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The visitor's wing represented a decayed, baroque splendour. It had been built during the golden days of sixty years before, when there were wild hopes of turning Henang into a model showplace of penal reform. The original idea had been that a visitor's wing be built to house dignitaries paying calls on Henang, and was intended to show that prisons didn't necessarily consist solely of brick walls and electrified gates. Well ... at least not for the visitors anyway.
The wing was located slightly beyond the main courtyard which connected all the other parts of the prison to each other. Even now, in its advance stage of decay, the wing stuck out like a sore thumb. When it had been built no expense had been spared. The best architects in the City had come up with an intoxicating blend of two styles, Ancient Rome and Regency. Windows were wide and long, pillars abounded everywhere. When first built, it must have all been rather giddying, particularly against such a spartan landscape.
Nowadays it was crumbling through neglect, and looked more like a gatecrasher at a wake than ever before. Lichen sprouted on most surfaces, and the wide, sweeping steps were either crumbling or liberally dotted with weeds.
It hadn't been merely the return of the death penalty and the harsh punishment regime which had tolled the end of the visitor's wing (there was something very boring and dreary about men sitting sullenly in little cells, waiting for improbable release dates), but that two men (government men, to make it worse) had, during the course of a departmental visit, mysteriously died in the wing, in gruesome circumstances. Their deaths had unleashed a chain of events which had left the world reeling, and in which everyone was still embroiled.
The entrance foyer sported a huge mosaic on its floor, which must have cost a fortune alone. Its centrepiece was the huge, chubby face of the governor who had ordered the building of the wing many years before.
Most of the building was uninhabitable, with gaps in the walls and ceilings, and floors which were blatantly unsteady. All that remained completely intact was a dark passage on the first floor, which had four rooms leading from it. Although bereft of furniture they were at least structurally intact and relatively safe.
"I wanna stay here tonight", said Joby, stoutly, to Angel's complete despair.
"You can't!" he wailed.
"I can and I will. Nobody to stop me anymore is there? And I'm not going back to that cell. I might wake up tomorrow to find they've locked the door on us again".
During the course of the evening they lugged some bedding over from the main building, and set up camp in each of the four rooms. After sunset they partook of a depressing rice supper in the prison kitchens. Conversation was severely curtailed by the presence of Angel who, when not watching them intently, was jumping nervously at any mention of the Loud House. Adam doubted if his own nerves could stand much more of Angel's company.
"You don't have to come with us you know", he said, vigorously slicing an avocado "If I was you I'd head south to the city, take advantage of my new-found freedom. Cities are big, anonymous places, crammed with millions of people. Who's going to notice you there? And if you're careful no one need ever know you're from here".
"Once they know what's happened here they'll be on the lookout for ... for survivors", the boy replied "And if they catch me, it'll be the Cage for sure. No one comes out of the Cage. They don't just keep you in there until you die, you stay there until all your flesh has rotted away, and you're nothing but bones".
"Oh give it a rest", Joby snapped "You're putting me off me dinner".
"And the Cage is a more terrifying prospect than the Loud House is it?" said Adam.
"I suppose I know exactly what to expect with the Cage", said Angel "Whereas the Loud House could mean anything. I'd rather take my chances with the unknown. After all, as you've said, there might not be anything there in the end might there? It could just be stories".
"I'm astonished", said Kieran "that when no one's ever returned from the bloody place where all these stories grew up, everyone avoids it. Back home, people would be swarming round the Loud House like rats up a drainpipe, trying to suss out what's going on".
"We don't like mysteries the way you lot seem to", said Angel.
"That's for sure. You've all gone soft. Scared of your own shadow".
The Moon was bright and full, giving the prison an impression of semi-daylight. Kieran took the end room in the visitor's wing as his own. It was small but high-ceilinged, with oak panelling, an ornate fireplace, and long windows still hung with the original velvet curtains, although Kieran felt that if he touched them they'd probably disintegrate in his hands. He hated everything about the room, its air of faded, genteel decay above all. The whole building was a ridiculous folly, an expensive monument to one governor's unrealistic ideals.
Kieran tried settling to sleep on his blankets on the floor, but he felt irritable and restless. He got up and crept around the edges of the room, feeling the panels for any undetected cupboards or secret passageways. There was nothing. And yet he was convinced there was an unknown presence in the building, and it was near him.
As a child he had been remarkably psychic, and had occasionally embarrassed his mother by being able to predict pregnancies in her friends. During his subsequent short career as a psychic investigator he had looked into many so-called haunted buildings, and he had a nose for detecting "presences" in a way that he had perfected to a fine art. There was something near him, but it wasn't going to show itself. Kieran didn't know whether he felt relieved or frustrated by this.
"There's something in my room. I'm sure of it".
Joby sighed heavily and followed him. The room was exactly as Kieran left it. Joby dumped his bedding onto the floor, and proceeded to make himself at home.
"I can't feel anything", he grunted, re-arranging his blanket to his satisfaction.
"It's retreated", said Kieran "It was right in here just now, I could feel it. It was almost as though something was creeping across the floor to me".
"Never fear Joby's here", he said, turning on his side "If it carries on creeping it'll trip over me, won't it?"
"Oh I'm here am I?" said Adam, emerging from the fireplace "I must have lost my sense of direction".
Joby and Kieran looked at him uncomprehendingly, as the tall man unfolded himself.
"This place is like an old murder mystery", Adam continued "All secret passages and doorways. See, no back to the fireplace. Not to any of them. I went through the one in my room, and found myself in a warren of low, narrow corridors, bit like being inside a sewer".
"Secret passages?" Kieran said, quizzically "What in the blazes for! This is only the visitor's wing. I don't get it".
"Did you see anything interesting?" asked Joby.
"No, just a lot of little corridors, all coming out through the fireplaces in each room".
"So, that was your mysterious presence creeping about", Joby said to Kieran "It was him, lurking behind the chimney".
"Oh no, this presence was in the room with me I swear it", Kieran protested.
"Or in the corridor with me", said Adam "I occasionally felt someone following me. That's why I was so relieved to find you, before it caught up with me at least".
"Could it have been Angel?" asked Kieran.
"There's no fireplace in his room", said Adam "I remember, because it's the only one of the four here that hasn't got one, but I think he might know something about this place. All his nervous bleating might be useful for once".
They found Angel sitting in the middle of the floor in his room, cross-legged and staring blankly into space. It was a meditation pose, and it was several seconds before he appeared to notice the other three. Adam sat down, directly in his line of vision.
"Tell us everything you know about this place", he said.
"There's loads of stuff in the prison archives", he said, nervously.
"YOU tell us, sweetie".
"It was closed down after the two government fellas were killed. No one would use if after that. The Governor told me the whole story, what he knows anyway which isn't everything".
"You're rambling", said Adam "Cut it to the quick".
"Two government blokes stayed here not long after the place was first opened. I don't know which room they used, but they were found the following morning. One was dead, the other on his way. The dead one was covered in some weird green gel-like stuff, and his prick and all the rest of it had been bitten off. The other fella was also covered in the stuff, and there were burn-marks all over his body, particularly round his bollocks and things. All he said before he died was that something had come rushing out of the chimney at 'em. It had attacked his mate in the balls, and then went on to him. It disappeared when the other visitors burst in after hearing their screams".
"I wish we hadn't asked", said Joby.
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