The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(17)


by Jonathan Stroud

‘Yes, what tests are these?’ I said hastily. ‘If you don’t mind my asking.’

‘Not at all. It’s what we use to assess the candidates. Frankly I don’t set much store by people’s letters or referrals, Ms Carlyle. I prefer to see their Talent with my own eyes . . .’ He looked at his watch. ‘I’ll give George another minute. In the meantime, I suppose you want the rundown on us. We’re a new agency, been registered three months. I got my full licence last year. We’re accredited with DEPRAC, but – just to be clear – we’re not on their payroll, like Fittes or Rotwell or any of that mob. We’re independent, and we like it that way. We take the jobs we want and turn down the rest. All our clients are private customers who have a problem with Visitors, and want it sorted quickly and quietly. We solve their problems. They pay us handsomely. That’s about the size of it. Any questions?’

With the issue of my recent past out of the way, I had a clear run now. I wasn’t going to mess it up. I sat forward on the sofa, making sure my back was straight, my hands neat in my lap. ‘Who are your supervisors?’ I asked. ‘Do I get to meet them too?’

A frown flickered across the boy’s forehead. ‘No supervisors here. No adults. It’s my company. I’m in charge. George Cubbins is deputy.’ He looked at me. ‘Some applicants had a problem with this set-up, so they didn’t get very far. Does it bother you?’

‘Oh no,’ I said. ‘No, I like the sound of it fine.’ There was a brief silence. ‘So . . . there’ve always been just two of you? Just you and George?’

‘Well, we generally have an assistant. Two’s enough to deal with most Visitors, but for tough cases all three of us go along. Three’s the magic number, you know.’

I nodded slowly. ‘I see. What happened to your last assistant?’

‘Poor Robin? Oh, he . . . moved on.’

‘To another job?’

‘Perhaps “passed on” would be more accurate. Or, indeed, “passed over”. Ah – good! Tea!’

The hall door opened and the plump boy’s posterior backed through it, closely followed by the rest of him. He turned in a stately manner and advanced, carrying a tray with three steaming mugs and a plate of biscuits. Whatever he had been doing in the kitchen all this while, he looked more dishevelled than before: his shirt was untucked, and his mop of hair now covered his eyes. He placed the tray on the table beside the shrouded object, and glanced at me dubiously. ‘Still here?’ he said. ‘Thought you’d have scarpered by now.’

‘Haven’t done the test yet, George,’ Lockwood said easily. ‘You’re just in time.’

‘Good.’ He took the largest mug and retreated to the sofa.

There was a polite interlude during which mugs were distributed, and sugar offered and declined. ‘Come on, take a biscuit,’ Lockwood said. He pushed the plate my way. ‘Please. George’ll only eat them all, else.’

‘OK.’

I took a biscuit. Lockwood had a large bite of his and brushed his hands clean.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘Just a few tests, Ms Carlyle. Nothing to worry about at all. Are you ready?’

‘Sure.’ I could feel George’s little eyes fixed upon me, and even Lockwood’s casual tones could not disguise a certain eagerness. But they were dealing with someone who’d survived the Wythburn Mill alone. I wasn’t going to fret about this.

Lockwood nodded. ‘We might as well start here, then.’ He stretched out a languid hand to the spotted handkerchief and, after a ceremonial pause, flicked it away.

Sitting on the table was a stocky cylinder of clear, thick glass, sealed at the top with a red plastic plug. There were small handles near the top to grip it with: it reminded me of the big glass demijohns in which my father used to brew his beer. Instead of stale and brownish liquid, however, it contained a greasy yellow smoke – not quite stationary, very slowly shifting. Sitting in its heart was something large and dark.

‘What do you think this is?’ Lockwood asked.

I bent forward, scanning the apparatus. On closer inspection the plug had several safety flanges and double seals. There was a little symbol embossed on the side of the glass: a radiant sun that doubled as an eye.

‘It’s silver-glass,’ I said. ‘Made by the Sunrise Corporation.’

Lockwood nodded, gently smiling. I bent closer. With the nail of my middle finger I tapped the side of the glass; at once the smoke awoke, rippling outwards from the point of impact, becoming thicker, more granular, as it did so. As it separated, it revealed the object in the jar: a human skull, brown and stained, clamped to the bottom of the glass.

The ripples of smoke contorted, twisted; they took on the horrid semblance of a face, with blankly rolling eyes and gaping mouth. For a moment the features were superimposed upon the skull beneath. I jerked back from the glass. The face devolved into stream-like ribbons of smoke that swirled about the cylinder, and presently became still.

I cleared my throat. ‘Well, it’s a ghost-jar,’ I said. ‘The skull’s the Source, and that ghost is tied to it. Can’t tell what sort. A Phantasm or a Spectre, maybe.’

So saying, I sat back in a posture of nonchalant unconcern, as if Visitors in jars were something I dealt with every day of the week. In truth, I’d never seen one and the apparition had shocked me. But not unduly so: after the previous girl’s scream I’d expected something. Plus I’d heard of containers like this before.

Lockwood’s smile had momentarily frozen, as if uncertain whether to express surprise, pleasure or disappointment. In the end, pleasure won the day. ‘Yes, that’s right,’ he said. ‘Well done.’ He put the handkerchief back on the cylinder and, with some effort, stowed it out of sight under the table.

The plump boy sipped his tea loudly. ‘She was shaken,’ he said. ‘You could see it.’

I ignored the comment. ‘Where did you get the jar?’ I said. ‘I thought only Rotwell and Fittes had them.’

‘Time for questions later,’ Lockwood said. He opened a drawer in the coffee table and pulled out a small red box. ‘Now, I’d like to test your Talent, if I may. I’ve got some items ready. Please tell me, if you can’ – he opened the box and put an object on the table – ‘what supernatural resonance you detect here.’