Read The Golden Fleece Part One, The Golden Fleece Part Two, and The Golden Fleece Part Three, to understand what’s going on here.
"Come on," said Jason one day, maybe three months after I started working for him. He was standing in the door to the second floor offices, where all us computer people hung out.
"Come on?" I asked.
"Ride," he said. "Someone you got to meet."
"Who?" I asked.
"Zeetz," he said.
"That doesn’t explain anything," I told him, as I grabbed my shoulderbag and followed him downstairs.
"You’ll see," Jason said. We climbed in the back of his limo. Big Neelie nodded at me. His name was Neleus but everyone called him Big Neelie.
"Hey Big Neelie."
"Hey Clicker." I never figured out why Big Neelie called me "Clicker" – the console keyboards we used back then were loud – like, really loud; maybe he called me that because I was always tapping on a computer keyboard? He always refused to explain, but always smiled when he did, which made it sort of okay.
Big Neelie was once a linebacker but he’d spent all his game cash and ended up working for Jason. Driver and bodyguard, and occasional partner in crime or debauchery, although Big Neelie’s tastes were vanilla, compared to Jason.
"So?" I asked, once we settled into the back seat and Big Neelie put us on the 405 headed north. We were each puffing on one of Jason’s awful cheroots (which I learned to love, after a while), and Jason didn’t want to roll down the windows because of the AC, so it was pretty thick in there.
"Jason?" I pushed.
"There isn’t any good way to explain Zeetz," he finally said. "You just have to see." But he tried anyway, on that short limo ride, to give me the highlights.
"Oldest guy in the business," he said, and stopped. "Ugly," he added.
"I’m ugly too," I said.
"No," Jason said. "You’re cookie cutter ugly. Zeetz is a work of art."
Big Neelie chortled and nodded. "Looks like he put on a sharkskin suit, you don’t know where the sleeves end and the arms begin."
"Weird," I said. What else could I say?
"You got no idea," Jason said. "Also?"
I waited. Then I prodded. "Also…" Jason could sometimes talk in exasperatingly broken sentences.
"He’s rich. Not "wealthy". Not "well-off", not "comfortable". He’s rich. Understand? Like Midas. People in that bracket, they aren’t quite like humans. Could buy California. But he’s more likely to buy some guys to cut your heart out, if you cross him."
"Don’t be flip," Jason said. "and don’t cross him. You’ll fuck me up bigtime if you do."
"Not to mention yourself," Big Neelie said. He raised his eyebrows and shook his head. For the first time I felt a little chill.
"So why you taking me to meet this guy?" I asked. "I mean, if it’s such a fucking risk?"
"I’m not taking you," Jason said. "Zeetz heard about you. Asked me to bring you around."
That shut me up for a while.
"Is this an ‘oh fuck’ moment?" I finally asked.
"You might say that." The look on Jason’s face was not encouraging. "You know how sometimes, even nice people can’t resist hurting someone, right? Being a bully? To abuse their kids or their neighbors?"
"Scuse me?" This was a weird tangent.
"Zeetz isn’t like that. There’s no ‘nice guy’ here. Hurting people is an avocation. You getting this? His hobby. Chief pleasure."
"Great," I said. "Anything I shouldn’t do or say? Anything I need to watch out for?"
"Everything," said Big Neelie.
"Just be respectful," Jason told me. "He’ll push on you, and you can’t cave, or he’ll feed you to the coyotes in Topanga. But you gotta be respectful. And not just because of the stories about him riding people out to Death Valley. Guy has juice that could make us…"
Jason stopped talking and I saw he was getting off on the dreams in his head. It was a while before he came back and finished his sentence. "Could make us like him," he ended.
That was worth a shudder or two.
We pulled up at a weird little 1950s-looking pink stucco house twenty minutes later, somewhere in Encino, I think, although to tell the truth I had not been watching the scenery; I had been deep in thought.
"Is this guy connected?" I asked, as we turned into the driveway.
"Jesus," said Big Neelie, laughing again.
"How come you smart guys are so clueless?" Jason asked.
"How come you type-A guys are always so exasperated?" I asked back. "Why’d he want to meet me anyway? What did he hear?"
"He’s curious about computers," Jason said. I noticed both he and Big Neelie had shrugged out of their shoulder holsters at some point. Jason’s big .44 mag was lying on the seat.
"You guys? Don’t you feel naked? No guns?"
"Not for us, anyway," Big Neelie said.
The door opened before we reached it. I noticed it was steel. I also noticed the windows were shuttered, and that the slats – which looked from the outside like louvred wood – were also steel.
I wondered what the walls were made of; I thought I could guess.
"Zeetz" was what everyone called him, – except to his face. His name was really spelled Zetes and he insisted it be pronounced in the old Greek way: "Zeh-tees". He hated the name "Zeetz". People who’d slipped and called him that to his face had a habit of going away on long vacations (or else making dietary contributions to the wild creatures in Topanga); an angry Zeetz was not a comical Zeetz.
Zeetz was a very tough guy with a very limited emotional repertoire who’d spent a long lifetime making sure everyone knew just how tough he was. He was the meanest motherfucker I ever met, still, to this day. I’m pretty sure that there was a different, hidden Zeetz, who felt he was a piece of shit, and was trying to make sure no one knew. Someone with poor impulse control – a Dad? a Mom? – had warped little boy Zeetz – made him a punching bag. Zeetz spent his life either proving them wrong, or hiding that they were right.
It was dark inside the house, once the door shut behind us. Later, I figured out that the light levels in that foyer were intentional. Anyone coming in off the street during the day would be almost blind; at night, powerful spotlights positioning on both sides of the door at eye-level resulted in the same effect. No one visited Zeetz unless they were incapacitated and checked over.
"Welcome, gentlemen," said a big deep voice. "Step this way please." A light – a nice, normal light – came on in a small room to our left, and we shuffled in, blinking.
"Hey Moon," said Big Neelie to the guy with the voice. A big man – a really big man, bigger than Big Neelie – nodded, and gestured. Big Neelie and Jason knew the drill, and raised their arms, and I followed a second later, and we were frisked. I have never been so carefully examined outside of a proctologist’s office.
"John? Jason? If you’d wait in the rec room?" Said Moon, nodding at a door opposite the one we’d entered. My partners left; the rec room looked nice – I would have liked visiting the rec room. Instead I looked at Moon, waiting for direction. He finally looked at me, after the rec room door closed, and I heard electronic bolts thudding in the walls.
"This way, please," he said. I followed him, back into the foyer and down a long passage to the back of the house, into a homey-looking kitchen, of all things. Whoever Moon was, he was like Big Neelie, but… more.
"Sir?" Said Moon. "Your guest has arrived."
That was when I noticed the skinny little guy scrunched up on a bar stool at the end of the kitchen counter. His head was lowered over his hands, which held a small glass of something reddish-amber colored. He looked at me. I think he smiled, but there wasn’t really any way to tell.
Jason and Big Neelie had said Zeetz was ugly. What they hadn’t said was why, and I had figured he was fat, or had an eye in the middle of his forehead – or both, maybe – at least something… human. But Zeetz wasn’t any of these things. Zeetz looked like somebody had spent a few hours going over him with a weedwhacker, or a blowtorch; then they’d let him heal for a few days, and done it all over again.
I gulped. He noticed.
"What?" He said. "They didn’t tell you?"
"I think they tried," I said. My voice sort of croaked, because under my wave of horror at his condition, I could still feel it: this tiny, fucked up guy had power, and didn’t give two fucks about me.
"I guess they didn’t do such a good job," he said.
"I apologize sir. It’s shocking."
Plus – he was wearing sharkskin, and I really couldn’t tell where the suit ended.
"I see you’re one of them honest guys," he said. "I known a lot of that kind of guy. Not so much any more."
"I’m here because you asked me, sir. I’m not gonna pretend, but I’m not gonna offend, either – not on purpose. I’ll apologize again if it helps, and then I’m at your service."
"That’s nice. I guess they did explain some things right, huh? What did they tell you?"
"They told me you were the richest, toughest, meanest son of a bitch in California, and that if I looked cross-eyed at you, you’d have somebody tear my heart out. They also said you were curious about computers, so if there’s anything I can help you with-"
"Computers? I hate those fucking things."
That shut me up.
"Follow me," he said. He slid down off the bar stool and limped across the kitchen to a nicely done wall of French doors.
We passed through. Outside was a greenery shaded patio, shielded from the world by high sandstone walls topped with razor wire. Deep in the shade was a little table, and a little kid, and a Commodore 64, the first stop machine for many a programmer, back then.
"Theseus," said Zeetz.
"Pappouli!" Said Theseus, his face all welcoming smiles.
Zeetz introduced me to his grandson. "He’s been having trouble with this thing," he said, gesturing at the Commodore.
"What’s the problem?" I asked, swinging around one of the miniature chairs and sitting down next to Theseus.
"This game won’t run," he said, searching my face. He gave me a much sharper and more aware look than I had expected from a kid his age, and I realized he actually wasn’t really a kid his age.
He knows who his Pappouli is, I thought.
I popped the disk out of the drive: Zak McKracken. A funny game – I had a copy myself. The disk looked okay. The Commodore was showing it’s usual prompt.
"You tried the LOAD command?"
"It says to press ‘play’ when I do. I don’t know what that means."
"Ah," I said. "Did you have a tape drive before this? Or a cartridge system?"
"It’s different with the disk drive."
I typed LOAD”*”,8,1, and after the usual hesitation, the opening game screen appeared. Theseus gave a little shriek of joy, and I felt Zeetz behind me, relaxing. Maybe I wasn’t taking a ride to Topanga or Death Valley that day after all.
"You stay with him until he’s happy," Zeetz said, giving my shoulder a squeeze. "I’m gonna go talk to your boss."
Later – in the limo on the way back to LA, Jason gave my shoulder a similar squeeze.
"Good work," he said.
"The fuck does that mean?" I asked. "I just taught his kid how to load from his new disk drive. Tried to keep my teeth from chattering."
"Like I said." He sighed and relaxed back into the seat for a minute, and then began shrugging back into his shoulder harness.
"Zeetz scare you, huh?" Asked Big Neelie.
"Fuck yeah," I said. "But not like ‘tear my heart out’ scare. It’s just-"
"You felt it."
"Yeah – whatever ‘it’ is. Rolling off him like cold off a mountain. I’m glad that’s over."
"Not over," said Jason.
"He wants you back there. Once a week, or whenever he calls for you. He loves that kid."
"No way. I’m outta town before I go back there. I’d rather sell shoes in my hometown department store than go back there. Guy is seriously scary. What the fuck happened to him? Why’d you let me go in there not knowing what to expect?"
"Waddya mean? Told you he was art-house ugly."
"Yeah, but you didn’t tell me it was because someone skinned him alive with a butter knife – twice – and he was too mean to die. I went in expecting ‘toad’, and I got ‘Grand Guignol’."
"Details," said Jason, waving a vague hand.
"You were right about the sharkskin thing, Big Neelie. I couldn’t tell."
"What I said," he nodded. We were cruising past Topanga then, cutting through the hills between Encino and LA, and this time I noticed the scenery. Topanga can be pretty when it isn’t too dry.
Then I remembered the coyotes, and shuddered.
"You cut out now, he’ll still find you," Jason said, maybe guessing what I was thinking. "Or find your family."
"Hell with my family," I said. "I hate my family."
Jason said nothing. I grabbed one of his cheroots and stared out the window for awhile.
"This is fucked up."
"Got that right," he agreed. "But it’s a nice pay bump for you."
"What’s that?" I asked. "What did you say?"
"Zeetz is matching your weekly payday."
"My pay just doubled? Really?"
"Well – no. You’ll be working one day a week less for me…"
"Hell with that – you got me into this, bragging my skills around – I told you keep your mouth shut."
Jason shrugged. "We’ll see."
"We sure as hell will. If I’m risking the Topanga coyotes once a week, or ‘whenever Zeetz asks for me’, that means you’re picking up serious juice, just like you said."
"Maybe." He waved that hand again.
"You get a percent for being the guy who knew the guy, right? And you think you’re docking my pay? Think again." Jason was definitely gonna pay for this.
Big Neelie laughed.