Radishtop, a.k.a. Detective Hong, frowned. When he did that, he looked like a gangster; he looked so dangerous.

He held his pen and the notepad in his hands. But he wasn’t looking at them. He was glaring intently at the USB drive in Sena’s pouch. It felt damp in my hands. Because the rain had stopped, the moisture was unable to come together. It was floating around us. The park where we sat smelled of vegetation. Unlike the humans, the plants reveled in humidity. The sparrows, too, seemed happy. They twittered around us, perhaps thinking that we’d throw feed at them. I didn’t have anything edible. Nevertheless, they were energetic enough to hop and fly occasionally. I was glad that some living things were getting something out of this bleak weather on this stressful day.

“He gave her this,” Radishtop said, then gazed down at what he’d written down. “He wants 100,000 US dollars by next Sunday. Video taken at a hotel at the East Sea, the week before your sister broke up with a man named Jun Lee.”

I nodded. I trusted Radishtop completely. It was possible that he couldn’t help us, but it was impossible that he’d spread information that could harm Sena. He knew she worked at a school. For someone with such a job, a scandal surrounding a sex tape could do even more damage than for others in the private sector. Damage, as in, Sena might never work again as a teacher if this came out.

“And you think the ex-boyfriend is the blackmailer,” Radishtop said, “and you’d like me to run prints for this.” Meaning, the USB drive.

I nodded again.

“I still think you should file a police report,” he said. “Officially, I mean.”

“No,” I said firmly. “Not yet. Sena has too much to lose.”

“That won’t change over the next few days.”

“Yes, but…”

To put it mildly, my confidence in police authority was extremely low. I never broke the law, so I wasn’t talking about going out of my way to challenge it. Merely, that I didn’t trust it.

Same with any authority. School authority, work authority, grown-up authority.

What had they ever done for me? My parents had died and I was left to fend for myself and my sister. The social support system that was supposed to exist hadn’t applied to us, because we weren’t rescue-worthy enough.

So, what were the police going to do with my sister? She clearly wasn’t rescue-worthy enough, because, a) there was no real proof of a video, and b) there wasn’t even real proof of the blackmailer’s existence. Worst case scenario, someone could start pointing out: Oh, isn’t she a female school teacher? Shouldn’t she have behaved better? What are we going to do with the nation’s poor youth, being taught by the likes of her…

“If I can’t get any useful prints from this, what’s your plan?” Radishtop asked.

“I have some addresses I can check,” I said.

Then I quickly held up my hands to stop Radishtop from protesting.

“I’m not going to do anything foolish,” I said. “I’m not going to approach anyone by myself. I’m just going to look around.”

Radishtop’s frown got even deeper. “I’m worried you’re right and the blackmailer is the ex. Because, now that I think about it, aren’t the schools just back from summer vacation?”

“Yes.”

“So all summer long, after Sena’s breakup in the spring, the blackmailer waited. Why? Because he knew that come late August, Sena would be back at school, for sure. Morning to evening, Monday to Friday, a predictable schedule. That allows him to observe her. And who can observe her at a school? Schools don’t let in strangers these days, especially not strange men. So he has to be someone who works at that school. A coach. A janitor. A teacher.”

“Which is exactly why I think it’s him, though Sena thinks that’s impossible.”

“Why do victims always deny the obvious?” He slumped in the bench and tossed the pen and notepad next to him.

“I guess some people believe there are benefits to believing in the good in people,” I said.

“And there are drawbacks. You do see that, right?”

“I do. But I’m not a victim in this case.”

“But you’re a potential victim. We all are.”

I stared at him. He didn’t avoid my gaze. I got the message. I, just like Sena, was a cause for his frustration. He considered the recklessness of my solo investigation another proof for a tendency to deny the obvious. Why are potential victims just like actual victims? he seemed to say with his round, earnest eyes.

But one thing I’d learned from my fifteen years of orphanhood was that the best time to act was right after a tragedy had struck you. That was when you set the tone of the un-tragedizing, if you will.

I use such an unusual term because the desired end result isn’t necessarily outright happiness. I’d say that something as obscure and elusive as happiness is too much to ask. What you can hope for, however, is a new, flat equilibrium; a neutral; something you can live with. One doesn’t need happiness to continue to go on with life. One does, however, need un-tragedy.

Had I set the tone differently, immediately after our parents died, would the relatives have treated us differently? Say, if I’d rebelled, deliberately and clearly, so that there was no mistaking my intention? Or if I’d buttered up to them, desperately and pathetically?

I thought the answer was yes.

I should’ve controlled which un-tragedy I wanted for myself and Sena. Instead, I inadvertently added tragedy on top of tragedy by reacting seemingly randomly. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I yelled. Sometimes I pled. Sometimes I laughed. Because I hadn’t defined myself, they didn’t know what to do with me. By extension, they didn’t know what to do with Sena.

Those double tragedies didn’t begin to be undone until we moved out of their circle of influence. And even after the move, it took us a good decade to reach a neutral state that felt boring enough for us to realize, one day, out of the blue: we hadn’t felt scrutinized, chased after, or undesirable for more than a few days. What a surprising relief that was!

It happened last year, in the spring, on my off day. Sena and I had been sitting just outside our rooftop studio. Remember, it was like a container sitting on top of a roof. So, there was space for us to move around just outside our place. The roof, like so many other roofs of old apartments in Seoul, was flat and painted green. (I never figured out why construction companies so unanimously chose that single, ugly color. It couldn’t be called anything except green. It wasn’t emerald, grass, seaweed, or anything like that. This green was a pure, no-other-name-for-it, factory-produced green.)

I was sipping iced coffee. Sena drank cold banana milk from a straw. We watched the sun glow red as it set beyond the ocean of building roofs painted in green. Neither of us said a thing. The air was comfortably warm. We could smell the scents of flowers, carried by the breeze coming from the nearby mountains. Korea is seventy percent mountains. Through the middle of Seoul, a grand river flows. Even in the center of the great metropolis, you’re never far away from nature.

And our situation there, at that moment, felt natural.

Living and breathing in a city that had undergone constructions and deconstructions of buildings that rose amidst grass and trees and rivers. Being surrounded by roofs and walls painted and unpainted and overpainted in ugly or pretty colors. Watching the buses spit out the commuters who were returning home, and the same buses picking up students who were going out to have fun.

All that. Natural. And boring. Predictable. So very predictable, unlike the whims and demands of relatives and my own uncontrollable reactions to them. And especially more predictable than the death of your parents. Everything in the city was in flux, but none of that flux had to do anything with us. Some people yearn to be influential. But for us, at that moment, the knowledge of our lack of impact was a relief.

We came to that realization simultaneously. Sena turned to me. I turned to her. We laughed. Then we hugged. Then we cried.

That same spring had been when Sena had started dating that Jun Lee.

Without him, I could have continued to dwell in boredom. Without him, we could’ve learned to be happy. But blackmail, of all things!

The ironically comforting part was that nothing I did to him could possibly be worse than what he’d done to us. This was because I considered blackmailers the worst kinds of criminals, right next to rapists. Blackmailing and rape: the unjustifiable crimes.

Am I saying that there are justifiable crimes?

Yes. By “justifiable,” I don’t mean that the crimes are excusable legally or socially, necessarily. I mean that some crimes are logically and emotionally defensible, even from a non-criminal’s perspective.

Stealing, for example. There are thieves who are after diamonds, and that is pretty useless; such thieves probably should end up in prison. But there are thieves who steal bread because they are on the brink of starvation. Stealing bread doesn’t make the act any more “right” than stealing diamonds. But wouldn’t you agree that you can understand why someone needed to steal bread?

Even though both thieves should end up in prison, because the owner of the bread, just like the owner of the diamonds, has rights, if we lack the ability to separate the law from understanding, what is the point of being human?

The law is the law because systems cannot reflect every intricacy of the human existence. Understanding, however, can encompass the human existence. It is capable of holding every paradox, oxymoron, and irony.

In fact, even with the diamonds, there’s room for understanding. What if those diamonds had been stolen from the thief, in the first place? What if the diamonds had been the thief’s late mother’s final gift, but somehow, in the legal, bureaucratic mess, it ended up in the hands of the present owner, who shouldn’t have been the owner?

And so on and so forth. There are understandable situations with a crime like stealing.

Even murder. They say that murder is bad. I agree. You shouldn’t do something to another person if the person doesn’t want it done to them. Obvious. But sometimes, though it’s hard to believe, murder is understandable. Say, if parents were to kill the rapist of their child.

I would do it. Kill the rapist, I mean. I am honest. If someone were to rape Sena, I’d kill that bastard. And I dare say that Sena would do the same for me.

But blackmailing is different from murder. And blackmailing is most definitely different from stealing. There are no circumstances or inevitable reasons for committing blackmailing.

If a person possesses key information that can hurt the target, and were to expose said key information without blackmailing, such an act could be an act of heroism, depending on the circumstances. For example, if a reporter had evidence of a popular politician’s bribe-dealing. If the reporter were to write an article about it, that counts as integrity.

But if the reporter were to resort to blackmailing? Then the reporter would be as criminal as the criminal being accused. The willingness to bargain is what’s so disgusting. The blackmailer kindly informs the target that he might reconsider his crime of blackmail (as if the crime wasn’t already happening) if and only if the target meets his demands.

Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to discuss dignity and honor when it comes to crimes, but…

No, it’s not a stretch. Even crimes can have class. That’s how heroic outlaws like Robin Hood can exist in folklores.

Blackmailers. The worst.

And that was who I was dealing with in this case. Therefore, I could be as ruthless as I wanted to be with Jun Lee. I could be as conniving as him. If I’d thought that killing him could solve the problem, I might have.

Overreaction? Over-honesty? Think what you will. But know this: more than a few women kill themselves after a sex tape comes out. Because, after that tape, their career ends. Their social relationships end. Their life ends.

That is the same as murder.

So, when Radishtop’s sincere concern was about to spill over from his eyes to his lips in the form of carefully-chosen words, I got up. I told him none of all these thoughts that had just crossed my mind. This was where we differed. He thought criminals were different from us, even though he probably knew that criminals could also be potential victims and eventually, victims.

Well. I knew this: if criminals could be victims, victims could be criminals. I didn’t just know this at the back of my head. I knew this consciously. I didn’t want to be manipulated from one desperate moment to the next, blindly. I wanted to take charge; consider the past; predict the future—make it as un-tragic as possible. To accomplish that, I was willing to go to great lengths—lengths that people like Radishtop wouldn’t consider.

“I had that dream again,” I said.

“What?” Radishtop said, puzzled at the sudden change of topic.

“That dream about the day my family went to the Children’s Grand Park.”

“Oh.”

“Can you imagine dreaming about that day over and over again, after doing nothing for Sena right now?”

“Mina, whatever happens, it’s not…” Radishtop didn’t finish his sentence.

He didn’t seem to know what he’d wanted to say. It’s not your job? Not your responsibility?

“I promise, I’ll call you at the slightest hint of danger,” I said. “Thank you, Radishtop. Tell me if you get anything.”

Then I hurried to my next destination, leaving the pouch with the USB drive on the park bench.

The sidewalks were still soaked in the rain from earlier. Everywhere, people carried their wet umbrellas. Some of them weren’t careful and sprinkled water in all directions as they flung their umbrellas back and forth with their every step. I made my way through the humid day, my eyes busily flitting so that I could avoid such fellow pedestrians. It wasn’t time for people to get off work yet. That helped. The streets weren’t crowded. Neither was the bus.

Ten stops, about thirty minutes. Then I hopped off, right across the street from my destination: Somang High School.

© 2022 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.