Chapter 5: The Request
“Jenny! And everyone. We should do this! We must!” Meg cried. The others looked up in shock.
“Do what?” Jenny asked on everyone’s behalf.
“This request! We will solve SC Kenneth’s sadness! We will get the evidence in our hands and help! We can do it! Our role is to light the truth!” Meg pontificated.
“Looks like something’s flipped a switch,” Natalia remarked quietly.
“SC Kenneth is very sad! It is horrible! If we can make someone happy, we must! The fiancée was too cruel!” Meg continued, as though she were the one who had been personally offended.
Jenny fell into thought for a moment, arms crossed.
“I have a few conditions before we accept this request, SC Kenneth.”
“First, we’ll do our best but can’t guarantee any results. It’ll get difficult for us if your fiancée notices something is wrong. And I’d like to set a deadline—can’t have the club chasing after the target all year.”
“Right. What do you say to the end of this month, then?”
“Hm?” Larry tilted his head, but he did not say anything.
“All right,” Jenny replied, “we’ll tail her for the next 20 days or so and do our best to get you that photograph.”
“You can always trust Jenny to take photos in secret,” Natalia said.
“Thanks,” Kenneth replied, “and one more thing—I’d like you to give me any and all photos you take of the scene. And if Bridget happens to catch you, don’t go out of your way to feign ignorance. Feel free to tell her that I’ve requested your help in catching her in the act. I’m ready and willing to dirty my own hands.”
“Please don’t worry! We are very good!” Meg assured him.
* * *
Kenneth left the office, leaving behind the photograph, a copy of Bridget’s schedule, and his contact information.
“Talk about a sad request,” Natalia remarked, munching on a cookie. No one else was still eating. It was getting dark outside.
“But I think this is a meaningful request! That marriage is unforgivable! We must do our best efforts and help him! Because we can do it!” Meg cried, still indignant.
“Well,” said Jenny, “considering what we did for SC Sophia and the Stella case, this request isn’t too far from our usual. And like our motto says, ‘assist all romantic endeavors’.”
“That’s takes me back!” Larry exclaimed from the kitchenette.
“To when?” Natalia asked.
“Don’t you remember? It was when SC Sophia came to us with her request last summer.”
“Ah, after we ate bacon and lettuce club sandwiches. I remember now. That bacon was the perfect balance of meat and grease.”
“Does your stomach double as your brain, Lia?”
Jenny turned away from the conversation and to Nick.
“The Einsworth family’s supposed to be pretty rich right?”
“Yes, though not as much as the Jones family.”
“So his fiancée’s family must be about the same, too…”
Jenny trailed off. Nick nodded.
“You’ve heard of her?”
“I cannot say for certain, but I suspect her family may run Armitage Dresses, located by the thoroughfare in the north. It’s one of the Capital District’s top clothing brands,” Nick explained without missing a beat.
“I see. So it’s an engagement between two rich families. Then it’ll be hard to break them up without someone losing face. I dunno if a few photographs are gonna work here—I mean, when it comes down to it the parents could just crumple them up and pretend they never existed,” Jenny theorized. Nick smiled.
“It all seems so very realistic when you put it that way, Jenny. Almost like first-hand experience.”
“Then does it mean that this marriage cannot be broken?” Asked Meg. “For example, even if we have the evidence?”
“Unfortunately, there’s a very good chance of that.” Jenny nodded. Meg exploded again.
“It is horrible! Two people who do not love each other marrying will not be well! What is life for? Are they slaves of their parents? What age is today?”
“There, there, Megmica. Calm down. We all agree with you there. Want a cookie?” Natalia asked, pacifying Meg. Meg put a cookie into her mouth and munched on it before swallowing.
“I cannot forgive a cheater! I will break this engagement, I promise!”
* * *
<So that’s what happened.>
<A fiancée at his school…>
<Being in an arranged marriage isn’t that uncommon at our school, you know. But people in their situation are usually happy about it. They act all clingy on campus, showing off to everyone about how they’re going to get married in the future.>
<It’s like a different world from school here in Raputoa.>
<So I suppose this request somehow led to something big happening with SC Megmica and SC Seron.>
<You’re half right.>
<What about the other half?>
<It was another request. SC Kenneth wasn’t the only one who came to us for help.>
<What? What happened?>
<Something crazy. It was the next day…>
* * *
The 12th day of the second month.
For once the day was bright and sunny. Once again Larry was the first to reach the office.
The snow left over outside shone brilliantly under the sun. It was so bright that Larry did not need to turn on any of the lights in the office.
He took a seat on the sofa and began fiddling with a camera.
It was the rangefinder Jenny had taught the others to use at Ercho Village, equipped with a 50mm lens.
Larry put the camera in its bag and stood, holding the bag in his left hand.
He quickly pulled the camera from the bag, pointed it at the kettle in the kitchenette and pressed the shutter, then stuffed it back in the bag. He was practicing to catch Bridget in the act.
Several more tries later, Larry groaned.
“This is harder than I expected. How does Jenny do it?”
“Hey Larry. Are you practicing a new dance?” Seron asked, walking through the door.
“Hey Seron! Er…I’m trying to practice pulling out the camera for a quick snapshot. It’s not working as well as I’d hoped,” Larry replied, quickly turning to Seron and pressing the shutter.
Seron gave him a curious look.
“Don’t worry, it’s not loaded. It’s the same with guns—you gotta practice with an empty one before you move on to a live one. Sit down and I’ll get you some tea.”
Seron did as Larry instructed. Larry busied himself in the kitchenette.
“Did the others tell you about yesterday’s request, by any chance?”
“No. What was it?”
“This sixth-year named Kenneth Einsworth wants us to get evidence that his fiancée is cheating on him. Wants to break out of an arranged marriage, he says. Apparently the girl’s, er…loose with men. Kissing boys who catch her eye in the halls and stuff. SC Kenneth says he’s seen her in the act a few times.”
“What’s with the scary face, Seron?”
“Did he tell you her name?”
“Uh-huh. Bridget Armitage. She looked real beautiful in the photo he showed us.”
Seron was silent.
“Seron? Everything all right?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. So did Jenny accept?”
“Yeah. Club motto and stuff, you know. So we’re going to catch her in the act and get some photographs. Deadline’s till the end of the month,” Larry said, returning to the table with the teapot and Seron’s cup. “Here.”
“Thanks. So that’s why you were practicing, huh.”
“I’ve still got a long way to go, though. Maybe it’ll be easier to rig the camera bag instead. Cut a hole in it and hide the release cable in my hand and—”
“Say, Larry. About SC Kenneth…” Seron said, cutting Larry off in an unusual show of assertiveness.
“He lives in the dorms.”
“Cool.” Larry nodded.
“So he didn’t tell you, did he?” Seron asked stiffly.
It was Larry’s turn to hesitate. Seron continued.
“That’s not all. Until last year, he’d been an RA for two years in a row. I thought he’d keep going this year, but he turned down the job.”
“Huh. Don’t people usually keep at it though, after two years?”
“Yeah. And sixth-years get some leeway in their work too because they have to prepare for university entrance exams. But if he quit anyway, it must mean he’s got something weighing on his mind.”
“I see. Ever talk to him in person, Seron?”
“No, we’ve always been on different floors. I’ve seen him give speeches at the dormitory meetings and I’m sure we’ve passed each other by before. I wouldn’t be surprised if he knows who I am.”
“Obviously, since you’re an RA now.”
“And I’ve heard a lot of rumors about SC Kenneth from the other senior-classmen.”
“Apparently he’s very understanding and smart.”
“And one more thing.”
“He takes photos as a hobby, and apparently he’s pretty good. He even develops his own photos at home. He might get along with Jenny.”
“Interesting. He didn’t say anything about that yesterday, though.”
Seron said nothing.
“Seron? You zoning out again?”
“No. It’s nothing.”
That was when they were interrupted.
“Hey guys! I brought more snacks!”
“It seems I am fourth today. It’s been a long time, Seron.”
“Hey guys. Glad you could make it, Seron. Dunno if I’d call it good timing, though.”
The others arrived one after another. But Meg was not among them. When Jenny explained that she was at the chorus club, Seron fell blankly into thought.
“Here we go!” Natalia cried, taking out a paper bag full of rusks. “Eat up,” she offered, and stuffed several into her mouth. “Hey Seron, did Larry tell you ‘bout yesterday?”
“Then what about how Megmica reacted? ‘I cannot forgive a cheater!’ She’s really fired up.”
“…I suppose that’s a good attitude to have for the investigation.”
“Still as cool as ever. Here—the place I get it from has good bread, but nothing beats their maple syrup rusk. Garlic ain’t bad either but at snacktime you can’t go wrong with maple. You know?”
Seron, who had not yet had dinner, picked up a rusk and put it into his mouth when someone knocked on the door.
“Coming,” Jenny said, getting up and turning the doorknob.
And she was stunned into silence.
“Good afternoon. —Oh, nice office.”
The girl walking through the door was familiar to all the members. And in Seron’s case, he had met her in person.
Bridget Armitage elegantly strode into the office, her golden hair aflutter, and took a seat where here fiancé had sat the previous day.
Everyone but the blank-faced Seron was visibly shocked. Bridget put on a bewitching smile.
“Hey, what’s with all the glancing? Is there something written on my face?”
“N-no, it’s nothing. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Jenny Jones, the president of the newspaper club.”
Like the previous day, Jenny introduced the club members. But this time she omitted the strange descriptions.
Bridget cast Seron a meaningful look when Jenny introduced him, but no one paid it any particular notice.
Then it was Bridget’s turn to introduce herself.
“It’s nice to meet you, everyone. I’m Bridget Armitage, a sixth-year.”
‘We all know, because your fiancé came in yesterday asking us to investigate your infidelity!’ Everyone thought, but no one said a word.
“The newspaper club’s supposed to be the most reliable investigators in the school, so I decided to pay you a visit. Could you listen to what I have to say? Provided you don’t tell anyone, of course.”
Bridget was saying exactly what her fiancé had said the previous day.
“Sure. Go ahead,” said Jenny.
Larry served Bridget tea.
“Oh wow, what a fancy cup. I expected nothing less from the Jones heiress. And the tea smells lovely. Thank you,” Bridget said, beginning with comments completely unrelated to her request.
“Try these too,” Natalia offered, handing Bridget a small plate of rusks.
“Oh, wow! I love this bakery. They have the best rusks in the Capital District. And they’re maple-flavored too. How lovely.”
“You have excellent taste.”
“Of course. I could say the same for you.”
“Aw, you’re makin’ me blush.”
The conversation was going nowhere. Jenny forced it back on track.
“Er…are you hoping to join the club? We’re always looking for new members.”
Bridget noticed the hint of sarcasm in her tone.
“Oh, sorry. I always get carried away when I see nice things. I hope we can have a nice, long chat someday once my problem’s been solved,” she said, the smile on her face never faltering.
‘We don’t even know if we’ll accept your case, let alone solve it,’ everyone thought, but no one said a word.
Bridget finally got to the point.
“I have a fiancé. He’s the same age as me and attends this school. His name is Kenneth Einsworth.”
Everyone knew that already. They nodded.
“My parents and his parents set up this marriage before we were even born. They want to hold the ceremony as soon as we graduate.”
Everyone knew that already, too. They nodded.
“He’s verbally abusing me.”
No one had known that.
“Hm?” “What?” “…?” “Huh?” “No way.”
“He’s verbally abusing me. It’s terrible.”
Bridget repeated herself. There was no sadness in her eyes—she told her story with no emotion.
“On the outside he seems like a great guy. Handsome, friendly, and nice. But he flips out when we’re alone. Swearing at me. Calling me a useless bimbo. Saying he’s marrying me out of pity so I should do everything he tells me to do.”
The club members listened in silent as Bridget continued, her beautiful face frozen as though in a mask.
“He despises me. So of course he doesn’t want to marry me. He wants someone cuter. But he can’t break away from his parents or go against them because he loves himself too much. He’s not man enough to face himself. So he’s taking out all that stress on me, since I’m powerless to resist. I’m sick of him.”
Jenny slowly raised a hand.
“Could I ask you a few things, SC Bridget? You don’t have to answer if my questions make you uncomfortable, of course.”
“When did this verbal abuse begin?”
“I don’t know. He’s always had a bit of that in him since we were kids. When we were alone, he’d try to act all cool, like he was the best guy in the world. It got worse once we started secondary school together and got more chances to meet. But it didn’t get really bad until around the middle of last year.”
Natalia and Nick exchanged silent glances. Larry’s lips had been pursed for some time.
“I see. Thank you for answering. So what exactly do you want us to do?”
“Help me break off this engagement. Like I said, my parents are dead set on having us marry, and it’ll be nearly impossible to convince them. Same with his parents.”
“So I need irrefutable evidence of his abuse. Something that’ll change my parents’ minds. My testimony’s not going to be enough, so I need someone else to back me up.”
“So you’re asking for a recording?”
“That would be the best, but recording devices are too big. I’ve already looked into it, to tell you the truth.”
“I see. My father does have a tape recorder at home, but it’ll take me some time to prepare to bring it to school. That’s probably the only way, since you can’t capture verbal abuse on camera.”
“Your testimony will work too. You can even listen in on us if you’d like.”
“I don’t know if anyone would consider us credible witnesses, though.”
“Oh? You know as well as I do that the Jones heiress is more influential than that.”
Jenny fell silent. But Nick quickly took over.
“Has SC Kenneth ever resorted to physical violence, SC Bridget?”
“Not yet, thankfully. But that’s not Kenneth being a gentleman. He knows he can’t afford to leave any evidence of his abuse. And he always makes sure we’re alone when he abuses me.”
“Then I suppose a sound recording will be our best option. It will serve us better than simple eyewitness testimony.”
“Can you do it?”
“We could bring the necessary machinery to the office and set up the microphone a distance away. What do you say, Jenny?” Nick asked, turning. Jenny thought for a moment before looking up.
“It’s doable, but the microphone has to be within a few dozen meters of the office. For example, up to the oak tree behind the building.”
“That sounds perfect. Then could I trust you to do this for me?”
“Of course. But it’ll take at least two or three days for us to prepare. Maybe even longer.”
“I’ve waited this long; I can certainly wait a few more days. Then that’s all I have to say for today.”
Jenny nodded. “If SC Kenneth abuses you again, make sure to note down the place and the content of his abuse somewhere.”
“All right. That sounds like a good idea. And about contacting me—my parents might notice if you call my house, so let’s exchange notes through lockers. Mine’s number 6333, with a ribbon and my name tag on it.”
“Of course. Please wait for us to contact you. My locker number is 4649.”
“Thanks for everything, newspaper club. Let’s fight hard together,” Bridget said with a smile, nearly finishing her cup of tea. “This tea is really good. Who brewed it?”
“Oh, it was me.”
“You’re really something,” Bridget said, winking.
Larry’s spine trembled.
A minute passed after Bridget left the office.
Everyone had been silent—or stuffing themselves full of rusks—but Nick finally spoke.
“Curiouser and curiouser.”
“So lemme get this straight,” said Natalia, “we got an engaged couple. The guy wants us to see if the girl’s cheating on him, and the girl wants us to get proof the guy is abusing her. And they both want to rebel against their parents and break off the engagement.”
Larry stood and put away Bridget’s teacup. “One’s a cheater and the other’s an abuser. And they both want to get the upper hand on the other. That…almost sounds like a match made in heaven,” he sighed incredulously.
“So what shall we do, Jenny?” Asked Nick.
“What would you suggest? What would you do in my shoes, Nick?” Jenny shot back.
“I would carry out both requests dutifully and find out the truth. Then I would judge which one of the two will serve best as an informant in the future and take their side,” Nick said, all with a smile on his face.
“You are evil.” Natalia shook her head. But then she grinned. “And smart! Let’s do it, chief!”
“So you’re for it?” Larry said snidely, returning to his seat.
“Can we really call this a romantic endeavor?” Jenny wondered, crossing her arms. “Breaking up an arranged marriage… It’ll be hard to pull off.”
“Probably,” Natalia said with a nod. “If they could’ve broken up on their own, they would have already.”
Seron looked up, quietly breaking his silence. Larry noticed the change but turned back to the conversation between Jenny and Natalia.
“You think maybe one of them is lying, chief?”
“It’s definitely a possibility,” said Jenny.
“Oh! That might be it!” Larry nodded.
“You gotta learn to be more suspicious, Larry,” Natalia quipped.
“Right, right. You might be nicer than you look sometimes, Lia.”
“Flattery won’t get you any rusks.”
“That was suspicion, not flattery.”
Jenny cut in. “We have three possibilities,” she said, writing on a notepad.
The first possibility:
Kenneth was lying to the club (in other words, Bridget was a faithful fiancée and a victim of his verbal abuse). Kenneth wanted to use her as a scapegoat to get out of the engagement.
The second possibility:
Bridget was lying to the club (in other words, Kenneth was a kindhearted fiancé tormented by her infidelity). Bridget wanted to use him as a scapegoat to get out of the engagement.
The third possibility:
Both were telling the truth (in other words, Bridget was cheating on Kenneth and Kenneth was verbally abusing Bridget). Both wanted to hide their own faults and use the other as a scapegoat to get out of the engagement.
“That’s nice and easy to understand. Thanks, chief.”
“So it must be one of these three possibilities. I would bet on the third option.”
Everyone nodded, but Seron alone remained still. “Nat, could I have a rusk?”
“Thanks. I’ve got a sudden craving for sweets.”
“Your brain’s revving up, eh?”
Seron munched on a rusk, sending sugar to his stomach and his brain.
Larry began to think. “SC Kenneth didn’t seem like he was lying yesterday, though.”
“But did SC Bridget look like she was?” Natalia shot back.
“No. She didn’t.”
“Guess we can’t just take either of ‘em at face value. And neither of ‘em said they were innocent. We might figure something out when we investigate. We’ll know who’s lying, or if they both are.”
“That does present us with a problem,” Nick remarked, “if we wish to carry out SC Kenneth’s request, we will have to get near SC Bridget. But she knows our faces.”
“Yeah…” Natalia nodded, but she looked up. “Actually, no. You’re doing this on purpose, Nick. SC Bridget hasn’t seen Megmica yet.”
“Ah, it slipped my mind.”
“I see right through you, Nick.”
Jenny nodded. “So we’ll have to get Meg to take the snapshots. I can support her with a telephoto lens from afar.”
“That does seem to be a reasonable plan. Megmica was very enthusiastic about SC Kenneth’s request. And though it pains me to have to suggest this, I propose that we keep the fact of SC Bridget’s request from Megmica.”
“Yeah…at least, until we figure out what’s going on,” Jenny said with a nod. “I’m the one who brought this up, so if Megmica gets angry later, just tell her I put you all under a gag order. Got it?”
“Aww chief, are you playing the bad guy again?” Natalia teased, elbowing Jenny, but Jenny ignored her. And she turned to the member of the club most suited to silence.
“What’s your take on this, Seron?”
“Huh? Oh, er…it’s really good.”
“Not the rusk,” said Natalia, “only an animal has nothing but food on their mind all the time, Seron.”
“That was supposed to be a joke, buddy,” said Larry.
Seron looked around at the others with his blank grey eyes.
“I went through the possibilities in my head, but I just can’t figure out why they’re lying to us. So I agree we should carry out both requests.”
“Oh? So your basic assumption is that both are lying? I’m surprised, Seron,” Nick said, a little snidely but still smiling.
“Yeah. Wouldn’t be surprising from Nick, though,” Natalia agreed.
“There’s all kinds of people out there,” Seron replied simply.
Jenny nodded and wrapped up.
“Then we’ll prep for SC Bridget’s request while carrying out SC Kenneth’s request with Megmica at the head. But bringing a recording device from home won’t be as easy as getting some binoculars. I have to give a good excuse for using it, and I need a car and someone to carry it into the office. I can leave it to Kurtz and Litner, but—”
“I can help with the heavy lifting.”
“I’ll ask for help if we need any. Any questions?”
* * *
<No one had any questions, and that was all for the day’s meeting.>
<Hmm…it must have been confusing, getting requests from both sides to break up the engagement.>
<It was interesting in its own way. We had the chance to go out and seek the truth ourselves.>
<I don’t have the guts to do something like that.>
<Wish you were around to join us, newbie.>
<I-I wouldn’t dare! Anyway, how did this affect SC Megmica and SC Seron?>
<I’m getting to that. First, we assigned Megmica to tail Bridget Armitage.>
<Yes? And what did you find out?>
<Those rumors that SC Kenneth talked about…turned out to be completely true.>