[Series Synopses] Truly Devious #2: The Vanishing Stair

➤ Content warnings: (click to show)

major character death(s), murder, classism, facetious suicidal ideation, mentions of violence, blood

Plot Summary

( Epigraph )

Where do you look for someone who’s never really there?
Always on a staircase but never on a stair.

– Riddle found on the desk of Albert Ellingham on the day of his death, October 30, 1938

April 13, 1936, 9:00 pm

“Has anyone seen Dottie?” Miss Nelson asked.

None of the residents of Minerva House answer in the affirmative, but a few hours ago Francis Josephine Crane saw Dottie go into the woods, presumably to read. The phone rings upstairs and Miss Nelson goes to answer it; Francis eavesdrops and overhears something about police.

Miss Nelson sends the girls to bed, saying Dottie is in the infirmary. Francis follows her through the secret passage under the stairs.




At the local Funky Munkee coffee shop, Stevie puts on nitrile gloves to examine the small tin that contains “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 piece of notebook paper and black-and-white photographs, and the unfinished draft of a poem”: 

The Ballad of Frankie and Edward
April 2, 1936

Frankie and Edward had the silver
Frankie and Edward had the gold
But both saw the game for what it was
And both wanted the truth to be told

Frankie and Edward bowed to no king
They lived for art and love
They unseated the man who ruled over the land
They took

The king was a joker who loved on a hill
And he wanted to rule the game
So Frankie and Edward played a hand
And things were never the same

Stevie’s mom texts her to come home. On her way back, Stevie gets an uncharacteristic phone call from Nate, who is characteristically procrastinating work on his second book; they discuss his writer’s block and David’s name comes up. 

When she gets home, Stevie finds Senator Edward King in her home. He wants her back at Ellingham, reassuring her parents that he’s hired a security firm for the campus. Stevie grapples with the ethics of the situation.

April 14, 1936, 2:00 a.m.

Francis creeps along the secret tunnel with her candle, taking the left tunnel at the fork, counting her steps. She climbs a ladder, opens a hatch, easily makes her way to Apollo dorm, throwing a pebble at a window to signal Eddie, her boyfriend and (literal) partner in crime.

Albert Ellingham passes by and they follow him into what will be the new indoor swimming pool, where he meets with Miss Nelson — his mistress. He tells her about Alice and Iris being kidnapped, mentions the Truly Devious letter, gives her a gun, instructs her to send the students and home when the coaches come at daybreak, and to go to “the” New York apartment.


Stevie, en route to the airport with Edward King, is anxious about returning to the case, her friends, her classes … and David, Edward King’s son. She remembers that last morning together, the moment they shared before Edward King arrived at Ellingham via helicopter and Stevie learned he was David’s father. They take her back to Ellingham by private plane.

Stevie confronts Edward King about his motives. Eventually he reveals that David has been acting out: he thinks Stevie can get David to settle down and make it to graduation. Despite her misgivings, Stevie agrees.

Back at Ellingham, Stevie is met by Security Larry. The road signs prompt her to ask if he’s ever seen a moose.

“Yup,” he said.

“What was it like?”


This was a satisfactory reply. At least the moose was not a lie.

In turn he prompts her to promise that she’ll follow the rules; she does, shamed.

At Minerva House, Pix greets Stevie warmly and sends her off to see Janelle, who hugs her tightly then tugs her along to see Nate, who offers her a hug “with [his] mind”. David’s room is dark and soundless. Janelle and Nate help Stevie move back in, and catch her up on some of David’s recent weird behaviors: screaming meditation and sleeping in weird places, naked.

Later, once she’s alone for the night, Stevie thinks back over the case so far. She retrieves a pair of photographs which are stuck together with a cutout of the word US between them.

The next morning, Stevie, Janelle, and Nate go to weekend brunch. When asked, Stevie avoids confessing Edward King’s involvement in her return and redirects the conversation to Ellie, who is still missing. Nate reassures Stevie that it’s not her fault, then quickly redirects the subject away from feelings.

April 14, 1936, 3:00 a.m.

Eddie tells Francis that it’s time to go, to “start the plan.” Francis disagrees, pointing out that “[their] letter is mixed up in it” and they’re likely to get caught. She kisses him and heads back to Minerva through “a blue sulfuric fog”, past three gunmen keeping watch. Her window is shut tight but Dottie’s isn’t, so that’s how she gets in. 

Francis is caught in the hallway upon exiting Dottie’s room. Miss Nelson orders her to stay in the common room, with a gunman keeping watch by the door.


Stevie goes to the Great House to meet with her advisor. Larry shows Stevie the newly kitted-out security room, with lots of camera and facial recognition that can track an individual student’s whereabouts: a warning to keep her promise to “leave any further inquiries to the appropriate authorities. Not that there will be any further inquiries.” She overhears part of a conversation between Dr. Charles Scott (Call Me Charles) and Dr. Jenny Quinn, about Edward King and David. 

Call Me Charles reassures Stevie about the new security system and asks if she “feel[s] ready to get back to work”; she says yes, though she means the Ellingham case and not her schoolwork. He tells her that Dr. Irene Fenton is looking for a research assistant to update her book Truly Devious: The Ellingham Murders.

Stevie goes to the library. The librarian, Kyoko, shows the archive from the first Ellingham school year, 1935-36. From the photographs in storage, Stevie finds Frankie and Edward. She notices that they look rich and wonder if they could have been the kidnappers, or accomplices to the kidnappers. She also looks at photos of Dottie Epstein. She asks Kyoko for the library records of students’ requests, hoping to compare the fonts of Frankie’s pulp magazines to the Truly Devious letter. A quick Internet search turns up little about Frankie but a brief Wikipedia article on Edward.

David turns up, having released a bunch of squirrels in the library; Kyoko shoos everyone out. He denies culpability for the squirrels. He recruits Stevie to search Ellie’s room while Pix (a trained wildlife conservator enlisted to wrangle the squirrels) is distracted, knowing she can’t resist.

Minerva House is empty except for Stevie and David. In Ellie’s room, which David unlocks with the key, Stevie finds “a scorch mark leading up to the wall” and finds a tiny gap in “the molding between the wall and the floor.” Under the floorboards she finds a small hole and, in the hole, “a mummified mouse-rat.” David is summoned to the Great House to answer for the squirrels. Stevie gets rid of the rat in the woods.

Stevie Googles Frankie and Edward, using her library research. The most detail she can find on Frankie is a paragraph from Better Than Homemade! The Story of Baking in America; she emails the author, Ann Abbott, to ask about “what became of Francis.”

Three hours later, Janelle brings her a small self-balancing robot that can hold her phone and an invite to the yurt.

Everyone is talking about the squirrels, generally uneasy that David may have crossed the line in endangering the books. Vi brings up footage and the new surveillance cameras. Mudge approaches to catch Stevie up on “anatomy stuff” at Pix’s behest but ends up chatting about a board game with Nate.

Stevie feels Germaine Batt’s gaze and goes to talk to her, wrestling with resentment over Germaine’s (indirect, unintentional) role in Stevie’s removal from Ellingham. Germaine brings up the favor Stevie owes her for access to the photo that helped Stevie figure out who took Hayes’s computer, then probes the mystery of Ellie’s disappearance. 

Upon David’s entrance, Stevie rejoins her friends. He tells them indignantly that he’s under house arrest. Janelle and Vi leave abruptly, and after a moment Stevie and David do too. David brings up Ellie’s disappearance; they theorize baselessly about her current whereabouts and her motive for disappearing and whether she was involved in Hayes’s death. David insists she wouldn’t “mess up someone else’s art.” The conversation segues into David’s lying, leading to a moment of tension.

Stevie goes back to the yurt on the pretext of telling Nate she was leaving; David heads back to Minerva alone.

April 14, 1936, 6:00 a.m.

Francis thinks back on her early admiration of Albert Ellingham, who encouraged her interests in chemistry, crime, explosives. However, he laughs at her excitement over dynamite, joking about making her “too dangerous to marry.”

She decided that if he liked games so much, she would play one of her own. It would be a good game too. Edward liked her idea of fun, so they made their great plan together.

The letter, Frankie reflects, was just “a bit of art” (per Eddie) based on true-crime stories. She’d shown a similar one to George Marsh, engaging him in conversation about a kidnapping he once worked for the FBI; he says that “all those cut-out letters” would make for a memorable note, which inspires Frankie to send one to Albert Ellingham, an idea Edward loves for the aesthetic and turns into a poem.

Edward showed her a poem by Dorothy Parker that they modeled their work on. There were so many lovely ways to describe fiendish things. Edward added a ha ha at the end. It had to be signed, and this was the final flourish.

“It has to be truly devious,” Frankie said.

“Perfect!” Edward added this to the draft. Truly, Devious.

They made the letter carefully, using gloves and tweezers. Unfortunately, the letter is received and conflated with the Ellingham kidnapping and perhaps Dottie’s disappearance. At dawn, Miss Nelson tells the girls they are being sent home because of a bomb threat.

As Frankie tries to retrieve things from under her floor, Miss Nelson shoos her out. She has no choice but to go.


On the Ellingham coach to Burlington, Stevie rereads a section in Dr. Fenton’s book, about the discovery of Dottie’s body. She wonders whether Ellie is in town.

At the Skinny Pancake, Stevie meets up with Dr. Fenton, who despite the cold picks out an outside table so she can smoke. Fenton, as she prefers to be addressed, asks about Stevie’s knowledge of the Ellingham case and her theory of Truly Devious’s identity, to which Stevie replies, “I don’t know.” Fenton says that the case “was always about the money,” which doesn’t match up with the main suspect, Anton Vorachek.

She hires Stevie on the spot and hands her a notepad of details to fact-check. Stevie had brought along the tin but decides not to show it to Fenton, who seems “sadder than Stevie expected,” off somehow. They are joined by Fenton’s nephew Hunter, who chats with Stevie while Fenton is in the bathroom. When she returns, she sends Stevie off with a meeting at her office next Saturday and a mandate: “Nothing electronic, ever.”

On the way back, Stevie considers a question: “Who becomes a murderer?” She thinks over tropes, and how real life doesn’t follow them. Was it Ellie? If not, then who? Why?

Back on campus, Stevie first goes to the Great House to ask Security Larry to “show [her] where Ellie got out” of the basement. She wears down his resistance until he agrees, eventually conceding that she would get there one way or another. He shows her trick passages, fake doors, old storage areas, the secret passage Ellie used — which gave her a five-minute lead on her pursuers.

Outside the Great House sitting in a fountain is David, possibly showing off for Stevie. He urges her to “look faster,” spurring an argument.

Monday: anatomy and physiology with Pix. It’s a sheep heart dissection lab; Stevie’s partner is Mudge. 

David is waiting outside for Stevie. They go over the Ellie mystery again, then David heads off to calc. Stevie goes up to the Ellingham attic. She reviews the riddle Albert Ellingham wrote on his last day alive, his riddle of the Sphinx:

Where do you look for someone who’s never really there?
Always on a staircase but never on a stair

She gets organized to check over Fenton’s list: 307 items of varying difficulty/ complexity. Stevie checks the Ellingham household records (grocery deliveries, meals served, daily tasks) and marvels how tightly integrated Ellingham Academy was to the local economy and workforce.  She examines the miniature Great House built for the missing Alice Ellingham. Before leaving, she peeks through a window and sees “just two very expensive cars” in the faculty parking lot, Doctor Quinn walking to one of them, and beyond that, the mountain view. Edward King texts: Hope things are going well.

Halloween, “the season and then the date.” Stevie takes the coach to meet Fenton. She observes that there are a lot of bottles (previously holding alcohol) in Fenton’s recycling. In Fenton’s office, Stevie sees her “true, real conspiracy wall” and shares the 209 items she managed to verify. Fenton sends her to “get [herself] a Coke or something in the kitchen” while she looks over the list. Hunter comes in and strikes up a conversation about Ellingham Academy, sharing that he applied but was rejected. 

Fenton commends Stevie’s productivity. She presents her first rule: “Don’t put your stuff on the internet. Once you put it online, it’s worthless. It’s not yours.” She directs Stevie’s attention to the Vorachek court transcript, specifically sections from the testimony of Ms. Nelson (housemistress of Minerva, about the discovery of Dottie’s disappearance), Margo Fields (telephone operator who connected the ransom calls, about the multiple phone lines to Ellingham Academy, the ransom caller’s voice, the sequence of events as related to the phone lines; she identifies Vorachek’s as “maybe” the ransom caller’s voice).

Fenton points out that Fields said there were no calls from nine-fifty to midnight and Nelson claimed to find out about the kidnapping in the morning. She reads from her own interview of Gertie van Coevorden, who heard a phone call “right before” ten p.m., and mentioned a secret tunnel in Minerva that Fenton wants Stevie to find. She gives Stevie an old copy of her book and sends her off.

Hunter offers his phone number; Stevie accepts.

Stevie puts on her Hercule Poirot costume for the party she promised Janelle she’d attend. Despite her doubts, she pokes around the first floor of Minerva for the tunnel. Nate meets her, wearing normal clothes because he “[doesn’t] do costumes,” but when Janelle hands him a Gandalf costume he puts it on. Janelle reappears in her Wonder Woman costume. David is dressed as BBC Sherlock. 

Outside, Vi meets them: Steve Trevor to Janelle’s Diane. David affirms Stevie’s certainty that there’s no tunnel under Minerva. They arrive at the Great House for the party; the group dissipates, leaving Stevie and David. They get s’mores. They maybe flirt (Stevie isn’t entirely sure). Stevie recalls Ellingham’s riddle and goes back to Minerva, followed by David, to check under the stairs. 

Stevie retrieves her high-powered flashlight (which “the school issued to every student in case of power outage”) and with its light discovers the outline of the doorway. Nate returns as they’re “fondling the wall” trying to find a catch. David uses his own bodyweight to shift the panel; Stevie borrows a hammer from Janelle’s room to lever the door open. From there, it’s easy to find the hatch to the tunnel.

With Nate’s persuasion and her promise to Larry, Stevie is resolved not to go in. David has no such compunctions, though, and Stevie can’t resist following him, leaving Nate to keep watch.

As they explore the tunnel, David offers up “the whole deal” with his family. They reach the end of the tunnel, a ladder up to a hatch that won’t open. They have a moment (they kiss), interrupted by light that they assume is Nate signaling them.

Stevie’s flashlight catches a piece of plastic bag — noteworthy since “Ellie [was] wearing a skirt made of garbage bags at the silent party” — then another tunnel. At the end of this tunnel is Ellie’s body.

[1936 interview with Marion Nelson by Agent Henry Evans & Agent George Marsh]

Ms. Nelson answers questions about her position at Ellingham (housemistress of Minerva, biology teacher), her relationship with Albert Ellingham (“good friends”), and the fact that she is the only one of his business connections hired to work at the school. She refuses to answer whether she and Albert Ellingham are “more than friendly” but eventually implicitly confirms it. She also accounts for the mystery period where Ellingham briefly disappeared to meet with her. She states she has never seen anything “exactly like” the Truly Devious letter with its “cut-out letters” and that Alice was Albert Ellingham’s everything.


Stevie gets David out of the tunnel without his seeing Ellie, though he figures out what’s going on. David sends Stevie and Nate to their rooms before he calls for help, so that no one will get in trouble; Nate casts his lot in with Stevie’s, so for his sake she acquiesces. 

After she returns with security, Pix has them all pack up to stay overnight in the yurt. David has gone to the Great House. Larry reminds them not to tell anyone. Vi joins them and comforts Janelle.

Stevie gets Larry alone and confesses that she was in the tunnel; he knows, having found her Poirot mustache. She hands over the piece of bag and explains what happened. Larry affirms her hypothesis that Ellie got stuck, which reminds Stevie of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” Larry decides not to bust Stevie — on the condition that she comes clean immediately “if anything changes” and doesn’t go in any more tunnels — since she went after David, who will be fine. Larry reveals that he knows Edward King was involved in Stevie’s return, and Stevie fills in the rest. He warns her not to “follow someone into the dark,” that David isn’t her responsibility.

David is in the Ellingham library; they let Stevie see him. David says that Ellie was “the only one before [Stevie]” who knew about his dad, that she kept his secret. He cries. Stevie holds his hand. Eventually he seems to shake it off for the moment and they go to the yurt. David asks about Stevie’s return, how she convinced her parents, and he figures out that his dad was there.

In the face of his hurt and her guilt, Stevie runs away (literally). Stevie takes her emergency Ativan and goes to the yoga studio in the art barn, texts Janelle and Nate, and goes to sleep knowing that Larry would have seen via the cameras where she went.

The next morning, Stevie is met by Maris, who asks about Ellie and says it’s “good” if Ellie killed Hayes then died in the tunnel. Stevie bids her goodbye when she gets a call from an unknown number: Edward King, who wants to know how David is doing after finding Ellie and clearly doesn’t know that David now knows about his deal with Stevie.

Stevie meets Janelle, Nate, and Vi in the dining hall. David joins them, ignoring Stevie. Gretchen offers implicit condolences and asks if Stevie thinks Ellie really did it. Call Me Charles announces to the assembled students that Ellie’s body was found, Minerva House residents will be relocated, counselors are available, etc. Dr. Quinn comes by their table, ostensibly to check in on Nate but her gaze rests on David. Janelle asks what they can do and Dr. Quinn suggests “a strong, positive message from the students” for the inevitable press coverage. She also says that the school is “likely about to expand.”

After breakfast, Stevie tells Nate everything, up to her confrontation with David. Stevie enlists his help making sure the Ellingham case is solved, showing him the tin. She gets another call from an unknown number: Larry, with the news that Fenton is at the Great House to talk to Stevie.

Fenton shows Charles her list, explaining that she wanted to check some things; they go to his office to find a better time and Stevie is deployed to take Hunter on a brief tour. He apologizes for their intrusion and offers to wait in the car. Stevie takes him around and his awe is clear.

Hunter says that Fenton really believes that the person who finds Alice gets “all of this” / “some huge fortune”; Stevie is dubious, but Robert Mackenzie told Fenton that this was Ellingham’s intention — instead of publicizing the reward he kept it quiet, thinking Alice dead but also, were she alive, safer with less excitement.Apparently this is Fenton’s real motivation, and Hunter is telling Stevie because she is probably being used, like Fenton’s other contact at the school earlier in the year. (Maybe Hayes or Ellie?) Germaine Batt passes by, probably having overheard everything.

Days pass. Some normalcy resumes. In dissection lab, Mudge tells Stevie about Disney World rides and attractions, and checks in on how she’s doing. Stevie gets an email reply from Ann Abbott (“the flour lady. The Jell-O and salad lady”): she knows little about Francis but is intrigued and will dig deeper.

Stevie thinks about money as a motivator and a lead, reflecting on Quinn’s comment about the school expansion — possibly funded by the “Alice money”? Larry finds her to say that he’s being replaced as security guard, since two students have died, and urges Stevie to let the case go, to be careful. He gives her his phone number to use “anytime [she] want[s], no matter what. Doesn’t matter when.” She promises to leave the case alone, then asks him for a ride.

October 30, 1938, 1:00 pm

For Albert Ellingham, “today was the day it had to happen.” He reviews a freshly finalized document:

In addition to all other bequests, the amount of ten million dollars shall be held in trust for my daughter, Alice Madeline Ellingham. Should my daughter no longer be among the living, any person, persons, or organization that locates her earthly remains — provided it is established that they were in no way connected to her disappearance — shall receive this sum. If she is not located by her ninetieth birthday, these funds shall be released to be used for the Ellingham Academy in any way the board sees fit.

Next is his final riddle, which is linked to “the truth.” He looks at The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the one Dottie underlined and which was the key for Albert. He replays a Webster-Chicago recording wire, which along with Margo Fields’ information confirms “everything” for him.

He summons Mackenzie to say he is going to the yacht club with Marsh and to share his riddle. He orders Robert to “Get out in the air” and “enjoy [himself]”, wishing him happiness, reminding him to “Remember to play. Remember the game. Always remember the game.” He repeats his order to publicize the reward despite Mackenzie’s misgivings. He almost confides in Mackenzie, saying “It was on the wire” before he reconsiders. 

All his preparations made, Ellingham decides not to bring his gun. 


The school won’t let Stevie catch a ride with Larry, but security officer Jerry takes her to Fenton’s house. She waits for Fenton to leave before texting Hunter to let her in. She asks him to let her into Fenton’s office to see the manuscript, her notes about Mackenzie. He is resistant. She shows him the tin, proof that the Truly Devious letter wasn’t from the kidnapper(s). Finally he relents, finding the Mackenzie interview in an unused pizza box under a file cabinet (Fenton is “paranoid”). 

Stevie finds notes about the tunnel — it was the Mackenzie interview after all, not Gertie von Coevorden — and the last thing Ellingham said to him: “It was on the wire”, which Hunter says Fenton interpreted as “the wireless”, the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles. He explains that she was too paranoid to make notes about the will. 

Hunter and Stevie go for a walk. Hunter explains why he lives with Fenton: “I get discounted tuition, I have a free place to live while I go to school, and I keep an eye on her and report back to everyone. With me around I think she’s a little more stable.” He tells Stevie he uses a crutch because he has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Stevie tells him that there’s something about Ellie and the tunnel; “If we had known sooner … I don’t know. Maybe we could have gotten to her in time.” To cheer her up, Hunter suggests they try out the bench swings.

Down the street, they find David “dressed to the conservative nines, getting his face smashed down the block from the courthouse.” He plays it cool, refusing medical attention or calling the cops. Stevie asks Hunter to leave them; he does. David makes a snide remark about the two of them then uploads the video of himself getting beaten up — which he apparently paid the skateboarders to do and to film — to Hayes’s YouTube channel. He tries to shake off Stevie, but after a moment of hesitation she follows doggedly to tell her side of the Edward King situation. 

David says that he’s not going back to Ellingham, then threatens to jump in the lake if Stevie doesn’t go. She goes.

The video has gone viral. Stevie keeps checking her phone: nothing from David, several texts from Hunter. She gathers Nate and Janelle to fill them in. She shows them the video. Stevie can’t figure out his endgame, but Janelle advocates for telling Pix immediately.

Stevie has a dream about “flopping human bodies” being pulled from the lake in Burlington and hearing Dottie’s voice whispering indistinctly. She is woken by a phone call from Edward King, displeased about the video. Stevie packs her phone, charger, computer, tablet, and flashlight, and goes for a walk around campus to think. She muses on “the wire” in Ellingham’s final statement to Mackenzie.

At the Great House, Charles and Quinn ask her about David; she simply says that she hasn’t seen him since Burlington and he hasn’t been in contact. She goes up to the attic to find the recording wire; the dollhouse helps her figure out what the player looks like, then find it among Ellingham’s things. 

She takes the recorder to Janelle, who manages to restore it. On the wire is an interview between Albert Ellingham and Dolores Epstein. He asks her about her experience at the academy; she recounts her fear and her uncle’s reassurances about the presence of the “attic man”: “cops who could get the drop on the second-story men [thieves who enter through the second-story window]”. (This is George Marsh.) The pieces start to come together for Stevie.

She runs to the library to see Dottie’s book.

There it was, in A Study in Scarlet. The mark in the book, one rough pencil line: Sherlock said, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.”

In A Study in Scarlet a body is found with the word RACHE written over it in blood. Rache, German for revenge. A victim-left sign of what had transpired. 

Stevie calls Fenton, who is drunk: “The kid is there,” Fenton says, and hangs up.

October 30, 1938, 5:00 pm

Albert Ellingham and George Marsh are on Ellingham’s “sporty little Sparkman & Stephens daysailer, Wonderland” on Lake Champlain. Ellingham asks if March has ever read Sherlock Holmes, specifically A Study in Scarlet. Marsh pulls out a cigarette and Ellingham asks him not to smoke. Ellingham drops anchor.

Ellingham brings up poor Dottie, how brilliant she was … and the quote she underlined, how he confirmed it was Dottie who left the mark (no one else checked out the book; an Ellingham student pencil was found in the dome), how it led him to the culprit.

Casually he reveals that the boat is rigged with explosives, with the anchor line as the trip wire: “Your only option right now is to sit very still and tell me how it all happened.”


Stevie is at the Ellingham memorial in the cupola, at a loss now that she has solved the case. Fenton has not called back; Stevie texts Hunter to tell Fenton to call her. Mentally she emulates Poirot: “Gather the suspects, run through the theory of the crime.” 

Edward and Francis wrote the poem but weren’t involved in the kidnapping.

“You weren’t the person who was never there, the one on a staircase but never on a stair. You take the stair away — that’s what he was saying. Take the stair away and you have …”

George Marsh was seen by a girl “who loves mysteries.”

Dottie Epstein, in Stevie’s imagination, confirms that it was George Marsh.

Stevie’s phone rings: Nate. She tells him she solved it; he says he’ll come to her.

Hunter still hasn’t read Stevie’s text. Her brain catches on what Fenton said. She thinks about Ellie, alone and scared in the dark. She calls Larry, tells him she knows who did it but more pressingly, something is wrong with Fenton. Larry asks for Fenton’s address.

October 30, 1938, 6:00 pm

Albert Ellingham and George Marsh have been sitting in silence. Ellingham explains the answer to his riddle:

“I sometimes come up with my riddles automatically. My mind generates them and I have to solve them for myself. There are many things to try when solving riddles. Always on a staircase but never no a stair. In this case, the riddle is telling you to remove the word ‘stair’ from staircase. […] Who is always on a case? An investigator. Who is someone who is never really there? The guest who isn’t a guest? The police officer, there to protect, never part of the crime.”

He recounts what he knows about that day. Marsh initially claims that “There is nothing to explain,” but when Ellingham reiterates his bomb threat and its veracity, finally Marsh admits that the kidnapping was just meant to pay off his gambling debts but went wrong. He recounts a conversation with a student (the reader can figure out that this was Frankie), which inspired his plan for ransom: recruit a pair of “two-bit hoodlums, no real brains” to keep Iris in a nearby barn for a few hours, then send her “home, laughing.” But it all went wrong because Alice was in the car too.

Marsh was in the dome to get the money. He didn’t want to hurt Dottie, but she cracked her head open trying to escape him and he ended her misery. He moved the body to his car, intending to clear the crime scene later. He picked up Ellingham’s call from a phone booth in town: Margo Fields had told the police that the call went through to Marsh’s house (where he could not have returned after the dome), but later confessed the truth to Ellingham. 

Marsh paid his accomplices, but Iris had fought to save Alice and they wanted more money for the trouble. They beat him up and gave him instructions for the new drop-off. Marsh took some of the marked bills to frame Vorachek, to prove to the kidnappers that they would go free, but they never got in contact. Then Iris was found in the lake: the very lake they are in the middle of.

At Ellingham’s query, Marsh says he doesn’t know who killed Vorachek. He does know where Alice is — he found her later on — but holds on to the information as leverage. He brings up Ellingham’s “dirty little secrets,” of which the biggest might be Alice. Marsh takes out a lighter and puts his cigarette in his mouth.

Within a minute, bystanders witness the explosion of the boat and the two men.


Stevie asks Nate why he writes books; eventually he concedes, “I prefer dragons.” (“To what?” “To the absence of dragons.”) She asks about the Pulsating Norb he created, which he apparently is no longer including. Stevie’s anxiety peaks. Nate asks and she explains her fascination with true crime:

“With mysteries,” she said, “with crime, you get all this information — everything matters. The location. The time. The weather. The building. The ground. Every single thing that floats by. Every object in the room. Everything everyone says. It’s a lot of stuff. And you have to look at it all and find the pattern, find the thing that stands out, figure out the thing that means something. […] You take everything in the world and you figure out what matters. That’s what it is. And then you make things right.”

“So you want to find out the answers and I want to make up the answers,” he said. “I think we just saved a ton of money on therapy.”

“Also I want to wear the exam gloves,” Stevie said.

“We all want that.”

Larry calls. Fenton’s house was on fire, her body found on the first floor: “They think she left the gas on and lit a cigarette.” Another person was on the stairs, possibly Hunter. 

Things were getting dark. It was night, of course, but now more night was coming and Stevie felt that it was time to lean back and lay flat on the ground. Nate slid over, and he was asking if she was okay, but she couldn’t hear him properly.

She noticed, now that she was on her back and the other lights in the world were dimming, just one point of light above her head. A pinpoint, blue, shining down. It was encased in a shiny black eye that reminded her of the cow eye she had dissected with Mudge. What was that point where it all connects and you just can’t see …?

She could have sworn the little blue eye of Edward King’s security camera in the cupola ceiling winked at her.

It saw all.

Table of Contents

Each number below corresponds with the section’s page number.

  1. Overview
  2. Plot Summary & Content Warnings
  3. Cast of Characters
  4. Worldbuilding & Vocabulary

One thought on “[Series Synopses] Truly Devious #2: The Vanishing Stair

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