Chapter 4: Linus
“Linus Francis. Sixth-year. One of his classes this term is Natural Sciences 601: Astronomy. That’s all I have on him so far,” Jenny explained.
“Hm. Even if the rumors about him and Stella are true, it’s hard to say anything conclusive yet,” said Seron.
“Yeah. Maybe he’s stalking her, or maybe it’s literally just a rumor. Or maybe they’re just acquaintances and people happened to spot them chatting on campus. Or…”
“Or?” Asked Seron.
“Maybe they were dating.”
“What?” Larry was incredulous. “Why?”
“Dunno. Cause they’re both wearing watches.”
Larry went silent.
“But that’s not exactly concrete evidence,” Seron pointed out, all the while deluding himself with the idea of getting Meg a wristwatch.
“…Hey. Jenny,” Larry said gravely, “could you look into this guy? SC Linus?”
“Sure. Why though? Worried? Or are you jealous?” Jenny asked with a playful grin.
“Both,” Larry replied, surprisingly serious.
“…I’ll do what I can. I’ve been out and about all day today though, so I’m taking the rest of the day off.”
Blinking, Jenny put the photograph in her bag and walked over to the telephone.
“Thanks. I’ll wash the cups,” Larry said, gathering the teacups and taking them to the sink.
“Larry. Jenny,” Seron said, “could we keep this stuff to ourselves for now? Until we find out more about SC Francis, I mean.”
“Yeah. That sounds like a good idea.”
Seron also stood. He put the Whitfield catalogue in his bag and helped Jenny lock up.
As they stepped outside, Jenny handed Larry a photograph the same size as the one of Linus Francis.
“Almost forgot. This one’s yours.”
Larry’s gaze fell on the photograph.
Seron flinched because of the scream, not the photo.
The photo depicted Stella, who was facing the camera.
It was from earlier that day, when she was walking arm-in-arm with Larry through the halls. Larry’s left arm was narrowly in the frame. The photo had been framed this way from the beginning, as opposed to having been trimmed later. It was even in perfect focus.
Larry turned to Jenny as he showed the photo to Seron.
“Wh-wh-when did you take—”
“I needed a shot of her face for this story. I was kinda far and I only had a second to take the shot. It was tough, let me tell you,” Jenny said nonchalantly. Larry looked like he had swallowed a bug.
“Are you training to be a sniper or something, Jenny? And why am I not in the photo?”
“Why would I include you? It’d be a waste of perfectly good film.”
“Tch. Anyway, thanks.”
Once Seron had gotten a good look at the photo, Larry wrapped it up in a handkerchief and tucked it away in his bag.
* * *
The Hepburn manor was about 20 minutes from school by bus, or an hour on foot. Though the Capital District was mostly crowded with apartment buildings, the vicinity of the Hepburn home was mostly occupied by old mansions.
It was that evening, after dinner.
Larry was in his room doing the homework he really did not want to do.
The room was furnished with a bed, a dresser, and a desk. There was a clean sheet on his bed, much like at a hotel. But the sheet had not been prepared by a servant or his mother—Larry had done it himself.
The large room was tidy, the walls plastered with posters of motorcycles and cars, and antique rifles that used black powder. Larry’s school and army uniforms hung neatly in the dresser.
Larry was in a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, wrestling with his schoolwork.
At one point he heard the telephone ring outside, but someone seemed to have picked up.
Larry’s father was a colonel in the Confederation Army, and was out of the house for several days for a training session. Cato, Larry’s older brother, lived in the dorms as per military academy regulations. The only people at home were Larry, his mother, the butler, the live-in maids, and the bodyguard.
Once he had finished, Larry put his textbook and notebook in his bag so he wouldn’t forget them the next day. Then he took out the photograph.
Stella was clinging to him blankly. Larry fell into thought.
“I wonder what she’s thinking,” he wondered, smiling.
Suddenly, there was a knock. Larry quickly put the photo back, asking who it was. A maid replied that there was a phone call for him.
Normally the maid would mention who the call was from. Confused, Larry headed to the telephone room. The Hepburn family had a separate room for the telephone so they could sit down for long conversations.
“That sounds wonderful, sir. If nothing else, I personally made certain to raise our boys to be gentlemen. Yes, absolutely.”
His mother was in the chair, engaged in conversation.
Larry tilted his head.
His mother Mia Hepburn was a woman in her early forties. Unusually for a woman of her age, her blond hair was cut short, giving her the look of an athlete. And indeed she led an active lifestyle, enjoying hobbies like horseback riding and skiing. She was more than a match for the men of the family.
“What’s going on?” Larry asked, still in the dark. Mia finally noticed his presence.
“Oh my, speak of the devil. Larry is here. Yes, I’ll switch you over, shall I? Thank you for the lovely conversation.”
With that, Mia put a hand over the receiver.
“Who is this, Mom? Why were you taking my call?”
“He’s an important man. It’s only proper for your mother to speak to him first.”
“Wait, is the the call from earlier? How long have you been talking?”
“Never mind that, Larry. Introduce yourself and make sure to be extra-polite.”
Giving his mother a quizzical look, Larry sat down on the chair she had kept warm. Mia gave him a smile and a wave, and left.
Larry picked up the receiver.
“I’m terribly sorry to keep you waiting, sir. This is Larry Hepburn speaking.”
<Ah! It’s you!>
From the receiver came the voice of a sprightly old man. Larry had never heard the voice before.
“Yes, sir. Pardon me, but my mother didn’t mention your name. Might I ask who you are?”
<Hm. You have a strong voice, young man. Yes. I approve. I am Aubrey Whitfield, CEO of Whitfield Watchmakers.>
‘The one who won the family feud!’ Larry thought, but he wisely kept it to himself.
“Then you would be Stella’s grandfather, sir?”
<Indeed. It seems you’ve been taking very good care of her recently.>
“N-not at all, sir. It’s an honor to make your acquaintance. Er…”
‘How does he know?’ Larry wondered. Word had traveled too fast. Aubrey Whitfield continued regardless.
<Are you surprised? So was I, when Stella suddenly declared over dinner that she had a boyfriend! I was moved, young man, to see that shy girl speak up to her parents like she did today.>
<My son and his wife, naturally, were stupefied. ‘You’re too young’, they say. Bah! Stella is the only one who can decide that. No longer can parents force their children to marry against their will! I support my darling granddaughter. There’s nothing wrong with trying new things while you’re young, do you not agree?>
“Y-yes…of course, sir.”
<But truth be told, I did wonder about her boyfriend.>
“Of course. That’s perfectly natural, sir.”
<So I asked for your name and made this phone call.>
‘Talk about fast, old man,’ Larry thought, but naturally he did not say a thing.
<Imagine my surprise when it turned out you were a son of the prestigious Hepburn family! The great warriors of the East! I recall hearing tales of your noble ancestors during my time serving in the military!>
“I-it’s an honor, sir. I’m very proud of my ancestors, and I hope to live up to their great deeds someday.”
<Hm. It is good to see that you are both proud and humble. I approve of your courting my granddaughter, young man. Be good to her.>
“Of course, sir.”
<By the way, do you like wristwatches, young man?>
“Yes, sir. I love them—wearing them, looking at them, and fiddling with them.”
<Excellent! Then I’ll have you enter the Whitfield Academy upon your graduation from secondary school. I am the chairman of the academy. I will grant you special admittance.>
“Pardon me, sir? I’m not sure what you mean…”
<Ahem. The Whitfield Academy trains skilled watchmakers, you see. And company policy strictly states that the CEO must be a watchmaker himself.>
‘Because of the family feud, eh?’ Larry thought, but of course he could not dare say it out loud.
“I see, sir. And how does this connect to—”
<Should you marry Stella in the future, you will become the CEO of Whitfield Watchmakers. Which of course necessitates that you become a watchmaker. Do you understand now?>
“N-not at all, sir! Please give me a moment, Mr. Whitfield. I still haven’t thought quite that far about my life.”
Larry, who dreamed of attending the same military academy as Cato and becoming a career soldier, had to give an awkward lie.
<Hm. Perhaps I was getting a little too ahead of myself.>
‘“A little”?’ Larry thought, but managed to hold himself back.
<In any case, Stella is my only grandchild. She simply must inherit the company. Things will become difficult for her if her husband is unable to so much as build a single watch.>
‘You’re making things difficult for me!’ Larry thought, but managed to hold himself back from the brink of anger.
“I understand what you mean, sir. My fellow students and I are still trying to figure out what we want to do after graduation. I still have three years before finishing school, and I hope that I will build up my knowledge and expertise so as to one day go above and beyond expectations,” he said without missing a beat. He knew exactly how to please adults because he often had to deal with superiors from the military.
<Of course,> Aubrey Whitfield said satisfactorily. Then his tone dropped, as though he had grown ten years older in an instant. <If only Stella would take over the company… But the girl absolutely hates wristwatches.>
“Pardon me, sir? I’m surprised,” Larry said, genuinely shocked.
<Yes. She’d been surrounded by watches since birth, so her parents and I never gave it much thought. Stella was never the most expressive girl, after all. But it was a year and a half ago when she began to speak up for herself. Out of nowhere she said to us that she hated watches and did not want to even look at them. It saddened us, of course, but we couldn’t very well force it upon her. I can only hope that this is a passing phase that she one day grows out of.>
“Er…” Larry began, unable to hold back, “doesn’t Stella have a Whitfield wristwatch?”
<No, she does not. We offered her the pick of our catalogue, but she refused them all. Stella says she doesn’t wish to bring something so expensive to school. Once I went along to drop her off at school, and indeed she was not wearing a watch.>
“…I…I see. I’m sorry to hear that, sir.”
<I suppose young people have their share of worries. And perhaps Stella will change her mind someday. Thank you for giving me your time so late in the evening, young man. It was a pleasure to speak to your mother as well. I’ll be certain to invite you to the next party I host.>
“Th-thank you, sir.”
<If you’ll excuse me, then.>
“Have a good evening, sir.”
Larry waited for Aubrey Whitfield to hang up before slowly putting down the receiver.
Then he pursed his lips, looking more upset than ever.
His train of thought was interrupted by his mother.
“Are you finished, Larry?”
She opened the door and peered inside, stepping in when she saw the conversation was finished.
“Yeah. That was exhausting.”
“Who would’ve guessed you’d get a call from such an important man? Asking you to take good care of his granddaughter, at that!”
“What’d he say to you, Mom?”
“That you’re seeing the Whitfield heiress at school. Congratulations, honey. Are you thinking of getting married?”
‘Not this again. Why does everyone have to ask me the same thing?’ Larry complained inwardly, and went limp.
“I don’t know. And apparently I have to become a watchmaker if I want to marry her. Then I have to inherit the company.”
“Why not?” His mother asked nonchalantly. Larry got angry.
“Mom! I wanna be a soldier like Dad and Cato! You’ve raised me for 15 years, I thought you’d at least know that much.”
“I do. But do you want to become a soldier just because you’re part of the Hepburn family? Or because you really want to?”
“Both. I want to be a soldier because I was born into this family.”
“I won’t stop you from going into the military, honey. But you should think of it more as one potential choice out of many. You’re only 15—you still have plenty of time to think about your future.”
“Wouldn’t Dad get upset, though?”
“Your father agrees with me, honey.”
“We never talked about it at home because it’s not the happiest topic, but the Confederation military’s not going to be Roxche’s backbone for much longer.”
“After the Mural was found, the cold war ended. So naturally the military’s budget shrank and the military itself is being downsized. They even ended conscription, too.”
“Which is why career soldiers will be in higher demand!”
“And that’s a sound argument. But you know, honey. We’re happy to produce soldiers in the Hepburn family, but we’d be just as happy to produce businessmen and other professionals too.”
Larry was silent.
“I’m just trying to say that if you really come to love Stella, you’re free to take a different path from the rest of the family.”
Larry remained silent.
“Remember, there are so many paths out there you can choose from. You’re still young; you shouldn’t settle on one thing so soon.”
* * *
The next day. The 25th.
It was the 11th day of the new term. The weather was cloudy. Larry walked to school alone.
He walked out of the neighborhood and onto the main street, continuing for about an hour. The closer he got to school, the more students he spotted.
Things were clearly different that day. He could feel the students’ whispers the moment he spotted their gazes.
It was obvious why; so Larry decided not to worry and fell into thought.
“Maybe I should tell Seron after all. But what if I’m wrong?” He wondered under his breath, finally arriving at the intersection in front of the campus.
The intersection was packed with luxury cars dropping off students at school.
“Hey, it’s him.” “The lovey-dovey guy from yesterday?” “What does she see in him?” “The whole school’s talking about them now.”
“C’mon, Larry. Don’t let them get to you,” Larry said to himself, heading for the crowded gates.
He heard a soft voice beside him. Someone touched the bag in his left hand.
Larry turned to find none other than Stella. She looked up at him blankly.
“M-morning. Did you just get here?”
Instead of answering, Stella clung to his arm. She began to walk just as they had the previous day.
The other students stirred for a moment, then went silent. Larry was once again the subject of many warm gazes.
“School’s starting to look a lot like a chapel,” a student joked as Larry passed through the gates.
Larry glanced at Stella’s left wrist.
She was not wearing a watch.
* * *
During a long break between second and third period.
“Hey there. Thanks for your cooperation.”
“Not at all, SC Jones. I’m a big fan of your paper.”
Jenny was on the grounds talking to a second-year girl.
On the grounds were two wooden benches placed back-to-back.
Jenny sat on one, and the girl on the other. Because they were looking in opposite directions it simply looked as though they were strangers.
The self-proclaimed fan was tall enough to be a model. She seemed excited to be able to contribute.
“This is so cool! It’s just like a secret investigation! Ask me anything, SC Jones, and I will spill the beans. It’s about Stella, isn’t it? Everybody’s talking about it! How she’s dating the senior-classman with stupidly nice blond hair!”
Jenny concealed her notepad in her left hand and held a short pen in her right.
“I hear Stella’s supposed to be mature, but she doesn’t have a lot of friends.”
“Hm, maybe. She’s not in a club, she doesn’t say much during breaks, and she goes home straight after classes. But nobody hates her or anything.”
“I could tell from the investigation so far. No one’s said anything bad about her.”
“Right? She never talks behind anybody’s back since she’s so quiet to begin with. That’s the great thing about Stella. If you need anything, she helps you out. And she’s nice. It’d be great if she could make some friends.”
“I see. Anyway, about yesterday.”
“Those rumors about her and the blond guy spread awfully fast, don’t you think?”
“Yeah. Everyone who saw was talking about it, and even Stella said it was true—”
“She did? Personally?”
“Yeah. We were in Roxchean class that afternoon and someone asked her about the senior-classman. That’s when she dropped the bomb! ‘Dating with marriage in mind’! The class exploded, I swear. We didn’t quiet down even when the teacher showed up. Then Stella had to explain again and the class exploded again!”
“…So she really said so herself? I’m surprised.”
‘Rumors confirmed true’, Jenny wrote on her notepad. “All right. Let’s rewind a bit. Do you know about the rumors with Stella and the hulking senior-classman?”
“You bet! Stella and the gorilla. That was the biggest piece of gossip last term. I saw them together too.”
“Really? When did this rumor get big, and how exactly did it go?”
“Well, a bunch of people said they saw Stella and the gorilla talking alone in secluded places. It started about a year ago, I think? Wait, it was the term we started here, so it must have been earlier.”
Jenny quickly jotted down the information.
“So it was pretty soon after you started secondary school?”
“How did the rumor go?”
“I mean, Stella almost never talks with boys, so nobody believed it at first. But once a month or so someone would say they saw them together. It sounded like a total urban legend. Someone told Stella to tell a teacher if the senior-classman was stalking her, but Stella said straight-up that he wasn’t stalking her. Then everyone stopped worrying. Well, I mean before this completely overshadowed it!”
“When did you see them together?”
“Last term. Er…around the beginning of the seventh month.”
“That’s pretty recent. Where?”
“I was visiting a friend on the top floor of the dorms and happened to look out the window. They were by the library—”
“Secluded place. Check. What was it like between them?”
“See, that’s the thing. I didn’t tell anyone because no one would ever believe me…”
“It looked like he couldn’t possibly be a stalker or something like that.”
“It looked like they were a couple.”
Jenny’s hand froze over the notepad.
“…What made you think that?”
“Because it was really…nice.”
“They were looking at one another and—”
Jenny got off the bench.
“Thanks. You were a big help.”
“Happy to help! If you need any more info, you know who to ask!”
“Call the office if you remember anything else. If no one picks up, call my house.”
“Sure thing! But I don’t have your number.”
“Check the scrap of paper under your bench.”
The girl looked down. There was a neatly folded piece of paper pinned under a small rock.
“Wow! It’s just like a spy film!”
Jenny and her informant parted ways without once meeting each other’s gaze. The school bell rang to signal the end of the break.
Jenny went into the building and glanced at her notepad.
And she reread the last sentence.
‘looking at one another and smiling. Stella never looked so happy and adorable.’
“So you’re on to something, eh Larry?” Jenny whispered, putting the notepad in her bag.
* * *
“Sure. How could they not be the talk of the town, acting like that every day?” Natalia remarked, popping a piece of meatloaf into her mouth.
It was lunchtime. Natalia and Nick, along with Meg and Seron. were sitting together to eat as they had the previous day.
The difference was that all four of them were eating cafeteria food. Everyone had ordered meatloaf and salad, but Natalia also had an order or clam chowder.
Just like the previous day, Larry and Stella sat at another table some distance away as if in a world of their own. Stella had once again brought a home-cooked lunch. And the students around them were once again watching uncomfortably.
“Somebody figured out I was friends with Larry and started hounding me about ‘em. How am I supposed to know? Am I supposed to be his mother or something?” Natalia grumbled.
“A girl from the drama club asked me in class as well. ‘It looks like the boy who helped us out during the summer camp is dating a junior-classman. Shouldn’t we call the police?’ She asked me,” Nick chimed in, putting a boiled carrot slice into his mouth.
“Everyone is too much…if the two are happy together, that is that. It is a very good thing,” Meg said angrily.
Seron sat across from her, blankly losing himself in happiness at the sight of her face.
Natalia continued once she had finished off her meatloaf.
“Anyway, we didn’t get any new info. What’s the chief say? Anything?”
Seron put down his fork and wiped his mouth with a napkin. Then—
“No. Nothing notable so far.”
Natalia asked no more, turning her attention to her clam chowder. She scooped up a spoonful into her mouth, her eye glinting.
“Mhm. Delicious. You’re worth being eaten by yours truly,” she commented, finishing off the rest.
Seron changed the subject.
“How are the drama club rehearsals going, Megmica?”
“They are doing very well! They are flowing!” “Quite well.”
Meg and Nick replied. Meg continued.
“Ms. Krantz is very hardworking as well. President Sears and Vice-president Ulericks look to be happy. But rehearsals will continue. We cannot go to the club office again today. On our behalf, please tell Jenny sorry.”
“I as well. Other than Larry’s recent state of near-wedded bliss, has anything noteworthy happened?” Asked Nick. Seron’s response was brief.