The Vanishing Stair (Truly Devious, #2)(7)

“Now here’s where I disagree with you,” Edward King said, in his congenial debate voice. He leaned back into the sofa. “I don’t blame the school. I’m a big believer in personal responsibility. The school locked up those materials. You know, those students are old enough to know better than to break into a locked storage area, to steal chemicals. Personal responsibility.”

This was one of Edward King’s big talking points: A RETURN TO RESPONSIBILITY. It meant nothing as far as he was concerned, but people liked the slogan. She saw her parents lulled by the familiar word.

“My own son—he’s going to be eighteen in December, on the seventh. I can hardly believe that myself. But that’s an adult. This wasn’t the school being careless. If it had been him—and God forbid, of course—God forbid my son or Stevie, but . . . if it had been him? I’d say the same.”

The words came out of him like poisoned honey—so sweet, so perfect, and all wrong. Everything was wrong and scrambled. Reality needed to be rebooted.

He let the matter settle on the room, and Stevie saw it working. She saw the possibility opening in front of her.

“I’ve come to offer Stevie a ride,” Edward King went on after a moment. “That’s how strongly I feel about this. I have my SUV outside that can handle lots of bags, and I have a plane at the airport. A private flight. It doesn’t get better than that.”

What do you do when the devil turns up in your living room and offers you everything you want?

“Why?” Stevie said, her voice dry. It was the first word she’d said.

“Because it’s the right thing to do,” Edward King replied.

That was the first direct lie he’d probably told in this room, and the most telling. It was also a lie that rang clear and bright with her parents, who believed, who really believed that Edward King was the standard-bearer for some kind of glorious, real American truth that you could buy and hold in your hands and own. Edward King had come here to do the Right Thing and was going to make it all happen in his God-given jet.

“And it’s of course a thank-you to two people who do so much work for me,” he said, indicating her parents. “You run an office for me here. I owe you. So . . .”

He turned to Stevie.

“What do you say?” he asked.

April 14, 1936, 2:00 a.m.

WHEN SHE WAS EIGHT, FRANCIS CRANE’S FATHER TOOK HER ON A tour of one of their flour mills that had been destroyed by an explosion. They walked around the remaining shell of the building, with the ceiling blown out and the sky revealed above. The walls were covered in scorch marks. Many of the machines were burned, partly melted, pieces hanging from cables. The words CRANE FLOUR were barely visible on the wall.

“All of this,” her father said, “from flour, Francis. Simple flour.”

This was when Frankie learned of flour’s combustible properties. The most domestic, most harmless-looking substance could blow a hole through a wall. So much energy from something so benign.

For Francis, this experience was life-changing. It was the most wonderful thing she had ever seen. She fell in love with explosions, with fire, with the burn and the boom. There was the taste of danger on the tip of her tongue. This was when Francis began her journey to the other side of life—the broken remains, the smoldering scenes, the back doors, the servants’ quarters. Down, down, down to wherever she needed to go to feel that spark. She had her harmless pleasures—little fires in the wastepaper basket, stealing Edie Anderson’s hat and sending it to Valhalla with a match on the lake in Central Park, going perhaps a bit too far once with a box of firecrackers. She was known to leave a party or slip out of the house and take a taxi whenever she heard the fire engines going. She would sit outside all night, watching the flames lick the sky. And now she was creeping under the ground beneath Ellingham Academy and counting her steps.

One hundred, one hundred and one, one hundred and two . . .

She kept her right hand in front of her, holding her candle. It was burning down fast, sending trails of hot wax over her fist and taking the flame closer and closer to her flesh. Her left hand trailed behind her like a rudder, running carefully along the wall to help orient herself in space. The tunnel was so tight that if she stepped only an inch or two in either direction her arms would scrape along the walls. That wasn’t such an issue in the early part of the tunnel, which was made of smooth brick. As she went on into the depths, the builders had given up and used bits of stone to make the walls—rough, occasionally jagged bits that were likely the product of demolition of the rock.

A person could get stuck down here.

One hundred and fifty, one hundred and fifty-one . . .

If anything went wrong down here—if she got stuck, if the tunnel came down, burying her in rock—this kind of risk thrilled her.

One hundred and sixty.

She stopped and pulled her left hand in front of her to reach around until she found the empty space she was looking for—this was where the tunnel bifurcated. She took the left tunnel and kept going, restarting her footstep count at one. This path went on farther than the last. Finally, she felt the space widen. She puffed out the candle and moved forward blindly in half steps until her hands felt the rungs of a ladder. A moment later, she pushed open a hatch and climbed out of the base of a statue, deep in a copse of trees on the far side of the campus. She took a deep breath of the cold, foggy air.

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