"We all have our secrets"
At exactly 7 am, Grant pulled into the driveway of a white brick house in Buckhead. He parked in the small lot beside the only other car, Allen Roberts’s platinum Lexus. His truck seemed to cough a bit louder as he turned it off, just to spite him.
The Phoenix Group CEO had a habit of getting to the office early. By lunchtime, Allen could be anywhere—in meetings at Chops or The Capital Grille, golfing at Cherokee, pacing construction sites with architects in orange hard hats—but most days, he spent his early hours here. He liked the quiet, he said, and the time stamps on his emails. Grant liked knowing when he could get the man alone.
The other partners, Preston Doyle and J. Harrison Curtis, never seemed to forget the hierarchies between themselves and Grant. They shook his hand before and after meetings, asking after his parents, rehashing the weekend’s Georgia game, but they left him off emails often enough to remind him who really held the power. Allen was different. He got his hands dirty in the kitchen, muddied his shoes at building sites. He introduced Grant as an artist, and approached his food, which Allen had first eaten at a short-lived Italian wine bar in Castleberry Hill, as if it were music, lingering on the notes, singing along. The man intimidated the hell out of Grant, but he respected Allen and didn’t want to let him down.
He pressed the doorbell and waited for the buzz that let him enter into what used to be a family’s living room but now held two reception desks, filing cabinets, and a scale model of the Beltline. Allen Roberts loomed in a doorway with a mug of coffee and chinos the color of his tanned skin.
“You’re up with the birds, Maxwell,” he smiled.
He extended his hand and Grant shook it, a sturdy grip.
“I wanted to get you these notes right away.”
Allen seemed amused. “You could have emailed them.”
Grant had considered doing just that when he woke in his recliner this morning, bleary from lack of sleep and a dull throb in his knee. But last night, as he googled Jules’s Facebook friends and stared blankly at the contents of Nick’s email and Eliot’s envelope, he kept thinking of a story Allen had told last month, as they sat on the deck of his house near Serenbe, sipping scotch at his birthday dinner.
“I was hoping we could talk.”
Allen stepped aside and gestured to his office, a former bedroom down the hall. Of all the offices at the Group, Allen’s was the largest, with the most light streaming through its plantation shutters. His desk had a marble top wide enough to hold a mattress, but as usual, it was mostly bare, its silver flakes winking in the sun. Instead of sitting at his desk, Allen took a winged-back chair by the bookcase and nodded for Grant to do the same.
“Is there a problem?” he asked. His voice as smooth as always, like the polished hum of that sedan out back.
“No. I mean, yes. Not with the restaurant—”
“Can I get you something to drink? A coffee? Water? Some Bailey’s?”
Grant nodded. “That would be nice.”
Allen stood and uncapped a bottle from his bottom drawer, adding it to the coffee brewed by his desk. Handing Grant the mug, he said, “Why don’t you start from the beginning?”
Grant rubbed his eyes. He hadn’t wanted to share the details, certain Allen would tell him to call the police. Around 3 am, he’d almost done it too, picking up his phone, starting to dial. But he knew as soon as he did, word would spread. “Missing Atlanta woman” would blare across morning news crawlers. Strangers would retweet the alerts. Before long, reporters might swarm the ICU at Grady. These quiet clues he’d found, their cryptic thread, would be harder to hear in all that noise. But he was stuck, Eliot slipping further away with every minute. He didn’t really have a choice.
“My friend is missing.”
“For how long?”
“About a week. I know I should call the police, but there are some,” he paused, swallowed a sip of sharp coffee, “sensitive circumstances. I was thinking about that story you told at your birthday dinner, about that deal with the guy in Montgomery. You mentioned a private investigator you hired.”
“Ah, yes. Carl. He’s an old surfing buddy, actually. We go back decades.”
“I was wondering,” Grant said. “Do you think he’d be able to help me?”
Allen frowned. “He’s on a job in Thailand, I’m afraid. Won’t be back for weeks.”
Grant looked at his hands, nodding.
“Perhaps I could help?”
“Thanks, but I don’t even know what questions to ask.”
“Have you called her phone company? Perhaps they could check her GPS? See if the phone is even on?”
“It is. I found it in her apartment.”
“Maybe her call logs can give you a clue? The GPS tracking?”
“I don’t know her pin.”
“Do you have it on you?” Allen asked, reaching out his hand. When Grant looked at him, confused, he added, “I know a guy. He can hack into anything.”
Grant hesitated, fingering the phone in his pocket. “I don’t want to ask you to do anything illegal.”
Allen’s voice turned softer, almost nostalgic. “I don’t have a son, Grant, but if I did, I’d tell him the same thing I’m going to tell you: when your life or the life of someone you love is in danger, do whatever you have to in order to protect them, legal or illegal, moral or immoral.”
Grant knew he was right. Besides some speeding tickets and a few times he’d been caught as a teenager, trespassing or drinking under age, Grant had lived mostly on the right side of the law. But now he was desperate. He’d do anything to bring Eliot home.
“I can’t thank you enough,” he said a few minutes later, as the man walked him to the door.
“Happy to help.” Allen clapped him on the back. “You should get some rest. You look like hell.”
Grant tried to chuckle. “Soon,” he said. “I promise.”
He was almost out the door when he turned. “I have to say, I never pictured you as a surfer.”
Allen smiled. “We all have our secrets.”
As he drove down Peachtree toward Deering, Grant considered this. Most of the night, he’d been up searching for Jules’s secrets, dissecting Facebook comments from years before, clicking links on genealogy websites. He’d learned that Jules grew up in Duluth, the only daughter of Korean immigrants. Her family owned a laundromat for a while, and then her dad got into real estate, but he couldn’t find much on them after 2013, the same year Jules apparently graduated from Duke Law. On LinkedIn, she listed her job as “consultant” beside a string of law firms all over the state. There were at least two brothers, maybe a niece, but the trail dried up there. No blogs or police reports or selfies in the front seat of her car. An ordinary life, according to the internet. She could have been anyone.
Whatever her secrets, Jules had arrived early to Octane. She was already seated against the long wall when Grant walked in, with the dregs of an iced coffee in front of her and crumbs from a muffin pebbled on her plate. She smiled when she saw him, half standing, but Grant didn’t go in for the hug. He landed in his chair and looked right at her.
“You lied to me,” he said.
“Good morning to you too,” she said, attempting a laugh.
“You have one minute to come clean, or I’m out of here.”
She fiddled with her straw. “It would probably be a bad idea to ask what you’re talking about?”
“Fifty-five seconds,” he said.
Jules sighed. “I’m guessing this is about Monday night.”
“That’s a start.”
“Who told you?”
Grant stared at her, unmoved.
“I didn’t lie about Noni’s. I saw Eliot. We had plans, but she bailed. That’s all true.”
“And after you left?”
“I didn’t go to the showcase. I was upset, didn’t feel like being alone. So I went to the Clermont Lounge instead and got drunk at the bar by myself. Not my finest hour.” She opened the lid to her coffee and plucked a piece of ice to suck.
“Why were you upset?”
“I asked Eliot to move in with me. She said no.”
Grant’s jaw fixed.
“I know what you’re thinking. That’s why I didn’t tell you in the first place. But we didn’t break up or anything. She just said it was too soon.”
“I heard that Eliot denied she was even dating you.”
Jules nodded, as if expecting this. “You talked to Kenny. My biggest fan. No wonder you don’t trust me.”
“Are you saying he lied?”
She pushed the plate out of her way and leaned in. “I don’t know what your family is like. Mine is very Catholic. Mass, confession, the whole deal. When I came out to my dad three years ago, he cut off contact. Not that he told anybody why. I doubt my mom even knew. A few months ago, he called and invited me to dinner. I’ve seen my parents three or four times since. We don’t talk about my life, but it’s a start.” A smile flickered on her face and then disappeared just as fast. “Kenny runs with this EDM crowd, the same crowd as my youngest brother. They aren’t friends, but they know each other. So I asked Eliot to keep quiet about our relationship. I didn’t want it getting back to my family.”
Grant folded his arms, studying Jules. She had answers, but he still didn’t like the questions, that nagging tug in his stomach, like a leash urging him away. Without her, though, he’d be right back where he started, panicked and alone. He heard Allen’s advice in his head: do whatever you have to.
“Is that it?” he asked. “All the lies?”
“Okay,” he decided. “I got to get something from my truck, and I’m going to order a coffee. When I come back, you’re telling me everything you learned at the library.”
He retrieved Eliot’s envelope from his passenger seat and turned it over and over in his hands as he waited in line. Jules came up behind him for a refill.
“What’s that?” she asked, reaching for the envelope.
He pulled it back, not ready, but as he did, the flap folded open and sheets of paper fluttered to the floor.
Jules bent to get one that landed near her foot, scanning the page as she stood. Her face blanched. Without a word, she hurried to the table and pulled Eliot’s notebook from her purse. She walked back to Grant, opened to the last page, and held it up before him.
In a different order, written by a different hand, but there it was: the same list of names.