Page 57 of The Perfect Couple

“It was unusual,” Tag says. “But I worried that if I hung around to tie up the kayak, she would reappear, there would be more drama, she would raise her voice, people would hear us.” Tag drops his head into his hands. “I just wanted her to leave me alone.”

“Exactly,” the Chief says. “You just wanted her to leave you alone.” He puts his hands on the desk and leans forward. “The medical examiner found a heavy-duty sedative in Ms. Monaco’s system. So let me tell you what I think. I think you were pouring the girl shots and you slipped her a mickey. Then you invited her out for a kayak and you accidentally on purpose capsized and she never made it back to the boat. Or maybe you did as you say, and you pulled her up by the wrist. Maybe you let her pass out on the kayak and then you dumped her off closer to shore so that it looked like she went for a swim and drowned.”

“No,” Tag says. “That is not what happened. I didn’t drug her and I didn’t dump her anywhere.”

“But you do admit you were the one pouring the shots,” the Chief says. “Right?”

“Right, but—”

“Did she have anything else to drink?” the Chief asks.

“Water,” Tag says. “Water! Featherleigh went to the kitchen at some point…” Now Tag can’t recall if it was before or after Thomas went upstairs. Before, he thinks. Thomas can vouch for him. But no… no, it was after. Definitely after. “And Featherleigh brought out a glass of ice water.”

“Really,” the Chief says. He makes a note on his pad.

“Yes, really,” Tag says. This suddenly seems like the detail that will save him. He had been wary when Merritt asked for the water because it seemed to indicate she was concerned about her health—or the health of the baby—and then Tag realized that he hadn’t actually witnessed Merritt doing either of the shots he’d poured. He wondered if she’d thrown them over her shoulder. Featherleigh had been only too happy to fetch water for her new best friend, and while she was gone, Merritt told Tag she needed to talk to him alone. “Featherleigh brought Merritt a glass of water. Merritt drank the whole thing.”

“She drank the whole thing?” the Chief says. “Nobody else had any?”

“Correct,” Tag says. He relaxes back into the chair. Maybe Featherleigh slipped Merritt a mickey, or maybe they popped pills earlier in the night. Featherleigh is a wild card. Tag would have categorized her as harmless but it’s not beyond her to have accidentally wreaked this kind of havoc.

“There wasn’t a water glass on the scene,” the Chief says.

“No?” Tag says. This doesn’t make sense. “Well, I’m telling you, Merritt drank a glass of ice water. Featherleigh got it from the kitchen.” Tag glowers at the Chief, which feels risky, but he is through being intimidated. He didn’t drug Merritt and he didn’t kill her. “I think you need to talk to Featherleigh Dale.”

“I think you need to stop telling me how to run my investigation,” the Chief says. He barely raises his voice but his tone is stern nonetheless. He’s a local guy. He must resent men like Tag with their showcase homes and their shaky morals. “I have one more question.”

Tag is seeing spots in his peripheral vision, the first sign of a tension headache. “What is it?”

“Ms. Monaco had quite a nasty cut on her foot,” the Chief says. “And there were traces of Ms. Monaco’s blood in the sand on the beach out front. Do you know anything about this?”

“Nothing,” Tag says. “She didn’t have a cut on her foot when she was under the tent. You can ask Featherleigh! Ask Thomas! So… she must have cut it when she got back on land. Which is proof I delivered her safely!”

The Chief says, “It’s not ‘proof’ of anything. But thank you for your answers.” He stands and Tag stands as well, though his legs are weak and watery.

“I think it’s pretty obvious Merritt took some pills because she was upset, and then she wandered back into the water and drowned,” Tag says. “You could simply conclude that her death was an accident. It would be easier on everyone—her family, her friends, my son, and Celeste.”

“I could conclude it was an accident,” the Chief says. “And you’re right—it would probably be easier on everyone, including my police department. But it wouldn’t necessarily be the truth. And in my job, Mr. Winbury, I seek the truth. Which obviously isn’t something you’d understand.”

“I resent that,” Tag says.

“Oh, well,” the Chief says. But then, to Tag’s relief, he heads for the door. “I’ll let you know if I need anything else.”

“So we’re finished?” Tag asks.

“For now,” the Chief says.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

CELESTE

Benji is away on his bachelor-party weekend. Shooter arranged for complete debauchery: Thursday afternoon they landed in Vegas, where they went to their penthouse suite at Aria and gambled until dawn. Friday brought a double bill of race-car driving and gun club. Saturday they drove to Palm Springs to golf and have a thousand-dollar-a-head steak dinner at Mr. Lyons. And today, Sunday, they are to fly home.

Before he left, Benji tried to apologize in advance. “There will probably be strippers,” he said. “Or worse.”

“Hookers and b-b-blow,” Celeste says, and she kisses him good-bye. “Or p-p-performing lesb-b-bians. I really d-d-don’t want to know any d-d-details. Just have f-f-fun.”

“Should I be happy that you’re not protesting this trip,” Benji asks, “or concerned?”

“B-B-Be happy,” Celeste says.

Celeste spent Friday and Saturday night in Easton with her parents. Her mother was finished with treatment; there was nothing they could do now but be grateful for each new day. Karen was feeling pretty good, so the three of them took a walk around the neighborhood and then went for an early dinner at the diner.

Celeste had brought her wedding dress at her father’s behest.

He said, “You might want to try it on for your mom.”

“B-B-But why?” Celeste said. “You g-g-guys are still c-c-coming, right? To Nant-t-tucket?”

“Just bring it, please,” Bruce said.

And so, once her mother was settled at home on Saturday night, Celeste tried on the wedding gown. She put on her white silk shantung kitten heels and her pearl earrings. She didn’t bother with hair or makeup but that hardly seemed to matter. Karen beamed; her eyes were shining; she clasped her hands to her heart. “Oh, honey, you’re a vision.”

Thank you, Bruce had mouthed from across the room.

Celeste had twirled and tried to smile.

Now, Sunday morning, Celeste drives back to the city to meet Merritt for lunch at a place called Fish on Bleecker Street.

“I want oysters,” Merritt had said to Celeste over the phone. “And I don’t want to see anyone I know. I have to talk to you.”

When Celeste gets to Fish, Merritt is already there with a bloody mary in front of her. She’s breaking peanuts between her thumb and forefinger and throwing the shells on the floor. Fish has the atmosphere of a dive bar, but there are yards of crushed ice upon which rest piles and piles of oysters. The Yankees game is on TV. The bartender wears a T-shirt that says SEX, DRUGS, AND LOBSTER ROLL.

“Hey,” Celeste says, taking the stool next to Merritt. She plants a kiss on Merritt’s cheek and orders a bloody mary as well. She feels she deserves a little hedonism. She has been performing her daughterly duties while Benji has been on a three-day bender.

“Hey yourself,” Merritt says. “Have you heard from Benji?”

“No,” Celeste says. “I asked him not to call me.” Her mood is suddenly buoyant, her tongue nimble. Her stutter all but disappears when she’s alone with Merritt.

“Seriously?” Merritt says.

“Seriously,” Celeste says. “I wanted him to enjoy himself and not worry about checking in with the future wife.”

“Relationship goals,” Merritt says.

Celeste takes a sip of her bloody mary; the alcohol and spice go right to her head. She considers telling Merritt that the reason she asked Benji not to call was that she didn’t want to hear any news about Shooter—what Shooter had planned, what Shooter was doing, what funny thing Shooter said. Celeste is almost to the finish line. The wedding is four weeks away, but still she’s afraid she’ll get tripped up by her irrational heart. Every day she thinks about calling the wedding off.

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