***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Julie Garwood
A five-minute clip on the evening news turned Allison Trent into a full-blown criminal. She had wiggled across the line many times before, but she’d never done anything so bold or blatant. Within a couple of years she had accumulated more than eighty million dollars. On paper that would have made her a titan. In reality she was as poor as a church mouse.
The motivation to commit the first crime came to Allison quite unexpectedly as she was sitting on an overstuffed sofa in a coffee shop close to the Boston College campus. She was working on a class project that was due the next day and was so completely focused on the computer sitting on her lap that she was oblivious of the activity around her, not even hearing the news broadcast coming from the television that was suspended from the wall opposite her—that is, until the words “terrible injustice” broke through her concentration and drew her eyes up to the screen. The young male reporter seemed genuinely sympathetic as he read his story from the teleprompter. The subject was a local nursing home called Sunset Gardens, one of twenty homes for the elderly located across the East Coast, owned and operated by a corporation out of Philadelphia. The corporate home offices, he explained, kept a database with vital information pertaining to every single one of their clients. They were vigilant in protecting privacy, had all the bells and whistles installed to keep personal data iron-proof against bugs and viruses, and had paid a hefty salary to a tech whose only job was to monitor the system. None of that mattered, though. Their system had been hacked, and the identities of all the residents in all twenty facilities were stolen with one keystroke. And because First National was designated as the official bank for all Sunset Garden homes and their residents, within minutes its accounts were wiped out as well.
The reporter went on to point out that a large number of the residents had no family to help them, and while the money in First National was FDIC insured, it could take the authorities a good long while to sort through the facts and reimburse every account.
What were the residents supposed to do until then? Allison wondered.
A sense of outrage was growing inside her as she listened to the catastrophic details of the crime, but the tragedy hit home when the reporter played a clip of his interview with one of the elderly residents. Her name was Ella O’Connor. He knelt beside Ella’s wheelchair and held her veiny hand as he asked her what the news meant to her.
Ella’s watery eyes stared at the reporter for a moment as though she was trying to understand the question. “I don’t know,” she said. And then a look of despair crossed her face. “I hope they don’t make me leave.”
Ella was all alone, afraid, and feeling helpless. Allison knew exactly how that felt. Her heart went out to Ella and all the other poor souls. Some of them would die before it was all sorted out, and in their golden years dealing with such stress and fear would be traumatic. What had happened to them was beyond cruel.
An interview with the president of the Sunset Gardens Corporation was played next. With a shrug in his voice he said, “The authorities told me it was most likely the Russians behind the hacking. Or possibly the Chinese. The truth is, we may never know.”
His defeated “Oh well, what can you do?” attitude infuriated Allison. She knew the FBI had experts trying to locate the hackers and shut them down, but it was apparent they hadn’t had any luck so far. The invasion of secure systems was becoming an epidemic. Just the week before, the news agencies had announced that the Pentagon had been hacked. The FBI was certain the Russians were behind the theft of employee information then as well, but proving it was a huge challenge.
What could she do? Something . . . maybe. It wouldn’t hurt to try to find the Sunset Garden hackers, would it?
Was it her ego or arrogance that made her think she might succeed? She had always had the ability to solve complex problems. Even at an early age her thought processes were out of the box. She was just eight years old when her uncanny ability was first noticed. Her older sister, Charlotte, had bought a five-hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle at a yard sale and placed all the tiny pieces on the floor in their room. When Allison came home from school, Charlotte asked her if she wanted to help put the puzzle together. Allison knelt on the floor and stared at the scattered pieces for no more than a minute or two while her brain studied them. Not only could she tell Charlotte what the picture was, but she knew where the pieces fit. It was as though she was watching each part of the puzzle connect to the next. After separating the tiny cardboard tiles into six piles, she went to work. Charlotte watched in amazement. In less than five minutes, Allison had the perimeter of the square picture put together, and within another twenty, the entire puzzle was completed. Allison didn’t think she had accomplished anything unusual, but Charlotte was clearly impressed. She told Allison that most people didn’t look at things the way she did.
The nursing home story broke just as Christmas break was coming up. Allison was a sophomore at Boston College at the time and planned to spend the holiday alone. Charlotte and her husband, Oliver, had moved to Seattle a couple of years ago.  They had offered to buy a plane ticket for her to come, but knowing they were saving up to buy a house, Allison declined their generosity.  Allison’s only other relatives were her aunt and uncle, and she would rather have slept on the street than spent the holiday with them.
Allison and Charlotte had been very young when Aunt Jane and Uncle Russell became their legal guardians. The couple had one son, Will, who was two years older than Allison, and the atmosphere of their home was neither warm nor welcoming. An air of constant friction permeated the place, usually stemming from something Will had done. He never showed any signs of ambition or responsibility, and he hung around with a group of creepy misfits. The only talent he seemed to have was a knack for getting into trouble—or mischief, as Uncle Russell called his skirmishes with the police.
To Allison, her aunt and uncle and cousin were her poor excuse for relatives. Charlotte was her only family. When they were children, their aunt had often threatened to split them up if they didn’t obey and keep quiet, and the possibility of never seeing her sister again had terrified Allison. She’d felt so helpless. She would have done anything to keep that from happening. Her fear, plus her sense of obligation to them for taking Charlotte and her into their home when they had nowhere else to go, had kept her compliant. However, now that she was an adult and had moved away from their house, she felt a new sense of freedom.
Since Allison was spending the holiday vacation alone, she decided to use the time off to focus her full attention on the hackers. She was confident the vast forces at the FBI would find the culprits eventually, but she wasn’t going to leave the task to them. It could take too long.
She didn’t get very far in her search during break, yet she didn’t give up. Every moment of spare time she could steal between her classes was spent on her hunt. She was well aware of the chance she was taking, and she knew how careful she had to be. Breaking into protected sites was against the law, and yet she wasn’t deterred. She couldn’t get the elderly victims out of her mind. Finding their money was becoming an obsession.
A breakthrough came when she gained access to the bank’s servers and tracked the thief’s withdrawals to various bank accounts that had been set up in a number of European countries. As she suspected, those had been closed within seconds of the deposits, and the money was routed to other accounts. Ultimately she traced the funds to a consolidated account in the Ukraine, and from there it was dispersed once again into smaller bank accounts. With each discovery, she became more and more certain the attack was not carried out by a cyber syndicate, but rather by a small group of hackers or maybe even a lone wolf, someone who had devised an elaborate plan to find a vulnerable target and drain the funds before anyone could detect the theft. Step by step, she unraveled the knots.
After a month of searching she hadn’t found the source, but she could feel she was closing in. A long weekend was coming up and she was excited to have the extra time. The minute her classes ended on Friday afternoon, she hurried to her house off campus to resume her quest. Changing into her favorite fleece sweats and fuzzy slippers, she propped pillows against the bed’s headboard and leaned back, her laptop on her outstretched legs. Around three in the morning, just as she was about to call it quits for the night, she found the last link . . . and presto, she had them.
Her discovery surprised her. The theft wasn’t carried out by the Russians or the Chinese after all. All of the routing and rerouting through foreign banks turned out to be just a clever way of diverting attention. The real source was actually on the West Coast of the United States. The hackers were two seniors and one grad student at Stanford University. Their carefully hidden accounts, all containing some form of their initials, CHF, for their first names, Charles, Harold, and Franklin, had a total of thirty-eight million dollars. Certainly not chump change by any hacker’s standards.
Allison was euphoric for a good fifteen minutes before worry set in. The way the three men moved money around was a concern. That thirty-eight million could be gone by morning, and she would have to spend God knows how long tracking it down again.
She knew what she needed to do. She just didn’t know if she had the courage to do it. If she messed up, she could get thirty years in prison, she thought, even as she realized she couldn’t and wouldn’t let those three greedy lowlifes take what didn’t belong to them.
“Screw it,” she whispered. “Let’s see how you like feeling helpless.”
She could imagine how angry they were going to be when they realized they had been hacked, and thinking about it made her smile.
The first thing she did was steal the money. All thirty-eight million. She put it in a secure account she made certain they would never be able to find, then set about gathering the proof to nail them. She carefully retraced each step they’d taken, including each routing number, each transfer number, and each account number. Once that was done and the proof was indisputable, she sent the evidence and the thirty-eight million to the FBI. She, of course, made certain the e-mail she was about to send couldn’t be traced back to her.
“This is for you, Ella,” she said as she triple-checked her work, then typed the e-mail address for the FBI cyber task force and hit send.
Her message for the FBI was to the point. “You’re welcome.”
It wasn’t just a possibility anymore. He hated when a hunch became a reality.
Liam Scott walked through the bar of the beach hotel and spotted his friend and colleague Alec Buchanan sitting outside on the veranda. The stars were so bright in the vast Honolulu sky the tiny lights strung overhead between the palms were almost redundant.
Alec had changed from his work clothes and was wearing a pair of cargo shorts, worn-out loafers, and an old T-shirt that was so faded the name of the 5K charity race it was promoting was illegible. He was leaning back in his chair with his legs outstretched, holding a beer, and watching the surf’s hypnotic ebb and swell. He looked as though he was a tourist on the tail end of a long relaxing vacation and not an agent who had just completed one of the most intense investigations of his FBI career.
Liam hadn’t changed out of his suit yet. When he reached Alec, he took his phone from his pocket and laid it on the table, then removed his jacket and tie, draping them on the back of the rattan chair before unbuttoning his collar.
“I ordered you a Guinness,” Alec told him.
Liam dropped into the chair. “Thanks. I could use one.”
“Looks like we should have this wrapped up tomorrow. Just as long as Meyer doesn’t get cold feet.” He tipped his bottle to Liam in salute and said, “I appreciate your coming in on this case. I don’t think we could have located Meyer without you and your international connections.”
“If Meyer’s testimony brings down Dimitri Volkov and his syndicate, that’s all the thanks I need.”
“I was surprised we got him to turn so quickly. I thought he’d hold out longer.”
“He’s no spring chicken. I guess the thought of the rest of his life in maximum security was enough of an incentive.”
“Where is he now?”
“The team’s helping him pack up, and they’ll be moving him into a safe house. If they can keep him under wraps long enough, Volkov and his army of lawyers won’t be able to line up a defense. They’ll never suspect that Meyer is going to testify against his old partner.”
A waitress appeared and set a glass of the murky dark brew in front of Liam. She was wearing a yellow bikini. A colorful scarf tied around her waist created a wrap that was so short it barely covered her firm little derriere. She wore no shoes, and Liam eyed her long tan legs appreciatively.
“Is there anything else I can get you?” she asked him.
“No, thank you,” Liam answered.
She lingered for a moment and slid her gaze up and down his body. She then gave him a seductive smile and said, “If there’s anything I can do . . . anything . . . you just let me know, all right?”
Liam and Alec watched her saunter back to the bar. She took her time to make sure the men got a good look at her attributes.
Alec gave Liam’s leg a nudge with his foot. “I think that was an invitation. You might find Honolulu is a very friendly place after all.”
Liam laughed. “I’m leaving early tomorrow. I think a good night’s sleep is what I need.” He lifted the glass to his lips and took a couple of gulps. “When are you going home?”
“I’ll fly back to Chicago on Friday. Regan’s birthday is on Saturday. She doesn’t expect me home until next week, and I want to surprise her.”
“I don’t get it. Regan is beautiful and smart and funny and sweet. . . . Why that perfect woman married you, I’ll never know.”
“You’re right. She is perfect. Finding Regan was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“You’re a lucky man,” Liam said.
Alec nodded. “Yes, I am. What about you? Aren’t you about ready to find the right woman and settle down?”
“Settle. Now, that’s the operative word. Why would I settle when I see marriages like yours and Regan’s? No, I don’t have any notions of settling down. Work keeps me moving. Besides, I’m not naive enough to think there’s another perfect woman out there.”
He let out a heavy sigh, envisioning the days of travel ahead of him. He was off to Brussels in the morning to consult on a smuggling case; then he was expected in Singapore by the end of the week, and finally back to DC before the end of the month. He knew how important the work he did for the FBI was, and he’d never been one who wanted to stay in one place long enough to put down roots, always on the move, going wherever the need arose, but lately there was a restlessness inside him, a feeling he couldn’t identify exactly.
He took another swig of the Guinness, slouched down in his chair, and stared up at the vast sky. He was interrupted from his thoughts when his phone rang. Glancing at the screen, he said, “It’s the Honolulu office.”
Alec watched as Liam listened to the caller. From the frown that darkened his face, Alec surmised that whatever he was hearing wasn’t good. At the end of the call, Liam stood and looked around. “We have to find a TV.”
Alec followed him into the hotel bar. Liam went directly to the small TV that sat on the back counter, picked up the remote, and turned the channel from the baseball game that was playing. A couple of drinking patrons yelled their protests, but Liam turned up the volume and drowned them out. The news anchor finished telling a story about a local politician’s resignation and then moved on to the next report about a breakthrough in a major drug ring investigation.
“Jennifer Dawson is reporting to us live,” he said as the screen switched to a woman with a microphone. She was standing outside an apartment building.
“I’m here at the apartment where Herman Meyer has apparently been living under an assumed name for the past two years,” the inordinately enthusiastic young woman said. “A yet-to-be-identified source has told Channel 5 News that Meyer has been questioned by the FBI and is now ready to testify against his former partner and alleged head of one of the largest drug rings in North America, Dimitri Volkov. Mr. Meyer reportedly disappeared from his home in—”
Liam switched the TV back to the baseball game and came around the bar to Alec. “So much for the element of surprise,” he said.
Alec was angry. “Only a handful of people were in on the Meyer investigation. There’s no way one of them made an announcement to the press.”
“This has happened before, and it’s no coincidence.”
Alec nodded. “Whoever is leaking information . . .”
Liam finished the thought. “It has to be coming from the inside.”
Jordan Clayborne was considered to be one of the most brilliant hackers in the business. Allison Trent was a thousand times better.
Although they shared a lot in common, there was one other big difference between the two friends. Jordan never broke the law. Allison did . . . repeatedly.
They first met at a reception for a professor who had just received a prestigious award for his contribution to the world of computer science. It was a great achievement for him and for Boston College, where Jordan was an alum and Allison still a student. Jordan sat down next to Allison at one of the tables and introduced herself, but an introduction really wasn’t necessary. Allison knew exactly who Jordan Clayborne was. She was a legend at Boston College, a trailblazer, and in Allison’s opinion a genius in the technology field. She had sold her start-up company for millions of dollars and was currently writing a series of programs that would teach beginners basic computer skills and guide them all the way to advanced software engineering. More important to Allison, Jordan had done what many believed impossible. She had put the boys in Silicon Valley on notice. She had done exactly what Allison planned to do as soon as she graduated. How could she not be a fan?
As soon as Jordan asked Allison what her major focus was, the floodgates opened, and for the next two hours they discussed writing code. They bonded that night, and it didn’t take long at all for them to become good friends. Neither could have imagined, though, that their friendship would begin a chain of events that would ultimately change Allison’s life.
Despite their busy schedules, the two found time to meet often, usually over coffee or lunch. Other patrons of the coffeehouses or restaurants would see the two women talking excitedly and would assume the conversation was about the latest fashions or some new reality show on television. They never suspected the topic of discussion was computer programming.
Allison didn’t meet Jordan’s husband, Noah Clayborne, for several weeks. The two women generally spent their time discussing their common interest. They didn’t delve deeply into personal matters. Jordan shared the facts that she was married and her husband had a job with the government, but Allison knew little else about him. Then one weekend Jordan invited Allison to her parents’ home on Nathan’s Bay. It was there that she finally met Noah and found out he was an FBI agent. She liked him immediately. He was charming and funny and obviously very much in love with his wife. Allison saw no reason to keep her guard up.
Jordan’s parents, the Buchanans, were warm and welcoming, too, and Allison couldn’t help noticing the affection they showed each other, something she had never seen between her aunt and uncle. Over the weekend, two of Jordan’s brothers and their wives came for a visit. They treated Allison as if she were part of the family. She loved spending time with this gregarious and loving clan, especially the evenings around the dinner table when Jordan and her brothers told stories about their childhood and the pranks they would play on one another. Allison could only imagine the noise and the laughter when all seven of Jordan’s siblings were together. She envied them.
It was at dinner the first night that she discovered most members of the Buchanan family were also involved in some aspect of law enforcement. Three brothers worked for the bureau. One was a federal attorney. Even Jordan’s father was a judge. In any other situation, because of her forays into illegal activity, Allison would have made an excuse and gotten out of there as fast as she could, but the Buchanans were so much fun she ignored her vulnerability. In hindsight she realized she should have been more cautious. Yet, in her defense, she didn’t think anyone would have seen what was coming. All she knew was that it felt good to be with a family who liked each other and wanted to be together, not to mention the fact that she and Jordan had plenty of time to sit and talk about languages and codes, and writing programs, and bugs, and hackers.
As the weeks wore on, Allison’s crazy workload kept her from getting together with her friend as much as she would have liked, but an opportunity arose when she learned of an upcoming programming seminar. She signed up immediately. She knew she probably wasn’t going to learn anything new—that wasn’t arrogance on her part, just fact—but  the presenter was Jordan, and she wanted to be supportive.
The day of the seminar arrived, and Allison spent the afternoon in the library working on a paper that was due next week. At five o’clock she closed down her laptop and reached for her coat. Checking her watch, she figured she had plenty of time to rush home and change. Jordan was speaking tonight at seven, and Allison wanted to get to the small auditorium early so she could get a good seat. Over a hundred students were attending the event. If it was like her computer science classes, the vast majority would be men—which Allison found galling. Where were all the women? She was aware that women were entering the technology fields, but the forward strides weren’t happening fast enough to suit her. She didn’t feel intimidated by the men. She could hold her own when it came to ability. It was just that she would have liked to have more women around her and not be looked at as some sort of oddity.
Her sister, Charlotte, had always seen the analytical side of Allison, but most people who knew her as a child wouldn’t have predicted she would one day be a computer geek. They claimed that her talent lay in her looks. From the time she was a toddler, complete strangers would comment on what a pretty child she was. Then, as she grew into her teenage years, she was told her slender figure and long, shapely legs made her the perfect model. One photographer announced she had the perfect face: high cheekbones, gorgeous brilliant blue eyes, perfect complexion, and full pouting lips. She was just a junior in high school when, while browsing in a department store with her sister, she was spotted by the store’s manager and offered a photo shoot for an ad campaign in a local magazine. She went home and asked her aunt and uncle about it, and their answer was curt and dismissive, which was precisely the reaction Allison expected. In the years she had lived with them, she had never received encouragement for anything.
Allison was about to reject the store manager’s modeling offer when her aunt and uncle had a sudden change of heart. They had just received a large bill from an attorney who represented Will on a shoplifting charge. Realizing that the extra income she could bring into the family would help alleviate some of their financial worries, they gave their permission.
The magazine layout was a big success, and in the months that followed she received several offers, which Allison declined. She wasn’t interested in a modeling career. But when an up-and-coming Boston designer named Giovanni Donato pleaded with her, insisting that no one could wear his clothes the way she could, she gave in. He had been so kind to her during the magazine shoot she couldn’t say no. She agreed to work for him, on a limited basis, just as long as the modeling didn’t interfere with school and her long-term goals.
Because she was a minor, her guardians demanded to receive every dime Allison earned, and each check they received they immediately spent. When Giovanni got wind of what they were doing, he opened an account for Allison at his bank, increased her base salary without telling the guardians, and deposited the difference. Allison appreciated the modeling jobs and especially the way Giovanni watched out for her financially, but when a couple of years had passed and she was ready to enroll in college, she knew it was time for a change of direction. There was no doubt in her mind that she had been programmed for something other than modeling. Her future had been determined the minute her sister showed her how to turn on a computer. She couldn’t remember how old she was at the time, but she could attest that it was love at first keystroke. Back then she was a shy, quiet girl, and people’s behavior didn’t always make sense to her, yet computers did. She couldn’t explain how it happened. Maybe her brain was a computer, she theorized. It all just clicked inside her. Working on the computer was also a wonderful escape from her relatives and the endless turmoil at home. When Allison put on her headphones, all the noise and chaos were blocked out.
With each year of college that passed, her knowledge and enthusiasm increased. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do with her laptop. Reading codes was one of her favorite pastimes. After she’d solved the problem for the residents of Sunset Gardens, breaking into supposedly impossible sites became a favorite activity. She began to expand her curiosity and her exploration. The lure of a complicated program was too enticing to pass up, and the more intricate, the better. She loved looking for bugs. These small programming errors were passages into some very sophisticated systems. She entered hundreds of sites this way, and yet she made sure no one would ever detect her presence. Aware that the bugs had the potential for making organizations and companies susceptible to destructive attacks, she took great pains to hide her tracks. Allison knew she was breaking the law by visiting protected sites, but in her defense, her intentions were purely innocent. To her, these were giant puzzles, and she was simply studying them to see how the pieces fit. She wasn’t doing anything harmful. No, she was actually being helpful. If she discovered an intrusion, she would block the hacker, and many times she removed viruses that could damage or even destroy companies. She had no trouble justifying her activities to herself, but deep down inside there was always the nagging voice warning her. If the authorities ever discovered what she was doing, she could be in a lot of trouble.
She loved college. It allowed her to move out of her aunt and uncle’s home and into a house near the campus. Moving day was as joyful as the Christmas mornings she’d shared with Charlotte and her husband when they had lived in Boston, and it was her fervent hope that she would never have to spend another night with her aunt and uncle. Her freedom meant she could concentrate on what excited her. While most of her classmates were hanging out at local drinking establishments, she was in her room playing with code. She wasn’t completely antisocial. She had made a few friends, but most of them were interested in other pursuits and didn’t share her passion. It was nice to have a friend like Jordan who understood, and Allison was looking forward to her seminar tonight.
When she stepped out of the library, the air was frigid and damp with flurries that would soon turn into a full-blown snowstorm if the weatherman was correct with his forecast. The temperature was unseasonably low for early November. Fortunately, the house she shared with two other students was only three blocks away from the auditorium. She could cut across campus and be there in five minutes.
The house was empty when she arrived. She rushed upstairs to her bedroom and changed into skinny jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt, then pulled on a thick cream-colored cable-knit sweater and reached to the back of her closet for her leather knee-high boots. They were well-worn and comfortable and would keep her toes nice and warm. Her long brown hair went up into a ponytail. Typically she wore very little makeup, the exception being when she was on a photo shoot with Giovanni. After a little mascara and lip gloss, she was ready to go. Instead of her heavy winter coat, she put on her light gray, down-filled, quilted vest. It had so many zipper pockets she didn’t have to carry a purse or a backpack. Her keys and pepper spray went into one pocket; her small billfold with her money and ID went into another, tissue and cell phone into a third pocket, and there were still two empty pockets for her gray leather gloves. She wrapped the matching gray scarf around her neck twice, then tied the ends the way Giovanni had shown her. She had a killer wardrobe, thanks to him. Not only had he put money aside for her, but he also insisted she take the clothes she modeled as a bonus for a job well done.
The stairs of the old house squeaked and groaned as she ran down to the first floor. She was surprised to see her two roommates, Dan and Mark, in the living room. They looked very serious as they huddled over a stack of papers on the coffee table. She smiled as she watched them. She remembered how Charlotte had had a fit when she heard Allison was moving in with male students, but after meeting them, Charlotte realized Allison was probably safer with them watching out for her than she would have been living alone. Besides, both of the guys were in long-term relationships.
Dan Campbell was in charge of house finances. An economics major on a scholarship, he would probably graduate at the top of his class next year. When she had answered the post on the student bulletin board advertising a room for rent, it was Dan’s persistence that swayed Mark to let her move in. Dan was built like a linebacker yet didn’t play sports. His physique reminded her of a big burly bear, but he was very sweet.
Mark Strausman was a political science major who planned to go to law school. He was outgoing and friendly, and Allison liked him very much. He had just become engaged and was getting married after graduation to a girl who went to a neighboring college. When he wasn’t in class, he was participating in student government, and Allison had no doubt that someday she would be voting for him in a state—if not a national—election.
For the first couple of months of this term, they had taken in a fourth student; however, Brett Keaton had never quite fit in with the group. While the others pitched in with chores, he was lazy and refused to pull his own weight. A computer science major, he constantly bragged about his grand plan to start a company and take it global. Someday, he vowed, he would own half of Boston. Unfortunately, there was a major weakness in his plan. His academic performance was, at best, below average. He often solicited Allison’s help when he was stuck on a project, and while she was willing to bail him out a few times, she had major doubts about his capabilities. Not to mention his aversion to hard work. The housemates were able to tolerate his rather obnoxious personality for a while, but then Mark found him sneaking into Allison’s room and snooping around her computer one night when she was gone. Mark reported the discovery to Dan, and the two decided that this was the last straw. They told Brett to pack his things and get out.
Since the three remaining housemates got along so well, they decided not to fill his room. They had managed until now, and there really wasn’t any reason to add another person. Everything quickly settled back into a calm normalcy.
“Al, do you have a minute?” Dan asked when he spotted her at the foot of the stairs.
“Sure. What’s going on?” She walked over to the sofa and sat on the arm. Seeing that the papers on the coffee table were bills, she waited for an explanation.
“Everything’s covered this month except Mark’s portion of the rent.”
“I feel like an idiot,” Mark said. “Before we threw Brett out, I never thought to check my things. I was so mad at the time I didn’t think to look at where I hide my money. He took it all. I can’t prove it, though.”
“Did you know he snuck back into the house one afternoon and was in your room?” Dan asked Allison.
She nodded. “That’s what Mark told me.”
When she had heard about Brett’s attempt to snoop on her computer, she was concerned, but when she got the news about the second incident, alarm bells went off. She had been working on a program for months that, if successful, could revolutionize computer security. She had told no one about it, not even her housemates, because she had a few details to add and wanted to test it thoroughly first. Had Brett somehow discovered her work? She couldn’t help being suspicious. She was usually so cautious, but he had been near her on several occasions when she logged on to her computer. Had she let her guard down? All it would take would be one stupid lapse on her part for him to learn how to access her work. She had built in precautions, and she reassured herself with the fact that she had backed up everything. Plus, Brett had only a mediocre understanding of code, so even if he found her work, she felt certain he wouldn’t understand it. Still, there was a nagging worry. Maybe he was attempting to steal something. Her computer perhaps? She realized she had to be more careful. Her life was on that laptop.
“I’m the one who vouched for him in the beginning,” Dan said. He shook his head. “So stupid.”
“How much do we need to make rent?” she asked.
“Six hundred,” Dan replied.
She pulled out her billfold and took three one-hundred-dollar bills from the hidden fold behind the change slot. She had planned to deposit it in her account in the morning. Instead she put it on the coffee table.
Dan threw in two hundred forty. “We’re still short sixty.”
“I’ve got sixty,” Mark said.
“Al, where did you get three hundred dollars? You’re always cash poor,” Dan said.
“Birthday money from Charlotte and Oliver,” she answered.
“I’ll pay you guys back,” Mark vowed. “I promise.”
“No, that’s not how it works,” Dan argued. “Next month it could be Al needing some help . . . or me. We don’t keep tabs.”
Allison nodded in agreement. “Are we done here? I’ve got to go.”
“Where?” Dan asked.
She quickly explained about the seminar and once again headed to the door.
“Got your pepper spray?” Dan called.
“Cell phone in case you get in trouble?”
She laughed. “I don’t have a switchblade . . . and no, I’m not getting one.”
“I was just making sure you were listening to me. Be careful.”
As she was closing the door behind her, she could hear him still calling to her, “And don’t forget . . . be aware of your surroundings.”
Dan was a worrier. He was the loving big brother she never had. She wasn’t forgetting about her cousin, Will. He just didn’t qualify. She had grown up with him, and he could have taken on a brotherly role in her life, but that never happened. The only person he worried about was himself, and he certainly wasn’t loving.
She heard someone call her name from the other side of the street, and just as she turned to wave to one of her professors, her phone rang. She was in a great mood until she saw who was calling. It was her aunt, who never called unless there was a problem. Allison didn’t want to answer and considered letting it go to voice mail, but from experience she knew her aunt wouldn’t give up. She also knew that, with each call, her aunt would become more and more belligerent. Allison decided to get it over with and talk to her now.
“Hello, Allison. How are you?” As usual her aunt’s voice was rigid. The only time Allison had ever heard any affection in the woman’s tone was when she was talking to her son.
“I’m good,” she replied. She reached the end of her block and stopped on the corner to let traffic pass before she crossed the street. The streetlights were just beginning to flicker on as dusk settled over the city.
“Are you keeping warm?”
“You’re not eating too much, are you? You know you have to stay away from carbs.”
She sighed. Her aunt was never going to change. “No, I’m not eating too much.”
“We’ve been told you’re the perfect size and weight.”
Allison gritted her teeth. It was amazing she hadn’t developed an eating disorder. While she was in high school, it was salads every night. Her aunt was constantly counting Allison’s calories. The pressure was nerve-racking. “Yes, I know.”
“Are you keeping warm? We can’t afford for you to get sick.”
She’d already asked that question. Her aunt was rattled. Allison could hear the tension in her voice. Trying to rush her to explain the problem never worked, though. God knows, Allison had tried to speed up the process in the past. It just made her aunt more nervous and prolonged the silly chitchat until she finally circled around to the reason for her call.
“Yes, I’m keeping warm,” Allison repeated.
“I’m sorry. What were you saying? Your uncle’s talking to me at the same time, and I . . .”
“Yes?” She stopped there.
“Have you spoken to Giovanni lately?”
“Yes. I talk to him every week. Why?”
“We’re going to need you to do a couple more modeling jobs as soon as possible. You’ll have to put school on hold for now.”
Again? Oh, hell no. “Aunt Jane, it’s almost the middle of the semester. I can’t just quit again. I only need a few hours to graduate. How many times do you think the Jesuits will take me back? What happened?”
It was Will, of course. It was always Will. Allison didn’t dare ask what he had done now, because her aunt would get her back up. When it came to Will, his mother and father lived in Looney Tune Land. Nothing was ever his fault.
“Will could go to jail,” her aunt blurted, her voice shaking with emotion. “Yes, you heard me. Jail.”
“For something he didn’t even do,” she said. “He didn’t steal anything. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and when the police came, he tried to tell them that, but they wouldn’t listen to him. Now they want to charge him with resisting arrest, too. He’s the victim here, and his attorney will prove he’s innocent. But there’s an issue with the lawyer’s retainer. . . .”
“Aunt Jane, I can’t—”
“This is an emergency. Your uncle and I are tapped out.”
She heard her uncle say, “Tell her to stop arguing and do what she’s told. The decision’s been made.”
Allison could feel a slow burn coming on. She had reached the sidewalk in front of the auditorium and was now pacing back and forth. Students were passing her on their way into the building. She stopped pacing for a second and noticed a man in a heavy overcoat with the collar turned up standing at the top of the steps. He was watching her. Dan’s warning to be aware of her surroundings made her take notice, and she walked away from the steps as she continued to listen to her aunt’s argument.
“Your uncle’s right. We’ve made the decision. Just remember, family comes first, and Will needs you. Don’t be ungrateful after all we’ve done for you and your sister—”
She interrupted. “Aunt Jane, it’s okay. I don’t need to quit my classes. I’ve already talked to Giovanni, and I’m doing a shoot during break, which is coming up soon.”
She waited while the information was relayed to her uncle.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” her aunt said on a huge sigh of relief. “I’m sure the lawyer will wait, knowing the check will be coming. Your uncle will talk to him.”
In their minds the problem had been solved, and Will would once again get a free pass. They really believed, with the right lawyer and enough money, they could get their son out of anything. And thus far they’d been right. They had somehow convinced themselves that Will was a victim. All he needed was enough love and support, and everything would be fine. Allison tried to care about her cousin, but she couldn’t understand his parents’ irrational devotion. They had added so many colors to the truth they had actually painted a new reality.
Allison’s statement about talking to Giovanni wasn’t a total lie. She had spoken with him just last week, but she didn’t have any work scheduled. She could call him tomorrow and grovel, she supposed, unless he really did have something for her. He had become, not only her employer, but also what she imagined a father should be. She had gained his complete loyalty when she agreed to work exclusively for him. He called her his muse and often asserted that she was giving up the chance to be a top model by staying in Boston instead of moving to New York. She disagreed. She was neither tall enough nor thin enough, and she was already too old by the fashion world’s standards. There was also the fact that she didn’t have the extra drive it would take to succeed. Besides, her ambitions were taking her on an entirely different direction.
Allison ended the call and, putting her relatives’ problems aside, hurried up the steps. Heavy snow had started to fall, and the chill in the air was biting.
There was a seat on the aisle three rows from the stage. She unzipped her vest, removed her scarf, sat back, and then remembered to turn her phone to mute.
Jordan was standing near the podium talking with the moderator. It would be easy to be envious of her, Allison thought. She seemed to have it all. Not only was she brilliant; she was also very beautiful, with long auburn hair, sparkling eyes, and an infectious laugh. The moderator looked enthralled. Jordan spotted Allison and waved to her.
After a brief introduction, Jordan spoke for thirty minutes about her experience as a software developer and her current project creating programs to simplify computer learning. Allison hung on every word. Then came the questions. Some of the computer science majors were a bit condescending, no doubt trying to impress Jordan with their knowledge. Her answers were given so patiently and with such a sweet smile Allison wondered if any of the questioners realized they had just been taken down by an expert.
When the lecture was officially over, most of the audience began to file out, but a few diehards stayed behind to continue the discussion. After twenty minutes of back-and-forth, a couple of students asked more complex questions that piqued Allison’s interest. She listened intently to Jordan’s expert answers and was spurred by her own curiosity to raise her hand. Jordan turned and pointed in her direction. “Yes? Your question?”
She straightened in her chair and raised her voice. “I was wondering if you ever considered using Cobar to write your code for that particular program?”
All eyes were on her now. A few people exchanged puzzled glances. Cobar was an obscure programming language unknown to most of them.
Jordan stopped to think for a minute. “That’s a really interesting idea,” she answered.
“Why would you think it would fit this application?”
Allison explained her reasoning, and before long the two women were engaged in a lively dialogue. At first, the other audience members who had remained behind tried to keep up with the conversation by asking for clarification, but it soon became apparent that most of them were lost. As the questions became more detailed—with Jordan asking Allison most of them—the dwindling audience began to lose interest, and one by one they exited the auditorium, leaving just Jordan, Allison, and a small band of less than a dozen students.
Becoming aware that most people had left, Allison glanced around at the empty chairs and spotted someone standing in the back of the auditorium. He was the same man she’d noticed outside on the steps. He was occupied, texting on his phone. He obviously wasn’t interested in the discussion, and yet he wasn’t leaving. He looked up, and for the briefest of seconds their eyes met. She could have sworn he smiled at her. She was certain she had never seen him before. She definitely would have remembered a man as fine-looking as that.
The moderator finally stopped the question-and-answer period by stepping forward and thanking Jordan for participating in the forum. Those still in the auditorium showed their appreciation with a round of applause. As she waited in her seat for Jordan to say good-bye to the moderator, Allison noticed a message on her phone from Dan. He was at the library and wanted her to text him when she was ready to walk home. He’d walk with her. She smiled when she read it. Dan was such a worrywart, but she was secretly grateful he considered himself her protector.
Allison quickly slipped her phone back into her pocket and made her way to the stage to say hello to Jordan, who was just coming down the steps.
“Was I as boring as I thought I was?” Jordan asked.
The moderator had turned out the stage lights and was locking up the auditorium.
“No, you weren’t boring at all. How come some of those computer science boys were so condescending?”
“Beats me,” Jordan answered. “You put them to shame tonight,” she added, grinning.
Allison texted Dan as they made their way to the exit. She looked around for the mysterious stranger who had been watching from the back of the auditorium, but he had disappeared.
The two friends didn’t have much time to catch up while they waited on the steps outside, because Dan appeared almost immediately. He and Allison walked Jordan to her car and then backtracked toward their house. On their walk home she told Dan about her programming discussion with Jordan during the seminar.
“You do realize I’m an econ major, and everything you’ve just said sounds like gibberish to me.”
She laughed. “Sorry. I guess I was getting a little technical, wasn’t I?” After a minute she said, “I was showing off tonight. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Why not? There’s nothing wrong with letting people know how smart you are.”
She disagreed. “I don’t want to draw attention. It could get me into trouble.”
“What kind of trouble could you get into? It’s not like you broke the law or anything,” he said, and then teasing her with a raised eyebrow and an exaggerated look of suspicion, he added, “Or did you?”
“No, of course not,” she laughed, averting her eyes.
If he only knew.