The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(7)

by Jonathan Stroud

‘Same words, but I’ve got to tell you, Lockwood, this time it wasn’t much like a girl talking. It sounded really deep and hollow, and echoed like a tomb.’

‘That’s never good, is it?’

‘No. I think we should take it as a sign.’ I drew my rapier. Lockwood did likewise. We stood facing the shape in silence. Never attack first. Always wait, draw out its intentions. Watch what it does, where it goes; learn its patterns of behaviour. It was so close now that I could make out the texture of the long fair hairs sweeping down around the neck; see individual moles and blemishes on the skin. It always surprised me that the visual echo could be this strong. George called it ‘the will to exist’, the refusal to lose what once had been. Of course, not all of them appear this way. It’s all down to their personality in life, and what precisely happened when that life came to an end.

We waited. ‘Can you see her face?’ I asked. Lockwood’s Sight is better than mine.

‘No. It’s veiled. But the rest is really bright. I think it’s—’

He stopped; I’d lifted up my hand. This time the voice I heard was the barest tremor in the air. ‘I’m cold,’ it whispered. ‘Lost and cold. Lost and cold . . . and DEAD!’

The wisps of light that hung about the girl flared bright and desolate, and for an instant the dark veil was lifted from the face. I screamed. The light went out. A shadow swept towards me, bony arms outstretched. Icy air drove into me, forcing me towards the stairs. I stumbled on the lip and toppled backwards over the edge. Dropping my rapier, I threw out a desperate arm, grasped the corner of the wall. I hung above the void, buffeted by the raging wind, fingertips slipping on the smooth, cold wallpaper. The shape drew close. I was about to fall.

Then Lockwood sprang between us, his blade cutting a complex pattern in the air. The shadow reared up, arm raised across its face. Lockwood cut another pattern, hemming it in on several sides with walls of flashing iron. The shape shrank back. It darted away into the study with Lockwood in pursuit.

The landing was empty. The wind had died. I scrabbled at the wall, pulled myself upright at the top of the stairs and sank to my knees. My hair was over my eyes; one foot dangled over the topmost step.

Slowly, grimly, I reached out for my rapier. There was a dull ache in my shoulder where I’d jarred my arm.

Lockwood was back. He bent close to me, his calm eyes scanning the darkness of the landing. ‘Did she touch you?’

‘No. Where did she go?’

‘I’ll show you.’ He helped me up. ‘You’re sure you’re all right, Lucy?’

‘Of course.’ I brushed my hair away, forcing the rapier viciously back into its belt-loop. The shoulder twinged a bit, but it was OK. ‘So,’ I said, starting towards the study. ‘Let’s get on with it.’

‘In a sec.’ He held out a hand, stalling my movement forward. ‘You need to relax.’

‘I’m fine.’

‘You’re angry. There’s no need to be. That assault would have caught anyone out. I was surprised too.’

‘You didn’t drop your rapier.’ I pushed his hand away. ‘Listen, we’re wasting time. When she comes back—’

‘She wasn’t directing it at me. It was all at you, trying to pitch you over the stairs. I guess we know how Mr Hope came to take his tumble now. My point is, you need to calm down, Lucy. She’ll feed off your anger super-fast, and grow strong.’

‘Yeah, I know.’ I didn’t say it gracefully. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and then another, concentrating on doing what the Manual recommends: mastering myself, loosening the hold of my emotions. After a few moments I regained control. I withdrew from my anger, and let it drop to the floor like a discarded skin.

I listened again. The house was very silent, but it was the silence of the snowfall, heavy and oppressive. I could feel it watching me.

When I opened my eyes, Lockwood was standing with his hands in his greatcoat pockets, waiting quietly in the blackness of the landing. His rapier was back in his belt. ‘Well?’ he said.

‘I’m feeling better.’

‘Anger gone?’

‘Not a trace left.’

‘OK, because if you don’t feel steady, we’re heading home right now.’

‘We’re not heading home,’ I said coolly, ‘and I’ll tell you why. Mrs Hope’s daughter won’t let us in here again. She thinks we’re too young. If we haven’t cracked the case by tomorrow, she’ll take us off it and put Fittes or Rotwell’s on the job. We need the money, Lockwood. We finish this now.’

He didn’t move. ‘Most nights,’ he said, ‘I’d agree with you. But the parameters have changed. It’s not some poor old boy bothering his widow; it’s almost certainly the ghost of a murder victim. And you know what they’re like. So if your head’s not in the right place, Luce . . .’

Calm and steady as I was, I found his condescension slightly irritating. ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘but it’s not really me that’s the issue, is it?’

Lockwood frowned. ‘Meaning what?’

‘Meaning the iron chains.’

He rolled his eyes. ‘Oh, come on. That’s hardly the—’

‘Those iron chains are standard kit for every agent, Lockwood. They’re essential for protection when we’re up against a strong Type Two. And you forgot to put them in!’

‘Only because George insisted on oiling them! At your suggestion, if I remember.’

‘Oh, so it’s my fault now, is it?’ I cried. ‘Most agents would sooner forget their trousers than go out without their chains, but you somehow managed it. You were so keen on rushing out here, it’s a wonder we brought anything at all. George even advised us not to go. He wanted to do more research on the house. But no. You over-ruled him.’

‘Yes! Which is what I do, on account of being the leader. It’s my responsibility—’

‘– to make bad decisions? That’s right, I suppose it is.’

We stood there, arms folded, glowering at each other across the darkened landing of a haunted house. Then, like the sun coming out, Lockwood’s glare softened to a grin.

‘So . . .’ he said. ‘How’s your anger management going, Luce?’