Maria S. Picone
Between cleansing and exfoliating, she got the text. An anonymous voice, a deepfake or a paid cameo, giggled and said, “Our Innisfree is having a sale! Can you do 7 tonight?”
The toner’s drying agent snapped into her skin. Skipping the deferent language businesswomen normally used with clients, she said, “Gangnam sounds fun! Can’t wait!” The plan had been posted on the dark web, under the heading “Cosmic Evacuation Route.” She didn’t question why or how it would happen, just as the client didn’t ask her for details.
The master assassin skipped her daily face mask. A hint of excitement played around her lips as she pulled the straightening iron through her hair. She walked into her white-on-white closet and found the perfect outfit—cutesy tights, jean shorts to show off her long legs. She grabbed her go bag, a Fendi baguette with its signature shape. Slipped in a special package from her skincare fridge.
On the street, her heartbeat started to rave in her chest. Seoul was a CCTV paradise. Any deviation from the norm might be noticed, by someone, at some time, when they agonized over how deeply to bow to their bosses upon failure to find her.
In both professions, she was used to acting, cameras. Styling influencers was starting to pay off, and it gave her the skills to turn herself into a different person, a forgettable and disposable youth emulating the idols and drama stars those shallow starlings obsessed over.
She narrowed her world to sensory details, passing her by like film stills:
A few folded won, her alter ego’s ID, smartphone, makeup.
Paying cash on the bus rather than using her T money card.
The 7-11 burner phone with its disappearing messages “forgotten” on the bus.
The heartbeat like warring energy drinks in her system.
Gangnam seared her eyes like a vintage Hyuna video. To oeguk she might call it Carnival orgying 5th Ave. She pressed her way past the crush of fashionistas looking for their next haul and tourists trying to put the Gangnam back in Gangnam Style. Pulling out her decoy phone, she pretended to scroll on social in front of the Innisfree. The picture of a young woman waiting to shop with a friend.
Exactly at seven, Aritaum—and wasn’t it shameless that her family would name her “beauty”—came down the street. She had the flawless, dewy face of an aspiring idol and the Insta-fame of a brief fling with a K-drama mainstay. Like any smart young woman, she’d leveraged that into a brand. In this city that ate young people’s dreams like barflies scarfing down myeolchi, Aritaum was nowhere near important enough for bodyguards. The fact that she shared her name with a major beauty brand was also an unfortunate obstacle to her fame. Too on the nose, they said, and waved hands to dismiss the idea of inviting Beauty onto their channel.
The assassin pulled out the acupuncture needle, concealed under the baguette, and began walking, texting, the very portrait of an annoyed girl stood up by a flaky friend.
Like a butterfly’s kiss, in and out.
Like a butterfly’s kiss, she was in and out.
No stumble, no tell. Just two girls heading in opposite directions.
The major department store next to the cosmetics shop offered cover. Just another shopper desperate to empty her bladder.
The needle, she inserted into the tampon between her legs, so that its head was concealed by the twisted white string. She dropped this in the bathroom stall’s sanitary products slot.
It was a slow-working poison, so she sauntered the aisles looking for bargains. She let a clerk talk her into some cruelty-free red lipstick—no crushed bug parts. The store was like an amusement park, impossible not to spend time or money.
Her arms full of new clothes that would fill her alias’s closet, she dovetailed back to her assassination and exited the store.
The news broke like a blast radius on the street, pins and stories and little bird wings floating off into aether. Suddenly the name, the word of beauty was everywhere: a ri ta um ari taum aritaum. The woman had collapsed on the subway, heading to a fancy date with some fourth-rate celeb.
An appropriate amount of crying and texting: weird not to look, playing this role. Expressing the emotion in the typical Korean dramatic-reserved way. Twenty minutes, an audible sob when the death was confirmed. Shaking hands.
The bus ride back.
The heart a slow throb, like her dead end job making others beautiful.
No dramatic calls or further communication. The client had heard.
She came back to her cute solo apartment and put on lounging pajamas. The satin felt like a plea on her skin. She washed her face, first with the oil-based cleanser, then the water, and applied the face mask, white as death, on her unblemished veneer.
A single erratic breath shoved out shuddering.
Her real phone chimed. Payment, in the form of overpaying for goods from her alter ego’s anonymized homebrewed beauty brand that she would make and send to the client’s dummy address. More orders would come, enough to sustain the lifestyle; this was the taster, confirmation of payment for her services.
If, in the middle of doing a Live about how snail mucin wasn’t as great as they had once thought; if, in the middle of sacrificing another girl’s hair to the straightening iron that gave Korean hair its lustrous waves, its straightest edges; if, in the middle of remarking on how she made her money from this glut of life and vanity and excess that painted up women like factory dolls and queued them down the line to the scrap heap of ageism; if, if she ever were to feel guilt about her side job, she would think. Of herself. Her own idol face. Her key money. Her parents. All the debts she needed to pay—all the grease and dirt and slime that would never wash off.
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