Chapter 4: Gi-jeong
It is a matter of course that when death overtakes life, the body undergoes a transformation. Gi-jeong had learned this while holding her father’s funeral. Her father had lain on a hard bed, his body yellow and swollen head to toe from the fluid that had built up in his abdominal cavity. His body demonstrating the fact that concluding a life was never easy. The swelling was, in a manner of speaking, death’s war trophy in its victory over life.
Her father had been hospitalized for symptoms of jaundice. The jaundice turned out to be caused by cirrhosis of the liver. The cirrhosis worsened rapidly. Despite being given the maximum daily dosage of diuretics, the fluid in his abdomen had not budged. Gi-jeong was twenty-two at the time, her younger sister only nine.
Now the deceased body presumed to be that of her younger sister’s looked almost nothing like her sister had in life. But Gi-jeong was convinced it was her. She was certain that, just as with her father, death had left its trophy behind. And, as if to tell her that the battle had been more vicious than ever, the condition of her younger sister’s body was beyond gruesome.
The corpse had been found in the lower reaches of the Namgang River in J City. A short while back, a housewife had drowned herself in that river right after a Buddhist lantern festival, and during the search for her, Gi-jeong’s sister’s body had been recovered instead. It would take some time before her body could be buried. There was still the autopsy, among other necessary procedures. Since no suicide note had been found, the coroners could not confirm the cause of death. That is to say, while it was obvious that she had died by drowning, they did not know whether it was a suicide or an accident. Even with an autopsy, they said, they could estimate the approximate time of death, but they might never know what had happened leading up to it. The whole time she was listening to their long explanation, Gi-jeong was certain her sister had committed suicide. It seemed like something that was bound to happen eventually and had only been a matter of time.
Someone summoned the officer who had escorted Gi-jeong into the morgue, asking him to check some documents. He stepped out, leaving just the two of them, Gi-jeong and her sister, alone in that chilly room. Or to put it more accurately, Gi-jeong was alone, the sole life among a roomful of deaths.
When she was face to face with her sister, the thought occurred to her that she had actually wished for this to happen. For the sister who had tormented her mother her whole life to disappear for good. She tried to deny that she’d ever wished it, but it wasn’t true. Nevertheless, she still hadn’t imagined it would happen like this.
No, that wasn’t true either.
The truth was that she’d imagined it often. Her little sister mangled, charred to black, torn to shreds. That was what made it all the more painful to see the body cold and stiff and so badly damaged.
Her time alone in the morgue with her sister seemed to stretch on forever. The unreal cold chilled her to the bone, reminding her that she and her sister were both made of flesh. And that her sister was now a cold and distant being, a phantom.
Gi-jeong asked her sister as she lay there silently: What happened? Her sister didn’t stir. Yet she felt as if she heard an answer.
One thing led to another.
If she could have spoken, that’s what her sister might have said.
Her sister had been accepted to a university out in Wonju and had moved into the dorms. Gi-jeong thought her sister could have made it into a better school in or near Seoul, but her sister was stubborn. Gi-jeong didn’t do much to dissuade her. At first, her sister had come back to Seoul during school vacations, but eventually she stopped showing up even then. She kept changing her phone number, making it difficult to get in touch with her much of the time. Once, she returned home out of the blue after a year or so of no contact. Gi-jeong and her mother had been inwardly convinced that she’d left for good, so when she came back, they felt both disappointed and relieved.
When she tried to ask her sister where she’d been and what she’d been doing all that time, her sister gave her the same non-answers:
One thing led to another.
Gi-jeong knew that, of all laws, this—the way that one thing leads invariably to the next—was the only of life’s laws that she could not find fault with. But it was still an upsetting answer. Her sister seemed to leave everything up to luck and chance. It wasn’t that one thing led to another, it was that her sister left life to its own devices.
In Gi-jeong’s view of things, life was a weed. If you didn’t tend to it, it would grow out of control and spread and shove its branches into everything. If you did tend to it, it would be restrained and trimmed and plucked, and, if you did really well, it could even have a shape to it. How could her sister not know that? Especially having been so miserable her whole life. It suddenly occurred to Gi-jeong that the phrase her whole life now referred to the past perfect tense where her sister was concerned, and she went blank for a moment.
Her sister had come to Gi-jeong’s home, holding Gi-jeong’s father’s hand, at the age of five, and from that point on, she’d become a burden to Gi-jeong’s mother. Gi-jeong’s mother was pitiable and terrifying. Her sister was pathetic and shrewd. Her father was irresponsible and cowardly. Gi-jeong consciously tried to treat her sister fairly. She mistakenly believed that she acted as an objective and neutral mediator between her mother and sister. In truth, she was entirely indifferent. You’re not like her, her mother always said. And because she was not like her, Gi-jeong regarded her sister with pity and sympathized with her with all of her heart.
When her sister returned home after that year of no contact, she’d seemed a bit changed. She was warm to their mother, and when they sat down to dinner, she’d talked nonstop. Gi-jeong and her mother were unable to get a word in. Her mother ended up losing patience and leaving the table. Her sister seemed entirely unconcerned and continued to prattle on, much to Gi-jeong’s wonder.
Her sister had always been just as uncomfortable around Gi-jeong as she was around her mother, but upon her return, she acted differently. She pestered Gi-jeong to take her out to popular restaurants, asked Gi-jeong to loan her a bag, wore Gi-jeong’s clothes without permission, waited in front of the school when Gi-jeong was scheduled to get off of work, claiming that she’d just happened to be in the neighborhood, and then hit her up for spending money. In a word, she acted like a true little sister.
When vacation ended and her sister returned to school, she kept herself very busy. Or at least according to the occasional updates she gave them over the phone. She belonged to several clubs on campus and never missed a single class. She studied for exams late into the night at the library and went on blind dates. One minute she was joining a mountaineering group and going on a week-long hiking trip, and the next she was joining an a cappella group and horrifying everyone by crooning vocal warm-ups right in the middle of a phone call. During a school break, she announced that she was taking a trip and dropped out of contact for over a month. On another break, she joined an advertising club and came home with a crate-load of bottled water that had a low market share. She said she was preparing for a copywriting contest and swigged the water constantly before coming up with the ad copy, “We don’t bury pigs. We don’t bury chickens. We only bury purified water.” Gi-jeong couldn’t help but grimace when she read it. Her sister added the unasked-for explanation: “It means the water is safe from hoof-and-mouth disease and bird flu. Remember? When all those diseased farm animals were buried and it polluted the groundwater?” When Gi-jeong retorted that an ad like that would leave potential customers with a bad taste in their mouths, her sister changed it to, “We don’t sell water, we sell class,” which made no sense for the brand, which was named after a small hick town out in rural Gangwon Province. Sometimes Gi-jeong thought her sister should act more like a student and loaf around and take it easy, but her sister acted instead like she was making up for lost time and kept herself busy and distracted with things that, in Gi-jeong’s eyes, were not really worth her time.
Now it fell to her to contact people who might have known her sister. So as not to be the only one at the funeral parlor. So as not to abandon her little sister. The very first place she called was her sister’s department at the university. They told her that her sister had never re-enrolled. Thinking there must be some mistake, she tried calling the office of the registrar and the student affairs office. She was told the same thing there, as well. She wouldn’t put it past her sister. Her sister had not been all that interested in her declared major.
After a couple of days, Gi-jeong went in person to her sister’s university in Wonju. Her sister could still have attended student club meetings while on leave of absence. Gi-jeong went first to the mountaineering club’s room. There were several photos taped to a metal filing cabinet. Her sister’s face was in none of them. Next she went to the advertising club. None of the students there knew her sister’s name, but they did confirm that they’d created an ad for bottled water. Gi-jeong remembered the ad copy her sister had written. We don’t sell water, we sell class. One of the students told her it was the slogan for a famous foreign water company. They added that it had won a great deal of prize money in an ad contest.
She thought the police would be actively investigating her sister’s case, but when she called to follow up, they said they were busy. That her case was not pressing. They would decide the course of the investigation after they got the autopsy results. Gi-jeong accepted the fact that her sister’s death was just one of many countless deaths to the police. And besides, the sooner they moved forward on it, the sooner her mother would find out. Her mother would have to find out at some point, but now wasn’t the time. When she imagined her mother’s reaction, Gi-jeong feared what might happen.
At least the police were quick to hand over the call history for the cell phone registered in her sister’s name. Gi-jeong had requested it. She wanted to call everyone her sister had been in frequent contact with and invite them to the funeral. Since her sister would be taking her last journey without being seen off by their mother, Gi-jeong wanted it to at least be a little less lonely.
While scanning the list, which wasn’t very long, the first number that jumped out at her was her own. All of the calls had been made by her sister. The calls were short, some no more than a second. Her sister had wanted to tell her something, and Gi-jeong hadn’t listened. Another number caught her eye. It was the last call made from her sister’s phone. Her sister had tried the number over and over. Gi-jeong wanted to tell that person what had happened to her sister. The person whom her sister had dialed repeatedly during her final moments but who, like Gi-jeong, had not answered.
According to the log, those calls were also short—just one, two, three seconds, eleven seconds at the longest. Gi-jeong could think of only one scenario in which you would end a call after one second: checking to see who is on the other end and immediately hanging up.
She tried the number using a public phone in the school cafeteria. It made her uncomfortable to reveal her own number to someone she didn’t know. She called the number several times, but no one answered.
Where was this number? Who was using it? Who was the person her sister had tried so anxiously to reach? Was it the person who’d led her sister to J City in the first place, where she had no friends or family? Who was this person who answered their phone only to slam the door on her sister’s earnest heart after just one or two seconds, eleven seconds at the most?
Chapter 5: Se-oh
It didn’t matter if you were dealing with a victim or a perpetrator, the hardest type of person to deal with was someone like Se-oh. Mutes were worse than liars. No human being can lie all the time, it’s not in their nature. The truth is bound to pop out, even right in the middle of telling a lie. Liars made you proud to be able to see through them, but mutes—they only made you boil over with anger.
Se-oh wasn’t saying a word. When Detective Kim Myeong-guk asked, We understand that your father, Yun Su-chang, has been depressed lately? Se-oh stared at him and smirked. She wasn’t answering his question. She was mocking it.
Detective Kim took a photograph from a drawer and handed it to Se-oh. When it came to showing someone evidence and getting them to believe him, he was a pro.
“Look at this.”
It was a photograph of a cross-section of a gas hose. Se-oh knew at once what it was.
“Pretty clean, huh? This here shows it was cut. Sliced clean with scissors or a knife, on purpose.”
The results of the investigation weren’t out yet, but Detective Kim wanted to get a reaction from Se-oh. He wanted to make her start talking. Se-oh stared at the photo. Little changed in her expression. He couldn’t stand the silent treatment, but he wasn’t going to lose his temper over it either. At least dealing with someone like her was more efficient than people who asked too many pointless questions and had to be told the same thing over and over.
At Number 157, the gas line, which was anchored to the wall next to the kitchen stove, had broken above the manual valve while the valve was turned off. Normally when the rubber tubing deteriorated, it broke somewhere beneath the valve. Gravity and the passage of time are always hardest to bear at the bottom. This meant that as long as the valve was closed, there would be no gas leak, even if the bottom hose fell off completely. To put it another way, if the bottom hose was broken while the valve was turned on, then there was a good chance the hose was intentionally severed.
Likewise, if the top hose was broken while the valve was off—as was the case at Number 157—then the odds were high that it was an intentional accident. It was possible to maliciously fake a worn-out gas hose in order to cause something bad to happen. That had been the case with the recent gas explosion in Uijeongbu not long ago. The gas valve had been turned off and the top hose severed using something sharp.
But a similar case alone was not enough to conclude that the explosion in Number 157 was due to foul play. The cabinet above the sink had been found completely torn from the wall. Accidents had been caused before by kitchen cabinets falling and damaging the gas line. A detailed investigation was needed to determine whether the explosion caused the cabinet to fall, or whether the explosion was caused by the cabinet falling and jostling the worn-out hose. That would take time. If deteriorated hose, accident; if severed hose, incident.
Se-oh could not believe that the gas line in the photo was the same one installed in their kitchen. She must have seen it several times a day for over twenty years, and yet the shape and color were unfamiliar. Hearing Detective Kim speak so conclusively, so full of assurance, about a gas line she’d never seen before, she was struck by a pessimistic thought: The police would conclude the case as they saw fit. They would not help her father at all.
Though she knew people only said it to comfort her, it enraged Se-oh each time someone said the accident was a stroke of bad luck. That was the kind of thing you said in response to getting an answer wrong on a test or slipping and hurting your tailbone because you weren’t paying attention to where you were going.
If this had happened solely due to bad luck, then whose luck was bad? Her father’s, who was burned from head to toe in the explosion? Se-oh’s, who had missed the explosion and survived, but lost her home and would likely lose her father soon as well?
Detective Kim didn’t believe it was the fault of bad luck. Some accidents were fabricated from a disguise of coincidence and luck, and he regarded this as one of those cases. Se-oh didn’t fully understand what he meant by that, but it made her feel worse than hearing it was bad luck.
Detective Kim stared at Se-oh. He seemed to think she hadn’t understood him well enough, because he came right up to the desk and sat down.
“There’s a thing called a hose cock. Allow me to explain. They’re not in use anymore. You can’t use them. Gas lines were redesigned to not allow them, because they’re dangerous. See, it’s real easy to slice right through. The hose is rubber, so it used to happen all the time. But there are a lot of old houses where the gas lines haven’t been updated. It’s impossible to go door-to-door tracking them all down. Your house, Ms. Yun, was one of those old houses. Makes it real easy to get a gas leak. Once the leak starts, the gas just keeps coming out. That’s because it doesn’t have one of these. An automatic shut-off valve. The new gas lines all have fuses that shut off right away if it senses there’s a leak. Makes it a lot harder for accidents to happen. You get what I’m saying?”
Se-oh nodded. She knew what he was literally saying, but she didn’t get what he was driving at. She only nodded because she figured he would keep staring at her until she did.
“There was a similar case not long ago. It was all over the news—did you see it? Up in Uijeongbu. Same as your case.”
She remembered. A lot of people got hurt, so there were news updates everyday. Or maybe there was just nothing else worth reporting on at the time. She’d probably even watched the news with her father. Of course, she couldn’t remember what sort of face her father had made or what he’d said.
“These gas explosions—there were over a hundred and fifty last year. Only reason the Uijeongbu case made the news was because so many people died from it. We’ve already had three cases in our jurisdiction alone. Fact is, the further out from the city you go, the more of these explosions you get. If you want to lower the suicide rate, all you have to do is add an automatic shut-off valve to the gas line in every last kitchen in the country.”
As she looked at Detective Kim, she was reminded suddenly of heading off to work for the pyramid many years earlier. Before leaving their lodgings, she and the other recruits had all stood in a circle and shouted their motto: “Don’t sell, teach!” The image had nothing to do with where she was now, but it struck her that Detective Kim was no different from the people she’d worked with back then. He had it all down to a science. That is, he knew how to get people pumped up, and how to convince them of anything, so he could get exactly what he wanted from them.
“Have you seen this before?”
The photograph Detective Kim was tapping showed a half-burnt disposable lighter.
“You find them everywhere, these lighters. Every house has got one or two. It’s the sort of thing you think you haven’t seen even though you have, or that you think you have seen even though you haven’t. They’re so common that they’re useless as evidence. They should make ‘em different from each other. Why do they have to make them so damn identical, am I right? Makes our job harder. Your father smokes, doesn’t he? Looks like maybe he snipped that hose there and had himself a smoke. We found the lighter in the living room. Along with the cigarette. How’s your father been lately? I hear he’s been grumbling a lot about dying…”
Se-oh closed her eyes. The world slowly turned into a solid wall. It wasn’t dark and dismal. Being surrounded by a wall meant she was safe. She understood now that, this whole time, while her father had been lying in the hospital, while he was in agony from having his flesh stripped and his bones seared, while his organs were damaged and tubes inserted into him to keep him breathing, the police had been doing absolutely nothing, and she felt like running away.
“Ms. Yun, I’m going to tell you all about the father you didn’t know. Listen up. First of all, your father had a bit of debt.”
Detective Kim shuffled some papers. Se-oh knew all about it. She didn’t know exactly where all that debt had come from, but she had a pretty good idea.
“Commercial banks, mutual savings banks, usurers—the debtors’ holy trinity! That’s how it goes. When you can’t pay back the commercial banks, you borrow from the mutual savings banks, and when you can’t pay back the mutual savings banks, you go to the usurers. Do you know what usurers are? Loan sharks. If there were a step after that, he’d have taken it, but sadly for him there’s no such thing. The only place left to go after borrowing from loan sharks is up there.”
Detective Kim raised his index finger and gestured upwards.
“Since he couldn’t pay back his loans and kept on lying to everyone and not taking responsibility for his decisions, he probably got mad and argued with his creditors. And then of course he would’ve turned to crime. According to the people he was friends with back when he owned a tool shop, your father Mr. Yun Su-chang used to say all the time, ‘I want to die. The work is killing me. What’s the point of living this way?’ Not long before the explosion, he asked if anyone knew where he could buy a strong pesticide. You know, the rate of success for suicide among the elderly, it’s very, very high. Old folks don’t mess around when it comes to deciding whether or not to kill themselves. As soon as they decide they want go, they really go.”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
Having said that, she felt extremely lonely. But she comforted herself with the thought that she was okay. After all, she wasn’t as lonely as her father, who was lying alone in a hospital room wrapped in bandages. She could bear it. No matter how lonely she felt, she was not as lonely as her father.
“Of course not! Of course he wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t do that at all.” Detective Kim laughed. “But here’s the thing. This kind of thing is done all the time by people who would never, ever do such a thing. Humans being, by nature, are prone to doing what they would never in a million years do. If humanity consisted solely of people who seemed like they would do that sort of thing, then we’d all be terrified to death. The thing about people is, even when they would never molest or rape someone, they do, and when they would never, ever lie or cheat, they do. So of course, even when there’s no chance they would ever commit suicide, they do.”
Detective Kim looked at Se-oh’s silent face and stopped talking. In order for him to close the case as a suicide, above all else, the motive had to be clear. In Yun Su-chang’s case, it didn’t much matter whether you pointed the finger at his depression or his hardships. If the fire were ruled an accident, then he’d have some money coming to him through insurance, albeit not very much. What mattered more was getting the family’s consent.
Se-oh gazed at Detective Kim. She vowed to never die alone. If you were alone, you had no walls to hide behind. Her father must have been so lonely lying in that hospital.
“There is someone who arranged to meet with your father that day. Do you know him? Someone who might have come by now and then to collect money. Name is Yi Su-ho. You say you were home all the time? Remember seeing him?”
She had known there was such a person. But she’d never let on to her father that she knew about him. Her father hadn’t wanted Se-oh to know that the man existed, and so he was basically unknown to her. She’d never seen his face. Nor did she know his voice all that well. Her father had always dealt with him out in the courtyard. Very occasionally, the man’s voice would drift faintly into the house.
“The explosion happened right before he showed up. Means your father had no money to give. So I’m thinking he did it to show the guy, hey, if you don’t stop coming around, I’m gonna kill myself. That was the message. And he even managed to get his daughter, who never leaves the house, to go out. What timing! Bet you had no idea your father was up to all of that?”
Just as Detective Kim had said, Se-oh did not know her father. To put it precisely, the father she knew was different from the father he knew.
Her father was a man who hoisted a three-kilogram dumbbell every morning and groaned, “Aigo, I’m dying!” He did it not to exercise but to wake Se-oh, who was a heavy sleeper, with his grumbling. He claimed he did it because he hated to eat alone, but she knew it was because he worried about her skipping meals. On weekends, he sat on the sofa and watched comedy programs on TV just so he could spend time with her. Whenever she laughed, he would join in by saying, “Aigo, I’m laughing to death!” He didn’t say that because the show was funny but because it made him happy to see his daughter smile. When news about a politician came on the screen, he would curse and say, “They should all drop dead!” It was the obvious, meek resignation of a powerless commoner with nothing to live for. When he got dust in his eye from the lamp cover while changing the bulb in the ceiling light, he would loudly exaggerate the pain and say, “Argh! I almost died!” When he was coming home from a night of drinking and took the bus in order to save on cab fare only to fall asleep and forget his glasses on the bus, he would tell her, “I scrimped to death,” and while turning a sock with a hole in it inside out in order to darn it, he would brag, “How’s that? I could kill someone with these skills, couldn’t I?” He also used to brag about the fact that, back when their house was built, he had stacked the bricks himself instead of hiring laborers, and would say, “Your daddy’s to die for, isn’t he?” as if by doing so he’d single-handedly saved the nation, and whenever he pointed out patches of cement on a wall that had been added to fill in the cracks that kept appearing, he would lament the “deathly shameful” state of the construction industry that couldn’t even build a single wall properly. If Se-oh cooked so much as a single pot of stew, he would exclaim that the flavor was “killer” and slurp noisily. Every month he bought her menstrual pads without having to ask, and he would add that if he kept that up he would soon “die of embarrassment.” These were all the ways that Yun Su-chang, the father Yun Se-oh knew, spoke of dying.
Detective Kim did not know any of that. He thought there was plenty of reason for her father to be depressed: he had debt, he had a grown daughter who kept herself cooped up at home, and the store he had owned for over ten years was sold off for practically nothing when the shopping plaza it was in was zoned for redevelopment, causing his debt to grow even higher. Detective Kim was right. Right to think that before the worst had happened, things were already a mess.
Se-oh agreed. It was not just one thing, but rather one thing after another and another, like links in a chain, piling the bad luck higher and higher around her father and Number 157, and the result of it all was the explosion. And Detective Kim had unwittingly revealed one of those links to Se-oh. The person who had forced her father to make an extreme choice, the person who had made her father sit all alone on the couch as the smell of gas spread around him, the person who had made him depend upon a tiny insurance policy with his own life as collateral. Yun Se-oh committed that person’s name to memory.
Chapter 4: Gi-jeong