Ruby Redfort Take Your Last Breath

THE SUN FLICKERED ON THE OCEAN,
cutting bright diamonds of light into the surface of the indigo water. A three-year-old girl was peering over the side of a sailboat, staring down into the deep. The only sounds came from her parents’ laughter, the singsong hum of a man’s voice, and the clapping of the waves against the yacht.

Gradually the sounds became less and less distinct until the girl was quite alone with the ocean. It seemed to be pulling her, drawing her to it . . . confiding a secret, almost whispering to her.

She barely felt herself fall as she tipped forward and slipped into the soft ink of the sea.

Down she twisted, her arms, her legs above her like tendrils. The water felt smooth and perfectly cold; fish darted and silver things whisked by — her breath bubbled up as transparent pearls.

Then suddenly, like a snap of the fingers, all the fish were gone: it was just the girl in the big wide ocean.

But she wasn’t quite alone.

There
was
something else.

Something calling to her, but she couldn’t see what.
It
saw
her
though, with ancient eyes, unblinking as it steadily pulsed its way through the blue. Something with long, long snaking arms hovering between her and nothing.

And then, vine-like, the thing coiled a limb around her ankle and tugged her firmly in the direction of infinity. Down to who knew where.

Oops,
thought the child. And on she spun. Bubbles fizzed about her, and her head began to throb, her breath almost gone.

And then
yank
! Something grabbed her arm, some
one
grabbed her arm. The strangling-thing released her — suddenly she was coming up for air, breaking through the surface of the ocean.

She found herself slapped mackerel-like onto the hot deck of the boat, coughing saltwater from her lungs. Her green eyes blinked open and she smiled up at two troubled faces. She felt the water dribble from her ears, and heard the sound of the gulls screaming in the sky above.

WHEN RUBY REDFORT WAS FOUR,
she noticed something unnoticeable while reading the back of the Choco Puffles box. What looked like a word-search game to every other breakfast-eating kid, she could see at a glance was in fact some kind of message — a code.

It took Ruby five days and seven helpings of Choco Puffles to puzzle it out, and when she had, this is what she read.

Ruby found the address in thirty-two seconds, cut out the coupon on the side of the box, filled in her name and address, popped it in an envelope, and asked her father to mail it.

He forgot.

Ruby discovered this thirteen and three-quarter months later when she was searching her dad’s pockets for confiscated Hubble-Yum bubble gum. There, in his gray suit jacket, was the slightly battered envelope, addressed in her handwriting, stamp in the top right-hand corner. The deadline had long passed.

Ruby took the letter up to her room and slipped it into the secret hiding place she had made within the door frame of her bedroom. It was a shame about the lifetime supply of Choco Puffles; they were, after all, her favorite breakfast cereal.

“IT’S PERFECT WEATHER CONDITIONS FOR SHARKS,”
announced the dive instructor. “So don’t be surprised if you run into one or two. Don’t go panicking or anything.”

Ruby Redfort spat in her diving mask and rubbed at the lenses, rinsing them with seawater. Her fellow students were checking their gear, zipping up their wet suits, and snapping on fins.

Ruby, a newly recruited Spectrum agent, was attending a dive camp at a secluded location on one of Hawaii’s many islands. The dive master was an affable sort; he had tutored so many agents during his years as an instructor that they all sort of merged into one, with the exception of Ruby.

Agent Redfort kind of stood out from the crowd.

A thirteen-year-old schoolgirl not even five feet in fins, sleek dark hair parted to one side, neatly secured with a barrette above her right eye, it was hard to ignore
her.
Aside from anything else, she was the only dive student here still attending junior high. Everyone else had long since graduated school; everyone else was in full-time Spectrum employment. Ruby hadn’t even heard of Spectrum six weeks ago.

This, in itself, wasn’t surprising. Not many people had heard of Spectrum. It was an organization so secret that access to its headquarters could change from day to day, hour to hour. Once you exited, you could never be quite sure you would ever find your way back: which was just the way Spectrum liked it.

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