The sirens the team heard earlier led them to an emergency squad and a couple of police cars who were parked in front of a building with a small crowd standing outside. Brackston couldn’t help but feel nervous as he led Lula and Carter through the small crowd. After their face-to-face conversation with Autumn, the three were already feeling on edge and seeing the emergency vehicles was not helping with that.
They were able to sneak into the building that the book signing was to be held in as a small group of people were exiting. They went on seemingly unnoticed by anyone. Once inside, they made their way up the small set of stairs. Brackston’s eyes were already scanning the little area for any sign of Ivan or Elinor.
Relief quickly washed over Brackston when he noticed Ivan standing across the room with his hands stuffed into his jacket pockets. Sitting in a chair beside him was Elinor. Brackston was grateful that she was alive but it was obvious from her pale face that she was clearly shaken up. A paramedic and a cop stood before them, the cop asking questions.
Ivan quickly noticed Brackston, Lula, and Carter were standing across the room and staring at him expectantly. He excused himself, unaware that Elinor’s eyes followed him as he approached the group across the room. It certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the rest of the team members.
“I never thought I’d be saying this in my life but I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to see you,” Brackston admitted, wrinkling his nose in disgust. “And saying that has now left a vile taste in my mouth.”
“What the hell happened?” Carter interrupted Brackston’s rambling, his eyes wandering over the area. “I don’t see any bodies.”
Ivan noticed that Carter’s tone came across a bit cold and stern. Looking over to Lula, Ivan gave her a questioning look. She shook her head in such a way that told him now was not a good time to discuss whatever that was all about.
“Whittaker tried to cross off Elinor,” Ivan whispered finally, tilting his head towards where Elinor sat. “I got her out of the line of fire and was about to respond when a civilian with a gun shot the shooter in the arm. It injured the man but he still managed to get away.”
“Damn,” Brackston muttered as he shook his head. “Small town people have an edge. They seem so friendly but I guess deep down, they have a secret side that I wasn’t aware of.”
“Small town people look out for their own. In a community like this, locals will either look out for each other or turn against one another. Sort of like a modern day village,” Lula responded, eyes wandering over to where Elinor sat. “And speaking of looking out, that young woman has been staring at us ever since you’ve walked over. I take it that must be Miss Elsner?”
Ivan almost missed that Lula’s question was directed at him. If it wasn’t for Lula staring at him with that knowing look, he would have missed it entirely. He casually turned to see that Lula’s observation was correct, Elinor was staring in their direction. He figured she was just curious to see who he was talking to but the sight of her pale complexion being replaced with color returning to her cheeks as her face flushed red told him otherwise.
“Come on,” Ivan ignored both Lula’s expression and her question by walking towards Elinor. “I’ll introduce you.”
The officer and paramedic had since moved on to the last few people in the room, leaving Elinor alone up until Ivan returned with Brackston, Lula, and Carter trailing behind. She looked uncomfortable until Ivan walked up. Relief crossed her face as Ivan cleared his throat.
“You remember Brackston,” he began, gesturing to Brackston before pointing to Lula and Carter. “These are our other friends, Lula and Carter.”
Elinor smiled weakly as the other three acknowledged her in different ways. Brackston gave a small wave as Lula returned a smile. Carter muttered something in response but was too distracted scanning the room for potential threats.
“It’s nice to see you again, Brackston. And to meet you,” Elinor spoke softly to Lula and Carter before her weak smile melted into a frown. “Though I wish it was under better circumstances.”
“Are you doing alright?” Brackston asked softly, noticing the way she shivered after he asked his question. He thought maybe she was cold but he soon realized it was more of a tremble than it was a shiver.
“I’m not going to lie, I’ve been better. But it could have been so much worse…” she glanced up at Ivan, a hint of gratefulness was evident in her normally bright blue eyes. At this moment, under the dim lights of the building they were in, they appeared to be more of a clouded green. “Your friend reacted pretty quickly. I don’t know if I’d be sitting here talking to you if it wasn’t for him.”
Ivan tried his best to ignore the fact that both Lula and Brackston were staring at him right now. If it wasn’t for the severity of the moment, he was sure that Brackston would have made some sort of a smart remark.
As if sensing the awkwardness that was beginning to fall between them, Brackston decided to focus the conversation in another direction. “Excuse me if I’m out of line for asking this but do you have any idea why anyone would want to hurt you?”
It was a stupid question. They all knew the reason why someone would want to hurt her but they needed to keep Elinor unaware - unaware of who they really were and why they were really here. If they wanted to get the answers they were really seeking for, they had to continue to play the part of random travelers with good intentions. In this case, that meant asking the stupid questions that they already knew the answers to.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” she admitted, bringing her hands up to rub her temples. “Why would anyone want to hurt any person is beyond me. The world is so crazy anymore.”
Brackston grumbled in agreement, nodding. “If only she knew just how crazy and sinister the world truly was,” he thought to himself.
A voice clearing their throat caught the attention of the four team members and Elinor. Stepping aside, Ivan and Brackston revealed the officer who was speaking with Elinor earlier had walked up with a serious expression on his face.
“I apologize for interrupting,” the officer nodded at the team before looking back at Elinor. “Miss Elsner, I hate to be the bearer of more bad news but I just heard from the station that your alarm was set off. The alarm company tried calling you but they didn’t receive an answer. They think someone might have broken into the store.”
Ivan shot a subtle glare over at the other team members so that if Elinor or the officer had noticed, they would just take it as concern for the situation. What really lurked under the surface of Ivan’s gaze was a desire to know what happened. Acknowledging the teams inability to look him directly in the eyes told him that they had something to do with this.
Elinor looked visibly upset by the news the officer brought her. She stood up from her chair quickly, trying her best to keep everyone from noticing that her hands were shaking. Needless to say, both the officer and the time team noticed.
“Thank you, Officer Davis.” She gave him a smile. “I guess I better go make sure things are okay.”
“That’s a bad idea,” Officer Davis blocked Elinor’s pathway. “You shouldn’t go alone. At least let me walk over with you, so that I can enter first and make sure no one is still inside.”
Elinor nodded slowly before turning to face the team. She was nervously gripping her hands together. “Would you all mind coming along? There’s something I still need to talk about with your friend,” she admitted, her voice shaky. Though it was clear that her question was directed at all of them, it only took a second for the rest of the members to realize that Elinor’s gaze only lingered on Ivan.
Lula’s eyebrows shot up as she looked to Brackston, who was biting back a smile. He must have done something to impress the woman. Brackston was going to have to tease Ivan about this later.
Officer Davis led the group out of the building. They traveled together across the quiet street towards Elinor’s store. Darkness had started to settle over the town, giving off a spooky vibe to the shadows of the buildings and to the quietness that lurked all around.
Once at the building, Elinor let Officer Davis into the front door. He told the group he would give it a thorough walkthrough and let them know what he found.
Lula and Carter remained at a distance from Brackston, Ivan, and Elinor. Carter almost protested when Lula suggested the idea but she managed to persuade him.
The group remained in silence. It felt like the wrong time to talk and every time someone tried to think of something to say, they would clamp their mouths shut. The awkwardness between the group was about as heavy as the evening chill in the air.
Elinor subconsciously ran her hands over her arms. For a good while, Ivan was focused on peering through the bookstores window, silently praying that Officer Davis wouldn’t run into any real trouble while he searched the building. However, when he noticed Elinor’s movement out of the corner of his eye he pulled his gaze towards her.
“Are you alright?” Ivan asked softly, a concern filled his voice. He was worried that she might have been moments away from another panic attack. This was all so much for one person to handle in one night.
Elinor nodded slowly, another weak smile crossing her face. “I’m alright, it’s just chilly and I forgot my jacket.”
Ivan was about to slide off his leather jacket to offer to the shivering woman but the sight of Brackston leaning forward with something gray in his hands stopped him. “You should wear this.” Brackston handed Elinor his zip-up hoodie. “You could probably use it more than me right now.”
Elinor looked surprised, her mouth hung open as if she were about to protest but feeling the softness and warmth of his hoodie when he placed it in her hands quickly shut her up. She slipped the hoodie on without a single complaint and zipped it up over top of her dress.
“You two are being way too kind to me,” Elinor finally blurted out to Brackston and Ivan, her poor attempt at offering them a thank you as she lifted the hood and nuzzled into the hoodie.
Brackston chuckled at both her comment and at the sight of her in his slightly baggy hoodie overtop of her pretty dress. He prayed Layla wouldn’t be upset that he was sharing his hoodie with a stranger he only just met - something he normally would only let Layla do.
Elinor finally gave the two of them her first genuine smile since the incident happened back at the book signing. It made them both feel good to see that she was finally warming back up into the woman that they met yesterday.
“I’m serious,” she remarked, looking between Brackston and Ivan. “I really want to thank you. I just don’t know how.”
Brackston’s eyes lit up as he turned to look at Ivan. Ivan felt uneasy at the sudden excitement that crossed the man’s face. He knew that it couldn’t mean anything good.
“Seeing as your evening was messed up, maybe Ivan could take you out for a cup of coffee. Ivan’s been dying to get out and visit one of your local shops,” Brackston suggested, ignoring the cold stare he was receiving from Ivan.
Elinor perked up suddenly, her eyes flicking up to Ivan as he suddenly forced a neutral expression on his face.
“Well, I think that’s a great idea if you do. I mean, I sort of promised some answers for you and I didn’t keep up my end of the bargain,” she admitted, looking at Ivan hopefully.
“It’s not necess-” Ivan felt the sudden jab of Brackston’s elbow on his side. Ivan almost reacted with a sharp jab back but instead, forced a smile onto his face as he locked eyes with Elinor. He was going to make Brackston pay for this later.
“When would you like to meet?” Ivan corrected himself, stuffing his hands into his jacket pockets.
How it was possible for one person’s face to brighten so much, Ivan had no clue. The woman really was something else - he didn’t know too many people who could be smiling so brightly after such a short period after being faced with the reality of death. She was certainly different.
Officer Davis interrupted their conversation shortly after Ivan agreed to coffee. Apparently, one of the bay windows had been broken and caused the alarm to go off. He did a thorough sweep but found nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary outside of the broken window.
Elinor seemed bothered by the knowledge of the broken window but otherwise relieved that nothing was stolen or destroyed. Officer Davis offered Elinor a ride home but something about the thought seemed to make Elinor tense.
It reminded Ivan of her behavior yesterday, the way she distanced herself from him when he leaned closer to her after they first met. That was the second time a man made Elinor feel uncomfortable. Ivan figured it wouldn’t be the last time he’d see it.
Elinor politely declined Officer Davis’s offer. Once he was on his way, Elinor let out an irritated huff as she locked the door to the bookstore. “I’m going to have to call the insurance company about the window tomorrow,” she groaned, shaking her head.
“Are you going to be okay tonight?” Ivan asked, feeling concern for both her mental well-being and concerned that Whittaker might try something while she was alone in her home.
Elinor smiled softly at his concern, her fingers fiddling with the pull strings on Brackston’s hoodie. “I’ll be fine, so long as you don’t forget to meet me at the coffeehouse tomorrow morning. Otherwise, I’ll be pretty mad. I won’t let you get out of receiving a proper thank you, ‘Just’ Ivan Hayes,” she teased playfully, bringing up her nickname she gave him yesterday. This comment earned the surprising sound of a soft chuckle from Ivan.
“You have my word,” he promised her, unable to help the smile that crossed his face.
She was about to bid him and the others goodnight when she suddenly remembered the hoodie wrapped around her. She started to unzip it and the sound caught Brackston’s attention.
“Keep it,” Brackston told her, giving her a small smile. “I have too many hoodies, anyways.”
Elinor snorted, shaking her head as she zipped up the hoodie. “Thanks… But for the record, you can never have too many hoodies.”
Brackston met her comment with a laugh, shaking his head. Elinor chuckled as she gave them one last smile for the night. “Alright, well… Goodnight, you guys.”
Brackston nodded in acknowledgement to her goodnight as Lula and Carter waved in response. Ivan returned her soft smile with one of his own.
“Goodnight El,” Ivan responded, unaware that as Elinor was walking away, she couldn’t help the smile that crossed her face as the nickname met her ears.
Brackston wrinkled his nose at Ivan as his eyes narrowed. Did Ivan just give the woman a nickname? The hell?
“El?” Brackston questioned finally, laughing once Elinor was out of earshot. “If she’s El, does that make you a creepy older version of Mike Wheeler? If so, I’m sure Carter and Lula would make a great Nancy and Jonathan.”
Ivan rolled his eyes slightly, glaring at Brackston with a dark, cold stare. “Brackston? Do me a favor and shut the hell up.”
With that, Brackston pressed his lips tightly together and backed away to where Lula and Carter were standing expectantly, exhausted and ready to head back to the movie theater for a night’s rest.
As Ivan trailed behind the rest of the team, reflecting back on the day and just how it all had gone - he couldn’t hardly believe how he was feeling about tomorrow. He couldn’t quite figure out why but he was looking forward to coffee with Elinor. Eventually, he figured it had to do with whatever big secret she was harboring.
However, the big fool was unaware that Elinor might have left a slight impression on him. It wasn’t massive enough to warrant Brackston’s endless teasing about him having a crush but just enough that it left him feeling excited for whatever tomorrow’s meeting held.