The Newton Cipher – Snippet 05
Two days earlier
Charlotte Dovey pinned a new slide onto the metal stage and adjusted the knobs on her digital microscope. It was late, and most of the other techs had gone home, but Charlotte had promised the director of the lab that she’d analyze these dried petals before tomorrow.
England’s Kew Gardens had been the world’s premiere botanical garden for nearly two centuries. When England’s navy controlled the seas and the British Empire ruled most of the planet, plant specimens from all over the globe were brought to Kew to be studied, cataloged, and cultivated. Over seven million plants were preserved in its massive collections. Covering nearly three hundred acres, Kew had laboratories, flower gardens, herbaria, one of the world’s largest and most magnificent greenhouses … even a Chinese pagoda. It even has its own police force, the Kew Constabulary, proudly patroling the grounds since 1847.
It was past seven o’clock. Most of her colleagues had gone.
The new slide in place, Charlotte turned the microscope on. On the table next to her scope, the thirty-two inch LCD monitor changed from displaying a fuzzy darkness to a more focused dimness, in which patterns on a dusty purple background came into focus. The bottom corner of the indicated the magnification: 100x.
“Look at these striations,” she said to the man next to her. Justin Black sat on the stainless-steel lab table, kicking his heels against its cabinet doors while he slurped a can of lager.
“Whoa, striations!” he mocked.
“Dammit, Justin,” Charlotte said. “If you’re going to mock me at least stop kicking. You’re making the table shake. It’s bad enough you’re drinking in my lab.”
“Aw, c’mon, Char,” Justin said. “What’s bad enough is you working late again. I missed you last night.”
He reached out and grabbed Charlotte’s arm, tugging.
“C’mon!” she giggled. “I’m trying to work!” She pushed him back and his head bumped into the shelf above him, rattling a few dozen blue-capped bottles and making their liquid contents slosh.
“Bloody hell! That hurt, Char.”
“Serves you right. Now stop it.”
“Just one kiss, Char. Then I’ll lay off.”
“Fine.” Charlotte let Justin smash his mouth against hers. He tasted like beer, and his tongue was like a flopping fish, but she responded in kind. Anything to get him to leave her alone for a few minutes.
“Ok,” she said, finally pulling away. “Now you keep your end of the deal. Leave me alone until I finish these last few slides.”
“Fine.” He took another swig of his beer.
“You really shouldn’t have that in here, you know.”
“Well, you won’t go round the pub with me tonight so what am I supposed to do?”
“Maybe ring your mates?” Charlotte clicked her mouse, taking a screenshot of the purple striations before slotting yet another slide into the microscope.
“Mikey and Doug are busy.”
Justin hopped down from the counter and walked to where he’d left his knapsack. He pulled out another bottle of beer. “Besides, they’re not as cute as you.”
“Aww, aren’t you a sweetie — whoa! Check this out.” The next image came to life on the screen. She upped the magnification to 200x.
“I don’t know — some kind of histogram pattern in these old, dry leaves.”
“Histogram. Rectangular shapes that follow a pattern, a function based on the variable of their interval.”
“Function of the what — ?”
“It’s just a pattern, ok? I’m trying to figure out what kind of petals these are. They’re really old, pressed into some papers some historian just found. The British Library sent them here to be analyzed, and I promised Dr. Tyndall I’d have a report ready tomorrow.”
“Tyndall pushes you too hard.”
“Maybe. But I like my job. This is actually fun for me.”
She adjusted the microscope stage slightly, sweeping the slide under the lens to scan the petal. Something caught her eye and she upped the magnification again, to 400x.
“Wow! Look at that!”
Justin looked unenthusiastically. “Looks like little bubbles.”
“Yeah — could be pollen grains. I’ll need to run some tests.”
“Bloody ‘ell, not pollen grains! On a flower petal? Quick, call the Royal Society. It’s the bloody discovery of the century!”
“Oh shut up, Justin. Now you’re just being an arse.”
“Sorry Char. I’m just reeeealy bored. Going out of my skull here.”
“Then make yourself useful and hand me that tube of samples over there. And careful, those petals might be hundreds of years old. They’re fragile.”
She reached up to the shelf over her lab table to grab a few more sets of empty slides. When she turned back around, Justin was standing behind her, a stupid grin on his face and his tongue sticking out. On his tong was something dark and flat. In his right hand was the open test-tube of petal specimens, a handful of desiccated herb-like flakes at the bottom. In his other hand was the tube’s rubber stopper.
“Oh my god, Justin!” She snatched the tube from his hand and set it carefully in a rack on the counter. “Please tell me you didn’t just eat one of those. Are you completely daft?”
He leaned in, tongue still out, and wiggled it suggestively. “Eeef you vant theeth pethal so muth, why thont you come an geth ith?”
“I am not kissing you with that thing in your mouth. And what the hell are you thinking? That specimen is old. I don’t even know what it is yet. It could make you sick. And I could get in serious trouble. Idiot.”
Justin was leaning forward, tongue lolling, a stupid grin on his face. She pushed him back, giggling despite herself. “No. You’re drunk. Or nearly. Now are you going to let me work or not? The more you screw around, the longer it’ll take.”
“Fine.” He slumped into a chair, pulled out his smartphone, and started playing a game.
A few blissfully silent minutes later she had placed the remaining samples on numbered slides, and lined them up on a wide tray.
“I’m gonna run down the hall to the spectroscopy machine to run some absorption tests,” she said. “That’ll give me some data I can compare to the Kew collections database.”
“Uh huh,” Justing said, absorbed in his game.
“Be right back.”
When she returned fifteen minutes later, Justin was leaning back against the wall.
“I don’t know. My tummy hurts. Got a headache.”
“Too much beer, not enough food. Just rest. I’m almost done.”
She looked over a printout for a few minutes, compared it to a database on her desktop screen, and finally declared — as much to herself as Justin — “Brilliant. Just as I thought. It’s genus tulipa alright. Tulips. Now I have to figure out the species, which could take — “
Justin groaned, and Charlotte looked over in alarm.
“Uhhhh … Char, I’m not feeling right.”
She went over to him. He looked pallid, and his head was warm.
“Uh oh. You probably have a bug. Go back to the flat. Can I call you a cab?”
He stood up. Shaky at first, then he stabilized. “Nah. I can take the Tube.”
“Ok.” The closest Underground station was only a few minutes walk. And from there it was only five stops to their flat. He could manage it.
“Yeah. I’ll go to bed. Call in sick tomorrow. Spend some quality time with my Playstation.”
She gave him a hug. He was warm alright. Burning up.
“Get going. Give me an hour to try to narrow down the species and get some other data. Then I’ll come make you some tea.”
“What about your report?”
“If I do the tests tonight, I can write it up in the morning.”
“Ok Char. Sorry I was such an arsehole tonight.”
“It’s ok. Just go. See you soon.”
She walked him down the hall to the lab’s exit door, and waited until she saw him walk past the guard gate and onto the street. The Tube station was a short walk. He’d be fine.
Back inside, she scrutinized her slides more closely. The petals weren’t just dark from being dry. The absorption analysis showed that it had been a dark-colored flower when alive.
That helped narrow it down some, but there were still multiple species of tulipa with dark petals. She scrolled through the Kew database, and before she knew it an hour had passed. And she was still no closer to an answer.
She thought for a second, and decided on a different track. Instead of trying to match petal colors, she decided to check for substantial differences in the pollen grains found in some of the samples.
“Huh,” she said, looking over the spectrographic analysis printout. The data didn’t correspond to known absorption patterns of pollen of any type in the database.
She ran another quick search, frowned at the negative result, then checked the printout and searched a third time.
She went back to the microscope and re-inserted one of the slides. She located the pollen grains, and increased magnification.
“Ok, that’s really strange.” It was getting late and her eyes were playing tricks on her; the lighter striations on the magnified petals almost looked like they formed words.
Charlotte rubbed her eyes. “God, I’m tired.”
She turned to another computer, cropped her screenshots, and tried a reverse image search.
“Huh,” she said to the empty lab. “Interesting.”
What she had weren’t pollen grains. They were bacteria. Old, obviously, but remarkably vital looking. However, she was a botanist, not a microbiologist.
“Damn,” she muttered. “Back to the brute force method.”
She went back to the database of tulip subgenera and started sorting them by color again, working her way through species after species.
Justin was a grown man. He could wait a little bit longer.
South Bend, Indiana
Trina’s 1990s-model Jeep Cherokee plowed through the snowy streets of South Bend. She took the turns slowly, trusting the 4×4 to do the rest. She’d grown up with Jeeps in the Rockies, and took her dad’s with her when she moved to northern Indiana. It had been a good decision.
Crossing the narrow bridge over the river, she pumped her brakes and rolled through a four-way stop. Cops had other worries on a night like this, and keeping up her momentum was more important than risking a ticket. Besides, she didn’t see another car anywhere.
The snow was falling thick and heavy as she turned onto Alasdair’s street. There were a number of tire tracks in the snow, becoming less frequent as they turned onto various driveways. At the end of the street, in the cul-de-sac, she saw a final pair of tracks heading straight up Alasdair’s driveway.
Good, he was home. After she bought her ticket to London she’d tried calling him to share the news, but there was no answer. But he’d arrived home not too long ago, maybe thirty minutes judging by the depth of the tracks. Not more than an inch of fresh snow had filled them.
Hopefully he’d had time to finish the letter of introduction he’d promised. A letter from him would open doors for her in England — literally. Many institutions required references before allowing an unknown scholar like her loose in their archives.
She downshifted as she cleared the pillars that bordered Alasdair’s driveway. Although she couldn’t see it for the snow, she knew its counters well, having driven it many times. In the past, when Alasdair was traveling, she’d offered to check on his house. And sometimes, when she needed a quiet place to get away, she worked in his library. She didn’t mind — in fact, Alasdair encouraged her to browse his library for research materials. And in warmer months, she’d often come and relax in his back garden beneath leafy old oaks and maples, watching the slow St Joseph roll by, gently lapping the grassy banks.
Now, those trees were bare except for the snow. She peered up the driveway as she took the first turn, feeling all four tires of her Cherokee biting through the slick slush. Maybe it was the snow and the night, but the house looked dark. Not a single light on in any of the windows.
Strange. It was only eight o’clock. Even Alasdair wouldn’t turn in this early.
At the second turn, she slammed on the brakes as she came upon Alasdair’s Volvo. Her Jeep idled as she jumped out and wiped a layer of accumulated snow from the passenger-side window. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that he wasn’t inside, hurt … or worse.
“Alasdair,” she muttered. “Sometimes you scare me.”
Then, in the headlights of her Jeep, she saw footprints in the snow — careful, side-step prints.
Good. He’d gone into the house.
She got back in and drove her Jeep to the top of the driveway, parking where it flattened out. She slipped her smartphone into her pants pocket, and locked the Jeep with her key remote, hearing it beep behind her as she stepped carefully along the snowy walk.
She stopped when she saw the open door. It was only open a crack, but it was concerning. Alasdair was old, but he was not forgetful.
She pushed with two fingers. The door opened with a creak, revealing the dimly lit foyer. On the round table she saw her mentor’s keys and a pair of gloves.
“Alasdair? It’s Trina. You in the kitchen?” She closed the door behind her and stomped snow off her shoes and onto the mat, which she noted was already wet. Little puddles, spaced like footsteps on the wood floors, led across the room and down one of the halls.
“Ugh,” she muttered, hanging her down jacket on the old coatrack and removing her snow boots. Her sweat pants were soaked around her ankles. She really should have rethought her wardrobe choices this evening.
“Hey, Alasdair?” she padded down the hall in her socks. “I hope it’s ok I stopped by. I’ve got good news! I, uh, talked with Gavin and, well, I’m going to go to London! I just got a ticket for tomorrow. I tried to call to see if I could get that letter you promised.”
She came into the kitchen and stopped. It was empty, only the little bulb above the stove giving any light.
A breeze came from the direction of the butler’s pantry. Then a rattle, as if a door was swinging on its hinges. She flipped the light switch on the wall and fluorescent bulbs flickered to life. Why did they always put fluorescent lights in these old houses? They made everything look so pale and flat. She moved through the pantry, past cans of soup and boxes of stale crackers.
“You in your office?”
Between the butler’s pantry and the hall to the scullery — now Alasdair’s office — was a door that lead to the back gardens. It was open, blowing back and forth in the winter wind. On the patio outside, fresh footsteps disappeared into the night.
“What the — ?” she stepped out and looked around. “Alasdair? Are you out there? Hello?”
The wind and snow carried away her words. There was no response. She reached back inside and turned on the patio light. A tiny forty-watt bulb, it barely cast any light into the storm.
“Damn,” she said, stepping back inside and slamming the door. What the hell is he doing in the back yard on a night like this? Maybe he is getting senile. She was about to go back for her coat, figuring she ought to check the back yard, when she heard a moan coming from the office just few feet away.
She rushed in, saw an upturned chair on the far side of the lamplit desk, and heard another groan.
Edelstein was sprawled on his back, his skin waxy. Purple welts covered his neck, and something dripped from the sides of his mouth.
Trina knelt at his side, raising his head onto her lap. He jerked, then coughed — once, twice — and suddenly vomited. Clear liquid, tainted with bile.
Water. At least a gallon of it.
When he was done he looked up at her, feebly, and smiled.
“Alasdair! What happened? It’s like you’ve almost drowned!”
Instead of answering, he reached into the pocket of his coat and withdrew something on a chain. He pressed it into her hand.
“Yes! Right! I’ll call for help. Did someone hurt you? What happened?”
“You … to help,” he grasped her wrist, pressing the chain into her flesh. It was warm.
“Yes, I’ll get help. Right away.”
His eyes bulged at her, trying to communicate what his mouth couldn’t. Then they rolled back in his head and he slumped off her lap and onto the floor, breathing shallowly.
Trina pulled out her smartphone, dialed 911, and asked the female voice that answered for an ambulance.
Was it an accident? Trina didn’t know.
A break in? Trina didn’t know that either.
I’m sending the police and and the paramedics. Trina told her about the icy, twisting driveway.
I’ll tell them to be careful.
Then she checked on Edelstein. He was breathing. She ran to the front of the house, looked out the window, saw nothing.
She grabbed her coat and ran back to Edelstein. His color was coming back a little. She bent over to cover him with her coat, to keep him warm, when she saw just how swollen his throat was. The thick welts on his neck looked … finger shaped.
Her panic was suddenly compounded by fear. The open front door. The open back door, and the footprints leading out into the storm.
Oh god, someone had been here. Maybe they heard her car beep, or call out Alasdair’s name when she came in.
She began to shake and leaned on Edelstein’s desk to steady herself, scattering a pile of mail next to Edelstein’s familiar leather satchel.
As she took a deep breath she felt the pressure on her palm, and realized she was still clutching the chain. It bit into her flesh as she pressed down on the wooden desk.
She shook it out, leaving the long chain glittering like a shining snake on the desktop. On it was a strange bauble — a locket or charm — fixed to the middle of the chain by a small silver loop. It was some kind of necklace.
Jewelry? Why would Edelstein give me —
She heard the rapid approach of sirens.
As she turned to run back to the front door, she caught sight of one of the envelopes by Alasdair’s satchel. A manila envelope with her name, in Edelstein’s shaky handwriting.
Ekaterina Poole Piper.
She grabbed the envelope, stuffed it into her coat pocket with the necklace, and ran to the front door.
Red and blue lights played over the snowy hillside, lighting it up the bare oak trees like a tacky Christmas display. The ambulance had made it right up behind her Jeep, and two police cars were wedged in behind it. There wasn’t a lot of room at the top of the driveway.
“In here!” she yelled from the open door. “Hurry!”