The Magic Fault unfolds in Turin, Italy, where the Catholic Church’s most revered relic has been stolen by a mysterious sect from the city’s cathedral. The theft occurs during the 2004 Salone del Gusto, Turin’s celebration of “good, clean, and fair food” sponsored by the international Slow Food Movement. Tom Ueland, an American Midwest college history professor and journalist who writes about magical thinking, is in Turin to vacation with a friend, Rachel Cohen, an exhibitor at the celebration. He’s also there at the invitation of the Turin archbishop, himself a student of magical thinking. Tom takes up the chase after the Shroud of Turin and is spun toward a resolution he never sees coming.
Why — on the one day he had been out of his office in six months — had the security system malfunctioned? After a grueling all-day trade show in Milan, the chief of security sat in his office in the cavernous basement of Turin’s Saint John the Baptist Cathedral. Eager to head home for a glass of Alverno before supper, he hunched over the computer. He was bewildered by two words on the screen: Backup System.
Had there been a power loss earlier in the day? He sat there, puzzled. He picked up the phone and punched the number of the remote monitoring service. The person on duty nonchalantly assured him, “Niente.” Niente was his daily bread; with that assurance, he could go home satisfied; without it, he could not go home.
He stared at the enormous computer console and clicked on the master control program icon. Backup software has temporarily overridden the primary software program. Click here to reinstate the primary operational system.
What was that all about? Who had engineered the override? Why? He shuddered and instinctively looked behind him. He was alone in the church, he knew. But he sensed a presence, another intellect at work here. Never had the complex system balked. An override was an intentional act, not a misfire.
Never in his career had he opened the safe on the wall of his office. He stood and shuffled over to it. He dialed the code, tugged at the door, took out a ring of keys and removed the cover of a small metal case. He reached in. He had never touched the ultima chiave before, the key to the great stone case. He removed it gently, trembling. He went back to the console panel, entered a code and saw the emergency icon appear on the screen. He clicked on it. The entire security system of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist became disarmed.
Immediately the phone rang. “Niente,” he muttered to the operator.
He placed the key in his pocket. It was dark in the hallway outside the control center. He turned on a bank of lights leading to the elevator. He quickened his steps, entered the elevator and punched the button. Slow — the old mechanism creaked. When the door opened, he stood directly outside the security door of the Savoy Chapel. The Chapel of the Holy Shroud, la Sacra Sindone, the burial cloth of Christ.
The jangle of the keys rang out in the empty church. He opened the door. A single security lamp flickered on a darkened wall. He went to a control board and brought up the spotlights. The Shroud’s display case looked intact. He felt the presence again, the alien spirit. He could not stop shuddering. His hand withdrew the ultima chiave from his pocket; he dropped the key, retrieved it and inserted it clumsily into the keyhole of the cover panel. He lifted the panel.
The cloth lay there. Che beatifico! He fitted a pair of white gloves lying nearby over his hands and carefully lifted the top fold of la Sindone.
Santa Madonna! Where was the backing cloth of raw linen? He felt deeper, frantically pulling more and more of the material out of the case. No backing, anywhere. He studied the more obvious body imprints on the fabric. Authentic, but he had never been an expert. And there was no backing. The true Sindone had just been outfitted with a new raw linen backing. This was not la Sindone — it was gone.
His watch showed 4:30. He fumbled for his cell phone, punched in a set of numbers and waited, heart pounding against his ribs. He scarcely heard the archbishop’s hello. He gasped, his voice caught in his throat. “Pronto” sounded again at the other end. He found just enough oxygen to whisper.
“Buona sera, monsignòre. I’m sorry to bother you. La Sindone. It is not here. I’m sorry. Yes — Gone.”
The Magic Faultis Paul Mohrbacher’s first venture into genre fiction. His writing career began as a playwright. His first script for the stage, The Chancellor’s Tale (The Dramatic Publishing Company), won first prize in the 1991 Julie Harris Playwright Award Competition and has received numerous productions and readings. Born in Duluth, Minnesota, he was a Catholic priest for 16 years. He lives with his wife, Ruth Murphy, in St. Paul, surrounded by grandchildren. (Photo by Andrea Cole Photography)