Truly Devious Page 2

There was a ladder built into one wall. Dottie climbed it and opened the hatch at the top. She found herself inside a small domed structure with a glass roof. The floor was covered in fur rugs and cushions, several ashtrays, and a few errant champagne glasses. She stood on the bench seating that ran around the rim of the room and realized she was on a small island in the middle of the ornamental lake behind the Ellingham Great House.

A secret nook! The most perfect secret nook in all the world. This would be her reading spot, she decided. Dottie Epstein spent a lot of her time there, curled up in a fur rug, a pile of books by her side. No one had ever caught her there, and she felt sure that even if Mr. Ellingham did, he wouldn’t mind. He was such a kind man and so full of fun.

Nothing could be safer.

That particular April day was strange and foggy, blurring spaces between the trees and blanketing all of Ellingham in a milky mist. Dottie decided that the weather lent itself to a mystery. Sherlock Holmes would be perfect. She’d read every Sherlock Holmes story, but rereading was one of her greatest pleasures, and this fog was just like the London fog in the stories.

She had learned which times were best to go to the little dome. It was a Monday afternoon—no one from the big house would be there. Mr. Ellingham had driven off that morning, and Mrs. Ellingham in the afternoon. Dottie took the collection of Sherlock Holmes stories from the school library and set out for her secret place.

The view from inside the little glass dome that day was like being inside of a cloud. Dottie stretched out on the floor, pulled the fur rug over her, and opened the book. Soon she was lost on the streets of London—the game was afoot!

Dottie got so lost in her reading that she was taken unawares by a noise directly below her. Someone was in the liquor room and was climbing up the stairs. Someone was right there. With no time to get away, Dottie pulled the heavy fur rug over herself and pressed herself as far against the wall as possible and tried to mix in with a pile of cushions. Just stay on the floor. Be a lump.

She heard the groan of the hatch being lifted, the thunk as it fell back against the stone. The person hoisted themselves into the dome and stood just a foot or so away from Dottie’s face. She prayed they didn’t step on her. She pulled herself in tighter.

The person moved away from her and set something down on the floor. Dottie took a chance and lifted the edge of the rug by just an inch and saw a gloved hand pulling items from a sack and setting them on the floor. She chanced another inch to get a better look. There was a flashlight, binoculars, a length of rope, and something that glinted.

The glinting thing was handcuffs, sort of like the ones her uncle the police officer had.

A flashlight, binoculars, rope, and handcuffs?

A flush of adrenaline ran through her body, skyrocketing her heart rate. Something was wrong here. She let the rug drop over her face and hunkered down tight, her face pressed into the floor, flattening the bridge of her nose. The person shuffled around the space for several minutes. Then, there was a sudden quiet. Had they gone? She would have heard someone leave down the hatch by her head.

Her breath came back hot against her face. She had no idea what was happening, but it made her head light. She began to count in her head. When she reached five hundred and there was still no noise, she made the decision to slowly lift the edge of the rug again. Just a finger width. Just a touch more.

No one was there in her line of sight. She inched it up a bit more. Nothing. She was about to lift it when . . .

“Hello,” said a voice.

Dottie felt her heart pressing into the floor.

“Don’t be afraid,” the voice said. “You can come out.”

There was no point in hiding now. Dottie crawled out from under the blanket, clutching her book. She looked at the visitor, and then at the objects on the floor.

“Those are for the game,” the person said.

Game? Of course. The Ellinghams loved games. They were always playing them with guests—elaborate treasure hunts and puzzles. Mr. Ellingham had filled the student houses with board games like Monopoly and sometimes he even came down to play. Flashlight. Rope. Binoculars. Handcuffs. It could be a game. Monopoly had strange pieces too.

“What kind of game?” Dottie said.

“It’s very complicated,” the person said. “But it’s going to be a lot of fun. I have to hide. You were hiding in here too?”

“To read,” Dottie said. She held up the book and tried to keep her hands from shaking.

“Sherlock Holmes?” said the person. “I love Sherlock Holmes. Which story are you reading?”

“A Study in Scarlet.”

“That’s a good one. Go ahead. Read. Don’t let me stop you.”

The visitor got out a cigarette and lit it, then smoked it while watching her.

Dottie had seen this person before. This was someone who might very well have been playing one of the Ellinghams’ elaborate games. But Dottie was also a New York girl who had seen enough to know when something was off. The look in the eye. The tone in the voice. Her uncle the cop always said to her, “Trust your instincts, Dottie. If you have a bad feeling about something or someone, you get out of there. You go and you get me.”

Dottie’s instincts told her to get out. But carefully. Act normal. She opened her book and tried to focus on the words in front of her. She always kept a bit of pencil up her sleeve for taking notes. When the visitor looked away and out the glass, she pushed the pencil down and into her palm, a move she had perfected over time, and roughly drew a line under a sentence on the page. It wasn’t much, but it was a way of making a note that maybe someone would understand if . . .

No one would understand, and if was too terrifying to think of.

She shoved the pencil back into her sleeve. She couldn’t pretend to read anymore. Her eyes couldn’t track the words. Everything in her shook.

“I need to get this back to the library,” she said. “I won’t tell anyone you’re here. I hate it when people tell on me.”

The person smiled at her, but it was a strange smile. Not sincere. Pulled too far at the corners of the mouth.

Dottie became acutely aware that she was in a structure in the middle of a lake, halfway up a mountain. She ran all possible scenarios in her head and could see how the next few seconds were going to play out. Her heart slowed and the sound of its beating thudded in her head. Time was going very slowly. She had read many stories in which death was present as a character—a palpable force in the room. There was such a force in the room now, a silent visitor in the space.

“I have to go,” she said, her voice thick. She started to move toward the hatch, and the person moved that way as well. They were like players on a chessboard, working things out to an inevitable end.

“You know I can’t let you leave,” the person said. “I wish I could.”

“You can,” Dottie said. “I’m good at keeping secrets.” She clutched her Sherlock Holmes. Nothing bad could happen when she was holding Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock would save her.

“Please,” she said.

“I’m so sorry,” the visitor said with what sounded like genuine sadness.

There was exactly one move left in the game, and Dottie knew it was a bad one. But when you have no spaces left on the board you do what you have to do. She lunged for the hatch opening. There was no time to try to get onto the ladder—she dropped the book and leaped into the dark hole. She reached out blindly. Her fingers slipped along the rungs of the ladder but she couldn’t get purchase. She was falling. The floor met her with a terrible finality.

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