The Newton Cipher – Snippet 06
South Bend, Indiana
It wasn’t until Trina was back in her Jeep and crawling slowly down Edelstein’s driveway that the tears came. She could barely see the ambulance tracks ahead of her, still fresh from when it rushed Edelstein to the hospital twenty minutes earlier.
After they’d strapped him into a gurney and sped away, she’d answered questions for the police, even producing her receipt from the Saint Joe to prove she was where she said she was before coming to Edelstein’s house.
“You said he vomited at least a gallon of water?”
“It seemed like it. Look at that puddle — all of that was inside him.”
“Was he in the bathtub?”
“No. I found him in his office.”
“How can you explain all the water?”
“I … I can’t.”
“What about the bruises on his neck?”
“I don’t know. I saw him this afternoon on campus and he was fine.”
“How old is the victim?”
Trina guessed he was in his eighties but didn’t know exactly.
“Any family in the area we can contact?”
“I don’t know. He’s never talked about his family at all.”
“Does he have insurance? The hospital will want that.”
“I’m sure he does. His wallet must have been on him, but I can call the University in the morning and have the department secretaries get in touch with the hospital. They’ll want to know he’s ok. They might know if he has any family nearby.”
“Does he keep anything valuable around the house?”
“Not really. He’s a college professor. I mean, look around. It’s all books. He doesn’t even own a TV. Besides, he just got back from Europe yesterday. I don’t even think he’s gone grocery shopping yet.”
“Did he say anything at all to you when you found him?”
“Only that I should get help. That’s when I called 911.”
She showed them the footprints leading to the back yard, and they measured them against hers and Edelstein’s. The prints were large and deep, indicating a man, one officer said. Probably heavy and well over six feet. Not her or Alasdair.
I could have told you that.
Trina thought it best not to mention the necklace. Or the envelope. It was none of their business, and in fact they slipped her mind anyway. She knew she wasn’t the one who hurt Edelstein, and when the police were done with their questions they didn’t seem to think she was either.
She showed them where he kept a spare key and they said they would lock up once they took photos and dusted for fingerprints. Then they thanked her, told her she could go, and one of them even helped her out to her Jeep.
She didn’t even remember starting it up and heading down the driveway. It was still snowing. It wasn’t until she was near the bottom that it all came rushing back and she drew in a ragged breath. The tension in her body released, she shuddered and puffed out a great frosty breath.
Then she began to cry.
She pulled over in the cul-de-sac and let it out. Not a gushing river, just two steady streams. After a few minutes she wiped her face on her sleeve. Snow spattered her windshield, and the old wipers skittered as they brushed it away.
Flick, thump … flick, thump.
Her first thoughts went to Gavin. She picked her phone off the passenger seat and tapped out a text.
Prof. Edelstein hurt in robbery. I’m scared. Need U. Want 2 make this work. Ok 4 New York.
She waited. One minute. Two. The engine was running but the heater was slow to wind up, and her breath was fogging the screen.
Maybe his phone was on mute. Or he’d gone to bed.
She sighed. It was barely nine o’clock. Gavin never silenced his phone — a client could call at any time — and it was never out of his reach. Even when they were in bed together.
She sighed, the breath freezing as she blew it out, and tapped again.
OMW back now. C U soon.
The drive back downtown was slow, the roads slick. As she pulled into her parking spot she glanced up at their loft and saw no blue TV glow, no lights on anywhere. Not even in Gavin’s office.
Bed before ten. Maybe he’d had a long day after all.
She saw herself in the mirror in the elevator. Her sandy-blond hair was limp from the snow and her green eyes were puffy from crying; what little eyeliner she used had run down to her high cheekbones.
She ran her fingers though her hair, wiped her eyes, and tried on a smile which she held when the elevator deposited her on her floor.
“Gavin?” There was no response when she unlocked the door to their loft. There was a light on in the kitchen. Suddenly she was nervous again, remembering what happened to Edelstein.
She balled her hands into fists. She had an older brother, and knew how to throw a punch. She walked slowly down the hall, passing Gavin’s office. It was empty.
“Gavin? Are you in bed?”
Her heart began to race. Surely their loft was safe. The building’s outer door was always locked. The elevator required a keycard. Her apartment door was locked too.
She held her hands up to her face like a boxer and turned the corner to the kitchen with a little jump.
But the kitchen was empty, and she felt ridiculous.
It was then she saw the note lying on the counter, next to the nearly empty bottle of wine Gavin brought home.
Have it your way. I’m going to New York. Driving to Chicago tonight. I’ll stay with my parents and fly out Saturday. If we’re going to work out you need to make some changes.
Until then pls don’t text or call. I need space.
Trina took the bottle, sat on the couch, and started to cry.
She gave and gave, and Gavin took and took. He was sweet, he had his moments. But he always got his way because he could wear her down with guilt. Gavin had a goddam black belt in guilt. Two years together — they hadn’t even brought up marriage yet — and he wouldn’t even support her when she was scared, much less when an opportunity she could only dream of came her way. It was always about him.
She put her lips to the bottle and took a swig. It was warm and tasteless, and she spit it back in.
Fine. Go to New York.
She tried to empty her mind of thoughts of Gavin. But visions of Edelstein’s house rushed in to fill the void: Alasdair lying on his office floor, waxen, almost bloated. The welts, and all that water.
The thought made her angry — who would attack an old man?
Suddenly she felt compelled to … what? Not sit around and wallow in sadness, that was for damn sure.
She had helped Alasdair. Now he’d want her to help herself. She was sure of it.
She went into the bedroom and changed into jeans and a hoodie. Then she dug into the back of her closet and found her suitcase and an old knapsack that had been her brother’s. Fifteen minutes later she was driving her Cherokee though the night along I-80 toward Chicago. The snow had stopped and the plows had kept the interstate clear. For a second, just a second, she considered turning right on 94 toward Kenilworth and Gavin’s parent’s house. Mansion, rather. She’d made the trip many times. God, it was a beautiful neighborhood. Gavin might still be awake, sipping scotch with his dad. They could talk, she …
The Jeep went straight. Twenty minutes later, a little past midnight, she pulled into a remote parking lot of O’Hare International Airport. Her flight boarded a little after seven a.m. She set her phone’s alarm to wake her at five.
Then Trina leaned the seat back as far as it would go, curled up beneath her down coat, and slept.
Chicago O’Hare International Airport
The Friday morning before Thanksgiving at one of the world’s busiest airports was chaos. Even by six a.m. the lines to get through security were excruciatingly long. O’Hare’s wide halls and high-arched skylights echoed crazily with the chatter of frustrated travelers, punctuated by the occasional announcements about final boarding calls and where to locate lost luggage.
After what seemed like an eternity in line, she lugged her bag up to the Lufthansa counter and set them on the scale with a grunt.
The well-dressed ticket agent smiled. Her German accent was faint, but noticeable.
“Tickets and passport, please.”
Trina reached in her pocket for her passport. When she pulled it out the necklace Edelstein had given her came out with it.
“Oops,” she said, taking it back and looping it over her head. It felt warm on the skin of her neck. “Here’s my passport.”
Trina produced her smartphone and found the link in her email, then showed her the screen.
“I didn’t have the chance to print it off.”
The agent tapped at her keyboard. “Kein problem, Miss Piper. I can print it for you.” She flipped through Trina’s passport. “It’s totally empty! You have no stamps or visas.”
“I’ve never used it before. But I always hoped to. Today’s the day.”
“Very exciting. London is a wonderful city. You should go on to Germany sometime. This is the time of year when we have our Christmas markets. Mulled wine and holiday breads. Very gemütlich — cozy.” She moved Trina’s bag from the scale to the conveyer belt behind the counter.
“I’d love to go to Germany. I study medieval history.”
“Then you must go. Germans were a big part of the middle age. In the meantime, here’s your ticket to London. Enjoy Business Class, Miss Piper.”
“Business Class. It offers a wonderful choice of meals. And be sure to try the German wines. I recommend the Riesling. Guten tag.”
“I, uh, I didn’t buy a business class ticket. Couldn’t afford that if I wanted to.”
The agent tapped at her keys again.
“Ach, but there you are. Seat 10A. Window, upper deck. Enjoy.”
“Thank you,” Trina said, flummoxed. “I will.”
As she walked away the agent called after her. “Also, business class means you can use the express security line.”
Trina turned to make sure she heard her correctly, but the ticket agent was already checking in another traveler.
Trina was through security in no time; she didn’t need to take off her shoes or even remove the necklace from around her neck. Thanksgiving travel at O’Hare was supposed to be a nightmare. But so far it was a cakewalk.
A giant Lufthansa Airbus 380 waited at her gate. She’d never seen a plane so big, much less flown in one.
Nearby TV monitors were tuned to CNN. On the ticker, between updates on the stock market and midwestern storms was something about that murder in London Sammy told her about.
London police are still searching for leads in the gruesome “Tube Terror” murders in the city’s underground subway system.
“Murders?” Trina muttered. She thought there had only been one killing.
She checked her phone: just past seven thirty. Not too early to text Sammy. It still felt a little odd engaging one of her students for professional services, although the University didn’t have a policy against it. After all, some of her students were baristas at the student center espresso bar, and she bought coffee from them all the time. Sammy was a virtual assistant, who helped people buy plane tickets and book hotels. What was the difference?
Morning, Sammy. Trina Piper, at O’Hare. You are amazing. How’d you get me in Business Class?
While she waited, she sipped a latte she picked up at one of O’Hare’s Starbucks, and watched travelers hurry by. Out the terminal windows the winter sun had risen on a cold, gray Chicago day. The snow on the runways was gray with dirt from the criss-cross traffic of luggage carts and taxiing airplanes.
Her phone buzzed.
Hey Professor P! U got biz class?
Trina tapped back. Yep.
Cool. But wasn’t me. Bought U econo tix. Bet the system did it automatically. Busy travel day, maybe economy overbooked.
Well, it’s awesome. Faster security, too.
Great! Enjoy London. Say hi to Big Ben 4 me.
Will do, Sammy.
Trina took a sip of coffee, thinking. Then she tapped her screen.
Hey, something happened last night. I need UR help.
U bet, Prof P. What’s up?
Found Edelstein at home, unconscious. Called 911 and got him to hospital.
Whoa! He ok?
Paramedics seemed to think so. Can U check on him once or twice for me at the hospital? South Bend Central. And can U go by his house to make sure it was locked up? I’ll pay for gas and time.
She texted Edelstein’s address.
U got it.
Anything, Prof P.
BTW I thought I told you I wasn’t a professor, Sammy.
Not yet. But U will be, PROF P. ;)
Lol. Gotta go Sammy. Boarding soon.
Have a good flight.
At the gate, the stewardesses were a blur of German efficiency. Trina double checked her backpack: ticket and passport, laptop, phone, a cheap paperback thriller, the envelope from Edelstein, two credit cards, and her health insurance card.
Health insurance! Suddenly she remembered her promise to have the secretaries in the Medieval Institute call the hospital. She dialed the department number from memory. They weren’t usually there until nine, and she got the department voicemail.
“Hi Debbie or June. It’s Trina Piper. I’m about to get on a plane to London. I don’t want to alarm you, but Alasdair is in the hospital and they need his University health insurance information. I went by his house last night …”
When she finished, having left the name of her London hotel in case they needed to find her, she shut down her phone and slid it into her backpack. The sun was a little brighter now, pushing its way though the gate’s tall, dingy windows.
“Attention, passengers. Lufthansa Flight 4922 with service from Chicago to London is now pre-boarding all First and Business Class passengers.”
Trina walked to the gate though a shaft of wan winter sunlight, a bounce in her step.
Somewhere over Newfoundland, Trina sipped her second glass of riesling. Lunch had been tortellini and grilled vegetables, with some sort of dense chocolate cake for desert.
Her seat was massive. She could stretch out her entire five-and-a half foot frame, and they even gave her slippers and a soft duvet to cover her legs. Then and there she decided that if she hadn’t been born and raised on a ranch in the mountains outside Laramie, Wyoming, her second choice would have been born into royalty. She could totally get used to this.
As she watched the implacable Canadian coast give way to the stormy blue Atlantic, some of the excitement of travel receded. She still ached from spending the night curled in her Jeep’s front seat. By comparison, her Business Class seat was a king-sized bed.
Trina reached back to massage her neck, her hand brushing the chain of the necklace. With everything that had happened in the past twelve hours, she still hadn’t given it a good look. She took it off and laid it on her lap.
The chain was silver, but darker than the usual bright metal she’d seen in jewelry stores — the patina of age and use. It was also finely wrought: the links of the chain were meticulously crafted by hand, each showing slight differences upon close inspection. It had two hinged clasps, not just one, and after a little fiddling she realized they could be used to secure two lengths of the looped chain together, to make it into one double-strength chain. Perhaps for a gentleman’s pocket watch.
Now and then she’d glimpsed such a chain peeking from beneath Edelstein’s scholarly robe. Could this have been the same one?
But the bauble that hung on the chain was the most intriguing part of the necklace. It was a flat oval, lozenge-like, of the same dark silver as the chain. It was roughly made; the oval wasn’t perfect as you’d expect from modern, mass-produced jewelers. She felt little bumps and ridges as she brushed the tip of her finger over its surface.
On one of the flat sides was a tree-like design in what looked like gold filigree. Fine, branch-like structures spread out from a central trunk, although if it was meant to be an actual tree it was like no tree she had ever seen. If anything it was stylized, representational. Or merely a design created by a random process: gold (or some gold alloy) melted and allowed to spread as it wished.
On the other side were four letters, scratched as if with a rough tool, but in an archaic, curving style: two letters on top, and two more beneath:
“E for Edelstein?” she wondered. But the other letters didn’t fit, at least if this chain belonged to Alasdair. An heirloom? She knew nothing about Edelstein’s family, so G.S. and E.P. could be anyone.
If she didn’t know better, she’d have pegged the script as seventeenth to eighteenth century, English or Colonial-American cursive. Maybe even a hint of the style known as Round Hand, developed in the 1660s. Unless it was just an imitation. No … her historian’s instinct told her this was not a forgery. More like someone’s old amulet.
She stared at it a while longer, rubbing her fingers and thumb over it like a worry stone. The motion was soothing, even though some of the rough spots and the branches of the tree were prominent. Pushing too hard actually hurt, like pinpricks.
“It’s pretty,” said a voice next to her.
Trina nearly jumped out of her seat.