Little Thefts

read the suite from the beginning

by Martha Patterson

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

Ariella was an orphan, 18, and lived with her great-uncle in a cottage where she made quilts to sell in his country store.  But Uncle Jeremiah complained about shoplifters.

“In the old days, I’d have stolen from someone myself to recoup my losses.  They call that ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul,’” he told her.

“That’s an old quilting term,” said Ariella.  “When you take a piece of fabric from one part of the quilt to fill in another.”

“If only you’d only married,” he answered.  “Before your parents died in that car accident.”  Ariella wondered how their problems could be solved so easily with few suitable young men around, and she’d been so young at the time of the crash.

The next morning she went for a walk.  A man, out of breath, approached.

“Where is the museum?” he asked as she passed.  “I’ve lost my way.”

“Why not take a taxi from the village?” asked Ariella.

“I was robbed!” the man said.  “An old man tricked me and took my wallet.  One old guy, said his name was McCrory, stopped to ask for a light, and a second old man stopped, too.  I’m applying as curator for the Museum.”

“It’s just five minutes’ walk from here.”  Ariella wondered why he hadn’t been more careful. 

“Thanks for the directions,” he said, turning away.  He had a kind face that she’d remember.  

“Know how to rob a man?” Uncle Jeremiah asked later, tired, while sitting in his armchair.

“That just happened to a man on the road.  But really — you’d never steal!”

“But I have nimble fingers.  And I’m worried about income.  You don’t sell many quilts.”

 Ariella noticed his hands shaking.  The skin on the backs of them was wrinkled like the peel of an orange.  

“You know our neighbor, McCrory – he smokes too much.  Always asking for a light,” Jeremiah continued.

“He’s forgetful,” Ariella answered.  “He must be 80.”

“I don’t trust people who smoke.”  

“Our neighbors are kind.  And that man who got robbed yesterday – he was attractive.”  

“A stranger — not worth a second thought,” answered her uncle.   “Let me show you one of my magic tricks.”  He balled his loosened necktie up in one hand, shoved it up his sleeve, and a moment later pulled it out from his other sleeve.

“Well, you’ve shown me card tricks,” said Ariella, amused,  “but I didn’t know you could make a tie vanish and re-appear!”  

***

“Money!” scoffed Cousin Jewel, who’d come for supper the next night.  “Always a problem.  I’d cheat on my own taxes, if I could get away with it!  But your father really should have let me be your guardian, Ariella.  Because I’m a woman.”    

Ariella smiled.  “My father thought Uncle Jeremiah had better prospects.”

“Yes,” said Jewel, “not getting by as a low-paid teacher like me.  Jeremiah, your hands are shaking!  Go see a doctor.  …By the way, did you hear the museum hired a new man?” 

“We don’t need new people in this village,” Jeremiah said.

“New people are fun!  I gave that man directions,” said Ariella.  “He’d had his pocket picked and I felt awful.”  

Suddenly there was a knock on the door.  Ariella answered it, and, to her surprise, there stood the man of whom they’d just been speaking.

“Come in,” she said.  “I met you on the road, remember?  I know you got the job you were after.  This is my Great-uncle Jeremiah and my mother’s cousin, Jewel.”  

“I was paying visits,” the guest said, entering, “hoping I could discover who robbed me.”  He sat in the chair Ariella offered.  “My name is Thomas Cummings.”  He stared at Uncle Jeremiah, who looked away.

“Everyone’s pretty honest around here,” said Cousin Jewel.

“I imagine so,” said Mr. Cummings.  “But I could swear I’ve met this man before.”

“Forgive my hand held up to my face.  I cut myself shaving,” said Jeremiah.  “Could have been old McCrory who was the thief.  A neighbor.   Sorry —  I’m going to have a nap before dinner.”  He left the room.

Mr. Cummings stood suddenly.

“He –” said Mr. Cummings, “he’s the old man who robbed me!”  

“What are you talking about?” said Ariella in shock.  

“I’m sure of it!  And I made a report to the local police!”

“You’re not welcome to stay,” said Ariella hotly, “if you make terrible accusations like that.  I’ll show you the door.”

But Cousin Jewel put her arm on Mr. Cummings’ sleeve.

“Now, just a minute.  Your uncle always boasted of nimble fingers, and this man’s new in town, and shouldn’t we give him our ears?”

“Cousin Jewel!  That’s a betrayal of my uncle!”

“As it happens, I believe Mr. Cummings,” said Cousin Jewel sharply.  “Mr. McCrory’s as honest as Jesus Christmas – but Jeremiah’s been acting nervous.  He likes performing magic tricks.  That’s how he stole your money, Mr. Cummings.  But his store is losing income.  Can’t you take pity and stay for dinner?  The money can’t have been much.”

“Fifty dollars,” huffed Mr. Cummings.

“Then I’ll return it myself.”  Cousin Jewel took bills from her purse and handed them over.  “I hope that takes care of it.  We’ll all have dinner and the matter will be forgotten.  If the police come, I’ll put them off.”

Suddenly Mr. Cummings seemed calm, as if he’d been presented with a nice cup of hot tea.

“Well, never mind,” he said. 

“We’re sorry.  And now tell us about your new job,” said Cousin Jewel cheerfully.  

“Forgive my anger.  Working at the museum will turn out well.”  He smiled at Ariella.  “You’re pretty as a painting,” he said.  “And you and your cousin are kind.”  He laughed good-naturedly and Ariella suddenly felt bashful.

“Ariella makes beautiful quilts,” said Jewel encouragingly.  “She’s talented, and loyal to everyone.  And I believe you both have all the optimism of youth.  Let’s eat.” 

So Ariella happily led the way to the dining table, imagining good things about to happen in this forgotten little town.  

THE END

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