This story is a work of fiction based on actual events
        and people (circa 1989).  The names have been changed.
        This is Part I of an ongoing series.

In a hole in the wall along Central Avenue in the quaint little town
of Pacific Grove there was born a company (or what purported to be a
company) called The Computer Engineers.  Over the years, The Computer
Engineers--now MicroAge Computer Center--grew and flourished, moving
its headquarters (if you could really call them so) a total of three
times.  Despite continual fiscal loss, haphazard mismanagement, and
even bloody shoot-yourself-in-the-foot tactics, MicroAge still stands
today, doing pretty much what it has been doing all along--nothing.
This is the story of this inside-out business and the good people who
worked there, slaving away day in and day out with promises and dreams
swirling around in their little, idealistic minds.  It is the history
of gilded metal and the consequences that false hope brings.  We begin
our fine tale in the quiet street of Central Avenue, right across from
the "new agish" Granary Health Food Market.

Part I

The morning air was crisp and a light fog covered the Monterey Bay.
I parked my car in the DiMaggio's Cleaners parking lot and got my
gear together--a full set of computer tools, diskettes, and various
magazines.  Gary--Our Fearless Leader--never provided us with enough
tools or DOS system disks to get anything done.  As I locked the door
to my rusted grey Buick Skyhawk, I looked across the street and saw a
number of people filing into Tillie Gort's Restaurant and Cafe, truly
one of the best places to eat on the Monterey Peninsula.

I marched, gear in hand, briskly down the street toward 170 Central
Avenue, home to The Computer Engineers, Inc.  Across the street the
Granary Market was just opening its doors, the sun filtering in through
the large storefront windows.  We, on the other hand, were on the cold
side of the street.  I pushed open the heavy, glass and metal door and
listened to the chime that the rusted bell made as I passed through.

"Hey, what's up there, Bill!" cried a voice from one of the squarish,
pink cubicles.  Sterling appeared, hands clasped behind his back, a
silly, happy grin filling his long face.  "Bill," by the way, is the
universal nickname that Sterling and I came up with thanks to a certain
crazy scientist by the name of Charles.  Charles, you see, would come
into the store and refer to Sterling as Bill--no matter how many times
we corrected him, it was always "Bill."  In any event, Sterling began
to pace around the storefront, clearly excited over the order he had
just received.  That was just like Sterling to get all worked up over
the smallest of things.  He's the type of guy you expect to see always
walking around with a lollipop in his mouth, talking in a Scooby Doo
sort of voice.

"How's it going there, Chief," I replied happily.

He looked at me, and grinned even wider.  "Orders, Bill!  Orders, lots
of orders!" Then pausing briefly, he turned and said, "So, what's The
Churnmaster got cooking today!"

While working there as a salesman/technician--actually, I was more
like a jack of all trades, doing a little bit of everything to serve
my MicroAge masters--I won the nickname of "The Churnmaster," because
I could do a pretty darn good job of hard selling, especially when it
came to retail customers.

"Sell!  Sell!  Sell!" I cried out, mimicking Sterling's goofy tone.

Making my way down the short hallway, I passed by Roy's cubicle.
Roy was in a foul mood as usual, and was reading the latest copy of
LAN TIMES at his desk.  I saluted him, and he looked up gloomily and
grumbled something.  Roy is a bit of a pessimist, but he became even
more so when Gary brought Sterling in to work above him.  Sterling is
Gary's son, after all, and the business will one day be his.  Roy is
short and stout, with a very red complexion--giving him the appearance
of always being angry, which he is--and an affinity for guns and
earrings.  Many were afraid of Roy and his Texan temper, but since I
was never a direct threat to him I never gave it much thought.

I made my way back into the service department, which shared floor
space with the kitchen and bathroom.  Adjacent to the bathroom was a
large metal door--on which was painted a sort of jungle scene with an
exotic-looking parrot perched on a branch--leading out onto a small,
rotting deck where all the old boxes were stored.  I looked around for
the machine I'd been working on the day before.  I found it pushed
aside to one corner of the table.  On the floor was another computer
with wires sticking out of it all over the place, as if it had been
thrown across the room.  It turned out Roy had lost his temper that
morning and had given it a good toss right over Sterling's head.
Roy was always destroying things.

I began to fiddle around with the computer in front of me.  After
glancing inside, I recalled that I had been trying to figure out a
way to mount a full height 20 Mb boat anchor of a Seagate into a puny
Sterling computer case, but couldn't find any brackets that would work.
This definitely called for some ingenuity.  Looking around the room, I
spotted a roll of masking tape resting on a counter top littered with
thousands of screws, brackets, face plates, and other foreign objects.
"Ah ha!" I said to myself, grabbing the masking tape and securing the
hard drive firmly in the machine's drive bay.  "Hey, not bad for a used

As I was busy butchering this poor clone, Wentao walked in from next
door.  You see, Our Fearless Leader is part owner, along with C.Z. Soong
of Unison, of a company called Unihorn.  Unihorn occupies the adjacent
building, to which The Computer Engineers is physically connected by a
door right next to the bathroom and kitchen.  Anyway, Wentao walked in
and began to make a cup of that vile tea he and Chao Lyn are always
drinking.  Chao Lyn is Wentao's girlfriend.  The two of them have worked
for Gary as programmers since the spawning of The Computer Engineers.

"Chen chi bu how!" I cried out to Wentao jokingly.  By the way, that's
Mandarin for "It's nasty outside!"  He turned and smiled at me and
sipped his green tea, occasionally spitting a leaf back into his mug.

"So how is everything going today?" I asked cheerfully.

Throwing up his hands, he exclaimed, "Oh, ok!"

I watched him put his rice into the refrigerator, all the while spitting
leaves back into his tea.  He was wearing tennis shoes and those tiny
little funky pants the Chinese always seem to be wearing.  Whenever I
see a Chinese person wearing those, I think to myself, "Hey, he's got on
Wentao pants!"

At just that moment, Dotty walked in.  Dotty did the bookkeeping and
was a very nice lady.  She was short and stout.  More importantly, she
was one tough lady and helped keep Sterling and company in line.

"Good morning, Mark," she called out cheerfully, and began to rummage
through the packages that were going to be shipped out that morning.
As a matter of fact, just as soon as she had taken inventory of
everything, Doug walked in.  Doug is our friendly UPS man and comes
to visit us every morning at 9:30 AM, like clockwork.

"How's it going, everyone," Doug asked in his mellow tone as he began
to collect the packages.

"Good!  Good!" exclaimed Sterling, strolling into the service area.
Then looking at all the packages Doug had to carry out to the truck,
remarked, "Looks like we're keeping you pretty busy!"

I could hear Roy groaning inside his office.

At that moment, I finished mounting the hard drive and connecting it
to the ancient MFM controller.  "Well, here goes nothing," I mumbled
to myself.  I flipped the switch and...nada.  Doing a preemptory sweep
of the motherboard, I noticed I had forgotten to connect the P8 and P9
power supply connectors to the board itself.  I flipped the switch
again and--success!  I popped a copy of Disk Manager into the floppy
drive and loaded 'er up.  Disk Manager was simply the best for breathing
life back into these old boat-anchor hard drives, and we always had like
a zillion copies laying around.  Instinctively I configured DM to do a
low-level disk-wide format with no initial partitions.  As I pressed
the ENTER key to start the procedure, the hard drive trundled and then
grudgingly came to life, making loud clicking sounds.

Considering it was going to take a fair amount of time to complete the
format, I filled my cup with some strong brew and stepped through the
doorway adjoining the two companies, coming out on the Unihorn side.

Going back and forth between The Computer Engineers and Unihorn was like
traveling to separate worlds.  The only similarity was that everything
was topsy turvy and completely inane in both.

I walked over to the far wall to where all the Chinese worked.  There
were about eight of them in all.  Our Fearless Leader had them shipped
over from mainland China to do slave work developing applications and
little programs to control all sorts of obscure devices that Gary
thought up in his spare time.  They all lived together in a little house
in Pacific Grove--within walking distance of the store--owned by Gary
and Unihorn.  I recall that when they first arrived I had been given the
task of hauling them all up there in the company van, as if they were
a group of illegal refugees.  I smiled at Wenji and said, "Kai chu!"

He laughed and looked at Lily.  Lily, with a sly grin on her face,
remarked, "Kai chu, Rick!"

"I sure wish they would fire him!" I exclaimed.

Rick Bollinger--a.k.a. The Rat; he was actually born in the Year of the
Rat--worked for Unihorn managing the Chinese.  They all loathed him, as
he was quite literally a slave driver.  He made them work twelve hours a
day and filled them with false promises like a month's vacation in Hawaii.

Wentao, who had been listening to all of this, walked over and put his
hand on my shoulder.  Staring at me very earnestly, he remarked in an
incredulous tone of voice, "Kai chu, Rick?"

"Rick, sy gen, bye bye..." I replied.

We all began to laugh--even Chao Lyn, who was normally quite shy.

"So what's so funny?" came a voice from across the room.

It was the Rat himself.  He was short and stumpy with a reddish beard
and always wore those white manager shirts with black trousers.  But
the strangest thing about him was his hair.  Apparently, he was going
bald and decided to have a transplant.  The end result was that his
hair looks something like that of a friar's.

"Oh, we were just having a little chat about the nature of rats," I
replied with a straight face.

"Rats?" he responded, somewhat perplexed.

"Yeah, you know, sewer rats," I said, trying not to smile.

"Well, hunky dory, Mark," he uttered, mockingly.  "I need to talk with
my employees," he said.

"Be my guest," I replied gracefully, extending my arm outwards.

"Hey, I got a proposal for you, Mark.  Stop by my office later."

"Will do."

I stepped aside and walked toward the storeroom.  To my right I heard
a "Psst!"  It was Cindy, one of the engineers Our Fearless Leader had
hired recently.  She was in what she referred to as "The Dungeon," a
small area against the back wall of Unihorn.  Gary had made a makeshift
office out of these really ugly steel grey bookshelves and filled them
with old Unix and VAX literature.

Cindy's a charmer--she charmed her way into her current job and probably
charmed her way through school.  That's not to say she isn't bright--she
is--but when it came to computers, I often wondered what world she was
living in.  Still, she was a wonderful gossip and great fun to chat with.

"What's up?" I inquired, stepping into the Dungeon and taking a seat in
one of the empty chairs.

"Have you heard what happened?" she whispered.

"No, what?"

She glanced around the room through the slats of her metal shelves and,
seeing no one in the vicinity, said, "Roy blew up at another customer

"Another?" I said incredulously.

"Yes," she whispered.  "Apparently he was over at City Hall working on
their network when he just lost it and began to yell and threaten this
guy.  Security had to escort him out.  No charges were filed, but Gary
has been notified."

"Wow!" I exclaimed, shaking my head.  "Unbelievable--Roy is getting
worse and worse with the passing of each day."  I turned and looked
directly at her.  "Do you think Gary is going to give him the axe?"

"I don't know, my dear," she responded shaking her head.  "But if he
does, God knows how Roy will react."

The far-off chime of the front door interrupted our conversation.

Standing up, I said, "Well, I better see if that's a customer.
I guess we'll know more later with regards to this new incident."

I marched down the hallway toward the front of Unihorn.  The Chinese
were working busily--they looked like a group of worker bees in a hive,
all hunched together communicating in short bursts of Mandarin--and the
Rat had gone back to his office.  The door was shut.  As I neared the
front, I passed by Gary's office.  He was inside, intensely fixed on
the screen of his enormous Toshiba portable.  He possessed an amazing
amount of mental discipline and could concentrate for hours on end.
Rarely did he come out of his office--except for those times when he
decided to play carpenter and build new shelving or rearrange the
cubicles for the zillionth time--and he only spoke when he needed
something.  Gary is so smart; that's why he's our leader.

I passed though the second door that joins the two companies and
entered the The Computer Engineers' retail store front.  Just as I
stepped through, George Stevens was opening the front door, carrying
his computer and monitor in his arms.  He was wearing a tweed jacket
and his hair looked even wilder than ever.

"Mr. Stevens!" I exclaimed joyfully.  "What brings you here to this
fine establishment!"

Depositing his computer on a nearby table, he shook my hand firmly.
"Mr. Thompson, good to see you.  I've decided to program in the store
for the next few days."

Mr. Stevens was about my age and a very talented programmer.  That's
why Our Fearless Leader hired him.  He had been working at home for
some time now, and by the looks of it, was about to go out of his mind.

"Mr. Stevens," I said, glancing at my watch.  "Would you care to
accompany me to the Granary?"

"With pleasure, Mr. Thompson," he returned amicably.

We walked out the door, crossed the street, and entered the Granary
Market, which was bustling with new agers and health food fanatics.
Instinctively, we headed for the back where all the sandwiches and
beverages were kept.

"Hey, you're not going to believe what happened," I remarked.

He looked at me and said, hesitatingly, "Roy?"

"My, my," I said.  "You certainly are intuitive today!  Yes, according
to Cindy, Roy blew up at another customer while working on the City of
Seaside's network."

"And what brought on this sudden rage?"

"That's just it," I replied.  "No one seems to know.  Fortunately
no charges were filed, but security had to escort him out of the
building, and Gary has been notified."

George grabbed a tofu and rice burrito from the refrigerator.
"You know, that guy really scares me sometimes," he remarked.

I opted for a Greek Sandwich and a Ginseng Ginger Ale.  "Yes, he is
rather unstable, is he not?" I responded.  "Anyways, tell me how things
are going for you?  What made you decide to come work in the store?"

"I just had to get out of the house," he replied.  "I've been cooped
up in that little room for weeks now, and I can't take much more.
Anyways, I'm nearly finished with the beta for this new database,
and I'm scheduled to give Gary a demonstration in a couple of days."

"Really?  I'd like to see it."

"Sure, I'll show it to you when we get back," he replied.

We walked toward the front register to pay, but stopped momentarily
in the chip isle.  There were so many things to choose from--Cheddar
Lights, Organic Blue Corn Chips, Bearito's Natural Carmel Corn, and the
list goes on...  I grabbed some Cheddar Lights and headed to the front.

After paying, we stepped outside and crossed the street.  The sun was
high in the sky and shone down brightly upon the tattered sign ("Computer
Engineers") that Gary had painted on the front of the building the past
year.  The blaring red letters stood out like a series of mutating warts.

"Lord, what an ugly building," I remarked.

"Yes, it is," replied George, "but at the same time there is something
very attractive about it, something that sucks me in and won't let go."

I stared at him in surprise.  "You're right.  I feel the same way.
Sometimes I get fed up with this place and think I'll never come back,
but I always do."

We walked to the door in silence and stepped inside.

Roy was walking toward the front, a black briefcase in hand.  He had
on his long brown trench coat and a pair of aviator glasses, all of
which made him look even more menacing.

"Hey, how you doing," I said casually.

"I'd be doing fine if it weren't for these fucking customers and all
their silly-ass problems," he replied defensively.

"Why, what happened?" I asked.

"The Chief of Police of Carmel is complaining for the hundredth time
about the same problem.  Another Sterling fuck-up--he ordered the
wrong part twice and now I've got to go try to find a work-around!"

"Oh, Christ," I responded.  "I'm sorry to hear that."  Then, to change
the subject, I asked, "Hey, how far have you gotten in Dungeon Master?"

Dungeon Master was an amazing new game for the Atari ST that had just
been released.  The graphics were outstanding--real time three-
dimensional mazes with monsters, puzzles, and enough surprises to
delight and fascinate even the most jaded of computer game adventurers.

"Level 12 and counting," he said proudly, adjusting his aviator shades.

"That's incredible," George chimed in.  "I've been playing it straight
for the last three days and I've only made it to 9."

The bell on the door rattled and we all turned.  In walked Ricardo,
his chest thrust outward slightly--similar to Riker in Star Trek--and
his chin held high.  Ricardo is Cuban and can be best described as the
Don Juan type.  He lives life according to his libido and he knows how
to smooth talk the ladies--or so he thinks.

"So how are you folks doing?" he drolled, walking smartly by us.

Roy, with a smirk on his face, pulled open the door and stepped outside.
"See you guys later," he said to us, completely ignoring Ricardo.

"So, how'd it go at Planned Parenthood?" a voice cried out from one of
the pink cubicles?

"It went well, Sterling," replied Ricardo.  "Debbie had a problem with
her login script, but with a little adjusting and playing around, we
got everything back on-line."

"Yeah, I'll bet..." I whispered to George.

"Ohhh," said Sterling.  "So it wasn't a hardware problem."

"No, her computer is just fine," replied Ricardo.  "Works like a champ!"

"Great! great!" exclaimed Sterling, enthusiastically.  "Her boss was
really getting on my case the other day.  Let's hope we don't have to
go back out there.  Oh, did you get a PO or invoice her for your time?"

"You bet.  Two hours at eighty-five bucks a pop!"

"What!" I exclaimed.  "It took you two whole hours just to fix her
login script!"

He turned and looked at me, a smirk filling his pig-like face.
"Mark, my boy, when you get a little older, you'll understand."

"Ricardo, Ricardo, Ricardo," I said shaking my head.  "When will
you ever learn that this type of behavior is only going to get
you in trouble?  You do know what sexual harassment is, right?"

A chuckle came from Sterling's cubicle.

Ricardo turned away from us to check the messages in his in-basket at
the reception desk. "So Sterling, what's up with Roy?  He stormed out
of here like he was going to kill someone."

"What!" exclaimed Sterling.  "Where did he go?"

Ricardo shrugged his shoulders.

"He said he was going to see the Chief of Police regarding some
unresolved problem," I answered.

"Oh, no!" responded Sterling.  "I already took care of that!"

"According to Roy, you ordered the wrong part twice and now he has
to go out and try to find a fix."

Sterling left his cubicle and walked out to the front, shaking his head.

"No, no, no.  I told Roy it was taken care of.  He was supposed to stay
here today and configure those new file servers."

"Well, that's obviously not what he decided to do," I said.

"Well, it doesn't matter.  Gary's got a five o'clock meeting with him
today," replied Sterling candidly.

"And what exactly do you mean by that?" I asked.

"Sterling, line 1!" Dotty called out over the intercom.

"Who is it?" he called out across the room.

"David Eaton," she replied over the loud speakers.

"Take a message."

"He says it's important!"

We didn't really need to use the intercom, as the building is quite
small, but Gary said it was a good idea.  That way, not only would his
employees feel more important when they use the intercom, but we would
also have practiced for the time when we move into a larger building.
Gary's so smart.

Sterling grudgingly walked back to his cubicle to take the call.

I turned to George, who was now installing his program on one of the
Sterling '386 machines on display as a demo.

"So, let's see this program you've been working on for so long!" I
exclaimed eagerly.

"You're going to be very impressed," he replied.  "I have written it so
that it can be compiled directly on a PC or an ST.  The GEM libraries
are nearly identical for both machines, so I was able to totally
standardize the interface!"

"Wow, that's great!  So, which machine do you prefer to run it on at
this point?"

At that moment, I caught a whiff of the Rat.

"Mark! George!"

It was the Rat all right.  We turned around and he came closer.

"So, fellas, how's it going?"

"Fine, fine, Rick," George responded a bit nervously.

The Rat has a way of making you nervous.  When he talks, you just
know he's up to no good.  At that moment, I thought I could see the
slime oozing right out of him.

"Hey, I got a proposal for you guys."

"Oh, is that so?" I replied sarcastically.

"Yeah, yeah," he said.  "It's like this.  Me and my partner, Joe
Boyner, have started a company.  We call it Hi-Tech Enterprises.
I'm currently writing a program called The Employee Evaluator and
Salary Manager, and we'd like to develop other programs similar
in nature.  We'd like to invite the two of you to join us.  We can
talk terms and conditions later, but Joe knows some people who will
back us, and so you won't have to put up too much money up front."

George looked at me and I at him.

"Well, we'll have to think about it.  I'm not sure if it's something
I want to jump into at this point," I replied with the intention of
being diplomatic.

"Yeah, I understand," replied the Rat.  "I'll arrange a meeting down
the road with Joe and we can all get together and do lunch."

"Well, ok, sure," I replied stupidly.

"Hunky dory, Mark.  See you later George."

And with that the Rat disappeared through the gateway linking Unihorn
with The Computer Engineers.

I turned and looked at George again.  A sick feeling began to well up
inside of me.

"Do you have the same feeling I do?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied.  "Once a Rat, always a Rat!"

The bell hanging from the store front's door caused us to abandon
our thoughts of the Rat.  Roy stormed into the store, his face
flushed and even more red than usual.

"Roy, everything ok?" I called out, somewhat alarmed.

"Yeah, just fine," he replied, his voice somewhat strained and forced.
"Why wouldn't everything be fine?" he continued, pulling his trench
coat open ever so slightly.

I caught a glimpse of a long shiny metal rod encased in burnished wood.

Roy marched down the hallway and entered his office.

George turned and gave me a cold stare.  "Was that what I think it was?"
he asked, fear creeping into his eyes.

"My God!" I whispered.  "Has he lost his mind?"

"Shouldn't we call the police or at least tell Gary?" questioned George.

"Hold on, just stay calm for a minute," I replied, trying to grapple
with the reality of what I had just seen.

"Sterling, I have something to show you!" cried out Roy from his cubicle.

Sterling, clearly still oblivious to what was happening, replied
ingenuously, "What?"

The loud unmistakable sound produced by the cocking of a gun and the
movement of a shell into its chamber echoed heartlessly throughout
Central 170.

Again the voice, "Sterling, come to my office.  I have something I
want to show you!"

Like an animal sensing danger, Sterling remained in his office and
did not utter a single word.  As a matter of fact, silence reigned
throughout the building.  No one wished to test the limits of Roy's

Gary, aware of what was happening, ran over to our side of the
building and slowly approached the outside of Roy's cubicle.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Chinese bustling out
Unihorn's door, blabbering excitedly in Mandarin.

"Roy, I want to talk to you," Gary called out.

"I want to talk to Sterling!"

"Roy, let's be reasonable," Gary replied softly.  "We can talk about this."

Dead silence.

Finally, Roy appeared in the hallway between the two rows of cubicles.
He had on his aviator shades and he held the shotgun in his right hand,
pointing it toward the ground.  His finger was on the trigger.

"You were going to fire me, weren't you!" he called out viciously to Gary.

"No, no, I just wanted to have a talk with you."

"That's crap and you know it!" he yelled, ripping off his aviator shades.
To my great surprise, there were tears in his beady blue eyes.

"Don't you think I know you changed the locks and the alarm code?" he
screamed.  "Do you think I'm stupid?  And you stole my guns!  You went
to my house and stole them!  I want them returned now!"

Gary stood his ground and remained where he was.  "Look, you're going
through a bad time right now.  Let's sit down and talk about it."

Sirens echoed in the distance.

Roy took one long look around him and then turned his gaze back to Gary.

"All you do is use people, you son of a bitch!"

And with that, he raised the gun into the air and stormed out of the
building.  The Chinese looked on in awe as he ran down the street like
a crazed madman, disappearing into the urban environs of Pacific Grove.

Copyright 1994, 1995 James G. Stolich.  All rights reserved.  Reprinted by permission.

Table of Contents

Etext ©1995 Robert Szarka
Last Update: 28 Jun 1995