“I won’t,” Nick says.
“So… what happened?” Abby asks. “You’re a detective? Do you think someone killed Merritt? Like a murder?”
“By law, with unattended deaths, we have to rule out foul play,” Nick says. “So I’m going to ask you some questions. Easy questions. Just answer as honestly as you can.”
“Of course, of course. I just… I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this is happening. I mean, intellectually my mind knows it’s happening, but my heart is resisting. She’s dead.”
Nick says, “Tell me what you know about Merritt.”
“I’m not really the best person to ask,” Abby says. “I only just met her in May. We had a little bachelorette weekend here and it was the three of us—me, Celeste, and Merritt.”
“That’s all?” Nick says. “Nobody else?”
“Well, Tag and Greer were here. Greer kind of arranged it, just like she arranged the rest of the wedding. So my in-laws were here, but, like… no other women. It’s kind of weird? Celeste doesn’t have a lot of close female friends. When I got married, I had eleven bridesmaids. Some from St. Stephen’s, some from UT. I was president of the Tri Delts, that was my sorority. I could have had thirty bridesmaids. But Celeste had only Merritt, who was a friend she met in New York. Merritt does PR for the zoo where Celeste works.”
“Merritt worked in public relations,” Nick says. “And Celeste, the bride, works at a zoo, you say?”
“Celeste is the assistant director of the Bronx Zoo,” Abby says. “She knows a ton about animals, like genus and species and mating rituals and migration patterns.”
“And she’s only twenty-eight, which I guess is unusual in that world. Merritt discovered her, in a sense. She chose Celeste as the face of the entire Wildlife Conservation Society. Celeste’s picture is in the zoo brochure, and Merritt’s big dream was to get Celeste’s face on a billboard, but Celeste said no to that. Celeste is pretty conservative. They’re a funny match, actually—Celeste and Merritt—like the Odd Couple. Were a funny match. Sorry.” Abby mists up and waves a hand in front of her face. “I can’t let myself get worked up about this because of the baby. I’ve had four miscarriages…”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Nick says.
“But poor Celeste. She must be devastated.”
Nick leans forward to make eye contact with Abby. “The best way we can help Celeste now is to figure out what happened to her friend. When you say that Celeste and Merritt were like the Odd Couple, what do you mean?”
“Oh, just that they were opposites. Like, complete opposites.”
“Well, start with their looks. Celeste is blond and fair, and Merritt had dark hair and olive skin. Celeste goes to bed early and Merritt likes to stay up late. Merritt has a second job—had, sorry—a second job as an influencer.”
“Influencer?” Nick says.
“On social media?” Abby says. “She has something like eighty thousand Instagram followers who are all just like her—beautiful urban Millennials—and so Merritt gets perks for building brand awareness with her posts. She gets free clothes, free bags, free makeup; she eats at all of these hot new restaurants, goes to velvet-rope clubs, and works out at La Palestra for free, all because she features them on her Instagram account.”
“Nice work if you can get it,” Nick says.
“I know, right?” Abby says. “Merritt is… was a social media goddess. But Celeste doesn’t even have a Facebook account. When I heard that, I couldn’t believe it. I thought everyone had a Facebook account. I thought people were, like, given one at birth.”
“I’m with Celeste,” Nick says. He once dated a woman who tried to get him to set up a Facebook profile but the idea of reporting his whereabouts, his activities, and, worst of all, the company he was keeping didn’t appeal to him. Nick is a confirmed bachelor; he plays the field. Facebook would be a liability. Speaking of which… “What about boyfriends? Did Merritt have a boyfriend that you know of?”
Abby gives him an uneasy look. One of the reasons Nick is so successful with women is that he has learned to listen not only to what they are saying but also to what they’re not saying. It’s a talent taught to him by his mother, his ya-ya, and his sister. Abby sustains eye contact long enough that he thinks she’s trying to tell him something, but then she shakes her head. “I couldn’t say for sure. You’d have to ask Celeste.”
“Abby?” Nick says. “Do you know something you’re not telling me?”
Abby takes a sip of water, then looks around the room as though she’s never been there before. It’s not a room that appears to get much use. The walls and trim are impeccably white, as are the half-moon sofa and modern egg-shaped chairs. There are three paintings on the wall, bright rainbow stripes—one diamond, one circle, one hexagon—and there are sculptures that look like Tinkertoys made out of steel and wooden spheres. There’s a black grand piano; the top is covered with framed photographs. On a low glass table sits a coffee-table book about Nantucket, which seems redundant to Nick. If you want to see Nantucket, go outside. You’re here.
“She came to the wedding alone,” Abby says. “Which tells me that either she didn’t want to be tied down or she had set her sights on someone who would already be at the wedding.”
Ahhh, Nick thinks. Now they’re getting somewhere. “Someone like who?”
“That’s another way they’re opposite!” Abby says. “Benji is Celeste’s first real boyfriend. And Merritt… well, she’s been with a bunch of people, I’m pretty sure.”
“But no one seriously?” Nick asks. He senses Abby trying to change the subject. “If you ladies went out on the town for a bachelorette party, you must have shared some confidences, right?”
“And also?” Abby says. “Their parents. Celeste is super-close to her parents. Like, abnormally close. Well, that might be unfair to say because her mother has cancer. Let me restate: Celeste is very close to her parents, whereas Merritt hasn’t talked to her parents in six or seven years, I think she said.”
This does succeed in capturing Nick’s attention because of the next-of-kin issue. “Do you know where her parents live?”
“No clue,” Abby says. “She’s from Long Island but not one of the fashionable parts, not the Hamptons or anything. She has a brother, I think she said. Again, you’d have to ask Celeste.”
“Let’s go back to your previous statement,” Nick says. “Do you think maybe Merritt was involved with someone who was attending the wedding and that’s why she didn’t bring a date?”
“Can I please use the ladies’ room?” Abby asks.
“Excuse me?” Nick says. He’s pretty sure she’s using the bathroom break to wiggle out of answering the question—but then he remembers Helena. “Oh, yes. Certainly.”
Saturday, October 22, 2016
Blair Parrish, the head herpetologist at the Bronx Zoo’s World of Reptiles, is a hypochondriac. She’s “sick” more often than can reasonably be believed. She calls in sick on a Saturday—by far the zoo’s busiest day—and Celeste assigns Donner from the Aquatic Bird House to cover Blair’s ten o’clock snake talk. Donner complains about it (he’s an expert on Magellanic penguins and literally nothing else), so Celeste assigns Karsang from the Himalayan Highlands to cover Blair’s one o’clock snake talk and then she, Celeste, covers the three o’clock snake talk even though handling snakes is her least favorite task at the zoo. Celeste’s specialty is primates, but as the assistant zoo director—the youngest in the entire country—it’s her job to keep the peace, maintain routine, and lead by example as a team player.
Celeste is experienced enough to know that the three o’clock talk in any area of the zoo can be a mixed bag. Ten o’clock talks are routinely the best; the kids are still fresh, the parents or caregivers bright-eyed and optimistic. One o’clock talks are nearly always a catastrophe; that’s the only way Celeste can describe it to Merritt via their work phones without using profanity. At one o’clock the kids are either impatient for lunch or they’ve just eaten and they are high on sugar and often have sticky hands and faces. Three o’clock talks can go either way. It’s usually made up of older children, as younger kids have gone home for their naps by then, and, in general, the older kids are, the better their behavior. However, the three o’clock talk is often populated by people who simply couldn’t get their acts together early enough in the day to make the ten o’clock or the one o’clock.