His footsteps clipped on linoleum in smooth, steady rhythm, pleasing to his sense of image--and false. Inside his head, his ears, it was a different, irregular kind of beat.
"Oh, pardon me." He moved to the right for a slow-moving clerk who lazing straight down the center of the hallway. You had to be respectful. Once the intruder passed, James moved back to the center. In front of him, hallway, hallway, hallway, the architectural embodiment of municipal centralization. The building was fifty years old.
"Excuse me." This time he held his ground at center.
After leaving Ayla's house, James had gone straight to work--hopped in his car and come straight down here. Later, he told himself, he'd take a break. He'd sit down at the Marche Café with his laptop and make a plan for Ayla, a plan for how he'd get her project off the ground. So to speak. He liked her sketches, had joked about getting a discount. And--tap, tap, tap went the feet--he'd meant it. A sweet little house in Ayla's built environment, subdivision, call it what you will. Those houses would sell quick, if they were built right (and he could make that happen). He'd add some color to the mix. He knew a good thing.
He was pleased with himself, the way he'd handled things. He'd been knocked off balance with that WRDI business, but then he'd danced right back into the ring. He got the job at a good rate.
"Hey bro, how you doing?" a lanky white guy with pock marks and a raspy voice, calling him bro. He couldn't remember which countertop they'd faced off at--it wasn't recent. The hallway would do that to you. It would throw someone up from the past and breeze them away before you could put it in place, before you could put your finger on this debtor-slave business of Ayla's.
Tap, tap. He stepped on black scuff marks on the patterned/tan tiles. So Ayla had one of those debtors on her place. It was hardly a human rights violation. She probably fed him seared tuna. It wasn't a shit-clogged toilet hole with curled barbed wire and sleeping shifts in Koreatown. There were rules and regulations, safeguards--and rights. But that was where it went bad, in legalizing forced labor, even if the dude was working for Ayla.
James didn't like it. He'd been in prison. But he'd never been sold to a white lady who told you where to sleep and when to eat--seared tuna.
He wondered if they were already bumping nasties.
He'd walked past his doorway: 640. He stopped in his tracks and looked over his shoulder. That same whale man, who'd plowed down the center of the floorway just two minutes ago was making his way back in James's direction--the only direction from where he stood.