The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(5)

by Jonathan Stroud

Up I went. Louder and louder grew the knocking. Now it was a frantic scratching, tapping sound. Lower and lower dropped the number on the dial. From six degrees to five, and finally to four.

The blackness of the landing was a formless space. On my left, white banisters hung at head height like a row of giant teeth.

I reached the final stair, stepped out onto the landing—

And the knocking noise stopped dead.

I checked the luminous dial again: four degrees. Eleven degrees lower than the kitchen. I could sense my breath pluming in the air.

We were very close.

Lockwood brushed past me, flicked his torch in a brief reconnaissance. Papered walls, closed doors, dead silence. A piece of embroidery in a heavy frame: faded colours, childish letters, Home Sweet Home. Done years ago, when homes were sweet and safe, and no one hung iron charms above their children’s beds. Before the Problem came.

The landing was L-shaped, comprising a small square space in which we stood, and a long spur running behind us parallel to the stairs. It had a polished wooden floor. There were five doors leading off: one on our right, one straight ahead and three at intervals along the spur. All the doors were closed. Lockwood and I stood silently, using our eyes and ears.

‘Nothing,’ I said at last. ‘As soon as I got to the top, the knocking noises stopped.’

Lockwood took a while to speak. ‘No death-glows,’ he said. From the heaviness in his voice I knew that he too felt malaise – that strange sluggishness, that dead weight in the muscles that comes when a Visitor is near. He sighed faintly. ‘Well, ladies first, Lucy. Pick a door.’

‘Not me. I picked a door in that orphanage case and you know what happened then.’

‘That all turned out fine, didn’t it?’

‘Only because I ducked. All right, let’s take this one, but you’re going in first.’

I’d chosen the nearest, the one on the right. It turned out to lead to a recently fitted bathroom. Modern tiling gleamed eagerly as the torch swept by. There was a big white bath, a sink and toilet, and also a distant smell of jasmine soap. Neither of us found anything noticeable here, though the temperature was the same as the landing.

Lockwood tried the next door. It opened into a large back bedroom, which had been converted into possibly the messiest study in London. Torchlight showed a heavy wooden desk set beneath a curtained window. The desk was almost invisible under stacks of papers, and further teetering piles were placed, higgledy-piggledy, all across the room. A row of dark bookshelves, chaotically filled, ran down three-quarters of the far side-wall. There were cupboards, an old leather chair beside the desk, and a faintly masculine smell about the room. I tasted aftershave, whisky, even tobacco.

It was bitterly cold now. The dial at my belt showed two degrees.

I stepped carefully round the paper stacks and pulled apart the curtains, disturbing enough dust to set me coughing. Dim white light from the houses across the garden drifted into the room.

Lockwood was looking at an ancient frayed rug upon the wooden floor, nudging it to and fro with the toe of his shoe. ‘Old pressure marks,’ he said. ‘Used to be a bed here before Mr Hope took over . . .’ He shrugged, surveyed the room. ‘Maybe he’s come back to sort out his paperwork.’

‘This is it,’ I said. ‘This is where the Source is. Look at the temperature. And don’t you feel heavy, almost numb?’

Lockwood nodded. ‘Plus this is where Mrs Hope saw her legendary “moving shape”.’

A door slammed, loudly, somewhere below us in the house. Both of us jumped. ‘I think you’re right,’ Lockwood said. ‘This is the place. We should rig up a circle here.’

‘Filings or chains?’

‘Oh, filings. Filings will be fine.’

‘Are you sure? It’s not even nine o’clock, and its power’s already strong.’

‘Not that strong. Besides, whatever Mr Hope wants, I can’t believe he’s suddenly turned malevolent. Filings will be more than adequate.’ He hesitated. ‘Also . . .’

I looked at him. ‘Also what?’

‘I forgot to bring the chains. Don’t stare at me like that. You do weird things with your eyes.’

‘You forgot to bring the chains? Lockwood—’

‘George took them out to oil them and I didn’t check he’d put them back. So it’s George’s fault, really. Listen, it doesn’t matter. We don’t need them for a job like this, do we? Get the iron set up while I scan the other rooms. Then we focus here.’

I had a lot more to say, but now wasn’t the time. I took a deep breath. ‘Well, don’t get into trouble,’ I said. ‘Last time you went wandering off during a case, you got yourself locked in the toilet.’

‘A ghost shut me in, I keep telling you.’

‘So you claim, but there was not a shred of evidence that—’

But he was already gone.

It didn’t take me long to carry out my task. I hauled several stacks of dusty yellowed paper over to the edges of the room to make space in the centre of the floor. Then I pulled the rug aside, and scattered the filings in a circle, giving it a fairly small radius, so as not to waste the iron. This would be our primary refuge, where we could retreat if necessary, but we might need other circles too, depending on what we found.

I went out onto the landing. ‘I’m just going down to get more iron.’

Lockwood’s voice echoed from a nearby bedroom. ‘Fine. Can you put the kettle on?’

‘Yeah.’ I crossed to the stairs, glancing at the open bathroom door. When I put my hands on the banister rail, the wood was freezing to the touch. I hesitated at the top, listening hard, then descended towards the grainy illumination of the hall. A few steps down I thought I heard a rushing noise behind me, but when I turned back I saw nothing. With my hand on my rapier hilt, I continued to the bottom, and walked along the hall to where the kitchen’s warm glow shone through a crack in the door. Dim as it was, the lantern-light made me screw up my eyes as I went in. I helped myself to a cheeky biscuit, rinsed out the mugs and put the kettle on again. Then I picked up the two duffel bags and, with some difficulty, prised the hall door open with my foot. I moved back out into the hall, which – thanks to the bright kitchen – seemed even darker than before. There was no sound in the house. I couldn’t hear anything of Lockwood; presumably he was still scanning the final bedrooms. I climbed the stairs slowly, from cool, to cold, to colder, holding the heavy bags awkwardly on either side.