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Overload - Page 98

The top of the single page read:

Golden State Power& Light

CONSUMER SURVEY

We would appreciate your answers,

in confidence, to some important questions.

Our objective is to serve you better.

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The name and address followed, then a perforation across the entire page. Below the perforation was the instruction:

TO PRESERVE YOUR ANONYMITY

TEAR OFF AND DISCARD THE TOP

PORTION OF THIS FORM.

NO SIGNATURE OR ANY OTHER

IDENTIFICATION IS REQUIRED.

THANK YOU!

A return business-reply envelope, requiring no stamp, would accompany each questionnaire.

Nim asked, "Where is the invisible ink?"

O'Brien chuckled. "You can't see it, meathead. It's invisible."

Sharlett Underhill went closer to the printer and opened the top. Leaning forward, she pointed to a bottle containing a clear, apparently oily liquid; the bottle was inverted and from it a plastic tube ran downward.

"This is a special assembly put on for this job. TI-ie tube feeds a numbering device linked with the computer. The bottom half of each page is being imprinted with the invisible number. At the same time, the computer is recording which number goes to what address."

Mrs. Underhill closed the cover. At the back of the machine she removed one of the completed questionnaires and carried it to a metal desk nearby.

There she switched on a portable light on a small stand. "This is a 'black' light." As she placed the paper under it, the number 3702 leaped out.

"Damned ingenious," O'Brien said. "Okay, so now we have a number. Then what?"

"When you give me the number which requires identifying," Mrs. Underhill informed him, "it will be entered into the computer along with a secret code, known only to two people-one of our trusted senior programmers and me. The computer will immediately tell us the address to which that particular questionnaire was mailed."

Nim pointed out, "We're gambling, of course, that we'll have a number to give you."

Sharlett Underhill fixed the two men with a steely glare. "Whether you do or not, I want you both to understand two things. I was not in favor of what is being done here because I do not like my department's equipment and records used for what is essentially a deceitful purpose. I protested to the chairman, but be seems to feel strongly about what is being done and I was overruled."

"Yes, we know that," O'Brien said. "But for God's sake, Sharlett, this is a special case!"

Mrs. Underhill remained unsmiling. "Please bear me out. When you have given me the number you hope to get-and I will accept one number only-the information you want will be drawn from the computer, using the secret code I mentioned. But, the moment that has happened, the computer will be instructed to forget all the other numbers and related addresses. I want that clearly understood."

"It's understood," the lawyer acknowledged. "And fair enough."

Nim said, "Changing the subject, Sharlett, did your people have trouble defining and separating that seven-square-mile area we specified?"

"None whatever. Our programming method makes it possible to divide and subdivide our customers into many categories and any geographic area." the executive vice president relaxed as she warmed to a subject she clearly enjoyed. "When properly used, a modern computer is a sensitive and flexible tool. It's also totally reliable." She hesitated. "Well, almost totally."

As she spoke the last words, Mrs. Underhill glanced toward another IBM printer, flanked by a table at which two men were seated. They appeared to be checking computer printouts, one by one, by hand.

O'Brien was curious. "What's happening over there?"

For the first time since they had come in, Sharlett Underhill smiled.

"That's our 'VIP anti-goof squad.' Many public utilities have one."

Nim shook his head. "I work here and I've never heard of it."

They strolled to where the work was being done.

"Those are bills," Mrs. Underhill said, "based on latest meter readings, and due to go out tomorrow. What the billing computer does is separate the bills of several hundred people who are on a special list the mayor, supervisors, councilmen in the various cities we serve, senior state officials, Congressmen, newspaper editors and columnists, broadcasters, judges, prominent lawyers-others like that. Then each bill is inspected, as you're seeing now, to make sure there's nothing unusual about it. If there is, it’s sent to another department and double-checked before mailing. That way, we avoid fuss and embarrassment if a computer, or a person who programmed it, does slip up."

They watched the inspection continue, an occasional bill being extracted and put aside, while Sharlett Underhill reminisced.

"We once had a computer print a monthly bill for a city councilman. The computer tripped and added a string of extra zeros. His bill should have been forty-five dollars. Instead, it went to him as four million, five hundred thousand dollars."

They all laughed. Nim asked, "What happened?"

"That's the point. If he'd brought the bill in, or phoned, everyone would have had a good laugh, after which we'd have torn it up and probably given him a credit for his trouble. Instead, he called a press conference. He showed the bill around to prove how incompetent we are at GSP & L, and said it proved we ought to be taken over by the city."

O'Brien shook his head. "I can hardly believe it."

"I assure you it happened," Mrs. Underhill said. "Politicians are the worst people to magnify a simple mistake, even though they make more than most of us. But there are others. Anyway, it was about then we started our own 'VIP anti-goof squad.' I'd heard about it from Con Edison in New York. They have one. Now, whenever we come across anyone important or pompous or both, we add his-or her-name. We even have a few people in this company on the list."

O'Brien conceded, "I can be pompous at times. It's one of my weaknesses."

He pointed to the pile of bills. "Am I in there?"

"Oscar," Sharlett Underhill told him as she led the way out, "that is something you will never know."

11

Ruth Goldman was in New York.

She had gone to begin treatments at the Sloan-Kettering Institute and would be away two weeks. Other trips would be necessary later.

The decision had been taken by Dr. Levin after studying the test results from Ruth's previous visit and discussing them by telephone with the New York doctors. He told Nim and Ruth together, I can't make promises; no one can, and nothing is definite. But I'll go so far as to say that I, and the Sloan-Kettering people, are cautiously optimistic." That was as much as they could get from him.

Nim had taken Ruth to the airport early yesterday morning for an American Airlines non-stop flight. They had said an emotional goodbye.

"I love you," he declared just before Ruth boarded. "I'll miss you, and I'll be doing whatever's the equivalent of praying."

She had laughed then, and kissed him once more. "It's a strange thing," She had said, "but even with all this, I've never been happier."

In New York, Ruth was staying with friends and would attend the Institute several days a week as an outpatient.

Leah and Benjy had again gone to stay with their grandparents. This time, because relationships between Nim and the Neubergers were now cordial, Nim had promised to go over for dinner occasionally, to be with the children.

Nim had also-in fulfillment of an earlier promise-arranged to take Karen Sloan to the symphony.

He had received, several days ago, one of Karen's notes which read:

Days come, days go.

On some you are in the news

With Begin, Sadat, Schmidt, Brezhnev, Carter,

Giscard d'Estaing and Bishop Muzorewa.

But of them all, one Nimrod Goldman

Merits my front page.

It is good to read of you,

But better still

To see, and hear, be touched, and share,

And personally love.

He had sighed on reading it because he genuinely wanted to see Karen, then had thought guiltily: Any complications in his personal life were of his own making. Since the memorable evening when he and Karen made love, he had dropped in to see her twice during the daytime, but the visits were brief and hurried, with Nim on the way from somewhere to somewhere else. He knew that Karen craved a longer time together, with more intimacy.

Ruth's absence seemed an opportunity to be with Karen in a more satisfying way, and going to the symphony, instead of spending the evening in her home, was a compromise with his conscience.

Source: www.NovelCorner.com
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