The Tests of Time (Book 1) ✔

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Took You Two Long Enough

Present Day


Nothing was brought up again about what went down the night Elinor invited Ivan, Brackston, Lula, and Carter out. Everything went on as usual, including Ivan’s morning coffee house meetups with Elinor. They were both still stuck on the same cipher, which eventually led to Ivan just offering to take a picture of it to work on his own time so that he didn’t waste hers.

A few days after their night out, Ivan was sitting next to the concessions stand of the theater. The cipher started to frustrate him, so Brackston decided to take a crack at it. After a good while in silence, Brackston let out a sigh before tossing the pen down. “Maybe it’s another fake cipher,” Brackston stated, rubbing his eyes after staring at Ivan’s phone screen for so long. “Because I have tried starting on multiple rails with this rail fence cipher and I am getting nowhere.”

Ivan grumbled under his breath, running his hands through his hair. It wasn’t as simple as this being one of Wells’s crackhead ciphers. If this one had been this difficult to solve so far, then Wells had to have been hiding something vitally important. Perhaps this cipher may hold the answer they’ve been searching for.

“It’s not German, I can already tell you that. I’ve tried translating it as if it was but it appears to be gibberish,” Ivan admitted, shaking his head. “Whatever Wells is hiding in this cipher, he doesn’t want just anyone to have.”

Brackston brought Ivan’s phone screen closer to his face, squinting his eyes as he tried a different approach to looking at the cipher. It finally clicked as to why Ivan was having such a hard time reading it. “What if the reason you can’t read it isn’t because it’s in another language or because Wells was off his rocker but because it’s in reverse?”

Ivan’s eyebrows shot up instantly, a questioning look on his face. “Come again?”

Brackston was too distracted scribbling on whatever scrap piece of paper he had before him to reply to Ivan’s question. It was another few moments before Brackston spoke again. “What if this cipher was in reverse? Instead of reading left to right, you were to start from right to left. Kind of like a Japanese Manga, only at this point the words are read backwards, too.”

Ivan pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes. “Of course,” he thought to himself. “Leave it to Wells to do something like this.”

“So you’re telling me that you’ve discovered the cipher is backwards?” Ivan questioned, removing his hands from his eyes.

Brackston chuckled, shaking his head slightly. “I didn’t just discover that the cipher is backwards… I also cracked it.”

Ivan’s eyes widened, disbelief crossing his face. He was about to question whether or not Brackston was just pulling his leg when Brackston slid the scrap piece of paper over. Sure enough, written on the paper was a legitimate sentence. “My darling, keep Teddy around and you’ll always have a key to your memories of me.”

Ivan was staring at the paper carefully, trying to make sense of the words written on it. It wasn’t as out there as Wells’s other ciphers but it still was just as cryptic as the first one they cracked. Ivan was still studying the page when Brackston tapped his finger by the word Teddy. “The capitalization of this word was what gave away that the cipher was in reverse. But what on earth is Wells talking about?”

Ivan ignored Brackston’s question and picked up the scrap paper, placing it securely into the pocket on his shirt. “Maybe Elinor will understand what it means,” Ivan admitted, tilting his head towards the front door of the theater. “Come on, we can’t wait until tomorrow to show her.”

Brackston followed after Ivan without so much as a word. Brackston was confused as to why Ivan was taking the scenic route along the sidewalks as opposed to the alleyways but Brackston decided not to question it. Ivan was deep in thought for the remainder of the walk but once they finally reached the corner of Court and Main, Brackston decided to ask a question before they reached the bookstore. “Do you think Wells was talking about Teddy Roosevelt?”

Ivan shook his head, keeping his eyes focused on the bookstore. “Roosevelt died in 1919. That was before we even went back to save Einstein. I think there’s something more to this message. Maybe it had something to do with one of his-”

Ivan stopped short the moment they walked up to the bookstore. The lights inside the building were off and the store appeared to be closed. Ivan glanced at his watch, frowning as he did. It wasn’t even anywhere near closing time.

“Maybe she’s taking a late lunch break?” Brackston questioned, shrugging his shoulders. He watched as Ivan grabbed onto the door handle, pulling it open with ease. Ivan gave Brackston a concerned glance as he reached into his jacket, keeping his hand placed on the gun hidden inside.

Brackston swallowed hard but silently followed Ivan into the building. Though the sun was still shining outside, the inside of the bookstore was pretty dark and silent. It was almost creepy with the way their footsteps caused the tile floor to creak beneath them as they made their way to the back of the building.

“El?” Ivan’s voice broke through the heavy silence, causing Brackston to jump a bit. Ivan had cast an apologetic glance towards Brackston but that expression quickly shifted and Brackston was long forgotten about the moment a laugh met his ears.

Without hesitation, Ivan whirled around towards the sound of the laughter as he pulled his gun from the holster hidden within his jacket. It didn’t take long for him to come face-to-face with his new foe.

Autumn Whittaker stood before him, her red hair was tied into a ponytail. Her sour but amused eyes bore into his. He quickly noticed that the reason for her expression was because in her grimy, Whittaker hands was a gun pointed directly at a figure sitting on the floor. It only took Ivan a second to realize that the figure was a trembling Elinor. Her eyes were flooded with both tears and fear, her face visibly wet. The sight left Ivan staring at the two as a sudden flare of rage fought its way to the surface.

“That’s so sweet,” Autumn mused finally, keeping her eyes locked on Ivan. “You have a pet name for her. Seems like she’s making you grow soft, Ivan.”

Ivan decided to ignore Autumn’s retort, putting his full attention on Elinor. His eyes softened as he looked directly into her frightened gaze, his voice coming out gently as he spoke. “You’re going to be okay, El.”

Elinor nodded slowly as she opened her mouth to respond but was quickly interrupted by Autumn’s sharp, venomous tone. “You would really lie to her, Ivan? After you failed your own family?”

Ivan gritted his teeth, his hand gripping on the gun he had pointed directly at Autumn. Autumn’s words only seemed to upset Elinor more, causing the young woman to squeeze her eyes shut. “You need to shut the hell up,” Ivan growled, his stare penetrated Autumn’s eyes.

“Why should I?” Autumn challenged him, lifting her chin. “I’m just being honest. You couldn’t even protect your family from yourself, what makes you think you have better odds of saving her?”

Ivan froze in his spot, vivid memories of the night he last saw his wife and daughter alive flickering through his mind. He figured his expression must have revealed that Autumn struck a nerve for the woman let out a taunting chuckle that sent a chill throughout him. He had nearly forgotten that Brackston was standing behind him, until the man opened his mouth.

“Hey Autumn! Why don’t you piss off?” Brackston argued, an edge to his tone.

Autumn flicked her gaze over to Brackston, her lips curling into a dark smile as she acknowledged his presence. “I would love to leave you two and your little bookworm be, but she has something that I want first,” Autumn responded coldly. “I want the copy of ‘The Time Machine’ that she’s been getting her facts from.”

Ivan had already had a sinking suspicion that he knew what Autumn wanted. Whittaker had been quiet ever since their first attack on Elinor but that didn’t mean they didn’t have people watching her every move. They must have somehow figured out the truth behind Elinor’s story on Wells by spying on both her and Ivan as they deciphered the contents of the book.

Brackston narrowed his eyes, tilting his head to the side slightly. “She’s already exposed your secrets in her book, what more could she possibly have against you at this point?” He questioned Autumn, confused by her demand.

She met his words with a simple laugh, her hand loosening the tight grip she had on her gun. “She’s worthless and harmless! All we care about is that Wells stole something from us. Whatever it was, it was taken during his time working with Albert Einstein. Once he suspected our replacement wasn’t who he said he was, Wells took off with an important piece.” Autumn shrugged her shoulders slightly. “And that damn piece is believed to be in Wells’s book.”

Ivan wasn’t entirely sure what Autumn was talking about but it was clear that whatever this missing piece was, it must have been vitally important. All the more reason to keep Wells’s book out of her hands.

“The book doesn’t belong to you,” Ivan spoke firmly, keeping his voice in check and his hand securely on his gun.

Ivan watched as Autumn’s expression grew hard. He realized he had struck a sore spot, for Autumn pressed the gun firmly against Elinor’s temple, forcing a sob out of the woman’s mouth. The sound made whatever anger that he had tried so hard to suppress more obvious. He clenched his jaw, his eyes growing dark as he looked at Elinor. “Where is it, El?”

Elinor wasn’t for sure what was more frightening at this moment. The gun pressed directly at her head or the harsh growl within Ivan’s voice. She had never seen this side of him before. His expression was serious and cold but she noticed that within his eyes, there was a hint of fear. Nothing from the past few moments made any sense but one thing was for certain… She knew that Ivan wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.

Elinor swallowed hard, pointing a shaky hand towards the counter at the front of the store. “It’s in my bookbag,” she spoke weakly, her throat hoarse from crying. “It’s in a drawer behind the point of sale.”

Autumn chuckled slightly, shaking her head at how easily she had gotten this situation to work out in her favor. “See? That wasn’t so hard.” Autumn turned her head to Brackston, before nodding in the direction of the sales counter. “You go get the bag for me. No funny business or I’ll put a bullet in her brain.”

Brackston swallowed hard as he bit back the vile words that wanted to flow out from his mouth. Brackston wandered off to retrieve the book bag, which was in the top drawer just as Elinor had said. He returned and handed the bag resentfully to a smug Autumn.

Autumn shouldered the bag instantly, keeping the gun pointed firmly at Elinor’s head. Autumn motioned towards Ivan and Brackston before she glanced at Elinor. “Convince them to enter the safe in the hallway,” Autumn snarled, ignoring the look of surprise that she was receiving from Brackston. “I need to lock you three up to make sure that you don’t get in my way.”

“Whoa, we gave you what you asked for. You’re supposed to let us leave now,” Brackston reminded her with a concerned tone.

Autumn met his response with a laugh, shaking her head as she used her free hand to grab Elinor’s arm, forcing her to stand. The gun remained at Elinor’s temple. “You should know that I’m not always good at keeping my word,”

Ivan glanced between Elinor and Autumn, unsure of what the right call was. He could easily shoot Autumn but with Autumn’s own gun pointed at Elinor and her finger on the trigger, he risked Elinor’s life at this point. Noting from the pleading glance in Elinor’s eyes, Ivan finally came to a rough decision.

Ivan carefully removed his finger from the trigger as he lowered the gun to the floor. When he stood back up he was surprised to see Autumn shove Elinor towards him, causing her to stumble. His hands steadied her, his eyes locking onto hers. Her face was still covered in stains from crying but there was something different in her eyes. The fear that was in them before was replaced with a hint of confidence. It was clear that she had something up her sleeve.

“I can’t believe it, Ivan,” Autumn mused, shaking her head as Elinor and Ivan glanced at her. “You fell for someone new! What happened to being so hellbent on avenging your wife?” Autumn shrugged her shoulders, not giving Ivan the chance to answer. “It doesn’t matter, actually. You all will be joining her soon anyways.”

Ivan clenched his jaw. He wanted to retaliate. He wanted to dive for his gun so he could end this right here and right now but the sudden feeling of Elinor placing a gentle grip on his arm, reminded him that she had a plan and that he needed to play along.

Without waiting for another command from Autumn, Elinor led both Brackston and Ivan to a dark hallway in the middle of the store. There was a safe as soon as they entered the short hallway, it was obvious that the safe was old but still usable. It was big enough for three people and tall enough to fit even Ivan but it was still slightly cramped. This was made clear when Autumn motioned for them to get inside.

Brackston felt now was as good of a time as any to pipe up on Autumn’s plan. “I don’t know what good locking us in here will do. Lula and Carter will be able to find us and then we’ll be able to find you.”

Ivan noticed that Elinor was biting down on her lower lip, wringing her hands together. He figured it was a panic attack surfacing from the situation they were in but Autumn chuckling distracted him from getting to acknowledge it. “Good luck. By the time they figure it out, you three will be buried under the ruins of this building after it burns down as a result of some freak accidental explosion.”

Brackston’s eyes widened but before any of them could say anything more, Autumn had swung the doors to the safe shut and the three of them listened as she gave them one last farewell before they could hear the sound of the door bolting shut.

Ivan slammed his fists on the door, unsurprised by the lack of give from the metal doors. The safe they were inside had to be at least over a hundred years old, given by the rusted nature of the mechanics that locked it. Which meant that they were locked in something pretty damn sturdy.

“Well, one thing is for certain... At least we’re safe in here,” Brackston threw out, earning a dirty glare from Ivan. Brackston shrugged his shoulders dramatically. “What? Too soon?”

<>

“It’s nice having the theater to ourselves,” a familiar voice interrupted Lula’s reading. Glancing up from one of Brackston’s Star Wars books, she noticed Carter making his way into their room with a sly smile on his face.

Lula rolled her eyes slightly as she closed the book in her hands. “Are you dropping hints again, Carter Reyes?” A playful smile tugged at the corner of her lips. “Is that like every guy’s fantasy? To have a movie theater all to himself so that he can bring in some girl on a date? So they can sit in the back of the theater and be more focused on each other than whatever is on the screen?”

Carter grimaced slightly, catching on to how her tone seemed to be poking fun at the thought. Shrugging his shoulders, he plopped down on the cot beside her. He couldn’t help the smile that crossed his face as she leaned against him. “I mean, not all guys are like that.”

Lula nudged him playfully, her brown eyes lit up with a mischievous glint. “Don’t pretend that in your high school days you weren’t that type. That flirty smile you gave me the moment you laid eyes on me gave away your true nature,” Lula quipped, laughing slightly at Carter’s suddenly wounded expression.

“Ouch, Lula. Way to hurt a guy’s pride,” he teased, chuckling lightly. He quickly observed the way her smile disappeared, the playful, teasing look in her eyes altered into a look of seriousness. It was obvious that she was thinking about something intense enough to leave her silent for a couple moments.

“What’s going through that head of yours?” Carter asked softly, causing her to blink a couple of times before she was brought back to reality.

“I was just thinking about what our life would look like if we had both made different choices in high school,” she admitted, shaking her head embarrassed. “You know, what ultimately led to us drifting apart? Now we have to figure this all out with the reality of time travel, Whittaker, or us facing a new threat on a regular basis…”

Carter nodded slowly, his own thoughts trailing off as he tried to reflect on what that could look like. One thing was for certain, he was convinced he would try harder to be a better fiance than he ever was with his former girlfriend. He knew he had a tendency to be quick to anger and slow to cool off, but there was something different about Lula that made him want to try harder. “What do you think our life would look like?” he questioned her finally, watching as she laced her fingers in between his fingers.

“I don’t know,” she admitted finally, shrugging her shoulders. “I know one thing for certain, I would definitely pursue more of what I want. As much as I love history, it would be nice to do more than spend my days locked away in a museum. Perhaps travel the world?”

Carter smiled as he flashed back to the night they all first traveled through time, the uncertainty followed by the excitement that came with it. She was nervous as hell but when she finally found her footing, her confidence was captivating in a newfound way. Carter squeezed her hand reassuringly as he leaned closer to her face. “You know I will support anything you choose to do…” Carter whispered, earning a soft chuckle from Lula.

“I’m sure you will,” Lula responded softly, leaning in to press her lips to Carter’s gently, but before she could even feel the warmth of his lips on hers, the sound of a resounding boom halted the moment.

“What the hell?” Carter mumbled, eyebrows furrowing together as he watched Lula spring up from the cot. Without a word, he followed Lula as she walked quickly into the lobby of the theater, where she twisted the lock on the door and stepped outside. Everything around them appeared to be normal. Across the street was the empty parking lot of the local bank and just beyond that, the little candy shop.

Carter was convinced that it was nothing and almost suggested that they go back into the theater but Lula was already making her way around the corner of the theater and into the empty parking lot that stood beside it. He followed reluctantly, about to question her on her curiosity when he noticed that her posture had grown stiff. He followed her gaze to the direction of a familiar building with smoke pouring out of it, it only took him a second to realize that the building they were staring at was the bookstore.

“Brackston and Ivan are in there,” Carter’s voice cracked, a sudden flare of panic rising in his chest. “They left about a half an hour ago. I heard them talking about some cipher they wanted to show Elinor-” Before Carter could even finish his sentence, he glanced over to see that Lula was already running through the empty parking lot and towards the burning building.

“Dammit,” Carter thought to himself as he grumbled underneath his breath and quickly chased after Lula.

She came to a stop at the end of the parking lot at a safe enough distance from the fire. The smoke had already tainted the otherwise fresh air, Lula noticed that it had also captured the attention of people sitting at the back patio of a restaurant nearby. She had no clue what she was going to do about the situation but she felt about as useless as the people gawking at the burning building. She felt angry that everyone was just staring and that no one could do anything. For all she could gather, her friends were probably inside. She waited hopefully for some sort of sign that maybe they were okay.

What felt like ages went by, and Lula jumped at the sudden gentle touch of Carter’s hand on her back, glancing over to take in his concerned expression. He was trying his best to hide but failing that he was feeling just as visibly upset as she was. She quickly found out the reason why. It took her blinking to realize that tears were flooding in her eyes and the action of her blinking resulted in the warm feeling of a couple running down her cheeks.

“Lula,” Carter spoke smoothly, pulling her into his arms as he held onto her tightly, her head resting under his chin. “It’s going to be okay,” he assured her, swallowing hard as he felt her shaking. He couldn’t be sure that things were okay but he hoped for everyone’s sake, that things would be.

It took a team of fire trucks and firefighters to put the inferno out. Whatever triggered it caused the fire to spread quickly and rampantly throughout the three-story building. The unfortunate burning had attracted a crowd and were demanding answers about what took place. Unfortunately, it took hours to put the fire out and even longer to search the place.

By this point, Lula had cried for so long that it felt as if her tears had run out as a headache pierced through her head. Exhaustion was fighting with the intense feeling of adrenaline as she awaited answers.

Carter, at some point, had managed to capture the attention of one of the firefighters and let them know that they knew friends were visiting the bookstore when they had both heard the explosion. It didn’t help Carter at this point when the firefighter assured him that at this point they would be searching for bodies instead of survivors.

What was left of the bookstore was nothing but a blackened skeleton. Upon moving from the parking lot by the movie theater and to the sidewalk just a short distance from the front of the bookstore, they were able to see that what was left behind was nothing but the frightening, twisted, and dark face of a once beautiful building. From where they stood, they could see charred shelves with blackened objects on them. It only took Lula a moment to realize that they were probably books that had somehow partially survived the blaze.

“What if they’re gone?” Lula’s voice broke the silence finally, laced heavily with what sounded like defeat. “What if Whittaker got tired of trying to kill Elinor in a very public manner and decided to just make it look like an accident, taking Brackston and Ivan along with her?”

“We can’t think like that,” Carter spoke firmly, glancing over at Lula. “We don’t know if Ivan and Brackston were truly in there when this happened.”

Lula’s eyes flicked over to Carter’s, her expression growing dark. “And what about Elinor? Just because she’s not a member of our team doesn’t mean that her dying is any less bad,” she reminded him, her voice shaky. “Out of all of us, she’s the one that probably deserved this the least. She’s just an innocent-”

“Lula!” Carter whispered harshly, cutting the historian off. His tone clearly pissed her off, he could see from the way she raised her eyebrows and squared her jaw. However, before she could retaliate, she realized why he had hushed her suddenly. A firefighter was making his way over to them with a hard, worn out expression on his face. Lula perked up suddenly, hope running through her. She realized she’d have to forgive Carter for her behavior later.

The firefighter shook his head in disbelief, shrugging his shoulders as he stopped before Lula and Carter. “I have no clue what to tell you two but we have not found any bodies in the wreckage yet,” he admitted, glancing between a bothered Lula and Carter. “We’re going to continue to do a more thorough search in case we’ve missed something but as far as I can tell, no one was inside at the time of the explosion.”

Lula wasn’t sure how to respond exactly and she was thankful that she didn’t have to. Carter thanked the firefighter for his help before leading Lula down the sidewalk, where they cut down a parking lot that led them to the alley. Carter relayed that he would call Agent Simone once they were back at the theater and have her get with the local hospital. Once done with that, he would take off and would make his way to the hospital to make sure the others weren’t there.

“What about me?” Lula questioned, her voice challenging him. “Who’s to say that Whittaker won’t attack the theater while I’m there?”

Carter hadn’t thought that far ahead. As they approached the door to the theater, he racked his brain for an answer. “Maybe Agent Simone will send some agents to watch over you? Just until I get back,” he admitted, ignoring the hard glare she gave him as he held the theater door open for her and watched as she walked in. “It will make me feel better knowing that you’re out of harm’s way, especially-” he tried following after her but she had stopped for some reason, just inside the doorway. For some reason she stood frozen, staring at something just before her. He glanced in the direction she appeared to be staring and Carter felt his jaw go slack as tears flooded Lula’s eyes.

Sitting on the floor of the theater’s lobby, alive and well, were three figures covered in dirt, with exhausted expressions on their faces. Ivan sat next to Elinor, whose head was resting on Ivan’s shoulder and Brackston sat cross legged beside them, all three of them stared at the other two, who were gawking at the sight before them.

Ivan frowned slightly, shaking his head slowly as if not to disturb Elinor resting against his shoulder. “Took you two long enough,” Ivan grumbled, his voice weak. “Where the hell have you been?”

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