Tina and myself are absolutely over the moon to be able to share with you, Chris Collett’s short festive story, following DI Tom Mariner. Chris Collett is a local author from the Midlands, UK, and you may remember our post of her crime thriller/police procedural series of Detective Inspector, Tom Mariner, and that her series is also based in the area.
Here is a link to our post, which includes an author post and bio, an excerpt of her latest novel, Dead of Night (DI Tom Mariner series #7), as well as the blurbs and covers for each book of the series:-
We hope that you enjoy this heartfelt festive short, Cinderella Boy, just as much as we did. And, we would like to thank Chris Collett for this fantastic opportunity!
Caroline & Tina 🙂
CINDERELLA BOY by Chris Collett
It’s done in seconds and the sleight of hand makes DI Tom Mariner cough with surprise. The boy looks up and as his gaze meets Mariner’s, the brown eyes, unnaturally large for his face, widen for a second, before he swivels and bolts for the door.
Mariner had been watching the kid over the supermarket shelves for several minutes. On his way into work he’d felt a sudden craving for chewing gum, so had gone into a local convenience store, which at this time of the morning was busy with a steady influx of customers. It was cold for November, with grey skies shedding the odd flurry of snow. The boy caught Mariner’s attention in the first instance because of his size. No more than about six or seven he seemed young to be out on his own. He was also woefully underdressed for the time of year; jogging bottoms, the knees shiny with wear, oversized black trainers and a thin short-sleeved football shirt.
But perhaps the boy has dressed for a purpose. Standing in front of the dry goods shelves, he picks up a can of baked beans. Clutching it to his chest he holds out his other hand and frowns at the assorted coins there. Satisfied, he pockets the money before casually moving towards the end of the aisle and a display stand of cheap, blister-packed toys. He stares at one of the dangling packs for a good couple of minutes, occasionally reaching out to lift it with a fingertip and watch it swing back. He gets out the coins and checks them again. Then with a furtive glance to either side, he unhooks the pack, and tucking the can of beans under his arm, lifts his shirt to stuff the toy into the waistband of his trousers, dropping the shirt to conceal it. That’s when his eyes meet Mariner’s and, as the beans clatter to the floor, he turns and scarpers. Mariner keeps pace with him along the parallel aisle, but loses valuable seconds as he’s blocked by an elderly woman pushing a wheeled trolley. Rounding the end shelves he sees the door of the shop swing open and a blur of red as the boy pushes out past an incoming customer.
‘Grab him-!’ Mariner yells, but too late. The boy is already out and disappearing across the street. There follows a horrible squeal of brakes and the blare of a car horn. Bursting onto the pavement Mariner sees a people carrier, stationary, the female driver white-faced, knuckles gripping the steering wheel. Fearfully, his eyes drop to the road, but somehow the boy has escaped and is making off along the opposite pavement. ‘Stupid kid,’ Mariner breathes, half with relief.
Skirting around the car he gives chase, the icy air searing into his throat, but the boy is fast and has opened up a gap. Ten metres away, Mariner sees him stumble and hop a couple of steps. There’s a flash of bare foot before the lad darts into a tunnel cutting between the terraced houses. Turning into the passage and palming the wall for traction, Mariner feels the ripping of cloth as his jacket sleeve snags on an exposed nail. Ignoring it he keeps moving, but when he emerges at the other end, breathless, into the alley that runs along the back of the houses, the boy is gone and all that’s left is the discarded blister-pack containing a ninja turtle mask and black, plastic rectangle moulded to look like a cell-phone. Mariner strains his ears for footsteps or the slamming of a door, but when all that echoes back at him is silence, he bends down to retrieve the toy and retraces his steps to the street. At the entrance to the passageway he comes across the black oversized trainer lying on the ground and picks that up too. A cheap brand, it’s scuffed and worn to holes in places. A teenage mutant turtle logo grins up at him from the side panel. The laces, brown and frayed, are much too short for the lace holes and obviously recycled from elsewhere. It’s why the shoe had slipped off.
Mariner goes back to the shop to return the toy. ‘Sorry, he was too quick for me,’ he tells the young Asian man serving behind the counter.
The man shrugs. ‘Don’t worry about it. Probably not the first time, or the last. Little bugger.’
Not really knowing why, Mariner takes the shoe with him when he climbs the stairs to his office at Granville Lane. He lays it ceremonially on top of the filing cabinet, and is still dwelling on the incident when his sergeant, Vicky Jesson arrives. They’re a man down while DS Charlie Glover is off on some kind of pre-Christmas religious pilgrimage, and there’s a lot to get through.
‘What happened to you?’ Jesson asks, immediately noticing Mariner’s torn jacket sleeve. ‘Bit early in the day for fisticuffs, isn’t it?’
He tells her what happened.
‘Cheeky little sod,’ she says.
‘I don’t know,’ says Mariner.
Jesson waits expectantly.
‘Well, what kid that age is out at eight o’clock in the morning buying baked beans?’ Mariner continues. ‘He should have been at home having his breakfast or on his way to school with his mum.’
‘You’re feeling sorry for him? I thought you said he was pilfering stuff.’
‘Only because he didn’t have the money. You should have seen the state of him. When he lifted up his shirt I could have counted his ribs; played a tune on them. It’s been snowing for Christ sake, and he’s wearing a football shirt; no socks. When he ran away his shoes were so big for him, one fell off.’ He indicates the trainer.
Jesson frowns. ‘Some kids are just skinny,’ she says. ‘And don’t feel the cold.’
‘He was more than skinny,’ says Mariner. He looks up at Jesson, the ice-chip eyes bluer than ever. ‘There was bruising.’
‘On his torso; where no one would see it.’
Jesson is staring at him, trying to figure it out. ‘Why has this got to you?’
‘It’s happened before.’
‘Years ago, back when I was in uniform. I’d forgotten all about it till now. One weekend I was patrolling the high street. There were a handful of market stalls strung out. I saw the same thing – a scruffy kid pinched a pasty. I didn’t do anything about it that time. He looked like he needed it, so I just let him go. A couple of weeks later I saw him again, his face splashed all over the papers. Samuel Wright.’
Jesson frowns. ‘I know that name.’
‘He was beaten to death by his step father. Everyone told me I was mistaken. It couldn’t have been him; my mind playing tricks. But I know what I saw. This kid today; when our eyes met he was terrified.’
‘He’d been caught red handed,’ Vicky reminds him.
‘But he didn’t know I’m a copper. It was fear of an adult male. And he was going home empty handed.’
’So what do you propose to do?’ asks Jesson, reasonably. ‘Knock on every house in the area to see who the trainer fits?’ She’s right; it is hopeless. Vicky Jesson, forty-something mum of three, has always had a slight crush on her boss. He’s not bad looking and she likes that, but mostly it’s because of the way he responds to situations like this.
On his way to work the following morning Mariner can’t resist going back to the supermarket, even though he knows it will be futile. Over the next few days he develops a serious chewing gum habit, but he doesn’t see the boy. At the weekend he takes one of his customary early morning walks; it just happens to be in that area.
‘You want to watch yourself,’ Jesson warns him on Monday when he tells her. ‘Hanging around the streets looking for small boys could get you arrested.’
Mariner phones the PPU. ‘Anyone on your radar?’ he asks. But the description he gives them doesn’t match anyone they know, which just makes him feel worse.
Christmas approaches. The toy shop where he goes to buy a Christmas present for DC Millie Khatoon’s baby is loud and chaotic, and at the checkout he stands in a queue behind parents and their demanding kids, who, judging from the stacks of boxes and packages, will have all their wishes, and more, fulfilled. He thinks of the boy, and knows that he won’t. Helping Suzy to put up her Christmas tree the boy seems to watch over him from the corner of the room, reminding him that not every child gets the cosy Christmas of the TV ads. Sometimes Mariner’s job is too much information. He carries the numbers in his head; fifty-five children a year die at the hands of their carers through abuse or neglect. Samuel Wright begins to creep back into his dreams.
Two weeks before Christmas Charlie Glover returns from leave. Coming into Mariner’s office his first morning back, his eyes are level with the top of the filing cabinet where the trainer still sits. ‘Where did you get that?’ Glover asks.
‘Don’t worry,’ Mariner reassures him. ‘I’m not planning to wear it; not my size.’
‘It’s not that,’ says Charlie. ‘I’ve seen it before; the laces-’
‘Where?’ He wants to grab Charlie by the lapels.
‘Our church runs a food bank. Back in the summer Helen and I helped out a few weekends when they were short of volunteers. We’d set up a couple of jumble sale stalls too, clothes and stuff. There was a pair of trainers exactly like them, in a similar condition. Some little lad kept pestering his dad for them. We were only asking a couple of quid, but the bloke wasn’t interested. He started to lose it, though he calmed down when he saw me watching. Helen intervened, said they could have the shoes. The kid had bruises, but the dad said he’d fallen off his bike.’
The lump of stone grows in Mariner’s stomach. ‘Did you believe him?’
‘Honestly? He didn’t look the sort of kid to even own a bike.’ Charlie shrugs. ‘But what could we do? There was nothing physical, just his dad’s tone of voice and the boy’s demeanour. You know.’
Mariner does. Charlie’s an experienced copper too. You developed a feel for these things. ‘Did you get a name, an address for the family?’
‘It’s not the way it works,’ says Charlie. ‘They have the vouchers, they take the food. It’s humiliating enough for most of them that they have to do it in the first place.’
But the next morning Charlie comes back to Mariner’s office. ‘I talked to Helen last night about that kid. She remembered him. She reckons he was wearing one of those school polo shirts. It was grubby and didn’t fit him properly, but she’s pretty sure it was for St Martin’s.’
Mariner sees a glimmer of light. He has a contact at St Martin’s; a teacher he came across during a case earlier in the year. He phones and asks to speak to Sam McBride.
‘Don’t know if you’d remember me-?’ he begins.
‘Of course I do,’ said Sam. And by lunchtime, having run the gauntlet of two hundred kids careering around the playground, Mariner is standing in the school foyer clutching the trainer. Sam takes it along the staff room, returning a few minutes later. ‘Sorry.’ Her disappointment is tangible. ‘No one recognises it. The kids are meant to wear plain black school shoes. Occasionally they don’t, but no one remembers seeing this before. I could take it and-.’
But while she’s talking, Mariner is distracted by the hordes of young children running around the compound outside. A face he’s seen before flashes across his line of vision, almost unrecognisable; grinning in delight as he runs with a gang of other boys. ‘That’s him!’ Mariner practically shouts. But he’s vanished into the crowd again and doubts kick in. Seething with frustration, Mariner stands beside Sam, straining his eyes to pick out that familiar face and hoping he wasn’t mistaken. But no: ‘There he is, there he is; brown hair; shirt hanging out!’ He tracks the child with his finger.
‘Milo,’ Sam says, eventually. She seems surprised. ‘Milo’s fine.’
‘He’s not at risk?’ That anxiety won’t let him go.
‘Not in the way that you think,’ says Sam. ‘He’s a much-loved little boy.’
‘But the bruises.’
Sam shakes her head. ‘Milo’s always got bruises; invariably acquired on this playground. He’s on intimate terms with our accident book,’ she says. ‘Mostly because he thinks he really is a ninja turtle. Sorry, I should have made that connection.’ She sees that he’s unconvinced. ‘Children in Need day he came in dressed as Leonardo; his hero. There’s a picture here, I’m sure.’ Sam walks Mariner over to a display board of colour photos and they scan them. After a moment he spots Milo standing in the middle of a group of kids. The others, without exception, are wearing perfect, commercially produced, replica outfits; Snow White, Spiderman, Robin Hood. Milo’s costume is improvised; a scarf tied round his forehead for a bandana, what looks like a woman’s shawl held with some sort of brooch for his cloak. ‘Shortly after that was taken, he hurled himself off the climbing frame and treated his TA to yet another unscheduled trip to A&E,’ says Sam.
‘So what’s his story?’ Mariner asks.
‘Milo’s mum’s got rheumatoid arthritis,’ says Sam. ‘It’s just the two of them and on the days when it’s bad she’s very disabled, so Milo is essentially her carer.’
‘Jesus; at his age?’ But even as he speaks, he knows he’s being naïve.
‘He’s got people looking out for him,’ Sam says. ‘You know how it is with these things though.., My guess is that when your friend at the church saw him, Milo was giving his harassed social worker a hard time. He has a tough life and sometimes it shows.’
‘It explains why he was out buying beans at eight in the morning. How will they get on at Christmas?’
‘Like I said, they have some help,’ Sam tells him. ‘Mary, our family support worker is brilliant. She’ll make sure that Milo gets presents, though given the budget cuts it won’t be much this year. Anyway,’ says Sam. ‘You can see that our Milo is very much alive and kicking.’
‘Yes.’ It was a relief. ‘Will you give him that?’ Mariner gestures towards the trainer.
After leaving the school Mariner takes the afternoon off. Bracing himself he braves the toyshop once again. A couple of days later he stops off at the school and seeks out Mary.
Christmas is far from peace on earth for Tom Mariner. In the early hours of 25th December he is called to a fatal stabbing outside a city pub; business as usual. Ten days later and into the New Year he is still in the throes of the investigation when an envelope lands on his desk. He opens it. Inside is a child’s drawing, a stick figure leaping through the air, with eyes peering out from a bandana, bright red cloak billowing out behind him. The caption underneath in bold, crooked letters reads: Milo Beckett my best presnt ever. It’s the first child’s picture Mariner has ever received. He tacks it to the wall above his filing cabinet, where the trainer had sat. He reads the accompanying note: To Tom, from one crime fighter to another. Thank you. Sam x
For more info on Chris Collett, here are her author links:-
And, please take a peek at our promo post, with lots of info on her DI Tom Mariner series:- PROMO POST