The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(11)


by Jonathan Stroud

Beside the chimney the bookshelves had erupted into walls of flame; trails of racing fire ran like mercury along the floor. Ahead of me the plaster surface swam with orange light. The hole itself was a pool of darkness, the object inside it scarcely visible. Behind the veil of webs, I glimpsed its lip-less smile.

It’s never good to see such things directly. They distract you from the job. I shook the chain-net loose, held it trailing in my hand.

Nearer, nearer . . . step by step . . . Now I was close. Now I could have looked at her, if I’d chosen, but I kept my eyes averted from the face. I saw the little spiders clustering on the cobwebs, as they always do. I saw the bony neck, the flowery cotton dress gaping. I also saw a sudden glint of gold – something hanging beneath the throat.

A little golden chain.

I reached the hole, stood with the net held ready, amid the roar of the wind and fire. And just for a moment, I hesitated, staring at the delicate golden necklace that hung there in the dark. It ended in a pendant of some kind: I could just see it sparkling in the horrid gap between the dress and bony chest. Once, that girl’s living hands had fixed it around her neck, thinking to make herself look lovelier for the day. And still it hung there, decades later, and still it shone, though the flesh beneath was blackened, shrunken and dead.

A rush of pity filled my heart. ‘Who did this to you?’ I said.

‘Lucy!’ Lockwood’s cry rose above the howling wind. I turned my head; saw the ghost-girl rushing at me through the rising flames. The face was blank, the eyes bore into mine; her arms stretched out as if in greeting or embrace.

It wasn’t the type of embrace I fancied. Blindly, I thrust both hands in through the mess of cobwebs, sending the spiders racing. I sought to lower the net – but it had caught on a snag of wood in the mouth of the hole. The girl was almost upon me. I gave a frantic heave; the splinter broke. With a sob I draped the chain-net over the dry, soft, dusty hair. Iron-and-silver folds dropped down across the head and torso, encasing them as securely as a cage.

At once the girl’s momentum stalled; she was frozen in mid-air. A sigh, a moan, a shudder. Her hair fell forward and hid her face. Her other-light grew dim, dim, dimmer . . . Gone. She winked out of existence as if she’d never been.

And, with her, the force that filled the house went too. There was a sudden release of pressure. My ears popped. Wind died. The room was full of burning scraps of paper, drifting slowly to the floor.

Just like that. It’s what happens when you successfully neutralize a Source.

I took a deep breath, listened . . .

Yes. The house was quiet. The girl had gone.

Of course, when I say it was quiet, I only mean on a psychic level. Fires raged throughout the study. The floor was alight, smoke hid the ceiling. The piles of papers we’d dumped beside the door roared white, and the whole landing was aflame. There was no way out in that direction.

On the other side of the room, Lockwood waved urgently, pointing to the window.

I nodded. No time to waste. The house was going up. But first, almost without thinking, I turned back to the hole, reached under the net, and (closing my mind to what else I touched there) grasped the little gold necklace – that one uncorrupted reminder of what the living girl had been. When I pulled, the chain came free as easily as if it had been unclasped. I stuffed it all – chain and pendant, webs and dust – into the pocket of my coat. Then, turning, I zigzagged between the fires to the desk below the window.

Lockwood had already vaulted onto it, booting a stack of burning papers to the floor. He tried the window. No go – stiff or locked, it didn’t matter which. He kicked it open, splintering the latch. I jumped up beside him. For the first time in hours we breathed in fresh, wet, foggy air.

We knelt there on the windowsill, side by side. Around us, curtains hissed, went up in flames. Out in the garden our silhouettes crouched in a square of swirling light.

‘You all right?’ Lockwood said. ‘Something happen by the hole?’

‘No. Nothing. I’m fine.’ I smiled wanly at him. ‘Well, another case solved.’

‘Yes. Won’t Mrs Hope be pleased? True, her house will have burned down, but at least it’s ghost-free . . .’ He looked at me. ‘So . . .’

‘So . . .’ I peered over the sill, hunting vainly for the ground. It was too dark and too distant to be seen.

‘It’ll be fine,’ Lockwood said. ‘I’m almost sure there are some whopping bushes down there.’

‘Good.’

‘That and a concrete patio.’ He patted my arm. ‘Come on, Lucy. Turn and drop. It’s not like we have a choice.’

Well, he was right about that bit. When I glanced back into the room, the flames had spread across the floor. They’d already reached the chimney breast. The hole – and its contents – were being greedily consumed by tongues of fire. I gave a little sigh. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘If you say so.’

Lockwood grinned a sooty grin. ‘In six months, when have I ever let you down?’

I was just opening my mouth to start the list when the ceiling above the desk gave way. Burning spears of wood and chunks of plaster crashed down behind us. Something struck me on the back. It knocked me out and over the windowsill. Lockwood tried to grab me as I fell. He lost his balance; our hands snapped shut on air. We seemed to hang there for a moment, suspended together between heat and cold, between life and death – then we both toppled forward into the night, and there was nothing but rushing darkness all around.

II

Before

5

Some people claim the Problem has always been with us. Ghosts are nothing new, they say, and have always behaved the same. There’s a story the Roman writer Pliny told, for instance, almost two thousand years ago. It’s about a scholar who bought a house in Athens. The house was suspiciously cheap, and he soon discovered it was haunted. On the very first night he was visited by the Spectre of a gaunt old man in chains. The Visitor beckoned to him; instead of fleeing, he followed the ghost out to the yard, where he saw it vanish into the earth. The next day the scholar had his servants dig at that spot. Sure enough, they soon uncovered a manacled skeleton. The bones were properly buried, and the haunting ceased. End of story. A classic Type Two ghost, the experts say, with a classic, simple purpose – the desire to right a hidden wrong. Just the same as you get today. So nothing’s really changed.