Your poppop was born on April 13, 1910, exactly eighty-six years before your own birthday, which means when somebody in Hollywood decides to do a "hundredth birthday" retrospective party in his honor, it happens on your fourteenth birthday. Your dad doesn't like you getting involved in show biz, but this is very important to you! So instead of strifing (which never seems to work, drat it all), you decide to try being honest about your feelings and talking things through.
You tell him that you're a young lady now, that you never get to meet people what with being homeschooled and all, and that you have a spiffy new dress you haven't had any occasion to wear yet. You want to visit Hollywood. It can be your birthday present. Dad puffs on his pipe and looks unhappy, but eventually he agrees on the condition that you have a chaperone. He thinks he knows just the person.
This is exciting for all of three hours, before you go online and Roxy asks you if it's true that you're going on a glitzy Hollywood date with Dirk Strider's older brother.
(How does your dad know Mr. Strider anyway? His rivalry with Crockercorp is a matter of public record, so what makes your dad think he's an appropriate guardian for his daughter? It's a mystery! You tuck it aside for further investigation.)
Mr. Strider owns a private jet, which is not an especially big deal among people in your income bracket, but which is undeniably convenient. Your dad drives you to the local airfield and Mr. Strider himself is waiting at the stairs up to his plane, wearing jeans, a plain red shirt with a SORD decal, and his ever-present shades. You've seen his picture in newspapers and magazines, of course -- he's very famous, even if his films aren't to your personal taste -- but it's extremely odd to be meeting him. You haven't even met Dirk or Roxy in person yet, let alone Jake, and here you are meeting one of their guardians.
Mr. Strider shakes your dad's hand and they exchange a manly nod. It could only be manlier if either of them had a mustache.
You hover awkwardly at your dad's side, a bit chilly in your t-shirt and jean shorts, even with the added layer of a blue silk jacket that Roxy assures you is quite chic. You wonder if you should offer to shake Mr. Strider's hand as well. He settles the issue by bowing formally from the waist, then taking your half-extended hand and dropping a kiss just close enough to the skin that you can feel his breath stir the invisible hairs on the back of your hand.
"Oh, goodness," you say. You can feel your cheeks burning. Possibly not even metaphorically.
Mr. Strider's face doesn't change expression, but you think if he weren't related to Dirk and therefore a master of irony and cool, he might have smirked. "I'll get her home by midnight, no need to worry about pumpkins or lost shoes, let alone any unexpected Prince Charming crashing this party," he says to your dad as he presses a hand to the small of your back and turns you toward the stairs and the open hatch of the plane. "Straight-up Kitchen Princess all the way."
His jet is furnished and decorated with an eye-searing collection of the strange jpeg artifacts he made his initial fortune producing. They turn out to be quite comfortable to sit on, despite the existential worry over their solidity that nags the back of your mind. Fortunately the refreshments are normal, and pizza is delicious even when eaten from a PLET instead of a plate.
Mr. Strider has mostly been ignoring you in favor of scribbling on a tablet computer -- perhaps storyboarding his next film? Now he looks up and says, "We'll stop at my place before we head in to the theater. You can drop your bags and catch a nap, maybe hit the pool for an hour if you want. We'll need to kill some time so we're fashionably late."
This sparks a memory of something Dirk told you once. "Pardon my impertinence," you say, "but isn't it a habit of yours to always be early to parties? For irony, I believe?"
Again you get the impression that he's smirking inside, though his face remains blank. "This night's a favor to you and your dad, princess. It wouldn't be right to short you on the dramatic entrance front. Plus nobody will expect it of me."
"I see," you say, though to be perfectly honest, the idea of entering a room filled with people who will all turn and stare at you is a trifle intimidating. Suddenly your new dress seems very shabby in comparison to the glamour you know is associated with the entertainment industry. And what if you trip, or can't think of anything to say if people talk to you? You're sure poppop could have laughed off any disaster, but your prankster's gambit isn't anywhere near as high as his must have been in his heyday.
"You like detectives, right?" Mr. Strider says, interrupting your runaway thoughts. You nod. "Pretend they're all suspects. You're the hardboiled private eye hired to figure out which of them nabbed the super secret preliminary shooting script for the Geromy spinoff movie that goes into production next month. Show no mercy."
You nod again, then frown as the scenario sinks in. "Did someone truly steal your script, Mr. Strider?" you ask.
For the first time today, he hesitates. Then he shrugs. "It went missing, that's all I can say for sure. I have my suspicions but not enough to act on. It'll make its way onto the internet, I'll find a way to deal with Crockercorp Studios having a leg up on knowing what to release as counterprogramming, and that's all there is to say on the matter."
You shake your finger at him. "Crockercorp doesn't need dirty tricks to achieve box office domination. Don't admit defeat so readily, Mr. Strider! Who knows what we might learn tonight if we simply listen from behind convenient potted ferns?"
He hesitates again -- how odd, you think; is he concealing something from you? -- but before you can say anything, he cracks a tiny, tiny smile. "You're the boss, boss," he says. "I'm just the bodyguard. I don't know nothing about no detecting."
"Bring your sword," you say with a decisive nod, and make a note to see if you can borrow a mixing spoon or two from his kitchen to refill your strife specibus, since you left everything but a pair of teaspoons at home.
You think Mr. Strider might be rolling his eyes behind his shades, but you don't care. This is going to be the most fun you've had since your dad's stint as a private eye came to an unfortunate and sticky end!
You're a little worried that Mr. Strider's legendary irony might affect his wardrobe in a negative manner, but either his irony is more sophisticated than you can fully understand or he's set it aside for the evening, because he's wearing a perfectly normal black suit with a bright red waistcoat that matches the red of your sequined Betty's Beauties purse and the embroidery on your sleeveless black dress. The only flaw is the shades still firmly fixed to his face. According to Dirk, Mr. Strider removing his shades might qualify as a sign of the apocalypse. Oh well, he's handsome enough even with half his features hidden.
(You resolve never to admit to Dirk that you think his brother is a bit of a fox. You might tell Roxy, though.)
When Mr. Strider escorts you into the loud, crowded, over decorated theater, the room stills and quiets as heads turn your way. You take a deep breath and hold your head high as Mr. Strider says, in a voice that doesn't seem loud but somehow manages to effortlessly cut through the remaining soft chatter, "Sup, y'all. Ladies, gentlemen, people of unspecified gender or species, and all the rest of you not-so-classy jerks, I'd like to introduce the guest of honor: Miss Jane Crocker herself. Round of applause, people."
Astonishingly, they applaud. Suddenly dozen of people approach you, cutting you away from Mr. Strider, all wanting to talk about poppop -- his television work, his legendary practical jokes, his rivalry with Harry Anderson, and other less appropriate things you're quite certain are merely lies spread by jealous nobodies. You field several of them as politely as you can and try to turn the conversations around to more current events, such as Mr. Strider's productions, but nobody seems to actually be listening to you. They just want other people to see them with their arms around your shoulders or their hands clasped around one of yours.
You struggle through nearly twenty minutes of this before the crowd begins to get to you. You tighten your free hand on your purse and wish everyone would take a giant step back and let you breathe.
Mr. Strider appears from nowhere, hands open and empty at his sides but shaped in a way that says he could pull something unpleasant from his specibus in half a second. "Thank you, thank you, wonderful to see you all," he says in his flat, drawling voice. "But seriously, people, this is a let's-remember-John-Crocker party, not a let's-molest-little-girls party. Come on, Janey-Jane. Time for you to have a drink and get some food before you drop from hypoglycemia."
"I'm fourteen now, not a little girl. Furthermore, I don't suffer from hypoglycemia," you hiss at him as he threads neatly through the throng, pulling you along in his slipstream.
"You're younger than my little bro; that makes you a little girl," Mr. Strider says. "As for the mumbo-jumbo excuses, you know it's bullshit, I know it's bullshit, those hyenas may even know it's bullshit, but that's irrelevant. The point is that it's a socially acceptable way of telling the zombie piranhas to back the hell off and quit chomping through your ribs without having to drop a straight-up insult or resort to outright strifing," Mr. Strider says.
"Oh," you say as he leads you to a buffet groaning under the weight of canapés and hors d'oeuvres. "High society is more complicated than I had assumed."
Mr. Strider snorts as he examines a piece of pasty-wrapped cheese on a toothpick. "Hollywood isn't high anything. It's the sad remnant of a once-great cultural creation cluster, now reduced to churning out poisonous, sedative-laced Orwellian cardboard propaganda for the brainwashed masses."
You frown at the implicit insult to poppop's work, and to Crockercorp's studio branch. "Your films included?" you ask.
"Obviously," Mr. Strider says, and bites the pastry off the toothpick with an audible clack.
Goshdarn it, he is just like Dirk. It is impossible to insult either of them; they are just too ironic for anything to stick!
"I need to powder my nose," you tell him in as dignified a manner as you can carry off.
"Down that hall, turn right, then left, then the second door on the right," Mr. Strider says, pointing with another cube of pastry. Then he lowers his voice and adds, "Keep a hand on your spoons. If anyone gets fresh with you, whack him in the nuts."
"It's not as if I'd attempt to hit an assailant in the fruit salad or fondue," you say. Mr. Strider's face doesn't change at all, but you feel a brief pressure as if he'd patted you on the head and stepped back too fast for you to see him move. Nonplussed, you turn and leave the room.
Either all the Hollywood women are too interested in the party to dare using the facilities, or Mr. Strider sent you to an out-of-the-way bathroom. You suspect the latter, given the length of the hallways and the somewhat convoluted directions he gave you. You wash your hands carefully, then splash a bit of water on your cheeks and blot your face with a paper towel. Your dad won't let you wear real makeup yet, but you talked him into allowing lip gloss since it's your birthday. You lean forward to touch yours up -- it's bright Crockercorp red, of course, to match your purse and dress.
Recomposed, you venture out into the back hallways of the theater, trying to retrace your steps to poppop's memorial party. This part of the building is very quiet, almost eerie. It makes you think of film noir and hardboiled detective stories, and you slow down until you're tiptoeing silently over the thick carpet.
Suddenly you hear voices coming from behind one of the closed doors! They're too muffled to make out the words, but the tone is tense and angry.
You bite your lip. It's almost certainly nothing -- just the building manager on the telephone complaining about the expense of cleaning up after the party, or a pair of studio executives arguing their way to a backroom deal -- but the temptation is overwhelming. You ease closer and press your ear to the door, trying to overhear.
"--telling you, the Oscar was the last straw. If you don't back down, you're gonna get yourself killed!" a man is saying. "You know what the Baroness is like."
Another man says something unintelligible in response, evidently not upset enough to raise his voice.
"Assassins, man, assassins -- that's what I'm saying. Listen, I know every coke dealer in town, and they know people, who know people, who know people, you know what I mean? And word is, if you go through with this new flick as scripted, you are fucking toast, man. And not just any toast. Butter side down. You hear me?"
Another unintelligible response.
"Fuck. You," says the angry man. "And no, I don't know how she knows the score. Do I look like a Magic 8 Ball here? I just know she's read it and she is fucking pissed off. We are talking coruscating gates of hell and flaming devil's forks level of pissed. I am begging you, man, back down. I don't care what the contract terms are, I don't care how much money he's paying you -- you hear that, you poker-faced bastard? Your money means nothing. Just quit and get the hell out of town for a while. Like ten years. That might be enough. But not for you, mister moneybags. You're going down no matter what your actors do."
Goodness, these Hollywood types are melodramatic, you think as the second man says something indistinct.
"Fine. Be that way, both of you. But when you're bleeding out in the middle of nowhere with your arms and legs cut off and everybody's too scared to call 911, don't say I didn't warn you," the angry man shouts. You hear him stomping toward the door.
Oh no! You need to abscond right this instant, but you're in the middle of a long, empty hallway. There's no way you can reach the corner before the angry man opens the door. You dash for it anyway, and--
Suddenly you're back at the party, standing at the corner of the buffet, what?
Mr. Strider steps away from where he had his arm around your shoulders and tidies your hair, which seems strangely disarrayed. "Sorry about that," he says, not sounding sorry at all. "Flash stepping can be disconcerting the first time, but I figured discretion's the better part of valor and all that."
You blink at him.
"That means don't eavesdrop without a pre-planned escape route or a convenient potted fern," he says. "Honestly, young lady, what would your father say. Such inappropriate behavior. I expected better from you, I truly did."
You blink again before realizing this must be more of his famed irony. "I'm dreadfully sorry, Mr. Strider," you say. "I'm afraid my curiosity overcame my good sense."
"Did you hear anything exciting?" he asks after a long moment, tilting his head with what might be genuine interest.
"Just some men having an overly dramatic argument about a film, I think," you say. "I don't know why people enjoy exaggeration so much. It's silly to talk about the film industry as if it's a matter of life and death. People don't kill each other over movies. That would be horrifically uncivilized."
"You're a peach, Jane Crocker. I'm glad you're Dirk's friend; I think he and Roxy need you and Jake to keep them looking on the bright side. Don't ever change, all right? No matter what happens," Mr. Strider says, and for once his voice isn't completely dry. It almost seems... sad. How peculiar!
"I will certainly do my best to stay optimistic," you assure him. Then you clap your hands to express your renewed determination. "Now then! I believe we should return to the party. This time, please remain at my side so I don't get overwhelmed."
"You got it, boss lady," Mr. Strider says with a little flick of his fingers by way of an abbreviated salute.
You head back out into the crush together.
The rest of the night is a smashing success, if you do say so yourself. As you and Mr. Strider leave in his limousine at the stroke of midnight (this may be dramatic irony of some sort, but you'll let it pass), you slip on your tiaratop and check the gossip sites. Sure enough, there are pictures of you and Mr. Strider looking quite natty indeed in your matching outfits as you walk into the party. There are also pictures of you talking to various other celebrities, complete with speculation on whether this means Crockercorp is taking a more active interest in its entertainment subsidiaries and whether you've inherited poppop's talent for comedic acting.
"You know, a tablet or a souped-up phone works just as well and doesn't give you the headache that ate Manhattan," Mr. Strider says without looking up from his own phone.
"It only hurts after more than an hour," you say absently, "and besides, it matches my dress."
"Humor me," Mr. Strider says.
You sigh. Grown-ups are such fuddy-duddies sometimes! Even the cool ones. But you slip off the tiaratop and captchalogue it again. You guess you'll have to wait until you reach Mr. Strider's mansion to borrow one of his laptops. You can't wait to tell Roxy all about tonight -- this has been a very exciting birthday!
The rest of the ride passes in silence, but when the limo pulls up the long, cobblestone driveway to the front of the stucco covered mansion, Mr. Strider vanishes from his side of the car and pulls your door open from the outside before you can blink. Goodness, he is fast! You wonder if Dirk can do that flash-step trick too. You'll have to remember to ask him.
"Here we are, safe and sound, no mice or pumpkins or glass slippers to trip you up, all as promised," Mr. Strider says, taking your hand and pulling you out of the car as if you weigh nothing more than air.
"It's been a lovely night," you tell him. "You were a most considerate date."
He raises one eyebrow, just barely visible over the edge of his shades. "I was under the impression I was your chaperone, not your date. Was I lured into this assignation under false pretenses, Miss Crocker? Do I need to worry about my maidenly virtue?"
You can't help giggling, too tired to worry what he might think.
His eyebrow remains up for a moment. Then he seems to reach a conclusion. "Welp. If this is a date, there's only one thing left to do." And he bends down and brushes a fleeting kiss over your cheek.
Blood rushes to your face, but Mr. Strider is pretending to look for his keys in his pockets instead of in his sylladex like a normal person. This takes him at least a minute, long enough for you to pull yourself back together.
You cannot possibly tell this to Roxy or Dirk. They would never let you hear the end of it. You mustn't tell Jake either, since he would undoubtedly forget that he wasn't supposed to tell the others. This will be your secret. Yes.
Mr. Strider recovers his keys from somewhere -- it might truly have been one of his pockets, how odd! -- and unlocks his mansion. He holds the door open, waiting for you to enter. You remind yourself that you are the heir to Crockercorp and that you are not flustered anymore, certainly not... and walk in.
He closes the door behind you and tells you breakfast will be at nine, your flight will be at eleven, and that you should remind your dad he doesn't have any more favors to call in. You nod and abscond up the stairs to the guest room set aside for your use.
The next day, as one of his flight crew opens the airplane hatch to let down the stairs and send you back to your dad and your ordinary life, you stand on tiptoes and return the kiss, feeling the roughness of incipient stubble pushing through the skin of his cheek. You know you only manage the trick because he stands still and lets you, but that doesn't matter.
"I had a swell time," you say. "Thank you."
As you drive away, you turn back to see Mr. Strider standing on the stairs, his shirt a tiny splotch of red like blood against the white of the plane.
You never meet him again.