“At first glance, appearances suggest that someone tried to kill me, or Tiffany, or both of us.”
The chemical stung Taeyeon’s cheek as it was administered and she winced, momentarily pulled from her train of thought and instinctively moving her head back. The nurse had little sympathy and it showed in her expression as she took hold of Taeyeon’s chin with one hand to keep her face still.
For the past several minutes, Taeyeon had been talking. Based on what she could remember of the moment of attack, she analysed the angle of the bullet’s trajectory, the sonic delay of the gunshot, the shatter-pattern of the glass and subsequently the calibre of the ammunition. She had moved on to possible motives, but after being derailed, her mind jumped onto the question of who exactly pulled the trigger.
“Red lipstick,” she mumbled, distracted enough to hold still while the nurse cleaned the laceration on her cheek. She gazed off into the distance even though she couldn’t see anything without her glasses, but the softness of the vague blurry shapes lulled her into the depths of her thoughts. “The use of lipstick is associated with a female, but of course a male assassin could have used it to influence my profiling. But why write that message? And why do it on the windshield of my car? I wonder if a handwriting analysis would be fruitful, and maybe even establishing the shade and brand of the lipstick could lead somewhere.”
The nurse rolled her eyes. During the time that Taeyeon had been rambling through possibilities, the nurse grew tired of it pretty quickly.
There was a rustling of paper as a doctor entered, flipping through pages on the clipboard in her hand. She came to a stop right beside them, and proceeded to ignore them as she read. The nurse finished cleaning Taeyeon’s wound just as the doctor finally turned to face them.
“Thank you, Nurse Park,” she said with a tight smile. “You can finish later. There are a few things I need to discuss with Ms Kim.”
The nurse barely hid her discontent as she strode away. The doctor gave a different smile to Taeyeon, more furtive.
“Well, Ms Kim… or do you prefer to be called Detective? Your reputation precedes you at this hospital, you see.”
Taeyeon blinked, eyeing her warily. “Okay.”
“Although I’ve heard of you from someone else,” the doctor said. She glanced around cautiously. “A friend of mine.”
Taeyeon leaned forward slightly. “Okay?”
“A friend of mine,” the doctor repeated, “who was born on a particular date.”
Taeyeon waited, but details were not forthcoming. “Fascinating,” she said.
She reached for her glasses and slipped them on, and then she glanced at the nametag on the doctor’s coat. Seo Juhyun. The name was unfamiliar, and she was unaware of the chances that an acquaintance or past client of hers could have a friend by that name. And so what if her friend was born on a particular date? The majority of the planet’s population were in a similar situation. Taeyeon checked the time on her watch. She wanted to meet up with Sooyoung to discuss her analysis.
“A day in nineteen-eighty-nine,” the doctor continued. “On the fifteenth of May.”
Taeyeon nodded, accepting the information. “Okay.”
Taeyeon looked at the doctor. “O-kay,” she said again, slowly. “It’s okay that your friend was born on the fifteenth of May in nineteen-eighty-nine. Good for them. It’s a perfectly solid date to be born on.”
The doctor sighed. She closed her eyes for a moment and rubbed her temples. “Okay, let me try something else. This friend of mine often uses her birthdate as part of her username in online activities.”
Something clicked. “Ah,” said Taeyeon, eyes wide. “Ah, 890515. You’re friends with my informant? You shouldn’t be talking to me. Shoo! Go away!”
The doctor blinked in surprise. “Excuse me?”
“I must not know anything about my online informants! Even just knowing that Info890515 is friends with a young hospital doctor by the name of Seo Juhyun already alters the connection between us and my perception of all contact with that informant. Shoo,” Taeyeon insisted. “Go do medical stuff, leave me alone.”
The doctor looked slightly insulted. “Won’t you listen to what I have to say?”
Taeyeon immediately closed her eyes and slapped her hands over her ears. “No! Absolutely not. Do you have any idea what you’ve done? I may have to sever all connections with Info890515. I know too much!”
“Oh yeah? What do you even know? You’ve barely given me a chance to talk!”
Unfortunately for Taeyeon, the palms of her hands did not provide the best coverage and she could still make out what the doctor was saying, even if it was so muffled she might as well have been underwater. She frowned, contemplating her options, and decided that this doctor was so determined that the only way Taeyeon could escape was by jumping out of the window, and that was rarely a preferred solution to anything.
So she sighed and opened her eyes and let her hands rest in her lap. She gave the doctor a weary look.
“Okay, well, first of all,” she began, “I already know that you have a small dog at home – one of five possible breeds – you played piano since you were young but you haven’t had much time for it since you joined medical school several years ago. You’re still studying, and this time of year you should be on break but you took some part-time work at the hospital because you sincerely want to be the best possible medical professional you can be. You went for a short jog this morning through a wooded area near water, probably along a trail by the river. Whatever you want to say that is related to Info890515 is clearly very urgent and important, in your opinion, so much so that you just told me that my informant has been openly talking about their connection to me despite the dangers it could involve.”
The doctor looked down and fiddled with her clipboard.
Taeyeon wiped absently at the wound on her cheek, checking to see if it was bleeding too much again. Then she reached over and gave the doctor a light pat on her shoulder with her other hand.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Just tell me everything.”
“Tell me how you knew that stuff first,” the doctor replied, frowning at her. “I want to understand.”
Taeyeon sighed. “Of course you do. Well, you have several dog-hairs on your person, not just on your clothes and shoes but a couple in your hair, suggesting you like to snuggle your dog. The type of hair is from certain breeds of small dog, but without close-up analysis I’ve no idea which one it is. The musculature in your hands and the way you move your fingers when interacting with objects such as the papers on your clipboard show habits and fluency developed from a lifetime of playing piano, but your fingers don’t seem quite fast enough anymore so I would guess you haven’t played in several years, probably coinciding with medical school because that’s sure to keep you busy. Your jog -”
“Okay, never mind,” the doctor interrupted. “Wow, you’re really like that.”
Taeyeon raised an eyebrow. “Yes. So? What did you want to say?”
The doctor glanced around again before answering. “Call me Seohyun. My friend… Info890515 is like family to me. I don’t want to see my friend get hurt. When I heard the nurses talking about you and what happened, I knew I needed to talk to you.”
“Is what happened to me related to the possibility that Info890515 could be hurt?”
“I think so,” Seohyun said sombrely. “I heard them saying that there was a message left for you on your windshield, in red lipstick. S-My friend, Info890515, found a message on their car’s windshield a few days ago, also in red lipstick.”
“A few days ago,” Taeyeon mumbled, thoughts whirring. “What did it say?”
“Shut your mouth,” Seohyun answered. “I mean it said, ‘Shut your mouth’.”
Taeyeon nodded in acknowledgement. “Did you or Info890515 take a picture of it?”
“I didn’t, but she – Info890515 might have,” Seohyun said, and saw the wince on Taeyeon’s face as more information about her informant was revealed. “Sorry. But you have to help my friend. I don’t want her to get hurt by this lunatic.”
Taeyeon clicked her tongue. “It’s okay. What you have just told me makes it clear that Info890515 is no longer a reliable source. She’s been compromised, so it doesn’t matter that I know that she’s female. In fact, I need to know more about her, and about this incident. There’s a chance that those words were left on her windshield right after she told me where Daniel Lee would be next week.”
“Will she be safe?” Seohyun asked, concern clear on her face, worry tensing her jaw.
Taeyeon considered how to answer. Severing all contact with Info890515 would probably be safer than what she was planning to do, but she needed to talk to Info890515 and find out more about the incident and what connection there could be to their mysterious shooter. So she took a deep breath, let out a heavy sigh, and said, “I don’t know. Probably.”
Seohyun didn’t seem particularly satisfied with that answer, but before she could say anything, the nurse returned and went straight to Taeyeon.
She removed Taeyeon’s glasses and gave her a stern glare. Taeyeon flinched and looked at Seohyun one last time while the nurse gathered her tools.
“Thank you for your advice, doctor,” she said. “Perhaps if you leave me your number, I can contact you with any questions.”
Seohyun nodded and scribbled her phone number on the corner of a piece of paper which she tore off and slipped into Taeyeon’s hand while the nurse started stitching Taeyeon’s wound.
When Seohyun left, Taeyeon watched the nurse out of the corner of her eye and found she had nothing to say out loud anymore. Being reminded of how easily people are connected, she realised for the first time that talking about her analyses in public was a foolish thing to do. Anyone could hear her, and anyone could be connected to someone who shouldn’t know what she was thinking. Nurse Park seemed like a typical, serious, matronly sort of nurse, entirely focused on her work and disapproving of interruptions, but there was always a chance she was storing information to pass on later.
Taeyeon made a mental note to regret her mistake later, focusing now on running through the facts in her head. She needed to inspect the crime scene, or at least get her hands on a police report, but she knew there was very little chance of that happening. What little she could remember of the incident would not be particularly reliable evidence at all. Merely recalling where on the window the bullet had hit was not the surest way to accurately identify angles and patterns. Where did the bullet land? How far did it go? Was there any residue of gunfire nearby?
“It’s okay, nurse, I’ll take her off your hands.”
Taeyeon blinked, bringing her mind back to the hospital room. Sooyoung stood before her, smiling at the nurse.
“I know she can be a bit of a nuisance,” said Sooyoung sympathetically. “Thank you for your diligence.”
The nurse seemed mollified by the attention and strode out of the room slightly lighter than before.
Taeyeon reached a hand up to her cheek and ran her fingers over the tiny rugged line on her skin. The stitching was complete, and it wasn’t an ideal location for a plaster. Everything smelled strongly of medical disinfectant.
“Hey. How are you feeling?”
She smiled. “All systems operating.”
Sooyoung rolled her eyes. “Oh, so you can make android jokes but I can’t. I see how it is. Want me to pass you your glasses, four-eyes?”
The clearing of her vision was met with a smile from Sooyoung, and for a moment Taeyeon wasn’t thinking of the case or the attack. She felt relaxed at last, and safe. Sooyoung was one of her closest friends, almost like family, and she could understand why Seohyun had been so intent on talking to her about Info890515. Taeyeon dismissed it for now, making a note to discuss it with Sooyoung later.
“How’s Tiffany?” she asked, standing up and readjusting her glasses. “Is she okay?”
“Yeah, she’s fine,” Sooyoung answered, and led them down the hallway. “They stitched up her shoulder without problem. She’s waiting for us in reception. Are you ready to go?”
Taeyeon checked her pockets for her phone and keys. “I think so. Let’s drop Tiffany off at her hotel and go have a chat at my place, okay? There are things we need to talk about.”
“Things you don’t want Tiffany to hear?”
Sooyoung hadn’t always been astute about Taeyeon’s way of thinking. It probably came from years of being confused by her habits and getting totally lost during conversations, but she developed some way of following Taeyeon’s train of thought almost on track. So she knew that when Taeyeon wanted to talk about something without a certain person around, there was a good reason.
Taeyeon just nodded. “Let’s go.”
Tiffany looked deep in thought, staring at the gleaming, polished floor at her feet and chewing absently on her thumbnail. The action made Taeyeon grimace briefly; she couldn’t understand how people did that. She tried biting her own thumbnail once to see how it felt, and the combination of textures made her feel momentarily sick. Nevertheless, she knew people only did it when they were so lost within their mind that they didn’t notice, so she shook it off and tapped Tiffany on the shoulder.
“Hey there,” she said, smiling slightly, meeting Tiffany’s eyes. “Ready to get out of here?”
Tiffany jumped up. “Yeah, sure. How are you? Are you okay?”
There was a snicker from beside them as Sooyoung hid her mouth behind her hand, and Taeyeon shifted awkwardly.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said. “Let’s go. I’ll drop you off at your hotel, I’m sure you could use some rest after this whole ordeal.”
Tiffany blinked, and frowned slowly, but didn’t express the doubts and concerns she clearly had. Instead, she simply said, “Okay,” and followed them outside.
Taeyeon’s car was in the parking lot, with the writing still on the windshield, and the engine still hot because she sped away from that crime scene much faster than was technically legal. She didn’t want the police to get a hold of her car and claim it as evidence. The minute they got their grubby paws on it, the whole investigation would be a bust. But she still needed access to the crime scene somehow, and it would be difficult. And how long would it be before the cops found out she was there?
“I’ll take my car,” Sooyoung said, turning away from them. “See you later.”
In the past, Taeyeon had asked Yuri to break into the police station or con a cop into giving her the files, but now she was in America with no sign of coming back any time soon, and that left Taeyeon with decidedly fewer options. She couldn’t ask Sooyoung – her assistant with a clean record – to get information, and she was hesitant to contact any of her informants after the revelation that Info890515 was somehow accessed by someone who seemingly wanted to kill one or more people.
She sighed. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Tiffany glance at her with concern, but neither of them said anything as she drove down the bright streets. It was nearing the middle of the night, and streetlamps, shop-signs, and billboards were lit up so strongly it might as well have been day time.
The smudges of lipstick on the windshield were a slight impediment on her vision as she drove, but she stuck to the streets she knew would not be heavily populated, and the constant reminder of the message left thoughts trickling into her head. The use of the word ‘gorgeous’ was particularly jarring, calling her attention to all the times when she thought of Tiffany as gorgeous, and she tentatively blew off the possibility that the attacker somehow knew of her thoughts. Perhaps this person also thought Tiffany was gorgeous. It wasn’t impossible. But how likely was it that they would leave a message with that exact word? Or perhaps she was being a little too crazy.
“Taeyeon,” said an uncertain voice from beside her.
She blinked and glanced briefly in Tiffany’s direction. “Yes?”
“Is something wrong? I mean, other than the fact that we just got shot at. You seem worried about something.”
“I’m just thinking about everything,” said Taeyeon, keeping her eyes on the road as she made a turn.
Tiffany waited a moment before saying, “And you don’t want to talk about it?”
If Tiffany was hurt by the curt response and the silence that ensued, she didn’t mention it. Taeyeon was well aware of the possibility that she had been too rude, however, so she reached over and lightly patted Tiffany’s hand which was resting on her lap. The awkwardness that followed was expected.
They reached Tiffany’s hotel. Taeyeon tried to get Tiffany’s suitcase out of the boot of her car only to find that its dimensions suddenly defied physics and the thing would not get out no matter how factually it went in. After several long minutes of struggling with it, a scruffy and still-yawning porter trudged out of the hotel and whipped the suitcase out with practised ease. Taeyeon rolled her eyes and they followed him inside.
When Tiffany was all checked in, they faced each other in the lobby and wouldn’t lock gazes. Taeyeon felt bad about hiding her thoughts from Tiffany, even though she knew there was no obligation to share her mind with someone she just met despite their moments of bonding earlier. The change in behaviour clearly made Tiffany uncomfortable, and that made Taeyeon feel bad too. The way she acted before the attack was much more open, but now things changed and Taeyeon really, really needed to talk to Sooyoung about the attack.
“Well, sorry your first day here was such a mess,” Taeyeon said, offering a feeble smile. “I hope you can get a good night’s rest.”
“Can we have lunch tomorrow? I know you need time to think about the whole event and probably do some private-investigator-y things, but I’d like to talk more with you about my mother’s case. As soon as possible,” Tiffany said, her eyes serious and mouth in a firm line. She wasn’t letting Taeyeon shut her out.
Because being shut out made her feel vulnerable.
Taeyeon cocked her head to one side as she regarded the woman before her. Tiffany was tired from her long flight, worn-out from the stress of what happened earlier, and now she was worried and a little scared because Taeyeon was obviously trying to exclude her from something. Taeyeon sighed. She had no choice.
“Of course,” she said. She gave another tiny, brief smile and hoped it was partly comforting so that Tiffany believed her. “I’ll meet you here tomorrow? At noon, perhaps?”
Tiffany nodded, and grinned warmly for the first time since the attack. “Okay. See you tomorrow, Taeyeon. And thank you.”
Taeyeon watched her go up to her room, thinking again. She had a lot to think about. And a sizeable chunk of what she needed to think about suddenly involved Tiffany Hwang.
On the way to her apartment, she ran over what she knew of Tiffany, constructing a draft of a profile in her head. She regretted not doing a full background check before Tiffany got here. Feelings got in the way. And now she found she did not know much about Tiffany at all, and that bothered her quite a lot.
The blurred lines of the lipstick on her windshield caught her eye and she looked at it, traveling over the edges for a while.
Then she noticed why the lines were getting blurrier and blurrier.
She shoved her foot down on the brake, causing the car to come to a screeching halt and slide a little as it failed to gain enough friction on the road – the road that was steadily becoming wetter from the pouring, fat drops of rain.
The door of her car creaked with protest as she rapidly pushed it open, and she almost fell over herself from even one step forward to look at the windshield. She slammed her palms on the hood of the car and her fingers slid through the water.
The words were disappearing, softening with the rain and slowly washing away.
Taeyeon gaped as one of her key pieces of evidence started to eradicate, and then she cursed. She reached out and touched one of the smudges, the lipstick blanketing her finger faster in its liquid state. While this reaction to rain suggested a few things about the quality of the lipstick and how much force had been applied when the writer used it, these were meagre comforts.
She had to take a picture while she still could, even though it would only be half as useful as it would have been when the lipstick was dry.
She fumbled with her phone, cursing the touch screen that was hard to use when it was wet, and she tried to take a picture, cursing her glasses for becoming ineffective under the onslaught of the rain. After several blurry, dark shots, she almost dropped her phone and decided to go home as fast as she could.
Sooyoung was waiting for her when she banged through the front door. She watched with interest as Taeyeon furiously dried her phone screen with a tea towel from the kitchen, and she waited until Taeyeon was furiously drying her glasses before she spoke.
“You seem upset.”
Taeyeon glared at her. “Really.”
Sooyoung looked thoughtfully at the ceiling, tapping her chin with her forefinger, and then she said, “Perhaps it has something to do with the rain outside?”
Taeyeon sighed, still frowning. “Astute.”
“Well, that means it’s not something to do with Tiffany, which leaves Cupid with some hope.”
“Whatever,” Taeyeon said, her anger dissipating in the face of Sooyoung’s casual nature.
There was a clatter as she threw herself down on the couch, and she stared in horror at the cracked screen of her phone as it lay a short distance from her. It seemed the task of holding everything within the capacity of two adult-sized hands was thwarted by her clammy fingers. It was an unlucky night, and she told herself that like a relaxing mantra as she closed her eyes and took deep breaths.
Sooyoung joined her on the couch, and handed her a bowl of ice cream.
“Let’s talk,” she suggested. “I think that would be the best thing to do right now.”
Taeyeon nodded, and ate some ice cream as her brain switched over to all the things she needed to discuss. Then she started talking.
“Okay, so I’ll start with the attack. The shooter was clearly aiming between us, with the bullet not coming anywhere near enough to either of us to be a real risk. They waited until we were about to leave, perhaps to give us a chance to reach a certain point in the conversation. Someone in that place must have been in contact with them. I would guess they shot from the other side of the carpark, but I’m no longer sure how long the sonic delay was or exactly what it sounded like, because the shattering of the window was loud and dominates my memory. We need the police reports.”
She took in some more ice cream, pondering her next point.
“I met a doctor today, Seo Juhyun, who is friends with Info890515. She said Info890515 also received a threat in red lipstick on her car windshield recently. The message… it really baffles me. Why those words? Why that lipstick? Who are they talking to? The lipstick…”
Her spoon dropped into the bowl and she suddenly stared at the tip of her forefinger.
“That lipstick… don’t you think it was familiar?”
Sooyoung frowned. “What?”
Taeyeon looked at her, finger still raised, and copied her frown. “I’ve seen it before.”
Taeyeon’s gaze slipped away, deep in thought. “I’m not sure. But I know…”
She didn’t speak again for a long time, the sound of the rain beating against the windows muffled by the thick curtains. Sooyoung started to eat her ice cream again, waiting for Taeyeon to finish thinking.
“I know…” Taeyeon started again. “I know I need to find out more. I need to find out so much more. I need police reports, background information on Tiffany Hwang and Seo Juhyun, and I need to talk to Info890515. There has to be a connection. I need to find it. I have to construct timelines – where everyone was at every moment of the past couple of months. I need to look at Tiffany as – as a suspect, until I know more about her. Everyone is a suspect.”
Sooyoung kept her eyes on Taeyeon as she licked off her spoon, and didn’t say anything.
Taeyeon didn’t notice her quietness, her brow furrowed as she tried to visualize all the facts and hypotheses. She jumped up, dumping her bowl on the table, and disappeared into her room.
She went to the small whiteboard on one wall, erased everything with hem of her shirt, and started to scribble.
Gunshot. Message. Customers. Daniel Lee (?). Info890515. Seohyun.
She paused, eyes running over each word again and again. Where did Daniel Lee’s gas station robbery come in? What was he doing? Was he really behind all of this?
Then she wrote some more. There was someone who made her feel confused and uncertain.
There was a person she couldn’t find – who might not even be in the place where she was looking.
And there was a component that paced along the edge of her mind and that she needed to place somehow.