The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(13)


by Jonathan Stroud

All around were the reeds and the mud and the deepening greyness of dusk. Up ahead, the town lights, twinkling on the spur of the hill, were an admonishment and a beacon to us. Our spirits rose; we could see the grass steps leading up to the road.

‘That Mam calling?’ I said suddenly.

‘What?’

‘Is that her calling us?’

Mary listened. ‘I don’t hear anything. Anyway, our house is miles off yet.’

Which was true enough. Besides, it didn’t seem to me that the faint, thin voice I heard was coming from the town.

I looked off and away across the flats, towards where the river, invisible, flowed dark and deep between the hills. Hard to be sure, but I thought I saw a figure standing far out among the reeds there, a dark notch, crooked as a scarecrow. As I watched, it began to move – not very fast, but also not too slow – taking a line that would likely intersect our path ahead of us.

I found I didn’t much care to meet that person, whoever it might be. I gave my sister a playful nudge. ‘Race you this last bit,’ I said. ‘Come on! I’m getting cold.’

So we ran along the track, and every few yards I jumped up to take a look and saw that unknown someone making the greatest endeavours to reach us, loping and limping through the reed-stalks. But the long and short of it was, we went faster and got to the steps in safety. And when I looked back down from the railings, the water meadows were a monochrome grey vastness, with nothing in them as far as the river bends, and no voice calling us among the reeds.

Later, once my bottom had stopped tingling, I told my mother about the figure, and she told me about a local woman who had killed herself for love there, back when Mam was a girl. Penny Nolan was her name. She’d waded out into the reeds, lain down in the stream and drowned herself. As you’d expect, she’d become a Type Two, a needy one, and caused trouble from time to time to people coming back late from the valley. Over the years Agent Jacobs had wasted a lot of iron out there, looking for the Source, but he never found it, so presumably Penny Nolan walks there still. In the end they rerouted the path, and let the field lie fallow. It’s now a pretty place of wild flowers.

Incidents such as this ensured that before long my Talent was common knowledge in the district. My mother waited impatiently until I was eight years old, then took me up to meet the agent in his rooms just off the town square. It was excellent timing, as one of his operatives had been killed in action three days before. Everything worked out fine. My mother got my weekly wage, I got my first job, and Agent Jacobs got his new trainee.

My employer was a tall, cadaverous gentleman who had run his local operation for more than twenty years. Treated by the townsfolk with respect bordering on deference, he was nevertheless isolated from them because of his profession, and so cultivated an aura of occult mystery. He was grey-skinned, hook-nosed and black-bearded, and wore a slightly old-fashioned jet-black suit in the manner of an undertaker. He smoked cigarettes almost constantly, kept his iron filings loose in his jacket pockets, and seldom changed his clothes. His rapier was yellow with ectoplasm stains.

As dusk fell each evening, he led his five or six child operatives on patrols around the district, responding to alarms or, if everything was quiet, checking the public spaces. The eldest agents, who had passed their Third Grade tests, wore rapiers and work-belts; the youngest, like me, carried only kitbags. Still, it seemed to me a fine thing to be part of this select and important company, walking tall in our mustard-coloured jackets, with the great Mr Jacobs at our head.

Over the ensuing months I learned how to mix salt and magnesium in correct proportions, and how to scatter iron according to the likely power of the ghost. I became adept at packing bags and checking torches, filling lamps and testing chains. I polished rapiers. I made teas and coffees. And when lorries brought new supplies up from the Sunrise Corporation in London, I sorted through the bombs and canisters, and stacked them on our shelves.

Jacobs soon discovered that while I saw Visitors well enough, I heard them better than anyone. Before I was nine, I’d traced the whispers at the Red Barn back to the broken post that marked the outlaw’s grave. In the vile incident at the Swan Hotel, I’d detected the soft, stealthy footsteps creeping up the passage behind us, and so saved us all from certain ghost-touch. The agent rewarded me with swift advancement. I passed my First and Second Grades in double-quick time, and on my eleventh birthday gained my Third. On that famous day I came home with a rapier of my own, a plastic-laminated official certificate, a personal copy of the Fittes Manual for Ghost-hunters and (more to the point, as far as my mother was concerned) a greatly increased monthly salary. I was now the family’s major breadwinner, earning more in my four nights’ work per week than my mother did in six long days. She celebrated by buying a new dishwasher and a bigger television.

In truth, however, I didn’t spend much time at home. My sisters had all left, apart from Mary, who was working at the local supermarket, and I never had much to say to my mother. So I spent my waking hours (which were generally nocturnal) with the other young agents of Jacobs’s company. I was close to them. We worked together. We had fun. We saved each other’s lives a bit. Their names, if you’re interested, were Paul, Norrie, Julie, Steph and Alfie-Joe. They’re all dead now.

I was growing into a tall girl, strong-featured, thicker-set than I’d have liked, with large eyes, heavy eyebrows, an over-long nose and sulky lips. I wasn’t pretty, but as my mother once said, prettiness wasn’t my profession. I was quick on my feet, if not especially clever with a rapier, and ambitious to do well. I followed orders effectively, and worked smoothly in a team. I had hopes of soon getting my Fourth Grade, and so becoming a section leader, able to lead my own sub-group and make my own decisions. My existence was dangerous but fulfilling, and I’d have been moderately content – if it weren’t for one essential thing.

It was said that as a boy Agent Jacobs had been trained by the Fittes Agency in London. So once, clearly, he’d been hot stuff. Well, he wasn’t any more. Of course, like every adult, his senses had long ago grown dulled; since he couldn’t detect ghosts easily, he relied on the rest of us to act as his eyes and ears. This much was fair enough. All supervisors were the same. Their job was to use their experience and quick wits to help guide their agents when a Visitor was sighted, to coordinate the plan of attack and, where necessary, provide back-up in emergencies. In my early years at the agency, Jacobs did this well enough. But somewhere down the line, amid all those endless hours of waiting and watching in the darkness, he began to lose his nerve. He hung back at the edge of haunted areas, reluctant to go in. His hands shook, he chain-smoked cigarettes; he shouted orders from afar. He jumped at shadows. One night, when I approached him to report, he mistook me for a Visitor. In his panic he lashed out with his rapier, and took a slice out of my cap. I was saved only by the shaking of his sword-arm.