THE GROVE: JULY DISSOLUTION +4
(An Extract from Chapter 4, Castles Made
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
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
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
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
'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
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
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.
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
'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
'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.'
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
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
'What do they offer them up for? What's supposed to happen? The end of
'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,
'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
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
'What the fuck's going on?'
'Oh, God,' Brock had dropped to his knees, covering his face. 'Oh, God
'It was tigers,' whispered Zip, awed, 'It was tigers. We never thought
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
'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
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
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
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,