The Hollow Boy (Lockwood & Co. #3)

by Jonathan Stroud

For Rosie and Francesca, with love

I think it was only at the very end of the Lavender Lodge job, when we were fighting for our lives in that unholy guesthouse, that I glimpsed Lockwood & Co. working together perfectly for the first time. It was just the briefest flash, but every detail remains etched into my memory: those moments of sweet precision when we truly acted as a team.

Yes, every detail. Anthony Lockwood, coat aflame, arms flapping madly as he staggered backward toward the open window. George Cubbins, dangling from the ladder one-handed, like an oversized, windblown pear. And me—Lucy Carlyle—bruised, bloody, and covered in cobwebs, sprinting, jumping, rolling desperately to avoid the ghostly coils….

Sure, I know none of that sounds so great. And to be fair, we could have done without George’s squeaking. But this was the thing about Lockwood & Co.: we made the most of unpromising situations and turned them to our advantage.

Want to know how? I’ll show you.

Six hours earlier. There we were, on the doorstep, ringing the bell. It was a dreary, storm-soaked November afternoon, with the shadows deepening and the rooftops of old Whitechapel showing sharp and black against the clouds. Rain spotted our coats and glistened on the blades of our rapiers. The clocks had just struck four.

“Everyone ready?” Lockwood asked. “Remember, we ask them some questions, we keep careful psychic watch. If we get any clues to the murder room or the location of the bodies, we don’t let on. We just say good-bye politely, and head off to fetch the police.”

“That’s fine,” I said. George, busily adjusting his work belt, nodded.

“It’s a useless plan!” The hoarse whisper came from somewhere close behind my ear. “I say stab them first, ask questions later! That’s your only sensible option.”

I nudged my backpack with an elbow. “Shut up.”

“I thought you wanted my advice!”

“Your job is to keep a lookout, not distract us with stupid theories. Now, hush.”

We waited on the step. The Lavender Lodge boardinghouse was a narrow, terraced building of three floors. Like most of this part of London’s East End, it had a weary, ground-down air. Soot crusted the stucco exterior, thin curtains dangled at the windows. No lights showed in the upper stories, but the hall light was on, and there was a yellowed VACANCY sign propped behind the panel of cracked glass in the center of the door.

Lockwood squinted through the glass, shielding his eyes with his gloved hand. “Well, somebody’s at home,” he said. “I can see two people standing at the far end of the hall.”

He pressed the buzzer again. It was an ugly sound, a razor to the ear. He rapped the knocker, too. No one came.

“Hope they put their skates on,” George said. “I don’t want to worry you or anything, but there’s something white creeping toward us up the street.”

He was right. Far off in the dusk, a pale form could just be seen. It drifted slowly above the sidewalk in the shadows of the houses, coming in our direction.

Lockwood shrugged; he didn’t even bother looking. “Oh, it’s probably just a shirt flapping on someone’s line. It’s still early. Won’t be anything nasty yet.”

George and I glanced at each other. It was that time of year when the days were scarcely lighter than the nights, and the dead began walking during the darkest afternoons. On the way over from the Tube, in fact, we’d seen a Shade on Whitechapel High Road, a faint twist of darkness standing brokenly in the gutter, being spun and buffeted by the tailwinds of the last cars hurrying home. So nasty things were out already—as Lockwood well knew.

“Since when has a flapping shirt had a head and spindly legs attached?” George asked. He removed his glasses, rubbed them dry, and returned them to his nose. “Lucy, you tell him. He never listens to me.”

“Yes, come on, Lockwood,” I said. “We can’t just stand here all night. If we’re not careful, we’ll get picked off by that ghost.”

Lockwood smiled. “We won’t. Our friends in the hall have to answer us. Not to do so would be an admission of guilt. Any second now they’ll come to the door, and we’ll be invited inside. Trust me. There’s no need to worry.”

And the point about Lockwood was that you believed him, even when he said far-fetched stuff like that. Right then he was waiting quite casually on the step, one hand resting on his sword hilt, as crisply dressed as ever in his long coat and slim dark suit. His dark hair flopped forward over his brow. The light from the hallway shone on his lean, pale face, and sparkled in his dark eyes as he grinned across at me. He was a picture of poise and unconcern. It’s how I want to remember him, the way he was that night: with horrors up ahead and horrors at our back, and Lockwood standing in between them, calm and unafraid.

George and I weren’t quite so stylish in comparison, but we looked all business nonetheless. Dark clothes, dark boots; George had even tucked his shirt in. All three of us carried backpacks and heavy leather duffel bags—old, worn, and spotted with ectoplasm burns.

An onlooker, recognizing us as psychic investigation agents, would have assumed that the bags were filled with the equipment of our trade: salt-bombs, lavender, iron filings, silver Seals and chains. This was in fact quite true, but I also carried a skull in a jar, so we weren’t entirely predictable.

We waited. The wind blew in dirty gusts between the houses. Iron spirit-wards swung on ropes high above us, clicking and clattering like witches’ teeth. The white shape flitted stealthily toward us down the street. I zipped up my parka, and edged closer to the wall.

“Yep, it’s a Phantasm approaching,” the voice from my backpack said, in whispers only I could hear. “It’s seen you, and it’s hungry. Personally, I reckon it’s got its eye on George.”

“Lockwood,” I began. “We really have to move.”

But Lockwood was already stepping back from the door. “No need,” he said. “What did I tell you? Here they are.”

Shadows rose behind the glass. Chains rattled, the door swung wide.

A man and a woman stood there.

They were probably murderers, but we didn’t want to startle them. We put on our best smiles.

The Lavender Lodge guesthouse had come to our attention two weeks earlier. The local police in Whitechapel had been investigating the cases of several people—some salesmen, but mostly laborers working on the nearby London docks—who’d gone missing in the area. It had been noticed that several of these men had been staying at an obscure boardinghouse—Lavender Lodge, on Cannon Lane, Whitechapel—shortly before they disappeared. The police had visited; they’d spoken to the proprietors, a Mr. and Mrs. Evans, and even searched the premises. They’d found nothing.