The Vanishing Stair Page 1

April 13, 1936, 9:00 p.m.


Miss Nelson, the housemistress of Minerva, looked around for an answer to her question. Though it was spring, it was still cold up on the mountain, and the residents of Minerva House were gathered close to the common room fireplace.

“Maybe she’s with the nurse,” Gertie van Coevorden said. “Hopefully they’ll do something about her sniffing. She’s going to make us all sick. It’s disgusting. I’m going to be seeing the Astors soon. I can’t get sick.”

Gertie van Coevorden was probably the richest student at Ellingham; she had two Astors and a Roosevelt in her family tree, a fact that she managed to work into conversation at every possible opportunity.

“Gertrude,” Miss Nelson said admonishingly.

“No, but really,” Gertie said. “Now that she’s not here, we can say it. She does have the most awful sniff, and she runs her nose along her sleeve. I know we’re not supposed to treat them any differently. . . .”

Them meant the poor students, the ten or eleven scrappy people who Albert Ellingham had collected as part of his little game. Mix the rich and the poor.

“Then do not do so,” Miss Nelson said.

“Oh, I know she’s bright . . .”

An understatement. Dottie Epstein could run rings around the average professor.

“. . . but, it is awful. I’m merely saying . . .”

“Gertrude,” Miss Nelson said, sounding tired, “that really is enough.”

Gertie turned up her nose and shifted her attention to the issue of Photoplay magazine she was reading. From the opposite side of the fire, Francis Josephine Crane, the second-richest student at Ellingham Academy, looked up from where she sat. She had made a nest for herself with her chinchilla lap rug and was shifting between a chemistry book and the newest edition of True Detective magazine. And she was watching everything.

Francis, like Gertie, was from New York. She was the sixteen-year-old daughter of Louis and Albertine Crane, of Crane Flour. (America’s favorite! Baking’s never a pain when you’re baking with Crane!) Her parents were fast friends with Albert Ellingham, and when Ellingham opened a school and needed some new pupils, Francis was sent off to Vermont in a chauffeured car, with a van of trunks following that contained every possible luxury. Up here in Vermont, with the snowstorms and the comfortable ratio of obscenely rich and deserving poor, Francis was a settled matter, as far as her parents were concerned. Francis, for her part, was not settled; her opinion on the matter was not required.

Francis, who made it a point to speak to the servants, knew that while Gertie may have been connected in name to Astors and Roosevelts, she was in fact the biological daughter of a handsome barman at the Central Park Casino. The casino was where many of New York’s rich and bored society women liked to spend their afternoons sipping drinks . . . and apparently doing other things. Neither Gertie, nor Gertie’s father, knew this. It was a nice little piece of information Francis kept tucked away in her pocket for the right time.

There was always a right time for these sorts of things. Francis was rich enough and smart enough to have grown bored of possessions. She liked secrets. Secrets had real value.

“No one has seen Dottie?” Miss Nelson asked again, twiddling with her diamond stud earrings. “I suppose I’ll call and have someone check the library. She’s most likely there and forgot the time.”

Francis knew Dottie Epstein was not at the library. She had seen Dottie hurrying into the woods a few hours before. Dottie was a strange, elusive creature, always squirreling herself away somewhere to read. Francis said nothing, because she didn’t particularly like answering questions, and because she respected Dottie’s right to hide herself away if she felt like it.

The phone began ringing upstairs in Miss Nelson’s rooms and she rose to answer it. Perhaps it was the moody fog, or the fact that this was later than Dottie would usually stay away—something pricked Francis’s keen sense of potential. She closed her magazine inside of her book and got up from her chair.

“Ooh, give me your rug if you’re going to your room,” Gertie said. “I don’t feel like getting mine.”

Francis grabbed the chinchilla with one hand and dropped it on Gertie as she passed. She walked down the dark hall to the turreted bathroom. After locking the door, she pulled off her shoes and socks and carefully stepped on the toilet seat, using it as a step stool to get up onto the windowsill. This was a precarious position—the cold marble sill was only wide enough to accommodate half of her foot, and if she lost her balance she would fall and crack her head on the toilet or the floor. She had to coil her fingers around the frame of the window and cling. But by doing this, she could get close to a small vent up near the ceiling, and that vent provided a muffled way to listen to the telephone conversations upstairs.

Francis tilted her ear to the ceiling and caught bits of Miss Nelson’s end. She immediately noted the pitch of Miss Nelson’s voice—it was higher, urgent.

“My God,” Miss Nelson said. “My God, when . . .”

Miss Nelson was not prone to drama. She was a controlled woman, well-groomed and attractive and of a certain type—a graduate of Smith who taught biology. She had glossy chestnut hair, always wore the same pair of expensive-looking diamond studs, but otherwise rotated through the same few outfits. Like everyone who taught and worked at Ellingham, she was talented and sharp.

And now, she sounded afraid.

“But the police . . . yes. I understand.”


“I’ll meet you there when the girls are in bed. I’ll get them off now. I’ll come soon.”

The phone went down with a bang, and Francis slipped from her perch and returned to the common room as Miss Nelson came down. She was trying to look casual, but she couldn’t help the bright, urgent look in her eye, the flush in her face. She walked to the door and slid the big iron bolt. There was the smallest hint of a shake in her hand.

“Time for bed, girls,” she said.

“Where is Dottie?” Gertie said.

“You were right. She’s spending the night in the infirmary with the nurse. Now, to bed, to bed.”

“It’s only five to ten,” Agnes Renfelt said. “There’s a program I want to listen to.”

“In your room,” Miss Nelson said. “You can listen to your radio there.”

Francis went to her room, number two, at the end of the hall. Once inside, she pulled off her dress and changed into a pair of black wool pants and a gray ski sweater. From the top drawer of her bureau she removed a candle and a pack of matches, which she put in her pocket. Then she sat on the floor by her door, ear pressed against it, and waited.

About two hours later, Francis heard Miss Nelson moving past her door. Francis cracked her door slightly and saw Miss Nelson heading toward the stairs at the end of the hall. She looked at the glowing hands of her bedside clock. She would give Miss Nelson a ten-minute start. That would be safe.

When the ten minutes were up, Francis exited her room and went to the spiral stairs at the end of the hall. She worked her way around to the back of the circular stairs. These stairs were enclosed in the back, and this enclosure looked solid, but Francis had discovered the secret of the stairs one night after spying Miss Nelson in the hall. It had taken her weeks to work out the trick of the stairs, but she eventually found that if you pressed on the right spot, a tiny latch would pop out of the bottom. You could use this to pull open a small doorway. Inside the staircase was what appeared to be an empty, tiny bit of storage space. But if you looked carefully, there was a hatch in the floor. Tonight, this hatch was open. Miss Nelson was usually careful enough to close it behind her.

The hatch exposed a raw, dark hole in the ground with a ladder that seemed to descend into nowhere. The first time Francis had climbed down, it had taken all her nerve. She had the feel for the ladder now, knowing how to ease her way down into the dark, taking each rung with care, ball of the foot first, never fully rolling onto the heel until she reached the floor below.

At the base of the ladder, Francis found herself in a tight passage made of rough stone. It was only a few inches higher than her head and just about wide enough for one person, and reminded Francis, not unpleasantly, of a tomb. She managed to pull up her arm and light the candle, and the sulfuric stink of the match filled the space and gave her a small halo of light.

She began her walk.