And the living is easy
Fish are jumping…
And the cotton is high…”
The door clanged. “Quiet in there!”
“I’m bored,” said Pearl. “Do you mean to tell me I can’t even sing? I’ll go crazy in here. There’s nothing to do.”
“That’s the point,” said the guard on the other side of the door. “You’re in there until you learn the error of your ways. Now hush up before I have to make you.”
Lying on the floor staring at the ceiling – just because it made a change from lying on the narrow cot – Pearl heard the footsteps of the guard stomping off into the distance.
“Well, at least I’m not rattling my cup off the bars,” she said, to nobody in particular.
A few days earlier, she had been perched precariously on her tiptoes, standing on the narrow seat of the toilet. With one arm flung over the top of the cistern, she managed to get a small amount of additional purchase with her feet against a wall. Shimmying up, she rummaged around in it blindly. It was not the most glamorous of tasks, but needs must.
“We need some kind of lock-pick, if we’re going to get through that door,” Alisha had said. But the prison had transpired to be –perhaps understandably – short on lock-picking options. If this didn’t turn up anything, robbing a guard was their next best bet, and nobody particularly wanted to go down that route if they didn’t have to.
Pearl’s fingers closed around a piece of what felt like metal, attached to the side of the cistern’s interior. Putting pressure on it, she managed to snap it off. It was a flimsy, hook-shaped bit of tin. Not the best potential lock-pick by any means, but probably the likeliest thing they’d find in this wretched place. Hiding it in her sock, she flushed the toilet and walked out into the yard, looking nonchalant, or so she hoped.
It was just in time, as it happened; with the sun going down on the other side of the high walls, the guards were beginning to herd everyone toward the prison canteen. Over a pleasant dinner of unidentifiable brown mush, she managed to produce the bit of metal for Alice and Alisha to look at without attracting the attention of the guards. Neither of them looked entirely happy, though, and Pearl had to admit it looked a bit on the flimsy side.
“Where’s Jake?” she asked, glancing around. He hadn’t shown himself in the last few hours.
“His roommate Brooks said he’s gone back to the infirmary,” said Alice. “He was saying he had a splitting headache.”
Alisha raised an eyebrow. “It’s probably a few years’ worth of hangovers all coming at once,” she said. “Do we want to go ahead and… while he’s not around?”
“I think so,” said Pearl. “At least, if he’s still not around in the morning – we can’t do anything tonight. Do we even know what we’re doing, though? And have we got the remotest chance of getting into the old part of the prison without getting caught?”
Alisha surreptitiously passed back the hook. “Alice and I were talking, while you were fishing around in the toilet,” she said, leaning closer. “We’ve got an idea that we think might work. But the timing will have to be absolutely right.”
In the library, Pearl casually took up a spot by the J-surnamed authors in the fiction section; it had a reasonably good view of the door. Picking a book at random, she skimmed the first page, while still keeping a close eye on what was going on. She was feeling unaccountably nervous this morning, more than could be attributed to the scheme they had concocted the previous night; certainly it was harebrained, but they were already in prison – what was the worst that could happen? Still, her stomach wasn’t happy. She had a bad feeling about the dream she had had. That amulet, the one with the symbol of the Emperor’s son, had shown up again, and that was never a good omen. And when the walls had started collapsing around her – ugh, she hated that particular dream – and the two archaeologists had pulled her out, she had dropped it in her panic.
Alice and Alisha had both dreamed as well, and that wasn’t good either. Alice’s, in which her friend Jake’s money had all blown away without his noticing while she was talking to him, was easy enough to interpret. She was clearly feeling guilty about putting him in danger from the police and god knows what else by leaving all of that evidence with him (although Pearl had refrained from mentioning that, out of decency). Alisha had seen Sam momentarily on a New York street. Before she could call out to him, a shopkeeper had yelled angrily, startling him into disappearing down a side alleyway. As he ran, he dropped a scrap of paper, which – before it dissolved in the rain – turned out to be a picture of Alisha and Sam.
Pearl shook her head. Best not think about these visions; they were clearly all part and parcel of whatever was happening here. If they were to have any chance of solving the problem, she needed to focus on the task at hand.
“You took my book!”
“What?” said Alisha, loudly. “This is my book. Get your own!”
“You took my book!” Alice repeated, her voice sounding abnormally loud in the quiet library. “How dare you? I just put it down for a second!”
“SHHH,” said the librarian.
Alice tried again. “That’s mine, darn it!” She marched up to Alisha, and daringly, gave her a shove. Surprised, Alisha went “Ooof!” and shoved her back, fairly gently. Don’t lay it on too thick, girls, Pearl thought anxiously.
The prison guard who had been stationed next to the room’s exit rolled her eyes. “Come on, ladies, break it up,” she said, moseying over to Alice and Alisha, who were now engaging in some tentative hair-pulling.
Turning to the guard, Alice embarked on a long-winded, petulant explanation of why she needed this particular book, and why it wasn’t fair, and how is it that she was allowed get away with this flagrant bad behaviour? The prison guard seemed mildly interested, as did the librarian, and every other con in the room. An alteraction, even a tame one like this, beat another boring day thumbing through the sparse selection of romance novels, anyway.
Sidling over to the Ks, Pearl came within grabbing range of the guard, who now had her hands in the air and was patiently trying to calm both Alice and Alisha. Very cautiously, she managed to remove the ring of keys that were dangling at the guard’s belt. I’m getting good at this, she thought. Without hurrying, she returned to her previous spot, and found herself another book.
Eventually, the two aggrieved library patrons were persuaded to shelve their differences, and begrudgingly shook hands. The guard warned them to make sure to keep their noses clean, and resumed her conversation with the librarian. One after the other, so as not to draw attention to themselves, the two left the library. Pearl stayed put with her nose in a Raymond Chandler novel.
“Hey thur,” came a voice over Pearl’s shoulder. She jumped, then felt foolish. Peering over her book, she saw a middle-aged male convict with straggling hair, pretending to peruse the Ds. She didn’t like the way he was grinning at her.
“Yes? Can I help you?”
“Ah was looking fur a dee-tective story, and you look like you know yur stuff,” he said, politely, but with a glint in his eye. “There was a good one ah remember a few years back. Somethin’ about a missing key?”
“Doesn’t sound familiar to me, I’m afraid,” said Pearl.
“Gee, that’s a shame,” said the convict. “Guess ah’ll have to go ask the guard if they can help me find one like that.”
Pearl lowered her book again. “Have we met, Mr… er…”
“Shanks is the name,” he said, presenting a hand, and showing his yellowed teeth once again in that grin.
“Well, Mr Shanks, you do make a fair point. Supposing I were to find a book of that nature, in, say, a couple of hours. Once I was finished with it myself, I could leave it here where you could find it – behind the J novels, here – and then perhaps nobody would need to bother the guards. Does that sound reasonable?”
“No talking in the library!”
“Sounds good to me,” Shanks said under his breath, and moved away. Pearl let another few minutes pass, then quietly closed her book and left the room.
Alisha and Alice were waiting for her outside. “Where were you?” Alice hissed. “They’re going to do their rounds any moment.”
“Unavoidably delayed,” Pearl replied, and extracted the keyring from her shoe, handing it over. Alisha hurried across the corridor to the heavy double doors nearby, while Alice and Pearl loitered outside the library door. As they had planned, the two struck up a low-key conversation about exotic birds, to provide some background noise.
There must have been five or six nearly-identical keys on the heavy brass ring, and Alisha was getting flustered. She could only have been trying for a minute or two, but soon enough, the heavy footsteps of a guard rang out overhead.
“That’s true,” Alice said loudly. “Pelicans are fascinating birds!” Pearl raised an eyebrow.
“Hey, you two! What are you doing there?”
“Nothing, just chatting,” said Alice politely.
“Well, move along! Don’t want you hanging around in here. Get outside and into the fresh air.”
The footsteps passed over. Not wanting to tempt fate, the three quietly followed the guard’s instructions. Another attempt would have to wait until the afternoon.
“Say, did you hear about Jenny’s keys?”
“She’s lost ‘em. I told her to check the locker room but she says she’s looked everywhere.”
“Well, you know Jenny. They’re probably sitting right on the dresser at home where she left ‘em.”
“Sure, but you know the drill. They don’t show up in another hour, it’ll be lockdown.”
“Aww, crap! I was hoping to sneak away early tonight. The game’s on.”
“Them’s the breaks, sweetheart.”
Back in the corridor, after lunch. The guards had rotated, so it seemed safe enough to resume their places from the morning. If the conversation Alice had heard in the lunch line was to be believed, time was getting short, and the mood was tense.
Alisha had worked out over lunch which key she thought was the right one, the only one she hadn’t tried. Happily enough, this time, it did the trick. The doors creaked open, and the three sidled through as quietly and as quickly as possible, then ducked down to avoid being seen through the panes of glass in the door’s top half.
“Now what?” whispered Alice. The three looked out over the yard in front of them. There were fifty yards between them and the long, low building they were aiming for. From this distance it looked sinister, abandoned. Many of the windows were boarded up, and there was not a single point of cover between them and the forbidding double doors that marked the building’s only entryway. They would be clearly visible to anyone who happened to look out of a window on that side of the main prison building.
Alisha reached up behind them and carefully relocked the door. “Now we make a break for it, and trust to our luck,” she said grimly, and was away.
Pearl and Alice followed, as fast as they dared. Pearl reached the building first and crouched down while Alisha, just behind her, fumbled again with the keyring. This time their luck held, and it opened on the first try. Alice, panting, was just behind them, and the three made it into the building and slammed the door behind them in a matter of seconds. It seemed as though they might have made it undetected. How they were going to get back, of course, was another matter, but in the meantime, they had an abandoned prison building to explore.
Moving down the dim, grimy corridor, doorways appeared in the gloom on either side. There were a lot of possible options to check out, even if they had been entirely sure what they were looking for. It was chilly in here. Pearl shivered.
“I’ve found something,” called Alice. One of the doors was closed over. Barely visible in the dark was a dusty plaque that read BOILER ROOM. It was locked, and none of the keys on the ring seemed to do the trick.
“Do you hear something?” asked Alisha. The three paused. From the direction from which they had entered, voices could be faintly heard, approaching.
“We’d better get in there quickly,” said Pearl, alarmed, and the others concurred. Alice and Alisha took a run at the door together, with no apparent success. The voices were becoming clearer.
“What I want to know is, why the hell would they even come over here? I mean, what’s the point?”
“Well, there’re certainly enough hiding places in there. We could be hours looking for them.”
Clearly time was running out. A second and then a third attempt to break down the door failed. Casting around for something, anything that would help, Alice spotted a dusty bench standing against a wall a few metres down. They dragged it towards the door.
Together, the three managed to hoist up the bench, and successfully broke the door open. Stepping into the yawning darkness beyond, they slammed the door shut behind them and blindly pushed the bench up against it. Then they stopped. Out in the corridor, the sound of running footsteps grew louder, and then faded away as the guards passed them.
“It’s pitch black in here,” said Pearl.
“No kidding,” replied Alisha. “Alice, can you see much?”
“It’s a narrow corridor, about three feet wide,” she said. “There’s a room off to the left here. Wait while I have a look.”
Alisha and Pearl waited in the corridor while Alice rummaged around somewhere in the dark. Towards the end of the corridor, the blackness seemed a little less absolute; Pearl thought her eyes might be adjusting. After about two minutes, they heard Alice come back out.
“Nothing much,” she said. “It’s an empty office. Mostly dust and empty filing cabinets. I did find one file, though, which looks like it might be interesting.”
Alisha had gone down the corridor a bit. “Bring it this way,” she called. “It looks like it’s brighter up here.”
They examined the contents of the cardboard folder, in the dim light; Alice had to read most of it for them, but the black-and-white photographs were just visible. It was a file on someone called Robert Davies, and the last thing in it was a typed sheet of thin paper – a detective’s report. Alice skimmed it briefly.
“According to this,” she said, “whoever Robert Davies is, he couldn’t have been guilty of the murder he was accused of, because he had a solid alibi for the time when the guy was stabbed.”
Alisha and Pearl exchanged glances in the dark. “Bobby,” said Alisha grimly. “So he didn’t do it, after all.”
The three became dimly aware of a low thrumming noise, barely audible. It was coming from the end of the corridor they hadn’t yet reached. Walking towards it, the dim light filtering in from the dirty windows high above revealed a series of metal gangways leading away. One path led forward, one to the left, and one to the right. Two large metal shapes loomed between the walkways; probably the boilers on the floor below.
“I’ll take the middle way,” said Pearl. Alice went left, while Alisha took the right.
A few steps in, the metal floor gave way beneath Pearl’s feet. Without time to do more than utter a startled yelp, she slipped through, by some miracle landing unharmed on the hard floor below. “I’m okay!” she called, scrambling to her feet.
Alisha had reached a solid wall. Turning in the dim light, she spotted just in time that a set of stairs was opening before her feet. Carefully, she made her way down to the lower level. Alice’s low-light vision allowed her to work out immediately what was happening, and she ran around from her end of the corridor.
“I’m fine!” said Pearl again, taking a tentative step forward, and walking into a low-hanging pipe. “Urgh. I mean I’m mostly fine.”
Alice looked down at them from above. “The gantry’s broken just here!” she called.
“Yes, that it is,” muttered Pearl.
Alice had nearly made her way to the bottom of the stairs when an ungodly shriek rang through the room. All three were momentarily frozen on the spot. A wave of cold air washed over them, and then there was silence.
Alisha recovered first. “What the hell was that?”
All three were suddenly knocked forwards by a blow to the backs of their heads. Blood flashed in front of Pearl’s eyes, and she stumbled forward, hearing the others do the same. A crushing sense of anger and despair washed over all three of them.
Once again, Pearl stumbled to her feet, groaning. “That hurt,” she said. “What on earth is going on down here? Did you see anything?”
Before the others had a chance to answer, the attack was renewed, this time focused on their legs. Alice managed to withstand the blow, but Alisha and Pearl struggled to stay upright.
“We’ve definitely got some company,” said Alice. Carefully, she edged around the cramped space surrounding a ten-foot-tall boiler that loomed above their heads. The dull metal looked sinister in the dim light. Just under Pearl’s feet, she spotted something that only her night vision would have allowed. “Those are bloodstains, guys,” she pointed out. “Look, there’s a spatter mark. And it looks like something or someone was dragged… over to here.” She followed the drag marks, which lead over towards the door of the boiler.
“Looks like we’ve found the site of the murder,” said Alisha.
Pearl nodded. “We don’t want to spend any more time down here than we have to,” she said. “It’ll only get worse; you know that this kind of violent ghost is strongest at the source of its trauma.” As if in answer, another blood-curdling shriek rang through the building, and Pearl and Alisha were again bowled over by an unseen force. This time they were not so lucky; Alisha was thrown violently against the wall, while Pearl was once more knocked over, hitting her head.
“Come away from there!” cried Alice, grabbing the two by their arms and dragging them with her toward the boiler’s door. Oddly enough, it was warm over there. Too warm to be natural, in this frigid building.
Alisha rubbed her bruised arm, cursing under her breath. “Come here so I can heal that,” she said to Pearl. Alice looked more closely at the boiler.
“There’s more blood here,” she said. “It looks like this might be where the body was laid, before it went into the boiler.” Bravely, she raised a hand to the boiler’s latch, and swung open the door.
Inside, it was dim and empty, and an intense heat radiated toward them. Alice had a bad sense of foreboding. “Duck!” she screamed. All three hit the floor just before a huge flame burst out toward them.
“Ladies, have we confirmed yet that it’s dangerous in here?” grumbled Pearl. “Can we please leave?”
“That’s definitely magical fire,” said Alisha, with her face pushed into the floor.
“That doesn’t mean it’s not going to kill us!”
From her position on the floor, Alice spotted a grating about four feet away, that looked as though it was sitting slightly ajar. On her belly, she crawled towards it. The dust lay thickly on its surface; apparently it had been undisturbed for a long time.
“Guys, I’ve found something!”
Another flame jet roared out of the boiler, just missing Pearl and Alisha, who ducked again. An intense wave of fear hit Pearl. “We’re all going to be burned alive!” she cried, panicking. Alisha grabbed her by the shoulder and dragged her further away from the boiler.
Alice had lifted the grating. Underneath was a dirty scrap of paper, wrapped around something. Carefully, she peeled it away, to reveal a locket. The paper appeared to be a letter, but it was too dim to read properly. She looked around, expecting another onslaught from the angry spirit that had been assailing them; oddly, all was quiet.
The three retreated toward the stairwell. Pearl was calmer, but still hiccupping slightly with the strain. Alice handed Alisha the locket, and smoothed out the letter.
“_My dearest Shirley_,” she read. “_I’m so sorry that this has happened. I never, ever meant for this. Your death was such an unlikely accident, yet the only person I can blame is myself. If you hadn’t been here, you would be alive now. All I can say is that I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I’m not a stronger man. I’m sorry that I can’t face your brother. I’m too afraid that I’ll be blamed again for murder, and that I’ll also die. Even if that meant we’d be together again. I’m just not the man you thought I was. All my love…_ Bobby.”
Alisha opened the locket, and they peered at it. It contained two pictures, both many years old, judging by the clothes pictured; one of a young woman, and one of a young man who looked oddly familiar. “That’s the Warden,” said Alice.
“So what do we think happened?” asked Pearl. “Shirley found the file on Bobby and confronted her brother with it, down here for some reason, and then he killed her?”
The same unholy shriek that they had heard before racked through the building. The air stirred and crackled again. “Whatever happened, we’ve got to get out of here before this gets any worse,” said Alisha.
Pearl took the file from her, placed the letter and the locket inside it, and tucked it under her prison overalls. “Let’s get out of here, then,” she said.
“What are you doing?” said Alisha. “We can’t take that out with us – if we’re caught, they’ll confiscate it and destroy it! It’s far too incriminating for the Warden!”
“But we can’t leave it here – we’ll have no evidence at all for what happened!”
Another blast of ghostly energy rattled them, nearly knocking them off the stairwell. “We have to go!” shouted Alice. In a panic, she grabbed the file, ran over to the grate, and shoved it back underneath. The others made their way as quickly as possible up the stairs.
The ghost was now behaving strangely. As they arrived in the narrow corridor, all three felt as though they were being hindered, pulled backward by some force. They struggled their way toward the corridor as the ghost howled and whined behind them. Looking back over her shoulder, Pearl noticed that the boilers were glowing a dull red; as she watched, flames of magical fire began to erupt in all directions, and she shuddered.
“Well, there’s no way that file will ever see the light of day again,” she muttered.
As they ran down the corridor, they could hear the sound of water steaming in the pipes alongside them. Clunking noises were coming from the empty office as they passed, as though the furniture inside was being thrown around. Alisha and Alice, in the front, skidded to a stop as an angry spectral face momentarily appeared in front of them; then, with a despairing shriek, it disappeared.
Alisha and Alice scrambled to move the bench away from the door. Without any further thought as to what might be on the other side, Pearl flung it open, and thought that she’d never been so happy to see a pair of prison guards before.
“So,” said the Warden, quietly. “What exactly did you think you were doing?” It was not the reception Pearl had expected. He’d even offered them tea. Pearl was dying for a cup, but it seemed that the best option was to stay absolutely quiet.
The Warden poured himself a cup. “Your friend, Mr Frakes, promised me that you’d be model prisoners, if I kept my part of the bargain,” he remarked, conversationally. “Do you want to tell me what was going on?”
Alice broke. “I’m sorry, we’re so sorry,” she said. “We were just interested! We were looking into a part of the prison’s history.” She gulped, and stopped.
“The prison’s history?” The Warden looked genuinely surprised, and something else. Hurt, perhaps. Gently, he said, “It’s the very darkest part of this prison’s history. And I think you know that it means something else to me, as well.”
The three remained silent.
“Is there nothing else you want to tell me?”
Quietly, Alice started to sob.
The Warden sighed. Calling in a pair of guards, he sent Pearl and Alisha away. Pouring Alice a cup of tea, he sat down next to her. “Mr Frakes was pretty specific on the subject of you,” he said, kindly. “You can trust me. Nothing you say will leave this room, but I need to know what your friends talked you into. Because I’m sure you know why this is important to me.”
“They didn’t talk me into anything, said Alice. “My… my curiosity got the better of me.”
“Yes… You know I’ve always wanted to be a journalist, ever since I was a little girl, and… it seemed as though something was going on, connected with the old part of the prison… and…”
He leaned closer. “And what did you learn?”
What could Alice say? She was looking into the face of a man who had murdered his sister and concealed the evidence for twenty years. Surely he wouldn’t have any difficulty in disappearing a few disobedient convicts. Under no circumstances could she reveal to him what they had learned. “It’s… very dusty, and scary in there,” she said.
The Warden’s face changed. He looked, as far as she could make out, genuinely disappointed. He got up, and opened the door a crack.
“Guard, please take Ms Jenkins to solitary confinement,” he said, wearily.
As Alice walked away, hands cuffed behind her, she thought about the gap in the walkway that Pearl had fallen through. She couldn’t get the Warden’s face out of her mind, and she thought again about the precise wording of the letter, and the reaction of the ghost when they had accused her brother of murder. As the door clanged shut behind her, she wondered if they had made a serious mistake.