Today's Reading

The prisoner on the floor stirred, his frail body twisted as if gripped by a terrible arthritis. One of the guards kicked him in the midsection. Vomit erupted from the man's mouth. One part of Janusz desperately wanted to help the man. The other just wanted to flee, doing, saying whatever was necessary to make that happen. Dilecki, like an exacting schoolmaster, was challenging every conclusion, every statement, keeping him in confusion. With no choice, he said what was expected, "All right. I'll do as you ask."

Dilecki stood, hands lightly clasped, the shrewd eyes steady. "I want you to remember that if you lie to me, or try to trick me, or hide from me, you will end up tied to a stool, too." The thin lips curled into the faintest of smiles. "But enough threats. You have done right, comrade. As the song proclaims. Poland has not yet perished, so long as we still live."

'"And what...the foreign force...has taken...from us, we shall...with sabre...retrieve."'

The words came from the prisoner on the floor, lying amid his own vomit. Beaten. Bleeding. Making no attempt to conceal the triumph in his voice as the second line of the national anthem was repeated.

Sacred words to every Pole.

And ones Janusz would not forget.


PRESENT DAY

CHAPTER ONE

Tuesday, June 4
Bruges, Belgium

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.

Like now.

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.
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