The Whispering Skull (Lockwood & Co. #2)


by Jonathan Stroud

I

The Wimbledon Wraiths

1

‘Don’t look now,’ Lockwood said. ‘There’s two of them.’

I snatched a glance behind me and saw that he was right. Not far off, on the other side of the glade, a second ghost had risen from the earth. Like the first, it was a pale, man-shaped curtain of mist that hovered above the dark wet grass. Its head too seemed oddly skewed, as if broken at the neck.

I glared at it, not so much terrified as annoyed. Twelve months I’d been working for Lockwood & Co. as a Junior Field Operative, tackling spectral Visitors of every horrific shape and size. Broken necks didn’t bother me the way they used to. ‘Oh, that’s brilliant,’ I said. ‘Where did he spring from?’

There was a rasp of Velcro as Lockwood pulled his rapier clear of his belt. ‘Doesn’t matter. I’ll keep an eye on him. You keep watching yours.’

I turned back to my position. The original apparition still floated about ten feet from the edge of the iron chain. It had been with us for almost five minutes now, and was growing in clarity all the time. I could see the bones on the arms and legs, and the connecting knots of gristle. The wispy edges of the shape had solidified into flecks of rotten clothing: a loose white shirt, dark tattered breeches ending at the knee.

Waves of cold radiated from the ghost. Despite the warm summer night, the dew below the dangling toe-bones had frozen into glittering shards of frost.

‘Makes sense,’ Lockwood called over his shoulder. ‘If you’re going to hang one criminal and bury him near a crossroads, you might as well hang two. We should have anticipated this.’

‘Well, how come we didn’t, then?’ I said.

‘Better ask George that one.’

My fingers were slippery with sweat. I adjusted the sword grip in my hand. ‘George?’

‘What?’

‘How come we didn’t know there’d be two of them?’

I heard the wet crunch of a spade slicing into mud. A shovelful of soil spattered against my boots. From the depths of the earth, a voice spoke grumpily. ‘I can only follow the historical records, Lucy. They show that one man was executed and buried here. Who this other fellow is, I haven’t a clue. Who else wants to dig?’

‘Not me,’ Lockwood said. ‘You’re good at it, George. It suits you. How’s the excavation going?’

‘I’m tired, I’m filthy and I’ve found precisely zip. Apart from that, quite well.’

‘No bones?’

‘Not even a kneecap.’

‘Keep going. The Source must be there. You’re looking for two corpses now.’

A Source is an object to which a ghost is tied. Locate that, and you soon have your haunting under control. Trouble is, it isn’t always easy to find.

Muttering under his breath, George bent to his work again. In the low light of the lanterns we’d set up by the bags, he looked like some giant bespectacled mole. He was chest-deep in the hole now, and the pile of earth he’d created almost filled the space inside the iron chains. The big squared mossy stone, which we were sure marked the burial site, had long ago been upended and cast aside.

‘Lockwood,’ I said suddenly, ‘my one’s moving closer.’

‘Don’t panic. Just ward it off gently. Simple moves, like we do at home with Floating Joe. It’ll sense the iron and keep well clear.’

‘You’re sure about that?’

‘Oh, yes. Nothing to worry about at all.’

That was easy enough for him to say. But it’s one thing practising sword-moves on a straw dummy named Joe in your office on a sunny afternoon, and quite another warding off a Wraith in the middle of a haunted wood. I flourished my rapier without conviction. The ghost drifted steadily forwards.

It had come fully into focus now. Long black hair flapped around the skull. Remnants of one eye showed in the left-hand orbit, but the other was a void. Curls of rotting skin clung to spars of bone on the cheeks, and the lower jaw dangled at a rakish angle above the collar. The body was rigid, the arms clamped to the sides as if tied there. A pale haze of other-light hung around the apparition; every now and then the figure quivered, as if it still dangled on the gibbet, buffeted by wind and rain.

‘It’s getting near the barrier,’ I said.

‘So’s mine.’

‘It’s really horrible.’

‘Well, mine’s lost both hands. Beat that.’

Lockwood sounded relaxed, but that was nothing new. Lockwood always sounds relaxed. Or almost always: that time we opened Mrs Barrett’s tomb – he was definitely flustered then, though that was mainly due to the claw-marks on his nice new coat. I stole a quick sidelong glance at him. He was standing with his sword held ready: tall, slim, as nonchalant as ever, watching the slow approach of the second Visitor. The lantern-light played on his thin, pale face, catching the elegant outline of his nose and his flop of ruffled hair. He wore that slight half-smile he reserves for dangerous situations; the kind of smile that suggests complete command. His coat flapped slightly in the night breeze. As usual, just looking at him gave me confidence. I gripped my sword tightly and turned back to watch my ghost.

And found it right there beside the chains. Soundless, swift as thinking, it had darted in as soon as I’d looked away.

I swung the rapier up.

The mouth gaped, the sockets flared with greenish fire. With terrible speed, it flung itself forwards. I screamed, jumped back. The ghost collided with the barrier a few inches from my face. A bang, a splash of ectoplasm. Burning flecks rained down on the muddy grass outside the circle. Now the pale figure was ten feet further back, quivering and steaming.

‘Watch it, Lucy,’ George said. ‘You just trod on my head.’

Lockwood’s voice was hard and anxious. ‘What happened? What just happened back there?’

‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘It attacked, but the iron drove it off. Next time, I’ll use a flare.’

‘Don’t waste one yet. The sword and chains are more than enough for now. George – give us good news. You must have found something, surely.’

For answer, the spade was flung aside. A mud-slaked figure struggled from the hole. ‘It’s no good,’ George said. ‘This is the wrong spot. I’ve been digging for hours. No burial. We’ve made a mistake somehow.’

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