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Chapter 1
"Where are you??"


At first, Grant barely noticed. He had the menu to finish, another meeting with the lawyers, line cooks to interview. He sent a text and promptly forgot it, unaware when she didn’t respond.

The next day, Thursday, he called her on his way home from the farmers’ market. He got her voicemail but didn’t leave a message. She’d call back, he figured, when she had the time.

He spent most of the weekend in the kitchen—fine-tuning his chimichurri, reorganizing the walk-in. Sometime Saturday afternoon, he forwarded her an article about the Falcons defensive line, and he did wonder, for just the second it took the email to send, why she hadn’t called him back. But then he returned to the dry storage, the lagging P.O.S.

After a long Sunday reviewing receipts with the Group’s accountant, though, Grant started to wonder. Sure, they’d gone days without talking—weeks, even—but since Eliot moved back to Atlanta three months before, they hadn’t gone this long.

It had been ten days since the last time he saw her, at Noni’s on a drizzly weekday afternoon. He’d had a lunch meeting with three of The Phoenix Group partners, and though they’d been complimentary—they loved his projected margins on appetizers, his use of color on the plate—they still kicked the soft open to the end of the month. Grant was starting to doubt Bravata would ever open its doors. Like anyone in the business, he’d worked in short-lived restaurants, for new owners who fired the whole staff in less than a week, but this time, it was his menu, his kitchen, his name on the door. He’d worked for years to get here, sacrificed a marriage and who knew how much sleep. Another delay in the schedule meant more waiting, more chance of developing an ulcer or not making rent. All he could think to do after that meeting was drink too much.

His third beer had arrived when El did. She slogged her messenger bag on one stool and plopped into another, crossing her legs beneath her. “Looks like I need to catch up,” she said, and she ordered a shot of whiskey and the darkest beer they had on tap. “All right,” she said. “Tell me everything.”

And Grant had—all the questions they kept asking, every subtle shake of their heads. El nodded along and scattered in enough profanity to show she was listening, but now that he thought about it, she had seemed distracted. Twisting her hair into tight knots around her finger. Glancing at the door whenever a shadow passed. He’d just chalked it up to the life of a freelance journalist, the dizzy energy it took to make a living. When El was on a deadline, she was liable to gnaw her lip bloody or stop mid-sentence to fill a page in her notebook. He never took it personally.

He tried to remember if she’d mentioned a trip she was taking, maybe some story for a travel website, but his head was aching from the hours with a calculator. He sent her one more text—Where are you?? Im starting to worry—before falling asleep in his recliner.

Grant woke Monday to his phone ringing. He jumped to grab it from the charger, groggy but expecting El on the other end.

Instead, it was a nurse from Sunset Villas Assisted Living. Frank had collapsed in the dining room during breakfast, just as he stood to bus his plate. A stroke, they thought. The ambulance was already in route to Grady, but they couldn’t get a hold of his daughter, who, the nurse added, hadn’t been to see him all week. Grant’s was the only other number in the file.

He called El at least a dozen times on his way to the hospital. He even drove by her place, a carriage apartment in Virginia-Highlands with an iron gate and ivy swooped across its door. He knocked and knocked, but no one answered. He couldn’t see a thing through the blinds. No one answered at the main house either, but the stack of AJCs peeking from under the grill cover suggested the Braddocks were on one of their trips. By the time he got to Grady, where he found Frank in a coma and no sign of El, Grant officially started to panic.

Yes, he knew El could be flighty. She could forget to pay her power bill, or leave her keys in the front door, or even, when Grant visited her in Chicago three years before, fail to show up to a Cubs game after paying extra for seats behind home plate. But she never—never—went a day without talking to her father. She would answer his calls in the shower, hop a plane when doctors ordered a second round of tests. Frank was the only real family El had left, the reason she quit her job and moved home. She’d visited Sunset Villas nearly every day since. Whatever kept her from his bedside couldn’t be good.

As he waited for Frank’s doctor, Grant opened Twitter on his phone. He’d signed up for the app years before, when the cute sommelier at that French place nicknamed him Flintstone on account of his flip phone, but he rarely checked it. He followed a few dozen people, most of them Falcons players and stand-ups, but Eliot used it all the time. “Part of the business,” she liked to say. He guessed it did help her get her name out there.

Her last tweet was dated a week before, the link to a review of some album with the hashtag #newthemesong. Below that, other links, other hashtags, a few responses to names he didn’t recognize, a meme about Game of Thrones. A few people had tweeted at her, mostly in response to messages she must have sent but he couldn’t see. In the days before her last tweet, somebody named YAWPmusic left four separate messages: two links to YouTube videos, a meme of a dog with a bucket on its head, and most recent, an image of a pencil sketch that looked an awful lot like Eliot, with the hashtag #myprettylady.

He was about to close the app when a new tweet appeared on her page from someone named J: seems that she has gone and changed her locks on me.

Grant didn’t know what it meant, but it made him worry. He didn’t want to waste any more time not knowing if El was okay, so he found the bag of Frank’s clothes in the closet and checked the pockets. He snapped a picture of the phone extension and left a note on the whiteboard, in case Frank woke up. Traffic had probably died down by now. He figured it wouldn’t take long.

In the car, he kept replaying those hours at Noni’s. His soggy complaining. Her loyal scoffs. He remembered that one moment, after a few more rounds, over a plate of fried calamari. He’d been in the middle of criticizing one of the partner’s logic when he looked up to see El staring past his shoulder. Her face tense and gray. He scanned the room behind him and saw people waiting for a table, a line forming for the bathroom.

“What?” he’d asked. “Who is it?”

But El didn’t answer. When he waved a hand in front of her face, she snapped back to him.            

“Sorry,” she said, reaching for a kernel of fried batter. “Totally spaced out. I think I need to eat more. You were saying?”

Looking back, Grant wished he had asked what she was thinking. He remembered how she’d told him about the weeks before her mom died, how she would hover in the hallway or sit right up against El on the couch, as if she wanted to say something but never did. What might El have told him if he’d shut up long enough to ask?

He decided to call Nick. It rang a couple times, then he heard a rustle, the fumble of fingers on keys.

“Sorry,” Nick said. “My man, Grantland. How goes it?”

There was a reason most of Grant’s friends were old ones. Just hearing Nick’s voice slowed his heartbeat, made him blush at his frantic pulse. They’d been friends since their early 20s, back when he picked up shifts at The Punchline and Nick took the stage at open mics. They’d been like their city back then, unshaven and hungry, engines gaining speed. Before the Beltline and back pain, the movie crews and full-time jobs. It steadied him, somehow, to hear their years of late-night drinking, those dreams as restless as their bodies, tucked behind Nick’s words. He exhaled.

“Hey, man. Is this a bad time?”

“Headed to a meeting at Woodruff Park, so I got a minute. What’s up?”

“Have you talked to Eliot recently? Like in the last week?”

“Nope. I left her a message on Thursday, I think. Thought we might have some work for her, but she never called back, so I gave it to someone else.”

Grant cringed a little. Nick had been good enough to give El some freelance jobs for Creative Loafing while she got on her feet in Atlanta. Her portfolio was good, but Grant’s connection hadn’t hurt. He’d be pissed if she screwed this up.

“Ok, well, if you hear from her, will you tell her to call me?”

“Sure,” Nick said, an ambulance passing in the background. “Everything okay?”

“Her dad had a stroke this morning, and nobody can get a hold of her. I’m headed to her house now.”

“That sucks, man,” he said. “But I’m sure she’s fine. Probably just passed out after writing all night or something.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Grant turned off North Highland, onto El’s street. “I just got a feeling something’s wrong.”

“That Eliot is a tough chick. She’s smart. There’s got to be a good reason—what was that group y’all were in? The Unsinkables?”

          “The Unshakables.”

          “Right. That girl is unshakable. You’ll see.”

          Grant told himself that Nick was right. El was tough, and not in some polished, deodorant-commercial kind of way. She was scrappy and blistered, dirt under her nails. All that she’d lived through—her mom’s suicide, the attack—El had learned how to take life’s punches standing up.

          The night they met, that clammy July more than 20 years before, her balance had been the first thing he noticed. In the whirl of that emergency room hallway, all those cops on their radios, the nurses, the screams from down the hall. That guttural boom, the one he still hasn’t forgotten, echoing from every TV. She’d smiled at him, this wispy white girl with her head wrapped in splotted gauze. She reached over and handed him a cup of lime Jell-O. “Something tells me,” she’d said, passing him a plastic spoon, “I get to skip my algebra test on Monday.” All that chaos, his leg mottled and throbbing and never going to bend quite right again, and somehow Grant had laughed.

          “Listen,” Nick said. “I got to jump into this meeting, but I’ll ask around and let you know if anyone’s heard anything.”

          Grant thanked him as he pulled into El’s driveway and grabbed Frank’s keys.

          A fat oak tree hid the path to her door, so it was quiet, only the soft munch of fallen leaves beneath his feet. He knocked a few times, but she didn’t answer, so he stabbed the first key at the lock. It didn’t fit, in either direction. His hands were shaking, he realized. He dropped the ring and bent to get it, a bloom of nausea up his chest.

What if she was in there, he thought. What if there were a reason she couldn’t answer the door or the phone? That familiar rumble started in his ears, as if the ground were moving, his lungs hardening like cement. He could almost hear El’s voice, as usual. Say it, she told him, so he did, out loud: “I am steady. I am real. I am unshaken.”

          He stood up, shook his head, and the rumble faded. The walls stayed in place. A short one this time, but still, it had been months since he last heard it, maybe a year.

          Bracing, he inserted the second key. A soft click. Gears groaning as they turned. He wiggled the knob, as he’d seen El do dozens of times, and placed his shoulder to the door. With a push, it opened…

 



Chapter 2
"Wasn't she beautiful?"


Grant could smell it as soon as he opened the door. The waft of artificial lemon. A prickle of bleach. Gone were the familiar scents of blackening banana peels, dishes moldy in the sink, warring stubs of incense heavy with vanilla or jasmine or sandalwood. No coffee mugs, half empty, lined her bookcases. No stacks of paper as high as his calves. No brimming trash bags, or hand-washed clothes draped on chair backs, in various stages of drying. Except for a scuff of red clay by the welcome mat, the floor looked clean enough to lick.

That was the first thing he noticed, the eerie hygiene. The second—after he threw open doors and peered under the bed—was that Eliot was not here, and by the looks of it, she hadn’t been for days. Dust had started to tint the blinds. The microwave and stove lights flashed zeros. A hint of pink inside the toilet bowl. Whoever cleaned the apartment had been thorough, but even unprompted, a place tended to resume its ways.

There had to be some clue to her whereabouts, a forgotten receipt or confirmation number, so Grant started looking. Sitting at her desk, he opened drawers and fingered the paper clips and tracks of staples. A stack of brochures for yoga centers in Serenbe and Blue Ridge. He found empty envelopes and Post-it notes, and, somehow, a box of floppy discs. He smiled at their labels. Lit/Bio essays, one said. P.G. movies. Damn, he thought, that girl never threw anything away.

The bottom drawer revealed a file cabinet, each of the suspended folders labeled by utility: “Power,” “Cable/Internet,” “Car Insurance.” Grant wondered how she had so many bill stubs from just three months here, so he pulled out the one labeled “Water” and leafed through the pages she’d thrown in. He found print-outs of the Water Department’s website, GoogleMaps directions to some place in East Lake. Halfway through the stack he found the most recent bill, due the day before. El had scribbled a date across it: “paid 9/28.” Just in the last three months alone, she’d had to go downtown twice to turn her water back on, her checks having bounced. How could she afford to pay this one early?

He sorted through the other files with increasing speed. Car insurance: “paid 9/28.” Gas, the same. Cable and renter’s insurance. Even the rent for Frank’s apartment, which Grant had thought came straight from his Social Security check. But here was a letter from Sunset Villas confirming receipt of six month’s rent—paid in advance. The date on the letter? October 2, 2017. Grant had no idea how or where Eliot would get that kind of money…or why.

If the apartment hadn’t been so quiet, so muted without the hum and bustle of Eliot, he might not have heard it. A tinny sound. A melody, like muffled hand bells. Grant threw back the cushions, the basket of woven blankets. Dizzy, he closed his eyes to hear it better. The bedroom, he realized. Around the dresser. He pulled open the drawers, dumped the folded socks and concert t-shirts on the bed, but the dinging continued, as if it were coming from the walls. He nudged out the dresser as the sound disappeared. In its place, a white charger cord snaked from an outlet, leading to the gap underneath the dresser’s two-inch legs. He lowered to the carpet. With a tug, an iPhone slid out and, after it, two spirals of a notebook. Grant reached for it, already knowing what it must be.

A black spiral notebook, like the kind SCAD students used for sketching, only smaller, purse-sized. Eliot’s notebook, the one he’d seen her write in dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. She bought them in bulk, he knew, so he tried not to panic as he picked it up. It could be an old one, all its pages covered in Chicago. But as he opened the front cover, a gulp rose in his throat. Atlanta, it said on the first page, September - _______ 2017. A majority of empty pages confirmed it. This was the notebook he’d seen just 10 days before. The one she never left home without.

He thumbed through the pages, Eliot’s bulbous letters in all directions. Phone numbers and names he didn’t recognize. Untethered words and phrases, sentences without beginnings or ends. A drawing of some sort, edges stained with coffee rings or smudged ink. He stared at the pages as if they were those old 3-D posters, as if willing a shape to spring into view.

Then he turned his thoughts to the phone. Eliot often forgot it. He’d seen her empty her messenger bag on restaurant tables and car hoods, only to later rediscover her phone in the refrigerator or on the lip of her bathtub. So it wasn’t the presence of her phone that sent pulses of static up his neck and down his arms. It was the realization that, without it, Eliot could not call for help.

He pressed the phone’s home button, and the screen lit up, announcing 42 missed calls. A good number of those were his own, Grant knew, and the nurse from Frank’s apartment. But there had to be others. He tapped to get the password screen, where he tried her birthdate, the year she graduated from high school, but then he stopped. He had no idea how many wrong passwords he could try before the phone wiped itself clean, and he didn’t want to find out.

He stood in her squat bedroom, trying to decide what to do next. He scanned the walls and furniture for anything out of place. There was her framed poster from a Picasso exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. The chipped tile coasters. The floral tray that held her rings and necklaces. On the wide bedside table, a few paperback books—a biography of Olivia Newton-John, a guide to day trips from Atlanta, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. A framed picture of Eliot and Frank the day he moved her into college. Another of the two of them in Times Square. In each, El’s edges blurred as if in motion. Frank’s hand on her shoulder like an anchor to keep her from blowing away.

Behind these frames leaned the gauzy Polaroid she used to tuck under her pillow and prop on dashboards. A blonde woman in a white robe draping open at her thighs, her face flushed almost as red as the fist-sized splotch of a birthmark across her cheek. She’s laughing at the toddler in her lap, the kind of laugh you could almost hear, even now, twenty five years after she left a note taped to her steering wheel and stepped off the edge of Brasstown Bald.

“Wasn’t she beautiful?” Eliot had asked him the first time she slipped the picture from the inside pocket of her pea coat. “Don’t I look just like her?”

Grant didn’t remember what he said that first time, or the countless times she’d asked since, but he didn’t see much resemblance, except maybe the broad shoulders, the throaty laugh. The filmy gray eyes of someone who knew how to guard her secrets. The woman made him angry, to be honest, protective of that little girl she’d left behind. He hoped abandoning your life without warning wasn’t an inheritable trait.

On a shelf by her closet, he noticed that old picture of them standing in front of Grady the day he was discharged. He still had the crutches, and that itchy brace, but enough patches of El’s hair had grown back that you couldn’t see her scar. They were smiling in the picture, but Grant remembered how nervous he’d been to leave that day, how much he dreaded the quiet of his own bedroom and the woozy clamor of his high school halls.

“Just breathe whenever it gets too much,” Eliot had told him on the elevator down, while his parents hurried to get the car. “Just breathe and say your words. Out loud, remember?”

“I remember.”

“Say them with me now, just for practice.”

His voice still warbled back then. Hers somehow already had the hint of a smoker’s rasp. Together, they repeated his mantra: “I am steady. I am real. I am unshaken.”

“That’s us,” Eliot added, as the elevator settled and wrenched open its doors. “The unshakables.”

In the worst moments of his life since, he’d thought of that elevator ride. When he got fired or screamed at. When cops pulled him over on unlit roads. The weeks and months after Kendra left him. Those nights he slept in his car. The loudest noises, the shakiest ground, he remembered it. Their voices, melding, became his theme song for keeping on. Standing there, he hummed it now.

Just then, her phone rang. He almost dropped it, he was so startled. The screen lit with its announcement: J mobile.

He thought about that cryptic message on Twitter. He couldn’t let the call go by, so he swiped at the screen until the ringing stopped and, tentatively, brought the phone to his ear.

“Hello,” he said.

He never expected what he heard next.

 


Chapter 3
"Separate worlds"


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.

“Are you?”

“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.”

“And?”

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.”

“She wouldn’t—”

“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?”

“Yeah, right.”

“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?”

“Yeah?”

“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.
 


Chapter 4

"This is all we know"



 The ride downtown, they barely spoke. Grant tried to focus on the lunchtime traffic, his GPS, but he couldn’t stop wondering about the framed review they’d read at Noni’s. Jules insisted the braided gold frame was the one Eliot had taken down a week ago. She’d seen her trace its columns with her finger before returning it to the wall. But why would Eliot care about a list of Atlanta’s best entrée salads, especially from two years ago, long before she packed a U-Haul in Chicago and drove it home. The article had run in Creative Loafing, so maybe she knew the writer? But even then, why the need to hold it? Why take a picture of it with her phone?

In the passenger seat, Jules gripped the door handle and winced at every pothole and metal plate.

“Sorry,” Grant said, after a bump on Auburn Ave. “I need new shocks.”

“It’s the bourbon,” she said, gesturing at her stomach. “I’m not used to liquor before lunch.”

“Should we get you food? I think there’s a sandwich place around the corner.”

Jules shook her head. “I’m not hungry.”

Grant wondered, for perhaps the hundredth time, if he should trust this woman. He had only her word that she even knew Eliot, much less dated her, though he couldn’t imagine why Jules would be there if she didn’t. It was just that talking to her reminded him of deboning a fish: the delicate motion, the tug on his knife, the slippery slick meat. He couldn’t help thinking that she knew more than she let on.

They found a parking lot at Luckie and Forsyth and, after feeding dollar bills into a machine, walked the block and a half to the Central Library. He wasn’t sure, exactly, what they were doing there, only that some of the numbers in Eliot’s notebook had formed a phone number for the Ivan Allen Jr. Reference Department, which the woman at the front desk told them was on the second floor. Jules had been right back at Noni’s when she said they might as well check it out. They didn’t have any better ideas. But after she’d told him what Eliot said last Monday, he didn’t want to waste time on dead ends.

A pretty blonde woman sat behind the main desk, talking to a light-skinned man in a track suit. As they waited their turn, Grant surveyed the computers and shelves of cloth-bound books. He wasn’t much of a reader, but he always felt a flush of nostalgia in libraries. As a kid, he’d spent so many Saturdays chasing his brothers around the stacks, tracking down brightly-colored picture books LeVar Burton had recommended. The metal carts, the puff when you opened an old hardback. The Read posters with L.L. Cool J or Shaq. It all reminded him that once life had been simpler, that the answers to his biggest questions had once been filed by call numbers and dates.

“How can I help you?” the woman said. She had green-blue eyes and a smile he couldn’t help but return.

Jules started talking. She was cagey at first, asking what the Reference Department did, why someone might visit there. Questions so vague she could have said them to a wall and gotten as much useful information. But Grant had an idea.

“Have you—can I ask your name?” he interrupted.

“Mallory.”

“Nice to meet you, Mallory. I’m Grant, and this is Jules. We’re looking for our friend. She’s been missing for a few days, maybe a week.” He raised his phone to show her the screen. “Have you seen her?”

The librarian studied a picture of Eliot the day she moved home, sweaty and tired by the U-Haul, a half-eaten slice of Fellini’s in her hand.

“Sorry,” the woman said.

“Her name is Eliot Wiley. Ring any bells?”

The woman shook her head. “What makes you think she’d be here? Shouldn’t you be talking to the police?”

Grant had wondered the same thing. In Eliot’s apartment, at Noni’s. But he’d seen enough cop shows to guess what they would tell him. Eliot was a grown woman with every right to pick up and leave without warning. Even if the police started to look—calling friends in Chicago, the staff at Sunset Villas—it wouldn’t take long for someone to describe her as “spacy” or a “free spirit,” supporting any theory that this was just another of Eliot’s larks. Plus, going to the police took time, maybe a lot of time, and Grant had the dizzying suspicion that they didn’t have enough of it to spare.

A man in a tie and black-rimmed glasses emerged from the office to their right. Gray-flecked hair and the hint of ink along his breast pocket, he looked like the kind of guy who killed it at team trivia.

“Brian,” he said, when Grant asked his name and showed him the photo. “Maybe,” he said. “We get so many people through here.”

Jules sifted through her purse and took out the notebook, opening it to the page with the phone number. “This is all we know,” she said. “Sometime in the last couple of weeks, she called here.”

The librarians looked at the page. “That’s the direct line to the back office,” Mallory said.

But it’s not the main one people use,” Brian added. “We don’t usually give that number out.”

“So why would someone call this line?” Grant asked.

The woman shrugged. “Maybe another librarian gave it to her. At another branch. In case she had a question?”

“Sometimes we give it to people we’ve been working with. Like if somebody came in here to do a lot of research and had follow up questions, we might tell them to call us there. Unusual, but it happens.”

Jules flipped to other pages. “Can y’all just look through these, see if you recognize anything? A name or anything.”

Brian and Mallory bent over the notebook. As they scanned its pages, Grant paced in messy circles, considering where to go next. Maybe Frank’s apartment? Local hospitals? Try to track down the Braddocks to ask if they’ve heard from her? They needed a plan.

“Wait a second,” Brian said. He pointed to a list of codes. “These numbers—031491, 031591. Could these be dates? March 14, 1991? March 15?”

They all huddled over to look.

“GDE?” Grant asked. “Are those initials? A filing code?”

“Or the name of a newspaper,” Brian suggested. “The Georgia Daily Eagle ran until, what, ’99? 2000?”

Grant could feel his heart through his rib cage, thumping. El could be like the hiccups when she was on a story—persistent, full-bodied. She regularly pulled all-nighters back in Chicago, confirming sources’ details, fact checking her own memory. It was probably nothing, just background for some story she hadn’t written yet, but still. It was worth a look.

“I’ve never heard of the Georgia Daily whatever,” Jules said.

“It wasn’t that great of a paper,” Mallory said. “More of a tabloid in its approach. Not afraid to print gossip as news. If I remember right, it went bankrupt after it published some conspiracy theory about Monica Lewinsky and lost all its ad money.”

“But the ’91 issues. Do y’all have archives of them?” Grant asked.

“Sure,” Brian said. “Mal, you want to show them?”            

The librarian walked them to the back wall, where they found chest-high filing cabinets labeled in Eliot’s code. “The GDE boxes should be….” They walked past two, maybe three cabinets before Mallory plucked a square box from the drawer. “Bingo,” she said. “GDE 02/20/91 through 03/21/91.”

Grant could feel the sweat gather on his forehead. Beside him, Jules reached for the canister, her face as blank as the cabinet tops, hard and unyielding.

“It would help, of course, if you knew what you were looking for,” Mallory said, as she led them back to the large matte screens by the stairs. “Early 90s, the GDE was big, maybe 30 pages. Any idea what you hope to find?”

“Not a clue,” Grant said.

Mallory threaded the film under the glass, through the loop, and explained the buttons. “If you want to print,” she said, “it’s 10 cents a page.”

“Thanks.” Grant pulled another chair beside Jules. “Y’all are awesome.”

Mallory smiled again, her eyes kind and sad. “I’ll be right over there, if you need help.”

Sitting down, Grant watched Jules fast-forward through pages of the classifieds and movie times, Wachovia ads, Final Four rankings, op-eds about the first President Bush.

“Here,” Jules said, slowing. “The front page. March 14.”

They both leaned in.

March 14, 1991 had been a Thursday and—judging by the articles on high school baseball teams, low-cost lasagna recipes, and the Roswell quilt show—a slow news day. There was a piece on a high school student arrested for throwing rocks off a highway overpass. Another about the start of a recycling program in Cobb County. The Braves lacked depth in the bullpen, someone argued. The Dow was up 32.68 points. Still, Grant and Jules read every word of every column, zooming in and out, nudging the dial to bring pictures into focus. They even read the fine print on a half-page ad for Lord & Taylor’s upcoming sale on bedding and men’s wear. They were that careful.

Grant was about to get up to stretch his legs and stare at something not six inches from his face when they found it. Local news, section C, page 4. They knew it immediately.
 


Chapter 5

"Are you our guy?"


Police Search for Missing Atlanta Mother
Byline: Alex Crusoe
Section: State News; Section C, Page 04

 
Blairsville, Ga. – Union County police officers are searching for a missing Atlanta woman on Brasstown Bald.
 
Susannah Wiley, 34, has been missing since Tuesday morning, when she was last seen dropping off her 9-year-old daughter at E. Rivers Elementary, police say. She never returned to collect her daughter after school.
 
Her friends were not that worried at first. “Susie is one of the most dedicated moms I know,” said Mary June Pittson, whose son is in the same grade at E. Rivers. “But she can be forgetful.”
 
Husband Frank Wiley did not notify the police of his wife’s absence until Wednesday morning, only an hour before a Brasstown Bald park ranger found Mrs. Wiley’s Volvo station wagon in a lot near the Arkaquah Trail. Police performed a thorough search of the car and removed some items for further analysis.
 
A stay-at-home mom, Mrs. Wiley is best known around her Buckhead neighborhood for her elaborately patterned dresses and a collection of turbans. “She used to be a painter or something,” Arlene Kodiak says of her next-door neighbor, “before she became a mom.”
 
Local police searched the Track Rock Road area Wednesday but did not have the equipment to lead a full-scale search up the trail, which leads to the highest point in Georgia. “We’re enlisting the help of mountain rescue and experienced hikers,” Lt. Doug Ahearn said Wednesday evening. “Our hope is to find her in time.”
 
Sources close to the Wiley family are less optimistic. “There’s only one reason she’d leave that girl of hers,” Mrs. Kodiak says. “And that’s if she had no other choice.”
 
**
 
Grant sat back and kneaded his palms over his eyes.
 
“What the—” Jules started.
 
Before she could finish, he stood to walk the open carpet behind them. Over the two decades he’d known El, he’d only gathered snippets about her mother, details dropped into unrelated stories, her name lettered on the inside covers of a few books. She’d committed suicide, he knew, but not how or where, or that Eliot had been one of the last people to see her alive and among the first to know something had happened. He knew El’s mother loved Carole King and Joan Didion. He knew she used to drink white wine with ice cubes and let Eliot finger paint their living room walls. He’d seen that Polaroid. Still, Susannah Wiley had been as real to Grant as Paul Bunyan or the Tooth Fairy, all legend and tall tale, easily forgotten. But now, to think of that March morning, that afternoon. Eliot waiting in that carpool line. Frank on the phone to the police. It all felt real in a way it hadn’t before. It felt like growing up.
 
His leg stopped aching after a few minutes, so he went back to his chair, where Jules waited with her mouth open.
 
“Do you think—” she said. “This last line. ‘No other choice.’ Are they implying someone killed her?” She turned a dial to zoom in. “And this bit about the analysis? That sounds suspicious.”
 
Grant tried to focus on what her questions might mean, the letters of Frank’s name pulsing behind his eyes, but the thought just made him dizzy. Even seated, he worried he might tumble to the floor.
 
 “The 15th,” he said finally. “Didn’t she have the 15th on the list?”
 
Jules advanced through the rest of March 14th more quickly, pausing only long enough to scan the headlines. “I don’t get it,” she kept saying. “Why would he wait until the next day to call the police?”
 
When they landed on the front page of March 15th, Grant mashed the print button until he heard pages spill from the machine by his feet.
 
“Any reason we needed 900 copies?” Jules asked bending to gather the loose pages. “You know it’s 10 cents a page, right?”
 
“Sorry,” Grant said, standing. “I need some air. I’ll be back in a minute.”
 
“And these?” Jules asked, holding up the extra sheets.
 
He swiped one and pointed to a box near the desk. “See that? They recycle.”
 
Outside, the air nipped at his arms and ears. He walked to the far side of the steps, past where men in oily shirts and ball caps tossed chunks of bread to the pigeons. Just over the wall, Forsyth Street whistled with sudden brakes and car horns.
 
His phone chimed with new emails, so he took a second to delete the reminders to pay his cable bill and set his line-up for his Fantasy team, the coupons for the Gap and limited-time-only deals on Goodyear tires. He skimmed an email from Allen Roberts with attachments and a request for Grant to stop by his office, the sooner the better.
 
In his camera app, he found the number to Frank’s room and dialed it. The phone rang and rang, but no one picked up. He called the number listed on the website and got shuttled between nurses and operators until he reached an administrator who said there’d been no change in Frank’s condition.
 
“We’re missing some necessary forms,” said the woman. “Do you know if he has a D.N.R.?”
 
Grant called Sunset Villas next to ask about the paperwork. The gum-chewing woman who answered said the residents were responsible for their own valuables. “Maybe it’s in his apartment?” she smacked.
          
“Thanks anyway,” he said.
 
Jules’s questions kept cycling through his head like propeller blades. The article’s language had been vague, their implications apparent only if you wanted to find them, but he couldn’t ignore the prickles they brought to the back of his neck. Why didn’t he know more about Susannah’s death? All those nights splitting bottles of bourbon with Eliot, all their late night phone calls across time zones, why did the topic never come up? Even in her syrupy seasons of depression, when the most communication she could muster took the form of one-line emails sent at 3 am, why did her burden never seem to include losing her mother? And why had he never thought to ask?
 
If only Frank were awake, he could ask him. He could look him right in the eye. Not that the hospital gave him any reason to hope the man would emerge from his coma soon, if ever. Asking for his D.N.R. wasn’t a good sign.
 
He leaned against the low stone wall, tapping his phone against his chin. He could call his parents, ask one of them to go to the hospital. Maybe having someone there, talking to the doctors, would help. His parents had always liked Frank, even if his dad called him “the accountant,” despite Frank’s forty-year career in computer programming. Retired, his parents now puttered around the house all day, reorganizing the attic or reading thick hardcover biographies. They would go to the hospital if he asked them to, but then he’d have to tell them that El was missing, which would send his mom into heart palpitations and his dad into his Buick, driving around Eliot’s neighborhood, hollering her name from his window as if she were a pet. With only sons, his parents thought of Eliot as a surrogate daughter. He’d never be able to shake them, or the sound of fear in their voices, once they knew.
 
That was when his phone rang and, distracted, he answered without checking the screen.
 
“You’re a hard man to get a hold of,” Allen Roberts said, a smile as slick as his hair in those words. “You aren’t avoiding me, are you?”
 
“No, sir,” Grant said. He cringed, remembering that Roberts hated to be called “sir,” especially by someone “with whom he did business.” Roberts had told him this often enough, but the word was reflex to Grant, like walking between a woman and the road. When speaking to a man who spent weekends in Asia and leased his own jet, Grant was going to say ‘sir.’
 
Thankfully, Roberts ignored the gaff this time. “I sent you some documents. The updated logo, the linen estimates. I need your feedback A.S.A.P.”
 
“Yes, sorry,” Grant stammered. “I’ve had something come up today. Something personal. Can it wait?”
 
Roberts stayed silent for a moment. The thump of a car door closed in the background. “We need you to be our guy, Grant,” he said finally. “Are you our guy?”
 
Roberts had asked him the same question six months back, when he offered the deal. Grant’s own restaurant, his own menu. Everything he’d ever wanted like a glittering ball of light he could reach out and touch. Are you our guy? But this time, Roberts sounded skeptical.
 
“I would hate to have to go in another direction this late in the game.”
 
Grant felt his stomach churning. “I’m your guy. No doubt. Just give me until tomorrow morning.”
 
“10 am. I’m meeting with Curtis and Doyle then. Don’t let me down.”
 
“I won’t,” he said about four times before he realized Roberts had hung up.
 
Looking at his phone, he noticed an alert from Twitter. YAWPmusic had accepted his follow request. Grant shielded the screen from the sun so he could read the guy’s feed.
 
Whoever he was, YAWPmusic liked to tweet. Post after post about some DJ or soundboard, wobbly videos of strobe lights, lengthy threads about the lineup at Imagine Music Fest. Grant clicked on a few links to YouTube videos for DJ YAWP, spiraled tracks of rapid-fire beats and echoes. Distorted notes like the Doppler Effect. Back on Twitter, he started clicking on every link and image until he stumbled on a flyer from a week before. A showcase at the Music Room, twenty or so different names on the bill, including DJ Yawp. The same night Jules last saw El at Noni’s. It must have been the show they had intended to see. The one Jules went to alone. Why hadn’t she told him this when he’d asked about YAWPmusic? Did she know this guy? Was she covering for him?
 
He felt a tremor up his legs as he walked back into the library. He could hear the inside of his chest. His only dream on the line, he couldn’t waste any more time.
 
Upstairs, Jules’s chair was empty. The glass plate on the micro-film machine yawned open, the bulb blaring a white light. No librarians at their desk either. He needed Jules to explain herself, but at the same time, he didn’t want to tip her off, not if there was more to her story than she was telling. So he wrote a quick note on a sheet of paper from the recycling bin and left it by their machine.
 
He was halfway to his truck when Nick answered. “I need a favor,” he said, instead of hello.

 


Chapter 6

"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.”
 
“And?”
 
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.

 


Chapter 7

"That doesn't sound like Eliot"


Kenny stood there, with his hand out, as knobby and expressionless as a tree. He couldn’t have been older than twenty or so, with a razor-burned jawline and floppy hair. Maybe 120 pounds with his shoes on. White as paste. Grant didn’t know what he’d expected, but this kid looked about as dangerous as a hangnail.
 
“Are you,” Grant squinted, as if trying to place him. “Are you DJ Yawp?”
 
The kid’s face spread into a scruffy smile. “Yeah, man. You a fan?”
 
“Not quite. We have a friend in common. Eliot Wiley.”
 
At her name, Kenny went gray, that smile drooping. “Oh, yeah, totally. Eliot. Cool chick.”
 
“You haven’t seen her lately, have you? I’ve been trying to get a hold of her.”
 
Kenny looked back to his garbage bag, then over his shoulder. “Hit her up on Twitter. She’s on that thing all the time.” He started to nudge the cart. “Anyway. Enjoy the gard—”
 
Grant stood in his path, looming. “The thing is, she hasn’t been on Twitter in a week. Not answering her phone either. You wouldn’t happen to know where she is, would you, Yawp?”
 
“Listen, man,” Kenny said, pulling back a step. “I got to get to work. They don’t like me chatting with the guests.”
 
Grant reached over and gripped Kenny’s shoulder. “This’ll only take a minute.”
 
One-handed, he steered them both toward the Japanese Garden with its head-tall walls and corners. They ducked into a hut the size of a bus stop, where Grant pushed Kenny to the bench. The kid wobbled a bit in his landing, but he wasn’t hurt.
 
“If they see my cart—”
 
Grant planted his feet wide to block the exit. It reminded him of the old days at the Y, on the court with a knee that still bent right and a back that didn’t buckle at jump shots. Thoughts like this usually made him tired, weary from the could’ve beens that played like elevator muzak in his head when he let them. But Kenny’s beady eyes and snarled thin lips stoked his adrenaline. It felt good to do something with his hands.
 
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” he said, as if talking to a child. “I’m going to ask you questions. You’re going to answer them. If you don’t, I’ll tell your supervisor that you followed me around, harassing me, trying to hawk your music. Understand?”
 
Kenny nodded, sinking further into his seat.
 
“Good. Now I hear you like to bother our Ms. Wiley.”
 
“Sh-she’s my friend.”
 
“Your friend, huh? Ok, then: when was the last time you saw her?”
 
“A couple weeks.”
 
Grant hadn’t expected this answer. The way Jules talked, he’d figured Eliot found the kid a nuisance and had probably done her best to avoid him. “Where?”
 
“Around.”
 
“Around?” Grant mimicked. “Did she see you too, or do we have a stalking problem?”
 
“No, man, she called me. Wanted to meet for a drink. We went to this bar in Kirkwood ‘cause she said they made the best old fashioneds in the city.”
 
“Ration & Dram?”
 
“That’s the place.”
 
“What’d you two talk about?”
 
The kid looked sideways, bobbing in his seat.
 
Grant shoved him just hard enough. “I asked you a question.”
 
“She needed my help.”
 
“Want to be more specific?”
 
“Dude, I’m not gonna sell out my friend.”
 
Eyes steady, Grant stepped in close enough to breathe on him. “Maybe I haven’t made myself clear. Eliot is missing. We don’t even know if she’s alive. Got it? You don’t tell me what I need to know, I might start thinking you’ve done something to her. You want me to think that, Kenny?” He spit the name. “You want to see what I’ll do to you?”
 
Kenny shook his head. “Okay, okay. Geez, man.”
 
Grant moved back, but not far.
 
“This isn’t my only side hustle, okay? I got a friend who gets me some temp work on movie sets. Making coffee, sweeping, that kind of thing. A few weeks back, I was working at the Pullman Yards. Eliot saw me tweet about it and asked could I help her sneak through security.”
 
“Why?”
 
“She didn’t say. Just that it was important.”
 
“Did you do it?”
 
“Man, they barely let me in there. I get caught sneaking someone in, they call the cops.”
 
“So you told her no?”
 
Kenny bit at his splinter of a bottom lip. “Not exactly. I made friends with a guy who worked in casting. They were looking for extras, like, a lot of them. I got her on the list.”
 
Grant wondered why El would want to visit a movie set. Research for a story probably, but what about? “What was the movie?”
 
Kenny shrugged. “Something about zombies, I think. I might’ve got to be an extra myself, only that stunt she pulled got me fired. My buddy said I should be glad they didn’t blackball me with other studios.”
 
“Stunt? What did she do?”
 
He looked up now, animated. “So one minute she’s in line with the other extras, being led to set. The next she’d snuck off, down to the dressing rooms. Someone in wardrobe called security. Said she was harassing the crew.”
 
“That doesn’t sound like Eliot.”
 
“I know, man. I was shocked.”
 
“Did you ask her about it?”
 
Kenny nodded. “We’d planned to meet back at that bar after work, so when they kicked me out, I went to find her.”
 
“Was she there?”
 
“For, like, a minute. She was talking to the bartender, whispering and stuff. When she saw me, she passed him some envelope and came over all apologetic, saying it was a misunderstanding, she got lost, blah blah.”
 
“Sounds like you were pissed.”
 
“I liked that job.”
 
“I bet you wanted to get back at her,” Grant said, his mouth moving faster than his brain. “Hurt her like she hurt you.”
 
“No, man, nothing like that. All these temp jobs, I get fired all the time. If Eliot says it was a misunderstanding, that’s what it was. Besides, she made it up to me. Got me a sweet gig.”
 
“The showcase? At the Music Room?”
 
That uneven smile seeped on his face. “She told you?”
 
“I heard about it.”
 
“Man, it was lit. Best show of my life. I met a couple promoters. Even got another gig set up for next week.”
 
“You say she got you that spot. You know how?”
 
He scoffed. “Her Asian friend knew a guy.”
 
“You mean Jules. Her girlfriend.”
 
“Man, that chick ain’t her girlfriend.”
 
Grant felt a gulp in his throat. “Why do you say that?”
 
“Because Eliot told me she wasn’t.”
 
Just then, Grant’s phone vibrated. It was a blocked number. He placed his thumb on the button, trying to decide.
 
“That’s all I know, man. Honest.”
 
“One more question,” Grant said, watching the call go to voicemail. “I’ve been checking Twitter. Usually you’re all up on Eliot’s feed, but you’ve been radio silent for a few days. Something happen?”
 
Kenny scuffed his tennis shoe against the concrete. “I was sore, is all. She said she was coming to my showcase but didn’t. Not even a text to tell me why.”
 
“Jules was there. You didn’t ask her?”
 
The kid scrunched his eyes. “No she wasn’t. I put both their names on the list. Neither showed.”
 
Grant took a step back, into the open garden, and tried to steady his breathing. It didn’t make sense. First Jules lied about being Eliot’s girlfriend, and then she lied about where she was last Monday night. How could he trust anything she’d told him? For all he knew, she didn’t even see El on Monday. The frame at Noni’s, all that talk about being stuck in your life—maybe none of it even happened. But what he couldn’t figure out was why. If she had something to hide, why agree to meet him in the first place? Why not hang up when he answered El’s phone? What game was Jules playing?
 
“We cool, man?” Kenny asked from behind him.
 
“Yeah,” Grant said, waving him away. “We cool.”
 
The kid scuttled out of there so fast, he nearly trampled a bonsai tree. Grant heard the cart wheels squeak in the opposite direction before he braced himself to play the voicemail.
 
It was the hospital. Frank had taken a turn for the worse.

 


Chapter 8

"Like father, like daughter"


 Sunset Villas Independent and Assisted Living Apartments sulked by a pond tucked in a corner of Inman Park you wouldn’t know existed unless you’d been there. Oak trees like advancing sentries lined the property, bearing down on the squat brick buildings, the foamy pond, a tennis court without a net. Frank seemed to like it here, taking ceramics courses and learning conversational French, but to Grant, the place looked like the punchline to a really bad joke. A lot of build-up, long years of eating, breathing, working, just to end up here.
 
It had been months since the last time he brought Frank a Chick-fil-a sandwich (no pickles) and a medium Iced Dream, the only food he claimed to crave despite the gray beef Grant once ate with him in the dining room, the mashed potatoes you could drink through a straw. But that was Frank, always content and placid, as even-keeled as a Midwest highway.
 
Grant parked his truck in the visitor’s lot and walked up the ramp to the sliding doors, thankful for the curtain of dusty heat that settled on him as he entered the lobby. At the front desk, he found a clipboard and a dull-faced teenager mashing buttons on her phone.
 
“Name, date, and time, please,” she instructed, without looking up. Grant obliged.
 
Once through this cracker-jack security system, he took the elevator to the second floor and followed a network of beige hallways to the door with Frank’s nameplate. He shuffled the keys he’d taken from the man’s pants that morning, and after a couple of tries, he was in.
 
Frank’s apartment looked a lot like the man himself. Tidy and unadorned, all muted earth tones and sturdy fabrics that could hide any stain. A square room with predictable doorways. A kitchenette with little sign of use. It smelled like Frank too, a blend of soap and cigar smoke. Despite himself, Grant smiled.
 
The social worker had explained Frank’s condition as simply as she could. He had a tangle in his brain, she told Grant, a knot of arteries and veins confusing their roles. The doctors needed to operate fast, or he’d never recover. The nurses were prepping him for surgery as they spoke. She insisted Grant couldn’t do any good in the hospital waiting room. He’d be far more useful if he found Frank’s living will. So here he was, in the home of another absent Wiley, afraid of what might happen if he let himself sit down.
 
He started in the living room. A square box, it held two recliners, a plaid upholstered bench, a box TV on top of a flimsy chest of drawers, and the Wiley’s old China cabinet, nearly scraping the ceiling and four inches longer than its wall. He checked the drawers first, pulling them off their tracks to shuffle their piles of loose leaf notebook paper and empty boxes of light bulbs. He found the manual for Frank’s TV, some expired coupons for batteries, and a Sudoku book completed in ink, but no legal documents. Nothing that wouldn’t make just as much sense in the trash.
 
In the bedroom, he opened more drawers. The room was small, barely bigger than the bed itself, so it didn’t take long to realize Frank kept only socks in his sock drawer, only dust mites under his bed. He slid coat hangers back and forth in the closet to unpack the shoeboxes at their feet. Most held shoes or polish, but one larger box held files for bill stubs penciled with the date of payment. Like father, like daughter, Grant figured, and he tugged the cord to turn out the light.
 
The bathroom medicine cabinet offered bottles of pills Grant didn’t recognize and a perfectly flattened tube of Crest. He checked under the sink, but found only toilet bowl cleaner and a plunger. On the counter sat a book of knock-knock jokes.
 
Grant heard his stomach before he felt it, but then hunger scratched at him impatiently. He opened the mini-fridge in the kitchenette and found only eight cans of vanilla Ensure and a sweet potato. He popped a can and went back to the living room. He could see almost the entire apartment from the recliners, and he scanned it, hoping for some corner he’d missed. Maybe Frank had a safe deposit box somewhere. An early adopter, maybe he’d gone paperless and his records were stored in the cloud. But Grant didn’t see a computer, or even a tablet. He closed in eyes to think.
 
Blips of this morning in El’s apartment clicked through his mind. The whiff of bleach from her countertops. The empty trashcans. The nearly spotless floor. He hadn’t seen her laptop either, though he knew she had one. He could almost hear the clomp-clomp of her typing if he listened hard enough. Where had it gone? He wondered if, maybe, she’d hidden it behind another dresser or even the couch. Maybe he should have pulled more furniture from the wall.
 
“Like father, like daughter,” he said aloud, as he set about moving Frank’s furniture. First the recliners, the TV and chest of drawers. Then the mini-fridge, the microwave, the space heater. He flipped the mattress in the bedroom and lifted the toilet tank lid. Once he’d found nothing more than 14 cents in pennies, he went back to the living room to stare down the China cabinet.
 
Inside it was Frank’s collection of handmade pitchers—some he’d made since moving here, but most culled from mountain flea markets he’d visited with El over the years, beachside stands and truck stops. Eliot often teased her father for the size of his collection—can’t we buy a bowl just once? she would laugh—but Grant had seen the length of bubble wrap she kept in her suitcase. He knew some of these pitchers were souvenirs from trips Frank never took.
 
There must have been a hundred of them, maybe more. The time it would take to unload them, plus the size of the cabinet, meant Frank wouldn’t be able to move it on his own. The glass shelves proved nothing hid underneath the pitchers, not even the biggest ones, but Grant still opened the paned doors and ran his fingers across their lips. Some were small enough to fit in his palm, almost disappearing when he made a fist. Others took two hands to lift. One had the face of a grizzled old man frowning. Another a thistle etched in white clay. A few bared abstract swaths of color, teal blues and papery pinks. He noticed one he remembered so clearly, a frilly spout in orange milk glass.
 
When he put this one back, he noticed a lidded clay jar beside it, brown with a yellow rim. The only jar in the collection. Maybe he’d seen it before but didn’t notice. What would he have cared, even if he had? But today, he reached for it slowly, as if it might sting. He lifted it to read the words in painted script across it, hoping his eyes were playing tricks, but they weren’t. The letters were as clear as the thump in his chest: Brasstown Bald.
 
The carpet had a low nap, but still kept the jar from breaking when he dropped it. A pouf of ash spilled onto the carpet. Grant stood there, a vanilla curdle in his throat. He’d never seen a person’s ashes, but the more he stared at them, the more they looked like the coils of a cigar, white-gray and clumped. This had to be Frank’s ashtray, he told himself, as he bent to sweep it up. But still. Why use a jar advertising the place his wife committed suicide? Why choose to see those words every day?
 
He was cupping his hand to scoop the ashes when he heard a phone ring. It wasn’t his, which he kept on vibrate, but the chirpy tune still rose from his pocket. He’d almost forgotten he had El’s phone. He took it out and checked the screen. J calling, it said.
 
Grant could feel his heartbeat in his ears as he settled on the floor to answer. His hands trembled a little. His mouth went dry. “Hello,” he managed.
 
“There you are. I thought you said you’d be right back.” Her words sounded practiced to him now, memorized.
 
“I—I tried calling you.”
 
“I got, like, no service in the library. But listen. You won’t believe what I found.”
 
“Jules,” he started, but he didn’t know what to say next. Should he tell her what Kenny had told him? Should he hang up and call the police?
 
She didn’t give him the chance to decide. “I’m following up som—” The reception gulped out and back in. “—how long. Can you meet me in the morning? At Oct—”
 
“What?” Grant asked. “You’re breaking up.”
 
“Can—ear me?”
 
“Jules?”
 
“Tomorrow morning,” she said, clearer now. “Westside Octane. 8:00?”
 
“I’ll be there,” Grant said, glad to have the night ahead of him, time to figure out what to do.
 
They said goodbye, and he lowered the phone, scooping the last sprig of ashes into the jar. That’s when he saw it: a clear plastic disk beneath the cabinet leg. He looked to the opposite leg and saw another. As quickly as his knee would let him, he stood and brought his shoulder to the side of the cabinet. With barely a push, the whole thing slid toward the bathroom. The pitchers teetered but stayed in their place.
 
He stepped back. There, built into the wall, a stainless steel rectangle with a dial. The door to a safe.
 
He tried Eliot’s birthday first: right to 08, left past zero to 06, then right again to 82. He reversed the day and month when that didn’t work, then the month and year. He tried Frank’s birthday the same way. Then, without pausing to consider what it might mean, he tried the day Susannah disappeared: 03-12-91. He heard a click, and the clasp sprang open.
 
Inside he found a box that once held printer paper and removed the lid. One manila envelope held Frank’s car title, his rental agreement, the receipt for new tires. Another, stacks of photographs out of order: Eliot at college graduation, as a newborn, at prom. Frank was in a few of them, Grant too, but none were of Susannah. The final envelope held coverage statements from Frank’s insurance and a list of all medications he’d taken in the last five years. With them, two copies of his living will, notarized and witnessed. Grant almost cried at the relief of finding one thing lost.
 
He would stop by the hospital on his way home, he figured, check on Frank, maybe call his parents. Just in case, he decided to take the whole box with him. Sliding it out, he realized there was something underneath it. He reached down and tugged it free. Another manila envelope, but this one with Eliot’s handwriting across the front:
 
To be opened in case of my death.


Chapter 9

"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?”
 
“That’s it.”
 
“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.”
 
“Deal.”
 
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.

 


Chapter 10

"Look closer"


“At first,” Jules said, smoothing the stack of papers she’d pulled from her bag. “I didn’t know what to think.”
 
They had found a quieter corner, away from the door, and Grant breathed on his coffee to cool it. He felt antsy enough without more caffeine, the table tittering from a leg twitch he couldn’t stop, but he needed something to do with his hands. As Jules started to explain how she’d found the names she’d written in El’s notebook, he stared at the last one, the only name that wasn’t also on the list he’d found in the safe: Susannah Wiley.
 
“I’d been through the first six dates in the notebook,” she continued. “All Georgia Daily Eagle articles about the search for Susannah’s body. They mostly said the same thing—she was missing, presumed dead. Volunteers of shrinking numbers combing the trail. A few more questions about Frank, but nothing solid. But then, when I fed the last micro-film, the 1996 one, into the machine, it wasn’t the GDE. It was some Vermont county newspaper from 1986.”
 
Grant tried to sip his coffee, but a tremble in his hand spilled more on the table than his tongue. He used his sleeve to mop up. “Sorry. Keep going.”
 
“So I asked Mallory—you know, the librarian—where they kept this Vermont paper, assuming they’d just refiled the canisters wrong. She said the library doesn’t carry Vermont newspapers—never has. Especially not some random county paper from thirty years ago.”
 
“How did it get there?”
 
Jules’s eyes gleamed wide. “That’s what I wanted to know. I started thinking, how often does someone go to the reference library to access micro-film for a defunct newspaper from the 90s? I bet that happens, what, never? So I’m thinking Eliot was the last person to handle that film. What if she swapped this Vermont film on purpose?”
 
“Why would she do that?” he asked, though the manila envelope was sitting between them, El’s message staring back. Breadcrumbs in a nightmare forest.
 
Fingering the stack of paper, Jules didn’t stop talking. “I started going through the film, scanning the headlines. It took forever, but I found this.” She slid a page from the pile and turned it to face him.
 
An article, printed from the micro-film in blurry text, but the headline read clear: “Missing Charlotte woman’s car found on bridge.”
 
Grant tried to read the columns but the words sloshed against each other and spread. He kneaded his temples and looked up. “Just tell me what it says.”
 
“This woman, Erin Brecker, she never came home from work one night in 1986. Her sister called the cops. They found her car on the Chaplain Bridge in Vermont, door open, keys in the ignition. She’d had some mental problems, even attempted suicide before, so no one was all that shocked when she jumped.”
 
“Another suicide,” Grant said. His brows gathered. “But how does it connect to us?”
 
“Last paragraph,” Jules tapped the page. “They mention she’d just moved back from Atlanta.”
 
“Okay,” Grant said, stretching the word.
 
“So I googled her. She died in ’86, so there really wasn’t anything to find. I tried her name with ‘Atlanta,’ and still nothing. Then I left out her first name. Turns out, there’s a handful of Breckers in Atlanta. A musician, some LinkedIn pages. But, if you dig deep enough in the results, you find an obituary for a guy named Bennington Brecker.” She stopped to smile at the look on Grant’s face. “I know, right? Poor guy. Anyway, Bennington died in the mid-2000s, and in his obituary, it said he was ‘preceded in death’ by his mother, Erin.” Jules pulled out another printed column of newspaper, this one with a toothy man in his 40s under the words In Memory.
 
“She had a son. I’m still not tracking how that connects to us.”
 
“I’m getting there.” She pulled her chair in closer. “Anyway, the library was closing, so I went home, made a pot of coffee, and started googling the hell out of this guy. He lived mostly in California, but came to Atlanta occasionally—and he was on the board for a suicide prevention group. They did a big fundraiser every year. A silent auction. And every year, one of the big items up for bid was an all-expenses-paid two-week stay at the Lotus Bath and Spa near Lake Lanier.”
 
“Is that supposed to mean something to me?” Grant asked. “I’m not really a massage guy.”
 
Jules pulled out another page, this one about Susannah. “It’s like the second or third article from GDE.” She read the line aloud. “Mrs. Wiley has a history of depression, friends say, a frequent client of the exclusive Lotus Bath and Spa.”
 
“I don’t know a lot of rich women, but don’t they go to spas? Sounds like a coincidence to me.”
 
“I thought the same thing, but I decided to check it out, just in case. Turns out, the place closed down around 2009, but their website’s still up. I read every last word on that page, and nowhere does it mention prices or services. You can’t even contact them. I thought that was weird until I found this website that’s like a Yelp just for spas—”
 
“Did you sleep last night?” Grant interrupted, noticing now the knotted hair in her ponytail, the ruddy circles beneath her eyes.
 
She stopped and placed her palms down on the table. “I know I sound crazy. But bear with me. Please.”
 
Grant nodded, and Jules continued.
 
“So this spa Yelp thing, it goes back more than 10 years. Dozens of reviews. Most kind of hint at their ‘treatment,’ saying things about the great ‘sessions’ they had with the doctor, the ‘diet’ he ‘prescribed’ them.” Jules’s hands didn’t miss an air quote. “I don’t think this place was a spa at all. I think it was a mental health center. Like, a hospital or something.”
 
“Why not just call it what it was?”
 
“The reviews used screennames, so they’re anonymous, but the people sounded rich. Talking about the thread counts for the sheets, the champagne. One guy compared the lobster to some restaurant in Paris. I don’t think this clientele wants to advertise that they needed a shrink.”
 
Grant thought about the Wiley’s apartment when El was in high school. Two bedrooms, old carpet. Windows painted shut. He didn’t think they’d ever had the kind of money that sends you to France for dinner, but one thing he’d learned in the last 24 hours was that there was a lot he didn’t know about the Wileys.
 
“I kept reading the comments,” Jules was saying, “and the comments on the comments. And like halfway down, someone replied to a review with a link that took you to one of those conspiracy theory chat groups. Total bonkers. Like, Bill Clinton planned 9/11. Queen Elizabeth is really the Loch Ness monster. That kind of thing. But the link took me to a thread about the Lotus Bath and Spa. Someone noticed that between 1985 and 2005, a ton of people committed suicide within six weeks of leaving that place.”
 
“A ton?”
 
“People were throwing out numbers. Some said 100; some said more. Eight of them were named.”
 
Grant turned back to the list in Eliot’s handwriting. “But it’s a mental hospital. People who go there are already at higher risk for suicide, right? Are those stats any higher than any other hospital?”
 
Jules flipped to a page in the stack and started reading. “Jonas Little, 53 years old, set his house on fire in 1989. He used so much gasoline, by the time the fire trucks got there, his house was a crater in the ground.”
 
She put the page in front of him and drew another before he had time to speak. “Merry Ann Poole, 42 in 2001, drove her house boat eight miles off the Jacksonville coast and drowned herself with lead ankle weights. Curtis Bly,” she started as she passed him the page. “He was 37 years old, had a wife and kids. He left them a note in 1993 saying he was going to the Everglades to shoot himself in the head. They think an alligator ate his body. Then there’s Wayne Bridges, Jr., 43 years—”
 
She must have noticed Grant’s sagging shoulders, the gray in his face, because she stopped.
 
“I get it,” he said, without looking up. “This ‘spa’ makes people kill themselves in horrifically creative ways.”
 
Jules rested a hand on his, the first time they’d really touched. She may have been a liar, but he appreciated the effort. “No,” she said, quietly. “Look closer.”
 
Taking the other pages from her stack, he spread them out, eyes glazing. The columns multiplied in front of him. Swimming lines of black text. Negative exposures of faces long dead. They were different ages, living in different cities. They died in different ways. Their only connection was this spa. He was about to throw his hands up, take a lap to clear his head, when he saw it: the other thing they all had in common.
 
“Let me use your iPad.”
 
Jules dug into her bag and handed it over. “Do you see?” she asked.
 
He brought up a browser and typed in the address. “They were all ruled suicides,” he said, pressing the letters.
 
“They’d been to a mental hospital,” Jules said. “It made sense.”
 
“But these people didn’t kill themselves. If they had—” Grant stopped as his old Yahoo inbox opened. He scrolled past the Living Social offers and AJC news blasts and clicked on Nick’s email. The photos emerged. “If they’d killed themselves,” he said, turning the screen to face Jules. “How come no one found their bodies?”
 
There, in full color, a woman at a bar, staring up at the man beside her. The room so bright, you could see it, the faint smudge of a red birthmark on her cheek.
 
Susannah Wiley was alive.

 


Chapter 11

"What now?"


“What now?”
 
Grant must have looked at the photo twenty times the night before, hopped up on instant coffee and some old Reese’s Pieces he found in the refrigerator, but somehow he’d missed what now stood out in full color. Susannah. The same regal beauty from that old Polaroid. The same high cheekbones, the same milk skin. She’d cut her hair short, dyed it a russet brown, but he could still see a hint of Eliot in her shoulders, the slight dip to her chin.
 
That Susannah was alive felt impossible, but at the same time, it made a kind of sense. Eliot with her swapped micro-film and secret money, Frank with the code to his safe. The Wileys, it turned out, were full of surprises.
 
He thought then of the man he’d seen the night before, sunken in his hospital bed after surgery. His skin tissue-thin and colorless. His eyes still closed. Did he know about Susannah? Had Eliot told him? So many questions, their answers in a coma and on the wind. But he couldn’t swallow one thought from his throat: Susannah’s rising from the dead should have been the end to a story. The answer for those fruitless searches on Brasstown Bald. A motherless child with no more reason to grieve. Why, then, had Eliot gone missing? What else had she needed to know?
 
Jules came back from the bathroom with a wad of toilet paper clutched in her fist. The skin below her eyes was chapped and her nose still leaky. “Sorry,” she said, sitting down. “I just—”
 
“I understand. It’s a lot to take in.”
 
They sat there for a few minutes like dial tones as Octane chattered around them. Chairs scraping concrete. Steam hissing from machines.
 
“What now?” Grant asked when he felt the urging of restless muscles.
 
Jules opened her mouth as if to answer. Her lips formed the starts of words.
 
They had to think like Eliot, Grant figured. Trace her steps. If she’d glimpsed this woman at the Best of Atlanta party, if she saw this picture later, proving what she’d already known—what would she have done next?
 
“I’m going to tweet the picture,” Jules said, reaching for her iPad. “Maybe someone’ll recognize her.”
 
Grant pulled out his phone to skim the rest of the photos. A text to Nick confirmed there was no guest list for the party, no RSVP. Not that it mattered, really. Grant would’ve bet money he didn’t have that Susannah used a different name these days.
 
The iPad between them, he and Jules googled the party honorees, hoping to see that face in an “About Us” section or Instagram feeds. But there were so many categories, so many websites without staff photos. Grant soon leaned back to rest his eyes.
 
“She can’t have been here the whole time,” Jules said, worrying the toilet paper still balled in her hand. “In Atlanta, I mean. The first few years, before they declared her dead. She couldn’t have risked being recognized at Lenox or wherever.”
 
Grant tried to do non-existent math in his head. “How long would she have had to wait before it was safe to come back? Ten years? Twenty?”
 
“Forever? I mean, as long as Eliot’s alive, she could be recognized. Not to mention old friends, neighbors. It’s a risky move however much time has passed.”
 
“So she must’ve had a reason,” Grant said. “A good one.”
 
“To track down her daughter?”
 
He gestured to the notebook. “Seems to me Eliot was the one doing the tracking.”
 
Jules enlarged the photo again, and they stared at it until Grant’s head started to pulse. He stood to stretch his leg and get some ice water. When he came back, Jules’s finger was swiping frantically through the pictures.
 
“Look,” she said, when he sat down. She stopped on a photo of three woman in front of a branded backdrop. “See their wrists?” She flipped to another photo, and then another. “Them too.”
 
“It was a party. They probably had to show ID at the door if they wanted to drink.”
 
Jules went back to the picture of Susannah. Her white sleeves receded to reveal no wristband. “So why doesn’t she have one?”
 
“Maybe she doesn’t drink?” Grant suggested. But she was standing at the bar in that picture, holding some laminated page. He couldn’t be sure, of course, but the blurred logo at the top looked an awful lot like Red Brick Brewing. It was probably a beer menu.
 
“Either she knows somebody there, like the owner, or….”Jules trailed off.
 
“A big party like that one, you’d still need a wristband, I think, even if you knew someone.” He looked at a few more photos, that orange band on everyone’s arm. “Maybe she got there early? Before they were checking IDs?”
 
“Yeah,” Jules said, a smile tentative on her face. “And who gets to events that early? People working them.” She hurried down the list of performers, special guests, but he’d seen ATL Collective enough times to know Susannah didn’t play bass for them, and she sure wasn’t the guy from that State Farm commercial. “She could be with one of the groups that sponsored it, I guess. Like the Hawks.” The smile was waning in Jules’s voice.
 
Though Grant wasn’t paying much attention. His thoughts had snagged on a detail from his conversation with Kenny. The movie set, the security guards. El causing a scene. “She’s a stylist,” he said. “Or a make-up artist or something. She works in wardrobe.”
 
Jules’s scrunched brow made him slow down, recount the story. By the end of it, she was nodding along.
 
“What’s the movie? We can see if it’s still filming.” Her fingers flitted across the iPad until she found one of the many blogs tracking film locations around ‘Y’all-ywood.’ “Okay. There’s a Kevin Hart movie. The new Ant-Man.”
 
“Anything about zombies?”
 
Jules pursed her lips. “There’s one called 30 Minutes or Death, but no description. It could be about zombies.”
 
Grant googled the film and found an Instagram for a plain-faced blonde actress with bored eyes. “Come on,” he said, standing. “We got to go.”
 
“Where to?” Jules asked.
 
He showed her the actress’s most recent post, dated an hour ago. A shot of a boom mic against the dingy sky. Behind it, not that far away, a brick building riddled with rows and columns of windows, spreading endlessly out of view.
 
**
 
They parked in the deck below Ponce City and rode the elevator to the third floor, where a set of doors led them to a terrace a few steps off the Beltline. Judging by the photo, they turned west, toward Piedmont Park, but they were stopped a little past the bridge by a set of sawhorses flanked by uniformed guards with thumbs in their belt loops.
 
“Beltline’s closed from here to Monroe,” one said. “You’ll have to turn around.”
 
Grant tried to sell him some story about living in the apartments just up the way.
 
“Residents were informed in advance.”
 
Grant would have hiked up his pants leg, used the scar as an excuse, but Jules tugged his sleeve.
 
“It’s okay, honey,” she said in a voice he didn’t recognize. “Let’s just stop in here before we turn around.”
 
She led him by the wrist into Paris on Ponce. Inside, she rushed past the mid-century coffee tables and hand-painted signs to the far door, which led to a thin parking lot and more sawhorses.  Yellow caution tape lined the storage facility next door, but they were behind the guards here and didn’t see any others.
 
“Hold this,” Jules said, handing him her bag. She sidled up to the yellow tape, her eyes never leaving the guards’ backs. She picked up some loose pavement and chucked it over her head to the brush behind the shopping center. The guards turned toward it, and she ducked under the tape, motioning for Grant to follow. They had only a few seconds, but it was enough to dart past the next building, where they spilled into a parking lot churning with people.
 
Some of these people had clipboards, walkie-talkies; others scurried like cockroaches from light. Men with ball caps and backpacks and ambitious ponytails. Impossibly skinny women dressed like waitresses at a drive-in. A white tent on one side offered apples and bags of potato chips. A row of port-a-potties leaned beside vans parked on the grass. Cords snaked from ladders to light rigs to spools of cable. Garbage cans the size of pot-belly stoves hummed with fruit flies. It was the least glamorous place Grant had ever been.
 
He brought out his phone and scrolled to the photo. “Okay,” he said. “I’m going start with that guy.”
 
“What are you doing?” Jules grabbed his elbow. “You can’t just ask people if they know her. We’ll get thrown out for sure.”
 
“What do you suggest?”
 
She slung her bag over his shoulder again and untucked her shirt. “Don’t tell anybody what you’re about to see,” she said before approaching a bearded man with more than one neck tattoo. “Hi,” she said in a lilting pitch. “It’s my first day. Do you think you could help me?”
 
Grant didn’t hear the man’s answer but then Jules laughed like he was Richard Pryor. She touched his arm and tilted closer. He pointed somewhere, and seconds later, Jules was back, reaching for her bag.
 
“If I wasn’t gay before,” she shrugged.
 
“He told you where she is? What’d you say?”
 
Jules started walking toward a bank of trailers on the street. “I told him I had to get you to wardrobe but I forgot where it was.”
 
Grant hurried to keep up. “So I’m an actor, huh?”
 
“A plumber.” She glanced back to smirk. “A lie’s got to be believable.”
 
They turned the corner and walked about halfway down, to an extended trailer with two doors.
 
“Do we knock or….” Grant started to ask.
 
“Give me a second.” Jules took a couple of deep breaths and stretched her neck.
 
She had one foot on the first step when the door opened and a woman backed out. A heap of hair in a knot atop her head, her denim jacket flapping out in the breeze. He would have recognized that slight build anywhere. The way she batted her loose hair behind her shoulders with the back of her palm. He felt a tight yearn in his stomach, though for what, he didn’t know.
 
Susannah turned to start down the steps and saw Jules, gaping at the bottom. “Sorry,” she said. She looked to Grant, who was stuck in the motion of scratching his jaw, then to Jules and back again. She blinked at them with that smile, the one he’d seen a hundred times before. “Can I help you?” she asked brightly.
 
Her name escaped Grant’s mouth before he had a chance to stop it. He watched it settle over her, a kind of shroud. A hardness swept down her face to her collarbone. Her skin suddenly clammy, pale. Her hands tensed into fists beside her, as her bottom lip shivered. She stumbled down the steps, shoving Jules aside, and backed away slowly, her eyes steady on Grant’s face.
 
“Wait,” he said. “Susannah.”
 
But she had turned on her heel and started running, screaming loud enough for Grant to feel it in his teeth.

 


 


Chapter 12

"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….”
 
“I know.”
 
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.”
 
“Client number?”
 
“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?”
 
“Beats me.”
 
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.


Chapter 13

“Susannah is dead”


Of course, Grant knew the woman before him was no ghost. He had seen her in the daylight, spoken to her on the phone. Still, the moon pearled her skin like the faithful stones that marked the buried, as if she belonged here, as if she’d been here the whole time. He could imagine taking a picture, posting it to the internet, circling her gauzy outline as proof that the dead walked among us. In one sense, he realized, they did.
 
Beside him, Jules gripped his wrist with both hands. He could hear her breathing. Despite the clank of a nearby train, the whoosh of cars on Memorial, it was that quiet within these walls. Even the air seemed stunned.
 
Grant opened his mouth to interrupt this silence, but as he did, Susannah turned and started up the brick pathway, delving deeper into the dark.
 
He hurried to follow, Jules tethered to his wrist. They stumbled over loose bricks, unearthed tree roots, but kept their footing. In her long skirt, Susannah seemed to float ahead of them. She didn’t even pause as they fell in step beside her.
 
She smelled of gardenias, or maybe it was the cemetery, its knotted tufts of leaves and branches, the sweetness of death. She chose their turns without hesitation, anticipating the Christmas lights strung across one path, the dip into the driveway when they reached it. She led them ever deeper, down the hill, toward the identical rows of stone markers, the endlessly dead. So at home here that once she finally spoke, Grant was almost surprised to remember that she could.
 
“They say he’s buried here, you know. The man who started it all.” She traced her fingers along the marble stones as they passed them. Her birthmark, in the moonlight, gleamed. “We’re all buried somewhere, I guess. For a while, I thought I’d tracked myself to Indiana, then I thought Delaware. I visited a town near El Paso years back, convinced I’d found it.” She shook her head and scoffed a humorless laugh. “But then the birthdate would be off by one day, or they’d have a middle name, something like Clementine, something unforgettable. I felt so lost.”
 
She veered them away from the bell tower, clinging to the grass line. Jules fell into single file behind them. Grant glanced back to see that she was okay, but her face was hard to read in this inky dark.
 
“About fifteen years ago,” Susannah continued. “I found a website, and it was so easy. I just typed in my name.” Susannah turned to Grant for the first time, almost smiling. “Would you believe I was in Atlanta all along? Just a few miles from here, near Decatur. I’ve been in town six weeks and I still haven’t visited. Don’t know why. Just can’t bring myself to go.” She waved a hand, gesturing to the fog around them. “Instead, I come here every night. I don’t know, maybe I think if I could find him, I could make all of it go away.”
 
A bird swooped close above them. Grant could hear the flap of its wings against its breast. “Who?” he asked, almost in a whisper. “Who are you talking about?”
 
Susannah plucked a leaf from a nearby bush and de-veined it, leaving tiny flecks in their path. “The first among us. The original ghost. They tell us not to use that word. Too macabre, or something. Or they tell me. I assume they say the same to the others. We don’t know each other. We don’t talk or anything. But I’d guess there are hundreds of us out there, living someone else’s life. Could be more. I thought I’d found one on a message board years ago. No name or anything, but there was something to the way he talked about his childhood, how badly he wished he could go back, do it all again. He felt,” she paused, a faint smile to her eyes, “familiar.” The smile disappeared with the next shadow. “But they caught wind of it somehow. Shut it down.” She winced at an invisible pain. “I didn’t make that mistake twice.”
 
“Who are ‘they’?”
 
“They could be anyone. A man in an Italian suit. The guy washing windshields at stoplights. The new friend you thought you’d made at the gym. They’re everywhere. They’re anybody.”
 
“I’m sorry, what does any of this have to do with Eliot?” Jules asked, her voice like a slap on the cobblestones.
 
“Jules,” he said, but Susannah waved that hand again.
 
“It’s okay. I understand.” She stopped to look at them. “But first, tell me, how long has she been gone?” 
 
“We think a week,” Grant answered. “Jules saw her Monday night, but neither of us have heard from her since.”
 
Susannah nodded and resumed her pace. “You should know, I never intended for her to find me. Even when she did, I thought I could keep her safe. I told her it was too dangerous, her coming there. I had her kicked out, for heaven’s sakes.”
 
“So you did see her? At the Pullman Yards.”
 
“I recognized her immediately, even before she saw me. She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Susannah gazed up at Grant, as if expecting an answer, but then her smile tapered into the delicate lines he now noticed around her eyes, across her forehead. Marks of the years she’d missed. “I never should have come back here,” she said.
 
“Why did you?” Grant asked.
 
“I needed the work.”
 
“Not to see your daughter?” Jules snarled. “Not to apologize for abandoning her?”
 
“Jules,” Grant said again. “Cut it out.”
 
But Susannah didn’t flinch. Instead, she led them to a wrought iron bench tucked beneath a tree and sat down. She patted the bench beside her, but neither of them joined. “Have you ever heard the story of Peg Entwistle?”
 
“Who?” Jules asked.
 
“She was a Broadway actress in the ‘20s, headed west to become a movie star. But she couldn’t get work, so a few months later, she climbed a ladder to the top of the Hollywood sign and jumped off the ‘H.’” Susannah imitated the drop with her finger and thumped her knuckles on the bench. “Legend has it, two days after they found her body, a letter arrived at her house, offering her a role in some movie.” She sat back, arms folded. “People love to tell that story. Old teamsters at bars. Tour guides. She’s the trivia of dinner parties, the ghost who haunts Griffith Park. They make her a cautionary tale while they laugh at her, the sad dumb girl who gave up too soon. My,” she said, “how we love to prove the dead wrong.”
 
“I don’t know what the hell that means,” Jules said. “Who cares about some actress? We’re talking about your daughter. You let her believe you were dead for decades. I would think she deserved an explanation.”
 
Susannah raised her chin, her face placid in the limbs’ shadow, and locked her eyes on Jules. “It means that sometimes people kill themselves. Sometimes they blow up their whole damn life. It doesn’t matter if you think they were wrong to do it. It wasn’t your choice to make.”
 
“Susannah,” Grant said, hoping to calm her.
 
“Don’t call me that,” she said, without breaking her glare at Jules. “Susannah is dead. My name is Ginger.”
 
“I’m sorry. Ginger. I just think we’re getting off topic here. It’s not our business why you did it. We just want to find Eliot. That’s all.”
 
Neither woman seemed likely to blink first, but then Susannah smiled and draped an arm across the back of the bench.
 
“You’re her friends, huh?” she said. “I did some digging after I got your note. A chef with a stalled restaurant. An out-of-work lawyer. Are you really the dynamic duo that should be looking for her? Wouldn’t the police make more sense?”
 
“Are you going to help us or not?” Grant asked, the weariness dripping off his words. He didn’t know why he’d expected Susannah to give them answers. After all these years, knowing what she’d done. When he looked at her now, she seemed small and pitiful, a woman who didn’t even know who she was.
 
“Come on,” he said to Jules. They started to turn away.
 
“If they found out I told you,” Susannah said. “You wouldn’t be safe. Either of you. They’d kill us all.”
 
“We’re already here, aren’t we?” Grant said. “It’s a little late to warn us off now.”
 
Susannah looked to Jules, and then back to Grant, and nodded, smacking both hands on her thighs before she stood. “All right. But let’s keep walking. I think better on my feet.”


Chapter 14

“How would you do it?”


“I don’t remember when it started,” Susannah said.            
 
They were walking the rim of Potter’s Field now, streetlights pooling along Boulevard in the distance. Beneath their feet, thousands of forgotten bones, stories never told.
 
“It would be easier, I think, if I could point to a day and say, ‘There. That’s when I began to lose my mind.’ But it didn’t work that way. It came on as age does, tiny creaks to your bones that you don’t hear at first. Creases you don’t notice until they’ve remapped your skin. You don’t see it coming because it’s coming all the time. I don’t know, maybe I was always crazy. Maybe I’ve never been.”
 
“What do you mean, ‘crazy’?” Grant asked.
 
“Such a terrible word, isn’t it? I’ve had therapists who would scold me for using it. But that’s how it felt, as if I was given to crazes. Flash floods of grief for no reason. Riptides tugging me down. I could drown in them, my lungs physically aching for air. Then just as sudden, I’d be calm again, rebuilt. Sometimes the spells would be happy ones, a surging in my blood, dizzy hope. But more often, it felt like drowning. The harder I fought for the surface, the quicker I sank.”
 
“How long would they last, these spells?”
 
“A few hours, at first. Then days, weeks. When Eliot was 7 or 8, they started to come more often. I’d be sitting there with my beautiful daughter, tipsy with love for her, and then like a snap, I’d go under. I’d get distant, unresponsive, sometimes even cruel. It must have been awful to have me as a mother.”
 
“Where was Frank in all this?” Grant asked.
 
Susannah didn’t answer until they’d merged with the path along the Bell Tower, coming upon a stretch of graves Grant had never seen.
 
“Do you ever drive somewhere, maybe early in the morning, and when you get there, you don’t remember driving? Like, you must have, because you’re someplace else, but you can’t remember even turning on the car? That’s what it felt like to be married to Frank. I must have loved him at some point. He was a good man, a good father. He tried to treat me well. But it was as if I’d been sleepwalking when we married. I’d look at him and think, who are you?”
 
Grant thought of the man in his hospital bed, fresh stitches seaming his skin. How lonely his life must have been.
 
“Did you get help?” Jules asked. Her tone was softer than before, swaddled and careful.
 
“There were always doctors, always pills. They’d work for a while, until they didn’t. I had a couple stays in a psych ward, but they just made me loopier and hateful. I’d blame Frank for sending me there, even though it had never been his choice. When a doctor suggested the Lotus, I think it was more for Frank than me. Give him and Eliot a break; send me somewhere that didn’t feel like prison.”
 
“We’ve seen the brochure,” Jules said. “It must have been very appealing.”
 
“I loved it immediately. The lake, the air. It was green everywhere, lush and alive. At first, it was just massages and steam baths and sparkling water at every meal. The third day, I started what they called my ‘holistic healing journey.’” She laughed at the term, light as wind chimes. “I did two hours every morning in an art class, making clay ashtrays or whatever. Then I went swimming or hiking before lunch. My early afternoons were spent with IV treatments or acupuncture or Thai massage. Around 2, I’d go to Dr. Bergmann-Fuchs’s office for three hours of ‘guided self-healing.’” She glanced to Grant with a smirk. “They wouldn’t let us call it ‘therapy.’ At dinner, they gave us these shakes that tasted like mulch and patchouli, and then we went to bed.”
 
“What was in the shakes?” Grant asked.
 
Susannah shrugged. “I didn’t care. I felt better than I had in years.”
 
“That doctor, Bergmann-whatever,” Jules said. “What was he like?”
 
“He had this voice like glass—flat and clean, almost transparent. No accent, no shifts in tone. Being around him felt like being alone, only more so. It was like he was inside your own head.” She crossed her arms against the chill. “It wasn’t until years later that I realized what he must have been doing. Snaking his way into our thoughts. He hypnotized us, you know? He called it ‘liberating your subconscious,’ but it was your basic nightclub hypnosis. He must have suggested memories, implanted ideas, but I do remember that I was the one who suggested ending my life.”
 
She stepped off the sidewalk here, leading them over the lumpy grass, which sunk, ever so slightly, beneath their feet.
 
“I didn’t want to die, exactly. I just wanted to stop existing. Like an actress who got stuck in a role. I was ready for new challenges, I told him, a new life. But even as I said those things, I could hear his voice in my head suggesting them.”
 
“That didn’t worry you?”
 
“I took it as a good sign, like maybe I was making sense for the first time.”
 
Susannah came to a stop near the greenhouse, where she brought her face to the window and cupped her hands. Grant watched her for a few seconds, her skirt shifting in the wind, those shoulders curving just like Eliot’s. He wondered how much his friend knew of this story and prayed, fists and teeth clenched, that he’d get to ask her someday.
 
“So how’d you get from therapy to Brasstown Bald?”
 
“It was just talk for a while,” she said, falling into step beside them. “I returned to the Lotus every few months, shaky and dry-mouthed like an addict. Over time, the conversation turned to plans, at first hypothetical—where would you go? How would you do it? And it wasn’t just me talking. He’d add details too. Then one day, I walked into his office, and he was smiling. Dr. Bergmann-Fuchs never smiled. But he had this goofy grin as he told me had this friend. If I could come up with $500,000, this guy would help me fake my own suicide. He’d take care of the planning, pick me up from the trail parking lot—whatever I needed. He could even get me a new identity, Social Security number and all.”
 
“Why did you go along with it?” Jules asked.
 
“I never considered saying no. By then, he’d made me want it so badly. I was giddy with my good luck.”
 
“Where’d you get $500,000?”
 
“My parents left a trust for Eliot’s education when they died. I was the executor.”
 
Jules shook her head but kept her mouth shut.
 
“The day it happened,” Susannah continued, “They took me to a safe house south of the city, kept me there for weeks. No phone or TV. I couldn’t even go outside. Every day, I got a new set of guards who watched me eat, sleep, shower. Never the same people two days in a row. They didn’t want me making friends,” she said. “Eventually, a man in a three-piece suit came to get me. He put me on a private plane with a new driver’s license and birth certificate. As soon as the plane took off, he told me, Susannah Wiley would be dead. I’d become Virginia Johnson,” she chuckled. “Such a common name.”
 
Grant wondered about the real Virginia Johnson, buried somewhere nearby. How many names had been stolen, lives commandeered?
 
“I didn’t know where we were going until we landed at a small airfield outside San Diego. Another man greeted me, this one in galoshes and smelling of fish. He handed me an envelope with $1000 cash and the address to my new apartment. ‘Good luck,’ he said. Like a fool, I thought that was the end of it. I thought I was free. And for a few months, maybe I was. I got a job at a makeup counter at the mall. Made a couple of friends, got a cat. But then one day,” Susannah’s gaze sank to her hands. “I came home from work to find a woman in my living room. I remember thinking she was old, but she was probably 65, 66. Long gray hair swooped in a bun. She looked like your favorite librarian. She had th-these photos of Eliot on the playground. I thought she was just being nice, letting me see my daughter was okay, but in the last one, she was in the picture too. She had this dog, and Eliot was petting it, the sweetest grin on her face. I’ll never forget what the woman said. ‘It would be shame if something happened to that little girl.’”
 
Susannah shuddered now, maybe from memory, maybe the mounting chill in the air. Grant took off his coat and set it across her shoulders.
 
“That’s when she told me how this thing worked. She said people would approach me—wherever I went, whenever they needed me—and I’d have to do what they asked. Most of the time, it was a package they needed delivered, or they’d have a message for me to call in. Sometimes, though,” she inhaled sharply. “Sometimes it was worse. If I didn’t do what they asked, they’d hurt Eliot. I didn’t have any choice.”
 
“Couldn’t you go to the police?” Jules asked.
 
“And say what? That I faked my death and now some nameless, faceless group was forcing me to run errands? For all I knew, some of them were cops. I couldn’t take the risk. They would’ve killed her.”
 
“How often did they come?” Grant asked.
 
“Sometimes I’d go months without a word. Sometimes I’d get two in one week. They’d always have more pictures of Eliot in the school play, or at Girl Scouts. Each time, someone—maybe the person who approached me, but often not—would be in the picture with her. So what else could I do? I delivered their packages. I called in their codes. They took money too, thousands of it at a time, whatever I had.”
 
“Did you try to get away?”
 
“Once,” Susannah said. “I hid in the basement of an abandoned house in the Valley. I was there a week, maybe. Then some guy showed up at my window with a photo of Eliot in the hospital. Her head shaved. Bloody,” she gestured to her temple. “They had done it, hurt her just like they said they would.”
 
“No they didn’t,” Grant said. “That was the bombing before the Olympics. She was there when it happened. It’s how we met.”
 
Susannah closed her eyes and nodded, taking a deep breath before continuing on. “Well, it achieved their goal. I never tried to get away again.”
 
“If they follow you all the time, they know you’re here. Why would they let you come?”
 
“Three years ago, they asked me to do something big. I won’t tell you what. But they said if I did it, they’d leave me alone, so I did. And they did. But then Eliot came to set, and then, you two showed up, calling me Susannah, just like they always do. I thought you were with them.”

Grant remembered how her skin had paled when he’d said her name, even that birthmark flushing white. “If they have Eliot…,” he said.
 
“I know,” Susannah added.
 
They walked for a minute in silence, the moon looming overhead. He didn’t know what to do next, how to find her. The world felt so big.
 
They’d skirted the obelisk monument, heading wordlessly back to their start, when they heard it. A thin sound from behind them, like a twig snapping or knuckles popped. Susannah’s back shot straight and she froze, only her eyes frantic in motion. “They found us,” she said.
 
“It was just—” Grant started, but when he glanced back, he saw the edges of a shadow in motion. He looked to Jules, who was tensed and white-eyed.
 
He heard his coat drop to the ground before he noticed Susannah moving. He turned to see the white flutter of her skirt as she ran toward the gate. “Damnit,” he said.
 
He tugged Jules with him as he darted toward a row of headstones to crouch behind. In the ground, he could feel the echo of heavy footsteps. “We need to split up,” he whispered. “Run that way. The wall is closer. I’ll go toward the trains. Once you get out, call an Uber or take MARTA or whatever. I’ll meet you at the library, okay?”
 
Jules stared at him, breath heavy.
 
“Okay?”
 
She nodded.
 
Grant peered over the stone to see a jowly man in a black coat stalking the Bell Tower walls. To Jules, Grant whispered, “Go.”
 
Jules made a little noise in the scramble, but she was light and gone before the man turned around. He saw Grant, though. His eyes winked like the moon on his pistol.
 
Grant shot to his feet and started running. As if his knee had never shattered, as if he wasn’t held together by screws and fear. He headed toward the chain link fence, over the loose bricks, the tree roots. Past an iron-gated mausoleum, beyond low stone walls crumbly with age. He could hear the man behind him, panting but steady. The first chance he got, he ducked behind a knurled tree, where it was just dark enough for him to fit into the shadow.
 
The man, his boots crunching over dead leaves, somehow ran past him. Grant heard him holler near the gatehouse. Another voice answering, a woman, and then their steps fading into the horns of passing traffic.
 
He waited five minutes, maybe ten, before emerging. He looked down to check the shape of his knee.
 
There, just inches from his feet, he saw it. And everything changed.

 


Chapter 15

"I have to tell you what I found"


The cold hung on like a crick in the neck the next morning. Sudden and seizing, it was hard to ignore. The ground lay dry and crinkly. The sunlight dull and grey. A city waking up, curled into itself, already braced against the chill. Rush hour traffic inched forward, engines creaky, past skull-capped men on street corners, pink-nosed children in last year’s coats, their wrists bare. Everyone’s eyes a little bloodshot, leaky in the breeze. The first blush of a coming season, the world still turning, life continuing on. At least, Grant thought, for the scarf-wrapped people hurrying past his window at the Waffle House on Courtland, at least for the cook beside the grill. For the bus drivers, the off-duty cops directing traffic, the grinning anchors on the morning news. But it wasn’t just the first cold day from where Grant was sitting. Not after last night, not for him. Today would be the day he found Eliot.
 
He’d spent most of the night in this Waffle House, ordering more hash browns or raisin toast every half hour so they wouldn’t kick him out. After he had reached the wall at Oakland Cemetery and, stooping, followed it to a gate he could scale, Grant had landed on the sidewalk down Memorial with a torn shirt, bloodied knuckles, and a heartbeat he could feel in his toes. He killed an hour pacing the parking lot behind Octane before he had the courage to go back to the spot where they’d jumped over a few hours earlier, in hopes of finding his keys, his phone. He didn’t look long before the shadows scared him off, every leaf or acorn falling like a gunshot to his nerves. So he’d started walking, without his phone, without his keys, and before long, he recognized the direction he’d taken. Like any Atlantan in need of late-night sanctuary, he’d been drawn to the place where no one cared what you looked like or asked why you came.
 
Throughout it all—the walk, the endless cup of coffee, the raw-eyed dawn—he’d gone over the night again and again, as if re-watching a movie, hoping it might end differently this time. But the letters he’d found etched on that tombstone always made up the same words.
 
Around 8:30, he paid his bill and shivered onto the sidewalk, his arms pimply with the cold. The library didn’t open until 10, he remembered, but he was eager to see Jules. He hadn’t allowed himself to consider she might not be there, or what he would do if she never came. It was a short walk from Courtland—down John Wesley Dobbs, across Peachtree. He huddled under the library awning, one of a half dozen men in threadbare t-shirts, with chapped fingers and lips, glazed eyes. Pigeons pecked the slate tiles around his feet.
 
Not two months before, he’d been there, on a veranda, a scotch in his hand. His breath still briny from crawfish, his lips still slick. They’d all raised a glass to good fortune and lit cigars they were too drunk to finish, and when he left in the early hours, a little too wobbly to be headed toward his truck, he remembered the red balloons drooping by the mailbox, how he’d thumped one with his finger as he passed.
 
Grant joined the line at 9:45, bouncing on the balls of his feet to keep warm. At 10, the door opened and they began to shuffle inside. Without a bag, he skipped ahead to the turnstile and then bones brittle, his knee aching, he took the stairs two at a time.
 
Jules was not waiting for him on the second floor. He never really expected she would be—the library had been closed all night, after all—but still her absence made his breath scuttle in his throat.
 
He took a seat at a still-waking computer and typed that name into the search box faster than the screen could keep up with the keys: Allen C. Roberts. The Phoenix Group website topped the results, followed by local news articles, restaurant reviews. He tried to skip past any mention of the now-doomed Bravata, but it popped up like a switchblade on so many pages, sharp enough to puncture what was left of his hope.
 
Most of the magazine profiles told him what he already knew. He’d been at Allen’s table enough times for dinner, in the audience of more than one keynote speech. He’d heard the folksy stories of a red dirt childhood in rural Alabama, in a town so small, Allen joked, that it didn’t have a name. The one stoplight, the mobile library, the sprawling Sunday dinners on church grounds. Baptist parents who never spared the rod until they died in a car accident and made an orphan of their only child. The bootstraps he’d used to hoist himself out of there a few years later, go to business school, get a loan. In every interview, the same stories, a one-hit wonder on his stadium tour.
 
Grant took some paper from the recycling bin and a number 2 pencil from the desk, and he started working backwards, tracing the timeline of Allen’s life. Before Bravada, there’d been Drunken Noodle; before that, Kaleidoscope. The One Two in Macon. Mama Sissy’s in Ellijay. A dozen restaurants, a few boutique hotels, even a mixed-use development that never broke ground in Old Fourth Ward. Going back more pages in the Google results, Grant found a forty-year-old property record for The Phoenix Group. But no high school alumni newsletters. No guest speaking gigs at his fraternity. No “local boy made good” headline from any county paper in Alabama. Not a hint he’d even been alive before 1978. Who had he been before he became Allen Roberts? Where had he come from, and why?
 
“Hi again,” came a voice behind him.
 
He jumped up, hoping to see Jules, but it was that librarian with the smile, the one he’d met just yesterday, a lifetime ago. “Hi…,” he said.
 
“Mallory.”
 
“Right. Hi Mallory. I’m Grant.”
 
“I remember.” Her cheeks were red from the morning chill, warming her face, the room. “Did you find her? Your friend?”
 
“Not yet.”
 
Mallory’s eyes grew as she noticed the rip along his shirt hem, the purpling bruises on his palms. “What happened?” she reached for his arm. “Are you okay? I have some Neosporin.”
 
“I’m fine. It’s fine.” He tucked his hands into his back pockets, out of sight.
 
They stood there a second, trading smiles.
 
“Diving right in this morning, I see,” she said, pointing to the computer.
 
“Yeah, I….” Grant glanced at the screen. “Actually, do you think you could help me?”
 
Her cheeks beamed. “Let me just put this stuff down.”
 
A clamor on the stairs stopped them both. The trail of backpacked men parted, and from among them, a voice they knew emerged. “Excuse me. Sorry,” they heard her say.
 
Her hair was matted on one side, flecked with the powder of dead leaves, and her skin looked sallow and wrinkly, but here came Jules, alive, in one piece.
 
Without thinking, Grant swept her into a hug. “I was so—”
 
“I know,” Jules said. “Me too.”
 
He set her down and stepped back, scanning for injuries.
 
“I’m okay,” she said. “Never going to sleep in an ATM vestibule again, if I can help it, but okay.”
 
“Let me get you some coffee,” Mallory said, moving toward the office.
 
Jules shrugged off her coat and rubbed her hands, bringing them back to life, as Grant considered how to tell her about Allen. It was still just a theory, potentially a bizarre coincidence, though he knew, as if holding the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, that it was true. But still, he wanted to be careful. Jules could be quick to action, he’d learned, and right now, they needed the patience to triple-check their harness before they jumped.
 
“I have some presents for you,” she said, digging into her coat pocket. From it, she held out his phone and keys.
 
He snatched them both. “Where did you find these?”
 
“Exactly where we left them. The guy must’ve dropped them as soon as he sensed trouble. I climbed out the same way we came in, and there they were.”
 
“You’re awesome.” Grant hugged her again and told her to sit down. “I have to tell you what I found,” he said, pressing the button on his phone to check the time.
 
Instead, an alert stared back at him. He’d received a text, it told him, from Allen Roberts:
 
Call ASAP. Have news abt your friend.


Chapter 16

“And now this”


Grant blinked at the text, not sure what to do.
 
“What is it?” Jules asked, taking a paper cup from Mallory and bringing it to her lips. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
 
“I need to sit down,” Grant said.
 
Jules pulled her chair beside his, angling to see what was on the phone. Mallory hovered a few feet away.
 
“Thanks,” he said up to her. “Can you give us a few minutes?”
 
“Oh, sorry. Of course,” Mallory said, as she backed away toward the desk.
 
Then, in the softest whisper he could manage, as an urgent fear pulsed through his limbs, Grant told Jules about Allen Roberts. He started with how they met almost two years ago, when Allen asked to meet the chef after a meal at that wine bar in Castleberry Hill. How Allen told him, standing in that airless kitchen, that he wanted to make Grant a star. The next year of monthly meetings, trial dinners, late-night calls. The official offer six months ago, the paperwork, the $400 bottle of champagne. Through it all, Jules just nodded, her brow knitted in questions she didn’t interrupt him to ask.
 
He told her about Allen’s birthday dinner in Serenbe at the start of September. The cigars, the crawfish. The talk of how he’d top it next year, when he turned 75. And then, after a few deep breaths and a look around to be sure no one could hear them, he told her about the grave stone he’d seen the night before:
 

Allen C. Roberts
Sept 1, 1943
Jan 27, 1967

 
“It could be a coincidence,” she said, once he’d finished.
 
“It isn’t,” Grant replied. He showed her the Google search, what he’d found and what he didn’t. He laid out the pages of his timeline. “And now this,” he said, reaching for his phone.
 
But the screen was already bright with an alert of four missed calls, all of them from Nick, all in the last five minutes. Grant wasn’t sure why he hadn’t felt the phone ringing, but he swiped past the alert.
 
As he opened his text messages, a new one came in from Nick: Did you know?!?! Call me!
 
With it, a link to a news article, the headline in bold. Grant tapped it:

Prominent restauranteur arrested

ATLANTA, Ga. – Allen C. Roberts, founder and CEO of The Phoenix Group, one of the Southeast’s most successful restaurant investment firms, was arrested on Wednesday for his alleged role in a Social Security fraud scheme lasting more than three decades.
Roberts has been charged with four counts each of mail and wire fraud, one count of money laundering, three counts of false imprisonment, and two counts of extortion. Sources close to the investigation report the FBI is now reviewing the evidence and expect the number of charges to increase.
A long-time Buckhead resident, Roberts is best known for The Group’s local restaurants, such as the Thai fusion staple Drunken Noodle and the forth-coming Italian taco bar Bravada, but he also owns restaurants in Birmingham, Nashville, and Raleigh. Prosecutors allege that these businesses, as well as the bakeries, spas, and salons Roberts also owns, provided cover for the most intricate identity theft scheme investigators have ever seen.
According to the allegations in the indictment, Roberts used the names and birth dates of deceased persons to obtain birth certificates and social security numbers that he then sold through an underground network. The exact number of identities he created is unknown at this time, but evidence suggests Roberts’s involvement in the scheme dates back to the late 1970s.
The indictment also alleges that Roberts maintained surveillance on customers after they assumed their new identities, documenting their lives as a means of blackmail to ensure a steady stream of cash for his businesses.
A yet-unnamed complainant allegedly provided prosecutors with detailed records of sustained intimidation and blackmail dating back to the mid-1990s. Authorities estimate the alleged extortion for this single person totaled more than $750,000.
Search warrants were issued Wednesday morning for a number of properties that are or have been in Roberts’s name, including a private residence and the Kalika Yoga Retreat Center, both located near Serenbe. “Kalika,” sources note, is also one iteration of the name for the Hindu goddess of rebirth.
Investigations into Roberts have also led to speculation regarding his very identity. Sources say that fundamental aspects of his biography, including his place of birth and educational credentials, may have been fabricated. Police are also working to obtain arrest warrants for at least two suspected accomplices.
Daniel Bennet, Roberts’s attorney, told reporters outside the courtroom where he was charged, “Allen Roberts is a highly-respected figure in the investment community, and an upstanding Atlanta citizen. We look forward to proving his innocence of these absurd allegations in court.”
If convicted, Roberts could face a prison sentence of more than 236 years.

He handed the phone to Jules, a roiling in his chest.
 
“This is good,” she said, after reading it. “He’s been caught.”
 
Grant snatched the phone and swiped back to his text messages. “If he’s in jail,” he said, showing her the screen. “Then who sent me this text
?”


Chapter 17

“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.”
 
“The micro-film.”
 
“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?”
 
“I guess.”
 
“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.”
 
“An accomplice?”
 
“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.”


Chapter 18

“You think I’m going to help you?”



 
His truck was still on Grant St. an hour later, its windshield foggy with dew. No boot for leaving it overnight, no parking ticket. He thanked the Uber driver who’d picked him up at the library, taken him to his house for the spare key and a jacket, and now dropped him here, where the road teemed with exhaust plumes, white against the air. The truck engine stuttered, but it started up. Its cogs groaning, just as his did, in the cold.
 
He knew they were right, Jules and Mallory. It was monumentally stupid, maybe even suicidal, to go alone. But still his foot was steady on the gas. His hands not shaking on the steering wheel. It was something that always surprised him after decades of imagined crises, so much practice flailing his arms against the water and gasping for breath—how when things got bad enough, he stopped drowning. He could simply put his feet down and stand.
 
“I’ll be fine,” he had told them. Despite the obvious reasons to call the police, the doubt vining across his chest. “Just focus on finding what you can.”
 
And then he’d left them at the bank of computers, Jules furrowed with frustration, Mallory ruddy and scared. If they were going to stop this guy from hurting Eliot, they needed proof they could take to the police, and Grant would be damned if they weren’t going to divide to conquer. He refused to waste any more time.
 
On the drive to Kirkwood, as calmly as he flicked his blinker and made those turns, Grant kept replaying the conversation in his head, the man’s voice like spoiled milk when he had answered, all curdled and sour.
 
“Mr. Maxwell,” he’d said. “How good of you to call.”
 
They had huddled outside the library doors, where the cell reception was stronger. Jules and Mallory on their tiptoes to listen in. All three of them, bracing. “What do you want, Karl?” he spit out the name.
 
The man’s smile seeped through his voice. “My, my. We have a live one.”
 
“I know who you are, and I know what you’ve done.”
 
The man chuckled. “Oh, I doubt that very much. But no matter. I take it you’ve learned of our dear friend’s unfortunate legal troubles?”
 
“They’ll come for you next.”
 
“I expect they will. Of course, they’ll have to find me. And that’s where you come in.”
 
“You think I’m going to help you?”
 
“Indeed I do. You see, I have an ace up my sleeve. Would you like to speak with her?”
 
At that pronoun, the world around Grant seemed to pause—the traffic, the pigeons at his feet. Clouds and airplanes in the swaths of gray sky. He had time enough to visualize himself falling, cracking his skull open on the slate tile, but then a woman’s voice over the phone caught him. It wasn’t Eliot, but it was close.
 
“Grant?” she croaked into his ear. “Is that you?” He heard a rustle behind her, the whack of a heavy object to her head.
 
“Susannah,” he said. “G-Ginger.”
 
But Karl answered instead. “I’m sorry, Susannah just went down for a nap. If you do what I ask, it won’t be her last one.”
 
Grant hesitated, hoping to swallow the bluff from his voice. “What makes you think I care about her?”
 
“Oh come now, Mr. Maxwell. You’re no murderer. You don’t want a woman’s death on your conscience. For me, what’s one more? But for you…,” he chuckled, then his voice snapped into a taut whisper. “Besides, if you don’t think I’ll find your Eliot and do the same thing to her, then you really haven’t done your homework.”
 
The grip on Grant’s chest had tightened, extending to his arms, down his legs, until he felt it all over. He could hear the women on either side of him, forgetting to breathe. “Okay,” he’d said finally, unblinking. “What do you want?”
 
He hadn’t asked why Karl needed Eliot’s computer, or what the man planned to do to them once he had it, if Grant could even find it in the first place. Despite his promises to skip town, disappear again, Grant suspected Karl wasn’t the type to leave witnesses behind. Still, what choice did he have? If he called the police, Karl had warned him, Susannah would die before they parked their squad cars. If Grant did nothing, who knew where this nightmare would end?
 
By now he had less than two hours, the clock ticking, to find the computer and get to the address already plugged in his GPS, but he needed to make a stop first. He hadn’t mentioned it to Jules or Mallory, knowing they’d have tried harder to keep him from going, tugged more insistently on his sleeves.
 
The small lot was empty outside Bravata, as it usually was, as it now would be until someone else bought it, another chef’s dreams taking shape. For the time being, Grant didn’t care what happened to the place. He’d burn it down himself, if he thought it would help. But if he lived through the next few hours, and if Eliot came home alive, he knew that he would ache for these walls later. Their mottled brick, that built-in chimenea. The split-level deck, the dogwood, those chairs. His name in careful stencil on the window. All of it would become just another pocket of memory too tender to touch.
 
He used the code to spring open the lock box and shouldered inside. Past the host desk and dining room, he kept walking, eyes fixed on the floor. In the office, he moved boxes of toilet paper and tin foil to get to the safe, where he knelt to spin the dial.
 
Months ago, he’d wrapped it in an old t-shirt and stuffed it behind the stacks of paperwork, so he had to feel around a little, but soon his fingers landed on it: a Glock G-19 with an olive green frame. It had been a gift from Allen, a kind of signing bonus, for whenever he had to take a big deposit to the bank, but Grant had never carried it, never planned to either. The one time he’d shot a gun, as a teenager in the woods with his buddies, he’d found the trigger too tempting, the shape of the grip panel too at home in his hand. As he rooted for the bullets, he tried not to wonder if he’d really be able to do it, aim the barrel at another person, shoot the gun. He would know the answer soon enough.
 
The box of bullets were hard to reach from this angle, so he started removing the files. First neatly, all order maintained, but then a folder slumped open onto the floor and he stopped caring. What was the point, anyway? It was all spreadsheets that didn’t matter anymore, cost projections for food they’d never buy.
 
Somewhere among the mess of paper, his eye caught on the corner of a blue envelope he had never seen before. He plucked it from the pile and tore open the flap. In it, a single photograph, its edges yellow. Two bare-chested teenagers squinty at the camera. A boardwalk stretched endlessly behind them. A beach just out of view.
 
Grant pocketed the photo and grabbed the box of bullets, not bothering to restack the paper or close the safe. Surely the police would be here soon enough with their warrant. No reason to make their job harder than it needed to be.
 
Back in the car, he took turns without braking, rolled through stop signs, sped up at yellow lights. He made it to Virginia-Highlands in 15 minutes and parked on the street. He had Frank’s keys in his pocket, but halfway up the path, he realized the door had been forced open, the jamb split. The chain lock clinked in the breeze.
 
He pulled the gun from his pocket and racked the slide. Aiming it forward, he walked slowly, arms extended, elbows soft. He kicked what was left of the door, but it barely moved. Something firm blocked it from behind.
 
Grant sidled up the stoop and took a breath before raising the muzzle again and stepping inside.               


Chapter 19

“Do you see anything?”
 


The door wasn’t the only thing broken. There was the TV, the floor lamp, the bowl where Eliot kept her keys. A vase lay in shards by the window. Framed pictures had cracked where they fell. Every bookcase had been turned over. The coffee table, the potted plant in the alcove. Couch cushions slashed open, their batting puffy on the floor. All the furniture—the desk, the bench, the café table—had been thrown from their walls and heaped into the middle of the room. The armchair, which blocked the door from opening, was no longer upholstered, its springs in full view.
 
Karl had been here, Grant knew. Maybe the night before, yesterday. If Eliot’s computer were here, surely he would have found it, but with nowhere else to look, Grant started picking over the piles. He lifted the curtains that were puddled by their windows. He got to his knees to peer up the blocked chimney. In the hallway, he stepped around the ripped carpet to the bedroom, where the mess continued. Eliot’s clothes had been torn from their drawers and hangers. Empty shoeboxes littered the floor. The mattress leaned on its side, a jagged line sliced through its center. Slivers of the mirror kept snapping beneath his shoes. He stood on a chair to squint through the air vents, scratched at the loose tile in the bathroom. In the kitchen, he nudged the refrigerator out further, finding only dirt and dust behind it, two coils of uncooked pasta, a molded slice of cheese.
 
Grant rubbed his face and tried to concentrate. Where else could she have hidden her computer? He thought about the Braddocks in the main house, Eliot’s landlords. Maybe she’d hidden it at their place. Maybe they’d know of some secret passageway or loose floorboard.
 
No one answered when he knocked or rang the doorbell. They must have still been out of town. Grant remembered the stack of AJCs he’d seen beneath their grill cover on Monday. Dozens of them, marking weeks since they’d been home. Eliot didn’t have a key to their house anyway, so he started to walk back to her apartment. That’s when it hit him.
 
He ran to the garage, where the grill stood in its same spot. Its cover was dusty with pine needles, but it lifted off easily enough. He raised the hood and there, where it had been all along, waiting, was Eliot’s computer.
 
Jules answered before the phone had time to ring.
 
“I got it,” Grant said. He’d returned to Eliot’s kitchen where he found an outlet to charge the battery. “But I need a password.”
 
“Forget the password. Whatever’s on it, he can have.”
 
“Not if you’re going to stop him,” Grant said, and then they both paused over the pronoun, the air heavy with what it implied.
 
“There were some passwords in the notebook,” Jules said finally. “Let me get them out.”
 
Grant heard Mallory in the background, asking what was going on, but Jules ignored her and read out the codes. “EW2211. EW2212,” and so on. When those didn’t work, they tried the digits below them, the initials scattered on other pages.
 
“Think,” Grant said, more to himself than Jules.
 
“I don’t know what else to try. It’s just names and song titles and all these flowers she’s drawn everywhere.”
 
Grant scanned the living room, groping for a clue. He kicked at the heaps of pillow stuffing, the strewn baskets and downed curtain rods. The piles of paper around her desk. A small bookcase lay overturned by the window, so he put the phone down to lift it up. Books thumped from the shelves and knocked his ankles, heavy ones too, hardbacks. He knelt to shove them aside so he could walk back to the kitchen, but one of them fell open as he pushed it, landing on the page where its spine was split. A collection of Greek and Roman myths, he saw, the chapter on Demeter and Persephone. He didn’t remember the story exactly, had never care much for mythology, but he recognized “Persephone” from chatting with Eliot over AIM her freshman year of college. It had been her screenname. He’d asked why once, when it was late at night and neither of them could sleep, but he didn’t remember the details, only something about a mother and daughter divided by death. At the time, he’d felt bad for asking, as if fingering old wounds, but now he read the page hungry until he stopped short at a certain word.
 
“The flowers,” he said. “Her drawings. What kind are they?”
 
“What? I don’t know.”
 
Mallory said something in the background.
 
“Oh, I see it,” Jules responded, and then into phone. “They’re poppies. On one page, she wrote—”
 
Grant was already at the computer, pecking the letters on the keyboard. He hit “enter,” and the start-up music chimed.
 
Jules kept talking, her voice excited, but Grant just stared at the screen. Its wallpaper was a photo from high school, just the two of them bent in a whisper, neither looking at the camera, the starts of laughter in their eyes. His leg bare of the cast, and the hair on that side of her head nearly shoulder-length, it must have been at least a year after the bombing, at some picnic table, in some park. He hadn’t known the camera had caught them. He’d never even seen this picture until right now.
 
Grant had always thought of the bomb as the worst thing that ever happened to him. He grieved the pick-up basketball games, the trouble breathing when he heard the smallest noise. But with Eliot, in this picture, he looked unshakeable. So much stronger than he’d ever been before.
 
“Are you there?” Jules asked again.
 
“Yeah,” Grant answered. “Sorry.”
 
“Do you see anything?”
 
He read the file names populating the screen. “Computer.” “VLC media player.” “Adobe Acrobat.” “Google Chrome.” And there, at the bottom, was a folder titled with just three letters: “KBF.”
 
His heart pulsing, Grant uploaded the two files in it to a Google Drive and sent the link to Jules. “Got it?” he asked after a second.
 
“Yeah. What is it?”
 
“You’ll see.”
 
He said goodbye and hung up before she could respond. He had less than an hour left, and no idea how thick the traffic. His tires screeched as he pulled back into the road.
 
Over the phone, Karl had given him a street name, no number, but as he turned on Chastain Memorial Parkway, Grant recognized why. In high school, on the rare Saturday nights that he came to Buckhead to hang out with Eliot and her stoner friends, they’d ended up here, on this snaking wooded road behind Chastain Park. “Cocaine Lane,” they had called it, still young enough to think they were the first. Clusters of tie-dyed teenagers would gather in the slopes lining this street, where, if they went back far enough and the trees weren’t too bare, they could tuck into these folds for hours, howling at the moon. Grant hadn’t cared much for weed back then, and the watery beers Eliot’s friends had pilfered from their parents’ 6-packs never seemed to justify getting drunk, even if they’d pooled enough of them to do the job, but he’d come a handful of times anyway. He remembered one night in particular, late summer, all of them tipsy with youth, when they’d laid on their backs in the grass as the words of Smokey Robinson drifted from the amphitheater. In your finest hour, I was there with you. If he survived the next thirty minutes, he swore to himself he’d listen to Smokey as he drove away.
 
Grant parked the truck in one of the shallow lots peppering the street and said a prayer. He got out, the gun tucked in his waistband, the computer like a shield over his chest, and tramped through the dead leaves toward one of the arbored picnic tables. He texted Karl, I’m here.
 
He wasn’t late, but he wasn’t early, so his toes started tapping when a few minutes passed with no answer. He checked the street name again, the time. And then, among the trees, he heard footsteps, some heavy and deliberate, others skimming the ground. He turned to meet them at the same moment they emerged: Susannah, white and trembling, a man behind her with a gun to her head.
               

 


Chapter 20
“Not so fast”


As with most monsters, the man in front of Grant looked nothing like he had pictured. Even though he had seen the photograph from the golf course, even knowing it to be a few years old, Grant had somehow imagined a towering figure with ropy muscles, maybe a scar on his face, a neck tattoo. But Karl Bergmann-Fuchs could have blended in at Costco on Saturdays, or maybe in a water aerobics class at the Y. Wispy gray hair, hooded eyes, a gut that strained his tracksuit. Shorter than Susannah by inches, with thinner wrists and thighs. He looked like the kind of guy who did the crossword puzzle every morning and had a favorite character on CSI.
 
But as Karl approached, a grin seeped across his face and sent a shock through Grant that he hoped didn’t show in his knees.
 
“Good boy,” the man said. His voice unfurling like a tongue. “I’m glad to know some of you still do what you’re told.”
 
Bile like anger brimmed in Grant’s throat, but he swallowed it, felt it settle in his chest. “I did what you wanted. Now let her go.”
 
Karl flung Susannah at Grant’s feet, where she landed face down, heaving into the dirt. The eye of his silencer trained on her back. “Not so fast.”
 
Susannah moaned and clutched her stomach.
 
“Are you okay?” Grant asked, though he knew she wouldn’t answer. She probably didn’t even hear him as she folded into herself. “What did you do to her?”
 
“We just relived old times, didn’t we, Mrs. Wiley? A walk down memory lane. We’re old friends, you know. What has it been, dear, thirty years? I know Susannah well enough to read her mind.”
 
At this, she didn’t flinch, but Grant did. Karl must have noticed because he raised the gun slowly, tracing up Grant’s leg and chest until it aimed at his heart.
 
“You said you wouldn’t hurt her.”              
 
“Oh no, my friend. I said I wouldn’t kill her. And as you plainly see, I kept my word. The question is, did you?” He nodded to the concrete table behind them. “Turn it on.”
 
It surprised Grant that he hadn’t even considered bringing a dummy computer, maybe his own or a used one from that place on Lenox Road. Not that it would have been wise to do so. It just reminded him how severely this man out-matched him, how foolish it would be to reach for his gun.
 
He walked backwards toward the table to hide his waistband. Karl followed, stepping over Susannah as if she were a puddle in his way.
 
“I haven’t looked at anything,” Grant said, as he pressed the power button.
 
A sloppy lie that seemed to amuse Karl, who perched atop the table to study him, that grin and its gun in place the whole time.
 
“Tell me,” Karl’s voice curled. “Wherever did you find it?”
 
“You know the house, the big one in front? They have a grill by the garage.”
 
Karl snapped his fingers. “Dangit, isn’t that always my blind spot? Pedestrian domesticity.”
 
The log-in screen appeared, and Grant tried to steady his hands to type the password.
 
“I have never understood that about people, how they can lead such predictable lives. With their barbeques and garages. The same name, the same people always around.” He plucked a leaf from the bench and snarled at it before flicking it to the ground. “I mean, honestly, the yard work alone would drive me insane.”
 
The computer thunked to announce the password had been wrong. He’d tapped the Caps Lock by mistake, so he tried again, his eyes on the keys.
 
“I do hope you’ll hurry,” Karl said. “I’m quite eager to be on my way.”
 
A patter in the leaves caused them both to turn, but Susannah was still clenched into herself, writhing in the dirt. Bruises were beginning to purple her eyes and birthmark. Blood from somewhere dabbled her sleeve.
 
Grant didn’t want to consider what the man had done to her, or how long he’d spent doing it. She wore the same clothes as in the cemetery, only her shoes missing, so Karl could have had all night with her, the long morning. Ceaseless hours to do whatever he pleased. It was meager solace, but if Karl was planning to kill them both, at least it would be fast. He wouldn’t take his chances breaking Grant’s ribs first. He would just point the gun and fire.
 
A chime rose from the laptop as that picture of him and Eliot filled the screen. Grant slid the machine toward Karl and started to stand.
 
“Not so fast,” he said. The silencer fixed on Grant, Karl adjusted the screen and smirked at it. “My, my. What a handsome couple. So very,” he pretended to search for the right words. “Hands across America.”
 
“Look at the bottom, right side. It’s a folder.”       
 
Karl leaned in to squint.
 
The gun seemed to pulse against Grant’s back. He wanted to reach for it. Karl distracted, this might be his only chance. But his arms wouldn’t move when he told them to. His wrists wouldn’t bend. His whole body sat there, useless as the brittle leaves around their feet.
 
“Lovely,” Karl said, closing the laptop. He slung it under his arm and stood.
 
“Can I ask,” Grant said, without a plan for how to finish the question. He just felt the minutes draining, eager to white-knuckle what time he could.
 
“You have questions?” Karl raised one eyebrow. “By all means. An artist loves to share his process.” He lowered to the bench. “Hands where I can see them, if you don’t mind.”
 
Grant lay his palms up on the table. “Allen, or whatever his name is. Was all of this his idea or yours?”
 
“A little of column A, a little of column B. Our friend has quite the head for business, but he lacks imagination, which I provide in spades.”
 
“How did he get caught, then, and not you?”
 
“The problem with businessmen is their forward focus. Cost projections, quotas, and whatnot,” He waved his free hand dramatically. “Poor Allen didn’t pay enough attention to his paper trail. Now, artists, we gather and horde. You never know what might inspire your creativity. The muse could strike at any time.”
 
“You did this,” Grant said. “You turned him in.”
 
“Naturally.”
 
“Why? Why now?”
 
Karl sighed. “Even the greatest artists have their lapses in judgment. I was wrong to release Susannah. I had just grown so tired of her, and she was aging, as you can see. Less useful every year. Perhaps I am just too kind, but I thought she knew the rules by now. Then I hear she has taken a job in Atlanta. Stupid woman. It was only a matter of time before she was recognized.”
 
“Eliot,” Grant said, almost a whisper.
 
“Yes, your friend has proven very inconvenient for me. But no matter. What’s done is done.” He turned slightly, in the motion of standing.
 
“Did you know it was her?” Grant stammered. “A-at the yoga center? Did you recognize her?”
 
“Not at first. I blame my employees for that. No matter how often you remind them to be thorough, you simply cannot avoid human error completely. Man is but an imperfect machine.”
 
A car came up in the distance, its headlights winking in the rain. Its tires slid at the curve but then righted. The asphalt slick with leaves. They both watched the car drive past and disappear beyond the tree line. As it did, Grant pictured the roads between here and his apartment. Powers Ferry toward Blackland and Piedmont. The ramp onto 400, then 85. Past the tallest buildings in his city, the flashy billboards, the merging lanes. The distance felt impossible. He had never been so far from home.
 
When he turned back, Karl had aimed his gun.
 
“What are you doing?” Grant asked.
 
“Oh, I think you know.”
 
“B-but—” He shot up, knocking his knees against the table. For once, he didn’t even feel it. “You said you’d let us go. We won’t follow you. We won’t tell anyone.”
 
Karl wrapped his free hand around the silencer. “I find these things so clumsy. Necessary at times, but,” he gestured to the empty woods before starting to unscrew it. “Now be a good boy and step back. Blood can be such a chore to get out of concrete.”

“You don’t need to kill us.”
 
That grin again, those beady eyes. “Need, want. Tomato, tamahto.”
 
Grant groped for his waistband but found nothing there. Only a hard damp chill against his back.
 
He started to say wait, to say please, to beg, but the bullet was faster. It landed before he’d even realized it was on its way.


Chapter 21

“Go.”


Few people may have been close enough to hear it, but the shot sent birds from their trees. Branches shook in their squawking, a thunder of wings against the air. Even in the mounting rain, you could hear them, even in the high-pitched silence of an action no person could undo.
 
By comparison, the bullet had been almost soundless, a mere thwack to his chest. He had stumbled, knocked against a post and then the table, before his knees had given out. His eyes still wide with wonder as he fell. Grant looked down now but saw no blood, no movement, just the heap of a lifeless body, bones and muscles and nothing else.
 
He would later learn that there had been blood—lots of it, in fact—and that it had, according to the police, been quite hard to wash away. They would tell the newspapers there had been two bullets, two thwacks against his chest, but it was the first one that killed Karl, a pitch perfect strike to his heart. But from those first few minutes, shock like a cloud before his eyes, Grant remembered only the raindrops on his shoulders, the puff of breath as he exhaled.
 
Someone said his name, and he turned to see Susannah standing not five feet away, the Glock droopy in her grip. He moved to take it, but she waved him off. “Gunpowder,” she said.
 
Grant stared at the woman who had saved him. Minutes earlier, when she’d emerged from the woods, he had not noticed all the damage. Her swelling lip and eyelids, the crusted blood above her ear. Her clothes torn at their stitching. Her hair matted with mud. But behind the bruises, somehow, she began to look more like her daughter. Those same firm shoulders kept her back straight, that same unyielding in her eyes.
 
Voices called from out of view. “Hello,” they yelled. “Are you okay?”
 
Susannah moved to grip his arm. “Get out of here,” she urged him. “Go.”
 
“I’m not going to leave you. The cops, they’ll ask questions.”
 
“None that I can’t answer.”
 
“But then they’ll know. They’ll arrest you.”
 
She shook her head, almost smiling, if not for the split above her lip. “I’m tired. It’s time to stop. You need to find her. Go.”
 
Somewhere, a siren started chirring. He had a minute, maybe less. He squeezed Susannah’s wrist before he took off running. Up the slope, between the trees. At his truck, he glanced back, and she was there, where he’d left her, that gun still heavy in her hand.
 
**
 
Grant was halfway to 400 before he remembered speed limits and stop signs. He tapped the brake, but still he felt it, the need to drive faster, just because he could.
 
At the turn onto Buckhead Loop, his phone slid out of his back pocket, down into the gears below his seat. He pulled into the bank to retrieve it, now that he remembered Jules and Mallory.
 
They had called seven times while he’d been there, thumbed all-caps texts with increasing speed. It seemed so long since he had dialed a number, hit send, said hello. He was still surprised to be breathing. The simplest action, a miracle.
 
Jules answered, panting, as he pulled back onto the road. “Grant? Is that you?”
 
A warmth welled up inside him, nearly spilling from his eyes. “It’s me,” he answered, laughing. “It’s over. We’re okay.”
 
He told her the facts of what had happened as if he’d watched it on TV. Nothing about the birds or raindrops or the blood he didn’t notice. In the background, as he talked, he heard Mallory softly sobbing. He thought of her smile and was grateful that he had lived to see it again.
 
“Where are you?” Grant asked. “Still at the library? I can be there in—.”
 
“We’re at the precinct on Ted Turner. The detective’s on his way. FBI too, I think.”
 
“You found something,” he said.
 
“Honey,” Jules smiled. “We found it all.”
 
Grant slapped his steering wheel and hooted as the phone beeped to signal an incoming call. “Hold on a second.”
 
He hadn’t stored the contact, but by now, he knew the number.
 
“I’ll call you back,” he told Jules, switching over just in time. “Hello?” he said. “Are you there?”
 
The woman on the other end wasn’t the same social worker who had called before, but she asked the same questions, used the same measured voice. Was he Grant Maxwell? Did he know Frank?
 
Identity confirmed, she continued, a higher pitch to her words. “I’ve got good news for you,” she said. “Mr. Wiley is awake.”
 
**
 
A nurse met him at the elevator, a guy with a buzz cut and cheekbones. He led Grant down the same hallways, stopped at the same door.
 
“He’s alert,” the nurse said, “and responding to stimuli. Light, sound, all of it. We even got him to try drinking through a straw. He hasn’t talked yet, but he seems to understand what we say.”
 
“Is it temporary, the not talking?”
 
Kindly, the nurse frowned. “Too soon to tell. With strokes like his, it could go either way. But he’s awake and aware, so he’s already beaten plenty of odds. What he needs now is to rest and recover. Be around family.” The nurse patted his arm. “See a friendly face. We can worry about the damage later on.”
 
Grant thanked him and knocked softly before opening the door. The lights were off and the machines still beeping. A laugh track mumbled from the TV. The white sky through both windows cast a glow about the room.
 
On the bed, Frank sat unblinking. His hands folded, his feet bare. As Grant entered, he turned to see him, a grimaced smile across his face.
 
“Hey there, sleeping beauty,” Grant said as he walked over. From the wall, he dragged a chair to sit down. “Hell of a nap, huh?”
 
Frank’s eyes were glassy, that smile stuck in place. He looked thinner than he had a day ago, his skin more mottled in blue, but beneath the tubes and wires, the white-taped gauze, those bandages, the man he knew was in there somewhere. Grant could feel when he touched his hand.
 
Again, Grant couldn’t help but wonder how much Frank knew, what he believed. Perhaps he had no idea about Susannah. Maybe he had mourned her all these years. But they hadn’t had a funeral, no body to bury, no memorial tree to plant, so maybe at least he had his suspicions, in his quietest hours, his buried thoughts. Either way, she chose to leave them. She planned her exit. She said goodbye. In the ripples of the wake that she’d invited, either way, they had lived on. Through it all, Frank loved his daughter as fiercely as he could. What else besides that mattered? Who cared what story he believed?
 
A dry cough rose up Frank’s throat like an engine that wouldn’t start. Grant went to the sink to fill a cup, but when he brought it to the man’s lips, water just dribbled on his chin. The nurse had said something about straws, so Grant glanced over the bedside table, the balled tissues, the tubs of Vaseline.
 
That was when he saw the handle, bright yellow, peeking out. He moved the bulk-sized lotion, the spare pillow, and there it was. A pitcher, this one ceramic, tiny flowers painted along its rim. He picked it up and turned it over, too dizzy at first to read its letters, but soon they spelled the most beautiful word: Serenbe.
 
Grant remembered their weeks here, twenty years ago but still so clear. The endless days, the doctors’ faces, the ache of that bed against his back. With his knee, Grant hadn’t spent his nights wandering the hospital stairs and hallways. He hadn’t visited other floors or hid in any closets. He never snuck into the morgue. All those weeks, he had just laid there, impatient for the sun, when Eliot would come and sit beside him, tell the stories of where she’d gone.
 
He ran to the door and flung it open, but she wasn’t standing in the hall. In both directions, nurses hurried, carts rambled, time went on.
 
On the white board, he wrote his message in words she’d understand: 11 a.m., Saturday: 111+2.
 
He kissed Frank’s forehead before leaving. He tugged the blanket over his feet.
 
In the elevator, this time, Grant couldn’t stop humming. Down every floor, at every stop. Eliot’s voice, those words she’d taught him, that same old song he’d always loved.


The Undead Mother
A real-life ghost story
by Eliot Wiley


The Undead Mother
A real-life ghost story
by Eliot Wiley
 
My dad never used the word “suicide.” Police officers did, the counselors, the lawyers, even a well-meaning but indelicate fourth grade teacher, but throughout the months of searching for my mother’s body, despite the note she had left me and her well-documented history of mental illness, my father never spoke the word. “Mom is gone,” he would tell me. “She won’t be coming back.”
 
Whenever I missed her (a surprisingly infrequent occurrence), he would take me to places she’d loved—the High Museum, Mary Mac’s Tea Room, the park at Tanyard Creek—but the stories he told often included an odd amount of present tense verbs. “She hates the impressionists,” he’d say, when we passed a Monet. “She prefers Rothko and Calder.” At the time, if I noticed his grammar at all, I wrote it off as the vestiges of love lost. He still wore his wedding ring, after all, and checked “Married” on census forms. He can’t accept she’s gone, I thought. I’ve never remembered much about my mother, despite being nine years old when she left us, so my dad’s grief hurt more than her absence. That he kept her alive in his stories led me to do the same.
 
In a psychology class my sophomore year of college, we read Kübler-Ross and Kessler, and I started to worry my father’s idiosyncrasies were emblematic of stunted healing. I became convinced I could diagnosis him (I’d gotten a B+ that semester, which is basically the same thing as a PhD). I asked more questions, noting the lack of finality in his word choice, and tried to set him up on dates. (The few times he agreed—once with a neighbor, once with the nice lady at the bank—were disasters. Turns out just because two people were born in the same decade doesn’t make them compatible. Who knew?!).
 
But meanwhile, I started to find it odd (well, full confession, my roommate told me it was odd) that we had no grave to visit, no ashes we ever scattered. So young when she died, I’d accepted what my father told me: your mother hates memorials. I was 20 years old the first time I visited the library to search newspapers for her name. That was when and how I learned that the police never found her body. Her obituary—a short, factual account—didn’t even run until five years after she’d left us, and only then because the courts had finally declared her dead.
 
My belief that she might still be alive didn’t solidify overnight. I lived in other theories for years. Maybe she’d been kidnapped by a serial killer, her body strewn among southeastern rivers. Maybe a bear ate her. (I listened to a lot of death metal in college and read the requisite amount of Bret Easton Ellis, so to say I had a dark aesthetic would be an understatement.) But the vague doubts nagged in the background all along.
 
I never spoke of these doubts to my father or friends. They felt too dangerous. My mother had spent large swathes of my childhood in mental institutions, so I feared that giving voice to my theory would mark me as her daughter. I wasn’t crazy, I thought, but isn’t that exactly what a crazy person would think?
 
I spent my 20s holding my tongue, my early 30s too. I moved to Chicago—a city, according to my dad, that my mom just loves—and distracted myself in work and short-lived but intense romances with basically every emotionally-unavailable manic pixie dream girl I met. Then, last year, my dad was diagnosed with diabetes, which, in addition to his high blood pressure and a family history of heart trouble, called me home. I moved back to Atlanta in late June 2017, exactly three months before I faced my suspicions in the flesh.
 
Through some freelance work with Creative Loafing, I attended their annual “Best of Atlanta” party at Terminal West on September 28. I’d been there only twenty minutes, maybe half an hour, when I saw a woman across the room that I knew, without consciously considering it, was my mother. That’s how simply it hit me. I saw her, and the knowledge was as certain as if I’d seen her every day of my life. Her hair was different, and she was twenty-six years older, but she moved with the same grace I remembered, her smile just as broad. And on her cheek, softened by make-up but clear nonetheless, she had the same port-wine birthmark.
 
Thinking I must’ve reached the hallucination stage of a mental breakdown, I said and did nothing. She left the party soon after, and I spent the rest of the night loopy off high-gravity beer, texting my new girlfriend to suggest names for our future children. So, yeah, I played it cool.
 
The next day, I asked one of CL’s photographers for her test shots (I’d seen her setting up by the bar where my mother had hovered for a while), and sure enough, in the light (and high-pitched hangover) of morning, there was no denying it. My mother had come back from the dead.
 
I asked around, as subtly as possible (which, given my nerves, was probably as subtle as gangrene), and learned my mother, who now went by the name Ginger, worked as a make-up artist for a major movie studio. Presumably, she hadn’t been in Atlanta for the last twenty-six years, so I figured she’d come for work and might not be here long. If I wanted to confront her, sooner was probably better, but I wasn’t convinced I cared if we met again. Far more intriguing were her reasons for leaving, and where she had been all this time.
 
A conspiracy of resurrection
Like any investigative reporter, I jumped head first into research. I needed more background before venturing into the “field,” especially since there was still that 5% chance I had lost my mind. I logged hours at the Ivan Allen Reference Department at Central Library. I tracked defunct websites and called disconnected landlines. Through a series of emails (my old editor knew a guy who knew a guy), I located a retired National Intelligence Agency operative named Sterling Bourne.
 
Bourne happens to live in Marietta, where he operates a three-person private investigation firm, and he agreed to meet for coffee. Though retired, Bourne still looks the part of a secret agent. With a cleft chin, arm muscles you can see through his trench coat, and a fedora, he could have easily served as Ian Fleming’s muse. His specialty at the NIA was target analysis, which Bourne describes as “finding people, getting into places.” In other words, he was exactly who I needed.
 
With the help of his partners—the dispassionate-but-brilliant tactical analyst Kristina Wovenkraft and the organic-chemist-turned-collections-analyst Rileigh (no last name, like Cher)—Bourne had amassed a boatload of intel on an underground crime network employing scores of dead children.
 
How is that possible? To understand the network, you first need a basic lesson on the history of the Social Security Administration. (Bear with me; I promise this is going somewhere.)
 
Social security numbers were first issued in 1935, as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The original goal was to track workers’ income for Social Security benefits, so not everyone had a SSN. The self-employed, for instance, were exempt, as were agricultural workers, domestic staff, the elderly, and children. Over the course of the next few decades, Social Security requirements expanded to include these various industries, but children remained unnumbered.
 
As the uses of SSNs expanded, so did the market for fraud. With a fake SSN, criminals could claim benefits they had not earned or start businesses as fronts for elaborate scams. They could also adopt a stolen identity and disappear.
 
Today, this form of identity theft, known as “ghosting,” would be nearly impossible, but in the mid-20th century, it was surprisingly easy. SSNs were not assigned until a person’s first paid employment, and states filed their birth and death certificates in separate departments, often in separate buildings, so the lack of a centralized database or computer system effectively eliminated any effort to cross-reference the information. Little proof was required to request a birth certificate, provided the applicant’s gender and age conceivably matched the form. Once a criminal had that documentation, getting an SSN required no effort at all, as long as the deceased never received their own number.
 
That’s where children came in handy. Because kids did not have SSNs, those who died before official employment were the perfect marks. “Ghosters,” as they’ve become known, specifically sought children who’d died before the age of 15, in big cities (where their names would be less-widely recognized), with close family that had either died or moved away (limiting the number of relatives who might question their resurrection).
 
As SSNs became standard, they also became more useful, such as in calculating dependents for tax purposes. So Congress passed an amendment in 1972 that allowed parents to request SSNs for their school-aged children. It was another fourteen years before SSNs became required for any dependents over the age of five, and roughly another five years before they became standard at birth, but the act of enumerating children started to catch on in the 1970s. For ghosters, this trend foretold the end of an era.
 
With an ever-decreasing pool of unclaimed identities, a team of enterprising ghosters saw this problem as a business opportunity. They scoured the country for recently-deceased children and applied for their SSNs. (Bourne estimates the team amassed a few hundred such identities; Wovencraft’s projections put the number closer to a thousand.) They then began the patient work of keeping these identities alive. They opened fake companies in their names, registered to vote, ran up credit card debt, got married (often to each other)—all with an eye toward product development. They tended a vast collection of ready-made lives they could sell at a moment’s notice. But the problem was, how could they find their customers?
 
That question, Bourne told me, had been his team’s initial focus. They slogged through thousands of birth and death certificates, cross-listing names and dates with voter registration and employment records. Through additional efforts that Bourne, in his trademark stoicism, explained as “classified,” they located the addresses and phone numbers for more than a dozen suspected ghosters. After months of shadowing these people, in person and online, they found disturbing evidence to suggest the ghosters’ involvement in a number of unsolved crimes across the country. For instance, a software engineer in Seattle took periodic fishing trips around the Northeast that coincided with a string of bank robberies. A housewife in Ohio had a habit of surreptitiously befriending federal employees in the months before they turned up dead, often through single-car accidents and once in an unsolved armed robbery at the agent’s home. Bourne and his team felt certain these ghosters were working on behalf of a secret network, one likely led by the same team that provided their identities in the first place.
 
Bourne focused on the four identities he saw as the most dangerous: the housewife, the software engineer, a fisherman in Alaska who appeared to be transporting weapons to Russian submarines, and a make-up artist in Los Angeles named Virginia “Ginger” Johnson, whom Bourne suspected had ties to drug trafficking.
 
“Let’s take ‘em down”
While I was developing a pretty intense caffeine habit in my daily meetings with Bourne, I continued to investigate my mother. Through a Wovenkraft contact in Hollywood, I learned Ginger was working on a movie that was filming at the Pullman Yards. Without telling Bourne (I wasn’t yet ready for the therapy bills that would inevitably come from ratting out the woman who birthed me), I asked a friend to help me sneak onto set. He got me on the extras’ list instead.
 
That day at the Pullman Yards, I snuck down to wardrobe where I found her in the middle of painting gray boils on the face of an actress you’d recognize but can’t name. (The movie follows a bunch of pizza delivery guys who become zombies but continue to compete for the prettiest girl at their high school. A shoo-in for best picture, no?) She looked up when I walked in, and her face gave me the confirmation I needed. I said the word out loud: “Mom.”
 
Had I known, at nine years old or since, that my mother had abandoned me, I might have fantasized about that moment. I might’ve had a speech prepared or dreams of her running to me, arms open. As it was, I had no such expectations, so her reaction didn’t come as a surprise or disappointment. She behaved exactly as she might to pictures she took in art school ending up on her LinkedIn page. “Go away,” she said. “You shouldn’t be here. It’s too dangerous. I wish you’d disappear.” Love you too, Mom.
 
It was that one sentence—“It’s too dangerous”—that seemed to confirm Bourne’s theories. Whether she wanted the help or not, I decided to prove once and for all how little I had in common with my mother. I chose not to walk away from her (even leaving a note confessing as much at a bar I’d heard she frequented). I was going to help Bourne and his team take this network down.
 
Through their years of research, Bourne’s team believed they knew who was running the network, but they needed more proof. To get it, they wanted to go undercover and enter the network themselves, but none of them made good candidates for the job. Bourne is well-known as a private investigator, with more than 15,000 followers on Twitter alone, so the odds that he’d be recognized were high. The same was true with Wovenkraft; an Indian beauty with legendary recall skills, she has an actual fan club online. The eternally-enigmatic Rileigh was already undercover for another job, masquerading as a college student somewhere up north (Bourne refused to be more specific), so she was off the table. It took me a few days to convince them that I was the mole they needed, but once I did, all systems were a-go.
 
In the week or so following my brush with movie stardom, I prepared to go undercover. The initial plan was that I would be gone three days, so I decided not to tell my girlfriend or best friend, figuring the whole story would be easier to explain once it was over. (Call me paranoid, but I also thought they’d object just a bit to my joining a retired NIA agent in his off-the-record operation to expose criminal masterminds who’d gone undetected for nearly forty years. Silly, I know.) If those three days went well, I’d go back for longer, maybe even months. Bourne provided the financial means for my life to continue as I was gone. I paid my bills months in advance and turned down freelance work, sometimes even ignoring the offers because I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no. Wovenkraft handled the details, which included wiping my apartment of as much DNA as possible in case the suspects decided to do some sniffing of their own.
 
I probably should have been, but I wasn’t nervous. At least, not until a few days before I left. I’d met my best friend for beers at one of our favorite bars. Nothing fancy, but I’d been intent on seeing him one more time before I left. There, as we were talking, I made a connection I’d somehow missed before.
 
Bourne had shown me only pictures of the men we were hunting. He deemed it too dangerous for me to know more than that. But one of the men looked familiar. I never placed him until that night, when my friend was talking about the investors in his newest project. Suddenly, the face from the picture matched that of one investor. It hit me then that what we were about to do would have real-life consequences. That everyone I loved would pay a price.
 
Ultimately, I decided to go forward with the operation. But for the record, I did hesitate. Even then, when I had no way of knowing what my loved ones would go through while I was gone, I hesitated. For some reason, I want them to know this.
 
The outcome
I’m not, for now, at liberty to share the details of our operation. (My lawyer/best girl expects we’ll end up in court at some point, and Bourne isn’t psyched about giving away all his secrets.) But our suspects’ identities have become public record: Allen C. Roberts, nee Jimmy “Jimbo” Johnson from Springfield, Indiana, and Carlton B. Fuchs, otherwise known as Dr. Karl Bergmann-Fuchs but originally Anthony “Tony” Walsh from Atlantic City, New Jersey.
 
Roberts is currently awaiting trial for his involvement in what investigators have called “the largest case of social security fraud on record.” The district attorney’s office says additional charges are pending, though they won’t be more specific.
 
Fuchs died Friday at an undisclosed location in Northwest Atlanta. Cause of death is listed as two gunshots to the heart. A suspect has confessed, though authorities have not yet released her name. Sources tell us she’s a make-up artist from Los Angeles.
 
From here, I’ll leave it to the district attorney’s office to make the case against Roberts. We’ve handed over all our evidence, including a photograph of Roberts and Fuchs as teenagers on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.
 
 
You may ask yourself why I’ve decided to tell you any of this story since I cannot tell it all. At the risk of coming off as a sniveling softie, I have to tell someone how lucky I am. While I was undercover, and then later, when I was on the run, my family never stopped looking for me. I may not have a mother in any practical sense, and my father, whom I adore, might be just beginning a long recovery from his recent stroke, but I have no shortage of family. I consider you—my hometown, my chosen home—among them. Thanks for not letting me go without a fight.
 
Plus, Roberts’s trial will end someday. Until then, I’m going to spend time with the people I love in the greatest damn city I know. Once the trial is over, I plan to write it all down. Maybe it’ll be a book, or a series of columns, or maybe I’ll just start a blog no one will ever read. Either way, my story isn’t over. You may have to be patient, Atlanta, but I will be back.