The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)

by Jonathan Stroud

I

The Ghost

1

Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say little, in part to protect the identity of the victims, in part because of the gruesome nature of the incidents, but mainly because, in a variety of ingenious ways, we succeeded in cocking them all up. There, I’ve admitted it! Not a single one of those early cases ended as neatly as we’d have wished. Yes, the Mortlake Horror was driven out, but only as far as Richmond Park, where even now it stalks by night amongst the silent trees. Yes, both the Grey Spectre of Aldgate and the entity known as the Clattering Bones were destroyed, but not before several further (and, I now think, unnecessary) deaths. And as for the creeping shadow that haunted young Mrs Andrews, to the imperilment of her sanity and her hemline, wherever she may continue to wander in this world, poor thing, there it follows too. So it was not exactly an unblemished record that we took with us, Lockwood and I, when we walked up the path to 62 Sheen Road on that misty autumn afternoon and briskly rang the bell.

We stood on the doorstep with our backs to the muffled traffic, and Lockwood’s gloved right hand clasped upon the bell-pull. Deep in the house, the echoes faded. I gazed at the door: at the small sun-blisters on the varnish and the scuffs on the letterbox; at the four diamond panes of frosted glass that showed nothing beyond except for darkness. The porch had a forlorn and unused air, its corners choked with the same sodden beech leaves that littered the path and lawn.

‘OK,’ I said. ‘Remember our new rules. Don’t just blab out anything you see. Don’t speculate openly about who killed who, how, or when. And above all don’t impersonate the client. Please. It never goes down well.’

‘That’s an awful lot of don’ts, Lucy,’ Lockwood said.

‘Too right it is.’

‘You know I’ve got an excellent ear for accents. I copy people without thinking.’

‘Fine, copy them quietly after the event. Not loudly, not in front of them, and particularly not when they’re a six-foot-six Irish dockworker with a speech impediment, and we’re a good half-mile from the public road.’

‘Yes, he was really quite nimble for his size,’ Lockwood said. ‘Still, the chase will have kept us fit. Sense anything?’

‘Not yet. But I’m hardly likely to, out here. You?’

He let go of the bell-pull and made some minor adjustment to the collar of his coat. ‘Oddly enough, I have. There was a death in the garden sometime in the last few hours. Under that laurel halfway up the path.’

‘I assume you’re going to tell me it’s only a smallish glow.’ My head was tilted on one side, my eyes half closed; I was listening to the silence of the house.

‘Yes, about mouse-sized,’ Lockwood admitted. ‘Suppose it might have been a vole. I expect a cat got it or something.’

‘So . . . possibly not part of our case, then, if it was a mouse?’

‘Probably not.’

Beyond the frosted panes, in the interior of the house, I spied a movement: something shifting in the hall’s black depths. ‘OK, here we go,’ I said. ‘She’s coming. Remember what I said.’

Lockwood bent his knees and picked up the duffel bag beside his feet. We both moved back a little, preparing pleasant, respectful smiles.

We waited. Nothing happened. The door stayed shut.

There was no one there.

As Lockwood opened his mouth to speak, we heard footsteps behind us on the path.

‘I’m so sorry!’ The woman emerging from the mists had been walking slowly, but as we turned she accelerated into a token little trot. ‘So sorry!’ she repeated. ‘I was delayed. I didn’t think you’d be so prompt.’

She climbed the steps, a short, well-padded individual with a round face expanding into middle age. Her straight, ash-blonde hair was fixed back in a no-nonsense manner by clips above her ears. She wore a long black skirt, a crisp white shirt, and an enormous woollen cardigan with sagging pockets at the sides. She carried a thin folder in one hand.

‘Mrs Hope?’ I said. ‘Good evening, madam. My name is Lucy Carlyle and this is Anthony Lockwood, of Lockwood and Co. We’ve come about your call.’

The woman halted on the topmost step but one, and regarded us with wide grey eyes in which all the usual emotions featured. Distrust, resentment, uncertainty and dread – they were all there. They come as standard in our profession, so we didn’t take it personally.

Her gaze darted back and forth between us, taking in our neat clothes and carefully brushed hair, the polished rapiers glittering at our belts, the heavy bags we carried. It lingered long on our faces. She made no move to go past us to the door of the house. Her free hand was thrust deep into the pocket of her cardigan, forcing the fabric down.

‘Just the two of you?’ she said at last.

‘Just us,’ I said.

‘You’re very young.’

Lockwood ignited his smile; its warmth lit up the evening. ‘That’s the idea, Mrs Hope. You know that’s the way it has to be.’

‘Actually, I’m not Mrs Hope.’ Her own wan smile, summoned in involuntary response to Lockwood’s, flickered across her face and vanished, leaving anxiety behind. ‘I’m her daughter, Suzie Martin. I’m afraid Mother isn’t coming.’

‘But we arranged to meet her,’ I said. ‘She was going to show us round the house.’

‘I know.’ The woman looked down at her smart black shoes. ‘I’m afraid she’s no longer willing to set foot here. The circumstances of Father’s death were horrible enough, but recently the nightly . . . disturbances have been too persistent. Last night was very bad, and Mother decided she’d had enough. She’s staying with me now. We’ll have to sell up, but obviously we can’t do that until the house is made safe . . .’ Her eyes narrowed slightly. ‘Which is why you’re here . . . Excuse me, but shouldn’t you have a supervisor? I thought an adult always had to be present at an investigation. Exactly how old are you?’

‘Old enough and young enough,’ Lockwood said, smiling. ‘The perfect age.’

‘Strictly speaking, madam,’ I added, ‘the law states that an adult is only required if the operatives are undergoing training. It’s true that some of the bigger agencies always use supervisors, but that’s their private policy. We’re fully qualified and independent, and we don’t find it necessary.’