(Originally posted 20 Apr 2014 on tumblr)
The texts came a little after nine-thirty on Monday morning, but Choi Young-do wasn’t able to check his phone until nearly noon, when the board members took a break for lunch. He shook their hands as they filed out of the conference room and followed Kwon Sang-joong, the Vice President of Zeus Hotel, to the adjacent dining hall. Once he had assured the last board member that he would be joining them shortly, Young-do pulled his phone out of his breast pocket to see just who had kept trying to reach him during the meeting.
It was Rachel. Her messages left him reeling:
I need to talk to you.
Call me. Make sure you’re alone—and I mean alone—when you do.
This isn’t a joke, Young-do. Call me back!
I forgot—you had the board meeting today. Call me as soon as you can. It’s about your father.
When he could breathe again, Young-do deleted the texts and strode out of the conference room. One of the board members had been forced to attend remotely due to ill health, which meant the entire room was wired to transmit audio and video. He wasn’t about to risk having a conversation about his father—his father—in there.
Young-do could go back to his suite on the thirty-fourth floor, but it was unlikely he could make it there and back without being spotted by any hotel staff or without any of the board members noticing a lengthy absence. Extra scrutiny wasn’t something he could bluff his way through right now, not with his clenched jaw and the way his shoulders tensed. Not with the way anger and apprehension made his heart race.
He couldn’t think of any way that Rachel could have come across news of his father before him, Sang-joong, or any of the board members. Either something unusual had happened for her to run across this information, or he was intentionally being kept in the dark by the people around him.
The layout of the flagship Zeus Hotel was as familiar to him as his own face, so Young-do headed for the nearest stairwell. He hurried down two flights of stairs and used his staff keycard to gain access to one of the supply rooms. The lights were off when he opened the door, but he still did a quick search to make sure no one was lurking between the shelves filled with clean, white towels; bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and lotion; or boxes of toilet paper.
No one was there. He called Rachel, but it went to voicemail after several rings. Young-do swore and called again.
This time she picked up. “Just a second,” Rachel said. Her words were laced with an undercurrent of frustration. She must have covered the phone because the sound went muted and incomprehensible for several moments.
By the time she came back, Young-do had flattened his free hand against a wall to keep from slamming his fist into it. Split knuckles weren’t something he could hide, and he still had the afternoon portion of the board meeting to get through.
“Are you still there?”
“I’m here. What’s this about my father?”
“I ran into Lee Hyo-shin today. He wanted me to pass on a message. He said there’s a chance your father might be eligible for early release.”
“‘Might be eligible’?”
“His words, not mine.” There was a pause, and then Rachel added, “He had the chance to take your number without my knowledge, but he asked me to pass the message on instead. He said he didn’t want to get involved.”
Young-do rested his forehead against the wall and closed his eyes in an attempt to maintain his composure. “Did he say why he bothered to warn me then?”
“Only that you should ask him yourself.”
It took every last bit of self-control not to slam his fist into the wall.
Rachel wasn’t an appropriate outlet for his anger, but he couldn’t blunt the edges of his words. “It looks like sunbae’s blackmail schemes have gotten more complicated.”
“He’s blackmailed you before?” she asked after a long, silent moment. He couldn’t read anything in the even keel of her voice.
“Twice in high school.”
“Do you have any idea what he wants from us?”
That us was an unexpected, painful relief. It helped Young-do open his eyes and push away from the wall. He wasn’t in this by himself. For all he and Rachel might argue with and snipe at one another, they were friends, even if she rolled her eyes every time he called her sister and staunchly refused to call him oppa.
He had his mother, too, though he had to fight off a sudden wave of dread when he thought of her. What would she do when he told her about his father?
She wouldn’t leave again. She couldn’t.
Young-do wrenched his thoughts back to the conversation at hand. “None. It will probably be something unorthodox, though. Last time one of his demands was that I stop smoking on the school’s roof.”
Should I be worried? Young-do had asked, and Hyo-shin had answered, Someday, maybe. I don’t have a lot of energy right now to deal with you properly.
Perhaps Lee Hyo-shin had finally found the reserves he needed to deal with the heir to Zeus Hotel.
“I should be done with the board by three,” Young-do said. “Can you meet me then?”
“I can’t. I’m dealing with a crisis of my own right now.”
“Inventory problems.” The frustration leaked back in her voice as she filled him in on the details. “I’ll be back in Seoul this evening. Should I meet you at your house or the hotel?”
“The hotel.” He wanted to have all the information and a strategy in place before he told his mother. He wouldn’t let his father drive her away again.
And he wouldn’t let Lee Hyo-shin get away with playing games with him, either.
Young-do spent the rest of the luncheon and the afternoon meeting mentally reevaluating every member of the board based on two simple questions: If Choi Dong-wook were a free man tomorrow, who would back him? And who would back Young-do?
Neither option was particularly attractive, he noted with grim amusement. Dong-wook had been convicted of tax fraud, embezzlement, and a half-dozen or so related crimes. He had been discreet enough with his women that few board members knew, and most of those that did hadn’t cared because it stayed out of the press. He also had two decades of management experience as the actual president of Zeus, and under his guidance, the company had expanded tremendously.
Whereas Young-do was twenty-four years old, still over a year away from his first college degree, and had only started gaining management experience in the last two years under Vice President Kwon’s watchful care. His greatest advantage was that he hadn’t spent six years in prison.
All said, it meant that the ones who would be most willing to back Young-do if it came to a fight for control of Zeus Hotel would be those who thought his father’s scandal was too great to overlook or those who thought Young-do would be easier to control.
The moment Dong-wook was released from prison, Young-do would lose the nominal control he had over his father’s stake in the company—just over 17%—and all the associated voting rights. It would leave him with only his 9% and cost him his placeholder seat on the board.
Young-do should have had two more years to solidify his base, to gain experience, to get a degree. He might not even have two weeks.
Vice President Kwon Sang-joong would be the first person he needed on his side.
The man wore hospitality and professionalism as masks, ones so flawless that Young-do had never once seen behind them. Dong-wook might have—he had, after all, warned Young-do to trust Sang-joong with nothing but the hotel—or he may have been paranoid at that point because of the investigation that had led to his downfall.
The problem was that Young-do knew so little about the man’s personal life that he couldn’t even begin to guess at what motivated him, what he craved, what his weaknesses were. Young-do’s only proof that Sang-joong had a life outside of Zeus Hotel was the fact that he had a wife, a daughter, and a son. The daughter was a year older than Young-do, and the son two years younger. Both had attended Jeguk as part of the social welfare group.
Which might, Young-do admitted to himself, be part of the reason he knew so little about their father.
There were things Young-do could guess about him based on the small details of his life. Sang-joong wasn’t vain enough to dye his salt-and-pepper hair or get treatment for his crows feet, but his expertly tailored suits showed off the fact that he still kept himself in shape despite being in his mid-fifties. His tie pins and watches always matched, and his office looked more like a drama set than an actual working space due to how meticulously everything was placed. He was a thorough, cautious man, who had helped Zeus Hotel regroup after Dong-wook’s conviction and through Young-do’s inexperience.
What could Young-do offer him that Dong-wook wouldn’t?
Once the afternoon meeting ended and Young-do had seen off the last member of the board, he approached the vice president. “Thank you for your hard work today.”
Sang-joong inclined his head slightly at the words. “I did very little today. The Barcelona acquisition was your idea, and your presentation to the board was persuasive enough for them to agree to make an offer on the property.”
“You’re a difficult man to praise.”
“It isn’t in my nature to accept things I haven’t earned.”
Young-do raised an eyebrow. “What do you think you’ve earned?”
“A twenty minute break,” Sang-joong answered. His voice was so carefully neutral that Young-do couldn’t tell whether it was an attempt at a joke or if he was being sincere. “And this evening, a bottle of wine with my wife.”
“I’ll have one sent to your home.”
“Be sure to send something to the board members as well, then.”
“It’s already taken care of.”
If Sang-joong registered the challenge in those words, he didn’t respond to it. Instead, he merely nodded as if he had expected that answer. “Congratulations on today, sir. If you would excuse me?”
Young-do dismissed him and then headed up to his suite. He debated for a moment about heading back to the gym to put in another judo workout, but twice in a day would be unusual enough that people would speculate about why he needed to burn off so much energy after a successful meeting. The original plan had been to do this week’s reading for his two business classes before heading home. Now the idea of staying in his suite was suffocating, and Young-do knew he wouldn’t be able to focus on textbooks with Father could be out of jail soon pounding through his brain.
He swapped his business suit for jeans, a shirt, and a leather jacket; called the concierge desk and told them to deliver a bottle of Kwon Sang-joong’s favorite wine to his residence; and retrieved his motorcycle from the underground parking garage beneath the hotel.
With his helmet on, Young-do was granted rare moments of anonymity. The streets of Seoul were always busy, but he sped through them anyway with an almost reckless abandon, his shouts drowned out by the roaring engine and the wind.
(His mother would scold him for his dangerous driving if she knew; Young-do would choke back the question he still hadn’t been able to ask her and promise to be more careful in the future.)
Near sunset, Young-do found himself in his old neighborhood. No, not found—that implied chance or fate or some higher power had a hand in him slowing his motorcycle to a stop in front of the gates to the Choi estate. He did not go inside. He hadn’t been inside in almost five years. Not since he graduated from high school, obtained his majority, and gained full control of all the assets in his name.
The first thing he had done was buy his mother a proper home, one large enough that he could live with her but small enough that the hallways didn’t echo. It was close enough to her café that she walked to work in good weather and only allowed the live-in maid to drive her when it was too wet or cold or dark. Yoo Kyung-ran seemed to enjoy refusing her son’s attempt to make her life better.
(He wondered if she felt guilty about the things he tried to do for her. Another question he couldn’t bring himself to ask.)
The estate hadn’t been completely abandoned—Dong-wook’s seven-person legal team checked on it frequently and ensured that the small staff left behind maintained it properly. Young-do always passed those reports on to his own lawyer to manage. If he’d had the power, he would have sold the estate. Or demolished it.
“I won’t come back,” he told the gates. “And neither will Mother.”
When Rachel arrived at his suite, she still carried traces of smoke and ash. Young-do offered her his shower even though he wanted nothing more than to talk about her encounter with Lee Hyo-shin. She accepted, and Young-do had her clothes sent down to be cleaned. Then he looked up news reports on the fire in Incheon while he waited for her to finish up.
“How did the board meeting go?” Rachel asked when she came out of the bathroom. She was wearing one of his white bathrobes, which was far too large for her. It ended midway down her calves, and she had practically wrapped it twice around her before she tied it closed with a double knot. She had a towel wrapped around her head to dry her hair, and the sleeves hid her hands entirely. It all made her look small and soft; the incongruity made him smirk.
“I’ll make the offer on the Barcelona property this week. Room service should be here soon with dinner.”
“You’re being rather solicitous today.”
“I needed to distract myself somehow.”
Rachel sank down into the couch across from him and crossed her legs. Young-do set his phone aside so he could completely focus on her. “Walk me through what happened today with Lee Hyo-shin.”
She had an eye for detail and a fantastic memory, so it didn’t take long for her to explain the bizarre encounter that had happened that morning.
“Sunbae must be out of practice with intrigue,” Young-do said once she was through, “or else he meant for these opening moves to be obvious maneuvers. He didn’t have to involve you at all, either as a messenger or with the meals. If nothing else, he could have come straight here and told me himself. He knows which suite at the hotel is mine.”
Young-do waved that question away—it was too long of a story for tonight. “And if he had been acting out of the goodness of his heart, he wouldn’t have essentially invited me to meet with him. He wants something from us.”
“Probably in exchange for more details about your father.”
His smile had more fury behind it than amusement. “How can I turn that deal down?”