The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(15)


by Jonathan Stroud

When I gave evidence, I tried to describe the original unease I’d felt, but was forced to admit that I’d detected nothing concrete. The coroner, in his summing up, remarked that it was a pity my report had not been more accurate as to the Visitor’s power. If it had, perhaps some lives might have been saved. His verdict was Death by Misadventure, which is usual in such circumstances. The relatives got pay-outs from the Fittes Fund and little plaques remembering their children in the town square. The mill was demolished, and salt strewn over the site.

Jacobs returned to work soon after. It was universally expected that, after a short rest to get over the incident, I would happily rejoin him. This wasn’t my opinion. I waited three days to regain my strength. On the fourth morning, early, while my mother and sister slept, I packed my belongings into a small rucksack, strapped on my rapier and left the cottage without a backward glance. An hour later I was on the train to London.

6

* * *

LOCKWOOD & CO.

Lockwood and Co., the well-known psychic investigations agency, requires a new Junior Field Operative. Duties will include on-site analysis of reported hauntings and the containment of same. The successful applicant will be SENSITIVE to supernatural phenomena, well-dressed, preferably female, and not above fifteen years in age. Unsuccessful applicants will include time-wasters, fraudsters and persons with criminal records. Apply in writing, together with a photograph, to 35 Portland Row, London W1.

* * *

I stood in the road and watched as the taxi drove away. The sound of the engine faded. It was very quiet. Pale sunlight gleamed on the tarmac and on the lines of cars parked nose to tail on either side. Some way off a little boy was playing in a dusty patch of sun, moving plastic ghosts and agents across the concrete. The agents had tiny swords; the ghosts looked like little floating sheets. Other than the kid, there was no one around.

It was clearly a residential district, this part of London. Its houses were big-boned Victorian semis, their pillared porches hung with baskets of lavender, their basement flats reached by stairs directly from the road. Everything exuded a feeling of shabby gentility – of buildings and people looking back on better days. There was a little grocer’s shop at the corner, the cluttered kind that sold everything from oranges to shoe polish, milk to magnesium flares. Outside it rose a battered metal ghost-lamp, standing eight feet tall on its scallop-sided stem. The great hinged shutters were closed and blank, the flash-bulbs dark, the lenses hidden. Rust bloomed like lichen across the surface of the iron.

First things first. I checked my reflection in the side-window of the nearest car, taking off my cap and scuffling my fingers through my hair. Did I look like a good operative? Did I look like someone with the right history and qualifications? Or did I look like a tousled nobody who’d been rejected by six agencies in seven days? It was hard to tell.

I set off up the road.

Number 35 Portland Row was a white-fronted residence of four floors, with faded green shutters and pink flowers in the window boxes. Even more than its neighbours it had a faint air of dilapidation. Every surface looked as if it needed a lick of paint, or possibly just a clean. A small wooden sign clamped to the outside of the railing read:

A. J. LOCKWOOD & CO., INVESTIGATORS.

AFTER DARK, RING BELL AND WAIT BEYOND THE IRON LINE.

I paused for a moment, thinking wistfully of the smart townhouse of Tendy & Sons, of the spacious offices of Atkins and Armstrong; above all, of the glittering glass Rotwell building on Regent Street . . . But none of those interviews had worked out for me. I didn’t have any choice in the matter. Like my appearance, this would simply have to do.

Pushing open a wonky metal gate, I stepped onto a narrow path of broken tiles. On my right a steep flight of steps led down to a basement yard, a shady space half overhung with ivy and filled with unkempt plants and potted trees. There was a narrow line of iron tiles embedded across the path, and from a post beside this hung a large bell with a dangling wooden clapper. Ahead was a black-painted door.

Ignoring the bell, I stepped over the line and knocked sharply on the door. After an interval a short, fat, tallow-haired youth wearing large round spectacles looked out.

‘Oh, another one,’ he said. ‘I thought we’d finished. Or are you Arif’s new girl?’

I gazed at him. ‘Who’s Arif?’

‘Runs the corner store. He normally sends someone over with doughnuts about this time. You don’t seem to have any doughnuts.’ He looked disappointed.

‘No. I have a rapier.’

The youth sighed. ‘So I guess you’re another candidate. Name?’

‘Lucy Carlyle. Are you Mr Lockwood?’

‘Me? No.’

‘Well, can I come in?’

‘Yeah. The last girl’s just gone down. From the look of her, she won’t be very long.’

Even as he spoke, a scream of the utmost terror rang out from inside the house, and echoed off the ivy-clad walls of the yard below. Birds rose from trees up and down the street. I jerked back in shock, hands moving automatically to the hilt of my sword. The scream collapsed into a whimpering gargle and presently died away. I stared wide-eyed at the youth in the doorway, who hadn’t stirred.

‘Ah, there we are,’ he said. ‘Didn’t I say? Well, you’re next up. Come in.’

Neither the boy nor the scream instilled me with much confidence, and I was half inclined to leave. But after two weeks in London, I was almost out of options; mess up here and I’d soon be signing for the night watch with all the other no-hope kids. Besides, there was something in the manner of the youth, a subtle impudence in the way he stood, that told me he half expected me to run. I wasn’t having that. So I stepped swiftly past him, and entered a cool, wide hallway.

It was floored with wooden tiles and lined with bookshelves of dark mahogany. The shelves held a mass of ethnic masks and other artefacts – pots and icons, brightly decorated shells and gourds. A narrow key table stood just inside the door with a lantern on it, its base shaped like a crystal skull. Beyond that sat a vast, chipped plant pot stuffed with umbrellas, walking sticks and rapiers. I halted beside a rack of coats.

‘Hold on a tick,’ the boy said. He remained waiting by the open door.

He was a little older than me, and not quite my height, though a good deal stockier. He had podgy, rather bland features, nondescript except for a prominently squared jaw. Behind his glasses, his eyes were very blue. His sandy hair, which in texture reminded me of a horse’s tail, flopped heavily across his brow. He wore white trainers, a pair of faded jeans, and a loosely tucked shirt, bulging around the midriff.