Canal in Bruges, Belgium     

Novelist Célèste De Smet Gaudin (pen name, Marie Thomasse) arrives in Bruges, Belgium for an author event marking the launch of her debut novel, 366 Steps. As soon as the train from Brussels pulls into the station, she begins to feel ill. The ancient city has had this effect on her for five years, ever since she interviewed and wrote about Mother Marie-Thérèse du Chenu for LeSoir.be. After the book signing, Célèste returns to her hotel, but cannot sleep. Flashbacks from that interview and its dark, untold secrets haunt her through the night.

Mother Marie- Thérèse was the surviving victim of one of Belgium’s most notorious crimes, one that involved kidnap, rape, prolonged torture, and finally murder—all in enchanting, picturesque Bruges, Venice of the North. Her co-victim, an American priest, Father Thomas Jensen, did not survive. Although his remains were never found, Piet Van Kampen confessed to killing the priest, receiving a sentence of life in prison without parole. Twenty years later, on the day after the convicted killer died, Célèste drew a career-making assignment, an exclusive interview with the nun.

Reeling from the day-old breakup of a long-term relationship, Célèste arrived at the motherhouse of the Servant Sisters of Jesus and Mary in Florenville, a town in Southeastern Belgium. She expected to spend a single afternoon with her interviewee and be on her way back to the capital. Although committed to the interview, Mother Marie-Therese had a different plan. She bargained for an exchange of life experiences, Célèste’s for hers—in that order. Taken aback by this unexpected request and possible delay in her return to Brussels, Célèste weighed her options. She chose the career potential of the interview over her reluctance to open her life to this stranger, nun or not.

Thus began a cycle of deeply personal revelations that would occupy them for several days. With a warning that her story might bore the nun, Célèste outlined her youth and upbringing, including a secret vow made to God and broken. In return, Tesse responded to the reporter’s opening query, how Tesse and Fr. Jensen happened to be in Bruges together on the day of the kidnapping. Tesse then got Célèste to agree to talk about an unresolved adolescent trauma, the guilt she had carried for being responsible for her missionary priest uncle leaving the active ministry and marrying an African woman who was pregnant with his child. Célèste had never before revealed the triggering incidents that occurred when the priest who was visiting the family during a sabbatical saw her naked, once in her bedroom, a second time in the shower. In return, Tesse related details of her and Tom’s captivity, including repeated druggings and sexual abuse. She shared this on condition that the details were to remain confidential and unreported. Célèste accepted the condition, knowing she already had enough information to write her article.

Sensing that Célèste had yet another secret to tell, Tesse coaxed her to reveal the matter of her broken vow, using as bait the promise that she had one final piece to her own story. Unable to resist hearing the end of the Tesse and Tom story, Célèste agreed. But she was unprepared for the shock of Tesse’s final revelation. Having become privy to Mother Marie-Thérèse’s third secret, the young reporter feared that curiosity might have involved her in an ongoing crime and the risk of losing  everything.

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