“Lucia! Don’t be shy. Come here and meet these charming boys,” Magda Dunning called out. She turned, smiling, to the three handsome young men crowded about her. “These meet and greet get-togethers tend to overwhelm Ms. Clarke.”
Lucia looked towards her manager and nodded.
I’m 72 years old – no need to be flustered! She scolded herself. Just be nice to the pretty children!
She’d seen two of these flower boys in Kdramas during the past year and thought them very talented. The unknown young man held his own looks-wise with the Hallyu stars although obviously a bit older, so she supposed him to be some film star or first generation KPop idol. She didn’t keep up with those so much.
She walked over to stand by Ms Dunning.
“Lucia, let me introduce Mr. Lee Tak Gu, Mr. Park Jae Sun, and Mr. Sung Dae Ho,” Magda smiled.
Lucia held out her hand to greet them.
“Hello, I’m Lucia Clarke. I’m so sorry – I had a senior moment there. I’ve seen you both in dramas last year,” she indicated the two actors.
“And you cannot place me,” laughed the third young man.
“He’s more famous than us. At least with the girls,” young Mr. Lee advised Lucia.
“Just the female Idols,” explained Mr. Park. “They all want him to write them a song.”
“Oh, you compose?” asked Lucia.
“I do. But I’m afraid I don’t do much but MC, on the public stage,” Mr. Sung stated apologetically.
“Miss Clarke composes in a way, just like Composer Sung here,” said Mr. Lee. “That Webtoon of yours, it’s really cool.”
“I heard Sunrise wants to get the rights for a live-action drama,” added Mr. Park. “So that makes it a real manwha, I guess.”
“Your mind works in just weird and strange fashion,” commented Mr. Sung.
“You boys! Nothing’s been settled yet, so you should not speculate,” admonished Ms Dunning. “Lucia, please keep these young men occupied. I see Chairman Shin just came in and I need to talk to him.”
“Oh, certainly, Magda,” Lucia felt a bit flustered but hid it. She turned to the young men. “I don’t know how entertaining I can be but I’ll try not to bore you.”
They all smiled charmingly. Mr. Sung raised his glass of champagne to her. “Such a lovely breath of fresh American air can only revive us!”
“There he goes, showing off his skills,” Mr. Lee lamented as Mr Park hung his head. “We can only bask in his shadow.”
“All of you speak English so well,” Lucia said, smiling sweetly.
Despite knowing Magda most likely arranged this, she fully enjoyed the illusion. These gorgeous young men could pretend to flirt with her all evening.
Over the past four months she’d met a lot of celebrities at the various SF/Anime/Comic/Gaming conventions her publicity touring had taken her, and found the Asian media darlings extremely polite in contrast to their Western counterparts. Age had jaded her, most likely, but she preferred this casual, insincere but polite flirtatiousness to the bored indifference so often exhibited by young people in her own country.
The trio motioned her over to a seating alcove and Mr. Sung asked her if she’d like him to get a plate for her from the buffet. She assented and sat with the two young Hallyu artists.
“Do you like Korean music?” asked Mr. Lee, rather ingenuously as he belonged to a very popular KPop group. “Have you heard many of our bands?”
She laughed. “Yes, I like KPop. All my die-hard classic rock loving friends groan about my abysmal taste, but it reminds me of Mo-Town. So much energy, really excellent production, great talent and extremely polished performances – what’s not to like?”
“Great talent – I like that,” commented Mr. Park, blithely ignoring all else.
“You young idols all work really hard. I don’t see that so much in the US music scene, not at the top,” she looked thoughtful. “Indie bands in America and Europe all have to play lots of gigs, practice a lot, get a style, all of that. But in the West, Disney’s the only company I can think of that has the kind of training for young stars that I’ve seen and heard about over here.”
“But you’ve got lots of great groups! We all want to be like American rock stars,” Mr. Lee looked wistful.
““I expect you boys probably love rap and hip-hop, just like my nephews. I love MoTown but after funk devolved I basically followed Hendrix to London. Beatles Forever, Zeppelin Rules, all that,” Lucia laughed. “And Barry White.”
“Zeppelin?” Mr. Sung asked, returning with a plate for her. “I like them. Those old British rockers had style, man. And chops – nobody plays like them nowadays!”
“Yeah, I guess we don’t do anything but dance and sing,” admitted Mr. Park. “But I can play piano, you know!”
“You have a beautiful voice. I’ve heard you. And you’re a pretty convincing actor,” Lucia smiled at him. He looked pleased with himself. This amused her, considering he probably had a following on Twitter numbering in the millions.
“Have you really not heard any of your American hip-hop artists?” asked Mr. Lee, still musing over her previous comments. “I should give you a list of the ones to check out. Those old guys did great, but there’s stuff going on now, by people in our generation.”
Lucia looked at the young man appraisingly.
“I suppose some of those rappers must be good, at least the ones who just do it as they go. Improv impresses me. But I really can’t call it music. “
“Uh oh, here he goes,” Mr. Sung and Mr. Park said in unison. Apparently Lucia had hit a nerve. For the next half-hour, she just sat and smiled while Mr. Lee, true to his word, went down his list of current important American hip-hop artists, letting her listen to samplings on his phone to whet her interest.
Finally, Mr. Sung intervened. “Hey, Tak Gu, let her breathe a bit, huh? You’ve convinced her. She’ll love Usher forever.”
Later that night, Lucia sat with Magda in their hotel suite lounge.
“Those boys really laid it on thick,” she commented. “I know it’s all a sham but still, thank you for arranging that. Very talented young actors indeed!”
“I see,” Magda smiled enigmatically. “Such charming children, are they not? I doubt I could truly coerce them to do what they didn’t want.”
“I may be romanticizing the whole thing, but I think it pleases many of these young stars to exchange compliments,” Lucia stated. “I saw a talk show with the stars of some major hit drama, and the entire cast, including two gorgeous young Hallyu idols and one very popular young actress, could not say enough wonderful things about the older actress.”
“Of course. The East values its elderly very much.”
“Mind, she had aged very well. Like Sophia Loren,” laughed Lucia. “Seeing the older male actors, the ones her age, just falling all over themselves for her made my day.”
“Of course you yourself do not show your age anymore, my dear,” Magda reminded her. “You’ve responded excellently to the treatments.”
“Yes, yes, and I never did look my age in the first place. I know. I probably can pass for 45 on a good day,” smiled Lucia. “And last night the lighting could not be called revealing. I expect none of those boys realized I’m old enough to be their grandmother.”
“I’m certain of that,” agreed her manager, enigmatically.
Tapping her chin, Lucia looked at Magda. “I wish you’d let me check it out for myself. If I truly look the same age as those children’s mothers that’s a major breakthrough, right?”
“Yes, my dear, that’s true. The testing results are overwhelmingly positive. But as I’ve said, Marketing wants to reveal your improved self to you at the New Product Conference next month, in Hong Kong. So no mirrors!”
“I promise,” Lucia sighed.
This whole testing process seemed interminable. She’d answered an ad over a year ago, in order to make a little extra money to keep her comic blog going. Little did she realize what an investment of time it meant!
When she’d gone to the interview, she’d fit the profile they needed very well. She’d been told that the company wanted to test a new anti-aging product that seemed to cause rejuvenation. This double blind study required the test subjects not know of their progress in order to remain ignorant of whether they received placebos or the new product itself. No one could know what she’d really be doing. The fact that she spent a lot of time on her computer, working on a blog, made that much easier.
She’d stayed at a dormitory with other test subjects for most of that year, without ever seeing them (they’d all had bandages around their faces whenever they left their rooms, to hide their identities and apparently their progress). Her family thought her traveling from one comic convention to another, and she found it much easier to concentrate on her online artwork without distractions from real life interfering. As a result her Webtoon really improved, and surprisingly her blog’s popularity exploded. She started getting lots of offers for various rights to her comic, and requests for personal appearances as a guest at conventions.
The Marketing people, seeing this, and knowing the test to be near an end, checked to make sure she’d gotten the serum rather than the placebo, & demanded to know her progress. Finding it excellent, a decision came down from on high – take her on a tour but don’t let her see herself.
Since then, Lucia had hosted panels at numerous cons, in the US, Europe and now Asia. Being used to people thinking her much younger than her actual age, plus knowing that she’d responded positively to the new serum, Lucia took the way people acted in stride. The Marketing people had her sign a contract to be the spokesperson/model for the product, so she figured it worked very well. As she’d said to Magda, she supposed herself to look perhaps 45, from a distance at least. A serum achieving this without plastic surgery meant mega-bucks for everybody involved, she thought.
The way she felt puzzled her, however. Physically she no longer got tired nearly so easily, she could see without her glasses, she could dance and exercise much longer than a year ago. Her diet had improved and the staff at that dormitory had kept her to a strict exercise schedule, so supposedly that caused this energy revival. Still she really felt 25 again, in many ways.
Magda laughed at her when she told of her worries. “You’ve basically been at an exclusive spa for 10 months! Of course you feel wonderful and invigorated! Even those on placebos did!”
Since Lucia could not for the life of her figure out how a serum that she applied to her face and throat could do anything for her internally, she just accepted this. After all, she really couldn’t see herself so supposed it all just a mental projection because she felt so much better. Proof that having a personal trainer and nutritionist really did make a difference, she concluded.
How that improved her vision still eluded her, however.
“Lucia, wake up! You’ve got a phone call,” Magda’s voice floated insistently through Lucia’s dreamscape, shattering it.
“ It’s morning already?” she grumbled. “I’m so comfy.”
“Just take the phone. I’ll bring you coffee.”
Lucia looked at the mobile a second, then put it to her ear.
“Ah, Ms Clarke! I hope I don’t disturb you,” said a vaguely familiar voice. “ We met last night. I’m the one you did not recognize.”
“Oh, Mr. Sung?” Lucia felt a bit confused. Did he want to write the score for this drama Sunrise wanted make from her comic?
“I did wake you. I am so sorry,” he sounded contrite. “I should call later perhaps?”
“Oh, no, not at all. I should have been up hours ago, I’m sure,” Lucia laughed.
“You wonder why I call, I’m certain,” Sung said, sounded anything but sure. “I wondered, how much of Seoul you may have seen? I should be delighted to show you some of our lovely spots.”
Oh, Magda, Lucia thought.
“How delightful for you to ask!” she said, and meant it, no matter what coercion her keeper used on him. “Let me check my schedule. If you come for lunch we can decide what to see.”
“Certainly! I shall come to your hotel at noon?”
“Lovely. See you then,” Lucia hung up the phone, then looked at the time. 10:30. Not so bad.
“Magda, I’ve got a date!” she called out laughingly. “What can I go see without worrying about mirrors?”
“A date?” Magda asked. “Mirrors? What do you mean?”
“One of those young men you got to flirt with me wants to take me sightseeing. I don’t want to accidentally break the contract, so where should we go?”
“Oh, “ Magda looked worried. “I see. Well, which one? Those Idol boys can’t just parade about in public without mob scenes.”
“It’s Sung Dae Ho – the songwriter. I don’t think the public knows his face that well,” Lucia said. “At least not those little gangs of fangirls!”
“Such a nice, good-looking young gentleman,” Magda stated. “I think you should go to the Northern Palace. Seems quite safe. You love history, I know. We’ll have Paul drive so I can tag along.”
Paul Jackson, their road manager as Lucia liked to call him, had a thing for Ms Dunning. Magda used that mercilessly.
“Official chaperones? That’s so silly!”
“Mr. Sung won’t see it like that – people go out in groups much more here. Perfectly natural,” Magda insisted. “We won’t intrude on your lunch, of course. You should go to the little restaurant downstairs.”
Four hours later, Lucia scrutinized her young escort as he pointed out yet another building dating back to the Josean Era. It all looked familiar to her, since she’d watched just about every historical Korean drama available on Western channels.
“Do they actually film here?” she asked him.
“No, not really,” he laughed. “The studios use sets mostly. MBC has this massive fake village in Yongin, called the Dramia. They run tours.”
“Universal Studios, Korean style,” she laughed. “I love it.”
“We can go if you’d like, later this week.”
“Maybe, but I in fact prefer the real deal. We’ve got four more palaces on these tickets, do we not?”
“You must promise to escort me about the sites in your home city sometime,” he laughed. “I want to visit the US very much.”
“Have you really never been? You speak English so well!”
“I went to school in Sydney,” he admitted. “Most families want to send their children to school in America nowadays, but Australians speak English too.”
“After a fashion, I guess,” she laughed. “Here I thought you sounded a bit British!”
So last night had just been strange.
After a week of touring palaces by day and doing talk shows and other publicity stints at night, Lucia and Magda both needed a break. Mr. Sung and Paul had together suggested a karaoke (or to be exact, noraebang) night, which seemed safe enough to Magda.
Lucia still wondered about Mr. Sung’s motivations. No matter how nice, he obviously had some ulterior motive for the dedicated attentions he’d showered on her these past few days. She smiled, thinking that he must have some insider information about the proposed animation/live action rights for her comic. That excited her.
The noraebang place had private rooms of course, which made the excursion feasible in Magda’s mind. Several members of the tour company attended, and that young Hallyu star Lee Tak Gu showed up with Sung.
Obviously he wanted a part in whatever drama or film might be in the works using her comic, she decided. However, Tak Gu had definitely deferred to Sung Dae Ho in relation to her.
The weirdness came as they all proceeded to drink a bit too much. The team members that joined them included two very attractive young girls who acted as go-fers and eye candy on her tour – at conventions the company had a booth touting Lucia’s comic blog, and they’d stand about in skimpy cosplay outfits handing out flyers and attracting customers.
Tricia and Brigitte fell all over Tak Gu, of course, with a side-swipe at Dae Ho. She expected them to form a little group as the night progressed and the soju bottles emptied, and sat back to watch the fun.
Only it never happened. Sung Dae Ho did not get distracted by these lovely young things, and Lee Tak Gu kept flirting with her along with the girls, treating all three of them to increasingly sillier blandishments as he got drunker.
“You three beauties! I want to go to America – so many pretty women!” he slurred, having killed a remarkable number of bottles. “Even you! Ms Magda! So sexy for an ajumma!”
Magda looked at him with daggers.
“Truth in drink,” laughed Paul, who had gotten the courage to put his arm around Ms Dunning.
“You should have seen her four months ago,” slurred one of the candy girls. Magda’s dragon gaze immediately changed direction.
“Not you, Ms Magda!” the girl chirped, alarmed, immediately pointing to Lucia. “Her!”
“I think, Brigitte, that you’ve had a bit too much to drink. Perhaps we might call the car now? At least for these children,” Magda said in clipped tones, indicating the girls and two junior camera men drunkenly serenading the group.
Tak Gu got up and bowed unsteadily towards Brigitte and her companion.
“Charming girls! But can’t I keep one? Dae Ho’s gets to stay.”
Lucia just frowned. Both of the girls had staggered out of the room with the camera-men by that time.
Dae Ho, also pretty far gone, put his arm around Lucia and laughed up at Tak Gu.
“Ha! Mine’s the guest of honor, lucky me!”
“So I’m destined to be lonely tonight,” Tak Gu sat down, pouting a bit.
“Lucia, I think we should call it a night as well,” Magda commented. “We’ve got a busy day tomorrow.”
“Leave the men to drink themselves into a stupor,” she added in a whisper, in Lucia’s ear. “Paul here’s getting a bit rambunctious.”
Hearing this appeal, Lucia readily agreed, despite Dae Ho’s complaints.
“Ha! hyung! The ajumma’s determined to take all the lovely girls away, lock em up safely for the night!” giggled Tak Gu. “Probably best.”
“You might stay a bit longer,” Dae Ho pleaded, still with his arm about her. “You leave for Tokyo so soon.”
“I’m sure I will see you before I leave,” Lucia assured the young man, and moved to stand. Immediately he stood as well.
“I will see you to your vehicle,” he said. “Tak Gu, sit. You will fall on your face otherwise.”
Out the door they went, Magda and Paul leading the way. Paul looked very crest-fallen and Lucia really felt annoyed with Magda. Truth to tell she wanted to stay, ridiculous though that might be. She enjoyed Dae Ho’s company, and tonight she didn’t care what motivated it.
The car awaited them, doors wide, as they exited the club.
“Here we go,” sang Magda, and scooted in, followed by Paul.
“Mr. Sung, thank you so much for tonight!” Lucia said to her escort.
“Ah, American style! Dae Ho, please,” he murmured. And then bent and gave her a kiss.
Just a little one on the edge of her mouth, but still! Lucia just stared at him a bit.
“Lucia! Come on!”
“Yes, ok, Magda!” Lucia nodded quickly to Dae Ho & then turned to get quickly in the car.
“I will take you to lunch tomorrow, yes?” Dae Ho asked.
“Oh, yes, that would be fine,” Lucia stammered a bit. Dae Ho smiled sweetly at her and shut the door.
“Magda, what in the world?” Lucia turned to her manager as the car pulled away.
“What? That stupid girl and her mouth! I swear I’ll fire the both of them,” Magda complained. “Paul, you should have controlled them better instead of bothering me.”
Paul, non-plussed, just nodded, smiling a bit conspiratorially at Lucia.
Lucia stared at both of them.
“That child shows all the signs of being really interested in me, Magda. Could you possibly explain that?”
“He’s just drunk, don’t be silly. You’ve had a bit to drink yourself. Go with the flow.”
“I might have if you’d not dragged me away,” Lucia pointed out. “Which I guess I should thank you for. What an idiot I’d have looked.”
But the question kept her up half the night. Could she really be that naïve to think Sung Dae Ho incapable of seducing her just to make sure he’d get to write the soundtrack for some ambiguous project featuring her comic? She didn’t know him that well, after all.
It still didn’t scan the next morning when she woke.
I am not cut out for show business politics, Lucia grumbled to herself.
“Up we go! Sun’s shining, day’s wasting,” Magda came into Lucia’s bedroom and flung open the curtains.
“Oh, for the love of …,” muttered Lucia, burrowing under her pillow. “WHY so cheerful? Too loud.”
“Just got the word from Sunrise – we leave for Tokyo this afternoon! I’m so sick of Seoul,” Madga giggled a bit, & started humming Oh What a Beautiful Morning.
Lucia decided this must just be a nightmare and closed her eyes, prepared to drift off to some less disjointed dream, when her bedside phone rang.
Since it didn’t stop, she sat up and fumbled for it.
“Hello? Lucia Clarke here.”
“Good morning,” Dae Ho sounded much less chipper than Magda, thank heaven. “I understand you fly away today?”
“Oh, I guess,” Lucia agreed. “I’m not sure what time. We had a lunch date, didn’t we? I’m so sorry.”
“Perhaps breakfast, or brunch, instead?”
“What time is it?” Lucia asked. “I suppose – Magda said afternoon. I don’t have that much to cram into my suitcase.”
“It’s 8:02 am,” Dae Ho told her. “Perhaps I might come by at 9:30?”
“That’s lovely. Magda’s gone looney tunes on me,” Lucia answered.
“I’m not sure I understand,” Dae Ho sounded puzzled. “Is Ms Dunning alright?”
“Yes, she’s fine. Too fine in my opinion. Just come take me away please.”
“My pleasure! I shall be there soon,” Dae Ho happily promised.
Lucia got showered, dressed and packed in record time, all the while listening to Magda singing away in the next room. She carried her suitcases out to the sitting room with 10 minutes to spare before her breakfast date.
“Magda, what time do we need to leave for the airport?” she called out to her manager. “I’m going out to breakfast.”
“What? Breakfast? Just have it sent up,” Magda told her. “The limo leaves here at noon.”
“When is the flight?” Lucia repeated.
“I think 4 pm. Maybe 5.”
“Thank you! I’m going now,” Lucia said, and left before Magda could answer.
Lucia meant to go to the lobby to wait for Dae Ho, but the complimentary English language paper lay in front of the door. She bent to pick it up and when she straightened, she nearly bumped heads with Paul.
“Oh, hello! I’ve left my suitcases in the sitting room if you’ve come to fetch them,” she smiled at him, as she handed him the paper.
“Very good, Ms Clarke. Has Magda, uh, I mean Ms Dunning, finished packing yet?” He blushed.
Lucia, remembering last night, smiled to herself.
“She’s packing now, and in a very good mood! I don’t think she’s had breakfast yet either.”
“No? Shall I order some for both of you?”
“Just you and Magda – I’ve got a date! Go on in. ”
Off Lucia went, feeling smug about her good deed.
Later, over breakfast, she confessed all this to Dae Ho, laughing a bit.
“I feel like a high school kid again – so silly at my age,” she told him. “But really, you should have seen Magda!”
“No singing for you, though,” he remarked. “Poor me.”
Lucia shook her head.
“I drank too much last night to wake up all bright and shiny.”
“I wish I could take you to the airport,” he said. “But my manager called me – he has something scheduled for me this afternoon. I do not know what.”
“I hope good news!” She watched him, thinking how young he looked when not surrounded by those baby Idol boys. “What projects do you have in the works?”
“I’ve just finished composing a film score, which means back to work as usual.”
“I score CFs mainly. And write my own songs, which mostly get rejected or changed beyond recognition before recording,” he sighed. “I wish I could sing.”
“You can! I heard you last night.”
“I do fine in the right key, but I cannot project my voice. No real lung power,” he laughed ruefully. “I also forget the lyrics without the score in front of me. Noraebang’s great because I can just read the words. Otherwise I end up humming.”
“I see. I guess that goes for acting as well?”
“Ha! Not only can I NOT remember lines, or I change them, but I apparently imitate a wooden puppet in front of the camera,” he shook his head. “At least that’s what my acting coach told me after the studio auditions.”
“I can understand that. I tried taking Drama in high school one year. What a disaster! I could not force myself to act like somebody else! It felt as if everyone must be laughing at me.”
“All my friends did laugh – to this day they ask me to show them those screen tests when they feel bored at my parties,” Dae Ho ruefully admitted.
“How mean of them.”
“You would not think so if you saw them,” he smiled at her. “I am glad not to be a performer, I admit. I do not like the lifestyle.”
“I agree with you,” she nodded. “I love working late at night, dreaming up all sorts of things for my little webtoon people to do and say. I’d hate to lose control of that, to have to say or do things others created.”
“Ah, your sweet, serene exterior hides a little dictator within!”
“That’s it – I’m a puppet master! “
They both laughed.
Dae Ho’s phone rang and he excused himself, talking rapidly in his own Korean for a moment.
When he hung up and turned back to her he looked thoroughly annoyed.
“My manager,” he said tersely, indicating the phone. “I must forget whatever I plan today and go right now to his office, according to his direction. Manager Wang shows himself to be the real tyrant!”
“How very bad of him,” Lucia commiserated with the young man. “We’ve finished eating, though. Not so bad.”
“I wanted to spend the rest of the morning with you, but the world plans against me,” he mourned, reaching into his breast pocket. “I know you cannot read this very well, but it has my phone number and address on it – my business card. You must call me when you reach Tokyo.”
“How sweet of you! I certainly will. You can always reach me, you know. On my blog,” she reminded him. “My Webtoon page has my email address on it as well.”
They got up and she waited while he went off to pay for breakfast – she didn’t even bother fighting over the check. Why waste her energy?
Call me old-fashioned, but whatever his motivation I think he’s sweet, she thought.
She did however insist that he let her get on the elevator alone.
“Run off to your meeting,” she said, kissing his cheek and stepping back. “Thank you so much for being such an attentive escort. This old lady appreciates it very much.”
Dae Ho started to protest but the doors closed before he could get it out. Lucia smiled. She very much doubted she’d hear anything from him again, unless he did get that contract. Then she might get a thank you note.
“Thank goodness we decided to leave early!” Magda sighed, looking about the terminal. “Traffic just never gets better anywhere, does it?”
Lucia, feeling unusually deflated, just nodded. Normally airports excited her – everyone on a journey, going somewhere however mundane. She’d been looking forward to this leg of her publicity tour for weeks.
Comiket! she scolded herself. Be a bit more enthusiastic here!
Magda poked her and Lucia looked up – Paul had reached the counter, waving to them in triumph.
“Finally! That took minutes off my life,” Magda grumbled.
“They just put up the ARRIVED sign, Magda! You get so worked up over nonsense.”
“Hey, we’re still waiting on staff,” she said. “Those guys! I should have ordered them to come with us.”
“Who’s missing?” Lucia looked about her curiously. Both Brigitte & Tricia stood chatting near them with the two young techs (she only remembered them by their hair – one had a blond spike made memorable by the ebony of his skin and the other had a sooty-colored crew cut which just added to his overall Nordic aura). Lucia idly wondered how that young ‘blond’ got his hair so bleached out. She’d never managed to get her mop any closer than that reddish hennaed color. Of course the last time she bleached her hair, Geri Curl still represented the latest in black hair products.
“We’ve got a couple Sunrise representatives coming. One’s an interpreter as well, and the other wants to talk contract some more,” Magda hugged Lucia’s shoulders. “So exciting!”
“Yes,” agreed Lucia, privately snapping at herself for feeling vaguely disappointed. “Something new I can talk about on the panels, then. That’s fantastic!”
“Right. That sounded sincere. You should be jumping about in ecstasy right now! You showed more excitement when I told you FedCon invited you to Bonn. This makes that look amateur time!”
“I know,” Lucia admitted. “I don’t understand myself. Maybe I’m just too tired to let it sink in.”
“Maybe. I know the convention circuit drains energy.”
“Not just that – for the past four months all the people I’ve met have gushed over my comics and treated me like some celebrity – I guess I’m in no condition to sort out the important versus the trivial at this point.”
“No worries. Just smile at the nice Sunrise reps and let Paul do the negotiating,” Magda assured Lucia. “Oh thank goodness! Here comes Paul.”
Lucia gathered her things and stood up while Magda walked over to the youngsters to head them towards the boarding gate. Paul told them that the Sunrise people had already gone through earlier.
Despite Magda’s fidgeting, the whole party managed to get through the checkpoints with no problems, right as the BOARDING sign flashed on for their flight.
“Oh my goodness! We’re so late!” Magda predictably gasped. “Paul, you and the boys run ahead and make sure that plane doesn’t leave without us.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Magda!” Lucia complained. “I can SEE the gate from here. Get on this stupid moving sidewalk thing and just relax!”
“Fine, fine,” Magda still signaled Paul to go ahead.
The two of them walked on the conveyor belt towards their gate, watching the guys run ahead. Paul got to the desk before Lucia stepped off the belt, and she saw two figures get up and go over to him.
One, a female in a severe black suit, waved at them and Magda waved back.
“Do you recognize her?” she asked Lucia. “We met at the Sunrise reception last week. Julia Park – can’t remember her Korean name. Very sharp lady.”
Lucia nodded, distracted by the other person standing by Ms Park. He looked very familiar.
As he walked towards them she felt a bit light-headed.
“Ms Dunning, Ms Clarke,” said the young man, smiling. “We feared you might not make the flight.”
Turning to Lucia, he lowered his head a bit.
“Surprised? Let me take your carry-on.”
Lucia looked up at him, not knowing what to think.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“Oh, Lucia – isn’t this a wonderful surprise? Mr. Sung here’s the Sunrise interpreter!” Magda gushed.
Dae Ho just beamed.
Clever boy, thought Lucia.
Lucia sat behind her table at Comiket, surrounded on three sides by other artists like herself. A little group of her Japanese fans had registered as her ‘circle’ and managed to get a place to show off her comic down on the main floor, which thrilled her. Her presence, as a gaijin, caused a stir among the doujinshi-seekers, and many came to check out the printed webtoons on the table (they counted as doujinshi since her fans had translated them into Japanese. Some asked for an autograph, which made her smile and say arigato, like one of those living statues that only came to life with donations. She did feel like an automaton, but in a good way.
“Oh, Lucia! I’m so glad I found you,” Magda appeared suddenly. “For heaven’s sake, what a madhouse!”
She pulled at Lucia, who reluctantly stood.
“I don’t even know why you came here instead of the company tables upstairs!”
“Magda, just let it be. I’m not a celebrity. It’s nice and peaceful for me sitting here, watching all the costumes, every once in a while talking to a fan. I like it.”
“You just want to hide. Can’t fool me.”
As the two stepped out of the booth to head over to the stairs, Dae Ho materialized out of the crowd. He looked a bit harried.
“Lucia – ah, Ma’am,” he managed. “I wish you waited for me to escort you.”
“I expect so,” Lucia retorted, pointing to a slight young Japanese girl at her table. “I didn’t need your services. Little Ryu over there speaks perfect English.”
She’d not treated poor Dae Ho very well since getting on that plane in Seoul two days previously, which she should feel badly about but did not.
“Yes, of course. I am sorry,” he said, and turned towards the leader of her doujin circle.
“Arigato for taking care of Ms Clarke so well,” he gave a little half-bow which made the girl blush and giggle.
“Come along – you need to make an appearance at the company table before going off to the luncheon,” Magda snapped. “My nerves cannot take this mass of people.”
Off they went to company country, where Jenny Park waited.
“Ms Clarke, hello,” she smiled. “I hear a doujinshi circle who prints out translated copies of your webtoon won entrance here. Such good news!”
“Yes, I believe so,” Lucia answered. She looked about. This area looked like dealer rooms at most of the conventions she’d attended. Perhaps a bit more upscale, she thought, looking at one very elaborate set-up.
A little group, obviously a film crew, came up to their table, with Dae Ho trailing after.
“The interview we talked about yesterday – remember?” Magda told Lucia, who’d looked uncertain.
“Fine – yes. Let’s do it!” Lucia smiled at the camera, tamping down her irritation. She’d enjoyed her solitude down on the main floor.
Dae Ho bowed to a bespectacled man and spoke to him. He immediately smiled and bowed towards Lucia, speaking rapid Japanese.
“Mr. Yamagato wishes to thank you for your valuable time,” Dae Ho translated. “He hopes his humble effort will enhance your illustrious career.”
“Did he really say that? Don’t translate!” Lucia looked wonderingly at the earnest face of the director. “Tell him I’m flattered and delighted to help.”
“He also expressed his delight to find such a beautiful woman to interview,” Dae Ho added with a grin, and then turned to translate Lucia’s comments to the director.
As the interview progressed Lucia found herself increasingly flustered. She realized the profuse compliments Dae Ho directed towards her must come from Mr. Yamagato, but Dae Ho certainly enjoyed relaying them.
Good lord, she berated herself. I’m actually blushing.
Later she sat beside Dae Ho at the luncheon organized by the Japanese distributors of Sunrise Productions, letting the others around her carry on the conversation. Her lack of control over her feelings worried her very much. She might not look old but obviously senility had set in, letting her take this youngster seriously.
I need to just stop acting like a teenager, she told herself, looking sideways at her interpreter.
Dae Ho looked back and smiled at her, which felt like an electric shock straight to her lungs. She forced herself to smile back, desperately hoping she didn’t color up again, concentrating on breathing normally.
“Enjoying your lunch?” she asked him, silently cursing herself.
“Very much so, now.”
“I’m glad,” Lucia stared a moment at her plate and then sighed.
“I’m sorry I’ve acted so nasty to you since we got to Japan. I just feel so jangled, as my grandmother called it. Full of nerves, like lightening might strike but hasn’t yet.”
“This jangled feeling, I believe I can understand that,” Dae Ho told her. “A good word. More compact than the Korean phrase.”
Lucia ate a piece of sushi (or maybe sashimi – she couldn’t keep them straight) and wondered how long she had to stay at the table. The diners all sat Japanese-style around the low table and she could feel her legs falling asleep.
“If you feel ill we can leave,” Dae Ho told her. “Let me make your apologies.”
Lucia thought about making a snappy comeback but just couldn’t, so nodded instead. She found herself quickly whisked away, after the obligatory smiling and bowing, to a waiting car.
“I should like to take you to see Shijuku Gyoen park, if you like. From that anime you told me about,” Dae Ho told her. “Such a beautiful landscape to quiet your nerves.”
“From The Garden of Words? How lovely,” Lucia blurted out, really pleased.
“So glad. I prefer you smiling.”
Lucia, still not so happy with Dae Ho, frowned a bit.
“Then kindly stop trying to play me,” she pointed at him. “If you want to do the music for this project, ask. I hate drama and politics.”
“Ah, that troubles you. Do you think I only pay you attention out of self-interest? “ Dae Ho smiled ruefully. “Very true, because it pleases me to be with you. But Sunrise contracted me for the OST of this project before I ever met you.”
Lucia turned to him, wondering what to think about that.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Why else spend all this time with me?”
“Please don’t start about your age or mine, that means nothing to me. Let’s just enjoy the afternoon, shall we?”
The car stopped and the driver said something to them. Obviously they’d arrived. She got out, leaving the two men to their conversation, and looked towards the pillars flanking the park gate. White bricks made a plaza, and she could see the trees beyond.
Dae Ho came up and took her arm.
“Let’s walk for a bit,” he suggested. “If we walk towards the Japanese part of the gardens, we can stop at the tea house later in the afternoon.”
“I think that sounds very inviting,” Lucia genuinely smiled at him, for the first time since the airport in Seoul. “I love places like this.”
“Then I am content.”
Lucia stretched out in her bed, not wanting to open her eyes. She wanted to stay in her dream, of beautiful gardens, elegant tea-rooms, a romantic rendez-vous – as if she’d found herself actually in that anime film she’d mentioned to Dae Ho at that lovely park – yesterday?
Frowning a bit and keeping her eyes tightly closed, Lucia tried to gather her thoughts. When did she leave those gardens? They’d gone to the tea room, and walked around – she remembered sitting beside a small lake watching the waterbirds, and the sunset.
Dinner, they’d gone to the hotel to eat. That she recalled, and also wine. Where was she?
All of a sudden Lucia sat straight up. The wine – how insane of her. She’d had 2 full glasses and only ordered sashimi. So of course the minute they stood up to leave, Lucia had fainted.
“Why am I such an idiot?” she exclaimed, looking about her.
The room seemed small, and deserted somehow. Lucia swung her legs over the side of the bed, and noticed that she still had on all her clothes except her shoes. She’d lain on the covers of the bed, as well.
She gingerly stood, and walked to the window, holding onto the chair while opening the curtains slightly to look out. A night skyline of Tokyo greeted her, the buildings still brightly lit from occupied offices.
I need my purse, and my phone, she thought, turning on the lamp by the chair to look for them.
Someone knocked on the door.
“Please, come in,” she called.
Dae Ho entered, and smiled at her.
”Have you recovered yourself?” he asked. “Please forgive me for letting you walk so far this afternoon.”
“No, not at all your fault. I know I should never drink red wine on a basically empty stomach. I faint easily.”
A young hotel maid rushed in at that point, behind Dae Ho.
“Oh madam, what you do? Please to lay down some more,” the girl said in alarm. “Doctor comes.”
“No, that’s fine – I’m fine,” Lucia told the girl. “Look, I’m sitting in the chair. No problems now. I don’t need a doctor.”
“But the little one, you must check!” the maid turned to Dae Ho and spoke rapidly.
He replied calmly, obviously assuring her, and the girl bowed to him and then to Lucia, before rushing out.
“I sent her to get some rice porridge,” Dae Ho explained.
“What’s all that about the doctor?”
“Let him check you out, it will ease the hotel management’s anxiety.”
“Goodness. Alright, but let me call Magda.”
Dae Ho brought Lucia her purse and she got out her cell. However, it didn’t seem to work.
“How stupid! I didn’t charge the thing,” she flung it away, angry. “Please call her for me. You’ve got your phone, right?”
“I do,” he smiled. “I did call Ms Dunning earlier. She arranged for the doctor.”
“I see,” Lucia in fact did not understand but her head had started to spin a little. “Please bring me some water.”
She dug in her purse for her omnipresent Ibuprofen.
“There’s a pitcher here. Let me pour you a glass,” Dae Ho told her.
“Thank you so much. Can that girl bring coffee with the porridge?”
Another knock came, and Dae Ho answered, glass in hand. A rounded older gentleman stood there, bright eyes darting about until they found Lucia.
“Ah, Doctor, please come in.”
The little man came toward her, and shook his head when he saw the bottle of pills in her hand.
“No, no, not,” he ordered, wagging his finger. He then turned to Dae Ho and spoke a bit.
“The doctor doesn’t want you taking anything. Just water.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake. I will get a migraine.”
More from the doctor to Dae Ho.
“He says, no, he will do an acupuncture to make your head stop aching,” Dae Ho translated, walking over to her. “Come, lie down and let him make you feel better.”
Lucia grudgingly agreed, and submitted to the little doctor’s ministrations. These did make her feel much better, she had to admit, and thanked him.
“Doctor Saito prefers you stay quiet and eat porridge,” Dae Ho smiled at her after escorting the doctor out. “I’ve told Ms Dunning and she agrees.”
“Has that girl come back with my coffee yet?” Lucia turned over and sat up, looking about.
“Let me get it for you. She left the tray in the sitting room.”
When he came back Lucia grabbed the cup from the proffered tray and drank it down.
“Much better, “ she pronounced. “Just put the tray down here, on the night table.”
Dae Ho sat down in the chair by the window while Lucia ate her porridge, not saying anything. Lucia kept looking at him and finally put her spoon down.
“What? You totally look full of something. Just tell me already.”
“For one thing, the hotel management seem to think that we are married. Just to warn you,” Dae Ho laughed at Lucia’s expression.
“That’s ridiculous,” she snorted.
“Oh, the best is the theory the staff have of why you fainted. They think a blessed event awaits us in the near future.”
“Whatever do you mean? Such nonsense,” Lucia finished off the last of the porridge. Suddenly she blushed and looked up at Dae Ho.
“Can they possibly believe I’m pregnant? At my age? Oh my lord, how insane!”
“I’ve heard that from you over and over since we first met,” Dae Ho said, getting up from his chair and coming over to stand by the bed. “What age? I know Ms Dunning told me something about a super-secret project that involves you not looking in mirrors.”
“I can’t talk about it. Non-disclosure statement,” Lucia stammered. “So no explanations. I don’t understand why I’d even need to.”
He sat down next to her and took her face in his hands, which made Lucia go hot and cold at once.
“Beautiful lady, you certainly look younger than I do,” he assured her. And then kissed her.
Lucia shivered in the cold morning air, waiting as the taxi pulled up. The hotel doorman, upset, hovered about, talking in Japanese and broken English about ‘inside lobby warm’, but she ignored him. At last her requested transportation arrived and the worried doorman ushered her into it, visibly relieved.
“Please, my hotel,” she told the driver, handing him one of the cards she’d learned to carry about with her. Funny the little things one learned from foreign travel.
She looked out the window as they drove, not seeing anything, trying to understand the situation without just getting angry again.
That, she’d already done, of course. Waking up next to Dae Ho this morning caused a whole volcano inside her to erupt. What had she yelled at him? Lucia couldn’t quite remember, but felt sure ‘date rape’ entered into the conversation.
Dae Ho, bemused, had just lain in the bed, with a half-smile on his face, watching her, and warding off the pillows and clothes hurled at him. The pig, sitting there laughing after seducing the old lady.
Lucia sighed. Stupid situation.
I like him far too much, she admitted. I know I just look ridiculous, but he looks at me and I believe him.
She brooded on this for the rest of the taxi drive, wondering what to do. How could she face him again? He’d want a reaction from her and Lucia had no idea what she should tell him.
But did she even have to see him again? No more need for a Japanese translator, after all – Comiket had finished.
No decision necessary! she smiled. He’ll go back to Korea.
She and her entourage left tomorrow for New Zealand to see Hobbiton, then two weeks later off to Australia for the Brisbane SupaNova convention. In fact, in six weeks she’d be in Hong Kong, for the New Product Presentation of James & Matthews, at AnimeCon. Realizing this, a great sense of relief flooded her. She’d be done with this endless touring, the babysitting, the no-mirrors and silly rules! Much as she loved travelling, Lucia really did miss Atlanta.
Almost immediately, however, a little empty spot opened up in her stomach at that thought.
I need breakfast, she told herself. And coffee.
“Magda, I’m back,” Lucia called, entering their room.
“Ah, excellent! I trust you’ve rested up. That nice young man Sung Dae Ho called, telling me he sent you off in good spirits.”
“Really, did he?” Lucia snorted, annoyed. “I’m more than a little upset with him, Magda. The whoppers he told that hotel staff, I won’t ever be able to show my face there again. I do not want any contact with Mr. Dae Ho again.”
“Call him Mr. Sung, dear,” Magda pointed out. “I’m disappointed you feel so antagonistic towards him. I thought you’d worked out your differences. Should we ask he not work on the drama OST? I’m not sure that’s possible.”
“I’m fine with him working on the project, no need to bother Sunrise with this. I just don’t want to deal with him personally. I’m done with his flirting. I do not need to get my head turned by a pretty face at my age.”
Lucia flounced into her room, and nearly slammed the door, which caused Magda to raise her eyebrows.
“I guess I should find out what happened there,” she mused. “I expect Mr. Sung might be more forthcoming.”
Magda sipped her coffee, wondering if she should call this newly offensive young man, curious over what he’d done. The phone rang before she’d made up her mind.
“Hello? Why, yes, Mr. Sung, thank you for calling. Lucia came back very upset with you. Perhaps you could meet me for coffee downstairs? I’m assuming you’re calling from the hotel lobby?”
Comfortably settled in the small hotel cafe ten minutes later, Magda studied Sung Dae Ho thoughtfully.
“You don’t seem terribly upset,” she stated. “Rather callous of you.”
“Ah, if Ms Lucia Clarke just calmly tells me I mean nothing to her, I am devastated. If she runs away herself saying, I hate you, leave me alone, you bother me – I do not believe she means it.”
“I see. She told me she’s tired of your attempts to seduce her.”
“Attempts. Ah,” Dae Ho smiled. “She thinks I do not really like her, that I use her for my career.”
He leaned forward, serious all of a sudden.
“Lucia has become an important person to me, Ms Dunning. I worry right now since her mood has become confused and upset to me. She puzzles why I like her. To me, that contract she signed for your company must be the problem.”
“What contract? Whatever can you mean?” Magda hissed, alarmed. “She said something? Tell me immediately!”
“My Lucia said nothing. I do not understand the mirrors and asked. She said she can’t say. I asked why she says I’m too young, and she refuses to explain,” Dae Ho frowned. “You tell me instead.”
“She’s testing a new skin product. I told you that, in Seoul. We don’t want her to see the results yet.”
“So, I understand the mirrors. She then is older than me, perhaps. Do Americans not like women dating younger men?”
“Sometimes, Mr. Sung. Depending on the age gap. But as you’ve assured me Lucia told you, we cannot talk to you about this at all. You will simply have to wait until after the contract expires in 2 months,” Magda told him. “I really think you should simply do what Lucia asked of you, go back to Seoul. You can always contact her later to see if she’s changed her mind.”
“That suits your plans, of course, Ms. Dunning. But I have no wishes to do that. Lucia may talk herself into never seeing me again.”
“If you insist on following Lucia around, I will simply notify security. I’m sure Sunrise will not appreciate you causing that kind of trouble.”
“I do not stalk ladies. She will know I am not far away, that is all. Do please excuse me, I will take my leave of you.”
He stood, bowed slightly to her, and walked away. Magda, watching him, wondered if she should call someone at company headquarters, either J&M or Sunrise, but thought better of it. After all, if she antagonized the young man he had the power to cause exactly the kind of public attention she’d worked so hard to avoid the past several months.
“Magda, where did you go?” Lucia came into the sitting room, fresh from her shower, as Magda walked in the door. “If Dae Ho showed up, I hope you told him to stop paying attention to me.”
“Don’t you worry about that, he won’t be bothering you again,” Magda told her, noting the lack of enthusiasm Lucia greeted this assurance with. “We fly to Middle Earth next week, then Brisbane, and finally off to Hong Kong. I promise to keep you busy for the next six weeks.”
“I hope so. I’m so silly, to take him seriously. No fool like an old one, as they say.”
“Magda, help me! I’m bleeding! What’s happening here?” Lucia stared at the bloody tissues in the toilet, terrified. “I just had a checkup last week! What kind of doctors does James & Matthews employ, anyway?”
“What’s going on, Lucia? Are you hurt? Let me in!”
Lucia opened the door, shaking.
“I told that stupid doctor I had bad stomach cramps, last week, and he ignored me. Now I’m bleeding. Something ruptured, I’m sure,” she said, going to the bed. “Call them now! I’ve got a massive headache. I’m going to sleep until those incompetents come.”
“Of course, do that. I’ll get you an ice pack,” Magda assured Lucia.
After tucking up her charge in bed, with a gel pack on her head and a jug of lemon water beside her, Magda called her supervisor.
“Ms Ling? I need to speak to Supervisor Olsen immediately. Yes, it concerns an emergency issue with a test case.”
Magda went to the window, staring out over the Brisbane city scape as she waited. Finally Olsen came on the line.
“Sir, please authorize a special medical visit. The subject started bleeding and should have an examination. Of course, I realize what must be happening, but she’s terrified and needs some reassurance. Yes, certainly, thank you.”
Magda sighed as she hung up the phone.
“Men are so stupid about women! Did it really not occur to them this might happen?” she hissed at a bird flying by.
An hour went by as Magda calmed Lucia down, got her into the shower, dressed her in comfy clothes and sat her in the suite living room with a cup of hot tea.
“I’m not being hysterical, Magda. I know what feels normal, and my body’s a long way from that,” Lucia said.
“I’m sure the doctor will tell you what’s going on, dear,” Magda assured her charge. “Ah, the door – let’s have the doctor check you out!”
She got up to open the door, and a team of white coats poured in.
“Ms. Kent?” asked the first one. “Uh, sorry, Clarke?”
“No, I’m Magda Dunning. Lucia is on the couch,” she waved the man that direction but he’d already started forward.
“Ah, Ms. Clarke. Yes. Let’s just go into the bedroom with the nurse to check you out, shall we? Tell me all your symptoms.”
Magda watched as three of the little retinue followed the head doctor and his patient, and then turned to the others, thinking to offer them refreshments. No need for that, she saw, for the four remaining assistants had basically taken over the lounge, unpacking equipment, moving extraneous items out of the way. One came to her with the ice bucket.
“Please, if you could fill this up with ice for us that would be helpful.”
“There is a mini-fridge,” Magda pointed out.
“Ice acts as a more effective cooling agent for our tests,” the young lab tech said. She looked at Magda with a curious expression. “Please cooperate.”
Magda frowned but took the bucket and got the ice. She then sat down by the window, watching the lab techs setting up. One came out of the bedroom with some test tubes and passed them out. The various machines started whirring, while the techs peered through microscopes and eyepieces, making non-committal noises and busily writing things down on their various little notepads.
More samples arrived, and at last the doctor himself walked out, shutting the door behind him. He came over to sit beside Magda, frowning a bit.
“Nothing to worry about. Her progress continues excellent, in fact exceeds our expectations. But I must ask, has she in any way become aware of the full extent of the changes she’s undergone?”
“Not by looking in mirrors or asking anyone, she hasn’t. None of my staff said a thing to her. If she wonders, it’s because she feels different,” Magda glared at the man. “Your insinuations just insult my team and my professionalism.”
“Ah, so sorry, I had no intentions of doing so. But the subject seemed overly curious about her appearance.”
“What do you mean? Did she actually say that?”
“She said she did not understand certain persons’ behavior towards her. She wondered if she really did look twenty years younger.”
“That’s what you call undue curiosity? You really live in ivory towers, don’t you?” Magda looked at the young man contemptuously. “She’s 72 years old and looks 25, not that she knows that. Of course she can’t understand the general reactions of people towards her. I’ve said this from the beginning – putting her out in the public eye in the latter stages of the rejuvenation process meant incurring this risk.”
“Ah, of course, she then thinks herself looking in her 40s? I see,” he nodded, and wrote something down in his book. “Has she developed some attachments to persons not on your team, perchance?”
“There’s one persistant young man, involved in Lucia’s business dealings. But I sent him packing a month ago. He’s not seen nor spoken to her that I know of, and he’s in Seoul which seems a safe distance away.”
“Ah, her cover story. Yes. Did you feel it necessary to compromise this test in that fashion?”
“How dare you question my decisions! Cover story, how idiotic. That’s her reason for signing this contract in the first place. Any deviation, any suggestion that we do not consider these contracts important, would damage the test much more than some infatuated young man possibly could.”
The doctor looked at her calmly while she said this, writing in his notebook. He tilted his head, nodded and gave her a little smile.
“I daresay our chairman agrees with you. Forgive me if I seemed to doubt your integrity or professionalism. The Hong Kong presentation next week should go very smoothly, especially with the results of this examination,” he told her, getting up.
Magda got up as well, and saw that while they’d talked, his team had packed up their equipment and stood by the door, ready to leave.
“I gave your charge a sedative, so she will sleep for some time. I trust I calmed her fears about her cosmetic testing. Do please make sure to make a special report once she wakes, to document this entire incident. Good day.”
Out the door they went, as Magda gritted her teeth. As she went to close the door, Paul appeared.
“Looks like those lab rats from Corporate, my dear. Whatever did they want here? Thought we’d be free of them till Hong Kong.”
“What a pompous piece of arrogant excrement!” Magda hissed.
“Oh, me? Surely not,” Paul said, edging around his enraged lady-love. “Come sit and tell me about it. Where has Lucia gone off?”
“Just shut up and bring me a shot of whiskey, will you? Lucia’s asleep.”
The room phone rang, and Magda glared as Paul dutifully picked it up.
“Mr. Sung! Long time, and all that. How goes it?” Paul asked. “Lucia’s sound asleep right now. Magda’s here but her mood’s no good.”
“Give me that phone!” Magda demanded, at Paul’s elbow.
He frowned and shook his head.
“You in Brisbane? Ah, no longer, yes, back in Seoul. Nose to the grindstone and all that I expect,” he said, turning to keep the phone from Magda. “I shall tell Lucia you called.”
“Don’t hang up…, Oh you infuriating man!”
“Now dear, more flies with honey, as they say. Why upset the man? No need to pass his message on of course.”
“Get me that whiskey and an aspirin. Immediately!”
Lucia looked out the window of the plane, trying to distinguish Hong Kong Airport. Her map told her it should be on the same island as the Chinese Disneyland, but she saw only city sprawl at the moment, through the wispy clouds. She didn’t think Lantau Island had even come into view yet, but the tilting, moving perspective spread roughly beneath the company jet looked much different than her World Atlas map. No wonder pilots got lost when their instruments died.
“Lucia, we’ll be landed soon. Don’t worry about your things, just get up and follow me once the plane stops.”
“I’m taking my own handbag, Magda!”
“Just buckle up. Remember, do not speak to anyone when we go through Customs.”
“I’ll have to talk to the official or he won’t stamp my passport,” Lucia smiled sweetly.
Magda huffed and went to her own seat, checking her notepad one last time as the signs flashed to turn off all electronics.
“Magda’s in a mood, I see,” Paul whispered to Lucia. “That run-in with Corporate, you know.”
“What? I guess I don’t, really.”
“When we called the doctors. Headquarters sent a lab rat team in, bunch of snoots. You met the head rat.”
“The doctor? He seemed very nice.”
“Did he? Gave his name, then?”
Lucia thought a bit.
“No, but he listened very carefully to me, asked me all about what worried me. Very reassuring, after that doctor at my last exam just ignored all my questions.”
“So he told you the possible causes of those worries?”
“Paul, I see what you’re doing! You don’t like him at all, do you?” Lucia laughed at him, but then frowned. “No he didn’t tell me, but since he took all the samples and tests, it didn’t seem strange. It couldn’t have been that serious – I stopped bleeding immediately.”
“No, of course not. Don’t worry about it. He’s truly a prick, but only to corporate drones like Magda and myself I guess,” Paul smiled at her. “Listen, Magda may kill me over this, but you’ve a friend waiting at the airport for you.”
“Someone I hope you want to see. I’ll make sure you get through Customs first, and you’ll get a few minutes minus Magda, so you can have a chat.”
Lucia felt a bit giddy at this news, which really annoyed her. At her age, so silly! Still, she did know that Magda had made sure Dae Ho couldn’t reach her, which she regretted now.
Paul, good to his word, annoyed Magda intensely by pulling her out of the Customs line just as Lucia reached the little booth. She could hear Magda’s complaints as the officials sternly told her to take herself to the back of the line. Lucia smiled. Paul would suffer for this.
Gripping her paperwork tightly, she walked out into the terminal, looking about. Sure enough, Dae Ho stood there, waving at her. Lucia smiled at him and walked very quickly towards him.
“Dae Ho 씨, so good to see you. Can I apologize for being so nasty to you? Why you want to bother with me after that, I don’t know,” Lucia babbled to him, as he just smiled.
“I want to bother you very much,” he laughed finally. “Come with me, let’s sit here to talk, and wait for Ms Dunning to erupt out of Customs.”
Lucia smiled at him, and wondered why she’d ever gotten so upset in the first place. Really, what possible harm could come no matter what his motives? Unless she took him seriously, and surely she couldn’t be that foolish.
“Have you worked on the score for the web drama? I’ve not heard,” she asked him. “Magda keeps all that from me now. She says it’s too close for this big shindig the company’s planning in Hong Kong.”
“I have done some work, but I took a holiday, you know. I went to New Zealand, then Brisbane. For the convention. I saw your panel.”
“You did? Oh, my, no one ever told me that!” Lucia felt extremely annoyed. She knew she’d asked Magda to keep him away, but not to keep her in the dark.
“I rather thought that to be the case. Whatever kind of contract did you sign?”
“Oh, I really can’t talk about that. Just know that it expires next Saturday at midnight, as long as the big event goes well.”
“Like Cinderella?” Dae Ho laughed. “Do they dump you out in your underwear?”
“Don’t be silly!” Lucia laughed, feeling carefree for the first time in several weeks. “I’m scheduled for AnimeCon on Sunday, in fact.”
Both turned to see a raging cyclone hurtling towards them. Paul came along behind like a ship in her wake, looking embarrassed.
“I see this man managed to corner you, Lucia,” Magda managed, breathing hard. “I shall be reporting you, Mr. Sung, to your agency for this. I told you Lucia had no desire to see you again.”
“Magda, please don’t be so rude,” Lucia said. “I’ve just been apologizing for my bad behavior.”
“You need to rest, Lucia. Paul, please escort her to the car. I’ve some things to say to this young man.”
“I will NOT leave! Magda Dunning, I’m not a child. How dare you mortify me in public this way? Who do you think you are? Monitoring my phone calls, indeed. Sweet child of heaven, you try my patience.”
Lucia, having said her piece, turned back to Dae Ho, who looked amused.
“I am so very, very sorry that this woman has made such a fuss, honey. Just you give me your number and I’ll call you later. I do need to sort this out now,” Lucia told him, looking daggers at Magda.
“You won’t do anything of the kind! Lucia, you remember you’re still under contract until next week! If you take that number I consider it a breach!”
“Then so be it, darling. I wonder how those corporate types you complain about will take that? I’ll give them an earful, I will. I’ve done everything expected of me, jumped through hoops, for this? Ah, thank you very much, Dae Ho sweetie. I’ll call you later. I’ll be just fine, don’t you worry yourself.”
Lucia got up and swept past an impotently huffing Magda, to entwine her arm through Paul’s.
“Please escort me to the car, sir. I feel a bit out of sorts, all things considered.”
Off they went, and Magda wasted no time turning to Dae Ho.
“Do you want her to lose everything she’s worked so hard for this past year, sir? You need to leave her alone.”
“Miss Dunning, I see that you worry excessively for all of us. I shall not bother Miss Clarke at all this week, unless she calls me. I of course do not wish to hurt her career,” Dae Ho said to Magda. “However, should I find that you do anything to injure Miss Clarke, I shall not be silent. Be sure of that.”
“Injure her? What kind of accusation is that? I only have her interests…”
“No, you have not. You worry about you, and that company who employs you. I do not put my faith there. I shall monitor what you want from Miss Clarke as best I can, and protect her if needed. Be aware.”
With that, Dae Ho left, smiling a bit despite his anger. Lucia had his phone number and address, and obviously could handle Ms Dunning much better than he’d imagined.
Lucia stared out the window of the limo as it threaded it’s way through the Hong Kong streets to the Convention and Exhibition Center from the Shangri-La Hotel. Magda had laughed about that, calling it aptly named. Lucia supposed that true, given the nature of this experiment.
Did he get the message? she wondered, and immediately berated herself as an idiot.
Her little outburst at the airport had relieved a lot of built-up anxiety, she’d realized after leaving. Lovely to see Dae Ho again, of course, but most of that anger had come from having to blindly follow all these absurd regulations for months. Well, she’d apologized to Magda for her behavior, if not her sentiments. Tomorrow she’d be free of all that.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Magda said, then laughed. “Probably should offer a quarter nowadays.”
“Just wondering if I’ll recognize myself. I haven’t looked in a mirror for so long,” Lucia answered. “I can tell I’ve lost weight, got in better shape. I’m really going to try to keep up with all the healthy food and yoga stuff, but I’m getting a hankering for fried chicken every time I think of going back home.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be inspired, after you see the new you. Do you plan on returning back to Georgia, then?”
“I don’t exactly know my plans for next week, but I’ll be heading home soon, or at least back to the US. I’ve a meeting with some folks from Turner Broadcasting at the end of the month.”
“I see,” Magda said. She looked thoughtful.
“You do have some appearance obligations yet to fulfill,” she said finally.
“I did read the contract, Magda,” Lucia replied a bit tartly. “Photoshoots and some video promos – hardly an arduous schedule. I think it amounted to about one day a month for the next year?”
As Magda didn’t answer, Lucia turned to stare at her.
“I absolutely refuse to have you and your crew of babysitters following me around anymore, after today. Just telling you that up front, sugar. I’m not hating on you, nor ungrateful overall. But I’m done now with all that. I made that clear when I signed up for this last year. Twelve months of my life, that’s it.”
“Oh, yes, of course, Lucia. I’m sorry, I just…,” Magda floundered a bit. “I guess they will want you to keep up your appearance, that’s all I meant…”
Lucia studied the other woman’s face, then laughed a bit ruefully.
“Sorry, just still a bit upset about all the tiresome business over that youngster, I guess. Guess he’ll finally figure out how old I am today, won’t he? I’d like a picture of his face right then!” Lucia laughed, and Magda, relieved, joined her.
The limo pulled up in front of the Center, which had crowds of people milling about. Lucia looked fondly at all the cosplayers, thinking that she’d really have to go to DragonCon next year.
“We can just go into this side entrance here, Lucia. Quickly.”
“Doesn’t this building look as if a spaceship landed on top of it? There’s a UFO that landed on one of the downtown Atlanta hotels, too,” Lucia had stopped, taking in the huge steel and glass structure in front and above her. “Not as huge, of course. This one looks like the Enterprise!”
“Yes, yes, of course. But we’ve got to meet with the R&D Director right now and he hates tardiness.”
“Fine, let’s go. When does this whole shindig begin, then? We’ve time to wander about the Con, don’t we?”
Magda nodded at Lucia, frowning a bit.
“Yes, yes, the meeting shouldn’t last very long. The presentation starts in four hours so you’ve time to go check out that booth of yours, and your competitors.”
“That’s just fine then. Let’s go meet these big wigs!”
After maneuvering through the crowd to an elevator marked ‘private’ (so the interpreter with them said), and rising up to the private office areas of the building, Lucia and her little entourage entered a small conference room with a lovely view of Victoria Harbor. She could see the peninsula, and the bridge they’d come across to get to Hong Kong Island, where both the hotel and the convention center lay.
“Such a beautiful background for a meeting, don’t you think?” said Magda, beaming.
“Definitely makes me wish I worked here year round,” a hearty voice responded, and they turned as a large, jovial man came into the room. “Let me introduce myself – I’m Tom Hawkins, James & Matthews Research and Development Director.”
He came up to Lucia and smiled warmly. Although, she noticed, not with his eyes.
“You must be Miss Lucia Clarke,” he said. “I’ve heard a great deal of wonderful things about you! Very glad to finally meet you.”
“Thank you very much, sir,” she said, a bit non-plussed. “It’s certainly been an interesting year.”
“Ha! I’m sure it has. Well, let me give you some pointers on the festivities today. Won’t take too much of your time – I understand you’ve got a booth here to check on! Plus got to get her all gussied up for the big show & tell, do you not, Ms Dunning?”
“So, this will be short. We need you backstage by 7 pm. I’ll be there, myself. I go out first, tell our audience a little digest of what we’ve been up to, then bring you out! No big speech to make or anything to memorize. Just expect some questions from the press.”
“I’ve had some experience with that,” she answered him. “Obviously not on this topic, of course. Shouldn’t I at least know more about the product?”
“No, no, not at all. Any questions like that, I’ll just step in to take care of. Don’t you worry at all! I’ve heard how well you’ve managed at all these conventions the past months – great job! Lived up to that contract admirably. We chose very well indeed.”
He smiled again, and this time looked genuinely delighted.
Counting the filthy lucre, Lucia thought, as her mother would have said.
“Off you go, then,” he said, ushering them to the door. “Oscar, please take Ms Clarke to her booth. Ms Dunning, if you and Mr. Jackson could stay for just a short chat.”
Magda’s face paled on hearing this, Lucia saw as she followed her escort out.
As they threaded through the packed crowds of Saturday afternoon Anime Con, Lucia felt very glad she had her tall, imposing escort to forge a path, even if he had the facial expression of an unplugged animitronic. She watched various con goers reaching the same conclusion, checking him out and obviously wondering which anime his cosplay came from. Lucia giggled a bit at that.
They reached the booth at last, and Mr. Robotic turned, bowed and said to her, “You stay.”
He then bowed again and left.
“My goodness,” Lucia remarked to the two girls manning the stall. “Such a sparkling personality.”
“Oh, Ms Clarke, hi!” Tricia bubbled at her. “That guy dressed up as a Man in Black? You know him?”
“Where’s Ms Dunning?” Brigitte chimed in.
“I’m not sure when either Ms Dunning or Mr. Jackson will come down. Soon I’m sure. Let me sit down, could you? Where’s our interpreter?”
“He’ll be back – he just ran off to the little boys’ room,” Tricia giggled. “He looked so uncomfortable but when you gotta go, and all.”
“Fine. You girls just do your thing.”
Lucia sat, and after looking about, took out her cell phone and texted Dae Ho’s number.
“At Con, in booth, main floor, back,” she wrote. “Big wig scaring M now.”
A moment later, she read his answer.
“Told Ms M, won’t see U till after. B outside 9 pm w/taxi.”
He’d added a silly little bear with a heart, and Lucia smiled.
“U B There – I will run 2 U” she texted him back, and added her own cutesy little emoticon.
She wished she could talk to him right now. That look in Magda’s eyes bothered her.
Nothing she could do about it, Lucia decided.
“Ah, Writer Lucee!!!” a little Lolita Fox girl squealed, dragging her anime knight to the table.
“Hello! You look lovely, and speak English! I will sign your book, yes.”
For the next few hours, Lucia focused on signing autographs and talking about her webtoon to the many fans and curious congoers who stopped by her table.
An intrusive PING! from her cellphone interrupted her sojourn in this zen of the now.
“Go w4 Blue poppy Pen.men@Panel. Lv quick. J&M bad. Del txts. Luv U”
Lucia stared at this fascinating little missive. Pencilmen featured prominently in her webtoon – tall figures in black tux and hats that had orange brims and pointed tops. They tended to cluster around her main character in little groups to indicate writer’s block, one of the major themes of her comic. So she knew what cosplay he meant, at least.
“I can delete today’s messages, that’s ok,” she muttered. “What does he mean about J&M? Where can Magda be? I have to get ready soon!”
Tricia came up to her as Lucia finished getting rid of those texts.
“That from Ms Magda? Shouldn’t she be here already?”
Lucia started to answer when a little group of individuals, obviously not con attendees, walked up to the booth.
“Ms Lucia Clarke? We must now take you,” said the first one, a female in a black pantsuit screaming ‘no nonsense’.
“I’m waiting for Magda Dunning, and really don’t feel comfortable just leaving with strangers.”
Lucia and the corporate dragoness glared at each other, until interrupted by Lucia’s cellphone ringing.
“Oh, Lucia, it’s Magda. Paul and I need you up here right now, to prep you for the panel.”
“Did you send this little robot posse then?”
“What? Oh, yes, yes, go with them. I know they seem intimidating, but pay no mind. It’s just an escort for you.”
Lucia went to put the phone down when the head dragoness grabbed it.
“No need for this now. No distractions. We go.”
Lucia scowled, but got up, told Tricia & Brigitte not to pack up the booth until 7 pm, and left with her little entourage.
Good thing I got rid of Dae Ho’s texts, she thought, just in case.
They headed off to the elevators, back the way she’d come from that conference room earlier in the day. This time they went to the third floor, however, to a small, windowless room with only one small side table and some chairs.
“Please to sit. Your Ms Magda comes to brief you and to fix you up.”
“Why, thank you, dearie. So kind,” Lucia drawled. The robots left, but she felt sure a couple stood guard outside.
“Just loads of creepy there,” she shuddered, wondering about Magda and Paul.
The door opened, and Magda rushed in dramatically, closing it behind her and even listening for a bit before coming to Lucia, finger to her mouth.
“Good grief, Magda! What drama you auditioning for?”
“Shhh!” Magda waved her hands frantically.
“Let me freshen your make-up, Lucia,” she said loudly, looking back at the door again.
Lucia felt she’d wandered into a bad spy film. Dae Ho, now Magda, Paul next probably.
“Magda, do I change? I don’t see an outfit.”
Magda nodded conspiratorially.
“Here’s the closet,” she said, loudly again, flinging open a panel on the wall.
Lucia went to look at whatever the corporate big wigs wanted her to wear, but Magda grabbed her arm.
“You’ve got to leave, right after the presentation,” she whispered. “Paul managed to contact your young man. I’ll help you. Just follow my lead.”
“For heaven’s sake, Magda! All right, fine, yes, the dress looks lovely,” Lucia improvised, seeing Magda shushing her again.
“What’s happening?” she asked in a lower tone. “I really don’t understand this.”
Magda slumped against the panel door, shaking her head.
“I’m not really sure myself, but I think Corporate wants to coerce you into a more exclusive contract. More restrictive,” she explained. “They’ll want to stop your ‘extraneous activities’ as our dear Director just described them to me. You’d get another handler as well.”
“Oh, honey. I’ve not one intention of signing any such thing. Not to worry.”
“Maybe not, but you should just leave. This contract expires the moment you walk off that stage. But J&M, they’ll try to keep you here.”
“Where’s your phone, Lucia?” Magda asked, not sounding very curious.
“Oh, one of the robots…”
“Exactly. They think you all cut off now, no allies except those two brain dead bimbos downstairs.”
“Don’t be so hard on Tricia and Brigitte. Are they safe?”
“Yes, of course. But when they get a text from you, saying they need to pack up tomorrow without you, will they question that? Not at all. They will do what that text says, tell all your fans about you taking time off, which you already told them you meant to do, and go off to Central Casting or where ever it is they come from, clueless.”
“Oh, I see,” Lucia said thoughtfully, suddenly feeling a bit scared. “Here, help get this dress on me, and tell me the plan.”
Magda nodded, although her hands trembled too much to really assist Lucia too much.
“After your big reveal on stage, Director Hawkins plans to call the press corps onstage for questions,” Magda whispered. “But before he does, you need to stumble over to the stairs leading off the platform, down to the audience. I’ll run interference. Can you remember that? I think you might be a bit shocked at that point.”
Lucia looked at Magda, and nodded.
“How lovely!” Magda exclaimed in a louder tone. “Such a beautiful color on you! Let’s go wait in the wings, shall we?”
The two women opened the door, and sailed out past the robot guards, who immediately flanked them.
“Off to your grande finale!” Magda trilled.
They reached the back of the auditorium, and quietly walked to a place behind the curtains. Lucia couldn’t see the stage but heard the Director’s words clearly.
“Our tests confirm the lab findings, but we felt that this should be revealed to our lovely lady’s public instead of at some stuffy board meeting. I’m sure all of Miss Lucee’s fans here agree?”
Applause filled the room.
“We’ve got a slide show for you,” Hawkins continued. “We go back in time for a bit.”
Lucia watched the light from the stage entrance dim.
Music sounded, and Lucia heard the audience gasp from time to time, and applaud. Shouts of “Comiket!”, “I saw that” and the like, identified the slides as shots of the conventions she’d attended over the past several months.
One of the robots came over and motioned the two women to go through the opening in the curtains, onto the stage.
“Just stand there,” a harried little man with a headset hissed at them, pointing to a spot about ten feet away.
Lucia looked out at the attendees, typical con goers all. She saw a little group of Pencilmen over to her left, the same side she’d entered the stage, and felt an undue amount of relief.
Silly of me. Such a drama, she thought. Dae Ho wanting to thrill me, no doubt.
She’d still be very relieved to be whisked away by him, done with all the hiding and restrictions.
“Now, we’ve some pictures of our Miss Lucee at our clinic, that might surprise all of you,” the Director contined as the applause died down
Lucia could see the screen now, from the side at least. The pictures started with her leaving the clinic, from what she could tell, and progressed backwards to her first interview with J&M. She heard gasps from the crowd as it ended, and people whispering, staring at her, shaking their heads and other interesting reactions.
She noticed that a little group of white coats had joined her, her company doctor among them. They exchanged smiles, and the doctor nodded his head encouragingly.
“Let’s give a very warm welcome to Miss Lucee, our own favorite Test Case!” Director Hawkins called out, and the lights came on.
The audience cheered and clapped, calling to her and waving, and Lucia responded back, used to this.
“Now let’s have her up here, shall we?” Hawkins gestured to her to come forward.
As she did, she saw a stage hand place a full length mirror next to the Director, covered with some transluscent material that made it impossible to see the reflected images clearly. Once in front of the stage, with the mirror beside her, Lucia could discern her dress, and the basic outlines of her figure and face, but nothing detailed.
Certainly did lose weight, she thought. Amazing what a personal trainer and chef can do.
The image reflecting her body profile had a much straighter back than she’d had a year ago as well. She’d wondered about that.
“So, Miss Lucee, you’ve not seen yourself in a mirror since last year when you joined our little team, correct?”
Lucia smiled at the audience.
“True. I guess I improved?”
The audience cheered and laughed, some yelling ‘look in the mirror’.
“Well, your fans want you to have a look, Miss Lucee. So please, see the results of our Youth Regime.”
Lucia turned to face the mirror as the director whisked the covering away. A girl stood there in front of her, in the same gown she had on, with a strong resemblance to herself in her twenties. Lucia frowned, and so did her doppelganger. When she looked at Hawkins, the image’s head turned. Lucia reached out to the mirror to touch the glass, as of course the girl did as well.
Annoyed, Lucia looked behind the fake mirror, to see nothing.
The audience meanwhile, had gone berserk, laughing and yelling a lot of nonsense out to her.
“While Miss Lucee figures out that’s really her image in the mirror, let’s hear from our scientists about her transformation, shall we?” Hawkins said.
Lucia, still staring at the glass, unable to fully comprehend that it really was a mirror, only half heard the doctor’s explanation. 25 again, fully regenerated, ovulating – she focused on those three claims, and shuddered.
What in the world? No wonder, she thought, then I must leave.
Lucia looked towards the stairs to her left, as Director Hawkins said something about the good members of the press. She started walking, unaware of much except the tall figures of the Pencilmen pushing forward.
“Keep going – pay no attention to whatever I say from now on,” Magda whispered to her, and dropped back.
“Lucia, stop! Stay on stage!” called the director, the doctor and Magda, in a chorus.
Lucia continued down the stairs, and into the little crowd of excited journalists, who pushed microphones into her face and shouted questions at her.
“I don’t know, I had creams, did exercises. I’m confused,” she said over and over, starting to shake.
The Pencilmen surrounded her jubilantly, with fans crowding about, pushing the journalists aside. All of a sudden, Bridgitte and Trixie popped up in the little moving circle.
“Lucia, here, put this on,” Trixie said, handing her a Viking helmet complete with flaxen braids. “Take off that gown. Here, I’ve unzipped it. Just let it drop – like that. Step into this costume, that’s right. I’ll fasten it.”
Lucia followed these instructions, noticing that Bridgitte had on a Viking helmet too. She could hear the crisp no-nonsense sounds of security calling commands, getting closer, and felt panic rising in her throat.
“Come on, follow me,” Bridgitte told her, pulling her out past her Pencilmen, into the crowd. No one paid them any attention as they shouldered past the line of spectators lining the aisle, towards the side wall. There Bridgitte stopped, and positioned both of them to face the little pod of Pencilmen now pushing towards the side exit farthest from them.
“Wait until they get out the door, then we’ll leave the auditorium by this exit,” Bridgitte said, pointing to another door not 10 feet away from them.
Out they went, in a crowd of people, hustled through by the Con security. Bridgette took the Viking hat off Lucia once they entered the main hall, and handed her a folded cape.
“Throw this over your shoulders and just kind of wander over to that middle door there. Dae Ho’s got a taxi waiting for you. By the time they figure out that it’s Trixie and not you in the middle of those guys, you’ll be on the way to the airport. Fighting!” Bridgitte melted back into the crowd, the horns of her head marking her passage, and Lucia did as told, hardly breathing.
“Out the door, don’t think, hide in the cloak, just get out,” she muttered, refusing to think about anything else.
She saw the taxi immediately, as she exited into a warm wall of air, and quickened her steps. Suddenly someone put their arm around her, and Lucia nearly screamed. Terror flooded her suddenly, as if the clouds about her ripped to drop her to earth.
“Just me, dearest,” Dae Ho whispered to her. “Off we go, to the airport.”
Dae Ho had to practically lift her into the cab, and she just melted into him.
“I don’t understand anything,” she complained. “Just get me home.”
“No problems,” Dae Ho told her.
Lucia closed her eyes, smiling, thinking of robot people, Trixie and Bridgitte transforming into Valkyries, improbable spy scenarios, and other inexplicable nonsense. But mostly, Lucia remained mesmerized by that image on stage, that young girl reaching out to touch her hand.