“At first,” Jules said, smoothing the stack of papers she’d pulled from her bag. “I didn’t know what to think.”
They had found a quieter corner, away from the door, and Grant breathed on his coffee to cool it. He felt antsy enough without more caffeine, the table tittering from a leg twitch he couldn’t stop, but he needed something to do with his hands. As Jules started to explain how she’d found the names she’d written in El’s notebook, he stared at the last one, the only name that wasn’t also on the list he’d found in the safe: Susannah Wiley.
“I’d been through the first six dates in the notebook,” she continued. “All Georgia Daily Eagle articles about the search for Susannah’s body. They mostly said the same thing—she was missing, presumed dead. Volunteers of shrinking numbers combing the trail. A few more questions about Frank, but nothing solid. But then, when I fed the last micro-film, the 1996 one, into the machine, it wasn’t the GDE. It was some Vermont county newspaper from 1986.”
Grant tried to sip his coffee, but a tremble in his hand spilled more on the table than his tongue. He used his sleeve to mop up. “Sorry. Keep going.”
“So I asked Mallory—you know, the librarian—where they kept this Vermont paper, assuming they’d just refiled the canisters wrong. She said the library doesn’t carry Vermont newspapers—never has. Especially not some random county paper from thirty years ago.”
“How did it get there?”
Jules’s eyes gleamed wide. “That’s what I wanted to know. I started thinking, how often does someone go to the reference library to access micro-film for a defunct newspaper from the 90s? I bet that happens, what, never? So I’m thinking Eliot was the last person to handle that film. What if she swapped this Vermont film on purpose?”
“Why would she do that?” he asked, though the manila envelope was sitting between them, El’s message staring back. Breadcrumbs in a nightmare forest.
Fingering the stack of paper, Jules didn’t stop talking. “I started going through the film, scanning the headlines. It took forever, but I found this.” She slid a page from the pile and turned it to face him.
An article, printed from the micro-film in blurry text, but the headline read clear: “Missing Charlotte woman’s car found on bridge.”
Grant tried to read the columns but the words sloshed against each other and spread. He kneaded his temples and looked up. “Just tell me what it says.”
“This woman, Erin Brecker, she never came home from work one night in 1986. Her sister called the cops. They found her car on the Chaplain Bridge in Vermont, door open, keys in the ignition. She’d had some mental problems, even attempted suicide before, so no one was all that shocked when she jumped.”
“Another suicide,” Grant said. His brows gathered. “But how does it connect to us?”
“Last paragraph,” Jules tapped the page. “They mention she’d just moved back from Atlanta.”
“Okay,” Grant said, stretching the word.
“So I googled her. She died in ’86, so there really wasn’t anything to find. I tried her name with ‘Atlanta,’ and still nothing. Then I left out her first name. Turns out, there’s a handful of Breckers in Atlanta. A musician, some LinkedIn pages. But, if you dig deep enough in the results, you find an obituary for a guy named Bennington Brecker.” She stopped to smile at the look on Grant’s face. “I know, right? Poor guy. Anyway, Bennington died in the mid-2000s, and in his obituary, it said he was ‘preceded in death’ by his mother, Erin.” Jules pulled out another printed column of newspaper, this one with a toothy man in his 40s under the words In Memory.
“She had a son. I’m still not tracking how that connects to us.”
“I’m getting there.” She pulled her chair in closer. “Anyway, the library was closing, so I went home, made a pot of coffee, and started googling the hell out of this guy. He lived mostly in California, but came to Atlanta occasionally—and he was on the board for a suicide prevention group. They did a big fundraiser every year. A silent auction. And every year, one of the big items up for bid was an all-expenses-paid two-week stay at the Lotus Bath and Spa near Lake Lanier.”
“Is that supposed to mean something to me?” Grant asked. “I’m not really a massage guy.”
Jules pulled out another page, this one about Susannah. “It’s like the second or third article from GDE.” She read the line aloud. “Mrs. Wiley has a history of depression, friends say, a frequent client of the exclusive Lotus Bath and Spa.”
“I don’t know a lot of rich women, but don’t they go to spas? Sounds like a coincidence to me.”
“I thought the same thing, but I decided to check it out, just in case. Turns out, the place closed down around 2009, but their website’s still up. I read every last word on that page, and nowhere does it mention prices or services. You can’t even contact them. I thought that was weird until I found this website that’s like a Yelp just for spas—”
“Did you sleep last night?” Grant interrupted, noticing now the knotted hair in her ponytail, the ruddy circles beneath her eyes.
She stopped and placed her palms down on the table. “I know I sound crazy. But bear with me. Please.”
Grant nodded, and Jules continued.
“So this spa Yelp thing, it goes back more than 10 years. Dozens of reviews. Most kind of hint at their ‘treatment,’ saying things about the great ‘sessions’ they had with the doctor, the ‘diet’ he ‘prescribed’ them.” Jules’s hands didn’t miss an air quote. “I don’t think this place was a spa at all. I think it was a mental health center. Like, a hospital or something.”
“Why not just call it what it was?”
“The reviews used screennames, so they’re anonymous, but the people sounded rich. Talking about the thread counts for the sheets, the champagne. One guy compared the lobster to some restaurant in Paris. I don’t think this clientele wants to advertise that they needed a shrink.”
Grant thought about the Wiley’s apartment when El was in high school. Two bedrooms, old carpet. Windows painted shut. He didn’t think they’d ever had the kind of money that sends you to France for dinner, but one thing he’d learned in the last 24 hours was that there was a lot he didn’t know about the Wileys.
“I kept reading the comments,” Jules was saying, “and the comments on the comments. And like halfway down, someone replied to a review with a link that took you to one of those conspiracy theory chat groups. Total bonkers. Like, Bill Clinton planned 9/11. Queen Elizabeth is really the Loch Ness monster. That kind of thing. But the link took me to a thread about the Lotus Bath and Spa. Someone noticed that between 1985 and 2005, a ton of people committed suicide within six weeks of leaving that place.”
“People were throwing out numbers. Some said 100; some said more. Eight of them were named.”
Grant turned back to the list in Eliot’s handwriting. “But it’s a mental hospital. People who go there are already at higher risk for suicide, right? Are those stats any higher than any other hospital?”
Jules flipped to a page in the stack and started reading. “Jonas Little, 53 years old, set his house on fire in 1989. He used so much gasoline, by the time the fire trucks got there, his house was a crater in the ground.”
She put the page in front of him and drew another before he had time to speak. “Merry Ann Poole, 42 in 2001, drove her house boat eight miles off the Jacksonville coast and drowned herself with lead ankle weights. Curtis Bly,” she started as she passed him the page. “He was 37 years old, had a wife and kids. He left them a note in 1993 saying he was going to the Everglades to shoot himself in the head. They think an alligator ate his body. Then there’s Wayne Bridges, Jr., 43 years—”
She must have noticed Grant’s sagging shoulders, the gray in his face, because she stopped.
“I get it,” he said, without looking up. “This ‘spa’ makes people kill themselves in horrifically creative ways.”
Jules rested a hand on his, the first time they’d really touched. She may have been a liar, but he appreciated the effort. “No,” she said, quietly. “Look closer.”
Taking the other pages from her stack, he spread them out, eyes glazing. The columns multiplied in front of him. Swimming lines of black text. Negative exposures of faces long dead. They were different ages, living in different cities. They died in different ways. Their only connection was this spa. He was about to throw his hands up, take a lap to clear his head, when he saw it: the other thing they all had in common.
“Let me use your iPad.”
Jules dug into her bag and handed it over. “Do you see?” she asked.
He brought up a browser and typed in the address. “They were all ruled suicides,” he said, pressing the letters.
“They’d been to a mental hospital,” Jules said. “It made sense.”
“But these people didn’t kill themselves. If they had—” Grant stopped as his old Yahoo inbox opened. He scrolled past the Living Social offers and AJC news blasts and clicked on Nick’s email. The photos emerged. “If they’d killed themselves,” he said, turning the screen to face Jules. “How come no one found their bodies?”
There, in full color, a woman at a bar, staring up at the man beside her. The room so bright, you could see it, the faint smudge of a red birthmark on her cheek.
Susannah Wiley was alive.