Today's Reading

A phone rings. It's a landline but with a cordless receiver which Tabitha has brought outside. She puts down the e-cigarette and picks up the receiver and continues to smoke the real cigarette as she talks.

She says "yeah" and "uh huh" a couple of times and nods as if her gestures can be seen by the person she's speaking to.

Tabitha hangs up and puts down the receiver. "John," she says simply.

Precious is bent over the flowerpot pulling out weeds. She straightens her back and peels off her gardening gloves. She digs the trowel into the soil and throws the dirty gloves onto one of the folding chairs. She sticks a leg over the side of the building and, clutching the railings, lowers herself down the ladder then squeezes through the open window into the flat.

Down on the pavement, a woman and a man sit at the wobbly table. Having sat here before, the woman has placed a paper napkin beneath the offending leg. The furniture is now still, but the checkered cloth moves with the breeze. There is a bottle of red Bordeaux, two glasses, a bowl of green olives, and another for discarded pits.

"You must be joking," says the woman. Her name is Agatha Howard. She is in her mid twenties, dressed elegantly but in the style of an older woman—a politician or a business executive. She is wearing a linen trouser suit, the jacket removed and folded on the back of her chair, and a white blouse buttoned to her neck. There are jewels around her wrist and hanging from each earlobe but these—rubies set in gold—age her. She holds a small photograph loosely between a thumb and forefinger. The photograph is of a piece of fabric. The fabric may once have been a handkerchief but it is now old and shapeless, and ragged at the edges. It is mostly gray, but at one corner there is a dark brown stain.

"I am not joking," the man replies. He is an antique dealer.

"Hand me that letter of verification."

The man hands the woman a letter of verification pertaining to the square of fabric. It is typed on headed paper, and signed. Agatha reads to the end, frowns, then looks closely at the signature. "I haven't heard of this historian," she says.

"He's at Durham. He is young but very well regarded."

"If he were well regarded, I would have heard of him."

Agatha looks again at the letter, then again at the photograph of the rag. It was supposedly dipped in blood at the foot of the guillotine, taken as a keepsake of the dying order.

"It's the kind of money I would expect to pay for a relic of the Bourbons, not for a minor member of the nobility."

"Not a minor noble. A descendant of the Valois kings through the female line."

Agatha considers. She studies the photograph again, and then the man. She sits back in her chair and looks out to the street, then up at hanging baskets of red geraniums. Inside one, there is a discarded packet of cigarettes. The box is lying among the dark green foliage, and one of the cigarettes has become caught between the soil and the metal wire of the basket.

People these days have such a fundamental lack of respect.

She looks back at the man.

"No," she says.


"I said no."

"Would you like to come in and see the original?"

"I'm not interested."

He has dealt with her before, so knows she is serious.

"Fine," he says. "Keep the photo in case you change your mind." He seems neither affronted nor disappointed. He shouldn't be—Agatha has spent huge amounts of money at his dealership.

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