Side Story 24. That Man

“Your ramen is the best, Seol!”

Today again, Hugo was starting his morning at Seol Jihu’s ramen restaurant.

“Hey, I see you’ve got some new ramens on the menu, Seol!”

“Ah, yes.”

“But what’s up with these names? Seo Yuhui Ramen? Phi Sora Ramen?”

“Um…. Yeah, things just turned out that way.”

Seol Jihu let out a cough.

Hugo didn’t seem to mind.

“Anyway, your ramen tastes so good that I feel guilty about eating them alone. I want everyone to have a bite!”

“I mean, you can always bring them here.”

Seol Jihu answered simply to Hugo’s loud exclamation.

“Oh, I’d love to, but unfortunately, they’re not Earthlings.”

“Yeah? Do you want it to go, then?”

“No, no, that’s okay. There’s a whole bunch of kids, and I also don’t want the noodles to get all mushy on the way.”

“I see…. Wait a second. Kids?”

Seol Jihu’s eyes widened.

“Hugo, you’re married?”

“No way!”

Hugo jumped in surprise.

“As if! I’m still single.”

“But, you just said….”

“Oh, that? That’s nothing. I’m just… looking after a few kids….”

Hugo smiled awkwardly before suddenly shooting up from his chair.

“Man, that was good! Now that my stomach’s full, I gotta go do some work.”

“Yeah, right. I bet you’re going off somewhere to drink.”

Quipped Chohong, who was eating ramen in the seat next to Hugo.

“But seriously, what’s with the hurry? You’re always stalling to spend more time with Lust Unni, but today you seemed to be in a rush.”

“I told you. I have work.”

“What, like an expedition or something?”

“Not in Paradise. I’m going back to Earth.”

“Earth? Oh, you’re going there?”

Chohong smirked.

“You’re so devoted to them~”

Listening to their conversation, Seol Jihu tilted his head.

“Where are you going?”

“Hmm? Ah, nowhere. Just home.”

“Home….”

Seol Jihu asked, turning his eyes away.

“Where are you from again, Hugo?”

Hugo stopped in his tracks.

He turned his head around and grinned.

“Detroit!”


*


Richard Hugo was born in Detroit, Michigan. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother abandoned Hugo and his little brother at an orphanage shortly thereafter.

It’s common, really, for a kid who’s brought up in a not-so-ideal environment to perform poorly at school, fall in with the wrong crowd, and spiral down the wrong path. Stories like his were common in Detroit, especially in the slums.

By the time he became an adult, Hugo’s life was full of weariness. He spent all day roaming the streets with his friends and often got into fights. His day began with alcohol and ended with alcohol. He wanted nothing from life, but sometimes when he was completely drunk and walked along the Detroit River, he felt the urge to jump into the dark waters. He had no hope, no dream.

Even that day, Hugo was staggering along the streets at night. Only the sound of falling rain filled the air until suddenly, the sound of a gunshot rang out.

Hugo scoffed. This was no surprise to him. Gunshots were heard at least twice a day in some parts of Detroit. He clicked his tongue and continued walking.

But by coincidence or by a quirk of fate, Hugo had to stop before he could even walk a few steps. He saw a woman running toward him from the opposite direction, panting and puffing.

The woman also noticed Hugo and came to a sudden stop. A look of fear crossed her face. Her suit was soaked in the rain but still looked pricey and certainly out of place for the neighborhood she was in. Hugo couldn’t help but wonder what someone like her was doing here at this hour. She seemed to be running from a mugger with a gun.

“Ah…. Fuck….”

The woman saw Hugo and bit her lip. She seemed to have mistaken him as the mugger’s comrade.

Stupid. She should’ve just handed over her wallet. Then at least her life wouldn’t be in danger. Hugo thought to himself as he turned away from the woman. He didn’t want to get involved in something like this.

The woman stared at Hugo as he tried to walk past her toward the side road.

A light flickered in her eyes.

“Help!”

Realizing that he was just a passerby, she shouted quickly. Of course, that did nothing to change Hugo’s mind, but at least it kept him on the scene long enough for the three muggers to arrive.

The trio flinched at the sight of Hugo and raised their guard.

“Who the fuck are you? Are you friends with this bitch?”

One of them asked, aiming his rain-soaked gun at Hugo.

“No way. I’m an innocent bystander who just happens to be passing by.”

Hugo raised his hands into the air.

“What? Haha! Do you think we’re gonna buy that?”

“Hey, wait a minute, I feel like I’ve seen him somewhere before….”

Two men standing next to the man with the gun snickered.

The gunman gestured with his chin with the gun still pointed at Hugo.

“I suggest you get lost. Not that way, but this way, so we can see you.”

“Sure, I’ll get out of your hair.”

Hugo moved slowly, with his hands still in the air. He could feel the woman’s gaze on him, but it didn’t bother him. However, just as he was about to pass the trio….

“…Wait.”

The gun changed its direction.

“I changed my mind. I wanna play safe.”

As soon as the gun locked on him, Hugo turned around at lightning speed. All the mugger could see the next moment was the thick arm flying toward his face.

“Aaaak!”

A terrified shriek rang out.

Tang! Tang! The sound of gunshots filled the alley.

Everything happened so quickly that the mugger couldn’t make sense of what was going on. His vision distorted, and his back bent. He felt an explosive pain in his right shoulder as it was forcibly dislocated. And his hand—it felt empty. He clenched his fist instinctively. Suddenly, his eyes widened.

He felt the coldness of his own gun on his neck.

“No—”

Tang! The sound of a gunshot filled the air.

Blood spattered everywhere.

The mugger’s body twitched once and then helplessly fell to the ground.

The remaining two finally realized the seriousness of the situation and began to move. One of them rushed at Hugo from behind, and the other quickly pulled his gun out as he moved away from Hugo.

“Watch out!”

The woman shut her mouth because she saw Hugo was already moving. Hugo turned around and smashed the mugger’s face with his elbow. At the same time, without even looking, he aimed his gun sideways and fired.

It happened simultaneously—the mugger, who jumped from behind, fell to the ground with his hands wrapped around his temple, and the mugger with the gun flew across the alley.

Hugo looked down at the mugger on the ground with a scoff.

He aimed his gun at him without hesitation.

“P- Please….”

Tang!

The mugger stopped moving.

The pool of crimson spread wide across the ground and mixed with rain.

The woman, who had been watching the whole fight from the beginning, looked puzzled.

“Hm. I wonder where they’re from. They ain’t bad.”

She stared at Hugo with eyes full of shock as he examined the gun, turning it over in his hand.

“Next time you run into people like them, keep your head down and just hand over your wallet. You’re gonna lose your life trying to save a couple of bucks.”

Hugo lifted his arm to wipe the blood off his face and turned around. He hummed to himself as he walked out of the alley, waving the gun in his hand.

The woman stood dazed for a moment before hurrying after Hugo.

“Wait! Hold on!”

“Hmm?”

Hugo seemed surprised that she had followed him.

“Just now…. How did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Everything!”

Hugo was slightly taken aback.

“What the…. Are you sick in the head or somethin’?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

The woman sounded strangely confident.

“Leaving everything else aside… How did you make that last move?”

“?”

“You got both of them without even looking.”

“…You stopped me to ask that?”

Hugo looked at her as if she was crazy.

“I just followed my gut.”

“Your gut? That’s it?”

The woman let out a laugh of disbelief.

“No way. But you moved like you had eyes on the sides and the back of your head! Especially when tackling with the man with the gun….”

She tapped the center of her forehead twice.

Hugo raised one eyebrow.

“So why are you asking me all this? I guess I’ll applaud you for not running away crying.”

“…Have you ever considered your ‘gut’ could be your talent?”

“Huh? Talent?”

Hugo widened his eyes before bursting into laughter.

“Aha. I get it now. You must be a recruiter for a basketball or a baseball club, no?”

“Something like that…. You do have great instincts, as you say.”

“Okay, so now I’m gonna become a professional sports player, make use of my talent, and rise to the top? Is that how this story is gonna go?”

Hugo laughed.

“I don’t know….”

The woman’s eyes lit up.

“This ‘game’ could be more fun than just playing with balls.”

The corners of her lips turned upwards.

“I feel like you’d be a good fit for it.”

Hugo’s laughter suddenly stopped.

He sensed a change in the atmosphere.

She wasn’t some naive tourist he thought she was. She smelled of danger.

Hugo instinctively pointed his gun at the woman.

“Who are you?”

“Take a guess, but don’t shoot me. I just meant you should answer my question.”

“I have a bad feeling that I’ve been dragged into some sort of war.”

“There you go again with your instincts.”

The woman smiled faintly.

“You’re right. And those muggers were no ordinary muggers either. It wasn’t my money they were after.”

“…”

“That’s why you surprised me. Although we are here and not there, it’s still very impressive that you killed three highly trained people with such ease. I’ll even give you extra points for having no qualms about killing.”

Hugo frowned. Not here but there? And she likes that he’s familiar with murder? Everything about this woman screamed danger.

The woman noticed that Hugo was debating whether to shoot her or not and said quickly.

“Aren’t you curious about what they were trying to take from me?”

Without waiting for Hugo’s answer, the woman dropped her purse to the ground. She managed to open it with her feet, then she kicked it a few times, and the contents of the purse fell out and scattered across the wet ground.

Wallet, makeup kit, cell phone…. Of them all, the woman kicked something about the size of an adult man’s thumb toward Hugo.

Hugo carefully picked up the object that flew toward him, still pointing his gun at the woman.

It was a red stamp.

“Huh…. Is this a new type of drug?”

“Of course not. Open it, and you’ll see.”

The woman chuckled.

“It’s a rare item. That magical stamp can give some people more pleasure than any drug.”

Hugo stared at the woman without blinking.

“That said, it is a red stamp… but don’t worry. I have a feeling that your talent will be useful there. Prove me your worth, and I’ll take all the responsibility.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“That’s only natural, for now.”

“Stop beating around the bush. You keep saying there, but where exactly are you talking about?”

“I can’t tell you that. It’s not that I don’t want to, but I literally can’t because of the restrictions. I’m not lying.”

The woman winked at Hugo.

“What do you want from me?”

Hugo asked in a flat tone, clearly annoyed.

The woman replied with a smile.

“It’s simple. Read the manual, and stamp your body if you’re interested. That’s it.”

Hugo shook his head.

“What a waste of time…. Get lost.”

“Wait! Don’t throw that away! Take this before you leave!”

When Hugo tried to throw the stamp away, the woman quickly raised both her hands and pointed her chin toward the inside of her coat.

“Are you serious? What is your deal?”

“Just take that stamp and this! Please!”

Anyone who ran into this scene would be confused. The man with the gun was trying to walk away, and the woman, seemingly the victim, was begging him to take whatever was inside her coat.

“Jesus….”

Hugo noticed the woman’s desperate expression and rubbed the stamp in his hand.

Every day was always the same. But tonight, a strange curiosity took hold of Hugo. He approached the woman carefully and stretched his arm toward the inside pocket of her coat. Soon he found a slightly wet but fancy-looking envelope in his hand.

“So this is it? You can get lost now.”

“Any chance you might want to read that here?”

“You have until the count of three. If you don’t leave, I’ll punch a hole in your forehead. One, two, three….”

Hugo pointed the gun at the woman’s brow and placed his finger on the trigger.

The woman turned around and ran away.

“You have to make it to the halfway point! My name is…!”

Hugo heard her yell something in the distance but paid no attention to it.

As soon as he got home, he opened the envelope and read the letter inside.

“…”

A disappointed look crossed Hugo’s face. ‘Visit another world and enjoy an exciting adventure?’ He wondered if this was some kind of promotion for a new game. He also examined the stamp but couldn’t find anything special about it.

Well, there was this one thing.

When he stamped his body out of curiosity, he thought the ink glowed briefly. But it was only for a moment, and the stamp soon disappeared without a trace.

‘I knew she was a fraud,’ he thought. ‘At least it was fun while it lasted.’

With a smirk, Hugo crawled into the bed.

And then….

A burst of pale light exploded around Hugo, who had fallen asleep, drunk.

At the same time, his body completely disappeared from Earth.

September 18th, 2015.

On that day, Richard Hugo entered Paradise for the first time.

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