The Newton Cipher – Snippet 09

A and B

British Library


“Hmmm,” Trina peered closely at the corner of the page. “This very well could be Isaac Newton’s signature.”

The signature’s lines were thin, the letters uncertain, as if written by a shaky hand; but it certainly looked like his other signatures. Another scrape test confirmed the ink was also iron gall.

It was authentic, by all appearances.

“What’s the provenance?” Trina said finally. “Where were these found?”

“They were bundled together in the Tower of London, beneath a flagstone that was moved during renovations. The workers said the stone had not been disturbed since the Tower was built. Obviously, they were wrong.”

“What does the Tower of London have to do with Newton?” Train said.

“Later in his long life, Sir Isaac served England as Warden of the Royal Mint. Back then the title would have been Warder. But he was only Warden for a short time, staring in 1696, and then he became the Master of the Mint, from 1699 until his death in 1727. The Mint, at least back then, was housed in the Tower itself.”

Trina nodded. “That would explain the latin, dominus clavem, which one could translate as ‘master of the key.’ The boss, so to speak. The one in charge of the vaults. So he hid these papers there?”

“That’s one possibility,” Gill said.

“Was there anything else?”

“No. Well, except this.” Gill pulled a large sheet of creased paper from the bottom of the box. “Just a page of newsprint,” he said. “From one of the papers of the day. It was probably wrapped around the other documents for protection. I must be a crop report, I saw some mention of rye. Someone from the British Library’s newspaper archives will collect it.”

“Right,” Trina said, turning back to the coded pages. “I’ve never authenticated coded manuscripts before, but it’s not entirely dependent on the text. The material — the ink, the paper, the signature — provide lots of data. It’s possible that Newton would have signed something like this if he didn’t write it, but it seems counterintuitive. Wait, what’s this? There are marks here — smudges. They face one direction on this sheet …”

She placed one page down in front of her, then took the other, the one that had been behind it in the order Gill had placed them on the table.

“… and the exact opposite on this one. A mirror image. These smudges look like giant fingerprints, but I don’t see any whorls. Was there something here?”

“Ah,” Gill said. “I forgot to mention that we found plants pressed between two of the pages.”


“Petals, we think.  They were quite dry and fragile. We sent them to the specialists at Kew Gardens to analyze.”


“A few days ago. Monday. Perhaps by figuring out what kind of plant it is, Kew can help with the authentication. We didn’t mention their connection to Newton, however. As I said, we’re trying to keep the lid on it for now.”


Trina spent the rest of the day pouring over the British Library’s collection of paleography texts and catalogs of late medieval and Renaissance printing press and font styles — anything that might give her a clue about the characters or symbols scattered over the encoded pages. Figuring out if they came from a particular alphabet would at least provide a starting point. She also used her laptop and the library’s wifi connection to run searches.

Gill stopped in now and then to see how she was coming along, dropping off reference books from the library’s holdings. He’d even escorted her to the cafeteria for a much-needed break.

Around four in the afternoon he stopped in again.

“The library closes in half an hour. Any luck with those symbols?”

Trina shook her head, discouraged. “There may be a few similarities to ancient Hebrew, and a few Sanskrit characters, as well as maybe some lesser-used alchemical symbols; there are a few recognizable ones, like symbols for mercury and fire. But nothing uniform, and most I’ve never seen. It’s like a dog’s breakfast of characters and symbols.”

“Terribly odd,” Alfie said, now as discouraged as she was. “Do you think you can decipher it enough to authenticate it?”

“As I said, deciphering the code isn’t entirely necessary. But it certainly would be helpful to know the source of these characters.”

“Is it possible they’re made up? That Newton, if this is indeed his work, simply created his own code?”

“I’ve been wondering that since lunch,” Trina said. “When it comes to Newton, anything is possible. I am fairly certain, however, that these two pages were written at separate times.”

“They were?”

She picked up her magnifying glass and beckoned Gill to lean over.

“Consider the first page, here, which I’m calling Manuscript A. Look closely at the color of the symbols — what do you see?”

“Fairly standard old-ink color, I suppose. A hint of brown?”

“Exactly. Now compare it to the second sheet, Manuscript B.”

Gill squatted, then pulled his head back. “Ah! The ink is darker. And the symbols slightly less precise.”

“Exactly. I’m certain documents A and B were written by the same person, but years apart. Maybe decades. First, the pages on which they are written appear to be taken from the very same notebook, or at least from notebooks from the same book bindery. The paper composition and octavo size are almost exactly the same. And notice as well the spacing of symbols on Manuscript A — the lines and characters are organized differently. It almost looks as if part of A contains some sort of list.”

“What about B?”

“Manuscript B is even more interesting,” Trina said. “It’s almost as if it’s divided into four sections.”

“It just looks like gibberish to me.”

“It does. But look here … here … and here.” She pointed to the top and middle of page one, then flipped it over and pointed to the top and middle of the reverse side as well. “Those four lines are composed of the same set of symbols, and beneath each is just a half-page or so of blank space. Except for the last line, of course, which is just above Newton’s signature.”

“But what about the blank spaces?”

“My guess is that these four lines are headers, or titles, or something that might indicate what follows them. Like headlines in a newspaper. Except there is nothing underneath.”

“A form that was never filled out?”

“Possibly,” Trina said. “It’s just a theory. But if I can decipher those header symbols, it may give us a clue to the larger mystery. A small bite of the bigger elephant.”


“You know the saying: How do you eat an elephant?”

“Goodness, no! How?”

“One bite at a time.”

“Ah,” Gill grinned. “American humor. Well, Miss Piper, you’ve made fantastic progress, even if we are dealing with a secret code. I’ll be back in half and hour to show you out, and you can continue tomorrow, if you’re not too tired from jet lag. I know tomorrow’s Sunday, but we will be open.”

“Absolutely,” Trina said. “That’s why I’m here.”

The next thirty minutes went by without any breakthroughs. As much as she wanted to take photos of manuscripts A and B, Trina honored Gill’s request. She did, however, do her best to copy the four lines of unique symbols from Manuscript B into her notebook. With only four lines of the squiggly symbols, Manuscript B was a much smaller bite of the elephant to take than Manuscript A, which was covered with the things, front and back. She was no artist, but she did a passable job mimicking their bizarre curves and odd lines.

When Gill returned she was loading her backpack.

“The library opens tomorrow at eleven,” he said. “But that’s to the public. I’m usually here around nine. Please feel free to come any time after that. The guard will let you in.”

“Thank you, Mr. Gill.”

“Alfie,” he said with a smile. “Remember?”

“Of course. Alfie.”


Trina emerged back on Euston Road and turned on her phone. It was dark — or at least that’s how it felt. It was in fact only four in the afternoon, but this far north, and in late November, twilight came early.

On the street, however, it was nearly as bright as day. Car lights, shop lights, street lights … even Christmas lights. The warmest light spilled from the pubs she passed as she walked back to Kings Cross station.

Her phone chimed. A voicemail.

“Miss Piper, this is Ulrik Stander. Thank you for returning my call. It’s just after two o’clock in the afternoon and I’m back in London. Would you be available to meet? I’m investigating an attempted theft in Milan that may or may not be linked to Alasdair Edelstein. I understand you found him the night he was attacked. It’s a fortunate coincidence you are in London. I will make myself available the rest of the day, I can meet you near your hotel if you prefer. Please get back to me at your earliest convince.”

Trina pulled up a browser on her phone and found her hotel, then scanned the map around it. Nearby was a place she’d always wanted to visit, a place made famous in one of her favorite songs, one she always played around Halloween. Going there would almost certainly mark her as an insufferable American tourist, but then again, she figured, I’m in London … why not?

She texted his number.

Mr. Stander. Trina Piper. I can meet today. Polynesian bar at Hilton Hotel on Park Lane? Do you know it?

A minute later he replied.

Everyone knows Trader Vic’s. Good Pina Coladas. When?

How about 5?

Just fine. 1 hour. Thank you, Miss Piper.

Mind the Gap


Kings Cross train station was bustling, especially on a Saturday night. It was a hub for trains heading out of London to places like Cambridge and to northern England and Scotland. It was a major Tube station as well. And there were tourists — mostly parents with kids — who came just to see if there was indeed a hidden train platform that would whisk them off to a magical world.

Trina noted with a smile that there was: a line of eager children waiting to take pictures with a luggage cart that appeared to be imbedded in the brick wall.

She grabbed a copy of the Cambridge timetables from a rack against one wall and, dodging wide-eyed kids and tired-looking Londoners hurrying to and from trains, she made her way toward the escalator to the Tube. The headline at a news kiosk caught her eye.

Tube Terror Spreads to South London.

She bought a copy before boarding the Picadilly Line. Everywhere were the ever-present signs reminding everyone to Keep Calm and Carry On. She rarely wore jewelry, but she remembered she had Edelstein’s necklace. She slipped it down the neck of her sweater, hiding it.

The Tube was packed with Londoners heading home. She felt the press of humanity, and it was The air in her packed train car was a heady mixture of perfume and cologne, and of sweat and stale smoke.  Seven stops to Hyde Park Corner, but Trina couldn’t find an empty seat.

She hooked her elbow around one of the vertical poles and read the newspaper with her free hand. The report was as grim as it was ghastly. Late-night riders, often traveling alone in the Underground, would simply disappear, failing to make it home. Some were found the next morning, in maintenance tunnels, often covered with bruises. One or two were found in bushes just outside of Tube stops in the area of Chiswick Park, which meant nothing to Trina.

Some of those reported missing had not yet been found, and one or two appeared to have strange inflammations on their neck and other parts of the body. Because of differences in the appearance of the victims, and the fact that some of those reported missing may simply have run away, the story concluded with an official police statement that Londoners were not to assume all reported incidents of Tube violence were related, and that the metropolitan police were investigating every event seriously and were ramping up security in the Underground.

In other words: Keep calm. Carry on.

Before she knew it an automated female voice brought her back to reality. “The next station is Hyde Park Corner. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.”

The doors slid open and Trina stepped out, minding not only the gap but also the crowds trying to get both on and off the train around her. Soon she was back at street level, breathing in the cold night air.

Towering above her, lit with blue and white lights, was the Park Lane Hilton. She went through the hotel’s side entrance between two scowling tiki sculptures.

A curved staircase brought her to a Polynesian-themed room covered floor to ceiling in Polynesian-inspired kitsch: glass fishing floats and giant clamshells hung from a thatch-roof ceiling supported by thick bamboo beams. It felt like a giant cabana. Wooden facemarks decorated the walls, staring down on wicker tables, chairs, and barstools. She found two empty ones at the far corner of the bar and checked her phone.

4:50 pm.

She texted Stander.

Here. Far end of bar. Black pants, gray sweater. She almost mentioned her blond hair and green eyes, but it’s not like this was a blind date or something. Suddenly she felt guilty, thinking about Gavin. He’d be in New York now. Maybe he was meeting a girl at a bar somewhere.

She pushed the thought away and looked around Trader Vics. She’d always wanted to come here. Apparently the was the place to find well-groomed lycanthropes, drinking tropical rum drinks while they planned a night out on the town of howling and ripping out unsuspecting Londoners’ guts. Then they’d go out for Chinese.

“I’m Jim,” the bartender said. “What’ll you have?”

“You’ve got to be kid — ” Trina started, but just then her phone buzzed.

Here. In lobby.

“My guest is on his way, Jim,” Trina said. “We’ll order when he gets here.”

A minute later a tall man came down the stairs. She saw a hip-length leather coat draped casually over his broad shoulders. His cheeks were high and defined — nordic, she figured — and the his shoulder-length blond hair fell to either side of his forehead.

His gaze found the bar, and moved along it until it settled on her. She waved her hand, and he nodded and came over in a few long strides.

“Trina Piper?” He pulled a wallet out of his coat and flashed ID. She saw his face, the word Interpol, and a number of official-looking emblems. It seemed legitimate.

“Special Field Agent Ulrik Stander,” he said, offering her his card. “Thanks for meeting me. Interesting choice, by the way. Never been here myself. Not as kitsch as I thought.”

“Your accent … it’s hard to place.”

“Riverside, by way of Reykjavik. My father is Californian, my mother Icelandic.”

“And you work for Interpol. My, aren’t you an international man of mystery?” Dear Lord, did I just say that?

Jim the bartender came back at just the right time. “What’ll you have?”

Don’t say piña colada … don’t say piña colada …

“I’ll have a piña colada,” Trina said. Jim and Ulrik both raised their eyebrows. She laughed apologetically. “I suppose you get a lot of requests for those here, right?”

Jim’s expression didn’t change. “A piña colada for the lady. And you, sir?”

“Just tonic water, please. With lime.”

“Sorry about playing tourist,” Trina said as Jim moved off. “I’ve just always wanted to come here.”

“Trader Vic’s started in California, you know. In Oakland. But yes, I’m with Interpol’s Art and Artifacts Division, based out of London. I was in Milan, Italy, investigating a break in at the Ambrosiana Library. Are you familiar with the Ambrosiana?”

“Yes, very. Edelstein had a joint appointment there, he split his time between the Ambrosiana and Notre Dame. He just got back to the States from Milan a few days ago. So, how can I help Interpol?”

“There was a break in at the Ambrosiana early Wednesday morning. The target seems to have been Professor Edelstein’s office.”

“Oh,” Trina calculated, adjusting for the time difference. “That would have been right after Edelstein flew home! He’d been there for much of the past year. And then, the night he got home, I went by his house. That’s when I found him beaten.”