The Vanishing Stair (Truly Devious, #2)(6)

“Hello, Stevie,” he said.

Stevie was stranded in the doorway, feeling a cold paralysis come over her limbs.

Edward King was the worst man in America.

Well, that point could be argued. But Edward King was a powerful man. He was a Pennsylvania senator, based here, out of Pittsburgh. This was the man who wanted to keep “outsiders” and “bad elements” out of America, which largely meant people who weren’t white, weren’t rich. For Edward King, wealth was goodness. There was no climate change in his world—the earth was there to produce more life-affirming dollars. This was a man who wanted to be president.

“Stevie,” her father said, a slight warning tone in his voice. She knew what that tone meant. We know how you feel about this, but this man is a senator and our personal hero, and if you think you are about to storm out or go into some political tirade, you are much mistaken.

Stevie felt that old tyrant in her chest, the unsteady heartbeat that signaled the start of an anxiety attack. She grabbed the doorframe like it was a life preserver. Her parents didn’t know that this was not the first time Stevie had come this close to Edward King.

“It’s okay,” he said. He was too clever to smile broadly; it was just a gentle hint of a smile. “I know that Stevie may not be my biggest fan. We can have different opinions. That’s what makes America great. Honoring our differences.”

Oh no. No, no, no. He’d lobbed the ball at her. He wanted to play.

Oh, she would play.

If she could breathe. Breathe, Stevie. Breathe. One intake of air and she could get the whole apparatus moving. But it was a no-go from her diaphragm.

“Stevie,” her father said again, though the tone was less stern. “Come sit down.”

The floor was coming up to meet Stevie a bit. Hello, said the floor. Come see me. Plant your face in my bosom and be still.

“That’s all right,” Edward King said. “Stevie, you do whatever makes you comfortable. I’m just here to talk to you all, see how you’re doing after the events at Ellingham.”

Another move in this chess game. Now that he was saying she could stand, maybe the move was to sit. Or she might be giving in to what he wanted. Too much input. The golden twilight was dimming fast and the shadows were falling across the carpet. Or was that just her vision? The floor really was inviting. . . .

STEVIE! she screamed to herself. YOU. MUST. REINHABIT. YOUR. BODY.

“I want to congratulate you on the remarkable work you did at Ellingham,” Edward King went on. “Your investigative powers are really exceptional.”

Her parents looked at her as if they were expecting her to dance or maybe pull out some puppets. Still, her body and voice refused to participate.

Okay, she said to herself. Points for not being on the floor. But you’ve got to move. You can move. You can speak. DO SOMETHING.

“We’re sorry,” her mother said.

“Don’t be.” Edward King spread out his hands in a generous gesture, as if this was his house. “Actually, Stevie, and you may not like to hear this, you remind me of a young me a bit. I stood by my principles. Even if others around me didn’t always like it. You’ve got backbone. So what I’ve come to ask, come to talk about, is this . . . and I ask you all to hear me out. I’ve come to ask that Stevie return to Ellingham.”

The floor could have completely fallen away and revealed a cloud city below.

“I’m . . . sorry?” Her mother was now off her footing.

“I know, I know,” Edward King said apologetically. “I’m a parent of a student there as well. Please. Let me make my case. I have something to show you.”

He reached into a sleek leather case leaning against his leg and pulled out several glossy folders.

“Have a look at these,” he said, passing one to each of her parents. He held one toward Stevie as well, but immediately set it on his lap when it was clear that she would not make a move for it.

“Security?” her father said, examining the folder.

“The best firm in the country. Better than the secret service, because it’s private. It’s the firm I use. And it’s the firm I’ve hired to wire Ellingham. I always thought there should be a better security system there, and after recent events, I managed to convince the board to allow me to install a network.”

Her parents were looking through the folders, dumbfounded.

“I did this,” he continued, “because Ellingham Academy is a very special place. They cultivate individual talent. What they’ve done for people like Stevie and my son . . . I truly believe in the mission. Albert Ellingham was a great man, a true American innovator. And new American innovators are being made at Ellingham right now. I’m asking you, please. I think Stevie should return. The campus is safer now.”

“But that girl,” her mother said. “Everything that’s happened . . .”

“Element,” Edward King said, shaking his head. “Do you want to know what I think?”

Her parents always did, and for the first time, so did Stevie.

“I believe what happened was an accident. I think those two students were out of their depth and Hayes died. I think your daughter worked it out. And I think the girl panicked and ran. She’ll be found.”

“The school should have been more careful,” Stevie’s father said.

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