By Doug Powell
When a Spanish priest learns of a skeptical organization’s PR stunt to replicate the Shroud of Turin, Graham Eliot becomes part of his plan to counteract the bad publicity with a new revelation about the Shroud’s authenticity. And the revelation relies on Graham secretly photographing the Shroud as well as the Sudarium of Oviedo—a relic believed to be a cloth wrapped around the head of Jesus as he died on the cross.
On the day Graham is to begin, the project is canceled without explanation, and a video of him calling the Shroud a fake and accusing the church of hiding something appears online. To defend his reputation, Graham must rely on the help of his eccentric translator as well as the skeptic who posted the video. But the alliance is shattered when a death occurs during the skeptic’s annual convention in America—and Graham’s graduate student is the one suspected of the murder.
For the first time in his life Graham Eliot stood in a library where he didn’t recognize the title of a single volume. Three oak bookcases built into the walls blocked his way after entering the only door to the small room, leaving him in the company of strangers named—according to their spines—Erdnase, Hugard, Dunninger, Annemann, Tarbell. Many seemed to be limited editions published by small specialty houses, or self-published, but none were ancient manuscripts.
Unusually heavy traffic slowed the drive from his home near Disneyland to the Hollywood mansion a block away from the Chinese Theater, leaving him no time to examine the books. He located the gilded owl perched on one of the shelves, leaned forward, and spoke to it, hoping he didn’t look as foolish as he felt.
The owl’s eyes blinked red, and the middle bookcase retracted the wall, revealing an opulent salon filled with people in formal suits and gowns. He stepped through the secret passage and scanned the room, looking for a priest’s collar among the black ties, having no other way to identify the man who invited him here, given that they had never met.
An ornately appointed bar spanned the opposite wall, elegant arches framing its shelves of spirits. Art glass, carved wooden beasts, and architectural findings festooned the room in a surprisingly eclectic coherence. His gaze landed on a pair of red velvet settees facing each other along the wall on his left. He watched a man ask a woman to pick a card as several people looked on. After she committed it to memory, she put it back.
The man cut the deck and flipped one of the packs over before shuffling the faceup half into the facedown stack. He cut randomly into the deck several times to show the stack was truly messed up. But when he spread the cards, only one was faceup—the selected card.
Graham turned, following the voice over his right shoulder to find a man in a black suit and tie smiling modestly at the woman’s delighted shock. His short, black hair and wireframe glasses gave him a practical, orderly appearance.
“It is one of the famous tricks of the professor,” the man said through a thick Spanish accent.
Graham pinched his brow in a question.
The man pointed his chin toward the settees. “The professor, Dai Vernon. That is where he would entertain. But forgive me. You are the professor, too. You are Dr. Eliot?”
“And you’re Father Arturo?” Graham asked, offering his hand.
“In Spain, it is Don, not Father. Don Arturo Negrón.”
“And where in Spain did you say you were from?”
“Oviedo. In the mountains along the northern coast. I am the dean of the Cathedral of San Salvador.” Don Arturo turned, gesturing to the staircase. “Let us talk on the way to the theater.”
They passed between griffins guarding the bottom steps, overseen by an eleven-foot-tall grandfather clock on the landing. “Why are we meeting at the Magic Castle?”
“I have something to discuss that requires we see the performance tonight. Afterward, we will dine, and I will explain.”
“But this is a private club for magicians. How did you get us in?”
Don Arturo smiled before answering. “The cousin of my mother is Juan Tamariz. He is a member here.”
“I’m sorry,” Graham said, “I don’t know who that is.”
“He is the greatest magician in Spain. Some say the world.” Don Arturo punctuated the claim with a shrug.
To the right of the stairway, another bar filled the space, strangely decorated with dozens of owls. Don Arturo led the way to the left, threading through a dining room beneath a dome of kaleidoscopic art glass. They entered a long hallway filled with posters and playbills of magicians, some of whom were famous enough for Graham to recognize.
The hall ended at another lounge with yet another elaborate bar. Decorative tin panels covered the ceiling, and the walls, displaying more vintage posters, including several advertising someone named Chung Ling Soo. The lounge served as the lobby to a theater with a sign reading Palace of Mystery.
“This place is way bigger than it looks from outside,” Graham said.
Don Arturo nodded, smiling appreciatively. “There is another, smaller theater on the other side of this one. The Parlour of Prestidigitation. And there is a room for close-up magic, as well as one in the basement. But we need to find our seats. The performance is about to begin.”
An usher had saved a spot for them on the second row, and they were the last to be seated. Graham quickly took in the mahogany paneled theater as he made his way down the row, estimating over a hundred people filled the steep seats. The usher who had shown them in stepped onto the small stage as the lights dimmed and addressed the audience.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Magic Castle’s Palace of Mystery! Our featured performer tonight has won many awards including the FISM Grand Prix, Magic Circle’s David Devant Award, and has been named Magician of the Year two times by the Academy of Magical Arts. He’s lectured at universities including Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. He’s performed in over fifty countries, and tonight he is here. Please welcome Christopher King!”
Graham couldn’t recall hearing the name before, and he didn’t know whether to expect a tuxedoed stereotype or someone who looked like a reject from a heavy metal band. Instead, a man Graham guessed was in his early fifties stepped into the center of the small, empty stage dressed in a black tailored suit, sky blue shirt, and matching silk tie. A salt-and-pepper goatee complimented hair swept back from his face, completing a look that was more corporate than Mephistophelian.
“Tonight, you will witness wonders that make you question the very nature of reality. You will be confronted with phenomena outside your experience, beyond the reach of your ability to explain them. Not so long ago, what you are about to see would have been considered miraculous. But even in our more enlightened world, the most scientific minds will be confounded. This is the Palace of Mystery, after all.” King paused for polite laughter. “Let me be clear: I make no claim to supernatural abilities. And yet when you leave, that admission will be the most difficult thing for you to believe.”
Over the next forty-five minutes, King made good on his promise. He asked for a birthday, a time of day, and a ZIP code, each from a different audience member, and added them to two randomly chosen three-digit numbers. The resulting number was 1,017,732.
When King reminded the audience it was October 17, 7:32 p.m., a collective gasp left a moment of stunned silence before the applause began.
After shuffling a deck of cards and placing them on a small table, he threw a foam rubber ball blindly into the audience. He asked the person who caught it to throw it randomly to someone else, then asked the next person to do the same, making the third person to catch it a completely random selection. He invited that person to the stage, asked them to call anyone they wanted, and put it on speakerphone.
When the person answered, King introduced himself and asked that person to name a card. Then King asked the audience member to pick up the deck of cards that had been sitting untouched on the table the entire time and spell the name of the person he had called, dealing one card off the top for each letter in the name. The final card in the name was the same card that person had chosen.
The entire performance was surprisingly minimalistic, using only a few simple props. Other than the phone trick, there were no card tricks.
Aside from a brief infatuation with Doug Henning as a kid in the 70s, Graham had never been into magic, dismissing it as frivolous. His only real exposure to magic was through his former graduate student, Alexander Pearl, who had paid his way through school working as a restaurant magician. Alexander was engaging and entertaining, but King’s performance was on an entirely different plane. It was mysterious, evoking a sense of awe and wonder—a response only enhanced by King’s denial of the supernatural. Graham was so engrossed in the performance that he forgot he had been invited there for a reason until King introduced the final trick.
“Why do we believe what we believe?” King asked the audience. “Philosophers have asked this question for thousands of years. And there have been many answers: we believe because of our experience, because of a trusted authority, or through critical thinking and reasoning. But in our most honest moments of reflection, we confess that sometimes we simply wish to believe. We want something to be true that has no support whatsoever.
“For example, several years ago, eBay hosted an auction for a piece of toast featuring a pattern that resembled the face of Jesus. And someone actually bought it. And this isn’t uncommon. People have claimed to see the face of Jesus in stains made by leaky water pipes or in the grain of a piece of wood. To quote Charles Fort, what they ‘call knowledge is ignorance surrounded by laughter.’ Our laughter.
“There is no greater example of this than the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial cloth of Jesus Christ that bears the full-body image of a man. Exactly how the image was made on the linen cloth is not known with certainty, though pigment on the cloth indicates it was painted. But there are several plausible explanations, none of which require a miracle. Its advocates include not only the gullible and simple-minded, but many intelligent and otherwise rational people, despite being conclusively, scientifically proven to be a medieval creation.
“I, myself, have seen it with my own eyes during the last exhibition. What impressed me most was how the sincerity of the pilgrims in the church around me created a profoundly reverent atmosphere. And yet the object of their faith is a lie.
“Despite being—according to its defenders—the most studied artifact in history, to my knowledge it has never been examined by an expert trained in deception and the techniques of forgery with a knowledge of artistic techniques. In other words, it has not been examined by a magician. To that end, I have offered my expertise to the Roman Catholic Church to examine the cloth at no cost to them. Pro bono. Not surprisingly, I have not heard back.” King held a sardonic smile, allowing a few chuckles. “What are they afraid of? Perhaps it is this.”
King turned to reach into the wings of the stage and retrieved an 11-by-17-inch frame with a built-in base.
“I have taken a piece of linen and mounted it in a frame. As you can see, there is nothing on it.” King descended the steps from the stage, into the audience, and handed it to several spectators to examine. Each held it freely, turning it to study the frame for hidden mechanisms or to discern any discreet marks on the cloth. “Is everyone satisfied that there is nothing on the linen? Yes? And no secret trapdoors or anything on the stand? Excellent!”
After returning to the stage, he set the frame on the small table, then stepped forward, to one side, keeping the frame in full view. “Ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to see is not a product of the modern age. You will witness a phenomenon that could have been seen long before the industrial revolution and science harnessed the forces of nature, before electric power, before photography. Voltaire said, ‘In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.’ And so I answer Voltaire by using the Hebrew phrase that means I create by speaking. Abracadabra!” King flicked his fingers, splaying them toward the frame. Several seconds passed, building anticipation. Then the cloth began to mottle, discolored spots spreading and connecting. Parts of the stain became fixed, waiting for others still blooming. When all the stains came to a rest, a familiar face stared from the frame. The face from the Shroud of Turin.
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Graham and Don Arturo moved back through the gallery hallway without speaking, listening to the other audience members swap highlights and speculate on King’s methods. And yet, Graham was surprised to hear them carry a sense of wonder, as if they’d been given a gift—even among those who claimed they knew how a trick was done. Discovering the method was like finding a price tag left on the gift, but it made the gift no less valuable. The wonder was real and seemed to touch an ineffable part of the world, a reminder of what gets overlooked in the business of everyday life.
“Here we are,” Don Arturo said, sweeping a hand toward a room on the left before they reached the main dining area. “The Dante Dining room.”
Dozens of playbills featuring a magician named Dante decorated the walls, each showing a man who looked like a prototypical magician. An enormous, hand-colored photographic portrait dominated one wall, showing a serious face beneath a high forehead crowned with white hair, penetrating eyes above a curled mustache and pointed goatee.
After being seated, Graham studied the ceiling—the mural of pillars reaching into clouds, composed in exaggerated perspective to create the illusion of being far below.
“I confess, I always pictured the third circle of Hell differently.”
Don Arturo followed Graham’s gaze in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“That’s the mural, right?” Graham asked, still looking at the ceiling. “It’s from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Given our perspective, we must be in Hell. And given that this is a dining room, the sin we’re being punished for must be gluttony. The third circle of Hell.”
“In that case, I should order the salad.” Don Arturo lowered his head to face Graham. “Tell me, what was your opinion of Christopher King’s finale?”
Graham released a puff of air, impressed. “Great trick. I have no idea how he does it. We were close enough to get a pretty good look at the cloth in the frame when he handed it out, and I didn’t see anything on it.”
“I did not either,” Don Arturo said. “And what is your opinion of the Shroud of Turin itself?”
Graham sensed the question was serious and restrained himself from a dismissive reaction. “I haven’t really paid that much attention to it. Especially after the carbon-14 dating indicated it was medieval. Whatever the cloth is, it can’t be authentic.”
Don Arturo listened with a faint smile. “You are unaware of the controversy about the dating?”
“I heard something about how various factors could have skewed the date, but it sounded like grasping at straws to me. But, like I said, it didn’t interest me enough to keep up with it. Why do you ask? I’m not an expert in the Shroud.”
“I am, actually. In addition to my duties at the cathedral, I am part of the Investigation Team of the Spanish Centre for Sindonology.”
“Sindonology,” Graham repeated. “As in the study of the Shroud. Why is there a center in Spain to study the Shroud when the Shroud is in Italy?”
Don Arturo’s smile widened knowingly. “Because of the Sudarium.”
“The Sudarium?” Graham quickly Hellenized the Latin word to soudarion, then tried to recall where it was mentioned in the New Testament. “A sweat cloth?”
The priest raised an index finger, inadvertently pointing toward Dante’s Heaven. “The cloth that covered the face of Christ as He died on the cross and was placed in the tomb with His body. The Gospel of Saint John mentions it. Chapter 20, verse 7.”
Graham opened the Bible app on his phone, selected the original Greek text, and navigated to the verse to verify it as Don Arturo continued.
“As you surely know, Jewish tradition teaches that any blood that comes from a dead or dying body must be buried with the body. If it falls on the ground, the dirt where it fell must be collected and placed in the tomb. In the case of Christ, a sudarium—or sweat cloth, as you say—was wrapped around his face as he reached the point of death. Blood would be coming from his nose or mouth in his last hour on the cross. That cloth is what was discovered along with the Shroud in the empty tomb. And now the Sudarium resides in the cathedral of Oviedo. As dean, it is under my care.”
Graham turned up his palms in a gesture of futility. “I’m at a loss. I’ve never heard of the Sudarium before. Is there an image of a face on it like there is on the Shroud?”
Don Arturo shook his head several times. “Only stains and dirt.”
“Then what makes you think it has anything to do with the Shroud or with Jesus at all? What’s the connection?”
Again, Don Arturo’s eyes lit up, warming to his subject. “The stains were made by a mixture of one part blood, and six parts pulmonary edema. It is an indication of asphyxiation, which is, of course, one of the tortures of crucifixion. There are also blood stains apart from the edema stains. The blood is both lifeblood and postmortem, so it was placed around the head before death.”
“Has the blood been tested?” Graham asked.
“As much as it can be. If what you are asking is if DNA can be used to compare it to the Shroud, unfortunately, it cannot. No nuclear DNA can be extracted. But it can be typed. It is AB, which is the same on the Shroud. What is interesting even more is that type AB is very uncommon in Europe, but quite common in the Middle East.”
“If the DNA can’t be tested, how do you know it came from a man?”
“The organization I am part of conducted tests with human edema mixed with blood, a linen cloth, and a model of a human head. Tubes were run into the model head, connecting the fluid to the nose and mouth to recreate the stains on the Sudarium. It took many attempts, but the experiments were able to replicate the pattern. It required the head being upright, leaning forward and to the right for approximately forty-five minutes. The head was then facedown on the ground with the feet raised slightly for another forty-five minutes to an hour. It was also in a third position for a short amount of time, probably the time it took to move the body to the tomb. The pattern that is made matches only if the face had a beard to collect some of the fluid. It was a man.”
“Exactly,” said Graham. “A man, but not which man.”
“That is where tradition is helpful,” Don Arturo said, opening his hands liturgically, as if receiving a benediction. “The Sudarium arrived in Asturias, the region of Oviedo, in the eighth century and has remained there since. It brought with it tradition—very strong—going back to Jerusalem in about 570. A pilgrim traveling through the Holy Land at that time kept a diary. He wrote that he visited a cave on the Jordan River, near where John the Baptizer had his ministry. Seven nuns lived in the cave who were the keepers of a chest that housed the Sudarium.”
“Hold on a second,” Graham said, waving a hand. “Let’s go back to the stains. Has the Sudarium ever been laid across the Shroud to see if the wounds match up?”
“Only in photographs.” Don Arturo shrugged. “The church will not allow the Sudarium to travel to Turin any more than it will allow the Shroud to be taken to Oviedo. As I said, the Sudarium has not left Oviedo since the eighth century.”
Graham leaned back, processing the information. “If the Sudarium has been in Oviedo since the 700s, and if the stains can be shown to correspond to the wounds on the Shroud, that has enormous implications for the dating of the Shroud.”
“Exactly,” Don Arturo said, beaming at the epiphany. “If correspondence between the two can be shown, then it is powerful evidence something went wrong with the carbon-14 test and that it cannot be trusted. The Sudarium is the key that can open the lock of perception trapping the Shroud.”
Graham leaned forward again. “But how can that be conclusively shown if the two cloths are not brought together?”
“That is what I am here to discuss.”
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