Julian Files is a series set in the past for In the Company of Shadows. It contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Fade, so do not read until you have finished Fade!
Julian Files, by Ais
Thursday May 12, 2005
Even on the far end of Crandall Park’s sprawling playground, shrieking kids disrupted the otherwise calm morning. Julian’s fingers twitched and he resisted for the third time reaching for his pack of Winstons. He’d have gone for it anyway if the adulterating mom across the way didn’t give him the evil eye every time he touched his pocket.
Jennifer Groves, twenty-seven years old. Whitebread America mistressing it up with a certain Latino charmer named Joaquin Padilla. Julian doubted she knew he was the PI who had given her husband the racy photos of the two of them going at it like horny teenagers against a window of the White Oaks, but being as she recently stopped smoking she knew a fellow nicotine addict when she saw one. Not that her attempt to go clean living was liable to last long, once good ole Chris Groves was done raking her through the divorce proceedings.
It never ceased to amaze Julian how stupid so many people were. What made them think being in a mid-range hotel made the windows any less transparent when they decided to play out their little fantasies? And so many of them had the receiving partner facing the window, too. Made his job a whole hell of a lot easier to get the money shot.
He considered whipping out a smoke anyway just to fuck with her, when he noticed Cedrick approaching.
The man was a conundrum. He wasn’t bad looking by any stretch, but he easily could have been forgettable. Stocky build, average height, brown eyes, brown hair… Nothing stood out at a glance. In a photo, he would have been the guy in the background no one thought to look at twice.
The gift of anonymity.
Julian wished he had the same, at times.
But in motion, that was when all the little bits came together and made Cedrick recognizable. His easy, loping gait. The smile that seemed ever ready on the edges of his lips, and that goddamned infectious grin that popped up at the least expected moments. Made his whole face light up like a Christmas tree, and at times even made Julian fight a grin in return.
The trademark Beaulieu not-yet-smile was in place as Cedrick strode toward him slower than normal, and when all the trees and kidlets were out of the way Julian saw why.
He raised his eyebrows and flicked a glance down at Cedrick’s side.
“Brought the kid, huh?”
“Couldn’t get a babysitter.” Cedrick rested his hand around Boyd’s skinny little shoulders, pulling him against his thigh like some sort of tall dog. The fond smile aimed down at him probably wouldn’t have looked out of place in those circumstances, either. “Can’t say I’m sad about it, though. I don’t get enough time with him as it is.”
Cedrick dropped easily onto the park bench next to Julian, and soon it was the both of them who stared at Boyd.
Truth be told, the kid creeped Julian out. Like Cedrick, his photo op impression was different than his video. He was a cute kid by looks alone: fine blond hair, huge eyes an unusual amber; a skinny little thing with pouty lips. He hovered in that childlike androgynous zone of not seeming resigned to any gender entirely.
Maybe if he smiled once in a dinosaur’s age it’d be fine but he was like a little alien. He stared at people like he was dissecting their motivations, filing it away in some five-year-old version of Enemy vs Friend, or maybe he was just trying to figure out what the fuck was going on around him. Julian might have thought he was slow but he’d seen the kid write and draw well beyond his nephew who was four years older. And when the kid talked, which wasn’t often, there were times his sentence structure and astute observations were like he was twice his age.
Julian sometimes wondered if the kid was going to turn into a serial killer someday. If so, he should probably make sure he wasn’t on the kid’s hit list.
“Hey there, champ.” Julian patted the bench next to him. “Youcan sit down. Last I checked you weren’t a vampire and this bench wasn’t a house so I’m pretty sure you don’t need an invitation.”
When Boyd only stared at him with his too-guarded-for-a-five-year-old face and luminous eyes, Julian felt the same weird mixture of aggravation, bemusement, and devilry he often felt around the kid. He didn’t resist the temptation to reach out and ruffle his hair so harshly it made his head rock back and forth like a little bobblehead.
When his hand dropped, Boyd’s hair stood up in huge tangled tufts not unlike the aftermath of a balloon rubbing. Julian smirked in satisfaction. Boyd stared just as seriously out of that, making him look like a grumpy, rumpled cat.
“Ha!” Julian said.
Cedrick chuckled and leaned forward, gently smoothing Boyd’s hair back down. He rested his fingers on Boyd’s chin and turned his face toward him. Boyd let his head move but his eyes remained on Julian until the last second when they flicked over to his dad.
Like Julian always said. Fucking creepy.
“Why don’t you go play with the others, Boyd? We came here so you could have some fun.”
Boyd’s pouty little lips turned down even further. Jesus. He had the same disapproving stare as his mother. If he didn’t turn out to be a serial killer, he’d become something equally terrifying. Julian was sure of it.
“They won’t approve of me.”
Seriously, what five-year-old talked like that?
“Yes, they will.” The fatherly smile of Cedrick’s was all manner of affection with a little bit of mischief tossed in for spice. “And if they don’t, forget them. They aren’t good enough for you. You can have fun on your own.”
Boyd looked over his shoulder at the play set, looked back at his dad, and hesitated. There was something vulnerable in the slight quaking of his shoulders; the way his eyebrows drew in and his feet seemed poised between flight and folding. Those little fingers of his twitched at his sides.
“I don’t want you to leave me. What if I go and when I come back you’re gone?”
It was said in such a small voice, made all the smaller for coming from a young kid like that. A pang pulled at Julian and he had to look away.
He felt bad for the kid. Boyd didn’t exactly have Mother of the Year waiting for him at home all those days Cedrick was out gallivanting around playing the modern day superhero. The one time Julian had been invited to that house he’d sworn to himself he would never return. It was immaculate in looks but felt like a funeral parlor. Like something intangible had died and the pall of it had soaked into the shadows and cluttered up all the empty spaces of the rooms.
“It’s alright,” Cedrick was saying soothingly. “I’ll be right here watching you. I’m not going anywhere.” He lightly shoved Boyd’s shoulder. “Go play.”
Boyd wavered in place for another heartbeat before apparently deciding he could risk walking away from his dad for a few minutes to play on the playground with the other kids. Even then, Boyd was cautious in his steps and he kept looking back over his shoulder as if to reassure himself that his father hadn’t disappeared in the last two seconds. The fact that a little kid even put that much thought into something like this killed Julian a little inside.
But then, a lot of the kids of this generation feared loss for good reason.
Cedrick held still until Boyd very carefully clambered up onto one of the little mechanical trucks and set to diligently scooping a hole in the sand and meticulously dropping the sand in a pile to the right. At that, Cedrick finally let out a long, heavy breath and dropped his head against the bench with his eyes closed. His arms stretched across the back of the bench.
“He makes me feel like the terrible father I am.”
“You’re not a bad dad.” Julian propped his ankle on his other knee and patted his Winstons to reassure himself that they, too, hadn’t moved. The kid’s paranoia was getting to him. “You just have a… advanced kid.”
The pinch in Cedrick’s face made him look a lot older than his twenty-five years. “I should be around him more. A lot more. I want to be, I just…”
Julian sighed loudly. “Are we going to do the psychiatrist thing again, Ced? Because I told you. I’m shit as a shrink. My advice to you is have a stiff drink and buck up.”
The not-quite-smile toyed with Cedrick’s lips. “That advice has some merit.”
A scoff was his answer, and the two of them fell silent. Jennifer the Joaquin-diddler eyed him even harder now that there was a kid attached to him by proxy. Julian smirked at her and considered slopping a big wet kiss on Cedrick’s cheek to make her think they were gay for each other, just to see the knee-jerk bigot reaction he knew was dwelling under the surface of her girl-next-door facade. But then he’d have to deal with Cedrick finding that to be hilarious and one-upping him by grabbing his crotch or some shit, and it’d be all downhill from there.
So instead, Julian stared her hard in the eyes and very pointedly pulled out his Winstons to rattle them in front of him. Her eyes narrowed, more out of jonesing than judgment, and Julian’s smirk went straight into asshole territory.
“I don’t think you can make it a day without messing with someone,” Cedrick commented.
Julian glanced over and saw that Cedrick hadn’t taken his eyes off his son, but he must have seen the interaction in his peripheral vision. Julian shrugged, unabashed. He set to relieving the pack of one of the cigarettes.
“She’s been side-eyeing me since I got here. Serves her right at this point.”
“One of your clients?”
“Nah.” Julian’s words were slightly muffled by the cigarette dangling between his lips. He shoved the pack back in his pocket and patted around for his lighter. “One of the wives, though.”
“She know that?”
“Nope.” The lighter’s flame flickered in the faint breeze. He relished both the initial hit of nicotine and the way Jennifer chewed the inside of her lip.
“So it’s just your natural charm that attracted her,” Cedrick said dryly, and Julian couldn’t help grinning.
“Other than the unnamed woman you’ve managed to piss off by point of being alive, you have anything interesting to run with lately?”
“Are we talking Sun-interesting, or Guild-interesting?” Julian glanced over at Cedrick. “Because those are entirely different criteria.”
Cedrick shrugged. “Either.”
Julian rocked his foot, making his other knee bounce up and down in mid-air. From his view, Boyd was cloaked in a wreath of cigarette smoke. The kid must have dug down as far as he could go because he had straddled the truck and managed to turn it far enough to start digging another hole.
“What’s he doing, anyway?”
Cedrick shrugged. “He does that.”
“Digs random holes?”
A slight smile. “No. He tries to figure out the world around him.”
Julian was pretty sure the ‘…’ could practically be read in the air, the way he stared at Cedrick.
Cedrick flashed a grin, and sat forward with his forearms braced on his knees. “On the way over, when I told him we were going to the park, he asked if there was a sandpit. I told him there was. He asked how they were made. How the sand got there in the middle of the grass. Where it came from. Why it didn’t blow away in the wind. I told him usually they dug into the ground, laid something down like wood or plastic or whatever, and then brought in sand from somewhere else and put it there for the safety of the kids. Then he wanted to know why people liked sand. I told him it was up to each person, and maybe he could figure out why he liked sand.”
His hand splayed out, gesturing at Boyd who was considering the current hole he was digging with all the solemn contemplation of a foreman overseeing a multi-million dollar project. “I guarantee you, when we get back into the car he’s going to have his answer. And it probably won’t just be ‘I can dig holes in it.’ It’ll probably be something about how the sand can be any shape or it’s hard to control but you can still make it do what you want, and next thing he’ll be asking is what will make the sand act differently…”
“He’s a smart kid,” Julian allowed.
“Yeah.” The grin ratcheted up to show all of Cedrick’s white teeth. “He is. I think he’ll end up skipping a few grades in the future.”
Julian didn’t even have to contemplate the thought, but he did just to give an excuse for a cigarette break. “Yeah. He will.”
“He gets it from his mom, mostly,” Cedrick said thoughtfully.
“Ha.” The word nearly transformed into a snort. “That relentless digging—no pun intended—comes from you, buddy boy. Not Vanity Fair Viv.”
“She’s a chess player.”
Julian grimaced. “I’m not calling her stupid, I’m saying she’s willing to accept the status quo if it works in her favor.”
Cedrick was already shaking his head before Julian had finished. He finally dragged his eyes off his son and settled his stare on Julian. “No. I mean, she’s constantly thinking ahead. Planning her next move. Trying to determine how it will affect whatever she’s doing at the moment. I may wonder about the why of everything, Boyd too, but Vivienne is the one who wants to know the how. Because once she knows that, she can control it. Boyd, I’ve noticed—he does that too.”
“I could see that.”
Silence fell between them again but it didn’t last long. “So?”
“So, any interesting stories for me?”
“Oh. Well, in the scandal department the Mayor’s recently resigned aide turns out to have a thing for tying up the ladies.”
Cedrick chuckled and settled back to watch Boyd again. “If you ever want some extra cash, you could write a gossip column in the Sun.”
“Could I go into salacious detail about everyone’s sex lives?”
“Guess I’ll have to write it in my memoir, then.”
“You’ll have to. There’s nothing interesting about you; it’s all about what you see.”
“Are you calling me boring?”
“I’m calling you normal.”
Julian scoffed. “See if I invite you to my bachelor party.”
“You got someone to propose to you when I wasn’t looking?”
“No,” Julian grumbled and set to finishing off his cigarette. He spoke with the smoke still caught against his tongue. “But if I ever do, you aren’t invited.”
“That’s gonna be a lonely party with you sitting there alone with a stripper.”
Julian snorted. “Who said I’d get a stripper? We’ve already established I know everyone’s dirty sex lives. I’m sure I could insinuate my way into the more interesting ones for a night.”
Cedrick’s rumbling laugh comforted Julian, somehow. Must be nostalgia.
“Did I show you Boyd’s latest drawing?”
“No, but I know you’re about to no matter what I say.”
Cedrick dragged a folded-up piece of paper out of his back pocket and Julian looked over incredulously.
“Seriously? You carry his shit around in your pocket? You are the most ridiculous father I have ever met. Some days I can’t even handle you.”
Cedrick straightened indignantly. “You said to show you his drawing!
“Yeah, like a normal person! Jesus Christ. Who the fuck walks around with a five-year-old’s drawing wadded up in his back pocket? His photo? Fine, put that shit in your wallet, that’s normal. But refrigerator art?”
Cedrick scowled. It was funny how the only times Julian ever saw the guy actually pissed off was when it was about some perceived injustice, or someone was calling him out on being the stupidest doting dad in the world.
“I’ll have you know I’ve seen less talented art in museums than I’ve seen Boyd draw in—”
“Oh for fuck’s sake.” Julian snatched the crinkled paper out of Cedrick’s hand and made a whole lot of noise straightening it out against his propped up thigh to drown out his friend. When it was flat enough to see, he eyed it thoughtfully.
The kid was surprisingly talented. Julian always had a hard time believing the stuff Cedrick showed off actually came from Boyd.
At an age when most kids drew flat-legged horses and stick-figure parents, Boyd drew character studies. This one was of some young kid who looked familiar to Julian. Wild-ass curly hair falling into big eyes and a devil-may-care grin. Looked to be Boyd’s age. In the drawing he was holding his finger to his lips like he was about to embark on an adventure he knew he’d be in deep shit for and he was trying to establish his conspirators from the start.
The drawing wasn’t perfect, that was true, but it was a damn sight better than Julian could ever hope to accomplish. And he had twenty-plus years on the kid.
“Louis Krauszer,” Julian said when realization hit. “Emily and Thomas Krauszer’s kid.”
Cedrick grinned. “See? He’s an excellent artist.”
“You see that little shit on the news all the time. Hovering behind his hippy-dippy parents always looking like he’s up to no good.”
“Well,” Cedrick said with a chuckle. “Knowing what I do of him so far, that’s probably true.”
“What’s Boyd doing drawing him?”
“He was invited to Lou’s birthday party this weekend.”
Julian’s eyebrows shot up. “We’re talking the Krauszers, right? Mom’s a House Rep? Father’s a Senator?”
“Yep.” Cedrick looked way too proud of himself.
“Shit, Beau. They’re gonna serve million-dollar caviar draped with gold powder. You have to let me come. Tell them I’m your long lost cousin.”
Cedrick laughed under his breath and eyed Julian. “I don’t think that’ll work, JJ. Your eyes are too blue, you’re too tall and skinny. We look nothing alike. You’d fit Vivienne’s side better, if we could bleach your hair.”
Julian heaved out a great sigh and dropped his head back. The sky was a mass of gunmetal grey clouds overhead. “Forget it. Even caviar isn’t worth pretending I’m French.”
“I’ll be sure to tell Vivienne you said that.”
Julian was about to ask how an introverted kid like Boyd ended up trading invites with Lexington’s elites when he noticed the heaviness darkening Cedrick’s eyes.
Cedrick glanced at him from the corner of his eye, and then ran a hand through his hair. “I was just thinking.” He paused, and Julian knew Cedrick well enough to recognize this was something his friend didn’t want to admit but felt it would be untrue not to. His honesty ran as deep as the Earth’s fault lines, and caused just as much disruption at times. “Boyd is… different.”
Julian snorted. “You think?”
Cedrick crossed his arms. “I think it makes him stand out. Not always in a good way.”
“Is something going on?”
Cedrick hesitated again before the words left in a rush. “I think he’s being bullied.”
“Bullied? Isn’t he, what? In Preschool?”
“Bullies start that young?”
“You must not spend enough time around kids if you haven’t figured out they can be crueler than anyone else. If someone doesn’t fit their expectations, they can be relentless. And Boyd’s been… quieter lately.”
“Wow. I didn’t think that was possible.”
“I’m serious, Julian.” The pleading in Cedrick’s eyes shot down Julian’s automatic snarky retort. “I’m worried about him. He may be young but he doesn’t like troubling anyone. It’s as easy getting issues out of him as it is Vivienne.”
Julian frowned contemplatively at Boyd. He could see it, but…
“Even so, bullies who play fingerpaint Picasso on the side?” Julian shook his head in disgust and kicked at some cigarette butts near his foot. “What the fuck is going on with the world today?”
“Yeah,” Julian said soberly. “There’s that.”
Julian’s fingers ticked against the crinkled paper until finally he sighed and carefully folded the Krauszer portrait back along the lines from whence it came. He handed the folded sheet over to Cedrick between his pointer and middle finger without looking away from Boyd.
Days like this, a person could almost forget that so much was blown to shit outside the park’s boundaries. That millions of people had died five years ago and even their politicians didn’t seem to know when the next strike would come.
“Are you going to talk to the teacher?”
“As soon as I can.”
They fell into mutual silence that remained even after Boyd looked up at them both with a furrow in his eyebrows. He stood up, and with the most determined expression Julian had ever seen on a five-year-old he meticulously walked over to them with his grubby little hands clenching something. Julian felt a mild paranoia that some frog was going to leap out at his face when the kid got closer, but in the end when Boyd stopped in the space between their legs it was only a handful of sand that he held out in front of him like precious jewels.
“Seahorses,” he said quite firmly.
“What?” Julian and Cedrick both said at once, the word blurred by the half-second offset in timing.
Boyd peered down at the sand cupped in his palms, although Julian could see it was ever so slowly siphoning its way down between his fingers.
“I think it’s seahorses and rocks and shells,” Boyd explained.
Sort of. The explanation made no damn sense to Julian, but apparently Cedrick spoke Toddlerese.
“That’s what the sand is made of?”
Boyd nodded resolutely. “Because it comes from the sea and if you look close you can see the shells. And it’s seahorses because they have the different colors and it’s rocks because you can see them. And it has to have stars too because some parts shine the same the way I see sometimes at night. How do the stars get in the sand?” He looked up curiously at his father.
Cedrick smiled and ran a hand over Boyd’s pale hair. “I guess that’s the next thing we’ll have to figure out, isn’t it?”
Boyd sighed heavily. “I guess.”
“Why so bummed, baby Beau?” Julian asked.
“Because I just figured out the sand and now I have to figure out the stars, too,” Boyd said morosely.
“Jesus. The life of a five-year-old contains some huge questions nowadays.”
“What did you have to figure out when you were five?” Boyd asked him, and Julian was caught by both the question and the eerily similar way Boyd peered at him like his father.
Serial killer. Definitely.
“Uh.” Julian frowned at the kid and absently ran his thumb along the seam of his jeans. “I don’t remember. How to get my mom to give me ice cream before dinner, probably.”
Cedrick laughed. “I don’t remember ever being successful in that venture.”
Boyd’s stare turned onto Cedrick. “What’s ‘venture’?”
“An attempt to do something risky. Something you try that might not work.”
“Venture,” Boyd repeated quietly to himself, like he was committing it to memory. Knowing the kid, he probably was.
“Are you going to bring the sand home with you?” Julian asked when he kept holding it out.
Boyd eyed the sand and then shook his head decisively. “No. I might see the stars again tonight.”
With that, he turned his back on them and gingerly returned to the sandbox where he tottered around seemingly in search of something specific. He finally alighted on it and squatted to delicately set the handful of sand down.
“Oh my god,” Julian muttered in perverse fascination. “He’s putting it back exactly where it came from. That kid is a fucking alien, I’m telling you.”
“Vivienne taught him that.”
“To return sand to the sandbox exactly where he picked it up?”
Cedrick rolled his eyes and shoved his thigh against Julian’s. Julian’s legs rocked with the motion. “To put away his toys, you ass.”
“Does he even have toys? Not for nothing, but Vivienne seems like she’d death glare them out of existence if anything cluttered up her magazine-spread home.”
Cedrick looked for a moment like he planned to argue but the flash of guilt that tightened his features was too obvious to ignore. He let out a deep breath that deflated him instead. “Put things away when he’s done with them, I mean. He doesn’t have much in the way of traditional toys.”
“Your kid’s life is kind of depressing.”
Julian hadn’t meant to say it aloud. He’d thought it a lot of times but never meant to actually say it. But watching that little kid place a handful of sand in the precise place he’d picked it up brought the whole thing home harder than he’d expected.
Cedrick’s face turned pained. His fingers clenched and unclenched. “I know,” he said quietly.
“So fix it,” Julian said flatly. He glared at Cedrick. “You act all depressed when you think you aren’t father of the year, but you obviously care about this kid. You’re the most obnoxious dad I know, and believe me, I run across a lot. But you don’t do shit about the things you can actually affect, and just let it run you over with guilt later. What’s the point? Stop it at the start and be done with it. Buy the kid some toys and let him act five years old in his own goddamn home, for fuck’s sake.”
“It’s complicated,” Cedrick said tightly. “Vivienne…”
“Vivienne what?” Julian demanded, but by then Boyd was suddenly standing right in front of them again. Little ninja serial killer. Julian hadn’t even heard him approach.
Those huge honey-colored eyes watched them both. Julian scoffed and relented, unwilling to push the topic in front of the one five-year-old he knew who would probably actually understand the conversation. Aggravated, he shoved himself to his feet and crossed his arms. He glowered down at Cedrick, who was not quite meeting his eyes.
“Get your shit together, Cedrick, or stop whining to me about your failings. News flash: you aren’t perfect. No one is. Choose your battles if you have to but don’t come crying to me if you’re going to lament the ending of the ones you avoided.”
He didn’t give Cedrick the chance to respond, although he did notice him wince. Julian grabbed the only thing he had on him that was anything like a gift, which turned out to be his notebook and pen. It was an old style; small, with a metal case that enclosed the small pad of paper entirely and was held together by interlocking holes on the side where the pen fit. It was dark brown with a simple blue checkered design. He ripped out the few sheets of paper he’d used for notes recently, shoved them in his pocket, then held out the note case to Boyd.
“Here, kid. It’s not much, but… Have fun drawing with it in your room or something, okay?”
Boyd was wide-eyed, holding up his hands hesitantly like he was about to receive a dollop of holy water from Jesus or some shit. Julian felt equally disgusted toward Cedrick and Vivienne, and pained for Boyd. If the kid turned into a serial killer, it probably wouldn’t be his fault.
Fingers curling around the note case like some kind of precious artifact, Boyd hugged it to his chest and craned his neck to stare up at Julian.
“This is for me?” The hushed voice and huge eyes made Boyd seem every bit his age. For once.
“Yeah, kid.” Julian patted Boyd’s head, and didn’t even ruffle his hair this time. “It’s small enough so you should be able to bring it around with you… if you want.”
Jesus. Now he just sounded awkward. He had to leave before he turned into a complete idiot.
He took one giant step backward, and flicked a pointed stare at Cedrick. Then he turned his attention to Boyd with a lazy wave. “Catch you later, small fry.”
He left before he had to see something else that would piss him off. At least Jennifer looked pretty miserable as he passed her. She had a phone against her ear and was eyeing the empty air like it held the answer to why life sucked so fucking much sometimes. The clip of the conversation he heard, starting with a pleading, “Chris,” and ending with a less convincing, “I swear—” gave him all the answers he might have wanted for the reason.
Julian shoved his fists into the pockets of his jacket and wondered where he was going to find another of those note cases, and how he was going to look at it in the near future without thinking of that poor kid looking like Santa came to town over something so minuscule.
Fuck’s sake. Some days he wondered why humanity was so fucked up. Other days, he had a sinking feeling he had a pretty damn good idea why.