1; Warm Coffee Caramel
“Are you the private eye?”
“The private what?”
“Private eye. Private investigator.”
“I am a private investigator.”
“But are you the private investigator I’m looking for?”
“I’m not sure how you expect me to answer that, sir, as I do not know who you are looking for.”
“Okay, sounds like you. Listen, back off. Forget about finding the Hwang woman. Just leave it. You got that?”
“Do you have a reason for recommending this option?”
“Just stop looking for her or I’ll kill you. Understand?”
“Um… No, not really. I see no logical reason to stop. Your desire to kill me does not seem related to the case at hand – unless you would care to explain further.”
“Look, you little weirdo, just stop looking for her or you’ll be killed. Isn’t that enough?”
“What, the threat of bloody death at the hands of an emotionally unstable stranger?” Taeyeon considered for a moment. “No. Excuse me; I have a middle-aged Korean lady to find.”
Taeyeon liked to smear cream cheese on her bagel. Not too much, but enough to give her a good taste that could make her mouth water even while she was eating. With little concern about the threatening phone call she just received, she began to carefully spread the cream cheese over the halved, warm bagel on the plate in front of her.
She was shortly joined in the quiet café by a tall young woman who dumped her purse onto the table and fell into a chair, looking disgruntled.
“Why are we working on my day off?” she grumbled, shooting a glare at Taeyeon.
Taeyeon smiled. “Good morning, Sooyoung. Today, you are going to have a lovely day as my assistant, I guarantee it.”
Sooyoung stared at her for a while longer, eyes narrowed in suspicion and defiance at being required to actively use her brain before noon on her day off. Then she reached out, snatched the other half of Taeyeon’s bagel, and began to eat.
“Keep talking,” she said, mouth already full. “And start putting more cream cheese on your bagel, this is pathetic.”
“Or you could just get your own bagel,” Taeyeon mumbled. She pouted slightly as she finished her own half of the bagel, and sighed. “How long have we known each other, Sooyoung?”
Sooyoung shrugged. “Seven years, I think. Why?”
“Do you think it takes a long time for me to open up to people?”
Sooyoung snorted. “Yes, and that’s putting it lightly. More like it takes you three years to actually say more than ‘hello’ in a quiet voice with an awkward robot wave.”
“I’m that socially awkward, huh.”
“You’re socially inept,” Sooyoung corrected. She stopped eating and regarded Taeyeon seriously. “It’s not the end of the world. You’re a wonderful person, and only those who take the time to get to know you should be allowed to have you.”
Taeyeon just shrugged. She tidied the table, straightening the knife on the plate, folding the napkin precisely. Sooyoung watched her with a little smile.
“Why do you ask?”
“A client is coming to Seoul. She’ll be here for two weeks, and she wants to, y’know, talk to me. As in: actual face-to-face verbal communication.”
“Ah, and you’re worried she’ll think you’re rude?”
Taeyeon shrugged again. “Never mind that for now. I set up a meeting with one of my rats from the south-east district. Wanna join?”
“You’re really going to follow that lead?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Well, don’t you think the result might be a little unfavourable? Not to mention how dangerous it is, but I know that won’t stop you.”
“Unfavourable? I suppose I can see the potential for the client’s disappointment, perhaps, but I did mention the possibility of an unhappy conclusion when I sent her the contract. I’m sure she knows what risks are involved here. Besides, there’s no guarantee that this line of questioning will lead me to find Tiffany’s mother.”
Sooyoung watched Taeyeon for a moment longer, before narrowing her eyes. “Is Tiffany Hwang the one who’s coming to Seoul?”
“That explains so much,” she replied, leaning back in her chair and grinning. “You’re finally going to meet your crush!”
Taeyeon blushed immediately, and quickly glanced around. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, you strange child. So do you want to join me today or not?”
“Of course I do. I think with this case, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Especially when she gets here.” Sooyoung giggled mischievously. “I can’t wait!”
Taeyeon gulped nervously and pulled some cash from her pocket to toss onto the table. “Come on, let’s go.”
“You can’t pay like that, this place doesn’t –”
“Hush. We have a mystery to solve.”
The rat from the south-east district seemed bored, as if the constant visits from the small private investigator were taking up time he could be using to pursue his hobbies of smashing windows and robbing people. He momentarily seemed interested in the nails of his left hand as he inspected them closely, clicked his tongue in disapproval, and went back to staring into space.
Taeyeon appeared from the darkness, the black shadows dissolving behind her as she stepped forward silently. He jumped in surprise, then realised who it was and looked disgruntled.
“Why do you always make me wait, shorty?”
Taeyeon consulted her Despicable Me wristwatch. “I’m on time. Perhaps your watch is fast.”
He rolled his eyes. “Whatever. What do you want?”
“I’m looking for a middle-aged Korean woman,” Taeyeon started, “about this tall,” she held a hand above her head, “with black hair, brown eyes, lovely eye-smile, wrinkles here,” she indicated the sides of her mouth, “and here,” she mimed crows-feet by her eyes, “probably using the surname Choi, and she has a voice that sounds like warm coffee caramel on a cold rainy day.”
The rat blinked. “What?”
“Have you seen her?”
“Warm coffee caramel?”
“On a cold rainy day, yes. Or so I’m told.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Have you finally lost your marbles or what?”
“I haven’t had marbles since I was four years old and they were mostly my brother’s.”
“Well that makes sense. Look shorty, I don’t know what game you’re playing here but -”
He squealed when Sooyoung rushed forward from around the corner, the shadows dispersing from around her with less finesse, and she came to a stop beside Taeyeon looking out of breath.
“Sorry I’m late, I got a bit lost,” she said quickly. After a few deep breaths, she straightened up and tried to look tough. “Listen, scum, when the detective asks you a question, you better answer.”
He threw his hands in the air. “Fine. Whatever. No, I haven’t seen a typical middle-aged Korean lady with a voice that sounds like warm coffee caramel on a cold rainy day. Can I help you with anything else today? I’m getting sick of you two weirdos ruining my days.”
Taeyeon took a piece of paper from the pocket of her jacket and skimmed the pencilled writing. “How about a guy called Daniel Lee?”
“Yeah, I know him, so what?”
“Do you work for him?”
“I helped one of his crews on a gas station bust a couple of weeks ago, but he’s not my boss.”
“A gas station? Why would he waste his time with a gas station? They don’t carry enough cash or expensive goods to make it worth his while.”
He shrugged. “I was just a lookout. I didn’t see what they were doing there.”
“Was that the gas station two blocks east of here?” asked Sooyoung.
“Okay, final question,” said Taeyeon. “Do you know where I can find Mr Lee?”
The rat snorted. “No, I don’t. Well, since that’s the end of this lovely little sideshow, I’ll be leaving.”
He didn’t bother trying to look cool with the shadows as he left, choosing just to stride through them as if he had better things to do with his time. Taeyeon turned to Sooyoung when he was gone.
“You would think he would be nicer to us, considering we’ve known him since high school.”
Sooyoung grinned. “You know how he is. The wonderful Heechul – sorry, I mean ‘Heenim’ – would never bum around with someone as lowly as us. By the way, what’s with the description?”
“What about it?”
“A voice that sounds like warm coffee caramel on a cold rainy day? Did Tiffany tell you that?”
“Yes, she did mention it once. Why? Is there a problem?”
Sooyoung eyed her friend with amusement. “Have you ever heard warm coffee caramel?”
Taeyeon blinked. “No. But that’s not to say you can’t get that feeling from hearing her voice. I wouldn’t know. I trust Tiffany’s description of her mother.”
“Oh, my dearest little boss,” Sooyoung sighed, looping her arm around Taeyeon’s shoulders. “You’re so cute when it comes to Tiffany. I seriously cannot wait for you two to meet.”
Taeyeon blushed again. “Well, since you’re being so entertained by me… How did you even get lost in the short distance between the car and here?”
Sooyoung’s face went blank. “It’s easier than you think, okay? All these shadows and corners and thin alleyways. Anyway, do you plan to go after Daniel Lee now?”
Taeyeon nodded. “He’s the only link we have at the moment. He may only have been her high school boyfriend, but a lot of people go back to their first loves during times of internal crisis. And the threat of death I received this morning suggests that at least one gangster is under orders to silence me; that gangster may well be one of Daniel Lee’s men.”
Sooyoung hummed thoughtfully. “I wonder what he was doing with that gas station. You know the one, right? That bust was in the news. They stole nothing, or so it seems. Just broke in and left.”
“At the time, I offered to go investigate, but since the police don’t like me very much, they wouldn’t let me go within two hundred metres of the crime scene. Actually, I’m still not allowed within two hundred metres. So I’ll never be able to use that station and of course the crime will never be solved.”
Sooyoung grinned again. She pinched Taeyeon’s cheek. “You’re so cute when you’re cocky.”
Taeyeon spent the rest of her day at home, going through old files and news stories on the internet and messaging her contacts in search of a clue as to Daniel Lee’s location. Sooyoung watched TV in the living room, getting emotionally involved in the drama, and shovelled popcorn into her mouth.
1 New Message from: Tiffany Hwang
Taeyeon whimpered slightly at the notification. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure Sooyoung was still in the living room crying over a character’s imminent death. With slow hands, she moved the mouse to click on the message.
Hi! Thought I’d let you know, my flight is all booked and so is my accommodation. I’m all set! I’ll be in Seoul on Saturday night. Super excited! (:
“What are you giggling about?”
Taeyeon yelped at the sudden appearance of her assistant. Sooyoung narrowed her eyes at the reaction and quickly rushed forth from the doorway. She glimpsed the message before Taeyeon had a chance to close it and immediately beamed.
“Oh, I see, you got a message from your crush! Way to go.”
“Please don’t make fun of me when she gets here,” Taeyeon pleaded. “She won’t take me seriously as a private investigator if she sees my assistant teasing me!”
“And look,” Sooyoung continued, “she’s super excited to see you!”
“She’s excited to see Seoul, not me!” Taeyeon squeaked.
“Saturday night is a good night for dating, you know,” Sooyoung commented. “Are you gonna pick her up at the airport?”
“I… I don’t know… It hasn’t been discussed…”
There was a pause as they locked eyes. Taeyeon held her breath. Then Sooyoung leaped forward, blocking Taeyeon’s access to the computer as her fingers flew over the keyboard. Taeyeon flailed her arms desperately, her mind racing as she thought of all the things Sooyoung could be typing, but she failed to get past her assistant before the final tap of a key was heard. The message had been sent.
She peeked around Sooyoung’s arm to read it.
That’s awesome! How about I pick you up from the airport? It would be much more comfortable than struggling with a taxi driver after your long flight. 😉
Taeyeon gasped. “No! You used the winking emoticon! That’s far too risky!”
“Silence. I know what I’m doing.”
Sure, that would be great! Thanks (: I’ll send you my flight info.
Sooyoung patted Taeyeon on the shoulder. “My work here is done. Now it’s up to you!”
Taeyeon gazed at her computer screen. The fact that Tiffany actually seemed happy about meeting her was making her heart swell with anticipation, but she kept eyeing the message Sooyoung had sent. It seemed so confident, so casual, and so normal. Although she was still unsure about the use of the emoticon, the message seemed to flow better than anything she had ever written, or perhaps she was too aware of how awkward and nervous she had always felt while typing those messages compared to the ease with which Sooyoung just knocked out words and sent them. She sighed.
Sooyoung patted her on the shoulder again, more comfortingly this time. “You’ll be fine. Just be yourself. I have a good feeling about this Tiffany girl, I think she’ll be more understanding and welcoming than you think.”
Taeyeon didn’t say anything, staring down at the letters on the keyboard in silence. Sooyoung gave her one last pat on the shoulder before going back to the living room.
Another message flashed on the screen.
1 New Message from: Info890515
Daniel Lee will be in the Pink Flamingo hotel next week, Room 105, booked for Monday to Saturday.
Taeyeon smiled. This informant was always reliable and useful. And Taeyeon felt most comfortable here, on the internet, dealing with online informants and clues and investigations. She was in her element. Sure, she could go out every now and then and talk to people, ask questions, matter-of-factly gather information physically, but she gulped at the thought of meeting Tiffany at the airport on Saturday. And what did Sooyoung mean by saying it was a good night for dating? Should she take Tiffany to have dinner somewhere? Did people still have dinner on dates? Some people watched movies or saw concerts or went skydiving on dates. Why was she even taking Tiffany on a date? Was Sooyoung trying to make her brain explode?
Taeyeon shook her head rapidly and blinked. She focussed. Daniel Lee was going to be in that hotel and she was going to go sort this whole thing out right away. Perhaps, she thought with an unconscious little smile, she could sort it all out swiftly and Tiffany could just spend her holiday with Taeyeon and without any worries. Oh that would be lovely.
With a little slap on her cheeks to bring her attention back into the right place, she went back to her search for information so that she was fully prepared to confront the crime boss. And also Tiffany.
“Knock knock –”
“Uh – Taeyeon.”
“Oh, is this not a joke?”
“No, it isn’t. Could you please help me carry this stuff?”
Sooyoung sighed in disappointment and got up from the couch to take one of the plastic bags from Taeyeon’s full hands. The smell of fried food followed Taeyeon into her living room and she got to work laying out the takeaway containers on the coffee table right away.
“I was totally going to be casual,” Taeyeon muttered, polystyrene squeaking as she popped open a container. “I was going to be like, ‘knock knock, I brought back some food,’ in a nonchalant, cool manner, before you interrupted me so rudely.”
Sooyoung eyed her carefully. “You didn’t rehearse it in your car again, did you?”
Taeyeon scowled, nearly ripping another container as she opened it. “So what if I did? You’re the only one who finds that weird.”
“I’m not, you know,” Sooyoung replied, already chewing. “Yuri was laughing too.”
Taeyeon paused, looking at her. “Oh, that’s what she was laughing about?”
“How is Yuri, by the way? I haven’t heard from her in a while,” Sooyoung said, changing the subject smoothly and hoarding multiple containers to her side of the table with the same smoothness. “She said she would send you some e-mails from America.”
The couch jiggled slightly as Taeyeon threw herself onto it with a huff. She cuddled a container to her chest and glumly started to eat. “She sent me one last month. America is wonderful.”
“You don’t seem too pleased about that.”
“Well, she was only supposed to be there for a couple of weeks. It’s been two months already. How much longer does she need to be there?!”
Sooyoung chewed thoughtfully, putting more food into her mouth like popcorn as she watched Taeyeon for a long while. Taeyeon felt something different about the silence and looked up, confused. She blinked.
Sooyoung swallowed before speaking. “You miss her, don’t you? You always suck at admitting when you miss your friends. You’ve just gotta say it, Taeyeon, just let it out. It’s perfectly fine to tell your friends you miss them.”
Taeyeon winced. “You’re not going to snuggle me again, are you?”
Sooyoung sighed and turned to face the TV, reaching for the remote. “No, buddy. Not this time.”
They watched TV in silence, letting the noises wash over them as they ate.
Taeyeon did find it difficult to tell her friends that she missed them, in the same way that she found it difficult to tell them anything about what went on in her head even though she’d known them for such a long time and felt more comfortable with them than with anyone else. It took her long enough to think about what she thought, and think to about what she was thinking about what she thought, and on the odd occasion to think about what she thought about what she was thinking about what she thought. The added time it took to formulate any of it into something she could communicate to another person in a way that satisfactorily conveyed the connotations made it an arduous process that she struggled with. She’d been meaning to practice it more often, make it a habit so that she could fine-tune the process and become familiar with it, but she just found other things more appealing; like work, and video games, and books, and developing more efficient ways to fold t-shirts, and imagining what her neighbour’s cat would look like if it were human. Practising advanced social communication skills was not high on her list yet.
She checked the time on her watch. In a little under three hours, Tiffany’s plane would land.
“Hey, how come you didn’t just use a photo, by the way?” Sooyoung asked, swallowing.
Taeyeon looked at her. “Huh?”
“A photo,” Sooyoung repeated, “of Tiffany Hwang’s mother. You described her but you could’ve just used a picture.”
“She left a long time ago so Tiffany didn’t have any super recent photos,” Taeyeon said, reaching for the remote. “And I want to get more of an idea of what Daniel Lee has been up to before I get into details. No sense rushing in now, making it obvious who I’m looking for. If he’s sure I’m looking for her, and she really is with him, he won’t hesitate to kill me. This way I can scope out my chances before getting into it.”
Sooyoung shrugged. “Okay. I’ve seen this method work before so I guess it’ll work this time.”
Taeyeon paused between channels. “You think I’m wrong to do this?”
“Well, not wrong exactly. But Daniel Lee is pretty big. Like, one of the biggest criminals in the country. And scary. So I guess I’m just worried that what has worked in the past won’t be enough against him.”
Taeyeon hesitated for a moment before she went back to flicking through the channels. “I know. I’ve considered it before. Maybe I’ll consider it a bit more.”
Sooyoung’s reply was prevented by the ringing of Taeyeon’s phone. Taeyeon tossed the remote to Sooyoung and answered it.
“Ah, hello? Is this Taeyeon?”
It was marvellous. The voice was warm, and sweet, and it curved the letters of spoken words with a comfortable flow that surprised Taeyeon. She had to push herself to stay attentive to the dynamics of normal conversation.
“Uh, yes? Yes, this is Taeyeon. With whom am I speaking?”
“I’m Tiffany Hwang. Sorry for the surprise call!”
Taeyeon’s heart stopped beating around about the second syllable of Tiffany’s name. Her eyes widened, and her breath caught in her throat for a few moments before she spluttered a response.
“N-No, that’s fine, it’s not a problem. Um, why… is everything okay?”
“Oh, yes, it’s just that my flight landed early. I was wondering if you could perhaps come pick me up now if that’s convenient for you? I still need to get my luggage so you don’t have to rush if you can’t make it right away. And I can hang out at a café for a while.”
For a bizarre reason that was no doubt illogical and nonsensical, Taeyeon felt as if the clouds above her head had parted – even though she was indoors – and something was beckoning. All her concerns about social intricacies or the dilemma of how to act around Tiffany, everything just disappeared. True, she didn’t have an answer to her dilemma or relief from her worries, but she knew one thing and it was simple. Step one: Get in the car and go pick up Tiffany at the airport. She forgot about Sooyoung, who was watching her with interest, and who would no doubt find some way to move the situation along once they reached the end of the first step, but Taeyeon didn’t care very much at the moment. It was time for the first step, and the first step was all she needed. At first.
Taeyeon blinked. And then she screwed her eyes shut and berated herself internally for a brief moment. She cleared her throat before answering. “Ah, yes, that will be fine. I’ll go now. I should be there in about half an hour.”
“Awesome. Thanks so much, Taeyeon. I look forward to meeting you.”
Taeyeon blushed. “Th-thank you. I mean. I’ll see you soon. Bye.”
She hung up the phone and hung her head. She took advantage of a few seconds of silence to run through the entire conversation again, editing bits and pieces here and there, imagining how Tiffany looked and acted on the other end of the line. Finally, with a sigh, she looked up and met Sooyoung’s expectant grin.
“So?” Sooyoung asked. “How was it? Hearing her voice for the first time?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Taeyeon stated. “How do you even know it was her – I mean, how do you even know who it was?”
Sooyoung rolled her eyes. “Please, Taeyeon, give me a bit more credit. I am your assistant, after all. You think I never learned a few things about observation? Although you are so obvious even a barnacle would know.”
Taeyeon cleared her throat again. “Okay then.”
Sooyoung raised an eyebrow, giving Taeyeon a chance to elaborate, and when no continuation came, she said, “So you’re admitting it was her?”
Taeyeon stood up and started to clear away the remnants of their food. “Come on, we should go pick up Tiffany at the airport.”
When she was finished tidying up, Taeyeon patted her pockets for her car keys, and went to the door. Sooyoung got up to follow her, still smiling.
“Something tells me you have a better idea of what warm coffee caramel sounds like now.”