Frank L. Needwood, mild-mannered advertising executive and amateur fisherman, was furious. He had been horribly hoodwinked into buying a defective fish-gadget, and he was driving out to get his money back from the manufacturer.

The address in the instruction booklet led Frank to a ramshackle building out along the old highway. From the outside, it looked like a strip mall storefront without the rest of the strip attached — after a gravel parking area and a little dead grass, the building was surrounded by trees. The sign over the door simply read ‘Bait’.

Frank sighed to himself and got out of his car. It was starting to look like another tragic case of mail-order fraud — this place could not possibly be the factory that made the Ronco Super Deluxe Economy Unique One Piece Fish Finder For a Fabulous Forty-Five Dollars.

The front windows of the decrepit building were completely papered with handwritten day-glo signs that had lost most of their glo. Most were faded to being incomprehensible shadows, but here and there a sign was still readable, advertising nightcrawlers and worms for incredible prices. Others proclaimed a ‘reel sale’. Down in a corner was the one that Frank wanted to see — ‘Fabulous Fish Finders For Forty-Five’.

“Aha!” Frank said mildly. “This is the place, after all!”

As he opened the door, Frank was treated to the horribly off-key strains of was probably a piano coming from the back of the store. He stepped inside and as his eyes adjusted to the dimly lit store, he saw a nearly perfectly round man standing in front of him, completely blocking off the center aisle of the store. The sphere was short, about five foot five in diameter, with short little arms and legs sticking out of a greasy tan jumpsuit. Large bottle-bottom glasses were perched on a tiny little nose underneath a huge tangled mass of salt-and-pepper hair. He blinked once, then grabbed Frank’s hand and started shaking it furiously.

“Hello there and salutations to you, you good sir you. My name is Melvin, Melvin T. Stickleback. I’m very glad to help you sir, yes sir, very glad to help you. I’m sure, yes very sure that we can help you today,” said Melvin T. Stickleback, mild-mannered fisherman and amateur advertising executive, all in one breath in a slightly nasal voice.

“Well, I–” began the now reeling Frank.

“Follow me, sir, and I will show you everything you need, yes, everything you need. We sell bait!” Melvin’s arms started to point at random items which didn’t match what he was mentioning. “Tackle! Rods! Reels! Fisherman hats! Buckets! Scaling knives! Lysol! Really hip sunglasses! Tackle boxes! Hooks! Lines! Sinkers! Waders! The little air fresheners that look like Christmas trees! Fish finders!” Frank had been looking at how the merchandise on the middle shelves was pushed back four or five inches so Mr. Stickleback could fit down the aisle without knocking stuff off, but hearing his very problem mentioned caused him to look up and speak.

“Fish finders! That is my problem exactly! I bought one from you and–” Again Frank was cut off.

“Now as I said my name is Melvin, Melvin T. Stickleback and this is my dog, Osprey. Say hello, Osprey.” The round dog panted. Melvin waddled around behind the counter and sat down on a rather large stool. “Good doggy, Osprey. And sir, that is my wife playing the piano back there. I apologize for its sound, sir, it’s out of tuna. How may I help you today, sir?” Melvin blinked behind his bottle-bottom glasses.

Frank was caught unprepared for the sudden chance to speak and therefore, when he moved his larynx, tongue and lips, managed only to utter, “Ahhhl… eeeergh… ummmph. Hargh.”

Melvin T. Stickleback began to twiddle his thumbs. Osprey drooled.

Frank L. Needwood composed himself and began to speak. “Well, you see, Mister Sticklebottom, I saw your ad in Fancy Fisherman and I purchased one of your Fabulous Fish Finders for forty-five dollars, plus a freight fee, and I’m afraid the flipping thing is not functional.” Frank placed the box containing the malignant machinery on the well-worn wooden counter and retreated a half step.

Melvin opened up the box and pulled out the fish finder. It looked like a small television with a trigger attached by a four foot pipe to a speaker cone. He looked on the underside of the television. “Ah, serial number four fifty four. I remember it well.” Melvin got a wistful look in his eyes.

“What do you remember so well about it?” asked Frank.

“It was between four fifty three and four fifty five.”

Frank did not find the attempt at humor amusing in the slightest. “I do not find that amusing in the slightest,” he said. “This machine is very dangerous! Lives could be at stake!”

Melvin was frank. “I spilled Sprite in it. I was wondering what happened to it. I guess one of my grunts shipped it by mistake. Thank cod you brought it back before anyone got hurt.” Melvin put the fish finder down on the counter.

“But someone did get hurt!”

Melvin looked unconcerned. “Well, I hope you had a sturgeon take a look at the injury. Do you have your receipt?”

“My receipt? What is this carp? You just said you built it! Why do I need my receipt? This thing has a lifetime guarantee!” The normally mild Frank was furious again. He waved the guarantee in Melvin’s face.

“Oh, I just asked for the halibut. Of course I built it. I built all of them. It’s my own ingenious design. Yes, a very ingenious design.” Melvin gloated.

Frank, one of that breed which finds computers and stereos sexy, was surprised. “You designed these?” he asked.

“Why, yes, I did. Ingenious, aren’t they? I think so. I build them all. I buy all the parts from Edmund Scientific in New Jersey and Harry’s Handy Hardware House up the road.”

“Oh.” Harry’s Handy Hardware House was not sexy in the slightest.

“A tiny direct current television, four feet of pipe, a radar unit, bell wire, a computer board, Saran Wrap, electrical tape, and parts of a toy squirt gun. Neat, huh?” Melvin positively glowed.

“Um. Yeah. Neat.” Frank attempted to get back to the topic at hand. “Anyway, I want my money back. This machine is dangerously defective.”

“Why? How? Tell me everything that happened. And speak up. I’m hard of herring.” Melvin went back to twiddling his thumbs. Osprey drooled. Frank sighed.

“Well, it happened just like this. I was evaluating all the advertisements in Fancy Fisherman for a client when I came upon your ad. On a whim I sent for one of your Fabulous Fish Finders for Forty Five dollars. Plus a freight fee, of course. It arrived four to six weeks later and I went out on my boat to try it.

“I clamped the instrument to the side of the boat, exactly like the instructions instructed, then installed the batteries. When I turned it on, everything appeared to work just fine. I took the boat out and the bottom that the finder reported matched the charts all the way out.”

“As it should, of course.” Melvin interjected. Osprey yawned, then went back to drooling. There was a fairly sizable puddle in front of him.

“Of course.” Frank leaned against the counter. “I went along for a while, attempting to catch some fish, and I was failing miserably. So, I decided to reassure myself that the fish finder was operating properly. I put a large weight on the end of a depth sounding line and lowered it down. Sure enough, the machine was reporting the depth of this supposed fish accurately. But then, when I started to pull the line in, there was resistance, and it started to pull back.”

“Really,” said Melvin. Osprey continued to drool.

“Really.” said Frank. “So then I pulled in the line. And on the end of the line was a bluefish where the weight had been.”

“Really,” said Melvin. The piano continued to be off-key.

“Really,” said Frank, who was beginning to get a tad nervous at how nonchalantly Mr. Stickleback was taking all this. “So then I took the fish finder off the boat and aimed it at a garbage can and pulled the trigger. The garbage can turned into an Atlantic Cod.”

“Tasty fish.” Melvin began to tap his foot. Osprey got up and plodded into the back.

“Um, yes, it is.” Frank loosened his tie and wiped the beads of perspiration from his forehead.

“What happened to the garbage that was in the garbage can?” asked Melvin. A door squeaked in the back, and a sudden breeze through the building made the bare bulb over the counter sway back and forth. The shadows began to shift crazily.

“I suppose that it’s fish intestines, now.” Frank began to feel a little seasick from the oddly changing shadows.

“Yes, probably fish intestines.” Melvin moved a little, and Frank could barely hear the creaking of the stool over the strained strains of the piano. “Please, by all means, do continue.”

“Right. Continue.” Frank said. “Well, I took the boat back into the marina and went ashore. For a little while I wondered what to do. I have to admit, the commercial possibilities are staggering. I could turn any old pile of dirt into a real live fish to feed someone. The money one could make with this device is overwhelming. Tropical fish, if the machine could produce them, sell for a lot of money.”

“Yes, yes they do.” Melvin agreed wholeheartedly.

“But then I started to think about how much damage this item could do if it was in the wrong hands,” said mild-mannered Frank. “Psychopaths could go up in a tower and turn people into tuna until the swat team showed up. The fishing industry would be ruined, and thousands of people would be out of work. Entire towns would have their economies devastated. So on, et cetera!” Frank was breathless, yet mild. “Then I accidentally pulled the trigger and the guy in the next boat had his pinkie turn into a sardine.”

“Very dangerous, yes, very dangerous in the wrong hands. Should have taken the batteries out.” Melvin shook his head.

“So you see, I just want my money back. And I recommend you destroy this machine.” Frank looked at Melvin expectantly.

Melvin T. Stickleback picked up the machine and examined it closely. The door in the back of the building squeaked again, and the light started to swing again. The piano speeded up to a fast polka.

“Well, sir, you don’t strike me as much of a fisherman,” said Melvin, insulting Frank’s main hobby.

“Well, Mr. Stickleback, you don’t strike me as much of an advertising executive. Your ad sucked. I only bought your Fish Finder on a whim, because it was forty five dollars.” said Frank, insulting Melvin’s main hobby. “And the signs in your windows are stupid, too.” Frank was not mild.

Melvin’s eyes narrowed and his smile turned into a frown. “Really, Mr. Needwood?” he said as Osprey padded back in.

“Yes, really, Mr. Stickleback.” said Frank. Osprey whined. The piano was now playing at a furious rate.

Melvin picked up the defective fish finder. “Well, that’s unfortunate, isn’t it?” He turned the device on Mr. Needwood.

“Ahhh! No! Don’t! You can keep the money if you….”

Melvin pulled the trigger and turned Mr. Needwood into a Blue Marlin. Osprey barked. The fish flapped about, knocking items off shelves.

Melvin put the fish finder back in the box, then placed in back on the shelf. He waddled around the counter and admired the nine foot Blue Marlin. The Blue Marlin, not having a larynx, tongue or lips, said nothing.

A breeze came through the back door, and the light started to swing again. Over the flapping fish, the barking dog and the ailing piano, Melvin had to yell.

“Honey! We’re gonna eat well tonight!”


This was published on 16 Apr 1990.
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