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In which Niall meets Jeeves, goes to market, meets Sam, and is turned down.
Next morning Niall was more adjusted to the time zone and didn’t
awaken quite so early. But he still felt that no one else was up yet
so he stayed in bed for
a while, musing on what he had learned.
The more he thought about it, the more certain he became that the key to the
whole matter was in the Payers. They were the only new element in society since
he’d left that seemed to have any great power. The Payers were everywhere,
it appeared. They also seemed to have an in with the computer.
who does the programming of the accounts computers? They’d have to know
if they were being controlled. Maybe I can get a job related to those payer
computers. Of course my computer knowledge is about 15 years out of date but
there must be something I can do."
With at least some vague plan for how to proceed, Niall got up and fetched
in the day’s rations and put them away as yesterday. Being a little later,
he missed the guy who delivered them this time. He went over to the TV and
looked for controls. Failing to find any and being frustrated he muttered to
“How do you turn this stupid TV on anyway?”
The TV came on and an avatar with a quiet voice said,” Just ask for
the program you want, sir.”
Niall was a little startled. Damn computer. He asked for the morning news
and there it was. The news anchor was telling about some tornadoes in the South
and that local businesses felt that they had adequate supplies and labor for
the moment. Then he went to a description of Chesapeake Bay and its recovery
from pollution, saying that use of the bay for fishing was still inappropriate
and would be for about three more years. The oysters were making a comeback
but would need that long to increase their numbers and get the waters moderately
clean again. For some reason, that struck the newsman as important. Oh, well.
The third item was international news about the whaling industry. That was
enough for Niall.
“Where’s all the good news?” Niall said quietly.
Once again the avatar’s calm voice spoke from the TV, “What kind
of news would you like to see, sir? We have the following general categories.” The
screen showed about 30 different topics with the expected such as “weather”, “sports” (broken
down into several categories),”local” (several categories) and “business” (categories)
but also home-schooling tips, cooking suggestions, “health” (categories),”science” (categories).”But
if you would like to give a specific topic I could, perhaps, find some items
Wodehouse’s character Jeeves! That’s who they modeled this computer
avatar after. Those sneaky… His level of respect for and fear of the
people who had programmed these computers went up another notch. Jeeves the
always sounded subservient and always seemed obedient but also always managed
to control Bertie Wooster, his so-called master. Jeeves also had a way of seeming
to materialize in a room rather than walking in like other people, just like
this cursed computer. And Jeeves never cracked a smile or showed any expression
other than respectful attention any more than the computer avatar did.
“How about some national news... and do you have a name?” Niall
“A name, sir? What name would you like me to have, sir?”
“What do the children call you?”
“Lora still calls me ‘puter. John calls me a variety of things
depending on his mood, sir.”
“Well I am going to call you Jeeves.”
“Very good, sir. Your national news, sir.”
Niall could swear that the avatar was laughing at him, but that was probably
just his imagination.
The national news seemed to be largely concerned with progress reports on
several large projects (such as cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay) and reports
on how much money was being allocated for various general areas such as public
health and transportation. There was also an essay segment in which the essayist
presented a case for making all bus travel a necessity rather than distinguishing
local from long distance. Normally Niall would have been bored with such matters
since he wasn’t directly involved in any of them. He thought they sounded
too much like PBS in the old days. But that line about the allocation of money
was riveting to him. Whoever was allocating the money was obviously in charge.
who pays the piper calls the tune,” Niall thought to himself. "I need
more on that. Since it’s in the news, there could only be a little
suspicion if I ask for more news about that."
“How about more news on money allocated for projects and things, Jeeves?”
“Very good, sir.”
This time the items were more systematically presented, going from the largest
allocations and working their way downward. For some reason Niall got the idea
that the computer was doing a civics lesson just for him since the dates on
some of the items were over a month old. From time to time he asked for more
detail on some item and it was quickly provided. The items presented were in
a variety of formats and had different people doing the voice-over. Most were
professional but a couple seemed almost amateurish.
Niall decided to ask about allocations for necessities for the local apartment
building but the closest he could come was for the neighborhood. By then, the
rest of the family began to make noises like they were getting up, so Niall
“That will be all, Jeeves.”
“Very good, sir.”
The computer avatar is getting even worse. Now it’s even beginning to
sound like it has an English accent.
So someone was setting a budget of considerable proportions for the entire
country. Whoever was setting that budget was in charge. Such a budget implied,
no positively shouted, a controlled economy. It was centralized planning and
no doubt about it. Childhood memories of the fall of Russian Communism and
the cold war were brought to mind. It was all of a piece with computers taking
the place of neighborhood spies, monitoring everyone’s behavior to a
degree that even the most ardent Stalinist would have envied. They weren’t
even trying to hide it. Niall could almost feel the walls closing in on him.
Even looking at the TV screen made him want to shudder.
He looked out the window and saw other apartment buildings. More of the masses
trapped in mindless dependence. He had to get out of here. Brianna would never
come with him under the circumstances. She and Tony were completely unaware
of their cage. Well, perhaps Tony was aware but it was clear that Brianna was
not. Tony might be part of the problem but Niall no longer thought that he
was likely part of the controlling organization. No, that organization was
too big and too much in power to need to hide subversives among the residents
of lower-class apartments, especially when the computer could do the spying
for them so much more easily and thoroughly.
“Brianna, I was thinking that I’d imposed on you enough for one
visit. I was thinking of getting an apartment of my own so I can start getting
settled in somewhere rather than making your place my hotel.”
“Dad, so soon?” Brianna sounded as if she were actually surprised
and disappointed. He would have thought his condemnation of her home-schooling
would have made her want him out of the apartment. It was certainly making
him uncomfortable. It would, for example, be very hard to sit quietly and watch
her conducting classes for her children. Niall was sure he needed to go, and
the sooner the better. He could visit her on weekends when the lack of schooling
wouldn’t be so blatant.
“Dear, I’ve been without a home for almost 20 years. I really
want some place I can call my own.”
As Tony entered, Brianna turned to him with a pouty face and said, “Dad’s
leaving already. He’s only been here for a couple of days and he’s
“I hope it wasn’t anything we did or said, sir.”
“Oh no, Tony.” Niall quickly responded. “It’s me,
not you. I feel a need to have a place of my own. I’ve been without a
place I could call my own for over 15 years. It isn’t as if I were going
to move across the country or anything. I expect to get something not so far
away but just not right here on top of you.”
“Well, sir, I want you to know you’re welcome to come back at
any time. You’re family, sir; you don’t even need to warn us you’re
coming over. Just drop in on us.”
“Do you have a place in mind, Dad?”
“No, I thought I’d go to the housing office and see what was available.”
“If you tell Rose what kind of place you need and where, she can probably
tell you which office to try first. She’s very good at that sort of thing,” Brianna
“Yes,” Tony said. “Since they all have the same listings
available, it doesn’t really matter which housing office you go to as
far as seeing what’s available. You choose a housing office on the basis
of how good they are at finding a good match for you personally.”
“Okay, I’ll be happy to talk to Rose again. How do I get in touch
“She told you yesterday. Don’t you remember? Hers is the apartment
just to the left as you enter the foyer. Of course I guess that’s to
your right as you get off the elevator. Just tell the computer there that you’d
like to see Rose when she has a minute.”
“If you need to see Rose, any TV in the building could tell her if she’s
near one. But we think it more polite to only ask to see her in a professional
capacity from the lobby TV. If I wanted to visit her as a friend, I could use
a TV here in the apartment. We could even chat over the TVs if we wanted. I
told our computer that since you were visiting we wouldn’t be entertaining
and it’s passed on the word whenever anyone asked to talk. Of course,
if it were an emergency or something of that sort it would tell me.”
“Are all the TVs linked to the Web?”
“Of course. Why cut yourself off from the world?” Brianna said.
“Well... there might be reasons,” Niall said, feeling he had revealed
too much by his question.
“So just shut down the TV. Then it’ll ignore everything short
of a fire or something until you use the password.” Tony said.
Niall didn’t believe for a minute that the computer in the TV would
really stop listening and recording everything. If it could hear the password
it could hear everything. Brianna and Tony were living in a fool’s paradise.
By this time Niall had finished his breakfast and it sounded like the kids
were up, so he went down to see about having a talk with Rose. As it turned
out, Rose was already in the lobby talking with the delivery man about a new
family that would be moving in. Niall sat in a chair, one that did not face
the TV, and waited patiently for Rose’s attention.
“Good morning, Honey. May I help you?” Rose was obviously a morning
“I need to get a place of my own to live. Brianna said I should start
my search by talking to you.”
“What kind of place did you want? Do you want something near Brianna?
We do have an opening on the sixth floor.”
“I was thinking of getting some place peaceful... more away from the
city. Some place I can rest and maybe get some small job.”
“What kind of work?”
“I hadn’t really thought much about it. I’ve been out of
the job market for almost 20 years so I’ll probably have to start out
with something simple.”
“I think I know just the person for you then, Sam Witherspoon. He’s
a housing agent. His place is, ah; well just tell the bus driver you want to
go to Sam Witherspoon’s Employment. He’ll know how to get you there.
Take the Westbound bus.”
“This is a free service, right?” Niall said.
“Sure. Finding a place to live isn’t a luxury. Why use money for
“Good,” Niall said “and many thanks. You’ve been quite
“My pleasure, I assure you.” said Rose with a big smile.
Niall, figuring there was no time like the present, left the apartment building
and crossed the street to the westbound bus stop.
Meanwhile, back in the apartment Brianna was clearly distressed.
“I’m sure he’s leaving because he thinks the kids should
be in school.”
“Darling, I’ve been thinking about this and I believe him when
he says he just wants a place of his own. I think he gets upset about our home-schooling
because it feels like a rejection of his whole career,” Tony said taking
her in his arms. “You have to remember that he had given his life to
helping other nations set up school systems. He comes home and finds that you
and half the other mothers in the country are keeping their kids home from
school. It’s like they were saying that he’d been hurting all those
children in those nations he helped. Naturally it made him rather emotional.”
“But we didn’t reject him. There are lots of reasons for kids
to attend school; it’s just that home-schooling is better for most families
these days,” Brianna said, nestling against Tony’s chest.
“When he visits we’ll just have to reassure him that what he did
was really worthwhile and needed. I think that will keep him calm when the
kids’ education comes up.”
“I sure hope you’re right because I will not give up teaching
After about ten miles of riding the bus and two transfers (the bus driver
had asked his computer about Sam’s place and it told him the route Niall
should take) Niall was dropped off on a residential street in what looked,
for all the world, like a small town. There was a grain elevator near the railroad
station and the single business district was only about four blocks long. The
address Niall had been given was for a single family dwelling with a cardboard
sign on the porch proudly proclaiming “Sam Witherspoon’s Employment.” Niall
didn’t know whether to take the sign as an announcement that Sam had
a job or as the advertisement of a business, but the address matched what he’d
been given, so he went up on the porch and knocked on the door. The door was
opened by a black man of about 70, who looked like he’d been farming
for most of those years.
“Come in, come in. I’m Sam Witherspoon. You must be Niall Campbell.
Rose told me to expect you. Have a seat. Just push that cat off the sofa if
you’d rather sit there. Can I get you something to drink? Coffee? Tea?
One would have thought Niall was a neighbor who had just dropped in for a
“Coffee will be fine.” Niall managed to get in.
Sam stepped into the next room, which appeared to be a small kitchen with
a short refrigerator, small stove, and a single sink. “Cream or sugar?” Sam
“No, I like it black.”
Sam did something at the counter and came back in a couple of minutes with
two steaming mugs and offered Niall one.
“Just put it anywhere there on that table. It cleans up real easy.”
Sam sat in an easy chair, sighed, and put his feet up on a hassock.
“You in any kind of a hurry, friend?” Sam said as he leaned his
head back on the chair and almost closed his eyes.
“No particular hurry but I would like to have something to move into
today if possible. You see, I feel a little awkward imposing on my daughter.
She says I’m not a burden but you know how women are. They say that but
they don’t really mean it.”
“So what kind of life do you lead, friend? Are you one who likes to
be up and doing first thing or do you let life come at you a little slower
than that? You got something that is pushing you or are you content to let
the world drift by?
“Neither, actually. I just want some place comfortable that I can call
my own for a while. I also need to get a job of some kind. I’m kind of
at loose ends on that. Maybe something involving computers.”
Sam’s eyebrows went up at that but his voice continued to be calm and
his question seemed to ignore it.
“You like neighbors close by or down
the road a piece?”
“I guess I like a few close by but not very many. Does that make sense?”
“Friend, I think what you want is what we got plenty of. There are several
small houses vacant in the area and some duplexes. Is a duplex a little too
close for you?” Sam was working his way lower and lower into his chair
and his eyes were definitely closed now.
“I think a small house would be best. What would it cost me?”
“Let’s see, just the one person, might use a room for work, no
car. I think I should be able to put you on to something for about 15 to 20
dollars a month. Of course that’s assuming you want to rent rather than
Niall didn’t even need to think about that one. He was pretty sure he
wouldn’t be here more than a couple of months.
“Renting will be just fine. These houses very far from the bus line?”
“Well, some are and some aren’t. I’ll show you the ones
closer to the bus line first. If none of those suit we can try some further
“Sounds good to me,” Niall said.
The cat jumped into Sam’s lap, causing Sam to jerk and almost spill
what little was left of his coffee.
“Cat says it’s time for us to get goin’ and leave him alone
to sleep,” Sam said, pulling himself up out of the chair with apparent
reluctance. The cat, having displaced Sam, converted itself into a furry doughnut
and closed its eyes.
“Car’s out this way,” Sam said and took Niall out the back
to a detached garage. The car was at least 20 years old but was obviously something
Sam took some pride in. It was clean and shiny and looked in perfect condition.
As they got in, Sam said, “Car belongs to my grandson, actually, but
he lets me drive it some when I got a client.”
The car started readily and ran quietly. They went through much of what there
was of the town and stopped at a small, neat house with several well-kept flower
beds and well-tended shrubs.
Sam said, “Don’t know if we can get you this one. The widow Larkin
expects whoever lives here to tend the plants. The place sometimes is vacant
for several months at a time. But it’s the best-looking place on the
list so I like to show it first.”
Niall didn’t even get out of the car.
“I wouldn’t want to
be responsible for those flowers. I think I have a brown thumb. If they were
to die, I’d feel terrible and the widow would just get mad at me.”
“Yeah, I know how you feel. The next one is just a couple of blocks
Sam maneuvered the car easily on the nearly traffic-free streets. The next
house needed some yard work but looked to be in good repair. Sam showed Niall
over the house and Niall thought it would be satisfactory. He didn’t
mind wielding a lawn mower from time to time. The furnishings must be what
call “standard”, because they all had that sturdy look with rounded
corners. But he never had paid much attention to furniture so long as it was
comfortable and the chairs sat pretty good.
Niall said that this one would do fine, so Sam took him several blocks over
to the home of the owner. In the yard was a small, slender man with a sharp
face and jogging shoes that didn’t go with his suit at all.
Sam and Niall approached and Sam shouted out a greeting.
“Got a gentleman here who kinda likes your house over on Putnam Street.
That’s a $25 house for a single, ain’t it?”
“Depends on how he uses the spare room. What you aim to do with it mister?”
“Well I don’t quite know just yet. I haven’t
settled on a job so I don’t know whether I’d need it for work
or not.” Niall responded.
“What kind of work is your line?” Will’s look got a little
sharper and his smile had faded almost completely away.
“I haven’t had a chance to really settle on a line. I’ve
been out of the country for a few years and my old line doesn’t seem
much use any more.”
“How long you been away, mister?” Will asked.
“Going on to about 17 years, I guess.”
“Where you been for 17 years?” The tone of the questions was no
longer friendly but was getting definitely suspicious.
“The Middle East, back in the mountains. I was doing some work for the
“Theirs, or ours?”
“Both, actually. Our government wanted me to do some work helping their
Niall was getting rather uncomfortable and a little peeved.
“I don’t really think you’d like my house much, mister.
I think you better look elsewhere,” Will said with decision.
“Wait, it’s a really nice house. I think I could like it quite
well. How about $40 a month.” Niall said.
“You can make it $1000 a month for all I care. I still won’t let
you stay in any house of mine. Sam, get him out of here.” With that,
Will turned and walked back into his house.
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Next: Chapter 14