Part I. Beginnings

Chapter 1. Newton & Maggie

Theodore Newton Phontaine had been peculiar his entire life. His parents knew he was unusual. His brother and sister would testify under oath that he was different. They knew he was not normal by any widely accepted definition of that word.

His childhood development had been erratic. He did not speak until he was three years old, but by four, he was dealing with abstractions. By twelve years of age, he was spellbound by the proposed constancy of the speed of light, Kepler’s laws of celestial physics, and his fourteen-year old neighbor Linda; who was not the least bit interested in relativity, astrophysics, or him.

His mother and father called him Ted. He thought of himself as “Newton.” His middle name had been in honor of his paternal grandfather; however, he preferred to believe it signified some remote but significant association with Sir Isaac Newton. Doubtless, he had more in common with Sir Isaac than with a grandfather who managed an umbrella factory in Connecticut.

Newton’s education was routine in the classroom and extraordinary in the libraries. He haunted them on the weekends and throughout the summers of his youth. He roamed among the book stacks and found the vital nourishment that fed his voracious appetite to know more. He read the classics, history, fiction, non-fiction, and technical manuals on air conditioning, automobile repair, and electrical energy generation. For Newton, libraries were cathedrals of wisdom, cheerfully and patiently sharing their vast knowledge with him, asking only that he whisper in their presence.

Newton completed his public education without distinguishing himself in the slightest. He had competently assessed that his questions were typically beyond the grasp of his teachers. On many occasions, he had raised this hand and excitedly offered his question only to be told it was a silly question. He would stare at his desk in confusion as classmates laughed and ridiculed him.

The first time this happened, Newton was in the fourth grade. His teacher was explaining that the Earth spun on an axis. As she spun the globe she was holding, Newton studied it and decided something was wrong about its shape.

“Ah,” he thought, “if the Earth spins and its surface is mostly water, it must bulge at the equator; the centrifugal forces would be the greatest there and the Earth should be stretched around the middle.” He raised his hand and asked why the globe the teacher was holding was round; it should bulge at the equator and be flatter at the north and south poles.

“Flat! Haven’t you been listening?” the teacher demanded impatiently. “The Earth is round like a ball. Can’t you see it?”

“Yeah,” Newton’s classmate chided as the others laughed, “Columbus knew the Earth is round, but Newton thinks it’s flat!”

From that moment on, Newton understood that his questions exceeded the teacher’s knowledge; yet, he was impervious to the discouragement inherent in the system. His enthusiasm rekindled with each new grade and the fresh potential he saw in each new teacher. If the fourth grade teacher did not know, perhaps the fifth grade teacher would know. At an uncharacteristically primitive level of analysis, Newton reasoned that since the subjects were more complex at higher grades, the teachers in those grades must know more. Someone will eventually understand and answer his questions.

Some teachers tolerated him for a while; though, typically within a few weeks they tired of his unrelenting questions. By the seventh grade, “why don’t you look that up yourself?” became their standard response. Newton decided it was excellent advice. From that point on, he decided to answer his own questions. That was when Newton stopped believing public education had anything to offer him, and he turned to libraries for the answers to his many questions.

Newton enjoyed college a little better; he designed new microprocessors, invented mass storage systems, held multiple patents, and quietly amassed his first billion dollars when he was twenty-nine.

Newton celebrated achieving his first billion by flying to Toronto, Chicago, New York, and Boston and staying long enough to eat pizza and visit a library. At each place he ate, he quietly left a one hundred dollar tip for the wait staff, and in each city, he stopped by the public library and left a five hundred thousand dollar cashier’s check in their suggestion box.

While visiting Boston, he met Maggie Nevin through a chance encounter at the library’s suggestion box. “What’s your suggestion?” he had asked her. “They need more books on Egyptian antiquities,” she had replied.

“I think we have complementary concerns,” Newton had said. “Let me put your suggestion in this envelope with mine and I am sure they will do something about their Egyptian antiquities holdings.”

Their relationship began with mutual deceptions.

Maggie told Newton she taught and she enjoyed watching the bright little faces light up with learning. If Newton thought she taught grade school, this was his misperception. She did not tell him she held the Carstad Chair in mathematics and the bright little faces were doctoral candidates defending research proposals.

Newton told Maggie he handled baggage for the airlines, a partial truth in that he always carried on his own bags. If she concluded he could get tickets to fly anywhere in the country because he was an airline employee, that was her misperception.

Eventually, the truth emerged and Newton and Maggie married with a promise to be honest in all matters and all issues. They spent their honeymoon in search of great pizzas and libraries that needed a little help.

Newton and Maggie led a secretive life. Secretive in the sense that no one had any idea about their net worth, the depth of their intellectual interests, or their secret plan to save civilization.

Part II. October 1994

Chapter 2. Susan Anderson

In 1994, the United States had tens of thousands of libraries and each of these libraries received hundreds of pieces of mail every day. Most of it was junk mail printed on cheap paper. That is why the letter from M&N Incorporated stood out from the other pieces of mail crossing Susan Anderson’s desk that day. Block lettering across the top announced Requests for Proposals. The only paragraph was a little mysterious:

Seeking long-term assistance from competent visionaries interested in safeguarding civilization. We offer an excellent compensation package with opportunities for travel and professional development. Send letter of interest, including current institutional affiliation, formal and informal training, and details of other commitments (both personal and professional) that might influence your availability for the next ten years, to M&N Incorporated, General Delivery, Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Susan was intrigued. The letter was addressed to her, it was printed on 24-pound cotton paper with a watermark, and the postage was the full rate. She tucked it into her purse and forgot about it for almost a week. When she rediscovered it, she drafted a polite cover letter, attached her résumé, and added a hand written note that she was interested in learning more about M&N Incorporated.

She may not have given her letter enough consideration or perhaps she doubted M&N Incorporated even existed, either of these would have been good explanations as to why she was surprised to receive a second letter from M&N. Once again, nice stationary and a short message:

We would like to interview you. Are you available for lunch on Thursday, October 27?

An ‘800’ number appeared at the bottom of the letter. Susan dialed the number and the message was succinct, “Hello Susan. If you can attend lunch with us press 1, if not press 9.” Susan pressed ‘1’ confirming she could meet with M&N at lunchtime. A pleasant voice announced, “We will be outside the library at 11:45. We look forward to meeting you.”

Susan spent the next few days trying to find information on M&N Incorporated; however, nothing existed anywhere she looked. M&N did not appear in any corporate listings for the United States or its territories. No major city phonebook listed an M&N Incorporated. The 800 number was not listed in the toll-free numbers directories.

Susan vacillated between being fearful that M&N was a front for something sinister and just being frustrated that M&N was so new that it had not been included in the reference sources she could find.

As the Monday meeting approached, she decided to try one last time to get information on M&N. She called directory assistance for Jamaica and asked for the number for M&N Incorporated.

“Would you like me to connect you?” The woman’s accent was distinctly Jamaican.

“Yes, please,” Susan replied, realizing she would at last find out something about this elusive corporation.

The phone rang once and an answering machine picked up. It conveyed a short message. “Hello Susan; well done! We look forward to having lunch with you.”

At 11:45 on the following Monday, Susan was standing outside the library as a taxicab pulled up to the curb. A woman and a man exited the cab and began walking toward the library.

“Are you Susan?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” Susan answered, cautiously.

The woman and the man both wore running shoes, faded blue jeans, tie-dyed tee shirts, denim jackets, and dark sunglasses. They looked like refugees from the sixties. The only thing missing was sandalwood incense and an acoustic guitar.

“Hi, Susan,” the man spoke his greeting warmly as he removed his sunglasses. “My name is Newton, and this is my life companion and co-conspirator, Maggie.”

“Where would you like to eat?” Maggie asked.

Suddenly, Susan wanted to stay close by, in a public place. She also wanted to get a couple of friends to join her. She was not fearful of these quirky strangers; she just expected lunch to be a waste of time and with a couple of friends along, they could at least have a laugh about the ‘two hippies who want to save the world.’

“There is a café with outdoor seating about two blocks from here,” Susan offered. “They have sandwiches, salads, cold pasta, that sort of stuff.”

“Great,” Maggie said. “Let’s go there.”

They began the short walk to the café and the cab followed. Susan looked back at the cab, twice.

“Getting a cab in Chicago can be a challenge,” Newton began offering an explanation. “So we just hired him for the day.”

“That makes sense,” Susan replied as she wondered what it would cost to hire a cab for the day.

They entered the café and worked their way through the lunch crowd to get the last available table under the café’s awning. The cab rolled up along side, parked, and the driver picked up a newspaper. The light on top of the cab announced it was not available for business.

After placing their drink orders, Newton and Maggie looked at their menus for only a few seconds and laid them down. Susan was still studying her menu when the server returned with their drinks.

“Are you ready to order?” the server asked.

“Yes, I think so,” Maggie responded as she studied the young woman waiting on them. “Are you ready Susan?”

“Yes, I am.”

Susan had decided to order what she always ordered.

Newton reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a piece of paper money. He unfolded it, revealing a fifty-dollar bill, and then he folded it in half, placed it under his iced tea glass, and announced, “If our order is correct, this is your tip. I will deduct ten dollars for each mistake.”

“Thank you, sir,” the young woman said as she stared at the fifty-dollar bill.

“Will you get the order correct?” Maggie asked.

“Yes, ma’am, I will.”

“How do you know you will get it correct?” Newton asked, sounding skeptical.

“I will keep careful notes.”

“Good plan,” Newton asserted as he turned to Susan and asked, “What would you like?”

Looking furtively at the fifty-dollar bill, Susan wondered if she was missing an opportunity to indulge herself at the expense of these strangers. “I’ll have the turkey sandwich on sourdough,” she requested, sounding a bit hesitant. “Hold the pickle; but, please add a side-salad with the raspberry vinaigrette dressing.” There, that would be a splurge.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’ll have the corned-beef sandwich on pumpernickel bread,” Maggie ordered with authority. “No condiments. I want the bottom slice of bread—and only the bottom slice—toasted. Put fifteen potato chips on the plate arranged in a circle around the sandwich. Put three thin slices of banana on top.”

“I don’t make the sandwiches,” their server asserted, as she started to sound discouraged.

“But, you have an interest in getting a sandwich made this way, don’t you?” Maggie asked and continued without waiting for an answer, “Could you get cooperation for twenty dollars?”

Maggie slipped a twenty-dollar bill on top of the fifty that served as a coaster for Newton’s iced tea.

“Yes ma’am, I don’t think we’ll have any problems getting that sandwich,” the server offered confidently.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Newton said. “Now, I would like to have the meat from the third sandwich on the second page of the menu, served on the fifth bread selection on the bottom of the third page. On one slice of bread, put yellow mustard, on the other put spicy mustard. I want two pieces of lettuce resting on top of the completed sandwich and nothing else on the plate.”

“Anything else?” the server asked as she completed scribbling notes on the fourth piece of paper in her order pad.

“Have that to us within ten minutes and I’ll add another twenty,” Maggie said as she reached into her coat pocket to produce another twenty-dollar bill.

“I will also add a twenty,” Newton volunteered as he looked at Maggie and smiled.

The server glanced at Susan, apparently expecting her to add yet another twenty dollars and Susan quickly diverted her eyes to the tabletop and reached for her drink.

“It will be coming right up,” their server said as she turned and hurried away.

“Susan?” Maggie asked. “Will she get the order right?”

“She certainly wants to get it right,” Susan replied, thoughtfully. “I think she’ll get it right.”

“Why are you so confident?” Newton asked.

“She wrote the orders down. She took a lot of notes,” Susan said, then continued, “and she appears to have very good attention to detail.”

“We will know shortly,” Maggie said, glancing at Newton.

“Well, enough talk about our waitress,” Newton said as he reached for his iced tea. “Tell us about yourself; what makes you tick?”

“I was born in Chicago and I have lived here all my life,” Susan began her life story wondering when these two oddballs were going to get to their point.

“Why did you choose to be a librarian?” Maggie asked.

“I like books, I like to read. I think it is important to protect books. Libraries are our national treasures.”

“That sounds patriotic,” Newton said, with a hint of aloofness. “Why do books need to be protected?”

“Books deteriorate over time: moisture, pages mold, bindings break—if we read them, we end up abusing them, no matter how careful we are.”

“Why bother protecting books when libraries can be destroyed?” Newton asked, and this time he did sound arrogant.

“That’s right,” Maggie rejoined. “There was an important library in Africa that was destroyed a long time ago, wasn’t there?”

“You mean the library at Alexandria in Egypt?” Susan asked. “That was one of history’s great tragedies. The library contained hundreds of thousands of manuscripts on medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and essentially the wisdom of the ages.”

“If you were the chief librarian at Alexandria and you knew the Library’s destruction was eminent—it was going to burn down—what would you do?” Newton asked.

“Save as many scrolls as I could,” Susan replied, as she started to wonder if Newton was an arsonist. “I would move them out of the library to a safe place.”

“How would you pick the most important scrolls?” Maggie asked. “Would they be the scrolls that are historically significant? The ones about medicine? Agriculture? What would they be?”

“I guess that would depend on what was available elsewhere,” Susan said, beginning to wonder if she was taking an exam. “If I knew—” Susan stopped in mid-sentence as she saw their server walking toward their table. Susan was curious as to how many mistakes the server might have made. Did she get the orders right?

“Here we are,” the server announced as she arrived at their table. “For you ma’am, I have the turkey sandwich on sourdough—no pickle. I also have your side-salad with our house specialty raspberry vinaigrette dressing.”

As she spoke, the server set the plates down in front of Susan.

“For you ma’am,” the server continued, “I have a corned-beef on pumpernickel bread and it has no condiments. One slice of pumpernickel is toasted and it is on the bottom, and you have three thin slices of banana on top. I arranged fifteen potato chips in a circle around the sandwich.”

“Did you offer the chef the entire twenty to make the sandwich this way?” Maggie asked as she reached for a potato chip.

“Well… no, not really, he did it for ten.”

“Smart move,” Maggie said. “You’re up an extra ten.”

“Those three people standing by the doorway, watching you,” Newton said, sounding secretive. “Are they your friends? Do they wait tables here?”

“Yes sir, they’re the other wait staff.”

“Are they cheering you? Do they want you to be successful?” Newton asked.

“Yes, I think so.”

“You told them about our deal?” Newton asked, sounding a little surprised.

“Yes. I told them I had an unusual order and that you had offered me a large tip to get it correct.”

“Then let’s see if you got it correct,” Newton announced.

“Here is your sandwich, sir,” the server said as she placed the last plate on the table in front of Newton. “A roast beef sandwich on whole wheat bread with yellow mustard on one slice and spicy mustard on the other. This sandwich is crowned with two of our finest pieces of lettuce.”

“I didn’t ask for your finest lettuce,” Newton said, looking at the server and not giving a hint as to whether he was joking or criticizing.

“I thought you deserved our best,” the server said with a wry smile and a slight bow. She turned to walk away.

“Wait,” Maggie commanded.

“Yes?” the server asked with a hesitation in her voice. “Is something wrong?”

“How long have you worked here?” Maggie asked.

“About two months.”

“University student?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“Classes started two months ago. University of Chicago?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“It’s nearby. Working here would be convenient. Sophomore?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“Too confident to be a freshman; too young to be an upper classman. Psychology major?”

“Yes. How did you know that?”

“Everyone is.”

“These friends of yours in the doorway,” Newton asked, again sounding secretive. “Would they cover for you for the next ten minutes for twenty dollars each?”

“I know they would,” the server said, as her curiosity grew even more.

“Good,” Maggie said, “go tell them to cover for you and then join us.”

“Susan,” Newton said, as the server walked away. “You will need an assistant: someone with good attention to detail; the courage to face the unknown; and a sense of humor. You will need someone like this young lady, here.”

“I haven’t said I will work for you.”

“And we haven’t made an offer,” Maggie rejoined. “We want to look at you and this young lady as a team. You two might be a starting point—we’ll see.”

 

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