The Newton Cipher – Snippet 07


A Plane to London

The woman sitting next to Trina was stunning. She was older; her skin stretched thin over her cheekbones and there was no shortage of wrinkles around her eyes, but her silver-gray hair, pulled back in a long, loose ponytail, was thick and silky. Her deep azure eyes were kind, and her relaxed smile made Trina think of the nuns she saw around Notre Dame, or some sort of meditation guru in a yoga magazine.

“I said, it’s very pretty,” the woman repeated. “Your pendant.”

She was wrapped in a long shawl, a thin scarf around her neck. Trina didn’t remember seeing her when she sat down, although the business-class seats had a partition between them. Trina thought the passenger next to her had been a younger, dark-haired woman in a business suit.

“Thank you,” Trina said. “It’s a gift from a friend.”

“Oh,” the woman said, her smile widening. “He must like you very much.”

“I suppose. We’ve known each other for a few years. He’s very nice ….” Trina stopped, suddenly catching the woman’s meaning. “Wait, I mean it’s not like that, he’s my professor, which, of course, isn’t bad, but he’s not like a cute professor where I sit in the front of his class all dreamy-eyed. He’s old, like, grandfather old, with white hair and … shit.

The woman giggled, which flustered Trina even more.

“I am so sorry. I mean, not that being old with white hair is a bad thing. Yours looks amazing — ah, dammit.” She took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry. I’ve had a really bad day yesterday, and I’m beat. The necklace was a gift from my old professor and our relationship is totally platonic. And I’m sorry I said he was old, or that you were. You’re beautiful, and I hope I look as good as you at, uh …”

Shit! Damn, damn, damn!

“My age?” The woman reached across and patted Trina’s arm. “It’s ok, dear. I am rather old. But thank you. And, yes, you look very tired. I didn’t mean to intrude. But I saw you playing with the pendant and I just couldn’t help commenting. It’s quite special. Keep it close.”

The woman’s hand was warm and firm on Trina’s arm, her words soothing. The weight of the past twenty-four hours seemed to catch up with her all at once, and Trina could barely keep her eyes open.

Outside the window, clouds drifted by, giving occasional glimpses of the ocean far below. Her eyes fluttered again, and she nodded once, then jerked her head up. She felt the pressure of the woman’s hand release and Trina turned to apologize for dozing off in the middle of their conversation.

She saw the dark-haired business woman struggling with the partition between them.

“Oh, hey, sorry if I woke you,” the young woman said, catching Trina’s eye. “This wall-thingy must have slipped down.” The woman yanked it up and locked it in place.

The business-class cabin was dark. Groggy, Trina pulled the duvet up to her chest. Isolated in a cocoon of warmth, feeling the vibrations of the plane, she fell into a dreamless sleep.


“Miss Piper?”

Trina stretched. Her eyes regained focus and she reached out to take the glass of orange juice the stewardess held out to her.

“Thank you.”

“We’ve arrived at Heathrow. You must have been tired — you slept through dinner, even the landing.”

“What time is it?”

“Just after eight in the evening. Welcome to London.”

 She downed the juice in one gulp. Business class was almost empty. Trina gathered her coat and backpack and looked around, confused.

“Are you alright?” the stewardess asked.

“Yeah,” Trina said. “I had the strangest dream. I guess I’m still waking up.”

“Alcohol and altitude will do that.” The stewardess helped her on with her coat, and a minute later Trina was walking up the jetway.

Heathrow was massive, spread out over five terminals. It made O’Hare look like a regional airport. She found a transportation desk, and gave the young man behind the counter the address of her hotel.

“The Parkview Arch? That’s right by the Marble Arch, near Hyde Park. Not the most original name, but lucky for you it’s easy to get to. Take the Heathrow Express train. You’ll be in Paddington Station in fifteen minutes. From there it’s a short walk, although at this time of night I’d advise a cab.”

She followed his directions to a lower level and bought a ticket at an automated kiosk. The train ran every few minutes, and while she waited she bought a bottle of water and a newspaper. She mostly got her news on the internet, but a newspaper seemed proper to carry on a train into London.

Now all I need is a bowler hat and umbrella.

The train arrived, a steel and glass snake that opened with a hiss. She found a seat and started to read. The headline was jarring.

“Tube Terror Continues: Fourth Night in a Row, Body Count Rises to Eight.”

Sheesh. Welcome to London.

The ride was over before she knew it, and she stepped out into bustling Paddington Station. High arches of thick metal beams, secured with rivets the size of her hands, nearly disappeared into a haze of light overhead. It was almost nine o’clock but the crowds were thick. It was Friday night, and London was on the move. She reveled in the newness of it — the throng of people, the cafés and news stands, the chatter of familiar words in unfamiliar accents.

She found her way outside and took a deep breath. London smelled like … a big city. Exhaust, garbage (that would be “rubbish” around here) cigarette smoke, and the prospect of rain.

Across the street was a line of black London taxi cabs, with a crosswalk at her feet. She looked left, checked that the street was clear, and stepped forward.

In a flash, a surge like lightning through her limbs, and she leapt back just as a blue BMW swerved to avoid her on her right. It honked angrily as she fell back onto the sidewalk, landing hard.

“Damnit!” How could she be so stupid? This was Britain, the land of wrong-way driving. Wrong to her, at least.

“You alright, miss?”

She was helped up by some well-dressed men, their ties loosened and collared shirts unbuttoned at the neck.

“Yeah,” she said, shaken. “I just — “

“A Yank?” one of them said.

“How’d you know?”

They laughed. She could smell the beer on his breath.

“You’re not the first American to look the wrong way before crossing our streets. But bloody hell, I’ve never seen anyone jump back so quickly, or so high. You a basketball player?”

“No. Just in fear for my life, I guess.”

“Well, be careful,” the man said, chuckling. “If our cars don’t get you, the Tube Terror will!”

He followed his friends into a nearby pub, staggering slightly.

Tube Terror?

Still shaking, Trina carefully crossed the street to the cabs, and climbed into the first in line.

“Parkview Arch Hotel, please.”

“Parkview Arch. Right close, it is. Be there in two shakes.”

And they were. It was a renovated Georgian townhome. Wrought-iron fencing separated its small front garden from the busy sidewalk. The fence had a little gate that opened on a short walk, at the end of which a bright red door beckoned invitingly.

Before she could knock, the door was opened by a middle-aged woman.

“You must be Miss Piper!” she said, helping Trina with her bags.

“Yes,” Trina said. “At least, that’s what it says on my passport.”

“Samantha told me you’d be coming in late. Your room is all made up. I’m Alice, by the way. Alice Huggins. Whatever you need while you’re here, you just let me know. I take good care of all of Samantha’s clients.”

“Samantha? You mean Sammy?”

“Well, we’ve never met in person, and her emails always say Samantha Klein. But if you call her Sammy, then Sammy it is.  Are you hungry? A cup of tea, perhaps?”

“Tea would be fantastic. I nearly got run over a few minutes ago outside Paddington and I’m a bit shaken up.”

Alice pressed a key into her hand. “Number 4, top of the stairs. I saved you a room facing the front, so you can look across at Hyde Park. Have yourself a nice hot shower and settle in. I’ll make you a chamomile. We’re a B&B, so breakfast will be down there in the morning.” She pointed to a small room full of little tables, already set with patterned china and vases of white daisies.

“Thank you, Alice.”

“Oh, and there is a message for you. On the phone in your room.”

“There is? From who?”

“Not sure. A man called a few hours ago, asking for you. I told him you hadn’t checked in yet, so he asked to leave a message. Press ‘#2’ on the phone.”

Trina’s room was small and comfortable. The floral-print wallpaper felt very English, as did the soft coverlet that draped over the double bed. A door in one corner lead to the bathroom, and a free-standing closet was open and ready to hold her clothes.

On a small table by the window, a phone blinked. She lifted the receiver and pressed #2.

“This message is for Ekaterina Piper. My name is Ulrik Stander, with Interpol’s Art and Artifacts Division. I understand you were the one who discovered Alasdair Edelstein, and that you are in London. I’m in Italy today, but will be back in England this weekend and need to speak to you at your earliest convince. My mobile is …”

His accent wasn’t British, but wasn’t exactly American, although he spoke English like a native.

There was a knock at her door.

“Trina? It’s Alice. I have your tea.”

“Just a second!”

She jotted down his number on a pad.

Interpol? And how did Stander know about Edelstein?

The Grecian

The Grecian Coffee House


Late January, 1683

Isaac settled onto the wooden bench at the back of the room, resting his elbows on the table. The Grecian Coffee house was small yellow building in Devereux Court, just off Fleet Street near the Strand. It was popular with members of the Royal Society, but today’s meeting was not on Society business. Across the room he caught the stares of men he knew, but they quickly looked away.

“Coffee?” A woman stopped at his table by with a stack of clay cups and a steaming jug.

He shook his head, no.

Isaac was not one for the hot-steeped Arabian berry. The liquid it produced was all blackness and bitterness, a taste that others, but not he, had acquired. With thousands of coffee shops in England, it seemed that all of London had taken to the intoxicating effects of the strange drink. They were not the same effects as gin or other alcohols of grain; but a kind of intoxication none the less: enhancing the senses and intensifying the thoughts of the mind.

Isaac could respect the enhancing benefits of coffee, but disliked the other effects: the jitteriness that enflamed the yellow bile, making him agitated and choleric. He drank the stuff sparingly.

Minutes went by, and he remained alone, listening only vaguely to the din of conversation around him, smelling the scent of tobacco and newsprint.

He reached into his pocket and flipped the little card onto the table, the one that had come to him in Cambridge a few days earlier.

The Grecian, London. Wednesday, after the noon.

 — ?

Like most requests for his time, he would have ignored it had not been for the signature: not a name, a symbol.

?, the alchemical symbol for lead, the basest of metals. But also the metal with the greatest potential for transformation.

In Latin, plumbum.


Isaac always wondered if, or rather when, this day would come. They day they would meet again, face to face, instead of Plumbago sending him instructions, and Newton complying, creating the formulas and elixirs Plumbago demanded, all in exchange for the man’s silence.

He tapped the table with fingers burned black by caustic chemicals. The tips were cracked, the nails bitten to the quick.

Then the man himself was there, sliding into the opposite bench and setting his hat on the table between them. He’d changed little in the two decades since Isaac had seen him, back in his undergraduate rooms at Cambridge during the time of the plague.

“Isaac Newton,” Plumbago said. “God save the King.”

If Plumbago was a day older than when he saw him last, Isaac couldn’t tell. But the man’s fashion had changed even if his well-groomed mustache had not: the velvet coat remained, but the lace at his cuffs and collar was shorter, and the brim of his hat was upturned on three sides, following the current fashion.

“God save the King,” Isaac said automatically.

“You look … more mature.”

Isaac’s hair had gone prematurely white. Not the white of an old man, but silvery-pale, the shimmering color of the philosophick mercury, Quicksilver. Travel from Cambridge had dulled that sheen to a dingy gray; but still remarkable for one whose face and features clearly marked him as a young man.

“I should hope so. It’s been twenty years.”

Plumbago motioned for coffee.

“Your fame as a natural philosopher is known far and wide, Isaac. When I first approached you, I had heard you were gifted. But even I had no idea: mechanickal philosophy? something called the binomial calculus of fluxions, which, despite my own considerable intellect, I am at a loss to understand? Oh, and the very nature of light! They say you have a book in the works, a book that will change our understanding of the laws of the heavens. A new celestial mechanics? You are indeed a wonder, Mister Newton.”

The coffee came, two steaming ceramic cups rattling on saucers. Isaac didn’t refuse it this time.

Plumbago sipped with evident pleasure, while Isaac watched the steam rise and curl, half of his mind unconsciously calculating the areas traced by their fluctuating curves.

“They say each of London’s coffee houses have different clientele,” Plumbago said after a time. “Some are frequented by the bankers, others by the insurers. Some, even, by conspirators and radicals.”

Newton knew this already. “I understand Lloyd’s is quite popular. Could we have not met there?”

“Lloyd’s?” Plumbago set his cup down, now half empty. “That is the coffee house for the shipping merchants, just as Jonathan’s is the house for the stock brokers. And this, the Grecian, is the coffee house of the philosophers. England is coffee-mad, Isaac. There’s a coffee house for everyone, and everyone in their proper house. The cosmos itself could not have ordered it better.”

“How very Aristotelian.”

“Don’t overthink it, Isaac. I simply thought you would feel more at home at the Grecian.”

“Nonsense. You wanted me in a public place, one where I am known. Presumably so I will not act out of turn.”

“A safe deduction,” Plumbago said, shrugging. “You do have something of a reputation. You and Mr. Hooke had quite a dispute over the nature of light, I understand? Poor old Hooke. I have no desire to cross swords with you, Isaac. The last time we met, I relied on your ignorance. I misjudged you.”

Isaac’s eyes narrowed. “And now?”

“I rely instead upon your evident genius.”

“Flattery?” Isaac shook his head. “After you’ve spent the past twenty years blackmailing me?”

Plumbago gave Isaac a hurt look. “My dear Newton, I’ve been protecting you. A scholar of your stature could ill afford to be found out as the very person who burned London to the ground.”

“I did no such thing!” Isaac slammed his hand on the table, splashing his coffee over the rim of his cup. Heads turned, and the Grecian grew momentarily quiet.

“It was you,” he leaned forward, his voice a hiss. “Using the formula you had me create. You used it to burn London, setting fire to those houses on Pudding Lane and thence the entire city, instead of incinerating the corpses of the dead! You lied …”

Plumbago produce a folded paper from his coat and let it flop open on the table between them. Even after these many years, Isaac recognized it immediately — the ribbons and seals, the finely-inked paragraphs.

“And yet you signed your name to this, declaring yourself author and creator of that volatile powder. It really was a superb concoction, you know. Makes gunpowder seem like an amusement by comparison. And you even signed your initials to the barrels. I’ve kept one, you know. A sort of memento.”

Isaac recalled his initials that he’d scratched on the inside each of those containers, groaning inwardly. An act of foolish vanity.

Plumbago had entrapped him.


“What is it you want from me this time?”

Plumbago reached out and wrapped his fingers around Newton’s forearm. To anyone else, it would have looked like a gesture of friendship. To Isaac, the man’s touch was unnaturally cold, and yet his skin was dry and stretched over his bony fingers like parchment.

“Nothing nearly as complex as burning London, Isaac. This time I only need your help in killing the King.”

Isaac nearly choked. He tried to pull his arm away, but Plumbago’s grip was incredibly strong. “The King?”

“And his brother too, of course. No point in killing the one and not the other. One Catholic arse on the Throne of England is as bad as another.”

Isaac could feel the blood drain from his face. It took every ounce of his already considerable self-control to overcome his desire to simply flee the Grecian. He’d once prodded the back of his own eyeball with a bodkin, just to see how changes to its shape affected his perception of light and color. Sitting still during that self-inflicted experimentation had been excruciating.

But this was far worse.

Plumbago gripped Isaac tightly as he quietly explained how a cabal of anti-Catholic members of Parliament plotted to have King Charles II and his brother James ambushed.

Regicide. The penalty for even thinking it was death. Plumbago’s grip was like a vice, making it hard to concentrate.

“The King is fond of the horse races at Newmarket …”

Newmarket. A town not far from Cambridge. Isaac desperately wanted Plumbago to relax his grip.

“… will pass by that moated castle known as Rye House with their retinue on the way back to London …”

Rye House, north of London. It felt like the blood of Isaac’s arm was freezing in its very veins.

“… whereupon they will be attacked by a force of revenanté. The King’s own advance guard. It will be a tragedy, triggering a national crisis.”

“Please,” Isaac finally gasped. “You’re hurting me.”

Plumbago released him, and Newton rubbed his aching forearm.

“All to be kept in the utmost secrecy, of course. But you already understand that. Don’t you, Isaac?”

Isaac’s mind was spinning, which was saying something. His was the mind that usually made others’ spin.

Revenanté?” Isaac finally said, regaining his composure. “Revenant? The risen dead? But I …”

“Cured that particular problem? Yes, you did. Now I need you to uncure it.”

Plumbago slid a small square of paper across the table. Isaac unfolded it. He recognized the petals almost instantly, despite not having seen them in twenty years.

“The tulip petals,” he said. “It was the source of the Dutch alchemy that turned plague victims into … revenants.”

“Golems, I think you called them. And these petals were their sham, I recall?”

Shem,” Isaac corrected. “In the lore of the Jew’s kabbalah, the shem was one of the names of God, written down and inserted into the lifeless golem’s mouth. It was the shem that gave them life. A golem could then be a commanded, to be a servant … even a killer.”

“Holland’s war with England made them clever; they turned their alchemy into a weapon, taking advantage of our desire for their rare blooms. You stopped their golems from running rampant in London. Now, however, I need you to show me how to make them. And make them better.”


“More subtle. Responsive. Deadly.”

Isaac was horrified at what Plumbago was asking of him. His mind, however, was already doing what it did best. It was his heart, however, that spoke first.

“Golems are traditionally made of mud or earth. Making a golem from a dead human is an abomination! As scripture tells us, man was made in God’s image.”

Plumbago waved this away. “The Dutch did it. Are they not pious? So can you. You are England’s greatest alchemist.”

Isaac sputtered. “You want me to help you raise the dead?”

“Yes, and control them.”

“This is not alchemy. This is necromancy!”

“Nonsense, Isaac. It’s merely another alchemical transformation. Life to death, and death back to life again.”

“It’s unholy!”

“Are not you yourself an Arian? Who are you to question what is holy?”

“This is treason!”

“This is England.”

Isaac gazed at Plumbago with horror. “I thought you were a Royalist. When you first approached me in Woolsthorpe during the plague, you said I was aiding King and Country.”

“And you were, Isaac. King Charles paid me well not only to find a way to stop the Dutch from brining our plague dead to life and terrorizing London, but also to get rid of the bodies quickly. And I found you.”

“And that man who helped you deliver the barrels, that man Clysto, he was a cavalier, was he not? A true defender of the crown. Now you plot to kill the very King he once helped put on the throne?”

“England will always have a monarch. That fanatic Cromwell made this devastatingly clear. The monarch, whomever he or she is, must serve the needs of England, not the other way around. Lately, Charles seems to forget this.”

“What does Clysto think of your new scheme?”

Plumbago shrugged. “Clysto served his purpose long ago. As did you — and you continue to be useful, whereas Clysto, to his great surprise, did not. Come now, do not look so shocked. He was an asset with short-term value, whereas you continue to pay what those at Lloyd’s might call dividends. I am a merchant, Isaac, a man of the world, not just Britain. I have clients, not loyalties. And my current clients wish to remove Charles.”

“Because he’s Catholic.”

“And most of England is not. The balance of power is shifting, Isaac. Surely you’ve heard the rumors, that there is talk of replacing him with the Dutch King William? Now there’s a good Protestant, William is, whereas Charles is a papist. My clients would very much like my help replacing one with the other.”

“You’re mad,” Isaac said. “England doesn’t need another war. Over religion or politics or anything else.”

At this Plumbago broke out in raucous laughter. “Dear Isaac! All wars are religious, because all religion is politics. And politics is power. Many pay dearly to get it, and even more dearly to keep it. And now you understand me. Across Europe, I shall be the one they come to; whoever is willing pay shall have my secrets. Protestant, Catholic, even Zoroastrian. Your work for me is going to become very lucrative. King Charles is only the beginning.”

“I will not be party to regicide.”

“Oh, but you will, Isaac. You already are.”

“You are a bastard.”

“And you are a genius, Isaac. Now behave like one.”

Plumbago stood, folding the packet of dried tulip petals and placing them in Isaac’s trembling hand.

“If I’m to do this, I’ll need the formula back,” Isaac said, his voice quivering with anger. “The one I gave you that night by the river Cam.”

Plumbago reached into a pocked and withdrew a roll of paper, tied with ribbon.

“I thought you might,” Plumbago said, placing them on the table. “Farewell, Master Newton. Have what I need ready in a month’s time. God save the King.”

Isaac could not stop himself. “Which King did you have in mind?”

“Oh, any will do,” Plumbago laughed. “Provided they’re not a papist. That is, after all, what I’m being paid for. So keep playing Punch like a good puppet, and I promise to go gentle on the strings.”

Then he was gone, and Isaac was alone at his table in the Grecian, surrounded by the conversations of others and a haze of pipe smoke. A late-afternoon sunbeam, cast through a grimy window, illuminated his mostly untouched drink. He brought the now-cold cup of black brew to his lips and drained it in one swallow.

After a respectable amount of time had passed, he stood, his mind churning, and stepped out into a London late-afternoon.

He walked purposefully along the Strand, dodging carts and horses, puddles and people, his lips pressed tight and mind on machinations unseen.

For too long Plumbago had gotten the best of him. Trap after trap, lie after lie, forcing him deeper into his employ since those terrible days of plague and fire.

But Isaac was not that same young man. His mind had laid bare the secrets of light, the forces that bound creation, and the inner workings of the very system of the World. What was it Plumbago had said?

You are a genius, Isaac. Now behave like one.

Yes, he would.

Isaac Newton was no man’s marionette.