"It's worth a try"
The security guards might not have been aspiring actors, but they flung Grant back onto the Beltline as if auditioning for the role of “bad cop.” One even hollered after him, “Don’t make us take you downtown.” Grant would have laughed if the sidewalk hadn’t bruised his shoulder, skinned his palms and his ego.
With Jules, they barely touched her arm as they guided her past the barricade, peppering a few ‘ma’ams’ into their speech. One even told her to have a nice day.
Either way, the message was clear: to get to Susannah Wiley, they needed more than a few white lies.
“You okay?” Jules asked as Grant stood and brushed the dirt off his jeans.
His knee wailed from its socket. “I just need a minute,” he said.
They walked back up the steps to Ponce City Market, out of the guards’ view, and sat on a bench overlooking the courtyard. The breeze was crisp and dry against the sweat brewing on his forehead. It felt good to sit down.
“Well, that didn’t work,” he said, eyeing the people below, laden with shopping bags and full stomachs. “What next?”
Jules retrieved the iPad from her bag. “I think we should come at this thing from a different angle. We know the spa has something to do with Susannah faking her death. Maybe instead of researching the patients, we should look into the place itself. The doctors, the staff.”
“Okay,” Grant said, “but not here. Let’s go somewhere, grab a bite.”
“They’ve got, like, anything you could want to eat downstairs.”
“Yeah, but I got a craving.”
Jules stood reluctantly and stuffed her iPad back into her bag. The notebook peeked out, giving Grant an idea.
“Let me see that. You got something to write with?”
Grant scribbled a message and then tore out the page, folding it twice. “Go give this to Officer Friendly and meet me at the elevator.”
“You think it’ll work?”
“It’s worth a try.”
Thirty minutes later, they were in the back room of the Imperial, sipping beers. Grant had needed to be somewhere he could concentrate, and his focus was never clearer than amid the sounds of a restaurant kitchen. He’d spent half his life near the sizzle of a fryer, the clonk of dirty plates in Rubbermaid tubs. The white noise of a range hood drowning out the ache in his leg, the doubts heckling every slice of his knife, every pinch of salt. He could trust his instincts in the kitchen, and right now, if he couldn’t be behind the line, the next best thing was a table near a pass-through window.
Jules had spread her notes next to her iPad and the contents of Eliot’s envelope. She was reading from her phone. “It says here to contact the Secretary of State’s office to ask about the spa’s license. But I can’t tell how to check archives. The place has been closed since,” she checked a page of notes, “2009. Surely they still have the license on file, right?”
“Can we look up the building? Property records might tell us something.”
Her fingers pecked the phone. “We need an exact address.”
“I’ll work on that,” Grant said.
He tried every search term he could think of, all combinations of “Lotus” and “Bath” and “Spa,” but all he found was a defunct website with no more information than the brochure. He decided to look at Susannah’s picture again, just to see if maybe the men in it were worth tracking down, but when he tried to log into the Yahoo account, it told him his password didn’t work. He typed it in 3, maybe 4 times, but no luck.
“That’s weird,” he said, showing Jules his phone.
The server interrupted them with an armful of plates: spring rolls, buffalo wings, two burgers, a side of slaw, and one each of the taco specials. Jules frowned at the spread.
“What?” he said. “You’re not hungry?”
“I told you it was too much food.”
“Not if we split it. Dig in,” he said nudging one of the plates toward her.
Dutifully, she picked up a burger and started to eat.
A few bites in, Grant had a thought. “What about that message board? It named some patients. Did it name doctors too?”
“Now that you mention it, yeah. I might’ve written them down.” She fumbled one handed through the notebook. “Here,” she pointed with smudged fingers. “Somebody mentioned a Dr. S. Grundy. There’s this other name, maybe a doctor: Merlin Fish.”
“Okay, that one sounds made up.”
Jules shrugged. “That’s what it said. A few people mentioned a guy, maybe he was German? No name, but it sounded like he was in charge.”
“Great. So all we need is to find a nameless, faceless, maybe-German man who, twenty years ago, maybe ran a spa/therapy center somewhere in Georgia. Piece of cake.”
She glared at him over the last bites of her burger. “You don’t have to be so pessimistic.”
Grant pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s just every time I think we’re getting somewhere….”
A voice came from behind him. “How’s the Grant special?”
He looked up to see AJ crossing the room. A tightness in his back loosened. Working in the industry meant he had friends in kitchens and behind bars all over the city, but AJ was special. Kind but tough, authentic inside the kitchen and out. If Jules needed him optimistic, seeing AJ sure didn’t hurt.
“Delicious as always,” he said, sliding down the booth to give his friend a hug. He introduced Jules, who barely glanced up from her phone.
“No falafel this time?”
Grant patted his stomach. “I’m watching my figure.” They both laughed.
“How you been?” AJ asked.
He wanted so badly to answer that question honestly, but Jules’s kick to his shin kept him quiet. “Not bad, you?”
AJ started to tell him about their plans for Halloween when she stopped mid-sentence. “I just remembered. That friend of yours, the one you brought to Chris’s party?”
“Eliot,” Grant said.
Jules looked up.
“Yeah, right. She was in here last week—”
“What day?” Jules snapped.
AJ looked uneasy but answered. “Tuesday of last week? Maybe Monday? She came in a little before closing, sat at the bar. Anyway, I didn’t notice until later, but she left a phone here. Like a,” she held up her hands, “a flip phone.”
“A burner?” Grant asked.
AJ shrugged. “You going to see her soon? I could give it you.”
“Yes,” Jules said. “We’ll take it.”
AJ turned back to Grant.
“It’s cool,” he said, trying to keep the shake from his voice. “I’ll give it to her.”
The minute it took AJ to walk behind the bar and retrieve it, Grant’s mind swam with questions. Why would Eliot have a burner phone? Who did she call on it? Who called her? He couldn’t even look at Jules, who was drumming her fingers sharply on the table.
AJ returned with a palm-sized black flip phone. “I didn’t know people still used these things.”
Grant forced a chuckle. “Eliot’s a bit of a Luddite.”
He thanked her again, gave her another hug, and once she’d disappeared into the kitchen, opened the phone. Its screen, not much bigger than a stamp, lit up.
“The call log,” Jules said.
He thumbed a few buttons and found two entries, both outgoing, both to the same number.
“Call it,” she said.
He pressed Send and listened to it ringing, a knot blooming in his chest.
A man’s voice answered. “Dr. Bergmann-Fuchs’s office. How may I help you?”
“Uh, hi,” Grant said, the room suddenly dizzy. “I’m calling to make an appointment.”
“I d-don’t have one. I’m a new patient.”
The man didn’t try to muffle his sigh. “Dr. Bergmann-Fuchs is not accepting new clients at this time. When he does, they are by referral only.”
“How do I get a referral?”
But the man had already hung up.
“I think we found our German,” Grant said, recounting the conversation.
“How do you even spell that?”
They sat there for a few minutes, maybe longer, the air knocked from them. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take, the rapid stabs of adrenaline, the bottom falling out of his stomach when another lead didn’t go anywhere. Maybe it was time to go to the police. Maybe they’d waited too long as it was.
A vibration in his pocket summoned him from these thoughts. He took his phone out and saw a number he didn’t know.
“Hello?” he said.
“Okay,” answered a voice he somehow recognized. “Oakland Avenue and Biggers. 9 pm. You and the woman only. Don’t be late.” The line went dead.
Grant checked the clock: 1:45 pm. They had hours to kill, but already he was tired of waiting.
Seven hours later, they stopped at Augustine’s to take a shot of tequila before crossing the street into the cobbled darkness of the Oakland Cemetery parking lot.
They’d learned nothing more about the doctor in the meantime, no matter how they spelled his name. They’d dialed that number from Eliot’s burner so many times, the ringing caught like song lyrics in his head, but no one answered. And after emailing or calling as many local and state licensing offices as they could find online, Grant had begun to doubt the man even existed. He couldn’t decide which possibility scared him more.
Shadows draped every surface as they neared the cemetery. A block from MLK, in sight of Memorial, he was surprised by how quietly night had fallen over its gates, the haunting stillness of held breath. Even their footsteps made little sound.
In the far corner, where the brick wall met a chain-link fence, a figure took shape, bulky and imminent. A man, probably 6’3 or 4. Wide-chested and aimed right at them, like a double-barreled gun. Though his body tensed and time seemed to slow, Grant kept walking toward him. Jules’s steps beside his were just as sure.
“Give me your phones,” the man said, the flat tug of a Midwestern accent on his words. “And your keys. Both of you.”
“Where is she?” Jules demanded.
“First your keys and your phones.”
“No,” she said.
The man smiled blue-white teeth. “Listen. It’s not a negotiation. Play by the rules, or don’t play. Your choice.”
Grant reached into his pockets. “Just do it,” he whispered. He inched forward to lay his things at the man’s feet. Slowly, Jules did the same.
“Good choice,” the man said, bending to retrieve them. “You come out, Ginger gives the signal, you get this stuff back. Understand?”
They both said yes.
“Go on then.” The man nodded to the brick wall. “Up and over.”
Using the chain link as a foothold, Grant went first. He swung his bad leg over the wall and tried to ease down the other side, but a gutter made the ground lower than he’d expected, and he thumped to the pavement, settling half in the trough and half out. Jules followed, springy and landing on both feet. She helped him stand—first one foot, then the other—and steadied his step onto the driveway.
They must have both felt it, the sense of someone watching, because they turned in the same direction, at the same time, in the same speed. There, against a gnarled tree, they saw her.
A ghost, as sure as the ground beneath their feet.