The Tests of Time (Book 1) ✔

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Behind Closed Doors & Other Worlds

Present Day


After Ivan was off for his meet up with Elinor, Lula had stormed off to another area of the theater to calm herself down after her sudden outburst. This left Carter alone in their sleeping quarters to mull over his behavior for a little while. Brackston tried to strike up a conversation but when Carter never responded he figured it would be best to leave the soldier be. Brackston wandered off somewhere to call Layla. She’d at least listen and would most likely want to hear about their visit so far.

Carter sat on his sleeping cot, messing around on his phone, trying to figure out something he could do to pass the time. The service inside the theater was hit or miss, which was frustrating at times. Carter was about ten seconds away from chucking his phone across the room in frustration when the sound of someone clearing their throat quickly caught his attention. His eyes flicked up from his phone to see Lula standing in the doorway, her brown eyes watching him carefully as she stuffed her hands into her jean pockets. That was Lula’s standard way of saying, “We need to talk.”

“Just thought you should know, you probably deserved what I said earlier,” she admitted, biting down on her lip at the sight of Carter rolling his eyes. “Even though you were a jerk, I thought I’d come by to check up on you.”

Carter noticed that she was giving him that look, the one that was a slight mixture of sternness with a hint of hope. It was the face he imagined she'd give him when she wanted to lecture him on something, like he was a troublesome student visiting her museum.

“Am I still in trouble, Teach?” He questioned quietly, smiling so softly that it made his blue eyes sparkle.

Lula swallowed hard, trying her best to ignore the game he was playing at. She was still upset with him and needed him to believe that. If she let him off early, she’d never get him to understand. She made her way into the room, stopping just before Carter’s bed . “Depends. Are you done being a jerk to Ivan?”

“Ah,” Carter thought to himself as he rubbed his neck uncomfortably, his eyes squinting as he forced himself to look anywhere but at Lula. “She is still pissed.”

When Carter didn’t respond, Lula’s eyebrows shot up as her expression turned from neutral to icy cold. She removed her hands from her pockets as she crossed her arms over her chest. He could see the movement out of the corner of his eyes and knew that at this very moment, if he didn’t give her a proper answer, he figured that torture at the hands of Whittaker would be better than the icy cold shoulder she would be giving him for the rest of the week.

“It’s not something that can happen overnight, Lula,” Carter admitted, a pretend whine to his tone. “And you think I’m bad? He doesn’t listen to orders when they’re given. Agent Simone expects us to be a team.”

“It doesn’t have to happen overnight,” Lula reminded him, her voice firm as she lingered closer to his bed. “And I get that he’s stubborn. He has his own methods when he is acting alone but he’s trying. If you want him to respect you, then this is something that you really need to commit to. And whether you like it or not, Ivan has been our best bet on this mission.”

“Why?” Carter belittled, glancing at Lula. “Because he’s so determined to be committed to that-” he noticed Lula’s hard, soul freezing stare the second the words were already tumbling out and decided that it would be best to not finish that comment.

“This is what I’m talking about,” Lula groaned as she plopped herself down next to Carter. Maybe getting on his level and really looking into his eyes would get Carter to understand the severity of the situation. “Ivan’s really got a chance with this woman. He’s making progress with getting her to open up about things that we would have been running in circles to try and find. It’s only a matter of time before he finds out something.”

Carter raised his eyebrows slightly, examining the faraway expression Lula had on her face. Some of her words in her last statement made it sound like she wasn’t only talking about their mission. “You make this mission seem like it’s more about Ivan’s lack of a love life than it is about Whittaker and whatever their crazy scheme might be.”

Carter instantly noticed the way Lula was trying to hold back a smile, the sudden light that filled her eyes pretty much gave away that that was partially true. “Oh no,” Carter mumbled as he rolled his eyes. “You can’t be serious?”

Lula laughed lightly, leaning closer to Carter as if she were about to drop some of the juiciest gossip out there. “You didn’t see the way she was flirting with him the other night?” Lula questioned but as soon as she asked. Carter gave her a knowing glance. “Right, you were distracted keeping an eye out for more potential threats.”

“So, the bookstore lady was flirting with Ivan?” Carter brought the topic back up, shaking his head as the thought entered his mind. “She’s probably just some thirsty romance reader like Jan from the historical society, waiting to jump some poor, unsuspecting man’s bones.” Carter shuddered at the mere thought.

Lula cocked her head slightly, her eyes taking in the ceiling above as she ran the conversation she saw take place between Ivan and Elinor through her mind again. “It wasn’t the same as what happened with Jan at all,” Lula admitted finally, a small smile crossing her face. “In fact, it was really sweet... The way she hung onto his words, how she lingered not too close but close enough. You can see the connection.”

Carter snorted, a look of disbelief crossing his face. “They met two days ago! There can’t be a connection that fast.”

He knew that he really shouldn’t have challenged Lula. This was made clear with the way she was giving him a once over with her eyes. He knew that she was up to something. “Don’t tell me, Carter Reyes, that you did not feel a connection shortly after we first met? Or a reconnection after we started working together again?”

“And there it is,” Carter teasingly rolled his eyes, as he scooted closer to her on the bed. “Lula Peterson putting me back in my place.” He shrugged his shoulders, brushing a hair that had fallen into her face behind her ear. “Maybe I was trying to be a little more open-minded.”

Lula hummed softly, leaning her face closer to Carter’s as she lowered her voice. “Then promise me you’ll be a little more open-minded on this mission. To give Ivan more slack, to trust that he has things under control with Elinor.”

Admittedly, Carter wasn’t as confident as Lula was. While he could see that her concerns were valid, it didn’t make it any easier to swallow his pride. However, she was giving him that look - the look that he had seen so many times before. It was the look that told him that she believed in him.

“Anything for you,” Carter spoke sincerely, earning a soft smile from Lula.

He was surprised that she had decided to respond to his words by leaning forward and placing her lips softly against his. He didn’t hesitate to return the gesture, his arms finding their way around her waist as he drew her closer to him.

The two had been hoping for more of a moment alone ever since their visit to the historical society. With Ivan gone and Brackston distracted, the two took it upon themselves to throw some caution to the wind as they shut the door to the sleeping quarters.

<>

Ivan had no clue what his plan was exactly. He kept in step with Elinor, leading her down the sidewalk and through the little town, unsure of what their destination might be. He just knew that he needed to get her out of that park and away from her thoughts. He needed to get her mind off of anything to do with that book signing, which meant delaying his mission.

Elinor kept pretty quiet through the first few moments of their walk, which Ivan was perfectly content with. He kept a watchful eye on the woman, taking in how she glanced around and studied each building they walked by. Eventually the tight grip she had on her book bags strap had started to loosen, the whites of her knuckles relaxing into a more neutral color.

It wasn’t too long into their walk that Elinor finally couldn’t take not knowing what was going on anymore. “Do you have any clue where you’re heading?” Elinor asked softly, glancing up at Ivan.

“That’s a good question,” Ivan responded, chuckling lightly as he met her curious eyes. “I haven’t exactly decided.”

Elinor’s head tilted like a confused puppy, her eyes squinting as she raised her hands. “Then shouldn’t we stop and figure it out? I know Circleville like the back of my hand and could tell you anything you need to know,” she reminded him.

Ivan raised his eyes to look at the sky above him. She could see that he was thinking of a response to the statement she made. She could tell when he had come up with his something, for his eyes lit up as he brought them back down to look at her. “Then tell me this, why the hell do they call this town Circleville?” he questioned, a perplexed expression on his face.

She didn’t know why, but the confused expression on his face as he asked his question made her giggle slightly. Ivan felt himself relax at the sound of her giggle, relieved that she seemed to be calming down from their talk at the park.

“Well, you asked a pretty good question,” Elinor began, turning her full attention to Ivan. “If you were to have seen Circleville in the very early 1800s, you would see a town in the actual shape of a circle. They did it in the shape of the traditional Hopewell Earthworks that were here but the town was squared in the 1850s. Unfortunately, all of the earthworks in Circleville were destroyed.”

Ivan frowned at her last statement, thinking over her words for a couple seconds. “Hopewell... Native Americans?”

Elinor nodded, lips pressed tightly together. “Yeah, needless to say that that story is pretty taboo with the locals. But those were different times, they didn’t think things through clearly back then.”

Ivan scoffed, nodding as if he agreed. “If only you could see just how much more messed up history really is,” he mumbled, eyes growing wide as he realized what he had just said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Elinor questioned, her eyebrows furrowed together in confusion.

Ivan rubbed his forehead, silently chewing himself out for what he almost said. “What I meant,” he started, shaking his head as his clumsiness. “Lula, my friend? She’s always talking about the darker side of history - a lot of which I never even knew about until I met her.”

Elinor seemed to be convinced with his answer, nodding her head in his response. “I think every town and every person has its dark history. In the late 1960s, a man walked into a drugstore with a handmade bomb, one month after his wife filed for divorce because he blamed the drugstore and the people there for encouraging her to leave him… He was a terrible husband, if I remember correctly. The explosion killed five people and turned into a fire that destroyed some of the buildings. An empty parking lot stands in its place now.”

“So Circleville isn’t as safe as one would think.” Ivan ran through her facts, kind of amazed that this small, sleepy town had more of a sinister past than mere outsiders would realize.

“No town is safe,” Elinor sighed, her hands returned to tightly grip the strap of her bookbag. “I remember growing up, my family was pretty hellbent on keeping us all safe and their rules were pretty strict. They thought Circleville was a safe place to grow up but they still kept me on a tighter leash than anyone, which I think only added to the feeling of being an outcast. No sleepovers, no parties… But as time went on, they gave my siblings more freedom. More than I ever had.”

Ivan couldn’t imagine living such a lifestyle but as far as he was aware, he couldn’t even begin to understand what it was like to grow up with other siblings. Growing up, he was an only child.

She laughed slightly, taking his silence as he was too uncomfortable to respond to her complaining. He could tell that her cheeks were flushing red from embarrassment. “I’m sorry, you must think I’m weird,” she chuckled weakly, rolling her eyes. “Which I am. I mean, my-”

“El?” Ivan interrupted her finally. She realized that he had stopped walking and was standing a short distance away. She thought that he was going to call her out on her complaining but she soon realized that he wasn’t even paying attention to her. He was staring at something across the street. It didn’t take her long to realize that what he was staring at was the bookstore.

“Is something wrong?” she questioned, glancing at the bookstore concerned. It didn’t appear that she had left any lights on, nor did she see anything relatively out of the ordinary. She was about to press him on what he could have possibly been staring at but he quickly gestured to the stores window.

“What is the story behind the key logo?” he asked her, keeping his focus on the building. She realized that he was talking about her choice of the skeleton key connected to the ‘K’ in Keystone.

“Oh,” she simply stated, her eyes brightening as she dug into her bookbag. “It’s unique, right? I came across the design in that ‘The Time Machine’ copy I showed you this morning.” She pulled out the old book, carefully flipping through the pages before turning the book towards Ivan.

Her finger rested on the page beside a hand drawn symbol of a skeleton key. Within the top designs of the key was a symbol Ivan had seen in another area of her book - the strange box with four arrows around it and the three lines inside.

“May I?” Ivan asked quietly, gesturing towards the book.

She cautiously handed the book to Ivan, confused as to what prompted him to ask for her book. As he was carefully flipping through the pages, he kept Elinor engaged in conversation. “You know, skeleton keys are said to be a kind of master key, right?”

Elinor nodded slowly, unsure of what this had to do with anything. “Right, a type of passkey.”

“And your book here is filled with various ciphers. What do some ciphers need to solve them?” Ivan questioned her, pausing as he landed on the page he was looking for.

“Keys,” Elinor let out a sigh, shaking her head. “But what does this have to do with my logo?”

Ivan carefully brought himself next to Elinor, hoping that being close to her wouldn’t cause her to feel uncomfortable. He noticed that she was almost too focused on whatever lied within her book to even be aware of how close he was to her. He tapped his finger by the symbol with the weird box before pointing to her sign. “I’ve seen this symbol twice now,” he admitted, watching her as she made the connection that he was trying to get at. “Do you have any idea what it means?”

Elinor shook her head slowly, disappointment crossing her face as she frowned. “No. In fact, no one does. I’ve talked to the historical society, the genealogical society - I even tried the Columbus historical society. No one seems to know what it means.” she brought her finger to the book, tapping on a cipher that was just to the right of the symbol. “I’ve noticed that it is always placed next to a random rail fence cipher, however. I’ve cracked most of them but the ones with the symbol next to it are almost too difficult to understand. And the ones I did crack, the messages made very little, if any sense. I think a lot of his messages confirm my fear that Wells was starting to lose his mind near the end of his life.”

Ivan only half heard her story, for he was too busy trying to figure out the cipher she pointed to.

“You’re not serious,” Elinor chuckled at his serious, focused expression, shaking her head. “You think you can solve it?”

Her lack of faith in him was understanding. She had no clue that he was once an NSA agent, so he was pretty familiar with how ciphers worked. Rail fence ciphers, depending on the length of the content written, were pretty easy.

“Do you have something to write in?” he questioned her, feeling almost dumb for asking. She already pulled out a soft black journal and was handing it to him.

He handed her the old copy of “The Time Machine”, flipping open the pages of the journal to a blank page so that he could write the letters down.

krik tl rohwdbosaelk esta nokdost te olso eyhuco orr.

Elinor tilted her head, biting down on her lower lip to keep from laughing. She almost commented on the mess of gibberish but decided against it when he touched the pen to the page of the journal again.

“How familiar are you with rail fence ciphers?” Ivan asked her, trying to keep the conversation flowing.

Elinor shrugged her shoulders slightly, making sure to keep the book with the cipher on it steady so that Ivan could read it. “It’s usually sentences in a wavy pattern, right? And depending on how the first letter in the rail falls…” her voice trailed off the moment she noticed a flicker of recognition in his eyes. “What? What is it?”

It was another few moments before Ivan gave her his answer, when he finally flipped the journal around for her to read.

Books are like keys that unlock doors to other world’s.”

Elinor’s jaw hung slightly as she looked between the cipher written on the page of “The Time Machine” and Ivan’s cracked translation in her journal. She could already make out where the words fell in the rail fence cipher that was written in Wells’s handwriting.

“Who the hell are you?” she mumbled, glancing up at Ivan. “It took me months to solve one cipher.”

Ivan shook his head as he brought the journal closer to her. “I’m nobody,” he mumbled, noticing her piercing stare as she tensed after his comment. He had to be careful what he said around the woman - it was a miracle alone that she was letting herself be this trusting with a total stranger. “What I meant to say is,” he corrected himself, clearing his throat. “I’m nobody you need to be concerned about. You should be asking yourself a different question, El.”

Elinor’s eyes darkened as she narrowed her sights onto Ivan, a stern glare crossing her face. “Oh yeah? What question is that, exactly?”

Elinor was unaware that in her hands, she was holding exactly what Ivan had feared. Wells’s message was a warning to those who attempted to crack the ciphers he laid out on the pages of this book, a warning that this book was a key to something so much greater than either one of them could have imagined. If Elinor’s other translations were correct and Wells really was confessing to a secret, sinister organization - then the secrets within this book she held in her hands was as big of a threat as Ivan suspected it to be.

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