I - STELLA HITS THE SAUCE
Written by Norsebard
With an annoyed huff, Stella Starr - recently turned thirty-seven but still as youthful, uninhibited and just plain unlucky as ever - jumped up from her chair in the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency and began to pace back and forth on the plush gray carpet she had bought in a Chapter Eleven clear-out sale.
A quick glance at the clock on the wall proved that it was twenty past nine in the morning and that her business associate slash main squeeze Regina Harrison had been gone for more than half an hour already. While she was digesting that information, she turned her attention back to her fingernails. Once she had chewed those on her right hand down to the nubs, she started torturing those on her left.
After four complete tours of the office - where she had straightened the curtains, organized a pile of letters on Regina's desk, closed two drawers in the filing cabinet, opened another and stared hard at the bottle of Bourbon she had in there, fluffed all the cushions on the couch twice and finally put the brand new multi-unit remote control into the center of the coffee table so it wouldn't end up getting crushed under the Butts of Doom like the old one had, Stella tore at her dirty-blonde mop of hair and let out a primordial howl.
The howl seemed to do the trick, because as soon as the last, strained, off-key note left her vocal cords, she could hear their leased Mercedes SLK turn onto their lot and drive up along the low building that housed the office.
"FI-nally!" she barked and hopped into her purple flip-flops, intent on telling Regina every little bit of what she had on her mind. It took her a few seconds to ease her socked feet - Daffy Duck on the left, the Tasmanian Devil on the right - into the flip-flops, but when she was fully armed and operational, she whooshed the front door open and stomped across the parking lot.
"Reggie! You sure took your sweet time gettin' back here with my donuts!" she said as she rapidly closed the distance to Regina Harrison, the forty-three year old former model with the perfect curves, the perfect hair and a perfectly fed-up look on her face. "Don't you understand that I can't do anything at this time of the day without my donuts? Where are they?"
"Here," Regina said and held up a brown paper bag. "They didn't have the ones with the pink frosting today so I took two with chocolate instead."
That information hit Stella across the brow like a baseball bat and she stopped dead in her tracks with her mouth gaping wide open. After a few seconds, she scrunched up her face into the Mask of Sublime Sulk that she just knew would stay there the entire day.
Chuckling, the former model reached out and pulled her shorter friend into a hug. "Yeah… and that's not all. On the way back, a teenager in a beat-up old Vee-dub Rabbit rear-ended me at an intersection… look," she said, pointing at the sorry state of the right-hand light cluster on the Mercedes.
Not seeing anything at first, Stella eventually overcame the intense disappointment that she couldn't get her favorite pink donut and leaned down to scrutinize the damage to the leased car. Sighing deeply, she adjusted her glasses and stood up straight. "Oh, they're gonna kill us, Reggie."
"I know. I got his insurance info, but… he was a college kid. You know how it goes."
"Yeah… we're gonna get stuck on the bill. Shoot!"
"Perhaps Billy the Mechanic can fix it?" Regina said and pointed at their next-door neighbor whose garage hadn't yet opened for the day.
"Eh… who knows."
"What are you wearing?" Regina said flatly as she took a sliding step away from Stella in case the psychedelic clash the short investigator was wearing was contagious. Apart from the big fashion no-no of having socks in flip-flops, Stella wore a pair of pale green jeans that had been cut off below the knees, a peach T-shirt and her favorite pink hoodie - the one with the white tassels.
Snatching the brown paper bag from Regina's hand, Stella spun around and stomped back to the office. "Clothes! So there!" she barked over her shoulder at the bemused Regina who quickly patted down her own classy black suit to see if any of Stella's wild colors had sought out greener pastures.
With a brief look at the leaden early October skies, Regina decided on closing the Mercedes' hard top, but she had barely watched the hood click shut before Stella's terrified voice cut through the quiet parking lot: 'All the chocolate frosting has FALLEN OFF! GAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH….!'
Ten minutes later, Stella took a bite out of the second, equally bare, donut and used a spoon to scoop up a crushed pile of chocolate frosting from a saucer. The look on her face told a story of raging inner storms, causing Regina to keep at a safe distance.
Sitting down at her desk, the former model kicked off her shoes, reached into a drawer to find her PSP and finally swung her endless legs up on the corner. Snuggling down in her swivel-chair, she turned on her gaming device and began to play a noisy racing game.
"Reggie… mmmpff…" Stella said around a bite of a donut and a large swig of strong, black coffee. "You know… mmmpff… how much I… mmmpff… can't stand that… could you… mmmpff… please put it on mute?"
"Doesn't have a mute, Stell," Regina said with her nose pressed into the small display to keep up with the frantic action.
"Swell. Just swell. I know you're seven foot eight an' all, but I had really hoped that you'd see things from my perspective…" Stella said and threw a crumpled-up ball of paper at her friend.
Regina flashed Stella one of her patented two-hundred watt grins but soon returned her attention to the game. "Round one usually only takes ten minutes or so. It won't be long, Stell."
Sighing, Stella took another bite out of the bare donut, but just when she picked up the spoon to get some chocolate frosting, their phones rang. "Oh… oh… ohhhhh…!" Stella groaned, chewing frantically to get everything down so she could make herself intelligible.
"Yes… mmpff… you've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?" Stella said, struggling to get the last bit of donut through her throat.
'Oh, hello. I'd like to speak with Mr. Harri-'
a female voice said at the other end of the connection.
That was all Stella had time to hear before she pulled out a desk drawer, put the receiver into it and slammed it shut. Leaning forward, she put her elbows on the desk and buried her face in her hands. "Reggie, we've gotta… gotta! …buy an ad in the local papers where there's a photo of us. This can't go on! Every time someone asks for Mr. Harrison Starr, I lose ten years of my life," she said in a muffled voice.
"Mmmm?" Regina said, too focused on the game to have time for Stella's high-strung pleas.
"Aw, such compassion and humanity! I'm gonna scratch ya off my will, Reggie! Thanks a lot for your helping hand, buddy!" Stella said and tore open two of the desks drawers, the one with the receiver and the one with the piece of paper titled 'People who ask for Mr. Harrison Bleepin' Starr!'.
After drawing yet another fat pencil line on the paper - it turned out to be the thirty-first - Stella cleared her throat and picked up the receiver. "I'm sorry, Miss, but we don't actually have anyone here by that name. I'm Stella Starr, the senior investigator. Please state the nature of your call."
'Oh… 'beg pardon. My name is Maggie Hendricks. I was wondering if you had time to take on a case that involves theft of top secret documents?'
Sitting up straight, Stella snapped her fingers in the air to get Regina's attention. When that didn't work, she threw another ball of paper at the former model. When that didn't work either, she put her hand across the speaking-piece of the receiver and let out a resounding: "REGGIE! WORK!"
Taken completely by surprise, Regina jumped a foot in the air and dropped the PSP onto the carpet where it responded with a whistling effect and an emphatic 'Game over!'. Mumbling something under her breath, she straightened down her hair and picked up her own receiver.
"Miss Hendricks, my business associate Regina Harrison is also on the line. What is this about, exactly?" Stella said and found a pencil and her notepad.
'Hello, Miss Harrison, I'm Maggie Hendricks,'
the woman said.
"Hello, Miss Hendricks."
'Well, I'm the recipe manager at Teresa Maddalena Tomato Sauces & Quality Pizza Toppings. Maybe you've heard of our products?'
"Heard of you?!" Stella said and jumped up from her chair at such a speed that her pencil went flying onto the carpet. "Heard of you?! Hell, I'm having your stuff for dinner at least three times a week! Oooh, your new Tex Mex range is really great not to mention your older things like the tomato sauce with chunks of chili peppers, that's one of my favorites and-and-and also your Sweet & Sour sauce with pineapples… and… oh! And your Genuine Italian sauce with basil and oregano and… I love your stuff!"
While Stella was gushing her heart out into the telephone, Regina seriously considered calling Binge Eaters Anonymous, but she relented when she saw the excited look on Stella's face.
'Oh, that's good, Miss Starr. Yes, we're quite proud of our products.'
"And by reading between the lines, you're saying someone is stealing your recipes?"
'I'm afraid so, yes.'
"Oh, that's just… just… just… despicable!" Stella said and indignantly raised her left arm in the air to make her look like a mirror image of the Statue of Liberty. "A crime against good taste!"
"Good taste?" Regina mumbled and once again looked at Stella's colorful outfit.
'So does that mean you'll take the case, Miss Starr?'
"Yes! Yes! Yes, we'll take it!" Stella said and began to search for her pencil. Looking around, she finally found it down on the floor on the other side of the desk.
'Oh, that's excellent. Here's where we live,'
Maggie Hendricks said and began to give Stella the address of the factory.
"Uh… no, uh, plea- uh, please wait… I don- uh, don't have…" Stella said, desperately trying to make the cord for the telephone stretch far enough for her to pick up the pencil.
Knowing exactly where Stella's quest was headed, Regina stifled a grin and hurried over to the pencil. After handing it to Stella, Regina gave her a quick, little kiss on the forehead that left the blonde investigator beaming.
"I'm sorry, I didn't have a pencil," Stella said into the receiver. "Could you repeat that, please? Uh-huh… okay. Got it. See you there. Oh! Oh, hang on, Miss Hendricks… d'ya think it would be possible to have parts of our fee paid in… uh… kind…? I mean, a selection of your sauces? Just twenty-five, thirty, fifty jars or so? Yeah? Excellent. Thank you," she said and hung up.
Once Stella had put down the receiver, she moved into the center of the office and put her hands on her hips. Two seconds later, she pumped the air repeatedly and let out a series of uninhibited whoops and wild dance moves. "Woo-hoo! Tomato sauce! Tomato sauce! Yeah, baby! Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, free supply of Teresa Maddalena tomato sauce! Woo-hoo!"
A brief while later, Regina was kneeling on the floor in the conference room, deeply engaged in one of her favorite pastimes - digging through their many disguises to find the best one for the job. From the office, she could hear Stella still boogieing along to an imaginary beat, ooh-ing, ahh-ing, yip-ing and yow-ing to her heart's content.
Closing the closet door, Regina put the pile of clothes she had found over her shoulder and started pulling the large, portable mirror across the floor.
"Boy, Stella is really hot and running just because we got a job for the people who make her favorite tomato sauce… sheesh, how silly can you get…?" she mumbled as she tried to balance the mirror and the clothes. Suddenly feeling a strong need to check that her forty-three year old face was still the same it had been earlier in the day, she gave herself a thorough check-up in the mirror.
Unbeknownst to Regina, Stella had boogied into the doorway to the conference room and was busy watching the former model study herself. "Sheesh… how silly can you get?" Stella mumbled under her breath. "Yes, you're a knockout. Now can we get a move on?" she said out loud and took the bundle of clothes from Regina's arm.
"All right, all right, Miss Starr… sheesh!"
Once the two investigators were standing in the center of the office, Stella wrapped an arm around Regina's waist and pulled the tall woman closer. "Isn't it time for a little kiss?" she said, tickling Regina's side.
"Mmmm! Of course, with you, it'll always be a little kiss," Regina said and leaned down to claim Stella's lips a mere heartbeat before the blonde investigator could pour out the can of Outrage she had already cracked open.
Separating from her kissing mate's soft lips, Stella slid her hands onto Regina's butt and gave the two globes a little squeeze. "Five foot" - squeeze -
"four" - squeeze -
"and a half." - squeeze -
"The half-inch is very important to me." - squeeze
"Oh, I know," Regina said and put another little kiss on Stella's nose. "So… let's get-"
"It is, Miss Too-tall-to-walk-through-regular-doors!"
Chuckling, Regina pulled her shorter friend into a good, strong embrace. "I know, Stell. Imagine if all women were as tall and gorgeous as me? I mean, just think of the consequences," she said and took a step back to slip into the posing routine she liked to call 'Too Cool For Words'.
Stella just waved her hand and let out a snort. "Keep dreamin', toots," she said in a mock sarcastic tone. "Anyhow, wotcha find for me?"
"Well, my first thoughts were night… dark. Blend in. Then I thought… tomato sauce," Regina said and helped Stella out of the pink hoodie. "Then I thought… pizza commando," she continued and eased a black commando-style sweater over Stella's wild locks and peach T-shirt.
"The pizza commando strike team, eh? I sorta like that," Stella said and posed a little bit in front of the portable mirror.
Nodding, Regina held up the rest of Stella's costume. "Yup. Here's the rest of it… black jeans for stealth. A black commando-style knitted cap for coolness and finally a pair of black Rokkstar track shoes for speed." Leaning in, she tried to fluff Stella's mop of hair into something resembling a hair style, but soon gave up and just pulled the knitted cap down over her ears.
"O-yeah. Lookin' good!" Stella said and pushed her glasses up her nose.
"Stell, when are you going to use the gift certificate I gave you for your birthday last month? It's only valid until Christmas, you know," Regina said as she bent down to get a Stella-eye-view of her latest creation.
"Oh… I will. Eventually. It's just that… you know…" Stella said and took the cap off, making her hair jump out in every direction at once.
Regina tried to shield her eyes, but the shock of hair was so strong it penetrated her grip and poked her on the side of her nose. "I'll come with you and hold your hand. Maybe next week? How about it? I promise it won't hurt."
"I know, but… well, a fancy hair salon just isn't me, Reggie."
"You would make me a very sad girl if you didn't go, Stell," Regina said wearing a schoolgirl pout.
Reaching up, Stella gave the former model's soft lips a little pinch with her thumb and index finger. "Pouts don't work on me, missy. But I'll make it there before Christmas, I promise. And now… we're OFF to see the pizza, the wonderful pizza of-"
"Oh, Stell!" Regina groaned, clapping a hand over her eyes.
"Pffff…" Stella said an hour and five minutes later as she turned off the engine of her beloved AMC Pacer that had carried them - eventually - to the parking lot reserved for guests in front of the Teresa Maddalena Tomato Sauce & Quality Pizza Toppings-factory.
"I told you to hang a right, Stell. You said 'no' and stayed in the center lane. I begged you to hang a right. You said 'nooooo' and stayed in the center lane. Six miles up the freeway. Through the four-leaf clover. Six miles down the freeway. Back where we started. I told you to hang a right, Stell!" Regina said, drawing an imaginary route in the air with an index finger.
"Yeah, yeah, Reggie. I know for a fact that you can't read a map, either," Stella said and lifted her glasses to rub her weary eyes.
Huffing, Regina released her safety belt and put her hand on the lever to open the door. "Maybe not… but at least I can follow a thirty by twenty foot bright green road sign!"
"Yeah, yeah. We're here, ain't we? I need a soda pop before we go in… that roll of Oreos I had to chow down to soothe my nerves kinda made me thirsty," Stella said and brushed an entire legion of Oreo crumbs from her black commando-style sweater and onto the floor.
"Well, you're outta luck 'cause we didn't bring any. Maybe you can sweet-talk your way into getting a jug of tomato sauce to chug down!" Regina growled on her way out of the Pacer.
When the door closed behind the former model, Stella shrugged and released her safety belt. "What's up with her today? Okay, so it took an hour and five minutes to drive seven blocks, but… sheesh."
A few minutes later, Stella and Regina joined up in front of a low building that had a marquee that read 'Teresa Maddalena Tomato Sauce & Quality Pizza Toppings - Visitor Center.' A sign had been placed adjacent to a pair of double glass doors instructing the visitors to wait for an employee at the yellow line.
The parking lot was so non-descript that Stella felt a pang of disappointment. She tried to take a deep breath, but she couldn't even catch the slightest whiff of tomato sauce - all she could smell was Regina's fancy deodorant called Striking Beauty by La Belle and her own two-for-two-ninety-five cheapo roll-on deo stick from CoolMart that had already begun to irritate her pits.
The factory buildings surrounding the parking lot were large and gray and the eight smokestacks were impossibly tall, but everything was very anonymous. The only hint of their location was a huge neon sign on the front of the largest building where the lyrical name of the company had been written in the font they used on their products.
Waiting at the yellow line like they were supposed to, Regina hooked her arm inside Stella's and leaned in to bump shoulders with her friend. "Sorry I barked at you, Stell. I was just frustrated."
"Oh, that's all right," Stella said with a wicked gleam in her eye. "I'm sorry for calling you a gray-haired, uptight, haggy hasbeen with a wrinkle-complex and… no, wait… I just thought that."
Plenty of fire and brimstone shot out of Regina's ice blue eyes when she spun around and stared at the grinning Stella, but the cheeky look on the blonde investigator's face was just enough to wrestle her away from giving her a piece of her mind. "Oh, that's funny. Heart attack-kinda funny. Just so you know, I still got it. Are we even?" she said flatly.
"We're even, hon," Stella said and snuggled up to the tall, graceful former model.
A few seconds later, one of the glass doors opened to reveal an elegant woman in her late forties wearing a top-of-the-line burnt orange pant suit. When the woman spotted Regina and Stella, she waved her arm to signal that the two investigators should approach her.
"And that's our cue," Regina said and flicked her hair out of her collar to look her best. Stella just wiped her nose with the back of her hand and pulled up in her black jeans so they wouldn't creep down and reveal more than absolutely necessary.
"Hello, I'm pleased to meet you. Really glad that you could come. I'm Maggie Hendricks. We spoke on the phone," the woman said as she put out her hand.
"Hello, I'm Stella Starr. This is my business associate Regina Harrison," Stella said. After shaking hands with Maggie, Stella assumed a serious-but-not-overly-obsessive game face that she hoped would convince the woman that she wasn't just there to score a box of tomato sauces.
Maggie briefly stopped her introduction to look at the two, seemingly very different women, but she soon shrugged inwardly and returned to the presentation. "Hello, Miss Starr, Miss Harrison. Well, let's go to my office. I have everything lined up."
"Excellent," Regina said and put her hand on the small of Stella's back to usher her inside.
Unfortunately, Stella was so taken with feeling Regina's hand on her back that she looked up at the former model instead of down at the floor - with inevitable results.
"Ouch! Oh whattheflyingfig did they put a step there for… uh, I mean… oh dear, it didn't see that step, ha ha," Stella said, smoothing down her commando cap that had nearly come undone. Once the pain in her big toe had receded somewhat, she resumed walking after Maggie, though with a slightly less confident step.
"Here it is," Maggie said and walked into a lavish office equipped with a large desk and several very comfortable armchairs.
Stella almost let out a wolf call at the sight of the office, but thought better of it at the last moment.
"Please, have a seat," Maggie continued and closed the door behind the two investigators.
Regina purposefully waited for Stella to sit down in one of the armchairs - she figured it would be better for their image to do that instead of helping the inherently clumsy investigator up from the dark gray carpet - before she went over to the other one.
Crossing her legs, Regina leaned back in the chair and let her six-foot-one frame do the talking. Soon, she gave off an unmistakable air of owning the place which led to Stella casting a highly admiring glance at her.
Holding her fingertips against each other in a pyramid-shaped gesture, Regina arched an eyebrow and looked directly at Maggie. "What are we dealing with here, exactly?"
"Well," Maggie said, fiddling nervously with a ball point pen. "Miss Harrison, Miss Starr… as you can probably imagine, our recipes are worth millions. If they fall into the wrong hands, our competition would catch up with us or possibly even gain an advantage. And lately, a few recipes have gone missing. Some of our new Tex Mex sauces and some of the older ones."
"I see. Go on," Stella said and wrote down what had been said in her notepad.
"We have reason to believe that the thief is an employee or a former employee, but, according to our legal team, we cannot move ahead without solid evidence. That's where you come in."
"Oh. Excellent… most excellent! Collecting evidence is one of the things we do best."
"Uh… that's good. That's very good."
"I see hidden cameras. Yes, definitely hidden cameras," Stella said excitedly while typing large words in her notepad. "Possibly heat-sensitive devices. Maybe even ones that have the brand new neural-identification capability, you know, Reggie, the cameras that can identify a man at two hundred paces from the way he farts… uh, I mean, coughs."
'And those cameras cost two arms and two legs, Stell,'
Regina thought and narrowed her eyes.
Sighing, Maggie put away the pen and picked up two pieces of paper she had prepared in advance. "It all sounds very good, but-"
"Oooh, are those ransom notes?" Stella said and scooted to the edge of her armchair.
"Er… no," Maggie said, giving the blonde investigator a confused look.
"Please go on, Miss Hendricks," Regina said to keep the conversation going.
Maggie glanced at Regina and Stella with a puzzled look on her face, but finally decided that the two women had to be experts if their unusual methods were anything to go by. "Uh… okay. No, this document is a pledge of confidentiality. All our employees must sign it. Legal matters, I'm afraid," Maggie said and handed Stella and Regina a page each.
"Oh, but we'd never do anything that would hurt the Teresa Maddalena company, would we, Reggie…?" Stella said with a grin as she took the document. "Hey… wait a minute… the page is blank…? Didn't you just say that all employees must sign it?"
Groaning inwardly, Regina wanted nothing more than to clap her hands over her eyes, or shake some sense into Stella who seemed to have left her home without her brain - or possibly both, one after the other.
"They… and you… get one each," Maggie said flatly, staring at Stella.
Stella grinned again and immediately set off doodling her name on the dotted line. "Ohhh… clever. Don't you think that's clever, Reggie?"
"Mmmmh… yes. Quite," Regina said, concentrating hard on her own paper so she wouldn't have to look at the befuddled stare she just knew Maggie would be sending them.
After zooming back to the Harrison-Starr office to get two mini-cameras - and nearly getting lost all over again on their way back to the factory - Stella stepped into the center of Maggie's office and pulled down in her commando cap, pulled up in her jeans and pulled out in her sweater that was too tight across her throat. "I am Stella Starr and I am ready… ready to rumble," she said in a hoarse whisper that was meant to prove that she, Stella Starr, was the baddest of the bunch.
"Oh, goody," Regina said flatly, holding both cameras, a selection of protective plastic covers, the cables, the connectors, the mini power supplies, the mini-flash drive recorders, a pair of pliers, a pair of tweezers and the crimping tape.
"Reggie, we need to see the office and the hall with brand new eyes. You understand? We need to… to… to think like the thief," Stella said and made a three-hundred sixty degree turn in the office with her arms stretched out wide, vaguely resembling a helicopter coming in to land. "Where would he come in? Where would he go? Where would he find the recipes? And how would he escape?"
While Stella was running through the list, Regina looked at the door, the far wall of the office, the seven metal filing cabinets at said wall and finally the door again. "Gee, I don't know, Stell. Maybe he's Inviso-man come to life."
"Whoa… no way… you think?" Stella said in a state of wide-eyed surprise.
"Oh… ah, we're wasting daylight. Let's do it!" Stella said and stomped out of the office. Two seconds later she came back and snatched one of the cameras from Regina's full hands. "What are you standing there for? C'mon!"
Regina took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Looking towards the heavens - or rather, the strip lights in the ceiling - she shook her head and followed her easily excitable business associate into the hall connecting the offices in the administrative wing of the Teresa Maddalena factory.
"Hmmm," Stella said, repeatedly rubbing her chin. Trying to see the hall with new eyes, she looked left and right to get a mental image of what the thief would see when he or she entered it.
Like the rest of the administrative wing, the hall was fairly non-descript with a thick, dark gray carpet on the floor, white walls and cream doorjambs and doors. There were windows to all the offices, but off-white net curtains obscured the views.
"Hmmm," Stella said again and handed the camera back to Regina. "No, I need to do it the right way, Reggie. Stay here, I'm just gonna… well, you'll see when I get back here," she continued and took off down the hallway.
"Okay," Regina said and sighed deeply.
A few seconds later, Stella came back into the hall. In the meantime, she had rolled her commando cap so far down that it covered her eyes, and the first thing she did was to whack her nose and forehead against a bright red metal box marked Fire Equipment. Cursing and swearing, she staggered backwards and promptly bumped into a water cooler that nearly toppled over - fortunately for their bank accounts, it was satisfied with sending out a few, watery burps instead.
By now, Regina was ready to admit defeat, but Stella had only just begun to fight.
Once she had rolled up the commando cap past her eyes and made sure the water cooler was standing upright, she took a stealthy step forward, moving with such grace and agility that it resembled a pregnant rhinoceros searching for a water hole somewhere on the African savanna. Moving her left leg in a huge arc, she quickly went over to the left side of the hall and tip-toed along the wall until she reached the first window.
Looking left and right, she threw herself onto her stomach and crawled past the window and the door of the first office. When she was in the clear, she jumped up and continued to tip-toe down the hall.
Suddenly, a door to one of the other offices was opened and a man dressed in an expensive business suit stepped out into the hall. The man held a clipboard and a stack of papers but he nearly dropped it all when he caught a glimpse of Stella and her disguise.
"Hiya, Buster. Great day for a stroll, eh?" Stella said as the man walked past her with his jaw down to his chest. "Nice meetin' ya," she continued as he turned the corner at the water cooler and made a hasty exit.
"Oh, Stella…" Regina groaned, but the blonde investigator sent her a hand signal that showed that she was adamant they should continue with the simulation.
After taking a tip, a toe and the first half of another tip, Stella threw herself down onto the floor and inched her way across the carpet. "There," she said and pointed at a spot next to the floor panel six feet away from the door to Maggie's office. "That's where we'll put the first camera. Right down on the floor, pointing at the water cooler. We'll get 'im when he enters the hall."
"Okay," Regina said dejectedly and made a small note on her notepad that she had managed to dig out of her pocket while still holding on to all the bits and doo-dads she was schlepping around.
Down on the floor, Stella jumped up like a Jack-in-the-box and put her hand on the doorknob. Leering first left and then right to mimic what she imagined the thief would do, she zoomed in on the bright red metal box with the fire equipment. "Ah-ha! There! On top of the metal box. Right next to the… shoot, I can't see what that is…" Stella said and tried to jump up and down to identify the strange objects lying on top of the red box.
"Looks like a box of tissues," Regina said casually, briefly looking up from jotting the details on her notepad.
"Yeah, you'd know, Miss So-Tall-I-Don't-Need-A-Ladder-To-Look-Over-A-Fence," Stella said and snickered.
Regina just shrugged in her patented 'Can't give a hoot'-fashion and closed the notepad. "Those cameras shouldn't be too hard to set up, Stell. We have a white and a red plastic cover for them so they'll blend in nicely."
"O-yeah. Tomato sauce, here we come!" Stella said and punched the air.
The next morning, Stella tried to evade the raindrops on her way over to the front door of the Harrison-Starr office, but she wasn't entirely successful. Just as she reached the locked door, she could hear their telephones start ringing inside, but in her haste, she couldn't get her hand into the pocket of her brand new pair of tight jeans to get her keys.
"Oh… uh… oh… uh… UH! UHHHH!" she growled as the rain slowly made her immaculate haystack into a soggy mess. Digging, groping, searching, clawing and scratching, she was finally able to get her fingers down to her keys, but when she wanted to pull them out of the pocket, she discovered that she couldn't - at least not while she was holding onto the keys.
"Aw hell, no!" she shouted in the middle of the parking lot. Moments later, the rain started coming down harder than ever and she was soon wet to the core.
And the telephones kept ringing.
"Where. Is. Reggie. When. I. Need. Her?! Oh, this is just so… so… so… All right, that does it! I don't give a flying fig who can see me!" she roared and unbuttoned her jeans. Bending down, she pooled the tight jeans at her ankles, revealing that she was wearing a pair of white and yellow Power Puff Girls boxers.
Finally able to get to the keys, she tore them out of the pocket and inserted them into the lock. As she whooshed open the door, the telephones stopped ringing.
Seemingly struck by a coma-inducing arrow, Stella kept standing at the opened door with her jeans pooled at her ankles and rain running down her neck and glasses. The chilly breeze drifting around her bare legs made her hop-hop-hop inside where she slammed the door shut, kicked off her shoes and tore off her pants and left it all on the gray carpet in the center of the office.
Walking over to her desk, Stella stared at the silent telephone, not quite believing what had just happened. When she couldn't will it into ringing again, she went back to the tight jeans and stepped up on them.
Then the inevitable explosion happened and she started jumping up and down on the jeans with steam pouring out of her ears and off of her wet hair.
Letting out an explosive blue streak that contained every single one of her favorite '…ucker' words, she stomped hard down on the jeans while cursing the rain, the telephones, the keys, the people who made the keys, the tight jeans, the designers of the tight jeans, the parents of the designers of the tight jeans, the website she bought the tight jeans on, rainy Tuesdays, rainy Wednesdays, rainy Thursdays and every other rainy day, and finally the tight jeans all over again just to make sure that they'd feel positively cursed.
When the fire slowly left her, her frantic stomping on the jeans became less and less frantic until she could barely muster enough energy to raise her legs in the air. Sighing, she ran a hand through her wet hair and looked up.
Regina was standing in the doorway holding a paper bag from a bakery and wearing a full-face smirk. "Nice boxers, Stell," she said as she hung her jacket on the hallstand and put the paper bag down on the small table behind the door.
"How much did you see?" Stella croaked.
"Everything. And I heard even more."
"Where were you when I needed you, Reggie? There I was, drowning, fighting to stay afloat, trying to get my keys… trying to get in here before the phones stopped ringing…"
"Who was it?"
"On the phone?" Regina said and split two white-bread baguettes down the middle with a large kitchen knife.
"No idea. I didn't make it in time."
"Oh." Taking pity on her friend, Regina put the knife and the bread aside and walked over to Stella. "Tell you what… before we have breakfast, let's go into the bathroom and get you out of that wet stuff. I'll dry your hair and bring you some new clothes. Okay?" she said with her hand on Stella's cheek.
"Okay…" Stella said, looking like a soggy puppy.
Two minutes later, Regina wrapped a warm towel around Stella's head and started giving her a real world class rubdown. Going quickly back, forth, left, right, above both ears and down the neck, she quickly had the dirty-blonde haystack back to its regular, wild appearance.
"A-la Bingo!" Regina said and pulled the towel away from her creation.
The look of her hot pink, deeply flushed skin and the way her hair stuck out in all directions made Stella laugh out loud and reach behind her to pull Regina into a backwards embrace. "Oh, that's too cute… thanks, Reggie. You're my friend. My best friend. Hell… my only friend."
"You're welcome, Stell."
"What did you buy for breakfast?"
"French baguettes. You want cheese or jam on 'em?" Regina said and hung the towel over a clothesline to let the water drip off.
Shrugging, Stella closed her terrycloth bathrobe and stood up from the small footstool she had been sitting on. "One of each… I'll start with the cheese. I feel cheesy today… it's a good match."
"You're not cheesy, you're just unlucky," Regina said and kissed Stella on her forehead. When Regina could see that Stella wasn't satisfied with that, she leaned down and quickly claimed her soft lips.
Just as Regina put her empty plate into the sink, the telephones started ringing again. "I got 'em, Stell. Just sit tight, okay?"
"Sure thing. I'm not moving a muscle," Stella said and looked longingly at the former model's long, powerful stride as she hurried over to her desk. Grinning, she went back to the last bite of her raspberry jam baguette.
Sitting down with a bump, Regina picked up the receiver and got her pencil and notepad ready. "You have reached the Harrison-Starr Detective… oh, good morning, Miss Hendricks."
"You've had a new theft?"
"Aw hell," Stella said and put her plate down on her desk. Getting up, she quickly closed her bathrobe and padded over to Regina's office on bare feet.
Regina scribbled hastily on her notepad, flipping the page when it was full. "Two recipes are missing… Chicken Tikka Masala Mix and Shanghai Sweet and Sour. Noted."
"Yes, we'll be right over… at least, that's the plan."
"Yes. See you then, Miss Hendricks. Goodbye," Regina said and hung up. "All right, Stell, they've had a new incident."
Stella put her hands on her hips and assumed a suitably scrunched-up expression. "Mmmm. Let's get dressed and go check the cameras. Who knows… we may get lucky."
"Speaking of which…"
"What on EARTH were you thinking jumping into such tight jeans at your age?" Regina said with a wicked gleam in her eye, pointing at the offending pair of pants that were still lying where Stella had thrown them.
Stella just shrugged and moved over to take a closer look at the jeans. "Oh, well, they were the best selling item on the website and- hey… hey, hey, hey… at *my age*? *My age*, Reggie? Just for that, I'm gonna wear my poncho today! Ah!" she said when Regina opened her mouth to protest. "I won't accept no hemming out of you! It's gonna be my poncho today. Yes, my poncho and my favorite pair of torn blue jeans. You know, the ones where the right rear pocket is hanging loose. And! And my black muscle shirt that has 'Ain't I Purdy?' across my boobs!"
"Actually I was just pulling your leg," Regina said and flipped her notepad shut. When she didn't get a response, she looked up and sent Stella a couple of saucy winks.
"Oh… okay. Scratch the muscle shirt and the torn jeans. But I'm still wearin' my poncho! So there!" Stella said and spun around on her heel to get dressed.
A fair while later at the Teresa Maddalena factory - this time, Stella actually managed to hang a right on the freeway when Regina asked her to - the blonde investigator took her laptop from a carrier bag and put it down on Maggie Hendricks' desk.
"Are you sure it's all right, Miss Hendricks?" Regina said, sitting down in the same armchair she had used the day before.
Closing the office door behind them, Maggie started wringing her hands even before she had fully let go of the doorhandle. "Oh, yes, yes… anything to stop this awful mess."
Stella smiled at the nervous woman and opened the lid of her laptop. "Well, we'll definitely do our best," she said as she took the protective casing off the recorder and put it on the table before she inserted the flash drive itself into the socket.
Quickly transferring the video files, she started the Player program and began to skim through the recordings. The office was warmer and more humid than it had been for their earlier visit and she was sweating like a pig underneath the poncho and the black commando-style sweater that she had chosen instead of the clothes she had threatened to wear.
While she could handle a little sweat, the heat emanating from her flushed face meant that her glasses kept steaming up. Growling under her breath, she had to wipe off the lenses on a regular basis, but that meant that she couldn't control the mouse pad, and that in turn meant that she kept missing the cues on the recording.
Slowly getting fed up, she tried raising her glasses, but then she couldn't even see the desk she was sitting at, much less the laptop. "Reggie?" she said in a strained voice. "Would you mind checking the recordings? I'm having a bad day… a really bad day. No, it's not even a really bad day, it's one of those days where everything just works against me. This is like getting a root canal and experiencing Chinese water torture at the same time. No, it's not even that… it's getting a double root canal while someone is pulling your toenails off…"
"I got it, Stell. Don't worry," Regina said and put a calming hand on the jumpy Stella's shoulder.
"Oh!" Maggie said and clapped her hands together. "I've just had the greatest idea. Miss Starr, you said you frequently use our products, didn't you?"
"Would you like to go on a guided tour of the factory? We'd get to see the-"
"YES," Stella said and jumped up from the swivel-chair. Quickly shedding her poncho, she folded it neatly and put it over the backrest of one of the armchairs. "Hold the fort, Reggie. I'm finally gonna see some tomato sauce," she said in her best John Wayne imitation.
"Yes, dear," Regina said, sending Stella a blinding, two-hundred watt smile before she went to work on checking the recordings.
A few minutes later, Stella and Maggie walked onto an enclosed gangway that was hanging from thick steel wires nearly forty feet off the ground. The metal gangway was lined with windows on either side to give the visitors a clear view of the production lines below.
"This is the start of our all-in-one production facility. To your left, you can see the enormous wash boilers needed to clean the vegetables of traces of soil et cetera. Now, moving on," Maggie said and put a hand on the small of Stella's back, "you can see the chutes where the tomatoes are brought down from ground level. To maintain production, we need four thousand tons of tomatoes every single day."
"Sweet Chicky-dee!" Stella said, pressing her nose against the window just as another load of tomatoes came streaming down one of the chutes. "Whoa! Rush hour at Tomato World!" she said with a loud laugh.
"Yes. Moving on, the tomatoes will be sent through a selection process where advanced, ultra-fast scanners will find and discard misshapen units," Maggie said and pointed down at a series of metal wing-like structures that whacked the occasional tomato off the main line.
"Aw, this is too cool," Stella said, reluctantly moving away from the scanners.
"Yes, I think so, too. Now, Miss Starr, I must advise you to protect your ears. I'm about to open one of the windows to give you an idea of the noise level that's coming from the machines," Maggie said and put her hand on a handle for a sliding window.
Putting her hands over her ears, Stella nodded enthusiastically. "Sure! Go on!"
As Maggie opened the window, the noise level grew exponentially, but far more rewarding to Stella was the sudden onslaught of the most delightful smell of tomato sauce she had ever experienced. Completely taken by surprise, her eyes popped wide open and she let out an orgasmic, throaty groan that made Maggie's cheeks flush red.
"Oh! Uh…" Maggie said, not quite knowing how to respond to the groan. After a few seconds, she closed the window and screwed on the most winning smile she could muster. "Ahem. Yes. It's a wonderful smell, isn't it?"
"Uh-huh," Stella croaked. Almost at once, her croak was comprehensively drowned out by an animal-like growl that came from her stomach. "Oops," she said with a snicker, patting her gut.
"Happens all the time. At the end of the tour, you'll have an opportunity to sample a few of our products," Maggie said, turned around and walked over to an electronic panel on the opposite wall of the gangway. "Now, the next section is not for the faint of heart. Miss, Starr, how do you feel about heights?"
Adjusting her glasses, Stella shrugged and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "Heights? Oh… well… you know. I'm a strong, modern, resourceful woman. I can handle heights…"
"All right," Maggie said and pushed a button on the electronic panel. With a hum, the underside of the floor they were standing on moved aside to reveal a sheet of armored glass, giving them a full, unrestricted view of the entire factory forty feet below them.
At first, Stella's face just lost all color. Then she felt her guts plunge into her boots before they bounced back up into her throat. Breaking out in a full-body shiver, her glasses steamed up at once, rendering her incapable of seeing anything at all. Slamming back against the windows, she reached out with both hands and let out a screeching shriek that achieved a perfect harmony with the tomato-squashing machinery below.
Feeling that she was about to fall to her death, she put her arms out ahead of her and began to tip-toe across the sheet of glass to get back to terra firma.
"Uh, Miss Starr, you're going the wrong way… the wrong way, Miss Starr! This way!" Maggie said, but when she could see that her guest was too far gone to understand, she pressed the button to let the solid floor slide back into place. "I thought you said you were a strong, resourceful woman, Miss Starr…?"
"I l- l- lied…" Stella said in a voice that resembled Minnie Mouse on a strong helium bender.
Rolling her eyes, Maggie grabbed hold of Stella's left arm and pulled her in the right direction. "I see. So, to our right, we have the…"
While Stella was practicing her mountain climbing skills, Regina worked hard at analyzing the recordings. After much fast-forwarding, she had found the exact entry and exit of the thief, and she had managed to separate the sequences and blow them up to make the thief's face clearly visible on the small laptop screen.
Feeling quite proud over her achievements, Regina leaned back in her seat and put her hands behind her head. "Yeahhhh… I still got it," she said with a beaming smile. A few seconds went by where she felt a warm buzz slowly traversing her system, but the wonderful feeling vanished with a flick of a switch when it struck her that the thief was none other than…
"Willie Nelson?! What in the WORLD?!" she said out loud, on the brink of emulating one of Stella's more infamous traits by moving up to the edge of her chair. Groaning, she buried her face in her hands - though mindful not to upset her perfect hair.
"Willie Nelson…?!" she said through her hands, shaking her head. "Oh, hell… of course the thief would wear a mask. Oh, hell!"
At the same time, Maggie led a shocked and babbling Stella into the office and helped her sit down on the first armchair. "Evell… bubbl… bebbl… webbl… Reggie…" she croaked, still looking as pale as a ghost.
"Wh- what happened to you?" Regina said and sat up straight.
"Oh… glass floor… fell to my death… ebbl… nebbl… I'm dead, Reggie… qibbl… and I soiled my undies…"
"Ewwww! Stella!" Regina said and shied back from her friend.
Slowly regaining some of her color, Stella began to move around on the armchair like she was in discomfort. "I couldn't help myself! The floor vanished and there I was and I was staring the Grim Reaper in the face and he reached out for me, Reggie, but I resisted at first though I wasn't strong enough and he took me and I fell to my death and I was impaled through my gut by a piece of tomato squashing machinery and I guess I peed my pants a little…" she said breathlessly.
Arching an eyebrow, Regina shot an accusing glare at Maggie who threw her arms in the air in return.
"It was just the regular tour. I asked her if she had a problem with heights and she said no," Maggie said, returning the dark glare.
"ANYway! Have you made any progress? Quite frankly, I don't feel we've got value for our money yet, Miss Harrison."
Regina cast a sideways glance at the odd image of someone looking like Willie Nelson stealing tomato sauce recipes, but quickly closed the lid of the laptop so Maggie couldn't see it and ask even more questions. "Oh, detective work rhymes with hard work, Miss Hendricks. You'd be surprised how difficult it can be sometimes."
Maggie didn't seem too impressed as she crossed her arms over her smart pant suit and started tapping her fingers on her left arm. "Didn't you get anything at all out of the recordings?"
"They were… uh, inconclusive, Miss Hendricks."
"Uh… yes," Regina said, locking eyes with Stella and sending her a few winks that the fairly frazzled investigator picked up on and returned in kind.
Snorting loudly, Maggie walked over to the other end of her desk and tapped her knuckles twice on the corner. "I demand to see some results tomorrow at noon. At the latest, Miss Harrison. Tomorrow, you'll hand over the thief to us or the authorities, or you can go home. Do I make myself clear?"
"Very clear, Miss Hendricks. Very clear," Regina said, already forming a plan in her mind. Looking at Stella squirming rather uncomfortably in her seat, Regina cocked her head and put an index finger across her lips. "And here's what we'll do. We'll go home to our office now and make arrangements for tonight. We'll return just after eleven p.m. and set up a camouflaged surveillance booth out in the hall. When the thief arrives, we'll jump out and snatch him."
While Regina was speaking, Stella's eyebrows slowly crept up her forehead - first the left one, then the right. Not quite understanding where Regina was getting all that spunk and all those good ideas from, she nevertheless admired the tall, graceful former model for being such a solid anchor in her life. Grinning broadly, she moved to the edge of her chair and waited for Regina to finish. "Yes, Miss Hendricks. Undercover surveillance is probably the one area where we are the market leaders."
"Market leaders?" Maggie said, sounding like she wasn't bowled over by that statement.
"Why, yes! It wasn't long since we broke up a fencing ring through hard work and clever disgui- YEEEEOW!" Stella howled, suddenly slipping off the edge of the chair and finding herself on course for a head-on collision with the carpet.
Her glasses had miraculously stayed on her face through the crash, the bump and the scrape, but when she peeked over the desk, she noticed that Regina had buried her face in her hands all over again and that Maggie was rolling her eyes like there was no tomorrow. "Oops," Stella said, clambering to her feet and dusting off the knees of her black jeans. "Anyway, I was saying…"
"I heard you the first time, Miss Starr," Maggie said frostily. "I'll give the security guards orders to let you in tonight. Now, would you please vacate my office? I have a lot of work to do."
Closing the laptop, Regina pushed the chair back and got up. "Certainly. We'll contact you when we've apprehended the thief, Miss Hendricks", she said and helped Stella out of the office, followed by a condescending snort by their host.
Once they had exited the Teresa Maddalena visitor center, Regina got the car keys from Stella, opened the Pacer's hatchback and stored the carrier bag with the laptop. "Hmmm"-ing out loud, she took an empty plastic bag out of the rear before closing the hatch.
"Stell, I better do the driving. Here ya go," Regina said and placed the plastic bag on the passenger seat.
"Awww… you're my best friend, Reggie," Stella said and pulled Regina into a hug. "I wouldn't know what to do without you… Jeez, I'm such a helpless toad this week."
"You're just a bit off, Stell. We all suffer that from time to time," Regina said as she helped Stella get comfortable on the plastic bag. Quickly leaning in and kissing the blonde investigator on the lips, Regina pulled the seat belt down and waited for Stella to lock it. "And besides, you won't be-*lie*-ve who the thief is," she said as she put her hand on the door to close it.
"Oh, is that why you winked at me?"
When Regina was clearly building to a crescendo, Stella lost patience and gently slapped her friend's gut. "Well, spill it, girl! Who is it?"
"Get outta town!" Stella said with eyes as wide as saucers.
At ten minutes to eleven, Stella drove the Pacer into the deserted parking lot in front of the factory. Working swiftly and stealthily, she tip-toed to the rear of the car and opened the hatchback.
For the special occasion, Stella had decided to go all-out on her pizza commando outfit. In addition to her roll-up cap, fingerless bicycle gloves, sweater, black jeans and a pair of sturdy boots, she had found a black nylon shoulder holster that she thought made her look insanely cool - it was also the perfect hiding place for her cell phone - and finally, she had applied two fat, black stripes on her cheeks like all the bad boys did in the movies.
After wiping her lenses, she looked left and right to make sure they were alone. To make extra-extra sure, she knelt down and peeked in under the AMC Pacer, but it was clear there, too.
"Hmmm… let's see. Three cans of Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz, check. Three cans of Slurrpy! Carbonated Mineral Water, check…"
"Stell?" Regina said from inside the car.
"Weren't we supposed to be dark and silent?"
"Well, when you have the hatchback open, the interior lights come on. We're lit up like a Christmas tree, hon."
Taking a step back, Stella noticed that Regina was right and she quickly slapped her forehead. "Darn! Okay… uh, okay… got it," she said, climbed up into the rear of the Pacer and reached up to close the hatchback.
Once she was snug among the plastic bags, she shuffled around so she was sitting up straight. "Thanks, Reggie. Now… where was I…? O-yeah, two rolls of Oreos, check. One roll of sugarfree cookies, check. Flashlights, check. Motion detector and sensors, check. Undercover surveillance hiding place cardboard thingies, check."
Up front, Regina was unable to stop a chuckle from escaping her lips.
"Now what?" Stella said.
"Nothing. You got my stuff back there, too?"
Stella opened a plastic bag and peeked in to see if Regina's arsenal of fashion magazines, night creams and various other doo-dads was safe. "Yep, all there."
"Good. It's eleven o'clock. Let's get crackin'," Regina said and stepped out of the Pacer.
After quickly breaking Stella out of her self-imposed prison, the two women sneaked across the parking lot carrying two plastic bags each. Maggie had alerted the security guards of their arrival like she said she would, and a few minutes later, the two intrepid investigators were ready to set up shop in the hallway outside the office where the thefts had taken place.
"Right…" Stella said, surveying the site. "Right. Okay. If we put this one here… or maybe here… or… maybe here…" she continued, moving the fake front of a chocolate bar vending machine back and forth to find the best location for it.
"Don't forget I need to have room for my legs in there, Stell," Regina said, holding the two sides of their hiding place.
"Mmmm, that's true. Okay, that's another ten feet forward, then," Stella said with a gleam in her eye.
"Cute. Too cute."
"Heh, heh… sorry," Stella said and peeked around the fake front. "No, it should be fine here. Don'tcha think?"
Clicking the top and the two side-pieces in place to complete the illusion, Regina took a step back and cocked her head. "Yeah. That'll do. Perhaps we'll need an Out Of Order sign so the thief won't start pushin' our buttons," she said and pulled Stella into a sideways embrace.
"Good thinkin', Reggie."
Stella quickly scribbled 'out of order' on one of the pages of her notepad before tearing it off and holding it up to where the coin slot would have been had it been a real vending machine. "Oh… shoot. I don't have any adhesive tape," she said and began to look around for some.
"Darn… uh… okay. Never mind. Ah, I doubt he'll have time to stop for a snack, anyhow," Stella said and shoved the note into her rear pocket.
Taking the first of the two sensors for the motion detector, Regina quickly went down to the other end of the dimly lit hallway and put it up against the panel underneath the Fire Equipment box. "Psst! Is this too obvious?" she said, pointing at the sensor.
"Nope, that's good, Reggie. Let's see if this gizmo here works," Stella said, took the electronic receiver box and pressed a small button marked On. "Okay, try to move past it…"
The split second Regina walked past the sensor, the box in Stella's hand blurted out such a strong electronic beep that she jumped a foot in the air and let out a resounding "GAAAAAAAHH!" while hurriedly clapping her hands over her ears. That in turn meant she couldn't hold onto the box which slowly tumbled end-over-end in mid-air and came down directly on her right instep. "OUCH! Oy, oy, oy, oy, OYYY…!"
"I guess that means it works," Regina said dryly, making sure to stay perfectly still until Stella had adjusted the volume.
With both her eyebrows and the corners of her mouth twitching uncontrollably, Stella mumbled a whole series of curses while she thumped her index finger down on the volume slider that had been set at maximum for some inexplicable reason. "Okay… it's all right. You can come back now," Stella said and turned her face away from the box in case the volume slider wasn't working properly.
At the lowest setting, the box only flashed a warning sequence on an LED and that made Stella look up and give Regina a thumbs-up.
"All righty, then," Regina said and strode back through the hall, deciding to try her patented model-walk just for kicks; cascading hair, a hand on her slamming hips and everything else a seasoned pro like her could think of. Once she was back at Stella's side, she reached down and closed the blonde's slack jaw. "I still got it… and that gap-mouthed look SO isn't you, dahling."
"Uh-nuh… heh, heh. Let's snuggle up, Reggie. We're all set," Stella said and clicked the side wall off its hinges so they could crawl into their top secret hiding place.
Half an hour later, Stella's butt was going numb and she cracked open a Raspberry Fizz to take her mind off it. "Pass the O's, please."
"Here ya go."
"Thanks," Stella said and made so much noise opening the pack of Oreos that a herd of elephants could have walked past them without any of them noticing.
Sighing, Regina stretched her long legs the other way so she wouldn't get a cramp. "Stell, what are we going to do about the Merc?"
"I don't" - munch, munch -
"know, Reggie." - munch, munch -
"I guess we'll" - munch, munch -
"have to call the" - munch, munch -
"leasing company." - slurrrp -
"Jeez, they're gonna" - munch, munch -
"tear us a new one." - slurrrp
"Yeah. Not looking forward to that."
"No…" Stella said and fell silent for once. A little while later, she held up the next Oreo at Regina. "Want one?"
"No, thanks. Want a cookie?" Regina said and popped one of her own snacks into her mouth.
"Nah. Thanks, anyway. I can't stand that sugarfree stuff. Tastes like cardboard pulp," Stella said and stuck out her tongue.
Taking the next cookie, Regina responded to Stella's tongue by sticking out her own. "Wouldn't know. Never had it."
A sudden creak out in the hallway made them shut up and hold their breaths, but when the motion sensors hadn't detected anything after nearly half a minute, they shrugged and went back to their cookies and sodas.
"What are you looking at?" Regina said and emptied her first can of Slurrpy! Carbonated Mineral Water.
"Oh, you know… you."
"Yeah? Go on."
Grinning, Stella gave the tall investigator a playful slap on the endless thighs. "Shoot, we've been in some strange situations, haven't we?"
"Yeah, we have."
"Including some we couldn't have anticipated," Stella said, looking squarely at Regina' soft lips.
"Yeah," Regina said and looked Stella in the eye. "Are you sizing me up for a kiss?"
"Is it that obvious?"
"Uh… yeah. Here, let me help you," Regina said and leaned in towards her friend. For a brief moment, the two women just looked at each other with matching silly smiles creasing their lips, but then they decided on taking it to the next logical step and began to kiss.
The kiss went on and on and on and on until Stella reluctantly had to break it off to get some air into her lungs.
"Whut…? Oh, that damn creak… how many times have we heard that now?" she growled.
Regina clicked on her penlight and looked at a piece of paper where she kept a running score. "That was the fifth time."
"Shoot, we're gonna miss him when he comes for real if this old house keeps on groaning like that."
"I think it's the ventilation shafts. The sound is kinda metallic," Regina said and put the paper and the penlight away.
Looking to her left, Regina cast a stolen glance at the short investigator, and even though she wasn't able to see much in the semi-darkness, she knew that Stella would still have a smile on her face from the kissing. "So… you wanna kiss again?" she husked, gently putting her fingers on Stella's arm.
"I thought you'd never ask," Stella replied and hurriedly pulled Regina down towards her.
While the two investigators were enjoying themselves, a man dressed in black clothes and a Willie Nelson mask peeked around the corner of the hallway. Immediately spotting the new - and fairly strange-looking - chocolate vending machine at the other end of the hall, he paused briefly but soon shrugged and went about his business.
Moving with cat-like grace, the man crept stealthily along the hallway, triggering the silent alarm on the motion detector's sensor. In ten long strides, the person was at the door to Maggie Hendricks' office, but kept standing there for several seconds while he took a very good look at the new vending machine.
He wondered briefly why a brand new machine would make such weird noises - almost like someone was snogging heavily - but he soon concentrated on getting the door to the office to open.
With a faint click
, he depressed the handle and slipped inside.
Behind the fake front of the vending machine, Stella and Regina were far, far too occupied with each other to notice the LED on the electronic receiver box blinking so strongly that it nearly shorted out its own fuses.
The LED blinked stronger and stronger until it'd had enough with the tardiness of its owners and decided to go a step up on the volume scale. Moments later, a low, but shrill, electronic beep emanated from the box.
"What's that?" Regina said around a series of kisses as the humming sound finally reached her ears.
"Mmmm… mmmm…" - kiss, kiss, KISS -
"mmmm… dunno." - kiss, KISS, kiss -
"What do you" - KISS, kiss, kiss… kiss! -
"think it is, Reggie?"
"Dunno. It" - kiss, kiss -
"actually sounds a bit" - kiss! -
"LIKE THE MOTION DETECTOR!" Stella whispered hoarsely and pulled back from Regina at such speed that it took the former model's lips several seconds to understand that they were suddenly trying to snog thin air.
Regina shot her kissing mate a slightly dirty look for giving her such a nasty case of the kissus interruptus, but when the gravity of the situation dawned on her, she slapped her forehead and scrambled for her penlight.
"Damn… damn, damn, damn!" Stella whispered, trying to get the left wing of the vending machine to flap out so she could catch a glimpse of the door to the office. "It's open… thedoorisopen… ohhhhhh, I don't believe it!"
"That means he's still in there, Stell!" Regina whispered, punching Stella's shoulder.
"Yeah… yeah! Stella Starr is gonna save the tomato sauce! Reggie…! Wish me luck!" Stella said and grabbed both of Regina's hands with her own, bumping the penlight out of Regina's grip and sending it down to an uncertain fate on the dark floor.
"Good luck, Stell… but watch out for the-"
Before Regina had time to say what it was Stella should watch out for, it had happened. As Stella crawled out of the undercover surveillance hiding place, her boot snagged on the fake front, creating a chain reaction that started with a belly flop onto the carpet for her own good self and ended with the whole cardboard structure collapsing on top of Regina's head.
"YEEEEEOOOOW! ABUMPH!" -- "OOOOOOOF! OH, STELLA!" the two women howled as one. In the hitherto silent hallway, their shrieks sounded like a pack of avenging ghosts, and it sent a clear and unmistakable signal to the thief that it was high time to make a hasty exit.
Holding a stack of papers, the thief jumped into the doorway where he quickly stopped to stare wide-eyed - under the mask - at a woman dressed in black fumbling around on the floor, and another woman trying to get herself free from the wings of the obviously fake vending machine. Shaking his head, he set off down the hall, running so quickly that he was gone in a matter of seconds.
"REGGIE! STAY HERE! I'LL GET 'IM!" Stella howled and took off after the thief, leaving Regina to find her own way out of the mess.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever… just leave me here, boxed in like a turtle's pecker," Regina growled as she finally managed to climb to the top of the pile of colorful debris. Sitting in the middle of the completely ruined vending machine, she did the only thing she could in such a situation: she found her comb and began to restore her precious hairdo.
Stella blasted through the hall to try to catch up to the thief, but when she reached the water cooler at the end of it, he was long gone. Bopping up and down on the balls of her feet, she couldn't get her brain to work quickly enough to make a decision on where to go, so she had to resort to a tried-and-tested solution. "Eenie-meenie-minie-moe…" she said, pointing left and right in sequence with the old schoolyard rhyme, "gotta-work-out-which-way-to-go… left… no, right!"
Snapping right, Stella stormed down the next hallway before turning hard left then hard right then hard left then another hard right until she was so incredibly lost that she had no idea how to get back to Regina. Fortunately for her, just as she came to a screeching halt, she caught a glimpse of the thief trying to sneak through the other end of the same hallway she was in.
"Halt!" she bellowed. "Halt! I'm Stella Starr and you're busted!"
Predictably, the thief set off again instead of halting.
"Awfercryin'outloud!" Stella shouted and set off after him.
The chase took her and the thief through sections of the factory she hadn't seen before, not even on the guided tour, but when they made a hard right onto the enclosed gangway that worked as the viewing platform, she knew exactly where she was.
Huffing and puffing from the exertion, Stella leaned against the doors leading onto the gangway, but tried to look cool, calm and in complete control. "Hey… Mister!" - pant, pant -
"It's time to" - pant, PANT, pant -
"give it up. Ya can't" - pant, PANT -
"escape. My business asso-" - pant, pant, pant -
"associate is probably calling" - pant, PANT, pant -
"the cops as we speak. Y-" - PANT, PANT, pant, pant -
"Ya might as well give up…" - pant, pant -
"and save me some sore feet. These boots" - pant, pant, DEEP BREATH -
"weren't made for runnin', ya know!"
The thief's only reply was to set off down the enclosed gangway.
"Awwwww… he had to run… of course he had to run! Jumpin' Jehosaphat, I gotta stop eatin' so many Meaty Mamas!" Stella said and set off after him. Three paces on, she came to a new stop and threw her arms in the air. "I can't believe I just said that! Aaargh!"
Growling, she continued the chase.
Meanwhile, back at the collapsed vending machine, Regina had stacked the three cardboard wings and the top in a neat pile so they were ready for the next assignment.
After picking up their various cookies, magazines and cans of soda and putting them into the plastic bags so they wouldn't leave too much of a mess, she moved into the office and took a few pictures with her cell phone.
One of the filing cabinets had been opened, but Regina didn't have any gloves with her so she didn't want to touch it in case Inspector Moynes could extract any fingerprints.
Two pieces of paper were lying on the floor, looking very much like the thief had dropped them in the kerfuffle. Crouching down, she could only read one of them - the other was facing down - but it didn't take her long to recognize it as a recipe for a seasoning sauce in the Tex-Mex range.
"Hm!" she said and held up her cell phone. She quickly dialed the number they had been given for Maggie Hendricks but thought better of it at the last digit. Instead, she deleted the entry and called Inspector Moynes.
'This is Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes. Go ahead,'
the Inspector's familiar voice said at the other end of the line.
"Hello Inspector, this is Regina Harrison. We may need your help in a little while at the Teresa Maddalena Tomato Sauce and Quality Pizza Toppings-factory. We're in-"
'What in the world are you doing out there, Miss Harrison?'
Stepping out of the office, Regina took their bags and the cardboard wings and began to shuffle down the hall, intending to store everything in the Pacer. "We're trying to catch a thief who's been stealing recipes."
'Uh-huh? Definitely sounds like something you'd be hired for… never mind. All right, we'll be there shortly.'
"Thank you, Inspector. Stella is hot on the thief's heels as we speak."
'Okay…? Thanks for letting me know, I better alert the Major Disasters Unit as well, then… see you in a while, Miss Harrison.'
"See you later, Inspector," Regina said and laughed a little at Mary-Jane Moynes' joke until she realized that the veteran police detective may not have been joking at all.
As Stella was steaming down the enclosed gangway, the thief kept standing at the other end almost like he was taunting her. When she was close enough to yell at him, he calmly pressed the button that activated the sliding floor before he slipped into the darkness beyond the viewing platform.
Squealing loudly, Stella matched the sliding floor's motion by sliding to a halt just in front of the armored glass. "Oh! OHHHH! OHHHHHHHHH!" she howled, clutching her commando-style cap.
"I'm not wetting my pants again…! I'm not wetting my pants again…!" she said as she inched out onto the armored glass, trying to look anywhere but at the working machines far, far below her. At that time of the evening, only one of the four production lines was active, but the gruesome sounds it made as it mercilessly squashed the tomatoes being loaded into it made a cold shiver race up and down Stella's spine.
"I'm not wetting my pants again…!" Stella whispered, using the metal railing that lined the gangway as her guide across the glass floor. "Especially not 'cos I'm wearing the black silk boxers Reggie gave me for my b- b- b- birthday!" she stuttered, inching closer and closer to safety.
Finally reaching the other side, Stella slammed an index finger down onto the button and shot the sliding floor a whole series of increasingly rude hand gestures.
She realized that she had to be clever and more than a little lucky to catch the thief after that misadventure, but she held her breath and tried to listen for any footsteps. Thinking that she heard something coming from her left, she took the left path in a T-branch and was soon walking down yet another hall.
"Ye Gads, I'm never gonna find Reggie again… ever. I'm gonna starve to death in here… in a hundred years, they'll find my bones in a dead end somewhere, trying to claw my way through the wall to get to a pizza… irony of ironies to starve to death in a food processing plant… but that's me, Stella Sta- YEEE!"
Suddenly finding herself face to face with the thief who had come from the other angle without Stella noticing, she jumped a foot in the air and let out a brief, surprised yelp. When she landed, she put out her hands ahead of her and roared: "Stop right there, fella! I've got ya covered!"
The thief jerked one way and Stella followed him there; then he jerked the other way and Stella followed him there as well. Then he started jerking the first way again but changed his mind at the very last moment, spun around and ran back to where he had come from.
Stella was predictably caught mid-jerk and she flapped her arms furiously in the air to regain her balance - she actually succeeded in staying on her feet for once. Growling wildly, she adjusted her glasses and set off after him.
Humming quietly to herself, Regina picked up the motion sensor and put it into one of the plastic bags. At the end of the hall, she turned left at the water cooler to follow the main path back to the parking lot, but soon found her way blocked by a closed and locked fire door.
She tried to pound on it but it was far too solid for her, and when she tried the door handle, it didn't do anything. "Oh… swell," she said and turned around to find an alternative route back to the Pacer.
Three minutes later, she found herself staring at a different closed and locked fire door; a few minutes after that, yet another closed and locked fire door.
"Oh, this is just peachy. This is just too damn much! Sheesh, I'm never gonna see Stell again. I'm gonna starve to death in here…! In a hundred years, I'll be an undead mummy, shuffling around, desperately clutching my leathery face to straighten out my ten gazillion wrinkles…"
Meanwhile, Stella was sneaking silently through the show room the factory used for promotional purposes like presentations of their new products and handing out samples after the guided tours.
Everywhere she looked, there were stacks of Teresa Maddalena merchandising and promotional items, including several sets of the stainless steel barbecue cutlery they used in their brand new BBQ range, a life-sized standee of a celebrity chef holding a glass of Mushroom & Sweet Pea Tomato Sauce, shot glasses, beer glasses and wine glasses with the company logo, and on a display stand all by itself, a bright red oven mitt that had been used by a famous actress in a tv commercial and that now sported her elegantly scrawled autograph.
Stella stopped to take a closer look at the oven mitt. She had actually contemplated buying one for herself for Christmas, but up close, she could see that the quality wasn't any better than the unbranded mitts that were sold for a third of the price.
Shrugging, she moved on in search of the thief that was supposed to be in there, but wasn't.
Sighing deeply, she stopped again and took off her commando cap. After scratching her sweaty hair thoroughly, she plopped the cap back down on her wild locks and began to look around at the other merchandising items.
Over by the far wall, a five-foot tall pyramid had been built of various Teresa Maddalena jars with the oldest designs and products forming the base. The ten layers above it were made up of more and more recent jars until the pyramid ended in the newest product, the 'Teresa Maddalena Salsa Hot Peppers! Creamy & Crunchy,' which stood by itself at the top of the glass cone.
Sighing again, Stella put her hands into her pockets and went over to take a look at the pyramid, already counting how many of the different products she had tried in her years as a heavy user.
Suddenly and without warning, the pyramid started to tilt toward her.
At first, Stella thought it was a false reflection in her lenses brought on by the faint light catching the many glass jars, but when the first jar hit the floor with a loud CRASH!, she knew it wasn't. "Oh… OH… OHHHH! OH SHIIII…" she howled as she ducked and bopped and weaved and hopped and ducked some more to get out of the way of the dozens of falling jars.
"What in the" - hop, duck -
"flying fig is this?" - weave, bop -
"Some kind of earthquake?" - duck, duck, weave -
"Damn, damn, damn…" - bop, duck, hop -
"Oh man, all those great sauces!"
"Ha! Missed me!" she roared once all the jars had fallen off without even a single one hitting her. Turning around, she strutted away from the pile of jars only to set her boot down on a Sweet Chili Mix which rolled away underneath her foot, taking her with it. "YEOW!" she howled as she watched her leg fly up and the rest of her body fly down towards the carpet.
"Owch! Aw, hell…!"
A dark shadow that raced past her proved that it hadn't been a random earthquake after all, and when Stella just caught a clear glimpse of the thief exiting the show room, she let rip an impressive series of her favorite "…ucker" words.
Two minutes later, Stella sneaked along the next hall, sensing that the thief was so close that she could practically reel him in with only the old elastic band she had found in her jeans pocket.
Coming up to a new T-branch, she followed her nose and headed for a pair of double doors that carried a sign that said 'Caution! Mortal Danger!' and two yellow and black warning icons: one was the traditional skull-and-bones symbol and the other looked like a man stumbling over a crate.
"Eh… he wouldn't go in there… or maybe he would… nah, he probably wouldn't… but maybe he would… mmmm… he would," Stella said and grabbed hold of the center locking rail.
Pulling it upwards, Stella discovered four things in the space of as many seconds: The first was that the doors didn't open in, but out; the second was that her fingerless bicycle gloves got trapped in the rail leaving her utterly stuck; the third was that she was thrown forward so fast by the automatic doors that she didn't even have time to squeal; and the fourth and final one was that the warning icon she had thought depicted a man stumbling over a crate in fact didn't - instead, it depicted a man dangling thirty feet above a concrete floor.
Literally hanging on by a thread, Stella briefly looked down but decided that it wasn't the best thing to do. With a little hard work, she was able to twist her hands and grasp the locking rail itself, but other than that, she was in a spot of bother and she knew it. Gently swinging back and forth, she watched the Out of Order note she had intended to put on the fake vending machine fly out of her rear pocket and flutter to the ground like a giant snowflake.
Gulping loudly, she blinked several times and began to mouth a silent prayer. "Out of order… Out of order?! Aw shoot, Stella Starr… this time, you're up to your neck in doo-doo…! My neck is all that's gonna be left of me if I fall down… oh, shoot, why did I say yes to this gig? If I ever get out of this mess, I'm gonna swear off… uh… uh… ummm… showering on Sundays. And where the HELL is Reggie when I need her? Reggie? Reggie? REGGIE? REGGIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!? HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELP!"
Regina had gone back to the office to wait for the Inspector to arrive when she suddenly heard Stella's cry filter through the ventilation ducts. Jumping up from the chair, she began to pace back and forth on the office floor while racking her brain to come up with a way to beat the sneaky fire doors.
"Oh, Stella…!" she groaned and clutched her head, mindful not to disturb her 'do too much. "Oh, if something happens to you, I'll never forgive myself! But what can I do? What can I do? What can I… wait… wait a minute… I have Maggie's number…"
Quickly digging into her pocket, she found her cell and brought up the right number in the registry. After waiting for a few seconds, she could hear a drowsy female voice at the other end of the line.
"Hello, Miss Hendricks? This is Regina Harrison. We're having an emergency out here at the factory. We've, uh… we've caught the thief but-"
Maggie said, suddenly sounding a lot sharper.
"We've caught the thief," Regina fibbed, hoping that it wouldn't blow up in her face later on, "but the fire doors have all closed and we're trapped here!"
"Can't you call the security guards at the front door and get them to reset the system? I think Miss Starr is in trouble and I really need to get to her."
'Uh, yeah… I'll do that. Uh… I'll hang up now and do it right away.'
"Good! Talk to you later," Regina said and pressed a button on her cell. Ignoring the many plastic bags with all their stuff, she strode through the halls to get back to the first fire door, hoping that she wasn't too late to save her best friend - and kissing mate.
Dangling off the door, Stella had plenty of time to think about life in general and her present situation in particular. She wasn't really in pain, but her shoulders were slowly growing numb from the odd angle she had them in, and her sweater had crept up and was tickling her tummy skin something fierce.
"I wonder if I'd be able to fall the rest of the way without crushing myself into a pile of sticky, chunky debris…?" she mumbled, trying to gauge the distance to the bare, hostile-looking concrete floor. "It must be thirty feet down… and I'm five foot four and a half… that's twenty-four and a half feet straight down… onto concrete… aw Hell, I'd be better off trying to climb up!"
Creaking back and forth, she tried to look up at her wristwatch that had come into full view after gravity had pulled the sleeve of the sweater down to her elbow, but she couldn't read the hands in the semi-darkness. "On the bright side, there aren't any flies in here and I don't have to pee… now. If I can only hang on for another six hours or so, someone will find me… nooooo, I don't wanna diiiiiiiiie!"
Clenching and unclenching her fists, Regina waited impatiently in front of the locked fire door. After counting to a hundred and thirty nine in French just to take her mind off Stella's potential plight, she began to worry that Maggie Hendricks hadn't been able to convince the security guards to reset the system after all.
Just when she had found her cell phone to call Maggie and ask what the blazes was going on, a deep, electronic hum was heard from the door, and soon after, the massive fire door slid aside.
Letting out a few unladylike curses, Regina stormed down the hall to search for her friend. At first, she didn't know where to go, but after checking a few branches without much success, she came to a full stop and closed her eyes.
With her senses fully extended, she tried to tap into the ether to pick up Stella's characteristic vibe, but soon came to the conclusion that The Force didn't exactly work in real life the way it did in the movies.
Growling, she set off down the next hall. Ten paces further on, she came to a new stop, getting a strange feeling in her heart that could only come from Stella. Quickly spinning around, she stormed back up the hall she had come from and turned left instead of right at the next T-branch.
A few minutes later, Stella sighed and squirmed around to make her sweater tickle her tummy less. When that didn't work either, she sighed again and leaned her head against her right arm. "There were so many things I didn't get to say to Reggie… like, how about you and me and some whipped cream, baby…? Or… wow, you're tall. Should I go up or d'ya wanna go down? Ye Gads, that's just tasteless and unfunny… must be the tomato fumes that're affecting my brain. And it would never work with Reggie, anyhow. She's a lady. A real lady. Oh, man… I'm paying her wages… you'd think she'd wonder WHERE I WAS AND WHAT I WAS DOING?! WHY HASN'T SHE COME FOR ME? FER CRYIN' OUT LOUD! REGGIE! REGGIE?!"
Suddenly a dark shadow swept across the door, causing Stella to look up in a hurry. "Reggie! I knew you'd come for- …you're not Reggie… you're Willie Nelson!" she said, staring at the darkly clad figure that was standing at the edge of the drop.
Regina tore through the confusing maze of identical halls, going left, right, left, right, left, left, left and finally right until she was standing in something she thought could have been a show room at one time… now, it was just a mess and a half.
"Oh, Stella!" she said out loud and pinched the bridge of her nose when she saw the levels of destruction to the various items on display.
Holding her breath, she tried to listen for any unusual sounds, but the blood thundering past her ears prevented her from hearing anything at all. Moving back to the door to the show room, she tried to suss out where Stella could have gone to, but found it hard going.
"Stella… Stella, Stella, Stella… where are you?" she whispered and tried the mind scan thing again.
Stepping out into the hall, she began to move slowly in the direction she thought was the right one.
Seventy yards and two hallways away from Regina, the figure wearing the colorful mask of Willie Nelson leaned forward and stretched out an arm to grab hold of the door Stella was dangling from. With a mighty heave-ho and a most decidedly male grunt, the person was able to get the door to swing slowly back towards the hall.
"Wh- what are you doing? And who the hell are you?" Stella said as she came closer and closer to the lower edge of the floor she had fallen off earlier.
"My name is irrelevant… and I'm trying to get you up. I woulda thought that was kinda obvious," the man in the mask said as he leaned down and grabbed hold of Stella's belt.
At first, Stella squirmed under the man's touch, but once she realized what he was trying to do, she let go with one hand and reached for the edge of the hall. "Oy! If you grope my butt, my gee-eff is gonna wipe you out, buster! Hell, she might decide to do that anyway!" she said as she pulled herself upwards and closer to safety.
With a series of increasingly throaty grunts, she managed to get her leg swung up on the floor of the hall, and from there, it wasn't too hard - even for Stella Starr, clumsy-queen extraordinaire - to get fully back to terra firma.
Sitting up on her knees, Stella reached up towards her shoulder holster - a gesture that made the masked man throw his hands in the air. "Whut? Nah, it's just my cell. Don't worry," she said and quickly dialed Regina's number.
"Oh… okay," the man said and visibly relaxed. "Hey, are we colleagues or something? Why are you dressed like that?" he continued, pointing at her dark clothes and at the two black stripes on her face.
"No, we're certainly not colleagues! I'm Stella Starr, owner of the Harrison- Starr Detective Agency. I've been hired to take care of… well, you."
Moving swiftly, the man jumped up and pushed Stella aside so the phone fell out of her hand and clattered along the carpet. "That's not gonna happen!" he said and took off up the hall.
"Ooof! Oh, you miserable son of a…" Stella howled as she clambered to her feet. Suddenly feeling the ground shake rhythmically - almost like someone was running towards her with a hard stride - she spun around and stared wide-eyed at a six-foot-one Warrior Princess who was thundering along the hall at full speed.
At the exact moment Regina and the fleeing thief crossed paths, she spread out her arms and gave him such a whack across the chest that he spun around three times in mid-air before landing right on his butt with a bump and a crunch. Groaning faintly, he gave up the ghost and fell backwards onto the carpet.
"Stella!" Regina howled, continuing her stride.
"Reggie!" Stella howled in return, running towards her friend with her own arms spread out ahead of her.
The two women soon met in the middle and flew into each other's arms. At first, Stella was just picked up and given such a crushing embrace that her face nearly turned blue, but after that, they went into the mother of all kissing frenzies.
Once they separated, Stella returned the crushing embrace with one of her own and took a step back from the tall former model. "Thanks for searching for me, Reggie."
Blushing, Regina just snickered like everything that had happened was no big deal. "Oh, you know."
"Yeah. I do. Trust me, I do. I was hangin' on by my chinny-chin-chin there for a while, though… shoot, at one point I thought I was gonna soil my undies all over again… but I didn't want to do that 'cos I'm wearing the silk boxers you gave me," Stella said and wrapped a strong arm around Regina's waist.
"I guess the moral of the story is… always empty your bladder before you go to work…?" Regina said and took off Stella's commando cap so she could run her fingers lovingly through the wild, dirty-blonde mop of hair.
"Something like that, yeah. Okay… let's see who this fella is," Stella said and went over to the passed-out thief. Kneeling down, she removed the Willie Nelson mask to reveal a man in his mid-twenties with a handsome face, dark brown eyes and just the faint beginnings of a mustache on his upper lip.
Kneeling on the other side of the man, Regina grabbed hold of his arms and lifted him up into a sitting position. "Do you know what happened to the papers he took, Stell?"
"No… I sincerely hope you're not askin' me to frisk him…"
"Well, if you won't, I will," Regina said and quickly patted down the unconscious man. "Nothing in his pants," she said, earning herself a loud Snort!
in the process.
"Nothing under his shirt, either. Oh wait, here they are… Clever… really, really clever," Regina said and raised his shirt to reveal a flexible plastic folder that was strapped to his back underneath his clothes. Pulling off the folder, she opened it and found three recipes.
Reaching over, Stella punched Regina's shoulder with such force that the former model made a horrified face and began to massage her abused skin at once. "Excellent work, Reggie! Excellent work."
"Ouch… ohhh… thank you… I hope that didn't leave a bruise… anyway, I've already called Inspector Moynes. It shouldn't take them too long to get here."
"Actually," Stella said and pulled Regina close so she could give her a little kiss on the cheek, "I don't know where 'here' is. All that chasing made me so confused I have no idea how to get back to the office or the main entrance."
"Wanna hear a secret?"
"I don't know where the Hell we are, either…"
"Oh… maybe we haven't been saved at all… shoot," Stella said and scratched her chin.
Beneath them, the thief stirred and soon came to. When he realized that the two women were pinning him down, he tried to break free but he soon discovered that they were far too strong for him. Sighing, he let himself fall back down onto the carpet.
"Is this the thanks I get for saving you?" he said in a pleasant voice.
"No," Stella said, adjusting her glasses, "this is the thanks you get for stealing recipes from the Teresa Maddalena Tomato Sauce & Quality Pizza Toppings. But since we're on the subject of saving me… we'd like to know your name?"
"Hendricks?" Regina said, scrunching up her face.
"Yeah. I'm Maggie's ex-husband."
Snorting loudly, Stella wiped her nose with the back of her gloved hand and plopped her commando-cap back down on her wild locks. "When? In kindergarten?"
"Laugh all you want," George said and huffed indignantly. "We had a great couple of months together. I made her smile. Have you ever made someone smile?"
Stella grinned broadly and sneaked a glance at Regina who was indeed wearing a big smile at that very moment. "Uh-huh," she said and pushed her glasses up her nose.
"Good for you," George said surly.
"I'm guessing the smiles didn't last," Regina said. "Considering you resorted to stealing from her."
"Yeah well, I'm only taking back what's mine, lady!"
"Come again?" Stella said, cocking her head.
"That's right…! Most of these recipes are mine! I made 'em! And now she's skimming a fat profit from my work!" George said and tried to struggle briefly, but Regina and Stella were still too strong for him.
'That's a lie!'
a female voice said from somewhere behind the three people. When Stella turned around to see what was going on, she spotted Maggie Hendricks hurrying up the hall with Inspector Moynes and three uniformed policemen in tow.
Once Maggie reached her ex-husband, she put her hands on her hips and shot raging fire at him with her eyes. "That's a lie, lie, lie, George, and you know it! It's the same lie you told the judge in our divorce settlement case, but she chose to believe *me*!"
"Well, *she* would, wouldn't *she*?" George said as he was dragged to his feet by two beefy policemen.
Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes - as always impeccably dressed in a burgundy pant suit and a dusty gray blouse - reached behind her back and found a pair of handcuffs that she proceeded to slap on George's wrists. "Mr. Hendricks, you're under arrest for stealing documents from the Teresa Maddalena company. My associates will read you your rights. All right, he's all yours," she said and patted one of the beefy policemen on the shoulder.
A moment later, George was dragged away, grumbling severely over the unfairness of the world.
"We'll meet in court! Again!" Maggie shouted after her ex-husband and flashed him a very unladylike hand gesture.
Grinning broadly, Stella turned around and slapped Regina a fat high-five. "Hey, Inspector Moynes. You look great today. That's a new style for you, ain't it?" she said and wrapped an arm around Regina's waist.
"Yep," Mary-Jane Moynes said and ran a hand through her strawberry-red hair that had become quite a lot shorter than when Stella and Regina had seen her last. "It was time to try something new."
"Well, it looks great on you," Regina said, nodding.
"Thank you, Miss Harrison. Well… I guess this one has ended on a high, huh? I better radio the Major Disasters Unit and tell them to stand down," the Inspector said and took her portable radio.
Scrunching up her face, Stella turned towards Regina and shot her a puzzled look. "The Major… what?"
"I'll tell you later, Stell," Regina said and moved over to the Inspector. "Uh, actually, Inspector, the, uh… show room may need a little clean-up…" she said quietly.
Maggie Hendricks - having accidentally overheard Regina's words - jerked forward and put a strong hand on Regina's upper arm. "The show room? Our show room? The Teresa Maddalena Vintage Line show room with the many priceless items that we have just had insured for nearly two million dollars…?" she said in a voice that changed from hoarse to shrill with just about every other word.
Stella's eyes popped wide open at that news and she began to inch away from the others in an almighty hurry before Maggie could bring out the heavy artillery. "Well… uh… I… uh… it was an accident… Hell, it wasn't even that… it wasn't even me, fercryin'outloud! It was George… he pushed it… the pyramid… gotta go! Reggie! See ya downstairs!"
With that, she took off down the hall, running so fast she left little indents in the carpet.
"But Stell! You don't even know which way is out!" Regina shouted after her, but her words had no effect on the madly running woman.
Just over an hour later, Stella drove the Pacer into the packed parking lot in front of Rockin' Ruby's and began to look for a suitable place to park. Through a stroke of good fortune, they were able to find one near the entrance.
Turning off the engine, Stella checked her wristwatch which read a quarter to one, A.M. "Shit, Ruby closes in forty-five minutes… this gig took longer than I had expected."
"Well, if you hadn't had the clarity of mind to pick up your cell, Stell, we'd still be looking for you. I mean, what possessed you to get yourself locked into the freezer…?" Regina said and opened the passenger door.
"Yeah yeah, rub it in," Stella said and followed her friend out of their car.
After locking it, she snuck a hand down Regina's rear pocket and gave the full globe of wonderfully sculpted flesh a few squeezes.
As a reply, Regina snickered and leaned down to give Stella a kiss on the blonde hair that had only just lost its frosty quality.
Stepping inside Rockin' Ruby's, they were greeted by a few cheers from the assembled barflies and a quick wave by Ruby Albrecht - the former pro-softball player who had bought a bar when her career was winding down - who sat at her customary spot at the end of the long, highly polished counter.
"Hi, guys. Wow, Stella, you're looking sharp tonight," Ruby said and touched her own cheeks to illustrate the black lines on Stella's face.
"I know. Thanks, Ruby," Stella said with a wide grin.
Getting up from her bar stool, Ruby opened a hatch in the counter and moved inside to prepare two glasses. "Did you have a big one? Usually, you're here much earlier. Don't forget we close in forty-five."
"We know. Yeah, we did have a pretty big one, actually. We just saved the Teresa Maddalena Tomato Sauce company," Stella said and walked through the fairly narrow bar room to slide into the booth reserved for them - the last of eight cozy booths that lined the outer wall.
"Long story, Ruby," Regina said and slid in next to Stella. Underneath the round table, she began to claw at her friend's stomach, a move that earned her a wide, genuine smile.
"With you guys, it always is," Ruby said and let out a loud belly laugh that made several of the barflies turn around and stare at her. "Anyway, what are you having?"
Stella bumped shoulders with Regina and took the former model's fingers in her own. "To keep with the theme… Bloody Mary. With a celery stick if you have it," she said as she began to play with the slender, graceful digits.
"Oh, a driver's Gin Tonic, thanks."
Once they had given their orders, the two investigators turned to look into each other's eyes and were soon lost to the world.
"You got it. Hey, you missed a load of excitement tonight. Earlier on, one of the regulars…"
Unfortunately, neither Stella nor Regina had time to listen to Ruby's story, or even the soft, romantic mood music playing from hidden speakers for that matter. Underneath the table, Stella put a hand on Regina's thigh and began to caress it through her black slacks.
'I wonder why she's always so warm… duh, you dimwit… it's because she's sizzling hot all over… after all, she's still got it,'
Stella thought and broke out in a cheesy grin.
"Whassup?" Regina whispered.
"Uh-huh. Just thinking about you."
"Awww… but I'm right here. You could act, you know… not just think…" Regina said and closed her eyes, clearly waiting for a kiss.
Pulling back slightly, Stella studied the gorgeous face right in front of her. Not quite believing that she of all people had managed to snare in a former world class model, she just shook her head and let out a chuckle. 'Act… aw Hell, would I like to act… I'm dying to act… Ye Gads, I haven't acted for… shit, months,'
she thought and leaned in to provide the kiss Regina was waiting for.
Even as their soft lips were touching, another, slightly more depressing, thought flashed through Stella's mind: 'But what if she doesn't like it when I act… when we take the next step… I mean, it's gotta be a pretty mindblowing thing for her… what will happen if she doesn't like it…?'
Once they broke off the kiss, the drinks had magically appeared on the table. "Cheers, Reggie," Stella said and used the celery stick to stir her Bloody Mary. Her smile wasn't quite as wide as it had been only moments before, but she knew that she should value what she had over what she might never get.
"Cheers, Stell. Hey, are you okay? You look really tired all of a sudden," Regina said and ran her fingers down Stella's cheek.
After taking a swig of her drink, Stella put it down and dabbed her mouth with the napkin. "No, I'm fine, I'm fine. It's been a hard night 's all."
"Mmmm-yeah," Regina said and took a sip of her GT.
"Wanna kiss again?"
"O-yeah," Regina said with a smile as she leaned in to claim her friend's lips.
THE END of STELLA HITS THE SAUCE
II - TRIAL AND REWARD
Written by Norsebard
Stepping out of the bathroom, Regina Harrison flicked off the light with her elbow and closed the door with the heel of her boot. "You're sure it's okay that I leave a little early today, Stell?" she said and walked over to the hallstand by the front door.
"Oh, sure, sure… no problem," Stella said, looking up from her indispensable Rubik's Cube.
"I mean, it's not like we've had anything at all to do today, right?" Regina said, put on her fashionable trench coat and flipped her hair out of her collar.
"Yeah, tell me about it. Nah, it's just fine, Reggie. I'm busy with the paperwork and stuff anyhow."
Stella recognized the tone of voice as being one, possibly one-and-a-half, notches below full-on sarcasm, and she looked up from her Cube and flashed her friend a wide, toothy grin.
"See ya tomorrow, Stell. Watch your neck if you're planning on sleeping on the couch," Regina said and opened the door to the parking lot. A chilly breeze and several drops of rain quickly entered the Harrison-Starr office and swirled around Stella's jeans-clad legs.
"Brrrr! Don't steal all my heat, Reggie! The radiators are hoppin' already!"
"Sorry," Regina said, but the smile on her face proved that she probably wasn't. With a quick wave, she stepped out into the late October afternoon and closed the door behind her.
Putting away the Rubik's Cube, Stella got up from her chair and watched her friend step into the slightly battered Mercedes SLK and drive out of their parking lot.
Once she was sure Regina was gone, she let out a little whoop and turned on her laptop. "Fashion Express here I come! Oooh, imagine that… Stella Starr… using a fashion web site! Sheesh, Reggie must be rubbin' off on me," she said excitedly as she pulled the laptop in front of her chair.
Five minutes later, Stella scrunched up her face and tapped the funeral dirge on the desktop with her short fingernails. Trying the web site just one more time for good luck, she once again found herself staring at the same, sublimely annoying error message that she couldn't make heads or tails of - 'Shopping cart showing -1 items. Cannot proceed to checkout without Error in MySQL line 809.'
Groaning out loud, she rubbed her face repeatedly, hoping that it would make her come up with the golden solution. After trying that twice, and trying the web site just one more time, she gave up and reached for her telephone.
'You're calling the customer service for Fashion Express dot com-'
an automated female voice said at the other end of the line.
"Hello, my name is Stel-"
'You're the twelfth caller. Please hold.'
"-la Starr… whut? Hold? You want me to hold? I'm number WHAT?"
The only response Stella got was a dreadful muzak rendition of Barry Manilow's Copacabana playing in her ear.
By the seventh time Copacabana started, she was ready to eat her chair - wooden frame, screws, cushions and all.
The song suddenly faded down, but just as Stella took a deep breath and got ready to say her piece, the automated voice took over: 'You're calling the customer service for Fashion Express dot com. You're the tenth caller. Please hold.'
- Then Copacabana started over for the eighth time.
Stella's face wasn't its usual pale pink color anymore, it was dark red. "Listen to me, Sista!" she barked into the telephone. "I'm gonna tell you wotcha gonna do! Why don't you take your fu… fu… fu… flippin' web site and your flippin' hotline and shove it up your fu… fu… shove it where the flippin' sun don't shine! I'm done! I'm SO done with you and your flippin' miserable web site and your-"
"GAH!" Stella howled, suddenly realizing that she had heard a human voice instead of the automaton. "Yes! Yes! Hello! I'm Stella Starr and I'm having a problem with your web site!"
'What kind of problem, Miss?'
Moving forward on her chair, Stella frantically adjusted her glasses. "Uh, buh, I'm… uh, trying to buy a scarf but there's a problem with the checkout. It gives me an error message that says that I have minus one items in the shopping cart even though I'm one hundred percent certain I've clicked on the scarf!"
'All right. What's the catalogue number for the item you're trying to buy, please.'
Realizing that the number was so tiny on the screen that she almost needed a magnifying glass, Stella pulled the laptop really close so she could get every digit right. "Well, okay, it's… it's really long, God, I… okay, it's number five-eight-five-four-seven-two-three-six-eight-nine-seven-seven-seven-six-seven-four-three-nine-one…! Didya get that…? Please don't make me repeat it!"
'I got it, Miss. Please hold.'
"Oh God, not the Copacabana again… anything but the Copaca-!"
'Miss, just to verify, the item you're trying to buy is a hot pink down jacket in size extra-extra-extra large, yes?'
"What?" Stella said, nearly falling off her chair. "No, no, no, it's the silk scarf designed by Mai Sjoblom! In Royal Blue with streaks of gold! It's right there on your web site! It's a Christmas present for a very choosy woman so it has to be correct! God, Reggie would freak OUT if she got a hot pink down jacket…"
'I'm sorry, Miss, but the scarf is no longer-'
"Ohhhhh no, don't say it! Don't say it!"
'I'm afraid the Mai Sjoblom scarf is no longer sold by us.'
"Ohfercryin'outloud! There's a flippin' picture of it on your web site…!"
'A technical glitch, I'm afraid, Miss.'
"Oh, crud. All right… never mind. Thank you for your help," Stella said and put the receiver back down on the telephone.
Leaning back on the chair, she let out a long, slow sigh and tried to reach for the heavens to see if anyone would take pity on her. When nothing happened, she pulled herself upright and started on her second task.
"All right," she mumbled, moving back to the web site's home page. "Money back guarantee… returning products… how to return a product… okay," she said and clicked on a link that said 'Two-Week Money Back Guarantee! Information here.'
After the page had loaded, Stella tried to follow the instructions but had to admit defeat halfway through, thinking that they might as well have been written in Venusian.
"If I get the Copacabana, I'm gonna scream… or hurl… or maybe scream, then hurl," she mumbled under her breath as she punched in the digits on her old-fashioned landline telephone.
'You're calling the customer service for Fashion Express dot com,'
the automated female voice said at the other end of the line. 'You're the third caller. Please hold.'
"Third is better than twelfth. Eh, I'll hold," Stella said out loud and got comfortable.
After three complete cycles of The Girl From Ipanema, she was about to change her mind when she heard a click on the line, followed by a female 'Hello?'
Thinking it was the same woman who had helped her before, Stella sat up straight and assumed a friendly voice. "Hi, it's Stella Starr again. Listen, I need help with your money back guarantee. I have bought a pair of skinny jeans that don't fit and now I want to ship 'em back to you, but I can't quite work out your web site. Can you help me?"
'Lady, you shoulda thought about that sooner. It's not my fault you can't get your ass screwed down into our jeans.'
"Buh… uh… I'm… I'm sor-" Stella said, feeling a giant, neon-yellow question mark come to life above her head.
'Why'd the Hell ya buy skinny jeans for, anyway? Did your boyfriend pressure you into buying 'em? I mean, Jesus, who looks good in skinny jeans, huh? Rail-thin actresses, that's who. Lady, the asses on us regular folks just can't fit into those pants.'
"Uh, but, I mean… it wasn't my a-"
'If you're really serious about pursuing your money back guarantee, you're gonna make my day even more miserable than it already is. You know why? 'Cos I'm gonna hafta go through a mountain of paperwork just because you can't follow the instructions on our web site. They're in English! You do read English, don'tcha?'
"I. Beg. Your. Pardon?!" Stella barked, feeling the giant question mark above her head pop away and turn into an equally giant exclamation point - this time in bright red.
'Maybe you don't and that's cool, too, but just don't buy stuff from a web site that's in English. Okay? Do you still wanna go through with it?'
"Yesssssssss," Stella hissed.
'Jesus… all right. Stuff like that makes me cranky. I've warned ya, lady.'
Stella just stared at the receiver but soon put it back to her ear and took a very, very deep breath. "Cranky? Cranky? Let me tell you something about being cranky, 'lady'. First of all, I wanted to buy a very good friend of mine a Christmas gift but then it turns out that there's something wrong with your flippin' web site! Then you force me to listen to Copaca-flippin'-bana four hundred and ninety-five times in a row… and then you tell me you don't even have that item! And now! Now! NOW you tell me that YOU'RE getting cranky because I call you and try to claim my STATUTORY RIGHTS for some piece of fu… fu… fu… flippin' crap you've sold me that cost me $49.95 and that I only wore once where I got so flippin' wet that I nearly got pneumonia 'cos I couldn't get my hand into my flippin' pocket to get my flippin' keys so I could get out of the fu… fu… fu… flippin' rain!"
'You wore the jeans?'
"FLIPPIN' HELL, YES!"
'Well, in that case, you've wasted not only your time but my time as well 'cos you've forfeited your rights. The money back guarantee is only valid for clean, unsoiled products.'
"Unsoiled? Whaddahell do you think I did with 'em? Ate a stack a' chili bean burritos and let rip the Apocalypse Fart?"
'Rules are rules. You have forfeited your money back guaran-'
"Okay… O-kay… OKAY! That does it! I'm officially mad. No, I'm not just mad. I'm emm aye dee. Get it? It spells Mad. Mad like in so flippin' furious I wanna come over to your flippin' warehouse and dump those flippin' skinny jeans down your flippin' mail box! That's the kinda mad I am! That's Emm Aye Dee! MAD!"
'Oh, will you calm down, lady? So you can spell… whoop-di-do. It ain't got nothin' to do with me so leave me the Hell out of it! Call me back when you've calmed down! Jesus, I'm gettin' a rash just listenin' to ya!'
"Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, I'm gonna… I'm gonna…" Stella said and put the receiver down on the telephone with surprising tenderness. "I'm gonna… kill something. Yes. Ha, ha, ha… Ha! I'm gonna kill something! Ooooh, I'm gonna… kill… something… Ha, ha, ha! Kill… HA! Ha…!"
Jerking up from her chair and shuffling into the center of the office, she began to twist and turn in place like she had been possessed by an evil spirit. Clenching and unclenching her fists, she felt an explosion bubble up inside her, but she didn't know when it might come nor how long it would last when it arrived.
Outside, Regina drove the Mercedes back into the parking lot and double-parked in front of the door to the office. "Can't believe I left without my wallet…" she mumbled as she got out of the low-slung sports car and strode over to the building.
The very same split second Regina stepped into the office, Stella went bang and turned into an extremely loud and awesomely colorful supernova. The rage and fury that exploded out of the petite woman came in volcanic volleys that threatened to blow out the windows and take the roof clean off the building.
Again and again, Stella sent out waves of acid mixed with fire and brimstone that coagulated into burning hot walls of air that were so thick and heavy with vitriol that Regina seriously considered donning the kind of protective gear technicians used when they checked the fuel rods in atomic power plants.
After a while, the volcano slowly died down, leaving a very tired and very raw Stella Starr standing in the middle of the floor with spittle on her chin and glasses that were misted up so badly she couldn't see anything at all.
"Stell?" Regina said and hung her trench coat on the hallstand, knowing that it would be a while before she could go home.
"Reggie?" Stella croaked.
"Yeah, it's me. I forgot my wallet."
"What's happened, hon?" Regina said and dug into her pocket to find a handkerchief.
"Oh, you know… just the usual fun and games."
"Uh-huh?" Regina said and used her hankie to wipe Stella's chin. After putting it away, she pulled her friend into a warm, comforting hug. "Hey, how about we call for a Meaty Mama and some fries and stuff? Wouldn't that be fun?"
"I guess… maybe a Cherry Cola?"
"Definitely. C'mon," Regina said and helped Stella over to the couch.
Once the fiery investigator was safely seated, Regina took off the misty glasses and gave them a quick wipe-down on her blouse. "There you go, Stell," she said and kissed Stella on the forehead.
"Thanks, Reggie… man, people have been so mean to me after you left," Stella croaked as she adjusted her glasses. "Sheesh, it's scary…"
"You can tell me all about it in a little while. But first, it's pizza time," Regina said and took the telephone from her own desk.
Taking a deep breath, Stella shook her head slowly. "You better watch out, baby. There's a Weirdo thing goin' on with the phone right now… I think it's some kind of zombie bug that eats good manners or something."
"Uh-huh?" Reggie said, thinking how much she liked Stella calling her baby and letting it show in a broad genuine smile. Then she heard the pizza guy come on the phone and concentrated on ordering their food.
THE END of TRIAL AND REWARD
III - ONE, TWO, THREE!
Written by Norsebard
"Stell…" Regina Harrison said, sitting on the couch in the Harrison-Starr office and holding Stella Starr's hands in her own. "If you don't want to see it, it's okay. I won't be upset. I know that it's not really your thing."
Screwing a smile on her face, Stella nodded faintly and gave Regina's hands a little squeeze to emphasize that she was okay with watching a fifteen-year old recording of one of Regina's catwalk appearances. "No, no, Reggie… I'm… it's okay. Honest. Can I get a Razzie before we start?"
"Sure! I'll just cue the DVD. There's no need to watch all the introductory stuff anyway… the most important part is at the end," Regina said with a childish snicker. Grabbing the remote, she pressed Play on the menu screen of the 'Highlights of the 1997 Berlin Fashion Week' and was soon lost to the world.
"Uh, yeah… okay," Stella said and got up from the couch.
A thumping disco beat soon echoed through the office, forming the soundtrack for a seemingly endless line of male and female models who were strutting down the catwalk. Some came in pairs and some came on their own, but they were all wearing extravagant - or even outrageous - clothes. At the end of the catwalk, the models briefly played to the audience before they spun around and began the return trip.
"Have you been on yet, Reggie?" Stella said holding an opened can of Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz and a bowl of pretzels.
Kicking off her shoes, Regina quickly pulled her legs up underneath her. "Shhh!" she said and waved her hand dismissively.
"Well, excuse the hell outta me!"
On occasion, the cameras switched to the audience to show equally long rows of critics and fashion reporters who were busy taking notes on the quality of the garments and the elegance of the models.
"No, I haven't been on yet… soon, though. Really soon. I don't think it'll be possible for you to miss me," Regina said and flashed Stella a broad grin.
"Oh, was it that bad? Wotcha do, trip over your dress? No, let me guess… you fell off the catwalk and headbutted one of the critics in the crotch?" Stella said as she sat down and snuggled up next to the former model.
"Nooooo! Silly! Look, there's Steve!"
On the screen, a young and dashing, broad-shouldered, square-jawed Steve Darrian stepped onto the catwalk while all the other models walked the other way, eventually leaving him all alone on the platform.
Wearing a gun metal gray business suit that was cut so squarely across the shoulders he looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he strode up to stand alone at the far end of the catwalk.
"Oh, wasn't he a hunk back then?" Regina said and crushed the red, heart-shaped pillow Stella had bought for her.
Growling deep in her throat, Stella took a long swig of her Raspberry Fizz and turned to look at Regina's profile. "Yeah, well, I guess. You shoulda seen me fifteen years ago, Reggie. I was the Goddess Aphrodite personified!"
"No," Stella said and grabbed a handful of pretzels that she proceeded to stuff into her mouth.
"Oh… ah, I didn't mean it like that," Regina said and caressed Stella's thigh.
"It'fff okay, Reffie. I'm not that infffecure… I fffink. Not now, anyway. Back fffen, Gofff, I wafff fffo…" - gulp -
"I don't wanna talk about it," Stella said, chewing darkly on the pretzels.
On the screen, Steve took off his jacket and flung it over his shoulder.
"And here we go!" Regina said and pointed at the screen.
The camera quickly panned back to the entrance onto the catwalk where it waited idly for a few seconds. In the hall, the lights were dimmed and the music was slowly being faded out, leading to an excited murmur rising from the audience - then Regina burst onto the catwalk, bathed in the light from a single, powerful spotlight and wearing a sensational, extravagantly cut dress held in ivory and gold. Her hair cascaded over her right shoulder and her golden makeup made her resemble the popular image of Cleopatra.
"Ho… ly… sh…" Stella said, dropping the bowl of pretzels onto the carpet.
A few seconds later, the recording showed the much younger Regina begin to move up the catwalk, going very slowly so everyone could get a good look at the dress. Along the way, she was bathed in a non-stop shower of flashes and accompanied by a thunderous applause, but her face remained perfectly neutral to the point of appearing cold and detached. Halfway there, she met Steve who was walking the other way, and for a brief moment, the two superstars performed a little erotic pas-de-deux
for the cameras without actually touching.
"Good… God… almighty!" Stella croaked, clutching the can of Raspberry Fizz so hard that it was almost buckling under her grip.
By the time Regina reached the end of the catwalk, the camera zoomed in on her face and her stone cold, ice blue eyes before it slowly journeyed down her body to show the dress. "Holy Guacamole, you were gorgeous back then, hon…" Stella said, completely lost in the image that was presented on the screen.
Regina just grunted. As her younger self filled the TV screen, she reached up and touched the crow's feet that now lined the outside of her eyes. Sighing deeply, she moved her hand further down and felt the wrinkles around her mouth and the coarse, aging skin on her throat and upper chest. "Mmmm. Thanks."
"I really oughtta know this, but my brain is so fried I can't work it out… how old were you back then?" Stella said and put her hand on Regina's thigh.
"Twenty-eight. It was an eternity ago."
On the screen, the younger Regina turned around and slithered back towards the entrance, followed by a rapturous applause from the audience. Just before she reached the point where she had entered the catwalk, she turned back around and was joined by the French star designer Cyrille de Flamand on the way back to the far end of the platform.
Sighing, the current Regina found the remote and pressed Stop twice to end the show. "Well. Maybe we shouldn't have watched it. Now I just feel old and-"
Moving swiftly, Stella reached up and put a couple of fingers across Regina's soft lips. "Okay, hold it right there, Missy. You've matured, Reggie. You're not old, you're just… just… uh… just… like a Scotch. They get better with age, don't they?"
"And besides, look at you! You still got it," Stella said and poked a finger into Regina's side to get her to lose the dark frown she had on her face.
Shrugging, Regina pressed Eject on the remote and watched the tray slide out of the player. "Well, if you say so. Thanks, Stell," she said and got up from the couch.
"I do! So there! And you're welcome… friend. Oh shoot, look at what the younger you made me do," Stella said and pointed at the pile of pretzels on the carpet.
"Do you want me to get the vacuum?"
"No, they were too expensive to throw away like that. I'll just blow the dust off 'em," Stella said and got down on her knees to scoop up the salty snacks.
Shaking her head, Regina took the DVD and put it into its box. "Sheesh!" she said and began to giggle as she rolled the portable table with the TV and the DVD player back into the conference room.
"I got it, Reggie!" Stella said and put a handful of slightly dusty pretzels on the coffee table. Two heartbeats later, she had flung herself into her chair at her desk and had picked up the receiver of her old-fashioned landline telephone. "You've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you? And no, we don't actually have anyone here by that name. My name is Stella Starr and I'm the senior investigator."
a female voice said at the other end of the connection.
"So you weren't about to ask for Mr. Harrison Starr…?"
"Typical," Stella grumbled. Clearing her throat, she pushed the drawer with the piece of paper that said 'People who ask for Mr. Harrison Bleepin' Starr' shut and leaned back in the chair. "Anyway… I'm sorry. Go on."
'Well, I'm Megan Austin. I'm calling for the Top Rope Wrestling Club on Carter Boulevard. I was wondering if you would like to sponsor our annual Smash 'em Up event that we hold for the Little Friends In Need Foundation?'
"Oh… your annual… what?"
'Smash 'em Up, it's a wrestling event that our club organizes to give some of the less privileged children a fun day away from their problems.'
"Ohhh… all right. We'll that's definitely a worthy cause," Stella said as she pulled her laptop close and began to search for 'top rope wrestling club smash 'em up' on the Internet to verify that she wasn't being conned. After a few seconds, she found a link that she clicked on.
"Mmmm!" she exclaimed loudly when she realized that she was looking at a web site for a wrestling club for women - colorful, beefy women in wild makeup and even wilder, skin-tight costumes, judging by the pictures.
'Is that a yes, Miss Starr?'
"Whut? Oh… yes, that was a yes, Miss Austin. Uh, how much are you looking for?" Stella said and reached into the second drawer to find her wallet.
'Seven hundred dollars.'
"Seven… h- h- hundred…" Stella stuttered, staring at the measly thirty dollars she had in her wallet. "Shoot, I'm… I'm sorry. I don't have that kind of money right now…"
Just then, Regina walked back into the office and closed the door to the conference room behind her.
"Uh, stay on the line, Miss Austin," Stella said, waving frantically at Regina. "I may have something for you after all."
Through a long line of increasingly confusing hand signals, foot signals and wild nods with her head that made her dirty-blonde mop of hair fly all over the place - and her glasses nearly fly off her face - Stella made Regina aware that she should go over to her own desk and pick up her phone.
Shrugging, Regina did just that. As she sat down, she kicked off her shoes and flung her endless jeans-clad legs up on the corner of the desk. Picking up the receiver, she looked at Stella who nodded vigorously in return.
"Miss Austin? My business associate is on the line now," Stella said into the telephone.
"Hello, this is Regina Harrison," Regina said.
'Hello, my name is Megan Austin. Like I told your associate, I'm calling for the Top Rope Wrestling Club over on Carter Boulevard. Would you like to sponsor our annual Smash 'em Up event that we organize for the Little Friends In Need Foundation? We need seven hundred dollars to get everything up to scratch.'
Scrunching up her face, Regina put a hand across the microphone and turned around to look at Stella who once again replied by nodding and pointing wildly at the web site on her laptop.
"Yes, we would, Miss Austin," Regina said, already looking for her checkbook.
'Oh, thank you! I know a buncha kids who'll be very happy now.'
"Well… that's cool."
'Yes! To show our gratitude, we'll give you two free tickets for the event. It's this Saturday and it starts at two in the afternoon.'
Over by her own phone, Stella punched the air and let out a silent whoop, but Regina's next reply almost made her fall off her chair - "Oh, you know… wrestling… that's not really our thing-"
After waving her hand frantically without Regina noticing, Stella decided to pull rank for once and break into the conversation. "Oh, free tickets! That would be too cool! Thanks, Miss Austin. We'll be there on Saturday at two!"
'All right. Once again, thank you very much. Please bring the money to the event and we'll square everything before it starts.'
"We will," Stella said, grinning broadly. "And thank you."
After hanging up, she crumpled up a piece of paper and threw it at Regina. "Free tickets! Yeah, honey-hoosh! And you almost said no… Jeez, Reggie!"
"Stell… wrestling…?" Regina said as she put down her own receiver.
"Wrestling, yep. Hey, it's like a fashion show with a square catwalk!"
"You better believe it is, Miss-Too-Flippin-Famous-To-Know-Anything-About-Real-Sports. And the wrestlers all look fantastic. Come over and take a look," Stella said and turned the laptop around so Regina could check out the photos on the web site.
Saturday dawned dry and less gloomy which really helped Stella hit the right mood for the charity event. Whistling loudly and slightly off-key, she sat in the center of the office and stared at three of their huge Bags of Disguises. "Shoot, I can't make up my mind… what kind of costume do you think I should wear today, Reggie?"
Regina was sitting at her desk with her legs up on the corner, but the tell-tale super-excited look on Stella's face made her take them down and join her friend on the carpet, mindful not to get carpet lint on her stylish, elegant pant suit. "Oh, I don't know… why do you feel you need to wear a costume? I'm sure the wrestlers are going to be very colorful…"
"I know that, but I just wanted to… to… fit in. Or maybe stick out. You know? Back when I worked for my father, I remember that when we were involved in charity events, the higher-ups always showed up in their dull business suits… but there's no fun in that," Stella said and pushed her glasses up her nose.
"Oh, I have no doubt you'll fit in *and* stick out all at the same time, Stella Starr," Regina said and leaned in to muss Stella's wild mop of hair.
"Ha, ha. No, seriously… the costume? Wrestlers… that made me think about maybe the naughty nurse…? Or the Cop? Or Bob the Plumber for that matter…" Stella said and pointed at the various bags of clothes.
Scrunching up her face, Regina began to tap an index finger against her lips. "Uh, Stella… it's an event for kids… I'm quite sure they wouldn't know what to do with the naughty nurse, the cop, or the plumber."
"You could always go as yourself," Regina said and took a good look at Stella's fluorescent-orange fleece vest, her purple-and-blue batik long-sleeved t-shirt, her green jeans that were cut off below the knees and her white-and-green Pippi Longstocking socks. "Can't get more colorful than that," she continued, flashing Stella her patented two-hundred watt smile.
Stella narrowed her eyes dangerously but couldn't hold it for long and eventually broke out in a cheesy grin. "Oh yeah? Ah, this isn't about us, anyway. I mean, it's not like they'll ask us to wrestle with them, right?"
"God, I sincerely hope not," Regina said and pulled the most horrified grimace Stella could ever remember seeing on the former model's face.
An hour later, Regina pulled the slightly battered Mercedes SLK - they still hadn't called the leasing company to tell them about the incident - up to the end of a long line of cars waiting to drive off the Boulevard and onto a paved parking lot in front of a cluster of low buildings.
"Whoa, this is a popular event!" Stella said, craning her neck to check out the mass of people milling about in a closed-off area of the lot that had been lavishly decorated with red, white and blue festoons and balloons, huge, colorful banners and many other types of party equipment.
"Yeah. How come we've never heard about this before?" Regina said, looking in the mirror at even more cars following them into the turning lane.
"Hey, you did bring the free tickets, right?"
"Yep, they're right here," Stella said and put her hand inside her fluorescent-orange vest to dig into her liner pocket. "And no, I won't drop 'em out of the window, Reggie," she continued and waved the two printed pieces of paper that had arrived in the mail only the day before.
"I didn't say you would, Stell!"
"But you were thinking it!"
"Oh, so you can read my mind now? Quick, Stell, what am I thinking… right… this… minute?" Regina said and drilled her ice blue orbs into Stella's emerald green ones.
Blushing, Stella snickered and looked back out of the window. "Never mind."
"Uh-huh," Regina said and drove into the parking lot where they were quickly and efficiently ushered into an available slot by a female parking attendant wearing a ballgown and wrestling boots.
On their way over to the main building, Stella snuck her hand inside Regina's and gave it a little squeeze. "Awww… look at all those happy kids over there, Reggie. Whoa, that's one hell of a moonbounce, huh? I loved moonbounces when I was a kid."
"I believe you," Regina said dryly.
"I did! It was the only place where I could goof off to the max without getting hurt. Man, I used to bounce around like… like…"
"Like you do now, Stell?"
Stepping through an opened pair of double doors, the two investigators entered the low building and were greeted by an enthusiastic cheer from a crowd of kids who were watching two female wrestlers going at it hammer and tongs in a ring that had been erected in the center of what was apparently the main room of the building - one of the wrestlers was dressed in an all-gold spandex costume with a white logo across her chest that said MD, and the other wore camouflage army pants and an olive green tank top that matched her Latino coloring perfectly.
"Oh, my…" Stella said, staring at the two well-built ladies.
The brief match ended when the army woman jumped off the top rope and whacked her elbow across the other one's brow, earning herself a chorus of jeers and boos from the crowd.
"Ouch," Regina said and scrunched up her face. "I don't care if it is faked or not, that's gotta hurt… I heard that slap way over here."
In the ring, the army woman strutted over to the ropes and puffed out her chest like some overgrown fighting rooster. When she heard the jeers, she waved her hand in disgust and climbed down from the ring.
"Hi," a female voice said behind Stella and Regina. "You must be the ladies from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. I'm Megan Austin, we spoke over the phone…?"
Turning around, Stella began to reach for the free tickets in her pocket but stopped with a jerk when she realized that she was looking directly into Megan's shirt-clad bosom. Quickly looking down to see if she was wearing stilts - which she wasn't - Stella gulped and took a half-step back to be able to see the other woman's face. "Whoa… I thought Reggie here was tall…"
"I get that a lot," Megan said with a grin and put out her hand. In her mid-thirties, the veteran wrestler was built like a square brick with long limbs and a long torso. Her short, stylish hair and her pretty, if angular and strong-jawed, face only added to the ensemble.
Stunned, Stella just offered Megan the free tickets, but Regina stepped in between them and shook hands with the tall woman. "Stell, I'm quite sure Megan wanted to shake hands."
"Ohhh… okay. Hi, I'm Stella Starr. This is my business associate Regina Harrison. We're really excited to be here today," Stella said and shook hands with the wrestler. "Ummm… I hope you won't mind me asking, but-"
"I'm six foot three plus another three inches on my boots. And yes, I was teased mercilessly when I was a teenager," Megan said with a laugh. "That's why I turned to wrestling when I was old enough."
"Uh-huh? Well, I'm five foot four and a half, and I was teased, too."
Nodding, Megan hooked her thumbs through the forward belt hoops on her jeans and assumed a cool pose that scored several brownie points with Regina. "You know what I say? I say, To hell with all bullies."
"Word!" Stella said and put out the free tickets. "Reggie's got the check. Man, you've really got something going here… it looks great!"
"Thanks," Megan said and took the check from Regina's hand. "Hey, do you have any promotional material, like business cards or something? We have a stand set up for you over there where you can sit down, but we didn't really have anything to put on it."
"Uh, no… we're kinda just ourselves," Stella said, looking at Regina who shrugged in return.
"Okay… tell you what, I'm about to make an announcement anyway, so why don't I introduce you? That way, people could come in here and-"
Stella quickly put up her left hand in a 'Stop'-gesture while she wrapped the right around Regina's waist. "Oh no, Megan, we're here to mingle. Mingle is what we do best so if you need us for anything, we'll be, uh… mingling."
"Okay," Megan said with a laugh.
Moving back to the door, Stella suddenly stopped and turned around. "By the way… the moonbounce… is that for adults, too?"
"No, I'm sorry, Miss Starr, it's just for kids."
"Aw darn," Stella said and snuggled up to Regina on their way out of the door.
An hour and countless introductions later, Stella and Regina met in the middle holding a can of Carbonated Mineral Water and a Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz, respectively.
"Hey," Stella said, pointing at Regina's can of Fizz. "Where'd ya get that? I've looked everywhere but I could only find a stash of this dull stuff," she continued, holding up the mineral water.
"Well, I've looked everywhere, too, but all *I* could find was this sickly sweet stuff!"
"We obviously haven't looked closely enough, have we?" Stella said with a chuckle as she swapped the two cans.
Regina quickly took a healthy swig from the mineral water and proceeded to run her tongue along her teeth to feel if any of them had gone missing after the sugar torture she had exposed them to. 'Phew!'
she thought when they were all still there.
"What have you been doing, Reggie? Did you get us some new customers?"
"Well, no… but I did solve the Case of the Missing Lollipop. The kid had put it into his pocket and forgot all about it," Regina said and flashed a wide grin.
"Oh… that's nice. Probably won't help us pay the rent, but still…"
"Did you get anything?"
"Ah, no. Not really." Shrugging, Stella took a long swig from the Raspberry Fizz and let it slush around her mouth for a while so all her teeth would feel right at home.
Behind them, a fanfare blaring out of a pair of speakers heralded the arrival of a line of outrageously colorful female wrestlers who posed and strutted their way across the parking lot to get to a dais under a canopy.
Megan Austin led the way, acting as a six-foot-six tug boat dressed in a screaming orange prison coverall complete with a four-digit number on her back in large, black letters. Wearing a fierce scowl on her face, she growled at every single person she met on her way to the dais, including Stella and Regina.
Squealing loudly, Stella clapped her hands repeatedly and began to jump up and down on the spot in sheer anticipation. "Oooh, this is gonna be good… this is gonna be so goooood!" she howled, giving Regina a shoulder block when the former model didn't seem as enthusiastic.
Behind Megan, the second wrestler in the line was dressed like a ballerina right down to a pink tutu and the pointy shoes; the third in line wore a tiara, an electric blue ballgown and a small, white purse; then came the woman in the gold spandex and the one in the camouflage pants, and finally, on her own at the end of the line, a woman dressed as a harem girl in baggy blue pants, a tight, skin-colored body stocking and a burgundy wrap-around that covered her bosom - on her face, the woman wore so much makeup that she resembled a peacock.
One after the other, the six wrestlers stepped up on the dais, all playing their characters to perfection. When Megan turned on her microphone and began her spiel, Regina and Stella were swamped by all the families who suddenly rushed forward to get to the edge of the dais.
"Whoa! Holy flip!" Stella said as she was practically run down by a stampeding army of gleefully squealing kids and parents pushing their offspring ahead of them. In two seconds flat, Stella and Regina went from standing at the head of the queue to standing at the rear of it, and almost at once, Stella could only see the backs of the parents in front of her.
"Oh… rats," she growled, trying to jump up and down just to catch a glimpse of the wrestlers on the dais.
"You want a piggy-back?" Regina asked and leaned down, but Stella just shook her head.
"Naw, that would look too weird… even in this crowd."
Up on the stage, Megan growled into the microphone, making the kids squeal just a little bit louder. "I'm Chains and this is my posse… the Ballerina, the Prom Queen, the Golden Girl, Nasty Sarge and Ria, the Slave Girl. Give them a warm welcome, will ya!"
The audience responded immediately by clapping and cheering loudly, eventually taking so long to settle down that Chains had to growl into the microphone again. "Right! For our first event, the Survivor match, we need an assistant referee. Can I get a volunteer?"
"Ooh!" Stella said and threw her arms in the air. When she noticed that she couldn't be seen from the dais, she began to jump up and down and let out a series of hoots and whistles - unfortunately, everyone around her did the same so she ended up being quite literally lost in the crowd.
After a short selection process, Chains picked a young boy in the center of the audience. "You! The young fella in the wrestlin' T-shirt. I guess I don't hafta explain the rules to you, huh?"
"Rats," Stella growled, thrusting her hands into the pockets of her vest.
Feeling sorry for Stella, Regina kissed the side of her head and pulled her into a warm, sideways hug. "Do you really want to volunteer for something, Stell?"
"Oh yes. Wouldn't it be fun? I think it would be a lot of fun," Stella said and pushed her glasses up her nose.
"Okay, then," Regina said and looked back up at the dais.
Once the young boy and his father had been brought to the stage, Chains grabbed the microphone again and cleared her throat. "And for the Main Event, we need a volunteer who-"
Shooting her arm in the air, Regina roared "HEP!" in a stentorian voice that spooked Stella so badly that she nearly soiled her undies.
Up on the stage, Chains - or rather, Megan - had to stifle a snicker that would have been very out of character. Pausing briefly, she looked at Regina, Stella and then to her left at the wrestler known as Ria, the Slave Girl. 'Well, that's gonna be something worth seeing… I think I better record it… it'll get us a ton of hits on YouTube,'
she thought as she let out a creepy chuckle in her Chains-voice.
"I sure didn't see that one coming… congratulations, lady, you have just entered yourself in a one-fall match-up against the winner of the Survivor. I hope you'll enjoy it, mwuhahahahaha…"
The entire audience broke out in an ear-splitting cheer, and most of them turned around and began to applaud Regina who just stood there like a marble statue that had just realized it had volunteered itself to be beaten, knocked, thrown, thumped and finally thrashed into submission by a professional wrestler who did that sort of thing once a day and twice on the weekends.
"Hell yeah! Reggie! You go, girl!" Stella howled, wrapped her arms around Regina's waist and gave the tall, former model the crush of a lifetime. "Ohhhh, I'm so proud of you! Go on, my warrior queen, the stage is yours!"
"Buh… I… you… it wasn't… it was… f- for you…" Regina said in a flat, dull monotone. Suddenly realizing what she had got herself into, she tried to spin around and run back to the Mercedes at the speed of sound, but Stella held onto her with all her might, even though she was dragged eight feet along the parking lot.
"But I don't wanna fight! What do I know about fighting? Oh God, they'll grind me to a pulp!" Regina howled in a high-pitched voice that didn't sound like her own at all.
"Reggie! You gotta! Listen to 'em! Get up there and show 'em what you're made of!" Stella said and gave Regina a strong push towards the dais.
Gulping loudly, Regina walked across the parking lot and onto the stage on knees that were knocking so badly she could hardly walk straight. Once she had joined the wrestlers and the young boy and his father, she raised her arms in the air and quickly waved to the crowd, feeling so hot under her collar that she was worried she would faint on the spot.
Down among the audience, Stella beamed like a little sun as she watched the tall, graceful, former model join the tough wrestlers on the stage. "That's my girl! Uh-huh! That's my girl!" she shouted while doing an impromptu Irish jig, making the people around her laugh at her antics.
Fifteen minutes later, the entire group of excited kids and expectant parents had filed into the low building and were standing at a safe distance from the indoor ring, most holding a little paper flag in the color of their favorite of the female wrestlers - orange, pink, blue, gold, green or burgundy.
The sound level was one notch below deafening and it only grew worse when Chains stepped into the ring holding an old-fashioned announcer's microphone. "Settle down! Settle down!" Megan said in her gravelly voice. "Here's the rules for the Survivor. Six wrestlers go in, six fight, one comes out the winner! This is a no holds barred contest… the wrestlers are allowed to use the ropes, all choke holds, all legwork, all body slams. The wrestlers are eliminated only by getting thrown over the top rope. Over the top rope and she's outta there! The wrestlers can gang up on each other, but they gotta remember to watch their backs! All right? Let's rock and roll!"
With that, Chains turned off the microphone and stepped down from the ring.
At once, the crowd began to cheer wildly and fly their paper flags, chanting the names of the six wrestlers - except Regina who just stood there in a frozen, wide-eyed, pale-faced state of shock.
The first to heed the call was the Prom Queen in blue who waltzed down the aisle from the backstage area and into the ring. The second was Nasty Sarge in her green outfit and the third was the pink Ballerina.
While her wrestlers were assembling in the ring, Megan stepped over to Stella and Regina who were standing off to a side to offer the stunned model some support. "Wow, you'll definitely get a story for the grandkids today, Miss Harrison."
"Oh, it won't be as bad as you think. You'll be fighting Ria, the Slave Girl," Megan said and pointed at the aforementioned wrestler who was belly-dancing her way towards the ring to a great cheer from the crowd.
Adjusting her glasses, Stella leaned in towards the tall wrestler and whispered: "So it's already been decided who's going to win?"
"Oh yes. We gotta take care of each other. The Ballerina's real name is Amy, but it's her time of the month and she doesn't want to be thrown around too much so she'll be the first to go. Then it's Nasty Sarge, Maria Consuela… you can't let a villain win one of these things, you know."
"Of course not," Stella said with a grin.
"Then it's myself, I have a little knee injury I'm nursing, so… then it's Marge, the Golden Girl, and finally Suzanne, the Prom Queen. She and Ria al-Hadiq work really well off each other so we often save them for last. Ria knows how to play to the audience, she's definitely a future star."
"Oooh, that sounds so cool… don't you think it sounds cool, Reggie?" Stella said and slapped Regina's gut.
"Mmmm!" Regina said, not quite able to wrap her brain around the fact that she was about to enter the ring with a professional wrestler - or even that she was speaking to a six-foot-six inmate in prison orange with a mean vibe and a honey-sweet voice.
Megan glanced up and noticed that she was running late. "Anyway, I gotta go. Once the match is over, come to the backstage area. I'll introduce you to my girls. You'll still be here after the Survivor, right?"
"Oh, don't you worry about that," Stella said with a cheesy grin. "I know just the thing to keep her here," she continued and attached her lips to Regina's with such suction that it would take a Caterpillar loader tractor to pull them apart.
The chime of the ringside bell acted as the opening bugle call in a cataclysmic struggle between the six colorful wrestlers who had lined up in the corners of the ring. To the great cheer of the crowd, the women immediately began to grapple, groan, grunt and growl.
It didn't take long for the fighters to go up on the top ropes and fly down onto their opponents, or wrap their arms around their waists and flip them over their hips, or even apply sleeper holds that were meant to pacify the fiercely scowling women.
Because Megan had told them how the sequence of events would unfold, Stella tried to look beyond the spectacle and study how the wrestlers actually interacted with each other. "Aw, this is fascinating stuff! I wish we had some popcorn!" she said and poked her elbow into Regina's side.
"Look… look at the Ballerina. It's like Megan said, they're actually taking care of her. She's mostly being manhandled up against the ropes by Nasty Sarge… she hasn't even hit the canvas yet."
"Mmmm… fascinating," Regina said flatly.
"And there she goes!" Stella howled as the Ballerina flew over the top rope and landed with surprising grace on the thick mat beyond the ring. Once there, she performed a pirouette before she shuffled off backstage, sulking and pouting all the way there accompanied by appreciative hoots by the crowd.
Nasty Sarge only had a few moments to savor her small victory because Chains soon picked her up by the scruff of her neck and the seat of her camouflage pants and held her high above her head for several seconds - then she threw the army wrestler out of the ring with such force that she bounced twice on the thick mat. Getting up, Nasty Sarge put her hand on her back and began to squeal and moan, earning herself a large round of jeers from the crowd on her trip away from the ring.
"Ohhhhhhh! Wow! Did you see how she bounced, Reggie? Reggie? Reggie…?"
"I. Saw. It."
"Oh, cheer up, hon! They'd never do that to you!" Stella said and pulled her friend into a hug.
"And you know that… how?"
Smiling broadly, Stella stood up on tip-toes and claimed Regina's lips in a sweet, little kiss. "Trust me… that's all I'm sayin'. Just trust me."
A huge cheer heralded Chains' exit from the ring, the result of a collaboration between the Golden Girl and the Prom Queen - who promptly turned on each other and engaged in a ferocious catfight that included two body slams and a flying forearm to the brow.
Through all this, Ria the Slave Girl had ducked and dived her way out of the worst problems with the occasional high-skill maneuver to keep her in the game. It didn't take long for the Prom Queen to eliminate the Golden Girl, but she was only allowed a few celebratory poses before Ria had clobbered her from behind with a fierce double-fisted punch to the back of her head.
"Ooooh!" Stella howled, throwing her arms in the air in glee.
The two wrestlers went at it in a mean knockdown fight where they both showed a very high degree of wrestling skills, making the crowd go into a near-frenzy.
The finishing move came when both wrestlers climbed to diagonally opposed turnbuckles, jumped off them and flew towards each other five feet off the canvas. Meeting halfway across, they grabbed hold of each other and fell heavily into the ring. Ria quickly bounced up like a rubber ball, but the Prom Queen just let out a childish wail and thumped her fist into the canvas several times.
In no time flat, Ria picked up the Prom Queen and threw her over her shoulder in a Fireman's carry. Already posing to the crowd, Ria simply dumped the Queen over the top rope to become the winner of the Survivor.
To massive applause from the audience and her theme music - a Middle Eastern instrumental - booming out of the speakers, the Slave Girl shimmied across the canvas in a victory dance where her hips, stomach, chest and arms moved in perfect synchronicity.
Stella clapped and cheered along with the rest of the audience, constantly nudging Regina in the side with her elbow. "She's kinda sexy, don't you think? Huh? Huh?"
"I wouldn't know, Stell. My brain left twenty minutes ago," Regina said flatly.
"Take it from an expert, she is."
Up on the stage, Ria's theme music stopped and she reached down to take a microphone that was lying on a table next to the ring. "I have been told there's a challenger among you! A challenger who believes that she can beat me, Ria! The undefeated champion of the Survivor! You know what I say to that? I say Ha! And if you didn't hear that, I'll say it again… Ha!"
All the kids in the audience began to cheer and fly their burgundy flags, and most of the dads began to whistle at the scantily-dressed Ria and at the prospect of seeing another fight between two such gorgeous creatures.
"Them's fightin' words, Reggie!" Stella said and nudged Regina some more.
"Yeah, but… oh, will you stop doing that! I need all my ribs in one piece!" Regina said and rubbed her aching side.
"Sowwy," Stella said with a cute, little pout.
"You always say that pouts don't work on you, Stell. Well, they don't work on me, neither!"
Waiting impatiently, Ria puffed twice into the microphone to let Regina know that her spiel had been a cue for her to join her in the ring.
"I think she wants you to go up there, Reggie!" Stella said and gave her friend a little push.
- Groan! -
"I'm going… I'm going," Regina said and walked up to the ring. Taking a small flight of stairs so she wouldn't look like a dork when she climbed up, she stepped through the ropes and went in to stand next to Ria.
"Ah!" Ria said and pretended to give Regina a thorough once-over. "The challenger! The match will commence after a short intermission. Don't go anywhere, folks, this will be spec-*ta*-cular!" she said and turned off the microphone.
Looking down at all the expectant faces in the crowd, Regina began to get a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. It only got worse when she caught a glimpse of Stella's flushed face that showed all the tell-tale signs that the blonde investigator was going through a full-blown super-excited phase - she had red blotches on her cheeks and her eyes were so shiny Regina could see them very clearly even twenty-five feet away.
Gulping, Regina briefly waved to the crowd before climbing down from the ring.
Three minutes later, Stella and Regina moved aside a white curtain that had been put up to cordon off the backstage area. Five of the wrestlers were sitting on chairs, some of them in their outfits and some in terrycloth bathrobes.
Megan put down a cup of coffee and got up from her chair. "Hi, guys!" she said and quickly shook hands with the two investigators. "Let me introduce you to my girls. Here's Amy, the Ballerina."
"Hi," Amy said and shook hands with Regina and Stella. In her late twenties, she appeared to be a petite woman with a pale complexion, but a closer look revealed tough, wiry arms and legs and a determined look on her face.
Moving on, Megan pointed at the empty chair. "The Golden Girl is in the bathroom right now so you'll have to say hello later. This is Suzanne, the Prom Queen."
"As witnessed by my ballgown… I'm also moonlighting as the parking attendant," Suzanne said in a pleasant voice. Up close, Regina and Stella could see that she was much older than what she had appeared to be in the ring, at least in her mid-forties, but also that her upper body would leave many bodybuilders in the dust.
"Here's Nasty Sarge, Maria Consuela," Megan said and thumped the knee of the twenty-nine year old Latina in the camouflage pants.
"Hey," Maria said and shook hands with Regina before she thumped fists with Stella. "Sistas. Love your duds."
"Thanks," Stella said with a broad grin.
Matching the grin, Megan gave Maria Consuela another little thump before she moved on to the last of the wrestlers present. "And finally, we have Maria al-Hadiq, Ria between friends. Ria, why don't you and Miss Harrison work out the details of your match?" Megan said and put a motherly hand on Ria's shoulder.
The twenty-five year old woman of Egyptian descent nodded and flashed Regina a broad smile. "Sure thing, Megan," she said in a surprisingly honeyed voice that held a very faint accent. "Miss Harrison, if you'll follow me to the dressing rooms, I'm sure we can find something in your size."
Hearing that, Stella turned to Regina and gave her an almighty thump on her shoulder. "Wa-hey! Lucky you!"
"Ouch! Oh, Stell! I wish you wouldn't do that! You know how easily I bruise," Regina hissed and rubbed her shoulder. Sighing, she turned towards Megan and held up her hands. "Megan, I know I'm going to sound like a big chicken now, but… my best friend here is a lot more enthusiastic than I am about this whole thing… can't Stella wrestle against Ria?"
"Well," Megan drawled and looked at Stella's glasses. "Miss Starr, how well do you see without your glasses?"
As her reply, Stella took off the aforementioned items and immediately scrunched up her face like a latter-day Mr. Magoo simply to be able to see five inches in front of her nose.
Regina bit her cheek and conceded the point. "Yeah, okay… that's not gonna work."
"No," Megan said with a grin. "Oh, you'll be fine, Miss Harrison. Ria will be real gentle with you. It's all for charity, you know. Can you dance?"
"Yeah, wrestling like a lot like dancing. Choreographed moves, actions and reactions, knowing when to hop and when to dip…"
"Well… yeah. I guess I can dance…"
"There, you see? It'll be fine. Ria, the clock is ticking. Please take Miss Harrison to the dressing room now," Megan said and pointed at her wrist even though she didn't have a watch on her arm.
"You got it, Megan," Ria said and got up from her chair. "C'mon, Miss Harrison, let's find you an outfit."
"Costumes are our specialty… would you mind if I tagged along?" Stella said.
"The more the merrier!" Ria said as she took Regina by the hand and walked into a room adjacent to the backstage area.
"Oh, this is so flippin' neat!" Stella exclaimed and punched the air.
The dressing room was almost as large as the first room in the backstage area, but it seemed a lot smaller because all four walls were covered by huge, three-story closets save for the space where the door went. The shelves were all packed to the brim with all kinds of colorful clothes like spandex suits, boas, glittery pants and tops, masks, gloves and wrestling boots.
"Sweet Chicky-Dee…!" Stella said, staring wide-eyed at the huge amount of clothes.
"Yes, it's kinda impressive, don't you think?" Ria said and put out her hand in a dance-inspired move. "So, Miss Harrison…"
"Oh, please… since you're ten minutes away from killing me, you can call me Regina or Reggie," Regina said and began to unbutton her blazer jacket.
"Regina, that's such a pretty name," Ria said and went over to the shelf marked extra-large.
"It's funny," Ria said as she scooped up an armful of clothes and put them down on a table in the center of the room. "I feel like I know you from somewhere… You're kinda familiar."
Chuckling, Regina began to unbutton her cufflinks and her shirt sleeves. "Oh, well, I've been on the cover of several major fashion magazines, like Young 2Day, Fashion 4U and Vicki's. Maybe you've seen me there?"
"Oh… no, I… I'm sorry, I don't read fashion magazines. Do you know if there's maybe an actress who looks a bit like you? Hmmm… maybe someone from the 1990s?"
Regina blinked a couple of times and scrunched up her face in an annoyed little pout.
Knowing that it was time to smooth down a few ruffled superstar feathers, Stella helped Regina unbutton her shirt. "We get that alllll the time," she said with a little grin.
"Oh… okay. Anyway, here's a good, supportive sports bra. Once we've found your costume, you can change in here. We'll guard the door."
"Thanks," Regina said flatly, kicking off her shoes and loosening the leather belt on her slacks.
"What kind of outfit would you like to wear? Do you want to do a character or just be neutral?"
"Neutra-" Regina started to say, but - predictably - Stella cut her off before she could finish the sentence.
"Character! Oooooh yeah, you have to be a character, Reggie. And some character you'll be! Man, the audience are gonna stare their eyes right outta their heads," Stella said, hop-hop-hopping from one leg to the other across the floor.
Grimacing wildly, Regina just shook her head repeatedly. "No, Stell," she said, whining like a five-year old who's been told that she couldn't go to the candy store.
Ria reached into the pile of clothes she had prepared and found a costume that consisted of black spandex tights, a black t-shirt and a pale blue jacket-like top that matched Regina's eyes perfectly. "How about… this one," she said and held up the tights and the top.
"Oooh, you gotta wear that one, Reggie!" Stella said.
"My ass is gonna look like a barn in those tights," Regina mumbled, but Stella just gave the body part a reassuring pat.
Ria grinned and put aside the items she needed to make the costume. Once she had stored the other garments back into the closet, she put a finger on her nose and let out a long "Hmmmm. Your hair… you need to pull your hair up in a hard bun, Regina. Long hair is just too dangerous. Even if we'd never pull it on purpose, it could get caught in the turnbuckles or my fingers."
"All right," Regina said, looking at an item on the table that hadn't been part of the pile of clothes Ria had found. "What's this?" she said and picked up an old, diamond-studded half-mask.
"That? Oh, that's just an old thing," Ria said.
When Regina held the mask up to her face, she promptly earned herself a loud squeal from Stella.
"You gotta use that! Oh, shoot, you gotta use that, Reggie! It's perfect! You'll look so badass you're gonna make 'em squirt! Uh, figuratively speakin', of course…!"
'Five minutes, Ria!'
Megan shouted from outside the dressing room.
"Okay!" Ria shouted back. "Right, Regina, here's the plan. First we perform a stare-down… that's really simple, you just come up into the ring and meet me in the center. There, we'll give each other a good, long stare that's supposed to build up tension."
"Oh, Reggie here is an expert at staring down people, ain't that right, Reggie?" Stella said.
"Well, if you say so."
"Oh, I do! I've been on the receiving end of enough of 'em to know!"
Chuckling, Ria sorted the costume and laid it out so Regina could hop into it quickly. "That's good. After the stare-down, we'll go to our corners and get ready to rumble. I promise that I will be very, very careful and gentle, Miss Harrison, but it can get kinda rough out there at times even when we're going at half speed, so you need to be prepared for some knocks."
"Okay," Regina said, nodding - but at the same time feeling an entire aviary of butterflies flapping their wings in her gut.
"You can try to pick me up and slam me if you like, no worries there. I'll just do most of the work. Choke holds, slaps and running pulls are fine, too, but since you're a rank beginner, we better stay away from the advanced stuff, like climbing up on the turnbuckles and the ropes."
"The objective is that you win, obviously, so when the time is right, I'll make a fall and you'll have to come down on top of me and pin me into submission. Megan will end the match by doing a three-count and ringing the bell. Oh, and if you feel the least bit panicky, just signal me and I'll do a dirty trick and get myself disqualified. Okay?"
"Okay… what kind of dirty trick are we talking about, exactly?" Regina said and began to bite her nails.
"Oh, maybe hit you over the head with a folding chair, or try to gouge your eyes out or something like that," Ria said with a cheeky grin. "No, I'll obviously fake it."
Stella laughed at that and hooked her arm inside Regina's to make her feel safe and comfortable. "Ria, what if I jump into the ring to save my friend from you?"
"Now that could get messy," Ria said with a laugh. "All right, that's all there is to it. Regina, a final word of advice… if you get injured, just put your right hand on your opposite shoulder real quickly and Megan and I will find a way stop the match at once. Like this," she said and took a step back. Starting to duck and dive to simulate a wrestling move, she quickly clapped her left shoulder with her right hand and then continued on like nothing had happened.
"Okay… I can remember that."
"Good. All right, Regina… it's all yours," Ria said and waved her hand over the costume.
"Thanks…" Regina said and picked up the half-mask. 'Hmmm… it's trying to tell me something… what is it…? The name… I need a name… oh! Oh, I got it!'
she thought as she tried to hold the mask to her face.
Turning around with the mask still in place, she flashed Stella and Ria a wide grin and a steely stare. "And you can call me Dolly. Dolly 'The Diamond' Knockout to be exact." Her grin only grew in intensity when she saw the gobsmacked look on Stella's face.
"You betcha! Wow, Megan is gonna love that one!" Ria said and ushered the stunned Stella out of the dressing room.
"Dolly… The Diamond… Knockout!" Stella stuttered as she skipped along the hall to get back to the main room. "Woo-hoo! I can't wait to see that! I flippin' can't wait!" she howled and spun around in a pirouette in the middle of the hall with no care at all for her own well-being - predictably, upon landing, she put one foot on top of the other and fumbled, bumbled and stumbled for several steps until she had regained her equilibrium.
"Careful with the stunts, Miss Starr. Megan will have my butt on a platter if anything happens to either one of you," Ria said and grabbed for Stella, but the blonde investigator just waved her off.
"Naw! I'm cool. Dolly 'The Diamond' Knockout! Yeah, baby!"
Stepping up to the curtain that marked the end of the backstage area, Ria moved it aside to take a look at the size and the composition of the crowd. "They're all there… cool. Listen, I don't want to snoop, but are you and Miss Harrison together? You know?"
"Well," Stella said and adjusted her glasses. "Yeah. Kinda. We're kissing."
"Yeah, but we're best friends, too, and I don't wanna, you know… push anything that we aren't ready for. That would kill me. It would kill me stone dead if I pushed Reggie away…" - suddenly realizing what she was doing and saying, Stella shrugged and adjusted her glasses all over again. "Oh hey, I'm sorry… I didn't mean to offload all my laundry on you, Ria."
"Oh no, it's all right, Miss Starr. I better get ready, I think Megan may have a coronary if we're not out there in an almighty hurry," Ria said with a smile and put her hand on the small of Stella's back.
Stella found herself a ringside seat but soon turned so antsy that she couldn't sit still. It didn't take long for her to begin to pace back and forth along the ring, waiting anxiously for Regina - or rather Dolly The Diamond - to make her entrance.
In the ring, Ria played to the crowd and taunted her opponent for not showing up, but even she was beginning to get a little concerned.
A minute later, the Golden Girl strode into the main room, pulled aside the curtain and gave a quick thumbs-up to Stella, Ria and Megan.
At that moment, Dolly 'The Diamond' Knockout's theme song started blaring out of the speakers, announcing to the world that they were about to see history in the making. When Stella heard Regina's theme - an instrumental version of Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend - she let out a wild squeal and began to jump up and down on the spot.
Then *she* entered; Dolly 'The Diamond' Knockout. Standing six-foot-three in wrestling boots, she slid across the floor and up the short flight of stairs. Along the way, she winked at Stella who had been transformed into a gap-mouthed, unblinking marble statue by the sight.
In the space of eight short minutes, Regina Harrison had turned into the eighth wonder of the world. The black tights made her already shapely legs look indecently fine, the pale blue jacket-like top was the perfect mix of tight in some places and loose in others, a black Dracula-style cape across her shoulders gave her a regal appearance and the diamond-studded half-mask made her look like a comic book superheroine come to life by accentuating her strong jaw and ice blue eyes.
As the crowd roared insanely behind her, Stella just raised her steamed-up glasses and polished her lenses repeatedly. "Sweet… mother… hubba. Just… wow," she croaked and lowered the glasses again, only to see them steam up instantly once more.
Dolly 'The Diamond' followed the plan she and Ria had worked out and went up to the Slave Girl to give her a fierce stare-down - the 'down' part wasn't hard since she was six inches taller than Ria. 'Man, this is a lot more fun than I thought it would be! I guess Stella was right all along… can't say that to her, though. Her head will explode… but, oh God, how am I ever gonna do the fights…?'
Regina thought, almost losing her confidence.
In the meantime, the Golden Girl came over to Stella and leaned in to whisper in her ear: "Hi, I'm Marge, we haven't met yet. Nice to meet ya. Miss Harrison had a little problem getting her long hair into a bun. We had to make it two buns or else we wouldn't have made it."
"Okay… I was getting worried and I think Megan was, too. Hi, I'm Stella Starr," Stella whispered back, looking at the other woman who appeared to be in her mid-thirties, though it was hard to tell from the amount of gold-tinted makeup she wore for her character. "By the way, why is there an M-D on your costume instead of a G-G ?"
"Oh, it's short for Mega Dy-" Marge started to say before her words were cut off by the ringside bell going *DING!* *DING!*
, however Stella caught the gist of the message and responded to it with a wide grin.
In the ring, the stare-down was completed and Ria and Dolly went to their respective corners while Chains climbed into the ring to be the referee. Taking off her cape, Regina wanted to throw it onto the floor, but Stella was there in an instant and took it from her.
"Dolly! Fight! You gotta fight, ya hear me? Fight! Wipe the floor with her!" Stella said in a hoarse, raspy voice that didn't sound like her at all.
Regina blinked a couple of times and bared her teeth in an embarrassed little grimace. "You're overdoing it just a little bit, Stell…"
"Fight!" Stella howled and clenched her fist in the air - though she did add a wink to ease Regina's mind.
"Uh-huh," Regina said and went back into the ring.
After bobbing up and down a few times to get used to the wrestling boots and the outrageously form-fitting tights, Regina decided to mirror everything Ria did just to make it look like she knew what she was doing. When the Slave Girl went to the ropes and waved to the crowd, Regina did the same at the other side of the ring, earning herself a big cheer from the spectators.
Suddenly Ria spun around and charged Dolly by pushing the new wrestler up against one of the ring's four turnbuckles. Roaring out the strain, Ria held her arms in an X across Regina's throat and made it appear like she was choking the stuffing out of her.
Regina was quick to catch on and made it look like she really was mashed up against the turnbuckle. Astounded that she couldn't actually feel anything, she glanced down and saw that Ria's arms were only resting against her skin - the entire exertion was faked.
"Break the grip, put your hands on my shoulders and push me away," Ria whispered for Regina's ears only.
Doing as told, Regina reached up and broke the X with her arms. Once she was free, she gave Ria a feather-light push that made the other wrestler fly back, perform a backwards roll and land on her stomach accompanied by a huge cheer from the crowd. Regina understood that she needed to follow it up at once to make a show out of it and stormed out of the corner with an almighty roar while flailing her arms in the air.
"Wipe her out!" Stella howled, slamming her fist into the canvas.
In no time flat, Regina had reached Ria's position and put a hand under her armpit. With no effort at all, she pulled the Slave Girl to her feet intending to try the turnbuckle-move again only in reverse, but before she had time to do it, Ria made a counterstrike by grabbing Regina's arm and spinning her around.
Still spinning, Regina slammed up against the ropes and was flung back like shot out of a cannon. In the center of the ring, Ria grabbed her around the waist and brought her down hard in a sideways slam.
At ringside, Stella let out a loud "Ooohhhh!" and clutched her head. "Glad that wasn't me… I woulda hurled all over the place!"
Ria removed the hand she had put behind Regina's head to protect her and pretended to lean down to taunt her. "Did it hurt?" she whispered for Regina's ears only.
"No… not in the least… I landed really softly… but it winded me," Regina whispered back, staring wide-eyed at the Slave Girl.
"Good… pretend you're woozy," Ria whispered and began to shimmy away from the fallen wrestler to show the audience a few bold dance moves while Regina caught her breath.
Unable to hear the conversation, Stella began to slam her fist into the canvas. "Get up! Get up!" she yelled at the top of her lungs.
Regina rolled over and got up on her hands and knees, shaking her head like she was seeing stars. After a few seconds, she staggered to her feet and turned around to see where Ria was.
The Slave Girl immediately made her presence felt by throwing herself into the ropes and running back towards Regina at full speed.
Not knowing what to do, Regina just kept standing in the center of the ring, bracing herself for an impact that never came. Inches before the two women would have collided, Ria acted like she had run into a brick wall and threw herself backwards onto the canvas.
When Regina didn't react, Ria looked up and winked at her opponent several times while inconspicuously pointing at her stomach.
To the massive roar of the crowd - not to mention Stella who was roaring so loudly that she singlehandedly drowned out everything else - Regina suddenly remembered that she was supposed to end the match by pinning Ria into submission. Playing to the audience, she waved her arm in the air and fell down on her knees. Once there, she grabbed Ria's leg and put her weight onto the Slave Girl's stomach, expecting to hear a three-count.
Next to them, Chains threw herself down onto the canvas to see if Ria's shoulders were flat on the floor. When she established that they were, she began to slam her hand into the canvas.
Ria knew that the setup looked a bit too fake, even for pro wrestling, so after Megan had counted to two, she bobbed her shoulder off the ground to stop the count.
"Break!" Megan growled in her Chains-voice and jumped to her feet.
Stella answered that immediately by jumping up on the edge of the ring and letting out a resounding "Whaddahell you mean, Break!? That was a clear three! One-two-three! Even my dead Grandmother could see that it was a straight-up three count and not a one-diddy-two! So there!"
"Break!" Chains repeated, secretly thinking that she should invite Regina and Stella back for a championship bout.
Huffing, Stella threw her arms in the air and jumped off the corner of the ring.
Inside the ring, Ria winked at Regina and pulled her closer. "That didn't look good enough… let's have a bit more drama first," she whispered.
"Okay… gotcha," Regina replied in a matching whisper and pulled away from her opponent. Suddenly remembering a few bits and pieces from the rare occasions she had watched wrestling on television, she went over to the corner where Chains was waiting and began to bitch and complain to the referee just to make a nuisance out of herself - much to the joy of the audience.
Jumping to her feet like a coiled-up spring, Ria was soon ready for more, and she danced around the center of the ring, trying to find the best hold to defeat her much taller opponent.
Her opportunity came when Dolly turned away from arguing with Chains, and she took it with both hands. Jumping on Dolly from behind, she whacked her over the shoulders with a two-fisted punch and a quick whisper in Regina's ear to act stunned and drop down on her knees.
Once Dolly was on her knees, Ria calmly stepped in behind her and applied a sleeper hold by wrapping her arm around the taller woman's neck. Holding the inside of her elbow directly in front of Regina's throat so she had plenty of space to breathe, Ria groaned loudly and pretended to throttle her with all her might.
"Oh no! Oh, nooooooo!" Stella howled from her place at ringside. "Dolly! Get up! You can beat her! C'mon!"
Meanwhile, Ria sent a quick glance to Megan who replied by nodding almost unnoticeably. After nodding back, Ria leaned in and whispered in Regina's ear. "Go limp when I nudge your back. Once I release my hold to gloat, grab my left arm and pull forward. I'll do the rest."
"Mmmm!" Regina groaned, timing it perfectly to make it sound like she really was struggling to stay conscious.
"Go Doooooolllllly!" Stella roared, slowly getting the audience to follow her in a rhythmic cheer to get Dolly 'The Diamond' Knockout back on her feet.
In the ring, Regina felt Ria's knee press gently into her back, telling her to go limp. Flaking out to the best of her abilities, she could clearly hear Stella howling a pained "Noooooo!" somewhere to her left. Behind her, Ria released the hold and began to gloat like she said she would. At once, Regina grabbed hold of the Slave Girl's left arm and pulled it forward.
With a surprised yelp, Ria performed a forward salto that made her fly clean over Regina's head and land heavily right at the center of the canvas.
Realizing that Ria wanted to end the match, Regina jumped up and quickly ran around to the other side of the supposedly winded Slave Girl, circled her once more and then dove down to form a bridge above her. This time, she grabbed hold of both Ria's legs and really put her back into making the submission hold look authentic - she even added a loud roar to the proceedings just for a laugh.
This time, Chains delivered a clean one-two-three count that made the crowd explode in a frenzy of waved flags, whistles and cheers. Just as Regina let go of Ria's legs, she was assaulted from behind by a dirty-blonde whirlwind that attached itself to her upper body with such strength that she nearly toppled over.
"YOU WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON!" Stella screamed directly into Regina's ear. "Ican'tflippin'believeit, you won! You won, Dolly!"
Sitting back on her thighs, Regina snickered loudly as Stella pulled her right arm high in the air to mark the victory in the time-honored fashion. Regina's theme song began to blare from the speakers, and soon, all the wrestlers filed back into the main room and climbed into the ring, waving their arms in the air and tossing keychains and assorted other merchandising into the audience.
As the weirdness of the bizarre goings-on finally caught up with her, Regina went into an adrenaline-induced, gut-aching laughing fit that soon claimed Stella as well. Walking arm in arm, the two women traversed the entire ring to wave to the crowd from all four sides, receiving massive cheers everywhere they went.
Finally allowed a modicum of rest, they moved down the short flight of stairs and went into the hall between the main room and the backstage area. Two steps beyond the curtain, Stella forced Regina up against the wall, pulled her head down and devoured her lips, mouth and tongue in an all-singing, all-dancing, all-wrestling, ferociously sizzling submission hold - a.k.a. a lava-hot kiss that went on for so long that they both began to see black and golden spots in their vision.
"Whoa…" Stella croaked when they finally had to break off the searing kiss. Leaning her head against Regina's chest, she panted hard to get her breath back. "Oh, momma… you certainly know how to get me hot and bothered. Man, Reggie!"
"It's the costume, Stell," Regina said and began to muss Stella's neck.
"No, it's you. I've got a thing for you, Reggie. I've definitely got a thing for you…"
"Does that mean I still got it?"
"Well, that's good… I've got a thing for you, too, you know," Regina said and pushed her and Stella away from the wall so she could get on with her quest of finding a chair before her wobbly legs would fail her and she'd fall flat on her butt. "Oh, I need a breather… this was tough… but fun. I'll give you that," she continued as they shuffled off down the hall to get to the dressing room.
"I knew you'd feel that way, Reggie. Perhaps we should enlist you to a wrestling school so you could learn the basics…?" Stella said and gave Regina's waist a little squeeze.
"Ah, that would be a 'no', Stella."
"No," Regina said and claimed Stella's lips again to get her to forget all about her silly plan.
Behind them, Nasty Sarge and the Golden Girl came into the hall laughing and play-fighting loudly with each other - but when they saw Stella and Regina kissing, they slapped each other a fat high five and turned around to give the two investigators some privacy.
Just as Regina sat down with an ache-induced groan in the dressing room, she and Stella could hear the crowd chant 'Dol-ly! Dol-ly! Dol-ly! Dol-ly!'
from the main room.
"What's that?" Stella said, moving around Regina to help her get her hair back out of the two buns. "Oh… Oh! They're chanting for an encore! Dolly, we gotta go back there! They want you!" she suddenly howled and pulled Regina up by the armpit.
"Ugh! Oh… not so fast, Stell… if you tear the tights, they'll get a lot more than they ever wished for…"
"C'mon! Let's hustle!" Stella said and pulled the reluctant Regina back out of the dressing room and through the hall.
Moving the curtain aside, Stella stepped into a veritable storm of cheers and whistles. "Here she is! Dolly 'The Diamond' Knockout!" she roared and pulled Regina into the main room where she was practically assaulted by a shower of flashes.
"Jeez!" Regina said and shielded her eyes. "Thank you… thank you!"
"Get up in the ring, Dolly," Stella said and gave Regina's buttocks a fair-sized squeeze to get her to move her timber logs.
Jerking forward with a howling "Yooww!", Regina spun around and shot Stella an exasperated look, but the blonde investigator just grinned and shooed her up into the ring where the other wrestlers were already waiting for her.
Once there, Regina's old instincts of being a natural in the limelight came to the fore and she began to wave to the massed ranks of big and small, young and old spectators who had come to the Top Rope Wrestling Club to get a respite from their everyday problems and issues.
Megan slowly shuffled over to stand next to the fully-dressed Dolly 'The Diamond' Knockout and gave her a big pat on the shoulder. "Excellent stuff, Miss Harrison. You've definitely got talent for wrestling."
"Thanks, Megan. I had no idea whatsoever what I was doing," Regina said with a smile.
"Well, it didn't show. Uh, your business associate is, uh, how can I put it… a bit of a firebrand, isn't she?"
"Yes… yes, she is. Would you mind if I pulled her up here, Megan? She loves this sort of thing," Regina said around a few waves.
"Oh no, no. Go right ahead."
Grinning, Regina went over to the edge of the ring and began to shout Stella's name to get her attention, but she wasn't able to get through to the blonde investigator who was so focused on the crowd that she was unable to hear anything else.
Just as Regina was about to give up, Megan noticed and gave her a thumbs-up. With an athletic jump, she cleared the ropes and landed next to Stella - then she scooped her up on her arm like she weighed nothing at all and carried the squealing blonde into the ring.
Regina stared wide-eyed at the display of strength, thinking that Stella looked just like the dummies ventriloquists used for their shows.
"WHEEEEEEEEEEEE!" Stella squealed as she was let go by Megan. "Thanks, Chains! That was fun!" she said and slapped the tall wrestler's stomach.
"Come on, Stell," Regina said and pulled her friend into a sideways hug. "Let's wave to the crowd… after all, this was the goodbye tour of Dolly 'The Diamond' Knockout. She's gonna retire after this event!"
After a little while, Megan took the microphone and turned it on. "Settle down, settle down… may I have your attention, please! In a few minutes, we'll be signing trading cards at the long table you see over there," she said and pointed at the far wall of the room. "We'll all be there and we'll all be signing so you don't have to worry about missing a thing."
When the crowd started cheering again, Megan added in her Chains voice. "We ain't leavin' 'til you do!" which nearly brought down the house.
Hearing that, Stella wrapped her arms around Regina's waist and pulled herself into a crush. "Didya hear that? You're about to get famous, dontchaknow!"
"Hon, I'm already famous," Regina said, flashed Stella her two-hundred watt smile and cocked her hips to underline her words.
"Mmmmm-yeah…?" Stella teased, sticking out her tongue at her best friend.
Puffing out her chest, Regina grinned broadly and waved some more at the crowd. "Look at 'em… I still got it."
"I'm agreeing with ya, Reggie! Sheesh!"
"Yeah, right… you won't get my autograph tonight, that's a fact."
Looking up at Regina, Stella bit down on her tongue before she could speak what she really wanted. "That's okay, I'd rather have your lips, anyhow." - 'Or my lips around your… nah, I won't even think that. I'll only jinx it.'
Ten minutes later, all the wrestlers - including Regina - were seated at the long table, ready to sign and hand out the stacks of colorful trading cards that had been placed in front of them.
Feeling so excited that she was about to burst, Stella snatched the unguarded microphone and turned it on. "That's right, folks, form orderly lines, please! Step right up, folks, there's plenty for ev'rybody!" she said, sorting the crowd by height so the little ones would be at the front - she knew from painful experience that if the short ones weren't given preferential treatment, the world would just pass them by.
At the table, Ria looked at the curious scenes with some confusion. "Psst, Regina…" she whispered, leaning in towards Regina, "has Miss Starr ever worked as a carnival barker?"
"No, she's… well, she's Stella," Regina said with a shrug.
"Oh… I see. Oh look, how cute!" Ria said and pointed at a very young fan who was dressed in a wrestling jogging suit and holding a baby-soother.
The young fan was supported by his father, and together, the two came up to stand in front of Regina. "Go on," the dad said, nudging his son forward.
"Ummm… may I have your autograph, please?" the young fan said, wringing the soother between his little fingers.
"But of course," Regina said, smiling broadly. She quickly doodled her name on a blank piece of hi-gloss paper that Megan had put at her spot since she obviously didn't have a trading card of Dolly 'The Diamond' Knockout. Once she was done, she gave the paper to the young fan's dad and flashed him one of her two- hundred watt smiles. "You do have a camera or a camera phone, Sir?"
"Oh, sure!" the man said and held up a cell phone.
"Well, would you and your kid like to have your picture taken with me?"
"Uh-huh, Dad!" the young fan said, nodding vigorously.
"If it's not too much trouble…?"
"No trouble at all," Regina said and waved at Stella who was still sorting the spectators into straight lines. "Stell! We need you over here!"
"Stella Starr on the case, no disgrace, time to get down to the party place!" Stella sang as she made her way back to the table. "I'm here… whassup, Dolly The Diamond?" she said to her slightly shell-shocked friend.
"Uhhhh… ah… would you mind working as my camera person from now on instead of being a traffic cop?" Regina said, thinking that Stella had finally lost the marble that held all the others in place.
"Oh! I'm really good with cameras… one of the few things I'm really good at, but that's another story," Stella said and smiled at the father and the young fan.
"Good, 'cos I think a lot of the people will want a photo of me, so…"
"Yeah, yeah, no worries. All right, Mister, if you will," Stella said and waved her hand to show that she wanted the two fans to line up next to Dolly 'The Diamond' Knockout so she could snap the photo.
"Here's my phone," the father said and handed it to Stella.
Holding the phone steady using a two-handed grip, she stood with her rear end pushed out backwards and her legs slightly apart to get the best angle. Eventually, Stella found the three people on the small screen. "Right… okay… say… cheese-a-licious!"
"Cheese-a-licious!" the Dad said, but his son just looked confused - the photo still turned out great, though.
"Here you go, Mister," Stella said and handed the phone back to the man.
"Thanks!" he said and put a hand on his son's shoulder so they could join the line for Ria, the Slave Girl.
Stella walked around the table and ran her hand up and down Regina's upper arm. "That was fun," she said, admiring the tall, graceful - and now badass - former model so much that it hurt. "Do you think we could persuade Megan to let us buy that costume? I mean, it's gonna show up in my dreams anyway, so why not go the full nine yards and take it home with us…?"
"I mean, you look so damn fine in it my eyes tickle on the inside, which is a really odd feeling, let me tell you, and I just think we could get so much mileage out of it it's ridiculous."
"Okay, we may never go on another wrestling job again, but at least we could have…"
"… it hanging in our closet and I could take a look at it from time to time and remember what fun we had here and how stupendously sexy you looked in it, especially those tights… what do you think, Reggie?"
Sighing, Regina lifted the half-mask and rubbed her face. "I think we need to get home pretty soon so you can have a chill-pill, Stell," she said while signing another piece of blank paper and handing it to a fan with a smile.
"Nooooo, I'm perfectly chilled. I'm so chilled I smell like ice, Reggie. Don't believe me? Here, this'll prove it," Stella said and waved her vest at Regina so she could smell the chilliness.
When Regina's only response was a deep sigh and an arched eyebrow, Stella leaned in and gave her a little crush. "I'm just goofing off, Reggie. But I do think you're looking damn fine, girl," she said and gave Regina a quick little kiss on the cheek.
When the event was finally over and the last wrestling fan had left, Regina fell back in her seat and pulled off the half-mask. "Phew," she said and sighed deeply. "I haven't signed my name that often since… since… since ever, actually. Not even when I was at the top of the modeling game did I have to sign that many autographs."
"Want me to give you a rub-down, Reggie?" Stella said, sitting on the corner of the table.
"Maybe a little later… okay?"
"Sure," Stella said and returned the wink Regina had just sent her.
Next to them, Ria let out an echoing yawn and stretched her arms over her head to release some of the tension in her back. "Man, I can't wait to hit the showers."
At the other end of the table, Nasty Sarge got up and mirrored Ria's movements, making her back and her neck pop and crackle. "Me, neither. You're gonna shower with the rest of us, ain't ya Miss Knockout?" she said with a cheeky grin.
"No she ain't, Maria Consuela. Miss Harrison will shower first… by herself," Megan said strongly, grabbing the Sarge by the scruff of her neck. "And because you thought it was funny to crack an inappropriate joke at someone who just gave us a check for seven hundred dollars, you'll be going in last… when there's only cold water left. Get it?"
"Aw, I was only makin' fun, Megan," Maria Consuela whined, but there was no appeasing her imposing boss.
"There's ha-ha-fun and there's urgh-fun. This was urgh-fun, Maria. You might as well siddown. It'll be a while for you," Megan said and placed the Sarge back on the chair.
Chuckling, Regina stood up and bent over to stretch her weary back and rear. "Oh, I'm not that easily offended, Megan… wouldn't work around someone like my friend, Miss Stella 'Gonna Shake A Bottle Of Nitro' Starr."
"Oh, that wasn't ha-ha-fun, neither!" Stella said and stuck out her tongue at Regina who promptly stood up straight and shrugged in her patented 'can't give a hoot'-fashion.
Two seconds later, Regina's face cracked open in a warm smile, and she put out her arms and pulled Stella into a warm hug to show that she was only goofing off, too.
"ANYway", Megan said with a chuckle, "Miss Harrison, if you take the last door to the right in the hall, you'll find a really nice bathroom. Towels, bathrobes and anything else you might need is already there. Just put the costume on the low table and throw the towels in the laundry basket once you're done.
"Will do, Megan. I promise I won't use all your hot water," Regina said as she went past the sulking Maria Consuela.
Once Regina had moved behind the curtain, Megan came up to stand in front of Nasty Sarge and put her hands on her hips. "Oh, but I will," she growled.
"Aw, Megan!" Maria Consuela whined, but it was to no avail.
By the time Regina returned from the shower, she was amazed to see all the tough wrestling gals sit in a circle and listen intently to one of Stella's wild stories from her investigative career.
Stella was going flat out, using her head, hands, arms and legs to illustrate how she and Regina had managed to catch the jewel thief known as the Invisible Man who had specialized in robbing the parties held by the Godmother of fashion, Lulu LaFontaine.
When Stella had finished telling the tale by showing how the jewel thief had been brought down by getting bashed over the head with a wok, she bowed several times to the cheering and whistling wrestlers - then she noticed that Regina had come back, giving her such a look of love that her ice blue eyes were shining.
'Awwww… she really does love me,'
Stella thought, choking up quite badly. "Anyway," she said out loud after clearing her throat a couple of times, "that was how my dear, best friend Reggie and me took care of business. Anyone else wanna tell a story while I get something to drink?"
"No, I think it's time for us to hit the showers, Miss Starr," Megan said and got up. "Not you, Maria. You're going last," she continued when she noticed that Nasty Sarge had already started to rise.
"Aw, Megan!" Maria Consuela whined, but she still couldn't appeal to Megan's soft side.
On her way over to Stella, Regina straightened the collar of her blazer and flicked her hair out of it, thankful for being able to let it hang loose instead of having it forced into the two tight buns. "Hey," she said and put her hand on Stella's cheek.
"Hey. Didya see me? Well, of course you did. I couldn't let you have all the fun, could I?" Stella said and leaned into the touch.
"You were great, Stell. You want a Razzie or something?"
"I was about to look for a Cherry Cola, actually. Megan, do you have any of those?"
"Cherry Colas? No, we didn't buy any of those. Can't stand that sickly sweet stuff," Megan said, unzipping her prison fatigues to reveal that she was wearing a black T-shirt underneath.
"Ohhh!" Stella howled. "Cherry colas iz the best thing ever! Well, except for Slurrpy's Raspberry Fizz, Oreos and Meaty Mamas. But that's another story…"
"We still have a couple of Raspberries, Miss Starr. They're backstage," Megan said with a grin.
"Excellen-ty! You want another mineral water, Reggie?" Stella said and went on the prowl for a can of soda.
After taking two steps into the hall connecting the main room to the backstage area, Stella came back through the curtain with a huge blush on her face. "It'll have to wait. There be naked women out there. Plenty of naked women…"
Twenty minutes later, five freshly-showered and very different-looking women - brushed hair, regular clothes and even a touch of makeup on some of them - came back and began to clean up the main room; Maria Consuela was still in the shower, as promised by Megan.
"What's up, Megan?" Stella said, throwing her empty can of Raspberry Fizz into a trash can.
"In an hour's time," Megan said and glanced over her shoulder at a clock hanging on the wall, "make that fifty minutes, two representatives from the Little Friends In Need Foundation are going to come over and evaluate the events."
"Oh! Oh, we wanna help," Stella said and jumped off the edge of the table she had been sitting on.
"No, no… we've got it covered," Megan said with a smile.
"Hell no, I insist! Harrison-Starr to the rescue! C'mon, Reggie… I'll get the vacuum, you can sweep the tiles!" Stella said and thrust her arm in the air. "Uh, Megan, where's your vacuum cleaner?"
Chuckling, Megan put the armful of discarded paper flags she was holding into a plastic bag and pointed at the hall. "In the first closet to your left, Miss Starr."
"Okie-dokie. We're on it!"
A few minutes later, Stella gave the carpet surrounding the wrestling ring a thorough workout, mindful not to stumble over the long cord and singing at the top of her lungs: "Oh, mama's little baby loves shortnin', shortnin', mama's little baby loves shortnin' bread! OHHHHHH, mama's little-"
Ria and Marge, the Golden Girl, were looking at Stella really putting her back into it, wondering how on earth there could be so much energy in such a petite package. "Miss Harrison," Marge said, "pardon me for bein' blunt, but how in the Holy Hell did you and Miss Starr ever meet…? I mean…" she said and pointed her hands at Regina and then at Stella.
"She was hiring for her Detective Agency and I applied for the job. That's all there was to it," Regina said with a chuckle as she swept the tiled floor under and around the long table.
"Really? Hm! How long did it take for you to, uh…"
"Get used to her?"
"Yeah," Marge said with an embarrassed laugh.
"Four minutes," Regina said with a grin so broad that a Jumbo jet could have taxied in between the corners of her mouth. "She became my best friend pretty much straight away. We support each other, we're there for one another when things are tough… or good, for that matter. Stella and me, we… well, we just fit together."
Shaking her head slowly, Marge looked at Stella who had become horribly entangled in the power cord despite her best efforts to stay away from it, and was dancing about on one leg, trying to hold the vacuum while she attempted to unravel herself. "That's just too damn cute," Marge and punched Ria's shoulder.
"Of course," Regina continued, leaning against the broom, "we have up days and down days, but that's how it is in any relationship. Then we'll just make some hot coffee or cocoa and get a roll of Oreos and watch a movie and we're best friends again."
"I've always said that makeup sex is the best there is, anyway," Ria said, but suddenly remembered what Stella had told her earlier. "Oh, I… oops. Oh shoot, look at the time, I'm really late for… uh, something!" she said and zipped away from Marge and Regina, leaving the two women with highly confused looks on their faces.
Five minutes early, a dark gray SUV from the Little Friends In Need Foundation pulled up to the building. Two people in dull gray suits, a man in his fifties and a woman in her sixties, stepped out of the van and went through the double doors.
"Shit! They're here already," Megan shouted to her girls while polishing the windows in the main room that seemingly had a hundred and twenty-nine kids' noses smeared all over them.
"D'ya want me to stall 'em, Megan?" Stella said and jumped up from her chair, but Megan just shook her hand and straightened down her shirt.
"Nah, I got 'em, thanks. Hello, Mr. Norton, Mrs. Banks. Welcome back," Megan said and shook hands with the two evaluators. Even without her wrestling boots, she dwarfed them completely, especially Harry Norton who was a good foot shorter than the wrestler.
"Good afternoon, Miss Austin," Eunice Banks said, casting an appreciative glance at the spit-shined appearance of the wrestling club.
Turning around, Megan ushered the two people into the main room and closed the door behind them. "Let's go backstage and get into the evaluation… but first, please allow me to introduce you to Stella Starr and Regina Harrison, our sponsors."
"Hi, we're from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency," Stella said and shook their hands. "Our motto is 'Everything We Do, We Do For You'," she continued with a cheesy grin.
Eunice Banks stared briefly at the colorful, wild-haired woman ahead of her but soon snapped out of it and recovered her manners. "Oh… that's good to know if we ever need a Detective agency."
"Yep. This is my business associate Regina Harrison… also known as Dolly 'The Diamond' Knockout," Stella said with a beaming smile.
"I… see. Fascinating," Eunice Banks said, shooting Regina a sideways glance.
Walking into the main room from the hall, Megan held back the curtain and spread out her arms. "The backstage area is ready for you if you have the time, Mr. Norton, Mrs. Banks."
Once Megan had taken Harry Norton and Eunice Banks behind the curtain, Stella looked at the colorful crowd she had been mingling with for the last several hours and felt a pang of pride that Regina had looked so good in the ring - not to mention how she had filled out the costume.
"The costume!" she said and slapped her forehead which made her wild hair flip out in all directions. "Hey, guys… do you think Megan would mind if we bought the costume Reggie wore today?"
The wrestlers looked at each other and seemed to shrug collectively. "Buy it? Hell, you can get those old rags for free, Miss Starr," Suzanne, the Prom Queen, said. "D'ya want me to get it for you right away?"
"Yes, please, if you don't mind…?"
"Doesn't bother me whatsoever," Suzanne said and got up from the couch she had shared with Amy, the Ballerina.
While her couch-mate was away, the Ballerina put her legs up on the seat and draped her arm over the backrest. "I'm hungry… anybody wanna call for a pizza or something?"
"Pizza?" Stella growled, feeling her hunger genes kick into action at once.
"Yep… or whatever you like, Miss Starr," the Ballerina said with a smile.
"Oh, I could eat a pizza… mmmm… no, I could wolf down a pizza, actually. Okay… uh… yeah, I got a great idea!" Stella said and made a three-hundred sixty degree turn on the floor. "Yeah, baby!" she continued and snatched her cell phone from her pocket.
After a quick look into the registry, she found the pizza parlor they always used and gave them a call. "Hi, it's Stella Starr…"
"From Harrison-Starr, yeah. Listen, I was wondering if you delivered to the other end of the Boulevard as well? The wrestling club up at the other end of Carter?"
"You do? Great! I'll call you back in a couple of minutes with our orders," she said and hung up. "Neato. Okay, junk food's on me!" she shouted to the wrestlers, quickly earning herself a big cheer.
"Do you have enough money for that, Stell?" Regina said, finding her wallet.
"Sure, sure, Reggie… I'll just whip out the plastic. I want a Meaty Mama… what'll everybody have…?"
"Well, Megan always has three cheeseburgers with a ton of fries, hold the mustard but plenty of ketchup. I want two bacon burgers with a ton of fries, with extra onion rings… and they better make 'em crispy!" -- "Fried chicken, deep fried potato squares, sweet chili sauce, hold the salt!" -- "Mexican salad with extra peppers!" -- "A Quattro Stagioni Pizza!" -- "Pizza with spicy meatballs, hold the onions!" -- "Two veggie burgers with everything and a baked potato in herbal sauce!" -- "Ooh, a baked potato sounds good… I think I'll have that instead of the deep fried potato squares…"
"Oy, oy, oy, oy, OY…! Wait up, gals… I need to make a list," Stella said and began to look around for a piece of paper and a pencil.
*Several* hours later, after a healthy session of good, nourishing junk food, and a few joyful goodbyes, high-fives and see-ya-arounds to their new friends, Regina drove the Mercedes SLK into the parking lot at Rockin' Ruby's, closely followed by Megan's Chevrolet Tahoe.
While they rolled around at five miles an hour trying to find a space to park in, the familiar jingle announcing the ten o'clock news was heard over the station they had been listening to.
"Oh, do we have time to listen to the news, Reggie? We've been out all day… we're really behind the flow," Stella said and put her finger near the volume button.
"Sure. It'll take us a few minutes to find a spot anyway."
"Neato," Stella said and turned up the volume.
'…two further taxi drivers have been victims of the counterfeiting gang colloquially known as the Phoney Crew,'
the male newscaster said from the hidden speakers. 'Earlier on today, Police Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes made the following statement:'
"Wa-hey! Mary-Jane!" Stella said and tapped her knuckles against the dashboard but quickly shut up so they could listen to what the Inspector had to say.
'The Task Force that was set up late last week to combat this unacceptable flurry of criminal activity is working closely with the Organized Crime Unit of the FBI and also the management and the drivers of the Taurus Cab Company, the Hermanos Rodriguez Cab Company and the Bayside Exclusive Taxi Services to ensure that-'
"Wow, what's that all about?" Regina said as she slotted the SLK into an available spot.
"No idea… first I've heard of it."
Inspector Moynes continued on the radio, 'the Phoney Crew has kept to the taxis, but there's a risk they could try to move on to convenience stores, diners and other smaller shops once they realize how close we are.'
"Hmmm," Regina said and turned off the engine which silenced the radio. "I have a feeling we'll be hearing a lot more about that later on."
Pulling the little lever for the door, Stella studied the former model's profile for a few seconds before she looked down onto the ground like she always did when she had to step out of the low-slung sportscar. "You could be right… hey, great parking, Reggie. No curbs!" she said and shuffled around in the seat.
"You don't need curbs to fumble, Stell," Regina said, waiting for the inevitable. When it hadn't come after a few seconds, she looked to her right and saw to her great surprise that Stella had actually managed to get out of the SLK without falling back down into the deep bucket seats.
Snorting in a somewhat disappointed fashion, Regina took the keys and stepped out of the car.
After locking the sportscar, she joined Stella at the rear and hooked her arm inside her friend's while they waited for Megan who had to park her larger vehicle further up the parking lot. "Bravo… you didn't fall, Stell."
"Oh, thank you, thank you. Yeah, I'm growing up, aren't I?" Stella said and shuffled around on the spot. "No more fumbling over curbstones."
"Yeah. By the time you're fifty, you may even be able to stay upright for an entire day!" Regina said and snuggled up to Stella who shot her a slightly dirty look in return.
"Well, Miss-Trying-To-Combat-The-Pull-Of-Gravity-By-Buying-Double-Hinged-Bras," Stella said and began to shuffle off towards their regular haunt. "I can stay upright just fine! It's just that sometimes, the ground is uneven and-"
"Owch! Damn potholes!" Stella growled, hopping around on one leg while she massaged the toes on her left foot that had been smashed against the jagged inside of the pothole.
"Damn potholes, yeah," Regina said and waved at the easily recognizable six-foot-three frame of Megan who was jogging towards them from clear down the other end of the parking lot.
Stepping inside Rockin' Ruby's, they were met by a wall of stunned silence instead of the usual raucous murmurs. Every single one of the barflies - and Ruby Albrecht herself for that matter - were staring at Stella and her companions, the two impossibly tall women.
"Hi, everybody!" Stella shouted and waved to the gobsmacked crowd. "I'm here with Tall and Taller… and yes, they have given me a crimp in the neck. But like I always say, it's better to get a crimp in the neck than to be a pain in the ass!"
Stella's odd humor broke the tension and the barflies began to murmur again, stealing the occasional sneaky glance at Regina and Megan who had changed again into a very classy pair of black jeans and a black denim jacket over a red V-neck T-shirt.
Getting up from her customary position at the end of the bar, Ruby Albrecht took one of her drinks menus and limped down to the first booth where Stella, Regina and Megan had already made themselves comfortable.
"Hi guys," Ruby said and placed the drinks menu in front of Megan. "Hello, I'm Ruby Albrecht. I don't think I've had the pleasure," she continued and put out her hand.
Shaking the offered hand, Megan shot her a wide smile. "No, that's right, I'm new here. Hi, I'm Megan Austin."
"She's a wrestler… a damned good one, too," Stella interjected.
"Really? Pro or Olympic?" Ruby said.
"Oh, Pro. My stage name is Chains."
"Right… well, have a look in our menu," Ruby said and tapped an index finger on the leather-bound book. "Once you've found something you'd like, just tell either of these nice ladies and they'll come up to the bar and get it for you… right?"
Regina temporarily stood up to take off her blazer jacket and then put it on the bench seat next to her, making sure it was neatly folded so it wouldn't crease. "Sure, Ruby. What happened to your leg?"
"Oh, you're not gonna believe it… when I opened at four, I went into the dance hall like I always do to turn on the air conditioning and stuff, but then I stubbed my toe on the door step… and that meant I took a swan dive and whacked my knee on the floor… sheesh, can you believe it? I must be getting old."
"You have my full commiseration, Ruby," Stella said and tipped her non-existent cap.
"Yeah, I imagine you have a bit of experience in that area," Ruby said with a laugh.
After briefly looking into the leatherbound drinks menu, Megan closed it again and leaned back in her seat. "Actually, if it's not too much trouble, I'd like something non-alcoholic, please. I don't drink alcohol."
"Oh… okay. Sure," Ruby said and took the menus. "How about an Alexander's, that's raspberry juice, Classic Cola and an ounce of cream, or a Cherry Cooler with carbonated mineral water, two teaspoons of icing sugar, some lemon juice and some Ginger Ale? Oh, and two cherries on top."
"Cherry Cooler sounds great, thanks."
"Okay. How about you guys?"
Stella looked at Regina who offered her a shrug in return. "Well, let's have three Cherry Coolers for a change, Ruby."
"Oh, you don't have to do that," Megan said, but Stella just waved at her.
"No, we're cool. It's fun to try something new for a change. Three Cherry Coolers, please, Ruby."
"Sure thing… coming right up."
Once the jovial bartender had left the booth, Regina put her hand under the table and started caressing Stella's thigh. "How come you don't drink alcohol, Megan? Your body is your temple and all that?"
"Oh, no, it's because of a clause in my contract for my day job… uh… my day job is… promise you won't laugh," Megan said and looked left and right to see if anyone was listening in on her.
"We won't," Stella said with a grin.
"I'm a kindergarten teacher." - When she was met with stunned silence, she chuckled and began to play with a napkin on the tabletop. "Yeah, that's the response I always get. It usually gets worse when I say it's run by a local Church."
That was more than Stella could cope with and she promptly choked on some saliva. Coughing and spluttering, she fell across the table and had to have Regina thump her on her back several times to get back to life. "Run by-" - cough, splutter, cough -
"-a Ch-" - cough, splutter, cough -
"Church!" - cough, SPLUTTER, cough -
"Holy" - splutter, splutter, cough -
"Sh…" - cough, splutter, cough -
"what do they" - cough, cough, cough -
"say about your" - cough, splutter, SPLUTTER -
"Oh, they're okay with it, actually."
"Wow… imagine that." - croak, croak -
"Huh! Now, if that had been a question in a pop quiz, I woulda failed. Would you have guessed that, Reggie?" Stella said and took off her steamed-up glasses to polish the lenses.
"Not really," Regina said with a grin. "Tell me, how do the kids react when you play with them?"
"Oh, they love it," Megan said with a grin.
The conversation was put on pause when Ruby came back with three Cherry Coolers, complete with straws, little umbrellas and ice cubes shaped like voluptuous female bodies. "Here ya go, guys. It's been a while since I've made one of these and I found out I was a little rusty… if they taste like shit, just yell at me and I'll get you something else."
Taking a sip, Stella's face lit up like a little sun. "No, they're just perfect, Ruby."
"Good. If there's anything else, just call, okay?"
"Sure," Regina said and took her own drink. "Cheers!"
"Cheers!" Megan said and took a healthy sip from the straw. "Hey, this is pretty good."
Nodding, Stella put down her glass and predictably began to play with the umbrella. "Yep. So, Megan, once we've had our drinks, you wanna go and dance or something? Ruby's got a great dance floor. It's just over there," she said and pointed at the entrance to the separate dance hall.
"Um, no thank you. When I dance, I look like a ostrich trying to escape a pack of hunting lions," Megan said with a chuckle.
Hearing that, Regina scrunched up her face and thought of something they had talked about earlier in the day. "Wait a minute… didn't you say that wrestling was a lot like dancing?"
"Sure I did, but when I wrestle, I wear a costume. In there," Megan said and pointed at the entrance to the dance floor, "I'm just me."
"Now I can definitely understand that, 'Chains'," Stella said with a grin. "Oh, let's have another toast… to good friends and to strange occupations!" she shouted and grabbed her drink.
"That's two, Stell," Regina said and bumped shoulders with her friend.
"Are you complainin'?"
"Has anything good *ever* come out of complaining to you, Stell…?"
"Why, yes it is, actually."
"Word! Cheers!" Stella shouted and took a good swig of her drink.
"Cheers," Regina and Megan said as one, both chuckling over the excited look on Stella's face as she savored her Cherry Cooler.
THE END of ONE, TWO, THREE!
IV - HULLABA-HOOP
Written by Norsebard
A few days later.
"All ready, Stell!" Regina Harrison shouted after she had finished plugging the cable for the portable TV and DVD into the wall socket. Taking a step back, she cocked her head and eyed the TV closely. A few seconds later, she stepped back to it and pushed it an inch to the right so it was perfectly level on their plush gray carpet instead of tilting a little to the left.
Stella Starr said from the bathroom.
'You're ready… now?'
'Okay, okay… I can't believe you talked me into doing this… I mean, Holy Cannoli!'
When nothing had happened after a further fifteen seconds, Regina went over to the bathroom door and tapped her knuckles on it. "Stell?"
'Yeah, yeah, yeah… *sigh*'
. Two seconds later, the door handle was depressed and Stella stepped out of the bathroom. She only made it half a step into the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency when she stopped dead in her tracks and stared at the outfit Regina was wearing.
The tall, former model had donned a black Rokkstar Track and Field windbreaker with a white stripe across the chest, loose, Zumba-style sweat pants - that sat indecently low on her hips - in deep purple with gold highlights, and finally a matching purple sweat band around her head to keep her long, dark hair out of her eyes. As usual, she looked as if she had just stepped out of a cover of a fashion magazine.
Stella briefly looked down at her own exercise outfit, thinking that it had looked a lot better on the mannequin in the shop - she was wearing a powder blue body suit that looked puffy around the top because of the sports bra she wore underneath, a pair of knitted dark blue leggings and a mismatched pair of wrist bands; one red, one yellow.
Chuckling, Regina put a hand across her face, pretending to be shielding her eyes. "Stell, you know what? With those leggings, your outfit looks almost exactly like the dancing costume from… that movie with the welder… what was it called?"
"Flashdance," Stella mumbled.
"Flashdance, yeah. Though wasn't that a darker color?"
"Dark blue. Okay, so I had a baby-crush on Jennifer Beals back then and I guess I've harbored one ever since so when I found this outfit in a sports equipment store I thought I'd be able to look just a little bit like her if I bought it but I look like I always have and nothing like her not that anyone could because that was probably the sexiest she's ever looked…" Stella said in a single stream of words. "Oh, who cares."
"I care. It's an okay outfit, Stell."
"Yeah. Wait a minute, how old were you when that movie came out?"
"Like I said, it was a baby-crush," Stella said and pushed her glasses up her nose.
"Must've been. C'mon, Stell… this is gonna be fun," Regina said and began to warm up by shaking her limbs and pulling her legs up towards her.
"Well, if you say so… Reggie?"
"Why do you always look so dazzlingly sexy no matter what you wear? And why do I always look like a-"
"Cute, little number?" Regina said with a broad grin.
"Wasn't exactly what I was gonna say," Stella said with an embarrassed smirk as she went over to stand next to Regina, "but thanks, anyway."
"You're welcome. Stell, you should stretch a bit before we start," Regina said and mussed Stella's unruly mop of dirty-blonde hair.
Reluctantly, Stella began to perform a few stretching routines to get her limbs, muscles and cartilage ready for the torture she was sure would follow. After bending down and touching the floor twice and doing a few hops - on the first one, she cleared the carpet by nearly two inches - she was ready. "That's it. Anymore of this and I'll be bombed out before we even start," she said and used her wrist bands to wipe a few imaginary drops of sweat off her forehead.
"Good. Now… let's go. Here's 'Tiffany Reilly's Full Body Workout for Women, Medium Impact Class,' " Regina said and took the remote she had put behind her on Stella's desk. Pressing play, she put the remote back on the desk and waited for the DVD to start.
A few seconds later, the DVD opened with an establishing shot of a set made to look like a fitness club. Scattered around the set, five athletic women in identical skimpy gray sportswear were stretching their limbs and preparing for the exercise program.
As soon as Stella saw the fit women, she pushed her glasses up her nose and broke out in a wide grin. "Now, I could get used to this, actually… mmmm!"
Before long - and to the sound of canned applause - the famous fitness expert Tiffany Reilly stepped in from the left side of the screen in a white sports bra and a pair of bicycle shorts that were so tight Stella was convinced they were banned in Iowa and neighboring States.
'Hello, I'm Tiffany and you're watching my brand new Full Body Workout for Women, Medium Impact Class. I hope you all have your stair stepper ready because we're about to start.'
"We do!" Regina said gleefully as she put two twelve-inch high stair steppers down on the carpet; one in front of herself and one in front of a slightly downhearted Stella.
Tiffany Reilly said from the DVD as the camera moved down to show her aerobics shoes that - judging by the caption and the logo on the shoes - had been provided by a fairly well-known manufacturer. 'Here's how we do this routine. Now watch me as I go through it at half speed. When I say Go, we'll do it at full speed. Are you with me? Here's the routine at half speed.'
While Tiffany performed the stepping routine, Stella stared wide-eyed at the TV, trying to keep up with the increasingly convoluted choreography. By the seventh step, she had lost track of what she was expected to do and let out a long, slow growl. "Oh, who the hell can follow that kind of… Reggie, am I stupid or is that-" she started to say but cut herself off when she noticed that Regina was following the program to the letter. "Never mind."
"You don't have to follow it religiously, Stell. Just find a sequence that works for you," Regina said and gave Stella's shoulder a little squeeze.
On the DVD, the camera pulled back to show Tiffany getting ready for the real work. 'Girls, are you ready?'
she said. When the five athletic women all nodded, Tiffany clapped her hands and shouted 'Go!'
A pumping beat started playing, and soon, all six women were hard at work on the stair steppers, occasionally letting out whoops and cheers to keep their spirits up.
Regina matched them step by step by going up, going down, moving right, going up, going down, moving left, going up, going down, shaking her left leg to the left, going up, going down, shaking her right leg to the right, going up, going down-
By then, Stella was miles behind, having stopped after going up for the first time - instead, she was completely and utterly mesmerized by the sight of the graceful, long-limbed Regina employing all her many skills to keep up with the complicated program.
Realizing that she hadn't blinked for nearly half a minute, Stella shook her head and returned to her feeble attempts at keeping up. She tried going up, going down, going left, going right, going up, going down-
Then Regina unzipped her Track and Field windbreaker and threw it onto the couch, revealing a black, formfitting sports bra and acres upon acres of smooth, gloriously tanned skin.
Oh-point-five of a second later, Stella didn't pull her leg high enough and failed to clear the front of the stair stepper. Losing her concentration, not to mention her balance, she nearly took a fumbling swan dive over the top of the stair stepper and onto the floor, but by flailing her arms in the air and letting out an "Ooooooooooooh!", she managed to stay erect - just.
"Are… you… all… right?" Regina said around her routine.
"Yeah, yeah… damn, girl! Couldn't you have warned me or something?"
" 'About what…' Sheebus! That your torpedoes would make an appearance!"
Going up, going down, moving right, going up, going down, moving left, going up, going down, shaking her left leg to the left, going up, going down, shaking her right leg to the right, Regina just smirked and shot Stella a cheeky look. "Are… you… saying… I… still… got… it…?"
"Ha flippin' ha! Never mind! How long is this nonsense, anyway?" Stella said and resumed her own program. Instead of trying to follow the impossibly complicated setup Tiffany was going through on the DVD, she just went up and down with one leg at a time.
"Get outta town!"
Sighing, Stella looked towards the heavens. After a few seconds, her eyes sort of slipped down to watch Regina's upper body instead.
Once the first part of the exercise was over, an animated hourglass counting down from five minutes was shown on the DVD while Tiffany talked about the importance of stretching between the three steps of the Medium Impact Class.
"Yap, yap, yap," Stella croaked, staggering over to the couch where she promptly flaked out.
Chuckling, Regina shook her limbs and sat down on the carpet where she began to stretch her buttocks and calves. "Stell, may I offer you some advice?"
"On whether it's got anything to do with what I put in my mouth," Stella said and threw an old crumb at Regina while she shot her an Evil Eye.
Regina grinned and pretended to catch the crumb. "Okay, let's forget that for now. Anyway, the second part of the program should be easier for you… it's the Power Band, remember that?"
"Oh… the elastic band you stuff under your foot?"
"And around your legs and back, yep."
Stella shivered, remembering quite vividly the instant waxing she'd suffered when the Power Band had slipped out of her grip and had nipped every single one of the little hairs on her right arm. Grimacing, she massaged said arm and sat up straight. "Okay, but I need something before we get to that," she said and got up from the couch.
A short while later, she came back from the conference room with one of their bags of disguises. Diving into it, she quickly found a black-and-red ice hockey goalie mask to protect her eyebrows and two pale green latex veterinarian gloves that reached up to her elbows. "All ready. So there!"
A few minutes later - fully equipped and ready for anything - Stella got down on her knees and tucked her Power Band in under the knitted leggings. "Yeah, baby!" she exclaimed in a voice muffled by the ice hockey mask. "Watch out Miss Universe, Stella Starr is on the case!"
"D'ya think you've got enough protection there, Stell?" Regina drawled as she put her Power Band under her shoes and began to pull it up rhythmically, giving her biceps and pectoral muscles a good workout.
"Mmm-hmmm… you betcha!" Stella said and took a good grip on the two handles. With a deep breath, she managed to pull the Power Band up to her chest and hold it there for a few seconds, bringing out a surprising amount of muscle tone in her arms. Groaning and shaking from the exertion, she let go of the elastic band and let it fall down limply. "O… kay," she said, huffing and puffing, "that's one."
"Nineteen to go," Regina added, switching to a backhanded grip for the next set of ten pulls.
"Yeah, right. In your dreams, Reggie," Stella said and shot her friend a pointed look through the mask. "I'll be satisfied with… with… wi- HA-CHOOOO!"
"Thanks… oh… ewwwwwwww… I sneezed all over the inside of the mask…!"
"Oh Jeez, Stell!" Regina said, pulling a horrified face and a quick shimmy-shake to get rid of the willies that were crawling all over her skin.
When she noticed Stella trying to wipe the inside of the mask with one of her latex gloves, she put the Power Band away and went around Stella's desk to grab their indispensable box of tissues. "Here you go… Stell… here…" she said, holding the box in front of Stella who didn't respond at all. "Stell?"
"I can't see a thing… my glasses kinda got coated…"
"Oh fer Chrissakes!" Regina howled and had to shimmy again. "C'mon, let's go into the bathroom so you can get cleaned up," she said and took Stella by the hand.
"Thanks, Reggie… you're my pal. My best pal. My only-"
"You're on your own the second we cross the doorstep," Regina said strongly, keeping a safe distance from the mask and the glove Stella had used.
Five minutes later - minus the mask but plus a freshly washed face - Stella came back into the office only to see Regina performing magic with an extra-large fitness ball. The former model was horizontal in the air, keeping her abdominal muscles on top of the ball while she held onto her own desk to keep the balance.
"Whoa, you're… you're really Supergirl, ain't you?" Stella shouted, grinning broadly at the sight of Regina's shapely rear end pointing straight up. "While you're trying to learn how to fly, I think I'll do something fun for a change and take the hula hoop," she continued and went over to fetch the last of the fitness accessories.
On the DVD, Tiffany Reilly and her five athletic companions were enjoying themselves with fitness balls and hula hoops as well, but Stella just waved her hand and let out a "Pfffff! They don't know how to do it properly! Reggie, you may not know this, but back in day, I was a hula hoopin' champion! Yessiree, I won the Golden Hoop. I beat nine other girls from my 'hood in the finals, can you believe that?"
Stepping into the hula hoop, Stella pulled it up and prepared to give it a spin. "Yeah… those were the good old days. Of course, I was five years old at the time…"
Regina looked up at her friend and grinned. "Careful… Stella… it's… not… like… the… old… ones… it's… got… weight… in… it…"
Unfortunately, Stella was too preoccupied with thinking about her glorious, award-winning past to hear what Regina said. Letting out a whoop, she gave the exercise hula hoop a mighty spin, expecting it to react just like the hoops she had used as a girl.
The first indication that something was wrong came after a complete tour. Once the hula hoop came back, Stella started moving her hips to make it stay up, but she hadn't counted on the added weight so it pulled her a step to the side.
Undeterred, she increased the pace of her gyrating hips, thinking that she was merely a bit rusty after not touching a hula hoop for years. As the hoop gained momentum, she did, too, matching the centrifugal force with her own.
"Look at me, Reggie!" - wobble -
"I'm hula hoopin' " - wobble, wobble -
"Oh, this is so much fun!" - wobble, wobble, WOBBLE -
"… but why is it…" - wobble, WOBBLE, WOBBLE -
"… pulling me to the side…?" - WOBBLE, WOBBLE, WOBBLE!
Side-stepping frantically, Stella tried to get the hula hoop back under control only to find it possessed by a power greater than hers. Before long, the hoop led her on a guided tour around the office, bumping into the desks, the filing cabinets, the coffee table, the hallstand, and finally the TV that nearly keeled over.
"Yikes, I'm-" - wobblewobblewobble -
"I c- can't control-" - wobblewobblewobble -
"the damn thing…" - wobblewobblewobble -
"Mayday! Mayday! Stella…" - wobbleWOBBLEWOBBLE -
"Stella in distress! Stella in distr-"
"Watch out, Stell, you're comin' straight for me!" Regina howled and tried to get off her fitness ball - but it was much too late.
"I'm going dooooooooown!" - WOBBLEWOBBLEWOBBLE -
"Ooooooh!" - KER! -
"Yeoooow!" - FUM! -
"Ooooof!" - BLE! CRASH!
Once the dust had settled, Stella groaned and moved her nose out of Regina's gloriously tanned belly button. Crossing her eyes to see if her beak was still attached, she gave it a little tweak to make it snap back to its original shape.
"Oh, Stell!" Regina growled, trying to push the fitness ball away so she could get fully over onto her back. Doing so, she accidentally bumped her elbow into the desk which sent a full stack of files down on top of them. "Oh. Just. Perfect."
"And they say exercise is good for you… pah, what a load of sh…" Stella mumbled as she sat back on her thighs and began to pat down the carpet to find her glasses that had gone flying in the crash landing.
Sighing, Regina took pity on her friend and reached up to her cleavage where Stella's frame was neatly placed across the two tanned globes almost like it had been put there by an unseen hand. "Here ya go, Stell. Caught 'em with my boobs."
"Thanks, Reggie… you're my pal," Stella said and pushed them up her nose. "Wait… you caught them with your b-" she continued once they were in place.
"Oh," Stella said, taking them off again to polish the suddenly steamed-up lenses.
On the DVD, Tiffany Reilly went into a goodbye-speech where she thanked her five athletic companions and the many sponsors who had made it possible to create the DVD, and soon, the end credits began to roll.
"Boy, an hour just flies by when you're having fun, huh…?" Stella mumbled, looking at the sorry state of the office where the hallstand had been knocked over, the items on the coffee table had been distributed all over the carpet, the vase with the dried flowers had fallen down between two of the filing cabinets - and last but not least, the week's worth of paperwork that needed to be sorted again.
Inside Regina's chest, a chuckle was formed that soon bubbled to the surface where it burst out of her with a bang. It was soon joined by many, many more, and before long, she reached up and pulled Stella down next to her to give her a good, old-fashioned crushing hug to have someone to share her laughing fit with.
Wrapping her arms around Regina's inviting torso, Stella soon succumbed to the infectious laughter and began to laugh out loud herself - all the while showering the former model's throat, cheek and lips with a string of little, loving kisses.
THE END of HULLABA-HOOP
Concluded in Part 2