“First of all, I would like to extend my gratitude towards everyone's generous support in the development of this company, and...”
The lights suddenly went out.
In the midst of panic and noises and people bumping each other, nobody listened to the hotel staff frantically telling everyone to stay calm. It was only a short blackout, lasting less than a minute. And when the lights went back on, people’s gazes were naturally drawn towards the podium.
Director Kim, chairman and founder of Black Star Corporation, was dead on the floor.
I slid the camera over in front of my boss. He observed it for a while, and a smirk formed in his cold, stoic face. The television in his room was playing Director Kim's death over and over again.
“ Director Kim, the founder of Black Star Corporation, died unexpectedly during a speech in his company party Friday night. The police has yet to release the official cause of death. In the last couple weeks, Kim had been undergoing investigation for his alleged involvement in a corruption scandal known as...”
The screen went dark and my eyes moved back to meet Mr. Bang’s.
“Another clean hit without any trace. As expected from our top marksman.”
“Thank you.” I replied shortly.
“I have to say you really picked a good nickname. Hana. Number one. There hasn’t been anyone who could do it like you in this company. And that says a lot, given the amount of people we have.”
“I am flattered that you think that way.” I responded flatly. “I was just doing it the way I was taught.”
“You’ve learned well, and you’ve earned your pay. I’ll have it taken care of in an instant. Meanwhile, take a look.”
He placed a brown paper envelope on his desk and I raised a brow. “A new mission? Mr. Bang, I’m sorry. I think I've told you that I won’t be taking any more missions after taking down Kim.”
“You couldn’t possibly mean it.” Mr. Bang sighed. “You are the best marksman our company has. People are willing to pay silver and gold to get your services. Is there anything wrong with the way we’ve been managing you?”
“It’s not about the pay.” I cut. “I have a personal issue I need to take care of.”
“Is it still about that person?” Mr. Bang’s gaze was sharp and cold as ice. “Drop it, Hana. You could have everything you’ll ever want here. Don't waste your time chasing down shadows.”
“I can’t.” I smiled, but kept my voice firm. “This is the only reason why I entered this company on the first place. To find him.”
“And did you?”
“Not yet.” I answered truthfully. “But I believe know where to look.”
“We need you here, Hana.”
“Felix can do it better than me.”
“He can’t.” Mr. Bang’s voice went an octave lower.
I held back a smile. “You need to start trusting him, Mr. Bang. Confining him in your castle won’t do him any good in the long run.”
I didn’t wait for Mr. Bang to reply. I turned around, ready to leave. But he stopped me before I reached the door.
“Minho Lee, known as his code name Lee Know. A high-ranking hitman with a bounty of over ten million US dollars on his head. Often employed by military and government officials around the world.”
I held back from turning around to face Mr. Bang. His tone of voice was completely flat.
“Last week, our informant got wind that he would be staying in Korea for two weeks. We have yet to figure out what his intentions were, but finding his location was not hard.”
Numb coldness began to run down my spine, all the way to the tips of my fingers. I tried to keep my voice even. But I knew Mr. Bang could hear the slight tremble.
“Why do you have such a detailed information on him?”
I heard papers rustling, and I knew Mr. Bang was pushing the envelope on his desk towards me. My heart went frozen solid.
“He’s your next target.”
I left Mr. Bang’s office with the envelope clutched tight in my left hand. My head was spinning. Mr. Bang’s words kept playing in my mind like a broken record.
“ I accept.”
“Tomorrow at zero hour. Grand Hyatt, Executive Suite II.”
I felt the papers crumple in my hand. There was no need for me to look inside, given what Mr. Bang already told me about his location. Everything else about Lee Know, I already knew too well. His face, his appearance, his abilities.
I had them all stored in my mind for a long period. All.
What does this gangster war have to do with a young boy? I'm 13, I should be starting middle school and having fun with friends. Not hiding in makeshift bunkers and running around dodging bullets.
Not being forced to escape from a burning house.
Not having my parents’ blood spilled on my face.
Not like this.
“What are you doing there?”
I looked up to see someone standing in front of me, partially obscured under the dim streetlights. I ignored him. This one didn’t have a gun at least.
“You look like a dead person.”
So what? My mom’s dead, my dad’s dead, my house is gone. How is that different from dead?
“Go home, kid. Ain't no place for a brat down here.”
“Shut up.” I finally spat back. “You're also a kid.”
The guy standing there couldn’t be more than a couple years older than me. I tried to ignore him again, but he wouldn’t leave. Instead, he smirked smugly.
“At least I’m not just sitting by a dumpster crying for mama.” He scoffed. “Get up. If you’re just sitting there, you’re dead meat in a day. Come along. I'll teach you how to survive.”
I knew I shouldn’t have trusted him. For all I know, I could’ve ended up in a brothel, or in a different dumpster with all my organs harvested. But before I knew it, I was already moving. Perhaps, a part of my heart didn’t want to die just yet. Perhaps, somewhere deep inside, I wanted to have hope.
The stranger wrapped an arm around me and ironically, it was the safest I've felt in ages.
23:40:09. 200 meters behind target.
I spotted him.
The investigation was an easy one. Mr. Bang’s data was, as usual, very accurate. I was impressed for a moment. I had been scouring down Minho’s tracks for years, and yet there were still some information I couldn’t have found. For a moment, I wondered if I should ask Sky how he figured everything out.
The data said something about Minho’s involvement with the American intelligence service. It wasn’t weird - I knew that he had been working with practically every government in the world. Whoever paid him the biggest money. What I found weird was his current itinerary instead. It said he would be in Korea for two weeks, and tonight would be his last one in Seoul before moving to the countryside. It would be much harder to take him down anywhere else, so tonight was my only chance.
What are you planning to do here, Minho?
There were so many questions in my head, with virtually no way to answer them. I'm here to finish a target. One clean shot and his life will be over, and tomorrow I would be moving on to another target.
I lifted up my weapon and adjusted the scope. The irony of the whole situation made me chuckle. This weapon was my personal one. I chose to use this one instead of picking from Sam's array of firearms in the company.
Because this gun was given to me by Minho.
I readjusted my scope one more time and finally spotted him. His hair was dyed caramel brown. My breath began to hitch and my finger trembled on the trigger. One shot. Just one shot. I can do it. I...
“You’re doing it wrong.”
Right there, I froze.
“When the target is at the center of your scope, you pull. If you hesitate, you die.”
I could feel the tip of a knife at the back of my neck, straight in the middle. The person who wielded the knife applied just enough pressure for me to feel it, but not to actually hurt me with it.
I knew this level of precision well.
“I taught you that, didn’t I?”
I swiftly turned around and aimed, weapon ready to fire. But in that split second, my assailant had discarded his knife and exchanged it with a gun. The muzzle was pointing straight at my head.
“Long time no see, Han Jisung.”
Still the Minho I was looking for.
“Why are you here?” I asked, my voice hoarse and dry. The tip of my weapon was still aimed at his chest.
“Why, to meet you of course.” He replied lightly. “But I’m a little disappointed. I thought you really knew me, until I saw that you couldn’t tell me apart from that makeshift dummy.”
My heart sank at the way he was smirking. It was Minho, the real Minho, standing in front of me. It was the one person in the world I had been dying to meet. Ironically, this meeting would probably end with one of us dying. If not both.
“I was sent to kill you.” My voice trembled.
“Well? Why aren’t you doing it then?” He waved a free hand around. “Be my guest. You have an automatic weapon fully ready to fire. All I have is this meager revolver.”
“I can’t.” I whispered. “I can’t. I...”
“What a disappointment for a teacher to hear.” He drawled lazily. “I really thought you were good enough to complete any mission.”
I frowned. Inside my heart, there was a battle between pride and something else. I did not want to kill Minho. But I was taught to do this. By him.
“So are you going to shoot, or should I do it first?” Again, he asked. My finger was still trembling upon the trigger. But I forced it steady.
Minho smirked at the sight. The muzzle of his revolver now pointed towards my chest. Staring at each other, a top assassin and his former student, were ready to kill each other.
And a faint explosion was heard, tainting the night sky with the colors of gunpowder and blood.
A body hit the ground.
I felt my hands going numb and my weapon falling limp, bullets still intact. Just a few meters in front of me, Minho stood as still as a statue with gun smoking in his hand.
“I told you, I can’t.” I chuckled. The front of my body was wet with blood. “Sorry for disappointing you. And thanks. I'm getting pretty sick of this killing business.”
Minho was saying something. Or maybe he wasn’t. Dreams and reality were mashing up in my mind. Sounds, colors, and then everything went black.
I had no idea how many days had passed.
Everything hurt when I woke up, and the lights were a little too bright. Briefly, I wondered if I had died and woke up in heaven. But when I glanced at my side, Mr. Bang was sitting there cold as ice.
“Sorry, Mr. Bang. I failed.”
“No, it was my fault. Sorry, Hana. If only I'd checked the information a bit more, you wouldn’t have to go through this.”
“What do you mean?” I asked weakly.
"The client who asked for Lee Know's removal... it was himself."
For a second, I thought my heartbeat had stopped.
"B-but why?" I stammered.
Mr. Bang let out a deep sigh and stared at me. “He was being chased.”
“Who? Who's doing it to him?” My heart began to thump faster.
“Your target, Lee Know, was involved in a top secret mission or something.” Mr. Bang continued. “His last stint with the U.S. government went wrong and they all abandoned him. Last thing I heard, they were planning to reveal his identity and broadcast him as an international fugitive, to be executed without trial.”
Minho was abandoned? It was hard for me to believe that any mission that had Lee Know in it could be botched. He was the most meticulous person I know, even more so with the nature of our job. Where did he go wrong? Why an execution?
“He hasn’t been executed. Not yet.” Mr. Bang spoke again. “We still don’t have much luck locating him so far, but so did the CIA. Sky said he’s probably still in this country.”
I stayed quiet for a moment.
“Mr. Bang... has my mission expired?”
“No.” Mr. Bang answered, staring me right in the eye. I knew he understood what I was thinking about despite me not saying any word. After all, he didn’t become the boss of the company for nothing.
“I will finish it.”
I left the hospital the following day.
The cool wind at the beginning of autumn felt crisp on my skin. The air was a little damp, but the sky was clearer than ever. I smiled at the sight. It had been forever since the last time I walked in the light.
Mr. Bang’s expression yesterday was unreadable. When he left my room without saying another word, I was certain that he actually wanted to say something. He might have wanted to convince me to stay. But he definitely also knew that no amount of convincing would change my mind.
Sorry, Mr. Bang, but I lived for this.
It wasn’t as if he was losing his only top marksman, anyway. Felix and I went through the same training, and he was just as talented as I was if not more. He would’ve surpassed my rank long ago if only Mr. Bang had entrusted him with more missions. He never did. Mr. Bang barely let Felix take part in anything. I suppose he loved him too much to let him live in the dark.
That was how Minho acted to me at first. Sure, he taught me every kind of skill necessary to survive the underworld. But he never allowed me to use any of those. Don't, he once said. It’s not easy to live with blood in your hands. You don’t want that.
But after he left, I knew that I didn’t have much choice. I started taking dirty jobs with the triad, living under Wang family protection in Hong Kong until Boss Wang sent me to Australia to Mr. Bang’s company. And when they moved to Korea, I followed. Back to where I began.
I found him under a tree, with fresh flowers to place on someone’s grave. He didn’t turn around as I approached, but I knew his instincts reacted. His shoulders were tense.
“Nice weather, isn’t it?” I greeted. “Far too nice to spend in a graveyard.”
“Never a bad day to pay respects to the deceased.” He replied.
“Don’t worry, Minho.” I smiled as I reached into my pocket. “I’ll bring flowers to your grave every year.”
Then, with the confidence I didn’t have that night, I pulled the trigger.
Minho flinched as the bullet grazed his left arm. The split second felt like eternity. Everything was in slow motion. I saw Minho dig into his coat pocket, and barely managed to dodge as he charged at me with his own gun drawn.
“Not bad.” He smirked.
I pulled the trigger one more time.
It was a carnival of bullets, empty shells falling on the ground in sync with autumn leaves. The clear skies had since turned into a muted grey, shallow wind making the trees sway. The metallic tang of blood kissed the air in the midst of acrid gunpowder. My vision blurred a little, obscured by tears. I get it, I thought. You don’t want to die in shame, shunned as a criminal. You want to die the way you lived.
Fine, Minho, I'll give you what you want.
Time passed slowly in our exchange, and soon firearms had been exhausted and knives fell off our slippery grips. There was too much blood on and around us. Minho and I soon fell on top of each other, leaning on the tree to wait for the inevitable.
“I never meant for it to happen this way.” Minho breathed out, his heartbeat fast and sounding to me like a heavenly lullaby. “I only wanted you to kill me.”
“I know.” I tucked my head under his chin, listening to the steady thrum of his heart. “If you meant to kill me that night, you wouldn’t have missed.”
“Sorry, Jisung-ie. At the end of the day... you had to go with me like this.”
“It’s okay, Minho.” I smiled weakly. “This means you’re never gonna leave me again. Right?”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “I guess it’s time to sleep, then.”
He kissed the crown of my head and wrapped his arm around me a little tighter. I felt more tears pooling at the corners of my eyes, but those were not tears of pain, or sadness. Just an overwhelming sense of calm.
After all these years, I'm finally safe again.
“Sleep well, Minho.”
The rain began to fall, and I closed my eyes.