“It’s time I told you the truth”
“I need to think,” Grant said, two fingers pressed to each temple. He was pacing the length of the computers, his hands numbing, a sweat sheening his skin. He felt a faint swell drift across his head. His breath seemed stuck in his lungs, his throat narrow, but at least he was still breathing.
The first time Grant had a panic attack had been during those weeks at Grady. He remembered being in his room, his leg in a cast and elevated, when down the hall, someone dropped a metal tray. He didn’t know what the tray carried, but after it clapped to the floor, he heard the rain of tiny clinks and clatters, like nails in a cloud of smoke. His chest had tightened into a throb while he felt the room around him inflate like a balloon. That first time, he hadn’t had a mantra, didn’t know to close his eyes and try to breathe. He’d yanked the cord for the nurses, who held him down and shot a needle in his arm. He could still remember their faces above him, their words so far away. All these years later, he just needed the memory of Eliot’s voice in that elevator, talking him down.
“I am steady,” he said. “I am real. I am unshaken.” Again, he could almost hear her say. “I am steady,” he repeated. “I am real.”
“You should sit,” Jules said, as she stood. She lay her hands on his back to direct him to the chair. “I’m going to get you some water.”
Slowly, feeling seeped back into his fingers. He took a breath, and then a deeper one, and the walls snapped back into place. Fatigue, as it always did, replaced the seizing in his muscles, quieting the barrage of his heartbeat. A short one this time, but no less thorough. He was no less thankful for it to pass.
In front of him, a page of Google results still filled the computer screen. He clicked back to the first page, and there was the article Nick had sent him, just now topping the list. He started to click on the News tab to see if other papers had their own reports, but then he saw the link for Images and, just because he hadn’t looked there already, he chose that one instead.
With a name like Allen Roberts, a variety of faces populated the screen. Mostly white guys, some round and balding. One man with a stethoscope hanging from his neck; another in a fox pelt hat and beard. But a few rows down, Grant found the face he knew scattered across the results—behind a podium, at a Christmas party, with a fork on its way to his mouth. Allen suddenly everywhere. Grant clicked on one image to enlarge it, a trio of polo-shirted men on a golf course, Allen in the middle, teeth bared in an oily grin.
He heard a gasp before he felt the splatter of hot water on his neck. He turned to find Mallory gaping at the screen, a paper cup in her hand, sloshed with coffee.
“You okay?” he asked, taking the cup. He tried to brush the liquid from her fingers, which still curled in the cup’s shape. “Mallory?”
Jules bounded from the stairs with a bottled water. “What’s going on?”
“Him,” Mallory said, pointing. Her face waxy, pale. “I know him.”
“Yeah, he’s an investor in Buckhead. Name’s Allen Roberts.”
Mallory shook her head. “Not Roberts. Him.” She stepped forward to point again.
“The caddy?” Grant asked. He looked to Jules to see if she was following the connection, but her face was as blank as his mind. “How do you know him?”
Her hands a little shaky, Mallory used his arm to balance as she glanced in both directions and behind the desk. “Not here,” she said. “Come on.”
She led them down the stairs and past the turnstile, but instead of going out the front door, she veered right and pressed the down button on an elevator.
“Where are we going?” Jules asked.
Mallory just shook her head once and looked away, smiling at one of the guards. “How you doing, Marla?”
“Can’t complain,” Marla chirped back.
The doors opened, and they got in, riding one floor down, where they exited into a basement parking deck. Low-ceilinged, the light was dim and intermittent. The air smelled of piss. A few cars were parked in reserved spaces, but mostly the place was empty, cavernous. Their footsteps echoed off the floor. Mallory motioned for them to follow her around the corner to a dead end, where water-stained concrete walls loomed around them, dust and cigarette butts clinging to their seams.
“What’s this about?” Grant asked.
Mallory’s eyes flickered between them. “It’s time I told you the truth.”
He folded his arms, inching instinctively closer to Jules. “Okay.”
“When you first came in, I didn’t know if I could trust you. You might have been with the Group. How could I know? And Eliot made me promise—”
“Eliot?” Jules said. “You know Eliot?”
Mallory nodded, picking at her fingernails. “I’m the reason she had our number in her notebook. She started coming here weeks ago. Research for a story, she said. But the articles in the paper, they led her down this whole other trail.” She waved her hand. “You saw it. You know. I helped her get the records she needed.”
“Yeah. Over time, I picked up on more and more of the details, and so one day, I just asked her outright: ‘what’s the story?’ And she told me. All about her mother faking her death, this network she thought she’d discovered, like a crime syndicate or something. At first, I wasn’t sure I believed her. It sounds crazy, right?”
She looked at Grant for him to nod, so he did.
“But the more she explained it, the more proof she found—I don’t know. It just started to make sense. She had this plan to get onto a movie set where her mom was working, thinking maybe she’d help Eliot bring the network down, but she wasn’t interested. Said it was too dangerous. So Eliot came up with a different plan.”
Jules swiped at Mallory’s hands and grabbed her wrist. “Do you know where Eliot is? Is she okay?”
“I know where she was. She figured out the Lotus connection and tracked down the business license. The owner was The Phoenix Group. Since the Lotus has been closed for years, she started looking for other businesses owned by the Group. There’re dozens, maybe forty or fifty businesses they own or partly own. But only one had overnight guests. A yoga center, not far from Serenbe.”
“That Kalika place,” Jules said to Grant. “They mentioned it in the article.”
“So she’s there?” he asked.
“Not anymore. She went there last Tuesday. Checked in for a three-night stay, just to feel the place out, see if she could learn anything. She said the whole place was like the Twilight Zone. People shuffled around, chanting, like, constantly. They had these strict diets where they had to drink a smoothie at every meal. Even if you ate in your bedroom or on the grounds, you had to show them the empty cup when you came back. Luckily, Eliot had this fern in her room—”
Jules was red-faced. “Will you just get to the point? Where is she?”
“I’m getting there,” Mallory said. “See, there’s this shaman guy who runs the center, and you’re supposed to have private sessions with him. ‘Realignments,’ I think they called them. Anyway, Eliot said he gave her the willies, always sneaking up behind her, whispering in her ear. She figured he might be the one pulling the strings. So the second night, she snuck into his office to go through his files. Only a guard caught her. He was walking her up to the shaman’s quarters when she took off running. He chased her across the property, but somehow, she got away. She wandered around for a while in the woods until she found a gas station and got the kid working there to call her a cab.”
Grant waited for the librarian to continue, but she just stood there, gnawing at her lip. “How do you know all this?”
“She took the cab to my house.”
“No way,” Jules said.
“She needed somewhere to hide, somewhere they wouldn’t know to look for her.” Mallory shrugged. “Nobody knows we’re friends.”
“You said you knew where she ‘was.’ I assume that means she’s not there anymore?” Grant asked.
“She hid there all weekend, in my attic most of the time, in case someone burst in unexpected. But then on Sunday, she started noticing a car driving by a lot, going up and down Glenwood nearly every half hour. She watched it through the attic vent. When she saw it again on Monday, she figured it wasn’t safe anymore, so she took off. I haven’t seen her since.”
Grant leaned back on a wall that, somehow, stood its ground, despite what he was learning. Eliot was alive. Or, at least, she had been alive two days ago. He hadn’t realized how stubbornly his mind had avoided the possibility that she might be dead until now. But his body must have considered it, given how loose his joints suddenly felt, how light his shoulders. With this, though, a conviction like a punch to the gut: while they were typing words into computers, ordering iced coffees and tequila shots, Eliot had been running for her life. Every second he’d spent thumbing through Twitter, all the stop-and-go traffic, the nodding off in his recliner for minutes at a time—all of it chipped away at Eliot’s chances. If only he’d been faster, gotten here sooner. If only he knew what to do next.
“Wait, what about that guy,” he pointed back in the direction they came, “the caddy?”
Voice low, Mallory moved closer. “When she got to my place, she showed me a few pictures she’d taken with her burner. She had to be stealthy about it because phones aren’t allowed there, but she’d gotten a few shots of the place. In one of them, you could see the shaman. It’s the same guy.”
“How is that possible?” Jules asked.
“This guy,” Grant said, his head swimming. “Do you know his name?”
Mallory squinted, trying to think. “It was something German. His first name starts with a K, I think, because they call him Shaman K. And maybe…maybe he had a double last name?”
“Dr. Bergmann-Fuchs,” Jules said. “Has to be.”
“Maybe.” But Grant was thinking of the last time he saw Allen, the request that had brought him there. “Could his first name be Karl?”
“What are you thinking?” Jules asked.
“Someone’s on the other end of that text message, and we know it’s not Allen because he’s in jail. He told me once about a friend of his, an old surfing buddy named Karl. Said they went back decades. I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve never been surfing in Atlanta, so maybe this Karl is a friend from before he became Allen Roberts. Maybe they’ve been in it together the whole time.”
“It would make sense,” Mallory said. “The scope of what this group has gotten away with, one man couldn’t do it by himself.”
“Come on,” Grant said, holding up his phone to check the reception.
“Where are we going?” Jules asked, as both women moved to follow him.
“Whoever he is, this guy wants me to call him. I think it’s time to find out why.”