(Originally posted 11 May 2014 on tumblr)
“I received a tip from a contact in the prosecutor’s office. It’s very likely that, by the end of next month, your father will be released from prison.”
The end of November. Six weeks, give or take a few days. Possibly less. Young-do looked through the window into Secret Garden again; his mother was nowhere in sight.
“It looks like my own source was a little outdated,” Young-do said. It took a concentrated effort to relax his grip on his phone, but he couldn’t keep the tension from his voice. “Where are you?”
“The hotel. I’ve rescheduled the management meeting for tomorrow afternoon. When will you be here?”
“Half an hour. Meet me in my office.” He hung up without saying goodbye, shoved the phone in his pocket, and strode into Secret Garden.
Yoo Kyung-ran wasn’t anywhere in the public part of the café, so Young-do headed straight for the staff-only door. The new cashier shouted something at him, which he ignored. He went to the tiny office first—it was unlocked, lights on, but empty. Either Kyung-ran or one of the assistant managers had made it into work today. It was impossible for him to tell who it was.
He should have gone home last night instead of crashing in his hotel suite.
Young-do stuck his head into the employee locker rooms—empty—the storage room—again, empty—and finally the kitchen. He swept by the cook and her assistants on his way to the final hiding place: the walk-in fridge.
The door opened before he got there, and his mother emerged with several collapsed cardboard boxes tucked awkwardly under one arm. Young-do enveloped her in a hug anyway.
“Careful, Young-do!” But she was laughing when she half-hugged him back. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at work?”
He only let her go once he was in control of his expression again. “I had a meeting over breakfast and thought I should stop by on my way back.”
“You wouldn’t miss me so much if you came home more often.”
“I’m sorry you have such a terrible son. I’ll try to do better.” It was a small lie, but he knew spending time at the hotel to try to solve the problem of his father would benefit her in the long run.
He could handle this. As soon as he had a plan in place, he would tell her what was going on.
Young-do didn’t keep her long since they both had work. He promised to tell her about the board meeting the next time he was home, and she let him dump the boxes in the dumpster behind the café for her on his way back to the car.
While his driver took him back to the hotel, Young-do fought hard against the fear that had dogged him since yesterday. The fact that Sang-joong had called him with the news was a sign in Young-do’s favor. It meant that there was a possibility Sang-joong wasn’t completely loyal to Dong-wook. If he had been, the smarter option would have been to keep Young-do in the dark about his father’s upcoming release as long as possible.
On the other hand, that potential lack of loyalty was also something to be concerned about. Sang-joong’s compensation package for leading Zeus Hotel during Dong-wook’s imprisonment had been generous. Young-do hadn’t actually read the contract—his father’s lawyers hadn’t allowed him to do that—but Sang-joong had been astonishingly forthright about the broader details the one time Young-do had asked him about it. Every year of his father’s prison sentence had been given certain benchmarks that, if met, would result in the transfer of a tenth of a percent of Zeus stock to Sang-joong from Dong-wook’s own holdings.
It was an outrageous form of compensation, but it had been an intelligent one. Under Sang-joong’s guidance, the company had not only weathered Dong-wook’s imprisonment—it had thrived. The vice president now owned half of a percent of Zeus, and Young-do was certain the man was on track to earn the next tenth by year’s end. That is, if Dong-wook’s early release didn’t ruin this year’s earnings at the last moment.
When Young-do got to his office, Sang-joong was waiting quietly outside of it. He bowed politely and followed Young-do inside.
Young-do briefly considered sitting behind his desk—and forcing Sang-joong to stand—but he went to the more personable sitting area. Now wasn’t the time to remind Sang-joong that he was ultimately only the vice president; now was the time to try to put them both on the same side.
“When did you hear about my father?” Young-do asked once both of them were settled across from each other.
“This morning, from Prosecutor Im Joon-hyuk. Your father is only one of several people who will benefit from an upcoming policy change, and Prosecutor Im was kind enough to inform me.”
“How long has he been on your payroll?”
Was it Young-do’s imagination, or was that a ghost of a smile on Sang-joong’s face? “Since the start of your father’s trial. He never had much of interest to say until now.”
Young-do doubted that, but he wasn’t about to challenge the vice president over it yet. Instead, he leaned forward in his seat, planted his elbows on his knees, and laced his fingers together. It was an aggressive posture, and it made him feel slightly more in control of the conversation. “I’m more interested in why you decided to share this information with me than in where you got it from.”
“Would you like an honest answer or an answer you’ll believe?”
“Can’t I have both?”
“I think you’re a better man than your father and that Zeus will fare better under your green leadership than his tainted leadership.” It was definitely a smile this time, though it was barely anything more than the faintest upturn of the corners of his mouth. “As for the believable answer—in the long run, you’re less likely to oust me than your father. I ran Zeus for six years without the president’s input. There are going to be members of the board who would prefer to keep things as they are now, which means that if he manages to get you back under his control, I will be the next casualty in his power consolidation. He can’t do anything about the stock I own now, but he will cheat me out of the rest that was promised. You won’t.”
Young-do raised an eyebrow. “I won’t?”
“I’m the best ally you could have right now,” Sang-joong said quietly. He was no longer smiling. “You’re unlikely to win without me. You are also cautious enough that you won’t believe I would rather work for you than your father, so you will instead try to outbid your father for my loyalty even though you don’t need to.”
Young-do studied the man across from him for several moments before asking, “What is your price?”
Despite spending the morning in negotiation with Sang-joong and not doing the assigned reading, Young-do went to his three classes. He had three on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, back to back. He normally kept his phone completely silenced during classes, but today he put it on vibrate because he was waiting for Sang-joong to let him know when he had arranged a face-to-face with Prosecutor Im.
When his phone buzzed in the last minutes of his second class, he slipped it out of his pocket to surreptitiously check the text. It wasn’t Sang-joong—it was Myung-soo:
I’m back! Did you miss me?
Not really, he wrote back. But I guess I’m okay with you being back on the same continent. In class right now. Talk to you when you get over your jetlag crash.
Myung-soo sent him a grumpy emoticon. Fine.
Young-do put his cell phone away, but a few seconds later it buzzed again.
You’ll never guess who I was on the plane with.
He ignored the text—knowing Myung-soo, it was probably some model or actress he was getting worked up over—and went back to taking notes. Or he tried to, but that became increasingly difficult when Myung-soo started spamming him.
Come on, guess.
You’re no fun.
His phone was still for the rest of class. Young-do wrote down the assignment, gathered up his things, and headed for his final class for the day. He had ten minutes between one class and the next, so he turned the sound back on his phone, just in case Sang-joong called on the way.
The day had turned gloomy while he was in the building. Dark gray clouds loomed overhead, and the wind was busy tearing the last of autumn’s leaves from the trees. Young-do grimly hoped for a storm and then immediately retracted that wish because his mother would probably try to walk home anyway unless it was truly awful. He decided to call the maid after his last class to tell her to pick up his mother tonight if it rained, no matter what Kyung-ran said.
His phone beeped just as he walked into the building his next class was in.
It was Myung-soo again: Kim Tan! I was in the seat behind that bastard on the plane.
If his friend had been here in person, Young-do might have none-too-gently punched him in the shoulder. And why should I care?
I just wanted to let you know I spent fifteen hours accidentally kicking the back of his seat when I felt like it.
Myung-soo’s pettiness was usually entertaining, but right now Young-do found it extremely irritating. Every time his phone buzzed, he tensed up at the anticipation of a text or a call from Sang-joong. This flood of inane texts from Myung-soo was quickly sapping his patience.
So when the phone rang a few seconds later, Young-do answered it without bothering to double check the caller ID or curb his frustration. “What is it now?”
“Cha Eun-sang. Did I call at a bad time?”
Even if she hadn’t identified herself, he would have recognized her voice. Hearing her voice in his ear was worse than getting flipped onto the judo mat—at least for the latter he knew to expect getting the wind knocked out of him. This sudden inability to breathe took him completely by surprise, and it was equally unpleasant and painful.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t heard her or seen her in the last six years. They had that last year at Jeguk together, after all, where they passed each other in the halls or even sat a few desks apart in class. Eun-sang had respected his declaration that they couldn’t be friends, and while she hadn’t exactly hid from him, she had been careful to stay clear of the places he had staked out as his. That didn’t keep him from running across the articles about her and Tan or seeing her in person on occasion. Their social circle was a small one.
Young-do had chosen to enlist immediately after high school since Zeus Hotel had stabilized and he had thought it best to have as many uninterrupted years at the company before his father’s release from prison. He had only seen her a handful of times during those two years, all of them during carefully scheduled furlough days that coincided with important events he had needed to attend. She had always been on Tan’s arm then, as his girlfriend and possibly future wife.
Tan had enlisted just as Young-do got out, and Eun-sang’s presence in Korea’s elite society had gradually tapered off until the news broke that she and Tan were no longer a couple. It had taken him weeks to realize that the thing that bothered him the most was that part of him wished Eun-sang and Tan were still together if only so he might see her every now and then.
He waited to respond until he was certain his voice would come out even. “How did you get this number?”
“You told me to memorize it once, remember?”
Of course he did. He also remembered that she hadn’t called him when she had been at the mercy of Chairman Kim.
He fought against reading too much into the fact she still had it memorized it six years later. For all he knew, half of the digits in his number were her mother’s birthday or her father’s death anniversary or something more important than being his cell phone number. He should have changed it after he finished his stint in the army.
“What do you want?”
“I just wanted to confirm something. If your father got out of prison early, that would be a bad thing for you, wouldn’t it?”
A bitter sort of satisfaction settled in his chest. “Does everyone in Korea know about my father before me? Yes. It is a disaster as far as I’m concerned.”
“You knew already?”
“Who told you?”
“My vice president learned about it from a prosecutor named Im Joon-hyuk.”
He hesitated in the silence that followed. He shouldn’t ask. No matter what her answer was, it wouldn’t change how this conversation was going to end. Then again, after everything that had happened so far today, it wasn’t as if a simple question could make anything worse.
“Why did you call?”
Even over the phone, Young-do could hear her carefully weigh every word before she let them past her lips. “I didn’t want my boss to drag your name into the headlines if there was no reason for her to do so. I remember how much you hated that in high school.”
“How considerate of you,” he said, but there was no gratitude in his voice. “Do me a favor, Cha Eun-sang, since I gave you my source’s name.”
“What is it?”
“Don’t call me again.”
Young-do didn’t give her a chance to respond. He hung up on her, shut off his phone, and went to his last class.