The Hand on the Wall – Maureen Johnson

THE SNOW HAD BEEN FALLING FOR HOURS, DRIFTING PAST THE WINDOWS, settling on the sill, forming little landscapes that mimicked the mountains in the distance. Albert Ellingham sat on an overstuffed chair covered in plum-colored velvet. A green marble clock sat before him on a small table, ticking contentedly. Aside from the ticking and the crackling of the fire, there was no sound. The snow muffled the world. “Surely we should have heard something by now,” he said. This was to Leonard Holmes Nair, who was stretched on a sofa on the opposite side of the room, covered in a fur rug and reading a French novel. Leo was a painter and a family friend, a tall and lanky reprobate in a blue velvet smoking jacket. The group had been holed up in this private Alpine hospital retreat for two weeks, watching the snow, drinking hot wine, reading, and waiting . waiting for the event that had announced itself in the middle of the night. Then the nurses and doctors swept into action, taking the mother-to-be to the luxurious birthing room. When you are one of the richest men in America, you can have an entire Swiss retreat to yourself for the birth of your child. “These mysterious affairs of nature take time,” Leo said, not looking up.

“It’s been almost nine hours.” “Albert, stop watching the clock. Have a drink.” Albert stood and stuffed his hands into his pockets. He paced to a near window, then a farther one, then back to the first. The view was marvelous—the snow, the mountains, the peaked roofs of the Alpine cottages in the valley. “A drink,” Leo said again. “Ring for one. Ring the—ringie. Ringie dingie. Where is it?” Albert crossed back to the fireplace and pulled on a gold knob connected to a silk cord. A gentle tinkling could be heard somewhere in the distance.

A moment later the doors opened and a young woman came in, dressed in a blue wool dress with a prim nurse’s apron, a white cap nestled on her head. “Yes, Herr Ellingham?” she said. “Any news?” he asked. “I am afraid not, Herr Ellingham.” “We need glühwein,” Leo said. “Er braucht etwas zu essen. Wurst und Brot. Käse.” “Ich verstehe, Herr Nair. Ich bringe Ihnen etwas, einen Moment bitte.

” The nurse backed out of the room and drew the doors closed. “Perhaps something has gone wrong,” Albert said. “Albert . ” “I’m going up there.” “Albert,” Leo repeated. “My instructions were to sit on you if you attempted it. While I may not be the most athletic man, I am larger than you and I’m entirely deadweight. Let’s turn on the radio. Or would you like to play a game?” Usually, the offer of a game would settle Albert Ellingham at once, but he continued to pace until the nurse appeared again with a tray containing two ruby-colored glasses of hot wine, along with cold sliced sausage, bread, and cheese. “Sit,” Leo ordered.

“Eat this.” Albert did not sit. He pointed at the clock instead. “This clock,” he said, “I bought it the other day, when we were in Zurich, from a dealer. Antique. Eighteenth century. He said it belonged to Marie Antoinette.” He put his hands on either side of the clock and stared down at it, as if waiting for it to speak to him. “Possibly nonsense,” he said, lifting the clock. “But for the price I paid, it should be good nonsense.

And it has a bit of a secret that is amusing—hidden drawer underneath. You turn it over. There’s a little indentation and you press . ” Overhead, there was movement. A yell. Hurried steps. A scream of pain. Albert set the clock down with a thud. “Sounds like the twilight sleep wore off,” Leo said as he looked at the ceiling. “Dearie me.

” There was more noise—the sharp screams of a woman about to give birth. Albert and Leo left the cozy study and stood in the much colder anteroom at the foot of the stairs. “Such gruesome sounds,” Leo said, looking up the dark stairs in concern. “Surely there is a better way to bring life into the world.” The cries stopped. All was silent for several moments, then the wail of a baby broke through. Albert sprang up the steps two at a time, slipping at the landing in his haste. In the hall above, the young nurse was standing by the door of the birthing room, prepared for his arrival. “A moment, Herr Ellingham,” she said with a smile. “The cord must be cut.

” “Tell me,” he said, breathless. “It is a girl, Herr Ellingham.” “It is a girl,” Albert repeated, wheeling around to face his friend. “Yes,” Leo said. “I heard.” “A girl. I thought it would be a girl. I knew it would be a girl. A little girl! I’ll get her the biggest dollhouse in the world, Leo. You could live in it!” The door cracked open, and Albert pushed past the nurse and hurried inside.

The room was dark —the curtains drawn against the snow. There were smells of life—blood and sweat—mingling with the sharp tang of antiseptic. The doctor replaced a breathing mask on a hook on the wall and adjusted the level on a tank of gas. One nurse emptied a white enamel basin full of pink water into a sink. Another nurse pulled wet sheets from the bed, while a third replaced them as they slipped away, snapping the clean sheet in the air and letting it fall gently on the woman below. The nurses crisscrossed the room, opening the curtains and swapping the trays of instruments for pitchers of flowers. It was a graceful, well-practiced ballet, and within minutes, the birthing room felt like a cheerful hotel suite. This was the best private hospital in the world, after all. Albert’s gaze fixed on his wife, Iris. She was holding a child in a yellow blanket.

He was so full of feeling that the room seemed to distort; the beams of the ceiling appeared to bend down to him as if to catch him should he fall as he made his way to her and the child in her arms. “She is beautiful,” Albert said. “She is extraordinary. She is . ” His voice failed him. The baby was bright pink, all balled fists and closed eyes and wails of awareness. She was life itself. “She’s ours,” Iris said quietly. “May I hold her?” said someone on the other side of the room. Albert and Iris turned toward the woman in the bed.

Her face was flushed and glazed in sweat. “Of course!” Iris said, going to her. “Of course. Darling, darling, of course.” Iris gently placed the baby into Flora Robinson’s arms. Flora was weak, still half under the influence of the drugs, her blond hair stuck to her forehead. The nurses pulled the sheets and blankets up over her, tucking them around the baby in her arms. She blinked in amazement at the tiny person she had produced. “My God,” she said, looking down into the infant’s face. “Is that what I’ve done?” “You’ve done marvelously,” Iris replied, peeling some of the damp locks back from her friend’s forehead.

“Darling, you were a marvel. You were an absolute marvel.” “May I have a moment, please?” Flora said. “To hold her?” “It is a good idea,” the nurse said. “For her to hold. It helps the baby. She will have to nurse soon. Perhaps, Herr Ellingham, Frau Ellingham, you can outside go? For a moment only.” Iris and Albert retreated from the room. Leo had gone back downstairs, so they were alone in the hall.

“She hasn’t said anything about the father, has she?” Albert asked quietly. “I thought she might during . ” He waved his hand to indicate nine hours of labor and the birth process. “No,” Iris whispered back. “No matter. No matter at all. Should he ever appear, we will deal with him.” The nurse stepped into the hall, bearing a clipboard with official-looking forms. “Excuse me,” she said. “Do you have a name for the child?” Albert looked to Iris, who nodded.

“Alice,” Albert said. “Her name is Alice Madeline Ellingham. And she will be the happiest little girl in the world.” EXCERPT FROM TRULY DEVIOUS: THE ELLINGHAM MURDERS BY DR. IRENE FENTON Since his wife and daughter’s kidnapping, since the murder of Dolores Epstein, all during the trial of Anton Vorachek—Albert Ellingham kept the search going. Vorachek’s murder on the courtroom steps didn’t slow Albert Ellingham down, even if it appeared that the one person who may have known Alice’s whereabouts was dead and gone. Someone knew something. No expense was ever spared. He appeared on every radio show. He spoke to every politician.

Albert Ellingham would go anywhere and meet anyone who might know where his daughter could be found. But on November 1, 1938, the police and the FBI were dragging Lake Champlain, looking for Albert Ellingham and George Marsh. The pair had gone out for an afternoon sail on Albert’s boat, Wonderland. Just before sunset, a massive explosion ripped through the peaceful Vermont evening. Local fishermen scrambled into their boats to get to the spot. When they arrived, they found fragments of the doomed vessel—pieces of charred wood, singed cushions that had been blown into the air, small brass fittings, bits of rope. They also found something much more disturbing: human remains, in the same state as the boat itself. Neither Albert Ellingham’s nor George Marsh’s body would be recovered in their entirety; enough pieces were found to establish that both men had died. There was an immediate investigation. Everyone had a theory about the death of one of America’s richest and greatest men, but in the end, no case could ever be made.

That Albert Ellingham had been killed by a group of anarchists seemed the most likely answer; indeed, three separate groups claimed responsibility. With the death of Albert Ellingham, Alice’s case began to go cold. There was no father’s voice saying her name, no tycoon handing out cash and making calls. A year later, the war started in Europe, and the sad saga of the family on the mountain paled in the face of a much greater tragedy. Over the years, dozens of women would come forward claiming to be Alice Ellingham. Some could be dismissed right from the start—they were the wrong age, had the wrong physical attributes. Those who passed the basic tests would be seen by Robert Mackenzie, Albert’s personal secretary. Mackenzie conducted a thorough investigation into each claim. All were proven to be false. Passing years have revived interest in the case—not just about Alice but also about the kidnapping and what happened on that terrible day on Lake Champlain.

With advances in DNA analysis and modern investigative techniques, the answers may still be within our grasp. Alice Ellingham may yet be found. LOCAL PROFESSOR DIES IN TRAGIC HOUSE FIRE Burlington News Online November 4 Local professor Dr. Irene Fenton from the University of Vermont’s history department died in a house fire yesterday evening. Dr. Fenton, who lived on Pearl Street, was a twenty-two-year member of the faculty and the author of several books, including Truly Devious: The Ellingham Murders. The blaze began around 9 p.m. and was believed to have originated in the kitchen. Dr.

Fenton’s nephew, who lived with her, sustained minor injuries in the blaze. 1 THE BONES WERE ON THE TABLE, NAKED AND CHALKY. THE EYE SOCKETS hollow, the mouth in a loose grimace, as if to say, “Yep, it’s me. Bet you’re wondering how I ended up here. It’s a funny story, actually. ” “As you’ll see, Mr. Nelson is missing the first metacarpal on the right hand, which has been replaced with a model. In life, of course, he had—” “Question,” Mudge said, raising his hand partway. “How did this dude get to be a skeleton? I mean, here? Did he know he’d end up in a classroom?” Pix, Dr. Nell Pixwell, teacher of anatomy, forensic anthropologist, and housemistress of Minerva House, paused.

Her hand and Mr. Nelson’s were lightly intertwined, as if they were considering the delicate proposition of dancing together at the ball. “Well,” she said, “Mr. Nelson was donated to Ellingham when it opened. I believe he came via a friend of Albert Ellingham’s who was connected to Harvard. There are a number of ways that bodies come to be used for demonstration purposes. People donate their bodies to science, of course. That may have been what happened, but I suspect it’s not the case here. Based on some of the materials and techniques used to articulate him, I think Mr. Nelson is probably from the mid- to late 1800s.

Back then, things were a bit looser in terms of getting bodies for science. Prisoners’ bodies were routinely used. Mr. Nelson here was likely well nourished. He was tall. He had all his teeth, which was exceptional for the time. He had no broken bones. My guess—and it’s only a guess—” “You mean grave robbing?” Mudge asked with interest. “He was stolen?” Mudge was Stevie Bell’s lab partner—a six-foot-something death-metalhead who wore purplecolored contacts with snake pupils and a black hoodie weighed down with fifty Disney pins, including some very rare ones that he would show off and explain to Stevie as they dissected cows’ eyes and other terrible things for the purposes of education. Mudge loved Disney more than anyone Stevie had ever met and had dreams of being an animatronics Imagineer.

EllinghamAcademy was the kind of place where Mudges were welcomed and understood. “It was common,” Pix said. “Medical students needed cadavers. People called resurrection men —get it, rise from the dead?—used to steal bodies to sell to student doctors. If he was an old Harvard model skeleton, yes, I think it’s likely that he was a victim of grave robbing. This reminds me, I need to send him out to get him rearticulated. I need to get a new metacarpal, and the wire needs repairing here, between the hamate, the triquetral, and the capitate bones. It’s tough being a skeleton.” She smiled for a moment but then twitched it away and rubbed her peach-fuzz head. “So much for metacarpals,” she said again.

“Let’s talk about the other bones in the hand and the arm. ” Stevie knew exactly why Pix had stopped herself. Ellingham Academy was no longer the kind of place where you could make casual jokes about being a skeleton. As Stevie stepped outside, the cold air slapped her in the face. The magnificent cloak of reds and golds that hung from the Vermont woodland had dropped suddenly, like a massive act of arboreal striptease. Striptease. Strip trees. Striptrees? God, she was tired. Nate Fisher was waiting for Stevie outside the classroom building. He sat on one of the benches, with slumped shoulders, staring at his phone.

Now that the weather had turned more chill, he could cheerfully—or what passed as cheerfully in Nate-adjusted terms—pile on oversized sweaters and baggy cords and scarves until he was a moving pile of natural and synthetic fibers. “Where have you been?” he asked as a greeting. He put a cup of coffee in her hand, as well as a maple doughnut. Stevie assumed it was maple. Things in Vermont often were. She took a long drink of the coffee and a bite of the doughnut before replying. “I needed to think,” she said. “I walked around before class.” “Those are the same clothes you had on yesterday.” Stevie looked down at herself in confusion, at her baggy sweatpants and black Converse sneakers.

She was wearing a stretched-out sweater and her thin red vinyl coat. “Slept in these,” she said as a small rain of crumbs fell from the doughnut. “You haven’t eaten a meal with us in two days. I can never find you.” This was true. She had not gone to the dining hall for a proper meal in two days, and instead subsisted on handfuls of dry cereal from the kitchen dispensers, usually eaten in the middle of the night. She would stand at the counter in the dark, her hand under the little cereal chute, pulling the lever to get another Froot Loops fix. She had a vague memory of acquiring and consuming a banana yesterday while sitting on the floor of the library, way up in the stacks. She had avoided people, avoided conversations, avoided messages to live entirely in her own thoughts, because they were many and they needed ordering. Three major events had occurred to bring on this monastic, peripatetic activity.

One, David Eastman, perhaps boyfriend, had gotten his face punched in in Burlington. He had done this on purpose and paid the assailant. He uploaded video of the beatdown to the internet and vanished without a trace. David was the son of Senator Edward King. Senator King had helped Stevie return to school, with the proviso that she would help keep David under control. Well, that had failed. That alone would have occupied her mind entirely, except that on the same night, Stevie’s adviser, Dr. Irene Fenton, had died in a house fire. Stevie had not been close to Dr. Fenton, or Fenton, as she preferred to be called.

There was one upside to this horrific event—the fire was in Burlington. Burlington wasn’t here, at Ellingham, and Fenton was identified as a professor at the University of Vermont. This meant that the death wasn’t attributed to Ellingham. The school probably couldn’t survive if there was another death. In a world where everything went wrong all the time always, having your adviser die in a fire off campus was one of the few “but on the bright side . ” elements of her confusing new life. It was a terrible and selfish way of thinking about things, but at this point, Stevie had to be practical. If you wanted to solve crime, you needed to detach. All of that would have been plenty to deal with. But the crowning item, the one that spun through her mind like a mobile, was .

“Don’t you think we should talk?” Nate said. “About what’s going on? About what happens now?” It was quite a loaded question. What happens now? “Walk with me,” she said. She turned and headed away from the classroom buildings, away from people, away from cameras posted on poles and trees. This was to keep their conversation private and also so no one could see the devastation she was going to wreak on this doughnut. She was hungry. “Ish olfed decaf,” she said, shoving a bite of doughnut in her mouth. “You want decaf?” She took a moment to swallow. “I solved it,” she said. “The Ellingham case.

” “I know,” he said. “That’s what we need to talk about. That and the fire and everything else. Jesus, Stevie.” “It makes sense,” she said, walking slowly. “George Marsh, the man from the FBI, the one who protected the Ellinghams . someone who knew the house layout, the schedules, when the money came in, the family habits . someone who easily could have set up a kidnapping. So, here’s what happens . ” She got Nate loosely by the arm and changed direction, turning them back toward the Great House.

The Great House was the crowning jewel of the campus. In the 1930s, it was the Ellingham home. Today, it was the center of the school administration and a space for dances and events. Around the back, there was a walled garden. Stevie walked on autopilot to a familiar door in the wall and opened it. This was the sunken garden, so called because it was once an artificial lake and Iris Ellingham’s massive swimming pool. Albert Ellingham had drained it following the disappearance of his daughter, on the word of someone who thought her body was at the bottom. It wasn’t, but the lake was never filled again. So it remained, a great big grassy hole in the ground. And in the middle, on a strange little hill that had once been an island in the lake, was a geodesic glass dome.

This dome was where Dottie Epstein had met her fate and where, under it, Hayes Major met his end. “So,” Stevie said, pointing, “Dottie Epstein is sitting in that dome, reading her Sherlock Holmes, minding her own business. All of a sudden, a guy appears. George Marsh. Neither one of them expecting the other. And out of all the students from Ellingham George Marsh could have run into, he runs into the most brilliant one, and the one whose uncle is in the NYPD. Dottie knows who Marsh is. The whole plan is ruined, instantly, because George Marsh met Dottie in that dome. Dottie knows something bad is about to happen, so she makes a mark in her Sherlock Holmes, she does the best she can to say who she’s looking at, and then, she dies. But Dottie fingers the guy.

Flash forward . ” Stevie turned in the direction of the house, toward the flagstone patio and French doors outside the room that had been Albert Ellingham’s office. “Albert Ellingham spends the next two years trying to find his daughter, when something . something jogs his memory. He thinks about Dottie Epstein and the mark in the book. He gets out the wire recording he made of her—we know he did this, it was on his desk the day he died—and he listens. He realizes that Dottie could have recognized George Marsh. He wonders . ” Stevie could practically see Albert Ellingham pacing the office, walking across the trophy rugs, from leather chair to desk, staring at the green marble clock on the mantel, trying to figure out if what he had worked out in his mind was true. “He writes a riddle, maybe to test himself, to see if he really believed it.

Where do you look for someone who’s never really there? Always on a staircase but never on a stair. He’s saying, take the word stair out of staircase. Who’s always on a case? A detective. Who’s never really there? The person you hired to investigate, the one who was by your side. The one you didn’t even think of or notice . ” “Stevie . ” “And then, that afternoon, he goes out sailing with George Marsh and the boat explodes. People always thought anarchists did it, because anarchists tried to kill him before, and everyone thought an anarchist kidnapped his daughter. But it can’t be that. One of them caused that boat to explode.

Either George Marsh knew it was all over and took them both out, or Albert Ellingham confronted him and did the same. But it ended there. And I know whoever kidnapped Alice isn’t Truly Devious, because I know that note was written by some students here, probably as a joke. This whole thing was just a bunch of stuff that got out of hand. The note was a joke, then the kidnapping went wrong, and all those people died . ” “Stevie,” Nate said, snapping his friend back to the present, to the cold and marshy grass they stood on. “Fenton,” Stevie replied. “She believed there was a codicil in Albert Ellingham’s will, something that said that whoever found Alice got a fortune. It’s some real tinfoil-hat, grassy-knoll stuff, but she believed it. She said she had proof.

I didn’t see it, but she said she had it. She was really paranoid—she only kept paper records. She kept notepads in old pizza boxes. She had a conspiracy wall. She said she was putting something huge together. I called to tell her what I had figured out, and she said she couldn’t talk and something about ‘the kid is there.’ And then, her house burned down.” Nate rubbed his head wearily. “Is there any chance that was an accident?” he said. “Please tell me there is.

” “What do you think?” she asked quietly. “What do I think?” Nate replied, sitting on one of the stone benches on the edge of the sunken garden. Stevie sat next to him, the cold of the stone seeping through her clothes. “I think I don’t know what to think. I don’t believe in conspiracies, usually, because people are generally too uncoordinated to pull off huge, complicated plots. But I also think that if a bunch of weird stuff happens in one place at one time, maybe those things might be connected. So Hayes died while you were making that video about the Ellingham case. And then Ellie died after she ran away after you figured out that she wrote Hayes’s show. And now your adviser is dead—the one you were helping to research the Ellingham stuff—and she died just as you said you figured out who committed the crime of the century. These are all some terrible accidents, or they’re not, but I am out of ideas and need to conserve my energy so I can freak out more effectively.

Does that help?” “No,” Stevie said, looking up at the gray-pink sky. “What if—hear me out—what if you told the authorities everything you know right now and let all of this go?” “But I don’t know anything,” she said. “That’s the problem. I need to know more. What if this is all connected? It has to be, right? Iris and Dottie and Alice, Hayes and Ellie and Fenton.” “Does it?” “I have to think,” she said, running her hand through her short blond hair. It was standing straight up now. Stevie had not gone to get her hair cut since she had arrived at Ellingham in early September. She had cut it a bit, once, in the bathroom at two in the morning, but lost her vision halfway through. What she had now was an overgrown crop that hung over one eye more than the other and often went right toward the sky like the quiff of an alert cockatoo.

She had bitten her nails down to the quick, and even though the school had a laundry service, she wore the same unwashed hoodie almost every day. She was losing track of her physical body. “So what is your plan, then? You just walk around all the time, not eating or talking to anyone?” “No,” she said. “I have to do something. I need more information.” “Okay,” Nate said, defeated. “Where can you get information that isn’t dangerous or misguided?” Stevie chewed a cuticle thoughtfully. It was a good question. “Back in the present,” Nate said, “Janelle is showing us a test run of her machine tonight. She’s worried that you’re not going.

” Of course. As Stevie went down these little lanes in her mind, life was going on. Janelle Franklin, her closest friend here and next-door neighbor, had spent all her time at the school building a machine for the Sendel Waxman competition. It was now complete, and she wanted to show her closest friends the test run. Stevie could remember that much through the haze in her mind—tonight, eight o’clock. Look at machine. “Right,” she said. “I’m going. Of course. I’m going.

I need to think some more now.” “Maybe you need to go home and take a nap, or shower or something? Because I don’t think you’re okay.” “That’s it,” she said, snapping up her head. “I’m not okay.” “Wait, what?” “I need help,” she said with a smile. “I need to go talk to someone who loves to be challenged.”


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