The Newton Cipher
In possession of a coded manuscript by Isaac Newton, historian Trina Piper finds herself the target of a shadowy cabal intent on reviving alchemy for sinister purposes. Realizing that a dark secret must lie buried in Newton’s manuscript, Trina must now race against time to save the great city of London from disaster.
Historian Trina Piper is summoned to the British Library to authenticate a coded manuscript believed to be authored by none other than Isaac Newton himself. At the same time, London finds itself in the grip of a series of ghastly murders.
When a malicious Russian scholar appears and demands the manuscript, Trina becomes the target of his wrath. She soon realizes that Newton’s papers and the terrible murders are connected, and both hint at something far more ominous: a secretive Order dedicated to reviving alchemy for sinister purposes.
Caught between ancient magic and a shadowy cabal, Trina must find a way to save not only herself, but all of London. With the help of Ulrik Stander, a handsome and resourceful agent from Interpol’s Art and Artifacts Division, she rushes from Westminster’s fog-filled alleyways to the hallowed halls of Cambridge University in a race to prevent a forgotten seventeenth-century plague from being unleashed on modern London.
As Big Ben ticks down, she discovers that Isaac Newton carried a secret so dark he buried it beneath layers of stone and forbidden magic. But now the secret is out and people are dying.
Will Trina have enough time to solve the mystery before disaster strikes?
The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity
A Night in April, 1666
It was well past midnight when Isaac heard the knock on the door. He was awake in his rooms at this hour, of course. Night was the time he could do his reading, his thinking, and his experiments unmolested: in the dark and the quiet the only interruptions were the sputtering of candles, the chiming of the chapel bell tolling the hours, and the occasional drunken shouts of fellow students staggering back to their colleges after a night of drinking and whoring.
But Cambridge was nearly empty now, evacuated because of the plague that had decimated London during the previous year; decimated the city before spreading outward, like a conflagration, until no town was safe and everyone—at least those with means or family—fled to the countryside. Isaac had been forced to leave Cambridge as well, fleeing to his widower mother’s farm she’d received from that pox-stubbled fool she’d taken for a husband—Isaac’s stepfather, now long dead.
But Isaac had returned to Cambridge early, to his rooms and his books and his alchemical apparatus, even though Trinity College was so empty the Great Hall was not serving food and the buttery was nearly bare. He scrounged what vittles could. As a sizar—a poor student serving the wealthy ones in exchange for tuition—he knew where to look. After all, other’s scraps were his standard fare. And what was food anyway, but a means of sustenance? Day-old mushroom broth or fine Christmas goose—it was all the same to him.
Silent, empty Trinity was his alone, and Isaac was at peace.
Nevertheless, he jumped when the knock came. He had been expecting it, but so deep was he into a volume on the laws of optics by that Frenchman Descartes that Isaac had lost track of time.
“A moment,” he said, dropping the book on the rough-hewn planks that served as both his dining table and laboratory bench. The thud shook a half-dozen soil-filled pots, dislodging a shower of dried petals. It also rattled a tiny brass-tipped tube on a tripod, as well as the plate of cold chicken that he had brought up earlier but had neglected, lost as he was in his intellectual trance.
On the way to the door he pulled a fist-sized nugget of coal from the scuttle and threw it into the small stove, which was itself nearly as cold as the chicken.
Isaac barely recognized the man waiting in the shadows of the narrow stone hallway. Short in height and slight in stature, he wore no wig this time, and his mustache was more unkempt than Isaac remembered. Perhaps the situation in London was even worse than the newspapers indicated.
And yet the man’s clothes were still fine, hints of rich velvet and gold chain caught the feeble light from the candles on the table. But most of his finery was hidden beneath the coarse wool traveling cloak that fell from his shoulders to his boots.
It was the eyes, however, that convinced Isaac that it was the same man who had greeted him over the wall of his family’s orchard the previous autumn, while Isaac had been dozing beneath the fruit trees. Gray and piercing; eyes that sparkled with intelligence and—it seemed—barely concealed malice.
“Hello again, Master Isaac.” His voice was sibilant; it made Isaac think of the serpent in Eden.
“Master Plumbago.” Isaac bowed. Plumbum, the Latin root for the element lead. Isaac knew Plumbago was not the man’s real name.
Plumbago nodded and stepped into Isaac’s small room. Isaac closed the door after him, then jumped back in alarm when it was forcibly pushed open again, and another man stepped in.
“Sir?” Isaac looked questioningly at Plumbago. This second man was huge, with shoulders nearly as broad as the frame of the door.
“Fear not, young scholar,” Plumbago said. “This is my associate, Mister Clysto.”
Even in the dim light Isaac recognized Clysto for the royalist that he was. Long hair coiffed in perfect ringlets cascaded over his lace collar. An elaborately embroidered red waistcoat fitted precisely over yellow breeches, which themselves were tucked into knee-high leather boots that gleamed with brass buckles—far more metal than seemed necessary for keeping those shoes on his feet. He carried his wide, plumed hat in one hand. The other hand rested on the pommel of the rapier that hung from his waist. It was a fine blade—inlaid with silver and with a large ruby embedded in the pommel. The man’s entire ensemble was covered by a traveling cloak of a fine woolen weave, of much higher quality than Plumbago’s, that fell back from his shoulders.
Yet despite the frippery, Clysto was clearly a soldier, or at least had been. His neck bulged with knotted muscle, his nose had obviously been broken and reset more than once, and scars of Euclidian precision marked the places where honed Puritan pikes had attempted their most enthusiastic proselytization on his heathen face. Never had Isaac seen a more definitive specimen of Cavalier: those veterans of England’s civil war, friends to King Charles and enemies of Oliver Cromwell.
“M’lord,” Isaac said, bowing low and peeking furtively around the open door to make sure there were no others waiting in the hall. Detecting none, he closed the door.
“I’m afraid I have little to offer by way of refreshment,” he said, wishing he’d covered the cold chicken with a cloth. Suddenly he was keenly aware of the poverty of his surroundings.
Clysto said nothing, merely surveying the room with an appraising stare. Looking for danger, perhaps. The wariness of the soldier.
Plumbago, however, waved his hand dismissively.
“As you know, this is not a social call, master Isaac. Not at this hour and not in such times. We are merely here to take delivery of my order and will be on our way. You have finished?”
Isaac glanced at the dozen clay jars lined up at the far corner of his workbench. “I have, m’lord.”
Plumbago followed his gaze, stepping lightly across the small room. His hand hovered over them.
Plumbago regarded them for a moment, and Isaac did the same. A stack of small clay jars, each marked with the appropriate alchemical symbols, capped with cork, and sealed in thick wax.
“Fewer than I expected,” Plumbago said flatly.
“But highly effective, I assure m’lords,” Isaac countered sharply, then caught himself, continuing in a more pleasant tone. “You indicated potency was my task, not volume. The strange striae in the petals were the sub rosa, if you will forgive the pun.”
“These striae, you could see them?”
“Strange marks on the petals you gave me, yes.”
“How, pray tell? I saw nothing unusual.”
“Ah,” Isaac said, pointing to the brass-tipped tube on his table. “With that. A microscope, it is called.”
“Micro … ?”
“A similar principle to the Galilean telescope,” Isaac said. “But instead of causing distant things to appear close, it makes small things large to the eye. A fellow of the Royal Society, a Mr. Hooke, published his explorations with the microscope just last year. Micrographia, he named it. I’ve read it thoroughly. It is passable, for a treatise, but only just. I’ve already improved upon his researches, and upon the device itself. For example, it—”
Plumbago cleared his throat. Get to the point.
“It … allowed me to closely study the petals you provided.”
“I have devised a way to reverse their effect. Here is the result.”
Isaac swept his arms toward the jars with barely concealed pride.
“What, may I inquire, is the precise method of their application?”
“Place them around London. Unseal them where they are open to the vapors, but can’t be molested. Hidden from common sight would be best. Up high, perhaps. It will take time, but they will disperse their contents and stop the … ah, particular contagion.”
Plumbago seemed skeptical. He raised one of the sealed jars to his nose, sniffed it cautiously, then set it back down.
“So … small.”
“Effective, despite their size. I assure you.”
Isaac took a bound notebook and bodkin from the table and cut a page neatly out of the back with a small knife.
“Encoded, as you suggest,” Isaac handed it to him. “You are familiar with the language of alchemy?”
Plumbago muttered as his eyes scanned the page. “In Autumn, bathe the Doves of Diana in aqua fortis … let the White Swan swallow the Black Crow … the Emperor shall burn with the Eagles of Hermes …”
“You understand?” Newton asked again.
Plumbago nodded, tucking the formula away away. “I truly hope this is as effective as you say. If not …”
Isaac bristled, watching the work of half a year disappear into the folds of Plumbago’s cloak. He could not abide those who questioned his abilities, but hated himself even more for feeling the need to defend himself to anyone. But then again, these gentlemen were well above his station. Isaac was young and poor, and while he was massively ambitious, abiding was what one must do in the presence of men like Plumbago and Clysto.
Some day …
Plumbago seemed to follow his thoughts. He smiled broadly, revealing gapped and yellowed teeth. “Fear not, my boy. Your genius is prodigious and has caught the attention of your betters. All my inquiries for a philosopher capable of providing for our unique requirements …” he tapped one of the jars with a tentative finger “ … led me to you. It was I who traveled all the way to Woolsthorpe last Spring to seek you out, was it not?”
“Aye,” Isaac nodded, affecting as much humility as his own hot temper allowed, yellow bile being perpetually out of balance among his own internal humors. Quickness to anger was one of his recurring sins, and he prayed nightly for forgiveness. Once, as a child, in a fit of rage, he’d even threatened his own mother and step-father with burning their house down. With them in it. He never followed through on the threat, of course. The man soon died of his own accord.
Lord forgive me.
“And I am sure they will be as effective as you say.” Finally satisfied, Plumbago nodded at Clysto, and the big man crossed the room to the table in one long stride. A large canvas sack appeared in his left hand, and with his right arm he swept the entire collection of jars into the bag.
Isaac leapt as the jars clattered into the bottom of the sack. “You fool!” he cried, lunging at Clysto’s bag. “Be careful!”
In a blink, the tip of Clysto’s rapier was out and up, denting Isaac’s adam’s apple. Another quarter-inch and he would bleed. Clysto merely stared at Isaac, the rock-steady tip of his sword punctuating his wordless warning.
Isaac backed away, shaking.
“I … I only ask that you be careful!” he choked, grasping his neck.
“Steady, master Isaac,” Plumbago said. “For all his refinements, sometimes my friend is a bumbler. Clysto learned his profession at a time when might alone ruled our fair isle, and he now forgets we inhabit a different era. One that often requires finesse rather than force.”
“M’Lord,” Isaac drew in a ragged breath. He may have an excess of the yellow bile, but he was no fool. “Forgive my impertinence. I ask only that you be most careful. Those vessels contain the delicate work of many months.”
Clysto sneered, then turned on his heel and retook his position near the door. He did, however, seem to carry the bag more carefully. Isaac relaxed.
Plumbago patted Isaac on the shoulder, as if he were his benevolent uncle. “You have done well, and you will be rewarded. A quid pro quo, to use the Latin you scholars are so fond of. Do you still wish membership in the Royal Society? A college fellowship, perhaps?”
Isaac eyed the piles of papers shoved in the corner of his room, calculations on planetary mechanics and theories of the constitution of light. Membership in the Royal Society he could manage on his own. But a fellowship at Trinity required connections.
“Of course you do, of course you do. Now,” Plumbago made an elaborate show of pivoting around the room, looking for something. “Those jars tucked safely in my companion’s bag complete the first part of my order. And yet …” Plumbago squinted into each nook and cranny, and Isaac was suddenly keenly aware of the dust and cobwebs he’d never cleaned. “ … I fail to see anything that might constitute the second part of my request?”
“Ah,” said Isaac. “Those are behind the college, down by the Cam. In barrels, inside the old brewery.”
At this, Plumbago became alarmed. “In so public a place? You are certain no one … ?”
“Quite safe, my lord. Cambridge is nearly deserted, Trinity especially so. I’ve counted less than a dozen of us, including the stubborn old porter. I think he believes he can stop the plague from entering the Great Gate as readily as he does those louts from Gonville and Caius. They can’t find their own college through the blindness of gin and only make their way home like dogs, following the scent of their own piss from the previous night’s revel.”
Isaac chuckled at his own joke, stopping only when he saw that Plumbago found no humor in it. He didn’t even glance at Clysto.
“They are safe,” Isaac repeated, more soberly this time. “The mixture is far too voluminous, to say nothing of volatile, to store within doors. Come, I will show you.”
The two men exchanged silent glances.
“M’lords,” he added, stepping toward the door.
The two men enhanced glances, and then Plumbago spoke. “It would go ill for you, young scholar, should anyone other than us be aware of your formulations.”
“None were, are, or shall be. I have taken precautions. I replaced the lock outside with another, and I have the only key. No one has used the building for months, not even those sodomitic students looking for a bower to bugger each—” He stopped short again, realizing the depravities of his fellow students, so scandalous to Isaac himself, were of no interest to his guests.
“At the backs, by the river?” Plumbago repeated.
Clysto turned and left the room, his footfalls fading rapidly down the stone hall and out into the Cambridge night.
Plumbago’s gregarious smile returned, and he swept one arm dramatically toward the open door. “Then lead the way, master Isaac.”
Isaac took his lantern off its hook, lit the stubby candle inside, and led Plumbago down from his room, located between the Master’s Hall and the chapel. The night was wet with dew, the stars sparkled, but the college was quiet and dark. Not a single lantern lit the arched stone entrances to the other college rooms, nor a single candle could be seen in any of the windows. Such was the silence of the plague.
Their footsteps echoed over the cobbles of Great Court, the criss-cross pattern of light from the lantern illuminating their way. Isaac considered taking a shortcut across the manicured grass that filled the center of the court, a privilege reserved for college fellows. Who would know? But propriety won out and he maintained the perimeter, even as Plumbago cut the corner.
Isaac caught up with him at the steps up to the narrow passage between the empty dining hall and the buttery, and then they were through to Nevile’s Court, stars appearing overhead once more.
They passed beneath spindled porticos, took one turn, then another, and were finally out into the grassy banks behind Trinity that led down to the river Cam, its slow current sluggish in the moonlight. To their left, squat and dark in the shadows, was the brewhouse. Isaac slid a key from his pocket and opened the lock, beckoning Plumbago to enter.
Once inside, he set his lantern on an upright barrel. The floor was dirt, and motes of dust danced in the air. Behind a stack of moldering hop sacks, Isaac pulled a large cloth off a stack of kegs.
Plumbago ran a hand over the nearest, tracing the alchemical symbols Isaac had scratched onto each with rough chalk. Unknown to Plumbago, in a moment of conceit, Isaac had marked the inside of each small barrel with his own initials. When they burned, as they were designed to, so would his hidden vanity, consumed in pure alchemical fire.
“This is the most volatile compound ever created,” Isaac said. “By anyone,” he added, with barely concealed pride. Black sulfur, quicklime, oil of vitriol, and other compounds of Isaac’s own painstaking transmutation. The experimentation had been arduous—months spent over noxious crucibles, grinding and heating and combining—but ultimately successful.
Plumbago nodded approvingly. The faintest odor of the mixture still hung in the air; Isaac could smell it, could almost feel the heat of alchemical fire it promised.
“You are satisfied then, M’Lord?”
Plumbago said nothing for a long time, and Isaac eventually concluded that he wasn’t going to answer. But then he spoke.
“The Kingdom is in a bind, Master Isaac. War at sea, plague at home. The King has restored his throne. Now he wishes to restore his country.”
It was a vague answer.
“And what I’ve prepared, it will help?” Isaac asked.
“Some scholars spend their entire lives in their rooms, noses buried in their books. That may yet be your fate. But at least tonight, you are part of something much bigger. You are defending the Kingdom from all enemies, the quick and the … dead. Think upon that, and let it succor you in the otherwise obscure life that awaits you in sleepy Cambridge. May it be a long and pleasant one.”
Isaac bristled. A life of obscurity? Bah. This past year had been productive in other areas beyond the alchemical. Physics, optics, mathematics … in time, the world would see whether he was to remain unnoticed and isolated in sleepy Cambridge.
Clysto appeared suddenly in the brewery’s wide doorway, silhouetted against the moonlight outside.
“All is ready,” Plumbago said, patting Isaac’s heap of kegs. Clysto shoved his way past Isaac, took a barrel under each arm, and turned toward the door.
“Be even more careful with these, M’Lords,” Isaac said, eyeing Clysto’s rapier warily. “The jars were merely fragile. These barrels are mortally injurious—far more combustible than gunpowder. A sudden drop, a wayward spark … why, I suspect you could burn down most of London with the contents of these dozen casks.”
Clysto stopped in mid-stride.
“All of London?” he asked, without turning.
Isaac realized that it was the first time the entire evening that he had heard the man speak.
“Well, if one were not careful,” Isaac said, startled by Clysto’s eager tone. “But in the contained spaces Mr. Plumbago described, merely to burn the corpses of plague victims, one would only need …”
He was unable to finish. Clysto had gone. Isaac looked at Plumbago, hoping for clarification, but the man had managed to loop his scrawny arms around a single keg and was waddling out the door after Clysto.
Through a gap in the wooden walls of the brew house, Isaac saw that Clysto had procured a punt: a small wooden boat the locals used to ply the Cam, pushing the craft up and down the river with long wooden poles.
For the next few minutes Isaac stood at a rapier-safe distance, watching the two men come and go until the stack of kegs was gone, leaving empty round circles on the brewery’s dirt floor.
He stood there in the semi-darkness, wondering what to do, when Plumbago reappeared.
“We’re loaded now, Master Isaac.”
“May I raise the matter of my compensation?” Isaac asked. “You made me assurances that I would have the support necessary to advance my station.”
“Yes, and in good time,” Plumbago nodded. “But first I must insist on one final … precaution. In exchange, you will never in your life reveal what you have done here. Is that understood?”
“To this I have already agreed, M’Lord. What more must I do?”
Plumbago produced a roll of paper, bearing multiple wax seals and festooned with ribbons. He laid it flat on the upturned barrel beside Isaac’s lantern.
A contract. In the light of the guttering flame, Isaac read the terms. Paragraph after paragraph of precisely scrawled legal clauses and subclauses, all of which boiled down to one overarching coda: Isaac’s formulae for the contents of the jars and kegs were to be turned over to Plumbago, and Isaac’s involvement in the creation of said recipes was to kept secret for the remainder of Isaac’s life.
Secret. On pain of death.
In exchange, there would be certain favors, fulfilled following the successful application of Isaac’s concoctions by those who had hired him.
When Isaac finished reading, he looked up at Plumbago, who produced a small reed and inkwell.
Isaac took the reed, dipped it, and scratched it over the paper.
Is. Newton, baccalaureus artium.
Plumbago blew the ink dry and left without another word. From the entrance to the brewhouse, Isaac watched the two men step onto the laden punt and push off down the river, a single hooded lantern at the bow marking their progress.
In a few minutes, they’d sailed beneath the Bridge of Sighs of neighboring St. John’s College, then they were gone.
Isaac returned to his rooms, to his experiments and calculations.
He thought little more of Plumbago and Clysto, only noting with satisfaction that by the end of summer the plague seemed to have mostly left London. Soon the city returned to its thriving, chaotic self.
But Cambridge was not so lucky. The plague came again, and by August, Isaac was forced once more to escape to his family’s farm in Woolsthorpe. It was there, as the leaves began to turn on the apple trees, as war with the Dutch and plague-pestilence and Plumbago and Clysto finally faded from memory, that Isaac awoke one morning to the frantic shouting of the locals gathered in the narrow lane leading from the village.
News from the south, delivered on the day’s mail coach:
London was burning.
All of it.
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, Indiana
One Week before Thanksgiving
“We have a few minutes left,” Trina Piper said, eyeing the fifteen undergrads sitting around the large table in front of her.
Their mostly bored faces were bathed in the wan glow of the fluorescent bulbs that illumined all thirteen floors of Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library, including the seminar room on the seventh floor, the home of the University’s Medieval Institute.
Bookshelves lined three of the room’s walls, filled with dusty books and runs of specialized journals that almost no one read. The fourth wall contained a series of locked display cases, each filled with objects so old and obscure that no one seemed to remember their original purpose. Even the department secretaries couldn’t locate the keys anymore.
As if Trina’s comment was some sort of Pavlovian trigger, one of the students, a bearded hipster named Greg Beaufort, opened his trendy organic-cotton messenger bag/man-purse and began to stuff his laptop inside.
“Which,” Trina said, in a tone that stopped Greg in mid-stuff, “means we have time for one more inspection.”
Greg’s shoulders slumped as he reopened his laptop. He was what Trina thought of as a “collateral student”—not at all interested in her seminar on Medieval and Early-Modern Manuscripts, but only there because he needed some liberal arts credits to graduate and hers was the only class that fit his schedule.
And he wasn’t the only one.
However, the response from Sammy—Samantha Klein, one of only three female students in the seminar this semester—was truly satisfying.
“Is it that one, Professor Piper?” Sammy asked, pointing to the volume that Trina had kept mysteriously covered with a cloth for the past two hours.
“Yep,” Trina said, tugging thin cotton gloves over her hands.
“Been wondering,” Sammy grinned, brushing a loose strand of red hair from her eyes. “It’s been sitting there like an unwrapped Christmas present since today’s seminar started.”
Sammy was the kind of student professors longed for: eager to learn, enthusiastic, and just generally pleasant to be around.
“This,” Trina pulled the cloth off with a dramatic flourish, a magician revealing the rabbit, “is one of my favorite volumes from the Medieval Institute’s collection. Notre Dame’s own copy of Ars Medicinae. The Art of Medicine, a collection of five of the most influential medical texts from antiquity through the first millennium, A.D. It was the standard medical text during much of the Middle Ages. This particular copy dates from the late fourteenth century.”
The book rested on a soft pillow, the kind placed under fragile books to mold to their shape and hold them firmly. She pushed it toward the center of the table, and despite their practiced apathy, even the most jaded of her students leaned forward to have a look.
“This is one of the jewels of Notre Dame’s collection, purchased from an auction in Europe decades ago. You can thank our football team. All those national championships bring in money, and some of that money finds its way to our own humble Medieval Institute.”
Trina always thought that the “Medieval Institute” was a silly name. It’s not like they worked by oil lamps and walked around in heavy robes, speaking to each other in high Latin. “Institute for Medieval Studies” was more accurate.
Whatever. It wasn’t her call. She loved being there all the same.
Trina positioned the book so all the students could see it and began to carefully turn the stiff vellum pages.
“This is a great example of an illuminated manuscript,” Trina said. “Check out these incredible, painstakingly hand-inked images, all surrounded by Latin text. Like this one, of a doctor taking a patient’s pulse … or this one, showing a rudimentary map of the human venous system … and this, of a surgeon setting bones.”
“So,” she said, when all the students had had a look. “What do you think made this stain?”
She touched a dark blotch in the margin of the page opposite the image of the bone-setter.
“A scribe’s fingerprint?” ventured one student.
“Good thought, but no. Anyone else?”
“Un-scraped iron gall ink?” asked Sammy.
“A great guess, Sammy, as these sheepskin pages would certainly hold up to heavy scraping to remove such a smudge. But again, no.”
Sammy sat back, arms folded, a scowl of mock defeat on her face.
After a minute of silence, Trina spilled the beans.
“It’s a bloodstain, proving that this very copy of Ars Medicinae was actually used on a battlefield. You’re looking at a spatter of blood left by some wounded archer, maybe even a lordly knight, as they were operated on in a medieval medical tent. Maybe during the famous battle of Agincourt, or one of the many conflicts of the Hundred Years’ War. Heck, maybe it’s blood from Joan of Arc herself.”
Trina grinned at the oohs and aahs coming from most of her students’ mouths. As a mere adjunct professor, she lived for this sort of thing: getting at least some of her students to understand that there was a bigger world than what they experienced on their smartphone screens. She certainly didn’t do this for the meager salary.
Greg had hardly moved. His eyes still flicked back and forth at the clock on the wall.
“I take it you aren’t that impressed with centuries-old bloodstains in a book used by a long-dead surgeon on a medieval battlefield, Mr. Beaufort?” Trina teased. “I would have thought you boys would be totally into that kind of thing.”
Greg huffed but at least had the maturity to realize he was being goaded. “It’s just not my kind of thing, I guess. I’m in business school. I want to open a craft brewery, not read about dead people. Much less see their old bloodstains. I just don’t get excited sitting around, studying all this …” he waved his smartphone around at the books and artifacts that lined the room “ … old musty stuff.”
“Touché, Mr. Beaufort,” Trina said. “Yes, academics can be a little musty. But even from within our stuffy offices we can help change the world.”
“Oh yeah? How?”
Trina grimaced. The stock answer was to say that professors train young students to think critically, to learn to write analytically, and then send them out in the world to do … what? Start craft breweries? Damnit, the kid had a point. How, indeed? Refusing to go down without a fight, however, Trina remembered something she’d seen recently in one of those popular scientific magazines.
“Well, I read that a group of scholars that study ancient medicine recently found a recipe for a potent antibiotic in a thousand-year-old English medical textbook called Bald’s Leechbook.”
Oh God. That had sounded far less lame in her head. “Of course,” she stammered, “Modern doctors still have to confirm …”
A chime sounded, dismissing class. Trina was literally saved by the bell.
“All right,” she said to the backs of the escaping undergrads. “I’ve set out three monastic palimpsests in the Rare Books room. I want five pages from each of you, comparing and contrasting them, by the start of next week’s class.”
Greg was the first out the door, sliding his laptop into his bag with one hand even as he was thumbing his smartphone with the other. The rest followed, a slouching, shuffling parade of tattoos, Timberlands, and tapping thumbs.
Millenials. They confounded her.
Well, most of them, anyway. Sammy was still hunched over the Ars Medicinae, enthralled by the bloodstain.
“This is so cool, Professor Piper!”
“Thanks, Sammy. And you can call me Miss Piper. I don’t have a Ph.D., just a master’s. I’m only an adjunct professor, anyway. Pretty much a part-time employee. The bottom of the academic barrel.”
“So, you don’t teach any other classes here?”
“Nope. Just this one particular seminar, once a semester.”
“Bummer. I like your teaching style. I’d take more from you if I could. Why do you do it?”
“Passion, I suppose. And access. Being an adjunct lets me use the library and archives and attend faculty seminars. Professor Alasdair Edelstein was my advisor when I was a grad student. He took me under his wing, and made sure I was able to teach this seminar when he retired last year.”
“Edelstein—the really old guy in the funny robe and pipe you used to see walking around up here?” Edelstein was rarely seen without his thread-bare academic gown draped over his bony shoulders, haunting the library like some kindly old ghost, whisper quiet and beanpole thin. He chewed an old pipe, but never lit it.
“That’s him,” Trina laughed. “Though he’s been in Italy this past year. He’s actually coming home today, for the holidays.”
“He was funny,” Sammy said. “Loved those robes. Never talked to him, though. What do you do for a living, then, if you aren’t a full professor?”
“Ever heard of a forensic document analyst?”
“I help people determine if their documents are authentic. I know how to analyze the paper, the ink, the handwriting and signatures. All stuff I learned initially here, working on all this”—here she switched to her best imitation of Greg Beaufort’s voice—“old musty stuff.”
They both laughed.
“So,” Sammy said. “You look at handwriting? Are you one of those people who can tell someone’s mood by the loops of their ells and the way they cross their tees? I’d love to analyze my fiancé’s handwriting—it’s a disaster!”
“Ha,” Trina said. “Can’t help you there. When it comes to handwriting, I just compare known samples to that of the document in question. I can also use scientific tools to analyze the types of paper and ink to see if they are forgeries.”
“Cool,” Sammy said, glancing once more at the bloodstained Ars Medicinae. Then her phone vibrated. “Ah, I gotta run, Profess—I mean, Ms. Piper. Unlike most of the others, I don’t have rich parents paying my tuition. I gotta get online before dinner. And then my shift starts at eight.”
“Wow, you’re a busy girl. Where do you work?”
“I do some online work for attorneys and other professionals up in Chicago. Virtual assistant stuff: digging up answers to their questions, booking their flights, scheduling restaurants in cities where they have client meetings, things like that. Pays by the hour. And I also work some nights behind the bar at the Saint Joe on Washington Street. You know, the old Studebaker mansion?”
“I love the Saint Joe! I’ll say hi next time I’m there.”
“Cool,” Sammy nearly ran out the door, her red hair flowing. “Next week we bring out our holiday menu. Come by; I’ll comp you a chardonnay!”
“I drink old-fashioneds,” Trina called after her. Usually alone, she almost added. Sammy’s departure reminded her that her next stop was home. It wasn’t always a happy place.
“You got it,” came Sammy’s reply from down the hall, followed seconds later by the ding of the arriving elevator.
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, Indiana
Trina placed the Ars Medicinae back in its box, carefully setting it between the padded lining. The box itself was stained with age; it folded closed and was secured with faded red ribbon. The way these books were stored never ceased to fascinate her; it often seemed as if the containers were nearly as old as their contents.
Trina must have been muttering out loud as she packed her lecture notes and laptop into her handbag. She jumped when a calm, quiet voice spoke from the doorway behind her.
“You’re right, Ekaterina. For years now, I’ve been suggesting the department invest in better storage boxes.”
“Alasdair!” Trina said, turning and giving Professor Edelstein a hug. “I didn’t realize you were back.”
“Here I am, Ekaterina. Landed at O’Hare this morning.”
They’d been on a first-name basis since Trina had earned her master’s degree, when Edelstein told her he no longer considered her a student, but a colleague.
He was also the only person she allowed to use her given name, mostly because he refused to call her anything else. He was a gentleman of the old school. The really old school, where the proper way to do something was the only way.
“How was Milan?”
“All is well at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. But a year away was too long. I miss my house. I miss South Bend, despite Italy’s uncountable advantage over northern Indiana. Home is home, is it not? I came straight here from the airport and spent the day getting my office back in order. When I heard you were teaching the seminar today, I waited around.”
“I’d love to visit there myself someday and see the Ambrosiana first hand.”
In the nineties, Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute had received a full copy—mostly microfilms, but also scans and photocopies and photographs—of everything in the famed Biblioteca Ambrosiana: Europe’s oldest library, dedicated to Saint Ambrose, the fourth-century Bishop of Milan. It was a hodgepodge of medieval European history, however, and as curator of Notre Dame’s Ambrosiana Collection, Edelstein made frequent trips back and forth to the library in Milan to examine documents whose original provenance needed authentication.
To Trina, it sounded like the world’s most amazing job.
“Well, you didn’t miss much here. It’s been a typical South Bend year. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter.” It was almost Thanksgiving, and the leaves across campus had already shed their gorgeous reds, oranges, and golds, leaving the campus colored by drab shades of brown, brown, and brown.
“These old bones have suffered more than their share of South Bend winters, Ekaterina. Which, as I was saying, is why I’ve been pushing for the department to take better care of our books. They simply hate this humidity, you know, to say nothing of the wild swings in temperature. Imagine what another five hundred years sitting in a cardboard box in just a few miles south of Lake Michigan will do to our little friends. But no one takes seriously the opinions of a doddering old Professor Emeritus, alas.”
“Well, they should,” Trina said, shouldering her bag and wedging the bundled-up Ars Medicinae into the crook of her elbow. “You ran this department like a true scholar. The care and preservation of the collections were always at the forefront of your budget decisions.”
“Ran is the operative word,” Edelstein smiled, the grin adding to the already copious wrinkles lining his face. “Now I’m just a relic myself, respected for my antiquity and yet utterly ignored. Much like the things we keep in those.” He pulled the pipe out of his mouth and poked the stem at the glass display cases against the wall.
“I don’t ignore you, Alasdair.”
“Exactly!” He aimed his pipestem enthusiastically in her direction now. “That’s why I like having you around. You make me feel like a body, not some faded old specter doomed forever to roam the seventh-floor stacks … ah, is that the Ars Medicinae you’ve got there? Did you show them the bloodstain? Students always love seeing the bloodstain. I spent many happy hours poring over that thing when it first came to the Institute. Wrote an award-winning article about it for the Review of Medieval History, you know.”
“Of course I know,” Trina said. “I wrote an article about your article as part of my thesis on esoteric medieval and Renaissance texts, remember? About how your work redefined the study of medical practice in the high Middle Ages relating to occult and magical knowledge?”
“A fine piece of scholarship, that,” Edelstein said, putting his pipe back in his mouth.
Trina blushed. “Thanks, Alasdair. So, is this a social call? Or are you simply looking for a member of the living to haunt for a while?”
He paused, sucking air through his pipe. Trina remembered the sound from the time spent discussing her thesis in Edelstein’s office, and suddenly realized that she didn’t want to go home, didn’t want to leave this happy place for a sad one.
“Espresso?” he finally said. “The machine’s warm.”
Edelstein kept an imported Italian espresso machine in his office, all chrome and glass and black-resin knobs. Next to it was a grinder like you see in chain coffee shops—big and noisy. And then there were the fresh beans he got from a local roaster just off campus.
Trina knew the routine. She’d spent many hours over “espresso,” furiously scribbling notes while Edelstein eviscerated her thesis’ weakest arguments. The process always left her devastated. But then, like some angel of mercy, he’d send her back out again with the tools she needed to remake those shattered arguments better than they were before.
He’d even used the same process to help her think about career choices in a rough academic market. And once, when things had gone south with an old boyfriend, he talked her through that, too.
And when it was all over, he had turned her into a damn fine scholar. He even gave her the ultimate compliment, telling her she had actually done all the work and he had merely offered a few pointers along the way. And he stood by her side when the North American Historical Association awarded her that year’s top graduate student prize for her thesis.
She hadn’t had a proper Edelstein espresso in almost a year. And she wasn’t quite ready to go home.
“Yes,” she said, shifting the Ars Medicinae to her other arm. “Yes, please.”