The Vanishing Stair
Check out our episode here! (featuring Truly Devious and The Vanishing Stair)
The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson
These stories are told in a dual timeline, part from the 1930s, part from present day. We’ve split them up to tell each story concurrently.
Stevie is back in her hometown in a coffee shop looking through the first piece of real evidence in the Ellingham Affair in 80 years, the tea tin she found in Ellie’s bedroom filled with photographs, the first draft of a poem, a magazine cut out of the word US and some other things like lipstick, a pill box, a feather, some cloth. She knows that the students in the pictures, the one dressed as Bonnie and Clyde, are the same students that Leonard Holmes Nair mentioned in his police interview. Stevie is upset that as soon as she found this major clue, she was taken out of the school because of a report that Germaine Batt, another student at the school, wrote about Hayes’s death and Ellie’s disappearance. Now she’s stuck on the outside, until she returns home and finds sleazy senator Edward King in her living room, convincing her parents to let her go back to school. He has ulterior motives, of course, the sleazebag that he is. He wants Stevie back at school to keep an eye on David, to keep him in line and to keep him from getting expelled. Security Larry picks her up after her flight with Edward King and says he expects her to follow the rules a little more when she gets back to school. Sure thing.
Back in Minerva, she is bombarded by Janelle and, less enthusiastically, Nate. They tell her about David doing weird stuff, like screaming meditation and sleeping naked in random places around the grounds. She can’t tell her friends that Edward King is David’s dad and that he sent her back to school to take care of him and spends a lot of time thinking about Ellie’s escape and where she is now. She goes to the Great House to get reenrolled in her classes and sees a disgruntled Security Larry who shows her the new security system installed at the school. That Edward King had installed. In Call Me Charles’s office, she sees a clock that wasn’t in the office before, an antique one that supposedly once belonged to Marie Antoinette. In addition to getting Stevie caught up on her coursework, Call Me Charles also sets up a special project for her with Dr. Irene Fenton, the author of books about the Ellingham Affair. Exciting!
She goes to the library to look up anything she can find on Francis and Edward. Could they really be the ones responsible for the kidnapping? Why would they do it? She finds that Francis requested a lot of mystery and gun magazines but never returned them. Suspicious! She read about Edward too, and that he committed suicide in 1940. Then the squirrels descended. David may or may not have set a bunch of squirrels loose in the library (he did) to distract everyone long enough to get Stevie into Ellie’s room to investigate. In a hidden compartment in the wall, she finds something. A rat corpse. Great! Ugh… She does more investigation later about Francis and found a line in a book about baking that mentioned her, so she emailed the author to see if she knew anything else.
Stevie goes to see Dr. Fenton, thinking about where Ellie could have gone. Lots of the other students had been thinking about it, too, but it’s hard to run away when you have nothing and grew up on a commune. She meets with Fenton who quizzes her about the case and deems her worthy enough to take on. She gives her an assignment about finding menus and things, which she can already do we know from the last book, and then she meets Fenton’s nephew who lives with her and possibly takes care of her because we’re all pretty sure that she’s an alcoholic and not allowed to drive. She thinks more about Ellie and if she could possibly be a murderer and about all the clues in the Hayes case. Someone stole Janelle’s card, someone put too much dry ice in the tunnels. Could Ellie really have done that? Unlikely. Security Larry takes her down into the basement to show her the secret tunnel where Ellie escaped and the window she probably climbed through. Again… something doesn’t quite add up. Ellie just doesn’t seem like she’s capable of doing all that.
There’s a Halloween party at school and Stevie, forced to dress up, chooses to become Hercule Poirot. David dresses as Sherlock Holmes. They’re a cute couple of fictional detectives. Before the party, she goes to Fenton’s house (that is dirty and hordery and smelly like cat pee) to drop off the work she had done for her. Fenton deems that she’s ready to get real work to do. She shows Stevie some transcripts from the trial and they talk about how there was a discrepancy with phone calls the evening of the kidnapping. Seems the phone company is in on something. But that’s not important right now. Fenton wants Stevie to find a hidden tunnel in Minerva. At the dance, she talks about the hidden tunnels with David and together they to go Minerva to search. They find the tunnel that Fenton was looking for under the stairs and go in. Bad idea.
Nate’s there, too, keeping watch, while David and Stevie search. In the tunnels, David tells Stevie about his dad. It’s not a good story. They get stopped at a dead end, make out a little bit, then, on their way back down the tunnel, Stevie in the lead, she finds a scrap of trash bag. Like, present day trash bag. She finds another tunnel. And Ellie’s body. David sends Stevie and Nate to their rooms and takes the fall for finding Ellie’s body since Stevie will get in trouble for being in the tunnels again and Nate didn’t really want to be involved anyway. She tells Security Larry that she was down there too, on an assignment for Fenton.
All the students are sent from Minerva to the yurt. Stevie talks to David and tells him that his dad brought her back to keep an eye on him. He’s terribly hurt and everything between them is broken now. At breakfast the next day, they all talk about Ellie, well, not Stevie and David. They’re still in a funk. She talks to Nate and tells him that Edward King is David’s dad and that she found a clue to the case, but that when the senator finds out she told David about her “job” that he’s going to send her home. Fenton comes to the school with Hunter and he tells Stevie that his aunt believes there’s a secret codicil added to the will that would give lots of money and the school to whoever finds Alice’s body and he thinks Fenton now just wants the money. No way. Stevie thinks that maybe Fenton was working with Hayes first, then he died and now she’s working with Stevie. Germaine, the nosy reporter student, heard everything Hunter said. Uh oh.
Security Larry comes to find Stevie to tell her that he’s been fired because two students died on his watch. She’s upset but asks Larry to take her down the mountain to town so she can go to Fenton’s house. Hunter lets her in and they look at her files. Stevie finds information from Robert Mackenzie but not about the codicil. That the last thing Albert said was “it’s on the wire.” Outside of Fenton’s house, David is filming himself getting the shit beat out of him by guys he paid to do it. He says he has his reasons for getting himself beat up but they don’t involve Stevie, so they’re not important. He’s leaves and Stevie is upset. Back at school she tells Janelle and Nate what happened and clues Janelle in on David’s father. She goes to the attic and finds the wire that Albert mentioned and gets Janelle to help her play it. The recording is of Dottie’s interview when she first got to the school. She mentions that she likes to hide in secret places and that her uncle, a cop, told her about second story men and attic men, people in houses during robberies. Second story men are the thieves who enter the house through second story windows and attic men are the police who are already there and know everything that’s going on. It clicks for her then. She goes to the library to get the book Dottie had out that evening, reads the line she underlined and knows who the kidnapper and killer is. She calls Fenton to tell her, but Fenton can’t talk. The only thing she says is that “the kid is there.” What does THAT mean?!
She can’t get in touch with Fenton and gets worried. She calls Security Larry to get him to go by her house because she has a bad feeling. She tells him that she figured it out, the kidnapping, the murder, but Fenton is more important. Can he go to her house, please? A little while later, he calls her back, telling her that Fenton’s house was on fire when he got there and that Fenton is dead. Someone else, her nephew, was also in the house. He doesn’t know about how he is. Larry asks how she knew something was wrong, it was because Fenton was being weird on the phone. The kid is there. The kid is there! What does that mean? What is she missing? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see...
Francis Crane of Minerva House eavesdrops on the house mistress, Miss Nelson, as she gets an urgent phone call asking her to meet as soon as she puts the students to bed for the night and something about the police. When Miss Nelson sneaks out, Francis follows behind. They use a hidden tunnel located under the stairs in Minerva. Francis’s father owns Crane Flour. She learned when she was young that flour is combustible and she’s been in love with explosives ever since. She leaves the tunnel and goes to meet her boyfriend, Edward Davenport. The two share a love of bombs and mischief and have an inseparable bond and are planning to steal dynamite and a car from Ellingham and go on a crime spree like Bonnie and Clyde. They follow Albert Ellingham, find him meeting with Miss Nelson and overhear them talking about Iris and Alice being kidnapped and the Truly Devious letter. They have to send the students home.
They need to get their Bonnie and Clyde escape going soon since the police think their letter has something to do with the kidnapping. When she gets back to Minerva House, Francis is caught. When she first met Albert Ellingham, they got along well, until he laughed at her knowledge of explosives. That set her off and she decided she needed to do something to put him in his place. She asks George Marsh about cut up magazine letters and she and Edward write and send their own, as a joke, but now it’s part of the kidnapping. And the students are sent home because of it. A little later, there’s a transcript of a conversation with Miss Nelson where she reveals that she and Albert were having an affair.
Years later, on the day of the boat explosion, Albert writes and hides a codicil to his will, stating that he’s set up a ten million dollar trust for Alice and that if she is found and the person responsible for finding her is not tied to her death, they will receive the trust. If she’s not found by her 90th birthday, the academy will get the money to use as the board sees fit. Robert, his friend, doesn’t think this is a good idea. He thinks everyone is going to come out pretending to be Alice just to get the money. Albert looks through the book that Dottie Epstein took with her to the observatory, reads the line she must have underlined and listens to a wire recording and reviews his latest riddle. He feels secure in his plans.
On the boat, Albert talks about Dottie and the line she underlined in her book. I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic. He mentions that he picked Dottie as his first student because she was a good troublemaker and she played the game. We all know how important games are to Albert. He talks about how her uncle who is a cop taught her about sneaking in places. Then he reveals to George that he wants to kill him and that he’s rigged the boat with explosives. He explains that Dottie told him when they first met that her uncle told her that thieves are called second-story men and that cops are called attic men. The line she underlined mentioned an attic. He put it together that Dottie saw her killer and the kidnapper and knew that it was George Marsh, the cop. She told him without telling him, but he was too late to help.
George reveals that when he became friends with Albert that he started gambling and had racked up lots of debt. The kidnapping was supposed to be easy. Fun. No one was supposed to get hurt. He was inspired by two students who asked him about kidnapping letters. He knew that Iris was taking cocaine because she was bored and thought she’d think it was a laugh after it was all over. But the kidnappers he hired took it too far. They wanted more money. When he was waiting for Albert to make the first drop in the observatory, he encountered Dottie who knew she was doomed and tried to escape, jumping down into the tunnel and cracking her head open. He killed her to put her out of her misery. He knows where Alice is but won’t tell Albert because he doesn’t want to go to jail. He lights a cigarette and the boat explodes.