Truly Devious Page 1


Photographic image of letter received at the Ellingham residence on April 8, 1936.


April 13, 1936, 6:00 p.m.

You know I can’t let you leave. . . .


It was not her first time there.

Dolores Epstein wasn’t sent for any of the normal reasons—fighting, cheating, failing, absence. Dottie would get called down for more complicated matters: designing her own chemistry experiments, questioning her teacher’s understanding of non-euclidian geometry, or reading books in class because there was nothing new to be learned, so the time might as well be spent doing something useful.

“Dolores,” the principal would say. “You can’t go around acting like you’re smarter than everyone else.”

“But I am,” she would reply. Not out of arrogance, but because it was true.

This time, Dottie wasn’t sure what she had done. She had broken into the library to look for a book, but she was pretty sure no one knew about that. Dottie had been in every corner of this school, had worked out every lock and peered in all the cupboards and closets and nooks. There was no malicious intent. It was usually to find something or just to see if it could be done.

When she reached the office, Mr. Phillips, the principal, was sitting at his massive desk. There was someone else there as well—a man with salt-and-pepper hair and a marvelous gray suit. He sat off to the side, bathed in a striped beam of sunlight from the window blinds. He was just like someone from the movies. He actually was someone from the movies, in a way.

“Dolores,” Mr. Phillips said. “This is Mr. Albert Ellingham. Do you know who Mr. Ellingham is?”

Of course she did. Everyone did. Albert Ellingham owned American Steel, the New York Evening Star, and Fantastic Pictures. He was rich beyond measure. He was the kind of person you might imagine would actually be on money.

“Mr. Ellingham has something wonderful to tell you. You are a very lucky girl.”

“Come sit down, Dolores,” Mr. Ellingham said, using an open hand to indicate the empty chair in front of Mr. Phillips’s desk.

Dottie sat, and the famous Mr. Ellingham leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and bringing his large, suntanned hands together in a knot. Dottie had never seen anyone with a suntan in March before. This, more than anything, was the most powerful sign of Mr. Ellingham’s wealth. He could have the sun itself.

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Dolores,” he said. “Mr. Phillips has told me how very bright you are. Fourteen years old and in eleventh grade. You’ve taught yourself Latin and Greek? I understand you do translations?”

Dottie nodded shyly.

“Do you sometimes get bored here in school?” he asked.

Dottie looked at the principal nervously, but he smiled and nodded encouragement.

“Sometimes,” Dottie said. “But it’s not the school’s fault.”

Both men chuckled at this, and Dottie relaxed a little. Not much, but a little.

“I’ve started a school, Dolores,” Mr. Ellingham went on. “A new school where special people like you can learn at their own pace, in their own way, in whatever manner suits them. I believe learning is a game, a wonderful game.”

Mr. Phillips looked down at his desk blotter for a moment. Most principals probably didn’t think of learning as a game, but no one would contradict the great Albert Ellingham. If he said learning was a game, it was a game. If he’d said learning was a roller-skating elephant in a green dress, they would go along with that too. When you have enough power and money, you can dictate the meanings of words.

“I’ve chosen thirty students from a variety of backgrounds to join the school, and I’d like you to be one of them,” Mr. Ellingham went on. “You’ll have no restrictions to your learning and access to whatever you need. Wouldn’t you like that?”

Dottie liked that idea very much. But she saw an immediate and inescapable problem.

“My parents don’t have any money,” she said plainly.

“Money should never stand in the way of learning,” Mr. Ellingham said kindly. “My school is free. You are there as my guest, if you’ll accept.”

It sounded too good to be real—but it was true. Albert Ellingham sent her a train ticket and fifty dollars in pocket money. A few months later, Dottie Epstein, who had never been out of New York her entire life, was on her way to the mountains of Vermont and surrounded by more trees than she had ever seen.

The school had a grand fountain that reminded her of the one in Central Park. The brick and stone buildings were like something from a story. Her room in Minerva House was large but cozy, with a fireplace (it was cold up here). There were books, so many fine books, and you could take out as many as you liked and read whatever you wanted, with no library fines. The teachers were kind. They had a proper science lab. They learned botany in the greenhouse. They learned dance from a woman named Madame Scottie, who ran around in a leotard and scarves and had giant bangles up and down her arms.

Mr. Ellingham lived on the campus with his wife, Iris, and his three-year-old daughter, Alice. Sometimes, fancy cars came up the drive on weekends and people in marvelous clothes stepped out. Dottie recognized at least two movie stars, a politician, and a famous singer. On those weekends, bands came in from Burlington and New York and music came out of the Great House until all hours of the night. Sometimes Mr. Ellingham’s guests would walk the grounds, the beads on their dresses winking in the moonlight. Even in New York, Dottie had never been so close to celebrity.

The staff was careful to tidy up, but the grounds were vast and full of hiding places, so they left traces everywhere. A champagne glass here, a satin shoe there. Endless crushed cigarettes, feathers, beads, and other detritus of the rich and wonderful. Dottie liked to collect these strange things she found and keep them in what she called her museum. The best thing Dottie found was a silver lighter. She flicked it on and off and was pleased by its smooth motion. She was definitely going to turn the lighter in—she just wanted to hold on to it for a while.

Since Ellingham gave its students freedom to work and study and wander, Dottie spent a lot of her time on her own. Vermont was a different sort of place—this wasn’t like climbing down fire escapes or up water pipes. Dottie acclimated herself to the woods, to poking around the edges of the campus. That’s how she found the tunnel on one of her first outings after she arrived at Ellingham in the fall. She was exploring the woods. Dottie had never experienced anything like this thick canopy of leaves and this deep quiet except for the occasional rustling noise. Then she heard something familiar—the sound of something thin and metal underfoot. She knew the drumlike sound immediately. It sounded exactly like the sound a sidewalk hatch made when you stepped on it.

Dottie opened the hatch and saw a set of clean concrete steps leading down into the ground. She found herself in a dark brick tunnel, one that was dry and well maintained. Her curiosity was piqued. She used the silver lighter to guide her down to a thick door with a sliding panel at eye level. She knew this sort of thing at once—they were all over the city. It was a speakeasy door.

The door was unlocked. Nothing about this tunnel seemed very secure; it was just there to be explored. So she explored. The door opened to a room about eight foot square, with a high ceiling. The walls were covered in shelving and those shelves were full of bottles of wine and liquor of every description. Dottie examined the ornate labels on the colored glass, labels in French, German, Russian, Spanish, Greek . . . an entire library of alcohol.