A Light Burning Out
Ivan tugged on a dark brown leather jacket as he prepared himself for the evening that was ahead. He wasn’t entirely thrilled that he’d have to face the evening alone but the quirky author made it pretty clear - if he wanted to know what the big reveal was about her book, he’d have to be present at the event tonight. His only hope was that the reveal wasn’t some sort of fluke that led the team nowhere on their mission.
Ivan was about to head out when the sound of someone chuckling in the doorway to the team’s arranged sleeping area shook Ivan out of his thoughts. Peering in that direction, he noticed he was being watched by a smug Brackston.
“I see the preparations for your date tonight are going well,” Brackston teased, earning a subtle eye roll from Ivan. Leave it to Brackston to be a monumental pain. Two could play at that game.
“Do tell me, when was the last time you took your Layla out on a real date? I mean, Professor Altman likes to keep you holed up in that lab a lot...” Ivan pointed out to Brackston, watching with amusement as Brackston’s smug look faded.
Brackston wanted to retort in some way but he clamped his mouth shut, unsure of how to respond to Ivan’s snarky question. Ivan felt himself smirking at the mere knowledge that he had stumped the normally quick witted man.
Brackston decided the next best choice of action would be to change the subject. Seeing as Ivan was going to be the only one at the event, Brackston wondered if maybe Ivan had any theories on what Elinor’s big reveal might be. Brackston cleared his throat finally, ignoring the look Ivan was currently giving him. “Any theories on what Elinor might share tonight?”
Ivan shrugged his shoulders as he did a mental check over everything he needed for tonight. He had his wallet, a cell phone to call for backup, his gun in a holster beneath his leather jacket, and a pocket knife tucked safely in his back pocket. He silently prayed he wouldn’t have to use either of those last two items.
Brackston seemed discontent that Ivan was unwilling to voice his opinions on the matter. He was about to press the man to be more open with his thoughts when the sound of footsteps echoed from down the hall.
Brackston peeked down the hallway to the sight of Lula sprinting up, Carter trailing closely behind. Lula’s wide eyes and harbored breathing gave off the impression that the two had witnessed something sinister. That, or they had been caught somewhere doing something they shouldn’t have.
“Ah, glad the lovebirds could finally join us,” Brackston quipped, shaking his head. “You know, Agent Simone wouldn’t be thrilled if she found out you two were sneaking out for a little-”
“Is Ivan still here?” Lula quickly cut off Brackston breathlessly, leaving Brackston to glare at her with a questionable expression.
“Really? I don’t know if Ivan wants to talk right now. He’s getting ready for his-” Brackston stopped himself the moment Ivan entered the doorway, swallowing hard at the sight of Ivan’s dirty glare. Brackston carefully distanced himself from the man as Ivan focused on Lula. “What is it?”
Lula did her best to relay what she overheard at the candy shop. She paused every so often to catch her breath but kept going at a pace that wouldn’t waste any of their time. From what Brackston and Ivan could gather from Lula’s story, it appeared that she feared that Whittaker was in town looking for Elinor and that they were making plans to visit the bookstore.
Ivan furrowed his brow at her assumption. This meant that he needed to get himself to the location of the event as soon as possible, to ensure that nothing happened while she was there.
Carter, however, had a different plan entirely. “I think we need to head over to the bookstore. Whittaker might try something if they think she’s there.”
Ivan glared at Carter darkly. To keep his frustration under control he brushed past the rest of the team in an effort to leave this conversation behind. “You take the team and keep an eye on the bookstore, I’ll be across the street doing my part of the mission.”
Carter’s eyes darted threateningly towards Ivan. Brackston noticed at that moment that Carter was already clenching his fists. Carter was not a fan of Ivan’s inability to listen to orders. “Did you not hear Lula? The asset is going to be at a book signing, but Whittaker-”
Ivan quickly whirled around, his jaw clenched as he glared at Carter. He was getting tired of the soldier constantly trying to show dominance over the entire team. “The asset has a name, you ass!” Ivan growled, an edge to his voice. “Just in case you didn’t catch it, it happens to be Elinor. And Elinor? It so happens that she has answers that might be able to help us figure out what the hell all this has to do with our first mission.”
A heavy silence settled over the small hallway, one that left nothing but the sound of the occasional vehicle going by to fill in the void. The last time Carter pushed Ivan to his limit was when he was dead set against Ivan joining the team, the soldier’s words nearly provoking the man to engage in a fight, which seemed to be the case right now.
Much like the first time, this fight never happened. Ivan managed to get his point pretty well across without triggering Carter into attack mode. It was a pretty shocking sight for Lula and Brackston to witness. Perhaps Carter never retaliated because he knew that Ivan was right.
The silence allowed Ivan to calm down. He raised his hand to pinch the bridge of his nose, lowering his voice to speak. “Plus, I don’t know if you thought of this but maybe Whittaker already knows about the event? For all we know, you’re wasting my time right now and the person we were hired to protect could very well already be dead.”
Brackston swallowed hard. The thought of such a young, nice woman being crossed by Whittaker left a sour feeling in the pit of his stomach. He barely even knew the woman and already he was feeling upset at the idea of her dying at the hands of the organization.
The soft sound of Lula clearing her voice interrupted Brackston’s thoughts as she nodded towards Ivan. “Ivan is right,” she began, ignoring Carter’s hard, cold stare. “If we intend on getting the answers we need, Ivan has to be at that event. The rest of us can handle keeping an eye on the bookstore. Maybe we’ll find some answers of our own while we’re there.”
Her response was enough to settle any further debates from taking place between the team.
Ivan pressed his lips tightly together, giving the team a half reassuring thumbs up before turning to make his way towards the door. The three remaining members of the team watched as Ivan walked off without a single word to any of them, setting their plans for the evening in motion.
Ivan no sooner opened the door to the building at the address Elinor had given him, and already he felt uncomfortably out of place. At the bottom of the short staircase he could already see the heads of a few people and hear the bustling noises of a small crowd. He climbed the stairs that led up into a small room. There were a variety of paintings and art pieces that lined the walls and floor of the small area. Seeing the small crowd moving around to check out the different pieces suddenly made him feel nervous.
If Whittaker were here, they would stick out like a sore thumb amongst the crowd of locals. Thanks to Agent Simone’s files, he had seen enough of them to know what to keep an eye out for. What made him uncomfortable was the fact that everyone here seemed to be aware of the fact that he wasn’t from around here. He was reminded of why he hated small towns.
Ignoring their piercing glances, Ivan made his way over to a small table of refreshments that was set up. There was wine, water, and lemonade available to drink, as well as cookies, a cheese tray and crackers to choose from. He carefully plucked a small glass of water off the table and turned to walk away when a figure bumped into him.
Ivan’s reflexes quickly balanced the person that bumped into him with his free hand, the other hand held tightly onto the little plastic cup of water so that it didn’t spill onto either party. He was about five seconds from telling the person to watch their step when he recognized the face that was staring back at him.
Elinor looked different than yesterday. Her brown, curly locks were pulled back into a simple bun. Her makeup was a bit more sophisticated and less neutral, making the green in her blue eyes a bit more vibrant - or maybe that had to do with the fact that her eyes lit up the moment she realized who she bumped into.
“You made it!” she exclaimed, excitement filling her tone. She was unaware of the fact that it was currently taking every ounce of control Ivan had to keep his jaw from hanging open like it did yesterday.
His eyes trailed down from her face to the outfit that she was wearing. She stood before him in a black dress that hugged her upper midsection, the skirt flaring out as it landed directly above her knees. An old fashioned floral design on the skirt consisted of a darker black velvet embroidery, leading all the way up to her chest. The only thing that appeared to be different from the rest of the dress was the way the sheer black sleeves revealed her shoulders.
Elinor noticed that he quickly looked her over, looking down quizzically, she realized that he had been taking in her dress. “Ah, isn’t it pretty? It’s an vintage dress, restored at an antique shop. I bought it locally.” She turned slowly, giving him the chance to see it fully.
It was ridiculous how comfortable she felt talking to him at this very moment with how little space there was between them. It was even more ridiculous how radiant this new level of confidence made her appear to be - it was as if he were talking to a whole different person entirely.
It finally registered that Elinor had asked him a question. She stared at him expectantly, her eyebrows raised and her lips pursed in amusement at his silence.
Damn it. She had to stop doing that.
Ivan cleared his throat, nodding approvingly. “You look… nice.”
Elinor snorted at his response, shaking her head slowly. “You don’t handle talking to women too well, do you?”
Ivan was almost offended by her remark but he kept his face neutral. He didn’t want to give off the wrong vibe - whatever that might be. After a couple of years in prison and prior to that, having been happily married, he knew he was rusty.
“I’m not a fan of parties,” he admitted, taking in the crowd. “I meant it when I said I prefer spending a good day indoors with a book.”
He silently hoped that the comment would deter the young woman from communicating with him anymore. Ivan didn’t want to befriend anyone on this mission. She was just an asset - an asset with a name. Much to his dismay, the comment seemed to have the opposite effect than what he wanted.
Elinor giggled at his comment, shaking her head as she leaned back on her heels to get a better look at him. “Are you even real? I swear, you’re like the ideal mysterious love interests from one of the books in my romance section at the bookstore.”
Ivan wasn’t sure how to respond at this moment. Whoever this person was before him, he feared she had to be a Whittaker clone. There was no other way to explain the sudden shift in attitude.
She quickly caught on to his silent demeanor and noticed that his face was blank. She awkwardly brought her hands over her midsection as she bit down on her lower lip. Whatever confidence was there a few seconds prior was long gone.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, flushing slightly. “I had like… two cups of coffee and a Dr. Pepper before the event. Events make me nervous enough, but public speaking? The thought terrifies me. Caffeine tends to help me feel more confident, perhaps even a little too hyper…”
For the first time since he walked in the door, Ivan could feel himself relax as he let out a soft chuckle at the women’s honesty. Thank God. So he hadn’t failed his mission.
“If it makes you feel better, I think you’re going to do a good job,” he admitted, taking a sip out of his water.
She narrowed her eyes at him, raising her head as if to appear confident again. He couldn’t figure out why but this woman’s character was amusing as hell. A small part of him wished that the rest of their mission had been this light hearted.
“You sure are quick to make a judgement about someone you’ve only just met,” she mused, keeping her eyes locked on his.
Ivan tilted his head slightly, licking his lips slightly as he allowed the first real smile this evening to cross his face. “I like to think that I’m an excellent judge of character.”
She opened her mouth to respond to his comment but the sound of someone quieting down the chatter of the small crowd quickly caught her attention. She looked back at Ivan for just a second, giving him a small smile that gave away that her nerves were back. He tried his best to give her a smile that was reassuring but he wasn’t for sure how much of a reassurance it would actually be.
Elinor took her spot next to a small shelf displaying a few copies of her book in the center of the room. She looked visibly uncomfortable being at the center of attention. Her posture was slightly stiff but her smile was a warm distraction that kept anyone from noticing.
“I really want to thank you all for being her tonight,” she began, her voice loud as she took in the crowd. “I wasn’t for sure what to expect at my first book signing - but wow. I would have been excited if there were only two of you right now.”
With her remark, Ivan glanced around to gauge the number of people that were standing around. If he were to guess, there had to be about thirty people in the small room.
He noticed that Elinor quickly relaxed at the sound of the people chuckling at her remark. She picked up one of the copies from the display, holding it up for people to see. “This book took a few years to bring together. A lot of research was done to make sure that the history displayed was accurate and true. While there are fictional aspects to it, I want you all to know that this book is prominently a non-fiction book about Henry Filaby, the beloved founder of Keystone Books.”
Her comment created a visible interest in the crowd. Ivan couldn’t gauge if the interest was of good intention or if they thought that the same way Carter did - that the woman was simply seeking attention.
Elinor didn’t react to the soft murmuring that went throughout the small room. Instead, she focused on delivering the remainder of her speech. Ivan hoped that this was the moment that would finally give them some answers.
“Henry Filaby, as many of you all know, was not a local man. He moved here and opened Keystone in 1932. It was painfully obvious that he was an outsider. What many didn’t realize was that Henry Filably was actually just a cover for who was really Herbert-”
A scream erupting from the small crowd stopped Elinor from ever finishing her speech. Ivan quickly noticed movement from the crowd out of the corner of his eye. A man with a nice suit and a hard expression was bounding up the stairs, in his hands was a gun pointed directly at Elinor.
Ivan only had seconds to react and he was grateful that the refreshment table was directly next to where Elinor was speaking. He dropped the plastic cup in his hand and grabbed Elinor by her shoulders, forcing her down with him behind the bookshelf. Ivan was confident that he had just narrowly missed them being shot at as the sound of a gunshot rang out through the room.
“Stay down!” Ivan commanded Elinor, reaching into his jacket and peering around the corner of the display. He was about seconds from pulling out his own gun to fire on what could have only been a Whittaker agent, when a second gunshot cut through the sounds of panicked people.
Ivan was surprised to see that the second gunshot had come from a civilian standing clear across the room. He was holding his own gun and had amazingly caught the Whittaker agent off guard, grazing the man’s arm. It took him a moment to remember that this was Small Town USA - and that he was surrounded by mostly small town country folk. At this moment, Ivan was grateful for that.
Ivan watched as the Whittaker agent continued holding out his gun but instead of making a single shot, he carefully made his way back down the stairs. No one dared to move a muscle in fear that he would start shooting again.
Except for Ivan, who bolted from his hiding spot and to the top of the stairs. His hand was ready to whip out the gun hidden in his jacket but much to his disappointment, the Whittaker agent bolted out the door. He would have gone after the man if it wasn’t for the sound of a panicked voice ringing out.
“I need help! I think Miss Elsner has been shot!”
Ivan cursed silently under his breath, tearing his eyes away from the door and focusing on the display that he had hidden Elinor behind. He pushed through the crowd that was starting to form around the display, taking in the scene that played out before him.
Elinor was sitting on the floor, her back against the shelf display as if she were using it for support. Her face was pale and her breathing appeared to be heavy and labored. Ivan knelt down, allowing his eyes to roam over her trembling body. There appeared to be no signs of injuries or blood anywhere that Ivan could see.
Looking back at Elinor’s blank face, Ivan quickly noticed how her eyes appeared to be lost in deep thought as if she were in another world. Ticking off the symptoms he was seeing, he quickly realized that Elinor hadn’t been shot but was experiencing a panic attack.
Ivan looked at the nearest civilian. “Miss Elsner isn’t harmed but she’s in shock. I need you to move everyone away and be sure to keep them quiet.”
The man nodded, doing as Ivan had asked him to and coaxing everyone from as far from the display as humanly possible. Once Ivan was content that they were alone as they could be in a shared room with a crowd, he put his attention back onto Elinor.
He knew what this felt like - this overwhelming feeling of crippling fear that left you frozen in time. Looking at the way she responded to this situation and how it triggered such an overwhelming attack, he wondered if maybe she had been through something scary like this before.
“Elinor,” Ivan spoke softly, keeping a safe distance away. “Elinor, I need you to try taking some deep breaths. Can you breathe deeply from your abdomen for me?”
He watched silently as Elinor finally responded to the soft noise, at least to a degree. She swallowed hard and instead of hearing panicked, labored breathing, Ivan was content to see that she was breathing deeply as he said.
“Good, now can you do one more thing for me? I need you to pick a few things to look at in this area. Really focus on them and think about what you’re looking at,” he coaxed, relieved to see that she met his request with a nod.
Elinor’s eyes wandered slowly around the area they were in. She had different things to take in - from paintings, to items on the refreshment table. Ivan wasn’t sure what she was taking in but he noticed in her eyes that she was slowly calming down from the attack.
As she was calming down, fear began gnawing at Ivan. It turned out that Professor Altman’s concerns were correct about the young author. Whittaker knew about her story and they felt threatened by her knowledge - even if the knowledge was purely accidental. Whittaker would stop at nothing to ensure that Elinor was crossed off.