A second later, I realised I'd actually said that. I hadn't meant for it to escape my lips, it was intended merely as a thought, but I guess the stress of the mission had finally started getting to me. Out in the field, it was easy to control – your stress, your adrenaline, was what you survived on. But after it was all over, back in the camp, it finally all caught up with you. Normally, that was fine and good and expected. Not today, though.
These people weren't my superiors, certainly none of them was the captain that I was used to reporting to after a mission. We stood for a moment, sizing each other up, before what looked like their leader spoke.
“Matthew Church, please come with me.”
So saying, he turned and walked into the back room, followed by his two friends. I stood, stunned, for a few seconds.
I should probably explain – the man, whoever he might be, had just called me by name. My full name. My surname wasn't something I told people. I guess the Church must have a record of the name they'd given me somewhere, but they should be the only ones. Not since leaving there had I used my full name; not even the army knew it. I was just Matthew.
Something about the fact that they seemed to know so much triggered a strange and obscure part of my mind and I felt compelled to follow them, at least to find out how much they knew and how they knew it.
Inside the tiny back room, I found the three of them sitting silently behind a mahogany desk that occupied most of the available space. In front of it, there was one rickety wooden chair. I shot it a withering gaze, and turned to my three… interviewers.
Their eyes were fixed firmly on me in a most unnerving fashion.
“Mister Matthew Church, formerly an orphan in the care of Romira, pupil of the Church of Arimor from 1687 to 1691, and a member of the army's elite scouting regiment since 1694. I am correct?”
I wasn't quite sure whether that was meant to be a question or not, but either way I nodded. It was, after all, perfectly correct.
“Recently dispatched on a mission to discover enemy positions approximately 20 miles to the southwest,” he continued. “You tracked and caught up with what you assumed to be an enemy scout patrol, but listening in to their conversation revealed a rather different truth, did it not?”
I considered my response for a moment, before giving in to the nagging feeling. “How do you know that?” I asked.
“Eyes and ears, Mister Church. Now, if you will let me continue?”
I was silent.
“Thank you. Now, I believe I shall tell you something that you do not already know. The group you intercepted, and who were responsible for the deaths of the rest of your party, were members of a shady organisation known as the Mahandin. Little known outside of Tuborg, I'm afraid, hence the somewhat vacant look now gracing your eyes. They have recently begun to move here in Xanten, and their involvement with certain groups within Darrason is suspected.
“They, and their accomplices, are a danger not only to our country and its political stability, but to the state of our society as a whole.”
“Look, interesting as this is, you seem to know far more about these people than I. What's the purpose of this?”
The man, still the only one of the three to have spoken, sighed and stood.
“Mister Church, we are offering you a choice.”
“A choice?” I replied.
“Yes. The information you overheard from these people is dangerous information indeed – information, we believe, concerning their forthcoming activities in Darrason. We only know generalities, you now know specifics. Specifics that we need to know. This puts us in an awkward position, but a position that we are experienced in dealing with. Your choice, Mister Church, is between accepting a job and walking away from the whole affair right now.”
“A job? Who are you? Why are you offering me a job? Why shouldn't I refuse?”
“We are representatives of an organisation known as the DDB. The gathering of information, and the use of such to protect our country, is our business. We believe you have skills that would be useful to us.”
One of his presumably-subordinates pushed a piece of paper across the desk towards me.
“This is the signed and stamped form concerning your honourable discharge from the army. Should you, of course, accept our offer. The pay is generous, the job exciting, and promotion a distinct possibility.”
“You're making it sound awfully like a business, and I'm no businessman. What happens if I say no?”
“I tear up this form. You go back to the army, explain to your captain why three good men were lost from your patrol without you having encountered the enemy.”
“What? But we did encounter the enemy! Or some secret guerrilla group, whatever they really were.”
“If you turn down our offer, you did not encounter them. Everything you know concerning that event stays firmly inside your head. Let anything slip to anyone, and… Just remember, our eyes and ears have crossbows too.”
“Oh,” I replied. I'd suspected from the start that it would be this kind of interview, but there'd seemed little other choice than to go along with it. In truth, there was little alternative even now. They must have known how distant I kept myself from the army; that I had nothing to lose by leaving it. Besides, I was a practical man, and I'd had enough experience to know that in most situations the appropriate path to follow was the one of least potential danger.
“I'm in,” I said, and we shook hands.
And so it began.