A tug on the collar of her coat did little to cover the neck brace. She glanced around the parking lot, fidgeted and coughed, before tugging at her coat again to achieve the same result. The neck brace was weighing heavy on her consciousness but she knew it would be impossible to go on without it. She could only hope that it wasn’t too conspicuous, even though the word ‘conspicuous’ was in fact one of the best ways to describe a neck brace. The fact that she needed to use her entire upper half of her body to be able to glance around did not make the movement any more subtle, either.
Luckily for her, no one around her found her behaviour suspicious. Perhaps they just had enough of their own problems to worry about, or perhaps Taeyeon’s natural aura of social invisibility was coming in handy for once. Well, not for the first time, but it didn’t always seem to happen at the most opportune times. Right now it was cold and getting dark, and visiting hours had just ended so there were a fair number of people milling around in this particular area, so the ability to not be noticed easily was appreciated.
At long last, there was the hum of an engine that preceded the car she had been waiting for. The window on the driver’s side buzzed down and Hyoyeon stuck her head out.
“Evening,” she greeted. “You look like you’re breaking out of prison. Ready to go?”
Taeyeon glanced around one more time; though she would freely admit that it was only half-hearted. Maybe it was stress, maybe it was the hospital food – one way or another, the strength of her sense of focus was fading in and out. She’d never had a case that took so much out of her, that got so messy and full of emotions and danger, and she’d never had to spend quite so much time lying around in hospital with almost nothing to do. Perhaps it wasn’t really surprising that she didn’t feel as sharp as she usually did.
Taeyeon simply nodded in response to Hyoyeon’s comments, and moved around behind the car to get to the passenger’s side.
Hyoyeon was becoming important to many aspects of this case. Not only was she still the only connection to the explosion of the café, and one of the main routes of access to Daniel Lee, but she was also one of the best investigative journalists in the country and that sort of skill could be invaluable. When Taeyeon reluctantly mentioned her dilemma with Jessica Jung, Hyoyeon was only too glad to offer her assistance. While it was a big deal to be shadowing a big crime boss like Lee, the chance to get involved in the affairs of another big crime boss like Jessica was irresistible.
Even now in the fading evening light that darkened the interior of the vehicle, Taeyeon shivered at the look in Hyoyeon’s eyes; the glint of a creature getting ready to pounce. Hyoyeon could be a ruthless journalist, unafraid of the dirty work involved in getting to the heart of a matter, well prepared to take hold of the jugular of her prey, and drag her prize all the way to the presses.
“Any new developments?” asked Hyoyeon, eyes now looking front as she guided the car onto the street.
Taeyeon raised an eyebrow. “New developments? In the hour since I last spoke to you? No, there have been no developments.”
Hyoyeon shrugged, and flashed her carefree smile. “First rule of being a journalist; never be afraid to ask. It’s my job. Every question is worthy.”
Taeyeon watched her for a moment. “An admirable philosophy, I’m sure. While I can identify with it, there’s a rule from the role of a private investigator that dissuades it somewhat. Every question is worthy, but putting every question in the right place can save you one hell of a mess.”
“And you stick to that policy on every case? This one, too?”
Taeyeon clenched her jaw. “Just drive.”
“Would you like to hear my latest report?”
Taeyeon didn’t bother answering. Hyoyeon smiled briefly – the act made Taeyeon bristle with the fear of a prey glimpsing the teeth of their predator. She didn’t get along well with socially competitive people. On the outside Hyoyeon was a casual person for the most part, but when it came to her work she didn’t always manage to rein in her cut-throat nature.
“While Miss Jung may have made it seem like the person she was looking for was impossible to find, it’s not as dark as it seems,” Hyoyeon said, keeping her eyes on the road. “The fact is her sister is just hiding from her. Yes, they had some kind of falling out, and I can’t hide that I’m eager to find out what that was, but I don’t have anything on that yet. What I do have is her address and one lovely bit of information.”
They turned too fast at an intersection and Taeyeon shifted to hold on to the edges of her seat. She wasn’t in the mood to play Hyoyeon’s game, or anyone’s game ever again, so she looked out of the window.
“She’s living with her girlfriend. That’s likely also why Jessica, with all her underworld contacts and powers, couldn’t find her. If she didn’t have any knowledge of this or a name of the girlfriend, or anything like that, her sister would not be found.”
“But you found her,” Taeyeon said. She glanced at Hyoyeon. “I don’t need to know how at this time. I’ll assess the situation before I question your methods and the quality of your results.”
Hyoyeon shook her head. “I feel like I’m talking to a computer sometimes.”
Taeyeon picked at the material of her jeans. “Nothing wrong with that.”
Hyoyeon shrugged. “Whatever works for you, boss. And that girlfriend of yours must be okay with it, too.”
There was no question about whom she was referring to. It had to be the one person that Taeyeon was being teased about the most recently. She blatantly refused to rise to the bait, getting slowly more annoyed with Hyoyeon with every passing comment.
“Where’s she from, anyway? Something about her screams California.”
Taeyeon pursed her lips.
They reached a red light and when the car was stopped, Hyoyeon looked over at her. “Relax. I’m not some tabloid trash reporter and you’re hardly much of a public figure.”
“That doesn’t make me more comfortable talking to you,” Taeyeon said bluntly. “She’s not my girlfriend. Drive.”
“It’s a red light, I can’t do much.”
“Then watch the lights.”
Hyoyeon whistled lowly. “Touchy. She’s not your girlfriend, sure, but there must be something going on. Dating? Flirting?”
“Tiffany is just -” Taeyeon stopped herself and took a breath to calm down slightly. “Shouldn’t you know who she is, anyway? You knew her name.”
“I’m a journalist,” Hyoyeon scoffed. The light changed to green and she went back to driving. “If I was unable to identify Tiffany, I would not be so great at my job. Like I said, every question is a worthy question. That’s how I know everything.”
Taeyeon frowned. “You asked someone about her? And they told you? What did they tell you?”
“They called her your girlfriend; I see now that information was false. Or I just misunderstood their joke. I bet you get teased about her. Actually, I bet you get teased by her, too. After all, she drives you crazy – did I get that right?”
“I said that about her after you mentioned her by name. Don’t toy with me; I don’t take kindly to other people knowing my business, least of all a journalist like you. Who have you been talking to?”
Hyoyeon just smiled serenely and didn’t answer.
“Why do you care, anyway? What difference does she make to you?” Taeyeon pressed.
“Now, now, detective. As you can see, every question is worthy. Every piece of information has its use.”
Taeyeon stared at her for a long moment, before using her whole body to turn away again as required by the neck brace. She wanted to move in a way that showed her frustration but knew that would be bad for her neck, so she huffed and scowled instead.
“I bet you have even less friends than I do,” she remarked.
The bitter words surprised her, but also felt completely suited. Taeyeon was tired, grumpy, incapable of getting over the frustration of this case, and sick of being talked to about Tiffany. She had no idea where she got the fire to make a comment like that to someone she would normally try hard not to truly antagonize, but for all her social incompetency even Taeyeon reached a point where she simply did not give a fuck anymore.
Of course, Taeyeon was still Taeyeon, so though she may have stepped a toe over that line, she was quick to jump back afterwards. The silence from Hyoyeon settled down with her thoughts and she began to feel guilty, and like a fool.
She failed to build up the courage to apologise before Hyoyeon parked the car outside a mediocre apartment building. Taeyeon sat for a while as Hyoyeon shut off the engine and got out of the car. Then she closed her eyes and cursed quietly, and got out to join her on the pavement.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly as she followed Hyoyeon into the building. “I didn’t mean that.”
Hyoyeon shrugged, and waved a hand dismissively. “It’s a fair comment. Nice to know you’ve got a bit of fight in you, detective.”
“I didn’t used to,” mumbled Taeyeon. She sighed. “This is not quite what I expected.”
“What’s life without a few surprises?” Hyoyeon shot a grin over her shoulder as she started up the stairs.
Taeyeon pondered this as her foot came into contact with the first step. “Quiet. Safe.”
“Boring,” Hyoyeon commented. “Empty. You’ll become like a still pond, not a drop of living substance in you. When you don’t respond to life, would you consider that you’re even alive yourself?”
Taeyeon sighed again, annoyed. “How wonderfully existentialist of you. Let’s focus on the case now, shall we, unless there is some other rule of journalism that covers the worth of every philosophical comment in the same manner as misplaced questions?”
“Sometimes you’re like Grumpy Cat with a better vocabulary.”
They reached their destination before Taeyeon decided if she would bother to reply to that. Hyoyeon knocked on the door of apartment number 25 and they waited.
“I know you said that you don’t think the owner of the café was involved with the explosion, but do you believe him?” asked Taeyeon quietly.
Hyoyeon looked surprised. “Of course I do. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”
The door swung open. The suspicious gaze of the occupant beyond the doorway raked over them, and was soon replaced by something resembling relief and familiarity when the man confirmed it was Hyoyeon.
He nodded at her. She nodded back. She gestured at Taeyeon.
“This is the detective I told you about.” To Taeyeon, she added, “My friend here has requested no names are used in this exchange.”
Taeyeon raised an eyebrow as high as it could go, scepticism almost straining her features. “Okay.”
“I would invite you inside,” said the man, staring at her, “but I don’t really want to.”
“That’s just fine,” replied Taeyeon. “I only have a few questions. How much do you know of the incident?”
“You mean the explosion? Practically nothing. The cops refused to tell me what caused it, which I’m pretty sure has got to be some kind of illegal. How could they get away with not telling me why my business was blown up? They wouldn’t even say if it was arson or an accident.”
“Why was the café closed? I hear you don’t usually close that early.”
“I was out of town on family matters. I left the running of the café to my assistant manager, who I haven’t heard from since the day of the explosion.” He clicked his tongue to express his annoyance. “Look, Hyoyeon told me you’re looking for answers, and I’m afraid I don’t have much.”
Taeyeon nodded her head, the movement made cumbersome by the brace on her neck. “That’s alright. I just wanted to be able to speak to you face-to-face so I could have some indication of any deception. I don’t usually bother meeting people. If you think of anything else useful, tell Hyoyeon to contact me. Thank you for your time.”
She turned and started down the hallway to the stairs. Behind her, Hyoyeon did a double-take before waving goodbye and jogging after her.
“That’s it? We came all the way here for those two questions?
“I can’t afford to spend much time on any one line of questioning. I have a lot of things to do.”
She was already pulling her phone out of her pocket to check her unread messages, making her way out of the building with quick strides. Hyoyeon darted in front of her at the entrance to the building so that she could unlock her car before Taeyeon got there.
“Sometimes I wonder if your unusual methods are what help you get such good results in your investigations or if you’re just very lucky,” Hyoyeon said, and they closed their car doors simultaneously.
Tiffany had met Yuri.
Taeyeon thought these quiet words to herself as she stood on the threshold of her apartment and watched Tiffany share her gorgeous laughter with Yuri as her audience. She had no idea what to feel about this sight, or why she should feel anything at all. There was no call for possessiveness over Tiffany, they had nothing between them that merited such emotion and Taeyeon didn’t even know if it was something she wanted. So perhaps the feeling was not one of possessiveness or jealousy or envy; upon further introspection Taeyeon considered it was something akin to disappointment. She felt let down. Tiffany said she wanted them to be close no matter what – Taeyeon must have subconsciously built up some irrational expectations based on that sentiment. How silly of her. But then, emotions were rather silly. Maybe the lingering effects of the pain medication from the hospital were making her overly sensitive, also.
Hyoyeon wasted no such time on contemplations and shouldered past her. “Well, well, look who the cat dragged in.”
Of course they knew each other. Both Hyoyeon and Yuri were social beings, never saying no to an opportunity to meet new people and therefore having a vast network of acquaintances with whom they were on friendly terms. Yuri exclaimed a greeting and they high-fived like old friends. Taeyeon frowned. The two started chatting, catching up on each other’s lives in that friendly way.
Tiffany made her way to Taeyeon, smiling. “Hey. How are you? Do you feel better?”
Taeyeon flicked her gaze to Tiffany. She managed a quivery smile in response. “Getting there. Where’s Sooyoung?”
Tiffany shrugged. “She went to get pizza. That was a while ago.”
Taeyeon snorted. “Well, we don’t have to worry about her absence yet. She may take a few hours. She loves that pizza place.”
Tiffany laughed. “Yeah, that’s what Yuri said, too.”
Taeyeon felt that ridiculously irrational little clench of her heart. It was stupid. She was being silly. She felt like a small child being concerned over nothing. “You and Yuri seem to be getting along well.”
So much foolishness with this one person. Taeyeon really wanted to know what caused this absurdly baseless behaviour. Scientifically, she wanted an explanation. Maybe she had an illness, or this was one of those inexplicable traits of the human condition. Briefly she recalled her comment about existentialism but stopped herself before she delved too deep into the pooling thoughts.
She brought herself back to reality, to Tiffany, who was saying, “She’s a fun person. And I can tell she’s a loyal friend.”
Taeyeon smiled slightly, more real than her previous attempt. She glanced over at Yuri who was now deep in a serious conversation with Hyoyeon. “Yeah, she’s one of the best friends you could have.”
Tiffany reached out and gently traced her fingers over the plastic surface of the neck brace. “Does this thing really help?”
Taeyeon blinked. She peeked at Tiffany’s arm at the edge of her vision, and looked up to meet her attentive gaze. “Um, a little. A lot, actually. But also not enough.”
Tiffany looked away for a moment, then down at her shoes, and fiddled with her fingers. “I feel like this case has reached a slow point. I mean, there’s a lot going on but not much that can actually be done just now. Sooyoung told me you’re having some problems getting into contact with people you need to talk to, and then there’s the whole Jessica Jung thing that takes time too.”
Taeyeon blinked, unsure of where Tiffany was going with this. It was all true, but once again it was just statements of fact and therefore in Taeyeon’s eyes didn’t automate a particular response.
“I want to talk to you about what you said,” Tiffany continued, meeting her eyes again. “In the hospital. And what I said.”
Taeyeon felt the blood drain from her face. “I don’t think now would be a good time. Or any time – I mean, I don’t think we should talk about it. The case may appear stuck but I intend to remedy that and I’m part way there already. Let’s just focus on that. We have greater concerns than our conversation in the hospital.”
“I just feel like we still need to clear the air… after all, who knows what might happen in future.”
Taeyeon squinted at her. “Now is not the time. Come on, let’s go talk to Yuri and Hyoyeon, we have a lot to catch up on.”
She stepped around Tiffany and hurried away, having a little meltdown inside as she did so. Whatever the heck Tiffany wanted to say to her, it was most assuredly best left unspoken for eternity.
She really needed Sooyoung to hurry up with that pizza.
“Listen, Taeyeon, as much as I value Hyoyeon’s input on this case, I can’t help but want to ask you why she’s involved in this.”
Taeyeon gulped. Clearly joining this conversation was not much safer. Yuri and Hyoyeon were both looking at her with sincere expressions.
“I half-wondered that myself,” added Hyoyeon. “I mean, I know why I’m involved about the café thing, but I’m somewhat mystified by my inclusion on the Jessica Jung thing. Not that I’m ungrateful, it is indeed a very useful piece of information, but why am I here at all?”
Taeyeon sighed. She moved past them to sit on the couch, aware of Tiffany returning too.
“This case is bigger than all of us,” said Taeyeon without looking at any of them. “And it’s a mess. I’ve been saying that for days, but it’s a fact we cannot ignore. Everything in this case is random and could be a lie, so the tactic I’ve chosen to tackle it is to use pretty much everything I have available. Hyoyeon is a good journalist, and as she’s shown already, she’s helpful. The thing with Jessica…. Well, I needed results fast, and I counted on you to provide that, which you have. Everything else about you is still undecided, in my mind, and much the same can be said for the case in general. So, fuck it.”
Yuri gasped. Hyoyeon and Tiffany stared.
“Taeyeon! Did you just say what I think you said?” asked Yuri, looking shocked and pleased. “My goodness, you really have changed while I was gone.”
“Well, deal with it.”
“Okay, that one was still a bit lame, but you had a good thing going there for a while.” Yuri reached down and pinched Taeyeon’s cheek. “Maybe in some ways, a case like this was just what you needed; something to completely turn your life upside down and shake you around. Change is good, you know.”
Taeyeon glared, but it was without malice and her heart was thumping in her ears. “This is not exactly the kind of change I would prefer.”
Her eyes flicked towards Tiffany, and when their sights locked, she looked away again just as fast.
In many ways, it was special to her that she was now feeling a certain kind of warmth in her chest. She was nervous, she was uncertain, she was afraid, but it all mixed together with the sight of the three people in front of her and the image of her other allies – altogether, she was feeling rather reckless but also a little stupefied.
Not a bad mix, simply potentially debilitating.
She was most definitely looking forward to that pizza Sooyoung was bringing. Where was she?