The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(9)

by Jonathan Stroud

‘Better get on with it, then.’ His bar swung, crunched into the plaster. A shower of pieces cascaded to the floor.

Twenty minutes later the fronts of our clothes were spotted white, the toecaps of our boots smothered by the heap of fragments ranged beneath the wall. The hole we’d made was half my height and wide as a man. There was rough, dark wood behind it, studded with old nails.

‘Some kind of boards,’ Lockwood said. Sweat gleamed on his forehead; he spoke with forced carelessness. ‘The front of a box or cupboard or something. Looks like it fills the whole wall space, Lucy.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Mind the filings.’ He’d stepped back too far, kicking them out of position. That was what we had to focus on. Keep to the rules, keep ourselves safe. If we’d had the chains it wouldn’t have been so difficult, but filings were treacherous, their line easily broken. I crouched down, got the brush and, with small, methodical movements, began to fix the break. Above me, Lockwood took a deep breath. Then came the soft crack of his crowbar biting into wood.

With the line repaired, I scooped away several handfuls of plaster that threatened to spill over the barrier at the front. This done, I remained there, crouching, the fingertips of one hand pressed firmly on the floorboards. I stayed like that for a minute, maybe more.

When I got to my feet, Lockwood had done some damage to one of the planks, but hadn’t broken through. I tapped him on the arm.

‘What?’ He struck the wall again.

‘She’s back,’ I said.

The sounds had been so faint that at first it had merged into the noise we made, and it was only by the vibrations in the floor that I’d noticed it at all. But even as I spoke, they began to rise in volume: three quick impacts – the last a dreadful soft-hard thud – then silence, before the sequence started over. It was an endless loop, identical each time. The sound-memory of Mr Hope falling down the stairs.

I told Lockwood what I heard.

He nodded brusquely. ‘OK. Doesn’t change anything. Keep watch, and don’t let it unsettle you. That’s what she’s aiming for. She recognizes you’re the weak one.’

I blinked. ‘Sorry? What are you saying?’

‘Luce, this isn’t the time. I just mean emotionally.’

‘What? Like that’s any better.’

He took a deep breath. ‘All I’m saying is . . . is that your kind of Talent is much more sensitive than mine, but ironically that very sensitivity leaves you more exposed to supernatural influences, which in cases like this might be a problem. OK?’

I stared at him. ‘For a minute there I thought you’d been listening to George.’

‘Lucy, I’ve not been listening to George.’

We turned away from each other: Lockwood to the wall, me to face the room.

I drew my rapier, waited. The study was dark and still. Thud, thud . . . THUD went the echo in my ears.

A cracking sound told me Lockwood had the crowbar wedged between the boards. He was pushing sideways with all his strength. Wood creaked, black nails shifted.

Very slowly, one of our lanterns began to die. It flickered, faltered, became pale and small, as if something were crushing out its life. Even as it did so, the other lantern flared. The balance of light in the room shifted; our shadows swung oddly across the floor.

A gust of cold air blew through the study. I heard papers moving on the desk.

‘You’d think she’d want us to do this,’ Lockwood panted. ‘You’d think she’d want to be found.’

Out on the landing, a door banged.

‘Doesn’t seem so,’ I said.

Other doors slammed, elsewhere in the house, one after the other, seven in a row. I heard the distant sound of breaking glass.

‘Boring!’ Lockwood snarled. ‘You’ve done that! Try something else.’

There was a sudden silence.

‘How many times,’ I said, ‘have I told you not to taunt them? It never ends well.’

‘Well, she was repeating herself. Get a seal ready. We’re almost there.’

I bent down, rummaged in my bag. In the pockets we carry a wide range of products designed to neutralize any given Source. All are made of those key metals Visitors can’t abide: silver and iron. Shapes and decorations vary. There are boxes, tubes, nails and nets, pendants, bands and chains. Rotwell’s and Fittes have theirs specially stamped with their company logos, while Lockwood uses ones that are simple and unadorned. But the crucial thing is to select the right size for your Visitor, the minimum grade necessary to block its passage through.

I chose a chain-net, delicate but potent, made of tightly fused links of silver. It was still carefully folded; when shaken loose it could be draped over objects of considerable size, but for now I could clasp it in my palm. I stood up and checked on progress at the wall.

Lockwood had succeeded in forcing out one of the boards a little way. Behind it was a slender wedge of darkness. He heaved and strained, leaning back, grimacing with effort. His boots dug perilously close to our ridge of iron filings.

‘It’s coming,’ he said.

‘Good.’ I turned back to face the room.

Where the dead girl stood beside me, just beyond the iron line.

So clear was she, she might have been alive and breathing, gazing out upon a sunlit day. The cold, dim light shone full upon her face. I saw her as she must have been – once, long ago, before it happened. She was prettier than me, round-cheeked, small-nosed, with a full-lipped mouth and large, imploring eyes. She looked to be the kind of girl I’d always instinctively disliked – soft and silly, passive when it mattered and, when it didn’t, reliant on her charms to get her way. We stood there, head-to-head, her long hair blonde, my dark hair pale with plaster dust; she bare-legged in her little summer dress, me red-nosed and shivering in my skirt, leggings and padded parka. Without the iron line and what it represented, we might have reached out and touched each other’s faces. Who knows, perhaps that’s what she wanted. Perhaps that severance drove her rage. Her face was blank and without emotion, but the force of her fury broke against me like a wave.

I raised the folded chain-net in a kind of ironic salute. In answer, bitter air whipped out of the darkness, scouring my face, slapping my hair against my cheeks. It struck hard against the iron barrier, making the filings shift.

‘Could do with finishing this,’ I said.