The Crime Readers' Association

Criminal, by Ricki Thomas

Toby had not been awake for long and he wiped his eyes with a grimy hand. The early winter chill bit the tips of his ears and nose and he warmed his icy fingers under his arms. Shivering, he sat on the bench, the cold metal burning his thighs, and watched the early risers go by. Dogwalkers and joggers mainly, but a sprinkle of commuters too. Modern city life was odd and he was invisible, people walking but not seeing where they were or who they passed, too engrossed in their online lives. He would have relished the situation months before, observing people from afar, yet now he found it achingly sad.

An aggressive growl startled him and a drooling Great Dane the size of a pony gambolled across the grass, its exhausted owner hopelessly calling the reckless animal back. Wishing he had his glasses, Toby squinted against his myopia and realised the dog’s target – a small, yapping ball of fur. Its elderly owner instinctively scooped the pet to her chest, coddling it securely like a baby, and when the black giant reached her, she cowered; threatened and scared. Toby began running immediately to help but after a couple of metres the Great Dane’s master reached him, snapping on a lead and apologising profusely to the whimpering woman.

The ugly incident over, Toby continued along the path. It didn’t matter which way he went; the lack of destination would be the same. But nearing the tree where the skirmish had occurred, he noticed a patch of scarlet on the grass and screwed his eyes to focus. A rectangle of patent leather with a small handle. The old woman couldn’t have noticed dropping the handbag during the altercation. Toby gallantly scooped it from the dew-topped grass and ran to catch up with her.

‘Ma’am,’ he shouted.

The woman turned and issued a shrill screech, white knuckles clenching the chihuahua closer. Amidst the screaming and kerfuffle, a force from behind shoved him harshly and Toby landed on the concrete path, his cheek skimming the scattered gravel. Pain exploded his mind in a flash of white and he yelped as someone whipped his wrist roughly towards his shoulder. Men yelling and the old girl’s relentless squealing, accompanied by a cacophony of barking and the terrified little scruff-ball still yapping. Sirens approached and tyres screeched.

Toby’s face throbbed, blood oozing from the gritty burns. It hurt like hell but this made no difference to the person or people who manhandled him from the pavement, kicking his legs to make him walk, his shoulders close to popping with hands yanked behind his back.

‘What’s your name, scum?’

Scum. Not the first time he had been insulted since life had changed irrevocably. But like everyone else, he was simply a human trying to get by in a world of selfishness and greed. ‘Tobias Franklin,’ he said, and winced as his attacker forced him against a rugged stone wall, his body bruised and in agony.


The tiny cell was depressing, but although the bed-seat was hard and uncomfortable, it was better than the bench in the park, and vastly superior to the wet nights where only cardboard separated him from the freezing ground. At least the cell was warm and dry.

The endless waiting was tiresome and not once had he been asked about the mix-up. Toby hated to be seen as the bad guy. He stretched to loosen his tense shoulders and paced for a while, wasting some time reading the graffiti on the walls to quell the boredom.

Footsteps approached and Toby thanked his God when the door opened. Finally, it was his turn to speak.

‘Bejesus, it bangs in here.’ A grimacing officer glared contempt and motioned to Toby. ‘You bloody junkies. I wish you’d all overdose and die.’ He slammed handcuffs on Toby’s sore wrists and led him to the equally stark corridor.

‘I don’t take drugs.’

‘Whatever, skunk-boy.’

In a room at the top of a staircase, the officer forced Toby onto a chair, leaving with a scathing glance reserved only for the homeless. A woman soon entered and if Toby’s body odour was as repugnant as the guard had insinuated, she hid it well.

‘Hi, I’m Detective Inspector Adams.’ Smiling, she sat opposite and Toby relaxed. ‘Do you want to tell me what happened?’

‘It all went so quickly,’ he gushed before telling her of the dogs, the woman and her bag. How he had rushed to give it back. He scowled while recalling how he had been viciously assaulted by however many men.

She wrote on her pad and sat straight, exhaling loudly.

‘Almost plausible, but I’m no fool.’

‘That’s how it was. I don’t belong on the streets. I’m not like that. My father is a well-known, upstanding and respected citizen.’

‘He’s not the one here on an assault charge.’

‘I’m trying to explain. Father’s also a power-hungry bully behind that façade. My mother has taken his mistreatment for as long as I can remember, and I did too. Until the day I fought back and swore I would kill him if he ever laid a finger on me again. He isn’t worth serving a life sentence for.’

‘But you’re quite happy to go around mugging little old ladies instead.’

‘I didn’t touch her.’

‘We have several witnesses who say you did, including the woman in question.’

‘No, it wasn’t like that. I was brought up well.’

Adams referred to her notes and studied him wryly. ‘By a raging tyrant who doesn’t know the difference between your mother and a punchbag. You all try the bad childhood card at first.’ The detective was a vixen disguised as a sheep.

Toby had been raised to be honest and integrity remained important to him. ‘People who know me will tell you this is a terrible misconception.’

‘And my worthy witnesses will tell me it’s not.’ Adams folded her notepad and stood. ‘A magistrate can make the choice between your unlikely tale and five reliable witnesses tomorrow.’

His mouth was dry, his voice croaking and weak from panic. Toby pleaded for her to listen to him.

‘I was educated at Abingdon School. They’ll give me an excellent reference. I was due to go to Oxford University but I walked away from the violence and now I have no funds. Father cut me off financially and that’s why I’m sleeping on the streets.’

Adams turned towards him, clutching the open door.

‘You’re not doing yourself any favours with this posh boy act. I guess the best you can hope for is that this non-existent daddy-dear will get his wallet out and find you a great lawyer. You get one phone call. Think wisely about whom you choose.’

Deflated and again in the cell, Toby thought of his important and admired father, the man who had given him a lifetime of insecurity and cruelty. In contrast his mother had taught him kindness and respect despite the physical risk to herself. Outwardly their expensive and privileged life was perfect, surrounded by natural beauty and grace. Domestic staff kept the place clean and provided excellent meals. But no visitor to the idyllic country house witnessed the torment his father caused behind closed doors.

Boarding school had been an unhappy reprieve from the brutality. Years of his father’s derision at home alongside the tough boys and their tyranny at school had left him inferior and delicate. In reality the last person who would hurt a defenceless old woman.

Style and hygiene had been drummed at him from childhood and his mother would cry if she saw the state of him. The long, matted hair and unkempt beard and the stench of not having washed for so long. After taking a one-way train to London he had assumed he would make friends and fall on his feet. Get a job and find a home. Someone somewhere would be connected and sort his problems out.

Reality was the opposite and people only saw an irrelevant waster, not a human with emotions and compassion. When they passed him sleeping rough, they would avert their eyes. Or worse, shower him with scorn and distaste. He knew others in his situation who had told him of horrifying childhoods, of abuse and prostitution and drugs. Nobody wanted to sleep on the streets. Now he was labelled a worthless junkie by the decent public who themselves were only a paycheque away from the same, soulless life.

He could call his father and request forgiveness for having rebuked the university education the man had expected of him. Or he could ask for the help of whichever defence solicitor was on duty.

He called to the foul-mouthed officer guarding the cells and asked for his telephone call. His father may be a politician with influence and clout, but Toby had left that immoral world with disgust. He asked for the number of a local lawyer and was soon speaking to a woman named Gail.


A bored and plain woman, Gail introduced herself in a monotone voice. He told her his side of the story and she eyed him with distrust, tutting when he mentioned his upbringing. ‘You’re best off pleading guilty. Worst case scenario, you receive a few of months. At best you’ll get community service.’

He boggled at her, jaw hanging with disbelief. ‘Did you not hear a word I said? I’m not guilty so why would I say I am?’

‘It’s called a plea bargain…’

‘No, it’s called lying. You’re my defence, you’re supposed to help me.’

‘The victim and four witnesses against your flimsy fantasy? Your clothes have more holes than a colander, no judge will see past that.’

Head on his hands, a knot of hair flopping forward, Toby was frustrated and indignant. ‘There are people who will happily provide a character reference.’ He waved at her empty hands. ‘Take notes, find someone to speak for me. The headmaster at Abingdon School, for example. How can I possibly avoid a miscarriage of justice if you don’t even try?’

‘You haven’t got a leg to stand on. If you continue this ridiculous and imagined fabrication this case will be thrown out of court.’

‘You think I’m delusional. It’s the truth, damn you. I was handing her bag to her.’

Gail glanced at him sternly and folded her arms. ‘Perhaps you are delusional, but more likely a simple thief. This is the twenty-first century. People find things and keep them, that’s how the world works today. Your drama may have been acceptable a hundred years ago, even fifty, but have-a-go heroes are a thing of the past.’

‘Then I have no chance. Either tell the world I’m a crook or I’m doomed. The truth should stand for something.’ He waved her away dismissively. ‘I asked for your help but forget it. I’ll speak for myself tomorrow.’

Less than twenty hours later he did, and failed. As Toby found to his detriment, truth no longer mattered in a court of law. If indeed it ever had. The remand centre was harsh, but easier than facing the coming winter on the streets. A criminal record would make a career harder but his strength of character and strong will would get him through. Mother had always told him to make the best of every situation no matter how bad, and this is what he would do. Unless his despicable father departed this world, he would not see her again, but he was sure that even with the stain he now carried his mother would be proud of his stiff upper lip.

In a world far from Toby’s new normal, the old woman rested on the armchair by the fire stroking the beloved chihuahua. A glass of dry sherry in hand, she was amazed by how easily the onlookers had believed her deceit. The filthy man had not taken her bag at all, but getting the homeless off the streets was worth a little white lie.


Find out more about author Ricki Thomas here.

View all stories

Join the CRA

Joining the CRA is FREE. There are no lengthy forms to fill out and we need nothing but your email. You will receive a regular newsletter but no spam.