'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.
The door was open and James stepped into the lighted room, glancing to the left and right, along the wall, as he walked through. He had mostly succeeded in getting rid of the habit--threat assessment--the habit of checking the room, starting with the blind spots. He worked hard to break the habits. He didn't want to act like a convict. Act the part, you are the part.
The room was empty. If there was one thing he did not like it was walking into an empty room, unless he was his own home. Maybe that's why he'd been drawn to population mapping (until he was fired that is): He wanted to know where people are. The last time he'd been in this office there'd been a short line. The chairs had asses in them. A couple of first-timers were filling out forms at the counter. That was a few months ago. People got word when the friendly types worked the counter. But James hadn't wanted to wait a week for his guy to be here. He wanted to get things rolling.
He stepped in, past the dingy chairs against the wall, and went to the counter and its old-fashioned ring-for-service bell. Behind the counter was an open space with several desks, then a hallway that branched left and right and had offices. He could hear the high-pitch of a computer and the low whir of computer fans. These were the sounds of silence. He knew this office could not have been de-funded, or de-mandated, because it was a major source of money for the county, and, besides, there were file folders on desks and only two of the chairs were pushed in properly.
He could feel the circles of sound widening to fill the space. It was embarrassing, this emanation, this cry for attention.
The woman came walking from the outer hallway on the left--his first thought was he'd seen her around here before, maybe not in this office; she was another clerk to win over, until she stopped, staring at him. He didn't understand at first. He's spent enough time in the building that he was not surprised when someone looked familiar, particularly an attractive woman.
He hadn't seen that coming. With the exception of family no one he wanted to know called him Jimmy anymore.
Shit. Yes, he remembered, sort of. From the early days when he had first started using. She'd been into him and got a little crazy, calling him a lot, back in Venice. But she hadn't even made his list for reparations, when he did the steps.
She looked different--like a type, the pretty Latina who is third or even fourth generation Angeleno and doesn't really speak Spanish, tallish, for a Mexican girl, with pale skin. She'd been kind of ghetto, but not wholly.
Apparently, by half.
"Darlin'! I knew I'd find you one of these days. But I didn't think it'd be here. Look at you!"
"Yeah? Look at you." She smiled crookedly, like she hadn't meant to smile.
She looked at his nice button-down shirt, made him feel he'd stolen it.
"I can tell you a lot has happened since those days back then. I been through a lot of changes."
She was still making up her mind. Yes, she held a grudge.
"You mean instead of working the counter at the mercado?"
"Yeah. Or home with the kids."
She shrugged. He leaned on the counter, trying to get closer, reminding himself not to cross the line, though he owed her some attention. She stayed back from the counter. She flipped her hair back over her shoulder. No, no, no, that was not good. Don't do that. She looked great. But he needed to steer clear from the ladies in this building. At least while he was consulting. And he definitely needed to stay clear of women from his past, the big past. Besides, he had a girlfriend.
"I went to college," she was saying. "Northridge. I took classes for spring and the fall semester and then they let me in. I got married. That only lasted three years. I been here in this office two years."
"How come I've never seen you?"
She shrugged. "You came on the wrong days?"
"You're looking great." He reverted to the new grammar. "Really great." He leaned closer. "I was a dick--"
She held up her hand. "What can I do for you?"
She didn't want to know if he had kids--got married? He told her his business--he was starting the permit process for some connected lots in Ashton Park. He wasn't sure that his client was going to get financing--he lowered his voice, confiding--but if they (he tried to avoid saying "she") didn't get the money together to build at least they could sell the lots permitted. They'd make a profit.
She listened, impassive, hiding her interest. She looked better than back in the day, much better. She was asking questions. She knew the neighborhood, Ashton Park, she said. Not that she'd ever been there, but she knew the councilman to be responsive to neighborhood activists, who were hostile to developers, even for a single-lot project.
"That's why I need it done right."
"You know there's a backlog."
Backlog? It wasn't good when they used that word, backlog. It meant either they wanted a bribe or you were going onto the slow pile. The backlog was why he made more money than your typical consultant to small developers. But he didn't like to hear the word.
He didn't speak.
"You don't believe me? You want to see my desk?"
Her name came back to him. Alicia. Ah-lee-see-yah.
"Alicia," he said. "Can I show you some of what I have, preliminary sketches, photographs? I could use your opinion."
He was proud of his satchel, with his initials engraved on the latch, the nice leather, the fact that it was no longer new. But now he kept it mostly out of view while he fished for his manila envelopes. Suddenly it felt like someone else's pretentious accoutrement.
His mistake was showing her the photographs, the ones Ayla's boyfriend took.
Alicia looked at them attentively, her eyes tracing along the ridgeline to the wooded area.
"That a coast live oak," she said, hovering her index finger over the crown of a large tree. "You can't put a house there. And drainage is going to be a problem."
"My client knows about the tree. They're building around it."
"That's not what your drawings are saying." Saying, she emphasized the word so slightly, with such evil intent, calling him back.
"Those are preliminary. Listen, Alicia. Do you have plans for lunch? I'm starving. You want to come down to the street with me and get some fruit and tacos?"