The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(8)


by Jonathan Stroud

I snorted. ‘I admit I’m annoyed, but now I’m annoyed with you. That’s different.’

‘I’m not sure it is, but I do take your original point about the money.’ He clapped his gloved hands together briskly. ‘All right, you win. George wouldn’t approve, but I think we can risk it. I’ve driven her away for the moment, and that gives us breathing space. If we’re quick, we can settle this in half an hour.’

I stooped and lifted up the duffel bags. ‘Just lead me to the place.’

The place proved to be on the far side of the study: a blank stretch of wall set between two recessed stretches of the chaotic bookshelf. In the harsh light of our torches, we saw it was still covered with ancient bedroom paper, drab and faded and peeling near the coving. Puffy, shapeless roses ran floor to ceiling in slanting lines.

In the middle of the space hung a coloured map showing the geology of the British Isles. The base of the wall was concealed by thigh-high piles of geology magazines, one or two of which were weighed down by dusty geological hammers. My keen investigative instinct told me that Mr Hope might possibly have been a geologist by trade.

I inspected the bookshelves on either side, saw how the wall protruded at that point. ‘Old chimney breast,’ I said. ‘So she went in there?’

‘She was fading out before she reached the wall, but yes – I think so. Would make sense if the Source was hidden in the chimney, wouldn’t it?’

I nodded. Yes, it made sense. A natural cavity, big enough for anything at all.

We began shifting the magazines away, carting them in cascading armfuls to the other side of the room. Space was an issue. Lockwood wanted to keep my original circle free, and have a good access route to it from the wall where we’d be working, so we dumped most of the magazines by the door and even out on the landing. Every second armload or so I stopped and listened carefully, but the house remained still.

When we’d cleared a big enough area, I opened the bags and poured out another plastic pot of filings in a curving line across the floor. It formed a rough semicircle that extended outwards from the crucial section of the wall. I joined up the two ends with a straight line running along the base of the wall, keeping a yard or so back from it so that the iron wouldn’t be messed up by all the falling plaster. Once I’d finished there was enough room inside the lines for us both to stand, and have our duffel bags too. It would be pretty safe, though not as secure as if we’d used some chains.

I also checked the original circle in the centre of the room. A few filings had got scattered by our feet as we’d tramped past, but I brushed them back into position.

Lockwood removed the geological map and propped it against the desk. Then he went down to the kitchen and returned with a couple of lanterns. The time for watching in the dark was past; action was required now, and for that we needed proper light. He set the lanterns on the floor inside our semicircle and switched them on low, directing the beams towards the empty wall. The light illuminated it like a little stage.

All this took about a quarter of an hour. At last we stood together inside the iron, pocket-knives and crowbars ready, looking at the wall. ‘Want to hear my theory?’ Lockwood said.

‘Thrill me.’

‘She was killed in the house decades ago – so long back she at last grew quiet. Then Mr Hope set up his study in this room, and that’s triggered her somehow. It stands to reason that something of hers must be concealed here; something she cares about, that makes her linger on. Clothes, maybe, or possessions; or a gift she promised another. Or—’

‘Or something else,’ I said.

‘Yes.’

We stood and looked at the wall.

4

Ever since Marissa Fittes and Tom Rotwell conducted their celebrated investigations, way back in the first years of the Problem, finding the Source of a haunting has been central to every agent’s job. Yes, we do other stuff as well: we help create defences for worried households and we advise individuals on their personal protection. We can rig up salt traps in gardens, lay iron strips on thresholds, hang wards above cradles, and stock you with any number of lavender sticks, ghost-lights and other day-to-day items of security. But the essence of our role, the reason for our being, is always the same: to locate the specific place or object connected to a particular member of the restless dead.

No one really knows how these ‘Sources’ function. Some claim the Visitors are actually contained within them, others that they mark points where the boundary between worlds has been worn thin by violence or extreme emotion. Agents don’t have time to speculate either way. We’re too busy trying to avoid being ghost-touched to worry about philosophy.

As Lockwood said, a Source might be many things. The exact location of a crime, perhaps, or an object intimately connected to a sudden death, or maybe a prized possession of the Visitor when alive. Most often, though (73 per cent, according to research conducted by the Rotwell Institute), it’s associated with what the Fittes Manual calls ‘personal organic remains’. You can guess what that means. The point is, you never know until you look.

Which is what we were doing now.

Five minutes in, we’d almost stripped the central slab of wall. The paper was decades old, its glue dry and turned to dust. We could slip our knives under it and cut away great curls with ease. Some practically disintegrated in our hands; others flopped over our arms like giant folds of skin. The plaster of the wall beneath was pinkish-white and mottled, and speckled with orange-brown fragments of paste. It reminded me of breaded ham.

Lockwood took one of the lanterns and made a closer inspection, running his hand along the uneven surface. He moved the lantern at different heights and angles, watching the play of shadows on the wall.

‘There was a cavity here at some point,’ he said. ‘A big one. Someone’s filled it in. See how the plaster’s a different colour, Luce?’

‘I see it. Think we can break inside?’

‘Shouldn’t be too difficult.’ He hefted his crowbar. ‘Everything quiet?’

I glanced over my shoulder. Beyond the little circle of lantern-light, the rest of the room was invisible. We were an illuminated island in a sea of blackness. I listened and heard nothing, but there was a steadily mounting pressure in the silence: I could feel it building in my ear. ‘We’re OK for the moment,’ I said. ‘But it won’t last long.’