In Ah walked through the lobby of the company headquarters as if she owned the place. She did, in fact, own it, now that her grandfather was in prison and the board was without its chairman. People stared at her as she passed, and their eyes followed her until the elevator doors closed behind her. She quickly checked her reflection in the mirror one last time. Her dress suit was impeccable; the blouse and scarf matched, of course, but still added enough personality to make sure nobody mistook her for a dull workaholic. She tried on a smile that made her look pleasant and professional, although inside she felt queasy. So much for being a bad actress.
The doors opened and she turned around in one fluid motion. She concentrated on the old In Ah who was always so sure of herself, no matter what she did. She might not have the education and the knowledge to lead the company, but what she had was more important: she had the right to it and if she had to, she could charm any of the old geezers who thought they ruled the world.
The secretary wasn’t pleased when In Ah ignored her on the way to the conference room, but In Ah had neither time nor patience for that argument. The conference was already in progress. She opened the door and walked in before the men around the table knew what was happening. The indignant secretary had caught up with her, but didn’t dare to speak up in the presence of the directors.
“This is a closed conference,” the man at the head of the table said. His name was Kim Ki Ban, head of Development, In Ah recalled.
She put on her smile and looked him straight in the eye. He seemed surprised by that. “Yes, but this is now my company, isn’t it? And isn’t it natural that I should take an interest in it? After all, any decisions made by you will affect my reputation and fortune. So it is not only my right but also my duty to be here.”
“But your grandfather …”
“My grandfather is in prison for a reason, as much as it hurts me to say that.”
The chairman looked at her and choked as he heard that. Another man rose from his seat and cleared his throat. “But you, Miss Ju In Ah, have no experience running a business. Of course you have the right to know what we discuss and decide here, but that does not mean you will understand it.”
In Ah’s smile widened despite her urge to fight the insult. “That is what you are here for, is it not? I’m sure you will explain everything to me and advise me to the best of your abilities.”
The men looked at each other and didn’t seem sure, but by an unspoken agreement, the vice president left In Ah the chair at the head of the table and proceeded to present the plans for the new hotel in Macao, while the secretary left and closed the door quietly without having said a word.
Retreat was not an option, so In Ah took a deep breath to steel herself before she entered the prison’s visitation room. The white walls of the hallway made her feel claustrophobic and the guard at the door eyed her as she stalked past. She must look as out of place as she felt.
Her grandfather looked the same as always. His surly demeanour hadn’t changed one bit and the prison uniform seemed strangely fitting. For a moment she wondered why she had never seen this side of him – the brutal criminal hiding beneath a tailored suit. Then he looked at her and straightened his back. He didn’t smile, but something made him seem less angry and more like the man who used to dance with her when she was five and fancied frilly pink dresses with glittering red hearts printed on them.
“Hello, Grandfather,” In Ah murmured. She put her handbag on the table and sat down in the wobbly plastic chair. “You wanted to see me?”
Ju Hui Jang attempted a smile, but In Ah thought it made him look like a goblin. It did not bode well. “Yes,” he said. “My lawyer wants to try to get the charges dismissed. I will be out of here soon.”
“Grandfather …” In Ah said, but couldn’t find the right words.
“I hope the business is doing well. You’ve kept tabs on the development of the new hotel and talked to the architect, haven’t you? When does he think it will be finished? I want to make sure I can attend the opening ceremony.”
In Ah said nothing. She stared at the white wall at the back of the room and tried to figure out what to say. “Grandfather …” she finally murmured. “You killed a man. You tried to have Myeong Wol murdered even though Choi Ryu and Kang Woo did what you wanted. You can’t just make that disappear like nothing happened.”
Ju Hui Jang sat up straighter. “Of course I can. Han Myeong Wol and Choi Ryu don’t even exist in this country and everything else can be dealt with.”
In Ah sighed. “I love you grandfather, but you can’t do that. There is line you can’t cross and there are things you don’t do, but you did them anyway. You have to try to make it right somehow!”
“I’m sorry, but I think it’s best if I leave. Please think about what I said. Don’t worry about the company, I’ll take care of it,” she told him, and without looking back, she grabbed her handbag and strode out of the room. She heard her grandfather’s indignant reply but couldn’t make out the words; she was too busy keeping her tears at bay until she was out of this place and nobody would see her cry.
In Ah rang the doorbell for the tenth time in about as many minutes. She sighed, tapped her foot and looked at her watch again. It was ten in the morning and while she liked to linger in bed after staying out late, she knew that Kang Woo was far too disciplined to miss his first training session in the morning. He also hadn’t been out late, or out at all, for several days, or she wouldn’t be here.
“Kang Woo!” she screamed and pounded against the door with her fist. She was surprised how much it hurt. “I know you’re in; your manager called me and asked me to come by because you’ve been moping for the last few weeks!” She rang the doorbell again and kept her finger on the button for far longer than was necessary.
It was half past ten when Kang Woo finally opened the door. By that point, In Ah had been kicking it furiously and was moments away from trying to break one of the windows with her handbag. Ju In Ah was not someone to be ignored.
“What?” Kang Woo grumbled.
In Ah didn’t bother to answer and pushed her way past him into the house. There was no way she would let him lock her out now. The house looked as unlike Kang Woo as she had ever seen it. The floor was littered with empty take-out boxes (at least she hoped they were empty) and nobody seemed to have cleaned the place in forever.
“What?” a voice behind her repeated.
“What?” In Ah parroted, “are you serious? What is up with you? I know you miss her, but how can you do this to yourself?” She gestured at the mess around them and the worn out pyjamas he was wearing. He even had a beard, for God’s sake. “Do you think you are the only one who misses her? Have you thought how her parents must feel? … co-spies … you know what I mean. Dae Gang had a bad crush on her and he cried his eyes out until Gyeong Ju was crying along. And what about everyone else, hmm? Do you even think about what your behaviour is doing to your manager and your fans?” In Ah shrieked. She was trembling and it dawned on her that she must look quite unattractive right now.
Kang Woo had let her speak without moving a muscle and still just looked at her as if his usual indifference towards her had been twisted by grief into something like pity.
“Anyway,” she continued, “You don’t even have it worse than me. Do you have any idea what I have been going through? And do you see me locking myself in my rooms to wallow in my own grief? No, I’m here trying to get you ‒” she stabbed his chest with her right index finger – “to get over yourself.”
This got a reaction out of him. A sardonic smile tugged at his lips. “And how, exactly, do you have it worse? I just lost the love of my life.”
In Ah snorted. “Yeah? I lost my grandfather – not to death, no, but to his own greed, which is much worse – and now I have to run a company without knowing the first thing about it. And whether you believe me or not, Choi Ryu really meant something to me.”
Kang Woo said nothing. He seemed to consider her words carefully and walked towards the kitchen. When he came back to the living room he held two beers in his hand and motioned for her to sit down on the couch. She did, and took the offered bottle. In Ah hadn’t even realised she was thirsty. Screaming so much was hell on her vocal cords.
“I get it, I really do,” Kang Woo whispered. “I just need some time.”
In Ah sighed. “Well, just don’t shut everyone out. Keeping busy helps too, you know? And at least I don’t have to live in a pigsty.” She wrinkled her nose and pointed towards an ominous sticky patch on the table.
“You don’t clean your own house, you have maids for that.”
“So do you. You just have to let them in every once in a while.”
They sat together for a while and talked about this and that – everything but the elephant in the room. It was past midday when In Ah’s phone rang and she had to leave to read some infinitely boring financial report.
“I’ll call Manager Gyeong tomorrow, I promise,” Kang Woo said as she opened the door.
“Do so, please, or else she’s going to bug me again and I am busy enough as it is.”
Kang Woo smiled, and for the first time in weeks Ju In Ah felt truly happy with the job she’d done.
The desk was a mess; folders and papers were strewn across the sleek glass surface in haphazard piles, but In Ah was no closer to finding the design specs from Interior Sun Design for the bar and restaurant that were planned for the ground floor of the new hotel. She had found the design proposals from several other firms, the financial report from the construction company that she had been looking for a few days before and a leaflet from some life insurance company that she could have sworn she had never seen before.
Her phone rang and In Ah’s frown deepened. A quick glance told her that it must be buried under the papers somewhere and it took her four rings to fish it out from under a tan folder full of letters and two binders.
“Ju In Ah speaking,” she answered, hoping that it was important.
“Don’t you sound cheery,” a familiar voice crooned.
In Ah’s frown was giving her wrinkles by now and she could swear she was about to get a headache. “Kang Woo,” she sighed. “Is it important? I am sort of busy.”
She could hear Kang Woo laugh on the other end of the line. “If someone had told me one year ago that you wouldn’t be happy about a call from me, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
“Well, I might not have either, but I am too busy to think about things like that and if I don’t find these files soon I will make a fool of myself in front of the board.” She rummaged through a pile she had gone through before and pressed her phone to her ear with her shoulder.
“Relax, I am just checking in. And I also wanted to tell you some news, but it can wait until later. Have you checked the drawers?”
In Ah snorted. “Of course I checked the drawers. There is nothing left in the drawers, it’s all on my desk.”
“What about the shelves?”
She sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose. Her eyes flicked over to the shelves, which were in a similar state of disarray.
“Okay, I’ll leave you alone. Dinner at eight? We can talk then.”
In Ah nodded, then she remembered that he couldn’t see it. “Yes. There is no way in hell I am going to stay past five.”
“It’s a date,” Kang Woo said, still in an uncommonly cheerful mood. “Good luck and see you later.”
He didn’t wait for her reply and hung up, which suited her just as well. She had a file to find and a conference to attend. She opened the bottom drawer out of reflex and noticed that she evidently hadn’t emptied it yet. The file she was looking for was lying on top, silently mocking her. It was going to be a long day. Hopefully Kang Woo’s mysterious news would improve it.