On Friday, May 27th Francis Burke reprogrammed the stoplight at the intersection of Sunset and Whittier, causing a chain reaction collision that totaled a Mustang convertible, a Toyota Prius, and a BMW. He had meant for Stephanie James to die from blunt force trauma sustained when she swerved to avoid colliding with the right rear fender of the Toyota Prius, and instead wrapped her Honda Civic around a twenty-three-year-old Mexican palm tree, but she had somehow avoided the scene of the accident entirely. Which wasn’t good news. His instructions were clear: he was to stamp her soul RETURN TO SENDER. He bought two slices of pizza with onions and green peppers at LaMonicas, washed it down with a Coke, and tried to figure out his next move. He saw himself as a clockpuncher, nothing more. Jobs were scarce in a down economy; unemployment in California hovered in the double-digits. He couldn’t afford another screw-up.
Stephanie James lived in a one-bedroom apartment on 11th Street in Santa Monica. Francis found a parking space on Arizona with forty-seven minutes left on the meter, walked down to the Third Street Promenade, and caught a seven-year-old towhead named Debbie Harris, who had confused the WALK and DON’T WALK signals at the exact moment her mother, Janet, looked away to dig her cell phone out of her purse, and stepped off the curb and into the path of a Big Blue Bus. Debbie Harris danced back to her mother without so much as a scratch. He bought a cup of coffee at the Starbucks and waited. Stephanie James rode by on her bicycle. Technically, she was meant to die in a car accident. Francis rationalized it by telling himself that, as long as there was a car involved in her demise, everything else would work itself out. He stepped off the sidewalk and into the bike lane, forcing Stephanie to swerve in front of a laundry van to avoid running him over. The van’s driver was chatting amiably on his cell phone, completely oblivious to the cyclist whose life he was about to end. He tapped his brakes for no discernable reason; Stephanie James avoided being smeared across the asphalt by a fraction of a millimeter.
“Huh,” Francis said.
Stephanie looked back over her shoulder. It felt as though she were looking right at him. She smiled and Francis couldn’t help smiling back. Although, in retrospect, it was more likely that she was smiling at the good-looking guy in the silver Porsche.
* * *
On Saturday, May 28th Francis bought a hotdog and a beer at Dodger stadium and watched the guy sitting next to him flail helplessly and thump his chest in a vain attempt to dislodge a half-masticated piece of pork from his windpipe. The Dodgers were down three-one in the sixth with Kuroda giving way to MacDougal on the mound. The guy choking on a hotdog was Martin (‘Marty’ to his friends) Conway. He seemed like a nice enough guy. Kind of a schlub, but still. Francis caught Marty and eased him back into his seat. It would have been a simple enough thing to flag an usher or administer the Heimlich maneuver. Marty would have laughed it off, bought the next round of beers, and offered Francis the preferred customer rate on his car insurance. Francis held Marty’s wrist and felt the schlub’s pulse quicken. Marty’s bowels unclenched—urine stained the front of his shorts, shit mixed with the aroma of stale beer and peanut shells—and then it was over. Marty slumped in his seat, an empty shell, just as Hobbs slapped a double down the right-field line and drove in two more Florida runs. Francis moved to an empty two sections over and settled in to watch the Dodgers lose another game they should’ve won.
* * *
On Sunday, May 29th Francis unplugged his ethernet cable, dropped his iPhone into the goldfish’s bowl, and planned on spending the day watching waves crash against the breakers at Zuma Beach because fuck it, it was Sunday and he’d earned a day off. He knew that it should have bothered him that he’d left Stephanie James sitting on the shelf past her expiration date, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the way she’d smiled at him. He wanted to see her smile again.
* * *
On Monday, May 30th Francis caught the Red Line at Hollywood and Highland and rode it downtown for a meeting with the local representative of the Home Office. They were no doubt pissed that he hadn’t scratched Stephanie James’s lotto ticket. Francis waited in Union Station’s cavernous lobby and tried to suppress the empty feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“What are we going to do with you, Francis?” the Home Office man said. “You’ve ignored instructions. You’ve disregarded explicit orders. I’m beginning to think you don’t want this job anymore.”
“I want my life back,” Francis said.
“And I’d like an elegant solution to Fermat’s last theorem. We all have problems, Francis.” The Home Office man sat in one of the station’s plush leather armchairs and lit a cigar. “Shall I tell you how you’re going to die? Boredom. Mind-numbing, soul-crushing boredom. Every day, you’ll go to work, you’ll do your job, you’ll come home. Night after night, you’ll eat the same food, you’ll watch the same shows, you’ll have missionary sex with—what’s her name?—Stephanie. You’ll retire at sixty-five. You’ll clock out at seventy-two. And that’s it. That’s all there is.
“We bring order to a chaotic system. We do it because it has to be done, because there’s nobody else who will do it. If we slip up just once, the whole system falls apart and we’re back where we started. Chaos. Uncertainty. Doubt. Thank you, no.
“You’ve had your fun. The Stephanie James invoice will be put to paid. Now get back to work.”
* * *
On Tuesday, May 31st Francis jostled with a priest rushing to catch an overcrowded elevator in Century City just as its doors were closing. Francis tried to apologize, but Father Thomas laughed it off and said that it was better he took the stairs. He needed the exercise. He had a heart attack on the landing between the fourth and fifth floor and Francis crossed the priest’s name off his list.
At 1:43 PM, Francis let himself into the studio apartment of a closet cross-dresser named Dylan Kent. Kent was in the shower, shaving his legs, and when Francis knocked on the bathroom door, the mortified Mr. Kent twisted around to hide behind the shower curtain, slipped, and hit his head on the spigot. Francis emptied Kent’s lingerie drawer into a Glad Bag and deleted the pornography off his laptop. There was no reason to leave any of that for Kent’s mother to find.
At 3:07 PM, Francis sold a Glock 9mm to a wannabe gangbanger named Louis Phelps. Phelps tucked the gun into his waistband without bothering to check the safety. He flashed the piece to scare off a couple of street thugs who had been hassling his sister and accidentally shot himself in the thigh. The bullet nicked his femoral artery. He bled out.
At 3:21 PM, Francis called Stephanie because he wanted to hear her voice. He was back at work but his heart wasn’t in it. She didn’t answer; the call went straight to voicemail.
At 3:23 PM, Francis rounded up the thugs who’d been hassling Louis Phelps’s sister and shot each of them in the head execution-style because fuck them, they deserved it.
At 5:23 PM, Francis helped an elderly woman named Angelica Santos carry her groceries to her car for no reason other than he wanted to clock some overtime. Mrs. Santos clipped a grocery cart as she was backing out and sent it rolling across the parking lot. Francis felt a little better; he’d put in an honest day’s work. A Land Rover swerved to avoid the stray grocery cart and struck Jonathon Brooke, a middle-aged father of two, crushing his pelvis and shattering his spine. Francis had to wait seven hours and forty-two minutes—until Brooke’s wife had been notified and she and her daughters had the chance to say their goodbyes—before his doctors took him off life support. He pretty much hated himself.
* * *
On Wednesday, June 1st Stephanie James showed up on his TO DO list. Francis called in sick. He microwaved his iPhone for three minutes and forty-two seconds on high. The Home Office man poured himself a cup of coffee and said, “You can’t save her, you know that. There are rules, Francis.”
“How did you get in here?” It was a stupid question. Francis immediately regretted asking it.
“Shall I tell you how it happens?”
“I’d rather it not happen.” The sink was full of breakfast dishes; Francis wondered whether he could beat a man to death with a cereal bowl.
“At exactly 11:42, Janet Harris’s cell phone will ring. When she looks away to answer it, her daughter Debbie—you remember Debbie? The little towhead you pulled out of the path of a bus? That was awfully kind of you, I might add—will lean out over the edge of the platform to look for the train. And because she’s seven and an ear infection is screwing with her equilibrium, she’ll fall.”
A cereal bowl wasn’t good enough. Francis got out the waffle iron.
“On most days, nobody in Los Angeles takes the subway. The whole idea of an underground rail in an earthquake-prone city is idiotic, but I digress. Stephanie James has a lunch downtown. So, after checking in at the office, she walks two-point-three miles to the Hollywood and Highland station and arrives just in time to see Debbie Harris fall onto the tracks.”
The waffle iron heated up slowly. He hadn’t cleaned it. The little crispy bits that clung to its ridges smoldered threateningly.
“Because her body knows that it’s living on borrowed time—thanks to you—she feels ironically invincible. Without a second thought to the imminent danger or her own personal safety, she leaps down onto the tracks, scoops Debbie up and hurls her back onto the platform.”
Francis glanced at the clock. It was only a quarter after eleven. There was still time. He could still save her.
“But then, and there’s always a ‘but then’, a horn blares. Stephanie turns—a tunnel, a light, it’s all very poetic—her ankle brushes the third rail, and then she’s gone, an overdue library book on its way back to the circulation desk. She’ll never even have known that you existed.”
“I quit,” Francis said.
“No one quits, Francis. Didn’t you pay attention during the training video?”
* * *
On Thursday, June 2nd Francis sat in a private room on the Fifth Floor of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center waiting for the ink to dry on Anthony Detweiler. Detweiler had owned two supertankers during his prologue and amassed a respectable fortune hauling Pacific Northwest lumber to Japan and Japanese cars to the port of Long Beach. It wasn’t a Los Angeles fortune by any stretch, but it was enough to buy a house in Brentwood, put four kids through college, and divorce three times. “It’s not the cancer that’s killing me; it’s the alimony.” He lulled off to sleep. Francis could barely keep his eyes open. He’d spent the night in his car and hadn’t really slept, but it was his own fault. In his mad rush to save Stephanie, he’d forgotten to unplug the waffle iron after caving in the Home Office man’s skull. It sparked a two-alarm blaze that gutted his apartment. Arson investigators had red-tagged the building; he was homeless. Not that he regretted any of it. Not for a second. Stephanie had died according to plan—albeit a slightly revised draft of the plan—but he’d arrived at the moment when it mattered. A heartbeat before Stephanie’s ankle brushed the rail and 50,000 volts coursed through her body, crushing her heart like a seedless grape, she had looked up, saw him on the platform, and smiled.
“Doesn’t matter that they’re not here,” Detweiler mumbled, although it wasn’t clear whether he was referring to his ex-wives, his children, or his grandchildren. “Everybody dies alone.” Francis held Detweiler’s wrinkled, liver-spotted hand in his and together they waited for their story to inevitably end.