The Newton Cipher – Snippet 02


University of Notre Dame

South Bend, Indiana

One Week before Thanksgiving

Present Day

“We have a few minutes left,” Trina Piper said, eyeing the fifteen undergrads sitting around the large table in front of her.

Their mostly-bored faces were bathed in the wan glow of the fluorescent bulbs that illumined all thirteen floors of Notre Dame’s Hesburgh library, including the seminar room here on the seventh floor, the home of the University’s Medieval Institute.

Bookshelves lined three of the room’s walls, filled with dusty books and runs of specialized journals that almost no one read. The fourth wall contained a series of locked display cases, each filled with objects so old and obscure that no one seemed to remember their original purpose. Even the department secretaries couldn’t locate the keys anymore.

As if Trina’s comment was some sort of Pavlovian trigger, one of the students, a bearded hipster named Greg Beaufort, opened his trendy organic-cotton messenger bag/man-purse and began to stuff his laptop inside.

Which,” Trina said, in a tone that stopped Greg in mid-stuff, “means we have time for one more inspection.”

Greg’s shoulders slumped as he reopened his laptop. He was what Trina thought of as a “collateral student” — not at all interested in her seminar on Medieval and Early-Modern Manuscripts, but only there because he needed some liberal arts credits to graduate and hers was the only class that fit his schedule.

And he wasn’t the only one.

However the response from Sammy — Samantha Klein, one of only three female students in the seminar this semester — was truly satisfying.

“Is it that one, Professor Piper?” Sammy asked, pointing to the volume that Trina had kept mysteriously covered with a cloth for the past two hours.

“Yep,” Trina said, tugging thin cotton gloves over her hands.

“Been wondering,” Sammy grinned, brushing a loose strand of red hair from her eyes.  “It’s been sitting there like an unwrapped Christmas present since seminar started.”

Sammy was the kind of student professors longed for: eager to learn, enthusiastic, and just generally pleasant to be around.

“This,” Trina pulled the cloth off with a dramatic flourish, a magician revealing the rabbit, “is one of my favorite volumes from the Medieval Institute’s collection. Notre Dame’s own copy of Ars Medicinae. The Art of Medicine, a collection of five of the most influential medical texts from antiquity through the first millennium, A.D. It was the standard medical text during much of the middle ages. This particular copy dates from the late fourteenth century.”

The book rested on a soft pillow, the kind placed under fragile books to mold to their shape and hold them firmly. She pushed it toward the center of the table, and despite their practiced apathy, even the most jaded of her students leaned forward to have a look.

“This is one of the jewels of Notre Dame’s collection, purchased from an auction in Europe decades ago. You can thank our football team. All those national championships bring in money, and some of that money finds its way to our own humble Medieval Institute.”

Trina always thought that the “Medieval Institute” was a silly name. It’s not like they worked by oil lamps and walked around in heavy robes, speaking to each other in high Latin. “Institute for Medieval Studies” was more accurate.

Whatever. It wasn’t her call. She loved being there all the same.

Trina positioned the book so all the students could see it, and began to carefully turn the stiff vellum pages.

“This is a great example of an illuminated manuscript,” Trina said. “Check out these incredible, painstakingly hand-inked images, all surrounded by Latin text. Like this one, of a doctor taking a patient’s pulse … or this one, showing a rudimentary map of the human veinous system … and this, of a surgeon setting bones.”

“So,” she said, when all the students had had a look. “What do you think made this stain here?”

She touched a dark blotch in the margin of the page opposite the image of the bone-setter.

“A scribe’s fingerprint?” ventured one student.

“Good thought, but no. Anyone else?”

“Un-scraped iron gall ink?” said Sammy.

“A great guess, Sammy, as these sheepskin pages would certainly hold up to heavy scraping to remove such a blotch. But again, no.”

Sammy sat back, arms folded, a scowl of mock defeat on her face.

After a minute of silence, Trina spilled the beans.

“It’s a bloodstain, proving that this very copy of Ars Medicinae was actually used on a battlefield. You’re looking at a spatter of blood left by some wounded archer, maybe even a lordly knight, as they were operated on in a medieval medical tent. Maybe during the famous battle of Agincourt, or one of the many conflicts of the Hundred Years War. Heck, maybe it’s blood from Joan of Arc herself.”

Trina grinned at the oohs and aahs coming from most of her student’s mouths. As a mere adjunct professor, she lived for this sort of thing: getting at least some of her students to understand that there was a bigger world than what they experienced on their smartphone screens. She certainly didn’t do this for the meager salary.

Greg had hardly moved. His eyes still flicked back and forth at the clock on the wall.

“I take it you aren’t that impressed with centuries-old bloodstains in a book used by a long-dead surgeon on a medieval battlefield, Mr. Beaufort?” Trina teased. “I would have thought you boys would be totally into that kind of thing.”

Greg huffed, but at least had the maturity to realize he was being goaded. “It’s just not my kind of thing, I guess. I’m in business school. I want to open a craft brewery, not read about dead people. Much less see their old bloodstains. I just don’t get excited sitting around, studying all this …” he waived his smartphone around at the books and artifacts that lined the room “… old musty stuff.”

“Touché, Mr. Beaufort,” Trina said. “Yes, academics can be a little musty. But even from within our stuffy offices we can help change the world.”

“Oh yeah? How?”

Trina grimaced. The stock answer was to say that professors train young students to think critically, to learn to write analytically, and then send them out in the world to do … what? Start craft breweries? Damnit, the kid had a point. How, indeed? Refusing to go down without a fight, however, Trina remembered something she’d seen recently in one of those popular scientific magazines.

“Well, I read that a group of scholars that study ancient medicine recently found a recipe for a potent antibiotic in a thousand-year old English medical textbook called Bald’s Leechbook.”

Oh god. That had sounded far less lame in her head. “Of course,” she stammered, “Modern doctors still have to confirm …”

A chime sounded, dismissing class. Trina was literally saved by the bell.

“Alright,” she said to the backs of the escaping undergrads. “I’ve set out three monastic palimpsests in the Rare Books room. I want five pages from each of you comparing and contrasting them by the start of next week’s class.”

Greg was the first out the door, sliding his laptop into his bag with one hand even as he was thumbing his smartphone with the other. The rest followed, a slouching, shuffling parade of tattoos, Timberlands and tapping thumbs.

Millenials. They confounded her.

Well, most of them, anyway. Sammy was still hunched over the Ars Medicinae, enthralled by the bloodstain.

“This is so cool, Professor Piper!”

“Thanks, Sammy. And you can call me Miss Piper. I don’t have a PhD, just a Masters. I’m only an adjunct professor, anyway. Pretty much a part-time employee. The bottom of the academic barrel.”

“So you don’t teach any other classes here?”

“Nope. Just this one particular seminar, once a semester.”

“Bummer. I like your teaching style. I’d take more from you if I could. Why do you do it?”

“Passion, I suppose. And access. Being an adjunct lets me use the library and archives and attend faculty seminars. Professor Alasdair Edelstein was my advisor when I was a grad student. He took me under his wing, and made sure I was able to teach this seminar when he retired last year.”

“Edelstein — the really old guy in the funny robe and pipe you used to see walking around up here?” Edelstein was rarely seen without his thread-bare academic gown draped over his bony shoulders, haunting the library like some kindly old ghost, whisper quiet and beanpole thin. He chewed an old pipe, but never lit it.

“That’s him,” Trina laughed. “Though he’s been in Italy this past year. He’s actually coming home today, for the holidays.”

 “He was funny,” Sammy said. “Loved those robes. Never talked to him though. What do you do for a living then, if you aren’t a full professor?”

“Ever heard of a forensic document analyst?”

“A wha — ?”

“I help people determine if their documents are authentic. I know how to analyze the paper, the ink, the handwriting and signatures. All stuff I learned initially here, working on all this” — here she switched to her best imitation of Greg Beaufort’s voice — “old musty stuff.”

They both laughed.

“So,” Sammy said. “You look at handwriting? Are you one of those people who can tell someone’s mood by the loops of their ells and the way they cross their tees? I’d love to analyze my fiancé’s handwriting — it’s a disaster!”

“Ha,” Trina said. “Can’t help you there. When it comes to handwriting, I just compare known samples to that of the document in question. I can also use scientific tools to analyze the types of paper and ink to see if they are forgeries.”

“Cool,” Sammy said, glancing once more at the bloodstained Ars Medicinae. Then her phone vibrated. “Ah, I gotta run, Profess — I mean, Ms. Piper. Unlike most of the others, I don’t have rich parents paying my tuition. I gotta get online before dinner. And then my shift starts at eight.”

“Wow, you’re a busy girl. Where do you work?”

“I do some online work for attorneys and other professionals up in Chicago. Virtual assistant stuff: digging up answers to their questions, booking their flights, scheduling restaurants in cities where they have client meetings, things like that. Pays by the hour. And I also work some nights behind the bar at the Saint Joe on Washington Street. You know, the old Studebaker mansion?”

“I love the Saint Joe! I’ll say hi next time I’m there.”

“Cool,” Sammy nearly ran out the door, her red hair flowing. “Next week we bring out our Holiday menu. Come by. I’ll comp you a chardonnay!”

“I drink Old Fashioneds,” Trina called after her. Usually alone, she almost added. Sammy’s departure reminded her that her next stop was home. It wasn’t always a happy place.

“You got it,” came Sammy’s reply from down the hall, followed seconds later by the ding of the arriving elevator.


University of Notre Dame

South Bend, Indiana

Trina placed the Ars Medicinae back in its box, carefully setting it between the padded lining. The box itself was stained with age; it folded closed and was secured with faded red ribbon. The way these books were stored never ceased to fascinate her; it often seemed as if the containers were nearly as old as their contents.

Trina must have been muttering out loud as she packed her lecture notes and laptop into her handbag. She jumped when a calm, quiet voice spoke from the doorway behind her.

“You’re right, Ekaterina. For years now, I’ve been suggesting the department invests in better storage boxes.”

“Alasdair!” Trina said, turning and giving Professor Edelstein a hug. “I didn’t realize you were back.”

“Here I am, Ekaterina. Landed at O’Hare this morning.”

They’d been on a first-name basis since Trina had earned her masters degree, when Edelstein told her he no longer considered her a student, but a colleague.

He was also the only person she allowed to use her given name, mostly because he refused to call her anything else. He was a gentleman of the old school. The really old school, where the proper way to do something was the only way.

“How was Milan?”

“All is well at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. But a year away was too long. I miss my house. I miss South Bend, despite Italy’s uncountable advantage over northern Indiana. Home is home, is it not? I came straight here from the airport, and spent the day getting my office back in order. When I heard you were teaching the seminar today, I waited around.”

“I’d love to visit myself someday, and see the Ambrosiana first hand.”

In the 1990s, Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute had received a full copy — microfilms, mostly, but scans and photocopies and photographs too — of everything in the famed Biblioteca Ambrosiana: Europe’s oldest library, dedicated to Saint Ambrose, the fourth-century Bishop of Milan. It was a hodgepodge of medieval European history, however, and as curator of Notre Dame’s Ambrosiana Collection, Edelstein made frequent trips back and forth to the library in Milan, to examine documents whose original provenance needed authentication.

To Trina, it sounded like the world’s most amazing job.

“Well, you didn’t miss much here. It’s been a typical South Bend year. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter.” It was almost Thanksgiving, and the leaves across campus had already shed their gorgeous reds, oranges, and golds, leaving the campus colored by drab shades of brown, brown, and brown.

“These old bones have suffered more than their share of South Bend winters, Ekaterina. Which, as I was saying, is why I’ve been pushing for the department to take better care of our books. They simply hate this humidity, you know, to say nothing of the wild swings in temperature. Imagine what another five hundred years sitting in a cardboard box in just a few miles south of Lake Michigan will do to our little friends. But no one takes seriously the opinions of a doddering old Professor Emeritus, alas.”

“Well they should,” Trina said, shouldering her bag and wedging the bundled-up Ars Medicinae into the crook of her elbow. “You ran this department like a true scholar. The care and preservation of the collections were always at the forefront of your budget decisions.”

Ran is the operative word,” Edelstein smiled, the grin adding to the already copious wrinkles lining his face. “Now I’m just a relic myself, respected for my antiquity and yet utterly ignored. Much like the things we keep in those.” He pulled the pipe out of his mouth and poked the stem at the glass display cases against the wall.

“I don’t ignore you, Alasdair.”

“Exactly!” He aimed his pipestem enthusiastically in her direction now. “That’s why I like having you around. You make me feel like a body, not some faded old specter doomed forever to roam the seventh floor stacks … ah, is that the Ars Medicinae you’ve got there? Did you show them the bloodstain? Students always love seeing the bloodstain. I spent many happy hours pouring over that thing when it first came to the Institute. Wrote an award-winning article about it for the Review of Medieval History, you know.”

“Of course I know,” Trina said. “I wrote an article about your article as part of my thesis on esoteric medieval and Renaissance texts, remember? About how your work redefined the study of medical practice in the high middle ages, as relating to occult and magical knowledge?”

“A fine piece of scholarship, that,” Edelstein said, putting his pipe back in his mouth.

Trina blushed. “Thanks, Alasdair. So, is this a social call? Or are you simply looking for a member of the living to haunt for a while?”

He paused, sucking air through his pipe. Trina remembered the sound from the time spent discussing her thesis in Edelstein’s office, and suddenly realized that she didn’t want to go home, didn’t want to leave this happy place for a sad one.

“Espresso?” he finally said. “The machine’s warm.”

Edelstein kept an imported Italian espresso machine in his office, all chrome and glass and black-resin knobs. Next to it was a grinder like you see in chain coffee shops — big and noisy. And then there were the fresh beans he got from a local roaster just off campus.

Trina knew the routine. She’d spent many hours over “espresso,” furiously scribbling notes while Edelstein eviscerated her thesis’s weakest arguments. The process always left her devastated. But then, like some angel of mercy, he’d send her back out again with the tools she needed to remake those shattered arguments better than they were before.

He’d even used the same process to help her think about career choices in a rough academic market. And once, when things had gone south with an old boyfriend, he talked her through that, too.

And when it was all over, he had turned her into a damn fine scholar. He even gave her the ultimate compliment, telling her she had actually done all the work, and he had merely offered a few pointers along the way. And he stood by her side when the North American Historical Association awarded her that year’s top graduate student prize for her thesis.

She hadn’t had a proper Edelstein espresso in almost a year. And she wasn’t quite ready to go home.

“Yes,” she said, shifting the Ars Medicinae to her other arm. “Yes, please.”