.:VirtualSalt

The Million Dollar Girl
A Novel

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 11, 2008



Chapter 25

Critical thinking this morning had been very awkward. Sitting in the classroom of a professor who had angrily accused her of plagiarism was almost too much for Amy to bear. She had taken a seat in back, among the inattentive students. She tried to concentrate, but her scant notes revealed that she was getting little out of the hour. Being accused of copying her paper one day and then the next day being accused of helping others cheat had fractured her concentration. And the last conversation with Tina Nicole hung over her like impending doom. She was depressed. The sarcastic comments about Professor Miller, the notes passing to and fro, and the other antics of the back row scarcely bothered her now.

“Why did I even come to class?” she asked herself.

But she survived the hour. She did not cry, though she felt like it once or twice. A pat on the hand from Markayla, who had joined her in the back as a friend and supporter, helped give her a little extra strength. She was careful not to make eye contact with Miller. She felt like someone who had been suddenly buried in the collapse of a building or mountainside. “What is happening? Is this real? This can’t be true,” she was thinking. She felt stunned, disoriented, even a day after Elderberry’s accusation and two days after Miller’s. Life seemed out of control.

Neither roommate went to the Cave after class. Markayla went off to the library. There was no coffee in the library, but it was an environment Markayla found attractive and helpful. Books were handy, of course, but more than that, the atmosphere encouraged a studious state of mind. Amy headed back to the dorm to rest. Stress had exhausted her. Walking back across campus, she half expected the grass and trees to have a sinister appearance, but they looked as beautiful as they had before these events. Now, the beauty seemed somehow incongruous, but it was there, still.

Back at the room, Amy dumped her book bag heavily onto her bed. Tina was in the shower. Amy picked up Tina’s wadded-up T-shirt and underwear by the door and tossed them on the girl’s bed. Then she sat down on her own bed and stared across the room blankly. She felt like a zombie.

A short yell from the bathroom caught Amy’s attention. Then there was a longer scream followed by a clatter that sounded like something hitting the bathtub and sliding around. The door opened quickly and Tina stood there dripping wet, the towel she was holding also soaked.

“They saw me naked in the shower!” she said excitedly. Her face was contorted with fear and disgust. “They put it on the Internet!”

By now Tina was standing on the carpet outside the bathroom, still dripping. Her eyes were wild. A small stream of water drained from the towel onto the carpet.

“Tina, you’re still wet. Dry yourself off.” Amy passed Tina and went into the bathroom to get a dry towel, which she handed to Tina in trade for the soaked one. “Stand here,” she said, pointing to the tile just inside the door. No one can see you from here.”

The shower was still running, so Amy walked over, all the while looking around for a camera, and turned off the water. Her shower radio lay in the tub, the hanger handle broken and the case cracked. Amy picked it up and watched the water drain out of it.

“What happened to my radio?”

“They put a camera in it. They saw me in the shower.”

Amy picked up the radio. “Who put a camera in it?”

“The Abiertos, group number two.”

Amy looked over the radio. Her father had given it to her as a back-to-school present. She could see no camera lenses. This seemed to be another example of Tina’s imagination.

“Where’s the camera?” Amy asked.

“In the box. I saw it. It flashed at me.”

Amy turned the radio on. To her surprise, it still worked. She showed it to Tina.

“I don’t see any camera.”

“There,” Tina said, pointing to the red LED that lit when the radio was turned on.

“That just means it’s on,” Amy said.

“The camera is on. They saw me naked.” Tina clutched the towel more closely to her body, as if to hide better from the camera’s leer.

Amy remembered going to a theme park once with some friends from high school. One girl refused to use the park’s bathrooms because the toilets had automatic flush mechanisms that included a red LED, apparently to show that they were turned on. The girl seemed to think that there was, or might be, a camera behind the dark plastic sensor plate. Amy had seen the news reports about cameras being placed in restrooms and about people bringing cameras into theme parks, so she could understand that girl’s decision, even though it seemed pretty far out, even a little paranoid, to Amy. In Tina’s case, the conclusion seemed completely irrational. Who would put a camera into a radio to take pictures of Tina?

Amy remembered the comment Matt had made about cameras being everywhere and about everyone ending up being “naked on the Internet.” She wondered if Tina had somehow turned that comment into a belief about herself. It was silly, but Tina seemed to be utterly convinced. She did not seem able to understand the difference between a joke and a serious comment. Amy looked over at the girl. She was now dry and getting dressed. She was turned away, so Amy could not see her face. But Amy thought she still seemed shaken. Poor Tina.

Then Amy remembered two more things. She remembered the video catalog she had seen in Matt’s room, with cameras the size of a rubber eraser and lenses the size of—of LED’s. And Shelly believed that Jeremy had somehow connected to Kristen’s PC camera to watch her and her roommate. Could her shower radio actually have a camera in it? No, the idea was stupid. There were no wires, no antenna, except maybe inside. It couldn’t be. She shook her head as if to shake out the thought. Still, she could not get the idea out of her mind. She stuck her fingers in her hair and gritted her teeth. What if the radio had been rigged? There were rumors that some students had master keys to every room on campus, and who knows whether Melanie might not be persuaded to aid in a prank? Now Amy was not thinking about Tina but about herself. She always turned on the radio when she showered. She always turned it off when she was finished, to save batteries. But maybe this once she had left it on, causing Tina to see the glowing LED. But if a hidden camera were somehow in the radio, turned on when it was turned on. . . .

Amy was beginning to frighten herself, more because she recognized that she was beginning to think like Tina than out of a real belief that she was being spied on in the shower. “I’m not going to wig out,” she thought. “This is all too weird. It’s just a radio.”

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to check. If Jeremy had been spying on Kristen and Becky in their room, then he might be doing the same thing here. The thought of a wireless camera, and of spying over the Internet gave Amy a chill: What if pictures of her were posted somewhere on the Net? Her heart started to pound, as it always did when she frightened herself.

She stopped debating and picked up the radio again. Was this the same radio her father had given her, or was it a different one? She tried hard to remember exactly what it had looked like when she opened the box. She couldn’t quite remember. This radio looked like the right one, but the exact design had faded as the original radio’s details had been mentally tuned out and taken for granted. She recalled Sherlock Holmes’ mild chastisement of Watson for not knowing how many steps there were in a frequently-used staircase. “You observe, but you do not see.” Amy gave a shrug of frustration. “Why didn’t I pay more attention?” she asked herself.

“You should throw that away,” Tina said.

Amy turned. Tina was standing there, scowling at the radio. She had finished dressing, but was still agitated.

“I’m going to have Matt look at it. He can tell if there’s a camera in it.”

“They put me naked on the Internet,” Tina said. She was looking at the radio with near hatred. “I’m going out,” she concluded and walked out the door without saying anything more.

On her desk under her study lamp, the radio looked normal to Amy. It still looked new, but that was probably because it was new. Not enough time had passed for it to get a coating of soap scum and mineralization. She could see no obvious parts that could be identified as a lens. The clear plastic window that revealed the dial did not reveal any obvious peephole for even the tiniest camera to leer through. But what was inside? She turned the unit over and over, looking for screws. None were visible. Was it glued shut? It had not opened when Tina knocked or threw it to the floor of the tub.

Amy tried to open the battery compartment. It seemed stuck shut. Had someone glued it closed after doctoring the insides, to prevent anyone from finding out the truth? No, that was silly. Still, the tab did not seem to work. Amy grabbed a metal nail file and attacked the tab. After a few attempts, it yielded and the compartment popped open. Almost to her disappointment, there were no suspicious wires or other parts. Only the batteries were inside.

Amy put down the radio and looked at the clock on her desk. Matt would be out of class in half an hour, and he could help her.

+++

It was a very long half hour. Amy tried to study, but couldn’t concentrate. Every five minutes, she picked up the radio and looked for screws or shook it or put her eye close to the grille to see if she could make out anything suspicious. She turned the radio on several times and peered at it closely to see if anything looked suspicious. Each time she turned it on, the little red LED came on, just as it always had. Now, however, it seemed to have a sinister appearance.

Amy began calling Matt’s room well before the time she knew he would be back. After the fourth or fifth call, he answered.

“Hi, Matt, I need your help,” she said, without any preliminary chit chat.

Matt immediately recognized Amy’s voice, so he said, “I’ll be glad to help. Is this Lisa or Julie?”

“Not now, Matt. It’s Amy. Can you come over and help me take something apart?”

Matt knew that Amy had a serious agenda by the way she had cancelled his repartee. So instead of joking about how he could guarantee taking something apart but not putting it back together, he said, “Sure. What are we talking about?”

“A radio.”

“Okay. I’ll be right over with my take-apart-a-radio tools.” Matt had three levels of tools. The first level was a compact kit of small tools, including screwdrivers, pliers, a file, and other assorted items useful for working on small appliances or household repairs such as door locks or electrical outlets. This kit was kept in a drawer of his desk. The second level was his main toolkit, about twenty pounds of somewhat larger tools such as adjustable wrenches, socket wrenches, larger screwdrivers, a small hammer, a hacksaw, and so forth. These tools he kept in the trunk of his car. With them he could replace a water heater or change out a radiator (either the room-heating or the car-cooling kind) or install a sprinkler valve. Baby Blue Eyes, his small air compressor, was technically a second-level tool that should have been kept in the trunk or even in the garage, but she had found favor in Matt’s eyes and was privileged to live in his apartment, as has been noted. His third level of tools he called his “dismantle a nuclear power plant” level. Some of these tools also lived in the trunk of his car and some in the garage of his apartment complex. They included large pipe wrenches, an automobile hydraulic jack, a sledge hammer, a torque wrench, and so on.

Knowing that the repair was minor, then, Matt just grabbed his small toolkit and hopped on his bike to ride over to Amy’s dorm. No need to take the car if the big guns were not needed.

On his ride over, Matt happened to meet Jennica. They talked for a few moments, engaging in the usual, “How’s it going?” kind of conversation between casual friends. Actually, Matt usually greeted her with, “How’s my favorite blonde?” because of Jennica’s pretended obsession with the stereotype her natural hair color had forced her into. Today, Matt thought about asking her for a strand of her hair, so that he could plant it on his shirt to tweak Amy, but recalling the nature of the phone call, he sensed that now was not the time to do that. So he offered her some of the popcorn from the half empty bag he was carrying and told her he had to be on his way. Jennica gently declined the popcorn but paid Matt with a smile anyway.

Matt’s view of Amy’s serious mood was confirmed when Amy handed him the radio at the door. His last girlfriend would have talked for at least half an hour before getting around to the radio. She seemed to have an unlimited supply of words. Her habit was to ask one question, such as “How was the game?” and after a three-word reply from Matt (“It was okay”), she would begin to talk rapidly and somewhat loudly until Matt’s ears finally came to rest on his collar.

Today, his quiet girlfriend, Amy, just said, “Hi, Matt. Would you open this up for me?”

“Sure. Doesn’t it work?” He took a large mouthful of popcorn and then traded her the bag for the radio. He kept the toolkit in the other hand so he could put it down near the repair.

“Yeah, it works. But I want to see inside.” She didn’t want to lie and say it didn’t work.

“Okay.” Then he added, “The handle’s broken.”

“Can you fix that, too?”

“I don’t know. We’ll see.”

Matt looked over the radio, much as Amy had done, hunting for screws.

“I couldn’t find any screws,” Amy offered. “Think it’s glued shut?”

“Maybe. More likely the screws are cleverly hidden.” Matt opened the battery compartment. He took out the batteries, and in the cradle underneath two screws were visible.

“Duh,” Amy said, mentally slapping her forehead. “I should have taken out the batteries.”

“You haven’t taken apart as many radios as I have,” Matt said, in a gesture of consolation. “These do look promising, though we can’t be sure.” He knew from the experience of taking apart many appliances and home electronics never to assume that any visible screws were the screws holding an object together. More than once he had removed some screws that by all rights should have been the right ones, the ones holding the casing together, only to hear something fall apart inside the thing he was working on, while the casing remained as tightly held together as ever. The tinkle of little parts falling down inside a stereo or television was always a sickening sound.

“If those are the screws for the bottom end, where are the ones for the top?”

“Let’s hope there aren’t any. There may be a plastic tab holding that end together, and when we remove these screws, the casing will swing open. Otherwise, the screws may be hidden behind the speaker grille on the front or under the label.”

The hope was fulfilled. The screws in the battery well were the right ones. The plastic tab theory proved correct, also. The radio swung open, awkwardly because the battery wires prevented the bottom piece from coming off freely, but the halves separated enough to grant a look inside.

The view was undramatic. All they could see was the back of a circuit board with many little soldered points and the magnet part of the speaker.

Amy was beginning to feel foolish when nothing out of the ordinary was found. Matt was pointing out parts to her that she did not care about. She pretended to be interested. She thought about saying, “Thanks,” and asking Matt to put the radio back together, but she decided to take the investigation to its limit: She was, after all, her father’s daughter. So she said, “What’s under the circuit board?”

After a few minutes removing the battery wires to free the back completely, Matt removed five more screws and carefully lifted the circuit board. The board balked because the radio control knobs jutted through the front casing. Matt had taken apart more than one item that at the last minute had produced the snap of breaking plastic, or worse, the sproing of spring-loaded parts flying invisibly in every direction, never again to be found where they secretly landed in the carpet or behind a box.

Amy interpreted Matt’s carefulness to his fear of what he might find. In truth, he had no suspicion of evil at all. He acted as if he were taking apart a bomb because the springs of experience had taught him to be careful.

At last he freed the circuit board from its final catch and lifted it up and away, turning it over as he did so. Amy’s eyes eagerly searched the board and there she saw it—a small black cube with a tiny round hole in the top. It was just about in the right place to be peering through the grille. “What’s that?” she asked, almost breathlessly.

“That’s an adjustable potentiometer,” Matt said.

“Is that like a camera?”

“A camera?” Matt asked, wondering where in the world this girl had gotten that idea. “No, it’s a variable resistor. When they set up the radio at the factory, they tweak the circuit with these little guys.”

“What is the hole in the top for?” Amy asked, still not completely satisfied.

“That’s for a little screwdriver, to dial in the right setting.”

Other than the grille, which, Amy admitted at last, could not be seen through, there were no holes in the front of the casing. Still, Amy asked Matt to identify several other components. He knew most of them, but they all had non-camera sounding names like capacitor or transistor. There was no doctored circuitry, no camera. There was only the guts of a shower radio and nothing more.

“Do you think you can get it back together?” Amy asked tentatively.

“Put it back together?” Matt began, with amplified incredulity. Then, recovering himself, thinking that it still might not be a good time for some teasing, added, “I think so.”

Matt had learned a lot as a kid by taking things apart to see how they worked, or at least how they were put together. In fact, one of the earliest lessons he was taught by his parents was, “Don’t take anything apart that we are still using.”

Later, he learned a second lesson that joined his own experience with parental wisdom: “Don’t take anything apart while it is still plugged in.”

As he became stronger and could begin to use wrenches in addition to screwdrivers and pliers, he was given the third lesson of childhood disassembly: “Don’t take anything apart unless Dad is helping you.”

Many old small appliances gave up their secrets to Matt in his young days, and in exchange for converting them into pieces, he learned much about how consumer products are manufactured. He had even developed a theory that the assemblers of small appliances had special, secret tools to reach impossibly positioned fasteners. His idea was that women named Irma did most of the assembling. A film in high school had shown small appliance assembly lines of mostly women, and he had given them all the name Irma. When he encountered a particularly problematic screw which no ordinary screwdriver could reach, he always said, “Looks like I need an Irma tool for this one.” He always imagined some sort of tool with multiple bends or movable articulations that fit exactly. Perhaps it entered one side, turned a corner or two and then engaged the fastener, just so. Without the exact, secret, special tool, it was always more difficult to remove and re-install those screws and nuts.

This radio had no unexpectedly difficult angles, and Matt managed to replace all the parts and snap the case back together in just a few minutes.

“Before you put the screws back in,” Amy said, touching his arm, “tell me there is no camera anywhere inside.” Matt turned his attention from the radio to Amy and looked searchingly into her eyes.

“Are you all right, Amy?” Amy blushed. She felt like a fool.

“Yes. But there’s no camera is there? Tina thought there was.”

“Oh,” Matt said, in a tone of sudden understanding. “No, no, there is no camera anywhere inside. We’ve both looked all through the radio and there are only radio parts. No cameras.”

“Okay.”

“Now we can put the screws to this puppy.”

The screws went back in easily as well. Matt turned the radio on and dialed in a clear station. The music played normally.

“Wow, it still works.” Matt was happy and just a little relieved. Not every repair went so well. “We’ll need some airplane glue to fix the handle,” he said. “I don’t suppose you have any in stock?”

“We’re just out.” Amy was feeling enough relief to recover her wit. But she was also still embarrassed at her own obsession with the radio.

“Super glue?”

“Sold the last tube this morning.”

“Epoxy?”

“Sorry, we’re stuck.”

“That was almost funny. But what kind of store is this?”

“So, Matt, tell me. Is it possible to put a TV camera in a radio like that?”

“Sure. Remember that video catalog I showed you with all the tiny cameras?”

“All too well.”

“You could use something like that with battery power. You’d have to keep changing the batteries, though. And without a cable from the camera to your monitor, you’d have to use a wireless broadcast with a little transmitter. But all that’s possible. Why? You think someone is spying on you? Or Tina?”

“I don’t think so. But, and I know this sounds silly, but would you mind looking at the shower to see if there is anything in there? Like a hole for a camera or something?”

“Be glad to.” Matt was feeling somewhat amused, but he knew the possibilities and had heard enough stories not to laugh at Amy’s concerns. However slight, there was a possibility of finding something.

There was nothing in the shower. No spots, holes, lenses, mirrors, plates. Matt even looked closely at the shower head. He looked down the drain, using the small flashlight from his toolkit. Then he moved to the rest of the bathroom itself.

“My guess is that Tina’s imagination has run away with her,” Matt said as he looked carefully along the walls. “It’s possible, even logical, to think there is a camera with a little LED blinking at you, but ultimately perhaps it’s not rational.”

“But how do you know whether you’re being rational or just paranoid?”

“That’s a good question.”

“I mean, Tina seems so reasonable, or at least logical, in the way she talks, and yet what she says is just, for lack of a better word, crazy.”

“Yeah, Tina’s disconnected, I think.”

“But isn’t that scary? How do we know we aren’t going to have the same thing happen to us? I mean, okay, I admit it. I was really kind of scared that there might be a camera in the radio. I got all worked up over it and everything.”

“But now you know there isn’t one, right? I showed you and you believed it?” Matt was examining the medicine cabinet as he spoke.

“Well, yes. But Dr. Miller has shown me what really looks like proof that I copied my paper from the Internet, but I didn’t. How do you explain that? Am I going crazy?”

Matt stopped his inspection and walked over to Amy. He put his arms around her and held her close. She wondered how he knew just the right time to do that. She felt herself starting to cry. Matt remembered the words of a high school buddy, “When a girl starts to cry, stop talking.” So he refrained from telling her not to feel sad or that everything would be okay.

Not many minutes later, Amy was wiping her eyes as she looked in the mirror. “I hate crying. I always smear my mascara and look like I’ve been punched. And I seem to have taken up crying as a hobby recently. I’m sorry.”

“Anyone ever tell you you’re cute?”

“Only you. Oh, and Ron said I was kind of cute once.”

“Only once? I’ll have to talk to him.”

“I wish I looked like the girl in your picture.”

“Amy—.”

“Did I tell you Tina says she’s going to her orb soon?”

“Her orb? No you didn’t. What’s an orb?”

“I don’t know. What do you think it means?”

“I don’t have any idea. Think she’ll run away?”

“I hope some opportunist doesn’t take advantage of her. Who knows what she might believe, or do. She just can’t think straight.”

“Has she talked that way before?”

“No. This is the first time. She seems to be getting worse.”

“Maybe you should call her parents.”

“I’ve been thinking about that. I’d need to get their phone number, and that seems hard without getting Tina suspicious. I can’t just ask her.”

“Does she have an address book?”

“I’ve never seen one.”

“Well, keep your eyes open. And in the meantime, pray.”

“For a miracle. And while you’re at it,” Amy said, looking away from Matt so she would not get teary-eyed again, “pray for a miracle for me, too. Otherwise, it looks like my college career is in the dumpster.”

.



Go on to Chapter 26
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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