This (hopefully) humorous tale is an original story and it's to be categorized as a Beyond Uber. All characters are created by me.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
This story hints at a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.
I. Jewel In The Rough
II. Ohs and Woes
III. Home Video
IV. Sick and Sicker
V. O Kate Marshall, Where Art Thou?
VI. I'd Like a Flappy Moccymellyato, Please
VII. Woman In All Her Glory
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: January 22nd - February 28th, 2012.
Thank you, Wendy Arthur, for your help and for giving me permission to use Kate Marshall *Flower* :)
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: Regina Harrison and Stella Starr return with more crime-fighting zaniness, over-the-top disguises and clever charades. Locking horns with a jewel thief known as the Invisible Man; helping a woman out of a highly embarrassing jam; wreaking all kinds of havoc when they meet one of Stella's idols; squaring off against a blackmailer with a grudge? in short, it's business as usual for the unpredictable and unstoppable investigators from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency?
I - JEWEL IN THE ROUGH
Written by Norsebard
After driving onto the parking lot and stopping in the slot reserved for her - next to an old, dilapidated AMC Pacer - forty-two year old Regina Harrison turned off the silver metallic Mercedes SLK's engine and moved the rear view mirror to the left so she could give herself a thorough once-over.
"Blue eyes? check. High cheekbones? check. Wonderful hair? check. A Goddess personified? check. Hey, doll? you still got it," she said to the mirror, pointing her index finger at it and cocking her head to make her hair fall just right.
As she exited the Mercedes and sailed across the parking lot to get to the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, she noticed two men working on adding a fresh layer of asphalt to one of the many potholes in the lot.
Making sure that her slacks were zipped and buttoned, that her blazer jacket was thrown over her shoulder at just the right angle and that the top three buttons of her steel gray shirt were opened to allow a tantalizing peek at the top of her tanned cleavage, she casually flipped her hair back and let out a brief whistle that was sure to catch the men's attention.
When both men turned to stare at her, she took full advantage of the moment by allowing her six-foot-one frame to do what it did best - look sexy, alluring and simply too-cool-for-words.
Then she noticed that both men were wearing ear protectors and couldn't have heard her whistle. A further, closer, inspection of their faces proved that they weren't even looking at her but at an electronic device one of the men was holding.
Sighing, Regina opened the door to the office and stepped inside.
" 'Morning, Stell!" she said as she closed the door behind her. When Stella Starr - her thirty-six year old best friend and business associate - didn't answer, she turned around and looked at Stella's desk to see what was going on.
Spotting the empty chair, the empty desk and the curious sight of the cord for the telephone hanging off it made Regina go "Hmmm!" and hurry over to the desk to see if her inherently clumsy friend needed help to get up from the floor.
Not needing any help whatsoever, Stella Starr had crammed herself into the gap underneath the desk, her five foot four-and-a-half inches self as snug as a bug in a rug. She was reclining against one wall while her socked feet were propped up on the other. The loudness of her clothes was matched by the goofy grin on her face, the excited glow in her green eyes and the wild state of her dirty-blonde mop of hair, and as she spoke into the receiver she had pinned down between her cheek and her shoulder, she made little patterns on her stomach with her fingers.
The amount of snickers emanating from Stella convinced Regina that it was a private conversation, and she went back to the hallstand to hang her blazer jacket and to get the coffee maker running.
Ten minutes later, Stella threw the receiver back up on the desk and clambered to her feet. Smoothing down the unruly haystack she called hair, she sat down in her chair and put her feet up on the desk. "Good morning, Reggie. Oh, isn't it a glorious morning?"
"Mmmm, yeah, depends on what you call glorious, Stell. I just call it 'Monday.' Here's your coffee," Regina said with her back turned. Taking a mug of steaming, black coffee, she nearly dropped it on the plush, gray carpet when she noticed that Stella was wearing purple and red socks - purple on her left foot, red on the other - a pair of threadbare blue jeans where the legs had been cut off below the knees, and a black muscleshirt with the words "Ain't I purdy?" in large, white letters across her chest.
"Oh. My. G? G? G? God?! Wh-what are you wearing?? Are you trying to kill me, Stell?" Regina said in a hoarse voice.
"I'm wearing clothes, thank you. I'd like my coffee now, if ya don't mind? coffee? Reggie? My coffee?" Stella said, putting out her hand.
Regina blinked a couple of times and gave Stella the coffee. As soon as the mug had been delivered, Regina hurried back to her own desk so she wouldn't be too close to her friend in case her horrible fashion sense was contagious.
Sniffing the coffee, Stella took a sip and then leaned back on the chair. "Ahhh. Thank you. Oh, this is such a wonderful coffee?"
"Did something happen to you since we said bye-bye Friday night?" Regina said and sat down at her desk. Picking up a newspaper and skimming the front page, she pushed off her shoes and swung her legs up on the desk.
"No. Well? Maybe. Well? Yeah. Why?"
"You're just not yourself this morning. That's all."
"Oh, you know?"
Leaning over, Regina shot Stella a wink and a smile. "Did we get ourselves a girlfriend??"
Stella blushed and began to fiddle with her glasses. "Oh, you know? we're not quite there yet, but we're working on it."
"I'm happy for you, buddy. I really am. Does she know how to dress?"
"Oh, Reggie!" Stella said and began to search for something she could use as a weapon. Finding an elastic band, she stretched it out and fired it slingshot-style at the former Queen of the Catwalks.
"Hey! That's only funny until someone loses an eye!" Regina said, ducking her head down to evade the elastic missile. "This means war!" she continued, spinning around on her swivelchair. She quickly rounded up her own stash of elastic bands and began to shoot them at Stella, using all kinds of advanced tactics and firing solutions.
Soon, the airspace between the two desks was humming with brown missiles that were flying all over the place - except where they were supposed to go; only one in five actually made it all the way to the other desk - and the carpet resembled the floor of a post office on a bad day.
"Damn, I'm outta ammo!" Stella said around a series of hearty chuckles. Reaching into her desk drawer, she found a white handkerchief that she proceeded to wave in the air.
"Ha! I still got one left!" Regina said and raised her last missile. Just as she was about to let it rip, the elastic band snapped in two and swooshed back to give her own fingers an almighty whack. "Owww!" she howled, dropping the weapon like it was on fire.
"Let that be a lesson to you, young'un. War stinks. So there!" Stella said and put away the handkerchief.
Sucking on her fingers, Regina leaned back in her swivelchair and picked up her newspaper. "Oh, ha ha. Can you even remember what to do with a girlfriend?? I mean, it's been kinda long, hasn't it?"
"Oh, you know? it's like riding a bike. The first five hundred seventy five times you fall off, you're still learning? eventually, you learn to wear a helmet so the knocks won't be so hard when you get shot down," Stella said and put her hands behind her head.
"Uh? huh? What's that got to do with? never mind. I don't wanna know," Regina said and concentrated on her newspaper.
Chuckling, Stella picked up her Rubik's Cube and began to twist and turn it.
Flipping the page in the Chronicle, Regina suddenly zoomed in on one of the articles. "Oh, hey? listen to this story? 'High-society jewel thief eludes police again. Last evening, the jewel thief dubbed the Invisible Man wreaked havoc on a party organized by wealthy socialite Lulu LaFontaine. A spokespe-"
The lyrical name proved to be too much for Stella who responded by slamming her hands down on the desk and throwing her head back. "BWAHAHAHAHAHAR! HAR-HAR-HAR? HAR! LULU! HAR!" she howled, not noticing that she was inching precariously close to the edge of the chair.
"She's a really nice lady, actually," Regina said. Looking over her shoulder, she knew exactly what was coming and started debating with herself whether or not she should make Stella aware that she was about to?
Crash! Bump! Thump!
"Too late," Regina mumbled.
Grappling around for her glasses, Stella pounded her fist into the gray carpet when she wasn't able to find them. "Ouch! Oh, that damn chair! Luckily, my butt cushioned the fall."
"Perhaps you need to wear a butt-helmet, too, Stella-honey."
"You know, that's not a bad idea, that."
"Anyway, your glasses are directly ahead of your right hand."
"Thanks," Stella said as she put on her spectacles and clambered to her feet. Sighing, she rubbed her aching behind and shuffled over to the couch.
"Can I read the article now, please??" Regina said, shooting Stella a sympathetic look.
"Go on, Reggie, go on. Don't mind me. I'm just-"
"Being yourself. Ahem. ANYhow, where was I? oh yeah, 'party organized by wealthy socialite Lulu LaFontaine. A spokesperson for Ms. LaFontaine has confirmed that a pea?" - Regina quickly glanced at Stella before continuing - "uh, a pearl necklace was taken from one of the guests, Sunny Duvall, a model working for the Zane-Larkin Agency."
Stella lifted her head from the armrest of the couch and shot Regina a dirty look, thinking about the last time she had encountered that particular phrase.
"And in this case, a pearl necklace means a pearl necklace? no hidden agenda," Regina said, ever in tune with Stella's thoughts.
Grunting, Stella lowered her head back down on the armrest. "She must have been teased as a kid. Lulu? Man!"
"Like I said, she's a really nice lady," Regina said and continued reading the Chronicle.
"Have you ever been to one of her parties?"
"Oh yeah, several times. They take place in the penthouse of the Goddard-building. Real five-star events?. Champagne, strawberries and honey, genuine caviar and other exotic foods, expensive escorts? that kinda stuff. Best of the best, Stell," Regina said and flipped past the stocks and commodities to get to the funny pages. "If you want to be seen, you need to be there."
Stella rolled over onto her right side and propped her head up on her arm. "Ugh. That's why I'm not a model."
Looking up, Regina cocked her head and glanced at her friend's posture and attire. After a few seconds, she stifled a laugh and flipped the page again. "Well, that and?" she mumbled to herself.
"I heard that! And what? Huh? Are you woman enough to tell me, Reggie?"
"Well, there's only one thing standing between you and a career in modeling."
"I'm all ears, Miss-I-Drive-A-Convertible-Cos-My-Head-Is-Too-Big-For-A-Sedan!"
Not expecting such a compliment at all, the barb that Stella had already prepared got stuck in her throat, and she opened and closed her mouth a couple of times while she worked on a nicer reply. "Oh? uh? thank you."
"You're welcome," Regina said and offered Stella a warm, genuine smile.
Twenty uneventful minutes later, Stella was on the verge of falling asleep on the couch. Flat on her back, her mouth was hanging open and faint sounds of snoring were escaping her lips. Her left arm was suspended over her forehead and her right was hanging off the couch, nearly touching the floor.
Jerking awake with a loud "AAARGH!" Stella shot up into a sitting position and stared with wide, confused eyes at Regina, the office and the telephone, trying to figure out where that infernal racket had come from.
"It was just the phone, Stell," Regina said and picked up the receiver. "You've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, how may we help you?"
'Uh, hello. May I speak with Mr. Harrison Starr, please?' a male voice said at the other end of the connection.
Chuckling, Regina mouthed to Stella that she should go over to her own desk and update the record they kept of the number of people who wanted to talk to Mr. Harrison Starr. "Sir, we don't actually have anyone here by that name. You're speaking with Regina Harrison, one of the investigators."
"Think nothing of it, Sir. Common mistake."
As Stella tried to get up from the couch, she noticed that her left arm was still sleeping from the weird position she'd had it in. The thing felt like lead and was cold as ice, and the only way she could haul herself from the couch and over to her own desk was by sticking her dead fingers into the waist of her blue jeans.
Groaning loudly the entire way, Stella staggered across the plush carpet until she finally reached her chair. Once there, she pulled out the drawer where she kept the paperwork - fortunately, the drawer was to her right. She grabbed a pencil and made a fat line on the piece of paper titled 'People who ask for Mr. Harrison Bleepin' Starr!'
Counting the lines, she came to the conclusion that the man at the other end of the line had been the twenty-third different person to get it wrong.
'My name is Bruce Nelson and I may have a job for you? that is, if you're available at short notice??'
"Well, I-" Regina started to say, but a brief kerfuffle at the other end made her stop.
'Regina! DAAAAAAHLING!' a female voice suddenly shouted so loudly through the connection that not only did it make Regina drop the receiver, it made her hair part on the wrong side.
"Oh! My? my hair! Oh no, my hair!" she said and began to flip her precious locks back to the shape they were supposed to be in. When she couldn't get all the strands back, she jumped up and began a frantic search for a mirror.
'Dahling?' the female voice said again from the carpet where the receiver had ended up.
Letting out a long sigh, Stella picked up the receiver on her own desk and leaned back in her chair. "Regina is indisposed at the moment, I'm afraid. This is Stella Starr, I'm also an investigator. How may we help you?"
'Oh? hello. I'm? wh-what happened to Regina?'
Looking up, Stella could see that Regina had wheeled out the full-sized mirror from the conference room and was busy rearranging her black 'do. "Well, let's just say that she had a hair crisis."
'Oh, Good Lord, that's the absolute worst thing that can happen to a lady! The WORST!' the woman said, adding more than a little gusto.
"Uh-huh?" Stella said in a flat voice. "Anyway? what's this about, please?"
'Oh, silly me? My name is Lulu LaFontaine and I've called you to hire your services to stop these? these? despicable crimes!'
Staring at the receiver, Stella had to bite her lip to stop herself from breaking out into a similar belly laugh to the one she'd had earlier. "Lulu LaFontaine? oh, the jewel thief?"
'Well! I'm not the jewel thief, young lady!'
"No, no, of course not? I meant that your party was-"
'That's right! Last night was the fourth time it happened and it simply has to stop! I'm losing my good name and reputation over this. It can't go on!'
Having finally rescued her hair, Regina wheeled the mirror away and sat down at her desk. Picking up the receiver, she gave Stella a signal that she was ready to resume the conversation.
"It's Lulu," Stella whispered, batting her eyelids as she spoke the name.
"I know, I recognized the foghorn," Regina whispered back before clearing her throat. "Hello, Lulu, dahling. It's me, Regina."
'Oh, dahling, did you save your hair?'
"I certainly did. This is about the heists?"
'Yes! When I saw your ad in the newspaper, I just knew I had to call you because you were always one of my favorite girls.'
'Oh, it's so dreadful? you simply MUST come and rescue me from a fate worse than death? the gutter press hasn't stopped calling me ALL morning.'
"We will, Lulu, don't you worry about that. That's a promise," Regina said and swung her legs up on the desk.
'Oh, thank you! I don't know how to repay you!'
"Well, we don't come cheap."
'Any price, Regina? I'll pay any price!'
"Good," Regina said and gave Stella a thumbs-up. "When is the next party, Lulu?"
"Boy, you're not hanging around, are you?"
'The wheels never stop turning, Regina? you know that.'
Finding her notepad, Regina quickly scribbled down a few random ideas for their outfits. Once she was done, she held it up in the air to get Stella's attention. "Yeah. Okay, that doesn't give us much time to arrange things? but we'll manage. Eight pm at the Goddard-building, right?"
'Yes, that's right.'
Stella got up from her chair and shuffled over to the other desk. Sitting down on the corner, she took the notepad and began to study Regina's ideas. "Fashion guru and her disciple? orange turtleneck, black jeans?" she mumbled, scrunching up her face as she went through the scattered words.
"We have a deal, Lulu. We'll be there, eight pm sharp. Don't forget to put Regina Harrison and Stella Starr on your guest list so the security won't turn us away at the door. Okay?"
'? Stella Starr, what a peculiar name. All right, I have that written down. I'll tell them the moment we hang up.'
"Good. Oh, and when we get there, let's keep it a low-key affair. After all, we want this to be effective, don't we?" Regina said, staring at the way Stella's left arm was still tucked into the waist of her jeans.
'Oh, absolutely, dahling. Nobody will ever notice anything! See you there!'
"Bye, Lulu," Regina said and hung up.
Putting down the notepad, Stella jumped off the desk and tried to flex her dead fingers - when they finally responded, she breathed a sigh of relief and hurriedly scratched an itch on her butt that had been driving her crazy for the better part of five minutes. "So?" she said, pointing at the notepad.
"That'll be you. I'm the disciple," Regina said and got up. After giving Stella a quick check, the former model strode into the conference room to get their bag of disguises.
It took Stella a few seconds to comprehend the deeper meaning behind Regina's words, but when she arrived at the undeniable conclusion, she threw her arms in the air and followed her friend out of the office.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa? me? A fashion guru? Why don't we just go the whole nine yards and disguise me as the Statue Of Liberty while we're at it?" she said, leaning against the inside of the door.
Reaching into the closet, Regina found the bag and hauled it out into the middle of the floor. "Well, Stella? dahling? some of those people already know me as a model. We'd only confuse them if I came as a guru," she said, taking out a few items.
"Oh, I get it? I'm just Miss Nobody. Huh!"
"I know your worth, dahling."
"Stop saying 'dahling', or else?"
Holding up the orange turtleneck, Regina flashed Stella an impossibly wide grin. "Or else what? dahling?"
"Or I'm gonna? I'm gonna? do something that'll make you feel very uncomfortable!" Stella said and yanked the turtleneck out of her friend's hands.
"Oh! Are you gonna shave my eyebrows while I sleep? ?or dye my favorite shirt purple?" Regina said. Closing the closet door, she cocked her hips and put her pinkie finger between her lips - one of the stances she had perfected in her years as the undisputed star of the show.
"Oh, ha ha. Too cute for words, Reggie. And just for the record, you'd look gorgeous in a purple shirt. But never mind that, now. Hey, you didn't give me the black jeans??"
Stepping aside, Regina revealed a pile of clothes on the floor. "Sure I did, they're right there. Oh, and you can't wear sneakers so you better find some ankle boots or something."
"Yeah, yeah, always shovin' me around! Sheesh! All you beautiful people? you're always on my back! Harassing' me to no end. Why, I oughtta-"
Sensing that Stella was about to go off on one of her trademark tirades, Regina quietly exited the conference room to give her easily excitable friend privacy to change.
A few minutes later, Stella came back into the office and stood with her hands on her hips. "So?" she said, turning around to present herself to the jury of one.
"Hmmm?" Regina said, sitting up straight on the couch. "Well? okay, the boots look fine. The jeans are a good fit? the turtleneck works well, too? but there's something missing."
Looking down at herself, Stella adjusted the upper hem of the turtleneck a couple of times and then pulled it down at the other end. "I know. My boobs? look," she said and turned to the side, showing that her B-cups were practically invisible through the heavy blouse.
"Well, we're going for the androgynous look. No, it isn't that. No? hmmm?"
"We are? Hell, I wish someone would girl up and tell me from the get-go. Here I was, almost ready to use that most supportive of personal accessories? the Wonderbra," Stella said with her tongue stuck so firmly in her cheek that it was on the brink of piercing it.
Getting up, Regina was caught halfway between the couch and standing upright when she registered Stella's words. "What? No, no, no, that part of you looks just fine, Stell."
Chuckling, Regina moved over to her friend and began to size her up using her trained eye. She adjusted the shoulders, the waist and the lower hem of the turtleneck until she was satisfied with the look. "Yeah. No, what I meant was that we need something to put some spice? some oomph into you. Hey, I got it? pitch black shades, a good blob of gel in your hair and some? some?"
"No, a few rosaries around your neck."
"I'm not a Roman Catholic, Reggie."
"I know that and you know that, but the people at that party won't even care. If it looks good, they'll buy it," Regina said while trying to tame Stella's wild haystack. After a few attempts, she gave up and decided on rely on the bottle of Extra Heavy Duty gel she had in the bathroom.
"Ouch, do I detect a slightly bitter tone to that statement?" Stella said and turned around to face Regina.
The former model just shrugged and began to move away, but Stella grabbed her ample hips and kept her in place. "Hey?? Is something wrong?"
"No. But I guess that most people involved in that business have a tendency to be kinda? uh?"
"Shallow? Superficial? Vain? Airheaded? Easily swayed by botox, bling-bling and glitter?"
"Aw hell, Reggie, I knew that already? just from talkin' to you," Stella said with a big smile to take the sting out of the words.
Narrowing her eyes, Regina flipped her hair over her shoulder to make it fall just right. "I'm not vain? I'm just? perfect. There's no reason not to flaunt perfection, is there?" she said, holding her head in a forty-five degree angle that emphasized her strong jawline and the taut, tanned skin on her throat and upper chest.
Trying to let her friend down easy, Stella just grinned and patted the former model's hands. "No, of course not. Just keep telling yourself that, dear."
"I still got it!"
"Of course, of course. I never said you didn't. Now, please hold the fort while I switch back to my regular duds. Okay?" Stella said and slipped into the conference room.
Two minutes and eight seconds later, the phones started ringing, but before Regina had even had time to think about picking it up, Stella came storming back into the office, grappling at her own jeans to get them back where they belonged - on her hips instead of pooling around her ankles.
Hop-hop-hopping across the floor, Stella quickly snatched the receiver off Regina's desk, but as she did so, she accidentally stepped on her pants, tearing them off completely and sending herself on a collision course with the carpet - the result was inevitable.
"YEOOOWCH! OOO-" - thud! - "-OOF! Oh, those damn pants? Hello, this is the Harri? hi, Danielle," she said; her voice mellowing into a pool of melted butter at the sound of her potential sweetheart's dulcet tones at the other end of the line. Shuffling over onto her back, she eventually succeeded in pulling up her jeans. "No, I'm just lying here? all by my lonesome? yeah, I'm alone."
"Reggie, I'm all by my lonesome!" Stella whispered out of the corner of her mouth while putting her hand across the microphone in the receiver.
Regina pinched the bridge of her nose, wondering how on Earth it was possible for someone to be that clumsy and yet so cute at the same time. Sighing, she rolled her eyes, gave Stella a thumbs-up and left to take a little walk around the parking lot.
Having crossed her legs, Stella played with her mismatched socks as she listened to the woman she hoped would soon graduate from confidant to proper girlfriend. Snickering at all the right places, she began to dream about what could happen between them - but after a while, the dark thought of leaving Regina for someone else crept into her mind's eye and tinted the edges of her dream in a strange, blackish hue.
Furrowing her brow, she scoffed at the ridiculous notion - after all, Regina Harrison was merely a friend. 'And that crush I had on her some time ago was just that? a crush brought on by those damn short shorts. And I nipped it in the bud before it got anywhere?'
When Stella realized she had missed a part of the conversation, she opened her eyes and looked around the office in a panic. "Uh, sorry? No, I'm still here. I think it was a hiccup on the line or something," she fibbed, trying to cover up the few seconds where she had been thinking about something she shouldn't have been.
"Yeah? No, I'm sorry, Danielle, I can't go to the movies tonight. I need to work late. Tomorrow is fine, though."
"Oh, then you have to work late? shoot. How about Thursday night?"
"Oh? how about next weekend? Saturday, yeah?"
"Great. I'll pick you up at, uh? quarter past seven. Then we have plenty of time to get lost twice on the way to the Cineplex. Okay?"
"Yep, it'll be fun. What do you wanna watch?"
"Action, huh? I'm more of a comedy girl myself. With Reggie and me, we always end up in the middle and see Charlie's Angels or one of-"
"Who's Reggie? Oh, she's just my business associate."
"Yeah, she's? uh? kinda pretty. But she's on the other team and we haven't-" - 'Well, we have, actually, but that was only a test,' Stella thought, thinking about the experimental kiss she and Regina had shared at Rockin' Ruby's some months ago.
"Naaah, you don't have to worry about that, ha ha. Anyhow, meet you at a quarter past seven this Saturday, right?"
"Okay? I can't wait, either. Bye, Danielle!"
Exactly on cue, Regina opened the door and peeked inside. "Can I come in now?" she said, ready to move back quickly in case she had caught Stella in the middle of something naughty.
"Enter at your own risk, Missy Long Legs," Stella said, not bothering to get up from the carpet. After putting the receiver across her stomach, she moved her arms behind her head and started humming quietly to herself - she was already making plans for the post-movie evening.
"So it's serious, huh?" Regina said as she took the receiver from Stella's stomach and put it back on the telephone.
"Could be, Reggie. I hope it will be. I need it."
"I can tell," Regina said with a snicker, alluding to the two peaks that were trying very hard to push through Stella's black muscleshirt under the words Ain't and Purdy.
Sitting up, Stella matched the snicker with one of her own. "Well, you know," she said, shrugging.
"Oh, trust me, I do. Hey, we have to be at Lulu's at eight so if we order a pizza or something at six, it should be fine," Regina said and sat down at her desk. At once, she pushed off her shoes, swung her legs up on the table and turned on her PSP.
Jumping to her feet, Stella dusted off her hands and moved towards the conference room so she could sort out the clothes she had left in a big pile when the phone rang. "Not a Meaty Mama, though. I always get nightmares when I eat one of those. I think I want an Alamo or a Mediterranean tonight."
"Ugh, not a Mediterranean? please? think of your fellow investigator? too much garlic?!" Regina mumbled, shooting Stella a wicked glance.
"Yeah, but the jalapeños on the Alamo give me gas? you gotta weigh the pros and cons, baby. I'll let you chew on that for a while," Stella said and closed the door behind her.
Several hours later.
Once the pizzas had been ordered, delivered and devoured - in the end, Stella had decided on a fairly neutral Four Seasons, much to Regina's relief - the two women brought the bag of disguises into the office and laid out the costumes needed.
Checking her wristwatch, Regina put on her best steely gaze and turned to look at Stella. "All right, it's six fifty-five. Operation How To Dress Like A Fashion Guru is now officially under way."
"Time me, Reggie? I'll bet you a dime I can change into those clothes in less than a minute," Stella said and unbuttoned her jeans.
"You're on, snookums."
"But you gotta turn around first."
Sighing loudly, Regina made a big number out of turning around and therefore missed the tongue Stella stuck out at her.
"Okay, I'm ready, Reggie."
While the hand was tick-tocking around the face of Regina's watch, Stella shed her clothes left, right and center. First her jeans, then her black muscleshirt, then her mismatched socks. Holding up the black jeans, she jumped into them, whipped on a white t-shirt and finally the orange turtleneck. "Done!"
"One minute and two seconds, Stell."
"Big way, look," Regina said and showed the grumbling Stella the watch.
"All right, all right? darn."
"And you're not wearin' any socks yet."
Grumbling to herself, Stella found the pitch black sunglasses and held them to her eyes to see how dark they actually were - she quickly established that she would only be able to see faint outlines. "Hey, Reggie, once I put on these black shades, I won't be able to see a thing, even wearing my contacts."
"It's not going to be this dark at the party."
Stella furrowed her brow and looked up at the fully functional strip lights in the ceiling. "Yeah, but??" she said, pointing at the lights.
"Oh, this is nothing. Remember, everyone there is going to be some kind of model. They go there to be seen? there's no point to the whole deal if it's semi-dark all the time. Believe me, once we get there, you're gonna be happy you have those shades, Stell."
"This is gettin' better and better," Stella said and put away the shades. Suddenly, a horrible thought flashed through her mind, and she spun around and put a hand on Regina's elbow. "Wait? please don't tell me that everyone there will be wearing stilts like you??"
"Please don't tell me that they're all six-footers? even the gals?"
Regina's facial expression didn't need much interpretation and Stella soon started hopping around in a fit of pique, punching the air several times and finally clutching her wild hair. "Aw shoot, Reggie! You're really pushing my buttons today, you know that? You know I get an inferiority complex when I'm around people who are much taller than me!"
"Well, I'm sorry, but there's not much we can do about that now, Stell. Look, everything's gonna be fine. What you lack in stature, you have in presence. Once we get your disguise done, you're going to look so cool that no one will even think about the height-thing. I promise. Okay?"
"Mmmmmm-okay. But it better be good. It better be real good," Stella said and sat down on the couch so she could put on her socks and boots.
Once the boots were firmly on, she got up and went back to stand in front of the mirror. 'Hmmm'-ing a lot, she turned left, right and finally left again to look at herself from all angles. "Do you know who I look like, Reggie?"
"No?" Regina said, sticking her head out of the bathroom where she was preparing the Extra Heavy Duty hair gel.
"From Scooby-Doo. My first girl crush."
"Oh? I didn't have time to watch Scooby-Doo when I was a teenager. I was always on the road back then. Come in here, the gel is ready. Or should I say, the elbow grease is, tee-hee," Regina said and ducked back inside.
"Smart-alec?" Stella mumbled and put on the black shades for effect. The first thing she did was to walk straight into the bathroom door.
Grumble, grumble? Grumble!
"If you want some gel, sit still, Stell?" Regina said, trying her best to get Stella's dirty-blonde haystack under control. She had already poured two blobs into her hand and seriously considered adding a third.
"My mose? Ah hurt my mose," Stella said, dabbing her aching nose.
"I know. Sit still!"
Looking into the mirror on the medicine cabinet above the wash basin, Regina had a hard time seeing what she needed to see. If she stood normally, she could see herself but not Stella's hair, but if she lowered herself down to be at Stella's eye level, she couldn't see anything at all.
"Oh, this isn't working. Get up," she said and helped Stella up from the small footstool she was sitting on.
"Whassamatter, Miss Too Tall? Trouble finding us little people down here?"
"It's the mirror? stand still!"
"Aargh, I'm perfectly still!"
"Not you're not," Regina said and put her hands on the sides of Stella's head to get her to stay in one place for more than three seconds at a time.
The new position had made Stella come into the mirror's range, but now Regina couldn't get her arms high enough to work on Stella's unruly hair. Thinking fast, she stepped up on the footstool, creating a seven foot six Hair Dresser Monster - who couldn't see herself in the mirror. "Oh, shoot? this is difficult?" she mumbled.
"Can't we just leave it there??" Stella said with a sigh.
"Yeah, but you look like a cross between Andy Warhol and Mother Theresa."
"So what else is new?? Nah, this is good enough, Reggie. Thanks for the effort. Please get down from that thing before you fall down."
Jumping off the footstool, Regina put away the gel and opened the cold faucet to wash her hands.
When Stella tried to shake her head, she was astounded to feel that her hair stayed in one place for once - in fact, her hair felt like it was one, big blob of gel. "Ah, this'll be fine. Just fine. Hey, we haven't talked about your disguise yet?"
"Oh, I'll just wear some regular clothes. Black slacks and a black blazer over an off-white, long-sleeved tunic," Regina said and dried her hands on a towel.
"Uhh?? But why do I have to suffer this huge charade? Why couldn't I have gone in my regular clothes, too?" Stella said and pulled out in the orange turtleneck.
"Quite simply because the security wouldn't have let us in if you had arrived in one of your trademark mismatched sweatsuits or a torn T-shirt or baggy jeans or your purple flip-flops or your 'Ain't I Purdy?' muscleshirt or?"
"Yeah, yeah, I get the picture. All flash and no heart. Sheesh!" Stella said and walked back into the office.
Five minutes later, Regina flipped her hair out of her collar as she walked into the office - as usual, the black mane fell perfectly over her shoulders and down her back. Adjusting the blazer, she walked over to her desk and opened a drawer.
Stella briefly looked up from her Rubik's Cube, hearing just the tiniest echo of the crush she'd had on the model as she took in the exquisite appearance. 'Snap out of it, Stella. Three's a crowd,' she thought, concentrating on her toy.
Regina closed the desk drawer and held up three items they had bought from a mail order company in Mexico: two finger rings and a bracelet appearing very much like ancient jewelry fit for a fashion guru - except that they weren't. In reality, they were electronic gizmos equipped with micro-sized homing beacons.
"Are you ready, Stell? It's time. I've got the stuff right here."
"Sure," Stella said and put away the Cube. Getting up, she clicked off the lamp she had on her desk and walked over to her friend. Once she was there, she held out her hands so Regina could slip the jewelry onto her slender wrist and fingers.
"Oooh! Your hands are cold, Missy!" Stella said and shied back from the cold touch. "What in the world?? You look more nervous than I do! What do you have to be worried about, Oh You Most Goddess-Like Of Women?"
When Regina mumbled something Stella couldn't catch, the blonde investigator leaned in towards her friend and poked her in the side to get to repeat it.
"Oh, it's nothing?"
"Must be something," Stella said and turned one of the finger rings around so an ancient tribal pattern was pointing upwards.
"Oh, it's just? I'm going to be a lot older than most of the people there," Regina mumbled as she fiddled with a small plastic box; the activator for the homing beacons. Pressing a button on the box, a red LED and a green display lit up showing the exact location of the finger rings and the bracelet.
"Aw Jeez, Reggie! You're a great-lookin' gal! Who cares what it says on your birth certificate!"
"I care," Regina said and shrugged. "They care. Probably even more so."
"Okay, but will any of those young birds ever have the career you had? I doubt it, frankly. Ah, ignore all the nay-sayers, Reggie. That's my motto."
"Thanks, Stell. I'll try," Regina said and pulled Stella into a hug.
Putting on the pitch black shades, Stella buffed her homing beacons slash finger rings on her turtleneck and assumed a suitable pose. "And now it's showtime. Let's go catch ourselves a crook."
"Well, he might not actually show up tonig-"
"Don't mess with my exit line, Reggie! I'm trying ta act cool, ya know!" Stella said and spun around - unfortunately, the tip of her ankle boot snagged the leg of the desk and she had to flail her arms madly in the air to keep her balance.
"Oh, you're doing just great, Stell," Regina said as she took her black blazer jacket and put it on.
Five past eight, Regina drove the Mercedes SLK up to the forecourt of the impressive Goddard-building and got out. Even as she walked around the rear of the car to help Stella out, a valet dressed in dark pants, a white shirt and a red vest was on stand-by to park it, giving Regina a small tag with a number to identify her car.
"Okay, Stell, there is no curb here, no puddles and no dog droppings. You should be all right. Come on," Regina said and took Stella's hand. Together, they were able to lift the blonde investigator out of the car's bucket seats with very little fuss and almost no drama.
"Hey, I got out in one piece! First time ever, Reggie!" Stella said and closed the car door behind her. Almost at once, the valet got in and drove the SLK down into the parking garage.
"I'm glad to hear it. Maybe things are looking up for ya, huh?"
"You betcha. Wow, is this the Goddard-building?" Raising her shades and leaning her head back, she followed the high-rise as it disappeared into the evening sky. "Hoooooooooo-ly shit?!" she continued, leaning further and further back to take in the spectacular sight.
Inevitably, she leaned so far back that she lost her balance and had to take a big step backwards, slamming the heel of her boot directly down onto Regina's toes.
The former model's face became twice as long as it usually was, and she let out a piercing, echoing howl that caught the attention of the valets who were waiting for the next guests to arrive.
"Uh? sorry," Stella said, trying to look anywhere but at Regina who was hopping around on one foot, clutching the other.
While Regina was recovering, Stella turned around and got a good look at the forecourt of the Goddard-building. The driveway was shaped like a horseshoe with a large ramp going down to the underground parking garage on one side and several large flower beds on the other. The main entrance to the high-rise was in the center of the horseshoe, and even at a distance, Stella could see that everything was held in exclusive materials.
Six floodlight projectors shone golden light at the high-rise, moving around in intricate patterns that lit up various parts of the structure at various times, including something that Stella couldn't quite recognize but that looked like a glass tube on the outside of the building.
With Regina almost back to normal, Stella dared to walk over to her and put an arm on her elbow. "Sorry 'bout that, Reggie."
"Oh, it's okay? I didn't need to have toes on that foot anyhow," Regina said through clenched teeth.
"Uh, okay. What's that thing on the outside over there?" Stella said and led the injured former model away from the horseshoe and onto a pathway that would take them to the main entrance.
"That's the elevator we're gonna use to get to the party, Stell."
"Oh? flip? on the outside?? Wh-what floor is the party on?"
"Well, the penthouse. Up there, on the one-hundred and seventeenth floor," Regina said, pointing skywards.
Following Regina's finger, Stella looked up, up and a bit further up until she could see a faint sheen of light, seemingly coming from somewhere just below the ionosphere.
"Aw hell no?"
"Hell, yeah," Regina said and went up to the security detail consisting of two beefy, broad-shouldered, crew cut men in dark suits and equally dark sunglasses. "Good evening, we're Regina Harrison and Stella Starr," she continued, pointing first at herself and then at Stella.
Grunting, one of the men checked their names against the official guest list. A few seconds later, he nodded and stepped aside to allow them access to the elevator.
"Huh. Chatty fella," Stella said, staring at the security guard's beefy hands that were so large it appeared he could strangle an elephant without breaking a sweat.
"Yup," Regina said and pushed the button for the elevator.
While they waited for the elevator to come down, Regina looked at another couple - a man and a woman seemingly in their thirties - who came up to stand behind them. "Hello," she said, studying the slightly waxen look of the woman's forehead.
"Hello. Are you going to Lulu's party, too?" the woman said with a smile - in reality, her lips barely moved and the rest of her face certainly didn't.
Biting the inside of her cheek, Regina thought that she might not be the oldest one at the party after all. "Yes. I'm Regina Harrison, this is my dear friend Stella Starr."
"I remember your name, Miss Harrison, but?" the woman said, narrowing her eyes briefly - a gesture that would usually have been joined by a furrowing of the brow, but wasn't - but then she broke out in a wild squeal. "Oh, Stella Starr! I've heard all about you! Hi, I'm Kathy Maria. This is my, uh? uh? friend for the evening, Derek Wells."
"Good evening," Stella said and shook hands with the woman, noticing that her handshake was cold and limp. A sudden flash of inspiration raced through Stella's mind and she cocked her head to appear wise. "A man can be good for many things? though not always at the same time," she continued in a sage-like voice.
"Oh God, that's SOOO true!" Kathy squealed and clapped her hands together.
Grinning, Stella turned to look at Regina who winked at her in a very approving fashion.
The elevator announced itself by sending out an electronic bing and the four people stepped inside the glass tube.
"Are we all in?" Regina said with her finger hovering above the button. "Okay, here we go. Grab onto something, this thing moves kinda fast."
The split second she pressed the button, the elevator car shot upwards at something approaching the speed of sound, witnessed by the fact that the terrified scream coming from Stella was trailing far behind it.
As the car came to a stop, Stella was still howling her lungs out into Regina's chest, having grabbed hold of it like a baby looking for nourishment. When she realized that they had stopped, her scream slowly trailed off until it was merely a hoarse whisper.
"How come you've never told me you're afraid of heights, Stell?" Regina said, prying Stella's hands off her bosom.
"I'm not? I'm afraid of elevators," Stella said in a voice very similar to the one Linda Blair had used in The Exorcist when her character had been possessed.
"Well, I didn't like that one either, to be honest," Kathy said, nodding. Her escort just shrugged.
"In any case, we're here now," Regina said and walked out onto an indoor landing held mostly in white. As they moved through a corridor towards a pair of double doors made of frosted glass, the room opened up into a hall framed by two rows of tall windows that offered an impressive view of the skyline beyond the Goddard-building.
When Regina opened the double doors, they were assaulted by a wall of soft, almost peach-colored light that gave everyone a golden complexion. Soft lounge music was playing from hidden speakers, but it was overpowered by a steady murmur of excited male and female voices.
The penthouse apartment was extraordinarily large and was held exclusively in white: white carpets, white couches, white furniture, white walls - even the sparse flower decorations and the artwork on the walls were white.
Stella stepped aside to let Kathy and her escort go in first which they gladly did. Once the doors were closed behind them, she let out a long, slow sigh at the sight.
Everywhere she looked, Goddess-like people with mile-long arms, torsos and legs lounged lazily; talking, smiling and laughing to each other while holding Champagne flutes between their long, slender fingers.
All the models were cast in a golden hue that brought out their perfectly styled hair and their professionally applied make-up - for the women, it was mostly classy yet extravagant eye shadow, a touch of eyeliner and lipstick in dark shades - and the men all looked like they had come from the same mold, with an abundance of steel gray eyes, gelled hair, chiseled jaws and two-day stubbles.
None of the divine beings looked to be a day older than twenty-five, and they were all dressed in cutting edge, avant-garde outfits that made Stella cross her legs in sheer desperation.
"Wow, it's like time has stood still? Deja Vu all over again?" Regina whispered.
"Now I know how the Christians felt when the Romans dumped them in with the lions?" Stella replied in a matching whisper.
Suddenly, a lady well beyond twenty-five spotted them and shot up from her seat at a low table. "DAAAAAAAAAAHLING!" she shouted, stretching out her arms like she wanted to grasp Regina from a distance of fifty feet.
The members of the party spread like the Red Sea to Moses as Lulu LaFontaine strode through the massed ranks, dressed in a white gown and wearing a hat that wouldn't have looked out of place at the Kentucky Derby; knowing that when their hostess had set her sights on something, it was better not to get in her way.
"DAAAAAAAAAAAAHLING!" she shouted again once she was close enough to actually reach Regina and Stella.
"Hello, Lulu. You look wonderful," Regina said and pulled the hostess into a warm hug.
'Hell, she's gotta be at least fifty! I'll bet she'd be much better lookin' without all that crud on her face?' Stella thought, staring at the pancake makeup the other woman used to cover up the lines around her eyes and on her throat.
"As do you, my friend. Who's your companion?" Lulu said and turned to Stella.
"This is Stella Starr? *the* Stella Starr," Regina said, leaning in towards Lulu and lowering her voice as she spoke the last three words.
At first, the name didn't seem to register with Lulu LaFontaine, but then she made a big number out of recognizing the petite woman. "Oh?? Stella?? Oh! Stella Starr, but of course! Oh, I absolutely adore your work, dahling! You must come down at once and meet some of my girls! Oh, they'll be so thrilled!" she shouted, pumping Stella's arm up and down.
Snorting loudly, Stella allowed herself to be led away by the high-strung woman.
Walking through the assorted divine beings, Stella felt more uncomfortable than she ever had. At each table they went past, she could feel several pairs of eyes locking onto her, and she just knew that they could see right through her and her pitiful, low-rent disguise.
When they finally came to a halt at the couch arrangement where Lulu had been sitting, Stella could hardly believe her eyes when she spotted the beauties sitting there.
Two women offered her a quick wave; both in their early twenties, one was a blonde, the other a brunette; one was pretty, the other ridiculously beautiful; one was very fair with golden-blonde hair and blue eyes, and the other had almond-colored eyes, and skin and hair the color of mocha latte. They were both wearing very neutral clothes, but the brunette wore an amber necklace that matched her eyes perfectly.
Taking a deep breath, Stella could feel her insides clench and unclench several times until she got her blood pressure under control.
"Girls, this is Stella Starr. *The* Stella Starr," Lulu said and held out her hand.
The two women on the couch briefly looked at each other and furrowed their brows, but soon stood up and put out their hands.
"Hello, Miss Starr. I'm Lele da Silva," the dark-skinned woman said.
"And I'm Lilli Schmitt," the golden-blonde said.
Looking from one to the other, Stella stifled a guffaw when she realized the mindblowingly silly coincidence. "So? we have a Lulu, a Lele and a Lilli. We only need to find a Lala to have a Full House, huh?"
"Oh, but Lala M'bouele is powdering her nose right now," Lele said and sat down on the couch.
"No sh? uh, no kidding?"
"Oh no, Miss Starr. Come, won't you sit down? We've heard so much about you? you would honor us by your presence," Lilli said and patted the seat between herself and the dark-skinned beauty.
"Uh, oh? uh? I bett- uh? we're here on a? I'm? I can't?" Stella stuttered, feeling her insides turn hot, cold, hot, cold and finally settling on sizzling hot at the mere thought of sitting between the two young, nubile women.
"Oh, but you should, Miss Starr," Lulu LaFontaine said and put a hand on Stella's shoulder. "I need to mingle and have a word with Regina. I'm sure you can find something to talk about. Yes?"
"Oh? okay. I'll? we'll? okay," Stella said and sat down, acting as the orange turtleneck meat in a white dress sandwich.
Leaning in, Lele da Silva put a warm hand on the knee of Stella's black jeans - the touch alone was enough to send a raging buzz through her system. "So what do you actually do, Miss Starr?"
"I'm a fixer. People come to me with problems and I make them go away," she said after a few seconds' pause. 'Gotta stick to the truth,' she thought, biting her bottom lip.
"Oh? I could tell at once!" Lilli Schmitt said. "You have that look about you. You're one of the exclusive few, aren't you?"
"Well, there are more of us than you might think, Lilli," Stella said with her tongue stuck firmly in her cheek.
"You're one of the online gurus, aren't you?" the blonde model continued, nodding.
"Yes and no. People call me, but I actually have an office. I need to talk to people directly. Sometimes, I can offer them a solution even after a few minutes."
"Oh Gosh, she really IS one of the gurus!" Lele da Silva said, massaging Stella's knee.
Quickly looking around, Lilli wet her lips and leaned in towards Stella. "Please, Miss Starr? I have a problem. Can you help me?"
"I could certainly try. Confide in me, dear," Stella said. 'If she wants me to find her missing hamster or something like that, I might have a shot?'
"My agent has, uh? told me to? to? no, I can't say it out loud. May I whisper it in your ear, please, Miss Starr?"
Lilli leaned in and relayed her problem to Stella in a very quiet whisper.
Stella's eyes briefly grew wide, but she was soon able to get her blood pressure under control. "All right. Well, Lilli, my honest opinion is? and I have some hands-on experience, you understand," Stella said, looking at the blonde model's already impressive bosom, "that if your agent wants you to have them enlarged, you have the wrong agent."
Settling in, Stella turned to face Lilli. At the last moment, she took the young woman's hands in her own to add a touch of drama. "Yes. I know something that you might not," she said in a conspiratorial voice.
"Oh! What? Oh, please tell us, Miss Starr," Lele da Silva said.
"I'll bet you're both second tier girls, right?" Stella said, remembering the terminology from the conversation she'd had with Regina back when Steve Darrian had tried to fool her into doing something she didn't want to do.
Both women nodded.
"And you both want to move up to first tier? or beyond, right?"
Again, both women nodded.
"Oh Gosh, yes, Miss Starr? but most of us can only dream about that," Lele said.
Considering her words carefully, Stella added a dramatic pause and lowered her voice. "Well, sometime within the next year, natural is going to be hot. All-natural. You understand? No artificial enhancements whatsoever. The girls who are all-natural will have a very good starting point compared to those who have succumbed to the temptation of the knife." - 'Especially when they were forced into it,' Stella thought, grumbling inwardly.
Lele and Lilli both looked like they had heard the angels sing to them, and they let out identical squeals, wrapped their arms around Stella and gave her a strong, double-sided squeeze that left her quite winded - and fairly sizzling.
Looking up, Stella locked eyes with Regina who was standing at the other side of the room, holding a drink and talking to some guy. The former model had a cheeky gleam in her eye that Stella responded to by a wink. "Well, ladies, my work here is done. Because we've only just met, I'll let you have that advice free of charge. Now, if you will excuse me, I have things to do. You know, things."
Once she had managed to find a place to put her hands between the four endless thighs, Stella got up from the low couch and walked into the apartment - on fairly wobbly legs.
Before Stella had made it all the way over to Regina and the man she was speaking with, Lulu LaFontaine came out into the center of the apartment and raised her hands in the air.
"Ladies and gentlemen! Refreshments will be served in a few moments, but before we get to that, I'd like to introduce you to someone? a woman who was a living legend in her own lifetime?"
Scrunching up her brow, Stella tried to make sense of that sentence, but didn't have enough time before Lulu continued:
"A woman who was on the cover of so many glitteries they could have covered half the Atlantic Ocean? Ladies and Gentlemen, the first supermodel on the Stone Brothers' roster? Regina Harrison!"
Stella was surprised to see that Regina's cheeks were glowing red - even in the peach-colored light - and that she seemed reluctant to take to the stage. With a little manhandling, Stella managed to push her friend into the center of the apartment where she received the appropriate applause and cheers from her colleagues.
After offering a few, quick waves to the crowd, Regina spun around and hurried back to the mantelpiece where she had left her drink.
Turning towards Regina, Lulu blew her a big kiss. "Mmmmmua! Thank you, Regina, dahling? you're still as beautiful as ever. And now, let's have the refreshments brought in!" she continued, clapping her hands twice. On cue, two doors opened up into the kitchen and an army of waiters carrying trays walked into the apartment, much to the delight of the guests.
As the waiters started walking past, Regina chucked down her first drink and reached for another, finding a flute of champagne. She looked at it briefly, almost like she wasn't sure what to do with it, but then chucked that down as well.
"You know, Reggie, I think that must be the first time I've ever seen you embarrassed," Stella said, taking a glass of wine from one of the trays.
"Lulu promised me to keep it a low-key affair," Regina said hoarsely. "This isn't low-key!" Her face was still glowing fire-engine red, and she had to wave the top of the tunic to get some fresh air down her front.
"Oh, it probably is to her. How old is she, anyhow?"
"Uh, no I don't think so, Reggie."
"Sure she is. She was thirty-nine fifteen years ago when I was at the top, thirty-nine seven years ago when I retired? and she's still thirty-nine today. She was one of the top names back in the late 1970s, early 1980s, actually."
"Uh-huh? Well, that makes sense," Stella said and took a sip of the wine. Making a horrified face, she hurriedly put down the glass on the tray of a passing waiter and decided to look for a Slurrpy! Cherry Cola or Raspberry Fizz.
"Well, our undercover work is shot to pieces. They're all looking at me," Regina said under her breath, glancing around the apartment.
Following her friend's gaze, Stella looked at the young, smooth faces. "They're probably talking about the time when they had posters of you on their bedroom walls? you know, when they were potty-training."
Regina's eyes shot fire at that remark, but Stella took the sting out of her words by hooking her arm inside Regina's. "Sorry. You still got it."
"Thanks. Everyone in here has got it."
"Can't argue with- ohhh, lookie there, Reggie. Do you see what I see? Ten o'clock? a waiter studying a necklace," Stella said, glancing at a scene at the other end of the apartment but trying not to look too conspicuous while doing so.
Casting a casual glance over her shoulder, Regina soon spotted a waiter who seemed to be far too interested in what one of the female models was wearing. "Oh? well spotted, Stell. Let's move a bit closer."
Nodding, Stella began to shuffle off in that direction. "Yeah, let's. All right? he's late twenties, decent appearance, no scars, not scruffy? we never got a description of the Invisible Man, did we?"
"There isn't any," Regina said out of the corner of her mouth, raising her empty glass to someone she knew as they walked past another couch filled with beautiful people.
"Hmmm. All right. He's got fast hands, look."
"Yep. I see it."
"Let's pick up the pace. Looks like he's moving in for the score," Stella said and put the long leg forward - figuratively speaking.
Stella suddenly noticed that Kathy Maria, the heavily botoxed woman they had met in the elevator, was steering towards them on an interceptor course. In her wake, she had no less than two Chiseled Jaws who appeared to be clinging onto her skirt-tails - interestingly, none of them was the man from the elevator.
"Uh-oh, Reggie, we've got trouble coming?" Stella whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
"I see 'em. Keep walking, maybe they're after someone else."
Inevitably, Kathy started flailing her hand in the air. "Miss Starr! Yoo-hoo, Miss Starr!"
Looking ahead, Regina saw that the waiter had noticed the commotion and was slowly pulling back from his intended target. "Damn, the waiter is moving away," she whispered, pulling Stella to a halt.
Stella groaned loudly but then slapped a smile on her face and turned towards the approaching woman. "Psst, Reggie? what was her name?"
"Darn. I'll have to improvise. Oh, hello again!" Stella said and put out her hand. Unfortunately, the woman bypassed it completely and went in deep for an awkward hug that took Stella by surprise.
"I've just had an epiphany!" Kathy said, clutching her hands to her bosom. "I'm the second assistant editor of original contents for the renowned hi-gloss monthly On The Beat, and we would be SO thrilled if you came onboard for a column! I've already squared it with my superior, the first assistant editor of original contents, and she agrees!"
"Does she now? How wonderful. Well-"
"Oh, please say yes, Miss Starr! You could be such a creative resource for our team!"
Looking at Regina, Stella began to smack her lips, secretly enjoying the hell out of being in the spotlight for once. "Tell you what, Miss??"
"Kathy Maria, Miss Starr."
"Miss Maria, I'll let my people get in touch with your people. If we're all satisfied with what we see, we'll think about giving it some consideration," Stella said, adding an aloof chuckle at the end of the sentence as a bit of spice.
"Oh, that's so good to hear, Miss Starr! You won't regret it, I promise."
"That's what I always say, 'the word is eternal, but money ain't bad either.' "
"My point exactly! Oh, this is going to be so much fun! Come, boys, let's get some snacks while there's some to be had," Kathy said and offered Regina and Stella a quick goodbye wave.
After Kathy Maria and the two Chiseled Jaws had moved out of earshot, Regina leaned down to whisper into Stella's ear: "Okay, now you're scaring me. You're enjoying this far too much!"
"Oh, you know," Stella said and waved her hand in a dismissive fashion.
"And we fashion-types don't chuckle like that!"
"You do, too!"
"No, we don't," Regina said and led Stella closer to the bar that had been set up in a corner of the apartment.
"Oh, Slurrpy! Cherry Cola!" Stella exclaimed, reaching for a can of one of her favorite soft drinks. Cracking it open, she poured it into a glass and drank greedily of the brown, sweet liquid.
"I don't think fashion gurus are supposed to drink cola, Stell," Regina said, noting that a few people were staring at them.
"Well, excuse me, but that wine was disgusting. And besides, cola is a natural product. Water, caffeine, coloring and sugar. What's not to love?"
"Mmmm," Regina said, smiling at one of her former colleagues who happened to walk past. She suddenly noticed two young models walking towards them with very determined steps. One of them - a blonde - was holding a cell phone in her hand. "Uh-oh? more problems."
Turning around, Stella checked out Lilli Schmitt's and Lele da Silva's endless legs as they strode towards them. A brief thought of what it would feel like to run a finger up one of those mile-long, baby-butt-smooth lily-white or toffee-brown thighs crossed her mind, but she quickly let it go. "Naw, they're cool. I spoke with them before."
"Miss Starr! Miss Starr!" Lilli Schmitt said once the two models were close enough. "I've just called my agent and you know what? He said that all-natural wouldn't be back in style this side of 2050!"
"Uh?" Stella said, trying to come up with a quick answer to cover her gaffe.
"So I told him to tear up my contract, that pig. Go girl power!"
Regina's eyes popped wide open and she spun around to stare at Stella who began licking her lips feverishly.
"Ah? ah? ah? uh? ah? uh, you q- quit? uh, you quit your agency?" Stella said, clearing her throat several times to stop her voice from cracking up.
"Uh? okay. Do you have anything else lined up?"
"No. That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
"Me, too!" Lele da Silva said, putting her arm around Lilli's shoulder.
Feeling the walls of the apartment closing in on her, Stella realized that she had stuffed up quite badly this time and began racking her brain for solutions - even if she felt that she only had half a wit to work with. "Uh, you've quit your agency, too, Lele?"
"Not yet, but I might do if they give me the same answer they gave Lilli."
"Okay. Well? Reggie? Do you have something to add to the conversation?? Anything?? Please??"
Regina put down her glass and made a face at Stella who responded by mouthing 'Sorrysorrysorrysorry? I screwed up!'
"All right. Who were you with?" Regina said to Lilli.
"I'm with Williamson, Crewe & Rosenthal," Lele said.
"Okay. If I were you, I'd try the Stone Brothers. They served me pretty well back in the day. I hear their roster is fairly thin at the moment so they'll be on the lookout for the next Face," Regina said, using her twenty-five years of experience to gauge the two young women.
'The blonde is treating it like a game? she won't cut it. The dark-skinned one is ready for prime time,' she thought, basing her assessment on the look in their eyes.
"Miss Starr?" Lilli said, looking to the guru for sage advice.
"Uh, I concur with Regina, Lilli. Stone Brothers is the place to go. But, uh, don't ask them about the all-natural thing. My sources are deep, deep, deep undercover and I like them to stay that way. I trust you understand??"
"Oh, but of course, Miss Starr!" Lilli and Lele said as one. Snickering, the two models turned around and sashayed back to the couch.
Once they were out of earshot, Regina nudged Stella's shoulder. "Nice save."
"Ugh? I'll never open my big yap again. I never thought she'd go ahead with it!" Stella said and took another can of cola.
"Girls that age are very impressionable. Anyway, I think we saved the day. What's the dark-skinned girl's name?"
"Lele da Silva. Why?"
"Oh, in five years' time, the world will be on a first name basis with her, like Naomi, Cindy, Elle, Claudia? those kinda girls. I'm pretty sure of it."
"Wow, no kiddin'?"
"Wow? the blonde is more my type, but I can see that Lele has a lot of things going for her."
"Yep. To use a corny old phrase, she's definitely got The Look," Regina said and reached for a new glass. Doing so, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. "Oh! Don't look now, but the waiter from before is back? and he's zooming in on your jewelry!" she whispered, giving Stella another nudge.
"Yeah? Well, I'm ready for him!"
Without warning, another waiter suddenly dropped a tray somewhere behind them, causing an echoing, cymbal-like crash that was soon accompanied by a scream from Lulu LaFontaine, yelling at him to clean up his mess. All the guests - including Regina and Stella - craned their necks to see what was going on.
Moving with the speed of a striking snake, the waiter moved in for the big score.
Stella didn't feel a thing until the waiter accidentally tugged her sleeve, and when she looked down, it was already too late - he was scurrying through the apartment with her jewelry like the Ghost of Blackbeard the Pirate was on his tail.
"Ohhhhhhhhhhh! Reggie! We've been had!" Stella howled and threw down the can of cola that she hadn't had time to open. "The gizmo! Where's the gizmo?"
Thrusting her hand into her blazer pocket, Regina quickly whipped out the electronic tracking device. "Right here, Stell! Oh, yeah? we've got a lock on him!"
"Well, let's hustle! What are we standin' around here for?" Stella howled and set off in a fast sprint that led her toward the massed ranks of Chiseled Jaws and young, nubile bunnies who were all standing up, looking at the mess the other waiter had made.
"Stop the thief!" Stella roared, but her voice wasn't powerful enough and was completely drowned out by Lulu screaming at the other waiter.
The jewel thief had a good thirty foot head start on Stella, but as soon as he reached the wall of impossibly tall models, he came to a screeching halt. Looking back over his shoulder, he spotted the fast-moving blonde catching him at a rate of knots, so he dug into his pocket to unleash his secret weapon - three brown mice.
The mice squealed loudly as they were thrown into the crowd - one ended up going down the back of a man's collar, another went up a woman's skirt and the last one crawled down a full cleavage. The thief took full advantage of the resulting pandemonium by slipping through the wall of white without anyone noticing.
Two seconds later, Stella arrived at the mess that threatened to turn apocalyptic. Everywhere she looked, she was faced with all kinds of screaming models who were flailing their arms madly to get rid of the rodents. After nearly getting punched in the face by a particularly hysterical male model, she took a big step back, deciding that caution was better than a bloody nose.
"Reggie! Look at this mess!" she said, throwing her own arms in the air.
"I'm here, Stell? I still got him on the scope. Break right, there's a gap over here," Regina said and skipped over a couch with the grace of a hurdler.
When Stella tried to follow Regina over the couch, the results were inevitable - halfway over, she lost her balance and ended up straddling the backrest instead of clearing it.
Cursing and swearing, she hustled and bustled to get down off the backrest, but her efforts were all in vain when her boot snagged on the back of one of the cushions which pushed her over the edge and down onto the seat where she landed shoulder-first. "Aw hell? just what I needed!" she growled as she clambered to her feet and resumed the hot pursuit.
Two steps further on, a leggy redhead in full Scream Queen-mode crossed paths with Stella who had no option but to run into her full steam. The two women's legs got tangled up and they both ended up spread-eagle on the white carpet with Stella on the bottom, flat on her back and experiencing a faceful of soft, white, globular flesh.
"My life in a flippin' nutshell? when I need it, there's nothin' to be had, but when I don't got time, they're everywhere!" Stella growled, excusing herself while the redhead tried to pull her dress back up.
Wondering what was keeping Stella, Regina popped her head back into the apartment, wiggling her eyebrows over the unexpected scene.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah? not a peep out of you, Reggie," Stella growled as she climbed to her feet and continued the pursuit. "Where is he?"
"He went into the kitchen. Are you quite done grop-"
"I said, not a word, Reggie!"
"Pardon," Regina said with a wink.
Stella came to a halt and looked back at the chaotic mess created by the thief. Everywhere they looked, broad shoulders in suits and elfin-thin arms and legs in dresses were helter-skelter, and when one of the models spotted one of the mice, everything started over. "Damn, he certainly knew what to do. Look at that? Jeez! It looks like a? a? hell, I don't even know what it looks like!"
"Yeah, and Lulu has fainted?" Regina said, pointing at the easily recognizable figure of Lulu LaFontaine lying on the carpet with her head in some hunk's lap. Around her prone body, several of the other models used the large metal trays to blow some fresh air in her face.
"Huh, they're gonna blow her makeup off if they're not careful? Ah, she'll be fine. C'mon, Reggie, we've got a thief to catch. Where's the kitchen?"
"Right over here. According to the tracking device, the jewelry is still in there? whether the thief is, is another question, though," Regina said and opened the double doors to the kitchen.
Once inside the kitchen area of the penthouse apartment, Regina and Stella eyed the staffers warily, but none of them seemed to act suspiciously - or even too concerned with the latest affairs for that matter.
Like the apartment, the kitchen was held in white and it was easy to see that only high-quality white goods had been used. The ovens and stoves were all spick-and-span despite being in use, and the cabinets and refrigerators were all squeaky clean.
The kitchen was manned by eight people - four cooks and four waiters, all wearing typical black and white uniforms - and one of the cooks was stirring a large wok with a wooden spoon; the only one of the eight who was working at the time, the rest were just staring at the two women standing in the doorway.
"A man came running through here just now. Who is he and where did he go?" Regina said, holding the tracking device in her hand. The little blip wasn't moving anymore, but she didn't know whether or not that was a good sign.
The cook stirring the wok - the Matron, a hefty woman in her late fifties with rosy cheeks and a slightly plump nose - placed the spoon on a holder, turned around and put her hands on her hips. "We don't know who he is, Ma'am. He just joined our group when we arrived this afternoon. He left through the back door? but most importantly, what the HELL are you doing in my kitchen?" she said in a Scottish accent.
"We're trying to solve a crime, Ma'am," Stella said. "The Invisible Man. The jewel thief, ever heard of him?"
"So the police didn't catch him yesterday? Pah," the Matron snorted and returned to stirring the wok.
"Uh-huh? Well, we're glad to see that you're being so helpful an' all!" Stella said, gaining that undertone she always got when she got in a feisty mood.
Regina, knowing what was coming, put a calming hand on Stella's shoulder. When the blonde investigator looked up at her, she put a finger across her lips, using the age-old signal of 'you better keep quiet before the Matron decides to stir-fry your rear end on that wok.'
"Okay, okay," Stella mumbled, looking at the display on the tracking device. "The blip still ain't moving? I guess he's worked out that they were homing beacons."
"Yeah. Uh, pardon me, Matron?"
"Yes?" the hefty woman said, once again putting away the spoon.
"Did he stop anywhere?"
"Yeah, at the linen cabinet at the back of the kitchen. There," the Matron said, pointing at one of the tall, white cabinets. Suddenly noticing that none of the other staffers were working, she let out an impressive series of barking commands that made everyone there jump and return to their duties.
Sighing, Stella moved over to the linen cabinet and opened the door. Right in front of her, on top of a pile of white tablecloths, were the two finger rings and the bracelet. "Damn, Reggie? we screwed up. They were too obvious?" she said as she put the items back onto her hands.
The corners of Stella's mouth began to crawl downwards and her chin began to quiver ever so slightly, sure-fire signs that her mood was headed south, figuratively speaking.
Acting quickly, Regina put her arm around Stella's shoulder and began to lead her back to the apartment. "Come on, girl, I'll get you another cherry cola and some pretzels? or maybe even a few celery sticks."
Inches before she and Stella reached the door, a thought flashed through Regina's mind and she spun the two of them around so fast that Stella's black shades nearly flew off. "Matron! How did you get here?"
"Well, it sure as hell wasn't the stork!" the cook said and broke out in a loud belly laugh.
Rolling her eyes, Regina leaned forward and used a tone of voice more suited for speaking with a child. "No, I meant, how did you get up here now? Is there a service elevator? Perhaps out back?"
"Well, yes, but something must have happened to it last night with all the police and press and whatnot? it was stuck somewhere up the shaft when we got here today. We had to get everything up using that damn fast-moving elevator like all you fancy folks."
"Ha! Stella! He's still out there!" Regina said and patted Stella's back.
"Out there?? Out there on the roof?? On a building with one-hundred and seventeen floors??"
"Yep. And all we have to do is to-"
"Aw hell!" Stella said and slapped her forehead.
"-go out there and find him. Matron, if he tries to sneak back inside, would you mind stalling him until we get back?" Regina said with the warmest, kindest, two-hundred watt smile she could muster.
"Well?" the Matron said, looking at her stirfried vegetables. "All right. But my veggies have top priority! Miss LaFontaine has very strict guidelines on how she wants her Vietnamese cuisine served!"
Nodding, Regina began to drag Stella towards the back door that would take them out into the unknown. "We understand. Thank you, Matron. Come on, Stell. We're at the endgame now."
Stella just grumbled.
Once they had gone through the back door, they found themselves in a poorly lit corridor lined with gray tiles that was nothing like the main access landing at the other side of the apartment. The wind was blowing in through dozens of cracks, and here and there, the woodwork had decayed and the paint was peeling.
"Oh, *now* I know the rich and shameless. They get all the gold but their staffers have to settle for crud like this!" Stella exclaimed the second she saw the poor condition of the pathway.
"Shhh! We're trying to listen, remember?"
Thirty yards from where they were standing, the corridor ended in a small platform by the service elevator. The doors protecting the elevator shaft were closed, but there was a small gap between them that someone had tried to cover with some red and white demarcation tape.
To the left, halfway along the corridor, the color of the tiles suddenly changed and a faint outline of a door stood out as a dark gray line against the paler surroundings. Pointing at it, Regina began to tip-toe down through the corridor, mindful not to make any noise that would give away their presence.
Stella was less careful and waded after her friend with her hands thrust firmly into her pockets.
Reaching the section of the wall that had a darker color, Regina wrapped her long fingers around a small bracket that acted as the doorhandle. "You ready?" she whispered.
"All right. Let's go-OOOOOOOOOOOOOOH!" Regina howled as a gale force wind blasted against her face and hair as she tried to push open the door. In one second flat, her meticulously styled hairdo had been turned into something a scarecrow wouldn't have been caught dead with, and the only reason she didn't let go of the door to make it slam shut was because someone had put a hand on it from the outside, working against her to pull it open.
"Jeez! Reggie! Look!" Stella yelled and pointed at the fingers trying to pull open the door. "No, don't close it! Push! Push! Reggie, pushthedamndoorforcryin'outloud!"
With the former model seemingly too preoccupied with the sorry state of her hair, Stella decided to cut to the chase and press her shoulder against the inside of the door. The chilly wind swept around her legs and made her wish she had gone to the bathroom before pulling a stunt like this, but little by little, she was able to get the door pushed open.
Moments later, a figure dressed in a waiter's uniform jumped in through the open door and collapsed on the floor, convulsing from a very bad case of the shivers.
Letting go of the door, Stella stood back and let it slam shut again. She put her hands on her hips and let out a long sigh. Then she noticed Regina's hair and jerked back a good two feet.
"Holy shit, Reggie! Your hair!"
"I know," Regina said somberly. The model's usually so stylish hairdo had been reduced to an unruly haystack by the wind, and she had hair sticking out everywhere. She tried to comb a few strands back in place but soon realized that it was an insurmountable task, and just gave up.
"You should've put some gel in it, friend. Look at my hair," Stella said and ran a hand across her heavily gelled spikes.
"I know. I used nearly all of it on you."
The sound of chattering teeth brought Stella and Regina back to the harsh reality and they both turned to look at the jewel thief who seemed to be freezing his hind quarters off.
Crouching down, Stella quickly patted down the man, but couldn't find anything of value and certainly no stolen jewelry. "Hey, buddy, crime doesn't pay," she said and flashed the human icicle a wide grin.
"Oh yeah? Well, neither does being a couple a' goody two-shoes," another male voice said from somewhere behind them. The voice had a nasty, threatening twang to it and the statement was closely followed by a click that could only come from some kind of weapon.
"Reggie? Are we in trouble?" Stella whispered, having frozen in place at the man's voice.
Turning around, Regina zeroed in on the man, quickly discovering that it was the waiter who had dropped the tray in the apartment. He was an anonymous-looking fellow with an unhealthy complexion, but the switchblade he held in his hand more than made up for his physical shortcomings.
"Uh-huh," Regina said.
Stepping closer, the man reached out to get his partner on his feet. As the two men retreated back towards the kitchen, he nodded at the door to the roof. "Why don't you dolls go out there? Catch a few rays, you know?? Now!"
"We'll freeze!" Stella growled.
"No shit, cutie-pie!" the man said, matching Stella's growl.
Grinding her jaw, Stella moved over to the door to the roof. As she put her hand on it, she turned towards the two crooks and shot fire at them with her eyes. "I'm givin' you a chance to reconsider."
"Ha, what a joke! You ain't in no condition to do nothin'! Get out there!"
"Let's do what he says, Stella? even if it'll be bad for my hair," Regina said and put a hand on Stella's shoulder.
"Your hair? We'll get frostbite, Reggie! And I have a hot date on Saturday! Goin' to the movies with Danielle and some tootsie rolls and cracker jacks and chick-o-sticks and popcorn and butterscotch and sodapop and hopefully a little smooch or two in the darkness? I'll need my fingers for all those things, dammit!"
"Would ya mind havin' this conversation outside?" the lead crook said, waving his switchblade ahead of him.
"Ohwillyoushaddup!? We're havin' an argument here!" Stella said, eyeing the knife.
Moving a step closer, the lead crook thrust the switchblade towards Stella's orange turtleneck sweater - he missed, but the intent was clear. "Git! I won't tell you again."
Sighing, Stella started pushing the door into the wind. Using moderate force, she was only able to get it to open a few inches, and the difficulty in getting it to move started a thought process that led to a bright idea zapping through her mind.
Making a big number out of it, she pushed and pushed and pushed some more without being able to get it to open at all. "Reggie? push, push like you've never pushed before!" she said, winking for all she was worth while hoping that Regina would pick up on it.
The former model did and really went to work on the door, first pressing both hands and then her right shoulder against it.
Moaning and groaning, the two women appeared to be helpless and out of breath, and as they pulled back from the door, the lead crook growled and pushed his fellow jewel thief towards it. "Go help them get that damn door open, Al."
The other crook started wringing his frozen hands and shot his chief a blank stare. "M-M-M-Marco, you s-s-s-aid m-m-m-my n-n-n-name!"
"And now you said mine, you imbecile! It don't matter, we'll never see them again, moron. Now open that damned door," Marco said and gave his associate a shove.
Stumbling forward, Al went past Regina and Stella and put his hands on the door - creating a golden opportunity for the two investigators. Working together, they grabbed hold of the man's arms and used his weight to practically throw him through the door and out onto the roof.
Kicking and screaming, the jewel thief scrambled to his feet and tore back to the door, but the wind slammed it shut before he got there.
"Good help is so hard to find these days, huh?" Stella said cockily, raising her pitch black shades to lock eyes with the remaining thief.
Marco growled briefly, holding the switchblade ahead of him, ready to attack. Baring his teeth in a sneer, he looked from Regina to Stella and back again several times before he made up his mind to leave while he still could. Moving quickly, he closed the knife and put it in his pocket, spun around and sprinted back towards the door to the kitchen.
"And here we go again!" Regina said and threw her arms in the air.
Stella didn't have time to answer - she was already hot on the crook's heels, tearing through the door and running back into the kitchen.
On his way through the kitchen, Marco shoved everything within his reach off the various shelves and tables - pots, pans, jars containing all kinds of spices, plates, glasses and even a few utensils - creating carnage of astronomical proportions and causing several dangerous situation when huge fireballs shot up from the stoves.
Seeing all that destruction, the Matron began to scream and hurl abuse at Marco, as did her staff, but it didn't deter the running man from creating even more carnage when he gave a stack of three trays of champagne flutes a hard shoulder-block that sent everything crashing to the floor.
Regina's long legs made short work of the gap between herself and Stella, and when she reached the blonde investigator, she said: "Go after the thief, I'll guard the door to the apartment so he won't get through!"
"Yup!" Stella said, sending Regina a thumbs-up.
When the long-legged former model reached the corner of the first aisle, she quickly spotted - and neatly jumped over - a cluster of cracked eggs lying on the floor. "Egg whites!" she shouted, pointing at the floor behind her.
Predictably, Stella wasn't as lucky. Catching the egg whites with both feet, she was forced into a pirouette which became two complete three-hundred and sixty degree revolutions that sent her hurtling towards two huge pots Marco had missed as he went past.
Flapping her arms in the air and squealing in G-sharp major, Stella was powerless to stop her endless skid and she careened toward the pots at high speed. When the egg whites under her boots suddenly wore off, she came to a screeching, unexpected halt on the white linoleum.
The jerk sent her black shades flying in a parabolic arc through the air and directly into the largest of the two pots where they landed on top of the asparagus soup. A few seconds later, the shades gave up the unequal struggle against gravity and went under like a latter-day Nautilus.
"Oh, man! They cost me $7.98!" Stella said and slapped her forehead. Groaning, she resumed the pursuit, now more determined than ever to stop the bad guys.
Over by the doors to the apartment, Regina bopped up and down on the balls of her feet, ready to intercept the crook who had no choice but to come past her if he wanted to escape.
The first time Marco flew past Regina's position, he had an irate Matron on his tail - waving a huge meat cleaver - which prevented him from stopping at the door; the second time, he had lost the Matron but had picked up Stella somewhere along the way, and she was almost catching him; the third time he came by, he was on his own, but still didn't want to stop.
Feeling left out, Regina scrunched up her face and put her hands on her hips. "You know, we women don't appreciate being ignored like this! It hurts our feelings and sentences us to years of counseling!" she shouted after the fleeing thief.
Deciding to take his chances with the Amazon at the door after all, Marco spun around and stormed back towards Regina, but before he got there, he was intercepted by the Matron and her newest and most effective weapon: the cast-iron wok.
The bonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnggg created by Marco running directly into the concave inside of the wok sounded very much like the Bells of St. Mary's at Yuletide, and the results were much the same - he took a staggering step backward and then fell flat on his rear, out cold.
"THAT'S what happens to people who mess up my kitchen!" the Matron growled, pointing her wooden spoon at the passed-out jewel thief.
A split second later, Stella came to a sliding halt next to the imposing woman and her equally imposing weapon. "Wow, great job, Matron! Excellent!" Stella said, grinning at the wok's surprising effectiveness.
"Thanks. My name is Vivian, actually. Viv between friends," the Matron said and stuffed the wooden spoon down into the belt for her apron.
"My name is Stella and this is my associate Regina. Pleased to meet you. Oh, we better go and get the other crook in from the roof? again. Viv, would you mind taking care of this one while we're away?"
"Consider him taken care of," Vivian said and hoisted up in her skirt. Groaning slightly, she sat down on Marco's gut and made herself comfortable. "He isn't going anywhere."
Grinning, Stella took Regina by the arm and led the sulky woman back towards the decrepit corridor to get the other thief.
Five minutes later, Regina, Stella and Vivian dragged the two jewel thieves into the apartment and dumped them on the floor. While they had been busy catching the criminals, the party had returned to some modicum of normality, but it only lasted until the first model caught sight of the five people standing at the door.
"Ooooh! Look there! Stella Starr caught them!" a rail-thin young woman said, pointing her skinny index finger at the quintet.
One second later, all the models were standing up and cheering the intrepid fashion guru; whistling loudly, they showed their gratitude by performing an impromptu Mexican wave - a somewhat uncoordinated one, but Stella didn't mind.
"Miss Nobody no more, huh?" Stella whispered under her breath.
"No? but I did my part, too," Regina mumbled back, still wearing a pout from not getting the opportunity to catch Marco at the door.
"Of course, Reggie." Taking pity on her friend, Stella took the former model's arm and raised it in the air at the happy audience. "Regina Harrison was there, too!" she said loudly, adding a cheeky grin.
The loud cheer that returned from the crowd lightened Regina's mood and she wrapped her arm around Stella's shoulder and gave her a big squeeze. "Thanks, Stell. I won't forget it. Did you hear that cheer? I still got it."
"But of course you do, Reggie."
The next thing that happened was that Lulu LaFontaine came through the crowd, looking very red-faced and puffy-eyed. She was clearly intent on talking to Stella and Regina, but the split second she saw Regina's messy hair, her eyes rolled back in her head and she started falling backwards, once again the victim of an acute lack of blood to the brain - it took two Chiseled Jaws to lower her down carefully.
"Uh-huh. Hmmm. We better call the police? and some medics for Lulu. Anybody got a phone?" Stella said and scratched her jaw.
As a reply, everybody in the room held up a smartphone; some even had two.
"Okay, I think we got that part covered."
Fifteen minutes later, a small squad of uniformed police officers led by Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes - wearing a fancy dark blue pant suit over a pale blue blouse - came wobbling through the hallway, having suffered the insane speed of the main elevator.
The two crooks were sitting back to back on the carpet with the matronly Vivian standing above them holding a wooden spoon and her trusty wok, ready to give either one of them another dose of cast iron chin music if they tried to get frisky with her.
The Inspector scratched her hair at the curious sight, but realized that when it came to the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, she should expect the unexpected. "Uh? thank you, Ma'am. We'll take it from here," she said and pointed at the first crook to instruct her officers to take that one first.
Snorting, Vivian spun around and went back to her kitchen, grumbling all the way there.
Once the two jewel thieves had been handcuffed and led away, Mary-Jane Moynes began searching for Regina and Stella. At five foot ten-and-a-half, she was usually one of the tallest people in a room, but she came to an abrupt stop when she realized that everybody at the party was at least as tall as she was, and most were taller.
One who was quite a lot shorter than Inspector Moynes was Stella Starr who was sitting on a couch, surrounded by a bevy of beauties who all made huge doe-eyes at her, lapping up her every word and feeding her pretzels and cherry cola out of champagne flutes.
Not quite believing her eyes, Mary-Jane looked around a bit more and found Regina Harrison sitting on another couch, surrounded by a pack of strapping young lads with broad shoulders, chiseled jaws and two-day stubbles who all looked like they wanted to continue the conversation somewhere more private.
A loud roar behind her made her spin around and stare at the doors to the kitchen.
Moments later, Vivian came out carrying a pair of pitch black shades that were covered in asparagus soup. After throwing them onto the carpet, she turned back around and stomped angrily into the kitchen.
Sighing, Mary-Jane scratched her hair and then made her way over to Stella who was still being courted by half a dozen scantily clad models. "Miss Starr? Uh, looks like you have everything under control."
"Hi, Inspector. Yep, we've got everything covered," Stella said, sitting between six pairs of silky-smooth Goddess-like thighs of all colors.
"Would you mind telling me what happened?"
"Well, we got here, set the snare and watched the two crooks go in it. Then we had a bit of a chase, but all in all, we did all right. Didn't we, girls?" Stella said, resisting the strong urge to run her fingers down the vast expanses of skin at her disposal.
When all the models cheered, the Inspector took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "O?kay," she said, scratching her hairline. Just when she thought she had seen it all, she noticed three upside-down glasses on one of the tables, each holding a brown mouse prisoner.
Regina excused herself from her admirers and made a beeline for her friend. Moving between all the nubile, young women, she put out her hand and pulled Stella to her feet.
Groaning, Stella rose voluntarily, but she felt rather reluctant to leave all the attention behind. "Oh, all right, Reggie, I'm coming. Girls, I'm sorry, but we have to leave now. The work of a fashion guru is never done. Remember what I told you: nobody has ever died from eating a pizza, mineral water is great but so is cherry cola and raspberry fizz, and finally, all-natural is the next big thing? although I don't mean you should stop shaving your armpits. That's taking it too far, you know."
"Bye, Stella!" the models said as one. When one of them began to cheer and clap, the others soon joined in, and soon, there was an entire contingent of women standing in a line, waving goodbye to her - some were even blowing her little kisses.
"Aw shucks, it's too much, too much? Oh what the hell am I saying?? Just keep it up! Reggie?! Just five more minutes, pleeeeease!" Stella said as Regina pulled her around the corner and into the corridor to the elevator.
Forty-five minutes later, Regina drove the SLK into the parking lot at Rockin' Ruby's. The lot was almost completely full - which was quite unusual on a Monday evening - so they had to drive around twice to find a spot to park.
"Whoa, what's going on here?" Stella said as she rummaged through the glove box to find a new pair of sunglasses.
Turning off the engine, Regina put her arm across the backrest of the passenger seat and craned her neck to look at all the cars. "Don't know, but most of them aren't regulars. I guess we'll find out."
"Yeah. Oh? got 'em," Stella said and pulled out a pair of dark purple Grandma-styled shades straight out of the 1960s.
"Oh, no, Stella? just when I thought you had seen the light?"
Sliding on the shades, Stella let out a dark chuckle when she saw the horrified expression on Regina's face. "Yeah, I had. Damn, I could get used to that, you know."
"Getting hand-fed by scantily clad women?" Regina said and ran her fingers through Stella's heavily gelled hair.
"Mmmm, that too? No, I meant the attention. I've never experienced that kind of attention before. Never. And you know what, Reggie? I loved it."
"Well? welcome to my world," Regina said and opened the door. "It's not always for the best. With the attention and the spotlight comes the lack of privacy."
"Mmmm, I know."
After getting out of the car, Stella waited for Regina to lock it before hooking her arm inside the tall model's on their way over to the bar.
"And I know that you're a very private person, Stell. Trust me, you'd only be able to stand it for a week. Two, tops. Then, steam would come out of your ears on a regular basis."
"Ah, you're probably right."
Once inside Rockin' Ruby's, they waved at Ruby Albrecht - who was sitting at her customary place at the far end of the bar - and moved up to their regular booth, passing a curiously large amount of new customers who were occupying the ten tall stools lining the bar.
When several of the patrons looked at them in a way that couldn't be interpreted as anything other than a come-on, Stella furrowed her brow and glanced at herself to see if she had forgotten to zip her fly. "Psst, what's with all the interested spectators all of a sudden?" she whispered as she shuffled into the red booth.
"Maybe your reputation has preceded you, oh you all-powerful fashion guru," Regina said and gave Stella a nudge with her shoulder.
"Yeah, why didn't I think of that? no, it's something else," Stella said and looked up as Ruby came over to them. "Hi, Ruby. Wow, it's really cooking tonight, huh?"
"Hi, gang. Yeah, it's been great so far. What's with the fancy duds?" the former pro-softball star said in her rich voice that fit her sporty exterior well.
"Ah, we've been working," Stella said, pulling out in her orange turtleneck.
"Oh. Well, you guys obviously didn't read my ad."
"Ad? No, we missed that, Ruby. Was it in the Chronicle?" Cocking her head, Stella looked at Regina who promptly shrugged.
"No, I couldn't afford their prices. I only put it in the local rag."
"Oh? we don't get that where we are."
"Okay. Well, guys, this is singles' night. The good news is that draft on tap is half price until midnight, the bad news is that you can't come in here as a couple. Tonight, it's for singles only. You can leave together if you want, but you can't come in together," Ruby said and wiggled her index finger in the air.
"Ohhh?!" Stella said, putting her hands on the tabletop. "Hey, that's a great theme, Ruby. I'm game. Reggie?"
"Sure. I'll go back out-"
"Nope, I'll do that. I'll wait outside for a couple of minutes. Then I'll come in and? well? see who catches my eye. Is that okay with you, Ruby?"
"Fair enough," the bar owner said, nodding.
"Back in two!" Stella said, scooted the long way around the circular table and left in a hurry, once again attracting gazes from the people at the bar.
"In the meantime, would you mind bringing me two small drafts, Ruby? I'm not counting on sitting alone for too long? after all, I still got it," Regina said and found a few bills that she gave to the owner.
"Sure, Reggie. Sure," Ruby said, chuckling heartily.
While Ruby put the two small beers down on the table a couple of minutes later, Stella came back into the bar. Feeling curiously nervous, she suddenly realized that it was just like a real date - and not just any old date, a true, honest-to-goodness date date, one that, had it been real, might have lead to something more than sharing a napkin around a glass of cold draft.
Swallowing nervously, she began to walk down the bar, eyeing each and every one of the women sitting there, finding blondes, brunettes, redheads and even one who had dyed her hair purple; women of all types from all along the spectrum - and yet, the only one who really caught her eye was a woman sitting by herself in one of the booths - six-foot-one, long, pitch black hair, eyes as blue as the September sky, prominent cheekbones, luscious lips, a regal nose, a strong jaw, gloriously tanned skin?
Then she thought of Danielle, her movie date for the weekend. The cute, spirited blonde with the lusty blue eyes was living in the same apartment complex she was, but they had never gone beyond exchanging a few brief words until they had met in the Laundromat a quarter past eight on Sunday morning and discovered that they had a lot more in common than just the color of their hair.
Gulping loudly, Stella stopped at the booth. She felt more confused than ever, and at first, she couldn't get the appropriate words to come to her. Pointing at the empty seat next to the dark-haired woman, she managed to squeak out a fairly coherent sentence: "Is that seat taken?"
"No," the woman said in a rich mezzo-soprano, kickstarting something deep inside Stella; something she knew she wouldn't have any control over. At first, it merely sent a pleasant buzz racing up and down her spine, but she knew there would be more to follow later.
When the woman locked eyes with her and offered her a blinding, two-hundred watt smile, Stella knew her fate was sealed.
"It is now," she said and sat down.
II - OHS AND WOES
Written by Norsebard
A week later.
Sighing, Stella Starr threw down the pencil on her desk and leaned back in her chair. The office was so quiet she could hear a pigeon cooing on the roof, and she almost wanted to whistle so she wouldn't feel so alone.
With another sigh, she leaned forward again and propped her head on her hands. Looking down, she glanced at the piece of paper she had decorated with freestyle doodles - and seventeen different versions of Regina's name.
"So, Reggie, can you believe that I'm having this humongous crush on you? again?"
The empty chair at the other desk offered no reply.
"No? What a co-inky-dink, I can't either! Isn't that funny, Reggie?"
"Well, I think it's funny? no, actually, I think it's weird. No, not even weird? truth be told, it scares the poop out of me. Yeah."
Turning around, she looked at the clock on the wall behind her; noting to her dismay that it was only a quarter past ten in the morning, she rubbed her face and pushed away the dreary paperwork she had been working on before she'd had an irresistible urge to doodle Regina's name.
"Memo to self: The next time Reggie asks me if I want to come to a fashion show overseas, say 'yes' instead of 'a fashion show, are you nuts?' Gawd, I'm so bored?!" - "And I miss her," she added quietly.
At that very moment, a new mail ticked in on the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency's mail account on the laptop Stella had opened on her desk. Only barely managing to wind up enough enthusiasm to look at the screen, she halfway expected to see a new spam mail - it would be the seventh of the morning - but instead of someone offering her dubious pills so she could Grow To Double Size, it said: 'from Regina Harrison. Subject: Hi, Stell! I'm mis?'
"Oh!" Stella said out loud and hurriedly clicked on the mail. At once, the message from Regina popped up, promising to shed some light on Stella's dull day.
'Hi, Stella! I'm missing you. You really should have come with me, you know.
Anyway, I've been having a great time here at the Copenhagen Fashion Week. Did you know that it's the second biggest show in Europe? Even bigger than the ones in Milan or Berlin. Forty-seven catwalks! Hundreds and hundreds of models and more than two thousand four hundred brands on display!
This commentating gig is quite fun, actually. I didn't think it would be, but it is. Have you watched any of my webcasts yet? You can find them at tv.onthebeatonline.com.
I just wanted to show you a few pix I took earlier today at one of the off-stage shows. I'm sending this at seven pm, I guess that means it's nine in the morning back home?? Or is it ten in the morning? Anyway, like I said, here's a few pix. I've uploaded the entire batch (175 pix) to our Flickr account.
Enjoy 'em ;)
Talk 2 U l8r - Reggie.'
"Awwww, Reggie!" Stella said and scrolled further down. The split second she saw the first photo, her eyes nearly popped out of her head - it showed Regina standing next to a female model who'd had her face painted to resemble a tiger.
As Stella kept on scrolling, it was quickly revealed that the tiger paint continued all the way down the woman's body - and that the only thing she was wearing was a thong that had a tiger's tail attached to it on the back. "Oh, those Europeans," she said, quickly moving onto the next photo before her cheeks caught fire.
When Stella had seen all three photos Regina had included in the mail, she was ready for a break. Nodding with a silly grin on her face, she closed the mail and pushed the laptop away.
"Well. On that note, I think it's time for a romantic flick," she said and got up from her chair. She quickly went into the conference room and wheeled the TV set and the DVD player back into the office.
After plugging them in, she opened the filing cabinet marked D and began to think hard about which movie she wanted to watch. Finally deciding on Imagine Me & You, she put the disc into the player and pressed Play.
Twenty minutes later, their phones rang.
Grumbling loudly, Stella pressed Pause on the remote and hurried over to her desk to pick it up. "You've reached the Harrison- Joe? What's up?"
"No, I can't lend you eighty dollars."
" 'Cos I don't have eighty dollars to lend you, Joe!"
"No, and you're just gonna use it on that cheap rat poison booze anyhow."
"All right, cherry brandy. Big difference."
"No, and that's final, Joe. Hey, are you ever gonna give us something to work on? I mean-"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah."
"No, Regina isn't here? but she wouldn't lend you the money either, Joe."
"Joe? Joe! I don't have time right now, okay?"
"I don't know? go rob a bank or something. Bye, Joe."
Mumble, mum- Slam!
Rolling her eyes, Stella got up from the chair and stomped back the couch so she could resume watching the movie. "That damn Joe? he just can't underst- OH NO!"
Eyes wide in terror, she stared at the black monitor that had somehow turned itself off. Moving closer, she saw to her even greater horror that the DVD player had shut off as well. She took the remote and began to mash her fingers down on all the buttons, but nothing worked - then she flew over to the player and began to press Eject to get the disc out, but that didn't work either.
"Oh?! You?! Didn't?! Just?! Eat?! My?! Favorite?! Movie!" she said breathlessly; the words coming in uncontrollable bursts of energy.
Trying to remember what she had read about recalcitrant DVD players, she unplugged it, waited for a few seconds and then put the plug back into the socket - but that had no effect.
After a short while, Stella's chin began to quiver and she clenched her fists to focus her mental energy on the problem - that didn't have any effect, either.
Two seconds later, she went ballistic and began to hop, skip and jump around the office, screaming obscenities at the people who had made the player - and their mothers - and it wasn't long before she went into one of her trademark all-out explosive hissy fits that saw heavy use of her favorite '?ucker' words.
Suddenly, she stopped and pointed an accusing index finger at the player. "I'm gonna make ya wish ya was never born, sucka!" she said, stomping off into the conference room to get her toolbox.
Once she had it, she took a screwdriver to the player's screws, quickly ending up with a loose panel and a faceful of electronics. "I know this is gonna hurt? but you shouldn't have crossed me? not Stella Starr!"
Ten minutes later, she held her precious Imagine Me & You-disc between her fingers, studying the surface intently to see if it had been scratched. "All clear? phew," she said and put the disc back in its cover.
Then the TV turned itself on behind her back, scaring her so badly that she let out a squeal and jerked forward, nearly tripping over the couch.
'? hannel 22 returning with a special news bulletin on this breaking story. As you have probably experienced first hand, there were widespread blackouts earlier this morning in the Bay area and parts of Downtown, caused by a fire in one of the turbines at the McCullough power plant. A spokesperson for WestPower Incorporated says that other power plants in the grid have increased their output to compensate, but that temporary blackouts can't be ruled out. The Metro Police is requesting-'
"A blackout? a blackout?? I killed my DVD player because of a blackout?!" Stella said, looking at the pile of electronic junk on the floor.
"Oh? oh?! Ohhhh?! OH-OH-OH-OHHHHHH! Ohhhh?! Ohfercryinoutloud- whydoesthisalways? happen? to? me," she said and fell backwards onto the couch where she landed with a big bump.
Sighing, she turned off the TV and clutched the Imagine Me & You cover to her bosom. "Well? at least Rachel and Luce are safe. Love will always conquer all. Even blackouts and screwdriver-wielding women?"
III - HOME VIDEO
Written by Norsebard
Driving along the Boulevard to get to the Harrison-Starr office, Stella Starr sang out loud to an old love song playing on the radio. She felt in a much better mood than she had been in lately - not even the heavy morning rush hour traffic could dampen her spirits.
Today was the day Regina Harrison would return from her overseas adventure and Stella had bought the former model two small presents, a heart-shaped pillow that was resting safely on the passenger seat of her beloved AMC Pacer and a Hallmark greeting card that said 'Welcome home - I've missed you.'
Glancing at the greeting card, she thought about the message she wanted to convey. It was a lot more than just 'I've missed you,' but she hadn't been able to find a card that said 'Get nekkid, Sista, I wanna do ya on the floor!'
Chuckling out loud, Stella thought about what kind of face the middle-aged spinster sales clerk at the book store would pull if she was ever handed such a card.
Suddenly, a miniature Stella popped up on the real Stella's left shoulder. The mini-her was carrying a whip and a pitchfork, and she was dressed far more sexily than the real Stella ever dared: stiletto boots, fishnet stockings and plenty of outrageously revealing red leather. "Yo! Doll! Yeah, that's right, it's me, the Horny Li'l Devil."
"Wh-what?? Am I? am I dreaming? I haven't even had a Meaty Mama!" the real Stella said, trying to stay in the lane and look at her shoulder at the same time.
The Horny Li'l Devil just waved her gloved hand. "Naw, you're just horny as hell," she said in a throaty voice. "I know what's in your head? and all I can say is, go for it, doll! Push that leggy-Reggie-baby up against the filing cabinets an' make a real woman out of her! Again! And again! And aga-"
"Oh God, I can't do that!" the real Stella howled, shaking her head to get the madness out before she was pulled over and committed to a psych ward.
At those words, another mini-Stella popped up on her right shoulder. Dressed in a white robe and carrying a golden harp, the second mini-her was far calmer and more mature which was reflected in her honey-tinged voice. "Stella! It's me, your Conscience! Don't listen to your Urges. That little Devil is only out to get you in trouble! If you truly love Regina, you must give her time to come around? to get used to the idea. If you force her into a decision she's not ready to make, she'll leave you, Stella."
Turning into the parking lot in front of the office, Stella sighed deeply and looked at her right shoulder. "That's the absolute worst thing that could happen?"
Tired of being left out, the Horny Li'l Devil shook her pitchfork. "Hey, Reggie is a babe but she ain't the only skirt out there, ya know. Danielle! Don't forget about her. She's such a cutie pie? and hot, too! Did you see the rack on her? And best of all, Stella, she's already on your team. You don't have to use your head at all with her? you can just slam dunk her again and again and-"
"Shut up! Shutupshutupshutup!" the real Stella and her heavenly associate howled in unison.
"Nyah-nyah-nyah? make me! And sex ain't evil, it's just all you holy ones who are afraid of where the Urges might take you! That's it, I'm done here!" the Devil said and disappeared in a cloud of little, red horns.
The white-dressed mini-Stella rolled her eyes and sat down on the real Stella's shoulder. "Stella, you made the right choice by buying the pillow and the greeting card. It's a start. The road is going to be long and winding, but I promise you that it's the best solution. One step at a time," the little angel said, swinging her legs freely in the air.
"Yeah, okay? I guess. It's just that? what worries me the most is Reggie's reaction. I can't predict it at all," the real Stella said, parking next to Regina's silver metallic Mercedes SLK. To cover for the fact that she was speaking with herself, she quickly picked up one of her eight-track cassettes and held it to her ear to make it look like a cell phone.
"I know. Love is unpredictable, Stella. Keep at it. You'll get there in the end," the little Angel said and disappeared in a cloud of little, red hearts.
Sighing, Stella looked at herself in the rear view mirror. "Huh. That was weird. Was it even real? Am I even awake??"
After taking off her seatbelt, she decided to nip a hair off her arm just to see if she had dreamt the whole thing - nip! - "OOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWW!" she howled, jumping in the seat. "Okay, I'm not doing that again? Sheesh!"
Armed with the heart-shaped pillow and the greeting card, Stella opened the door with her elbow and pushed it with her rear. Remembering to lift her feet so she would step over the iron band below the door instead of falling over it, she moved inside and said: "Good morning, Reggie! Welcome home!"
When she didn't get a reply, she furrowed her brow and looked around the empty office. "Uhhh, okay?? Reggie? Yoo-hoo?"
Shrugging, Stella let the door click shut behind her. It wasn't until she had put the pillow and the greeting card down on Regina's desk that she noticed a note pinned to the inside of the front door.
'Hey, Stell! Gone for some milk; the one in the fridge had turned sour. I think I'll buy some donuts as well.'
"Oh, excellent. She's such a sweetie," Stella said out loud. Rubbing her hands together, she went into the conference room to get some plates for the sticky pastries.
Twenty minutes later, Regina opened the door carrying a plastic jug of milk and large box of donuts. She had only just put down the items on the small table next to the door when she was assaulted by a dirty-blonde whirlwind who wrapped herself around the former model's torso.
Laughing out loud, Regina answered the hug and then took a step back. "Whoa! Good morning, Stell. Uh, are you that happy to see me? I was only gone for eight days, ya know."
Feeling the Horny Li'l Devil poking her in the butt with the pitchfork, Stella grinned and nodded hard. "Yeah, but I've missed you."
"Awww. Thanks, Stell. I've missed you, too. Have you had anything to do while I was away?" Regina said and put her blazer jacket on the hallstand, revealing that she was wearing baggy blue jeans and a loose men's denim shirt over a red V-neck T-shirt.
"Yeah, one or two things and some paperwork? I'll tell you about them later. You look great. You smell great, too," Stella said, punching Regina lightly on her upper arm.
"Uh? thanks. Are you on some kind of medication, Stell? You seem awfully? I don't know? chipper??"
"No, I jus-"
"Oh! Of course, silly me!" Regina said and slapped her forehead, mindful not to harm her perfectly styled hairdo. "It's Danielle, right? Did you see some action, huh?" she continued, winking saucily.
Feeling slightly tongue-tied, Stella opened her mouth a couple of times before she shuffled over to her desk and sat down on the corner. "No, we've just had that one date so far," she said with a shrug. "Don't know if we'll get any further. She didn't like the popcorn. Too much salt, apparently."
"Oh? okay. Well. Hey, you look pretty good this morning, too, actually," Regina said, looking at her enthusiastic friend's pale gray socks and dark gray sweatsuit that was promoting a new Hollywood movie on the back in big, white letters. "The hair is still a bit wacky? but never mind that now," she mumbled under her breath.
"Thank you. I wanted to look good for your return," Stella said, swinging the leg she wasn't using to support her balance. She looked down, thinking about how she should make Regina aware what was going on inside her mind.
After turning on the coffee maker, Regina moved over to her desk but stopped short when she spotted Stella's presents. "Oh! Awwww, you shouldn't have, Stell."
"Well, I? uh?"
At once, Regina picked up the heart-shaped pillow and crushed it to her chest. "It's so soft! Thanks a bunch. Oh, and there's a card, too," she said and picked up the greeting card. After reading it, she turned to Stella and shot her one of her patented two-hundred watt smiles. "Thanks, Stell."
"You're welcome, Reggie," Stella said, still suffering from radiation sickness after the blinding smile.
Smiling broadly, Regina put down the two items and picked up a plastic gift bag. "Oh, I've got a present for you as well. It's just a little thing, but I thought you might like it." Digging into the gift bag, she pulled out a soft toy; a Viking troll complete with a long, blond beard, chain mail, a horned helmet, a broadsword and a round shield.
"Oh, that's just too cute for it's own good," Stella said and jumped off her desk. She was at Regina's side in two heartbeats flat and took the soft toy from her fingers. After looking at the troll for a little while, she looked up at the former model and sent her a mischievous grin. "Hey, he's blond, short and ugly? are you trying to tell me something?"
"Well, you're blonde and short."
"I'm not short! I'm five foot four-and-a-half! The half-inch is very important, you know," Stella said and poked her finger into Regina's side.
"Oh, I know. And you're definitely not ugly, Stell."
Suddenly, a certain devilish voice pushed itself into Stella's mind, saying: 'She's hot and ready for ya! Kiss her now! Now, now, now, now, now, before she moves away!'
"Oh, get outta here," Stella mumbled.
Misinterpreting the words, Regina pulled her friend into another hug that turned into a warm cuddle. "Thanks for the gifts, Stell. They mean a lot to me."
"You're welcome. And thank you for this little fella." Feeling her heart hammering away in her chest, Stella thought it was best to switch to a safer topic before she said something she hadn't thought through. "Hey, did you get those donuts or what?"
"I sure did. Six. Two chocolate, two pinkies and two with those little colorful thingies they call Sprinkles that don't have anything to do with real sprinkles."
"I got dibs on the chocolate ones! Both of 'em!" Stella said, turning around so fast that her glasses nearly fell off.
Ten minutes later, their phones rang.
Stella rolled her eyes and looked towards the heavens. "Why?" - munch, munch - "does that?" - munch, munch - "damn phone?" - munch, munch - "always ring?" - munch, MUNCH, munch - "when I'm eatin'?" - MUNCH, MUNCH, munch - "something??" - GULP.
Wiping her mouth on a napkin, Stella pushed her coffee away and picked up the receiver. "Good morning, you've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?"
'Uh? hello?' a female voice said through a very bad connection.
'He? ll? o?'
"Oh, this better not turn into one of those days," Stella said and put down the receiver. After waiting for nearly two minutes without getting any further calls, she decided that she had waited long enough and took a big bite out of her chocolate donut.
Slamming her fist down onto the desktop and growling like a wounded grizzly, Stella picked up the receiver and put it to her ear. "Good morning," - munch, munch - "you've reached the" - MUNCH, munch - "Harrison-Starr Detective Agency." - gulp - "How may we help you?"
'Hello? ?e-ll? o?'
"This is NOT turning into one of those days! I won't allow it!" Stella growled into the receiver, gulping down a large swig of her coffee. She realized too late that it was still to hot to gulp down, and as the burning hot liquid ran down her gullet like a tidal wave of lava, her eyes grew wider and wider. Opening her mouth, she started fanning herself, uttering a strangled "Oooooooooooooooooo!" in the process.
"I got it, Stell," Regina said, taking pity on her clumsy friend. "Hello? Hello?"
Right in the middle of all that, someone knocked on the door.
"Whoever the hell that is, WE'RE BUSY!" Stella spluttered, holding onto the edge of her desk for leverage.
Very carefully, the door was opened and a young African-American woman with shoulder-length mahogany-colored hair peeked in. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties and she was wearing a stylish dress held mostly in gold and royal blue, with gold earrings and a gold necklace that created a very nice contrast to her fairly dark complexion. "Uh, hello?"
Looking up with a harried expression on her face, Stella showed their guest the receiver. "Hello, lady. We'll be right with ya. I'm trying to talk to someone on the horn but the connection is so flippin' poor that I can't even-"
"Oh, I think that's me, actually," the woman said and held up a cell phone.
"Oh? ummm? okay," Stella said and put down the receiver. At the other desk, Regina did the same, chuckling loudly.
The woman came into the center of the office and began to look around. "Do I need an appointment to speak with Mr. Harrison Starr?" she said after a brief pause.
Stella just sighed and pulled out the desk drawer to update the piece of paper that said 'People who ask for Mr. Harrison Bleepin' Starr,' but Regina was more service-minded and got up from her desk. "We don't actually have anyone here by that name, Miss. I'm Regina Harrison and this is my business associate Stella Starr. We're both investigators," Regina said and led the young woman over to the couch.
"Oh? I'm sorry. I thought that? never mind. My name is Shelley Torrence and I may have a job for you? if you're available, that is," Shelley said, glancing in a slightly curious fashion at the woman with the wild mop of dirty-blonde hair.
Holding her mug of coffee, Stella got up from her chair and moved over to the small desk just inside the door. "We're available, Miss Torrence. Would you like some coffee?"
"No, thank you."
"Please have a seat," Regina said and showed Shelley the couch.
Smiling, Shelley sat down, folding her dress so it wouldn't get creased. Soon, she leaned back and crossed her legs in a very ladylike fashion, revealing that she was wearing blue high-heeled pumps and that she had a gold chain around her right ankle.
"What's it about, Miss Torrence?" Regina said, taking her notepad.
The smile faded from Shelley's face, replaced by something that looked very much like a combination of trepidation and uncertainty. "Well? first, I need your assurance that if you accept the case, you'll work with maximum discretion??"
Having filled her mug with steaming hot coffee, Stella sat down next to their guest. "We're masters at maximum discretion, Miss Torrence. In fact, our motto is 'Shhh! They Might Hear You.' "
At those words, Regina glanced up at the wall behind Stella's desk where they had a plaque that read 'Our motto is: If you're not satisfied with our services, you can Kiss Our?'
Breathing a sigh of relief, Shelley put a hand on Stella's knee. "Oh, that makes me feel much better, Miss Starr. You see? it's a very delicate situation. My boyfriend and I have? have? well, we've recorded a video of ourselves."
"Ohhhh?" Stella said in knowing tone.
"Yes. Exactly. And now the video camera has been? has been? accidentally switched with another, identical camera. I have no idea how it happened, but it did."
"And the camera with the recording is? is in my Father's possession," Shelley said; her voice trailing off as she spoke the sentence.
"Ohhhh? Oh! Well!" Stella said as the true meaning dawned on her. "I can definitely understand your nervousness. Man, this is an iffy one, huh, Reggie?"
Nodding, Regina dotted the Is and crossed the Ts in her notepad. "Yeah."
"My Father is a very old-fashioned man with old-fashioned values?."
Stella bared her teeth in a sneer and leaned forward to pat Shelley's knee a couple of times. "Oh boy? can it get any worse?"
"Yes it can, I'm afraid," Shelley said, chuckling darkly. "I'm working as my Father's secretary and? well, if he sees that video, he'll kick me out on the spot? I'm sure of it."
"Mmmm," Stella said, taking a sip from her coffee. During a brief lull in the conversation, she remembered a few things from her own time working for her stepdad at Starr IT Solutions - the endless frustrations, the problems, the arguments? shaking her head to get rid of the negativity, she clenched her teeth and returned to the present.
"I'm desperately hoping you can help me??" Shelley said, wringing her hands.
"We can help you, Miss Torrence," Regina said in a firm, reassuring voice. She looked at Stella who nodded in return. "However, I'm sure you understand that we can't just break into the house and swap the cameras, so? well, we're going to need a battle plan."
"That's our expertise, by the way," Stella said with a beaming smile.
"Oh? that's? that's good to hear. Well, I've already tried to find the camera? I've looked absolutely everywhere, the attic, the cellar, the master bedrooms, Father's study, the library, the smoking room, the dining room, the sitting rooms-"
Regina and Stella glanced at each other, exchanging similar looks of surprise - this was proving to be a bigger task than either of them had imagined.
Oblivious to the looks the two investigators sent each other, Shelley continued: "? the kitchen, even Father's old darkroom that he doesn't use anymore? simply everywhere. But then he caught onto me, and I was afraid that he might begin to ask questions and? it would just look too suspicious if I kept looking myself? that's why I came to you," she said, wringing her hands even more.
"It's all right, Miss Torrence. We'll find that camera for you, I have no doubt about that," Regina said, scratching her hairline with the butt of her pencil.
Stella leaned back on the couch and began to run through all kinds of schemes and scenarios they could try to get to the bottom of the case. One by one, she discarded their regular solutions since they proved to be woefully useless in this particular situation. 'After all, an upper class family would never fall for a simple disguise? or would they?? What if we? no. Or maybe? no. Oh, I know, we could? no.'
"Hmmm," she said out loud, scrunching up her face. A sudden stab in her rear proved to be the Horny Li'l Devil making an unwelcome return.
'French maid! Remember when Reggie wore that costume? Hubba hubba hubba!' the Horned one whispered into Stella's ear before disappearing.
Feeling annoyed for even listening to an urchin with a pitchfork, Stella folded her legs up underneath her and leaned in towards their guest. "Miss Torrence, considering the size of the house, I'm sure you have a large staff?"
"Well, no we don't, actually. We've hired a company that organizes all those things. Back in the old days when I was a child, I remember that we had a butler and several housekeepers and maids? but it's just too expensive these days."
'Bingo!' Stella thought, breaking out into a broad grin. Her eyes were shining and she had gained that certain flush to her cheeks she always got when a plan was forming in her mind. "Well, Miss Torrence? I think I know how we can get inside. I'll pose as a temp housemaid. That way, I'll have almost unrestricted access to the entire house? is that realistic?"
Shelley's face lit up like a little Christmas tree and she clapped her hands together in front of her bosom. "Oh! That's very realistic, Miss Starr! Oh, what a wonderful idea! Yes, that would work, I'm sure. For some reason, we can never count on getting the same maid more than once, anyway. I have the number for the company right here on my cell? I could call them and cancel the maid for tomorrow? then you could show up and? and do whatever's necessary to find my camera!"
"That's the plan, Miss," Stella said and sent Regina a big thumbs-up.
The first thought through Regina's mind was 'Uh-oh? Stella with a feather duster? watch out Rembrandt!' The second thought was 'Uh-oh? Stella in a housemaid costume? watch out Big Daddy?!' Smiling, she returned the thumbs-up.
"Perhaps you should borrow our phones instead, Miss. After all, your cell had a pretty poor reception," Stella said and got up from the couch. Holding out her hand, she pointed at the old-fashioned telephone on Regina's desk.
"That's a good idea, Miss Starr, I'll do that," Shelley said and moved over to it.
While their client was speaking to the company - Maids4AllSeasons - Stella leaned in and whispered into Regina's ear: "Reggie? I think we can score big here."
"Looks like it," Regina replied in a matching whisper.
"After she's left, will you help me compile a suitable costume for my first adventures in the wild, wacky world of housemaiding?"
"But of course I will, Stell! I'm shocked you even have to ask! When have I ever said no to anything regarding clothes?" Regina said and gave Stella's hand a little squeeze.
The unexpected touch sent a buzz up Stella's arm and across her chest, and before she knew it, she broke out in a big, cheesy grin that seemed to confuse Regina slightly.
Putting down the receiver, Shelley came back over to the couch. "All right, that's been dealt with. Now, Miss Starr, like I said, my Father is a somewhat strict man, so you need to keep everything as real? not to mention perfect? as possible, or else he'll start to get suspicious."
The smile on Stella's face faded briefly when she digested the 'perfect' comment, but she soon recovered and put out her hand. "Oh, I will. I'll let my associate here give me a crash course on etiquette. It'll work."
"Oh, that's good to hear," Shelley said and shook Stella's hand.
"Now, about our payment," Regina said and got up from her chair. "How does four thousand dollars sound?"
"Oh? four thousand dollars?" Shelley said, looking fairly surprised over the amount.
'Too much! Aw hell!' Stella thought, biting her lip. If she had been alone, she would already have been hopping, skipping and jumping around the office from the disappointment, but she managed to keep everything under wraps.
Waving her hand, Shelley let out a coquettish little laugh. "Is that all? And here I was, thinking that it would cost me at least ten, maybe twelve thousand. Oh, four thousand sounds fine, Miss Harrison. We have a deal. Will you accept a check?"
Regina cleared her throat and shot Stella a blank look and an apologetic shrug. "We certainly will, Miss Torrence."
"Excellent! Tomorrow morning, I'll be ready for you, Miss Starr. Seven thirty at the backdoor, is that all right with you? That way, I'll still have time for my tennis lesson."
"Se- se- se? seven thirty?" Stella said hoarsely.
Shaking Regina's hand, Shelley moved towards the door. "That's a deal, then. Oh, I can't wait to get my camera back!"
"We'll be there, Miss Torrence," Regina said and closed the door behind the young woman.
"Reggie?" Stella said once they had seen the woman drive off in her snow white Audi Q7 SUV.
"Is it too late to back out?" Stella whined.
Chuckling, Regina put her arm across her friend's shoulder and gave her a little squeeze. "I think it is, Stell."
Several hours later.
"All right, Miss Torrence, I have the address, number one Crescent Drive," Stella said, sitting at her desk and writing in her notepad.
"In a park, white mansion, roman pillars?"
"The staff parks out back? okay."
"All right, that should be it," Stella said, closing her notepad. "Meet you tomorrow morning. Bye."
Stella hung up, leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs at the knee. Tapping the notepad against her lips a couple of times, she cast an experienced eye at the exquisite show that was taking place in front of her.
Regina was hard at work on the fourth of seven stages in her semi-daily exercise routine - she had already done pushups, sit-ups and leg work, and now, she was engaged in something that would have been called Aerobics had it been taking place in the 1980s.
Stella didn't care what it was called, she was too busy enjoying the view of the fit, curvaceous woman working out in black tights and a white muscleshirt. Her foot started tapping to the musical beat - the Village People was playing on the old boombox - and her eyes kept to the physical beat of Regina's wiggling bosom.
"Did? you? get? the? details?" Regina said, going through a particularly difficult dancing routine.
"Good. Would? you? mind? calling? the? pizza guys??"
"No problem. What would you like tonight, Reggie?" Stella said and took the receiver again. Pressing the Pizza Palace's number on the speed dial, she held the telephone to her ear while she dug around in her desk drawer to find the brochure.
"A? vegetarian? pita."
"Okay. That's not what I want," Stella said with a throaty chuckle. "Hello? Hi, it's Harrison-"
"Yeah, over on the Boulevard, that's right. We'd like a number eighty-four, vegetarian pita and a number twenty-three, a pepperoni pizza. Extra black olives and extra cheese, please."
"And? a? baked potato? with? sour cream?!" Regina shouted.
"And a number, uh? fifty-six, a baked potato with sour cream and onions."
"Okay?? Hey, Reggie, today's special is that if you buy two baked potatoes, you get a free salad of your choice!"
"All right? two? sour cream? potatoes? and a? Greek salad?!"
"Two number fifty-six and a Greek salad, please."
"Yeah, we'll pay with plastic. Okay? Neato."
Hanging up, Stella put the brochure back in the drawer and concentrated on getting the most out of the show - next up was her second-favorite part, the yoga sessions.
Thirty minutes later, the pizza delivery guy tapped his knuckles on the front door. After waiting for three tenths of a second, he grew impatient, swooshed it open and stepped inside.
"Pizz- OOOHHHH!" he said, bugging his eyes out at the tall, leggy brunette who was flat on her back on the floor, seemingly in the middle of shooting an adult video judging by the suggestive movements of her legs and abdomen.
Babbling incoherently, the delivery guy took several wobbling steps to the side, crashing into the door, the table and very nearly the couch. The stack of food containers he held in his hand began to lean precariously but were still relatively safe - until he turned around and got another eyeful of the brunette.
"No? NO, WAIT!" Stella howled and jumped up from her chair, but despite her best efforts, she didn't make it to the pizza guy in time - keeling over, the man collapsed in a heap on the floor next to the woman in black.
Crash! Schlat! Plop! Splat! Squash!
"Aw great? my pepperoni?!" Stella said and slapped her forehead, making her wild hair fly off in all directions.
Down on the floor, Regina was buried under a pile of food; she had a baked potato nesting between her breasts - sour cream spread down, of course - lettuce leaves, cucumber slices, sweet peas and the rest of the Greek salad all across her stomach, a black olive in the hollow of her throat and a pizza slice stuck to her forehead. The only thing that had survived was her vegetarian pita, and that was by the good grace of the elastic band the Pizza Palace had used to secure the wrapping paper. "Uh-huh?" she said, scrunching up her face. "Okay? this wasn't exactly what I had in mind?"
Sitting up, she took the slice of pepperoni pizza off her forehead, revealing a long smear of tomato sauce that made her look like she had been on the losing side of a street fight. The olive had tried to make a run for it by rolling off her throat, but she quickly found it and ran it through the remains of the Greek salad on her stomach. Once it was completely covered in the sticky white stuff, she popped it into her mouth and chewed on it rather noisily.
"Hey, no fair, Reggie? that was my olive!" Stella said between her fingers - she had clamped her hand across her mouth so she wouldn't die laughing.
With a ploppp, the baked potato fell down from its comfy resting place into Regina's lap, leaving a smear of sour cream between the former model's well-rounded peaks.
"Uh-huh? My pita made it, but that's about it? are you gonna call for Chinese while I shower?" Getting up, Regina moved towards the bathroom, walking in a way that made it look like she had soiled her pants.
"Yeah, okay. I guess we need to wake this fella up as well," Stella said and crouched down next to the fainted delivery guy. "Hey, buddy? hey? YO!"
"Uh? whut?" the young man said, stirring from his Regina-induced slumber. "Uh? that'll be twenty-five bucks. And a tip."
Rolling her eyes, Stella grabbed hold of the belt of the young man's droopy pants and pulled him upright. "You want a tip? All right, never pee against an electric fence. Now clean up this mess before I call your employers."
"You think I won't call 'em?" Stella said and took the receiver off the hook.
Letting out an impressive growl, Stella repeatedly thrust her index finger into her chest. "That's Miss, buddy! Look at me, do I look old enough to be a ma'am?"
"Yes, Miss? I mean, no, Miss," the delivery guy said sheepishly, looking down at the horrible mess at his feet. With a shrug, he began to scoop up the ruined food into the containers.
Half an hour later, Stella used her chop sticks to grab the last piece of Chicken Chow Mein - or tried to, at least, because it invariably clung to the bottom of the cardboard box. "You know, Reggie? for once, I wasn't the clumsiest person in the room."
Looking up, Regina crinkled her nose in disgust. "I noticed."
"You were kinda sexy there, doing that porn star in heat thingy," Stella said, chuckling over the pizza guy keeling over at the - admittedly evocative - sight of Regina doing her floor routines.
"Ah, it wasn't sexy? I mean, I was fully dressed, wasn't I? Anyway, it's good for the back of your thighs and for your buttocks," Regina said, shrugging in her patented 'can't-give-a-hoot'- fashion.
"Trust me, it was sexy. So there! But the Chinese was great, though."
Scooping up a spoonful of Yaka Mein noodles, Regina studied it briefly before putting it into her mouth. "Mmmm-hmmm."
When the last piece of chicken proved reluctant to leave its comfortable home, Stella began to get more and more agitated, and finally, she flipped the chop sticks around and used them as spears to stab at the meat. "Grrr?! Can't get? that last? why does it? damn piece of?"
With a particularly wild stab, she managed to poke the chop sticks clean through the bottom of the cardboard, causing the last of the Chow Mein juices to leak out down onto her smart, gray sweatpants. "Aw hell?" she grumbled, looking towards the heavens for guidance.
"Yeah. And now? pants trouble."
"Welcome to the club," Regina said flatly.
"Why thank you, Regina Harrison," Stella said and got up. "Ugh? since my pants now smell of Chicken Chow Mein, I might as well find a few items to try on for the costume."
"D'ya want to have bare legs or not, Stell?" Regina said, following her friend as she shuffled over to the bathroom, holding her sweatpants away from her legs.
With the door ajar behind her, Stella quickly jumped out of her pants and hung them over a clothes line next to the shower. "Not, thankyouverymuch!" she said loudly to make herself heard. "I'm not going undercover at a strip joint, you know. I may have to step up on something and? Sheesh, I don't want anyone to look up under my skirt!"
"In that case, I got just the right costume for ya. Remember when we were undercover at the Amish print house?"
Sticking her head out of the bathroom, Stella flashed Regina a broad grin. "You bet I do. Good thinking, Reggie? let's try that one."
At six-thirty the next morning, Regina took a step back from the couch, rubbed her face and groaned loudly. "Oh, Stell, we don't have much time? come on, just put on the disguise, will ya!"
Regina had laid out the entire costume on the coffee table - shiny, black patent leather shoes, black polyester slacks, a white long-sleeved shirt, a black vest and finally a funny hat - but Stella had only been able to get the white shirt on before she had fallen asleep on the couch.
The blonde investigator was sprawled over the couch like a big cat; her head was resting on the armrest, her arms were all over the place, her right leg was on the floor and her left up on the couch in a ninety degree angle to the rest of her, revealing that she was wearing pale purple Pippi Longstocking socks and dark blue Snoopy boxers.
"Stell, Stell, Stell? all right, sometimes you have to do it the hard way," Regina mumbled and leaned down towards her sleeping friend. Pausing very briefly, she finally decided to go ahead with her task and placed a gentle kiss on Stella's forehead.
Stirring, Stella smacked her lips a couple of times and began to moan "Oh? Reggie? oh? baby?" in a voice that made it clear that she wasn't dreaming about toddlers.
As the former model took a step back to give Stella room, her cheeks flushed crimson red and she had to blink a couple of times to get everything calm again.
On the couch, Stella cracked open an eyelid and looked around. Realizing that she wasn't at home in her own bed - and that she may have said something she probably shouldn't have said at that exact moment - she sat up and rubbed her face repeatedly. One glance at Regina's red cheeks and the shy look in her eyes confirmed her fears, and she decided to play it for laughs. "Hi again, Reggie. Boy, I nodded off there, huh? Ha, ha. I hope I wasn't drooling too much?? Ha, ha?"
"You weren't," Regina said, scratching her hairline and noting the slightly embarrassed look in Stella's eye. Her mind began to wander back to the time where Stella had had a severe crush on her, and she was wondering if the same thing wasn't happening all over again. 'That moan definitely wasn't someone dreaming about ice cream?' she thought, chuckling inwardly.
"Oh. All right, let's get the rest of the disguise on. Pants first," Stella said and grabbed the black slacks. Quickly jumping into them, she tucked in the white shirt and adjusted the elastic band in the waist so it wouldn't be uncomfortable across her stomach.
"And the shoes," Regina said and pushed the patent leather shoes over to the couch with the tip of her boot.
"Thanks, Reggie." - 'Damn, she's keeping her distance all of a sudden. Aw hell, what did I say?? God, I hope I didn't moan her name or anything like that? oh, man, if I did, I may have killed every single chance I would ever have with her! Damn, damn, damn!'
Holding up a floppy, wide-brimmed hat, Regina squinted at it and then at Stella. "Do you want to wear the funny hat or not?"
"Hmmm? not," Stella said and ran a hand through her wild hair. "Gel?"
"We're all out. You'll have to water-comb it."
"Shoot, that's only good for the first ten minutes," Stella said with a chuckle. Getting up, she quickly donned the black vest and pulled it down so it sat without a single crease. "Aw yeah? lookin' good!" she continued, turning left and right so she could look at herself from all angles.
"You look fab, dahling! Oh, I knew I'd make a good model out of you one day," Regina said and clapped her hands in an exaggerated fashion.
"Reggie, what did I tell you about that word, huh?"
"Sorry? it'll never happen again. Princess," the former model said with a wide grin.
Seven twenty-eight a.m., Regina pulled the silver metallic Mercedes SLK into the gravelly parking lot at the back of the mansion on Crescent Drive.
The white house was imposing even from the rear; three stories tall, it was built in a rectangular shape with each wing close to two hundred yards long and the house end close to fifty yards. The roof was mat black tile, the many windows at the back were old yet stylish, and the bushes and trees planted near the rear entrance were neatly groomed - all in all, the mansion appeared to be very well maintained.
"Whoa?" Stella said as she looked at the mansion and the surrounding facilities and buildings - to the left, she could see parts of a tennis court, to her right, the shimmering blue light from a swimming pool, and in front of her, a garage with room for four cars.
"We should have said eight thousand dollars," Regina mumbled as she turned off the engine, earning herself a slap on the shoulder.
As if on cue, the back door opened and Shelley Torrence came out dressed in tennis fatigues from top to toe, including stylish sweatbands around her wrists. "Oh, I was worried you'd be late? my Father hates impunctuality," she said, looking at her wristwatch.
"We're here, aren't we? In the middle of the night? but we're here," Stella said and got out. Before she closed the door, she leaned in and put her hand on the passenger seat. "Reggie, I'll give you running updates, okay? I'll call your cell, so don't forget it if you go to the little girls' room."
"Will do, Stell. I'll be ready to come and rescue you in case someone tries to get frisky with you? baby," Regina said and sent Stella a wink.
Not sure how to respond to that - other than by blushing - Stella stepped back and watched her friend leave in their car. Sighing, she turned around and shuffled over to the back door.
Once inside, she walked into a hall where she was met by a sturdy, square-built man wearing a ruby red bathrobe.
Henley Torrence was as imposing as the house he lived in. In his early sixties, he had made his money with a chain of hardware stores before striking gold by selling to a capital fund. The time in retirement had given him a slight paunch, but other than that, he looked fit and sharp.
"Miss Estrella??" he said in a deep, strong voice.
Adjusting her glasses, Stella jumped forward and put out her hand. She figured that if she acted fairly submissive from the start, he might cut her some slack later on in case she'd brew up some trouble. "That's Miss Stella, actually, Sir. Uh? Daisy D. Stella," she said, curtseying to the man.
Shaking 'Daisy's' hand, Henley furrowed his brow. "What's the D for?"
"Oh, it's Dee, Sir. You know, dee eee eee."
"Daisy Dee Stella? Your parents must have had a wicked sense of humor. Anyway, I'm late for my morning five. I've left your work schedule on the kitchen table. Please follow it as closely as you can."
"Yes, Sir. I'll do my best, Sir." - 'And try not to wreck too much?' Stella thought, gulping nervously at the sight of plenty of expensive artwork even in the hall.
"Good. I'll be by regularly to check up on your progress and efficiency," Henley said and spun around on his heel, headed towards one of the sitting rooms to get to the swimming pool out front.
Biting her lip, Stella nodded a few times and curtseyed again. "Uh? yes, Sir."
After spending five minutes getting lost in the huge, bewildering mansion that had more nooks and crannies than the average haunted house in the average fun fair, Stella finally found the right corridor and entered the kitchen.
The kitchen looked like most other kitchens - except that it was huge - but the curious lack of appliances and utensils gave Stella the impression that it was hardly ever used.
Like Henley had said it would be, Stella's work sheet was lying on the table, and she quickly strode over to it and picked it up. As she read it, her face fell further and further down until her jaw hovered just below her belly button.
"Preparing breakfast, fifteen minutes? doing the dishes, ten minutes? ironing, twenty minutes? dusting off, twenty minutes? vacuuming, thirty minutes? preparing lunch, fifteen minutes? dishes, ten minutes? what the hell is this? a labor camp? Sheesh! And he didn't even tell me where any of the damn stuff is!" she said out loud, throwing her hands in the air.
Unbeknownst to Stella, a teenage girl in a black-and-white Rokkstar windbreaker suit was observing her from the doorway to the kitchen. Chewing on an apple, fifteen-year old Nicolle Torrence was the spitting image of her older sister - except that she hadn't yet matured enough to be called beautiful. Stuck in that awkward phase known as adolescence, she could merely be described as pretty, but it was clear that the women in the Torrence family had good genes.
"Hey," she said around a mouthful of apple. "You're new."
Freezing in place, Stella lowered her arms and assumed her obedient expression. "That's right, Miss. I'm Daisy Stella, I'm a temp. Good morning."
The teenager moved over to one of the cabinets and threw the half-eaten apple into the trash. "Hi. I'm Nicolle. The old fuddy-duddy gave you a work sheet, huh? Well, good luck keeping up with his outdated way of thinking. He's a control freak if you ask me."
"Nicolle, don't you have anything better to do than to insult our Father?" Shelley said, standing in the doorway. She was still wearing her tennis outfit but she had gained a towel that she used to dab her forehead.
"No I don't, actually," Nicolle said, thumbing her nose at her older sister.
"Well, go do it someplace else. Go play with your friends on Facebook or something," Shelley said and moved over to sit at a table in the center of the kitchen. "Daisy, I'd like an orange juice," she continued, watching her sister turn around to leave the kitchen.
When Stella kept standing still with a passive look on her face, Shelley cocked her head and sent her a quizzical look, asking what was going on. "I hope you're not waiting for me to say 'please'??" she said out loud.
"No, Miss, I'm waiting for you to tell me where the fridge is," Stella said flatly, already beginning to tire of the arrogant game the two Torrence-sisters were playing.
"It's right over there," Shelley said and pointed at one of the cabinets that all had brushed aluminum covers, making them impossible to identify for the uninitiated.
Grumbling under her breath, Stella went over to it and opened the door. Looking at the shelves, she quickly found a recently opened plastic jug of orange juice. "And the tumblers?"
"In that cabinet there," Shelley said and moved her index finger to the right.
Taking a tumbler, Stella poured orange juice in it and presented it to Shelley. "Here you go, Miss."
"Thank you," Shelley said and took such a tiny little sip that her tastebuds were hardly even touched by the liquid. Once she had put down the tumbler, she looked over her shoulder to see if her sister was eavesdropping. "You're doing a good job so far. Let's hope we'll find that camera soon," she whispered.
Getting up, Shelley dabbed her forehead again and offered Stella a brief smile before leaving for the other half of her tennis lesson.
Stella stared wide-eyed at the glass of orange juice that the elder Torrence-sister had only just nipped at. Grumbling loudly, she considered pouring it back into the plastic jug, but decided on drinking it herself instead so it wouldn't go to waste.
An hour or so later in a small room behind the kitchen, Stella had put up the ironing board and was sorting through a pile of men's shirts. After making sure that Henley Torrence wasn't around, she moved her hand down to the small of her back and found the cell phone she had hidden there in a concealed pocket on the inside of the black slacks.
After dialing their office number, she plugged the electronic iron into the socket while she waited for Regina to pick up the phone.
"It's me, Reggie. Dear God, I'm stuck in the Twilight Zone here!" Stella whispered as she spritzed the first shirt.
'In what way?'
"They're? I mean? they're all? oh, and Mr. Torrence? sheesh! I mean?"
'What are you doing, Stella? You sound weird?'
"I'm ironing one of his shirts! Damn thing probably cost more than my entire wardrobe!"
'Doesn't take much, Stell.'
"Oh, ha flippin' ha! I love my clothes! So there! ?Anyway, this isn't working, Reggie. We need a plan B. The old man is constantly on my case? I went to the bathroom a little while ago and he timed me!"
"Yeah, no kiddin'," Stella said and put the first shirt away. "And he's made me a work sheet as long as King Kong's you-know-what. There's no way I can find that damn camera on my own. Listen? do you think you could come over? I'm? well, I'm kinda lonely here. The Torrence's are way out of my league."
'Well, uh? all right. Give me an hour to think of something.'
"Thanks, Reggie. If you do that for me, I won't ever call you Miss Too-Tall-To-Fit-Through-A-Regular-Door or Miss-Former-Catwalk-Model-Who-Turned-Into-A-Halfway-Decent-Investigator again?"
'Gee, thanks, kiddo. Oh, by the way? what the hell happened to the DVD player? I wanted to watch a movie, but?'
"Uh, yeah. I'll, uh? tell you later," Stella said and moved away from the ironing board.
'Did you get one of your trademark 'ucker' spazz-outs while I was in Copenhagen, Stell?'
"Uh, I might have, yeah?" - sniff - "but it was only a little one." - sniff, sniff - "Hey, what's that smel- OHMYFLIPPINGOD!" Stella suddenly howled, realizing that she had left the hot iron unattended on one of Mr. Torrence's shirts.
Letting go of the cell phone, she yanked the iron away from the shirt, hoping that it wasn't too late - the blackened scorch mark left behind on the formerly pale blue shirt proved that it was.
Moments later, Stella's face went through a sequence of colors; none of them healthy.
Meanwhile, back in the Harrison-Starr office, Regina jumped up from the couch when she heard the cell land on the floor. The gruesome backdrop of Stella screaming her lungs out made her pace back and forth on their plush, gray carpet and think of a Japanese horror movie she had watched where a serial killer had called family members to force them to listen to him dismembering their loves ones.
"Stell? Stella?? Are you okay? Did you scorch one of his shirts?"
'Yessssssss!' Stella's voice said from a million miles away.
"Oh? just stay calm. It was an accident. I'm sure he'll understand."
'I'm sure he'll string me up by my nipples! Man, Reggie, I need you here!'
"And I'm coming? to save the fair maiden in distress," Regina said with a chuckle.
'I'll remember that, Reggie? I'll remember that you chose to make fun of me when I needed you the most, Oh ye Cruel Tormentor Of Short Blondes!'
Laughing out loud, Regina closed her cell and strode over to the conference room to find a suitable disguise for her covert mission of mercy.
Ten minutes later, she had practically emptied out her part of the closet, amassing an amazing pile of clothes that lay strewn all over the large table.
"Okay? police officer won't work? no probable cause. Antenna service won't work either? they've probably got a satellite dish or cable. Catering won't work either? hmmm," she mumbled to herself.
Walking around the table, Regina chewed on a fingernail and scrunched up her face - mindful that she didn't aggravate the lines around her eyes that had recently begun to run deeper.
"Decorator? no. Painter? no. Plumber? no. Window cleaner? no, they'd probably make me start outside," she continued, eyeing the various garments on display.
"Hmmm, plumber? how about- Oh! There's my silk shirt! I was wondering where that had gone to!" she said out loud, snatching a very fancy, black silk shirt that she had thought was lost forever. Holding the shirt up in front of her, she quickly moved over to the portable mirror and began to pose, imagining herself wearing the shirt that was such a perfect match to her perfect hair.
After a short while, she shook herself out of her reverie and hung the shirt into the closet. "No, I can't lose focus now. Stella needs me. Come on, Regina? think. What was it I was trying to get at with the plumber outfit??"
When she heard a seagull screech outside the office, she punched the air in delight and snatched the pale brown boiler suit. "Pest control!" she said out loud and hurriedly began to assemble the accessories she'd need.
A short while later, Carly Slaughter, the Bug Stomper - aka Regina Harrison in a boiler suit, a black Megadeth t-shirt, army boots, black gloves, mirror shades and a baseball cap with the words 'You Got It, We Kill It' printed around the crown and 'Live To Kill' printed on the shade - walked into Billy the Mechanic's garage and let out a strong whistle.
The clueless, but lovable, mechanic soon came out of his small office at the back of the garage, trying to wipe his hands on an old, oily rag that was even filthier than his hands were.
As usual, Billy was dressed in a horrendously filthy canary yellow cover-all that had been zipped halfway down, revealing that he was wearing an even more horrendously filthy white t-shirt underneath. "Uh, yeah??" he said the second he saw the Bug Stomper standing in his garage leaning against one of the hydraulic lifts.
"Pest control. Ya got anything ya wanna get rid of?" Regina said in a voice an octave lower than her own, already rich timbre.
"Uh? buh?" Billy said, looking over his shoulder to see if there happened to be someone behind him the strange person could be talking to.
Raising her mirror shades, Regina sent Billy a wink. "Psst, Billy, it's me? Regina."
"Oh? are you working?" Billy said, scratching his ear with a screwdriver that he had found in his pocket.
"Yep. I need your help? friend." - Regina looked Billy straight in the eye, hoping that her magnetism would stun him into giving her what she needed - "Would you mind if I borrowed your delivery van for a couple of hours??"
"My van?? Uh? all my tools are in it, actua-"
Clapping her gloved hands together, Regina took a step closer to the mechanic. "Oh, but that's why I want to borrow it," she said in a sing-song voice. "You see, my friend Stella? well, she's a bit clumsy, I'm sure you know that-"
"She don't seem particularly clumsy to me," Billy said, trying - and failing - to put the screwdriver back in his pocket. Instead of going down the filthy hole, it missed the entrance and fell noisily onto the concrete floor. Grumbling, he bent down to retrieve it.
"Hmmm, well. ANYway, she needs my help with something and I thought that I could borrow your van?? You know, just for a couple of hours. Whaddaya say, Billy? Pleeeeeease?" Regina said in a voice so sugary that it really needed a Health and Safety Warning.
Blushing fire engine red, Billy stuffed his hands into his pockets and shuffled back and forth on the spot. "Aw shucks, Miss Harrison, you know I can't say no to a ba-yutiful woman like you?"
"If you throw in a date on Saturday, it's all yours," he said, looking at her with an expectant gleam in his eye.
A myriad of thoughts raced through Regina's mind - mostly variations of 'no', 'get lost!' or 'are you out of yer flippin' skull you big sack of hormones?' - but in the end, the thought of Stella needing her help as soon as possible prevailed, and she sighed and nodded. "Pick you up at eight?"
"Ooookay. I'll be waiting, Miss Harrison. Since it's you, I'll even shower. Who knows what we might end up doing," Billy said, smiling so broadly that his chewing teeth were showing.
Blinking a couple of times, Regina tried to push that thought to the back of her mind. "Wow, that's very considerate of you, Billy. Very." - 'I better put on my cast iron chastity belt?' - "Now? the keys for the van, please?"
"They're hanging on the key-board? get it? Keyboard, hee-hee," Billy said, grinning from ear to ear.
"You're a laugh a minute, you know that, Billy?" Regina mumbled on her way over to the work bench to get the keys so she could get the hell out of there.
The best part of an hour later, Regina drove into the gravelly parking lot at the back of the Torrence mansion and parked the white Ford van directly at the back entrance.
Craning her neck, she tried to see if Stella had spotted her yet, but when it didn't seem to be the case, she honked the horn, hoping that it would catch someone's attention.
What she hadn't counted on was that Billy had modified the horn - or rather, that he had installed a compressor horn that played the first forty notes of Battle Hymn Of The Republic at maximum volume? and that it couldn't be stopped until it had played itself out.
The old hymn blasted through the back court of the mansion, echoing between the garages and the mansion and creating such a merciless, infernal racket that it threatened to blow out every single window in the vicinity.
Even before the wall of noise had died down fully, the mansion's back door was thrown open presenting an irate Stella who came storming out holding a frying pan, ready to bash in the head of the person responsible for the fanfare.
"WILL YOU STOP THAT? THAT? THAT? GODAWFUL NOISE! MR. TORRENCE IS TAKING A NAP!" she roared, swinging the frying pan like it was a tennis racquet.
"Tuck him in and kiss him nighty-night yourself, did ya?" Regina said in her put-upon deep voice as she stepped out of the van.
When Stella realized who the mysterious guest was, she hid the frying pan behind her back but kept the gruff look on her face. "Oh, don't you start! Hi, Reggie. I'm glad to see you? sorta? but where on Earth did you get those wheels?"
"At Billy's," Regina said and opened one of the rear doors. Looking inside, she carefully studied the various tools before grabbing a red metal toolbox that seemed right for the job without being too heavy.
As Stella walked around the Ford van, she glanced at the sorry state of the once-proud vehicle, wondering how the usually fairly snobbish Regina could put up with the rust around all four wheel arches, the mismatched hubcaps, the broken right-hand side mirror, the thirty-inch long crack in the windshield, the huge dent in the hood, the rag doubling as the fuel cap, and last - but not least - the fact that the tail pipe of the exhaust had been tied to the bottom of the van with a piece of string. "Oh? that explains it. Great costume, by the way."
"Thanks. So, what's the deal here?" Regina said and pushed her mirror shades up her nose.
"Oh man, you won't believe the chewin' out I got for scorching that shirt?!" Stella said and rolled her eyes. "I mean, it was only one shirt? he was lucky, I coulda burned down the whole place. But that didn't seem to appease him."
"I wonder why?? One day, you'll learn the importance of clothing, Stell."
Spinning around, Stella squinted severely and pointed the frying pan at Regina. "Don't. You. Start," she growled, sounding very much like she meant it.
"I'm not! I'm not! Sheesh!"
Once inside the kitchen, Regina put the toolbox down on the floor and pushed her mirror shades up her nose. "So? how far did you get? Where have you looked? And where do you want me to start?"
"I haven't had much time to look anywhere at all, Reggie," Stella said as she fixed the frying pan to a hook on the wall. Back at the kitchen table, she picked up a large knife and resumed chopping cucumbers for the forthcoming lunch. "I doubt it would be in any of the sitting rooms, nor the dining room. My best guess is the study or the library? they're both on the first floor. Or possibly the smoking room which he doesn't actually use for smok-"
"Hey, who are you?" a fair, female voice said behind them.
Turning around, Regina went into character at once and put out her hand. "Hiya, I'm Carly Slaughter a-k-a the Bug Stomper, licensed pest eliminator. Pleased to meet ya. And you are?"
"Nicolle Torrence? I live here!" Nicolle said indignantly, folding down the hood on her Rokkstar windbreaker. "Daisy, when's lunch ready? I'm starving."
"Not quite yet, Miss Torrence. We had a little problem with the-"
"Would ya mind nuking me a cheese sandwich or something? I don't want any of that cucumber shit," Nicolle said, unzipping her windbreaker to reveal that she was wearing a tight, purple spaghetti-strap tank top that made both Regina and Stella stop and stare.
Leaning in towards Regina, Stella whispered out of the corner of her mouth: "She's in the rebellious phase."
"I'll bet," Regina replied in a matching whisper.
"Uh, sure, Miss Torrence. One nuked cheese special comin' right up," Stella said out loud, taking two slices of bread and a slice of pre-fabricated cheese. Once she had slapped the three items together, she took a plate and put everything into the microwave.
Knowing that she had to get on with it before her presence would get suspicious, Regina picked up her toolbox and turned towards the young woman. "Excuse me? Nicolle, was it?"
"How can I get to your attic? Someone has called in a rat problem."
"Oh, God! Ewwwwww! Rats?! Here?!" Nicolle said and jumped up on tip-toes.
Regina glanced at Stella and noticed that she was clenching her lips together to stop herself from breaking out into a laugh. "Not here in the kitchen. Up in the attic. But whoever called it in said they were large and fat? and that they were humping so much that they doubled their number every two weeks. Now, if I can get to Momma Rat and crush her spine and cranium before she and Daddy Rat can go at it again, I might have a chance at stoppin' the infestation. I have the crushing tool right here in my 'box. It's called a neck-breaker. Wanna see it?"
The teenager's complexion grew quite a lot paler than what it usually was, and she spun around and pointed at the hall. "Th-the staircase out in the hall? y-you can't miss it. It's wide and round and it goes up! Up to the attic!"
"Thanks," Regina said and moved in the direction Nicolle was pointing. "Oh, d'ya want me to bring you the crushed corpse so you can see for yourself that-"
"Just checkin'," Regina said and moved out of sight.
When the microwave oven produced an electronic ding, Stella took out the plate and put the steaming cheese sandwich down on the kitchen table. "It's ready, Miss Torrence," she said with a smile.
After taking one look at the bubbling, melted cheese that was oozing out from between the two slices of bread, Nicolle clamped her hand over her mouth and stormed out of the kitchen.
"Awww, the kids today," Stella said with a throaty chuckle.
Some time later, Stella closed her cell after giving Regina a status report. "Hmmm? this is turning out to be one of *those* cases?" she mumbled under her breath as she slowly turned around to take in all the sights of Henley Torrence's impressive library.
The room was smaller than most of the others on the second floor, but three of the four walls were covered in bookshelves that stretched from the red and black oriental carpet and up to the stucco-clad ceiling. The fourth wall was dominated by the window to the park, a mahogany desk and a very old armchair that looked like it had been made in the early part of the twentieth century. On the desk, a silver picture frame was prominently placed, showing Henley Torrence with an African-American woman half his age who Stella presumed was his wife.
Next to the armchair, a colorful, intricately detailed and very, very expensive-looking three-foot tall porcelain statue of two children playing with a kite had been placed on a pedestal that seemed too small for the tall and somewhat cumbersome piece.
Most of the books were hefty, leather-clad tomes, but one or two were newer. Scratching her forehead with the butt of her feather duster - the work sheet called for her to do a thorough dusting off and vacuuming of the entire first floor before the afternoon coffee - Stella began to look closer at the spines just in case some of them were fakes.
After checking the first fifty books and finding that they were all very real, very expensive and very dusty, Stella gave up searching for the camera and started doing what she was supposed to.
As she moved through the room dusting off everything she could reach, she began to hum one of Joan of Rock's old songs. After the intense disappointment she had suffered had faded away - she had discovered that even a rock star was human - she had begun to seek out some of the songs from Joan's legendary, award-winning debut album.
Humming stronger, Stella performed a pirouette and pretended that the feather duster was an electric guitar. The single pirouette turned into two and then three; each one taking her closer and closer to the porcelain statue of the two children.
Suddenly realizing what was happening and what was going to happen if she didn't stop on a dime, Stella drew a sharp breath and came to a screeching halt that made the oriental carpet crease and push at the pedestal.
Upset by the sudden motion, the pedestal went into a wobble that quickly transferred upwards into the statue - and almost at once, the two items began to list and then tilt.
Feeling all the blood drain from her face, Stella let out a primal scream and went into a forward swan dive that wouldn't have looked out of place in a Tarzan-movie. After flying through the air with all the grace of a Mack RS dump truck, she landed with a heavy bump that tore the glasses off her face.
Blind as a mole, she spun around onto her back and stretched out her arms, hoping that at least part of her would catch the statue before it made an unpleasant connection with the floor. A split second later, the statue fell down on top of her, landing with a soft phlum instead of a hard knock, but poking her stomach and breasts quite badly with all its various appendages and thingamabobs.
As the pain registered, Stella's face contorted into a mask of pain and she let out a heartfelt "OOOOOOOOEI!" that eventually died down into a faint whisper.
Belying its fragile appearance, the statue was quite heavy, and it wasn't long before Stella discovered that she wouldn't be able to get up on her own, especially not without her glasses. "Oh? this is just too much fun? I'm dyin' here! And the damn thing weighs a ton and my poor boobs are gonna be flattened to pancakes and? aw, hell! Oh, where is Reggie when I need her??"
At the same time, Regina was prowling the rooms in the attic searching for anything but rats, spiders, cockroaches or any other kind of vermin. She had been through four of the seven rooms already, but all she had found was a long line of cardboard boxes that were covered in far too much dust to have been opened anywhere in the last ten years.
Standing in the fifth room and looking at even more cardboard boxes, she "Hmmm"-ed to herself as she came to the conclusion that the camera wasn't in the attic.
Just as she was about to leave the attic to look for Stella, a flash of something bright and shiny caught her attention. Partially hidden behind three cardboard boxes that had been placed like a bridge, it looked like it was some sort of plastic casing inside a paper bag.
Her curiosity piqued, Regina began to move closer to the mysterious object. To get near it meant that she had to crawl on all four to get under the cardboard box on top of the 'bridge', but the excitement overpowered her pride and she quickly got down on her hands and knees and began to inch forward.
Craning her neck, she could see that it was a paper bag from Peterson's Home Electronics and that it looked fairly new - no cobwebs anywhere.
As she crawled under the cardboard box, she reached out with her long arm and snatched the paper bag. Looking into it, she could see that it was a video camera of some kind. "Yeah! Reggie Harrison scores! I. Still. Got. It. Yeah, baby! First of all, I want to thank the members of the Academy?" she said, pumping her fist in the air without thinking about the narrow space she was in.
When her elbow thumped into the cardboard box to the right of her and moved it a couple of inches from its original position, there was a brief moment in time where the box above her just seemed to hover in the air.
Then it came crashing down on top of her, splitting at the seams and burying her under a huge pile of old photos, albums, hand-held viewers and even parts of a camera tripod from the turn of the century - the *last* century.
"OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH! STELL! MODEL IN TROUBLE!" Regina howled, wiggling about frantically to worm her way out of the pile before it would attract any of the vermin she was sent there to find.
In the middle of it all, her baseball cap was knocked off and her hair cascaded out onto the dusty photos, immediately turning gray at the ends. "Oh, no? oh, God, no? I've got gray hair?! I GOT GRAY HA-? oh, it's the dust? thank God?.! Ohhhhh, where is Stella when I need her??"
Meanwhile downstairs, Stella had finally figured out a way to get herself out of the sticky situation. By holding the statue to her chest in a firm yet gentle grip and rolling over onto her side, she was able to let it down onto the oriental carpet with a minimum of drama.
Once the statue was secure on the carpet, she jumped up to sit on her thighs, breathing a sigh of relief. "And now for the next problem? where the flying flip my glasses went. And where is Reggie, dammit?!"
Suddenly remembering the cell phone she had in the small pocket on her back, she reached behind her, grabbed it and flipped it open. Quickly dialing Regina's number, she put the phone to her ear and waited for the former model to pick it up.
'It's Regina? where are you? I need your help!'
"Where the hell are you? I need your help!" Stella growled, trying to find her glasses by dabbing her hand all along the edge of the carpet.
'I'm pinned down up here in the attic! But I've found the camera? I think. I've definitely found *a* camera. Uh, would you mind coming up here? I need a hand to get out.'
"I can't! I've lost my glasses! I so very nearly had a monumental accident down here that would have ruined everything I have worked so hard for and I called for you and you didn't come and I was gettin' kinda angry with everything and I had this Godawfully heavy statue trying to push my boobs back into my chest and they're not too big to begin with and I didn't need that aggravation and-"
'Calm down, Stell! You're talking so fast I can't hear what you're saying?'
"Lemme spell it out for you! I've lost my glasses and I'm getting pretty close to being flip-flop-flyin' annnnngry!" Stella barked into the cell, rubbing her aching chest.
'I'll bet your glasses are right in front of you? they always are. Uh, when you're done down there, wouldya mind coming up here to rescue me? I can't get out on my own, actually?'
Sighing deeply, Stella nodded into the telephone even though she knew Regina wouldn't be able to see it. "All right. I'll come as soon as I can."
"Don't thank me yet, it may take the entire day and night to find my glasses," Stella said and closed the phone before Regina could make a comeback. "Ha, pinned down in the attic? that's probably model-speak for having a dust bunny fall on her or something?" she continued as she kept on dabbing the carpet.
"Ohhhh, yeah, I know what's" - dab, dab - "happened. She's found" - dab, dab - "a box of old fashion" - dab, dab - "magazines and now" - dab, dab - "she's busy leafin' through them." - dab, dab - "Yeah. Of course." - dab, dab - "I'll bet she's even found" - dab, dab - "an old photo of" - dab, dab - "herself and now she's" - dab, dab - "droooooling over how good she" - dab, dab - "used to look back then! Ha!" - dab, dab, da? THUMP!
"Aw hell!" Stella growled in frustration, having whacked her fingers against one of the desk's legs.
"Okay, where's the damn statue? there. Reggie said that my glasses were always right in front of me, so if I move ahead here, I should?" - dab, dab, dab, dab? dab, dab, dab, dab - "Ha! Gotcha!" she exclaimed when she finally felt the familiar touch of the metal frame.
After wiping down the lenses and pushing the glasses up her nose, Stella quickly got the pedestal upright and the statue moved back on top of it. Jumping to her feet, she tip-toed away from the statue so she couldn't possibly cause more dramas.
Once she reached the door, she turned around and threw the statue of the two children playing with a kite a hand gesture that didn't leave room for misinterpretation.
Two minutes later, Stella arrived at the landing at the top of the large staircase. There were doors to her left and to her right, but the one on the right was closed and seemingly locked - the one on her left was ajar.
Standing in the opened door, she peeked at the inside of the attic. Everything looked like any other attic she had ever been in, except that Regina's toolbox had been left in the middle of a pathway that curved around the unused chimney.
"Yoo-hoo, Reggie?" she said quietly so she wouldn't attract unwanted attention to herself. When she didn't get a reply, she moved into the attic, walking very carefully in case the old floorboards were rotten.
As she reached the toolbox, she stopped to listen for any unusual sounds, but couldn't hear anything at all. "Yoo-hoo? Reggie? Reggie?"
"Hmmm? where could she be?" she said, continuing past the toolbox and the unused chimney. The pathway eventually turned right and doubled back on itself, leading to a narrow corridor with seven doors; three on each side and one at the far end. On the dusty floor, Regina's bootprints were quite visible, moving from the first room to the next and so on until they stopped outside the third and last room on the left side of the corridor.
"Reggie?" Stella whispered as she crept closer. "Reggieeeeeeee?"
A sudden thump followed by an otherworldly moan made Stella's nape hairs stand on edge, and she froze in place, standing with her right foot suspended in the air. Slowly hopping around in a circle while scanning her surroundings, her skin began to crawl from thinking about the ghosts, ghouls, specters, monsters, demented axe murderers, mummies and assorted other freaks and creepy-crawlies that always lived in such a dusty, old attic.
"R-e-g-g-i-e??" she squeaked, trying to keep her teeth from chattering.
'Uhhh? Stell? Stell? *Cough, cough*'
"Reggie! Where are you?"
"Oh!" Stella said and hurried over to the door where the bootprints stopped. "Shoot, Reggie, I was so worried about you. I thought you'd been cut up into little pieces and cooked with onions and leeks and potatoes and spaghetti like a human minestrone soup and? what in THE WORLD?!"
Regina was sitting with her back against one of the walls, having long since managed to wiggle free from the cardboard box and the photos that had fallen on top of her. When she had tried to clean up a bit, she had found several old college yearbooks that she was leafing through with great pleasure.
"Hi, Stell. Wow, look at these hairstyles? this is from 1962, but that one is still hot," she said, pointing at a black-and-white photo of a young woman. "And that one? and that one. Oh, not that one. That wasn't even hot back then."
"Regina Harrison?" Stella said in a voice that sounded like it came straight from the seventh level of hell. "You? we? I? you? yearbooks?!"
"Yeah, they're so great. I see you found your glasses, huh? Well, I found the camera. It's in that paper bag there, Stell," Regina said and pointed at the bag from Peterson's Home Electronics.
Growling, Stella picked up the paper bag and pulled out the camera. After giving it a brief check, she rolled her eyes and pushed it back down the paper bag. "Well. Nice work, Reggie. This ain't it. This is someone's birthday present? look, the card is still attached. 'Sweet Sixteen, Nicolle. Daddy.'"
'Miss Stella! Where are you and why aren't you dusting off?' Henley Torrence's stentorian voice suddenly boomed from the staircase, causing Stella to roll her eyes again.
"Man, he's gonna be the end of me," she said as she spun around. Before she left the room, she pointed her index finger at Regina. "And you, Miss Harrison? find that camera," she commanded in a strong voice.
"What's the magic word?"
"Miss Stella, where have you been?" Henley Torrence said as Stella descended the staircase. He had changed into a smart, gray business suit over a black shirt since Stella had seen him last, and he was holding a folded-up Daily Bugle newspaper under his arm.
"I thought I heard a strange noise from the attic, Sir."
"Well, did you find anything?"
"In that case, you didn't hear a noise from the attic."
"Uh? yes, Sir," Stella said, scrunching up her face at the man's attitude. Just to be on the safe side, she quickly curtseyed to show her obedience.
"Hmmm. Have you finished dusting off the library?"
"All right. I better check. I want coffee served in the study in ten minutes, Miss Stella. Two regular chocolate muffins, not that sugarfree nonsense my wife prefers," Henley said and opened the door to his study.
Feeling the muscles in her gut clench and unclench and her upper lip twitch involuntarily, Stella knew it was best to keep her mouth shut - so she did. When Henley turned towards her wondering why she hadn't responded, she curtseyed again with the fakest smile she had ever worn glued onto her lips.
"Hmmm," Henley said, moving into his study.
As soon as she was alone, the smile melted off Stella's face, replaced by a horribly grotesque grimace that gave a pretty good indication of what she felt deep inside.
After closing the last yearbook - 1974 - and laughing at the outrageous mops, muttons and haystacks people called hair in those days, Regina thought she'd better do something useful, so she packed her toolbox and sneaked down the staircase. As she went past the first floor, she thought she could hear Stella grumbling somewhere, but she didn't stop to check.
The large, stately, staircase didn't go all the way down to the basement, but a door with a sign that said 'Door to basement' gave her a clue where to go.
The second staircase was much steeper and unlit, and she had to walk very carefully so she wouldn't miss one of the narrow steps. Looking up, she could see the outline of a naked lightbulb hanging on a chain from the low ceiling, but there didn't appear to be a switch anywhere.
Once she reached solid ground, she could see that she was in a corridor not unlike the one in the attic. There were four rooms in the basement; two on either side of the central pathway. The first three rooms were empty but the last one provided the jackpot.
After pulling a fairly heavy slider lock, Regina peeked inside and began to run her fingers along the wall to find a switch. When she touched a smooth, slippery fabric that felt strangely familiar to her, she furrowed her brow and went in close to see what it was.
"Hmmm? leather. But it's a concrete floor," she mumbled, tapping the tip of her boot on the floor. "What would they need leather for? oh? and chains," she continued, feeling further along the wall.
When she finally found the light switch, she clicked it on and turned around with a triumphant chuckle on her lips. A split second later, the chuckle got stuck in her throat as she found herself face to face with a dentist's chair equipped with braces on the armrests. Next to the chair, a table was laden with leather outfits, silver chains and various other doodads and thingamajigs - and in front of it all, a video camera stood on a tripod ready to record whatever show was scheduled to occur in the chair.
"Oh?!" she said, hurrying over to the camera. Suddenly realizing that they had never been told which brand Shelley Torrence's camera was, she slapped her forehead - mindful not to knock the baseball cap off again; she had spent seven minutes trying to get her hair back in a bun so it would fit under the cap.
"Well? in my years touring the world, I've seen a lot of stuff? but never anything quite like this," she mumbled, picking up a dog collar with silver studs. "No wonder Shelley is afraid of her Daddy watching that video? holy cow, is he in for a surprise if he ever sees this?"
After clicking off the lights, Regina began to move back out of the room when she stopped and began to connect the dots in her mind. "Wait a minute, the upper door to the basement wasn't locked? everybody could come down here? the slider lock on the inner door was too heavy for the kid sister, but not for Shelley? or her Dad? which means that he'll most likely already know about this? Oh, Good Heavens, if she really is that nervous about her father watching the video, the contents must be bone-rattlingly, mind-blowingly, soul-shatteringly kinky!"
"Your coffee, Sir," Stella said as she placed a tray with a cup of coffee and a side plate with two chocolate muffins on a low table in Henley Torrence's study.
Not even bothering to look up, Henley just snatched the first muffin off the plate and took a large bite out of it. "Mmmm," he said without taking his eyes off the newspaper.
Out of sight of the man, Stella rolled her eyes repeatedly, eager to finally see the back of the day and her many, time-consuming chores.
Looking around the study, she cast an experienced eye at the couch arrangement where Henley was sitting, at the dark gray carpet on the floor; at the three metal filing cabinets that all had a flower pot on top; at the futuristic desk made of glass and metal and at the closed laptop on it; at the four large bookcases that stretched from the floor to the ceiling - all except one containing color coded ring binders - and at a low sideboard next to the couch where someone had tried to break up the utilitarian monotony by covering it with a hand-woven decorative rug in a tribal design.
Suddenly Stella felt her sixth sense poke her in the ribs, asking her to turn around and look at the third of the four bookcases. When she did, she quickly spotted a video camera on the fourth shelf from the floor.
Narrowing her eyes, she glanced back at Henley who had eaten the first muffin and was busy chomping on the second. Glancing ahead again, she calculated that she wouldn't be able to get to the camera and conceal it before her task master would notice. 'Hmmm? time for Reggie to pull one of her famed diversions, I think,' she thought, chewing on her bottom lip.
As he turned the page in the broadsheet, Henley noticed for the first time that his housemaid hadn't yet left his study. "Miss Stella, why are you still here? Don't you have work to do?"
"Yes, Sir, I have to vacuum the halls now. All ten miles of them. And I have thirty minutes to do it in," Stella said, adding a fair amount of bitter sarcasm in her voice.
If Henley Torrence picked up on it, he didn't let it show. "Mmmm. That's what you're here for. Once I've finished my coffee, I'll check up on you. Then you can take the tray back down to the kitchen and begin to prepare dinner for myself, my daughters and my wife."
"Yessir, Mr. Torrence, Sir!" Stella hissed through clenched teeth.
"Of all the pig-headed?" - grumble - "stubborn, ungrateful," - grumble - "aloof, arrogant? ugh!?" - grumble! - "this guy is the worst! The worst!" Stella growled to herself as she vacuumed the hall on the second floor, hoping that the whining sound of the vacuum cleaner would hide those emanating from herself.
Working off her pent-up frustrations, Stella resorted to using excessive force on the upright vacuum cleaner, pressing so hard down onto the plush carpet that the mouthpiece carved deep furrows into it. "It's just so damn typical that I get all the crappy assignments? why can't I get-"
"-one of the five-star jobs for once? Why does it always have to be me, the dumb little blon- ?huh?"
"Reggie, where are you?" Stella said, turning off the vacuum cleaner.
'In here, the second door on your right!'
Shaking her head in disbelief, Stella walked over to the second door on her right and peeked inside. "What is it, Reggie? more yearbooks?"
The former model and Queen of the Catwalks had found herself a safari chair that she sat on in the middle of a room that appeared to be used as a boxroom. Cardboard boxes were piled up three- or even four-high all around her; some labeled 'Fragile' and some not.
"Yeah, I wish. No, I just wanted to give you a status report," Regina said and put away an old book that she had found in one of the boxes.
"Why didn't you call me?"
"Well, I tried, but you couldn't hear me. And since we were on the same floor anyhow?" Regina said with a shrug.
Wiping some sweat off her brow, Stella pushed Regina off the safari chair and sat down herself to catch her breath. "Well, you don't have to look for the camera anymore, Reggie. I'm almost one-hundred percent positive I've found it. It's down in the study? just below this room, actually."
"Oh, okay? hey, you'll never guess what I found down in the basement, Stell."
"Gee, I don't know? Jimmy Hoffa's tomb? Elvis Presley's dentures? James Dean's ducktail?"
"No, silly. I found a 'hobby room'!" Regina underscored the words by adding quotation marks in the air with her fingers.
Leaning in, Regina told the nature of her discovery in a strong stage whisper: "Whips, leather, chains, more leather, more chains? and get this, a dentist's chair! With manacles!"
"Oh. Well, to each their own."
"And a camera on a tripod, pointing at the dentist's chair," Regina said with a beaming smile.
Rubbing her face, Stella shook her head and let out an amused chuckle. "Uh-huh?? Oh those rich people? they think they're so far above the rest of us, but when the oak leaves are removed, they're twice as bad as we are!"
"So," Stella said, counting on her fingers. "All we have to do is to get the camera in the study, get the camera in the hobby room, get Shelley to check which one is hers? and go back to our own, cozy little world where no one ever yells at anyone?"
"Uh, weeeellll, actua-"
"Right?" Stella said strongly.
"Right. So there! And now I need you to perform a diversion."
'Miss Stella? Why aren't you vacuuming?' Henley Torrence said from somewhere out on the staircase.
Punching her fist into her open palm, Stella shot up from the safari chair and ran over to the door. "I had to change the dustbag, Sir!"
'It's a cyclone, Miss Stella.'
"Oh? that explains why I couldn't get it to release!" Turning to Regina, Stella pointed a strong, unwavering index finger at the tall, former model. "Diversion. Now. Not in five minutes. Now."
"Yes, Ma'am!" Regina said and saluted Stella.
While Stella was vacuuming the carpet so hard that it left tracks, Regina tip-toed down the staircase to the hobby room to get the camera, racking her brain to come up with a diversion on the fly.
Three minutes later, the Torrence mansion was rattled to the core by a near-apocalyptic event - or rather, a sequence of events that ensured that the Torrences would have plenty to talk about for Christmas dinners to come.
Just as Stella was moving the vacuum cleaner from one electrical socket to the next, her cell phone began to ring. Quickly taking it, she flipped it open and held it to her ear. "Yeah?"
'It's me. I got a good one. Stand by for action in six? five? four?!'
"Standing by, Reggie," Stella said with a chuckle.
Moments later, a piercing, skin-crawling scream was heard from the basement. 'HAAAAAAA! RATS! THEY'RE ALL OVER ME! RATS! OH GOD, THERE MUST BE THOUSANDS OF RATS!'
Closing her cell, Stella grinned broadly and went into action. Moving quickly - too quickly - she jumped around the vacuum cleaner, intending to race down the staircase to get the camera in the study as soon as Henley Torrence left to investigate the screams.
Instead, her foot snagged on the cord and she found herself furiously flapping her arms to stop herself from tumbling down the entire length of the staircase. "Oh?! Oh?! Oh! Oh!-"
Suspended in mid-air for at least a handful of seconds, Stella finally came back down to the ground, landing with a hard thump on the carpet. "-Ohhhhhhhhhhh!"
Only thinking about protecting her vital bits, her glasses predictably went bye-bye over the edge and down the stairs - and if that wasn't enough, her water-combed locks gave up the ghost and reverted to their natural wild, haystack-like appearance.
"If I had known then what I know now," Stella said in a very resigned voice, spitting out a mouthful of dust bunnies from the overturned vacuum cleaner, "I wouldn't have said yes to this gig for fifty thousand flippin' dollars!"
On the floor below her, the door to the study was opened, and soon after, Henley Torrence's characteristic voice could be heard saying: 'Miss Stella, go down and find out who that was and what's wrong with her.'
Not quite believing her own ears, Stella's jaw fell down on the carpet where it landed with a soft phlum. "I beg your pardon, Sir? you're a big guy? I'm just a little woman? whoever that was said that there were thousands of rats down there? surely you can't except me to-"
'Isn't that what your paid to do, Miss Stella? Of course, if you're not happy working here, there are plenty of other young women who would be.'
After staring blankly into space for a few moments, Stella's temper finally got the better of her and she went into a spit-flying, fist-thumping, carpet-chomping, skipping, hopping, dancing, roaring, yelling, kicking *and* screaming hissy fit where she shouted every single one of her favorite '?ucker' words and even came up with a few new, very inventive ones.
As the raging fire slowly burned out and left her system, she sighed deeply and ran a hand through her wild hair. Once again blind as a bat, she climbed to her feet and began to dust off her disguise. Knowing that she needed to find her glasses before she could go ahead with the rest of the plan - provided that it hadn't already been shot to pieces - she moved towards a dark shadow that had appeared in front of her.
The next thing she knew was that she bumped nose-first into something resembling an oak tree. Staggering backwards, she was about to let rip again when she realized that the oak tree had felt somewhat human. "Reggie?"
"No, Miss Stella? Your employer. Or rather, your ex-employer. Here's your glasses," Henley Torrence said, grabbed Stella's right hand and put the frame into it.
"Uh? thanks," Stella said as she pushed the glasses up the bridge of her nose.
"You have five minutes to pack your belongings and leave," Henley said, spun around and walked back down the stairs.
Beaming like a little sun, Stella didn't even wait for the man to get out of earshot before she let out a resounding Whooooop! and performed a happy boogie-woogie right there on the landing.
Four minutes and forty-seven seconds later, Stella met Reggie outside the mansion and pulled her into a warm hug. "Oh, Reggie, I'm so happy! We've lost the four grand from Shelley but I don't give a flying fig!"
Scratching her hairline, Regina looked left and right, almost like she was worried that someone was about to come for Stella with a straitjacket. "Uh? I don't know if we've lost the four grand."
"Sure we have, we didn't get the camera," Stella said and wrapped her arm around the former model's waist on their way over to Billy's white Ford van.
After looking back at the mansion, Regina leaned in towards her friend and held up two small, blue plastic items roughly the size of a credit card. "Well, no, but while you were packing your stuff, I snuck past Mr. Torrence and got the memory card from the camera in the study. Here."
"Oh? but? where's the other one from?"
"The other is from the camera in the basement."
"Oh? oh, you sneaky one, you! Hell-lo, you actually do have a brain inside that good-lookin' noggin of yours, eh?" Stella said and punched Regina's shoulder.
"So you're saying I still got it? Anyway, I figured it was the next best thing," Regina said, opened the passenger side door and helped Stella up into the van. "One of those two cameras must be Shelley's, right? So if we call her and get her to check the contents of the memory cards, we can still pocket the four grand," Regina continued.
"Excellent stuff, Reggie! I'll do that at once."
A brief while later, the two white vehicles - the Ford van and Shelley's Audi Q7 - were parked side by side in a parking lot at a fast food restaurant.
"I have the camera? do you have the memory cards?" Shelley said the second she stepped up into the van's work area holding her camera.
"We have 'em," Stella said and closed the sliding door to get some privacy.
Regina took the camera Shelley gave her and efficiently inserted the first memory card. "All right, Miss Torrence, is this your recording?" she said and pressed Play.
Soon, the small display came alive showing a scene from the basement where two people - a man and a woman - were engaged in something that could best be described as a game of punishment. The woman was wearing a Dominatrix outfit made of black leather and silvery studs, and the man was dressed in a colorful schoolboy's uniform complete with a beanie hat equipped with a little propeller on top.
One second later, Shelley Torrence's eyes rolled back in her head and she fainted on the spot, keeling over bonelessly.
"Oooooh!" Stella howled and jumped up from the toolbox she had been sitting on. Not a stranger to falling down by any stretch of the imagination, she caught Shelley at the last moment before the young lady would have stained her nice dress on the many circumspect oily leftovers on the floor of the van.
Struggling to keep the young woman upright, Stella turned to look at the display on the camera, not quite believing her eyes when she realized that the two people going through what could be called foreplay were Henley Torrence and the woman she had seen a picture of in a silver frame in the library. "Turn it off, Reggie! Turn it off before I lose the hand-me-down nuked cheese sandwich I had for lunch!"
"All right, all right," Regina said and pressed Stop. "So? her Dad and some lady who's probably his wife go at it in the basement? but what's on the second memory card, then? Man, it must be horrible? wanna watch?" Regina said and quickly swapped the memory cards.
After having deposited Shelley on the only clean spot in the entire van, Stella dusted off her hands and turned back towards Regina. "Oh, Reggie? is that safe? I mean, we could be looking at all kinds of perver-"
Regina had already pressed Play, and as the camera came alive, it simply showed a picture of two people sitting on a couch - Shelley and a young Caucasian man dressed in a loud t-shirt and cargo pants who was very obviously from a different social class altogether. The sound was too low to hear what was said, but Regina quickly turned up the volume.
At first, Shelley did the talking: '-believe that under our current President, our country is in a far worse condition than it was under the previous government. Look at the state budget deficit, look at the outrageous subsidiaries given to those quasi-religious environmental agencies, look at the proposed tax increases for those of us who create the jobs, for Heaven's sake. There's no doubt in my mind that the current President has performed very, very poorly, and the sooner we can get someone who truly understands what America and the Americans need back into the White House, the better,' she said loud and clear and in hi-def.
"What in the world is that? A political speech? When was that recorded?" Stella said, mashing her nose up against the display to see the miniature recording date in the bottom right corner of the screen. "Last week! What in THE WORLD?!"
Narrowing her eyes, Regina first looked at Shelley Torrence and then at the display. "Stell, what's wrong with this picture?"
"Boy, you said it, Reggie! Ugh! Ugh-ugh-ugh-ugh-UGH! Now I don't even want the four grand! UGH!"
"? but why wouldn't she want her Dad to see that? I don't get it," Regina said with a shrug.
The recording continued with the young man clearing his throat and leaning forward. 'Well, Shelley, you have every right to feel that way? my opinions differ, as you know. I believe that the current President has brought a lot of good things to the land and the people, especially by running a positive campaign instead of resorting to slander and nasty rumors like the others did.'
"Hmmm? now I get the picture why her Dad might not like it," Regina said, nodding to herself.
'Well, even though you're one of those people who vote for the wrong party, you're entitled to your opinions, Charlie. It won't stop me from loving you? in fact, nothing at all could stop me? right? now,' Shelley said on the recording as she moved forward and put her hand on the young man's crotch.
"Ohhhh? okay," Stella and Regina said as one. "Now I get it," they continued, still speaking in unison.
"Yeah, political dramas can upset any family," Regina said as she pressed Stop.
Working together, Stella and Regina moved the near-comatose Shelley back to her Audi and put her in the driver's seat. Walking around the car, Stella opened the passenger side door and put the camera and the two memory cards down on the seat.
"You don't think we should drive her back, Reggie?"
"Well, she might wake up along the way and think she's been kidnapped by a couple of? you know? Those People."
Chuckling, Stella closed the Audi's door and shuffled back to the Ford van. "And it wouldn't be too far off the truth, of course. Ah, let's forget this whole deal. Let's go home and change into our regular duds and get a pizza or something? and then go over to Ruby's. I need a double Bloody Mary somethin' fierce."
"Now you're talking," Regina said and pushed her mirror shades up her nose. With a 'Yeehaw!', she turned the ignition key and selected Drive.
"Less Yeehaw in the future, okay?"
"Sure," Regina said and floored the throttle.
Puttering along at six and a half miles an hour at the back end of a very, very long line of cars, Stella and Regina had the Pacer's windows down and were singing out loud to an old rock'n'roll song.
Since Regina had agreed on taking the Pacer for once, Stella had changed into her driving suit to mark the occasion - a pair of sneakers, a washed-out pair of formerly purple sweatpants where the legs had been cut off below the knees, a dark blue Blondes Have More Fun short-sleeved sweatshirt and her number one comfort-garment, her poncho.
Regina was dressed equally outrageously - in the Yes, I'm A Sex Goddess-way - in a dusty white X-top pantsuit that left her shoulders bare and offered a dizziness-inducing peek at her cleavage.
As the old tune ended, the news started, but Stella wasn't in the mood to listen to the usual tales of death, despair and destruction, so she started to punch the knobs on the Pacer's radio until she found a station she liked.
'-istening to Matters Of The Heart, the show where you can call Gabriella Corazon and have her give you advice on the matters of the heart,' the male announcer said, cueing the show's jingle.
"I used to listen to Gabriella Corazon a lot back in the old days," Stella said as they came to yet another stop. Up ahead, they could see several red and blue flashing lights, indicating that someone had probably had an accident.
"Yeah. She knows her stuff," Stella said and sneaked a sideways glance at the stunning pantsuit Regina was wearing.
'Hello, I'm Gabriella Corazon and I hear we have a caller on the line? Hello, is anyone there?'
'Y-yes, I'm here. Hello, Miss Corazon.'
'Hello. To whom am I speaking?'
'I? you can call me Marie.'
'Hello, Marie, what's on your mind?'
'Well, I can't? how can I get a cute guy to notice me? I'm a s? uh- shy girl and I don't feel comfortable wearing revealing clothes? but all the other girls here dress like s? ah, can I say 'sluts' on the air?'
'Yes, you can, Marie. Right, I know what you're saying. In my opinion, if the cute guy only has eyes for the?'
"Ha, I know exactly what that feels like," Stella said, chuckling darkly. Her thoughts drifted back to her own teen years where each new party seemed to demand more and more outrageous behavior of everyone if they didn't want to find themselves suddenly and permanently cast out of the clique - she had lasted exactly three parties before the Cool People had had enough of her queer ways.
"I never had those kinds of problems," Regina said, fiddling with her long fingers and with the silver bracelet she was wearing on her left wrist.
Snapping back to reality, Stella turned the volume down a bit when the next song started. "Gee, really? I wonder why. I can't imagine you having any problems whatsoever, Reggie."
"Oh? it wasn't easy being a foot taller than everyone else, you know. Or to be well-developed at fifteen."
"I understand that? but if you hadn't been, you wouldn't have had the career you ended up having. There's two sides to every penny. I got a double tails in the lottery of life, though," Stella said, chuckling again.
Stella suddenly felt her two little friends return, sitting on her shoulders and waving their various accessories in the air to catch her attention. "Now would be a good chance to ask Regina a hypothetical question, Stella? you know the one I'm talking about," the harp-playing Angel said from the right shoulder.
"Don't listen to her? now would be a good time to stop the car and ravish that foxy mama next to ya!" the Horny Li'l Devil said from her place on the left shoulder, poking Stella repeatedly with her pitchfork.
Rolling her eyes, the real Stella did neither.
A fair while later, Stella turned into the parking lot at Rockin' Ruby's and found a spot near the entrance. As she switched off the recently overhauled engine, she had a question at the tip of her tongue that simply refused to go any further.
Struggling to get her mouth to articulate the words against a mental block of mammoth proportions, Stella pushed and pushed until she had finally persuaded the words to leave their comfortable home. "Uh, Reggie??"
"Yeah?" Regina said, turning around in the seat to face Stella. As she did so, her plentiful assets were accentuated to such an extent that the question stormed back into Stella's brain and refused to come out and play.
All in all, the sublime sight proved far too strong for Stella's sensitive self to deal with, and she had to think hard to come up with a new question that wouldn't possibly cause discomfort for either of them - "Wh-what would you like to drink tonight?" she said as she unbuckled her seatbelt.
"Well, if you're having a double Bloody Mary, I guess I'll be driving, huh? I think I want a driver's Cuba Libre on the rocks with a lemon twist."
"Oh? I didn't think of that. Sorry."
"Ah, no worries. Come on, let's see how crowded it is tonight," Regina said and got out of the car. Reaching behind the seat, she took a white cape that she swept over her shoulders with the grace of a movie star. "You're not coming?"
"Oh, I'm coming, I'm coming? I just thought of something," Stella said and climbed out of the AMC Pacer.
"I could tell ya? but then I'd? uh? have to kill ya." - 'No, actually, if I told ya, I'd die of acute embarrassment,' Stella continued in her mind.
While Stella was locking the car, Regina turned around and looked at Ruby's, their regular haunt for almost a year. Soft music and laughter could be heard through the closed doors, promising an evening of light-hearted fun among equals of all types and from all walks of life.
As Stella shuffled up to stand next to her wearing an atypical - unreadable - expression on her otherwise easily-read face, Regina had only one thought on her mind: 'If she doesn't come clean soon, I'm gonna ask her straight out if she's got a thing for me. I'm not a complete numskull, even if she thinks so sometimes. This goes way beyond a mere crush? she has a look in her eyes that spells 'I g-o-t i-t b-a-d'.'
"Are you ready to partay, Reggie?" Stella said and pushed the outer door open.
"Yep," Regina said and put a warm hand on Stella's shoulder. "Stand back, everybody! Dynamite babes comin' through!"
IV - SICK AND SICKER
Written by Norsebard
An emergency vehicle moving past the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency with its siren blaring loud enough to wake the dead made Stella Starr look up from her work and out of the window. "How typical," she mumbled to herself. "Monday morning? and it's dull, overcast and drizzling. Typical."
"Hmmm," she continued as she leaned back in her chair to take a critical look at the poem she'd been attempting to write for the better part of thirty minutes. "Hmmm. There's something wrong here. 'Roses are red, violets are blue? Now get down here so I can kiss you.' It rhymes but where's the heart?? The poetry?? Shoot, I don't have a poetic bone in my body," she growled and tore the page out of her notepad.
With a nifty flick of the wrist, the page went the way of the dodo - or rather, spiraled into the trash can.
Looking into the trash can, Stella realized with a sigh that she was wasting resources by throwing away paper that had only had a few lines written on them, so she reached into the trash and scooped them all up - all nineteen discarded drafts. Once she was holding the large handful of scrap paper, she didn't know what to do with it and ended up shoving it down into the bottom drawer of her desk for later consideration.
"Ooh, my Rubik's Cube! Oh, it's been too long, old friend," she said and dug up the colorful toy. Since she was all alone - Regina was late for work - she put her sweatpants-clad legs up on her desk and began to play with the cube.
Twenty minutes later, a distant, but echoing, HAA-CHOOOO! heralded Regina's arrival. Another HAA-CHOOOO! quickly followed, and by the time the third sneeze echoed through the parking lot, Stella was on her feet and looking out of the window to see what on earth was going on.
When Stella saw Regina standing in the steady drizzle, fumbling with the keys for her Mercedes SLK whilst trying to put on a blazer jacket and holding a small, purse-like bag, she took pity on her friend, put on a pang-yellow fleece windbreaker and left the office to help.
"Hi, Reggie! There's no point in saying good morning anymore, so I'll just say How do you do, Miss," Stella said as she shuffled across the parking lot.
"Hi, Stell," Regina croaked, looking so miserable that it nearly broke Stella's heart.
"Oh? what's wrong with you?"
"I have a cold? but it's not just a regular cold, it's the Killer Cold From Hell!" she said in a thick voice. The former model's typically near-perfect hair was anything but - in fact, she looked a little bit like she was trying to emulate Stella's trademark wild mop.
"Ohfercryin'outloud, Reggie? why didn't you call in sick? Man?!"
"I tried, but one of the phones must be off the hook or something? I kept getting a busy signal."
"Oh? hey, let's get inside. I'll fix you a warm cup of tea. What do you say to that?" Stella said and hooked her arm inside Regina's.
As the two women shuffled back towards the door to the office, Stella had a good look at the former model. Regina's eyes were more red than blue and the skin under her nose had already taken on that reddish hue that always came after using too many paper tissues. In addition to that, her face was grayish and she had dark circles under her eyes - all in all, she was a mess.
"Reggie? I don't know how to tell you? but you look like shit right now."
"That's how I feel, too," Regina said, going into a deep, dry cough.
Opening the door, Stella helped the stricken Regina inside and guided her over to the couch. "So? aaaand? siddown-a-daisy."
"Thanks, Stell? oh, lying down will do me a world of good," Regina said and let herself fall backwards onto the couch - unfortunately, she hadn't noticed that Stella hadn't released her grip yet.
A science experiment comprising of a five foot four-and-a-half subject trying to keep a six foot one subject upright when caught off-balance, off-guard and on the wrong foot altogether could only work under certain, highly controlled conditions - and this wasn't one of them.
When Stella felt herself being dragged forward, she tried to resist but felt her back protest almost at once. An attempt at digging her feet into the carpet failed when her flip-flops were too slippery to dig in anywhere; and finally, letting go of the former model failed as well because they had moved too far by then and gravity had already taken over. Through all this, she could hear someone howl "YEOOOOOOOW!" but she wasn't sure who it could be.
The next thing she knew was that her nose was buried inch-deep into Regina's belly button; the result of smacking her face into the incredibly soft, yet somehow firm, stomach.
As a direct result of the unexpected, heavy impact, Regina let rip a loud, unrestrained guttural burp that tore through her already sore throat with the tenderness of a bottlebrush. "Ohhhhh! Stell!" she said, bumping up and down on the couch.
"Holy flip, Reggie! Don't fall backwards when I'm holding on to you! Sheesh! I coulda been hurt? you coulda been hurt, too!" Stella said as she moved back a bit. When she noticed where she was - kneeling between Regina's mile-long legs - she quickly scrambled to her feet to get out of the danger zone.
"I was hurt! Ooooh, my gut? you got a hard head, Stell, you know that?" Regina said, rubbing the skin on her abused tummy.
Staring indignantly at the former Queen of the Catwalks, Stella tweaked her nose and adjusted her glasses that had miraculously stayed on her face. "O-yeah? Well, you got a hard stomach. So there! ?Hmmm, that didn't come out right. Oh, never mind. I'm just glad you didn't fart. Would have killed my day stone dead if you had."
"I'm a lady. Ladies don't fart," Regina croaked and pushed her shoes off. With a heave-ho, she swung her legs up onto the couch and moved herself up to place her head on the armrest.
"Uh-huh? Sure. All right, Reggie, you just lie there and I'll make you a good, strong cup of tea. You want some booze in it?"
Looking miserable beyond belief, Regina glanced up at Stella with wide, red eyes. "There's no point, Stell. I'm going to die soon?"
"Uh-huh?? You know, somehow, I don't think so," Stella said and rolled her eyes.
"Yeah? I'm a goner. I'm done for. You can buy me a pine box with a lid and a one-way ticket to the gra-"
"Oh, don't give me that nonsense, you're just wasted. Where were you all morning, anyway?"
"At the E.R. When I finally saw a Doctor, he got upset and said I should just go home and sleep it off. I mean? don't you think that was rude, Stell?"
"And I thought I was the drama queen in our cozy little nest," Stella said under her breath as she poured water into an electric kettle and turned it on.
Turning towards her friend, Stella flashed her a broad smile. "Nothing, Reggie. Nothing at all. You know what I think? I think you've scored yourself one of those twenty-four-hour viruses."
"No, it's been longer than that already."
"Yeah? When did it start?"
"I had it when I woke up yesterday."
"Mmmm. Hey, that's only just twenty-four hours. It could still be that," Stella said and took a large mug from the small cupboard. After choosing a tea bag - oriental blossom - she put it into the mug and added three tea spoons of sugar. Once the kettle was done, she poured the boiling water into the mug and stirred until the sugar had dissolved.
"I think I got it from Billy," Regina said as Stella carried the mug over to the table at the couch.
"Billy? Billy who?"
"What the hell were you doing with our Billy on a Sunday morning?!"
"Nothing, I went out with him Saturday night."
That piece of unexpected - and very much unwanted - news was almost Stella's undoing and she took a stumbling step on her way to the couch. "Yikes, don't say things like that when I'm carrying boiling water?"
"It was his price for letting me use the van in the Torrence case last week," Regina croaked, reaching for the mug that Stella had put down on the table. "? I think he gave me some kind of germ as his 'goodbye present'," she said, forming quotation marks in the air with her free hand.
"Oh-GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAG!" Stella howled, clutching her head and sticking her fingers into her ears.
Letting out an identical howl in surprise, Regina jerked back from the mug and stared wide-eyed at Stella who was running around with her hands wrapped around her head like she was testing a cantaloupe in Mr. Mandelbrot's grocery shop. "Stella, for Pete's sake, you spooked me!" Regina said, putting a hand on her wildly beating heart to calm herself down. "What is it this time, Stell?"
"You on a date with Billy and Billy giving you a goodbye present and germs and OhmiGod! Ewwwwww! Too much information!" Stella said from her position down at the other end of the office.
"But I don't- oh? not like that, Stell! I didn't sleep with him! Sheesh! We went to Bob's Bucket Of Ribs and got some spare ribs? well, Billy did. I just cleaned out the free salad buffet. He already had a cold when we met. He must have sneezed in my direction or something."
Sighing, Stella ran a hand through her wild mop of hair and shuffled back to the couch. "Oh? all right. Gawd, what a fright? one more surprise like that and I gotta change my underpants." - 'Not to mention being peeved out of my skull if someone had managed to get to third base when I'm still scoffing my boots in the dugout,' she continued in her mind.
"Well, please don't do it again. Now I feel even more sick. Perhaps you should get the coroner's office on the speed dial. I fear I won't see another sunrise," Regina croaked as she took a swig of the tea. "Honey??"
Stella came to an abrupt stop and stared at her friend. 'What did she just say? Did she say honey??' she thought, suddenly feeling her heartrate speed up considerably. "I'm s-sorry?" she said out loud.
"In the tea? Do we have any honey I can put in the tea? It's kinda strong," Regina croaked.
Almost at once, Stella's face fell and the corners of her mouth began to point downwards, a surefire sign that her spirit was plunging into her boots - or in this case, her purple flip-flops. "Oh? oh, honey like in buzz-buzz. No we don't, Reggie."
"Oh? Stella, come sit with me? who knows, we may never get another chance," Regina said, holding the back of her hand to her forehead.
Putting her hands on her hips, Stella let out a brief growl. "Okay? this is going too far, Reggie. You've got a cold, woman! You're not dying! Will you at least try to sound like an adult? Come on, you must have had hundreds of colds before?"
"Never like this one? oh, my innards are burning?"
"That's 'cos you're drinking hot tea, silly!"
"-And my forehead is so hot?"
"It's called a fever, Reggie," Stella said flatly.
Raising her head, Regina shot Stella a slightly dirty look that only lasted half the time it usually would - she was simply too miserable to care. "Would you mind going into the bathroom and getting the thermometer? I think I'm running at a-hundred and eight here."
"Oh, all right," Stella said and spun around on her heel.
After using a napkin to wipe Regina's saliva off the digital thermometer, Stella moved her lips silently as she tried to read the gauge. "Well, bad news and good news. Which do you want first?"
"Gawd? the bad news. How long do I have, Doctor?"
"The bad news is that you actually do have a fever. The good news is that it's only point five above normal temperature."
"Oh? that can't be right," Regina said and moved to sit up - she only made it halfway there before the cold compress she had on her forehead fell down, forcing her to grapple around for it on the floor. Once she had retrieved it, she fell back down again, groaning from the exertion. "Are you sure you know what to do?"
Shooting Regina a dirty look matching the one she had received only minutes before, Stella put the thermometer back in its cardboard box and slammed it down on the table. "Gee, thanks a lot, Reggie! Turn thermometer on, open yap, stick in. If you want to use it anywhere else than your mouth, you're on your own, Sister!"
"All right, all right. I guess I'm not as sick as I thought I was? no, I don't believe it. I've always been good at reading my body's signals and it's telling me that I've bought the ticket?!"
Chuckling out loud, Stella pushed the coffee table away and sat down on the floor. Leaning back, she rested her head against the cushions and the side of Regina's stomach. "It's 'bought the farm', actually, Reggie."
"Oh, Gawd, you're agreeing with me!"
"It's a figure of speech, fercryin'outloud!"
A heartfelt silence filled the office, broken only by the occasional dry cough by Regina and the rain tapping on the roof of the building.
The soft, warm flesh moving rhythmically as Regina was breathing had a soothing effect on Stella's mind, but at the same time, it reminded her of the fact that it had been a very long time since she had been close to another woman - the movie date with Danielle didn't count; they had only kissed once and it had tasted like raspberry fizz.
Looking to her left, her eyes fell on Regina's slacks that were drawn tightly across her hips, covering the treasure that lay beneath. Looking to her right, she glanced up at the underside of the C-cups that were gently heaving with each breath - and not even looking up Regina's nostrils or the comical sight of her mouth-breathing, slack-jawed appearance could ruin the wave of warm fuzzies that was rolling through Stella.
Sighing, Stella looked ahead again. Deep inside her, she felt something stir; an irresistible force rippling through her that threatened to surface at any moment - and then it did.
"Reggie, there's something I have? have? ha? ha? HAAAA-CHOOOOOOOO!"
The sneeze was so volcanically violent - and unexpected - that Stella's glasses went flying down onto the carpet and under the coffee table. On the rebound, her head slammed into Regina's stomach, making the former model jump up with a loud squeal.
"Oh, Stell!" Regina said, nursing her side where Stella's head had made a considerable impact.
"Oh, no?! Now you've made me sick, too!" Stella growled in a thick voice, already feeling the next sneeze sneak up on her. "I hate being sick! Damn, damn, da-HAAAAAAAA-CHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"
Once again assaulted by a hard head covered by a wild, dirty-blonde haystack of hair, Regina decided in a hurry that she was better off sitting in her swivel-chair. Suddenly able to move swiftly, she got up from the couch, stepped over her sneezing friend and shuffled over to her own desk.
Behind her, Stella groaned loudly and crawled up onto the couch. "Reggie? I'm sick? I'm so sick? Ye Gads, I'm burning up? and I lost my glasses? Reggie, would you mind finding them for me?? Please, Reggie? I need some warm milk? and some Oreos? and a pillow? and a blanket? and maybe a shot of hundred proof dark Rum if we have it? Reggie? pleeeeease?"
Sighing, Regina rubbed her forehead and shuffled over to the refrigerator to find some milk and Oreos for her ailing friend.
V - O KATE MARSHALL, WHERE ART THOU?
Written by Norsebard
Even as Stella Starr was getting out of her beloved AMC Pacer, she could hear the phones ringing inside the building that housed the Harrison-Starr office. Moving swiftly, she jumped out of the car and spun around to shut the door.
Then her foot snagged on the seat belt and she very nearly made a swan dive onto the asphalt.
Grumbling loudly, she began disentangling herself, hopping around on one foot and staring after her business associate Regina Harrison's characteristic silver metallic Mercedes SLK, hoping that it - and she - would appear to pick up the phone.
Once free of the seat belt, Stella grumbled some more and set off in a fast jog, remembering to skip over the worst potholes in the asphalt that had already started to break up despite being fixed only weeks before.
After unlocking the front door and hopping over the iron band on the floor that she stumped her toes on nine times out of ten, she sprinted over to her chair and picked up the phone.
"You've reached?" - pant, pant - "?the Harrison-Starr?" - pant, pant - "?Detective Agency. How may?" - pant, pant- "?we help you?"
'Hello, I need to speak with Mr. Harrison Starr, please,' a male voice said from the other end of the connection. 'It's about a-'
"We don't actually have anyone here by that name," Stella said hoarsely into the telephone. "I'm Stella Starr, I'm an investigator. You may state your business now," she continued as she pulled out the drawer containing the piece of paper titled 'People who ask for Mr. Harrison Bleepin' Starr.'
'Oh? I? pardon. Well, my name is Alfred Humphries and I want to hire your services for the entire weekend for a very high-profile assignment that involves a VIP, a Prince from a European country.'
"Oh? Go on, Mr. Humphries."
'Well, his royal highness the Prince is already on his way here and he's scheduled to arrive in two hours' time. He's here to open the Antique Jewelry exhibition at the MacLeane Museum, and he prefers female protection.'
"Well, we're not that kind of agency, Sir. Wait a minute? today?" Stella said as she made a fat line on the paper. Counting the lines, she came to the staggering conclusion that the man she was speaking to was the twenty-fifth person to get it wrong since she opened the agency a year earlier. Rolling her eyes, she put the pencil away and slammed the drawer shut.
'Uh, like I said, in two hours' time, yes."
"Well, Mr. Humphries, I'm afraid that won't work. Can't his royalness the Prince wait until tomorrow??"
'I beg your pardon? Of course he can't! He's already on the plane like I told you!'
"Oh, shoot. We're gonna hafta say no to this one, I'm afraid," Stella said, looking at a newspaper snippet on her desk.
"And that's final, Mister."
'Well! Good day, Miss!' the man said with a loud snort. A split second later, the connection was terminated with a loud slam.
"Love you too, buster," Stella said and put the receiver down on the hook. Leaning back in her chair, she took the snippet and read it for the umpteenth time.
'Hollywood comes to Midtown!
by R.T. Baker
Experience the glitz and glamour of Hollywood when celebrated, award-winning actress Kate Marshall visits Midtown this Thursday through Saturday for a guest role in the season finale of the popular police drama Riley's Law. Ms. Marshall, no stranger to the world of law enforcement through her marriage with veteran FBI profiler CJ Carson, says that she's thrilled to visit our fair city and that she hopes she'll get a chance to meet the fans over the course of the weekend. In closing, the Emmy-winning actress says that she hopes everyone will understand and respect that a film set is first and foremost a workplace and that the cast and crew need a calm working environment to create the best possible show.'
"Oh, Kate?" Stella said dreamily, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.
While Stella was busy daydreaming, Regina opened the front door and stepped inside. After taking off her sports windbreaker, revealing that she was dressed in a pair of sand-colored slacks and a cobalt blue button-down shirt, she kicked off her shoes and walked on socked feet over to Stella's desk where she sat down on a corner.
"Hey," she said quietly, not wanting to disturb Stella's serene mood.
Cracking open an eyelid, Stella took in the sight of the former model and broke out in a warm, broad smile. "Hey yourself. You look great today, Reggie."
"Thanks. Don't I ever?" Regina said and smoothed down her ponytail.
"Uh-huh. Off and on. Occasionally. At least once a week, anyhow," Stella said and leaned forward on her chair.
"Cute. Verrry cute," Regina said, moving off the corner of the table. On her way over to the small table behind the door, she cast a curious glance at the clothes Stella was wearing. "Did you dress in the dark again, Stell?" she said as she poured water into the coffee machine.
Holding up an index finger, Stella got up from her chair and stepped out into the center of the office floor. "Just for the record, Miss Former-Model-With-Very-Limited-Social-Skills, this hoodie jacket cost me $24.98 on the HomeShopping Network last month. It has a name you know, In The Hood! Ha! I'll bet that your fancy Lady Bartholdy shirts don't get names!" she said while performing a complete pirouette on the carpet.
Stella was wearing her favorite purple flip-flops, a pair of yellow and baby blue Tweety Bird socks - the elastic band on the one on her right foot was loose so it had pooled at her ankle - spring green Capris and finally a canary yellow T-shirt under a dusty cerise hoodie that had white applications and two long tussles hanging down from the hood.
"Satisfied?" Stella said and pushed her glasses up her nose with her middle finger. "Now hold the fort while I collect the stuff I'll need today."
"Yes, dear. It's a wonderful outfit. You won't hear another peep out of me," Regina said, grinning from ear to ear over Stella's hand gesture.
'Har! That'll be the day!'
Chuckling loudly, Regina turned on the coffee machine and moved over to her own side of the office. "I knew she'd say that. She's just too cute for her own good," she said as she sat down and swung her legs up on the desk.
Twenty minutes later, Stella came back out of the bathroom with her hair neatly water-combed. She was still wearing the dusty cerise hoodie, but she had changed into a dark blue T-shirt advertising Deadline - Kate Marshall's regular show - and a very nice pair of blue jeans that were held up by a woven, rainbow-colored belt.
"Oh, that's much better, Stell. Very nice," Regina said, nodding her appraisal. "Well, that belt sort of clashes with the rest, but all right."
"Just goes to show you don't know everything about fashion statements. The belt stays, Reggie," Stella said on her way over to the coffee machine.
Chuckling, Regina crumbled up a piece of scrap paper and threw the ball at Stella but missed by a mile. "I didn't say it should go. I just said it sort of clashed."
After Stella had poured herself a healthy mug of coffee, she sat down at her desk and assumed the dreamy look she'd had when Regina walked in. Suddenly remembering something, she pulled the desk drawer out to check her facts. "Hey, before you got here, someone called and asked for Mr. Harrison Starr. You'll never guess how many lines I have on my paper now."
"We must be getting close to that magic number??"
"We're *at* that magic number, Reggie. Twenty-five," Stella said and closed the drawer. "Can you believe it? Twenty-five dimwits asking for Mr. Harrison Starr. Sheesh? dolts, doofuses, dipsticks, dillweeds? why is it so difficult for them to understand that women can be detectives, too?"
"Wow, Stell? this means that this is our anniversary job!" Regina said and sat up straight in her swivel-chair.
Taking her little Viking troll, Stella began to play with the soft toy, nudging his braids and tickling his broadsword. "Well, yeah? yeah, I guess it does mean that. Huh. No, actually, it doesn't 'cos I turned it down. Seeing Kate Marshall is more important than some stuffy Prince or whatever."
"Long story, Reggie, and too little time to explain it all."
"Well? uh," Regina said and got up from her chair. Shuffling into the center of the office, she suddenly appeared uncharacteristically shy, and she shoved her hands into her pockets and began to move left and right like she didn't know how to get the next point across. "Uh? Stell?"
"Yeah, Reggie? Whassamatter? You look as nervous as a sailor in a convent!"
"Uh, well, I was wondering? and I haven't asked because I didn't know if you'd say yes or no? but would you mind if I came along today?"
Narrowing her eyes, Stella put down the Viking troll and began to check the entire office for hidden cameras or other kinds of surveillance equipment. When she couldn't find anything, she came to the conclusion that Regina was sincere. "Would I mind? Are you crazy, Sister? Of course I wouldn't mind!"
"Hell, I'd love for you to come, Reggie. I just didn't think you were interested in something like this at all. There's probably gonna be a helluva lot of waiting around," Stella said and shot up from her chair. Stepping around the desk, she closed the distance in a hurry and wrapped her arm around the six-foot-one former model who had such a cute look of shyness on her face that Stella's heart almost melted.
Regina turned around and began to shuffle over to the couch, still attached to her short, water-combed friend. "Well, uh? I just thought it would be a great way to celebrate our year together. That's in ten days' time, you know."
The two women sat down as one, moving so close that their thighs were touching all the way down.
"Oh yeah, I haven't forgotten about that," Stella said, noticing the contact. The warmth she felt on her leg from Regina's mile-long thigh sent a wave of pleasure through her, but seeing the curious look of longing in Regina's eyes gave her a real jolt and made her heart skip a beat. "Boy, you've changed. You've really changed in this past year, Reggie."
"Yeah. Back then, you were so aloof you could hardly lower your chin to see the little people at your feet. But look at you now? hey, you're one of us. Not that you'll ever be one of the little people," Stella said, snickering as she patted Regina's long thigh. "Not with those stilts. Or those eyes. Or cheekbones."
With those words, a shot of braveness was injected into Stella's veins, and before she knew it, she had raised her hand to caress Regina's cheek. Suddenly realizing what she was about to do, she changed her mind at the very last moment and poked Regina in the ribs instead.
Regina - realizing fully what had almost happened and why - chuckled and decided to take pity on her inhibited friend by offering a gentle shoulder-block. "Thanks, Stell. Are you saying I still got it?" she said, pushing her chest forward and her rear back to go into one of her trademark poses.
Stella's cheeks flushed crimson red, but her sanity and general well-being was saved by the telephones ringing. Drawing a shaky sigh of relief, Stella shot up from the couch and hurried over to the nearest desk. On her way there, she looked back at Regina - through her fogged-up glasses - who was still sitting in the provocative pose. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, Missy? you can retract those torpedoes now. You're intoxicatin' enough as it is?"
Sitting down on the corner of Regina's desk, Stella picked up the receiver. "Hello. You've reached the? Billy? Hi."
"Uh? well, Regina is?" Stella said, looking at Regina who shook her head vigorously. "?not here at the moment, Billy."
"I'll let her know that you had a good time at Bob's Bucket O' Ribs. Yeah."
"Yeah, she got sick, too, ha ha. And then I got sick, Billy. I hate being sick?"
"Because I tended to her while she was ill. Get your mind out of the gutter, will ya!"
While Stella was debating with Billy, Regina decided to play an unfair trick on both of them and got up from the couch. A short while later, she wheeled the large mirror into the office and placed it up against the filing cabinets.
"Oh, I couldn't say whether or not she'd want to go on a second date, Billy," Stella said, wondering what Regina was up to. When the former model came back into the office holding the floor fan, Stella scrunched up her face - but that was nothing compared to what came next:
After turning on the fan on the second-to-lowest level which sent a gentle breeze into her perfect hair, Regina pulled her shirt out of her slacks, unbuttoned it, pulled it down over her shoulders to reveal her tanned skin and her skin-colored bra and began to writhe about to an imaginary beat, pulling some of her old, trademark poses in front of the mirror that she had placed so that Stella would get the full benefit.
Over at the desk, Stella's eyes grew wider and wider until they nearly bulged out of her skull, and she had to grab hold of the edge of the desk in order not to fall down.
"No, I'm still here, Billy?" Stella croaked into the receiver that she held so tightly that the plastic creaked under her grip. "? it's just that Regina is posing for me?" she said, forgetting her little white lie.
"Billy? Hello, Billy?"
Nodding in sympathy, Stella tried to tear her eyes away from the evocative display but found that she wasn't able to. "I know, buddy, if I wasn't sitting down, I'd fall flat on my butt, too."
"No, she's doing it in front of the mirror."
"Billy? Billy? Poor guy," Stella said and hung up.
Show over, Regina turned off the fan. With the last breeze, she made sure her hair was tussled very sexily - but still picture perfect - and that her shirt was open to reveal her taut midriff.
Turning around, she winked saucily at Stella and shot her one of the looks she knew would make the blonde investigator's heart go pitter-patter. "Happy Anniversary, Stella-dahling. And thank you for letting me come with you today," she husked, finishing off by blowing Stella a kiss.
Stella's glasses steamed up instantly and at first, her mouth just opened and closed like a big tuna caught on dry land. After thirty seconds, she was able to croak, but hadn't regained enough of her faculties to be articulate. Another fifteen seconds later, she was just about able to form a coherent sentence, but the warm fuzzies flowing through her like a tidal wave prevented her from acting on it. Instead, she settled for smiling and nodding and smiling some more.
Another thirty seconds later, she took off her glasses and polished the lenses. After putting them back on, she jumped off the desk and walked - somewhat oddly - over to the former model. "Thanks, Reggie. Uh? that was? that was? that wasn't? uh, thanks, Reggie," she said, putting her hand on Regina's elbow.
"Pleasure was all mine," Regina said and began to button her shirt. "Say, I was thinking? what car should we take today?"
"I? uh? It'll have to wait, Reggie. I need to? uh? I need to? I have to? uh, change my? never mind," Stella said, shuffling over to the bathroom door. As she put her hand on the door knob, she turned around and flashed Regina a shy and very, very embarrassed grin. "I'll only be two minutes."
"Ooooookay," Regina said and threw her head, forcing her hair to magically fall into a perfect style where a large part of it cascaded down her right shoulder and the rest framed her face perfectly.
"Uh? like I said," Stella croaked and disappeared into the bathroom.
A few minutes later, Stella came back out having taken the opportunity to pour some cold water in her face and down her neck. "If you don't mind, Reggie, I think we should take the Merc," she said as she wiped her hands on a towel. After hanging the towel on a hook, she turned off the lights and closed the door.
"I don't know where we'll be able to park, and with all those people there, there's a risk some of them might think it would be fun to vandalize my old Pacer. Okay?" Stella continued as she flung herself on the couch. "Hey, I got the munchies? do we have any Oreos?"
"Don't think so, no," Regina said and looked into her desk drawer.
"Shoot. We'll have to buy some on the way there. When do you think we should leave?"
"Oh? just after noon?"
"Sounds good to me, Reggie. Sounds very good to me," Stella said and swung her legs up into the couch. Moving herself up, she put her head down on the armrest, closed her eyes and let out a long, sanguine sigh.
"Hm. Perhaps we should have left a little sooner," Stella grumbled as she put her elbow on the window sill of the Mercedes SLK. Looking ahead, she could see nothing but red tail lights leading up to the intersection that marked the beginning of Midtown.
"Yeah, it's kinda crowded here. Do you think they're all here to see your star?" Regina said, switching the climate control to Internal to avoid sucking in too many exhaust fumes.
"God? I hope not. She'll get completely bowled over? she's not much bigger than me. She'd get lost in the crowd!"
Acting swiftly, Regina swerved out into the fast lane - or rather, less slow lane - when an opening presented itself to her. The maneuver had brought them three spots closer to the intersection but earned them a few honks from the cars behind them. "Yeah, yeah, honk away. I saw it first," Regina said, looking into the rear view mirror at the Ford Taurus station wagon behind her.
"I can hear a helicopter somewhere," Stella said and craned her neck to see if she could catch a sight of the metal bird. "Maybe there's something on the radio," she continued and pressed a small knob.
'?ith a traffic report. The intersection at Nineteenth Street and Dulane Boulevard has been closed temporarily due to West Nineteenth Street being used in the oft-mentioned film shoot. Motorists are strongly advised to take alternate routes, or even stay out of Midtown completely unless it's vital?'
"Oh, that's where we're at. Hey, Reggie, open the lid, I want to check out something," Stella said, having caught glimpse of some activity on their left.
Pressing a button on the center console, Regina watched the metal roof slide back until it was locked in the Open position. "Your wish is my command, Oh Stella-dahling."
Stella shot upright and shielded her eyes from the sun. Looking hard, she thought she could see a camera rigging and a pair of flood lights pointed at the sidewalk furthest away on Nineteenth Street, but whatever it was they were trying to light up, it was obscured by a large, black limousine parked in front of the brownstones.
"Hmmm. Oh, there's a parking space right over there?" Stella said and bumped down into her seat. "Over there, Reggie, d'ya see it?"
"I see a double yellow line on the road, Stell," Regina said laconically.
"Oh, but there's no cops around at all? is there? Nnnnnno. We're clear. Look, it's right over there."
Following Stella's index finger, Regina spotted a parking space on a slight incline next to an old, closed shop where the window had been painted white. Weighing her options, Regina took a look at Stella's shining eyes and knew that her easily excitable friend would be very disappointed if the day went sour. Shrugging, she turned the steering wheel and waited for a gap in the oncoming traffic. "All right. But if we get busted, you pay the fine."
"Sure, sure. There's a gap now, Reggie? go, go, go!"
Stepping on the gas, Regina had the low-slung sportscar crossing the Boulevard in a matter of seconds to the backdrop of a disharmonic concert of honks from the cars behind them. She quickly pulled up onto the slight slope, put the shifter into Park and applied the parking brake to be on the safe side.
"We're here. Now what?"
"Now we go a-movie star-huntin'!" Stella said and opened the door. Looking down, she instantly realized that she'd get in trouble stepping out of the car - not because of a curb stone or puddles, but because the slope was far steeper than it had appeared while on the other side of the Boulevard.
Taking a deep breath, she started putting together a battle plan to get out without falling backwards or worse. "All right, if I put a foot there? and a hand there? I should be able to?"
"Or you could just take my hand," Regina said, standing in the open door and offering her assistance by holding out her open hand.
"Or I could take your hand," Stella echoed and took it.
Once Stella had tip-toed down the slope onto the flat Boulevard, she quickly ran to the corner of the building to find out if she could see anything. "Hmmm? yeah, there's definitely a black limo there. And a camera. And lights? but I can't see any? oh, shoot, why didn't I think of bringing my bino-"
Shuffling up to stand behind Stella, Regina grabbed the blonde investigator's hand and thrust a pair of small, theater-style binoculars into it.
"Oh! God, Reggie, you're so good to me today. Thanks a bunch, Oh Tall One."
"You're welcome, Oh? uh, Blonde One. There's something I've been wondering about? Riley's Law is a really big show? how do you know if whatshername is even going to show up here?"
"Her name is Kate Marshall, Reggie!" Stella said indignantly.
Rolling her eyes, Regina put her hands in the air in the universal sign for 'oops, I stepped in it' - "Kate Marshall, I do beg your pardon!"
"Of course, schedules can change, but I saw on wokam.com that this is where they'll be shooting some of the action sequences. And accord-"
"The what? The wakkum?"
"Wokam? World Of Kate Marshall. The biggest fansite. There are Katespotters everywhere and one of them lives in one of those brownstones over there. She reported in yesterday saying that someone from the TV company had asked every resident to sign a waiver obliging them to respect the guest star and to abstain from suing the production company over the noise," Stella said and pointed at one of the six-story brownstones lining West Nineteenth Street.
Smiling crookedly, Regina rolled her eyes in a good-natured way. "Oh, I'll bet she's in the seventh heaven right now."
"You better believe she is!"
"Aw Jeez, you're obsessed? all of you!"
"I am not! Don't tell me you don't have idols you look up to!"
"Of course I do. But I wouldn't stalk any of 'em."
"This isn't stalking. This is movie star-huntin'."
"Uh-huh. Tell it to the judge, Stell."
"Shhh, something's about to happen," Stella said and snapped the binoculars up to her eyes. Scanning the area thoroughly, she could see several men and women wearing headsets moving around, setting the scene and getting ready to shoot.
'Standby!' the director said on a bullhorn. 'Charlene, get ready!'
"Oh, Charlene! Charlene Rivers, that's the name of the character Kate plays in the episode? where is she? where is she? wher- OH!" Stella said, zeroing in on a shock of blonde that had appeared in a doorway to one of the brownstones. "Here she comes!"
Regina just looked towards the heavens, asking for some kind of salvation for her obsessed friend.
'Standby! Fire in the hole! Background! And action! Action! Action!' the director shouted using the bullhorn.
Then everything happened at once. The shock of blonde stepped out of the doorway and came to an abrupt stop on the sidewalk. From the person's right, two men jumped out from behind a parked car and pointed machine guns at her.
"Ohhhh!" Stella howled.
Both hit men opened fire at the blonde person who responded by jumping towards the limousine, flinging open the door and throwing herself inside.
'Aaaaand cut! Cut! Cut! Thank you! We got it in one. Weapons master for the guns, please. Reset and get ready for the roving?'
Lowering the binoculars, Stella's eyes were wide as saucers and as shiny as someone who had spent the entire day staring at the sun. "Oh, Gaawwwd? that was fun?!"
"Well, can it get any faker? They were standing right next to her. I know they were shooting blanks, but that's just ridiculous," Regina grumbled.
"Don't you start, Reggie! That's the magic of the movies. And just for the record, you know all about faking it for the crowd? I'll never forget that cold metal cup you used back when we did your calendar."
"That was diff-"
'Standby!' the voice shouted again from the film set.
"Shhh! They're getting ready for her closeups!"
"You asked me a question, Stell!"
"Not now? oh? oh? OH, there she is? there she is? yes, it really is her. Kate Marshall," Stella said, adjusting the binoculars to get the best possible zoom. "You know, for a moment there, I thought it might be a stunt double, but I should've remembered that Kate is a very athletic woman."
"Anybody could open a limo door and hop inside, Stell," Regina grumbled.
"Noooo, gimme a break. What's with all this negativity? Are you jealous of her or something?"
Thrusting her hands into her pockets, Regina briefly stuck her tongue out, but Stella was too busy looking into the binoculars to notice. "Of course I'm not jealous, don't be silly."
"Jumping into a car is not that easy. And I should know with all my problems getting out of the damn things. Oh, they're touching up her makeup. They're getting ready for her closeups. Ohhhh, she's so pretty. And she's on my team for a change."
"I don't even know what she looks like."
"WHAT? Sister, grab those binoculars and get an eyeful of The Almighty Kate Marshall! And that's an order, Reggie!" Stella said and shoved the binoculars into Regina's hands.
"All right, all right. Where is she?"
"Next to the camera rigging just in front of the limo."
"Hmmm, can't find her? oh, I think I got he-" The rest of the sentence got stuck in Regina's throat at the shock of seeing Kate Marshall through the binoculars.
Regina could hardly believe her eyes when she realized just what Kate Marshall looked like - and as she mumbled a partial description, she continually shifted her view between Kate and Stella just to make sure that the blonde investigator was in fact still standing next to her. "Blonde? green eyes? button nose? cute ears? well-defined mouth, jaw and throat? This. Is. Creeping. Me. Out! Brrr! Creeeeeepy!"
"She looks exactly like you! Only with nicer hair!" Regina hissed, giving the binoculars such a tight squeeze that her knuckles turned white.
"She does not? what kind of gobbledygook is that, Reggie? She's a thousand times prettier than I'll ever be," Stella said and tried to pry the binoculars out of Regina's grip. "Hey, will ya let go! I need 'em for the closeups! Uh! Ohhh! GIMME!"
'Standby. Charlene, get ready!'
"I NEED MY BINOCULARS!" Stella howled, not realizing how loud she had actually been until an equally loud 'QUIET ON THE SET!' thundered back from the director holding the bullhorn.
Snapping out of her creeped-out state, Regina let go of the binoculars just in time for a severely grumbling Stella to see the repeat of the action sequence.
Ten minutes later, Stella moved the binoculars in a sweeping motion from left to right to make sure she hadn't missed anything. "I think they're packing up now, Reggie. Yeah, they definitely are. Oh, Kate has just stepped into a golf cart? she's waving to some of the residents who are hanging out of their windows? and the golf cart is driving out of sight? down to a? a? Winnebago, I think."
"And what's that snort supposed to mean, Miss Size Twelve In Boots?"
"Nothin'. I'm just surprised to hear that you're so awed by someone who can't even walk down to her trailer," Regina mumbled.
When a double-take didn't do the trick, Stella resorted to pinching her arm to see whether or not she had been dreaming the whole time. When the pain was real, she realized that Regina's response was, too. "I don't believe it? you are jealous! Holy guacamole, I never thought I'd see the day where Regina Harrison was jealous over anything? much less anybody."
"I'm not jealous. Not in the least. No way, no how, no Ma'am," Regina said vehemently - unfortunately, the pout she wore for a face told another story.
Chuckling, Stella hooked her arm inside Regina's and began to walk back to the car. "And why are you pouting like a five-year old, then? Oh, Reggie, believe me when I say that Kate Marshall won't come between us? even if she throws herself at me wearing nothing but a frown, I'll resist her."
"Sure. All right, I'll look? more than once. More than twice, too. But I won't act on it. Weeeellll, not at first, anyhow. Aw hell, it depends on what she's got on her mind."
"Kidding, Reggie. I'm sorry you're not having a good time," Stella said and pulled them to a stop next to the car. "This is why I didn't ask you to come, you know. I kinda anticipated that you'd get bored."
"Oh, well?" Regina said with a half-shrug. "I just didn't think we'd spend so much time hanging out at the corner of a building, staring into binoculars and stuff."
Waiting for Regina to unlock the car, Stella crawled up the steep incline and jumped in as soon as she could. "Well, the day has only just begun. I promise that we'll do something fun later on. And I promise I'll make you laugh out loud before the day is over. Okay?"
"Well, if you say so," Regina said and got in.
"I do. Stella Starr always keeps her word. Come rain or shine, hell or high? oh, crud! We got a parking ticket!" Stella said, pointing at a piece of paper that had been placed under the left windscreen wiper.
Grabbing hold of the steering wheel and pulling herself forward, Regina was able to reach the paper with her fingertips. Taking it from the wiper, she didn't even bother to look at it before handing it to Stella.
"This one is for the treasurer, I believe," she said and reached for the ignition key.
Stella sighed and began to grumble under her breath, but the grumbling stopped abruptly when she read what the piece of paper actually said:
'Get Kate Marshall's autograph!
Kate Marshall will appear (*1) in the 'Riley's Law'-promotional tent in the park at the corner of West Nineteenth Street and Rocklin Street.
Meet the famous actress and get a FREE autograph (*2) in the lunch break from one 'till two PM on Thursday and Friday!
The first fifteen people in line will get a FREE ten by twelve inch promotional photo of Kate Marshall that she'll sign for you. For others, the promotional photo will be for sale (*3) at the cost of US$10.00.
Children and senior citizens are very welcome, but please keep in mind that the line of people can be long, thus resulting in a long wait. Also keep small children under observation at all times.
(*1: Subject to change pending Ms. Marshall's schedule.)
(*2: First come, first serve. Also, please respect that Ms. Marshall will not sign body parts.)
(*3: You do not need to purchase a promotional photo to get Ms. Marshall's autograph.)'
Waving the note in Regina's face, Stella bounced giddily up and down in the passenger seat, making the suspension creak and groan. "Oooooooh, this isn't a parking ticket! This is a ticket to paradise!"
"Quick? what time is it, Reggie?"
"Twenty past one? why?" Regina said, looking at her wristwatch.
"Good? and Kate has only just left? they must be running behind schedule or something. D'ya think we can get to the park at the corner of West Nineteenth and Rocklin?"
Starting the car, Regina reversed out of the parking space after she had looked over her shoulder. "Shoot, that's hard to say, Stell. Can't hurt to try. I didn't read it, what does it say?"
When a car flashed its headlights at her, Regina quickly reversed out onto the Boulevard and got going in the right direction. She gave the driver behind them a wave that he answered by honking briefly.
"Only that we can get Kate Marshall's autograph in the park until two o'clock," Stella said with a beaming smile on her face.
"Oh, I guess that's pretty cool. Okay? corner of West Nineteenth and Rocklin. Hmmm? West Eighteenth is still open, that's right here," Regina said and activated the SLK's turning signal as they rolled up to a yellow light. "If we go right here, we'll come down to Rocklin eventually. Then we have to double back to Nineteenth Street somehow. Of course, it's impossible to say how big the crowd will be once we get there."
"Yeah. Thanks for being such a friend, friend. I really, really appreciate it," Stella said and reached over to pat Regina's thigh. The same split second she did so, the traffic lights turned green and Regina immediately stepped on the gas, causing Stella's hand to slip backwards.
What was meant to be an innocent pat on the thigh ended up being something rather more adult, and Stella withdrew her hand with the speed of a striking rattlesnake when she realized where it had ended up. Blushing furiously, she looked anywhere but at Regina - unfortunately, it meant that she completely missed one of the former model's patented two-hundred watt smiles.
"? Kate is one of the few celebrities who have managed to keep their spouse mostly out of the spotlight," Stella said as she and Regina were walking around the block to get to the park. "They were together at the Emmy's, and Gawd, did her wife look fantastic. Oh, boy, real Greek Goddess stuff. Actually, she did kinda look like? ah, never mind."
Feeling brave, she sought out Regina's hand, hoping that her tall friend wouldn't shy away from it. When she felt the former model's long fingers close on her own, she broke out into a relieved smile and began to swing their arms back and forth. "Of course, if she was married to another celebrity, it would be more difficult to organize, but her wife is a? Federal? agent? so? What in the world is going on with all those people up there??" Stella said and pointed at large group of people of all ages who were loitering in the middle of the sidewalk.
Suddenly realizing that they had found the back end of a line of people that looked like it could reach twice around the block and halfway to the moon, Stella's chin began to quiver and she bared her teeth in a disappointed snarl. "Oh? oh, shoot. That's the line for the autographs?"
"Wow, Kate Marshall must be really popular," Regina said, giving Stella's hand a little squeeze. When the squeeze wasn't reciprocated, she bit her lip and glanced down at her blonde friend who seemed to have lost her ability to speak.
Instead of speaking, Stella just sighed deeply. "Well," she said after a little while. "I guess that's that."
Taking the binoculars, she tried to zoom in on the end of the line, but found that it snaked its way around a corner and into the park.
Regina checked her wristwatch, which read one thirty. "Hey, don't despair, Stell. We still got at least half an hour, plus maybe a few minutes. She got here late, don't forget."
Putting her hands on Stella's shoulders, Regina turned her downcast friend around and spoke to her in a soft, controlled voice that she tried to keep as cheery as possible. "Stell, there's a Korean convenience store right across the street. Tell you what, I'll go over there and buy us a couple of cans of soda pop and a roll of Oreos and then we can have a little picnic here while we wait. Whaddaya say?"
"Mmmmmh," Stella said with a dazed half-shrug.
"Okay, that's a deal, then. Don't go anywhere while I get the stuff, okay? Uh, and please don't have one of your flips. Okay?" Regina said, trying a final attempt at coaxing a two-syllable response out of Stella by running her fingers down the blonde investigator's cheek - but even that didn't register.
"I'll be back in a flash."
A flash and a half later, Regina cracked open a Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz and poured some of it into a small, plastic cup. "Here you go, Stell. The owner of the convenience store has a lot of business sense, you know. The cups are free if you buy two cans of soda. If you buy a six-pack, you get a plastic Oktoberfest beer mug thrown in free of charge. Ugly thing, though. Is that enough Fizz for you, Stell?"
Staring into the plastic cup without seeing anything, Stella just nodded.
"Ooookay. Hey, he didn't have Slurrpy! Carbonated Mineral Water, so I bought a Slurrpy! Tonic instead. Fizz and Tonic, huh? Sounds like something a world class supermodel like me would get offered in a night club by a silver fox millionaire, eh?"
Sighing, Regina gave up trying to be funny and began to unravel the roll of Oreos.
Five minutes later, the line had moved nearly fifteen feet and Regina reached down to muss Stella's hair - it couldn't possibly hurt the haystack anyway. "Stell, things are looking up. Look how far we've come now. She must be able to write her name real fast, huh? Good thing she isn't called-"
"Reggie, I know you're just trying to cheer me up, but please knock it off for now. Please," Stella said and dunked an Oreo into her cup of Raspberry Fizz.
Chuckling, Regina emptied her tonic water and threw the can and the plastic cup into a trash can. "I just feel bad for you, Stell. You really wanted this? and now it's? well."
"I know. Thanks, Reggie. Ah, I'm used to it. When the day comes and some fella is tasked with writin' my epitaph, all it needs to say is 'Stella Starr: So What Else Can Go Wrong?'."
"Well, personally I think that 'Stella Starr: The best friend a woman could ever hope to have' would be a much better fit, Stella-dahling," Regina said, wrapped her arm around Stella's shoulder and gave it a little squeeze.
"Thanks, Reggie," Stella said, feeling some of her spirit return - it didn't hurt that the line took a veritable leap forward, moving ten feet ahead in a single go.
A few minutes later, Regina and Stella both reacted to the same thing at the exact same time.
"Whoa, did you see that?" -- "Stell, did you see that man?" they both said in unison.
Chuckling, Stella crushed her plastic cup and threw it into the nearest trash can. "I guess we did."
"Yeah. A pickpocket."
"An honest-to-goodness son of a dung beetle pickpocket. Working the people waiting for Kate Marshall's autograph? boy, that makes me mad, Reggie. These people are here to have a good time, not to have it ruined by some lowlife douche trying to make a cheap buck." As she spoke, Stella's voice gained a steely undertone that held a promise of a swift and just payback if she could get her hands on the man in question. "Where is he now?"
"Sizing up a new victim," Regina said, looking above the heads of most of the people in the line.
"Yikes, he's got some nerve going back for seconds so quickly! Or maybe he's just so bombed out he doesn't know what he's doing."
"Mmmm, could be. He's sort of that type, Stell."
The man at the center of their attention was in his early twenties, quite pale and skinny and with greasy, reddish hair partially hidden under a blue baseball cap. He had a scraggly half-beard and mustache in the same color as his hair and he had tattoos on his hands and up his arms. He was wearing black track shoes, gray sweatpants and a blue-and-red windbreaker where the sleeves were rolled up to give him better access.
Casually looking around, Stella tried to find out if they could rely on help from the security people that were bound to be there to take care of Kate Marshall, but the only one she could see was a man in a green fluorescent vest who was standing by himself and talking into a walkie-talkie.
With the line moving forward again, the matter started to grow into a pressing one and Stella began to bite the inside of her cheek. "Reggie, what time is it?"
"A quarter to."
"Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?"
"Depends. If you're thinking that I'm thinking that we should take care of him, then yes, I am thinking what you think I'm thinking," Stella said, zeroing in on the guy in the blue-and-red windbreaker to see what he was up to.
Turning around without breaking eye contact with the perpetrator, Stella put a hand on Regina's elbow and gave it a little squeeze. "Reggie? realistically? although the line has moved a great deal already, we'll never make it there in time. We're only just at the entrance to the park now? I really, really wanted to see Kate Marshall up close, but we'll? I'll?" - deep sigh - "? I'll just have to find another way to do that. And besides, I know for a fact that Kate will be really upset when she finds out that some of her fans were robbed on what was supposed to be a fun day."
"Awwww, you're such a trooper, Stell," Regina said and mussed Stella's wild hair. "I'm sure Kate would be proud of you."
"Well, you know? anyway, stay here in the line. I'll take care of everything. And, uh? if you actually get to her by some freak miracle, pleeeease pay attention to how she looks and what she says and how she says it and if she smiles at you and things like that? oh, and you can have my autograph book in case the promotional photos are sold out but what I'd like the most is one of those photos especially if it's a candid of herself and not in-character so would you mind buying one of the promotional photos if they're still there? And if she asks if you want the photo personalized, please say yes and have her make it out to me, Stella Starr, two L's, two R's, okay? Do you have all that? Reggie?"
Still digesting that diatribe of words, Regina moved her lips silently while she stored all the information in the proper boxes in her brain. Once she was done, her face lit up in a smile. "Yeah, yeah, I got it. I'll check her appearance, which is a given for me, anyway," Regina said and gave Stella a thumbs-up.
"No, Reggie, not just her-"
"I know, I know, Stell! Don't worry, I'm on top of everything. Photo if they're still there, your autograph book if they're not. And check her out from top to toe," Regina said with a beaming smile.
"Yep. All right," Stella said and dug into her rear pocket to find her autograph book. "Well, maybe not check her out as such? that would be kinda rude."
"I'm joking, Stella."
"What's your plan?" Regina said, clutching Stella's prized autograph book.
Moving out of the line, Stella casually glanced to her left to see if the pickpocket was still there - which he was. "Well, I have an idea. You'll see when I get back? oh, and you don't know me. I need the keys for the Merc."
Handing Stella the keys, Regina leaned in to wink conspiratorially. "Gotcha. An easy disguise would be to comb your hair, Stell. Would alter your appearance com-plete-ly," Regina said, smoothing down her own ponytail.
Coming to a screeching halt at the tail end of the SLK, Stella quickly opened the trunk and pulled her Bag of Disguises towards her. Soon, various clothing items flew left and right through the trunk while she kept a running commentary on their relative merits:
"Bob the plumber? not this time, wouldn't work at all here. And I left my mustache back home. Irate ex-girlfriend? no, I wouldn't want to give anyone a wrong impression? Dumpster queen? hmmm, yeah, that's better. If I took the wig and the overcoat from that costume and paired it with a shawl and the extendible cane? no, not the shawl. Wouldn't be seen under the overcoat anyhow. All right, wig, overcoat, cane? and the Batman-spectacles. Yep. Oh, and the fake alligator skin handbag."
After looking left and right to make sure that she wasn't being observed, Stella quickly zipped her hoodie and put on the pale brown overcoat, noting with some dismay and plenty of nose-crinkling that it needed to be taken to the Laundromat sooner rather than later. Reaching into the trunk, she quickly donned the curly, gray wig, the Batman-spectacles and a pair of pink, frilly, lace gloves that fit the costume perfectly.
Getting into character, she hunched over, pretending to be an old, frail woman who was merely out trying to get an autograph for her granddaughter. Once she had checked that the licensed counterfeit money was still in the fake alligator handbag, she pulled what looked like $300 halfway out of it and left the bills sitting unprotected in the opening.
Grinning from ear to ear, Stella finished her preparations by extending the black walking stick and closing the trunk of the Mercedes. With a pained groan, she turned around and began to shuffle back towards the line of people, walking like someone who'd had arthritis in both hips for the best part of a century.
Meanwhile, Regina was trying to keep up with the progress of the line, the workings of the man they were after and the general chit-chat of the people surrounding her. Nodding and smiling at appropriate intervals, she had no idea whatsoever what the fans of Kate Marshall were talking about, but she faked it to the best of her abilities.
In front of her, two young women in their early twenties with hip hairstyles and dressed in sporty sweatsuits and white track shoes were comparing two photos of the omnipresent Kate, debating loudly with the person standing next in line on which outfit suited the star best.
"Jeans and a sweater. All natural. That's when she's the most sexy," the first of the two young women said, thumping her finger down on a promotional photo of Kate wearing regular clothes while standing in front of something that looked like a barn. Her companion nodded in agreement.
The person in front of them - a woman in her mid-thirties - held up another photo, one of Kate Marshall in a Princess-like pose wearing an extravagant black dress. "Yeah, sure, to a certain extent, but look at this? this is sexy no matter where you come from."
"Oooh, that's from the Emmy's. How did you get a copy of that?" the first of the young, sporty women said.
Leaning in, Regina deadpanned: "She probably got it from womack.com. Oh, and take it from a professional? everyone can slap on a pair of jeans but it takes plenty of class to wear a dress cut like that, and Kate's got it in spades. The dress is the most sexy."
All three women who had been debating the photos stopped what they were doing, spun around and stared at Regina. "That's wokam.com, actually," the first of the two sporty women said in a voice that held a growly undertone. "And she's sexiest in jeans and a sweater." Her companion nodded in agreement.
"Okay. Suit yourself," Regina said, pulling back before she'd get caught up in a catfight.
A rhythmical tap-groan-tap-groan-tap-groan soon heralded Stella's arrival, but when Regina turned around to sneak a glance at her, she found that 'the old lady' was walking a bit too slowly for her liking.
As Stella shuffled past attracting plenty of attention from the people in the line - some of which pointed and whispered and some of which merely stared - Regina looked past the hunched-over figure to see what the man in the blue-and- red windbreaker thought of the bait.
As expected, his interest was piqued at once and he began to inch closer without appearing to do so.
Regina could see by the cat-like way the man moved and by the swiftness of his fingers that he was a seasoned professional, and she began to worry that Stella was in over her head for once. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Regina assumed her game face and got ready to assist Stella if the need arose. Checking her wristwatch, she could see that it was now eight minutes to the hour.
Ten yards further ahead, Stella stopped and put her hand to the small of her back, adding a pained groan for effect. Looking through the Batman-spectacles that weren't as strong as her own, she could hazily see the man sizing her up - or rather, drawing plans on how to get the money that was sticking out of the handbag without attracting attention to himself.
Just as she was about to resume her shuffling walk to move further ahead in the line, a small girl whom she was standing next to let out a heartbreaking cry that Stella knew all too well - it was the sound of intense disappointment.
Glancing to her right, Stella looked at the girl and her mother who was talking into a cell phone while holding her daughter's hand.
Soon, the mother crouched down and wiped away her daughter's tears with a pink hankie. "I'm sorry, baby, but we have to go home now. Daddy has come home from work earlier than planned and we didn't make dinner for him before we left? so we have to go home and do that now. We can try again tomorrow, okay?"
Hearing that, Stella's upper lip twitched quite severely and she had to clench her fists to stop herself from breaking her cover. The little girl was inconsolable and Stella could hear her cry all the way down the line until the pair had turned a corner.
Even though she felt like a heel for not being able to do anything, Stella knew she had to go on with the charade. Sighing, she turned towards the next person in line who was already on his way to close the gap that had been created. "Oh, excuse me, young man," Stella said in a trembling voice to the man who was at least in his early fifties. "Would you please let an old, frail woman have this spot? I need to get an autograph for my granddaughter, you see?"
"Yeah, all right. If it can't be helped," the man grumbled, holding out his hand to let Stella slip in ahead of him.
"Oh, thank you? thank you, young man," Stella said, grumbling inwardly over his lack of manners.
When the crook hadn't come closer to her after a few minutes, Stella began to bite her lip and shuffle around impatiently. Ahead of her, she could see that the line had been reduced to ten people between herself and the tent where she presumed Kate Marshall was sitting.
Grumbling under her breath, she began to wonder if dressing up had been the right decision - 'If Kate sees me like this, I'll leave one hell of a shitty impression? damn. And now this fella? what kind of pickpocket is he, anyway? Look at me, how can it get any juicier?? Three hundred dollars just there for the taking?'
Almost as if the man in the blue-and-red windbreaker had overheard Stella's internal conversation, he began to shuffle closer to her, looking like he was simply out to enjoy the afternoon. The man came closer and closer until he was so close that she could smell his deodorant - or rather, the lack of it.
Then everything happened at once.
Bumping into Stella ever so gently, the man reached down very casually and took the three bills sticking out of the handbag without anyone at all noticing - until the mouse trap that Stella had slipped into the handbag was sprung and slammed down on his fingers.
Screaming in pain, the man gave Stella such a hard shove that she was thrown three feet sideways with a surprised yelp; then, the man ran directly into the middle of the line to create as much confusion as possible - it worked, as the people waiting for an autograph began to yell and scream and run around like headless chickens on the way to a pie factory.
Stella let out a loud whoop quickly followed by a resounding "STOP THE THIEF!" but much to her consternation, the pandemonium was already too great for anyone to have time to react to her cry. Rolling her eyes, she grunted an "Aw hell!" and set off after the young man on her own.
One minute earlier.
Inside the tent, Kate Marshall - glamorous as ever and looking like a million dollars with her fabulous hair, her classy, tasteful makeup and her top-quality black pantsuit over a low cut V-neck ivory blouse - was sitting on a somewhat less-than-glamorous overturned wooden milk crate that her minder had brought her when they had discovered that her original chair was a rickety old contraption only fit for the scrapheap. The so-called table she had in front of her wasn't any better; in fact, it was merely two plywood planks placed atop two trestles.
When the next fan, a pretty brunette in her mid-teens, came into the tent, Kate uncapped her faithful blue waterproof pen and held it ready. "Hi. What's your name?" she said with her signature genuine smile.
"M-m-m-m-melody, Miss Marsh-sh-sh-shall," the young girl said, so nervous that she could hardly contain her stutter.
"Melody, oh, that's a pretty name," Kate said as she doodled her signature on the photo. "Are you here alone?"
"Y-yes. B-but I live just around the block?"
After handing the signed photo back to Melody, Kate reached over and took one of the $10 photos. "Oh. All right, tell you what, that photo you got there is an old one? but this one is brand new."
"I d-don't have ten-"
"Shhh, I don't either," Kate said and winked at Melody.
Smiling sweetly at the young girl, Kate had just put her blue waterproof pen to the promotional photo of herself when her senses were assaulted by Stella's wild cry, quickly followed by the sound of all hell breaking loose outside the tent.
Letting out a surprised squeal and jumping up from the wooden milk crate, Kate drew a fat line across the photo before losing her grip on the pen which tumbled end-over-end through the air, sailing unhindered through the tent before it eventually lost the uneven battle against gravity and came down directly into her lap.
Or rather, it would have if Kate's minder Janis Etherington hadn't thrown herself forward to catch it before it could stain the star's expensive pantsuit. Unfortunately, Janis hadn't counted on not being able to stop once she was in mid-flight.
On final approach, she let out a piercing howl that made Kate clap her hands over her ears and head for the hills, but even that wasn't enough to break her fall. The subsequent landing was hard enough to break the plywood table in two, sending a stack of unsigned promotional photos, four spare waterproof pens, a handful of credit-card sized Riley's Law-trading cards, a pile of white napkins, three apples, an orange, a half-eaten club sandwich on a plastic plate and finally an opened can of Slurrpy! Classic Cola on an airborne collision course with the star.
Staring wide-eyed at the gruesome, messy storm that came flying towards her, Kate felt time slow down to a crawl as she tried to bob, duck and weave out of the way.
First, the waterproof pens screamed past her, acting like little, blue-capped plastic spears - then she was attacked by the apples and the orange that threatened to upset her perfect hair. Once they had flown past her, ending up down on the floor of the tent with a resounding bump-bump-bump-squash, the promotional photos and the trading cards zinged past her, narrowly missing her ears on both sides.
Just when Kate thought she was safe, the half-eaten club sandwich came zooming through the air, having set its sights on her chest. Landing with a schplat, it disintegrated on impact and sent a slice of bacon and several chunks of chicken down her cleavage. A split second after that, she jumped out of the way of the huge, brown, sticky cloud of Slurrpy! Classic Cola that came tearing through the entire length of the tent before it lost momentum and splattered onto the floor.
To cap it all off, the pile of white napkins slowly fluttered down on top of the mess like an indoor snowstorm, creating an all-white spectacle that only needed a rendition of Jingle Bells to be mistaken for a Yuletide extravaganza.
"Oh? my? God?!" Kate croaked, staring wide-eyed and gap-mouthed at the unfathomable amount of destruction in the hitherto so well-ordered tent.
Down on the floor, Janis Etherington scrambled to her feet, holding the waterproof pen that would have hit Kate if she hadn't acted so quickly. Grinning proudly, she put the cap on the pen and put it into her pocket.
"Oh? oh, no, look at that, ohh? ugh?! There's a piece of chicken in my bra!" Kate said sternly, sticking her fingers down her cleavage to try to fish out the offending item. When she found the slice of bacon instead, she realized with a rising degree of horror that she had more than just poultry down there - there was a copious amount of curry-laced mayo as well. "Oh Gaaaaawd," she croaked, looking at her soaked fingers.
At that exact moment, the second assistant director - wearing a headset and holding a clipboard - entered the tent intending to tell Kate that the lunch break was over and that the director requested her presence back on the set. Seeing the destruction and the state of the star, he spun around on his heel and sprinted back out.
One minute earlier.
When Stella screamed "STOP THE THIEF!", Regina jumped into action and put out her arms to try to hinder the young man's progress. Bobbing up and down and left and right, she tried to predict which way he would run through the line of people, but when he finally got close to her, the woman with the photo of Kate Marshall wearing the dress from the Emmy's came around the wrong way and ended up slamming into her, stepping on her toes and upsetting her hair.
"OWWW! My foot? MY HAIR!" Regina howled and quickly moved her hands up to control her dark locks. At that exact moment, the pickpocket shot past her going at an estimated twenty miles an hour - whatever his speed, it was enough to send both of the sporty young women pirouetting into Regina and nearly knocking her on her rear.
"I gotta get out of this mess!" Regina howled as she tried to control her hair, hold Stella's autograph book and hop around on one foot all at the same time.
When a gap opened up in the unruly sea of wildly screaming men, women and children who all behaved like they were on the Titanic and had only just found out that there weren't enough lifeboats for everyone, the opportunity to get out finally presented itself to Regina and she grabbed it with both hands.
Just when she thought she was in the clear, she was hit across the face by a stray carrier bag that wrapped itself around her nose and threatened to upset her hair all over again. Yelling in surprise, Regina tore and tore and tore at the facehugging fabric until it finally gave up the ghost and fluttered to the ground.
Wearing a murderous expression on her face, Regina looked around to see if she could point out the person who had whacked her, but the line of people had been reduced to something akin to the walls of Jericho - post-collapse - making it impossible to draw out the perpetrator. Growling throatily, Regina set off into the park after the pickpocket.
Meanwhile, Stella chased the pickpocket around the park, swinging her cane and yelling at the top of her lungs to get someone, anyone, to give her a helping hand.
"Oh? I can't? aw hell? I'll never? where? is? Reggie?!" she said in between panting like a steam locomotive with a tear in the boiler. The heavy overcoat was hindering her progress quite severely, but it had cost nearly fifty dollars so she didn't want to leave out of sight for too long.
Suddenly, she noticed Regina's long-legged figure running towards her and the pickpocket, waving her hands in the air and letting out an impressive barrage of cusswords that left even the fairly salty Stella cringing in embarrassment.
When the pickpocket realized that he was now faced with a second front in the shape of a six-foot-one woman with steam coming out of her ears, he made an about-face and doubled back towards the elderly lady with the cane, thinking that he would have a better chance in a one-on-one with her.
Surprised that the pickpocket came back at her, Stella stopped with a screech and held out her cane yelling "Stop! Stop, you miserable no-good sonofa?" but the pickpocket just slipped past her, giving her overcoat a tug as he did so.
The tug wasn't hard enough to tear the coat apart, but it was enough to send Stella into a stumbling, fumbling attempt at staying upright. Just as she had regained her balance, Regina came storming past her on her other side, blowing her wig clean off and sending her into a new stumbling, fumbling balancing act to stay erect.
"Aw hell, this day is going from bad to worse," Stella mumbled under her breath as she tried to keep her disguise in one piece. Bending down, she picked up the wig and dusted it off against the overcoat. She tried to put it back on, but she couldn't get her fingers coordinated in the heat of the moment and she eventually gave up and shoved it into one of her coat pockets instead.
With a sigh, she set off after Regina and the pickpocket.
Two minutes later, Regina and Stella had managed to corner the pickpocket in the park's playground which was made up of a twin swing, a small merry-go-round, a sand pit and finally a see-saw.
The man was standing behind the see-saw, dodging first left, then right to stay out of the two women's grasp. Looking over his shoulder, he could see that only a narrow line of shrubbery stood between him and West Nineteenth Street.
"Give it up, fella? you can't escape. The cops will be here shortly," Regina said, knowing full well that it was a lie because there wasn't even a single siren to be heard anywhere.
"Yeah, right," the man said in a squeaky voice that didn't suit his exterior at all.
"You should listen to my friend, buster. How's your fingers, huh? Getting a little lurrrve from my mousetrap, huh? Huh?" Stella said, wiping a fistful of sweat off her forehead.
Grimacing grotesquely at his two captors, the pickpocket suddenly jerked right. When Stella and Regina bought his ruse, he immediately set off to his left, slamming the see-saw down as he went past it to hinder his pursuers.
Regina narrowly avoided getting whacked by the see-saw, and - miraculously - so did Stella. Unfortunately, in her eagerness to get out of the see-saw's path, she didn't see where she put her feet and ended up on the merry-go-round.
"YEEEEEOOOW-YEOW-YEOW-YEOW-YEOOOOOOOH!" she howled as the merry-go-round spun around and around at insane speed, taking her on four complete revolutions before spitting her out like a bad tooth. Once her feet were back on solid ground, she zig-zagged across the playground and over to the shrubbery, moaning and groaning loudly the entire way.
"What kept ya, Stell?" Regina said when Stella had finally found the direct path to her. "He went that-a-way," she continued, pointing in through the shrubbery.
"Well? ebblh? let's go? blegh? after him? bluh? then," Stella croaked, looking fairly green around the gills.
Pointing at a thorny bush, Regina shook her head. "Hell-lo?! If you wanna go through that, be my guest. I don't want my shirt ripped by those thorns, thank you very much. Let's go around and see if we can find a safe way out of the park."
"Oh? oh, all right," Stella said with a shrug. As she was turning around, she suddenly caught a glimpse of the pickpocket's blue-and-red windbreaker sneaking around on the street. "Oh? look! There he is! He's about to go into one of the other tents! Aw hell, I gotta stop him before he steals from Kate!" Stella said, pulled the sturdy overcoat over her head and barged her way through the thorny bush, leaving a gobsmacked Regina in her wake.
Once she was through the bushes, Stella moved the overcoat back down and turned around to signal her tall friend who was still standing on the other side. "No sweat!" Stella whispered, sending Regina a thumbs-up before hunching over and scooting off.
At the same time, Kate Marshall was standing in the middle of the wardrobe tent being tended to by no less than eight people - two makeup artists, a hair-care specialist, a wardrobe assistant who was holding the ruined pantsuit and ivory blouse, the script supervisor, the continuity checker who held up several Polaroids to see if the makeup was applied consistently with the previous take, the stunt coordinator who was waiting impatiently to bring her up to speed on the next scene and finally the second assistant director who was practically wringing the skin off his hands, worrying about the chewing-out he'd get if he didn't deliver the star back to the director in an almighty hurry.
The very definition of the Eye of the Storm, Kate was perfectly serene in the center of the madness, staying on top of things by blanking out everything that went on around her. Attempting to enter the 'zone' where she knew her performance would hit the sweet spot, she began to mouth a few of her lines to prepare for the next scene.
Then someone's cell phone started ringing.
The third time Do-Wah-Diddy-Diddy rang out, she opened her eyes and looked around the crowd of people standing close to her. "Will someone please answer that phone? I'm trying to concentrate here!"
Taking a break from stroking Kate's cheek with a broad brush, one of the make-up artists shot her a curious look. "It's your own, dear," he said, adding a mumbled 'Tshhh!' at the end.
"Oh? hey, who changed my ring tone? Sheesh!" Kate said and put out her hand. One second later, Janis Etherington, her minder who had been sitting on a safari chair in the corner of the tent, had flipped it open and put it into her hand.
"Oh, hi, honey!" Kate said; her voice melting into a puddle at the sound of her wife's dulcet tones at the other end of the connection.
"No, everything's going just fine. Sort of."
"Oh, it's a hard shoot, you know. They always are. It's a three-ring circus, but I'm used to that."
"Awwww, no, we won't be done by then. We're going to run over schedule today."
"Yeah? I'm afraid so. We need to take a rain check on that."
"Well, that does sound tempting. Please save some?" Shifting her cell to her other ear, Kate suddenly noticed that the people around her were all eavesdropping on her conversation. "Hey, could I have some privacy here, please? Thank you!"
"No, CJ, that's all right. You don't need to come up here and kick everyone's butt."
"What I wanted to say was? please save some hot water for me for when I get home, okay? I had a little incident with some mayo today and you know how sticky that is. I got most of it out? but it could stay there for weeks if it isn't given a good scrub with a sponge and plenty of bubbles."
"Yeah," Kate said, snickering into the phone.
Then the second assistant director got a call from the director on his walkie-talkie that left no doubt at all that Kate should be down the other end of West Nineteenth Street, and he started tugging at her sleeve to get her on the move.
Still sneaking around, Stella came up to the corner of a large tent. Looking around it, she couldn't see the pickpocket anywhere, but she noticed that a golf cart had been parked in front of the entrance to the tent.
When she recognized the golf cart as the one Kate Marshall had been chauffeured in, she nearly let out a giddy whoop but managed to keep it inside. Taking a final, sweeping look after the pickpocket and coming up short, her curiosity got the better of her and she tip-toed away from the corner of the tent and over to the golf cart.
At the exact same time, the curtain blocking the entrance to the large tent was swept aside and two people stepped out onto the closed street: the second assistant director and Kate Marshall.
Still talking to her wife over the phone, Kate's eyes narrowed dangerously when she realized that someone wearing a hideous pale brown overcoat - and sporting a wild mop of dirty-blonde hair - was giving her golf cart a very close inspection.
"Hey! Do you mind?" Kate said loudly to catch the person's attention.
Instantly recognizing the voice, Stella spun around, moving so fast that her gray wig flew out of her pocket and fell down on the asphalt. Her face flushed fire engine red and she became so tongue-tied that she couldn't even croak.
When Kate got a better look at the other person, her face mellowed and she let out a brief chuckle. "Oops? sorry, Lisa, I didn't recognize you in that monstrosity," Kate said as she began to walk towards the person she thought was her stunt double. "Boy, what did you do to upset the slave driver? Stub out a cigarette in his coffee? Who are you doubling today? ?Lisa?"
As Kate came closer, a nagging feeling told her that something was wrong. The other person's figure wasn't like Lisa Carlson's at all; this person's features were round and soft instead of wiry and athletic. Then it dawned on her - she was looking at a reasonable facsimile of herself.
"GAAAAHHH!" Kate howled and took a large step backwards to get away from the other person. "Y-y-y-y-y-you look exactly like me! How is that possible?! GAH!"
At the other end of the connection, Kate's wife hollered into the telephone: 'That's it! I don't care if I blow this stakeout! I'm hijacking a chopper! I'm coming to rescue you, baby!'
Still reeling from the unexpected sight, Kate took another step backwards, bumping into the second assistant director who was as flabbergasted as she was. "Wh-wh-what did you do? It must've cost you a million dollars in plastic surgery alone to get my face!"
Hearing that, Stella finally snapped out of her stupor and raised her Batman-spectacles, causing Kate to take yet another step back when she caught a glimpse of two green orbs identical to her own. "Uh? buh? buh? but? no! I don't have your face! I mean, I've always had this face! My Mom gave it to me!" Stella stuttered.
"Oh? not like that! Ohhhh, this isn't going the way I planned it?" Stella said and bent down to retrieve the wig.
As the gray bundle of hair moved in the wind, Kate pulled her lips back in a horrified grimace that didn't ease off at all until Stella shoved the wig into her coat pocket.
When an outrageously fat security officer showed up holding an equally fat guard dog on a leather leash, Stella thought it was most prudent to make a hasty exit. Pulling the overcoat up over her head, she mumbled a quick "Excuse me," and sprinted back towards the thorny bush, thinking how indecently pretty Kate Marshall had been in person - and cursing her rotten luck that had ruined everything yet again.
Biting her fingernails, Regina was pacing back and forth near the abandoned tent that had been used for the autograph session prior to its wrecking. The site where the line of people had been was deserted, save for someone's shoe and the usual debris left behind by any large crowd - candy wrappers, a torn plastic bag and a half-eaten ice cream cone that had most likely slipped from a child's fingers.
The statuesque former model received the occasional wolf call and more than one adult proposition from the workers who were dismantling the set, but she shrugged them all off, getting increasingly worried that something had happened to Stella.
Finally, Stella came out of the park, shuffling along in a very downcast fashion. Dragging the extendible cane behind her, the corners of the blonde investigator's mouth had almost reached the same low level, and all in all, she looked so depressed that Regina's heart was filled with a basic need to hold and comfort her.
Leaping forward, Regina hurriedly closed the distance between them. Once they were close enough, she stretched out her arms and pulled Stella into a warm embrace that she felt her respond to almost at once.
Behind them, the workers who were standing nearby began to hoot and holler, but Regina simply ignored the peanut gallery.
Pulling back, Regina saw that Stella had shed a few tears and she reached up and wiped them away with her thumb without hesitating for even a second. "Hey, Stell. I'm glad to see you in one piece. I heard a big dog barking and I was worried that you had been turned into mincemeat."
"Thanks, Reggie," Stella said quietly. "I'm fine. I just wish I'd be able to do something right? just one thing? just once in my life."
"What happened?" Regina said as she hooked her arm inside Stella's and began to walk back to the car.
"I met Kate Marshall. Face to face."
"Oh, that's good!"
"I freaked her out."
"Oh? that's bad?"
"She thought I was some crazed psycho-fan who had? had? had plastic surgery to get to look like her?"
"You said something like that, too, Reggie. I don't get it? she's a thousand times prettier than I am?"
"Okay, now wait just a min-"
"She's solid gold and I'm just something you've scraped off the sole of a nasty, stinky old tennis shoe?"
"And I didn't even get her autograph? and now I never will because Kate must think I'm some sort of whacked-out nut job so-called fan with a plastic surgery fetish and I didn't even get to show her my rainbow belt and I'll never be able to get close to her again because she'll just sic her security people on me and throw me in jail for stalking and then I'll end my days as a sugarbaby for an inmate called Lady Rhubarb or Candy Cane or-"
"STELLA! Will you knock it off?"
"-Ice Pick? uh, whut?"
Pulling them to a stop opposite the Korean convenience store, Regina turned around and put her hand on Stella's cheek. "Knock it off, please. You're here and in one piece? that's all that matters. I was worried sick about you, Stell."
"Oh? you were?"
Suddenly realizing where Regina's hand was, Stella blushed crimson red and raised her hand to put it on top of the model's.
"Yes," Regina whispered, looking deeply into Stella's eyes.
The moment was broken by a car driving past, but by then, their connection had already been firmly established - and Stella's Batman-style glasses had fogged up even worse than her regular pair would have.
Feeling a warm wave flowing through her, Stella began to wonder if she had dreamt everything that had happened so far - biting her cheek proved that she was very much awake. 'Maybe? maybe? this is the start of the next chapter in our lives. Maybe?' she thought as they resumed walking back to the car.
"But Stell?" Regina said a minute or so later.
Pointing disdainfully at the overcoat, Regina pinched her nostrils and waved her hand under her nose. "Please change back into your regular clothes as soon as possible. That overcoat stinks! And it's the most hideous, classless, mind-numbingly awful thing we have in any of our Bags of Disguises?"
Laughing out loud, Stella leaned in and bumped shoulders with her best friend. "I know. It's just so bad? but it works great for the dumpster queen outfit. Oooh, while we're on the subject of high fashion, Kate was wearing a very fine black pantsuit over an ivory blouse?"
"Yeah, and? uh, how d'ya think I'd look in such a combo??" Stella said in a slurred mumble as they came up to stand beside their Mercedes. Ducking her head down between her shoulders, she tried to look anywhere but at Regina's face while she waited for an answer to the unusual question.
"Oh, wow, Stell! To use your own words, you'd be solid gold."
"Hell, yeah! Of course, we'd still have to do something about your hair? maybe we'd need to start over. Would you mind having your head shaved?"
"Oh, Reggie!" Stella howled and threw her wig at the former model.
Ten minutes later, they left Midtown behind and went out onto the Boulevard that would eventually lead them home. Stopping at the intersection at Fifteenth Street, Stella casually looked to her right and saw a fast food restaurant. Trying not to think about food - her nervousness had prevented her from eating anything beyond a couple of cheese crackers and three Oreos - she looked the other way.
Unfortunately, the second corner of the intersection was also owned by a fast food restaurant as were the third and fourth corners. The results were inevitable.
"Stella-dahling, are we hungry?" Regina said as the traffic lights turned green.
"We're hungry, Reggie-dahling," Stella said, patting her growling stomach. Chuckling, she pushed her glasses up her nose, having put her own pair back on when she changed clothes. "Can we make a quick detour into one of them?"
"Sure. Which one? Pizza, burgers, Mexican or?" Regina craned her neck to see what the fourth restaurant offered. "Uh? soul food??"
"Oops, that's right here," Regina said and made a right-turn onto the parking lot that would have made a professional stunt driver jealous.
As they bumped over the speed bump at the entrance to the parking lot of Uncle Greezy's Family Restaurant, Stella's glasses nearly flew off her nose, but she managed to keep them on by slamming her hand onto her face. "Reggie!"
"Speed bump! Suspension! The leasing company will skin us alive if there's anything wrong with it when we deliver it back?!"
"Oh, I know. Boy, look at all these cars? and soccer-mom-mobiles! What's going on here?"
The parking lot was filled by row after row of minivans of various makes and models, and it took Regina and Stella three complete tours to find a spot. When they finally did get one, it was so far from the restaurant itself they might as well have parked on the other side of the Boulevard.
Standing upright in the seat and staring out over the vast sea of metal roofs, Stella let out an impressed whistle. "Holy anchovy, Reggie, what's this all about?"
"Beats me. You want to try one of the other places?"
"Nah? I'm curious. And it's been a while since I've had a Super Greezy Twin Deluxe," Stella said and opened the SLK's door. Taking a deep breath, she popped her rear end out of the bucket seat and made a run for it - but this time, her luck didn't hold up and she bounced into the curb stone that had been hiding out of sight from inside the car.
As she fell backwards onto the seat, she let out an explosive blue streak that she had kept bottled up inside her ever since the day had started to go wrong back when they had joined the tail end of the line of people. Growing in intensity for each passing second, the volcanic hissy fit - containing nearly all of her favorite '?ucker' words - eventually became so bad that it stopped traffic out on the Boulevard.
Feeling the strain on her eardrums, Regina reached into the glove box, found the half-eaten roll of Oreos, unpacked one and stuck it into Stella's yap, blocking the one-way conversation in a highly efficient and eco-friendly manner.
Chewing happily on the cookie, Stella calmed down - a bit - but the fire wasn't fully extinguished until Regina held out her hand and helped her out of the car. "Thank you," - munch, munch - "Reggie, I" - munch, munch - "needed" - munch, munch - "a hand."
"You're welcome. And no shit."
Once inside the restaurant, Regina and Stella faced an entire battalion of small children running around, playing noisily. A poster held in bright colors fixed onto a three-legged easel proudly proclaimed that 'Uncle Greezy will come out and play with you all on Thursday at three!'
"Uncle Greezy," Stella said with a chuckle, shaking her head at the silliness.
"Well, those kids seem to be happy enough even without Uncle Greezy," Regina added flatly.
Looking beyond the sea of snowsuit-clad kids, Stella studied the colorful displays above the registers - in particular the one marked 'special offers'. "Yeah. Oh, look, Reggie, the Super Twin Deluxe is on special offer this week! I gotta have one. And there's hardly any line at the registers so that's just perfect? for a change. What'll you have?"
"A Cheezy Greezy. And a mineral water."
"I'm not sure they have mineral water here, Reggie."
"Well, if they don't, I'd like an iced tea."
"All right. One Stick-In-The-Mud menu coming right up," Stella said with a cheeky gleam in her eye. "It's on me. Try to find a seat while I buy our Greezy goods."
"You got it, Stell," Regina said and began to scan the restaurant for a vacant table.
"Nothing?" Stella said as she held a tray loaded down with three burgers, a medium-sized box of fries, an iced tea, a Slurrpy! Classic Cola - they were out of Cherry Cola - two packs of ketchup, one pack of extra spicy salsa sauce, one pack of Texas Barbecue sauce, four straws, four napkins and a small, worthless plastic toy dump truck that they had given her despite her protestations.
"Not even a single empty table. What's with the three burgers?" Regina said, staring at the loaded tray.
"I bought an extra Super Twin Deluxe for myself to compensate for the miserable day."
"Oh? that's where the?" - Regina put her fingers to her sides and pretended to grab two love handles - "? you-know-whats come from, Stella."
"Which I don't have, thankyouverymuch."
"Well, not yet, but if you keep on-"
"Look, can we have this argument later? Like in twenty years? My stomach is empty and my tray is full and I'd like to reverse that statement. So there!" Stella said, looking around the restaurant.
While Stella had been buying the food, Uncle Greezy had come out from behind the counters and had lured all the children into playing the most noisy game the world had ever experienced.
"Uggh? no, let's go out and eat in the car, Reggie. This is just too much."
"Eat in the car? My car? My Mercedes?"
Turning around, Stella nodded in the direction of the double doors to get Regina to open them. "Sure. Why not? We've eaten in my Pacer dozens of times."
"Mmmmm-yeah, well? your seats are so stained you could lose an entire Deluxe in one of 'em," Regina said and opened the door to let Stella wiggle her way out of the restaurant.
"Oh, ha ha, Missy Long Legs. Less humor and more eating, please. I'm starving here!"
Upon returning to their car, they noticed at once that four police officers were busy closing the one-way street going past the parking lot by putting up traffic cones and rolling out plenty of bright yellow demarcation tape.
"Hey? now what? Don't they realize that if they close that road, the parking lot will be boxed in??" Stella said, adjusting her grip on the tray.
"At least we have a ringside seat," Regina said as she unlocked the Mercedes and lowered the hardtop.
"Yeah, but? that means we can't leave either, you know."
Opening the driver's side door, Regina quickly popped out the cupholders and put the two soft drinks down into them. "True. Let's see what happens," she said as she relieved the tray of the three burgers and the various accessories.
Four minutes later, two police cruisers, a flatbed truck loaded with flood lights, two identical black limousines, a white sedan and two large vans with 'Redlight Productions' logos on the side came screeching around the corner and up to the roadblock.
"Oh?!" Stella said around a mouthful of Super Greezy Twin Deluxe. "What is that? A Presidential motorcade?"
"With a flatbed truck? I have a feeling it might not be," Regina said, taking a bite out of her salsa-soaked Cheezy Greezy - a.k.a. a grilled cheese sandwich - and slurping her iced tea.
The original four police officers quickly removed the traffic cones to allow the vehicles to pass, and they all did, except the white sedan which pulled over to the side.
The car had barely stopped when all four doors were opened. The four people inside quickly exited the car and began to talk amongst each other. One of them was a five-foot-four woman in a black pantsuit and with a shock of golden-blonde hair.
"OOUHMPF!" Stella shouted through a far-too-large mouthful of fries. "THATFSH KATEMMMPFH MARMPFSHALL!"
"OOUHMPF!" she said again and struggled to stand up so she could see better.
Champing brutally on the French fries to get them down before she choked on them, Stella's jaw moved in such a frenetic fashion that Regina had no choice but to surrender to a loud belly laugh that nearly made her drop her iced tea.
"Just laugh, Missy. Here, hold my burger!" Stella said once she had swallowed the fries. Reaching down, she thrust her half-eaten Super Greezy Twin Deluxe into Regina's hand and then began to pat the entire length of the dashboard.
"Aw hell, where's my binoculars? I coulda sworn I just had them," she said, not bothering to look where she patted.
"Watch my hair! I don't want your sticky fingers in my hair, Stell!" Regina said and tried to pull back from Stella's probing fingers - all in all, she succeeded, even if she did get a blob of grease on the tip of her nose. "Oh? Ewww? They're not on the dashboard, Stell. You put 'em in the glovebox when we got here, remember?"
"Would you mind getting them for me?" Stella said, shielding her eyes from the sun.
Rolling her eyes, Regina looked down at herself to make a quick inventory: "Okay, let's see? an iced tea in one hand, a sticky slice of beef in the other, a tray with my own Cheezy Greezy on my lap and a blob of grease on my nose that's about to drop down onto my shirt. Hell-lo, Stell!"
"Hello, Reggie??" Stella said without bothering to look down. After a few seconds, Regina's words registered and she sat down, opened the glovebox and took the binoculars herself. "Sorry," she said sheepishly, thinking hard about placing a little kiss on Regina's cheek to make it better. At the very last moment, she lost her courage and shot back upright instead.
Chuckling, Regina took a long slurp from her iced tea. She briefly sniffed the Greezy Deluxe but crinkled her nose and put it down on the tray. Once she had wiped the grease off her fingers and nose, she picked up her Cheezy sandwich and craned her neck to look in the direction of the roadblock. "Can you see anything?"
"Sort of. They've erected a couple of tents like the one back at the park. Kate is still talking to a woman who is holding a clipboard. There's also a man who was with her when I met her before? Oh? something's happening. Another guy is getting into one of the black limos? and? he's? starting it and driving down to the other end of the dead-end street. What do you think they'll do down there, Reggie?"
"A stunt sequence, maybe?? I don't know," Regina said and wolfed down the rest of her sandwich. Once she had wiped her fingers again, she put the tray up on the dashboard and opened her door. "But we're about to find out. C'mon, let's go, Stell. We're goin' a-movie star-huntin'."
"YIPPIE!" Stella shouted and moved to jump out of the car. Almost at once, she reconsidered and took the slow, but safe, way out by sitting down, opening the door and stepping out, mindful not to fumble over the curb stone.
Once she had both feet on the asphalt, she extended the strap for her binoculars and put them around her neck, snatched her Slurry! Classic Cola, her remaining fries, her half-eaten Super Greezy Twin Deluxe, the other Deluxe and finally two of the napkins. Fully armed, she stood up straight and closed the car door with her butt. "Reddy for ac-shun!" she said in a mock Austrian accent.
Regina and Stella arrived at a better vantage point just in time to see Kate Marshall and the director come out of one of the tents and walk down towards a camera mount that had been built on the street.
Once there, Kate looked into the ocular and then nodded her approval at the director.
"Oooh, I think they're getting ready to shoot now," Stella said, smacking her lips in the air to try to get the straws into her mouth so she could suck up the last of her cola.
"Looks like it," Regina said, reaching over to guide the straws between Stella's pink lips.
"Thanks," - slurp, slurp - "Reggie. Kate is" - slurp, slurp - "moving down" - slurp! - "towards the car now." - slurp, slurp, slurp - "Oh? no she's" - slurp! slurp - "not. She's going back" - slurp, slurp! - "to the tent again." - slurp, slurp - "I wonder what" - slurp! slurp - "that's all about??"
The question was answered when the black limousine reversed back from its position at the end of the dead-end street. The director leaned into the driver's side window and gave the driver a few directions - then he went back to the camera.
'Standby! Standby! And Action! Action! Action!' the director shouted into his bullhorn.
The driver of the black limousine stepped on the gas and tore down towards the end of the dead-end street. Before he made it all the way there, he slammed on the brakes which made the heavy vehicle veer sideways with wildly screeching tires, ending up parked across the street in a cloud of tiresmoke.
'And Cut! Cut! Cut!' the director shouted, setting off all sorts of activity from the people waiting behind the camera.
Taking a huge bite out of her second Deluxe, Stella began to champ on it, staring at the action with wide, shining eyes. "Ohhhh?" - munch, munch - "this is" - munch, munch - "SO exciting!" - munch, munch - "Don't you think it's" - munch, munch - "exciting, Reggie?"
Emptying her iced tea, Regina simply nodded and said: "Yep."
Working swiftly, the film crew took a Steadicam and set off down towards the waiting limousine, closely followed by Kate, another actor dressed to look like a police officer and finally a make-up artist who was holding what looked like a large briefcase.
Almost forgetting to chew, Stella observed everything through her binoculars. When Kate followed the makeup artist into the limousine after talking to the director and the actor in the uniform, Stella swallowed loudly and jumped to her feet. "Oh? I can't see it? I need to get higher."
"How much higher?" Regina said and stood up next to her friend.
"Piggy-back time," Regina said and hunched over.
"No, I couldn't? I'd crease your shirt?"
"We'll square that later. C'mon, Stell? jump up on my back."
"Oh, will you just jump me, Stell?"
The fairly innocuous words had such a drastic effect on the skin on Stella's cheeks, nose, jaw, ears, throat and neck that it looked like she had caught fire. All sorts of images floated past her mind's eye - most of them rated a couple of categories beyond PG.
Suddenly realizing that she was holding her breath, Stella let it out in an explosive burst of sizzling hot air that steamed up her glasses. She checked to see if Regina had noticed anything, but the former model was still hunched over, ready to be mounted by the trembling Stella.
"Oh? oh? oh? 'kay," Stella said and climbed up on Regina's strong back. "I'm h-here."
Gulp! - "Gawd, yes, I'm so ready," Stella croaked, not caring one bit what her voice sounded like.
"Good. Hang on, we're going up," Regina said and stretched out her legs to hoist Stella another two feet up in the air.
Using one hand to hold her balance on Regina's back and the other to hold her binoculars to her face, Stella tried to see through the steamed-up glasses but found that she needed to polish the lenses before she'd be able to see anything at all. "Uh? Gr-great? I c-can see much more from up here. In a little while?"
"I don't think you should wait that long, Stell. The director is raising his bullhorn."
"I'm p-polishing my lenses, darn it, he'll j- uh, just have to wait!"
'Standby! Smoke!' the director yelled.
Two members of the special effects team ran forward, ignited a small smoke bomb and put it underneath the limousine. 'Smoke ready!' one of them shouted as they ran back out of the frame.
'Aaaaaaaaand! Action! Action! Action!'
The actor in the police uniform stepped forward and drew his sidearm. After looking to his left - at the Steadicam unit - he proceeded to the limousine and opened the back door.
"Ohhh!" Stella said, getting a bad feeling about the scene.
The actor briefly looked in and then fired two blank rounds into the limousine.
"Ohhhh!" Stella howled, wanting to clutch her head but finding that she didn't have any spare hands to do it with.
Behind the camera, a second actor wearing blue jeans and a maroon windbreaker got his cue, and he drew a pistol and ran forward into the frame. Raising the gun, he fired twice at the actor in the police uniform who performed a perfect backwards flop onto the asphalt.
'And cut! Cut! Cut!' the director shouted.
From her vantage point a bit further up the road, Stella shook her head, knowing that she had just witnessed a gigantic spoiler for the episode. "Oh, flip? Reggie, you can let me down now. I've seen enough. I've seen more than enough?!"
"Wow, there's not going to be a happy end for Kate's character, huh?" Regina said as she dusted off her hands.
Grumbling severely, Stella finished off the second Super Greezy Twin Deluxe and swallowed loudly. "No," she grumbled. "I can't believe they did that!"
"Well, it's just a character, Stell. You can see Kate every week on that other show."
"Yeah, but? why hire a big name, an Emmy-winning actress for cryin' out loud, and then bump off her character? Maybe they're afraid that she'll steal the thunder of the regular cast. Wouldn't take much. Buncha cardboard cutouts, that's what they are?"
Looking at the crew working flat out to set up the next scene, Regina wrapped her arm around Stella's shoulders to calm her down before the grumble would fester and turn into something larger. "I know. Anyway, it looks like they're getting ready again, Stell. You wanna see it?"
'Is it just me, or does Reggie speak fluent Innuendo today?' Stella thought, biting her cheek. "Yeah, okay," she said out loud and climbed back up the tall woman's body.
'Standby!' the director yelled, making everyone in the crew go silent. 'And Action!'
The actor in the maroon windbreaker leaned into the limousine and began to tug at something. When it took too long, the director yelled 'Cut! Reset!'
"Jeez, what a doofus. Can't even pick up a woman," Stell grumbled.
'Standby! Take two? action!'
This time, the actor was able to pull Kate Marshall out of the car and carry the limp woman towards the camera.
Even from a distance, Stella could see that Kate's face and chest were covered in fake blood, making the two Deluxes, the French fries and the Slurrpy! Classic Cola perform two complete revolutions down in her stomach.
The actor lowered Kate to the ground very gently, but made a mistake at the last moment which forced Kate to put a leg to the ground in order not to drop the rest of the way.
"Aw, that dipstick! What a tenth-rate sock-in-a-jockstrap!" Stella exclaimed loudly, making Regina chuckle so hard that she nearly lost her footing.
At the third take, everything went as it should, and as the director yelled cut, the entire crew began to clap at Kate who put out her hand and took a bow.
"Hmmm? Hey Reggie, the crew is clapping at Kate? do you think that means that she's done?"
"Could be. Done for the day, at least."
"I'd like to get closer? ooooh, dare I risk it?" Stella said, biting her fingernails.
"I don't think you should."
"I'll risk it. I mean, what's the worst that could happen?"
Letting Stella down from her back, Regina stood up straight and pulled her shirt down. "Well, only that you could go to jail for stalking and end your days as a sugarbaby for Hillie, Billie, Willie and Nillie."
Groaning loudly, Stella shook her head so hard that her already wild locks turned positively electric. "No, Reggie? I need to make up for the trouble I caused back at the- HOLY SHIT!" Stella howled, slamming the binoculars to her glasses.
"What the hell?? Is Kate performing a striptease or something?" Regina said, trying to shield her eyes to see what had Stella so excited.
"Naw. It's none other than our friend? the pickpocket. Remember him?"
"How could I forget," Regina said and rolled her eyes.
"Well get this? he's wearing the same windbreaker? only now, he's got a badge on his chest that says 'crew'. Huh!"
Lowering the binoculars, Stella uttered a growl that started somewhere in the depth of her guts before working itself up through her throat. "He's a crewmember? I don't believe it. By all that's holy, we need to stop him before he steals anything from Kate."
"Uggh, didn't we already try that, Stell?"
"Yes. And now we'll try again. Come, my dear sidekick. It's time for justice!"
While Stella hunched over and ran across the parking lot to get to a small access road, Regina just put her hands on her hips and let out an insulted snort. "Sidekick! I beg her pardon! ?Shoot, I better go rescue her from herself," she said, throwing her arms in the air.
Meanwhile, inside the makeup tent, Kate Marshall sat down on a swivel-chair in front of a small, makeshift table and a mirror framed by a line of bright lights. While she was waiting for the makeup artist to begin wiping off her fake blood, she stared at her gruesome visage in the mirror and wondered if it had been the right thing to say yes to be a guest star on the show.
A minute later, the makeup artist flitted into the tent, holding a briefcase full of tools and remedies. "Oh, Miss Marshall, you were SO wonderful!" she said while she squeezed a blob of something odd-looking out of a tube and began mixing it with another strange substance that came from a small jar without a label on the lid.
"Oh yes, you were quite extraordinary. So convincing and lifelike. Why, you were-"
"Actually, all I did was to lie flat on my back on the street and die in a closeup," Kate said flatly.
"Yes, yes, but it was SO wonderfully done!" the makeup artist said, gushing to such an extent that Kate just knew that she was faking it.
"Mmm-hmmm," Kate said again, paying no attention to the hot air let out by the woman working on stripping the war paint off her face.
To her left, the curtain was moved aside and Sean Scott, the actor who couldn't pull Kate out of the car and then nearly dropped her on her butt, came in with his cell phone glued to his ear. "No, bro, you don't get it. Listen to me, l-i-s-t-e-n to me? I got plenty of offers from other people. Hell, I got a pre-contract from The Big Fella to star in my own show *and* get the right to choose the co-star. Yeah. Oh yeah, bro, that's what I got. So you tell that other guy that two-hundred fifty thou just won't cut it?"
Rolling her eyes, Kate tried to tune out Sean's incessant blather, but no matter how hard she concentrated, his blusterous speech - not to mention his arrogant, braying laugh - still filtered through.
Tip-toeing across the street, Regina put her hand on Stella's shoulder and pulled the blonde investigator to a halt. "Are you sure this will work?" she whispered.
Looking ahead, she could see that the director was still working with the Steadicam unit down at the limousine, but she guessed that they didn't have all the time in the world before the film crew would begin the wrap-up.
"Sure. Sure it'll work, Reggie," Stella replied in a matching whisper. "You'll corner him, I'll chase him, we'll catch him? and then we'll wrap him in a neat package with a golden bow-tie and slap a sticker on his forehead that says To Kate With Love, Your Stella."
"I think we better forget about the To Kate With Love part. Stalking, remember?"
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Stella said and resumed tip-toeing across the parking lot.
Ahead of them were two tents, one larger and one smaller, both cordoned off by curtains and both looking like they could contain valuables. They could hear a male voice speaking from the one on the left and a walkie-talkie squawking from the one on the right.
Trying to predict what the pickpocket slash thief would do, Stella furrowed her brow and began to think like a crook. 'Hmmm,' she thought. 'There's a risk that someone could be working in the smaller tent? but it's an absolute fact that someone is in the larger tent? all right, the smaller tent it is?'
Stella turned back and moved her head very close to Regina's, suddenly noticing that the former model's eyes held a look that said 'What the hell are we doing here?' - "Reggie, are we dissatisfied with something?"
"Are you sure we aren't wasting our time, Stell?" Regina said flatly.
"Hey? when have I ever been wrong? Let's try the smaller tent firs- OH!"
Caught between a tip and a toe, Stella froze in place as she found herself face to face with the pickpocket who had come out of the smaller tent holding a cardboard box full of various electronic equipment.
"YOU?!" he shouted, suddenly throwing the box in the air to ease his escape.
"Here we go! Here we go!" Stella chanted and set off after the fleeing crook.
Groaning out loud, Regina rushed forward and held out her arms, moving left and right to catch the box and one-two-three-four-five-six items as they came back down from their brief flight. Once everything was safely back in the box, she put it down on the ground and ran after Stella.
Inside the tent, Sean Scott's non-stop boastful chatter had Kate ready to gouge out her eardrums with a dull spoon - failing that, she fantasized about gouging out Sean's vocal cords with said kitchen utensil.
The makeup artist didn't improve the situation by blowing plenty of hot air into Kate's other ear while she removed the makeup, telling her that she was her biggest fan and that she owned all her movies on DVD.
'And on and on and on and on?' Kate thought, sighing inwardly. 'I can't wait to get home. My regular makeup artist Cynthia is ten times as good as this one. Hell, I wouldn't even trust this one to paint my kitchen?'
At that exact moment, the curtain fluttered open to her right and a young man in a blue-and-red windbreaker tore through the tent like the Devil was on his tail.
The next person to come through wasn't the Devil but a wild-haired, five foot four-and-a-half woman in a dusty cerise hoodie and blue jeans. It took Kate nearly five seconds to realize that it had been the woman who was wearing her face.
When that fact dawned on her, she let makeup artist be makeup artist and spun around on the swivel-chair, sitting with her jaw hovering just above the floor.
Already gobsmacked, Kate was nearly blown off the chair when the next person entered the tent.
Recognizing the statuesque beauty at once, Kate began to rise from the chair. "Oh God, CJ! I can't believe you're here! Did you really steal a helicopter??"
The tall, dark-haired, curvaceous woman with the bright blue eyes and the high cheekbones looked Kate directly in the eye as she ran past, but the only connection that was made between them was an exchange of equally puzzled looks.
Once the dark-haired woman had blown through the tent, Kate suddenly realized that it hadn't been CJ Carson, her wife, but someone else entirely.
The next thing Kate knew was that she was assaulted by a major case of the creeps and she began to squirm around on the spot to try to grind down the goosebumps that had appeared all over her body. "Ohhh? Ewww? Ewww! Ewww! Ewww! People are nuts here! Nuts! Now they're not only wearing my face, they're wearing my wife's face, too!" she howled, still squirming from the way the two other women had made her skin crawl.
"Miss Marshall, all the makeup hasn't come off yet? we're not done," the makeup artist said holding a small sponge.
"It'll have to wait! There's something I gotta get to the bottom of!" Kate said and pulled off the bib she'd had around her neck.
Looking at Sean who was still yapping into his cell phone, she rolled her eyes and placed the bib on top of his perfectly gelled hair - like a bonnet - before stomping out of the tent like a woman on a mission.
Outside, Stella and Regina had once more cornered the pickpocket by driving him between the two large vans. By the time he found out that the exit was blocked by a generator, the two investigators had sealed off the way he had come in.
"All right, all right, you got me? again," he squeaked, throwing his arms in the air. Turning around to see his captors, he almost keeled over backwards when he spotted two identical blondes, one of which was grinning broadly and the other wearing a thunderous expression on her face.
Stomping towards the three people, Kate clenched her fists and let out a resounding: "That does it! Who are you and why are you wearing my face? And why are *you* wearing my wife's face? Are you the founding mothers of some sort of insane psycho-stalker cult?"
That information proved too much for the pickpocket to cope with - two seconds later, his eyes rolled back in his head and he performed a slightly-less-than-gracious backwards flop down onto the street.
Jumping up in the air at Kate's outburst, Stella spun around and stared at the irate actress. She tried desperately to come up with an explanation that would defuse the situation, but she was so tongue-tied that all she could get her mouth to say was: "Uh? buh? ebbl? Kate? I'm? not? ebbl? bluh? St-st-stel?"
"What my star-struck friend is trying to tell you, Miss Marshall, is that her name is Stella Starr," Regina said and put out her hand.
Kate stared at the hand for a brief moment, trying to figure out whether or not it was an ambush. When the tall, dark-haired woman seemed to be sincere enough, she shook the hand very, very briefly and then took a big step backwards to get out of her long reach.
"And I'm Regina Harrison. Together, we're the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency," Regina continued.
Kate smiled briefly at the two women, but it soon faded from her face. "Uh, hello. But that doesn't explain why? why?" she said, touching her cheek and pointing at Stella.
"No, it doesn't? I don't have an answer for that. Well, as for me, my face has been my meal ticket for most of my life. I'm sure you've seen some of the covers I've done for magazines like Strong, Now! Fashion and Young 2Day," Regina said and cocked her head to let the Perfect Light fall on it.
"Can't say that I have, sorry," Kate said and moved over to Stella. "Wow, this is? is? unbelievable."
"You're tellin' me," Regina mumbled under her breath, annoyed for being brushed off like that.
Swallowing loudly, Stella finally found her voice that had been buried under several layers of shyness and sheer terror. "Y-yes, Miss Marshall. But I still don't see the resemblance."
"Noooo, are you kidding? We could be sisters? it's like looking into a mirror? before I get my hair done in the morning," Kate said, daring to reach out and touch the side of Stella's eyebrow. "Wow, you're for real! No scars!"
"Uh, yes? that's what I've been trying to tell you, Miss Marshall," Stella said, shuffling back and forth like she needed to go to the little girls' room.
Taking a step back, Kate gave Stella a thorough once-over and quickly spotted her rainbow belt. "Oh! Don't tell me that you're?"
"Yep. She is," Regina said with a broad grin.
"Wow, we've gone way past unbelievable now? we're into spooky territory? or even uncanny? Huh! So the two of you are-"
"No," Regina said quickly - a bit too quickly for Stella's liking.
Nudging her elbow into Regina's side, Stella took a faltering step forward. "You have to excuse my tall friend here, Miss Marshall. She's playing to a different key."
"Oh. I just thought? never mind," Kate said and began to pat her pockets. "If I could only find my wallet, I could show you a photo of my wife? That's weird, I could've sworn I had it on me? I know I didn't leave it in the tent??"
"What does your wallet look like?" Regina said and knelt down next to the fainted pickpocket.
"Oh, not too large? like this," Kate said and drew a picture in the air.
Going through the crook's pockets, it didn't take Regina five seconds to find a wallet that matched the description. Opening it, she could see that Kate's credit cards and driver's license were still there but that the thief had cleaned out the bills. "Uh-huh. It wouldn't happen to be this one, would it?" she said and threw the wallet to Kate.
"Yes! What the hell?? Who is that guy, anyway?"
"A pickpocket we've been chasing all day," Stella said. Suddenly getting a bright idea, she quickly licked her lips and assumed a puppy-dog look that she hoped would give her the needed results. "He was the one who ruined the autograph session a couple of hours ago. We were there? waiting in line? when we saw him steal from a fan. We chased after him, but? you know the rest."
'Boy, don't I ever,' Kate thought, remembering the utter destruction of the tent. "Anyway, here's a photo of me and my beautiful wife."
"Oh, wow, she's definitely a looker, huh?" Stella said, gawking at the photo.
Cocking her head first one way and then the other, Regina furrowed her brow as she looked at the photo. "Well, we both have dark hair and blue eyes, but?" she said with a shrug.
"What? Are you blind, woman! You're identical!" Stella said, nudging Regina's side again. "Well, okay, she's far more butch than you'll ever be."
"Hey, I can be butch? look," Regina said and went into a classic pose by hooding her eyes and thrusting out her jaw.
"Uh? yeah, okay," Stella said and scratched her cheek.
To steer the conversation back to less cringe-worthy material, Kate took back the photo and closed her wallet. "So you were in the line, too, Stella?"
"But you didn't get an autograph?"
"Okay. Well. I suppose it's the least I could do," Kate said and began to pat herself down again. "Do you have a pen?"
"No, but I do have a-" Stella said, interrupting herself when she touched the pocket where her autograph book should have been, but wasn't. "Reggie! What did you do with my autograph book?"
"I gave it back to you."
"No, you didn't!"
"Uh, yes I did. I'm sure I did."
"But. I. Don't. Have. It. Now. Do. I?"
"Well, that's not my fault. Maybe it's in the car."
"Maybe I should kick your butt for losing my autograph book!" Stella said, slowly getting to that point where her temper would run off with her manners. Clenching her fists, she began to growl at Regina who quickly held up her hands in the universal sign for 'I don't know where it is, but if you run back to the car, you might get lucky.'
"I'm gonna run back to the car! You better pray I'll get lucky!" Stella growled, spun around and set off sprinting across the street.
"My thoughts exactly," Regina said loudly, but Stella was already too far away to hear her.
Staring at the running investigator, Kate scratched her hairline and grinned in an embarrassed fashion. "Okay. That was, um?"
"Yeah, I know. She can be a little quirky on occasion but she's a great gal most of the time. She's my best friend," Regina said, shrugging.
Three minutes later, Stella came storming back holding a felt-tip pen and her prized autograph book that had fallen down in the gap between the seat and the door when she had tumbled onto the bucket seat earlier.
Panting like she had tried to run a mile in five hundred yards, she held out the two items and leaned against the nearest of the vans to catch her breath.
Kate took the pen and the book and leafed to the first available page. "To Stella Starr?"
"Two L's, two R's," Regina said with a smile.
"Oh, I got that, gorgeous," Kate said, winking. " 'To Stella Starr, thank you for being such a wonderful fan. Kate Marshall.' Here you go, Stella. Do you have a camera so we can keep a memento of the occasion?" she said, fluffing her hair - a gesture that immediately garnered Regina's respect, especially when the golden-blonde locks fell perfectly.
"I do," Regina said, holding up her cell. "Once we've done that, I better call Inspector Moynes? that fella down there runs like a cheetah."
Twenty minutes later, Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes shoved the pickpocket into a police cruiser and shut the door after him. After waving to Regina and Stella - Kate had put on a pair of pitch black sunglasses to avoid any confusion - she got into the front seat of the car and drove off.
"So," Kate said and pushed the sunglasses up her forehead.
"So," Stella echoed.
"It's been one of the most? uh? eventful days in my entire career, that's a fact. If you guys ever come down to L.A., give me a call? on this number," Kate said and scribbled her phone number down on a piece of paper she had in her pocket. "I trust you won't post it on wokam.com, right?" she added with a wink.
"Oh? you know about that site?" Stella stuttered as she put the note in her pocket.
"Sheesh! Of course I do! Oh look, is that an albatross?" Kate said and pointed up in the sky.
"Where?" Stella said, looking up at once.
Quickly leaning in, Kate placed a little kiss on Stella's cheek and then burst out laughing when the investigator's glasses steamed up.
Blushing like she had never blushed before, Stella snickered loudly, grabbed hold of Regina and buried herself against her tall friend's chest so she wouldn't suffer the embarrassment of having her idol seeing her blush like that.
"You guys sure you're not an item??" Kate said, cocking her head. "Anyway, have fun, okay? Catch ya later? this is where I exit, stage-left!" she continued, spun around and sashayed away from the two investigators.
"Goodbye, Miss Marshall," Regina said, waving with her free hand.
"Bye, Kate? Golllllly, she kissed me!" Stella mumbled into Regina's chest.
Mussing Stella's hair, Regina chuckled heartily at her friend's predicament and gave her a fair-sized squeeze. "That she did, Stella-dahling, that she did."
"The gang at Rockin' Ruby's will never, ever-ever-ever believe us when we tell 'em?"
"You know, Stell? I think you're right about that."
Pulling back, Stella took off her glasses and polished her lenses with a fervor that surprised even the hardened Regina. "And you know what the best part is, Reggie?"
"Tomorrow, we get to do it all over again," Stella said and punched Regina's shoulder.
"Yeah, yeah? 'cos I want Kate's new promo photograph!"
Regina blinked several times, trying to figure out if Stella was pulling her leg. When she came to the inevitable conclusion that the wild-haired investigator was as serious as the IRS on National Audit Day, she threw her arms in the air and looked towards the heavens for guidance.
"Reggie, I love ya, ya big lug, but sometimes you're a little slow on the uptake," Stella said and hooked her arm inside Regina's.
"Oh, Stella!" Regina said in a despondent voice.
"Oh, Reggie! ?C'mon, let's go home."
Letting out a long, slow groan, Regina nodded and began to shuffle back towards their Mercedes, holding Stella close to her all the way there.
VI - I'D LIKE A FLAPPY MOCCYMELLYATO, PLEASE
Written by Norsebard
"Hurry? hurrrrrrrry, Reggie!" Stella Starr said through clenched teeth. The movements of the car in general and the potholes on the Boulevard in particular made it very, very difficult for her to keep it all inside, but she forced herself to think positive thoughts and focus on a dried-up river bed in the middle of the driest part of Death Valley.
"I'm not a magician, Stell! I can't will one into appearing, you know!" Regina Harrison said, making their leased Mercedes SLK duck and dive through the heavy late afternoon traffic.
After driving on for another two blocks, Regina suddenly spotted a small cafe on a corner of the Boulevard. "Hey, that looks promising? hang on," she said and took the corner into the parking lot on two wheels.
"All right? we're here!" she continued, slamming on the brakes to make the car go into a nosedive in front of the shop.
"Thank God!" Stella said and jumped out of the car faster than Regina could spell her own name - and for once, the inherently clumsy investigator with the wild, uninhibited dirty-blonde hair didn't have any problems getting out of the low-slung sportscar.
Storming through the door of Juan Manuel Romero's Tea & Coffee House, Stella sent a silent plea to the barista who was standing behind the counter, busy adding a touch of whipped cream to an order.
The barista - a latina in her mid-twenties with friendly eyes and a very expressive face - just nodded and pointed at two doors a bit further into the establishment.
Remembering to look at the icons on the doors so the situation wouldn't get any worse than it already was, Stella tore into the Ladies' room and shut the door behind her.
Regina entered the coffee shop at a more sedate pace. The sweet aroma of ground coffee and tea leaves was very strong, making her tastebuds snap to attention, and she decided that it was as good a place as any to get a little, late afternoon snack.
They hadn't visited the small shop before, but looking around, she could see that it was a nice, cozy - and clean - establishment held in earthy tones, with five regular tables, two tall tables for standing customers, a jukebox playing muted, but spirited, Argentinean music, and a long, very elegant cherrywood counter that dominated the room.
Smiling at Regina, the barista took the cup she had been working on and put it on the counter, prompting a customer - a woman in her late thirties - to stick her newspaper under her arm and go up to the counter to fetch it.
Once the barista had served the customer, she turned to Regina and sent her a wide, charming smile. "Good afternoon, I'm Manuela. How may I help you?" she said with just the faintest hint of a South American accent.
"Hello. Well, I better wait for my friend to come back from the Ladies', but we'll have two coffees," Regina said and found one of her credit cards.
"Miss, this is J.M. Romero's Tea & Coffee House? we're famous for our wide selection of high quality coffees. Currently, we have twenty different types on offer," the barista said, polishing a small section of the counter.
"Oh? in that case, I definitely have to wait until my friend gets here."
"Perhaps I could tempt you to a slice of cake as well?" the barista said and pointed at a refrigerated display case on the counter that held more than a dozen different cakes of all sorts. A small blackboard standing on top of the display case promoted the 'Afternoon Special= 1 Coffee + 1 Cake $7.98 until Five PM.'
Nodding, Regina checked her watch, which read a quarter past four. "I think we can come to an agreement," she said, looking at the many colorful cakes.
Two minutes later, Stella came out of the Ladies' room looking like the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders. Spotting Regina studying a display case, she closed the door behind her and walked up to her best friend.
"Made it," she said, breathing a sigh of relief.
"Glad to hear it. You know, you wouldn't have been in that situation if you hadn't bought a triple Slurrpy! Cherry Cola for the movie. How much is that, anyway? Half a gallon?"
"Oh, ha ha. Well, when I'm at the movies, I need some popcorn. And I can't eat popcorn without something to drink. So there," Stella said and wiped her lenses with two pieces of toilet paper.
"Uh-huh? Anyway, look at this? they've got an afternoon special, a cup of coffee and a slice of cake for eight bucks. See anything you like?" Regina said and pointed at the refrigerated display case.
"Oh, wow, they look fantabulous?" Stella said and pressed her nose against the glass to look at the delicate offers. "Wow? there's so much to choose from?"
The seventeen different cakes in the display case were lined up in four rows of four plus a straggler on its own at the bottom. The first row saw slices of apple, pecan, peach and cherry pies; the second had walnut, lemon, hazelnut and raisin sponge cakes; the third had Othello, Black Forest, strawberry and chocolate spread layer cakes; the fourth had Danish pastries with four different frostings: pink, white, chocolate and apple jelly, and finally, all alone on a row on its own, a Boston Cream donut.
"Oh Gaaaaaaaaawd, I can't choose," Stella said and slapped her hand across her mouth. Shaking her head, she began an eenie-meenie-miny-moe chant, but even that couldn't get her anywhere. "Have you decided, Reggie?"
"I want the lemon sponge cake."
"Oh, that does sound good. But so does? and? and? and?" Stella said, pointing at the various slices. "No? I want an apple pie? no, a cherry pie? no, the Boston Cream donut, it's unfair that it doesn't have anyone to talk to down there. No, I take it all back, I want the slice of Othello layer cake. Or maybe the Black Forest layer cake? Uh, have you decided yet, Reggie?"
Rolling her eyes, Regina moved forward and tapped her index finger at the lemon sponge cake. "Uh-huh."
"Oh, yeah? all right. Two lemon sponge cakes, please," Stella said to the barista who was waiting at the display case.
"We only have one of each, Miss. It's late in the day," the barista said in a slightly flat voice.
"Ohhhh! All right, I'd like an? uh, uh, uh, uh, the donut," Stella said and pointed at the plate that stood by itself on the fifth row.
Drawing a sigh of relief, the barista opened the refrigerated display case and took the plates with the lemon sponge cake and the Boston Cream donut. "And now for our prized selection of coffees. We have Bombon, Caramel Machiatto, Cappucino, regular Latte, Chai Latte and several variations, Chocolate Dalmatian, Cinnamon Spice, Doppio, Espresso Romano, Gaucho, Greek Frappe, Guillermo, Kopi Susu, Macchiato, Mazagran, Medici, Melange, Mocha, Pocillo, and a very special Ristretto we've just got in from Italy. Oh, and in addition to those, I can mix you anything you'd like."
Staring wide-eyed in terror as the barista reeled off the many different types of coffee, Stella tried to keep track of the foreign names. At first, she was able to keep up fairly well, but after the first dozen, they began to jumble together, and by the twentieth, she couldn't even remember her own name.
"Uh? I'd? I'd? I'd like the? uh? I'd like the? Reggie, what are you having?"
Chuckling, Regina reached over and gave Stella a little squeeze. "A Caramel Machiatto, Stell."
"Oh, I can't remember what that was. Uh? oh, I got it," Stella said with a smile. "I'd like a Flappy Moccymellyato, please."
The barista's smile slowly faded from her face, replaced by a deep frown. A few seconds later, her expressive eyebrows began to play across her forehead. A few second after that, her lips slowly withdrew to reveal an impressive set of pearly whites.
"Uh??" Stella said, wondering what was going on.
Pulling back from the counter knowing that an explosion was imminent, Regina put her hands on Stella's shoulders and began to steer her towards the door. "I don't think they have one of those, Stell."
"What? What did *I* do? I just asked for a coff-"
Reaching under the counter, the barista suddenly produced a hammer used to grind coffee beans. "A couple a' jokers, huh? You wanna know what I feel about jokers? HUH?! Get out of my shop!" she howled, swinging the hammer in the air.
"What? What? Whutwhutwhut?" Stella said, throwing her arms in the air.
"I'll explain in the car? we gotta leave now, Stell," Regina said and opened the door to prepare for a hasty exit.
"But what about my donut??"
"Now, Stell!" Regina said as the barista came out from behind the counter.
"All right, all right? if she doesn't know how to make a Floppy Mickymochyato, I wish she'd just come out and say so instead of going all Freddy Krueger on us?! Sheesh!" Stella said on their way out of the door.
Outside, they watched the barista slam the door shut and turn the little OPEN sign to CLOSED. Once she had done that, she moved away from the door, but not before showing them a hand gesture that didn't leave room for misinterpretation.
Scratching her hair, Stella shrugged and began to shuffle back to the Mercedes. "Well, call me confused. One moment, everything was fine, and then? ka-boom."
Regina unlocked the Mercedes and opened the door to allow Stella to sit down. "Stell, I think this is her equivalent of the piece of paper you have in your desk drawer that says 'People who ask for Mr. Harrison Bleepin' Starr!'," she said with a dark chuckle.
"Oh? okay. Well, I never behave like that," Stella said and pulled the seat belt down.
"Nooooooo, of course you don't," Regina said in a sing-song voice as she closed the door.
Knowing sarcasm when she heard it, Stella made a face and stuck her tongue out at her friend, earning herself a loud giggle as Regina walked around the car to drive home.
VII - WOMAN IN ALL HER GLORY
Written by Norsebard
"Ohfercryin'outloud?" Stella Starr said standing in the middle of the office holding a mug of coffee, a napkin, a cardboard container with some leftover Chinese, a plastic fork and spoon and a newspaper under her arm - and if that wasn't bad enough already, her glasses were slipping down her nose and she had an itch on her left calf that she was using her right, flip-flopped, foot to scratch. "Reggie! Can you answer that, please?"
'Not right now, Stell,' Regina Harrison said from the bathroom. 'And not in the next five minutes either!'
"Aw, great. Just-"
"Great! Aw hell!"
Moving over to the table by the couch, Stella put down all the various items before hurrying over to her own desk to talk to the mystery caller.
"You have reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?" Stella said, already pulling out the desk drawer with the piece of paper that said 'People who ask for Mr. Harrison Bleepin' Starr.'
'Hi, can I speak to either Misses Harrison or Starr, please,' a familiar female voice said from the other end of the line.
After slamming her fist into the desk sending the pencil she was going to use over the edge and into oblivion, Stella took off her glasses and rubbed her face. "Look, why can't you people read our ad? We don't have anyone here by that name, dammit! We are two people here, one called Regina Harrison and one called Stella Starr. We don't have anyone called Harrison Starr?! For cryin' out loud!"
A hearty chuckle from the other end of the connection made Stella stop what she was doing and stare at the receiver. "Uhhh??" she said, scrunching up her face.
'I couldn't recognize your voice at first, but I sure could after that salvo. Are we havin' a bad day, Stella?'
"What the hell? Ruby?"
'The one and only Ruby Albrecht, yep.'
"Jeez? I'm sorry, Ruby. It's just that we've had a bit of a problem with people asking for Mr. Harrison Starr? I guess I don't even listen to what they say anymore," Stella said on her way around the desk to search for her pencil.
'Ah, doesn't bother me, I'm used to having Umpires yellin' in my face. Anyhow, I'm calling for two reasons. The first is, would you guys be interested in a little celebration we're holding on Friday night at seven called Woman In All Her Glory? There's going to be a fabulous stand-up comedienne and things.'
Spotting the pencil next to one of the desk's legs, Stella bent over to retrieve it. "Yeah? Sounds kinda fu-"
"Uh-oh?" Stella mumbled and touched the seat of her baby blue sweatpants that were now sporting a seven-inch gash exactly where one shouldn't be - unless it was a pair of old-fashioned hatch-back long johns.
"Nope! No problem at all, Ruby," Stella said and shot up in an upright position to cover for the fact that her boxers - advertising the Powerpuff Girls - were hanging out of her pants.
'Okay. We're actually planning on setting up a catwalk. That's where you guys come in? do you think Regina would be interested in doing a little show for us? Just two or three outfits, nothing major or spectacular. Just a little show to show, ha ha, the many facets of the modern woman??'
Inching back towards her chair, Stella walked with one hand on the receiver and the other on her white, sleeveless T-shirt to pull it down to cover the gap. When that didn't work, she moved her hand to her pants to try to pinch the two loose pieces of fabric back together. "Oh, I think she'd love that, actually. Yeah, that should be her thing exactly," she said as she sat down with a bump, rolling her eyes repeatedly.
'Stella, can I ask you a personal question?'
Stella stared wide-eyed at the receiver, thinking that Ruby had been able to see the torn pants - and once again wondering if anyone had put up a set of hidden surveillance cameras while they had been away from the office. "Uh, sure??"
'When are you and Regina gonna hook up? I mean, we even have a little raffle going on here? everybody wants to see you happy, Stella. I just can't figure out why you haven't-'
"Yeah, yeah, yeah? we've kissed, remember? And it didn't work for any of us," Stella said, feeling bad for feeding their long-time friend a white lie.
"Mmm-hmmm! Oh, here's Regina now," Stella said, glad to be saved by the bell - or rather, Regina who turned off the lights and closed the bathroom door behind her.
Holding up her arm, Stella pointed at the receiver and said: "It's Ruby. She wants a word with you about something that's dear to your heart!"
"Oh, really?" the six foot one former model said, flicking her perfect hair over her shoulder, knowing full well that it would land in a perfect cascade. "Now what could that be?"
"Gee, what could it be?" Stella echoed, putting her pinkie finger on her lips to mimic a gesture she had seen Regina do many times over the year they had worked together.
Sending Stella a mock dark glare, Regina cocked her hips and turned around to flaunt her jeans-clad perfect derriere at the defenseless blonde investigator. 'Ha!' she said in a stage whisper before sitting down at her desk.
As she picked up her own receiver, she moved her mile-long legs up on the corner of the desk and wiggled her toes in the air, waving a polite How do you do to Stella.
Waving back with her fingers, Stella laughed out loud and concentrated on drawing little doodles in her notepad instead of working on the mountain of paperwork that was sitting on her desk. Then she realized that she had forgotten all about her coffee and the Chinese, but when she wanted to get up, the tear in her pants made its presence felt - by a cool chill on her rearward-facing cheeks - and she sat down with a bump and a sigh, glancing longingly at the mug of coffee that was only growing colder.
"Ruby, it's Regina. I can think of a couple of things that are dear to my heart," Regina said and sent Stella a little wink, causing the blonde investigator to blush, "so which one is it?"
'Modeling, Regina. On a catwalk.'
"Oh! I'm in! Where, what, how, why, and with whom?" Regina said excitedly, moving her legs down and sitting up straight on her swivel-chair.
'Stella told me you'd be rearin' to go,' Ruby said with a laugh. 'Friday night at seven here at the bar. We're having a little celebration called Woman In All Her Glory, and the plan is for you to do a couple of rounds on the runway. One or two outfits, you know. Fairly low key.'
Grinning mischievously, Regina leaned back in her seat again, running a hand through her pitch black locks. "Oh Ruby, honey, I don't do low key!"
'I shoulda' thunk about that! Do we have a deal, then?'
"Oh you better believe it! Friday night at Rockin' Ruby's. Seven o'clock. Noted and underlined," Regina said as she dotted the Is and crossed the Ts on her Agenda.
'Right. Uh, and now for the other reason why I called you? is Stella still there? I think I have a job for you.'
"She's here, Ruby. Hang on," Regina said and signaled Stella to pick up her own receiver. Once she did, Regina turned around and put her legs back up on the desk. "Okay, we're both on the line now. What's up, Ruby?"
'Well? one of my regulars? her name is Kristy Newbourne by the way, I don't think you know her? anyway, to cut to the chase, she's being blackmailed and it's really weighing her down. She doesn't have the kind of money the creep is asking for. I've tried to see if I could chip in, but it's just too much.'
Nodding, Stella furrowed her brow and flipped the page in her notepad to make room for notes. "I see. Does she know who is doing it and why?"
'Well, not who, but definitely why. It's because she's been seeing a VIP. Woman, but I guess I don't have to add that part to you guys.'
"Nah," Regina said, going through the same motions as Stella.
"VIP, that makes me think of paparazzi for some reason. What kind of VIP, Ruby?" Stella said.
'Kristy hasn't told me, but from reading between the lines, I think it's someone working down in City Hall.'
Biting her lip, Stella leaned back in her chair and began to run through several different scenarios in her mind. "Ohhh? okay. So we could be looking at someone official being the scoundrel here? Someone milking both sides of the party, perhaps?"
'I really wouldn't want to make assumptions, Stella. But I know that despite Kristy's tough-cookie exterior, she's a really sweet gal, and it breaks my heart to see her pained like this, you know?'
"We hear you," Regina said, tapping the butt of her pencil against her notepad.
'Anyway, she's got a small pad up in the Heights, on 2268 Thorpe Road, apartment nine-E. I've told her to stay put until she hears from you. So? are you interested in the case?'
"Hell, not only that, we're already working on it," Stella said with a laugh. "Ruby, please call your friend and tell her that the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency is on her side. We'll swing by later today, around five o'clock or so. Then we can discuss matters with her directly."
'I'll do that, Stella. Thanks, guys. Talk to ya later.'
"You're welcome, Ruby. Bye," Regina said and hung up. 'Hmmm'-ing, she turned around and locked eyes with Stella who responded with an almost identical 'Hmmm'. "If she doesn't have the money for the blackmailer, I don't think it would be fair to charge her? provided that we can solve the case. Stell?"
Crumpling a piece of scrap paper into a hard, little ball, Stella threw it into the trash can with some gusto and then got up to get her stone cold coffee. "I agree. Man? I hate blackmailers. Always preying on us little people. Never any respect for people's private lives?"
Bending down, she picked up the plastic fork that had blown onto the carpet when Regina had opened the door to the bathroom earlier, and put it into the cardboard container. As she turned around, her jaw slipped down to her belly button when she noticed Regina sitting with her eyes wide open. "What? Oh? oh! My pants! Shoot, I forgot," Stella said and slapped her hand onto her butt to try to close the gap.
"At least you're not going commando today, Stell. That would really have given my Wednesday a kick in the? uh, pants," Regina said with a wink.
"Nobody ever does that in real life, Reggie. That's only in the movies? for this exact reason," Stella said and reached in through the ruined sweatpants to pull out in her Powerpuff Girls boxers. "And now? please excuse me while I slip into something less breezy," she continued and inched sideways towards the conference room.
"Do you want me to hold the door for you?" Regina said and moved to get up, but a vigorous shake of the dirty-blonde mop of hair told her that she shouldn't bother.
"Oh? oh? oh?" - Grunt! - "Ohhh? ohhhhh?!" - Grunt! - Flop! "I can't? I just can't!" Stella said in a croaky voice, lying flat on her stomach on the exercise mat and panting like crazy.
Kneeling down next to the prone Stella, Regina clapped her hands together and held them in front of her wrestling-shirt-clad bosom. "C'mon, Stell, just one more push-up. I know you can do it? come on? just one. Do it for me, for old Reggie."
"It's good for your arms, Stell. In a couple of years' time, you'll be glad that you invested in your body," Regina said as she put out her arms and wobbled them back and forth. "I mean, look at me, can you see any cellulite? Any flabs? Any-"
"No, you can't, 'cos I still got it. And you know why I still got it, Stell? It's because I've worked out all my life. Look," Regina said and pulled up in her right sleeve. With a divine expression on her face, she raised her arm and kissed her own biceps like it had turned into solid chocolate. "My body is my temple."
Sighing deeply, Stella moved her arms up and rested her head on them. Glancing to her left, she looked directly at the former model's shapely, Lycra-clad thighs and once again wished she was a lot braver than she was. "Yeah, yeah, yeah? put a sock in it, Reggie. I've already given you all I've got."
"One? One is all you got?"
"Hey, walking around the world starts with one step. Building a pyramid starts with one Lego block. Going to the moon starts with one? uh, nut."
"I think the general idea is to follow up the first with several more, Stell," Regina said and gave Stella's rear end a good-sized clap on her way up.
Grappling around for something to throw at Regina, Stella rolled over onto her back and sat up. When she couldn't find anything - apart from a few dust bunnies and a half-eaten, long-forgotten pretzel under the couch - she let out a few grumbling cusswords, hoping that it would be enough to deter the tall woman from trying again.
The cheeky grin on Regina's face gave away that it probably wouldn't.
"I'll get it, Stell. Hey, if you can't get up on your own, we might have to call the paramedics," Regina said on her way over to the door.
Jumping to her feet, Stella shot her friend a dirty look and an even dirtier hand gesture she had picked up while watching a rerun of the Bayside Housewives reality show. "Oh, ha bleepin' ha, Missy! No, if there's one thing I'm good at, it's getting up from the floor. Lord knows I have enough practice," she said as she dusted off her dark gray sweatsuit.
As Regina pulled the door open, the backdraft was enough to rip a handful of rose petals off a bouquet of flowers that their ever-friendly neighbor Billy the Mechanic was holding in his greasy hand.
"Oh!" he howled, trying to protect the remaining flowers from suffering the same fate as their unfortunate brother-in-arms.
"Hi, Billy. What brings you here?" Regina said and ushered him inside.
Stepping in, Billy gawked so hard at the Lycra-clad Regina that he nearly stepped on Stella's toes, but she managed to jump back in time. Once the door was closed, he cleared his throat and presented the flowers to Regina. "You," he said with a beaming, if shy, smile. "A rose for the rosiest of? uh?"
Quickly looking down, he glanced at the cue card he had hidden in his hand and memorized the entire part of the appropriately flowery sentence. "A rose for the rose among women," he said and thrust the bouquet forward.
"Awwwwwww, Billy, you shouldn't have!" Regina said and took the flowers.
"I paid for 'em, I didn't steal 'em or anything!" Billy added somewhat hastily off the dour expression on Stella's face.
Grumbling at the mechanic, Stella spun around on her heel to go over to her own desk so she could sulk a bit over the unfairness of the world.
"I'll just put them in some water. Have a?" Regina wanted to say 'have a seat, Billy', but one look at the mechanic's formerly canary yellow, now hideously filthy, coverall convinced her to push her manners to the side for once. His rustic look was rounded off by a two-day stubble, a greasy baseball cap, a T-shirt that had been white when he had bought it - but had since turned rust brown from being exposed to all the muck and grime in his garage - and a pair of sturdy, steel-tipped safety boots. "? uh, have a look around, Billy."
"Thanks, Miss Harrison," the mechanic said with a smile, oblivious to Regina's thoughts.
Stella just grumbled.
A scant two minutes later, Regina came back from the conference room holding a vase that she proceeded to fill with water from the small wash basin behind the door. As she put the vase on her desk, she turned around and flashed Billy one of her patented two-hundred watt smiles that she knew would have his knees knocking.
"So? Miss Harrison? I was wondering. What are you doing on Saturday night?" Billy said, smiling cheekily.
Regina had been about to sit down on the corner of her desk, but hearing Billy's offer activated her damage-limitation mode and made her shoot upright again, already trying to come up with a rejection that wouldn't hurt the sensitive - if simple - guy's feelings. "Oh, you know?" she said, smoothing down her right eyebrow.
" 'Cos I was thinking that you might wanna come over and see my pad. We could buy some beer and watch some porn or something??"
Two pairs of eyes - one blue, one green - popped wide open at that suggestion. Stella reacted first by snorting loudly, cleverly disguising it with a hacking cough. Regina was a little slower simply because her brain had turned to mud at the inappropriate suggestion.
Fifteen seconds later, the former model had re-wired enough neurons to form a coherent sentence, and as she moved towards the mechanic, she tried really hard to remain friendly. "Billy, you lost me at 'see your pad.'"
"May I give you some advice?"
"You gotta know your audience. Did you really think that someone like moi," - Regina threw her head to make her hair fall perfectly, prompting a new snort from Stella - "would go for a pickup line like that?"
"Uh? well, the magazine said that it was a sure-fire hit with any woman?"
Narrowing her eyes, Regina moved even closer, forcing Billy to gulp loudly and take several stumbling steps back. "What magazine, Billy?" she said in a steely voice.
"Scr? Scr? uh, Scre-"
"I get the picture," Regina said, nodding. "Look, Billy, I think we need to have a time-out? you know, to sort out our relationship. To understand what we really want. Maybe a month or so? Maybe two? Thanks for the flowers."
Putting her hand on Billy's shoulder, Regina turned him around and gave him a little push towards the door. "Stella and I are going to be really busy now, so?"
"Bye, Billy. Like I said, thanks for the flowers," Regina said, opened the door and pushed the mechanic outside.
"Bye, Billy!" Stella said loudly from her desk, adding a little wave.
After Regina had closed the door, she dusted off her hands and strode over to her desk where she sat down with a bump and a groan.
Chuckling loudly, Stella leaned back in her chair and put her hands behind her head. "That was kinda rude, Reggie."
"I know? I feel bad about it. But he's gotta learn it somehow. Sometimes the hard way is better than the indirect approach. Nice flowers, though," Regina said and sniffed the roses.
"Uh-huh. So? does that mean you're not interested in coming home with me to watch a skin flick, either, huh? Huh? Huh?" Stella said, imitating Billy's drawl - but at the same time, crossing off a potential pickup line from her already slim list.
"Oh, you shut up, Miss Haystack!" Regina said and threw a ball of scrap paper in Stella's general direction, adding a broad grin to take the sting out of her words.
"Ooooh! Come over here an' make me, Killer!"
Five minutes to five PM, Stella pulled her beloved AMC Pacer over at the curb on Thorpe Road and came to a stop outside number 2268.
Instead of being lined with the traditional brownstones that were the trademarks of most of the other neighborhoods in the Heights, Thorpe Road had been recently redeveloped and had turned into a faceless street lined with identical, dreary, oh-so-modern sixteen-story apartment complexes made of slabs of concrete alternating between dark gray and even darker gray.
The complexes had been pulled nearly thirty feet back from the street, no doubt to give the local children a grassy area to play on, but they were all devoid of life. Most of the buildings were still shiny and clean, but someone had already smeared graffiti on one of them, and it didn't look like it would take long for the 'artists' to cover the rest as well.
"Yikes," Stella said as she turned off the ignition. "Brrr. Gives me the shivers. Look at the streetlights, most of 'em have already been vandalized? and with all those nooks in the buildings, there are plenty of places for crooks to hide. I wouldn't want to walk here after dark, that's a fact."
Unbuckling her seat belt, Regina let the cord dangle down the side of her seat and opened the door. "Not without an attack dog, anyway," she said on her way out.
Grunting in agreement, Stella stepped out of the Pacer with her focus squarely directed at avoiding the tall curb stones she had parked next to - unfortunately, that meant she didn't see the person walking next to the car until it was too late.
"Ooooh! Don't hurt me! Please don't hurt me! Don't take my money either 'cos I don't have any! I'm just a poor, lonely private investigator who lives day by day hoping that she'll finally get that big case that will get her name in the papers under a local girl strikes big headline! Go ask the tall woman over there! She has plenty of money! She used to be a world famous model and I'm sure she could give you all you want!" Stella howled, shielding her face with her hands.
The little, old, blue-haired lady Stella had bumped into pulled her walker a step back and cocked her head in the most puzzled way imaginable. "I'm sorry, young lady? Do I look like a highway robber to you?"
Taking her arms down, Stella stared at the five-foot-flat woman in front of her whose entire body was covered by a long, shapeless, sand-colored parka coat. "No, I? ha, ha? smile, you're on Candid Camera!" she said, waving her hand at an imaginary camera suspended from of the balconies.
The little, old lady glanced at the empty balcony, shook her head, snorted loudly and finally sped away from the scene, leaving an embarrassed Stella in her wake.
"Oooookay. That went well," Stella said as she locked the Pacer.
Through all that, Regina had been standing on the sidewalk with her arms crossed over her chest. When Stella came closer, she put her arms down and thumped the blonde investigator's shoulder. "Thanks a lot, Stell. 'Go ask the tall woman over there! She has plenty of money!' Sheesh! Are you trying to get me murdered?"
"No, of course not. I'm really sorry, Reggie. It was the first thing on my mind? that's all. Come on, let's go talk to Miss Newbourne."
Grumbling, Regina led her friend up the garden path and up to the double doors. A small panel at the door had all the names of the tenants and Regina quickly pushed the button next to 'K.C. Newbourne'.
'Hello? Who's this?' a female voice said through the intercom.
"We're Regina Harrison and Stella Starr from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, Miss Newbourne."
When a deep buzzing sound was heard, Regina pushed the door open and walked inside, pulling a bashful Stella along after her.
"Well. Looks like you have a choice of an elevator or nine flights of stairs, Stell," Regina said, looking at the elevator at the end of a small hall.
"Rats? if we take the elevator, may I hold onto your arm, please?" Stella said, trying to make up for her earlier gaffe by flashing Regina the cutest doe-eyes she could muster.
Pushing the UP button, Regina took a step back and mussed Stella's hair. "Oh, why not. I doubt that it's a turbolift like the one in the Goddard building."
"Hope not. I still haven't found all my brain cells?"
"Ohhhh? so that's wh-"
Interrupting Stella and Regina's trademark banter, the elevator arrived with an electronic bing, and the two women quickly stepped inside and pressed the button for the ninth floor.
Waiting for the elevator to arrive at her floor, Kristy Newbourne cocked her head and tried to listen for what she thought was someone pulling a cat's tail. Since the sound grew stronger as the elevator came closer, it dawned on her that it had to be one of the two investigators.
"-OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHH!" Stella howled as the elevator came to a gradual stop on the ninth floor. As the doors slid open, Regina stepped outside, schlepping a near-comatose Stella with her, hanging off her arm.
"Uh, hi. I'm Kristy. And you are??" Kristy Newbourne said and put out her hand. In her early thirties, Kristy was an imposing woman: five foot eleven-and-a-half, tough-looking, broad-shouldered and with surprisingly muscular arms that she flaunted proudly in a snug, red polo shirt that had a Fire Department logo on her left breast. The tough-gal image was rounded off by black jeans, boots, a white-blonde crew cut and a pair of blue-gray eyes that were seemingly able to cut through solid steel.
"Hi, I'm Regina Harrison and this is my business associate? oh? you have some drool there, Stell," Regina said and pointed at the corner of Stella's mouth.
Even more embarrassed than she was to begin with, Stella tried to wipe the drool off with her sleeve. Unfortunately, in order to do that, it meant that she had to release her death grip on Regina's blazer. Weighing her options, she decided to take her chances and let go.
Staggering backwards and squealing in E-flat, Stella nearly went back into the elevator, but a combined effort from Regina and Kristy saved her before the possessed elevator could reclaim her.
"Thanks," Stella croaked, finally able to wipe her mouth. "I'm Stella Starr," she continued, holding out her hand.
Kristy briefly bared her teeth as she stared at the hand, but shook it anyway. "Hello. And that makes you Harrison-Starr," she said and turned towards Regina. Leaning in, she continued in a whisper: "I'm seeing someone right now, but could I have your phone number for later? Just askin'."
Having finally regained her equilibrium, Stella pushed her glasses up her nose and sent the firefighter a broad grin. "Sorry, Kristy. Reggie here doesn't know what to do with wimmenfolk like us."
"Oh no, really? What a cryin' shame," Kristy said and held out her hand to guide the two investigators towards her apartment down the hall.
A few minutes later, Kristy brought three mugs of instant coffee that she put down on a low table next to a couch.
"You've got a great place here, Kristy," Regina said as she sat down in the couch and took her mug.
"Thanks. Yeah, I like it. Great view, huh?" Kristy said, pointing her thumb at the large windows to the balcony where Stella was standing, flattening her nose against the glass.
Moving away from the window, Stella noted with some dismay that her nose had left a grease-stain behind and she tried to wipe it off with her other sleeve. When the smear only grew worse from the treatment, she whistled very innocently and sat down in a free armchair.
The living room had painted white walls, and here and there, reproductions of various movie posters were hanging in aluminum-rimmed snap frames. Two plastic palm trees were framing the couch and there were several cactuses in small pots on the tables and sideboards.
"I know what you're thinking," Kristy said when she noticed where Stella was looking. "But cactuses can live without water for a lot longer than regular plants can. I like some green stuff here and there? I'm not a cave-beast, you know? but flowers and shit just can't survive the twelve-hour shifts I have to pull sometimes."
"Nah, it's cool," Stella said, nodding.
Pulling her pencil and her notepad out of her blazer pocket, Regina leafed through it to get to the details of the case and leaned forward to use the table as a blotting pad. "Anyway, to get down to business? sorry for being so blunt, but you don't strike me as a woman who needs much protection."
"Ha! That's right, Sugar, I don't. But the gorgeous gal I'm with does. Hell, if it was up to me, I'd just find that sonovabitch and thump his teeth down his throat," Kristy said and slammed her fist into her open palm with such force that Stella was nearly unseated. "But that won't work, I'm afraid."
Looking at the heavy sea inside her mug, Stella cleared her throat and put it down before she'd drop it. "The money??"
Sighing, Kristy turned her swivel-armchair around and sat down. "Yeah, the money is what's screwing me over. Shit, the creep wants five grand in one go or six grand in ten installments of six hundred bucks each. I just don't have that kind of green? I don't even have anything worth that amount. Hell, my TV is rented? so is my laptop. I have an old Harley but that's only worth three grand at the most," Kristy said and ran a hand over her buzz cut.
"And you have no idea who's behind it, Miss Newbourne?" Regina said, making a few notes in her notepad.
"No. But here's how it started: A couple a' months ago, my Engine crew was down at the City Hall on Fire Prevention Day with our ladders and stuff. The kids love that kind of thing. Anyway, I met the most awesomely hot lady there and we definitely sparked at first sight. So, a couple of days later, she contacted me with an, ummm, a proposition. You know."
Grinning, Stella took a long swig from her instant coffee. When she realized that it was far stronger than what she preferred, her eyes watered up and she put the mug back down on the table in an almighty hurry. "Yeah, I know? at least, I've read about it," she croaked.
"Uh, d'ya want a glass of water, Miss Starr?"
"I'm fi-" - cough, cough - "-ne," Stella croaked.
"Okay. Well, I guess the lady and me got real hot and heavy? but then she started getting nasty letters. At first, they were just random threats, but then one day, the creep had included a photo of me and her kissin'. Uh, with a little tongue."
"Miss Newbourne," Regina said, "you said you met her at the city hall. Does that mean she works there or was she just-"
"She works there, but I have promised her that her name won't be mentioned. And I'm sticking to that promise. She's a sensitive girl," Kristy said strongly.
Nodding, Regina made a note in her notepad. "We understand," she said, looking at Stella who nodded in return.
"Thanks, I really appreciate it," Kristy said and got up from her chair. Moving over to a sideboard, she unlocked it and pulled out a plain brown envelope. "After that first photo, nothing happened for a few weeks, but then the letters started coming again. I guess you need to see what the creep has sent me," she continued and put the envelope on the table.
Taking her mug of coffee, she moved a couple of steps back to let the investigators look at the contents.
Regina leaned forward and pulled a note and a photo out of the envelope. Taking the note, she pushed the photo towards Stella who picked it up at once.
"Kristy, is this the same as the first photo, or??" Stella said, looking at a high-quality black-and-white shot of Kristy and a woman who was roughly the same age but with far softer features and with very nice, dark, wavy hair.
Draining her coffee in three gulps - earning herself a wide-eyed stare from Stella - Kristy put the mug back down on the table and stood with her legs slightly apart and her considerable arms folded across her chest. "No, it's a new one, but the one my baby got earlier was taken at the same time."
"Stell, listen to this," Regina said, reading aloud from the note:
'Hey, firebug, put five thousand dollars OR six hundred dollars (the first installment of ten) into this brown envelope and stick it into the air vent inside the Ladies' room at the Tall Oak Club Thursday night no later than ten forty-five. If the money isn't there, I'll send all pictures (seventeen) to your employers and the Bayside Herald first thing Friday morning. Have fun collecting the money.
"Sonofabitch," Kristy growled and kicked her boots into the carpet.
Leaning over, Stella took the note and read it again. "What's your connection with the Tall Oak Club, Kristy?"
"Don't have one."
"Hmmm. All right. Oh, look? awwww, the blackmailer hasn't even bothered to cut out letters from newspapers? they always did that in the good old days, but I guess they're too lazy now?" Stella said, showing Regina the note.
"Ahem," was Regina's only reply, followed by a carefully placed index finger pointing at a less-than-impressed Kristy.
"Oh, I didn't mean it like that, obviously," Stella said and threw the note back on the table. When the burly Kristy looked away, Stella quickly slapped her cheeks and her forehead hard enough to make her dirty-blonde mop of hair fly up in the air, grumbling under her breath about being the stupidest blonde in the world.
"ANYway," Regina said, getting up from the couch. "Miss Newbourne, you don't have to worry about a thing. We're going to put the envelope into the air vent tomorrow evening. Once the blackmailer comes to collect, we'll follow him? or her? back to wherever the person came from, and then we'll bring in the police."
"Yeah but? the money?"
"Will be there. Five thousand dollars in an A-Number One counterfeit quality, officially licensed by the US Mint," Regina said and pulled the mortified Stella up from the free armchair.
"Oh? okay," Kristy said and shook hands with Regina.
When it was Stella's turn to shake hands with the broad-shouldered firefighter, she cowered and mumbled: "I didn't mean it like that. It was just a little inside thing that we never see these days but that was very common back in the old days even as far as being in the textbook I bought when I began to study to be a private investigator. Sorry."
"It's okay, tiny," Kristy said with a laugh. When Stella wanted to move on, Kristy held her hand in an iron grip and pulled her close instead. "Just think before you speak the next time, yeah?" she said with her blue-gray eyes drilling into Stella's green ones.
"Uh-huh," Stella squeaked, nodding so hard that her glasses nearly fell off her nose.
While they were waiting for the elevator to arrive, Regina took pity on her petite friend and pulled her into a warm embrace. "Did the big firefighter scare my little Stella??"
"Not really," Stella squeaked before lowering her voice into a whisper "? but I think I soiled my undies?"
At five past ten the next evening, Stella took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Tip-toeing away from her Pacer, she could see that the dark alley she had parked in was the perfect cover. Not only was it exactly opposite the Tall Oak Club, but the deep shadows made it impossible for anyone to see the car unless they knew it was there.
Taking another deep breath to get a grip on the jitterbugs in her gut that were dancing the Fandango to their hearts' delight, Stella zipped her dark blue Letterman jacket all the way up, put on a pair of black, fingerless bicycle gloves and finally a silver-and-black Rokkstar baseball cap that she twisted to make the shade go over her ear. "How do I look, Reggie? Do I look like an urban hip-hopper? I have my contacts in before you ask."
"You look fabulous, dahling," Regina said and adjusted the baseball cap so it was lined up just right. "You'll kill 'em. Here's the envelope. Don't drop it!"
"Ha ha, do you really think I'm that incompetent?? That was a rhetorical question," Stella said and put the envelope down on the hood of the Pacer while she checked that the bindings were appropriately loose on her basketball boots.
Pulling Stella into a hug, Regina leaned down and gave her a little kiss on the nose. "You're not incompetent, Stell, you're just a little unlucky. Mmmmua. That's for good luck."
"Y-you k-kissed me? You kissed me, Reggie?" Stella stuttered, touching her nose that still held the faintest traces of Regina's soft lips.
"Yep, for good luck. Go get 'em, tiger."
"You kissed me?" Stella echoed and began to shuffle away from Regina and the Pacer - three steps later, she remembered that she had forgotten the envelope with the counterfeit money. "Oops," she said sheepishly as she came back for it.
Blending in with the people already waiting to get into the club, Stella glanced at the building that housed the Tall Oak Club. It was fairly old and decrepit in appearance; among other things, all the windows had been boarded up to give it a tough, gritty look. Unfortunately for the club's street cred, a closer inspection revealed that the nails used on the boards were all brand new, thus making it merely a facade.
When the door was opened, the music that streamed out was dark, sweaty Rhythm & Blues and Stella found herself humming along to the old hit - and wondering if her urban hip-hopper disguise wouldn't make her stand out like a sore thumb.
A brief commotion up by the door made her look around the broad shoulders of the man standing ahead of her. It seemed that a young couple had been rejected by the bouncer and were complaining vociferously, but Stella couldn't see any difference between them and the others waiting in the line? except that they were as short as she was, everyone else was at least half a foot taller.
'Hmmm!' she thought, scrunching up her face.
When it was Stella's turn, the fat bouncer - who was wearing boots, jeans that were too tight and a wifebeater that was two sizes too small for his bulging gut and gray chest hairs - only needed a single look at her before he put an equally fat finger into her shoulder and pushed her away. "You, shorty! Vamoose," he said in a rumbling voice.
"What?! What the hell for?"
"You' too small, shorty," the bouncer said and pointed at an oversized tape measure that had been attached to the wall. "This here's the Tall Oak Club. Only people taller than five foot ten can be allowed inside. You ain't five foot ten? more like five foot three."
"Wh? what? You gotta be kiddin'! And I'm five foot four-and-a-half!"
"Do I look like I'm kiddin', shorty? Git! You're blocking the way for the tall and beautiful people," the bouncer said and turned away from Stella.
Clenching her fists, Stella stomped back towards the bouncer, intent on getting into the club if it killed her. "Why you? why I? why I oughtta? why you? you? you lousy, no-good, bloated sack of?!"
Meanwhile across the street, Regina thought she heard a thunderclap pretty close by, but when she rolled down the window and stuck her head out of the Pacer, she discovered that the evening sky was so clear that she was able to see several stars, even through the glare of the big city's bright lights.
Then she discovered that the thunderclap had actually come from the club where Stella was in the middle of a five-star, ocean-going, gold-plated, all-singing, all-dancing hissy flip directed at an amused bouncer and two of his colleagues who had come out to see what the hubbub was about. "Oh, Stella," Regina groaned, clapping her hand over her mouth at the sight of her blonde friend trying to take on three guys who were all at least four times her size.
In the end, the fight was a short-lived one as one of the bouncers took Stella by the scruff of her neck and the seat of her jeans and carried her into the center of the street where he dumped her rather ungracefully.
Jumping to her feet like a coiled-up spring, Stella moved to throw the bouncer a hand gesture, but a stern look by the nearest big guy convinced her to change her plans. Instead, she sighed deeply and shuffled back to the Pacer, working up a world class sulk.
As she sat down in the driver's seat, she shook her head repeatedly and ended up whacking her forehead on the rim of the steering wheel.
"Where's the envelope with the funny money?"
"Mmmm? in here," Stella said and patted her jacket.
"Good. What happened?"
"The 'Tall Oak' Club is to be taken literally. It's only for the tall and beautiful people. Can you believe that the fat f-"
"Yeah. Can you believe that he, of all people, said that it was only for the beautiful? I mean, I'm sure his mother fell off the hospital bed when she clapped eyes on him for the first time?"
"You could be right. Well, I guess it's time for plan B," Regina said and opened her door.
Leaning back, Stella unzipped her Letterman jacket and found the brown envelope. As she handed it to Regina, she let out a long sigh. "And just when I had the perfect disguise, too? it took me nearly half an hour to come up with these things? and then that fat f-"
"-fart just brushed me off like I was used toilet paper."
"If they want tall and beautiful, they can have tall and beautiful. Ladies and Gentlemen, get ready for the incomparable, the divine, the utterly gorgeous Regina Harrison?! You may cheer, Stell," Regina said and flicked her hair back from her face, making it fall perfectly down her right shoulder.
"Yeah, well? at least we have a plan B. We could be two ugly runts? But you don't have a disguise, Reggie," Stella said and rubbed her hand on Regina's mile-long thigh.
"One, you're far prettier than you think, Stell? and two, I don't need a disguise. After all, I am the Queen of the Catwalk," the former model said and stepped out of the Pacer.
Once she had put the brown envelope down the waist of her slacks and covered it with the tail of her blazer, she assumed her traditional pose that fit her like an old leather glove - then she walked across the street with her hips slamming left and right like there was no tomorrow.
Chuckling over the impressive display of rearward-facing flesh, Stella leaned back in the seat and watched how Regina sailed past the line of people and introduced herself to the fat bouncer using her patented 'too cool for words'- routine. One second later, the bouncer let her inside, creating quite an outrage with the people waiting to get in.
"Go, go, Reggie? you big sex kitten," Stella said, punching the air in delight.
Once inside the Tall Oak, Regina quickly checked it out, finding that it was a fairly large club. After taking three steps up to get to the ground level, she could see that the entire center of the room had been converted into a dance floor where close to a hundred people were wiggling about to the thumping R&B.
More than a dozen booths held chiefly in blacks and browns lined three of the four outside walls with the fourth occupied by a long, shiny hardwood bar counter that was manned by three bartenders - two men and a woman.
The half-open upper level was connected to the ground floor by two access ways, a steep metal staircase on the side of the dance floor Regina was standing on, and a more gradually climbing slope on the other that looked like it had been used for hauling barrels back when the club had been a working warehouse.
Casually moving towards the bar, Regina looked up at the upper level and noticed - even though it was fairly dark up there - that it consisted of a line of tables and comfortable armchairs where the more well-off people were sipping colorful drinks.
"Hi, gorgeous," one of the male bartenders said as Regina sat down on a bar stool.
"Hi yourself. Fix me a Lemon Squash, please. Two cherries."
"Sorry, babe. We don't serve non-alcoholic drinks," the bartender said as he polished a glass.
"Hmmm? All right, then an El Presidente."
"You got it."
The bartender quickly made the drink - white rum, Grand Marnier, dry Vermouth and some Grenadine - and put the cocktail glass and a napkin down on the counter. "Thirty dollars, please."
Regina briefly narrowed her eyes, but then took her wallet and departed with three ten-dollar bills. Taking the drink, she took a testing sip and found that it was to her liking. "It's great."
"But of course."
"You wouldn't happen to know where the Ladies' room is, would ya?"
"Sure thing, gorgeous. Right over there, between those two booths," the bartender said and pointed at the wall on the left. When Regina took the glass and hopped off the bar stool, he cleared his throat to catch her attention. "Sorry. You can't take a glass into the restrooms."
Narrowing her eyes again, Regina shrugged and went back to the bar stool.
Ten minutes later, she opened the door to the restroom and peeked inside. She found herself in a small hallway held exclusively in white tiles with three unmarked doors - two on one side, one on the other - leading away from the hall. After looking over her shoulder to see if anyone was observing her, she stepped inside and closed the outer door behind her.
On closer inspection, she noticed small brass plaques next to the doors that read 'No admittance', 'Ladies One' and 'Ladies Two'. Not knowing which of the Ladies' rooms to take, she took her cell phone and quickly dialed Stella's number.
'It's Stella. Reggie?'
"Yeah, it's me. I've found the restrooms, but I've hit a stumbling block. I need to know the exact wording of the note Kristy got," Regina said, noting that the tiles in the room caused her voice to carry through the entire restroom.
Grunting, she held her blazer jacket up to cover for the cell phone, but the motion made her aware of a small, off-white camera lens sitting in the top corner of the hall. Knowing that she was being filmed, Regina put the jacket down again and entered the room marked 'Ladies One'.
'Okay, hang on?' - fumble, fumble - 'uh, here it is. Do you want me to read the entire thing aloud, Reggie?'
"No, just the part about the club," Regina said, giving the restroom a thorough check for more cameras - it appeared to be clean.
Ladies One consisted of six stalls and a wash basin, and glancing up, she could see a grating covering an air vent next to one of the six old-fashioned cisterns.
'Okay? blah blah blah blah 'and stick it into the air vent inside the Ladies' room at the Tall Oak Club. Does that help?'
"Not really, there are two Ladies' here, Stell."
"And there's a camera outside so I can't waddle around too much."
"I'm in what's called Ladies One. I've found the air vent. I'm presuming there's an identical one in the other restroom, but? uh? all right, I'll put the envelope here because it's called number one," Regina said and entered the stall with the vent.
'Good thinking, Reggie.'
"I can't hold the phone while I do the other thing so I'll call you once I'm done."
' 'Kay. Bye.'
Closing her cell and putting it in her pocket, Regina quickly locked the door behind her, closed the toilet lid and stepped up on it. The grating wasn't difficult to pull out and it didn't take her long to push the brown envelope into the vent. "Let's hope this works out," she said as she placed the grating back on the vent and jumped off the toilet bowl.
Before Regina had time to leave the stall, two women entered the restroom talking loudly amongst themselves - a bi-product of the loud, thumping music - about some cute guy they had both flirted with. Thinking that she wouldn't want to act suspiciously, Regina flushed the toilet before unlocking the door.
The two women were dressed to kill, and while Regina washed her fingers at the wash basin, she could feel that they were eyeing her wearily, no doubt considering her a competitor in the hunt for the grand prize.
Using the hot air blower to dry her fingers, Regina flashed the two women a two-hundred watt smile before she exited the restroom to get back to the club.
Tired of listening to the same old recording the entire evening, Stella popped the eight-track cassette - advertising a brand new, up-and-coming group called the Osmonds - out of her cassette deck and put it into the glove box.
Looking at her cell, she made sure that it was still turned on. "Regina said she'd call me once she was done? why hasn't she called me? Did she run into trouble? Was she abducted and sold to a rich Sheik as his fourteenth wife? Maybe she ran off with the rich Sheik to be his *first* wife?? Maybe I shouldn't worry too much? Reggie is a big girl who knows what she's doing? but on the other hand, maybe she's been abducted by an evil alien overlord who wants to populate the Earth with tall, gorgeous, blue-eyed pea pods? she said she'd call me, why hasn't she called me, dammit!" she grumbled out loud, tapping her fingers on the rim of the steering wheel.
When another few minutes had gone by without any signs of life, Stella thumped her fist into the passenger seat and stepped out of the car. Quickly opening the hatchback, she pulled her Bag of Disguises towards her and began to put the various items needed for the urban hip-hopper back in the trunk.
Thinking so hard that the gears grinding in her head could be heard across the street, Stella pulled out the coverall used for Bob the Plumber and held it up. "Hmmm?"-ing out loud, she put it down again and found a small plastic bag with various badges, labels and name tags.
Three minutes later, Joseph Orlando, a delivery guy from We Deliver 2U! parcel service, walked across the street headed for the fat bouncer who was still standing in the door, selecting the people who could be allowed inside.
Holding an empty cardboard box labeled 'Fragile', 'Glass! Do not Drop!' and 'Stacks eighty', Stella pulled her plain brown baseball cap as far down across her eyes as it would go, hoping that the bouncer wouldn't recognize her.
She decided on trying Regina's approach - simply walking past the bouncer - and when he hadn't spotted her after the first few seconds, she thought she was home free.
Unfortunately, she had been living on borrowed time. When the bouncer recognized her, he spun around and grabbed her by the collar of the coverall. "Hold it right there, shorty! You ain't goin' into that club!" he said, shaking his fat head so hard that all his double-chins wobbled.
"Oi, champ! Can't ya read? This stuff here is fragile! If ya make me drop it, you're gonna hafta square it with ya gov'nor!" Stella said in a mock Cockney accent she had picked up and perfected watching Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
"Nice try, shorty," the bouncer said and knocked Stella's baseball cap off, revealing her dirty-blonde haystack. "Now git! Take a hike, chew some bread, smoke a wiener, I ain't got time to be playin' hide an' seek with ya tonight? or any other night for that matter!"
Grumbling severely, Stella grabbed her baseball cap and stomped off back to her Pacer.
Ten minutes later, the most incredible spectacle this side of the Egyptian Pyramids - or even the Macchu Picchu in Peru - stepped out of the shadows of the alley and walked across the street on very unstable legs.
Wobbling left and right like it was a ship caught in rough seas, the ungodly creature bore more than a passing resemblance to none other than Stella Starr - a six-foot-four version of her, anyway.
Hidden underneath a brown wig, a pair of huge, pinkish sunglasses and the shapeless dumpster queen overcoat that she had sworn never to use again, Stella hobbled along on two twelve-inch stilts that she had bought at a Circus clear-out sale for just such an occasion, quite literally working her rear end off to keep her balance and sweating like a pig while doing so.
The stilts were equipped with a pair of sturdy, size fourteen men's workboots which made it very hard for her to navigate the potholes in the street, not to mention her eternal nemesis, the curb stone that led to the sidewalk, but she managed by sheer determination.
Shuffling onto the sidewalk, she slid up to the end of the line of people, waiting there like she didn't have a care in the world. Up front, she could see the fat bouncer dismiss a young couple dressed in very nice clothes. As they walked back towards Stella calling a cab on a cell phone, she glanced down and noted - with a rising degree of irritation - that they were both regular, decent-looking people, just short.
After the rejected couple had gone out of sight, Stella checked out some of the tall people standing close to her. 'Mmmm. There's a biker with tattoos on his forehead? and some kind of neo-punk. And a? and a? aw hell, I don't even know what kind of outfit that dude over there is wearing? and that fat f- uh, fart of a bouncer won't let ordinary, regular folks in?? Sheesh, when I get elected President, the first thing I'm gonna do is to close down this dump?'
Lost in her thoughts, Stella didn't notice that the line moved. She did notice, however, when the person behind her got impatient and punched her shoulder. It wasn't a hard punch, but because she was caught unawares, it was enough to make her lose her balance.
The fact that one of her size fourteen boots snagged on the pavement compounded the problem, and in oh-point-two flat, she found herself flapping her arms in the air like a kid ostrich out on her first test flight.
Unfortunately, gravity won out and she went down with an echoing "YEOOOOOOOUUU!" that made the entire group of people turn around and stare at her - including the bouncer who growled at her before he grabbed her by the collar and the seat of her jeans to forcibly remove her from the line.
Sitting in one of the booths near to the door to the Ladies' room, Regina felt her cell phone buzzing in her pocket. After looking at the display that simply said 'Stella', she sighed and took a sip of her Margarita.
"It's me. What's up?" she said loudly to be heard over the thumping R&B.
'What's up? What's up?! Why haven't you called me?'
"I haven't had anything to report, Stell."
'Well, I have! I was just kicked out of the line for the flippin' third time by the same fat f-'
'-bouncer, that's what I've been doing for the last fifteen minutes! I mean, Jeez-Louise, who does that guy think he is?'
"He's the bouncer, Stell. It's his job."
'Oh-yeah? Well? I guess he is? anyway, I can't get inside to help you, Reggie.'
"Oh, that's all right. There's a lot happening in here, but none of it is particularly important," Regina said and looked at the perpetually fluid, wiggling mass of people on the dance floor and at the bar that had only grown busier since she had bought her second drink.
'So you haven't seen anyone who could be the blackmailer?'
"Not yet. Hey, I got hit on by an actor!" Regina said, snickering into the cell phone. When all she heard was dead air, she moved it away from her ear to see if she had lost connection. "Stell?"
'Who was it? Anybody I know?' Stella said in a flat voice.
"It was Matt Curtis," Regina said and snickered again. "I'm old enough to be his mother, but I guess he didn't notice that in the semi-darkness. Or maybe he did and it's his thing, I dunno," she continued, taking a new sip.
'Ha, ha?.' Stella said at the other end of the connection. Even though she laughed, it didn't sound like she meant it. 'I'll bet you're the most gorgeous babe in there, Reggie.'
"Well, you know. I certainly still got it."
'Yeah, you do. I wish I had the guts to hit on you in a bar, Reggie. Oh? oh? I? I might as well say it. You've probably noticed that I've been acting really weird around you lately and? well, it's not just a crush. Not this?'
Suddenly Regina spotted a woman striding purposefully towards the restrooms. She was in her mid-thirties, tall and well-developed, and with large, fiery-red hair that flowed very nicely when she moved. She was dressed in an outfit that Regina couldn't recognize in the darkness but that appeared to be some kind of motorcycle gear - whatever it was, it was dark and it had several short, metal zippers crisscrossing the top.
When the woman came closer to Regina's booth, the former model turned around and put the cell phone to her other ear so her face wouldn't be too visible. Moving in a completely casual fashion, Regina selected the camera, moved her arm back and took a picture of the woman as she walked past the booth.
'? time,' Stella continued at the other end of the line. 'No, I gotta admit that this is the real deal. I? shoot. Oh, shoot? I think I'm in love with you, Reggie. Gawd, I didn't think I'd say it like this? Reggie? Reggie?? Reg-'
"I've just spotted a woman who triggered my sixth sense, Stell. She's entering the restrooms as I speak."
'-gie?? Are you still there? Did you choke on your vomit? I know it's gotta be weird to hear, but? but there's nothing I can do about it, dammit. I can't change who I am, I can't stop my needs and urges? I can't-'
A short while later, the woman came back out of the restrooms, holding the brown envelope under her left arm.
"Bingo! It's her, Stella. She's got the envelope under her arm. She's headed for the exit. I'm following her at a safe distance," Regina said and got up from the booth.
'-change the fact that I love you, Reggie.'
"Stell, are you paying attention to what I've been saying?" Regina said as she skimmed the edge of the dance floor on her way over to the door.
'Uh? no?? Did you hear what I told you??'
"Stell, our target is a woman in a dark outfit? not leather, but something similar. Several metal zippers. She's at least five foot ten and she's got large, flowing red hair. You can't miss her when she comes out."
'Uh?? YOU DIDN'T HEAR A THING OF WHAT I JUST TOLD YOU??!' Stella howled
through the phone.
Stopping at the small staircase down from the ground level, Regina waited for the other woman to leave the Tall Oak before she hurried down the stairs and opened the door. "Start the Pacer, Stella, I'll be with you in less than a minute."
'OH, REGGIE! Here I am, pouring out my heart, my soul, my? my? inner dreams and hopes and? and? and you just ignore me! Oh, rats? this is the story of my life?'
As Regina stepped out onto the street, a familiar sound reached her ears. A second later, a large, black Harley-Davidson motorcycle came rumbling around the corner of an alley next to the club. The rider was wearing a mat black full-face helmet, but the red locks blowing in the wind gave away that it was the woman she was chasing.
"Damn!" Regina barked into the phone. "She's on a bike, Stell. Come on, I'm at the door. Pick me up!"
'I just can't catch a break?'
'I'm hustling, I'm hustling? Jeez-Louise!' Stella said and started the Pacer.
Looking across the street, Regina could see the old car's headlights dim a couple of times before Stella was able to start it. Just when she was about to drive out onto the street, a pickup truck stopped at the mouth of the alley to drop off two tall, leggy women dressed in very little.
'Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!' Stella howled over the phone and honked several times to get the pickup truck to move out of her way.
Regina just clapped her hand across her eyes and let out a long, heartfelt groan.
When the truck finally drove on, Stella shot out of the dark alley and was at the other side of the one-way street in a matter of seconds.
Regina hurried around the old Pacer, opened the door and jumped inside. "Peel rubber, Stella!"
As Stella mashed the gas - climbing to at least eighteen miles an hour in the first hundred yards - it soon dawned on Regina that they had to be more than a little lucky to stay on the tail of the rider whose motorcycle had been reduced to a speck of red light somewhere in the distance.
Feeling Regina's ice blue orbs on her, Stella turned her head to her right and flashed the former model a cheesy grin. "We're going? we're going?"
"Ummm, Reggie, you didn't hear any of the stuff I talked about just now? did ya?"
"Not really, Stell. A couple a' scattered words," Regina said as she buckled up. "I was too busy staying close to the mysterious woman."
As they drove on in a pregnant silence, a certain gleam in Regina's eye proved that she had heard a lot more than she let on. Unfortunately - or perhaps fortunately for the blonde investigator's focus - Stella was too busy to notice, instead concentrating on getting the Pacer to go as fast as she dared.
Glancing to her left, Regina chuckled inwardly as she thought about how she should break the news to Stella that she had begun to feel something as well - a deep sense of belonging that went beyond mere friendship, or even best-friendship as she liked to call the two of them. 'A flutter in the gut? a tickle in the heart? she's able to give me that with one of her cute, little mannerisms, her strong hugs and her genuine smiles. I've noticed that I don't even complain about her peculiar fashion sense the way I did a couple of months ago. She's definitely rubbed off on me? we still need to do something about her hair, though?'
"-Reggie? Hey, who's zoning out now? Jeez, Miss All Hair And No Ears, where's your brain today?" Stella said, forcing Regina to snap out of her pleasant thoughts.
"I said, what if we lose her? She's like a daredevil on that hog? constantly zipping in and out of the traffic."
"I? oh, that's right! I took a picture of the woman inside the club," Regina said and found her cell phone. "If I send the photo to Kristy, she might be able to ID our target."
Stepping on the gas to go across an intersection that had just turned yellow, Stella let out a small whoop and then briefly looked to her right. "That's a great idea, Reggie. Did you get Kristy's phone number??"
"Ah? no," Regina said and scrunched up her face.
"Oh? shoot. We didn't think of asking, did we?"
"No? oh, but I'll just call Ruby who can call Kristy who can call me and give us her number," Regina said excitedly and found Ruby's phone number in the registry.
Chuckling out loud, Stella shook her head, marveling over modern technology.
Five minutes later, Stella slammed her fist down onto the rim of the steering wheel and pulled over at the curb on the inner part of Wellington Boulevard. "Well, it happened. I knew it would and now it has? we've lost her."
"Yeah, I'm still trying to get hold of Ruby? damn, they must be busy tonight. It's been ringing eleven times now?" Regina said, looking at the display to check if everything was still working.
While Regina was trying to establish contact, Stella looked out of the side window and onto the traffic on the busy boulevard. The six lanes - three in each direction - were all busy with a mixture of sportscars and family sedans, and nearly all the cars had more than one person in it.
Suddenly jerking upright, Regina shifted the cell phone to the other ear and found her notepad. "Hey, Ruby, it's Regina Harrison. I need Kristy Newbourne's phone number? on the double, please."
"Yeah, we're working on the case right now."
"Yeah. Go on, I'm ready," Regina said and held her pencil next to the notepad. A couple of grunts later, she underlined the number and pushed the pencil into the metal spiral for safe keeping. "Great. Thanks, Ruby. Bye."
"Did ya get it?"
"Nine? six? yeah, I got it? four? four. Wish me luck, Stell," Regina said and put the cell to her ear again.
Chuckling, Stella reached over and patted Regina's long thigh. "Good luck, Reggie."
Regina narrowed her eyes as she wrote down the new info on the notepad. "All right, thanks Kristy," she said and closed the phone. "Get this, the woman with the red hair??"
"Is Kristy's ex."
"Jeebus? no kiddin'?"
"A scorned lover. Shoot," Stella said with a muted laugh.
"And she used to live on Sixteenth Street, house number 1098, apartment four-D. That's two blocks back? which is roughly where we lost her."
"Yeah. Okay, let's go back to Sixteenth Street. We might find her? hey, wait a minute," Stella said, checking the rear view mirror.
"There's something back there? a hundred yards back or so? a single headlight waiting by the curb," Stella said and turned around to see better.
Starting the Pacer, Stella selected Drive but kept the car at the curb. "Could be our target back to even the score? what's her name, anyhow?"
"Right. Did Kristy say anything about her?" Stella said and took another glance in the rear view mirror. "I mean things like her preferred method of getting rid of unwanted tails??"
"Not really, no."
"Baseball bat, kitchen knife, sledgehammer, hedge cutter, professional grinding tool, steamroller, uh? sawed-off shotgun??"
Snickering loudly, Regina reached over and gave Stella's shoulder a gentle, little punch. "Stella-dahling, you've played too much Resident Evil."
"Could be? could be," Stella said and slid out into the traffic as a gap presented itself to her. "Is she still there?"
Leaning forward, Regina craned her neck to see in the small right-hand side mirror. "Yep. And she's closing on us. Man, she's looking a little devilish in that black outfit and the black helmet on a black Harley? when the neon lights and the headlights from the other cars reflect in the visor, it becomes transparent, except that it looks like there? isn't? anything? underneath?"
When that information settled, both women shivered and looked at each other wearing identical nervous expressions.
"Mary-Jane" -- "Inspector Moynes," they said in unison. Chuckling nervously - to hide the fact that her spine had turned into an ice rink for a whole battalion of shivers - Regina flipped open her cell phone one more time and dialed the number for the police precinct.
Before she had time to punch in the last digit, the woman on the black Harley drove up right behind the Pacer and revved the engine several times just to let the two investigators know that she was there and that she wasn't about to let them go anytime soon.
"Stella! Time to get out of here!" Regina said and grabbed hold of the old car's seatbelt.
"And how the hell do you expect me to do that, Reggie? This isn't a racecar, you know!" Stella said and ran her hand over the brown vinyl dashboard to try to settle the old girl's growing fears before they would get out of hand and turn into a bigger issue.
Pressing the final digit, Regina put the cell phone to her ear and waited for the umpteenth time that evening for someone to pick up their phone. "Damn, I'm on hold."
"We're on our own, Reggie," Stella said in a voice so laced with doom and gloom that the battalion of shivers down Regina's back were joined by two additional armored regiments.
When a very familiar song hit her ears, Regina moved the phone away from her and stared at the display with wide eyes. "I don't believe it, they're using the theme from Hawaii Five-O as Muzak," she said with a great deal of disbelief.
Staring at her friend, Stella felt something bubble up from her chest, something she couldn't possibly hold back. It was right there on her tongue, waiting, wanting, demanding to be let out of the moist prison; constantly knocking on the inside of her teeth until she had no choice but to let it fly.
Finally giving in to the urge, she leaned her head back and sang: "Bom!-bom!-bem!-beem!-baaam!-baam?!"
"Gawd, Stella! Will you quit that? It's bad enough I have to listen to it on the phone!" Regina whined and thrust an index finger into Stella's ribs to get her to stop.
"Bom!-bo- OWCH! Well, pardon me, Missy!"
Racing along the crowded Boulevard at breakneck speeds, Stella gripped the steering wheel so hard that her knuckles turned white. Drops of sweat ran down from her temples, but she didn't have time to wipe them off - instead, she glanced down at the speedometer, horrified to see the needle wobbling near the little bar indicating they were going at an insane thirty-five miles an hour.
Gulping loudly, she cast a quick glance at Regina who was sitting very calmly with the phone to her ear, still listening to the Muzak.
When Regina noticed how tense and wound-up Stella was, she leaned over and gently thumped her shoulder. "Cool down, Stell. I'm sure we're gonna be fine."
"We're gonna get wrapped around a light post if I'm not careful! I don't have time to look behind us? the scenery is going by so fast my undies have rolled themselves up into a tight wad? is she still there?"
After craning her neck too see, Regina quickly nodded. "Yep. Looks like the Harley's barely idling. She's kinda not going in a straight line if you know what I mean. Maybe you should try to hit the gas a bit more, Stell?"
"More?! You want more?! I? I? I? can't, Reggie! The old girl can't, either!" Stella said in a fit of hysteria.
Reaching over, Regina patted Stella's tense thigh a couple of times to show her support. "There, there, Stell. It's all right. This way, Inspector Moynes will be able to spot us better. Okay?"
"Uh-huh! Oh? oh, Gads, no, we're coming up to a red light? we're gonna be butchered by her, Reggie! Cut into little pieces, hung up to sun-dry for six months and then sold to the Oriental & Exotic Foods Market we just went past! What should I do? What do you want me to do, Reggie?? Reggie?!"
"Calm down, looks like there's a permanent right-turn. Just go into the inner lane and turn right down? what is it? Twenty-fifth Street."
"Gaaaaaaaaawd!" Stella howled as the ancient AMC Pacer took the corner on two wheels going at nearly twenty miles an hour. Behind them, the Harley followed through the turn without any problems.
The Muzak suddenly stopped, replaced by Mary-Jane Moynes' calm voice. 'Inspector Moynes. How ma-'
"Hello, Inspector Moynes! It's Regina Harrison from The Harrison-Starr Detective Agency! We need your help," Regina said into her phone.
"Not just that! We're requesting urgent backup! All available units, the SWAT-team, the bomb squad, FBI, CIA, CSI, ATM, NSA, NRA, NBA and any other three-letter acronym you can think of! And you better make it very, very STAT!" Stella added in a howling, screeching voice.
'I'm sorry? I didn't catch any of that, Miss Harrison. Was that Stella?'
"Yes, it was. We're working on a case involving blackmail. Currently, we're going up Twenty-fifth Street headed towards the 'burbs. The suspect in the case is chasing us on a motorcycle, and we?" - looking at Stella, Regina decided that what she was about to say wasn't even an exaggeration "- we're kinda worried."
'Don't be, Miss Harrison. I'll go out with a couple of cruisers. You're roughly coming towards us. See if you can cross over to Twenty-third Street.'
Looking at the way Stella was gripping the wheel, Regina knew that it would be difficult to explain to the high-strung investigator. "We'll try, but it might not be possible, Inspector. Oh, and we're in the Pacer so we shouldn't be too hard to find."
'Uh? okay? anyway, see you in a short while, Miss Harrison,' the Inspector said and hung up.
"She's coming, Stell," Regina said as she closed the phone and put it into her blazer pocket.
Three minutes later, Stella spotted the flashing lights on top of no less than three police cruisers - but unfortunately, they were going the wrong way down Twenty-fifth Street.
"There they are! Wait? Ugh! They're going the wrong way! We're over here! Here!" Stella said, waving at the police cars as they roared past the Pacer.
"Ohtahellwiththat? I'm makin' a U!" Stella said and spun the steering wheel around to perform a one-hundred eighty degree turn in the middle of the street.
Fifty yards further up the street, all three police drivers decided they wanted to show off their formation stunt driving skills and performed identical U-turns, moving in perfect synchronicity.
"What? what? WHAAAAAT?!" Stella howled when she realized that all three police cruisers went past them all over again, still going in the wrong direction. "Ohfercryin'outloud? this isn't happening! This isn't happening! Game over, man! Gam-"
"Pull over at the curb and let the Inspector catch up with us, Stell," Regina said, getting worried over her friend's mental stability.
"Good idea. I'm done with this bullhickey!" Stella said and came to a screeching halt - braking from nearly twenty-five miles an hour - at the side of the street. Leaning forward, she began to stroke the brown vinyl dashboard, whispering soothing words of nonsense to the Pacer to get the old girl to calm down after the ordeal.
Staring at the odd scene, Regina didn't quite know what to say or do, so she just blinked a couple of times and began to chew on her cheek.
Seconds later, the driver's side door was opened by Inspector Moynes who had her service sidearm ready to fire. "Hey, guys. Are you all right? Where's the motorcycle that was chasing you?"
Turning their heads in unison, Regina and Stella looked out of the rear window but could only see an empty street. "She probably split when she saw the flashing lights? thanks for rescuing us, Mary-Jane," Stella said, looking more than a little sheepish.
"You're welcome," Mary-Jane Moynes said and pulled her burgundy blazer aside to reveal a black v-neck blouse. After inserting her sidearm into the holster on her hip, she stood up straight and smoothed down her short, strawberry-blonde hair "Sooooo?" she continued, looking around at the deserted street.
"Uh, well?" Stella said, looking at Regina for guidance.
Leaning forward so she could look the inspector in the eye, Regina began to count off on her fingers. "We have her name and her address, Inspector. It's Irene Hobbes and she's living at 1098 Sixteenth Street, apartment four-D. We suspect she is blackmailing our client for five thousand dollars. She has the money in her possession right now, and we believe that she might have compromising photos as well."
"Does she know that you have her address?"
"Weeeellll? she might. By accident, we drove past it to get here."
"Hmmm. Hmmm. All right, let's pay her a visit. Follow us there," Mary-Jane said and tapped her knuckles on the roof of the Pacer.
"Yes, Inspector Moynes," Regina and Stella said as one.
Having sent one of the cruisers home, Inspector Moynes got ready to press the door buzzer at 1098 Sixteenth Street with the remaining two officers. "Did she seem threatening to you, Miss Harrison?" she said as her finger hovered above the button.
"Well, not as such, Inspector. Not beyond driving behind us? but she's tall and she looked anything but a weakling."
"Right," Mary-Jane Moynes said and moved to press the buzzer, but before she could, Stella had put a hand on her elbow.
"Ah, Mary-Jane? if we buzz her from down here, she'll have a lot of time to destroy the pictures we believe she has. If we knock directly on her door, she won't have any time. Well, unless she jumps out of the window, of course?"
Smiling at the wild-haired investigator, the inspector pressed the buzzer to one of the other apartments. Once the door opened, they all stepped inside. "Good thinking, Stella. If you ever grow tired of working for yourself, I'm sure we could find a spot for you in the police force."
"Oh, wow, really?"
"Oh? oh, I get it, it was a joke, ha ha," Stella said with a pout.
Two minutes later, Inspector Moynes knocked on the door to Irene Hobbes' apartment and took a precautionary step to the side to get out of a potential firing line.
'Wh- who is it?' a strong female voice said from the other side of the door.
"The police, Miss Hobbes. Open the door at once or we'll break it down!"
'The po-police??' the woman said, quickly followed by a muted curse that sounded very much like one of Stella's favorite '?ucker' words.
"You have three seconds, Miss Hobbes!"
'All right, all right, all right? I surrender! Jeez, wait a second, will ya!'
After two locks had been twisted and a slider had been pushed to the side, Irene Hobbes opened the door and stared in a rather annoyed fashion at the five people standing outside her apartment. "How in the flaming pits of hell did ya find me?" she growled.
When she noticed Regina and Stella standing next to the police wearing identical broad grins, she shot them a look that was designed to kill them stone dead on the spot - unfortunately for her, but fortunately for Regina and Stella, she hadn't yet perfected that skill.
"Miss Hobbes," Inspector Moynes said as she pushed her way past Irene, "we have reason to believe that you're involved in an attempt at extorting Miss Kristy Newbourne. What do you have to say for yourself?"
"I'm not saying anything without my lawyer!" Irene said, moving into the living room.
"Probably a wise move, Miss Hobbes."
Walking behind the inspector and the tall redhead who was still wearing the snug, black biker suit she had worn in the club, Stella couldn't help but think about the women they had met in conjunction with the case and how different they all were: The older, but still formidably fit Ruby Albrecht; Kristy, the brawny, muscular fire fighter with a buzz cut; Irene, the angular, Amazonic, apparently high-maintenance old girlfriend with a sprawling hairdo, and finally the much softer and more delicate, wavy-haired new girlfriend whose name was still unknown because Kristy wanted to protect her.
"Psst, what's on your mind, Stell?" Regina whispered out of the corner of her mouth, leaning in towards her friend.
"I just got *the* greatest idea for your show tomorrow night, Reggie," Stella answered in a matching whisper.
"Yeah. It's gonna be world class."
"Okay??" Regina said and furrowed her brow - she couldn't remember the last time Stella had been that interested in her modeling career.
Once in the living room, it didn't take Regina, Stella and Inspector Moynes two seconds to spot the stack of counterfeit $100 bills lying on a coffee table in front of a leather couch. Next to the money, Irene had spread out a pile of black-and-white photographs of Kristy and her new girlfriend; some of them were borderline indecent. The brown envelope had been torn up and put into a small waste paper basket next to the table.
Reaching behind her, Mary-Jane Moynes found her handcuffs and slapped them on the Amazonic woman's wrists. "Irene Hobbes, I'm placing you under arrest for suspicions of extortion. You have the right to-"
"That bitch!" Irene screamed, trying to break free of the handcuffs. "That damned firebug bitch! She cheated on me with a frickin' cream puff girl scout and now it's me who gets arrested! When she dumped me, she frickin' told me it was because she had become allergic to my frickin' deodorant! Can you believe that crap?! With all those muscles, you'd think she had some balls! But noooooooooo, she needed some lame-o excuse! And you know the worst part? Firebug couldn't do diddly-squat in bed! That's right! It was like humpin' a frickin' dead fish! Big Bad Butch didn't know a frickin' thing about pleasing a woman!"
"Tell it to the judge? on second thoughts, maybe you shouldn't," Inspector Moynes said and tightened the handcuffs. Once they were tight enough to take away Irene's fighting spirit, she resumed reading her her rights.
As the inspector went though the familiar speech, Regina and Stella turned away from the scene and gave each other a resounding high-five for a job well done.
The next evening at half past six, Stella - in a great mood and singing rather loudly to What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For - turned the Pacer into the parking lot at Rockin' Ruby's and began to cruise around for somewhere to park.
" '-If you don't know what they?' Oh! There's a spot right there," she said and quickly whooshed into a narrow slot between two huge pickup trucks. As she turned off the engine, she glanced to her right to look at Regina who hadn't spoken a word the entire way there.
"What's the matter with you tonight, Reggie? Are you sick again or something?" Stella said and felt the former model's forehead.
Sighing deeply, Regina shrugged and shook her head at the same time. "No, I'm just a little nervous."
"Nervous? What on earth for?"
"Oh, doing the show."
"Shoot, you've got nothing to be nervous for. I'll bet you've done it a million and one times. Besides, they all love you, Missy. And don't forget that I, the incomparable Stella Starr, have chosen the clothes you'll be wearing? that's definitely a first!"
"Uh, yeah. And we actually chose the clothes together."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, details, details," Stella said, opened the door and climbed out of her car. "But, hey, I got a great feeling about tonight, Reggie. Yep. Tonight is gonna be really special."
"You think?" Regina said and stepped out of the Pacer.
"Hell yeah. The gang at Rockin' Ruby's is gonna be talking about tonight for years to come. You'll see."
Walking around the back, Stella quickly unlocked the hatchback so Regina could take the three dress bags containing her costumes. "I'm glad that we agreed on keeping it a low-key affair like Ruby Albrecht suggested."
"Well, we only debated for an hour?" Regina said as she pulled the three bags out of the trunk. "I still think we should have found two more costumes."
"No, three costumes was my plan from the start. So three made a good compromise," Stella said, wearing an impossibly wide grin that grew even broader when Regina shot her a dark look.
"I just hope I won't get a case of the Clumsies and fall off the catwalk," Regina mumbled as she took a step back to allow Stella to close and lock the hatchback.
Inside Rockin' Ruby's, the activity level was higher than what Regina and Stella had ever seen in the charming establishment.
People were running around everywhere, putting up the last banners and fixing the last problems. Some were carrying trays of glasses that they put down on the tables in the eight cozy booths lining the outer wall, and others were hauling rented stackable chairs into the separate room that housed the dance floor.
In the middle of it all, the former pro-softball star Ruby Albrecht stood atop a chair wearing a dusty apron. Looking and behaving very much like a four-star General commanding the troops on a battlefield, Ruby made sure that everyone of her helpers knew exactly where they should be and what they should be doing by sending out a steady stream of strongly worded commands.
"Hi, Ruby!" Stella shouted, waving her hand high in the air to catch Ruby's attention.
Quickly waving back, Ruby jumped off the chair and went over to the two investigators. "Hi, guys. Good to see ya. You brought a couple a' outfits?" she said as they shook hands.
"Yep. Three in fact, but they're of very high quality so it should be really good. Ain't that right, Reggie?" Stella said and thumped Regina's arm that held the dress bags.
Grinning, Stella turned back to Ruby. "I came up with the theme. You wanna hear it? The Many Faces Of Eve. Sounds pretty good, huh? Has a sort of epic ring to it, I think," she said, hooking her thumb inside the black cotton vest she was wearing over a purple t-shirt and her favorite pair of blue jeans.
"Yeah, it's gonna fit well with the rest of the celebrations. Oh, I think I gotta go," Ruby said as one of her helpers came up to her with a piece of paper. "Catch you later, okay? I hope I'll have time to come and see you before the show."
"Sure thing, Ruby," Stella said. When she realized that Regina had only added a single syllable to the conversation, she put her hands on her hips and turned back towards Regina to shoot the former model a curious look. "Boy, you must really be nervous, Reggie? you've gone completely mute."
"Oh, I'm not mute. Just nerv-"
'Testing! Testing!' a female voice suddenly said from inside the dance hall.
"Oh! That's gotta be the comedienne Ruby mentioned? c'mon, let's check her out!" Stella said excitedly and scooted off like a jackrabbit. Regina followed at a slightly more sedate pace.
The center of the dance hall had been converted into a large catwalk which was nearly fifty foot long and eight foot wide. A medium-sized tent meant as a dressing room and a temporary storage facility for the costumes had been erected at one end of the catwalk, and at the other, the comedienne was standing on a small dais, holding a microphone and testing the sound levels.
As the stand-up comedienne began to tell Stella a long and somewhat bawdy joke to test the equipment, Regina stared at the catwalk, feeling her heart rate pick up and her old competitive spirit return. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, she went into the first of her old pre-show rituals by making a pledge to herself that she would go out there and give everyone - the audience, the critics, the scouts, the reporters, *everyone* - a collective orgasm.
Jumping up on the catwalk, Regina executed another of her pre-show rituals by checking every square inch very thoroughly to see if the people building it had been professional or careless. Once she was done, she had only found one critical difference in height and two smaller cracks between the wooden slabs. Nodding, she allowed herself a brief smile before venturing into the tent to get the outfits ready.
The radical change in Regina's demeanor hadn't gone unnoticed by Stella and she left the comedienne behind and hurried after the former model to help her with the costumes. 'Oooooooooooooooh! I'm finally gonna see the real Regina Harrison? the undisputed Queen of the Catwalks, the Supermodel who captured the world's imagination for nearly a decade? Gawd! I should ha' brought some spare panties?!' she thought, hardly able to contain her giddiness.
Inside the tent, Regina had already put the three dress bags on a sturdy rack when Stella showed up looking like a supernova about to go bang. Her eyes were shiny, her cheeks were flushed and she had balled up her fists and held them to her bosom.
Then it struck Regina: she really did feel something for Stella. Something deep inside her reacted to the petite blonde's cheery charm, her cute looks, her unbridled passion, her undying devotion and loyalty, her unwavering sense of right and wrong - even her occasional bout with depression and her volatile temper. Staggered by the revelation, Regina stared wide-eyed at Stella who responded by looking over her shoulder to see who it was Regina was looking at like that.
'Wh-who is she looking at?' Stella thought when Regina shot her a very, very strange look. 'Is she looking at me? Uh-oh, I know that look? that's the l-look of l- no, I can't say it? I don't wanna blow it?!'
Unbeknownst to Stella, Regina's entire being was blowing hot and cold over the unexpected revelation; alternating between a warm sense of happiness and a cold, strange fear of stepping into a new world. 'This is nuts? I'm a happy het, for Pete's sake. I love being with men? why do I even think of Stella like that? I mean, it's Stella! She's? she's? she's Stella!'
Moving closer to each other, Regina and Stella had both been struck speechless, both feeling identical, confusing emotions pouring through them, and neither really knowing how to break free of the silent spell they were under.
The two women ended up so close that there wasn't even room for the Sunday edition of the Chronicle between them. Slowly, Regina raised her arms to put them on Stella's shoulders.
Wanting to break the news to her best friend - and soon so much more - Regina cleared her throat and licked her lips. "Stella? yesterday? the things you told me over the phone while I was inside the club? I? really did hear them and?"
"Reggie, please let me down easy," Stella whispered hoarsely, unable to find her voice. "I know it must spazz you out? I know it would spazz me out a helluva lot if some guy told me that he had the hots for me? but, yes. I? aw, hell, Reggie? I love you. There, I've said it. If you want to quit the Agency, I understand," she continued, looking away from her friend's piercing blue eyes with a deep sigh.
Deciding that it was easier to show Stella what was in her heart instead of talking about it, the first thing Regina did was to lift Stella's chin with her fingers so she could look into the emerald green orbs that had come to mean so much to her; then, she zeroed in on Stella's lips and leaned down to claim them with her own.
Unlike their first kiss - which had taken place only yards from where they were standing now - this one came from the heart, and as the kiss deepened and became more passionate, Stella could hardly believe what her senses were telling her.
'Wait a minute? waaaaaaait a minute? she's kissing me? and it's not just a peck on the cheek or the nose? Good Lord Almighty, she's really putting her back into it? AND HER TONGUE! WHAT IN THE WORLD?! I must be dreaming? yes, this is just a wet dream? just a wet-'
Stella couldn't hold back a breathless moan that escaped her lips and swirled around the two kissing women for several seconds, convincing her that it was actually taking place in this dimension and not just the shadowy Fantasy World where all women were dying to get to know her better.
The first proper kiss between Stella Starr and Regina Harrison came to an end all too soon as the need for air overpowered - just barely - the need to stay connected, but as the two women pulled back, the looks they sent each other and the waves of warm fuzzies and pricklies that swept over them made it very, very clear to both of them that it was not going to be the last kiss they ever shared.
"Wow," Regina croaked. "I never figured it would feel like that? your lips are so soft?"
"Well, that's what I've been trying to tell ya, Reggie," Stella said and pulled Regina into a strong embrace. "Women invented kissing. We're the masters of that particular Olympic discipline? and when it's woman times two, watch out," she continued, buffing her fingernails on Regina's blazer jacket.
"It's so weird not to feel a beard tickling me?"
"Aw, just to ease you into your new, larger world, maybe I should wear my fake mustache the first couple of times??" Stella said with an impossibly cheeky snicker.
"Just a suggestion."
Taking a deep breath, Regina shook her head slowly, completely unable to take her eyes off the blonde goddess in front of her. "I? I think I got it bad, Stell. That's what I wanted to tell you before. The things you told me yesterday at the club? I felt it, too. I just didn't know how to react to those feelings? it's all so new to me. But? but seeing you now, with that super-excited look in your eyes? everything just clicked. The pieces of the puzzle all fell in place."
"Glad to hear it. I know exactly what you mean? baby," Stella said with a new snicker. Standing up on tip-toes, she aimed at Regina's luscious lips, but before she could make contact, the curtain behind them fluttered aside, revealing a tall, muscular firefighter who was holding a sixpack of Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz and a stack of fashion magazines.
"Wa-hey!" Kristy Newbourne said, gawking at the two nearly-kissing women. "I'd say a toaster is in order!"
"Oh, uh? hi, Kristy," Stella said, clearing her throat to stop her voice from cracking up.
Regina just smiled and giggled goofily.
After putting the sixpack and the magazines down on a table, Kristy shook hands with both investigators. "I just wanted to thank you for taking care of my case. I should've known that Irene would be behind it? the signature in the blackmail letter said 'The Eye', and that should've clued me in. That's what she calls herself, the Red Eye? Eye for Eye-rene, you know."
"Ah, no problem, Kristy. Uh, what's that?" Stella said and pointed at the various items.
"Well, I spoke to Ruby and she said that your favorite soda pop is Raspberry Fizz. Since I can't pay your regular fee, I wanted to buy you something you'd enjoy. Similarly with the fashion magazines? man, I've never, ever been so embarrassed in my whole life as when I went into the news agent's and bought a stack of fashion stuff! Har!"
"Thanks, Miss Newbourne," Regina croaked, having just found her voice in the bottomless pool of mush she was floating around in on the inside.
"Thanks, Kristy. That's mighty nice of ya," Stella said, grinning broadly.
Reaching over, the brawny firefighter thumped both Regina's and Stella's shoulders hard enough to nearly make them topple over. "You betcha. I'll stop harassing you now, so? You May Kiss The Babe," Kristy said and winked saucily as she left the tent.
"Will do," Stella said and pulled Regina close to her. "Hey, don't we have a show to do?" she continued, pointing at the dress bags.
"I guess. Right now, I just wanna kiss you, though?"
"I've created a monster," Stella said in a mock growl. "We'll have plenty of time to do that later. Reggie, we're gonna put on the best damn show we can! Right?"
"Uh? right," Regina said and went into such a cute pout that she reckoned Stella would have no option but to kiss it away.
Rolling her eyes, Stella reached up and used her index finger to draw a little smiley face on Regina's pouting lips. "Pouts don't work on me, Missy. Now change. Ruby is depending on us!"
"Oh? okay? I can wait," Regina said and took off her blazer.
To a background of roaring, clapping and cheering women of all ages and from all along the spectrum, the comedienne finished her show by taking a bow. "Thank you? thank you? you're a wonderful audience? but I guess you knew that already," she said, waving to the crowd.
Inside the tent doubling as a temporary dressing room, Regina flicked her hair out of the collar of her first costume. Checking herself in a portable mirror that Stella was holding up, she twisted and turned to see if the costume looked all right from all possible angles.
"How do I look, Stell?"
"Just magnificent, Reggie. You're gonna blow 'em away out there."
"We're gonna knock them out," Regina said and made sure the top was aligned properly.
Grinning cheekily, Stella couldn't resist reaching down and pinching Regina's well-rounded derriere. "Well, you are? I'm just gonna stand here and cross my legs while you do the run. Out and back, out and back, right?"
"That's the plan."
Out on the dais, the comedienne went over to the mixing console that controlled the sound levels. Fiddling with a few knobs, she cued a thumping soundtrack fit for the Queen of the Catwalks. "And now for the second highlight of the evening? I was the first, dontcha know? anyway, you already know her 'cos I hear she's a bit of a barfly, but I'll bet you've never seen her like this? REGINA! HARRISON!"
Inside the tent, Regina put on her game face and shot Stella such a burning look of steely determination that the blonde investigator had no choice but to let out an echoing, inarticulate squeal.
Moving the curtain aside, Regina exploded out onto the catwalk, conquering it on sight as she walked down it with her hips slamming left and right to the thumping dance music.
The two-button off-white satin lounge suit she was wearing fit her like a glove and accentuated all her most important bits: her mile-long legs, her hips, her bosom and her shoulders. A black, spaghetti-strap tank with a three-inch section of black lace at the top and a pair of white-and-black two-inch pumps completed the knockout ensemble.
At first, the spectacle left the audience quite speechless, but the stunned silence only lasted for a few seconds before an impossibly loud wall of cheering rose from the crowd and threatened to blow the roof clean off Rockin' Ruby's dance hall.
When Regina reached the end of the catwalk, she stopped, spun around, cocked her hips and threw her head to let her hair fall down the other shoulder. Gazing at the audience nearest to her with an intensity that could set carbon paper alight, she was the cause of quite a few wet seats before she completed the spin and began to walk back towards the tent and Stella.
The second pass was as successful as the first, and when Regina entered the tent to change, Stella let the curtain fall down behind her.
"Gaaaaaaawd," Stella croaked, wiping her damp brow.
Regina didn't have time to answer; instead, she quickly jumped out of the pumps and the satin suit and donned the second outfit: a black Tuxedo with a butterfly that was hanging loose on purpose.
"What's your evaluation, Stell?" Regina said as she put four black plastic clips in her hair to make it appear less voluminous, leaving a few strands of fashionably loose bangs to fall down her forehead.
After smacking her lips several times while trying to find the right words, Stella eventually gave up the unequal struggle and let the red blotches on her cheeks do the talking. "I? oh? you? God? I?"
"I still got it!" Regina said and pumped her fist in the air.
Outside the tent, the thumping dance music gave way to broad trombones and swelling violins, signaling a change of time and pace.
"Here we go again," Regina said and left the tent. The Tuxedo was just as popular as the off-white satin suit had been - only with a different part of the audience.
Standing in the entrance to the tent, Stella admired the way Regina was able to play the early 1960s swing theme to the maximum, swaying her way down the catwalk and literally toying with the emotions of the spectators.
At the end of the first run, Regina shot Stella such a come-hither look that she almost followed her out onto the catwalk. 'Wow? that's my girl?!' Stella thought giddily, slapping her cheeks to get the shit-eating grin to wear off before it would be permanently etched onto her face.
Turning around to prepare for the third costume, Stella was too preoccupied with Regina to see where she was going - but much to her detriment, she soon found out exactly where she was when the tip of her shoe bumped against one of the lower struts that kept the tent erect.
The unexpected bounce made her jerk forward and almost slip off the edge of the catwalk. Letting out a choked-up squeal, she windmilled her arms in the air to stop herself from taking a swan dive off the catwalk and onto the smooth dance floor below. After a brief moment literally teetering on the brink of disaster, she managed to spin around and move back to terra firma with a resounding "Phew!" "That damned Reggie? now I can't even walk when she's around!" she mumbled to herself, adding an embarrassed snicker.
When the Tuxedo run was over, the music changed again. The broad trombones and the violins soon faded out and were replaced by a soundtrack of hip, cool, Inner City Progressive jazz with plenty of muted trumpets, an off-beat bassline and a hard, metallic snare drum.
"Oh? the Big City Grrrl isn't ready?" Regina said as she took off the Tuxedo jacket.
Hurrying over to the third dress bag, Stella pulled out the clothes needed for the final outfit - olive cargo pants, a long-sleeved black T-shirt, a short, brown leather jacket and a charcoal gray flat cap. "She will be really, really soon," Stella said, straightening out the jacket's sleeves. "I had a little issue with the strut?"
"Maybe you need new glasses. Have you thought about that, Stell?" Regina said and pulled off the black dancing shoes she had worn for the Tuxedo run.
Snickering loudly, Stella looked away while Regina stepped out of the black slacks and hopped into the cargo pants. "You could be right? or maybe it's just your doing, oh ye Cruel Tormentor Of Short Blondes."
"Now why didn't I think of that?" Regina said as she tied knots on the bootlaces on the pair of ankle boots she had chosen for the final outfit. Whipping off the white shirt, she held out her hand and said: "Tee!"
"Tee be here," Stella said and shoved the long-sleeved t-shirt into Regina's waiting hand, looking anywhere but at the former model's gloriously tanned skin and her two full peaks that were caged in by a skin-colored, lacy bra.
Quickly putting on the t-shirt, the leather jacket and the flat cap, Regina shot out of the tent to perform the last part of the show.
Once again awing the audience by strutting her ample stuff to the best of her abilities, Regina worked the crowd perfectly, making a third group cheer loudly as the Big City Grrrl strode straight down the center of the catwalk like she owned the place.
When she reached the end, she took off the leather jacket and swung it over her shoulder, revealing that the front of the black t-shirt had WOMEN FTW! written on it in white, graffiti-like letters, earning herself a huge cheer from the crowd.
Cocking her hips, she made sure that everyone had seen her and the message before she spun around and strode back towards the tent.
As Regina got ready for the last pass, an idea was formed in her mind, and when she reached the tent, she quickly jumped inside, let go of the jacket and the flat cap and grabbed hold of Stella's hand.
Taken completely by surprise, Stella fumbled and stumbled her way out of the tent and onto the catwalk, squealing loudly and blushing like her face was on fire. Looking down at the scores of expectant eyes staring at her only worsened her condition, and if Regina hadn't been holding onto her hand, she would have high-tailed it out of there.
On her way down to the other end of the catwalk, Stella's confidence grew and she was eventually able to push her inhibitions to the side to allow herself to enjoy the unusual moment - she even dared to pull a couple of moves similar to the ones she had seen Regina do many times, earning herself a round of laughter and applause from the audience and her new girlfriend.
Standing at the far end of the catwalk, Regina raised their entwined hands high in the air and then took a deep bow to show their gratitude over the storming reception the crowd had given them.
For Stella Starr, the deafening cheers of the spectators faded into the background when Regina turned around to look her in the eye. At that moment, all that mattered in her world were the two sparkling, ice blue orbs in the former model's pretty face, and she knew she'd fight anyone to the death if they tried to take those blue gemstones away from her.
Regina Harrison's entire being was focused on the petite, blonde wildcat standing next to her. She never imagined that she'd one day find herself in love with a woman, but Stella's emerald green orbs, her lust for life, her fiery passion and her inherent, genuine innocence made it possible. 'Hell, it made it impossible not to,' she thought, leaning in towards Stella.
"Hey," Regina said for Stella's ears only. "You know what?"
"I think I've fallen for you."
"I think I love you, Reggie."
"Please kiss me."
"Here? Well, okay? I guess I could do that," Stella said and pulled the tall woman down towards her.
To thunderous applause, the two investigators claimed each other's lips in a warm, tender, loving kiss that went on for so long that the crowd began to stomp their feet on the floor and chant Stella's and Regina's names.
Breaking off the kiss, Stella and Regina laughed at the crowd that included Ruby Albrecht who was standing at the foot of the catwalk with a huge grin on her face.
After jumping off the catwalk, Regina helped Stella down and then acted like a snowplow to clear a path to their regular booth for a much-needed break before the festival celebrating women in all their glory continued.
"Congratulations, guys," Ruby said, thumping their shoulders. "I'm so glad for ya. Since it appears that I've won our raffle, drinks are on me."
"Thanks, Ruby? I'd like a Rum and Coke, please," Regina said with a smile.
"Okay. And Stella?"
"Oh, just a Club Soda with a twist. If I get anything stronger, I'll pass out."
Nodding, Ruby began to mix the drinks at once. "Sure thing. I'll only be a couple a' minutes. Take a load off, I'm sure you need it."
"Yeah. Thanks, Ruby," Regina said and hooked her arm inside Stella's on their way over to the booth.
Scooting into the bench seat, Regina kissed Stella's cheek and then spent the next couple of minutes just catching her breath and looking at her new love, noting all the little features that she had been looking at for a year, but had never *seen* before - like Stella's delicate ears, her graceful jaw and the impossibly cute way her nose crinkled when she smiled.
Underneath the table, Stella put her hand on Regina's thigh and began to rub it gently, not quite believing that she, the perpetually, mercilessly unlucky Stella Starr had finally caught a break that was so grand that everything else faded in comparison.
The two women were so lost in each other that they didn't even hear or see Ruby put the two drinks down on the table, but Stella finally noticed when she could smell the Rum in Regina's Cuba Libre.
"Cheers, Reggie," she said and took her own Club Soda.
"Cheers, Stell." After tasting the drink, Regina shook her head and let out a little giggle. "God, this is like first day at school! I have so much to learn?"
"One or two things, yeah? on the whole, you'll be fine, though," Stella said with a snicker.
"More like I'll need your help every step of the way," Regina said and raised her hand to caress Stella's cheek. "Will you be my guide? my teacher?"
"Oh you know?" Stella said nonchalantly as she smoothed out a non-existent crease in the tablecloth.
Adjusting her glasses that were on the brink of steaming up, Stella turned to her lover-to-be and broke out in the broadest, cheekiest grin she had ever worn. "Reggie? tonight, you may call me? Doctor Luuurrve."
THE END of NEWS FROM THE HARRISON-STARR DETECTIVE AGENCY