The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(3)


by Jonathan Stroud

Two sharp crashes sounded on the stairs. Air moved violently against my face. Before I could react, something large, soft and horribly heavy landed precisely where I stood. The impact of it jarred my teeth.

I jumped back, ripping my rapier from my belt. I stood against the wall, weapon raised and shaking, heart clawing at my chest, eyes staring wildly side to side.

Nothing. The stairs were empty. No broken body sprawled lifeless on the floor.

Lockwood leaned casually against the banister. It was too dark to be certain, but I swear he’d raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t heard a thing.

‘You all right, Lucy?’

I breathed hard. ‘No. I just got the echo of Mr Hope’s last fall. It was very loud and very real. It was like he’d landed right on top of me. Don’t laugh. It’s not funny.’

‘Sorry. Well, something’s stirring early tonight. It’s going to get interesting later. What time d’you make it?’

Having a watch with a luminous dial is my third recommended rule. It’s best if it can also withstand sudden drops in temperature and strong ectoplasmic shock. ‘Not yet five,’ I said.

‘Fine.’ Lockwood’s teeth aren’t quite as luminous as my watch, but when he grins it’s a close-run thing. ‘Plenty of time for a cup of tea. Then we find ourselves a ghost.’

2

When you go out hunting wicked spirits, it’s the simple things that matter most. The silvered point of your rapier flashing in the dark; the iron filings scattered on the floor; the sealed canisters of best Greek Fire, ready as a last resort . . . But tea bags, brown and fresh and plenty of them, and made (for preference) by Pitkin Brothers of Bond Street, are perhaps the simplest and best of all.

OK, they may not save your life like a sword-tip or an iron circle can, and they haven’t the protective power of a sudden wall of fire. But they do provide something just as vital. They help to keep you sane.

It’s never pleasant, sitting in a haunted house, waiting in the dark. The night presses in around you and the silence beats against your ears, and soon, if you’re not careful, you start to see or hear things that are the products of your mind. In short, you need distractions. Each of us at Lockwood’s has our preference. I do a bit of drawing, George has his comics, Lockwood himself reads the gossip magazines. But all of us like our tea and biscuits, and that night in the Hopes’ house was no exception.

We found the kitchen at the far end of the hall, just beyond the stairway. It was a nice enough room, neat and white and modern, and noticeably warmer than the hall. It had no supernatural traces of any kind. All was quiet. The knocking sound I’d heard was inaudible here, and there was no repetition of the nasty bumping on the stairs.

I got the kettle going, while Lockwood lit an oil lamp and set it on the table. By its light we took off our rapiers and work-belts and laid them out before us. Our belts have seven separate clips and pouches, and we went through these in silence, systematically checking the contents while the kettle wheezed and huffed away. We’d already checked everything back in the office, but we were more than happy to do it again. A girl at Rotwell’s had died the previous week after forgetting to restock her magnesium flares.

Outside the window, the sun was gone. Faint clouds choked the blue-black sky, and mists had risen to engulf the garden. Beyond black hedges, lights shone in other houses. They were near, but also distant, cut off from us like ships passing across deep water.

We put the belts back on, and checked the Velcro strapping around the rapiers. I fixed the teas and brought them to the table. Lockwood found the biscuits. We sat together while the oil lamp flickered and shadows danced in the corners of the room.

At last Lockwood pulled the collar of his greatcoat high about his neck. ‘Let’s see what Mrs Hope has to say for herself,’ he said. He stretched out a long thin hand for the folder lying on the table. Lamplight glimmered darkly in his flop of hair.

As he read, I checked the thermometer clipped to my belt. Fifteen degrees. Not warm, but roughly what you’d expect from an unheated house at this time of year. I took my notebook from another pouch and jotted down the room and figure. I also recorded details of the aural phenomena I’d experienced in the hall.

Lockwood tossed the folder aside. ‘Well, that was useful.’

‘Really?’

‘No. I’m being ironic. Or is it sarcastic? I can never remember.’

‘Irony’s cleverer, so you’re probably being sarcastic. What’s she say?’

‘Absolutely nothing of any use. She might as well have written it in Latin for all the good it does us. Here’s a summary. The Hopes have lived here for two years. Before that they were down in Kent somewhere; she gives lots of irrelevant detail about how happy they were. Hardly any curfews, ghost-lamps almost never on, how you could go for a walk late evening and only meet your living neighbours. That sort of thing. Don’t believe a word of it myself; Kent’s had one of the biggest outbreaks of anywhere outside London, according to George.’

I sipped my tea. ‘It’s where the Problem began, I thought.’

‘So they say. Anyhow, then they moved up here. All fine, no troubles in the house. No manifestations of any kind. Husband changed his job, started working from home. That’s six months ago. Still nothing funny going on. Then he fell downstairs and died.’

‘Hold it,’ I said. ‘How did he fall?’

‘Tripped, apparently.’

‘What I mean is, was he alone?’

‘According to Mrs Hope, he was. She was in bed. Happened during the night. She says her husband was a bit distracted in the weeks before he died. Hadn’t been sleeping well. She thinks he got up to get a drink of water.’

I grunted noncommittally. ‘Ri-i-ight . . .’

Lockwood flashed me a glance. ‘You think she pushed him?’

‘Not necessarily. But it would provide a motive for the haunting, wouldn’t it? Husbands don’t normally haunt wives, except when there’s reasons. Pity she didn’t want to talk to us. I’d have liked to suss her out.’

‘Well, you can’t always tell by looking,’ Lockwood said. He shrugged his narrow shoulders. ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I met the notorious Harry Crisp? Sweet-faced man, he was, soft-voiced and twinkly-eyed. Good company and very plausible; he actually got me to lend him a tenner. Yet it turned out in the end that he was the most appalling murderer who liked nothing better than to—’