The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(4)


by Jonathan Stroud

I held up a hand. ‘You did tell me that. About a million times.’

‘Oh. Well, the point is, Mr Hope could be coming back for a host of other reasons that aren’t to do with vengeance. Something left undone, for instance: a will he hasn’t told his wife about, or some stash of money hidden under the bed . . .’

‘Yeah, maybe. So the disturbances began soon after his death?’

‘A week or two later. She was mostly away from the house up until then. Once she’d moved back, she began to be aware of an unwelcome presence.’ Lockwood tapped the folder. ‘Anyway, she doesn’t describe it here. She says she gave a full account to our “receptionist” over the phone.’

I grinned. ‘Receptionist? George won’t like that. Well, I’ve got his notes with me, if you want to hear them.’

‘Go on, then.’ Lockwood sat back expectantly. ‘What’s she been seeing?’

George’s notes were in an inside pocket of my jacket. I took them out and unfolded them, smoothing the papers on my knee. I scanned them briefly, cleared my throat. ‘Are you ready?’

‘Yes.’

‘“A moving shape”.’ With great ceremony I refolded the papers and put them away.

Lockwood blinked in outrage. ‘“A moving shape”? That’s it? No further details? Come on – was it big, small, dark or bright, or what?’

‘It was, and I quote, “a moving shape that appeared in the back bedroom and followed me out across the landing”. Word for word, that’s what she told George.’

Lockwood dunked a forlorn biscuit in his tea. ‘Hardly the finest description of all time. I mean, you wouldn’t want to try to sketch it, would you?’

‘No, but she’s an adult: what do you expect? It’s never going to be any good. The sensations she had are more revealing. She said she felt as if something was looking for her, that it knew she was there, but couldn’t find her. And the thought of it finding her was more than she could bear.’

‘Well,’ Lockwood said, ‘that’s a little better. She sensed a purpose. Which suggests a Type Two. But whatever the late Mr Hope’s up to, he’s not the only one at work in this house tonight. There’s us as well. So . . . what do you say? Shall we take a look around?’

I drained my cup, set it carefully on the table. ‘I think that’s a very good idea.’

For almost an hour we made a tour downstairs, briefly flashing on our torches to check the contents of each room, but otherwise moving in near-darkness. The oil lantern we left burning in the kitchen, together with candles, matches, and an extra torch. It’s a good rule to keep a well-lit place to retreat to if the need arises, and having different forms of light is always advisable, in case the Visitor has the ability to disrupt them.

All was clear in the scullery and dining room at the rear of the house. They had a sad, musty, rather sombre air, a sense of lives suspended. Neat piles of newspapers lay curling on the dining-room table; in the scullery, a tray of shrivelled onions sprouted quietly in the darkness. But Lockwood found no visual traces anywhere, and I heard no noise. The delicate knocking sound I’d detected when first we’d entered seemed to have died away.

As we walked back up the hall, Lockwood gave a little shudder and I felt the hairs rise on my arms. The air was noticeably colder now. I checked the reading: nine degrees this time.

At the front of the building were two squarish rooms on either side of the hall. One had a television set, a sofa, two comfy armchairs; here the temperature was warmer, back to the levels of the kitchen. We looked and listened anyway, and found nothing. On the opposite side, a formal sitting room contained the usual chairs and cabinets, arranged before large net-swathed windows, and three enormous ferns in terracotta pots.

It seemed a little chilly. Twelve degrees showed on the luminous dial. Colder than the kitchen. Might mean nothing; might mean a lot. I closed my eyes, composed myself and prepared to listen.

‘Lucy, look!’ Lockwood’s voice hissed. ‘There’s Mr Hope!’

My heart jolted. I spun round, rapier half drawn . . . only to find Lockwood stooped and casual, peering at a photo on a side-table. He had his torch trained on it: the image hung in a little circle of floating gold. ‘Mrs Hope’s here as well,’ he added.

‘You idiot!’ I hissed. ‘I might have run you through.’

He chuckled. ‘Oh, don’t be so grumpy. Take a look. What do you think?’

It was a grey-haired couple standing in a garden. The woman, Mrs Hope, was an older, happier version of the daughter we’d met outside: round-faced, neat-clothed, wearing a radiant smile. Her head was level with the chest of the man beside her. He was tall and balding, with sloped, rounding shoulders and big, rather cumbersome forearms. He too smiled broadly. They were holding hands.

‘Seem cheerful enough there, don’t they?’ Lockwood said.

I nodded dubiously. ‘Got to be a reason for a Type Two, though. George says Type Two always means someone’s done something to somebody.’

‘Yes, but George has a nasty, gruesome little mind. Which reminds me: we should find the phone and ring him. I left a message on the table, but he’ll probably be worrying about us, even so. Let’s finish off the survey first.’

He didn’t find any death-glows in the little sitting room, and I couldn’t hear anything, and that was the ground floor done. Which told us what we’d already guessed. What we were looking for was upstairs.

Sure enough, the moment I set foot on the lowest step, the knocking began again. At first it was no louder than it had been before, a tiny hollow tap-tap-tapping, like a fingernail on plaster, or a nail being hammered into wood. But with every step I climbed, the echo increased a little, became a little more insistent in my inner ear. I mentioned this to Lockwood, who was treading like a formless shadow at my back.

‘Getting nippier too,’ he said.

He was right. With every step the temperature was dropping, from nine degrees, to seven, to six here, midway up the flight. I paused, zipping up my coat with fumbling fingers, while staring upwards into the dark. The stairwell was narrow, and there was no light above me at all. The upper regions of the house were a clot of shadows. I had a strong desire to switch on my torch, but resisted the impulse, which would only have made me blinder still. With one hand on my rapier hilt, I continued slowly up the stairs, the knocking growing ever louder and the cold biting at my skin.