“It’s not a real riddle,” Jimmy said. “We’re being manipulated like a Twilight Zone episode. Tolkien used it in order to move the plot forward in one of those godawful books. There’s no real answer to it. Someone’s playing a goddamn game and I’m tired of it. I’m going home.”
The mayor put a hand on Jimmy’s arm and looked at Chief Goodby. “How many people are in the crowd around the park?”
Goodby shook his head and looked around. “Hard to be sure. Twenty-five, maybe thirty thousand. Maybe more.”
“And how many of them have cell phones? Rough estimate, Agent Lavish?”
“Probably seventy, maybe eighty percent. Maybe more.” He looked at the opposite side of the park. “I can’t tell you for sure, Madam Mayor.”
“I’ve only got two companies here, two hundred soldiers,” Colonel Fulsom said. “But with help from the local police we can probably contain any riot situation.”
“Thank you, Colonel,” Mayor Gerdes said then turned to Jimmy. “Mr. Cavanaugh, can you help us move the crowd out of here? I’m worried this isn’t a safe place for so many people to be. We need every local person to reach out to the crowd and ask them to go home, or at least away from this area.”
“What about the Feds, are they going to help? I don’t want any more to do with this.”
“Mr. Cavanaugh,” Agent Lavish said. “The mayor’s not being unreasonable. She’s asking for your assistance. You should help out.”
Jimmy squinted at the agent. Then he, Lavish, Chief Goodby, the mayor and Colonel Fulsom all turned around. Thousands of cell phones were ringing all at once and every single one was being answered with a mixture of fear and relief. The mayor’s phone rang, as did the Chief’s. So did Jimmy’s.
“Answer them,” the mayor said. “Try to tell whoever it is we’re in trouble.”
Jimmy held the phone up to his ear. It was all a babble; thousands and thousands of voices in as many dialects and accents and languages, all talking at once. Closing his phone, he could see everyone around him holding a phone and saying variations of ‘hello’ and ‘can you hear me’ and ‘is anyone there’. Everyone did the dance they do when cell phone reception is bad. Some ended up shouting, some holding hands to the opposite ears to hear better, others turned in circles. No one got more than the sound of their own voice.
Jimmy saw Fulsom and Lavish give up quickly, the mayor was just now handing her phone to an assistant and Goodby was just listening to his. Jimmy turned around and looked at the sphere, which was glowing blue, then green, then red, then blue again and so on. He walked away from the little group of authorities and toward the sphere. Pulled again as he had been about two hours before. He kept looking at the sphere, where nothing was happening, walking towards it seemingly with a purpose.
“Cavanaugh!” Goodby said. “What are you doing?”
Lieutenant Kerry was doing his best to keep the line of angry onlookers contained, but as they began to realize that their phones weren’t really working, their attention turned to the police and Army holding them back. “Please, we need you all to stay back folks,” he kept repeating. “Stay behind the barriers.”
“Hell with this,” a man in the crowd said to Kerry. “What are you doing about this? What’s going on?”
“Sir, everything that can be done is being done, I assure you,” Kerry said. “Please stay behind the line.”
“Or what?” a woman in front of him said. “You’ll shoot us?”
Kerry put on his best scowl. “I’d rather not,” he said.
Jimmy was standing just about where he was when he answered the first riddle. He watched the colors change slowly within the sphere and cocked his head. Goodby jogged up to join him. “What are you thinking?” he asked.
“I don’t think it’s dangerous,” Jimmy said. “I don’t know what it is, or where it came from but I don’t think it’s here to hurt us. Push us, yes. That’s the purpose of cutting the time we had to solve each riddle by so much.” He turned back to the crowd surrounding the park. “Look at them, Chief. They’re still shouting into their phones, punching buttons. They’re packed right next to each other but they’re not talking to the person next them, they’re trying to reach someone who’s somewhere else. It’s a closed loop. It’s all contained here in the park, inside the city.”
Jimmy started walking back toward the mayor, Goodby followed. “We’re going to have a riot here if we don’t do something,” he said. “Thirty thousand angry people are hard to control.”
“I have an idea,” Jimmy said. “But I’m going to need some help from everyone.”
The barriers were moved into the park to a fifty-foot radius around the sphere, uniformed police and soldiers, their weapons re-shouldered, were spread throughout the crowd. Spacing themselves at regular intervals in case anything went wrong they could funnel a panicked mob as quickly from the park as possible. Their training kept them calm. It was an enormous task, and likely more than impossible, but everyone in charge felt better that there was at least a contingency if Jimmy’s idea didn’t work.
People were milling, nervous and chattering. The command team was back at the picnic table.
“Well,” Jimmy said. “Colonel Fulsom, are your men ready?”
“Yes,” Fulsom said.
“Good,” Jimmy said. “Look, if the first answer was ear, the second eye and the third riddle is ‘What’s in my pocket?’ then I think I have a solution. When you add in that no one’s cell phone is working except by leave of the mysterious objet d’art,” he pointed at the sphere, “I think we have a serious challenge to how society is working.
“What would be a natural action when you ask the question ‘What’s in my pocket?’ To me,” Jimmy said, “it’d be to have your hand in your pocket, cradling whatever you had: keys, a phone, some change, anything. So the answer is likely a hand.”
“I don’t get it,” the mayor said. “Is that really the answer this thing wants?”
“That’s the point of the thing. We don’t think enough, we just do. We react more than act, even though we live like we act. What happened when everything electronic stopped? People came to the center of the city, they came to be with other people.”
“I’m still not following you,” Chief Goodby said. “Why would that be a goal? Other than to hurt lots of people?”
“If there was damage going to be done, it would’ve been done already, don’t you think? This crowd has been out here for hours now.” Jimmy spread his arms to show the crowd. “Terrorists don’t try to befuddle the masses, they try to hurt people. This is not a terrorist action: it’s a social experiment. It’s someone with a lot of money and a knack for manipulation.”
“I see,” Fulsom said. “We don’t talk to each other when we have all the technology at hand, we only think we do. Everything that connects people really only serves to keep them apart, right?”
“Yeah, I think that’s what it’s about,” Jimmy said. “It makes sense when you think that it’s asked us to hear, to see and then to reach out ---“
“--- and touch someone,” Agent Lavish said. “It makes a certain kind of sense, I suppose. Strange kind of logic.”
“Or perhaps faith.”
Agent Lavish frowned a little then looked at Colonel Fulsom. “Indeed.”
Jimmy said, “Time to get going.” He took a deep breath and held it. “Wish me luck.” He shook hands with the other four and walked into the mass of people between him and the sphere.
“Excuse me,” he said more times than he could keep count of. “I’m sorry, pardon me.” He made it to the front of the group, and saw Deirdre. She looked worried and anxious. Jimmy smiled, nodded at her, patted her shoulder and stepped in front of the sphere. As if sensing him, it turned green, then yellow and stopped pulsing. He took a deep breath.
“I have an answer,” he said.
The sphere did nothing, no response. He nodded and turned to where Deirdre stood. “If this goes wrong,” he said only to her, “run like hell.”
She nodded. “Look at it, though, Jimmy,” she said.
He turned and saw his face looking back at him. “Okay,” he said, his voice amplified and echoing off the sandstone buildings at the edge of the park. “I’m on candid camera.” There was a twitter of laughter in the crowd.
He smiled back at Deirdre. “Everything’s going to be all right. Do like I do.”
Jimmy looked over her shoulder and reached out his hand to Patrick Singleton and Sandra Feeney. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Jimmy. It’s nice to meet you.”
Click here for Deeper the Well.
©2009 By Jason Arnett.
Some Rights Reserved under a Creative Commons Attribution-
Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
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