Endless Night || Heartless City Sequel
Chapter Seven – Gambit
Paksa Adeul turned and looked at Soo-min. She stood directly facing him, her usually expressive eyes hooded. The only sign of her emotions were the two bright spots of color riding on her cheekbones in her otherwise pale face. The new speed at which she could now harness her emotions unsettled him. Where had that expressive girl gone? Her unexpected proposal had thrown him off balance, and it cost him precious seconds to regain himself; seconds she was more than willing to take advantage of as she moved quickly to press her case.
Soo-min watched Paksa’s lips tighten before they parted and then closed again, whatever words he meant to speak remaining unvoiced. She repeated her proposal, carefully watching him for signs of reaction.
“You need information on ‘Vanity’. I can give you information. I’m far less obvious than trying to flirt with escorts to get information, which doesn’t seem to be working for you.” At this, she directed a pointed look at Soo. He glowered at her. “Besides,” she added, “the girls rotate their shifts, so you’ll have a hard time establishing a connection with someone who could help you. I, on the other hand, am on the permanent staff. Since my job description doesn’t require me to smile and “entertain” clients if the occasion demands, I’m less noticeable,”
Paksa’s lips curled in distaste at her remark. Soo let out a sudden, barking laugh. He moved from his position next to Paksa and leaned against a table, hands balancing against its edge, “Let me get this straight, you want to work with us? You do remember not one hour ago you tried to shoot me? And now you want to be friends and work together? Really?” He shook his head in disbelief.
“Soo.” Paksa warned, volumes in the one word.
“I have my reasons.” Soo-min briefly answered.
“Whatever your reasons might be, I’m not interested in your offer.” Paksa’s tone was harsh and final, brokering no argument.
Soo-min had been expecting nothing less. After all, she knew firsthand how much Paksa “welcomed” outside assistance. But this time she was prepared.
“You might want to think a little more before you reject my offer. She said, stalking forward and closing the distance between them, “First off, if you reject my assistance then you’re a fool.” She ignored Soo’s sudden intake of breath and Paksa’s narrowed eyes. “However, I’ll allow you to reconsider. You have three days to think about it. I won’t raise any alarms at the club if I see you. But, if after three days I don’t hear from you, then I’m going to the police and informing them that their records are incorrect, and two wanted criminals are, in fact, alive. Even if you managed to be pardoned taking your history into account,” Here, she looked straight at Paksa, “I doubt the same will apply to your man.”
Soo gritted out, “You’re playing dirty. I should have—”
“I’m not playing,” Soo-min injected, cutting off his next words, “Don’t assume that I want to be working with you. But I need information, and what I am able to gather myself isn’t enough. That’s all this is: an exchange of information. Five years taught me to expect nothing more.” For one small second, she thought she saw regret running through Paksa’s face, but then he blinked and it was gone.
She leaned over, lifted one hand and traced out her phone number in the collected dust on a small table. She straightened back up and regarded the two men, taking time to memorize what was perhaps the last sight of Shi-hyun she’d get. It was foolishness on her part, but she knew she would later retrace each feature in the lonely solitude of her thoughts.
“I’ll be expecting a call in three days.”
With that parting shot, she turned and left. The ghosts of the bleak room followed her like unwelcome companions. With each step she took, the sound of her boots felt like the nails being driven into her heart.
Soo-min managed to make it all the way back home in one piece. She clamped her mouth shut to prevent the broken noises that were threatening to erupt from her throat and fumbled with her keys, desperately jamming it into the lock and scrambling to turn it. She barely took one step into her apartment before she sunk onto the ground. She dimly registered a sharp pain in her knees when they hit the wooden floor as all her pent-up emotions washed over her. The unanticipated, harsh reality of Shi-hyun after all the years was too much for her to handle.
Minutes? Hours? later she leaned her head back against the wall, feeling the final tears leak from her eyes and run down her cheeks. I should call Shin. He’ll be worried. I left so abruptly. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and saw ten missed calls. Scrolling through her call log, she saw that each one was from Shin. She dialed his number. After one ring, he picked up, his voice tight with worry.
“Mina! Are you Ok? Did you not see my calls? What happened?”
“I’m fine, Shin.” Her voice sounded distant and muffled to her, as though she was speaking from far away. She cleared her throat.
“Your voice doesn’t sound fine. I can barely understand you!”
Soo-min closed her eyes at Shin’s concerned voice.
“I’m okay, honestly. Something came up so I had to take off like that, I’m really sorry. I’m sorry, but I’m feeling tired. Do you mind if we speak tomorrow?”
She ended the call to Shin’s worried, but understanding reassurances. He would have questions tomorrow, but she didn’t have the energy to think up any plausible excuses right now. With leaden feet, she stumbled into her bedroom, collapsing on the bed still fully clothed. Her face felt raw, like it had been rubbed in sand, but she couldn’t muster the energy to do anything except turn her head into the pillow.
Please don’t let me dream tonight, she thought before she succumbed to oblivion.
Soo stood beyond the door frame watching Paksa, who was facing the window and staring beyond it stonily. He was tightly checking himself; if he allowed his control to relax, then he would snap and destroy everything and everyone in sight until the rage within him quelled. His fingers clenched against the thick folder he clutched in one hand.
Soo had deposited that folder into Paksa’s hands after receiving it from his police contact. Soo had briefly flipped through the contents himself and felt his stomach turn as he read through the reports. Yoon Soo-min’s file was relatively standard up until a year ago, then she had been abducted for three days, and from then on her file had become stuffed with red tape and psych evaluations. Soo had felt his skin crawl at her medical reports. He was no idiot. He’d seen the way Paksa handled Soo-min’s kidnapper and felt the tension between the two at the meeting to other night, and guessed that those two shared some kind of complicated, unresolved history. Soo also knew that Paksa would never let anything or anyone, even himself, compromise his mission.
“She’s on indefinite leave from the force.” Paksa’s voice cut through Soo’s thoughts.
“My contact told me that she was actually seconds from quitting, but an old supervisor talked her out of it. But, for all intents and purposes she’s pretty much done. There’s so much red tape in her file that she’ll have to fight through for the rest of her career.”
“Whatever her superiors said, her claims aren’t unfounded. She’s putting together the pieces that we aren’t able to.” Paksa turned and strode away from the window, “I’m going to see Woo-ha.” Paksa said as he headed towards the exit, shaking his head at Soo’s offer to join. He would fill him in on the details later. His First Lieutenant was too quick on picking up emotional cues and Paksa didn’t want any witnesses around after his conversation with the Doctor.
“Hallucinations?” Woo-ha looked up from the test results he was currently poring over at Paksa Adeul. He’d been surprised when he received the call from Paksa saying he wanted to meet in person, immediately, “Caused by the tainted drugs?”
In response, Paksa handed the contents of Soo-min’s findings as well as her medical files to Woo-ha. He fought the urge to pace up and down the laboratory as Woo-ha read through the pages, pausing every now and then to jot down notes. An hour passed before Woo-ha lifted his head from the material, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
Woo-ha cleared his throat and Paksa’s attention zoned in on him.
“Your hypothesis would make this all make sense. The drugs could very well be causing extreme hallucinations that ends up killing people. This case, and this case,” he pointed at two of the witness reports, “show that that the victims took their own lives. In the context of what you’re telling me, the hallucinations were so vivid that the victims mistook them for reality and killed themselves in an attempt to escape. The police are incorrectly attributing overdose as the cause, but it might be the neurological effects of the drugs that’s causing the deaths.”
“Furthermore,” Woo-ha added, resisting the urge look away from Paksa’s piercing stare as he absorbed the information, “this file includes cases that we weren’t aware of. Whoever this ‘Yoon Soo-min’ is, she’s located information that we were missing and there is now evidence that the drugs aren’t simply tainted, they might’ve been chemically altered to attack the temporal and occipital lobes, so that the victim’s memory turns against him. If this is true, and I’ll run some tests to confirm it, then this chemical combination was created for only one purpose, to destroy the mind of whoever takes the drug. All it would take is for one person to take the drug in a crowded area and they could unknowingly turn the venue into a bloodbath.”
“And when people begin to get suspicious, they will trace the drugs back and the blame would fall on us,” Paksa said, assessing the dangerous reality of the situation. Woo-ha recognized the tone in his voice from his phone call weeks ago. That unmistakable undercurrent of worry caused an awful sinking feeling in Woo-ha’s stomach.
Paksa Adeul stood outside the building, debating whether or not he should go in or call off his request for a meeting. He’d maintained a friendly, if not slightly distant relationship with Jin-sook in the past years. He didn’t want to further involve his “family” in his affairs, especially after past events. It had been at his encouragement that Jin-sook had taken up another line of work that was exponentially less dangerous. He knew that if she caught an inkling of his current dealings, then she would have stepped, no, leapt back into the darkness with him. To be honest, he missed her words of counsel, but he’d made his decision five years ago to sever ties between family and business. Soo was the sole exception. He had refused to back down from Shi-hyun’s request to leave and the two had almost come to bloody blows. But, Jin-sook deserved a chance to live in the daylight. She’d spent too long steeped in the affairs of the night. If she knew his true intentions, she would have fought tooth and nail to walk beside him to the bitter end.
He’d just made up his mind to call off the meeting; he would speak to Jin-sook and ask forgiveness for canceling, when the arrival of his First Lieutenant halted his decision. Paksa raised an inner eyebrow as he took in Soo’s appearance. It seemed that he’d taken a little bit more care than usual with his attire. Some things haven’t changed. Although he’d never brought it up to Soo, he’d been aware of Soo’s growing fascination with his noona five years ago, though their interactions had been cut short with Soo’s untimely “demise”. But Soo had never mentioned Jin-sook’s name during the time they’d been abroad. They both shared the characteristic of being intensely private regarding past relations. However, Soo wasn’t known as “Smiles” in this world for nothing. Over the years, Paksa had witnessed more than one lady fall victim to Soo’s smooth words and masculine charms, although each relationship had been casual and fleeting.
It seemed now “Smiles” was having a hard time summoning one to his face. Paksa watched the pulse in Soo’s throat jump with nervousness. Clasping a hand on Soo’s shoulder, he motioned towards the door. Truthfully speaking, he wasn’t sure how he felt about the possible lingering feelings his First Lieutenant might carry for Jin-sook, the only woman he considered family; but if anything, Soo would keep Jin-sook from guessing exactly what business it was that brought him back to Seoul.
Well, that had gone disastrously wrong, Soo thought dejectedly, glancing over at the figures of Paksa and Jin-Sook in conversation. He really must be losing his touch: first the debacle at “Vanity”, and now his inability to carry on a decent conversation with Jin-sook. He’d been stuck momentarily with his previous crush when he’d seen her, she seemed to have grown younger with age. Perhaps living outside of the darkness that she had been in for so many years had allowed her to reclaim a bit of her stolen youth.
Soo knew he’d gained a certain gravity and serious attitude during his years working with Paksa Adeul that set him in a different light from his former notorious playboy attitude. Relationships were a luxury he didn’t indulge in, he’d shared various women’s beds for personal gratification only. Still, he hadn’t expected to be teasingly scolded for not informing Jin-sook that he was alive and that Paksa had actually informed her a while ago.
“I recall one of our last conversations,” Jin-sook said, raising an eyebrow and speaking to him in a suggestive tone that made it crystal clear which conversation she was referring to. “I would have thought you would have had the decency to at least reach out.” While Soo had been figuring out how to respond to the innuendo, she dismissed him and turned her entire attention to Paksa.
Now Soo sat there, nursing his third drink of the night, half-listening to Paksa smoothly sidestep Jin-sook’s questions regarding his reasons for being back in Seoul. He found himself stealing glances at her over the rim of his glass. He wasn’t attracted to solely her beauty; It was her confidence and inner strength that he found himself fascinated with, again.
It seems that absence does make the heart grow fonder, he miserably thought as he drained his glass. I am screwed.
Paksa Adeul watched the sun beginning to sink behind a building, its radiance casting a halo around the structure.
“What are you going to do?” Soo asked. Paksa didn’t acknowledge the question. He was buried in his own thoughts, considering all the possibilities and the infinite resulting consequences. He wanted Soo-min as far away from his world as possible, but against all odds, she’d ended up buried neck high and was sinking.
“Time is running out.” Soo added. Paksa had relayed Woo-ha’s findings to him and he felt like they were treading on very, very shaky ground. Paksa’s hand reached for his phone.
“You already know what you’re going to do.” Soo said, realization dawning on him.
“I knew it from the moment she walked away.”
Soo-min stood once again in Paksa’s former residence, feeling a bit more in control than she was the last time she’d been here. The past didn’t seem to press down as hard, although she could still feel memories swirling around her in the dark and barren room.
She turned her attention back to Paksa. She’d been surprised when he’d called her. A part of her had thought that he would have chosen to ignore her and her threats.
“This is the deal,” Paksa spoke, drawing her out of her thoughts, “You will use your position at the club to eavesdrop and gather and report any information about a gang associated with Vanity or drugs.” He reached into his pocket and produced a familiar-looking white card. “You will also report anything you hear about ‘The Madame’ or ‘Mi-young’.”
Soo-min reached forward to take the card from his offered hand, brushing fingers against his as she grasped it. The slide of skin against skin unbalanced her. Willing her pulse to stop accelerating, she examined the card.
“The Madame? Mi-young? Who are they?” She asked.
“It’s your job to find out. That’s what Soo was trying to discover before you interrupted.” Soo, standing a bit back, rolled his eyes at the comment.
“Fine.” Soo-min replied.
“If you aren’t able to produce any results within two weeks, then we’re done. I don’t deal with incompetence.”
His words hit a nerve. Soo-min’s wariness left her and she broke her own rule of not engaging. She strode up to him, stepping close enough that she had to lean back to stare into his eyes,
“Don’t try to intimidate me. Harsh language isn’t going to deter me. And, you aren’t the worst thing I’ve survived.” Bitterness laced her words. She saw his eyes widen fractionally before returning to their shuttered expression.
“I’ll be in touch.”
The words lingered in the air as she walked out of the room. She didn’t dare turn around to look at Paksa for fear of what she might see. For the first time, she wondered if this “brilliant” move of hers wasn’t actually terrible mistake. She had bartered the only pawn she had, herself, in this game, and with just one wrong move, there would be a price to pay.
Author’s Note: Chapter Eight will see Soo-min dive deeper into Vanity as she starts to delve into the layers and finally there will be some insight into what’s driving Shi-hyun. A key figure will have a memorable appearance in the next Chapter as well. And you’ll finally get an idea of what I’ve been talking about with my “steam” comments… Thanks as always to lilahozi for the endless hours of editing and discussion! Thanks as well to Jess and Akiko!