The team mapped out a plan for their next mission. Since it was set to play out in present time, the team would have no need for the time machine. It was strange enough having a mission that took place ages before they were born, but a mission set in the present when they were brought in to protect the past felt equally as odd. At least in the present none of the members complained about wandering around in comfortable, modern clothes - that was an opportunity any one of them would gladly take.
Their base would station the team with a couple agents of Homeland Security. Agent Simone was able to gain access and give them clearance to hide out in an old, abandoned movie theater near the heart of the small town and just a short alley walkway from the bookstore.
Their only obstacle at this moment was the author herself - no one had a clue who they were supposed to be looking for other than they knew she owned the bookstore that was supposedly linked to Wells. That made finding her at least easy.
There was an online presence for the store but much like the authors short bio in her book, there was an overwhelming lack of pictures of the author and the bookstore owner herself. All they had to go by was the name “E.A. Elsner.”
Once things were in motion, settled in and secured with a couple Homeland Security agents at the theater, a trip was arranged for the team to arrive in Circleville, Ohio. Their arrival to the theater was discreet and short, for the agents helped the team sneak out the back so they could make their way through the small town.
Lula was probably the most excited to be here - in doing her research on the town, she discovered that it was a historical downtown community with a lot of rich history. Circleville was off the beaten path, overlooked by the state capital of Columbus but it only took a few minutes for Lula to really warm up to the place.
There was the anticipation that the sidewalks would be bustling with small town life. There should have been people roaming and window shopping but much to her surprise, the only activity present was the traffic that passed through the little town to other destinations. It took a moment to remember that their mission was set in the present, not a hundred years prior and that small town life looked a lot different than the pictures she’d seen in her research.
“For the record, I hate this,” a voice huffed, interrupting Lula’s thoughts. It turned out the voice belonged to Brackston, who was keeping in step with Carter - who was a short couple feet ahead.
Lula wasn’t even aware that her gawking resulted in her trailing slightly behind or that Ivan, who had been quiet since they left the Bunker, was keeping in pace beside her. She could tell that he was doing this for two reasons - to keep an eye out for her and to keep far enough away from Carter as humanly possible. The two were still uncomfortable being on a team together.
“I mean, I think we’re walking into a trap. Doesn’t it seem like we’re walking into a trap? Isn’t it a little too coincidental that there’s magically a book about all of this?” Brackston threw out there, hoping that someone would humor him on the subject.
No one had a good enough answer to give Brackston a response. There were some peculiarities about the whole mission - it certainly felt like there were some weird pieces falling into place. Likewise, there were too many possibilities. Why did their mission with Einstein have such a stark outcome?
The four had reached the corner of a busy intersection - just part way down the sidewalk to their right was the bookstore that Professor Altman believed once belonged to Wells.
“Let’s split up,” Carter recommended, nodding his head towards Lula – who was distracted taking in the sights of the small town around them.
Brackston rolled his eyes, stuffing his hands into the pocket of his hoodie. It was somewhat obvious from his pressed lips and tensed posture that he wasn’t thrilled with this plan, either.
“Of course,” he began, rolling his eyes. “That’s a super idea. Let’s split the Scooby gang up while the big, bad Whittaker monster is running rampant.”
Brackston’s pop culture references usually earned an irritated look from the soldier but Carter seemed distracted or the man was finally growing used to Brackston’s strange ways of handling his nerves. Most likely, he missed Brackston’s words entirely when a large truck barreled down the streets of the downtown. It nearly drowned out Carter’s battle plan as he lingered closer to the members of the team.
“I don’t know what we’re going to find out from the author - for all we know, she could be a dead-end fiction writer. I’m positive that Lula would be excited to get to visit the local historical society, so we will figure out where that is and find out what we can about the building in case the author leads us nowhere. We’ll see if there really is any Wells connection.” Carter turned to look smugly back at Ivan, who noticed a snarky glint in the soldier’s eyes. “That just leaves the bookstore to Brackston and Ivan.”
Ivan wasn’t the slightest bit bothered by this decision but he almost expected Brackston to disagree with the whole plan. He wasn’t thrilled to have to travel around with this so-called “criminal” but Ivan was surprised to be proven wrong when Brackston perked up at the mention of visiting the bookstore.
The two teams parted ways, Ivan remaining silent as Brackston drowned on and on about the perks of a gently used bookstore. He caught a few words here and there, something about old books – perhaps even some vintage Star Wars but Ivan was mostly focused on the mission at hand.
“What do you think the author will be like?” Ivan interrupted Brackston’s rambling, as he made the remainder of the way down the sidewalk and towards their destination.
Brackston shut his mouth for about a minute when he realized that they were standing before their destination. He took in the old building housing the bookstore before them. The building, though it was pretty neat as far as architecture goes, was obviously in need of some love. Its faded awning was only the beginning of its problems. As their eyes traveled up to the very tip of the three story building, sights of missing bricks, broken upstairs windows, and half the upper part of the building being covered in ivy gave off the impression of a somewhat creepy, haunted vibe.
His shrug turned into a shudder, his eyes continuing to wander the old building. He found the name of the store to be rather amusing - Keystone Books. If the fictional book was in any way true, then perhaps this building was Wells’s Keystone. Perhaps it was just a play on words to drum up business.
“My guess is the author has to be in her seventies – a little old lady who smells weird, can’t do repairs, and honestly does nothing but write strange fictional conspiracy theories, dust shelves, organize books, take naps, and reads,” he admitted, purely judging her from the looks of the building.
“That’s... oddly specific,” Ivan admitted, shifting uncomfortably as he was unsure of how he was supposed to take Brackston’s response.
Brackston suddenly grinned, his eyes lighting up like a child’s as he stopped Ivan from continuing any further.
“What if we walk in, start asking these questions about Wells... And the little old lady gets this far away look in her eyes as she brings up how it has been ‘Eighty-four years.’”
If this were to mean anything, it certainly didn’t to Ivan. Brackston watched in disappointment as Ivan stared at him blankly before Brackston muttered something under his breath about needing to be up-to-date on movies.
Ivan ignored Brackston’s comment. He wasn’t for sure if he truly had an opinion on what was beyond the door and he wasn’t sure he really wanted to form one. He mainly wanted to shut Brackston up about Star Wars for just a few moments so that they could focus on the matter at hand but his question only brought on more of Brackston’s movie insanity.
Without so much as another word, Ivan brushed past Brackston, where he opened the store’s door and entered into the building that they have so strangely been gawking at for the last few minutes.
They were met with the cheery sounds of a chime greeting their ears, followed by the warm scent of fresh coffee and the welcoming sight of a few rows of wooden red shelves standing before them.
From the outside, you would have sworn this building was much bigger but Ivan was surprised to see just how little room there was to maneuver. The owner of this building had to get creative in displaying the amount of books there were - which was a surprising amount considering the lack of shelves. Brackston’s jaw had gone slightly slack from the variety.
“Oh my, this is like the TARDIS of bookstores,” he mumbled, his eyes wandering over every nook and cranny of the store.
Ivan could only gather that this meant it was cooler on the inside than the outside let on, unaware that he was actually acknowledging the misleading amount of books that was laid out before them.
Perhaps he should visit more local bookstores – if this was big in Brackston’s eyes, then he was utterly clueless at what a small mom and pop bookshop was supposed to look like.
“Is there anything I can help you find?” a soft voice spoke from behind one of the rows of shelves just a few short feet away, startling Brackston.
The two turned just in time to see someone walk around a corner of shelves, the sight leaving the two men speechless. Brackston’s already opened jaw fell open just a bit more – if they were in a cartoon, it would have probably touched the floor. Ivan’s reaction was no better, his eyes slightly wide, his lips parted in surprise at who stood before them.
Brackston’s thoughts on what the owner would like was far from what he said. In fact, if they had placed a bet about the owner, Brackston would have lost.
What, better yet, who stood before them was not a strange smelling little old woman. Hell, she wasn’t even anywhere near the age of seventy. Dark brown hair with curls cascading over the shoulders of a young woman looked up at them with eyes that had a blue tint that shifted to a hint of green when she tilted her head.
She met Ivan’s eyes - allowing him to take in the details of her face. It was another pretty surprise, giving off the impression that she almost looked to be too young to run a bookstore. He gathered from the little things your face could give away, that she had to at least be in her mid thirties – but her face, her eyes, almost gave off a deceiving youthfulness. Perhaps she wasn’t the owner and this was just an employee.
Closing his mouth, Brackston was surprised to notice that Ivan was not speaking, even more surprised to see that the man was staring with his mouth slightly hanging. It made the way he was staring look slightly weird and suspicious.
Clearing his throat and swallowing his own shock, he raised a hand embarrassingly as if he were requesting permission from a teacher.
“Uh, yes. Forgive my friend here, we were just on a long car trip and he’s, uh, recovering from motion sickness,” Brackston admitted, ignoring Ivan’s eyes darting sideways as a look of distaste crossed his face.
“Well, at least I got him to stop staring like an idiot,” Brackston thought to himself.
“We were just wandering around town, checking out the sights… Saw the shop and thought we’d check it out,” Brackston admitted, offering a warm smile.
The woman pulled her eyes from Ivan, giving Brackston a little nervous glance as she took in the two of them. Damn it, they’ve totally made this woman feel uncomfortable.
“I kind of guessed neither of you were from around here,” she waved a hand, as if acknowledging that something was off about them. “People around here tend to notice outsiders.”
Brackston took her sudden glance over at him and her stiff posture in the wrong way - in the way that some people unfairly responded when a black man was standing before them. Laughing nervously, he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his hoodie as he sunk back from the woman. You would think after the time traveling trip they just made, he’d be used to being considered an outsider – but in present day American, he guessed some people were still...
The woman’s eyes widened the moment she noticed his tense posture, her face flushing a bright shade of red as she raised her hands defensively at the realization of how her words sounded.
“Oh, oh no. I did not mean – I’m so sorry,” she shook her head. “I honestly just meant that the town is so small, it’s easy to recognize new faces. We’re an ‘everybody knows everybody’ kind of town,” she stuttered, letting out a nervous laugh.
Brackston found himself relaxing as he laughed with relief. "Thank God."
“You’re good,” Brackston smiled, “I mean, I’m a pretty cool guy. My friend, however? He kind of comes across a little closed off and twisted but he’s a likable guy too, I promise.”
The woman’s eyebrows shot up at Brackston’s introduction to Ivan. Ivan, well - he was trying really hard right now to keep from socking Brackston in the arm.
Ivan was grateful that Brackston’s eyes had wandered over to a section, resulting in Brackston making a beeline straight towards the section. Ivan thought he was perfectly in the clear but Brackston had to open his damn mouth again.
“Hey Hayes, you can stay there and talk to the pretty bookstore lady. I’m going to look for some Star Wars books,” Brackston admitted, giving Ivan a look that left Ivan clenching his jaw, his somewhat unreadable expression suddenly melting into a look of absolute horror.
“That’s a good choice,” the woman called out, a smile spreading on her face as she turned to look at Ivan. “We have a pretty wide selection of Sci-Fi. It’s actually one of our biggest sellers.”
Ivan felt himself smiling sheepishly as he let out an irritated chuckle. He knew he was going to make Brackston pay for this later.
“Apologies for my friend,” Ivan began, choking back on the harshness that wanted to rise in his tone. He silently prayed she wouldn’t bring up any of Brackston’s horrible attempts to set him up.
Much to his dismay, the woman shrugged, her smile remaining as she leaned against the shelf next to her.
“Oh believe me, this isn’t the first time some random guy tried to set me up with his best friend,” she responded, shaking her head in a way that it caused her curls to sway. “Being a store owner has its moments.”
Ivan tried his best to keep his expression neutral, a sense of surprise welling up within his chest at her proclamation. So this was the owner. Which meant that this had to be the author behind Professor Altman’s mysterious book.
Ivan took this moment upon himself to really study the woman before him. She was a lot shorter compared to him, if he were to guess – five feet and a few inches? At the very least, she was Lula’s height. He also noted that her style was pretty interesting. An old fashioned blouse that looked like something the women would have worn in the 1880s rested on her curvy frame.
He missed the obvious, mischievous glint in the woman’s eyes as she gave his face a quick look over. She could tell that he was checking her out but wasn’t aware that it wasn’t at all in the way she had thought.
He was simply trying to figure out if this was the person that Whittaker was going to come after.
“So, your name is Hayes? Like Rutherford B. Hayes?” the woman spoke up finally, breaking him out of his thought process.
He lifted his eyes slowly to meet hers, causing her to nearly choke while taking in a breath. The softness of his gaze as he made eye contact with her was enough to throw her off guard. It was as if meeting the man’s eyes unlocked a realization that the man before her really was as intriguing and as attractive as she thought earlier. The thought sparked a twinge of excitement within her heart.
Or perhaps she was just a young woman that found herself to be too swept up in Jane Austen novels to separate fiction from reality – whatever spark she just felt was nothing but hopefulness for a deeper connection that did not exist.
Clearing her throat, she averted her gaze to the shelf she was leaning against, pretending to take in the titles on the shelf.
In doing this, she was oblivious to the fact that his face was a bit flushed, his thin sweater felt almost too hot to wear at this moment. Perhaps this was just due to the fact that the heat was rising in his face, because he knew he’d been caught staring – again.
Remembering her question, he carefully stuffed his hands into his jean pockets as he licked his lips nervously.
“Ah, yes - my name is Hayes. But to be fair - I’m not anyone presidential like Rutherford. I’m afraid I’m just Ivan,” he shrugged, acting as if the last couple of moments had not happened.
The woman nodded, offering him a smile. “Well hi, Just Ivan Hayes. It’s nice to meet you. I guess I’m just Elinor. Elinor Elsner.”
His suspicions were right - standing before him was the person he had been looking for. He was face-to-face with E.A. Elsner and she was not at all what he expected.
“So I take it you’re not much of a reader?” Elinor drew the attention off of the awkward silence he had fallen into.
While grateful for the small talk, Ivan almost looked offended at her question. She could tell by the way his eyebrows raised to his dark hairline and how his eyes narrowed.
“Actually, I find that a good book and a cup of coffee is the best way to spend any day,” he admitted, allowing himself to linger closer to the woman. If only she knew what he meant by indoors, then she’d realize that oftentimes, reading was the only pass time he had.
“Oh?” her tone challenged him as if she was begging for more of an explanation. By this point, her once relaxed posture was now stiff - as if his moving closer made her uncomfortable. Her brave tone tried to draw his attention away from that but he had unfortunately picked up on that.
This was where he knew he had to be careful, crafty, and openly honest. At the same time, he knew he would need to cheat a little to make this go his way. She was giving him the invitation to open up a conversation with her but he was not in the door just yet – her stiff posture, the way she was now drifting to the safety of being behind the register counter, and how her hands were clenched... Those three things said a lot.
It told him that this woman was not entirely comfortable being in the presence of someone of the opposite sex. He had the sinking feeling that she must have been a victim of some form of a bad relationship or abuse. He’d seen it before.
He knew that if he wanted to get her to open up about her book, in order to find out what connection H.G. Wells might have had to their mission, it meant he would have to tread lightly or risk turning her off – and that meant risking not getting the possible answers they needed.
He leaned himself against the spot she was just a couple moments prior, crossing his arms over his chest as he nodded towards the classics section just a few shelves over.
“Personally, I find that the works of writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, and William Shakespeare are a great way to pass time. Their way of writing can be enriching. I personally like Hemingway the most. The way he wrote so flawlessly – I swear, it’s as if I’ve met the man,” he spoke softly, shrugging his shoulders. “But I guess I should be honest, I’m not really here to talk about my interests. I’m more interested in hearing about this book you wrote.”
Elinor perked up at the mention of her book, her eyes brightening. “How did you hear about my book?”
Ivan tried his hardest to hold back a smirk. Instead he met her excitement with a soft smile. He had gotten his foot in the door now.
“I overheard some locals talking about it. It’s a fictional story about H.G. Wells, right?” he questioned her.
Elinor scoffed, shaking her head so that her loose curls swayed lightly against her shoulders. He gathered from her reaction that there was something he said that she wasn’t at all amused by.
“You know, publishing it as fiction was not my idea - but a friend suggested it would sell better if I did. I mean, no one likes reading crazy theories, right?” she asked, shrugging her shoulders.
“Are you saying it’s not fiction?” He felt confused as to why someone would suggest against publishing it as non-fiction.
Elinor was about to respond to his question but the abrupt sight and sound of a few books falling a couple shelves over stopped her from answering right away. If Ivan were to be honest at this moment, he could have sworn from the way that the book fell off the shelf that it appeared as though someone pulled them off and tossed them to the floor.
Elinor quickly noticed the way his head tilted at the sight, eyebrows knitted together as he tried to come up with an explanation for what just happened.
It almost caused her to giggle, seeing him like this. He wasn’t the first person to be stumped by this.
“Don’t hurt your brain,” she started, nodding towards the books that were now laying on the floor. “That’s just Henry throwing his usual tantrum.”
Ivan glanced around the area, figuring that Henry must have been something along the lines of a crazy cat who had crawled onto the shelf and was causing mayhem. A cat seemed like an appropriate animal to have inside of a bookstore.
“You named your cat Henry?” Ivan remarked, stepping forward to help Elinor - who was already picking up the few books off of the floor.
Elinor met his response with a slight chuckle, smiling at him gratefully for helping. “Oh, no… We actually don’t have a cat. Henry is actually the bookstore ghost.”
She stood up to put the books back in the proper place on her shelf, preventing herself from seeing his reaction to the remark.
Admittedly, he thought the claim was a bit out there. He stood up from picking up the last few books to ask her to elaborate more about it but stopped short when he realized he was standing directly beside her - close enough to take in the smallest of details in her expression as she returned the books to their spots.
Ivan couldn’t place his finger on it but there was something different about this young woman. It could have had everything to do with the peculiarities of her behavior and personality or the way she carried herself as the owner of this small shop but he felt there was something more than what was on the surface. She was hiding something.
He would have pursued the conversation more if it wasn’t for the sound of something smacking down on the register counter just a few short feet away.
The two looked over in the direction of the sound with wide eyes and tense postures - almost as if they were caught up in something scandalous.
Brackston stood at the counter with a small pile of paper back books and an extremely smug look on his face, his eyes took in the two as he bit back a sarcastic remark. He almost couldn’t help it, the two looked pretty damn comfortable being in that close of a proximity to one another.
“Listen,” Brackston began, gesturing to the small stack of books he had on the counter before him. “I find your lack of Star Wars books disturbing.”
Elinor approached the counter quickly, laughing at Brackston’s joke. He noticed the way Ivan tensed at the sound of her laughter. From what Brackston had overheard from their conversation, maybe he was face-to-face with the ghost the woman spoke of.
“So what is this I hear about a bookstore ghost?” Brackston asked, watching as the woman carefully bagged Brackston’s books neatly.
“Oh, you mean Henry?” she shrugged her shoulders as she folded the brown paper bag into a neat little package. “I mostly use him as a joke to explain the odd, unexplainable things that happen in here - and Henry was the name of the person who originally opened this store, so…”
“So you believe the ghost of Henry is truly haunting your bookstore?” Ivan finally piped up, his voice gruff and cold. That was a total shift in attitude from what they had both seen just a few moments before. “Won’t people put together that your book isn’t entirely fiction with that knowledge?”
Elinor raised her hands defensively, choosing to ignore Ivan’s serious tone as she looked between the two of them. “Listen, I probably shouldn’t have told you that my book is actually non-fiction… I wanted to reveal that along with some other big things at my book signing party, which you’re more than welcome to attend, by the way.”
She was saying it to them both but Brackston could tell from the way she glanced over, she was directing this directly at Ivan. It didn’t take a genius to see that she was clearly interested in him or at least interested in something about him. Brackston couldn’t understand why women always seemed to show an interest in the dark, quiet, mysterious types. The thought that Ivan could probably waltz into any scenario and woo any woman made Brackston gag.
“What kind of big things?” Ivan pressed, hoping she would give him more of an answer. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go to her book signing - a part of him felt interested in attending the event, though he wouldn’t admit it. He was rather hoping she’d reveal more to hopefully help him understand if she was in any sort of danger with Whittaker or not.
Elinor looked at him - a smile forming on her face as she dared herself to lock eyes one last time with the stranger before her. She barely knew him but something about him felt familiar and warm, the impression of someone she may have met in passing once before. She wanted to see if she could get to know more about this man that was so interested in her book.
“Well, Ivan Hayes, I guess you’ll have to wait to find out. Meet me at the art center across the street at 7pm tomorrow night - and don’t be late.”