When the paper hanging on the bookstore’s door made a noise, the bookstore owner, who had been reading a book with her head down, raised her head. It was the bookstore where she had bought a book about birds about two weeks ago.
“Oh, you’re here. I thought you weren’t coming.”
At the bookstore owner’s words, Sunwoo apologized, handing over the money.
“I’m sorry. I was supposed to come the next day… but something came up.”
“No, it’s okay. I told you I’d just give it to you since it’s a book that doesn’t sell anyway.”
The owner flatly refused to take the money.
“People these days don’t buy paper books much. The business isn’t great either. I’m thinking about closing down soon. Then all these books will be dumped as secondhand anyway. I prefer the books to go into the hands of someone who will read them.”
Still, it was awkward to accept it readily. As she continued to hesitate, the owner suddenly reached out his hand over the counter.
“My name is Kim Hyo-in.”
“I, I am… I am Lee Sunwoo.”
“Nice to meet you. Now that we’ve introduced ourselves, we’re not strangers, right? Instead of the book price, buy me dinner. I’ll buy drinks. I didn’t want to eat alone anyway, so it worked out. Oh, do you drink? You’re not underage, are you?”
While she was flustered, Hyo-in hustled Sunwoo out of the door and locked up the shop.
“There’s a really delicious chicken rib place in the alley behind here, but they don’t sell single servings because they have too many customers.”
She was a lively person. She practically got pushed along as she followed Hyo-in.
“Auntie, two servings of boneless chicken here!”
As soon as they entered the restaurant, Hyo-in raised her hand towards the middle-aged woman in the kitchen, then went to the refrigerator herself and brought out two bottles of soju.
“Do you drink well?”
“No, I’ve only ever had wine.”
“Ah, soju is the real drink.”
The small, clear glass was filled with alcohol. When Sunwoo took a half sip and shivered, Hyo-in laughed out loud.
“I thought you were really peculiar when I first saw you. I’ve never seen someone so engrossed in a book. You’re so pretty, but quiet and like a watercolor painting. Ah, you must feel uncomfortable being observed. I’m sorry, there’s just not enough customers in the bookstore, so I’ve become more and more of a pervert with nothing to do.”
“I’m originally from Gwangju, and I worked at a local newspaper there for a few years. I ambitiously came to Seoul to start a publishing company, but it failed. I opened a bookstore as a consolation, but I think it’s going to close soon too. I’m thirty-two years old. The oldest of one boy and three girls.”
What about you, Sunwoo-ssi? Her eyes seemed to ask.
“Uh… I’m Lee Sunwoo, and I’m twenty-three. I don’t have anything else to say.”
“Knowing that much is enough for making meal friends. Let’s eat, it’s all cooked.”
Meal friends. As Hyo-in smiled, she awkwardly smiled along. This was her first friend since coming to Seoul.
The soju was tasteless. She had four shots, and while she wasn’t drunk, her face was hot.
Approximately 20 minutes away from Seoul, along the path lined with willow trees, the recently paved asphalt gleamed under the sun. At the end of this road, a magnificent traditional house stood, as though time had been turned back.
This was a house his father, Dan Ki-hwan, purchased and refurbished following his release from jail. It was once the residence of a noble family in this region many years ago. The hipped roof gracefully held up the sky, while the weathered gate stood resolute as time marched on.
Despite its perfection, Taeju didn’t like this house. It seemed to blatantly display his father’s inferiority complex which he found amusing.
When he rang the bell, the housemaid appeared after a moment and opened the door. She had worked in this house’s kitchen since he was a child.
“Why are you so late?”
She chastised him the moment she opened the door. It appeared his father had been quite worried, seeking indications even where none were evident.
“I had some work at the company.”
“Oh, you should have hurried. The chairman has been waiting for a long time. He asked several times… Please go in quickly. I’ll prepare lunch soon. I made buckwheat noodles. You like them, don’t you?”
Perhaps feeling sorry for scolding him, the housemaid smiled, saying she had prepared his favorite food.
The garden of the house was always perfectly maintained without a single thing being out of place.
As he walked along the path leading to the main building, he saw Hee-won leaning on the gazebo at the end of the garden, looking at his phone. As if he had noticed him, he flinched and quietly came down from the gazebo and went into his room.
He used to at least make small talk outside, but this house made people like this. There was no expression left on his face as he entered the main building.
In the room, Ki-hwan was sitting cross-legged in a modernized hanbok, wearing round glasses and checking his gun. It was his cherished 1902 Parabellum pistol. Instead of keeping it in the local police station as he should have, he had got permission to keep it as a decoration and proudly displayed it in his house.
“If you want peace, prepare for war.”
Ki-hwan opened his mouth as he checked the cartridge.
“This gun is called a Parabellum. It’s the motto of the DWM company. It’s derived from the Latin phrase ‘Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum‘ which means ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’.”
He sat silently in front of Ki-hwan.
“The weak don’t have the right to enjoy peace. You can’t be half-hearted. You have to be superior to the point where they can’t even think of crossing you.”
Ki-hwan pointed the muzzle of the gun at him while cleaning it. Almost simultaneously, the door opened and the housemaid, who had come in, was startled as if she would jump when she saw the scene.
It was fortunate that she didn’t drop the tray she was holding. Either way, there was no movement between the father and son who were looking straight at each other.
“One of the reasons I bought this traditional house is because there are no other houses within 100 meters. It’s nice not to hear any noise, and no one knows even if I fire a gun. The employees will keep their mouths shut if I give them a little money. What do you think?”
“I suppose so.”
Ki-hwan pulled the trigger.
The empty cartridge made a clicking sound, and Ki-hwan laughed with a gasping sound, then put down the gun. The terrified housemaid approached trembling, put down the tray, and fled the room as if running away.
Buckwheat noodles were one of the dishes that the housemaid was confident in. She said she learned it from a Japanese chef while working in the kitchen of a famous restaurant in Seoul a long time ago.
She even prepared the noodles herself and topped the buckwheat noodles with finely ground radish, green onion, and chili pepper, which were better than reputed hotels. The housemaid was the only person that the picky Ki-hwan kept in the house for a long time.
“I saw the article.”
Although there was a tingling sensation in his mouth, there was no way he could taste it. Taeju mechanically pushed the noodles into his mouth.
“What are you doing running around?”
Slurp, slurp. Ki-hwan looked at him over his glasses while enjoying the buckwheat noodles.
“You don’t need to worry.”
“The woman was quite pretty. Did you sleep with her?”
“Are you now monitoring my love life as well?”
“You’re talking about love. Did you show your face in the media and follow the trial to help a woman out of romantic feelings? What is it?”
“We are in a relationship.”
Ki-hwan was bigger than Taeju, who was already taller than most people. He was a giant, over 190cm tall and weighing more than 100kg.
Although he was getting older now, his rugged hands were filled with calluses on every joint. When he was young, he was known for his terrifying grip strength, enough to break bricks with his bare hands. Usually, just looking at Ki-hwan like that was enough to scare people.
“I slept with that woman and wanted to protect her, so I brought her from the island. I have feelings for her and plan to continue to take care of her.”
At Taeju’s words, Ki-hwan chuckled and laughed.
“No matter how absurd our father-son relationship is, you’re still my child. Relationship? Don’t I know you? Ah, this bast*rd is hiding something. I’ll have you investigate.”
“Do as you wish.”
Having mechanically emptied his bowl, he put his chopsticks down on the tray and leaned back.
“There are quite a few families coveting you.”
Ki-hwan seemed not too displeased by this.
In this traditional house, there was a faint smell of old wood. His mother hated this house to the point of disgust. Yet, she couldn’t say a word to her husband who brought in another woman’s child.
She had been intimidated all her life.
He also hated this house to the point of disgust, but he didn’t know if he might be like his father. Weakness is a sin. He wanted to be strong so that no one could overlook him.
“So play, but play discreetly so that there’s no gossip. It’s better if it’s a woman from a bar, there’s no backstabbing. Ah, you’re so naive, tsk tsk.”
“Like you, father?”
Even to his twisted taunts, Ki-hwan remained indifferent.
“Why? Isn’t the thrill of being in a relationship enough that you claim to be in love? I may have been a thug who lived recklessly, but you’re a businessman. Didn’t you run away from home because you didn’t want to be a thug like me? You were the one who acted as if you’d sell your soul if it could save your business.”
Yes, that was the case. Anyone could see that.
“I don’t know what your scheme is, but I’ll see it soon. I don’t know about anything else, but I’ll look for a family that can provide solid backing.”
“If you call me just to say that, I’ll leave now.”
“Will you come if I call you?”
“There’s no need for that.”
Ki-hwan, who had finished the soup in his deep bowl with a slurp, slammed the bowl down on the tray.
“There’s no need?”
The face of Ki-hwan, who had laughed until now, suddenly hardened. It was impossible for anyone to defy his words in this house.
“Yes. Whatever I do, I will take care of it, so please stop worrying.”
The bowl that Ki-hwan threw grazed Taeju’s face and shattered against the wall, scattering fragments everywhere.
“Stop worrying? No matter how much you want to ignore it, I’m your father.”
Now, the only thing his father could do to him was this kind of venting.
“You’ve gotten old. If you really want to threaten me, you should fire the gun. Will pointing an empty gun be enough?”
He chuckled softly and stepped out of the room.
“Aigoo, he’s been quiet lately. Why is he like that now? Are you okay?”
The housemaid, who had been guarding the outside of the room, approached him and asked cautiously.
“Yes, I’m fine.”
He gave a slight smile to the worried-looking housemaid and left the traditional house. The thought that there was a time when he was really scared of his father made him burst into laughter.