Chapter 3: Stella
“…And that’s what happened. I forgot to ask her about her family, but she was cute so I guess that’s why I decided I’d go out with her. We’re gonna see each other at school. Having lunch together at the cafeteria starting tomorrow,” Larry explained in the office.
Opposite the coffee table sat Seron and Jenny. It had not been long since the confession under the tree.
Unusually enough, Seron was wearing his surprise and happiness on his face. Jenny was nodding gravely.
“Hm. All right. You have permission to continue…for now.”
“What are you, my mother?”
“The more you spend time with her, the more you’ll learn about her—both the good and bad. Same goes for her too. You can decide if you want to get serious after that. Although she might break up with you first. Then that’s just another life experience under your belt.”
“What, you seriously expect this to end before it’s even started?”
“Well, do your best. I won’t even smack you for skipping club. We’re missing half our members, what’s another absence?”
“I’m surprised, Jenny. I thought you’d make me come to club every day anyway.”
“You should prioritize her for the time being. You’re a man. Be good to her.”
Larry thought for a moment. Then,
“Nah. Thanks for your support,” he finally said.
“I don’t need your gratitude,” Jenny blew him off.
“And while I’m at it, there was something I wanted your help with.”
“Could you look into stuff about Stella Whitfield? I want some information about her,” Larry said.
Jenny and Seron blinked. Seron spoke first.
“You want us to investigate her?”
Then Jenny spoke.
“You’re gonna spend a lot of time with her; ask her yourself.”
“W-well, yeah. But I wanted to know about other stuff too.”
“Like?” Jenny asked, tilting her head.
“Like…her reputation on campus, or about the kind of people she hangs out with? Stuff I couldn’t ask her myself, you know. I wish I could explain better.”
Jenny looked a little offended.
“Are you a detective? Are you planning to marry her next month or something? Look, it’s rude to dig up dirt on a girl. You’re the one who said we shouldn’t cover this story.”
“I know, I know. But…”
“Well, I just…because.”
“This is ridicu-” Jenny started, but Seron cut her off.
“All right, Larry. We’ll try and get as much information as we can.”
Jenny gave Seron a quizzical look. Larry gave him a grateful one.
“What gives, Seron?”
“I just want to know a bit more about my best friend’s girlfriend. And I think it’ll be good practice for newspaper club activities further down the line.”
When Seron brought up the newspaper club, Jenny could not refuse. She gave a disdainful harrumph but relented. “Fine, whatever. I’m not gonna stop you.”
But Seron was not about to let her off the hook.
“I can’t do this alone. I need everyone else’s help—especially yours, Jenny.”
“You’re the only one who can utilize all the newspaper club’s fans. And you’re the only one with an information network.”
Larry’s jaw dropped at Seron’s earnest plea, but he quickly joined him in pleading with Jenny.
“I’m begging you, chief!”
Jenny was taken aback by Larry’s attitude. She grew serious as well.
“What’s gotten into you? I mean, it’s not like I have anything better to do, but still.”
“You mean it?”
“But I’m warning you! If you start digging up dirt on her, you’ll see things about her you never wanted to see. Ignorance is sometimes bliss. Are you ready to meet all that head-on, Larry Hepburn?”
“Yeah! Knights of Hepburn ne’er shall turn! It’s the family motto,” Larry declared.
“In other words, you’re allowed to walk backwards out of battle?” Jenny said snidely.
“Sure! But we also have a motto that goes, ‘victory belongs to the people, but the greatest smile belongs to the knight’. In other words, to me!”
“No worries about anything, huh. Where do you get that confidence?”
“Dunno. Doesn’t matter!”
“…One of these days, I’m gonna run an investigative piece on how the Hepburn family’s lasted 400 years.”
* * *
“And that’s what happened. Larry can give you the details about the confession. Right now, I want you guys to get whatever info you can get on Stella Whitfield.”
“He’s fallen far, that Larry. Where did his parents go wrong? Now I really feel like giving him a hand.”
“Your words are not fitting front to back, Natalia. But if I can help I wish to help Larry. It is sure that Larry wishes to know many things about her.”
It was the 24th, the day after Stella’s confession. The sky was clear.
Jenny and Natalia, and Meg—who was in the same class—met up in the halls of the main building between classes. Jenny conveyed Larry’s request to Natalia and Meg.
They split up quickly, as they had to move on to their next classes.
About an hour later.
Larry walked past the very spot.
He was the subject of many curious gazes.
At his left side was Stella.
Stella had her right arm linked tightly around his left, clinging so close they almost looked like one person. Her bag hung from her shoulder and there was a large package in her left hand.
“What the heck?” “Is that Larry Hepburn?” “Larry’s with a cute girl? No way!” “Tch! Show-off.” “Go to hell, casanova!” “How indecent.” “Isn’t this a crime?” “Maybe somebody should rescue the girl…” “Should I call a teacher?”
Larry had good ears. He could hear every last word of gossip.
Larry’s posture was upright, but his voice betrayed his nervousness.
Stella looked up at him blankly. “Yes…?” She replied in a near-inaudible voice.
Larry froze briefly when he locked gazes with Stella, so close to his face, but he finally managed to speak.
“D-don’t you think it’s a bit hard to walk around like this?”
“I’m all right.”
“Oh…okay. I see.”
Larry gave up—in more ways than one—and faced forward once more. And he walked down the hall, practically joined at the hip with Stella. They had been stuck together since he had met her in front of a classroom.
They entered the cafeteria, the eyes of every student on them.
“So what do you wanna get?”
“I…brought our lunch.” Stella slightly lifted up the large package in her left hand.
Then she finally disentangled herself from him and strode forward, to a table near the orders counter exit—in other words, the most visible table in the cafeteria.
“Can we sit here?”
When Larry took a seat, Stella quickly brought over two cups of tea and opened up her lunch.
Inside was a triple-decker lunchbox.
“I made it myself.”
“Th-thanks. Can I open it?”
Stella trailed off and opened the lid. The first level was packed with assorted vegetable sandwiches. The second, with grilled chicken and boiled vegetables. The third, with cherries, grapes, and other fruits.
“Whoa! This is amazing,” Larry gasped, forgetting the other students’ gazes for a moment. The food looked almost professional in quality. “You made all this, Stella?”
“Yes…I’m…a good cook.”
“It looks really good! Let’s dig in!”
Larry’s enthusiasm drew yet more gazes as he and Stella wiped their hands with the hand towels she had brought.
“Let’s start with the sandwiches—”
The moment Larry reached out, however, Stella picked up a sandwich.
And she held it out towards his mouth.
Larry’s eyes turned to dinner plates. He could feel the murderous glares of the other students.
“Pull it together, Larry! Be a man!” He whispered to himself, and took a bite.
He chewed the mouthful of sandwich. “Mhm!” And swallowed, then grinned.
“It’s great! This is really good, Stella! Your cooking definitely has my seal of approval!”
They were the very picture of a happy couple.
“Curse you, blondie!” “That is disgusting!” “Damn it, even the third-year has a girlfriend!” “It’s practically a honeymoon.” “There’s a special place in hell for people like you, Hepburn.” “Go somewhere else! There’s plenty of place on campus where you don’t show off to the entire school!” “Maybe I really should get a teacher…”
Larry and Stella were warmly nestled in a storm of murderous outrage.
“It’s really good. I can feed myself though, Stella. May I?”
“Y-yes. Go ahead.”
“C’mon, you should eat too!”
Larry wolfed down his food, while Stella nibbled away blankly.
It was hard to not notice them in the cafeteria.
A pair of sixth-year boys passed by, and once the couple was out of earshot—
“They’re seriously dating? Bet the guy’s blackmailing her into the relationship or something.”
“Yeah. Or maybe the girl lost a bet. Either way, she’s too good for him.”
As they passed, their voices fell on the ears of—
“Hah! Sounds about right.” “I suppose we should let them talk for now.”
An amused Natalia and a smiling Nick. They were sitting at a table for four along with Seron and Meg, at a distance from Larry.
“It is a very good atmosphere. I have always admired the campus dating,” Meg remarked wistfully.
Seron, who sat next to her—Seron, who was eating with Meg in the campus cafeteria for the first time—went even more silent.
Their table was laden with Meg and Nick’s lunchboxes and Natalia and Seron’s trays, and four cups of tea.
Seron had ordered the roast beef sandwich with a bowl of minestrone soup. Natalia had ordered the same, along with seafood pizza. There was almost no room left on the table.
Trying to keep their stack of belonging from tipping over, and keeping an eye on the nearly-conjoined Larry and Stella, they ate lunch and discussed the issue at hand.
“Has anyone gathered any information on the target?” Nick asked. Natalia was first to answer.
“Nope. Ah, I’m gonna try the pizza first.”
“What about you, Seron?”
Seron shook his head. “I couldn’t just go around asking randomly.”
“Of course. And you, Megmica?”
“I have not gathered information too. I will ask the chorus club’s senior-classmen after class.”
“I see. As for myself, I have acquired one piece of information.”
“Yeah?” Natalia urged him.
“It seems our target is indeed connected to ‘Seron’s wrist’.”
Aha. The others nodded. Seron glanced at the Whitfield watch on his left wrist.
“A senior-classman I met this morning happened to be wearing the same model, so I slipped in a compliment. The model is of course excellent, but the senior-classman happens to be an expert on the topic. He boasted about his model for a time, then told me that the target attends this very school. The name seemed to have tipped him off.”
The others were impressed.
“So that’s all we have for now, huh. Hope the chief turns up something,” said Natalia.
Seron looked at Larry.
Larry and Stella were still at their table, talking about something over their lunch.
“I think we should get to know each other a little better,” Larry suggested as soon as they began to eat.
“Oh…yes.” Stella agreed feebly. Larry asked her how much she knew bout him.
“Not much. I…just fell for you at the cafeteria.”
“Then I guess I’ll tell you a bit about myself.”
Larry began to tell her things like his birthday, his hobbies and interests, and his dream of becoming a great military man, along with things about his family.
“I see…thank you.”
“It’s nothing to be grateful about. What about you, Stella? Tell me about yourself.”
Stella looked at Larry’s smile and shook her head.
“It’s…probably not interesting.”
“C’mon, that’s not true.”
“I don’t have hobbies…I study all the time…people call me gloomy.”
“Don’t pay attention to those people! You’ve got plenty of time to figure out a hobby,” Larry declared. The other students were still giving him disapproving looks. “By the way, Stella. What does your family do? There’s a watchmaker with the same name so I’m guessing you’re related to them?”
“…Er…yes. My great-grandfather is the founder…and my grandfather runs the company now. My father is a watchmaker too…”
“I knew it!”
“So…I have bodyguards with me all the time outside.”
“I see. Makes sense. My folks did the same thing with me when I was little. That’s why you only wanted to meet on campus, right?”
“What about you, SC Hepburn? Did you guess just from my name?” Stella asked, sounding unusually firm.
“Partly, but I wasn’t 100% sure until I saw that.”
Stella’s gaze quickly flitted to her slender left wrist.
Wrapped around her wrist was a small women’s wristwatch. It had a white leather strap with a tiny silver case and a pink face.
“It’s a women’s wristwatch from Whitfield, and an expensive one, right? I remember seeing it in the catalogue. From the price tag, I guessed you must be part of the family. Could I have a look at it?” Larry said, effortlessly taking a chance to check the watch itself.
“No!” Stella cried suddenly, grabbing her wrist with her right hand.
Larry flinched. Stella quickly took off her watch and wrapped it up in a handkerchief before placing it in her bag. Then she looked weakly at Larry.
“Nothing to be sorry about. Yeah.”
“This watch…is really special to me. It’s a one-of-a-kind…so I shouldn’t show it off to people…”
“Makes sense. You’re from a watchmaker family. No worries!”
“Thank you. SC Hepburn…do you like wristwatches?”
“Yeah. I love anything that’s mechanical! And by the way, it’s kinda awkward when you keep calling me SC Hepburn. Call me Larry. Or SC Larry is fine, if that’s easier.”
“I couldn’t…you’re still a senior-classman…” Stella said, shaking her head. Larry chuckled awkwardly.
“Y-yeah. I guess it doesn’t really matter. Yeah!”
How many times had they repeated such exchanges?
“Speaking of watches, I’m hoping to get one from Whitfield someday. Something sturdy and waterproof I can wear even during training.”
“Oh, but don’t worry! I’m not gonna ask you to get me one. I’m gonna save up my own money! Do you like watches too, Stella?”
Stella looked up, and gave the most honest and convincing nod she had given all day.
And for the first time, she smiled very faintly before Larry.
“I love them.”
Larry trembled slightly, his cheeks going pink.
“It’s like there’s a tiny universe inside every watch.”
“Yes. Just like the way planets are anchored to a star even if they’re far apart. I like how force travels thought the gears in the little case. How the cogs fit together perfectly, spinning together forever…”
Larry watched as Stella’s gaze grew further and further, until his flushed cheeks were back to normal.
“Together forever, huh,” he mumbled to himself.
“Wonder what they’re talking about,” wondered Natalia.
“It is certainly the romantic talking! She is very exuberant!” Exclaimed Meg.
“It seems more to me that she is off in her own world. Lost in her own thoughts, not particularly concerned with Larry,” commented Nick.
Finally, Seron spoke.
“It looks to me like Larry’s got something on his mind.”
“Oh? And why might that be?” Nick asked, turning.
“Just a hunch,” Seron replied.
They had already finished eating. Because they felt guilty about taking up an entire table in the busy cafeteria, they decided to get up.
Agreeing to meet up after class if they could, Seron and Natalia picked up their trays to put them back and Nick and Meg said goodbye.
Seron and Natalia happened to be walking by when Larry and Stella finished their lunch and began putting away her lunchbox. They disappeared into the central gardens together.
“So he somehow managed not to get dumped on day one,” Natalia remarked, sounding almost disappointed.
* * *
That day, after class.
Seron sat alone in the club office, perusing a Whitfield catalogue.
‘Catalogue’ was almost a misnomer, as it had a separate book cover and was packed with color photographs.
Naturally, it was not the kind of catalogue handed out for free at retailers. It was from a luxury wristwatch dealer, which Karen Maxwell had contacted at Seron’s request.
“Did you want a new watch, honey? I could get one mailed to you if you want,” his mother had said over the phone, but Seron declined and told her he was perfectly fine with the one he had.
The watches in the catalogue were, without exception, extraordinary. So were the prices written below.
Seron found his own watch listed in the catalogue, and learned its price for the first time in three years. He gave his mother a silent word of thanks.
“If you ever run out of money in the Capital District, you can sell the watch and get by for a while,” she had advised as she gave him the watch.
“Now I get it,” Seron mumbled with a nod.
He flipped through several more pages and found himself in the couples’ watches section.
Featured prominently on the page was a man and a woman, wearing matching wristwatches. Below were the words ‘A Romantic Gift for that Perfect Betrothal Oath’, and ‘Life Companions’.
Seron fell into thought. He fell very deep into thought.
For a time he lost himself in his delusions, until someone opened the door.
It was the hero of the cafeteria.
“Larry? …Everything all right?”
“Huh? Do I not look all right?”
“No, I was expecting you to be with Stella.”
“Oh. I saw her off just now. She gets picked up after school so we can’t hang out right now. She can’t even do club activities. Want some tea?”
As usual, Larry got to work on brewing tea. In the meantime Seron gave him the only new piece of information they had, the one Nick had managed to find.
“Oh. I checked with Stella at lunchtime too. Her grandfather runs the company. It looks like she’s had a really sheltered upbringing.”
“So we don’t really have any new information.”
“We’re just gonna have to hope Jenny’s turned up something,” Larry said, walking back to the sofas with teapot in hand. Jenny, who had been conspicuously missing at lunchtime, had probably combed the campus in search of information.
“Thanks,” Seron said as he received his tea. He did not ask any questions about Larry’s lunchtime date.
Once Larry poured his own cup of tea, he spotted the catalogue on the table.
“Whoa, it’s the Whitfield catalogue, right? And this month’s, too! Is this yours, Seron? Mind if I take a look?”
“Sure. I asked Mother for it, just for reference. It came in the mail this morning.”
Larry flipped through the pages excitedly. He quickly opened it up to a certain page and spread it over the table, pointing at a particular watch.
“If you ask me, this’d be my pick! The waterproof 100-meter diving watch! It’s automatic, shows the date, and you can time stuff with the bezel too. They supply this model to the military. And boy, I get why it’s subsidized!”
Seron scanned the page. “A 24-hour clock and dual time function too. Not bad. With the rotating bezel you could technically have three timezones, actually.”
“Your place is inside the same timezone as the capital, eh?”
“Yeah, just narrowly. This’d definitely be useful for long-distance trips, though. It won’t be long until we can cover long distances in a flash on a commercial aeroplane. But I’m not too tempted to get a new watch just yet.”
Larry continued to peruse the catalogue. “Hey, look. They have a company history section at the end. …Yep. Nothing about the family feud.”
“I’m not surprised. Nick gave us some information, but I wonder about the details,” Seron wondered. Larry answered him.
“It’s pretty obvious. The founder died, and his two sons had a row over management direction. One won and the other lost.”
“And Stella’s grandfather would be the winner.”
“Yeah. The other one must’ve been real sore—apparently he even changed his family name and started a new watch company. But—”
“It didn’t work out?”
“No. The brother who lost wasn’t a watchmaker, so he prioritized business over quality. He never managed to make something impressive. So he gave up and started another business, which was apparently a big success. Don’t know what it was, but if nothing else he must have been a really good businessman.”
“I see. Interesting.”
“I hear the two families still despise each other. If they run into each other at a business forum or conference or something, the air turns to ice.”
“That’s understandable. Running a company must be hard work,” Seron commented. At that moment, the president returned.
“Whew. I’m back, boys. The others didn’t show, huh.”
“Welcome back, chief. It’s a little cold now, but we’ve got some tea.”
Jenny locked the door behind her, took a seat, and picked up her teacup.
“You first,” she said.
Larry reported everything that had happened in the cafeteria, and Seron the fact that Stella was indeed from the Whitfield watchmaker family.
“Hm. So it looks like I managed to get more than you,” Jenny said.
“I expected nothing less. Big haul?”
“You bet. But just to warn you,” Jenny said, lowering her voice, “it’s not nice.”
Larry pursed his lips. Seron said nothing.
“The others aren’t here, but I might as well tell you. First off, Larry. That lovey-dovey lunch you had with Stella is the talk of the campus. It’s even reached the teachers’ office.”
“WHAT?! Are you kidding me?” Larry burst out. Seron grimaced.
“The students, I’m not surprised. Larry and Stella were eating in full view of everyone. But why the teachers’ office?”
“That’s the strange part.”
“I went to the teachers’ office in person to check, just in case. And I overheard some of the teachers chatting in the lounge by the door.”
“What were they saying?”
“That third-year Larry Hepburn and second-year Stella Whitfield were in a wholesome relationship with marriage in mind.”
“Whaaaaaat?” Larry’s jaw dropped. Tea spilled from the teacup in his hand.
“Calm down. Anyway, I figured marriage was a little early for you, so I asked the teachers who they heard that from.”
“And?” “What did they say?” Seron and Larry asked simultaneously.
“A second-year girl who’s friends with Stella. Apparently she said so after afternoon classes today. Stella’s friends asked her how things were going with you, Larry, and I hear Stella just said so outright. That you’re dating with marriage in mind. Although that second part sounds pretty fishy.”
Seron put a thoughtful hand on his chin.
“Stella would never say something like that! Those girls are gossiping too much,” Larry complained, raising his hands in the air.
“Well, what does it matter? That was the good news, by the way.”
The realization struck them at once. Larry and Seron frowned.
“By that, you mean—” “—that there’s worse coming?”
“Yeah,” Jenny said with a nod, “there’s this rumor that’s been going around the second-year girls for a while. A rumor about Stella.”
“What kind of rumor?” “What kind of rumor?”
“It’s actually been around since about a year ago, when Stella was about halfway through her first year. Apparently there was this senior-classman boy who’d follow her around everywhere.”
Seron said nothing.
“Seriously? That better not be me,” Larry said indignantly.
“Are you an idiot? I said this rumor’s been around for a year.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry, Jenny.”
“The senior-classman and Stella Whitfield were spotted around campus, always in secluded places like behind staircases or inside gymnasium storerooms. Stella was reportedly troubled, and they had been spotted more often this year. It’s not spreading like wildfire, but a lot of the second-year girls know about it. But!” Jenny paused emphatically, “it’s still just a rumor. All we know is that they were seen together often, and we have no evidence to suggest he’s hurting her or even threatening her. Someone asked her about the guy, but Stella obviously denied it.”
“The heck? That’s a terrible rumor. Girls can be awful sometimes!” Larry seethed.
“Jenny,” Seron said, breaking his silence, “did you find out anything about the senior-classman?”
“Do you realize how many boys there are in this school, Seron Maxwell?”
“You have a point, but I get the feeling you’ve already found a clue.”
“Hmph! You got that right,” Jenny replied, getting to her feet and heading towards the darkroom. She grabbed a photograph from the shelf beside the door.
Then she placed it on the table.
It was a black-and-white photo about the size of a notepad. It was still moist.
“Hm.” “What’s this?”
Seron and Larry examined the photo.
The photograph featured a male student from the knees up.
He was not the only subject of the photo. He was part of a large crowd of students, but he had been singled out and zoomed in on. What little background there was happened to be was out of focus, but there was something resembling a school building. The photo must have been taken on campus.
The boy was very well-built.
He was even taller than most adults. The other boys in the photo only reached his chin.
The boy had broad shoulders and threatening features. But his expression was gentle and almost fainthearted.
Put nicely, he looked like an athlete. To be more blunt, he looked like a gorilla.
In his left hand was his bag, and on his right wrist was a watch.
Larry stared into the picture for a time, then opened his mouth.
“The boy from the rumors.”
“What?” Larry’s jaw dropped. Meanwhile, Seron smiled faintly.
“You really are amazing, Jenny.”
“This is him? This is the guy?” Asked Larry.
“Most likely. I asked one of the witnesses to describe him, and it was kind of hard to find anyone else who matched the descriptor. ‘Built like a gorilla, looks more fainthearted than a girl, and wears a watch on his right wrist.”
“So this is the one…”
“I figured someone like that would be easy to find, and I happened to find him near the central gardens outside the cafeteria. I waited for him to finish his lunch and took a photo while everyone was on the move. I even found out what his afternoon classes are.”
“Jenny, you’re incredible! But you sure this is legal?”
“What are you talking about? It’s just a snapshot I happened to take. I pretended I was photographing the building. Then I skipped an afternoon class to develop the photo.”
“You’re starting to scare me, Jenny. The newspaper club’s a front for something, I just know it,” Larry exclaimed, shocked and terrified.
“I checked the student list and the photographs at the office too, just in case. And I couldn’t find anyone else matching the description. This guy’s probably our man.”
“I’m surprised the administrators let you check,” Seron said, surprised. Jenny was nonchalant.
“Our avid reader the office administrator didn’t ‘let me check’, she just gave an honors student named Jenny Jones permission to help rearrange the misaligned student photographs.”
Larry stared, still holding the photograph.
“So you know his name?” Asked Seron. Jenny brought her teacup to her lips.