“Called you last night. But you didn’t pick up.”
Investigator Choi Min-ho was being uncomfortably persistent. To the point where Joon-hwi was inclined to feel that the other man was crossing some invisible line. Choi Min-ho was a man who wanted to talk and he had a lot to say. But Joon-hwi who was experiencing a dull persistent ache across his forehead was in no frame of mind to listen.
“It’s called being asleep. You are not my wife and I have no obligation to deal with you after hours.”
Prosecutor Han Joon-hwi was mindfully cantankerous. He didn’t like being interrupted during his morning routine. Particularly when in a grip of a hangover.
“Are you sure you slept? You look like hell.”
Choi Min-ho liked stating the obvious but seemed largely oblivious to the practical implications. Joon-hwi wanted him gone. At least until the effects of caffeine had taken hold and the headache dissipated.
No surprise there. I’ve taken residence there.
“It’s important, Han pro.”
“It’s always important.” Joon-hwi was sitting down to a jumbo-sized cup of coffee which was still untouched — the only available antidote to a heavy date with soju.
In the end he sighed and relented. It probably was important and Choi Min-ho was looking like the cat that got the cream. “What is it?”
“He’s back, Han pro.”
“The homeless killer.”
Joon-hwi had already raised his cup to his lips when he slowly put it back down on his desk.
Damn it! At this rate I’m never going to have this coffee.
Investigator Choi was chuffed to say the least. He had finally achieved a captive audience of one. Prosecutor Han’s curiosity was piqued.
“Are you sure?” Joon-hwi eyed his colleague suspiciously as if Choi Min-ho would make things up.
“Yeah, the local cops from the Hankuk South station seem to think so.”
“What have they got?”
Choi let a stack of photos fall from the manilla envelope he’d been carrying and scattered them on Joon-hwi’s desk. Crime scene photos and close-ups of the body.
“A fresh one. Another John Doe, now lying in the morgue. Hands tied the same way. See the fisherman knots. Defaced like the others and no prints. Someone opened up his brain and messed around inside it. Same MO. You were right all along Han pro. Lee Min-seok is not the homeless killer.”
The nagging feeling that had long followed him during the indictment of Lee Min-seok never left Joon-hwi. He had gone on a rampaging war of words with his superiors and the prosecutor in charge or the prosecutor who was made in charge after he was removed from the case. At that time they told him with no lack of condescension that he was overthinking things when everything clearly pointed to the Lee Min-seok a medical school dropout who had the know-how to commit the crime.
“Aren’t you happy? You were right.” Investigator Choi was trying to make head and tail of Joo-hwi’s inscrutible facial expression.
“Is that what you think? Believe me, I’d rather have been wrong. A serial killer having free rein of the streets of Gyeonggi Province is nothing to be gloating about. I can tell you that this latest one won’t be the last.”
For over two years the homeless killing was the bane of law enforcement destined to be a veritable PR nightmare.
The elusive homeless killer was so named for the fact that the victims had one thing in common — they were homeless men and women. There were 13 in all including an ex-special forces captain who had been suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. He had gone missing from his family home for a month before his body turned up unceremoniously in a dingy backstreet alley somewhere in Incheon. No one it seemed knew how he got there. His killer knew exactly where he wouldn’t be seen and also where the body would eventually be found. The former captain Kim Hyun-min, a highly decorated officer, who served his country and completed three overseas tours fell prey to the schemes of a merciless, relentless serial killer. The incongruence only struck terror in the hearts of a nation already reeling from political scandals.
A task force had been formed from among the best of the best around the country. There was no denying that the homeless killer had all the law enforcement agencies around the country on the edge. Day in, day out the brass were pilloried by media and public opinion for being slow to act. But then serial killers aren’t inclined to be caught at the whims of a fearful public.
With the conviction of Lee Min-seek, the homeless homicides seemingly came to an end. More than one celebratory drink was shared among colleagues to commemorate its conclusion. But no… the killer had just laid low and maintained radio silence. His bloodlust was too insatiable to stop even if a scapegoat had already been sacrificed on his behest. Or somehow he had just been biding his time.
But biding his time for what?
The PCL-R profile determined that Lee Min-seok had psychopathic tendencies and the fact that he was on site where the third body was found saw him designated as Public Enemy #1 with inhuman speed. To Prosecutor Han Joon-hwi however, Lee Min-seok didn’t seem to fit the profile. He lacked the confidence or the discipline to pull off something of this scale. All throughout Joon-hwi had remained unconvinced by the correlation because the homeless killer was far more meticulous, far more cunning than those who tried to indict him. Much much more. The killer knew exactly what he was doing. The law enforcement agencies on the other hand were scrambling around like headless chickens trying to keep up.
Then there was the unseemly haste in which the higher-ups were trying to close the case. It was politics as usual. Joon-hwi never forgave himself for not putting up more of a fight but in truth he was now a small fry in a much bigger pond teeming with competing political agendas that made him dizzy. His hands were tied. There were no supportive professors to play backup or take the heat. His status as star recruit was now tenuous at best. But he couldn’t give a damn. Resigning seemed like an attractive way out but his old professor Yang Jong-hoon from Hankuk Law School talked him into staying.
His mind inevitably wandered to her as it often did. Her: the one he wanted to share the future with. The one that somehow got away. He had promised her that he would never give up doing his job no matter how hard it got. It was a promise he intended to keep even if she was absent and couldn't hold him to account.
No matter which way he looked at, none of it made sense. If Pyramid were really responsible for her disappearance, why go after her and not him. No prior threats (veiled or otherwise) were made. No one had even approached him after the settlement. They’d paid their dues and practically got away with murder. Dumping of chemicals in a reservoir had to be the tip of the iceberg or the pyramid as the case was. But the southern district prosecutorial office had had enough, no one wanted Joon-hwi to keep digging. Pyramid Pharma was too big and too messy for anyone much less a wet-behind-the-ears prosecutor. It was a hot potato that could burn the office rather badly.
Investigating Pyramid Inc. became Joon-hwi’s side project discreetly picking up tit bits from whence they came. However, it didn’t take long before he let it go because it only made him feel her absence all the more acutely. He kept the file. It was tucked at the bottom of his desk drawer in the apartment, waiting for her to come back.
He was missing her terribly and no more so than during the homeless killings. The entire experience would have been much more bearable if she had been there to hold his hand through it. It was supposed to be them against the world.
Rather than feeling elated for being right, Joon-hwi worst fears were confirmed. What if there were more bodies out there? What if this was a far bigger deal and far more inconvenient fiasco than everyone had been led to believe?
“I’d like to see the autopsy report.”
“This afternoon. I know a guy at the NFS.”
About three and a half years earlier…
“I suppose it’s my partially fault that you’re spending more time staring at case notes than at me these days.”
Kang Sol, attorney-at-law had walked into what was technically their apartment and her eyes did a quick scan at the paper trail that was strewn all over the floor. She did her mightiest best to navigate the sea of dead trees, doing a clumsy impersonation of a one-legged pirate brandishing a sword balancing on a plank.
“If I had known…”
“If you had known, you would have done the same.” Her fiancé was still staring intently at the document in front of him. “That’s why I love you.”
I swear… he has eyes everywhere.
“Yeah, yeah. You must be softening me up for something big.” Sol slumped into the sofa. It’s not all bad, he used the L word.
That’s the closest thing to a display of affection I’ve had in awhile. Girl’s got to take what she can get.
“I’m sorry that I left the wedding planning to you.” Joon-hwi at least had the decency to look sheepish.
“Good that you realise that. You were the one who wanted to get married in a hurry. I was willing to wait.”
“Well, I can’t have you changing your mind on me.”
It had occurred to Sol that she was in some kind of transactional, contractual relationship with a hardworking, brilliant prosecutor named Han Joon-hwi that made occasional appearances in her frenetic existence. The fringe benefits were ridiculously meagre. Normal people went on dates, they made appointments, drop-ins and fly-bys. Still this was a predicament of her own choosing. Han Joon-hwi the prosecutor was as much Han Joon-hwi the man — a blessing and.. if she were honest.. a challenge… that she would have to navigate if they were to have any kind of life together.
She loved her job of course. There was no regrets on that front. But as she stared mesmerised at the figure of a man poring through documents, she felt no resentment, only pride that he was hers to come home to.
“I am not going to change my mind, idiot.” Sol yawned and stretched. “Byeol and my mother would kill me first. They want us married more than we do. Sometimes I think they like you better than I do.”
At this point Joon-hwi looked up, grinning from ear to ear. “What can I say? Everybody loves me.”
She couldn’t really begrudge him the look of smug satisfaction written all over his face. When a man is brilliant he’s seldom subject to the same constraints that mere mortals are.
“Except Pyramid Pharmaceuticals,” came the matter-of-fact response.
“Except Pyramid Pharmaceuticals.”
“And the deputy chief prosecutor.”
“And the deputy chief prosecutor. Who will have my head if we don’t win.” Joon-hwi was grinning like a Cheshire cat.
“I prefer to marry you with the head attached to the body," she reminded him sharply.
“When has this head ever failed you?”
Sol pretended to think hard before answering.
“So far… not yet. Not that I can recall anyway.” She wrinkled her nose as if a bad odour had descended the room. “Law school is now a complete blur. I don’t remember much.”
Joon-hwi was shaking his head and clucked disapprovingly while trying not to smile.
“I was there for every major event in your academic life. Don’t try and deny anything.”
Those were the good o’l days. Some better than others. But more carefree... as much as one could be under the circumstances.
After a bit of woolgathering some kind of noise resembling a sigh escaped Sol’s lips.
“Sometimes I wish I was back there. Things were less complicated.”
Although only several months on, law school now felt like eons ago. The pressure cooker of what that had been couldn’t be compared to the demands of being in the thick of the action out in the big wide world. First year was madness. A murder right on their doorstep on top of everything else. Who could forget that? But it was a matter of pride that they were instrumental in the arrest of some key perpetrators that played a part in some kind of conspiracy.
“Do you need help? We’ve been yakking so much that I almost forgot why I came in the first place.”
“Actually there is something I need help with.” Joon-hwi seemed to be scribbling something on his notepad while making conversation.
Sol got up reluctantly from the far-too-comfortable couch and ambled to where he was. The short rest was just what the doctor ordered but she was always ready to work and she relished the opportunity to be part of the effort in rattling the Pyramid juggernaut. Joon-hwi was so absorbed in what he was doing that she wondered if he even noticed her standing next to him.
As she leaned forward to see what he was giving attention to, she felt his arm tugging on hers. And then the almighty pull.
“Han Joon-hwi! What the heck…”
The result saw her falling onto his lap and arms with unexpected dexterity. Now that he had her right where he wanted her, he whispered in a voice that was some form of irresistible voodoo magic.
“A man cannot live on the law… and ramyeon alone, you know.”
Whatever dark magic that was, it made Sol’s heart do somersaults and dash off on a sprint. She shuddered but not from the cold. Sitting so close to him, feeling the warmth emanating from his body seemed to fuel all kinds of desires. She didn’t know what it was — the tone of the voice, the ticklish sensation of feeling his breath down her neck. Or perhaps it was being the object of his penetrating gaze interrogating her with those longing eyes. It was as if they were boring down into her soul in search of a path to the truth.
Do you want me as much as I want you?
Her hands were shaking. What was the truth? As a Roman governor once inquired. She knew she loved him. She knew that as long as he was alive in the world, she could not love anyone else. Fate ensured that he came barging into her world and stayed.
Then she felt the warmth of his hands still the tremors in hers. Nothing escaped the notice of those eyes. And yet she knew that to be vulnerable in front of him was the safest place to be. As if on instinct she raised his hand to where her lips lightly fell.
“I've missed you so much.”
He took that to be his cue to act. He hadn’t been sure. He missed her much more than he let on. If she hadn’t come, he would have run to her himself. He finally did what he wanted to the moment she walked in.
He kissed her. Firmly and joyfully. Like a man with a mission.
She kissed him back. Shyly and willingly. Like a woman who’s accepted the mission of a lifetime. She was in it for life.
This was the verdict they had sought away from the clamorous demands of work. This was the truth that had bound them from the moment of their first encounter at the bookshop. They couldn’t contemplate at the time how things could turn out so differently.
Team leader of the Regional Investigation Unit (RIU), Kim Ju-hyuk was pacing around the the deputy chief prosecutor’s office with the air of one familiar with his surroundings. He nodded at the young man who brought in the tea. He looked efficient and unimpressed. Serving tea was perhaps not on the job description and the young man was doing it under duress. He cast his eye around the room and noticed that a large vase had replaced the pot plant that had been sitting at the top right corner of the room. It was an ugly-looking thing, he thought, that looked completely out of place in that minimalist environment calculated to impress the right sort of people. But Detective Kim had no pretensions regarding any appreciation for ceramics and it was merely a little game he liked to play when entering someone else’s space. It gave him an idea or two of what he was dealing with. With the deputy chief prosecutor, however, he knew exactly what he was dealing with. He had thirty years of practice.
“This isn’t a social call, I imagine.” The deputy chief remarked dryly as he made his way from his oversized desk to his favourite seat in the room. “The rumour mill has gone into overdrive. This is why you’re here, I imagine.”
“I want Han pro… Han Joon-hwi on my team.” No one could ever accuse Team Leader Kim of being a man who beat around the bush or of being garrulous.
The deputy chief sipped his tea and said, “No.”
The request came as something of a surprise but Deputy Chief Prosecutor Lee maintained his his equanimity. He too knew what he was dealing with.
“You shouldn’t be so quick to turn me down.There should be some room for negotiation.”
“I can’t. He wasn’t even the prosecutor-in-charge of Lee Min-seok’s indictment. To be frank, I don’t even want him near the case. At the very least think about the optics of all of that.”
“Optics? I’m a detective. Optics is for politicians and presidential candidates.”
"The answer is still ‘no’.”
Both men were in this situation before. Many times… as dictated by the demands of their jobs. Detective came prepared to hold his ground and the deputy chief prosecutor was always ready to hold his.
“His instincts are good.”
“Too good and he can’t keep things to himself.”
“Why? Are you upset that he was right?”
“He’s a ticking time bomb.”
“Well, this homeless killer business is about to blow up in our faces as a public relations nightmare. Your metaphor is ironically appropriate.”
“How could we have known?”
“He had suspicions, that’s all. The evidence against Lee Min-seek seemed watertight. Besides, he’s not a detective.”
“He should have been. That kid has a good nose.”
“Well, he’s not a detective and he’s my responsibility. I’d rather have him close by where I can see him get up to mischief and put a kibosh to it.”
“I love to know what your idea of mischief is.” Detective Kim smirked knowingly. “You’re still worried about him poking around Pyramid Pharma? I heard that he was asking questions even after the settlement. I’m sure it didn’t go down well with the higher-ups that the youngest prosecutor in your office made Pyramid pay.”
The deputy chief gave the other man a withering look. Over the years it’d become something of a habit to assume a combative posture on both sides. Whether he was being deliberate or just thoughtlessly obtuse, Kim Ju-hyuk added insult to injury.
“Didn’t I tell you that marrying that woman was going to create a conflict of interest?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. She’s only a distant relative.”
“Not distant enough.”
“She has nothing to do with them and I kept well away from the indictment. No one can accuse me of intefering.”
“That kid did what we couldn’t,” reminded the detective. “We’d always suspected that Pyramid was up to no good but we couldn’t pin anything on them.”
“You’re making him sound like the second coming of Christ, “ The deputy chief observed dryly. “It’s not as if he did all that by himself. He had help. Besides, the fine was a mere drop in the ocean for them.”
“Not from you, that’s for sure.” Kim Ju-hyuk had finally taken a seat on the opposite end and downed the cooled tea in a single gulp. He suddenly felt thirsty.
“Ah, you mean the fiancee that disappeared? I wonder what happened there.”
“Who knows. Probably had cold feet.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me if Pyramid had something to do with that too.”
“Kim Ju-hyuk. Sometimes you talk too much.
When his old school mate left, Deputy Chief Prosecutor Lee Jun-ho fell into a moody, contemplative silence. In some ways Han Joon-hwi was a zealot but his ability was never in doubt. There was always something dangerous about an underling who couldn’t be controlled. Lee Jun-ho had no truck with the Pyramid crowd but there was no need to make waves either. He wasn’t obligated to accede to Detective Kim’s request but there might be something advantageous about having Han Joon-hwi on the homeless killings case and away from lofty but misguided aspirations of going against Pyramid Pharmaceuticals. True the young prosecutor had been rather quiet on that subject lately but he was characteristically a dog with a bone. No one who knew him and his history would ever delude themselves into thinking he had given up.
A knock on the door broke his reverie.
Deputy Chief Lee had summoned the prosecutor-in-charge-of Lee Min-seok’s indictment to give him the bad news.
“You must have heard by now that another homeless homicide has been found.”
“Yes sir. Late last night.” The younger man was obviously about to launch into his prepared speech. “Sir, I only did…”
The deputy chief gestured for the prosecutor to stop talking.
“The RIU has put in a request for Prosecutor Han Joon-hwi’s involvement in the case.”
To say that Prosecutor Oh was unhappy was an understatement and he did not attempt to hide it.
“Sir, I have to protest. This was my case.”
“It was your case but the entire case will have to be re-investigated, and RIU wants fresh eyes on this. Besides you may recall that Han pro was involved in the early investigation. And it turns out he was on to something.”
I can’t believe I’m saying this.
“It’s unfair sir.”
This time the onus was on the deputy chief to launch into a speech that he wasn’t entirely convinced of. But he’d had plenty of practice with that over the years.
“There’s nothing fair or unfair about this. This has to be about public interest first and foremost. We need to strike the right balance to get results and Han pro seems to have an uncanny knack for criminal cases. And just in case you’ve forgotten the political fallout over this will be great. We need to prove to the public that we are serious about getting it right this time.”
The younger man nodded glumly. His fists were behind his back tightly clenched. He understood the clear logic of what he heard but he hated losing to Han Joon-hwi, a junior. He was ambitious as the next person in the job and yet this upstart was hogging all the limelight.This would be another feather in Han Joon-hwi’s cap if he managed to bring the killer to justice.
“This case is a double-edged sword. It was never a simple case to begin with. If we don’t play our cards right, it will be our heads on the chopping block tomorrow. And neither of us will be here complaining about the unfairness of it all.”