Wednesday, 25 March 2009 - 11:36 am

The belly of the beast

Inside the prison was worse than being outside. The walls closed around us, gulped us down and let light in through its teeth. Our footsteps echoed as if they might wake up this great beast of a building, shivering its quiet corridors back to life.


I’ve been in many ruined and empty buildings. Shops, houses, apartments, even an office or two. I don’t like them. I don’t like how they seem to be waiting for their rightful occupants to return: the open mail lying on the counter; the wares halfway through having their sale stickers applied; the stacks of papers in line for attention; the abandoned laundry begging for a wash. We use them because we must.

This place is different. This place has a taste of an aftermath about it; something happened here, closer and more personal than the bomb that exploded over the city, miles and months away. The signs were small at first, until there were so many that the wrongness was big enough to choke us.

There was paper all over the floor, tissues and toiletpaper mostly, torn into shreds as if an angry and insatiable puppy tore through here. We saw pieces of furniture, but not a single item whole. There were shards of broken pottery – I’m not sure what they used to be, but I suspect at least one was a sink. Someone had to have ripped it off the wall and brought it into the corridor to smash it. Against what? I didn’t want to know the answer to that.

The worst of it was the marks on the walls. Scars and scratches, and smears and spatters turned rusty and faded. No-one felt the need to comment on it, and what was there to say anyway? Something awful happened here, something violent and roiling, tearing up the corridors and smashing anything in its path.


It was distracting, the debris and the marks of what happened here. It wasn’t until we reached the centre of the block that I realised something else about this place, something we had all been walking past without comment.

All of the doors were open. An innocuous thing in any other building, but this wasn’t just any building. This was a place supposed to keep people locked in place. But each and every door stood ajar, or aside, or broken off and left leaning against a wall. Even – and especially – the cell doors were open. Whatever they had held back has long since stepped out and moved on.

I must have muttered something about it, because all of a sudden the others with me were staring at the cells around us. We were all thinking the same thing – how many had got out, how many had survived, and where were they now? Most importantly, where were they now?

My stomach was crawling uncomfortably around in my abdomen. We looked at each other and decided to hurry this search along. We started to jog, but our footsteps were so loud, reflected back at us as if to show us how foolish it was. We didn’t dare make so much noise, so we dropped to a quieter pace, all-but creeping along. We had to check every room, every cell, whispering for Nugget and Jones and hoping that they were all we would find.


It was Alice who found the first body. It was barely more than bones; I began to wonder how long it took a body to decompose until I realised that that wasn’t what had happened here. The crows – either they had eaten it or another creature had. Ben identified the body as a guard by the belt that lay in the mess of parts; I took his word for it, not inclined to look that closely.

We didn’t linger there, moving on quickly. The next corpse was a prisoner, from the jumpsuit shredded over the bones, as equally devoured as the first. Just look for Nugget, I told them. We can’t help these people now; let’s just find our missing one and get out of here.

All through the time we walked those corridors, I felt a prickling between my shoulderblades. More than once, I looked over my shoulder to see if we were being followed, but there was never anything there. I don’t know if there ever was.


We found the crows completely by accident. We had entered the building in a different section to the one they had dived into, but clearly it’s all connected on the inside. It’s all open, wide enough for the murder to flow through it unimpeded. I can’t find that a comforting thought.

We heard the cawing first, and the scrabble of their clawed feet. Then the clacking and harried flutter as they vied for space and access. We had found the dining room and they were feasting on another body. The flesh didn’t look like it was a good colour, but they didn’t seem to care; black forms fought for space on the dead thing so that they could tear it apart with their beaks.

We had no wish to disturb them, so we backed up through the doors. A couple of them screamed and hopped towards us across the tables, but they didn’t come after us when we moved on. We closed the doors behind us in the hope that it would stop them following us.

I wish I hadn’t looked back at the body slumped over the table. I wish the crows hadn’t shifted and shown me the caved-in skull. I wish I hadn’t seen that.


We took much longer than an hour. Without a working watch, it was hard to know exactly how long we had been – whatever timepieces weren’t ruined by the bomb (which was very few) had long since been bashed, broken or lost. The clock on the laptop still works, of course, but I can’t exactly carry that around.

The other half of our group were waiting for us when we got back to the courtyard. They had had the same problem, so they didn’t complain, though Masterson looked like he wanted to. From the sideways look he gave Thorpe, something had been said there. I’m glad of that.

There was still no sign of Nugget. The morning was growing old and people were getting hungry. It was then that we realised that we had left all of our gear in the cars. I felt a spurt of fear as we all turned to hurry out of the courtyard and through the twist of lanes to the front gate. What if it was all gone? What if the cars were gone too, and we were truly stranded here? I had the laptop with me – I don’t let that out of my sight – but I can’t post if I’ve starved to death. Or worse. I don’t want to think about the possibilities that flooded through my head as we ran outside again, of the caved-in skull and the feasting crows.