Endless Night || Heartless City Sequel
Chapter Nine – Second Act
Soo-min winced and shifted slightly against the car seat. The tenderness of her skin from her recent tattooing experience was a constant throb. The tattoo was situated high up on her inner thigh, and unless someone was peeking up her skirt, it wouldn’t be visible to others. The tattoo was still fresh enough that her skin felt rubbed raw. She hadn’t even bothered to closely examine it, just slapped a bandage over it, but not before catching a glimpse of the crimson petals spiraling along her skin. Objectively speaking, it was an exquisite work of art, but what it represented made her itch to claw it off.
She’d been officially inducted into the Lilies a few days ago when she’d gone to Vanity and let a man, with black ink twisting and weaving across every visible inch of his skin, place the mark on her. Tomorrow, she would meet the woman in charge of new recruits, Mistress Sang-hee, and learn what was expected. Soo-min knew that Vanity’s opulence couldn’t conceal the stench of something foul and rotten that oozed beneath the gilded surface. The tension was starting to get to her. She’d been overreacting, jumping at shadows, spooked by loud noises. Tonight, she wanted to just curl up in bed and seek a respite from the strain of the past few days. Facing the consequences of her decision could wait until tomorrow. But before she had the chance, her phone rang. She couldn’t deny Paksa Adeul’s order to meet. She’d avoided his previous call, and the tone in his voice brooked no argument. She didn’t deny his request – she knew that she was walking a dangerous line with her attitude towards their ‘partnership.’ They would meet immediately.
Twenty minutes later, she was on her way to his place, unable to shake the feeling that this was all a very bad idea. Her thoughts were all jumbled and she was having trouble fighting off unwelcome flashbacks. Soo-min touched the bandage one more time as the car pulled up. She stepped out and with a slight wince, walked down the stairs. The two men were already there: Paksa stood by the far wall while Soo raised an eyebrow at her slightly unkempt appearance. Soo-min resisted the urge to comb fingers through her slightly mussed hair.
Screw formality. Soo-min settled into a chair. After a brief pause, the two men followed suit, each sitting on one side of her.
“For someone who blackmailed us into working together, you’re not being very helpful. This deal was not ‘we chase you for information and you ignore phone calls’.” Soo said.
The culmination of pressure and stress that had built over the last few days loosened Soo-min’s tongue. “I’ve been busy. I’m not in the mood for your antagonistic comments. Watch it or…”
“Or? You’re in no position to be giving ultimatums. You’re the one unable to follow the simple rules, like a child. Maybe you need to be punished like one?”
“Try it and…”
“Do you have any information?” Paksa’s voice cut through the hostile exchange.
Soo-min paused in mid-threat, meeting Paksa’s gaze. It had been easier when she’d been focused on Soo… She took an unsteady breath. Tightness pulled in her chest. She willed her eyes away from his mouth. Useless. Memories of lips pressing demandingly against hers, hands drawing her close and trailing along her skin. She gulped, hoping Paksa didn’t notice her lapse in focus, and looked away into the darkened room.
“I know for sure that The Madame is a key figure at Vanity, but I’m still not sure of what her exact connection is. I have a couple of leads I will pursue tomorrow. When I find out more I will be in touch. That’s all I have for now.” She shifted uncomfortably, unable to hide the spasm of pain that the movement caused.
“Why are you wincing? And you were walking a bit stiffly. Did someone attack you?” Soo’s questions caused Soo-min to freeze.
“Are you hurt?” Paksa asked. Avoid, Evade, Re-direct. The desperate words rang through her mind and she scrambled to figure out a way to deflect their curiosity. She didn’t want Paksa or Soo to pursue the matter any further.
“I cut myself shaving. I haven’t been sleeping well.” Lame, lame, lame.
“I can see the edge of a bandage. How badly did you cut yourself ‘shaving’?” Soo asked, not convinced by her excuse. Soo-min hadn’t realized how much skin she had exposed when she sat down. Shit.
“Were you looking up my dress? No wonder you failed so miserably at Vanity.”
Soo’s ensuing violent denial changed the topic of conversation and Soo-min managed to dodge any further questions. For the rest of the brief meeting, she kept her eyes firmly fixed away from Paksa’s, and tried not to fidget under his penetrating gaze.
For the second time in two days Soo-min tried not to fidget while being scrutinized. Mistress Sang-hee, the woman in charge of training the Lilies, cut a stern figure. The clack of her heels echoed unpleasantly through Soo-min’s ears as Sang-hee circled her. She examined Soo-min from head to toe before dismissing her with a shake of her head.
“You’re a hopeless case, all gaunt and haggard with dark circles under your eyes. Clients won’t want you. There’s a lot of work to be done before you’re even close to being presentable.”
To her chagrin, Soo-min hadn’t been able to fall asleep after the meeting last night, and there was only so much makeup could do to conceal exhaustion. Mistress Sang-hee looked past Soo-min at the sound of a door opening, “However, you’re not my responsibility. I’ve handed you off to someone else.”
Soo-min had a sinking feeling she knew who that person was. When she turned around and saw the sharply dressed figure, her suspicions were confirmed.
“Follow me,” Min-jin ordered before leaving the room and walking down the hall. Soo-min followed, nervousness in her every step. He turned a corner and entered a room. It could have been a twin to the one where Soo-min had failed her ‘test’. Is the room choice intentional…? He motioned Soo-min to sit as he himself settled into one of the couches. Soo-min perched on edge of the seat of a couch, maintaining a careful distance. Min-jin looked at her irritably.
“That was a test. You failed.”
Soo-min blinked in confusion. “What?”
He tapped his fingers against the edge of the couch. “When you’re with a client, you don’t make them shout across the room at you. You sit here.” He gestured sharply to the empty place next to him. Soo-min stood and slowly sat next to him, feeling his irritation crackling in the air between them.
“I can feel you trembling from all the way here.” He reached out and grasped her chin, tilting her head to meet his eyes. “You claimed to have worked in this field before but veterans don’t act like a deer in headlights.”
“Don’t you think you’re laying on the intimidation a little bit too thickly?” Soo-min snapped before she thought. She tried to wrench her head from Min-jin’s grasp, only to have him tighten his grip and pull her closer.
“If you think this is intimidation, then Vanity will eat you alive.” He broke his hold and indicated to a bottle of whiskey. Soo-min poured a drink and handed it to him. In a backhanded way, Min-jin had done her a favor, she had been treading too timidly and he’d snapped her out of it. He drained the glass before setting it on the table with a resounding ‘thunk.’
“Apparently guiding newbies is now part of my job description, and your former training must have been abysmal for the number of times you’ve screwed up in the last five minutes.” He continued in his bored tone, “Normally you’d be punished for the cheek that you just displayed…” Soo-min’s face grew pale but she kept silent, waiting. She poured Min-jin another glass, watching as he lifted it to his mouth. “But, you need a spine to survive here. Don’t show it to anyone else though, or it’ll be ripped out.”
“How long will I be under your ‘tutelage’?” Soo-min asked.
In response Min-jin set down his glass and curled his fingers around the back of Soo-min’s neck, bringing her close enough she could feel the planes of his body. He spread his fingers along her jaw, brushed his thumb roughly over her lips, and looked into her wide eyes. He abruptly released her and walked towards the door, leaving Soo-min reeling behind.
“When you’ve learned how to rid yourself of thoughts of another man, then you’re ready. Men are possessive creatures. They don’t like sharing. I don’t care if he’s alive or dead, banish that man.”
Soo-min was pulled from her thoughts at the exclamation. She’d just finished her third day as a Lily. She’d been confined to her quarters after Min-jin had bluntly listed all her many “areas for improvement”. She knew that she could be tested at any given moment, and had tried to be as mentally prepared as possible.
She hadn’t met any of the other Lilies yet, but she could feel their eyes stabbing into her back when she left at the end of each night. She’d find no allies here.
“Mina, what are you doing here?” Soo-min recognized the owner of the voice. Shin briskly walked down the hall, lengthening his strides to catch up with her. Soo-min felt a pang of remorse. She hadn’t seen Shin since she’d been ‘fired’. He had been kind to her when no one else had been. At any other time she might have even called him ‘friend.’ She owed him an explanation.
“Shin, I…” Her words died on her lips when she saw Shin’s expression. There was no sign of the smile that usually graced his face, and her skin broke out in goose bumps at the look in his eyes. She took a step back.
“Why are you still here?” Shin asked angrily. “I was actually glad when you were fired, that you were leaving the club. But, you’re still here, which means you’re one of them. You of all people.” He took a step towards her, hands tightly balled, “Why?”
Soo-min couldn’t answer, couldn’t give a reason that would wipe the betrayal from Shin’s voice. “Shin, you’re starting to scare me –”
“If it keeps you away from Vanity, then good!”
Soo-min closed her eyes and she fought to continue, “Shin, I can’t leave. Don’t ask me why, but please don’t stand in my way.”
Her breath caught in her throat at his next words. “Stay away from Vanity, stay away from The Lilies, or you’ll end up dead. I warned her too, and the next time I saw her was in the morgue.”
He violently left. Soo-min’s knees buckled and she sunk to the ground.
“I hope I’m not disturbing.”
The Madame of Vanity looked up from the progress report of her newest recruit. A hopeless case indeed…
“Not at all. I knew you were coming.” She set aside the papers and indicated to her assistant to serve Chairman Choi a drink. The Chairman, his tall, powerful figure diminished only slightly by age, handed a folder to her. “I’m sure that you already have these, but these are the results from our lab.”
She skimmed the papers briefly, noted the findings, and handed the papers back.
“Is there a problem?”
“Things are proceeding too slowly. There are a few victims cropping up here and there, but nothing to cause any panic. The police are dismissing the cases as ‘overdoses’. Those fools. We’ve been all but spoon feeding them the information and they still don’t have a clue. Our sponsors aren’t satisfied, in fact, they’re very unhappy with the lack of results. Their orders were to escalate things before they decide to take matters into their own hands. We both don’t want that.”
“There’s no need for threats, especially thinly disguised ones.” The Madame signaled for the assistant to hand the Chairman another folder. His eyes widened as he read the contents.
“I’ve already got a plan in place. I’ve just been waiting for the higher-ups to give the signal.”
The Chairman nodded and then looked at her and waited. Knowing he’d never ask the question, she volunteered the information.
“Your son is handling his re-assignment as expected. He remains unattached and disinterested. More than a few girls have taken it upon themselves to try to melt that ice wall he’s got up, but everyone so far has failed. Not that he lacks for female companionship. A few times he’s been needled about being a ‘nanny’ and ‘guard dog,’ but he efficiently silenced those jeers.”
The Chairman grunted.
“He’ll do as he’s told. He’s good at following orders.” The Chairman stood up. “I’ll wait for your call when your plan has been executed.”
The Madame nodded. “Yoon-mi is waiting for you. Enjoy.” She watched The Chairman’s features rearranged themselves into a lewd expression. Just like his other son. Another single-minded fool, blinded by lust. It seems the one blessing the first son received was the dilution of his father’s blood.
The Madame looked back at the progress report.
“Bring me Choi Min-jin.”
Author’s Note: Finally!! My sincere apologies for the delay in getting this chapter out, there were numerous complications but at long last it’s finished! Many thanks to Vita Orlando for beta-reading, and thanks to lilahozi for the final round of edits, even with a crazy busy schedule! Next chapter is being written now (it’s Paksa centric), with Soo-min walking a dangerous path and everyone has their own agenda…