No Shortcut: Crime Short Fiction By Marion Donnellier
Marion Donnellier, author of “No Shortcut”, is a writer and director living in London who grew up and studied in France, the USA and UK. Specializing in screenwriting, Marion also writes short stories exploring mental health and gender dynamics. Her short stories have been published in Spillwords and Open Minds Quarterly among others.
Detective Chief Inspector Stanley’s face didn’t match the rest of his body. He had a large round face perched on a hungry torso and skinny legs. He looked like the gavel that would lock me up forever. The other one, Detective Constable Oliver was small but had a warm smile and two big muscular arms. “What do we have here?” Stanley asked, lost in his files.
“Another youngster. No previous. Sounds like he’s in a bad way. Passed out in the van,” said Oliver.
“What’s your occupation, son?” Stanley said, rolling his eyes.
Oliver handed me a glass of water which I downed in seconds. The water was cool. “Can’t keep a job, can you?”
The walls had finally stopped turning. “Hmm…writer,” I replied.
“You don’t seem so sure?”
I couldn’t keep a job since an old bomb went off near mum and me, four years ago and left me with one barely functioning lung. The factory fumes torched my insides and my howling inhales scared off the customers. Now and then, The Herald offered me a sixth of a page for small stories, the funny type. Mostly I depended on dad. What he gave me covered rent and the painkillers, but not much else.
I couldn’t keep a job since an old bomb went off near mum and me, four years ago and left me with one barely functioning lung.
“What’s a lad like you going to an office at night for? Business?” asked Stanley, looking up.
“I come every Wednesday to see my old man. He gives me an allowance.”
“How about last night?”
I stared down at the floor in silence but couldn’t escape the old lamp that blazed light in my face and onto the surrounding walls.
“What’s the matter, sonny? Did the war catch your tongue too?” said Oliver.
“I don’t know.” I could have told them I didn’t remember a thing from last night but I had a feeling they had heard it all before.
“You don’t know? You must have done something. Look at you!” said Stanley.
I didn’t need to see it. I could smell the rotten blood smeared all over my shirt and hands.
Oliver started circling the room, regularly glancing at Stanley for recognition. “I guess the kid is going for the ‘he came at me with a knife and so I defended myself with a gun’ sort of story, no? Gov?” But Stanley’s stared only at me. Oliver went on. “Plausible but not very likely. Why would a writer have a gun? Besides, self-defense never easy to get quite right in court-”
“Nah wait a minute. This isn’t my blood!” I shouted before drilling my nails quietly into my skin, regretting the sudden outburst.
“Yeah? Then whose is it?” asked Oliver.
“I don’t know.”
“Right,” said Stanley “I don’t need a motive you know? A no-answer could work just as well-”
“Why would I kill anyone?”
“Never said you did son. I just want to know where you were last night between 10 and 11 PM. Call it elimination.”
My palms were sweating. My whole life was a motive.
A knock and a ginger-haired girl entered. “Urgent phone call for you, detectives.” They left me alone with the guard who looked everywhere but at me. I wouldn’t want to look at me either.
I tried to remember but couldn’t go past earlier today. When I woke up this morning, the money was gone. I hurried to dad’s office. The place was crawling with coppers. I bribed one of them with gin I didn’t have. Not yet anyway.
“Look, I don’t know much,” he told me. “I was just told to come here and keep the mob off. All I know is that there’s been some kind of shooting here last night. Some bloke was taken to the hospital. That’s all.”
“Which floor?” I asked.
“Hmm couldn’t say… the Fox, no..the Cox something. That’s it, the Cox & Co floor.”
A chill travelled through my body. This was dad’s floor. Dad was always the one who stayed late, alone at night to make his disgusting deals.
“Dead?” I muttered.
“Not that I saw,” the copper said.
When the detectives came back, Stanley darted straight for me.
“Marlene!” I shouted.
“Who?” said Stanley.
“You see, Vivienne wasn’t at the Parrot last night, I remember that now but Marlene was. Vivienne sings until ten and then there’s Marlene. She must have seen me. You go and ask her.”
“The Parrot? Is that the nightclub off Dean Street?” asked Oliver.
“Yeah! They know me there.”
“You say you were there after ten because that Vivienne girl would have been there if you got there before?”
“So it could have been midnight or even later when you got there?” Well shit.
“Usually I talk to Vivienne but she wasn’t there so I must have talked to Marlene. I like to talk. I got no one.”
“So you talked to Marlene?”
“Possibly. I must have or to Maurice, if he’s wasn’t busy dealing with the angry pool players.”
“Maurice? Who’s that?”
“The owner. Please go and ask Marlene. She must have seen something. I must have seen the body and run off. That’s where the blood comes from.” Sure, I didn’t like the guy but I’m no killer. “You need to go. You need to go now!”
“Oi! Who’s giving the orders here?” shouted the round detective. “Now say, the night guard that saw you said you carried a satchel. Where is it?”
“I woke up in their dustbins around the back, maybe it’s there? ”
“Isn’t that convenient,” mumbled Stanley.
Oliver leaned over DCI Stanley, “Could go check out that Parrot club, guv?”
“Hmmm..yeah..we could. We could….” Stanley turned to his DC. “These kids, they’ll be the death of me. If not him, then my own. Do you know what mine told his mother the other night? He said he wanted to train at the Royal Ballet. Who’s going to pay for that? Not me, I tell you. Not me.”
They threw me back into my cell.
I used an old paper to scrape my hands but the blood stuck like cheap lies. Thursday, March 24th 1951, it read. The cover was, as always, tainted with the city’s latest grievances strategically interspersed with a story or two on “The Lost Generation” – Us. Me. “Responsible for the latest crime wave, these juveniles often come from broken homes and are still feeling the fallout of the war.” I flipped through the pages. Yesterday a bank manager was killed at gunpoint and last week an entire street of shop windows was slashed. When do these people ever sleep?
I ran through my head all the faces of partners, girls, colleagues or anyone that might have hated my old man more than me. I couldn’t think of a single one. He was a cheat and made nothing but enemies, spending his days betting at the races and each night with a different girl. He liked fixed races and rarely lost. “Freddie boy,” he often said, “the only way forward in life is to run. Fast and alone. You hear? And if you’re smart enough, you’ll find a shortcut.” Dad and I were strangers and yet that detective was right. I must have done something but what? I always thought I’d make a good thief. I get so easily lost in the background but a murderer? No. I didn’t have the guts. I lay on the bench and closed my eyes, whispering through my teeth: “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.”
Yesterday a bank manager was killed at gunpoint and last week an entire street of shop windows was slashed. When do these people ever sleep?
Back in the interviewing room, Stanley leaned against the corner of the room and watched me in silence. “Bad luck kid. Marlene says you didn’t get there before midnight.”
“And that satchel,” added Oliver “there’s no sign of it.”
“No alibi. No story and that’s not even the worse part,” said Stanley.
I swallowed a gulp of saliva, convinced there couldn’t be anything worse than being suspected of the attempted murder of your father. “What?”
“The man’s died in hospital. It’s murder now.”
I stood up and ran to the door. Oliver caught up and hustled me down to the floor. “Why the rush, kid?”
I clenched my fists and closed my eyes. My father is dead. Oliver let go and I crawled back to my chair. “What happened? You tell me because I don’t know!”
And then there was silence. Nobody talked or maybe they did but I heard nothing.
There had always been three of us in my relationship with my father. When I was a kid and he dragged me to the pub for football Sundays, the feeling of unease followed me like a dog on a lead. I used to sit at the window, sipping my juice and watching as he drank and shouted at the wireless. He was never good at conversation but after mum’s funeral, his ears shut. His temper was so big, I knew, one day, it’d swallow me up. Then it’ll just be the two of them. Him and his damn temper.
Stanley sat down, put both elbows on the table and crossed his fingers. “Every Wednesday you go in that building. You have blood on your shirt and we have a witness who saw you entering the building around the exact time of the crime. They didn’t see anybody else running out. This is not looking good lad unless you have a better story to give me. I am going to charge you here and now.”
“I…I…what about Vivienne? Maybe she knows something?” I asked.
“Don’t push it, lad, I’m trying to help you for God’s sake! Vivienne’s been gone for days. I sent Oliver to your flat earlier. We know your rent is overdue. We know it regularly is. I saw the bottles lined up in the corridor. I saw the dusty manuscripts, the pillboxes and the broken fridge. You’ve got a shit life! I wouldn’t want my son messed up in something like this but if you don’t meet us halfway you will swing for this.”
I grabbed the water jug and gobbled most of it down my throat.
“Did you see someone that wasn’t supposed to be there last night? Did you panic and shoot? Was it an accident? A terrible accident? Think about that poor man’s family. Think about the McJenning woman. Did Ronnie McJenning deserve to die?”
For the first time today, I leaned back on my chair and enjoyed a long and slow inhale. “Who? I don’t know any Ronnie McJenning.”
Stanley turned red as if actual fumes were coming out of his ears. “That’s it! That boy is taking us for a ride, aren’t you? You don’t know the man you’ve killed?”
“Where is my old man?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Did you kill him too?” replied Stanley.
An officer entered and slipped Stanley a note.
“What’s happened?” I asked.
“Sounds like we found the murder weapon on that crook, Allan Poland. He’s found the gun in the gutter but can’t tell where,” said Stanley.
“What did he say?” asked Oliver.
“He says he didn’t do it but what else is he supposed to say?” Stanley sighed and peered through the window, down at the streets, as if the city had the answer to all of this.
I thought Detective Stanley had spent too long doing what he did. “What does it mean for me?”
Stanley took a turn around the room, regularly flashing his beady eyes at me. “You’re free to go.”
“Sir?” asked Oliver, bewildered.
“I said let him go,” repeated Stanley. “For now.”
An officer yanked me outside and removed my handcuffs. The rain had stopped but the air was cold and I could feel the wind turning. I walked Beak Street. I stumbled on an old pile of bricks. Still bristling from the blitz, London’s pavement was littered with cracks and wrecks. A few years back I witnessed the bombing of a bookshop. Sometimes you could still see pages flying about or some mutilated chapter lost at the bottom of a drain.
It was almost five. People hustled through the streets to avoid rush hour. Theatres were lightening up. A poor spiv was already being chased by some copper. I always thought the city’s heartbeat beat faster than my own and that one day, soon, it’ll get on without me.
I’d been working on a memoir recently, about mum and her half-lived singing career. I was hoping dad would read it last night. He never mentioned her but I carried her emerald eyes around. Every time he saw me, there’d be a look on his face as if he’d seen a ghost. He’d take a step back and sometimes, if I watched close enough, they’d be a tear hidden in the corner of his eye. Then he’d get into a fit and yell out something along the lines of: “I wasn’t there when that bomb went off but at least I am standing on my own two feet now. You do nothing. What did you do with the life you were spared? What a waste.” Every time I came, I found him on the phone, betting and marching around his office, making things move, making things happen. “You’re stiff as a cannonball. No wonder that damn bomb found you.”
The tall shadow of the Cox building stared down at me. I entered through the front door. Behind the thick office walls, I heard my old man mumbling on the phone. The fumesof his Cuban cigars crept from under the door and into my nostrils. Then I heard it. A loud clanging. The sound of glass slipping on the floor. I stood, motionless. That sound. I’d heard it before, very recently. I took my hand off the doorknob and ran down the stairs, up the street and straight into the Parrot.
The Hungry Parrot was simmering down from last night. A lonely stage, a few discarded chairs and tiers of lustrous liquor bottles. I banged on the bar. “Maurice! Where are you? Maurice!”
Maurice rushed in. “Freddie! So they let you out. I’m pleased.”
“Maurice, why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell me what I told you? You saw me last night, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t kid. Like I told your friends, I was at the back.”
“Alright, alright.” He grabbed a gin bottle and two glasses. Never a good sign when Maurice gives out free drinks. He pulled a thick file from under the bar and pushed it right under my nose. Big white pages from a crumpled manuscript. “You weren’t making much sense but I thought you might want this back. Don’t want that lying around do you?”
I flipped through it and legions of banknotes came out, all tainted with blood. There is an irony that comes with blackouts. It makes you remember things the minute you don’t need them anymore. The minute it would hurt you the most to know.
“Maurice, what is this?”
“You’re asking me? You left your satchel last night. Marlene found it. She said she’d seen you hide it at the front before passing out. It was covered in blood. I thought I’d better hide it. Now would be a good time to tell me what the hell is going on Freddie!”
I swallowed one drink and told him everything. I came back to the office last night when it was pitch black. Isaw a dark and steady figure gazing out the window, its back to the desk. I could have sworn it was dad. He always stood this way, back to his desk and at all that was respectable. I must have drunk liters because my throat was sore. I shot twice. Once for my right lung and the other for the left. Someone had to pay for all of this. The banknotes on the desk flew in the air. I picked it all up and ran. I did it. I killed the wrong man.
“But why? How could I do that?” I threw myself at the gin bottle. “That Allan Poland’s innocent. I have to go back to the police. I got to tell them. They’ve got the wrong man.” Maurice snatched the bottle and put his hands on my shoulders.
“Listen to me, Freddie. Listen to me! Don’t do that. You won’t last a minute in jail. Look at you. Life hasn’t been fair to you. It’s finally payback. Take the money. That Poland’s a crook anyway. Go away. Away from that cold place and away from that horrid old man. You hear me? You’re twenty-one lad. Just go!” He dragged me outside and hid the manuscript inside my jacket. “Keep to the dark alleys, boy.” If I’d had turned around, Maurice would probably be watching out for me until I was out of sight. He was a good friend. I often asked myself what I brought to the table.
“With the £50 Ronnie’s owes me, I’m going into a new venture. Chemicals.” Dad had said last night. “I’m going to need your cash too boy.”
“What do you mean?” I had asked.
“I’m cutting you off boy.”
“But what am I supposed to do? They won’t take me anywhere!”
“Enough is enough. It’s time you acted like a man. Not with silly words of wisdom. Stop yapping about and do something. Anything. You hear? Sometimes I think that bloody war saved the wrong person.” He turned away from me like a coward and repeated over and over again: “You’ve got no guts.”
The wind had not risen and instead, wafted behind my ears, nudging me forward. I was in no rush. Even the crooked steps up my flat were no longer obstacles. I jumped into the shower and splashed cold water all over my body, letting all the tears in my body sink to the floor. What now? I’d been falling into a bottomless pit for years. Last night, I’d landed lower than usual. I saw an exit and I took it. There was no winning here. I’m a monster too.
The phone rang from my bedroom. I let it. Not because I had any intention of running away but because the only people I’d want to hear from I already had. I wondered how my old man managed to accomplish so much in so little time since mum died. Deal after deal and I, every day, getting a little less willing. His life had become a series of quick fixes, puffing out fits of anger like a seething pot. Why would I run away for this?
I dressed up and headed for the one person I knew would want to hear from me, or so I thought. Instead of turning left to the Cox Building, I turned right through some of the city’s friendly dark alleys. I passed the old chestnut tree: the only sign of nature that had resisted the city’s toxic air and entered the police station.
“You?” asked Detective Stanley.
“It was me. I did it. I threw the gun into the alley. I could tell you where, I know these alleys like the back of my hand.” I handed him the manuscript and the rest of that bloody money. “I’m a thief too.”
“Do you have some kind of death wish son?”
“I don’t know. Do I?”
“Suppose I stop asking questions I don’t want the answers to.” Detective Stanley took my arm. “Come on son, let’s take you in. It’s a rotten world we live in if nothing good comes out of all of this.”
I was charged right away, at around 2 PM. They took my keys, my wallet, and my shirt before directing me to my new digs, free of charge. From then on, I was free and only made to pay for the crimes I committed. The air finally went back to being breathable.
The first visit my dad made was a short one.
“You could have kept quiet,” he said. “You could have gone free, kid.” He didn’t understand.
“I would not be free because you’d still be there, sucking the air directly from my mouth.” He called me heartless before blaming the times and blaming the grief. I told him to leave. They dragged him out yelling, mostly at me.
The small single-window room with bad lighting and greyish walls became a place of seclusion. I hardly left, except for the occasional rounds. I established a routine and was rarely disturbed. Mornings, reading and afternoons, working making coal sacks. I was content that every day unfolded as expected. The nights were different. Rush hour traffic, teaming showers and cold sweat invaded my cell. Once the walls started to spin around me. I could barely make out shapes and colors except for the floor that came at me like a wolf. I lost my balance and landed up against a wall. I pushed both my hands against it, letting my head hang down to inhale a few nips of air. Every time the morning came as if nothing happened and three months later, dad came back.
The smell of fresh laundry radiated around him like a halo. There was a calmness in his voice as if his temper had finally corked. He said he’d moved on and met a girl, Jane. Every Sunday they have lunch at the pub, after church. I expected him to ramble on but he didn’t. Instead, he stared at me.
I didn’t know what to do. I usually answered questions.
“You’re alright, aren’t you?” he finally said.
“I am.” but this didn’t sound true anymore.
I tried to make it sound real and repeated, “I am, dad, I am.” He believed me because he went on talking. He told me about the new house and promised to publish my book in my name.
“That darn bomb did both of us dirty,” he added.
I stared at him before the alarm announced the end of our time.
He promised he’d come back but when he left, a nostalgic breeze pierced through my room.
Later, I became frightened. Afraid of my goaler’s footsteps, of a hand grazing my shoulder and of the screams coming from the adjoining cells. Every day I crawled on the floor, put my arms around my legs and my head in between my arms. An unfamiliar and continuous banging came from outside the prison’s walls. It knocked on the door and reverberated through the cell. Morning and night, it kept banging.
It sounded like feet. Footsteps of people hurrying to catch the first train of the day. They hurried down the stony pavement and onto the platform. They kept running and running. Banging and banging over my shallow grave.
I would have loved to have said something, I thought. A long time ago. Anything.
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