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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.

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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.

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"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.

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"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.

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