"Looking for someone?"
Even in the middle of a work day, traffic moved slow down Peachtree, past the hospital, the Fox. UPS trucks idling for deliveries. A tour group inching their sensible shoes off the sidewalk and into the road. To outsiders, this stretch of Midtown beat as the heart of Atlanta, with its glass-faced buildings and thrumming cars, and even Grant had to confess to a dull thrill in his chest when he drove through it, a reminder he lived somewhere important and alive. Most of the time, his city felt more like a small town where no one was anonymous and your past was hard to shake. He recognized people he’d never met in the grocery store. He had a favorite Waffle House, where the line cooks knew him by name. Every new person he met turned out to be cousins with a high school classmate or working in the same office as that guy who used to live next door. Ex-wives were hard to avoid at Home Grown on Saturdays. Flakes of memory hard to blink away from stoplights and exit ramps. It felt as if this sprawl were really his body split open, bits of his muscles strewn in every direction, his blood and his bone. Maybe that was why Peachtree was just another street to most Atlantans, no more a landmark than Boulevard or Marietta, Piedmont or MLK. On maps, Midtown might be the chest of Atlanta, but its heart beat all over town.
He found a spot on 11th, in that lot across from the hotel. He paid the machine and walked downhill to Juniper, then a block north to Einstein’s. Nick had promised to get Chad to call him as soon as he was back in the office, but Grant couldn’t wait that long. He’d met the music editor at a couple of parties for Creative Loafing, maybe a panel or two at the Center for Civic Innovation, so he was pretty sure he would recognize the guy, even though the patio was teeming with diners and there was a wait for a table inside. He hoped Nick wouldn’t be mad that he crashed Chad’s meeting, but it would take only a minute, Grant kept thinking, maybe two. He just needed a name.
He walked past the host stand without pause, hoping they would assume he knew where he was going. He circled the dining room with low-slung padded booths full of chatter, tables clinking with silverware and plates. All those faces like blank walls as he passed them, nothing to see.
Turning back, he nearly collided with one of the black-shirted guys from the host stand. He apologized and took another scan of the room.
“Looking for someone?” the host asked with a smile that was almost convincing.
“I’m cool,” Grant said, as he jostled past him, through the line of people waiting, and into the bar.
Flat-screens played talk shows from the rafters while a couple guys in dress slacks laughed wetly from their stools. Most of the high-tops were taken, servers milling between them with trays. In the back corner, when Grant leaned toward the window, he spotted Chad at a table with two guys in suits.
He tried to think up an opening line as he crossed the room, but before he knew it, he was standing over them, clearing his throat. “Hey,” Grant said.
Chad looked up and smiled vaguely. At once, Grant knew the editor didn’t recognize him, but he barreled on all the same.
“Sorry to interrupt. Can I talk to you for a second?”
Chad looked confused as he tapped his chest. “Me?”
“Just for a minute.”
He hesitated before putting his napkin on the table. “I’ll be right back,” he told the suits.
Grant led him to an open space by the chain curtain to the bathroom.
“What’s this about?” Chad asked from a few steps away.
“I’m Nick’s friend, Grant Maxwell. We met a couple of times.”
Chad nodded, still unconvinced.
“Sorry to blindside you, but it’s an emergency. Do you know a guy goes by the name DJ Yawp? He’s local, played The Music Room last week?”
Squinting, Chad started to shake his head.
“I’m hoping he can help me find Eliot Wiley.”
The name seemed to knock Chad’s memory into place. “You’re her friend. The chef.”
“That’s right. I don’t know if Nick mentioned, but we can’t find Eliot. This Yawp fella might know something.”
“I never heard of him. But these guys,” he pointed over his shoulder. “One of them’s a promoter. Got a couple EDM acts on his bill. Want me to ask?”
“Please.” Grant heard the desperation in his voice.
Chad returned to the table, and Grant watched him explain, the other men with their ears tilted in. He tried to read their lips but couldn’t concentrate. Behind him, someone cleared their throat. He turned to find that same mousy host with his arms folded.
“Sir,” he said, carefully. “Our dining rooms are for customers only. So if you’re not dining—”
“Just one minute,” Grant said, turning away.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Grant was about to lose it on this guy, not because it was unreasonable to kick out some crazy person stalking your restaurant. All the diners he’d worked in, he knew that better than most. But because the clatter around him was rising like frantic saws on a violin. The walls, they were swelling, ever closer. He could hear the moment coming, the crescendo. He could feel it licking his skin.
Mercifully, Chad reappeared before he had the chance to say anything else. The host backed up but didn’t disappear.
“Dan there,” Chad pointed. “He never worked with the guy, but he knows him. A Skrillex wannabe named Kenny Blake. Says he works at the Botanical Gardens, of all places. Grounds crew or something.”
Grant could have hugged him. “I owe you, man. Seriously.”
“I just hope she’s okay. I like that Eliot Wiley.”
“Sir,” the host interjected.
Grant threw up his hands. “I’m going. I’m going.”
Outside, he considered walking to the Gardens, it was so close. With all this adrenaline, if he hadn’t known better, he’d think he could run there. Chest out, the wind against his back. But then he remembered the long looping driveway, the impatient incline, and decided to drive.
He paid the ticket fee with the credit card he used only for emergencies, but declined the map. He’d been here enough times with his parents. They loved the Christmas lights.
Inside the Gardens, he took random turns with purpose. First to the Canopy Walk, around the path in the woods, back to the woman who grew from the ground. Then up the hill and toward the children’s section, ticking off corners like numbers on a clock. He circled the new restaurant and gift shop, eyeing the employees’ nametags. At the coffee stand, he asked the woman if she knew a Kenny who worked there, but she shook her head. He bought a water anyway, suddenly dry mouthed.
People inched like ladybugs around him, as if Eliot weren’t missing, as if they had all the time in the world. Grant blinked at the skyline over the trees and felt the day draining, El drifting further away. He found a bench by the fountain and sat down. The coils in his knee were pulsing. He extended his leg and kneaded his thumb in the socket. From his pocket, his phone vibrated. It was Nick.
“I’m sorry, man,” Grant said after he answered. “I know I should have waited.”
“What?” Nick asked. Wind echoed in the background, probably an open car window, along with the muffled hum of a radio.
“Nothing. What’s up?”
“It might not be anything, but I thought I should tell you.”
Grant sat up. He felt his muscles ready.
“One of our photographers for ‘Best of’ just stopped by. Tall girl named Audrey. You know her? Anyway, I asked had she seen Eliot, and she said not in the last week, but get this: the day after the party, Eliot emailed her asking for pictures. Not ones we wanted to publish, but any test shots she took to get the lighting right. Audrey thought it was weird, but sent them.”
A car horn blared on Nick’s end. “Stupid f-ing drivers. It’s not a turn lane,” he yelled out the window. “Anyway. Don’t know if it helps, but thought you’d want to know.”
“Can you send them to me? The pictures?”
“Hold on.” Grant thumbed through his inbox. “What address did you use?”
“The ChefGMaxwell one.”
“The Yahoo? I haven’t used that address in forev—”
Nick laid on his horn. “You ever heard of a turn signal, buddy?” he yelled. “Gotta run, Grantland. The roads are getting dicey.” With that, he hung up.
Grant clicked to Yahoo and tried to remember his password. It had been years since he switched to Gmail, one of the thousands of inconsequential changes you make after going through a divorce. As if you could become a new person so easily.
He’d never been very creative when it came to passwords. He used 123456 for a while, 8675309. Even his pin number at the bank was his birthday. But Kendra had been a stickler for online security, insisting he change his passwords every six weeks, so he started using his favorite foods in alphabetical order. Avocado. Bacon. Crab Rangoon. As if naming hurricanes, he moved to the next letter each time. Dumpling. Edamame. He smiled as he thought through them, their flavors almost itching at his tongue, until he reached the one he’d never had the heart to change.
But before he could enter the whole password, he felt a knock against his foot. He looked up to find a guy bobbing behind a garbage cart.
“My bad, man,” he said, steering around him. Then he reached toward Grant’s water bottle. “You done with that?”
Grant had to squint to see it, the sunlight so crammed behind the guy, spilling over his shoulders. But there, across the heart of his polo shirt, in scrawny block letters, it said Kenny.