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Teach a Man to Fish

You can build a man a  fire and keep him warm for a night, 

or you can set a man on fire, and keep him warm for the rest of his life ...

Teach a Man to Fish by James Queally



The slithering translucent mass kept on writhing in the bucket, quivering tails splashing water all over the floor and onto one another. A set of eyes peeked out from the collective every now and occasionally, so you were never quite sure if you were looking at one beast or one hundred.
               
It reminded Ren of the Ouroboros symbol. The snake eating its own tail. The cycle of destruction and reincarnation.
               

He looked down at his phone, which confirmed that it was 20 degrees out and he was standing in the shadow of a shack masquerading as a fishery in Portland, Maine. The same phone that knew he was about 18 hours and more than a half-dozen time zones from Kyoto.
               

Well, he’d certainly been destroyed, but the reincarnation part was taking its time.
               
Ren pounded on the steel door of Lenny Olsen’s building, the dank home of a man who spent most mornings wrist deep in river water, trapping glass eels in dragnets. The seafood scent had soaked into his skin, and the odor had made a home in his walls.
               
The target, the situation, they were both beneath Ren. But he’d fallen far below the rung where you get options.
               
Lenny answered with a half smile, chewing on his lower lip like a hungry dog, wearing the same dumb stare he’d sported during their first two encounters. Ren stepped inside, trading the cold for the stink.
               
“Bitter out there,” Lenny said.

Small talk about the weather in Podunk, USA. Fucking simple people, Ren thought.
               
“Is everything ready?” Ren asked.
               
Lenny pulled a draw string, turning on a row of lamp lights, the kind that swayed overhead and showed the world from an epileptic’s point of view.
               
“Fifty pounds, just like you asked,” he said. “You damn near wiped me out sir.”
               
“You told me you kept up to five hundred pounds on hand at any given time,” Ren replied. “Is there a problem?”
               
Lenny cocked his head to the side. Ren did some calculations. The going rate for glass eels was about $800 per pound, meaning Ren owed the man roughly forty grand. Lenny was supposed to stock nearly $400,000 worth of the minnow sized creatures. That was the only reason Ren had allowed himself to wind up in Maine anyway.

The Chinese made a killing off the eels. Buying them, raising them and then selling them in Japan at a markup. About a year ago, Ren would have never concerned himself with this knowledge. But a year ago, Ren had been a relevant man in the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s most powerful Yakuza set.
               
He’d gotten old, and to most people, that meant he’d gotten weak. Now he needed capital to rebuild, and Lenny couldn’t tell the difference between a Chinese businessman and a Japanese con.
               
“Why you so interested in my stock?” Lenny asked, turning his back to Ren and leaning towards one of the shivering eel containers. “You wanted fifty. I got you fifty.”
               
“Just curious,” Ren replied.
               
“I’d be careful talking like that,” Lenny said. “Whole hauls tend to disappear around here. I got taken twice last year. Lost more money then I’d care to remember.”
               
Last year, Ren wouldn’t have cared to make him remember.
               
He drew the sword, a practiced and fluid move, but Lenny spun around in the same instant, his hands leaping up from his side.
               
Ren stepped out of the way, catching Lenny in the mouth with the hilt of his sword as Lenny’s gun took aim at the place where he was standing a second earlier. Lenny stumbled back and Ren turned the business end of the blade toward him, kicking the fisherman’s gun to the ground at the same time.
               
“You sure you wanna do this son?” Lenny asked. “Nasty business, armed robbery.”
               
“I’m sure I don’t want to do this,” Ren replied. “But I need too.”
               
 Ren nudged the blade forward, the tip of the sword edging dangerously close to Lenny’s throat. The old man complied, and started moving the buckets from their homes, the quivering slipknots of glass eels writhing and threatening to escape as he struggled with the weight.
               
“I know it’s hard out there right now, but trust me, you’re too old for stunts like this,” Lenny said. “Things get worse before they get better, right?”
               
Ren looked down at the eels. Snakes eating their own tails. Destruction. No reincarnation.
               
“Mine didn’t get better,” he replied. “And I didn’t ask for your advice. Just keep loading them up.”
               
Lenny bent over again, arms shaking as he lifted another one of the mobile eel pools, barely able to drag the container from its home to its place at Ren’s feet.
               
Old. Weak.
               
This is what Ren had lowered himself to. Stealing from prey too frail to play defense. He was better than this. Or he used to be.
               
Ren stepped forward, lowering the blade to hip level, feeling some kind of obligation to aid his hapless victim. They locked eyes when Lenny noticed Ren’s hand on the bucket.

The old man’s gaze quickly turned to the sword, him seeming to realize it was out of killing range a half-second before Ren did.

The bucket jumped out of Ren’s hands, Lenny lifting it with strength he’d pretended he didn’t possess, a swarm of eels and stale water driving Ren to the floor.

So much for old and weak.

Ren scrambled to his feet, furious at himself for getting duped, when he saw Lenny racing to pull another one of the lamp strings.

Ren charged forward with the sword, but a thunderclap erupted in the room. He saw the hilt of the blade in his hand but couldn’t feel it, and realized a mess of buckshot had rendered his right arm useless. A shotgun barrel sat at the end of the smoke cloud, its trigger easing back, a string wrapped around the end of it.

“Told you I’d been robbed before,” Lenny said. “Didn't plan on letting it happen again.

Ren slumped to the ground, blood leaking out of his shoulder meat and staining the countless eels splashing in puddles on the ground. Lenny fetched his handgun, drew down as Ren closed his eyes, preparing for his insignificant, humiliating end.

“Just finish it,” Ren said.

“And what the hell would I do that for?” Lenny asked.

“I tried to rob you, put a blade to your neck.”

“You’re not the first person in history to fuck up, wouldn’t be the last either,” Lenny said. “And what the hell good does it do me punishing you anyway? Don’t stop the next shitkicker from coming through here trying to steal my wares.”

Lenny pulled the gun back.

“Way I see it, you don’t wanna be robbing people and I don’t wanna get robbed,” he said. “And besides, this here’s a lucrative business. Whatever you needed that cash for, it won’t take you long to earn it.”

“And you just what? Hope I don’t try and rob you a second time?” Ren asked.

“Never seen a man try so hard to talk himself into getting shot,” Lenny replied. “But I got plenty more of those guns rigged up if you must know. Now whaddaya say? You wanna be friends? Or you wanna be enemies?”

Ren looked to the ground. The displaced eels still coiling together, sliding over each other’s backs. Snakes eating their own tails. Destruction, then reincarnation.


Maybe his cycle had finally come around.

James Queally is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and former crime reporter for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey. He writes crime fiction because sometimes, facts and attribution just aren't any damn fun. His profile of Frank Lucas, the Harlem drug lord who inspired the film "American Gangster," can be found in the 2013 Issue of Inside Jersey Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey and Out Of The Gutter Online. Find him on Twitter @JamesQueallyLAT