The Vanishing Stair (Truly Devious, #2)(3)

Stay with the Batt Report for more exclusive updates.


OUT OF EVERYTHING IN HER PITTSBURGH NEIGHBORHOOD, THE Funky Munkee coffee shop was the thing that reminded Stevie Bell most of Ellingham Academy. It was a 1990s relic, with a sign written in a kooky festival font. It had walls painted in bright, primary colors, each wall a different shade. It played an obligatory coffeehouse soundtrack of mid-tempo guitar music. There were blown-up pictures of coffee beans, and plants and wobbly tables to sit at, and oversized mugs. None of these things were features of her previous school.

The part she liked, and the part that was like Ellingham, was that it wasn’t her house, and when she was here, no one bothered her.

Every day this week she had come and ordered the smallest, cheapest coffee. She would take this to the back of the shop, to a stuffy, small alcove room with red walls. The room was dark and dingy, the tables unbalanced and always a bit sticky. Everyone else avoided it, which is why Stevie liked it. This was her office now, where she did her most important work. If she had tried to do this at home, her parents might walk in. Here, she was in public, but no one actually cared what she was doing or even noticed her.

She put her headphones on but played no music—she needed some muffled silence. She put her backpack on the table, zipper facing her, and opened it. First, she removed a pair of nitrile gloves. These she had purchased at CVS the day she returned. It was probably an unnecessary precaution at this stage, but still, it could not hurt. She snapped them on. It was a very satisfying feeling. Using both hands, she reached down to the bottom of her bag and removed a small, battered tea tin.

The tin was too valuable to leave at home. When you find something of historical importance, you keep it close. It stayed with Stevie wherever she went—locked in her locker during the day, tucked in her bag at home. Out of sight. She periodically reached around to touch the lump on her backpack where it rested inside to make sure it was secure.

The tin was square and red, dented in several places, with rust along the lip. It read OLD ENGLISH TEA BAGS. She opened the lid. It stuck a bit, so it required a gentle wiggle. From inside she produced: a bit of white feather, a bit of beaded cloth, a tarnished, gold-colored lipstick tube with the mummified remains of a red lipstick, a tiny enameled pillbox in the shape of a shoe, some pieces of notebook paper and black-and-white photographs, and the unfinished draft of a poem.

These humble objects were the first pieces of real evidence in the Ellingham case in over eighty years. And the moment Stevie uncovered them was the moment her Ellingham dreams fell apart.

Ellingham. Her former school. Ellingham, the place she had dreamed of going. The place she had made it to for a short time. And Ellingham, the place that was now behind her.

No one in Pittsburgh really understood what happened to Stevie at Ellingham. They only knew that she had left to go to some famous school, and then that YouTube guy died in an accident there, and Stevie came back a few weeks later.

It was true that the death of Hayes Major was the start of Stevie’s departure. But the person who was responsible for Stevie Bell’s parents hauling her out of Ellingham Academy was named Germaine Batt, and she did it entirely by accident.

Everyone at Ellingham Academy had a thing, and Germaine Batt’s thing was reporting. Before Hayes’s death, she had a modest site and a small following. But death is good business if you are in the news. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as they say. (They being . . . Stevie wasn’t sure. People said it. It meant that bloody, gray, horrible stories always go to the top, which is why the news is always bad. People don’t care when things go well. News equals bad.)

The piece that did Stevie in came out the day after Stevie confronted Element Walker about creating the show The End of It All. She knew that Ellie had taken Hayes’s computer and stashed it under the bathtub in Minerva. Stevie also knew that Hayes could not have been the person who used the pass to get the dry ice that would kill him. Also, Hayes did not write the show that made him famous, the one that was about to get him a movie deal. Ellie did that.

That was all Stevie was trying to tell everyone on the night in question. Ellie had been confronted, first in Minerva, and then in the Great House. And Ellie had vanished from a locked room. Just like that. Poof. She had gone into the walls of Albert Ellingham’s office, through a hidden passage, and from there . . . out. Away. Somewhere.

The school did not release that information. Ellie wasn’t officially guilty of anything. She was a student who ran away from her boarding school. Except Stevie’s parents had a Google alert for all things Ellingham after Hayes’s death, and that’s how they saw the Batt Report blog post about how Stevie had been investigating Hayes’s death, and now there was a potential killer on the loose. Two hours after Germaine’s story appeared, Stevie’s phone rang, and ten hours after that, her parents were roaring up the drive to Ellingham, despite the school rules about no outside vehicles. The night had been tearful; Stevie cried all the way back to Pittsburgh, silently and without pause, staring out the car window until she fell asleep. The next Monday, she was back in her old school, hastily inserted into some classes.

The trick was not to think about Ellingham too much—the buildings, the smell of the air, the freedom, the adventure, the people . . .

Especially not the people.

She could send messages to her friends Janelle and Nate. Mostly Janelle. And mostly it was Janelle sending them to her, dozens a day, checking in on how she was. Stevie could only reply to every third or fourth one, because replying meant thinking about how she missed seeing Janelle in the hall, in the common room, across the table. How she missed knowing her friend was on the other side of the wall as she slept—Janelle, who smelled of lemons or orange blossom, who wrapped her hair in one of her dozens of colorful scarves to keep it safe while she worked with industrial equipment. Janelle was a maker, a builder of small robotics and other devices, who was currently preparing a Rube Goldberg machine for the Sendel Waxman competition. Her texts indicated she had been spending a lot more time in the maintenance shed building since Stevie had been gone, and that she was getting much more serious with Vi Harper-Tomo. Janelle’s life was full, and she wanted Stevie to be in it, and Stevie felt far and cold and none of that made sense here, at the shopping center with the Subway and the beer and cigarette place, in the Funky Munkee.

Maureen Johnson's Books