“So, run this past me again, Drew – you want me to join a unit that does not exist to help babysit a group of the Vanguard’s freaks and failures? I am sure you have held back the bad news until last.”
Drew felt himself wince at the cutting tone. Prudence Armitage was not one to mince her words – it was more usual for her words to mince those she spoke with.
“Don’t you ‘Purdie’ me, Andrew Gilroy! I have just got back from a reconnaissance mission and my mood is foul.”
He loved the way her slightly upper-class accent lingered over the last word, making it sound almost onomatopoeic. But then he adored almost everything about her and had as long as he knew her. Seeing her sitting in her mahogany and glass office, her back straight and her head slightly tilted up so the chisel sharpness of her profile was accentuated, he was irresistibly reminded of their first meeting in Rome. Then she had coal-black hair framing those amazing grey-blue eyes and a gloriously athletic body. She still had the body, but now her choppily short hair was steel, as if it had finally come to match every other aspect of her. For maybe the thousandth time he wondered why he had never asked her to marry him. Now it was twenty years and a hundred encounters too late.
Sighing slightly, Drew turned away from the piercing iron gaze which made him begin to feel uncomfortable like being under the twin barrels of a shotgun. He picked up something, anything, from her desk and looked at it without seeing.
“Silver medal. European Junior Gymnastics Championships. I was 13 years old and trying not to be seen as an overachiever. Even at Roedean that could lose you street cred. Coming second was my social salvation.”
He put the framed medal down quickly and pulled his attention back to the matter in hand. With Prudence, honesty and straight delivery were always the best policy.
“The thing is Purdie, we really are in a bit of a jam. The whole notion of apprentices and preparation for initiation, filtering out the unsuitable as we go is being made redundant by the present crisis. There has been nothing like it in centuries. Sanctorum was not designed to be a – mainstream operation unit. It was set up to be what its name suggests – an asylum for those we couldn’t risk in the open.”
“More like a semi-secure unit for the crazies who can’t adjust to being able to see demons.”
“That is an exaggeration. It has just managed those with adjustment issues. But the numbers recently…” he broke off. Then working to keep the slight trace of his near desperation from his voice, said: “It is getting very bad. You will have heard they opened a new training facility on the Perthshire Estate – already there is talk of a third being needed. And Sanctorum…”
“Sanctorum is being overrun by maladjusted post-millennials who think they are at Hogwarts?”
“But close enough?”
Drew just looked at her. He knew she was being deliberately difficult, but as always he had no idea why. The neat grey outfit gave away nothing of her personality. She wore it like armour.
Sometimes he wondered how she felt when most of her peers – those she had been in training with and who had become her friends – and others much younger than herself, were now in the upper echelons of the Vanguard’s ranks and she was still a lowly commander. It was not that Purdie had ever lacked ability, but as Gita Sharma had read out of from Purdie’s psychological profile at the selection board for this post, she was not suited to take on the responsibility of an independent command. She was, Gita had observed, simply the best lieutenant – fiercely loyal, well able to give orders and run field-missions, so long as the ultimate authority was not herself.
If Purdie was consciously aware of that aspect of her nature and the degree to which it defined her prospects, he had no idea. But she had never shown any sign of resentment even at the promotions of others who had once served under her – or any particular desire to seek a place higher than the one she had held now. Secretly, he suspected she had no wish to leave active service and trade her weapons for a desk and computer terminal.
“Really Drew, you know I have all the maternal instincts of a seahorse. Is a baby-sitting job the best use of my abilities? We are being overrun – what happened in Penrith is just the tip of a very ugly iceberg. We need every capable initiate in the field twenty-four seven. It is not the time for me to be sitting on my bum in a glorified…”
“Sanctorum is a fully operational unit within the Vanguard.” Drew spoke more sharply than he had intended “It has had the highest proportion of mission losses of any active unit in the Vanguard over the last year. They get sent in where anyone more…”
“You mean they are seen as disposable cannon-fodder? Or is their commander a useless wanker?”
“No. I mean it has stood where others would have run. Its CO is a highly competent woman, Janice Roslaird. She has been doing an incredible job with people that no one else can handle. Sanctorum is…”
Purdie lifted a hand to silence him.
“It’s alright Drew, you don’t need to give me the full heart-wringing oration – I have already heard the sound-byte.”
Gods, the woman could be so damn cold! Drew felt his anger rising, then saw the slightly mocking look in Purdie’s expression and bit back his intended retort.
“It’s an assignment, not a volunteer position,” he heard himself say tightly. “I didn’t come here to persuade you – only to inform you. A courtesy between old friends.”
She looked away then, for once perhaps shamed. He could only hope.
“Who put me up for this?” she asked, still avoiding his eyes.
“It’s not like we have many options. Roslaird needs a rottweiler – but she gets you instead.”
“She asked for support?”
“Of course not. She may even resent you – I am sure you would love that.”
Purdie shook her head briefly, but whether in denial or resignation, he could not tell. Then she got up and moved around the desk to stand with him. For the first time he noticed the gouges on her neck and the patch of naked scalp where a row of stitches ran into her hair. Close up he could see etched into her face the marks of exhaustion together with contained physical pain and…
“We lost Nish in the Penrith thing,” she said, as though reporting the loss of a cricket match rather than of her most trusted Sergeant for the last five years. Possibly, rumour had it, something more. “He was torn apart by demons – literally. Bits and pieces. Nothing left.”
Andrew swallowed, unsure now.
I’m s-sorry. I was not informed.”
“It’s alright, you are in good company. His twin sister can never be told and his parents will have no body to bury and be left to wonder forever why he didn’t come home.” She sounded almost offhand, but the storm-sky eyes were unfocused. “Still, you know what they say – the war must go on.”
She moved her body slightly in easy evasion so his comforting hand reached only into air and he withdrew it quickly.
“So. Who? Who do I have to blame for this? Tell me.”
“I can’t tell you that. You know I can’t.”
“Karl? Christa? Josh?”
Drew shook his head. His silence determined and final. Purdie closed her eyes in resignation, head slightly bowed.
“Tomorrow – unless you need medical attention? No? You are sure? Then you’ll get the orders tomorrow to report to Karl at HQ. He’s to brief you formally, after which you will be removed from our active files and transferred to Sanctorum.”
She nodded once, then managed to recapture a brief waspishness which Drew felt was almost entirely for his benefit.
“Does it have to be Karl? He is such an adolescent with attitude, and his cynicism…”
It was always hard to know with Purdie, but it was just possible that the warmth in the smile she gave him then was more than just acknowledgement of his attempt at humour. Whilst he was still trying to decide if that was so, she reached over the desk and swept her grey jacket from the back of her chair.
“Take me for a drink, Drew, and I might even forgive you.”
Following her from the office, he wondered if Karl and Gita really knew what they were doing in pushing for Purdie to be given this assignment and wondered again if he had been wise to let himself be persuaded into supporting the notion…