The Million Dollar Girl
A Novel

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 11, 2008

Chapter 29

The next morning, Amy returned to her room after breakfast. Markayla had skipped breakfast that day and was sitting at her desk eating a banana and drinking a cup of real coffee, one that she had brewed herself, as usual. She was just about finished with the Wall Street Journal. Amy listened to the distinctive crinkle of the newsprint as Markayla turned the page.

“Ah, Amy, you have returned,” Markayla said, barely looking up. “How was your meal?” She took an obvious sip from her mug.

Amy knew that Markayla was feeling above the dining commons’ breakfast.

“It was okay. Apple and berry crepes dusted with powdered sugar, hot croissants with melted butter and raspberry jelly—.”

“Stand away from me so that when the lightning strikes, I will not be burned, too,” Markayla interrupted. Then she added, “Oh, Professor Elderberry called. He wants to talk to you.”

Lightning did strike Amy. Or at least, her heart gave one of those unpleasant little leaps that hearts do when they are startled by unexpected and ominous news. She coughed as her heart skipped a beat.

“Professor Elderberry? What does he want?”

“He did not say. But he said you do not need to return his call. He said he would talk to you when you come in to work this afternoon.”

“I hate adrenaline,” Amy said.


The shock of the news wore off, but the little stomach butterflies kept Amy company off and on throughout the day. Uncertainty was always a torture. At least with Dr. Miller, she had known he detested her and thought her guilty and said her paper was claptrap. But with Dr. Elderberry, she did not know what to expect. Was the news going to be good or bad? And why did she have to suffer two episodes of cheating accusations in close succession, in the same term, in the same lifetime?

To make things worse, Professor Elderberry was not in the office when Amy arrived for work. No one was. The secretary was gone off somewhere. All the office doors were closed except that of Professor Czesidek, the visiting professor that year. He seemed to be talking to himself, in a tone of complaint, about “two sheets of ham.” Amy decided not to say hello to him right away.

Amy checked her work list and then sat down to record some grades, all the while feeling almost too stimulated to concentrate. But recording scores was largely mindless copying, so she managed.

It was not long until she heard a familiar laugh. It was Professor Elderberry, outside, saying something about what a great day it was.

“Amy!” he said when he came through the door and saw her. “I’m glad you’re here.” He had an almost boyish grin on his face. He looked younger than his handful of years before retirement. Amy felt encouraged. He would not be triumphant in her destruction.

“The riddle is solved,” he said, almost gleefully. “Come into my office and close the door.”

Amy wondered just who would be shut out from hearing this news by closing the door. “It must be a habit of secrecy,” she thought. As Amy sat down across from his desk, Professor Elderberry remained standing for a few moments, actually rubbing his hands together. “He must be pretty happy,” she thought. She knew that one of Elderberry’s reasons for becoming a mathematics professor was his love of problem solving. He liked all kinds of problems, not just those involving numbers. In fact, Cryptography was his favorite course to teach.

Elderberry gave Amy what seemed to be a warm look. She thought for a moment that he wanted to hug her. Then he sat down. His eyes were amazingly alive.

“It all came together when one of my cryptography students wrote the first short paper,” he said. “No, no, wait. Have to back up.” He paused a moment to think. “A year or so ago, the people in IS said they were experiencing attempts to breach the faculty network, so even though they said they were taking extra precautions to lock it down, I got my own personal hardware firewall and added a software firewall.” Elderberry looked into Amy’s eyes, and asked abruptly, “You know what a firewall is, don’t you?”

“I do now.” Amy did not elaborate.

“So I thought I had taken care of the worry about hackers getting in from the network, and there was no way anyone could get at the material on my PC.”

“But I thought the tests were taken from the filing cabinet.”

Elderberry waved his hand back and forth. “Don’t get ahead of me.” He wanted to tell his story. I thought my PC was safe from any back-door attack, but they seem to have gotten in quite literally through the front door.”

“I don’t understand.”

“They walked into my office, sat down at my computer, and got in directly.”

“How would they get into your office?” The slightest fear came into Amy’s mind. Would he say that she had let someone in?

“Colleagues have told me that master keys are as common as grass on this campus.”

“Really?” Amy thought of her dorm room. The idea of freely available master keys was cause for a whole new wave of paranoia. But she squelched the thought. She’d had enough of that kind of thinking for this year.

Elderberry was continuing. “In fact, there’s a joke going around the faculty. If you really want your students to read something, just label it confidential and leave it on your desk overnight.”

Amy waited to hear about the computer break-in. She knew she did not need to ask any more questions.

“So, back to the cryptography paper. One of my cryptography students wrote a paper about password hacking. You know, breaking into computer systems by guessing or developing passwords. In it she said hackers always start with available personal information like middle names, kid’s names, birthdates, and so on. She also said that many people use the same password for everything. Her sentence was, ‘Using a single password, if guessed, is like someone finding the master key to a building.’”

Amy nodded to express continued interest and uttered a little, “Hmm.”

“Well, I was just leaving the office on Friday, thinking about my daughter’s birthday coming up, when I saw Jennica in the courtyard. She’s the cryptography student I mentioned. All of a sudden it came to me. The password to my computer, the network, and my file encryption were all the same. And it was my daughter’s name. And her name had been published as part of a photo in a university brochure. I felt completely exposed.”

“Oh, no!” was all Amy could say.

“Yeah. Oh, no. It was forehead slapping time, big time.” Amy was secretly amused that Professor Elderberry would use a slang expression like big time. “But I also realized then how easily someone could break into my PC from the front door, so to speak. One master key gets you in the building, in the department office, and into my office. One password gets you all the way through to the test.”

Amy was going to say something, so used was she to prompting her father during his narratives over the phone, when Elderberry continued merrily along.

“Then the light really came on.” This statement required both hands to make a large gesture. Seeing how animated he was telling his story almost made Amy feel happy, too. Elderberry was almost bouncing in his chair. “You’ll recall we glanced at the grades of the students for the 318 test to see if we could tell which ones had profited by the stolen exams, and there seemed to be no indication.”

“Yes, I remember. The grades seemed pretty normal.”

Elderberry’s eyes narrowed. His voice changed into an almost TV-detective tone. “Except that there were two very low F’s. A four percent and a nine percent.” Amy knew that this was somehow significant, but she had no idea why.

“Uh huh. Those guys must not have studied at all.”

“No. That’s just it. They did study. They studied very hard.”

“I don’t understand.”

“They studied the wrong test.” Elderberry was gleefully triumphant.

“The wrong test?”

“The actual test, the test I gave them, was locked up in the filing cabinet, as you noted, all copied and ready to hand out. I wrote that one at home. But there was another test, from last year, on the computer in my office.”

The light was coming on for Amy, too.

“So instead of getting a filing cabinet key from you or anyone else,” Elderberry continued, “they broke into my computer and printed off a copy of what they did not know was the old test, which they then studied. They studied hard. They memorized all the wrong answers.” Elderberry was enjoying himself. He almost laughed.

“That is so bizarre,” Amy said.

“It’s amazing how we sometimes get trapped by our own assumptions. I assumed that no one could get into my computer. Mine was a poor example of problem solving.”

Amy felt her respect for Professor Elderberry increase by his willingness to criticize himself.

“Once I realized how easily someone could get access to the wrong test, everything else fell into place,” he concluded. “Made perfect sense. And the culprits are obvious. Mr. Four Percent and Mr. Nine Percent virtually signed their names. Jeremy Schneider and David Simmons.”

Professor Elderberry leaned back in this chair and relaxed. His tale was told. He put his hands behind his head and looked at Amy. Then a quizzical expression came over his face. He dropped his arms and let them rest on the arms of the chair. He continued to look at Amy, studying her face intently. He was still thinking.

“The only loose end in all this is you, Amy. I’m still a little confused about why they would drag your name into their discussion. It does seem reasonable that they were the two overheard by our little correspondent, doesn’t it?”

Amy almost said, “Let’s hope so,” thinking that she did not want a third accusation of cheating arising in her life. But she settled for, “Yes, it does.”

“Did either of them ever ask you for a key of any kind, perhaps?”

“No. I hardly know either one. David is in my critical thinking class, but I don’t really know him very well. And I know Jeremy only to say hello.”

Elderberry shook his head. “Well, there are always anomalous bits of data that don’t quite fit into any explanation,” he said, “even the correct one. But, no matter.”

After a moment he went on. “Tell you what, Amy. As a token of my affection for you, I’d like to take you out to dinner. Have you ever eaten at the Shooting Star? It’s supposed to be the best restaurant in the county.”

“The Shooting Star?”

“Yes, Amy. I’d like to take you to dinner at the Shooting Star.”

“But Professor Elderberry—.”

“I want to make up for making you feel bad about this whole cheating thing.”

“Well, that’s very generous, but you don’t have to—.”

“And besides, my wife is anxious to meet you. I’ve told her all about you, and what a good worker you have been in the department.”

“Really?” Amy was embarrassed at herself for this weak reply.

“And I hope you’ll bring a friend. Do you have a friend who could come along, too? What about this boyfriend you mentioned earlier?”

Amy was a bit flustered, but she managed to say, “I’ll ask him. His name is Matt.”



Amy called her parents as soon as she got off work, rather than waiting until after her dinner. She could not wait to tell them she was once again without a shadow over her.

“You’ve really had it piled on thick,” her mother said. “But I’m glad it’s over now. Amy, we always believed in you.”

“It’s been a month I’d rather not relive,” Amy admitted. “But I guess now I can say I’ve grown up, gotten a clue, all those clichés. And, oh, if suffering builds character, I now have more character than I’ll need for awhile.”

“So, then, everything has worked out?”

“Yeah. Except that everybody probably thinks I’m a total crybaby by now. I’ve cried more the past couple weeks than I can ever remember. And we won’t even get into the adrenaline part. I must have a strong heart.”

“We were always behind you,” her mother said. “How are you feeling now? Have you been sleeping okay?”

“I guess so,” Amy hedged, not wanting to complain of her insomnia from worry and stress. “But how are you two doing?” She wanted to move away from the subject of herself, now that the good news had been delivered. After all, she thought, life is not about her.

“We’re doing fine, Seepy,” her father said. Then he surprised her. He continued to talk. “By the way, we had an interesting case at work that ended in arrests just today. We caught a ring of con artists.”

“Oh, I love the con stories best,” Amy said.

“I was there to help put on the cuffs. They were about to fleece a guy who had just inherited a pile of money from his father.”

“How did they do it?”

“The ringleader’s girlfriend pretended to be a student at the university where the guy taught—he’s a professor. She sat in his class and kept going to his office and asking for help until she got him interested in her and they flew down here for some fun. The ringleader and his helper had a fake stock brokerage set up. The guy was in the process of transferring almost a million dollars when his bank got suspicious and contacted us. We set up a stake out and interrupted their little plan.”

“Wasn’t the professor suspicious?”

“No. He swears even now that it was he who got the girl interested in him. And get this. She just showed up in his class a week ago Monday. Talk about a fast operator. She must have really dazzled him. And you should see her. Like a fashion model. She’s 24, but the prof didn’t know that. She looks young for her age and could pass for 17 or 18. Really a perfect set up. No wonder the guy couldn’t resist. He never had a chance. You know these girls and their feminine wiles.”

“Oh, Daddy, don’t say that.”


“Never mind. Go on.”

“And, get this, her boyfriend is a slightly pudgy, middle-aged guy. No one would ever suspect they were working together. And the guy who ran the fake office has the countenance of someone’s most trusted friend. He’s probably in his sixties and very smooth. They’re all smooth.”

“So he had no idea he might be cheated?”

“Nope. In fact, even now, he’s still dumbstruck, I think. When we first confronted him, he denied that he even knew any of the cons, including the girl. He acted like he didn’t know what the deal was.”

“So he didn’t thank you for saving his money?”

“Not exactly. First of all, he’s married, so he didn’t want his wife to find out that he was in another city with a beautiful girl. He could lose a chunk of his inheritance in a divorce following an infidelity scandal. And second, the scheme he thought he was in on is illegal, and he knew that. And his university probably has a regulation against dating students currently in a professor’s class, so for all he knew, he might get in trouble there. So if they had taken him, he probably never would have reported it. These folks did their homework and planned a great scheme, making it hard for their sucker to complain. Besides, this guy is sort of a pompous type, who wouldn’t want anyone to know he got fleeced. That’s why he still thinks he’s the one who got the girl interested. Ego thing, you know. He would have kissed his money and the girl goodbye and kept quiet about it, I’ll bet.”

“Even for a million dollars?”

“Looks like it. We had a heck of a time getting the truth out of him.”

“Well, I know it’s not unheard of for professors to get involved with students,” Amy said, thinking of Miller and Gina. She wondered what Gina would say when Amy told her about the con scheme her father had exposed.


Amy’s next call was to Matt. She quickly summarized the news. Then she asked, “Have you had dinner yet?”

“No,” Matt said, putting down the sandwich he was halfway through. “Why?”

“I’d like to take you out to dinner tonight. And get this, Professor Elderberry wants to take us to the Shooting Star on Saturday.”

“The Shooting Star? I think I like him.” Anyone who was willing to pay for an expensive meal predisposed Matt in his favor.

“So, anyway, would you like to go out? I know it’s short notice.”

“Can you remember a time when I have ever refused food?”

“See you in a few, then.”

“And, I have a present for you, so I’ll come get you.”

“A present? In that case, hurry.” Matt could perceive that Amy was feeling much better. The recent heaviness of her life was lifting.


When she opened the door, Matt was standing there, actually dressed a little better than usual. His shirt had a collar. His pants were not jeans. His shoes were atrocious.

“Hey, Aim-o,” he said. “I brought you a little token of my affection.” He handed her a box about the size of a desk dictionary.

“Ooh, what is it?”

“Might be chocolate.”

“Nope, too light weight,” she said. “Unless you’ve already eaten most of the pieces.”

“Might be jewelry.”

“And with equal probability, it might be matching cans of spray oil. His and hers.” Then, finding that explanation almost convincing to herself, Amy added, “Oh, Matt, please say it isn’t oil.”

“It’s not oil.”

Amy shook the box. It made no sound. She peeled the wrapping paper off and read the label on the box: “Fast Ethernet Personal Network Router with 4-Port Switch.”

“Is this just an old box you used or is this what’s in the box, too?”

“It’s what’s in the box.”

“And that is what?”

“A router.”

“A router. Gee, thanks, Matt. I’ve always wanted one of these. What does it do?”

“It adds an extra layer of firewall protection to your computer. A hardware firewall to add to the software one we put on your notebook.”

“So I’m extra safe.”

“Yep. Extra, extra safe. And it has four ports so that if Markayla gets her own computer, she can use it, too.”

“Hey, that’s neat.” The gift was about as romantic as a frying pan, but Amy realized that this was Matt’s way of saying he really cared for her. Maybe she would survive this term after all. Amy put her head on Matt’s shoulder and relaxed a little. “Thanks,” was all she felt safe in saying, lest more words lead to an obvious and embarrassing choke. She tried to keep her sigh quiet so Matt would not notice. She was still too stressed from the recent events to feel completely safe and relaxed, but the embrace helped a lot. However, she would not allow herself to let that tear out, no matter how hard it tried to escape. Soon she lifted her head and looked at Matt.

“I really appreciate your help. And you.” She snuggled her head back on his shoulder. Matt was touched.

“Hey, Babe,” he said, acting nonchalant. “That’s what hairy chests are for.”

Matt’s flippancy began to influence her. She lifted her head again and smiled. She was about to make a teasing comment about the lack of hair on his chest, when she noticed that one of her hairs had been left behind on his sweater. Picking it off, she held it up in front of his eyes and demanded with a mock accusation, “Whose hair is this?”

Matt knew that he could take one of two directions. The politically correct direction would be to say, “Why, Amy, my dear, it’s yours, of course. It couldn’t belong to any other woman on earth.” The other direction was much more entertaining, though, so he naturally took that one.

“I don’t know,” he said. “What color is it?”

Amy gave a little cry of disbelief. Then, pretending to examine it closely, concluded, “Blonde!”

“Hmm,” Matt deliberated. “Dark blonde or light blonde?”

Another little cry of surprise and disbelief, this one even more forceful. Amy narrowed her eyes, “It’s light blonde,” she said between her teeth.

“Well,” Matt said, “that narrows it down to four.”

For this news, Matt received a punch in the arm.

“Ow,” he said. “What’s that for?”

“You wicked man,” Amy said.

“Maybe so,” Matt said, “but I’m your wicked man.”

“Well, maybe so, maybe not,” Amy said, pretending to become suddenly aloof and uncaring.

“Okay, Amy, you win. After knowing you, how could I possibly ever want another girl?”

“Oh, so you’re saying that knowing me has been such a bad experience that it’s soured you on all women, huh?”

Matt smiled at her. Then he brushed the hair off her forehead affectionately and said, “Amy, you’re one of a kind. I probably wouldn’t trade you for a million dollars.”

“Probably? Oh, thanks.”

“You know I care. Tell you what. Come close and I’ll whisper those little words you want so much to hear.”

She let herself be drawn back into Matt’s embrace. He bent down, put his mouth close to her ear, and whispered, “Cookie dough.”


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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