“They’re real purty!” The man scratched a filthy neck with filthier fingernails.
Katie made a face. “They’re…ok, I suppose. Where did you get them?”
“They were left down by the stream. I found them, fair and square.”
“Just lying loose?” She tried to sound even more skeptical than she felt.
“Well, yeah, just them and this hat and some old brown leaves.”
Katie reflected that the hat, at least, had not been his for long. Except for the muddy memory of four fingers along the rim, it was clean. “Show me where you found them!”
“Ah, miss, if you don’t want to buy them, I’ll have me rocks back, now.”
So she had taken him to Emma’s Diner. Ruth—the owner, ever since Emma retired—had ushered them to a lonely table in the back, and insisted that the man should wash up before being served. Once he vanished into the bathroom, she leaned over to Katie. “What are you up to, buying food for such as that? You’re not—“
Katie wrinkled a lip. “He had—custody—of some miniature art, paintings on rocks. Dinner was his price—look.” She pulled her handkerchief out of her pocket and unrolled it to show a pebble with a perfect miniature dragonfly.
“Oh.” The older woman reached for the pebble, and raised her glasses to look at it more carefully. “It would take awfully tiny brushes to do that!”
“And the tiny brushes are the most expensive.”
“Think he stole them?”
“I don’t know. I’d like to find the artist. Did you see anyone earlier today wearing that hat? He says he found these laying on the ground with the hat.”
“Nobody around here wears powder blue. And it’s the wrong season for tourists.” Ruth handed the pebble back. “You let me know if you find that artist. Maybe I can buy me something nice, before they gets famous-like, and the price goes up.”
“I’ll see if I can buy him or her lunch.”
Katie got the bum to agree to show her where he found the pebbles by paying for another dinner for him. Ruth wrote up a receipt. “I won’t forget, but here you go.”
He had taken her to the stream, a particularly bland, rocky shoreline, not the sort of place she would have expected to inspire a painter. He leaned over, poking at the leaves. “It was just about here.”
Dutifully, she leaned over and looked at rocks.
“Thankee for dinner, miss.” He tipped his hat, kind of awkwardly, and left.
Katie sat down on a boulder and looked around. It was part of a public park, but barren and boring. The wet rocks were a dull beige, with traces of moss. She looked for any evidence a painter had been working here, spilled paint, an abandoned brush, anything. But it wasn’t until she walked over to where the man had been pointing that she found one last pebble, with delicate ripples and a single, tiny fish painted on it.
Katie folded it into her handkerchief with the others.
She put the pebbles on her mantle, arrayed in front of a fairy her niece had painted, next to her tiny ivy plant. They seemed to fit there.
Over the next few days, she visited the Starshine Bed and Breakfast, and the several boarding houses in walking distance of the park, but no one had an artist staying there. Nor did she see anyone painting in the park.
A few days later, she went to Emma’s for dinner, and had to admit defeat to Ruth. “I just can’t find the artist. Did that guy come back for dinner?”
“He came back for breakfast, the very next day. He was standing there in the near-dark before sunrise, waiting for me to open, holding that blue hat. Let me tell you, it already looked the worse for the wear. But I served him breakfast, and packed him a sandwich too, since you’d paid for a dinner and tipped well.”
“And better that than have him come back during lunch rush?”
Ruth laughed. “So true. But the funniest thing—when he’d finished, and thanked me politely, he reached onto the bench next to him for that hat, and there was nothing in the booth but a pile of old leaves.”
“We looked all over, but the hat was gone. And then my first customer—well, besides him—came in.”
“So what’d you do?”
“I gave him a couple of day-old sweet rolls to go with the sandwich. What could I do? The hat was gone. Vanished just as surely as the artist!”
They switched to talking of business, Ruth’s diner and Katie’s bookstore, as was their long habit. It was as if Ruth had already forgotten the mystery; it was just an amusing tale, the epilogue to the story of her friend feeding a bum.
But when Katie went home, she went straight to the mantle, and touched the seven pebbles, just to be sure they were still there, then picked up a book of folklore, wondering if there were any stories where fairy gold was not gold, and not shaped like coins.
Then she laughed at her whimsy, put the book away, and went to bed.
Copyright 2009 Deirdre M. Murphy
This is a sequel to The Big Blue Tent.
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