The Newton Enigma.  A novel by Linton Herbert.

Chapter 7 a


New Orleans, October 25, 5 PM


If you follow the great circle through Cairo and New Orleans, you pass through Athens which was central to the Greek word, Rome of a later civilization, north Italy where the renaissance flowered, Paris, the Stonehenge area of England, where the industrial revolution started, Nova Scotia, Oak Island, Boston, which was central to the American Revolution, New York, the later commercial giant, Washington D.C., through Richmond, Charlotte, Atlanta, Montgomery and on to New Orleans. 


From there the line continues to Mexico City, where there are pyramids again and which has yet to reach the status of premier world power, but there are demographic factors that favor it.  If you follow the same circle in the other direction from Cairo, you go through Mount Sinai and then Mecca.  If from Cairo you follow a similar great circle north and eastward, you go through Jerusalem.  If you go south one hundred twenty degrees from Cairo, you are at the South Pole. 


The van, in James’s expert hands, roared toward New Orleans.  Jon had been reading the writings of Isaac Newton from the laptop computer.  He said, “But something seems wrong here.  Given that this great circle means anything, shouldn’t we be going to where the power is now?  Shouldn’t we be going to Washington?”


Tracy said airily, “There you go with your twentieth century thinking again.  Washington was the seat of power around World War II and for a bit after that.  But by the 1970’s power was shifting south.  The industrial base of America has been well into the South for many years.  Look where most of our presidents come from.”


“I would have thought if the power wasn’t in Washington it was in New York,” said Jon.


“Everybody knows that the big international giant corporations don’t have their headquarters in New York any longer.  Since September 11 they have been quietly shipping out.  That’s not bad for New York, or for anybody who wants to set up a big company there.  The competition is gone.  And anybody with a big name is going to keep a high profile presence in New York.  But the work has all been transferred out of country.  And the guts of the administration is generally in New Orleans nowadays.”


“But why?”


New Orleans is special in its own way.  It has the resources of a great city, but it’s a very closed society.  Except during Mardi Gras when everything shuts down anyway, people all know each other in New Orleans.  So things like industrial espionage and security are a lot easier to manage.”


James couldn’t stand it.  New Orleans’s no closed society.  It’s real friendly there.  Real tolerant.  Real easy.  They call it The Big Easy.” 


“Tolerant but closed.  And it’s the most secure port.  The navy has a lot of subs in the Mississippi underwater.  And they are going to protect them.  Plus there is a lot of farming in the Midwest, right upriver.  That’s going to get more important in the future.  If you go to either coast you‘re nailed between mountains and the sea.  So New Orleans is in a very strategic location.  Everybody knows that.”


“Well where in the world did you hear about it?”


“I talk to a lot of rich business men.”  It was not clear whether she was taunting him or she was serious.  Anyway the idea that she talked with a lot of business men had to be right. 


Jon returned to looking at the screen of the laptop.  Then he said, “Hey, Ivan.  It looks like Newton thought Charlemagne was the antichrist.  What would Terra Lane have said about that?”


“Why should he care?”


“Didn’t you say he was descended from Charlemagne?”


“He said his family went back that far and farther.  But he didn’t actually say he was descended.”


“All right.”  Jon went back to his studies. 


Interstate ten was gathering traffic as they swept in from the flat countryside.  The eastbound lanes were clogged with the evening rush hour.  “We’re going to go past the Super Dome,” said James.  “It’s the biggest stadium in the world.”


“So all those huge international corporations can have the biggest committee meetings in the world,” said Jon.  He was not going to give up easily believing that Tampa was the center of the action.


James laughed, and then he said, “I know where there’s a hotel you’ll like in the French Quarter.  It’s nice and old and historic.  You’ll look just like tourists.  I’ll probably stay with family tonight.  We can go visit Grandpa Amos in the morning.” 


The hotel had been a private house, where Harriet Beecher Stowe had written her fatal book.  They settled in and then went for an early evening stroll through the French Quarter.  Bourbon Street was mobbed with tourists churning their way between bars and dance clubs blaring heavy rock music. 


Chartres street, running parallel with Bourbon street, had fabulous antique stores.  As they wandered they heard the sweet dissonance of jazz and found their way into a modest hall crowded with fans and listened to legendary jazz musicians cheerfully performing. 


They then let James lead them to a small restaurant, where he pulled strings and got them admitted despite the enormous crowds.  They settled down to enjoy a feast of crawfish étoufé that did justice to its name suggesting a muted harp string, and they had blackened redfish, which had come back on the market as the fish population had recovered from excessive enthusiasm.  Hapgood tucked in with the gusto of a far younger man, but he managed a few remarks about the scene anyway.


“The Cajuns, who developed this style of cooking, are supposed to be a mixture of white, African American and Native American.  And that certainly would account for the richness and variety.  But the name comes from the word “Acadian” or “Arcadian.”  It’s an old name for Nova Scotia.  French speaking people came from there a long time ago, and the name is still kept.”


“I thought Arcadia was in Greece,” said Tracy.


“It was.  It was the heart of the Greek homeland, although mostly Greece developed into a series of scattered colonies.  But the old pastoral shepherd poetry, the Arcadia we have a sentimental memory of, was in Greece itself.”


Ivan said, “Greece to France to Nova Scotia to New Orleans.  They just can’t get off that circle, can they?”


Thoroughly mellow after the meal, they started to wander again or rather to follow James’s gentle lead.  Down a deserted street they found a voodoo shop.  They wandered in to have a look around.  For sale was an unsettling mix of what looked like the tackiest tourist schlock, unblushingly imported from Southeast Asia, and artifacts made with traditional handwork.  The handmade things were as ostentatiously crude as the imported trinkets were high gloss.  A case might hold a collection of plastic shrunken heads attached to key rings, and beside it might be a small bunch of sticks bound with dried grass.  But just as the imported souvenirs bespoke the might of international trade and a single marketplace encompassing the whole world,  the twigs, little bags of dirt or vegetable matter, odd rags and mismatched jars had a harmony, a consistency, that similarly suggested an underlying social phenomenon of enormous power.  Neither tradition seemed to be bringing in a lot of money, but that, too, may have been an illusion.


The proprietor came in from the back and walked up to Jon.  He stared at her face.  She was an elderly Black woman, her face drawn not with fear but with concern; the face seemed to want to help but not to know quite how, a pleasant face indeed, but she seemed to be thinking about something difficult, even dangerous to mention. 


She said, “I’ve seen you before.”


“I doubt it,” said Jon.  “We just got into town.”


It was a reasonable enough reply.  But it did not explain why he had gone pale.  She led them through a curtain into a little room with a covered table and some chairs.  There was nothing from the world market in the room, and the handmade decorations on the wall were far more sophisticated and unsettling than the objects out front.  They sat, and the woman took out some bones, knuckle bones of a sheep, and rolled them on the table a few times.  Then she looked at Jon again.


“The man you’re going to see is at the Pegasus Hotel, room 695.”


“We aren’t looking for a man,” said Jon.  “Not one who would be staying at the Pegasus.”


“Maybe not, be he’s looking for you.  Sooner or later you’re going to see him.” 


She stood up and ushered them out to the street.  Ivan said, “That voodoo is strong medicine,” as they left.


“Voodoo or grapevine,” said Hapgood.  “You never know.  But it’s wise to take such things seriously, and with a serious grain of salt.”


They strolled back to the small hotel.  As they passed the iron gates Tracy said, “I have some shopping to do.  James, could you run a couple errands with me?”


“Why sure.”


While James and Tracy went shopping, the others went inside, where Jon set up the laptop and started work on Newton’s historical writing.  It was devilishly ambiguous.  As histories go, it was more than usually unpleasant, since Newton with characteristic honesty recorded one military disaster after another without any softening human interest. 


The trick was to decide just when an empire had started and when it fell, to determine the lifespan of that civilization.  But while one had the expectation that a civilization would be invaded, sacked and show no further vigor, the pattern was more complex.  It was most hard to decide just who supplanted whom when.  Besides, much of the manuscript had simply been copied out verbatim from old sources.  Newton’s own interpretation was often lacking.  Occasionally Newton would start interpreting prophesies as historical events, as if to establish the basic validity of prophesy, but always in his own past.  One could not find an arrow going into Newton’s future, much less the future as they sat there.  Yet that somehow did seem to be the point of the whole exercise. 


At least he had worked out how he was proceeding.  Put together a list of civilizations and their dates.  Record their ages at time of collapse.  Then group them in fifty year intervals.  Of those that started, calculate the percentage that lasted until year fifty one.  Of those that lasted fifty years, calculate the percentage that lasted until year one hundred one.  Then the percentage of them that lasted until year one hundred fifty one, and so forth.  But there was no trend, and wouldn’t be a trend until he had some objective way of deciding when each civilization rose and fell.  Maybe Newton could; he couldn’t.  Besides, the collection seemed incomplete.


Hapgood remarked, “Why don’t you have the computer search for mentions of Mesopotamia.  There have been civilizations there for as long as in Egypt.  They introduced things like literacy, the wheel, government, the standing army, the fortification, law, medicine and the factory.  And a lot of myths that we still take an interest in, things like dragons and floods.”


Jon stabbed at the keyboard a couple times and the computer brought up the data of a large wall chart of the history of the world.  There was Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, modern Iraq.  Sure enough, it was a roughly definable area with a long history of being dominated by a single unified power.  Jon jotted down the periods between disasters. 


The early dynastic period lasted 200 years.  The Sumer period lasted 250 years.  The Akkadian period lasted 150.  From the end of the Akkadian to the Gutien invasions was 75 years.  Presumably the invasions marked a period of social instability.  From the Gutien invasions to Ur was 155.  Ur lasted for 120 years.  The Isin-Larsa period lasted 100.  Old Babylon lasted 300 years.


After Babylon, the Kassite period lasted 140.  The Hittite period lasted 180.  The Middle Assyrian period lasted 185.  The Chaldeans lasted 175.  The Late Assyrian period lasted 290 years.  The New Babylonian period lasted 60 years.  The Persians were in control for 210 years.  Alexander the Great's empire lasted about 30 years.  The Selucids lasted 240 years.  The Romans took charge for 190 years.  The Parthians ruled for 210 years.  The Sassanid period lasted 280 years.  The Ulmayad period lasted 120 years, and the Abbasid for 200 years.  The Bayid period lasted 110 years.  The Turks were in control for 170 years.  The Mongols were there for 160 years.  Tamerlanes's empire lasted 120.  The Safavid period lasted 240 years.  The Ottoman Turks were in control for 380 years.


The numbers were obviously rounded to the nearest five or ten years.  No matter.  Jon grouped them by fifty years, did some calculations and made the computer display it as a graph.  He whistled.  “Ouch.  Reverend, how long has the word been a single civilization?”


Hapgood shrugged and said, “Obviously you can take any date you like and define single civilization accordingly, but world trade rose above five percent of total trade for the first time in 1800.”


Newton wasn’t even alive then.  How did he know it was going to?”


“Bright guy.”


The three of them stared at the terrible information on the screen. 


Ivan asked, “So why?”


The shopping trip had gone well.  Tracy had bought some clothes and changed into them.  Then they had gone to a business supply house.  It had been enormous, superbly equipped for the needs of the vast enterprises that now lodged in the city. 


In the van, Tracy did some cutting and painting, while James watched with amused puzzlement.  Then she asked, “James, do you know anybody at the Pegasus who is, like, a man who entertains men?” 


“You mean a fancy boy?” 


“I guess that’s what I mean.  Hotels sometimes have things like that.”


James smiled elusively, “Well of course I wouldn’t have any friends like that, and of course that would be against hotel policy.  But if I had to guess, I’d try some name like Adrian Jones, just for example.”


“Good enough.  In case I need help.  Take me to the Pegasus.”


At the Pegasus she left the van and walked boldly through the front door.  She was wearing strong reading glasses with heavy rims, that reduced the world to a blur, but made here eyes look big as if she was worried, which was not itself a deception.  She was wearing a severe business dress with sensible shoes, carrying a purse with a strap over her shoulder and carrying a large chart with a graph on it.  Her hair was done up in an uncompromising bun.  She had thrust a couple very sharp pencils into the bun. 


Anyone who challenged her would presumably have to deal with whomever she answered to, and nobody was going to want to do that.  She made her way to the elevators and waited with ill concealed patience.  She punched up floor six.


During the brief ride, she took off the business clothes.  Underneath she was wearing a tube top and miniskirt.  She swapped the shoes for a pair of spike heels in the purse, dropped the pencils in the purse and shook out her hair.  She took a more frou-frou purse out.  On the sixth floor she stepped out, leaving the business clothes and purse on the elevator, along with the business chart.  She brought along a large, white cardboard carton folded flat, which had been concealed by the chart.


Her heart was pounding with fear and excitement.  Her stomach was churning.  She tried to swallow, but there was no saliva.  She would have to move fast before her nerves let her down. 


At room 695, she opened up the carton.  The bottom was cut out.  On the front she had painted a pair of enormous voluptuous red lips and a pair of eyes, winking.  Where the bangs should be, she had cut out a window and hung a veil of cloth behind it to represent hair.   


Quickly she opened the carton, glued a little hook, a light-stick and a note pad to the inside, and then she crouched and lifted the box over herself.  Inside, by the light of the stick, she stripped off her clothes and hung them up.  Then she edged up to the door.  Her plan was to reach through the veil and knock.  The bad news was that she had no further plan.  She would have to wing it.


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