5; the Blinding Sunshine
“Do you ever just randomly forget things?”
Taeyeon stopped spooning flavoured ice into her mouth and turned her head to look at Tiffany beside her. She raised her eyebrows briefly, and lowered her spoon before answering.
“Well, yes,” she said. “Everyone does. It’s a common feature of the human brain.”
Tiffany looked thoughtful for a while, pushing flavoured ice around in its small cup with her little plastic spoon.
“I forgot quite a lot of things about my mother after she was gone. I wish I didn’t. I wanted to remember everything about her.”
Taeyeon blinked, and then when she realised the seriousness of the comment, she swallowed. She wasn’t sure if she should say anything – and she didn’t know what to say if she were to say anything.
They had been shopping for most of the day, trailing from store to store, and in each ocean of clothing Tiffany would fawn over a few pieces and only flick the edges of some before moving on. Taeyeon was trying to establish a pattern in her behaviour in an attempt to figure out what she wanted. When Taeyeon went shopping she had a clear image and specifications of the main thing that she wanted, and a range of variables for other things that she would browse for. Tiffany didn’t seem to have a goal, and she bought clothes with no linear connection that Taeyeon could establish. For example, the two tops she bought so far were too different – one long sleeved, made of thick and soft material, and the other short sleeved and thin and wispy. The pants were one pair of tight black jeans and a pair of cut-off faux-denim shorts. She wasn’t buying for winter and she wasn’t buying for summer; she was buying for both. It was taking a while to get used to it. She wondered if Tiffany would forget about the things she bought for future seasons and end up not even wearing them when those seasons came around.
She didn’t even need to psyche herself up much before suggesting they break for refreshments, her need for rest and energy becoming more pressing than her awkwardness.
And she was still awkward; there was no doubt about it. They talked about the clothes, the atmosphere of stores and the shopping centre, the weather, Tiffany’s hotel, the number of people out shopping at this time of day, and with everything they talked about Taeyeon would overthink it and stutter a little. When she was talking with Sooyoung or Yuri, they talked about things, with purposes and practicality and development. When she was talking with Tiffany, it was like they were talking about nothing and everything at the same time – things she didn’t usually bother talking about, like the look on that man’s face when his kid pretended loudly that his flavoured yellow ice was related to urination. It was just a thing that happened; Tiffany knew it, and Taeyeon knew it. She wasn’t used to stating something that they both already clearly knew implicitly and didn’t have a further path. It was like stating the obviousness of something they both already knew and didn’t need clarification on for any purpose.
So when Tiffany brought up the topic of forgetting and her mother, Taeyeon was a little frozen and quite panicky. What did people do in this situation? Should she say something sympathetic, casual, sombre? Perhaps she shouldn’t speak.
She glanced at Tiffany out of the corner of her eye. No more words came; Tiffany was silent again, staring into her cup of pink ice as if she was gazing into a crystal ball that showed some far-off universe.
She went back to her own ice, shifting her gaze around and trying not to act as jumpy as she was starting to feel. On the one hand, the mention of Tiffany’s mother made her conscious of her awkwardness in this social situation, but on the other hand the mention of Tiffany’s mother’s disappearance also reminded her of the case.
Randomly forgot things. Like what happened when she left? It seemed a bit much.
She stopped being jumpy, closed her eyes for a moment, and sighed as quietly as she could. She was really starting to dislike the layer of suspicion that was blanketing her every action more frequently during the events of the past few days.
Her phone beeped. She checked to make sure it didn’t startle Tiffany out of whatever reverie she was in, and then she looked at the screen.
A message from Info890515.
I know you’ve talked to Seohyun. I agree, we should meet. Face to face. This afternoon, 4pm. I’ll send you the location thirty minutes before the meeting.
Taeyeon nodded to herself, and replied with a brief affirmative. She couldn’t avoid the case forever. It was better to follow that lead and get to work.
But she did still allow herself to hope that whatever she found in her investigation would not incriminate Tiffany.
She checked her watch – there was almost two hours left before her meeting with her informant. Tiffany was still looking at her ice, her eyes intent and tinged with longing. It was undeniable.
“Um,” Taeyeon said eloquently.
Tiffany looked up, still absent for a moment, and then her face cleared and she seemed to realise she had been on another planet for quite some time.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, how rude of me,” she babbled immediately, and Taeyeon could almost see her sweeping her thoughts under a carpet in her mind and bustling around to fill up the space with other things, normal things. “I didn’t mean to space out like that.”
She was fiddling with her cup, Taeyeon noted.
“It’s fine,” she said, giving Tiffany a smile. “You must still be jet-lagged, I wouldn’t be surprised. I have to meet someone in a while, so perhaps I should escort you back to your hotel now?”
“Oh,” Tiffany replied, no longer fiddling, absorbing the words, “Oh, alright then. Is it related to the case? My case?”
Taeyeon made a split-second decision. “No. One of my informants is being threatened by a local crime boss. I’m hoping they can give me some useful information that can lead to that crime boss.”
Not technically a lie. In a way, this was a case within a case – finding the would-be assassin possibly sent by Daniel Lee that was threatening her informant and launching pseudo-attacks on her and Tiffany. The connection to Tiffany’s mother was unclear.
Tiffany seemed to accept it.
They took off in the direction of Tiffany’s hotel, discarding their cups into a rubbish bin along the way.
“So how long have you been a private investigator?” Tiffany asked conversationally, running a hand through her hair as she spoke and briefly baring the side of her smooth neck as she did so.
“Uh,” Taeyeon dithered, and blinked in another direction. “A few years now.”
“What kind of cases do you get?” They crossed a street. “Like, I thought private investigators usually get stuck with divorce stuff – following someone’s spouse around to snap pictures of cheating. It never seemed particularly interesting in real life, compared to stuff on TV.”
Taeyeon smiled slightly. “Well, I’ve had my fair share of follow-the-cheater cases. They’re alright. Not very exciting but not always bone-crushingly boring. Sometimes they can be quite surprising. I was on this one case where the wife – middle-aged, stay-at-home, two kids – asked me to find out what her husband was getting up to every Saturday. He told her he was getting into golf, but she doubted him. He always hated golf. So anyway, I followed him when he left home early one Saturday – way too early for a golfer – and it turned out he’d been taking his son fishing.”
“Aw, that’s so sweet!” Tiffany gushed; face lighting up with her instinctive grin.
Taeyeon hummed a note. “No, no. His other son. From his other family.”
“Yeah. She poured a bucket of fish on his head when she kicked him out of the house.”
They walked on in silence for a while after that, staring at their feet on the pavement. Taeyeon thought about all the notable cases she’d had so far. Most of them were dealt with from her own home, puzzles solved using her mind and her connections. She only took the follow-the-cheater cases when Sooyoung and Yuri convinced her she needed to get some fresh air. Even then, she tried to avoid direct contact with her client. She soon realised she was filtering her memories in search of another case that would make Tiffany go ‘aw’ with that lovely smile. There weren’t many options.
They reached the hotel without saying anything else, both lost in their own thoughts, and stood before the entrance.
“Thanks,” Tiffany spoke first, beaming at Taeyeon. “I had a good day today. You’re right; it was nice to get away from the case for a while, especially after getting thrown into it like that as soon as I arrived. I hope things will be alright.” She held up her bags. “And I got some nice clothes.”
Taeyeon eyed her for a while, not saying anything, and Tiffany lowered the bag, raising her eyebrows questioningly.
“I just want you to understand something,” Taeyeon said, her voice firmer than her conviction. “Things changed with this case the moment we got shot at. In fact, the moment you touched down in Seoul. This case is not the same. Now it’s dangerous, and a lot bigger than it seemed.”
She paused, and then she stepped closer slightly.
“When I find the woman you have asked me to find,” she continued, “this case better not blow up in my face.”
Tiffany frowned instantly, and for a moment Taeyeon was convinced that she had taken the wrong path and followed the wrong instinct – that perhaps Tiffany was innocent and unknowing. But then Tiffany didn’t respond. Taeyeon was a little disappointed.
“I’ll contact you,” she said, stepping away. “I suggest you don’t venture too far from your hotel, at least for today. You have my number in case you think you are in danger. And, um, I had a nice time, too.” She couldn’t resist.
She turned and walked away, leaving Tiffany to stare after her with the same frown. When she got on the bus to go home, she closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the window. Regret washed over her rapidly, gone as quick as it came. Her nerves settled slowly, no longer buzzing.
But it was something that needed to be done now, before it was too late.
She called Sooyoung when she got home and told her she would be meeting the informant later, so that Sooyoung would know there was a chance of danger and be able to know when something was wrong. But she wouldn’t be telling Sooyoung where the meeting was – she wanted to retain her informant’s trust. As long as Sooyoung knew the situation, she could track her down.
She played console games half-heartedly as the clock ticked along to three-thirty. She didn’t focus much on the gameplay, thoughts wandering between the case and Tiffany and her resistance to see them as the same thing. She hadn’t been seeing Tiffany as part of the case until recently, or at least not a vital part. Tiffany was the client. The client usually just placed the order; they weren’t meant to be an ingredient in what was served at the end. Tiffany was separate until now: Taeyeon felt like she could treat her differently. Which in other words meant that she could convince herself to socialize with her, and remember the way her hair moved over her cheek, and think about the way her pulse must have been making a rhythm in the softness of her neck, and that damned smile.
She sighed. This had never been a problem before. She’d had crushes, with no clear pattern, but this was the furthest she had ever pursued her feelings, and she wondered if it was because Tiffany was any different; if her feelings were stronger or just more addictive.
Tiffany was addictive, that was for sure. Taeyeon really needed to get her out of her head.
She realised her character had been sizzled by a laser blast and grimly stared at the screen that asked her if she wanted to start from her last save.
What did she even know about Tiffany? Nothing, as it turned out. Except that she was caring, emotional, friendly, warm, thoughtful, kind, sometimes serious, sometimes playful, and her beauty seemed to be so obvious at all times, as if she was just that gorgeous no matter what and she didn’t even know it, she wasn’t doing anything in particular to make it happen.
Taeyeon put a hand over her chest. She cursed softly. Her heart really just fluttered; since when was that even a thing that actually happened?
She threw the controller down beside her on the couch and stood, checking her watch. Five minutes until she would get the message about the location.
She scribbled down a few notes on what she wanted to talk about with her informant. The messages, any other threats, Daniel Lee – she decided she would venture a line of questioning into the gas station heist. There had to be something going on behind that. And the lipstick. And if things were going well, she would flat-out mention Tiffany and her mother.
Her phone beeped. She grabbed her car keys.
Info890515 was a petite, well-built young woman who kept her body deliberately small-looking; she hunched her shoulders, kept her hands firmly shoved into her pockets, and she was wearing the hood of her jacket over her head. Taeyeon could see her hair was short, and seemed kind of blonde. She was checking her out from inside her car, across the road, and she glanced at her watch. She would be one minute late. She looked again at her informant, who was glancing around and shifting her feet nervously as she stood outside of the library. The area around them was not deserted, but there were very few people wandering around.
Taeyeon got out of her car and cautiously made her way across the road. Their eyes met before she even stopped, and then they stood and watched each other.
“You can call me Sunny,” said Sunny, breaking the silence. Her expression was sombre. “I don’t like meeting people in person like this – it’s not like I’m a full-time informant. If people saw me telling tales, I’d lose a lot.”
Taeyeon shrugged. “Okay, I understand. I don’t like meeting people either. It’s a shame our previous arrangement will most likely be terminated.”
Sunny sighed. “Yeah. I’m going to lose all my connections when word gets out that Daniel Lee has his sights set on me.”
“And does he? Are you sure it’s him?”
Sunny glanced around again, but more casually this time, and then she said, “Yes. I know a lot about the situation, and I’ll tell you right now that I won’t be able to give you all my information. I have to protect myself better than that.”
“Why are you meeting me at all?”
Sunny met her gaze again. “Seohyun told me you and your client were attacked. Lee wouldn’t kill me; he’s just determined to chase me away. And he might succeed. I want to at least give you a hand. I know you’re smart, you can figure it out.”
Taeyeon angled her head in acknowledgement. She whipped out the small piece of paper from her pocket.
“Alright, tell me about the message on your windshield.”
“The words ‘shut your mouth’ written in all capitals, red lipstick – Dior Addict Extreme, shade 756 Fireworks – steady hand, confident, surprisingly not particularly emotional. They were either given the words to write or they were writing those particular words for a reason other than aggression. I’d guess the writer was female. I’ll email you the photos of my windscreen later.”
Taeyeon mulled over this information for a while in her mind. Now she had the brand and shade of the lipstick. A simple check later would confirm if it was the same lipstick that was used on her car. She frowned. She still got that itching at the back of her mind; the name of the lipstick didn’t trigger the memory she knew was lurking there, but she knew there had to be something. She took a breath and looked at Sunny again.
“When did it happen, and where were you and your car?”
“The day after I told you where Daniel Lee would be,” Sunny said. “My car was in the driveway of my house. It was fine when I drove home from work, then the next morning when I was about to drive to work, it was there. No suspicious sounds or sightings during the night. I checked with my neighbours.”
“Alright,” Taeyeon replied, and she tucked her little piece of paper away. She stuck her hands in her pockets and cast a cursory glance over their surroundings. “Have you received any other threats?”
“Not yet. And I’d like it to stay that way, so let’s cut this short. Anything else you want to ask, do it now.”
Taeyeon had to make a choice; she could either ask about Tiffany’s mother or Daniel Lee’s gas station incident. She bit her bottom lip briefly, and pushed her glasses more into place.
“Daniel Lee is planning something big,” she said matter-of-factly. “What’s he after?”
Sunny scoffed and shook her head. “Of course you have to ask me the one question that could get me killed. Mr Lee is an ambitious man, you understand. I’ll give you one more question. Make it quick.”
Taeyeon raised her eyebrows but didn’t express her surprise. “Do you know anything of a woman with Lee? His girlfriend, wife, whatever?”
Sunny made a so-so motion with her hand before sticking it back in her pocket. “I hear things. But I hear all kinds of things. Maybe there’s a woman, maybe she’s calling herself Choi, but we all know that’s not very useful in this country. Look, people say a lot of things about Lee. I haven’t seen or heard her with my own eyes.”
Taeyeon let out a sigh. “Alright,” she said again. “Thanks for your help. That friend of yours from the hospital, she’s a good friend. Good luck.”
She turned to leave before stopping and half-angling her body back. She gave Taeyeon a closed look.
“I know more or less what you’re thinking right now,” she said. “You’ve taken my words on face-value before, but know that you know a bit more about me, it makes you wonder more about how I get my information and how reliable I am. So you’ll take what I’ve given you and you won’t take it for granted but you won’t know how to take it. Obviously I can’t tell you where I’m getting it from, but please understand that it’s all true, and real, and serious.”
Taeyeon watched her for a moment, and then she nodded without a word.
“And maybe go visit that friend of mine from the hospital every now and then,” Sunny continued, in the same tone but with a different light in her eyes. “She’s a good kid.”
The corner of Taeyeon’s mouth kinked in a little smile. “Yeah.”
She watched Sunny disappear around a corner, and she went and sat in her car. The closed space muted the sounds of the outside world, and she stared intently at her steering wheel, thinking.
Sunny had said Daniel Lee was an ambitious man. Taeyeon clicked her tongue as a theory formed in her mind. She needed to find out more about that gas station.
Her phone rang.
“Hey, you okay?” Sooyoung.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Got some good information. Do me a favour, ask Yuri if she could come back a bit sooner? I really need her to work her magic with some police files.”
Sooyoung snorted on the other end of the line. “Her magic? Alright, alright. I’m sure she’ll love it.”
“Why do you both react that way?” Taeyeon asked, finally giving in to her curiousity. “What does she do to get information?”
“She talks,” said Sooyoung innocently. “You know, chatting. She’s very friendly. She’s charismatic.”
Taeyeon narrowed her eyes. “I see.”
“Do you really?”
“Yes, of course.” She didn’t completely, but she knew more or less which way the arrow was pointing. “She did mention in one of her e-mails that she was enjoying the people in America…” Taeyeon dropped, angling for a reaction that would answer her unspoken questions.
Sooyoung let out a laugh. “Of course she did. People. Wow, that girl is really something. So you want me to ask her to come back as soon as she can?”
“Yeah – wait! No!” Taeyeon’s jaw dropped as a light bulb lit up in her head. “She’s in America!”
The slow, uncertain blink was almost audible in Sooyoung’s voice. “Yes, she is.”
“Tell her to find out what she can about Tiffany and her mother. She might be able to talk to people better.”
“Ah,” Sooyoung replied knowingly. “Yeah, she can talk to people, all right. Okay, I’ll pass it on. Anything else? You want to have a briefing with Tiffany?”
Taeyeon frowned. “Why would I have a briefing with Tiffany? I don’t have anything to tell her yet.”
“Your informant didn’t tell you anything big?”
“She did, but it needs to be confirmed and developed. I still have nothing that indicates if Tiffany is involved with whatever this is. Oh, and we need to find out more about that gas station Daniel Lee hit.”
There was a long pause from the other end before Sooyoung said, “Okay. Hey, how was your date with Tiffany?”
Taeyeon rolled her eyes. “It wasn’t a date.” She hesitated. “But it was nice.”
Sooyoung must have been grinning. “Oh it was nice, was it? That’s nice.”
A car sped by with a blare of its horn and Taeyeon’s nerves shot up. She glanced around through all her windows, on high alert, but nothing was happening. The car twisted around a corner and the street was quiet again. She waited, her heartbeat thumping in her ears, and she realised she had dropped her phone. She took a careful look around, assured herself there wasn’t anything to worry about, and picked up her phone again.
“-lo? Taeyeon, are you there?”
“I’m fine,” Taeyeon said quickly. “Just being paranoid. I’d better get out of here. I’ll talk to you later, okay? Remember, call Yuri.”
“Yes, boss,” Sooyoung said, her joviality tinted with uncertainty.
They hung up, and Taeyeon took a few more deep breaths before she started the car’s engine.
The streets were quiet in the areas she drove through, afternoon turning to evening and bringing a cold, brittle edge to the sky outside. She turned on the heater on its lowest setting and tapped lightly on the steering wheel in a simple rhythm. Her eyes were focused, checking everything, assessing every person in a car or on the footpath.
She glimpsed a banner advertising an event that occurred over the weekend and started thinking about the date. The weekend was almost over, and Daniel Lee was booked in at the Pink Flamingo Hotel from Monday to Saturday. She knew what she had to do.
A soft drizzle of rain started, dusting her windshield. She flicked on the wipers, a little faster than they needed to be.
She stopped her car at a red traffic light and whistled lightly to herself.
By the time she made it home, she made a decision.
A stakeout at the hotel at dawn the next morning, and she would be bringing Tiffany along.