Mister Sun was almost forty thousand seconds behind the moment when he finally emerged from the shiny, sad pens of LAX into the wet heat of the late afternoon. It takes forty thousand seconds, more or less, to fly from London to Los Angeles and then negotiate the boxes and runs of the airport. That’s how he thought of it. Eleven hours would be a sleep of exhaustion and a leisurely breakfast. It didn’t carry a sense of urgency. Forty thousand seconds sounded to him like time running away without him, leaving him stuck in a dim and disconnected past. A lot could happen in forty thousand seconds.
Mister Sun put his shades on. It had been winter in Britain for the previous eighteen months or so, and he only saw authentic daylight when he traveled, or on television. Los Angeles light, stinging as it was, had a familiar quality to him. It was a strange thing, he reflected, to recognize a certain flavor of daylight from afternoon films in the Sundays of his childhood.
He’d already lifted his packet of cigarettes and his lighter from the top pocket of his roll aboard bag. The lighter was a gift from one of his apparent legion of uncles and aunts who’d pass through London on their way from China to God-only-knew where. A flat, two-inch-long bar that charged by USB, it featured an ultraviolet light for finding the watermark on paper money as well as a button-operated cigarette-lighting coil. Mister Sun had, in 2009, owned a cigarette-lighting cell phone—a Chinese SB6309 with the hot coil under a slide-away plate on the bottom of the phone’s back. He’d loved that stupid phone, but business had eventually demanded that he use something smarter. He’d never thrown that phone away, though, and when at home he sometimes took it from his draw er and lighted a Dunhill with it just to experience that gentle and amused pleasure again. It was a unique thing; a placid joy unlike anything else in his personal or professional life.
It usually took Mister Sun a bout four minutes to smoke a cigarette. Another two hundred and forty seconds burned. As he smoked, he watched his current phone, quite smart but entirely charmless, finally find the local 4G. He opened an app that displayed photos for only ten seconds before securely deleting them. There was no communication therein from his client. He found himself curiously dismayed by this. He was forty thousand seconds back and nothing had happened. Mister Sun was almost offended. He crushed out his cigarette with the heel of his brogue, carefully deposited the dead stub in a bin, and walked down the concourse to request a cab from the attendant.
The cab took the best part of three thousand, six hundred seconds to pick and thread its way from LAX to West Hollywood. Mister Sun did not like Los Angeles. He could never find a center to it. It seemed to him to hang on top of the world like a fallen constellation, resting on a rickety scaffold of endless, maddening road. In Los Angeles, Mister Sun only ever arrived anywhere by surprise, unable to find any sense or structure in the route.
He used the Mark Hotel in that district, a boutique hotel of the ’00s sliding toward the grimy sheen and dull plaster of budget accommodation in the ’10s. The Chateau Marmont was barely five minutes’ walk away, and much nicer, but it was a place people went to look at other people. Mister Sun himself, on lunch occasions at the Marmont’s open-air dining space, had fallen prey to it. You’d spot one half-remembered face—a dying actress you’d seen flayed by magazine covers, an almost-famous actor you’d glimpsed on some awards ceremony watched on a hotel TV on an insomniac night—and start looking around for more.
The lobby of the Mark was full of a different kind of person. People—not famous people, and probably not terribly smart either—still came here to be seen, while remaining entirely oblivious to most other people. Mister Sun, in his sober suit, with his businessman’s rollaboard, was effectively invisible among the long and languid creatures littering the lobby ’s low sofas and strangely louche silvered beanbags. Checking in was always a painfully drawn-out process. The staff were far too culturally rarefied to be seen to be working for a living, and there was a girl in a fish tank directly behind the reception area. This was debris from the Mark’s days as an artistic and trend-setting location. Someone had decided it would be charmingly bohemian to keep a mostly naked girl in the fish tank at night. It was, he always felt , a saddening indictment of Los Angeles culture—or, rather, an illustration of how Los Angeles had no culture of its own, just a large collection of misreadings of the artistic histories of other, proper cities.
He wasn’t pleased with himself for appraising the girl in the tank. He thought of her as half-pretty, the so rt of girl one would find modeling for art classes in dire community colleges. Putting her cheap panties and her ex-boyfriend’s shirt back on to wander around the easels afterward and wondering how grotesque she mu st really be, to have summoned up the deformities whacked down in merciless charcoal strikes. She lay on her untoned belly in the tank, yellow calloused feet slowly waving in the air, wearing an orange dollar-store bikini thong and picking at a MacBook Air encrusted in stickers.
He soundlessly apologized for his spite, ashamed of the poison that ’d bubbled up in him over the three or four hundred seconds he’d been standing there, but checking into the Mark and having to look at the body in the tank was always difficult for him. Mister Sun killed people and disposed of their carcasses for a living.
Mister Sun’s room was blessed with a balcony and a vertical ashtray bolted to the exterior wall. The room itself was as expected: a broad slab of a bed dressed in tired clothes, carpet trodden thin, blank walls lightly pitted by ten years of corrosive sweat in the air. The balcony was indeed a blessing, though. It hung from the face of the hotel that was turned away from the noise of the city, overlooking a tree-fringed disc of churned mud that a previous client had told him was a dog-walking park. It looked thoroughly medieval to Mister Sun, and he wondered how many dogs had died there. Still and all, it was pleas ant to stand there on the balcony and smoke, obscured from the sight of the city, letting the Los Angeles early evening thaw his bones a little. With one thumb he batted out a text to his girlfriend that she wouldn’t see until morning in Greenwich Mean Time, thereby completing the day’s necessary tasks. He warmly anticipated the delivery of the food he knew was good at the Mark, the carpaccio and the sliders, and a few hour s of American television before a decent night’s sleep. He had to kill someone in the morning.