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The door was already unlocked, and opened into what had once been the main bar area. It was large and square, and dotted with a few odd sticks of wooden furniture coated with dust and cobwebs.
"I wonder if these are alright", said Joby, selecting a dust-encrusted beer bottle from a shelf behind the bar.
Angel ran his finger along some tiny lettering carved into the brown glass and concluded "No such luck. The drop-dead date was years ago. The spirits should still be alright though".
"Have you heard of this place Angel?" asked Adam, who was determined to make use of the boy now that they were saddled with him.
"No. This was the last place I'd have expected to find a pub. I mean, the Loud House is only twenty miles away. I wouldn't wanna come here".
"You ARE here", said Adam, dryly "And your Loud House can't be that terrifying if it's got its own local!"
"Hey, there's water in the taps", Kieran shouted, standing by a sink. The tap shuddered and spat out drops of rusty brown water, whilst behind the scenes the pipes rumbled and thumped as though the plumbing was waking up after a long nap. The others watched as he dipped his hand under the tap and noted with satisfaction as the water slowly began to run clear "Well, that's alright then".
Apart from the bar there wasn't much else to see at the inn. The kitchen behind the bar was, if possible, even more antediluvian than the one at the prison. Up a creaky, wooden staircase there was a narrow corridor, flanked by bedrooms in varying stages of decay, and a bathroom with a cramped tub on claw feet.
"Sometimes I wonder if we went back in bloody time, not forward", said Joby, eyeing the mildew-coated brass taps in disbelief.
"I expect a second Ice Age, or something similar, occurred and put paid to progress", said Kieran "Sending everybody backwards. One of the impressions I've had ever since we stumbled here is that resources of any kind seem to be scarce".
"It looks as though people have a fondness for disappearing in this wonderful new world of ours", said Adam, appearing in the doorway after a futile search of the bedrooms for any telltale clues as to the identity of the previous occupants "First the prison, now this, although I suspect this happened some time ago".
"And whoever left", said Kieran "had the kindness to put that signpost up, the one we saw just before we drove into the fog-bank".
"'Go back'", Joby recalled "They could have put in a bit more detail for us".
"Perhaps there wasn't time", said Adam.
"I can't hear the wolves", said Angel, appearing in the bar with more bowls of the interminable rice (prison issue), which he had boiled slowly over a portable paraffin stove that had been located in one of the kitchen cupboards "It feels weird, it being dark, and not being able to hear them".
"Perhaps they don't come out this far", Adam mumbled, watching with prickly palms as Joby poured himself another neat vodka.
"Even the wolves are scared of the Loud House", Kieran joked, only for Angel to take him seriously.
"Very possibly", said the boy, solemnly.
"It's hot in here", said Joby "If it weren't for that bloody fog we could open the windows".
"I'll open one slightly anyway", Adam got up, more for something to do than anything else. The other three's casual imbibing of the vodka was uncomfortable for him. He'd forgotten, over the past couple of months, how difficult he'd found the social drinking of others. How much he resented their casual acceptance of the "bloody booze", as he'd so often angrily described it in the past, when he had lived completely under its thrall.
"I think it's clearing. You never know", Adam crept back to the table and placed a firm hand on Angel's shoulder "in the morning we might be able to see the Loud House from here".
"Stop winding him up", Joby snapped "Can't you see he's practically been brainwashed about that place!"
"Whoever was here had time to clear all their stuff out", said Kieran, trying to divert attention "Not a blinking sign of human habitation upstairs. No clothes, no personal papers, nothing".
He got up and began to pace the cracked flagstones, causing the candle flames around him to flicker violently.
"Do you know, we could all start getting paranoid about this. The way everyone keeps buggering off and leaving us alone".
"Makes you wonder if they're really at a bloody party somewhere, laughing themselves sick at our expense", said Joby "Also makes you wonder who would have wanted to run a Godforsaken dive like this in the first place. Miles from anywhere. Probably the only customers they got were prison guards on their days off".
"Or lost travellers", said Kieran "Ones that survived the wolves anyway".
"Shut up, I can hear something", Adam got up hurriedly and crossed to the open window "There's a noise coming from outside".
Recklessly he flung open the door. The dim and distant noise filtered in gently. It was an indefinable sound, a cross between a low whistling and a woman singing wordlessly. It was far-off and disturbingly ethereal.
"Where's it coming from?" said Joby, stepping outside the door.
The fog had receded to reveal a full moon, and the countryside lurked menacingly in the silver light. Gorse bushes and grass clumps shivered in a soft breeze. The prison was far out of sight.
"It's coming from the direction of the Loud House", said Adam, scanning the treeless horizon behind the inn "There's nothing in the way to act as a soundbreak".
Angel was gnawing at his knuckles like a dog trying to do damage to a bone.
"Get him inside", Adam directed the others "This is bloody absurd, the way he reacts to everything. It's only a noise".
Kieran firmly guided the boy back inside, and sat him down on a wooden rocking-chair, in the vain hope that the gentle swaying motion might soothe him. He poured himself another vodka.
"Adam's right", he said "It's only a noise".
"Coming from the Loud House!" Angel exclaimed.
"O.K, so it was coming from the Loud House. Big deal! Stop and think for a moment that all these tales about the Loud House may have been deliberately manufactured. Perhaps it's really a commune for religious nutters".
"So is stealing, but it didn't stop you building a life around it! Some people may still want to practise a faith, and chose the Loud House as suitably remote. Concoct a few scary stories and superstitions about the place, and everyone leaves them in peace".
"Or the government came up with it all", said Joby, re-entering the room "Perhaps it's a top secret research place or summat. They were always doing that sort of thing in our time".
"But the noise ..." Angel protested.
"Well! They're allowed to sing aren't they?"
Adam watched the featureless horizon until the noise slowly faded, and silence descended once more. When he returned to the inn Angel was in an even worse state, hyperventilating and seemingly intent on chewing his fingers off.
They managed to get him upstairs, and ran a cold bath. After a few minutes seated in the prehistoric contraption Angel managed to calm down. He assured them that he would be fine from then on. Once alone he leaned back as far as the cramped space would allow, and let the cold water run over his naked body.
Meanwhile, behind the wooden panelling, someone was near.
"This could be our last chance".
"What in blazes are you talking about now? Weren't you coming on strong enough back at the prison!"
"Tomorrow, when we reach the Loud House, we may find the time-cusp open".
"We should be so lucky!"
"Quite", said Adam "This could be our last night in this crazy land. Our last night together. This is our moment Patsy".
Kieran blew a smoke-ring thoughtfully.
"Then again it may be our last night, ever", said Adam.
"That has got to be one of the naffest chat-up lines ever invented", Kieran retorted "Our last few minutes on earth, eh? Our last few minutes to do all the things we ever wanted to do! So, let it roll!"
"As you say, let it roll", Adam homed in with precision, born of long imagining.
"I've never kissed anyone with five o'clock shadow before", said Kieran, laughing "Be gentle with me!"
In a small room at the other end of the corridor Joby had pulled his cap down over his eyes and was trying to settle to sleep. In an instant Angel had appeared, looking flustered, and wearing only a damp shirt.
"Sod off", said Joby.
"He's going to kill us!" Angel exclaimed, his breath coming in short gasps.
"There's someone ... he came at me in the bathroom. A door opened in the wall and he came out at me ..."
"Who did? You're not making sense", Joby sat up on his elbows, and raised his cap.
"I was in the bath", Angel put his hand on his chest to try and calm his rapid breathing "The panelling opened, and he was there ... with an AXE! He took swipes at me. I barely got away".
"Where is he now then?"
"I locked him in the bathroom. Have you noticed how all the keys are on the outside of the doors in this place? That should have told us something ..."
"If he had an axe, why didn't he hack the door down?" said Joby, sceptically.
"I think he went back the way he came. There must be secret passages here we know nothing about", Angel grabbed Joby's top in both hands "You've gotta believe me. He's gonna kill us all! He was horrible. He was all stooped, and had white hair, and his eyes ... he had no eyes".
"No eyes. The skin was pulled down over his eyes. He was blind".
"Bloody d.t's, cold turkey, whatever you call it. I should've recognised the signs", said Adam, muttering to himself as he finished examining the bathroom panelling "First he makes us all jumpy with his nervous ravings, then he starts shaking and sweating. Now it's hallucinations. He's nothing but a liability".
In the room where he had been taken, across the corridor from the bathroom, Angel stood squarely in the middle of the floor, and with his huge, hypnotic eyes, scanned the four walls relentlessly.
"You make me sick!" Joby yelled in the kitchen "Bloody animals have more morals than you. Why don't you just stick it in a keyhole and wank it about a bit. It's certainly thin enough, prick like a pencil that's you!"
"What right have you got to judge anyone?" Kieran stood facing him across the table "It's morals you're talking about is it? O.K, Mr High And Mighty Moraliser, what's so focking clever about a bloke who goes around screwing their best friend's wife?!"
Joby looked shocked.
"Yea, you thought I didn't know about it didn't you? I knew all along. All about that night in the woods by Loch Ness, when you and Amy conveniently got lost together. You both came back reeking of it! Everyone must've known, but all (including bloody old muggins here) had to act all grown-up and civilised, and not notice".
"You never said ..."
"No I never said. Because I saw it for what it was. A fling. A one-off. It simply wasn't important enough to say. After all, she's never given me the slightest indication that she feels anything for you, and Amy's as open as a book ..."
Joby gave a yell, like a soul in torment. He clambered across the table and threw himself at Kieran. He placed one hand around his throat, and grabbed Kieran's hair with the other. With grunts of white-hot anger he crashed the Irishman's head repeatedly against the bare brick wall. Kieran clawed vainly at thin air, in the sure expectation that Joby would kill him if he could.
"Haven't we got enough fucking problems!" Adam roared, feeling like was diving into the midst of a dog-fight. He deftly separated the two and shook them apart "I've got a smackhead upstairs having the d.t's, and now you two fucking killing each other! Am I the only one around here that's sane?"
"Tales of blind mad axemen roaming about behind the panelling", Adam exclaimed, whilst making coffee over the paraffin stove "That boy has definitely spent too long in prison".
"You said d.t's?" said Kieran, after noting with a certain grim satisfaction that he had left a small trail of blood on the kitchen wall.
"I reckon he was either doped, or perhaps given moonshine in prison", said Adam.
"We weren't", said Joby.
"No, but he was a trustee. I reckon they might have done that to trustees to keep them in line, keep them biddable. If you're a good boy and do as we say, then we've got some nice sweeties or fizzy pop for you. That sort of thing. It's not a brilliant theory, but it's the only explanation I've got for the way he carries on. It's all we bloody well need!"
"Did you ever take anything at the prison?" Adam asked, holding out a mug of coffee to the boy.
"I never took nothing at the prison", Angel retorted, angrily "I was a trustee and a good 'un. Not even when I was left alone in the Governor's office, no, I never took anything, not even then".
"Not that kind of taking! Drugs, dope, that's what I meant".
Angel stared at him, wide-eyed and incredulous. Suddenly he grabbed Adam's hand and kissed his open palm.
"Bloody marvellous", Adam snorted "I don't get so much as a nibble in months, and then it's two in one evening".
He pushed up Angel's sleeve and examined the scars and bruises on his arm.
"Well something caused all that, old love", he said.
Kieran left the kitchen, leaving a sullen Joby cooking an early breakfast. Kieran's head was still sore, and swimming with the entire night's events. Gloomily, he stood and surveyed the dust-coated bar area. Adam and Angel were upstairs. Joby was behind the kitchen door. He felt as though it was the first time he had been alone in his entire life. He'd almost forgotten what it was like.
He sighed heavily and ran tired fingers through his hair. He was emotionally and physically exhausted. He was sick and tired of the world spinning out of control, and wished everyone would return to their natural corners in his life. Sometimes it felt as though the earth had lost its gravitational cord.
The rocking-chair was swaying on its runners. Kieran stared at it in disbelief. Someone had just left it. A shadow was glimpsed out of the corner of his eye. A shadow of someone edging down the dark passageway to the tiny bar at the back of the building.
His eyes and ears swam. The whole picture seemed disjointed. Was he seeing it or wasn't he? The figure was gone now. But he could have sworn on a stack of Bibles that it'd been there.
As noiselessly as he could, he returned to the kitchen.
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