Side Story 6
5. Your daily routine (1)
Every once in a while, Woo Jin-Cheol felt this inexplicable sense of loss in his heart. One heck of a weird thing this was, as if he had forgotten something really important to him.
However, no matter how hard he combed through his memories, he knew that he had definitely not forgotten anything. Only, the emptiness in his heart would grow larger and larger the more he thought about it, that was all.
"Hey, senior. What are you thinking about so deeply like that?"
The youngest detective in the unit asked him while handing over a cup of warm coffee taken from a vending machine. Woo Jin-Cheol shrugged his shoulders to say that it was nothing important and received the coffee.
Once this aromatic smell of coffee entered his nostrils, it felt as if the emptiness in his heart was filling up just a little bit.
His name was Woo Jin-Cheol, a fourth-year detective in the National Police Agency's Violent Crimes Investigation Unit.
It wasn't as if he lived a soft life where his mind would sway gently from the warm breezes of the incoming spring, but still, this sense of loss started chasing after him out of the blue, about three years ago.
When he mentioned this to his acquaintances, they all promptly reminded him with the cruel fact that he had no family to call his own, even though he was already at a ripe old age, and that must've been the reason for his restlessness.
Just like the bitter aftertaste of the coffee, Woo Jin-Cheol formed a bitter smile, too, and emptied out the paper cup in no time at all.
Didn't someone say that a busy bee had no time to feel sad, or something like that? The best medicine to heal this trivial depression of his was, traditionally speaking, more work.
With excellent timing, Woo Jin-Cheol's sharp gaze landed on the backs of some men sitting in a line as soon as he stepped into the offices of the Violent Crimes Unit.
He crushed the empty paper cup with his hand and pointed at these three men with his chin.
"What's their story?"
"Ah... those b*stards? Well, uh...."
Woo Jin-Cheol heard the youngest detective's somewhat hesitant voice and walked over quickly to stand before them.
These men's facial complexions were whiter than snow as if they had seen something they shouldn't have. They couldn't even meet his gaze and continued to shiver like a lone leaf in the wind.
Seeing their faces, Woo Jin-Cheol began muttering to himself.
"It's the Shadow Monster again...?"
It wasn't all that rare to see criminals turning themselves in and confessing to their wrongdoings out of the sheer weight of guilt, or out of fear of getting caught.
However, it was a completely different story to see a bunch of hardened career criminals, scared sh*tless, begging the cops to throw them into jail cells as quickly as possible.
And for the last several months, the so-called 'not rare at all' spectacle repeated itself over and over again.
"S-Shadows…. The... the, the shadow stood up from the ground... and spoke to me. If, if I don't turn myself in during the next 24 hours, I'll end up regretting that I'm even alive…. D-detective, I'm a bad guy, so please, please! Throw me inside the slammer! I beg you!!"
They all generally retold the same story.
When similar situations kept repeating itself, the higher-ups got fed up and had ordered their underlings to get to the bottom of this matter right away.
Woo Jin-Cheol's voice rose up higher.
"So, what you're saying is, you all saw the Shadow Monster?"
"T-that's right!! Right!"
Woo Jin-Cheol began writing up his report with the testimonies of these criminals, and when he got to the part called 'the reason for turning oneself in', he spat out a long, long sigh.
'How am I supposed to write a report about this, again?!'
His head began developing a migraine just from thinking about writing yet another report on the unbelievable story of the 'Shadow Monster' cursing people.
It was then.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder so he took a glance back, and that's when he spotted a senior detective standing behind him.
"Hey, Jin-Cheol-ah? Let the junior here take over writing up the report. Can you come to the conference room for a sec?"
'The conference room?'
What with the blindingly wonderful antics of the Shadow Monster reducing the number of violent crimes recently, there shouldn't be a need to use the conference room anymore, but he was being summoned there without a prior heads-up, regardless? What was going on?
The senior detective left behind the puzzled gaze of the younger officer and headed straight to the conference room; Woo Jin-Cheol tilted his head a bit before standing up from his seat as well.
"Senior, I'll take care of this."
Woo Jin-Cheol encouraged the junior, now charged with finishing up the miscellaneous work, and headed towards the conference room along with other detectives.
"Pardon? You want to release the suspects back on the street?!"
"Uh-huh! Lower your voice, Detective Woo! Someone might hear us from the outside and get the wrong idea."
Woo Jin-Cheol asked again in a disbelieving voice.
"What do you mean by releasing the suspects back on the street, sir??"
"It's not 'releasing', but we just let one of them outside for 24 hours and observe what happens afterwards."
After listening to the opinion of the senior detective, one of Woo Jin-Cheol's colleagues formed a deep frown before voicing his own.
"Senior, I'm telling you, these b*stards are talking bullsh*t after getting themselves high on drugs. This crap about monsters and whatnot, it's definitely them having a new type of bad trip from the sh*t they've been taking."
"But, their drug test came back negative, didn't it? I personally went to Forensics to confirm it myself, didn't I?"
"Besides, just because of some nasty side effect of a drug, these b*stards without any connection between them saw the exact same thing and decided to turn themselves in?"
In the end, the colleague shut his mouth as if he had nothing else to say. The meeting of the detectives continued on.
"The brass told us to get to the bottom of this a while ago, but look at us, we haven't even gotten anywhere. What choice do we have? We gotta do something this drastic so that, at least, we can find us some clues."
The detectives, initially unmoved and hesitant, began sneaking glances at each other and nodded their heads.
Since every single one of them saw the exact same type of hallucination, then there had to be some kind of a clue from the rubbish they were all spewing at the same time.
"So, like…. What I'm saying here is, let's create an opportunity for them to continue spewing rubbish."
Woo Jin-Cheol, quietly listening on until then, opened his mouth.
"But, what if something really does happen?"
The gazes of every detective seriously contemplating their next actions all shifted in Woo Jin-Cheol's direction at once.
The corners of their lips began curling up next.
"Detective Woo, you believed in ghosts and stuff?"
"I didn't take you for someone like that, but I guess our Woo Jin-Cheol has an unexpectedly sensitive side, doesn't he?"
Of course, Woo Jin-Cheol wasn't foolishly believing them, taking some nonsense story about monsters at face value. However – if everyone was seeing the same hallucination, then there should be a reasonable explanation for that, no?
For some reason, he felt this ominous foreboding that, through the testimonies of the suspects, he was now meeting some kind of a gaze that was staring straight at him from beyond the darkness.
He got this feeling that he shouldn't poke his nose in this matter.
The squad captain must've interpreted Woo Jin-Cheol's concerns in a different manner, since he said the following words while lightly tapping on the shoulder of his detective forming a worried expression.
"There shouldn't be any accidents, Detective Woo. We'll just take one suspect, place him inside a quiet storage facility somewhere and see if anything pops out. I mean, several burly and healthy officers will be watching him like hawks, so with what miracle will he escape from us?"
The squad captain looked at him with eyes that said 'You can't possibly be believing in this supernatural hocus pocus, can you?' and Woo Jin-Cheol could only nod his head in defeat.
That elicited a burst of manly laughter from the captain.
"Right. Let's say that 24-hour time limit elapses, and a monster does appear to do something to the b*stard. If that's the case, isn't that something we can also feel thankful for, in a way?"
These criminals were serious, vicious offenders who specifically targetted the homes of senior citizens to rob and even ended up beating a couple of pensioners to death just because the victims dared to resist.
The captain then spoke half-jokingly, but also half-seriously, that, rather than such b*stards staying in the slammer getting fed three times a day, it was only right that they got ripped to shreds by a monster.
"So, now we need volunteers...."
The captain shifted his gaze over to Woo Jin-Cheol and formed a rather sly grin.
"Detective Woo, you can sit this one out if you're still hesitant about it."
Anyone who had lived in society for a while should already know this – those words definitely meant "Don't sit this one out".
Woo Jin-Cheol still felt unconvinced so he had to deliberate on this for a little bit, before eventually making his reply.
"No, sir. I shall come along as well."
"D-Detective-nims!! N-no! You can't! You seriously can't! I'll die!"
"Just be still. I told you, we have stuff to confirm."
"I will die!!"
"Hey, man. Just who's going to die here? Can't you see us protecting you? Detective Kim? How long do we have until the 24-hour mark comes to an end?"
"Let me see…. I think roughly 30 minutes?"
"Is it? Uh-whew, it's pretty cold tonight."
The air of spring remained frigid and white steam rose up from the lips of the waiting detectives.
They were currently inside a quiet storage building, the time being in the middle of dawn. To observe the 'change' that might take place with their suspect, detectives were waiting around with nothing much to keep them company.
Only one among them – Woo Jin-Cheol – kept a close watch on his surroundings, his glare remaining sharp.
For some reason, the surrounding air felt different from the norm. It even vaguely felt like something he should never be near was approaching this location.
He prayed inwardly that this feeling would prove to be nothing but a simple fuss….
Woo Jin-Cheol sucked in the cold air repeatedly in order to calm his breathing that tried to get faster and faster.
And so – the hour warned by the existence called the 'Shadow Monster' slowly encroached upon them.
"Uhm…. It's time now, everyone."
One of the detectives took a look at his watch and stood up from his chair.
The 24-hour mark the suspect was strongly emphasizing earlier on had come and gone now.
Should one say that this turn of events was entirely not unexpected? Nothing had happened, and there was no sign of anything about to happen, either.
"What the heck?"
The detective with a short fuse began glaring at the suspect, prompting the criminal to stop shivering in fear and peek his head out before forming a dumbfounded expression himself.
Since there was no one watching anyway, the detectives surrounding the criminal began mercilessly shouting at him.
"Hey, you little sh*t! You as*holes probably got high as a d*mn group, didn't you?!"
"Stop wasting our time and just be clean with it, will ya? Why don't you make all of our lives easier, ah?"
The suspect shifted his head this way and that while blinking non-stop, but when nothing happened even after a long time passed by, he began sheepishly scratching the back of his head.
"No, hang on, the thing was…. We definitely saw it, you see? Actually, there were four of....."
When his words arrived there...
Woo Jin-Cheol, who always stayed a couple of steps away from the group and watched the surroundings, quickly turned around towards his fellow detectives and urgently cried out.
"Get away!! Get away from there!!"
What was he trying to say now?
The faces of the detectives seemed to be asking that question as they looked at Woo Jin-Cheol, but then, they were all blown away on their backsides without warning.
Detectives rolled along the ground and, as if they had lost their consciousness just like that, remained dead-still in their sleep after coming to a stop.
Woo Jin-Cheol tried to run towards his colleagues, but after discovering something, his steps came to an abrupt halt. His irises were engraved with the images of 'monsters' slowly rising up from the shadow on the ground.
He couldn't say anything.
His breathing suddenly felt stifled, choked up.
These…. No, hang on, these things were definitely not human.
They were 'insects' that just so happened to possess the arms and legs of a human being; above their necks sat the head of an ant, rather than that of a human.
Woo Jin-Cheol's eyes quaked in fear.
'There are three such monsters?!'
These suspects definitely didn't see any hallucinations, nor were they suffering from adverse side effects of some strange narcotics, either. Their testimony had contained not one shred of falsehood, as it turned out.
Now completely surrounded by these ant monsters, the suspect began screaming at the top of his head.
It was the most desperate, frightened, and sorrowful scream a human could emit. It was unmistakably the death throes of a dying man.
The ant monsters ripped the suspect apart without hesitation and began devouring him.
His scream didn't last for long.
Only some splotches of blood and bits of flesh remained on the spot where the feast of ants took place.
Woo Jin-Cheol dazedly stared at that spectacle. And then, two of the ant monsters also discovered the dazed detective after ending their meal.
And their gazes were now fixed on him.
Woo Jin-Cheol thought of turning around in a hurry to escape, but his feet didn't want to move. His legs had frozen up solid and he couldn't lift them up at all.
It was then.
The biggest ant monster with wings, situated behind the two other ants, stopped his comrades (?) from going any further.
The winged ant grabbed their shoulders and turned them away, and for some reason, he formed the kind of expression that said, "Hey, nice to see you again". Heck, he even formed a grin, too.
An ant... was smiling?
No, hang on a minute.
'Never mind the fact that an ant is smiling – how the heck can I even tell that it's making a delighted expression?'
It was so, so strange.
Even though he now found himself in this deeply horrifying, frightening situation, Woo Jin-Cheol was suddenly overcome with this sense of longing.
As if, there once had been a time that he was quite familiar with situations such as this one.
Woo Jin-Cheol fell into a state of confusion and panic, only to realise that the ants were disappearing into the shadow.
"H-hey!! Hold on!! Wait!"
Too bad, despite how desperately he called out, the ant monsters were gone without a trace, in the blink of an eye.
By the time he ran over and stood above the shadow itself, there was not a single trace of them left anywhere.
He felt this sense of loss assaulting him again and bent down to slowly rub the shadow that the ants had disappeared into.
Just how long passed by like that?
Woo Jin-Cheol belatedly regained his wits after listening to his colleagues toss and turn behind him.
"H-hey, are you alright?"
He checked out their current conditions and quickly called the emergency services. Even after he did that, though – even when ambulances arrived on the scene to take his colleagues away to the hospital, his gaze remained fixed to the shadow.
"Brilliant!! Absolutely f*cking brilliant!!!"
The squad captain was, understandably, up in arms.
But, that was to be expected.
The suspect had completely vanished without a trace, while the detectives supposed to watch over the man were struck unconscious by something and couldn't remember a thing.
The captain looked at the two detectives covered in bandages here and there with their heads hanging low in embarrassment, and spat out a long sigh. He then shifted his gaze over to Woo Jin-Cheol.
"Detective Woo? What about you?"
"You called the ambulance, didn't you? Can't you remember anything?"
"My apologies, captain. When I came to, I saw my colleagues unconscious, so I just...."
"God d*mn it!!"
Captain pounded on his chest as if the frustration was about to kill him and sighed out again.
"Thankfully, this matter hasn't been reported to the higher-ups yet, so all of you, keep your mouths shut, okay? And you two, you got hurt by mistake while trying to investigate the gangs in the Guro-gu district. Got it?"
Along with the energyless replies from the two detectives, this incident had come to its conclusion – for the time being.
The Violent Crimes Unit became rather quiet for a while afterwards.
"Senior? You know, you look a lot better nowadays. Did something good happen to you lately?"
The youngest detective in the squad asked while handing over a cup of steaming coffee taken from the vending machine to Woo Jin-Cheol.
"Well, I wonder."
Woo Jin-Cheol shrugged his shoulders as if to say there was nothing to see here and received the cup.
The thing was, though – the youngest detective's words of something good happening weren't entirely off the mark.
After that day, after meeting those ant monsters, it felt as if that emptiness in his heart had been filled by a little, for some unfathomable reason.
'There's definitely something here.'
Without a doubt!
The instincts of a veteran detective, no, the instincts of a human being named Woo Jin-Cheol, were telling him that there was definitely something there.
The youngest detective stole a glance over Woo In-Cheol's shoulder to see what was on the pages of a small memo pad the latter was concentrating so hard on.
"Uh? Uhh? Senior? You're still investigating that missing suspect incident? But, didn't the captain say....."
"I know, I know. It's something I'm looking into in my spare time."
Woo Jin-Cheol made sure that his junior wouldn't run his mouth off and finished off his share of coffee. However, unlike in the past, the junior didn't shut his mouth up immediately.
"Wowsers…. There are quite a lot of suspects turning themselves in because of the Shadow Monster beside our precinct, isn't it?"
He couldn't simply treat this young detective badly when the number of hopeful officers applying to join the Violent Crimes Unit was in decline lately.
Although he was slightly annoyed by this unnecessary attention, Woo Jin-Cheol still did his best not to show it and replied calmly.
"That's what I heard."
The junior stared hard at the contents of the memo pad, before asking another question.
"Huh? Wait, why did the number of suspects turning themselves in suddenly decrease by a lot between the end of February and the beginning of March?"
After hearing that astute observation made by the junior, the veteran's eyes gleamed brightly.
"Hey, can you think of something?"
"Ah, well, it's actually nothing much, but…. My aunt used to run a small book rental shop, you see."
"I just remembered that she used to whine about business going downhill during the end of February and the beginning of March, because the new school semester started around then, senior. Haha, it really was nothing much, wasn't it?"
Perhaps he felt a bit sheepish, the junior scratched the back of his head with a smile. But then, he gasped out in sheer surprise when he saw Woo Jin-Cheol carefully jot down what was said on the memo pad.
"Well, you never know."
School opening, students, semester.
Those four simple words with no adjectives or modifiers attached were quietly added into Woo Jin-Cheol's memo pad.
Meanwhile, in XX High School.
A day before the entrance ceremony for the new students, the headmaster of the school secretly summoned the teacher serving as the director of the students' affairs department to his office.
"We'll be welcoming a problem child in our school tomorrow."
"Pardon me, sir?"
The headmaster pushed forward a set of prepared documents. The director of the students' affairs scanned the profile of a certain student written on the document and tilted his head.
"His father is a firefighter, his mom is a regular housewife. His academic records aren't too shabby, and I failed to see anything major with this child, sir."
"Uh-huh. This fella. Look at the bottom. Look at the details on his expulsion."
The student had run away from home for two years when he was only a first-year middle school student. Rather obviously, he was expelled from his previous school.
But then, he 'completed' the middle school diploma through GED and applied to enter their high school.
'Not even as a high school freshman, but a child who just graduated from the elementary school ran away from home for two years?'
The director sensed the entrance of a powerful adversary and his eyes began quaking ever so imperceptibly. Meanwhile, the headmaster spoke in a hushed voice.
"What do you think? This student, do you think you can handle him?"
The director of the students' affairs took a deep, deep breath and closed the file of this problem child.
"Sir, you know very well already why I'm called the 'Venomous Snake'. No matter what kind of a problem child he is, just leave him to me. I shall make sure to discipline him correctly so he won't go around causing trouble."
His eyes were now shining with a sense of duty and unbridled confidence. The headmaster nodded his head in approval.
"Very good, then. I shall trust your judgement in this case, Teacher Park."
The expression on the headmaster softened after hearing the assurance straight from the mouth of the director. A thin smile crept up on the latter's lips.
The fated encounter would take place the next day.
His heart was racing already from his determination to suppress the troublemaker in one fell swoop during the welcoming ceremony before the kid had a chance to start anything.
< Extra Spin-off > Beru's Memories
Kiiieeehk, kiiiieeehk, kiiehk, kkiiieehhk.
Khaahk, kiiieeehh, kiiek.
< Chapter 249 > Fin.