The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(16)


by Jonathan Stroud

‘Any minute now,’ he said.

From deeper inside the house a murmur of voices rose to a crescendo. A side-door burst open: a well-dressed girl emerged at speed, eyes blazing, face chalk-white, scrunched coat dragging in her hand. She flashed me an expression of fury and contempt, swore roundly at the fat boy, kicked the front door as she passed it, and was gone into the day.

‘Hmm. Definite second interview material, that one,’ the boy remarked. He closed the door and scratched his pudgy nose. ‘Okey-doke, if you’d like to follow me . . .’

He led the way into a sunny living room, white-walled and cheery, decorated with further artefacts and totems. Two easy chairs and a sofa surrounded a low-lying coffee table. Also beside it, smiling broadly, was a tall, slim boy dressed in a dark suit. ‘I win, George,’ he said. ‘I knew there was one more.’

As I crossed to greet him, I used my senses, as I always do. The full range of senses, I mean – outer and inner. Just so I didn’t miss anything.

The most obvious thing to spot was a rounded, bulky object lying on the table, concealed by a green-and-white spotted handkerchief. Did it have anything to do with the previous girl’s discomfort? I thought it highly likely. There was the subtlest of noises too – something I could almost hear, but it kept its distance from my mind. I suppose if I’d concentrated I might have pinned it down . . . but that would have meant standing like a plank with my eyes shut and my mouth open, which is never a great way to start an interview. So I just shook the boy’s hand.

‘Hello,’ he said. ‘I’m Anthony Lockwood.’

‘Lucy Carlyle.’

He had very bright, dark eyes and a nice lopsided grin. ‘Very good to meet you. Tea? Or has George already offered you some?’

The plump boy made a disparaging gesture. ‘I thought I’d wait until the first test was done,’ he said. ‘See if she was still here. I’ve wasted that many tea bags this morning.’

‘Why not give her the benefit of the doubt,’ Anthony Lockwood said, ‘and go and put the kettle on?’

The boy seemed unconvinced. ‘All right – but I reckon she’s a bolter.’ He spun slowly on his heels and trudged out into the hall.

Anthony Lockwood waved me to a chair. ‘You’ll have to excuse George. We’ve been interviewing since eight, and he’s getting hungry. He was so convinced the last girl was the final one.’

‘Sorry about that,’ I said. ‘I’m afraid I haven’t brought you any doughnuts either.’

He looked sharply at me. ‘What makes you say that?’

‘George told me about your daily deliveries.’

‘Oh. For a moment there I thought you were psychic.’

‘I am.’

‘I mean, in an unusual way. Never mind.’ He settled himself on the couch opposite and smoothed out some papers before him. He had a very slender face, with a long nose and a dark mop of unruly hair. I realized almost with shock that he was scarcely older than me. His manner had been so assured, I hadn’t noticed his age. I wondered for the first time why there were no supervisors present in the room.

‘I see from your letter,’ the boy said, ‘that you’re from the north of England. From the Cheviot Hills. Wasn’t there a famous outbreak in that district a few years back?’

‘The Murton Colliery Horror,’ I said. ‘Yes. I was five then.’

‘Fittes agents had to come from London to deal with the Visitors, didn’t they?’ Lockwood said. ‘It was in my Gazetteer of British Hauntings.’

I nodded. ‘We weren’t meant to look in case they took our soul, and everyone had boarded up their ground-floor windows, but I peeped out anyway. I saw them drifting in the moonlight down the middle of the road. Wee slips of things like little girls.’

He gave me a quizzical look. ‘Girls? I thought they were the ghosts of miners who’d died in an accident underground.’

‘To start with, yes. But they were Changers. Took on many shapes before the end.’

Anthony Lockwood nodded. ‘I see. That rings a bell . . . OK, so you obviously knew from early on,’ he continued, ‘that you had a Talent. You had the Sight, of course, more than most of the other kids, and the bravery to use it. But according to your letter, that wasn’t your real strength. You could listen too. And you had the power of Touch.’

‘Well, Listening’s my thing, really,’ I said. ‘As a kid in my cot I used to hear voices whispering in the street – after curfew, when all the living were inside. But I’ve got good Touch too, though that often merges with what I hear. It’s hard to separate them. For me, Touch sometimes triggers echoes of what’s happened.’

‘George can do a bit of that,’ the boy said. ‘Not me. I’m tone-deaf when it comes to Visitors. Sight’s my thing. Death-glows and trails, and all the ghoulish residues of death . . .’ He grinned. ‘Cheerful subject, isn’t it? Now then, it says here you started out with a local operative up north . . .’ He checked the paper. ‘Name of Jacobs. Correct?’

I smiled blandly; my stomach clenched with tension. ‘That’s right.’

‘You worked for him for several years.’

‘Yes.’

‘So he trained you up, did he? You got your Fourth Grade qualifications with him?’

I shifted slightly in my chair. ‘That’s right. Grade One through Four.’

‘OK . . .’ Lockwood considered me. ‘I notice you haven’t actually brought your final certificates. Or indeed any letter of referral from Mr Jacobs. That’s a little unusual, isn’t it? Official references are normally provided in these situations.’

I took a deep breath. ‘He didn’t give me any,’ I said. ‘Our arrangement ended . . . abruptly.’

Lockwood said nothing. I could see he was waiting for details.

‘If you want the full story, I can give it,’ I said heavily. ‘It’s just . . . it’s not something I like dwelling on, that’s all.’

I waited, heart juddering. This was the moment. All the other interviews had terminated just about here.

‘Some other time, then,’ Anthony Lockwood said. When he smiled at me, a warm light seemed to suffuse the room. ‘You know, I can’t think what’s keeping George. A trained baboon could have made the tea by now. It’s really time for the tests.’