The Newton Cipher – Snippet 04
The Saint Joe
South Bend, Indiana
The Saint Joe was one of South Bend’s most popular restaurants. Housed in an old mansion built during the heyday of the Studebaker era, the Saint Joe looked like an old stone castle, four stories high. Its walls were built with river rock, and accented with cut limestone arches and columns. A red slate roof was pierced by multiple chimneys and a round turret that dominated one corner. The grounds were green and manicured — at least in summer — with huge oaks and maples providing shade. It was popular for weddings.
Inside, rooms of all sizes had been converted to dining spaces ranging from the intimate to the massive, for romantic first dates to large family gatherings. A mahogany staircase dominated the huge central foyer, decorated with carved lion’s heads an intricate scrollwork, and wood paneling covered nearly every square inch of wall space. The floors were wood as well — wide-planked and shiny-smooth from over a hundred years of use.
Upstairs on the second floor was the massive three-sided bar. Trina watched the snow slough off her boots as she stomped up each step, the plush blue runner absorbing the slush almost instantly.
At the top she wasn’t surprised to see most of the stools empty. On a night like this most people stayed home, and those that were at the Saint Joe were enjoying tables downstairs near one of the restaurant’s many fireplaces — a relic of the past, when homes this big needed a fireplace in each room for heat.
Sammy, clad in her Saint Joe apron, was at the far side of the bar. She was wiping out a pint glass with a white towel. “Oh, I’m sorry, I mean, um, Miss Piper. Still seems weird to call you that. How’s it going? Didn’t expect you’d take me up on that drink so soon. Especially on a night like this.”
“Hey, Sammy,” Trina said. She didn’t try to hide the sadness in her voice. “I didn’t expect to either. But, well … I just needed to get out of the house for a bit.” She smiled sheepishly as she shrugged off her coat.
“Well,” Sammy said, eyeing Trina’s baggy sweats. “At least you’re dressed comfortably.”
“Ugh, sorry. I thought I was going to be in for the night. Then I, you know, kind of left in a hurry.”
Sammy nodded sagely. She was a bartender, after all. Already wise beyond her years, at least when it came to other people.
“Boys,” she said. “Been there, Miss Piper. You’ve come to the right place. As I said in class, this one’s on me. Old Fashioned, right?”
“Yes, please. Make it strong.”
“Rye or burbon?”
Sammy smiled, placing a small bowl of nuts in front of on the bar. Trina munched as Sammy mixed.
“Rittenhouse,” Sammy said, setting down a rocks glass. Golden liquor sloshed around a single chunk of ice as a deep-red Italian cherry slowly settled toward the bottom. Trina took a sip and smacked her lips, grimacing with pleasure. The first sip was always the strongest, until the ice mellowed out the bite.
“Fantastic. Hits the spot.”
Sammy went to serve a few other customers, while Trina sipped contentedly, feeling the warmth of the drink and the Saint Joe chase away the cold outside, and the cold in her heart.
“Wanna talk about it?” Sammy was back, slicing oranges on a cutting board.
“Well,” Trina paused. “I am technically your instructor, at least for a few more weeks until the semester ends. But university rules don’t say we can’t fraternize with our students. Can’t date you, of course, but spilling my guts is probably ok.”
They both laughed.
“No worries, Miss Piper. I’m happily engaged to Brian. You don’t seem happily anything tonight.”
Trina relayed the gist of her fight with Gavin. Sammy frowned and nodded, then got excited when she heard about England. “And since I’m telling you all this, Sammy, you may as well just call me Trina.”
“England? That’s so cool, Miss — Trina.”
“I think so. Gavin doesn’t.”
“Oh,” Sammy frowned.
“Speaking of England,” she grabbed a remote control from behind the bar and turned on one of the TVs on the wall, normally reserved for college football games. One of the twenty-four hour news channels came on. Gruesome Murder on the London Underground scrolled across the screen. The volume was off, and some reporter in an overcoat was talking, the landmark tower Big Ben behind him. Terrorism Not Ruled Out scrolled by.
“Wonderful,” Trina said. “Turn it off. I’ve had enough depressing news tonight.”
“London’s a big city,” Sammy said, clicking the remote. “Wacko murders happen everywhere. Just be safe.”
“Be safe? You make it sound like I’m going.” Trina polished off her drink. “I have my seminar to consider.”
“You have to go, Trina! It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Besides, Professor Edelstein told you that you’d be back within the week. And it’s Thanksgiving Break! Should be enough time to look over the documents, make sure Newton dotted his ‘i’s and crossed his ‘t’s or whatever you do, and boom. And then you’re right after Break. None of your students will even know you were gone.”
Sammy pursed her lips and make the turn-the-lock, throw-away-the-key gesture. Then she picked up the bottle of Rittenhouse and shook it suggestively. Trina nodded.
While Sammy mixed her another drink, Trina thought.
As of tomorrow, Friday, Notre Dame was officially on vacation. She’d been planning to stay home, grade papers, binge some TV, and — at least until Gavin changed plans last minute — join Gavin’s family in Chicago for Thanksgiving dinner. Her dad, in Wyoming, was visiting her brother in Montana, and she didn’t have the time to travel all that way.
“I know, I should go. God, I want to go. But Gavin and I …”
“He’ll be in New York, right?”
“Yeah, but he’ll be upset.”
“So will you, right? I mean, if you don’t go to England?” She set down the fresh Old Fashioned and a new bowl of nuts.
“Yeah,” Trina said. “I would be. And I already told Edelstein I’d go. Before Gavin — Oh! Wait, it’s Thanksgiving week. This is the busiest travel season of the year. I’ll never get a ticket to London this late, even though the British Museum said they’d reimburse my expenses.”
“Excuses, excuses,” Sammy said. “Remember my other job?”
“Uh, you’re some kind of executive assistant?”
“Virtual assistant. Getting flights is what I do. And hey, would you look at the time? I’m due for a break.”
Sammy pulled off her apron, wiped her hands on a towel, and walked out from behind the bar. She whipped a large smartphone out of her back pocket and began tapping.
“American … Iceland Air … too many stops. Let’s see … British Airways. That’s direct, but full. Totally full. Damn. Okay … Lufthansa. There we go. Direct, early departure. You get in a bit late, but not too late. Enough time to get to your hotel.”
“Yeah, I know a great little hotel just off Hyde Park. I book it for my other clients. They love it, and I have a great relationship with the owner. So, Lufthansa Flight 4922, departing O’Hare at 8:35 tomorrow morning. Arriving London Heathrow about eight o’clock at night, London time. Most flights to Europe leave in the evening, but some airlines add an extra morning departure this time of year to accommodate holiday traffic.”
“It’s that easy?”
“Yep, and a travel agent discount, too.” Sammy beamed a self-satisfied smile at her.
Trina looked at the clock on the wall. It was 7:35. Could she? Did she still have time to get everything organized? To pack? Edelstein wanted her to stop by his house, too. And she’d need to call the bank, let them know she’d be overseas and not to block her credit cards.
So much to do …
Sammy’s finger was poised over her phone. “What do you want me to do, Professor Piper?”
“I told you, Sammy, I’m not a professor.”
“Not yet. But I think you should be, and this is a good first step.”
Trina drained her Old Fashioned in one swallow.
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah. Book it, Sammy. I’m going to go to London!”
House on the Hill
South Bend, Indiana
Alasdair Edelstein’s house sat at the top of a small hill in an old South Bend neighborhood. Last month, the neighborhood would still have been described as leafy. Now, at the end of November, it was merely icy.
He steered his old Volvo slowly along the winding neighborhood street, peering through the thickly falling snow. The windshield wipers jerked back and forth, feebly flicking away the flakes half melted by his defroster.
His old eyes had enough difficulty in good visibility; but in the darkness and in the snow, he was unable to see any further ahead than the next faint sphere of light cast by the irregularly-spaced streetlights on either side of the curving road.
Finally, where the street ended in a cul-de-sac, he aimed the Volvo between the two brick pillars that marked the sides of his driveway. The pillar on the left doubled as his mailbox, and he stopped long enough to roll down the window and collect it.
The snow had already covered the driveway ahead, but decades of experience coming home in inclement weather took over, and he gunned the engine, turned the wheel just past the first big oak on the right, and gunned it again to make it up the second switchback of his uphill driveway.
In hindsight, he knew should have left his office at the University much earlier, but he wanted to finish Trina’s letter of recommendation, as well as send a few emails. And do a quick bit of research on sixteenth-century occultism.
He’d been thinking …
A weather-beaten birdbath appeared suddenly in the headlights, looking like a giant snow-capped mushroom. The bath marked his next turn, and he swung the Volvo to the left, accelerating to get the momentum he needed to make it up the final — and steepest — part of the driveway.
When he was younger, he’d loved the long approach to his house. In fact, that was what first sold him on it — a tottering old Victorian, in need of a good coat of paint, perched high atop four acres of heavily-treed hill. Behind it, a three-tiered garden stepped down to the slow-moving Saint Joseph river. As a bonus, the twisting driveway that led up from the cul-de-sac below was daunting enough to turn away most unwanted guest.
Once he moved in, however, his house and its eccentric occupant were intriguing enough to entice adventurous trick-or-treaters and Christmas carolers who soon learned that Edelstein was eccentric but quite generous. Those who did make the climb up the driveway were rewarded with extra-large candy bars, or, during the week before Christmas, his own special wassail blended with Saigon cinnamon and French armagnac.
In short, he was the kind of quirky old man his neighbors rather liked, rather than shunned, even if they only saw him occasionally. And that was how he liked it.
But he was in his 80s now, and the neighbors came by less and less. At this age, the driveway was a challenge on good days, and a downright menace on bad ones. His driving skill simply wasn’t what it used to be, and, for that matter, neither was his old Volvo.
When the engine revved around the final turn the Volvo’s back end fishtailed, the tires spinning in the heavy snow. The car slipped left and then, with a jolt, skidded off the driveway.
Edelstein winced as the side of car hit the birdbath. He pressed the gas again, but the wheels just spun, causing the Volvo to shimmy and then, alarmingly, begin to slide backward.
“Damn,” Edelstein muttered. The only forward progress now would be on his own two feet.
He turned off the ignition, yanked on the emergency brake, and grabbed his leather satchel off the passenger seat, stuffing the mail inside first. He put on his gloves, set his tweed cap on his head, and flicked on the tiny flashlight that dangled on the end of his keychain. Then he opened the door and carefully stepped out.
The last few yards were relatively steep, and he took slow, sideways steps to keep his footing, aiming the light ahead of him as he made his way to where the driveway leveled off.
That was when he noticed the faint impressions in the snow, only partly covered by fresh flakes.
Footsteps, going to his front door.
Someone had been here. And not long ago.
The front door was closed, but unlocked. Edelstein pretended not to notice the small puddles of water on the mat inside as he turned the knob and pushed the door open fully. He flicked on the light and set his gloves and keys on the round table in the center of the foyer.
Old floorboards creaked as he walked down the hallway to the kitchen. It was not a particularly large house, but it contained such a variety of little rooms and passages that it felt much bigger than it was.
In the kitchen he filled a glass with tap water and made his way through the old butler’s pantry to his office, a converted scullery at the back of the house. Former pantry shelves were now stocked with books, and a large window looked out on the back gardens and down to the river. The view was dark, all he could see were the accumulations of snow in the corners of the old window panes.
Edelstein set down his satchel, took out the mail, and placed it alongside the glass of water on top of his scuffed wooden desk.
He turned on a small lamp. Soft yellow light reached the spines of old books and scholarly journals crammed onto the shelves around him. On one wall, a faded print of Teniers the Younger’s The Alchemist hung in a cheap frame. Edelstein peered at it: an old man, hunched over a bellows to heat a crucible, transmuting one metal into another; behind him hovered his acolytes, discussing their own decoctions, seemingly oblivious to the magical transformation the alchemist was about to produce.
But he was their teacher. Their turn would come.
Edelstein looked at the glass of water, still untouched, then idly patted the pocket of his coat.
Outside the wind blew, rattling the panes and pushing against the outer walls. The old house creaked. In the front hall the grandfather clock chimed the quarter hour, a distant echo from the far side of the house.
He almost didn’t hear the footsteps approaching.
Edelstein held his hand to the glass on his desk, palm outward. The water within trembled, sending slight ripples up against the rim.
“I wondered if you’d come,” Edelstein said. Then he added, “I won’t let you harm her.”
The man’s accent was thick.
“We shall see. Why do you not drink your water?”
Edelstein laughed. “Have you ever tasted South Bend tap water? Even you wouldn’t drink it.”
“Now it will be harder to kill you.”
“Impossible, I should think.” Slowly, almost arthritically, Edelstein sat back into the chair behind his desk.
The shadow stepped forward into the lamplight, resolving into a big man in a dark coat.
“Perhaps. But I shall try.”