Updated Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

404 - The First Five Chapters

404

Copyright © 2010 by Brandon C. Laraby

All rights are reserved by the author, and sole copyright holder, Brandon C. Laraby.

Please Be Aware:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of my imagination or are used in a fictitious way to support the world I've created. I do acknowledge the trademarked status and trademark owners of the various products referenced in this work of fiction, all of which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners in any way.
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CHAPTER ONE

The hourglass spins on the screen, languid, almost as if pleading to be set free. After a long moment, the browser kicks back to a simple grey screen with the same tired old message:

Connection not found.

“Jeezus man, you don’t give up, do you?”

The teasing woman’s voice hovers from above -- a tangle of long, wind-tossed, dirty blonde hair peeking over her cubicle wall, smirking at the young man hunched over his tiny laptop.

“Screw off, Jess."

Marco Temura slams his netbook closed, patches of red-hot shame burning on his tanned cheeks.

“Aw, c’mon newbie! It’s kind of cute… did you get any email?”

"Just stop."

"Why don't you check your Facebook while you're at it?"

Sliding the plastic clamshell into his sidebag, Marco pushes himself back from the desk, damn-near spilling coffee all over his lap; standing face-to-face with a bemused Jessica Palmer.

"What's your problem?"

Jess steps back, aware she's offended him.

"Aw, c'mon kid, don't be like that. I'm just messin' with ya - gotta do something 'til my next segment's ready."

He gives her a dirty look and turns away.

"For some of us, it's not funny."

Marco walks down the hall, far from the cluster of cubicles and video cameras, dialing his cell phone.

"We're sorry. Due to network congestion your call cannot be completed at this time. Please try again later."

He sighs, tapping the cell phone on his forehead as if willing it to work.

"Please…"

He dials the number again.

"This is Thomas Givens, you know what to do."

Marco turns himself toward the corner, trying to silence the chatter of a crowd of passing interns.

"Tom, it's Marco. Listen, I… I did it again. I'm trying not to, trying to stay on the path, follow the steps but… dammit. I'm having a bad day. Please call me soon."

“Marco! Get your ass in here!”

He spins as silence overtakes the bustling newsroom, as every eye finds its way to his slim, now-nervous frame. A bleach-blonde receptionist -- Chantelle -- giggles with a touch of schadenfreude.

“Now!”

A sudden rush of heat overtakes him as he pockets his phone -- the armpits of his striped v-neck already drowning from the internal deluge as he slinks past the onlookers, toward the massive office.

“Sir?”

The words creak from a dry mouth as his body tries to blend into the door jamb; gaze darting from one framed award to another before landing on the sinewy, grey-haired legend.

“Have a seat.”

With tentative steps Marco crosses the industrial carpet, breathing in the deep sandalwood cologne, a touch lightheaded from the musk and fear. He slides into the proffered chair, sweaty hands forming miniature patches of condensation on the cold, plastic armrests.

“Where were you when they threw the Switch?”

The tough old man leans on his elbows, staring across the oak and marble desk – his piercing blue eyes scanning the young, half-cowering journalist.

“I-I… uh… I was at home, with family. Online, like most, you know -- not long after trimming the tree… sir

Marco’s knees quiver just below the man’s line of sight, shaking with nervous energy as he fights to steady his voice.

“I used to run a blog and I’m a bit of a gamer so I was prob--"

“We’re doing a piece on the 2nd anniversary, nothing hard -- these fuckers wouldn’t know a real story if it bit them on the ass -- just some pre-approved government bullshit. Can’t spare my big names so you’re up -- here’s your clearance and your list of questions.”

He slides the file folder across his desk with disgust.

“The Senator’ll be there, waiting. 1:30 at the Regency, we go live to air at 1:40. Better get your ass in gear.”

“Senator? Mr. Richardson, thank you! I wo--”

“Door’s over there."

Marco stands, dazed, his mind swirling as he crosses back to his desk -- an euphoric rush overtaking him as he runs his thumb across the plastic clearance pass.

Jess rounds the corner to meet him, hair now pulled back in a hasty ponytail.

“So, what’d he say?”

“He said you better go get the van – I’ve gotta be at the Regency in – shit! 20 minutes."

Marco holds up the clearance pass, a grin on his face as Jess’s eyes narrow.

“I’ll be down in a sec."

She disappears down the hall as Marco yanks open the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet, pulling out a brand-new white dress shirt and tearing it free of the plastic wrap. He strips off his now-soaked v-neck, revealing the soft, stretch-marked middle of a man once twice his size. Sliding the shirt on over his head he fiddles with the buttons for only a moment before rushing toward the stairwell -- price tag sailing behind him.

The MSFoxNET news van skids into view as Marco bursts past the security checkpoint and out into the dull grey light of a San Francisco afternoon. He dives into the van and it peels off into the bustling traffic of cars and carts.

“What the hell’s at The Regency?”

Jess moves to snatch the papers from Marco, but he deflects her hand – just in time too, as she swerves to avoid a stumbling homeless man.

“Eyes on the road! Thanks.”

He chokes down the acid in his throat as she skids her way around another corner.

“We’re interviewing Senator Vanusen for a second anniversary piece about when they threw the Switch.”

Jess tosses her head back, laughing and shaking her head.

“You got me all excited over that? Jeezus man, this’s as dead-end as you get."

“Hey! It could still be good…”

“Are you fucking crazy? Every decent journalist in the country’s been trying to get an honest word out of the government since it happened. You think some lil’ newb from, what, Hoboken -- talking to yet another monkey -- is gonna crack this thing wide?”

“What’s wrong with Hoboken?”

Marco grips the side of the door, feeling his gut yawn wide as Jess screams down a massive hill. He smiles, uneven, trying to hide the growing need to void his stomach, focusing on the task at hand. Flipping open the file folder, looking for any decent information, Marco finds two double-spaced pages of questions.

"What the…?"

He turns the file folder over in his hands before chucking it onto the dash in frustration.

“They gave me nothing on this guy! Who the hell is he? I don't know! I'm interviewing him in, what, 10 minutes and I'm flying blind. God damn, what I wouldn’t give for a search engine."

“Why do you care? Don’t you get it? You’re not interviewing him -- you’re there to read the questions, smile and let him blather on about how they’re ‘still working on a solution’."

“Yeah… sure...”

Marco stares out the passenger window toward the waterfront and the pier, watching as swarms of homeless drift through the massive, and illegal, Tent City. A stubble-faced young man, maybe 30, sits by the roadside in a stained and tattered blue dress shirt, his sign scrawled in permanent marker: Sys admin, wife and 2 kids. Please help, God bless.

“Hey, we’re here."

He turns at the sound of Jess’s voice, watching as the crowds part around the van, as people pound on the windows, begging to be heard. Jess leans on the horn and a piercing shriek drives them back. One by one they cover their ears and move out of the way, each waiting until the last possible moment before making their escape to the sidelines. Marco keeps his eyes fixed on the road, unable to look people in the eye as the van rolls past.

A rock bounces off the bulletproof glass of their windshield, then another. From the crowd a young man in dark green camo emerges, whipping chunks of brick at them. Jess slams the gas, speeding toward him, stopping just inches from running him down. She flips him the bird as he grins and saunters off, unfazed.

“Get a job, asshole! You see these pricks? Actin' like the whole fucking world’s come to an end.”

The makeshift gates around the hotel close behind them, the whirring of the machinery almost drowning out the drone of the automated warning:

“Please step back from the gate. These gates are hydraulically operated and will not stop. Please step back from the gate. Thank you.”

Marco exits the van, hopping out onto the cracked tarmac as Jess cuts the engine. Swinging her legs out onto the running board of the van, she slings a massive video camera over her shoulder then steps down to the ground.

“Well pretty boy, you ready to roll?”

CHAPTER TWO

The chaos in the hotel boardroom befits the likes of a visiting Senator as aides and security mill around, colliding with one another while each extolling the virtues of their own varied importance. Lights are dimmed and plants are arranged as each well-dressed, well-fed peon fulfills their respective duty.

Jess and Marco sit boggled by the drama unfolding before them, no less interesting than the days of Kabuki or Vaudeville and yet somehow far more bilious.

“Jeezus! And I thought we were all flash and no bang.”

“Shh! I think I see him.”

Marco cranes his neck, peering across the room, as a tall man in a navy blue suit strides into view and each little player in this charade dives to his side. The Senator stands amongst the crowd, a man apart and yet beaming with false humility. One by one he shakes their hands and nods with a smile that never quivers, standing resplendent in the recognition of his stature.

An aide – a squat, almost square Asian man in a black suit – waddles across to them, clipboard in hand, doing his best to look official.

“Mr. Marco Temura? I’m Alex Wong.”

Marco stands and shakes Alex's hand, wincing at the man’s vice-like grip.

“We’ve made a few changes to the questions you’ll be asking… here’s the new sheet. Also, please refrain from mentioning anything about his family life or the recent scandal.”

“Scandal?”

“Exactly. Please follow me.”

Together, Alex, Marco and Jess push themselves forward into the crowd; Alex beaming with purpose as he guides his charges through the bustling morass. Within moments they find themselves standing before the Senator. At just over six and a half feet tall, he looms over them yet turns to face them with that same unwavering smile. His brown eyes twinkle, belying the stiffness of his eyebrows.

“Mr. Temura, I presume? I’m Michael Vanusen, but you can call me Senator.”

He laughs in a short, rehearsed way that, in this place, surrounded by this theatre, seems somehow endearing. There's a natural, earthy charm about the man, an ease that shines through the layers of toxin pumped into his face. Even Jess seems overwhelmed by his presence, unable to meet his gaze as he makes his way to each of them, shaking their hands and telling them how grateful he is to meet them.

Alex turns, hand outstretched toward the mahogany stage.

“Are we about ready then?”

He leads them all to a comfortable space on the dais, where soft brown leather chairs are surrounded by a veritable rainforest of plants and American flags. The Senator waves to the crowd and takes his seat, American flag cufflinks shimmering in the limelight. Marco follows suit, putting in his earpiece as Jess runs up behind him with a pair of scissors. A quick snip and she disappears back into the crowd, stuffing a price tag into her pocket as she readies the camera.

Over Marco's earpiece he hears the prep for the live feed and fidgets in his chair.

“Okay folks, we’re going live in five, four, three…”

The red light on the camera blinks to life and all eyes turn to Marco.

Who gulps.

“Hi… Todd, thanks for that great introduction. I’m here with Senator Vanusen today to discuss a matter that I’m sure is on everyone’s mind.”

Marco turns to face the Senator.

“Senator, it’s been two years now since our government threw the switch that disabled the internet for the entire country. Why haven’t we been able to get ourselves back online?”

The Senator smiles and nods, a re-affirming tone already present in his voice.

“Well, Mr. Temura, we haven't been resting on our laurels, I assure you."

He turns to face the camera.

"We have had the best systems engineers in the country working to repair the damage caused by that massive cyber attack on Christmas Eve, two years ago. Restoring our stock market in itself has been a daunting task let alone ensuring the safety of our country's nuclear reactors. That we got our banks back up as much as we have – well, that’s just a testament to American ingenuity. Trust me, we've been hard at work, scanning millions of lines of code within our own infrastructure, looking for anything that might harbor a second attack. It was a hard decision to throw the switch, but in the end we did what we had to do."

“Sir, you didn't answer --"

The Senator scowls and Marco purses his lips as he glances at the sheet before him.

"Have we discovered who attacked us yet?"

"Unfortunately, no - not yet. We have our data forensics experts scouring whatever logs were created during the attack, but whoever did it covered their tracks well. We do know this, though: they were well-organized and had an incredible amount of skill and computing power behind them."

"When will we have our systems back online?"

"Unfortunately, I can't give a solid timeline. Simply put: we have a long road ahead of us and full recovery will take time."

“But, isn’t it as simple as just turning off the switch?”

Laughter erupts from the crowd – as if on cue.

“Oh, Mr. Temura, where do you get these silly questions? Of course it’s not that simple! Do you think we, your government, would go out of our way to destroy our economy – one that had only just started to recover from the housing crash – and put millions more Americans out of work if we didn’t absolutely HAVE to?”

The Senator settles back in his chair, relaxed, with a contemptuous smirk on his face.

Marco’s face reddens as his hands crinkle the sheets in his lap, a mixture of anger and embarrassment boiling just beneath the surface.

“The switch was designed as an emergency measure. We never expected to have to actually use it. Now that we have, it will take some time to recover.”

“But don’t you have any –“

His hands tighten around the script as he fights to keep his composure. Shifting in his seat he notices a blur of movement in the crowd. He spins to see it but it’s already gone. Remembering the camera he smiles and returns his gaze to the Senator.

Yet finds himself unable to speak.

He looks back down to the questions on his page, to the typed words that should be exiting his mouth, then returns to the forced smile plastered across that condescending, botoxed-and-lifted face.

"But don't you have any real answers for the American public? A plan for the millions of people left adrift as their very livelihoods were switched off?"

Marco feels his gut tighten and his mouth go dry and yet, like a log tipped downhill, he finds himself unable to stop as his words pick up speed and power.

"Why is there nothing being done for them? Where is the help for their homes and families? We don't want excuses, sir. We don't need your phony smiles. We need action!"

The crowd around him bursts into unexpected applause as the Senator shrinks in his seat, a frown attempting to form in his taut brow.

"What - What is this?"

Jess steps up onto the stage, moving closer, zooming in on the uncomfortable Senator. She looks to Marco, impressed.

The Senator squirms, staring at the red light of the still-active camera.

Under her breath Jess whispers "Holy shit, we're still live!"

Another flash of movement in the crowd as the Senator stands.

"I-I'm not an animal, I have a family too you know! We're doing what we must, we're doing it to protect--"

"Die Fascist Scum!"

A young man in a black suit and tie leaps out of the crowd, pistol leveled.

“Gun!”

Marco hears the alien word coming from his mouth as he dives into the Senator's side, slamming into him as the shot rings out.

CHAPTER THREE

A scream erupts from the crowd as the Senator crashes to the ground with Marco on top, the bullet grazing Marco's arm and leaving a thick trail of blood in its wake. The assassin spins to exit and is accosted by a stunned security force that struggles against the crowd's stampede to the door.

Bodyguards rush the stage, flying to the Senator's side, shouting to each other as they pick him off the floor and drag him from the room; their voices echoing down a hallway before being silenced by a slamming door. Marco gets to his feet, transfixed by the sight of the young man -- the same young man, he realizes, who was throwing chunks of brick at their van -- fighting for his freedom with a vicious display of Muay Thai, crippling each oncoming guard with a flurry of knee strikes and round kicks before rushing from the room.

Jess, also mesmerized by the battle, glances down and notices the bloody gash on Marco's right arm -- she turns the camera to him.

"Marco, you're bleeding!"

He spins to face her, a wild look in his eyes.

"C'mon!"

Marco sprints to the door, Jess following just behind him as a cacophony of voices erupt in his earpiece.

"What the hell just --"

"Share that feed right --"

"I don't care if it is Brad-fucking-Pitt, cut in! I want this on every goddamn channel!"

Down a trashed hallway, past broken tables and dazed guards, Marco works his way through the human terrain as Jess captures every fracture and gasp. Cries of pain followed by solid thuds and crashes reverberate toward them as they approach the end of the hall.

Stepping out, onto the landing of a grand staircase, they find themselves surveying the wreckage of a brutal battle, with the groaning bodies of security guards and bellhops sprawled across the foyer. Some cry and nurse broken arms, others squirm in fetal positions while coughing up bile.

In the distance sirens blare as the young man dispatches a heavyset guard with an elbow to the head. The man slumps, his legs snapping beneath him as his weight carries him to the ground.

"Hey!"

Marco yells from the top of the staircase, adrenaline coursing through him, oblivious to the blood pouring down his arm.

The young man turns as Marco grins.

"Smile! You're on TV!"

From behind the camera Jess waves as she zooms in on his face, capturing a brief scowl before he disappears through the revolving door. She turns the camera to face Marco as he looks down at his arm, noticing it for the first time.

"Holy shit, I'm bleeding!"

* * *

Police mill around the room, photographing evidence and interviewing victims. Marco wanders through puddles of blood and bile in a daze as a paramedic works to clean and suture his arm.

The young woman, one step behind him, struggles to keep the thread from stretching.

"Sir! Please stop moving!"

Marco stops, half-hearing the frustrated medic as he replays the events in his head; as he runs to the stairwell and yells; as the young man turns to look him in the eye. Yeah, that was a dumb move.

He winces as the medic pulls the suture tight, ties a knot and snips the excess. With a practiced motion she peels and smoothes a derma-pad over the wound.

"Keep it clean, you'll be fine in a week or so."

With a curt nod she collects her things and crosses over to a man with a dislocated shoulder.

"You know, kid, that's kind of a good look for you."

Jess approaches from the side, running a finger along his bandage, portable screen in hand.

"Thanks."

"Thank me in a minute."

She slides one of the hard drives from her camera into a port in the screen and begins to fast-forward through footage. Marco watches himself sprint in triple time, feeling a disturbing sensation overtake him as he sees the wildness once present in his own eyes.

"Here!"

Jess stops the playback, moving frame-by-frame now, as the young man's face turns to the camera.

"Jeezus! This kid can't be more than sixteen!"

Marco finds himself shuddering under the boy's gaze -- a snapshot of fury and determination that sparks a primal fear within him. He turns his head, pinching his tear ducts as he feels a shameful, burning sensation in his eyes.

"Fuck. He's seen my face… Oh. Fuck."

His hand quivers at first but soon turns into a violent shake as the notion takes hold of his mind. Jess switches off the monitor and places a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"Hey, just stop that right now. That's not gonna do you any good."

He takes a deep breath, trying to quell the storm inside him, remembering the rush of violence, the audible snapping of the unconscious man's legs. It's not working. Marco collapses to the floor, head in his hands.

"Oh shit. What did I do?"

Jess sits down beside him, silent for a moment before pulling a cigarette from inside her jacket. She taps it on the side of her hand and lights it there in the middle of the foyer.

"You know, there was this time when I was in Iraq -- the first time I was there -- damn, I was so green, I must've looked like I was hand-picked from the orchard. We were with this unit of 4th Marines, from the 3rd battalion -- great fucking soldiers all -- in Baghdad not long after they pulled down that statue of Saddam. The locals were losing their shit, rubbing their dirty shoes all over his face, screaming into the air. Fuck, I remember getting right in there with my camera, trying my damnedest to film the emotion of the moment. And then I noticed it… there was just this one man. This one guy who wasn't moving, he wasn't screaming, he was staring right at me from the edge of the crowd. So I went and got close, trying to get the reaction of this unflappable, brown, scarred man. I got in close, real close - his eyes never left me but he gave this Cheshire smile and said something in Arabic before disappearing into the crowd. I didn't understand him but I swore I thought I heard him… say my name… so I went to a friend of mine, asked him to translate it for me. Heh, I remember his face when he watched the clip; I've never seen a black man's face grow so pale. He refused to tell me what it said, and so, dumb bitch that I am, I went and asked someone else."

She stops to inhale from her cigarette, shuddering at the memory.

"He said: 'You have ruined us. You have bombed my home and killed my family. I see your face. I know your name, Jessica Palmer. Do not sleep or I will be there.'"

Jessica laughs, a little too high-pitched to be normal.

"And fuck… I didn't sleep. I was a wreck… for a long time. Hell, it's been, what, almost 14 years now and I still see his face, clear as day. I don't know where he found out my name -- if it was from hearing someone else talk… or if he got a look at my press badge… or…"

She sighs, letting the emotion run through her.

"I never found out who he was or where he came from but I never saw him again. Hell, for all I know I'd been living in fear of a dead man for years. What I'm trying to say is that you can't let it sit with you. You can't think about this shit or you'll put a bullet in your head."

Jess pats him on the knee, takes another drag from her smoke and flicks it over by the reception desk.

"Just live your life, kid; let the universe sort out the details."

CHAPTER FOUR

“Mr. Temura, there you are!”

A frazzled Alex Wong pushes way through the police, toward Jess and Marco, his lumbering body seeming one step ahead of his legs, as if carried forward by the force of inertia alone.

Jess intercepts the man, buying Marco some time to compose himself.

“Mr. Wong! How’s the Senator doing?”

Alex stops and attempts to catch his breath, dabbing sweat from his brow with a kerchief. Marco stands and shakes his hand.

“He’s well, thank you. In fact, I’m here because he’d like to speak with you – privately, of course.”

“Oh, of course.”

Jess rolls her eyes, glancing toward Marco as he grins.

“Please follow me.”

Alex turns, his demeanor now far more relaxed as he makes his way across to a bank of elevators. Marco follows behind, feeling his own apprehension growing with each step.

“I wonder what they’re going to do with this place – I mean, it’s not like there’s much chance for tourism anymore.”

Marco runs a finger down the dusty mirror beside the elevator, taking note of the cracked mural at the end of the hall.

“I’m sure they’ll open the borders soon enough, Mr. Temura. Once we get everything fixed. It’s just a matter of time, I’m sure.”

Alex nods to himself, affirming his own thought.

With a cheerful ding the elevator opens, revealing an area the size of a small bedroom. Marco steps in, shaking his head.

“Imagine all the people you could house here.”

Alex busies himself with his phone, pretending not to hear.

A soft melody wafts from the speakers as the elevator begins its ascent. That music, combined with the intricate wooden paneling, gives Marco a brief sense of warmth and comfort, a snippet of a moment long past, before such things became a decadence for all but a select few.

At the thirty-second floor the elevator dings once again, opening into an opulent Presidential Suite. Stepping out onto the black marble floor, Marco finds himself greeted by a brilliant vista of the city as massive -- if grimy -- windows look out over a wild growth of hills and dirty, crumbling buildings. Off in the distance tall smoke clouds stretch toward the sky. Somewhere inside he realizes just how long it’s been since he’s been so high up.

“Mr. Temura?”

Alex taps him on the shoulder, urging him onward.

“It’s so… different. I can’t remember the last time I even saw…”

Marco trails off, overwhelmed by the sight of it.

“I know, I try not to look.”

Together, they make their way past tall, white marble Corinthian columns into a cavernous den; each and every wall covered with pieces of fine art and HD Television sets; each floor covered in thick, hand-woven Persian rugs.

Several bodyguards in dark suits lounge on plush leather couches, a few wavering between sleep and waking as their heads begin to loll and then snap back to attention. Alex continues through the den to a set of heavy, black walnut doors and knocks three times.

“Sir?”

The door swings wide, opening into a large study where ornate, oak bookshelves line the walls and, at the far end, beyond the plush, high-backed chair, Senator Vanusen stands alone, looking out the window into the city. Now, with his jacket removed, he is hunched and thin, as if any power he once had had evaporated away.

He turns, nursing a steaming mug of coffee; a man shaken to his core.

“Ah, yes, thank you, Alex. Mr. Temura, please.”

He motions for Marco to enter as Alex excuses himself, closing the doors behind him.

“You know, I grew up not far from here – just over that ridge, there.”

The Senator points out the window, toward a smoldering patch of land. Marco walks across the room to join him, fighting the urge to lead him to a chair.

“When I heard about the riots… it never even crossed my mind… it’s been a year and a half and it’s still burning. I always figured that the firemen would be the last of them to go, but there are so few willing to risk their lives these days… and I can’t really blame them. What is there to save?”

“Senator, are you alright?”

“No, young man, I’m not. And I’m afraid that I haven’t been for a long time. Heh, no matter how hard you try, you just can never account for everything.”

He sips his coffee and turns his back to the window, an action that, somehow, to Marco, feels like a symbolic gesture, even if its exact meaning is lost on him.

“But we must live with the decisions we make, isn’t that right, son?”

The Senator sets down his coffee and slides the navy blue jacket back on, seeming to relax into the familiar weight of it; buttoning the top button with a still-trembling hand. He moves over to his chair, sitting down, getting comfortable, blowing the steam off of his coffee.

“Thank you, Mr. Temura, for saving my life today. Unfortunately, I’m afraid things are about to get very complicated for you.”

“I’m sorry, sir?”

“You’ve stepped into something… and there’s nothing I can do to help you. It’s such a sad thing… that your kindness would be repaid in this way.”

The Senator’s head starts to droop; he catches himself and snaps awake. Marco looks around the room, nervous, unsure of what to think.

“I appreciate what you’ve done, young man. It does my heart good to know… to know that I was worth saving.”

He drains the last of his coffee, holding the mug up in his hands, rolling it around in his fingers, feeling the warmth of it.

“It’s all in Washington, the truth… about what we did. I’m… so sorry… Mr. Temura.”

The Senator’s head droops again, nodding off, his aged body worn out from the day’s excitement.

Marco turns, feeling lost as every single event of the day fights for prominence, as the Senator’s cryptic words echo in his mind. Pulling one of the massive doors wide, he slips through it, closing it as the coffee mug tumbles from Senator Vanusen’s hand.

Striding through the den of slumbering bodyguards Marco makes his way to the elevator. He pushes the button, rubbing his face and trying not to look out the window. His resolve lasts mere moments and as he stares down into the crowded, trash-caked streets he feels a sense of sadness and longing tug from somewhere deep inside.

With that same cheerful ding the elevator opens wide, that soft melody inviting him in once more. He enters and, for a moment, he allows himself to enjoy the respite, running his fingers along the intricate walls, pressing his fingers into the thick grooves of the inlaid design.

“Man, they must’ve been tired.”

He speaks aloud, to the emptiness; smiling as he hears his words echo around him. Marco stretches out his arms, surprised at just how elated he is to be alone in this moment. He closes his eyes, allowing the music to flow through him, warm him. In another life, in another world, yes…

The elevator glides to a stop and Marco steps out into the din of the foyer as police and paramedics continue to try and make sense out of the chaos. Just outside the revolving door Jessica stands, smoking a cigarette, off in her own thoughts. Marco smiles and makes his way out of the hotel, approaching Jess as she stubs out her smoke.

“Hey, kid! What took you so long?"

Marco rubs his temples at the thought of it all.

“I need a drink.”

CHAPTER FIVE

“Marco, you're bleeding.”

“C'mon!”

Jess and Marco stare in silent shock at the dusty video wall behind the bar as the footage plays; as transfixed patrons watch every single second, drinks untouched, jaws agape. She watches the TV then turns to Marco as if considering something. Nodding to herself, Jess guides Marco past the group, past the filth-encrusted dance floor, into a shadowy corner. She pulls some chairs across, sliding them into a chipped and warped Formica table, offering one to Marco as he looks around the bar in silent disgust.

He dusts off the seat then sits, unable to resist fiddling with the uneven table as it wobbles back and forth under his fingertips. A small, high-pitched squeak grabs his attention and he turns, blinking in the darkness, focusing on a mound of tiny movement in the nearby corner -- after a long moment he realizes he's watching a small colony of carpenter ants work their way through a tiny, injured mouse.

"Uh, why'd you pick this place again?"

"Hey, I’m payin’ so it’s my pick. Don't judge. This place makes the best beer in the city."

"Sure thing."

He nods, distracted by this gruesome sight. Jess flashes him a reassuring grin then stands and crosses to the bar. Marco kicks a large ant off his shoe and slides his chair farther away from the wall, looking around, trying to keep his wits about him; watching cobwebs drift in the ambient breeze, rapping his fingers on the tabletop.

Off on the other side of the room, a soft glow in the darkness catches his eye -- a sallow, bearded man’s fingers fly on the keyboard of a small laptop, face and shoulders illuminated by the screen as he leans forward, squinting. Marco smiles, feeling a familiar urge creep up around the edges of his mind, pushing his other, more immediate, fears far out of firing range.

He stands, then stops himself, as the voice of his sponsor clicks on in his head -- as one year, ten months and six days worth of hard work and dedication push themselves to the forefront; as he spars with himself inside his own mind.

You know why you're going over there. Don't. It’s the stress. It’s making you weak.

Oh, c'mon, I know he's not connected. It's not possible.

And yet you can't help but wonder.

Well, I mean, yeah. But what’s wrong with wondering? Nothing wrong with that. I dunno... What if he’s one of those SysOps?

Even if that were possible, even if it weren't EXACTLY the kind of myth that people create when faced with an utter lack of something -- that someone, somewhere has it -- he'd want no part of you. Stop. Think. You know better.

Sure. Yeah. You're right.

Marco smiles, changing tactics for the mental battle inside his head.

We could just talk computers. You know, what operating system he's using. It's been so long since I got to talk to another techie. Maybe we could trade apps.

But you're not going over there to talk, and we both know it! You're going over there to spy. What would you do if he WAS connected? Think about that.

He pauses, frustrated by the wall of his own making.

Hey! I got freaking shot today! Cut me some slack. I deserve this. I promise, it’s talk. Just talk.

Marco--

And somewhere in his head the conversation is severed, a decision made. He begins to walk toward the other man.

"Hey! Where're you going?"

Jess returns, carrying a tray with a couple of frosty pints and a few shots of whiskey.

"I was… I just..."

Marco licks his lips, glancing toward the flickering corner. Jess sets the tray on the table, dropping a shot glass in the pint and passing him the drink.

"The bartender didn't know how to make a Shirley Temple so I got you a Boilermaker."

Marco's eyes are still locked on the faint glow but after a long moment he relents, turns to her and takes the drink in his hands.

"Ha. Ha."

He takes a sip and sets it on the table, unable to resist continued glances over at the other man; at his computer.

Across the way the man snaps his laptop closed, rises and walks towards the entrance of the bar. Marco jumps to his feet to chase after him, bangs into the table and sends his pint crashing to the floor.

"Shit! I'm sorry, I --"

"Kid, settle down, don't be so jumpy. That guy’s long gone, I promise you."

Marco tenses as he realizes he’d forgotten all about the earlier assassin.

The slender young waitress saunters over, shaking her head. She bends down, collecting the large pieces of glass onto a tray while ignoring the spilt beer.

"Fuck, I'm sorry, my nerves are -- I'm just… having a bad day."

The waitress nods, uncaring.

"You and me both, guy."

She stands and meets his gaze, eyes widening as she realizes it's the same man who's on the TV screen.

"Shhh…"

Jess puts her finger to her lips, her gaze pleading with the waitress to keep silent. The waitress stares at them then retreats across the grungy floor toward the bar.

"…shhhhit. C'mon, we better high-tail it, quick."

Jess rubs her hand across her face in chagrin as the waitress goes to the bartender's side and whispers in his ear.

Marco watches the bartender lean over the bar as the other patrons lean forward.

"Why?"

"Because, you saved the Senator from taking a bullet, you idiot."

Peering into the darkness ahead of them, the patrons of the bar stand up as one. The bartender flicks a switch and a small fluorescent light flickers to life above Marco.

Jess positions herself in front of him, a momma bear protecting her cub.

"Be cool, kid."

"Hey, I'm not --"

Marco sees the group of thick, bearded men crossing the dance floor and falls silent. One by one they form an arc, cornering the two of them as Jess tenses.

An old man with a barrel chest and long, gray beard steps forward, peering at them through beady, watery eyes; his sleeveless leather jacket dotted with bullet holes and silver-skull rivets.

"You that guy? The one on TV?"

Jess holds up her hands, trying to keep her cool.

"Listen, we just came here for a drink."

"Was I talkin' to you?"

The old man steps forward toward her, scowling; the stench of sweat and old booze rolling off him in waves. Marco walks up to Jess's side.

"Yeah. That was me."

The old man smiles wide, exposing broken teeth and inflamed black gums.

"You? You saved that piece-o-shit from eatin' a bullet?"

Marco nods, intimidated but holding his ground.

"Yes."

The group of men turn to one another, unsure of what to do about this infraction.

"L-listen, I get it. I do."

Marco squashes the fear as best he can, his voice still uneven.

"Times are shitty and no one seems to have any answers -- but, fuck, guys… We're trying to get them. We're reporters, that's what we're trying to do. That guy, that Senator, he's just a man. Does he deserve to die? I don't know, I didn't think about any of that. I didn't think about anything. I saw a horrible thing about to happen to another human being and I just reacted."

He pauses, gulping at the scarred faces of his impassive audience.

"And now here I am, I don’t know what the hell’s going on. I did one good thing, one good deed and now, supposedly I’ve gotten myself mixed up in… I don’t even know.”

He steps forward, gritting his teeth.

“I’ve had enough of this shitty day and this fucking bullshit. If you’re going to do this, don’t piss around. Do it right. Make it quick.”

The old man turns to look at the others, taken aback by this young man’s bravado. They shrug and he grins, rolling up his sleeves and smoothing out his beard.

“Oh, this is gonna be fun.”

Marco’s eyes snap to the video wall as intricate graphics cut into the feed:

“Breaking Update: Senator Vanusen murdered!”

Everyone spins and rushes back to the bar as the camera zooms into the news Anchor.

“We’ve just been informed that Senator Michael Vanusen and his retinue have been found murdered in the Presidential Suite of the Regency hotel.”

A boisterous cheer rises from somewhere down the block, roaring through the strip of buildings and taken up by the men as they begin to bang their pint glasses on the bar.

Marco and Jess look to each other and then hurry out of the bar while the others are distracted. Together, they burst out into the street as horns honk and cheering people gather into the streets.

He takes her hand and pulls her close, out of the way as crowd roars by -- but her eyes are fixated elsewhere, on the video wall in the bar. Marco turns to see his face plastered across the screens as security camera footage shows him walking from the elevator and out the door. His eyes move to the bottom of the screen, to the large words pasted across the screen in bold letters.

“Wanted: Marco Temura.”
___________________________

Thank you very much for dropping by and reading this sneak peek at my eNovel '404'. If you enjoyed this sneak peek, you can purchase '404 - The Story So Far' over there on the side for $2.99 CAD and follow along with the weekly episodes at 99 cents each -- or you can subscribe to the whole eNovel for $6.99 and have each episode emailed to you as they go live at the end of the week.

Cheers, and thanks again!
Brandon

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