Updated: Dec 13, 2022
Hattie sat up in bed at the sound of a door slamming. The hot water bottle between her feet was now cold. Although she was used to the heat being turned down since the start of oil rationing, the house felt even colder than usual. She reached for her robe before stepping out into the hall of the Queen Anne mansion. The house was completely dark. The sound had come from Max’s room at the other end of the hall. She’d been lying awake since Max’s father, Vincent Ellis, stumbled into the house nearly an hour ago. He’d drunkenly hummed a tune as he climbed the stairs to the room he shared with his wife, not even bothering to hide his indiscretion. Soon, his rough snores from the floor below made Hattie stifle a laugh. She thought of his older brother’s call from the bank earlier that day, looking for Vincent. Maybe he got into an accident. Evidently, a board meeting about financing the war effort was not one a Pacific Bank heir should miss.
In the nearly four years that she’d been working as the Ellis family’s nanny, the advantages of being next in line to the Pacific Bank fortune never ceased to amaze her. While the country was burying itself in wartime debt, the Ellis family stood to get even richer. A floorboard creaked under her bare feet as she continued down the hall toward Max’s room. The sweet child was destined for greatness. So long as the family’s money didn’t ruin him—like it was doing to his father. Hattie thought of the hotel room in Chicago that she had shared with her mother and two younger siblings growing up, where she’d learned to make potato pancakes for dinner at the age of nine while her mother worked downstairs running the hotel. How different my life would be if I’d been born an Ellis. Hattie pictured being served breakfast in bed on a silver tray by the family’s butler in the late hours of the morning. The sleeves of her satin negligee would dip into the apple butter atop her waffle, but it didn’t matter. The staff would launder it. Max’s door was closed when she reached his room. She pushed it open, wondering what would cause him to shut it in the middle of the night. At three, he was afraid of the dark and always insisted on keeping his door cracked. She hoped his parents hadn’t heard the noise. His father, passed out cold, would be cross from the middle-of-the-night disturbance. A chilly draft hit her when she stepped into his room. “Max?” His curtains fluttered from the breeze blowing through the open third-story window. Hattie crossed the room and pulled the window closed. She turned away from the lights of Seattle that twinkled downtown. "Max?” He knew never to open it. A shiver traveled up the back of Hattie’s neck. She felt for the light switch and flicked it on. The boy’s bed was empty. She looked around the room with frantic eyes. A gasp escaped her throat. “Max!” Max knew better than to disturb his parents in the night. He always came to Hattie. An image of the boy’s crumpled little body on the pavement below seared in her mind. She ran back toward the window, but then spotted a simple piece of paper atop the little boy’s pillow. She moved to the bed. The note was pinned to the pillowcase. It ripped at the corner when she pulled it away. The words blurred on the page without her spectacles. Hattie extended her trembling arm to read the short, typed message. BRING $75,000 CASH TO THE PLAYGROUND AT KINNEAR PARK TOMORROW NIGHT AT MIDNIGHT. NO POLICE IF YOU WANT YOUR BOY RETURNED AND UNHARMED. For a moment, she stood frozen in disbelief. Max was gone. Stolen from his bed while she and his parents slept in nearby rooms. She crossed the room. The note fell from her hand as she fumbled to unlatch the window. She thrust it open, smacking it against the top of the windowpane. She stuck her head out of the third-story window. The light from Max’s room illuminated the side of the home enough that Hattie could tell there was no ladder or other obvious way someone could have carried Max down. She looked down at the abandoned street. "Max!” Her cry echoed into the night without an answer. She turned from the window and stared at Max’s empty bed. His one-eyed teddy bear lay in the middle of his down-turned bedding. He hadn’t slept a night without it since he was a baby. Her mind burned with the image of the Lindbergh baby, his decomposed remains when the body was discovered. Tears filled her eyes thinking of the sweet child in the hands of some monster. Her eyes moved to the note on the floor. She knew she should run downstairs and wake Max’s parents. But she couldn’t move. She thought of the noise that had awoken her. Could the intruder still be in the house? Maybe there was still time to stop him. Hattie heard swift footsteps coming down the hall before Max’s mother burst into the room. Her dressing gown was untied, exposing her ivory silk pajamas. “What on earth is going on?” Priscilla’s look of annoyance at being woken in the night was replaced with terror as she looked from Hattie’s stricken face to her child’s empty bed. Her gaze fell to the note on the floor before her wide eyes returned to Hattie’s. “Priscilla, what the devil is happening?” Vincent appeared behind her, his dark hair a mess of waves on top of his head. “He’s gone,” Hattie croaked, as Max’s mother lifted the ransom letter.
Priscilla’s knees gave out and she collapsed onto the floorboards. Hattie reached for her, feeling a sudden bout of sympathy as she watched the color drain from her face. Vincent bent over and snatched the note from his wife’s hand. He pressed his palm to his forehead as he scanned the paper. Vincent narrowed his eyes at Hattie. “How could you lose our child?” Priscilla brought a limp hand to her mouth as a whimper escaped her lips. Vincent stepped over her and pushed past Hattie. After sticking his head out the window, he screamed his son’s name, drowning out his wife’s sobs at the nanny’s feet.
COMING DECEMBER 27