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A Thousand Faces

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Chapter 1

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In the heart of downtown Seoul, at a busy intersection, a giant screen nestled between high-rise buildings displayed the 9 o’clock news.

 

Breaking News: The identity of the notorious scammer who deceived the entire nation has finally been revealed. Thanks to an anonymous tip, the police have identified the con artist as a 35-year-old male. Investigations are underway.

 

The screen flashed an image of a man with disheveled hair partially covering his face.

 

In the bustling crowd, Junwoo Han, his hat pulled low, lifted his head and grumbled,

 

“Did they have to use that photo?”

 

Junwoo watched the screen. He clicked his tongue in annoyance, but he also couldn’t help but be amused.

 

“Never thought I’d become a national sensation.”

 

He sighed. I’m exhausted. Time to go home and put my feet up.

 

In the bustling traffic, a police car drove past, its siren wailing. Junwoo stretched, casually slipped his hand into his pocket, and melted into the crowd.

 

***

 

30 years ago.

 

“Hey, kid. Did you see something shiny roll by here?”

 

It was Ilnam Go, a member of the most notorious scam ring in Korea known as the Boogeymen.

 

Right now, he was in big trouble.

 

He was at a daycare event for the children of South Korea’s wealthiest families. After scoping out one of the parents, he had managed to switch their real diamond ring for a fake cubic zirconia.

And then it all went wrong—the ring slipped from his grasp and rolled toward a child.

“Tell the truth, kid. Did you pick it up?”

The boy remained tight-lipped, wearing a face that said he had no idea what Ilnam was talking about. His head was bowed fearfully under Ilnam’s persistent questioning.

“I don’t know… I didn’t see nothing,” the boy mumbled.

But under it all, he had an indignant expression at the accusation. This isn’t fair!

It didn’t seem like he was lying to get out of trouble; he seemed genuinely clueless. Maybe the kid really didn’t know anything. After all, it wasn’t as if he was caught red-handed with the ring.

Ilnam scratched his head, muttering, “Where the hell did it go…?”

He continued scanning the area.

The commotion around him grew as people began to gather one by one. Ilnam guessed that some parents might hurry over to comfort the teary-eyed kid before him. He had to leave now. The show would be over if the kid spilled the beans that he was searching for something.

He was heading away, ready to bolt if necessary, when a teacher approached the crying boy.

“You’re not my student. Who’s your teacher?”

“Dad…?” the boy said.

The teacher, mistaking Ilnam for the kid’s father, looked at him, silently asking for an explanation.

Then…

“Dad!”

“Huh?” Ilnam said. “Me?”

“I was wrong. Please don’t leave.”

The boy was clearly speaking to Ilnam.

The hell are you talking about?

Ilnam’s mind came to a standstill. Around him, all the parents were now watching the scene.

The child began to cry even louder. “I’m sorry, take me with you. I’ll listen now, Dad. I won’t ask for a Nerf gun anymore, I promise.”

The boy’s pitiful gaze never left him. If this continued, Ilnam would end up branded as a heartless father who left his young son over a toy.

Quickly backtracking, Ilnam lifted the child into his arms. “Hah. When did I say I was leaving? If my son wants a toy, that’s what he’ll get. Let’s go.”

Striding away from the scene, Ilnam wondered what he was doing. Playing the role of a father wasn’t part of the plan. But staying any longer could be risky.

They reached an alley a few blocks away from the daycare. Ilnam set the child down. “Who are you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why do you think I’m your Dad?”

“You did the same, sir,” the boy replied.

“I did? When?”

“You lied. Back there, I saw everything.”

Ilnam was baffled. Just a moment ago, the child had acted as if he knew nothing. But this little one had been reading him from the start.

“Is the game over now?” the boy said.

“What game?”

“The one we were playing. It was fun. Everyone fell for it, didn’t they?”

Ilnam was astonished.

That’s it? After making me work so hard, it was all fun and games? Does he think I’m an idiot?

“Alright, the game’s over. Scram.” Ilnam’s mind was still preoccupied with the whereabouts of the ring. How was he going to get back in there?

The child made a sullen face as Ilnam flapped his hand at him in annoyance.

“Aww. I wanted to play more. But at least I won,” the boy said, opening his fist. There, lying in his palm, was the diamond ring Ilnam had been searching for this whole time.

“You…”

Ilnam took the ring, feeling dazed. What was this? He felt like the loser, just as the child had said.

“Where’s your house?” Ilnam asked.

“I don’t have one.”

“Then, where’s your mom?”

“I don’t have one of those either.”

The boy pursed his lips and shrugged, looking up at Ilnam with an innocent expression. His tone sounded dismissive, as if to say, “Do I really need those?”

Ilnam’s curiosity about the child deepened.

“So where have you been staying all this time?”

“I just live like you, sir. I don’t really have a home.”

Live like me? The idea that this child had been living a life similar to his own, lurking in places like this, struck Ilnam.

Was that even possible? But based on what he had seen today, it also made sense.

Is this all a game to him?

Ilnam was suddenly scared of the child in front of him. If he was like this now, what would he be like as an adult?

The boy looked downcast. “Are you scared of me too, sir?”

Ilnam felt like he had done something wrong. If he left now, this kid would end up in a similar situation somewhere else.

Was it pity, or was the chaos of the day just making his judgment hazy?

Before he could even think it through, Ilnam blurted, “Wanna come with me?”

That was the day Junwoo gained not one but four scammer fathers.

***

Junwoo was grumpy. Ever since he had come to this house, there had been nothing fun to play with.

The “fathers,” who had given in once or twice to the boy’s audacity, quickly gave up and left him to his own devices. Now Junwoo was getting bored.

His interest was piqued for the first time when he watched a movie he liked, his face lighting up with excitement.

“What are those people doing?”

“You know the games you like to play?” Ilnam answered. “They’re like that. Well, sort of. They’re just acting.”

“Like our game?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

That was how Ilnam explained it. From that day on, Junwoo spent his days watching movies.

Junwoo’s love for movies was immense. He was so obsessed that he would sit in front of the TV all day, watching every movie he could find, regardless of genre.

Even when the gang was plotting in the living room, Junwoo didn’t give them a second glance. The countless performances of the actors in the movies captured his heart. Plus, he remembered every scene, every piece of dialogue—not a feat that could be achieved by mere effort.

Later, he even began to reenact entire scenes, exchanging lines with imaginary characters in a corner of the living room. But he soon grew tired of even that. What he desperately craved was a companion.

Junhwan Jang, one of the fathers, began to pay closer attention to Junwoo. It was clear that Junwoo’s behavior was more than just mimicking people on TV out of childish curiosity; he definitely had a talent for acting.

That kid might be useful.

“Kid’s a prodigy, isn’t he?” Junwhan said.

Ilnam looked up. “What?”

“You said that the day you brought him in. That he’s a genius.”

“Yeah… I guess so.”

A sense of unease crept over Ilnam as he noticed Junhwan beginning to take an interest in Junwoo, whom he had previously ignored.

Has he already grown attached to him? I didn’t bring him here for this.

Still, there was nothing he could do. Junhwan had agreed to take him in for a while because he felt sorry for him. It was clear that he would be kicked out if he became useless.

Ilnam could only hope that he was wrong about Junwoo being an acting prodigy.

One evening, Junhwan approached Junwoo, who was staying up late in front of the TV.

“Do you wanna do that, kid? The stuff on TV?”

“What?”

“Do you want to give it a try? Act in front of cameras?”

And just like that, Junhwan drew the unsuspecting Junwoo into their scamming world. Junwoo’s eyes lit up.

“Really?” Suddenly, Junwoo, who had been motionless for hours, leaped up from the floor. “Yes! I’ll do it! I know I can do it well!”

Ever since he had come to this house, Junwoo had drifted through his days in boredom. This was the first time he had looked so excited.

And so, Junwoo’s first scam began.

***

Junwoo’s first mission was to distract the target while the gang did the job.

His first role: “The Lost Child.”

He recalled a scene from the movie he had stayed up watching a few days ago. A minor character, after searching for his missing parents all day long, wept uncontrollably. Although it was a scene that appeared only briefly in his favorite show, Junwoo memorized everything in perfect detail.

He frantically ran his hands through his hair. Finally, he pulled the target’s collar. “Sir?”

The target turned around. The child, who was about his height, looked confused and anxious.

“My mom…” As he said those words, Junwoo’s eyes, crinkling in fear, began to water.

How long had he been running? His hair was a mess, his shoes were half off. He burst into tears as soon as he said the word “mom.” It was clear that he was a lost child who had been searching for his parents all day and had finally come to an adult for help.

The target set down his briefcase and crouched in front of the boy, looking him in the eye.

And with that, the first job was a success.

“How was that?” Junwoo said to the gang. “I totally fooled that man. And he even gave me this.”

Junwoo was buzzing with excitement. In his hand, he clutched two crumpled-up banknotes.

“This kid is a born con artist,” Junhwan Jang mused.

“I did good, right?”

From that day on, Junwoo became more and more involved in the cons. His hard work paid off; every game was a success.

At the time, Junwoo could never have guessed where his talent would take him.

***

The moment Junwoo opened the door, he sensed something was wrong. The air was charged with tension, and he noticed the gang’s sidelong glances as he stepped through.

“What? What’s up?”

Everyone was squirming, avoiding his gaze. Even Junhwan Jang, who had never been like that before, couldn’t look him in the eye.

Junwoo was young, but that didn’t stop his highly developed intuition. He had a hunch.

“No way. Is that…?”

“Junwoo, listen…” Ilnam began.

Junwoo knew the instant he saw Ilnam’s resigned expression. The worst had happened.

“I tried to warn you…” Ilnam continued.

“I told you to leave it alone!” Junwoo burst out. “Didn’t I make myself clear?!”

His frustration boiled over. He had always gone along with their schemes, pretending Ilnam was his father. He had done everything he could to make money for him. But it was all for nothing.

He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to control his rage. It was over.

Junwoo had always been a natural. Gradually, their operations had come to revolve around him. If he couldn’t see a solution, the game was off. Junwoo’s decisions were always on the mark. The gang knew that.

They should never have meddled.

“A hundred billion won!” Junhwan Jang retorted, his face flushed with anger. “How could we just give that up? That was my ticket out of here. I didn’t know it would end up like this.”

“Come on, Junwoo. Is there anything we can do? You always have an answer. What do you think?” one of the fathers said, his eyes desperate.

At his words, the others, previously sunken in despair, began to see a glimmer of hope.

Ilnam should have known. Once again, it all came down to Junwoo. They had never truly wanted this kid for who he was; they had only wanted his talent.

A cold realization washed over Junwoo.

What am I even hoping for? I know there’s nothing else I can do.

“There is no answer. It’s all over,” Junwoo said.

“There has to be something.”

“Just let it go.”

“We can’t go back to prison again. We’re all screwed!”

A bitter laugh escaped Junwoo’s lips. He understood now—they wanted him to take the blame.

“You think you can just bail on us?” said one of the fathers. “We’re all going down together!”

So now it was down to threats. Unbelievable. Even if they were panicking, that was going too far.

Where had it gone wrong? As the games got bigger, the fathers became more and more money-hungry. It was sickening to see them still trying to claw something out of this mess.

Junwoo paused. If he wanted to, he could get out of this and put a few scammers behind bars.

“Junwoo, please…! You’re our son. You gotta save your dads, don’t you?”

But it wasn’t going to be easy. His father’s hand was shaking as it gripped his shoulder, a last-ditch plea from a desperate man.

Junwoo didn’t know what to say.

Still, they’re family, even if they see me as just a tool. At the end of the day, they took in an orphan with nowhere to go.

Junwoo sighed and stepped out to get some air. Suddenly, he felt an arm around his shoulder. He turned to see Ilnam’s sad face.

“Don’t stress too much, Junwoo. It’s time to hang it up anyway.”

The moment Junwoo looked into Ilnam’s eyes, he knew what he’d decided. Ilnam had always had concerns about the path he had led the boy down. Junwoo knew that.

Ilnam never wanted things to get this big. He had a criminal record, so if he was caught again, he would have to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Not only that, he had a number of health problems, some of which had him hooked on prescription painkillers.

Junwoo pictured the man slowly dying in pain on the cold floor of a cell.

If I went in…

The truth was, Junwoo had grown weary of the scamming world. It had ensnared him before he fully grasped what he was getting into.

Junwoo’s world was a stage, and he was the director. He enjoyed it in a way.

Yet, for a while now, he had felt a nagging uneasiness in his chest. Was this really the right thing?

Still, regret was a pointless emotion.

He knew there was no going back. Regardless of his intentions, he was a criminal. He had resigned himself to his fate, believing it was the only life he was meant to lead.

But what was he going to do now? He was sick of his fathers and their greed, and he was tired of always having to sneak around.

He longed to escape it all.

That’s when he made up his mind. He had done everything he could.

Might as well take a break, too.

By the end of the day, Junwoo’s face was all over Seoul. No one had any idea it was intentional. It was a masterful last con.

I do have one slight regret.

“Did they have to use that photo?”

If he’d known that was the one they were going to plaster all over the news, he would have taken it out.

***

Junwoo realized the extent of his popularity as soon as they locked him up. The news had even spread among the other prisoners. As the attention from his fellow inmates quickly turned sour, the warden sent him to solitary confinement for his own safety.

Flopping onto his back, Junwoo stared at the stark ceiling above him. A smirk played on his lips.

The cold, quiet solitude of the cell felt unexpectedly comforting. What had been the point of all that sneaking around if he was just going to end up here?

I’m just…

He reflected on the day he first entered the game—the rush of his first role, the exhilaration of having the world at his fingertips.

He had orchestrated countless games, fooled countless people. The puppet master.

Back then, it felt like he was living in a movie. It was the only way he could make sense of his life. As a child surviving on the streets, this was his one and only skill.

But reality had finally caught up with him. No matter how much he wished it were otherwise, Junwoo was just a con artist and criminal. He had been living in a dream world. What more could he have hoped for?

A deep sigh escaped him. If this was what he had to do to atone, then so be it. He could use the rest.

It’s not like I can turn back time.

As his thoughts wound down, an overwhelming drowsiness enveloped him. The cell around him gradually darkened, and his eyes drifted shut.

The world went black as he fell into a deep sleep.

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