Taeyeon’s shoes crunched on the gravel as she stepped out of the black car. She came face to face with the small brick building, a sign flashing its name in dark red, standing out in the dim light of late evening. She took her time to inspect the exterior, eyes tracing the lines of the letters in the sign that spelled out Smooth in Rouge, and the jagged corners of the rough red door set in the stone wall. She tilted her head to one side, and blinked.
The door of her car made a click as she shut it behind her, and she strode up to the entrance of the club.
It rattled as she knocked.
The burly bouncer who opened the door was scruffy and unshaven, his eyes ringed with red, and he burped smoke before pulling the cigarette from his mouth.
“We’re not open yet, kid.”
Taeyeon regarded him thoroughly, running her gaze from top to bottom, before nonchalantly lifting her right hand to inspect her nails. The jagged scar that ran lengthwise over her middle finger, rippling through her knuckle, caught the light and the bouncer almost choked on the smoke of his cigarette.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” he gasped, immediately stepping to one side and bowing deeply, holding the door open for her.
She stepped inside without another glance at him, already inspecting the inside of the club.
Two women were practicing a dance routine on the small stage against one wall, waving their bodies and swinging their hips while chatting and laughing. The tall bartender was watching them intently, swirling a dirty rag on the inside of a beer glass with little enthusiasm. Taeyeon grimaced. The bar was backed by a purple light, setting it aside from the redness that lit the stage and the dimness of the floor full of small tables. There were unlit candles in small glass bowls, laminated menus, and a couple of tables had blood-red roses held up in thin vases in their centre. She made note of the positions of these tables.
The bouncer was straightening up his suit, tightening his tie, when she turned back to him. The cigarette had been discarded and he had tried to fix his hair. He shot to attention when he realised she was looking at him.
“Take me to Tiffany,” she said.
The corridor that led to the back office was behind a thin door in the corner next to the bar, and it was small and stuffy and dark. She coughed as they made their way past a few doors before reaching one that had a smoky glass window inset and the word Office scratched in gold.
The bouncer raised his hand to knock but she stopped him. With a nod in the direction they came from, she dismissed him. He hesitated before bowing and disappearing. She waited until she heard the door at the far end click shut before she turned to the office door.
She leaned closer, almost pressing her ear against the glass. There were some faint noises on the other side; shuffling paper, rustling clothes, and then nothing for a while. She tried to place the structure of the room. She stared at the glass. Someone inside sighed absently, disheartened. She pictured a young woman going through the financial reports of the club, which she knew were bleak because that was how her boss had been able to buy it so easily.
She stood upright again, waited a moment, and then knocked twice on the glass part of the door.
She looked directly into the woman’s eyes when she entered the office.
The woman blinked in surprise. “Can I help you?”
Taeyeon eyed her for a moment, just staring at her face, before she inspected the nails of her right hand again.
“My name is Taeyeon,” she stated, and raised her eyes again.
She watched the woman’s expression fall at the sight of her scar, and then it was hidden behind blank politeness. She cocked her head to one side.
“You must be Tiffany,” she said. “You know why I’m here.”
Tiffany closed the folder that she had been perusing and turned to store it in the filing cabinet. “Yes. I know.”
Taeyeon moved to sit down on the couch against the closest wall. She glanced around the rest of the room, eyeing the landscape paintings on the walls, and got comfortable. Then she looked at Tiffany again.
“We won’t have any problems,” she said. “I think we can get along just fine. I’m sorry to hear of your family tragedy and the effect it has had on this business. Unfortunately it’s quite easy for establishments such as this to fall prey to certain predators.”
Tiffany sighed. “Whatever, Taeyeon. Let’s not waste energy pretending to be friendly.”
Taeyeon frowned but didn’t say anything.
Tiffany eyed her intently, taking in the youthful face, caramel-coloured hair, Iron Man t-shirt, jeans, sneakers. Taeyeon let her, keeping her gaze locked on Tiffany’s face.
“You seem kind of young for this job,” Tiffany murmured, meeting her stare. “Are they letting kids take over strip clubs on behalf of criminal organisations now?”
Taeyeon smirked. “I’m a few months older than you, and I’m only following orders from my boss. And if we’re going by appearances, I never would have guessed an elegant, beautiful young lady such as you would become the owner of a strip club.”
They stared at each other in silence for a long time. Eventually Tiffany looked away and stood up, moving to stand in front of the desk.
“One thing,” she said, leaning back against the desk and crossing her arms sternly. “None of these girls are going to be prostitutes. I told that to your boss when we made the deal. Don’t you forget it.”
Taeyeon smiled kindly. “We’ll get along just fine, Tiffany.”
Taeyeon tapped at the keys of the laptop unenthusiastically. She was bored. After two hours of intent concentration, she had produced 50 templates and began distribution. She tweaked some content to make them a little more appealing or specific to the group of marks, and clicked send. And then she pulled up another one, and did it all again. E-mails were whizzing out from her location towards people all over the world, people with money and morals and emotions that she could toy with and profit from. Who would feel sympathetic for the poor young woman who was trying to escape the corrupting clutches of ‘our supreme leader’ and needed to be saved from the life of poverty and despair with a simple loan of only a few thousand dollars to pay the fare to get the almighty and glorious US of A, where a hefty trust fund prepared by a defected relative could be claimed and shared.
After sending another batch, she clicked over to the inbox to check for any replies. Sometimes they bit the line quick, sometimes they thought about it for a while because it was big decision after all, and sometimes they replied with a cute lecture about scamming innocent people instead of getting a real job.
Taeyeon smirked. She reached for the cup of coffee on the desk beside her laptop, and took a sip as she skimmed through an email. It was cold already, the coffee, and a bitter chill that she savoured. Sometimes the emails threatened to report her to the police but she knew two-thirds of people like that didn’t even know who to contact anyway. There was a special organisation dedicated to tracking and reporting scammers but everyone just tapped ‘delete’ on those funny little scam attempts and went on with their lives, and Taeyeon got another few thousand in her pocket after some well-practiced deceit on those more gullible.
When she first got into this game, sending lies through e-mail, she didn’t think it would work at all. She knew some people managed to make good money off it but she thought they just got lucky. How could people fall for it? It was all so obviously shady, and yet on they went and walked right into it thinking they were doing the good thing.
Taeyeon shook her head, and deleted a few of the lectures. She made a mental note of how many she got and which batch they were in response to; while two-thirds of them would never report her, she had to keep track of how many there were in the other third.
The door rattled as it opened and she looked up as Tiffany dragged herself inside. Taeyeon checked her watch; it was almost four in the morning. Tiffany looked exhausted and her expression did not improve when she saw Taeyeon sitting at her desk, on her chair, using her laptop.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
She didn’t sound upset, really, just tired. She closed her eyes for a moment before taking slow steps and slumping down in the chair in front of the desk, letting out a sigh.
“Just some extra little tasks,” Taeyeon said. She pushed her cup towards Tiffany. “Want some coffee? It’s cold.”
Tiffany squinted at her. “Is that supposed to be appealing to me? Cold coffee is gross.”
Taeyeon shrugged, and pulled her cup back. “Okay then. Busy night?”
Tiffany sighed again. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing something? Like, more helpful and club-related? What do you even do, anyway?”
“I follow orders from my boss,” Taeyeon said simply.
Tiffany stared at her. “Well, you’ve been doing that for two weeks already and I see no difference in the state of this place.”
Taeyeon raised an eyebrow. “Good, there shouldn’t be any noticeable change. This place is useful to us in the state that it was when we got it. If you want to make changes using our budget, like improving the décor or whatever, I can pass it along to the boss. But it would need his approval.”
Tiffany considered it for a moment, then waved her hand dismissively and closed her eyes again. Taeyeon figured that meant she would think about it later, and went back to typing on the laptop.
After a few minutes of relative quiet as she tweaked and sent and received and made notes on a piece of paper, Tiffany opened her eyes again.
“What are you doing on my laptop?”
She sounded more awake.
Taeyeon logged out of the e-mail account, closed the browser, turned off the laptop, and tucked away the paper full of treasures before she responded with a smile. “I’m following orders from my boss, of course.”