One-handing her smartphone and one-handing the wheel of her SUV, Heather O’Grady simultaneously tapped Tito’s number and U-turned to park in front of his crappy house on Crosby Avenue.
“Merry Christmas, stickball captain,” she yelled into the phone.
“What time is it?” Tito said, yawning.
“Time to wake the hell up.”
He mumbled that he needed a few more minutes.
“Did you get wasted last night?” she said. “I told you not to get wasted. You need to be sharp today. Sharp? Look who I’m talking to.”
“I’m coming. I’m coming,” Tito said over the phone. “Damn!”
The streets were wet from the previous night’s pathetic attempt at snowfall. The sky was a dull black, layered with slate gray clouds, at just past six in the morning. Already people were out, probably on their way to the bakery to get pie and cookies and all that fattening crap for Christmas dinner.
Heather surfed through radio stations, kept hearing snatches of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas,” which made her push the button faster. Where were all the good Christmas songs, the stuff she grew up with? Even WCBS was playing some new, douchebag version of “White Christmas.” But it was ending, and Heather was rewarded with “Dominick the Donkey,” which she hated, but which was better than anything Mariah Carey ever recorded.
She looked at the time on her phone and then looked at the door of Tito’s house. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon.”
A few minutes later, Tito emerged from the house, puffy eyed, wearing a denim jacket over a hoodie, and carrying a small duffel bag and two large shopping bags with nutcracker soldiers on them.
“You’re freaking serious with those?” Heather said.
“Carmen said as long as I was going out I should drop these at her mom’s because we’re bringing food later, and she doesn’t want to carry so much.”
“Does she keep your balls on a keychain or in a jar on a shelf?”
“She keeps them on her chin, where they belong.”
“You’re a riot, Tito. Don’t ever change.”
Heather floored the car all the way up Westchester Avenue.
“Can’t we drop these off now before . . . you know?”
“No,” she said, “we cannot fucking drop them off now. We’re already running late because of you.” Heather checked the time. “Tell me you got the stuff.”
“Of course. Damn,” Tito said and took out the shims he had made from beer cans.
Heather lit up a cigarette, and Tito gestured for her to give him one, so she did.
“What’s with the oldies?” Tito said.
“It’s Christmastime. Perfect time for the oldies.”
“You know what my favorite Christmas song is?”
“I don’t have the slightest.”
“‘Old Lang Syne,’ by Don Fogelberg.”
“It’s Dan Fogelberg.”
“Yes, and it’s not a Christmas song.”
Heather sped onto the Hutchinson River Parkway north. No cars anywhere. Thank freaking Christ.
“Yes, it is. It’s on Christmas Eve,” Tito said, then he sang, “‘The snow was falling Christmas Eve.’ See?”
“Do me a favor, Tito: Never sing again. Especially that song. It’s a freaking ear worm.”
“It digs into your skull and never lets go.”
“That’s why I like it. What’s your favorite?”
“‘Rudolph the Freaking Red-Nosed Reindeer,’” Heather said. “We’re here.”
She pulled slowly into the parking lot of Orchard Beach. Empty. She parked at the west end of the lot, as far as possible from the bus stop and the security guard office.
She checked her watch. Four minutes to spare.
They got out of the car and made their way toward the beach.
* * *
Orchard Beach, aka Chocha Beach, aka La Playa De Los Mojones, aka the Riviera of the Bronx, was a manmade beach stretched out for more than a mile in a crescent that hugged a bay that was less a bay and more the ass end of Long Island Sound. The water was brown, so calm it was almost stagnant, underneath it rocks and broken glass and broken shells waited to stab you, and on the surface plastic bags floated like urban jellyfish.
Heather had spent many summer days there, too many. Always packed, not a spot of sand free by the time her family finally arrived, usually in the afternoons. Music blasted from one boom box after another, and you had a real mix of the Bronx there, the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Puerto Ricans, and, for they most part, they got along. Her father would plop down on his beach chair and drink one Budweiser after another until he stewed in the sun. He would get sunburn every June but turn nut-brown by August. It was her mother who showed her how to swim and how to get the attention of the boys, both lessons taught before Heather was 10. She liked the swimming all right, but the boys bored her. By the time she was twelve she was filling out and she was damned proud of it, lording it over the flat-chested girls at Saint Theresa’s. Although there was one girl she never lorded it over, one that made her feel weird but good. And when she tried to kiss AnnaMaria Pannuzio in the deep woods facing Twin Island, way at the end of the beach, well, her screams sealed Heather’s reputation and her fate. AnnaMaria ran away, and Heather stayed behind, sitting on a log, enjoying a cigarette she had intended to share.
But that was a summer a long time ago.
Heather and Tito made their way to the back of the bathhouse in section eight of the beach. The city was always threatening to revitalize the beach’s bathhouses. A little bit got fixed here and little bit there. But it was the Bronx and nobody gave a shit about the Bronx.
They got to the concrete bathroom station, with a men’s entrance on one side and a women’s on the other. Heather peeked around. One person in jogging clothes way over by section two, and another couple heading into the cold hideaway of the woods. She hoped they had condoms.
“Why the hell do people come to Chocha Beach on Christmas Day?” Heather said.
“You mean they should be home unwrapping presents, like we should be,” Tito said.
“Shithead,” she said. “This is my present.”
In the winter, the bathroom doors were padlocked. They went around to the women’s entrance.
“This is the one,” Heather said. “Get to work, my friend.”
From the duffle bag, Tito took out the shims and began working them into the shank holes of the padlock.
“Ow! Shit!” he said.
“I cut myself.”
“Stop crying and hurry up.”
“It’s cold out here. My fingers are numb.”
“So’s your head. C’mon, guy’ll be here soon. I hope he follows instructions.”
A few moments later, Tito announced he was in.
Dirty white tiles covered the floor and halfway up the wall. The rest of the wall was painted in an aqua blue wave pattern that was chipped and fading. A broken metal mirror hung over dirty, rusted sinks. Cans of paints and paint thinner were stacked under the sinks, for a job that looked like it would never get done.
“Go find a good spot in the trees,” Heather said. “Try not to freeze your delicate ass.”
She stayed by the building and kept watch. She knew Giselly would be up because the kids would be up. Heather wanted to call her but the time wasn’t right yet.
It was starting to get bright out when Ledesma finally appeared, making his way up the path from the parking. He was alone, per her instructions.
Heather waved at him, and the lawyer made a move to wave back but stopped himself.
“Okay, I’m here,” he said when he came up to Heather. “You must be ‘Mr. X.’”
Ledesma was tall, had on one of those wool fedoras that old men wear even though he wasn’t an old man. And he wore what Heather recognized as a $700 Canada Goose jacket with coyote fur lining on the hood. That would have some nice resale value.
“That’s right, buddy,” Heather said. “Come with me.”
Heather lead Ledesma back to the bathroom station. The lawyer stopped outside and looked the place over.
“What the hell is this?”
Heather wondered if he recognized it. She didn’t want him hesitating.
“My office,” she said. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Heather smirked at him. “Gee, thanks.”
They walked in.
When they were inside, Tito ran from his spot in the woods. He stepped in and blocked the door. Blood covered his right hand and was smeared in a long swipe on his hoodie.
When Ledesma saw him, he said, “This must be your partner, ‘Ms. Y.’”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tito asked.
“Never mind,” Heather said. “He’s got jokes.”
“I have your money,” Ledesma said. “Where is this so-called evidence?”
“I have the evidence against your client right here.” From her coat pocket, Heather pulled out a sealed manila envelope. The day before she had folded up a couple of pages from the New York Post and shoved them in there. “Money first, my friend.”
“You know what? I think you’re a couple of jokers, and I smell bullshit. What the fuck do you really want? I got three screaming spoiled brats waiting to open their goddamned presents. If you don’t tell me what the fuck this is about, I’m getting out of here. And don’t think you can stop me.”
“No, you’re not.” Heather pulled out a .38.
“You have to be kidding.”
She waved him over to one of the doorless bathroom stalls and pointed to the seatless toilet, where the water was frozen.
“Cop a squat,” she told him. The gun felt good in her hand. And light, since there were only three bullets in it.
“Tie him up,” Heather told Tito, who took duct tape out of his bag.
When she saw the tape, Heather said, “What the hell? Where the hell are the cobra cuffs I told you to get?”
“I couldn’t find them. This’ll be fine.”
“Amateurs,” Ledesma said, spitting mad. “You’re getting blood on me. You idiot. You didn’t think I came here—.”
And then Tito covered his mouth with the tape.
“Hold up. You think he was going to say something important? Should I take it off?” Tito asked Heather.
“No,” she said. “I’ve had enough of his asshole voice.”
* * *
The plan had taken time. Heather had always known who the guy was, had known friends of his friends from around the way. Edwin Ledesma. Now a bigshot criminal lawyer. She googled the rest. Found the names of people who worked for him. Found the guy’s secretary, Jenna Raskin, on Facebook. Found out this Jenna liked to hang out at the Charlie’s Bar and Kitchen in Mott Haven, a lucky break. Went there, bought her a few drinks, used her best game. And of course she had to do all this on the sly. Giselly couldn’t find out. Heather was doing it all for her, knew that it would save her, save their relationship.
Time came when Heather had to go a little further than she planned. After a couple of dates, Jenna wanted to take things to her place, and Heather still hadn’t gotten what she needed. But finally, after three, four, maybe six times, Jenna told her about Ledesma’s biggest current case, gave her a name. That was all it took.
Although she still had to keep sleeping with Jenna once every couple weeks, so she wouldn’t get suspicious.
“And now we call my Queen,” Heather said. She gave the gun to Tito and went to the sink to make the call.
“Good morning,” Heather said. “Merry Christmas.”
“Where the hell are you?”
Heather heard Giselly everywhere and realized their conversation was echoing off the walls. She quickly stepped out into the cold.
“Babe, I have a surprise,” Heather said.
“H, it better be those yams I told you to get me yesterday.”
“Nah, nah, I got a special present for you. But you have to come see it.”
“Where the hell are you?”
“It’s ten minutes away. There’s no traffic.”
“What the fucking fuck, Heather?”
“Trust me. This is important.”
“I got a roast pork in the oven. And what about the kids?”
“I know your moms is there, listening to us right now.”
“Motherfucking Orchard Beach! This better be a brand new car or something like that.”
“Better than that.”
“I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you,” Giselly said. “Fine! Fine! Half an hour.” She clicked off, and Heather heard her still talking, saying, “I can’t believe this. I can’t . . . ”
Heather leaned against the metal of an old fence. She lit a cigarette and watched the cold brown water hit the beach. Another jogger went by. There was a sailboat way out on the water.
Under her breath, she sang, “‘Met my old lover in the grocery store / The snow was falling Christmas Eve.’ . . . Fuck! Tito!”
Heather took a few more drags of the cigarette, and suddenly Tito was there next to her, gesturing for her to give him one.
“This is like being out in nature,” Tito said.
“We are out in nature.”
“You know what I mean. It’s nice. For Christmas. Though it would be nice if it snowed.”
Heather inhaled and exhaled.
“You know the only thing I ever wanted for Christmas was a bike,” Tito said. “And five minutes after I rode it for the first time I got hit by a car.”
“I know. You told me that story fifty times.”
“Can I ask you something? I mean, do you think we’re doing the right thing? I mean, maybe Giselly is just the way Giselly is and you won’t be able to make her, you know, really love you and marry you like you want.”
Heather was about curse Tito out, tell him that she loved Giselly, that Giselly was so special and so beautiful and so loving that she deserved anything, absolutely anything that Heather could do to make her happy. But then she saw that he was smoking with one hand and gently tapping the gun on his thigh with his other hand. “Ledesma!” she said.
Inside, she found the lawyer had crawled halfway across the floor of the bathroom, leaving a gray streak where he had dragged off the dirt.
“Wrap him to the toilet this time, Tito. For god’s sake. Can’t you do nothing right?”
* * *
An hour later, Giselly came up right behind Heather as she stood on the edge of the parking lot.
“Wow, you snuck up on me,” Heather said.
“I parked on the other end, like you told me.”
They kissed, hugged tight. Heather and Giselly had worked together at the Applebee’s in Bay Plaza, and one night, after the father of Giselly’s kids had taken off again and after a few mudslides, Heather asked her if she liked girls—she had learned her lesson after AnnaMaria Pannuzio—and Giselly said she was curious, and that was that, for six years. Heather wanted to take the next step, make things legal, but Giselly said she wasn’t ready, would never be ready, and that Heather should just get over it.
“Where’s my surprise, H? It’s freezing.”
Heather led Giselly into the park and down a bath to the bathroom station. “Babe, your surprise is in here.”
Heather went to hug her again, but Giselly put her hand up.
“This place? Why did you bring me here? You know how I feel about this stupid place.”
“That’s exactly why I brought you here,” Heather said.
“What the fuck is this about, Heather? C’mon, I still gotta make the stuffing and the lasagna.”
“You’ll see, Babe. C’non.”
Heather led her inside. Tito stood there, hugging himself to keep warm.
“Uh oh, Tito’s here,” Giselly said. “This has to be fucked up.”
“Here, Babe.” Heather pointed inside the stall.
Heather turned on her boot heels.
“What. The. Fuck,” she said. “What the fuck is this, H?”
“Fourteen years ago,” Heather said, talking to Ledesma, “you attacked and raped an innocent girl. Now here’s that girl, and she’s not innocent no more. You destroyed her, destroyed her trust, made it impossible for her to open up her heart and love someone, to give herself completely, because she’s got like this space in her heart, and—”
Giselly gave Heather a nasty look. “Okay, okay, we get it.”
“Yeah,” Heather said, “so now he’s gonna pay for what he did.”
“H, you retard. This is not the guy!”
“What? You told me. You told me. And I tracked him down. You said —.”
“What did I say? What did I say? I said I wanted to forget about that time. I didn’t want to keep playing it over and over in my head. I did that enough, for years. And now you bring it back today of all days.”
But Heather noticed, as she was talking, that Giselly was looking and looking again at Ledesma. His face was smeared with Tito’s dried blood.
“Take off the tape,” Giselly said. “Take it off. Let me see his face.”
Heather stepped into the stall. “Don’t yell, you sack of shit. Remember, I have a gun.” She ripped off the tape.
Ledesma said nothing. But the look on his face said he wanted to cut all their heads off.
Giselly took a long look at him.
“Holy shit,” she said, crossing herself. “It’s him. It is him.”
And Giselly fell to the floor of the dirty bathhouse onto her knees and started crying. Then she started praying.
“Take this, Babe,” Heather said and held the gun toward her. “Get past the past. We can move on with our lives. We can get married, live together.”
Giselly looked at her with tears flowing down her face. “That’s why you brought me here? I’m supposed to . . . “
She stared at the gun. She shook her head forcefully. And then she grabbed the .38. “Is it loaded?”
Ledesma looked at them both, his face red from blood, duct tape, anger, wild desperation. “You have to listen to me. I didn’t come here—”
“Shut up!” Heather, Giselly, and Tito all said, a choir of yells.
Giselly stood up, gun in hand. “It was you, wasn’t it?” she said. “You grabbed me and dragged me away from my family. My family didn’t know where I was. You took me away from them. You took me away.”
He put his head down and looked at the floor.
And then, there was just the barest nod.
She pulled up the gun, took a step closer.
There was nothing but quiet for a long time.
And then there was a chime.
And then the chime came again. From Heather’s jacket.
And then the chime came again and, although they had rarely heard it before, Tito and Giselly knew whose ringtone it was.
“Are you going to get that?” Ledesma said.
“Shut up,” Heather said.
Again the chime.
“Get it already,” Tito said.
“It’s your mother, for fuck’s sake,” Giselly said.
“Gimme a minute,” Heather said, “I’ll be—I’ll be right back.”
In the cold, Heather nervously tapped to answer her smartphone. “Hey, Ma. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, dear,” her mother said, her voice scratchy as sandpaper from years of booze and cigarettes. “You doing okay?”
“I’m fine, Ma. How are you and Dad?”
“Your Dad’s fine. He’s had a cold for about a week now, but he’s getting better. You know him, tough as leather. Although he was coughing his lungs out putting the tree up this year.”
“I bet the tree looks great.”
“Well, dear, that’s why I’m calling. Your father would love to see you at dinner this year.”
“Holy shit! Oh sorry, sorry, Ma, I mean, that’s great. About what time?”
“We sit down to eat at two o’clock on the dot. You know your father.”
“Ma, I have to ask: Can I . . . can I bring Giselly?”
“Oh, Lord. Frankly, dear, I wouldn’t push it with your father. I think it’s nice enough he’s invited you. We’ll see you at two o’clock then?”
“I’ll be there, Ma. I may not stay for long, but—”
“That would probably be a good idea. See you later, dear.”
Heather hung up. She turned and, for a moment, she thought she saw something move in the trees, about fifty feet out. She stared in that direction for a while. Nothing moved. Nothing. She felt cold and went back inside.
* * *
Everyone was still in the same position. “Okay, Babe. We better get this done.”
Giselly stood in the same spot, gun pointed ahead. “H, I can’t do this.”
“What? Why not?”
“This isn’t right, not on Christ’s birthday. I’m a Christian. I am supposed to turn the other cheek. I’m supposed to forgive, so I forgive this man.”
Still, Giselly kept the gun pointed at Ledesma’s face, and that’s when there was a noise at the door and the park security guy came in and shot Giselly in the head and then he yelled, “Halt.”
Tito, eyes wide and with a grunt, tackled the security guard, pushing him into a corner. But another guy came in right behind the guard, Heather saw. A guy in a suit—a detective? A bodyguard? Ledesma hadn’t come alone, per her instructions. In the narrow space, Tito was stabbing the security guard with something. And then the suit guy fired a shot at Tito.
Heather looked down at Giselly. Her brains were on the dirty tile floor. Heather took the gun, aimed at the detective. She wasn’t a good shot, had only held a gun a few times in her life, and she was very aware that there were only three bullets.
Her first shot missed, but it made the detective turn.
They shot at the same time, Heather’s bullet tearing into the detective’s mouth (she had aimed at his heart), while the detective’s bullet cut right in Heather’s belly. She stumbled back like she had been pushed, tripped against something on the floor, fell under the sink and in between paint cans.
Blood flowed out of her, life ebbed away. She looked at the door and watched Ledesma crawling past her, grabbing onto Tito’s facedown body to haul himself up.
“Oh no, you don’t,” Heather said, surprised at how weak her voice sounded. She moved herself up on one elbow, aimed carefully and—the gun misfired. She tossed it at the back of Ledesma’s head. He said, “Ow,” but kept moving.
It couldn’t end this way. He couldn’t get away. This all had to be worth something.
The paint thinner.
She took one of the small cans, took off the screwtop, then whipped the can at Ledesma. A long streak of paint thinner splashed on his back.
She fished out her lighter, lit it, tossed.
The sweet Canada goose jacket lit up.
Screaming, Ledesma ran out the door.
* * *
Heather found the energy to get up. She wouldn’t look back at Giselly. She refused to look back.
Outside, it was raining a lazy, cold spittle rain. Heather stood up and felt light and heavy at the same time.
She fished for a cigarette but then realized …
Where was he? Where did Ledesma go?
She saw his body collapsed on the beach, halfway toward the water, a bonfire under the slate gray sky.
You could even say he glowed.
Richie Narvaez has had work published recently in Pilgrimage, Sunshine Noir, and Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy. His book of short fiction, Roachkiller and Other Stories, won the Spinetingler Award for Best Anthology/Short Story Collection.