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TUESDAY, JUNE 4
Cotton Malone hated when two plus two equaled five. Over the course of his former career as an American intelligence officer, that troubling result had happened far more often than not. Call it an occupational hazard or merely just plain bad luck. No matter. Nothing good ever came from fuzzy math.
He was standing inside what the Belgians called Heileg Bloed Basiliek, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a foreboding 12th-century edifice, home to one of Europe’s most sacred reliquaries. The ancient church was tucked into a corner of the castle square, squished between the old city hall and a row of modern shops. He’d traveled to Bruges for the largest antiquarian book fair in Europe, one he’d attended several times before. In fact, it was a favorite. Not only because he loved the city, but also thanks to the best dessert in the world.
Dame Blanche. White Lady.
Vanilla ice cream, drenched in warm Belgian chocolate, topped with whipped cream. Back in America they called them sundaes. Fairly ordinary. Not here. The locals had elevated the treat into an art form. Each café possessed its own version, and he’d definitely be enjoying another incarnation after dinner tonight.
Right now he’d come to see a spectacle. One he’d never witnessed before, but had heard about. It used to happen only once a week. Now it was every day, either mornings between 11:30 and noon or 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, according to the placard out front.
It even had a title.
The Veneration of the Precious Blood.
Legend said that, after the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea was granted Christ’s body. With solemn devotion he cleaned the corpse, catching all the blood flowing from the wounds into a sacred vessel, which he supposedly passed down to his descendants. Depending on which version was to be believed, drops of that blood made their way to Bruges either in the 12th century by way of Jerusalem or in the 13th century through Constantinople.
Nobody knows which tale was true.
But here that blood had stayed, occasionally hidden away from Calvinists, revolutionaries, and invaders. Pilgrims had come for centuries to see it, encouraged by a papal bull from the 14th century that granted indulgences to all who prayed before the relic. The whole thing ranked as beyond strange given that the Bible mentioned nothing about any of Christ’s blood ever being preserved.
Yet that had not deterred the faithful.
The basilica consisted of two chapels. The lower dark and Romanesque, and the upper bright and Gothic. Twice destroyed, each time rebuilt. He glanced around at the upper chapel. The soaring ceilings of three richly embellished naves drove the eyes heavenward. Impressive stained-glass windows allowed golden rays of afternoon sunlight to seep inside. An elegant ceiling, like an upturned boat, stretched overhead, all in stunning polychrome woodwork. A bronzed pulpit hung high on one wall, shaped like a globe. A gold-laden altar stood before a series of ascending murals, rich in color, that, appropriately, depicted Christ shedding blood. Tourists filled the rows of wooden chairs before the communion rail, and even more loitered about snapping pictures.
But back to that weird math of two plus two equaling five.
Starting with three men.
Different from the other visitors. Young, cautious, unshaven for a few days, with plain, even features. Their faces also wore a different expression from those surrounding them, as if they had a more urgent reason to be here than mere sightseeing. Their alertness bothered Cotton, projecting a tension that said these were not tourists. A final red flag came from their positions, strategically around the chapel, near the exterior walls, their focus more on one another than the reverent surroundings.
He glanced at his watch. 2:00 P.M.
A bell sounded.
In the side nave, beyond the arches, a door opened and a priest emerged.
The veneration had begun.
A robed prelate carried a rectangular-shaped, glass-sided box. Inside, atop a red velvet pillow, lay the reliquary. The phial itself, which harbored pieces of sheep’s wool clotted with blood, was about six inches long and two inches wide. Mainly rock crystal of a clear Byzantine origin, the neck was wound with golden thread, the end stoppers sealed with wax. It lay inside a larger glass cylinder with golden coronets ornamented by angels. He’d read enough about the outer cylinder to know that engraved on the frame was a date in Roman numerals.
May 3, 1388.
The priest paraded across the chapel, his face an expression of great piety, to what was known as the Throne of the Relic, a white marble Baroque altar, its top covered by more red velvet. The prelate gently laid the glass-lined box atop the platform then sat in a chair, ready for the faithful to pray before the relic.
But not before they each made a donation.
A line formed to the left where another priest stood before a collection bowl. People dropped euros into it before stepping up the short stairs and spending a few moments in silence with the relic. Cotton wondered what would happen if someone failed to drop a coin but still wanted to venerate. Would they be turned away?
The Three Amigos had shifted position and, along with everyone else, moved from the main nave toward the side chapel. Several attendants shepherded the crowd and shushed any voices that rose too loud. Pictures, pointing, videos, gawking, and donating were allowed.
Talking, not so much.
One of the Amigos worked his way into the veneration line. The other two stayed back, near the archways, watching the spectacle from twenty feet away. A bank of devotional candles separated the Throne of the Relic from the crowd, a couple hundred little glass sockets, many of them flickering with flames. Several of the visitors approached and lit a candle of their own. After, of course, dropping a coin into a metal container.
People continued to step up to the reliquary, pausing a few moments for prayer and a sign of the cross. The pair of Amigos who’d stayed back both toted knapsacks. Though many of the others present also carried them, something about these two shouldering them didn’t seem right.
Twelve years he’d worked for the Justice Department at the Magellan Billet, after a career in the navy and time as a JAG lawyer. Now he was retired, opting out early, the owner of a rare-book shop in Copenhagen, occasionally available for hire by governments and intelligence agencies. He made a good side living from freelancing, but today was no job. Just sightseeing. Apparently in the right place at the wrong time.
Something was happening.
Copyright © 2020 by Steve Berry