Ed Kurtz is the author of The Rib from Which I Remake the World, Bleed, and the Boon trilogy, among other novels. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories and Best Gay Stories Originally hailing from Arkansas, Ed lives in New England.
Monday, October 24, 2022
Ed Kurtz is the author of The Rib from Which I Remake the World, Bleed, and the Boon trilogy, among other novels. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories and Best Gay Stories Originally hailing from Arkansas, Ed lives in New England.
Monday, October 10, 2022
Just like everyone who makes a living by stealth, Sun has abided by a few codes of practice. Her all-black work clothes have been the first and foremost, and her contoured crust of makeup, the second. This second code is something she picked up years into her job, when her generic blank-canvas face proved to make a more reliable montage than an artificially put together one with memorable, sharp angles. And these two codes are exactly for this kind of moment of emergency when the owners of her target house walk in on her, in the middle of an unfinished job.
As footsteps approach, Sun leans into the built-in closet, pulling the door silently closed with only a sliver of light remaining. She makes out a woman’s voice that adds a lilt of nervous giggle to the ineligible conversation led in a man’s baritone. The conversation veers away from the back room she’s hiding in. Before sneaking out of the closet, Sun slips a screwdriver in the pocket of one of the wool coats. Familiar noises ensue from the master bedroom: moans, rustling, and those soft sounds of skin in contact. She tiptoes past the bedroom, across the thankfully tiled floor, and out the front door, which she leaves slightly ajar, not to risk exit noise. The clueless couple will blame it on their forgetfulness, as people do.
Outside, raindrops have grown to the size of rice grains. Even if someone right this second witnesses, and later testifies to her leaving the house, Sun’s fully made-up face, faithful to the current vogue down to the oblong lip smudge, wouldn’t be traced back to her. Not in this capital city of South Korea, where a sixth of its entire population lives. The witness would be describing thousands, or even millions of women in the city who wear the same face, some more deftly contrived, some less so. It’s easy to disappear into the backdrop of a society that so avidly endorses uniformity. Lucky for someone like her.
Sun wonders, walking off, how many of the stories about a swift shadow on the periphery of one’s vision, misplaced keys, and source less noises around the house, with doors and windows mysteriously unlocked, actually involved people like her. Probably plenty. And Sun is hardly the only one, after all, who has been feeding off of one of the world’s oldest desires: to bring your enemies to their knees, at all costs.
Sun took her first job when she was fourteen. On the cusp of an Indian summer. Lunch break. When one of the girls from her class walked up to her, Sun was sitting atop the school’s only monkey bar gym, her legs dangling through its rusty rungs. The girl fidgeted and stalled, in that familiar way kids did with Sun. Eyes averting as if from roadkill. The mouth muscle tugged awkwardly, tense around the words it forms. Sun could sense the girl’s discomfort, maybe even dread, but also a need much stronger than all that—Sun could feel it out the same way a lighter flame sways to a wick nearby. Some girls could play the flute like chopsticks. Some could take a quick scan and name the brand of any article of clothing a celebrity flaunts on screen. A few even mastered the art of BB guns. Sun couldn’t do any of that, but could do this. Like a nine-block floppy cube in hand, pieces of causal relationships clicked effortlessly into place when Sun put her mind to it. But more importantly, she could pretend it was a gift more special than it was. As if her intuition needn’t be backed up by hours and hours of eavesdropping and social climate monitoring. And she stayed deadpan when this girl Yuri came to her with a plan to sabotage her classmate.
Four years before that summer, Sun’s mother had found Sun hiding behind the partition in her meeting room after an appointment with a VIP. Less than an hour after kicking Sun out on the spur of the moment, her mother let her back in. And she said: “Alright, maybe watching me work will do you more good than watching that useless TV all day long.”
Only ten at the time, Sun hardly understood what took place in her mother’s meeting room. The room was dimly lit and smoggy with incense at all times. But Sun took a liking to the crudely drawn peonies on her mother’s partition, much bigger than the cranes with bulging eyes that looked as if they were going to throw up on the flowers anytime. Each meeting went pretty much the same. Most guests entered the room with unease. Her mother sat sternly with her back to the birds and flowers that were completely out of proportion but none of the guests took note of. Meanwhile, Sun would listen for the growing hint of what had brought each guest there in the first place, just to ask questions and put up with her mother’s military voice: angry, sad, confused, sad, sad…. So many came with so much sadness to vent. And so much pent-up emotion that had nothing to do with her first put Sun on edge, then at peace. Through the cracks that loose partition hinges allowed, Sun watched beringed women whine and growl about their children and husbands. Men with hollow cheeks cursed at the scoundrels who had it easy. Young women, who often visited in twos or threes, bombarded her mother with questions about the future of their romance. A few guests wept through the thirty minutes they paid for and left with her mother’s advice to go to the doctor. Sometimes her mother furiously jangled a knob of bells at the guest. Sometimes she threw grains of salt. Sometimes she printed out a boojeok in red ink, slapped it into the hand of the guest, and explained what the paper talisman would do.
Sun doesn't remember exactly how she found out her mother was not a typical shaman, either. It’s probably the questionable normalcy of her life outside the meeting room that tipped Sun off. Or maybe just the fact that had she been a real shaman, her mother would have already found her long-estranged father. Sun’s mother did not travel to secluded places for prayers like other shamans, and the most superstitious thing she’d ever done outside work was to hang in her bedroom a sunflower painting, an amulet for wealth according to feng shui. Or it was perhaps all the explaining. She’d say to Sun, “I’m an unlicensed psychiatrist.” Or, “The room’s a confessional for those with unusual religions.”
When Sun grew older and mustered enough courage to ask if it wasn’t lying, her mother only stared at her with a hint of pity and answered, “Every job requires some form of lying, honey. And I’m the one doing them a favor. That’s called a white lie.”
That must be true, Sun then thought. Guests spilled their beans in her mother’s room voluntarily and quite happily in exchange for her attentive silence, scolding, and empty promises. And they paid for the talking, because they believed, or wanted to believe, her mother. That’s how Sun learned the economy of belief. It was to her advantage that the teachers aware of her family background, believed her to be a sensitive, straight-A student who needed their unbiased protection. But it was also in her favor that the kids believed her to be a witch of some kind to not mess with. The gap between those two beliefs didn’t need filling. It was, in fact, all the better if no one heeded that gap at all.
So, that summer day, Sun took on her first job and did not so much as flinch when Yuri wanted her to plant a fat wallet in Buyong’s bag. Yuri offered her a newfangled Nintendo Switch in return. So Sun didn’t ask herself whether or not she was mostly motivated by the knowledge that Buyong’s mother had married Yuri’s father, and not even a year after his unpleasant divorce from Yuri’s mother at that, which had been the gossip of town for some time. So, right on the spot, Sun chose to explain to herself that although she might have thought to become a prosecutor with a family who could put her through a decade of higher education, she could at least bring justice to this world where she was a father short, just as was Yuri, while Buyong so unfairly was not. The way she saw it, Buyong practically rubbed it in their faces all the time with her unapologetic presence. So Sun decided to set it right for once and all. So she slid the incriminating evidence into her classmate’s backpack without a twinge. So she kept her face straight when the teacher told the entire class to empty every single bag. Sun watched Buyong cry and apologize in front of the class for a crime she hadn’t committed, and saw nothing but justice delivered. Buyong’s shame was well-deserved. And Sun ignored the faint echo of her conscience: “Was it?” So that’s how Sun named what she’d done “white wrong,” which she didn’t know at the time she’d be doing for a living, and that’s how she could sleep at night, and still can, sixteen years later, not a problem.
A few bus stops from the target house, Sun flicks out her disposable flip phone. Rainwater sloshes in the folds of the convenience store’s awning as she types in the only number she’s memorized ever since her mother died.
“Another job well done,” answers the man Sun’s come to call Don. While Don is short for his full name, Youngdon, Sun’s always associated the name with the Korean word money, and Don himself has insisted on thinking of it as the Spanish title. As a sketchy private detective and loan shark, he is mighty worthy of the name.
“When are you coming for the paycheck?” asks Don, casually disregarding the civility of small talk that has never been part of their conversation. Words roll off Sun’s tongue: “I’ll bring that green bean bread you like.” She quickly hangs up, and as quickly leaves the shelter of the awning. Several high school girls exit the door to the convenience store just as Sun stalks off into the thinning rain. Their pastel umbrellas plop open like gunshots.
Don lives in a nondescript officetel he converted into an office, with a loft area the size of a refrigerator. Those with money rarely sought out means of revenge from a criminal underdog like Don, but instead went to a soundproof office disguised as a legitimate business and nestled in one of the glass-armored high-rises. Those who do come to Don for help were at times unable to cover all the expenses, which happens more often than either of them would like. But Don always finds a way to get them covered. Sun’s simply assumed that details of his knowhow might be better left unsaid, for her sake as much as his. Information can be of value, that much she knows. After all, Sun’s met quite a few clients who were desperate to retrieve their personal and professional information being traded on the black market. But information, for someone like Sun, could be a double-edged sword. So she’s never questioned Don when told to steal seemingly unimportant trinkets and documents during her job.
Sun takes the stairs as always, a bag of fluffy egg breads swaying from her hand. Just as she rounds the corner on the third floor, she spots a long-haired woman standing in front of Don’s unit. Sun steals an appraising peek before hiding herself. Although softened by distance and lack of proper lighting, the woman’s face has the expressive fleshliness of youth, hard to miss. By principle, Sun doesn’t meet any client in person, which makes her job simpler than it would have been otherwise. Usually, Sun only follows some of them to verify their identity or observes from a distance for confidentiality reasons. Now, this particular woman seems too dressed up, too young to be visiting a person like Don in the middle of the day. Almost as young as when Sun first met Don.
The woman’s fingers hover over the doorbell. With her matte black boots running right up into the avalanche of her white furry dress, she looks like a nervous heron. Nervous, just like most of the young women who come in need of Don’s help with their boy’s problems, from their gambling or drinking habits to abuse of all kinds. The woman pokes a finger at the doorbell, sounding a faint ding. She squints down the empty hallway in Sun’s direction. Not nervous, Sun decides. More like, expectant.
The elevator swishes up past their floor, but the woman doesn’t seem aware. A spray of sunlight sweeps over her face like seafoam for a second as the city outside realigns itself in ways neither of them is there to witness. The woman doesn’t look particularly afraid to be seen. All spruced up. A fragile swinger bag shouldered like a bow. She is, in fact, made up and put together in that pointedly attractive way women do when they’re thinking of their presence as a token of some kind. As if her visit is not for business. As if someone behind the door is going to be taken pleasantly by surprise. The door finally inches ajar when the woman brings her fist to its unflinching heft and taps ever so lightly.
“Yeobo! What are you doing here?”
An arm shoots out to grab the woman and pulls her indoors. Sun makes note of the door thudding closed, and strolls her way upstairs to the rooftop. Soon her phone buzzes with a text from Don. After a swift reply, Sun leans against the railing and starts eating the bread right out of its rustling plastic package. She finishes the first one in a few greedy mouthfuls, and works thoughtfully on the second. By the time the woman exits the officetel complex, a bull’s eye in the streams of rare, darkly clad passengers, the drizzle has transitioned to heavy clouds to overcast sky, and Sun’s on the third and last bread. Sun always likes to have that in store. A third wheel, a maybe, a no-worries-I’ve-got-your-back. She stuffs her mouth with the rest of the bread, and tosses the plastic bag over the railing. As if to fall in step with her thinking, she darts down the flights of stairs.
Hiding takes effort. Consistent, daily effort. Hiding starts from having no other choice but. Hiding means there’s something to find out, something of value, or something, just maybe, that can bring harm to those who didn’t think to sniff around soon enough or those who had the temerity to do so at all. Especially if it’s hiding your spouse from your decade-long partner in crime.
Sun pushes her body against the weight of the glass door, forcing herself out. The woman is still in sight, slow in her heeled boots. The black plastic bag Sun threw from the rooftop, far from hitting the ground, floats overhead like a moment of eclipse. Sun tucks her hair in the safety of her hood and follows the woman.
When Sun first met Don, she was a college dropout working as a barista who skipped the stiletto teeter phase straight to the no-nonsense bob. Her mother had just died, and while some assumed Sun’s leave of absence was temporary, Sun knew she’d never go back for the trivialities of college life. All the drinking made one wonder about the idea of nationwide alcoholism. The group projects for which only half the group made any accountable effort. The constant gossip. The passive-aggressiveness paraded as coolness, the partisan cliques, the obligatorily progressive yet mindlessly spewed ideals that didn’t make their way into anyone’s real life. The all too repetitive dates. But above all else, the student loans it would have taken for Sun just to pretend to enjoy any of it at all. She could see herself, at the end of it all, draining the last years of her twenties at some desk job that required a wardrobe of monochrome button-ups and pencil skirts, waist-deep in debt. At best. So she swerved. And she set her eyes on another task she deemed her top priority. Maybe even the mission of a lifetime. She set out to find her father.
Sitting across from Sun, Don didn’t look like the kind of guy who’d warm up to a twenty- something looking for her birth father. Back then, his office was located in an even more derelict part of the city, in one of the decade-long projects. Bubble wraps tightly hugged his one bedroom’s yellowed wallpapers from top to bottom in lieu of soundproof panels. On his acrylic desk was only a notepad and a box of Monami ballpoint pens, the cheapest you could get without risking constant ink leakage.
After a few crooks and clueless paralegals who were of no help whatsoever, Sun had her doubts about Don. And of course, Sun sized up the man in front of her, as she had those amateurs. Don’s black rubber slippers, she was sure, were designed for the outdoors. The soft, blue hint of stubborn beard across his shaved jaw. His square fingertips and mercilessly clipped fingernails. His obvious lack of interest in lightening the mood or addressing the odd conditions of his office slash home, from the bubble wraps to the tarp over what Sun thought was a kitchen counter. His face felt like an artifact, a form of blankness tautened by the occupational alertness of someone on the windy side of the law, and the boredom of having been there for quite some time. Just as she was beginning to wonder if she’d find a body in the bathroom, Don took a pen from the box. He said: “Here’s how this is going to work.”
Raised by a con artist, Sun never trusted anyone who was quick to show gestures of empathy or overvalued flexibility and a silver tongue. Don was the very opposite: a grumpy-looking listener who didn’t believe in inside jokes or pep talk, who spoke in bullet points and cut you mid-sentence, stickler for rules and protocols, often to a fault. During their first meet-up, Don laid out his plan to get her the intel she wanted, how long it would take, plans B and C, and what was expected of her as his client. He was everything Sun wasn’t particularly fond of. But he also ticked off all the boxes.
Two months later, Sun would find herself climbing up into Don’s office and pocketing a flimsy folder that contained information on her father. She gave it an angry read before throwing it out on her way home: serving time for petty theft. Three timers already. Sun didn’t understand what she was trying to achieve by finding her father, but it definitely wasn’t to orient herself in her family tree full of mediocre felons. She might have felt more entitled to a father-daughter reunion had he turned out happier, or had he been a worse kind of criminal, even. But the file only reassured her that the information she was going to pay for was far from worth it.
She did end up paying for the information, a week or so later. At work, too busy making sure the latte had an acceptably frothy top, Sun missed the whole prelude to the quieted commotion at the register, until she finally made out Don’s voice. It was a small local cafe crowded with huge milk crates lying on their sides to pass for tables, most of them half-filled with second-hand paperbacks but without a single pair of matching chairs. The part-timer, a college student who just came back from his military service, slightly raised his voice when he felt Sun’s eyes fixed on his back, probably mistaking her shock for irritation at his incompetence: “Sir, I asked you multiple times. How are you going to pay?”
Sun met Don’s eyes square on, no room for misunderstanding. If he managed to find her just with her ordinary face and a fake ID, there was no point trying to evade him now. There would be a plan B, plan C, and so on in his ques, to get her to pay her dues. And of course, Don recognized the resigned acknowledgment on her face. He flashed a rare maybe-I-don’t-entirely-despise-you smirk, and told the part-timer.
“This one is on that barista.”
In order to pay him back, Sun started out as a follower. She stalked people to their scenes of adultery, gambling, prostitution, and even illegal cockfights and drug-induced, sexually charged cult gatherings. When she paid him back in full, she continued to work for Don, and gradually for bigger, riskier projects. She became ears in strangers’ walls. She became a variable in the foolproof schemes of the fools who believe in perfect crimes. She became a criminal herself.
While Don considered his business just an out of the box venture, Sun took a different stance. The way she saw it, all she did was rearrange elements of a specific circumstance, so anyone willing could manipulate the next sequence of events. She offered a twist to the plot of someone’s life. A few strokes of her own in an otherwise impeccable imitation painting. Even the best of the experts wouldn’t notice her touch, so slyly applied. It wasn’t exactly harm that Sun was trying to cause, each time she slipped evidence of infidelity, corruption, and illegal activity in a stranger’s life, without much of a twinge. Just like anyone born into life’s iron fist made of predetermined details, Sun was a big skeptic of the idea of free will, and from her standpoint, there was no better way to mess with fate.
The woman has an inconsistent, rickety gait, unlike most gallop-prone Koreans who hate to waste a second more than necessary on transportation. Sun’s followed enough people by now to be able to accurately predict the route of the her quarry, but this woman doesn’t seem to fit the mold. Detours, window-shopping, sniffing at flowers, and peeping in the dog park, this woman does it all. As if to make sure anyone can catch up, but will have to keep her eyes on the woman to do that. In the meantime, Sun had to break one of her rules—no beverage or food on the job—and buy a cup of rice punch from a food cart to quench her thirst. A couple hours past lunchtime, and with the weather clearing up, streets are now looking much less abandoned, slowly but alarmingly enough.
The woman makes a slow way around the bend of a street where a shanty town unfurls, full of narrow alleyways and slate-roofed houses, known among Koreans as dahl-dong-neh, meaning moon village, because its residents go to and return from work at dark hours of moonlight instead of sunlight. Sun frowns. Nothing about the woman screams vinyl flooring and a mold-infested half-basement rental. Not one thing the woman has on her, bait shop chic. Under normal circumstances, Sun would have put a stop to her task of the day and found a better time to observe the woman from a safe distance. But this is no ordinary woman. Dropping this chase right now might mean never being able to pick up where she left off. Sun decidedly makes a beeline for the bend.
Next thing she knows, Sun’s face-to-face with the woman. Her thickly-lashed eyes bore into Sun’s own. Sun attempts to slip past the woman, pretending to be an innocent passerby. But the woman grabs Sun by the arm.
“Don’t you want to know the story behind that screwdriver?”
Sun barely stops herself from flinching. She places her hand over the woman’s and begins to pull away: “I’m afraid you’re mistaken.”
The moment she says it, Sun knows she’s made a rookie mistake, caught off guard. Utter confusion should have been her reaction, not a defensive verbal push. The woman is now breathing down Sun’s neck, quite literally, and Sun can scrutinize the woman’s face from the taut fullness of her skin to the seams of slightly more visible pores along the T zone. And the face shakes Sun up. The woman is a slightly more glittered version of the face that Sun puts on for work, to become unrecognizable. But this familiar face, this time, sends a chill down her spine. The woman doesn’t show any sign of letting Sun go. Instead, she urges: “Do you have any idea what my husband has on you?”
Safety measures are no news in her line of work. And of course, Sun herself kept plenty of things on Don just in case, from evidence of his dirty work for a minor politician to tax evasion the IRS will be happy to lunge on him for. And Sun expects no less from Don, for one thing. But the woman’s taunting tone gets on Sun’s nerves in ways she doesn’t like, not in the least.
Later, Sun will wonder what really made her listen to the woman. In those boots, the woman has little chance to keep up if Sun’s decided to run. It’s probably the sheer amount of evidence that Sun is under no real threat with the woman. Or that look of habitual aggression of a young woman who’s sick of people jumping to conclusions about her, the very kind of conclusions Sun angles for when she puts on her work face: desperate to fit in, eager to please, nothing of note, going with the flow, in other words, safe. Safe to say average. Safe to pay no attention when you see her exit a house without locking the front door. Safe to shake her off when she shoots you a warning. Or it’s just the desperation of the woman’s rant, maybe. But for whatever reason, Sun listens. More than anything, she listens to her own gut.
And the woman talks.
Jung didn’t hear Sun’s expert footsteps across his titled floor, or the front door unlocking with a slight tut. After performing twenty-one surgeries just in the last two days, he felt as if moving underwater near the end of sex. When the woman slid out of bed to get some water, his eyelids had grown heavy already. Two more years, he’d been telling himself, and then he would up and leave to open his own office, although he’d have to take out loans or marry some daughter of a rich man who wants a doctor in the family, as some of his friends did. But at least he’d no longer have to rely on reheated delivery foods or factory-produced lunchboxes for most of his meals between surgeries and appointments, or turn a blind eye to the presence of ghost doctors casually referred to as some necessary evil in the world of plastic surgeons. Unhappy patients had yet to sue the hospital in an enraged flock, but maybe that was in the works. Two more years, or sooner, he told himself yet again. It was no position to be in for long. Miserable one, really. He’d considered himself generally, albeit self-pityingly, a good man.
He dutifully recycled. Didn’t curse or throw fists while driving. He held the door for women he went out with, and picked up the check on the first, second, and third date. He even once volunteered his whole summer as part of the UNICEF program during college and liked to say it’s the highlight of his resume. His friends from med school called him “a good guy,” with the kind of thoughtlessness that made the phrase feel like it was coined for the likes of him. But being a good man hadn’t rewarded him much, he recently started thinking. Bringing a woman home on a rare off day also felt no longer so much desire as his fear of further missing out in life somehow. Still, he labored out a rough “Thank you” when the woman brought him a glass of water.
When the woman broke up with him, efficiently doing up her bra, and even before he finished the glass of water, Jung didn’t think much of it. As she put her white furry dress back on, and laced up her black boots, he didn’t try to change her mind, but also didn’t ask if he’d done anything wrong. He was tired and wanted more than anything in the world to go to bed. He fell asleep not long after the woman let herself out. It had been raining. She had her umbrella ready.
The woman was soon walking off in swift, exacting strides, without once looking back, a blood-stained screwdriver in her pocket.
When Sun lets the woman talk, she rants with a pained alacrity as if someone’s whipping words out of her. She’s a daughter of one of the many implicated, she claims, innocents. “Sure, you took out many real jerks too,” the woman stresses jerks in a childish way, and Sun wonders how young she was when her dad was implicated. The woman’s fingernails claw into Sun’s arm when she says, “But my dad wasn’t one of them.” The woman has been accruing evidence against Don and messing with their operations for a while, when she found out the police were at his heels and Don was suspecting Sun instead of her. “He’s going to pin it all on you and take off with me,” the woman says, “I cannot let that happen.” Without warning, she lets go of Sun’s arm. And the woman produces the screwdriver that Sun planted in a wool coat earlier that day and was supposed to implicate a plastic surgeon. Sun finally says, “That guy made a woman blind.”
The woman gives Sun a funny look that seems to say, “Gonna tell me either of us cares about right or wrong?”
A boy walking a mutt without a leash steals sideways glances at the women, and they turn away to walk up the steep staircase that climbs and rounds until the shanty town looks like a ball of yarn in its tight grip. The eroded staircase has more stones missing than not, and dust has bled without much effort into the untrusting exterior walls that conceal each house right up to the eaves. Sun’s black spandex pants soon take on a tint of dark rust, just from strolling through. Sun feels as if she’s going to choke on the willful air that clutches at everything and anything passing through. The damn mud. The residues of yellow dust all the way from China. The perpetual smog. It’s a small wonder, really, Sun thinks, how much air can carry. Despite the dust, the woman keeps talking, without much of a cough. But at a closer look, the woman’s white dress betrays the stress of the heavy-duty dust they worked up their way there, now uncleanly beige in patches.
The woman’s still holding the screwdriver, its sharp end clutched in her fist, when Sun finally cuts her short.
“That thing at least proves part of your story.”
It was spring, thick with yellow dust. The man was gaunt, his gray jail suit loose around his body, and not in a handsome way. Sun introduced herself as a graduate student studying some interdisciplinary criminology, or at least that’s how Don arranged things. It had been a year since she started working for him, and this, he’d said, could be an extra bonus if she wanted. She brought along a new notepad whose first few pages she tore out on her way there, and a blue pen she was clicking restlessly as the man rambled. He seemed mildly pleased with the presence of a willing, though obviously half-absent, audience. Sun took the man in one surveying gaze right before she sat, just the way she’d down a glass of beer, and had been rarely eyeing him since. He had on what she could only describe as an impersonal smile. Before coming over, she had wandered the delicacies section at the Shilla department store and thought to purchase a box of seaweed rice crackers set among excessively wrapped boxes of edibles that she knew, not from experience, people buy for important clients or older family members they rarely visit, and she just might have too, had she not been informed in time that edibles couldn’t be sent in.
This was the first day Sun would remember for a long time that she combatively put on her work face. It was more of a war face that day Sun would also realize. It was also this face, an amateurish faux skin of gaudy colors, leery even, that might have given the man the wrong idea. He bent forward and hushed, “Now, look.”
Sun froze, and searched the man’s face for a hint of recognition. The man said, “Are you one of the, you know, girls?”
It took her a second to process what the man was saying. He frowned at her blank face, and tutted lightly, mistaking her dumbfounded silence for a mute yes. “You see, I’m dead broke.”
Sun leaned into the frame of her plastic chair that wobbled at her shifting weight. The man continued, “If you’ve got a problem, believe me, it’s not mine.”
For a moment, Sun didn’t know whether to cackle viciously in this man’s face, or to actually start weeping, as most B-rated films she managed to watch seem to instruct women to do under a circumstance like this. She just scratched at the bridge of her nose. Tension ebbed all at once, leaving her body now slouchy. One hand propping up her chin, she looked down at the empty notepad. Oh, dear father, she could have just written, instead of wasting her time coming all this way. But she did. She stared at the man who was oblivious to the irony of her presence in this room and felt like a piece of evidence yet to be discovered. So Sun asked, full of malice, savoring the joke alone: “Not yours? Why do you think so?”
The man said, so perfectly, “Oh, I know so.”
Sun waits in the dark, as she has so many times before. Just as she waited for the perfect timing to get her job done. Just as she waited as a little girl behind her mother’s partition for each guest to finish talking, and to leave, so she’d get to drag her mother out of that dark, musk-filled room. Sun watches a sedan appear as two blinding eyes of light from the house. The woman and Don. According to what the woman said, at least. Everything checks out so far. Their two-story stucco house is nestled against the backdrop of a low mountain. It’s the kind of house that helps her gauge the owner’s moderate wealth; wealth from the sleek exteriors, but not excess of it from how isolated it is; nothing but a bleak landscape of factories in the vicinity, and a single dirt road leading to a distant web of busy highways then to the even more distant heart of the city where everything is at hand.
Sun makes sure the sedan’s headlights disappear down the road before she approaches the house. Once inside, she cautiously directs her flashlight around, lighting up the walls on all sides. A row of framed photos runs along the hallway. The woman and Don, captured and framed in various outfits, in various seasons and places, but with similar camera-shy smiles on their faces. In most of them, they’ve struck up the exaggerated poses of self-conscious intimacy as a relatively new couple does in public. Then Sun brings herself closer to the photos.
Sun hardly understands the stages of any romantic entanglement that lasts longer than days or weeks, let alone a marriage. She has no way to discern signs of authenticity in the handful of pictures in front of her. So she can in no way wonder, just based on them, if the woman too has already gone through those stages, watched her target husband become a rugged, simpler caricature of his former self, simpler as the number of his concerns exponentially shrank, and nonetheless found a way to put down her roots, however temporarily, however precariously. Sun doesn’t wonder if the woman has eventually come to feel that visceral kind of loyalty, not romantic or sexual necessarily, but physical nonetheless, for the man standing beside, behind, or around her in those pictures. It’s a concept way too foreign to Sun.
What Sun does understand is a need to set the world on fire, if that’s the only way to set it right. Even if it’s her very own world.
When Sun left the meeting with her father prematurely, Don was waiting outside. Now what, she wondered. Instead of cutting to the chase as always, he gave her the eye. (What did he say? Sun no longer remembers.) But Sun shrugged it off, and started to cackle with full force, as would an at first glance mean yet essentially troubled teenager who finds everything absolutely and crucially hilarious, especially matters regarding herself. When he tried again, Sun had to raise her hands as if in surrender.
“No,” she shook her head, suddenly and badly missing her college life. “Save it.”
At first, Sun doesn’t notice something’s off. She’s hunched over the safe, her skin thick with sweat under layers of makeup. A flashlight clenched between her teeth, she squints at the lock. Her stiff fingers work mechanically until, finally, the safe clicks open. Sun grabs the fat envelope inside, and after a quick consideration, also rakes the stacks of bills into her duffel bag. There’s no way Don won’t realize she’s been here, his shelter violated exactly the way he taught her, and cash is the only savior for anyone on the run. She entertains the possibility of a micro pet cam, or a separately saved digital copy of what’s in the envelope, yet again. But soon, she’s back on her feet and making her way out. She leaves the safe and the door to the master bedroom open, feeling not an ounce of strength left in her, with nothing more she can do to rectify the mess she’s leaving behind. Don once said to keep anything important where we lay our head at night. There’s no place that feels safer, no matter how untrue. Of course, Sun thought then, if there were, we’d be sleeping there instead.
Then Sun hears the siren.
Sun’s not too far up in the mountain when the siren has closed in on the house. The duffel bag hangs near her calf, now a deadweight as she scrambles uphill. Trees offer no good covers, most of them bare as they are in this season. But the dirt road is by no means a better escape route, Sun has decided. She sniffs out something in the air. But she brushes it off as the smell of the city’s outskirts, a combination of warehouses, factories, compost, and stretches of half-burned arid land, and keeps climbing, head lowered and breathless from the run. It’s not until Sun is halfway up the mountain, more of a hill that feels bigger once she’s climbing it, that she senses the heat. Up ahead, a knee-high fence of flame flutters. Sun watches a shot of flame waver like an accusing finger and shrink back in. The fire takes dry branches with cracks, by overwhelming force, and Sun is rooted to the ground for a split second before looking around in awe. The heat sweeps over her like a gust of dusty wind, and she’s monetarily out of breath. Sun realizes the siren could have been from a report of this mountain fire, which could have been unrelated to her break-in.
But as the fire makes its slow descent towards her, Sun realizes someone must have set it close by, stoked it, perfectly timed, in order for the fire to come in such a deliberate flow of movements, to find her here, right now. Then it occurs to Sun. The fire will take up the small mountain in no time. It proceeds towards the only other thing left to consume, Don’s house. The firefighters, notified well in advance, have arrived and will enter the house in search of its residents. They’ll find the suspicious state the house has been left in, the safe open, its contents emptied. The evidence of Sun’s break-in she didn’t bother to cover up. Don gets called in as practically the only resident living on the perimeter of that mountain, the cause of the fire verified by then unlikely to be accidental. The police will seize the opportunity, if what the woman said had any truth in it. Don gets questioned, his house probably searched inside and out, with the excuse of insurance policy in the light of this not-so-natural natural disaster that befell the owner of the house. Sun sees Don sitting across from a tired-looking member of law enforcement. He asks for a lawyer and waits for the woman, who fails to show up. And she will never show up.
Then Sun sees the woman, not too long ago, waiting in front of Don’s unit, in that white furry dress of hers, and sees her face clearly this time, not unlike her own, on which a look of something far from anything she would have ever guessed, hovers.
The woman was waiting. Expecting. A person on her tail, or another on the other side of the door. Or both. There was little difference between the two of them, after all. More than anything, the woman had been waiting for this moment. So it was without effort that she put on a smile when the door opened, with a silent spectator surely watching it all, and when her husband thoughtlessly invited, almost forced her, in.
Sun doesn’t waste any more seconds. Her light-headed body finds itself moving two heavy arms, first to sling the duffel bag off her shoulder and rummage through it, then to fling stacks of bills into the fire creeping up on her. Some of the stacks come undone mid-air. Thin bundles thud to the ground and single bills flap away in all directions. Soon, it’s impossible to tell the bills from the fallen leaves taken up in flames.
Sun’s face burns with all the effort, and her knees almost buckle as she lifts the duffel bag again. Then finally, her tired, now slightly trembling hand finds the envelope, and manages to tear it open. The heat is right upon her, and the envelope slips from her sweaty hands and flops onto the carpet of pine leaves underneath. Sun doesn’t register the spilled content at once, but slowly, scattered photographs come into focus, a few curt sentences scribbled on the back of each. 2 hidden kids with an ex in Chungcheong province, a fake license fabricated by Mr. T, father on a death row, they read. Photographs, not of Sun, but of different men and women. A series of violent coughs overtakes her, and Sun bends over, shaking. When she straightens back up, she’s still shaking. Some of the people in the photographs Sun recognizes as past clients, and the scribbles take her all the way—through the mist of years of work that has become a routine—back, and what the woman said roaming the shanty town also comes back running through her head.
What if I say, sometimes, it’s way easier to make money off blackmailing, or let me put it this way, presenting a possibility of something bad that can happen to you, or of revealing some dark deeds you were ready to pay for, than actually doing anything at all?
Sun throws the duffel bag into the fire, and starts coughing. The only thing that’s left of what she took from Don’s house is the photographs that seem to twitch with the blaze reflected off their glossy surfaces. The women in some of the photographs look as if they could be, very well might be, Sun or the woman, but Sun doesn’t flip them over, and leaves every last one of them there, lying on the forest floor, the unstoppable fire zeroing in on them. Everything hisses around her, in sync. But Sun doesn’t feel hissed at, not quite yet, as she turns from the border of fire and walks towards the source of the siren and growing light, towards a moment of inexplicable calm.
Suphil Lee Park (수필 리 박 / 秀筆 李 朴) is the author of the poetry collection, Present Tense Complex, winner of Marystina Santiestevan Prize (Conduit Books & Ephemera 2021), and a forthcoming poetry chapbook, Still Life, winner of Tomaž Šalamun Prize. She received fiction prizes from Indiana Review and Writer’s Digest and her recent fiction appears in the Iowa Review, J Journal, and Notre Dame Review. You can find more about her at: https://suphil-lee-park.com/
Monday, October 3, 2022
Carruthers walked carefully down the icy steps, wary of a fall, and tried to push the man’s dismissal out of his mind. As cruel and mocking as they came. And did he really need to slam the door so hard? Brooding, it wasn’t until he crossed the street and eyed the next block of houses that he realized the mistake that likely instigated the encounter. At some point that evening, in the dark as the snow came down, he had unknowingly crossed the line from Grandview—the city of Columbus neighborhood—into Grandview Heights, the stand-alone village. The transition indistinguishable by the naked eye—the same early 20th century Dutch Colonials and Cape Cods and cottages lined avenues in both places. On paper, though, forget it. House values doubled or tripled once inside the urban village limits. Good luck finding anything under three-hundred-fifty thou these days, minimum. And with those house values came a certain expectation, chief among them: early evening was not a time for the community’s good burghers to be bothered by cable salesmen. Especially in the winter. And especially this winter.
Carruthers adjusted his blue medical mask, uncomfortably damp from the snow, and considered his options. Seven-thirty. Four sign-ups short of today’s quota, and he was already in the hole by three from the day before. The pickings slim from this point on unless he turned around, but he’d already covered most of the city neighborhood streets behind him. He needed to move to another part of town, but this late in the evening that would put him knocking on doors after eight. That wasn’t going to fly no matter how poor or wealthy the area. He sighed and consigned himself to his fate. He’d try one more block, despite his low expectations. What else was he supposed to do, at his age, in this economy, with everything going on?
A swift dismissal at the next door. No one home at the following house. A pitying glance from the woman at the house after that, but not pitying enough to entertain his offer to switch cable services, regardless how fast the broadband he offered was, or how many channels were available. One more door, Carruthers told himself, back on the sidewalk. Tomorrow would be another—
He glanced to his left. An SUV paused in the street, the passenger side window rolled down, wipers squee-squeeging against the snow. The driver leaned toward him.
“Excuse me?” she repeated.
Carruthers looked up and down the sidewalk out of force of habit, and then took a step toward the car.
The woman driver, wearing a floral print mask, gestured wordlessly at him to come closer. A moment later she pulled the mask down briefly, showing her face. Carruthers’ eyes widened in surprise. The look of recognition flustered the woman, and for a moment, she didn’t or couldn’t speak.
At last she said, “I’m sorry about my husband, back there. The way he spoke to you. That wasn’t necessary. Particularly on a night like this.”
The wife of the man who dressed him down and then slammed the door in his face.
“It’s all right. I’m used to it. It’s an intrusion, I know.”
“It’s not all right. Not in the least—”
A car approached and stopped behind the woman’s SUV, the sideways falling snow illuminated in its light beams. The woman shook her head in frustration and pulled ahead, then over, banking the vehicle against the curb. Carruthers, not certain what else to do, took a few steps forward to meet her.
“I brought you some coffee,” the woman said abruptly, raising a cup toward him. “You must be freezing out here.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“Please take it.” She reached the cup toward the window. As she did, a sudden gust kicked a curtain of snow into his eyes that felt much closer to sleet.
“What a night,” the woman said. He heard the click of unlocking doors. “Come in out of this. Just for a second.”
Carruthers hesitated. He still had the final house he had committed to trying, and it wasn’t getting any earlier. But the snow was also getting worse, stinging him where the mask left unprotected skin. And the smell of the coffee was beckoning...
He opened the door and slid inside. The woman raised the passenger window, shutting out the elements. The car was warm, the heater blasting, and smelled invitingly of leather and the woman’s perfume. Even his seat was warm, he realized.
“Thank you,” he said gratefully, taking the Stauf’s cup. He raised his mask just enough for a sip.
“It’s the least I could do.”
“It’s bad out there,” he said, not sure what else to say.
“Can I drive you someplace? Is your car near?”
“Just around the corner. There’s really no need. It’s just nice to warm up for a second.”
“I’m sorry again about my husband.” She stared straight ahead. Carruthers took another sip of coffee and studied her face, illuminated by the streetlamp a few yards down. Early forties, he guessed, to judge by the quick glimpse he got of her over her husband’s shoulder at her house and the peek she gave him removing the mask just now. Pretty features but watching life through sad and tired eyes. Blonde hair pulled back by a scarf. A rock on her ring finger that glinted in the dark as she inched her hands up the steering wheel. He peered as closely at the right side of her face as possible without drawing attention to himself. Trying to decide if he was imagining things. He didn’t think so.
“It’s really all right.”
“He doesn’t understand how bad things have gotten for people.”
“It’s a difficult time,” Carruthers agreed, again not sure what to say. He was already thinking about the politest exit line to return to the street.
“Someone like you, for example.”
“I don’t mean to pry ...”
Carruthers sat quietly.
“But is this not what you really do?”
“What do you mean?”
She gave a little shake of her head. Carruthers could tell she was embarrassed. He was embarrassed too because he knew what she meant.
“It’s just, the way the economy’s been,” she said quickly. “So many people out of work. I only wondered if—”
He spared her further agony. “I’m not a career cable salesman, if that’s what you mean,” he said, keeping his tone light.
“It’s none of my business, I know. I just feel so bad. I’m Christy, by the way.”
He paused and then responded by reciting a name for himself.
“What kind of work were you in, if I may ask?”
Carruthers hesitated for just a moment.
“Deliverables,” he said.
“Nothing. It’s just that that’s my husband’s field as well.”
“What does he do?”
“He sources polypropylene,” she said, stretching out the syllables as if pronouncing a foreign dignitary’s name. “For takeout food containers. He’s on the numbers side of things. Not very exciting, except that business is booming, as you might expect.” She stopped herself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t worry. Deliverables isn’t supposed to be exciting. It’s a means to an end.” He snuck another glance at her face half hidden in the shadows.
“He thinks it’s exciting.”
“Maybe it is for him.”
She grew quiet. Carruthers took another sip of coffee. It was the best coffee he had had in a while. Since right around the time his income dried up between the first and second wave of the sickness. He realized with sudden clarity that he did not want to leave the warmth of the SUV and the balm of the coffee for another cold, fruitless walk up a set of porch steps. He looked at her again.
“May I ask you something, Christy?”
He studied the bruise on her right cheek. “How often does he hit you like that? Your husband, I mean.”
She froze as if Carruthers himself had just raised his fist. After a second or two her eyes brightened, and she choked back a sob.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That was completely inappropriate.”
She shook her head wordlessly, hand drifting to her cheek. “No,” she gasped. “It’s not that.”
“It’s just that I didn’t think it was so obvious.”
They sat in silence for nearly a minute as the heater pushed warm air into their faces, gusts of wind whipped the snow sideways, and thin rivulets of melting precipitation ran down the windshield.
Carruthers broke the silence. “Is there anything I can do?”
Christy shook her head.
“Is it, you know, possible for you to leave?”
“No,” she whispered. When he didn’t respond, she said, “It’s complicated. I’m the second wife. There’s a prenup. Oh God. I shouldn’t be telling you this. I’m so sorry. I just wanted to do something nice for you, after what he said. I didn’t mean to burden you.”
“It’s not a burden.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Half a minute passed. Each took a sip of coffee.
“I should go,” Carruthers said.
Neither of them moved.
Nine months and three days, in fact, since he could afford to buy such good coffee.
“May I ask one other thing?”
“Sure.” She laughed with the hopelessness of a woman staring at a foreclosure notice in her inbox. “Anything.”
“Could I tell you about the job I had before everything happened?”
“Of course,” she said, her eyes bright again, but now seemingly with relief that the conversation was moving away from her.
So he did.
Carruthers was not surprised to learn that Christy’s husband still went into the office most days. He couldn’t stand working at home, she told him, and while not a sickness doubter, he was skeptical of the conventional wisdom on transmission. Carruthers could have managed regardless, but the husband’s preference made things a little easier. His office was in the Arena District, one of the new brick-and-glass developments within walking distance of the hockey arena, Clippers stadium, and the new Crew field. The office parking garage sat a block down. It took a couple of days to work out the best sightline but eventually Carruthers found it atop the old municipal power plant off Hocking. He went back and forth but decided on a Tuesday morning, his preferred day, since the few brave souls now returning to the office after months at home were back in the rhythm of the work week by then and focused on the day ahead. After a week of reconnaissance, he figured he was looking at somewhere between 8:15 and 8:18.
Not bad, he thought that following Tuesday morning. 8:17 a.m. The benefits of punctuality. He settled in and leaned forward, letting the scope cup his right eye. He reached for the trigger but took his time, dissipating the rustiness that had set in over the past several months. It had been an unusually long respite; even in 2008 and 2009 jobs found him, if a bit sporadically. He was accustomed to ebbs and flows, but the sickness threw those models out the window. He paused, took a breath, released it, and squeezed off four shots in succession.
The first evaporated a brick at the corner of the parking garage just above the sign with the daily parking rates. The second eviscerated the rear driver’s side tire of a car in line for the garage. The third shattered the rear driver’s side passenger window of the next car up, sending a shower of glass into an empty child’s car seat. The last shot, directed at the front window of a black Lincoln Navigator waiting for the garage gate to rise, removed most of Christy’s husband’s head.
These things took time, of course. The speed with which ones and zeroes traveled through cyberspace when money was involved didn’t apply to every transaction. Especially this one. And especially with the various layered accounts the money needed to move in and out of. It was complicated: prenup, and all. But eventually Carruthers was paid, both the down payment and the final deposit. After all, he delivered his service without complications. Police were still looking in vain for the spree shooter who targeted several drivers, tragically killing one. Just to be safe, he kept the cable job until all the money arrived, paying closer attention to borders between neighborhoods. One week, he even met his sales quota. Despite that, his supervisor didn’t seem surprised when he turned in his notice.
“It must be hard out there, someone your age,” the young woman said.
“The days get long,” Carruthers said in agreement.
It wasn’t that much money, was the thing. He had offered a discount rate to Christy, given the circumstances. With his obligations, his and his wife’s, maybe enough to last them six months. He would have to drum up new business in-between or look for another job. Maybe retail this time, he thought. Both Target and Walmart were hiring. He was filling out an online job application in early spring when his phone rang. Not his personal phone. The other phone.
“2029,” Carruthers said, reciting the last four digits.
No one spoke for a moment. Then he heard a woman’s voice.
“I’m calling because ...”
“My friend Christy gave me this number.”
Carruthers did not say anything.
“The thing is ... She said you might be able to help me with a problem.”
Carruthers saved his work on the job application and shut down his browser. He examined the area code on the caller ID. Louisville, he was pretty sure. Not so far.
“Go on,” he said.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins, an Associated Press reporter and freelance writer, is the author of the Andy Hayes private eye series, including the Shamus Award-nominated An Empty Grave, and the editor of Columbus Noir. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Mystery Magazine, Mystery Tribune, the 2021 Bouchercon anthology This Time For Sure, the collection Mickey Finn Vol. 1: 21st Century Noir, and other magazines and anthologies.