Grant wasn’t hungry, but he knew he should order something. His knee was throbbing, and he hadn’t eaten all day. The calamari, his usual go-to, reminded him of the last time he was at Noni’s, the last time he’d seen El, so he ordered a Caesar salad and picked at it. Beside him, Eliot’s notebook and cell phone waited, still codes he couldn’t crack.
They’d sat at the far end of the bar, the last time he saw her, by the windows. His back to the room, he remembered the sloshes of traffic on Edgewood, the smeary red of brake lights. Against the fogged glass, Eliot had been like the sun in how she warmed him. Her soft gray eyes, sleeves tugged to her fingers. A head shorter than him and half his weight, she was still one of the safest places he knew.
He thought again of that moment when Eliot’s face had tightened, her gaze fixed on someone or something behind him. He scanned the room, searching for any clue in the black-and-white photos, the wood booths, the pulsing old TV. But every surface stared back at him, blank.
Grant’s phone buzzed, and he grabbed for it, knowing he shouldn’t hope for anything but hoping all the same.
We got estimates for new linens. Need your ok.
It was Allen Roberts, the restaurant’s head investor. A nice enough guy, with his pocket squares and heavy silk ties. He started the Phoenix Group more than a decade before, and in that time, every restaurant they’d opened—the Thai fusion place on the Beltline, that Italian steak bar in Buckhead—had won Best of Atlanta more than once. They were careful investors, thorough too, so Grant knew he should jump whenever they said to, lucky as he was for their backing. But today he couldn’t imagine talking about tablecloths, or tasting menus, or sous chefs. So he left the text unanswered and put his phone away.
The patio door opened behind him, and he turned hopefully. On the phone, he’d described himself: black, late 30s, bald with a beard. But he had no way to recognize her. He wasn’t even certain she was coming, or what she might do to him if she did.
“Whoever you are” she had said, when he answered El’s phone. “I am tracing this call and contacting the police.” Her words had been spiky, as if spoken from gritted teeth.
“What?” Grant had answered. “Who are you? Is Eliot there?”
The woman went silent for a second, and he’d been afraid she’d hang up, but then her syllables came back harder, open-mouthed. “If you hurt a hair on her head, I will personally—”
“Wait,” he said. In one breath, he explained who he was and how he got into her apartment, leaving out the bits about Frank’s stroke or coma. He’d played enough poker to know that even with a bad hand, you didn’t show all your cards.
“You’re at her place? I’m coming over.”
“No,” he’d said, more alarmed than he would have expected. The apartment walls felt suddenly close, the scar down his knee starting to burn, so he suggested Noni’s. She agreed and hung up before he could ask her name.
The woman in the doorway didn’t match that voice, but she walked toward him. She was thin-wristed and wispy, gleaming from the light on her blue-black hair. She wore a man’s tweed blazer and blue high-tops, but Grant could pick her up, giant messenger bag and all, with one arm. The tangle of nerves in his gut loosened a little.
“Grant Maxwell.” He reached out his hand.
She didn’t take it.
“Have a seat.” He nudged the stool out with his foot.
She perched on the edge but held her bag with both hands in her lap.
The bartender approached. The woman shook her head at the offer of a menu. “Water’s fine.” She eyed Grant’s beer.
“It’s been a rough morning,” he said, as he swigged the last of his Tropicalia and ordered another. “Are you going to tell me your name?”
“Jules,” she said.
“That’s a start.” He noticed a slight shake to her fingers as she lifted her glass. “How about another easy one? How do you know Eliot?”
“She’s my girlfriend. You?” Grant’s surprise must have registered on his face because a wry smile seeped onto hers. “You didn’t know she’s gay?”
“What? Of course I did” Grant said. “Who do you think took her to her first topless bar?” he laughed, but Jules didn’t. He coughed and continued. “I just didn’t know she had a girlfriend.”
Jules faced forward and started to weave a napkin between her fingers. “Yeah, well, it’s still new. We haven’t really defined it or anything.”
“Did you know about me?”
“A pudgy Luther wannabe who sometimes breaks into her place? I think I’d remember if she’d mentioned you.”
Grant couldn’t help but smile. “That’s El for you. She likes her worlds separate.”
Her eyes sliced to him. “And which ‘world’ are you, exactly?”
He took another sip before answering. “I’ve known Eliot 20 years—wait, no, 21. Did she ever tell you about—” Grant pointed above his ear, roughly where the shrapnel had hit her. “We met in the hospital.”
Jules peered at his head, skeptical.
“I was hit here.” He tugged up his pant leg to show the scar, from ankle to knee cap. “Couldn’t walk for weeks.”
He didn’t usually lead with this backstory. Even with El, it wasn’t a topic he liked to discuss. He’d drive ten minutes out of his way just to avoid passing where it happened. Last year, he didn’t watch TV for a month after accidentally catching an anniversary documentary on ESPN. He’d come closer to actually dying a few times in the last 21 years, and he’d surely been the target of far more personal hate, but there was something about the spray of metal that night, flakes of fire like confetti. It never felt far away.
“I’d be happy to cut it open and show you the screws—”
“No,” Jules blanched. “I believe you.”
“Sorry,” Grant said, swallowing another sip. “It’s just—I’m kinda freaking out here. Where is she?”
Jules shook her head. “I’ve tried calling, like, 100 times. I’ve gone by her place, tweeted her.”
“That was you today. That message about her door key?”
This time, her smile was softer. “It’s from a Little Tybee song. Our first date, we went to see them.”
Grant knew the band, had even taken El to one of their shows when she first moved back, but there was something about Jules’s tone that sounded like the rattle of a chain link fence, as if marking how far he could go. He changed the subject. “Do you know this person?” He scrolled through his phone to find the name. “YAWPmusic?”
She barely glanced at the screen. “Oh, him. Eliot’s not-so-secret admirer.”
“Who is he?”
“A DJ. She interviewed him for that music blog, maybe a month back? He’s been trying to woo her over Twitter ever since.”
“Doesn’t he know she’s gay?”
Jules looked up flatly. “Have you been on the internet? The world’s full of creeps who think all lesbians need is one good roll in the hay with a ‘real man.’”
“Is he crazy? Do you think—” Grant said.
“He’s harmless. A delusional, egotistical puppy dog, but a puppy dog all the same.”
Grant lowered the phone, unconvinced, but before he set it face down on the bar, he tapped a finger on the screen so quick, he was pretty sure Jules didn’t notice. “So, when did you see her last?”
“Monday night.” Jules patted the bar. “Here, actually. We were supposed to go to this DJ showcase at the Music Room, but she was all stressed. Said she had a deadline coming. So we rescheduled.”
Jules shrugged. “It’s been crickets since. She could be ghosting on me or whatever, but, I don’t know. She just didn’t seem like herself on Monday.”
“What do you mean?”
She tucked her hair behind both ears. “It’s probably nothing. But she just seemed, I don’t know, depressed or something. She kept talking about how as kids, we think we can grow up to be anyone we want, but then we make all these choices, go to school, move places, and suddenly we don’t have that freedom anymore. We’re stuck.”
Grant felt a tightness spread across his body, seizing him in place. Eliot, for all her renewable energy, wasn’t the Energizer bunny. She never used the “D” word, explaining her days in bed and that semester she took all Incompletes as times she wasn’t “well,” but Grant had seen the bottles in her medicine cabinet. He’d read the spines on her bookcase. She always bounced up after a few weeks, at most, and could go months or even years before another spat of existential questions sent her to the Tom Waits Spotify station. So he’d never really worried about her. But now, with the unanswered calls, the reminders of her mother in that Polaroid and even the scar beneath her hair, Grant felt the panic in his fingertips.
Jules was still talking. “It was probably nothing to worry about. She’s probably on assignment somewhere and forgot to tell us. I just…I don’t know. I don’t like it.”
Grant reached for the notebook.
Jules recoiled. “Where did you find that?”
“In her apartment.”
“I know,” Grant said. “And her place was spotless. You could eat off the floor.”
“Are you sure you were at the right apartment? I’ve seen Eliot leave an apple core on her toilet seat for, like, days.”
“Something isn’t right. I just know it.” He pressed the phone to light up its screen. “I’ve tried cracking her PIN, but no luck. You don’t know it, do you?”
“Ok, then, look through the notebook. There’s about ten pages there, some notes, numbers. I can’t make sense of it.”
The bartender checked in, and Grant saw Jules eyeing the bottles.
“Go ahead,” he suggested. “It might help.”
“A Bullitt. Neat.”
“That-a girl,” Grant said. He went to the bathroom and then paced behind her for a few minutes. “Anything?” he finally asked.
“That could be a phone number.” Jules pointed to a string of digits on the third page.
“It’s too short.”
“That ‘1’ could be a slash if you look closely. So the 4 before it—”
“Area code.” He fumbled for his phone, but Jules was faster.
“I’m going outside. I need the air,” she said, standing. She downed the rest of her drink in one shot and started to move toward the door but turned. “What about her compu—” Jules froze. Her eyes sharpened at the wall of frames by the window.
“What?” Grant asked. “What is it?”
“Monday night, when Eliot and I were here?”
“She ordered food, but the place was crazy busy. I still wanted to go to the show. She told me to go on, she could do work while she ate. At the door, I looked back to blow her a kiss. She was taking one of the frames down.” Jules looked at Grant. “She snapped a picture of it.”
Grant stood up and moved toward the wall. “Which one?”
Jules shook her head. “I don’t remember.” Her dark eyes flitted across the wall. “Wait,” she grabbed his arm. “It was that one.”
Together, they reached for the frame.