Chapter 26 – Dreadful News (2)
Everything felt strange to her. Luxurious lighting, exuberant décor… guests accoutred. There were no families or tourist groups in hiking gear. All around, there were just… foreigners. It was as though she had got off the cab and into an utterly different world.
Overcome by a nauseating sensation of racing through time after a long state of suspension, she ran out to the street.
She was breathing heavily, trying to gather her bearings. As she looked around her… she could recognize a brick nor tree. Everything had changed. The place, the people… the air. Nothing felt the same any more. Just when she was on the brink of feeling hopeless… something caught her eye.
Standing tall, swaying in a rhythm of its own, on the river bank were the once all too familiar reeds. At long last, a welcome sight!
A blithe smile graced her lips as she walked on the dry grass allowing the blades to caress her as they wished. She took a deep breath and looked towards the sky, the glistening water… her heart started to settle. Slowly, she went along the path behind the hotel and across the field. She was happy to find the same old shortcut leading to the residential neighborhood still waiting for her. Her steps finally came to a halt upon reaching the largest independent house in the area: the Villa President’s abode.
She stood at the street corner and gazed at the house. Thankfully it was just as she remembered. The wooden gate… the high walls, it was all still the same. This was one of those places that held fond memories. Her father used to wash the car in front of the house.
She stopped herself short of excitedly ringing the doorbell. After all, the nameplate at the door had changed. She quickly came to her senses and chided herself for losing her composure.
Of course, the hotel wouldn’t be the only one with new owners! What’s she thinking!!!
No wonder I haven’t been able to reach her.
She swallowed the bitterness brewing within and looked around the neighborhood. She reminded herself about the purpose of her visit. She deliberated over what to do next as she slowly trudged away.
Where could she find Hye-yeon? Should she go back to the hotel, and see if she could find anyone from the Hotel Jinseong days? Perhaps, she could go into stores and ask about Mr. Jin? Anyone living in Jinseong would know him…
While she was lost in her musings, she heard someone call out to her.
“Yuri? It’s you, isn’t it?”
She turned towards the voice and was surprised by what she saw. Although it was difficult to make out her face in the glare of sunlight, it was definitely Hyeon-ah Kim from the old hotel.
Hyeon-ah smiled happily. “I heard you were in Korea and knew you would visit. It’s been a while!”
Yuri hesitated at the warm welcome of her old acquaintance. She was happy to see her, but something was off.
How did she know that I was in Korea?
“Come in, this is my place.”
Hyeon-ah led Yuri to a small café near the hotel. It was bustling even at this time of the day, a sign that business was doing well. It appeared to turn into a bar in the evenings. Yuri looked around its small interior while her host prepared coffee.
Hyeon-ah was different from how she remembered her. She had never seen her with this much makeup before. Her straight black hair had been replaced by a beautiful brown, wavy one. Her previously short nails were now long and manicured, and instead of a clean-cut suit, she was wearing a tight dress that perilously showed off her cleavage.
“So you don’t work at the hotel anymore?”
“That’s right. They cleaned the house when the new owners came in. First, they moved me from the front desk to the kitchen, and then to the laundry room. I couldn’t handle it. The manager is still holding on, though.” As she spoke, she sat opposite Yuri with two cups of coffee and lit a cigarette in her mouth.
Seeing the surprise on Yuri’s face, she said as if explaining herself, “Oh, this? I started when I opened this place.”
For some inexplicable reason, the smoke made Yuri’s heart race. Even so, she asked in the calmest voice that she could muster, “How’s the business?”
“When I first left the hotel I was at a loss about what I should do to feed myself. But turns out I’m really good at this stuff. I had learned a lot at the hotel, too. It was pretty hard at first but thankfully things are stable now. I even have some regulars. How’ve you been?”
“I’ve been living with my uncle in the US.”
“And what do you do these days? Still painting?”
“Yes, I’m still working in the art industry. I’m in Korea on business.”
“So you’re going back to the US?”
“I’m leaving in three days. I came to Jinseong just to see how things are, but…”
It was time to wrap up the reconnaissance mission disguised in pleasantries. Yuri took a deep breath and shed all pretences.
“How did you know that I was in the country?”
Hyeon-ah slightly raised a corner of her mouth and put out the cigarette.
“A man came to see me… With a recent picture of you.” She was forthright with her reply.
“It looked like it was from a CCTV footage. You had your hair up in a ponytail, wearing a trench coat.” Hyeon-ah walked over to the counter as she talked and fetched something. It was a business card– gold-colored text printed on black paper.
<Jin-wook Jeong, President, J Consulting>
Yuri had never heard of the man or the company before.
“I’m not familiar with him.”
“I figured. He claimed to be some kind of consultant but he was suspicious as hell. He was about fifty, his eyes looked incredibly sharp. My guess is he’s ex: police or military.”
Having spent years at the hotel front desk, Hyeon-ah had a keen eye for people. One glance, and she could read them like a book. This skill was very handy in dealing with the guests then as it was now.
Yuri carefully inspected the card. She read and re-read the name and other details. She’d a gnawing feeling within, but she couldn’t put a finger on it.
Sensing her misgivings, her friend decided to put her at ease.
“Don’t worry. I didn’t have a good feeling about it either, so I just told him that I didn’t know you.”
“Can I take the card with me?”
“Yeah, go ahead. Actually it wasn’t you that he was interested in at first. He initially asked about Hye-yeon, the dead girl.”
The mug had slipped from Yuri’s hands and hit the floor. For a brief moment, the crisp shattering of porcelain fractured the gaiety of the café. Even so, the source of interruption was oblivious to it all.
Who could blame her?
Still unaware of the wreckage she’d created on the floor, a flustered and pale Yuri asked, “Hye… Hye-yeon is…dead?”