~ The Harrison-Starr Detective Agency ~
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. Flash In The Hand?
- Written July 2011.
II. You're On The Air, Man
- Written October 2011.
III. Old Friends, Old Problems
- Written July-August 2011.
IV. Meaty Mama
- Written October 2011.
V. Milk Run
- Written October 2011.
VI. A Thousand And One Nuts
- Written October 2011.
VII. Three Guys, Two Private Eyes & One Big Surprise
- Written October 2011.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Thank you very much for your help, Wendy Arthur *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: Meet Regina Harrison and Stella Starr, the owners of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. Unpredictable and unstoppable; undaunted and uncombed, Reggie (the body) and Stell (the brains) always go the extra mile to help people in need. Through various disguises, charades and clever ideas, they go all out to bring the crooks to justice - and as a result, crime fighting has rarely been crazier?
I - FLASH IN THE HAND?
Written by Norsebard
The moment the former Queen of the Catwalks Regina Harrison drove up the small ramp leading to the parking lot at ten a.m. on an overcast Tuesday in May, she spotted her recent clients, Harry and Peggy McLarty, waiting for her in front of the three-story concrete building that housed, among other things, the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency.
She offered them a small wave as she drove past at five miles an hour, headed for the parking space that was reserved for her. She had no problems parking her silver metallic Mercedes SLK, and she soon made a swift, cool and impressive exit from the low-slung sports car.
Then the sleeve of her black blazer got caught in the closing door.
"Ohhhh!" she mumbled under her breath, tugging at the expensive garment. She finally managed to get the sleeve out of the jam, only hearing a very short ripping sound.
Turning up the charm, she offered the McLartys a dazzling two-hundred-watt smile as she put on her blazer. At the very last moment, she noticed that the ripping sound had come from all the seams bursting at the base of the left sleeve, and she whipped off the jacket even faster than she had put it on.
'Good thing I'm wearing a clean shirt today,' she thought, moving a stray lock of raven-colored hair out of her crystal blue eyes.
At six foot one, Regina Harrison knew a thing or two about making impressive entrances, and as she crossed the parking lot in her black shoes, a pair of form-fitting black slacks and a cream-colored shirt, she tried her damnedest to appear cool, suave and in total control.
'Yessir, I may be forty-two, but I still got plenty and I sure know how to strut it!' she thought as she was gliding towards the McLartys.
"Hello, Miss Harrison. We just stopped by to give you a small token of our appreciation. We can't tell you how happy we are to be reunited with our little boy," the sixty-four year old Harry McLarty said, holding a large bouquet of flowers and a small envelope.
"Why, thank you, Mr. McLarty. You shouldn't have," Regina said, turning the smile up to at least two hundred and fifty watts. She looked the elderly man straight in the eye - a move she knew worked wonders with most men.
Harry McLarty's wife, Peggy, was holding a Jack Russell terrier on a red leather leash; a wild critter she could hardly control. Eventually, she bent down and picked up the unruly beast to get it to settle down.
"Yes, Miss Harrison, we don't know what we would do if you hadn't found our little angel," Peggy said, nodding enthusiastically. The terrier began to bark at Regina, a ferocious, deafening roar that ended in an attempt at snapping the sleeve of her shirt straight off her arm.
Even though the jaws of doom missed, several blobs of drool flew out of the dog's mouth and landed squarely on Regina's right breast.
'My shirt! I knew I shoulda dumped that darn critter in a meat grinder? damn, damn, damn?' Regina thought, dabbing a handkerchief against the damp patch with to make it go away - however, her efforts only made it worse, and it was soon revealed that her C-cups were held in place by a black lace bra underneath her cream-colored shirt.
Harry McLarty's eyes immediately locked onto the damp patch - or rather, the lace-cupped peak that slowly became visible. Peggy noticed and elbowed him in the ribs.
"Ooof! Well, ahem? here's a bouquet of flowers for your bother. And a little, special gift," Harry said and handed Regina the bouquet and the envelope.
Regina grinned and tore open the envelope, hoping to find a few thousand dollars or maybe a diamond bracelet - what she did find was a pair of tickets to a Cub Scout cookout that was scheduled to be held the following weekend.
"It's a great event, Miss Harrison. It's the annual Cub Scouts of America get-together. They arrange it every year!" Peggy said.
"Oh, thank you. Thank you very much," Regina said, smiling and nodding for all she was worth.
"Well, we won't take anymore of your time, Miss Harrison. We know that you're a very busy woman. Have a nice day," Peggy said, tugging at Harry's arm.
"You, too, Harry and Peggy. You, too," Regina said, looking at the tickets to the cookout.
At the same time, inside the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, Stella Starr stood by the window, observing the little tête-à-tête. Chuckling, she moved the curtain back and resumed watering her flowers.
When the water jug was nearly empty, she moved back to the sink that was placed just inside the door. Moments later, the door flew open and gave her an almighty whack down the whole right side of her body.
The unexpected jolt made her drop the water jug. The plastic tool hit the sink and sent a cascade of water all over the tiles behind the sink and up onto Stella's face and glasses.
"Hey, Stella, I'm here? oh, was that little demon dog in here, too? You're all wet," Regina said, standing in the doorway and looking at Stella's dripping wet face. "You know, you shouldn't let dogs lick you in the face. You never know where their tongues have been."
Grumbling, Stella took off her glasses and grabbed a towel. "It wasn't the damn dog, it was you. Never mind," she said, wiping her face.
"Oh? sorry. Any mail today?"
"Oh. Hey, I got two tickets for the Cub Scouts' annual cookout," Regina said, flashing the two tickets.
"Neato. When is it?"
"Next weekend. They're all yours, Stell."
"Great," Stella said and hung the towel back on its nail. She put on her glasses and growled when she realized she had missed a spot.
Regina walked over to her desk at the far side of the office to find a vase for the flowers - the rectangular office wasn't large, but it was the perfect size for their two desks, a slew of filing cabinets, two miniature palm trees in ceramic jars and a few carefully chosen posters and reproductions on the walls.
At the far end of the office, two doors led off to the bathroom and a small conference room they used when they had invited clients - or potential clients - over for a chat.
After placing the flowers in a vase and sitting down on her swivel chair, Regina kicked off her shoes and let her toes dig into the plush, pale gray carpet they had bought second-hand from a downtown hotel that had filed for Chapter Eleven. As usual, she loved the tickly feeling.
"You need to buy a nicer outfit before then, Stella. It isn't the 1980s anymore, you know," Regina said and put the envelope with the tickets on the corner of her desk.
"And what's that supposed to mean? I'm a great dresser," Stella said and spun around. Stella Starr was five foot four and a half - the half inch was very important to her - and she was a feisty thirty-six year old with intelligent green eyes, an unruly dirty-blonde mop of hair, an overdeveloped brain and an underdeveloped fashion sense.
Right now, she was wearing a mismatched sweatsuit that consisted of a baby blue shirt and dusty-cerise pants that were cut off at the knees, and below that, she had bare feet in a pair of purple flip-flops.
"Stella, you're wearing the definition of color clash. You know, if you look it up in a dictionary, there'll be a little picture of that exact outfit?"
"Oh, ha ha, Miss Too Tall To Fit Through A Regular Door Former Catwalk Supermodel. Don't forget who the brains of this operation is. I only need you to be the face of the agency. I'm the brains, baby!" Stella said, thrusting an index finger into her own chest.
"Didn't we have this conversation yesterday?" Regina said, chuckling over the fact that she and Stella had had the same argument every single day for the nine months they had been working together.
"I think we did, yeah. You want some coffee?" Stella said with a grin. She adjusted her glasses and picked up the coffee pot.
"By the way, did ya notice that your right boob is showing?"
"Damn! I forgot!" Regina said and slapped her forehead, making her bangs fly off in all directions.
A couple of hours later, Regina was busy ripping pages out of an old phone book, intending to create a vast air force of paper airplanes. One after the other, she folded the pages and shot them off into thin air - and inevitably, they dropped to the ground faster than she could say her own name.
When one of them finally managed to fly through almost half the office, she giggled in delight and snuggled down in the red-and-green-checkered flannel shirt she had borrowed from Stella while her own shirt dried. It only came to her elbows and she couldn't close it, but she quite liked the comfy feel of it, even if she would never admit to it.
Meanwhile, Stella was on the phone, trying to extract information from one of their inner city informants. She had turned her swivel chair away from the desk and was looking out of the window onto the deserted parking lot.
"No, Joe, I'm not going to give you more money right now."
"Joe? I gave you fifty bucks just last week. Did you spend it all already?"
"You bought a gallon of what?"
"Cherry Brandy? Well, that's nice? anyway, no, you can't get more money."
"So, basically, what you're saying is? uh, that you don't have anything to say? right?"
"Mmmm, yeah. All right. Talk to you later, Joe."
With a sigh, Stella hung up and turned her chair around. When she saw the graveyard of downed paper airplanes all over the floor and her desk, she stopped with a jerk and scrunched up her face. "Oh, I wish you'd stop that juvenile nonsense, Reggie. You're not a teenager anymore!"
Huffing, Stella reached into her desk drawer and found a Rubik's Cube that she proceeded to twist and turn to take her mind off the mess and the fact that they didn't have much to do.
"Look who's talking," Regina mumbled under her breath.
Their argument was forgotten about when their phones started ringing. Regina reached over to take the receiver, but Stella threw one of the paper planes back at her. "I got it, Reggie. Whenever you answer it, it's someone trying to push us the latest translation of the King James bible."
"Whatever, babe," Regina said, shrugging in her patented can't-give-a-hoot fashion.
Stella harrumphed and picked up the phone. "You've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?"
'He-hello??' a female voice said at the other end of the connection.
"Hello? Who's talking?"
'I'd like to speak to Mr. Harrison Starr, please.'
Stella rolled her eyes, found a pencil and made a fat mark on the piece of paper on her desk titled 'People who ask for Mr. Harrison Bleepin' Starr!'. Making a quick count, Stella estimated that the caller was the seventeenth person to make the mistake.
"I'm sorry, Miss, we don't actually have anyone here called that."
'Oh? in that case, I'd like to speak to one of your investigators, please.'
"You already are, Miss??"
'Jane Doe? for now.'
'I'm calling for someone who has lost something, and we suspect it's been stolen.'
"Is there any reason why this 'someone' can't call us him- or herself?" Stella said, doodling on a scrap of paper.
'It's a VIP. Anyway, the missing items are original recordings and it's fairly urgent. Can you work with discretion?'
"We're ready, Miss Doe. No job is too small, no fee is too large for the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. Our motto is 'silence speaks volumes,' especially with regards to cases involving VIPs," Stella said, nodding into the receiver and sensing that they were on the verge of getting a big case.
At Stella's words, Regina glanced at the framed picture on the wall behind Stella's desk that said 'Our motto is: If you're not satisfied with our services, you can Kiss Our?'
'Oh, I'm so relieved! Does that mean you'll take the case?' Jane Doe said over the phone.
"It does indeed, Miss Doe. Where do we need to go to get some more info?"
'Paradise Road Studios, 1812 Wellington Boulevard. Ask for? oh?uh, ask for Jane Doe. Can you come at once?'
"We're a good hours' drive away from Wellington, Miss Doe, but we'll be there as soon as possible."
'Excellent. I know that Joan will be ver-'
"Joan? Wait a minute? Paradise Road Studios?? Joan?? JOAN OF ROCK?!" Stella said excitedly, jumping up so suddenly that the swivel chair ran off with her. She tried to regain her balance by reaching for the corner of her desk, but she couldn't get to it in time and promptly fell off the chair, landing on the floor with a crunch, a bump and a scrape. The Rubik's Cube went in one direction; her glasses in the other.
Over at the other desk, Regina buried her face in her hands and shook her head repeatedly.
'Uh, yes. But please don't scream it from the rooftops. Joan is making a new album and we want to keep it a secret for as long as we can.'
"Oh?! Oh! You betcha. Your secret is safe with me? I mean, with us!" Stella said, patting the carpet to try to find her glasses.
'I'm grateful. You said you were an hour's drive away?'
"Don't worry, we'll break the Land Speed Record to get to you! Goodbye, Miss Doe!" Stella said and threw the receiver back up on her desk. "Joan of Rock!" she exclaimed, sitting on the carpet.
"Did you hurt yourself, Stell?" Regina asked flatly, already knowing the answer.
"Nope, the sweatsuit cushioned the blow. Joan of Rock! Joan OF ROCK!" Stella said giddily, obviously having a fangirl moment that went clear over Regina's head.
"Is that someone I should know?"
"Oh, man, are you kiddin'! Joan of Rock, man! I have all her albums, all eight of them. One of 'em I even had to buy for a second time because the disc got a nasty scratch from heavy use," Stella said, bouncing up and down. She finally found her glasses and clambered to her feet.
"Doesn't ring any bells, I'm afraid," Regina said and put her hands behind her head, causing the flannel shirt to part and reveal plenty of taut, tanned skin and two perfect globes held in by the lacy bra.
"Don't sit like that, Reggie. What if a client came in right now? They'd think we were running a cathouse."
"Babe, we've been here for nearly a year, and we've never, ever had a client walk in off the street. Ever."
Stella looked at the closed door, expecting someone to walk in at that exact moment. When the moment passed without anyone making an entrance, she shrugged and sat down on her swivel chair.
"Joan of Rock! Yeah, baby?"
"Oh, will you tell me who that is, for Pete's sake?"
"Well, for your information, Joan of Rock is a political singer-songwriter, one of the highest rated of her generation. With her poetic pen, she has touched the hearts of millions of people. Don't tell me you've never listened to 'Trapped In A Cage' or 'Time To Go, Mr. President' from her first album??"
"Has she ever done Vegas?"
"Shoot, man, no! She'd rather tear it down than perform there."
"Oh. Well, I've never heard of her."
"You're too old to know her."
"Oh, stab me in the back whydon't'cha! Don't forget, I was the star of the catwalks from Paris to Cape Town to Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro and all the way back again while you were still in school, babe!"
"But then you went past your sell-by date and nobody wanted you. Now you're working for me? so pipe down, Miss Divine," Stella said and polished her lenses.
Regina grinned and threw a paper airplane at Stella. When it didn't reach the other desk, she stood up and cocked her hips like she had done a million times before in her former career. "Their bad. I still got it," she continued, pulling the flannel shirt apart and down over her shoulders to flaunt her well-trained, tanned and generally tip-top torso.
At that exact moment, the front door opened and the mailman walked in holding a stack of windowed envelopes. One heartbeat later, the stack was on the floor, quickly followed by the mailman's bag and finally the mailman himself.
Stella jumped up from her chair and rushed over to help the unfortunate man back on his feet, shooting Regina a dirty look as she did so. The former model merely shrugged and closed the shirt again.
"Oh, dear, we're really sorry about that. You're new here so you couldn't know, but next time, please knock before you enter," Stella said as she handed the mailman the stack of envelopes.
"Uh? I'll remember that. Don't bother, Miss, they're all for you," the mailman said and pushed the stack of envelopes back at Stella.
"Mmmm? great," Stella growled, depositing the stack on her desk.
Ten minutes later, Regina had put on a dry shirt and a new blazer jacket that she had kept in reserve in case she spilled something on the other one - or if she ever tore the seams.
When Stella came out from the bathroom after powdering her nose, Regina nearly went into cardiac arrest. Gone was the mismatched sweatsuit, much to the former model's great relief, but it had been replaced by a floral poncho that hung on the petite Stella like a circus tent.
"Will. You. Please. Take. That. THING. Off?!" Regina hissed, clenching her fists.
"Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you? I love this poncho. It's comfy. It's staying, so there!" Stella said and picked up the bag with the things they were going to use while working on the case.
"Pleeeeeease? pleeeeease, Stella? please!" Regina sobbed, folding her hands in front of her bosom.
Stella sighed and looked towards the heavens. "Fine." She put down the bag and whipped off the poncho. Her hair turned into a mess and a half, but it settled down again when she shook her head hard. "Better?"
Regina looked at the yellow spaghetti-strap tank top and the faded blue jeans Stella was wearing, and nodded with a wide grin on her face. "Much better. Oh yeah, much better."
"Can we get going now? Who's driving?"
"I'm driving 'cos we're taking the Merc. This is a VIP job, we can't arrive in your rust bucket."
"One, my car is paid in full, unlike your leased Merc, and two, the AMC Pacer is a genuine piece of Americana, smartass."
"It's a piece of something, yes," Regina said and held the door open. She chuckled when Stella shot her a dirty look, but the shoulder-block she received as the blonde investigator walked past her wasn't as hard as it could've been.
"Hey, can we stop at the grocery store on the way? We need to get something for the fridge. It's looking kinda empty at the moment," Stella said as she buckled up.
"Sure. Which one?"
"The one we always use. Why do you ask that every single we time I say that we need to go shopping?"
"Well, I just thought that you might want to try something else once in a while, babe," Regina said as they reversed out of the parking space.
Regina let the car roll a few feet down the parking lot, but then she stepped on the brake and put the shifter in Park.
"I think you'll find that you forgot something."
At once, Stella looked down at the zipper in her jeans only to find it safely closed. Then she ran her tongue across her teeth to see if she had anything stuck there - another miss. The final stop was checking if her glasses were still perched on her nose. When she found that they were, she scrunched up her face and turned to look at Regina. "All right, what is it?"
"The bag. With all the gear. And if I'm not mistaken, your wallet as well."
"No, I got my wallet right here," Stella said and leaned forward to have room to pat her rear pocket. "Oh? I guess you're right. I'll be right back."
A short while later, Regina pulled over at the curb in front of a mom-and-pop grocery store. "Do you have your shopping list?"
"Right here," Stella said, showing Regina a piece of paper full of hastily scribbled words.
"Good. Don't forget that the curb here is quite high."
"I won't," Stella said and climbed out of the low-slung sportscar. She stepped up onto the curb but promptly slid off it again, almost losing her balance in the process and eventually thumping her rear end against the door of the Mercedes. The door handle poked her right in the butt crack and she jumped forward with a loud squeal.
Regina smirked, thinking that she better keep quiet. To avoid Stella - who was in the middle of an impressive series of cusswords - she looked to her left, out onto the passing traffic. Occasionally, Stella spat out a couple of new curses that Regina hadn't heard before, but the majority were rather colorful variations of her favorite '?ucker' words.
The blue streak eventually became so bad that people began to hang out of their car windows to see what was going on while they were driving past. After a while, Stella calmed down but the streak didn't stop fully until she moved off the sidewalk and went into the grocery store.
Enjoying the peace and quiet, Regina put on her sunglasses and turned on the car radio. With a contented sigh, she slipped effortlessly into her 'too cool for words'-routine by arranging her hair so it fell just right, opened the collar of her shirt and sat with her head in such a way that her cheekbones and jaw were lit up by what she called the perfect light.
'Who knows, an impresario might walk past me. After all, I still got it,' she thought, allowing a brief flash of her pearly whites to slip through her perfectly shaped pout.
Stella knew exactly what she was looking for so she didn't bother paying attention to where she went - she just grabbed a basket and made a beeline for the second shelf on aisle two. After scooping out three rolls of Oreo's without even looking, she went further down the aisle and found an extra-large bottle of Heinz Original.
Once that was over and done with, she went over to the other side of the aisle and found two sixty-ounce packs of spaghetti and a six-pack of Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz.
Humming the first bars of Joan of Rock's 'No More Worries', she went up to the register and put the basket on the counter.
Regina heard them approaching before she could see them. A few seconds later, two twenty-something guys in fashionable clothes and with dishy hair came into view in the right hand side mirror.
They were talking about the same things young men always talked about - women and cars - and it didn't take them long to spot the raven-haired beauty sitting behind the wheel of the sportscar.
'Whoa, check that out? hot stuff at eleven o'clock,' one of them said. When Regina heard that, she made sure that everything about her, including her posture, was spot-on perfect.
'Yeah. Boy, I'd love to give that beauty a little swing,' the other young man said.
'Perfect curves or what?'
When the two young men passed by the door, Regina sort of accidentally turned her head towards them and flashed her two hundred-watt smile. To her great dismay, neither of the two men were looking at her.
'I think I'll squeeze the old man into giving me an SLK for my birthday,' the first man said.
'If you do, I'm gonna be a permanent resident, dude!' the second man said, walking away from Regina and her car.
The smile faded from her face and she began to tap her fingers on the rim of the steering wheel. With a growl, she turned up the radio a few notches. Just as she did so, the song segued into a commercial that was so much louder than the music that it nearly blew her backwards out of the car.
It suddenly struck Stella that the man behind the counter wasn't who he used to be - or rather, that it was a different man than usual.
When he started to take the items out of the basket and punching them into the electronic register, her eyes bugged out on stalks.
"Three rolls of crepe party favors, one extra-large bottle of toilet bowl cleaner, two packs of Imported Genuine British Plum Pudding and a six-pack of Slurrpy! raspberries. That'll be $16.98, please," the clerk said.
"Whut? No? no, no, no, wait a minute!"
Stella spun around and saw to her great horror that the grocery store had been remodeled.
"Aaargh!" she growled, clenching her fists into tight, little balls.
"What kept ya?" Regina said as Stella came out of the grocery store carrying a large carrier bag.
"They've remodeled the damn thing. Would you believe it? I had to go through it twice to get the stuff we needed! Would ya mind popping the trunk?"
"No, ma'am," Regina said and pulled the little lever.
Stella hurriedly stowed the items she had bought into the trunk, closed the lid and jumped into the car. At once, she tore open a bag of Texas Style Barbecue-flavored potato chips and held it under Regina's nose. "Chips?"
"No, thanks. You litter, you vacuum," Regina said and started the Mercedes.
Stella soon scooped up a handful of chips and put it into her mouth. Crunch-crunch-crunch. Crunch! Crunch-crunch-crunch? Crunch!
Regina grinned and shook her head. Once she found a gap in the traffic, she stepped on the gas which made the car lurch forward.
At the time, Stella was moving a handful of chips up to her mouth, but the jerking motion sent half of them down onto the seat and the carpet. "Hey! Unfair!"
As a payback, Stella took an extra-large handful of chips and popped them into her mouth. Crunch! Crunch-crunch-crunch. Crunch! Crunch! Crunch-crunch-crunch. Crunch! it said right into Regina's ear.
After a mile of listening to Stella crunching practically non-stop, Regina began to lick her lips and look longingly at the bag of potato chips. At the fourth glance, her resolve crumbled and she held out her hand. "Ah, what the hell? gimme some."
"Here ya go, sweetie pie," Stella said and poured a small pile into Regina's open hand.
While Regina's hand was on its merry way to her mouth, she suddenly had to brake hard to avoid rear-ending a smoke-blue Chevrolet pickup truck with a WWXD sticker on its chrome bumper. In an instant, the pile of chips in her hand went flying off in all directions.
"Ahhhhhfercryin'outloud!" Regina howled, not bothering to pronounce any of the syllables.
"You know what - crunch, crunch - they say about - crunch, crunch - paybacks," Stella said, smirking.
"I got a chip down my cleavage! The Texas Barbecue itches like a som'bitch!"
Regina looked down, trying to get her shirt open enough to make the chip fall further down, but the traffic was too heavy for her to concentrate on it for more than a few seconds at a time.
"Jeez! Reggie! Watch where we're driving, will ya!" Stella said, dropping the near-empty bag of chips so she could shield her eyes with both hands.
"Gas station? where's the nearest gas station?! I need to get that chip outta there before it leaves a greasy stain on my new shirt!" Regina howled.
Mother Nature finally relented and offered a service station off to the right. With a triumphant yell, Regina activated the turning signal and took the corner off the boulevard on two wheels.
One traffic jam, two shortcuts and three arguments later, they finally arrived at the Paradise Road Studios at 1812 Wellington and drove up to the manned booth.
"Miss Harrison and Miss Starr from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency to see Miss Jane Doe, please," Regina said, handing their business card to the uniformed man in the booth.
"One moment, please," the uniformed man said and picked up a phone. He spoke a few words into it and then hung up. "Miss Doe is working in studio number three at the moment, Miss Harrison. Go down the main access road for about a hundred and thirty yards and then take the second alley to your left."
"No, no, left."
Regina bit back a chuckle and settled for flashing her two hundred-watt smile at the guard - then she selected Drive and trickled down the main access road.
"I can't believe he said that," Stella said under her breath.
"Well, he did. There's studio one? studio two? guess which one is next."
Regina drove on for another few dozen yards but then slammed on the brakes, sending Stella forward into the stops on the seatbelt.
"All right, what's the deal, Missy? You forgot how to drive or somethin'?" Stella growled, trying to get the seatbelt to release.
"No. That big thing right there is studio four. Not three," Regina said, pointing at a huge number painted on the wall of a low, gray building.
"Well, you've gone past number three. Obviously."
"But he said a hundred and thirty yards down the main access road? never mind. I see it now," Regina said and reversed nearly twenty yards until she reached an alley that went off to their left. "One hundred and thirty yards my gluteus maximus!"
After finding a parking space that wasn't too far away from the entrance, Regina popped the trunk and stepped out of the car. "Those chips have really made me thirsty. I think I'll have a? aw, crud!"
"What? What I do? Did I do something wrong?" Stella said as she was walking back to the trunk.
"What's that?" Regina said, pointing at the six cans of soda.
"A sixpack of Slurrpy! Razzies."
"You know I only drink Slurrpy! Carbonated Spring Water to maintain my Goddess-like figure."
"Two sips of a raspberry soda pop can't possibly hurt, Reggie."
"Well, I wasn't planning on only taking two sips. I was planning on drinking nearly a whole can!"
Stella sighed and stuffed her hands in her jeans pockets. "Go on, then. I won't tell anyone."
"Oh, all right," Regina said and took one of the cans. After cracking it open, she drained half of it in one gulp. "You want the rest?" she continued, wiping her upper lip and her chin.
"That's why I bought 'em," Stella said and took the can. "That entrance over there looks kinda closed, but the guard did say studio three?" Stella continued, talking around a series of sips.
"There's a panel with a lot of numbers on it by the door? let's go push some buttons."
Three minutes later, they had tried all the four buttons marked Three-A through D, but no doors had opened and no one had come to greet them.
"Hmmm?" Regina said, scrunching up her face. Nodding, she leaned in and pressed her arm against all four buttons at once. In a flash, a man in his late forties with a gray full beard and a colorful outfit came running out into the small hall on the other side of the locked door.
The man seemed to be rather angry, and he demonstrated this by throwing them all kinds of hand-gestures, one more suggestive than the next.
"Well, that's not Jane Doe, that's for sure," Regina said.
"No, that's closer to Irate Joe than Jane Doe."
The angry man finished off his little display by showing them a gesture that didn't leave any room for misinterpretation.
"I wonder if all musicians are that vulgar? I mean, mooning us in broad daylight??" Stella said thoughtfully.
"I don't know and I don't care. I do know that time is running out. If Jane Doe doesn't show up pretty damn quickly, we may have to find a phone and ask her for directions."
"My cell is in the bag."
"But your battery has run out."
"No, it hasn't??"
"Yes, it has."
"I used it this morning, so there!"
"You used it yesterday morning, Stell. So there!" Regina said, putting her hands on her hips.
Behind the arguing detectives, the door to studio three opened and a woman, namely one Jane Doe, came out to stand in the doorway. When she realized that the detectives hadn't spotted her, she began to shout and to wave her arms.
At the same time, Stella rummaged around in her bag for her cell. When she finally found the silver gizmo, she flipped it open and showed Regina the little symbol for the battery level. "Ha! Ha-Ha-*Ha!*" she said, pointing at the graphic displaying a fully loaded battery.
"Oh. Must've been some other day, then," Regina said, shrugging in her patented can't-give-a-hoot fashion.
When Jane Doe had finally had enough, she stuck her fingers in her mouth and whistled loudly enough for a large flock of birds to take off from a nearby tree.
The whistling did the trick as both Regina and Stella turned around. "I'll do the talking," Regina said and flipped her hair free of her collar to make it fall just right. Assuming a cool, calm and collected posture, she waltzed towards the woman standing in the doorway.
"Miss Doe, I presume? Good afternoon, I'm Regina Harrison," Regina said as she put out her hand. When she and the other woman had exchanged a brief handshake, Regina took a step back to allow Stella to go ahead. "And this is my business associate, Miss Stella Starr."
"I'm pleased to meet you. Oh, I'm so glad you could make it! Joan is a nervous wreck right now. I can't leave her for more than a few minutes at a time? only now, I caught her trying to light up a banana."
"A ba-? a banana?" Stella said, narrowing her eyes.
"Yes! A green one, even! I told her she couldn't smoke it, but you know these rock stars? they're always willing to try anything."
"Joan of Rock was trying to smoke a green banana?" Stella echoed, scratching her cheek.
"We better get inside. She's quite unpredictable in these situations," Jane Doe said and held the door open. "She's down in studio Three-A, off to the left. I'll show you."
"You said 'these situations'. So it's happened before?" Regina said as she stepped inside the recording studio.
"Well, in a way, it has. When she recorded her 'The Time Is Now' album a few years ago, the master tapes suddenly went missing. The culprit turned out to be the producer's assistant who had mistakenly taken them home after the session. Boy, Joan was a mess, though. Downed a few bottles of Vodka before we could work it out," Jane Doe said, walking ahead of Regina and Stella.
"Hmmm!" Stella said. "I presume you've already checked to see if something similar has happened this time?"
"It can't, Miss Starr. With the advances of technology, we don't need assistants anymore. Joan controls nearly everything herself, with the help of a producer and a few studio musicians. And I can vouch for them myself, as the drummer is my brother."
Along the connecting hall, four doors went off to the side and each door had a small, rectangular box above it made of red plastic - two of them were lit up, two were dark. The hall was mostly held in creamy tan and dark orange, creating surreal visual cues that wouldn't have looked out of place in 1974.
'Probably hasn't been redecorated since then,' Regina thought, raising an eyebrow.
"Oh? by the way. There's really no need for charades anymore. My real name is Lorraine Palmer," the woman previously known as Jane Doe said. Mid-walk, she turned around and began to walk backwards while looking at the two detectives.
"Hi, Lorraine," Stella said. Regina settled for nodding.
'Impressive? how does she do that without stumbling over everything?' Stella thought, making a mental note to test backwards-walking once they had returned to their office - if, or rather when, she fell down, she could rely on their soft, fluffy gray carpet to cushion the fall.
"Here we are? I need to knock first," Lorraine said and knocked on the door. Wearing a polite smile on her face, she folded her hands in front of her stomach and took a step back.
'Unless it's room service, go away!' a coarse and slightly slurry voice said from the other side of the door.
"Wow, that's really Joan of Rock!" Stella said excitedly.
"It certainly is. Joan, please open up. The two private investigators are here to help us find the stolen songs."
"The stolen songs, remember?"
'Uhhh, yeah. Don't go anywhere, I'll be right out.'
"She'll be right out," Lorraine said, wearing a beaming smile on her face.
"We heard, thanks," Regina said, looking at Stella's face that was flushed with excitement. Chuckling, Regina patted her friend's shoulder and gave it a little squeeze.
Moments later, the door was opened, revealing a woman in her late thirties or early forties. Joan O'Halloran, better known to her millions of fans as Joan of Rock, was wild-haired and she wore a red-rimmed pair of sunglasses with blue lenses, a Native American-style woven poncho and faded blue jeans that had been scrappily cut off just below the knees. Her feet were bare and covered in East Indian spiritual tattoos, except for her toe nails that were all painted metallic purple.
When Regina noticed that Joan's chest seemed to consist of three peaks underneath the poncho, her upper lip curled into a surprised sneer. One second later, she felt Stella's elbow drive into her ribs.
"Look what she's wearing? a poncho! Almost exactly like mine! I knew I should've insisted on wearin' it, ya big lug!" Stella whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
"Yeah, yeah," Regina whispered back, rubbing her side. "Ahem. Good afternoon, Miss? uh, Rock. We're from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. I'm Regina Harrison and this is my business associate Stella Starr. We've been informed that some recordings have been stolen."
"Yeah, they have. Hi. Come in. Want a drink?" Joan said and lifted the lower hem of her poncho, revealing that the third peak in her chest was in fact a half-empty bottle of Vodka.
"No, thank you."
The four women walked into a small anteroom that was connected to the control room by a glass door. At once, Stella ran over to the glass door and pressed her nose against it, trying to get a glimpse of the large mixing console.
"All right. You?" Joan said, thrusting the bottle at Stella.
"No, thank you, Joan. I'm fine."
"Suit yourselves," Joan said and took a long swig, much to Lorraine's consternation. "Hmmm, don't I know you from somewhere?" she continued, pointing the bottle at Regina.
"Well, I have been on countless covers of international fashion magazines, like On The Beat, Strong and Young 2Day, so there's a good chance you've seen my likeness there."
"Ohhh, so you're a model? Never mind, I thought you were an actress."
Now Regina's upper lip really came alive, curling up into a feral sneer that didn't go away until Stella put a calming touch on the tall woman's arm.
"Hey, Miss Starr. Do I sense a kindred spirit?" Joan said, leaning in towards Stella.
"Yeah? yeah you do," Stella said with a beaming grin.
"Not you, though," Joan said, looking at Regina.
"No, Reggie is straight."
"Oh. What a waste. Anyway, with your classic looks, I really thought you two were a couple."
"Aw, hell no!" Stella said, grinning broadly. When she noticed that Regina's face fell several inches, she realized that she had just had a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease. "Oh? I didn't mean it like that, Reggie? sorry."
"Well, with the introductory phase completed, how about we move into the studio so we can sit down and talk about what's happened," Lorraine said and opened a thick door that led to the sound stage itself.
"Wow, this is so neat!" Stella said as she looked around the studio.
The ceiling and three of the walls were covered by dark brown ceramic tiles that had been laid out in a strange pattern where every other one was pulled out slightly. The fourth wall, the one that was connected to the control room, had a large window where the artist and the producer could see each other.
Five metal bars stretched down from the ceramic ceiling in various places of the room, but only one of them was carrying a microphone fully equipped with a spit-shield. A tall bar stool with an expensive acoustic guitar leaning against it had been placed underneath the microphone, ready for Joan to resume her work.
"Yeah, I guess it is kinda neat, huh?" Joan said and sat down on the bar stool.
Lorraine pulled three chairs into the center of the room and Regina and Stella soon sat down - Stella right in front of Joan so she could be as close to her idol as humanly possible without actually invading her personal space.
"So, Miss, uh, Rock? we need to know exactly what happened. When did you notice the recordings were missing and-" Regina said.
"Hey, call me Joan."
"All right, Joan. Please, in your own words, what happened here?"
Joan shrugged and looked at Lorraine. "Dunno, I'm kinda fuzzy on such details. You better ask my assistant. She'll know."
After successfully fighting the urge to roll her eyes, Regina turned towards Lorraine. "Well?"
"Here's what happened, Miss Harrison. As I came into the studio this morning, I did what I always do, i.e. turned on the lights and powered up the mixing console. When the strip lights had turned on fully, I noticed that a small, wooden rack where we usually keep the recordings was empty."
"What did you do then? Stella, I need the notepad that's in the bag? Stella?" Regina turned to look at her friend who appeared to be completely mesmerized by the close proximity of the rock star. "Stella? I need the bag, please. Stella?"
Sighing, Regina reached over and took the bag with their equipment. After unzipping it, the quickly found a ball point pen and a notepad. "Right. Sorry about that little hiccup, Miss Palmer. Seems like one of us has bought a one-way ticket to cuckoo-land today."
"Happens all the time."
"I see. You noticed the rack was empty, and then??"
"Well, I didn't think much of it at first, but then I remembered that Joan had had a late night session where she had wanted to record a few takes of one of her new songs. Isn't that right, Joan? Joan? Uhhh? Joan?"
This time, Lorraine and Regina both turned to look at their companions - Joan and Stella were looking so deeply into each other's eyes that it bordered on eye-sex. Regina started biting her lower lip, worried that the sensitive Stella was about to become a human sacrifice on the Great Groupie Altar.
"Uhh, anyway, the recordings were missing. We have looked everywhere? high, low, you name it. They're simply not here," Lorraine said, blushing.
"I have to admit that I'm not an expert on these things? what does such a recording look like?" Regina said, making notes in her notepad.
"That's the real problem, Miss Harrison. Because they're still works in progress, they're simply stored on regular portable media, two sixteen-gigabyte USB flash drives? they can disappear in the palm of a large hand. The songs stored on them, however, are high-quality masters and theoretically, they're ready for broadcasting."
"Hmmm. Do you have anything to add, Stella?" Regina said, not expecting to hear a peep.
"Ohhhh Joan, I can't tell you how many times I've cried to Trapped In A Cage or laughed to Heard Somethin' Funny? or wanted to kiss someone senseless when I've listened to Three Words Tonight," Stella said dreamily.
"Thanks, Stella. You're a real fan. Will you be buying the new album?" Joan said, crossing her legs.
"Oh, will I? You better believe I will! I'm looking forward to it already!"
"One of the songs I made last night was an acoustic love song that I haven't found a title for yet. Perhaps I should call it? Stella," Joan breathed, looking directly at the starry-eyed woman sitting in front of her.
Regina groaned inwardly, rating Joan's statement a clear ten on the universal BS-o-meter. She looked at Lorraine who offered an apologetic smile in return.
Stella's snickered loudly, completely lost in the rock star's charms. Not only were her glasses steaming up and her cheeks blushing bright red, certain body parts were standing to strict, erect attention. All in all, she was a quivering ball of goo.
"Stella, I think we need to get home so I can dunk you in fifty gallons of ice water," Regina said and rose from the chair. She tried several times to put her hands on Stella's shoulder, but the shorter woman kept shrugging them off.
"Lorraine, Miss Harrison? would you mind giving us a couple of minutes in private? I have something important to say for Stella's ears only," Joan said, winking at Regina.
Regina narrowed her eyes down into blue slits, conveying a loud and clear message that if Joan messed with Stella, she'd find herself on the receiving end of an opened can of extra-caffeinated whoop-ass.
Having received the message, Joan blinked a few times, nodded and shooed the two women away.
Once the door had closed behind Regina, Joan licked her lips and leaned forward. "Stella? uh, you're a sweet gal, but I'm not sure it'd work, you know? I'm only good for a couple of nights, but you need someone for life. Even I can see that."
"Oh?" Stella said, feeling a very familiar sinking feeling inside her. After a few moments, her formerly star-struck emotions had fallen down to their usual level and she shook her head to get rid of the last of them.
"What I wanted to tell you is that last night, I was foolin' around with a girl in here. I showed her what we did when we recorded and things like that? I think I may have shown her the masters as well."
Sighing, Stella reached into the bag and found her own notepad and a pencil.
"Yeah and? this morning, she didn't call back. Wow, that sounds weird. Usually, it's me who doesn't call back, but? well, she said she would."
"Was she in a position to take the USB flash drives?"
"Yes, she was. I left her alone for a few minutes while I went for another bottle," Joan said and held up the nearly empty bottle of Vodka.
"All right," Stella said, taking notes. "Have you seen her before?"
"I need a name and address? uh, if you have it?"
"I only got her name, Tonya Alexander. She said she lived somewhere over in the Heights."
"Okay. Let's see what we can do with that. Right, that wraps up our presence here," Stella said and shot up from the chair. She hurriedly packed the bag and began to walk towards the door without even looking back at the star.
"Hey, Stella? sorry for leading you on and then shooting you down. You're a real cutie, but, you know?"
"Oh, I know. Trust me, I know. I'll, uh? we'll contact you or your assistant once we get a lead on the missing recordings," Stella said, looking directly at Joan, almost like she was giving the star a chance to go back on her rejection.
When the star's only reply was a nod, Stella turned around and left the studio, closing the thick door softly behind her.
Ten minutes later, Regina and Stella were navigating the early rush hour traffic, headed for the Heights which was, of course, located at the opposite end of the city to the Paradise Road studios.
"Yeah, thanks, Mac. That's Tonya Alexander, Tonya with an O, Alexander with an X ? Yep ? 947 Brayton Street, apartment D? ? Excellent. Thanks dude, we owe you one. Bye," Regina said and put the cell phone down into the bag.
"947 Brayton Street," Regina said again, driving around a slow moving delivery van.
"Mmmm," Stella said, fidgeting with one of the rolls of Oreo's she had taken from the trunk to use as comfort food.
Regina opened her mouth to carry on the conversation, but when she realized that it was her fault that Stella was in such a deep funk, she kept quiet and settled for giving the blonde woman a brief but sympathetic smile.
Sighing, Stella took the cell and flipped it open. After finding a number in the registry, she put the phone to her ear and waited for the other person to pick it up.
"Hey, Bryce, it's Stella Starr. Yeah, I know, it's been a while. Listen, I was thinking? do you have time to come over to my pad for some soda and snacks or coffee or something at nine o'clock??"
"Oh. Okay. Talk to you later," Stella said and hung up.
"So?" Regina said as they drove up to the end of a queue of cars waiting at a red light.
"She couldn't come. Her cat Frilly is in labor."
"Aw, that's too bad. But good for the cat, I suppose."
Stella put the cell away and turned around in the seat so she was facing Regina. "Reggie? Frilly is a tomcat," she said emphatically.
"Oh? that does kinda put things into perspective. I'm sorry, Stell. You're not having much luck lately."
"I'm not, that's for sure. And, uh, I'm sorry that I sort of laughed when Joan thought that we were a couple."
"Oh, that? that was nothing," Regina said, stepping hard on the gas when the traffic lights turned to green.
"I care for you a lot, but in a best buddy kinda way. We're so different that even if we were playing for the same team, we'd be incompatible," Stella said and folded her hands in her lap.
"I care for you, too, Stell. That's why I didn't want to see you chewed up and spit out by that Joan of Rock character back there. If I wanted to throw myself at some silver fox Vegas glamour-boy crooner, you'd stop me too, right?"
"I would. I'd probably take some pictures and sell them to the Enquirer first, but I'd definitely stop you, Reggie," Stella said and patted Regina's thigh.
"The Enquirer, huh? Why not the Chronicle? No, just kidding."
"After you had left, Joan told me that it wouldn't work because she's only good for a few nights? well, dammit, Reggie? just once, I'd like to let go and try that side of it, too!" Stella said and popped an entire Oreo into her mouth.
Regina shook her head slowly and ran a hand through her long hair. "Well, love 'em and leave 'em is not all it's hyped up to be, babe. Trust me."
"We're coming up on Brayton Street now. How do you want to handle it?" Regina said and activated the turning signal.
"Well, judging by the look of the people milling about in this neighborhood, I'll fit in better than you. I'll go around and have a little look-see. Maybe talk to one of Tonya's neighbors."
"Mmmm. Good plan. I'll find somewhere inauspicious to park."
As Regina turned off the boulevard and drove onto Brayton Street, she had to brake for a couple of kids in sweatsuits that were playing soccer in the middle of the street. "Well, it's quite, uh, bohemic. Is that a word? Anyway, it's full of earthy bohemians."
"Yeah. Where are we?"
"Somewhere in the nine-hundreds? 956, that's right over there."
"Let's stop here."
"My Pacer would've looked right at home here, huh?" Stella said and reached over to punch Regina's shoulder.
"Ow! It sure would, babe. It's as dilapidated as the vehicles on display here," Regina said and pulled over at the curb between a VW Hippie Van and an early-1970s Oldsmobile Delta Eighty-Eight the size of a small yacht.
"They're not dilapidated, they're fashionably used. Vintage is in."
Both sides of the street were lined with five-story brownstone buildings that were pulled back slightly from the sidewalks. Plenty of people were walking along the street - mostly artistic types, but there were one or two men and women in trés chic business suits.
"Stell, I don't think we can stay long. We're attracting attention already," Regina said after noticing several kids and a few adults eyeing the silver metallic Mercedes.
"Yeah, you're right. In these kinds of neighborhoods, word gets around awfully quick. I'll do it real fast," Stella said and opened the door. She put her foot out and clambered out of the low-slung sportscar.
"Watch the -"
"Curb! Aw, hell," Stella said as she fell backwards onto the seat. "Why she has to park so damn close to that damn curb all the damn time is beyond me. Doesn't think about us short people at all, damn it! Can't get no respect," she continued in a voice that gradually trailed off until it was just a blurry mumble.
Stella went behind the Mercedes and signaled for Regina to pop open the trunk, which she did. After leaning into the trunk, Stella pulled out a plastic bag marked Various Disguises and began to rummage through it. "Dopehead, maybe? cop, definitely not? plumber, not today? hmmm? oh yeah, furious ex-girlfriend. Yep, that'll do just fine."
She pulled an orange turtleneck sweater out of the plastic bag and put it on. Her hair had turned even more unruly, so she tamed it with a pair of pang-purple bobby pins. She briefly thought about wearing large bangle-type bracelets but decided against it, settling for swapping her own glasses for a pair of metal-rimmed smoke-tinted shades.
After sneaking a few glances left and right to see if anyone had been observing her, Stella closed the trunk and moved away from the Mercedes without acknowledging Regina.
By looking grumpy and irritable - it wasn't really a big ask after the day's disappointments - Stella was successful in avoiding the people on the street and she soon found herself at the front door of 947 Brayton Street.
She went up the small flight of stairs with determined steps and opened the door like she owned the place. Once she was inside, she studied the list of residents and discovered that someone with the surname Alexander was indeed living in apartment D.
Grinning, she bounded up the stairs to get to the fourth floor.
As she reached the landing on the fourth floor - huffing and puffing like a steam locomotive with a tear in the boiler - she put her arm across the old wallpaper and rested her forehead against it.
Moments later, a door was opened behind her and she hurriedly snapped out of the exhaustion and forced herself to look in total control of the situation.
A man in his late twenties was staring at her in a way that made Stella think that it had been a while since he had seen a woman in a turtleneck sweater. The man was wearing a filthy beret and a paint-stained smock, and he was holding his recently delivered newspaper in his hand.
"Hi. Can I help you?" he said in a pleasantly modulated voice.
"Naw, I'm just here to tear a chunk out of Tonya, that no good? yeah. Have you seen her today? Is she in?"
"I'm? I'm sorry?? You want to talk to Tonya? What's it about?"
"Well, I'd rather not say to a stranger, you know. Business between women, you know."
"You and Tonya? Tonya is at least sixty-five years old!"
Hearing that piece of information, Stella's jaw slipped down to her chest, but she managed to get a grip just in time. "Whut? That can't be right?"
"Sure it's right. Tonya Alexander has been my neighbor for the better part of a decade. Of course I know how old she is."
"Aw, Jeez! Can you believe it?! And here I am, chasin' halfway across the damn city for her on the damn bus, and then she isn't even who she said she was! She faked her name, that slut! Can you believe it? Now I have to go back again, and? Aw, Jeez!" Stella said and slapped her forehead.
Grimacing, the man backed slowly into his apartment, applying several locks and sliders once the door was closed.
As soon as she was alone, Stella slammed her fist into her open palm. "Sheesh! Damn that Tonya Alexander woman? or whatever the hell her name is," she grumbled. Sighing, she spun around to begin the long trek back down to the street.
"Well, guess what, Reggie? we just got snookered," Stella said the moment she got into the Mercedes.
"Tonya Alexander wasn't Tonya Alexander but someone else entirely."
"Hmmm. Now what?"
"She must be from around here somewhere? how else could she know what name to use? But we can't start lookin' for her in this haystack of people!"
"Maybe she just picked a cool name out of the phone book," Regina said and started the car. "I have an idea, but we need to go home to test it."
"Well, tell me about it."
"On the way home. Buckle up."
"I'm bucklin', I'm bucklin', missy!"
Half an hour of fighting upstream against the ever-increasing rush hour traffic later, Regina drove into their parking lot and stopped in front of the office to let Stella off.
"Pop the trunk, Reggie. I need to get my own glasses on. These smoke-tinted shades are driving me nuts," Stella said, lifting the sunglasses and rubbing her eyes.
"I think they look great on you, actually," Regina said and pulled the little lever.
A minute later, Stella had returned to normal - wild hair and everything - and the two women were crossing the parking lot, thinking hard about the latest development.
"I'll turn on the laptop to test your idea, you'll turn on the coffee maker to give us some brain juice? okay?" Stella said.
"Sounds good to me. We each have our gifts."
"Yes, they are, aren't they? I'm glad you noticed," Regina said and assumed her model-walk for a few paces, making her hips slam left and right in a wildly exaggerated fashion.
"The laptop is on and we're online. Would you care to run your idea by me again?" Stella said and turned around on her swivel chair.
"Lorraine Palmer told us? well, she told me, you were in dreamland? that the files on the USB flash drives are of the highest quality and that they're ready for broadcasting. That made me think? what if the thief has tried to upload them to some of the shady torrent sites or even the video sharing services? That way, she'd get them out in a hurry."
"Good thinking, Reggie. All right, let's see what's out there," Stella said and began to click around with the mouse. "Hmmm, no. Nothing on the regular torrent sites."
"Hmmm, so much for that idea," Regina said, holding a mug of coffee.
"Let's not give up yet. Okay, moving on? there are hundreds and hundreds of Joan of Rock clips on YouTube, but they're all using her older songs. Fan videos, stuff like that. She has only made three official music videos, actually. She has stated repeatedly that she hates the blatant commercialism connected with them."
"Oh, nearly all of the clips from the live concert DVD she released last year are available," Stella said excitedly.
"I guess a live concert DVD isn't blatant commercialism, then?" Regina said and moved away from the desk.
"Heh. It's big business is what it is," Stella said and swiveled her chair around. She picked up her mug and sniffed the brown liquid. "Did you put sugar in it? It smells of sugar."
"No sugar, sugar. Just coffee."
Stella took a minuscule, probing sip and started smacking her lips to test the coffee for sugar. "No sugar." Wearing a beaming smile, she turned around and started copying all the links to the clips from the live concert DVD - she hadn't bought it yet because she had thought it was too expensive.
"Like I said. Anyway, big business, huh? How big?" Regina said, kicked off her shoes and put her bare feet up on the corner of her own desk.
"Several hundreds of thousands of dollars? if not millions."
"Let's play a game. You're the thief. It didn't cost you anything to steal those masters. Would you give them to The People" - Regina formed quotation marks in the air - "for free, or would you try to get some cash out of the score?"
"Well, that depends on if I were an idealist or not. Mmmm. Let's say not."
" 'Not', right. That means the thief wants to sell them. Even if she could only get, say, $500 for them, it would still be a cool profit," Regina said and emptied her mug.
"How about offering them to radio stations as bootlegs?"
"Bingo, darling. Let's get a list of the Top-40, Special Market and Adult & Contemporary stations from our friends over at Media Control," Regina said and picked up the phone. "I'll get them to email us the list. Then we can go through it one at a time."
"Gorgeous and clever. What a rare and lovely combination," Stella said in a mock upper-class accent, earning herself an amused, raised eyebrow in the process.
Fifteen minutes later, Regina and Stella were sitting side by side on the leather couch, studying the list of eligible radio stations.
"Hmmm, looking at this list, I'm suddenly not so sure that the Top-40 stations would play Joan of Rock's songs. She's not really one of their, uh? typical acts," Stella said, scrunching up her face.
"Let's concentrate on the Special Market and Adult & Contemporary stuff, then. I'll take the top half, you can take the lower half."
"Hey, is that a crack about my height? I can't believe it, it's a crack about my height!" Stella said outraged, poking her finger into Regina's ribs.
"Ow! No, no, it's just?" Regina said and got up to go over to the phone. "Yes, it's a crack about your height," she continued once she was at a safe distance from Stella's strong fingers and fire-spewing eyes.
Grabbing the receiver, she dialed the first number on the list and waited for someone to pick up the phone.
'APB Radio Services. You've reached the help desk,' a female voice said at the other end of the connection.
"My name is Regina Harrison, I'm calling for the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. I need to speak with someone in charge of the music selection, please."
'One moment, please.'
'APB Radio, promotion and marketing. I'm Ronald Burr,' a male voice said moments later.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Burr. I am private investigator Regina Harrison from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. I need to know if you've recently been contacted by someone trying to push bootlegs of the well-known artist Joan of Rock?"
'Joan?? Joan of Rock!? If we caught that pinko liberal anywhere near here, we'd show her what the Alliance of Patriotic Brotherhoods Radio Services is all about! Hell, we'd build a nice, little bonfire to throw all her crap songs on! We'd give her something real to protest against instead of-'
"Mmmmmyes, Sir, thank you, Sir, that's very eloquent. You've made your point loud and clear, Sir. Goodbye, Sir," Regina said and hung up. "All right, that's a no," she continued, scratching APB off the list.
"Ah, no. It was a good thing I called them, babe. You would've ended up being put on the hit list for talking back to him, I think. What's next?"
"The Stan & Dick Get Home In One Piece Afternoon Show. That's mine," Stella said and picked up the phone.
'Aaaaand we have a caller on line one: who's that there talkin' in my ear? ? Hello, you're LIVE and on the air on the one and only Stan and Dick Get Home In One Piece Afternoon Show, the only show to beat the traffic jams. Hello? Hello?'
Stella stared wide-eyed at the receiver and then hung up in an almighty hurry. "What the hell, I was actually on the air? If I had started talking, I would've been heard all over the city!"
"That's a scratch, too, then," Regina said and moved the pen across the name on the piece of paper.
Running her finger down her copy of the list, Stella eventually found a radio station with a promising name. "I got the next one, okay? I got a good feeling about it," she said, picking up the receiver.
Stella cleared her throat and dialed the number for the 'All Sixties, All The Time' radio station.
'Good afternoon. You have reached the automated screening process at the MusiCorp radio station All Sixties, All The Time. Press One for?'
"It's a machine," Stella said and made a telling gesture while the robot was talking in her ear.
'? press hash if you want to talk to the producer currently on air,' the robotic voice said, falling quiet after the information.
"And hash it is," Stella said and pressed the symbol on her handset.
'Hey, this is the All Sixties, All The Time mixing room two, you're talking to Doug,' a slightly dopey male voice said.
The first thought through Stella's mind was that the man sounded exactly like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. Licking her lips, she tried to push that image out of her mind.
"Uhhh, hi, Doug, I'm private investigator Stella Starr from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. I am calling to hear if you've recently been contacted by someone trying to push bootlegs of the well-known artist Joan of Rock?"
'Shiiiiit. I knew something was wrong with that offer when I hadn't heard any of the songs before. Umm, the caller played some of the stuff over the phone, that's how I heard it. I'm not psychic or anything.'
"So you have been offered bootlegs?" Stella said and snapped her fingers to get Regina's attention - at once, the former model picked up the other receiver and listened in on the conversation.
'Yeah, earlier this morning. Crap, am I in trouble?'
"Did you pay for them?"
'No, no, man, I said I didn't want nothing to do with them. Besides, the caller wanted $800 for them and that's like, whoa, man.'
"Good. What did the caller sound like?"
'Well, it was a young woman. Late twenties, I guess. Hey, never mind all that, she gave me her number in case I changed my mind.'
Stella grinned broadly and took a good grip on the edge of the desk so the swivel chair wouldn't run off with her all over again. "Doug, if you give me that number now, I promise that your name won't show up in any of the paperwork."
'Sounds like a good deal. The number is 555-1199.'
"? 1199. Okay, got it. Thanks, Doug?. oh, and this conversation never took place, right?"
'Hell, I didn't even hear the phone ringing. Peace to all, man.'
"Peace right back 'atcha," Stella said and hung up. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is detective work," she said, holding up the paper with the phone number.
"Ace work, Miss Starr. So, the next question is? who are we going to get to call her? She'll be expecting Doug. You or me don't exactly sound like Doug, you know."
"Hmmm? didn't think of that. Let me see?" Stella said and turned the swivel chair around so she could look out of the window.
Defying the laws of physics, she craned her neck to the right and looked to her left at the bright yellow banner hanging above the sliding gate to their neighbor across the parking lot. She leaned further and further over the side of the chair until the inevitable happened.
"Ow! That's it, I'm throwing that swivel chair away," Stella said, grappling around for her glasses that had escaped during her brief freefall.
Regina rubbed her brow and sighed deeply. "Stell, hon, do you ever get that peculiar feeling that we've lived this moment before?"
"Yeah, I get that constantly whenever you open your big yap to criticize me!" Stella said as she was clambering to her feet.
"Uh-huh? How about asking Billy, the ever-friendly mechanic from next door? He's got a deep, macho voice," Regina said and got up from her chair.
"That's what I was thinking. Well, off you go, Miss Former Catwalk Model Who Turned Into A Halfway Decent Investigator. This is where you get to earn your salary," Stella said and clapped her hands twice to show her impatience.
Regina rolled her eyes and left their office. Two seconds later, she stuck her head back in through the door. "Halfway decent?! I beg your pardon!"
A few minutes later, Regina opened the door and walked through the office with Billy The Mechanic in tow. The buff twenty-eight year old auto mechanic - never seen without a two-day stubble, a stained, yellow cover-all and a greasy baseball cap - wore a grin that was almost wider than his face, and his eyes were like two laser beams, locked onto the near-perfect half-globes wiggling back and forth in front of him.
Seeing that, Stella leaned back in the chair and rolled her eyes to such a degree that the Surgeon General would have strongly advised against it had he been there.
"Billy, here's what we want you to do. You dial 555-1199? Billy? Billy? Are you there? Yoohoo, my face is up here, Billy," Regina said, waving her hands in front of the mechanic's face.
"Uh, yeah. I'm here. Sorry 'bout that, I was? kinda?"
"I know. I have a couple of scorch marks on my butt now. Anyway, dial this number when we're ready. Stella, how are we going to control what Billy needs to say?"
"That's really simple. I have the opening ready and then I'll just make it up as we go along? by showing him a piece of paper," Stella said, putting great emphasis on the word 'simple'.
Nodding, Billy took the receiver and dialed 555-1199. Stella was listening in on the other phone.
"Tonya Alexander?" Billy said, reading from a cue sheet.
"Still interested in selling those bootlegs?"
'Yeah. Who are you? You're not Doug.'
Stella scribbled something on a piece of paper and showed it to Billy.
"I'm Doug's boss."
'Oh. $1000 like I agreed with Doug, right?'
Grinning over the thief's cheekiness, Stella gave Billy a thumbs-up.
"Yep. A thousand bucks? is? okay," Billy said, slowly losing his concentration when he noticed that Regina was sitting with her legs crossed on the corner of her desk, putting the tight, dark slacks to good use.
"Billy! B-i-l-l-y!" Stella mouthed, snapping her fingers in Billy's face to get him back to the real world.
'Hello?' the thief said at the other end of the connection.
"Uh, I'm still here."
Stella scribbled frantically on the paper and then held it up.
"We want the handover to take place in two hours' time in an alley off Seventy-third Street, just next to the radio station. Okay?" Billy said, reading from the piece of paper.
'Hmmmm. Sure. I'll be there. If I see any cops, the next time you'll hear the bootlegs will be when they're being played by one of your competitors. Don't forget the money? I want it in cash,' the thief said and hung up.
Once the connection was terminated, both Billy and Stella hung up. Regina and Stella looked at each other with identical grins on their faces - now the fun would start.
"How did I do? When do I get my reward?" Billy said, taking off his greasy baseball cap and slicking his slightly filthy hair down with his fingers.
"Let's talk about that a little later, Billy. We're gonna get real busy now," Regina said and shooed the mechanic out of the office.
An hour and forty minutes later, Stella's rustic AMC Pacer was parked deep in the shadows of the alley. She and Regina had dressed dark: dark blue cargo pants, black sweaters and black baseball caps, and in addition to that, Regina had three fat lines of theater makeup in her face to create the illusion that she was Doug's mysterious boss.
"This. Is. Ridiculous," Regina said as she was looking at herself in the small mirror on the flip side of the Pacer's sunguard. As she traced the heavy eyebrows and the fat mustache with her index finger, she was thinking that she had rarely seen anything more inappropriate. "This is sullying the visage of a Goddess," she mumbled under her breath.
"I think you look like Groucho Marx," Stella said, wiggling her eyebrows and adjusting her glasses. "Well, save for the cigar."
Stella chuckled and looked down into her lap where ten one-hundred Dollar bills were ready to be counted. "One? two? three? four? you know, you'd never think they were fakes. They're practically perfect."
"In the dark, anyway."
"Yeah? five? six? seven? hey, look at that," Stella said, pointing ahead of her out of the windshield.
Down at Seventy-third Street, a dark sedan bumped over the curb and began to crawl its way through the narrow, filthy alley.
"Let's get this show on the road," Regina said and adjusted her baseball cap to make most of her hair disappear underneath it.
"Stella Starr to Inspector Moynes. Are you ready?" Stella said into her cellphone.
'We're ready, Miss Starr,' a female voice said.
"Excellent. The trigger sentence is 'it's a done deal.' "
Stella closed her cell but didn't turn it off. With fingers that trembled slightly from the promise of action, she put it in one of her breast pockets where it would relay the meeting to the police.
Sensing her friend's jitters, Regina reached over and gave Stella's hands a little squeeze. "It'll be fine," she whispered.
"Let's hope so. Oh, and Reggie??"
"Don't speak while the thief is here. The mustache kinda clashes with your mezzo-soprano."
"Cheeky bugger," Regina hissed, but the smile on her face took away the sting of the words.
The dark sedan came to a rest ten feet from Stella's Pacer. At first, no one left the other car, but a short while later, a woman stepped out holding a small plastic bag from a well-known fashion company in her hand. Her face was obscured by the shadows, but she appeared to be young and well dressed.
"This is it," Stella said and patted Regina's thigh. Moving as one, the two women opened the doors and stepped outside.
The woman carrying the plastic bag stopped to stare at the unexpected complication. "Who the hell are you?" she said in a husky voice that told a story of countless hours spent holding a glass of whisky.
"That's Doug's boss. I'm Doug's boss' secretary," Stella said, pointing at Regina and then at herself.
"Why all this nonsense? What the hell is this? Are you a front for the CIA or something?"
"Hardly. You got the merchandise?"
"You got the cash?"
Stella nodded and held up the wad of dollar-bills. She spread them out with her fingers, and even though it was fairly dark in the alley, it was clear to see that there were ten of them.
"Good. Here's the hot stuff. There are nine songs on one; eight on the other."
"And you're not trying to trick us?" Stella said in what she hoped would be a threatening voice.
"Play them on your car stereo first."
Stella chewed on the inside of her cheek while she pondered the thief's request. "I don't suppose the Pacer's eight-track player can handle that, huh?" she whispered to Regina out of the corner of her mouth.
"We shoulda brought the Merc? that's got a USB port. Told ya so," Regina answered in a matching whisper.
"You do it," Stella said out loud, directed at the thief.
"All right," the other woman said and went back to her car. She plugged the first of the USB flash drives into the car's stereo system and turned up the volume. Within a few seconds, Joan of Rock's characteristic voice floated through the alley; after giving her producer a few instructions, she picked a chord on her guitar and started to sing.
"Sounds good enough to me," Stella said and waved the cash.
After unplugging the USB stick, the woman put it back in the bag and quickly crossed the alley.
She handed the bag to Stella who took it with her left hand. At the same time, Stella put the wad of cash into the woman's opened hand.
"Satisfied?" the other woman said.
"Yep. It's a done deal," Stella answered and put on a pair of sunglasses. A fraction of a second later, three powerful lights were turned on, flooding the dark alley in a sea of bright light.
"Aargh!" the other woman cried out, shielding her eyes. She spun around and tried to run back to the dark sedan, but before she could make it there, several police officers came out of the shadows and apprehended her.
Stella opened the plastic bag and looked at the two minuscule flash drives with slightly disbelieving eyes. "Hey, Reggie, remember when music came on vinyl?"
"Yep," Regina said and took off her baseball cap. At once, her raven-colored hair cascaded down from underneath the cap and fell perfectly onto her shoulders. She stepped out into the bright lights to get the maximum exposure out of the event - it worked, as several young, nubile, uniformed police officers gave her a few curious glances.
Arching an eyebrow and assuming a thoughtful expression, she just sort of happened to stand in one of the poses she had perfected in her catwalk days.
"Hey, Groucho! Did ya forget where you parked your car?" someone suddenly said, quickly followed by other, similar comments that Regina hadn't expected at all.
"The mustache, remember?" Stella said, hooking her arm inside Regina's.
"The musta-?? Aw, damn," Regina said and touched her upper lip where the thick, black theater makeup was still very much in place. Sighing, she shuffled out of the spotlight and went back to the Pacer to have a sulk.
"Miss Starr?" a female Detective said, keeping a firm grip on the suspect. Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes was a no-nonsense woman in her mid-thirties with an angular, but not unpretty, face. Her strawberry-blonde hair was cut very short, and like always, she was following the dress code to a T by wearing dark shoes and a burgundy suit over a dark gray blouse.
"Yes, Inspector Moynes?"
"The suspect would like to make a statement."
"Would she? Okay, go ahead," Stella said and put her hands on her hips.
"First things first. If I rat out on the person who paid me to take the USB drives, would it help my case?" the thief said.
"Would it, Inspector Moynes?"
"It would? if there's no BS involved," Mary-Jane said.
"Jane Doe paid me to do it," the thief growled.
"Hey, stupid? what did I just tell you about the BS?" the inspector said, giving the suspect a shake.
"No, it's all right, Inspector. During the investigation, we encountered someone who went by that name." Stella cocked her hear and took a step closer to the suspect. "Jane Doe? I see. And your name is?"
"Just for the record, Miss Wayward-"
"? whatever. Just for the record, who's Tonya Alexander?"
"Ah, that was just a name I picked from the phone book."
"All right. Inspector Moynes, is that identify theft?"
"It very well could be," the inspector said and took an even firmer grip around Rachel Hayward's elbow.
"Hey!" the suspect said, squirming unsuccessfully to get out of the grip.
"So Jane Doe is the mastermind, huh? Thank you. Thank you very much," Stella said and tipped her baseball cap.
"Did it help you, Miss Starr?" Inspector Moynes said as she led the suspect away.
"It did indeed, Inspector. We're going to need your services again in a little while at 1812 Wellington Boulevard, the Paradise Road Studios. I'll give Miss Doe a little ring now to tell her we need to talk," Stella said and reached for her cell phone.
The moment Stella parked the Pacer in front of studio number three, Lorraine Palmer came running out to meet them. "Did you recover the flash drives?" she said, leaning against the opened door.
"Unfortunately not, Miss Palmer. We thought we had a lead but it slipped through our fingers," Regina said as she got out of the car.
"What's that on your??" Lorraine said, touching her own upper lip.
"Long story. Is Joan still here? We need to speak with her? in private."
"Oh? I wish you wouldn't. She's not very well equipped to deal with life's little disappointments. Couldn't we-"
"We insist, Miss Palmer," Regina said, already on her way over to the door to the studio.
"Oh, all right. But it's not my responsibility if you can't get a straight answer out of her."
Stella had deliberately kept in the background to read Lorraine Palmer's body language while Regina had been speaking. Lorraine's clenched fists and the tight shoulders when they had arrived, the relaxing of the hands when they had told her that their quest had been in vain and finally the confusion on her face when Regina had mentioned Joan's name, were all clear indicators that Lorraine Palmer - aka Jane Doe - had something to hide.
Stella stifled a cheeky grin as she walked behind Lorraine on their way to the control room, already thinking ahead to the confrontation they were sure to have.
Lorraine knocked on the door to the studio and took a step back. Soon, Joan's voice could be heard from the inside, and the three women stepped into the small anteroom.
"Did ya get 'em? Did ya get 'em? You didn't get 'em? what the hell?? Weren't you a woman when you were here earlier?" Joan said to Regina, clearly inebriated.
"Oh, I'm *all* woman. Stella, would you mind closing the door?"
Stella did as asked and placed herself in front of it so Lorraine couldn't escape.
After moving one of Stella's blonde hairs away from her black sweater, Regina cleared her throat. "Now, Miss Joan, this was the strangest case I've ever worked on. When we caught the suspect," - at those words, Lorraine stood up straight and narrowed her eyes - "she told us that Play-Doh had hired her to steal the recordings."
"Play? whut?" Joan said, scrunching up her face.
"No, no, Reggie, not Play-Doh? Jane Doe," Stella said.
"Oh yeah, Jane Doe, that's right. Well, anyway, here's your music," Regina said and handed Joan the plastic bag with the two USB flash drives.
The rock star peeked into the plastic bag and immediately let out a squealing "Ohmigawd!"
A split second later, Lorraine bolted from her spot next to Joan and jumped towards the door, only to be stopped forcefully by Stella's petite, yet surprisingly strong body. The two women wrestled briefly, but the fight ended with Lorraine's face squished up against the inside of the door.
"Reggie, would ya mind calling Inspector Moynes? We have just closed the case," Stella said with a triumphant grin on her face.
"No problem, darling."
"But, Lorraine? why?" Joan said, staring in wide-eyed confusion at her assistant.
"Because you didn't want to record the songs I wrote for you! They were the best songs I've ever written and you said they sucked! Sucked? My songs never suck! Just because you've sold a few million albums, you think you're so damn clever!"
"Well, I'm sorry to break it to you, Lorraine, but your songs really did suck. The lyrics, the bridges, the refrains? none of it worked."
"WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!" Lorraine howled, making the three other women wince in embarrassment.
'What's going on in there? Open the door at once, it's Inspector Moynes!'
"We better, or else she'll start shootin'," Regina said and opened the door.
Moments later, the Inspector and four uniformed officers rushed into the anteroom to take care of business.
"Lorraine, if you wanted to get away with it, you probably shouldn't have called the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency," Stella said and gave Lorraine Palmer a little shove before handing her over to the Inspector.
"I picked you because you had such a stupid name! Anyone with a name like that has to be a moron who couldn't find her way out of a wet paper bag!"
"Uh, nope," Stella said, wearing a big grin.
A few minutes later, Inspector Moynes and her uniformed colleagues brought the howling, cursing, kicking and screaming Lorraine Palmer out of studio number three and into a waiting police cruiser.
"How the hell could two hare-brained ditzes stop my perfect plan?! It's grotesque! It's diabolical! It's a travesty!" she said as a police officer was trying to throw her onto the back seat.
"Oh, you know, it went a little like this," Regina said and flashed the disgraced Miss Palmer a hand gesture that left no room for misinterpretation. It was one of Regina's favorites, one she had picked up in Milan at a fashion show, and even though it was a few years old, it still did the trick.
Lorraine Palmer's nostrils began to flare and she opened her mouth to scream at the two investigators, but the police cruiser drove off before she had a chance to.
"Too bad, really. She was a skilled woman. I mean, she could walk backwards without tripping and everything," Stella said.
"Yeah. Such a waste," Regina said, nodding.
"Oh, there you are, my number one fan and her impossibly tall friend. Here's a little something for your bother," Joan said and handed Stella a check that made the blonde investigator rub her eyes - it read $8000.
"No, wait a minute! This is way too muc-MMMMMPPF!" Stella said, rudely interrupted when she suddenly found herself on the receiving end of an all-singing, all-dancing kiss courtesy of one Joan of Rock.
The kiss the two women shared went on for so long that everybody around them began to get embarrassed and to clear their throats loudly. When Stella and Joan finally separated, Joan slipped her business card into Stella's rear pocket and gave the rounded buttocks she found there a nice, little squeeze.
"Call me, sweety-pie. Catch my drift?" Joan said and waltzed past all the hullabaloo and out to her waiting limousine.
"All 's well that ends well, huh, Stell? Stell?? Stella? Are you still with us? Don't forget to breathe, babe," Regina said as she wrapped her arm around her shell-shocked friend. When Stella didn't answer, Regina began to muss the blonde, unruly hair.
"Uh? buh? buh? kiss? buh?"
"Yes, that's right. She kissed you. Oh, let me help you? your glasses have steamed up again."
Regina took off Stella's glasses and polished the lenses. After breathing on them and wiping them thoroughly, she put them back on Stella's pert nose.
"? kiss? buh?"
"Tell you what, let's take the Pacer home and then I'll buy you a drink over at Rockin' Ruby's. You definitely need one tonight," Regina said and led the comatose Stella away from the Paradise Road Studios.
Rockin' Ruby's was owned by 'Rocking' Ruby Albrecht, a former pro-softball player who - when she realized that her playing days would soon be over - had begun putting aside her hard-earned dollars and cents for the bar she had always dreamed of owning.
It had started out as a low-key establishment, but it soon grew, and before long, it was a popular hangout for the types of people who weren't always overly welcome in the mainstream bars and clubs.
Ruby had wanted to make sure that the bar wouldn't turn into a meat market, so when she had drawn the plans for it, she had separated the dance floor from the main bar room. The fairly narrow main room was equipped with a long, polished counter, a few tasteful pictures on the walls, ten bar stools and eight cozy booths lining the outer wall.
When Regina opened the door and dragged the still-gobsmacked Stella into the main room of their regular haunt, the first thing she did was to check if Ruby was sitting on one of the bar stools at the end of the counter.
"Excellent, Ruby is here. She'll know what to pour into you," Regina said and guided Stella over to the bar stool closest to the one the owner was sitting on.
"Hey, Reggie. Stella," Ruby said and put down a Club Soda she had been sipping.
Ruby was a square-built woman in her early fifties who had kept fit and in ship-shape despite the fact that she hadn't been a professional for close to fifteen years. Her blonde hair had begun to go gray in places, but her eyes were as sharp and intelligent as ever.
"Hey, Ruby," Regina said, holding onto Stella's upper arms.
"Where did that mustache come from?"
"It's makeup and it won't come off until I soak my face in near-boiling water laced with methylated alcohol."
"Ohhh? ewww. There's always something weird going on with you two," Ruby said and took another swig of her Club Soda.
"Anyway, our little friend here is going to need a stiff one before she can regain her equilibrium."
"Yeah? What's happened to her? Did she win the lottery?"
"You know, that's not a bad description. She just got kissed into a ball of mush by Joan of Rock."
"Huh?? Oh, get the hell outta here!" Ruby said with a resounding belly-laugh. Reaching over, she thumped Regina's shoulder hard enough to push the tall woman nearly a foot backwards.
"Ouch! It's true, it's true! It's a long story and I promise to tell you all about it some time, but we need to breathe some life into Stella first."
"Yeah, she does look a little, uh, orgasmic," Ruby said, looking at Stella's wide eyes and the incredibly goofy grin on her face.
"Here, this Bloody Mary should do the trick. It's on the house," Ruby Albrecht said and pushed a napkin and a glass filled with a thick, red liquid under Stella's nose.
The comatose, blonde woman took a brief look at the glass - and then emptied half of it in three gulps.
"Okay? I hope she isn't driving??" Ruby said, scratching her hair.
"Nah, we caught a cab. She didn't want to let me drive her Pacer."
"She was probably afraid you'd scratch it. She loves that hideous automobile!"
"Tell me about it," Regina said with a laugh. "Listen, Ruby, I'd like a whisky soda, please. We'll be sitting in one of the booths."
"You got it, Reggie."
Twenty minutes later, Stella had come to and was closely studying the business card Joan had given her.
"Reggie, do you think I should call her?" she said, tapping her index finger on the card.
"I don't know, babe. What do you feel like doing?"
"Well, my head says 'no', my heart says 'no concern of mine'? but my body says 'hell, yeah' ."
"Mmmm?" Regina said and leaned in to bump shoulders with her friend.
"I need to think about it a little more," Stella said and put the card back into her rear pocket. After emptying the Bloody Mary, she scanned the room, zeroing in on the other patrons and the familiar relationshippy things they were doing, like laughing together, holding hands, or kissing.
A muted bass beat could be heard from the dance floor in the back room, occasionally joined by a delighted squeal when someone was dipped or raised in the air.
Regina studied the depressed look on Stella's face for a little while and then leaned in to put a hand on the blonde woman's shoulder. "You wanna dance, or something?"
"Not tonight, thanks, Reggie. Maybe another time? okay?"
"Sure. Well, if I can't tempt you to a dance, I think I'll head for home," Regina continued, reaching for her jacket.
"What? Already? It's only just after nine!"
"Yeah, but with the cab ride and everything, it'll be ten thirty before I'm home. I can't do the all-nighters anymore, Stell."
"Aw, hell, you're not old? you still got it!"
"Why, thank you, darlin'," Regina said and flipped her hair out of the collar, making sure that it fell just right. "See ya tomorrow, babe," she continued, sashaying past all the other patrons to the best of her abilities, earning herself a choir of appreciative hoots and hollers along the way.
Stella chuckled at her friend's antics for a little while, but then fell quiet. Reaching behind her, she took the card Joan of Rock had given her, put it down on the table and stared at it.
Feeling that she had made the right decision, Stella sighed, got up from the booth and walked up to the bar counter. "Hey, Ruby?"
"Can I borrow your phone?"
"Sure. Callin' a cab?"
"In a little while," Stella said and held the business card ready. She paused briefly to give herself another chance to reconsider, but soon started punching in the numbers that would establish contact with Joan of Rock.
II - YOU'RE ON THE AIR, MAN
Written by Norsebard
"Reggie, hurry up, they're coming back from the break now!" Stella said, sitting in the couch in their office. Fiddling with the buttons on the boombox, she turned up the volume until it was at a level they could both hear.
Regina quickly ran back from the bathroom and threw herself into her swivel chair. At once, she picked up the telephone and dialed a number.
'Hey, hey, hey, welcome back to the Super-Sixties Quiz Show on your favorite radio station, All Sixties, All The Time, man. My name is Doug and? oh, hey, we have a caller on line three already? hey, you're on the air, man,' the DJ said in his characteristic, lazy voice that once again made Stella think of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.
"Hi, Doug, I'm Reggie. Can girls be in your quiz show, too?" Regina said with a snicker. Leaning back in her swivel chair, she put her legs up on the desk and sent Stella a thumbs-up.
'Sure thing, man? uh, sister. If you have knowledge of the music and the stars from the sixties, you can play. Hey, I was there, but I can't remember anything, man. Kinda goes with the territory, huh? Uh, anyway, are you ready for the first set of questions?'
"I'm ready, Doug. Fire away."
'All right. Hey, man, I better explain the rules first in case we got some new listeners out there. Okay? you get three easy questions, okay? If you answer those correctly, then you get three tough questions, okay? And if you answer those correctly, you get three insanely hard questions. Ain't that fun? I came up with the questions an' I think it's fun. Are you ready for the first set of questions?'
Stella let out a loud belly laugh over the convoluted explanation, but a quick glare from Regina made her clamp her hand over her mouth and settle for biting her tongue instead.
"Uh, you already asked me that, Doug. I'm ready," Regina said, playing with the cord for the telephone.
'I did? I can't remember, man. Uh, okay, here's the first easy question. John, Paul, Ringo, who's the missing Beatle?'
"George," Regina said, looking at Stella who sent her a thumbs-up in return.
'Right! Okay, onto the second easy question. The Beatles, The Village People, The Rolling Stones, Bill Haley and His Comets. Which two of these four bands aren't from the sixties?'
Regina grinned, thinking that she had the right answer. "Village People and?"
"And The Rol-"
"NO!" Stella howled, jumping up from the couch. On her way up, her thigh connected with the edge of the table, pushing it back nearly a foot and a half. Hopping back and forth on the good leg, her eyes rolled around in her head and her face quickly turned an unhealthy shade of red as she tried to hold back a Tarzan-like primal scream. Once the pain had receded enough for her to speak, she whispered "Bill Haley!"
"The other one is Bill Haley and His Comets, Doug," Regina said, suddenly losing some of her cockiness.
'That's right, Reggie. Okay, two down, one to go of the easy ones. Are you ready?'
"I'm ready," Regina said, sending a silent 'thank you' to Stella who had hobbled over to lean against the filing cabinets.
'Who was it the Beach Boys wanted help from in their unforgettable hit from 1964?'
"Uh, uhhh? who they wanted help from? Uhhh??" Regina said, continuously glancing at Stella who was frantically mouthing a name - but she couldn't read Stella's lips well enough to figure out what it was her friend was trying to tell her.
"Rhonda! For cryin' out loud, Reggie! It's Rhonda!" Stella whispered, grabbing a handful of her hair and very nearly tearing it out.
"Miran?" Regina started to say, but she shut up instantly when Stella headbutted one of the filing cabinets in frustration. "No? oh, I got it, it's Rhonda!"
'That's right, Reggie! That's three out of three of the easy questions. Congratulations, you've won the five-CD box set 'All Sixties, All The Time's Greatest Hits of our Favorite Decade!' .'
"Oh, wow, thanks, Doug."
'No, thank you, man. Are you ready to continue? Are you up for it?'
"Yeah, yeah! This is fun!" Regina said, snuggling down in the chair.
At the same time, Stella was rubbing her aching forehead and wiping the tears out of her eyes. Sighing, she shuffled back to the couch and sat down, pushing the table even further away so there was no risk of hitting it again.
'Okay, here's the first of the tough questions. Name this tune,' Doug said and played a brief excerpt of a pop song from the early sixties.
Scratching her chin, Regina bared her teeth in a grimace that very much signaled that she was lost.
Stella, mirroring her friend's actions, began to hum the brief excerpt again, knowing that she had heard it before. "Uh? uh? uh? oh, hmmm-hmmm in blue hmmm? Venus In Blue Jeans!" she whispered, nodding like crazy.
"Venus In Blue Jeans," Regina echoed into the telephone.
'That's right! Venus In Blue Jeans was a big hit for Jimmy Clanton back in 1962. All right, here's the next question: What does the night have?'
Rolling her eyes, Regina clamped a hand across her mouth and stared at Stella.
This time, the blonde investigator already knew the answer. "A thousand eyes," she said, grinning.
"The night has a thousand eyes, Doug."
'Oh, hey, that's excellent, man. Yes, in 1963, Bobby Vee had a worldwide pop hit with The Night Has A Thousand Eyes. One more correct answer and you'll win a ceramic ashtray with plenty of room for when you have all your friends over for a talk and a Whiff.'
Regina furrowed her brow, not sure how she should respond to that. "Okay?" she said after a few seconds.
'Here's the final one of the tough questions: In the intro to Tighten Up, a soul hit from 1968 for Archie Bell and the Drells, Archie names the State they're from. Which is it?'
"Oh, Good Lord," Regina croaked, looking with worried eyes at her friend.
At once, Stella jumped up and began to pace the floor. "Archie Bell? Archie Bell? Archie Bell?? Mmmmsheesh, I don't know! Pick a State, Reggie? any State!"
"Whaddaya mean, pick a State! It could be any of 'em!" Regina said with her hand across the telephone.
"TEXAS!" Stella suddenly shouted, spinning around on the spot and pointing at Regina. Unfortunately, she hadn't noticed that she was too close to the couch to try such acrobatics, and she ended up losing her balance and falling sideways onto on it, sending her glasses flying in the process.
"Texas," Regina said into the telephone, watching her friend add insult to injury by falling off the couch and landing on the gray carpet, shaking her head in disgust and slamming her fist down onto the floor.
'Texas, that's right. Congratulations, you have won a ceramic ashtray! Do you want to move on to the insanely hard questions? If you do, you have the chance to win a genuine 1969-vintage Afghan vest, worn by a major rock star at Woodstock!'
"Oh, you know?" Regina said, looking at Stella who was still patting down the couch and the carpet to try to find her glasses.
When she couldn't find them, she gave up and let out a guttural groan. Clambering to her feet, she plopped down on the couch and clutched her aching thigh, back, butt and forehead.
"No, Doug, I think I'll hold here. It's just too strenuous to continue," Regina said and swung her legs down from the desk.
'A wise decision, Reggie. The insanely hard questions are so insane that even I can't answer them? and I created them, heh, heh, heh,' Doug said, making Regina roll her eyes. 'Hey, you got our box set and an ashtray, that ain't bad, man. Uh, sister. Leave your address with the producer? that's also me, man. Peace, Reggie, it was a whole lotta fun playin' with you! We'll be right back after these messages.'
"Peace, Doug," Regina said and cast a compassionate eye at Stella who, for some reason, didn't seem to be celebrating the fact that they had just won a five-CD box set and a ceramic ashtray with room for all their stoner friends - not that they had any.
"Thanks for the help, Stell. I couldn't have done it without ya," Regina continued, holding her hand across the telephone.
Stella's only reply was a moan that segued into a whimper and eventually petered out as a long, slow sigh.
III - OLD FRIENDS, OLD PROBLEMS
Written by Norsebard
With a groan, a moan and a puff of blue smoke, Stella Starr's AMC Pacer crawled up the short ramp to the parking lot in front of the offices of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. Driving with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the dashboard, Stella did her best to whisper soothing words to the brown vinyl to coax the old car into driving the final few yards.
When she finally reached one of the parking spaces allotted to them, she was so surprised to see her business partner Regina Harrison's silver metallic Mercedes SLK already parked there that she completely forgot to brake, resulting in the front bumper of the Pacer making firm contact with the stone fence at the far end of the parking space.
The impact forced Stella forward into the stops on the seatbelt, and she let out a breathless 'OOF!' as the reinforced fabric held her at a safe distance from the unprotected steering wheel. The rebound turned her already unruly mop of dirty-blonde hair into a haystack and she spent the next few seconds trying to get her eyes free.
The Pacer had stalled as it hit the wall, and Stella feared that the gurgling, coughing, ticking sounds emanating from the engine were spelling doom for the venerable old girl.
"Hmmm? I better get Billy the Mechanic to take a look at it. Perhaps I could tempt him by promising that Reggie will show up in a bathing suit," Stella said out loud as she gathered her stuff.
A minute later, she opened the door to the office and waved to Regina Harrison who was already busy on the phone.
Regina waved back and then turned around on her swivel chair to face away from Stella.
Even though she had only caught a brief glimpse of Regina's face, Stella thought the former model's cheeks had held a distinct red sheen, and when she heard a couple of very uncharacteristic giggles and snickers, she knew something was up.
A few minutes later, Regina hung up and turned back around.
"Good morning, Reggie," Stella said, drying her hands after briefly washing them in the sink.
"One, what on Earth are you doing here this early? and two, who was that on the phone?"
"Oh, well, two, it was an old friend, and one, he called me last night to say that he'd swing by today, so I thought I'd better be here early? to, uh, greet him."
"An old friend?"
"A dear, old friend," Regina said and put her hands behind her head, a gesture that made her C-cups stand out even more than usual.
"Is that model-speak for ex-lover?"
"Oh. Hang on, I need to change," Stella said and went into the bathroom at the far end of the office.
A few minutes later, she came back outside, wearing an outfit that made the fashion-conscious Regina slap her hand across her eyes and groan loudly.
"Stella? Stella, Stella, Stella, what am I going to do with you? You simply cannot wear a pair of pale green sweat pants with a purple tank top. You. Just. Can't!"
"Watch me, Miss Style Icon, watch me!" Stella said and spun around in a pirouette in the middle of the office floor.
Regina blinked a few times and then shook her head slowly. "Look, it's possible to create magic simply by thinking about the colors you wear? look at me today, Stell, I'm wearing medium blue designer jeans and a light blue cotton shirt over a black T? it's three different colors, but it's a classic combination. And it looks goood!"
"Well, it does, I'll have to give you that," Stella said and snuck her feet into her favorite purple flip-flops.
"Yes, and it's because everything is color coded. The black T matches my hair, the shirt matches my eyes and-"
"Can we have this lecture later, Reggie, please?"
"Oh, all right. I don't have much time, either. It can't be long before my dear old friend Steve Darrian is here. Boy, he's going to have a heart attack once he sees your outfit, Stell."
"Will you leave my outfit alone! It was cheap, it's comfy and I love it? so there!"
"Yeah, yeah," Regina said and got up from her desk.
When the former model crossed the floor to get to the coffee maker, Stella scrunched up her face, looking at the six-foot-one woman's more-than-ample chest. "Reggie, are you wearing a Wonderbra today?"
"Why? I mean, it's not like you need it."
"Oh, you know. I just want to look my best for Steve."
"He must be one hell of a man," Stella said with an amused chuckle.
"He runs a small modeling agency," Regina said while she poured some coffee beans into the machine.
"Ohhhh. Right. Now I get it," Stella said and sat down on her swivel chair.
"Get what, dear?"
"You're hoping that he'll have a job for you. That's why you've been dolled up."
"I'm not dolled up, Stell. I don't need to, 'cos I-"
"-Still got it, I know, I know," Stella said, quickly ducking the Evil Eye Regina flashed her.
The argument was interrupted by two brief honks from a car horn, prompting Stella to turn around and look out of the window. Outside, a shiny black stretch limo drove up the small ramp and into the parking lot.
The ridiculously long car continued to drive past Stella's window for what felt like several minutes before it finally came to a stop. The driver ran back to open the passenger door, allowing an impeccably dressed man to step out.
Steve Darrian was a tall, well-built man in his mid-forties with a perfectly styled haircut, a perfectly chiseled chin with a two-day stubble, a perfect set of white teeth and, seemingly, a perfect fashion sense.
After taking a slightly disdainful look around the non-descript parking lot, he reached into the pocket of his $5000 gun-metal gray business suit and found a $1200 pair of sunglasses that he proceeded to push up the bridge of his nose.
"Reggie, something tells me that Stevie-boy is here. Either that or the taxman has hit the jackpot somewhere," Stella said and took a bite out of an apple.
"Quick! How do I look?" Regina said, assuming her patented model-stance by cocking her hips and turning her chin slightly to the left.
"Goof. You look goof," Stella said around the apple.
"You mean good, right?"
" 'f what I faid. Goof."
"Ooookay," Regina said and flipped her hair out of her collar, making sure that it fell just right.
"Ohhh, you fhouldn't have done that, now it'f all ruined!" Stella said, quickly following it up with a rather cheeky gleam in her eye.
"We'll talk about that one? later."
While Regina and Stella were exchanging barbs, Steve knocked on the door and waited politely for someone to react.
"Enter!" Regina barked, spinning around so her hair would fall down her right side.
As Steve closed the door behind him, he took off his sunglasses and gave Regina an inch-by-inch check-up from her feet to her hair that threatened to burn the clothes right off her body. "Oh, God! Regina! You finally found it? You must have!"
"What, what, what? Found? what?" Regina said, looking down at herself to see if she had forgotten anything embarrassing.
"You finally discovered the Fountain of Youth, didn't you? God, look at you! You're not a day older than? what is it, six years ago?" Steve said in an impossibly silky baritone that fit his perfect exterior perfectly.
"Six years, yeah," Regina said, blushing all over her face and neck.
Stella scrunched up her face, feeling an urgent need to have an air sickness bag ready in case Steve was going to continue playing that game.
Steve - aka The World's Most Manly Man - crossed the room with decisive steps, took Regina by the shoulders and moved up to stand very close to her. With a husky chuckle, he leaned in and claimed her full lips in a searing, but not unloving, kiss that Regina responded to almost at once.
Stella's gag reflex was sorely tested by the display, and she turned away to give the two ex-lovers a bit of privacy.
When Steve and Regina finally separated, he chuckled again and moved his index finger down her regal nose. "It's so good to see you again, Regina."
"It's good to see you, too, Steve," Regina husked; her voice suddenly half an octave deeper.
"Remember that time in São Paolo when we co-headlined the World Fashion Show? When we did it eight times over the weekend? Three times in the bedroom, twice in the shower, twice on the couch and once out on the balcony??"
"Oh, I remem-"
"GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAG!" Stella howled loudly, making Steve spin around to look at her with wide, confused eyes.
She had tried to plug her ears with her fingers but she had moved a fraction of a second too slowly to avoid getting an earful of all the colorful details. A loud, strangled snort that sounded suspiciously like the beginnings of a hurl escaped her lips and she had to wipe some cold sweat off her brow.
"Oh? hi," Steve said, staring in disbelief at the myriad of colors Stella was wearing.
"Please? no more stories like that," Stella croaked, breathing shallowly to keep her breakfast down.
"Okay. Regina, aren't you going to introduce us?"
"Steve, this is my friend and employer Stella Starr. Stella, this is my dear, old friend Steve Darrian. Better known as The Master Poser."
"Pleased to meet you, Miss Starr," Steve said and put out his hand.
"Likewise, Mr. Darrian." After shaking Steve's hand, Stella sat down to preserve her strength. She wiped some more sweat off her brow and started to study the new arrival.
The two former models were roughly equally tall, but Steve's physical presence dwarfed Regina, something Stella had never seen before. His eyes were steely gray and his face was perfectly symmetrical, save for a tiny imperfection around his mouth that added a certain bad-boy quality to it.
Feeling scrutinized by the two God-like creatures in the office, Stella took off her glasses and began to polish the lenses to have something to do.
Regina picked up on Stella's insecurity and hooked her arm inside Steve's. "She's a bit shy. Anyway, the thing we talked about??"
"Yeah, I?" Steve said, nodding at Stella.
"Oh, Stell and I don't keep any secrets from each other."
"All right. Well, I do have a job lined up for you, Regina. It's a three-day gig in Mexico City and there's five grand in it for you."
"Cool! Isn't that cool, Stella?"
"Oh, yeah. So cool it smells like ice," Stella said and put on her glasses.
"You better believe it. I get to strut my stuff? hey, I promise I'll send you some photos, Stell," Regina said and wrapped herself around Steve's body. The old reflexes soon took over and the two former models found themselves in a near-perfect pose, with Steve looking off to the right in a cool, disinterested fashion and Regina looking longingly at Steve's face while she held her hand across his stomach.
Sighing, Stella rubbed her eyes and put her glasses away for good.
Ten minutes later, Stella's blood pressure was saved by the phone ringing. She jumped at it at once, relieved to get away from Steve's and Regina's incessant cooing.
As she reached for the receiver, she cast a quick glance at the two former models and noted with great horror that they were practically sitting in each other's lap in the leather couch.
"The Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, Stella Starr speaki-"
"No, Sir, you can't talk to Mr. Harrison Starr," Stella said and felt like slamming her forehead down onto the desk top. Rolling her eyes, she found the piece of paper she had prepared for when potential clients wanted to talk to Mr. Harrison Starr. After adding a line with a pencil, Stella counted them, soon discovering that this caller was the eighteenth different person to get it wrong.
'Two more and we'll hold an anniversary bash,' she thought as she put the pencil away.
"I'm Stella Starr, I'm part of the investigating team," she said into the telephone.
"Yes, that's right, they do actually give licenses to female investigators these days. Mine's hanging on the wall. Let's get down to business, shall we?"
Stella reached into her desk drawer and found a small notepad that she flipped open to the first clear page. When she tried to flip the pencil across her knuckles like all the cool investigators did in the movies, it went flying and she had to get down on the floor and under the desk to recover it.
"Shoplifting? To what extent, Sir?" Stella said, sitting on the thick, gray carpet they had bought at a clear-out sale.
"Several hundred dollars' worth each day? Sounds interesting?"
"Uh, no, I didn't mean it like that, Sir."
"So it only takes a very short time? A matter of seconds and the items are gone?"
"All right. That's a deal, Sir. Thank you very much for choosing the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. One of our investigators will swing by in a very short while. Good day, Sir."
Whooping triumphantly, Stella tore the page off the notepad and waved it in the air to get Regina's attention. When she realized that her hand barely came to the desk top, she clambered to her feet and waved the paper again. "Hey, you, Missy Long Legs! If you can tear yourself away from Daddy Square Jaw there, we got a job!"
Stella suddenly noticed that Regina was too busy snogging with Steve to pay any attention to her. Sighing deeply, the blonde investigator cocked her head and put her hand on her hips. "Oh, gads, what's your tongue doing in that man's mouth?!" she mumbled under her breath.
"Reggie? Reggie! Ohferheaven'ssakewillyousnapOUTofit!" she exclaimed, skipping all the syllables.
On the couch, Regina pulled back from Steve's mouth and flicked her hair back over her shoulder. "You rang?"
"I rang, your tallness. You better get some dry panties on 'cos we've got a job. You have ten minutes. I'll go change first."
"Sure thing, babe," Regina said and instantly went back to devouring Steve's face.
Inside the bathroom, Stella took off her glasses and her sweatsuit and began to ponder which disguise would work best in a convenience store.
"Hmmm? not the plumber? not the agitated ex-girlfriend? not the cop. I need something that won't stand out."
Reaching into the plastic bag labeled Various Disguises, Stella pulled out a few items that she held up against the mirror above the sink. "Curly wig, yep. Shapeless khaki overcoat, yep. Worn-out trainers, yep. Yellow socks, yep? practically one of the Desperate Housewives. I love it."
After getting dressed in a hurry, Stella turned around in front of the mirror to admire her handiwork. She gave herself a thumbsup and left the bathroom.
Outside, Regina had moved exactly one foot - from sitting next to Steve to straddling his lap. Her lips hadn't moved at all, they were still connected to Steve's.
"Regina! Are you in heat or something? Will you please leave that poor man's lips alone? we have a job to do!" Stella said, holding up the bag of Various Disguises.
Regina grunted and leaned in to give Steve a goodbye-kiss on the lips. "Sorry, baby, I gotta go," she said and crawled off him.
"That's okay, I need to get settled in at the hotel anyway. I have a suite booked at the Excelsior? maybe you could pay me a visit later? You know, to work on the details of the Mexico City gig??" Steve said and got up from the couch. He found one of his business cards and slipped it into Regina's front pocket, taking the opportunity to tickle her thigh.
"Maybe I could," Regina said as she straightened Steve's lapels.
"If you're gonna kiss again, I'm gonna hurl!" Stella said with conviction, pressing the back of her hand against her mouth in case her stomach would rebel against the overload of mush she was treating it to.
"Your friend certainly has a way with words," Steve said with a grin.
"Yeah. She's a regular bard. Ain't you, Stell?" Regina said, shooting Stella an amused glare.
"WHATever. Let's go, we're running late. And we're taking the Merc, the old girl crapped out on me this morning."
After the front door had slammed shut behind Stella, Regina pulled Steve into yet another searing kiss that only ended when Stella ducked her head back inside the office and let out a horrified groan.
A good ten minutes later, Regina drove out onto the boulevard and began the long slog that would take them downtown.
"I don't know what's gotten into you today, Stell. Why do you react so weirdly to me and Steve?" Regina said as she swerved from one lane to the next to try to get ahead of the myriad of white delivery vans.
"Don't wanna talk about it."
"I mean, it's not like you haven't enjoyed a slice of nookie yourself lately. Two weeks ago, you shared a golden evening and night with Joan of Rock, right? You told me you did, so don't try to deny it."
"Which part of 'don't wanna talk about it' didn't you understand, Reggie? Maybe the air is so thin up there where your head is that the problems of us little people don't register!"
"Ouch! Jeez, something's definitely gotten into you today. Good heavens, if I didn't have so much confidence, stemming from my Goddess-like looks, obviously, I'd say that you were just a tiny bit annoyed with me??"
"Well, I'm not, it's just that? that? I don't wanna talk about it! End of discussion."
"All right, all right. Do you think you could fill me in on the details of our new job without biting my head off?" Regina said and honked repeatedly at an SUV that changed lanes without signaling.
Stella opened her mouth to give Regina yet another piece of her mind, but when she noticed that the tall woman was too busy with the traffic to pay any attention to her, she settled for a disgruntled harrumph. After a few seconds, she crossed her arms over her chest and looked straight ahead. "Perry Gordon, the owner of the Happy Times convenience store, is losing money hand over fist because of shoplifting. He even hired a uniformed security guard, but the goods kept on disappearing."
"Yes, and now, his insurance company is giving him the squeeze. Hence our participation."
"Mmmm. What's the plan?"
"Well, first of all, we're going to stand out like a sore thumb if you drop me off in front of the store so we need to find an alley somewhere where you can park. Then I'll go inside and walk around and around and around until I see someone suspicious. Then I'll apprehend him or her or them or whatever."
"Sounds easy enough," Regina said, flashing her perfect set of pearly whites.
"Reggie? when has anything ever gone easy for us? Huh? With our luck, the store will be the target of an armed robbery, or there'll be a rat infestation, or?"
"Lighten up, will you, Stell? Everything's gonna be all right. Trust me."
"Aw hell, Reggie! Now you gone and done it! Don't say 'trust me'? don't ever say 'trust me'."
"Yeah, yeah. Listen, once we're done here, I'm going to take the rest of the day off."
"To go to Steve?" Stella said and turned around in her seat. The motion made the wind catch the edge of her curly wig and she had to hurriedly clamp her hand down on it to stop it from taking off.
"Yeah. Steve made me feel like a woman again. I'm just tired of being ignored. It's frustrating, 'cos you know, I still got it. I mean, look at me," Regina said and placed her fingers on her bosom.
Snort! was Stella's only response.
"Cheeky bugger. Even former models have feelings, you know. Anyway, beneath my striking beauty, I'm a sensitive little girl. Let me tell you something, Stell, once you hit forty? poof, you're invisible. Invisible isn't much fun when you're used to being on the front cover of the glittery magazines."
Stella chuckled darkly and adjusted her wig. "Reggie, let me tell you a sad, little story? I've been invisible since I was fifteen years old."
Regina scrunched up her face and stared at her companion. "Really?"
"I couldn't live like that. I honestly couldn't."
"Well, you don't have to. I don't care what your birth certificate says, you're still a good-looking woman."
"Why, thank you, darlin'."
"You're welcome. Oh, here we are. There's the store right there," Stella said and pointed out of the windscreen at the rapidly approaching convenience store. "Okay, turn right into the next alley and drop me off there. I'll be in touch when I need some backup. You have your cell ready?"
"Yes, ma'am," Regina said and patted her jeans pocket.
The Mercedes SLK bumped over the curb and drove slowly down a filthy, stinking alley. "I can make a U down at the end of the alley. Should be fine," Regina said and slowed down to a crawl.
"Good. Let me off here," Stella said and buttoned her khaki overcoat. "How do I look?"
Regina narrowed her eyes and gave Stella a thorough once-over from head to toe, stopping at the hideous wig, the hideous overcoat, the hideous fingerless gloves, the hideous socks and the hideous trainers. "Fabulous. You look like a dumpster queen? you'll blend right in."
"All right," Stella said and opened the car door. She looked out, searching for curbs she could fall off of.
"You won't find any curbs here, babe, but watch out for the puddles. You never know what's in them."
"Ewwww? thanks for that image," Stella said as she climbed out of the low-slung sportscar.
"Stell? are we cool? You're not still mad at me, are you? I don't like it when you're mad at me," Regina said, put her arm across the back of the passenger seat and held out her hand.
"No, we're cool, Reggie. I just don't like to talk about my non-existent love life," Stella said and leaned in to give Regina's open palm a little low-five.
Clutching a yellow plastic bag in front of her chest, Stella ducked her head down between her shoulders and began to walk toward the convenience store in a peculiar, shuffling fashion.
Once she was inside, Stella was surprised to see that the Happy Time convenience store was much larger than she had expected - it was built in a rectangular shape, roughly one hundred and twenty by four-hundred fifty feet, and it had five wide aisles packed with tens of thousands of different items.
Looking around, Stella could see two clerks and at least eight customers, but she was too short to look above the top of the shelves dividing the aisles, so she knew she had to expect the unexpected when it came to the rest of the store.
After giving the uniformed security guard at the sliding door a faked toothless grin, she started shuffling up and down between the aisles, trying to spot if any of the customers were suspicious-looking.
A short while later, Stella had checked out all the customers in the store but was none the wiser.
'Hmmm?' she thought, rubbing her brow. She gave the customers another once-over, but neither the latino husband and wife with a kid in a stroller, nor the two elderly, blue-haired ladies, nor the two goofy-looking teenagers, nor the bricklayer appeared suspicious.
'Shoot, I'm the most suspicious looking person in here,' she thought, ruing the decision to come dressed as a destitute.
The thought had barely left her mind when she spotted a woman in a very similar outfit to her own walk through the sliding doors. The new arrival was wearing a long, dusty brown overcoat, sunglasses and a baseball cap that had been pulled so far down that it completely obscured her face.
The woman was carrying a basket on her arm and pushing a twin stroller, but even though there was a lump hidden under a blanket in the stroller, it didn't appear to be a baby.
All sorts of alarm bells went off in Stella's mind and she had to stop herself from breaking out into a loud giggle. For the first few seconds, she tracked the mysterious woman with her eyes, but she soon started performing a quick shuffle down the aisle so she could be close to her at all times.
Stella kept a good fifteen feet back from the woman while observing her closely. The woman picked up a pack of Basmati rice and looked at the description of the contents. Seemingly satisfied with what she read, she put it into the basket. A bit further down the aisle, she did the same with a jar of pre-mixed sweet/sour sauce.
Suddenly, the woman looked behind her, forcing Stella to pretend to be deeply fascinated by the store's wide selection of exotic curries and other spices. The charade went on for a few seconds until the woman looked away from Stella and continued her shopping.
When the woman turned a corner to go to the next aisle, Stella hurried after her. She focused so hard on following the woman that she didn't notice that the shelf with the seasoning sauces - where the woman had been standing - had been cleaned out.
Stella peeked around the corner of the next aisle, still closely observing the mysterious woman. The woman parked the twin stroller next to a huge pile of soda cans and left it to fetch some paper tissues.
Stella's eyes kept on the woman, not noticing that a hairy arm shot out from underneath the blanket and scooped up two six-packs of Slurrpy! Cherry Cola.
A minute later, the woman returned to the stroller and began to push it towards the registers.
Stella started scratching her ear, thinking that she had missed something. When she wasn't able to form anything solid from the threads of evidence she had collected, she decided to call for backup and reached into her coat pocket to find her cell phone.
"Reggie? Would you mind coming into the store? I need a diversion and I know you're good for one."
"Oh, I don't know? something memorable. Just enough to take both clerks' attention away from the customers. I want to see who reacts and how they do it. Okay?"
"Okay. Give me two minutes, I need to get into a position where I can observe the others."
Two minutes later, Reggie waltzed in through the sliding doors. She had taken off her shirt and had pulled her black T-shirt up to just below her breasts, thus revealing her taut and perfectly tanned stomach.
The uniformed security guard at the door stared so hard at the former model that he almost craned his neck out of joint, as did both clerks and most of the male customers.
With determined steps, Regina waltzed up to the first register and started a song-and-dance act about needing an anti-bee spray because she had been stung by a bee below her belly button. This attracted even more attention, and soon, the guard, the clerk and four male customers were crowding her trying to get a closer look at the alleged bee sting and to give her a few tips on how to deal with the excruciating pain.
The security guard suggested that Regina should take off all her clothes at once and cover herself and the bee sting in suntan lotion or maybe maple leaf syrup, but he was quickly shushed by the others.
Even while Stella was grinning cheekily at the events up front, she kept a close eye on the other customers. Most acted as predicted, even the woman with the stroller that suddenly sported a second lump underneath the blanket.
Stella crept up to stand right behind her, waiting for the right moment to make her move - unfortunately, reality caught up with her before she could strike.
Over at the aisle with the seasoning sauces, a male voice let out a piercing roar that made everyone in the store turn their heads and stare.
"WHERE ARE ALL MY SAUCES?!" the voice roared. Moments later, the man the voice belonged to stepped out in the open, holding the last remaining jar of Hollandaise sauce.
The man presented an imposing figure: he was at least six foot tall and he was wearing brown, high-waisted polyester pants and a white short-sleeved shirt with thin blue stripes. Even though he was balding and wearing glasses, the half-crazy look in his eyes canceled out any physical disadvantages he had.
Stella gulped; she knew exactly who the man was - it was Perry Gordon, the man who had hired her and Regina to take care of the shoplifters.
When Stella turned back around, the woman with the stroller was gone.
A strong sense of panic flooded over Stella and she spun around in a complete circle, searching desperately for the mysterious woman. Along the way, she made eye contact with Regina who pulled her shirt down and excused herself from her admirers.
"What?" Regina whispered once she was at Stella's side.
"The woman with the stroller? did you see her? Where did she go?" Stella whispered, grabbing Regina's arm in a panic.
"I saw her, but I don't know where she went. Was she the one?"
"Yesssss," Stella whined, lifting her glasses to pinch the bridge of her nose.
"Well, one thing's for sure, the security guard didn't see her, either. He was too busy trying to see if I was wearing any panties," Regina whispered.
"Aw great? this is just great. When this gets out, we're done, we're finished, we're toast, we're? we're screwed, Reggie. SCREWED!" Stella said, howling the last word.
"No, we ain't. Come on, let's get to the car before that man calls in a SWAT team. We need a plan B," Regina said and grabbed hold of Stella's arm.
"Plan B is that we're screwed! Screwed!" Stella howled as Regina dragged her out of the convenience store before Perry Gordon could catch up with them.
After Regina had parked the SLK at their office, she helped the near-comatose Stella into the building and over to her swivel chair.
The blonde investigator sat down with a bump, practicing her thousand-mile stare and seemingly not registering the things Regina was saying to her.
"? don't like it when you're acting this way, Stell. You're scaring me. Please come back to the real world. So we fumbled a job, big deal. It's happened before and you know it's gonna happen again. Stella?"
When Stella still didn't respond, Regina removed the curly wig from Stella's head. The unruly, dirty-blonde haystack that popped up clashed severely with the former model's strict views on fashion and personal image, and she grunted disdainfully as she tried to tuck a few locks of the darkly golden hair behind Stella's ears.
"Stella? ? Sheesh, she's really gone this time. All right, let's try the universal remedy. Whenever a girl's in a funk, she needs an O or two," Regina said and began to rummage through the desk drawers.
After turning two of them upside down, she pulled back and scratched her hair. "Where the hell did she leave the pack?? We only bought 'em yesterday, no way did she eat 'em all already. Ahhh, there they are?"
Regina's hand zipped into the bottom drawer and scooped up the half-empty pack of Oreo's. After tearing the plastic wide open, she poured three cookies out into her palm and quickly disposed of one of them; then she got down on her knees and held the other two cookies so Stella could see them.
"Stella?" - munch - "look at me?" - munch, munch - "here's how you eat one of these things. You with me?" - munch, munch.
Stella nodded faintly, proving that she was still among the living.
"Okay? first you unscrew the top, like this. Then you extend your tongue and lick the-"
"Unscrew? Oh, God, we're screwed, Reggie! SCREWED!" Stella suddenly howled, spooking Regina enough to make her fall backwards onto her butt.
"Oh, fer cryin' out loud, Stella! You made me drop my Oreo!" Regina said, picking up the cookie that had - obviously - landed with the creamy side down. After a brief look at the hair ball that was stuck to the creamy center, she growled and threw the remains of the cookie in the trashcan.
While she was doing that, their phones started ringing.
"Aw, sheesh, I'll bet that's Mr. Gordon ready to dump a load of you-know-what on us," Regina said and clambered to her feet. She quickly moved over to her own desk and picked up the receiver.
"The Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?"
'Uhhhh, I have a little problem,' a distorted male voice said. 'You see, I had sort of expected a certain tall, hot babe with endless legs to come over for an extended afternoon session, but she hasn't done so yet. Do you think you can help me with that?'
"Oh, ha, ha, Steve, very funny. We've been really busy."
'Oh, okay. I'm only here today and tomorrow, though,' Steve Darrian said in his regular voice.
"I'll try to make it in the late afternoon or early evening. Maybe we could go out for dinner?" Regina said, swirling the cord for the telephone between her fingers.
'Sounds like a plan. Oysters, perhaps?'
"Since when did we ever need aphrodisiacs, huh?"
'I guess you're right,' Steve said with a throaty chuckle. 'I couldn't tempt you to come over sooner? I could have room service bring us some champagne and strawberries? we could have a little Roman orgy? or maybe even a large Roman orgy?'
"Mmmmmmm, yeah? that's definitely tempting, but I can't. My friend needs me."
'Your friend? the short one with the weird hair and the awful clothes? What's her name? hmmm, Raquel, Louisa, Annabelle? no.'
"I knew you'd pay more attention to her clothes than her name, Steve. Her name is Stella," Regina said in a stinging tone.
"And shoddy clothes will never outweigh a person's kindness or presence." Regina turned her head to look at Stella's forlorn figure and decided on the spot that she'd get her depressed friend back to life if it killed her.
'Yeah, right. That was a good one, Regina. Listen, I can't talk anymore, I have a business conference call in fifteen minutes. You're coming tonight, yeah?'
"I'll try to, Steve. I'll call you no matter what."
After hanging up, Regina walked out to stand in the middle of the office and put her hands on her hips. "Stella, can you hear me?"
A faint nod.
"Good. Let's play a game called Reggie says, okay?"
A faint nod.
"Reggie says stand up."
Stella sighed deeply but eventually got up from her chair.
"Reggie says put your right index finger on the tip of your nose."
Stella groaned loudly, but complied.
"Good! Now strut your stuff, like this," Regina said and went through a six-step vogueing performance where she strutted, posed, twisted, cocked, thrust and finally shook her body, accompanied by a series of ecstatic Yips, Yees and Yahs.
Stella tried to follow the instructions to the best of her abilities but got lost halfway through the sequence. "Oh, Reggie, I can't do that! That's for all you sexy people, not for someone like me!" she continued, throwing her hands in the air.
"Ha! I didn't say 'Reggie says' Ha!"
"Oh, you! And who the hell can remember that stupid dance anyway? Sheesh, Reggie, that was more than twenty years ago!" Stella said with a chuckle.
"But it made you laugh. Welcome back, babe. Let's get some coffee so we can think up a plan B. We need to nail the critter who eluded us," Regina said and walked towards the coffee maker with determined steps.
Twenty minutes later, Billy the Mechanic knocked on the door to the office and stuck his head inside.
"Miss Starr, Miss Harrison. Are you dressed?"
"Always, Billy. What's up?" Stella said and put down her mug and a big, greasy Danish they had ordered from the Pastry Express.
Billy's cover-alls were always held in bright, cheerful colors and they were always completely covered by stains - today was no different. As he walked into the office, he pushed his greasy baseball cap back on his head and zipped the banana-yellow suit down to reveal a T-shirt that was even more stained than the cover-all.
"Well, I was kinda passing by your Pacer and I kinda noticed that there's a huge pool of oil on the ground next to it. I went down on my knees and saw that you've got a tear in the sump."
"Oh? that's bad, right?"
"Uh, yeah. Kinda. It must have been awful to drive here this morning??"
"It was. C-can you fix it?"
"Yeah, but you have to promise me that you won't try to start it. If you do, you'll ruin it completely."
"Shoot. Okay, I won't touch it. What's that going to cost me?" Stella said and wiped her greasy fingers on a napkin.
"Oh, uh?" Billy looked around, clearly searching for Regina.
"I don't think I can persuade Regina to go on a date with you, Billy. She's got a boyfriend already," Stella said, recognizing the look in the mechanic's eyes.
"Aw shucks? gosh golly almighty, Miss Starr, that wasn't what I was going to say?" Billy said, grabbing hold of his cover-all and twisting it in his meaty fists. His cheeks gradually turned red underneath all the oily stains and the two-day stubble, prompting Stella to think how odd it looked to have a grown man blush like a schoolboy.
"Nuh. I was going to ask Miss Harrison for one of those fancy, little promotional photos and an autograph."
Behind them, the easily recognizable sound of a toilet flushing was heard, and Regina soon stepped out of the bathroom and clicked off the lights.
"Hi, Billy," she said on her way over to her desk.
"Hi, Miss Harrison," Billy said, giving his cover-all an extra twist.
"Billy here has offered to fix my Pacer for the very modest price of your John Hancock on a promotional photo, Reggie," Stella said, smiling.
"Oh, has the darn old thing finally given up the ghost?" Regina said, easily evading the Evil Eye Stella sent her.
"The sump is busted. It's leaking oil all over the place," Billy said.
"Well, we can't have that, can we? A promo photo? okay. I'm sure I have one somewhere. Hmmm, let me see? Tell you what, Billy, I'll find a good one for you and then I'll pop over with it later today. How about that?"
"Sounds great, Miss Harrison. Thanks a bunch."
"You're welcome. You're my biggest fan, Billy."
"Aw shucks, Miss Harrison," Billy said and twisted his cover-all to such an extent that he almost tore the sleeves off it.
"Hey, I have an idea? I have a great idea," Stella suddenly said and shot up from her swivel chair. She walked over to one of the filing cabinets and pulled out a top-end model Canon camera from the top drawer.
"Reggie? How about a spontaneous photo session?" she said, showing off the camera.
"Ooooh, now you're talkin' my language!" Regina said, grabbed the floor fan and walked out into the center of the office.
"Wh? what's going on?" Billy said, scratching his head.
"You'll see, Billy. Are you ready, Reggie?" Stella said.
"One moment?" Regina pointed the fan at the wall and turned it on at the second-to-lowest speed, creating just enough breeze for her hair to be stylishly swept aside.
"But??" Billy said.
"Hang on, hang on. Gotta have music? can't do anything without music?" Regina said and hurried over to the boombox where she pressed Play on the CD player. Soon, high-octane dance music filled the office. "Okay, now I'm ready. Hit it, Stella, daaaahling!"
"I'm hitting it!" Stella said and brought the camera up.
In a flash, Regina moved in front of the camera and began to strut her stuff for all she was worth. As the former model went through all her classic moves - and a few new ones - Stella took shot after shot, chuckling so hard that she became quite short of breath.
She wasn't the only one: Billy's eyes had grown as large as pizza plates and his jaw and tongue were hanging directly above his navel. His breathing appeared to have been forgotten about, and it was only a throbbing vein on the side of his neck that proved he was still alive and kicking.
When Regina grabbed the hem of her black T-shirt and moved to whip it off for the grand finale, Billy promptly passed out and slumped sideways onto the carpet.
"Awwwwww," Regina said, lowering the black T. "It was too much for him, the poor guy."
"Can you blame him?" Stella said and turned off the music.
"I guess not, 'cos? you know, I still got it. They should slap a Health Warning sticker on me, right here," Regina said and pointed at her cleavage.
"We better give Billy the last can of Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz. We can always buy some new ones," Stella said and put the camera down on her desk.
"Good idea. I'll get it," Regina said and left the office to go into the conference room.
Cracking her knuckles, Stella knelt down next to the passed-out mechanic. "Billy? Billy?? Yoohoo, anybody home?" she said, poking his shoulder with her fingers.
"Wh? whut? Huh? Where am I?"
"You're at the offices of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. And son, you've been Reggie'd."
"Wh? Oh! Miss Harrison!"
"That's right, Billy. Now, come on, I'll help you up," Stella said and put out her arm. The split second Billy grabbed it and began to pull himself up, Regina came back into the office holding the last can of Raspberry Fizz.
"Ohh!" Billy said again when he spotted the model, forgetting all about what he was doing. Once again, he fell sideways onto the carpet, but this time, he dragged the unfortunate, and loudly squealing, Stella with him.
As Billy's butt hit the carpet breaking his fall, Stella continued downwards with her knees pointing ahead of her like a grasshopper. Moments later, she scored a perfect three-for-one as her right knee made a direct impact on Billy's crotch.
The mechanic's face turned purple and his lips puckered up into a tiny, little hole. An otherworldly 'OOOOOEEEEEIIIII' escaped his lips, gradually climbing in pitch until it reached a nails-on-a-blackboard-like quality.
"Ewww? boy, talk about your ultimate highs and lows? all in the space of three minutes," Regina said flatly, taking a sip from the soda before remembering that it was actually meant for Billy.
With the excitement over for the time being, Stella went back to her desk while Regina tended to Billy to make sure he didn't choke on his own vomit.
Almost at once, she reached into her drawer and found her favorite pastime, her Rubik's Cube, and began to turn the sides furiously to take her mind off the fiasco in the convenience store.
"I don't know how the hell that woman could escape me so easily," Stella whispered to herself, working hard to try to find the right combination on the Cube. "I just don't get it. One minute she was there, the next she was gone."
When the Cube proved to be even more frustrating than usual, she slammed it down on the desk and began to rub her face. Then the phone rang and she leaned forward to pick up the receiver.
'I demand to know why THE HELL you weren't able to catch the shoplifters this morning?!'
The unbridled fierceness of the voice caught Stella on the wrong foot - figuratively speaking as well as physically - and she flapped her arms like mad to stay erect on the swivel chair.
"Ouch! ?that flippin' chair," Stella growled under her breath. As usual, her glasses had gone flying, but when she tried to pat the carpet close to her to find them, all she felt was the fluffy gray fabric.
After clearing her throat, she spoke into the receiver. "Oh, hello, Mr. Gordon. Listen, I'm really so-"
'I should have known it would be too hard a task for a female investigator!'
"I beg your pardon! I almost had the shoplifter. I was standing right behind her? it was a woman with a twin stroller."
'I don't care if it was Eleanor Roosevelt! Whoever it was, they lifted more than one hundred dollars' worth!'
"Well, I'm really so-"
'You have one more chance, Miss Starr. Just one more chance. On the days where they steal from me, they always return later on in the afternoon. Usually around four or so. If you don't catch 'em there, you can forget all about ever getting paid for your so-called services! And that's final!'
"Uh, ah, yes, Mr. Gordon, that sounds like something we can work with. We'll be there."
'You better!' Perry Gordon said and terminated the connection.
"Reggie! Reggie! Drop what you're doing and come help me find my glasses!" Stella said and threw the receiver back up on the desk.
Soon, Regina came over to stand at the corner of the desk. Once she saw what had happened, she scrunched up her face. "Stella? one of these days, you're going to hurt yourself fallin' out of that chair."
"Yeah, yeah? can you see my glasses anywhere?"
"They're over here," Regina said and picked up the battered, but sturdy, frame. After blowing some dust and hairs off the lenses, she squatted down and gently pushed the glasses up the bridge of Stella's nose, making sure they were on right. "There you go, hon."
"Thanks, Reggie. Damn, I need to get another chair. One with four legs," Stella said and clambered to her feet. "How's Billy?"
"Good, 'cos we got a second shot at catching the convenience store shoplifter."
"Oh, that was Mr. Gordon right now?"
"Uh, yeah. My ears are still ringing," Stella said and put her index finger into her left ear to make the high-pitched squeal go away.
Regina sat down on a corner of Stella's desk and picked up the Rubik's Cube. "So, how do we handle it?" she said, absentmindedly playing with the toy.
"We use some of our disguises. By all that's holy, we need to catch that crook. We can't allow her to make us look like a couple a' dimwits? hey? what are you doing?"
"Nothing. I'm just-"
"Playing with my Cube! Look what you've done!" Stella yanked the Cube out of Regina's hands and stared at the two color-coded bars that had been formed.
"Isn't that what's supposed to happen?"
Stella's eyes narrowed dangerously, so much so in fact that Regina thought it best to vacate the corner of the desk and walk around it so it stood between herself and her friend.
"I've been toiling away for months to get the combinations right! And now you just sit with it for ten seconds and? and? and? Reggie! Go buy your own damn Cube for Chrissakes!"
"I can't believe you got two bars? how did you do that?"
"I don't know, ma'am."
"Ohwillyoustopsayingthat! Let's get to work. It's dress-up time," Stella said and shot up from her swivel chair.
"I thought we'd never get to that part, baby!" Regina said and bumped hips with Stella as she walked past.
"Billy?? Billy, can you stand up?" Stella said, giving the mechanic a gentle shake.
"Uh-huh? I think so."
"Good. Once I get around to processing the photos, I'll print them out and give you the best. Uh, I'm sorry that I nearly castrated you. I hope it doesn't hurt too much?"
"I dunno? I'm still numb from the belly button down."
"Okay? uhhh, uh, you're still going to look at my Pacer, right?"
"Excellent. We need to change our clothes now, Billy. Considering what happened before, perhaps it's best if you go home," Stella said and helped the unfortunate mechanic up from the couch Regina had placed him on.
"Okay. Goodbye, Miss Harrison, Miss Starr," Billy said as he shuffled over to the door.
"Bye, Billy!" Regina said loudly, blowing the mechanic a kiss with a coquettish little shimmy that nearly made him fall down all over again.
"Hey, watch where you point those torpedoes, missy! Your boob nearly poked my eye out!" Stella growled as the two of them tried to share the same space while they were changing into their disguises.
"Sorry. I got distracted by your polka-dot unmentionables."
"What are you looking at my unmentionables for?"
"Oh, you know. They're polka-dotted. Draws in the eye like a moth to a flame."
"Yeah, right," Stella said and put her legs down into a tan cover-all.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Hurry up, Betty Boop, or we're gonna miss the show. You know how fast the window of opportunity closes around here."
"Boop-boop be-doop," Regina said, pulling a burgundy shirt over her shoulders. After buttoning it, she reached behind her to zip the plaid skirt she had picked out for the assignment. Once the clothing was in place, she arranged her hair into a tight bun at her neck, pushing an old-fashioned pencil through it for effect.
"How's this?" she said, cocking her hips and sticking the tip of her little finger between her lips.
"Well, for starters, don't pose like that. I doubt that any librarian in the history of the library has ever posed like that. Here's your plain glass spectacles," Stella said and handed Regina a pair of Batman-shaped, horn-rimmed glasses straight out of the early 1960s.
"Oooh, thank you very much." Regina quickly took the glasses and pushed them on, smiling broadly once they were in place.
"Grrrr, I hate you, Reggie. Why is it that people who don't need glasses always look so fabulous wearing 'em?"
"Natural grace, baby."
Stella shot Regina an Evil Eye, but then concentrated on getting into her own costume. After zipping the cover-all all the way up, she smoothed out the little name tag on her left breast that identified her as 'Carl.'
"How does it look?" she said, turning her back to Regina. The entire upper back of the cover-all consisted of one, large logo with the words "Bob's Plumbing" written in gold on a reddish background.
"Well, it's a little baggy. Personally, I'd tuck it in around the waist and the buttoc-"
"Never mind that now, Reggie!"
"In that case, it's adequate. Here's your mustache and your sideburns," Regina said, handing Stella three small wads of hair.
Grunting, Stella scooped up the three hairpieces and applied a bit of glue to the strip on the reverse side. With a steady hand, she attached first the two sideburns and then the mustache. "Eh?"
"Looks great, Carl. Just great. Much better than that theater makeup crud you made me wear the last time," Regina said and plonked a greasy flat cap down onto Stella's unruly haystack of hair.
"Well, the shop didn't have any black mustaches left, so the next time you need to pose as a guy, you'll still need the makeup," Stella said and adjusted the cap so it was on just right.
Ten minutes later, Regina and Stella were driving back to the convenience store, ready to do battle with the mysterious shoplifter. The radio was blasting out California Girls by The Beach Boys, and the two women were both singing at the top of their lungs, attracting attention from most of the passers-by.
Once the song ended, the station's jingle started playing, and Regina quickly turned the radio down several notches so they wouldn't get blown out of the car by the inevitable difference in volume once the commercials started.
"Stell, have you ever had any luck with a California girl?" Regina said, giving Stella's shoulder a gentle punch.
"No. Not that I'm aware of, anyway. Did you ever know any surfer dudes?"
"About twelve years ago, I was in a swimwear show at Venice Beach. That was, uhhh? quite an experience."
"I'll bet. Did we eat the last Oreo?" Stella said, rummaging around the Mercedes' glove box.
"Yeah, I think we did."
"Well, we're going to a convenience store. There's a very, very remote chance we might be able to buy some there."
"Yes, that was one of the reasons I picked this skirt. I'm glad you noticed," Regina said, wearing an impossibly wide grin.
Stella's only response was to roll her eyes repeatedly.
Fifteen minutes later, Regina drove into the same alley they had used earlier in the day. A few moments later, she had parked the SLK and had popped the trunk so Stella could get her main accessory - an ungainly metal toolbox they had borrowed from Billy the Mechanic.
"Stell?" Regina said as Stella came up to stand next to the driver's side door.
"Would it test your gag reflex if I said you look kinda sexy disguised as a guy?"
"Yesssss. Yes, it would."
"Okay, I won't, then," Regina said with a wink and a grin. "Anyway, you're going in now. I'm entering the store five minutes from now, right?"
"Right. Good luck, uh, Carl. We're gonna need it," Regina said and punched Stella's arm.
"Thanks, Miss Boop," Stella said and spun around. On her way out to the boulevard, she could hear Regina's inevitable reply echoing through the alley - 'Boop-boop be-doop!'
Once inside, Stella cast a casual glance at the other customers, quickly establishing that the woman with the stroller wasn't there yet.
Swapping the heavy toolbox to her other hand, she began to shuffle down the aisle labeled 'Biscuits and cookies' to get a new roll of Oreo's.
Moments later, she noticed in her peripheral vision that she was being followed by the uniformed security guard. She furrowed her brow and looked around, trying to see what the guard might've spotted. When she couldn't see anything or anyone suspicious, she realized that she was the one the guard had zeroed in on.
Stifling a chuckle, she put down the toolbox and turned towards the guard. "Yeah?" she said in the deepest voice she could produce.
"I'm sorry, Sir, you can't carry anything other than our basket or our shopping cart. New rules, Sir," the guard said, pointing at the toolbox.
"Don't you think asking your customers to carry a shopping cart is a bit over the top?"
"Never mind. Okie-dokie. The toolbox is all yours," Stella said and put her hands in her hip pockets.
"Oh, uh? all right. Once you're done shopping, give me this receipt and you'll get the toolbox back," the guard said and jotted down a few words on a makeshift form on a clipboard. With a tired smile, he tore off the form and handed it to Stella.
"Have a nice day, Sir," he said, reaching down to pick up the toolbox.
"Watch your back, son, it's heavy," Stella said as she folded up the form and put it into her pocket.
"Don't worry, Sir, I can handl- oh!"
To the guard's great embarrassment, he discovered that he wasn't able to lift it using only one hand. Licking his lips, he put both hands on the grip and tried again. The next attempt at lifting it was successful, but after less than two steps, his kneecap made hard contact with the corner of the metal box, causing him to howl in pain and drop the box on the floor.
"Mmmm, yeah. Like I said, it's heavy, son," Stella said and walked away from the embarrassing scene.
Soon, Stella was pushing a shopping cart adorned with the Happy Times Convenience Store logo on both sides, and a photo of a squeaky clean nuclear family shaking hands with a broadly smiling Perry Gordon at the front.
To be able to keep an eye on the entrance, she kept to the same aisle, shuffling first one way and then the other. Now and then, she picked up a completely random item and put it into the cart just to give the appearance that she was actually there to do some late-afternoon shopping.
When Regina entered the store a few minutes later, a loud wolf call rang out from a guy standing at one of the check-out lines. Regina flashed her two-hundred watt smile at him and walked in her patented model-walk for a couple of paces before she remembered that she was actually supposed to be a librarian.
After snatching a basket and putting it on her arm, she assumed an air of organized detachment and changed her walk into frantic, staccato lady-steps to make everything fit.
Eventually, she went down the aisle where Stella was standing, closely followed by a choking whiff of perfume.
"Psst, has anything happened yet?" Regina whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
"Nope," Stella whispered back, rubbing her nose.
"Careful doing that, you're gonna end up shifting the mustache!" Regina whispered.
"Yeah, yeah? what did you do? Use a whole can of deodorant? Sheesh, it's strong."
"Well, for your information, librarians always try to cover the smell of dusty books," Regina whispered, looking at a pack of sliced white bread.
"And you'd know that? how?"
"Oh, ha ha."
"Don't tell me the car stinks this badly."
"No, I did it in the alle-"
"Contact!" Stella suddenly whispered strongly, repeatedly poking Regina in the side. "Suspect at the entrance! Contact!"
"Time to spring the trap," Stella said and swung her shopping cart around, already on the way back to the entrance where the woman they had been chasing had just appeared.
"The trap? But I only just got here? we haven't set it yet, Stell!" Regina whispered, nursing her aching ribs.
"One disaster at a time. Go get Mr. Gordon! We've got no time to waste!"
"I'm sure cranky plumbers were created for a reason? but I'll be damned if I know what it was," Regina grumbled under her breath as she turned right and hurried over to Perry Gordon's office at the far side of the store.
As Stella approached the suspect with the twin stroller in a casual - but determined - way, she could see that the woman was much younger than presumed; early twenties at the most.
The young woman looked a great deal different to what she had done earlier in the day. Gone were the dusty brown overcoat and the baseball cap, replaced by a pale yellow windbreaker and a mop of ash-blonde hair.
Even while she was on an interceptor course, Stella began to doubt that it was the right suspect - until she saw a hairy arm reaching out from underneath the blanket covering the twin stroller's seats. The arm snatched a jar of something and then disappeared back underneath the blanket.
Stella's eyes popped wide open at the sight and she rubbed them several times just to make sure she wasn't seeing things. When the arm shot back out and grabbed another jar, she knew her instincts had been proven right.
"Oi! Hullo! Young lady, I need to speak with you! Hullo!" Stella said, remaining in character. She came to a sliding stop next to the woman with the twin stroller whose eyes immediately began to dart left and right to search for an escape route.
"Aren't you Charlene Smith? Hell, yeah you are. I've got a bone to pick with you. How come you left that poor Matt at the altar? That was a crappy thing to do, young lady, and I'm very familiar with crap 'cos I'm a plumber," Stella said, nodding vigorously and leaning in towards the young woman.
"Look, Mister, I don't know what the-"
"Ah, don't give me that. Of course you do. Hell, you're not even wearing his engagement ring, and I know for a fact that it cost him nearly a week's pay."
"Get away from me, you psycho!" the young woman said and pushed herself free of the seemingly crazy plumber.
Stella didn't go after her but settled for following her with her eyes. She knew that if Regina had been able to find Mr. Gordon, they would soon be there.
Moments later, a huffing and puffing Perry Gordon came tearing around the corner, bumping into the stroller and almost knocking the woman over.
The impact made the blanket fly off, revealing several jars of Gold Crown Extra-Roasted instant coffee and a hairy chimpanzee in a colorful diaper.
Perry Gordon took an involuntary step back when he spotted the chimpanzee, but the ape had moved even faster and had grabbed hold of the man's polyester pant leg. "A chimp! A bloomin' chimpanzee!" he shouted, trying to pull his pant leg free of the ape's strong grip.
The young woman realized in a flash that the game was up, so she spun around and sprinted back up the aisle, leaving the stroller and the chimpanzee behind to fight for themselves.
"Stop her! Somebody stop her!" Perry Gordon shouted, pointing frantically at the fleeing shoplifter.
Stella put out her arms and moved left and right like a soccer keeper, but the young woman was more athletic than she appeared and ducked under Stella's arms without even breaking a sweat.
"Oh, crap-crap-crap? Reggie! Where are you?! I need your long legs!" Stella roared and followed the young woman down the aisle and around the corner.
When the young woman reached the exit, she discovered that it was blocked - the security guard had locked the sliding doors shut once he'd heard the commotion. Reacting quickly, the young woman changed direction and stormed up the second aisle.
"Reggie! Oh, where the hell are you!?" Stella shouted as she hurried around the corner and up the next aisle.
"Third aisle!" Regina's disembodied voice shouted.
"We're in the second, not the third aisle!"
"I'll be there!"
A split second later, Reggie came tearing around the corner right in front of the escaping woman - unfortunately, the former model hadn't counted on the floor being so smooth, so she skidded past the shoplifter and slammed head-on into a life-sized standee of the bikini-clad spokeswoman for Longbow beer.
The brutal impact surgically removed the standee's head, sending it flying through the air, over the top of the aisle and down among the cabbage on the other side where it scared an unfortunate customer half to death.
Flapping her arms furiously, Regina tried to stop herself from falling on top of a neatly arranged stack of Longbow Premium - it was touch and go for several seconds, but she finally managed to regain her balance. After breathing a heavy sigh of relief, she set off after Stella and the shoplifter.
Stella's heavy work boots hampered her severely, causing her to lose out to the nimble, agile young woman literally every step of the way. When the woman eluded her grasp for the third time in as many seconds, Stella groaned out her frustration and turned sharp left to try to gain the element of surprise by taking a shortcut.
Unfortunately, the aisle she had entered was a dead end, filled with squeaky toys, colorful leashes, bones to gnaw on and assorted other items for the household pet.
Cursing and swearing, Stella spun around like lightning to turn back to the aisle she had come from. Looking left and right, it didn't take her but one second to realize that the young woman she was chasing was long gone. With a frustrated groan, she resumed the fruitless pursuit, all the while hoping that Regina had had better luck.
Meanwhile, down at the other end of the store, Regina and the shoplifter were playing tag with each other, racing around one of the refrigerated counters. The two women eyed each other across the frozen pizzas, side-stepping first one way and then the other.
This went on for several seconds until the shoplifter made a run for it and took off up the fourth aisle.
"I got it, Reggie!" Stella shouted from somewhere behind the former model.
Showing surprising grace and agility, Stella jumped up and clambered over the slippery glass, thinking that the shortest route would be up and over the refrigerated counter.
Halfway across it, her right boot bumped into a tray loaded with miniature salamis and small jars of homemade garlic sauce, causing her to lose her balance and to take a spill down the other side of the counter - eventually, she fell head-first off the side with a resounding, squealing "YEOOOUCH!"
Moments later, Regina came to a sliding halt in front of the crashed Stella, but the blonde investigator just waved her hand dismissively. "I'm okay, go get her! Hurry!"
"I'm going, I'm going!"
Regina hustled through the aisle - or rather, tripped along in her heels and too-tight skirt. "Oh, damn? damn? damn? if I had? known that? we were? gonna have a? foot race? I wouldn't have? bothered with? this damned difficult? skirt!" she growled, huffing and puffing from having to move her legs as fast as the drumbeat in a heavy metal song. She tried to increase the pace to a frantic, staccato tapping, but it didn't help much - the shoplifter was still getting away from her.
All of a sudden, the fleeing woman came to a screeching halt at the shelves with the cereal boxes. While Regina was closing fast, the young woman seemed to ponder the best tactic.
Much to Regina's surprise, the woman picked up the large cereal boxes and threw them onto the floor and directly into Regina's path.
"Whut? Hey! HEY!" Regina howled as she dodged a pack of Cornflakes and two packs of Honey Nut Loops. She managed to grab the next three packs out of mid-air - a Rice Krispies and two Choco Flakes - and put them down on the floor, but the last one, Cap'n Crunch himself, hit her squarely on the chest. "If that leaves a bruise, I'm gonna barbecue yo' ass in molasses!" she howled, shaking her fist at the young woman.
"Aw, hell, I've had enough of this nonsense! It's time to use the secret weapon!" Regina continued, tearing her skirt off with a resounding RRRRRRRIP.
At that exact moment, the security guard came around the corner, drawn there by the hubbub and the weird sounds the chase had produced. After taking one look at Regina's endless, shapely legs, he fainted on the spot.
With a squeaking sound, Regina pulled her skin-colored bicycle shorts up as far as they would go - to prevent an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction - and took off after the shoplifter who had nearly reached the other end of the store.
"Hustle, Reggie, hustle!" Stella shouted, helping herself up from the floor where she had landed after falling off the refrigerated counter. Once she was erect, she patted all her limbs to see if anything was broken. Glad that nothing seemed amiss, she went over to check up on the fainted security guard.
"Hey, son, are you all right?" she asked, nudging the man with her boot.
"Uhhh? God? I'm all rig- AAAH!" the guard said, passing out on the spot a split second after looking at Stella's face.
"Hmmm," Stella said and touched her face, quickly establishing that her mustache had crept up her left nostril and that one of her sideburns had moved into her ear. "Damn? how the hell do guys manage these things. Shoot?"
After moving the hairpieces back into place, she chuckled and set off after Regina and the shoplifter.
Regina putting the long leg forward had done the trick - the shoplifter had been cornered at the magazine stands.
The young woman stared briefly at the weird sight of a librarian in tight bicycle shorts and a bun in her hair, but then she remembered that it was a very progressive neighborhood.
"Give it up, you can't get out of here," Regina drawled, pointing her index finger at the cornered woman.
Behind Regina, Stella turned up with Perry Gordon in tow. The polyester-clad manager was carrying the chimpanzee on his arm, but when the ape spotted its mistress, it began to shriek and wiggle around.
The young woman scrunched up her face like she was weighing her options. She soon came to the conclusion that the game was up. "All right. I surrender. May I have Mr. Bigglesworth back now, please?" she said, holding out her arms.
Perry Gordon shrugged and handed the unruly primate back to the young woman. At once, the chimpanzee settled down and cuddled up in the nook of her shoulder.
"And I'm gonna call the police," Stella said and pulled her cell phone out of her baggy cover-all.
"Tell me one thing, young lady? who the hell are you and why have you stolen half my store one piece at a time?" Perry Gordon said in a threatening voice.
"Strictly speaking, Mr. Gordon, that's two things, but never mind that now," Regina said, putting a calming hand on the store manager's arm.
"I'm Sela Kalman? and I guess I did it because I was bored," the young woman said.
"Well, whenever I'm bored, I just play with my Rubik's Cube, but to each their own," Stella said.
"A Rubik's? what?"
"A Rubik's Cu-? never mind. Sheesh, the kids these days. Anyway, Inspector Moynes said she'd be here shortly. Miss Kalman, what did you do with the items you've stolen? Give them to the poor?" Stella said and put the cell phone back in her pocket.
"Ohhhh, no, I guess I just put 'em in my fridge."
"Okay. Where did you steal the chimp?"
"Oh, Mr. Bigglesworth isn't stolen. My Daddy gave him to me for my eighteenth birthday."
"Your Daddy?? Kalman?? Wait a minute, your father is Roderick 'Roddy' Kalman, the track and field star?"
"No wonder you can run the way you can. Sheesh, girl, you're wasting your talents. Do you want to call home so your Daddy can come bail you out?"
Sela shrugged and shuffled back and forth on the spot, looking down at her shoes. "He isn't home. He's down in South America somewhere for the World Athletics Championships."
"An all too familiar tale," Regina said, nodding grimly. "Anyway? Mr. Gordon, was this dealt with in a satisfactory fashion?"
"Mmmm, not quite. If her Daddy really is Roddy Kalman, I can smell a profit? hell, I can smell a lawsuit for damages. Oh, yeah, a big one. No, a huge one. No, a gigantic one! Man, I'm gonna sue the shirt clean off his back! Yeah! I think I'll call the local TV-station an' ask 'em to send a news team," Perry Gordon said. As he spoke the never-ending sentence, his voice became more and more excited until it reached a level where Stella and Regina both rolled their eyes repeatedly.
"Oh, I better do that straight away before the schedule for the evening news is set. Miss Starr, Miss Harrison, once the police have been here, please come to my office for the check. Okay?"
"Sure, Mr. Gordon," Stella said, secretly hoping that the abrasive manager would hurry up and leave before her urge to clean his clock would grow too strong.
As Perry Gordon strode towards his office, Sela Kalman shrugged, causing Mr. Bigglesworth to shriek loudly. "It won't work. My Daddy and his sponsors have a whole team of lawyers working for them, and they eat people like that for breakfast."
"Well, at least they won't get too many hairs in their yogurt," Regina quipped, earning herself a groan from Stella.
From outside the store, the sounds of several sirens heralded Inspector Moynes' arrival, and it wasn't long before Stella and the others could hear car doors slamming.
Five seconds later, they heard another, very similar, thudding sound, followed by an impressive barrage of cusswords.
"What was that?" Regina said and peeked around the aisle. "Oh? the Inspector just flattened her nose against the sliding doors? it appears they've been locked."
"The security guard did it? Reggie, keep an eye on Miss Kalman while I coax the guard back to life," Stella said and turned around.
A few minutes later, Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes, impeccably dressed as always - save for the blood-stained handkerchief she held against her nose - ordered one of her uniformed officers to slap a pair of handcuffs on Sela Kalman.
"This is going on your permanent record, young lady," the Inspector said in an authoritative, if slightly muffled, voice.
"I know," Sela said solemnly.
"All right, take her away."
Just as Sela Kalman was led away by the uniformed officer, Regina offered her a nod and a faint smile. "Been there, done that, Stell. A Daddy who wasn't there and a Mommy who just didn't care."
"Rhymes with despair, too."
"Mmmm. But you didn't shoplift."
"No, but I easily could have," Regina said, adjusting her plain glass spectacles.
Inspector Moynes put away her handkerchief and dusted off her hands. After looking left and right to make sure that no one apart from Stella and Regina could hear her, she leaned in towards 'Carl' and whispered "Hey? Carl the Plumber?"
Stella grinned broadly and held out the baggy cover-all. "Yeah. It's a good disguise."
"I think you look kinda sexy," the Inspector whispered, adding a little wink.
"Ummm? thank you, Inspector," Stella said, scratching her neck.
"Oh, anytime. See you later, Miss Harrison. Carl," Mary-Jane Moynes said, tipping her non-existent cap to the librarian and the plumber.
Once the Inspector had left them, Regina moved in and bumped shoulders with the slightly embarrassed Stella. "Told ya so. You'd make a great guy."
"Uhhh, yeah. WHATever. Are we done here?"
"Let's get the check so we can go home. My mustache is itching. Oh, and don't forget your skirt? unless some souvenir hunter has pinched it already."
On their way back to the SLK, Stella showed Regina the check they had received from Perry Gordon. "Two thousand dollars. How about that?"
"Not too bad for a couple of hours' worth of work," Regina said, wrapping the torn skirt around her waist like a sarong.
"Nope. So? once you've changed, you're headed over to Steve Darrian to play doctor?"
"Oh, what a charming way to put it. Yeah, I think so."
"You're not jealous or anything, are you?" Regina said, grinning so broadly that Stella was worried the former model's perfect set of pearly whites would fall out.
"Ummm, no. I have very, very little use for a man, Reggie."
"No, I meant jealous of Steve? you know, 'cos he's with moi, a Goddess among women."
"I think I need to call your shrink and have him reduce your meds."
Regina laughed out loud and reached underneath her shirt to pull up a keychain with the keys for the car. After pressing the small button on the fob to open the doors, the two women sat down in the comfortable seats.
"Man, I forgot Billy's toolbox!" Stella said and slapped her forehead. Rolling her eyes, she clambered out of the low-slung sportscar, mindful of the puddles in the alley.
Regina opened her mouth to offer Stella a witty repartee, but before she had time to think of one, her cell phone rang.
"The Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, it's Regina Harrison."
'Hey, sexy, it's Steve.'
"Hey, baby," Regina purred and leaned back in the seat. "What's up? I hope something is? it won't be long before I'll be with you."
'Yeah, uh, listen? about the-'
Regina sat up straight and furrowed her brow at Steve's words. "You still want me to come over, right?"
'Oh, yeah, sure, sure? it's just that, well? I guess I wasn't? I guess I didn't tell you everything about the gig in Mexico City.'
'Uh, yeah. Well, you see-'
"Have you been BS'ing me, Steve?" Regina said, rubbing her eyes with her free hand.
'No, no, the gig is real, all right, but? well, I guess I didn't tell you everything.'
"You said that already. Get to the point."
At the same time, Stella, carrying Billy's ungainly toolbox, came around the corner and walked up to the SLK. She could see at once that Regina's mood had changed dramatically in the brief time she had been away, so she didn't even bother to ask the former model to pop the trunk - instead, she just opened the driver's side door and did it herself.
'Regina, you need to understand that after so much time away from the big events, you can't expect to come back in the first tier.'
"Oh, hell, of course not, Steve. Even though I still have every bit of what I had back then, I know better than that. I'd be perfectly satisfied with a second tier spot."
Stella got into the car and scrunched up her face, confused by the strange terminology. Regina noticed and gave Stella a nod and a little wave that symbolized that she'd explain in a minute.
'It's not second tier.'
Regina drew a long breath and let it out slowly. When she spoke, her voice had gained a steely undertone. "Tell me what's going on, Steve. I want it straight and I want it now."
'It's a cattle show, Regina.'
Steve's words made the corners of Regina's mouth twitch so much that Stella felt it necessary to reach over and put a calming hand on the former model's thigh.
"Cattle?" Regina growled. "Regina Harrison isn't cattle, Steve. Not then, not now, not ever."
'I'm sorry. It's the best we could do.'
"Look, I realize I'm too old to be first tier, but second tier is the absolute least I'll do? and that's final, Steve. Did you forget th-that? that I wore Jean-Pierre Chenard's platinum wedding dress at the world premiere at the Tokyo Starlite Show? That was *the* showstopper of the decade and it made the covers of all the international magazines! And you expect me to appear at a cattle show? Jesus!"
'I didn't forget, Regina, but that was nearly fifteen years ago. I'm sorry. It's cattle or nothing.'
"Well, I? no. No, sorry, Steve. Forget all about it. I don't want to talk to you right now. Goodbye."
'Aw, hell, Regi-' Steve started to say, but Regina effectively cut him off by terminating the connection. Sighing, she closed her eyes and leaned back in the seat.
"I'm guessing that wasn't good news??" Stella said, patting Regina's thigh.
"That's not a bad guess."
"Do you want me to drive?"
"Okay. Let's swap," Stella said and opened her door.
Once they had swapped places, Stella turned the ignition key and marveled at the sound of the SLK's V6 engine. Blipping the throttle a couple of times, she flipped her flat cap around and let her arm dangle down the side of the door. "Hey, how's this for a future disguise?? Don't I look like a rock'n' roller??"
"It's been done, Stell."
"Mmmmm-yeah, I guess it has. I'll store it in my little black book of disguises, though. Could come in handy one day."
After blipping the throttle one last time, Stella turned to look at Regina's despondent face. "What actually happened there, Reggie?"
"There are three constants in life? death, taxes and Steve Darrian screwing me over," Regina said, toying with her long digits.
"Okay? charming. I need you to explain those weird words to me. What do 'tier' and 'cattle' mean in this context?"
"I'll do it in a moment. Let's go home. I need a stiff one."
"Drink, Stell? drink!"
"Thank Gawd!" Stella said and selected Drive. "Hey, how about going over to Rockin' Ruby's after we've changed? I know it's early but it'll be less crowded. You can tell me all about your misadventures??"
"Okay. Sounds like a plan. By the way, be careful when you hit the gas. This thing has a lot more oomph than your old rust-bucket."
"Don't worry. I know exactly what I'm doing," Stella said and stepped hard on the gas pedal, making the powerful sportscar lurch forward and nearly scrape against the wall of the building they were parked next to.
"Hot-DAMN, this thing's got a lotta getup-and-go!" Stella howled as she tried to stop the rear-wheel drive car from fishtailing all the way up the alley.
Once again wearing their regular clothes - Stella was wearing blue jeans, a purple sweat shirt with the sleeves cut off and her favorite poncho, and Regina was wearing royal blue slacks, a cream tunic and a frown brought on by the huge sunflowers on Stella's poncho - the two women cruised slowly through the late afternoon rush hour to get to Rockin' Ruby's.
As always, the radio was on and Stella and Regina were singing along to the latest hits and the golden oldies. Every once in a while, Regina zipped out of the lane they were in to get past dog slow business men driving family sedans.
When the radio station broke off to go to a commercial block, Stella reached over and poked Regina's shoulder. "Hey, you promised me to explain those weird terms you used."
"First and second tier an' all that?"
"It's fairly simple once you know them. First tier is the headliner, the supermodel if you will? the one who gets to walk down the catwalk on her own. She's the one who gets all the attention, all the cover shots and all the major assignments," Regina said with her arm resting on the gear lever.
"Okay. That's easy enough. You used to be that, right?"
"Yeah. I was first tier for? wow, nearly seven years. I headlined so many shows I can't even remember them all now. All the major shows in all the major places. Sometimes, Steve was there as well, sometimes he wasn't."
"What's second tier, then?"
"The models who come out onto the catwalk in pairs or threes. They're not on the supermodel's level yet, but they're doing their job well. People pay less attention to them and more on the clothes they wear."
Regina slowed to a halt as the traffic lights turned red. A businessman in a blue sedan drove up next to them, and moments later, a loud wolf call could be heard. Regina grinned broadly, basking in the unexpected appreciation. Stella settled for chuckling.
Once the traffic lights turned green, Regina continued on, driving slowly behind a delivery truck.
"I can guess what the third tier is. That's the models at the bottom end of the food chain, right?" Stella said, turning around in her seat so she could look at Regina.
"Pretty close. The third tier consists of the models who are on the catwalk while something else is going on as well, typically a first tier model wearing something spectacular. Hardly anybody is watching them and it's a good place for beginners. Less pressure. All they have to do is to go in, spin around and head back out."
"Did you start as a third tier model?"
"Oh, yes, nearly everyone does. I was in my late teens. After about twenty-five local shows, I got spotted by a scout and was given a chance to move up the categories."
"Reggie, if you don't want to talk about it, just tell me to shut up? what does cattle mean?"
"Well? cattle is? hang on," Regina said and stepped hard on the gas to go past the slow delivery truck. Once they were past it, she zipped back into the inner lane.
"Cattle is the designation used for? well, for has-beens, frankly. And people who never were. The older models who can only find work at third-fourth-fifth rate shows with horrible production values and with clothes designed by poor designers. Nobody watches, nobody cares? and I'm telling you loud and clear, Stell, I'm not ready to be thrown on the scrapheap."
"I understand, Reggie. Isn't there something you can do to make people aware that? you know, that you still got it?"
When Stella didn't get an answer, she turned to look at her friend and was quite surprised to see a tear forming in the corner of Regina's eye. Without hesitation, Stella reached up and wiped it away.
"Thanks, Stell. I knew you'd be a rock-solid support I could lean on in my darkest hour."
"You're welcome, Reggie baby. Uh, there's one more thing. What was that about Steve screwing you over?"
"Oh, that's? well, that was nothing really. Back when we were both a hot commodity, he came to me with an investment scheme that was supposed to make us both stinking rich."
"Instead of just being filthy rich?"
"Oh, ha ha. I guess. It looked okay and I nearly put my name on the dotted line? the only reason why I didn't sign was that I was called out on a last-minute job in Vancouver. When I got back, a newspaper had revealed that the deal was phony. It cost Steve a cool six hundred thousand dollars and it would have cost me four hundred grand," Regina said and ran her fingers along the rim of the steering wheel.
"Oh my flippin' God, you had that kind of money?"
"Back then? yeah."
"You don't have it now. What did you spend it on?"
"This and that. Lawyers and shit. Some of it is invested in our company."
"Hmmm! Anyway, judging by Steve's limo, he's recovered nicely," Stella said, toying with a loose thread on her jeans.
"I guess he has. But he was nearly down and out then."
A few minutes went by in silence, but then Stella scrunched up her face and began to smack her lips, appearing to be deep in thought. "Hey, Reggie, how about making a calendar? The photo session back in the office was kinda fun. I'm sure that we could whip something up. All we'll need is a professional looking backdrop of some kind and access to a printing service. I mean, the camera is already top notch, as is the camera operator?"
Chuckling, Regina reached over to pat Stella's knee. "The camera operator is definitely top notch, Stell."
"Yeah? Ohhh?! I got it! Yeah, baby? that way, we could kill two birds with one stone. Billy's garage!"
"Yeah!" Stella said and sat up straight in the seat. "Billy's garage would be perfect. I mean, you wearing a tank top or a sleeveless T and perhaps tight jeans, or, uh, a pair of, uh, shorts and? oh, maybe an oil smear here or there? or we could have you wear an open shirt with some kind of lacy bra underneath, and? ooooh!"
As Stella went on and on, Regina's eyebrows slowly crept up her forehead. "I'd say you have this whole thing planned out, haven't you?"
"I do, yeah. Take my word for it, Reggie? it's gonna work. It's gonna work!" Stella said and reached over to honk the horn twice.
Fifteen minutes later, Regina drove into Rockin' Ruby's parking lot and found a spot near the entrance.
"Looks like we'll have the place mostly for ourselves today, huh?" Stella said as she counted the other vehicles there - it was easily done since only six were present, including Ruby's own truck and two vans from a local electrician.
"For now, anyway. First round is on me," Regina said, closing the SLK's top by clicking a button on the remote.
"You got it. I'll run ahead, I need to borrow the little girls' room," Stella said, crossing her legs and her eyes to illustrate that the tide was high.
While Stella went across the parking lot with a hop, a skip and a jump, Regina kept standing by the silver metallic sportscar. Drawing a deep breath, she made a pledge to herself that she wouldn't just roll over and die - that even though the deal with Steve had fallen through, the world hadn't seen the last of Regina Harrison? so help her God, Stella Starr and Canon.
"Hey, Reggie," Ruby Albrecht said, sitting at her customary spot at the end of the long, shiny counter. "Stella is still powdering her nose."
"Whoa? she really did have to go," Regina said and closed the door behind her.
"Yup. What can I get ya?"
"Uh? a driver's rum-and-Coke for me and something fizzy for Stella." After walking along the high-gloss counter, Regina sat down on one of the bar stools and made herself comfortable.
"Okie-dokie. That'll be a Just Peachy," Ruby said and walked around the counter.
Sounds of people working on something drifted in from the dance floor located in the adjacent room; a steady hammering, regularly interrupted by choice cusswords.
"What's that all about, Ruby?"
"Oh, just a bunch of electricians fixing the wiring. Last night, one of the halogen bulbs exploded, scaring the living shit out of a couple of the dancers."
"Ouch. That could be a fire hazard. Can't have that."
"Nope," Ruby said and put two napkins, a rum-and-Coke and a Just Peachy on the counter.
"Hey, hey, hey! I just got an even better idea! Like the old song, Calendar Girl!" Stella suddenly said, bouncing in from the restrooms.
Unfortunately, in her haste to leave the little girls' room to tell Regina about her idea, she had forgotten to zip her fly. That fact had proven irresistible to a snippet of her poncho which had crept the wrong way around the button of her jeans and was presently drooping out of the open fly.
"Hmmm, now there's something you don't see every day around here?" Ruby said, trying hard to suppress a belly laugh.
"Whut? Oh?" Stella said once she realized that she had left something hanging. After quickly pulling the errant snip of poncho out of the fly, she pulled the zipper up as far as it would go. "Uh, what was I saying??"
"Calendar girl?" Regina said and took the napkins and the drinks. "Which booth?"
"This one," Stella said and pointed at the nearest of the eight booths. "Oh, yeah, calendar girl. Here's my plan: For January, we could create a snowy background on the computer and then have a shot of you in a white parka? you know, to make your baby blues stand out," she continued, sliding into the comfortable bench.
"Yeah, and for February, well, that's Valentine's Day, obviously? pink. Pink and white all the way. I'm thinking a 1950s diner, a jukebox, you in bobby socks and a crinoline skirt and?"
While Stella was speaking in a voice that was borderline giddy, Regina couldn't help but observe her closely. In her excitement, Stella's wild, unruly hair was bopping up and down, her glasses were close to steaming up, her eyes were sparkling and her cheeks were flushed - and all in all, despite their many differences, Regina knew that the short, blonde investigator was the best friend she could ever hope to have.
"What do you think about that?" Stella said and took a long swig from her Just Peachy.
"Uhhh? yeah. That's a good idea, Stell. Not sure about the crinoline skirt, though."
"Ah, there's plenty of time to fix details like that. We're gonna sell it on the 'net. It's gonna go like hotcakes! This calendar will put you back in the spotlight, I'm sure of it," Stella said and gave Regina's hand a little squeeze.
"Well, if it does, I'll buy you a new car."
"? But I don't want a new car, Reggie?"
"You can't be serious, the Pacer is a piece of junk!"
"It's a piece of genuine Americana is what it is! I just need to get the leak in the oil sump fixed, and it'll shine like a diamond! So there!"
Regina leaned back in the seat with a smirk on her face. "Well, if you say so."
Shaking her head, Stella reached over to thump Regina's shoulder in a friendly fashion. After another swig of the Just Peachy, she shot the former model a crooked, little grin that soon turned into a toothy smile. "Anyway, for August, we should definitely have a hayloft, cut-off jeans and a flannel shirt?"
IV - MEATY MAMA
Written by Norsebard
Three days later.
Feeling completely stuffed, Stella Starr put the half-eaten slice of her Meaty Mama pizza - pepperonis, black olives, mushrooms, salty bacon, kebab, chicken, fried sausages and extra cheese - back in the box and leaned back in the Mercedes SLK's bucket seat. "Billy better hurry up and get my Pacer fixed. I want my old girl back, dammit? all this flashiness is killing me. I daren't even fart," she mumbled as she licked the excess grease off her fingers.
A yawn suddenly cracked her face wide open and she had trouble putting the can of her favorite soda pop, Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz, into the cupholder without spilling everything on the flashy upholstery.
Turning the rear view mirror down, she stretched up in the seat to see if she looked as bleary-eyed as she felt. "Yep," she said out loud, noting that her eyes were more red than green, that her cheeks sported several little, red blotches and that her always unruly mop of dirty-blonde hair was even more rebellious than usual.
Sighing, Stella pushed her glasses up her forehead, took a pair of binoculars and gave the quiet street she had parked on a thorough sweep from left to right. After putting down the binoculars, she moved her glasses back down, picked up a notepad and made an entry. "Quarter to midnight. No change since last entry. Subject A still at his lover's pad. Has been in there since ten o'clock. Lucky bastard," she mumbled as she wrote the words.
'I wonder what Reggie is doing tonight?? So typical that she had to visit an aunt? I think I'll text her? damn? where's my phone??' she thought, looking high and low for her cell, eventually finding it in the footwell where it had become lodged underneath the brake pedal.
'Damn these long nights? I need some shuteye. No, can't think of sleeping. Can't think of sleeping? I'm awake and alert. I'm awake and?' - ZZZZzzzzzzzz?
As Stella fell asleep, the Meaty Mama and the Raspberry Fizz began to coagulate in her stomach, creating wild, colorful and downright bizarre dreams. It wasn't long before she found herself standing on a pink-and-white checkered chessboard which seemed to be floating freely in an endless, black void.
All around her, familiar faces from her past and present were playing some kind of game that she couldn't understand, but they were jumping back and forth between the squares and occasionally kicking an opponent off the chessboard. Suddenly, a six-foot purple bunny hopped across the board and began to speak to her.
'Stella?? Stella?? Stella Starr?! You want to do *what*? Have you gone mad? I have your?'
The purple bunny suddenly morphed into having her father's face, and she realized it was from when he had warned her of even thinking about starting a detective agency.
Soon, she felt herself unable to move, staring across a polished desk at the man who had been her father since she was twelve years old - her biological Dad had run off with a new woman.
"? resignation in my hand, but I will not accept it, Stella. I didn't give you a good job here at Starr IT Solutions just so you could leave a year later to do something as inane and immature as this," the purple bunny said, still wearing her father's face.
"But, Dad?" Stella heard herself say, looking at the bunny behind the desk and wondering if they had ever really been close. Charles Matthew Starr was sixty-two years old and the prototype of a person working in senior management; always wearing a gray business suit and a vest over a white shirt and a black tie - when he wasn't being a purple bunny, that is - and with a neatly groomed, heavily gelled salt-and-pepper hairdo. He had a hard, angular face and rarely smiled? at least, Stella couldn't remember the last time she had seen him do so.
"I won't hear it, Stella. You're thirty-five years old, but you dress like? like? a teenager. Or some kind of clown. It's high time you looked your age. From now on, I want to see you in a dress or a pantsuit, not these? these? rags you're wearing now," the bunny said, making a condescending gesture with its hand at Stella's jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt.
Stella tried to get up and move away, but found that no matter how hard she struggled or how far she went across the chessboard and the purple bunny, it was always right behind her.
She gave up the struggle and looked down at herself: true, she wasn't dressed like the women in the fashion magazines or even the other secretaries, but that was because she wasn't like them. She had discovered when she was in her late teens that she had absolutely zero interest in boys; discovered that the person who took her breath away and made her heart go pitter-patter was a girl, a brown-eyed, ash-blonde beauty from school with whom she knew she'd never have a chance unless she invented a magic wand.
"Dad, I am who I am. You can't change that. I *won't* change that," she heard herself say.
"I beg your pardon? Dammit, Stella, you've done a lot of crazy things over the last few years, but this one takes the cake! I've tolerated your alternative lifestyle? I've accepted, grudgingly, that you've brought your girlfriends over to visit your mother, but I cannot and will not tolerate or accept that you throw your life away on some half-baked notion-"
Stella felt her chin begin to quiver, but she clenched her jaw to stop the tears from coming. Whatever else happened, she knew that this meeting had been the final straw - their relationship would never get back on track after the things that had been said.
"Well, Dad?" she said, pausing to take a deep breath to control her voice. "The resignation is final. I've already made other plans. Toss it, tear it up, do what you will. This is my last day here. So there!"
"I don't think you have the skills to start and run a detective agency. I don't think you realize the kind of work it includes. It's dirty work? very dirty work. I know, because we've used private investigators many times to expose people who we believed were fraudulent," the purple bunny hissed at her, slowly morphing into something even more sinister.
Stella finally managed to break free of the imaginary restraints and moved over to a door that had magically appeared on the chessboard. As she stood in the doorway, she expected - hoped - that the bunny with her father's face would say something that could make her reconsider, but it never did. "I'm leaving," she said and closed the door behind her.
The nightmare ended abruptly as a car driving past the SLK backfired several times, resulting in Stella jerking forward in the seat and knocking her glasses off with her arm.
On its way back down, her arm struck the activator for the windscreen wipers, and the two metal arms squeaked and creaked across the glass several times before she had regained enough wits to shut them off.
"Damn," she whispered, rubbing her face. "Why do I always have that wretched dream when I eat a Meaty Mama??"
Suddenly noticing that her spectacles were gone, Stella mumbled a few colorful curses while she patted down both seats, the center console and the footwell on the driver's side. When she finally found her glasses - next to her cell phone under the brake pedal - she picked up both items and put them into a small tray below the dashboard.
Sighing, she checked her wristwatch and found that the nightmare had eaten up nearly twenty minutes of the stakeout.
After checking that Subject A was still at his lover's pad, and subsequently making another entry on her timesheet, she yawned widely again, wishing she had brought a few of her favorite CDs with her so she'd have something to do.
Remembering that she wanted to text Regina, she put on her glasses, turned on her cell and composed a short message. Once she had sent it, she put the cell back on the passenger seat and snuggled down in her warm jacket.
It didn't take her but two minutes to fall asleep again.
This time, she found herself sitting at her own desk in her own office. From looking at various items on the desk, she could see that it was around the time where she had taken her first faltering baby steps into the dark, mysterious, double-crossing world of detectives, disguises and midnight stakeouts.
In front of her on the desk, a five-inch high stack of papers awaited her, containing CVs and portfolios sent to her by the people applying for the secretary slash business associate job she had put on the Internet.
The outer edges of the office were lost in a dark, swirling mist, but the chair in front of her desk seemed to be placed directly under an intense spotlight.
As the dream continued, one woman after the other came into the office, spoke and left again; eventually blending into each other like a hazy blur - for some reason, they all spoke languages Stella couldn't understand. Even more bizarrely, they all seemed to be talking sausages with human faces.
Then *she* walked in - Regina Harrison. Six foot one and curvaceous like a Greek Goddess, the dark-haired woman had a human body and a human face, but it was hidden behind a mask of something resembling ice. Or a white plastic carrier bag.
In Stella's dream, Regina was dressed in a long, white tunic and her long, black hair was flowing freely even though all the windows were closed.
When Regina opened her mouth to speak, the plastic carrier bag on her face vanished along with the office. Instead of being inside, they were suddenly outside, on a small, grassy knoll with a single beech tree. Stella was still sitting on her swivel chair, but Regina was standing with bare feet on top of a boulder that was deeply embedded in the grass.
Beyond the edges of the grassy field, a vast ocean consisting of purple Raspberry Fizz stretched out to the horizon. All around them, waves were gently rolling back and forth, creating pink bubbles instead of white foam when they occasionally broke.
'Good afternoon, Miss Starr, my name is Regina Harrison. I believe I'm qualified to take the position you have offered,' the gorgeous woman said in a slightly cool, slightly detached voice.
"Mmmm. What makes you so sure? I've seen fifteen women today and they were all as attractive as you," Stella heard herself say.
"Perhaps, but did they have 'it'? I have 'it' in spades, Miss Starr. I believe that's fairly obvious," Regina said, moving her hands up to flick her hair back, knowing that it would fall just right.
"Miss Harrison, to tell you the truth, I'm not sure we could work together."
"Well, for starters, we're just too different. And there's no spark, no zip, no oomph between us," Stella said and snapped her fingers to prove her point.
"Ah? well. All right."
Now the scenery changed again and they were suddenly moved back to the office. The spotlight above the chair had vanished, and the light levels in the rest of the office had adjusted accordingly. Outside, it appeared to be late evening. The dress Regina was wearing had changed from a white tunic to a coarse, black gown, resembling a dress used for mourning.
"Your portfolio is certainly impressive, but?" Stella said and got up from her chair.
"I understand," Regina said and put her hands on the armrest to push herself upright.
Then it happened - the thing that had convinced Stella that Regina was the secretary slash business associate she had been looking for.
The wail of an emergency vehicle made Stella snap out of her dream and she looked around in a daze, hoping that it wasn't there to pick up Subject A.
When an ambulance drove past her without stopping, she took her binoculars and made a quick sweep of the street. With nothing to report, she put the expensive equipment back down and took her cell phone instead - Regina hadn't answered yet.
"Reggie's probably gone to bed-" - ZZZZZZzzzzz? Stella mumbled, once again falling asleep within a matter of seconds.
More or less returning to the dream she had been yanked out of, she watched herself walk around her desk - the only difference was that they weren't in her office anymore. They hadn't returned to the grassy knoll, either, but were sitting inside a huge Rubik's Cube, looking out at the numerous colored squares.
On her way over to say goodbye to the gorgeous former model, Stella's foot snagged on a bump in between two squares, and she fell forward, losing her glasses in the process.
Not sure whether or not she was still dreaming, Stella heard herself chuckle in her sleep when she saw Regina practically jump out of the chair and rush to her side to help her up. The tall woman's touch was warm, kind and pleasant, belying her 'too cool for words'-act and snooty attitude. She even leaned down and found Stella's glasses.
Once Stella pushed the glasses back up the bridge of her nose, she glanced up at Regina who had a look of genuine concern on her face. The former model was still touching her, holding onto her elbows almost like she was afraid that she would fall down again if she didn't.
"Ups-a-daisy, Miss Starr."
"Thank you, Miss Harrison. I'm so clumsy sometimes."
As Stella was looking, Regina's clothes changed again, from the black mourning dress to the clothes she had actually been wearing on the day - slacks and a pale blue denim shirt over a dark T-shirt.
"Miss Starr, can't we work out a deal? I? I really need a job. This job," Regina said. As she spoke, the last remnants of her icy facade vanished and was replaced by a deep orange glow that framed her entire body. "I have some money? I could buy into your company. I could be very helpful to you, I know I could. Please, Miss Starr, give me a chance."
"Well, I? Hmmm. Miss Harrison, excuse me for being so blunt? but how can it be that a woman of your looks isn't still out there, applying your trade on the catwalks of the world?"
"Oh, that's simple to explain. I'm over forty."
"How rude! You still got it!"
"Oh, I know, thanks," Regina said, cocking her hips. "Uhhh? I mean, thank you very much, Miss Starr."
"Well. I suppose we could work out some kind of deal?? You'll need a temporary P.I. license, but we can fix that once we get to it. All right, let's try working together for a two-week period. After that, we'll see what happens."
"Oh, thank you, Miss Starr! I won't let you down, and I won't make you regret it," Regina said and began pumping Stella's hand up and down like it was an arm on an old-fashioned well while flashing her a relieved two-hundred watt smile. All around them, the Rubik's Cube faded away, soon replaced by the grassy knoll stuck in the middle of a vast ocean of Raspberry Fizz.
For some reason, one of Joan of Rock's old songs started playing out of nowhere, and Stella soon began to sing along to it - loudly and slightly out of key.
Feeling wonderfully rested, Stella awoke from her mixed bag of dreams. A broad smile spread out on her face, but it was soon replaced by a wide yawn. Stretching her stiff back, she smacked her lips and cracked open an eyelid.
It was broad daylight outside.
Stella's eyes popped wide open and she scrambled to look at her wristwatch - a quarter to six in the morning.
"Oh, shoot?" she croaked, lifting her glasses and rubbing her face.
A quick look across the street told her that Subject A had long since left his lover's pad. "Oh, swell. Just beautiful. Just perfect. Just? crap."
Sighing, she started the SLK and began to drive up the street, her job there blown to smithereens. She only made it as far as the next corner before she noticed a parking ticket flapping in the breeze underneath the left wiper.
Pulling over, she quickly retrieved the ticket and stuffed it into the glove box. "Oh, this is gonna be such a fun day," she grumbled as she looked over her shoulder to see if the lane was clear.
V - MILK RUN
Written by Norsebard
A week later.
Sighing, Stella Starr locked the door to her apartment and walked with heavy steps towards the staircase.
Once she stood on the parking lot in front of her apartment building, shielding her eyes against the bright morning sun, she glanced longingly at the empty space where her beloved AMC Pacer had been parked for more than a decade - save for the last ten days where it had been at Billy the Mechanic's garage.
'Tear in the oil sump? darn. I hope Billy can fix it,' she thought, sighing again.
Turning around, she shuffled off to catch the bus that would take her to the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency.
A few minutes later, she walked out onto the Boulevard and began to scout ahead, trying to judge how fast she should walk so she wouldn't be left behind for the fifth day in a row.
Soon spotting the bus in the distance, Stella picked up the pace until she was almost jogging - unfortunately, Mr. Mandelbrot, the local greengrocer, quite literally made a mess of her plans.
The elderly man came out of his shop - carrying a wooden box of cantaloupes - and walked straight into Stella's path. In theory, the sidewalk was wide enough for two people to pass each other safely, but in reality, a collision was inevitable.
"Oooooh!" Stella squealed loudly when she realized what was about to happen. She tried to slow down or to change course, but ran out of time to do either. With a loud 'oof!', she slammed into the greengrocer at high speed, banging her chest against the side of the box.
The next thing she knew was that the world started to tilt - her legs had been entangled in the elderly man's. Squealing again, she quickly grabbed hold of Mr. Mandelbrot's apron to stop herself from getting intimately acquainted with the uncomfortable-looking sidewalk.
The man howled in surprise as the short, dirty-blonde woman grabbed him, and his arms jerked so hard that several cantaloupes flew over the edge of the box and onto the sidewalk.
Finally stable on her feet, Stella let go of the man's apron and smoothed down her floral poncho. "Watch where you're going!" she growled, already feeling a bruise develop on her left breast.
"Watch where I'm going? How about you watch where you're going, young lady!" Mr. Mandelbrot said, pulling his apron straight.
"I ain't got time for this, I got a bus to catch," Stella hissed, looking further up the Boulevard. Less than one hundred yards ahead of her, her bus was already pulling into the stop and she knew she had to hustle to make it there in time. "And if I don't skedaddle now, I won't catch it," she continued and set off in a sprint up the sidewalk.
Behind her, the greengrocer cursed her in very colorful Yiddish, but she didn't have time to stop and take notes.
Huffing and puffing, Stella arrived at the bus stop just in time - just in time to see the bus close its doors and drive away, that is. Staring wide-eyed at the bus leaving her behind for the fifth day in a row, her upper lip began to tremble, and before long, she clenched her fists and let out an impressive tirade that would've made even a sailor blush.
Thirteen minutes later, the next bus finally arrived - three minutes late - and Stella shuffled up into it with the other people who had been waiting at her stop. After paying the driver, she followed the stream down towards the rear of the bus, moving down the jam-packed aisle inch by frustrating inch.
Because it was Friday, the crowd was even worse than the other days she had been forced to take the bus. As she looked around, Stella noted to her great dismay that there wasn't a vacant seat in the entire bus and that both platforms were already packed with people.
Sighing, Stella shuffled into the center platform, resigned to her fate. One second later, an obese man in a brown polyester suit squeezed in next to her, squishing her up against a Plexiglas window.
Wishing she was somewhere - anywhere - else, Stella tried to remove her nose and cheek from the glass, but found that she was pinned down by the man's bulk. No matter how hard she tried to push back, she wasn't able to get away from the window. After the fifth attempt, she was getting just the tiniest bit flustered, but she was saved by the fact that the obese man got off at the very next stop.
'Shoot, even you coulda walked that distance, King Kong?!' she thought, rubbing the cheek that had been pressed against the Plexiglas window. When her fingers found a sticky substance on her cheek, she let out a grossed-out moan, but quickly discovered that it was part of a 1-800 sticker that had worked itself loose.
The next passenger slid up next to her: a young man with octagonal, blue-tinted spectacles, an unkempt, long beard and long hair that was parted in the middle. He was wearing a Native American poncho not unlike the one Stella wore, and as he spotted the similarities, he turned around and held up his hand, flashing Stella a V-symbol. "Make love not war, Sister," he said, nodding.
"Uh, right," Stella replied politely, wanting most of all to pinch her nostrils - not only did the young man smell rather strongly of BO, a haze of cannabis-fumes emanated from his hair and his clothes.
Smiling *very* politely at the young man, Stella turned around to look out of the window and to take a deep breath without the risk of getting stoned. Breathing deeply, she nearly fogged up the Plexiglas window when she realized that a woman in a tight business suit had walked up to stand next to her.
When the bus driver slammed on the brakes to stop at a red light, the passengers all moved as one, leaning forward like a field of cornflowers caught in a breeze. Moments later, the driver mashed the gas, making the bus lurch forward - and all the passengers lean backwards.
As the bus took off, the woman in the business suit leaned hard against Stella, prompting the blonde investigator to break out into a sly little grin. When the unexpected contact made her think about her absent love life, the smile soon faded from her lips. 'Ye Gads, that was the first time since forever I've actually been touched by another human being of the female kind? How pathetic! Stella Starr, you're a los-'
A sudden, sharp pain radiating up from her foot caused her to look down at her sneaker. Noting with a rising degree of horror that the woman in the business suit had planted the square heel of her ankle boot right on top of the sneaker, Stella let out a "YEOOOOOOUCH!" that gradually climbed in pitch along the way.
"Oh, beg' pardon," the other woman said just before she stepped out of the bus.
"Think nothin' of it, lady, I always wanted a square hole in my damn foot!" Stella said angrily, but the woman was already out of earshot.
She tried to reach down to rub her foot, but before she had time to do so, the bus was invaded by a group of young Cub Scouts carrying large, military-spec backpacks. The first backpack slammed into Stella's gut; the second into her already sore chest, causing her to yelp and grab her left breast through her poncho to feel if it was still attached.
Once again, she found herself pinned up against the Plexiglas window, but unlike the last time, the bus was coming up fast to where she needed to get off, so she couldn't afford to get bogged down.
Moments later, the bus drove into the stop and Stella began to wiggle her way through the massed ranks of Cub Scouts. " 'Scuse me? oops? sorry? pardon? 'scuse me? desperate woman coming through?" she said, trying to barge between the huge backpacks.
The split second she reached the doors, the driver closed them and drove away from the stop.
Staring in wide-eyed disbelief at the closed doors, Stella clenched her fists and tried to control her temper. When she got another knock by one of the backpacks, she lost the uneven struggle and went into a hopping, screaming, spit-flying hissy fit laced with so many words that rhymed with '?ucker' that the driver eventually stopped in the middle of the street and kicked her off his bus.
Meanwhile, inside the low office building that housed the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, Regina Harrison looked at her watch and made a rough estimation as to when Stella would show up.
Thinking that the time was about right, she turned on the coffee maker, went out into the center of the office and put an exercise mat down on the gray carpet.
After quickly whipping off her loose shirt, revealing that she was wearing a black sports bra and a pair of tight, black Lycra biker shorts, Regina put a CD in the boombox and began to go through a few warm-up routines.
After a brief intro, bouncy electronic pop music started playing from the stereo, and Regina got down to business by squatting, pushing up, bending, twisting, pushing up again, stretching, spinning, jogging and finally pushing up one last time.
After wiping a few beads of sweat off her brow with a towel, she rolled a full-size mirror into the office and began to admire herself in it.
"Mmmm? yeah. Mmmm? ooh. Mmmm? yeah!" she said, doing what came natural to her - posing, pretending that she was back in her glory days on the catwalks of the world.
When the next song started playing, she soon began to sing along to it and to go through all her trademark poses in front of the mirror. "She worked in Rio, oh, she worked in Tokyo, an' every time she worked oh her success would grow? she worked in New York, Berlin, Paris all the time?"
Once the song was over, she fluffed her hair, cocked her hips and pointed at herself. "I still got it," she husked, adding a little wink, a brief yip and a two-hundred watt smile.
While Regina was rolling up the exercise mat, the phone rang, and she took the opportunity to waltz over there in her patented model-walk, slamming her hips left and right, just to see if she still could.
"The Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we-"
"No, Sir, we aren't interested in a complete Plastic Fantastic Dinnerware set."
"No, we're not interested in a Plastic Fantastic Dinnerware party, either."
Mumble, mumb- Slam!
"Phone spam? sheesh, what's next?" Regina said, rolling her eyes.
After putting the mirror back into the small conference room, she checked the clock on the wall, wondering what on earth was keeping Stella. Shrugging, she went into the bathroom to grab a quick shower.
As she was drying herself, she checked all the vital spots using her a-b-c chant: 'A' for traces of cellulite on her arms and thighs; 'B' for the relentless pull of gravity on her bosom, and 'C' for the crow's feet around her eyes.
Satisfied that she was still in the clear - save for a new wrinkle on the outside of her left eye - she opened up a cabinet and took a step back to decide which of the thirty-two different jars of skin creams she should use.
After much hemming and hawing - and emptying half a can of deodorant while she made up her mind - she smeared a large blob of rejuvenating cream on her face, throat, chest and upper arms.
Giving herself a thumbs-up in the little mirror inside the cabinet door, she put on her underwear, her favorite pair of blue jeans, an off-white tunic with a woven tribal pattern around the V-neck, and finally a narrow silver necklace that stood out perfectly against her tanned skin.
Fluffing her long, black hair out of the collar, she closed the cabinet door and moved to walk out of the bathroom. Rethinking almost at once, she opened the cabinet door again and checked herself out. "Who is that doll? Oh, my!" she said with a grin.
As she came out of the bathroom, she furrowed her brow when she realized that Stella hadn't shown up yet. She glanced at both her wristwatch and the large clock on the wall to see if they were off, but they were both displaying the same time.
"Hmmm. Weird. I hope the little darling is all right," Regina said quietly to herself as she crossed the floor on bare feet to look out onto the parking lot. After establishing that her own silver metallic Mercedes SLK was the only sign of life in the vast ocean of gray asphalt, she shrugged and went over to the coffee maker to pour herself a cup.
Before Regina had time to sit down, someone knocked on the door, and she hurried over to it, worried that it might be bad news. Pulling the door open with a breezy swoosh, she created such a backdraft that she blew the cap clean off the mailman standing outside.
"D'oh!" he said, patting his balding head where the cap - and his toupee - had rested only seconds before.
"Oops? sorry," Regina said, crouching down to pick up the cap and the rug of hair. Wearing a sheepish smile, she dusted off the two items and handed them to the mailman who put them on with a harrumph.
"Here's your mail," the mailman said and thrust a stack of letters into Regina's hand. He went on to mumble something under his breath that Regina wasn't able to pick up, but she resisted the urge to ask him what he had said.
"Gee, thanks. Can I offer you anyth-" - the mailman spun around on his heel and stomped away - "I guess not," Regina continued, closing the door.
"Bill, bill, junk, junk, bill, bill, newsletter? hmmm."
She quickly threw the junk mail into the trash can and deposited the bills on Stella's desk before sitting down on the couch to read the latest issue of the Looking Glass, the newsletter from the private investigator's association.
Fifteen minutes later, the door to the office creaked open and a squashed Stella shuffled inside.
"Oh, hon, what's happened to you? You look like someone stir fried your pet hamster," Regina said and flew up from the couch. "Did you miss the bus again?"
"Yeah? And then I missed the right stop gettin' off. And then the som'bitch driver kicked me out of the bus. And then I had to walk two blocks back to get to the other bus. And then that was late, too?" Stella said in a monotone. Taking off her poncho, she let it fall limply onto the floor. Then she nudged off her sneakers and padded on socked feet - wearing a slightly worn pair of Pippi Longstocking-merchandise socks - over to her swivel chair where she sat down with a bump.
"Oh," Regina said, picking up the poncho and hanging it on the hallstand.
"Coffee??" Stella croaked.
"Right here, babe." Taking the thermos off the coffee maker, Regina brought that and a cup over to Stella's desk and put it down on a heat-resistant mat.
Stella stared at it for several moments with wide, tired eyes, but didn't make a move to pour any of the hot, brown liquid into the cup.
"Uh-huh. Okay, here's what you do. First, you take the thermos in your right hand, like this, okay? Then you twist your wrist and pour the coffee into the cup, like this, okay? Then you drink it, okay?"
"Okay," Stella croaked, took the thermos and began to drink from it.
"No, uh, actually? ah, whatever," Regina said with a grin as she watched her friend chug down the coffee.
Once the thermos was empty, Regina put it back on the coffee maker. "So? what do you want to do today? oh, you have a coffee mustache. Here, let me help you," she said and walked back to the desk.
Taking a napkin, she reached over the desk and gently dabbed Stella's upper lip. "There. Much better," Regina said with a wink.
"You're welcome, babe."
"I'm going to die if Billy can't get the Pacer done by Monday. Die? Die!" Stella said and threw her hands in the air. "I got stomped on, poked in the gut and the boobs and my back? and a hippie reeked to high heaven of cannabis? I'm going to die if I have to go through that again, Reggie! Die!"
"Who poked your boobs?" Regina said with a snicker.
"First Mr. Mandelbrot and then some faceless Cub Scout."
"Mr. Mandelbrot? Your local greengrocer? Was he on the bus, too?"
"Huh? No, I bumped into him on my way there."
"Ohhhh. Hm! That's one hell of a fan club you've got there, eh?" Regina said and sat down at her desk. Leaning back in her chair, she put her long legs up on the desk and crossed them at the ankles.
"Yeah, well, I resign as the chairman. So there. Did anyone call us?"
"Only some dude who wanted to throw us a free Plastic Fantastic Dinnerware party if we bought more than three hundred dollars' worth."
"Ugh. Did you turn him down?" Stella said and reached into her desk drawer to find her Rubik's Cube.
A fair while later, Stella was concentrating hard on her Cube and Regina was trying to balance a pencil on her nose. When she dropped the pencil for the umpteenth time, she sighed and put it back onto the desk.
"Mmmmyeah?" Stella said with her tongue firmly planted in the corner of her mouth.
"It looks like it's gonna be a quiet day?"
"Wanna watch a movie?"
"Action," Regina said, got up from the desk and walked over to the door to the conference room.
Regina came back from the conference room pushing a small cart with a portable TV and a DVD player. "How about an action comedy, then?" she said as she plugged the equipment into the socket and turned them on.
"Mmmmokay. D.E.B.S.," Stella said, never taking her eyes off her Cube.
"Nyah-nyah, ya can't pick that one? I already did," Regina said and held up the colorful DVD box.
"Heh. We've been together for too long, Reggie. We're turning into an old, married couple," Stella said as she put the Cube away, no closer to solving the puzzle than she had been when she started playing with it.
"Come and sit down, dear. Want a Razzy?"
Regina flopped down onto the couch and picked up the remote. "Then take two on your way over," she said, wearing a broad grin.
"Oh, ha, ha, Missy Long Legs. I'm surprised you even know how to operate the remote. Did ya know that you use the on-off switch to breathe life into the voodoo box?? And the buttons labeled volume, that's the sound, see??"
"Gosh golly almighty, no kiddin'?"
"Ha. Here's your Raspberry Fizz," Stella said and sat down on the couch. In one, fluid motion, she folded her legs up underneath her and grabbed the remote from Regina's hand.
"I bought that movie, I get to play it," Stella said and pressed play. When nothing happened, she started shaking the remote and tapping it against the edge of the table. "Damn? needs new batteries."
"Or? possibly? the disc needs to be inserted into the player," Regina said, pointing at the DVD box that was still lying on the coffee table.
"Reggie! Why didn't ya do that? I told ya you were too dumb to operate it."
"Oooh, spank me, shorty!"
"One of these days, I will!" Stella growled and got up from the couch. After inserting the disc and closing the tray, she jumped back onto the couch, landing with such a thump that the frame groaned under her weight - not to mention that the slight breeze she created ruffled Regina's perfectly styled hair.
"Watch it, Stell. It took me half a can of spray to get it this way," Regina said and ran her index finger across the edge of her hair to get it back under control.
"You'd never know it lookin' at it," Stella said, reaching out to touch said hair, but found her hand blocked by Regina's fist.
"Don't, miss Blonde Haystack," Regina said in a mock growl.
"Okay? can we just watch the movie, please?"
A couple of hours later, Stella sat at her desk, trying to get the better of the elusive Rubik's Cube when their phones suddenly rang. Putting down the Cube, Stella picked up the phone and cleared her throat. "You've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?"
Stella closed her eyes, put a hand on the microphone in the receiver and let out a long, heartfelt groan. "No, I'm sorry, Mr. McDowall, you can't speak to Mr. Harrison Starr. I'm Stella Starr, one of the investigators," she said after removing her hand.
"You have a job for us? Excellent," she said as she pulled out the drawer where she kept the records of the potential clients who asked for Mr. Harrison-Starr. Grabbing a pencil, she made a fat mark on a piece of paper - the nineteenth.
"Uh, I'm sorry? someone stole your parking space?"
"Okay? you have a reserved parking space and someone's been parking their car on it? Right. Well, we could make a few calls."
"I see. Wait a minute, aren't you the owner of 'Honest Jack's Used Cars'?? I saw your ad on TV last night."
"Oh, no, I already have a car. An AMC Pacer, my pride and joy. Anyway, do you have the license plate, Sir?"
"No, I meant the license plate of the car that has been- okay, Hotel Oscar X-ray Two Three Niner. All right. We'll look into it and get back to you. And your phone number is??"
"Got it. Goodbye, Sir," Stella said and hung up. She quickly wrote down the client's number and tore the page off the notepad.
"Reggie! Wipe your patootie, we've got a job!" she shouted, waving the page in the air.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm right here, ya don't have to yell," Regina said, standing in the door to the bathroom, drying her hands on a towel. "What kind of job?" she continued, clicking off the light and closing the door.
"Well, it's not exactly the biggest one we've ever had, but? uh? it shouldn't be as tough as the one in the Happy Time convenience store. That's gotta count for something, right?"
Regina furrowed her brow and sat down at her desk. "You make it sound like something even Billy could do blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back??"
"Mmmmmyeah, well, it's probably going to be a stakeout job a little later on. Tonight. Is that all right with you?"
"Sure. Where? The Ritz, the Heights, the slums??"
"None of the above. East Side, by the park. A Mr. Jack McDowall has paid through the nose for a reserved parking space, but someone else on his street has snatched it every other time he wants to park."
"Come again?? A parking space? Oh, Stell!" Regina said, shooting Stella an amused look.
"I know, but it's good money. Did you see the bills on the desk?" Stella said and held up the letters.
"Sure I did, I put 'em there."
"Haw, haw. Did you read them?"
"Nope. You control the money flow. I'm just the face of the company, remember?" Regina said and batted her eyelids.
"Sweet? very sweet? in fact, you're so sweet I can smell the saccharine all the way over here," Stella said and took the receiver off the phone.
Grinning, Regina raised her arms to sniff her pits. "Ahhh, Everfresh Superstar," she said, nodding.
"WHATever. Hey, model girl, if you want to be useful, call Inspector Moynes on your cell and get a fix on the plate. HOX 2-3-9."
"Sure thing, babe. Who are you gonna call?" Regina said and took her cell phone.
"Might I ask why?"
"He might have something for us."
"That'll be the day," Regina said and found Inspector Moynes in the registry. After waiting for a few seconds, she could hear the Inspector's characteristic voice greeting her at the other end of the connection.
"Hello, Inspector, it's Reggie Harrison from H-S-D-A. A license plate has come up during one of our investigations and we'd like to identify the owner of the vehicle."
'What is it this time, Miss Harrison? More shoplifters?'
"I'm not at liberty to say, Inspector. The license plate is Hotel Oscar X-ray two three niner."
'? three niner,' the Inspector echoed over the sound of fingers clicking on a keyboard. 'Okay, it's a late model Oldsmobile Cutlass and it's registered to a Miss Bonnie Douglas-hyphen-Wright.'
"Bunny? Must be a nickname," Regina said and reached for her notepad.
'Not bunny, Bonnie.'
"How d'ya spell that, Inspector?"
'Bee, oh, enn, enn, eye, eee.'
'That's what I said, Miss Harrison,' the Inspector growled.
'The last known address is 762 West Shoreline Drive.'
"Thank you very much for your assistance, Inspector. Talk to you later," Regina said and hung up. After drawing a box around the word 'Bonnie', she looked at Stella who was still busy talking to Joe.
Playing with the chord for the telephone, Stella sighed and leaned back in her seat. "Joe, you're basically saying that you don't have anything for us? and that you need more money?"
"Uh-huh. What happened to the forty bucks I gave you last week?"
"You blew it all on the horsies?"
"Listen, Joe, if you don't give us something soon, and I mean real soon, you better find another agency to suck dry, ya hear? You're giving me the run-around and I'm not fond of that," Stella said and raised her glasses to pinch the bridge of her nose.
"I mean it, Joe."
"No, I haven't forgotten you gave us the Alley Cat, but that was months ago! Ya can't live off that credit forever, you know."
"Yeah, yeah? we'll talk later," Stella said and hung up.
"Anything?" Regina said.
"Gee, what a surprise. Anyway, I got the name of the dastardly snatcher of parking spaces: Bonnie Douglas-Wright. With a hyphen."
"Doesn't exactly sound like a hardened criminal, does it?"
"Nope. This is a milk run, baby," Regina said and put her hands behind her head.
"Well, I guess we can't go after the Crown Jewels every time," Stella said and picked up the receiver.
Regina got up from her desk and rolled up her sleeves. "While you're calling our client, I'll go find some of the costumes I'll need for the photoshoot later today."
"Okay, Reggie. Uh, hello, Mr. McDowall? This is Stella Starr. We have some info on the dasta? uh, I mean on the person who has been taking your parking space."
"Yes. You said that it occurs most often when you come home from work at around eight o'clock, right?"
"Good. My associate and I will be in the neighborhood an hour before that. We'll be wearing disguises, so there's no point in trying to find us."
"Oh, yes, we're quite experienced in disguising ourselves. No matter what happens, we'll contact you some time tonight. I hope that is satisfactory?"
"Excellent. Goodbye, Mr. McDowall."
Once Stella had hung up, she scribbled a few notes on the notepad and leaned back in her seat.
'Hey, Stell! Are ya ready?' Regina shouted from the conference room.
"Sure. What's up first?"
'The naughty French housemaid!'
"Uh, okay," Stella said and took off her glasses to polish the lenses so they wouldn't steam up on her.
"Enter!" Stella said with a giggle.
On that cue, Regina waltzed into the office wearing a black and white housemaid uniform that, judging by the amount of skin and leg she was showing, was about two sizes too small for her.
Holding a rainbow-colored feather duster, Regina strutted across the gray carpet on bare feet, stopping occasionally to stretch up on tip-toes or to bend over to pretend to pick something up. The black miniskirt she was wearing barely covered her rear end, and the white top had such a plunging neckline that it had been banned on sight in thirteen different States.
"What do you think, Stell? Too much, too little? or just perfect?"
When she didn't get an answer, Regina stopped strutting about and turned around to see what was going on with her friend.
Stella was sitting very still, gripping the edge of the desk and looking like she was frozen solid. Her eyebrows were at her hairline, her jaw had become slack and a comical expression had been etched onto her face - a mix of disbelief, pleasure and plain old shock.
"Stell? Stella?? Are you dead? Was the French housemaid too much for you?" Regina said, poking her friend with the tip of the feather duster.
Finally moving, Stella blew out a burst of air. "I? can't? I? just? oh, God?"
"Are you trying to tell me that I've still got it?" Regina said, cocking her hips and lifting the miniskirt that was barely there to begin with.
"I know, I know, I need a Health Warning sticker," Regina said as she walked around the desk to loosen Stella's death grip. Unfortunately, doing so meant that she brushed her bare thigh against Stella's pant leg - the result was inevitable.
"Oh, Stella!" Regina said, rolling her eyes. Sighing, she leaned down to pick up her incurably clumsy friend. "Ups-a-daisy. Tell me, babe, are you in love with our carpet? 'Cos you spend more time down there than you do up here?"
Once Stella was back on her feet - her glasses had stayed on her face for once - she ran a hand through her dirty-blonde haystack of hair and looked at Regina with large, round eyes.
"What are you looking at me like that for??" Regina said slightly defensively, holding the feather duster in front of her like a sword.
"Must be something??"
"Uh? no. Oh, that damn chair!" Stella said and turned toward the chair that had thrown her for the umpteenth time. "That does it! That was the final straw! I'm throwing that damn chair out! Right now!" she shouted, kicking out at the swivel chair.
While her toe narrowly missed a metal beam underneath the chair, her ankle made firm contact with the underside of the seat, causing her to howl in pain and to jump around on the other foot.
"Oh! Ugh! Oh! Ow! Ugh! Oh! Ow! Ow-ow-ow-ow-OW! Get it out of here! Get it out! Now!"
"It's just a chair, Stella," Regina said flatly, grabbing hold of the swivel chair's backrest almost like she was trying to protect it from its owner's raging temper.
"No! It's evil incarnate!" Stella growled, clutching her aching ankle.
Shrugging in her patented 'can't give a hoot'-fashion, Regina wheeled the chair across the soft carpet and opened the door to the parking lot to push it outside. Noticing that someone was standing on the other side of the door, she looked up and found herself face to face with Billy the Mechanic who was wearing an indescribably filthy banana-yellow cover-all.
Billy took one look at Regina's housemaid costume and her endless, bare legs, and fainted on the spot.
"Uh-huh. Figures. I'm on a roll today, Stell. Two for two in the last three minutes alone. I guess we know what that means," Regina said, pointing at the prone Billy and then at herself.
"Oh, shut up," Stella growled, hobbling over to the couch.
"I. Still. Got. It," Regina said and flashed Stella a smile that began at two hundred watts but was soon turned up to at least two hundred and fifty.
Still smiling broadly, Regina pushed the chair out of the door and leaned down to drag the unconscious Billy inside.
"Reggie, please change back into something more respectable. If that had been Inspector Moynes instead of Billy, she'd have arrested us on the spot on suspicions of running a cathouse," Stella said and got up from the couch.
"Oui, Mademoiselle!" Regina said and tapped Stella's nose with the tip of the feather duster. With a 'yip!', she turned around and flounced out of the office.
"Silly woman," Stella said to herself, secretly enjoying her friend's antics - moments later, she let out a dust-induced sneeze that threatened to blow the windows out of the office building.
'Bless you!' Regina said from the bathroom.
"Thanks! It was your doing!"
Sighing, Stella went over to check up on the prone Billy. Remembering what had happened the last time the mechanic had fainted in their office, Stella kept a safe distance from his crotch and settled for slapping his cheeks.
It wasn't long before Billy came back from dreamland, and as he stirred and sat up, he started looking around for the scantily clad Regina.
"She's gone to change her clothes, Billy," Stella said, helping the mechanic up from the floor.
"Is the Pacer ready? Please tell me it's ready, Billy. Please!"
"It's not quite ready yet, Miss Starr. I'm still working on it, but I promise I'll have it done by Wednesday evening at the latest."
"Wednes? no, Billy, that's not good enough!" Stella said and flew forward to grab hold of the mechanic's greasy boilersuit. "I need it Monday morning! Monday, Billy! MONDAY! You just don't know how hard? how? how inhumane it is to take public transportation every morning! The other passengers stomp on me, Billy! And they smell, and they poke my boobs?!"
Billy stared in wide-eyed disbelief at the sobbing, growling, screeching blonde who was nearly pushing him across the floor even though she was only half his size. Biting his lip, Billy didn't know what he should do, so he began to pull the howling woman over to the couch where he eventually dumped her on the cushions.
The soft landing didn't stop Stella's hissy fit, but it made her let go of Billy's boilersuit. Once he was in the clear, he took several hasty steps backwards to get away from the hysterical woman.
"All right, WHAT's going on in here? Billy?" Regina said as she came back into the office dressed in her regular clothes.
"I don't know, Miss Harrison! All I said was that I'll have her car ready by Wednesday evening? or maybe Thursday? and then she-"
"OOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHH!" Stella howled.
"Oh, Billy, that's like stabbing her in her heart!" Regina said and kneeled down next to the wildly sobbing Stella.
"But? but it's the truth! I had to order in some parts but they haven't arrived yet! The parts truck only comes around on Wednesdays?"
"OOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHH!" Stella howled, even louder than the first time.
"Women don't necessarily want to hear the truth, Billy."
"My Mama told me to always tell the truth," Billy mumbled, thrusting his hands into his pockets.
"And that's generally good advice, but not when it comes to Stella Starr and her Pacer." Sighing, Regina leaned in and began to wave her tunic in Stella's face. "There, there, Stell? it's all right. Billy didn't mean it."
Sob - "Wed? nes? day," - sob, sob, sob! - "I can't? oh?" - sob, sob! - "I'm gonna die!" - sob, sob! Sob.
"I know, Stella darling, I know. I'm sure Billy will have it done by Monday morning? right, Billy?" Regina turned towards the mechanic and shot him a pointed look - or rather, an arched eyebrow.
Billy was pushed a step back by the intensity of the eyebrow, and he gulped and nodded enthusiastically. "Y-yes, Miss Starr. Monday? uh, morning. I'll see what I c-can do. Anyw-way, I just wanted to say that the service bay is ready for your photoshoot? uh, if you still wanna do it??"
"We'll be there, Billy. We'll be there," Regina said and raised Stella's glasses so she could dab the corners of the sobbing woman's eyes.
"Uh, okay. Uh, I gotta go now," Billy said and quickly left the office.
An hour and a half later, Stella took a deep breath and lifted two powerful lamps and the tripod for the camera up on her shoulder. After groaning and taking a few staggering steps backwards and sideways, she finally found her balance and walked out of the office with the unwieldy load.
"Ya think ya can handle those items, Stell? They gotta weigh at least ten pounds in total?" Regina said as they crossed the parking lot. She was holding an armful of dress bags containing all her recently-rented costumes, sorted in alphabetical order.
"Ha? ha? Missy? Long? Arms? It's not? the weight? it's keeping? the balance!"
"Hold it right there, hon. Let's trade. You'll take the costumes an' I'll take the camera equipment," Regina said and put a hand on Stella's shoulder.
"Aww, you're a real friend, friend," Stella said and put the tripod and the lamps down on the ground.
"Sure thing, babe," Regina said and dumped the costumes into Stella's arms, making the shorter woman take several staggering steps backwards and sideways.
"Oh! Uh! Ugh! No, uh! This? isn't? gonna work, Reggie!" Stella said, still moving backwards - then she tripped over an uneven patch in the middle of the parking lot and ended up flat on her butt. "Aw hell? this isn't my day?"
"Week, month, year?" Regina mumbled as she put out her hand and pulled Stella upright. "At least it hasn't been raining? your pants are still dry."
"That's the only highlight."
"How about you just carried the camera?? I'll take everything else."
"No, no, I can handle the costumes. I was just taken by surprise, that's all," Stella said, putting the dress bags over her arm. "Hey, don't you know how strong I am? I'm so strong I don't even need to bend iron bars, I just tell 'em to go bend themselves? they follow orders 'cos they're scared of me," Stella continued, bumping hips with Regina.
Picking up the tripod, Regina snickered over Stella's joke and resumed walking across the parking lot to get to Billy's garage. Behind her, Stella staggered along with uneven steps, holding the dress bags close to her bosom so she could keep her balance.
Five minutes later, Stella locked the tripod's legs and carefully placed the strong lights on either side of it and the camera on the small peg on top of it. Peeking past the camera, she checked the line of sight thoroughly and found it to be near-perfect.
"Hey, Reggie, I need you to take a look. I've set up the camera to point at that old hydraulic lift-thingy over there? the one with my dear, old girl? my Pacer on top. Do you think that'll work?"
Regina bent down and looked at the display at the back of the camera. "Hmmm? pretty good. It's not too busy and it's fairly neutral when it comes to the colors? yep, should work, Stell."
"It's almost like we're looking up the old girl's skirt, huh?" Regina joked, pointing upwards at the exposed underside of the Pacer.
"Let's not go there, Reggie. Uh, there's something I've been meaning to ask you? what's the latest on Mr. Chiseled Jaw?"
"A change of subject, huh? Mr. Chiseled Jaw?? You mean Steve?"
"Ah, he?" Regina stopped talking and stared into empty space for a few moments. "He went back to Europe," she continued, moving over to the dress bags and picking up the first one.
"Oh. I'm sorry, Reggie. I know you liked him," Stella said and put a comforting hand on her friend's elbow.
"I liked him, he liked me? and he liked screwing me over. Not something to build a relationship on."
"Definitely not. Ah, you're better off without him, anyway," Stella said and turned off the camera to save the battery for the actual photoshoot.
"Mmmmyeah, but he was great in bed."
"GAAAAAAAAAAAG!" Stella howled, quickly covering her ears so she could protect her sensitive brain.
"Oh, grow up. Hey, did I ever tell you about the time where Steve and I tried-"
"Enough, Reggie, enough! Please! Do you want me to toss my cookies right here in Billy's service bay?"
"Not if I have to clean it up afterwards," Regina said, striking up a dour look.
"Good. Then let's quit talking about how good Steve was in bed. Okay?"
"Well, you asked about him. I have plenty of male acquaintances to talk about, anyhow. I remember once in Seoul, this was several years ago, by the way? I was working with-"
"Reggie?" Stella said, holding her hands up in the air in the universal sign for 'stop, I can't take it anymore'.
"Zip it. Let's get shootin'."
A brief while later, Billy the Mechanic shuffled into the garage, twisting an old and greasy baseball cap in his hand and trying not to stare too much at Regina's impressive figure. "Miss Harrison, the, uh, dressing room out back is ready for you."
"Thanks, Billy," Regina said and picked up all the dress bags. "Stell, are you on top of things here?"
"O-yeah. I'll have the camera and the soundtrack ready once you get back," Stella said and gave Regina a thumbs-up.
"And the fan! Don't forget to set it at the second-to-lowest level. I just want a breeze, not a hurricane."
"O-yeah. Don't worry, I'll be real professional about it," Stella said, adding a wink that was supposed to make Regina feel better - but didn't.
Holding the dress bags, Regina walked around the hydraulic lift and towards the back of the garage. On her way there, she couldn't help but marvel at the rough, greasy, utilitarian look of the tools and equipment, and at the smell of oil and tires that lingered in the air.
Turning right, she went out back and suddenly found herself face to face with a life-size poster of Miss March 1984 that had been taped to the front of the door to the rest room. Chuckling, Regina turned the handle, aptly placed next to Miss March's hip, and stepped inside.
The 'dressing room' looked like any other rest room she had ever been in, except that every available spot on the walls and the doors to the stalls had been decorated by small clippings of swimsuit-babes in provocative poses.
"Fakes? fakes? fakes? fakes?" she said as she studied the various models. "Fakes? fakes? holy crap, those are real," she continued, leaning in to read what the miniature caption said.
"Miss October 1967, heh? typical." Chuckling, Regina took off her shirt to reveal her own tanned - but natural - globes. After checking that Billy hadn't set up any hidden cameras, she kicked off her shoes and unbuttoned her jeans, but let them stay on her hips.
The room didn't exactly smell of roses or freshly harvested grass, but Regina pushed it to the back of her mind and began to look at the labels on the dress bags.
"So? which one first? Army grrrl, Biker chick in leather, Cowgirl in chaps, Farmgirl in short shorts, Motorcycle cop, Naughty housemaid, Nurse, Pilot, School teacher, Window cleaner. Hmmm? what to wear and what not to wear, that's the question."
"Billy, if that's you, you better stay out. I don't know how to administer CPR," Regina said loudly enough to be heard through the closed door.
'Naw, it's Stella. Are you dressed?'
"Uh, no. Most decidedly, no," Regina said, looking at the revealing silhouette of herself on the wall.
'I need to pee!'
"Can't you go over to our office and use our own can? It's kinda inconvenient, Stell!"
'Billy's busy with a customer and you're in here? that would mean the camera would be left unattended for too long? 'cos I realllly gotta pee!'
"Oh, all right. Hang on, I need to-" Regina said and took her tunic, but it was too late - Stella had already barged through the door.
"Holy guacamole!" Stella said, slapping her hand across her eyes at the sight of the topless Regina.
"You're worse than my mother, Stell," Regina said as she buttoned her jeans and guided her temporarily blinded friend into the first stall and closed the door behind her.
'You often strip down to your bare essentials in front of your mother?'
"Haw, haw. Stell, you need to hover above the seat? or rather, the porcelain bow-"
'Oh my God, there's no toilet seat! What kind of medieval dunghouse is this?' Stella howled from inside the stall.
"It's built for men. Men are tough. They don't need no toilet seat."
'God? who cleaned this dump?? Oh, God, there's a flippin' gigantic spider in the corner?!'
While Stella peed, Regina unzipped one of the bags and took out a pair of drab Army-style pants, a wide canvas belt, an olive green tank top and a pair of shiny, unstamped dog tags. She quickly put on the tank and changed pants so that her friend would be able to see where she walked.
Stella finally came out of the stall, breathing a sigh of relief. "Man, I needed to go SO badly?" she croaked on her way over to the sink. While she was washing her hands, she stopped dead in her tracks for two, not entirely unrelated, reasons. One, for the many swimsuit babes on the walls, and two, for Regina's costume.
"Oh? shoot. What's that one called?" Stella breathed.
"Army grrrl. With three R's."
After pulling the belt through the hoops, Regina locked it and made sure the buckle was lined up straight.
"How do I look?"
"Uh? pretty good, actually."
"Hon, I always look good," Regina said and flicked her long hair back so she could put on the dogtags. Grabbing the hair with both hands, she quickly formed a tight ponytail and put a drab hairband on it. "I meant, how does the costume look?"
Stella scrunched up her face and shot her friend a slightly dirty look. "Oh, Reggie, you're so full of s-"
"Sweetness, humor and a wicked fashion sense? You don't have to tell me, snookums, I already know," Regina said, cocking her hips and putting her pinkie finger on her lips.
"Yes. That's exactly what I was gonna say," Stella said on her way out of the rest room.
Chuckling, Regina put on the pair of leather ankle boots she had chosen for the shoot because they worked with several of the costumes. Once she had tied the boot laces, she jumped up and down to make them a better fit.
Admiring herself in the mirror, Regina nodded and gave herself a big thumbs-up. "Reggie Harrison, you killer, you! Washed up?? Nuh-uh."
Not forgetting her secret weapon, Regina opened the faucet and poured some cold water into a metal cup. "Now I'm ready," she said and walked out of the rest room.
"The music is set to go, Reggie. Village People," Stella said, putting the Greatest Hits CD into the boombox.
"Great. Okay, here's what I think we should do. You take thirty or forty pictures of me doing my stuff, then I'll go change the costume and so on and so forth. If one of the costumes doesn't work, we'll only do a couple of shots before we move on. How's that sound?" Regina said as she checked if Stella had remembered to put the fan on its second-to-lowest level - she had.
"Sounds pretty good, Reggie. I have two sets of spare batteries."
"Good. Billy?? Bil-ly?? What happened to Billy?"
Suddenly, the easily recognizable sound of a spanner hitting the concrete floor came from the other side of the hydraulic lift, quickly followed by a few colorful curses.
"Yo, Billy, we're about to start! Do you want to come and watch??" Regina said loudly.
'Uh? I'm a few months behind on paying for my health insurance, so I'm not sure? uh, that it would be? uh, if I faint and hit my head, I could lose a lot of money, Miss Harrison.'
"Clever boy," Regina said to Stella who nodded in return. "Anyway, we're about to start. If you feel like watching at some point, just come over!"
'Uh? will do.'
"Hit play, Stell. Let's get the show on the road. No fan at first," Regina said and took the small metal cup.
Smiling, Stella pressed the small button on the boombox, and soon, Village People's YMCA filled the garage.
"And here we go," she said and moved behind the camera to look at the display. What she saw made her eyes pop wide open and she had to rub them to make sure that she wasn't imagining things. "What in the WORLD are you doing, Reggie?" she continued, looking past the camera.
Regina was busy running the cold metal cup across the tips of her breasts through the tank top. Her nipples responded immediately by trying to break through the olive green fabric. "Tricks of the trade, Stell."
"What trade? The meat industry? God?!"
"It's what the people who buy the calendar want to see. We gotta do what sells," Regina said, took a spray and started spritzing her arms and her forehead to make it look like she had been working hard.
"Don't ask me to do anything like that? ever. I'd rather go bankrupt than submit myself to that sort of objectification," Stella said and began to take pictures of the impeccably outfitted -
and strutting - Regina.
"It's a living."
"You know, I'll bet that's what the hangman says."
"Are you shooting?" Regina said, moving through various poses that suited the military look of the costume.
"Oh, yeah, yeah. I'm up to pic twelve already. Umm, may I suggest a shot?"
"How about? uh, putting your arms behind your head and flexing your biceps?" The words had barely left Stella's lips before a deep, red blush tinted her cheeks, causing her to look down at her feet in embarrassment.
"Oh, you'd like that, would ya?"
Stella nodded mutely.
"Okay. It's all yours, babe," Regina said, doing as asked and sending the camera a few smoldering looks.
Stella grinned and went back to work. "Mmmm, that's nice." - click - click - click - "Very nice. That's more my style, Reggie." - click - click - click - "Not all that cold cups on your nipples stuff. That's for the guys to drool over." - click - click - click - "You know, I think the Army Grrrl has done her duty now."
"You got a few good ones?" Regina said and took down her arms.
"Yep. You wanna check them out now?"
"No, I trust you."
"Thank you. What's next?" Stella said as she checked the battery level so she wouldn't run out in the middle of the next scene.
"Oh? I'm not really sure. We brought ten costumes, but looking at them now, I can see that a couple of them are too close to each other."
"What do you mean??"
"Well, like there's both a biker chick and a motorcycle cop? I think I'll scratch the cop. We don't have a suitable helmet, anyway. Also, there's a cowgirl and a farmgirl, and I think I'll skip the cowgirl."
"Oh, no? really??" Stella said, putting on a pout.
Regina looked left and right and then leaned down to whisper into Stella's ear. "Yes, because the farmgirl has the plaid shirt and the short shorts you were waxing lyrical about when the idea first came up."
"Oh. Okay. I can live with that," Stella said, nodding and blushing at the same time.
"I thought you might. Right, it's the biker chick next."
Thirty-five minutes later, after doing her absolute best as a biker chick, the naughty French housemaid, a nurse, a pilot and finally a school teacher, Regina held up her hands and called a Time out. "I need a break, Stell. We've got one costume left? and it's your favorite."
"Oh, goodie!" Stella said, clapping her hands.
"Billy, you can come out now! I'm fully dressed!" Regina said, amplifying her voice by holding her hand up to her mouth. Once she had delivered the message, she pulled up her tight skirt and sat down on an overturned, bright red plastic container marked 'Contains Battery Acid - Always Right Side Up!'
"Billy, would ya mind bringing me a soda pop or something? I'm really thirsty!" Stella said loudly, receiving the same reply as Regina.
A minute later, Billy came shuffling into the section of the garage where the photoshoot had taken place. Smiling shyly, he cracked open a can of Slurrpy! Classic Cola and handed it to Regina, making Stella put her hands on her hips and scrunch up her face.
"No, it's for Stella, Billy. Thanks," Regina said with a smile.
"Oh? okay," the mechanic said and turned around to give Stella the can of soda pop. Unfortunately, he was so focused on Regina that he forgot to look where he was going. Moments later, his foot got snagged in a hose for one of the pneumatic tools, and he fell forward with a loud yelp.
The can escaped his grasp and made a perfect parabolic flight through the air, ending up on the floor directly in front of Stella's feet. Exploding on impact, the can drenched Stella from top to toe in the sticky, brown liquid.
As Billy clambered to his feet with an apologetic look on his face, Regina sat with her hand firmly clamped across her mouth so she wouldn't laugh out loud at her friend's misfortune.
Licking her lips to at least taste a few drops of the Cola, Stella took off her glasses and looked at the soaked lenses. Sighing, she put them on again and held up her index finger. "Excuse me for a sec, please," she said, spun around and left the garage.
A few seconds later, out of sight of the others, Stella let out an exasperated "AAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRGGH!" that made both Billy and Regina jump where they stood.
"Billy, we need a lot of tissues? One of those huge rolls, you know?" Regina said and jumped off the box.
"Uh, I know. Yep. One minute."
"Thanks," Regina said and walked over to the sliding gate. Looking outside, she could see - and hear - Stella jump around in a wild rage; moaning, groaning and cursing in a very colorful language that used many of her favorite '?ucker' words.
Walking outside, Regina tried to get her friend's attention by waving her hands, but nothing seemed to work. "Stell? Stella? Stella??"
"Yeah, yeah, I hear ya. Did ya kill him yet?"
"Good! Then I flippin' will!"
"That wouldn't be good for business, Stell."
Stella pulled out in her Classic Cola-soaked shirt that had changed color from pale peach to something approaching Autumn mud. "Do I look like I give a flying fu-?!"
"Ah, no, you don't, actually. Come on in, I'll hose you down."
"I've been hosed down for the rest of the week, thankyouverymuch!" Stella yelled, making two people who were walking across the parking lot stop and stare at her.
"Bad choice of words, heh heh. Come on, Stell, I'll help ya get dry."
Stella threw her arms in the air, looking like she was calling for help from a higher power. "Was the camera damaged?" she said once she had cooled down a bit.
Regina turned around and looked at the tripod. "Nope, you definitely took one for the team, there. Looks like you caught all of the sticky stuff," she said, nodding.
Shaking her head, Stella came back into the garage and looked at the mess on the floor and at the sheepish-looking Billy who was busy mopping up the Cola.
Holding out in her - increasingly hardening - soaked shirt, Stella came up to stand next to her tall friend. "Reggie? once we're done here, would you mind if I tortured him? You know, just a little bit? Maybe take a jumper cable to his nuts or something??"
"Well, I can't help but think that Inspector Moynes would object to it, Stell."
"Darn. You're probably right. Billy, I need a few of those tissues. I feel stickiness where stickiness has no right to be," Stella said and ripped a two-foot long piece off the roll of tissues.
"And while you do that, I'll go slip into the farmgirl," Regina said and gave Stella's shoulder a little squeeze, snickering loudly when she noticed that her words had caused her blonde friend to blush.
"Oh?! Uh?! Oh?! Yip?! Uh?!" Regina said as she went through all her favorite poses. Trying very hard to be as sexy and alluring as she could be without getting vulgar or appearing cheap, she twisted and turned in front of the camera to the sound of Village People's In The Navy.
She was wearing ankle boots, a pair of super-short denim shorts with a couple of long fringes of poorly cut-off fabric flowing down her tanned legs, and a green-and-red plaid shirt where only the two center buttons were closed; the top ones weren't even there - revealing plenty of tanned chest - and the lower two had been tied into a knot to reveal her belly button.
Unusually, she was wearing a blonde wig - that Stella had dubbed the Glam Queen - but the fan was set at just the right strength and angle and made the somewhat fake-looking rug fall perfectly around her face and shoulders.
"Aw, Reggie, this is gonna be great!" Stella said, looking at the display at the back of the camera.
"Well, I hope so."
"It will, no doubt about it. You know, I'm almost? almost agreeing with you."
"You are? About what, hon?"
Stella popped up from behind the camera and sent Regina a cheeky grin. "That you still got it," she said and adjusted her glasses.
"But of course I still got it, Stell!" Regina said and thrust her bosom towards the camera.
"Okay, I got your torpedoes. How about? uh? how about sucking on a straw or something??"
"I thought you said something about not wanting to submit yourself to objectification? or did I hear that wrong??"
"Uh, that's right, but, uh, you seem to do a fine job of it, and, uh, a straw would fit the general theme of the costume," Stella said, scratching her hair while sporting a slight blush.
"Uh-huh?" Regina said, throwing Stella a two-hundred watt smile and a whole series of saucy winks.
"Don't look at me like that. I happen to like farmgirls. So there!"
"Oh, I'm not looking at you like that, Stell. I got something in my eye, that's all."
"Yeah, right. Okay, skip the straw. We need a final shot of you hamming it up for the camera. What haven't we done yet?"
Regina licked her lips and furrowed her brow. In her mind, she went through the many different poses she had been in, but she couldn't think of one they hadn't tried yet. "Hmmm? hmmm? Oh! Oh, I got it! Hang on, Stell, this is gonna be wild."
"I'm hanging, Reggie, I'm hanging."
Regina looked around, scouting for something to sit on that could carry her weight unsupported. The only thing she could find was the bright red plastic container marked Battery Acid, and she pushed it into the small area between the lights.
"Uh, Reggie, what are you doing?"
"Hang on, hang on, I'm not done yet."
Jumping up on the plastic container, Regina made sure she was seated in a way that made her look straight down the camera's lens. She unbuttoned the denim shorts and pulled down the zipper until it reached half-mast - then she moved her legs up and parted them slightly.
"Are my thighs in the frame, Stell?"
"Yes," Stella said in a curiously muted voice.
"Good," Regina said, put her fingers on the back of her thighs in a suggestive grasp, leaned her head down on her right knee and sent the camera - and Stella - such a scorching look of lust and plain, old raw sexiness that it made Stella's glasses steam up instantly.
Stella's fingers trembled to such a degree that she could hardly press the camera's trigger, but she finally managed to take a few pictures of the outrageous pose. As soon as the shots were in the can, she raised her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Did you get it?"
"O-yeah," Stella said in a voice that sounded like Goofy on valium.
"Are you all right, Stella?" Regina said and jumped off the plastic container.
"I'm f? I'm fine. I just got a little overwhelmed by the last pose. 's all," Stella said as she polished her lenses.
After buttoning her short shorts and pulling up the zipper, Regina walked over to Stella to give her a big squeeze. "Well, it was a killer pose. Thanks for your help today, hon. I couldn't have done it alone."
Stella took the opportunity to breathe in Regina's natural scent - a comforting mix of cinnamon and leather - before she returned the squeeze. "You're welcome, Reggie. It was fun. Well, not the Cola incident."
"No, not that part."
"We're gonna put you back in the spotlight with this shoot, that's for damn sure," Stella said and gently punched Regina's shoulder.
"Well, that's what we're here for. Hey, can you imagine if Billy had been here for that last shot? We would have had to inform his next of kin by now," Regina said with a snicker.
'You almost had to inform *my* next of kin?' Stella thought, but wisely kept quiet. Suddenly, reality's hard truth smacked her in the center of her forehead and she took a reeling step backwards. 'Oh? my? God? that last photo? that last photo? oh, no? it's impossible? it's not true? it's too cruel! That last photo gave me a b- a bad crush on Reggie! Ye Gads!'
"Oh? now I know something's wrong, Stella," Regina said and put a warm, gentle hand on Stella's cheek. "You have that look you always get just before you hurl."
Regina's posture made her half-exposed bosom stand out right in Stella's face, causing her to blush so hard that her glasses fogged up again. "I'm not gonna hurl? I'm just thirsty, that's all. I never did get anything to drink. It was? was nothing more than that, Reggie," Stella said and pulled out in her collar.
"Are you sure? 'Cos you look really green? red as well, actually. Green and red, like my shirt."
"I'm fine. Maybe I'm coming down with something." 'Yeah, like a bad case of the stupids,' Stella continued in her mind.
"Well, you're definitely hotter than Florida in the summer time," Regina said, placing a hand on Stella's forehead.
Regina's touch caused untold complications for Stella, and she looked around with wide eyes to come up with something that would allow her to get away from the beautiful former Queen of the Catwalks. "I know. I think need a cold shower. Wa-hey, look at the time. We need to get ready for tonight's stakeout. I'll pack up while you change. We'll meet back at the office, okay?" Stella said and hurriedly slipped out of Regina's touch to begin dismantling the camera and the lights.
"Uh, but? okay. Stell, drink some water. You're on the verge of being incoherent. Promise me?" Regina said and put her hands on her hips.
"I promise, I promise. Go get changed, I'll finish up here."
At the same time, Billy shuffled into the garage, trying not to look too much at the revealing costume. "Wow, Miss Harrison, that was quite an, uh, experience. If you ever want to, uh, come back for more, you're very, very welcome."
"Bye, Billy!" Stella said, scooting away with the camera equipment under her arm.
"Bye, Miss Starr," Billy said before turning back to Regina.
"Yeah, thanks for the offer, Billy. I think there's a chance we will. I have something else in mind we didn't get to try today," Regina said and untied the knot in the plaid shirt.
"I've called all my mates. They know everything about the calendar now. Most of 'em said they'd buy some copies."
Regina got a brief vision of her pictures pinned up on dozens of rest room walls all over the city and county, but after a few seconds, she shrugged and carried on. "Good. A little free advertising has never hurt anyone," she said, patting Billy's shoulder a couple of times.
"Uh, Miss Harrison. I was thinking?"
"What are you doing on Saturday night?"
Snickering inside at the unexpected proposition, Regina turned around and looked at the mechanic whose cheeks were more than just a tad rosy. Her first urge was to shoot him down in flames, but she reconsidered and decided to be a bit more gentle on the sensitive guy. "Listen, Billy? I'm sorry, but it wouldn't work. We wouldn't have anything to talk about."
"I guess," Billy said, looking down at his steel-capped safety boots. "On the other hand, who said anything about talking?"
"You get points for trying? but you better quit while you're ahead."
"Okay. It was just a thought."
"Uh-huh," Regina said with a smile as she walked around the mechanic to go to the dressing room.
Five minutes past seven p.m., Regina pulled the SLK over at the side of a street lined with chestnut trees. The street was a quiet one, located in an equally quiet, middle class neighborhood mostly made up of two-story houses drawn a bit back from the sidewalks.
One hundred yards further up the street, two young girls - dressed solely in Princess Pink - were playing on three-wheeled bicycles on the lawn in front of one of the houses.
Looking in the rear view mirror, Regina could see a woman walking a fluffy, white poodle some distance behind them. The woman was going quite slowly, occasionally stopping to pick up the dog's droppings or to untangle the leash.
"So? East Side by the park. Not exactly crime central, huh?" Regina said, putting her elbow on the windowsill.
"Mmmm," Stella mumbled, toying with a pack of Oreo's - her favorite comfort food. They had drawn lots on who would get the disguise and she had won, dressing up in an uncomfortable skirt, a canary-yellow blouse covered by a long overcoat, a hat straight out of the 1950s and a small wooden dog on wheels that she would pretend to be dragging along on a leash.
Regina scrunched up her face as she turned her head to look at her friend. 'What on earth is going on with Stella today?? She's been so weird ever since the photoshoot this afternoon,' she thought, feeling genuinely worried about Stella's odd mood.
"Stell, are you sure you're all right? First you couldn't even eat the Chinese we ordered and now you're so quiet. Usually, you'd be quite bubbly or excited by now??" Regina said, turning around in the seat.
Stella looked up and locked eyes with the former model. "Oh? I'm fine, thanks. Just a bit tired. It's been a? an eventful day."
Not exactly satisfied with the answer, Regina still offered Stella a smile before she looked back out on the street to keep an eye on their surroundings.
Stella kept gazing at Regina - at her regal profile, at her long legs in the pair of dark blue jeans she had chosen for the stakeout and at the way her seat belt cut down across her white tunic and emphasized her breasts. Knowing that pursuing the crush would ruin more than she'd ever be able to gain from it, Stella sighed and popped yet another Oreo out of the pack.
"Aren't you going to offer me one?" Regina said with a smile and a wink.
"Sorry, Reggie, I didn't think you'd want to expose yourself to all that sugar and fat? not to mention the risk of getting crumbs in the car," Stella said, handing the second-to-last Oreo to Regina.
"A girl can change her mind, can't she?"
Behind them, the lady with the poodle stopped once more to untangle the leash. Looking in the mirror, Regina noticed that the woman had spotted their car and that she was observing it quite closely.
"Psst, Stella, I think it's time to go ahead with the plan. A woman is watching us," Regina whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
"Give her the run-around, I'll find a new spot to park."
"Yup. Stand back, Stella Starr is on the case," Stella said and put the last Oreo into the glovebox.
"Watch the curb."
"I didn't have to watch the curb all the damn time if ya only parked a bit away from it," Stella growled after she had opened the car door to see where the curbstones actually were. Taking a deep breath, she began to climb out of the low-slung sportscar.
"Then you'd have to find something else to complain about," Reggie said and gave Stella's rear end a small push - unfortunately, it happened at the exact wrong time.
Shocked by Regina's hand on her butt, Stella promptly fell off the curb and ended up back down in the SLK's bucket seats where she landed with a bump and a curse.
"Hurry, Stell, the woman is nearly here," Regina whispered, giving her friend another push.
Stella shot to her feet and practically hopped up on the sidewalk where she swayed back and forth for a few seconds to regain her balance. Sighing, she reached behind the seats to find the wooden dog and the leash.
"Good luck," Regina whispered and gave Stella a thumbs-up.
Playing the part with aplomb, Stella put the wooden dog down on the sidewalk, adjusted the antique hat and closed the overcoat - then she began to walk towards the lady with the poodle, making sure the leash was taut.
The wheels on the wooden dog creaked and squeaked, but the expression on Stella's face didn't change one bit. As she met the lady with the poodle, Stella offered her a polite, classy 'good evening,' and then began to talk about the weather and all sorts of other chit-chat.
At the same time, Regina started the SLK and drove off to search for a new parking spot.
"? and then I said, my dear Harvey, how could you vote for that presidential candidate? Didn't you hear any of his speeches? Had he been elected President, he would have increased all our taxes and taken away so many of our privileges?"
The woman with the poodle furrowed her brow and tried to remember if she knew the other woman. "I'm sorry, do we kno-" she started to say, but Stella interrupted her at once.
"- privileges that we've paid so dearly for. Isn't that right?"
While the humans were yapping, the white poodle began to sniff the wooden dog's nose. When he didn't get a response, he went around the rear and did the same to the hind quarters. Liking the smell, he resolutely jumped up and mounted the wooden dog, thrusting into it and causing his owner to cry out rather loudly.
"Ohmygod, Waldemar, what are you doing?! Ohmygod, I'm so sorry, he's never done anything like that before! Waldemar! Waldemar! Bad Dog! Waldemar, get away from that little dog!" the lady said, pulling and yanking at her dog's leash.
"I'll send you the bill if there's any puppies. Which reminds me? good Lord, did you watch that program on Channel Seven the other night? I mean, really! How scandalous!"
"Oh, but! -"
"That was among the most disgraceful things I've ever seen on television. Imagine that, showing a pair of-" Stella's stream of words were suddenly cut off when her cell phone rang.
"Yes, this is she!" she said in a loud and clear voice.
'It's Reggie. I've found a new place. I'm looking at you right now, about one hundred and twenty-five yards further up the road.'
The lady with the poodle took the phone conversation as her cue and left Stella in a grand hurry.
"Oh, how marvelous!" Stella said loudly as a parting shot. When she turned around and sneaked a peek at the woman, she could see her rush inside a bungalow and slam the door shut behind her.
"Reggie, the situation has been dealt with and my wooden dog has been thoroughly humped. I think I'll take a little walk on the other side of the street. What time is it?"
'Twenty to eight. Your dog has been? what?'
"I'll tell you later. I'll stay out here until the woman comes and steals Mr. McDowall's parking space."
"Yup," Stella said and terminated the connection. Looking left and right, she walked out onto the street, pulling the wooden dog behind her. "Come along, Dolly. We have to see a little of the world while we're here," she continued, acting like she owned the entire street.
"Reggie, I'm at the parking space. Do you see me?"
'I see you, Stell.'
"There's a small, blue sign bolted onto the sidewalk that says 'space reserved for Mr. Jack McDowall' in white letters. Even I can read it, so?"
'Stella, we have activity at my end of the street. It's a? naw, scratch that, it's a dairy vendor. One of those electric things.'
"Right. Well, I'll keep a lookout. Do we need any milk or cream for the fridge?" Stella said, kneeling down next to Dolly and pretending to pet its fur.
'Don't think so, no.'
"Right. Stella out."
A few minutes later, the electric milk float - from Grandma Betty's Dairy Farm, Milk the Old-fashioned Way - drove up to the sidewalk with a deep hum and parked in the spot reserved for Jack McDowall.
A slightly plump woman in her early thirties, wearing a pale blue milkmaid uniform, stepped out of the float holding a clipboard. She went back to the rear of the float and began to move around a few plastic cases of milk.
Stella had moved another thirty yards up the street and was watching the scene unfold with great interest. She dug into her coat pocket to find the small note where she had jotted down the license plate of the car that usually took the parking spot, but when she looked at the float, she realized that it didn't actually have license plates.
Shrugging, she put the note back in her pocket and continued to walk up the street to kill time before the real parking space snatcher arrived.
Something about the milk float nagged at the back of Stella's mind as she walked her wooden dog, and she kept looking over her shoulder to see when the lady in the uniform would return to it. When five minutes had passed without any action, she nodded to herself and grabbed her cell phone.
'What's up, Stell?'
"Would you believe me if I said the milkmaid is our crook?" Stella said on her way back to the float.
"Well, that's too bad 'cos I think she is."
"Can you see it from your position?"
"Well, I wasn't paying attention at the time when she left it, but she has locked all the doors and there's a huge padlock on the rolling gate at the back. To me, that suggests that she isn't coming back in a hurry."
"Yeah, I think she's the one, Reggie."
'A milkmaid? what's the world coming to??'
"An' it's gettin' worse for each passin' hour. Anyway, I'm going to confront her and I need some backup."
'I'm on my way. Don't do anything before I'm there, baby, she might be a jiu-jitsu expert.'
Chuckling, Stella closed the connection and put the phone in her pocket. She began to scan the nearby houses thoroughly, but there wasn't much activity in any of them. Most of them had garages so there weren't any cars in the driveways, and it was still too bright outside for any of them to have their lights turned on.
Glancing to her right, Stella happened to look at Regina just as the former model was striding up the sidewalk in her characteristic gliding walk.
Once again feeling the crush zing through her, Stella sighed and rubbed her eyes to get the endless denim-clad legs out of her mind's eye. 'I need a girlfriend? oh, how I need a girlfriend. You can't have a crush on Reggie, shtoopid! It'll wreck your business and your friendship. Dammit!'
As Regina came up to stand next to Stella, she looked down and furrowed her brow. "Now you've got that weird look on your face again, Stell. I think you need-"
'To get laid,' Stella thought.
"-to see a doctor or something??"
"No, I'm fine. I'll tell you later. Okay, first we need to find out which of these houses Bonnie Douglas-Wright lives in. Which address did Inspector Moynes give us?" Stella said as she walked up the garden path of the house nearest to them, taking off the 1950s hat as she did so to appear a bit more modern.
"Ummm, 762 West Shoreline Drive," Regina said, looking at a crumbled note.
"Okay. That's nowhere near here."
"Do we even know if the milkmaid is Bonnie?"
"Well, that's what we're here to find out. Patience, Oh Leggy One. One of these days, you'll learn that knockin' on doors is an important part of the job," Stella said and stuck out her tongue.
Regina grinned and leaned in to punch Stella's shoulder. "I'll remember that, Oh Shorty One."
"Haw, haw. Don't quit your day job," Stella said, shooting Regina a mock glare. Once the glare had been returned in kind, as per the rules of their game, Stella walked up to a mesh door and rang the door bell.
A few moments later, a guy in a filthy undershirt and a pair of even filthier - formerly sand-colored - Bermuda shorts opened the door and shot the two investigators a puzzled look. "Yes?" he said in a squeaky voice that belied his gruff, mustachioed exterior.
Stella stepped forward and put on her most winning smile. "Good evening, Sir, my associate and I are from the Pearl In Every Oyster Online Lottery Company. We've been told that Miss Bonnie Douglas-Wright lives here?? Is she your wife, perchance?"
"What the hell are you broads talkin' about? No, she ain't my wife. Now scram, we don't want no damn oysters! I don't believe this shi-" the man said and slammed the inner door in Stella's face, trapping a snippet of her overcoat in the doorjamb.
"A regular Prince Charming, huh?" Regina said, helping Stella to pull the overcoat free of the door.
"Yeah. Let's try the next one."
After using the door bell on the next house, Stella took a step back to make sure that her coat wouldn't be taken prisoner again.
Almost at once, an elderly lady opened the inner door and came out to scrutinize the two investigators. "If you're Jehovah's Witnesses, you can leave at once," she growled, holding the mesh door shut with her hand.
Knowing that the elderly lady needed to be cajoled, Stella put on a charming, disarming smile. "Good evening, ma'am. We're not, we're with the StaySafe Insurance Company. We've been told that a Miss Bonnie Douglas-Wright lives here??" she said in a sing-song voice.
The elderly lady narrowed her eyes and looked from Stella to Regina and back again. "We have no business with StaySafe. We use Lock & Key."
"Oh, but we're quite sure that we have the right address??" Stella said, looking at the note with the details on the license plate - the elderly lady wasn't able to read the note at the angle Stella held it.
'Who's at the door, Gran?' a female voice said from somewhere behind the elderly lady. Moments later, a slightly plump woman in her early thirties - wearing a pale blue skirt and a gray, knitted cardigan over a white shirt - stepped into the open door to look at Stella and Regina.
Even though the woman had taken off her uniform jacket, Stella recognized her at once as the milkmaid, and she decided to end the charade. "Miss Bonnie Douglas-Wright, I presume?" Stella said in her regular voice.
"We're Miss Harrison and Miss Starr from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency," Stella said, pointing at Regina and herself respectively.
"We're here to inform you that Mr. Jack McDowall has hired us to work out the identity of the person repeatedly occupying the parking space reserved for him. In fact, the one that your milk float is occupying right now."
"Oh, but? oh. You better come in," Bonnie Douglas-Wright said and pushed the mesh door open.
"No, Bonnie, they could be Jehovah's Witnesses or serial killers? we'll never get rid of them if you invite them inside!" the elderly lady whispered strongly.
"We're not, ma'am," Regina said and put a foot inside the mesh door in case Bonnie or her grandmother changed their minds.
The elderly lady grumbled a few times, but then relented and let the two investigators inside.
"? and that's why I spend a lot of time here? simply to help Gran nurse my Granddad after his fall," Bonnie said and took a sip from a cup of coffee. After putting the cup down on the table, she leaned back in the couch and crossed her legs, wearing a concerned expression on her face.
Stella, sitting next to Bonnie in the comfortable couch, was tapping a pencil against her nose and sending out several 'hmmms' and 'I see'.
Regina put down her own cup and leaned forward in the expensive armchair she was sitting in on the other side of the coffee table. "Well, Miss Douglas-Wright, you've certainly taken on a noble task, but the fact remains that you're occupying Mr. McDowall's reserved parking space."
Bonnie leaned forward as well, wringing her hands. "Oh, it wasn't my intention to steal his parking space, you have to believe that. It's just that my Granddad's old Firebird is already in the garage and we're not allowed to park over night in the driveway because of a local bylaw.
"Miss Douglas-Wright, if I may be so bold? your grandfather isn't really able to drive, is he?" Stella said, suddenly arriving at the perfect solution.
"Well? no. I think he knows it, too."
"Would he really have much use for a Firebird?"
"I guess not? actually, he hasn't driven it for years, even before his fall. He said it was too brutal for him. And my Gran doesn't even have a license."
"Well, I think we have a possible solution to the problem. Would you be interested in meeting our client so this unfortunate mess could be sorted out?" Stella said and found her cell phone.
"Oh, absolutely!" Bonnie said, nodding so hard that her hair bobbed wildly.
Ten minutes later, Jack McDowall arrived from his home four houses up the street. After he had been introduced to Bonnie and her grandparents, he immediately started evaluating the Firebird's condition by checking the car from fender to fender. As he went over the old vehicle, he jotted down a list of things that needed to be fixed before he'd be able to sell it on.
Stella watched Jack go over the car, snickering inside over the huge difference between the real thing and the larger-than-life persona he was playing in his television ads - in the ads, Jack McDowall looked to be six-foot-five, but in reality, he was closer to five-foot-five. In the ads, his hair and pencil-thin mustache looked perfect, but in reality, it was painfully obvious that the hair was a toupee and the mustache had been dyed black.
Once Jack was done checking the car, he stood up straight and put the list into one of the pockets of his petrol green bomber jacket that sported a large advertisement for his own company on the back. "Well, it's a 1976 Pontiac Firebird with a three-fifty engine and a three-speed auto. It's got a bit of rust here and there and it's not a TransAm, but apart from that, it's not a bad car at all. It needs to have a couple of little things fixed, but it's nothing compared to how old it is," he said to Stella.
"Well, you don't have to convince me, Mr. McDowall. It would be a smooth solution to the problem, wouldn't you agree?" Stella said, pulling a blushing Bonnie towards the used car salesman.
"It definitely would," Jack said and turned to Bonnie. "Miss Douglas-Wright, I estimate that your grandfather's car is worth $2800. Would you? and he? be satisfied with that amount?" he said and found his check book.
"We would, Mr. McDowall," Bonnie said, smiling.
After the deal had gone through, Jack, Stella and Regina stood in front of Bonnie's house and settled their own payment with a handshake.
"$1125, right?" Jack said as he signed the check and tore it off.
"Exactly, Mr. McDowall," Stella said and put the check into one of her coat pockets.
Regina tried to snatch the check before Stella could put it away, but missed. "Ahem. Just for the record, Mr. McDowall? why can't you park in your own garage?" she said, cocking her hips.
"Oooh, I was hoping you'd ask! I've converted it into a full-size, indoor, heated, mood-lit swimming pool! How about that, huh?" Jack said, holding the sides of the bomber jacket and wearing a beaming smile on his face.
"A swimming pool?"
"Yeah! And?" - Jack leaned in towards Regina and Stella and lowered his voice - "?Ladies? I think I have a couple of bikinis in your sizes. Whaddaya say? Margaritas, a little mood music, a little samba, a little fun? eh?"
Stella sent out a choking snort that Regina recognized as the one her friend always used when she was about to swallow her tongue - or hurl - so she took a step forward and put her long arm around Jack's shoulder.
"You know, Jack, I think we better skip that one. We're about to head home to the monastery, aren't we, Sister Stella?"
"And Mother Superior gets so angry with us if we come home after they've locked up for the evening, so? well, we better skip the swimming pool party."
"Uh, monastery? What the hell? a couple of licensed investigators? at a monastery?" Jack said, giving the two women a very puzzled look.
"Oh, yes, yes, the order of the Sacred, uhhh? Virgin. Mother Superior is a strict woman, but lenient towards our little adventures because we always come home before midnight," Regina said and patted Jack's shoulder.
"Okay? um, okay. I think I can hear my telephone ringing," the used car salesman said and quickly shuffled sideways to get out of Regina's reach.
A good half an hour later, Regina pulled into the parking lot in front of Rockin' Ruby's and slid into the first available slot. "Wow, look at all these cars? it's pretty full tonight," she said as she turned off the engine.
"Yeah," Stella said and looked down.
After taking off her seatbelt, Regina turned around in her seat and put her hand on Stella's knee. "Babe, I demand to know what's wrong with you. Every other time you've said a word to me since our photoshoot this afternoon, you've been speaking in the same flat, dull voice. Are you sick?"
Feeling the warm hand on her knee almost made Stella squirm in her seat, but she gripped the door rest hard to get her mind off the former model's soft touch. "Oh, it's noth-"
"El Crappo, Stell. I've known you for too long? something's wrong, and I'm not giving up until you tell me what it is. Hey, I care for you, you know," Regina said and mussed Stella's knee and part of her thigh.
"Oh? yeah. Okay. Promise that you won't spazz out on me?"
"Of course. When have I ever spazzed out, as you so eloquently put it?" Regina said and gave Stella a nudge in the side.
"Yeah, well, you may do this time," Stella said and took a deep breath. Letting it out slowly, she shook her head and decided to come clean. "I think I? I? ha? I think I have?"
"You really are gonna join a monastery?"
"No, silly! Lemme finish!"
"Oooh, I'm dyin' to find out, Stell!"
Scrunching up her face, Stella punched one fist into the palm of the other. "Hey, I'm trying to be sincere, here!"
"Nice rhyme. Sorry. Go on."
"IthinkIhaveacrushonyou," Stella mumbled into her overcoat.
"I. Think. I. Have. A. Bad. Crush. On. You, Regina Harrison," Stella said loud and clear, almost scaring herself with the clarity of her voice and the clarity of the message she was delivering.
"Oh?" Regina said and leaned back in her seat.
"It was that damn naughty French housemaid? and then that damn farmgirl over at Billy's. It reminded me of the fact that you're *very* much a woman and that I haven't? that it's been so long since I?" When Regina didn't offer a reply, Stella turned to look at the former model. "Reggie? You're spazzed out, aren't you?"
"Yes, you are! That's why I didn't want to tell you, dammit. I didn't want to ruin our friendship," Stella said, yanked the SLK's door open and stepped out onto the busy parking lot.
"Oh, come on, Stell, it would take a whole lot more than that to ruin our friendship," Regina said, following Stella out of the car. When Stella just stomped off in a huff towards the entrance to the bar, Regina sighed and clicked on a small button on the key fob to close the roof and lock the doors.
Walking into Rockin' Ruby's a scant minute later, Regina had to narrow her eyes to make them accustomed to the lower light level. Once she could see where she was going, she began to look high and low for her friend.
She couldn't remember when she had last seen the place so packed - every booth was occupied by at least two people, and patrons were standing in droves down the entire line of bar stools.
Ruby Albrecht, the fifty-two year old owner of the bar, was sitting at her customary place at the end of the shiny bar counter, and she offered the tall model a wave when she saw her. "Hey, Reggie. What can I get ya?" she said once the two women were close enough to shake hands.
"Well, Stella for starters. She did come through here, didn't she?"
"Yeah, she went out on the dance floor. Actually, she had a funny look on her face. Did you guys have a fight?"
"No, she's upset because? uh, because her car is in the shop," Regina said, deciding that the jovial Ruby didn't need to know all their secrets.
"Oh, God, no? not the Pacer!" Ruby said and clasped her hands to her bosom.
"I'm afraid so? Anyway, I'll go find her. Would you mind fixing us a driver's whisky-soda and a Bloody Mary in the meantime?"
"No problem, Reggie. I'll make 'em and have 'em ready for you."
"Thanks, Ruby," Regina said and gave the former softball star's shoulder a pat.
As Regina left the busy bar counter behind to go to the dance floor in the back room, someone stuck out her head and yelled, "Hey, Reggie, walk the walk, baby!" earning herself a round of cheers from the other patrons.
Always happy to oblige, Regina took a bow and walked past the last few booths with her hips slamming left and right in her patented model-walk. As she reached the end, she gave the patrons a big grin and a quick wave before she headed onto the dance floor to find Stella.
Stella was sitting on a bench in the corner of the dance floor studying how the dancers were hopping, skipping and squirming to the thumping disco beat. She had her head propped up on her arms and she was wearing an expression that told all potentially interested parties that they should stay away - far away.
Chuckling, Regina defied Stella's expression and sat down next to her. "Hey, gorgeous. How's it hanging?" she said directly into Stella's ear to be heard over the thumping beat.
"'Meh' good, 'meh' bad or 'meh' I wanna jump off the Golden Gate bridge?"
"Okay. Stell, we're still best friends if that's what you're worried about," Regina said and hooked her arm inside Stella's.
"You're not spazzed out?"
"Hell, no, silly!"
"Honest. I'm actually kinda proud."
"Proud? How so?"
"Well, you know? I obviously still got it, huh?"
The age-old joke made Stella chuckle and she reached over and patted Regina's thigh. "Yeah, yeah? you still got it."
"C'mon, let's get away from this infernal racket," Regina said and pulled the reluctant Stella to her feet. On their way back to the outer bar, Regina wrapped her arm around Stella's waist and felt - to her great elation - the shorter woman lean into the touch.
"Sorry to hear about the Pacer, Stella," Ruby said as the two investigators returned to the bar.
"Uh, thanks. There was a tear in the oil sump."
"Ouch, I had that happen to my truck once. Cost me a bundle. Here's your Bloody Mary, hon. And your driver's whisky-soda, Reggie."
"Thanks, Ruby. Now let's see where we can find a seat?" Stella said and began to check out all the booths.
"Your regular table will be available in a moment," Ruby said, already on her way down to the first booth. Once she reached it, she leaned in and said something to the two guests already sitting there, while pointing at Regina and Stella.
"We've got influential friends, huh?" Regina said, sipping her whisky-soda.
"Looks like it."
The two guests moved from the booth over to the crowded bar, and Ruby made a sweeping gesture with her hand directed at the two investigators.
Grinning, Regina and Stella walked down to the booth and sat down.
"Stell, this wasn't exactly the toughest job we've ever had, huh? Cheers," Regina said once they had made themselves comfortable in the red booth.
"Cheers. No. It's a good thing, too, 'cos that business in the bus this morning cost me so much energy?"
"And the French housemaid didn't help," Regina said, bumping shoulders with her friend.
"She didn't, that's right. And the farmgirl removed the rest of it. Jeez, Reggie, why did you have to shoot me that look?"
"You mean? this look?" Regina said and assumed the same smoldering, darkly erotic gaze that had caused so much grief for Stella during the photoshoot.
Stella blew out a sigh and covered her eyes with her hand. "Yes, that look. Please take it off? I already know it. I'm gonna dream about it for a decade."
"It's off. Sorry," Regina said with a snicker.
"No, you ain't sorry one damn bit, Oh ye Cruel Tormentor of Women," Stella said and took a sip of her Bloody Mary.
"Well, speaking of which? I was actually under the impression that you had an evening of carnal fun with that eccentric star Joan of Rock not too long ago??"
Stella sighed and used the celery stick to stir her drink. "Joan of Rock? you wanna hear the truth, Reggie? It's ugly."
"Go on. That's what friends are for, babe."
"She was so drunk that night that she didn't know left from right or even up from down. Yes, the plan was to have sex? yes, we got undressed? yes, we were lying side by side in her queen-sized bed? and then she passed out from vodka abuse before we'd even kissed. Zip, that was the end of that evening."
"Aw, shit. I'm sorry to hear that, Stell. Really sorry," Regina said and leaned in to give Stella a warm hug. "You deserve so much better than old has-beens. Okay, your hair is weird even on a good day and your fashion sense is non-existent, but-"
"Jeez, thanks a lot, Reggie!"
"You're welcome. No, as I was saying, hair and fashion sense aside, you're a hot little number, Stell. Oh, don't give me that face, I'm deadly serious."
Despite Regina's words, Stella still gave the former model 'that face' before draining the last drops of her Bloody Mary. Once she put the empty glass down on the napkin, she started turning it around and around between her fingers, clearly pondering something important.
"Reggie??" she finally said after nearly a minute of silence.
"Would you do me a favor?"
"Anything," Regina said and mussed Stella's blonde haystack of hair.
"Would you mind? uh, kissing me?"
"A kiss. You know? a kiss. Just one. Don't worry, I'm not gonna slip you the tongue."
Regina chuckled and scooted closer to Stella. Leaning in, she locked eyes with her friend to make sure that she wasn't about to change her mind at the last moment. "I'm game. Are you?" Regina whispered.
"Yes. Just once? I j- I just need to try."
"All right," Regina continued. Leaning in even further, she closed the distance between them and claimed Stella's lips in a kiss that was slightly awkward and inexperienced, but ultimately not totally ineffective.
As Regina and Stella separated a brief while later, they suddenly noticed that the entire bar had fallen quiet. Looking up, they found themselves being gawked at by nearly forty patrons, including an amused Ruby.
'That took you long enough!' someone shouted.
"Oh, go away! Haven't you ever seen two women kissing?!" Stella said in a slightly thick voice.
Grinning broadly, the patrons all gave Regina and Stella a thumbs-up before going back to their drinks.
Stella leaned forward in her seat and ran her index finger across her lips. 'Hmmm'-ing quietly to herself, she turned to look at Regina who had scooted back to her own drink.
"So?" Regina said, wiggling her eyebrows.
"Did you find what you were looking for?"
At first Stella shrugged, but after a few seconds, she nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I did. I found out that my crush on you has now been torn up and dumped down the toilet."
"Uh? why?" Regina said, furrowing her brow.
Grinning, Stella leaned in towards Regina and poked the former model in the side with her fingers. "Because you have no idea how to kiss a girl."
"What are you talking about? That was a pretty good kiss!"
"No. Even though it looked like you took the lead, you were actually waiting for the guy to kiss *you*? only this time, there wasn't any guy around who would assume control," Stella said with a snicker, adjusting her glasses that hadn't steamed up from the kiss.
"So there! Thank God I got over that crush-nonsense. Man, I feel like a whole new woman! You want another drink, Reggie?" Stella said as she shot up from the booth and made a beeline for the counter before Regina had even had time to respond.
"But, Stell!" Regina said, putting her hands down onto the table top. When she realized that Stella was too far away to hear her, she folded her arms across her chest and leaned back in the seat. "I still got it," she mumbled to herself, working up a sulk that would take at least a stiff Scotch and a highlights reel of one of her old fashion shows to cure?
VI - A THOUSAND AND ONE NUTS
Written by Norsebard
"Just a bit forward, Stell? no, too much, a bit back," Regina said as she and Stella were trying to wrestle a four by six by two foot cardboard box through the door to the office.
"Will you make up your flippin' mind, fer cryin' out loud!"
"Naw, won't work? we need to get it vertical? just a little more? just a little more."
"Will? you? hurry? up? and? get? through? that? door? this? thing? weighs? a ton!" Stella said through clenched teeth, struggling to hold up her end of the cardboard box.
"I'm hurrying, I'm hurrying," Regina said as she walked backwards into the office. "Mind the doorst-"
"Owwwwch!" Stella howled, having - rather predictably - stubbed her toes on the metal band going across the floor.
"-step. Too late? never mind."
"I'm? dying? dying? gotta? let it? go?!" Stella said, huffing and puffing like a steam locomotive going up Mount Everest.
"We're here, drop it," Regina said and put her end of the cardboard box down on the floor. "And watch your toes!"
Stella was more than happy to comply, and she let go of the heavy package at once. Jumping back to avoid having her toes flattened by the box, she whacked her elbow against the opened door instead, squealing out a strained "Oooooh!" as the electric impulses sprinted up and down her arm.
"Mind the door, Stell."
"Ha. Ha! Ha. Ouch," Stella said, furiously rubbing her elbow.
"Are you all right?"
"Yeah, yeah. Let's get this thing opened. Where's the box cutter?"
Regina walked over to her desk, reached into the top drawer and found a small plastic tool. "Right here, babe."
"Let's get to it, then."
Three minutes later, Regina and Stella were standing in the middle of the office, wearing identical, confused expressions while staring at a barely recognizable set of wooden sticks, a pair of red cotton cushions that had been folded up not once, not twice, but three times, and a huge pile of small plastic bags with screws, nuts, washers, a set of Allen keys and assorted other doodads and thingamajigs.
"You know, Reggie, I coulda sworn I bought a chair. This doesn't look like a chair to me," Stella said, scratching her upper lip.
"Well, we already knew we had to put it together ourselves."
"Yeah, but? look at this," Stella said and swept her hands across the confusing mess on the floor.
Regina crouched down and began to sort through the various items. "There's gotta be a manual somewhere. Come on, let's look for it."
"Okay, we got the manual. Now we need a manual for the manual," Stella said, sitting on the floor and turning the single page of instructions over in her hand.
After scratching her hairline, Regina rolled up her shirt sleeves and took off her wristwatch. "Stell, Rome wasn't built in a day. We're clever women, we can do it. We'll have it assembled in no time."
"I'm gonna write that down," Stella mumbled and looked around for a pencil.
Two hours later, they had created an abstract masterpiece, which, according to Regina, was fit for the Museum of Modern Art - Stella just thought it was fit for the scrapheap.
Two further hours later, they had finally assembled the chair, and Stella immediately christened it by gently lowering herself down into it and placing her rear end on the plush cushions. "Ohhh? lovely stuff. Magnificent softness? oh, the smell of wood? oh, the wonderful feeling of a job well done," she said dreamily.
"Mmmmyeah. Though, I wonder?" Regina said, holding something in her hand.
The tall former model turned around and showed Stella a handful of screws. "Where these screws were supposed to go??"
"I, uh? ah, it's probably nothing. You know how they always overstock the bags. They're worried people are gonna sue them if there aren't enough screws? or something."
"Yeah. You're probably right."
Stella's eyes popped wide open at the groaning sound that emanated from the wooden frame, and she slammed her hands down on the armrests to have something to hold onto in case the chair collapsed. When nothing further happened, she raised herself up from the chair as cautiously as she could. "Uh? on second thoughts, perhaps we better give it another check," she said and took the Allen key.
Another forty minutes later, the chair was finally secure enough for Stella to carry it over to her desk. Grunting, she kicked aside the overturned plastic beer crate she had been using since she had thrown away her old swivel chair, and put her new chair down on the gray carpet.
Regina went back to her desk and swung her legs up on the table top. Studying the manual for the chair, she chuckled when she read a certain paragraph. "You know, Stell, it actually says here that the assembly is estimated to take forty-five minutes."
"That's roughly how long it took us, right? On the third try, I mean."
"Yeah," Regina said with a throaty chuckle. Stretching up, she moved the telephone over to her and put her hand on the receiver. "Hey, Stell? What do you want for dinner tonight? Chinese, Thai, Italian? what?"
"Hmmmm, dunno. What do you fancy tonight, Reggie?"
"Mineral water and a light salad. It's already in the fridge."
"That's not what I fancy tonight, Reggie," Stella said surly.
"Didn't think so. So? what'll it be?"
"Chine? no? no, pizz? no, Thai. Definitely Thai. Hold the bamboo-thingies."
Sighing, Regina turned around in her chair and looked at her friend. "Stell, you can't have Thai without the bamboo sprouts. How many times do I have to tell you? I remember once I was headlining a show in Bangkok. We wanted some local chow and the chef brought in something that looked like roasted do-"
"Ah! Timeout!" Stella said and held up her hands in the familiar T.
"Then what'll it be?"
"Let me think about it."
"Sheesh," Regina said and pushed the telephone back across her desk. Moments later, it rang, and she leaned in to pick it up. "The Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?"
"Hi, Billy. Yeah, okay, I'll tell her. Hey, Stell?"
"The Pacer is finished."
Stella's chin began to quiver and she felt her face fall several inches. Holding onto the armrests for support, she let out a sobbing wail so full of sorrow and grief that it practically blew Regina out of her chair.
"What?! What?! WHAT?! Good Lord, Stella, what's wrong!?" Regina said, spinning around in her chair.
"Buh? my P- Pacer. My Pacer! Is! Finished! Ohhhh, I loved that car?" Stella howled, grabbing a handful of her dirty-blonde hair and nearly tearing it out.
"Uhhh, yeah but- No, Billy, we aren't pulling a cat's tail," Regina said into the telephone. "Stell?? Stell?? Stella, you don't understand. The Pacer is done."
"Stella, listen to me. The Pacer is ready. Do you understand? Ready, like in brum, brum," Regina said and simulated turning a steering wheel. "We can go over there and pick it up at once. Stella, can you hear me? You look really pale? please don't faint on me, okay?"
"R? ready? It's r-ready??"
"Yes, dear. Ready. Like in 'you can drive home tonight if you want.' "
"Oh? o-okay," Stella said, using a trembling hand to wipe a massive amount of cold sweat off her forehead. With a mighty effort, she pushed herself out of the chair and stumbled over to lean against the small wash basin behind the door.
Sighing deeply, Regina returned to the telephone conversation. "Hello, Billy, are you still there? Thanks for the update. We'll be over in five?" - turning to look at her friend, Regina could see at once that Stella was more than a little unsteady on her feet - "naw, better make that ten minutes. Okay? Good, talk to you then."
"Gawd? that took twenty years off my life right there?" Stella croaked, clinging onto the aluminum wash basin to support herself.
"Mmmm. Come on, babe, let's get some warm clothes on you and then we can go over to Billy's and reclaim the old girl," Regina said, wrapping Stella's favorite vest over the blonde investigator's shoulders.
"You're welcome, Miss Haystack," Regina said and mussed Stella's wild hair, earning herself a relieved little chuckle.
VII - THREE GUYS, TWO PRIVATE EYES & ONE BIG SURPRISE
Written by Norsebard
Ten minutes to nine, a.m., Regina Harrison drove into the parking lot in front of the building that housed the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency office.
Instead of going inside and firing up the coffee maker like she usually did, the six-foot-one former model kept standing at the expensive, low-slung - and leased - Mercedes SLK, using the windowsill as a resting place for her jeans-clad rear.
After fluffing her long, black hair out of the collar of her steel gray button-down shirt, she checked the wing mirror to see if it had fallen right. Satisfied that everything was on top form, she winked at herself and flashed her pearly whites.
Moments later, her business associate and dear friend Stella Starr drove up the small incline in her freshly repaired AMC Pacer that had been polished so thoroughly after its lengthy stay at Billy the Mechanic's garage that the chrome trimmings were reflecting more sunlight than the average weather balloon.
While Stella parked, Regina reached down onto the SLK's passenger seat and took a bouquet of daisies she had bought for her friend. Tearing open the purple wrapping paper, she quickly checked that the flowers hadn't been crushed, and then turned around to greet Stella - but the split second her eyes fell on the clothes the blonde investigator was wearing, she involuntarily clenched her fist and crushed one of the stalks.
Stella stepped out of the Pacer and locked the door. As usual, her hair had already turned into a dirty-blonde haystack, even though she had only just combed it. For once, though, her hairdo wasn't at the center of attention; her outfit was: She was wearing Pippi Longstocking socks in purple flip-flops, pale green polyester slacks and a chocolate brown cotton vest over a tomato red t-shirt.
"Hi, Reggie! Awww, are those for me?? You shouldn't have," Stella said as she walked around the rear of the Pacer. When Regina didn't answer, Stella went up to the former model and waved a hand in front of her face. "Reggie? Yoohoo, Reggie, are you in there or did you turn into one of the pod people? Or maybe a Stepford wife?"
"I'm? Gawd? I need my sunglasses," Regina said and tried to shield her eyes from Stella's loud and colorful fatigues.
"Ha, ha, if I wasn't in such a good mood today, I'd think that you were complaining about my clothes??" Stella said and took the bouquet from Regina's hands.
"Oh, uh? I wasn't complaining? as such. I really do need my sunglasses. Anyway, congratulations on getting your Pacer back, Stell," Regina said and pulled her friend into a half-embrace to protect the daisies.
"Thanks, Reggie. Thanks for the daisies, too," Stella said and took a sniff of the bouquet. Turning around, she swept her hand over the shiny automobile. "Yeah, she's a beauty, don't you think? Billy made the engine purr like a kitten. Something must have been wrong with it for a long time, because it hasn't sounded like this for years."
"Something has been wrong with it since the day it left the drawing board?" Regina mumbled out of the corner of her mouth.
"Oh, nothing, hon."
"Okay. Let's make some coffee, I didn't get an-"
At that exact moment, a black cat jumped down from the stone fence the two cars were parked at and landed on the Pacer's hood. Within a matter of seconds, it had left dusty paw prints all over the shiny surface, and it looked like it wanted to use the warm engine cover as a pillow.
Stella's eyes popped wide open and she let out a feral growl that sounded like it came from a much larger being than the petite woman. The cat got the message in an instant, jumping up and disappearing into the shrubbery like the Cat Devil was on its tail.
"Ohfercryingoutloud! Look at MY HOOD!" Stella roared, pointing at the formerly shiny surface.
"Uh, I see it. I'll take the flowers, you'll wipe the hood," Regina said and reached for the daisies to rescue them from being crushed in Stella's steely grip.
At once, Stella unlocked the Pacer and opened the hatchback. She quickly found a kitchen roll, tore off two pieces with such force that she left claw marks on the next piece, and ran up front to get the paw prints off the hood.
After working feverishly for several minutes, she breathed a sigh of relief and took a step back to admire the results. "There. Thank God I'm in a good mood today."
The words had barely left Stella's mouth when a large dove came screaming down from the skies, clearly on a strafing run. After lining up the target, the dove released its load which flew through the air in a perfect arc, headed directly for the?
? Pacer's windscreen.
Both corners of Stella's mouth began to twitch and her eyes grew wider and wider. Then her chin began to tremble and she developed small, red blotches on her cheeks.
Regina knew it was time to head for the bomb shelter, and she made a hasty exit, mumbling that she was going to put the flowers in water and turn on the coffee maker.
When Stella reached her boiling point, steam began to shoot out of her ears, and she clenched her fists and went into such a screaming, hopping, spit-flying hissy fit that spooked the dove so badly that it spun around in mid-air and zoomed back to wherever it had come from.
"You dirty rotten piece of? Come back here! Come back here you no good piece of? I'm gonna bazooka you and your family four generations back! Takin' a dump on my windscreen! Jeez-Louise! I get no respect! Tell me where you live an' I'll go take a crap in your nest, you miserable flying rat!" Stella howled into the air.
Panting hard, Stella felt her bad temper slowly settle down, and she unclenched her fists and began to shake her head. "I'm in a good mood today? I'm in a good mood today? I'm in a good mood today?" she chanted, trying to get the horrible experience out of her mind.
Sighing, she went around the back of the Pacer, found a bottle of EzClean and began to remove the disgusting white stain from her windscreen.
"Coffee?" she croaked as she walked into the office a few minutes later.
Recognizing desperation when she heard it, Regina swung her legs off the desk, put away her PSP and walked over to the door to help Stella get to her new four-legged chair.
"Are you seated comfortably, darling?" Regina said after guiding Stella down onto the plush cushions.
"Okay. Coming right up," Regina said and walked over to the table next to the small wash basin behind the door. "A cup, a mug or the thermos like last week?"
While Regina poured plenty of the steaming hot liquid into the mug, she offered Stella a sympathetic smile, but the blonde investigator wasn't in any shape to respond to it. "Here you go, honeybuns," she said as she put the mug down on the desk next to a vase with the daisies.
"Thanks, Reggie. You're a real life-preserver."
"I sincerely hope you don't mean that I'm orange and bloated," Regina said and went into one of her classic poses that she finished off by cocking her hips and thrusting her bosom forward.
"Nope. You still-"
"Got it, I know, you don't have to tell me. But it feels good to be appreciated."
"Actually I was gonna say that you still have one or two years left in you," Stella said with a cheeky grin.
"Oh, haw, haw, Miss Haystack," Regina said on her way back to her desk. Once she sat down, she swung her legs back up on the desk and grabbed her PSP. Soon, the sounds of the game echoed through the office - 'Ooohhh! Aaaaargh! Swoosh! Swoosh! Ooohhh! Splat! Aaaaargh! Swoosh! Splat!'
It didn't take more than ten seconds for the sounds to get on Stella's nerves and she started playing with her Rubik's Cube to try to block them out. When that didn't work, she tried to stick her fingers in her ears, but even that couldn't filter out the frenetic sounds coming from the small electronic device.
After a particularly nasty sounding 'Swoosh! Splat!', merciful silence spread through the office, and Stella relaxed and leaned back in her chair - unfortunately, the respite was short-lived as 'Boss level!' soon boomed out of the PSP, followed by even louder, even more action-packed swooshing, aaarghing and splatting.
"Reggie! What the HELL are you playing?!"
"Dragon Fighter four. You wanna try?"
"No! I want you to mute the damn thing! I can hardly hear what I'm thinking," Stella said and threw a crumpled up ball of paper in Regina's direction.
"Can't play it without sound," Regina said, concentrating hard on keeping her dragon alive against the boss creature.
Stella was about to send another ball of paper at Regina when their phones rang. Thankful for the interruption, she found her pencil and a notepad and picked up the receiver.
"You've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?"
'Uhhh? I'd like to speak to Mr. Harrison Starr, please?' a strangely familiar female voice said from the other end of the connection, sounding like she was pinching her nostrils as she spoke.
Moving in a very controlled fashion, Stella pinned the receiver down between her shoulder and her cheek, put down the pencil, took off her glasses and slapped her forehead with such force that her haystack of hair was blown backwards. After doing that, she put her glasses back on and pulled out the drawer where they kept the records of clients asking for Mr. Harrison Starr.
"I'm sorry, Miss, you can't. That's the name of the company. I'm Stella Starr, one of the investigators," she said in a flat monotone. Grabbing the pencil, she made a mark on the score sheet - the twentieth.
'Heh, heh, I know. It's Inspector Moynes, Miss Starr.'
"Oh?" Stella said and looked at the fat pencil line she had just made on the paper. She soon gave up looking for an eraser and just slammed the drawer shut - after all, it probably wouldn't take them long to get to twenty.
"Hello, Inspector. What can we do for you?"
'Well, I think I have a job for you. My niece is in a bit of a jam.'
'Yeah, she was conned out of a few dollars by a couple of goons masquerading as businessmen. I've tried to get her to make it official by filing a report, but she doesn't want to. I guess she's worried that the businessmen will find out and put a squeeze on her.'
"Hmmm, that sounds jammy, all right. What are we talking about here, exactly, Inspector?"
'A stolen television set that my niece didn't know was hot until we checked it in the database.'
"Right. Okay, I'm taking a few notes as we speak," Stella said and scribbled on the notepad.
'I was thinking that I could swing by in a short while to tell you and Miss Harrison about the particulars? My niece is really worked up about it.'
"Our agenda is clear for the entire day, Inspector. You can pop over anytime."
'Thanks, Miss Starr. Talk to you later,' Mary-Jane Moynes said and hung up.
Nodding, Stella finished writing her thoughts down on the notepad and quickly tore off the page. "Reggie, put the gizmo away, we've got a job," she said and got up from the chair to grab another mug of coffee.
"Was that Inspector Moynes?" Regina said, turned off the PSP and put it into her desk drawer.
"Yeah. Her niece is in a spot of bother with a couple of goons. Fences. Sounds like they've ripped her off. The Inspector is coming over later to give us the lowdown."
"Right. Fences? bigger fish than we've encountered lately." Regina leaned back in her swivel chair and entwined her fingers. "You know, we probably won't be able to get our regular fee out of the Inspector's niece."
"No, I've thought about that. I think we need to file this one under charity," Stella said, warming her hands on the mug while she was walking over to the couch to sit down.
"Fences? hmmm. I have to admit that my experience with such people is limited. I'm thinking flashy jewelry, big coats? maybe genuine Borsalinos??"
"A bit too Godfather, I think, Reggie," Stella said with a chuckle. "Naw, first of all, we need to find something they could be interested in. Once we've figured that out, we can go for the clothing."
"Hmmm," Regina said and scratched her hairline, being mindful not to upset her neatly styled hair.
"The item that got the Inspector's niece into hot water was a stolen TV, so we know they have home electronics, at least."
"Hmmm," Regina said again.
"So, when you're done 'hmmm'-ing, would ya mind telling me what you've come up with?"
Regina nodded and got up from her chair.
When Stella rose as well, thinking that her friend had an idea, the former model waved her hand in a dismissive fashion. "Don't bother. I just gotta pee."
"Typical. I drink the coffee and you gotta go," Stella said and bumped back down on the couch.
Three minutes later, Regina came back into the office, wiping her hands on a paper towel. "You know, Stell??"
"We'll be out of soap soon."
"Oh. I'll make a note of it. I thought you were going to give me some kind of golden advice."
"I did. Soap is important," Regina said and sat down next to Stella in the couch.
"Hey, Reggie, I'm glad I got over that crush-nonsense I had on you last week. If I hadn't discovered that you kiss like my aunt, my glasses would've been steaming up by now," Stella said and reached over to pat Regina's jeans-clad thigh.
"Oh, well? uh? that's me, ha ha. Always ready, willing and able to fulfill any request. Which reminds me??"
"When are you gonna dump that hideous outfit down the sewer? or better yet, burn it at the stake?"
"I beg your pardon!" Stella said and shot up in an upright position.
"I'm trying to tell ya that ya don't need a disguise this time, Stell. If you wear what you're wearing now when we meet the fences, you'll blend in better than any disguise ever could. They'll think you're one of the guys."
"I'm wearing what *I* want to wear! Not what some glittery fashion magazine says is the fad of the week! So there!"
"Okay, but could you at least pick matching colors the next time?? It's giving me a headache," Regina said and moved back over to her desk to be at a safe distance in case Stella decided to throw one of her patented hissy fits.
"Well, excuse me for liking comfortable clothes!"
"It's not that, the clothes are okay? I can't believe I said that? but it's the colors? the colors, Stell! Purple and green and red and ugh!"
Grumbling, Stella crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back in the couch.
"It wouldn't take much to make you gorgeous, Stell. Slacks, t-shirt, vest, it's all okay. Dunno about the socks in the flip-flops, though," Regina said and scrunched up her face. "But anyway, you can even wear green jeans if you want to, just choose a dusty, forest green, 'cos that matches your eyes? oh, and you have perfect hips for jeans."
Stella snorted loudly and rolled her eyes.
Feeling inspired, Regina bounced to her feet and began to pose in the middle of the office floor. "Then we're into Fall colors and you can use a wine-red t-shirt and a forest green hunting vest in the same color tone as the pants, or maybe a touch darker to have some contrast. That would be a wonderful contrast to your hair? it would look great on you, hon," she said, posing and touching her own garments to underline what she was saying.
"Yeah, yeah. Hey, I could make you into a princess in no time," Regina said, smiling broadly.
"Oh, that's so great. I've always wanted to be a princess," Stella said in a flat monotone.
Regina's left eyebrow slowly crept up her forehead and she put her hands on her hips. "You know, irony isn't lost on me, shorty."
"I'm so glad. How much did that gray rag you're wearing cost ya, Reggie?"
"My shirt? This is a genuine Lady Bartholdy and it was a steal at $249."
"Uh-huh. Well, what I'm wearing right now, including my Wile E. Coyote unmentionables, didn't cost that much. Combined."
Stella got up from the couch and went back to her desk. "Look, can we get back to business?" she said, looking through her drawers.
"Sure. Whatever. I'm trying to reach out to you with my twenty-five years of experience and you just brush me off," Regina huffed and began to pout.
"Pouts don't work on me, Missy, so you might as well drop it." Looking up, Stella could see that her words didn't have any effect, so she decided to go for a zinger. "And apart from that, when you pout, you get these nasty little wrinkles around your mouth. One of these days, they're gonna stick?"
Regina instantly dropped the pout and sprinted over to the nearest mirror to see if the wrinkles were still there.
"Yeah, I thought that might do the trick," Stella said, chuckling. "ANYway, I was thinking that if we brought some old home electronics when we visited the fences, we might look more, uh, trustworthy."
"Like what?" Regina said, trying out a series of different facial expressions while she was staring into the mirror.
"Our old boombox. I've noticed that it's been stuttering and skipping tracks recently. The laser is probably getting old or something."
"Yeah, okay. Do you really think they'll buy that? Uh, metaphorically as well as literally?" Regina said and looked at their trusty, old boombox that was placed on top of a filing cabinet down the other end of the office.
"Well, I don't know? but it couldn't hurt to try."
"Okay," Stella said and picked out a single daisy from the bouquet. She began to roll it between her fingers, scrunching up her face like she was deep in thought. "Should we dress up or down? If we look out of place, they'll just laugh their butts off? and kick us out. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm?"
"When in doubt, check the Internet," Regina said and moved over to Stella's laptop. After booting it, she clicked a few times on the keyboard and waited for the result of the search. "Okay, this looks like it could work? and I think we've already got most of it," she continued, turning the laptop around so Stella could view the screen.
"Doc Martens, white jeans, a black silk shirt and a brown shoulderholster?!" Stella said, narrowing her eyes.
"Oh, yeah, all the extra-special bad girls wear that. And don't forget the smoke-tinted shades."
"That's gonna look ridiculous on me, Reggie. You wear that, I don't have the figure for it," Stella said, waving her hand dismissively.
"But of course you do, little princess!"
"Do you savor our friendship?"
"Then don't call me little princess ever again. Okay?"
"Sure, hon," Regina said with a grin, knowing that she had just found another perfect method to get Stella riled up.
After much hemming and hawing, Regina had narrowed her choices down to two. Walking into the office, she held up two coat hangers so Stella could see them. "So, which one? a dark blue double-breasted zoot suit with matching fedora and a cream shirt? or? a steel gray business suit with a mat black shirt and a red tie, but no hat??"
"Gee whiz, I don't know, Reggie. What's your favorite?" Stella said, briefly looking up from her Rubik's Cube.
"Don't know, to be honest. The double-breasted suit matches my eyes, but the black shirt matches my hair?"
"Why not wear the dark blue suit with the black shirt, then?"
"Sweet mercy, you can't mix dark blue and mat black!"
"No, of course not, what was I thinking!" Stella said, throwing her hands in the air.
"Oh, ha, ha. Did you decide on your outfit yet, Stell?"
"I found it on the Internet while you were trying out your clothes? and you'll see it when we get there."
"Why does that send a shiver down my back??" Regina mumbled on her way back to the conference room at the back of the office.
Stella had already prepared a snappy response, but someone knocking on the door interrupted her before she could let it rip. Putting down her Cube, she got up and went over to the door to let whomever it was inside.
As the door swooshed open, the backdraft caught hold of Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes' scarf, and she had to clamp down on it with both hands to stop it from taking off. "Ohh!" she said loudly as the colorful scarf wrapped itself around her face.
"Hello, Inspector. Ooops, sorry 'bout that. I don't know my own strength sometimes," Stella said and ushered the detective inside.
"Hello, Miss Starr. That was quite a welcome. Are you always trying to undress your guests in the door?" Mary-Jane said. As usual, the police detective with the angular, but attractive, face was dressed impeccably, wearing a classy deep-burgundy pant suit over a peach blouse that went well with her strawberry-blonde hair.
"Ah, no. Sometimes, we let them get inside before we strip 'em down," Stella said with a laugh.
"I see. Nice flowers," the Inspector said as she put a thick folder down on Stella's desk.
"Yes, aren't they? Reggie had bought them for me this morning? to celebrate that I have my car back."
"That's nice. Miss Starr, I-"
"Oh, please, call me Stella. We've known each other for close to a year now. It's high time to be on a first name basis. Have a seat," Stella said and pointed at the couch.
"Thank you. All right. I'm Mary-Jane, but I guess you knew that already," the Inspector said as she sat down. Leaning back in the couch, she crossed her legs at the knees.
"I did. By the way, Reggie is out back trying to figure out which outfit she'll be wearing when we go to the goons. We are going to do that, aren't we? Reggie will be heartbroken if we aren't," Stella said and sat down next to the Inspector.
"Well, that depends on whether or not you've decided to take the case?"
"Oh, but that's a given, Mary-Jane. Have no fear, Harrison-Starr is here!"
Mary-Jane chuckled a bit, then nodded in the direction of the large folder she had put on Stella's desk. "I have all the info in there. If you don't mind, I think I'll wait until Miss Harrison gets here so I don't have to explain everything twice."
"Miss Harrison is already here, Inspector. Hello," Regina said and closed the door to the conference room behind her.
Mary-Jane moved to get up to take the folder, but Regina held up her hands. "I got it." After putting the folder on the coffee table, she rolled her swivel chair over, moved it around so it was turned the wrong way and sat down on it. Wearing an uncharacteristic scowl, she leaned forward and put her hands on the backrest.
Stella noticed the scowl and furrowed her brow, but Regina just winked at her, adding to Stella's confusion.
"Can I get you anything to drink, Mary-Jane?" Stella said, but the Inspector just shook her head. "All right, let's take it from the top," she continued.
Mary-Jane Moynes sighed deeply and ran a hand through her short hair. When she started to speak, it was evident by the tension in her voice that she was more than a bit annoyed with the situation. "Three weeks ago, my niece Andi bought a used television set in a second hand store down on the corner of Tenth and Monaghan. She paid one hundred and seventy-five dollars for it, which she thought was a fair price for a three-year-old TV."
"Go on," Stella said, nodding. Regina just scowled a bit more.
"Well, when I visited her a couple of days later, she told me that she felt something was wrong. She had found an ad in the classifieds where a similar, used TV was for sale, only that one cost nearly twice as much. I got a little suspicious and started checking out the TV."
"And you discovered it was hot stuff?" Regina said.
"More or less. I found the serial number and ran it through the stolen goods database at work. That particular number didn't come up, but it was just next to a batch of TVs that had been stolen from the importer's warehouse three years ago."
"Hmmm," Stella said.
"Yeah, and I couldn't help but think that the assessor for the insurance company might've missed a few TVs back when he wrote his reports. For personal gain, perhaps, who knows," Mary-Jane said and smoothed down a crease in her pant suit. "Well, anyway, to cut to the chase, I explained the details to my niece and told her that she better deliver it back to the second-hand store. She did. The problems started when those goons didn't want to give her all her money back."
"Hmmm," Stella said again.
"They only wanted to give her one hundred dollars because my niece had had it for a week, and, according to them, she had scratched it? which is B.S. There were scratches on it, but they had been there since she bought it."
Stella nodded and leaned forward to put her hands on the tabletop. "Right. Well, here's our plan. Reggie and I will visit the second-hand store later today or tonight and offer them an, uh, a dowry to show that we're trustworthy. Then, I think we should arrange a larger trade of some kind, maybe? ummm? a batch of BluRay players or something in exchange for a few dollars. And that's where we'll grab 'em."
"Sounds good to me, Stella. There isn't enough time to arrange a large-scale sting for this evening, but we should be in the clear for tomorrow," Mary-Jane said after rolling her sleeve back to look at her wristwatch.
"Reggie, do you have anything to add? You've done nothing but scowl the last five minutes??" Stella said, furrowing her brow again.
"Oh, no, the plan is sound. I'm just practicing my facial expressions for when we'll be staring down the goons."
"Ooookay?" Stella said and scratched her cheek.
"What kind of 'dowry' were you planning to bring?" the Inspector said, forming quotation marks in the air.
"Our old boombox."
Mary-Jane turned to look at the equipment, shaking her head when she saw the brand and the state it was in. "No, that won't do, I'm afraid. From what my niece told me, they're kinda picky. Fortunately, I have something out in the cruiser that should be enough to sway them into believing that you're? how should I put it?? Uh, part of the family," she said and got up from the couch.
"I love a well-prepared woman," Stella said and followed the Inspector out of the office and into the parking lot.
Opening the trunk of her unmarked Ford Crown Victoria cruiser, Mary-Jane pointed at five laptops that had been piled up in a small plastic crate. "That should work. I got 'em last year in a clear-out sale, but I haven't had time to work on them. They don't have hard drives or anything, but they look good from a distance."
"They look great, Inspector," Regina said.
"Yes, this should work very well," Stella chimed in.
"Good. Have you ever gone up against this type of criminal?" the Inspector said as she lifted the crate out of the car.
Once it was on the ground, Stella helped Mary-Jane close the trunk. "Well, we have, in one of our first jobs together, but not recently."
"You have to remember that they're goons and that they won't hesitate letting the fists do the talking. You have to act natural so they won't get suspicious of you. Fences are typically paranoid as hell? don't forget, they're squeezed from three sides: the police, their suppliers and occasionally from customers who discover they've bought hot merchandise, like my niece."
"We'll be careful, Mary-Jane."
Regina held her index finger in the air like she wanted to speak. When there was a pause in the conversation, she took a deep breath and butted in. "Act natural? do you think it would help if I didn't wear the red tie to the mat black shirt and the steel gray business suit?"
Mary-Jane Moynes opened her mouth to speak, but at first, the words didn't come to her. "Well? maybe you should wait in the car while Stella takes care of business??" she said after a brief pause.
Stella stifled a chuckle, pretending that it was a cough.
"And leave my friend alone with a couple of no-good douchebags? Hardly, Inspector," Regina said surly while she picked up the crate.
"Well. You can work out the details yourselves? just remember to stay alert, okay?" Mary-Jane said and walked around the cruiser to get to the driver's side door.
"We will, thanks, Mary-Jane," Stella said as the Inspector got into the Crown Victoria and drove off.
On her way out of the parking lot, the Inspector honked twice at the two investigators and gave them a quick wave out of the window.
Once the cruiser had left their parking lot, Stella put on a menacing expression and spun around to face Regina. "Regina Harrison!" she barked in a commanding voice.
"Uh, what? What, what, what?!"
Unable to hold the dark grimace, Stella broke out into a warm smile, and she wrapped her arm around the tall woman's waist and pulled her into a sideways hug. "That was the sweetest thing you've ever said. I'm proud to call you my friend, friend."
"Aw, shucks, shorty? that was nothing," Regina said, shrugging with a grin on her face and the beginnings of a pinkish hue on her cheeks.
"We better get changed. We're gonna have to put a lot of effort into this one, Reggie. A lot of effort," Stella said and led the two of them back to the office.
A few hours later, Stella was sitting next to a pile of clothes in the middle of the office floor, having turned their closet upside down to find the right outfit for their field excursion. She had created two smaller piles on either side of her; one marked 'worth a toss' and the other marked 'needs to be tossed'.
"Found anything?" Regina said, sitting on the couch and sipping a cold Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz.
"Yes and no. Like I told you, I had found a great costume on the 'net, but with the new info the Inspector provided, I thought? ugh? smells of sweat," Stella said and threw an old t-shirt into the 'needs to be tossed' pile after giving it a sniff. "? I'd better go over? it? again ? hmmm."
"Well, if you need my help, just give me a holler."
"Thanks, Reggie. No, no, I've got what I need right here, I just can't make up my mind. It needs to be gritty? it needs to be grungy? it needs to make a statement. I'm not used to that," Stella said and discarded a purple t-shirt where the seam around the neck had perished so badly that the whole thing had come loose.
"Oh, yeah, I can see your dilemma. Usually, you just dress in the dark, but now you actually have to make a conscious decision on what to wear."
The predictable results weren't long in coming - two seconds later, an old sweater came flying through the air towards Regina, but the former model evaded it easily. "Hey, mind the 'do, Stell," Regina said and moved a stray lock of hair back in place.
Stella's only reply was to stick out her tongue.
"Nyah-nyah to you, too, shorty."
"Hey, these could work," Stella said and held up a pair of old, threadbare stonewashed jeans where both pant legs had multiple tears and holes in them, and where the zipper was locked in place by a safety pin inside the button hole. "Yeah, these will do nicely. Okay, now my brain is starting to warm up. These jeans and the purple t-shirt from before."
"You're gonna look like a dumpster queen again, Stell," Regina said and leaned back in the couch.
"Well, that's the whole point, see. I want to look like I've come from a rough neighborhood."
"Uh-huh? okay? where do I fit in? Sister, there's no way? no WAY? that you can make my face look like I'm from a rough neighborhood, no matter how much makeup you smear on it."
"I'm aware of that, Reggie."
"Good. But do you have a solution?" Regina said and threw the sweater back at Stella.
"I think I do. How about? you're my bodyguard and I won you in a poker game," Stella said with a huge grin on her face.
"Well, how about you're my servant and I won *you* in a poker game, toots?" Regina said and fluffed her collar.
"Naw, I'm the boss in this here detective agency. My word is law."
"Yes, boss. I'm sorry, boss. Won't happen again, boss. You're the boss, boss."
"That's right, Missy," Stella said in a gruff voice, pointing a crooked finger at Regina. "Hey, I got it, Reggie," she continued, jumping to her feet.
Letting out a giddy whoop, she began to point at some of the items she had put aside. "Okay? boots, the torn jeans, the purple T, a loose blue-and-green plaid shirt, knitted gloves where the fingers have been cut off, a blue fleece vest and a sailor's cap."
"? and a what?"
"A sailor's cap. This one," Stella said and dug out a dark blue Rokkstarr 'Ruff Riderz' cap which she proceeded to put on, pulling it down to cover the tips of her ears.
"Actually, that's a beanie."
"No it ain't? a beanie has a little propeller on it, Reggie."
"Not these days it doesn't."
"Ah, who cares what it's called. I'm wearing it," Stella said and ran over to the conference room to get the mirror. Upon her return, she picked up the clothes she had chosen and hurried into the bathroom to change.
Four minutes later, she came back out, dressed like she had lived her entire life on the neon-lit mean streets or in the dark, gloomy back alleys. Assuming a grim expression, she thrust her hands into her vest pockets and posed in a fashion she hoped would be enough to fool the fences working in the shop.
"Whoa, Stell. That's an excellent disguise," Regina said and came over to stand behind the blonde investigator. "Yeah, that'll do just fine," she continued, putting her hands on Stella's shoulders.
"Are you planning on wearing your contacts or are you gonna go commando?" Regina said with a snicker.
"Oh, the contacts. Otherwise, I might end up talkin' to a lamppost. Go slip into your outfit. I'll do a little posing while you're away," Stella said and moved around in front of the mirror.
"Ha! I knew it! I knew I'd get you hooked on the Almighty Mirror!" Regina said and clapped her hands together in glee.
"Oh, shut up, Miss Towering Inferno!" Stella said and tried to slap Regina's butt, but the former model moved away too quickly for her to reach anything.
Fully dressed and almost fully prepared, Regina and Stella walked across the parking lot to get to the SLK - Regina in her trademark gliding walk, Stella in a shuffling, deliberately lazy stroll to get used to her new, street-smart character.
"Yo, bro, what up, dawg? What up, bro? Yo, dawg, what up?" Stella said as they got into the silver metallic, low-slung sports car.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm practicing my street-talk, babe."
"Ohhh. I thought you had swallowed one of those gangster rappers," Regina said as she turned the ignition key. As soon as the engine purred, she selected Reverse and backed out of the angled parking space.
"Oh, ha, ha. No. I'm just doin' my thing, babe. You know, doin' the 'hood thing," Stella said, throwing her friend a few hand signs.
"Uh-huh. Doing the 'hood thing? Stella, I'm sorry, hon, but you're as far removed from the 'hood as I am. They'll listen to you for two seconds and then they'll keel over from laughing too hard."
"No, no, I got it covered, man. All inner-city people talk like this, man. We're all clean and green? down with the homies? smooth on the dance floor? in the box, babe."
Regina chuckled, selected Drive and drove slowly out of the parking lot. While they were waiting for a gap in the traffic, she glanced at her blonde friend who was mouthing various catchphrases and hip slang. When a car flashed its headlights at her, she mashed the gas and turned out into the traffic on two wheels.
"Whoa, babe! Now we rockin'! Yeah, babe, we be rockin' my jammies!" Stella said, nodding and throwing even more hand signs.
Regina chuckled again and peeked down at Stella's hands. "Do you even know what those signs mean? I don't think you should use them, Stella. Have you considered that you could be saying that their mothers should go? uh, enjoy themselves?"
"Uh, you're right?" Stella said in her regular voice. "I better tone it down a bit. Thanks."
"Anytime, babe," Regina said and patted Stella's decrepit jeans.
Twenty-five minutes later, Regina found an available slot on Monaghan and pulled over at the curb. After turning off the engine, she checked all the mirrors to see if the fancy car was attracting unwanted attention - so far, so good.
"Okay, we're here. Corner of Tenth and Monaghan is right down there," Regina said as she unbuckled her seatbelt.
Stella took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Closing her eyes, she mouthed a silent prayer and then turned to look at Regina. "We can do it, can't we, Reggie? I mean, we're not gonna go in there and embarrass ourselves, are we?"
"No way, hon. We're gonna cream them. Figuratively speaking, of course," Regina said, adjusted her red tie to make sure it lined up with the mat black shirt and put on her brand new pair of pitch black Highway Nine Wraparound sunglasses.
"I was thinking? I've come up with two new names for us?"
"Yeah? well, if you think it's silly, we'll just forget all about it," Stella said and grabbed the lever for the door.
"No, wait, Stell? spit 'em out. Come on," Regina said, pushing her shades up her forehead.
"Well, the downtown dwellers always have colorful names, so? while we're on this job, you're to be known as Panther Steele and I'm?" - Regina's eyes popped wide open at the weird name, and she felt a two-foot neon-green exclamation point go off above her head - "? Foxy Lay'Dee. Ell ay why apostrophe dee eee eee."
"Foxy? Lay apostrophe Dee. Oh my bloopin' Gawd, Stella?!"
"Hey, it's Foxy. And you're Panther Steele. The panther and the fox, get it? Huh? Huh? Get it?"
Regina cocked her head and scratched her hairline. After a few seconds, she shrugged and shook her head. "Stell, I have NO idea what you're talking about."
"Never mind," Stella growled and opened the door.
Regina leaned over and pointed out of the opened door. "Watch the-"
Slip! Fumble! Bump!
"Ow! Ow-ow-ow-ow-OW! Who put the goddamned curb that close to the car?! Better yet, who put the car that close to the goddamned curb?!" Stella howled once she had landed down in the sportscar's bucket seats after slipping off the curbstone.
"Stell, we have *got* to get you to a doctor? it can't be natural to fall off every single curbstone you come into contact with," Regina said, but Stella just jumped out of the car and slammed the door shut behind her. "WHATever," Regina continued and followed her friend away from the SLK.
A scant minute later, Stella opened the door to the shop, making a couple of small bells above the door send out a two-tone salute. Regina came in to stand behind her, holding her hands in front of her stomach and adopting a neutral expression.
The shop wasn't particularly large - only twenty by fifteen feet - but it had shelves on every wall and in every nook and cranny, and they were all filled past capacity with various electronic items.
Behind a glass counter at the back of the shop, a curtain fluttered aside to reveal a man in his late thirties. The man wasn't tall, or beefy, or even menacing, but he had a look in his brown eyes that clearly spelled out that he was a veteran of such affairs. He had a pale brown seven-day stubble on his chin and an earring in his left earlobe, and he was wearing a pair of black jeans and a black Rokkstarr hoodie with the sleeves rolled up halfway to his elbows, revealing that he had plenty of tattoos on his hands and arms.
"What up?" he said, eyeing the two strangers carefully.
"Yo, what up, bro?" Stella said and moved forward in the shuffling, lazy walk she had tried back at the offices. "I'm Foxy Lay'Dee and this is my business associate slash personal assistant Panther Steele."
The man's eyes narrowed slightly at the colorful names, but he eventually shrugged and put out his hand. "I'm Martin. What can I do ya for?" After shaking hands with Stella, he turned to Regina but she didn't move an inch. Annoyed, the goon turned back to look at Stella.
"Ah, don't mind her, she takes her job very seriously. Anyway, we was lookin' to offer you some? you know," Stella said, leaning towards the glassy counter where a couple of iPods and a few older MP3 players were on display.
"No, I don't, Foxy."
Trying a more direct approach, Stella put her hands in her back pockets and gave the goon a cool stare. "Mmmm. I found some laptops? in an alley, you know? and I thought you might be interested in them. But, of course, if you isn't?" she said and began to turn away from the counter, but the goon held up his hands almost at once.
"Didn't say I wasn't interested. What brand? How many? And what state are they in?"
"Lenovo, five of 'em, and they look pretty good. Not too many scratches."
Behind the goon, the curtain fluttered aside again, and a bear of a man walked into the shop. The second guy was in his early forties and he looked like his weight was on the wrong side of 310 lbs. - most of it was fat. His dark hair and full beard were peppered with gray, and the khaki boilersuit he was wearing was similarly multi-colored, proudly sporting stains made by all kinds of unidentifiable substances.
Stella took an involuntary step back at the sight, but bumped into Regina who stood her ground.
"Hejsa. Hvasså?" the man said in a language neither Stella nor Regina had ever heard before.
"Whassat, bub?" Stella said, cocking her hips in a gesture that mirrored what she had seen Regina do many times.
"Ah, don't mind him. That's my cousin Bjarne, fresh in from overseas. He can understand English, but can't speak it. He said hi," Martin said.
"Oh. Hi," Stella said, giving the burly man a quick wave. Regina remained passive to stay in character, but behind the black shades, her eyes darted left and right to check out all the stuff the goons had on their shelves.
"Foxy and her friend here have just offered us five laptops, Bjarne. Lenovo."
"Okay. Er de her så jeg ka' se på dem?" Bjarne said, but Martin shook his head.
"What he say?" Stella said, feeling a slight shiver run down her back over the fact that she couldn't understand all that was being said.
"He asked if they were here so he could look at 'em," Martin interpreted.
"Not yet, they're out in the car."
"Wouldya mind getting them?"
Stella licked her lips and sneaked a glance at Regina. When the former model gave her an almost imperceptible nod, she turned back around and put her hands behind her back. A few seconds later, she felt Regina press the car keys into her hand. "Uh? okay. Don't get frisky with my bodyguard while I'm away, ya hear? She's an? uh, she has a tenth level black belt in Kick-Yo-Hiney."
"Et sort bælte i hvaffornået?" Bjarne said, but Martin just waved his hand. Shrugging, Bjarne turned around and lumbered back behind the curtain.
"No problem, Foxy."
"Okay," Stella said and shuffled out of the store to get the plastic crate.
Suddenly feeling quite alone, Regina scrunched up her face and began to recite nursery rhymes in her mind to make the time go by faster. 'Baah, baah, little lamb-'
"Have you worked for Foxy long, Miss Steele?" Martin said and sat down on a high stool behind the glass counter.
Behind the shades, Regina narrowed her eyes down to blue slits, thinking hard about stringing a cover story together. When she couldn't get her brain cells to produce anything apart from clichés and tripe, she settled for nodding and telling the truth. "Yeah. Ten months."
"Thought as much."
"You have chemistry. Ya can't fake chemistry. A couple a' months ago, we had two undercover police agents in here, trying to pass off as a buddy team?" Martin said and leaned his elbows against the top of the counter.
'Uh-oh?' Regina thought, barely stopping the corners of her mouth from twitching. As it was, she felt her nape hairs stand on edge and her heart rate pick up considerably. 'At the first sign of trouble, I'm outta here?!' she thought, already looking sideways at the door.
"? but they were so fake it didn't take us much more than two minutes to pull their covers, you know."
"Heh, heh," Regina said in a tone she hoped was menacing enough to fool the goon.
"But I saw at once that you and Foxy are the real deal. You have the right look."
'When I tell Stella that, her head won't be able to fit through the door back home,' Regina thought, nodding.
The curtain fluttered aside again and Bjarne returned to the front of the shop holding a nearly-full bottle of spirits. "Er der nogen der vil have en Snaps?" he said, showing Martin the bottle.
For once, Regina recognized one of the words - 'Snaps', something she knew was a strong European liquor. "Eh?" she said, looking at the burly man.
"Do you want a Snaps?" Martin echoed.
"Nej for fa'en, mand, Aalborg Akvavit!" Bjarne said and let out a booming belly laugh.
"Uh-huh?" Regina said, not understanding a single word. Waiting for Martin to translate, she started biting the inside of her cheek, wondering what in the world could be taking Stella so long.
"No, not German Schnapps? Aalborg, a Danish specialty," Martin said.
"Okay?? Well? sure. Yes to, uh, Aalborg," Regina said, nodding in Bjarne's direction.
"Sådan makker," the large man said and put the bottle down on the counter. Leaning down, he found four shot glasses and put them next to the bottle. Quickly unscrewing the cap, he filled the four glasses to the brim with a clear liquid that resembled vodka, except that it was just a tad thicker.
"Skål!" he continued, downing the contents of the first glass without flinching.
Martin picked up the second glass and pushed the third one across the counter so Regina could reach it.
Gulping nervously, Regina took the glass and held it at her chin. "Bottoms up? uh, skoal," she said, downing it in one gulp. The strong liquid burned its way down her throat, but it was actually more tasty and less flammable than she had feared.
"Der er fa'me nogle skrappe tøser herovre, hva'?" Bjarne said and elbowed his cousin's shoulder.
"Oh yeah, Bjarne. Uh, he said you're bred tough over here," Martin said with a grin.
Regina returned the grin and put down the empty glass, thinking that the sensitive Stella was going to throw a fit if she had to drink the fourth drink.
Moments later, Stella walked in - with a face redder than a lobster's rear end - holding the plastic crate and once again accompanied by a two-tone salute from the small bells. After putting down the heavy plastic crate, she dabbed her forehead with a small handkerchief and began to grumble quite colorful obscenities.
"What the hell happened to you, Foxy? Did you have to run home to get it?" Martin said.
"No, some big-humped Joe had parked his big-humped Cadillac battleship so close to our wheels that I couldn't get the P.O.S. trunk open," Stella growled. "Hey, is that for me?" she continued, pointing at the shot glass.
"Yes, it is, Foxy. It's yours to sip," Regina said, stressing the last word and hoping that Stella would take it literally.
"Cheers, fellas," Stella said and downed the drink whole. Two seconds later, steam began to pour from her ears and her collar, and she turned so red and sweaty that Regina was worried her friend was having a heart attack.
"Whoa?" Stella croaked, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. "That's some mean shtuff right there? what's that? Moonshine? Two-fifty Proof?"
"Hva' betyder moonshine, Martin?" Bjarne said, scratching his neck.
Martin chuckled over the washed-out expression on Stella's face and reached down under the counter to find a can of soda pop. "I'll explain later, Bjarne. Nope, Foxy? it's Aalborg. A Danish specialty. Here's a Cherry Cola. Should be more to your liking."
"Thanks," Stella croaked and cracked open the can at once. As she was drinking, she noticed that the door bells dinged, and she looked over her shoulder to see who it was. She nearly choked on the Cherry Cola when she realized that it was the same man she had just had a shouting match with.
"Good afternoon, boss," Martin said and got up from his chair.
Now Stella really did choke on her Cola. Coughing and spluttering, she couldn't keep the sticky, brown liquid inside her, and two streams ran out of the corners of her mouth. While she was swallowing like crazy, she tried to wipe her lips on her sleeve, but the sticky soda pop had already gone everywhere.
Regina hurriedly patted Stella's back while observing the three men, ready to react fast if they had to make a run for it.
The boss, fifty-seven year old Chuck Haskins, stared with narrowed eyes at the two colorfully dressed women standing in his shop. Even though his ash-blond hair and mustache were neatly groomed and his pale gray business suit was impeccable, he still looked like a crook. His beady eyes immediately locked onto Stella's green ones and gave her a silent third degree interrogation.
At first, Stella tried to keep eye contact, but when the man's gaze seemed to grow more steely, she reckoned it would be sensible to show some obedience, and averted her eyes.
Chuck Haskins harrumphed loudly and walked further into the shop. "How's the day been, Martin?" he said in a deep, rumbling voice.
"Pretty good so far, boss. Foxy and her bodyguard here have just offered us a couple a' laptops," Martin said and pointed at the plastic crate.
"I haven't had time to check 'em out yet, but they look pretty good from a distance."
"I see," Chuck said and walked around the counter. After hanging his suit jacket on a hall-stand, he pushed Martin away from the tall stool and claimed it himself. "Where'd ya get 'em?"
"Found them in an alley," Stella said in a voice that was still croaky after the Cherry Cola-flooding she had submitted it to.
"Is that a fact? Does your silent partner there even speak?" he said, pointing at Regina.
"I can speak, Mister. I just don't have nothin' to say," Regina said in a detached voice, shifting slightly to enter her patented 'can't give a hoot'-pose.
"Har! Your partner should heed that advice, Missy. But hey," Chuck turned to his employees and pointed at Stella with his thumb, "at least we know that there's no way? no flippin' way these two broads are cops. Jeebus, Martin, you shoulda heard the language comin' out of shorty there. You'd think I'd said something bad about her Momma."
Stella's cheeks instantly flushed red and she had to look down at her boots. Regina just chuckled and patted Stella's back again.
"The only way to make a woman like her shut up is by givin' her a pearl necklace. How about it, shorty?" Chuck said, earning himself several dirty snickers from his men.
Stella furrowed her brow, unsure of what to answer. She figured that the dirty snickers meant that she shouldn't take the offer literally, but she had no idea about the finer details of the deal. Turning to glance at Regina didn't help at all as she couldn't see her tall friend's baby blues through the black shades. Making up her mind in a hurry, she shrugged and said, "Maybe a little later."
Chuck laughed darkly, a sound that sent a chill down Stella's back.
"Okay, så' det vist tid til en lille en," Bjarne said and held up his bottle of Aalborg.
"What's he saying?" Chuck said to Martin.
"Time for a shot, boss," Martin said, grinning broadly.
Stella just groaned - Regina did, too, but that was as a result of Stella's answer to the question on the pearl necklace.
After having poked and prodded the five laptops for nearly twenty minutes, Martin turned off a penlight and put that and a screwdriver into a drawer beneath the counter. "Okay, they're not equipped with hard drives, but they've got plenty of RAM and everything else is in order," he said.
"Good," Chuck said.
Stella was getting tired of the idle chit-chat and thrust her hands into her pockets, hoping to be able to leave the lion's den soon. "Do we have a deal, fellas?"
"You haven't asked for a price yet," Martin said.
"I was thinking? maybe four hundred bucks for the lot?"
Martin looked at his boss who nodded in return. "We can do that," he said and put a small metal cash box on the counter. After opening it, he took four one hundred dollar bills and handed them to Stella.
Stella's heart began to beat faster - this was crunch time. As she folded the bills and put them into her back pocket, she cleared her throat and took a step forward. "So? would you be interested in some BluRay recorders?"
"How many?" Chuck said.
"Find 'em in an alley, too, did ya?"
"Let me guess, in the back of a truck that just happened to be parked there?"
"Somethin' like that, yeah," Stella fibbed.
"Mmmm," Chuck said and began to stroke his chin. "All right. But we won't be payin' eighty bucks a pop like the laptops. Forty bucks each will still bring you plenty of dough."
"Should be enough. Enough to buy yourself some decent clothes, anyway," Chuck said with a laugh.
Stella pretended to lean in and discuss matters with Regina. In reality, they were whispering back and forth about what they could see inside the shop.
"All right," Stella said out loud. "Tomorrow evening at ten or so?"
"Doorstep delivery. We kinda found a truck in the alley as well."
Chuck got off the stool and laughed out loud. "Did ya now? Hell, shorty, if you're ever lookin' for a job, you just gimme a call. I like your spunk. All right, tomorrow evening? quarter past ten. Out back, the street is too well-lit. Do we have a deal?" he said and put out his hand.
Stella nodded grimly and stepped forward to shake the crook's hand. "We have a deal, man. We'll be there."
On their way back to the SLK, both Regina and Stella could feel the eyes of the three goons burn holes in their backs - or more precisely in Regina's case, glued onto her rear.
"Psst, Reggie, did I do all right or what?" Stella whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
"Mostly?! Hey, bro, I gave them the run-around? I had 'em where I wanted 'em. I was controllin' the show, runnin' the game, rockin' the floor? and you call that mostly?"
Regina unlocked the SLK and stood back as the roof folded down. "Yeah, Stell, 'mostly' because you kinda fluffed the pearl necklace thing. And will you please stop that slang nonsense? It doesn't become you."
"Okay. What the hell does pearl necklace mean, anyway? I've never heard that term before??" Stella said as she climbed down into the low-slung sportscar.
Regina chuckled and followed her friend into the bucket seats. "I'll tell you once you have a barf bag ready."
"Oh? is it that bad?"
"No, it's worse," Regina said grimly and turned the ignition key.
As they drove away from the shop, Stella reached over and patted Regina's thigh. "Give it to me straight, I'm a big girl? I can handle it."
"No, not while we're driving. I don't want to scoop up your lunch from the footwell."
"Aw, come on?" Stella said, poking Regina in the side.
The traffic lights at Ninth Street turned red in front of them, and Regina let the SLK slide to a stop as the first car in the line. "You'll freak."
"Will you just tell me what it means, for cryin' out loud!"
"Steve explained it to me once. Pearl necklace is common guy slang for something that begins with an 'F' and ends with 'ellatio'."
Stella's eyes grew wide open and she slammed her hands down onto the dashboard and dug her fingers into the soft plastic. Her chin and the corners of her mouth began to twitch and quiver, and just as the traffic lights turned green, she leaned her head back and let out a "GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAG!" that was loud enough to make a cyclist fall off his bike.
"Told ya it'd be bad," Regina mumbled as she scratched her - suddenly deaf - right ear.
After driving into the parking lot and stopping next to the shiny AMC Pacer, Regina shut off the engine and turned towards her friend. "Stell, darling, we're home. Stell? Stella?? Stella, you can snap out of it now, we're home," she said, gently shaking the near-comatose Stella's shoulder.
"Buh? p-pearl neckl?"
"I know, I know, Stell, gag. But we're home now. Come on, we can go inside and watch a movie if you like? Or get some pizza?"
"And we need to call the Inspector."
Stella shook her head.
"Buh? p-pearl n-n-necklace?"
Rolling her eyes, Regina took off her seatbelt and got out of the car. Walking around it, she opened Stella's door and helped her out. "Can you walk? You better, 'cos I'm not carrying you."
Stella tried to take a few faltering steps and actually managed to stay erect - for once. "Y-yes. I can walk. Gawd, I need to lie down."
"Good. Okay, the office is over here? Stella, over here? no, Stella, this way," Regina said and put her hands on Stella's shoulders to guide her towards the door.
"Ohhhhhhh?" Stella said as she practically fell down onto the couch. After a few seconds, she scooted up to use the armrest as a pillow. "Reggie?? Would ya mind fetching me a damp washcloth? I need to put it on my forehead," she croaked.
"Good Lord almighty, you'd think this was our first job," Regina said and put her hands on her hips. "I know for a fact that you've heard that kind of language before."
"Y-yes, but never directed at me."
"Hey, you're good-lookin'."
"I don't do guys! ? literally!"
"Crooks like that don't even understand what that means, Stell. Hang on, I'll get you a nice, cool washcloth," Regina continued and went into the bathroom.
A few moments later, she came back and knelt down next to the prone Stella. Putting a hand on the blonde investigator's forehead, she could feel that it was quite warm. "Yeah, you're a bit overheated, toots. Here's something to make you chill out," she said, putting the washcloth down onto Stella's forehead.
"Thanks, Reggie. Are you gonna call the Inspector?" Stella said and moved the washcloth down so it covered her eyes as well.
"Yep. I'll go change first, though. Do you want me to help you take off your silly dumpster queen outfit?"
Stella lifted a corner of the washcloth and sent her tall friend a slightly melancholic look. "No thanks, I got it. You know, that's the first time in? Gosh, nearly six months that a woman has given me such an offer?"
"I sorry to hear that, hon. I can't understand why they're not lining up around the block," Regina said and went into the bathroom.
Sighing, Stella lowered the washcloth and folded her hands on her chest.
"This is Regina Harrison from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. I need to speak with Inspector Moynes, please," Regina said ten minutes later. While she waited for the Inspector to take the call, she swung her jeans-clad legs up on her desk and started playing with the cord for the telephone.
Sneaking a glance at Stella, she shook her head and made up her mind to do something fun and exciting for her clumsy and easily shocked friend.
'This is Inspector Moynes,' Mary-Jane's characteristic voice said at the other end of the connection.
"Inspector, they took the bait? hook, line and sinker. Or to be more precise, they loved the laptops."
'Excellent. Did you arrange a new meeting?'
"Yeah, tomorrow evening at ten fifteen."
'Okay. I'll round up the troops. Once I have my ducks in a row, I'll call you back.'
"That's great, Inspector. Talk to you then. Bye."
'Bye, Miss Harrison,' the Inspector said and hung up.
"Stella, Inspector Moynes is going to get everything organized," Regina said and put the receiver back down.
"Good," Stella said in a voice muffled by the washcloth.
"It's nearly five p.m. Do you want me to order some pizza? Or Chinese?"
"The regular, the Meaty Mama."
"Will do. One pizza with pepperoni, black olives, mushroom, salty bacon, kebab, chicken, fried sausages an' extra cheese comin' right up," Regina said and picked up the phone again.
The next day.
"Hey, Stell? what time is it?" Regina said, standing in the doorway to the bathroom.
Stella stopped playing with her Rubik's Cube and glanced at her wristwatch. "Twenty past nine. One hour to go to our big performance."
"Thanks. Just enough time for me to get the old juices flowing," Regina said and turned off the bathroom lights with her elbow. Carrying her exercise mat and two lightweight dumb-bells, she left the bathroom and put all three items down on the floor in the middle of the office.
"You're working out? Now?" Stella said and looked up. When she noticed that Regina was only wearing a gray sports bra and a pair of black Lycra biker shorts, she furrowed her brow and put away the Cube.
Regina sat down on the mat and began to go through a warm-up routine. "Yeah. Do you mind?"
"Uh, no. Not at all."
"You can always go online or something to take your mind off the fact that you're in the presence of a scantily clad Goddess, you know."
"Uh-huh? No, I think I can handle it. I've coated my lenses in an anti-fog solution. It should work," Stella said and adjusted her glasses.
"I guess we'll find out," Regina said and got up from the mat. After rolling her shoulders, she took the two dumb-bells and began to jog in place, moving her arms up and down, almost like she was practicing for a boxing match.
Stella's enjoyment of the free floor show was interrupted by the telephones ringing. Sighing, she leaned forward to pick up the receiver. "The Harrison- Joe, is that you?"
"You have something for us?!" Stella said and leaned forward on the chair - forgetting that her rear end was already positioned at the edge of the seat.
"April Fools? Whaddahell do you mean, April Fools? It's not April, Joe!"
Stella's building agitation meant that she moved even further ahead on the chair - with predictable consequences. She could feel her rear glide off the seat, but when she tried to grab hold of the edge of her desk to stabilize herself, she only caught a stack of papers.
As she went under, the receiver was torn from her hand and ended up bopping her on the nose; her glasses went flying, her right shoe became unlaced, and finally, the stack of papers she had tried to hold onto all came crashing down on her head. "Ohhhhhh?! My nose?! My head?! My butt?!" she mumbled, massaging her aforementioned body parts.
"Oh, Stella?" Regina said and shook her head.
"I'm okay? I'm okay," Stella said, patting the gray carpet to find her glasses. When she couldn't find them, she began to crawl around on her hands and knees, quickly losing the unlaced shoe in the process, revealing that she was wearing her favorite pair of Pippi Longstocking socks. "My shoe?! Oh, darn!"
Sighing, Regina stopped jogging and moved over to her friend. Bending down, she quickly picked up the errant spectacles that had flown a good three feet. "Stop crawling, Stella, I don't want to step on your fingers. Here's your glasses," she said, moving the frame up Stella's nose.
"Oh. Thanks, Reggie. Gimme a booster, will ya," Stella said and reached out for Regina's hands.
The tall, strong, model complied and pulled her petite friend up without much hassle - that is, until Stella noticed that she was at eye-level with Regina's much-photographed, and barely covered, C-cups.
The swells of the two tanned globes were right in Stella's face, and it all proved too much for the blonde investigator's glasses, anti-fog treatment or not. "Damn? the glasses steamed up again," Stella mumbled, trying to wipe her lenses.
After mussing Stella's haystack and guiding her back to her chair, Regina flashed her friend a two-hundred watt smile and resumed her exercise - which was made quite a lot harder by the fact that she was constantly chuckling at the memory of the comical expression on Stella's face when she realized where she was, or rather, how close *they* were.
Twenty minutes later, Inspector Moynes peeked in, pointing at her watch. "I've got a whole strike team out here. Are you guys ready?"
"We're ready, Mary-Jane," Stella said and put on her Rokkstarr 'Ruff Riderz' sailor's cap. Taking a deep breath, she reached out and touched Regina's hands in a silent, but telling, gesture.
"Let's do it," Regina said, adjusting her red tie so it was aligned perfectly.
Feeling slightly nervous, Regina pulled over at the curb in front of the store at Tenth and Monaghan.
The street looked very different at night; the artificial light from the many neon signs and the street lamps cast strange shadows everywhere and made the air glow in a curious mix of blue, orange and red. The clientele was different, too, with many more suspicious-looking people roaming the streets compared to the daytime.
"Here we are," Stella said and found her cellphone. "Cobra Strike Force, this is Cobra Fang. We're in position, over," she said in a muffled, slightly husky voice.
'Cobra Fang, so are we. We're good to go,' Inspector Moynes said, followed by something that sounded quite a lot like a chuckle. Stella nodded, leaned over towards Regina's window and waved at the Inspector who had double-parked a white delivery van just next to the sportscar.
" 'Cobra Fang'," Regina said with a girlish snicker.
"Hey, if something's worth doing, it's worth doing right. Preparation is at least half of the success in any operation."
The Inspector drove off in a deep rumble and soon went around the corner, leaving the two investigators on their own.
Stella sighed and tried to shuffle around in the bucket seat to find a position that suited her rear end better. When it didn't improve much, she opened the glove box and found a fresh roll of her favorite comfort food to take her mind off the coming events. "You want an Oreo?"
"Not tonight, thanks."
"Suit yourself," Stella said and popped an entire cookie into her mouth.
'Cobra Fang, this is Cobra Strike Force. The set-up is A-OK. Standing by, over,' the Inspector's voice said from the cell phone.
"Oh?" - munch - "mmmpfff? shoot," - munch, munch, frantic munch - "uh?" - munch, crunch, munch - "okay," - crunch, munch, munch - "Cobra Strike Force." - gulp - "We'll begin the sting. Cobra Fang out."
Rolling her eyes, Stella closed the connection and put the cell phone away. "Why does the phone always ring when I'm chewing on something??" When she noticed that Regina was trying very hard to stop herself from letting out a belly laugh, she scrunched up her face and poked the former model in the ribs. "And. You're. Not. Helping. Missy. Wonder. Hair."
"Sorry. Are we going in now?"
"Yeah, I think we are," Stella said and pulled the little lever to open the door.
"Yeah, yeah! I know what I'm doing!"
"Hey, Foxy," Martin said, looking up from a newspaper.
As Regina closed the door behind them to the sound of the two bells, she instantly noticed that there was a new man in the shop - a slightly scruffy-looking fellow in black pants and a tattered US Army coat who was standing off to the left side pretending to look at one of the shelves. At once, she tapped Stella on the left shoulderblade to make her look in that direction.
Stella nodded almost imperceptibly to show that she had spotted the man, and then moved toward the glass counter. "Hey. Whatup?"
"Ah, we haven't had much action tonight. You got the merchandise?" Martin said and put away the newspaper.
"Yep. Out back, like we agreed on. You got the money?"
"Good. Where's your boss?" Stella said, glancing at the man in the US Army coat.
"He's not here. He had business elsewhere," Martin said, folding his arms across his chest.
Feeling that the situation was headed down a slippery slope, Stella decided to try something risky and pointed her thumb at the scruffy-looking fellow. "Who's that? Muscle?" she said, leaning in towards Martin.
"Him? Nah. He's just using the shop as a warm shelter. Ain't that right, Kenny?"
The man in the US Army coat nodded vigorously, holding an ancient Sony Walkman in his slightly filthy hands.
"I'm not B.S.'ing ya, Foxy. Anyway, Bjarne is already out back. Wanna go join him? or do you wanna have a taste of that pearl necklace first??" Martin said, breaking out into a shit-eating grin.
Stella came to a dead stop and clenched her fists - at the same time, her throat reverberated from an animal-like growl that soon threatened to come to the surface.
Regina hurriedly stepped forward to put a pair of calming hands on Stella's shoulders, but the gesture didn't have much effect.
Danger and the threat of violence rolled off the blonde investigator to such an extent that it proved too much for Kenny. He dropped the Walkman - which hit the floor with a loud crash - and ran out of the door like the devil was on his tail.
Looking quite annoyed with the way Stella was growling at him, Martin held up his hands and stepped out from behind the counter. "Heyheyhey, Foxy, no need to go all femi on me. Jesus, woman, I just offered you a little extra. If ya don't want to go ahead with this deal, just walk outta here. The exit is right over there," he said, pointing at the door.
Regina could tell by the way Stella's shoulders quivered beneath her hands that a nuclear explosion wasn't far off, and she decided to step in before the inevitable happened. "Nah, we're here to sell you some BluRay recorders. Don't mind my business associate here. It's a hormonal thing," Regina said in a voice that she tried to make as passive as possible.
"We do, however, have a little thing that could sweeten the deal? for you," Regina continued.
At once Martin's eyes lit up, and it was clear to see that she was interested. "Yeah?" he said, cocking his head.
"A hi-gloss calendar with a couple a' dozen pictures of yours truly."
"No. It's out in the car. You can have it once we've? uh, completed the transaction. Right, Foxy?" Regina said and thumped Stella's shoulders.
Stella took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Yeah? yeah," she said, feeling the anger leave her. She reached up and patted Regina's hand to let the former model know that everything was back to normal.
"Cool. I'm definitely looking forward to spending a few cold, dark, lonely winter nights with that thing, heh-heh," Martin said and moved aside the curtain to the back room. "Let's go out back. Like I said, Bjarne is waiting for us."
Regina narrowed her eyes slightly at Martin's confession regarding the winter nights, but she soon snapped out of it and gave Stella a little push.
The shop's back room looked much like the front did, except that Martin and the others weren't even trying to hide their shady business - most of the items were still in the original cardboard boxes, save for one or two things that had been unpacked.
Following a narrow path through the back room, they went past a small table occupied by several crushed cans of beer and a transistor radio that was blurting out an old rock'n'roll song. A naked light bulb, suspended above the table, cast a harsh light down onto a porn magazine that was opened on the centerfold.
Noticing the adult magazine, Stella couldn't stop a disdainful snort from escaping her lips. "You boys were busy, huh?" she said in a mocking voice, but Martin didn't seem to pick up on it.
"Shhh, Stella?!" Regina whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
"I'm just speakin' my mind here!" Stella whispered back.
"Save it for later!"
"All right, all right?"
They soon arrived at a battered, formerly green metal door that Martin proceeded to open. As it swooshed open, a chilly wind from the outside swept around their legs and sent an even chillier buzz racing up and down Stella's spine.
The back yard wasn't as well-lit as Regina had hoped - in fact, it was rather dark - but she was able to see that Bjarne was leaning against a crate opposite the door, smoking a cigarette. On their left, the white delivery van had reversed into the narrow alley and was waiting for them with the engine turned off.
"Hvasså?" Bjarne said when he saw Regina and Stella. After taking a last drag of the cigarette, he threw the butt down on the ground and crushed it with his foot. "Martin, du tror det er løgn, men det er fa'me osse en tøs der kører varevognen!" he said on his way over to Martin.
"What he say?" Stella said, constantly clenching and unclenching her fists.
"He said that the driver of the van is also a chick. What are you, some kind of tribe or something? What was it?? The Amazings?" Martin said and put his hand on the lower part of the van's sliding door.
"Amazons," Regina and Stella said as one.
"Whatever. Hey, Bjarne?"
"Gimme a hand? the sucker binds," Martin said, trying to lift the sliding door.
"Okay," the burly, bearded man said and lumbered over to the van.
While the two men were busy trying to lift the door, Regina slipped forward to exchange a quick thumbs-up with Inspector Moynes. Moving silently back to Stella, she nodded at her friend and repeated the thumbs-up.
Stella took a step back, licking her lips nervously.
Martin and Bjarne finally managed to lift the sliding door, and it rolled upwards quite noisily.
"Oh yeah, that looks mighty fine," Martin said as he took a good look at the many cardboard boxes in the back of the van. "Bjarne, let's get started."
"Okay," Bjarne said and began to crawl up into the delivery van. As he put his foot on the bar below the open door, his hefty bulk gave the suspension a workout which made the van dip quite a lot at the rear.
As the van moved downwards, a metallic clonk and a muted curse could be heard from somewhere behind the cardboard boxes, prompting Stella and Regina to look at each other with matching, worried expressions.
Martin crawled up to stand next to his cousin, but soon realized that the burly man took up too much space. "Bjarne, we'll do it the other way 'round. Jump off, I'll hand 'em to ya."
"Det er fino, Martin," Bjarne said and jumped off the van. As the suspension was suddenly liberated of his considerable weight, it sprung back up, leading to yet another metallic clonk and a muted curse from the inside.
This time, the sounds registered with Martin, and he turned around to look at the boxes and at the darkness beyond them.
"Something wrong, Martin?" Regina said, slowly sliding to her right.
"Nah, I just? just thought I heard something. Ah, whatever. Here's the first of 'em, Bjarne," he said and moved to pick up the first box.
When Martin picked it up, he discovered - much to his detriment - that he had completely miscalculated the weight of the box, and as a result, he lost his balance and went end over end out of the van.
At first, he tried to flap his arms in the air to keep himself upright, but gravity soon caught up with him and he found himself falling ass-first down onto the filthy floor of the back alley.
Stella winced in sympathy, being no stranger to rough landings.
Grunting, Bjarne leaned down to help his cousin sit up. "Hold da kæft, Martin? Ka' du nu ikk' engang holde balancen?"
"Damn? what the hell was that all about??" Martin croaked, rubbing his sore rear. Furrowing his brow, he found the cardboard box he had dropped and gave it a push, instantly realizing that it was empty despite the fact that it was wrapped in adhesive tape. "What the f? IT'S A SETUP!" he suddenly shouted, much to Bjarne's surprise.
Jumping to his feet, Martin roared out his frustration and ran straight for Stella with a murderous expression in his eyes.
"INSPECTOOOOOOR!" Stella squealed, shying back from the charging goon. Before he could reach her, Regina had given him an effective shoulder-block that sent him careening into a pile of wooden crates in the corner of the backyard.
"Gawd! Thanks, Reggie!"
"Anytime, babe. Wait? ohhh? my sh- my shoulder?" Regina said and grabbed the body part that had made very hard contact with the goon. "Oooh! Aaah! Oooh! Aaah! Oh no, I'm? gonna? get? a? bruuuuuuuuise?!" she howled, performing an impromptu Irish jig as the pain suddenly spread out from the point of impact and down to her fingers, making them tingle quite badly.
"Watch out behind ya!" Stella shouted, pointing past Regina.
"Hva' satan! Ska' hun skubbe til min fætter?! Så'n et par skide kvindfolk!" Bjarne roared and grabbed hold of Regina's business suit, but a split second before he had wrestled her to the ground, the pile of cardboard boxes in the van exploded outward, revealing several police detectives in helmets and body armor.
Faced with impossible odds, Bjarne let go of Regina's lapels and thrust his hands in the air. "Jeg gi'r op! Jeg gi'r op! Uhhh? give up. You understand? Give up! Lawyer!"
Groaning, Regina fluffed her lapels down and hurriedly moved away from the burly Dane.
Stella immediately ran over to Regina and grabbed hold of the former model's arms. "Are you all right, Reggie? Please tell me you're all right!"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine? but God, he had such bad breath!"
"Ohhhh, poor you."
A few moments later, Inspector Moynes came sprinting from the cab, holding a pair of shiny handcuffs. As she slapped them onto Bjarne's fat wrists, she looked at Martin who was still lying among the wooden crates.
"Detective McDonnell, deal with that man, he's not done yet," she said, nodding in Martin's direction.
As the detective came closer to Martin, the goon jumped up and gave him such a hard shove that he ended up on his butt. "Stop him!" Ben McDonnell yelled loudly, working hard to try to get himself untangled from a boxful of plastic bags that had fallen down on him.
"Whut?!" Stella said and turned towards the hubbub.
Running at full steam, Martin tore through the ranks of detectives and investigators without much thought for their well-being - not only did he step on Regina's toes, his slipstream blew the 'Ruff Riderz' sailor's cap straight off Stella's head.
"Oh! My hat!" -- "MY FOOT!" the two women said as one.
"Somebody stop him!" Inspector Moynes yelled, pointing at the escaping Martin. At once, two of the detectives set off after him, but Stella was quicker.
"REGGIE! LET'S GO!" she yelled, grabbed hold of Regina's lapels and dragged the temporarily disabled investigator after her into the back room of the shop.
"Shouldn't we leave it to the professionals, Stell?" Regina said, hobbling along behind her fast-moving friend.
"No time for the pros, this is our job. Oh! That'll work just fine," Stella said and came to a screeching halt in front of a shelf. Picking up an item, she quickly thrust it into her pocket and resumed running.
Before Regina had even had time to ask what it was Stella had taken, the blonde investigator had exited the shop. "Hey, will you wait a bloomin' minute! Oh, that's so typical? I do all the dirty work and she just takes off without explaining anything? oh, crap-crap-crap, my foot hurts?"
Hobbling across the shop, Regina sat down on the tall stool Martin had used, took off her shoe and began to massage her foot. "Oooh, my foot has been crushed and my shoulder hurts and I'm gonna get a bruise and? I'm gettin' too old for this sh-?!"
Suddenly the door to the street swooshed open, triggering off the two-tone salute from the bells. "Reggie, are you coming or what? I saw where the goon went, but the detectives took off in the wrong direction. It's down to us now."
"Who the hell did you become possessed by, Stell? The Ghost of Amazons Past?"
"Less talk, more action, Miss Complain-a-Lot," Stella said and waved her hand impatiently.
"Miss Complain-a-Lot, my shaven armpit?" Regina grumbled as she put her shoe back on.
Sighing, Regina stepped out onto the neon-lit sidewalk and started looking around for the escaped goon. "Where did you say he went?"
"Into that brownstone over there," Stella said and pointed across the street at a derelict four-story building where the front door and most of the windows had been boarded up.
"Let's call Inspector Moynes, I'm not setting a foot in such a death trap? speaking of which," Regina said, cocking her right leg to see if her aching foot was still attached.
Stella turned around and glared impatiently at her tall friend. "Oh, come on, we opened this case? we're gonna close it, Reggie. Come on, it shouldn't be too hard."
" 'Shouldn't be too hard?' That's what Steve told me once regarding a show we co-headlined in Argentina. It turned out to be the hardest thing I'd ever done standing up!"
"Please? spare me the details," Stella said and put her hand on her suddenly queasy stomach.
"Oh, not like that!"
"While we're yappin' here, the goon might be getting away. Are you with me or not, Regina Harrison?"
Throwing her hands in the air, Regina nodded and let out a long, slow sigh. "Yeah, yeah. Let's go bust that bad guy."
Moments later, the two investigators hurried across the four-lane street and ducked into the shadows on the other side. Sneaking along the walls, they soon reached the brownstone where they pressed themselves against the outrageously filthy walls.
"Ewwwww?" Regina said, shying away from the worst filth.
"No time for that now, Reggie. We're about to strike," Stella replied in a whisper, moving aside a section of the cardboard used to seal off the front door.
Peeking inside, Stella thought she could hear faint sounds of someone running, but she couldn't quite tell where they came from. "He's still in there. Let's go," she said, grabbed hold of Regina's jacket and dragged her through the door.
"Oh why is everyone tugging on my jacket tonight?! It's such a nice jacket!" Regina whined, but a dark glare from Stella convinced her to keep quiet. Her self-imposed silence lasted for exactly ten seconds as the first thing she did when she saw the inside of the building was to say "God, it's so dark in here?!"
"Use the flashlight in your cell phone. Come on!"
As they were tip-toeing along the creaky floorboards, they had to pay special attention to the rats zinging past them - and the droppings the rats had left behind.
"Stella. This. Is. Gross. Gross! GROOOOOOOOSSSS!" Regina howled in a high-pitched squeal that echoed back and forth through the derelict building until it finally exited through one of the large holes in the walls.
"Will you shut up," Stella hissed. "We're close? we're very close? we're so close I can smell his cologne. Or him, actually, 'cos he didn't use any. Watch out, Reggie, there's a loose floorboard?"
"Where??" CREAK! - CRUNCH! "Oh? I found it."
"Watch where you're going!"
"You're telling me? Miss I've-fallen-off-my-chair-two-hundred-and-thirty-five-
times-in-the-last-year is telling ME to watch where I'm going?!"
Stella replied in a guttural grumble rather than in individual words, but Regina thought she recognized several of her blonde friend's favorite '?ucker' curses through the grumbly noises.
Once they reached the end of the hall they had walked down, Stella opened a pair of double doors and found herself standing in a stairwell that reeked to high heaven of decay, human waste and rotten cabbage - and something resembling camomile tea.
"Oh? ewwwww?" Regina said, immediately pinching her nostrils and scrunching up her face. "Gawd, what is that smell?" she mumbled, shying back from the strong smells.
For once, Stella couldn't complain about Regina's overly-sensitive senses because she'd also had to pinch her nostrils in a hurry. "Which one of 'em?"
"The camomile tea?? That can't be right?? Not here."
"It's marijuana," Stella said and quickly re-pinched her nostrils.
"Oh? and how would you know what that smells like, Miss Girl Scout?"
"Come on, I went to college. You learn all kinds of things there. Should we go up or down?"
"You're asking me?"
"Yeah, what was I thinking?? Let's go up," Stella said and pulled Regina through the double doors.
"Mind the jacket, will ya! Oh, why is everyone-"
"Reggie, pipe down," Stella said and slapped her fingers together in the universal sign for 'give it a rest'. As she was looking at her friend, she suddenly spotted the goon trying to escape them by tip-toeing back through the hall they had just walked through. "Holy flip! There he is!" she yelled and pushed her way past Regina.
"HEY! STOP!" Stella shouted, but, predictably, the goon didn't listen.
Roaring, Stella set off after him; her arms and legs pumping up and down like drumsticks as she sprinted down the dark hall.
When the goon reached the loose floorboard, the hall echoed from the sound - CREAK! - CRUNCH! - but unlike the two investigators, Martin was unlucky and tripped over it, falling down flat on his stomach and sliding several feet through the various garbage and rat droppings.
A split second later, Stella had caught up with him and yanked the item she had taken in the shop out of her pocket. "Stay down, you moron. I have a taser an' I'm not afraid to use it!" she said, turning on the electronic gizmo which sent a deep hum into the dark hall.
When the goon tried to get up despite her warning, Stella broke out into a slightly psychotic cackle. "You wanna have some roasted nuts? Ooooh, I love me some roasted nuts. I love the smell of roasted nuts in the morning?!"
"Nononononono, I'm stayin' down! I'm stayin' down!" Martin said in a squeaky voice.
"Thought you might," Stella continued in her regular voice, sticking out her tongue at Regina who was staring at her with wide, confused eyes. "Reggie, go get the Inspector. I'll keep Mr. Goon under wraps while you're away."
"You're the boss, boss," Regina said and patted Stella's shoulder before leaving the scene.
Rolling over so he could take a good look at Stella, Martin scratched his chin to get some of the filth out of his seven-day stubble. "Who the hell are you two birds, anyway? You're not cops."
"Nope. We're from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. Our motto is 'We always get our man'. No, actually, it's 'If you're not satisfied with our services, you can Kiss Our?' but the other one has a nicer ring to it."
"Nuts? You want some roasted nuts?" Stella said in the wacky sing-song voice and turned on the electronic gizmo.
"Nononononono!" Martin squealed, clasping his hands together in front of his crotch.
While Regina and Stella were observing Inspector Moynes and her detectives push Martin and Bjarne into a police cruiser, another team of officers were clearing out the second hand store, carrying out box after box of stolen goods and putting them into the white delivery van.
"This was a job well done, Reggie," Stella said and wrapped her arm around her taller friend's waist.
"Yep. But, Stell? did you really have a taser?"
Chuckling, Stella reached into the pocket of her fleece vest and found the item she had used to pacify Martin. "Naw, it's a cordless shaver. It was just my luck that it was so dark in there that he couldn't see what it was. Listen," she said and turned it on, producing the familiar humming sound.
"How'dya know the battery was charged?"
"I didn't. Dumb luck 's all."
Smiling, Regina reached up and mussed Stella's hair. "You're our little good luck charm, you know that? Well, not when you fall off your chair."
"No, not when I fall off my chair. Or when my glasses steam up. Or when I get Cherry Cola all over my shirt and in my hair. Or when I slip off the curbstones. Or when I-"
"Yeah, yeah, I get the picture."
Drawn in by the smiling women, Mary-Jane Moynes went over to the two investigators and shook their hands. "Great job, Stella. Miss Harrison. The Police Department thanks you."
"You're welcome, and please? call me Reggie," Regina said and punched the Inspector's shoulder.
Grimacing, Mary-Jane reached up and rubbed her shoulder. "Ouch? all right, Reggie."
Suddenly remembering a very important item, Stella dug into her rear pocket and found the four hundred dollars Martin had given her for the five Lenovo laptops. "Mary-Jane, here's the money for your old laptops. Goon number one gave them to me yesterday. And here's something I took from the shop? you better put it with the rest of the items."
"Thanks, Stella. It's evidence so I better mark it as such. I got the laptops for free, anyhow. They had already been written off so they were hardly worth anything," the Inspector said and put the money and the shaver into a clear plastic bag.
"Oh, really? Then I guess the goons got the short end of that stick, huh?" Stella said with a cheeky grin.
'Inspector?' Detective McDonnell said in the background, making Mary-Jane turn around and wave at him.
"Looks like I'm needed. Talk to you later. Just gimme a call if you need anything. See ya," the Inspector said, smiling at Stella and Regina.
"See ya, Inspector," Stella said and wrapped her arm back around Regina's waist. "So? Ruby's?" she continued as they began to stroll towards the SLK.
Regina shook her head and leaned into Stella's grip. "Nope, home to change first. And then Ruby's. I'm not going anywhere with you dressed like this."
"Oh, but that business suit is such a good fit on you?"
"Not me, you! Those torn jeans gotta go, Stell!"
"I knew it was too good to be true, Reggie? I knew you couldn't go a day without criticizin' my clothes!" Stella said in a mock growl.
Forty minutes later, Stella opened the door to Rockin' Ruby's and was greeted by the regular din of the almost exclusively female crowd, laced with a touch of lounge music from the bar and the occasional echo of a thumping bassdrum from the dance floor.
Around half the bar stools and the booths were vacant, but the other half were occupied by a rather raucous crowd who seemed to have been there for a while.
Stepping inside, Regina waved at Ruby who was sitting at her customary place at the end of the bar.
Stella turned around and tugged at Regina's arm. "Things are definitely happenin' here tonight, huh?" she said, needing to speak quite loudly to be heard over the patrons.
"Yeah. What would you like?"
"A gin-tonic, please."
"Right. Find a seat, I'll be there in a flash," Regina said and mussed Stella's haystack.
When the patrons spotted them, they all let out a wild cheer - and it didn't take long before someone shouted: 'Are you gonna kiss again?'
"Ohhhh no, we're definitely not going to kiss again," Regina said as she went up to the bar, remembering Stella's unexpected response to the experimental kiss they had shared the other week.
"Hi, Reggie," Ruby said, slipping behind the counter and grabbing two glasses. "What can I get ya?"
"A gin-tonic for Stell and a driver's Vermouth Bianco and lemon soda pop for me, please."
Reaching under the counter, Ruby began to mix the drinks at once. "Gotcha. Have you been working today, Reggie?"
"Yeah, and there's a chance you'll be reading about it in the morning papers."
"Would I lie to you, Ruby?" Regina said, flashing her pearly whites at the bar owner.
"Mmmm? what have you been up to, then?"
"Oh, just a little undercover operation, working with the boys and girls in blue to bust a large organization dealing in stolen goods."
Ruby shook her head and placed the two drinks on the shiny counter. "Okay, now I know you're shitting me."
After taking two napkins from a pile next to a bowl of pretzels, Regina leaned against the counter and shook her head slowly from side to side, making the black locks move around on her collar. "Nope. And you can take that to the bank," she said, picked up the drinks and walked over to the booth Stella had chosen.
"Yeah, right, Reggie? pull the other one," Ruby said and went back to her regular bar stool.
As Regina put the two drinks down on the table, Stella leaned in towards the former model's ear. "What was that all about?" she said, munching on a couple of pretzels.
"Oh, I don't think Ruby believed a word of what I told her? about what we've been doing all evening."
Wrapping the napkin around the glass, Stella raised the drink and took a small sip of her gin-tonic. "Well, it was kinda unusual. We actually accomplished something today, Reggie. This wasn't just stopping a shoplifter or rescuing someone's kidnapped dog? remember that one?"
"O-yeah. Brrrr," Regina said, getting the shivers from remembering the ungrateful, constantly barking Jack Russell terrier that she had threatened to throw into a meat grinder if it didn't shut up.
"? This was something important. We stopped a couple of hardened criminals today. You know, Reggie, I'm kinda proud of us. Yeah? Yeah, I am. We helped the local community with this job."
"We certainly did," Regina said and started stirring her Lemon-Vermouth with a long spoon.
"Defenders of the weak. That's us, the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. Cheers, Reggie," Stella said and held up her glass.
"Cheers, Stella. Long may it last," Regina replied and clinked the edge of her drink against Stella's.
After taking a sip, Stella nodded and leaned back on the bench. "Well, I'm not going anywhere. In fact, I think our adventure is only just beginning."
"Yeah. The only question is? are you staying, Reggie? I mean, I can understand if you'd want to go back to-"
"Man, are you kiddin'? If I go, who's gonna help you up when you fall, Stell? Or comment on your hideous clothes? or your car? Or watch D.E.B.S. and Charlie's Angels with you?"
"?and far more importantly? why would I leave my best friend behind? No, nuh-uh, I'm staying right here," Regina said and put out her hand, expecting Stella to give her a high-five.
"Awwwwwww!" Stella said, suddenly choking up. Smiling through a veil of tears that had appeared out of nowhere, she pulled Regina into a crushing hug that slowly evolved into a warm embrace.
Behind them, all the patrons started to chant 'Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!', but Stella just raised her hand behind Regina's back and gave the barflies a single-digit salute that told them in no uncertain terms that they should butt out and go back to their drinks - unfortunately, this only made the cheering even louder.
Regina pulled back from the hug and looked over her shoulder. "Am I missing something?"
"Only a buncha juvenile delinquents? with emphasis on the juvenile," Stella said, sticking her tongue out at the patrons.
"Mmmm. So what else is new? Hey, Stell? d'ya wanna dance?"
"Uh, dance??" Stella was about to decline the invitation when it struck her - much to her surprise; actually, it was practically an epiphany - that she felt more comfortable and appreciated around the tall, former model than she had done in most of her romantic relationships.
A big smile formed on her lips, and she reached across the table and took Regina's hands in her own. "Sure. Why the hell not?? Let's go shake some booty," Stella said and began to slide out from the bench.
THE END of THE HARRISON-STARR DETECTIVE AGENCY