“What do you make of her?” Swan asked Raven, eyes still on the screens.
“You're the telempath, you tell me,” Raven grumbled back. “From where I'm sitting, it looks like she has little to no idea what she's doing.”
“She needs guidance, that is a given. But that...” she cut herself off mid-sentence, eyes pinned back to the screen, which was now showing the passageway. The woman was touching a wall.
“...she really does read magic,” she exhaled, satisfied. Then she turned back to Raven: “All newbies need guidance. At least she has good instincts, it seems.”
“That really is your field more than mine. And since you stopped the Alfa team, I am not really certain what you want from me.”
He was a bit less growly than usual, but his impatience was getting the better of him.
“You see more than you give yourself credit for,” she said with a slight reproach.
“Readiness to run headlong into a lost fight is not a virtue,” he frowned; then, seeing her amused expression, added, “...unless you have a good enough reason for it.”
She said nothing more, only shook her head and left the surveillance room. It was time for the next part of the test.
Raven sighed and forced himself to relax into the armchair, looking at the screen which changed yet again. He thought the early summons meant that the Trinity wants to send him back into the bridge with a clean-up unit. That would make sense. In fact, he was ready to ask Eagle or Wolf to do just that. But the only one of the directors he saw, when he had come in, was Swan, who roped him into a pointless exercise of watching a recruitment of a newbie – hardly a time sensitive thing, unlike the package in the bridge.
He watched the recruit almost jump out of her skin when Tiger spoke to her in the elevator and frowned.
Whatever Swan saw in her, this chick better ace that next part, if she wants a shot at working for the agency...
After the weirdness of the situation outside, the office Risa found herself in seemed almost too normal. Chrome, leather and glass, black and white – all of it practically screamed professionalism (and money). The only strange thing was, there was nobody there. Seeing the empty chair behind the desk straight ahead, she took a couple steps into the room and turned around, looking for the person who has invited her in. There were two full length mirrors in the corner left of the door and seeing her reflection in them, Risa automatically patted her short dark hair down.
Seems I got here too early, after all.
She went to unbutton her jacket, when she noticed something out of the corner of her eye and stopped, focusing back on the mirror. Sure enough, there was a quite prominent field of glow in the opposite corner by the window. Now that she was looking for it, she could see couple other things in the room also had a glow around them (albeit less prominent than whatever was in that corner).
Her instinct was to take a closer look, but she had no idea when anyone could come into the room and didn't want to give the wrong impression. So she went back to taking her jacket off and then sat down on one of the chairs facing the desk – but not before she turned it so that her back was to the wall and she had both the door and the glow in the corner in her peripheral vision. For all the world she looked like she was just settling in to wait, turning her head to look around the room in seemingly random fashion. She noticed a fair number of things that way (oh, look, the computer is running and whoever was using it didn't log out...) however, all the time she was focusing on the glowing space, trying to learn as much as possible without ever turning her head (or eyes) directly towards it, or giving any other outward indication of her interest in it.
After a while she was able to determine that whatever it was, it was roughly human-shaped. If she had to guess, she would call it a shimmering, shining shield, or cloak. The moment her mind parsed these information together, an alarm sounded in her mind. It was quite possible, there could be a person hiding behind that shine…
...and if they are, they have been watching me the whole time. And what's worse, if they can hide themselves behind a shine like that, who knows what else are they capable of.
And just like that her mind and emotions retreated under a protective shell; not a very strong one, Galilhai noticed, but since it happened subconsciously, even that was another promising sign.
Risa continued her observation, trying to see 'beyond the veil', but didn't succeed before she was distracted by the door opening.
“Miss Kopecka, sorry to keep you waiting,” the woman who came in offered her hand and Risa stood up, shaking it.
“No problem,” she responded and the woman waved her back into the chair.
“Let's not waste any more time, then,” the interviewer sat down and swiftly typed something into the computer.
“You are an Iranian immigrant, trying to get a job at an ice-cream parlour – go!”
The woman shot the words off, never lifting eyes from the computer screen, as if it was the most normal thing to say.
Odd and nonsensical questions became a norm in interviews in recent years and Risa has heard quite a few of them since she started looking for a job after the university. Still, this was a new level of weird.
“Imagine you are an Iranian immigrant and you are trying to get a job at an ice-cream parlour. How would you do it?” the interviewer smiled, finally looking at Risa, whose brain just shot into an overdrive mode, trying to find the 'right answer'.
Good thing I always wanted to do acting, she thought, reminiscing on the few improv lessons she took and countless little theatre escapades with friends. ...well, here goes nothing.
For someone who didn't know (probably never even heard) Farsi in her life, she did a decent job of butchering English pronunciation and telling a sob-story about a family back home she needs to support, as well as relating an anecdote about putting a smile on child's face with an ice cream cone. And while the overall impression was playing heavily on stereotypes, she managed to insert few interesting, original and very genuine sounding details into her monologue, Galilhai noted. And she managed to get the initial shocked surprise under control very quickly.
As far as thinking on her feet goes, she definitely has a lot of promise. What she needs is a bit of polish, but that can be worked on.
“That's enough, thank you,” the interviewer smiled again, interrupting Risa's act. “Can you describe to me the man who brought you in?”
Another unexpected turn in the conversation and Risa started to feel like maybe she should stop being surprised and just accept that whatever this interview was for, it was most definitely out of the ordinary. She frowned briefly, as she tried to recall the details.
“Tall, I'd say about six foot, maybe couple inches on top of that. Bald, and whatever rest of hair he has is closely cropped, which makes his ears quite prominent; salt and pepper stubble, hazel eyes. Military man by the way he carried himself. Still very fit, so probably working security, or something like that. Although his clothes were not the suit and tie one expects from security guards. Black cargo pants over what looked like combat boots, black T-shirt and a navy blue zip-up hoodie. No noticeable weapon.”
She stopped, trying to remember if there was anything else important.
“He had a slight accent. I'd say Scottish,” she added after a moment and looked at the interviewer, expecting maybe a follow-up question. But the woman just smiled.
So the newbie has eyes and ears and knows how to use them, nice to know. And, nicer still, she's not all that easily thrown. Of course, that might be at least in part due to her desperation to impress and land this job. Despite knowing very little about what the actual job entails...
The silence that followed stretched on a bit long for Risa's liking, and the sound of keystrokes didn't really help.
“What is your biggest fear?”
The question came out of nowhere (again), just as Risa's eyes turned back to the shining thing in the corner, and seemed totally random (again).
“I'd rather not say,” she replied calmly, but her inner barriers rose up even higher than they have been before. Not nearly high enough (and not quickly enough) to keep Galilhai from reading the response that jumped to Risa's mind automatically. It was almost impossible not to think about the 'right answer' to a question like this as it was asked – even if you ended up voicing something else.
Interesting, the director smiled. Now, let's press her a bit further.
“I am afraid I have to insist,” the woman's smile grew brighter and sweeter.
Risa, on the other hand, frowned a bit.
Why would she even ask that? No person in their right mind would volunteer such information! If I refuse to answer – again – will she fail me? Will she send me away? What kind of a test is this?
“You can't expect me to tell you the truth,” she said finally, as politely as she could. “And I would rather not lie.”
The woman held her gaze for a little while, as if she was trying to read the answer in her eyes, not saying anything. Then she nodded curtly.
“What is the most valuable piece of information that you currently have?”
That thought caught Galilhai by surprise and she almost chuckled out loud. It was one of those involuntary, kneejerk responses that made life interesting.
You sure are a special one, Miss Risa.
Despite herself, Risa's eyes turned to the door. It was just a quick glance, as one part of her contemplated just standing up and leaving.
There could just as well be a flashing “WTF?!” neon sign on my forehead, she sighed inwardly. This interview was really not going… any of the directions she expected it to. But she needed the job. Badly enough to stay. Besides, somehow, all the weirdness felt… somehow appealing. Somehow… right. So maybe she should just roll with it a little longer.
“It would be foolish of me to tell it to you just like that… for free,” she answered with an almost genuine smile.
The woman's eyebrows rose in an indication of surprise.
“Oh?” she responded. “And what would your price be, for that information?”
Risa thought that it would be really stupid for someone to pay for something potentially totally worthless or useless for them. And these people – whatever they were – didn't look like they make stupid business decisions.
“Some information are priceless,” she shrugged.
“Everybody has a price,” the woman countered, actually pulling out a check book.
Who uses checks in the Czech Republic in the middle of the 21st century?
Whatever is enough to put food on the table and pay rent month to month in an apartment of my own…
Risa shook her head at her last thought. No. She might be desperate, but the was not THAT desperate.
Some information is not for sale anyway.
“Actually, the information is not for sale,” she said, hoping the other woman would just drop it and move on.
Now, for the first time, the interviewer's smile dropped and the woman frowned.
“You will have to give me something, Miss Kopecká, if you want this job...”
“Then you should ask me questions I can answer.”
The words were out of Risa's mouth before she could stop them. She froze as she said them, certain she just blew any chance she had to hell. But to her surprise, the woman smiled again.
“What do you know about us?”
That question was almost too normal. One that Risa expected and researched. Which didn't mean it was easy to answer.
Not much. I know I didn't send you my CV, nor apply for any position with you. I have no idea where you found me or why you invited me for the interview. I read your LinkedIn profile and your website.
“Your website says you're a broker company specializing in luxuries and real estate. You also run a network of auction houses and take care of estate sales – but you're peculiar in picking the clients you work with in those areas,” she responded out loud. “You have a lot of people travelling around the world for various reasons. And you're currently looking for someone for the real estate department.”
But judging by all this, you're not exactly a cookie-cutter company, are you?
“And that position would appeal to you? It might involve quite a lot of travelling – and not always to the best tourist destinations.”
“I love travelling.”
That was the first easy and honest answer of the day for her.
“But it also involves a rather… specialized… skillset,” the interviewer continued, getting up and pulling a box out of one of the cabinets. She set it on the table and removed the lid.
“One of these things is not like the others,” she said, indicating five egg-shaped objects with delicate patterns. “Which one?”
Risa looked at them. At first glance, all of them looked identical – but no, there was a slight difference in the pattern on the second from the right and Risa's hand twitched to it. But then she stopped. And looked again. Only this time, she wasn't really looking at the pattern. And she noticed another difference – the leftmost of the things had a glow.
She looked between the two for a moment, then looked up at the interviewer. Normally, she wouldn't mention the glow, but the man who brought her here used the shining door… so maybe she should. Maybe that was what they were looking for.
“You said one… but there are two that are different. This one -” she pointed, “- has a different pattern. But that one -” she turned her attention to the other one, “-glows. None of the others do.”
“Ah, marvellous,” the interviewer gushed. “Not many people notice the magic. It is quite subtle.”
Risa blinked at the use of the word “magic” - but then, that only confirmed her suspicions. The people here not only know about it… they take it as part of their life. Even use it.
Now that's a new one.
She almost didn't notice that the interviewer changed the boxes. Now there were only four objects – this time cube shaped.
“What about these?”
They all glowed. Actually, one of them shined and the others glowed with varying intensity.
“They are all… glowing.”
She couldn't bring herself to call it magic. The interviewer didn't seem to mind. She just nodded.
“Yes, they are. Can you order them for me – from the strongest to the weakest magic?”
Risa grabbed the shining one, then the next one, swapping their places. But as she took up the one that seemed to glow the weakest, she stopped. There was something strange about the glow.
It feels like there should be… more.
She focused on it, bringing it a little closer to her face, squinting her eyes. And there it was. She couldn't say how, but she knew that the weak glow was a shield. There was a much stronger glow – actually shine – underneath it. The strongest of them all.
She smiled and put it to the first spot.
“This one is… masked,” she added by way of explanation and couldn't quite help glancing to the shining corner again.
The interviewer looked at the lined up artefacts and then put them back in their box.
“You are right, it is.”
She put the box away and sat behind the computer again, quickly typing a few notes.
Somehow this made the feeling of 'this is right' even stronger. And Risa determined that whatever the job really was, she wanted it.
And as if on cue, the shining cloak in the corner fell, and a tall blonde woman stood up from the armchair she was sitting in. The interviewer stood up too.
“Thank you, Swallow,” the new woman nodded and the interviewer nodded back and started to leave.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Kopecká,” she said as she passed Risa, who stood up too, more by reflex than anything else.
“Likewise,” she said and turned to the newly appeared woman. She was not half as surprised as she should have been.
“Mrs Laurel?” she extended her hand to her, waiting for confirmation.
“Miss Kopecká,” the woman shook it and nodded. “Sorry for the bit of subterfuge. You'll learn that in our line of business, it pays to be careful.”
She indicated for Risa to sit back down and took the interviewer's place.
“I wasn't aware brokers' and auctioneers' lives were so complicated,” Risa said with a hint of a smile, a bit of a challenge in the words.
“I'm sure you'll hear plenty of stories,” Galilhai smiled at her. “But for now, let's finish up here.”
The interview continued for a few moments more with questions that sounded oddly mundane – with, maybe, one exception.
“What is your favourite animal?”
It took Risa a moment to answer.
“Bird of prey.”
High on the list, but probably not the very most favourite. Also, not quite as specific as one could hope for, Galilhai thought, narrowing her eyes, prepared to ask a follow-up question.
“...but… nothing big like an eagle… something smaller, more like… osprey,” the candidate continued on her own, without prompting.
Osprey… interesting choice.
The director nodded and made a note in the computer file, then closed it and walked around the desk, leaning on it, looking at Risa intently.
“Before we make the final decision, there are some things you should know...”
When she finished her explanation, Risa thought that calling it “some things” was the understatement of the year. Maybe decade. Or century.
Fact was, her brain was having trouble processing the magnitude of it. Not that she could imagine it in the first place.
“It is not a job like any other. And the decision to take it should not come lightly,” Galilhai spoke again. “There will, of course, have to be a trial period, before we finalize your assignment. But for now, the position is yours, if you want it.”
She knows I won't say no. Risa had no idea how she knew that, but looking at the other woman, she just knew.
“When do I start?”
“How does immediately sound?”
“Alright,” Galilhai smiled and pushed herself off from the desk. “Follow me.”
She led her outside – the soldier… agent?… was still standing by the elevator door.
“Tiger, take Miss Kopecká to Brief 1, if you please,” the director told him, waving Risa past herself. “I'll be there in a minute with Raven and the rest of the team.”
Tiger? Raven? Seriously?
“No can do, Swan, sorry,” the soldier responded, with a smirk – hardly something one would expect from a subordinate talking back to a superior. Unless she… Swan?… was not his superior. Swan didn't seem thrown by it, however, and just waited and he continued, waving towards Risa: “Kitten here took my ID card.”
“I didn't!” she defended herself automatically. “And stop calling me Kitten.”
“You should be careful *Kitten*, Swan can tell that you're lying,” Tiger shrugged, unperturbed.
Risa would have told him… a few things, but especially to stop calling her Kitten – again. But before she could, Swan interrupted.
“The briefing room is on the third floor, second door on the right,” she said to Risa. “Can you get there on your own?”
Risa shot a look at Tiger, who took a few steps away from the elevator and was now standing, his arms crossed, watching her. Then she looked back at Swan and nodded. Swan motioned to Tiger and they both turned their backs on Risa, walking down the corridor. Risa waited before they took a couple more steps and then turned to the elevator door, pulling out the stolen card.
She realized something was wrong the moment she laid her hand on it and focused.
It's coded somehow. It will not work...
She contemplated looking for stairs.
Surely in a building this old there must be a staircase. If nothing else, it would be a gross breach of the fire code not to have one… But what if the door to it are coded or need a card too?
Risa didn't want to admit defeat. She can't fail like this, five minutes into the job. And so she forced herself to relax and looked to one side, then to another.
If I was building this… the stairs would be just…
She started walking, stopping in front of a door – which looked pretty much like any other door in that corridor – and pushed the handle. To her slight surprise the door really gave way and she was looking at a staircase.
She trotted one floor down, went back to where the elevator should be and counted the doors from there. She didn't see anyone, so she figured she got away with her little stunt – only to push the handle… and walk into the door that refused to open.
“You have to give it to her, she *is* resourceful,” Raven growled at the screen, as he heard the surveillance room door open. “But if you don't mind, Swan, I really need to talk to Wolf. He didn't send a team into the bridge yet, did he?”
“No he didn't. You're on it, so you'd know,” Eagle's voice responded and Raven turned to face the man.
But before he could say anything, it was Swan, who came in too, who spoke: “I am glad you approve of her – she's going in there with you.”
Swan braced herself before talking to Raven – she always did, as did any other empath who knew him. She had the advantage of knowing, that however she puts it to him, there will be an adverse reaction to the news. And he never appreciated anyone trying to soften the blow.
“And whose bright brainfart was that?” his voice dropped low as his anger rose. “You know what, don't bother. The answer is no. I lost a woman there yesterday. I am not taking a green newbie plucked from the street to a dragon's lair. You really are off your rocking chairs.”
“The idea was mine,” Eagle spoke in his usual, calm tone. “We simply have no one else to spare at this moment.”
“What about the last batch through the grinder?” Raven gritted, forcing himself to sound reasonable. Not that he would be any happier with a wet-behind-the-ears larval stage of an agent… but those were at least vetted and tested…
“None of them can read magic the way she does,” Swan took over again. “And they all have their own assignments.”
“You'll have Boar's clean-up unit with you. They will take care of the beast. It's just about locating the package and getting it out of there. Should be easy enough. And she doesn't need to get too close,” Eagle added.
“I won't do it, Eagle. It's not safe. It's madness.”
“I thought you'd say that… and we have two excellent reasons for you to reconsider,” the director replied, looking at Swan.
“She's not just someone we 'plucked off the street', Raven – Lioness recommended her to us. She's her friend and she saw her potential,” Swan said gently. “You might not trust our judgement, but you trust hers...”
If looks could kill, she probably wouldn't be standing there anymore. His emotions and thoughts left nothing to her imagination either. But he didn't respond.
“And the second excellent reason?” he growled instead, looking at Eagle.
“If you don't take her… we'll have to activate Hawk,” the director said almost casually.
Swan had to grip a table as even her inner barriers shook under the anger that just… erupted from Raven as Eagle finished. Of course, threatening to bring Thorne's nephew Killian into the mix was bound to produce a reaction. And if the situation wasn't verging on desperate, Swan would never let Eagle do it – if he felt the need to suggest it. Among other things, because Raven was unlikely to ever forget or forgive it.
The agent didn't say anything. He just glared at the director, almost shaking with rage. There was so much hatred in that glare that any sane person would just turn tail and run. But no sane person would end up being the director of an agency like MORIA.
“I hope you know, using my family against me is a very. Very. Bad. Move. Eagle.”
“Raven, we are currently short on two things in this mission – time and people. So either you take what we give you, or we do what needs to be done.”
Raven stalked out of the room.
“I believe you know my answer,” he growled mentally at the still shaken Swan.
He needed a few minutes to convince himself he doesn't need to kill one – or all – of his directors.