2; Drop Dead, Gorgeous
“Step aside, short stuff,” said Sooyoung, craning her head over the crowd in front of them, “I’ll find her.”
“You don’t know what she looks like either,” replied Taeyeon, frowning. “Just hold up the sign, okay?”
They had to stop by a stationery store in the airport on their way to Tiffany’s terminal so that they could buy a sheet of cardboard and a permanent marker, with which Taeyeon craftily made a sign that said ‘Tiffany Hwang’ upon it. Sooyoung now held it in her hands, just above the heads of the people swarming around the place where passengers from Tiffany’s flight would exit. Taeyeon hopped nervously on the balls of her feet, eyes glued to the glass doors a short distance from them, her view getting blocked intermittently by the taller people.
Sooyoung noticed her friend’s antsy behaviour out of the corner of her eye, and she hid a smile as she raised the sign even higher.
The doors slid open electronically and passengers leaked out, just a few at first and then the main body of the group. Taeyeon jumped in the air a little, then realised she was being ridiculous and tried to relax. Sooyoung kept her gaze on the passengers, expecting every second or third young woman trailing a suitcase to be Tiffany.
“She must have been stuck at luggage collection for a long time,” remarked Sooyoung. “She called us the second she stepped off the plane and said she would be getting her bags while she waited. People from that flight are only just now getting through.”
Taeyeon shrugged. “It’s nothing new. All four of the times I’ve been on a plane, I’ve had to wait almost forty minutes for my luggage to get through.”
“Must be hard for you unlucky people. It only ever takes me ten minutes.”
Taeyeon shot her a distracted glare. “Whatever. Make sure the sign is visible.”
“When I told you to make sure your handwriting was legible, you nearly bit my head off,” Sooyoung murmured without malice. “Oh, that one’s got a glint in her eye at the sight of your shaky scribble. I think it’s her.”
Taeyeon’s heart fluttered. She saw Sooyoung beckoning to someone, and then she was steered by the elbow to a point slightly away from the crowd. The disappearance of pressing bodies sent some relief to her lungs, and she breathed more freely until the moment she turned in the direction Sooyoung was looking and got her first sight of Tiffany Hwang.
Taeyeon struggled with words at the best of times, but the moment she laid eyes on Tiffany her entire vocabulary of some forty thousand words flew out of her head at the speed of a neutrino particle, and she barely even remembered where she was or what it felt like to be in a human body. She wasn’t sure if Tiffany was actually coming closer step by step or if her brain was just melting and her eyes were popping out of her head. But then Tiffany came to a halt in front of them with a friendly smile on her gorgeous/beautiful/stunning/dazzling face (and Taeyeon’s vocabulary started slowly trickling back), her curious gaze shifting from Sooyoung to Taeyeon and back.
“I’m Sooyoung,” said Sooyoung, holding out a hand for Tiffany to shake. “I’m Taeyeon’s assistant. She’ll be with you in just a moment. Her systems are rebooting.”
Tiffany’s smile widened at this statement, amusement playing on her features as she glanced at the unmoving Taeyeon. She shook Sooyoung’s hand and said, “Nice to meet you. Both of you. Does this kind of thing happen often?”
“Oh, yes,” Sooyoung said nonchalantly. “But she’s not quite as slow as some of the older-model androids. And she has a built-in game of Pacman.”
Taeyeon’s hand lashed out and whipped Sooyoung on the shoulder. “Hey, don’t go around telling people I’m an android. A lot of people actually believed you last time.”
Sooyoung just grinned. Taeyeon looked at Tiffany again, fighting the barrage of words that scrolled across her brain as their eyes met (amazing, gorgeous, friendly, humorous, beautiful, gorgeous, gorgeous, real, present, nearby, real oh my god real) and offered a smile that shook slightly.
“Hello,” she said, and cleared her throat. “I mean, hello.”
She resisted the urge to raise her arm, remembering Sooyoung’s comment about her robot wave. Tiffany’s smile stayed on her lips and her eyes softened as they watched each other for a while.
“Nice to meet you, Taeyeon,” she said. “Thanks for coming to pick me up. And thanks for taking on my case. I’m grateful that an investigator of your calibre was willing to help me out.”
Taeyeon blushed, even though she had always been confident and open about her superior detective skills and never minded when others complimented her before. But then, she rarely stood face-to-face with people who were saying such nice things to her, and those people never gave her such a tingly, fizzy feeling just by acknowledging her.
“Oh my would you look at the time,” Sooyoung said blankly. “I forgot I’m meeting someone for dinner. Hey, that’s a great idea, you two should go have dinner, so Tiffany can relax and re-energize with some hearty Korean food. You guys go ahead. Bye!”
And she turned on her heel and strode away without a second glance. Tiffany blinked at her receding figure until she was out of sight, and then saw her own confusion mirrored on Taeyeon’s face when they looked at each other. Taeyeon pursed her lips, awkward, and rocked back on her heels for a moment.
“So, um, do you want to go have dinner?” she asked quietly. “I mean, we don’t have to, because you’re probably tired and you just got off a long flight and you probably ate on the plane so it’s not like you’d be hungry or anything…”
One half of her slapped the other half of her and she shut up. It was difficult to be in the middle of a process of changing her habits of social interaction, as if she was a street that used to be only one-way and recently split into two opposing lanes so now head-on crashes were happening all the time. She wondered if there was a remedy for this kind of occurrence and was already mentally conducting an information search through traffic news history before she realised she was actually still in the middle of a conversation with Tiffany. Her eyes widened as her brain returned to the situation and she panicked briefly, quickly analysing Tiffany’s facial expression to see if her spacing-out affected the flow of socialization.
Tiffany still had the amused smile on her face, her eyes seemed to be gazing at something far away even though she was looking at Taeyeon, and her eyebrows seemed relaxed, her cheeks and jaw soft, the corners of her lips not tense, and she was so utterly lovely that Taeyeon’s analysis was cut short by a lengthy line of gibberish. She lost track of the conversation again, and was brought back by the sound of Tiffany’s voice.
“You know, I wasn’t expecting you to be so… fascinating, now that we’ve met in person,” she said. “I can’t quite put my finger on it. You seemed like an interesting person from our online correspondence, but now that I actually have you here in front of me… I don’t know. I’m glad I came to Seoul.”
Taeyeon’s face slowly blossomed into a blush, and she wondered why she was suddenly so vulnerable to these uncontrollable visual expressions. Half of her shut down the other half and she cleared her throat, straightened her spine, and felt the blush recede.
“I’m glad you came, too,” she said, with only a hint of stiffness in her tone. “So… dinner?”
Tiffany seemed to ponder for a moment, lightly biting her bottom lip and looking at her watch. It wasn’t early, but it wasn’t late. She could last a while longer before she had to deal with jetlag. She gave Taeyeon a glittering smile, and said, “Sure. But no Korean food just yet, please… I’m the mood for a burger.”
It wasn’t until they reached the car that Taeyeon wondered how Sooyoung would be leaving the airport without her, but she knew Sooyoung would figure something out, so she just wrestled Tiffany’s suitcase into the boot of her car. Normally she would have let Tiffany struggle with it herself, or if she was in a hurry she would have helped in order to save time. But now here she was, not in a hurry, not with one of her long-time friends, and just the mere thought of Tiffany having to grapple with her suitcase was enough to make her jump into the situation instead. It was unusual. But Taeyeon had considered all possibilities of what it would be like when Tiffany arrived, so her behaviour wasn’t entirely surprising, merely intriguing. This was like an experiment, research into advanced social connotations. Then she held the door open for Tiffany to get into the front passenger seat, and she stopped her line of thought. She shouldn’t think of this as an experiment, at least not all the time. She just had to live the experience.
They were quiet as she drove them out of the airport, but when they stopped at the first set of traffic lights, Tiffany spoke up.
“So, how did I manage to lure the great reclusive detective all the way out here just to meet me?”
Taeyeon froze, her eyes glued to the red light ahead. The tone of Tiffany’s voice was partly playful, partly hesitant, and partly genuinely curious. She wanted to know, but she didn’t want to make Taeyeon uncomfortable. Taeyeon relaxed. She appreciated that.
And then she tensed again, because how would she answer the question?
“I heard you only interacted with clients through online messages,” Tiffany continued, fiddling with the dials on the car’s air conditioning system. “And that you don’t even do phone calls. So… well, I’m not even sure what I was doing when I told you I was thinking of coming to Seoul.”
“You were probably feeling deprived,” Taeyeon answered automatically, eyes on the road as the traffic moved. “Incomplete. You’ve missed your mother for a long time, and the constant thoughts of your mother became associated with thoughts of your heritage in Korea, and the ongoing search for your mother here led to a connection between your emotional emptiness and the chance of finding your mother which would theoretically fill the void, culminating in a combination of human elements relating to family, heritage, and problem-solving or reinstating familiar social structure. You felt like coming here was something you absolutely had to do. Right?”
Tiffany blinked. Her stare was locked onto Taeyeon. Her hand hovered near the air-conditioning. She nodded slowly.
“So you mentioned to me that you were thinking of coming to Seoul, hoping for justification of an inexplicable urge. There is no logical reason for you to be here if we just consider the case, but the sentimental aspects explain a natural desire to be here right now.”
There was silence for a while after Taeyeon stopped speaking. The only movement came when she shifted gears. Then Tiffany let her hand drop onto her lap, and she looked out the window. Taeyeon became worried at the lengthy drop in conversation, and reconsidered her lax attitude in speaking. She thought if she just went with the flow of conversation in order to experience everything, then she would present a more natural and comfortable image, which she had found in the past made a vast difference in social interactions. Now, she thought again about everything she just said, and saw the possibility of overstepping the line.
“Um,” she said unsurely, “I apologise if I’ve offended you.”
“No,” Tiffany replied. She turned back to Taeyeon, looking thoughtful. “I just… I don’t mean to be rude, but I suppose I wasn’t expecting you to be so… emotionally aware. I heard you were quite awkward, socially.”
“Ah.” Taeyeon nodded. “No, you’re quite right to think so. I’m trying something new. In the past, I would have thought all those things in my head and maybe felt sure about the formulation of words in about two hours, by which time of course the moment would have passed. But then we would be sitting here in awkward silence instead of awkward discussion.”
A smile quirked the corner of Tiffany’s mouth. Her eyes remained contemplative. “Something new, huh?”
Taeyeon knew there was another layer of connotations beneath what was visible, but she had to drive the car, not analyse Tiffany. So she returned the smile briefly and half-heartedly, before turning the car into the entrance of a parking lot.
“Hope you don’t mind,” she said as she parked the car. “I made an assumption of where you wanted to eat based on what you said at the airport. Is this place okay?”
Tiffany saw the big yellow and red sign and grinned. “It’s perfect. Exactly what I was craving.”
Taeyeon opened Tiffany’s door for her.
“You don’t have to do that, you know,” Tiffany said as they walked towards the restaurant. “Opening doors for me.”
“I insist,” Taeyeon replied, doing exactly that again. “You’re my guest. I have observed other dynamics for these situations, and this is what I feel is best.”
And it made her heart flutter a little every time Tiffany gave her a small, grateful smile as she stepped through the open door. But Taeyeon knew it would not be productive to mention that at this time.
Tiffany rattled off her order at the counter and Taeyeon requested a soda. They sat down at a table by the window when Tiffany got her food, and Tiffany sighed in relief as she bit into a French fry.
“This is just what I needed,” she said, gesturing to her food. “Thanks, Taeyeon.”
That memorable blush crept along the edge of Taeyeon’s jaw again, and she looked out the window as she nodded in acknowledgement. For a while, she observed the people inside the restaurant as she sucked on the straw of her soda, until her observations were interrupted.
“So, Taeyeon, I need you to be honest with me,” Tiffany said, wiping her fingers with a napkin before making eye contact.
Taeyeon gulped. She let the straw pop out of her mouth and put her soda down on the table between them. “What’s up?”
Tiffany paused for a moment. She crumpled the napkin into a tiny ball.
“How’s the search for my mother really going?” she asked delicately. “Is there any hope?”
Taeyeon was good at lying online, on the phone, and sometimes in person. But she knew enough of the practice to know just by judging the look on Tiffany’s face that she would not be able to pull off another lie. She briefly envisaged the possible outcomes of her actions; she lied and Tiffany caught her out, she lied and Tiffany fell for it, she told the truth and Tiffany hated it, she told the truth and Tiffany accepted it externally but struggled internally. Unfortunately, none of these visions were particularly appealing. She pursed her lips, fiddled with her glasses, inspected a spot on the ceiling for three intense seconds, and then she answered.
“There is hope,” she said slowly. “But… how do I say this… I’m not sure how to explain what I want to say.”
Tiffany sat back in her chair, and patiently watched Taeyeon.
“There are some extra considerations,” Taeyeon began. “I didn’t mention them before. Um, has your mother ever mentioned a man called Daniel Lee?”
Tiffany frowned slightly. “No, I don’t think so. Why? Who is he?”
Taeyeon tapped her fingers on the table. “He’s a criminal, in a word. Your mother knew him in high school. Well, she dated him in high school. He was her first boyfriend, and their relationship was quite intense. Now, this is where the extra considerations enter. She might have gone back to him when she left your family, which is where these options come from. If she isn’t with him, a plausible lead is exhausted and this will put me back a few steps.”
She hesitated, running through some sentences in her head, and then spoke again.
“If she is with him, she would be hard to find. And… she might not want to go back to you.”
She tried to say it as gently as she could, mindful of tone and timbre and the intensity of the consonants she vocalised. She kept her eyes on Tiffany’s face, looking for reaction to her statement, but Tiffany’s expression was unclear. Taeyeon made a note that Tiffany sometimes hid her feelings while they were being processed.
“I understand,” Tiffany said in an even voice. “It’s… it’s something I thought of. But I haven’t thought of it for a long time.” She took a deep breath. “It’s okay. Thanks for everything you’re doing, Taeyeon. Whatever you find, at least I can get some closure.”
Taeyeon ran some brief calculations in her head and produced a smile, aiming for it to be comforting, but it probably looked a bit odd because Tiffany gave her a weird look before smiling in return.
Hoping to avoid an awkward gap in conversation, Taeyeon picked up her soda again and said, “So, where did you hear that stuff about me?”
“Ah.” Tiffany looked down bashfully, letting her hair fall into her face. “I did a little research about you. Before I sent in a request for you to take my case, I put your name into a search engine to see what came up. There are sites where people discuss private investigators and cases like mine, and I found a few mentions of you from past clients of yours.”
Taeyeon raised her eyebrows. “Really? Hmm. I didn’t realise people were talking about me. What did they say?”
Tiffany looked up again, and smirked a little. Taeyeon blinked. She guessed Tiffany had been shy about telling her because she was unsure how Taeyeon would react and was now confident in continuing because Taeyeon expressed interest without distress. Interesting.
“They all said you were the best investigator they ever hired,” Tiffany said. “Some of them had been struggling with different investigators for years, then you took on the case and it was solved easily. A few other investigators don’t like you very much.”
Taeyeon scoffed. “Nothing new there.”
“And they said you were very reclusive,” Tiffany continued. “None of them have ever heard your voice or seen your face, and you remained strictly professional in your messages.” She smiled. “And now here I am, watching you drink soda with a straw, in a fast food restaurant.”
Taeyeon waited, but Tiffany gave no indication of how she felt to be sitting here watching Taeyeon drink soda. She frowned slightly, staring at Tiffany, and Tiffany stared right back.
“Is that… okay?” Taeyeon ventured finally.
Tiffany laughed briefly. “Yes. It’s okay.”
The straw was a bit mangled when Taeyeon put down her soda again, and she realised exactly how anxious she was about Tiffany’s opinion of spending time with her. And now here they were again, at a familiar impasse in the conversation where she didn’t know what to say, but unlike the time it happened online, Tiffany made no immediate move to spur it on. So they sat in silence, glancing at each other, until Tiffany finally cleared her throat.
“Tell me about Daniel Lee,” she said.
Taeyeon raised an eyebrow. “There’s not much to say. He seems like a bad guy.”
“Where are you on the case?” Tiffany asked, serious. “I mean, what are you investigating right now?”
Taeyeon glanced around. The restaurant was almost empty, the clock on the wall ticking at a later hour than she had realised. The fluorescent lights hummed faintly. The employees who were previously at the counter had disappeared to the back of the restaurant. A young man and woman two tables away from them were trying to hold in their laughter as they pulled funny faces at each other. A lone old man on the other side of the restaurant flipped the page of a newspaper and reached for his ice cream.
“Let’s go,” she said. “I’ll drive you back to the hotel and we can talk in the car. We shouldn’t be talking about this in public.”
Tiffany looked around at the people, trying to see anything suspicious, and then she nodded. “All right.”
Just as they got up to leave, the window beside them shattered. A second later, Taeyeon registered the sound of a gunshot, and in the onslaught of glass fragments she threw up her hands in a defensive posture. Tiffany stumbled in her shock and fell to her knees, covering her head with her arms. Taeyeon forced her eyes open, squinting between her fingers, searching outside for the source of the danger. It was too dark. All she could see were vague shapes of cars in the car park.
As the glass quietened around them, the chilled breeze from outside seeped onto her skin. It stung. She winced as she glanced at the red, bleeding little cuts over her hands and she felt another on her cheek. Dismissing her injuries when she couldn’t see any serious lacerations, she hopped over the table and helped Tiffany get up.
The restaurant was now empty, and Taeyeon tried to remember if the other customers had screamed. She nearly slid on the cleanly polished floor in her haste to move, and realised a dripped line of blood was tracking them.
“Tiffany, are you okay?” she murmured, keeping her gaze locked outside as she stopped them just around the corner from the glass entrance, pressing against the wall.
Tiffany was shaking visibly, arms still covering her head, and Taeyeon tightened her hold around her.
“Are you hurt anywhere?”
“I don’t know,” Tiffany whimpered.
She gathered herself slowly, lowering her arms and taking shaky breaths as she checked her body for injuries. There was a big slit in her shirt, on her shoulder, and a sizeable amount of blood had formed a red cloud, but it didn’t seem to be causing the drip.
Tiffany looked up at Taeyeon, and her eyes went wide. “Taeyeon, your cheek…”
“Hmm?” Taeyeon reached up, and her fingers came away slick with blood. “Oh… I thought the cut was smaller than that. Is it dripping?”
Tiffany nodded. She pulled the edge of her long sleeve over her hand and pressed the heel of her palm against the wound. “We need to put some pressure on it.”
“We need to get out of here,” Taeyeon replied, looking outside again. “I wonder… I could have sworn it was that couple, but I’m sure they screamed.”
“What are you talking about?” Tiffany asked, following her gaze.
“One of the customers was in on it. They must have sent some sign when they heard us talking about Daniel Lee. Otherwise no one would risk shooting at us in a public place. Well, I say ‘us’ but they only shot once. Perhaps they were just sent to kill one of us.”
Tiffany frowned at Taeyeon. “Are you okay? You’re on the verge of rambling.”
Taeyeon closed her eyes, and took a deep calming breath. “Right. Okay, we need to get out of here.”
She glanced outside.
“They only shot once. Even when we were scrambling to get away from the table, they didn’t take another shot. So either they’re waiting, or they left right after shooting.”
“Well we’ve been standing here for quite a while,” said Tiffany. “Maybe they’ve left now even if they were waiting. Surely someone has called the police.”
“Good point. You know what? Let’s just run and see what happens.”
Tiffany barely had time to be surprised before Taeyeon took her hand and pulled her along as she dashed through the entrance and their feet hit the carpark. She gulped in air as they sprinted to Taeyeon’s car, expecting a gun to go off at any moment, snapping her glances between the ground beneath them and all the dark cars around them.
Taeyeon skidded to a halt when they reached her car, staring at the windshield.
In the distance, sirens started up and they could hear cars racing towards them.
On the smooth surface of the windshield on Taeyeon’s car, the smudge of red lipstick glared at them in the shape of big, spiky words.
Drop dead, gorgeous.