Chapter 5 – Vanity || Endless Night
Endless Night || Heartless City Sequel
Chapter Five – Vanity
By the time Soo-min had re-run the course of events at Vanity through her mind for the umpteenth time, she found herself caught in a fury so intense that she was forced to take deep breaths to prevent herself from hurling something at the walls. With each cycle, the potential explanations as to why Kim Hyun-soo was at Vanity multiplied, each distinctly less appealing than the last.
He wasn’t surprised to see the gangster. He took the man with him. Why would he take the man with him? Was he helping the man? Was the man a comrade? Are they in the same business? If they’re in the same business then…Soo-min felt nauseated. Is Kim Hyun-soo connected with the drugs? Is he behind the drug experimentations? What if he knows about my kidnapping? Under the churning feelings her stomach cramped and a cold sweat broke down her spine.
To rub salt in the wound, there was also the fact that Hyun-soo was a link to a part of her past that she couldn’t allow herself to revisit. He was once linked to him, the man whose memory, despite the passage of death and time, still haunted her.
She firmly stopped her thoughts from progressing any further. She had learned long ago that going down that road threatened to bring forth emotional chaos. It was best for the past to remain in the past; revisiting it didn’t do one any good. The Soo-min of five years ago had been little more than a child, impulsive, quick to give in to feelings, and transparent. Looking back, she was embarrassed by how naive and gullible she was about the world, about people, about life. She understood now the world was painted in shades of grey.
Soo-min tentatively touched her cheekbone and winced at the pain. It had been a few days since her encounter at Vanity, and during that time she had managed to put a name to the owner of the lion tattoo – Kyu-bong. His rap sheet had been a long one, filled with charges for petty crimes and sexual harassment complaints. There was no information on his possible gang affiliations.
Tapping a finger on the desk as she carefully considered her next moves, Soo-min weighed the risks and consequences against the rewards and benefits. She stared at the white card in front of her. Finally, Soo-min pulled out her phone to dial a number,
“Hi Joo-young, it’s Soo-min. I need a favor.”
If Paksa Adeul knew back then how incompetent the police were, he might have re-considered his decision to join the Police Academy and become a private investigator instead. He rapped his fingers sharply against the window. Soo’s police contact had been unable to obtain any information on the name Mi-young, and details about “Vanity” and “The Madame” were vague at best. The option of reaching out to Hyung-min wasn’t available. Even if the guy could have provided any useful information, Paksa Adeul didn’t want to draw any attention. Considering how their last farewell went, Hyung-min would have been suspicious of any form of contact.
The past was better left where it belonged, in the past. He looked over the detailed test results that Woo-ha had provided him. Perhaps in these pages there was a clue that Woo-ha’s medical mind overlooked. As Paksa set his mind to analyzing the papers in front of him, he allowed himself a brief second to savor Masa’s report that the scum had ended his nightmare by bashing his own head into the wall. Perhaps her tormenter’s death would subconsciously give her a moment of peace.
That was the only thing he was able to give her – the chance for peace. He had long abandoned any personal claim to it.
Three weeks later…
It’s amazing how easily a pretty face can make up for sub-par skills, Soo-min thought as she stood behind the counter. She watched Shin, her manager, expertly prepare an exotic-looking drink for a bar patron. The woman was eyeing Shin as though he was the drink she wanted to drown her sorrows in. Soo-min couldn’t fault her taste. Shin possessed a tall, lean figure, with slightly tousled hair, warm brown eyes, and the ability to make anyone feel that they were the center of his attention. Using Joo-young’s network and connections in the nightlife industry, Soo-min had been able to secure a position as a bartender at Vanity. Joo-young had of course asked questions, but Soo-min deflected her by explaining that she needed to make some money now that she was on leave from her job, and that she had some experience with service jobs. Plus, there had been that brief stint working undercover as a bartender two years ago. But she soon remembered that bartending and hostessing required very different skill sets.
Fortunately, she made a quick friend in Shin, who lent a helping hand to “Mina,” her alias, when he first saw her fumbling with a patron’s request. He instantly took her under his wing during her first couple of weeks, pointing out the patrons who were good tippers, what kind of little quirks certain regulars had with their drinks, and patiently explaining the intricacies of drink mixing. I probably would have poisoned a guest within the first week without Shin. He had first come to her rescue when on her second day when a man in a sharp, navy suit that accentuated his sharp cheekbones sat down at the end of the counter, away from the other tipsy guests, and had called out “Old-Fashioned” in a clipped voice. Soo-min had had a rather awkward moment trying to figure out whether or not he was insulting her sense of taste. She wasn’t exactly in the fanciest outfit since she learned on day one that dresses and heels did not mix with bartending. . . She’s been standing there, unsure of how to proceed, when Shin smoothly stepped in, described the ingredients of the drink, and led her through the preparation steps. The patron had stared at her when he raised the drink to his lips, assessing both creator and creation at the same time. His lack of comments suggested that they both passed, although perhaps barely. “Old-Fashioned” had dropped by the bar a few more times since then, and Soo-min was determined not to mess up any of his orders. Shin had laughed when she told him about the difficult patron, and said that such guests were common. The man was a regular and always ordered the same drink.
Soo-min did not forget her purpose for requesting this position and was constantly on the alert for any unusual activity, especially signs of Kim Hyun-soo, though she hadn’t seen him at all since that night. She found herself relaxing in Shin’s presence though. He had a way of slipping past her guards and causing her to laugh at his jokes despite herself.
Shin’s persistent patron finally vacated her position, giving him one last longing look. He smiled politely before turning towards Soo-min with an amused glint in his eyes. Soo-min bit her lip so as to not chuckle.
“I’m going to see if any guests need re-fills,” she told Shin, who nodded.
“Stick to our area,” he reminded her. Soo-min absently nodded, although her mind was already mapping out ways to go beyond their designated section.
That had been one of the first conversations they had. Vanity was a sprawling club with different levels and sections, each overseen by different staff. Shin had said that their bar was situated on one of the other levels. Some guests cycled through the different areas, but by default, people seemed to stay in their preferred sections. Yet, there were exclusive areas that permitted more “privileged” guests, areas that did not admit the general public.
Soo-min’s objective was to access those inner layers.
Checking back to make sure that Shin or anyone else weren’t watching, she ascended a set of stairs leading from the foyer, the entrance to another section. As she slipped into a hallway and cautiously made her way down it, she noted the various doors and the laughter of drunken guests behind them. Rounding a corner, she spotted a staff member walking towards her from the far end. To save herself the trouble of coming up with an explanation for why she was where she wasn’t supposed to be, she moved towards the ladies’ room, disappearing behind the door before she could be seen. She was absently admiring the elegant trimmings when she noticed that she wasn’t the only occupant.
There was a young woman leaning against the sink, washing her hands. She was easily one of the most beautiful girls Soo-min had ever seen, possessing a sensual, feline face and a dancer’s slender build. Her dress was a deep shade of emerald green and the material screamed “expensive”. Unaware of Soo-min’s presence, the girl hissed in pain and reached for a towel, using it to dab at the trail of blood that was flowing down her inner thigh. Soo-min moved towards the girl, who looked up, surprised by Soo-min’s presence. She turned and took a step back, wincing as she brushed against the ledge of the sink. Soo-min grabbed another towel and leaned down.
“Here, let me help.” She said, reaching out a hand. The girl gave her a scornful look and knocked her hand away.
“I’m fine.” She said sharply.
“Look, you’re hurt. Let me just use this towel to apply pressure.”
“I said, I’m fine!” The girl snapped, slapping the towel away. She brushed past Soo-min, knocking her in the shoulder and exited the room. Soo-min could hear the sound of her heels moving rapidly down the hall. She stood back up slowly. When she had bent down, she’d gotten a clear view of the girl’s inner thigh. There was an intricately drawn tattoo – some sort of flower. She headed back towards the bar, conscious of the time that had passed, deciding that she would have to continue her exploration another day.
Back behind the counter, she found herself soon occupied with serving drinks to the patrons who had arrived during her absence. It turned into a busy night and so it was an hour later before she was able to catch a moment with Shin.
“Shin, I saw the most stunningly beautiful girl earlier. I thought she was some kind of model.”
Shin laughed, “You get a lot of those around here.”
“She had a tattoo, some kind of flower, on her inner thigh.” Soo-min added, keeping her voice deliberately light.
Shin didn’t speak for a few seconds, then slowly said with a raised eyebrow, “I’m not going to ask how you happened to be looking at a girl’s inner thigh, but you’re talking about a Lily.”
“Yes, Lily,” Shin replied, “I’m not sure how you managed to find a Lily in this area. Did you leave our section?”
“Of course not.”
“Well then, consider it your luck to have spotted a rare sighting of an exotic species tonight.” Shin said, moving to polish a glass.
“Species? Plural?” Soo-min asked, standing next to him and picking up her own glass to polish.
“You know that every club has a roster of escorts with different rankings, yes? I don’t know much about Lillies, but I’ve heard that they are ‘elite’ escorts. They’re extremely exclusive and expensive and being a patron of them will cost you a pretty penny. As such, you should never have to interact with them. They never come into this section.”
He set the glass down and laid a hand on Soo-min’s shoulder. The usual, affable Shin had disappeared. “I don’t know your story, but I know that you have one. We all do. Whatever the reasons that led you here, Mina, Vanity is not your run-of-the-mill club, and its patrons aren’t your run-of-the-mill club goers. We prize ourselves on discretion and order. There are rules for a reason, and everyone has his place. It’s best if you just concentrate on your job.” He paused for a moment.
“But, if you start getting curious and asking questions you shouldn’t be, you’ll be fired immediately,” He leaned in, his customary laughing eyes suddenly piercingly serious. “Stick to the rules, do your job well and you’ll be rewarded. Break the rules…”
His words hung ominously in the air.
What Shin didn’t know was that Soo-min had already seen that tattoo before. She had first come across it in Hye-soo’s autopsy photos.
Soo-min looked over the edge of her glass as she studied Jin-sook. In the five years since that chain of events in which they had first crossed paths, she’d maintained a steady relationship with her “unni.” After the tragedy, they had both needed someone to lean on in the aftermath. More often than not, it had been Soo-min’s shoulder that ended up stained with tears. Jin-sook was a shell of herself. That steel she usually carried herself with had become brittle overnight.
It had been hard for Soo-min to watch Jin-sook mourn the same man she did, and for almost the same reasons. She felt that Jin-sook possessed a prior claim to Jung Shi-hyun; indeed she had known Shi-hyun for much longer and had been part of his intimate circle, his family. Soo-min, who had never known where she herself fit into his world, had felt more and more like an outsider with each tear Jin-sook shed. So she did her grieving in private and let Jin-sook lean on her. After all, when you count Safari, Jin-sook had lost more than one family member. Plus, it had been Soo-min who held Shi-hyun’s hand and clutched him close as he drew his final breaths. At least she had been able to say farewell.
Eight months after that horrible event, Jin-sook announced she was going on vacation out of the blue. She left Soo-min a brief message saying she needed to get out of Korea and breathe in some fresh air. Soo-min was extremely relieved; she had been afraid that the unending turmoil and tension Jin-sook lived with was going to devour her any moment. Frankly, it was a miracle that Jin-sook hadn’t had a nervous breakdown. Her unni needed to spend time in a place where she could absorb the sunlight and chase away the shadows.
A month later, Soo-min received a call from Jin-sook inviting her to come over for a drink. Happy to see her, Soo-min had noticed a definite change to Jin-sook that night. Jin-sook seemed…different. She had an air of contentment and peace that she hadn’t before. There was a lingering melancholy in her eyes, but it seemed that she had laid her demons to rest. For the first time in a long, long time, the two of them spent the night not trying to come to terms with the past but instead talking about the future. Jin-sook had expressed her decision to pursue work related to fashion, using her connections to build a clientele. Soo-min had been happy and supportive of the decision.
As the hours passed and the alcohol sloshed in their glasses, Jin-sook’s in particular, her tongue had started to loosen. She started talking even more strongly about “new steps” and “laying the past to rest.” Soo-min had been confused by the sudden zeal Jin-sook was displaying, but was mostly relieved with this new Jin-sook that had emerged. Later, Jin-sook became so tipsy that Soo-min had to help her to her room. Her unni was decidedly inebriated, in fact to a level that Soo-min had never witnessed before. They’d stumbled into Jin-sook’s room, where she had promptly collapsed on the bed. Soo-min had toed off Jin-sook’s heels and fumbled through the drawers for night clothes to lay out in case she woke up in the middle of the night.
To this day, she didn’t know whether or not she regretted that decision. As she was rummaging through the drawers, a photo had slipped from the pile of clothes in her hands and fallen to the floor. When she picked it up, she almost fell over herself. The photo was a close-up shot of Jin-sook in Paris with a carefree smile on her face. Standing next to her was a ghost. Jung Shi-hyun wore a casual, collared shirt with longer, tousled hair that played against his features. He was smiling slightly at the camera with an expression of contentment that Soo-min had never seen in person.
The shock of realizing that she had been mourning a man who wasn’t dead all along, and the implications of that realization were too much for Soo-min to take in at once. Her emotional state tail-spinned. She experienced a brief moment of happiness that he was alive, which was quickly replaced by anger at him and everyone for keeping her in the dark. Why hadn’t he contacted her? He must have known how devastated she’d been. Why hadn’t Jin-sook told her? Or Hyung-min for that matter – surely he knew. When anger had burned itself out, all that remained was an aching sadness mixed with hurt and shame. He hadn’t told her because he didn’t want her to know. He had cared so little for her that he rather she think he was dead. Heart-wrenching tears of misery, embarrassment and dejection streamed down her face when she finally understood what place she had in his heart.
So Soo-min wrapped the knowledge of his continued existence inside her and used it to silence any lingering feelings. She moved on with her life. The world became a little greyer, and life became a little number. She never told Jin-sook that she knew. She never reached out to Hyung-min to ask him why. She didn’t want to deal with their pitying eyes looking at her. Looking back years later, Soo-min realized that moment marked the death of the old Soo-min and the birth of the new one. Since then, she learned how to create a mask and wear it.
Now she used that mask with Jin-sook, “Unni, have you ever heard of anything about a lily being tattooed on the inner thigh?”
Jin-sook paused and raised an eyebrow at the unexpected question – “The flower?”
“Yes,” Soo-min answered, setting down her glass.
Jin-sook studied Soo-min. In the past five years, she’d watched as Soo-min shed the openness she once possessed and replaced it with reserve. She used to think of Soo-min as a ray of light, her guileless and friendly manner piercing through even Jin-sook’s well-constructed defenses. But the Soo-min before her was distinctly muted and her emotions were harder to read. Jin-sook privately worried about the girl. Several months ago, Soo-min had disappeared for a length of time, not responding to any of Jin-sook’s calls or messages. When she had re-emerged, Jin-sook was shocked to see how unwell she looked – all skin and bones and dark circles under the eyes. Soo-min had dismissed her appearance as the result of being overworked and Jin-sook hadn’t pursued the matter further despite her doubts. Every now and then these days, Jin-sook would catch Soo-min with a haunted expression in her eyes.
Soo-min had always been beautiful, but it had been an airy, innocent beauty. In these recent months she’d regained a healthy appearance but the last touches of girlish softness had melted from her features. The change was too sudden and unexpected, exacerbating Jin-sook’s concerns. Something was wrong.
“Lilies…” Jin-sook turned her attention back to Soo-min’s questions, “They’re an urban myth. In my former profession, ‘Lilies” were as high as you could go. They’re supposed to be “elite” escorts for the wealthy and powerful. When I was running my business, I heard about them here and there, but it was all hearsay.”
“Did the rumors mention if they were involved with drugs by any chance?”
“Drugs? I’ve never heard of that. There were rumors that they might be linked to a gang and stuff about them being into darker stuff, but nothing about drugs.”
“How would someone become a “Lily?”
“Soo-min, why are you so interested? If one wanted to become a Lily, I would suspect one would need to be invited into the position. Usually those girls are working as escorts already and then get promoted.” Jin-sook was looking at Soo-min now with some suspicion and wariness.
Soo-min answered casually, “I’m working on a case where a girl died of a drug overdose. She had a tattoo of a lily on her inner thigh. There’s not much information about the tattoo and I wasn’t sure if it meant anything so I figured I would just ask you.” She was very glad she hadn’t informed Jin-sook about her indefinite leave from the police.
Jin-sook gave Soo-min another suspicious look but the answer seemed to satisfy her.
“Just be careful Soo-min.”
Soo-min nodded as she drained the contents of her glass.
Finally I have some pieces to work with.
Soo was starting to become concerned that he’d lost his touch with the ladies. After the encounter with Soo-min, Paksa expressed concern about possibly running into her again and had sent Masa to investigate the club instead. Although Masa’s delicate, pleasing looks and his scar always drew cooing attention from the ladies, he was too intense and serious to be able to tease information out of them. Soo had vetoed Min-jae – people would remember the sprawling demon tattoos curling along every inch of his skin. When Masa again reported his lack of findings two weeks later for the umpteenth time, Soo had taken it as his signal to try his luck at the club one more time.
Apparently my skills are rusty, he thought with a twinge of embarrassment. He’d been sitting in one of the rooms sharing a drink with a young hostess who was all too happy to serve him. Soo had resisted the urge to roll eyes upward at her incessant chatter. Had there really been a time when he’d fancied girls so… young? But when he casually asked about “The Madame,” she’d completely ignored his question and kept talking about how “cute” he was. Soo decided after ten minutes that one, he never needed to look in a mirror again after having his every feature described down to the minute detail, and two, the girl was either brainless or the best actress ever. Afterwards, another girl had rotated in and it had been a case of rinse and repeat.
I need to change tactics, he decided as he headed down the stairs. And take a shower. He felt decidedly violated after the looks and forward whispers the last girl had given him. As he headed down the stairs, he cast a glance at the bar, puzzling if he should try it next. He was about to head over before he stopped, pivoted, and walked quickly in the opposite direction. He’d just seen that girl, the one that he had saved the first night he’d gone exploring around the club. Soo-min was her name, he recalled. She had her head tilted down, making some kind of drink, while a man stood beside her giving her instructions in a teasing manner. She’d turned eyes sparkling with mirth at him and had hopefully missed Soo’s vanishing act.
Goddamnit, why of all places does she have to work at this one? That means I can’t investigate this area any more, too risky. It’ll have to be Masa. Maybe if I pull him aside and teach him a little bit about flirting… However rusty his own skills were, he could beat Masa any day when it came to wooing females.
Soo walked some distance away from the club before stopping. He pulled out his phone and prepared to call Paksa with his findings (or lack of) and the news about that girl now apparently working at the club as a bartender.
There was the distinct click that echoed in the night and Soo froze with the phone still attached to his ear.
“We need to talk.” Soo-min said coldly.
Author’s Note: My cliffhangers really are quite terrible. Many thanks as always to lilahozi and Aziraphale for the endless hours of work! Akiko, Jess – I wouldn’t be here without your amazing support as well! Next chapter centers around the meeting that everyone has been waiting for…