Excerpt

The Plotters

Un-su Kim, translated by Sora Kim-Russell

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Plotters, Un-su Kim’s U.S. debut about the surreal underworld of assassins and the masterminds working in their wake to plot the movements of Seoul’s criminals. The following excerpt is an encounter between two assassins.

The bounty was posted, but still Chu hadn’t been caught. More rumors sprang up, swirling through the air like falling leaves and disappearing underfoot. Old Raccoon refused to join the hunt. He stayed in his study all day, reading his encyclopedias. So Reseng did nothing, either. The thought of going up against a man like Chu was too much. He had recurring nightmares of running into him. It was always a narrow dead-end street, Reseng trembling at one end and Chu, the brutal assassin, blocking his escape at the other. Reseng knew he was no match for Chu—not in his dreams or in his waking life. The only way someone like him could ever defeat Chu would be by chucking a dagger at him from behind, like the idiot prince Paris.

That summer the rain was incessant. People joked that the monsoonal front had hunkered down right in the middle of the peninsula and was going on a bender. As with any slack season, Reseng passed the time by starting his mornings with a can of beer, listening to music, staring out the window, and playing with Desk and Lampshade. When the cats fell asleep, their heads resting on each other’s bodies, Reseng lay down in bed to read. Books about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, books about the once-powerful descendants of Genghis Khan who’d roamed freely over the steppes but went into a sudden rapid decline when they settled behind fortress walls, and books about the history of coffee, syphilis, typewriters. When he grew bored of thumbing through pages dampened by the humid air, he tossed the book to the other side of the bed, knocked back another can of beer, and fell asleep. Just another ordinary summer.

On the last day of September, during a heavy rainfall, there was a knock on Reseng’s door. When he opened it, Chu was standing there, drenched. He was so tall that the beads of water dripping off the brim of his cap seemed to hang in the air for a long time. He had a large camping backpack, a rolled-up sleeping bag, and a shopping bag filled with beer and whiskey.

“Having a drink with you was next on my bucket list,” Chu said.

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“Come on in.”

Chu stepped through the door, shedding drops of rain and startling Desk and Lampshade, who scrambled to the very top of their cat tower and huddled inside. Chu had lost a lot of weight. Lanky to begin with, he was now just skin and bone.

Reseng offered him two hand towels. Chu took off his cap and set his backpack on the floor. He dried his face and hair and brushed the water from his leather jacket.

“No money for an umbrella?” Reseng asked.

“Accidentally left mine on the subway. Didn’t want to waste money on another.”

“Since when do dead men worry about money?”

“Good point,” Chu said with a light laugh. “Dead man or not, I still don’t want to waste money on an umbrella.”

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“You want a change of clothes?”

“No, I’m fine. I’ll dry off soon enough. Besides, I doubt your clothes would fit me. You’re too short.”

“I’m average. You’re just tall.”

Reseng took out a space heater and put on a pot of coffee. Chu turned on the heater and warmed his hands over it. The cats, unable to resist their curiosity, poked their heads out to inspect Chu. He wiggled his fingers at them. The cats seemed intrigued but didn’t leave the tower.

“They won’t play with me.” Chu looked disappointed.

“I told them never to play with bad guys.”

Reseng handed Chu a cup of coffee. Chu gulped it down. Then he put the damp towels on the floor and shivered. Reseng refilled the cup.

“How much is my bounty?” Chu asked.

“Hundred million.”

“You could buy a Benz with that. Hey, I’m gifting you a Benz.”

Reseng snorted. “What an honor. If I kill you, I get cash and glory. For taking down the world’s greatest assassin.”

“Who cares about glory? Cash is all that matters.”

“Why not die quietly on your own terms?”

Chu paused briefly in the middle of emptying the shopping bag. “What’s the point? It’s easy money; you should take it. Besides, I never did anything nice for you.”

“That’s true,” Reseng said. “You never did.”

Chu looked disappointed. “But I paid for more meals than you.”

“Did you? How come I don’t remember any of those meals?”

“So unfair.”

Reseng got ice cubes, whiskey glasses, and some beef jerky from the kitchen while Chu placed the bottles on the table. There were two six-packs of Heineken, two bottles of Jack Daniel’s, a fifth of Johnnie Walker Blue, and five bottles of soju.

“That’s an odd combo. You drinking all of that?”

“It’s my first drink since going on the run.”

Chu lined the cans and bottles up neatly.

“If I were you, I would’ve gotten drunk every day. Must get boring having to stay hidden.”

Chu smiled. He filled a whiskey glass with Jack Daniel’s and knocked it back. His large Adam’s apple bobbed up and down with each swallow.

“Oh yeah, it’s been too long,” he said, wiping his lips. He looked like he had just reunited with an old friend.

He added two ice cubes to his glass and filled it halfway, then stared at the ice for the longest time before smiling mysteriously.

“I was too scared to drink,” he said, his thick eyebrows quivering.

“I didn’t know guys like you got scared,” Reseng said as he opened a Heineken.

“It’s a dumb move to get drunk without someone to watch your back.”

Chu emptied the glass and chewed on an ice cube. The sound of the ice grinding and cracking between his teeth put Reseng’s nerves on edge. Suddenly, Chu shoved the glass into Reseng’s hand. Reseng hurriedly set down his Heineken. Chu filled the glass two-thirds full with Jack Daniel’s and added two more ice cubes. The alcohol sloshed as he tossed the ice in.

The sound of the ice grinding and cracking between his teeth put Reseng’s nerves on edge. Suddenly, Chu shoved the glass into Reseng’s hand.

“Drink up,” Chu said, gazing at him. “Jack is a real man’s drink.”

Chu’s commanding tone got on Reseng’s nerves.

“Alcohol companies made that up to sell alcohol to fake men like you.”

Chu didn’t laugh at the joke. Instead, he kept staring at Reseng as if he wanted him to hurry up and drink. Reseng stared down at the glass. It was a lot of alcohol to swallow in one shot. He fished the ice cubes out and dumped them on the tray. Then he gulped the whiskey down.

Chu looked satisfied. He stood up, looked around the room, and went over to the cat tower. Timid Lampshade went back inside and refused to come out, but curious Desk tiptoed closer to Chu and sniffed at his hand. Chu gave the cat a scratch behind the ears. Desk seemed to like it; she lowered her head and purred.

Chu played with the cat for a while before coming back to the table, picking up his glass, and sitting on the edge of the bed. He flipped through the books strewn around on the bedspread.

“Did you know I didn’t like you at first? Every time I went to Old Raccoon’s library, you were reading. That annoyed me. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was jealous. You seemed different from the rest of us.”

“I never read. I was only pretending to when you were there. So I’d look different.”

“Well, you did. You looked—how should I put it? Kind of soft.”

“You were in the library a lot, too. I bet you read as much as I did.”

“I hated reading. But I bet even I could handle this one.”

Chu was holding The History of Syphilis.

“That’s not what you think.” Chu flipped through a few pages and laughed. “You’re right. It’s not my speed. Why are there no damn pictures?” He tossed it back on the bed and picked up the one next to it, called The Blue Wolves. “Wolves? You planning to quit and raise wolves instead?”

Reseng smirked. “It’s the story of eight of Genghis Khan’s warriors. Plenty of animals like you in that book. It took the Blue Wolves just ten years to build the largest empire in the world.”

“What happened to them after?”

“They moved into a fortress and turned into dogs.” Chu looked intrigued as he flipped through a few pages of The Blue Wolves, but he seemed to struggle to understand the sentences and soon lost interest. The Blue Wolves landed with a thunk on top of The History of Syphilis.

“So what’s this I hear about you killing the girl?” Chu asked.

Reseng’s earlobes turned hot, and he didn’t respond. Instead, he picked up the bottle and filled a glass a third of the way with Jack Daniel’s. Chu’s eyes followed him closely. Reseng gazed at the glass for a moment before drinking. It tasted sweeter than the first glass.

“Where’d you hear that?” Reseng asked. His voice was calm.

“Here and there.”

“If you heard it while on the run, then I guess that means everyone knows.”

“Lot of crazy rumors in this business.” Chu raised an eyebrow, as if to ask why it mattered where he’d heard it.

Reseng looked Chu straight in the eye. “Did Bear tell you?”

“Bear is a lot quieter than he looks.”

Chu was taking care to defend Bear, which almost definitely meant that Bear was the one who’d told. There were plenty of places where word could’ve gotten out, but Bear had no reason to take risks for Reseng’s sake. Around here, no one took foolish risks or went out of their way when it came to Chu. Least of all Bear, with his two daughters, whom he’d struggled to raise on his own. Reseng understood. Had it been a detective sniffing around, Bear would have taken it to the grave. All the same, he couldn’t help feeling annoyed. When word leaks out, it doesn’t have to travel far before you end up in a plotter’s crosshairs.

“Did you really think you could save her?” Reseng asked, not backing down.

“No, of course not. I’m not the type to save anyone. I’m too busy trying to keep myself alive.”

“So there’s nothing strange about what I did. You’re the strange one.”

“You’re right. I’m the strange one. You did what was expected of you.”

What was expected . . . Those words made Reseng feel both relieved and insulted. Chu moved over to the table and poured more alcohol. The bottle was already almost empty. Chu emptied his glass again, opened the second bottle, and poured himself another glass. He gulped that one down, as well.

“I wanted to ask you something,” Reseng said. “Did you ever go back to see her?”

“Nope.”

“Then why let her live? Did you think the plotters would pat you on the shoulder and say ‘It happens to all of us’?”

“To be honest, I have no idea.”

Chu drank another glass of whiskey. For someone who had gone without any alcohol for two years, he was having no trouble consuming an entire bottle all by himself in less than twenty minutes. His face was turning red. Did he really think he was safe in Reseng’s apartment?

Chu asked, “Have you ever met any of the plotters who’ve given you orders?”

“Not once in fifteen years.”

“Don’t you wonder?” Chu asked. “Who’s telling you what to do, I mean. Who decides when you use the turn signal, when you step on the brake, when you step on the gas, when to turn left, when to turn right, when to shut up and when to speak.”

“Why are you wondering that all of a sudden?”

“I was standing there, looking at this girl who was just skin and bones, and I suddenly wondered who these plotters were anyway. I could have killed her with one finger. She was so scared, she just sat there frozen. When I saw how hard she was shaking, I wanted to find out exactly who was sitting at their desk, twirling their pen, and coming up with this bullshit plan.”

“I would never have guessed you were such a romantic.”

“It’s not about romance or curiosity or anything like that. I mean that I didn’t realize until then just what a cowardly prick I’d been.” Chu sounded on edge.

“Plotters are just pawns like us,” Reseng said. “A request comes in, and they draw up the plans. There’s someone above them who tells them what to do. And above that person is another plotter telling them what to do. You know what’s there if you keep going all the way to the top? Nothing. Just an empty chair.”

“Plotters are just pawns like us,” Reseng said. “A request comes in, and they draw up the plans. There’s someone above them who tells them what to do. And above that person is another plotter telling them what to do. You know what’s there if you keep going all the way to the top? Nothing. Just an empty chair.”

“There has to be someone in the chair.”

“Nope, it’s empty. To put it another way, it’s only a chair. Anyone can sit in it. And that chair, which anyone can sit in, decides everything.”

“I don’t get it.”

“It’s a system. You think that if you go up there with a knife and stab the person at the very top, that’ll fix everything. But no one’s there. It’s just an empty chair.”

“I’ve been in this business for twenty years. I’ve killed countless guys, including friends of mine. I even killed my protégé. I gave him baby clothes at his daughter’s first birthday party. But if what you say is true, then I’ve been taking orders from a chair all this time. And you broke a defenseless woman’s neck because a chair told you to.”

Chu downed another glass. As he caught his breath, he poured more whiskey for Reseng. Reseng ignored it and took a sip of his Heineken. He was tempted to blurt out that he hadn’t broken her neck, but he swallowed the words back down with a mouthful of beer.

Instead, Reseng said, “You can’t shit in your pants just because the toilet is dirty.”

Chu sneered.

“You’re sounding more and more like Old Raccoon every day,” he said. “That’s not good. Smooth talkers will stab a guy in the back every time.”

“Whereas you sound more and more like a whiny brat. Do you really think this tantrum you’re throwing makes you look cool? It doesn’t. No matter what you do, you won’t change a thing. Just like you changed nothing for that girl.”

Chu unzipped the top of his jacket to reveal the leather gun holster under his arm that had been refashioned into a knife holster. He took out the knife and set it on the table. His movements were calm, not the slightest bit menacing.

“I could kill you very painfully with this knife. Make you shiver in agony for hours, blood gushing, steel scraping against bone, until your guts spill out of your body and hang down to the floor. Do you think you’ll still be mouthing off about empty chairs and systems and claiming that nothing has changed? Of course not. Because you’re full of shit. Anyone who thinks he’s safe is full of shit.”

Reseng stared at the knife. It was an ordinary kitchen knife, a German brand, Henckels. The blade was razor-sharp, as if it had just come off the whetstone. The top of the handle was wound tightly with a handkerchief. Chu preferred that brand because it was sturdy, the blade didn’t rust easily, and you could buy it anywhere. Other knife men looked down on the brand as a lady’s knife that was good only for cooking at home, but in fact it was a good knife. It didn’t chip or break easily the way sushi knives did.

Reseng peeled his eyes away from the knife and looked at Chu. Chu was angry. But his eyes lacked their usual venomous glint. The whiskey he’d guzzled must have gotten to him. Reseng thought about his own knife in the drawer. He tried to recall the last time he’d stabbed someone. Had it been six years? Seven? He couldn’t remember. Could he even get the knife out fast enough? If he made a move for it, Chu might grab his, too. And if he did manage to get the knife out of the drawer in time, could he hold his own against Chu? Did he have any chance at all of being the victor?

Unlikely. Reseng took out a cigarette and started smoking. Chu held out his hand. Reseng took out another cigarette, lit it, and passed it over to Chu, who inhaled deeply and leaned his head way back to stare at the ceiling. He held the pose for a long time, as if to say, If you’re going to stab me, do it now.

When the cigarette had burned halfway down, Chu straightened up and looked at Reseng.

“The whole thing’s fucked-up, isn’t it? I’ve got all these goons coming after me, hoping to get a taste of that reward money, and meanwhile I have no idea who to kill or what to do. To be honest, I don’t even care if there is anything at the top. It could be an empty chair, like you say, or there could be some prick sitting in it. Won’t make any difference either way to a knucklehead like me. I could die and come back in another form and I still wouldn’t understand how any of this works.”

“Will you go to Hanja?”

“Maybe.”

“Don’t.”

“Then where am I supposed to go instead?”

“Leave the country. Go to Mexico, the United States, France, maybe somewhere in Africa. . . . Lots of places you could go. You can find work in a private military company. They’ll protect you.”

Chu gave a furtive smile.

“You’re giving me the same advice I gave that girl. Am I supposed to thank you now?”

Chu downed his whiskey, refilled it, downed it again, then emptied the rest of the second bottle into his glass.

“Aren’t you going to drink with me? It’s lonely drinking by myself.”

Chu wasn’t joking. He really did look lonely sitting there at the table. Reseng drank the glass of whiskey Chu had poured for him. Chu opened the Johnnie Walker Blue and poured Reseng another shot. Then he raised his glass in a toast. Reseng clinked his glass against Chu’s.

“Oh, that’s much better,” Reseng said, sounding impressed. “I like this Johnnie Walker Blue stuff better than that ‘real man’s,’ or whatever, Jack Daniel’s.”

Chu seemed genuinely amused. He didn’t say much as they worked on the rest of the bottle. Reseng didn’t have anything to say, either, so they drank in silence. Chu drank far more than Reseng. When the bottle was empty, Chu stumbled into the bathroom. Reseng heard the sound of pissing, then vomiting, then the toilet flushing several times. Twenty minutes passed and still he did not come out of the bathroom. All Reseng heard was the tap running. His eyes never left Chu’s knife where it sat in the middle of the table.

When Chu still hadn’t come out after thirty minutes, Reseng knocked on the door. It was locked and there was no answer from inside. He got a flat-head screwdriver to pry it open. Chu was asleep on the toilet, hunched over like an old bear, and the bathtub was overflowing onto the floor. Reseng turned off the water and helped him to the bed.

Once he was stretched out flat, Chu started to snore, as if he were getting the first good sleep of his life. His snoring was as loud as he was tall. It was so loud that even Lampshade timidly poked her head out from inside the cat tower, crept down to the bed, and started sniffing at Chu’s face and hair. Reseng sat on the couch and drank several more cans of beer, then fell asleep watching Desk and Lampshade enjoying their new game of swatting at Chu’s hair and walking across his chest and stomach.

When Reseng awoke in the morning, Chu was gone. His big backpack was gone, too. All that was left was his kitchen knife with the handkerchief wrapped around the handle, lying in the middle of the table like a present.

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From THE PLOTTERS. Used with the permission of the publisher, Doubleday. Copyright © 2019 by Un-Su Kim. Translation copyright © 2019 by Sora Kim-Russell.




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