Today's Reading

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.

Showtime.

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.

Something that every instinct in his nearly fifty-year-old body told him was not good. Old habits were truly hard to break.
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