2021: The European Union (technically)
No one without Hong Cha-young’s innate talent for reading people (and the fact that she'd spent a significant part of the last couple of months sitting across a tiny office from Vincenzo, observing him minutely) (but more pertinently, talent ) would know that Vincenzo was suddenly on high alert. His gazelle body actually relaxed instead of tensing up, and a gleam entered his absurdly limpid eyes, as if he’d just thought of quoting her something by Petrarch.
“What is it?” she said, smiling, and he leaned in, smiling back: not a pair of vendetta-driven lawyers committing industrial espionage, just a guy and a girl at this gala at the embassy of the European Union in Seoul, getting cosy in the parking lot on the pretext of getting some air.
“We’re being watched,” he said, and Cha-young, ever the soul of discretion, peeped over his shoulder to where a shadow, or perhaps two, had suddenly appeared by the hedge by the high boundary wall. There was a hesitation in his voice that, if Vincenzo Cassano were capable of awkwardness, would count as an awkward hitch.
She laughed a tinkling laugh, hand to mouth. “We’re on international soil,” she said. “The fallout of trying anything on you here would be too much even for Babel, never mind Wusang.”
He tilted his head to gaze at her limpidly. “Mr Ahn––I should say Agent Ahn––did warn me that there’s a potential leak in the Seoul PD, which may or may not be tracking my movements.”
“How outrageous,” she twinkled. “So some bastard on a local force would try to sell you out to Jang Han-seok?”
“Part of the game,” he said, and got the very slightly glassy look in his eyes that tended to mean he was contemplating the best way to deliver her an amusing lecturette on some aspect of the style and ethos of the Mafia.
“So we need a distraction,” she cut in.
His gaze sharpened. “Byeonhosa-nim,” he began, “it’s the last thing I wanted to ask of you, but––”
But she’d shaken her hair out of its ponytail already, and brought her hands down on either side of his hips, on the bonnet of the Alfa Romeo Stelvio he’d acquired from somewhere, and was currently leaning against.
“As in Chicago Typewriter, byeonhosa-nim,” Cha-young declared, and bent him backwards over the car and kissed him deeply. He was flexible, she noted, abstractly, as his hands went up into her hair, which fell in a Kérastase Reflection Bain Chromatique Gentle Shampoo-smelling curtain all around them. She got a knee up on the fender for purchase, so that she could devour him better, in all his warmth, with an edge of ice from the faint scent of his cologne, and his silken strength––
An almighty honk! went up, and light rippled through the parking lot all of a sudden: it was a valet, squeezing one of the other fancy cars out to the driveway.
She came up for air like a lioness at a watering hole as she threw her hair back, fangs bared. Vincenzo’s lips were swollen and shining, his preternatural calm replaced by something a little more tremulous than you’d know if you’d seen him before he’d been flattened over the hood of a five hundred million-won car. She smiled.
“Do you think we’ve averted the crisis, byeonhosa-nim?” she purred.
He straightened and averted his eyes, which made her feel unexpectedly queenly. “I,” he began, and cleared his throat. Cha-young peered at him, feeling rather fond: his lips were very bruised.
“I think the shadows we spotted were just a pair of chauffeurs,” he said.
She felt a little less queenly.
“Well,” Cha-young reassured him, as he buffeted her gently into the car, big dress and all, “it’s never a bad thing to have a plan for distraction. Oh, are you taking me home? Thanks ever so.”
“What does a World War II-era rifle have to do with a,” he said, as they were on their way, and cleared his throat again. “A distraction?”
“You sound like you need a lozenge,” she told him. “Sorry I brought my tiny purse to the gala, I’d have had one to give you, else. What do you mean, a rifle? Are you––” she thought back to their conversation.
“It’s a drama,” she clarified. “The heroine saves the hero from being apprehended by Japanese colonisers by kissing him in the middle of the street. I love it.”
“I don’t understand,” he said, brow furrowed.
“Because the police would be too embarrassed to interrupt a clinch.”
He looked over at her, bewildered.
“It’s not like that in Italy?” she said.
“I’m afraid not,” he said.
“People don’t have hang-ups about public displays of affection there.”
“Not in quite the same way,” he said.
“I see,” she said.
They drove in silence for a time.
“Byeonhosa-nim,” she said.
“Did you,” she cleared her throat, “consider our ruse as anything other than a distraction, back there?”
“No, byeonhosa-nim,” he said. He said it very quickly, it seemed, to Cha-young’s sensitive ears. “Ordinarily, of course, one might say a distraction would involve a way to ensure that the person in danger escapes the situation––” he stole a look at her, “––but that could just be me splitting hairs.”
“You are excessively detail-oriented,” she said.
“Should I watch Chicago Typewriter?” he asked. “Purely for intelligence-gathering.”
“You’ll hate it,” she said. Then her mind returned to the performance of Tosca she’d cued up with closed captions on YouTube some weeks ago––for intelligence-gathering, of course.
“Actually,” she said.
“We’re partners in crime,” Vincenzo said, almost to himself.
“Co-avengers,” she agreed.
“––very good friends––”
“One soul in two bodies,” Cha-young affirmed, solemnly. She wasn’t about to let her fledgling Italian go to waste.
“It wouldn’t do to change that,” Vincenzo said.
“We’re incredibly lucky to be so close to winning a dirty secret corporate war that we can escalate to mindless heights of theatrical violence whenever we like,” Cha-young nodded, sagely.
“If we want to see this through, we probably shouldn’t rock the boat too much.”
“Are we even on a boat?” she said. “Mine’s a destroyer if we are.”
“You always talk in battle metaphors,” he said. “I like that.”
“So,” she said. “We’re good, right?”
He looked down at the fist she held out for a bump. That extremely nice and barely noticeable convulsion that took over his jaw just before he smiled one of his rare and genuine smiles occurred. He put a fist out and bumped back.
“We’re great,” he said.
They did escalate the mindless and theatrical violence for absolutely no reason other than that they could (and okay, fine, they were very upset about several things) and won.
Vincenzo took off after that.
Then he came back, and he kissed her, which, wow––very suave, Cha-young had kissed a lot of guys and none of them had quite managed a kiss of that quality so early in the acquaintance.
But: “It would be better,” she said, regretfully, “not to take this too seriously, byeonhosa-nim.”
And Vincenzo, because he was a gentleman but also because he was a smart and bizarrely emotionally stable adult in spite of the life he'd lived, looked her straight in the eye and said, sincerely, “You’re right, byeonhosa-nim.”
They’d agreed on that before they'd ever talked about it, anyway. The mortal danger had not merely passed, but was making sub-par nutrition for worms. Even so, their situation had not exactly improved, intimacy-wise. It had just changed. Cha-young, for one, was very busy now. She could barely keep up with the men lined up to buy her whiskey shots so that they could woo her away to their law firms, start-up unicorns, political backrooms, conglomerate head offices, shady firms that ruled the world out of some grandma’s garage, Chinese industry leaders, Silicon Valley tech giants and sometimes––not often, but gratifyingly not rarely ––their just causes. And then there was Vincenzo, running his own private island nation while also clearly continuing to maintain deep ties with his crime family, European politico-legal establishments, Mediterranean cash-for-citizenship cartels and Korean national security agencies.
It wouldn’t do to upset the delicate balance of their lives. It would be silly, almost, to go through what they had both been through and then settle into, what: dating? Romance? Cha-young had a high opinion of casual sex, but you couldn’t quite pull off friends-with-bennies with a guy who sent you postcards regularly affirming that you were, indeed, mens sana in corpore sano, or no: what was it? She’d uninstalled Duolingo a while ago and couldn't remember any more. The brain fog from the long recovery after a bullet wound was no joke.
Love was for villains, true. But dating and romance––those were for losers. Hong Cha-young lived in her dead father’s apartment and went to work in a crumbling office that didn’t have its own attached bathroom, but she was not a loser. It wouldn’t do to experiment with that kind of thing. It was hardly like they were going to be married, after all.
“We’re going to be married,” Vincenzo said.
“Not exactly what I expected when you said you wanted to go away to Sokcho for the weekend,” Cha-young said, “but continue. Are you bringing me dowry?”
“Yes,” Vincenzo said, because he was a very intelligent man. “A favour from the NIS.”
“Barter with the deep state, very rogue,” Cha-young said. She unlaced her heels and put her feet up on the coffee table. “No one does it like you.”
“Thank you,” Vincenzo said. “The targets are a Korean-Chinese couple coming to a honeymoon resort in Sokcho for the weekend: very exclusive and secretive. They’re part of a diplomatic counter-intelligence network that extracts and sells state secrets on the black market to whoever’s paying. The objective’s to get close and lure them into confessing, ideally on camera.”
“Oh yay, a heated plunge pool in the suite,” Cha-young said, looking up the resort. “No court would count that as admissible evidence.”
She stopped and looked up. “Ah,” she said. “But if they could take it to court why would they ask us?”
Vincenzo tipped his goblet of water to that.
“You ought to know it’s a bit risky,” Cha-young said. “You haven’t been on the national news in a year, so you might conceivably be forgotten, but I have become a legal commentator of some prominence, and am frequently invited to TV panels to talk about sending corporations into receivership––”
“That’s precisely why,” Vincenzo said, and some part of her felt oddly, drowsily warm at the flash of pride in his eyes. “Frauds can never resist the reflected glory of a public intellectual. If they see you, hiding away in an inaccessible love nest with a man who looks something like the man for whom every police department in South Korea has an ongoing lookout notice––
“They’ll open up,” she said. “Honour among thieves.”
“Do you ski?” he asked.
Cha-young did not ski, which turned out to be for the best when she cartwheeled (while stationary, but no one needed to know that) herself during her very first lesson, causing an anxious outcry from a number of strangers on the slope distressed to see a gorgeous woman in pain. “Can we get you a wheelchair?” a pair of blossoming young honeymooners asked.
“No need,” a lightly authoritative voice said, gliding over to drop beside her. “I’ll carry you back to the medical station, darling.”
“Oh pumpkin, would you?” Cha-young managed, before she swooned in his arms. She didn’t know what happened for a little while after that, but when she opened her eyes again she was in a beautiful sunlit room with a bandaged wrist, while Vincenzo was drinking tea with the honeymooners, and there was a gentle smile on his face and a smug look of triumph in his eyes.
“Darling,” he said, “Meet Kim Min-seo and Xue Mei, they’re just married.”
“Great reason to come to a honeymoon resort,” she beamed. “Congratulations!”
“Thanks,” Young Madam Xue said, smiling back as her eyes darted between Vincenzo and Cha-young. This, Cha-young thought, was a woman who had definitely seen Cha-young’s left-hand-side profile on TV. “You too...?”
Vincenzo looked brave. “In secret,” he said, quietly. “Our lives don’t allow us to make it public.”
“We’re soulmates, though, so don’t feel too bad for us,” Cha-young said. “My, Madam Xue, what a big ring you have.”
“Attorney Hong is even more radiant than she looks on TV, isn’t she, honey?” Kim Min-seo said. “What do you think about having dinner together tonight?”
“Love to,” said Cha-young. “You don’t mind if I come in this big old cast, do you?” and since Kim Min-seo didn’t say anything about stashing a pinhole camera away in the cast, she brought that along too.
“Did you––” Vincenzo asked, once they’d dropped off their recordings with Agent Ahn, on his way to the ski resort with a bunch of top-tier agents to make sure those two sweet little traitors to their nations would be on permanent honeymoon, so to speak.
“I always do,” Cha-young said. “What, specifically, do you mean?”
He gave her a variation on his piercing gaze. “Did you hurt yourself on purpose?” he asked.
“It’d be really weird if I hadn’t, right?” Cha-young said. “I mean, imagine risking life and limb to fight a war, only to be torn out of the action right at the moment of truth.”
He drove a few miles in silence. They were on their way to the military air base outside Seoul, from where he would go back to Malta in an unmarked plane, while she made her way back to Sangcheon-gu.
“I’m sorry you couldn’t finish your ski lesson,” he offered.
“I couldn’t even plunge all the way into the plunge pool because I had to keep the cast dry,” she said. “See, byeonhosa-nim, this is why they say marriage is founded on women sacrificing themselves.”
“I see, byeonhosa-nim,” Vincenzo said, which went to show that they really were soulmates.
“Oh honey,” Cha-young said, in her best Son-Ye-jin-talking-to-Hyun-Bin voice, “I’m so sorry I couldn’t call you all day, this conference just never ended! Gosh, what’s wrong with my phone, why isn’t it going off speaker?”
“Honey,” Vincenzo said immediately, as she’d known he would: he wasn’t the sort of man to let the fact that it was two in the morning in Seoul, and therefore martini o’clock in southern Europe, dull his reading of a situation. “How did it go? Did you get to speak to the Chief Justice?”
She had, as a matter of fact. “I can’t wait to tell you all about it,” she said. “When are you coming home, Chief Detective, haven’t you caught that serial rapist already?”
“He had an accomplice,” Vincenzo said, smoothly. “We’re tying things up right now. Don’t wait up for me, alright? I’ll have breakfast ready in the morning.”
“You’re the best, sweetie-pie,” she said, and called him back once she was home, doors locked and bolted.
“Creepy taxi driver?” he asked.
“He kept asking how old I was and how many children I was planning to have,” she said. “I knew I shouldn’t have drunk that extra glass of wine, but the Chief Justice was so much fun to talk to.” She flopped on her sofa. “Argh!”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“What’s the point of being a strong, independent woman if you can’t avoid being creeped on when you want to take a taxi home?”
“I've heard that being driven home alone after dark is a roulette for women everywhere in the world, if it helps.”
“It does,” Cha-young said. “Or no, it doesn’t. I should just have told him to shut up and leave me alone.”
“No one would blame you for not wanting to take a chance.”
“I’m an expert at telling men to leave me alone.”
“Men aren’t very good at listening, as a rule,” he said.
“Byeonhosa-nim,” she said, because Vincenzo was the best confidante she’d ever had, “I feel like this subterfuge was one step up from hiring an escort to go to your best friend’s wedding with you so that you won’t be pitied for being single.”
“Then again, subterfuge is your middle name,” Vincenzo said, which was such a lovely compliment coming from him that it cheered her up immediately.
“Marriage is a scam, after all,” she said. “I’m just scamming it back for my own benefit. Thanks for the help, byeonhosa-nim.”
“Always, byeonhosa-nim,” Vincenzo said, and rang off, but not before he’d paused for one significant moment.
She thought about the pause for quite a while.
Well, of course Vincenzo wouldn’t think marriage was a scam. He lived in a world where people signed ironclad contracts to bring enormous estates together and issue forth heirs to take over after themselves. That was pretty much the single most legitimate reason to marry. But Cha-young didn’t run a mafia business (though she had the wardrobe now), and if she did, she wouldn’t want it to be M&A’d into a concern that had some other guy's name on it. After the whole Babel thing she’d lost her taste for running after majority stakes in a conglomerate, so chaebol-ing it into a strategic alliance was out, too, as far as she was concerned.
She had Jipuragi, and it would always be hers. She had a raft of dreams and ambitions that no one had bequeathed to her and that she didn't care about leaving to anyone after she was gone. She didn’t need marriage for that.
Oh, sure, it’d be nice to have someone to come home to, who’d let you steal his ramyeon and give you a neck massage after a long day. At least fifty percent of Cha-young’s friends genuinely seemed to like being married and enjoyed their husbands, who were all nice guys made a hundred percent more interesting by the fact that they’d got Cha-young’s friends to marry them.
But Cha-young had seen the best man of all up close, closer than almost anyone else. She had seen how Hong Yu-chan had loved his wife to pieces, and made her miserable every day of her short life anyway.
Marriage was a scam even when an honest man was involved.
She woke up the next day and called a driver to pick up her car and bring it to Geumga Plaza. She got a premium account on DoorDash, and found a cervical pillow on Instagram that transformed her life, or at least the tension at the top of her spine.
“Tell me something, Luca,” Cha-young said, popping her spoon of gelato as she stretched her legs out at a pavement trattoria in the shadow of the Colosseum.
“Yes, jiejie?” Luca said. Life had gotten immensely easier once they’d both discovered they had a language in common other than their indifferent English. It turned out that the mafia did as much, or even more business with Chinese counterparts, as Cha-young did.
“Why does Vincenzo talk like that?”
“Like what?” Luca said. “Oh, you mean like he crossed over from Korea yesterday and was reading Italian out of a phrasebook?”
“Yes,” she said.
“He didn’t really grow up speaking Italian,” Luca explained. “Or he did, but the Italian we speak back in Sicily, where his foster parents and our family actually come from, is very different. It’s like––what do you call it in the south of Korea? Satoori?”
“Your knowledge of Korean culture’s really come along, Luca,” she said, impressed.
“I rewatch all the Reply serieses every year,” he said. “Anyway, we only moved up north when we started expanding the business. Everyone here made fun of us for being bumpkins––if you ever hear anyone call Vincenzo a ‘terrone’ shoot them in the face, no questions asked, okay?–– so he got mad at them and vowed he would only ever speak standard Italian like it was an insult.”
“Adore that strength of character,” Cha-young confessed.
“It’s an act, really. He speaks like a Florentine when he thinks no one’s listening.”
“Our countries are so similar,” Cha-young said. “Peninsular solidarity for the win.”
“You’re a celebrity here now,” Luca said. “Everyone knows the beautiful lawyer who helped South Korea win a massive antitrust lawsuit against Google, and who got invited to address the United Nations on the global right to privacy, and was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal.”
“Fame is a burden, Luca,” Cha-young sighed. She flicked on her sunglasses. “It’s another matter that it’s also a lot of fun.”
“They’ll probably recognise you everywhere you go,” Luca said, solemnly. “That’s probably why he asked you.” He looked over at her. “You’re not upset about it, are you?”
“What’s a favour between friends?” Cha-young said. “I call him when I need to pretend I’m married in front of a nosy cabbie. He calls me when he needs a way to decline a marriage proposal from your most important allies. Same thing. Who’s the girl?”
It turned out that Silvia Navneet Libano was a 27-year-old Stanford computer engineer with an hourglass figure, silken nut-brown hair that fell to her waist and eyes like an apsara guarding the gate of an Indian temple. “Silvia,” Vincenzo said to her, over coffee at the bar of the Hassler, the night before he was due to have dinner with her parents. He had his serious, professional face on, as if he wasn’t seeing the angel in front of him at all.
“You know I respect your parents very much," he said. "They’ve been through incredible odds to survive in our world, and I know something about that.” Silvia’s aristocratic Roman father had taken one look at Silvia’s mother, the daughter of a Sikh immigrant who worked at a cheese factory in Parma, and tumbled all the way down the ladder hand-in-hand with her to the underworld. Good choice! Cha-young thought, admiringly.
“You are so kind, signore,” Silvia dimpled. “I’ve always looked up to you.” She had dimples. Was Vincenzo unmoved? Did he not want to touch the dimples, and the hair, and the softly tapered waist cinched into what was clearly a bespoke Prada playsuit?
“I strongly believe that marriage isn’t the only security a woman can be afforded, even in our line of work,” Vincenzo was telling her. “As someone with a little more experience of the world than you, I wanted to give you some alternatives.” He brought out a notebook––Cha-young loved his old-world affectations; she knew the actual plan had been made on a custom iPad Pro––that detailed ways and means for Silvia to carefully take down all her internal rivals to establish sole control of her parents’ empire.
“How useful this will be when we are married,” Silvia said, politely, and Cha-young liked her even more: the little minx was bargaining with Vincenzo. “I can see why my parents hope for you to be their son-in-law.”
“Flattered,” Vincenzo said, unflustered, and rolled up his sleeves to get down to the actual business of horse-trading. It took a couple of hours, and what seemed to Cha-young to be a very substantial amount of information about Swiss bank accounts, before they took a break.
“He really is enormously clever,” Silvia was murmuring to herself in the mirror of the ladies’ bathroom as Cha-young came out of a stall. She looked over at Cha-young washing her hands.
Then she looked again, and smiled. The dimples flashed. “Well, I suppose that’s how he won your heart, eonni.”
“True,” Cha-young said. “Wait, did you just say that in Korean?”
“Nae, Hong Cha-young-nim,” Silvia said. “I rewatch Crash Landing On You every year.”
“Hallyu,” Cha-young marvelled, “what a convenience it’s turned out to be.”
Silvia sparkled in her direction. "I so admire the arguments you made in your editorial in the Financial Times last month," she said. “There’s a great little Korean food truck that opens after midnight on Via di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme that no one knows about."
"You don't say," Cha-young said.
"If you find yourself missing Korean food while you’re here, I’d be happy to take you.”
“I’m not here for long enough to miss home food,” Cha-young said. She undid her ponytail and smiled back. The faint fragrance of Kérastase Reflection Bain Chromatique Gentle shampoo arose in the air as she shook out her hair.
Silvia’s eyes glinted.
“But I am here for long enough to cause a scandal,” Cha-young said, and when they wandered back out her business card was tucked into a pocket of Silvia’s playsuit, and Cha-young leaned over Vincenzo’s shoulder and told him that he wouldn’t have to marry Silvia, after all.
Vincenzo looked at Silvia, then looked at her.
“Thank you, byeonhosa-nim,” he said, in a way that would have sounded resigned if he was some other guy. But he was Vincenzo. He didn't do resignation, and anyway, a giant favour was a giant favour; he'd owe Cha-young big for this.
She went back to Europe every summer, after that.
“I like it,” she told him, because she ended up spending the most time with him, after all, Silvia or no Silvia (and then Günter or no Günter, and then Mehmet or no Mehmet). He was the one who saw Cha-young for who she was. He was the one who liked her for who she was––sometimes more than she liked herself, which she’d thought was impossible.
It was fun, holidaying with Vincenzo. He knew all the best out-of-the-way spots, and spoke about a million different languages, all with perfect fluency since he didn't have to do the revenge accent. He knew what the best wine was to order wherever they went. He was the one man with whom she never ran out of things to talk about even when they’d stopped talking about work (which they did, more and more, as their interests regularised).
“What do you like, the mountains?” Vincenzo answered. “The train?” They’d sneaked out of Pagliuzza and come up to Davos. The World Economic Forum was about to present them both with a boatload of exciting opportunities to fool the hell out of various obscenely rich people in just a few days more. They were having a weekend of calm before the storm, riding the Glacier Express.
“Being here with you,” Cha-young said. “It’s a pity we can’t do it more often, isn’t it?”
“We,” Vincenzo said, and then cleared his throat. “We––”
She opened her bag. “Lozenge?” she said, and after he’d sucked it down she asked him what he’d been about to say, but he shook his head and said. “I forgot. The town orchestra’s putting on Vivaldi tonight, would you like to go?”
2032: A cabin in the woods, Gangwon-do
“––and a reporter called me today to ask me if it was true that you had an affair with an Italian mafia heiress.”
“I’m bi, I had a summer fling on a holiday, it’s the twenty-first century,” Cha-young said. “Get over it.”
“I’m over it!” Mr Nam, who was now Director Nam of the Office of Hong Cha-young, losing candidate for mayor of Seoul, protested. “I was never under it, I’m not a homophobe. Your younger voters wouldn’t have cared about it at all––in fact, it might have got you some sympathy votes if the opposition had used it to attack you––”
“The rumours are true, by the way,” Cha-young said. “It was totally worth it.”
Director Nam soldiered on. “But the fact is, Attorney Hong, that you didn’t poll well with married women and elderly voters.”
“I don’t get it,” Cha-young said. “Am I not the daughter of a martyr for justice, the noblest lawyer of his generation?”
“You absolutely are,” said Seo Mi-ri, who was now Team Leader Seo (Political Intelligence) of the Office of Hong Cha-young.
“Have I not been the crusader who’s fought fire with fire to protect the rights of South Koreans from being taken over by corporate interests for close to a decade now?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Director Nam said.
“Am I not the Amal Clooney of my time and place?”
“Not really,” Joo-won said.
“Ugh,” she snapped. “Harshing my vibe here, Joo-won.”
He blinked at her owlishly through his big ugly glasses, which did not even slightly diminish the fact that he’d stayed handsome as ever over the years––had grown handsomer still, rather.
Jang Han-seo had been a meathead trapped in stifling suits, twitchy with desperation and sour-faced with fear. Kim Joo-won––he’d taken his mother’s last name––was a wild man, bearded and be-cardiganned, who lived in his hi-tech cabin deep in the woods around Seorak-san, far from anything like civilisation. He spent his days looking after the birds and animals whose territory surrounded his property, cherishing his solitude and making custom luxury watches for a very select clientele under the label ‘Vincent.’
Every rich man in China, Japan, South Korea (and, they suspected, not a few up north) now coveted a custom-made Vincent. To get one, they got on a waitlist operated purely through word-of-mouth and via a network of incredibly well-trained messengers retained by Lee Cheol-wook, who’d spotted the opportunity to upgrade from pawnbroker to luxury jeweller and taken it. It’d allowed Joo-won, who’d apprenticed with a Swiss watchmaker before he’d been dragged back to Korea and planted in the Babel chair by his sadist brother, to live the life he wanted.
“Sorry, Attorney Hong,” he said, now. “Only, Amal Clooney’s Amal Clooney cos of George Clooney, y’see.”
“Misogyny!” she said, outraged.
“She’d have no reason to change her birth name otherwise,” he said. “It’s worked for her.”
“Well, I’m not going to change my name to Cha-young Clooney,” she said. “Is there a handsome unmarried Hollywood star who’d get me to poll better if I was in a relationship with him? Oh––Leonardo?”
“You’re too old for him,” Team Leader Seo said, sagely.
“You shouldn’t have to coast on a man’s reputation to succeed in public life, anyway,” Joo-won said. “That’s unjust to you.” He ducked his head. “Not that I know anything about anything, of course.”
“That doesn’t work on us any more, Joo-won,” she said.
“What doesn’t work on you?” he said, innocently. The other thing about Kim Joo-won was that he had invested the five billion won that had flown out of Choi Myung-hee’s grasp and landed into an unmarked Swiss account just before the police seized her assets. He’d done it very well, Cha-young had to admit: so well that he was, in fact, bankrolling Cha-young’s political career.
“You can’t marry Leonardo di Caprio,” Director Nam said, sensibly. “Marrying a man with a reputation like that would be bad for numbers.”
“I’m not going to marry anyone!” Cha-young said.
“Why would you, anyway?” Joo-won said. "You're already married."
“What,” Cha-young said, after a moment of thunderous silence, “did you mean by that?”
“Oh, is that not how it is?” Joo-won said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Who told you that I’m married?” Cha-young demanded. “Did Vincenzo––does Vincenzo think––”
“I don’t know what hyung thinks,” Joo-won said. Joo-won got to see Vincenzo in Switzerland every year, like an actual, real-life #RiRi couple. “He never talks about you to me. He never talks about you to anyone.”
“Right,” Cha-young said.
“He keeps you like a secret,” Joo-won said. “Like he's a vault that’s built only for your safety.”
“It’s not like that between us,” Cha-young said. “I mean, we’re one soul in two bodies––”
“Oh, is that whom those postcards are from,” said Seo Mi-ri.
“––and I adore him,” Cha-young went on. “And obviously we feel quite––”
“Uniquely,” Director Nam supplied.
“Singularly about each other,” she said. “But we’re not together. The whole reason we’re not together is because it wouldn’t do, and our lives are on different tracks, and marriage is a scam.”
“It’d be a big scam,” Joo-won reflected. “He’d have to change his whole identity. Let go of all his old covers and build new ones.”
“Move all his money around,” Seo Mi-ri said, poking at the fire. “He’s been doing that for a while, though, he’s quite good at it.”
“That nice young man will have to take over his business,” Director Nam said. “Luca?”
“He’d have to be a househusband,” Joo-won said. “The opposite of George Clooney, really. Someone with no reputation in the slightest. A clean slate.”
“Why would he do that?” Cha-young said. “How could it possibly benefit him?”
“It wouldn’t in the slightest,” Mi-ri said. “He’d be totally sublimating his identity and ambitions for the success of the marriage, like women have been doing for millennia.”
“I think he’d rather like being First Gentleman,” Joo-won said. Then he looked up at Cha-young and shook his head. “But that wouldn’t work at all, would it?”
“No,” Cha-young said firmly.
“It’d be such a low, cheap way around the problem,” Joo-won said. “I think you should keep at it, Attorney Hong. Give it thirty or forty years in the public eye. Even if you don’t succeed you’ll have made things easier for the next woman.”
“Forty years,” Cha-young repeated, though her voice wouldn’t rise out of her throat.
“I’m good for another ten or fifteen, financially speaking,” Joo-won said. “Twenty, if the markets go the way I think they will. Don’t worry about the funding. I owe you so much more than my life.”
Cha-young looked at the faces around the fire. She looked down at her phone, whose wallpaper was a picture of Dal-rae, wearing a GO, GO CANDIDATE HONG! headband. She'd insisted on being the lucky mascot of Cha-young’s intense and hard-fought campaign. She thought of the Geumga family, that had held her up through the last, crazy year, getting out the vote for her, making sure she was fed and clad, giving her reason every day to get up and want to beat the devils who ruled this country on their behalf, and on behalf of every Korean who hadn’t been born into its thick and rotten upper crust.
“We’re not married,” she said, moodily.
“I was wrong to say it,” Joo-won said.
“It’d take at least ten years for him to create a brand-new public reputation, anyway,” Director Nam said.
“Who, hyung?” Joo-won said. “Hyung’d do it in five.”
“And if it didn’t work out, after all, he could always go back,” Mi-ri said. “A mysterious accident; an emotional closed-casket funeral. Think of the numbers you’d do then, Attorney Hong.”
Forty years, to make way for the next person who wanted to shake things up. Hong Yu-chan would have chosen that path without thinking.
She was Hong Yu-chan’s daughter, wasn’t she?
But she wasn’t Hong Yu-chan. She was his opposite.
“Good evening,” he said, when her call to an unidentified Maltese number went through.
“Good afternoon,” she said. “So, I have a scam to propose––a heist, really.”
“Yes,” he said.
“It’ll be a really long con,” she said.
“Byeonhosa-nim, I’m saying yes,” Vincenzo told her.
2057 –– Seoul
[Image description: A deep purple invitation card with a bright abstract brushstroke design. Text reads:
You are cordially invited
to an intimate celebration
of the twentieth wedding anniversary
of my godparents
HER EXCELLENCY PRESIDENT HONG CHA-YOUNG
MR PARK JOO-HYEONG
April 1, 2057 | 8 pm
ARNO, Geumga Plaza, Sangcheon-gu
Dress Code: Magnificent
RSVP: Lee Dal-rae