The night sky hangs black against the lush landscape of lights, all of Seoul hushed as clocks tick past midnight, the city humming peacefully in its bed, nestled between the mountains--save, that is, for one small pocket: a strip that’s just waking up. The cars pull up, the mile running down the Mapo side of the Han river slowly revving to life as cars pull up, a crowd of punk, hiphop, soul kids gathering to watch tonight’s race: boomboxes fall in place, music thumping. The crowd is packed, racers big and small coming out to watch because tonight isn’t just any night. Tonight, the fastest have come out to play--motorcycles and cars screech as they brake, roll up to the starting line.
The car is an emerald green 1970 Ford Mustang with a black stripe running down the middle, a single word on the plate: H O P E. The crowd parts as he steps out, men and women alike letting out low whistles--the man everyone has been waiting for. Tonight, Jung Hoseok aka JHope, reigning king of the backstreet Seoul race going toe-to-toe with the Incheon race god Park Chanyeol.
A tall kid dressed in a plain white shirt and jeans hands him a lollipop which he unwraps, puts in his mouth before flipping his snapback. “Thanks, Kookie. Cola. Perfect.”
The kid shrugs. “Don’t forget to rub your hands before you hold the steering wheel. The extra influx of fuel is rigged to warm up as you warm up, feeding off of your adrenaline.”
Hoseok nods. “Copy that.”
“There’s a last party trick--The Love Handle, I’m calling it. Pull on the last leg, before you turn right to the river. It can’t fail,” another kid dressed in a bright red hoodie says, leaning against the car. “You should be good to go. Jimin is watching from the SK building in case they try to play dirty.”
“Thanks, Tae. Good to know. I set the walkietalkie up so I can get to Jimin if I need it but I don’t think I will. I know Chanyeol,” Hoseok says. “He’s proud as hell but won’t play dirty.”
Another tall, lanky guy clad all in black joins them, putting his glasses on. “Chanyeol won’t cheat but the syndicates might. Big money is on the line. You don’t know what the damn syndicates will do. Just in case, I’ve installed a gun mechanism where the radio usually is. Press Play to fire forward, Rewind for left, Fast Forward for right, Stop for back.”
Hoseok nods. “Okay, Joon. I also need you to track the GPS the entire race. If they play dirty, they’ll try to put me in the river--wash away the evidence. I need you to pull me out if I fall.”
“I’d like to see them try. If you fall in, I’ll fish you out if I have to dive down there myself.”
Hoseok smiles. “Let’s do this, then.”
He gets in the car, starts the engine, waves at the umpire--alias: Moon--already standing in the middle of the street holding the flare.
She gives him a pointed look. “Don’t let Seoul down, Hobi. Or I might have to move.”
Hope wiggles his eyebrows. “Don’t fill out that change of address card just yet.”
As if on cue, Chanyeol rolls up in his 1967 Plymouth GTX, its body a shiny, perfected maroon. He rolls down his window, smiles at Hoseok.
“Ready to lose, Horsey?”
Hope laughs, rubbing his hands and putting them on the steering wheel. “Hah. You know the thing about horses, Chan-chan?”
Chanyeol’s grip tightens on the steering wheel.
Moon sets up between them, holds the flare to the sky.
Hoseok smiles, swivels his lollipop to one side. “Racing is second nature to us.”
The flare fires--and they’re off.
The GTX leads in the first few meters but somewhere along the way, in a misstep, a slight hesitation on the curb, Chanyeol pauses before turning right to the last stretch and Hope pulls into gear, pulling on The Love Handle, setting him off in a rush. He laughs as the car pushes forward. They round the bend, speed past two more streets, loop past three exit ramps, and then he sees the finish line, a DIY flag waving so he steps on the gas--and then his tire goes out.
“Fuck.” He hits the walkietalkie. “Come in, Chim. What the hell was that?”
“These fucking syndicates won’t let anyone have their money. They were following you on motorcycles from the up-ramp. I sniped their tires back for you. Now, you just have to cross that damn finish line first. You can still make it. The Love Handle will push you forward, just steer well and don’t fall into the damn river.”
“Got it. Send Namjoon my coordinates. Just in case.”
Hoseok sees the GTX gaining on him, puts his foot down against the gas, the blown tire starting to spark as the last of the rubber blows off--shrapnel lost to the wind. He angles a bit to the left before changing gears, swerving off an exit ramp, and crossing the finish line a split-second ahead of the GTX, brakes screeching.
Hoseok jumps out of the car as Taehyung and Jungkook come in, already inspecting the damage on the wheel, Taehyung muttering something about the expenses of repair, Jungkook wondering about how far they can take the old car body.
Chanyeol steps out of his car too, shaking his head but smiling. “I don’t know how you do it.”
Hoseok grins, nods at his friends huddled around the car. “I never walk alone.”
Chanyeol steps in to shake his hand but pulls him in to whisper in a worried voice, “I saw them blow your tire. Take care, Hobi. It’s dangerous always winning. They aren’t happy about you guys taking their money.”
Hoseok pats his back. “We’ll be okay. You take care too. Stay out of trouble.”
Min Yoongi squints at the screen.
“ What is it that I’m watching, exactly? Petty downtown drag racing? I’m a little bit offended, Seokjin. Punk kids rigging cars? That’s what you have for me? Hell, I used to be one of them. They’re not criminals, they’re just young and stupid. The rookies can handle this.”
Seokjin chuckles. “And that’s how I know you weren’t paying attention. Didn’t you see that bullet come out of nowhere and blow that tire out? The way his opponent leaned in all worried to whisper to him toward the end? These aren’t just any punks, Yoongi.”
Seokjin presses a button on the screen and a photo comes up: the racer in the Mustang--in the photo he’s wearing a red race track suit, smiling, all bright eyes, and dimples at the corners of his mouth.
“Don’t be fooled by the pretty face. This is Jung Hoseok, popularly known as JHope, king of the downtown race by night, one of the best thieves by day. He grew up in Gwangju and was bred to race pro--that is, until an accident during a pre-game where he injured his hip and they said he would never recover in time to race again competitively, he would fail to meet the age limit to make it in the big leagues. After the National Team fired him, his record went blank: he moved to Seoul, apparently became someone else. No job records, school records. We next see him during their first heist--also the last time he’s gotten caught. He and his pals”--the frame stills, pulling in a close up on his friends--”are in trouble with one of the biggest syndicates in Seoul, someone who we only know by the alias Gamja. He owes them money because they’ve won every race he’s rigged and he’s refusing to give it to them.”
Yoongi raises an eyebrow. “He named himself after a potato?”
“Well, you chose your field name after saccharides so let’s not judge, Agent Suga.” Seokjin fires back, rolling up his sleeves.
“Here’s where it gets interesting: our intelligence has reported that they have plans of stealing Gamja’s money from under him, like they’ve done with numerous big names in the past. This is a double bust: we use them to get to the syndicate, then we take them in as well. Two birds, one stone.”
“That’s all very interesting but I don’t know what this has to do with me.”
“Remember how you said you wanted to be a stone in your next life? Here’s your chance. I’m sending you in undercover. I want you to become part of their team, earn their trust, and then, bring them and Gamja in. I would do it myself but as you know, I am the face of this department--”--he runs a hand through his hair--“--so it would be far too conspicuous. I have an old friend who knows one of Jung’s guys, he says they’re looking for someone who specializes in hacking.”
Yoongi meets his gaze, understanding finally dawning on him. “Ah. Yes. Hacking. Again.”
Seokjin smiles at Yoongi’s skeptical expression. “I thought you would be doubtful so humor me for a little more. Let’s talk about Jung’s gang of misfits--some of the most skilled people you will ever be asked to bring in.”
He clicks a button. Two faces appear on screen. One serious, his upper lip slightly curled, looking off-camera--the other with a more playful expression on his face, mouth slightly open as if about to smile.
“First, let’s talk about the Terrible Two or as they call themselves, Double Trouble: Jeon Jungkook and Kim Taehyung, in charge of the cars themselves. Jeon graduated with a degree in robotics from Seoul National but they say he lost his drive to play corporate when his thesis--an Iron Man-inspired gun-and-shield combo with biometric technology that allows the wielder nearly psychic control of the weapon--was commandeered by the government to use in the military. They say he’s one of the key secrets to Jung’s success because he’s able to make Jung almost literally one with his car.
“Kim is a car mechanic by trade but has an IQ of 130. When interrogated in juvi when he was 15 and asked about the option of going back to school, he simply said he was too smart for college and in that respect, he might just be right. He’s responsible for all of the special tricks in Jung’s cars--acceleration levers, wheels that withstand being blown out with a speeding bullet, apparently.”
Yoongi feels his heart racing, sucked into the intrigue. Damn it. Seokjin knows how to play me.
Seokjin looks at the expression on his face, smiles before clicking a button again. The image changes, now featuring a man wearing a hoodie, dimples in his cheeks creased as he smirks for the photo.
“Next we have Taehyung’s older brother, Kim Namjoon--he has an IQ even higher than Taehyung’s, specializes in miniatures, ballistics, and spyware. Word has it that the reason they’ve been so successful at dodging and stealing from the syndicates so far is because Namjoon has tiny cameras and GPS trackers that clear the coast for them first: skitter into doorways, test security. They’ve also never lost a vehicle--not even one of their lightest motorcycles--and that’s because of the way Namjoon uses GPS, tracking every location every few minutes. If they’re unable to track it within an hour, the vehicle blows up which is why we have so little evidence. He’s meticulous, innovative. Probably even more dangerous than his baby brother.”
Yoongi bites his lip, his mind already ticking away. What’s their end-game? Yes, get the money but then what? Even with their skills, there’s so much information available on the data base. Why did they let us have it? Why not just cover their tracks?
Seokjin clicks again. “Last but not the least, we have the most dangerous of them all: Park Jimin.”
Yoongi looks at the screen and a delicate-featured, plump-cheeked man is smiling at him. “He looks so…”
“...innocent?” Seokjin supplies. “Think again. Park Jimin is their eye in the sky: he’s a sniper. Trained in gymnastics, graduated with honors from Korea National Sport, and then went on to serve in the army for two years before being honorably discharged as one of the military’s best. No one knows what happened out there, but he’s been with Jung upon getting back. In the tape, remember how there were men on motorcycles who fired at Jung’s tires? They didn’t make it past the next street. Park Jimin was stationed nearby. He shot their tires, they drove their bikes into a brick wall.”
Yoongi sighs, makes for the door.
Seokjin smiles, knowing what that means.
“I’ll send you the files by this afternoon.”
Yoongi turns back for a moment.
“No, by noon please. I need to prepare.”
Hoseok frowns, looking at the e-mail of terms and conditions that Namjoon’s pulled up on the tablet.
“So you mean I’m racing a newbie? He literally has no races to his name. Even someone from those new SF9 kids maybe would be a better race.”
Namjoon sighs exasperatedly, looks at Taehyung. “You try. I give up.”
“Look, Hobi,” Taehyung says. “It’s a win-win situation. He is a hacker. We need a hacker. His conditions are: he will race you and regardless of whether you win or lose, he’ll join us. What’s another drive down the strip? It might also help distract Gamja if he thinks you’re racing other people, other races.”
“What if it’s a trap?”
“Have we ever let you down before? If it's a trap, we'll get out of the damn trap.”
Hoseok bites his lip. “Don’t you think it’s a little bit fishy that that’s what he wants? What kind of person in his right mind joins a heist operative and asks for a race ? We’re offering him good money, reward money.”
Jungkook gets up from under the car he’s working on. “With all due respect, Hobi. What kind of person in his right mind is being handed the solution to all his problems and refuses?”
Hoseok sighs. “Jimin, what do you think?”
Jimin fires a last bullet at his practice target--bullseye--before putting his gun down. “I think that at this point, we don’t really have a choice. Gamja’s gaining traction. He won’t be in South Korea long. Unless we know any other hacker who we can trust and who we can afford, if we’re going to pull off this heist, if we’re going to have any hope at all to be free men, you need to race Min Yoongi.”
Jimin reloads his gun, takes aim again.
Hoseok sighs as Jimin fires the shot.
He looks at Namjoon. “What does Min Yoongi drive?”
It’s the most beautiful 1964 Pontiac GTO Hoseok has ever laid eyes on--the body coated midnight black with silver stripes running down each side. Hoseok is leaning against the hood of his car, talking to Jungkook when Min Yoongi drives up. He feels the blood starting to race in his veins. He lets out a low whistle.
“The things I could do with that,” Jungkook says, eyeing the car. “The possibilities are endless.”
A smile starts to spread across Hoseok’s face and he laughs. “Tonight might not be a waste of time after all.”
Yoongi gets out of the car and he isn’t quite what Hoseok was expecting: from the car, from the email request, he’d imagine someone taller, more rough around the edges. Instead Min Yoongi is a little shorter than him, has a frame the wind could blow away, hair darker than the night, skin that’s almost luminescent.
“Are you a miner or something?” Hoseok asks.
Jungkook cringes. “Hobi don’t--”
“I’m sorry?” Yoongi’s voice is deeper than Hoseok expects, more like it belonged to the person who wrote the e-mail. “A miner?”
“You’re so pale. You look like someone who works underground.”
“Oh. Um. I usually do my hacking indoors so there’s that.”
Hoseok grins, nods to his car. “Of course.”
“Are you a farmer?”
“Your skin is very gold...like.”
Hoseok bursts out laughing. “You’re strange, Min Yoongi.”
Yoongi nods at Hoseok’s car. “Well, then. Shall we?”
As Hoseok makes his way to the driver’s seat, Namjoon pulls him aside. “I’m personally not worried but in case, the ballistics set up is still the same. Jimin is still on lookout and Double Trouble will tail the race.”
Hoseok looks behind them where Taehyung and Jungkook are climbing onto their matching bikes. “Got it. Thanks, Joon.”
He gets into the car as Namjoon walks to the middle of the lane with the flare.
The flare fires and Min Yoongi hits the gas. He has the lead by about two feet but he’s studied the footage--that’s how Jung Hoseok plays, waiting until the last minute to rev up. He grins, does the unexpected and slows down until they’re neck and neck.
He sees Hoseok glance at him from the other car, confused.
“Talk to me, Yoongi.” Seokjin comes in through his earpiece disguised as a single stud earring. “I’m watching the footage. Why did you slow down?”
“Duh,” Yoongi says. “I want us to put the extra power into gear at the same time so I can gauge their tech against our tech and pressure you about it.”
Seokjin laughs through the earpiece. “See, this is why you got the assignment.”
Yoongi grins as he glances at the other car, sees Hoseok send an ever-so-subtle signal by putting his hand out the window for a split-second, so quickly that you might miss it if you weren’t looking, and then drawing it back in. Yoongi looks at the rear view mirror as the two motorcycles that’ve been tailing them since they crossed the starting line veer up and off another exit ramp. To cut us off in case. They’re suspicious.
Hoseok slows down.
“Clever, Jung Hoseok,” Yoongi says, half-laughing. “Very clever.”
“Don’t be phased,” Seokjin says in his ear. “It’s okay. You can gauge their tech later on. There’s time. Go win the race.”
Yoongi sighs in frustration, steps on the gas. It isn’t winning if the other team isn’t quite playing.
Yoongi beat him by two seconds--practically forever on Jung Hoseok’s terms. He looks at Yoongi, puzzled. What are you, Min Yoongi?
Jungkook and Taehyung jog up to meet him, to check the car for any damage. Namjoon follows close behind, slips into the passenger seat to check for tracking devices, anything that may have been planted.
He catches Namjoon’s eye.
“You did see that, didn’t you?” he whispers as he leans over, pretending to take something from the glove compartment.
Namjoon shrugs. “If he’d slowed down too, it would make sense but he sped up. He won the race. The car is all clear. Nothing amiss. I understand your suspicions but you get out there and be your charming self.”
He gets out of the car, meets Yoongi by the finish line.
“Good race.” He sticks out his hand.
Yoongi tilts his head slightly to the right as if pondering. “Thanks. I have a lot to learn.”
Hoseok puts on his best grin, the full million dollars. “Be our hacker and you’ll learn more than you can anywhere else.” I'll figure you out, Min Yoongi.
Yoongi shakes his hand, a little spark of electricity running through his fingertips as skin touches skin. He tries not to smile back but finds himself mirroring Hoseok's grin--cocky but charming.
“Sorry,” Hoseok says. “Static. Jungkook makes me do this thing with my hands to warm up.”
“No worries,” Yoongi says, smiling too. Who are you, Jung Hoseok?
Hoseok pulls his hand away first, nods toward everyone else. “Come meet the gang, then.”