Chapter 5: Wristwatches
The clouds gave way to rain. Umbrellas opened up like flowers at the building doors, and students in athletic clubs looked up resentfully at the sky.
Jenny entered the newspaper club office. Seron and Larry were already inside. They were engaged in serious discussion, without even drinking tea.
“What’s going on?” Jenny asked. Seron responded.
“Stella’s grandfather called Larry last night.”
“What?” Jenny gasped, “to ask you to take good care of his granddaughter, Larry?”
Jenny frowned. Seron gave her a quick summary of what Larry had told him earlier.
“Oh, I forgot to add something to that,” Larry said, “I didn’t tell Stella about the phone call today. It was kinda awkward to bring up, and I couldn’t just ask her why she told her folks about us.”
Jenny, who had been listening to the end, spoke.
“She’s beating her family to the punch.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m guessing Stella’s parents and grandfather are some of the most doting people in the world. They probably keep tabs on everything their precious little princess does.”
“So the opposite of your folks, Jenny?” Larry joked.
“I guess,” Jenny admitted, “so basically she got the jump on them. She came out and told them that the guy she’s dating is the son of a prestigious family.”
“But her grandfather said he was happy to let her date whoever.”
“That’s what he says, but you can never know for sure with adults. He might think he’s letting Stella see whoever she wants, but it might not be true from our perspective. If you didn’t impress him at all, he might have said, ‘stay away from my granddaughter’. You’re a Hepburn, though, so he probably approves. You better be grateful to your ancestors.”
“Er…you might be right. Thank you, ancestors…”
“Suppose it was me Stella was dating,” Seron speculated, “the son of a nouveau riche single mother from the countryside, heir to a foodstuffs company. Mr. Whitfield probably wouldn’t have approved.”
“Don’t put yourself down like that, Seron! Your mother’s an incredible person!”
“One more thing,” Jenny said, “I looked into why those rumors about you and Stella’s potential marriage were spreading so fast.”
“It’s because Stella said so herself during an afternoon class. It wasn’t just a bunch of gossiping girls blowing things out of proportion.”
Seron fell into thought.
“Why would she do that? I never said anything remotely to the effect. Maybe she just has the wrong idea?” Larry wondered. He did not sound happy at all, but something seemed to have occurred to him.
“Maybe. Maybe Stella didn’t want people to think it wasn’t a wholesome relationship. The fastest way to find out would be to ask her in person.”
“I’ll do that,” Larry said with a nod, “and we also have to solve the mystery of her wristwatch.”
“So she’s flaunting her relationship and wearing a wristwatch she shouldn’t actually have, huh,” Jenny muttered, taking out her notepad, “Linus Francis, 18 years old. A sixth-year at our school,” she continued without warning.
Seron and Larry listened intently, not missing a word.
“His parents own the Capital Department Stores chain. Yes, the super-high-end department stores next to all three of the Capital District train stations. SC Linus’s grandfather founded the business, and the company is doing well. So he’s a pretty rich guy. He has an older sister, but I don’t have details on her. His grades are average-to-below, and the only thing notable about him is his build. He’s shy and doesn’t have a lot of friends, and he’s turned down all the sports club offers he got and goes home straight after class. And you wouldn’t know it from the way he looks, but he’s really good with his hands. Last year he apparently pulled off a really intricate ornamented sculpture on his own for the school festival. Also, he’s always wearing a wristwatch. That’s all I’ve got.”
“Thanks,” Larry replied.
“And about those rumors about Stella from yesterday…”
“It’s pretty likely that the rumors are true. The eyewitness accounts add up, unless all the second-year girls are collectively conspiring against us.”
“So she’s spreading false rumors on purpose,” Seron muttered.
“The witness I spoke to today said she spotted Stella and SC Linus by the library last term. And he wasn’t bothering her—she says they were both smiling.”
Larry lowered his gaze. He was silent.
“You’re still looking into SC Linus, right?” Asked Seron.
“Oh? Why do you think I am?”
“Just a hunch.”
“Too lazy to answer me, Seron? Oh all right. Fine. Yes, I’m still looking into him.”
“How?” Asked Larry.
“When I heard that he leaves straight after class, I called up Mr. Kurtz and had him tail SC Linus. It’s not likely, but maybe he’s meeting Stella off-campus,” Jenny replied nonchalantly.
“You’re really something else, Jenny. I’m counting on you.”
“Mr. Kurtz’ll call the office if he sees anything noteworthy. We’ll wait here until sundown, but don’t expect anything. Investigations aren’t as easy as they might look,” Jenny warned sternly. At that moment, the phone began to ring.
Seron and Larry gasped.
“Ugh.” Jenny cringed and picked up the receiver. “It’s me. Mhm. Mhm. I see. Where? …All right. I’ll have Litner pick me up. Yeah. Thanks. See you soon.”
Jenny hung up. Seron and Larry waited.
“We’ve tracked down Linus Francis. Litner’s going to come get me by car. You in?”
“All right. I’ll brief you on the details on the way.”
After leaving the office, Jenny, Seron, and Larry went to the gates with their umbrellas. Jenny was carrying a camera bag.
The after-school rush was over, leaving the intersection clear. The club members entered a small hatchback driven by Elsa Litner, Jenny’s bodyguard. Litner was a black-haired woman in her late twenties who had escorted the club on their summer camp, so Seron and Larry were already acquainted with her.
Seron sat in the front next to Litner, and Larry and Jenny in the back. Soon they were off.
“Your things are in the back, Miss Jenny.”
Jenny turned and took out a long bag from the luggage compartment behind the seat. Inside was a large single-lens reflex camera and an extreme telephoto lens large enough to use as a club.
“Wow…” Larry breathed, his eyes wide.
“It looks expensive.”
The rain had let up somewhat. The car continued down the thoroughfare.
“So, where are we headed?” Asked Larry.
“Balfour Technical School. Have you heard of it?”
“Yeah. What about you, Seron?”
“No. Could you tell me more?”
“It’s a school for continuing education. It’s actually an offshoot of Balfour Vocational School, and the classes start after the vocational school students go home for the day. The technical school students can use the vocational school’s equipment and facilities, and classes include everything from light woodworking to building car engines. It’s mostly for people who’re already working but want to get technical education for a different career path. Tuition is on the expensive end.”
“Thanks, Larry,” said Seron.
“I’m impressed. Even I didn’t know all that,” Jenny added. She and Seron quickly realized why.
“Aha. I get it now.”
“Did you read my mind or something, Jenny?” Larry asked defensively.
“You weren’t sure if you could get into our school with your grades, right? So you were thinking about vocational school too, just in case. And you decided on Balfour Vocational School because it’s the most prestigious school for technicians and engineers in the Capital District. Am I wrong?”
“…You’re too smart for your own good, Jenny. Anyway, SC Linus’s gone to Balfour?”
“Waltzed right in, according to Kurtz. But—”
“He changed out of his uniform at the department store bathroom on the way.”
“Hm.” “I see.”
“Balfour Technical School’s for working people, but there’s no age limit or anything. Even a working teenager can attend. But—”
Larry continued where Jenny left off.
“He’ll stick out like a sore thumb if he goes in wearing a secondary school uniform. So he had to change out of it. And it makes sense he’d hide it from his classmates, too.”
“I’m not going to cover this story since it’s real.”
“What’s the point of publishing a newspaper, then? Anyway, why is SC Linus going to this school? Is he actually taking classes there?”
“Probably, unless he’s going to hang out with a friend who studies there.”
“But that doesn’t add up. He goes to secondary school and technical school every day?” Larry furrowed his brow. Seron agreed.
“It’s hard to imagine someone doing both at once. It would have been a lot easier for SC Linus if he’d just gone to vocational school instead of secondary school to begin with. Maybe he’s planning to go to university and learning something at Balfour as a hobby?”
“Or maybe his grades slipped so much he decided to try Balfour instead. But in that case, it would have been easier to drop out of secondary school. I don’t get it,” Jenny said.
By then, they were in front of Balfour Vocational School. It looked like a factory, with low walls around the campus which included three buildings with few floors.
Jenny instructed Litner to pass the school slowly. As they passed the gate, Jenny peered into the school and snapped photographs with her rangefinder.
“What’re we gonna do? I’m sure they’d let us get a tour of the place, but we’ll stand out in our uniforms,” Larry said.
“I’m not too keen on going in there, actually. Litner, take us to Kurtz,” Jenny ordered. The car came to a stop in front of an apartment building in the block next to the school.
The rain had almost completely let up.
“Hold this, Larry,” Jenny said as she handed over her long bag and stepped out of the car. At the same time, Kurtz came out of the building in his usual black suit.
“Good afternoon, Miss Jenny. And it’s good to see you again, Mr. Maxwell. Mr. Hepburn.”
Kurtz led the group into the apartment building. Larry slung the long bag over his shoulder and asked, “are we allowed to go inside?”
“Yes. This apartment has units for rent. Put on your best confident smile and act as though you’re here to peruse the building.”
They took the elevator up to the fifth floor and ran into a middle-aged woman holding an empty shopping bag. She seemed to be a building resident.
“Hi! We’re here to look at some of the units here. The building’s very nice, isn’t it?” Jenny said with a smile. The woman smiled back.
“It certainly is. Take your time looking around!”
“Are you going shopping nearby now that the rain’s stopped?”
“That’s right. There’s a shopping district just two blocks away.”
“That sounds very convenient.”
The woman entered the elevator with a smile, completely oblivious.
Jenny, Seron, Larry, and Kurtz walked all the way to the end of the hall to a common-use balcony furnished with chairs, tables, and a folded parasol.
From the balcony they had a view of the entire Balfour campus. Jenny took the bag from Larry’s shoulder and took out a camera equipped with a telephoto lens. Then she took out two binoculars from her own bag and handed them to Seron and Larry.
Kurtz was the only one standing on the balcony. The others crouched down to keep out of sight, turning their lenses toward the school.
Not caring that the floor was wet, Jenny got down on one knee and steadied her lens on a chair.
Three buildings came into view.
“I’ll take the closest building. Larry, you take the one at the end. Seron, the one in the middle. Speak up as soon as you find the gorilla. And I hope I don’t have to remind you that we’re doing this to try and figure out what he’s doing at this school.”
“This is practically stalking,” Larry muttered, but he followed orders and scrutinized the classrooms one by one.
The first class he saw contained wide desks with about ten or so adult students engaged in woodworking. The beautifully sculpted wood would probably be turned into luxurious chairs.
In the next class over, students were sculpting circular pieces of wood. It was the traditional Roxchean art of making decorative dishes.
Jenny also searched the classes through her viewfinder.
The students in the first class she saw were making brass instruments, carefully bending the golden pipes.
Next to them were people testing out different wind instruments.
“There!” Seron cried suddenly, “the first floor in the central building. Third classroom from the right.”
Larry and Jenny turned their lenses.
Chairs and desks were placed at regular intervals in the room, no different than an ordinary school. However, the desks themselves were very tall.
Sitting there were students in white. The desks went all the way up to their shoulders.
The students almost hugged the desks as they leaned in close to the tiny objects before their eyes, moving both their hands as they worked.
On the desks were lights and small boxes.
“The seat at the back of the class, by the window. That’s got to be SC Linus,” Seron said.
As Seron said, at the back of the classroom sat Linus with his massive frame wrapped up in white and his large arms on the desk. There was a cylindrical magnifying loupe over his left eye.
Linus scrutinized the tiny object before him as he lost himself in his work. Other than the angle of his gaze, it looked like he was lying on the desk.
“That’s definitely him,” Jenny said with several clicks of the shutter. She wound the film and shot again. Then again, changing the exposure.
“What are they working on? It looks like they have to hold those things close to their eyes,” wondered Seron. They could not make out the objects with their binoculars and the camera.
But Larry knew the instant he saw.
“Easy,” he said bitterly, “watches.”
* * *
Just as the stakeout crew began to pack up and leave—
“When am I gonna get a chance to shine?” Natalia groaned.
The rehearsals had been moved from the gymnasium to the auditorium, where the drama club would put on the play later in the term. Natalia and the orchestra club were on standby just below the stage, waiting just as they would during the performance.
On the stage, the impassioned Ms. Krantz directed the actors. The orchestra club and the four members of the chorus club were left with nothing to do. Dozens were left to wait idly.
“I wish to appear. I wish to be singing,” whispered one of the four chorus club members—Megmica.
On stage, Ms. Krantz finished and clapped loudly.
On cue, Nick the Black Knight ran forward in school-issue sweats and took center stage.
“But remember this! I know your true identity!” He cried.
* * *
“Hey Meg. It’s been too long.”
<Yes, it has been very long, Miss Lillianne Aikashia Corazòn Whittington Schultz. Have you fared well?>
“Whoa! You’re pretty good at the old-timey lady Roxchean, Meg!”
<Hee hee. Thanks. I’ve been listening to a lot of archaic Roxchean because of the play so I kind of wanted to try it myself.>
“Still busy with the drama club?”
<Yeah. It’s hard trying to participate in all these club activities every day. They call us in, but a lot of times I barely get to sing at all. Like today.>
“That sucks. But I promise I’ll come see the performance.”
<Thanks, Lillia. The senior-classmen and I are going to sing our hearts out. And it’s so nice singing with live accompaniment from the orchestra.>
“What about the newspaper club? Helping out with them too?”
<No, the drama club’s been keeping me busy. Our president Jenny’s kind of bummed out.>
<By the way, Lillia, didn’t you have a wristwatch? I thought I saw one in your room the other day.>
“Yeah. I wear it when I go out.”
<Is it not common for a female student in Roxche to have a wristwatch?>
“You don’t see many girls with watches, yeah. I mean, they’re expensive.”
<I see. What about you?>
“It’s actually a hand-me-down from my mom.”
“So it’s really manly and not cute at all. They made it really big and easy to read because it was designed for pilots, so it practically feels like a bangle. So I don’t usually wear it.”
“Mom wears a new one she got from a watch company, thought. The company was doing a marketing campaign saying elite Air Force pilots wear their products, so they handed them out. Her co-workers said they were fine with what they had, but Mom took hers. Why turn down a free lunch, she said.”
<That’s interesting. By any chance, was the watch from Whitfield?>
“No, I don’t think so. Don’t remember the name, though.”
<You think she’ll model for an advertisement one day? A beautiful Air Force test pilot’s bound to attract attention.>
“You think? I dunno. You know what she’s like. Just the other day she flew off without permission on a test unit and had to submit a report. Not like she had much of a choice, but still…”
“N-never mind. Just talking to myself.”
* * *
The 26th day of the ninth month.
It was the day after the Balfour investigation. The sky was clear.
Yet again, Stella found Larry on campus as he stepped through the gates and linked arms with him. At lunchtime, she opened up a homemade lunchbox.
A seemingly unpopular muscular boy and a quiet, stoic girl. As a couple, they were already a cafeteria legend. Which naturally meant that the mystique had worn off and students were reacting less and less to their existence. They simply passed by as if nothing was wrong.
“No complaints here. Cafeteria food’s great,” said Natalia, yet again with two servings on her tray.
“It is good to eat, but I think no longer we should watch Larry and Stella,” Meg chimed in.
“Have you made any progress?” Asked Nick.
“Maybe, maybe not. I’ll tell you more at the office later,” Seron replied, avoiding the question.
After school, Jenny, Seron, and Larry gathered at the office.
They sat on the sofas around the coffee table.
“Let’s get all the facts straight,” Seron said.
On the table was a photo of Linus at work. The image was grainy because Jenny had to zoom in, but it was clear that he was making a wristwatch. Seron continued.
“At the beginning of the term, Stella Whitfield asked Larry out saying she wanted to hang out with him only on campus. When Larry accepted, she began to flaunt their relationship in many different ways. She told her classmates and her family that they were dating with marriage in mind,” Seron recited mechanically.
Larry nodded slightly, not saying a word.
“Let’s rewind a bit. Not long after starting school here, Stella Whitfield was spotted with then-fifth-year student Linus Francis. Everyone thought he was stalking her, but there’s a good chance they were very close, at least until last term. Rumors about them began to spread. Linus Francis currently attends Balfour Technical School and is learning to make wristwatches.”
Seron stopped there. Jenny picked up where he left off.
“At this point, we can probably conclude that Stella had been dating Linus until last term before breaking up and moving on to Larry. She might be flaunting her new relationship to make a point of telling Linus that she’s found someone new and that he should give up on her.”
“Right,” Seron agreed.
“I hope that’s what it really is,” said Larry. Jenny shot him a glare.
“Hey. Larry Hepburn.”
“Spill the beans already.”
“What’s your game? No one asks for an investigation on someone they just started dating. I started helping out because I was curious about the saint of a girl who decided to go out with you, but I didn’t think we’d end up getting in this deep.”
“And Seron!” Jenny turned, this time glaring at Seron.
“What is it?”
Seron simply stared back.
“Why did you agree to Larry’s request immediately? Did he tell you something ahead of time?”
“No.” “No.” Seron and Larry replied in unison. Seron continued.
“I was shocked when Larry asked us to investigate, but I knew he must have had a good reason. I decided to help out because I knew he’d tell us why.”
Larry’s eyes narrowed in a smile.
“Thanks,” he said.
“It’s nothing,” Seron replied, as casually as though Larry had borrowed a pen.
“Ugh! This is why boys are such a nuisance!” Jenny said with a laugh, “I’m sick of all this ambiguity. I want the truth, Larry.”
“All right,” Larry said, and took a deep breath.
He closed his eyes and turned his face to the ceiling, exhaling.
Then he looked down and opened his eyes again, meeting Seron and Jenny’s gaze.
“Stella,” Larry said firmly and gravely, “isn’t in love with me.”