The Newton Cipher – Snippet 03


University of Notre Dame

South Bend, Indiana

Edelstein’s office was a hazardous topology of stacked books and papers piled into miniature mountains. This particular mountain range extended across the office: in corners, beneath tables, and atop the cushions of old leather chairs. Surveying those precarious peaks, Trina knew that one little jolt to the room’s unsteady tectonics — a careless step, an absentminded gesture — and the entire landscape could hit a full 8.0 on the documental Richter Scale.

She carefully set her bag and the Ars Medicinae on a rare open section of the floor, then located the chair with the least-risky pile and settled herself onto it. She was trim — from running and yoga, and rock-wall climbing at the local gym — and so she didn’t have too much of herself to balance on the narrow strip of seat not occupied by the six year’s worth (1982 through 1987, by the looks of it) of The Journal of Late-Medieval Russian Orthodox Studies.

“I’ve spent the afternoon cleaning out the office. Can you tell?” Edelstein said, his back to her as he worked the espresso machine. Steam hissed as he turned the pressure release valve.

“Looks great.” Trina squirmed sideways as a small avalanche of medieval Russian orthodoxy slid down and came to rest against her backside.

“Still taking the one sugar?” Edelstein said, his tone implying (as always) that putting sugar in one’s espresso was a serious personal shortcoming.

He’d lectured her before about how sugar (and, abomination of abominations, milk) ruined the flavor of a well-pulled shot of espresso. “Good espresso is akin to a short-term work of art,” he’d said. “It should have the texture of molten cream and the taste of bittersweet chocolate. Drink it hot, and drink it fast.”

Although Trina loved the smell, she could never drink espresso in anything other than a latte or cappuccino. For Edelstein, however, steamed milk was anathema (“Damn those Capuchin friars! and their damned robes!” he once said, and with such vitriol that she had to google it to figure out what he was ranting about).

And so they compromised: one sugar, no milk; anything else and she could find herself a new thesis advisor. Trina was pretty sure he’d been kidding about that last bit.

Edelstein flipped a lever and the machine hummed as pressure from the boiler made its way through the tightly-packed grounds. Seconds later, drops of heavy brown crema appeared, beading at the spout before dripping into a tiny porcelain cup. When it was full, Edelstein — reluctantly, by the slump of his shoulders — dropped in one cube of sugar, releasing it like it was a dead bug he’s found on the floor. He finished by setting the cup on a matching white saucer, effecting a delicate clink.

Then he repeated the process for himself, minus the sugar, and turned with both cups to face her.

Feeling increasingly unwelcome by the slurry of journals threatening to cascade down her back, Trina stood to take her cup from Edelstein’s slightly shaky hands.

“Please, Ekaterina, sit!” the old professor said, indicating the chair she just abandoned, even as most of the 1985s tumbled onto the floor.

“I’m good,” Trina said, raising the cup to her mouth. The smell was incredible, rich and earthy. And the first sip, despite the bitterness, was thick and warm — almost chewy — and sweet enough for her to down in two gulps.

“Just like Italians,” Edelstein said, downing his as quickly, pipe still dangling from one corner of his mouth.

“So,” Trina said, setting her empty cup down next to the grinder. “Inviting me for espresso usually means you’ve something to discuss.”

Edelstein took it upon himself to remove the remaining journals from Trina’s chair, and then settled into his own chair behind the large desk — she was sure there was still a desk under there somewhere — in the center of the room.

“How’s life, Ekaterina? You’re enjoying teaching my old seminar here in the Institute?”

“Absolutely. Most of the kids are just in it for the credits, but as always, there’s a few who make it worthwhile.”

“Indeed, indeed. You’re still with that boy? Gary? It’s going well?”

“Gavin,” she said. Edelstein never forgot names. And she and Gavin weren’t fine. What was with all the small talk? “We’re fine.”

“I understand you are still working as a forensic document analyst?” He plowed ahead, clearly aiming at something. “How’s that going?”

“Fine,” she said again. And this time she meant it. “The past year I became a member of the International Questioned Document Examiners Association. Really helped me land more gigs, especially with my subspecialty.”

“Ah, the IQDEA,” he said, pronouncing it eye-queue-dee-ah. “A mouthful, that one. What kind of temporary employments have you landed?”

She laughed. It was a mouthful. “Mostly giving my professional opinion on forged documents. In court, or depositions, for cases like divorces and inheritances. Haven’t had much proper historical work, unfortunately. The few I did get mostly involved disputed nineteenth-century land contracts. Not quite the jet-setting lifestyle I’d hoped. My passport is just collecting dust. The most exotic place I’ve been to all year was Paris.”




“It pays the bills. Until I can find a proper archivist position, or maybe a full-time teaching job somewhere, that is.”

“Ah, well,” he paused. Here we go. “Speaking of jobs …”


“You know I’ve authenticated a fair share of historical documents in my time.”

“Of course. You’ve been my role model in more ways than one. I still want to be you when I grow up.”

“Well, you’d best get started, then. Unlike me, you’re not getting any younger.”

“Ha,” she said. “You don’t look a day over seventy five.”

“You’re too kind, Ekaterina. Add ten years, give or take, and you’re not too far off.”

“You look great for your age, Alasdair.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not. But looking good and feeling good are not the same thing. Milan was nice, but I’m not going back. Italy, Europe, anywhere. The travel, the flights, the trains … too much. I have my little house here, above the river. It needs a good cleaning. And paint. And come spring, the garden will need some serious work.”

“You deserve a quiet retirement, Alasdair.”

“And I intend to have one. But,” he waved his pipe around, “as you can see, I hate leaving things so … untidy.”

“I couldn’t tell.”

“Don’t mock me. I’m not talking about my office. I’m talking about the past.”


“The past is a messy place. I did what I could to tidy it up, but I’m afraid there is work yet to be done.”

“I guess so,” Trina said. “Scholarship is a lifetime vocation.”

“Oh, I’m not referring to scholarship or teaching or publishing. Academia has enough damn journals full of articles nobody reads written by assistant professors so they can get tenure and end up with an office like mine. Look around, is this really such a prize? I’m talking about protecting the past, Ekaterina.”

“I’m afraid you lost me.”

He tented his fingers and rested his chin on the tips. Then he looked her in the eye.

“Do you really want to have a career like mine?”

“Didn’t I just say I did?”

His fingers separated, the pipe came out, and he leaned forward. “I received a message from England today. Seems the British Library has need of an outside expert who does what I do — what we do. To look at some very important, very sensitive, documents. The gentleman who called got my name from an old friend of mine at Cambridge, Fiona McFee, who told him I was in Italy. He was disappointed to learn I had already flown home.”


“And? Oh, yes. He asked if I could recommend anyone else.”

And …?”

“I said I could.”

Trina hoped this was going where she thought it was going.

“Me?”  Please, oh please.

He paused … then nodded.

“Yes!” she said, jumping out of her chair. “Thank you, Alasdair. The British Library … I can’t believe it. Whose documents am I looking at?”


She gasped. “You mean Sir Isaac Newton?”

“The same. If legitimate, these documents will be the first Newton papers discovered in over a century. But there’s one caveat.”

“What is it?” Trina was positively buzzing now.

“They’re written in some kind of code. And it’s not a code anyone has ever seen before.”


South Bend, Indiana


Trina set the keys on the little table by the front door of her apartment. It had started to snow on her drive down from campus. It was only a couple miles, but by the time she got downtown the flakes were thick and heavy with the moisture they’d gathered off Lake Michigan.

It fell heavy on her even in the short walk from her car up the steps to the entrance of the old converted power plant. It was a beautiful building; all that stone and industrial iron-work made for some pretty nice lofts. Theirs was one of the largest, thanks to Gavin’s salary.

“Gavin? You home?” She kicked off her boots and peeled away her damp coat, sidestepping the small pile of snow starting to melt at her feet as she padded down the hall.

The half-finished bottle of wine they were working through when last night’s argument broke out was still on kitchen counter. There was her glass, smelling of chardonnay, and the pile of crumpled tissues.

She had slammed the bedroom door, he had slept on the couch, and when she woke he had already left for work in Chicago. She cried more, showered, and went straight to campus, getting breakfast at the student center. She could clean the apartment later. Maybe they’d do it together, after they made up and cooked dinner.

It was a new day, she told herself this morning, though she tried not to count the number of times she’d said that recently. And now it was almost another old day.

Trina was just putting on her sweats and a Notre Dame t-shirt when the door opened. She ran out to the hall to see Gavin Bell, her boyfriend of two years, hanging up his wet overcoat, melting snow dripping through his thinning sandy hair. His leather briefcase rested against the base of the table, and the key fob for his Mercedes SUV was on the table next to the regular keys for her old Jeep. He’d brought another bottle of wine. But no flowers.

“Hey,” she said. “Look … I’m sorry about last night.”

“Yeah,” he said, giving her a quick one-armed hug. “Me too. What’s for dinner?”

“Um,” she said, trotting after him down the hall. “I just got back. I haven’t had time to make anything.”

“So late? I thought your little seminar was over hours ago. Ugh,” he said, entering the kitchen ahead of her. “This place is a mess.”

“I know,” she said, snatching the tissues off the counter and throwing them in the trash. “I’ll clean up. Should we order out? Maybe we could celebrate a little. There’s some good news — “

“Oh, you know? Did my mom call? She’s happy for me. For us. New York is a big step.”

“New York? What, no, I mean I’ve got — “

“Hesitations, I know. But it’s a great opportunity. The firm is expanding out of Chicago. Bell, Stroibel and Bernstein is really growing.”

The Bell in Bell, Stroibel, Carver and Bernstein wasn’t Gavin. It was Gavin’s father, Richard, who founded one of Chicago’s largest law firms, and lived with Gavin’s mom (Richard’s third wife) in their ritzy Kenilworth mansion along Chicago’s North Shore. Gavin was being groomed for partner, having gone to Notre Dame Law. She’d met him a two years ago at a home football game; her season ticket seat was one row in front of his.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it, but that’s really exciting, Gavin. I also have some news — “

“I mean, what an opportunity” Gavin plowed ahead, taking a corkscrew from a drawer and opening the new bottle. “And my dad swears it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m his son. I know I’m just an associate, but if I do well helping to open the New York office, I could be partner in five years. Then it would be Bell, Bell, Stroibel, Carver and Bernstein! Imagine, Trina! New York. Central Park. Fifth Avenue. Anyway, we’ve got to go out there to sign the lease on our new office space. We leave tomorrow. I want you to come and scout out some apartments. Verna in the front office lined up a real estate agent to take you around.”

“I can’t, Gavin. I have some exciting news too. Can I please tell you?” While he talked, she dutifully pulled two glasses off the rack and filled them.

“What do you mean, you ‘can’t’? It’s Thanksgiving break now. You’ve got a free week.”

“I know,” she said, offering him a glass. He snatched it and took a long drink. “And I get to go to England! Isn’t that exciting? I’ve never been, and I got my passport before our Spain trip got canceled last summer for your work, and I’ve always — “

“Wait a minute. What are you talking about, England? When did this happen?”

She told him about Edelstein’s offer with as much enthusiasm as she could muster. The smile on her face was no match for Gavin’s scowl, however. Before she finished she knew they were headed for another fight.

“This is ridiculous,” Gavin said. He refilled his glass, but not hers. “You can’t just fly off to London last minute without letting me know.”

“Please, Gavin. Be fair. You didn’t let me know about this whole New York thing until just now, too. That’s pretty last minute — “

“Yeah, but New York is important, Trina. I’m the one with the career.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I work just as hard — “

“I didn’t say you don’t work hard. I just wish you worked hard at a career.”

“That is not fair! I do have a career, Gavin. Just because it’s not as lucrative — “

“That’s an understatement. What you make barely pays our grocery bill.”

“Ouch,” Trina said, anger rising. She took a breath. “I make more than that.”

“I’m sorry,” Gavin said, draining his glass again. There was no warmth in his apology. “But honestly, Trina, you have to face it. You have a masters degree in the middle ages. I’m an associate in one of the midwest’s largest law firms. Our future hinges on my career, not your … your, history stuff.”

“But I like what I do, Gavin.” She sat on a stool, pushing her wine away. Another deep breath.

“And I liked racing Porsches when I was an undergrad! But I can’t do that any more, except on weekends, of course, when I borrow dad’s. Point is, I grew up, Trina. You need to, too. We’re both in our late twenties. It’s time to stop playing grad student. We’re going to New York. We can go to London some other time, maybe on firm business. Ok? Good. I’m going to go change.”

He downed his third glass and turned to go.

“No,” Trina said.

“What?” Gavin stopped, his right thumb hooked into his half-loosened tie.

“I’m not going to New York with you. I’m going to London.”

Gavin tried to stare her down. His thin frame and thinning hair did not make him very imposing, and he’d certainly never hurt her, but she didn’t like how little compassion she saw in his eyes. She stared back, trying to hold her smile, trying to find common ground.

After a moment he looked away, but his tone icy. “I’m not going to jeopardize my future career over a bunch of long-dead people no one remembers. The past is the past, Trina. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

His words felt like a punch to the gut. “It matters to me, Gavin.”

“Fine,” he said. “Go to London. I’ve got a lot of work to do before I leave tomorrow. I’ll be in my office. A sandwich would be nice.”

He stomped off, his custom leather loafers slapping the wood floor.

A door slammed.


Trina stepped into her boots, threw her puffy Patagonia jacket over her shoulders, and snatched her keys off the table, forgetting that she was still in her sweats.