(Originally posted 1 June 2014 on tumblr)
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were the only full work days Rachel had because of her graduate classes, and she preferred to get as much done as possible during them to make up for her half days the rest of the week. The warehouse fire had thrown her normally packed schedule into chaos, but at least she wasn’t the only one pulling a late night. Most of her team was still here despite the hour.
She had Min-ah place a late order for the team’s dinner and, when it arrived, had her set it up in the nearby break room. Then she made sure that everyone left their work behind and went to eat. None of them had complained about their workload in the wake of the disaster, which meant they deserved some token of support from her. It was important to make the employees believe they were valued—and some of them were valuable—and giving them free food and a break during a hectic night was an easy way to do that.
Rachel took her tablet with her, even though the break room had a television in it. There was some side work she needed to keep up with this evening, mostly emails she couldn’t respond to while using RS International computers. She doubted her mother would be regularly monitoring her computer, but Esther was nothing if not invested in keeping Rachel on her guard. Corporate espionage was something Rachel needed to be alert for at all times, especially when she was preparing to pitch an idea.
Min-ah turned the television in the break on to A Daughter’s Revenge while the rest of the team helped themselves to the sandwich platters. When Rachel raised an eyebrow at her, Min-ah kept a straight face while she said, “I thought we should see what the coat looks like on Moon Chae-won.”
As if she hadn’t helped with the fitting herself. Rachel did not roll her eyes; she merely waved the excuse away and let Min-ah and the rest of the team watch tonight’s episode of the drama. Chae-won wasn’t wearing the sponsored coat in her first scene, so Rachel devoted her attention to her own food and one of her private email accounts.
Professor Kosugi from the Bunka Fashion College had sent her several messages, each containing photographs of different third-year students’ work. The professor had received a substantial consulting fee, paid from an account Esther did not have access to, in exchange for providing Rachel a first glimpse at her most promising students’ work. Rachel had slowly narrowed down the talent pool over the last several months and subtly suggested to the professor what sort of work she’d like to see in the next assignments.
Her entire team was engrossed either in quiet conversation or the heated argument happening on television, so Rachel went through the electronic portfolios. All of the students were exceptionally talented, and several of them would be easy fits into the current RS International brands. Other students didn’t mesh as well, but their work was exciting and could potentially reach different market groups. As always, business was a game of risk and reward, and Rachel needed to decide sometime in the upcoming weeks exactly what her next move ought to be.
Moon Chae-won’s character gained the sponsored coat about halfway through the episode in a quiet, starkly lit sequence. The camera followed Moon’s hands as she armed herself—figuratively with clothes and literally with weapons she hid on her person—and did not show her face until she was finished. It was a chilling sequence. Even Rachel, who knew almost nothing about the show, could tell that Moon’s character was a woman who kept her power tightly leashed until it was time to strike.
The coat looked fantastic on her.
She paid a little more attention to the show after that, glancing up every now and then whenever she heard Moon’s voice. The last fifteen minutes of the episode was an engaging chase sequence through the mountain forest. No, not a chase—a hunt, with Moon’s character running her prey to ground. The man hid himself in an abandoned cabin, but it didn’t take long for her to find him and kill him in the last seconds of the episode.
The RS International logo popped up on the screen as one of the sponsors, but the next logo was the one that took Rachel by surprise: Gasin Furnishings. It was a subsidiary of the Jang Corporation and had been absorbed through Jang Shi-hyun’s marriage to the only daughter of the Noh family.
(“Of course Gasin Furnishings is more important to you than I am,” Rachel had told Shi-hyun two years ago. She couldn’t cry when her whole body was engulfed in disdain for her boyfriend—ex-boyfriend as of that moment—and the excuses he had made. “It’s a new market for you, and the antitrust laws in South Korea would never let Jang Corporation and RS International merge anyway.”
“Thank you for understanding, Rachel. I knew you would.” He had tried to kiss her then; she had pressed her hands against his chest and pushed him back even though she ached to pull him closer.
“You didn’t know me well enough,” she had said, “if you thought we could continue after your engagement.”
“I won’t be engaged until I return to Korea. We still have three more months.”)
Rachel shut off her tablet and stood up; the rest of her team followed suit. “Let’s get back to work.”
Eun-sang didn’t try to keep Young-do from walking away even though she was still furious about getting swept up into—into that bizarre argument he and Hyo-shin had just had. Hyo-shin was just as angry as she was, judging from his white-knuckled grip on his champagne glass and the way his jaw was clenched. His eyes were firmly locked on Young-do’s retreating shoulders.
“What just happened?” she asked, though the words came out as more of a demand than a question.
After a long moment, Hyo-shin finally turned back to her. The smile he put in place was brittle, almost fragile. “This, apparently, is the week in which everything I do is going to be misinterpreted in the worst possible way. That’s going to make my Saturday difficult.”
“Sorry. It’s difficult to know where to start, especially in a crowd like this.” He gestured to the room filled with people in front of them. “There are some things I’d prefer not to broadcast.”
That was a mild deflection—there was no one close enough to overhear a quiet conversation, and no one seemed to be paying them any undue attention either before or after the confrontation with Young-do. Still, her years dating Tan had taught her that sometimes extra caution was something a person seldom regretted.
Eun-sang finished off the last bit of her champagne. “On the way home, then.”
“If you insist.”
She plucked Hyo-shin’s glass from his hand and, before he could protest, drained its contents. It wasn’t entirely pleasant—she preferred to linger over her drinks because she was such a lightweight—and the carbonation made her sinuses sting. “No more alcohol for you tonight, sunbae.”
“So you don’t ‘accidentally’ get drunk and have to call for a designated driver.” She gave him the smile she used when she was pretending to be sweet and didn’t care if anyone called her on it. “We are going to have that conversation. You owe me, after what you just did.”
Hyo-shin didn’t laugh, but his expression softened into a wry smile. “I’m torn between being hurt you think I’d do that and cursing your intelligence.”
“Shall we get back to our mission?” he asked as he turned back to scan the crowd of lawyers and prosecutors and judges. He had been referring to their observation of Prosecutor Im as a mission all evening, as if they were spies or soldiers. For someone who had had an awful experience in the army, Hyo-shin made a surprising number of jokes about military service.
Eun-sang signaled a server and got rid of both champagne glasses. The man was barely out of hearing range when Hyo-shin swore under his breath.
“Prosecutor Im may have disappeared. I can’t see him from here anymore.”
Eun-sang glanced toward the section of the crowd she had last seen the handsome prosecutor in, but she couldn’t find him. “Should we take a walk?”
Hyo-shin offered her his arm automatically, and Eun-sang slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. They made a meandering circuit through the room, pausing briefly now and then to greet people who looked at them expectantly, though they did not linger. Hyo-shin usually kept it just to introductions, and he deftly parried every subtle attempt to discern whether or not he and Eun-sang were a couple. In the meantime, Eun-sang smiled pleasantly and kept surveying the crowd for Prosecutor Im.
Somewhere during the confrontation with Young-do, Im Joon-hyuk had disappeared. It was late enough that he may have simply retired for the evening, but that was unlikely given that he was one of the award winners, and one of the younger ones at that.
“Have you found him yet?” Hyo-shin murmured as they broke away from the judge that had stopped them.
“No. Let’s try’s outside.”
He guided her through the crowd and out the doors that lead back into the ballroom. Members of the hotel staff were still scurrying around putting the chairs and tables away, which meant that it was a poor place for the prosecutor to be hiding. They strolled through the half-lit room and through the doors that opened into the main lobby.
The Plaza Hotel was still bustling at this time of night. Clerks at the check-in counter were busy handling a small flood of guests that had clearly just arrived from the airport—their luggage still had the airport tags on them. Hyo-shin and Eun-sang gave them a wide berth and headed for the back hallways.
The Ministry of Justice wasn’t the only group that was throwing an event at the Plaza Hotel. There was a post-wedding party going on in a nearby ballroom, and a few smaller, more intimate celebrations in other rooms. The hallways were peppered with strangers in semi-formal or formal clothing and harried-looking hotel staff. A nearby bank of elevators kept opening and releasing additional event guests onto the main floor every few minutes as the parties in other areas of the hotel concluded.
Eun-sang and Hyo-shin wandered through the hallways slowly, searching for the prosecutor. She was about to give up when one elevator opened and Joon-hyuk walked out of it.
The prosecutor was a striking man in his mid-thirties, with carefully groomed hair, prominent cheekbones, and a sharp jawline. Over dinner, Eun-sang had gathered the impression that, despite his full lips, he was not a man who naturally smiled often. Nevertheless, his few smiles had been charming over dinner. They hadn’t been able to talk to him very much before the award ceremony, but he was, as Hyo-shin had teased, criminally attractive. Especially when he adjusted the coat of his close-tailored suit.
Joon-hyuk headed down a different hallway, away from Eun-sang and Hyo-shin, and in the direction of the lobby and the main ballroom.
“There he is,” Eun-sang whispered. “What was he doing in the upper levels of the hotel?”
“That was too fast to have met a lover,” Hyo-shin said, and then he did that little crooked smile which meant something he wasn’t inclined to share had amused him.
Eun-sang decided she didn’t want to ask. “Let’s go after him.”
“Actually, I think we should watch the elevators for a few minutes. If he was just in a clandestine meeting instead of getting lost on his way to the restroom, then the person or persons he met with should also be in the hotel.”
“Whoever he met with could have left first,” Eun-sang pointed out. “And we have no way of knowing for sure who it was he met with anyway.”
“That’s true. What would you like to do? This is your investigation.”
She hesitated for a moment, weighing the possibilities, and that moment was just long enough for a different elevator to open its doors.
Choi Young-do and his vice president—she couldn’t remember the man’s name, though she did recognize his face—emerged. Both men paused when they saw Eun-sang and Hyo-shin staring at them, though Young-do’s surprise was quickly masked by a predatory smile.
She felt Hyo-shin’s arm tense under her hand, and she curled her fingers in his suit coat as a warning. He didn’t relax.
“I have cleared my schedule now, sunbae,” Young-do said as he stepped forward. “Do you have time to teach me a lesson?”
Eun-sang had almost forgotten just how tall Young-do was, especially when he was close enough that she could reach out and fist her hand in his clothes. Even with her wearing heels, he loomed over her, and the underlying menace in his voice nearly made her step back. He always took up more space than he ought with just his presence. It had been years since he’d last frightened her, but some instincts, it seemed, took longer to fade than others.
She refused to let that old fear show; she was done with the life she had led back then. “No, he doesn’t,” she said before Hyo-shin could forget that she was not going to put up with being dragged into their animosity. Like Young-do had forgotten. It hadn’t even been half an hour since she had told them both off, and here he was, ready to jump right back into whatever it was that had made him confront Hyo-shin in the first place. “Hyo-shin sunbae’s time is mine for the rest of the night.”
His smile faltered and fell away in a few heartbeats, and the pained expression that replaced it was, somehow, even worse. Young-do’s face stirred up sympathy and concern underneath her anger, and with it came the beginnings of suspicion.
Young-do just turned and walked away without another word. His vice president went after him.
“I think,” Hyo-shin said quietly once they were gone, “that I was wrong.”
Eun-sang pulled her attention back to her sunbae even though part of her hoped that he wouldn’t confirm the sudden turn in her own thoughts. “About what?”
“Choi Young-do. I think he likes you.”
“He can’t possibly still like me,” she said, even though the truth of the words settled into her bones. “It’s been six years.”
“Since when was Choi Young-do the kind of person who was good at letting something go?”
Eun-sang didn’t answer because she was too busy replaying the conversations with Young-do, and when she put all the pieces together she groaned.
“I can’t believe I said—sunbae, he probably thinks we have a room here tonight!” Her cheeks burned, and she let go of his arm so she could cover her face with both hands. There was no reason to let him see just how mortified she was.
“Should I be insulted that you consider me such an unattractive option?”
“Yes,” she said. She peeked through her fingers just in time to see Hyo-shin smirking at her. It was unfair that he wasn’t blushing, too. “Let’s get out of here. You owe me an explanation for what happened tonight.”