Julian Files Chapter 4, scene 2:
Monday, June 27, 2005
The Sun office building, Crandall Park
The Sun’s office was crowded at eleven in the morning. The sound of phones ringing, keyboards clacking, and papers shuffling was a comforting undertone to the day. Cedrick half-listened to the murmured conversations of his coworkers, and wished not for the first time that Reisler would learn to temper his voice. The man’s conversations became everyone’s business in the entire floor at his superhuman decibel level. It wouldn’t be so bad, but it was usually so incredibly inane that it left Cedrick twitching for a good song and a set of headphones to replace the ones he’d lost on his last assignment.
With a sigh, Cedrick tipped back in his chair and kicked his feet up onto the desk. He swayed back and forth, rocking on the swivel chair while his gaze automatically roamed the fabric partitions. He’d managed to commandeer the cubicle despite being mostly freelance these days, because it was far off in the corner with no hope of ever seeing one of the windows gracing The Sun’s walls. And it couldn’t keep a light working for the life of it.
The staff called it Suicide Cubicle, because everyone who had previously used the space with its oppressive darkness had… Cedrick was still unclear on the transition. Somehow, in Generic-”They” Logic, it became a cause/effect of bad lighting to the people from this cubicle getting all the worst assignments.
Well, that, and because it was rumored someone had died or been murdered in this corner before The Sun had taken over this building. It was the ghost, his coworkers said, who made this cubicle always feel cold and uninviting. The ghost who always made the fluorescent light overhead flicker endlessly, frantically, calling out for help or maybe revenge.
That last bit was Cedrick’s touch. He liked getting poetic about mundane things. It made life interesting.
Cedrick rather liked the cubicle, truth be told. It did have a creepy vibe about it, but he liked it for that reason. It was good inspiration for Red Sunset. He had the mystery novel mostly plotted out, with just a few last minute touches to be made on the final chapter, and had all but settled on the pseudonym of Andre Bute. He hadn’t had time to write much of the actual book itself, but a possibly-haunted cubicle was certainly mood-inducing for a novel about a woman who stalks and kills the son she learns her husband had with a mistress.
One particularly hearty rock had him nearly twisting his feet off the desk, and he caught himself with a hand braced on the cubicle wall. Paper crinkled beneath his fingertips, and a soft smile grew automatically.
He looked fondly at the wall, covered in Boyd’s drawings. He could track Boyd’s age by following the rows of art; they grew more detailed and realistic as time passed, and as Boyd became more used to using colors.
The one he’d touched was of a dog lying in the grass, and it brought the memory vividly back to Cedrick with mixed emotions.
This was one of the first pieces of Boyd’s art that Cedrick had saved from that time period.
The dog in question lived down the block, the front yard just barely in view of their large window in the living room. The dog was a fluffy white monstrosity that often flopped down in the front yard and stared dolefully at all who passed.
Cedrick hadn’t known why Boyd had fixated on the dog for a week any time he’d seen the kid, until one day the drawing had been placed neatly in the recycle bin. Cedrick had taken it out and had searched the house until he’d found his son sitting quietly on the floor of his bedroom, in his seemingly favorite place between the far wall and his bed.
When Cedrick had asked Boyd why he’d put it in the recycling, Boyd had looked up at him with luminous eyes and had said simply:
“We don’t throw paper away. It has to be recycled.”
“You’re right,” Cedrick had said, holding the drawing so Boyd could see it. “But why did you throw it out in the first place? It’s very good, Boyd.”
Boyd had tilted his head, studying Cedrick intently. “Because it was over.”
“I drew the dog and then I was done. It would clutter the house if I kept it. We must throw out anything that’s done. Or else it’s in the way and that’s bad.”
Cedrick had felt his heart pull at the way his four-year-old son had spoken so calmly. In those words he’d heard his wife. He’d known Boyd drew a lot, and he had wondered where the art had gone. But he’d always assumed his son had kept them in a notebook or folder somewhere, or had given them away to others the way he occasionally gave Cedrick art with family as the theme.
Cedrick had clutched the dog drawing tightly, and had approached his son in large strides. He’d crouched down in front of him, resting his hands on those small shoulders, and had waited as that cherubic face had turned up to him.
He was such a sweet child, Cedrick had thought with something akin to panic—such a sweet child, who kept hiding it behind the walls he’d already built in his heart. He had been only four years old at the time, and even then Cedrick had seen the quiescence in his features, and the way he so often settled into a still statue when he wasn’t engaged.
That day, Cedrick hadn’t been able to help himself; he’d pulled Boyd forward into a hug, ignoring his child’s startled grunt and burying his face in his soft blond hair. He’d held him close, wishing he could protect him from the world, from Cedrick, from himself, from Vivienne, from everything, just by having a strong enough grip. Just by feeling love so powerful that it choked his breath and silenced his voice.
He’d felt small hands settle on his back. He’d felt his son’s small body move in steady breaths, and he’d heard the quiet uncertainty when Boyd had spoken.
“Are you okay?”
He’d wanted to cry, then. Because he was fine, but it was his son who needed help. He’d wanted to do so many things, but he hadn’t known how to fix it all. He hadn’t known, in that moment, why he’d ever thought he and Vivienne had been responsible enough to raise a child when they’d both been teenagers in an unfamiliar country. Not when they’d both had so many grandiose plans, and had still been trying to figure out themselves and their marriage.
But then again, he’d thought he’d have his mother and father to help. He’d thought he and Vivienne wouldn’t be completely alone. And he had always wanted a kid. A full family. He’d been so excited to start early, to fulfill his dream of experiencing all those little moments of raising a child and living with the love of his life.
He hadn’t known the war was coming, hadn’t known his family would be gone in an instant the same week his son was born. He hadn’t known how overwhelmed he would feel a month into Boyd’s life, watching his wife withdraw more and more while his son sobbed for attention at night. He’d tried to be there for Boyd, who hadn’t asked for this life, without losing Vivienne, who had risked everything for Cedrick and never asked for anything but love in return.
Even now, he didn’t know the best thing to do other than to love his family with everything he had. To remind them every chance he got, with all his heart and soul, that they were everything to him.
Even now, he didn’t know how to help them in the long run other than to try to make the world a better place. To charge ahead and make the world as safe as he could for his son so he could grow up happily and protected. To remove that terror he knew lurked in Vivienne’s heart, that the war would come again and take the love she had left. To protect them both from everything they couldn’t control, while loving them endlessly within everything they could.
He wanted to remove the opportunity for another war to take family from any of them. He wanted to love Boyd with all his soul for all of Boyd’s life, so Boyd would never have to deal with that fear of realizing his family was suddenly gone. He wanted to love Vivienne for eternity, so she could believe more and more that she was worth loving, that she was human and beautiful even with all her flaws.
He wanted all those things but he didn’t know if he was making the right choices.
Sometimes, he was terrified that he was doing everything wrong.
Truthfully, he had no idea how to be a good father, how to be a good husband. Especially in his situation where sometimes it felt like his wife and his son were at odds with each other, and if he showed more love to one of them than the other felt like he didn’t love them as much.
But that wasn’t true. He loved them both so much it was almost a physical pain, loved them more than life and the Earth and all the stars, and yet—
And yet, in moments like that when Boyd dismissed his talent so easily, Cedrick felt like a failure. Like he had to try harder, be better, love more thoroughly, remove more danger from the world, do everything more and more, to clear away the clouds from their eyes.
So he’d clutched his son like he was a lifeline. And all he’d been able to say was, “Give me your pictures from now on, okay, Boyd? If you finish something, don’t recycle it. I’ll keep it.”
“Because they’re good, Boyd. You shouldn’t throw away your talent.”
“But it’s pointless. Once it’s done it’s like it was never there. Why do you want to keep garbage, daddy?”
Cedrick had gripped his son as tightly as he’d dared. He’d wanted to ask if Boyd really believed that—if he thought that there was no point in experience, in life, because eventually it would all be gone. It was such a fatalistic view of life, particularly for someone so small, that it had briefly struck Cedrick breathless.
“Because I want to remember you when I’m not home.”
“Oh.” Boyd’s voice had been so quiet, so confused but also—Cedrick had been sure of it—quietly pleased. It had to have been the case, because Boyd’s little hands had clutched Cedrick’s shirt and he had pressed his cheek into Cedrick’s chest.
“Do you have any drawings, dad?”
“No, son. I’m not a good enough artist like you. Why?”
“Because I want to remember you when you’re gone, too.”
It was said so quietly, so muffled, that Cedrick almost hadn’t heard the words. When he realized what had been said, he’d clenched onto Boyd, and had dropped all plans he’d had for the rest of the day. He’d resolved not to leave his son alone until he’d fallen asleep that night.
“I’ll never be gone, Boyd. I’ll always be here for you. I’ll always love you. You know that, right?”
When Boyd had pulled back in his father’s arms just enough to look up, Cedrick had seen the fluctuation of doubt and hope playing unusually clearly on his delicate features. Finally, Boyd had nodded and leaned forward to settle against Cedrick’s chest. His little arms had wound around Cedrick’s neck and had held him close.
“Okay,” Boyd had said, as if it were as simple as that.
Cedrick wanted to make the world as easy as that.
He had to remove the chance for tragedy to hurt this child he loved with all his life. He had to protect him, not just physically but also every other way.
Right down to the dog drawing that had crinkled in his hand.
“Earth to Cedrick.”
Cedrick jumped, halfway throwing himself off the chair. He caught himself before he crashed to the floor, locked in an awkward position.
Shana laughed at him. “That could have made a good story, right there. Hold that pose a sec, would ya? I’ll go get my camera.”
Cedrick scowled at her, although there was no heat to it, and he righted himself with supreme dignity. “What do you want?”
The dignity was misplaced, because she only laughed and ruffled his hair. He sighed. He’d never managed the art of graceful recovery, like Vivienne could do without thought. Nor had he learned the haughty gaze of someone raised in riches the likes of which generations of his family couldn’t match even with all their life savings combined.
All he’d learned was to be sincere and never let life get him down.
He could fix it all, he knew, if he only tried hard enough. If he only continued to work toward that goal every moment of his life, if he only continued to smile for his family even when he was exhausted, if he only did the best job around.
He could do it all. He just had to believe in himself, in his dream, in his family and friends. He would pave the way for them, make it safe for them to follow, and together they could stride into a future that protected everyone equally from senseless tragedy. It was doable, because humans were inherently good; he just had to believe in everyone around him.
“I was going to see if you wanted lunch, but then you were sitting there staring at the wall like it had the answer to life itself, with this dopey sad look on your face. What’s up? Something happen to the kidlet?”
Cedrick barely resisted the urge to sigh again, heavier this time. Instead, he straightened and dropped his feet firmly to the floor. “He’s fine. I was just remembering something.”
He looked distractedly at the clock. Jeez. No wonder she’d looked at him oddly; he’d been staring at the wall for seven minutes.
“Where are you thinking today?”
She shrugged. “I dunno. Mexican?”
“The only good restaurant nearby is Pimiento’s, and we’ve been there five times this month already.”
“What about Caribbean?”
Shana eyed him dubiously. “Depends… Are we talking the one on the edge of Barrows, or the one in Lincoln Square?”
Cedrick hesitated. “Well. The one in Barrows is better, but if you don’t feel comfortable—”
“No, I do,” she said hurriedly. “Feel comfortable. Very comfortable. The one in Lincoln is god-awful. I was hoping you’d say Barrows.”
Cedrick flashed a smile. “Good, then.”
Shana checked the time on her phone. “Want to head out in five? I’ll see if I can round up a few more in the meantime.”
“I’ll meet you there. I have to do something first.”
Shana nodded easily. “See you there, then,” she called as she loped away.
Cedrick grabbed his work bag and threw the strap over his shoulder before heading out. He strode down the stairs rather than taking the elevator, and ten minutes later emerged in a day that was almost obnoxiously cheerful. The clouds backlit by the sun were such a bright white that they threatened to burn his retinas. He squinted at the sky, then shaded his eyes as he wound his way through the people on the street until he was able to break off.
There was a small park nearby, little more than a half-dead triangle of grass with a few bushes planted on one side, and it had served his needs well for years. No one ventured down the block, nestled as it was between a massive apartment building and a row of empty storefronts. He had been paranoid about someone from the apartments looking down the first few times he’d visited the park, until he’d realized that the building was almost entirely vacant, and the few people who did live there didn’t seem to care what was happening outside the egoistic sphere of their lives.
When he was seated on the park bench and had verified no one was around, let alone within hearing distance, he pulled out his phone. He hesitated, his thumb hovering over the gallery icon, but he forced himself not to look and instead pulled up ‘John Ramos.’ It was the cover name he used in his contact list for Bell’s more secure phone. He called the number, and hardly had to wait two rings before Bell’s warm, deep voice filtered through his ear.
“I wondered when you’d call.”
“I was shamed by Julian. Did you really have to bring him into it?”
Cedrick could almost see Bell’s rolling shrug. “I figured he’d know, if no one else did. Sometimes you talk to him when you’re quiet around us.”
“It isn’t anything to worry about.”
“Then why have you been so skittish?”
“I’m looking into something.”
“Something you can’t even tell me?”
Cedrick wondered if he detected a hint of hurt in Bell’s voice.
“I don’t have enough information yet. I’ll let you know when I do.”
“Hmm.” He heard rustling, and the distant sound of the hospital intercom. “Fair enough. Is there anything else you can say, meantime?”
Cedrick ran through what he knew so far, which was still not enough. Not nearly enough to tell anyone why exactly this was bothering him so much. “All I can say is it has to do with a prison. Maybe prisons. I don’t know yet.”
There was a lull of silence, and then Bell sighed. “Just stay safe, Cedrick. Sometimes you put blinders on and don’t see how far you’re careening ahead.”
Cedrick chuckled. “Just because I mentioned prisons doesn’t mean I’m going to end up in one over this, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I’m not worried about anything in specific. I’m only worried that you seem worried.”
Cedrick sighed and tipped his head back against the bench. “I’m not worried. I’m bemused. Get your adjectives straight.”
That drew a rumbling chuckle out of Bell, thankfully, because Cedrick wasn’t very much in the mood to have his other good friend try to grill him for more information while trying to cheer him up. He wasn’t even that frustrated by this case yet. It was simultaneously comforting and annoying that his friends were so keyed into his behavior that they recognized even that small of a shift.
“I have to go. Duty calls.”
“Same for me. Take care, Cedrick.”
“You too. I’ll see you next month at the meeting, if not sooner.”
Bell hung up and Cedrick was left alone with his thoughts once more. He held the phone in his lap, and felt the inexorable draw of his gaze from the periwinkle sky down, down to the gallery icon burning a hole in his mind.
He hesitated. It would do him no good to obsess over the photo further today. But he couldn’t get it out of his head. Couldn’t stop wondering what exactly was happening.
It was without permission from his brain that his thumb pressed the icon, and he went through the motions of accessing the locked folder hidden in the files. He flipped through the surveillance photos he’d taken for one of his articles, and landed on what had become the bane of his existence for the past month.
Such a simple picture, at first glance. The woman in the foreground was Emelia Crestler, aide to a powerful politician and embroiled in what Cedrick was fairly certain was going to become a scandal that would cost her everything. He’d been checking up on her, seeing if she was involved in the black market group she allegedly had ties to, and it had brought him out near Baltimore. The man she spoke to in the picture was technically legitimate, but Cedrick had had his doubts about the true source of the man’s money for years. Cedrick still had plans to follow the money on that man someday.
It wasn’t until Cedrick had returned to his hotel room and had been reviewing the pictures on the larger screen of his computer that he’d seen in the background what now Cedrick couldn’t help seeing to the exclusion of all else.
In the far back two men stood in the shadows of a tree, one leaning against the trunk while the other stood in front of him. They looked deep in conversation, and they had their bodies tilted away from the main thoroughfare nearby.
It would have meant nothing, if Cedrick hadn’t recognized one man’s profile.
Cedrick blew the photo up until the screen was consumed with the angular lines of the man’s nose and sharp chin. The shadows didn’t hide how healthy he looked; far more than he’d been the last time Cedrick had seen a photo of him four years ago. Back when his face had peered out of the black and white photo of a news column.
“Neal,” Cedrick muttered under his breath. “What the hell are you doing alive?”