(An Extract from Chapter 4, Castles Made Of Sand)


Preparations for the nightclub raid came together through the next day. More barmies arrived from the anti-terrorist action. The police contingent turned up in two lumbering methane-burning hippie vans, disguised as a pair of traveller clans. Crowd control and night tech was set up. Before dusk everything was in place, and there were close to a hundred armed men (including a few women, as the saying goes) waiting undercover, ready to move into their final positions after dark.
The hours slowly passed. At quarter past eleven, Sage -deep in the grove, part of the silent cordon surrounding the clearing- heard an owl hoot her question. The male partner answered, from the other side of the wood. Woo, woo. Tawny owls. Brock should be happy. The desert is coming back to life…but oh, at what a price. He kept thinking of Fiorinda, walking alone across the haunted fields, this girl who is more stubborn than God, and seeing in his mind's eye those carcases, the sheered planes of flesh, the thick ropes of blood, the major bones sliced clean through. What the fuck did that?
Fiorinda says there's nothing weird going on.
Would she lie to me? Would she lie to Ax? Why would she lie…?
Beside him Fergal Kearney shifted uneasily. He had the toughness of a hard-drinking man. He was coping well with field conditions, amazingly well, considering his state of health. But the rifle he'd been given tonight -for the look of the thing, since everyone else was armed- seemed to bother him. He kept fidgeting with it.
'You want me to take that for a while? They're heavy buggers if you're not used-'
'Tell the truth,' whispered Fergal hoarsely, 'I'm wonderin' how I'd make out if it came to a fight. It's not the first time I've had a gun in me hands. I wouldn't want you to think that. But… I've never killed a man.'
If it came to a firefight, Fergal would keep his sheet clean. They hadn't given him live ammunition. There's too much that doesn't add up, about our Irish 'defector'.
'It's not going to happen. Nobody's going to get killed.'
'How's yer boy? I niver asked after him yet.'
'Marlon?' Sage shrugged. 'He's okay.'
'Marlon Williams, isn't it? I remember I met him onc'st. Lovely boy. Now that must be a very hard thing, not to have the naming of yer own son.'
'I can live with it. Knock it off, Fergal. Continue in that line, an' you'll annoy me.'
'Jaysus, there I go. I've a big mouth, God help me. I didn't mean to offend.'
The glimmering skull was wearing an eye wrap that gave it the look, in the ash-grey shadow of the night, of some solemn allegorical figure -blind justice? It offered Fergal a crooked grin. 'You're right, it is a hard thing. Now shush.'
Softly, in the distance, they heard the murmur of an approaching car.
The car stopped in the layby and two people got out, a man and a woman: the driver stayed inside. They seemed to be checking for signs of danger, but they were confident and didn't investigate very thoroughly. They looked around, with flashlights, and then got back into the car. The rest of the cars arrived an hour later. Barmy signals had detected the use of a radiophone, but hadn't been able to eavesdrop. These people were not amateurs. They got out of the cars, and gathered together. About twelve thirty they set off up the track, dressed for a glitzy night out: carrying coolboxes, swinging flashlights, the women stumbling on high heels. Most of them were wearing masks, strange animal muzzles and horned things glowing in the dark; a few had naked faces. There were murmurs, and sharp bursts of laughter; but mainly they were silent. Where the track entered the grove a small group detached itself, and barred the way. The guests were scrutinised, one by one, and briefly questioned: a formality. No digital masks were removed, no one was refused entry.
Sage had been dividing his attention, with the ease of long practice, between several scenes: the dark wood around him, the live feed from the concealed night cameras. A few minutes after the congregation started entering the clearing he spoke softly to Brock, who was next to him on the other side from Fergal.
'Hey, Brock, look after Fergal for me will you. Got something to do.'
There was a queue outside the changing room. People already sky-clad mingled with those who were still dressed. Grease tubs hanging on the wattle walls had been lit; the women's dresses glowed with colour in the trails of smoky light. Evening jackets, glossy leather. Sage watched, from just outside the fence. As expected, the crowd belonged to the green revolution's fashionable camp-following, rather than the Counterculture itself: which made sense. There were hippie extremists who would go for human sacrifice, but they would never commit personal transport hypocrisy to get to the venue.
A horned man went around with a horse skull full of something dark, marking masked and unmasked faces on the brow. A scatter of conversation rose, and fell, and rose again. Time to move. Sage stripped off the wrap and stowed it, switched the living skull to a conventional, charnel version, grabbed the top of the wattle fence and vaulted over. Ax was with the police, and not available for much consultation, but it didn't matter. They'd agreed on what to do, if the worst should come to the worst. Which it had. The night camera at the entrance ritual had left no room for doubt. David Sale was here.
A bare-faced woman saw him as he landed. She beamed, eyes like pinwheels. Not much danger of being spotted as a stranger. He would bet most of the punters preferred to be well out of their heads for the business part of the evening, even if they were convinced human sacrifice was the acme of green cool. He hunched his shoulders and stayed near the tallest people, just in case: and watched the line going into the toilet block.
'Ax,' he murmured, touching his wrist. 'Got him. He's inside. Now.'
An explosion of floodlights, a wail of sirens. Loudhailer voices, this is the police.
Everyone panicking, trying to leave, finding a wall of bodies and weapons in their way-
Sage shouldered through the naked people who'd rushed for the toilet block, and were scrambling out of it, clutching their clothes. The last of them, he shoved out as he pushed his way in. He locked the door. By the light of a dim fluorescent tube, he saw stacks of lockers, a row of basins, a row of cubicles, strewn clothes and shoes. He locked the door. Half in and half out of the last cubicle, two half-clothed men crouched over the naked body of a third, trying to get him dressed, against his feeble resistance. The man on the floor was wearing a bull's head mask. A white-face clown and a demon of some kind stared up at Sage in desperate consternation.
'Get out of here,' said Sage.
They left.
He shut the door again (quite a riot going on out there), restored his own mask to its usual setting, squatted down, switched off the bull head at the patient's wrist-controller, and administered a vicious dose of straighten-up. David Sale opened his eyes, his face crumpled like a protesting child: then he jerked convulsively into a sitting position, eyes popping, his back against the toilet.
'Yeah. Sage. And look, he's got real arms and legs. Want my autograph?'
The Prime Minister clasped the sting on his neck, looking terrified.
'What have you done to me?'
'Don't panic, it's just straighten-up. I haven't hurt you. Yet. '
'No, no. You don't understand. I must be naked. I can't be here. This isn't happening.'
'Shut up drivelling, put the mask back on and get dressed.'
The night-club raid noises peaked and died down. A barmy signals voice in Sage's ear was telling him the bad possibilities (armed resistance, serious casualties) that had been avoided; the alarming discoveries (sophisticated weapons, mysterious high-tech devices), that were being made. Finally the door opened a crack. Two barmies looked in: Jackie Dando and Chris Page.
'How's it going?' said Sage, glancing over his shoulder.
'S'all over,' said Jackie chirpily, full of it as usual; and trying hard to get a good peek at the bull-headed geezer. The barmies didn't know who was getting rescued, but they knew he mustn't be recognised. 'No trouble, just a bunch of naked hoorays, frowing up and crying for their lawyers. We're minding their socks and knickers for them, Ax's orders. No one gets past us, right?'
'That's right. Wait outside. Be with you in a minute.'
'Okay Sage.'
David Sale had dressed himself. He stood by the basins and took off his mask, so he could smooth his hair. It's bizarre how people will behave… Sage had to work hard to control the impulse to put his autograph on the bastard's slack, terrified face.
'The mask stays on. Please. And please keep your mouth shut.'
The clearing was full of the aftermath of disaster, sights and sounds all too familiar, sobbing people with blankets round their shoulders, armed police, armed hippies. But thank God, this time, no more blood…The Prime Minister and his escort kept out of the light. They went through a fresh gap in the wattle fence and through the wood. There was a truck waiting halfway down the track. Sage got in the back with David Sale, Chris and Jackie in the front with the driver. Off we go.

An hour or so later, the sacrificial bodies had been retrieved, bagged and taken away. The barmy army reinforcements and the police were down in the lane, dealing with the night's haul and waiting for extra transport. Sage, in a filthy mood let it be said, had just called to report that all was well (relatively speaking), and the bull-headed man was in safe lodging, no problems. An armed policewoman was sorting and packing left-behind clothes and personal effects, by the toilet block. Other than that Ax and the Yorkshire lads, and Fergal Kearney, had the clearing to themselves.
Two new victims had been found, tied-up and gagged, in a van that had come along after the cars. From the few questions they'd answered so far, apparently they were street kids -a class that survived, in Ax's England, in spite of the Volunteer Initiative. They knew nothing. Some of the congregation had been making unsolicited disclosures, (babbling like lunatics); but they'd been the ignorant ones. The organisers were keeping quiet. The horseboxes, which had turned up as predicted, were empty.
There was no sign of anything that could have been used to do the killing.
The half-moon of the holy month looked down, wan and dim in contrast with the violent beams of a floodlight hung up on a branch. The barmies stared into the pit.
'Maybe they tear 'em up somewhere else,' suggested someone. 'An' bring them here and strap them on them totem poles already like that.'
'Nah, can't be. What about those kids what was going to be offered up tonight?'
'What do they offer them up for? What's supposed to happen? The end of the world?'
'Zip, you are an innercent. You and Fergal both. There's no reason for it. They do the sicko stuff because they fuckin' like it.'
'Anyway, Sage got a good shufti, and he said… Is Sage coming back?'
'Dunno,' said Ax. 'Maybe. Look, I'm gonna get down there and see what I can find.'
'I don't think the forensic types have finished, Ax,' said Brock doubtfully.
Ax gave him a pitying glance. 'Call yourself a hippy? Okay, I'll get permission.' He walked over to the toilet block, and asked the policewoman.
'I'm sure that would be all right Mr Preston,' she said, round-eyed. 'Er, certainly.'
'Good. If it turns out it's a problem, it's my responsibility.' The tackle that had been used to retrieve the bodies had been dismantled. 'Hey, someone give me a ladder. My name's not Aoxomoxoa you know.'
The barmies started one of their interminable arguments, as to whether werewolves require a full moon, or is that vampires, and what about the silver bullets. Ax descended a nylon ladder into the pit. It was more unpleasant to be down there than he had realised: like being inside a hollowed, rotten tooth. The air smelled foul, the ground was soft underfoot, and already churned up by many bootprints. Those 'forensic types' were going to have their work cut out… The totem poles loomed above him. seeming twice their actual height. He couldn't make anything of the carving, the light was too confusing.
He started walking round the walls, treading over the place where Fiorinda's sprig of Rest Harrow had been crushed into the mud… Fuck. He'd seen other hardcore 'pit-temples', but they were nothing like this size. He imagined the organisation, the hired machinery, the workmen, my God. The blank spaces on the map of England where sores like this can fester, Crisis conditions. Always another disaster, and it always seems totally unexpected; but it's not, it's the same disaster, things fall apart-
The thought of the interview he had to face in the morning was like a lead weight on his soul.
'I don't like this,' muttered Fergal, up above. 'Why's he down there?'
'That's Ax,' said Brock, proudly. 'He's not afraid of any fucking thing. You shoulda been with him in Yorkshire-'
'Hey. There's a metal panel here, with a skim of clay plastered over it! Shit, there are sliding doors in the walls of the pit! It's like an Eygptian tomb, hidden mechanisms. Hey, this is it. This is how! You must be able to lock or open these doors from a distance, radio-controlled, but it's…switched off, or something. I think I can shift it- '
Something made a sound: a hollow, guttural cough.
Even Ax Preston fails to think out of the box sometimes. He'd forced one of the sliding panels, found a black space behind it and gone to fetch his torch, which he'd left by the totem poles. It had not crossed his mind that the tunnel might be occupied. He heard that sound and froze, knowing it instantly, on a level older than conscious thought. Instinctively he moved to get his back against a wall. Mistake. Now the ladder was on the other side of the pit. Ax's rifle was up above, where he'd dumped it before climbing down. He didn't even have a pocket knife.
The tigers trotted out on big soft feet. There were two of them, one larger than the other. In the moonlight they looked huge. They looked as if they could jump out of the pit itself. The barmies stared down, jaws dropping. The only one of them who had a weapon in his hands and a clear shot at the beasts was Brock, and he seemed paralysed. The tigers were probably hungry. They wasted no time. Both animals, beautiful calculating eyes fixed on Ax, crouched fluidly, poised to leap.
'Oh, Jaysus fockin' God!' Fergal Kearney's own rifle was on his back, he didn't bother with it. He grabbed the gun that Brock seemed incapable of using and fired a rattling burst into the pit, eyes tight shut, raking wildly to and fro.
Sage had come into the clearing just in time to see this happen.
He crossed the remaining space very quickly, unslinging his own rifle. The pit now held two very big dead tigers, and Ax, looking stunned but apparently unhurt.
'What the fuck's going on?'
'Oh, God,' Brock had dropped to his knees, covering his face. 'Oh, God help me!'
'It was tigers,' whispered Zip, awed, 'It was tigers. We never thought of tigers.'
The policewoman stood by her pile of binbags with her mouth open.
'They were going for Ax!' yelled another witness, excitedly. 'They were going for Ax, Sage, an' he couldn't get out, an Fergal grabbed Brock's rifle, an shot 'em!'
'Those were Bengal Tigers,' moaned poor Brock. 'There isn't a hundred of them left alive in the world. I woulda done it. I woulda done it, only give me another second-'

'Make that ninety eight,' said Ax, climbing out. 'Thanks Fergal. Good shooting.'
Sage said, 'Are you going to tell me why you were in the pit with two fuckin' tigers?'
'I have no excuse,' said Ax. 'I was being unbelievably stupid. I'm sorry. You can beat me up later.' Shoulder to shoulder, they turned to Fergal Kearney. The Irishman was sitting on the ground, the rifle discarded, holding his head and shaking.
'Oh Jaysus,' he was muttering. 'Jaysus.'
'Are you okay, Fergal?'
'Just help me up, Sage me darling,' Sage helped him up. Fergal clung to tall Sage, almost a dead weight. 'Ah, God, I don't know what's wrong wi' me, it was a wee shock, I'll be over it. That was fockin' loud. That's, that's somethen I never just done before-'
'You did good,' said Sage, intensely. He had taken off his mask. 'I owe you one.'
The barmies crowded round, jabbering with shock and adrenalin and relief. They congratulated the Irishman, they told him he was a natural marksman, but he'd made a fuck of a mess of his tiger-skin rugs, that's one thing you'll have to learn Ferg, you don't want to use an automatic rifle on anything you plan to have for décor after. They talked of measuring the beasts, nose to tail, bet they're recordbreakers. But no one wanted to get back into the pit, so they declared everything should be left as it was.
Police officers and barmy squaddies had come running into the clearing, brandishing weapons. They had to be told what had happened. Ax's unbelievable stupidity at once became a deed of valour, but at least Fergal got top honours. The tigers were hauled out, and found to be wearing radio control shock collars, which probably explained how they'd been trained and handled, but wouldn't have done anything for Ax. Ax tried to comfort Brock, who was a shattered heap…a situation not improved by his tactless mates telling him that the man-eaters would probly've had to be put down anyhow.
And now we'd better find this Irishman a drink.
'Why didn't you use your own rifle, Fergal?' asked Sage as everyone headed for the lane, carrying the bags of clothes and the last of the ambush equipment.
Fergal grinned sheepishly. 'Oh, I knew I woulda been firing blanks. If I was in your shoes, I would not 've given meself live ammunition tonight, either.'