Friday, November 27, 2009

“ATM Encounter, Part Two”

c. 2009 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

It was late on a Friday night in Chardon.

After a long day at work, I needed to deposit my paycheck through our bank ATM.
Normally, this after-hours chore was something I would approach without apprehension. But the shadowy figure of ‘Mr. X’ lingered with fearful potency.

Weeks ago, he had appeared as I made an off-schedule visit to the same terminal at our local financial institution. Seeing him had caused my stomach to quiver with uneasiness.

So tonight, I intended to pause at the cash machine with purposeful brevity. But as I inserted my debit card, a warning once again appeared on the screen. It made me wish for some sort of magic teleportation to escape the encounter.

“Big brother is in control,” it read.

I slumped over the steering wheel. “Okay, Comrade X. Show yourself…”

Squealing tires echoed from the darkness. A long, black limousine rolled into view, with wisps of scorched rubber trailing in its wake.

The passenger window rolled down, suddenly. Then, a face appeared from inside.

“It is good to see you,” a breathy voice intoned.

I felt sick at my stomach. The sinister visage before me was familiar, yet different. But undeniably spooky.

“Haven’t you gotten tired of playing ‘secret agent on patrol?’” I barked.

Mr. X peered through dark sunglasses that matched his pencil mustache. “Rodney, you are under government surveillance. Be careful.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Should I hibernate until the coast is clear?”

Somehow, the clandestine operative had changed. He seemed more slender than before, and less frightening. Quietly, I wondered if his health was in decline.

Mr. X frowned while lighting a cigarette. “My warning is intended to shield you from harm. But I can see that it falls on deaf ears.”

“Not at all,” I protested.

“Then, you must retire from your post as a journalist!” he whispered forcefully.

I shook my head. “Are you serious?”

“Why did you come here tonight?” he muttered with irritation.

“To make a deposit,” I said. “This is my bank.”

Mr. X shook his head. “This was risky. Don’t you understand?”

The night air felt colder than before. “No, I don’t.”

He blew tobacco smoke through the open window. “You must be careful when moving from place to place. Take nothing for granted, Rodney.”

“You’re speaking in riddles,” I said. “How about some plain talk for a change?”

He stubbed out his cigarette. “Haven’t you noticed the decline in newspapers across America?”

“Of course,” I admitted. “The whole industry is in transition. We had a journalist conference about this recently, in Cleveland.”

“It is not a transition,” he disagreed. “More of a subjugation. A realignment within federal principles.”

I rubbed my eyes. “What??”

“As publishing moves to cyberspace, the ability for government control is increased,” he explained. “It would be difficult to regulate the printed output of daily newspapers across our nation. But electronic products may be controlled with ease…”

I was speechless. “Are you saying our leaders want newspapers to disappear?”

Mr. X laughed out loud.

“This is crazy,” I complained.

“No, it is quite sensible,” he rebutted. “By controlling the dialogue, you take charge of society itself. Citizens can’t believe what they aren’t allowed to hear.”

I shuddered. “Halloween is over. Shouldn’t you be at home watching football?”

His face tightened. “Rodney, I am disappointed. You have been very close to uncovering a variety of secrets. But today, your words are gibberish.”

“Okay,” I stammered. “What am I supposed to do?”

“End your career,” he said without emotion.

I was dumbfounded. “Just like that?”

“Yes,” he replied. “For your own safety.”

Curiously, I noted that his moustache had smeared. Almost like… makeup!

“So, are you feeling well, old friend?” I asked, with a smirk.

He snorted at the change in my tone. “Of course! But that is not the issue here.”

Boldly, I snatched the sunglasses from his face. As he struggled, a gray hairpiece flew from his head.

“Darn you, Rodney!” he shrieked. Suddenly his voice was higher, and intense.

My eyes went wide with amazement. More makeup peeled from the agent’s chin.

Suddenly, Mr. X was unraveling. What remained looked suspiciously like… my wife!

“Liz??” I shouted.

She began to unpin her long hair. “Yes, it’s me, you turkey!”

I laughed like a schoolboy. “Nice costume, honey. But the Hallows Eve party was a couple of weeks ago!”

“Why couldn’t you just listen?” she screeched.

“You mean, to retire?” I asked with a grin.

“Yes!” she hissed. “You’re always on assignment for the paper. Or off getting a story for one of your books. I’d like to see you myself now and then. Is that so wrong?”

I bowed my head. “No, not really. But couldn’t we have just talked this out at home?”

“Sure,” she said. “If you would listen. But that would require taking a day off.”

I sighed. “Oh… right.”

“I thought this would scare you into thinking,” she explained. “The car belongs to Bubba.”

“My brother?” I exclaimed. “He was in on this, too?”

“Yes,” she confessed.

My disbelief was obvious. “I didn’t know he had a limousine. That guy always owns a half-dozen cars at any given time.”

“I’m sorry,” she cried.

“Now everything makes sense,” I reflected. “A couple of weeks ago… when I was coming home from my newspaper seminar in Cleveland…that was your first try at freaking me out? When you said I was on a list with ‘Joe The Plumber?’”

Liz was puzzled. “No, the girls and I made school projects that night. Remember?”

I felt a chill run over my skin.

“Well then,” I wondered. “How did you get the warning to appear on this ATM screen?”

“What?” she sniffled.

“Ummm,” I said. “You haven’t tried this before?”

She wrinkled her nose. “No! Rodney, what are you saying?”

My stomach twisted into a knot.

“Nothing,” I lied. “Let’s get out of here. I’m ready for a quiet evening at home!”

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