The Creeping Shadow (Lockwood & Co. #4)

by Jonathan Stroud

For Louis, with love

I knew at once, when I slipped into the moonlit office and eased the door shut behind me, that I was in the presence of the dead. I could feel it in the prickling of my scalp, in the way the hairs stirred on my arms, in the coldness of the air I breathed. I could tell it from the clots of spiderwebs that hung against the window, thick and dusty and glittering with frost. There were the sounds, too, centuries old; the ones I’d traced up the empty stairs and hallways of the house. The rustling linen, the crack of broken glass, the weeping of the dying woman: all were louder now. And there was the sudden intuition, felt deep in the pit of my gut, that something wicked had fixed its gaze on me.

Mind you, if none of that had worked, the shrill voice coming from my backpack might also have given me a clue.

“Eek!” it cried. “Help! Ghost!”

I glared over my shoulder. “Cut it out. So we’ve found the phantom. There’s no need for you to get hysterical.”

“She’s just over there! Staring, staring with her hollow sockets! Ooh, now I see her grinning teeth!”

I snorted. “Why would any of that bother you? You’re a skull. Calm down.”

I shrugged the backpack off onto the floor and flipped up the canvas top. Inside, radiating a smoky greenish light, was a large glass jar with a human skull clamped in its depths. A hideous translucent face pressed against the glass, nose bent sideways, poached-egg eyes flicking to and fro.

“You asked me to raise the alarm, didn’t you?” the skull said. “Well, this is me raising it. Eep! There she is! Ghost! Bones! Hair! Ugh!”

“Would you please shut up?” In spite of myself, I could feel its words having an effect on me. I was staring into the room, unpicking its shadows, hunting for an undead shape. True, I saw nothing, but that brought little comfort. This particular ghost worked by special rules. With feverish speed I began rummaging through the backpack, pushing the jar aside, sifting through salt-bombs, lavender grenades, and iron chains.

The skull’s voice echoed in my mind. “If you’re looking for the mirror, Lucy, you tied it to the back of the rucksack with a piece of string.”

“Oh…yes. So I did.”

“So you wouldn’t forget where it was.”

“Oh, yeah…Right.”

Its eyes gleamed up at me as I fumbled for the string. “Are you panicking?”

“Nope.”

“Just a little bit?”

“Certainly not.”

“If you say so. She’s creeping closer, by the way.”

That was it. No more small talk for me. Two seconds later I had the mirror in my hand.

It was a peculiarity of this Visitor that it could not be seen directly, even by agents with decent psychic Sight. It was said to be the spirit of the murderous Emma Marchment, a lady who had lived in the building in the early eighteenth century, when it was a private house and not the offices of an insurance company. After dabbling in witchcraft, and allegedly being responsible for the deaths of several relatives, she had been stabbed by her husband with a spear of glass from her own smashed dressing table mirror. Now she appeared only in reflections—in mirrors, windows, and polished metal surfaces—and several employees of the company had recently lost their lives to her surreptitious touch. Hunting her was a ticklish business. Our team tonight had brought hand mirrors, and there’d been a lot of slow shuffling backward, and much wide-eyed peering over shoulders into dark corners. Me, I hadn’t bothered with any of that. I’d trusted my senses, and followed the sounds, and not reached for my mirror until now.

I held it up and angled it so that I could see the reflection of the room.

“Nice piece of equipment,” the skull said. “Real quality plastic. Lo-o-ve the pink ponies and rainbows on the rim.”

“So I got it from a toy store. It was all I could find in the time available.”

Moonlight flashed confusingly on the glass surface. I took a deep breath and steadied my hand. Immediately the image stabilized, becoming the bright grid of the window, with cheap curtains hanging either side. Beneath the sill was a desk and chair. I panned up, around, and down, seeing only a moonlit floor, another desk, filing cabinets, a hanging plant suspended from the darkly paneled wall.

The room was just a boring office now, but once it would have been a bedroom. A place where tempers snapped, old jealousies flared, and intimacy contorted into hatred. More ghosts have been created in bedrooms than anywhere else. It didn’t surprise me to find that Emma Marchment’s death might have happened here.

“I don’t see her,” I said. “Skull, where is she?”

“Far right corner, half in and half out of that bureau thing. Got her arms stretched wide like she wants to hug you. Eek, but her nails are long….”

“What are you tonight, a Yorkshire fishwife? Stop trying to freak me out. If she moves in my direction again, I want to know about it. Otherwise, quit warbling.”

I spoke decisively, projecting confidence. Show no fear, show no anxiety; give the restless spirit nothing to feed on. Even so, I wasn’t taking anything for granted. My left hand hung at my belt, midway between my rapier and the magnesium flares.

I snatched a glance away from the mirror. Yes, there was the corner with the bureau. It was very dark; hardly any moonlight reached it. Strain as I might, I picked out nothing standing there.

So, let’s see…I returned to the mirror and panned it slowly around, over the desks, past the hanging plant, following the paneled walls, until it reached the bureau.

And there it was. The ghost, swinging shockingly into view.

I’d been expecting her, yet I almost dropped the mirror.

A bone-thin figure, white drapes falling from it like a shroud. A livid face hanging in a cradle of smoke-plume hair. Black eyes staring, white skin clinging to the skull like melting wax. You could see the skeletal neck, the stains on the dress, the jaw unnaturally agape. Her hands were raised, the fingers bent toward me.

The nails were very long.

I swallowed. Without the mirror or the skull to guide me, I might have wandered unaware into those clutching arms.

“Got her,” I said.

“Have you, Lucy? Good. Now, do you want to live or die?”

“Live, please.”

“Call the others.”

“Not yet.” My hand was shaking again, the mirror wobbling. I kept losing sight of the pale form. I cleared my mind. I needed a moment’s peace for what I had to do.