4; Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Taeyeon dreamed of a restaurant. It was big, and busy, and too bright. The light was the first thing to hit her, causing her to squint her eyes as she stood by the entrance. The maître’d completely ignored her, choosing instead to face the wall and stoically remain unmoving.
She moved her gaze from the back of his head and swept over the restaurant before her. The brightness of the light made it hard to see clearly, the edges of some people blurred by the sharpness that infringed on their form. She would need to get closer.
There was a group of three figures at the nearest table.
She lifted her leg to step towards them and was hit by a searing pain in her knee. It made her crumple and squeeze her eyes shut as she grabbed at her leg. The agony was steady, starting hard and staying that way with no fluctuation, no sign of fading.
“No?” a voice said uncertainly.
Taeyeon’s eyes opened and she saw someone in front of her. At least, she assumed it was a person, because the shape was vaguely humanoid and the voice sounded feminine. The person was not moving, their body perfectly still, unnaturally so. There seemed to be a light in the ceiling right above them, because their face was nearly impossible to see.
“No, what was that?” the voice said again, still sounding uncertain.
Taeyeon frowned. The pain in her knee disappeared in a flash. She stood up, but it was as if the angle of her vision had not changed, for the person’s face was still blocked by the light. She leaned closer.
“No, what the hell was that?”
This time she could see something where the face was. A part of the lower face, the faint curve of a chin – and lips that moved with the words spoken.
Her eyes widened.
She tried to look into the person’s eyes, screwing her eyelids nearly shut, and tears prickled with the pressure of the light.
“It’s you,” she said.
“I know this is a dream,” Taeyeon interrupted, frowning at those lips that were parted in mid-sentence. “But it’s you. Why do you keep saying that? I’m in a restaurant, my knee hurts, and you keep saying those words. Who are you? I know you. I know -”
Her head vibrated with the ringing of her mobile phone. The lips faded.
“I know –” Taeyeon mumbled, and she was shrouded in darkness again. “I know…”
The ringing came back and she opened her eyes slowly. She felt cooler, as if she just stepped out of a hot room into the chilly night air. She took a few breaths, breathing in the air that seemed fresher. And then she answered the phone that lay on her bedside table.
“Hello?” she sounded groggy, more asleep than she felt, and the haziness caught up with her again.
“Hey!” greeted a cheery voice. “Did I wake you?”
Taeyeon blinked, and frowned. “Yes, I suppose you did.”
“Well, I have good news for you.”
“That’s nice. Who are you?”
There was a sharp intake of shocked breath. “What? Really? I leave the country for a couple of months and you don’t know me anymore? Dear super-detective Taeyeon, you are in bad form.”
Taeyeon took a moment to process.
“And now you get it! Yes my dear comrade, it is I. Now do you want to hear the news?”
Taeyeon glanced at the dials of her wristwatch on the bedside table. “Not really. I’m quite hungry. I slept later than usual.”
Yuri sighed, the breathiness pushing through the phone to convey her wearying troubles. “So this is how it is now. I leave for a short trip and now you don’t know my voice, don’t have time to hear what I have to say –”
Taeyeon rolled her eyes, and rolled out of bed. She listened to Yuri’s lengthy dramatic prose about the dilapidation of their friendship as she made her way to the kitchen. With one hand, she pulled out a bowl and poured some cereal into it.
“- I bet you’ve even forgotten all those times I got you police information -”
“Speaking of which, I may need you to do that for me again,” Taeyeon interrupted as she reached into the fridge for milk. “I don’t have many options for obtaining police information when you’re not around. You have great skill in that department.”
“And I enjoy it, too,” Yuri said, the smirk audible in her voice.
Taeyeon frowned a little in absent confusion. She had never really understood how Yuri got the information she needed. After the first few times of being brushed off when she asked, she decided it was best she didn’t know. She shook it off as she stuck her spoon in her cereal and started to eat.
“Which brings me to my good news,” Yuri said brightly. “Guess who is coming back to Seoul?”
“The Dalai Lama?”
There was silence from the other end of the line for a moment. Taeyeon crunched her cereal.
“Close enough,” Yuri said at last. “I’ll be back next week! Isn’t that brilliant?”
“It is,” Taeyeon answered, smiling slightly. “But why next week?”
“Oh, I just want to do a few more things before I go,” Yuri said airily. “Anyway, I’ll let you have your breakfast. I’ll email you the details of my glorious return later. Oh hey, how’s your new case going? I almost forgot to ask about it. This is the one you ditched your other cases for, right?”
Taeyeon stopped eating and swallowed. “I didn’t ‘ditch’ my other cases. I finished them and didn’t take on any new ones, that’s all. I’ve been meaning to take a break anyway, so cutting my workload down to one is a good way for me to take it easy.”
“Mhmm. Sooyoung has told me about your crush, so don’t bother trying to pretend it’s just professional.”
Taeyeon pouted. “Whatever.”
Her phone beeped into her ear. She moved it away from her ear to check the screen, and then talked to Yuri again.
“I have another call coming in. Email me later, okay? And don’t do anything too ridiculously stupid.”
“Oh you don’t need to worry about that. All I have planned for today is some BASE jumping. See you next week!”
Taeyeon blinked but didn’t get a chance to answer before Yuri hung up. Her phone beeped again and she switched over to the next call, mind still imagining the act of BASE jumping with a little mental cringe.
“Hey, super-detective!” It was Sooyoung.
Taeyeon gave up on her cereal, at least for now, and grumbled, “Why is everyone calling me super-detective all of a sudden? I still have a name.”
“You and Yuri. Everyone.”
“You talked to Yuri?”
“Yeah, she called me to tell me she’s coming back next week. Anyway what do you want?”
There was a sigh from Sooyoung’s end of the line. “Sometimes your choice of words could be construed as rudeness, but I know you love me. How about we go get some breakfast?”
She eyed her soggy cereal. “Yeah, sure. You’ll pick me up?”
“Be right there.”
When they ended the call, Taeyeon found herself staring at her phone. She tapped to open its photo gallery and went to the dark and blurry picture she had taken last night of her car’s wet windshield. She eyed the smudged lettering, wondering and going through ideas in her head. Really she was just going over the same questions that hadn’t been answered yet; why those words, why that lipstick, what lipstick, why was it familiar, why her, why the shooting – several of which had possible solutions but nothing solid. She had nothing to go on.
Her dream trickled back into her thoughts. That restaurant, that woman, that lipstick. She was certain it was about a time when she had seen that lipstick, and that was why it all seemed so familiar.
She scrunched her eyes shut.
Why was it familiar? What happened that time? Where was she?
A phantom of the pain in her leg returned briefly and she lightly held onto her knee for a moment, eyes still closed. A restaurant where her leg had suddenly been hurt and the woman with that lipstick had said something to her – but her words, they seemed more like something that would be screamed, perhaps. She wasn’t sure where she got that feeling from, but it was strong enough to be considered a lead to the truth.
After a few more moments of pondering the wisps of clues, she looked at her phone again. She exited the gallery and went to her email, scrolling through past messages with no direct focus in mind. Tiffany’s name came up a few times, and she checked out a few of the messages as her thoughts turned to Tiffany.
She went all the way back to a notification email of one of the first messages Tiffany had sent her, the initial contact to request her investigative services. As she gazed at the words, she clicked her tongue. There was something that bugged her, and she knew what it was.
Quickly she went to her room, flipped open the file on the corner of her desk, and ran her finger down the top page. There wasn’t much there.
It was her attempt at a profile on Tiffany Hwang, which she had spent quite a bit of time on during the early hours of the morning, with little result. All her searches revealed little – Tiffany was a journalist at a growing Los Angeles newspaper and also did freelance articles for online media publications. This much Taeyeon already knew from their internet interactions. Other than that, her family was not noteworthy except for some shady dealings with a loan shark by her father to pay for their house; she left little trace elsewhere as she had no online social networking accounts; and neither she nor her family had a known tendency to use aliases – but obviously that didn’t mean that they hadn’t been using them unofficially.
She didn’t want to be suspicious of Tiffany, if not because of the strange fluttering feeling she got in her chest then because the added layer of duplicity would make the case too complicated. She wasn’t in the mood for an overly complicated case. When she said she needed rest, she wasn’t kidding. She just wanted to spend a few weeks playing video games and eating food, with less of the mistrust and dislike that came from complicated cases. She thought this case would be simple enough even with the factor of Daniel Lee, but she knew now that something big was going on and it was going to give her a headache.
She was still deep in thought about it as she showered and pulled on some clothes, and when Sooyoung rang the doorbell she just opened the door and walked back into her room to find socks, without a word.
Sooyoung knew the look. Taeyeon was thinking hard, and usually she would just let her do her thing but this time she wanted to talk.
“Oh hey, I see your phone’s screen survived the fall,” she remarked, gesturing at the device in Taeyeon’s hand.
Taeyeon stared at her, mind still somewhere else for a while until she caught up. “Oh. Yeah. It was a bit weird for a while, the brightness settings seemed to have a life of their own, but it survived.”
“That’s good,” Sooyoung said, checking Taeyeon’s face. “You want to talk about the case right away or shall we get some food first?”
Taeyeon considered for a long, hard moment. “Food. I have too much in my head right now.”
It wasn’t until they were in the car and merging into traffic that Sooyoung dropped the bomb.
“So,” she began, “this may or may not help with the ‘too much’ in your brain, but I think you’ll like or dislike where we’ll be having breakfast.”
Taeyeon narrowed her eyes. “Please elaborate.”
“Well,” Sooyoung said, drawing the word out. “I called Tiffany this morning to see if she was okay, and we were talking, and she mentioned you were having lunch with her later, so I suggested we all have breakfast together.”
The car was quiet as Taeyeon processed this information.
“And she said yes,” Sooyoung added helpfully.
Taeyeon groaned softly. “It’s too early in the morning for social anxiety.”
“Oh you’ll be fine,” Sooyoung said, waving her hand dismissively. The car swerved slightly and she returned her hand to the steering wheel. “It’s Tiffany. You two got to know each other yesterday, didn’t you? Before the whole shooting thing.”
Taeyeon sighed. “I don’t know. I’m not sure if I know her at all.”
“She’s still a suspect?”
Taeyeon grimaced. “Well the word ‘suspect’ is a bit harsh. I mean, we don’t even know what crime – if any – has been committed. I don’t have any real ‘suspects’ per se. Just persons of interest.”
“So she’s a person of interest? Other than your personal interest in your person of interest, you think she may be involved with this?”
Taeyeon shook her head furiously, still scowling. “That’s just the thing, Sooyoung. I don’t even really know what ‘this’ is anymore. Something is going on but I get the feeling it’s not at all what I thought.”
They reached the hotel before the discussion could continue, and Taeyeon was actually relieved, despite her earlier unease. She was starting to get the hang of the whole ‘socialization’ thing, and it would be a change from running her brain’s engine over-time while she tried to make sense of the puzzle at hand; a puzzle with pieces that didn’t fit, and some of them kept changing shapes. At least breakfast at Tiffany’s hotel would be less strenuous if she didn’t let her suspicions completely take over the situation. She could even use it as an opportunity to get to know Tiffany without the pressures of the case, if she played it right.
“You ready?” asked Sooyoung, giving Taeyeon a look.
Taeyeon rolled her eyes half-heartedly, and smiled ever so slightly. “I’m fine. Let’s just go.”
It was nice to have Sooyoung as her close friend and assistant. They knew each other better than most, and it took a long time to get there. She couldn’t imagine life without her, and she knew Sooyoung would always be someone she could count on and trust.
Taeyeon shook off the new coat of fear and suspicion she had been wearing since this case became weird, and they went into the hotel.
Tiffany was already at a table, perusing the menu, and she greeted them with a bright smile as they sat down.
Though she looked at both of them, it was obvious that her gaze lingered on Taeyeon, and Sooyoung did not mind at all.
“Did you sleep well?” Taeyeon asked politely, picking up a menu of her own.
“As well as I could, under the circumstances,” Tiffany replied soberly, and something flashed across her face.
Taeyeon frowned, and stared at Tiffany as Tiffany looked back at the menu with a reserved expression. Was there a hint of something other than what was to be expected, or were Taeyeon’s expectations just inaccurate? She knew she had told herself not to be suspicious during this meeting but there was something about Tiffany’s expression, the lilt in her voice, that glint in her eyes.
Taeyeon shook her head subtly, directing her eyes back to the surface of her menu and drilling her stare through the photograph of Eggs Benedict. She daydreamed briefly and intensely of an event that involved Tiffany leaping onto the table as their complimentary toast arrived and ripping off her face to reveal the face of her mother, and some evil laughter as she whipped out a laser gun and shot a nearby pot plant.
Taeyeon blinked. She looked at the Eggs Benedict again. It was surely the after-effect of her strange dream. She pointedly ignored her imagination, and tuned back into her surroundings to hear Sooyoung asking Tiffany a question.
“So what happened after your mother left all those years ago?”
Taeyeon cringed inwardly. So much for avoiding the case.
“Like,” Sooyoung continued, “was there some kind of investigation? She left willingly though, right? You’re sure about that?”
Tiffany sighed, not out of annoyance but simply weary. “Yes. There was more than enough evidence that she left of her own will and absolutely no evidence of any alternative. She just packed a suitcase and left.”
Taeyeon looked up. “A suitcase? You didn’t mention this earlier.”
Tiffany blinked. “Oh? Well… is it important?”
The waiter arrived, and was hastily waved away by Sooyoung, causing him to turn on his heel and smoothly carry on in another direction.
“Do you know what she packed in her suitcase?” Taeyeon pressed, still frowning.
Tiffany avoided her eyes, fiddling with her menu, and shrugged slightly. “Just clothes and stuff.”
There was a lengthy silence as Taeyeon stared at Tiffany, aghast. It was unthinkable to her that such a piece of information would be left out, overlooked, and considered unimportant. To her, it made an awful lot of difference, and this did nothing to dampen her levels of suspicion.
She had a rough internal struggle between questioning Tiffany further and letting it slide for the sake of getting to know her better, and during that time Sooyoung frantically gestured at the waiter to come back.
“Welcome,” he said warmly, as if he had not been ordered around by an agitated Sooyoung. “May I take your order?”
Taeyeon watched Tiffany’s lips move as she ordered, and at that moment she felt this strong sense; Tiffany was lying, and acting suspiciously, and the whole case was weird and difficult and soon to be horrible – but Tiffany was incredibly, infallibly attractive.
She quietly slapped her own face with her menu, just in time for the waiter to turn to her.
“Eggs benedict,” she rattled off, acting as if she did not just do that, and flapped the menu for him to take.
He smiled and bowed and went away.
A pause of slight awkwardness followed, and Sooyoung readily got up and excused herself to go to the bathroom.
Taeyeon and Tiffany were left alone.
The restaurant around them was half-full, and its patrons were sedate in the early morning. Between the clinking of cutlery on crockery, there was soft conversation and half-enthused laughter.
Taeyeon took the time to look around, thinking back to her dream. She squinted at the lights above and the tables around them, trying to imagine everything to be too bright and hard to see. She thought again of the pain in her leg and gently tapped her knee as she surveyed the place. It would seem to be a most memorable memory, or so she would think, because it was not often that she wandered into restaurants and got shot in the leg.
She stilled. Shot? That hadn’t been in the dream. All she’d felt was a sudden, inexplicable pain in her leg, followed by the appearance of the woman with the lipstick. It must have been another instinct, like her feeling that the woman had been screaming.
Taeyeon turned her head to face Tiffany, and became slowly aware that she was still squinting, and her fingers were perched on her knee, and her body was tensely frozen. Immediately she relaxed and tried to look as normal as she possibly could, which wasn’t as much as most people but was pretty usual for her.
She cleared her throat. “Sorry, did you say something?”
Tiffany was smiling slightly, amused. At first Taeyeon only noticed the precise curve of her voluptuous mouth, the lines of her face, the way her eyelashes slightly brushed against her cheek as she blinked – then she took in what Tiffany was saying and managed to avoid getting caught staring at her. Despite everything, she found Tiffany to still be strangely magnetic and irresistible.
“I was asking what your plan is,” Tiffany was saying. “After everything that happened yesterday… what’s the next step?”
Taeyeon sighed. The case was unavoidable after all. “I guess I just keep investigating. I have some new leads. I just have to keep looking for answers everywhere.”
She looked at Tiffany.
“Anyone could be holding the answers I need.”
At that moment, Sooyoung returned, and bustled as she settled down again. “Hey, where’s our complimentary toast? I was looking forward to that.”
Taeyeon was a little frustrated, because so far that morning she had switched from case-mode to casual and back again, only to have to switch back to casual once again when she was only just getting into case-mode. Her life was giving her whiplash. She momentarily regretted upgrading her casual mode by trying to improve her social habits.
“I have no idea,” Tiffany answered, and there was a slight edge to her voice that made Taeyeon’s head spin a little.
Was that a hint of coldness?
Perhaps Tiffany was also disappointed by Sooyoung’s interruption.
Taeyeon blinked, half-smiled, and then blinked again.
Maybe it was Tiffany who was giving her whiplash.
They passed the meal with small-talk about Seoul and Los Angeles, tourist attractions and differences, and by the time they reached chatting about the weather, their bill arrived.
“Taeyeon insists on paying,” said Sooyoung instantly, handing over the bill to the person in question. “She has this thing about paying for things.”
Taeyeon stared at her. They both knew full well that Taeyeon’s ‘thing’ about paying for things was that she didn’t like to pay for things. But they also both knew that Tiffany was there and Sooyoung was getting plenty of enjoyment from exploiting that fact.
Tiffany, theoretically clueless unless she was hiding something else along with all her other suspicious activities, gave Taeyeon a dazzling smile and that was the end of it.
The weather was much as they had discussed, moderately sunny but not too warm, nor too cold. Sooyoung called it perfect walking weather and that was how Taeyeon knew what was about to happen.
“Well, thank you for the lovely meal,” started Sooyoung. “I must be off. Hey Taeyeon, why don’t you show Tiffany around? This weather is lovely for walking; you could give her a tour of the shopping district?”
“Oh that would be lovely,” Tiffany contributed, eyes curving as she whipped out a smile. “I’m hoping to do some shopping while I’m here; maybe you could show me some of the good places?”
Taeyeon’s eye twitched slightly as she carved out a smile, but she smiled nonetheless and stored away her homicidal feelings towards Sooyoung in the same place where she also buried her nervousness.
“Sure,” she said. “Shopping. Great.”
Taeyeon did not like shopping. She barely liked leaving the house most of the time, but she knew this was part of what she wanted to experiment with – the thing about shopping with friends and stuff – so she took a deep breath to psyche herself up, and she led Tiffany to the nearest shopping centre. She was sure she only imagined Sooyoung’s cackling as she left them to it.
“This is a place,” Taeyeon said as they stepped through the sliding glass doors and were hit with the sight of glittering shops. “It’s a shopping place.”
Tiffany giggled lightly, breathily, gazing around at the clothes in windows and accessories on stands. She almost didn’t seem to realise she was doing it, already engrossed by the mere potential that was laid out before her. She could spend hours here, and Taeyeon felt already that it was very likely that she would.
She bit back her groan and allowed herself to admire the way Tiffany tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. Her hands were fascinating. And Taeyeon could tell she was going to fall for Tiffany, hard.
She bit her bottom lip, watched as Tiffany brushed her fingers over a dress, and said, “Let’s forget about the case for a while.”
Tiffany looked at her, carefully expressionless for the time being. “What?”
Taeyeon swallowed. “Let’s forget about the case,” she repeated. “Just for now. For now, let’s just be two friends exploring the shopping district. I’ll be the more awkward one. You can be the one who likes shopping. For the next short while, we are not detective and client.”
Tiffany didn’t react as Taeyeon expected. She didn’t smile and agree right away, she took a moment to search Taeyeon’s eyes with her own, parting her lips without a word. This unexpected reaction made Taeyeon falter slightly, her own smile fading a little, and she felt as if she was being pulled closer, brought in by this unpredicted expression on this unpredictable woman’s unbelievably compelling face.
Then Tiffany smiled.
Taeyeon no longer felt as if she was going to fall for Tiffany. She got the unavoidable feeling that she was already falling.
Tiffany’s smile was no longer just charming. It was downright dangerous.