Mika scanned the meeting room with a small sigh. Holding powerpoint presentations was not usually part of her job description, but in this case, she saw no better alternative. If everyone on the team had reliably read all the reports she sent, it would've been nice. No such luck, though. At least a part of that problem would be solved by the end of this meeting.
Despite how much she wanted to do it, starting the meeting by sarcastically thanking everyone for showing up was probably not such a good idea. It seemed petty, especially since everyone else was already waiting by the time Robbins showed up. So, how else did people usually start presentations and maintain a sense of politeness? She couldn't think of a good way right now. Probably better to skip the pleasantries, then.
“Let's get started,” she spoke with a loud, clear voice. “As you are hopefully aware, our investigation has ground to a halt.”
With a click, she brought up the first slide on the presentation: A full-screen high-resolution picture of their target, Harper.
“We have a few possible scenarios on what has happened to the target, Martin Harper, though they are for the moment all hypotheses.”
She clicked forth the next slide, showing a picture of the cottage where they lost track of him.
“According to both Caroline Ivory’s memory as well as our bloodhounds, this is where his trail ends. We have found DNA on this location that matches strands of hairs found at Harper’s home. Ivory left this cottage with the girl named Tina.”
The next slide listed the first hypothesis with bullet points that popped up as she listed them one by one.
“Hypothesis Alpha is that Mrs. Clover is a mind mage that has altered Ivory’s memories. Alpha-1 is that Mrs. Clover and Tina is the same person.”
Mika noticed Rocco sitting more upright in his chair, obviously surprised by this possible scenario. That confirmed her suspicions: he hadn’t put in the effort to read the reports.
“If she can alter memories, there is nothing preventing her from shaping Ivory’s perception of herself however she wants. The primary counterargument against this hypothesis is that several of our agents have personally confirmed Tina's dampening field: a mind mage with a dampening field is extremely unlikely, but we can’t completely rule out the possibility.”
She clicked to the next slide.
“Hypothesis Alpha-2 is that Mrs. Clover is a mind mage, but not the same person as Tina. This is obviously a more likely scenario, but it begs the question: who is Tina then? In order to confirm or deny this scenario, we would like to get our hands on this girl.”
Rocco raised his hands, and spoke before being given permission: “Can’t Master Chief just wave his hand and use his superpowers to find her, then?”
Mika barely managed not to raise her voice and chew him out. Master Chief was Rocco’s pet name for Mr. Walker. The amount of disrespect necessary to call your boss a pet name in his presence was almost unbelievable to Mika. She glanced towards Mr. Walker, but saw no reaction on his part. Maybe that was the reason why Rocco dared to call him something apart from his own name: he never seemed to mind anything unless it directly interfered with his objectives.
“Mr. Walker’s spell requires at least a rudimentary connection to the target. A picture, a fairly unique full name, a general feeling of who this person is, or something along those lines. Apart from the name Tina, which we haven’t even confirmed is her real name, we have none of those things. The fact that we can’t find any pictures matching her increases the likelihood that this name is not her real one.”
Before Rocco could spew out any more nonsensical questions, Mika moved on to the next slide. It had the header ‘Tina’ with a blank picture and a question mark underneath it.
“Hypothesis Beta is based on Ivory’s memories. She believes Mrs. Clover transformed Harper to Tina right before her very eyes. This sounds highly unlikely, but is supported by the fact that Tina seems to believe this to be true as well. We initially only had Ivory’s memories to back this up, but with confirmation from Heidi Michakoliva, we can be reasonably sure this is true. There is also the distinct possibility that Tina has deliberately misled everyone.”
Mika clicked forth the next slide, showing a map of the region zoomed pretty far out.
“Michakoliva has been very forthcoming with information. She has shared her involvement with Tina, and she has accepted getting her statements confirmed by a mind reader.”
As much as she wanted to, Mika opted not to share how Michakoliva came in contact with Rocco. She knew he was embarrassed by how easily he had been detected. It was a mark of shame for a reconnaissance expert of his caliber to be invited in for coffee by his target. How such an expert sensor was assigned such an unimportant job was beyond Mika. She had noted her name on a list of potential recruits for later reference.
“Unfortunately, the way Michakoliva helped Tina ensured that she has no way of knowing where she is, nor any way to contact her. We believe Tina is currently hiding in one of the magical communities. It is also possible she decided to hide in a more mundane place, in which case we are pretty much clueless where she could be.”
She brought forth the next slide, which showed the list Michakoliva gave Tina.
“As our only lead in the case, we have no choice but to pursue Tina. We will reach out to all communities on this list and ask for their cooperation. If one of them volunteers Tina or information on her whereabouts, we will immediately follow that lead. If not, we may be in for a lengthy investigation. Especially so if she used a different name wherever she is hiding.”
She clicked again, revealing a slide with the name of all members of the team, as well as their primary roles.
“For the purposes of investigating the communities, a full team is no longer necessary. As such, we will downsize or current team to a bare minimum, and request more human resources when the need arises.”
She pointed towards the first name on the list.
“Mr. Walker will still officially be leading the investigation, but his presence has been requested in other projects. He will be provided all reports from the investigation, but otherwise not contribute unless there are relevant changes.”
Mika looked towards Mr. Walker, to see if he had anything to add. He was exactly as stone-faced as normal. This used to worry her to no end, but she eventually learned that this basically meant ‘everything's fine’. She moved the pointer to her own name.
“I will remain active as the team coordinator. Robbins will also remain on the team. His communication abilities will be useful when reaching out the communities.”
Her eyes fell on Rocco.
“Unfortunately, until we have a more solid lead, we will have to drop Agent Rocco from the team. We may request your help again if we have the need to scout a specific place.”
While she wasn’t a fan of his theatrics, she didn’t mind working with him in general. At least compared the next person on the list, Sanders.
“For the time being, we see no reason to include a combat specialist. Agent Sanders, until we have a need for your services again, you will be assigned to other projects.”
Actually, she would do anything in her power to avoid working with him again. She was definitely not happy working with someone who considered groping her ass acceptable behavior. If he had taken the hint the first time, she might have forgiven him, but there was no excuse for doing basically the same thing again. Three times. One of them more a slap than a grope, but still. He could take his bestial manners and practice them elsewhere, hopefully on willing rather than involuntary targets.
Of course, she wasn’t satisfied with just dropping him from the group: she wanted him properly punished for his actions. But such processes took time, and getting him out of her face was a good start. In the first place, she had a rule of not engaging in sexual interactions with her colleagues: it rarely ended well. Regardless of that rule, though, taking a boyfriend who felt he was ‘entitled’ to touching without consent, definitely would not end well.
“That’s it?” Sanders spoke up, “Asking nicely, that’s your entire plan?”
Of course he had to challenge her plan, despite being taken off the team. Or perhaps it was precisely because he was removed from the team, and believed she was doing it for petty reasons. While she certainly disliked his guts, she would not have been able to justify that as the reason to Mr. Walker.
While he would probably never grope someone in a million years, Mr. Walker also seemed unable to understand why someone else would. Mika had caught herself wondering how Mr. Walker’s marriage worked several times, or even how he got married in the first place. His wife really had to love the silent type, unless he against all odds opened his mouth in her presence.
Returning to the problem at hand, she addressed Sanders with complete professionalism: “No, we will also offer payment for useful tips, as well as look for witnesses and surveillance cameras that have spotted Tina. However, I see no reason to explain this to someone who is essentially an outsider and a potential information leak.”
Sanders darted up from his seat and was in front of her so fast she involuntarily closed her eyes and pulled her head back. When she opened them again, his finger was almost touching her nose. As expected from a combat specialist: his reflexes were top notch.
“Are you saying I can't keep my mouth shut, bitch?”
She took a step back to put some distance between herself and the threatening finger, but he simply followed her. His respect for personal space was obviously on par with his respect for her butt. She took a deep breath and tried to collect herself.
“I'm saying one that is neither part of the team, a supervisor to the team, or a member of the council has no need to know, and thus no right to know. As of one minute ago, you are no longer part of that exclusive club.”
During her speech, Mr. Walker has gotten up from his seat, and approached Sanders from behind, with extremely unsubtle steps. Her boss loomed behind Sanders, his face as blank as usual.
“Stop,” he commanded Sanders.
Sanders threw a look over his shoulders before returning his attention to Mika.
“Keep out of this, Steve. This is a discussion between me and this bitch. We both know the real reason…”
While meeting Sanders’ eyes, Mika became aware of movement behind Sanders. In the span of about one second, Mr. Walker grabbed Sanders’ other hand, the one not busy trying to poke out Mika's eye. Sanders’ eyes widened, but before he could do anything more, Mr. Walker pushed Sanders’ index finger back until a sickening crunch could be heard.
To his credit, he endured the tortuous motion without uttering a sound, but the look in his eyes, as well as the spontaneous tears, revealed some of the agony he felt.
Mr. Walker immediately released Sanders’ hand, and the guy darted several meters away, taking up a combat stance. The broken finger on his left hand stood out at a very odd angle. While Mika was watching, his mouth changed shape, becoming closer to a predatory beast, complete with very threateningly canines. His stance became lower, as if he suddenly was more comfortable on four than two feet. There were other subtle changes as well, adding to the predatory look.
Mika knew from his file that Sanders could perform a limited physical transformation, but this was the first time she had seen it happen with her own eyes. She had good reasons to believe that this shape increased his combat potential; why else would he use it now? She felt a sense of instinctual fear, like a herbivore in the presence of a carnivore.
Mr. Walker, on the other hand, looked as stone-faced as ever. He hadn't moved, nor taken up a combat position, he just stood still watching Sanders. He also scared Mika slightly, but for entirely different reasons. His almost alien lack of reaction to the situation unnerved her.
“Leave,” Mr. Walker said in a very commanding voice, obviously addressing Sanders. He maintained eye contact for about three seconds more, then turned around and walked towards the exit like nothing had happened.
This left Sanders with a peculiar choice: let him go or attack his back. Mika could practically see him thinking hard, probably something along the lines of ‘can I claim self-defense if attacking now?’
After a few more seconds of extreme silence save for Mr. Walker's steps, he dropped out of his combat stance and reverted to human again. Everyone collectively released their breaths.
Sanders sent Mika a glance, but immediately broke it with a 'tsk' and walked towards the door. Before he walked past her, Robbins placed himself between Mika and Sanders. Robbins was not particularly adept at combat, but he could read the situation and probably judged that he was at no real risk while accomplishing his gentleman demeanor. Mika appreciated the gesture, regardless.
“Are you okay?” Robbins asked after Sanders had left the room.
“Yes, thanks,” she acknowledged his concerns. “I just hope he has sense enough not to try anything stupid later.”
“I would never have expected Master Chief to pull something like that,” Rocco chimed in, “I'll move very carefully around him, starting now.”
“There's no need for that,” Mika pointed out, “He only pulls stunts like that when he thinks you are in his way, metaphorically speaking. I wouldn't exactly recommend punching him to test his patience, but if you just act normal, you'll be fine.”
“Fine my ass,” Rocco cursed, “Suddenly I'm glad to be off the team. The lack of feelings on his face when he broke Sanders’ finger… ouch.”
Mika silently agreed. Though she wasn't quite as unnerved as Rocco, having witnessed a similar episode before, she was far from comfortable with all of his behavior.