Tim O’Mara recently sent us this gritty short story to share with our readers. The author of Sacrifice Fly and Crooked Numbers has won praise for his mysteries which feature ex cop turned Brooklyn school teacher Raymond Donne. Check out Tim’s website and enjoy his story about how one author seeks inspiration. http://timomara.net/
"Character Study" was an idea I had a while ago about how far a writer might go to get a character "just right." After reading Otto Penzler's Kwik Crimes—80+ short stories under 1,000 words—I was inspired to see if I could pull off a short short. At under 2,000 words, "Character Study" is the shortest story I've ever written.
CHARACTER STUDY by Tim O’Mara
“I knew it,” he said aloud to no one as he examined what used to be the rear passenger-side window of his car and looked at the broken glass littering the empty seat that had earlier held his laptop. “Leave something out in the open like that and it’s just a matter of time.”
He removed his cell phone from his jacket pocket, found the GPS app, and turned it on. Within thirty seconds, the GPS had locked onto the device he’d installed on his laptop for just this occasion. Whoever had it, was moving west—a blue dot—towards the Hudson River, a few avenues away from where he’d parked on a Hell’s Kitchen side street. As he walked passed the Midtown North precinct, he caught himself smiling. Sure, it would be easy enough to go inside, explain to the uniform working the front desk what had happened, and sometime within the next hour or so one of the bored cops might head over to the river and look into the matter. By that time, the laptop thief would be long gone, as would his laptop.
No, this was something he needed to take care of by himself. After all, he was the one who’d left the damn thing right out in the open. Like he’d been asking for it. He zipped up his jacket, put a glove on the hand that held the cell phone and put the other hand in his pocket.
Tim O'Mara short story A wintry breeze was coming off the Hudson making the already chilly air feel about ten degrees colder. The tiny park he had entered was officially called Clinton Cove, but nobody called it that. It was usually just referred to as the Hell’s Kitchen Pier. There was a group—a gaggle, he remembered—of geese hanging out on the lawn eating what was left of the brown grass and crapping all over the “No Dogs Allowed” area. Come springtime, the grass would be green again, benefitting from all that free fertilizer.
Sitting on a bench facing the water, was a solitary figure: the blue dot was now humanized. As he got nearer, he saw it was a guy in a hoodless winter jacket. Both the guy and the jacket had seen better days. He went over to a bench about twenty yards away and sat down, slipping both hands into his pockets. He looked over after a while and saw that the guy had a bulge under his jacket. If the GPS on his phone was right, the bulge was his laptop. He took in a couple of deep breaths from the cool Hudson River air and stood up.
He walked over to the guy and took a seat on the bench next to him, careful to keep the metal armrest between them. No reason to be stupid about this. The guy didn’t acknowledge his presence or even take his eyes off the river. He seemed to be in some sort of trance. High, probably. Even in the breeze, the smell of smoke could be detected coming off the guy and it wasn’t from Marlboro Country.
“Pretty cold day to be sitting along the river, huh?” the man said. He waited thirty seconds for a response, and when none came he said, “Feels good, though. Makes you feel more alive.”
The guy slowly turned his head, careful to keep his hands in his pockets protecting the bulge. He whispered something that sounded like “Duck Soup,” but probably wasn’t. The man smiled. That was good.
“What do you got there, friend?” he asked. “Under the jacket.”
The guy blinked three times and turned back to look at the river.
“How much you get for something like that?”
“Like what?” the guy said.
“Like that.” The man motioned with his head at the bulge. “Couple of hundred?”
The guy moved his head slightly and said, “Whatta you know about it?”
“I know I just had my car broken into and my laptop was taken. It’s not a great laptop, about five years old, but it’s got some stuff on it that’s important to me.”
The guy smiled. His adult teeth were not all present and those that were needed some serious whitening. “Not sure what you’re talking about, Mister, but why would you leave something important in the backseat of your car?”
Now it was the man’s turn to smile. His teeth were perfect. “Who said it was in the backseat?”
The lesser of the smiles disappeared and was followed by those two words that were definitely not “Duck Soup.”
“So, really,” the man said. “Whatta you hope to get? Two hundred? Three?”
The guy with the bulge under his jacket made a move to stand up. The man next to him reached out and grabbed him by the wrist.
“We’re just talking here, pal,” he said. “Shooting the breeze.” The double meaning of that made the man smiled harder. Good stuff.
“You don’t wanna be touching me, man,” the guy said.
The man laughed. “What are you going to do? Call the cops?”
“With what?” the man said. “You can’t possibly have a cell phone. You broke into my car and stole a laptop from me. People like you don’t have cell phones.”
The guy shook the man’s hand off, squinted into the man’s face and said, “People like me? The hell you know about people like me?”
“I know you’ll take fifty bucks for what’s under your jacket. You’d probably take twenty, but I’m in a good mood.”
“What even makes you think it’s yours?” the guy said. “I mean, if I do have a laptop under my jacket?”
The man took his phone out, showed the map on the GPS to the guy and pointed to the blue dot. The guy looked at it as if it were the designs for a nuclear submarine. He squinted again.
“Take it out,” the man said. “I’ll show you. It’s got a short story I’m working on.”
The guy gave the man the same confused look he had just given the map on the phone. “You a writer?” He sounded close to impressed.
“Yep. Almost done with this piece. I needed a little more research.”
“Writers do research? About what?”
The man leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. “In my case, about what kind of scumbag breaks into someone’s car and steals a laptop. I mean, seriously, you gotta have pretty low morals to pull something like that, right?”
“I got morals.”
“We all have morals,” the man said. “Yours are just lower than most.”
The guy wiped a wind-driven tear from his eye and said, “Just ’cause I need money don’t mean I don’t got no morals, man. It means I don’t got not money.”
“And I’m sure that’s someone else’s fault right. Not a result of any decisions you’ve made over the last few years?”
“I take what I need. No more.”
“You got healthcare?”
“What do you do when you get sick?” the man asked slowly.
The guy laughed like that was the stupidest question he’d ever heard. “I go to the doctor, man. Plant my ass in the ER ’til someone comes to look at me.”
“And who do you think pays for that?”
“I don’t know. Jesus?”
“Me. The taxpayer pays for that. That’s just as bad as you breaking into my car and stealing what’s mine.”
The guy thought about that for a bit, looking for something to say. What he came up with was, “My parents pay taxes, so I’m just taking my inheritance early.”
That was good, too. “When’s the last time you were in jail?” the man asked.
“Hey, Mister. I do drugs, not time. I shoot junk, not bullets.”
The man smiled. This guy was great. “Okay if I steal that from you?”
“For one of your stories?”
“For this story.”
Confusion once again took over the guy’s face and he went back to squinting. “This ain’t no story, man.”
“Sure it is. I had something you wanted. Now you have something I want. The fact that it’s the same thing connects us.” He did that back and forth thing people do with their index fingers to signal making a connection. “That’s what makes this a story. Our wants are not only the same they’re in conflict. It’s beautiful.”
The guy thought about that and then allowed the laptop to slide out from under his jacket. “That mean you gonna give me two hundred for this?”
The man laughed. “I said fifty.”
“You also said you had important stuff on here.”
For a junkie, this guy was a good listener.
“Let’s make it a hundred then.” Bargaining. As if he had any real intention of paying this guy anything. The man pulled out the five twenties he had in his jacket, fanned them out, and let them flap in the breeze.
The guy was mesmerized by the five bills waving back and forth, and handed over the laptop. When he reached for the money, the man pulled it back.
The guy stood up on wobbly legs, listed slightly in the breeze and mumbled something that sounded like “Gimme the duck and money.”
The man stood also. “You’re kidding, right? You think I’d actually pay for something that’s already mine? That’s your view of how the world works?”
“You said you would. You said this was a conflict. I was helping you with your story. That’s worth something, right?”
The man nodded. “It is.” He looked around—there was no one else in the park except him and the guy—and pulled something out of his other pocket. “It’s worth this.”
The guy looked at it and said, “What’s that? A comb?”
“Hardly.” The man pressed a button and a blade appeared. “I know it’s a bit old school— always reminds me of Twelve Angry Men —but still a useful tool.”
The look on the guy’s face as he stared at the blade was one of confusion: Move forward or backward? He chose the first, as did the man with the knife. They met each other halfway and the blade sliced through the guy’s coat and entered his stomach. There was no more confusion on the guy’s face anymore. The look was now one of certainty. And dull pain.
The man twisted the knife, held it for a three count, and then pulled it out. He looked around again and found the park still empty except for the gaggle of geese and the guy. The guy fell to his knees and looked up at the man.
“Why?” the guy whispered.
The man looked down and smiled. “No, I’m done with motivation,” he said. “I just needed your help with character. The dialogue was a nice surprise. Thanks.” He took a few steps toward the railing, closed up the knife and flung it twenty feet into the Hudson River. When he turned back, the guy was lying on his side, trying desperately to stop the blood flowing out from under his coat onto the white pathway. Nice imagery.