New Stories:

Phantom Rescue by Andrew Finnigan

Neutrino Jam by Brad Smith

Neutrino Jam

Brad Smith

It was nine in the morning on a Monday. Jim was sitting at the kitchen table, poring over his copy of the L.A. Times, and sipping a mug of coffee. He wasn’t expected at work for another hour, but he was already dressed in his typical nine to five outfit of casual pants and button-up shirt.

A headline in the ‘Local’ section caught his attention. It read, “Fire Department to Buy New Lifesaving Technology.” Jim looked over at the wall clock. It was time for him to start his commute, but he never could resist an article about a fantastic new technology.

The article read, “The Los Angeles Fire Department has announced it’s intention to purchase a controversial new tracking device, marketed under the name ‘Neutrino Tracker.’ The hand-held device is designed to locate human life-signs, possibly allowing firefighters to detect victims trapped in a collapsed building or a major fire. According to it’s makers, it can detect a living human even through five hundred feet of solid concrete.”

“Wow!” Jim said to himself. “Where can I get one of those?”

The article continued, “The decision to purchase four of the devices has met with resistance from some Fire Department officials, due to their whopping $15, 000 price tag.”

“Ninety thousand dollars,” Jim muttered. “That?s a lot of money.”

Jim continued reading: “But Fire Department Captain William Coleman, who is credited with first bringing this new technology to the attention of the Department, explained that ‘If those machines could only perform half as well as their specs, they’d still be worth every cent.’” Jim skimmed through the details of the technology behind the device, apparently relating to the sub-atomic particles called Neutrinos. It didn’t make much sense to him, but then, he wasn’t a physicist.

The last paragraph of the article intrigued him: “The inventor of the device and CEO of Neutrino Corp., David Hennesey, railed against the backward viewpoints of those in the stagnant academic community regarding his device: ‘I have been most disappointed with the reactions of traditional scientists to my new discovery. Rather than trying to explore this amazing new technology in an open-minded way, they seem more interested in burying it. They are afraid because this discovery was made by a self-taught inventor rather than a PhD physicist, and this threatens the monopoly that the ivory-tower academics have had on science up to this point. Particularly despicable was the narrow-minded report published by UCLA, based on an inadequate and thoroughly biased experiment.’ Despite the UCLA report, the Fire Commissioner's Board has expressed strong support for the new initiative, and it is widely expected that the purchase plan will be approved in the coming weeks.”

Jim carefully examined the page, trying to find the rest of the article. After a few minutes of careful examination, it finally occurred to him that the article might actually be finished. This aggravated him enormously. The short piece was just enough to arouse a burning curiosity, but not to answer any of the really important questions. Jim checked the clock again.

“Well, now I’m going to be late for sure. I suppose another few minutes won’t make that much difference,” Jim rationalized. He grabbed his little black telephone book from his pocket and looked up the number of someone from the L.A. Times that he occasionally contacted on behalf of his company. As a favor, Jim’s contact gave him the number of the person who wrote the article.

Jim called the writer and, after three rings, someone picked up. “Jacinto Balleza,” the callee stated.

“Hi, my name is Jim Sayles, and right now I’m looking into the ‘Neutrino Tracker’ that you wrote about in today’s paper. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.”

“Sure thing,” Mr. Balleza replied amicably. “What do you want to know?”

“What’s the contact info for Neutrino Corp?”

“They’re actually headquartered right here in LA. They’ve got a little office and factory rented out in an industrial mall near Dodger Stadium. The CEO, Hennesey, said they were working on a web-site, but it wasn’t up yet.” Mr. Balleza gave Jim the exact address and phone number, which Jim copied into his black book.

“Did you get to play with one of the gadget’s yourself?” Jim asked.

“Yeah, sure. When I went to interview Hennesey, he did a quick demo.”

“What’s the Neutrino Tracker like?”

“It’s a little, plastic, pistol-grip thing, with a bunch of little lights on it and an antenna that swings left and right to point at the person that it’s located. The demo was pretty simple, actually. Henessey handed me the Tracker and then moved left and right in front of me and the little antenna followed him.”

“Okay. The only other thing that I wanted to ask about was this UCLA report that’s mentioned in the article. What exactly was it that the UCLA people did to tick Henessey off so much?”

“I’m not really sure. I didn’t have time to follow up on the report that he mentioned. You know… deadlines. But if you want to look into it, the report was written by some people in the Particle Physics Research Group at UCLA.”

“Great. I should be able to track them down, no problem. Thanks for all your help. If there’s anything I can do for you…”

“If you find something interesting, just give me the heads up, alright?”

“Count on it.”

* * *

Jim snuck out of work an hour early, so he could to get to UCLA before everyone there had gone home for the day. The receptionist in the Physics Department office told him that the Particle Physics Research Group was in a certain office in Knudsen hall. The room number seemed familiar to him, but he couldn’t quite place it.

As he walked down the third-floor hallway, he finally remembered when he had last been there. He knocked on the door of room 313, and was invited in by Robert Jenkis. Professor Jenkis looked just the same as when they had last met, with the same lab coat and unkempt gray hair, making it seem as though no time had passed since the last time Jim had stopped by.

“It’s Jim, right?” the Professor asked, once they were comfortably seated.

“That’s right. How’ve you been?” Jim greeted.

“Great! What brings you to this bastion of erudite cognition?”

“I’m investigating a new gadget called the ‘Neutrino Tracker.’ From what I’ve heard, your group has done some research on it?”

Professor Jenkis smiled broadly and said, “When I first heard of this new company, I convinced a few of my colleagues to help me test the new device. It seemed fitting. We are the Particle Physics Research Group, after all. Although, I must say, testing a device like that doesn’t have much to do with Particle Physics, even if it is the ‘Neutrino Tracker.’”

“The CEO of Neutrino Corp suggested that the test was biased and inadequate.”

“So I’ve heard. I’ll tell you what. Why don’t I show you the video-record of the test, and you can decide for yourself?”

“The test was video-taped?”

“Yes indeed, the entire test, from start to finish.” Jenkis stood up from his chair and took a video-tape from a shelf. The professor slid the tape into a TV/VCR in a corner of the room.

An image of a drab, concrete block room appeared on the screen. At the far end of the room were three coffin-like wooden boxes, presumably with open backs, standing upright. They were labeled ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘three’. Three people walked on screen. One of them was Professor Jenkis, in his trademark lab-coat. The other two were a middle-aged man and a young woman, both in casual dress. The man was carrying a device in his right hand which looked like some kind of science-fiction energy blaster. The three participants quickly toured the room and examined the partitions.

The Professor on the video began to speak, “I would like to thank you once again for participating in our test, Mr. Taylor. My graduate student here will be aiding in the testing procedure that we agreed upon in our last meeting. Everything here has been set up according to those specifications.” The man identified as Mr. Taylor nodded gravely. Jenkis continued, “I’ll just quickly run through the procedure one more time. In each of the twenty trials, you and I will first leave the room for three minutes. During this time, my graduate student will roll a dice, record this value, and take her position behind the appropriate partition. At the end of the time interval, we will return to this room and proceed with the detection. In the first ten trials, I will check and reveal to you which partition the subject is behind. In the second ten trials, neither of us will know.”

Jim turned to the real-life Professor Jenkis and asked, “Why would you tell that Taylor guy which partition the subject is behind? Isn’t he supposed to tell you that?”

“We always start with a set of trials where the person knows the correct answer, so that if they fail the second set of tests, they can’t claim that they’re equipment wasn’t working or the location was wrong. Think about it. If they get 100% correct when they know the right answer, and 30% correct when they don’t, and nothing else has changed, then what does that suggest?”

Jim nodded and continued watching. The figures on the screen continued through the first set of trials, as Professor Jenkis had described. Mr. Taylor seemed happy that he was getting the correct answer from his Neutrino Tracker.

After the first ten trials were over, the Professor Jenkis on the video asked Mr. Taylor a question, “Having successfully used the Neutrino Tracker to locate the subject ten times, are you now convinced that the procedure is adequate and your equipment is fully functional?” Taylor enthusiastically replied that he was convinced of those things.

The figures on the TV screen continued on with the second set of trials. This time, Jenkis and Taylor would stand in front of the partitions until Taylor decided where the subject was hiding. Jenkis would note Taylor’ selection on a clipboard and they would leave. When they had finished all ten trials, the Professor and his assistant compared their notes.

“Three,” Professor Jenkis announced.

“Three what?” Mr. Taylor asked.

“You selected the correct partition in three out of ten instances.”

Taylor was speechless. For nearly a full minute, he stared at them with his mouth open. “This… this … can’t be,” he stammered at last. “This is some kind of set-up! Mr. Hennesey warned me that this might happen.”

“May I remind you that the entire test has been videotaped. Any dishonesty on our part regarding the location of the subject would surely have been captured by the camera.”

“This is outrageous…” The real-life Professor Jenkis stopped the tape, and the screen went black.

“He became somewhat abusive after that, and stormed out of the building. I never did find out what exactly we had done,” Jenkis explained. “I’ll make you a copy of our final report. So what did you think? Was the test biased?”

Jim thought about it carefully, but couldn’t find any flaw with their procedure. “It seemed fair enough to me,” he said.

The Professor smiled and leaned back into his chair. “It’s also worth noting that before we conducted the test, Mr. Taylor offered to show me the internal workings of the Tracker. I’m not an expert in electronics, so I asked a PhD electrical engineer to tag along. He ended up writing a part of the report on the device, in which he explained that the impressive looking electronics in the antenna area were not actually hooked up to the power supply. They looked convincing to the layman, but weren’t even functional.”

“There’s one thing that I don’t understand. Mr. Taylor seemed to actually believe in the Neutrino Tracker. If there’s no power going to the antenna, then how does the antenna move?”

“It’s like a dowsing rod, basically. The antenna is precariously balanced on the handle, so that slight movements of the hand can cause large swings of the antenna. So someone holding the device can subconsciously affect the direction of the antenna by the way they hold it. It’s called the ideomotor effect. That’s why the antenna pointed to the correct box when Mr. Taylor knew the right answer.”

“So it’s a total scam,” Jim said, finally convinced.

“I’m afraid so. Of course, I was reasonably certain of that from the beginning.”

“How’s that?”

“All their talk about neutrinos was nonsense! Do you know what a neutrino is?”

“Well, I’ve heard the word before… in some science fiction shows.”

“Neutrinos are subatomic particles typically produced by stars, supernovae, nuclear reactors and the like. If Neutrino Corp had actually invented a hand-held neutrino emitter that could somehow bounce the neutrinos off of people and receive the response, it would be worth a dozen Nobel Prizes. Heck, that discovery would be so amazing that the Nobel committee would even toss in a Nobel Peace Prize just for fun.”

* * *

Over the course of the next few days, Jim carefully considered all of his options. He thought about just leaving things alone, and letting the Fire Department make their own mistakes, but eventually his civic pride won out. It was his tax dollars that they were spending, after all. Jim decided to find the Captain named in the article, William Coleman, and explain the situation.

After a few calls to various receptionists in the LAFD bureaucracy, Jim learned that William Coleman was the Station Commander at Fire Station 64, serving south LA. That same day, Jim decided to drop by and see if he could maneuver his way into meeting with him.

Fire Station 64 was a proud building, with perfectly maintained trimmings and immaculate grounds. The front door led into a small, beige office with a desk and a chair. At the desk, a young woman in her twenties was busy with some paperwork. She was wearing a white, LAFD tee-shirt that was only a few shades lighter than her blond hair. She looked up at him as he entered.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“My name is Jim Sayles, and I was hoping that I could speak to Captain William Coleman, or perhaps make an appointment if he’s not available,” Jim said.

She mulled this over for a minute before responding, “I don’t know what to tell you. I’m not a receptionist – I’m just using the office to fill out some paperwork. Are you from City Hall?”

“No, actually. I’m just a concerned citizen.”

The firefighter raised her eyebrows quizzically and said, “Listen, bud. This is a fire station, not a manicurist. You think you can just drop by anytime you want? Members of the public are supposed to schedule a visit between the hours of 8:00 AM and 9:00 PM, Monday to Saturday.”

“I’m not looking for a tour of the station. I just want to speak to Captain Coleman for a few minutes.”

She crossed her arms and looked at him appraisingly, still unsure of how to react. “Could I at least ask what this is about?”

“Right now, the city is considering buying four devices called ‘Neutrino Trackers’ for the Fire Department, at $15, 000 a pop.”

“Yeah, I know. We’ve been talking about it a lot lately at the station.”

“I’ve been researching the Neutrino Trackers, and I believe that they’re completely fraudulent.”

“What makes you say that?”

Jim recounted his experiences at UCLA and showed her the report.

When he had finished his explanation, she shook her head slowly and said, “I knew it. I tried to tell the guys last night that it sounded fishy. You know the saying: if it sounds too good to be true…”

“It probably is,” Jim said.

“And the worst thing is, they made this scam specifically to rip off Fire and Police Departments. If they were ripping off the IRS, it wouldn’t be so bad. But people’s lives are on the line here.” The Firefighter was fuming.

“That’s why I’m here.”

She studied Jim carefully, and said, “ Alright, I believe you. I?ll do what I can to help.”

“That’s great! I’m really glad to have some help. For a while there, I was starting to feel a bit in-over-my-head.”

“I’m Laura. You’re Jim, right?”


“Follow me, Jim. I think we should be able to find Bill somewhere around here.”

* * *

They found Bill overseeing maintenance on some firefighting equipment that Jim couldn’t identify. Laura introduced Jim and asked if he could spare a few moments to talk to them. The Captain cordially agreed and suggested that they use his office.

Once inside, Captain Coleman offered each of them a chair, before asking, “What’s up?”

Jim wasn’t sure who should speak first – he was a little nervous addressing the Station Commander – but Laura left it up to him. So Jim explained his suspicions once again and showed the Captain the report.

When Jim had finished, the Captain leaned back in his chair and twirled a pen around while staring off into space. Thinking that this could be a bad sign, Jim looked over at Laura, but she didn’t seem concerned.

Eventually, the Captain said, “When looking at new technology, it’s always a balancing act, between getting on at the ground floor but still trying not to get ripped off. You’re not the first to express such concerns to me, although I must say you are the most eloquent and knowledgeable so far. Still, I’m not sure that I believe you. The salesman… what was his name…?”

“Was it Henessey or Taylor?” Jim suggested.

“Henessey! That was it! As I was saying, when Henessey first came to me, he was quite convincing in his claims that his discovery was being deliberately suppressed. In fact, he was quite convincing in everything he said. That guy could talk a dog off a meat truck. So I’ll just ask you directly. Why should I believe you over him?”

“The test that the University conducted was straightforward and conclusive. When the person using the Neutrino Tracker didn’t know where the person was hiding, he didn’t do any better than what would be expected by chance.”

“How can I be sure that the test wasn’t rigged?”

“They videotaped the whole experiment. I can get you the tape.”

Captain Coleman thought this over some more, and said, “That does cast doubt on things. But even if I decided that you were right, it’s out of my hands at this point. The issue is going to be discussed by the Board of Fire Commissioners, and their recommendation will likely go through. You could speak at the meeting. Members of the public are usually limited to three minutes, but I could pull a few strings and get you in as an expert.”

“I’m hardly an expert…” Jim began.

“You spoke well enough to me. Just repeat what you said here and you’ll be fine. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will help, given the politics involved. This is a popular device. I mean, people in the Fire Department want to appear to embrace new technology, and I doubt that they’ll be anxious to let it go.”

“A simple test under controlled conditions is all it takes to see that the device doesn’t work. All you really need is three boxes, a Neutrino Tracker, and someone to stick in one of the boxes for the Tracker to detect.”

“Then why don’t we do it.”

“Do it? Do what?”

“You know, the test – like you described just now.”

“Repeat the test? Now?”

“No, I was thinking more along the lines of repeating the test at the Board of Fire Commissioners meeting next week.”

“We could do that?”

“Sure! I could book a larger meeting room and we could set things up there. If Henessey is willing to show up and operate the Tracker… well, it would be a very convincing demonstration no matter what the result. In these matters, you have to think about ‘showmanship.’ If that test turns out the way you say it will, my last reservation about you, as well as the reservations of the Commissioners, would disappear.”

“That just might be… Now that I think of it, we’d need a few other things as well, other than the boxes. Nothing I shouldn’t be able to arrange.”

“I’m glad to hear it. You go talk to Henessey, and I’ll make a few calls to City Hall. We’ll get this sorted out yet.”

* * *

Before Jim left the Fire Station, Laura had asked the Captain if she could accompany him to Neutrino Corp. The Captain allowed it, and the two of them set off in Jim’s car. Nearly an hour later, Jim found the small industrial mall that was Neutrino Corp’s rented headquarters. He parked in the mostly-empty lot outside and read the sign above their rental unit: “Neutrino Corp, Human Detection Systems for Police and Fire.”

Jim and Laura walked into the building and were greeted by a pleasant, middle-aged receptionist. When they asked to see Mr. Henessey, the receptionist said that she would check and walked back into the employees only area. A moment later, she reappeared and informed them that Mr. Henessey was on the phone with an important client, but that he was just wrapping up and they could follow her to his office and speak to him as soon as he was finished.

They politely accepted and followed her down a hallway. As they walked, they could hear loud, boisterous laughter from one of the offices. They soon reached the door to the office; Mr. Henessey was sitting behind his desk, apparently exchanging jokes with a client. Once he had noticed their presence, he motioned for Jim and Laura to enter and take a seat.

Jim observed David Henessey carefully while he waited. Mr. Hennesey was probably about fifty, balding, and by no means slim. But he truly looked like a salesman, wearing old-fashioned suspenders along with his shirt and tie. His face was beet red from laughing so much, and he kept making broad, expressive gestures with his hands, as though the person on the other end could see him.

After another minute or two, Henessey managed to get off of the phone with excuses about some other ‘very important clients’ that he had to look after. As soon as he hung up, without even pausing to take a breath, he asked, “And how can I help you fine people this afternoon?”

“My name is Jim, and this is Laura…”

“Very pleased to meet you Jim,” Henessey interrupted, rising from his chair to shake Jim’s hand. “And Laura, I’m always glad to make the acquaintance of lovely women such as yourself.” Laura shook his hand politely, but Jim suspected that she was unimpressed by the attempt at flattery.

“We’re here on behalf of Bill Coleman…”

“Yes, I remember Bill! You won’t find a better firefighter anywhere. He’s a pillar of the community.”

“Yes, well, I just have a few questions to ask…”

“Fire away!”

It had only been a minute since the start of the meeting, but Henessey’s habit of interrupting was already grating on Jim’s nerves. “First off,” Jim began cautiously, “there’s been some concern over a report published by UCLA…”

“Yes, that report. Those UCLA ‘scientists’ have caused us endless trouble with their meddling. I’ll tell you right now, don’t believe a word that’s in there. They just can’t take the fact that a ‘common man’ thought of the idea before the hot-shot professors did.”

“Right. So the people at the University sabotaged the test?”

“I can’t prove it. Even if I could show some sort of interference, they could always claim that it was some experiment in some other building that they didn’t know would affect the Neutrino Tracker. Plausible deniability’s what they call it. But really, what are the odds?”

“I’m still not sure what you mean. How did they interfere with the Neutrino Tracker?”

“Well I don’t know exactly what they used. They must have jammed my Neutrinos using an energy emitter with the opposite etherial frequency to the Tracker.”

“Neutrino Jamming? So the University has some sort of neutrino-blocking energy ray?”

Henessey looked at Jim gravely, and said, “I suppose you could call it that.”

Jim did his best to give no hint of his thoughts on this suggestion. Instead, he looked over at Laura, who seemed to be slightly amused. Jim nodded curtly and said, “Okay, then. I have some good news…”

“The Fire Department wants more Neutrino Trackers?”

“No, the order is still for four of them. I imagine they’ll want to try them out a bit before they consider ordering more. The good news is that I can make the UCLA report disappear.”

“You’re a magician, eh?”

“I didn’t mean literally. I mean that we can stop that report from being a hindrance to your business.”


“It’s quite simple, really. The cornerstone of that report was the test that UCLA conducted and sabotaged. Therefore, the best way to put the fears of the Commissioner’s Board to rest would be to repeat the test. Only this time, we would do it at the Board Meeting in City Hall, right in front of all the Commissioners, in a building that UCLA would have no access to. Since there’s no possibility of sabotage, you would be able to clear the air…”

“No,” Henessey interjected.

“…once and for all,” Jim continued. A second later, the word’s meaning finally registered in Jim’s brain. “Did you just say no?” he inquired. The good-natured expression of Mr. Henessey became like a mask, with only a glimmer of his true hostility showing through his eyes. He knows, Jim thought to himself. He’s not deluded like Taylor; he knows he can’t pass the test.

“That’s correct,” Henessey said, with finality.

Jim mentally kicked himself for not having considered this possibility earlier. Jim struggled to retain his composure, but inside he was panicked. What am I going to tell Captain Coleman if Henessey won’t do the test? he thought. “May I ask why not?”

Henessey crossed his arms and his smile faded. “Because I don’t trust you.”

“It won’t look good if you refuse the test. You could lose the sale.”

Henessey shrugged. “Maybe. But I’d lose a lot more sales if you sabotage another test.”

Jim tried his best to look shocked. “I’m not trying to suppress your invention. I have no connection whatsoever with UCLA…”

“That doesn’t mean that they didn’t hire you. Or that you don’t sympathize with them.”

“In order to sabotage the second test, I would have to get one of those jammers, smuggle it into city hall and set it up somewhere to project the ray onto the meeting room. I’m not a PhD; I don’t know how to do any of that.”

“There are plenty of other low-tech things you could do.”

“Like what?”

“Like lying! If I said there was someone behind door number three, you could just say that there wasn’t and pretend that I was wrong.”

“That’s ridiculous! We’ll just have one of the Commissioners oversee the testing. You trust them, right?”

“I’m not doing it.” Henessey was resolute.

If Henessey knows that he can’t perform, then there’s no way that I can reason with him, Jim thought. The situation seemed hopeless. But then an idea occurred to him. “What if the boxes had big plexiglass windows in them, so everyone could see what was in behind? I couldn’t possibly cheat then, right?” Laura turned towards Jim and stared at him incredulously. “We could do the first ten trials like in the first test, with exactly one person in one of the three boxes and with me revealing the correct answer. Of course, you could see the person standing there so it would hardly be necessary. But then in the second ten trials, I could try to confuse the Tracker. Maybe there will be multiple humans, or none at all, or animals or inanimate objects. The Neutrino Tracker can tell the difference between those, right?”

Henessey eyed Jim suspiciously, just as surprised as Laura. “What if I show up and there’s no windows in the boxes?”

“Simple. Just tell everyone that I lied and don’t do the test.”

“Deal,” Henessey said, handing Jim a business card. “Here’s my number. When everything’s arranged, you just tell me where and I’ll be there.”

After that was settled, Jim and Laura left. The moment they reached the parking lot, Laura exploded: “What is wrong with you? If there are big windows then everyone will be able to see what’s inside, Henessey included. How could he possibly fail?”

“Don’t worry Laura,” Jim replied. “I have a plan.”

“Maybe he thinks you’re going to do some kind of magic trick. Switching people out while he’s scanning with trap doors or something like that.”

“I’ll bet he’s counting on it. He wants me to do something against the rules and get caught. That would certainly make it seem like his little conspiracy theory was right after all.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“So do I.”

* * *

The days before the test were busy ones. Jim spent every spare moment working on the preparations, either planning the setup at the meeting room they had booked in City Hall East, or preparing the wooden boxes with the windows for the actual test. He wanted to leave nothing to chance.

At about 8:00 am, on the morning of the Board of Fire Commissioner’s meeting, Jim sat waiting in the City Hall East parking lot, leaning against the side of his car. He was waiting for Laura to show up, so that they could run through the plan one more time, and set everything up.

Five minutes later, she pulled her car into the lot and parked next to Jim. She stepped out of the car and Jim said, “Good morning, Laura. I’ve got the three boxes moved inside already. I decided not to modify the ones that UCLA used. Jenkis offered, but I don’t want them to be able to suggest that there’s anything wrong with the wood or anything like that.” For the test, Laura had chosen a pair of black pants and a light blue LAFD sweat-shirt. The outfit looked good on her – anything would – but Jim thought it made her pale complexion and equally pale blond hair stand out noticeably. Of course, she seemed a bit paler than usual.

“Jim, we’ve got a problem,” she said nervously.

“What problem?”

She opened up the trunk of her car. One back seat was folded down to accommodate the cargo. Laura reluctantly pulled the blanket back and revealed what was beneath.

Jim gasped. “What is this?” he asked.

“They made a mistake at the shop. I tore the guy apart – he almost cried – but there’s no time to make another.”

“But we can’t use this.”

Laura lowered her eyes, and said, “I’m sorry, Jim. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Jim didn’t either, but he resolved to think of something. He paced up and down the parking lot, concentrating intensely. Each time he passed by her, he would look over at Laura, hoping that maybe she had come up with an idea. She stood by her car, staring into the trunk. Jim eventually, walked up to her, and spent a minute looking back and forth between her and the trunk.

“Maybe this isn’t so bad,” Jim said at last.

“Really,” Laura said skeptically.

“You just need more appropriate clothes. Does the Fire Department make that shirt in, say… white or something?”

“I see what you’re saying,” Laura said, nodding. “Hmmm… I’ll see what I can do.”

* * *

The meeting room was quite large, as far as meeting rooms go. It was a long room, with hardwood floors and picture windows along one side. Normally, two long tables would have filled most of the space, but one had been moved into a different room for the occasion. At the far end of the room, where the second meeting table would normally sit, Jim had set up some faded, red theatrical curtains that the city kept around for kids programs. At the moment, the curtains were open. The three boxes were in position near the back wall.

The first person to arrive was David Henessey, who seemed to be in high spirits. “Hello, Jim,” he said cheerfully.

“Hello,” Jim replied.

“The Fire Commissioners should be here in about half an hour. Not long now.”

“That’s right.” Henessey grinned.

“Say… Would it be alright if I took a look at those ‘testing partition’ things?”

“Go right ahead.”


Henessey sauntered down to the makeshift performance area and examined all three of the boxes, even stepping inside each one. After a few minutes passed silently, Jim asked, “Good enough?”

“They’ll do.” Jim figured that Mr. Henessey was still trying to figure out what rules Jim would be breaking that could give Neutrino Corp the ammunition they needed in their PR campaign. “What’s behind there?” Henessey asked, indicating the collection of objects in the curtained-off area.

“The inanimate objects. And no, you can’t see them.” Henessey shrugged.

Just then, someone walked through the door at the far end of the room. He was wearing a blue shirt and suit-jacket, but no tie. His carefully styled black hair, and equally well-groomed mustache made it clear that he was somehow a public figure. “Hello,” he said. “Jacinto Balleza, LA Times. Is one of you Jim Sayles.”

“That’s me,” Jim called back. “It’s good to finally meet you in person. We’re all set here; just waiting for the Board.”

“Hello, welcome to City Hall,” Henessey said, as though he owned the place. “Jacinto, is it? I’m so glad to see a representative of the media here for this… vindication? I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Jacinto replied, “Actually, we spoke a few weeks ago. I interviewed you over the phone for the article…”

“Of course, of course…” Henessey began walking over to Jacinto. Jim checked his watch again, there were only fifteen minutes left until the Board was scheduled to show up for the test, and Laura still wasn’t back.

Others began to trickle in and take their seats. Henessey used his charisma to discover which ones were involved in the Fire Department and then ply them with advertising. Eventually, the room was crowded with people; a surprising number of ordinary citizens had shown up as well.

One of the last to arrive was Captain Coleman himself. He walked up to the front of the room and examined the stage area. “Jim, this is different,” he said.

“Yes,” Jim replied. “There’s been a slight change of plans. Mr. Henessey expressed concerns about cheating in the test. We added windows so that there will be no question about which boxes are empty.”

Coleman gave Jim a dubious look, and said, “But passing this test won’t prove anything…”

“Henessey wouldn’t do the test otherwise.” Jim lowered his voice, “I think we’ll still be able to test him adequately.”

The Captain sighed. “I don’t understand you Jim, but we’ll see how things go. It looks like it’s about time to get things started.”

Jim checked his watch again, suddenly panicked. It was time to begin. He looked around the room frantically, and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Laura working her way towards the front. Captain Coleman walked to the meeting table, where someone immediately relinquished their seat to him. Coleman had that effect on people.

“I think we’re about ready to begin,” Jim called to the assembled crowd. They quieted down, and he continued, “My name is Jim, and over there is Laura.” Laura waved. “And today we’ll be testing the Neutrino Tracker, manufactured by Neutrino Corp. David Henessey is the inventor and CEO, and he will be the one operating the device. I’ll just quickly run over the rules. In the first ten trials, we’ll close the curtain, have Laura stand in one of the boxes, and then have Mr. Henessey locate her with the Neutrino Tracker. The reason that we’ll do this is to ensure that the Neutrino Tracker is working properly and that there’s no interference that could mess up the readings. The next ten trials will be the real test. In those trials, we’ll try to confuse the Neutrino Tracker. The boxes will contain somewhere between zero and three living human beings, and any boxes without a person will contain some type of inanimate object. Only one object will be placed in each box. I ask that the people observing this test remain completely silent no matter what. Is everything clear?”

“Just get on with it!” Henessey called.

The first ten trials took place more or less as Jim had described. At the end, Jim announced, “That’s the end of the first test. As expected, Mr. Henessey was correct in all the trials.”

“Naturally,” Henessey said.

“Does this mean that the testing procedure is acceptable and that you’re Neutrino Tracker is working properly?”


“And you understand that in the next ten trials, we will intentionally attempt to deceive the Neutrino Tracker with inanimate objects?”

“I understand already. Let’s go! It’s almost lunch-time!” Several members of the crowd snickered.

Jim drew the curtain closed. When he pulled the curtain open again, Laura was standing in the first box, a store-front mannequin was in the second, and a yellow raincoat was hanging in the third.

“Do you detect any human life signs?” Jim asked.

“Yes I do! Box number one contains distinct human life signs.”

Once again, Jim closed the curtains. When he opened them again, the first two boxes contained a trench-coat and a wooden coat-rack. Laura’s grim visage glared out of the window in the third box. She looked pale, but the audience members who had noticed figured that it was just nerves.

The remaining eight trials were all conducted similarly, with Laura staring out of one box, and two random objects in the others. When the test had concluded, Jim said, “That’s the end of the test.”

“And the results?” Henessey asked confidently.

“In the first trial, Laura was standing in box number one, and you announced that box number one contained human life signs. That was correct.” Henessey, and some audience members applauded the result. “In trial number two…”

“Are you really going to list each trial like that?” Henessey asked. “You’re just prolonging the inevitable!”

“Fine,” Jim said. “In the remaining nine trials, your answers were totally incorrect.” The crowd gasped collectively.

“Are you insane? Everyone saw what was in those boxes!”

Jim continued as if Henessey wasn’t even there: “In the other nine trials, there were no human beings placed in any of the boxes, and the inanimate object that the Neutrino Tracker consistently confused with a human was this cardboard cutout.” Jim grabbed the cardboard cutout from one of the boxes, and the real Laura stepped out from offstage.

The spectators burst into a riotous commotion. Jim saw Jacinto frantically making notes in a notebook. Captain Coleman was smiling. Eventually, William Coleman stood up and said, “Well, Jim, you’ve convinced me. I can now happily admit that I was wrong.” The crowd quieted down considerably to hear the Captain’s words. He continued, “There’s just one thing I want to know. How could you be sure that Henessey would be fooled by that cutout?”

Jim smiled sheepishly and replied, “I didn’t. In fact, I’m surprised that he didn’t figure out it sooner. This cutout was printed in black-and-white. I mean, you don’t need a Neutrino Tracker to see that.”


©Copyright 2002
Brad Smith
home           fiction           articles           contest           links