The Vanishing Stair (Truly Devious, #2)(10)

It made sense, sort of, that Edward King was bringing her back. The cycle was now complete.

The SUV drove around to some back area of the airport, to a chain-link fence with a glowing red gate and a security guard. The driver held up something, and the glowing red bar rose, admitting them to the space beyond to a small freestanding building. Inside the building there was no security line, no gate, no jetway. They walked into an empty room that sort of looked like the lobby of a bank, threw their things onto an X-ray machine that was waiting there for their use with an operator who seemed to have no interest in the contents that were revealed. They were waved on, past a few comfortable chairs and a display of glossy magazines and newspapers, all free to take. They went out a set of automatic doors and were right back outside, walking toward a plane.

Stevie had only been on a few planes in her life to see her grandparents in Florida. This plane was not like those. It was extremely small. A man in a white shirt and a captain’s hat waved to them and ushered them up four narrow steps that were part of an opened hatch. The door, if you could call it that, was a little hobbit opening. Stevie had to tuck her head in and pull her bag to her chest to squeeze through. Inside, the world of the plane was a calming creamy white. There were six seats—two facing forward and four in a little grouping, two and two facing each other. Edward King took one of these and waved Stevie to the one opposite. Stevie took the one on the other side of the small aisle.

“You’ll like this,” he said to her. “Once you fly private, you’ll never want to go back. Enjoy this. It’s fun.”

The bodyguard came in and took one of the forward-facing seats, then pulled out a book and started reading. The captain and the copilot followed up, one of them pulling the door shut behind them. It was far too . . . simple, for Stevie’s taste. Just a little hatch pulled closed by some guy. He turned a lever, and that was that. They ducked into the little cockpit, which was entirely open and exposed. The bank of lights and controls stood out in contrast to the dark sky in the windscreen. You weren’t supposed to be able to see the cockpit, and you definitely weren’t supposed to be able to go right up to it.

“Need anything, boss?” one of the pilots leaned back and asked.

“Anything, Stevie?” Edward King said. “We have sodas, snacks. Would you like a Coke? We have some really nice chips. I love these. I can’t eat them—cholesterol, but . . .”

Stevie would have liked a Coke and also some of the fancy potato chips that were being passed back in a basket. They were the fancy, thick-cut, small-batch kind in all sorts of flavors—the ones that always cost a buck or more. But she wasn’t taking one more thing from Edward King. Follow the Wonderland rule: Don’t eat or drink anything.

Seeing that Stevie was going to resist his basket of fancy chips, Edward King shrugged and shoved it back behind him.

“I think we’re ready to go,” he said.

And that was that. No safety demonstration. No one telling her to put on her seat belt, even. The tiny plane moved forward, turned onto a runway, and then it started to speed. Pittsburgh was going by in a blur, and Edward King was sitting politely on his creamy white leather throne, using his phone. Using his phone. On a plane.

No rules mattered.

Stevie felt her stomach lurch as the plane lifted gently from the ground.

“We’re going to bump a bit,” one of the pilots leaned back and said. “Bit of cloud cover. Should pass after ten minutes or so. We might get a bit more once we get into Vermont. Weather’s been rough there, and we may hit some pockets over the mountains. Nothing to worry about.”

Little planes always crashed, didn’t they? The tiny craft bobbed gently in the air, and Stevie at once realized how ridiculous life was. She was flitting in the wind, next to the worst person she could conjure. If this went down, Edward King went down too. Was she prepared for that? If she had the choice, would she will this plane to go thundering down on some field if she could wipe out Edward King? Was she willing to fall from the sky to save America? Her brain was spitting out weird ideas.

“Why are you doing this?” she said. It was odd to hear her voice coming out in this quiet, polite plane.

“You speak! I’m glad. I thought you might be sick. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a Coke?”

“Why are you doing this?” she asked again.

“You mean taking you back to Ellingham Academy on a private plane?”

Of course that’s what I meant, you sanctimonious asshole.

“Well,” Edward King said, putting his phone back into the inner pocket of his jacket, “I think that’s where you belong.”

“So this is a service you provide to everyone?” she said.

“No,” he said, smiling a bit. “No, of course not. No, and you’re very smart, Stevie, I know that. I appreciate that. You know what? I am going to have a bag of these chips. I only eat them on planes. I don’t know why. But one bag . . .”

Stevie watched him pull the basket back up and carefully go through it. It was the practiced happy interest of a politician who had to look invested in whatever people brought his way—cakes and potluck dinners, presentations by children and senior citizens, ceremonies for people he never knew. It was a professional smile, a way of knowing when to pause and break someone else’s conversational flow to put the focus back on himself, to make it oh so very casual that when the poison came out everyone would say, “But what a nice, ordinary guy. He likes chips like the rest of us.”

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