(Dirty/Clean is a crime action thriller from Seoul Shorts: “Disturbing yet riveting, these short stories will take you to a place you’ve never been before.”)
Revenge was the fine line between getting dirty and coming clean, but could Son Tae Jin make it to the other side alive?
Son Tae Jin
Another winter night fell softly as Son Tae Jin gazed beyond his open window. A cold wind blew into the spacious room, swirled around, and settled down with a soft sigh, but his thoughts and dreams remained scattered somewhere far away. An icicle formed on the window sill, and his whole world went still just like that moment when water dripped but hardened before it could fall.
When that moment passed, nothing had changed.
Below, the streets were still white, still empty. As he looked down at them listlessly, he wondered when the snow would finally melt away. He wondered when he would finally disappear.
He closed the window and turned away from the world outside. He pressed his back against cold glass, then sank to the floor as he looked around his room. Suddenly, his apartment felt empty.
Suddenly, he felt empty.
Not the man, but the quiet, lonely boy. He was five when his home and his family changed, broke. He took care of himself since then, because his mother vanished, and his father turned his back on his son. His childhood was spent living with a faceless father and fighting with boys at school. He always ate alone– cried alone– lived alone. Years passed. Suddenly, he grew up and everything changed again, disappeared. His mother, his father, and that boy…
He forgot them all– there was no one who wanted to remember them, and he left Busan, never once stopping to look back at the place he had once called home or the man he had once called father.
He could not remember his mother’s face.
He arrived in Seoul with nothing but the shirt on his back and a few won in his pockets. He looked at the sky, then. It was the same, but he was different, indifferent.
“There is no right or wrong, no good or bad. There is only survival: A bleak existence of blurring faces and passing years. Emptiness…
What it means to be dirty, but I was never clean, was I?”
He lived without dreams and lost himself in Seoul’s city streets. When he wasn’t working, he was wandering underneath the stars with a different woman in his arms and the same words on his lips. He took a college entrance exam after studying on his own, and much later, he was accepted into Sungkyunkwan School of Law.
He graduated at the top of his class.
From that moment on, doors opened, and he walked through all of the wrong ones. He built his reputation on pile after pile of expensive cases at a prestigious law firm in Seoul. He lost himself in the politics of business– in the feel of money as it weighed heavily in his pockets– in the arms of women who would never love him, but he would never love them, either. He made a few cheap friends who talked behind sunglasses and drove expensive cars. His days and nights were always the same.
Years passed, and suddenly he was older. His life played a monotonous tune. He couldn’t remember who he was or who he once wanted to be.
He was 27 when the rest of his life stretched ahead of him like a shadow that would never reach the sun. That year, he met a man named Ok Dong Gun. He met a man who was the boss of the Twin Dragons, the gangsters of Seoul. He was offered the world on a dirty platter, and he took it. He went independent, opening his own firm and building his reputation on pile after pile of worthless cases.
Five years passed, and he made it to the top by working for Dong Gun, and he made it to the bottom by working for Dong Gun.
Tae Jin got up and walked away from the window– away from the world he had ruined, and slipped between black and white sheets. He lay in bed unable to sleep, restless. The last five years of his life played like a movie in his mind, but the events were all too real.
He had kept his name clean, but his hands had been stained by crimes. Now, someone else was lurking beneath the surface of his skin, fame, and success, because there was some other law that existed outside of the courtroom, a law that thrived on injustice. It was the law of the streets– the law of the Twin Dragons who controlled almost all of Seoul– the law of Ok Dong Gun. After he had become Dong Gun’s right hand man, it was a law that Tae Jin had lived by.
Would it he die by it, too?
“No one is clean and everyone is dirty.”
Dong Gun had told him that the first time they had met. Tae Jin still remembered his first case that had been filled with lies, his first suitcase that had been filled with money.
He finally gave up on sleep.
He got out of bed and found himself staring blankly at the midnight sky. Would he ever escape the grime and grit of his youth? The sad life he had lived in that small house he would never call home and the streets of Busan that led to a sea and a horizon he would never reach, would they always haunt him?
He fell asleep three pills later, but woke up before dawn with hot sweat dripping down his back. The sheets were clinging to his skin. The pills had stopped working. Too much, he had taken them too much for them to be of any use anymore. He was awake again, and he couldn’t forget the truth– not tonight, maybe tomorrow…
He had closed a case yesterday. A woman had been raped by Dong Gun, but a small bribe had been enough to make her settle outside of the eyes of the public, outside of the scales of justice, or maybe the scales had just been tipped in the wrong direction again by the heavy weight of money.
“Everyone had a price, and for the right price anyone could be bought.”
It’s what Dong Gun had always said, had always paid. But, the price hadn’t been right this time. Nothing had. The woman had been found hanging from a noose in the bathroom by her four-year old boy last night. Her face and story had been splashed across the evening news within hours. The reporter had told a story about a poor woman who worked as a hostess for a living and her bastard– now orphaned, child. The cause of her suicide remained unnamed.
She had only appeared for a moment, but it was long enough for him to recognize her face, and he had been unable to forget her face since then.
“She was just a stranger”, he had said to himself. “It’s none of my business. It’s not my problem.”
But, he couldn’t take comfort in his own words, because he didn’t mean them.
It was winter, and it was cold, and everything was dying, but his heart kept pumping blood through his veins. He kept breathing– kept living, but his guilt and his shame would have killed him if they could have formed anything substantial enough to cut through his flesh and bone. He couldn’t bring himself to step outside, because they might recognize him. They might name him.
His hands were dirty– not with blood, but blame.
After all, he was the cause.
He was a criminal.
Tae Jin disappeared.
At night he fought with a snarl of thoughts that kept him awake and wove meaninglessly in search of explanations. He couldn’t count how many nights he had spent unable to sleep. Time stopped, blurred, and refused to drip from his mind.
He found himself staring beyond his window, again, and he wondered if the ghost of the boy he had been would ever appear in front of him and take him away from the man he had become. He would never be able to forget any of it again, not the way he had forgotten it for so long. His mother, his father, the boy that no one wanted remember… Her suicide… Her little boy…
They were all memories that were trapped and frozen beneath his skin.
The same weary strain played on and on through his mind endlessly. He fell asleep for a few hours, woke up, ate, walked the streets of Seoul aimlessly, hoped for that missing thing to fall from the sky, searched every corner for it, but never found it, came home, and then drank until he passed out on the floor.
He was becoming his father, and he spent some of his nights in the arms of a faceless woman who smelled like roses and soju. There, with his head on her chest and spit dripping from the corner of his mouth, he sank into oblivion, into her. He always left quickly and quietly in the cold morning only to return a few days later. He was always drunk, always delirious.
“It’s just a dream,” he said.
That winter was eternal.
Another cold night.
Tae Jin wandered until he stopped in the middle of a dark street. He could hear his heart pounding in his chest, and even though no one was around he felt as if someone was watching him. He closed his eyes and saw her face again. He didn’t want to open his eyes. He knew despair was written into his lids, into his bloodshot eyes. He had always been tall and lean with dark, mysterious half-moon eyes that rested above sharp cheekbones and against pale skin, but he was slowly becoming a skeleton.
He wanted to pretend that his dream would never end– that he would never kill anyone again, but it was too late. The pills, the soju, the women…
Nothing would wash his dirty hands clean.
He woke up from the daze he had been in and decided to stop looking for things that he would never find: Peace, forgiveness. He caught a taxi home, called his secretary, showered, shaved, and secretly arranged for the funeral of the woman he had killed, because her family hadn’t. Her body, it must have been in a morgue– frozen, all this time.
He had her son placed in a foster home, but he, too, would be frozen and unable to move on from that unforgettable moment. His mother would never hug him or help him put on his jacket before going to school. His new mother might try to replace her, but in the back of his mind would be a face that wasn’t and never could be hers, and even that face would start to fade until one day it finally disappeared.
Tae Jin knew. He knew what it felt like to live in an empty house that could never hold anything but strangers and fragile memories, until finally even those fragile memories faded and disappeared.
There would be nothing to replace them but hardness, emptiness.
Tae Jin felt out of place as he sat as his desk. He had driven to work and gotten lost on the way. When he had finally arrived, he had been late. There were papers piled on his desk, but he could only stare at them. Dark circles clung to the hollows beneath his eyes. He watched the clock tick for hours before he noticed a name and a date circled in red on his calendar.
“Ok Dong Gun,” he said out loud in a voice that barely passed from his lips. He traced Dong Gun’s name with shaky fingers.
Later, his phone rang as he walked out of his office building and into the night’s polluted city sky. It was Lee Ri Na, his ex. She refused to let him go even though things between them had ended a long time ago. He didn’t answer. Instead, he called his only friend, Cha Seung Soo. It had been too long since they had gone to Hama together, and after he dodged Seung Soo’s questions about where he had been and what he had been doing, they quickly agreed to go to Hama that night.
He had met Ri Na at Hama. He didn’t know if she was still working there, but it didn’t matter.
The Twin Dragons owned Hama, and going there was a habit he couldn’t change even after so much had happened to him because of them. Hama was in the richest part of Seoul and right on the Han river. It was really just a boat connected to land by a rickety bridge, but it was still somehow separate from the rest of the world. Funny– the rich streets in Seoul were just as dirty as the poor ones, but it was an expensive grime that covered them. Women and drinks– everything cost more, even though nothing was different and even though nothing mattered.
He finally reached the garage where he had parked his car. As he drove home, he grabbed the wheel a little too tightly, took the twists and turns of the highway a little too quickly, and played Korean pop music a little too loudly.
When he got home, he quickly changed into a white button-down shirt, gray slacks, and white dress shoes. He put on a white tie, styled his messy hair, and was finally ready to go after brushing his teeth. When he arrived at Hama, he tossed the keys of his Ferrari to the valet, crossed the bridge, and strode up white steps that shook with the waves of the Han river. Once inside, he walked past golden lions that reflected neon lights.
He turned to look at who was calling him and saw her. Ri Na was walking in her hostess uniform– her skirt too short, her heels too high. A fake smile and nose were plastered onto her face. He barely recognized the woman he had once thought he was in love with.
“Tae Jin! Did you get my message?”
He could see down into her low cut shirt as she leaned towards him, clinging to his arm.
“Are you crazy?”
He didn’t stay long enough to watch her face change as he shrugged off her arm and walked away. He was tired of the way she clung to him. He was tired of the way his heart fell flat when he saw her. He had thought she was different from the women he had known.
He had been wrong.
He met Seung Soo at the bar, and they drank to get drunk. Later, they stumbled upstairs to the gold and blue VIP room. He lay on a chaise lounge with a bottle of Vodka in his hand and watched as Seung Soo passed out with a half-naked, under-aged girl in his arms. He usually did the same, but tonight he couldn’t. Something kept him from wanting to touch someone else’s skin, or maybe he just didn’t want anyone to touch him– see him– feel him. He passed out, exhausted.
He stumbled out of Hama alone in the morning. The sunlight was too bright, and he barely made it home after catching a taxi. He finally crashed into bed with his clothes from last night still on even though he desperately needed to shower. He slept all day and dreamed of faceless people and dirty streets.
He woke up around midnight. He could see what seemed to be all of Seoul from his spacious one-room flat. It was an incredible view of a dark night lit up not by stars but by neon city lights. He felt like a ghost in a world full of strange, artificial life. He longed for the simple country days of his youth that he had spent recklessly, but he could never go back to his father or his home. There was nothing to go back to, anyway. Country or city, something was always missing from the places he found, and he had thirty-two years to prove that nothing would change.
He ate cold food, and the hours passed as he read over cases and organized files in bed. Finally, he took sleeping pills to keep a tangle of thoughts from bothering his tired mind, but the white and black sheets twisted around his body as he tried to sleep. He moved restlessly– back and forth, back and forth, never knowing which way to turn and never feeling at ease with the direction or path he had chosen. Every moment was like this: An awkward, uncomfortable decision to be thought about in agony and prolonged until finally, he did something. The actions of the present never took away the aches and pains of the past. Would anything ever be enough?
He gave up on sleep and rested in bed with his eyes open. Night had fallen hours ago, and the sleeping pills had been taken what seemed like minutes ago. But, it would be dangerous to dream with bitter memories creeping in on him. Even with his eyes open, though, he could still see one memory as vividly as the day it had happened twenty-seven years ago.
His mother was leaving. Tae Jin clung tightly to her trench-coat and sleeves, but she pushed him away. He ran after her, but when his father grabbed him to make him stay, he could only watch as his mother walked down the narrow, dirty street and into the fading sun as it went down, as she disappeared. It was the last time he ever saw her. That night, his father disappeared, too– behind a bottle of soju and silence, never to return. He had been truly alone since then, surrounded by so many faces, but all of them alien and unrecognizable, none of them hers.
When Tae Jin finally fell asleep, his dreams were filled with quiet desperations and bruising truths. If only he could remember her face, the boy she used to dress-up for school, and the father who used to take him there.
He woke up to the sound of his phone ringing. He answered, half-asleep. It was Ri Na. Her voice was sharp and painful like a slap, but he could barely hear her through her sobs and gasps for breath.
“Ya! Son Tae Jin! How many times do I have to apologize to you before you forgive me? I said I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I made a mistake, okay? I… I… I love you… Don’t you know that? Don’t you care?”
“Forgiveness? I forgive you. Love? I’ll never love you.”
Tae Jin hung up with the sound of her begging and tears in his ears, and like an echo, it played on in his mind. He remembered when he had caught her in bed with another man. She had said the same three words, then. She always said the same three words, but he knew she would never know what they really meant and neither would he.
Suddenly, he remembered something he had once said to Seung Soo over a few bottles of soju, “I thought we were in love. Her fake smile, she gives it to any man with money in his pockets and fame on his shoulders. But, maybe that’s all I am: A man with money in his pockets and fame on his shoulders.”
He had thrown himself further into his work with reckless abandon because of her– met Ok Dong Gun because of her. The years when she had been the woman he had wanted to marry seemed so far away.
Everything seemed so far away, and he felt as if he had always been this way: Dirty.
Tae Jin walked to Seoul’s city park, just a few blocks from his apartment. He sat on one of the swings and moved bit by bit. A calm, chill breeze stirred up the snow, and he huddled deeper into his jacket, pulled up his hood, shoved his hands into his sweat pant pockets, and immediately regretted his laziness in wearing house slippers outside.
If it were day, the place would be filled with children, mothers, and fathers: Families. He hadn’t spoken to his own father in years, not since he had left Busan. He had ignored the messages, the phone calls, the apologies, and the promises.
He had been harder, then.
“… Tae Jin? Son Tae Jin?”
“Yes… It’s– it’s me. … How are you?”
“Fine. I’m fine.”
He could hear his father’s tears even through his slurred, drunken words.
“Sorry… I am sorry for everything…”
“Me, too, Father. Sorry for calling so early, so late…”
Tae Jin quickly hung up without waiting for a reply. There were so many words that he had kept inside for so many years. What did he really want to say?
“Mother, I hate you. I hate you, because you left me– pushed me away and left without looking back. I hate you, because I can’t remember your face. I hate you, because I can’t stop loving you. Mother, when… when will I be able to forgive you? When will I be able to see you again?”
Had his mother made a mistake? Had his father? What had driven them apart, and why had he made so many mistakes of his own? Ri Na had begged for his forgiveness, too, when she made that mistake. He wanted to forgive them all, but he knew he would never forgive any of them– not even himself.
As he showered and dressed, he felt uneasy. He would have to meet with Dong Gun and soon.
He drove to work feeling numb.
Ok Dong Gun
Every day was the same. The faces changed. The names changed. But, every day was the same: Sell drugs, tell lies, and spill blood like red paint splashing on a canvas.
Ok Dong Gun painted a picture with his calloused hands. It wasn’t pretty. It was dirty. Black crept slowly and consumed white and changed white to gray. He stepped back when the canvas had been filled. He grabbed the painting and hurled it against the wall. The ripped canvas lay on the ground, reminding him of the jagged slice of a blade through skin.
The walls were white; the furniture, black. Dong Gun slumped low on his couch and smoked cigarettes. The TV was blank as death. There was no tangle of thoughts. There was only a certain stillness in his mind. He knew and could calculate with cold clarity exactly what needed to be done. It was the execution that had always made him feel hot as that sudden, familiar rush of adrenaline coursed through his limbs. Business had always been fun.
He said it out loud– a painful, soft explosion that burst from his lungs. He downed a bottle of red wine. It stained his lips red, filling him with a sense of immortality.
Years had passed like this. Chief of Police Nam Young Po had been by his side for longer than either of them could remember, and he had met Son Tae Jin five years ago. Neither Young Po nor Tae Jin knew the other was a part of what was a tangled web of secrets.
He had so many of them, and with his hands, he had forged an unlikely trio of partners in crime: a gangster, a cop, and a lawyer. Whether they knew it or not, they were all working together, but for what?
He still didn’t know.
The sun rose, a blood red tinge with bursts of orange rays that licked the sky like flames. Dong Gun balled his hands into fists and pressed and pressed and pressed until his nails dug hard into the skin of his palms. So much work had to be done, and so many people had to be silenced.
They had fallen behind because of Tae Jin.
Impatient and tired of waiting, he finally called Tae Jin. Then, he went to his room, stripped, and took a cold shower.
Son Tae Jin
The shower wasn’t enough to make Tae Jin clean, but the water still flowed over his black hair and onto his pale skin. His limbs moved angrily in an attempt to wash away last night’s mistake.
Ri Na had been calling him ever since the night they had met at Hama, and last night he had met her at a club in Gangnam. He had known she would be there.
Seung Soo had waved goodbye drunkenly as they caught a taxi together. They had spilled out of the car and barely made it up to her apartment on the fourth floor before the use and abuse began. He had left early before the sun rose and taken a long walk home. But, he didn’t feel better, even though he had almost thought he would.
He had been sleeping when Dong Gun had called. He had woken up to his awful voice, and then Ri Na had called soon after.
“Where are you?”
“You really don’t know?”
“Oppa, then… Today, later…”
He had hung up before she could finish her sentence, because he had already known what she was going to say and what he was going to say, too. As he had lain in bed with the cracked, white ceiling filling his eyes, he had sighed, because that was all he could do. He knew that he had taken his frustration out on her, because he had no one else to blame for the way he felt, no one except himself. He should never have trusted Ri Na. He should never have worked for Dong Gun. He should never have been born.
Soap stung his eyes as flashbacks of last night and that morning played over and over again in his mind. In that moment, he wanted to go back and start over, but it was already too late.
When he finally stepped out from behind glass doors, the bathroom smelled fresh like expensive cologne. He stared at his face in the mirror– was naked, because the towel had fallen to the floor. He left it there. He shaved, brushed his teeth, and carefully styled his hair. He rubbed his tired eyes. He hoped Ri Na wouldn’t call him again but knew Dong Gun would.
He went to his closet and got dressed even though he wanted to avoid the light that streamed into his spacious room by crawling back into bed and sleeping beneath warm sheets. But, he heard the cold wind that howled through the streets, through Seoul’s highways, and into the sky rises, the part of Seoul owned by the Twin Dragons. He knew he would be like the wind and end up howling through dangerous places…
He thought of his father– of his perpetual tired eyes and gnarled limbs. He was finally beginning to understand him and just what it meant to be a man full of mistakes, of pain.
He had heard about the raid on a competing club in the sky rises of Seoul that had happened about a week ago. There were no survivors. The fingers were pointed at the Twin Dragons, and Dong Gun was getting desperate. Twenty women and a few important men had been killed. He tried not to think about their faces. He just needed to clear the charges, but a simple bribe wouldn’t be enough this time. He would fix this mess, because he had no choice. There was no way out– not unless he died, he thought for the first time.
Tae Jin drove slowly, barely knowing where he was going. Dong Gun had only recently given him an address and a time. He pulled up next to a small building and parked. It was an abandoned school. He remembered when he had wandered through hallways and sat through lectures, when he had thought he could and would change the world– for the better. That had been years ago, and in the end, the world had changed him– for the worse.
The school was fenced in on all sides. The gate was locked, so he stripped off his suit jacket and climbed over the tall, beat up fence. The fall was farther than he thought, and he stumbled when he landed. He looked around as he brushed grass and dirt off of his pants. The building was a mess of peeling, dirty white paint and overgrown grass. The benches nearby were rusty, and the staircase to the second floor looked like it would break if too many people were on it at once.
It was then that he heard his voice.
“Tae Jin. Open the gate.”
He turned around and saw the man that he was beginning to hate. He wanted to refuse, but he couldn’t. Maybe it was because of the way Dong Gun smiled a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. He opened the gate, but he wanted to walk through to the other side and never look back. Only, Dong Gun wasn’t someone he could walk away from so easily.
Dong Gun walked over to a rusted bench and sat down after making his command. He was wearing a suit tailored to fit his body like a glove. He didn’t look like an old, hardened gangster, but too many men had been fooled by his elegant appearance. Tae Jin knew better, knew how ruthless and merciless the man beneath the suit really was.
He approached Dong Gun slowly as he walked towards him on feet heavy with uncertainty. Dong Gun was staring at him, measuring his every move. He desperately wanted to turn around and run away from the man before him. They had met more than a few times, but he had never gotten used to Dong Gun’s eyes. They were so empty, and it was as if he wasn’t looking at him as a human being but as something to be used and discarded when it was no longer needed.
“His name is Joon Junghyun. He works for a law firm in the sky rises. The families of the victims have gone to him as a group in order to file a class action against the Twin Dragons. You know what to do.”
Dong Gun never looked at Tae Jin while speaking. It was as if Tae Jin was a puppet on strings. He let an awkward silence fall between them as he tried to think of something clever to say, something cruel. He had dragged himself through the dirt for a man who would never help him get clean; but, Dong Gun continued, and Tae Jin remained silent.
“This Joon Jung Hyun, he was in prison once. It’ll be easy to get in touch with a few major journalists. He’ll be buried within a week.”
“He killed his first wife. Maybe it was an accident… maybe it wasn’t.”
“Blackmail would be better. I’ll use an anonymous letter, no need to get any of our names or the media involved. That should be enough.”
Tae Jin knew it would be enough. It always was. People wanted their secrets to stay secrets. They wanted everyone to see their shine, but on the inside they were all filled with shame, dirt.
Dong Gun left first, but Tae Jin lingered. He made the necessary phone calls. An hour later, and it was over. The letter had been written and hand-delivered by a Twin Dragon, and Jung Hyun had immediately agreed to drop the charges. Once dropped, the families wouldn’t be able to find another lawyer and file a new class action…
Not for the same crime.
The law was a beautiful, terrible thing.
He finally left the decayed school grounds when night began to fall. He drove down crowded streets, and he wondered how long it would be before Dong Gun called him again– needed him again– used him again. He pulled over, suddenly, and pressed his face hard against the window, as if he could somehow seep through glass and steel, somehow escape. He took off again, and the drive was full of silence and fast turns. Pale, hopeless faces were etched into his mind. Dong Gun’s shadowed face was burned into his soul. He stared hard at the road and wondered if his heart would ever stop pounding in his chest from fear, regret, and something that felt like longing.
But, he had to report to Dong Gun before he went home.
The Twin Dragons owned and operated a huge warehouse located off the docks of the Han river. The murky river was deep and filled with countless fish, countless bodies.
He went there.
He wanted to burst in and tell Dong Gun to do his own dirty work as he screamed and fought his way to freedom. Instead, he walked quietly through a familiar narrow alleyway between crates full of illegal substances and deadly weapons. Import and export: Net worth, in the millions. He finally entered the basement of the dark, barely lit warehouse after walking down a flights of steps. He walked past scarred leather couches and people with scarred faces and into the place he called his own private Hell, because he had sold his soul to the devil: A devil named Ok Dong Gun.
He had been trapped since then– had been able to walk away a few times, but the dirty life was harder to escape from once it sank into flesh and bones, and it was in his flesh and bones now. The familiar rush of fear invaded his limbs as the door to the Dong Gun’s office swung open, and once more he was drowning in darkness and deceit.
Dong Gun barely spared him a greeting. Instead, he began making a phone call. Tae Jin wandered around the room, restless. Finally, he stood by the window and watched Dong Gun. Fear and anger boiled deep inside of him. Would Dong Gun see right through him?
Dong Gun finished his phone call and finally gave his attention to Tae Jin.
“Has it been taken care of?”
“That’s all. I’ll be in touch.”
Tae Jin left quickly, his heart pounding in his chest. He drove home, but he wanted to drive all the way home– not to his apartment but to Busan. He wanted to walk with his feet in the sand as the tide rolled in towards the shore. He wanted to be a boy again.
Instead, he went back to his apartment, took a shower, and changed into some old blue jeans. He checked his email, but there was nothing to read. He checked the voice mail on his answering machine and saw that there was a message from someone named Kim Shin Eung. Her name was unfamiliar. Curious, he played her message:
“Hello, I’m with the police department in Busan. I’m calling to report the suicide of Son Tae Ho to his remaining relative, Son Tae Jin. Your father was discovered last night in his home. His funeral is being sponsored by the village and held tonight. If you would like further information please contact our department at…”
He played her message again and again… and again… and again.
Then, he picked up the machine and threw it against the wall, but it didn’t break, and he could still hear her voice in his head, hear her awful words that he refused to believe– no, couldn’t believe.
He sank to the floor, unable to hold his own weight. He covered his face with his hands and pressed them hard against his eyes, but his tears slipped through his fingers anyway. In that moment, the world he had carefully built splintered into a thousand pieces. He would never be able to put anything back together. There were so many things he had never said to his father.
Now, the words inside of him faded.
Now, the hope inside of him died.
Tae Jin went home.
There was no one to welcome him. The house was just as he remembered it: Too small, too dirty, but now, too empty. He left it the way it was. It would be sold and torn down. He didn’t need it. didn’t want it. Maybe, they would build a new house where his had been. Maybe, a real family would live in it.
He stayed in a motel and drank his sorrows away. He cried on stale smelling pillows and talked to the walls, because the pillows held his head and the walls listened and kept all of his secrets. He felt regret and grief and then finally, nothing. When he felt nothing, he went to his father’s grave. There was something engraved onto his tombstone.
“There is Justice in the Hands of God.”
Tae Jin laughed then, a hollow, aching, empty sound.
“Justice? What justice?! Father, father!”
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was an old woman with sad eyes. She handed him a letter and left without saying a word. He stared at her back as she walked away, wondering who she was, where she had come from, and how she had known that he would be there.
Finally, Tae Jin opened the letter.
I’d hoped to find the courage to tell you this with words from my own lips, but I can’t. I am filled with shame, and it devours all of my courage. I’ve been a terrible father to you, but I knew…
I knew that you would be better off without me.
I was a cop once, stubborn and naive. I asked too many questions about a case that involved the Twin Dragons. They were big then, and I guess they still are. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I was framed by the Chief of Police who had been secretly working with the Twin Dragons at that time. I took the fall for a crime I didn’t commit. The Chief of Police threw his own officer in jail and never looked back to see what became of him– of me.
Your mother was brave, and she was innocent. I remember, I used to love her for those things, but in the end they were what tore us apart.
She went to the boss of the Twin Dragons at that time and begged. She begged for my life, my job, and my good name…
She sold her body to him.
I think she would have taken what she had done to the grave, but even though I was released from prison, my job and my good name were never restored. I was still a dirty cop, a murderer. We were never the same again.
One day, she told me what she had done in a soft voice. She told me everything. I should have held her and cried with her. Instead, I cursed her. I cursed her, and I held onto my pride. She packed her bags the next morning and left, but I thought she would return.
We had loved each other so much, too much.
They found her body later that night, floating in the sea. I buried her quietly, and couldn’t bear to look you in the eyes from then on. It was easier to drink and forget, forget it all…
It is the only way I have managed to survive all these terrible years, all these sleepless nights.
When you called, I was forced to remember what had happened. I owe you something: The truth. I regret every letter and every word I have written, but I do not regret finally telling you the truth. I have not ever been as sober as I am now. It hurts…
It hurts too much.
Forgive me. Now, I have nothing more to say to the son I abandoned, except for this:
Son Tae Ho
Tae Jin crumpled the letter in his hands. He stared at everything, his eyes darting back and forth, but nothing was familiar to him. He couldn’t recognize the world that surrounded him.
Everything had changed.
If he could go back in time, he would bury his father’s letter and leave it unread. His knees gave out, and he fell to the ground. He knew, now. He knew everything. He knew why his mother had left, why his father had abandoned him. He knew they were both dead and that he would never be able to see either of them again.
He was alone.
Tears fell, cold against his flushed skin. He was burning inside, a small flame sparked by a truth that was growing and growing and growing into a fire nothing that and no one could quench until he was burned alive from the inside.
He left his father’s grave and went to his room at the motel, but too many terrible memories followed him, haunted his every moment. He burned the letter. Then, he washed his face and changed into a fresh suit. He left immediately and made it to Seoul without stopping. He needed to know who had been the Chief of Police and the boss of the Twin Dragons when his father had been an officer. After a few minutes of searching, he had answers, but they were answers he didn’t want to believe.
Chief of Police: Nam Young Po.
Boss of the Twin Dragons: Ok Dong Gun.
He went through the files again and again, but those two names were the only ones that appeared in connection to his father’s time in Busan as a cop, which had been short. They had all been the same age, twenty-five. So much time had passed, but some things hadn’t changed.
The files revealed his father’s crime, the frame. A few newspaper articles traced the movement of Chief of Police Nam Young Po. He had moved from Busan to Seoul at the age of twenty-seven. He had worked his way up to Chief of Police a second time, a position he had been granted while Tae Jin had been in college. Dong Gun disappeared from the files in Busan a few years after Young Po left only to reappear in Seoul when Young Po had become Chief of Police.
Almost three decades had passed, but Young Po and Dong Gun were still partners in crime. Old partners, with too many dirty, stinking secrets between them. None of them were clean– including him, but which one of them would survive being dirty?
He searched and searched, and then when he had found what he was looking for he called Lee Jang Mi, a journalist with a reputation for reporting the truth. He gave her an anonymous tip, and hoped that she took the bait. It would be better for her if she didn’t. And, it would be almost impossible, but Tae Jin would pretend to be Dong Gun’s right hand man.
Everything would be the same, only this time everything would be different.
Ok Dong Gun
The television blared noise and lit up the dark room with artificial light that threw Dong Gun’s shadow against the wall. He felt calm and content now that Tae Jin was back to his old self, and he listened to the local anchorwoman report the news and read the passing headlines below the same way he always did: Carelessly.
Then, there was an awkward break that caught his attention. A new face he had never seen before appeared on the screen. She wasn’t pretty enough to be on TV, he thought, but what she began to say made him stare at her intensely, anyway.
“Today, we’d like to report to the citizens of Korea that an area of Seoul known to some as the “Sky Rises” has been rumored to be importing and exporting illegal goods with various countries. Every aspect of this smuggling has been condemned by the new mayor, who seeks the eradication of corruption in his city. But, who controls this area known as the “Sky Rises,” and how long have they been there?”
The glass of wine he had been holding in his hands slipped from his hand. It shattered, leaving a stain that spread slowly across the floor like the cold sweat that began to trickle down his back.
“What’s going on…?”
Dong Gun said it aloud, but there was no one to answer him.
He wanted to know who had let the reporter into the sky rises, and why she had been let out alive.
Dong Gun had never had a day job, because he didn’t believe in mundane things like nine to fives and families. He smoked cigarettes, drank bottles of wine, and slept with any and every woman that turned his head. He had expensive suits, three fast cars, and one hundred loyal, deadly Twin Dragons. He didn’t want respect.
He needed obedience.
He needed control.
It didn’t matter if the people in his city– and it was his city, believed that the smuggling was just another story on the news. They could avoid the shadows, because the shadows weren’t what they had to fear. It was that flash of silver that would slice through the flesh of a neck or stab the space between two ribs and spill blood. It was that whisper of a sigh as someone came or someone died. It was what lay in the shadows: The truth.
The Twin Dragons were lying in the shadows.
The Twin Dragons were the truth.
Maybe he was getting old, but he couldn’t blame it on his age when he felt sharper than ever as years of experience piled up on top of each other like the memories of all the dirty things he had ever done. But, he couldn’t lie.
Something was wrong.
It was the first time in decades that the corruption of the sky rises had been exposed. It wasn’t just a rumor. It wasn’t just a story. It was the truth– one that no one was supposed to know, because there were some truths that were better left where they came from: In the shadows.
He knew what he had to do, who he would have to kill. He had done it before, and he would do it again. He would do it until nothing and no one stood in his way.
He didn’t know when, but at some point the line between black and white had been blurred. Right and wrong had become unrecognizable, had become two indistinguishable shapes that twisted and moved like dragons and never stood still long enough for him to wrestle them down. But, he didn’t want to wrestle with them.
He didn’t want to see them clearly.
The first life he had taken had slipped from between his fingers, and in that moment he would have sworn that he saw a soul mingling in the shadows above his head. The red on his knife had glimmered too brightly, and then darkened as the blood had congealed. He had been sixteen– maybe younger or maybe older, and he had done it again, slowly learning which parts of the body were soft and would let his blade slide in easily for a quick kill and slowly learning which parts of the body were harder, meatier, and would cause pain before the kill. It was an art: Blood on concrete like a splash of paint on canvas.
Now, Dong Gun didn’t have to create art.
He could let others make a masterpiece or mess out of murder. It had been fun for awhile, but dying was dying and death was death. They all went the same. Some fought at first, and some begged, but they all gave up when they saw their own blood spilling onto their pale hands, onto the dark concrete.
He had been caught once, a few years after his first kill, by a Chief of Police who had been the youngest in Busan: Nam Young Po. He had bribed him with words and with money. They had been partners since then.
They had been young– just 25, and they had spiraled upwards and downwards since then, but they had never been apart from one another since then…
Just like brothers, or maybe just like partners in crime.
Dong Gun walked outside and watched the kids walk to school. He remembered what his childhood had been like, and he looked for the kid who walked alone. After Dong Gun found him, he followed him, walking behind him and staring at the worn clothing and old backpack on his back, at the way his hands hung loose and empty at his sides. As Dong Gun followed the boy’s footsteps, he wondered if the boy would ever follow in his.
It was midnight when he finally came home.
He was tired, but he knew there was no time for him to rest. Not now, not at a time like this. He was desperate, because everything was falling apart. He saw his real skin, skin that was dirty– skin that craved skin– skin that would never get clean. He was too old to get clean– to change his ways, but the world would not change him again.
Even gangsters made promises to themselves, ones that they would rather die than break.
He slowly unbuttoned his shirt inch by inch. He rose, pulled it from his pants, and threw it on the ground. He pulled off his socks, and was barely removing his belt from the loops of his pants when she knocked. He walked to the door and let her in. She stripped him off the rest of his clothes, already knowing what to do, already knowing what he wanted.
When it was over, he paid, and she left, but he knew…
He knew that she would come back.
They always came back, and they would keep coming back until they were buried six feet under. As he lay on the couch with sleep finally pressing against his eyelids, he wondered if they would find rest in the grave or more of the same unending hunger that had put them there in the first place.
He knew that he didn’t have a purpose. His life was about survival, and he would survive until he couldn’t anymore. He lived the way he did because he could, and because he had always lived with bloody knuckles, bad intentions, and bold lies that weren’t little and weren’t white.
Every man and every woman he had ever met had fallen into his web of deception and grown used to the dirty world he lived in. It was easier to give in, because the harder they struggled to break free from his world, the harder it kept them trapped.
He had survived the passing of days and months and years, but he felt time begin to slow down, and the more he struggled to survive his own web of deceit, the more fear sped through his veins as he saw some nameless beast pacing in the horizon– devouring others– waiting for him to finally arrive…
He finally fell asleep and dreamed of a white dragon that swallowed him whole.
It was morning, and the sun rose like a red spot of blood in the sky. The rays were stains that spread slowly until it seemed as if the entire world had been bathed in blood.
Dong Gun woke up, showered, and slipped on a pair of designer jeans. He made breakfast, but lay on the couch where he had fallen asleep with an empty glass of wine in his hand and the half-eaten meal on the table.
It had been a long night, and a pounding headache pulsed hard against his temples. He rubbed them again and again, but the pain refused to fade. He remembered names, and along with those names came so many memories that appeared suddenly like snakes slipping from behind skull’s eyes.
“Don’t kill me, we can work together… I…”
Oh Shin Hae.
He was Dong Gun’s first cover-up.
Back then, Dong Gun and Chief of Police Nam Young Po had barely begun to coordinate their control of Busan. They had wanted to build a monopoly on importing and exporting illegal goods. It had been easier, then, to just get rid of the competition, of Oh Shinhae.
That was until Son Tae Ho had come along. Tae Ho had been a green cop, but one with an eye for the truth. He had looked into all the right spots and discovered some very wrong things.
“No, please… PLEASE!”
Son Tae Ho.
Tae Ho had been shocked when he had walked into the Busan warehouse, had walked into the wrong place at the wrong time.
Oh Shin Hae was dead.
Their problem with the competition had been solved, but because of Tae Ho they had suddenly had a new problem. Tae Ho had seen Dong Gun with the knife in his hands. He had begged and screamed at his Chief of Police for something, maybe justice, not yet understanding that his Chief of Police was just as corrupt as the boss of the Twin Dragons standing next to him.
The dirty murder weapon had been placed in Tae Ho’s clean hands. Young Po had arrested Tae Ho and taken him into custody. Dong Gun had walked away.
Since then, Busan had been theirs, and it had all been so easy.
“Help him… you have to help him…”
Son Tae Ho’s wife.
She had been even easier.
Beautiful, courageous, and young, she had stormed into Young Po’s office and hadn’t understood how her husband had been put behind prison bars, not until Dong Gun had walked in, had listened to her story and laughed in her face.
Young Po and Dong Gun had both known that Tae Ho would have to take the fall. There was nothing that his wife could give them that would give her husband his job or his good name back. Tae Ho had just been too much trouble, and they couldn’t afford to have him around.
She had been shocked, but believed it when they had taken her offer and promised to help him. He thought it had been so pathetic, that all she had was her body– her heart– her love. They had taken what she had in that small office with the blinds closed and the doors locked.
It had just been a game they played.
“She’s dead: Suicide. Tae Ho’s crazy with grief, banging on the doors of my office. The boy doesn’t know a thing, and his father won’t tell him. God damn, my son will be five soon…
Tae Ho said he’ll never talk. He knows we’ll get his son if he does.
Chief of Police Nam Young Po.
Young Po had told him how it had ended, and suddenly, he had become dirty. He had stolen, he had murdered, and he had shaken hands with one cop and framed another.
Young Po relocated to Seoul after a few years in search of bigger fish. Dong Gun had stayed in Busan, waiting for the call. Finally, they had moved from Busan to Seoul– together, and smuggled illegal goods in and out of Japan, China, and finally Europe.
“Who can I trust?”
Dong Gun asked himself aloud even though he knew there was no one that he trusted more than himself. So, he would have to carry out his own justice– a justice that was tainted by his dirty hands– a justice that was necessary.
Silence, too, was necessary, but he wasn’t afraid. No one could speak from the grave, and all of his enemies had been buried a long, long time ago.
Nam Young Po
After listening to Dong Gun, Nam Young Po had a plan. He had a plan that was foolproof, because no one would suspect him, the Chief of Police, as the culprit. It was what had kept him safe from prison bars all these years.
People only saw the dirty they could see, and it never occurred to them that the cleanest people were hiding something other than clean underneath their surfaces. It was simple: Deceit. It always was, and it always would be.
His daughter was smiling at him, so he smiled back.
He loved family dinners. He had a wife and daughter, but it was his eldest, a son, that he was most proud of. His son was going to Seoul University for graduate school, and it would be their last dinner together for awhile.
As he memorized his son’s face, he hoped that his son would step into the world and stay clean. He hadn’t wanted to stain his own reputation by working with Dong Gun and the Twin Dragons, but it had been necessary.
Back then, he had needed the money to pay for his wife’s risky pregnancy and expensive hospital bills. It had been worth it, if this kind of boy– this kind of man, had been brought into the world as his son. The money, too, had been worth it, and he had kept making it over the years, unable to go back to the life he had once lived. He had been able to provide his family with money and power and things no ordinary officer, even a Chief of Police, could have given them.
It had been a practical trade.
He had done a lot with his life since that trade, and on the surface he shined, but beneath his skin were layers and layers of corruption– of deceit– of dirty.
It was that dirty he thought about as his wife puttered around in the kitchen, as his son told him about his future plans, and as his daughter smiled at him and played with her food.
It was that dirty that consumed his life and ate away at everything it touched.
He wondered if he could keep all of his secrets from his family, because lately, the truth had been slipping from its place in the shadows, out of sight. The reporter had to be silenced, because she was the source.
Later, he made a phone call from behind closed doors; and finally, he had a name: Lee Jang Mi. It would take a while, and he would have to pull some strings, but if he wanted to, then he could get an address…
He wanted her address.
Lee Jang Mi was one of the few reporters who couldn’t be bribed with money or chased away with threats. He had discovered that much by searching the Internet for the stories that she reported: Truthful ones. He admired and respected her for telling the truth.
It was a shame that it was going to get her killed.
“Get me the address of a ‘Lee Jang Mi.’ Fax it to me by tomorrow.”
No one ever asked Young Po questions anymore. He came in with so many cases, asked for so many things. They would never have guessed that most of what he asked for wasn’t about a case that could be found anywhere on file.
He was thankful that when his police officers looked at him they saw a good Chief, thankful that when his family looked at him they saw a good husband and father, and thankful that when he looked at himself in the mirror he saw a good man.
He loved his family, and he just wanted what was best for them. So, when his secretary gave him Lee Jang Mi’s address, he smiled and said thank-you, meant that thank-you from the bottom of his heart.
He would protect his family and their faith in him at all costs.
Son Tae Jin
They were falling into his trap.
He paced his flat and waited for 6:00 A.M. It was dangerous, but he had to meet with the reporter who had unknowingly risked her life for his revenge.
Lee Jang Mi– the reporter, wanted facts, dates, and names. He couldn’t trust communication by email or by phone, so he had agreed to meet her in person by the playground near his apartment early in the morning to avoid being seen.
When he finally left his apartment, he was wearing a hospital mask, hat, and hooded jacket. He walked the familiar path, saw her waiting by the swings, and knew that the documents in his hands would soon be headlines on the news.
She was a stranger– a woman he had never heard of until he searched the Internet for a reporter with a reputation for telling the truth. She worked freelance, and she sold her stories to various news companies. She even appeared on the news from time to time, telling her story with passion and intensity. He wondered how people like her survived, because there were too many people like him who didn’t care about the truth and didn’t know the meaning of justice.
She was small and plain. She didn’t ask him any questions, but simply stared at him for awhile, took the papers and held them in her hands.
He turned to go, but stopped when he suddenly became aware of her eyes on his back. When he turned, he saw it. She was watching him with those dark, plain eyes and an even darker expression: Not hate, disgust.
Without thinking, he lifted his hands to his head and took the hood of his jacket down. Then, he took of his hat and slipped the hospital mask off his face.
He was finally exposed.
The truth had been eating away at his soul, slowly destroying everything he had thought he had known about himself and his life. He was tired of it, too, of slipping between shadows and silently letting someone else do his own dirty work. He was tired of being a coward, and he wondered what he would say to her, but it was too late to go back.
No one was around this early in the morning, so they sat together on the swings where they had met just a few moments ago. He watched her as she sat next to him, recognition written all over her face. She looked alive suddenly, pretty.
She was eager, he guessed, to know everything.
Lee Jang Mi
He looked better in person, Lee Jang Mi thought, than on the cover of all those expensive magazines and boring journals. She couldn’t believe it was him: Son Tae Jin, one of the most famous lawyers in South Korea. He was a household name and almost a celebrity, but she wasn’t going to let that distract her from her job: Finding and reporting the truth. It was her mission in life, her red cape that transformed her into Superwoman.
Jang Mi came from a middle class family who had worked hard and had supported her even though she hadn’t become the doctor they had dreamed of since she was born. In fact, she was going home today, and she was looking forward to finally getting to relax and spend time with her Mom and Dad. She wondered if her cousins would come by, too, and she smiled as she thought of her little five year old cousin who always stuck to her side like white on rice.
For now, though, she had to do her job. She sat on the swing next to him and wondered how to begin: “Guilty by association,” she said.
He looked puzzled, as if he hadn’t expected her to speak until she had been spoken to.
“You. You’re guilty by association. If you’re the same person who gave me the tip, which you are, then that means you have connections with the Twin Dragons, strong ones. No one else would even have that much information about them– and still be alive, at least. So, what made you decide to betray the ‘people’ that you work for?”
She thought of all of the cases that had been closed without being solved and all of the settlements that had been handled outside of court. She thought of all of the times that the citizens of Seoul and even South Korea had praised him and his hard work even though not enough of his cases had been solved and too many of his cases had been settled outside of court.
She thought of all of the lies that he must have told, of the lie he must have lived. She looked away from him and suddenly wondered if there were other corrupt, dirty lawyers in Seoul and South Korea.
The initial glow she had felt faded, and when she looked at the man before her carefully, she saw someone who was guilty, who was dirty and ashamed.
He remained silent, looking away from her first. He wrinkled his brows and sighed, ignoring the questions in her words and in her eyes. Suddenly, he seemed so much smaller than her, and she asked him in a hard voice, “How could someone like you– a lawyer, a role model, and a hero, do something like this?”
What she said must have shaken him, because he rose to leave and then stopped. He spoke with his back turned to her and his hands balled into fists at his sides.
“Someone like me? Someone like me? What exactly do you know about me? What does anyone know about me?
Do you know that my father was framed and arrested for a crime that he didn’t commit? Do you know that my mother thought she could sell her body to the men who had framed him and buy my father’s life back?
He came home because of her, but they never told the truth so everyone still thought of him as a criminal instead of a cop. He came home, but nothing was ever the same again. It wasn’t long before my mother broke down and told him what she had done and asked him why he had been arrested, asked him why they had lied to her. I guess he didn’t have an answer that was good enough, because she left both of us even though I clung to her, even though I had to be torn away from her.
She never came back.
And, do you know that I didn’t know any of this until a few weeks ago? I thought my mother left me, but would come back. She killed herself the day she left us, and my father buried her without a word after they found her body floating in the sea. I thought my father hated being sober, but hated me even more. He drank so he could survive the passing days that were filled with guilt and shame, and it was a guilt and shame that I made him remember after all this time. It was guilt and shame– no, it was me, that killed him.
Someone like me? I don’t even know what that means, because I don’t even know who I am.”
He stopped and turned to her. She couldn’t look away from his eyes, even though they didn’t see her. They were empty, and he opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out– almost as if he couldn’t go on, but Jang Mi knew that there was something left. If there was something left, than what could it possibly be? It couldn’t be worse than what he had already said, could it? She wondered how his eyes stayed so dry, how his hands stayed so steady.
“The man who framed my father and the man who deceived my mother is Ok Dong Gun, the same man that I’ve been working with, covering up for, and cleaning up after for the last five years.”
She didn’t know what to say, but all of a sudden he sighed again. He looked at her, and this time he saw her, and this time she saw him.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly.
“You? Why? What have you ever done to be sorry for?”
He laughed when she didn’t answer, but not like it was funny. She watched as he sat down next to her on the swings and began to use his long legs to push himself back and forth, but they both knew he would never be a kid again, never be clean again.
In that moment she decided to save him.
“Come with me,” she said.
“Home. Come home with me. I live in the middle of nowhere. It’s a long drive, but I need to clear my head, and so do you. You want revenge, and I know that’s what these papers you’ve given me are for, but let me tell you: Revenge is a double edged sword. Both you and Dong Gun are going to get cut if this story hits the news. I can’t tell anything but the truth.”
“Yes, the truth: That you had as much a part in all of the crime as he did.”
He looked at her with something like hate in his eyes, but more because he hated himself. He hated himself for the lies he had believed and the truth he had finally told. In the end, he sighed and got up.
“Where do you live?”
“Daegu. It’s far, but the drive is amazing. You’ll come?”
He didn’t look at her as they walked to her car, but she saw the way he hunched his shoulders and stuffed his hands into his pockets.
She wanted to save him, but she was just a reporter, she thought.
The drive was long and filled with a silence that stretched even longer and lay between them. She didn’t understand him, but she would try.
Son Tae Jin
Tae Jin didn’t understand her, and he wasn’t going to try. The silence between them was comfortable enough, and they both avoided starting a conversation. For the first time in a long time he wasn’t thinking about the Twin Dragons or his family or his dirty work.
The scenery was beautiful, but they arrived too suddenly. He must have fallen asleep on the way, because he couldn’t remember the drive.
He wondered what Jang Mi’s home would be like: Real or imagined?
Her family’s house was small, but filled with smiling faces and welcoming hands. The cover story was that she had landed an interview with a famous lawyer, and they had decided to do the interview outside of Seoul.
It was close enough to the truth.
They ate outside. Dinner was simple, just rice and fish soup with a small amount of side dishes. Her father made him sit at the head of the table and could barely speak to him or look him in the eyes, but he smiled often as he handed him the biggest pieces of fish from the soup that he could find. Her family talked around him, about family things. He ate quietly, speaking only when spoken to, but slowly he was drawn from his thoughts and into his memories.
This is what had always been missing from his memories: His family.
Jang Mi’s family wasn’t rich or even well-off, but as he looked around at them he realized that they had each other. Was that really enough? It would be enough, he thought, enough to last a lifetime if he could always be surrounded by people who knew him, who would remember him when he forgot himself.
“We can sleep here and leave in the morning,” she said after the dishes had been cleaned and the table put away. Her family had gone to bed first, and he suddenly realized how late it was and how long they had spent staring at the night sky and eating slices of watermelon and drinking soju.
He just nodded.
They went inside and washed up. Finally, they fell asleep in the living room, on top of blankets and surrounded by the sounds and smells of her family.
She looked pretty in the morning light. Her face was puffy and swollen, and his face must have been puffy and swollen, too, because she laughed when she saw him. He laughed, too, a sound that surprised him.
They got ready and ate with the rest of her family and said goodbye in the afternoon. He fell asleep on the way again, and suddenly he was standing in front of his apartment, waving goodbye to her.
He tried to remember her puffy, swollen face and his rusty laugh.
On the drive back she had told him something that had made him decide to return to Busan. No one would know if he left Seoul for a few days. He could stay in a motel and think things through. He knew he had to think things through.
“You can leave and you can live. You can forgive or you can just forget. I’m willing to forget what you’ve told me. I can have the story ready in a few days at any time, but I hope that I never hear from you again.”
He hadn’t said anything, because he had thought the same thing over and over again…
He spent all night packing and left Seoul the next day. His apartment would be empty for awhile, but there was nothing in it that would spoil if he didn’t take care of it, that would miss him if he left. So, he finally went back to the streets of Busan that he had once called home.
He was tired, but the motel was clean when he finally fell asleep with his few belongings tossed onto the floor.
Nam Young Po
A few days had passed, but Young Po could still only stare at the address in his hands. As he did so, the sound of his family in the living room outside faded, and the black letters on white paper slowly blurred. He could hear Dong Gun’s cold, hard voice in his ears, telling him what he already knew he had to do.
He was tired of this moment: The fork in the road.
He spent the night with his eyes open as his wife breathed softly, sleeping on his chest. In the morning, he left his wife and his home behind and never looked back, although he knew he would return.
When he came to a fork in the road, he took the path he had always traveled, and it led him to Jang Mi’s house. Hours passed, but he never turned back, even though there were other forks in the road along the way.
Finally, he was parking his car and emptying his mind. He pasted a smile on his face, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He knocked on her door, thinking that it was getting late and that dinner would be cold by the time he got home.
What if she isn’t home, he thought, as he knocked and knocked again.
He heard footsteps from inside, and when she answered the door he recited the lines– the lies, that he had practiced all night. He told her that the Twin Dragons had been arranging hits on several people in retaliation to the recent exposure of the corruption in the sky rises, that she was a target.
He saw it in her eyes, though, a slight flicker of recognition. It made him pause, but he wanted to finish his lines. He wanted to end the terrible scene that was about to unfold before them quickly, quietly.
He told her that it would be best if she came with him, and she did, ignoring her mother’s voice that called out to her faintly from inside and asked if anything was wrong.
“No,” he said to himself, “Everything is fine. Everything is going to be alright.”
They left quickly, quietly. He wanted to tell her to stop and look back– to say goodbye, but it was too late.
It was always too late.
They drove in silence, which she broke after hours had passed: “Can I make a phone call?”
“Sure,” he said, because he couldn’t think of a reason to refuse, and they had almost arrived. Soon, he would be home again.
“Hello?,” he heard her say, as he turned down onto an abandoned road with a dead end. A male voice answered, but he couldn’t make out what he was saying.
“Yes, it’s me, Jang Mi! Where are you?”
Again, the man answered, but his voice was soft and distant. He had to strain to hear what he was saying past the loud beating of his heart.
“Oh, you’re in Busan! I knew you would do the right thing. Well, I’m going with, with Chief… Chief of Police Nam Young Po.” Jang Mi suddenly turned to stare at him as she spoke, and her eyes shined with light, with tears.
Suddenly, he could hear the man as he screamed in Busan– too far away, he thought, to stop the scene from unfolding.
“Who?!,” the man yelled again and again. But, she waited until he had parked the car to speak, never taking her eyes off of him as she held his gaze and said, “Chief of Police. Nam. Young. Po.” Then, she hung up, turned her head away, and stared silently out of the window.
He grabbed the phone from her hands and threw it in the backseat.
She didn’t flinch. She didn’t scream. But, she should have. The scene would have been better if she had struggled and screamed, just like in the movies. Instead, because this wasn’t a movie, he unbuckled his seatbelt, reached across to the glove compartment across from her seat, pulled out his gun, and shot her in the head as she stared out of the window.
The blood and brains never splattered the way they did in movies, either, he thought, when the moment he had been waiting for finally passed. He had gotten used to cleaning blood and brains up, but suddenly he felt tired as he moved her body from the car and wrapped it in black plastic. When he was done, he dragged her to the back of the car and threw her lifeless, heavy body into the trunk.
He went back the way he had came, stopping only to throw her corpse into the Han River and watch as the waves carried it far, far away and then under. When it finally disappeared, he smiled, because he would be home in time for dinner.
Absentmindedly, he pulled her phone out of his pocket, wondering who she had called, because she had known who he was, and that meant someone else had, too.
Behind her face was a mask.
“Show me your face. Tell me your name,” he said to himself as he flipped open her phone and saw the name of the last person she had called:
Behind her face was a mask.
Behind the mask was a mask.
He stared out at the Han River, but he didn’t see the waves in front of him, pushing and pulling against each other as they tore each other apart. Something inside of him began to push and pull, and it tore him apart in moments or minutes as he stood there wishing he could change the scene that had unfolded or bring her back to life and ask her who the face and name behind the mask were: Regret.
He drove home, quickly, quietly.
He ate the cold food his wife had left for him on the table, and then fell asleep next to her.
When he woke up in the morning, her head was where it always had been: On his chest. He wondered why the weight of her trust and love had never been heavy enough to keep him from taking the wrong turn at every fork in the road.
Son Tae Jin
Tae Jin saw Jang Mi’s face as he watched the news. The headline: “Missing.” He knew the truth, though, that she wasn’t missing. She was dead, or worse…
Either way it was too late.
He had known it was too late when she had called him, when she had said Young Po’s name. No, it had been too late from the moment he had asked her to expose the tangled web of deceit he had been trapped in, and it had been too late from the moment she had agreed.
He didn’t want to think about her and her family or another death and another funeral on his hands. There was no room for mistakes anymore. He he had to get back to Seoul as soon as possible, because Dong Gun would be looking for him, wanting to know what he could do to help keep the spiders and the tangled webs they weaved out of sight.
He smiled, suddenly, because he wasn’t going to go back to Seoul. He couldn’t.
He smiled, because it would all be over soon, and this time, he was going to do his own dirty work.
It was winter again.
Time had flown by so quickly, but it stilled again as he sat in front of his computer in his motel room in Busan. The place was a mess, and once again he hadn’t shaved or showered in days. He typed and deleted then typed again as he wrote two letters to the two people he hated the most, and the only sound that filled the room was the hard click of fingers on keys, his soft, steady breathing. In the end, his message was short, simple, and straightforward.
“Come to Busan, to the warehouse where it all began.”
It had begun in the Busan warehouse, so it was fitting that it would end there. The warehouse where his father had been betrayed had long been abandoned, but at the mention of it, he knew they would remember…
Tae Jin showered and dressed in a white tee shirt and jeans and threw on a coat and put on a hat before checking out of his room. He left the motel and walked for hours until he reached the abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Busan. The sea roared nearby, demanding something– or someone.
He opened the door and went inside slowly as the cobwebs and dust, the broken wooden beams and cracked concrete saw the sun and felt light for the first time in decades. There, he would wait for them to come.
He knew they would.
It was past midnight when he finally fell asleep. Suddenly, the far off sound of footsteps penetrated his ears, and he woke in darkness– alert and afraid. Fear passed along with time, and he finally heard their voices, voices that were hushed and barely audible. In them was anger and fear.
He had always thought they were invincible, and they were, and they would have always been had fate not made their paths so crossed, so twisted. The paths they all had walked had been dirty, but he wanted to walk away and take a different one– if he walked away at all.
He rose from the floor and flicked a switch. The spotlight he had set up came on. Their voices stopped, and silence fell. He saw them in the dim glow just outside of the light’s reach. Before they came further into the light, he took it, stepping into its center and letting them see exactly who had been sticking, twisting, and pushing a knife deep into their backs. He pushed that knife in a little deeper, smirking as he spoke.
“Do you know who I am?,” Tae Jin asked as he stared into Dong Gun’s eyes.
“You… Why are you here?!, ” Dong Gun said, his voice rising and cracking.
“My name,” Tae Jin said, “Do you know my name?”
“Tae Jin,” Dong Gun whispered, “Son Tae Jin…”
Young Po blinked, confused, and scared– not yet knowing that the man on the other side who had been helping them was the same man who had betrayed them– no, gotten revenge against them for their crimes, their sins.
“That’s right. My name is Son Tae Jin. My father, do you know my father’s name?”
“No, I don’t know, why would I… no… no…”
“No? No, you do know. You know everything. Me, my father… my mother…”
“How did this happen? How did you find out? Tae Jin… it wasn’t our fault! We had to kill him… You know how this business works. You know! … Since when did you really know?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Tae Jin said, “Because you’re already dead.”
Young Po suddenly understood who he was staring at, and he turned to run away as the look of recognition faded from his eyes and fear and regret took hold. Tae Jin ran and grabbed Young Po by the shoulder. Tae Jin threw the first punch, and he hit Young Po with the brass knuckles on his fists. Blood spurted from his mouth, and Dong Gun stepped back, hid in the shadows, and watched from the darkness.
Tae Jin grabbed Young Po again and threw him to the ground. He caught a wild punch from Young Po on the way down, but that only made him slam his fists into Young Po’s face harder.
All Tae Jin could see was his face– the face of the man he hated, older somehow, than all those photographs he had seen in old newspapers and magazines. Tae Jin rose and stood over him, and then he collapsed onto his body again, attacking. When he got tired of using his fists, he sat on top of him and threw his elbows into his face
Finally, Young Po was motionless, dead.
The concrete beneath what was left of his face was stained red and black. Tae Jin’s hands were torn, and he was tired. He felt it in his bones: weakness and a certain loss of strength, but it wasn’t over yet.
He knew Dong Gun was lurking somewhere in the shadows. He fell into the shadows and traced his way along the walls, followed the sound of heavy breathing. When he found Dong Gun, Tae Jin grabbed him quickly from behind. He cut off his pleas, heard nothing but silence, saw nothing but darkness as he strangled him, pressing tighter and tighter and tighter…
The door to the warehouse opened, and Tae Jin finally stumbled out. A small trail of smoke rose to the sky as the licks of flames slowly devoured the warehouse and all that lay inside.
He never looked back as he walked away, and as the sun rose, he cast a long shadow onto the road.
He walked on, stumbling, dazed.
“Finally,” he said to himself as tears streamed down his face, “I’m clean.”
But, it was a lie, and he knew it was a lie as he stood in front of the door to his home. He couldn’t bring himself to go inside. As he stood there, suddenly collapsing to the ground as his knees gave out beneath him, he thought of his mother and father. He wondered if they would ever forgive him for what he had done.
He knew he would never forgive himself, because he would never really be clean again.
He would always be dirty.