The Newton Enigma.  A novel by Linton Herbert

Chapter 3a


Tampa, Public Library, reference desk, October 21, 2 PM:


The Tampa Public Library is a modern structure near the Hillsborough River.  The library is well funded.  Tampa is a rich city by modern standards.  The collection does not rival that of some older cities where historical archives go back for centuries.  But in matters of computer assistance, lending video tapes and disks, help for the visually and hearing challenged and the occult there is probably none better.  The Tampa Goth community is one of the world’s most active. 


Despite its modernity, the library still seemed to whisper with the lullaby of turned pages. 


Jon and Ivan went to a computer terminal by the reference desk. 


“Let’s see that paper again, Ivan.” 


Jon set the terminal up for word processing and started to type.  “I suspect it’s typewriter code.  He didn’t have much time.  All you do is slide your fingers on the keyboard one key to the right so your left little finger is on “s” rather than “a” and your right index finger is on “k” not “j.”  Then you just type normally.  What comes out looks like a mess.  To decode it you just reverse the process.  Of course your right little finger has to do a lot of work, but with a little practice a good typist can just about code and decode as fast as you can talk.”


A few moments later Jon hit the “print” button and then erased what he had done.  They went over to the printer, dropped in a quarter and collected the result.


It read:


Ivan, I won’t have much time.  It looks like I’ve made somebody really angry.  If I don’t phone you in the next few minutes, I have to leave this to you.  Go to the bride of Jerusalem.  It has shifted many degrees.  You know my family.  Tell Hap I sent you.  You want to know about Newton.  And don’t tell the authorities until the end.  Jon Brownstone will help you. 


“Well, Ivan.  It says you know about his family.  He was from Cuthbert.  What else do you know?”


He told me it was a very old family.  That’s why he felt so bad about … anyway … he said it was an old noble European family.”


“Of course.  There probably isn’t a house in the Deep South that doesn’t have a coat of arms hanging up somewhere.” 


“Yes, he had one of those.  But he said it was really old.  It went back to before the time of Charlemagne.” 


“I doubt that.  I doubt any coat of arms is that old.”


“The family, I mean.  He could trace it back forty generations to Charlemagne.”


That gave Jon an odd feel.  His friend had been forty degrees removed from Charlemagne.  The Dark Ages.  A time so dim that there is even now more of myth than of knowledge about it.  In one sense it seemed rather warm and cozy.  Forty is not that many people.  Forty people in a room can all know each other and chat happily among themselves.  On the other hand each of those forty was a lifetime full of doubt and fear, of hope and endless effort.  How many of those hopes had been dashed for those forty? 


Jon said, “You know the idea that everybody in the world is separated from everybody else by no more than seven degrees?”


Ivan said, “Sure.  You know somebody that knows somebody and so forth.  You can connect with anybody in the world by going through only seven people.  They call it seven degrees of separation.”


“All right.  Suppose a degree is a generation.  So we are separated from Charlemagne’s time by forty degrees.”


“Why do you say that?”


“Because,” said Jon.  “I can’t think of any other way to connect degrees and family.  He’s hinting at something, but he’s giving us more questions than answers.”


Ivan said, “Well he was my friend, and I guess he was your friend.  If he wanted us to figure this out, I say we ought to try.  But what do we do?”


“I don’t know,” said Jon.  “But just maybe he is hinting that it’s a forty degree remove. Jerusalem has shifted forty degrees since the Dark Ages.  Let’s look at a globe.”


They went to a globe and pondered it for a bit.  Jon fetched a bit of string from the reference desk.  Then he found Jerusalem on the globe. 


For half the world – Jew, Christian and Muslim – Jerusalem is Holy Land.  A large proportion can hardly mention the name without getting the kind of catch in the throat that comes with naming the holy or – ironically – the obscene.  Nowhere else do myth and history entwine so luxuriantly.  It was the Garden of Eden, the place where Joseph wrestled with the angel, the place where Mohammed’s horse landed when he flew from Mecca, the first place outside of Africa where significant human habitation occurred, the place where speech first developed, where consciousness arose.  It was the place where Christ was crucified, buried and where he triumphed over death.  It was where the Temple of Solomon stood, the place where Zion the mountain reached up to announce that this was the home of God, the place where literacy was first available to the majority of the population, the place where the first flattering representation of a human was made.  Most early humans are either stick figures marked on cavern walls or fat and faceless female figurines.  But this small statue was of semiprecious stone and showed a lithesome young woman apparently in silk pajamas in the distinctive pose of the Scottish dance, the Highland Fling.  It was found near Jerusalem. 


Despite the fact that Jon could claim both Christian and Jewish heritage, these facts and traditions left him cold.  He was just looking at coordinates. 


He measured forty degrees along the equator with the string, tying two knots the same distance apart as forty degrees.  Then he held on knot on Jerusalem and, pulling the string tight, made a circle with the other knot.  He looked at the arc.  


“Look, Ivan.  Mecca is twenty degrees from Jerusalem.  So is Athens.”


“We are looking for forty degrees.”


“Yes.  I know,” said Jon.  “At forty degrees we get Morocco, Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, Upper Volta, Ghana, Togo, Gabon, East Congo, Zaire, Zambia, Malawi, Tanganyika, India, Nepal, Tibet and Russia.  Did he ever mention family in any of those places?”


“No.  But he didn’t say the family actually started with Charlemagne.  It’s even older.” 


“Let’s look up Charlemagne.”


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