches, but he remains unflappable, “How about a primer then, before we check the cards.”
“You’re going to switch the cards around when I’m not looking.”
“My clients aren’t normally this demanding.” Jeonghan rolls his eyes and but sits up to place his hands beneath himself, “Better?”
“Choi Seungcheol, 29 years old. Occupation. Detective for Seoul Metropolitan,” Jeonghan’s gaze seem to pierce him, straight through his skin, “You did Taekwondo for 14 years and have a dog named Kkuma.”
Seungcheol curls his lip.
“How about this,” even while sitting on his hands, Jeonghan juts a shoulder up, posture coy, “Your favourite food is kimchi jiggae and garlic that’s been grilling for too long. You’re worried that Jihoon has a grudge against you for making him wash your coffee cup.”
At this, Seungcheol’s eyes widen.
Jeonghan continues, “You didn’t like your eyelashes so you used to cut them with scissors. You slept in your parents’ bed until middle school. You used your dad’s arm as a pillow. You miss Daegu.”
At Seungcheol’s speechlessness, Jeonghan takes his hand out and claps them twice, “Don’t need to confirm, I know I’m right. Now let’s look at these cards.”
He places an index finger on the first one and looks up at Seungcheol, holding his gaze. “The Emperor. Upright.” He flips the card.
They look down at the same time. The Emperor stares back.
“What does it mean?” Seungcheol asks.
“I normally bullshit about willpower and promotion. If I see a kid in the future this is where I drop it,” Jeonghan shrugs, “I’m still working on my mystic persona.”
“I can’t believe people pay you for this.”
“Hey I’m accurate at least. The World. Reversed.”
Jeonghan flips the card over. Exactly as he said.
“And the last one?”
Jeonghan thumb slips underneath, and then he hesitates. He’s quiet, as if all the breath has been knocked out of him, and his eyebrows knit together in frustration.
“I don’t know this one.” For the first time since Seungcheol has met him, Jeonghan sounds surprised.
“Flip it over.”
Jeonghan bites his lip, but he doesn’t answer.
Seungcheol reaches for it, Jeonghan slaps his hand away, forceful enough that the sound rings throughout the room.
“Don’t!” Jeonghan yells, and then he reels back at the volume of his own voice. “I’m sorry. I mean. Don’t flip it over. I never will. That’s why I can’t see it in the future. You can’t change it like that.”
“Isn’t one of the cards Death?”
“Death doesn’t actually mean death,” Jeonghan shakes his head, voice becoming even softer “There’s worse cards in there.”
Like what, Seungcheol wants to ask. But he’s watching Jeonghan even more closely now. The way he re-gathers the deck and makes a show of shuffling but is actually, carefully, keeping the same card on the top, the one left unrevealed. How Jeonghan places the deck down by his elbow, on his side of the table before he reaches for his cup, clasping it between both hands.
The delicate way he moves is like a temple priestess, following invisible ceremonies only he himself knows.
“So are you going to tell my future?” Seungcheol asks.
“I never said I was going to,” Jeonghan’s lips part. He closes them again and looks down, “Anyway, I have a policy where I don’t tell the future for people I know.”
“I know the future can not be changed but… I wonder if people act differently, if they know what will happen,” Jeonghan’s fingers open around his cup, and then he clasps them shut again, “If I tell you that you will have japchae for dinner. Do you eat it because you wanted to? Or because I told you that you will eat it? What if you were also considering kimbap?”
Jeonghan closes his eyes, “I have a fear of forcing people into a path. Taking away their choices, their agency. If you know your future, how would you face it?”
“Isn’t that what you do?”
“It’s different for me,” Jeonghan doesn’t explain any further.
Seungcheol reaches for his own glass and finishes the last of the coke, “Could I trouble you for water?”
“No need to be so polite Cheollie,” Jeonghan smiles, “Of course.” He takes Seungcheol’s empty glass and goes to the kitchen.
Once he’s out of sight, Seungcheol reaches across the table and flips over the card on the top of the tarot deck.
The Hanged Man.
Seungcheol hears the tap running. He slides it into the middle of the deck and checks the next card on top
The water shuts off. Quickly, Seungcheol flips it over and places it back on the deck. He wonders if Jeonghan will look at it later, once he leaves.
When Jeonghan comes back, Seungcheol is scrolling on his phone. He puts it down to accept the water with both hands, making sure to touch Jeonghan and revel in the way he blushes.
On the metro home, Seungcheol searches up the meaning.
The Hanged Man
Depicts a man hanging by his foot from the living world tree. The tree is rooted in the underworld but also supports the heavens. Could refer to the Christian figure of Judas Iscariot. Traitors will be punished.
Martyrdom. Prophecy. Life in suspension.
Indecision. Futility. Surrender to circumstance.
Seungcheol was so focused on Jeonghan’s shuffling, he can not for the life of him, remember how the deck was placed down.
It becomes a habit, Seungcheol coming to visit Jeonghan after work. Staying for dinner, chatting about the cases he’s on. It’s fun to throw ideas, and exhilarating when Jeonghan confirms his suspicions. Yes, the cocaine in Gangnam is imported from Russia, but the meth is from North Korea or the CFO from Jung Industries moving his assets before he runs for mayor. Seungcheol makes a note to pass it on to Hansol, just a little tip, or a nudge in the right direction. Honestly, the kid was so bloody good at investigative work. When he’s done with rotations, Seungcheol’s going to request him to be for his team.
Seungcheol likes the way Jeonghan calls him Cheollie, a name no one has used ever since he came to Seoul. Jeonghan says it so joyously and kindly that Seungcheol finds himself yearning for it, already hearing his voice the second he sees Jeonghan’s apartment.
It feels like home, when Jeonghan opens the door and Seungcheol would already smell the kimchi jiggae or the pork cutlet. Always take-away, because Jeonghan can’t cook. And it would always be warm because Jeonghan knew exactly which day and when he would arrive.
He feels a little silly, when he opens the fridge to put in strawberry milk and already finds the bottom shelf crammed with green soju bottles. Of course, Jeonghan would know he liked the original flavour, and how much he could drink. It makes him realise how little he knows of Jeonghan, his preferred alcohol, his favourite foods, the nicknames he likes.
But that’s okay. With time Seungcheol can learn, catch up until they match in familiarity. There’s a satisfaction in this too, similar to an investigation. To watch Jeonghan and become accustomed to how he laughs, how his voice is always light and teasing. When he’s giddy he likes to raise one shoulder and bury his chin in his chest.
When he lies, Jeonghan is always holding onto something.
“You don’t talk about your childhood,” Seungcheol comments.
“It’s not exciting,” Dinner is over but Jeonghan is still clutching his fork, waving it as he talks. Today he’s sitting next to Seungcheol, which makes the utensil come dangerously close to his face. “Are you psychoanalysing me?”
“Good or bad, people normally mention it,” Seungcheol turns to face him, “But you don’t mention it at all.”
Jeonghan considers him from the corner of his eye, head barely tilted in his direction. Seungcheol wonders what he’s thinking about, if he knows what will happen next. Silence hangs between them, and Seungcheol lets it. He has the patience to wait for this.
“Whatever I say next, you can’t tell anyone. It has to stay off the record,” Jeonghan is serious.
“Okay,” Jeonghan takes a deep breath, “I don’t remember my childhood at all. I actually can’t remember anything that has ever happened to me.”
“What? Why?” Seungcheol blinks, “Is this related to your clairvoyance?”
Jeonghan nods, “I don’t see the future. I remember it.”
Seungcheol cocks his head, thinks about it, comes up empty, “I don’t quite get it?”
“My memory works differently to anyone else. I’ve never explained it before…” Jeonghan looks around at the floor and grabs a notebook, “Imagine if this is a collection of your memories. As you live, you fill it in from the front. One new day, one new page. You remember your past because it’s in here, but the future is blank and unknown.”
Jeonghan flips the notebook over, “I’m the opposite. I start with a full notebook. I know everything that will ever happen to me. But,” Jeonghan rips out a page, “I can’t remember the past. As soon as I live it, I forget.” He rips out another page, “At the end of my life, this book will be empty.”
“So your predictions… they’re actually your memories”
“That’s why you ask your customers to come back and confirm if you’re right,” Seungcheol points at him, “You’re just repeating what they tell you!”
“Yep, got me~,” Jeonghan clicks his tongue, “If they don’t come back I refuse to tell them. I always win.”
“Why aren’t you a millionaire?”
“You could just, win the lottery.”
Jeonghan laughs, “People do ask for that, but my memory works the same way yours does. Could you list the lottery numbers from last night?”
Seungcheol shakes his head.
“That’s the same for me. Do you remember what you ate for lunch yesterday?”
Seungcheol looks into the distance. He remembers the meeting about a drug bust in the morning, and then beers in the afternoon with Jihoon because they were celebrating. But lunch… he had on his desk. He had just grabbed something from the cafeteria… He remembers grabbing a spoon, it was something red… his vision clarifies. He snaps his fingers, “Kimchi fried rice!”
Jeonghan giggles, “It took you a while though. It’s the same for me. I can’t really remember what I will eat tomorrow. I could, if I really thought about it, but why would I? The closer it is to the present, the clearer it is.” He pauses, “But there’s some things you remember forever.”
Jeonghan opens his mouth. A sentence almost comes out, the faintest breath of air that is drawn back. “In three years, I will go to Japan and in Osaka I will order the biggest okonomiyaki on the menu,” Jeonghan closes his eyes, “It’s the most delicious thing I will eat in my life. I think about it like, all the time.”
“There’s something you’re not telling me,” Seungcheol peers at Jeonghan’s face. He thinks about what Jeonghan was like, when they first met. He thinks about what Jeonghan just told him, and the puzzle pieces are fitting into place.
“I know the future,” Jeonghan scoffs, “Of course there’s something I haven’t told you.”
“Let me guess,” Seungcheol leans forward, “In the future, I fall in love with you.”
“Very good, detective,” Jeonghan grins and tilts his head towards Seungcheol, “What else?”
“And you are in love with me right now.”
Jeonghan’s grin widens even further. But he’s not taken back or surprised. Like he knew he will be seen through. Of course he knew. He would know everything Seungcheol will say next, will do next.
“Why?” Seungcheol asks.
“Why do you love me?”
“Do we have control over who we love?” Jeonghan shuffles so that their knees are touching, “I love you, because I know what you are like, when you love me.”
They have barely even gotten to know each other. Seungcheol breathes in and it feels so sacrilegious, to take the air from the space between them.
“I can tell you what I love about you.”
“Tell me. I prefer honesty.”
“I love the way you show love spontaneously. The way you tuck my hair behind my ears, swipe sauce from the corner of my lips, or laugh into my shoulder.”
Seungcheol has done none of those things.
“You call me at midnight when you’re stressed and you let me hear you cry. I like how you try so hard to be strong, carrying so much responsibility you would rather break your back than share it with someone else.”
“But inside,” Jeonghan places a hand on Seungcheol’s chest, right over where his heart is, “You are still a child who misses his parents.”
Jeonghan’s hand trails down, skimming Seungcheol’s chest to land on his thigh. His fingernails leave a trail of white heat, a line that carves Seungcheol in two.
“I love you because you want to do things for other people. Not for anything in return, not for gratitude or money. You do it because you just want to.”
Seungcheol sucks in a breath. He feels like he’s been seen through, skinned alive, bones bare. His heart quakes in his ribcage.
“What is it like?”
“What do you mean?”
“Isn’t it strange to live like this?”
“Not at all,” Jeonghan shakes his head, “It’s normal for me. It’s only strange when other people care about it. That’s why I don’t really go out much.”
Jeonghan leans over, hand on his thigh, weight on his hand. His eyelashes flicker as he looks down then up again.
“What is it like, not knowing what comes next?”
“I’m not a clairvoyant,” Seungcheol stares at Jeonghan’s mouth, stained cherry-red and smirking, “But I can guess.”
He leans forward.
Jihoon sends him an email. Seungcheol reads it twice before getting up and walking to his cubicle, hooking his chin on the back of Jihoon’s chair and waiting for him to talk.
Unhurried, Jihoon finishes the paragraph he’s typing. Seungcheol watches for his cues. How he sucks his lips in and tenses his jaw so that the dimple on his cheek appears
Seungcheol watches him save the file he’s working on.
“Is Chief going to make you do the press conference?” Seungcheol asks.
“God no,” Jihoon mutters, “I don’t have the patience for media.”
“You know the most about it though.”
Jihoon taps his fingers against the table, “No that was you. They would have made you face the press if you didn’t get put on drugs case.”
“It is because I’m handsome?” Seungcheol flutters his eyelashes.
“Don’t make me hit you,” Jihoon rolls his eyes.
“Are you on the follow-up as well?”
“What do you mean hyung, the case —,” Jihoon stops. He picks up a pen and grabs a post-it note, “The case is done.”
On the post-it note he writes:Don’t ask.
Seungcheol pauses. Looks up at Jihoon, stares. Thinks.
“Wow you’re so efficient,” Seungcheol makes his voice sound casual, “What are you working on now?”
“This and that. There’s a set of assaults in Itaewon last Saturday, we’ve got two but there’s one more on the run —”
“Wait I need to go to the bathroom,” pushing himself off the desk, Seungcheol makes a show of stretching while checking out who else was in the office, “Can you get me a coffee from downstairs?”
“Hyung how lazy are you?” Jihoon yells, louder than usual.
Jihoon comes down five minutes later. Seungcheol has a spot in the back, right next to a gaggle of construction workers on their lunch break.
“There’s no follow up,” Jihoon says, “Case closed.”
“Did Hansol talk to you?”
“Of course he did. I got Nonnie to help on the transfer request. There’s definitely a link with the jopok that requires further investigation. We were even thinking that it could help incarcerate one of the hyungnim we’re suspecting on another case.”
“That’s valuable. Did they open a new case then? Following up on jopok connections is standard procedure when something like this comes up.”
“That’s the thing hyung. I filed for the case to be transferred to Anti-Cartel. I didn’t even think much of it, I do it so often. But the Jung case was turned down. Prosecution at full speed.”
“Someone doesn’t want us looking into it.”
“I had a look to check on what grounds but,” Jihoon looked down, “All my notes were deleted.”
Ice runs down Seungcheol’s spine. He can feel every fine hair on his body rise, “This doesn’t just link to the mafia. This is police.”
“And high up.”
“Jihoon,” Seungcheol looks around again. The construction workers are still there, guffawing loudly. But plain-clothes officers come down all the time. He thinks of the ransom video and his fist clenches.
“Hyung,” Jihoon rubs at his eyes. When he speaks, his voice is strained, breaking off at the edges, “I don’t know what to do.”
“Thank you for telling me,” Seungcheol forces himself to relax, lets his hand go and squeeze Jihoon’s shoulder, “This isn’t something we can solve in a day. But we can start.”
“So as soon as something happens, you forget about it.” They’re on the sofa, Jeonghan leaning on his shoulder. There’s a drama playing on the television, IU gliding across the screen in all her fashionable glamour.
“Then what’s the point of watching, if you can’t remember it?”
“I enjoy looking at it,” Jeonghan looks up at him, “And I enjoy spending time with you.”
Seungcheol stretches his arm, placing it around Jeonghan, pulling him closer, “I’ve wondered though. If you forget what has happened, how can you talk so naturally to me? If you don’t remember what I just asked you.”
“I know what I’m going to say next, so I just say it. Even if I don’t know what I’m replying to.” Jeonghan burrows himself further into Seungcheol, “But most of the time, I can guess from the context. Like how you can probably guess what will happen next, I can guess what had already happened based on the present.”
“Hm,” Seungcheol considers it, “But you can’t remember the last time we met.”
“Not at all.”
“So to you, this is the first time we’ve met?”
“No, this is the last time,” Jeonghan says, “Every time is the last time. And when you go, I would have forgotten everything that has happened.”
Something clenches in Seungcheol’s heart, sharp, twisting. He pushes them over, the two of them tumbling together, legs tangled. He cages Jeonghan in between his arms and kisses him. Deep, slow, sensual. Everything he’s feeling, Seungcheol pushes it out of his chest, into his mouth, into Jeonghan’s mouth. When they part, Seungcheol is searching his face.
“You don’t remember that I kissed you.”
“But I know you did,” Jeonghan places a hand on his cheek, a thumb by the corner of his lip, already reading Seungcheol’s unspoken cues, "By the way you look at me, how close you are, and the redness of your mouth. I know you will kiss me again, so I know you have kissed me before." Jeonghan stretches his neck, placing their mouths together again. It’s bittersweet, how well he knows Seungcheol, how to curl his arms around his body and cling onto him tight, as if he doesn’t want to let go. Jeonghan kisses his nose, parts, then taps his forehead with his own so that they are eye to eye, less than an inch between them.
“I don’t think too much, about the future or the past when I’m with you,” Jeonghan breathes out, and Seungcheol can feel the air drift across his own lips, “I just enjoy the moment.”
The kidnapping trial is underway, the public prosecutor is Lee Chan who Seungcheol has worked with before. It’s all routine. All police reports get submitted as evidence and the ones most involved would have to testify and get cross-examined.
He’s waiting outside the courtroom, rereading his report when an entourage of men walks past. Seungcheol looks up. They’re clearly important, or at least one of them is. All of them are dressed in western suits but one of them is surrounded by the rest. The air around him feels sacred.
The man in the middle notices him, and gives him a deliberate once over. He makes a hand signal, and all the others step back as he diverts from his path to stand in front of Seungcheol. It takes Seungcheol one more second to recognise him.
Seungcheol jerks up and bows, low enough to show respect to an elder, but not too low as to demean his own status. “Jung sajang-nim, my greetings.”
“Inspector Choi, I presume?” Jung Daejun tilts his head, “I was told I could find you here today.”
“Yes that’s me.”
“Thank you for finding my daughter,” Jung Daejun descends into a bow, deep and long enough for Seungcheol to be embarrassed.
“Sir, please, it was my duty,” he wants to hold the man’s shoulders, but seeing the bodyguards, he just hovers above awkwardly.
“Then thank you for your service,” Jung Daejun sits down next to him, “How did you find her so quickly?”
“It was just luck I was looking at the CCTV when they flashed past. And then everything was smooth.”
“The speed, truly, was astonishing. I am grateful for your professionalism.” There is gratitude the tone of his voice, that much is undeniable. But there is something else in his eyes that Seungcheol can not pin down. His gut calls it curiosity, but surely the Chairman of Jung Industries already knew everything there was to know about the case.
“It’s nothing sir…”
“I’ll be honest, when I got the ransom message,” Jung Daejun takes out a handkerchief, dabbing briefly at his brow, “I wasn’t expecting to see her ever again.”
“I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Lee Chan guides him through his report easily and Seungcheol barely has to look down. But the question comes up again in cross-examination. The Public Defender assigned to the case is Counsel Jeon whom Seungcheol has never seen before. He is an imposing figure in his black robes, bony fingers pushing up round glasses.
“You saw the CCTV of the car driving past Yangjeong station.”
“How did you know it was the car?”
“I didn’t, but I recognised the girl inside the car.”
“They had rolled down the window to throw out a cigarette.”
“And you happened to see in the 5 seconds when they rolled down the window that it was her.”
Seungcheol does not like that tone. Out of the corner of his eye, Seungcheol can see Chan push his chair back, ready to intervene.
“Yes.” Stay calm. Keep it short.
“Inspector Choi, you located the kidnappers within 2 hours of being notified.”
“Is this normal for an investigation?”
“Objection,” Chan stands up, “Not an issue on trial.”
“Counsel?” The judge says.
“Establishing witness credibility your Honour,” Counsel Jeon replies.
The judge purses her lips, thinking for a moment. Her eyes flash to Seungcheol before she says, “Objection sustained. Counsel Jeon rephrase or reconsider your line of questioning.”
“Yes your Honour.”
Seungcheol leaves straight after, but the defence attorney stays on his mind. Counsel Jeon.
Public Defenders are normally scattered but efficient. Going straight to the point because they wouldn’t have enough time to prepare anything else. It’s usual to question the accuracy of the police testimony, but to question the credibility of the police themselves. That was left-field. Was his efficiency too obvious? If he continued relying on Jeonghan, would someone be able to trace it back? And then what will happen?
Seungcheol shudders, then he stops walking. The crowd moves around him.
Or did Jeon have something else on his mind entirely?
“Hansol, let me know when the Jung case is finalised,” Seungcheol says.
“No problem,” Hansol looks up from his desk, “How was court?”
“It was fine, other lawyer was a bitch though,” Seungcheol takes off his jacket and sweeps it across the back of his chair. It creaks when he sits down.
“Who was it?”
“Jeon, my age, tall. He’s a Public Defender but I’ve never seen him before.”
“Huh,” Hansol cocks his head. He pauses, as if he’s already thinking about something. Then he shakes off the thought, “But they’re going to get jail time right?”
“For sure, the evidence is all there.”
“It must be inconvenient,” Seungcheol peers at him. “You experience time the same way as everybody else.”
“But your memory is backwards?”
“Who is there to say, maybe my memory is straight, and I’m living my life backwards.”
“Don’t you feel like you’ve lost something, when you can’t remember the past?”
Jeonghan pursed his lips, “Do you feel like you’ve lost something, when you don’t know the future?”
“It’s not the —,”
“Shh,” Jeonghan placed a finger on Seungcheol’s lips, “Not so fast. Think about it first.”
Blinking, Seungcheol tried. Really. Ran the idea over and over in his head, if every memory he had was just wiped from his brain — his heart clenched. No, he tried to think again, if instead of memories, it was just, knowledge about what was to come. A lifetime of information, 60 years. No, to Jeonghan they were memories. Seungcheol has no idea how that feels.
“I have no idea,” Seungcheol confesses.
Jeonghan laughs, bright and tinkling, “Good enough.”
Later, Seungcheol wonders if Jeonghan does feel loss. Because he’s not gaining memories, in the way others were. He started off with a lifetime, and now he’s losing them, one by one, each day a subtraction. Until there was nothing left.
Seungcheol wonders what it’s like, to only know the people he will meet again. To already know, when meeting someone, whether it was the last time.
But perhaps Jeonghan does not feel loss, because he does not remember what he had lost.
The drugs case develops and it's all Seungcheol can think about for months, the Jungs pushed to the back of his head. Every day he goes into work and he's tracking transactions across four countries and movement patterns more complex than the Seoul subway. After work he goes to Jeonghan’s apartment and he finds himself looking forward to the moment he will see him again.
"We're going to cooperate with KNP SWAT to plan a bust in the next few months ..."
“We think there's a link with a wider mafia group so expect cross-department work with Anti-Cartel …”
“—we might be sending some of you into the field for this …”
Seungcheol zones out. They've talked about this through emails, why this meeting couldn't have been another email, he has no idea.
"I got a promotion," Jihoon says.
"Congratulations!" Seungcheol stands up, slings an arm around his shoulder, "We should go celebrate."
Jihoon rolls his eyes and slides out from underneath. Seungcheol just repositions his arm again.
"By celebrate you mean drink and listen to you ramble."
"I'm not that terrible of a friend," Seungcheol whines, "So that that make you a detective inspector now?"
"Yep. But I'll be moving departments for a bit."
"Anti-cartel." Jihoon's eyes flash, "They're going to have a team based in Gimpo. That’s where the Hyupgaek-tang is. I can keep digging into the Jung case. There’s bound to be some history.”
“You’re amazing, let me treat you,” Seungcheol says, “How does KBBQ sound?"
"You are my favourite hyung.”
"I'm your only hyung."
"Sentence got handed down,” Hansol walks to Seungcheol's cubicle, jumps up and sits himself on Seungcheol's table like he's planting himself here for a while.
Seungcheol looks up from his computer screen, "Guilty?"
"Of course," Hansol furrows his brows, "But they got two years deferred for five."
"What?" Seungcheol spins around, "Two years is already on the lower end of it, and for the severity of that case. I was expecting five at least."
"What does deferred for five mean?" Hansol asks.
"It means," Seungcheol takes a deep breath to stop his heart from pounding away, "They don't actually have to go to jail for five years. But what's going to happen is this. In a year they will come back to court and dismiss the sentence entirely because of good behaviour. It means they never have to go to jail.”
Fuck Seungcheol thinks. He feels like punching the carpet.
"Oh wow," Hansol says, "That's...."
"Can you get me the judgment?" Seungcheol asks, "I need to have a look."
Hansol comes back half an hour later, way longer than it should've taken him.
Seungcheol puts a hand up, "Lets go to a meeting room." He points and they walk over.
Seungcheol shuts the door and closes the blinds. “Why?”
"The judgment’s not on the public database. Only the sentence. It’s because there’s a minor right?"
"Not at all," Seungcheol frowns, "They only keep it off when it has sensitive government information. When it involves a minor they just redact the name and keep the reasoning.”
“Oh. But we should have access as police…?”
“Yes but we have to make an internal request…” Seungcheol thinks, “I’ll get Jihoon to do it since he was on the case. It’ll be less suspicious that way.”
“Hyung?” Hansol shifts, “Everything about this case just gets weirder and weirder.”
“Jihoon and I think someone in the police is also behind this,” Seungcheol gets up, “Be careful Hansol.”
Jihoon prints out the judgment and sets it down on Seungcheol’s table on his way to the water-cooler. Seungcheol waits for him to pass before grabbing it. He reads the judgment when he gets home. Every page makes him see red, and at the end, he calls Chan.
"They are only guilty for kidnapping? Why? The evidence is there, you could've went for aggravated kidnapping. Aggravated assault. There are 4 other charges you could have pinned to raise the sentence..”
"Good evening to you too hyung," Chan deadpans, "I'm fine thank you. And you?”
"Cut the bullshit. Everything about this judgment stinks."
Chan sighs, "There is literally nothing I could have done. Most of the evidence that the case depends on came out after they got a plea deal. Legally, I could not charge them for anything higher."
"Plea deal? When? We had more than enough evidence from the police and witness report alone."
"Weren't you on the case hyung?" Chan's voice grows distant and then Seungcheol hears the clack of laptop keys.
"I was, but..." Again, deja vu hits him, a wave in the back of his brain, "I was put onto a drugs case of higher priority."
"Anyway, because of the plea deal, I couldn't charge them with anything else. And they cooperated with the investigation, which is why the sentence is so low. It worked for them.”
"About that," Seungcheol seethes, "Two? Suspended for Five?? What is this? White collar crime? I've seen enough kidnapping cases to know what is normal."
"Hyung. You were there. The public defender was absolute hell to deal with. Made sure I crossed every t and dotted every i. Made the judge impatient too. I've never seen a strategy like his but I guess it worked."
"Have you met him before?" Seungcheol digs into his memory, "Jeon?"
"Nope. And I haven't seen him since."
Seungcheol purses his lips, thinking.
"Do you know any public defenders with last name Jeon?"
Jeonghan kisses his chest, "This is terrible bedroom talk."
Seungcheol winces, "Sorry, it's just been on my mind."
"Another man? Tsk tsk," Jeonghan sits up, "Well I do. Because you tell me about him later."
Seungcheol jerks up too fast his head swims, "Who? Tell me?"
"I'm feeling neglected so ..." Jeonghan sighs dramatically, "I'm not going to tell you everything."
"Hannie” Seungcheol whines.
Jeonghan pouts, "Cheollie."
"Hannie~” Seungcheol leans over, brushes Jeonghan’s hair from his forehead, tucks a strand behind his ears, "For the greater good."
Jeonghan flushes, “Say please.”
Seungcheol pouts back, juts out his lower lip and flutters his eyelashes, "Please."
"Fine," Jeonghan flicks his lips with a finger, "Just a hint."
"Anything, please. I'm about to tear my hair out."
"One. Not every public defender works for the government," Jeonghan's eyes are sharp. But these are not his words. In his voice Seungcheol hears himself, from how many moments later into the future. "Second. Every lawyer in the country is on a public register,"
Oh Seungcheol snaps his fingers. Of course.
"Jeon Wonwoo," Jihoon says. This time they are talking in the bathroom one level down. The level only used for weekly meetings and the bathroom that everyone avoids because of the broken light.
Seungcheol opens two taps so that the water runs over their voices.
"He was working on that case pro bono. As part of some volunteering program of the Korean Law Society.”
"Who does he work for?"
"An architecture firm, The Seventh,” Jihoon leans forward, "But this is the interesting part. He's listed as the senior advisor there, but I called the place and he's not there. Doesn't even have an office. But you know, Seventh is a branch of BSK developments. And you know who owns BSK?.”
Jihoon tilts his head, "You know what I think. Jeon doesn't work for Seventh. His real position is elsewhere. But ultimately —”
"He works for Jung," Seungcheol's mind is whirring, “The architecture firm is just a front for tax registration.”
“I looked him up. Squeaky clean record, even made the Dean’s List in Yonsei. Nothing out of the ordinary except he moved from public to private practice six years ago and have been promoted frequently,” Jihoon places his hands under the dryer, letting the roar fill the room with noise, “We need to keep digging. He has a past. We can definitely find a link and a motive.”
“Yes,” Seungcheol grips the edge of the sink, "But this makes it even stranger."
Jihoon nods, "Why is Jung's lawyer defending the men who kidnapped his daughter?"
“Have you… been to see Jeonghan recently?” Seungcheol asks Jihoon.
Jihoon throws him a squint like he’s apprehending all of Seungcheol’s motivations behind this question. “You still see him,” Jihoon finally states, “After all these years?”
They’ve known each other for a decade. They did the same training, went to the same classes on interrogation. Jihoon knows all his personal tells but Seungcheol still raises his hand to rub the back of his neck.
Seungcheol evades the question, “I’m wondering if I should ask him about it.”
“He told me not to come by any more. He’s worried about something,” Jihoon has turned to stare at Seungcheol front-on.
“That it’s dangerous to know too much about the future,” Jihoon says slowly “By knowing, you place your life in a direction that was never intended.”
Jeon Wonwoo is a very plain man in all appearances. If someone told Seungcheol to imagine a salaryman, the kind school-age Seungcheol was allergic to, the image he would conjure in his mind would be exactly the same as the man walking down the street right now. Thin-frame glasses, grey suit with a subtle pinstripe, tailored to fit of course. Even his briefcase is made of black leather, his shoes polished to a shine.
Seungcheol coasts the car next to him and rolls down the window.
“Get in Jeon.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Do you think you have a choice?” Seungcheol snipes back. He unlocks the car.
Wonwoo considers him. His face is cool as stone and impossible to read, entire body still. Seungcheol has a gun under his jacket, but it’s something he doesn’t want to resort to — actually he already knows he won’t resort to it.
Then Wonwoo sighs and opens the door.
Seungcheol starts the car and drives them out of the neighbourhood in silence, Wonwoo a cold presence beside him, also saying nothing, infuriatingly calm. His hands slide into his pocket.
“You can use your phone,” Seungcheol interjects, “I’m not going to do anything to you. But if it makes you feel safer, go for it.”
Wonwoo’s jaw hardens, then he takes his phone out. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a pre-written message, one tap away from being sent. Wonwoo places his phone on his thigh, screen lit up, a voiceless threat.
"My name is Choi Seungcheol, I work for the Seoul Metropolitan."
“Please to meet your acquaintance,” Wonwoo mutters, but his voice is deadpan in a way that suggests he already knew exactly who Seungcheol was, “I am not obligated to say anything to you.”
Seungcheol takes a deep breath. He has Jeonghan behind him. This can not, will not go wrong.
“I’m not seeing you in my official capacity.”
“You’re not doing this for the police,” Wonwoo says, as a matter-of-fact, “Interesting.”
“You know what I want to talk to you about.”
“Perhaps. maybe not.”
“I know you,” Seungcheol starts, “Jeon Wonwoo. 32 years old, Yonsei 2006, admitted to the bar in 2010. You started as a public prosecutor but moved to private practice in 2014. That’s quite a big change isn’t it? From criminal law to property?”
Wonwoo does not answer him.
Seungcheol keeps his eyes on the road. He does not need to know Wonwoo’s reaction for this. He just needs to do what Jeonghan told him he will do. “Did you miss it? Is that why you volunteered to take a case for the first time in 6 years?”
Wonwoo does not say anything.
“Was it fun? Defending criminals? Helping them walk free without a single consequence? When their 13 year old victim needed intensive care for a week? You’ve seen the footage right? You have to, it’s part of the evidence,” Seungcheol continues, “Jeon, did you watch her get beaten and think, they can do this again —”
“No —” Wonwoo hisses. He cuts himself short.
Pausing, Seungcheol lets the silence grow. Lets the sound of Wonwoo’s voice echo in his own mind, diffusing in the space like smoke and ghosts. He clicks on the indicator, makes a show of checking his blind spot, changing gear, accelerating onto the highway.
“But you know what I think Jeon,” Seungcheol says, carefully, slowly, patiently. “I think you didn’t have a choice. Because you don’t work actually work at Seventh, actually I bet you know jack shit about architecture. Your real boss is Jung Daejun. The man whose daughter was kidnapped by the very men you defended.”
Seungcheol spares a glance at Wonwoo. Wonwoo was looking straight back at him, face unreadable.
“A paradox isn’t it? But one that can be solved,” Seungcheol looks away, “At its simplest, it means Jung Daejun does not want these men to be punished. Of course, he doesn’t want to lose his daughter either, but for some reason he doesn’t want justice for the assault. Strange. But in my experience, when men act irrationally, they are driven by fear. So what is Jung Daejun afraid of? What is could be worse than letting the kidnappers walk free?”
“Now I’m thinking. What would have happened if the kidnappers were punished? Even a rookie cop could tell that the jopol was behind the kidnapping. This was not the once-off work of amateurs. There was someone behind them making sure they succeeded. Someone with enough power to make even the chaebol afraid.”
For the first time, Wonwoo speaks, voice thin “If you think you know everything, then why talk to me? Are trying to record a confession?”
“You’re a good lawyer Jeon, I know I won’t win,” Seungcheol moves on, “No. I want to work with you.”
Wonwoo jerks, “You’re crazy.”
“Someone needs to do this.”
“I have to.”
“You don’t even understand what you want to do.”
“I see justice being twisted, the court turned into stage. It boils my blood when criminals walk free,” Seungcheol scowls, “I want it to stop. That’s why I need you.”
“You have no idea what I want.”
“You want this to continue? For the country be run into the ground by the rich and powerful?”
“You know nothing Choi.”
“I know you are in their ear. You know what they’re doing, and I know they listen to you. You have influence and power. Look, I know this isn’t something we can fix in a day, but we have to try,” Seungcheol pleads, “How can you watch the footage, then let the kidnappers walk back out into society. ”
“This happens every week. How many people are hurting just because —”
“Stop the car Choi.”
“— the police can be paid to look the other way?”
“Choi Seungcheol —“
“That lawyers like you just follow the highest payer?”
Wonwoo holds up his phone, still on, thumb on the send button. “Fucking stop the car.”
Seungcheol swears and swerves the car onto the highway shoulder. He stamps on the brake and both of them jerk forward. The engine hisses and falls quiet. Seungcheol can feel his blood pulsing.
“You are fucking heartless Jeon,” Seungcheol spits.
“You think I’m heartless,” Wonwoo barks out a laugh, “The prosecutor for the trial, he was young wasn't he? Lee Chan. I remember —”
“Don't you even dare —”
“Passionate. Real bright. Good for his age, I think he'll go far," Wonwoo holds up his hand to stop Seungcheol, his gaze piercing, "But let me tell you what's going to happen in a few years. He’ll get a case. And in the dock won't be some no-name low life. It'll be a chaebol's son. Drink driving, speeding, killed a pedestrian. Manslaughter by negligence. There's CCTV and dashcam. Straight and easy.”
Wonwoo continues,“But he'll be at home one day and there will be a knock at his door. He opens up. Men walk in. Many of them. They will sit him down and tell him to fumble the trial. A million won. A guaranteed promotion. A new job with five times the salary. Anything he wants.”
“He'll say no. That's bribery.”
“Can he say no?” Wonwoo's smile is bleak, “They are in his house. They know where he lives. And there are more than him. These are not people you can brush off and forget about. He will either say yes on the spot, or tell them he needs to think about it. Chan's a smart kid. He will know what to do.”
Seungcheol stares at Wonwoo.
Wonwoo turns to him, “You said men act irrationally when driven by fear. What is the one thing people are afraid of?”
The word hovers. Mutually thought, mutually left unspoken.
“Do you know how much it costs to kill a man?" Wonwoo whispers, “Any plain citizen on the street, 500,000 won flat rate. Some people would murder for free. For a promise to clear debts and the guarantee of a comfortable jail.”
“A police detective? Thats a bit pricier and would take a bit of planning. But anything under a million is small change to chaebol. A new block of apartments is worth several billion. A government contract? A trillion, easy. If there was a nosy detective in the way.” Wonwoo sweeps the air, “Gone.”
“Remember the reporter? Boo Seungkwan? The one who was about to leak evidence of sex trafficking in the Gangnam clubs?”
Seungcheol nods stiffly.
“You know how much his life was worth?” Wonwoo takes off his glasses, rubs his eyes. When he speaks again, his voice shakes, on the spectrum of madness, “A university admission.”
“You’ve come far, further than anyone else,” Wonwoo looks down, “I don’t know who your source is, but they better be very very careful. Because…”
“To people like them, we are nothing,” Wonwoo says, voice hard as cold steel, “How can one police officer take down an empire? And then what? Once you've dealt with Jung, what's next? The Chungs behind Hyundai? The Lees behind Samsung? You don't understand Choi Seungcheol. You are one man and this is a system."
“You call me heartless,” Wonwoo sits back, “But I just want to live.”
“You didn’t come to talk about work — why?”
And this was Jeonghan, he never asks Seungcheol what he was about to do because he already knew. He only asked why.
Seungcheol rushed in, surging into Jeonghan's space. He kicked his shoes off and kicked the door closed at the same time. His fingers thread through Jeonghan's hair and they are chest to chest, hip to hip. He kisses Jeonghan like he needs it, no, because he needs it. He needs to hold someone who won't give him any surprises. Someone who won't think about all the complex problems in the world and the crimes in the past past and —
"Don't think," Seungcheol whispers in between breaths, "About the future, about anything. Focus on me."
"Only you Seungcheol," Jeonghan promises, his hands coming to curl around Seungcheol's neck. He walks backwards into his apartment with the confidence of a clairvoyant and Seungcheol lets himself be tugged. They stop in the living room, Seungcheol bending Jeonghan over the back of the sofa to mouth at his neck. They stop again by Jeonghan's work desk, Jeonghan ripping through the knot in his tie and dropping it on his chair.
Jeonghan's hands are running through his buttons, popping them out quickly. Then the shirt is off and joining his tie on the bed, "Making it easier for you tomorrow."
Seungcheol laughs into Jeonghan’s shoulder. He feels his heart stretching with fullness, "What did I say, about not thinking about the future."
Huffing, Jeonghan just clicks out the buckle on his belt, "Well then you're just not trying hard enough."
"You--" Seungcheol grabs him by the flesh under his thighs and carries him up onto the table. Jeonghan's legs go around his waist and Seungcheol dives down to his neck. He bites down on Jeonghan's shoulder, relishing in the gasp that it creates. He pushes, Jeonghan lies down, but not before pushing away all the stuff on his desk. Ah, he's still thinking then. Seungcheol goes down again, but instead of biting he runs both rows of teeth down the side of his neck, catches his canines on Jeonghan's collar, glides his tongue down that bone at the same time his palms pushes down on Jeonghan's crotch.
"Ah!" Jeonghan throws his head back, "Seungcheol, Seungcheol, Seungcheol."
"I love hearing you," Seungcheol rasps into his mouth, "Do we make it to the bed?"
Jeonghan is just panting, his eyes blank and blinking. He doesn’t answer for a moment, clearly processing the question.
Good. Seungcheol is satisfied. Jeonghan’s not thinking. He will keep it this way. Make Jeonghan mindless until all he can think about is the moment.
“Do you know how you die?” Seungcheol asks.
“I don’t,” Jeonghan shifts his hair so that he’s not sleeping on it, “I think I get dementia. Everything after a certain age just…” All of a sudden, Jeonghan tenses.
Half a second later, the thought runs through Seungcheol’s mind, “Then —”
“Don’t ask.” Jeonghan glares at him.
Seungcheol holds it in, lets the silence grow between the two of them, stretching into the heavy darkness. It festers and grows, heavy enough to be felt.
Jeonghan breaks it with his laughter, bitter and tight, “But you’re going to ask anyway. Which is why I know what you’re going to say.”
Looking at the ceiling, Seungcheol considers not asking at all. If he kept that thought inside forever, would he have changed the future?
“Are you ever wrong?” he asks instead.
“No, never,” Jeonghan turns so that his back is to Seungcheol. He grabs the bedsheets and draws it around himself, “If I remember it, it’s going to happen. There are times when I just don’t remember … I mean. I know the future can not be changed, but sometimes there are things I just don’t know, and I wonder if those are the things that could still be changed.”
Seungcheol measures his words out. “Am I with you? At the end?”
Jeonghan doesn’t answer immediately.
“You know my rules.”
“Whatever happens, I don’t want to forget you,” Jeonghan confesses.
It’s the morning, Jeonghan’s tying his hair up into a low ponytail and Seungcheol kisses the open expanse of his nape. “You can’t help it though Hannie.”
“When you tell me something about yourself, I don’t want to forget it,” Jeonghan grabs a pen and a piece of paper, “Just in case it’s the last time and you never say it again.”
He writes something down and turns around, arms looping around Seungcheol and pulling him in, “Even though I forget our first times, I want to remember, that there were first times.”
They’re kissing again, gentle at first. Just the movement of lips against lips, Seungcheol’s hands rising up to cradle Jeonghan’s face. Jeonghan moans and then Seungcheol is rushing forward, pressing him back into the bed. He wants to taste every part of this man. He feels like kissing Jeonghan is like being enveloped in warmth, of home, of comfort. He —
“Hannie, I love you,” Seungcheol whispers, “I love you.”
Jeonghan kisses back, open-mouthed and desperate. He’s pushing at the same time he’s pulling, closer, closer, closer. Like he doesn’t want to let go, like he couldn’t. Jeonghan breathes the words into Seungcheol’s mouth. “I love you too Cheollie. So, much.”
“I won’t let you forget,” Seungcheol mutters, “So I will say it tomorrow, so you will remember it today after I’ve gone. And I will say it again the day after.”
“I don’t want to forget,” Jeonghan closes his eyes, hands clutching Seungcheol so tightly Seungcheol knows that when he takes it off tonight, the wrinkles will still be there, “I don’t want to forget you.”
“You won’t, I promise,” Seungcheol hugs him, putting Jeonghan’s head in the crook of his own neck. Covers him with the heat of his own body. Seungcheol hooks his own chin over Jeonghan’s shoulder, and sees the piece of paper that Jeonghan was writing on.
September 24, he said I love you.
There’s a post-it by the television that says: Seungcheol is the youngest in his family.
And a note, slotted into a book half-read: SC: Nothing too sour or spicy.
There’s an open notebook on the dining table and Seungcheol remembers Jeonghan writing in it as he cooked a late dinner, before they watched a drama and made out on the couch. When he leaves, he peers at the page.
He kisses your neck when you tie your hair up. His lips are so soft that you want to bite them and see how they give. You feel his arms when you embrace and you are secure, safe, satisfied.
Hansol finishes his rotation in Seungcheol’s division and moves on to Traffic Regulations. When he gets the email, he groans so loudly Jihoon throws his sandal at him.
Jihoon himself gets transferred to Anti-Cartel, based in Gimpo. His salary goes up and Seungcheol whines until Jihoon treats him to samgyupsal. For all his complaints, Jihoon takes him to a nicer restaurant and orders double servings, letting him eat until he was stuffed full.
The office is quiet without Hansol reading the astrology column out loud, or the constant clatter of Jihoon typing. The new rookie is embarrassingly awkward around him, and the two detective constables that were supposed to replace Jihoon, well. Nothing could replace Jihoon, but at the very least Seungcheol had hoped for competence. With three new members on the team, Seungcheol feels his productivity and energy sink into the dirt.
The only sunshine to his days were evenings with Jeonghan. Seungcheol leaves work thinking about the Jungs, the complicated company structure of subsidiaries within subsidiaries and different board of directors with overlapping members and overlapping family branches. He thinks about Jeon Wonwoo and all the cold cases in the last decade with unexplainable deaths. He thinks about going into a workplace that could turn against him.
Can I do this, Seungcheol thinks. Must I? Should I?
One police officer against an entire chaebol system with roots going back generations upon generations. Seungcheol has no idea where to look, where to start, where to go. Even if he finds the truth, and then what? What can change with one police officer whose life may be worth the price of an eighteen-year-old’s university admission.
But when he sees Jeonghan’s apartment, rising up on the hill with Naksan Tower in the backdrop, a CU on the corner, Itaewon to the east, Seungcheol feels the coat of worries slide off him. He can already hear Jeonghan’s voice when he says Cheollie, smell the dinner that’s always ready on time, see the fond smile on Jeonghan’s face when Seungcheol scrapes kimchi fried rice into one last spoonful for him.
“I’m a clairvoyant, not a career advisor,” Jeonghan says, “Now kiss me.”
Jeonghan has sauce on the corner of his mouth. Seungcheol swipes it off with his thumb. Jeonghan grins, and Seungcheol wipes that off too.
They’re in bed when a phone rings. The noise sharp and slicing across the moment. Unfamiliar.
“Cheol —” Jeonghan pants.
“Shh,” Seungcheol whispers against his skin.
“Seungcheol, stop,” Jeonghan places his hand on his head and pushes him off, “Stop.”
“It can wait,” Seungcheol curls his hand around Jeonghan’s wrist, other hand slinking downwards, “You’re more important.”
“Ah —,” Jeonghan squeezes his eyes shut. He jerks away, “You need to pick it up, it’s important. It’s Jihoon.”
“Alright,” Seungcheol gets up reluctantly. He kisses Jeonghan one more time before finding his phone. It’s not ringing. The noise persists. And then Seungcheol realises it’s coming from his burner phone and then he’s leaping across the living room and diving into his bag. It’s an unknown number.
“Seungcheol, it’s me,” a voice hisses, low and desperate.
“Jihoon? Why are you —”
“Listen,” Jihoon coughs and the noise is pained.
“Are you okay —”
“Shut the fuck up,” Jihoon hisses, “The Hyupgaek-tang. The Jungs. They’re working together. But something went wrong. We weren’t supposed to find the Jung girl. We were supposed to try, make a show of it to appease the family but the Tang had already paid off the police. No one was assigned Yangjeong to search. Did you ask him about it?” Jihoon chokes on something, “Never mind. You have to be careful. They know. They’re onto us. There’s more —”
The phone clatters. There’s a thud.
“Jihoon? Jihoon!” Seungcheol yells, “Where are you?”
“HVC!” Jihoon gasps, voice distant, “Talk —”
“Jihoon! Answer me, where are —”
Footsteps. Seungcheol stills. The line crackles, like the phone is being picked up.
Seungcheol slaps a hand over his mouth.
There’s noise the other end. For a few seconds, it’s just the heavy breaths of another person — oh god the person who just shot Jihoon, standing over him— and the static on the line, and Seungcheol choking all the sound in his throat.
Click. Dial tone.
They hung up.
Seungcheol stares at his phone. His heart is pounding in his ears and the only sound in the world is in his hand.
Then he’s scrabbling for his clothes. Sock under the bed, shirt on the side table. Phone, wallet, keys.
“Seungcheol, are you okay?”
“I need to go.”
“A police raid gone wrong —”
“He was shot in the firefight —”
“Dearly beloved, we are here today to honour the life of Lee Jihoon who died in the line of duty —“
Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.
Seungcheol was his pallbearer, walking him to the grave. Watches in silence as they spoon the earth over his coffin, sunburnt brown against polished black. He can still feel the weight on his hand. He will never forget it, the weight of a casket along his fingers, the weight of Jihoon as a body.
The police chief claps a hand on Seungcheol’s shoulder, “You were friends with Detective Inspector Lee?”
Seungcheol nods stiffly, “Yes sir.”
“He was a good man, my condolences.”
Was it you? Seungcheol thinks, Did you order his death? Or did you sit in your office with your eyes closed. Will you go to sleep tonight on a bed paid by blood .
“Thank you sir.”
Seungcheol knocks. There is light under the door and then the brief flicker of a shadow past it. Seungcheol waits, but Jeonghan doesn’t open up. And then he knocks again. The shadow is still there.
Seungcheol knows then, that Jeonghan knows what is to come, what he will say, what he will do. What has happened. The thought enrages him even further, pure fire thrumming through his veins, boiling his blood.
“Jeonghan,” he seethes. I know you are there. Let me in. You know, so there’s no use delaying.”
Jeonghan does not move, the air is so still Seungcheol hears the sound of his own panting.
“I will stay here and knock all night until your neighbours come out. You know I will.”
A beat of silence, and then door cracks open and Seungcheol lunges in, grabbing Jeonghan by his shoulders. Jeonghan looks terrified, eyes wide and bloodshot like he’s already been crying for hours.
“You knew!” Seungcheol shouts, “You knew that Jihoon dies. And you didn’t tell him! You didn’t tell me!”
Jeonghan backs in further and Seungcheol charges. “You fucking knew the whole time and said nothing.”
“If you told me I could’ve done something, hell. Jihoon could’ve done something. Not go on the assignment, be more careful, pretended he didn’t know anything. He didn’t have to die.”
“I can’t!” Jeonghan pushes him back, “I can’t change the future like that!”
“Did you even try? You could have let me try. I could’ve, I could’ve —” Seungcheol clenches his hands, “He could still be alive.”
“I don’t know,” Jeonghan is shaking, “I just know I shouldn’t. Maybe I can’t, maybe I tried. I don’t know, I can’t remember.”
“You don’t remember?” Seungcheol laughs at himself, broken and choked, “Of course you don’t remember. You’ve forgotten.”
“Seungcheol, I, don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jeonghan looks at him quizzically. He blinks, “What happened, Seungcheol. Why are you angry? Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“Jihoon —,” Seungcheol stops.
"Who's Jihoon?" Jeonghan asks. He’s not afraid, he’s not sad, and he’s not anything at all and the sight of sympathetic concern, so out of place, has Seungcheol quaking. Jeonghan touches his own face, “Seungcheol, why was I crying?”
“Jihoon is —,” the words choke in Seungcheol's mouth, Your best friend from high school. My colleague. I listened to him die. He doesn't say it out loud. If he does, then Jeonghan would have known. If he mentions it, Jeonghan will have remembered Jihoon, even if just for a moment, before forgetting forever.
Hansol walks up to him at work, “Hyung, Jihoon was supposed to sign off on this but …”
“I’ll do it,” Seungcheol takes the paper and quickly finds the places he needs to sign. It’s a welcome distraction from the thoughts spinning his mind like a hurricane, “That’s it?”
“That’s all, I’m off now.”
Seungcheol looks at Hansol and thinks of something, “Going home?”
“Let me drive you.”
Hansol blinks, “Okay hyung.”
Hansol follows him to his car, they get in and he says nothing as Seungcheol starts the engine. Seungcheol gathers up all his thoughts, bundles all his grief in a box and closes the lid. It will burst open later, but now he needs his mind to be clear.
“Hansol,” Seungcheol starts, “What’s your name on your passport?”
Hansol startles, then turns to him, “Hansol Chwe.”
Not Choi Hansol. “Of course, you were born in America,” Seungcheol grips his wheel, “Do you have a middle name?”
“No…,” Hansol frowns, “Hyung what is this abou— Oh, but in the US my last name is Vernon-Chwe, Vernon’s from my mum.”
HVC. Jihoon used to call him Nonie. Even in his last moments, Jihoon thinking about the future. Seungcheol grips the wheel, “Jihoon wants me to —,” he starts again, “Do you know how Jihoon died?”
“I knew it,” Hansol says, “They didn’t tell us the whole story.”
“Or even the right story,” Seungcheol’s jaw clenches, “Everything is a lie. It wasn’t an accident. Jihoon was killed on purpose.”
“No,” Hansol whispers, “Hyung how do you know?”
The box shakes. Bang — Bang — Stop nagging hyung, we’re seeing a clairvoyant —
Deep breaths. Focus.
“He was calling me from a payphone,” Seungcheol breathes in through his nose, “I heard him get shot.”
Hansol is stunned into silence. “Oh my god. I can’t imag—”
“Save it,” Seungcheol breathes out from his mouth, air between his teeth, “He told me the Hyupgaek-tang was working with the Jungs. That we weren’t supposed to find the girl and he had more to say but …” Breathe in through the nose.” His used his last words to tell me to talk to you. HVC. That’s you.” Breathe out through the mouth.
Hansol nods jerkily, “I suppose but…”
“Did he tell you anything? He must have figured something out.”
Hansol is frowning. “There’s nothing out of the ordinary…”
“Think Hansol, think. It could be nothing to you, but you have to tell me. He must have figured something out, there’s something he thinks I should know.”
“Hyung I don’t know, I can’t think—”
“Let me help. Let’s retrace his steps, go back in time. When did you last see him?”
“The day of the raid. I needed him to sign off my report so I went to his department. There was nothing… he seemed normal,” Hansol chokes out a laugh, “He didn’t even look at me. Signed the paper and waved me off.”
Seungcheol can see it so clearly, Jihoon at his desk, eyes on his screen, hands always moving: typing, spinning a pen, peeling a tangerine. His focus was always inhumane. The box shakes. Deep breathes.
“Did you see what he was looking at?”
“Just emails,” Hansol shook his head, “I don’t think he’ll do anything on his work computer hyung.”
“Okay,” Seungcheol keeps his eyes on the road, “Before that?”
Hansol looked out the window, trying to remember. “Two days before, I ran into him in the lift. It was like, 8pm so I asked if he ate yet. He said no so we both went to the cafeteria.”
“What did you talk about?” Seungcheol asks.
“Nothing, absolutely nothing. We were both zoned out completely. I think half the station was doing overtime that night.”
“No small talk?”
“No. He left as soon as he finished eating.”
“Was he looking at anything? On his phone? Any news or reports?”
Strange. In front of a junior, Jihoon would always be chatty, even on his worst days. He always had a story to tell, even against silence he could snark.
Was he thinking about something?
“Alright, what about before that?” Seungcheol continues.
“Um…” Hansol takes even longer this time. He looks at his fingers, putting them down one by one, “Oh, it would be the press conference last week.”
“What was it for?”
“There were charges of corruption against some of the mayor candidates. There wasn’t anything to report but he still had to answer questions and make it sound like the police had done something. I was typing the transcription.”
Could this be it? “How were the questions?”
“Like usual, nothing stood out. I can send you transcript but it was so standard. Like even the reporters were getting impatient. One of them even complained afterwards.”
“Don’t, They might be tracking my email. I don’t want you to risk it.” One of the reporters talked to Jihoon. “What else?”
“After, we walked back to the office together. I remember we were both joking about overtime and having dinner but he had already made plans.”
“Oh?” Seungcheol jolted. Jihoon always ate at the desk and went straight home. He was an even worse workaholic than Seungcheol. “What was he doing?”
“He said he was craving ramen, not cafeteria sludge.”
“Huh.” What are the chances? That Jihoon will go out to dinner on the day he had a press conference. Everything was so cryptic and uncertain and difficult to decipher. But oh, this was Jihoon, to protect Hansol like this. Telling him less than he should know.
“Hyung,” Hansol interrupts his thoughts, “You’ve thought of something right? Talk to me. What are you going to do next?”
“Hansol, this is something dangerous enough that Jihoon was killed for it,” Seungcheol shakes his head, “But I’m going to see this to the end, for Jihoon.”
“You can’t do this alone,” Hansol is firm, “I can help. I will be careful. If this is dangerous, then we have a duty to stop it. We swore to protect this country, so did Jihoon. Hyung. Whatever it takes.”
“You don’t know what we’re up against.”
“Then tell me.”
Seungcheol doesn’t look up the transcript on his computer. Instead, he gets out his phone, searches the news for the keywords on that date. Three newspapers covered the press release. Seungcheol scans for names.
Kwon Soonyoung, from Forward Daily.
Kim Mingyu, from Seoul Times.
Lee Seokmin, from The Korea Herald.
On instinct, Seungcheol reaches for his phone and opens his contacts. Jeonghan’s name stares at him. He stares back. He puts his phone down.
He’ll do this the old way.
“Ah Choi-ssi!” A warm voice greets him, “Welcome back! Table for two?”
“Ah, ahjumma, just me today,” Seungcheol shimmies past all the evening businessmen sitting on plastic stools. This was his and Jihoon’s favourite ramen joint, just a marquee under an expressway. They found it when they were still in the academy, searching for the cheapest feed. Then they stayed for the owners who treated them like they were their own children. And they continued to go, because the memories had built up until every table and chair carried a story — Seungcheol flicking the soju cap into Jihoon’s noodles, Jihoon laughing so hard he crawled under the table, Seungcheol crying the first time they closed an unsolved case, Jihoon crying when they first got promoted.
Seungcheol sits in the back. The bustle was the same as every night, everyone living as if nothing has changed. Except everything has changed, but only for Seungcheol.
“Ah no, Jihoon’s usual please,” Seungcheol grips his knee. Deep breathes. Not now. Box the grief. “Tonkotsu with extra pork, no shallots.”
“No problem!” She smiles.
“Ahjumma can I ask you something?”
“Did Jihoon come here, around two weeks ago? With someone?”
“You expect me to remember that far back? Ah, ahjumma is getting old.”
“You’re lying!” Her husband yells from the back, “You talked about that handsome man for days!”
Seungcheol sits up, “Who was it?”
“Come on!” she slings a towel over her shoulder and shouts back, “Does it hurt to fish for flattery?”
“Alright noona, your memory is the best —”
“That’s too much,” she throws her head back and laughs, “I remember only because you know how Jihoon’s kind of short right? But the man he was with was one of the tallest I’ve ever seen. And when they walked in together …” She cackles.
“Could you recognise him? If I showed you a picture?” Seungcheol’s already getting out his phone, going to his gallery recents. He’d saved the pictures on their SNS profiles. Soonyoung, Mingyu, Seokmin, “Here.”
She leans over and squints. Seungcheol swipes.
“Oh that’s him!” She points, “This was the man Jihoon was with.”
From the side, a group of high schools laugh loudly. Businessmen clink cheers and drink straight from the bottle. The restaurant is so full of life and Jihoon used to sit opposite him and together they would be part of this crowd.
"Tell Jihoon to come again alright?" The ajhumma says, "I miss him already."
The box shakes, and bursts open.
Seungcheol sits within the darkness of his car.
Occasionally, the glare of passing headlights lights the interior aglow. Brief, before fading to black. Seungcheol pushes his palms into his eyes until he sees white. Where did he go wrong? How did it end up like this, why. Why would --
Was it an overheard conversation? Was it Jihoon's connection to Seungcheol? A warning? An execution? Or was it because he was the one who put in the request to view the judgment?
Seungcheol's heart is racing, throwing itself against his chest and each slam shudders him awake with sharp pain.
Jihoon is dead.
Seungcheol thinks he caused it. The tears come, and then Seungcheol is gasping for breath, drowning in himself. Each sob claws itself out of him, balloons in his throat, and drops itself into his lap like poisonous ghosts. The weight is on his shoulders, on his back, in his chest and Seungcheol can't breath. He fumbles for his phone and clicks on the last number he dialed.
Jeonghan picks up on the first ring. Seungcheol can not speak, can only heave great shuddering breathes into his mobile phone.
Jeonghan does not ask, of course he wouldn't, since he knows. Seungcheol sobs even harder. But for all its power, there's a relief to it. To Jeonghan. To know that Jeonghan knows.
"Listen to my voice Seungcheol," Jeonghan's voice is light, soothing. Like a balm to his ears, "Breathe. There we go."
Seungcheol gasps and chokes, but he breathes. He breathes in.
"Good. Now hold. One, two, three. Four. Five. Good. Slowly, breathe out."
The air slithers out of his teeth. The pressure in his chest lightens.
"Good, now again. Breathe in for me Seungcheol. Like that. One... two.. three...."
Like this Seungcheol just listens to Jeonghan, just the timbre of his voice, until the meaning passes away and every syllable becomes sound only. Jeonghan, Jeonghan, Jeonghan.
“Can I trust him?” Seungcheol allows himself this. It won’t change anything. It’s just for his nerves. He’s not going to ask anything more.
“You can trust him,” Jeonghan is firm, “I know him.”
“You know him, or you will?”
“I will,” Jeonghan’s voice hovers, “He’s a good man.”
“Kim Mingyu, pleased to meet your acquaintance,” Mingyu reached his hand out, bowing slightly. They’re meeting in the park by the Han River. There’s people all around them, strolling after dinner, having a picnic, busy enough that they don’t stand out, but dim enough that their faces were impossible to make out from a distance.
“Choi Seungcheol, likewise,” Seungcheol shook his hand. Mingyu was extremely handsome in a boyish way. Toothy smile, bright eyes. He must be younger, to still have this level of enthusiasm.
“How can I help you? You didn’t say much on the phone.”
“I can’t —,” Seungcheol backtracks, starts again, “I want to talk to you about Lee Jihoon.”
Mingyu’s face turns white, “If you think I have anything to do with —,” He clams his mouth shut, “I don’t know anything.”
“No, no. I am —” Seungcheol pauses, “I was, his friend. We were both investigating the same … case.”
You can trust him Jeonghan had said. Seungcheol’s gut is knotting over and sideways. He pushes the feeling down, “I think … he was killed because of who we were looking into.” At Mingyu’s incredulous look, Seungcheol presses on, “I know he was killed because he was calling me when he was shot.”
Mingyu’s mouth falls open, comically large.
“I trust you not to make this the news tomorrow,” Seungcheol feels tired all of a sudden, “This isn’t some one-shot wonder event to make your break.”
“Of course, I know that. I know …”
“Before that. I want you to start last Tuesday. The press conference about the mayor candidates. You talked to him afterwards, and then you went to have ramen. Was that the first time you met?
Mingyu nods jerkily, “He, interrupted one of my questions. I wanted to give him an earful about etiquette and how controlling journalism was bad for democracy,” his hand shimmies, “And all that jazz. He just listened, and then he gave me his business card with a time and place.”
“What was your question?”
“One of the candidates is Jung Kunhee. I wanted to ask if the police investigated if he had any involvement with his brother’s suicide. Inspector Lee cut me off as soon as I named Jung Kunhee.”
Oh Jihoon. Seungcheol’s heart shuddered, “And at the restaurant? What did you talk about?”
Mingyu shook his head, “He didn’t say anything. He just wanted to know what I know, and why I was interested.”
“We just met,” Mingyu throws him a look, “I don’t know if I can trust you.”
Seungcheol was so tired of thinking about the past, “Then let me tell you something that will get me killed. The chairman of Jung Industries, Jung Daejun, his daughter was kidnapped a year ago. Did you know?”
Mingyu’s hand twitches like he wants to write this down, but to his credit, he does not get out paper or phone. He shakes his head, “Not at all.”
“That’s because they had paid off the police to hide the case. Jung Daejun got his own lawyer to make sure the kidnappers didn’t go to jail. I suspect they were working with the Hyupgaek-tang but something went wrong and they didn’t want that connection coming to light especially when …” Seungcheol blinks, “Especially when his brother is running for mayor this year.” Oh.
Mingyu stares at him, expectant. Seungcheol files that thought away, later. He’ll follow that up.
“Jihoon was investigating the Tang in Gimpo when …” Seungcheol placed his hands in front of him, palm up, “Please. I need to know what he died for.”
Mingyu sighs. “Alright,” He looks into the distance for a few seconds, and then his face focuses, “Do you remember the suicide of Jung Jae-in, from 5 years ago? He was the chairman of the property subsidiary under the Jung Conglomerate.”
Seungcheol shakes his head, "Not at all. I don't even pay attention to suicides."
"Let me jog your memory. This is the Uncle that was linked to the Hyugaek-tang . Within the journalism circle, we suspected for a long time that the Jungs cooperated with the jopol and invested in the black market, but before we had enough information for a feature, there was a whistleblower on Jung Jae-in."
“I remember this,” Seungcheol taps his fingers against the table. These were facts that came up in Hansol’s initial research, so long ago now.
“They got him for the usual. Money laundering, tax evasion, prostitute procurement. And a few more to make the news spicier, soliciting minors, sexual assault, child trafficking. It was a field day in the newsroom.”
“And then he killed himself from the shame, is that how it goes?” Seungcheol asks.
“That’s what they say,” Mingyu continues, “But you know what was strange? The Jungs are Catholic. They normally have a wake for a week with an open casket. But there was only a funeral, and it was closed casket. Then he was cremated straight away.”
“How did he die? Officially?”
“Carbon monoxide poisoning. Inhaling smoke from burning briquettes.”
“But that is not how he died …” Seungcheol watches Mingyu’s stoic face, “How do you know?”
“The undertakers have low security, no one would rob from them.”
“You opened the casket?” Seungcheol says, disbelieving.
“Mhm, stayed until after closing,” Mingyu leans forward, “He didn't suffocate himself. He was shot. Twice.” Mingyu tapped his cheeks. “Once under each eye. I didn’t measure it but the holes were tiny, less than 0.3. You don’t kill a man with a low-calibre firearm. And no one shoots like that.” Mingyu makes the shape of a gun with his hand, holds it against his temple.
“Click click, boom” he jerks his hand, “This is a kill.” He taps each cheek again, “This? This is an execution.”
To hide his trembling, Seungcheol clenches his jaw so hard he feels the pain in his teeth.
“This type of kill is a signature. They’re sending a message. They want them to know he was killed.”
Seungcheol breathes in, breathes out, “Who though? And to whom? From the mafia to the Jungs?”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Mingyu leans back, “I had an appointment to interview Jung Jae-in, on the day after he died.”
“No,” Seungcheol whispers.
“Yes,” Mingyu says, soft like a secret, “I think he was supposed to be the whistleblower. But in the end he became the scapegoat. This is Jung to Jung.”
“Why?” Seungcheol asks, “You’re young, you have so much in front of you and you’re going after the Jungs? Why?”
“It’s a long story.”
“We have time, and I need to know.”
“Alright,” Mingyu stretches out, “I told this to Jihoon as well.”
“Fifteen years ago I lived in the east. With my mum and my father and my sister. Both of them worked 16 hours a day to just pay the bills, in a job that broke his back and destroyed her lungs. It was government housing sure, but we were comfortable and happy."
"You know what happened? My mum always gets paid on Wednesdays. In cash, because her workplace didn't want to pay taxes. One Wednesday she got mugged on her way home, just walking from the bus stop to our apartment. Boohoo. The rent doesn't care. Electricity doesn't care. My sister and I took odd jobs that week. And then there was a fist-fight in the neighborhood and my father shattered his jaw breaking it up. Hospital. And then my sister got groped walking home from tutoring.”
“Do you mind if I smoke?” Mingyu asks, already reaching into his pockets.
“No, go ahead,” Seungcheol waves his hand.
“Those were the worst days of my life. My dad couldn't work, my mum worked three jobs, my sister had panic attacks if she got off the bus and I wasn't there waiting for her. But," Mingyu took a breath and the smoke came out like a cloud, "This is not the story I want to tell."
"There were more police reports. The government picked up on it and called my home a ghetto. More police on the streets. But the crime kept rising up. People getting stabbed, drugs being found on students, prostitutes on the corners.”
“And then they resold the land to a property developer who was going to gentrify the whole area. Some kind of 'modern living hub' they called it. New everything. Apartments, shops, a kindergarten, a restaurant by a famous chef. And of course, everyone who lived there got evicted."
Mingyu took another drag of his cigarette, looking into the distance. “I grew up there my whole life and it was always such a quiet, peaceful neighbourhood. Sure there were some kids causing trouble and there were some shady dealings on at night, but overall it was somewhere you could raise a family. And there was a community. Everyone knew everyone. You couldn't kick a football into a pot plant without an ahjumma telling her church friend telling your mum.”
“But all of a sudden there was so much trouble, so much crime. But no one knew the people who started it. The thief, the brawlers, the pervert. And you know what the strange thing was? This all happened one year before we got evicted. Choi, you’re a detective, figure it out.”
Seungcheol is stunned, but the pieces are coming together. What he heard from Jihoon, what Hansol figured out in the beginning, what Wonwoo had confirmed. And now Mingyu.
“I went back there years later, after I graduated and got this job. It looks completely different. Feels different too. Even stayed around until 10pm waiting for something to happen. But the streets were completely clean. In both senses," Mingyu flicks ash onto the ground.
“I went online to see what an apartment cost. We rented ours back then, but I remember it was around 300 million. Now?" Mingyu shakes his head, “Six-fucking-hundred.”
“And that's not all. The new metro extension the government announced last year? Goes right through the place. Mingyu drew a circle and slashed through it with a finger, "And now the house prices are shooting into the sky. It’s going to be a billion by spring.”
"Anyway, you might be wondering why I told this story. Here's the punchline Choi. Those property developers? BSK.”
Seungcheol freezes, "They're...."
"Owned by Jung Industries,” Mingyu laughs, “Those petty crriminals that destroyed my home? Hyupgaek-tang. Do you see now?”
Seungcheol looks at Mingyu, “If you don't mind me asking, where did your family go, after …”
“There's always places to rent if you have no bottom line. We lived in a basement one-room for a while until dad got better. Made our commute twice as long though. And then I got a scholarship for university and worked part-time,” Mingyu shrugs, “Thanks for asking, but we're all in a better place now."
'"A better place as in...?"
Mingyu winces at the words he chose, "They're alive. Thank god. But I don't talk to them anymore, just send them money once a month."
"Did something happen?"
"No no no. I decided to keep a distance. It's safer for them, I don't want to put them at risk. It hurts, but the less I have, the less I lose, and the less they can use against me," Mingyu shakes his head, "You should do the same. Call your family. Tell them you love them."
Seungcheol looks away, "Did you have someone you love?"
Seungcheol doesn't answer, Mingyu peers at him through the darkness. What he sees, Seungcheol does not know.
Mingyu looks away, "I could've. But I couldn't bear the thought of hurting them."
The evening crowd has scattered. Now, it’s just the two of them in the dark and the Han River glittering as it flowed across Seoul.
"I'll work with you," Seungcheol finally says. With every word, he feels like he's placing his neck on a guillotine, waiting for the inevitable drop, "I'll get you the evidence you need if you promise to publish."
"I promise," Mingyu is earnest, but so, so tired, "You're, you're incredible, to even try."
For Jihoon. “This is dangerous for you too, you know,” Seungcheol says, “Reporters have been killed for trying.”
“I know,” Mingyu replies, “My, friend — my colleague. He was killed three years ago. I know the risks. But I will do it. I'm going to dedicate my whole life to this.”
"Even if you lose it?"
Mingyu breathes out, "I have to. I can't sit by and do nothing. I'm just one person, but there will be others after me. They'll take up my work, like I've taken up the work of those before me."
"Aren't you afraid?"
"I'm fucking terrified," Mingyu lets out a laugh, "Aren't you?"
Seungcheol laughs with him, it's tight in his throat and it leaves a taste in his heart. He thinks of Hansol, so young but so eager to try, eyes full of vision. He thinks of Jeon Wonwoo, older and so resigned. He thinks of Jeonghan.
Seungcheol gets out of bed. It's still twilight and Jeonghan is dead asleep next to him. The floor is cold beneath his feet and Seungcheol walks out of the bedroom.
The bathroom light stings when he flips the switch. Stark white fizzle back into details. In the mirror, Seungcheol sees the dark shadows beneath his own eyes and the bright yellow of a post-it note.
Cheollie uses both mouthwash and floss.
Seungcheol stares at it. There's an open notepad by their toothbrushes and on it is scribbled ordered kimchi fried rice for breakfast, restaurant gave me two?. God, he supposes Jeonghan will do that in the morning.
Seungcheol rips that page out. The page underneath reads likes to bite shoulders. Seungcheol rips out that one too, and the one underneath that as well. He rips until there is a handful of crunched paper in his hand, limp like a dead dove. He takes his toothbrush and his razor.
He rips the post-it note of the mirror. There's still residue on the surface and Seungcheol rubs it off with his thumb, like the way he rubs sauce off the corner of Jeonghan's mouth.
He walks out. There's a sticky note on the wall next to the bedroom door (SC: treat him like a little sister). There's another on the kitchen, and half of the ones on the wall are all about Seungcheol.
Seungcheol is the youngest in his family.
SC: Nothing too sour or spicy.
He can hear Jeonghan's voice in his head, from how many months ago, clutching onto the clothes on his back and begging, I don't want to forget you.
There's a notebook, just for him. Seungcheol remembers, Jeonghan always wrote in it before he came over. It's still there on the kitchen counter and Seungcheol takes it. The sticky notes he will throw away but the notebook — he places it in his bag.
Seungcheol walks back to the bedroom. Jeonghan is still asleep, hair fanning out on the pillow, moonlight casting soft shadows on his cheeks. He hopes that one day, when its all over, he can come back to this. Seungcheol bends down and presses his lips against Jeonghan’s forehead, as soft as possible.
Jeonghan stirs at his touch. He opens his eyes, heavy and dragged with sleep. Seungcheol has watched him wake up so many times before, but now, it’s different. Jeonghan looks at Seungcheol, blinks. Once, twice. Seungcheol watches as his fingers freeze, then grip the sheets, drawing it around himself.
“Sorry, I must have had too much to drink,” Jeonghan makes a slow show of yawning, “What was your name again?”
“Don’t worry about me,” Seungcheol brushes the hair off Jeonghan’s face, tucks a strand behind his ear, “Go back to sleep Hannie.”