Check out our episode here! (featuring Truly Devious and The Vanishing Stair)
Truly Devious 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.
Dottie Epstein, a student at Ellingham Academy in the mountains of Vermont, is hiding in a secret nook on the island in the middle of the lake she found by following a tunnel on the grounds of the school. She’s got her Sherlock Holmes and is comfortably reading when someone else comes into her secret place. She hides but is discovered by the intruder who is giving her all the wrong vibes. She knows she has to escape so she runs for the hatch and jumps. Bad idea, Dottie. So what’s with this school? Why are there secret hiding places and tunnels and hatches? Because Albert Ellingham is an eccentric, riddle-writing millionaire (billionaire? Who knows!) that wanted to start a school that taught the way he liked for the students that he wanted to teach, rich, poor, whoever. To him, learning was a game… until the Truly, Devious letter arrived and the murders started.
While waiting for his wife and daughter to come home, Albert started a game with his personal secretary, Robert Mackenzie, while a couple other friends, Flora Robinson and Leonard Holmes Nair, were elsewhere in the mansion. The butler, Montgomery, arrives, not to announce dinner, but to alert Albert to a phone call from the kidnappers who have Iris and Alice. The kidnappers want him to take a bag of money to the island on the lake without notifying the police. But that’s exactly what he does. He calls his friend George Marsh of the FBI, who is pretty much his own personal body guard, who arrives shortly after the first money drop goes wrong. It wasn’t enough. Flora sneaks into a hidden passage and listens to the conversation Albert and George have where they decide that George is going to the next drop and mention the letter made of cut up magazines that arrived a few days ago. “Look! A Riddle! Time for fun! Should we use a rope or gun? Knives are sharp and gleam so pretty, poison’s slow, which is a pity. Fire is festive, drowning’s slow, hanging’s a ropy way to go. A broken head, a nasty fall, a car colliding with a wall. Bombs make a very jolly noise, such ways to punish naughty boys! What shall we use? We can’t decide. Just like you cannot run or hide. Ha ha. Truly, Devious”
George returns from the next drop where the kidnappers still want more money, and then Robert alerts them that a student is missing. Dottie Epstein. How are they going to keep the students safe during this trying time? They’ll have to get them away from the school. Flora tells Leonard, who is an artist, about the kidnapping and he asks if she’s cleaned up while checking his nail polish. Albert comes in and asks him to make up some vanishing ink to put on his ransom money. They take the money to the next drop down the mountain in the town outside of the school. The kidnappers are in a boat on the lake. They take the money and float off with no word of Iris or Alice.
Flora is interrogated by the police who ask her a lot of questions about her being in Iris’s room and her having less money than Iris. Of course she does because the Ellinghams are ridiculously wealthy. What was she doing in the room other than looking out the window? Why didn’t she hear the maid when she came to get her? What was going on for the fifteen minutes she was in there? Leonard is also interrogated. His lighter was found with Dottie Epstein’s belongings that were found in the observatory. Did he know Dottie? No, he only knew of two students, really, they were the only ones that seemed interesting to him. Did he know what Flora was doing in Iris’s room? He can’t say why Flora does what she does. George is also questioned about his being friends with Albert and also an FBI agent. When asked his thoughts on the missing student, he says that Dottie was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was also asked about the Truly, Devious letter which he didn’t know about until after the kidnapping, but it wouldn’t have changed things because Albert has his own way of doing things. Robert was questioned as well, about Flora and Leonard and correspondence and what he thinks of the letter. He thinks Iris and Alice are dead. A month later, Dottie’s body is found in a field, then a few weeks after that, Iris’s body is found. Alice has not been located.
A few months later, an anarchist, Anton Vorachek, was arrested for the kidnapping and murders after his butcher noticed he spent more money on meat than he normally did. He says he did it and after being found guilty, he’s shot outside the courthouse. As he’s dying, he says did not… A little more than a year after that, Albert tells Robert that he’s come up with another riddle, maybe his best yet: Where do you look for someone who’s never really there? Always on a staircase but never on a stair. Then he leaves on his boat with George Marsh. While they’re out, the boat explodes.
Stephanie “Stevie” Bell is on her way to her new boarding school, Ellingham Academy. It’s a school for creative geniuses, radical thinkers and innovators. There was no application, no requirements, no instructions to get in other than, please get in touch. The school was free, all you had to do was get in, and she did. She made friends via text with another new student, Janelle, and she knows about pretty much everyone else at the school because she wants to be a detective. She also loves true crime. That’s what got her into the school: her belief that she could solve the case of the century, the Ellingham Affair.
When she arrives, she meets Pix, Dr. Pixwell, the housemaster of Minerva House, Hayes, a YouTube star who has Stevie move all of his stuff into his room without asking her name, Ellie, Element, who is a quirky artist, and Nate who wrote an epic fantasy novel at age 14. Janelle arrives and we learn that Janelle is an engineer who is building a Rube Goldberg machine. They are taken on a tour of the school by another student, Kaz, and while out on the grounds, Stevie spouts off things she knows about the campus and the murders. She clearly knows a lot. They meet the librarian and see the study yurt and the art barn and meet another student, Vi, who immediately clicks with Janelle. Then they go to the Great House and meet Security Larry and Call Me Charles, the school’s director. Stevie talks more about the murders and the school grounds. We also learn about Alice and that the school is hers should she ever come back.
Before they go to a sort of welcome back to school party, Stevie and Janelle meet Ellie in the bathtub where she’s dyeing herself pink, as one does. She talks about her saxophone, Roota, and growing up on a commune. Stevie reveals that her parents work for an asshole senator, then scratches her arm on the underneath of the tub Ellie is in when she reaches to grab a ring that Ellie dropped. At the party, we meet pretty much all the other students, Maris, Marco, DeShawn, Millie, Germaine, Gretchen. Stevie talks to Nate about his new book that he’s supposed to be writing, but it’s not going well. Then in walks David. The last student of Minerva House. He looks familiar to Stevie for some reason, but she doesn’t know why. He teases Stevie a little about being there to solve the case, which makes her feel awkward and anxious. But oh well, she’s the detective. She’s going to solve it.
The next day she goes to Call Me Charles’s office where she’s assigned her project for the school year. Before she can solve the Ellingham case, she has to put a human face on crime. She also is assigned to some other classes to prepare her for her future in the FBI. Charles takes her to the attic of the Great House where there are lots of files and history about the family and a doll house version of the house. At lunch, she’s pretty much ignored by everyone and thinks about going home, but then Janelle apologizes later for ignoring her and only paying attention to Vi, so she decides she can stay. (Stevie misgenders Vi who prefers the gender neutral they/them pronoun and Janelle corrects her and then she corrects herself and it’s just so well done and lovely, and has nothing to do with anything which makes it even better.) She goes to the library to see the books that Dottie checked out and notices a line underlined and wonders if Dottie did it as a clue. (Yes.)
School’s school for a few days and then Hayes asks Stevie to help with his next project as technical director, he wants to create a video series about Truly Devious. He tells Stevie that some of the tunnels under the school have been excavated and this really piques her interest, so she decides to help. She drags Nate into it, too, as the script writer. Maris and Dash are a part of it too. So many people working on Hayes’s project. Stevie studies some of the files from the attic and wakes up to a message projected on her wall. Riddle, riddle on the wall. Murder comes to pay a call. A body in a lonely field will its secrets be revealed? Or the lady in the lake? Will she give the lucky break? Alice, Alice, where are you? Won’t you give a single clue? The detective’s here. It’s time to play! Truly Devious lives another day. Uh… yikes? She has a panic attack and goes to Janelle for help. Did David do it? Or was it a dream? She and Janelle go to yoga and while they’re there, Janelle’s passkey goes missing.
They go into the tunnels later that night to film Hayes’s show, Stevie breaks them in by picking a lock. She’s excited to be in the observatory but that joy is gone when they start filming. The next day, Janelle finds her passkey outside Minerva House on the path. That’s weird. They start getting ready to film some more later when Hayes disappears. Stevie finds him talking Gretchen complaining to Hayes about not paying her back and threatening to tell that girl who made the video about it. Hmm… She also talks about a girl named Beth and the dumb SOBs doing his work now. Gretchen seems really great. The film and it’s really good. They finish and break for dinner, saying they’ll come back later to clean up, but then Hayes hanging back because he forgot something. They go to clean up but Hayes never shows, and he doesn’t come back to Minerva House that night either. Stevie tells Pix that they went into the tunnels, so she gets Security Larry and they go into the tunnels where they find Hayes’s body.
Stevie writes down everything she can remember about working on the film and finding Hayes so she can be prepared to be questioned by police. She gets everything down and is met my David who asks her what was going on. She explains about being a reliable witness and then they start making out. She decides that their make out was a stress reaction, the need to do something (or someone, wink). She goes to the Great House to talk to detectives after that. She mentions everything that she wrote down and also about Janelle’s passkey going missing. The detective asks about the fog used when filming and Stevie realizes that there was dry ice in the art barn where Janelle was working and that Janelle’s pass was taken and that dry ice can kill you. At a memorial, everyone talks about Hayes and dry ice and his shows and his exgirlfriends.
As punishment for being in the tunnels, Call Me Charles has Stevie work in the attic to sort and organize a bunch of things like doorknobs and menus and china patterns and magazines and newspapers that were in a trunk found in the tunnels. She sorts through them and also finds a riddle that was Ellingham’s last one ever written. Where do you look for someone who’s never really there? Always on a staircase but never on a stair. Soon after, Stevie’s parents come visit. David goes along with Stevie and convinces her parents to let her stay at school. He tells Stevie’s parents that his mom is a pilot and his dad runs a fertilizer plant. Stevie’s parents have been made the volunteer coordinators for the terrible senator’s campaign, so that’s nice. Later, back at school, Stevie goes into David’s room but he’s called away to the Great House. She hides in his closet so Pix doesn’t catch them together again, and after David leaves, she snoops around his room. And then he comes back. Yikes. They argue about him not ever telling her anything about himself, and he reveals that his parents are dead. Also yikes.
Now that things are weird with David, Stevie talks to Gretchen, who tells her about how Hayes used her when they were going out. He convinced her to do all his homework and then borrowed $500 from her. Stevie realizes that he never does anything on his own, which also means that he didn’t write his YouTube show either. She sneaks into Hayes’s room to investigate and takes a lot of pictures of everything, then David finds her. Ooh, that’s not good. She’s a room-snooper. She tells David something’s not right. Someone set up Hayes to fail, but he accidentally got murdered instead. She talks to Security Larry about Hayes and Larry tells her that Hayes accidentally killed himself in the tunnel when he filled it with dry ice stolen from the art barn using Janelle’s pass. She decides to talk to Beth, a girl that Hayes used to go out with. She said she talked to him the night he was supposedly moving the dry ice into the tunnel where he died. That doesn’t add up. Seems like he really was murdered.
They go to a dance afterward and Stevie’s constantly thinking about Hayes’s murder. She talks to Germaine who’s always around, taking pictures and writing articles about everything going on at school. She asks Germaine to see her pictures and compares them to the pictures she took in Hayes’s room. She realizes that Hayes’s computer had scratch marks on it like the ones she got on her arm after reaching under the bathtub. Someone had used his computer in the last few days. She narrows the suspects down to Ellie and David, both of which were at the school last year when Hayes was making his first show that made him internet famous and had producers in Hollywood contacting him about making his show into a real movie. Back at Minerva after the dance, they all get together and play I Never. During the game, Stevie semi-accuses Ellie of writing Hayes’s show and taking his computer to get rid of evidence and then she runs away, but right into Larry. They all go to the Great House to talk. They put Ellie in a room by herself while they wait for the school’s lawyer. But guess what. She escapes in one of the Ellingham House’s secret passageways.
There’s a search going on now to find Ellie. Helicopters are called in. Back at Minerva, Stevie and David kind of make amends and search through Ellie’s room. Stevie finds a tea tin with interesting things inside. Old photographs, the word US cut out of a magazine and a poem called The Ballad of Frankie and Edward. Frankie and Edward were students at the academy in the 1930s. Photos showed them pretending to be Bonnie and Clyde. It seems like they’re the ones who wrote the Truly Devious letter. Did they kidnap Iris and Alice? Did they kill Dottie Epstein? The helicopter sounds really close now, so they go outside to see what’s going on. Instead of police stepping out, sleazy gross Senator Edward King does. And he’s David’s dad.