Introduction: Line at the End of the World is a contemporary fiction narrative about illegal fishing, ecosystem collapse, and human rights abuses on the high sea, developed and written by Jefferson County geographer David Manthos. This is the third installment of a story running in serial format over the coming months. To read previous installments, visit www.wearetheobserver.com and search through previous issues. To learn more, and to support the project, visit patreon.com/lineattheendoftheworld.
— Previously in the Story —
George Igwe and a company of down-on-their-luck fisherman and day laborers have been pressed into transporting a peculiar cargo of paint and firearms to a ship moored just off the coast of Nigeria. The men all owe debts to Fredrich, a loan shark with mysterious intentions for a fishing vessel called the Raider. While the men await instructions from Fredrich, George and his friend Ahmed make an alarming discovery in a cargo hold.
The viewport was small and dirty, but he could see the cargo hold he was peering into was nearly filled with large white sacks, all stamped with the word—“OXIDIZER”—and emblazoned with a yellow warning diamond bearing the symbol of a flame. On top of it all, a cluster of red sticks of dynamite taped together, wires protruding everywhere.
“Why’d you have to see that?”
George jumped, bumping his head into an overhead pipe. By the time he turned to Ahmed, his friend was flailing in a headlock, his neck invisible behind the massive constricting biceps and forearms of one of Fredrich’s bodyguards.
He felt a presence behind him, a solid shock to his skull, and the floor rising up to meet him.
Chapter Two – Supply Chains
Location: Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan
Amid the early morning chaos of the world’s largest seafood market, journalist Maria Mendez quietly made her way past blue plastic tubs filled with ice and every imaginable form of marine life. She studied the fish and vendors, but did not engage. Occasionally she would snap a photo with a small digital camera, or jot down a few words in small notebook.
She turned a corner into an open gallery. Dozens of gleaming blue and silver bodies were neatly ordered in rows across the concrete floor. Potential buyers skimmed the rows of frozen fish, stopping to inspect meat and bone visible through cuts at the gills and tail. Deep notches exposed coral-colored bands of muscle that once powered these mighty bluefin tuna through the ocean.
Police keep a watchful eye on the crowds. Each fish is worth thousands of dollars at auction, and a few have sold for more than half a million. In a matter of hours, some of these fish would be on aircraft destined for the most exclusive restaurants in Los Angles, Sydney, and London.
Mendez snapped a photo, then pocketed the camera. She flipped back through some pages of her notebook and moved on to the next room.
“Lady! Hey, hey lady!”
A small boy, no more than eight or nine years old, popped up from a little stool between tubs of colorful octopi and scallops the size of salad plates—his enthusiasm so sincere she couldn’t bring herself to protest when he caught her sleeve and began pulling her toward one of the stalls.
“Lady, come! I show you something you never see before. Never!”
He made a dramatic show of looking left and right, beckoned her to lean close, and whispered in her ear: “Whale!”
His eyes were wide with excitement. He put his finger to his lips and shushed her loudly, even as he eagerly nodded his head.
The boy’s face fell when he saw the mixture of worry and urgency on the face of a middle-aged Japanese woman coming around from behind a counter.
“I’m sorry miss, he’s too eager,” the woman sternly pulled Aki away and pushed him behind the counter.
“I’m afraid we wouldn’t have anything that would interest a lady like you.”
Maria studied the woman’s defensive posture. Given recent viral videos of western activists destroying merchants’ stocks in protest of Japan’s continued whaling campaigns, the woman had a right to be suspicious.
“Well, actually you might. Is it true,” she leaned closer, “that you have kujira?”
“Don’t believe him,” the woman barked back. “He makes things up.”
They sized each other up.
“What’s it for?” the woman asked, gesturing accusatively at the pen and notebook in Maria’s right hand.
“Oh, I’m a writer. Travel. Food. That sort of thing.”
They stared at each other for another long moment. Maria reached into her large shoulder bag to stow the offending book and retrieved her wallet. If the merchant knew Maria was an investigative journalist there would be no more discussion, but perhaps, she reasoned, the hint of a deal would break the ice.
Maria stepped toward the counter and peered through the glass display at various shellfish and other colorful seafood. Aki waved sheepishly from the other side of the glass.
“How much you want?” the woman huffed, stepping to the counter.
“I don’t know,” Maria admitted. This was an intellectual detour, but she couldn’t resist. “How much, per … pound?”
“9,000 yen per kilogram.”
“Is it fresh?”
“Frozen. But as fresh as any in Japan”
The woman went to a chest freezer and returned with a tray of vacuum-packed bricks of dark red meat.
Maria picked up a brick and examined it skeptically. It looked like beef roast and cost more than filet minion.
“If I wanted fresh, where could I find it?”
“Not possible. Not until April. Nisshin Maru only left port two days ago.”
“Ok, well … thank you. I have to meet someone now, but maybe I’ll come back when you have fresh,” Maria fibbed. “Good bye Aki!”
She smiled and waved to the boy now peering around the counter, then set back out to make her appointment.
She was a slight Burmese woman, and she called herself Bo Mi Mi Hsu. Dark hair and marked by dark sunspots on her skin, she looked several decades older than her tender age of twenty-nine. Maria sat on cracked plastic chair taking notes as Mi Mi tended to the stall.
“We’re the lucky ones,” Mi Mi shouted as she shoveled crushed ice over trays of blue and silver fish. “Men and women, especially Rohingya, flee violence or are lured from tiny farming and fishing villages. They promised us more money per month than we could ever earn in a decade at home. But when we leave Burma, we find ourselves in debt to traffickers, and our papers are passed from one master to the next.”
Already familiar with these details, Maria was writing down observations about the market and how Mi Mi interacted with her employees. All the women who worked this stand had been rescued from human trafficking. Mi Mi herself escaped from a brothel in Bangkok, stowing away to Japan on a cargo ship.
“About how long from the time a Rohingya leaves home until they regain their freedom?”
Mi Mi stopped and looked down.
“Most of them,” she sighed, “do not.”