Chapter 2. Have We Met?

Veronica Street is a new novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman. It will be serialized here weekly.

Caleb had his back to traffic, so he didn't see the squad car, and Ayla's shriek was muted by the squeegie sound of tires as the car veered to right, bumping the curb. The squad car's doors opened in unison, and two uniforms jumped out--a man and the woman who'd been driving, both with their hands at the gun hips. They were looking for shooters, for signs of an ambush, the male officer now murmuring urgently into his radio, the woman scanning the block with bent knees as if she were about to wrestle 1st Street to the ground. (Instead of a shooter, what the cops encountered was Caleb, who had turned around and was looking at them and their almost-crashed car with incredulity.)

"Holy shit," he said, as Ayla rushed toward him. "Did you see that?"

"Caleb, sweetheart, you need some juice."

"Step to the curb!"

The policewoman had her hand at her hip. Her hair pulled back in a tight bun. She wore wrap-around sunglasses.

"Both of you, right now."

The other officer, a man, looked familiar. Filipino, Ayla decided. He had a buzz cut and the soft skin and full cheeks of youth. Cops seemed to be getting younger and younger.

"Put your hands on your head."

"Officer, my boyfriend is diabetic, he--"

"I said," he shouted, his voice edged with panic, "put your hands on your head. Both of you."

It went on like this, the cops rattled because they thought they'd been facing an attack in a high-hazard area. And now, they were trying to stick to their script, while Ayla sought to make them see the particulars of Caleb's situation: he'd been careless with his diabetes management for the past month or so. He'd been ceding more of it to her, depending on her more to track it; and this morning, she was so gun-ready to bid on the property, she'd left it all to him. But cops don't like stories. They're like animals of prey that way. Suspicious, watching the periphery, looking for holes in a story, like a rustle in the tall grass.

So Ayla was standing on 1st, with her hands on her head, an explanation in her mouth, a tree at her feet, along with the satchel and the deed to their new acreage. "This could turn into a medical emergency if you don't let me get some juice," she said, while the female cop murmured into her radio. She caught Ayla looking at her blouse, where it had bunched above the belt, the button coming loose there, and stared her down. The police car remained jammed into the curb at its odd angle, and motorists were slowing to see the drama. A second police car--backup--came and went.

Finally, the policewoman gave Ayla permission to run around the corner to the Marche cafe to buy a glass of orange juice. She didn't like leaving Caleb on the street with the police: He was woozy and disoriented, and who knew what he'd say, but she could hardly send them into the cafe for her.

Inside the Marche was cool and dark, the floor of antique black and white ceramic tiles emanating cool of previous decades, of graves. A pair of the regulars played chess. A few people sat at two-tops. One guy played a game on his iPad at the counter that faced out the window. On a table, an abandoned newspaper. Ayla caught half a headline about the "Debtors workforce."

Behind the bar, no one; near the register, no one; waiting tables, no one.

"Lisa?" Ayla called out for the waitress, who had disappeared into the kitchen or somewhere. Getting high perhaps. "Lisa?"

The other patrons turned their heads. "We need some juice or some food," she explained to an older man who sat at the bar every afternoon--he was giving her a look like, relax, she'll be back...give it time.

"Lisa isn't here," said a young sandy-haired man at the bar. Ayla recognized him. He was an almost well-known actor who starred in independent movies. Recently, the LA Weekly had featured him on its cover. He loitered here often, with his dog, whom he brought inside. The big white-coated shepherd was asleep now beneath one of the tables.

"I need some juice," Ayla said as she swung through half door between the bar and the customers' space.

The actor gave her a wry look, tilting his head as though this were stage improv.

She found a coffee cup in the lower shelf next to the espresso machine and orange juice in a pitcher in the refrigerator beneath the bar. She looked at the cup and decided to take the pitcher, which was half full, instead of trying to run with a cup.

"You must be very thirsty."

She ignored him.

The actor and the old painter, who came in every morning, exchanged a look.

"I just need a glass of juice," she repeated. "My boyfriend is diabetic and his blood sugar is low. I forgot to bring glucose tablets."

"They probably don't have glucose here."

Caleb sat on the steps of Disney Hall--they had moved half a block down in the time Ayla was gone. He was drinking Sprite from a can. "I gave him mine," said officer Connor, which was the female cop's name. Caleb looked anxious, restored--and exposed. He was secretive about his pancreas and the dangers its failure put him in, every hour of the day. He would have preferred to be hit by the squad car-and rushed to the hospital for blunt force trauma--than to be sitting on these steps drinking Sprite under supervision.

"I brought juice," Ayla said, holding up the pitcher. "I guess we don't need it."

Caleb glanced at Ayla, his kind, lacy eyes grabbing at her heart, like hands.

"Don't I know you from somewhere?" the male cop, Alvarez his nametag said, asked Ayla as Caleb stood. "Did you go to Marshall?"

"Even if I did go to Marshall, I'm at least ten years older than you are."

"I doubt it."

Connor was murmuring again into her radio. Murmuring seemed to be a big part of their job.

"I used to sell real estate in Montecito Heights and Mount Coahuila, around there, Glassell Park," Alvarez said. "Did I show you a house one time? Were you looking to buy a place? That was back in 2007, 2006."

Ayla looked more closely at him, the young face--maybe he was older than her looked to her at first, now that his adrenaline had subsided, his face settled. He had a pockmark between his eyebrows. She had definitely seen him, somewhere.

"We just bought a property this morning--in Ashton Park. We got it at auction."

"Isn't it like the wild west over there?" Alvarez asked.

"In what way?"

Alvarez mimed shooting a gun into the air.

"You do look familiar," she said.

Connor caught Alvarez's eye, held her radio in the air. They left without niceties, Connor driving the car onto the curb and over, burning rubber, leaving in a cloud of blue burnt-smelling exhaust.

Ayla put the pitcher of orange juice down on the marble steps. "Let's go."

Caleb found the sapling where they'd left it. A dry cleaner's coat hanger still wrapped in plastic had been tossed, blown, or kicked next to the tree, as if to keep company, as county employees, jurors at lunch, defendants stepped over them or walked around.

Caleb gently lifted the bag with the root ball, and together, they carried the tree and the ownership of the new property to Caleb's car, where Ayla got behind the wheel. The old Mercedes felt heavy, compared to her little electric bug, which was in the shop (with electrical troubles). They turned at 2nd street, heading for Ashton Park, Caleb's ancient Mercedes like a hillside on wheels, chugging and roaring, pushing toward the mountain they call Sold!

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