The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(6)


by Jonathan Stroud

I reached the landing and heaved the bags down with a little sigh. When I raised my head to call to Lockwood, I saw a girl standing there.

3

I froze; for a tightly packed string of heartbeats I couldn’t stir a muscle. In part, of course, this was down to simple shock, but there was a lot more to it than that. A cold weight pressed like a headstone on my chest; my limbs felt entombed in mud. An icy torpor crept through the roots of my brain. My mind was numbed, the workings of my body dulled; I felt I should never have the strength to move again. A mood stole over me that might have been despair, had I the energy to truly care about it one way or the other. Nothing mattered, least of all me. Silence and stillness and utter paralysis of movement were all I could aspire to, all that I deserved.

In other words I was experiencing ghost-lock, which is the effect Type Twos have when they choose to direct their power on you.

An ordinary person might have stood there, helpless, and let the Visitor work its will upon them. But I’m an agent. I’d dealt with this before. So I wrested savage, painful breaths from the frigid air, shook the mist clear of my brain. I forced myself to live. And my hands moved slowly towards the weapons at my belt.

The girl stood halfway across the floor of the study-bedroom, directly ahead of me. I could see her framed by the open door. She was fairly faint, but I saw she stood barefoot on the rolled-up rug – or, more precisely, in it, for her ankles were sunk inside the fabric as if she were paddling in the sea. She wore a pretty summer print dress, knee-length, decorated with large, rather garish orange sunflowers. It was not a modern design. The dress and her limbs and her long fair hair all shone with dim, pale other-light, as if lit by something far away. As for her face . . .

Her face was a solid wedge of darkness. No light reached it at all.

It was hard to tell, but I guessed she’d been eighteen or so. Older than me, but not by too many years. I stood there for a time wondering about this, with my eyes locked on the faceless girl and my hands inching to my belt.

Then I remembered I was not alone in the house.

‘Lockwood,’ I called. ‘Oh, Lockwood . . .’ I said it as lightly as I could. Showing signs of fear is best avoided where Visitors are concerned – fear, anger, and other strong emotions. They feed on it too easily; it makes them faster and more aggressive. No answer came, so I cleared my throat and tried again. ‘Oh, Lockwood . . .!’ I was using a merry singsong intonation here, as if I were speaking to a little babe or a cuddly pet or something. As I might as well have been, in fact, because he didn’t bloody respond.

I turned my head and called a little louder. ‘Oh, Lockwood, please come here . . .’

His voice sounded muffled back along the landing. ‘Hold on, Luce. I’ve got something . . .’

‘Jolly good! So have I . . .’

When I looked back, the girl was closer, almost out on the landing. The face was still in shadow, but the drifts of other-light that spun about her body shone brighter than before. Her bony wrists were tight against her side, the fingers bent like fishhooks. Her bare legs were very thin.

‘What do you want?’ I said.

I listened. Words brushed soft as spiders’ touch against my ear. ‘I’m cold.’

Fragments. You seldom get more than fragments. The little voice was a whisper uttered at great distance, but also uncomfortably near at hand. It seemed an awful lot nearer to me than Lockwood’s reply had done.

‘Oh, Lockwood!’ I cooed again. ‘It’s urgent . . .’

Can you credit it? I detected a hint of annoyance in his answer. ‘Just wait a sec, Lucy. There’s something interesting here. I’ve picked up a death-glow – a really, really faint one. Something nasty happened in this front bedroom too! It’s so hazy I almost missed it, so it must’ve been a long while back. But, you know, I think it was traumatic . . . Which means – it’s only a theory, I’m just playing with ideas here – there might possibly have been two violent deaths in this house . . . What do you say to that?’

I chuckled hollowly. ‘I say that it’s a theory I can maybe help you with,’ I sang, ‘if you’ll only come out here.’

‘The thing is,’ he went on, ‘I don’t see how the first death’s got anything to do with the Hopes. They were only here two years, weren’t they? So perhaps the disturbances we’re experiencing aren’t—’

‘– actually caused by the husband?’ I cried. ‘Yes, well done! They’re not!’

A brief pause. Finally he was paying attention. ‘What?’

‘I said, it’s not the husband, Lockwood! Now get out here!’ You might notice I’d slightly abandoned my attempts at keeping it light-hearted. That was because the thing in the study had already picked up on my agitation, and was now drifting through the door. The toenails on the thin, pale feet were long and curled.

Both my hands were at my belt. One gripped the rapier hilt; the other had closed on a canister of Greek Fire. You shouldn’t really use magnesium flares in a domestic environment, of course, but I wasn’t taking any chances. My fingertips were icy, but sweaty too; they slipped against the metal.

A movement on my left. From the corner of my eye, I saw Lockwood emerge onto the landing. He too stopped dead. ‘Ah,’ he said.

I nodded grimly. ‘Yes, and next time I call you while in an operative situation, do me a favour, and get your butt out here double-quick.’

‘Sorry. But I see you’ve got it well in hand. Has she spoken?’

‘Yes.’

‘What did she say?’

‘She says she’s cold.’

‘Tell her we can sort that for her. No, don’t fiddle-faddle with your weapon – that’ll only make it worse.’ The girl had drifted a little closer across the landing; in response, I’d begun to draw my blade. ‘Tell her we can sort it,’ Lockwood said again. ‘Tell her we can find whatever she’s lost.’

I did so, in as steady a voice as I could manage. It didn’t have much effect. The shape neither shrank nor changed, nor became vaporous, nor departed, nor did any of the other things the Fittes Manual claims they’ll do when you give them hope of release.

‘I’m cold,’ the little voice said; and then again, much louder, ‘Lost and cold.’

‘What was that?’ Lockwood had sensed the contact, but couldn’t hear the sound.