The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(14)


by Jonathan Stroud

We agents knew what he was like, of course, and none of us cared for it. But he was the one who paid our wages, and he was an important man in our little town, so we just got on with it, and trusted to our own judgement. And in fact nothing very terrible happened for quite a long time, until the night at the Wythburn Mill.

There was a water mill halfway up the Wythe valley that had a bad reputation. There’d been accidents, a death or two; it had been closed for years. A local logging firm was interested in using it for a regional office, but they wanted it made safe first. They came to Jacobs and asked him to check it out, make sure there was nothing unhealthy there.

We walked up the valley in the late afternoon and reached it shortly after dusk. It was a warm summer evening and birds were calling in the trees. Stars shone overhead. The mill was a great dark mass in the middle of the valley, wedged between the rocks and the conifers. The stream idled down below the gravel road.

The main door to the mill had been secured with a padlock. The glass in the door panel was broken; a board had been roughly fixed over the hole. We gathered outside the door and checked our equipment. Agent Jacobs, as was his habit, looked for a seat and found one on a nearby stump. He lit a cigarette. We used our Talents, and made our reports. I was the only one who’d got anything.

‘I can hear something sobbing,’ I said. ‘It’s very faint, but quite close by.’

‘What kind of sobbing?’ Jacobs asked. He was watching the bats flit past overhead.

‘Like a child’s.’

Jacobs nodded vaguely; he didn’t look at me. ‘Secure the first room,’ he said to us, ‘and check again.’

The lock had rusted with the years, and the door was stiff and warped. We pushed it open and shone our torches across a large and desolate foyer. It had a low ceiling and plenty of debris on the cracked linoleum tiles. There were desks and easy chairs, old notices on the walls, a smell of rotting furniture. You could hear the sound of the stream running somewhere below the floor.

We went into the foyer, taking with us a drift of cigarette smoke. Agent Jacobs did not come with us. He stayed outside on his stump, staring at his knees.

Keeping close together, we used our Talents once more. I got the sobbing noise again, louder this time. We turned off our torches and hunted about; and it wasn’t long before we saw a little glowing shape, crouching far off at the end of a passage that led deeper into the mill. When we switched the torches back on, the passageway seemed clear.

I went back out to report our findings. ‘Paul and Julie say it looks like a little kid. I can’t make out the details. It’s very faint. And it’s not moving.’

Agent Jacobs tapped ash into the grass. ‘It hasn’t responded to you in any way? Not tried to approach you?’

‘No, sir. The others think it’s a weak Type One, perhaps the echo of some child who worked here long ago.’

‘All right, fine. Pin it back with iron. Then you can search the spot.’

‘Yes, sir. Only, sir . . .’

‘What is it, Lucy?’

‘There’s . . . something about this one. I don’t like it.’

The end of the cigarette glowed red in the darkness as Agent Jacobs drew on it briefly. As always these days, his hand shook; his tone was irritable. ‘Don’t like it? It’s a child crying. Of course you don’t like it. Do you hear something else?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Another voice, maybe? From a second, stronger, Visitor?’

‘No . . .’ And it was true. I didn’t hear anything dangerous. Everything about the visitation was wispy and frail, suggestive of weakness. The sound, the shape . . . they were barely there at all. Just a typical faint Shade. We could snuff it in a trice. All the same, I distrusted it. I disliked the way it cowered so very tight and small.

‘What do the others say?’ Jacobs asked.

‘They think it’s easy enough, sir. They’re impatient to get on. But it just seems . . . wrong to me.’

I could hear him shifting on the stump. Wind moved among the trees. ‘I can order them to pull back, Lucy. But vague feelings are no good. I need a solid reason.’

‘No, sir . . . I guess it’s OK . . .’ I sighed, hesitated. ‘Perhaps you could come in with me?’ I asked. ‘You could give me your opinion.’

There was a heavy silence. ‘Just do your job,’ Agent Jacobs said.

The others were impatient. When I caught sight of them, they were already advancing along the passage, rapiers up, salt bombs ready. Not far away, the glowing form sensed the approaching iron. It quailed and shrank, flickered in and out of vision like a badly tuned TV. It began to drift off towards a corner of the passage.

‘It’s on the move!’ someone said.

‘It’s fading!’

‘Keep it in sight! We don’t want to lose it!’

If the apparition’s vanishing point was not observed, locating the Source would be that much more laborious. There was a general rush forward. I drew my sword, hastened to catch up with the others. The shade was so faint now it was almost gone. My apprehensions seemed suddenly absurd.

Small as an infant, ever shrinking, the ghost limped forlornly round the corner, out of view. My fellow agents hurried after it; I speeded up too. Even so, I hadn’t actually reached the turn when the vicious flare of plasmic light ripped across the wall in front of me. There was a squeal of tortured iron and a solitary burst of magnesium fire. In the brief illumination from the flare I saw a monstrous shadow rising. The light went out.

Then all the screams began.

I twisted my head, looked back down the passage and across the foyer towards the open door. Far off in the distant dusk I saw the cigarette’s pinprick point of red.

‘Sir! Mr Jacobs!’

Nothing.

‘Sir! We need your help! Sir!’

The pinprick flared as the agent took a breath. No answer came. He didn’t move. Then wind roared along the corridor and nearly knocked me off my feet. The walls of the mill shook; the open door slammed shut.

I cursed in the darkness. Then I drew a canister from my belt, raised my rapier high, and ran round the corner of the corridor towards the screams.

At the Coroner’s Inquest, Agent Jacobs was heavily criticized by relatives of the dead agents and there was talk of him being sent to court, but it never came to anything. He argued that he had acted entirely in accordance with the information I had brought him about the strength of the ghost. He claimed he had not heard my cries for help, or any other sound from inside the mill, until I’d finally broken through the window on the upper floor and tumbled down the roof to safety. He had not noticed any screaming.