I'm no stranger to death. Growing up as a kid death was all around you. I walked on streets paved with the blood of soldiers who fought for this country, I listened to the radio and heard about what was going on in other countries, and the media certainly didn't pull any punches. Shadaloo had its roots deep in the world at the time I was beginning to question things on my own. I could always tell when someone important died at their hands; whenever my father came home with a defeated look on his face I knew that he hadn't lost just a case but a client as well. Sometimes the victim, of Shadaloo or something accidental or natural, would be someone close, and I would sit there feeling a tightness in my chest.
It's what I feel now, this tightness in my chest that keeps my lungs from drawing in a full breath.
"Han? Can you- Can you look at me? I know this is hard, but we could use your cooperation."
The lies had been shoveled my way long before I sat down in one of the confined rooms of Seoul's police department. I had gotten good at translating these lies into something I can understand, so I knew what was on these officers' minds before it could pass from their lips. None of them had ever dealt with this kind of thing themselves; not even me, and I wasn't trying to bullshit myself like these officers were for the sake of rapport.
I looked up and focused on the gangly man across from me to try and reassure him that I wasn't having a hard time, but there was no doubt in my mind that he mistook my look for that of a glare, and in that sense he probably thought I was, indeed, having trouble coping.
"Would you like anything to drink? Some water or-"
"Just get on with the questioning," I murmured.
The fact that I wasn't curled up with a cup of coffee in the lobby but rather confined to this little room only served to remind me that I was a suspect. After what I had gone through the very least they could do was give me some comfort.
"Okay. Well, I- We've asked you enough already. Your story checks out well with us as well. We're not passing judgement upon you, and we're not tossing accusations either." The officer, Sok Myung Ki, leaned forward and clasped his hands together upon the table that sat between us. "What happened wasn't your fault; you couldn't have known about the poison."
More lies. Of course they were passing judgement. I was the scapegoat instead of the demon this time around, so everyone was eyeing me up with suspicion. They wanted to know why I would go through such great lengths as to send a poisoned bottle of liquor to myself if I knew that Mrs. Tong would be the first one to want to have a taste. None of the officers outright accused me of this, though I knew that it was only a matter of time.
"You suspect me," I stated.
"We shouldn't. But with things the way they are now with a murder on our hands and you here as a chief witness, we have no choice but to write you up as a suspect," Myung replied.
"What about Hanako?"
"That was the name on the package, yes. Mrs. Tong's friend. She's adamant that she didn't send any packages recently, nor did she know about your dojo business as was written in the note. She'll be a suspect as well."
"But you don't suspect her," I answered for him, seeing as he danced around my question.
Myung either ignored me or chose not to shut me down.
"Do you have reason to suspect her?"
"I've never met her, but from what Tong said before all this happened I wager she's just another little old lady. I don't imagine she has arsenic in her kitchen cabinets." I leaned forward and gave the officer a cold look. "Looks like she and I have something in common."
The officer, once again, ignored that comment. He probably assumed that I meant that neither of us had arsenic on hand. What I meant to say was that we were both scapegoats, but I was the pick of the litter with a track record a mile long. Someone must have forged this old lady's handwriting until it was good enough to fool Tong, who in turn would fool me, unknowingly, into drinking poisoned liquor. But since I survived through a stroke of stupidly good luck while Tong did not, I was the prime suspect. I had no reason to poison anyone, let alone the only person in this city who regarded me with such warmth.
Only scum did something that heartless, and believe me, despite all my crimes and colorfulness, I still have some sense of pride.
"Do you have any idea as to who could have done this, then?" Myung asked. There was something in his tone that made me believe he was humoring me. "Anyone who might want you dead?"
If the situation wasn't so serious I would have laughed right then and there.
"That's a big list you're asking me to make. We could start with the names of the SIN members who are still on the run, the remnants of Shadaloo, your fellow officers, the people of this city… The list goes on and on."
"I assure you that none of our officers-"
"Are suspected of doing something this heinous, I know, I know," I interjected. Still, I had wanted to prove a point to him. "Look, there's a lot of people out there who want me dead. It wouldn't have bothered me if I had been attacked on my own... But that wasn't the case today."
My shitlist was massive before I had arrived home, and it had only grown since my two week stay. My cynicism and paranoia fed each other until I had begun to suspect every citizen in this city of having their own special spot marked on my back for their daggers. The notable characters included the police officers, concerned parents, common career criminals and generally anyone who looked at me funny. Yet out of all the names I had swarming about in my mind, one was pushed to the top. It was a baseless accusation but damnit even I wanted to convince this officer to look the other way for awhile.
"How about Song Kyung Su?"
"Kyung? The owner of that dojo downtown?" Myung Ki gave me an icy stare. "What makes you suspect him?"
"I have a feeling," I muttered. "We both run our own dojos. I'm just getting my foot in the door while his business is steady on his feet. Maybe he doesn't want competition."
I had nothing to go on. Out of all the people in this city, it made sense to me that Kyung Su had some kind of resentment towards me that outweighed the simple, petty fear and distrust of the common citizen. Competition has a tendency to bring out the worst in people, after all. But I won't lie any longer. I suspected Kyung Su for one simple reason: from the moment I saw him at his dojo I knew that I didn't like him, and it transcended far beyond simple rivalry.
"That's quite an accusation, Han. Personally I fail to see how he could be involved in this, but we'll investigate."
"Yeah. Do that." We shared a quiet moment together before I voiced a question. "Do you know when you can release Tong's body?"
"It won't be for another couple of days," Myung Ki replied. "We've already contacted both of her children. One of them should be coming back to South Korea in a week to take care of arrangements."
After exchanging a few more words Myung Ki pressed me for my number, address, general contact information and all the weight that came with being a suspect. Something told me that the police weren't going to do a proper investigation of Tong's murder and were using it as an excuse to keep a close eye on me. Plenty of people knew the Tongs, and with her name up there in the obituaries people needed someone to blame. Forbidden to leave Seoul until the investigation was over, I realized that I was indeed being played for the scapegoat. Until I was no longer listed as a suspect the people of Seoul were bound to try making my life a living hell.
I left the police department not too long after that feeling cynical as usual. The police, the so-called guardians of society, could not be trusted or relied on. In my experience they never got anything done unless the squeaky wheel- for instance, a certain China doll- did her damndest to move ahead. Simply talking to the officers was like pouring salt upon the wounds, but I tried to find the positives in what I had done.
If I maintain my innocence and convince others of it, soon the people will cast doubt over this whole event. When the people as a collective begin to lose faith in society's law and order institutions, that's when things step up. People get restless and angry, and soon the card that the police holds in their hand, the act of leaving me as a prime suspect, will burn away. To save face they'll have no choice but to do a thorough investigation. But I had no desire to let the police do their work unhindered.
The familiar sensation of venom flooding into my veins gave birth to a mirthless smile. If I was planning on leaving Seoul before, I certainly couldn't do it now. With Tong dead and the dojo in shambles- my fault of course- there was no other option than to figure out who was behind the poisoning. Damned if I cared about the attempt on my life; it was the murder of someone close to me that pumped vengeance back into my system. Someone had to pay for what they did to her, for what they tried to do to me.
Someone had to die.