“HAS ANYONE SEEN DOTTIE?” MISS NELSON ASKED. 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 snif ing. 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.” Police? “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. SECOND ELLINGHAM STUDENT MISSING AND AT LARGE; POSSIBLY INVOLVED IN DEATH OF HAYES MAJOR A BATT REPORT EXCLUSIVE OCTOBER 15th There has been a major development in the investigation of the death of YouTube star Hayes Major.
Most readers will be aware that Major, famous for his hit show The End of It All, died during the shooting of a video about the Ellingham kidnapping and murders of 1936. While working in a tunnel, he was exposed to a fatal concentration of carbon dioxide. Though the police have declared Hayes Major’s death an accident—the result of using a large quantity of dry ice in order to achieve a fog effect for a scene—is the matter settled? An intrepid Ellingham student detective named Stephanie (aka Stevie) Bell launched her own investigation. Bell was admitted to Ellingham as an expert on the 1936 kidnapping case. She became convinced that Major had not placed the dry ice in the tunnel and was in fact killed either by accident or intentionally by another person. Furthermore, she concluded that Major did not write his hit series, as he claimed to have done. Bell approached this reporter and asked to review images taken during the day of Major’s death. Using information from these photographs, Bell accused fellow student Element Walker of writing the series The End of It All and having a role in the death. Following a confrontation at Minerva House, where Major, Walker, and Bell were all residents, school officials became involved. All remaining students from Minerva House were taken to the Ellingham Great House.
What happened next was unexpected and baffling. Sources present at the Great House that night confirm that school officials questioned Element Walker, and that the school opted to stop their questioning to consult with an attorney and to contact law enforcement. Walker was left alone in Albert Ellingham’s former office, with the door closed and people right outside. When the door was reopened, Walker was gone and has not been seen since. There are reports that she used a hidden passage in the wall to make her escape. This reporter has to ask: Where could Element Walker have gone at night, with no supplies, no phone, no car, and no preparation? Ellingham Academy is on a remote mountainside. How did she get away? Did someone on the campus help her? How did she know about the passageway? Was she even involved in Major’s death, or did she leave out of alarm? Her disappearance has raised even more questions in this ever-evolving case. Stay with the Batt Report for more exclusive updates. 1 OUT OF EVERYTHING IN HER PITTSBURGH NEIGHBORHOOD, THE Funky Munkee coffee shop was the thing that reminded Stevie Bell most of Ellingham Academy. It was a 1990s relic, with a sign written in a kooky festival font.
It had walls painted in bright, primary colors, each wall a different shade. It played an obligatory coffeehouse soundtrack of mid-tempo guitar music. There were blown-up pictures of coffee beans, and plants and wobbly tables to sit at, and oversized mugs. None of these things were features of her previous school. The part she liked, and the part that was like Ellingham, was that it wasn’t her house, and when she was here, no one bothered her. Every day this week she had come and ordered the smallest, cheapest coffee. She would take this to the back of the shop, to a stuffy, small alcove room with red walls. The room was dark and dingy, the tables unbalanced and always a bit sticky. Everyone else avoided it, which is why Stevie liked it. This was her office now, where she did her most important work.
If she had tried to do this at home, her parents might walk in. Here, she was in public, but no one actually cared what she was doing or even noticed her. She put her headphones on but played no music—she needed some muffled silence. She put her backpack on the table, zipper facing her, and opened it. First, she removed a pair of nitrile gloves. These she had purchased at CVS the day she returned. It was probably an unnecessary precaution at this stage, but still, it could not hurt. She snapped them on. It was a very satisfying feeling. Using both hands, she reached down to the bottom of her bag and removed a small, battered tea tin.
The tin was too valuable to leave at home. When you find something of historical importance, you keep it close. It stayed with Stevie wherever she went—locked in her locker during the day, tucked in her bag at home. Out of sight. She periodically reached around to touch the lump on her backpack where it rested inside to make sure it was secure. The tin was square and red, dented in several places, with rust along the lip. It read OLD ENGLISH TEA BAGS. She opened the lid. It stuck a bit, so it required a gentle wiggle. From inside she produced: a bit of white feather, a bit of beaded cloth, a tarnished, gold-colored lipstick tube with the mummified remains of a red lipstick, a tiny enameled pillbox in the shape of a shoe, some pieces of notebook paper and black-and-white photographs, and the unfinished draft of a poem.
These humble objects were the first pieces of real evidence in the Ellingham case in over eighty years. And the moment Stevie uncovered them was the moment her Ellingham dreams fell apart. Ellingham. Her former school. Ellingham, the place she had dreamed of going. The place she had made it to for a short time. And Ellingham, the place that was now behind her. No one in Pittsburgh really understood what happened to Stevie at Ellingham. They only knew that she had left to go to some famous school, and then that YouTube guy died in an accident there, and Stevie came back a few weeks later. It was true that the death of Hayes Major was the start of Stevie’s departure.
But the person who was responsible for Stevie Bell’s parents hauling her out of Ellingham Academy was named Germaine Batt, and she did it entirely by accident. Everyone at Ellingham Academy had a thing, and Germaine Batt’s thing was reporting. Before Hayes’s death, she had a modest site and a small following. But death is good business if you are in the news. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as they say. (They being . Stevie wasn’t sure. People said it. It meant that bloody, gray, horrible stories always go to the top, which is why the news is always bad. People don’t care when things go well.
News equals bad.) The piece that did Stevie in came out the day after Stevie confronted Element Walker about creating the show The End of It All. She knew that Ellie had taken Hayes’s computer and stashed it under the bathtub in Minerva. Stevie also knew that Hayes could not have been the person who used the pass to get the dry ice that would kill him. Also, Hayes did not write the show that made him famous, the one that was about to get him a movie deal. Ellie did that. That was all Stevie was trying to tell everyone on the night in question. Ellie had been confronted, first in Minerva, and then in the Great House. And Ellie had vanished from a locked room. Just like that.
Poof. She had gone into the walls of Albert Ellingham’s office, through a hidden passage, and from there . out. Away. Somewhere. The school did not release that information. Ellie wasn’t officially guilty of anything. She was a student who ran away from her boarding school. Except Stevie’s parents had a Google alert for all things Ellingham after Hayes’s death, and that’s how they saw the Batt Report blog post about how Stevie had been investigating Hayes’s death, and now there was a potential killer on the loose. Two hours after Germaine’s story appeared, Stevie’s phone rang, and ten hours after that, her parents were roaring up the drive to Ellingham, despite the school rules about no outside vehicles.
The night had been tearful; Stevie cried all the way back to Pittsburgh, silently and without pause, staring out the car window until she fell asleep. The next Monday, she was back in her old school, hastily inserted into some classes. The trick was not to think about Ellingham too much—the buildings, the smell of the air, the freedom, the adventure, the people . Especially not the people. She could send messages to her friends Janelle and Nate. Mostly Janelle. And mostly it was Janelle sending them to her, dozens a day, checking in on how she was. Stevie could only reply to every third or fourth one, because replying meant thinking about how she missed seeing Janelle in the hall, in the common room, across the table. How she missed knowing her friend was on the other side of the wall as she slept—Janelle, who smelled of lemons or orange blossom, who wrapped her hair in one of her dozens of colorful scarves to keep it safe while she worked with industrial equipment. Janelle was a maker, a builder of small robotics and other devices, who was currently preparing a Rube Goldberg machine for the Sendel Waxman competition.
Her texts indicated she had been spending a lot more time in the maintenance shed building since Stevie had been gone, and that she was getting much more serious with Vi Harper-Tomo. Janelle’s life was full, and she wanted Stevie to be in it, and Stevie felt far and cold and none of that made sense here, at the shopping center with the Subway and the beer and cigarette place, in the Funky Munkee. But she had the tin, and as long as she had the tin, she had the Ellingham case. She’d found the tin in Ellie’s room shortly before she left. She had dated it using online images. It was from somewhere between 1925 and 1940, and the tea was popular and widely sold. The feather was about four inches long and looked like it may have been attached to a piece of clothing. The cloth was two inches square and was a luminous blue, with silver, blue, and black beads, and had torn edges. Another piece of detritus. The lipstick had the word KISSPROOF on the side.
It had been used, but not entirely. The pillbox was the only thing that looked like it might have value. It was just over two inches in length. It was empty. These four items Stevie thought of as a group. They were personal, they concerned jewelry or clothing. The feather and the torn cloth were junk, so the reason for saving them was mysterious. The lipstick and the pillbox could have had value. All of these items likely belonged to a woman. They were intimate.
They meant something to whoever put them in this tin. The other two items probably had a lot more significance. They were a set of photographs of two people pretending to be Bonnie and Clyde. Stevie stared at them until her sight went blurry. The girl had dark hair cut in a sharp bob. Stevie had Googled some pictures of Lord Byron, the poet, and found he did have a resemblance to the boy in the photos. They had written a poem about themselves. But who were they? The trouble was, there were no online records of all the names of the early Ellingham students. Their names had never mattered—they were never part of the case. So they weren’t printed anywhere.
Stevie had searched the internet, read down every thread on every message board she frequented on the case. At the time of the crimes or in the following years, a few students had come forward and given statements or spoken to the press. The one who appeared the most was a Gertrude van Coevorden, a New York City debutante who claimed to have been Dottie Epstein’s best friend. She gave tearful interviews for weeks after the kidnappings. None of these were helpful in identifying the persons in the photos. Then, there was the poem. It wasn’t a good poem. It wasn’t even a whole poem.