Authors: Nenia Campbell
As I looked down at her in reproof she raised a hind leg and began scratching her ruff. I was going to have to take her to get her shots soon. The appointment was for next month. Her carrier was waiting in the hall, the door open. She liked playing with the door. How long would that last?
I set my drink down on the desk and plugged the flash drive into the USB. Instantly, Poppet was on my desk, lapping at the condensation beading on the side of the plastic cup. I set down a dish of milk for her, and she jumped down to the floor, her tiny pink tongue standing out in stark contrast to her dark fur as she stuck her face into the milk and sucked it up like a furry vacuum.
Against my better judgment, I'd grown attached. I'd made room for her in my heart. Caring for another being is scary because their abrupt absence can be filled with nothing but pain; even though loving makes you a better person, it leaves your heart looking an awful lot like Swiss-cheese.
I turned to the screen and studied the files. They were encrypted quite well. I didn't recognize the pattern off-hand, but that wasn't discouraging. I had a number of ciphers that I had created in my downtime, from researching other crackers' work. I ran through the ciphers and waited to see if one of them churned out anything that wasn't gibberish. It would save me hours of work if I didn't have to wing it.
While the cipher ran, I checked my email. There was the purchase confirmation for Poppet's carrier, which I deleted. Spam. More spam. A message from Angelica, and another from Cliff. Cliff had apparently decided to return to civilian life, which didn't surprise me. He had legally adopted Jatinder, which did. I couldn't see him as the fatherly type. Maybe I was still a little biased. When I first met him, he had been one of Adrian's pawns. Maybe he'd changed.
Maybe he had a hole in his heart, too.
There was one email, without a subject. It had an attachment, which my anti-virus software didn't seem to like. The email had been flagged as spam. Curious, I ran a diagnostic on the attachment—if it was a virus, I wanted to know who had sent it, and why—but the file seemed clean. Famous last words, I know. My computer was fine after I opened the file, although I knew as soon as I saw the long lines of special characters that this — whatever this was — was encrypted, as well.
Perhaps Angelica had forgotten to include something on the flash drive. But then why would she email it to me like this, without subject or sender? I might have deleted it, or accidentally forward it to someone else. She wouldn't have wanted to risk that. Angelica was every inch the professional and chalked nothing up to chance.
I peered at the screen, like it was a puzzle, and I was trying to place the last missing piece. Now that I looked at the document, there was something…the encryption was different from the one I was analyzing with my current cipher. In fact — yes, I was sure of it — it
My heart thumped once, twice.
With a shaking hand, I ran the flash drive's contents through the cipher I'd received in the email. It was a long shot, a million to one. A billion to one. It shouldn't have worked, but it
“Holy shit,” I breathed, digging my fingers into my knees as I leaned forward. The cryptograms began turning into English before my very eyes.
And I saw my name. Right there, at the top.
It was a message. A message for
Everything stopped — the hum of my computer, the sound of Poppet's slurping.
This couldn't be possible.
No, no, no, no, don't do this to me, no
My eyes were blurring. I swiped at them angrily, as my stomach churned and my entire body vibrated with tension. Reading was making me physically ill, but I had to — I had to because not reading was worse.
It was a long message. It took a while to finish. And at the end were three little words that threatened to undo me, to obliterate what remained of my heart.
, some part of me whispered,
maybe it will piece those trembling little pieces back together.
I wasn't that naive. Not anymore. This reeked of a trap.
But what if it isn't?
What if…he's still alive?
It was as though I had been shocked with electricity. Something vibrant arced through my shoulder blades, propelling me to my feet.
I wouldn't be able to live with myself for not taking this chance.
I pushed a protesting Poppet into her kitty carrier, grabbed my purse, my coat, a few cans of cat food. Not thinking about what I chose. I didn't have to think. For the first time in my life, there were no fears, no self-doubts. Sometimes life grants you a second chance, but you have to be willing to rise to the odds.
Double or nothing. Winner take all.
I threw open the door, and I ran into the blinding light.
Well, this is it! The last book of the IMA series! Thank you for reading
Cease and Desist
. It's been wonderful sharing this journey with you.
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