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November 15, 20##
Seoul, South Korea
Young-bae Kim had scrambled through the last 30 years racked with fear and guilt. He’d kept in the shadows as much as possible- always worried that he’d turn round to find him there, back to take payment… .
Kept in the shadows. Drawn as little attention to himself as possible. Lived cheaply on the stipend allowed him by former employers. He had always known that even an utterance could have led to ruin. But, with too much to tell and too many ghosts, he hadn’t been able to keep his mouth shut.
And that had brought the rages of hell down upon him.
Someone’s found out I’ve been talking. Someone has decided that my time’s up.
He had gone to church. He went every day – the growing congregation sizes had necessitated his changing churches; the more fervent proselytising had led to an increase in numbers beyond what could have been imagined back in the old days. Sitting next to a young family; the father in a well-cut suit, his pretty wife doting on their twins, he found himself thinking of a past that time had hopefully long since swept away the evidence of. Wincing at a past impossible to obliterate from his memory, he turned away from the family and spotted a young man and woman staring from the first pew to the left of the altar. The man held his look a moment longer and then looked down at his hands. The woman, more brazen, continued to stare even as the old man frowned at her. Her partner whispered something, but she continued to stare, never relenting. Not harshly, but more in curiosity and calculation. It was a cough heard from his side that broke the spell, and looking back, he saw the father holding out the collection plate. Fumbling, pinpricks of shame tangible that he hadn’t gotten money ready from his wallet, he placed the basket on the bench behind him before finally dropping a note into it. He looked back only to see that the man was gone. She remained, but looked ahead at the celebrant on the altar, paying no further attention to him and his clumsiness.
Celebrant, Eucharist and all else far from his mind, he shuffled out of the pew and, leaning on his walking stick, limped head bowed down the aisle towards the atrium and the outside world. Mind ravaged by the couple’s manner, he would have little peace for his remaining hours.
The sun, wrapped in its wintry haze, had done nothing to remove the chill from the morning air. The old man stretched his lower back, aching dully from the hard pew inside the church, and scanned the parking lot for any sign – nothing. Taking a deep breath he headed homeward, debating stopping off somewhere – if he was being followed he wasn’t going to lead the couple back to his apartment. There was an American chain on the way, and although he hated the idea of paying good money for something easily available in his own kitchen, the possibility of stymieing the shibsekis from the church was an absolute necessity – he certainly hadn’t trusted the way that the woman had held his gaze even when challenged.
An hour passed and his coffee had slid from scalding, to hot, to tepid, and on to cold. No sign of the couple or anything else that made him think that it had been anything more than a simple, unpleasant event. Maybe time to scout out a new congregation. He leaned on his stick for support and drawing on all his strength, faced into the November mid-day. On the way he picked up some bread and a packet of cigarettes – fuck you and what you’ve done – his only vice since giving up on the drinking – though as he aged he had begun to keep a bottle around for medical emergencies.
The street outside his building was deserted. Most of the apartments on the lower floors had been given up for storage or delivery businesses. Sometimes his dreams were even sound-tracked by dolly wheels being pushed up and down the corridors underneath. The elevator was out of order again, a trudge up the flights – free hand gripping the banister and stopping at the top of every turn to wheeze for twenty seconds or so – maybe the cigarettes weren’t such a good idea after all.
They were outside his door, the man leaning insouciantly against the wall, she, doctor’s bag in hand, was standing at the window and staring out into the street. He gripped his walking stick ever tighter and, focus locked on the front door, hoped that his gait didn’t betray his fear as much as his weakness. He reached the door and fumbled – his sweat reeking of panic – for his keys – FOR FUCKS SAKE MY KEYS … – his hand gratefully felt the teeth graze across his forefinger. Clasped the cold metallic spike, jabbing the third key on the chain into the keyhole. Twist. Open. Ignored the whine as the hinges issued their mild complaint and dragged the door after him, not looking behind once. They had made no effort to push in. He welded his ear to the door until it began to hurt. No sounds. No whispers. Nothing to suggest they were even still outside. Not for the first time he regretted the lack of a peephole. Palm placed on the wall next to the door, he fought to regain his breath, his brain whirling to think whether he’d seen them somewhere before. How do they know me? What do they want?
He limped across the living room and sat in the armchair farthest from the door, allowing a view of the entire room and bedroom to the right. He took a deep breath and sunk back into it, the softness of the cushions giving respite to his aching lumbar. A cigarette; that would help calm the nerves and give cause to slow down and think. He had barely lit it, one pull, two, when the phone rang, its shrillness jolting him and shattering the petrified silence of the apartment.
“Mr. Kim. How are you this afternoon?”
“Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested!”
“Oh, I’m not in sales Mr. Kim. I’m simply wondering if you’ve been properly introduced to my associates outside your door yet?”
“Who … who are they? Who are you? ANSWER me!”
“Now, now. Please relax for a moment. Wouldn’t want you damaging yourself before we’ve had a chance to talk now, would we?”
“Before? What? Who’s ‘we’? I’m calling the police, you hear me!”
“Hmmm… no you aren’t. The police won’t be helping you today. I mean, who in the police is a friend and who isn’t? A policeman could just as easily enter your apartment and do you some sort of injury. Hmmm… no, best not to involve them. Best to try and sort this out between ourselves.”
“Sort what out? For God’s sake… .”
“So… you were at mass this morning? Something to atone for perhaps … hmm…, something to pray for. I had no idea that someone with your background could become such a God-botherer. Of course then again I guess someone with your background probably has their fair share of skeletons hmmm… . Ghosts even, coming to visit you in the night. Coming to remind you of what you were. Of what you did, you hypocritical old COCKSUCKER.”
“I don’t know anything about skeletons. Or ghosts. I’m just a sick old man, I just want to be alone. I … .”
“You’ve been left alone. You’ve been left alone for THIRTY FUCKING YEARS. To totter off to service and pray for forgiveness. To go to fucking STARBUCKS. To sit in your dank tomb of an apartment with your books and Samsung TV and photo albums to look through whenever you need to hmmm… . Tell me something you dickless prick, do you think about thirty years ago much? Do you sit in that nice comfy armchair and think about what happened back in the good old days? Or have you been reminiscing… telling some old war stories to an eager ear?”
“I don’t think about … listen… I just want to be left alone. I WAS PROMISED.”
“Hmmm… yes, promises. You made some of those too, didn’t you? No point worrying about them now though, is there? You be a good boy now and go and open that door. My friends want to have a chat with you about your regular visitor.”
“I’m NOT letting them in.” He felt his voice begin to fail but mustered up all his strength for one final barrage. “GO TO HELL!”
“Hmmm… such language. Anyway, you don’t want to let them in, maybe they don’t need an invite. It’s not like they’re vampires or anything, is it… hmmm….?”
The line went dead. No sound. No tone. Nothing. He wondered if they were still outside. He wondered… Oh God, they’ve been in here. The details, the TV brand, the reference to the armchair, The PHOTO ALBUMS. With a speed he doubted he’d moved in for years, he lurched towards the book case and dragged the books out of their moorings. Behind, placed carefully – he’d had these shelves made specially so that they would fit – he removed the fake back and there they were – in clear wrapping to keep the years from taking away their lustre. Had they looked through them? Had they found the photos? THE DOCUMENTS.
He tore the wrapping from each of them in turn, trying to remember what he’d kept and the little he’d passed on. Thank god, they were still in order, as he’d categorised them years before. Thank God they hadn’t been found. Thank God … .
A knock at the door sent his thought processes scrambling. Two more knocks. Sonorous. Frightening. A death knell bringing cataclysms down upon him. He gripped the albums to his chest. Thirty years. And now this … punishment for what I’ve told.
He inhaled deeply, taking in the smell of thirty years of fear. Thinking of all he’d sacrificed, all he’d given up in the hope of being left alone. Three knocks this time.
“LEAVE ME ALONE. LET ME BE YOU BAS-tards.” The final word caught in his throat. I will fear no evil; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
It was then that it hit him, barely seconds before he heard the scratching in the keyhole; they had a key. He had only a moment to leave a message that someone might spot and be able to decipher. He opened the third album and tore a photo from the centre, the gum from decades before coming away without protest. He scanned the shelves, his last moments of freedom searching for a place to stow away the only clue they might leave behind. Yes. That’s the place.
He took another deep breath, summoning all his remaining strength, and gripped the albums ever tighter as the hinges, squealing like unruly children, turned. Fighting back the urge to scream; who would hear me anyway in this shithole on a Sunday afternoon? He watched the man enter first, then her. Their expressions gave him time to ruminate on his upcoming trials; allowing realisation to chase him down. Hers was the look of a cat playing with a moth. It wasn’t the man he needed to fear – little more than a glorified chauffeur. No, she… SHE … was going to be far, far worse.
Chapter One: A Morning Call
The rain had been pelting his windows since about 2am. Choi had noticed its beginnings as he waited for the final race from Portman Park – where the hell was Portman Park? – to come in. His horse, Oakfield Storm, hadn’t set the pace as expected, hadn’t been in the shakeup coming into the final furlongs, hadn’t even placed. So much for the favorite tag.
He walked to the sliding doors and stepped out onto the veranda. He opened the window and pushed aside the mosquito grill (it continued to jam past a certain point, needing to be forced). Nicotine alone wasn’t enough to shake the cobwebs. A strong cup of coffee would be needed to get the synapses going – instant today, no time for any of the good stuff. He’d seen a coffee and cigarette advertised in a bar in Holland once as the breakfast of champions; a breakfast also attributed by a friend of his as being a whore’s morning sustenance.
What had once been a quite reasonable though hardly panoramic view of the mountains to the west of the city was now partially obscured by an apartment building that had sprouted up the previous summer, also eclipsing his view of Namsan Tower in the distance. He had once had a small bench and a bar stool installed so he could sit and do some work over a beer. That had ended when he’d settled one lazy afternoon and looked across to see an ajossi smoking from a window opposite. Appraising him. No sign of looking away. There went any fucking privacy.
He scanned the still visible mountains circling the city, bowl-like, and reminded himself that his New Year’s challenge was to try and do more (well, at least some) hiking. He stubbed out the cigarette – need to empty that ashtray – and, patting his gut twice, stepped back into the living room.
The coffee, black, bitter, began to work in tandem with the nicotine – loosening the cobwebs and making him feel less like he’d had barely slept over the weekend. The TV was flicked on and almost as quickly flicked off – z-list celebrity interviews, morning traffic reports and news clips. The news these days was full of the upcoming presidential election, he was only vaguely aware of two of the candidates and had little intention of voting – those fuckers are all the bloody same. His father eyed him acerbically from the photo frame above of the idiot box. He countenanced for about the twentieth time that year whether the his dad would be better off collecting dust in one of the cabinets in the bedroom but pushed that and other uncharitable thoughts to one side. The old cocksucker can sit there and watch me rot like he rotted. He rubbed his hand across the sofa cushion, mottled by red wine stains and took a deep breath – he was due in early that morning, the end of a four-day weekend that he had saved up for and now viewed with all the regret of damp bed clothes and embarrassing morning-after pillow talk. It was Wednesday and the station would be at full tilt; he’d still be struggling with a Monday morning vibe. The weekend was gone and all he’d have to show was a reduced bank balance and a barrage of questions as to how he’d spent his time – surely a somewhat still-presentable bachelor had been on the town. Surely he hadn’t spent it in front of his computer, necking shitty whiskey, streaming horse races and cursing outwardly every time one of his picks lemoned out or the mutt next door kicked off as it waited for its mistress – she spent most of her time there telling it to shut up anyway.
One final stretch and then a shower. He prodded his sagging belly; when exactly did I start to go to seed. Need to get back to the gym, even if it’s only once a week at the station. He rubbed a hand over his bristled jaw – four day stubble wouldn’t give the best of impressions so that needed to be taken care of too. He envied his partner who could easily get away without shaving. He couldn’t even give it a quick once-over without shaving gel. The flashing clock radio face signalled 5.45. Time to get moving.
He was dripping across the lacquered timbered floor when he heard his phone. He’d missed two previous calls – had he been in the shower that fucking long? The screen displayed his partner’s number, meaning only one thing.
“Good morning, Senior Inspector Choi. Did you have a good weekend?”
“What’s going on?”
“We’ve had a call out, sir. A few minutes from Dongdaemun station. Would you like me to pick you up from your apartment or should we meet there?”
“There. What’s happened?”
“An old man. May have been dead a while according to the on-site reports.”
“One second while I grab a pen. Address?”
He took it down – one of the soon to be condemned parts of town, and rang off. He should be there in thirty minutes. He grabbed the first suit from the railing and ripped the dry-cleaning plastic away – the cleanest thing in the apartment – and checked that the accompanying blue shirt didn’t have any stains. Black suit, blue shirt, and … a dark blue tie. Do the blues clash? Will I or anyone else give a fuck?
Chapter Two: On the Scene
The usual gawkers congregated outside the building, a tongue-in-cheek paean to 1980s functionality with the grime consistent with thirty years of air pollution, chipped paint and lazy neglect. Choi showed his ID and was directed to the third floor by a callow youth spending his military service as part of Seoul’s finest. The elevator whined and jolted into action, giving off the impression of a machine too au fait with regular visits from engineers as it crawled towards decrepitude. The elevator jolted to a halt, the doors dragging themselves apart to reveal Inspector Hoonick Jang – freshly-cut navy suit and buffed shoes – facing an old ajumma; taking her statement alongside a female officer as the old woman’s permed head bobbled animatedly. The inspector whispered something in the female officer’s ear and came in step with Choi as he passed.
“Old man. Mid-seventies. No neighbours to speak of. The woman I was interviewing is supposed to drop by and check on him each week. Part of a local help-the-elderly programme. She raised the alarm as it was the second time he hadn’t answered. Uniforms forced the door.”
“No civilians allowed into the building?”
“Which is causing a bit of grief on the lower floors. The majority of these apartments seem to be businesses – delivery companies, a piano school, secretarial school… . The first apartment on this floor houses two women who seem a little coy about their source of income.”
“Tell them we don’t give a shit what sort of perverts they see or what happens in there. All we want is what they know and what they heard. Who’s inside?”
“Dr. Baek with the CSIs finishing up. Seems intent on torturing the cadets. Keeps commenting on lunch and bibimbap.”
“Because of the eggs?”
“I love the smell of hydrogen sulphide in the morning. Smells like … anyone hazard a guess?” Whatever sort of gallows humour Dr. Seon-yeong Baek was engaged in, Choi wasn’t keen on giving an audience to it. Yet the smell over-powered from even outside the door of the apartment, and at least one of the officers rushing outside seemed ready to reacquaint himself with breakfast. He briefly considered the whiskey from the night before, steeled himself for feelings of nausea, and strode in.
Two more officers were inside, face masks blocking the worst of the stench. The smell of a corpse wallowing in a week’s decomposition lay syrupy over the room. It was something Choi would never really get completely used to – and something that Dr. Baek was using to torture the new meat.
“Good to hear that you’re enjoying yourself, doctor!”
“Oh I’m introducing these gentlemen to the more delightful aspects of being a police officer. I swear some of them have never even seen a corpse in the advanced stages of decomposition before.”
“How long advanced? Smells like a week.”
“Good call for a layman. Perhaps eight days. The cold weather will have had some effect on decomposition. As you can smell, tissue has already broken down and the abdomen distended. There’s some fluid from the lungs through the oral cavity and nasal passages. The …,” Baek stopped to wave away a blow-fly critiquing his flow … “the body’s not far off from losing most of its mass, I’d say. Fun for whoever is moving the corpse to the morgue. You’ve also got a nice little mix of maggots in there for good measure. Course that only tells us when the flies discovered this little nest.”
Choi took in the scene around the body: shelves swept clean of books, drawers tossed, plates smashed. The apartment, he surmised, aped the violation taken out on the body. The mattress had been dragged from the bed and slashed open. A cross, ripped from the wall, lay by the bed; the emaciated suffering facing the ceiling echoed in open horror the acts perpetrated upon the weakest of his flock.
“Cause of death?”
“A little early to be exact. Someone definitely bought this gentleman a ticket for his final trip.”
Baek crouched and brought the corpse’s bloated right hand up for Choi to examine. The strange, crooked shaping of the fingers gave off immediate warning signs. The marbelized, blackened skin meant that the bruising across the wrists was initially unclear.
“Someone wouldn’t let our victim go quietly.”
“No, indeed. In fact I would say anything but. No gentle shuffling off this mortal coil for our friend here.” Baek returned the hand to the right of the corpse and stood up. “Your victim had four of his right hand digits broken. I’ll know more about actual C.O.D. after the examination. However he finally died, you have a homicide.”
The invigorating crispness of winter mornings had always helped drag Choi’s mind into alertness. Far better than the wet summer humidity that dampened people’s minds as much as the shirts on their backs. Choi took in the onlookers still milling outside the police lines; the detritus of a city obsessed with commerce piled deep on the sidewalks. The crispness of November would soon give way to snow and sludge; ice too as ajummas flung water used in preparing food the night before onto the sidewalks.
“Are we heading back to the station, S.I. Choi?”
“Not just yet. Let’s take a walk around the block. Help to clear our heads after that experience.”
Jang followed his superior’s slope through the gawkers and then fell into step alongside the senior inspector. The two men – one hunched and crumbled by the world, the other upright, well-dressed and athletic – blended into senior / junior office types so reminiscent of Korean companies; one near set for early retirement, the other about to take on his load. Choi said nothing as they passed mothers and babies; business types grasping coffees, laughing and joking their way back to their offices; the homeless and destitute rummaging through trash or collecting cardboard from outside stores.
“Did you get anything from any of the neighbours?”
“Well nobody had seen him over the past week. The ajumma I was talking to used to do some washing for him. She called it in yesterday but uniforms didn’t get around to it until this morning.”
“Lucky he had her to worry about him. He might have been left like that for weeks. Maybe even months. I heard of such a case in London once.”
“She was the only one who had any real contact with him. Though that’s not so unusual with him being one of the few residents. Those who live there keep to themselves.”
Choi reached for his chest and tried to burp as surreptitiously as possible. A coterie of whiskey and cigarettes wafted up in tandem with the burn of indigestion. He searched his right pocket for an antacid tablet, his mind briefly fumbling for some old school remedy involving pins and thread. His mother’s face and voice; instructing him to wrap a finger with some thread and then prick it. The things we fucking do because of tradition.
A business woman bumped against his shoulder, gave him her best put-upon look, and continued on her way. I wonder what I look like to her. Pretty fucking shit, I imagine. He popped the tablet and turned to his subordinate. ‘I’ll grab a taxi. See you back at the station. We’ll sit down and prepare a plan there.’ Jang nodded and turned on his heal, heading back to the crime scene and his car. Choi stepped to the kerb. Not a great start to the day.
Chapter Three: Punching the Clock
Choi’s arrival at headquarters coincided with a small group of union protesters rounded up at the nearby Council offices on Taepyeongno. Ushered to one side to allow for the wrestling match to conclude, he was treated to a barrage of swearing from one barrel-chested union member, fuming about the planned privatisation of the rail network. The officers, a melange of the soon to return to university and soon to retire, were doing their best not to swear themselves, though the strain of showing an example told with some older ones as they half-dragged, half-carried their collars up the steps and into the building. Next, accompanied by two female officers, a young woman with flowing jet black hair, wrapped in a puffer jacket and Juicy baseball cap pulled down over her face followed. The only woman, Choi wondered how exactly she’d been involved – father, boyfriend, or just a new recruit? Carried herself well, despite the company she’d found herself in.
A cacophony of ringing telephones, yells, and victim complaints hit him as he entered the open-plan office. He squinted at the bright fluorescents, and picked his way through the islands of desks towards his own harbour. A mound of files, a half-full coffee cup, pens and staplers lay strewn; it wasn’t just his apartment that needed tidying. Grimacing, he picked up the cup, struggling to remember whether this was his doing or someone else just leaving shit on his desk. Some prick using my desk as a drop-in centre. He stalled for a moment over one file, an image of a distraught mother refracted by alcohol and recriminations.
Nothing to be done with that now.
“S.I. Choi! Welcome back after your sabbatical. Fully rested, I hope?”
Senior Superintendent Jeon gave his customary wink before scanning Choi’s desk with a quizzically arched expression. Choi had learned over the years that Jeon liked to try and get along with Senior Inspectors, keeping them on side meant having a wall between him and the rank and file. This attempt at camaraderie was still in stark contrast to other Senior Superintendents, who would barely acknowledge former colleagues once they made it up the ranks.
“Excellent, thank you, Senior Superintendent. Did you have any time off?”
“Just the Sunday. Took my son to Jamsil to see the Twins.”
“Beaten by Hanwha. Can you believe it? We haven’t won the Championship since the mid-nineties, you know. I wonder if I should be putting my son through that sort of agony!”
“What else can a father do, except ensure his son doesn’t end up a Samsung Lions fan?”
“Ha! To be honest, I think Jae-yoon is more interested in soccer. He’s up all hours watching the BPL and Champions League. Anyway, heard you’ve already been to a scene this morning. Any details?”
“All the hallmarks of a homicide. Old man with fingers broken. Preliminaries suggest possible heart attack brought on by being roughed up.”
“Fucking gangs. Need to make an example of these. We can’t have the older generations worried about their safety with elections coming up. Only good news from the SMP this election year.”
Jeon nodded curtly at the approaching Jang, and spun back towards his office. The inspector dropped the car keys on the desk and looked half-expectantly at his senior. Come on man, think! What should you have him do?
“The superintendent and I’ve been talking about local gangs. Let’s start with collecting files on gangbangers and see if any calling cards crop up.”
“Yes, sir.” Drudgery allocated, Jang made to leave. An image floated towards Choi from the crime scene, ready for a possibly abler mind to grasp and mould it. Choi’s synapses howled as he put in that extra effort; it popped victoriously into a plan. “He was a religious man; had a cross over his bed. I wonder where his church was and if he had any friends in a nearby congregation.” If anyone spoke to him about a week and a half ago. “Get one of the uniforms to research local churches as well. I’d say he probably didn’t travel too far. Somebody knows him. If nothing else, it’ll help us to tie down the time of death better.”
“Why do you say that, sir?”
“Because if he didn’t go to church the Sunday before last he was probably already dead.”
Choi headed to the bathroom and locked himself in one of the cubicles. He removed a Bacchus from his jacket pocket and slugged it back, imagining the taurine coursing through him. He slapped his face lightly twice and unlocked the door. Come on! Time to get back into it!
Years of computerisation had still not stopped the SMP from printing and filing every case applicable to each major station. Jang had at least managed to get a listing on related crimes on the database before they headed into what officers jokingly called the Library of the Damned. Choi winced slightly at the bang they produced as they landed on his subordinate’s side of the desk.
Choi sat at his side of the desk, thinking about Jeon’s words – gangs, people’s safety, elections. He could do without this becoming a high profile case. It was impossible to know what journalists would run with. His mind conjured the mother again, the newspaper headlines about the police. Witch hunts against teachers and the homeless, and more questions, this time focusing on improper police procedure and the case being shuffled between desks before the poisoned chalice finally, circuitously found its way to Choi’s. In six months the case had gone cold without any mention in the news cycle. Not even that fucking parasite Koo has been around snouting at the trough. Choi couldn’t work out if the surge within him was relief or anger.
His attention drifted across the lines of desks, inspectors hunched over phones and computers, others deep in discussion with criminals, witnesses, victims. They settled on Juicy, the lip of her baseball still over her face … those long legs …’
Snap out of it man. Better things to be doing today.
“S.I. Choi. I was wondering about these gang files…”
“No choice but to go through them. We need to start somewhere and until the autopsy or forensics come through we may as well look at the obvious. We might just get lucky with the m.o.. Not that it’s not a fairly common one. Put any with a tendency for breaking digits to one side. See what we get from there.”
The numbers of those will no doubt be pretty high.
Chapter Four: On the Slab
Seoul stands as one of the safer capital cities in the world. Women splashed in street lights stroll by while children bustle home from cram schools to an evening spent crouched over desks or computer screens. Soju-fuelled businessmen stagger arm in arm towards subway stations; bus stops; taxi ranks. The average Seoulite could easily walk from one side of the city to the other without seeing or needing to see a police officer. None of which meant that what crime did take place wasn’t capable of blanching the sturdiest constitution.
The stack of files to Jang’s left was gradually shifted into three piles in the centre of the table, echoing the style Choi’d instructed the younger detective to take; probables, possibles and impossibles. While Choi didn’t necessarily like discounting any, going to see every criminal on the list would be too time consuming. The most suspicious looking ones would be first, with the impending leg work likely to take up two to three days if they could requisition extra officers. Going into the other categories would take more than a week. If they made a misjudgement about one of the candidates, the trail could be cold; their quarry long gone.
Choi laboured over the bruises left on an old woman by a motorcycle gang a few months before. Mostly damage to the arms, legs and ribs; three ribs broken on the right hand side where one of the gang had decided to practice his penalty kicks. Two of the five had been jailed. The other three (one of whom had shopped the others and was probably now looking over his shoulder on an almost constant basis) had gotten off with varying degrees of suspended sentences, fines and probations. The two inside might have been possible assailants even without the broken digits. Choi couldn’t see how the others could. He grudgingly moved the file to improbable; I’ll be reading through that file again in a week or so. Jang was almost finished, leaving eight to be checked before they started on their rounds.
We’ll need to talk to Jeon about getting those extra officers. Even two extras would help us get through this faster. He sat back and tried to view the piles in the centre as detachedly as possible. He’d take a break, have a cigarette and then try to look at the files they had collated. Choi grabbed the half full mug and made for the kitchenette at the back of the incident room. Across the room, Choi’s progress was coolly followed, the thoughtful expression flickering towards real intent.
A web search of nearby churches had identified seven in the vicinity; a mix of Protestant faiths and one Catholic. Uniforms would spend the rest of the day canvassing; talking to the shepherds before moving onto the sheep. Might be spending Sunday at a church. Haven’t been inside one since living in England.
They trudged into early afternoon. Their search had turned up, pending a more detailed examination, nothing out of the ordinary over the past week – fights, soju, and hassling bar and restaurant owners seemed to be most of their raison d’etre, and Choi began to doubt that any of these had graduated from roughing up pensioners to actually killing them. The possibility of it being a foreign gang had been mooted, but Choi didn’t see foreign groups too interested in seventy-plus pensioners. By two-thirty, with a half-eaten kimbap added to the maelstrom of his desk, he had received a missive summoning them to the morgue.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. I hope you had a good solid lunch before coming here.”
The volume of work, allied to the memory of the state of decomposition that they had encountered that morning, had aided the detective’s Spartan diet. Now, walking among a row of stainless steel tables, two of them with plastic sheets covering corpses, Choi thanked his former self for the one recent intelligent decision he had made. No real food before a trip to an autopsy. The doctor garbed in scrubs, was laying out photographs across the desk for their examination. A wisp of air fogged up before him as he stepped towards the gallery. The smell of chlorine wafted, reminding Choi why he rarely went swimming anymore. Baek got straight into it.
“Cause of death was, believe it or not, myocardial infarction; heart attack for the under-initiated. The round of torture that the deceased underwent before the event contributed to it without any doubt. Thankfully forcing someone to have a heart attack brings much the same punishment as any other form of killing, yes?”
Choi nodded for the doctor to continue. Baek handed over some glossy 8×12 prints.
“As you can see from the hands, contusions and bruising show the little and ring fingers broken on each hand, X-rays indicate that the breakages occurred here, from the proximal phalanges to the metacarpals, either side of the knuckles for the uninitiated …” at this point the doctor gave a fleeting glance towards Jang, “among us. Something else interesting about the nails… any ideas?”
Baek tapped the photo of the right hand, focusing the detective’s attention. Blood crusted on the outsides… “something under the fingernails?”
“Hot needles, I’d suspect at the moment. Should probably have a look around the apartment for any make-shift tools. I’d be interested to see if there were any burn marks on them from the gas range. The mouth also has its treasure trove; the assailants would have shoved something in there good and deep. Made the victim vomit.”
“Fibres a possibility?”
“Absolutely. A rag, possibly among the effects gathered from the victim’s apartment. Any cloth of a certain size should be tested for saliva, possibly vomit as well.”
“Might suggest it was removed when the vic. entered cardiac arrest?”
“Possibly … yes. Bruising around either side of the skull suggests that the victim was struck a number of times. In addition, we’ve got a couple of cracked ribs, and some spinal injuries. To the internals… .”
Jang muttered an expletive as they followed Baek towards the second of the tables Choi had noted earlier. Choi avoided looking anywhere he didn’t need to, not wishing to make the visit any more fraught with images than it needed to be. The doctor motioned towards the table as they passed. “Car crash victim; don’t drink and drive.” Reaching the table, Baek paused for dramatic effect, and withdrew the sheet.
“Cuts to the trunk from shoulder to sternum and down to the groin have already been made. I’ve also examined the brain and throat areas and weighed and documented all major organs. These husks are more often than not exhausted by the time they get to us. Even more so in this case. The victim was already in the early stages of lung cancer, meaning that he may have had only a year to eighteen months left. C.O.D. was a myocardial infarction, brought on by the trauma received due to his injuries. Obviously the smoking and age wouldn’t have helped, but we can rule out any accidental death, given the consistency of the injuries.”
“Samples have been taken. I’d expect initial responses in about 48 hours. From there we can examine whether we need any more in-depth analysis.”
“Your victim was probably lying there for eight to nine days. Decomposition will make further examination of the skin more difficult but I’ll do my best with it. I’ll have a thorough examination for you tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, our friend here …” at this Baek motioned to the other slab “ …means that I need to spend some time on our formula one racer.”
“But cause of death isn’t going to change?”
“Probably not. Though Mr. Kim’s final moments may have one or two twists to uncover.”
Choi nodded and finally steeled himself to take a moment’s full stock of the Grand Guignol before him.
Their desk had taken on the look of a commercial for computerised data processing. No doubt that was what had attracted the senior superintendent’s attention. The two officers’ arrival brought that quizzical expression from their superior, who had seated himself while awaiting their return. “And the computers that we had installed recently at considerable expense? I guess you two see this new-fangled technology as a step away from the joys of typical policing?”
“No, sir. It just helps me to have something more tangible. Something that I can move around; flick through.”
“They’ve certainly been moved around your desk. Anything useful from the good doctor?”
Choi’s responses were economical without being terse. The senior superintendent nodded as he himself flicked through and then repositioned one of the files. “And you think a gang member is your best bet?”
“Until we can find out more about the victim, yes. He appears to have no next of kin, meaning it’s more difficult to delve into his background. We do have officers going through financial records – pension, medical bills, that kind of thing. An actual work history is proving elusive.”
“Some of these pictures make me despair of the young. Still I have to temper my revulsion with the knowledge that ours and indeed older generations committed acts just as barbaric. Your next step?”
“We were hoping to get a few extra officers assigned to deal with interviewing some of the suspects. Of course we’ll need to do background checks first. We don’t want to go steaming into someone’s home to discover an upstanding member of the community who’s put all his past indiscretions behind him.”
“How true. We do want to encourage rehabilitation. Well, carry on gentlemen. And you’ll be getting some help within the hour to deal with that extra workload.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Files collated, Jang and Choi set to dividing up the research. The superintendent had been as good as his word, sending over two officers, Kwak and Park, from petty crimes in order to help with the background checks. These checks were able to cut the numbers almost in half. Either rehabilitation had worked or they’d gotten smarter. What was left was a who’s who of local hoods and pervs. No longer a haystack but still a lot of reaping ahead. No easy answers.
Choi leaned back in his chair and scanned the tops of the three heads peaking above the brown files before him. His feet were beginning to ache at the mere thought of what they were facing. Hour after hour of knocking on doors. The usual anger from those who’d done nothing wrong – this time – and the look of worry on other faces who were hiding some other petty larceny and wondering why the big guns were knocking on their door. Sighing, he reached towards the top file and flicked it open. The face that starred back at him, surly and frown-creased, issued a challenge to the veteran officer. What do you think you know about me? What do you think I’ve done? Do you have any chances of proving it?
“Look at this, sir. What do you think?”
Reverie cut short by a file floated towards him, Choi fastened onto the visage of an archetypal gang member. Early twenties, crew cut, glowering expression looking back from the mugshot. Whatever questions were prompted by this character, few of the answers would speak of an upstanding member of the community.
“Hyeong-seok Lee. 25. Two arrests for assault over the past two years. Both charges dropped after victims withdrew their statements. Here’s an interesting bit of info though: The second vic. had three of her fingers broken. They were looking for money she didn’t have. Here’s what she looked like after the attack.”
The pruned, damaged face that looked back at him was covered in bruises. One black eye, marks around the jaw and split lips. She must have been at least seventy.
“We might need to talk to her later. Initially, strictly off the record to check on possible comparisons. If this gae-se-ki is responsible, then victim intimidation is one thing he won’t be able to call on this time. Let’s check with his associates. See what he’s been up to for the last week or so. I’ll continue going through the other files.”
“Got it, sir.”
Jang returned to the file and started checking for known associates. Choi took in one last sweep of the room, disregarded his growling stomach, and set upon the file he’d been holding with the resigned air of Sisyphus facing his hill.
Chapter Five: Lights Out
Choi arrived home after seven, still feeling seedy from the day and the night before. He had stood in his socked feet, staring at his running shoes with a loathing he’d more usually associate with gangsters or a horse which had fallen at the first. Force yourself. Just a short one. You’ll feel better. Talked into it, he’d popped in some headphones, enveloping himself in late 70’s British punk for a circuit he hoped would be mentally as well as physically helpful. Arriving at the park as it began to thin out, he managed one minute bursts followed by one minute walks, not the best but something nevertheless. He mulled over the victim, the gangbanger, the crime scene as he ran. It at least gave him the space to think.
It wasn’t usually a great idea to run in the evening. The air teemed with the pollution of a million cars, buses, bikes. Running then had the added bonus of getting to bob and weave between those heading home after a day at the grindstone. Parks like Hanyang offered one way around this; the exercising and lolling only to evade and a chance to exist in the semblance of peace and quiet. Young couples, old couples, dog walkers, parents with pushchairs. With the right kind of music on, sometimes it’s almost possible to forget you’re in a city of twenty million plus.
Lungs burning, right knee beginning to bitch. At least the back isn’t acting up at the moment. First run in a week and a half. Felt like it.
He returned to an evening meal of meat with Chap Chee noodles and beer. The walk along his 4th floor corridor took him past the woman with her rat-dogs. Did they bark at everyone who walked past? Did she never get tired of telling them to shut the fuck up? The lock on the heavy chunk of metal passing for a front door took a bit of force; something to pass onto the largely-absentee landlord. Lights on, he remembered the summer he’d spent in London in his early twenties and his astonishment at how bright it had stayed until late. Food would take little time to prepare; even less to eat. He lolled on the sofa, swishing the last of the Dry Finish back and forth in the bottom of the can and keeping an eye on the Lotte / Doosan baseball game on one of the terrestrial channels while the meat sizzled. Dad watched in disappointment from his altar above the box, any comments as to past failures inaudible beneath the glass. No horses tonight. Maybe no ciggies either if he could help it; the run had been a harsh reminder of what was happening to his lungs every time he had one of those cancer sticks. The new anti-smoking law could do with being extended to his apartment.
Food and libation completed, he deposited the dirty dishes on the kitchen worktop, tossed the can in the recycling, and turned his attention to the documents and photographs strewn across the table. Grunting, he sat on the floor to see the information up closer.
Lee Hyeong-seok had failed to perform the civic duty of notifying his local council about his change in address. A fine will be the least of his worries when we catch up with him. Local haunts turned up empty. An ex had spat on the ground between Jang’s Oxfords and said that the police and Lee could all go fuck themselves. The one light in the day was a minister recognising the description. Yes, Young-bae Kim had been part of his congregation. For about a year though he had no idea where he’d been before. And Kim had been there on the Sunday before last. So he was probably killed at some point on Sunday or Monday.
Young-bae Kim had not gone softly. Signs of a death struggle weaved across his torso and limbs; coupled with the crime scene photos presenting a map of Kim’s final journey in tandem with whatever had ferried him there. Stains on the armchair pointed to the act beginning there, with the first assaults administered from where Kim had no doubt sat watching or reading day after day through the administrations, tragedies and occasional successes of the South Korean nation. Dragged to the floor, the attack had continued, with Kim gagged and likely pinioned to the floor while his attacker went to work. Attackers, most likely, Choi mused. For this kind of trauma and destruction there would have needed to be at least two.
Another beer popped. Still no cigarette. Choi scanned the photos; something didn’t seem right. The violence against the man didn’t seem that random. A punk like Lee would have punched, kicked, gouged, anything to get what he wanted. But there’s a coolness here; something deliberate underneath all the wanton cruelty. And Lee, no disrespect intended, didn’t seem capable of that kind of jump. The punches and kicks to the ribs seemed his style; even the broken digits showed signs of Lee’s previous work, but you don’t go from the frenzied roughing up of old women to Klaus Barbie overnight. There needs to be a middle ground; a toy on which to practice. So who, if Lee was responsible, was that toy?
Choi grabbed a notebook and pen from the counter next to the sofa and started scribbling. Streaming was one thing; a necessity if you were into western sports. But when it came to working on a case he eschewed new technologies in favour of the old methods. Any violent crimes against old people in the recent past? Similar m.o. but a little more pared back. Get another look around the victim’s apartment; something isn’t right about the scene but am not getting enough from the photos.
Choi took another moment, his pen tap-tapping on the table’s edge before writing one more thing down. Leaning back against the base of the sofa, the detective settled on the muted TV for a moment. A Lotte pitcher, offering the typical baseball interview formula, had given way to an election spot for one of the front-runners. Choi drained the can, belched loudly at the TV, and switched it off.