The Newton Cipher – Snippet 11
Trina was at the entrance of the British Library promptly at nine the next morning. The doors were locked, but through the glass she saw the guard who had checked her in the day before.
He looked half asleep.
She rapped the glass with her knuckles. At first, he ignored her, and then, when she was persistent, he held his two forefingers up next to each other and mouthed “open at eleven.”
“Alfie Gill!” she shouted. Then, with exaggerated lip movements, mouthed “ALFIE GILL!”
That seemed to jog a memory in the guard, and he stood slowly, consulted a clipboard, then came to the door.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Trina Piper. Mr. Gill said I could come after nine.”
“Right,” the guard said, ushering her into the foyer and locking the door behind them. “Mr. Gill has other visitors this morning, and I forgot you were on the list.”
She signed in and followed him through the silent library. Lights were off in many of the offices. It was Sunday, after all. The guard’s keys jangled in his fingers with each door they passed through, until finally she recognized the small hallway with the room she’d occupied the day before.
The guard’s keys jangled one final time as he unlocked the door. “Mr. Gill requests you wait in here, please.”
At the far end of the hall, in what must have been someone’s office, she heard raised voices. One was Gill’s voice, and he sounded frustrated.
“… being entirely unreasonable!”
Trina only heard part of the response, as there seemed to be a few other voices as well, some in another language.
“… decision was over my head, Alfie.”
The guard cleared his throat.
“In here, Miss Piper.”
The guard closed the door. The room was as she’d left it yesterday — the manuscripts were still out on the table, the still chairs angled slightly out from under the table.
She had just powered up the computer when the door opened and Gill came in, looking flustered.
“Alfie,” Trina said, turning. “I’ve got exciting news! The symbols of Manuscript B are Enochian, and I’ve — “
She stopped short as two more men, and then a woman, appeared in the doorway as well. One of the men had wire-rimmed glasses that pinched his nose, giving him the appearance of a weasel. That man, and the woman, were both of average height, and both had cropped hair and wore dark clothes.
But they were mostly hidden — dwarfed would be the more appropriate term — by the third man, who looked to be well over six-and-a-half feet tall. His dark hair was parted over his high, pronounced brow, and a well-manicured mustache and beard framed the bemused expression on his face. He was staring at Trina with contempt.
Gill shot her a warning glance — shhh! — and positioned himself between her and the three strangers.
“A few moments, please,” he said to them, “while I explain the situation to Miss Piper here. You can wait in my office.”
Gill practically had to push the tall man back out the door, who moved back into the hallway reluctantly. When the door was finally closed, Gill leaned his back against it and closed his eyes, as if he’d just eluded a pursuer.
“Is everything alright?” Trina said.
“Miss Piper — ah, I, um …” Gill began. “I’m afraid there’s been an unfortunate change of plans.”
“Yes, you see — ah, politics being what they are — this goes well above my head, you know — the decision was not mine, I can assure you — we have these cultural liaisons and exchanges — very important to international relations — “
“Alfie,” Trina said. “I’m an adult, I can handle it. Just tell me what’s going on.”
He stepped away from the door and sat in one of the chairs, collapsing in on himself like a sack of flour.
“I just found out this morning,” he said, looking up at her with apologetic eyes. “Somehow, the Russians were made aware of the Newton papers we discovered.” He waved his hand at the manuscripts scattered across the table. “Probably spy satellites or something, the sneaky bastards.”
“Yes. Russian scholars. And because of international relations being what they are, the UK trying to maintain ties with the rest of Europe, someone in some obscure government ministry — probably the Ministry of Being a Pain in Alfie Gill’s Arse, which I’m confident exists somewhere in the bowels of Parliament — thought it would strengthen our ties with Moscow if we let their scholars make the first official authentication of the Newton papers. My guess is that they donated some grotesque sum to our reserve fund or some such bribery. They’re clearly just after the prestige.”
“Oh,” Trina said, sitting down herself.
“The bottom line is that my boss, the Head of Collections, has been directed to give them immediate access to these manuscripts. Which means, unfortunately, that you are off the case, as they say. There is, however, some good news.”
“There is?” Trina was crushed. What would she tell Edelstein?
“They get access to the documents through next Wednesday. After that, you can come back. I made the case that your expertise will be an invaluable second opinion. You are here through the week, are you not?”
“I am,” Trina sighed. “But I leave Friday. So that would give me one day with the documents, Thursday. Not much time.”
“I am so sorry,” Gill looked pained. Then, glancing toward the door, he raised his voice nearly to a shout and said, “Thank you so much for your understanding, Miss Piper. You’ll still be paid for the full week of your services, of course.”
But then he leaned in, and whispered.
“I heard you mention you made some sort of breakthrough. Keep it to yourself. I am obligated to assist the Russians, but I have no intention of going out of my way for them. And I am taking careful notes of everything they do and say. I don’t trust them, Miss Piper — why, I even heard the little chap with the glasses talking about some laboratory they’ve set up in the Docklands. Something doesn’t — “
There was a loud knock on the door. “Alfred? Are you quite finished?”
“Nearly finished, Stella,” he yelled. Then, back to a whisper, “My boss, Stella Redman. She’s feeling the heat from the Russians too.”
Then he raised his voice again. “Wonderful, wonderful. Thank you so much for your understanding, Miss Piper. I’ll give you a moment to pack your things. And,” he said at the top of his voice, while casually tapping her smartphone, “Please know I am happy to provide every possible assistance, so that your return to our facility on Thursday will enable you to be as efficient as possible.”
Then, so only she could hear, “And I do mean everything.”
He winked, tapped her phone once more, and left the room.
What the hell did he — oh.
As quickly as she could, she opened the camera app on her phone, made sure the sound was off, and slipped on the white cotton gloves. Gill had already laid out Manuscripts A and B, and the ribboned contract, out on the table. She took pictures of everything.
She’d just finished when there was a knock on the door, followed by Gill’s voice. “Are you ready, Miss Piper? I am here to escort you out.”
“Just about,” Trina said. She stuffed her laptop and notebook in her backpack, and opened the door. Almost as soon as she did so, the two shorter Russians shoved past her into the room. The woman, without putting on the cotton gloves, immediately began picking up the fragile papers and peering at them, as the slight man in the glasses began to unpack camera equipment.
She turned and squeezed past the tall man, who was halfway through the door, and grunted when he turned, his girth pressing her against the metal doorframe.
“Hey!” she snapped.
He looked down his long nose at her — his eyes a cruel yellow-brown, almost amber — as if she was a mongrel dog, beneath his notice, then continued into the room. Then, as if an afterthought, he turned back to her.
“I hear you say ‘Enochian’? Is good to know. Spasibo, Ekaterina Piper.”
Then, with one long arm, he reached out and shut the door in her face. But not before she caught a glimpse of the odd silver ring on his hand, its flat face bearing what looked like a ship’s anchor and other odd symbols.
Gill was waiting for her.
“Spasibo is Russian for ‘thank you,’ I believe,” he said.
“I don’t think he meant it.”
“Neither do I. Did you, er, get everything you needed?”
“Excellent,” Gill smiled. “Come, I’ll walk you out.”
Gill left her with the guard, leaving her with a final barrage of apologies. As Trina signed out, she saw the three signatures above hers from earlier that morning. Each was in a hard scrawl, as if a child wrote them. She even saw what looked like Cyrillic flourishes on some of the letters.
Trina pulled her phone out of her pocket and pretended to scowl at the screen, as she confirmed that the camera app was still active.
“Um, is that the correct time?” she said, pointing to the clock on the wall. When the guard turned, she silently snapped a photo of the log book.
The guard turned back around and checked his own watch.
“Nine fifty eight exactly, ma’am.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Still getting used to the time change, and I just can’t believe what my phone tells me. Still feels like four in the morning to me. Anyway, can you recommend a cafe nearby? If the library opens at eleven, I may come back and do some research in the stacks. I assume that’s not a problem?”
“‘Course not, ma’am. The library is open to all.”
Trina found a small table near the window at the cafe the library guard recommended. Soft grey light filtered in through the glass, warming her far less than the old radiator that knocked and rattled at her feet. A cappuccino arrived, followed by a plate of scones, a pot of cream, and a jar of strawberry jam.
The coffee was hot and foamy, the scones perfectly crunchy outside, yet soft and thick beneath, but what really made it worthwhile was the restaurant’s fast wifi.
Trina was going to text Sammy, but Sammy had beaten her to it.
Hi Trina! I checked on Prof Edelstein 4 U. He’s ok, but may have some internal damage, lungs they think. Docs are keeping him sedated. He’s stable, just comatose. Hope London is going well. Sam
It was going well, Trina thought. Until an hour ago.
Thx Sammy. Glad Alasdair’s OK! Bit of a setback in London, but stiff upper lip as they say here. I’ll figure it out. Hotel is perfect. Thx 4 setting it up.
For the next twenty minutes Trina stared out the window, sipping her coffee and finishing off the scones. She didn’t want to think at all; if she did, she knew she’d get depressed. What was she supposed to do now? Pictures of the Newton papers were one thing, but proper authentication required hands-on access.
Around the cafe, couples ate brunch and talked about their Sunday plans. Trina tried not to think of Gavin. A group of friends at the next table chatted glumly. Their voices were subdued, but eavesdropping was easy when you were alone.
There had been more Tube murders in the night; victims were discovered both below and above ground.
A few tables away, two impeccably-dressed middle-aged ladies planned their shopping trip at Harrods; they would take a taxi instead of the Tube. Next to them, a little girl pleaded with her worried parents to take her to the carousel in Kensington Gardens, while they tried to convince her to see a movie instead.
In a corner, a family of four, dressed in rain gear and conversing in a heavy Texas drawl, were plotting their day’s tourist activities: Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the London Eye, and Westminster Abbey. The wife whispered something in her husband’s ear. He grew red-faced, then practically shouted, “No damn subway killer is going to ruin the Hobarth family vacation! It’s bad enough Julie is at the hotel with a cold, missing the entire trip!”
“Howard!” the wife looked around, embarrassed. “Keep your voice down. We’re in England!”
Outside on the street, the soft morning light made London seem so peaceful, even with the traffic and hurrying pedestrians. Umbrellas — black, striped and polkadotted — bobbed up and down as English drizzles came and went.
Almost absentmindedly, Trina pulled out the timetable she’d taken from Kings Cross station. Trains left London almost hourly, all day long, every day, arriving at Cambridge a little over an hour later. She’d wanted to go there, time permitting, to meet Alasdair’s colleague, Professor Fiona McFee, and analyze samples of Newton’s signature.
Well, now she suddenly had the time. And maybe, with all the murders, it would be good to get out of London.
But first, she needed to learn more about Sir Isaac Newton and his connection to cryptography, John Dee, and, well, anything else she could discover.
On the way back to the library she sent Sammy a followup text.
Hey. Need B&B in Cambridge, ASAP. Can u book me something reasonable, near Queen’s College? Mon & Tue nights. Thx!
Sunday morning at the British Library saw only a trickle of patrons. The guard merely nodded at her when she returned. Because she was heading to the public stacks, she didn’t need to sign in. She did, however, need to stow her backpack, but could bring her laptop and notebook. She also had the reader card that Gill had given her — a fancy library card, giving its holder access to the library’s general collections.
A long row of monitors provided access to the library’s catalog. Sitting down at one, she scanned her card and typed in ‘Isaac Newton.’ Countless biographies of the man appeared, and she selected the ones that looked the most scholarly. She also saw a book on Newton’s private papers, and selected that as well, then clicked ‘submit.’
Your selections will be available in the Reading Room shortly.
The British Library kept very few of its books out on traditional library shelves, where patrons went and got the books themselves. Being one of the world’s largest libraries, they simply didn’t have the space. Instead, the vast majority of books in storage, and an automated system would retrieve them once requested, delivering them on trays via conveyer belts to the reading room. When her books were ready, her number would appear on a screen.
Pretty nifty, she thought as she scanned the room’s wide, white tables. The space was high and open, with multiple levels. Grey light filtered down from skylights high above, softening the harsh fluorescents of the reading room itself. She found a seat tucked in a quiet corner.
While she waited, to help focus her reading, she found a blank page in her notebook and jotted down the list of questions she’d been pondering:
When was Newton at the Royal Mint?
How familiar was Newton with John Dee?
How familiar was Newton with the cryptography of his day?
How familiar was Newton with alchemy; or, why all the alchemical symbols in Manuscript A?
She tapped her pencil against her chin. Anything else? Oh … yeah.
Make a timeline of Newton’s life — scientific discoveries, years at Cambridge, years at the Mint, etc. For reference.
Her number flashed on a screen. On the other side of the room, a conveyer belt spat plastic trays from an opening in the wall, like luggage at an airport. She found hers and took her books to her seat.
“Ok, Isaac,” she said. “What secrets were you trying to hide?”
Two hours later Trina sat back and stretched. Her back popped, and she realized she hadn’t gotten up once, not even to go to the bathroom. On her laptop screen was a document filled with concise notes.
Archive: British Library
Subject: Isaac Newton
[NB=nota bene, note to self]
Sir Isaac Newton (b. Jan. 4, 1643, d. Mar. 31, 1727)
Place of birth: Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. Father died before he was born. Mother remarried, stepfather rejected Isaac; mother moved away with stepfather, leaving Newton with his grandmother.
Small and sickly as a child, when born it was said he could fit in a beer mug. Survival to adulthood was a miracle.
Newton was apparently quite bitter about being abandoned by his mother. In his schoolboy notebook, kept a list of his “sins,” including this whopper: “Threatening my [step] father and mother to burn them and the house over them.” [NB — he never did, of course, but he seems to have been fond of fire].
His mom tried to force him to be a farmer; Isaac hated farming [NB — he had serious mommy issues.]
Grade school in Grantham. Scrawny, was picked on relentlessly. Legendary story about Newton being bullied: bully punches him in the stomach, pint-sized Newton goes ballistic and beats the tar out of bully, even though half his size. Gets his revenge on the rest of the boys by working harder than everyone and moving to the head of the class.
Late childhood and early teens: was apprenticed to an apothecary [NB=where he first learned chemistry?].
Enrolls in Cambridge University 1661, completes bachelors degree 1665; Great Plague of 1665–1666 forces him to return to family farm at Woolsthorpe
Honors/positions: Fellow of Trinity College, 1667; Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, 1669 [NB — same as Charles Babbage (inventor, computer) and Stephen Hawking (cosmic badass!)]; made Fellow of the Royal Society (1672); President of the Royal Society (1703 until death in 1727), succeed by Sir Hans Sloane; became Warden of Royal Mint (1696); became Master of Mint (from 1699 until death in 1727).
Newton was recognized as one of the world’s most brilliant scientific thinkers, even as a young student. In 1669, Mathematics Professor Isaac Barrow of Cambridge wrote “Mr Newton, a fellow of our College, and very young, is an extraordinary genius.”
Question: why did Newton, a notorious introvert suddenly leave the perfect job as a Professor at Cambridge to move to London for a government job? Running from something? To something??
Discovered laws of gravity (1666), optics/composition of white light (1666), mathematical calculus (1666) [NB — 1666 was HUGE for Isaac; historians call it Newton’s ‘miracle year,’ Annus Mirabilis in Latin.] All achieved while at the family home in Woolsthorpe, where Isaac escaped when Cambridge was evacuated during the plague.
Alchemy: Newton wrote over a million words on alchemy, mostly in secret, from the late 1660s to the early 1690s; even kept an alchemical lab in a small shed in garden of Trinity College, Cambridge; he told almost no one of his interest in alchemy, for fear of scientific criticism, and his alchemical papers were mostly forgotten, until they were auctioned off in the mid twentieth century, at which point the extent of Newton’s obsession with alchemy was discovered. [NB — a million words! forgotten for centuries!]
Familiarity with John Dee: unknown. [NB — Probability: very high.]
Familiarity with cryptography: unknown. [NB — Probability: certain.]
Newton is buried in an elaborate tomb in Westminster Abbey, London. [NB — check it out?]
Trina set down her pencil. Most of this information was new to her. She’d never been much of a Newton scholar, despite his significance to history. She recalled a recent science documentary she’d seen on TV. It had ten or so episodes, and was hosted by that famous, charismatic science popularizer with a PhD in astrophysics … what’s his name? Whatever it was, the guy talked a lot about Newton. One episode discussed how Newton used mathematics to develop the laws of physics, another how Newton used a prism to analyze white light into the spectrum of visible colors.
Newton was not infallible, of course: his laws of physics, genius though they were, needed refining by others, and his analysis of light failed to locate the invisible spectrum, the ultraviolet and infrared, even though, had Newton searched just a few inches on either side of the colors cast by his prism, he would have found them. These were seen as proof that even a great genius like Newton had shortcomings.
A clock on the wall read 1:15 pm. Trina needed lunch. Then, like it or not, she had the entire afternoon ahead of her.
She remembered the family of Texas tourists she’d overhead at the cafe that morning. They were planning to visit Westminster Abbey. It was one of London’s most popular tourist sites. It was sure to be open on a Sunday.
It was a church, after all.