The Million Dollar Girl
A Novel

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 11, 2008

Chapter 22

By early evening, Amy felt composed enough to think more clearly, so she spent some time trying to imagine how her paper could have gotten on the Web. Could she have accidentally uploaded it somehow? Could Tina have done it? Amy remembered noticing that her notebook computer was often in a different position from when she had left it—she usually left it open, but since Tina had arrived, the cover was often closed when she got back from class or the dining commons. Then again, the computer could have moved innocently when Markayla or even Tina used it for some ordinary purpose.

At a creative loss, Amy decided to call her parents. First, she gave them a long narrative of the events, interspersed by constant assertions of complete innocence. Then she said, “I have no idea how this could have happened. What do you think, Daddy?”

Her father had a career full of experience creating several different explanations for each set of facts in a case, for this was the common method of solving crimes. Take the evidence and create some different stories that might explain it. Then choose the story that fits best. His first thought was that Amy’s paper had been compromised when it left her custody (these are the terms with which he thought of the situation).

“Did you lend your disk to anyone to look at your paper or even to use the disk for some other purpose?” he asked.

“No. I copied my paper to a disk only to take it to the lab to print. I printed right from the floppy and never copied it onto the hard drive of the lab’s computer. The disk is in my disk case, where it always has been.

“Did you make more than one printout of your paper, or did you lend a copy of the printed paper to anyone?”

“No. No one has seen my paper. I didn’t even take it to the Writing Center because it was just two pages and I didn’t need any help with bibliography style.”

“Could you have copied the paper from the Web to use for research and then confused your notes?” her mother suggested.

“No, I didn’t use the Web at all.”

“We would understand if you made a mistake, honey. It could have been an accident or you might have forgotten what you did.” Amy’s mother thought the paper had probably been copied, as the evidence suggested, but that her daughter somehow did not intend to cheat.

“No, Mom. I didn’t make a mistake.” No one spoke for a moment. “But I know what it looks like. That’s just the problem.”

Amy’s father had too good an opinion of his own training of his daughter and of her integrity to believe immediately that she was guilty. And he had seen many cases where the truth was much more bizarre than the obvious explanation. His next thought was that Amy may have had a falling out with her boyfriend. He knew from experience that in many crimes, the victim knew or was related to the criminal. One of his favorite sayings was, “Most people are killed by their friends.” He had repeated it often to Amy. She was not surprised, then, to hear his next question.

“How’s your boyfriend?” he asked. “Mark, isn’t it?”

“His name is Matt and he’s not my boyfriend,” Amy said. “He’s fine.”

“You still on good terms with him?”

“Yes, daddy, I like him. He likes me, I think. He acts like it. He wouldn’t do this, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Detective Herbert did not argue the point. “Who else has access to your computer?”

“Just my roommates. But I’m sure Markayla didn’t do it and I don’t think my other roommate could—would—do it. She’s not really the kind of person who would.”

“How do you know?”

“Trust me on this one, daddy.” Amy didn’t want to say anything that Tina might overhear, even though the girl was once again lying on her bed and wearing her headphones.

“Who else has a key to your room? The janitor, your resident assistant, maids?”

“Daddy, we don’t have maids,” Amy said. “I only see the janitor when the plumbing breaks, which is not very often. And the RA seems pretty honest.”

“Isn’t she the one with all the tattoos?”

“Yes, Daddy, but half the people here have tattoos. It’s a fad now.”

“Well, keep an eye out the next time you see her and see if you can detect any signs that might provide information.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“Do you leave your door unlocked when you are not in your room? Someone could have taken your floppy and copied it and then returned it without your knowledge.”

“No. We always lock the door when no one is here. Otherwise TV sets and notebook computers disappear.”

“Is anyone mad at you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Has anyone threatened you or does anyone have a reason to want to hurt your university career?”

“No. Nobody that I can think of.”

“Anyone jealous of you?”

“Oh, like that’s realistic.” Then, repenting of her sarcasm, she added, “Sorry, Daddy. But no, nobody is jealous of me.”

“What about the professor? Does he have anything against you?” her father continued.

“No, he doesn’t even know me. I’ve never spoken to him until today when he told me to see him after class.”

“Is he married?”

“How would I know? Oh, wait. He does wear a ring, I think. What are you getting at?”

“Do you think he might try to use this situation to take advantage of you?”

“Oh, Daddy. Handsome, curly haired professors, married or single, don’t try to seduce girls like me.” Besides, Amy was thinking, Professor Miller seemed to have his eye on someone else in the class. Someone else who was much more attractive.

“Well, just be careful as things develop,” he said.

“Yes Daddy,” Amy said in a tone that let her father know she was rolling her eyes. “If he offers to take me to Paris, I’ll be sure to check to see if the tickets are real.”

In the middle of this conversation, Tina suddenly opened her eyes and said, staring at the ceiling, “Okay.” She took off her headphones and got up off the bed. “I’m going out for a snack,” she told Amy. Then she walked out the door.

Amy turned back to the phone conversation. Her father noticed that she had not spoken for a few moments.

“How about you, Seepy? Are you feeling okay about school?” Detective Herbert knew well that some students sabotaged their own academic careers as a way of escaping a hateful situation. And Amy knew the implications of his question. But the use of his nickname for her meant that he asked the question with love, and she realized this, also.

“Yes, Daddy. Until today, I was enjoying school. In spite of the work.”

“Are you getting enough rest?” Amy’s mother asked.

“Yes, Mom. And I walk to class, so I’m getting exercise, too.”

The call ended after Amy’s father promised to think over her situation and consult with some friends in the department. Amy did not feel like asking her father the usual question about catching criminals.


Amy’s next thought was to call Matt. Maybe he could help her understand what had happened. He knew something about the Web and computers.

The phone was answered with a high-pitched French accent. “Prager residence. Fifi the French maid speaking.”

“Matt, I’m in big trouble.”

“Amy? What’s going on?”

“Dr. Miller found a copy of my philosophy paper on the Web and he thinks I plagiarized it from there.”

“Uh oh,” was all Matt could think to say.

“I’m probably going to be kicked out of school. The least they’ll do is flunk me in critical thinking.” Amy stopped for a minute, thinking her voice had a whine to it. She swallowed and lowered her tone a little. “The thing is, though, I can’t understand how my paper could have gotten on the Web. I didn’t copy it from there.”

“Did you give a copy of your paper to anybody?”

“No. The only copy is right here on my computer.”

“You do have a backup on a floppy disk, don’t you?”

“I copied it to a floppy to print, but I’ve got that disk right here.”

“And it hasn’t gone anywhere?”

“No. I’m pretty sure. And no one suspicious has used the computer as far as I can tell,” she added, preempting the next obvious question. “You know we always keep the room locked when no one is here.”

“Okay. Well—.” Matt thought for a minute. “Have you opened any suspicious email attachments, like from people you don’t know? Any free games? Funny pictures?”

“No, I never open those. You told me they were dangerous. I delete them.”

“Have you let any suspicious programs through your firewall?”

“What’s a firewall?”

“Amy, you’re kidding. You do have a firewall, don’t you?”

“How would I know? What’s a firewall?”

“Is your computer on right now?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Turn it off. I’ll be over in a couple of minutes.”

Matt was not the type of person to blame himself for every misadventure, but he felt guilty and angry that he had not noticed before the lack of a firewall on Amy’s computer. As he walked hurriedly over toward her dorm, he banged his palm against his forehead several times, uttering an accompanying, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” He felt that he had somehow let Amy down, left her unprotected. The knight had been sleeping while the dragon singed his lady’s dress.


Amy needed a long hug from Matt before she would allow him to look at her computer. Matt had never felt Amy squeeze so tightly. He instinctively matched the strength of her embrace with his own, pressing her to him until he felt her begin to relax. He could smell the scent of her hair as their heads took part in the hug. She smelled good.

“Oh, Matt.” Amy’s eyes were glistening.

“Don’t worry, Amy,” Matt said softly. “I’ll help you.” It would be years before Matt learned not to say, “Don’t worry,” to a woman.

“What if I get kicked out of school? What if I fail critical thinking?” She wondered whether she had a future, or rather, what kind of future she would face. And what of the example of her life? Who would want to imitate a flunked-out, supposed plagiarizer, a hypocrite who claims to believe in truth and integrity but whose hand was allegedly caught in the chocolate chip cookie jar? Bringing dishonor on herself was one thing. Dishonoring her faith was quite another.

“We’ll work on that later. Let’s look at your computer first and see what’s up.”

Matt turned the computer on and watched it boot up. While he waited, he grabbed an apple from Markayla’s fruit bowl and chomped into it. Because he was watching the screen, he did not see Amy shake her head, smiling fondly. When the computer was ready, he began to click and choose various items. Soon he had a look of doubt, of curiosity, then concern. He opened several windows as he hunted around the various parts of the computer, parts Amy had never seen. Amy saw him shake his head.

“What did you find out?”

“I’m afraid you’re one dead kitty,” Matt said.

“What do you mean?”

“No firewall.”


“On a network. In a university dorm. You’ve probably had every word you’ve ever written copied from your computer by now.”

“Nuh uh.” Amy thought he was kidding.

“Children in Brazil are probably reading your works and profiting from them even as we speak.”

“Matt, this is serious. And what’s a firewall?”

“You don’t have any lurid diary entries about me on this thing, do you?”


“It’s a program that keeps hackers from getting into your computer by the back door.”

“What back door?”

“Over the network.” Matt lifted the cable from Amy’s notebook to the wall.

“You mean people can get into my computer over that cable?” Matt nodded. “So someone could have copied my paper from another room in the dorm?”

“They could have copied it from the Ukraine,” Matt said. “The network is connected to the Internet. In fact, I’d be surprised if they don’t have a kiddie porn server running off this thing by now.”

“Matt, you’re joking.”

“Let’s hope so,” he said in a tone that did not encourage Amy.

Matt downloaded some free firewall software and rebooted the computer. He watched as the various services asked for permission to connect to the network.

“I don’t see any rogue servers trying to run,” he said at last.

“So does that mean my stuff is safe now?”

“Well, the barn door is closed. But who knows where your chickens have been?”


The thought reminded Amy of the plagiarism problem again. She slumped down on the bed, exhausted.

“Why is this happening to me?” she asked of no one in particular.

“Sometimes, all we can do is trust the Lord,” Matt said.

“I know God is not an insurance policy or a vending machine. I don’t believe in him so that when I drop the soap, it won’t hit my foot. But this is so out of the blue. I feel like a train fell on me.”

Matt considered her train metaphor for a minute, but said nothing.

There was a knock on the door. It was Shelley, breathless again.

“Oh, Matt!” she said, excitedly, seeing him first, “I’ve got the perfect quote for you.” Then she recited in a deep tone of voice, “‘There is, indeed, nothing that so much seduces reason from vigilance as the thought of passing life with an amiable woman.’ That’s from Samuel Johnson. Get it? Amiable, Amy?”

“Maybe you should still be an English major,” Matt said.

“No, I think I like literature too much.”

“Shelley, I’m in big trouble,” Amy said. She was too spent to break down again, but her face showed that she was very unhappy.

Shelley looked at Matt with alarm. “Oh, no! Not—.”

“Plagiarism,” Amy interrupted. “I mean, I’ve been accused of plagiarism, but I didn’t do it.”

A lengthy and highly repetitive explanation followed, together with a handful of new tears and the need for a few tissues. Amy blew her runny nose energetically, half angry that she was upset and tearful and sniffling in front of Matt. She had never allowed herself to blow her nose so vigorously in front of him before because she thought it was unladylike. But on this occasion, she was distracted and cranky with herself. Matt thought, “Wow, she can really honk.”


“I sure wish I knew what was going on in my life,” Amy said. “First I get blamed when I try to help Tina, and now my reputation is ruined and I’m going to be kicked out of the university for something I didn’t do. And until now, everything was going so well.”

“Maybe this is just a hole in the plot of your life,” Shelley said. She sat down on the bed next to Amy.

“A hole?” Amy asked, only mildly curious.

“You know, like those books where, for chapters one through fifty the two characters hate each other and then in Chapter Fifty One they both eat a tomato and fall in love and all their problems disappear? Or like this one character will be a heartless bad guy who kicks dogs and slaps women, except that when it’s convenient for the plot, he marries an ex-nun or something? Or the detective hero takes ten cars full of cops with him to the first three drug busts, but then he decides to go to the next bust at an isolated warehouse all by himself, and to our amazement, it’s a trap?”

“So, my problem is the contrivance of a bad plot? My life is a bad plot?”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Shelley continued. “My own life is full of plot holes, too. But plot holes don’t necessarily mean anything. They just happen.”

“I’d prefer to think that everything happens for a purpose, and that my life is not just a badly plotted play.”

Shelley thought for a moment. “That would be nice. And sometimes, it would explain so much. Especially in hindsight. Other times, I’m not so sure.”

“The more practical thing is, What am I going to do? How can I defend myself? It seems hopeless.”

“Nothing is hopeless,” Matt said.

“Maybe I should just drop out.” Amy was looking down at her fingertips and rubbing them.

“No, Amy,” Shelley said. “That’s like killing yourself to spite a zit.”

Amy looked at Shelley. “Yeah, but was your life ever destroyed by a zit?”

“Well, there was this time in junior high—.”

“Shelley, this is serious, and you’re not helping.”

“I know. I’m sorry, but you handed me the line. I had to run with it.”

“Uh, I’ll leave you and Shelley to talk,” Matt said, edging toward the door. “Meanwhile, I’ll be praying for you and for the best outcome of all this.”

Amy got up off the bed and gave Matt a little hug. “Thank you, Matt. You’re special.”

“And the best thing to do is turn your computer off when you’re not using it.”


“Hey,” Shelley said, after Matt left and closed the door. “I prayed the other day, too.”

“Really?” Amy was a little surprised.

“Yeah. Ron and I were on his bike and we hit a gravel spot on the edge of the pavement and started to skid. I prayed, ‘Dear God, don’t let us get killed.’ And the rear tire got back on the pavement. It was like a miracle or something.”

“How neat,” Amy said, trying to smile a smile she found it difficult to feel. “I need a miracle like that, too. But I don’t expect a miracle to solve all my problems.”

The two friends continued to talk for a long while, stream-of-consciousness style, ranging over topics that included Ron and Matt, junior high and high school, life at the university, professors, food, and a number of others. Shelley was her usual funny and outrageous self. They chatted along, Amy almost merrily too, until first Tina and then, shortly afterwards, Markayla, returned to the room. Amy had deeply appreciated the welcome distraction from her cares.


Go on to Chapter 23
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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com