Yes. (11; Fast)

11; Fast

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?

Yes. (10; Glacial [2])

10; Glacial [2]

 

“Okay, I know it’s been a while since we spoke and things aren’t great between us right now, but I can totally explain.”

Taeyeon adjusted herself on the hospital bed, trying to ease the tension in her back muscles while maintaining the glare directed at Hyoyeon.

“Yes, it’s been a long time,” she said. “Too long. Almost any period of time is too long. You can start by telling me why we got blown up when we went to the location you suggested.”

“That was totally not my fault,” Hyoyeon said immediately, raising her hands. “I had no idea that was going to happen. I like that café; I go there often. I thought it would be nice to meet up there so I can get a slice of my favourite cheesecake while we talked. I didn’t know it would blow up in your face!”

“Yeah, well, your cheesecake must have clouded your mind, because that place was closed.”

Hyoyeon frowned. “Closed? But it doesn’t close until much later than the time we arranged to meet. That’s odd…”

Taeyeon sighed. She closed her eyes, relaxing her body, and said, “Give me all the possible information you have on that place. Who owns it, who goes there, anything that could lead to a connection. I don’t even care what the connection is, just bring me something. If they have a barista who’s the third-removed cousin of the Dalai Lama, tell me.”

“Since when did I become your slave?” asked Hyoyeon, crossing her arms.

“Since you nearly got me killed,” Taeyeon replied. She opened her eyes slightly. “Look, I’m trusting you. You could be lying to me. I’m going to make my decisions based on the chance that you’re really just a confused journalist who means well, despite your association with Daniel Lee and your tendency to send me in the direction of bombs. I’m choosing to believe that blowing people up isn’t really your style. You always seemed a little nicer, in my opinion. Just a little.”

Hyoyeon grimaced. “Okay, okay. I’ll put together the information on the café. Speaking of Lee, do you want to talk about what I originally called you there to talk about?”

“I’m going to guess it was something along the line of Daniel Lee’s big plan to take over the world, right?”

“That’s your guess?”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense right now.  A lot of people seem eager to stop him. He must be planning to do something that would affect a wide range of people otherwise he wouldn’t have a whole crusade out for him.”

“A lot of people?” Hyoyeon echoed, intrigued. “Who else is trying to stop him? Care to drop a few names?”

“You’re too much of a journalist, Hyoyeon,” Taeyeon sighed. “Is that what you were going to tell me? Lee is trying to get rid of all of his competition by becoming the top criminal?”

“More or less,” Hyoyeon said vaguely. “You’re not in a great mood right now, and that’s understandable. We’ll talk more later, okay?”

“Sure. Just get me that information about the café.”

When Hyoyeon was gone, Taeyeon contemplated. She was becoming a little grumpy with the way this case was going, and risking carelessness. She took a deep breath, and made herself relax fully.

The thing that frustrated her most, other than Tiffany in general, was the pace at which she was able to get information. It was slow, excruciatingly so, like a giant mass of ice barely beginning to sweat. It wasn’t as if all of her cases had been quick and easy, but this one seemed especially adept at doing nothing much at all. Yet it seemed to hold a lot beneath the surface. It was easy to summarize it as ‘Lee’s plan to be the biggest villain, everyone wants to stop him for whatever reason’ but that really was only the surface. There was still all the meat inside, about how and why and when and how to stop him without one or more people getting killed. Too many times, they had gotten close to that line. The shooter and the explosion at the café; were they the same person? The writer of the messages in lipstick, was that the same person too and why did she feel so oddly that Yoona was somehow involved?

And now Taeyeon needed to help Jessica with that little case before they could get a step further in the direction of Lee’s operation. That didn’t leave her with much else to do outside of that. She didn’t like that she had to waste time on this when they were probably pressed for time, but it was the only way to get through that door and right into Lee’s system.

Taeyeon twisted around on the bed, trying to adjust herself again. This hospital was starting to annoy her. She wanted to go home and take off the stupid neck-brace so that she wasn’t such an invalid anymore. And even if she had to continue the investigation while lying in her bed, at least she would feel comfortable returning to her element; less face-to-face interaction.

Tiffany was about to be discharged, and Taeyeon was sure that she could convince the doctors to set her free too, even if she did have to keep the neck brace on.

Taeyeon reached for her new phone, and picked up her spare pair of glasses that Sooyoung brought her earlier. Once she was settled again, she put on her glasses and opened the e-mail app on her phone.

No new messages; she made a grim line with her lips before tapping to compose a new message. This one she sent to Sunny, the informant who was quickly becoming her strongest connection to the person who was most likely trying to kill her on Lee’s orders. She listed the information on the lipstick again and the trace to Yoona, and pondered for a moment. Mentioning that she felt inclined to investigate Yoona based on instinct and an abstract dream didn’t seem like it would do much good for her reputation, so she left it out and said instead some basic vague statement about the strong possibility of a link.

The door opened and Tiffany came in, looking fresh and more energetic than she had since they arrived at the hospital. The effect of the explosion and the stress of the case had taken their toll on her usual level of brightness, but a few nights of good sleep clearly provided good reparation.

“Hello,” Taeyeon greeted her, and smiled. “So, what’s the verdict?”

“I’m free to go,” Tiffany replied. She went to sit on the edge of the hospital bed that had been hers, and looked at Taeyeon intently. “I asked what they thought your chances were and they didn’t seem enthusiastic about releasing you. Maybe you could talk them into letting you leave.”

Taeyeon scoffed as her heart sank with disappointment. “If they said no to you, I doubt I’d have much more of a positive effect.”

Tiffany tilted her head to one side. “Oh? Why do you think that?”

“Because,” Taeyeon mumbled, barely conscious of what she was about to say, “You’re an amazingly gorgeous person. Just by flashing a smile, you have the kind of influence that could make world leaders cancel international assaults. So if they said no to you, I surely don’t stand a chance.”

She knew Tiffany was frowning and she tried her very hardest not to look up from the screen of her phone. She touched the screen repeatedly and shakily with no intent, causing her to add a postscript to the e-mail that went along the lines of ‘aosibfpihebgerslndf<MSf qiwuj’.

Finally she heard Tiffany move, but still jumped when she realised that Tiffany was standing next to her bed and staring at her.

“Do you really have such low self-esteem?” Tiffany asked. She didn’t say it cruelly or harshly, simply curiously, as if she really wanted to know. “Because I would have to disagree.”

Taeyeon blushed. She blinked at Tiffany – she wasn’t even aware that she had given in and diverted her gaze from her phone until then – and wondered what to say. Theoretically an answer to the question would suffice but Taeyeon found herself thoroughly incapable of organising her thoughts into any kind of usable manner.

In the end all she came up with was, “Oh?”

“If you base your opinion solely on looks,” Tiffany began, “then you should be aware that you are a beautiful woman, Taeyeon. Just because we don’t look the same doesn’t make me better-looking than you. Furthermore, regarding my influence, I don’t think you realize the effect you can have on someone. I know you think you’re just awkward – okay, you are pretty awkward – but you have an intelligence and capacity for comfort that makes me feel comfortable even though you might think you failed at a social interaction. And you’re funny, too.”

Taeyeon stared at her. Her brain was in total shutdown. There wasn’t even a mess of incoherent thoughts or the noise of panic, only emptiness. And Tiffany.

Where was all this coming from? Maybe this was finally the sign she had been looking for since Tiffany arrived. Some indication that Tiffany was at least interested her; although this was perhaps even more than that. Certainly the look on Tiffany’s face was one Taeyeon had not seen before. Her expression made Taeyeon sure that she was being sincere, which left her with an absent thought of all the other expressions having held some edge of falseness. Tiffany was hiding a lot, and sometimes Taeyeon wasn’t sure if that showed in her behaviour or if she just imagined it, but right now as she said these things to Taeyeon there was no doubt about their strength and solidity.

Tiffany smiled at Taeyeon’s silent reaction. “I still want us to be close, Taeyeon. No matter what happens in this case. Okay?”

That was a big ask. It was risky to say something like that now, when the case was taking so many turns and Tiffany was looking more and more suspicious. So Taeyeon cursed her initial instinct to just say yes and stay friends with Tiffany even when the truth was revealed about Lee and her involvement and what she was really after. Because the times when they were just two people developing a connection – not two people on potentially opposite sides of a dangerous mess – those times when they were getting to know each other made Taeyeon feel like the heart attack she got from socialising might not actually be the end of the world. And most of those times, she was able to pretend Tiffany was definitely not hiding some dark secrets and lying to her. Perhaps because it was becoming clearer at this moment that some things Tiffany hadn’t lied about, and those things were the times when they were becoming friends.

Taeyeon’s head was spinning as expected. She was getting far too used to it.

“Okay,” she said, completely uncertain of what else she could possibly say.

Tiffany smiled again. “Good.”

Good. That was yet to be seen. But it sure felt good to Taeyeon, which made her worried.  She decided that at some point she was going to have to stop this back-and-forth thinking in her head because it was getting her nowhere, and she really wanted to go somewhere.

“Um,” she said, regaining control, “So, you can just call Sooyoung to take you back to your hotel, if you like. Even if I manage to convince the doctors to release me, it will probably be on the grounds that I stay one more night.”

“Okay,” Tiffany said. She still had a warm look in her eyes that made Taeyeon unable to cease blushing.

The sound of someone clearing their throat captured their attention. Sooyoung stood with her hand raised to knock on the open door, and grinned.

“No need to call me,” she said, lowering her arm. “Although I am sorry to interrupt.”

“Oh, hi.” Tiffany was the first to respond, sounding surprised and looking awkward. “How long have you been there?”

Taeyeon stared at Tiffany. For one thing, they were clearly having the exact same thoughts, but also Tiffany was blushing and Taeyeon found that utterly awe-inspiring.

“Long enough,” Sooyoung answered smoothly. She stepped inside. “I’ll give you a ride whenever you’re ready. As for you,” she continued, turning to Taeyeon, “I have news. Yuri has arrived safe and sound, and I sent her out on the first part of her job. She said she’ll find time to visit you later, but she wanted to get into it right away.”

“That’s nice,” Taeyeon said. “Thanks.”

There was a beat of silence. Tiffany shuffled her feet, and started to gather her things.

“I’ll just get ready so we can go.”

She disappeared into the bathroom, and Taeyeon knew instantly what Sooyoung’s expression would be. She was right.

“Don’t even bother,” Taeyeon said immediately, trying her hardest to look suitably menacing while wearing a neck brace and lying on a hospital bed. “From now on, all comments about me and Tiffany are strictly off-limits.”

Sooyoung raised an eyebrow. “You and Tiffany, eh? Didn’t realise you were an item now.”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes. Sooyoung laughed.

“Okay, okay. Starting now, I’ll give you a break.”

“Thanks,” Taeyeon said, with true gratefulness. Teasing was the last thing she needed in the middle of this case. “So, you got my message about Jessica Jung’s request?”

Sooyoung nodded. “All set for your little quest. Do you want to start it while you’re still in hospital or try to get out first? I heard you say you think you’ll be here for another night either way, maybe you should rest now and wait until tomorrow.”

Taeyeon sighed. “I suppose it would be best to get the hospital out of the way. I’ll monitor everyone through e-mail.”

Reminded of e-mail, she lifted the phone in her hand again and erased the random gibberish, feeling embarrassed. Once it was done, she sent it to Sunny.

“Oh, how about that meeting with Yoona?”

Sooyoung shrugged. “Haven’t heard back from her yet. She’s hard to contact – she has a press manager now.”

“Hmm.”

They pondered quietly for a while, each turning over the facts of their situation in their heads, wondering how all the parts could possibly fit together. Eventually the bathroom door opened again and Tiffany stepped out.

“Ready to go?” asked Sooyoung, already heading towards the door.

“Yes,” Tiffany said. Then she seemed to hesitate for a moment.

She went over to Taeyeon, and gave her arm a squeeze. Taeyeon’s arm became very warm for a moment and her eyes widened even though she tried to stay calm.

“Hopefully I’ll see you out of hospital tomorrow,” said Tiffany softly, keeping her eyes locked on Taeyeon and holding a now familiar smile. She leaned closer slightly. “And I’m sorry for driving you crazy,” she whispered, “I’d like to get that sorted out too.”

Tiffany winked. Taeyeon felt as if she wasn’t even alive anymore and nothing around her was real. She could have been in space for all she knew. Tiffany stifled a laugh before letting go of Taeyeon’s arm and giving her a little wave.

Taeyeon didn’t even process Tiffany and Sooyoung’s departure until the room was dead silent again, and she let herself start breathing again.

She felt a strong urge to swear at herself loudly and repeatedly.

Before she had even fully recovered, her phone rang. She composed herself and stretched to reach it, once again feeling hatred towards her neck brace.

“Hello?”

“Detective, it’s Jessica Jung. I understand you’re still in hospital but Tiffany has been discharged. What kind of indication can you give me on time frame for the task I’ve given you?”

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows. “You move quick. I’m hoping to be released tomorrow, and I’ve been advised to wait until then to begin the search.”

“Alright,” Jessica said, and there was a tone in her voice that sounded almost like solace.

They both stayed on the line without speaking, until Taeyeon decided to express her thoughts.

“You know, I read somewhere that no one ever hires a detective to solve their mystery. They already know the answer. They hire a detective to show that their mystery is unsolvable. Is that what you’ve done? You don’t want me to find her, because you don’t want to face her; you want me to prove that she can’t be found, so that you don’t ever have to face her.”

Jessica seemed to absorb this comment for a moment. “Do you even know what you’re talking about? How dare you assume my emotions regarding this task -”

“I’m not completely idiotic,” Taeyeon interrupted, surprised at her own daring. “You gave me all her personal details and I’ve done a sweep of more basic sources. She’s your sister, and you feel a lot of guilt about something, and a lot of pain.”

“Just find her,” Jessica said, her voice as sharp and cold as a shard of cut-throat ice. “Don’t analyse me and don’t overstep your boundaries. Just find her.”

The line went dead, and Taeyeon was relieved that she didn’t end up dead too.

Yes. (9; Glacial [1])

9; Glacial [1]

 

“So that’s it, then?” asked Sooyoung, glancing in the direction of the bathroom door to make sure it was still closed. “She’s after Lee?”

“Sort of,” Taeyeon said. “She’s after Lee and this woman.”

“So there is definitely still a woman to look for,” Sooyoung said, crossing her arms over her chest. “Are you sure about this, Taeyeon? I mean, I was hoping that she wasn’t evil just as much as you, but this is not exactly ideal.”

Taeyeon sighed. “You don’t have to tell me how un-ideal it is, believe me, I’m aware. But it’s how it is and we’ll have to go with it. About the lipstick -”

“Oh let me save you the time,” interrupted Sooyoung, grimacing. “That was the most difficult task I have ever tackled, but I did it. It took me such a long time, inspecting every word in that magazine and hunting down every interview Yoona has ever given and anything ever written about her anywhere, but finally I found it. And then I couldn’t quite remember what you said I should be looking out for, but luckily you scribbled it down in your notes, so after deciphering your handwriting I -”

“Please, Sooyoung, you said you were saving me time.”

“Right, sorry. Yes, Yoona has recently started using Dior Addict Extreme shade 756 Fireworks. A few stylists commented it was rather a daring choice for someone with her skin tone and in her profession, but it does bring an interesting effect along with her new-found fame.”

“How recently?”

“She was first spotted wearing it approximately three months ago.”

Taeyeon looked thoughtful for a moment. “That was around the time Tiffany hired me. Maybe a little earlier, or later. Have you heard from Yuri?”

“She’s on her way back, don’t worry. Her flight will land here tonight.”

Taeyeon was hopeful that Yuri’s return could help speed up the progress of the investigation. She needed the police files and as much information as Yuri could get for her, and now that she knew the main focus was back on Daniel Lee she would need the police files for the gas station robbery he was responsible for, too. If he was planning something big, then that event could have been a large part of his tactical manoeuvres.

Despite her injuries, she really wanted to get up and go to that gas station to inspect it personally. She wanted to talk to staff, owners, regular customers – anyone and everyone. And she wanted to look at every part of the establishment even though the crime happened too long ago for there to be any spectacular evidence just lying around.

Unfortunately for her, the doctors at the hospital were not particularly hospitable towards her requests, and made an effort to emphasize exactly how necessary it was that she stayed in bed for a few weeks. She rolled her eyes as much as she dared but in the end she knew they were right; if she didn’t rest and let her injuries heal properly, she could be in an even bigger mess. But if she didn’t get this case solved as soon as possible, she would be in an even bigger mess anyway, so she allowed a small part of her brain to quietly begin formulating plans.

And so, she used Sooyoung as her avatar in the outside world.

“Are you really sure about trusting Tiffany?” asked Sooyoung, frowning. “She lied to you. And doesn’t her real reason seem a little…?”

“I know, I know. It’s true, I’m not sure what to believe any more, but considering the state this case is in right now, it’s not really surprising. I mean, this thing is so much bigger than just the woman who is with Lee. I can’t really trust anyone, but I’ll have to. I need to work with what I have. And yes, it does seem kind of odd that she would behave the way she did just to get where we are – not the hospital I mean, obviously.”

Sooyoung raised an eyebrow. “You don’t sound like you’re sure of what you’re doing.”

“I’m not. But I’m just going to do it anyway, okay?”

Sooyoung shrugged.

“It’s not like I’m going to get any answers by just lying here and letting things happen around me, that’s for sure,” she said decisively. “Tiffany stays and the case goes on.”

“Alright,” Sooyoung accepted. “Hey, is it true that you declared your undying love for Tiffany after the explosion?”

Taeyeon’s eyes widened. “Excuse me?”

“Well, I was chatting with that medic who brought you here,” Sooyoung continued in a conversational tone of voice, “and apparently you had some very interesting things to scream at the scene of the incident. Care to comment about that?”

Taeyeon groaned. “Oh no. Don’t even remind me. Just do not ever speak of that again. Never. Ever. Don’t even think of it. Nothing happened, okay?”

Sooyoung grinned. “Has Tiffany mentioned it yet?”

The possibility of having that discussion with Tiffany was purely mortifying – the casual or perhaps even sombre mention of the words, the spluttering brain-failure as she tried to explain it; it set off a range of thoughts that ignited off each other with sparks of phantom pain when she imagined how a conversation like that would go. So Taeyeon was very pleased that Tiffany had not mentioned it at all.

But she didn’t have time to say all of that to Sooyoung and she knew it would be better if she didn’t, because even though Sooyoung had cut down her teasing about Tiffany, she was clearly not completely past it.

“Okay, here’s what I need you to do,” Taeyeon said, her expression serious, and the change of subject made Sooyoung laugh very briefly. “Get me a meeting with Yoona. When Yuri gets here, tell her to get started on getting those police files for me – the gas station robbery and that time someone took a shot at me and Tiffany. After that, just anything else about Lee she can find. And find out where Hyoyeon has disappeared to, would you? She needs to explain why the hell I’m lying in hospital right now.”

The bathroom door opened just as Sooyoung nodded.

They both turned to look at Tiffany, who blinked back at them, pausing on her way back to her bed.

Tiffany came away from the explosion with less serious injuries, but as she still sustained a blow to the head she would be staying in hospital with Taeyeon for a few days to make sure there were no complications. The cut on her forehead was still pronounced, though she managed to avoid getting stitches.

Her face showed her exhaustion, and she seemed more wary than she had been since arriving in the country. Perhaps it was the multiple possible attempts on her life, or perhaps she was feeling cagey after revealing her true intentions to Taeyeon. Some of it still didn’t quite make sense – at least, it didn’t match the sense of character Taeyeon had formed from her perception of Tiffany up to this point; but she could have simply been incorrect. Now she would get to know Tiffany better, and find out exactly what was going on in her head.

“Am I interrupting something?” Tiffany asked, staring at them as they stared at her.

“I was just leaving,” Sooyoung said, giving her a pleasant smile. “The boss gave me my orders,” she gestured at Taeyeon, who rolled her eyes, “so I’ll leave you two to rest.” She took a few steps before turning back to them, and she winked. “Don’t do anything I would do.”

By the time Sooyoung disappeared through the doorway, Taeyeon had settled into her familiar cloud of embarrassment, and was even more embarrassed when she noticed that the pinkness dusting her cheeks was mirrored on the face of Tiffany.

They avoided making eye contact as Tiffany got back to her own bed.

It was hard to move around in a neck brace, Taeyeon was learning, but there were certain ways that she could angle herself just right to get in a good enough position to function. After much practice while Tiffany was asleep earlier, Taeyeon got the hang of how to be able to look in the direction of Tiffany’s bed. She would, of course, never admit that she was watching Tiffany sleep, because she was pretty sure that such behaviour was still frowned upon. And she had tried not to make it seem like she was watching her, which resulted in her movements being more like twitches and glances rather than constant observation.

Now she manoeuvred herself to look at Tiffany and was surprised to find her looking back. They both blushed again and Taeyeon’s blush deepened even more when she noticed that they were both blushing. It was possible that they were even both now blushing because they were blushing, and then her head started to spin. Telling herself that her head was spinning because of the angle she was forcing herself in to, she turned to face the front again.

She wasn’t sure if Tiffany was still looking at her or if the sense she got was just because of her anxiety.

She cleared her throat. “So, how are you feeling today?”

“Better,” Tiffany replied, and there was some rustling as she got comfy on her bed. “I should contact my hotel to let them know I’ll be in hospital for a while.”

“Yes,” Taeyeon said.

And that was where the conversation seemed to end but it didn’t seem right to Taeyeon. Conversations were not meant to just end like that, were they? And the atmosphere was definitely more awkward than usual, she was sure.

Awkwardness, blushing, running out of things to say – Tiffany was surely thinking about… it. The incident Taeyeon most feared would become an issue. Her not-so-little comment about how Tiffany drove her crazy in a good way and a bad way.

And how was she supposed to explain it? It was the truth. She never meant for Tiffany to know of it, and now she did, and it wasn’t something that Taeyeon could really elaborate on. It was what it was. Tiffany was driving her crazy, and it was because of something that could be bad, but in a way it felt good. Or it was because of something that was good but it made her feel like exploding. She was going crazy because either Tiffany was deceitful and plotting something malevolent; or she was going crazy because Tiffany had her own beauty, inside and out, a human being who she was falling in love with.

Love. Now that opened a whole new can of worms. Wriggling alien worms with three bodies each. Perhaps she should call it something else, because it certainly wasn’t right to call it love. She was falling in deep-interest with Tiffany. Or, because she didn’t know if it was mutual: she was falling in deep-interest of Tiffany.

And now that Taeyeon had successfully made a mess of her attempt to structure a response in case Tiffany brought up the topic, she decided to start an entirely new conversation, because running away was not an option.

She was still trying to think of something to say when there was a brief knock on the door followed by the bang as it was blown open.

It wasn’t really an explosion, though; through the doorway strode a young woman with long blonde-ish hair and an effortless air of cool indifference. She wore sunglasses despite being inside, and she was impeccably dressed in the smooth and simple fashion of someone with a taste for style and a mind for money.

Her shoes clicked on the floor and stopped when she halted at the foot of their beds, an equal distance between them, and faced them with an expression of disgust.

“Which one of you is Tiffany?”

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows in surprise. If anyone was going to stride in here emitting an aura of pure power, she would have bet money that they were after her. Having spent so much time alienating people with her awkwardness or frustrating them with her investigations, it was almost a given that someone who was most likely rich and successful by slightly illegal or immoral means would be looking for her with an attitude like that.

She glanced at Tiffany, who mirrored her expression, and they both looked back at the unknown woman.

“I’m Tiffany,” said Tiffany

Instead of acknowledging her, the woman sent a small smile at Taeyeon.

“Good,” she said. Her voice was smooth, her tone clipped. “I gave you a chance to lie and you didn’t. We’ve gotten off to a good start.”

“Um –” Taeyeon began, and was immediately cut off.

“If you’re about to ask who I am, please don’t. It would only serve as a disappointment,” said the stranger, looking away dismissively. She turned to Tiffany and removed her sunglasses in a single sweeping motion. “Tiffany. My name is Jessica Jung.”

Tiffany blinked, and then realization dawned on her face, followed swiftly by disbelief. “Really? You’re –”

“Yes,” interrupted Jessica. “Let’s not waste time. I am really the Jessica Jung, the one and only, the one you’ve been looking for.” She paused. “Or rather, one of the ones you’ve been looking for, as I hear you’re chasing someone else. But we’ll discuss that in greater detail later. You want in? I can get you in. I want to get rid of Daniel Lee, and from where I’m standing, you and your detective here can help me reach that goal.”

Taeyeon bit back a question before it slipped out, remembering how she had been stopped earlier. This earned her an eventual smile from Jessica.

“You learn fast,” she said. “I like you. I’m the head of a certain organization which would benefit immensely from the cessation of Daniel Lee’s existence in this country’s underground. Tiffany knows this, and she tried to find me several months ago to offer me what I’m offering you, before she gave up and turned to you. Now I’m well and truly fed up with Lee, and I want to end him. You’re in a position to help me with that, and I’m in a position to help you achieve it.”

Taeyeon felt like her brain was going to burst. She was already juggling everything the case had thrown at her so far, and now there was this Jessica who wanted to insert herself into the mix. She didn’t know how much more she could take, and she started to dread everything else she was going to find.

Despite never having heard of Jessica by name, she was aware of some mysterious woman who ran a large up-and-coming organisation that wanted to take over the country in legal and illegal ways. She was known as determined, ruthless, cold, and very pro-active. If there was someone in her way, she would get rid of them two steps before they blocked her path. So being here, offering them an opportunity to get at Lee from another angle, was the next move in her game.

And it meant that whatever Jessica was planning would therefore be even bigger than what Lee was planning.

Taeyeon closed her eyes for a moment and gave herself a chance to calm her nerves. She had more than enough experience in her years of gaming to know that when a powerful character waltzed in and offered to solve a problem with a snap, then there was undoubtedly a catch, and usually it was unavoidable.

Jessica didn’t seem to care much whether Taeyeon was going to accept or deny her offer. Her eyes were focused on Tiffany again, with an expression she couldn’t decipher.

Tiffany glanced at Taeyeon, frowning, before matching Jessica’s gaze and masking her own expression.

“What’s the catch?”

Jessica just smiled.

Taeyeon and Tiffany waited, and waited, as unwilling to back down as Jessica was. Finally, Jessica sighed, her smile dropping, and she very briefly looked vulnerable before her face was blank. This time she met Taeyeon’s eyes.

“I need you to find someone,” she said quietly. “Just track her down and tell me where she is, and in return I will get you a contact in Lee’s organization who will help you with whatever you need, no problems. I know you’re one of the best private investigators in the country. Will you make a deal with me?”

They stared at each other for a long time. Taeyeon thought about the offer; for one thing, she didn’t yet know how hard it would be to find this person, how much time and effort it would take, but one of the first things that bothered her were Jessica’s intentions. She was reputed to be a heartless criminal, well-organized but as cold as any killer, and if Taeyeon were to tell her this person’s location, what would she do to them?

She decided to make her choice with all factors regarded in their extremes. Was she willing to track down a person Jessica wanted to murder, in exchange for access to the way of shutting down the biggest criminal in the country and solving the mystery brought to her by Tiffany? If Lee went unstopped, was there a chance that he would destroy too many innocent lives?

She took a deep breath.

“Yes.”

Yes. (8; Come Along)

8; Come Along

 

Taeyeon woke up in a moving ambulance, strapped to a stretcher, shapes spinning into near-focus; her glasses were nowhere to be seen. A medic was reaching for something in a bag by his side, and Tiffany sat next to him cradling her own head in her hands. There was an unwelcome amount of blood everywhere. She groaned in disappointment and then in pain when the force of her own injuries hit her.

“Now, I need you to stay calm,” the medic said, turning back to her, alerted to her consciousness by the noises she made. “It’s not as serious as it looks. My name is Minho, and you will be okay.”

Taeyeon doubted that. If she was going to be okay, why was she on a stretcher with a medic hovering over her while blood-smeared Tiffany had to sit upright? She tried to lift her head to look at her body but found her head was strapped down and her brain finally decoded the onslaught of pain signals and identified the injured areas. Her neck was definitely hurting quite a lot and was being supported by a brace.

She groaned again. “This is bad.”

“You’ll be fine,” said Minho again, going back to looking for something in his bag. “You won’t die or anything.”

“Thanks,” she said half-sincerely. She squinted at Tiffany. “How are you, Tiffany?”

Tiffany shrugged and lifted her head to look at Taeyeon. She seemed woozy and exhausted, her eyes rimmed with red. “I’ve been better. But apparently I won’t die either so I guess that’s okay.”

“You were unconscious for a little longer than we’re comfortable with,” Minho interrupted, talking to Taeyeon. “I need to check if you’re concussed. Hold still, please. Tell me your full name, date of birth, and the date today.”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes while Minho got out his little flash light and took hold of her face with one hand, and she dutifully recited the requested information. She lay still as he did his testing. Slowly her brain’s wheels began to turn and she caught up with everything she needed to deal with as soon as possible.

“So,” she said conversationally, “what the hell happened?”

The ambulance turned a corner and they all swooped along with it before settling again. Minho shrugged, turning back to his bag, “I don’t know the cause of the explosion, but the café you were sitting outside of blew up and your car got caught in the blast. It wasn’t very bad, just shrapnel from the building and the edge of the sonic wave. Maybe a little fire. Could have been worse – you’re lucky.”

“Yeah, really lucky,” she muttered, “someone probably just tried to kill us.”

“But they didn’t,” Tiffany pointed out. Minho turned to her and started cleaning a cut on her forehead. “Plus, why would they try to kill us by blowing up a café that we weren’t even in? Surely they knew it was closed.”

Taeyeon waved a hand in the air. “Where’s my phone? I need to call that jerk Hyoyeon and ask her what she had to do with this mess.”

Minho snorted. “You may not remember this yet, but before you lost consciousness you tried to get out of the car, dropped your phone, and stepped on it.”

Taeyeon closed her eyes. “Of course I did.”

She tried to remember what she could about the explosion, and didn’t come up with much. They were in her car, talking, she got a phone call from Yuri, she was trying to force herself to confront Tiffany, Tiffany tried to ease the tension by failing to make a joke, and then – explosion. Ambulance. She let out a deep breath. The only other person really involved in the situation was Hyoyeon, and she couldn’t contact her right now so she looked at Tiffany again.

“Why didn’t you tell me your mother was dead?”

Tiffany was shocked, and Minho faltered in his actions to shoot her an incredulous look before deciding not to get involved.

“What?”

“Yuri found out that your mother died long ago,” Taeyeon said, wincing as a particularly large bump in the road made her body shift uncomfortably. “Who exactly did you hire me to look for?”

“I…” Tiffany shook her head. “Look, can we talk about this later? We need medical attention right now.”

“I may not be capable later,” Taeyeon muttered. “I must be a little unhinged right now because it’s the only way I could do this. Just tell me, please, what the heck is going on?”

Tiffany bit her bottom lip, glancing at Minho uncertainly. “This isn’t really the best place -”

“Tiffany,” Taeyeon interrupted, and then felt the wave of dizziness that swept her up and tossed her around, “oh god I think I’m going to throw up, but listen you just have to tell me the truth now, okay? I need to know now before someone else tries to kill me and/or you and gets away with it this time.”

Minho took a moment to register her earlier comment and turned to check her eyes again with his little flash light. “As much as I’d like to stay out of whatever is going on between you two, I’m going to have to agree with your girlfriend that this is not the time and place.”

Taeyeon didn’t even feel embarrassed about his misunderstanding; rather, its irrationality annoyed her and she snapped, “Why would you even think she’s my girlfriend, you’ve literally witnessed nothing that could give you that impression. And her answer is kind of a question of life and death and sanity so please, shut up.”

Minho huffed and rolled his eyes, while Tiffany was speechless.

“Since you asked,” Minho said, clicking off the light, “I thought she was your girlfriend because before you lost consciousness you kept screaming at me to take care of her first because, and I quote, ‘she drives me crazy in a good way and kind of a bad way too, really’ and you wanted to get that sorted out as soon as possible. Sounds like love to me, honestly.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Well even so, you heard me say she hired me to find someone so that should have altered your interpretation,” said Taeyeon eventually, unsure if she was blushing or if her body was catching fire. It was hard to be certain. “Anyway, what do you really want, Tiffany?”

“I don’t know,” Tiffany exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air and almost slapping Minho. “I don’t know anymore. Yes, my mother died – she got sick and she died and it broke me into tiny little pieces. This woman I want you to find… I don’t know her name, what she looks like, what her voice sounds like, but you have to find her!”

Taeyeon’s head jerked as she tried to lift her head before she stiffened again with a high-pitched yelp of pain, but she powered through it. “How am I supposed to find someone I know nothing about? Am I even looking in the right place? Do you even know what you’re doing?!”

“She has to be with Lee,” Tiffany said firmly, seemingly unaware that a line of blood was developing on her forehead again.

“She has to – Tiffany, do you – what – You knew about Lee already? Why didn’t you just tell me to go after him?”

Tiffany sighed. The ambulance went around another bend and Taeyeon gulped as a spear of pain shot down her spine. She tried to focus as Tiffany explained very fast.

“My mother dated Lee back in high school, and it was pretty serious, so I knew you would find that connection fast. This woman… they were all friends, the three of them, and when my mother broke up with Lee and moved to America with my father, they had a falling out. The woman found my mother again just before she died and tried to bring her back here because Lee was planning something big and she wanted her help to stop him.”

Taeyeon squinted.

Tiffany frowned, rubbing at her forehead, and finally noticed the blood. She didn’t seem worried, just tired. Minho waited a moment to sense the atmosphere before he moved in to patch her up. She started talking again.

“I only found out about it recently when I discovered my mother’s journals. I-I don’t know how much my father knew,” she swallowed before continuing, “But this woman was more than friends with my mother.”

Taeyeon felt her head spin again. “Eh?”

“They had some kind of love triangle thing going on,” Tiffany said almost dismissively. “Lee felt pretty betrayed when he found out they all had their lines crossed, so to speak. But my mother left for America so he didn’t push it after they broke up. He stayed friends with that woman, who later joined him in his criminal organisation. That’s how I know she must still be with him.”

Taeyeon blinked rapidly, trying to retain control of her consciousness. “But Tiffany, if all this happened just before your mother died, what makes you think the situation is still the same? What if Lee already did the thing your friend wanted to stop? She could even be dead.”

Tiffany looked pained, and turned her face away, covering her eyes with her hands. Taeyeon knew she was crying. She paused, thinking about what she said, and flinched when she realised – Tiffany was very deeply affected by her mother’s death. All those things she told Taeyeon about her when she was still pretending to look for her, the stuff about her voice and the way she loved her daughter and taught her important things about life; none of that warm reminiscence was fake.

“I just wanted to start somewhere,” Tiffany murmured, almost unheard. “I want to know. My mother… she cared a lot about this, and these people meant something to her. And she knew she had to stop Lee. I feel like if she hadn’t died…”

“You want to finish what she couldn’t?” Taeyeon asked quietly, her expression soft as she looked at Tiffany as best she could while strapped to a stretcher in a moving ambulance, wearing a neck brace.

Tiffany sniffed, hidden behind her hands, and half-shrugged half-nodded.

The ambulance screeched to a stop, and Minho jumped up. “Finally,” he muttered.

Taeyeon let the medical staff in the hospital fuss over her, pulling her around, dumping her on a bed, plugging a tube into her, setting up machines. She kept thinking about the turn of events for the case.

Now she wasn’t looking for someone’s mother who ran away from home to go back to her high-school boyfriend, she was looking for an unknown woman who was an accomplice to one of the biggest criminals in the country and also tried to stop him with the help of an old friend. Or more than a friend. And the daughter of that more-than-a-friend now wanted to finish what her mother started, using the investigative services of an awkward Taeyeon who also had a little tiny crush on her.

“Just knock me out,” she whispered in all seriousness to the nurse closest to her, “just make me be unconscious for as long as possible.”

“No,” the nurse whispered back, and turned away.

So much for that plan.

She noticed Tiffany out of the corner of her eye, being helped to lie down on the bed next to hers, and she carefully eyed the expression on Tiffany’s face. She still looked tired, a little too tired, so tired that Taeyeon couldn’t help but be concerned of some greater problems than a cut on the forehead.

“Hey, will she be okay?” Taeyeon asked the same nurse, half-indicating towards Tiffany.

The nurse turned to check in that direction and shrugged at Taeyeon. “Not my patient. I’ll see what I can find out, but first I need to take care of you. Now, we need to re-examine your neck, so just hold still, okay?”

Taeyeon closed her eyes and measured her breathing as the staff did their thing with her, letting her mind drift back into the case. She made a new list of what she needed, now that the case had changed. She still needed Sooyoung’s information on that lipstick, the police information on the shooting, and information on what Daniel Lee was up to at any given moment. None of that seemed to be happening.

And she needed to figure out how she felt about Tiffany right now – well, it would be better not to get into that right now but she had time and she needed to distract herself so she let herself think about Tiffany.

The knowledge of Tiffany’s true intentions just confused her more but still felt like a relief somehow. Tiffany wasn’t evil, she wasn’t doing this to commit a crime or hurt Taeyeon; she just wanted to complete a task her mother would have attempted before dying from a sickness, an event that clearly Tiffany was still recovering from. What this meant for Taeyeon was actually nothing. Tiffany was still her client, Tiffany still had issues to sort out, Tiffany still lied to her – and how did she feel about that lie? It was simple enough to admit that if Tiffany had told her from the start that she wanted to investigate and stop one of the biggest criminals in the country, Taeyeon would not have touched the case with a ten-foot Ethernet cable. But now here she was, knee-deep in whatever mess this was turning out to be. She couldn’t just leave it now – clearly Lee already knew she was interested in his activities, and he was probably still up to something big. That had to be what Hyoyeon wanted to talk to her about. As for Hyoyeon, Taeyeon compiled a few choice sentences to fire at her later.

Leaving the case now would also break Tiffany’s heart.

And so, Taeyeon concluded, she was still extremely lost and confused.

She felt more relaxed when she opened her eyes again, and realised she had fallen asleep for a while. She and Tiffany had been moved to a semi-private room, and it was newly dark outside.

Taeyeon’s neck was still in a brace, but she angled her head as much as she could in order to look at Tiffany. Fast asleep. Taeyeon glanced around for a nurse, but there wasn’t one in the room, so she satisfied herself with the fact that Tiffany would probably be okay since she wasn’t in Intensive Care.

She reached for the phone beside her bed with one hand, flapping around until she got a hold of it, and painstakingly pressed each button to call Sooyoung’s number.

“Hello?”

“Sooyoung, it’s me.”

“Where have you been?! I’ve been worried sick! I called and called, but your phone just goes straight to voicemail. Are you okay? Where are you?”

“Okay just calm down a little bit, shouting is bad. Tiffany and I are in hospital, the same one we went to last time. Basically that stupid café we went to was closed, and we were still in the car and it blew up. But that’s not even the biggest thing that’s happened, there’s more. So just come here as soon as you can.”

“I’m on my way.”

Taeyeon returned the phone to its place and let out a sigh as she relaxed her body again. Whatever glorious pain medication they were giving her, it was greatly appreciated. She closed her eyes again, and dozed off.

When she woke, Seohyun was hovering over her on one side and Sooyoung peered at her from the other side. She blinked a few times, and then frowned at them until they backed off a little.

“She seems alright enough,” Sooyoung allowed, almost smiling. “Hey, how’s it going?”

Taeyeon shrugged slightly. “All systems operating.”

Sooyoung rolled her eyes. “This is going to become a new thing, isn’t it.”

Taeyeon just smiled at her and turned her attention to Seohyun. “Hi. I was wondering if I would run into you again here, so to speak.”

“Well I’d say it’s nice to see you again but this isn’t really a good situation,” said Seohyun diplomatically. She glanced around before leaning closer again. “Does this have anything to do with that… mutual problem?”

Taeyeon grimaced. “Yeah, kind of. Listen, how is that friend of yours? Anything big happened with her lately?”

Seohyun eyed Sooyoung critically, unsure if she should answer. Taeyeon waved a hand dismissively and said, “She’s okay, you can talk in front of her.”

Seohyun nodded. “My friend got another threat – well, we consider it to be like a threat. A smiley face was drawn on her windshield this time, same lipstick, but it looked kind of… melted.”

“Ew,” contributed Sooyoung.

Taeyeon sighed. “Tell her she should get out of town for a bit, and I’ll be sending her an e-mail in the next couple of days for some more urgent information. We need to get this sorted before it all gets out of control. Sooyoung, did you find out anything about the lipstick?”

Sooyoung shook her head. “Nothing yet. Don’t worry, I’ll get back on it as soon as I’m sure you and Tiffany are okay.”

At the mention of Tiffany, Taeyeon’s eyes flicked towards the bed next to hers. Tiffany was still asleep and her body was now turned the other way. Taeyeon looked back at the people by her bedside.

“Have either of you talked to the doctors or someone? What’s our condition?”

“You’ll both be fine. Tiffany was a little concussed. Both of you need to stay here for a couple of days until the doctors decide it’s safe for you to be released, but excluding complications your injuries will heal. You’ll need to wear that neck brace for a while, though.”

Taeyeon tried to relax again, unaware that she had been so tense. “I need to get out of here as fast as possible. Sooyoung, you’ll need to be my gopher for a while. And find a way to get an eye on Lee, will you?”

Sooyoung saluted. “Yes, boss. Don’t overexert yourself though. Right, doc?”

Seohyun smiled a little. “Right. I should get going; I’ll pass on the message to my friend.” She hesitated, biting her lip. “She’ll be okay, right?”

Once again Taeyeon wasn’t sure how to answer the question, even more now that the facts had changed and the situation had become more dangerous, but she tried to look least uncomfortable and said, “Sure. She’ll be okay.”

Seohyun seemed to accept it and gave them both a shy wave before leaving them alone.

Immediately, Sooyoung leaned closer and whispered, “Now what’s the other stuff that happened? You said there was something bigger than the explosion.”

Taeyeon groaned and closed her eyes. “This case is a really big mess, Sooyoung. A big, big messy mess.”

She explained the new developments as simply as she could, trying to convey the clearness with which she had sorted out her thoughts earlier, but she was getting sleepy and groggy and it showed. Sooyoung kept up well enough, settling herself on the edge of the mattress and focusing on Taeyeon’s words. After a while, her frown of concentration cleared and she let out a deep breath, and then raised her eyebrows at Taeyeon.

“Well, at least Tiffany’s not evil,” she said, pushing brightness into the conversation.

Taeyeon’s lips twitched. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I thought,” she murmured.

Sooyoung watched her for a while. Taeyeon’s eyelids were starting to close, no matter how much she tried to resist. Sooyoung smiled at her.

“You get some rest now. I’ll come see you again in the morning.”

“Thanks, Sooyoung,” Taeyeon managed, opening her eyes again briefly. “You’re a good friend.”

She dozed off again, the ghost of a smile on her face. Sooyoung said nothing, staring at her, and then she turned on her heel and left the dim hospital room.

The hospital settled into the night smoothly, lights dimming slightly all over the place and completely off in some private rooms, and the raucous buzzing settled into a comfortable hum. This was how Taeyeon found it when she woke up again a few hours later, in the middle of the night, inexplicably pulled from her sleep.

She inhaled deeply as her senses kicked into gear, and she looked around as much as she could with her neck brace and without her glasses. She wondered idly what had happened to those glasses of hers and if she would be seeing them again anytime soon.

Movement came from her side and she focused on Tiffany’s bed; Tiffany was awake, rustling around in her bed as she turned onto her back and stared at the ceiling.

They shared the quietness until Taeyeon broke it.

“Can’t sleep?” she asked softly.

Tiffany clearly had not been aware of her consciousness, because she jumped a little in surprise before staring at Taeyeon. After a moment she cleared her throat and looked away again.

“Yeah,” she replied, her voice a little hoarse. “Got a lot to think about.”

They both gazed at the ceiling again for a while.

“I’m sorry,” Tiffany murmured. “I feel horrible about lying to you like that.”

Taeyeon smiled. “Don’t feel bad. I’ve thought about it, and I wouldn’t have helped you if you’d told the truth.”

This didn’t seem to do much to qualm Tiffany’s feelings, and her silence conveyed as much. Taeyeon racked her brain to find words to make the right sentences before continuing.

“I understand,” she said. “I see where you’re coming from. Your mother means a lot to you – more than I could express with words, though I see it in your face and feel it from your voice when you talk about her. So I understand that you want to do this not just for sentimentality and social factors or the human complexes regarding heredity and death, but because you love your mother and this is one more link to her. You want to follow it, and find her in some small way. And I’ll help you with that.”

The sound of sniffing interrupted her and she panicked briefly. From what she could see in the corner of her eye, Tiffany was wiping away tears.

“Uh, sorry,” she hastened to add, but Tiffany shook her head.

“Don’t say sorry,” said Tiffany. She laughed a little, surprising Taeyeon. “Did you know you’re so good at making people cry?”

“Um, well I certainly never considered it a talent or a skill of mine, that’s for sure.”

Tiffany laughed again, and sniffed again, and wiped away the last of her tears. She took a deep breath and let it all out as she examined the ceiling. The hush of the room fell again, the sound of the hospital relegated to the world outside the door of their room. Taeyeon could barely even hear the soft beeping of their machines while she listened to the sound of Tiffany’s breathing as it slowed.

Just when she thought Tiffany had fallen asleep, she heard the low whisper of a “Thank you”, and she drifted off with a truly effortless smile on her face.

Yes. (7; Incrimination)

7; Incrimination

 

There wasn’t much Taeyeon could do about Daniel Lee. He was untouchable, and hard to keep an eye on. He was slippery and powerful. So it was unsurprising when she couldn’t find anyone else to monitor him on her behalf. No matter what she offered – free service, money, food, toys – no one was willing to take the risk of being caught spying on one of the biggest criminals in the country. Even Sooyoung had simply given her a look of disbelief. However, Taeyeon tried not to let this disappointment bring her spirits down. She was determined to establish two things about Lee; if he had a connection to Tiffany’s mother, and what he was up to.

And so she ended up hanging upside down by her legs from the bottom branch of a tree outside Lee’s hotel, squinting through a miniature set of binoculars, and holding her breath.

It wasn’t the most productive action, really, because she couldn’t even see into his room or anything, but it was the only option she could find after examining the area. All she got out of the position was a partially obscured view of the hallway, which had very mediocre lighting. In the five hour duration of her stay – during which time she had changed her position on the tree twenty times before recently realising this provided the best angle – she saw only two of Lee’s henchmen occasionally moving back and forth between their rooms and Lee’s, empty-handed and stone-faced. No sign of the man himself or any woman.

Taeyeon sighed. She half-heartedly pencilled another note onto the tiny pad of paper she kept tucked in her pocket. Ten minutes after the previous entry, she scribbled something vague about Man #2 returning to his room much the same as he was when he went to Lee’s room.

She checked the time on her watch again, eyeing the hands ticking away, and pondered. It would be better to set up some sort of camera in her exact location, but that was beyond difficult. She was in a tree. Trees were not known for offering accessibility to cameras of any size or shape.

She absently clicked her tongue. It was almost dinner time. She had been watching Lee since lunch time. She didn’t know what he had gotten up to during the few hours since she left with Tiffany this morning and the moment she arrived here again after it became clear there was no alternative but to return. Hyoyeon hadn’t shown up again, if she even left in the first place. Whatever Lee was doing in that room seemed pretty important. Or he was just playing games.

Taeyeon scoffed quietly to herself. This case had quickly become a big game. She didn’t know the rules but she knew she was being played.

First of all, she was being played by Tiffany. The charming, beautiful woman who held a grip on Taeyeon’s heart muscle before they even met face to face and whose every smile was a squeeze. She was hiding something big. She basically admitted that the whole case was a lie, didn’t she? Her reason for hiring Taeyeon, her objective for the investigation, who knew what else. And yet why wasn’t that already enough to make Taeyeon give up the case? As much as it seemed she was willing to go along with it because she perhaps had a tiny little crush on Tiffany, there was definitely something else about it. She felt as if, no matter the reason, finding this woman was important, and finding out what Daniel Lee was doing was also important.

A headache sprouted at the base of Taeyeon’s skull. She blinked a few times and shook her head, but perhaps it was just time to stop hanging upside down and go home.

Her phone vibrated insistently in her pocket before she had a chance to continue her train of thought. She carefully got it out and held it in front of her face. Her eyebrows rose at the sight of the caller ID, and she answered it.

“Hello?”

“Hey detective, how’s it hangin’?”

Taeyeon nearly displaced herself from her position in the tree as she threw her head side to side to look around. “Hanging? What? Nothing’s hanging, I’m not hanging.”

On the other end of the call, Hyoyeon laughed. “You are so weird. It’s just an expression.”

Taeyeon didn’t calm down completely, still on alert as she kept her eyes wide open. “You’re pretty weird yourself. Why were you hanging around Daniel Lee this morning?”

“You are a persistent little investigator. That’s a good thing, by the way. Now listen, I could be on to something big. Do you want in on it?”

Taeyeon hesitated. A cool breeze built up, toying with the back of her jacket which hung down behind her head. The hallway in front of her, behind another branch, seemed deserted and silent.

“Well, you would have to be more specific before I agree to anything,” she said eventually.

“Let’s meet in person,” Hyoyeon said. “Where are you now? I’ll pick you up and we’ll go for coffee.”

Taeyeon didn’t say anything at first, very mindful of her current location. Then she cleared her throat and said, “Maybe not right at this very second, if you insist on meeting in person. I’m kind of busy at the moment. Tell me where and we can meet in an hour.”

“I’ll e-mail you some directions to a nice little café I’ve come to know well recently. Oh, and bring Tiffany.”

Taeyeon frowned. “Why would I bring Tiffany?”

“Just do it. It’s important, I promise.”

The effects of hanging upside down for an extended period of time were starting to get to Taeyeon’s head, or it was just the constant stress of the messy situation she was in. Either way, she just wanted to end the call and get down from the tree, and then she would have to go get Tiffany and meet Hyoyeon at that café.

“Okay, fine, send me the details and we’ll see you in an hour.”

“Excellent! You won’t regret this, detective.”

Taeyeon hung up quickly and began to untangle herself from the branches of the tree without falling and breaking her neck.

It wasn’t until she was standing upright with her shoes touching the grass, trying to catch her breath, that she realised something rather significant.

Hyoyeon knew Tiffany’s name.

Sooyoung didn’t find it as pressing as Taeyeon did, shrugging her shoulders casually as they talked about it in Taeyeon’s apartment soon afterwards. Taeyeon was trying to change her clothes as fast as she could but got too close to dislocating a few limbs in her hurry, so she slowed down and explained when she left her bedroom.

“Thinking back to how Hyoyeon was when she saw Tiffany in the car, maybe there is a chance that she recognised her,” said Taeyeon, jamming her wrist in the sleeve of a new jacket. “But I don’t think it was mutual. It was more like Hyoyeon knew who Tiffany was and knew what she looked like, but it was the first time actually seeing her in person. And I don’t know about you, but that worries me more than just a little.”

“Well I’m not saying it isn’t weird, but she is a journalist,” Sooyoung replied, unhooking Taeyeon from her clothing. “Just see what she has to say when you go see her, maybe she’ll explain everything.”

Keys jingled somewhere in the pockets of Taeyeon’s other, discarded jacket as she hunted them down, shaking the clothing. She wasn’t happy about Hyoyeon’s little gameplay. She was starting to become more certain that she was the only person in this case who didn’t know what was going on, and it was getting on her nerves. She needed to know something, anything.

“Heard back from Yuri?” she asked Sooyoung shortly, and adjusted her glasses.

Sooyoung shook her head. “I’m starting to wonder if I should get worried or not, but it’s too soon.”

Taeyeon sighed. “I really need her to get that information for me and then come back and get the information here, too.”

“You’ll be okay,” Sooyoung said with a pat on Taeyeon’s shoulder and a smile. “You’re still alert and focused however frustrated you are. And you’re not letting your nerves get in the way. I’m sure you’ll get something soon. And if it turns out Tiffany’s not evil, then maybe you could ask her out on a date.”

Taeyeon gave her a pointed look. “There are so many things wrong with that suggestion; I’ll have to write you a list.”

Sooyoung shrugged again. “Okay, okay, just trying to provide you with something positive. Want me to come with you to meet Hyoyeon or will you be fine with Tiffany?”

But Taeyeon’s attention was diverted because right there on the table in front of her was a picture that jarred her. Specifically it was the cover photo of a magazine, bearing insignificant and airy article titles that blurred into nothingness. Taeyeon’s gaze latched on to the woman who posed with a wide smile; pretty, young, thin.

She pointed. “Who is that woman?”

Sooyoung blinked at the magazine. “That appears to be Yoona, the new face of the police force.”

Taeyeon frowned, peering closely at the woman. “You mean she’s a cop?”

“A detective in the drugs unit. She’s been getting quite a bit of media attention lately because of some big case she solved recently – she got a lot of compliments while the reporters interviewed her on the steps of the courthouse. The police are using this as a publicity opportunity, and it seems to be working.”

Taeyeon’s thoughts began to drift. It didn’t make any sense, and yet it struck her so solidly it had to be significant. But how?

“Are you okay?” Sooyoung asked, poking her on the arm.

“Her lipstick,” Taeyeon said. “Do you think there’s somewhere in the magazine that says what lipstick she is wearing in that photo?”

“Maybe, especially if she did a photo shoot. That magazine pays attention to fashion and stuff. I was just about to start reading it when you got here.”

Taeyeon turned to her, expression serious. “I need you to find out what lipstick she’s wearing, and if it’s the lipstick she usually wears day-to-day. If it’s Dior Addict Extreme shade 756 Fireworks and it’s the lipstick she always uses or if she’s started wearing it often recently, call me. I’m going to go get Tiffany and see what Hyoyeon has to say. And please do what you can to get hold of Yuri.”

She left her apartment in a rush, nearly tripping over her own feet on the way out the door. She checked her watch; half an hour until the meeting with Hyoyeon. She got out her phone as she left the building and dialled the number to Tiffany’s hotel room.

“Hello?”

“Oh sorry, were you taking a nap? You sound a bit groggy.”

“Yeah, I dozed off for a bit, but don’t worry about it. What’s up, Taeyeon?”

Taeyeon was momentarily irrationally pleased at hearing Tiffany say her name while sounding sleepy and then she shook her head as she unlocked her car.

“Can you be ready in about ten minutes for me to pick you up? Hyoyeon would like to meet with us.”

“Oh? Okay, yeah, I’ll be ready. See you soon.”

Reason number one why Taeyeon could never ask Tiffany on a date: she may not be interested in women – and reason number one point five, she may not be interested in Taeyeon.

The rest of the drive to Tiffany’s hotel was spent mentally compiling the list of reasons why Taeyeon could never ask Tiffany out on a date. She was a client, she was out of Taeyeon’s league, Taeyeon had a tendency to be socially oblivious, Taeyeon may actually die of a heart attack no matter the response to her offer, and the result of the investigation could change everything. And even if they somehow magically ended up dating, it could end up as a disappointment, stressful, heart-breaking, or – actually she didn’t even know, it just didn’t seem possible to happen.

She made a mental note to write those reasons down and tape them to the wall by her bed, and she parked outside Tiffany’s hotel.

When Tiffany walked out, the list just disappeared.

She wasn’t wearing anything spectacular, it was clear she had been asleep ten minutes ago, and she wasn’t even smiling yet, but she still took Taeyeon’s breath away. Taeyeon closed her eyes and groaned briefly at herself.

Tiffany spotted the car and got in the passenger seat, looking happy.

“So what’s this meeting with Hyoyeon about?” she asked after they greeted each other and Taeyeon merged with the traffic.

“Something big, apparently, but she won’t say what,” Taeyeon replied, keeping her eyes on the road as she hesitated before continuing, “And she asked for you by name.”

“Oh? That’s odd,” Tiffany commented.

Completely casual tone of voice, no nervousness, no hesitation, body language relaxed – Taeyeon was inclined to believe her.

“You can’t think of a reason why she would know you?” Taeyeon questioned, sounding uncertain. “Or would this be another thing that you can’t tell me the truth about yet?”

Tiffany sighed. “Look, Taeyeon, I like to think we’re getting to know each other quite well, don’t you?”

Taeyeon blinked. “Ah, well, I don’t know, maybe a little?”

“We’re getting along well,” Tiffany decided. “So I hope you understand how badly I feel about what’s going on. Not about getting to know you, I don’t feel bad about that, I mean I feel bad about how secretive I’m being – I don’t want you to feel like I’m playing games. When there’s something I can’t tell you yet, I won’t lie.”

Taeyeon stared at Tiffany for almost too long before redirecting her gaze to the road ahead. She gulped silently and panicked. What was she supposed to say in response to that? She felt herself slowly warming up. She became a little more confident that whatever Tiffany was hiding about the case, she was still a good person, and this was great and bad. Right at that moment, mostly bad.

“And like I said, you’ll probably find out the truth yourself soon.”

“Why can’t you just tell me, then?”

Taeyeon almost bit her tongue when the words slipped out, but she really wanted to know. Tiffany sighed again, sounding like she was struggling to find words.

“I can’t really explain it. Just give me time, okay? I really am grateful for everything you’re doing for me,” she said softly, and rested her hand on Taeyeon’s arm.

The car nearly swerved with the shock that went through Taeyeon’s body.

“I hope we can be good friends.”

A high pitched noise briefly keened from Taeyeon’s throat. Then she coughed and turned the steering wheel as smoothly as she could, causing Tiffany’s hand to leave her arm.

“That would be great. Okay, here we are.”

She slowed the car to a stop outside the café that Hyoyeon had directed her to, and they both frowned at it through the window.

“It seems to be closed,” Tiffany observed. “Are you sure this is the right place?”

Taeyeon already had her phone out, tapping into her e-mails. “I think so. Maybe she forgot it would be closed by now?”

Before she could get to the right e-mail, her phone alerted her to a call and she almost dropped it in surprise.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me. I have really important info for you.”

“That’s great, but are you okay? We haven’t heard from you in a while, we were getting worried.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I decided to look into your request before I got back to you or Sooyoung and let me tell you, it has been a wild ride. But listen, this information is huge. Where are you now?”

Taeyeon glanced at Tiffany, who was politely looking around outside. “I was about to meet with Hyoyeon about something. What’s up?”

“Tiffany hired you to find her mother, right?”

“Yes…”

“Well, it was hard to get the documents – her family must be quite powerful – but here’s the thing; Tiffany’s mother died several years ago.”

Taeyeon froze. “Excuse me? What?”

“Tiffany’s biological mother died when she was still a kid, and her father has never remarried. There’s no one else who could be considered her mother, and her real mother is dead. I don’t know who she wants you to look for over there but it can’t be her mother.”

“And you’re absolutely certain of this information?” Taeyeon asked carefully, watching the quiet Tiffany out of the corner of her eye and trying not to hold her breath.

“One hundred percent.”

Taeyeon exhaled slowly. “This…. is problematic. Thanks Yuri, I gotta go. And please come home.”

She hung up before Yuri could answer and put her phone away, no longer caring about Hyoyeon’s e-mail. She placed her hands on the steering wheel and gritted her teeth for a moment, staring straight ahead.

She hated confrontation.

Tiffany knew something was up, but she also knew Taeyeon would either tell her eventually or avoid answering her if she asked about it, so she sat in silence and stared at the sign on the café door.

The car was quiet as they both sat, and Taeyeon tried to think of a way to formulate the sentences she needed to speak. How does one ask someone what the hell they think they are doing?

And then Tiffany spoke.

“Hey, is your fridge on?”

Taeyeon blinked, and blinked again, and turned her head to look at her. “Um, yes. Yes, I think it is.”

“Well then you better go catch it!”

Taeyeon stared. Tiffany stared back, before babbling profusely, “Ah, I meant to say is your fridge running, I said it wrong, I’m so sorry, I just wanted to ease the tension, you seemed so stressed, but I got all nervous because I -”

And then the café exploded.

Yes. (6; Tightening the Knot)

The day dawned normally, going from black to a beautiful blend of dark blue and deep grey. This was the sky that rested above Taeyeon and Tiffany as they sat in Taeyeon’s car, tucked away in an alley across the street from the Pink Flamingo hotel. The city buildings were quiet, unmoving, and tall around them. The first sign of life was the staff bustling in and out of the hotel, followed by a tired-looking businessman paying off his taxi driver before dragging himself inside.

Tiffany uncapped the thermos and poured some coffee into the cup, which she held out to Taeyeon.

“Thanks,” Taeyeon said, fighting a blush. She was getting better at controlling them. She took a sip and picked something conversational to say. “You don’t seem to mind being up this early.”

“Normally I would hate it,” Tiffany replied, pouring herself some coffee in another cup. “But this is important, and while I may not be willing to get up this early for most stuff, I’m always willing when it’s important.”

Taeyeon nodded, and trained her eyes on the hotel again.

“How about you?” Tiffany continued, glancing at her. “Do you do a lot of stakeouts at dawn?”

“Ha, no. I’ve done it a few times, but only when absolutely necessary. Sometimes if there needs to be a stakeout arranged when I can’t get the information otherwise, I ask Sooyoung and Yuri to do it for me. Well, usually just one of them, otherwise they distract each other. Actually Sooyoung is best at it.”

“Isn’t kind of weird though, sitting in a car, staring at something for hours?”

“Well, yeah. But it counts as work. I’m working. As a licensed private investigator, I’m just doing my job; as a random civilian tourist, you’re kind of weird sitting in car staring at something for hours.”

Tiffany laughed. “I see how it is. But it’s not exactly the most exciting part of investigating, is it.”

Taeyeon grimaced. “No, I don’t like it very much.”

Tiffany smiled. “You really don’t like doing things outside for your job, huh?”

This time, Taeyeon blushed self-consciously. She kept her gaze firmly on the hotel; a maid came out to collect something from the back of a car parked on the side of the road before going back inside.

“How do you even manage to do all that investigating just on the internet?”

Taeyeon shrugged, unable to get rid of her blush. “It’s not just the internet. Well, I also use the internet for communication with real-life humans. I use them for information; sometimes they do things for me… It’s kind of hard to explain. I get the case, and I start thinking, and I examine all the information I have and I go searching for more, and I form theories and test them and so on. It’s easier to do from home than most people realise. Usually. This case is… special.”

Tiffany shuffled around and made room at her feet to put the thermos back in the bag. Taeyeon was checking the time on her watch when Tiffany stopped and said, “Oh my god, this is adorable!”

Taeyeon’s eyes widened and she panicked, because Tiffany sat up and in her hand was a slightly blurry polaroid of –

“Oh,” Taeyeon said, reluctant, panicky, and feeling faint.

Taeyeon, aged 17.

“Is this you in high school?” Tiffany asked, grinning widely. “You’re so cute!”

“Ah, really,” Taeyeon half-laughed nervously, “what on earth is that doing here,” and she hid her face behind the camera and muttered darkly, “Sooyoung.”

Tiffany was giggling, possibly because of Taeyeon’s reaction and possibly just because of the photo, and Taeyeon felt herself erupt into a mega-blush and tried to be absorbed into the camera that she was pressing into her face as much as she could while wearing her glasses. She hammered her finger onto the button a few times and took out-of-focus shots of a lamp-post, the edge of the hotel’s roof, an abandoned disposable coffee cup, and a wispy-looking tree.

“What are you doing in this photo?” Tiffany asked, sounding amazed as she stared at it, still beaming.

It was a reasonable question to ask because in the photo, Taeyeon was frying an egg on her forehead. Or at least that’s how it seemed.

“Oh, I don’t really know,” Taeyeon said off-handedly, holding her camera on her lap and fidgeting intently with it. “I think I had just finished exams and my brain was overheated.”

Tiffany laughed again, so hard it drifted into soundlessness and she dropped the photo and clapped her hands together a few times, startling Taeyeon. “That’s great! Overheated… You’re so funny, Taeyeon.”

Taeyeon nervously arranged her face into a smile, eyeing Tiffany to see if the laughter was with her or at her. It seemed to be appreciative laughter, enjoying the joke of a brain so heated from study that it could fry an egg. A success, then, Taeyeon decided, and relaxed a tiny bit. She averted her gaze again, conscious of the fact that Tiffany was absolutely radiant when she laughed, and eventually the car settled into a warm silence.

A man in black clothes came sprinting around a corner, heading towards the hotel. Taeyeon quickly took off her glasses, picked up her camera, held it up to her eye and aimed it at him, tracking his progress. She caught a few snaps of him as he jogged towards the service entrance. When she lowered her camera again, she frowned. He was probably just a staff member who was late for work.

Tiffany was still silent and Taeyeon suddenly realised it was important. Tiffany was thinking about something, hesitant to say it, and Taeyeon was becoming terribly conscious of the tension.

She fiddled with the buttons on her camera, sharing her gaze between it and the sleepy hotel across the street.

“I know you’re suspicious of me,” Tiffany said suddenly, turning to face her with a stern expression. “And I can understand that. I suppose this case is turning messier than you thought it would be, isn’t it?”

Taeyeon blinked. “Yes.”

Tiffany sighed, looking away. “I’m sorry.”

There was silence again for a moment before Taeyeon fumbled to change her grip on her camera so that she could reach out and tap Tiffany on the shoulder a few times, awkward but intended to be comforting.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to be sorry,” she stuttered, “unless, well, unless you should be sorry because you’re a villain of some sort.”

Tiffany’s eyes met hers and she smiled again. “Thanks. And no, I’m not a villain. But I should be sorry, for getting you involved in this mess. It’s true, I made this case seem a lot simpler than it really is, but only because I thought if it could stay simple from your perspective then it would be easier for you to find -”

The interruption came in the form of the squealing brakes of a big black van with tinted windows, wiggling its way down the street with very little smoothness and altogether too much swaying. It ground to a halt right in front of the hotel, and its doors sprung open.

Taeyeon raised her camera again, the sound of the flickering shutter accentuating what they saw. Three burly men stepped out, one with a nasty black eye, and took a good look around them. Taeyeon could tell two of them had small concealed firearms and the third had a large knife tucked into his left boot. She took photos of them all, making sure to get their faces and the locations of their weapons, and hoping desperately that they wouldn’t see her and Tiffany, because they were scary-looking.

The men grabbed a bag each from inside the van and made way for another man to get out; tall, thin, impeccably dressed –

“Daniel Lee,” Taeyeon said, snapping a few photos of his face before moving the camera to watch him.

One of the men said something to Lee and got slapped upside the head in response. Lee rolled his eyes as he turned away, the man scurried around to open a door on the other side, and Lee slipped on some sunglasses for no apparent practical reason as the sun was not high enough to be a problem.

Taeyeon started taking photos again, only vaguely registering the sound of Tiffany pouring some more coffee beside her.

As the group gathered all their bags and moved away from the van, a valet jogged out to meet them and had the keys thrown at him. And as the van left, Taeyeon froze with her finger on the button.

“Well,” she said, camera still pressed to her eye. “This is unexpected.”

“What is it?” Tiffany asked, leaning forward and squinting at their area of interest.

“See that woman?”

The group made their way inside the hotel, one man in front and the other two following casually behind Lee and a woman with long blond hair.

“Hyoyeon,” Taeyeon stated. “A journalist, of sorts.”

The group disappeared and everything was silent again. The sky was turning pink.

Taeyeon lowered the camera and put her glasses back on, and then she sighed as she stared at the hotel.

“Is something wrong?” Tiffany asked eventually.

“I don’t know. Hyoyeon is… well, she’s known for getting all kinds of controversial ‘inside’ stories from big criminals and a few celebrities and politicians. That sort of thing. It’s the stories about the criminals that have always been the most impactful, though, because she literally finds out every single thing about some of the biggest crimes of our generation; stuff the cops didn’t even know.”

“Oh,” Tiffany said, looking at the front of the hotel. “What’s she doing here?”

“Probably not anything good. I did hear rumours that she was working on another book… something big. And she always has the exclusives on this stuff, so if she’s here then no one else knows what’s about to happen.”

“How did you know Daniel Lee would be arriving at the hotel so early?”

Taeyeon shrugged. “He likes to avoid crowds. Partly because he’s a snob and partly because he has a short temper and would probably kill anyone who made eye contact with him.”

Tiffany paused. “Oh.”

“I was hoping that if there was a woman with him, it might be your mother,” Taeyeon said, picking up her coffee.

Neither of them said anything for a while as Taeyeon sipped her coffee, and it was a pointed silence.

She could feel Tiffany’s gaze on the side of her face, but she kept her own eyes on the sight before her, checking out the hotel and the street as the city woke.

“Are you testing a theory?” Tiffany asked quietly.

Taeyeon nodded.

“Look, it’s a complicated situation, and I wasn’t sure how much I should tell you from the start because all you really need to do is find her and the other information would just make it complicated – well, it is complicated after all – but –”

Taeyeon cut into her rambling, looking at her. “Just tell me; are you really her daughter?”

Tiffany froze, mouth agape, and eventually blinked. She stammered for a moment. “Wh- Taeyeon, you – that’s not the-”

“It’s a simple enough question, I would have thought,” Taeyeon remarked, ignoring the way her heart was racing. “I just want to know if you’re really your mother’s daughter.”

Tiffany hesitated. “Well, yes, I’m my mother’s daughter… I just…”

“Then it’s fine, we don’t have a problem,” Taeyeon said curtly, and she put her coffee in the cup holder and picked up her camera again. “Hey, can you do me a favour, grab the little notebook from the bag and make a note of what we just saw. Something simple. Underline Hyoyeon’s name a few times.”

She knew she was still being foolish, and she cursed herself for it as she half-heartedly took pictures of a window cleaner and listened as Tiffany got out the notebook and started writing. Taeyeon was still too eager to disregard her suspicion of Tiffany, too interested in sweeping it under the carpet so that it was no longer an issue that loomed over their every interaction. She wanted to be able to hear Tiffany laugh more and get unbelievably anxious wondering if Tiffany liked her too. She didn’t want to have to confront her about her suspicions, or accuse her of lying, and she didn’t want to find the truth if it was something bad.

Something slammed against the window on Taeyeon’s side and she let out a high pitched squeal. She whipped her head around and saw a familiar face grinning at her from the other side, hand still spread on the glass where it hit moments before.

“Hello, detective,” said Hyoyeon. She rapped on the window with her knuckles. “Mind rolling down the window on this piece of junk?”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes and lowered the window. “Don’t be rude to my car. How did you know we were here?”

Hyoyeon raised her eyebrows. “We?” She peeked around Taeyeon and smiled when she saw Tiffany. “Well, hello there. I’m Hyoyeon, award-winning journalist by day, caped crusader by night.”

Tiffany blinked and returned the smile uncertainly. “Hello.”

“How did you know we were here,” Taeyeon repeated dully, staring at Hyoyeon.

“Relax, Daniel Lee won’t know you’re here,” said Hyoyeon, resting herself against the car comfortably. “I only knew because I recognised your car as I walked out of the hotel. It had to be you, because who else would be sitting in an alley in the early hours of the morning, staking out a hotel that now holds Daniel Lee. Speaking of Lee, what exactly are you investigating, investigator?”

“I don’t discuss my cases with journalists,” Taeyeon replied crisply, ignoring the increasing sweatiness of her palms. So much confrontation in one day already. “Well, we’ve got to get going, nice to see you, bye.”

She buzzed up the window and started the car, barely giving Hyoyeon a chance to step back before gunning the engine and shooting forwards. As she paused by the mouth of the alley to check traffic, she heard Hyoyeon yell out, “Hey detective, give me a call if you find out anything big, okay?!”

The car moved into the street and Taeyeon drove them along, away from the hotel, and then she relaxed.

The hush as they waited at a red light was broken by Tiffany’s soft voice.

“Shouldn’t you have asked her about what she was doing, or something?”

Taeyeon sighed. “Yeah. I’ll send her an e-mail later.”

“And… well, do you think she would tell Daniel Lee she saw us?”

Taeyeon shrugged. The light changed and she drove. “I don’t think so. Hyoyeon knows it would put me in a lot of danger if she did that; she’s not that cruel. At least she wasn’t last time I checked. Telling Lee that I was spying on him would be like signing my death warrant. If I’m getting too close to whatever they’re up to, she’ll tell me to back off before I get hurt.”

They stopped at another light.

“Are you two friends?” Tiffany asked, curious.

Taeyeon shook her head immediately. “No, not at all. We encounter each other every now and then, and we’ve stayed on each other’s good side, so it’s more like we’re not enemies. But not friends.”

“I see,” said Tiffany, and she definitely sounded amused. “I get the impression you’re like that with most people.”

Taeyeon tilted her head, sparing Tiffany a glance while driving. “Oh?”

Tiffany smiled, more to herself, as she looked out the window. “Yeah. You seem like someone who would rather have a few really close friends than a lot of mediocre ones.”

“Hmm.” Taeyeon considered. “I guess that’s one way of looking at it.”

They reached Tiffany’s hotel and Taeyeon parked on the side of the road. When she turned off the engine, they sat quietly for a moment.

“So what happens now?” asked Tiffany, shifting in her seat to face Taeyeon, who fought that familiar blush again at the eye contact.

“Now you go do tourist-y things,” she said after a moment. “I’ll have to figure out another way to see what Lee gets up to at his hotel. And I need to check out a couple of other things I’m checking out,” she finished lamely, struggling briefly with herself to be reminded that Tiffany was still under some suspicion.

Tiffany watched her for a long time, and then she let out a sigh. She reached for Taeyeon’s hand and held it, which caused Taeyeon to internally melt and recover about a million times before her head stopped spinning – but her heart was doing backflips.

Tiffany’s hand was wonderfully warm and cosy, soft and gentle. Taeyeon felt like she was about to start floating.

“I am keeping a few secrets,” Tiffany admitted. “There is something I haven’t told you about this case, and it is pretty big. But… it’s just better if you don’t know it, at least not yet, because the case may look complicated now but it’ll just get worse if you know this. That’s why I didn’t want to tell you in the first place. I figured if I kept it simple then it would be simple for you to do it. Right now it’s not looking like it was the best idea in the world, I acknowledge that, but I need you to trust me for a bit.”

She was stroking Taeyeon’s hand with her thumb – making Taeyeon’s brain start to burn; she could probably fry an egg on her forehead for real now. It was so comfortable, and comforting, and it was only a little bit of contact but it was enough to lull her into a haze of Tiffany.

So she nodded slowly, gazing at their hands.

“It’s just for a bit, okay?” Tiffany continued, leaning closer. “Heck, you might even find out soon anyway. You really are a good investigator; I’m seeing it all first-hand now.”

Of course, she was an investigator, Taeyeon remembered. And she was investigating something really weird. And she decided she would trust Tiffany to explain it all to her when the time was right, if she didn’t find it out for herself before then. Which meant – well, it actually meant that nothing had really changed in their situation. Tiffany was still sort of under suspicion, Taeyeon still didn’t know what was going on, and the investigation continued.

Except, Tiffany was holding her hand. That was new. And very nice.

“Okay,” said Taeyeon, looking up with a dazed expression that she was slowly starting to get self-conscious about.

What if Tiffany thought her reaction was weird?

Embarrassment latched its claws into her and dragged her back. She smoothly removed her hand from Tiffany’s and cleared her throat.

“Okay,” she repeated, putting her hands firmly on the steering wheel and avoiding all eye contact with Tiffany. “I’ll trust you on this. See you when I see you.”

She could see out of the corner of her eye that Tiffany was wearing that amused little smile again, and she deliberately shifted her scrutiny to her side mirror at the oncoming traffic.

“See you later, Taeyeon,” said Tiffany, her voice pleased, and then she got out and closed the door behind her.

Taeyeon waited a few seconds, and then leaned over to look out of the passenger window, watching Tiffany make it safely into her hotel.

Then she turned and banged her head against the steering wheel twice.

“Must you turn into an awkward little turtle so often,” she groaned at herself.

Half of her wanted to slap herself for being so weird, and the other half wanted to slap herself for so easily being dazed by even Tiffany’s slightest touch. If Tiffany was trouble, then Taeyeon was falling right into whatever web she was spinning.

But she knew it was far too late. She had known it for quite while already; Tiffany was truly irresistible. And she didn’t even really want to resist Tiffany. Specifically, she didn’t want to have to resist her. But then even if there wasn’t that overhanging suspicion and confusion, she would just get all weird and nervous every time they interacted anyway.

“Ugh,” she grimaced, “who was the idiot who decided to allow me into adulthood.”

And wasn’t it so charming of Tiffany to make a thermos of coffee for their stakeout? Taeyeon hadn’t even thought of that, but there it was. So thoughtful, and kind.

But wasn’t it also highly suspicious that she was definitely hiding something and (successfully) convincing Taeyeon to just go along with the deception? There wasn’t really any reason for Taeyeon to allow herself to ignore her suspicions anymore. It was confirmed, and in the open.

“Bleh.”

She shook her head rapidly, started the car, and carefully blended into the growing morning traffic.

When she got back to her apartment, having carefully kept her mind empty of Tiffany, she found Sooyoung sprawled on the couch with a bowl of cereal, watching television.

“Good morning,” Taeyeon said, crossing her arms and staring at her uninvited guest. “How nice of you to join me without being requested to at all.”

Sooyoung waved. “You’re welcome.”

Taeyeon sighed and threw herself down onto the couch, shunting aside Sooyoung’s limbs, and prepared to let the television numb her head.

“So how was your date?”

Or not.

She flicked her head to face Sooyoung, her face blank. “What date. It wasn’t a date. It was a stake out.”

“Right,” Sooyoung said, and winked. “A stakeout with a client at dawn. As if that’s a regular occurrence. Anything interesting happen?”

Taeyeon narrowed her eyes. The question wasn’t totally about her crush on Tiffany, so she figured Sooyoung wasn’t intending to be completely annoying today.

“We saw Daniel Lee arrive in his usual style, but with a surprise guest star. Hyoyeon was with him.”

Sooyoung sat up and looked suitably surprised. “What on earth was she doing there… do you think she knows something about what he’s up to?”

Taeyeon shrugged. “Probably. I’m going to send her an e-mail later. She rumbled our stakeout so I’ll have to set up another monitor on Lee.”

“The plot thickens,” Sooyoung remarked, relaxing again and eating her cereal. “This is quite a case after all, isn’t it, and not just because you have a crush on your client.”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes; maybe Sooyoung was planning to be annoying after all.

“Have you heard anything from Yuri?”

Sooyoung shook her head. “Nothing. I don’t even know if she got my message; I had to leave a voicemail. I sent her an e-mail too, just in case.”

Taeyeon groaned, squeezing her eyes shut and throwing her head back in frustration.

She still had no idea what the lipstick was about. She didn’t know who was trying to scare her and Tiffany and Sunny. She didn’t know what Lee was up to. She didn’t understand what Tiffany was hiding and why, and how much more complex this mess could get. She really needed some answers.

She frowned, eyes still closed, as she ran over everything in her head more than once.

“Sooyoung,” she started, “have I ever been shot in the leg while in a restaurant?”

“… Pardon?”

Taeyeon opened her eyes and met Sooyoung’s inquisitive gaze.

“Have I ever been shot in the leg while in a restaurant? Ever since that darn lipstick became such a big part of my conscious thinking, I’ve had this dream and this feeling of being shot in the leg while in a restaurant, and there’s a woman who’s wearing the lipstick that was used to write the messages. So, have I -”

“That’s pretty weird, Taeyeon,” Sooyoung observed, watching her friend closely. “And no, you’ve never been shot in the leg while in a restaurant. Unless it happened before I knew you, which I doubt.”

Taeyeon sighed. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

She leaned her head back again, let her eyes close, and they settled into relaxation again.

Then she raised her head again and said, “Oh and by the way, why was there a certain polaroid lying on the floor of my car?!”

Sooyoung immediately looked innocent. “What? I have no idea what you mean.”

“It was so embarrassing,” Taeyeon said, glaring. “I’m supposed to be a competent private investigator, but now she has seen me with an egg on my face. Literally.”

Sooyoung grinned. “I know. Isn’t it brilliant?”

“No!”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“I think you mean yes.”

“No!”

“I’m pretty sure you mean yes.”

“No, I don’t.”

“It’s okay. You do mean yes, though.”

“Sooyoung…”

“Want some cereal?”

“… Yes.”

Yes. (5; the Blinding Sunshine)

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.”

“O-Oh…”

“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.”

“Thanks.”

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.

“Hello?”

“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.

Yes. (4; Breakfast at Tiffany’s)

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.

“The lipstick.”

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.

“No -?”

“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.

“Yuri?”

“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.

“Hello?”

“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.”

“Who’s everyone?”

“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.

“Good morning!”

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?”

Taeyeon frowned.

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.

“Um, Taeyeon?”

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.

Yes. (3; Lipstick)

3; Lipstick

 

“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.”

“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?”

“Yes, please.”

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?”

“Not yet.”

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.”

“Where?”

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.

Tiffany.

There was a person she couldn’t find – who might not even be in the place where she was looking.

Tiffany’s mother.

And there was a component that paced along the edge of her mind and that she needed to place somehow.

Lipstick.

Yes. (2; Drop Dead, Gorgeous)

2; Drop Dead, Gorgeous

 

“Step aside, short stuff,” said Sooyoung, craning her head over the crowd in front of them, “I’ll find her.”

“You don’t know what she looks like either,” replied Taeyeon, frowning. “Just hold up the sign, okay?”

They had to stop by a stationery store in the airport on their way to Tiffany’s terminal so that they could buy a sheet of cardboard and a permanent marker, with which Taeyeon craftily made a sign that said ‘Tiffany Hwang’ upon it. Sooyoung now held it in her hands, just above the heads of the people swarming around the place where passengers from Tiffany’s flight would exit. Taeyeon hopped nervously on the balls of her feet, eyes glued to the glass doors a short distance from them, her view getting blocked intermittently by the taller people.

Sooyoung noticed her friend’s antsy behaviour out of the corner of her eye, and she hid a smile as she raised the sign even higher.

The doors slid open electronically and passengers leaked out, just a few at first and then the main body of the group. Taeyeon jumped in the air a little, then realised she was being ridiculous and tried to relax. Sooyoung kept her gaze on the passengers, expecting every second or third young woman trailing a suitcase to be Tiffany.

“She must have been stuck at luggage collection for a long time,” remarked Sooyoung. “She called us the second she stepped off the plane and said she would be getting her bags while she waited. People from that flight are only just now getting through.”

Taeyeon shrugged. “It’s nothing new. All four of the times I’ve been on a plane, I’ve had to wait almost forty minutes for my luggage to get through.”

“Must be hard for you unlucky people. It only ever takes me ten minutes.”

Taeyeon shot her a distracted glare. “Whatever. Make sure the sign is visible.”

“When I told you to make sure your handwriting was legible, you nearly bit my head off,” Sooyoung murmured without malice. “Oh, that one’s got a glint in her eye at the sight of your shaky scribble. I think it’s her.”

Taeyeon’s heart fluttered. She saw Sooyoung beckoning to someone, and then she was steered by the elbow to a point slightly away from the crowd. The disappearance of pressing bodies sent some relief to her lungs, and she breathed more freely until the moment she turned in the direction Sooyoung was looking and got her first sight of Tiffany Hwang.

Taeyeon struggled with words at the best of times, but the moment she laid eyes on Tiffany her entire vocabulary of some forty thousand words flew out of her head at the speed of a neutrino particle, and she barely even remembered where she was or what it felt like to be in a human body. She wasn’t sure if Tiffany was actually coming closer step by step or if her brain was just melting and her eyes were popping out of her head. But then Tiffany came to a halt in front of them with a friendly smile on her gorgeous/beautiful/stunning/dazzling face (and Taeyeon’s vocabulary started slowly trickling back), her curious gaze shifting from Sooyoung to Taeyeon and back.

“I’m Sooyoung,” said Sooyoung, holding out a hand for Tiffany to shake. “I’m Taeyeon’s assistant. She’ll be with you in just a moment. Her systems are rebooting.”

Tiffany’s smile widened at this statement, amusement playing on her features as she glanced at the unmoving Taeyeon. She shook Sooyoung’s hand and said, “Nice to meet you. Both of you. Does this kind of thing happen often?”

“Oh, yes,” Sooyoung said nonchalantly. “But she’s not quite as slow as some of the older-model androids. And she has a built-in game of Pacman.”

Taeyeon’s hand lashed out and whipped Sooyoung on the shoulder. “Hey, don’t go around telling people I’m an android. A lot of people actually believed you last time.”

Sooyoung just grinned. Taeyeon looked at Tiffany again, fighting the barrage of words that scrolled across her brain as their eyes met (amazing, gorgeous, friendly, humorous, beautiful, gorgeous, gorgeous, real, present, nearby, real oh my god real) and offered a smile that shook slightly.

“Hello,” she said, and cleared her throat. “I mean, hello.”

She resisted the urge to raise her arm, remembering Sooyoung’s comment about her robot wave. Tiffany’s smile stayed on her lips and her eyes softened as they watched each other for a while.

“Nice to meet you, Taeyeon,” she said. “Thanks for coming to pick me up. And thanks for taking on my case. I’m grateful that an investigator of your calibre was willing to help me out.”

Taeyeon blushed, even though she had always been confident and open about her superior detective skills and never minded when others complimented her before. But then, she rarely stood face-to-face with people who were saying such nice things to her, and those people never gave her such a tingly, fizzy feeling just by acknowledging her.

“Oh my would you look at the time,” Sooyoung said blankly. “I forgot I’m meeting someone for dinner. Hey, that’s a great idea, you two should go have dinner, so Tiffany can relax and re-energize with some hearty Korean food. You guys go ahead. Bye!”

And she turned on her heel and strode away without a second glance. Tiffany blinked at her receding figure until she was out of sight, and then saw her own confusion mirrored on Taeyeon’s face when they looked at each other. Taeyeon pursed her lips, awkward, and rocked back on her heels for a moment.

“So, um, do you want to go have dinner?” she asked quietly. “I mean, we don’t have to, because you’re probably tired and you just got off a long flight and you probably ate on the plane so it’s not like you’d be hungry or anything…”

One half of her slapped the other half of her and she shut up. It was difficult to be in the middle of a process of changing her habits of social interaction, as if she was a street that used to be only one-way and recently split into two opposing lanes so now head-on crashes were happening all the time. She wondered if there was a remedy for this kind of occurrence and was already mentally conducting an information search through traffic news history before she realised she was actually still in the middle of a conversation with Tiffany. Her eyes widened as her brain returned to the situation and she panicked briefly, quickly analysing Tiffany’s facial expression to see if her spacing-out affected the flow of socialization.

Tiffany still had the amused smile on her face, her eyes seemed to be gazing at something far away even though she was looking at Taeyeon, and her eyebrows seemed relaxed, her cheeks and jaw soft, the corners of her lips not tense, and she was so utterly lovely that Taeyeon’s analysis was cut short by a lengthy line of gibberish. She lost track of the conversation again, and was brought back by the sound of Tiffany’s voice.

“You know, I wasn’t expecting you to be so… fascinating, now that we’ve met in person,” she said. “I can’t quite put my finger on it. You seemed like an interesting person from our online correspondence, but now that I actually have you here in front of me… I don’t know. I’m glad I came to Seoul.”

Taeyeon’s face slowly blossomed into a blush, and she wondered why she was suddenly so vulnerable to these uncontrollable visual expressions. Half of her shut down the other half and she cleared her throat, straightened her spine, and felt the blush recede.

“I’m glad you came, too,” she said, with only a hint of stiffness in her tone. “So… dinner?”

Tiffany seemed to ponder for a moment, lightly biting her bottom lip and looking at her watch. It wasn’t early, but it wasn’t late. She could last a while longer before she had to deal with jetlag. She gave Taeyeon a glittering smile, and said, “Sure. But no Korean food just yet, please… I’m the mood for a burger.”

It wasn’t until they reached the car that Taeyeon wondered how Sooyoung would be leaving the airport without her, but she knew Sooyoung would figure something out, so she just wrestled Tiffany’s suitcase into the boot of her car. Normally she would have let Tiffany struggle with it herself, or if she was in a hurry she would have helped in order to save time. But now here she was, not in a hurry, not with one of her long-time friends, and just the mere thought of Tiffany having to grapple with her suitcase was enough to make her jump into the situation instead. It was unusual. But Taeyeon had considered all possibilities of what it would be like when Tiffany arrived, so her behaviour wasn’t entirely surprising, merely intriguing. This was like an experiment, research into advanced social connotations. Then she held the door open for Tiffany to get into the front passenger seat, and she stopped her line of thought. She shouldn’t think of this as an experiment, at least not all the time. She just had to live the experience.

They were quiet as she drove them out of the airport, but when they stopped at the first set of traffic lights, Tiffany spoke up.

“So, how did I manage to lure the great reclusive detective all the way out here just to meet me?”

Taeyeon froze, her eyes glued to the red light ahead. The tone of Tiffany’s voice was partly playful, partly hesitant, and partly genuinely curious. She wanted to know, but she didn’t want to make Taeyeon uncomfortable. Taeyeon relaxed. She appreciated that.

And then she tensed again, because how would she answer the question?

“I heard you only interacted with clients through online messages,” Tiffany continued, fiddling with the dials on the car’s air conditioning system. “And that you don’t even do phone calls. So… well, I’m not even sure what I was doing when I told you I was thinking of coming to Seoul.”

“You were probably feeling deprived,” Taeyeon answered automatically, eyes on the road as the traffic moved. “Incomplete. You’ve missed your mother for a long time, and the constant thoughts of your mother became associated with thoughts of your heritage in Korea, and the ongoing search for your mother here led to a connection between your emotional emptiness and the chance of finding your mother which would theoretically fill the void, culminating in a combination of human elements relating to family, heritage, and problem-solving or reinstating familiar social structure. You felt like coming here was something you absolutely had to do. Right?”

Tiffany blinked. Her stare was locked onto Taeyeon. Her hand hovered near the air-conditioning. She nodded slowly.

“So you mentioned to me that you were thinking of coming to Seoul, hoping for justification of an inexplicable urge. There is no logical reason for you to be here if we just consider the case, but the sentimental aspects explain a natural desire to be here right now.”

There was silence for a while after Taeyeon stopped speaking. The only movement came when she shifted gears. Then Tiffany let her hand drop onto her lap, and she looked out the window. Taeyeon became worried at the lengthy drop in conversation, and reconsidered her lax attitude in speaking. She thought if she just went with the flow of conversation in order to experience everything, then she would present a more natural and comfortable image, which she had found in the past made a vast difference in social interactions. Now, she thought again about everything she just said, and saw the possibility of overstepping the line.

“Um,” she said unsurely, “I apologise if I’ve offended you.”

“No,” Tiffany replied. She turned back to Taeyeon, looking thoughtful. “I just… I don’t mean to be rude, but I suppose I wasn’t expecting you to be so… emotionally aware. I heard you were quite awkward, socially.”

“Ah.” Taeyeon nodded. “No, you’re quite right to think so. I’m trying something new. In the past, I would have thought all those things in my head and maybe felt sure about the formulation of words in about two hours, by which time of course the moment would have passed. But then we would be sitting here in awkward silence instead of awkward discussion.”

A smile quirked the corner of Tiffany’s mouth. Her eyes remained contemplative. “Something new, huh?”

Taeyeon knew there was another layer of connotations beneath what was visible, but she had to drive the car, not analyse Tiffany. So she returned the smile briefly and half-heartedly, before turning the car into the entrance of a parking lot.

“Hope you don’t mind,” she said as she parked the car. “I made an assumption of where you wanted to eat based on what you said at the airport. Is this place okay?”

Tiffany saw the big yellow and red sign and grinned. “It’s perfect. Exactly what I was craving.”

Taeyeon opened Tiffany’s door for her.

“You don’t have to do that, you know,” Tiffany said as they walked towards the restaurant. “Opening doors for me.”

“I insist,” Taeyeon replied, doing exactly that again. “You’re my guest. I have observed other dynamics for these situations, and this is what I feel is best.”

And it made her heart flutter a little every time Tiffany gave her a small, grateful smile as she stepped through the open door. But Taeyeon knew it would not be productive to mention that at this time.

Tiffany rattled off her order at the counter and Taeyeon requested a soda. They sat down at a table by the window when Tiffany got her food, and Tiffany sighed in relief as she bit into a French fry.

“This is just what I needed,” she said, gesturing to her food. “Thanks, Taeyeon.”

That memorable blush crept along the edge of Taeyeon’s jaw again, and she looked out the window as she nodded in acknowledgement. For a while, she observed the people inside the restaurant as she sucked on the straw of her soda, until her observations were interrupted.

“So, Taeyeon, I need you to be honest with me,” Tiffany said, wiping her fingers with a napkin before making eye contact.

Taeyeon gulped. She let the straw pop out of her mouth and put her soda down on the table between them. “What’s up?”

Tiffany paused for a moment. She crumpled the napkin into a tiny ball.

“How’s the search for my mother really going?” she asked delicately. “Is there any hope?”

Taeyeon was good at lying online, on the phone, and sometimes in person. But she knew enough of the practice to know just by judging the look on Tiffany’s face that she would not be able to pull off another lie. She briefly envisaged the possible outcomes of her actions; she lied and Tiffany caught her out, she lied and Tiffany fell for it, she told the truth and Tiffany hated it, she told the truth and Tiffany accepted it externally but struggled internally. Unfortunately, none of these visions were particularly appealing. She pursed her lips, fiddled with her glasses, inspected a spot on the ceiling for three intense seconds, and then she answered.

“There is hope,” she said slowly. “But… how do I say this… I’m not sure how to explain what I want to say.”

Tiffany sat back in her chair, and patiently watched Taeyeon.

“There are some extra considerations,” Taeyeon began. “I didn’t mention them before. Um, has your mother ever mentioned a man called Daniel Lee?”

Tiffany frowned slightly. “No, I don’t think so. Why? Who is he?”

Taeyeon tapped her fingers on the table. “He’s a criminal, in a word. Your mother knew him in high school. Well, she dated him in high school. He was her first boyfriend, and their relationship was quite intense. Now, this is where the extra considerations enter.  She might have gone back to him when she left your family, which is where these options come from. If she isn’t with him, a plausible lead is exhausted and this will put me back a few steps.”

She hesitated, running through some sentences in her head, and then spoke again.

“If she is with him, she would be hard to find. And… she might not want to go back to you.”

She tried to say it as gently as she could, mindful of tone and timbre and the intensity of the consonants she vocalised. She kept her eyes on Tiffany’s face, looking for reaction to her statement, but Tiffany’s expression was unclear. Taeyeon made a note that Tiffany sometimes hid her feelings while they were being processed.

“I understand,” Tiffany said in an even voice. “It’s… it’s something I thought of. But I haven’t thought of it for a long time.” She took a deep breath. “It’s okay. Thanks for everything you’re doing, Taeyeon. Whatever you find, at least I can get some closure.”

Taeyeon ran some brief calculations in her head and produced a smile, aiming for it to be comforting, but it probably looked a bit odd because Tiffany gave her a weird look before smiling in return.

Hoping to avoid an awkward gap in conversation, Taeyeon picked up her soda again and said, “So, where did you hear that stuff about me?”

“Ah.” Tiffany looked down bashfully, letting her hair fall into her face. “I did a little research about you. Before I sent in a request for you to take my case, I put your name into a search engine to see what came up. There are sites where people discuss private investigators and cases like mine, and I found a few mentions of you from past clients of yours.”

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows. “Really? Hmm. I didn’t realise people were talking about me. What did they say?”

Tiffany looked up again, and smirked a little. Taeyeon blinked. She guessed Tiffany had been shy about telling her because she was unsure how Taeyeon would react and was now confident in continuing because Taeyeon expressed interest without distress. Interesting.

“They all said you were the best investigator they ever hired,” Tiffany said. “Some of them had been struggling with different investigators for years, then you took on the case and it was solved easily. A few other investigators don’t like you very much.”

Taeyeon scoffed. “Nothing new there.”

“And they said you were very reclusive,” Tiffany continued. “None of them have ever heard your voice or seen your face, and you remained strictly professional in your messages.” She smiled. “And now here I am, watching you drink soda with a straw, in a fast food restaurant.”

Taeyeon waited, but Tiffany gave no indication of how she felt to be sitting here watching Taeyeon drink soda. She frowned slightly, staring at Tiffany, and Tiffany stared right back.

“Is that… okay?” Taeyeon ventured finally.

Tiffany laughed briefly. “Yes. It’s okay.”

The straw was a bit mangled when Taeyeon put down her soda again, and she realised exactly how anxious she was about Tiffany’s opinion of spending time with her. And now here they were again, at a familiar impasse in the conversation where she didn’t know what to say, but unlike the time it happened online, Tiffany made no immediate move to spur it on. So they sat in silence, glancing at each other, until Tiffany finally cleared her throat.

“Tell me about Daniel Lee,” she said.

Taeyeon raised an eyebrow. “There’s not much to say. He seems like a bad guy.”

“Where are you on the case?” Tiffany asked, serious. “I mean, what are you investigating right now?”

Taeyeon glanced around. The restaurant was almost empty, the clock on the wall ticking at a later hour than she had realised. The fluorescent lights hummed faintly. The employees who were previously at the counter had disappeared to the back of the restaurant. A young man and woman two tables away from them were trying to hold in their laughter as they pulled funny faces at each other. A lone old man on the other side of the restaurant flipped the page of a newspaper and reached for his ice cream.

“Let’s go,” she said. “I’ll drive you back to the hotel and we can talk in the car. We shouldn’t be talking about this in public.”

Tiffany looked around at the people, trying to see anything suspicious, and then she nodded. “All right.”

Just as they got up to leave, the window beside them shattered. A second later, Taeyeon registered the sound of a gunshot, and in the onslaught of glass fragments she threw up her hands in a defensive posture. Tiffany stumbled in her shock and fell to her knees, covering her head with her arms. Taeyeon forced her eyes open, squinting between her fingers, searching outside for the source of the danger. It was too dark. All she could see were vague shapes of cars in the car park.

As the glass quietened around them, the chilled breeze from outside seeped onto her skin. It stung. She winced as she glanced at the red, bleeding little cuts over her hands and she felt another on her cheek. Dismissing her injuries when she couldn’t see any serious lacerations, she hopped over the table and helped Tiffany get up.

The restaurant was now empty, and Taeyeon tried to remember if the other customers had screamed. She nearly slid on the cleanly polished floor in her haste to move, and realised a dripped line of blood was tracking them.

“Tiffany, are you okay?” she murmured, keeping her gaze locked outside as she stopped them just around the corner from the glass entrance, pressing against the wall.

Tiffany was shaking visibly, arms still covering her head, and Taeyeon tightened her hold around her.

“Are you hurt anywhere?”

“I don’t know,” Tiffany whimpered.

She gathered herself slowly, lowering her arms and taking shaky breaths as she checked her body for injuries. There was a big slit in her shirt, on her shoulder, and a sizeable amount of blood had formed a red cloud, but it didn’t seem to be causing the drip.

Tiffany looked up at Taeyeon, and her eyes went wide. “Taeyeon, your cheek…”

“Hmm?” Taeyeon reached up, and her fingers came away slick with blood. “Oh… I thought the cut was smaller than that. Is it dripping?”

Tiffany nodded. She pulled the edge of her long sleeve over her hand and pressed the heel of her palm against the wound. “We need to put some pressure on it.”

“We need to get out of here,” Taeyeon replied, looking outside again. “I wonder… I could have sworn it was that couple, but I’m sure they screamed.”

“What are you talking about?” Tiffany asked, following her gaze.

“One of the customers was in on it. They must have sent some sign when they heard us talking about Daniel Lee. Otherwise no one would risk shooting at us in a public place. Well, I say ‘us’ but they only shot once. Perhaps they were just sent to kill one of us.”

Tiffany frowned at Taeyeon. “Are you okay? You’re on the verge of rambling.”

Taeyeon closed her eyes, and took a deep calming breath. “Right. Okay, we need to get out of here.”

She glanced outside.

“They only shot once. Even when we were scrambling to get away from the table, they didn’t take another shot. So either they’re waiting, or they left right after shooting.”

“Well we’ve been standing here for quite a while,” said Tiffany. “Maybe they’ve left now even if they were waiting. Surely someone has called the police.”

“Good point. You know what? Let’s just run and see what happens.”

Tiffany barely had time to be surprised before Taeyeon took her hand and pulled her along as she dashed through the entrance and their feet hit the carpark. She gulped in air as they sprinted to Taeyeon’s car, expecting a gun to go off at any moment, snapping her glances between the ground beneath them and all the dark cars around them.

Taeyeon skidded to a halt when they reached her car, staring at the windshield.

In the distance, sirens started up and they could hear cars racing towards them.

On the smooth surface of the windshield on Taeyeon’s car, the smudge of red lipstick glared at them in the shape of big, spiky words.

Drop dead, gorgeous.