Thursday, October 22, 2009

“ATM Encounter”

c. 2009 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Typically, mornings at The Icehouse begin in our home office. I often review e-mail messages and news stories over my first cup of coffee. This habit tends to provide inspiration on a just-in-time basis. It also guarantees that there are no traffic-jam episodes at the bathroom door, while my wife and family get ready for work. We depend on the normalcy of such things to keep life moving efficiently. But sometimes, random events can send this routine spinning out of control.

This was one of those days!

I had been on the road since sunrise, playing chauffeur for Soccer Fairy, our eleven-year old daughter. After taking her to school, an unexpected detour appeared. Leigh, our older child, needed a prescription that couldn’t be found at any of our regular pharmacies. I had a seminar scheduled in Cleveland, so keeping my appointment depended on a speedy accomplishment of this task.

After stopping at the drugstore, I circled back home to Thompson. Once the delivery had been made, my attention turned toward getting to the freeway.

It was time to get the day back on schedule.

My seminar was intended to analyze turmoil in the newspaper industry. I took lots of notes as one expert after another offered insight into the journalistic paradigm shift that was taking place.

This informative session concluded long after sunset. Yet it had me feeling more able to cope with shifting trends in the market.

My drive back from Cleveland delivered a quiet post-lecture experience. I scanned through stations on the radio, finally pausing at WTAM-1100. Program host Bob Frantz was in the midst of a rant on NFL football. I listened all the way to Chardon.

While passing through town, I decided to stop at my bank’s ATM to withdraw twenty dollars in cash. It seemed a simple task, especially so late at night. But as I jammed the debit card into their machine, it locked up while processing the transaction.

Ominously, the screen went blank. Then, a warning appeared:


I blinked with disbelief. The bank had closed several hours before.

“Is this a prank?” I wondered out loud. “Maybe a new version of ‘Candid Camera’ for Geauga Tel?”

I canceled my request for cash, then started again. But the same chilling message returned. Suffering from disbelief, I started to drive away.

Suddenly, a black limousine careened around the corner. It skidded to a stop in the empty parking lot. The passenger window rolled down, and from inside, a pale visage peered through dark sunglasses.

“Mr. Ice?” the figure spoke in a monotone voice.

I slumped in my seat. “Yes… that’s right.”

“We’ve met before,” he laughed, while lighting a cigarette. “Do you remember?”

My face went red. “No, I don’t. Was it on Halloween?”

The stranger laughed out loud. “Very good, Mr. Ice. I’m glad to see that you still have a sense of humor!”

I was becoming impatient. “Okay, if you were trying to spook me, it worked. So… who are you? And what do you want?”

“You call me Mr. X in your writings,” he smiled. “A bit cartoonish, but it is a moniker I accept.”

His remark jogged my memory.

“Right,” I said. “Now I recall. You’re a secret agent, right? But… an agent working for whom?”

“That isn’t important,” he sighed. “Trust me, Rodney. Tonight, there are bigger questions to ponder!”

“Like what?” I mumbled.

Mr. X leaned out of his car window. “Patience, my friend. Before I can reveal
Anything, you need to tell me… what is the subject of your next column for the newspaper?”

“Huh?” I balked.

“Your upcoming weekly feature,” he repeated. “What will it say?”

My eyes burned. “Well… with all the discussion of President Obama’s Nobel Prize, I reckoned on writing about Geauga County residents who deserve special accolades of their own.”

He shook with laughter. “Very topical, yet safe. Nothing more controversial?”

I could barely answer. “Umm, no. Sorry.”

“Very wise,” he said, approvingly.

“Wise?” I muttered with confusion.

“I’ve come to give you a friendly warning,” he said.

“A… what?” I blustered.

“A warning,” he whispered. “You have attracted attention from… important people in Columbus and Washington.”

“Come on!” I groaned. “My column runs in a small-town, weekly newspaper.”

“Yes, but your Internet presence makes it widely read, and respected!” he growled.
“Except that not everyone is happy with the things you’ve uncovered.”

I was embarrassed. “You must have me mixed up with someone else…”

“Rodney!” he complained. “Didn’t you reveal that former General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner had visited the county?”

I shook my head. “That was a joke! A bit of satire.”

“But you did contact him,” he said accusingly. “Correct?”

“Yes,” I admitted. “Not directly, though. It happened through the GM Executive Offices.”

“And you’ve been speaking out against the government,” he added. “Appearing on radio and television isn’t a good way to remain anonymous.”

“More satire,” I sighed. “You need to look closely at my columns…”

“Wake up!” he shouted. “Look at what happened to ‘Joe the Plumber.’ You may be next on the list.”

I snorted with amusement. “No… that’s not likely.”

His mood softened. “Rodney, I came here as a friend.”

“Friend?” I laughed. “That’s insane. We don’t even know each other!”

Mr. X bowed his head. “Oh but I do. I do know you… very well, indeed.”

“What do you mean?” I snapped. My skin began to chill.

He stubbed out his cigarette. “Come closer. I will say this only once.”

My hands began to tremble. Reluctantly, I approached the limousine.

“We are watching you,” he whispered. “I risked my career to come here. Now remember what I’ve said tonight. Beware!”

His window rolled up suddenly, interrupting our conversation. Before I could protest, the long, black car drove away.

The remainder of my homeward trek happened in silence. I guessed that fatigue must have made me hallucinate.

But just in case, I decided to forget about the twenty-dollar bill.

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