The Tests of Time (Book 1) ✔

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Coffee Mate

Present Day


The team returned to the theater, both exhausted and weary from their missions. Brackston was the first to crash into his cot, pretty much falling asleep as soon as his head hit his pillow. Carter stayed up to update Agent Simone on the current details of their missions and where their plans were headed next. Lula stood nearby listening for as long as she could but eventually left to turn in. Carter was the last one to finally settle into his cot but before doing so, he made sure that she was covered with her blanket.

Ivan sat in the corner of their sleeping quarters in one of the old movie theater seats, silent and seemingly unnoticed by everyone who turned in to rest. Exhaustion was wearing on Ivan but he couldn’t bring himself to turn in to sleep like the others. The thoughts of today’s events weighed heavily on his mind and kept him from the luxury of a good night’s rest.

Sitting in the old movie theater seat eventually grew to be uncomfortable. Ivan stood from the seat and made his way out of their sleeping quarters as quietly as possible. He found himself wandering into the men’s restroom. Ivan was unbothered at how run down the dingy bathroom was. It was everything one would expect from an abandoned movie theater. However, the mirror was perfectly intact, allowing Ivan to glare at his tired reflection.

The moment where Rittenhouse nearly shot Elinor kept crossing his mind. There wasn’t a lot of time to let anything like fear enter his mind at that time but now that he was alone with his thoughts and without distractions, he couldn’t stop the dreadful feeling that now creeped up on him. If he had been just a few seconds too late, she would have been dead. There was no doubt about it. The thought that she could have died tonight terrified him and he couldn’t place why. Seeing as how he barely knew the woman, it didn’t make sense.

Ivan tore his eyes from his reflection, running his hands through his hair as he let out a frustrated groan. He was tasked with the mission to protect this woman earlier tonight but who was protecting her now? If Whittaker was willing to try to cross her off during a public event, who was to say they wouldn’t try it while she was alone, asleep in her bed?

The sound of something shuffling in the doorway pulled him from his deep thoughts. His eyes darted up to the sight of a half asleep Lula who stared at the frustrated man with a confused look on her face. Her soft brown eyes connected with his as she tilted her head slightly. “Is everything okay?”

If this had been anyone else standing before him, he would have avoided the question entirely and ignored them. He wasn’t in the mood for someone to fake being a lending ear in his time of frustration or for anyone to give him false encouragement. However, this wasn’t just anyone standing before him. It was Lula Peterson. He couldn’t have had anyone better ask him such a question at this moment.

“I keep thinking about the mission,” Ivan began, his voice weak. His usual hard expression melted into a soft, tired gaze. “I keep thinking about…”

Lula’s eyebrows lifted slightly at the way his voice trailed off. Her tired eyes suddenly looked more awake as the realization hit her of who he was talking about. “Elinor?”

Lula gathered, by the way he avoided answering her question, that she had guessed correctly. That was the biggest giveaway, anyways. Things like his eyes refusing to meet hers and the way his face appeared both bothered and flushed were just a couple of the smaller things that also made it painfully obvious.

“She’s made an impression on you, hasn’t she?” Lula questioned, leaning against the frame to the restroom. She noticed that Ivan’s posture had grown stiff, his hands awkwardly clenched at his sides as his face looked troubled.

“Men,” she thought to herself. She couldn’t help but roll her eyes at his reaction to her question.

“You do realize that it’s perfectly normal to be impressed by someone, right? Even if they’re someone you just met? There’s no rulebook that says you can’t,” Lula chided him. “I mean, look at Brackston. Brackston is very particular about his hoodies. He told me that Layla’s the only person he will let wear them. Clearly this woman has left some sort of impression on him, too. Why else would he let her keep his hoodie?”

Lula had a fair point. However, there was something more between Elinor and Ivan. He could sense it in the way Elinor’s reactions around him ranged from being fiery, confident, and bold to all of a sudden being vulnerable, open, and honest with him. She wasn’t that way with Brackston and the mere thought frightened the hell out of him.

Ivan simply shrugged in response. Unfortunately for him, the response wasn’t good enough for Lula. She could see through Ivan in a way unlike any of the other team members could.

“Listen,” Lula began, her soft voice capturing his full attention once again. “It’s obvious that there’s something between you two. I don’t think it’s quite what Brackston keeps razzing you about but I certainly think there’s some sort of a pull between you two. I can see it in the way she’s willing to open up to you. I think you know it as well and I’m pretty sure she’s trying to let you know that she knows it.”

Ivan’s eyebrows furrowed together, causing wrinkles to form on his forehead. His eyes were soft and wide. The way he glanced at Lula gave off the impression of a puppy dog stare as he pondered her words.

Lula chuckled lightly at his expression, shaking her head as she tilted her head towards their sleeping quarters. “Come on, I think it’s time you get some sleep. You have an early morning ahead of you.”

Lula turned, placing her hand on the doorframe as the sound of Ivan clearing his throat stopped her from moving any further. She turned her head back to see his expression had melted from that puppy dog stare and into something deeper, a stare with a hint of concern.

“What if I can’t protect her?” he asked finally.

There it was. This was what Lula had been trying to get out of him from the moment she walked in on him in his frustrated state. The truth that was lying beneath the surface.

Lula smiled softly, giving him a reassuring glance. “Today was a win. Take it one step at a time.”

Ivan managed to return her smile, though it was weak and tired, it at least gave her the peace of mind that he was calming down.

“Now, come on,” she responded with a chuckle, shaking her head. “You really need to get some sleep. Can’t have you falling asleep on your outing with the poor girl.”

Ivan nodded in agreement, following Lula back to their sleeping quarters. As he was laying down in his cot and staring at the ceiling, Ivan realized that he was grateful to have a friend again in his life. Sometimes it was nice to have that little voice nudging you in the right directions.

<>

Ivan was grateful that Brackston had at least suggested that the meeting this morning take place at a coffee shop. He slept soundly after his conversation with Lula but he was still exhausted the next morning. His body felt sore from the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements and his head felt cloudy. Right now, he could use some caffeine. However, he waited for Elinor to show up before he placed his order. It would feel wrong of him to order without her.

Ivan frowned as he glanced at his watch, an unsettled feeling washed over him. It was ten minutes after they agreed to meet and she still had not shown up. Ten minutes wasn’t an abnormally long amount of time for a person to be late but their situation wasn’t exactly normal. Ivan’s fears from the previous night were eating at his mind again. What if his concerns were legitimate and Whittaker did target her while she was asleep? He would have failed her.

His frantic thoughts would have gone on longer had it not been for the sound of the front door’s soft chime as it opened, letting the bustling coffee shop know that someone had walked in. Everyone else was too busy with their morning coffee house rituals to notice. Ivan felt tense as he turned to see that the person who walked in was the very person he had been worrying about for the last few minutes. He felt that feeling of anxiety melt away almost instantly as he watched Elinor from across the room.

He half expected her to be just as tired as he felt but much to his amazement, the woman looked wide awake as ever. Her eyes wandered the different tables of people before lighting up when she caught sight of Ivan.

She was dressed a bit more casual than the last time he saw her. A pair of black jeans and a black-and-white checkered blouse reminded him more of the outfit she wore the first day they met.

“Good morning,” she greeted with a chipper tone, smiling at him warmly. “I’m sorry I’m late… I have a habit of always being late to my meetings. I hope you at least got to enjoy the atmosphere.”

Ivan ignored the way he felt as if he had suddenly taken in a cup of coffee. In fact, he almost hated how quickly her presence seemed to make every negative feeling that was once flooding his mind just disappear. He figured that it was only because he was grateful to see that she was still alive.

“I see why you like it here,” Ivan admitted, taking in the old fashioned brick walls that led up to the silver tin roof ceiling. Mismatched tables, chairs, and furniture filled different areas in the small coffee shop. Antique lighting fixtures, decorations, and paintings gave the whole place an impression that it belonged in another time. This place reminded him of her bookstore.

“Wait until you try their coffee,” she began as she gestured to the counter. “Come on, you can even pick out your own mug!”

He figured protesting was out of the question and he couldn’t stand the thought of bursting her bubbly excitement. Leaving the comfort of the table and his chair behind, he followed at a short distance behind Elinor as she led him to a shelf. There were a variety of mugs to choose from and Elinor wasted no time in plucking hers off of the shelf. It was a unique mug with an antique vibe, its colors layered with a faded bronze, black, and brown. Its handle came to a point at the top instead of being the usual ‘C’ shape. If you could judge a person by their choice of coffee mug, it would figure that her mug was just as unique as she was. Ivan almost felt out of place setting his basic black mug on the counter next to hers.

“Are you a black coffee kind of guy?” She asked, keeping the conversation light as they waited for the barista to notice them.

Ivan nodded, not surprised that the woman pegged his choice of poison. Prison didn’t exactly have a running coffee shop hidden within its walls, and being a prisoner, coffee wasn’t a luxury offered. So being a ‘black coffee kind of guy’ wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unless Carter was in charge of making the morning coffee, then he and everyone else inside the lab decided that they would all be better off without coffee.

“What about you?” he asked her, watching as she self consciously tapped her fingers on her mug. “Are you a simple coffee kind of person? Or do you like a little coffee with your sugar?”

Elinor smiled sheepishly as she shrugged her shoulders slightly. “I can do a simple coffee but personally, I won’t take it unless it has at least four creams and two sugars. I like the ‘Sugar in the Raw’ brand. My preferred choice of coffee has to be the s’mores. It’s honestly the best coffee out there.”

Ivan chuckled at her explanation. He figured she would be the type to like it sweeter but he wasn’t expecting an explanation as detailed as the one she gave him. She had the strangest knack of being able to share just enough to pique his curiosity but not enough to give too much away. Given she was only talking about her coffee at this moment but she used it in other areas of conversation, too. It was starting to drive him crazy.

Their conversation was cut short by a young woman with short brown hair approaching her, asking if they were ready to order. They placed their orders separately but while Elinor was digging through her book bag for her wallet, Ivan told the barista to keep the orders together as he gave the woman some cash.

He ignored the way Elinor was giving him a teasingly dirty glare for buying her drink but he knew that deep down, she was silently conscience-stricken.

“You weren’t supposed to do that,” Elinor protested, as they returned to their chairs and table with their mugs. “I am supposed to be repaying you. Now I guess I owe you more.”

Ivan shook his head in disagreement as a way to let her know that he wouldn’t allow it, giving the woman a smile. “You don’t owe me anything. The least I can do is be a gentleman and pay for your interesting s’mores drink.”

Elinor was distracted by the sound of the door opening, her eyes glancing at the person entering across the room as if she were expecting it to be someone she recognized. His comment drew her eyes and attention slowly back to him. The way her eyes sparkled as she tilted her head to the side, giving him a warm smile that revealed dimples at the corner of her lips drew his thoughts to a blank.

This woman had the incredible ability of being able to be business oriented and professional with her looks and conversation, while still somehow giving off the slightest hint of flirtiness that left Ivan feeling internally flustered. He wondered how such a skillset could be possible.

He distracted himself by taking a sip of his coffee, thankful that the warm taste of the best hazelnut he had ever tried, gave him a topic to change to. His expression must have said a lot, for Elinor found herself shaking her head as she giggled.

“I told you it was the best coffee ever,” she teased, looking at him as she took a sip from her own drink.

Ivan ran his thumb anxiously over the handle to his mug, unsure of how to respond next. He felt painfully inexperienced to be in a situation like this. He couldn’t remember the last time he met with someone under seemingly normal circumstances. Let alone, with a woman.

As a silence fell between the two of them, the pair found themselves glancing off. Ivan was busy studying the variations of bricks on the wall next to him as Elinor’s gaze focused on his hands, which were wrapped firmly around his mug. He noticed that she was studying something out of the corner of his eye but figured she was just trying to do the same thing as him and figure out how to ease the conversation into whatever her big reveal from the night before was supposed to be.

It was a few moments before she finally decided to open her mouth. Ivan chose that particular moment to take another drink from his mug, which allowed him to direct his attention towards her when he realized that she was going to speak. Unfortunately, what tumbled out of her mouth caught him completely off guard. “I’m sorry if I’m out of line here.” She blushed at the thought of what she was about to ask, nodding to his hands. “But I have to ask… Does your wife know that you’re here meeting with me?”

Her question wasn’t what he had been expecting to hear. The words she voiced into the air caused him to breath in as he was swallowing, resulting in him choking on his drink as he nearly dropped his mug in surprise. A burning sensation entered both his throat and his nose as he coughed in response. The discomfort of choking on the hot drink couldn’t even bring him out of the shock that washed over him as he reflected on her question.

She appeared to be mortified at his reaction, her face turning bright red as she sank into her chair. If Ivan were to guess, the next expression that crossed her face was a sudden look of fear as if she were dreading what he might say.

“I’m so sorry, I swear didn’t mean to pry,” she stuttered, averting her gaze to the ceiling above her so she wouldn’t have to face his expression. “I just noticed that you have a ring on your finger and…”

Ivan looked down at the band on his left hand, the painful reminder of everything he had lost to. He kept it on as a memory of what he used to have and to remind him of what he was fighting for. He was so used to wearing it and knowing the truth behind it, that he didn’t even think of how she or anyone outside of the team would perceive it.

Elinor lowered her gaze from the ceiling, only to notice that his look of shock faded into something else entirely. His soft eyes grew distant as if they were reflecting back on something that happened long ago. His friendly expression deepened into a mix of what appeared to be sadness and hurt. She was starting to regret even bringing it up.

“I’m sorry,” she tried again, still unable to meet his gaze as she bit down on her lower lip. “I think I know that expression you’re wearing a little too well. I just ripped off the bandage, didn’t I?”

He couldn’t blame her for asking. If her closed off reactions towards men told him anything, it was that this woman seeked honesty and respect. If she suspected that he was being unfaithful in any way…

Ivan swallowed hard, nodding in response to her words. He wasn’t going to lie to her. At least, not completely. “My wife died,” Ivan stated finally, his voice firm and laced with sorrow. She at least deserved to know some of the truth.

Elinor’s gaze shifted from staring at her mug and onto Ivan’s eyes. Her lips were parted in surprise, her eyes wide as she watched him take in the ring on his finger with a broken gaze. “I’m sorry,” she spoke softly, this time her apology was one that sounded more like her giving him her condolences than it did of her apologizing for her embarrassment.

Ivan shook his head, trying his best to give her a smile as a way to reassure her that he knew she didn’t mean any harm. “You didn’t know. My wife was in an accident a couple years ago,” he stated, looking her in the eyes. “I wear the ring as a reminder.”

Elinor swallowed hard, nodding in response as she looked down at her mug. He could tell that she still felt awkward bringing the subject to light, so he tried his best to at least make her feel better.

“My wife would have appreciated you looking out for her,” he admitted softly, leaning forward. “I think she would have liked to meet you. You two would have certainly had the best damn book club in town.”

His words brought her attention to him, where her eyes lingered on his. She wasn’t sure how exactly to respond to his words. He probably gave her one of the nicest compliments anyone had ever given her and totally avoided getting offended for her pressing in areas she should have kept her nose out of. The way he handled her awkwardness left her pleasantly surprised to the point of being silent.

Ivan cleared his throat slightly, averting his eyes from the woman’s startled gaze. If he had lingered taking in the details of her eyes any longer, they would never get to the point of their meeting. “You said you had some answers for me?” Ivan cleared his throat, watching as Elinor blinked a couple of times before registering his question. He was grateful that the question brought the more positive spark back to her eyes as she looked at him.

“Oh! You mean about my book?” she questioned him, never even giving him the chance to answer as she began digging through her book bag. “I mean, there’s so much I wanted to uncover last night… Where can I even begin?”

He watched with amusement as she pursed her lips, eyebrows knitting together as she dug through her bag for what she was looking for. “How about we start at the beginning? Whether you want to believe it or not, H.G. Wells just so happens to be the person who found Keystone Books originally back in 1932. He did so under the name Henry Filaby.”

“Really?” Ivan acted surprised as didn’t he already knew this bit of information. Though it wasn’t exactly new news, he couldn’t the smile that crossed his face as she nodded eagerly, clearly excited to be talking to him about this topic.

“I mean, it’s not really anything anyone here locally believes but no one really knew much of anything about Henry Filaby back then, either. He just showed up one day and started renting the building off of my great great grandfather. He opened the store shortly after. It is believed that he moved here because he lost his wife and daughter in a terrible house fire,” Elinor scoffed slightly, shaking her head.

The reaction resulted in Ivan raising his eyebrows. “And it appears you don’t believe that?” he guessed by her tone of voice.

“I just know that it’s not true,” she admitted, a triumphant look crossing her face as she pulled what appeared to be a red journal from her bag.

She set it before Ivan carefully, encouraging him to look at it. It only took a second to realize that it wasn’t a journal that she was holding in her hands but a worn out, old, and discolored copy of H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”. The book appeared to be a normal copy to the naked eye but it was obvious from the way her eyes were lit up that this was no ordinary copy. There was something more beyond the cover and that was made clear the moment she started gingerly turning open the pages.

At first glance, Ivan thought it was just scribbles of random notes from a past reader. As she started to flip further into the book, he began to piece together what made this book so different. Strange symbols, numbers, more notes in what appeared to be another language was riddled throughout the different pages. It became painfully clear that there was something important about these different things she was pointing out to on the pages.

“Ciphers?” Ivan finally questioned her, after they landed on a page where he finally recognized a square box with a series of letters in it. He was familiar with the type of cipher that sat on the yellowing page. “That’s a Playfair cipher.”

Elinor nodded, both surprised and excited that he seemed to recognize what she was looking at. “Yes, there are a few Playfair ciphers throughout the entire book. The book itself is even a cipher. These numbers are supposed to reveal a key sentence of some sort. I’ve learned to crack a few but there are some ciphers that are nothing like anyone has ever seen before.”

She brought Ivan to a page where the starting symbol was a box with four arrows, inside that box was three lines. The other symbols were just as strange and unfamiliar as the first. She was certainly right, they were nothing he had ever seen before. He’d seen a lot working for different organizations over the years, but never anything like this. Next to the symbols was a paragraph written in what appeared to be German but before Ivan could even begin to translate it, Elinor had started flipping through the yellowing pages again. He wasn’t for sure if that was intentional or if she was excited to continue showing more ciphers.

“It seems like Wells was using these ciphers as a way to keep a private diary of his life. It does reveal that he moved to Circleville to start over shortly after something tragic happened but he never specifies what. If he does, I haven’t cracked the correct code yet. I do know that he was running from something, however. An organization he seemed to be afraid of,” she explained, shaking her head slightly. “I found this in a special box behind the walls inside the bookstore during the restoration process of the building. A relative left the building to me in pretty poor shape.”

“And with what you’ve translated so far, you used it as fuel to write your book,” Ivan stated, hoping that the acknowledgement would encourage her to give him more answers. He was still looking for more of a connection as to where all of this linked to their previous mission with Albert Einstein. None of what took place the last few days would have even existed if it wasn’t for Whittaker mucking up history.

“Yes and I have the translated notes right here in my bag. I could show you…” Elinor’s voice trailed off as soon as she noticed her phone screen light up, a frown crossing her face as she realized that time had gotten away from her.

Elinor gave him an apologetic look as she suddenly placed the old, bizarre copy of Wells’s book back into her bag. “I’m afraid I can’t show you right now as I have to go. I have to open the bookstore soon and can’t risk being late. Trust me, you do not want to see what an angry booknerd looks like when their preferred bookshop isn’t open on time.”

Ivan kept his expression neutral as he chuckled at her comment but internally he was disappointed. He wished that she knew more about the severity of the situation, that she knew why they were here in the first place. It would make getting the answers he needed out of her much easier. He knew they were at least a step in the right direction but he was clueless without her translations and more explanations. He also couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more that she was still hiding from him.

Elinor noticed his expression as soon as she looked up from packing her bag. She was about to excuse herself but the way his lips pressed tightly together and his forehead seemed to crease as he looked at her with a look of disappointment made her pause. She read his expression as if he was disappointed that their morning meeting was cut short. Technically, it was her fault since she was late.

“If you want,” she began, bringing his attention to her. “You can meet me this afternoon after the bookstore closes and we can pick up where we left off? We can meet at the Pumpkin Show Park at around 4:30ish?”

Ivan wasn’t entirely aware that as she smiled warmly at him after her suggestion, she was secretly hoping that he’d say yes. Despite her late morning start, her embarrassing moment calling him out on his marital status, and the fact that she barely knew the man - she was finding that he was enjoyable to be around. She liked the way he handled their conversations, the way he addressed her, and how he seemed to be mindful of her. A small part of her was terrified at the thought that she was growing an interest in the man but another part was excited. She couldn’t remember the last time she genuinely connected with someone of the opposite gender.

After what felt like an eternity of waiting in dreadful silence, Ivan finally nodded as he smiled at the woman. Her face brightened as she almost bounced on her toes with excitement before he could even get a word out. “Perfect! So I guess I’ll see you tonight,” she responded, before glancing at her phone again and cringing. “And now, I really should leave… I’ll see you this afternoon, Ivan Hayes.”

Ivan chuckled at her excitement, smirking as he shook his head. “Please, you can just call me, Ivan.”

She gave him one last smile as she nodded. “Alright, Ivan. I’ll see you later.”

“See you later, El.” He watched as she gave him another big smile in response to his nickname as she simply waved goodbye.

Once she was quickly out the door and down the sidewalk, Ivan quietly muttered a curse under his breath, shaking his head as he realized what he had just signed himself up for.

He single-handedly just agreed to go out with this woman again. This would be the fourth time over a span of a couple of days. If any normal person were to read into this situation, they would consider these outings to be dates. He wasn’t a normal person, however, and this was no ordinary situation.

This was just another situation that allowed him to meet with the asset about their mission - the very confusing, intriguing, unique, forward with a hint of reserve asset named Elinor, who also just so happened to be a very pretty woman.

Ivan groaned inwardly as he picked up the two coffee mugs to return to one of the baristas at the front counter.

As he began making his way out the door, Ivan knew one thing for certain… Brackston was going to razz the hell out of him over the knowledge that he had yet another meeting planned out with Elinor.

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