Chapter 1:

The Devil's Convenience Store

The Devil's Convenience Store


October 26, 11:28 PM

“He’s getting away! MOVE IT!”

They were about a block away, but Hisashi could hear the policemen’s frantic orders. He’d almost fallen for their sting operation and realized it at just the right moment to make a break for it while they were preparing to move in. Now he was running for his life.

He was in an unfamiliar part of the city, but one that was filled with side streets and decrepit old buildings that felt like they’d been plucked out of an earlier period. Everything was dark and sleepy. He zigzagged through the streets, trying to put as much space as possible between him and his pursuers.

Their voices faded as he found himself looking down another darkened street. He stopped to catch his breath as his pace slowed. They’ll never find me here, he thought. Just give me a few hours and I’ll hop the train north.

That’s when he noticed it: a familiar and yet unfamiliar lighted sign. It was familiar in that it looked like the type of sign you’d find at a convenience store, but it was unfamiliar in that he didn’t recognize the logo. It was a circle with the character魔 written inside of it in a stylized manner.

What the hell is this place? Hisashi thought as he stepped forward and suddenly realized he was in front of a convenience store, light radiating from its windows. There were the typical ads for specials on foods and advertising copying, shipping, bill payment and faxing services, but everything seemed…strange. He stepped forward and let the door swing open.

Pin-Pon! The chime was just like a normal chime. He stepped inside and the door slid shut behind him, but as Hisashi turned, he looked out the windows to see…nothing. It was pitch black out there—in fact, there was nothing to be seen whatsoever. What the hell IS this place? he thought.

“Ah! Hello!” said a voice from behind a checkout counter.

Hisashi turned to see a young woman in what appeared to be her early 20’s step out from behind the counter. She was dressed in what appeared to be the store’s uniform—a red polo shirt with black piping, black long pants and a black apron embroidered with the same logo he had seen outside. She had very pale skin—almost porcelain-like—and her hair was long and silvery white, but her most striking feature were her eyes. They were as red as rubies. The young woman smiled, revealing cute dimples and what appeared to be pronounced fangs, but not like a vampire’s—what the fashion magazines referred to as yaeba.

“Good evening! Welcome to Akumart!” the clerk said. “Wow, I didn’t expect to see a customer tonight!”

“What the hell is this place?” Hisashi said, having finally found his voice.

“This is Akumart! You know! The convenience store! Where you can find everything!” The woman made a sweeping gesture around the store and Hisashi followed her hands. Sure enough, the place did have everything you would find at a normal convenience store, but as he looked closer, the products had the same logo that was on the woman’s apron.

“I’ve never heard of Akumart before,” Hisashi said, as he looked around. He had a little change left in his pocket that was enough for a bottle of water, and he stepped towards the frozen drink cooler.

“Miss Kurohane, have you done the drawer count yet?” said a voice from the back of the room. It made Hisashi jump.

“I was just about to, Boss, but…Customer!” Miss Kurohane said. Hisashi looked towards the source of the voice to see…a man. He wasn’t tall; he wasn’t short; he had no interesting facial features. In fact, he reminded Hisashi of the picture he once saw online of a million faces put into a graphical software and blended to make the typical human male face: brown hair, brown eyes, nose, mouth. He was also dressed in what appeared to be the work uniform—red polo, black pants, black apron with embroidered logo.

“Hello there. Welcome to Akumart,” the boss said, smiling at Hisashi. His smile revealed that he, too, had pronounced fangs. “May we help you with something?”

“I just wanna grab some water,” Hisashi said, as he opened the door to the cooler and grabbed a bottle of water with a sports nozzle.

“Is that all?” the boss asked. “You look exhausted. Why don’t you sit for a while?”

“I can’t…really. I’ve got to get out of the city,” Hisashi said. “Where’s the nearest train station?”

“Train…station?” Miss Kurohane asked, tilting her head like a puppy would.

Hisashi rolled his eyes. “Look, ditz girls aren’t my type, so you can drop the act.”

“I’m just thinking…well, there’s no train stations here,” Miss Kurohane said.

“Then all the better that you sit and rest,” the boss said. “Do you want a steamed bun? Or a hot dog?”

Hisashi pulled his change out and realized he had enough for a drink and a snack, so he purchased the water and one of the steamed buns. “Oh, wow!” Miss Kurohane said as she examined the coins. “I haven’t seen a 500 yen coin in forever!” She opened the register and Hisashi’s eyes widened as he realized it was full of currency from around the world—and from different eras. There were coins from Europe that looked like they were made of pure gold and silver, paper money from America that looked at least a century old, and even gold nuggets and bars. This place is crazy, Hisashi thought.

“Did you know that if you tilt these you can see the 500 yen in the zeros?” Miss Kurohane said as she showed the coin to her boss. Hisashi took his water and his bun and walked over to the high top tables next to the windows, gazing out at the blackness waiting outside. He hadn’t noticed it when he first walked in, but it looked like the blackness was like a swirling fog.

When he finished his bun and threw the crumpled paper into the trash bag, the boss approached him. “How are you doing?” he asked. “Was there anything else you needed?”

“Nah, not really, but…” Hisashi looked behind him to the blackness lurking outside the windows. “I was just wondering if…”

“Ah, yes. You would be confused,” the boss said. “That’s what’s special about this shop. It exists outside of this material plane and emits a beacon that attracts a select clientele.”

“I didn’t mean that, but…” Hisashi shrugged. Somehow, the boss’s explanation made sense. “Anyway, if I leave, am I going to go back to the same place?”

“You will,” the boss said. “But you can’t leave empty handed. You came here for a reason.” The boss smiled, showing his teeth. “You’re running away from something, aren’t you?”

Hisashi nodded. “Yeah…”

“Then I have something that will help you out. Come here.”

The boss walked back over to the checkout counter, and Hisashi followed him. The boss bent down behind the counter and straightened up holding a plain cardboard box with the logo stamped in one corner.

“In this box is everything you will need to establish a new identity,” the boss said. “Identification cards, name stamps, credit cards, a bank account, driver’s license, and the contract for a rental apartment wherever your heart desires. Purchase this, and the moment you step out this door you’ll be a new man.”

Hisashi’s eyes widened. “Wait…are you serious?” he asked.

“This is Akumart. We pride ourselves on being able to supply anything to our customers,” the boss said, smiling.

Hisashi looked down at the box and started thinking. Where could he go? His thoughts drifted until he remembered Mayumi, his childhood friend. They’d grown up together and were forced to part right before Hisashi entered high school, when circumstances forced his family to move away and started Hisashi down the spiraling path to where he was tonight. I could try to find Mayumi again, he thought. Maybe…maybe this could be a second chance.

“I’ve got a question,” Hisashi said. “Do I have to tell you exactly where I want to go?”

The boss smiled, shaking his head. “I said, ‘wherever your heart desires,’” he said.

“Then…I’ll take it. What’s your price?” Hisashi said, without hesitation. He knew that if the cops caught up to him, it’d be ten, at least fifteen years in prison.

“Your identity,” the boss said. “Everything you’ve ever experienced in your life that has made you ‘you.’ Your memories, your work, your presence. It’s a fair trade.”

“Well…” Hisashi hesitated, weighing the price in his mind. He had no friends except the gang members he sometimes associated with. The only people that remembered him were the cops. Even his parents, who lived by themselves in a high rise apartment, didn’t want anything to do with him—they’d thrown him out on the street when he was expelled from high school.

“I’ll take it,” he said.

“Good…” The boss smiled. “Your thumb, please. We need to sign the contract.”

Hisashi extended his thumb, but the boss took his hand and leaned his face down towards it. “This might hurt…hold still,” he said. His fangs bared, the boss lightly bit his fingertip, drawing blood.

“Now stamp your thumb on the logo on this box.”

Hisashi did so, and the blood from his finger rushed into the valleys of the stamp, dying them crimson. His finger felt red hot, and the logo glowed.

“The contract is signed. Enjoy your new life, Taro Suzuki,” the boss said, smiling.

Hisashi felt different, and looked down to realize he was wearing new clothing. He noticed a mirror in the health and beauty section and grabbed it off the rack, looking at it. His face had changed. He looked like he was a typical young businessman from a well to do family.

“Oh wow, you made him really cute!” Miss Kurohane said.

Hisashi looked around and noticed that the blackness behind the windows had turned into a quiet street in a suburban town. “Wow…you really…” he said, realizing that even the sound of his voice was different.

“Excuse me?”

Hisashi looked around behind him to see that the boss and Miss Kurohane had disappeared, and the interior of the convenience store had changed. A young high school student carrying a shopping basket full of snacks was standing behind him.

“Oh, sorry…” He shuffled to the side, and let the girl pass. He went over to the doors and let them slide open, and walked out onto the street to catch his bearings. He looked into the pocket of his jacket and found everything that the boss had told him about: an employee identification card for a local company, a bank book, his personal signature stamp, and a brochure from a rental company for a one bedroom apartment. He realized he was wearing a watch, and found that it read 7:30 in the morning on October 27th.

Crap, I’m gonna be late for work! Hisashi thought.

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Compared to Hisashi, Taro Suzuki was a saint. He was a top performer in sales at Fujita Industrial Equipment and was a well regarded coworker to the rest of his staff. As he settled in at his desk after a lunch break, Hisashi sighed contentedly.

“Excuse me, Suzuki-san, but can you please sign these for me?” said a familiar voice behind him.

Hisashi swiveled around in his chair and his eyes widened. It was Mayumi. She had grown up to be very beautiful, with a slender figure, a sleek black pixie cut, and light brown eyes framed with oval shaped black glasses. She was dressed in a stylish powder blue blazer over a frilly white blouse and a floral patterned skirt.

“Y-y-yes!” Hisashi stammered, as he accepted the papers and signed his name to them. “Um…Mayumi-san, are you doing something this evening?”

“No, not really,” Mayumi said, “Why do you ask?”

“Well, I wanted to catch up—I mean, get to know you better,” Hisashi said.

“Well, usually I go out drinking with the girls, but I can switch things up if its you,” she said, smiling. It was like the sun breaking through the clouds.

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After both of them had finished with work, they headed out to a small hole-in-the-wall bar, where Hisashi ordered drinks for him and Mayumi. “So…uh, I always thought it was weird about how what we wanted to be when we grew up ended up being all wrong,” Hisashi started, remembering how much Mayumi wanted to be a nurse when they were kids. “Like how I wanted to fly airplanes, and here I am selling industrial equipment, and you probably thought you were going to be a nurse.”

“Wait, how did you know…” Mayumi said.

“Lucky guess.”

“Suzuki-san, you’ve never really shown interest in me like this before,” Mayumi said. “What prompted this?”

Hisashi hesitated and tried to find the right explanation. “I…I met someone who was friends with you back in primary school and she was asking about you.”

“Really? What was her name?” Mayumi said.

Suzuki wracked his brain to remember the names of the kids that had been in their elementary school classes. “Shiori-chan, I think,” he said.

“Oh yeah…I remember her…” Mayumi looked down at her drink.

The television behind the bar suddenly flashed with a special report. “We have breaking news from Nerima. A 30 story apartment building has gone up in flames,” the TV announcer said. Hisashi looked up and his eyes widened as he recognized the building where his parents lived. “The fire seems to have started on one of the upper floors and spread downward. Right now, firefighters are rescuing as many people as possible, but there have already been several deaths reported and confirmed.”

“Suzuki-san? What’s wrong?” Mayumi asked.

“…Nothing,” Suzuki said.

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Hisashi settled down into his unfamiliar bed. He had walked Mayumi home, and learned that she had graduated from junior college before starting work at Fujita Industrial Equipment. He also learned that Taro Suzuki had been at Fujita for about a year after arriving straight out of college, after having moved back to the small town to take care of his aging parents before they passed away.

He liked this new life. The cutest girl he had ever crushed on had become more beautiful with time. His apartment was roomy and filled with all the top-of-the-line electronics and furnishings one could buy. Still, he felt a pang of guilt about what had happened to his real parents. It’s a new life, he reassured himself. They probably don’t even remember. Heck, you probably don’t even exist anymore.

As he let out a long sigh, he heard his phone vibrate and looked over to see who was calling him. Instead of a number on the screen, there were two words: “Those Bastards.” What does this mean? Hisashi thought as he reached over and pressed the talk button. “This is Hisa—I mean, Suzuki,” he said.

“Hello, Suzuki-san,” said an unfamiliar yet menacing voice on the other end. “So glad I could finally talk to you. By the way…I wanted to talk to you about your next payment.”

Payment? What? Hisashi thought as he stammered sleepily, “Is…Is this the landlord?”

“What the hell, kid? You know perfectly well who I am and you know perfectly well what’ll happen if that 500,000 yen doesn’t get dropped off by Friday at the stroke of midnight.”

Loan sharks, Hisashi realized with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He’d worked for some in his past; there were a few times when he had to use a little persuasion to get the borrowers to pay up.

“Friday at the stroke of midnight?” Hisashi asked, hesitantly. He hoped that he’d be able to pull together that much by then, if what Suzuki’s bank account looked like was any indication. “I will do that for you, sir.”

“Good boy. We’ll meet at the bar by then. If you don’t show up…I’ll send some of my friends to visit.”

Hisashi swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

The loan shark hung up with a chuckle. Hisashi fell back onto his bed, his heart pounding. I thought this was my ticket out of trouble, he thought, but…

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“So what are we all gonna do for Halloween?” one of Hisashi’s coworkers asked as they settled into work the next morning. “Heard there’s a costume party at the club down by the pachinko parlor.”

“That sounds awesome!” said Mayumi, smiling. “I went there last year. They had the neatest drinks!”

Hisashi was about to agree, but then felt his phone buzzing. He reached into his pocket and pulled it out to see that he had received a message from someone who was labeled “Sakura.”

From: Sakura To: Taro

hey honey

you didn’t come see me last night, I’m sad :(

Wait…I have a girlfriend? Hisashi thought. He decided not to answer right away, but waited for a moment when he could smuggle his phone into the men’s room. As he did, the phone started ringing with a catchy pop song, and a picture of what appeared to be Sakura—wearing an outfit that left very little to the imagination and posing very provocatively—popped up on screen. Hisashi fumbled and almost dropped it in the urinal, but he managed to answer.

“Hey, honey,” cooed a voice into his ear. “You feeling okay?”

“Um, Sakura-chan,” Hisashi stammered, “I’m sorry…the boss invited me out for drinks. I couldn’t say no. I didn’t know how to tell you…”

“Ewww, I hate it when you do that,” Sakura said. “You gotta make it up to me tonight, you know? Same time, same place.”

“Right…uh…” Hisashi broke out into a sweat. That…that convenience store clerk transplanted me into a completely different person! he realized. He’s in debt up to his eyeballs and…and he’s in love with this…this ditz! He slumped against the tile wall of the restroom, sliding down to the floor in despair. What am I gonna do…

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After Hisashi recovered, he found out that all his coworkers had decided to go to the Halloween party at the club. “I’ll come with you,” he said.

“Really? Wow, this is rare,” Mayumi said. “You’re usually joined at the hip with your girlfriend.”

“Well, I figured it’s been almost a year since I started here, so I should get to know everyone a lot better,” Hisashi said.

As work wound down, he texted Sakura:

From: Taro To: Sakura

Sakura-chan, I’m almost done with work!

I’m so excited to see you!

Where do you want to meet?

From: Sakura To: Taro

you know the place :P

From: Taro To: Sakura

I’m sorry, I don’t have the address saved

From: Sakura To: Taro

dude wtf

you’re acting weird

why are you playing dumb

Hisashi swallowed. This is harder than I ever thought it would be, he thought. But then he realized: If I ditch her, then I can date Mayumi-chan. He started typing again:

From: Sakura To: Taro

I need to talk to you.

Meet me outside of work.

A few hours later, Hisashi was leaning against the wall of his work building, checking the time. He looked up and down the streets for anyone resembling Sakura, but no one resembling her was anywhere to be seen. Time passed, and then Mayumi exited the office to see Hisashi waiting.

“Suzuki-san, what’s wrong?” Mayumi asked.

“I’m…I’m having girlfriend trouble,” Hisashi said.

“You’re only just realizing it now?” Mayumi said, rolling her eyes. “Better late than never, I guess…”

“No, seriously…” Hisashi turned to Mayumi, looking into her eyes. “I’ve been thinking about breaking up with her.”

“I hope she takes the news well,” Mayumi said. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Good luck.”

She walked away, leaving Hisashi with his mouth open. What the hell did I get myself into, he thought.

“Taro-chaaaaaan!” called a cheery voice from behind. Hisashi turned around to see Sakura running up to him. She was dressed in a knit dress and leggings that showed off all her curves, with fur topped boots. Around her neck was a necklace with two gold rings hanging from it, and her hair was bleached blonde and wavy. She ran towards him and leapt into his arms for a hug, nearly knocking Hisashi to the ground.

“What’s wrong, honey?” she asked. “You wanted to talk to me? Are you really feeling all right?”

“Sakura-chan, I…” Hisashi sighed. “I’m sorry that we forgot about our special time yesterday, but…I haven’t been feeling right lately.”

“That’s nothing that my special TLC couldn’t cure,” Sakura cooed into Hisashi’s ear.

“I’m sorry, Sakura-chan,” Hisashi said, gently pushing her aside, “but right now…I don’t think we should be together.”

The bag dropped from Sakura’s hand onto the pavement as her face froze in a shocked expression. “What,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” Hisashi said, before walking away and leaving her staring, open mouthed, at him as he walked away.

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Halloween arrived, and everyone from the office was buzzing with excitement. “I’m going to be wearing a magical girl costume I found,” said one of Hisashi’s coworkers.

“Really? I was thinking of going as a policeman myself,” said another.

“Say, Suzuki-san,” Mayumi said, “you haven’t mentioned anything about a costume yet. Do you have any ideas?”

“Well…” An idea formed in Hisashi’s head. “If you don’t have anything in mind…perhaps we could do a couples cosplay?”

Mayumi’s face suddenly blushed. “Well…”

“Like salt and pepper, or ketchup and mustard? Maybe even Mario and Luigi?” Hisashi smiled, feeling full of renewed energy as he looked at the beautiful Mayumi.

“Can…can we talk about this in private?” Mayumi asked.

“Sure,” Hisashi said, as he and Mayumi went into the breakroom. She sat down at a table, looking down at her hands.

“Did…did you break up with Sakura?” she asked.

“Yeah…” Hisashi sighed. “She showed up last night right after you left.”

“Suzuki-san, you…you’re a great guy and all, but…you sure you’re not rebounding a little too fast on this?”

“Well…” Hisashi loosened his collar sheepishly. “To be honest…it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very, very long time.” He looked into Mayumi’s eyes. “I…I’ve really liked you since the moment I first laid eyes on you,” he said, “and…I’d like to know if you’d be interested in going on a date with me sometime. A real one.”

Mayumi blushed, looking down at her hands again. “Can…can we maybe wait a little while? I…I just don’t want to step on her toes.”

“Of course. And I’m sorry I mentioned the couples cosplay. Hopefully there’s still some stuff out there in the stores…”

“There is! Want to go to the discount store with me during lunch break?” Mayumi asked.

Hisashi smiled. “Sure thing,” he said.

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A few hours after work, Hisashi arrived at the nightclub’s Halloween party, wearing the samurai wig and plastic sword he had picked up at the discount store. There were twinkling lights in orange and purple hanging from the ceiling, and the bar was making neon green and purple drinks that bubbled and steamed like witches’ potions, thanks to little bits of dry ice. His coworkers were milling around, admiring each other’s costumes.

“Hey, what do you think?” Mayumi said, strolling up to Hisashi and wearing her tinsel wig and silver space girl costume. “Not bad for last minute, right?”

“Yeah, not bad at all,” Hisashi said. “I’m gonna go grab one of those drinks. They look good.”

Hisashi walked up to the bar, where the bartender was bent over looking at something. “Excuse me, how much are the cauldron drinks?” he asked.

The bartender straightened up and glared at Hisashi. “What the hell are you doing here?” he growled.

“Wha…wait…what?” Hisashi stammered. “What the hell? What did I ever do to you?”

The bartender smiled. “I spent three hours consoling my little sister on the phone after you dumped her. And now…you’re gonna get what’s coming to you.” He picked up a knife.

Everyone in the club quieted down as the bartender vaulted over the bar and approached Hisashi. Hisashi backed up and scanned the faces of his friends, all of them looking fearful. He saw Mayumi. “What’s going on? Who the hell is this guy?” he stammered.

“Sakura’s brother,” Mayumi said, looking fearful. “You forgot she’s the youngest daughter of a Yakuza family?”

Hisashi dashed for the club’s door, fighting his way past patrons dressed in costumes and making drinks spill to the floor, while the bartender quietly moved through the crowd, revenge written all over his face. He ran outside, fearing for his life for the second time in the span of the week, running through narrow alleyways, looking around him for that familiar Akumart logo…

BANG!

He ran straight into the path of a large box truck, which struck him and sent him flying against a brick wall. His body crumpled to the ground.

A few minutes later, as Taro Suzuki’s coworkers crowded around trying to revive him, a young woman could be seen standing at the entrance of the alleyway, dressed in an unfamiliar convenience store’s uniform and holding aloft what appeared to be an orb of glowing red energy. She smiled as she walked away.

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“So, what have we learned, Miss Kurohane?” the boss asked as he watched the surveillance footage in the back office.

“Don’t break up and rebound within a week?” Miss Kurohane said, quizzically.

“Well, yes. But also…”

“Don’t throw everything in your life away, even if it sucks,” Miss Kurohane said. “At least we got one good soul out of it.” She gave the soul a kiss before putting it up on a shelf.

“True, true,” the boss said, twisting his apron to his back, where it sprouted into demonic looking bats’ wings. “So where else do you think we should open a location?”

“Hmm,” Miss Kurohane said, as her apron turned into feathery black angel wings. “Perhaps down in Georgia? I heard there’s a famous violinist who’s looking for a new instrument.”

The two of them stepped out of Akumart and spread their wings, taking to the vast expanses of the netherworld.

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