FLEA MARKET FLICKER
This story is an Uber/original. All characters are created by me though some of them may remind you of someone.
This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top-right corner and find something else to read.
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.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: February 28th - March 8th, 2017, for the 2017 Royal Academy of Bards' April Fools Day Special.
- I'd like to voice my gratitude to Wendy Arthur for all her sterling work and for allowing me to 'play' with Kate Marshall. Also, thanks to Icebard for a certain, colorful descriptive that was too good to pass over ;)
- If you're interested in reading more about Regina Harrison and Stella Starr, you can find all their old adventures at the Royal Academy of Bards in the anthologies, "The Harrison-Starr Detective Agency," "News from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency," "From the Files of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency," and "Last Words from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency."
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: Regina Harrison and Stella Starr, the owners of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, have once again been called into action. This time, they're hired to stop a thief who's stealing toys from little kids at a neighborhood flea market. Once more, the unpredictable, unstoppable, undaunted and uncombed investigators go all out to bring the crooks to justice through their trademark zany disguises, over-the-top chases and in-depth theories on the criminal mind. In short, it's business as usual for the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, but don't worry - Reggie and Stell know what they're doing…
The steady drizzle that fell from the leaden sky pooled into puddles large and small on the parking lot's uneven surface, and since it had been raining for most of the night, the area closest to the building housing the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency had turned into an obstacle course.
Though the calendar said it was early April, the low temperature and the persistent rain made it feel like mid-February. It was weather for neither man nor fowl, but at least it stopped the pigeons from taking frequent dumps on the windshields of the cars parked there.
Everything was bathed in dull, overcast gray, but a splash of color soon arrived as an old AMC Pacer chugged-chugged-chugged up the short ramp and into the parking lot. The splash of color in question was chocolate-brown though some had called it by a different name. The owner of the vehicle was adamant it was chocolate-brown, however, and few had the guts to argue for any length of time with Stella Starr whose pint-sized frame was the home of a temper that contained enough rage and fury to wipe out half the offensive line of the reigning Superbowl champions.
As the veteran car came to a stop by the low stone wall that marked the outer edge of the parking lot, the part-owner of the acclaimed detective agency brushed her shaggy mop of dusty-blond hair out of her eyes and leaned forward to stroke the Pacer's dashboard. "That's my girl… thank you for another safe trip. Now," she said, adjusting her glasses like she always did when a topic was about to turn serious, "you did have me kinda worried there for a while with the clunka-clunka-clunka sounds… and it grew worse when it became clunka-clunka-umpa-umpa-clunka-ba-da-umpa-clunka. I could handle that… I could, honest! But when that chilling scrape-scrape-scrape sound came into play, I really did think you were gonna exit stage right and leave me hanging like a tuna that had been fished outta the ocean by some doofus named Oswald or Jumbo or something like that. I'm glad it didn't happen. Thank you."
Nodding, Stella picked up the paper bag from Zeligman's bakery and reached for the little lever that would open the door. After she and her main squeeze, the retired, then un-retired, supermodel Regina Harrison, had swapped kisses and said their see-ya-laters earlier the same morning, she had stopped by the best bakery that Bay City had to offer to buy their breakfast.
The moment Stella opened the door, the dull rain tried to force its way into the car. She fought it off with several growls and sneers that made it quite clear that the weather had better not try anything frisky unless it wanted its incorporeal behind kicked but good.
Unfortunately, the weather tripped her up when she wasn't looking. When she put her brand new, second-hand, 1970s-retro basketball boots down onto the wet parking lot, she found the largest puddle known to Woman, and the water crept into the old fabric almost at once. "Oh, flippety-flop!" she groaned, trying to lift the pantlegs of her jeans so they wouldn't get soaked as well. That gesture left her with a hand short for the paper bag from Zeligman's, so she stuffed that between her teeth and jumped out of the brown car.
After bumping the door closed with her butt, she realized she had forgotten to take the keys from the ignition. She couldn't leave the old girl unattended and unlocked like that, but if she didn't get inside in an almighty hurry, she would be soaked to the core which would take the shine off her day, not to mention her outfit. Regina always said that Stella dressed in the dark, but she was pleased with the combo that consisted of a pair of dark-green jeans, her beloved pink-and-white hoodie with the white tassels, a washed-out Daffy Duck 4 Prezident sweatshirt - it had 'It can't be any worse, right?' on the back -where the sleeves had been cut off just above the elbows, and on top of it all, the very definition of Stella Starr, her bright-yellow poncho.
She tried to stick a finger or two under the latch on the door while holding onto her pantlegs, but all she succeeded in doing was to break one of her fingernails which was already quite short to begin with. Worse, as she let out a muffled "Owch!" at the pain that shot up from her fingers, the paper bag containing the goodies from Zeligman's almost slipped from her mouth.
"Naw-mmmph! Naw-mmmph, that-mmmph does-mmmph it-mmmph!" she mumbled around the bag. "Inside-mmmph! Inside now-mmmph!"
Moving with surprising speed - though hardly any grace - Stella hustled over to the door to the office where she rummaged through her jeans pockets to find the house keys. Then she remembered she had clicked the extended key chain onto the one she used in the Pacer. Sighing, she looked at the old car, then at the locked door in front of her, then back at the car. "What a perfect way to start the day… and it ain't even Monday," she mumbled around the paper bag as she slinked back across the many puddles holding her pantlegs high so they wouldn't get soaked.
Sometime later, her shaggy haystack stood out in all directions as she threw the towel back into the bathroom and clicked off the lights with her elbow. Her retro basketball boots were toasting under the heater to get dry, and she had even had to change her socks - Minnie Mouse had vacated the premises and had been replaced by the strapping Wile E. Coyote.
Blind as a bat without her glasses, she shuffled into the center of the office and came to a halt on the deep, plush carpet they had bought at a Chapter Eleven-sale a few years earlier.
Legs apart. Hands on her hips. A deep breath. She was ready. Letting out a warbled war cry, she threw her upper body forward and beat her haystack into submission by shaking and shimmying her head every which way but loose - and the crunching sound that rose from her neck even added a question mark to that particular aspect.
Once the head-banging session was finished and the shaggy mop had fallen into a serviceable 'do, she fumbled over to the coffee table by the couch and found her glasses. Slipping them on, she shuffled over to the small sink behind the door to prepare the goodies she had bought for breakfast.
A short fifteen minutes later, two brief honks heralded the arrival of Regina Harrison, the former queen of the catwalks. After her recent, glorious comeback on the cover of the Swimsuit Illustrated magazine, Regina had been much in demand from the glitteries, but she had preferred to settle for a few ad campaigns here and there so she could stay at Stella's side to work as a crimebuster in the seedy underbelly of Bay City - or something.
Stella heard the commotion and pushed herself away from her desk to wave at her best friend, business associate and - above all - lover. Her two pieces of raspberry-frosted Danish had long since disappeared like the trimmings on a Meaty Mama pizza, but she still had some black coffee left sloshing around at the bottom of her Spongebob Squarepants mug.
Pulling the curtains aside, Stella had to do a double-take at the fact that the sun came out at the exact moment Regina Harrison stepped out of their leased Mercedes SLK carrying three bags from various fashion boutiques. She was dressed in a dark-blue business suit that was supported amicably by a pale-blue pilot shirt. A golden beam caressed Regina's long, dark hair that she swept back with her graceful, slender fingers - as always, it fell into a perfect cascade down her back.
When Regina noticed Stella standing at the window, she offered her a brief wave before she entered her patented model-walk where her hips slammed side to side in a fashion that was banned in most states within the Bible Belt.
Inside the office, Stella wore a shit-eating grin as she sat down at her desk. "She's still got it… and she's all mine… eat your hearts out," she mumbled, rearranging a few things on the desktop. The paperwork would have to wait; she had more important things on the agenda.
"Hello again, dahling!" Regina said as she stepped into the office. She put the three bags down onto the plush carpet while she took off her business jacket and kicked off her shoes, but they were soon back in her hand.
"Hiya, Reggie," Stella said with a grin. Putting her hands behind her head, she leaned back in her chair while she waited for the inevitable floorshow. "I can't believe you actually went to one of those early-bird outlet specials."
"Well, I did," Regina said as she straightened the pilot shirt's collar - not that it needed it as the perfect shirt was already sitting perfectly across the perfectly sculpted torso.
"So did you find any horrendously overpriced, hopelessly overdesigned, and ridiculously overhyped rags while you were at it?"
"Oh, you better believe I did!" Regina said and grabbed the first bag, a large, gray thing from Original Boutique Lana é Mara. The other two carried the logos of Exclusive Lady Bartholdy and Design By Bruno FRaZ.
"Whoopie-doo! I knew you would! Lemme see 'em!" Stella said, grinning from ear to ear.
Regina narrowed her eyes down into pale-blue slits. The fact that she could count Stella's teeth from a distance of seven paces didn't help her mood, but the twinkling in her eyes proved that it was all a game for them. "Stella Starr, are you mocking me?" she growled in a voice that couldn't go any deeper.
"Who, me? Oh no, I would neeeeeeeeeeeeeever do that, Reggie!"
" 'Cos I could make fun of you spending hours and hours on that womack-dot-com website…"
"Ahem! That's wokam-dot-com, thank you very much!" Stella said and leaned forward so she could put her elbows on the desk in a somewhat threatening pose. They couldn't hold the dark glares too long, and she and Regina both broke out in hearty snickers. "Nah, lemme see 'em. I'm sure you've bought something that's cool, but hot. Or hot but cool, whichever."
"Oh, you bet I have!" Regina said and pulled a black, spaghetti-strap dress from the Exclusive Lady Bartholdy bag. "How about this one? A steal at three hundred dollars."
The price made Stella's left eye twitch, and she had to get up from the chair and shuffle across the floor so she could see the dress in greater detail - that was the only way she could at least attempt to justify the extortionate amount of money Regina had spent on it. "Three hundred bucks for that thing? Reggie, you've been had… half of it is missing!"
"No, this is it. Look," Regina said and held it against her body. All her dips, peaks and curves stood out to such a degree that Stella's left eye twitched again, only this time it was for a different and far more pleasant reason.
"Uh-huh? Well, all right, if it makes you feel good," Stella said and tried to peek into one of the bags. "Not that I'm one of those women who go all ga-ga over clothes or anything, but… uh… didya get anything for me?"
Nodding, Regina reached into the Design By Bruno FRaZ bag and pulled out a colorful wad of fabric. "I said I would, didn't I? Supergirl undies and Road Runner socks! They were on special discount, too."
"Neato!" Stella said and reached for the Supergirl undies at once. She checked the little label and broke out in a snicker. "Well, I guess you know my size by now."
"I know it by hand," Regina said and offered her boss, best friend and lover a fair-sized wink.
Judging by the shower of little, purple hearts that fluttered around the room, Aphrodite had paid them a visit, but the two women were too busy gazing at each other to notice a thing.
The quiet moment was interrupted by the shrill noise of the two telephones ringing. Regina and Stella both jumped behind their own desk in a race to see who could pick up the receiver first - Stella won, mostly because she threw herself down onto her chair, but also because Regina knew it would be better for everyone involved if the volatile Stella Starr had a few victories over the course of the day.
"You've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?" Stella said, reaching into the desk's drawer to find a pencil and her good, old notepad whose pages had already seen so much of the action that Harrison-Starr had taken part in.
While Stella greeted the caller, Regina sat down on her own swivel-chair, leaned back, and put her endless legs up on the corner of the desk. She had bare feet as always, and she took the opportunity to do a little wiggle-wiggle at Stella.
Wiggling-wiggling right back with her free pinkie, Stella held the pencil ready on the first clear page of the notepad to be prepared. When nothing had happened after a few seconds, she furrowed her brow and looked up at Regina. "Uh… hello? Is anyone there?"
'Oh! Oh… yes… hello, uh… may I speak to Mr. Harrison Starr, please?' a female voice said at the other end of the connection.
The moment Stella heard that, her good mood imploded into a dark, frightening facial expression that made it clear that she had not only bitten into a lemon thinking it was a plum, an orange or even a clementine, but that it had been well past its sell-by date as well.
Jumping up from her chair, she threw the receiver straight up into the air while she stormed around the desk three times. By the time she was out of breath, the receiver came back down, and she snatched it out of thin air and bumped back down into the comfy seat. "Miss…" she said in a gloomy, despondent voice that conveyed an R-rated tale of woe, torment, and even a mild case of an inferiority complex though the latter didn't exactly match the rest of her fiery persona, "we don't have anyone here by that name… I'm senior detective Stella Starr. If you wish, you can also speak to junior detective Regina Harrison."
"Junior detective!? Moi?" Regina mouthed, pointing at her ample chest. Rolling her eyes, she threw her hair over her shoulder, expecting it to land in a perfect cascade - and, of course, it did.
Stella waved her free hand in disgust before she opened another drawer to reveal the information sheet she had that kept track of 'People asking for Mr. Harrison Bleepin' Starr.' The current caller was the forty-eighth person to get it wrong since the detective agency had changed its name to Harrison-Starr. Rolling her eyes, she updated the sheet before slamming the drawer shut with a bang.
'Oh, I'm sorry… your ad in the local newspaper didn't actually say. But, uh… maybe the case is too small for an agency with your expertise and-'
"Oh-ho-no, Miss, no case is too small, no fee is too large, no stone will be left unturned, and no expense will be spared at the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency," Stella said, tapping the butt of the pencil down onto the notepad's blank page. "After all, our motto is 'Every case is equally important.' "
While she spoke, Stella craned her neck to look at the plaque on the wall behind her that carried their real motto: 'If you're not satisfied with our services, you can kiss our-'
On her way back to the notepad, she happened to lock eyes with Regina whose raised eyebrow proved that she was paying attention. "Mmmm-yeah," Stella said, holding the pencil ready once more. "So… what's it about, Miss… uh, I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name…?"
'Oh! Pardon me. My name is Diana Petersburgh… and, well… I better give you some background information so you know all the details.'
"Well, I got a pencil all ready to go, so… the stage is yours," Stella said and put the tip of the pencil down onto the paper.
'I'm the chairwoman for the houseowners' association up here in the Durango Hills area, one of the neighborhoods close to Ramona Battista Park. For the past couple of days, we've had a small get-together modeled on the street parties held downtown. The biggest attraction is a flea market for the neighborhood's children, but we have costume contests et cetera for the adults-'
"Wa-hey! Costume contests?" Stella cried, breaking the tip off the pencil in all her excitement. Furrowing her brow, she stared at the cracked tip before she threw the busted pencil over her shoulder and began to rummage through all the desk's drawers to find something else to use. She had already been through three of the four drawers when Regina put a ball point pen down onto the desktop.
A thank-you kissy was in order, so Stella made sure to send one at her lover who responded by entering her favorite 'too cool for words'-posing routine where she put a pinkie in her mouth, twisted her hips to accentuate her rear end and hooded her eyes to send Stella a smoldering gaze.
'-And someone's been stealing the toys straight off the tables of the flea market! Can you believe that?' Diana Petersburgh continued into Stella's ear.
For the briefest of moments, Stella had no idea who she was, where she was, what she was doing, and what the woman in her ear was talking about, but it all came back to her when Regina left the pose and strolled back to her desk wearing a hand on a hip, and her trademark two-hundred watt smile on her face.
Three point six seconds later, Stella's glasses had fogged-up completely, and she mouthed a few obscenities at the former model for once again tripping her up while at work - the obscenities were responded to by a hand-kiss and a saucy wink that didn't make it better.
Pinning the receiver down between her chin and her shoulder, Stella took off her glasses to wipe the lenses with a piece of soft cloth. "Uh… why, that's despicable, Miss Petersburgh."
'Oh, it's Mrs., actually…'
"Mrs. All right. Noted. But it's still dessssss-pick-a-bell! I can't recall ever hearing anything that despicable!" Stella said as she shoved her clean glasses up her nose. Once she had regained the ability to see what she was doing, she scribbled a few words onto the notepad; then, she drew a fat box around what she had written: 'Someone stealing toys from kids!'
'So will you come to our assistance, Miss Starr?'
"Mrs. Petersburgh, rest assured that Harrison-Starr is on the case!" Stella said and jumped to her feet. Holding the ball point pen high in the air, she had her eyes fixed on the lamp in the ceiling like she was trying to emulate the Statue of Liberty. "We shall not rest, nor eat, nor sleep, nor even think about hanky-panky until this crook has been brought to justice!"
'Uh… that's good. That's really good, Miss Starr. Because of the poor weather earlier this morning, we have something else planned for today, but can you swing by tomorrow afternoon and begin your investigation?'
"Stella Starr and Regina Harrison will be there, Mrs. Petersburgh, but we'll be so deep, deep, deep undercover you will never be able to spot us in the crowd!"
'Oh, that sounds wonderful! Thank you… thank you very much, Miss Starr.'
"No problem. We'll be there. Goodbye for now," Stella said and hung up. Nodding quietly to herself, she tore off the top page of the notepad before she put the ball point pen into her desk's top drawer.
"Nuh-uh," Regina said from her desk, holding out her hand in a palm-up gesture.
Chuckling, Stella reached into the drawer and retrieved the ball point pen. After she had shuffled over to the other desk to deposit the writing tool into Regina's open hand, she went back to her own desk to search for the discarded, busted pencil.
"When are you going to tell me what that was about, Stell?" Regina said as she clicked off the pen and put it into a small tray that she used for various office knick-knacks.
Down on the floor, Stella already had her head underneath her own desk to find the wayward pencil, but the search was fruitless until she realized that the odd object poking her butt was probably the very item she was looking for. "Well…" she said, shuffling around to sit on the fluffy carpet while looking at the pencil's broken tip. She didn't have a pencil sharpener so there wasn't much she could do about it. Instead of sharpening it, she threw it back up onto the desk where it rolled under some of the long-forgotten paperwork. "Someone's been stealing toys from a flea market for kids. Nasty business. We can't allow that to continue, Reggie."
Stella zoned out just thinking about the heinous crime, and she drifted off into a world far away. "Ohhhh… if someone had stolen toys from me when I was a little girl, I would have been so, so, so, so sad and I would have cried myself asleep for an entire week if not more. Ohhhh, when I think of my soft animals that I had bedside… ohhhhh Gawd, if they had been stolen, it would have ruined my faith in humanity, Reggie! Oh, I used to kiss them goodnight each and every evening just after lights-out or sometimes before if I had been a sad little Stella that day… I had a donkey and a tiger and a lion and a polar bear and one of those strange Australian sorta-bear-thingies that climb trees and that have big, flat noses-"
"-but that I can't remember the name of, and I had a penguin and a dinosaur and several others but my favorite soft animal was a blue elephant. I loved to play with the trunk underneath the covers… it was so soft and cuddly and-"
Looking up when a shadow fell over her, Stella stared into Regina's scrunched-up face - she had drifted so far off into Never-never-land that she hadn't even heard the former model get up and cross the floor. "Uh… what?"
"Playing with the trunk, Stell? Underneath the covers, Stell? How old were you then, Stell?"
"Not like that! Perv! Jeez, a girl can't get no respect here!" Stella said and jumped to her feet. In a heartbeat, she had closed the distance between them and had poked her face up near Regina's chin. "Fer cryin' out loud, I was pouring out my innermost feelings about my childhood, and you use 'em to stab me in the back! Now gimme a kiss and we'll pretend it never happened!"
Leaning down, Regina offered her squeeze a good, little smooch on the kisser. "Better?" she husked, nibbling a little at the shorter woman's lips while she was there.
"For now," Stella said and sat down on her chair.
"Yeah," Regina said as she shuffled back to her own desk. "Well… at least I know what to give you for your next birthday," she added with a saucy wink.
"Aw, Jeez!" Stella cried, throwing her arms in the air.
The following hours were spent on activities closely related to the stressful job of being a private investigator: watching silly videos on Youtube, folding and throwing paper airplanes, bickering about what to order for lunch, complaining to the lunch delivery guy when he was late, eating lunch on the couch while watching a funny DVD, throwing scrap paper balls at each other, cleaning up the mess made from throwing scrap paper balls at each other, making and drinking coffee, and even doing a little paperwork - though Stella could only stomach fifteen minutes of the latter.
The gray morning had given way to a bright day, but the lack of phone calls gave Stella a bad case of the drowsies and an overwhelming urge to yawn the whole time. While Regina sat at her desk playing a noisy game on her new smartphone, Stella leaned back in her chair and attempted to get a little shuteye. The wild noises created by the arcade game made rest difficult to come by, but she was all out of ammo so she couldn't even throw a paper ball at her partner's head to make her stop, or at least turn down the volume. "Oh, whaddahell are you playing, Reggie? Make it stop!" Stella said in a voice that came close to a whine.
"Hoppin' Harriet. It's a really fun platform game, Stell," Regina said without looking up from the small screen. "You need to collect little things that'll build a big thing and once you have three big things you can go onto the next level where you'll need to collect-"
"Forget I asked," Stella said, pulling out a desk drawer to find something worthwhile to play with - like her beloved Rubik's Cube or even a deck of cards.
A knock-knock on the door interrupted her quest, and she sat up straight in a hurry to be ready for the visitor. "Reggie, quick! Put that thing away… and will ya at least try to look presentable? I mean, sheesh, you look like something the cat dragged in."
"I beg your pardon?!" Regina said, but she was cut off by a whistling-like sound from the game. "Oh, rats… you made Harriet fall to her doom. Now I have to start over. Ha!"
"Ha, yourself. Enter!"
The metal door opened to reveal the identity of their visitor - it turned out to be their friendly neighbor from across the parking lot, Billy the Mechanic, whose banana-yellow boiler suit, heavy work boots, greasy baseball cap, filthy T-shirt and two-day stubble proved that he was a real ladies' man in his own, somewhat odd style.
As Stella took in the sight of the filthy mechanic, the smile she had screwed on her lips faded into her regular, neutral appearance. "Oh… hi, Billy. What gives?"
"Well, I… oh… hello, Miss Harrison," he said in a deep, manly, 'I'm the king of the jungle and I'd like to invite you over for a bite'-kind of voice. He whipped off his greasy baseball cap when he caught a glimpse of Regina's long legs that were still perched on the corner of the desk; that proved not to be enough, so he slicked down his unruly hair as well.
Regina offered him a sideways glance in return. The air turned frosty for a moment, but the mechanic never noticed it. "Hi, Billy. Oh gosh darn, I need to use the little girls' room. Stell, can you handle whatever the issue is?"
"But of course, dahling!" Stella said with a grin. Like Billy, she kept a firm gaze on Regina's long legs as the former model strode across the carpet heading for the bathroom. "So… whassup, Billy?"
The mechanic snapped out of his blissful state and shuffled over to Stella's desk. "Well," he said, mashing his greasy cap back on his unkempt locks. "The connector for the Pacer's fuel pump arrived today. It's a renovated unit from an old junker, but I figured that it wouldn't matter 'cos… uh…"
Stella's eyes had already narrowed down into green slits at the inappropriate suggestion that her beloved AMC Pacer was but one notch above a 'junker,' but she drew a deep breath to regain her composure before the violent thunderstorm would be released.
"Uh… yeah," Billy continued, scratching his stubble while looking anywhere but at the investigator. "Anyhow, it's arrived. It's ready to be installed whenever you… uh… are."
"That's great, Billy," Stella said and got up from her chair. Though she was only half the size of the mechanic, he took a step back to remain safe when she approached him, but she was merely headed for the small sink behind the door. "Ya want some coffee or something now that you're here?"
"Aw, no thanks, Miss Starr. But, uh, I have an offer for ya… would you be interested in-"
"Look, Billy," Stella said, pointing her empty coffee mug at her filthy guest. "You're a nice guy and a great mechanic, but I can see I need to give you The Talk about the birds and the birds. And that's just it. Get it?"
"Uh… not really," Billy said and scratched his stubble again, "but I was gonna ask if you were interested in some cheap cartons of soda pop? A buddy of mine bought 'em extra-extra cheap from a bar and grill that had gone into bankruptcy. I bought half a dozen cartons from him, but I don't really drink that much soda, so…"
Stella chuckled and returned to the coffee machine to pour herself a refill of the dark-brown liquid. "Sodas, huh? I might be. Which brand?"
"Aw, man… not Slurrpy?"
"Naw. Frizzie's. I got blackcurrant fizz, carbonated mineral water, cherry colas and regular colas," Billy said, counting off on his fingers.
Holding a full mug of steaming hot, black coffee, Stella scrunched up her face and let her tongue roll across her front teeth a couple of times while she ran through the options in her mind. "Mmmm… Frizzie's soda pops always give me the burps, so… huh. I think I'll pass, Billy."
"Oh… okay. Six bucks for twenty-four cans… that's dirt cheap, though."
"Yeah, I'll give you that… but the burp-thing. Eh," Stella said as she shuffled back to her desk. Putting the mug on the blotting pad, she sat down and pondered the existential question. "Hell, why not. All right, tell you what… I'll buy a single carton of regular colas. How's that?"
"Works for me, Miss Starr. Six bucks, like I said. I have it over in the-"
"Oh, just bring it over whenever, Billy," Stella said and waved her hand in a dismissive gesture.
Though a big grin formed on Billy the Mechanic's face at the satisfactory conclusion to one of his business propositions, it was clear he had more on his mind, and he whipped off his greasy baseball cap all over again. "Now, uh… listen, about Miss Harrison… do ya suppose I could tempt her to go out with me next Saturday evening? There's an awesome All U Can Eat offer over at Bob's Bucket Of Ribs-"
"The birds and the birds, Billy," Stella said calmly as she sipped her coffee. "Think about it. See ya later. Buh-bye. Talk to you soon. The door's over there. Oh, look at the time. Gonna leave you hanging now. Take your pick."
Billy opened his mouth to ask about Stella's peculiar sequence of words, but he decided against it at the last moment. "Uh… right. I'll be over later with the sodas," he said and shuffled back to the front door. Reaching it, he looked at the door to the bathroom in the clear hope he could catch another glimpse of Regina, but it was firmly closed.
Once the front door had clicked shut behind the mechanic, Stella chuckled to herself. "Yo, Missy Long Legs! You can come up for air now!"
A moment later, the bathroom door opened and Regina returned to the main office. As she turned off the lights with her elbow, she swept her long hair over her shoulder expecting it to land in a perfect cascade which it - obviously - did. "Is he gone?" she said as she wrung her hands to get the moisturizing cream distributed.
"Yeah, but he'll be back…" Stella said, chuckling again as Regina spun around on her heel and went straight for the bathroom door. "Later," she continued, chuckling even harder at the sight of a fully grown woman sticking out her tongue.
The look on Regina's face said it all. Formed by a perfect mix of surprise and disgust, the dark frown that had fallen over her fair features looked like it had the potential to stay there for a while - or at least for as long as Stella kept up her current stream of vile activity. "Well, gesundheit… or whatever you say to that exclamation."
"Thanks," Stella said and put the empty can of Frizzie's Cola into a clear plastic bag labeled 'For recycling.' "Told ya they give me the burps."
"Yeah. I just didn't expect it to be so… so… so…"
The two investigators had moved into the smaller conference room at the far end of the office to engage in one of their favorite pastimes: picking out which costumes to wear for the following day's undercover assignment. So far, they had gathered three piles of clothes that had potential to come into play.
"Well, you know me, Reggie. Since when have I ever done anything by half?"
Just as Stella bent down to pick up the next plastic bag, the inevitable happened. "Aw, here we go again," she said and put a hand flat against her chest in an effort to stop the rolling tide. It was too little, and definitely too late, as the prolonged burrrrrp surfaced with the strength of the foghorn that bobbed in the choppy waters off the coast.
"Jeez, Stell," Regina said and moved away from her partner.
"I know, I know. Fortunately, I only bought twenty-four cans. And, oh, fifteen burps a can, that's… mmmm… mmmm… mmmm… mmmm… three-hundred-and-sixty burps or so. Six down, three-hundred-and-fifty-four to go. Not too bad, all things considering."
The statement made the crickets chirp for so long that Stella had to look up at her taller lover to see if she was even still in the same zip code. "What?"
"You're sleeping on the couch for the next week, Stella Starr."
"Oh, rats… damn those Frizzie's," Stella said and slapped her forehead. Shaking her head - which made her blond haystack fly left and right - she smacked her palm down onto the first of the three piles of clothes on the floor. "Look, Miss So-Tall-My-Head-Can't-Fit-Under-The-Frickin'-St.-Louis-Arch, can we concentrate on the important stuff here?"
"I'm all ears," Regina said and pulled a chair over to get closer to the action while still keeping a safe distance from the living Burping Machine.
Stella's face fell into the serious, no-nonsense look she always wore whenever they had work to do. Shuffling around, she sat down cross-legged and took the first item from the first pile. "All right. Mrs. Petersburgh told me they were hosting a costume contest for the adults while the kids had their fun with the flea market, so for once, we can choose freely from our stash. Do you have anything special in mind, Reggie?"
"Well," Regina said, flipping her hair over her shoulder where it landed in a perfect cascade, "I was thinking about going as a retired supermodel. You know, smooth, suave, sexy. Smoke-tinted shades. One of the dresses I bought today-"
Stella interrupted her partner by holding her hands in the air. "Ah, how can I put it without hurting your feelings… no. We need to choose something from our regular stash, Reggie. We're supposed to be deep, deep, deep undercover, remember? We can't go around attracting attention to ourselves. Now, do you want to be the Dumpster Queen, Bob the Plumber, the Irate Girlfriend, the Librarian-"
"But they're all your costumes, Stell… oh, I know… how about if I showed up as the French Maid?"
For a moment or two, Stella thought back to the first time she had seen Regina wearing that particular costume. Then, her glasses had fogged up beyond control, and though she had taken to coating her lenses in a special, anti-fog solution since then, she could see the outer edges begin to whiten. "That would be a no as well, Reggie…" she croaked.
Chuckling, Regina leaned down to claw Stella's cheek.
"But, uh… anyhow… uh…" Stella said, adjusting her glasses that had indeed begun to fog up around the edges. "Okay, my turn. How about I took this orange turtleneck sweater… the red skirt… and then the nut-brown spectacles?" she continued, pointing at two of the piles in succession.
"Hmmm… Velma Dinkley?"
"Yeah, you're right. I wouldn't want to pull a copyright infringement," Stella said and rubbed her chin. "All right, how about… hot-chicky-dee-boo, I just thought of something!" she exclaimed, slapping her open palm down onto her thigh.
Regina crinkled her nose as a pre-emptive measure against whatever her partner could throw at her - metaphorically or otherwise - and moved up her hands to shield herself. "Should I be worried? Hell, I know I should be worried 'cos you have that special look on your face again, Stell… the one you always get whenever you either need to hurl or get super-duper-excited about something…"
"Aw, I don't need to hurl right now!" Stella said and jumped to her feet. In two steps, she was at their large closet where she moved in so deep she almost disappeared inside it. She rummaged around for a while before she pulled back out holding a huge plastic bag. "Here it is! Remember? Ohhhhh, we've kept 'em back for the right job, and holy schmackerony, that's this one!"
"Gawd, I thought we had burned those abominations! I'm not going to wear that costume, Stell… listen, I'm deadly serious… I'm really, really not going to wear that," Regina croaked in a voice that bordered on the hysterical.
Beaming from ear to ear, Stella ignored her partner completely as she pulled out another, smaller protective bag from inside the large one. The second bag was soon shed as well, and a bright-orange costume saw the light of day. It was colorful, it was fluffy, it was plump, it was pot-bellied, it had a bushy tail and two pointy ears - in short, it was- "The Easter Bunny! Awwwwwww yeah!" Stella cried, jumping up and down while pulling the upper part of the two-piece costume, the hood, down over her haystack and ears.
Her framed, bespectacled face took on a manic, near-insane quality as she hopped around like, yes, a bunny. "Aw, I'm gonna be the Easter Bunny! I'm gonna be the Easter Bunny! I'm definitely gonna be the Easter Bunny! Don't you wanna be the Easter Bunny, Reggie? We could both be Easter Bunnies! Us, Harrison-Starr, the awesomest bunny girls around!"
"Hell! No!" Regina said, burying her face in her hands.
"No, no, no…"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah!" - All that manic bunny-hopping left Stella on the verge of releasing another deadly round of burping, and she did just that the next time she came down on her feet.
The prolonged, rolling burp didn't improve Regina's mood, and the dark frown she had worn before turned into a reasonable facsimile of a thunderstorm in August. "You go ahead and be the Easter Bunny… I have other plans," she said and grabbed two items from the piles on the floor. Huffing, she stomped off to change into the costume away from Stella's glowing eyes.
"Oh…" Stella mumbled, tracking her partner as she stormed off. "Was it something I said?"
Two minutes later, Regina came back dressed in an all-enveloping nun's habit complete with a white, starched headpiece. She dragged the portable mirror with her and left it in the middle of the conference room so she could do what she did best - pose. "Mmmm? Eh? Mmmm?" she said, twisting and turning in front of the mirror.
"Holy shit!" Stella said, watching the costume that covered Regina from top to toe. She chewed on her lips for a while, but came to the conclusion that the black habit worked for Regina. "Huh. Well. Okay. Not exactly what I had in mind for tomorrow, but… okay. But I'm going as the Easter Bunny, and that's final."
"And I'm going as pious Sister Mary-Margaret-Miranda-Michelle, and that's final too," Regina said, spinning into her 'too cool for words'-routine that left her cocking her hips and sucking on her pinkie. "Stell? You're awfully quiet."
"Naw, I just…" Stella fell silent as she took off her glasses that had fogged up from edge to edge. Sighing, she wiped them off on the sleeve of her pink-and-white hoodie. "Had a few naughty thoughts about nuns and stuff," she mumbled under her breath.
"Does that mean that I-"
"Still got it?"
"Yes," Stella said as she put her glasses back on. "You still got it, Reggie."
Nodding, Regina ripped open the Velcro band that held the habit together. Though she was fully dressed underneath the black fabric, the suggestive gesture made Stella's glasses fog up all over again - and the despondent sigh that followed was deep, long and heartfelt.
"One, two… one, two…" - Inhale, bend over, stretch out, step up, step down, move left, move right, exhale - "One, two… three-four…" - Inhale, bend over, stretch out, step down, step up, move right, move left, exhale - "One, two… one, two…" - Inhale, bend over, stretch out, step up, step down, move left, move right, exhale - "One, two… three-four…" - Inhale, bend over, stretch out, step down, step up, move right, move left, exhale.
"Are you-" - Huff, puff - "sure you-" - Huff, puff - "don't wanna-" - Huff, puff - "join me?" Regina said, working hard on the Stepping Stone exercise equipment they had bought from one of the countless TV Shop channels in the Bay City area. A DVD explaining how to use the gizmo had been watched once, then discarded due to reasons of sublime boredom.
"One, two… one, two…" - Inhale, bend over, stretch out, step up, step down, move left, move right, exhale - "One, two… three-four…" - Inhale, bend over, stretch out, step down, step up, move right, move left, exhale - "One, two… one, two…" - Inhale, bend over, stretch out, step up, step down, move left, move right, exhale - "One, two… three-four…" - Inhale, bend over, stretch out, step down, step up, move right, move left, exhale.
"Naw, I'm good," Stella said, sprawling on the couch with her socked feet up on the low coffee table and a bowl of pretzels firmly resting on her Daffy Duck 4 Prezident sweatshirt. Now and then, she dipped into the bowl to scoop up a handful of the salty sticks that she proceeded to stuff into her face. Her eyes never left the six-foot-one image of female perfection that worked out in the middle of the office wearing black martial arts pants, a white sports bra, black sweatbands around the wrists, and a matching one around the forehead. The long, dark hair had been folded into a neat ponytail that swished up, down, left and right as Regina followed the exercise pattern. "Yeah, I'm gooooood…" Stella mumbled, snuggling down on the couch with a big, ol' cheesy grin on her face.
"One, two… one, two…" - Inhale, bend over, stretch out, step up, step down, move left, move right, exhale - "One, two… three-four…" - Inhale, bend over, stretch out, step down, step up, move right, move left, exhale - "One, two… one, two…" - Inhale, bend over, stretch out, step up, step down, move left, move right, exhale - "One, two… three-four…" - Inhale, bend over, stretch out, step down, step up, move right, move left, exhale.
The unique, and certainly exhilarating, show was interrupted by the shrill noise produced by the telephones ringing. Groaning, Stella moved the bowl of pretzels from her tummy to the coffee table intending to get up, but Regina was faster and picked up the phone on her desk. "You've reached the Harrison-Starr… oh, hi, Steve. What's up?"
Now a real groan escaped Stella's mouth, and she sat up straight and brushed herself off. A myriad of pretzel-crumbs rained down onto the plush carpet, but that was a household chore for another day. "I know what's up with Mr. Chiseled Jaw. He just couldn't get through a day without having your tongue licking his ear through the phone, Reggie. Flippety-dang, that big lug. Can't buy a clue," she said, swinging her socked feet off the table.
Over at the desk, Regina put a hand over the mouthpiece and shot her associate a dirty look; though it was tempered by the accompanying wink, the meaning had been clear.
"Yeah, yeah," Stella said and moved her hand across her mouth in the age-old 'zip it' gesture. Predictably, her silence lasted for exactly two point eight seconds. "At least I get to go home with you every night. Ohhhhh-yeah. Hey, don't talk too long to that fella… it's almost time to eat, and you know how slow the pizza guys can be getting over here at this time of the afternoon," she continued on her way over to her own desk.
Regina's pale-blue eyes rolled several times at her partner's words before she picked up a pen and her notepad so she could take notes while she spoke to her former colleague, and current agency chief, in the glitzy world of top class modeling. "I'm here, Steve. Go ahead…"
"No, it was just Stell."
"Yeah, yeah… she's never gonna change."
"Okay. I'm not going to tell her you said that." - Cue a scrunched-up expression on Stella's face.
"I see. Mmmm. Well-"
"No, I'm available." Regina glanced at her partner to see if the unfortunate choice of words had had an impact; she had to chuckle at the sight of Stella's face still scrunched up into a sour mask.
"Really? That's a nice sum of money."
"No, I'll leave the outfit to you. You know my size and preferences. Cool and classy. What's the company's name again?"
Scribble, scribble, dot, underline - "Okay, got it."
"Yeah, thanks for calling, Steve. Talk to you later. Bye." After hanging up, she tore the top sheet off the notepad and studied it for a short while.
"Oh, fer cryin' out loud!" Stella said and threw a freshly made ball of scrap paper in her friend's direction. "When are ya gonna tell me what the big, chiseled guy wanted to say to ya? You're available? Whaddahell-izzat-saposed-ta mean? And what's that about him knowing your size and preferences? If there's anything you wanna tell me, just tell me now 'cos I'm a big girl and I can handle the truth! Sorta…"
"It's just a gig next month in New York City, Stell. A two-day affair-"
"Sorry," Regina said, dazzling Stella with one of her two-hundred watt smiles, "poor choice of words. A two-day shoot on the streets of the Big Apple. A jewelry company saw my showcase page on Steve's website and they want me as the face for their new collection of necklaces and other accessories for the, uh… mature woman."
Harrumph! - "On one hand, that's a load off… and on the other, that's a buncha stinky, old bah-loney!" Stella growled, throwing her arms in the air. "Mature women, and they thought of you? You're only forty-four and change, for flip's sake!"
"You know the modeling world, Stell. Anyone over twenty-five is a mature woman," Regina said and broke out in a shrug that wasn't quite one of her patented 'can't give a hoot'-shrugs although it came close.
Stella nodded in an exaggerated fashion several times to show her displeasure. "And anyone over twenty-seven is a has-been. Oh, I know. Gives me the sour burps just thinking about it. Oh… I feel… I feel… I feel a Frizzie's knocking on the door right now… yes… yes… it's coming… here it is!"
Putting a hand on her chest, she leaned her head back and opened her yap to show the Frizzie's-induced burp the easiest way of escaping. When it had, she let out a grunt and folded her arms across her chest. "Uh-huh. Like I said. Damn those Frizzie's. Now will you puh-lease take a shower and scrub that sweat off your goddess-like body so the rabble among us can get something to eat! Jeez, I'm starving here! I'm starving so bad I got a hole in my stomach!"
"We all do, Stell," Regina said with a snicker. Jumping into the center of the office floor, she ran her fingers across her bare tummy-skin below her sports-top until they circled a central part of the plane. "It's called a belly button. Look."
A few seconds of silence went by before Stella leaned forward and put her elbows on the desktop. "Reggie, I can't see a damn thing from way over here… I'm gonna hafta take a rain check until bedtime. Then I'll pass judgment. Okay?"
"Works for me," Regina said, spun around and strolled over to the bathroom in her patented model-walk that seemed even more outrageous in the loose martial arts pants.
"Hey! What about dinner?" Stella cried after her partner's retreating form.
Just before Regina closed the door to the bathroom, she stuck her head back outside. "Ah, you know what I like," she said with a wink.
Stella chuckled; one of those, dark, husky ones that proved her mind was elsewhere. "Yeah… but I can't ask 'em to fit that onto a pizza, now can I?" Chuckling again, she reached for her own telephone and dialed the number for their local pizza parlor.
The afternoon of the following day.
The residents of the fair city by the silvery bay that had given it its name had seen it all - movie stars and film shoots, hopeful candidates for the presidential election swinging by on the campaign trail, spontaneous street parties in the bohemian neighborhoods at the Heights, a bazillion tourists with a bazillion cameras, flash floods down by the coast, forest fires up in the hills, rolling fog that shut down the international airport for hours, occasional earthquakes and subsequent power outages, sinkholes that could swallow a Dodge Ram whole, and even a humongous flock of blackbirds that had closed an entire section of a freeway once upon a time.
Thus, the sight of a chocolate-brown AMC Pacer driven by a bright-orange, fluffy Easter Bunny that appeared to be singing at the top of its lungs while munching on a dark cookie that could only be an Oreo - not to mention having a stern-looking nun by its side - shouldn't have caused much of a ripple in the fabric of everyday life, but it did.
No sooner had the Pacer turned onto one of the main streets that led away from downtown and into the flashier neighborhoods and suburbs before a huge, and hugely destructive, pile-up claimed a dozen cars that had been going the other way.
Driving at a safe, but not exactly mind-blowing, speed of twenty-five miles per hour in the second lane of the four-lane street, Stella and Regina sang along to one of The Carpenters' countless evergreens that filled the airwaves from the Pacer's eight-track player. Just like before, every sha-la-la-la evoked pleasant memories for the two investigators.
When the accident unfolded right next to them, Stella had to spin the steering wheel left and right to try to evade all the hubcaps, chrome trimmings, turning signals and door mirrors that came flying at her like in the boss level of a demented video game. "Oy! Oy! OY! What the flip? Whaddahellarethosepeopledoingoverthere!?" she roared around a half-eaten Oreo, speaking so fast the exclamation came out as one word.
As she concentrated on getting out of the danger zone that had cropped up out of nowhere, she clenched her jaw hard but forgot all about the Oreo she had put between her teeth a fraction of a second before the carnage broke out all around them. The cookie broke in two, and both parts disappeared down into the footwell. "Oh no… and now I lost my O! Rip-a-rat-a-new-one, I had only just started on it…"
Stella's already limited stunt driving skills came up short when she had to avoid two obstacles at the same time, and a loud Ka-Lonk! was heard from the Pacer's left side just behind the door. "Ooooooooh, that didn't scratch the paint job! That didn't scratch the paint job! If that scratched the paint job, I'm gonna be so annnnnnn-gry I'm gonna explode!"
"Perhaps we should stop to see if the other drivers are all right, Stell?" Regina said, staring at the multiple wrecks on the opposite side of the street.
"The hell we should!" Stella said, staring at the carnage with a firm jaw but wide-open eyes. "Nuh-uh… there's something wacky going on here, Reggie… we need to get outta here fast and onto the freeway while we can. I'll step on it!"
She followed through on her promise - or threat - and the speed climbed to an excessive twenty-nine miles per hour. The entire vehicle shook and shimmied, and Stella held onto the steering wheel with a look of grim, death-defying determination etched onto her pained face. The engine roared like it was fit to burst, the transmission whined, and the teeth of the driver chattered from the emotional and physical strain she was under.
It wasn't long before the hairy ride was accompanied by the familiar disharmony of clunka-clunka-umpa-umpa-clunka-ba-da-umpa-clunka that rose from somewhere underneath the old, well-worn vehicle. "Oh, no… this is going from bad to worse to awful! Ohhh, my old girl… my poor, old girl," Stella groaned, taking her foot off the accelerator at once and leaning forward to stroke the dashboard. As the Pacer trickled down to a safer twenty-three miles an hour, she hoped the evil-sounding soundtrack would disappear, but it didn't.
Regina, who had been clutching the panic grip above the door the whole time, finally let go and shuffled around in the seat. "Would it help if I said a few Hail Mary's?"
"It might… it might, Reggie…" Stella croaked in a voice that shook from the terrifying experience of nearly breaking the world speed record for AMC Pacers. At present, it stood at forty-five point two-two-six miles per hour, but that insane record had been set by a professional stuntman going downhill aided by a strong tailwind, and not a driver who could hardly see beyond the tip of her nose in dim lighting.
Chuckling, Regina reached in under the edge of her costume's headpiece to shove a few locks of hair back inside. "Can't. I don't know the words."
"Then why did you-"
"Oh, here we are, Thirty-second Street, Durango Hills, Ramona Battista Park," Regina said, pointing up at the large, green road sign above the pale-gray pavement that formed the base of the four-lane freeway they had driven onto a few minutes earlier. "Stell, this is where we need to- Stella! Thirty-second Street! Right here… we need to turn off here!"
"Whut? Here? Naw, that can't be right?"
"The sign said Durango Hills, Ramona Battista Park… oh, we can still… no, we can't!" Regina cried, looking over her shoulder at the Kenworth eighteen-wheeler that was about to pass them on the inside. The driver honked the truck's air horns twice as it blasted past, and Regina just caught a glimpse of a sign carrying an arrow that pointed away from the freeway. "Oh, Stell!"
"Oh, Reggie! If you had said that sooner, I would have made that turn-"
"Last chance is the Thirty-third Street exit, Stell. If we miss that as well, we'll need to go way, way, way out to the cloverleaf and double back! That's six miles, Stell!"
"Yeah, yeah, don't need no lecture, thankyouverymuch," Stella said and activated the Pacer's turning signal. The angry honk that came from somewhere behind it and to the right proved that the inner lane hadn't been all-clear after all, but since the honk wasn't followed by squealing tires and the sound of breaking glass, they were all right.
"Reggie," Stella said, squinting hard to see the road sign that was hanging off a gantry high above the lane they were in, "does that sign say Thirty-third Street?"
"But even if it does, it can't be the right exit. It can't lead to the Durango Hills neighborhood. We're too close to the city… Durango Hills is further away."
"Look, Stell… of course it can, and it is," Regina said, tracking their road trip on her smartphone's GPS app. "It's the right one. The exit to Thirty-third Street… Stella… Stell! We need to hang a right here!"
"Jeez! Will ya calm down, Sister Wotsyername… I'm hanging a right, awright," Stella said and flung the AMC Pacer into the exit lane. The turn was a wide, sweeping affair designed for semi-trucks and thus had plenty of space out to the guardrail, so she didn't need to slow down from her car's giddy twenty-six miles an hour approach speed.
When Stella felt Regina's eyes burn a hole in her cheek, she turned her head and broke out in a wide, cheesy grin. "Told ya we'd get here. Look, it says Durango Hills right there," she said, pointing out of the windscreen at one of the road signs they were driving past as they left the off-ramp. "Now all we gotta do is find Ramona Battista Park."
"Good luck," Regina mumbled, but Stella didn't seem to hear.
Continuing down the off-ramp and onto the new street, Stella checked the mirrors before she slipped into the inner lane. "I also told ya we didn't need that GPS nonsense. Gee-pee-ess… it's gotta be one of the world's top ten most useless inventions. Remember the last time we tried it? It didn't even know the street where we wanted to go."
"Weeeellll, that was probably because you had the wrong name for the street, Stell. It's a computer, not an oracle," Regina said as she closed her telephone's protective cover and slipped it into a pocket they had sown into the liner of her habit.
Stella offered her car-mate an Evil Eye or two before she shuffled around in the seat and once more gripped the steering wheel hard. "No. No, I won't get agitated. Not while we're working," she mumbled under her breath. "Oh, this is life for me. Working a case out in the beautiful sunshine. All dressed up, too. I love flea markets. We're going to have a blast today. And the crooks better beware 'cos Stella and Reggie are on the case. Ommmm. Ommmm. Ommmm. I'm not agitated. I'm calm. Calm and serene. This is going to be a beautiful day. Yes, I'm calm. Oh, it's so wonderful being calm. Calm and serene. Ommm-"
"Uh… what are you… uh… doing, Stell?"
Stella smiled as she turned her head and looked at Regina's puzzled expression. "Oh, just following Guru Jackie's advice. Her teachings, you know. Ommm-ing and repeating a few phrases. I caught one of her call-in shows on Channel Seventy-eight the other morning. I already told you about that, ack-chew-ly…"
"I must have blocked it out," Regina mumbled before she continued in her regular voice: "And that'll work… how?"
"It'll work by reducing the stress-related toxins in my blood. It'll give me a much nicer outlook on life, or so Guru Jackie says. Of course, we're meant to buy her book for ninety-nine bucks ninety-five, but-"
"Ramona Battista Park! The flea market!" Regina cried, pointing past Stella's nose at a banner that had been spread out on the opposite side of the wide street they were driving on. The bright hoarding welcomed visitors to the Ninth Annual Community Flea Market, but it was soon out of sight. "It's right there- ohhhh, we went past it, Stell!" she continued, turning around in the seat so she could look out of the back window.
"I'm calm! Calm! Calm, Reggie! What part of calm don't you understand?!" Stella roared before she spun the steering wheel left. The sudden motion sent the AMC Pacer into a wild, one-hundred-and-eighty degree U-turn that put it back on course.
"Yikes!" Regina cried, once again clutching the panic grip above the door.
"Look how calm I am!"
"Please don't argue with me, Reggie! You know how agitated I get when we're arguing and I don't wanna argue with you and especially not today 'cos it's such a beautiful day and you're kinda sexy too in that habit and even though it gives me the willies just thinking such naughty thoughts about nuns and stuff I can't wait to get back home and rip it off with my teeth!"
Chuckling, Regina leaned over to pat Stella's thigh through the chubby bunny-legs. "Who's arguing? I'm merely pointing out that-"
"I'm calm! Calm and serene! Look how calm I am!"
Regina blinked several times as she took in the worrying sight of Stella Starr going a mere notch below an all-out nuclear detonation. She considered arguing with Guru Jackie's core message of the 'calm' statements, but she settled for nodding and agreeing with the volatile investigator for the sake of world peace.
The white-knuckle ride was soon at an end as they turned off the street and rolled into a quiet neighborhood. Ahead of them, a line of cars waited to get past a makeshift manned booth that had been set up so the visitors could pay for parking. The other vehicles in the line were mostly SUVs and large station wagons that had the capacity to carry a whole bundle of children at once, but there were other sedans and coupes as well.
Rolling to a halt behind a late-model Cadillac SUV, Stella let out a deep sigh and released her grip on the steering wheel. After reaching down into the footwell to retrieve both halves of the errant Oreo, the corners of her mouth went south as she got an eyeful of the hairy state the cookie-bits were in. She cast a quick glance at Regina - who appeared to be miffed - before she found a plastic bag and got rid of the dark fragments.
To ease the disappointment, she turned up the eight-track player's volume a notch or two, and Karen Carpenter soon did her best to fill the Pacer with happy sounds.
"Listen, ah," Stella said, wiping her nose with the back of her gloved hand. It was only when the gesture left a twinkling trail that she noticed she wore the white glove, and she hurriedly wiped it off with the other one. "Reggie… I'm sorry for yelling at you. I just got caught up in the stressful situation 's all."
Regina turned in the seat and shot her partner a friendly gaze. "Oh, that's all right, Stell. I'm used to it by now. It was wild out there, wasn't it?"
"Yeah… cheese-oh-flip, can you believe all those cars crashing into one another? It looked like a demolition derby back there… steam and glass and bent fenders everywhere. I guess some people just shouldn't drive."
Holding back a cheeky grin, Regina took in the garish details of Stella's costume: the fiery investigator wore the bright-orange headpiece with the two pointy ears, the full, pot-bellied mid-section, and even the chubby legs. The furry, paw-like gloves had been discarded when Stella discovered she couldn't hold the steering wheel, so she had put on a pair of white gloves that she had borrowed from the costume known as The Mime. The bushy tail was yet to be attached to the small Velcro patch on the seat of the costume, and Regina was quite certain that it would be an adventure in and by itself.
The two women locked eyes and broke out in identical chuckles. "I guess we do look kinda odd today, huh?" Stella said as she shuffled around in the Pacer's seat. "You know, this reminds me of the time we were disguised as clowns. Oh shoot, do you remember that? That was so much fun…"
"I do, Stell… you had found your true calling as the broad clown, all right. Honka-honka!" Regina said, leaning over to tickle the fluffy costume at what she reckoned would be Stella's side.
Snickering, Stella paid back the favor although it seemed inappropriate to tickle a nun - the nun in question didn't seem to mind, though. "Who'dya say you were again? Sister… who?"
"Right… you're getting all right at this biz, Reggie. Another couple of years and you'll be a halfway decent investigator," Stella said, preparing herself for the inevitable counterstrike.
"Halfway decent?!" Regina said and broke out in a snort that was a good match to the rest of the black costume.
The special moment didn't have time to evolve further as the line finally moved ahead and it became the Pacer's turn to reach the manned booth. A lump of a human being wearing hobnailed jackboots, black pants and a bluish-gray uniform shirt that was too small for the carrier's frame stepped up to the window and gestured for Stella to roll it down.
"Hiya, uh… Miss," Stella said, gawking at the human lump when she realized it was a woman and not the three-hundred-eighty pound pro-wrestler she had expected - of course, women wrestled too, Stella and Regina had first-hand knowledge of that, so it wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that the guard dabbled in the ancient arts as well.
"Ten bucks for parking. Cash only," the uniformed guard said, holding out a meaty paw. The uniform was strained across the woman's broad frame, and the utility belt she had around her waist carrying a radio and a few other items had no option but to be secured in the outer-most stop.
Stella screwed a smile on her face to remain as calm as possible in the face of the human lump. The brass name tag on the guard's ample chest said her last name was Cockburn, so it was only polite to use it despite the unfortunate associations it brought on. "Well, Miss, uh… Officer Cockburrrrrr… uh… Cockburn, it just so happens that Mrs. Diana Petersburgh has invited us to the flea market. We're Stella Starr and Regina Harrison of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. If you would kindly point us to where we might find Mrs. Petersburgh-"
"Ten bucks for parking. Cash only."
A few crickets had time to chirp before several things happened at once. First, Stella sat up straight in the seat. Then she drew a deep breath. Then Regina clapped a hand over her eyes and let out a pained groan. All of that had taken place within the first three seconds after the brusque dismissal, but the next sixty seconds weren't to be as calm.
"I beg your pardon?" Stella growled, once again clutching the steering wheel to have something to do with her hands. "You musta misunderstood me. I said we were invited to the flea market by Mrs. Diana Petersburgh who asked us, the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency to come over and-"
"Ten bucks for parking. Cash only. Last warning before I turn you away."
Despite all of Guru Jackie's meditative chants, the security guard's aggressive demeanor was all the incentive Stella Starr's fission reactor needed to kick into high gear. In no time flat, it went from passive to super-heated, and it made Stella point an accusing, white-gloved index finger at the large guard. "Hold it!" she barked, "hollllll-dit! Now you lissen to me and you lissen good! We came here in peace, me and Reggie, and we don't respond well to threats! I'm tellin' ya, if ya wanna play hardball the nasty way, you's got yerself a deal, there, lady! I'm calm incarnate, but don't make me come out there and go all Charlie's Angels on ya… and don't think I can't in this Easter Bunny costume… you ain't seen nothin' if ya ain't seen my world class Tae-Kwabbit-Do!"
Stepping back, the uniformed security guard keyed the mic on the radio she carried on her belt and spoke a few words into it. Before long, several other guards came running towards the entrance with a woman dressed in a business suit in tow.
"Stella…" Regina squeaked, looking at the uniformed tide that rolled towards them.
"Not now, Reggie!" Stella growled, waving her hand in dismissal while never taking her eyes off the large security guard. "I'm about to teach the camp commandant here a lesson! Never mess with Harrison-Starr… it's just like that time with the burger chef and the effen-beffen-keffen-leffen nonsense!"
"No, Stell… there's something you need to see… up ahead…"
Stella moved her eyes away from the human lump to check out what had Regina so frazzled; she grimaced when she realized the odds of a clean escape were getting poorer by the second. "Aw, fer Pete's sake- why'd'ya hafta call in reinforcements, lady? That was unnecessary and completely uncalled for," she said, leaning out of the rolled-down window. "We were just having a polite conversation about how the world treats us little people but then you had to sic your SWAT team on us! What's up with that? You consider that polite behavior?"
By magic, the business-suit-wearing woman beat all the uniformed guards to the chocolate-brown AMC Pacer, and she leaned down to the opened window. Huffing and puffing, the woman needed a moment or two to catch her breath, not to mention adjust her senses to the garish, colorful assault on good taste that sat behind the veteran car's steering wheel. "Miss… Starr… Miss… Harrison…?" she said between huffing and puffing.
Stella tore her eyes away from the human lump to focus on the older, but smarter-dressed woman nearer to her. "That's right, Miss. I'm Stella Starr, this is my associate Regina Harrison. We're the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. And you are?"
"Oh. Hello," Stella said and put out her gloved hand. "So. We said we'd be here, and we are, but it looks like we won't be allowed to enter the flea market so we can carry out the task we were hired for." As she spoke, she put on her most angelic smile so she would present a pretty picture of perfect politeness to the woman in charge of the whole thing.
"Yes, about that…" Diana Petersburgh said and turned back to the security guard whose meaty face proved she wasn't too happy about the situation, or the way it had escalated. The two women conferred quietly for a moment before the chairwoman of the houseowners' association turned back to the Pacer. "Miss Starr, go right ahead. The guards hadn't been told, but the confusion has been sorted out now."
"Thank you! That's the best news I've had for the past seven minutes. Can we just park anywhere?"
"Yes, but the first few lots have already been cordoned off. Just continue straight ahead until you find one that's still open," Diana Petersburgh said and moved a step away from the old, brown car like she was afraid it might stain her business suit.
"Will do. It's just like down at the Bay City Bulldawgs' stadium," Stella said and began to trickle away from the booth. She reconsidered at the last moment and came to another stop just before they reached the access road that would take them closer to the parking lots.
Leaning halfway out of the opened window, she zeroed in on the large security guard and drew a deep breath. "And the next time, Officer Cockerel, try a little kindness before you go all Godzilla on us poor, unsuspecting visitors! This was a tip free of charge courtesy of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. I hope you've paid attention 'cos there will be a test if we meet again. So there!" she barked loud enough for the entire group to hear.
As she rolled up the window and stepped on the gas, she added in a cheery tone: "Now that wasn't so bad, was it, Reggie? Just a fun, little drive in the countryside. Cruisin' with my gal. Hey, that's a great title for an old fifties rock and roll song. You're not saying much, Reggie? You need to pee before we get started? Reggie?"
Looking to her right, Stella scrunched up her face when she realized that Regina had swiveled the headpiece around so most of her face was obscured. "Reggie? You're miffed. I can tell. I'm in tune with such things. I'm not sure why you're miffed… but you're definitely miffed."
"Just find us somewhere to park, will ya?" Regina said in a voice muffled by the elaborate headpiece.
"Sure thing, sweetcheeks," Stella said and reached down to turn the eight-track player's volume back up for the remainder of the short drive. Soon, she sang along once more to Karen Carpenter's dulcet tones like nothing had happened at all.
The seemingly quaint notion of a costume contest had turned out to be a smash hit that had caught the imagination of every adult living in the Durango Hills neighborhood, because during the short walk from the parking lots to the first booths in the kids' flea market, Stella and Regina had encountered pirates, nurses, surgeons, gas station attendants, rhinestone cowboys, police officers, mad scientists, abominable snowmen, secret agents, Marilyn Monroes, James Deans, fighter and airline pilots, disco dancers, hippies, superheroes, harem girls, construction workers, football players, Romans in togas, witches, tribal chiefs, ghosts, Ladies and Gentlemen in Renaissance frocks and white wigs, baseball players, sailors, Civil War cavalry officers and southern belles, Friar Tucks and Robin Hoods, gangsters and molls, robots, dinosaurs, cartoon characters, and even someone who wore a nun's habit much to Regina's chagrin - it was a gigantic fashion faux pas to run into someone wearing a similar outfit at an event, even when it was merely a costume contest.
Regina's good mood had been restored, however, when it turned out the other woman was in fact a traveling Sister from a nearby convent. Her reputation for always picking a unique costume upheld, the former supermodel had carried on with a chuckling Stella in tow.
The small get-together, as Diana Petersburgh had described it to them over the phone, was in fact a large-scale street party with hundreds of booths set up in a single, endless line that ran along the main street through the entire Durango Hills neighborhood.
Judging by the joyous din that rose from the vast number of booths, the children who were busy behind the counters all appeared to have a great time selling or trading their old toys, clothes and various other items. Their parents, and the adults and other kids who were visiting the flea market, strolled along the street licking huge lollipops, or carrying helium balloons or fluffy, stuffed animals, and many of them were enjoying meals they had bought from one of the numerous snack food and soft drink vendors that were present.
"You know, Reggie…" Stella said, casting an admiring gaze at the wide selection of costumes on offer that stretched out as far as her five foot four-and-a-half inch frame - the half-inch was very important to her - would allow her to see. "It's not often we're not wearing the wackiest garb whenever we go undercover… I mean, look at all this!"
"I'll say," Regina mumbled, staring at the colorful sea of humanity that spread out ahead of them.
"Aw, you're not still upset about bumping into another nun, are you?"
"Well, no, but… yes, maybe. A little. It was a shock, Stell. I like to consider myself unique. But there she was, dressed just like me," Regina continued in the same mumble. She wanted to throw her hair into a perfect cascade down her back like she always did when she wanted to feel like a Real Woman, but her hair had been tucked away underneath the costume's elaborate headpiece, so she couldn't.
"Don't sweat it. It was bound to happen sooner or later, Reggie. Hey, don't frown," Stella said and traced a line on Regina's face. "If you frown for too long, the lines 'll be etched onto that mug of yours for good, ya know?"
That fate would be even worse than merely bumping into someone in the same dress, so Regina changed her expression at once into a happy-happy smile that perhaps wasn't too genuine.
"That's better," Stella said while sporting a cheeky grin. "So… you wanna check out some of the booths first, or should we spring for a dog and a soda? I'm definitely hot for a dog, heh-heh-heh."
Groaning at Stella's attempt at wordplay, Regina looked at the snack and fast food vendors nearest to the entrance. The men and women behind the sizzling pots and pans seemed to be locked in mortal combat to be the one who could serve the greasiest, meatiest food: burgers and fries, hot dogs of all types, pulled-pork sandwiches, BBQ and deep fried chickens, and even an omelet-and-bacon stand had been wheeled into the flea market. "Eh, I don't know, Stell… perhaps we should look at the booths first?" she said, straining her eyes in the hope she would find a stand that sold salads or vegetarian sandwiches.
"Sure thing, Reggie. Let's take a little stroll first. Leaves more room for a bigger bite later," Stella said and hooked her furry arm inside Regina's black sleeve. Once the former model had shuffled closer to her shorter, furrier companion, they carried on strolling along the long line of booths.
To the average guest at the flea market, the two women appeared to be enjoying themselves and only have eyes for the toys and other items for sale - and each other - but in reality, Regina and Stella were spending far more time observing the other people there than the countless well-worn or even half-broken doodads, thingamabobs and other odd objects that were sold at the booths.
Now and then, one of them pulled the other's sleeve to bring her attention to a particular person among the crowd. So far, they hadn't seen anyone who had the air of a toy thief about them, but as Stella Starr had learned at the very start of her career in investigatorialism when she had been tricked by someone she had trusted, looks could be deceiving. It was more difficult than normal since everyone wore a costume, but a crook couldn't change his or her demeanor. A good trick was to look the people they met in the eye; not aggressively so, but a casual, friendly glance as if to say 'Hiya doin'… love your duds.' Stella knew that if someone looked away in a hurry, they were worth investigating further.
Some they had encountered had scored a six or a seven out of ten on her professional hit-list of potential suspects, but no one had gone any higher. Of those who had caught her attention, most didn't fit the profile of a toy thief that she carried in her mind. "Some may just be out skinny-dipping in the naughty pond," she mumbled, looking at a forty-something woman whose date seemed a couple of decades younger than she.
"What's that, Stell?" Regina said, putting down an antique beauty box that she had been studying.
"Nothing. Seen anything you like?"
"Awwwww!" Stella said, pressing her white gloves to her furry chest and pretending to swoon.
"Ah, but not in that furry costume, Stell."
"Wa-hey, that's even better!"
Stella and Regina briefly stuck out their tongues at each other before they strolled on down the line of booths. The houseowners' association had arranged the booths into themes so it would appear less cluttered, and the two investigators were moving into the area reserved for clothes.
"Hey, maybe we'll get lucky and find some new stuff, huh?" Stella said and gave Regina's arm a little squeeze through the habit. "Man, I love flea markets… I've bought so much great stuff at 'em over the years. Most of my wardrobe comes from flea markets!"
The punch line was too good to pass over, so Regina came to a screeching halt and put her hands on her cheeks in a mock bout of shock and utter surprise. "Goodness gracious, Stella Starr! I never would've guessed!"
"Oh, it's true! Actually, the Daffy Duck 4 Prezident sweatshirt I wore… yesterday… was…" Grinding to a halt next to her partner, Stella scrunched up her face into a dark mask that promised plenty of relentless, tickling retribution once they got home. "Reggie, that one's gonna cost ya. Gonna cost ya plenty."
"Awww, I'm sorry…" Regina said and put her pinkie in her mouth; a gesture that looked inappropriate carried out by someone wearing a nun's habit.
"I don't think you are, Reggie," Stella said in a voice that was closer to a mumble than the sound level of her regular speech. She tried to squeeze her hands down into her pockets but found the Easter Bunny costume didn't have any. Instead, she shuffled back and forth on the spot, all alone in the sea of humanity. "All you goddesses of the world just live to tease us little people… we get no respect…"
Regina let out another "Awwww…" before she wrapped her arm around Stella's bright-orange shoulders. "Oh, my pretty, little princess! Don't believe for a second that I would do that. I love you, and I loved that Daffy Duck sweatshirt… the washed-out colors and the way the sleeves had been cut off with a blunt nail file… oh, it was just so, so classy."
Even Stella had to let out a strangled chuckle at the level of saccharine sweetness and somewhat ironic undertones contained in Regina's message. "Yeah? Well, I love you too, Miss Too-Tall-To-Fit-Through-A-Regular-Door."
"Good thing we got that squared, Miss So-Short-You-Can-Slip-Under-Any-Old-Wooden-Fence," Regina said and leaned down to give her squeeze a smooch on the lips before she could protest too much over the nickname. "So… how about we went back to work?"
Wrapping their arms around each other, they carried on at a slow, lazy speed that took them past several more booths that sold second-hand clothes and other accessories for the price-conscious consumer.
"How about we went to work on a dog instead, Reggie? Though it may not look like it with these chubby thighs, I'm starving. That salad you had me chow down for lunch didn't go far… shoot, I didn't even make it out the door before I was hungry again," Stella said and patted her furry, costume-induced pot-belly. "Naw, this time I'm gonna get a greasy dog and a Slurrpy. Oh… I sure hope they sell Slurrpy here 'cos if I have to drink a Frizzie's, it may blow our cover…"
" 'May' ? Stell, if you burp like you did yesterday, I think they'd call the fire department…"
"Yeah, but we might meet Kristy Newbourne again, huh? She's a hoot… a scary hoot with those multi-multi-multi-inch 'ceps… but a hoot nonetheless. Or maybe her fire station doesn't cover this precinct… district… whatever. Who knows. You're right, we better not try."
Snickering, Regina offered Stella a little sideways crush before they moved on down the line on a mission to find the vendor with the greasiest hot dogs.
Not long after, the mission had been accomplished with full marks on the score sheet in the categories 'greasy,' 'salty,' and 'ticking health time bomb.' Almost giddy with expectation - well, one of them was, at least - Stella and Regina lined up on the outer rim of a small cluster of people who were milling about at a hot-dog stand that promised much and apparently delivered even more.
'Cooked Dogs, Fried Dogs, Brat Dogs, Tex Mex Dogs, Beef Dogs, Chili Dogs, Corn Dogs, Pepper Dogs Sold Here - Eduardo's, Home Of The World Famous Eight Ounce Hot Dog!' the sign proclaimed, and the fully loaded, near-buckling cardboard trays carried away by the customers who had already been served proved it wasn't a lie.
"Ooooooh! Can't flippin' wait!" Stella said, rubbing her white gloves in glee when she gawked at a huge specimen that was in the process of being gnawed on by a customer.
"Eight ounce hot dogs… Jeez Louise… that can't be good for you," Regina mumbled, standing up-wind so her sensitive, vegetarian sinuses wouldn't get mugged by the swirling clouds of sizzling fat that escaped the large frying pans at the hot-dog stand.
Due to her superior height, Regina had a clear view of the menus that had been sticky-taped to the outside walls of the portable stand. Just by looking at the countless variations offered at Eduardo's, she knew they were headed for big-time trouble unless Stella's legendary indecisiveness had improved by leaps and bounds since the last time they were in such a situation - and she knew it hadn't. A groan escaped her lips as she looked down at Stella whose eyes couldn't be brighter at the prospects of sinking her best chewing teeth into one of those greasy, eight-ounce dogs.
Moving up into the first spot in the cluster of people, Stella almost pressed her nose flat against the protective windows of the portable hot-dog stand to get a full dose of the awesomeness on offer at Eduardo's.
The man toiling away at the sizzling pots and pans - he wore a starched, white hat and a white apron over a dark-blue, short-sleeved shirt - wiped off his hands on a dishtowel and got ready to take the next order. In his late forties, his coloring proved he was of Hispanic descent, and the small name tag on the apron proved that he was indeed Eduardo Arrellano, the owner of the establishment. "Hello, Miss. Nice costume. Are you the Easter Bunny?"
"That's exactly right. Thanks!" Stella said, only tearing her eyes away from the goodies on display after she had devoured everything twice over.
"So what can I do for you?"
"Aw, I'd like a dog, thank you. A cooked dog, if you have one. One of the biggies."
"One of the world famous eight ounce specials coming right up," Eduardo said and took a pair of sausage tongs that he dunked into the boiling water of the huge cooking pot. "And what would you like to have on it, Miss? You can choose from the entire menu… it's right below the windows."
"The menu?" Stella said, backing away so she could see the endless list. She had been so busy wallowing in the excess up top that she hadn't even noticed the seventy-five different trimmings she could choose between. "Oh… my… flippin'… Gawd…" she mumbled.
Her face lost all color as her eyes flew across the many options. Faster and faster they went until it had all been reduced to a blurry blob that she couldn't make heads or tails of. She looked up at Eduardo who was waiting to add the selected items with a clear look of mounting impatience on his face - which made Stella's predicament even worse. "Oh, God… I don't kn- oh, they all look so darn great. I really don't kn- Reggie, what do you think? Sauerkraut? No, that can be real bitter… I learned that lesson the first time. Roasted onions? Yes, definitely roasted onions. Ketchup and mustard. Spiced ketchup… no, regular ketchup. And not the tummy-killing mustard either, just regular. Oh God, I don't kn- fried onions, onion rings, horse radish, capers, pickled bell peppers, regular cucumbers, pickled cucumbers… genuine French tartare sauce… oh, I love that… definitely that. Sour cream, garlic sauce, barbecue sauce… no, not that. Gives me gas. Tomatoes, lettuce… yikes… sliced olives, feta cheese, regular cheese, shrimp-cheese spread… whut, on a dog?! Y'know, I don't think that cheese on a dog would be too delic- oh God, I don't know!"
By now, Eduardo Arrellano regretted ever agreeing to setting up his portable hot-dog stand at the flea market. The delay caused by the indecisive woman made the line grow exponentially, and some at the back even turned away as a result of the lack of progress up front. "Miss," he said, holding up the split bun that he had taken ages ago, "perhaps I should just make you a Dog Surprise?"
"Oh, I would be so rootin'-tootin' grateful!" Stella said and let out a sigh of relief.
While Eduardo finished preparing the hot dog, Regina moved up to the counter. "We would also like a Slurrpy Cherry Cola and a Slurrpy Carbonated Mineral Water, please."
"Coming right up," Eduardo said with a smile as he put the cardboard tray with the eight-ounce hot dog on the counter top. After putting two chilled cans of soda next to it, he collected the money that Regina paid him and moved onto the next customer in the line.
"Wow, wouldya look at this bad boy," Stella said, staring wide-eyed at the big pile of meat, dough and trimmings that Eduardo Arrellano had made for her. The hot dog on the cardboard tray seemed to have a little of this, a little of that and a whole lot of everything else on top, but all in all, it looked scrumptious and just right to eat.
No sooner had Regina and Stella moved away from the hot-dog stand before the fickle wheels of fate were set in motion. At a booth not too far from Eduardo's, a couple of children cried out when they discovered that some of the toys they wanted to sell had vanished into thin air.
"Whut? Whut? Oh no, don't tell me-" Stella groaned, holding her can of Cherry Cola in one hand and the fully-laden tray in the other.
"I'll check it out, Stell!" Regina said and stormed away from the hapless senior investigator.
"Go get 'em, Reggie! I'll enjoy my dog in the meantime," Stella shouted after her partner who was soon out of sight. All the shouting had caused some commotion at the hot-dog stand, so Stella shuffled even further to the side so she wouldn't be in the way of anyone or anything.
Staring at the can of soda that took up her left hand and the tray that gave her right plenty to hang onto, she tried to keep everything steady so she wouldn't spill the proverbial drop, or worse, a glob of anything off the hot dog. Now and then, she went up on tip-toes to see if she could learn anything from the commotion that blossomed further down the line of booths, but she was too short to see much beyond other people's backs. "Oh, this is just typical… the world hates us short gals," she groaned, trying to balance the dog so it wouldn't roll out of the bun.
Without pockets in her costume, something had to give, and it ended up being the unopened can of Cherry Cola. Putting it down on the ground between her feet so it was safe, Stella was able to grab the cardboard tray carrying the hot dog with both hands. The greasy sausage was too good to ignore, so she stuffed one end into her yap and bit off a large section of it.
'Stella!' Regina roared from somewhere into the crowd. 'Get over here quick!'
Stella stopped chewing and simply stared at the eight-ounce Dog Surprise that seemed to mock her with all its impassiveness. "Oh-mmmpharg'it! Oh-no-mmpfh… no-mmpfh, no-mmpfh, no-mmpfh… always-mmpfh when-mmpfh I'm-mmpfh eating-mmpfh. Always!-mmpfh." - Chew, chew, chew, gulp! "I'm calm… calm and serene… my wonderful, wonderful hot dog… maybe if I stick my thumb into it, I can… ouch, that's hot! Calm and serene. Oh, isn't it a beautiful day? Calm and- what… what… where… I'm not throwing it away, I'm not-not-not! But… oh, Reggie, hold onto your shorts, I'm coming!"
Spinning around to find somewhere to put her Dog Surprise while she was busy solving the case, Stella tripped over the unsighted, and long-forgotten, can of Cherry Cola that took off like a scalded cat down the street. "Oy! Dang that can!" she cried, nearly performing a mid-air reverse somersault as her foot rolled over the can's smooth, round exterior. Wearing the Easter Bunny costume had apparently improved her sense of balance, because not only did she stay on her furry feet, her hot dog stayed on the tray as well. A couple of slices of pickled cucumber flew off and ended their days splattered onto the pavement, but that was an acceptable amount of collateral damage in the face of a full-scale disaster.
After filing the accomplishment of staying upright under S for 'Smashing success, A,' she ran over to Eduardo's hot-dog stand and put the cardboard tray with the half-eaten Dog Surprise down onto one of the stand's stainless steel wings. "Eduardo, I need to put the rest of my dog here… My friend Reggie needs me. Now, please pay attention… do not… and I repeat… do not throw it away. Okay? I'll be right back to eat it. And I mean that. I always keep my promises… I'm Stella Starr, okay? Stella Starr of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. Do not touch that dog, okay? I'll be right back."
With that, Stella spun around and tore through the sea of humanity like a furry, bright-orange Coast Guard rescue cutter to get to her dearest Reggie's assistance.
Eduardo had only understood half of what the agitated Easter Bunny had told him, but he drew his lips back into a disgusted grimace as he took in the sight of the half-eaten, and fully messy, Dog Surprise. Using a pair of sausage tongs, he scooped up the remains and threw the whole thing into the trash can where it landed with a heavy thud, upside-down, and in a shower of wasted trimmings.
Stella's bushy tail was subjected to plenty of frantic wagging as she stormed through the throng of guests who wore costumes that were just as - and some even more so - outrageous as her own Easter Bunny garb, but the Velcro patch was up to the task and kept the tail in place. Her fluffy ears were flat against the furry headpiece as she threaded the needle by going left and right, right and left, and then left and right all over again, and her chubby bunny-legs never stood still as she needed to move her own human legs in far wider arcs than usual to get the furry thighs to move past each other.
When she finally caught up with Regina a couple of hundred yards further down the line of booths, she was so winded from running in the clumsy costume that she needed to lean over and put her white gloves on her knees to catch her breath. "Phew… ho-boy…" - Huff, puff - "Man-o-man… yikes…" - Huff, puff - "Regg-" - Huff, puff - "Regg-" - Huff, puff - "Reggie… what's…" - Huff, puff - "Phew… don't wanna do…" - Huff, puff - "That again… anytime soon…" - Huff, puff - "What's the sta- sta-" - Huff, puff - "Sta… did you cat- catch… him, Reggie?"
Regina had used her smartphone to snap a few pictures of the booth affected by the theft, but she put it away underneath the habit before she turned to face Stella. She had a message to convey that was as simple as it was depressing: "No."
"Aw…" - Huff, puff, sigh - "Crap."
"And then some, Stell. There, there," Regina said, patting Stella's furry back that heaved with her every breath. When the Easter Bunny finally calmed down, Regina finished the small therapy session by reaching down and making sure the bushy tail was still intact, and in place. "Well, you didn't drop any parts of your costume."
Huff, puff - "That's… good."
"Are you up for some bad news?"
Stella wiped her nose with the back of a white glove before she remembered that she actually wore it, and that it wasn't merely a white handkerchief. Like before, the twinkling trail left behind was soon wiped off on the bright-orange fur where it wouldn't stand out so much. "Even more bad news? Uh… not really. But I guess it's inevitable given how much crud that's been flying around today. Give it to me straight, Reggie."
"All right," Regina said and moved aside to reveal Diana Petersburgh who was speaking to two adults who, judging by the similar features, were the parents of the children involved.
The two kids behind the counter sold used toys for an asking price of fifty cents or a dollar or two for each item; mainly plastic action figures and dolls, but also board games, metal construction sets and die cast toy cars. There weren't any vintage or antique products, just solid toys that could withstand the strain of being played with every day.
The goods had been put up in two rows with the smaller action figures, dolls and cars occupying a freshly painted plank of wood that had been pressed into service as the top shelf, and the larger boxes for the construction sets and board games on the vending table itself. At present, the left half of the shelf that had carried a great number of cars and smaller figures was empty.
"Well, from what I could gather from the kids, someone ran past at full speed going in that direction," Regina continued, pointing further into the flea market. When Stella nodded, they moved closer to the booth. "The person only stopped here for a fraction of a second, but it was enough to swipe half the top shelf."
"Son of a so-and-so…" Stella growled, clenching her gloved fists. Her face fell into a foul expression as she took in the sight of the crying children, the upset parents and the shocked Diana Petersburgh. "Who in their right mind steals from a couple-a little kids, Reggie? I'm telling you, this is really making my blood boil… and that's when I get the most dainnn-gerous. You better keep a tight leash on me, Reggie, 'cos I feel like tearing some chunks outta that crook once I get my paws on 'im!"
"I hear you, Stell…" Regina said, using her superior height to conduct a thorough inspection of the people who had come to gawk. Though Stella liked to call her a 'junior investigator', the experience Regina had gained after several years on the job told her that thieves sometimes came back to marvel at the commotion they had caused. However, none of the people closest to the booth stood out; all wore serious expressions that were appropriate in the face of the bad events.
All, but one: a young man dressed in a white Rokkstar Street Tuff T-shirt and a pair of black-and-silver track pants - that appeared too large for him, as fashion dictated - shuffled up to stand just behind Diana Petersburgh as the chairwoman continued to speak to the parents. The young man was in his mid to late teens, with bleached-blond, closely-cropped hair and two piercings in his left eyebrow. His bare forearms were tanned like he spent a fair amount of time outside.
When Regina locked eyes with him, he failed the acid test by looking down at once. They had only exchanged glances for a split second, but it proved that he had something to hide. "Stell… I think-"
Unfortunately, the senior half of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency was too preoccupied mumbling, grumbling, growling and groaning at the peculiar, anti-social behavior of hardened criminals stealing from kids to pay any attention to what Regina was trying to tell her, but that changed in a hurry when a pair of strong hands grabbed hold of her furry shoulders and gave her a good shaking. "Oy!" Stella croaked, snapping out of her internal masterplan to hang all crooks up to drip-dry.
"Stell, I think we got a positive match," Regina said quietly so they wouldn't bring additional attention to themselves beyond what a nun and a bright-orange Easter Bunny would already garner.
That news made Stella's fluffy ears stand erect, and she looked around as well with a sort-of casual, bored, incidental expression on her face. "Who?" she said in a matching voice.
"The young man in the Rokkstar outfit. White T, black-and-silver pants. Just behind Diana Petersburgh. See him?"
"Not clearly. What he do?"
"He slid between the other people over there to be closer to the action," Regina said and began to shuffle in the direction of the suspect. "The look in his eyes is too excited for what's going on here. Also, he couldn't hold my gaze when we locked eyes."
"Oh-ho… well, well, well… let's go, Reggie. Lady Justice calls, and there's no way we're gonna hang up on her."
The two investigators took full advantage of the garish costumes all around them by blending into the throng of people gathered at the booth. Moving in an unhurried fashion so the young man wouldn't notice them, they had nearly made it all the way there when the flea market's security forces tripped them up for the second time.
Out of nowhere, two meaty guards dressed in the same black-bluish-gray uniform as the human lump at the parking booth pushed and shoved their way through the spectators to get to their boss, Diana Petersburgh.
Stella was shoved aside by a uniformed brute who wouldn't have looked out of place in an Al Capone biopic, and her right foot came within half an inch of being stepped on by a hobnailed jackboot. "Whaddahell?!" she croaked as she suddenly moved several feet sideways without wanting to. To remain upright, she flailed her furry arms in the air, and her white gloves caught the shoulders of the mother of the two children whose booth had been pilfered. Stella grabbed onto her rescuer at once, but she didn't take into account that the Easter Bunny costume made her heavier than usual.
She and the mother - who wasn't wearing a costume but a light summer dress - collectively lost their balance and found themselves on a collision course with the pavement. Several voices let out inventive curses and cries of surprise on their way down, but they were saved by Regina's lightning-fast reflexes and strong arms.
Once everyone's footing had been restored, Stella pushed the furry headpiece back from her eyes and shoved her wayward glasses up her nose. After a quick inventory of the situation where she noticed the mother's eyebrows going on a grand tour of her forehead like a pair of roaming caterpillars, she understood she needed to do some fast talkin'. "Oh! Pardon me, lady! Can you believe the rudeness of those security guards? Why, barging through here and shoving decent folks aside like a buncha drunken elephants with bad dental hygiene… by the way, hello, I'm Stella Starr of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. This here tall drink of water is my number two at the agency, Regina Harrison," she said, pointing at Regina. "And you are?"
"Right now, I'm a little confused," the woman said, slowly putting out her hand in an invitation for a shaking.
"Oh-yeah, I know that feeling well. Me and confused go together like corn and flake… or hot and dog, come to think of it," Stella said and proceeded to pump the woman's hand. "Never mind. I didn't catch yer name?"
"Chelsea Brenner," the woman said in a cautious voice. She glanced over her shoulder at the booth where her two children were being comforted by her husband and Diana Petersburgh. "We were the victims of a crime just now. We've come to the flea market for five years now, but we've never experienced anything like this. It's just-"
"Dess-pick-a-bell," Stella said somberly. "Yeah. Before those stormtroopers crashed the scene, me and Reggie had a suspect in our sights, but…" - she looked around for the young man in the white T-shirt, but as she expected, he was long gone. "… nah, he's vamoosed."
"Mmmm… all right," Chelsea Brenner said, looking like she didn't quite understand the peculiar words that were coming out of the Easter Bunny's mouth. "Uh… if you will excuse me…"
"Of course, of course," Stella said and waved at the woman who moved deeper into the crowd at once. When Regina stepped forward, Stella wrapped an arm around the waist of the black habit and gave the woman inside a little squeeze. "Hot-flippety-dang, Reggie… we almost had him. By the way, thanks for coming to my rescue there. You're my friend. My best friend. My only friend… one second later, and there would have been a pile of bright-orange fur scrabbling around on the pavement."
Chuckling, Regina reciprocated the little squeeze. "But it would've cushioned the blow compared to normal, right? Anyway, you're welcome, Stell. Now what?"
"Well… now we go back for my Dog Surprise that Eduardo promised he would keep safe for me," Stella said and had a final look around in the vain hope the suspect had returned for a second time. She had almost given up when she came to a screeching halt and opened her yap to croak. "Holy shit, Reggie! Look… look, next to Diana Petersburgh… do you see what I see? Or who, to be exact?"
"I sure do, Stell," Regina said, zooming in on the young man from before. "This time we got him… quick, I'll go right, you go left!"
"No, Stell, I'll go right… you go left," Regina said and disappeared into the crowd before Stella could as much as croak.
"Uh… buh… whut? I must be rubbin' off on her… aw, can't wait now!" Stella said and followed her taller partner into the fray.
Two hands clapped down onto the shoulders of the white T-shirt at the exact same time - one graced with slender, well-manicured fingers, and one wearing a white glove that had a few, mysterious twinkly lines across the back. "Gotcha!" -- "Nailed that critter!" the two women said as one.
The young man let out a brief yelp and jumped up in surprise, but it was nothing compared to the surprise felt by Regina and Stella a few moments later when Diana Petersburgh came hurrying over to the two investigators.
"What… what are you doing to my son?" The chairwoman said, staring wide-eyed at the surreal sight of the Easter Bunny making a citizen's arrest of someone.
"Aw, just closing the case. Betcha ten bucks we got the toy thief right here," Stella said wearing a wide, beaming grin on her face. The grin faded a few seconds later when enough of Diana's words had filtered through to her brain to make a coding sequence that her mind could parse. "Whataminute… your… whut? Your son?"
"My son Mike! Will you get your hands off him… both of you!" Diana Petersburgh said in a voice that grew in pitch and intensity as she spoke the sentence. "What kind of incompetent amateurs are you?! We hired you to stop the thefts, but not only did you allow another incident to happen right under your noses, now you corner my son and accuse him of… of… stealing from little kids! You're fired! Both of you! Goodbye!"
Even the ever-eloquent Stella Starr couldn't find anything in her vast arsenal of quips to counter that sweeping - and final - statement, so she removed her hand from Mike Petersburgh's shoulder and took a step back. The young man moved away in a hurry and hid behind his mother. "Uh… Reggie?" Stella mumbled, scuffing the soles of her shoes on the pavement. "What… uh… what should we… uh… got any bright ideas? 'Cos I'm fresh out," she croaked.
"We better chalk this one up to experience, Stell," Regina said as she took hold of Stella's furry hand. Despite the obvious fishiness of the situation, they moved away from the irate mother, the shocked son, and the crying children.
"I s'pose… at least I have half a Dog Surprise to look forward to," Stella mumbled as she shuffled back towards Eduardo's hot-dog stand. The luster had gone out of her eyes, and her shoulders slumped as she took in the complete and utter failure of their latest assignment.
"Threw… it… away…?" Stella croaked, staring at Eduardo, the hot dog guy, who shrugged and went back to serving his customers. A world class sulk had already rolled over Stella after the fiasco, but now it was joined by a pout that rivaled anything ever worn by a Pug, a Rottweiler, or even a Beagle of excellent pedigree. "But… but… you threw it away? You threw away my hot dog? But… but… but… I had only had one bite of it… and I said I would be back for it… and I am. Back for it. But you threw it away? My dog… wh- why, for the love of…?"
"Lady," Eduardo Arrellano said in a fed-up voice while he was adding a healthy squirt of chili sauce to a Tex Mex Dog, "I can't have a half-eaten dog littering my stand! It gives my customers a crappy impression of me and my work… it makes me look like I don't give a sh-"
"But it wasn't your dog any longer! It was my dog!"
Eduardo opened his mouth to counter the argument, but gave up before he had even attempted to find words that would explain it to the agitated woman. Shrugging, he turned away for good.
Regina had seen the early warning signs often enough to know that she had to act swiftly, or else. "Stell," she said, patting her partner's furry back. "Don't let it get you down… remember Guru Jackie's teachings? You are calm and serene and it's such a beautiful day. Come on, I'll buy you a new dog. Somewhere else… there are other hot-dog vendors here-"
"But my dog…"
"I know, Stell," Regina said and gave Stella's shoulders a little squeeze. "Calm and serene. Calm and serene. Isn't it a wonderful day? C'mon, let's check out-"
After spending most of the past twenty seconds staring in wide-eyed, unblinking disbelief at the empty stainless steel wing where she had left her Dog Surprise, a volcanic rumble began inside Stella. She tried to clench her white gloves to contain it, but it was too little, and too late.
Losing the uneven struggle with her feisty temper, she went ballistic and flew into a hopping, skipping, dancing, spit-flying, fist-thumping, carpet-champing, roaring, yelling, kicking and screaming hissy fit laced with so many words that rhymed with '…ucker' that she came close to exhausting her extensive database of all things ucker.
It had been bottled up inside her ever since the frustrating experience with the large security guard at the gate - and most likely even before that - and it grew in intensity for each passing second. Soon, steam poured out of her ears and off her furry costume as she took the explosive outburst to a new, and hitherto unexplored, level. It wasn't long before she lit her third-stage rockets and flew into the middle of a five-star, ocean-going, gold-plated, red-faced tempest that threatened to pick up and sweep away everyone who would stand too close.
Several people at the flea market who weren't close enough to see the epicenter called the news desk at the Weather Watch Channel to report a violent thunderstorm that had come out of the blue, and the seismographs set up at the campus of the North Bay University registered an unusual amount of activity located above ground somewhere in the Durango Hills.
Stella bounced about like a spring that had been wound up beyond its breaking point - or like Animal from the original Muppet Show - yelling inventive curses at everyone and everything in sight, but mostly people who threw away a perfectly good hot dog just because someone else had taken a bite out of it.
Over the course of the next few minutes, the bounces grew less frequent, and the curses eventually fizzled out and became nasty butterflies that fluttered away on the breeze created by the vitriol. Fatigue rolled over her like it always did when she came off one of her patented rages, and she needed to lean against Regina who had never left her side throughout the hissy fit. "Reggie… I wanna go home…" she croaked, looking up at the nun whose face sported an unusual shade of red.
"I think that's probably a good idea, Stell… of course, we may have to talk to the security people first."
"The… what? Oh, sweet-chicky-dee, not the stormtroopers again," Stella croaked, craning her neck to look at the three beefy guards who had arrived at the scene when everyone still thought the world was about to go under.
Before the heated situation could escalate further and turn into a proper drama with wailing, histrionics and much gnashing of teeth, Regina grabbed Stella by her furry shoulders, turned her around and offered her whispered instructions on how to access the special sequence of movements known as walking: it was real simple, she only needed to move her legs past each other and put a foot down on the ground at frequent intervals.
The hissy fit had left Stella so emotionally exhausted that even the simple set of instructions proved hard to follow, but she eventually managed to stumble away from the security guards and Eduardo's hot-dog stand where her beloved, half-eaten Dog Surprise had suffered a fate so horrific she couldn't even begin to contemplate the terrors it must have faced as it went down the bottomless abyss otherwise known as a trash can. "He threw my hot dog away, Reggie…" she mumbled. As she spoke, her jaw and pale lips moved like she was trying to get the last, imaginary aftertaste out of the long-deceased treat.
"I know, pookie. It was a bad, bad thing to do."
"It was a downright mean thing to do to a hot dog… and to Stella Starr."
"It truly was. Keep walking, Stell. Don't torture yourself by looking back."
Moving through the crowd to get back to the exit, the two investigators seemed to swim upstream the whole time. Everywhere they tried to go, more visitors dressed in outlandish, colorful costumes filled the gaps they were trying to reach, and it took far too long for the sensitive, and worn-out, Stella. When they arrived at a park bench that had been put up so the weak and elderly could rest their weary legs, Stella spotted it and made a beeline for it before Regina even knew what had happened.
Stella bumped down on the bench and looked upon the world with an expression of anguish and torment that defied description. "What did that hot dog ever do to him?" she said and tried to smooth down some of the bright-orange fur on her right thigh.
"It was just a poor, lonesome hot dog a long way from home…"
"Uh… sorta," Regina said and scratched her cheek while racking her brain to come up with a topic or two that would make her volatile partner forget all about the dearly departed hot dog. Nothing came to her, so she tried another approach: "But perhaps you need to see it from his perspec-"
Stella moved her head up so fast she nearly fell backwards off the bench. "Are you siding with him, Reggie? I thought we were friends, Reggie. I thought we were more than friends, Reggie. I thought we were way, way, WAY, way more than friends, Reggie… and you side with the man who threw away my hot dog?"
"Of course I don't, Stell," Regina said and sat down next to the somber, sulking woman. Though she did let out a small sigh at the way Stella's one-track mind seemed to operate, she leaned in and placed a little kiss on the investigator's pale cheek to show her support. "But I do think it was a little too optimistic on your part to leave it there unattended."
"I s'pose. But what could I do, you know? I couldn't run and eat. I've tried that often enough to know that it always ends up down the shirt. Of course… wearing this costume, nobody would know the difference," Stella said in a voice that trailed off into nothing. Suddenly, she drew a deep breath and threw her furry arms in the air - which made Regina jump up in surprise. "Oh Gawd, my hot dog! My dear, dear hot dog! I'll never, ever, e-varrr find another hot dog just like it! It was a perfect hot dog, Reggie… tho' I didn't know my left from right when I ordered it, the mix was just purr-fect…"
Grimacing, Regina didn't know how to respond to that without setting off another of Stella's world famous monologues, so she decided to keep it simple and settled for letting out a non-committal grunt that could - and did - mean absolutely anything.
Stella continued to wax lyrically about her dearly departed, and much-missed, hot dog for several minutes, but even the fiery investigator came to realize that burning off so much energy on a slab of sausage that in reality would only have clogged up her arteries once it had been consumed was a waste of time. Sighing, she fell quiet and propped her head up on a bright-orange, furry arm while she cast a depressed gaze at the cruel world surrounding them.
There was no point in hanging around where they weren't welcome, so Regina and Stella once more began the strenuous quest of swimming upstream to get back to the Pacer. On their way there, the two investigators were in luck for a change and came across another food van that had just opened for business after arriving late. It only took Stella two sniffs to discover that the fully functional pizzeria on wheels worked as a promotional tool for the company that made her favorite pasta sauces, the Teresa Maddalena Tomato Sauce & Quality Pizza Toppings-company.
When Regina caught a glimpse of the selection of exquisite salads and pasta specials that were offered by the three people working in the food van, she was sold as well, and ordered a quadruple slice of Pizza Speziale for Stella, and a Margherita Delicata pasta special that was accompanied by a steaming hot spelt bun fresh out of the oven for herself.
Stella's mood had already improved simply by seeing the company's swooped logo and the evocative red, white and green colors splashed over the vendor's open-sided van, and it climbed another few notches back towards 'Fair' when all kinds of delightful aromas rose from the paper bag the food had been put in.
The world had gone back to being a bright, wonderful place, and a spring had returned to Stella's furry step as she moved away from the counter. With Teresa Maddalena tomato sauce on top of a pizza, hardly anything could go wrong.
While the investigators had waited for their food to be made, a couple of employees wearing Teresa Maddalena T-shirts had put up four, bright-white plastic picnic tables with integrated parasols that carried the name and logo of the company.
Stella cast a quick glance at the picnic tables, realizing they ought to take full advantage of the vacant seats - once the flea market visitors discovered how great the food was, they would be flocking to the pizzeria on wheels. "Reggie, I don't wanna go back to the car… let's eat here. Okay?"
"Sure thing, Stell," Regina said and put her long legs to good use by zooming over to the nearest picnic table before the family that had already set its sights on it could snatch it away.
Sitting down, Stella soon reached into her paper bag and found a slice of her Pizza Speziale. The tomato sauce, the ham, the mozzarella cheese and the steaming hot mushrooms all greeted her in a very Italian fashion by pleasing her eyes and teasing her tastebuds. As she took the first bite, she threw her head back and let out an orgasmic groan. "Gaaaaaawd, this is why I love Teresa Maddalena… yummy!"
Regina chuckled as she opened the plastic lid of her Margherita Delicata and took the small plastic fork. "Well, I'm glad it was good for you, Stell."
"Aw, you bet it was," Stella said, biting off another chunk of pizza right away so no harm could come to it from strafing pigeons, stray cats or vindictive hot-dog vendors who went by the name of Eduardo Arrellano.
"Remember when we solved the case involving the theft of the priceless recipes?"
"Boy, do I ever…" Stella said with a dreamy expression on her face. "They paid us in tomato sauce. We had jars of all kinds of sauce stacked up three deep in the fridge for weeks afterwards. Not that it was all smooth sailing…"
"When is it ever with us, Stell?" Regina mumbled under her breath.
Stella chuckled at the pious look that graced Sister Mary-Margaret-Miranda-Michelle-Regina's features, and she simply had to reach out and caress the smooth cheek. "Yeah, yeah. Maggie Hendricks… wasn't that the name of the manager who liaised with us?"
"She almost lost her temper now and then, but… uh… we solved the case. One of the greatest moments for the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. Mmmm." Stella's face fell at the thought of the fiasco they were stuck knee-deep in at present, but she was determined not to let it get her down.
They ate on in silence for a couple of minutes, but by the time Stella was halfway through the second of her four slices, a frown developed between her fair eyebrows and she got a thoughtful look in her eyes. "Reggie, I need to run something by you," she said, pinning her associate to the spot with an all-business-like gaze.
"Uh… okay?" Regina said, looking up from stabbing a drenched piece of pasta with her plastic fork.
"Something smells fishy here, and it's more than just the fried plaice, cod, perch and Philly O'Phish sizzling on that vendor's grill over there. That young fella we tried to apprehend had a guilty conscience, no two ways about that. You saw it, I saw it, we both saw it. The real question is why. Why does he have a guilty conscience? Let's forget for a moment that he's Diana Petersburgh's son. All right?"
"So," Stella said and put up her free hand to be able to count off on her fingers. "Is he really the toy thief? Or is he making an extra buck or two by picking pockets…? Or maybe even dabbling in weed with the intent to sell to his buds who are all at the flea market anyway? And another thing… before the you-know-what hit the fan, I eavesdropped on what those two kids said to their mother. They said the thief had raced by so fast they didn't have time to see a face, but the person wore a black hoodie. Wotshisname…"
Stabbing another piece of pasta, Regina let it drip off before she moved up the fork. "Mike," she said before she put the whole thing into her mouth.
"Mike Petersburgh, yeah… well, he wore the lower half of a black jogging suit. From what I could tell, he didn't carry a wallet or a telephone. You know the kids today, Reggie, they can't move an inch without clutching their telephones. They're almost like baby-soothers for grown-ups, huh?"
"Yeah," Regina said with a chuckle, reaching through the habit to pat her own telephone. "That's a good observation."
Stella began to chew on her cheek, but the slice of pizza she held in her hand was more alluring, so she bit down on that instead. "Yeah," she mumbled through the bite. Once she had swallowed, she turned to look at her partner. "So where was it? Logic says he left it in the hoodie. Why didn't he wear the hoodie? Logic says it's because he had incriminating evidence there as well."
"Perhaps the stolen toys. Action figures and dolls," Stella said, gazing into the middle-distance like she hoped the colorful crowd of people filing past them would provide the clue she needed. When it didn't, she returned to her pizza. "They come in many different sizes, but those that were left on the shelf weren't too big. Even someone racing past could easily scoop up a handful and stuff it into a large pocket, like those often found in jogging suits. Hmmm…"
"So if we find the hoodie, we'll have confirmation he was the thief?"
"Mmmm-yeah, in theory… but he'll most likely have dumped the toys by now. Or kept them for himself in a secret stash somewhere. Or sold them on to a fence, or whatever," Stella said and chewed on in silence. A whole slice went by before she let out a grunt. "Why would the son of the organizer steal from little kids? Maybe as a cry for attention? Wouldn't be the first time in the history of the human race. Maybe his parents never have any time for him… maybe his parents see him as an ill-dressed misfit… maybe his father wants to force him into a box of conformity. Maybe her father wanted a son and took badly to the lack of a stem on the heir to his business empire. Maybe her father lost his composure and disowned her for sleeping with people that he considered to be the wrong gender. Maybe her… father… oh."
An entire philharmonic orchestra of crickets chirped nearby; Regina spent nearly half a minute staring wide-eyed at her partner while crimson Teresa Maddalena tomato sauce dripped off the piece of pasta that had been stabbed by her fork.
"Welcome to my adolescence. Sorry," Stella mumbled, stuffing the crust of the final slice into her yap to end the conversation.
Regina finally had to blink to restore some moisture to her eyes, but the shocked stare lingered on for a while yet. Instead of speaking, she wrapped an arm around the bright-orange fur and pulled Stella in for a good-sized hug that ended with a smooch on the cheek.
"So… how 'bout them Bay City Bulldawgs, huh?" Stella said to steer the conversation back to calmer waters.
"Stella Starr, this is something we need to have a long heart-to-heart about, you and I. We've never really shared who we are or how we got here, but now we have to. I would dearly love to help… I hope you know that."
Stella returned the smooch by adding one on the nun's lips. "I do. Thanks, Reggie. You're my only friend in a vast, violent sea of adversity."
"Or maybe a little bit more than that?" Regina whispered; she added a two-hundred watt smile and a wink that was just as saucy as the best product Teresa Maddalena had to offer.
"Mmmm-yeah," Stella said and let out a snicker. They gazed at each other for a few seconds before they returned to their food.
There are certain points in a private investigator's career, or even life, that seem too coincidental to be true. However, as Stella Starr and every other seasoned gumshoe will attest to, when coincidence delivers a satisfactory solution to a problematic case that's been weighing down on the investigator's good mood, there's little to no point in arguing with Lady Luck - not only does she have problems understanding the President's English, she's a snazzy dame who's worth trading telephone numbers with.
The odds of Stella and Regina being near the scene of the toy thief's next heinous act of anti-social behavior at the flea market were astronomical at best, but the despicable deed was committed just down the line of booths, and at the exact same moment that the two women had begun shuffling back to the Pacer to go home.
Somebody in the throng of people roared out their frustration at even experiencing theft at a flea market; a child began to cry at the top of his lungs. Someone else yelled 'Stop the thief! Stop the damn thief!' - and Stella Starr spun around on her heel with her eyes wide open in surprise.
"Reggie! Did you hear that?"
"Oh-yeah," Regina said, staring hard at the people nearest them to spot any unusual activity. Everybody close by had turned around to look further down the line of booths, but the crowd soon split straight down the middle as someone wearing a black jogging suit complete with a hoodie came racing toward them at high speed.
Most of the bystanders there thought it was someone running away out of fright, but the experienced investigators knew it wasn't. "Oh! Oh, sweet-chicky-dee, Reggie! Look! Look!" Stella said, jumping up and down in her bright-orange Easter Bunny-costume to see better. The chubby thighs wobbled, the bushy tail swayed, and the fluffy ears flip-flopped all over the place - but she had no time to reflect on how ridiculous she actually looked, even for her typically maladjusted standards.
"I see him. And I got him!" Regina said and hunched over so she had good leverage in case she needed to intercept the toy thief by physical means. Bobbing on the balls of her feet, she spread out her arms and began to shuffle left and right like a defensive lineman at an all-pro game.
When the toy thief - whose hoodie sat so low his face was obscured - realized the path was blocked by a six-foot-one nun with a hard stare in her ice-blue eyes, he came to a screeching halt and began to look for an alternative path to his secret hideout. His second route was blocked by a bright-orange Easter Bunny wearing glasses, but since the bunny was far smaller than the nun, he decided to take his chances with the furry rodent.
He feigned left, but the nun followed him there. He feigned right, but the nun followed him back. As he tried to jump ahead, the nun closed the distance between them and nearly came within grabbing-range. After feigning left all over again, the thief sprinted to the right, away from the nun and over toward the bunny.
"Damn! Stell, he's coming straight for you!" Regina cried; the fluttering end of the black hoodie just slipping past her fingertips as the toy thief raced away from her.
"I got him, I got him, I got him, I got him," Stella shouted, bouncing left and right, left and right, left and right, left and right in the hope of choosing the correct side when the thief got close enough for her to grab onto the vile delinquent. Unfortunately, her timing was just off, and it wasn't helped by the fact that the thief chose to go straight down the middle - and thus straight into her. "I got him, I got- OOOOOOOF! Oooooooooooh!"
Down they went, landing in an unruly pile of bright-orange fur, white gloves, dusty-blond hair, a fluttering hoodie, a purple Cabbage Patch Kid that came out of nowhere, and an entire set of LEGO bricks that rained out of the clear blue sky for several seconds.
All around the scene of the accident, the crowd of onlookers oooh'ed and ahhh'ed like they were watching some kind of perverted spectator sport where toy thieves had free reign to do unspeakable things to Easter bunnies, like tackling them to the ground.
Some of the children nearest to the scene of the human-on-human wreck scooped up a few of the LEGO bricks that had fallen from the thief's pockets, but stern looks by their parents made them put it all back.
The toy thief was far more nimble on his feet than the fallen Easter Bunny, so he jumped up almost at once and got ready to race on. When he noticed that the nun had once more come within striking distance, he set off at a frantic pace using the bunny's bright-orange pot-belly as his starting point.
For Stella, the addition of a foot where feet shouldn't be - unless it belonged to Regina Harrison and they were in the middle of something very, very special - caused untold problems for her involving excessive gastric gas, or to be precise, an uncontrolled, explosive burst of escaping gastric gas.
"Gesundheit, Stell," Regina said when she arrived at the scene a split second later. "Can you get up on your own- no, never mind," she continued, putting her strong arms under the bright-orange fur and yanking the dazed and confused Easter Bunny to her feet in such a hurry she nearly took a tumble all over again down the other side.
"I'm o- o- o- ok- okay! Hustle, Reggie! Hustle after 'im like the wind that sweeps the plains! Let's catch that crook!" Stella cried, rubbing her tummy that had been stepped on, and her hiney that had taken a knock on the hard ground. The furry costume and bushy tail had cushioned some of the blow, but not all.
"I'm hustling!" Regina cried back, disappearing into the crowd that once again parted for the running woman.
Moaning under her breath, Stella continued to rub her aching behind and tummy, but soon found it a necessity to let out a huff at the spectators instead. "Well thanks a whole, damn bunch for giving us a helping hand! Yeah, I'm talkin' to you! Jeez! What, no comments? Maybe you're thinking 'oh, perhaps I should have helped but I didn't want to get my hands dirty' or some such that people always think when it's plain as day they should have done something sooner before all the bad things happened and the Easter Bunny went down and smacked her hiney on the rock-hard ground… and now my bestest friend and business associate Regina Harrison is chasing down that crook but we could have had him right here if you people had bothered to help us but you didn't and you know what? That makes me mad! Yes, that's right, I'm mad… emm-aye-dee! I'm so mad right now I could spew but that would be a crying shame for the wonderful Teresa Maddalena Pizza Speziale I just had before you people decided against helping us! But you know what? You know what, people? We didn't need your help at all! I am woman, watch me soar! And that goes double for Reggie 'cos she's twice the woman you could ever hope to be! So there! End of discussion!"
Stella's lengthy, fiery speech fueled by an inexhaustible supply of righteous fire caused some blank stares and blushing cheeks among the crowd watching her, but most people just shrugged and walked away from the irate woman. Growling, she continued to rub her tummy and butt. "Man-o-man… my bee-hind is gonna be black, blue and purple all over the dang place come tomorrow… what does an Easter Bunny have to do to catch an honest break around here, ding-dong-darnit?"
Even standing up on tip-toes, she couldn't see Regina's white headpiece anywhere. She needed to do something with all the energy that was mounting inside her, so she began collecting the Cabbage Patch Kid and all the LEGO bricks that had gone flying when she had collided with the thief.
Several minutes went by with no activity save for sideways glances and muted whispers from the passers-by - the word of Stella's world-record hissy fit at the hot-dog stand had made the rounds. Regina was still to return, so Stella decided to go off on her own. Constantly in a high state of alert, she shuffled down the long line of booths in the hope of either finding something worthwhile to look at, or Regina, or the toy thief. She would prefer the latter of the three, but she wouldn't say no to a Rubik's Cube, a magnet Checkers game or even a good, old Four-In-A-Row, a game she had played forever and a day when she had been in her tween years, if she found one.
Four hundred yards further on, she reached a quiet, little offshoot of the Ramona Battista Park. It had remained a safe haven from the constant hubbub that went on in the areas of the flea market dominated by the snack food vendors and the colorful, home-made booths, and several people occupied the park benches resting, reading or simply enjoying the fine weather.
A picturesque, three-level fountain had been built in the center of the small park, and although it had been drained to conserve water, it could be brought to a five-minute run by pressing a button on a panel that stood a selfie's distance away from the classic, and classy, attraction.
Stella went up to stand at the foot of the dry fountain and marveled at a row of intricate reliefs created to resemble antique art from the days of the Roman Empire, or even Ancient Greece.
A split second later, somebody yelled "Watch out, Stell!" somewhere behind her. Stella thought it could have been Regina's voice, but the furry hood that covered her ears muffled her hearing too much to know for sure.
As she spun around to see what on earth was going on behind her, she found herself staring into the eyes of the toy thief. This time, it was proved beyond any and all doubt that it was Mike Petersburgh, exactly like she and Regina had predicted it would be - his hoodie had blown back, revealing his face, bleached-blond hair and shiny piercings to the world. "Oy!" Stella cried, stretching out her furry arms to stop the running juvenile delinquent. "Oy! OY! Don't make me say it aga- OOOOOOOF!"
For the second time in less than fifteen minutes, Mike Petersburgh displayed very little concern for Stella Starr's well-being and gave her a shoulder-block that sent her butt-over-elbows straight down into the dry fountain.
Landing with a furry bump on the lowest of the three levels, Stella went into an '…ucker' rage that rivaled the intensity of the launch of the Saturn 5 rocket that brought the Apollo astronauts to the moon. All around her, LEGO bricks of all colors rained down upon her, followed by a purple Cabbage Patch Kid that had seen more air time in the past quarter of an hour than in the rest of its life combined.
Regina came to a halt at once to see if she could help, but the mushroom cloud of sulfuric acid and vitriol that exuded from Stella was so fierce she needed a bio-hazard suit to get anywhere near it - and she was fresh out of one of those. Instead, she clapped a hand over her eyes and let out a groan. "Oh, Stell… I'm sorry for bringing it up, and you know I love you… but I think this isn't one of your best days…"
"The world keeps pushing me down, Reggie!" Stella roared and whacked her white glove down onto the bottom of the dry fountain. "But the world can go screw itself 'cos I'm Stella Starr and I got news for everyone listening… I won't allow anyone to push me down! Not then, not now, not ever. And if the world doesn't like it, it can eat my shorts! So there!"
"Uh… yeah. All right… Guru Jackie-"
"She can eat my shorts, too! Don't just stand there, Reggie… apprehend that jackass for all the carnage he's caused!" Stella howled, grappling for the edge of the fountain to get back on grassy land.
"Yes, ma'am!" Regina said and went straight for her secret weapon. When she had donned the nun's habit back at the Harrison-Starr headquarters, she'd had a hunch that the events would eventually get out of hand and need something that had a bigger punch than the black habit - thus, she grabbed hold of the Velcro strip that held the costume together and tore it open from top to bottom.
The drastic approach garnered wildly different reactions from the people who had been enjoying the easy life on the benches of the small park - the women present squealed and the men stared; occasionally, it was vice-versa.
Standing at her full glory of six-foot-one, wearing black Lycra bicycle shorts with reflective highlights, and a silver, formfitting, wide-strapped sports-top that left her toned, tanned arms bare, Regina was fully equipped to enter a foot race with anyone bar the Olympic champion. The starched headpiece came off last, revealing a ponytail that she flung over her shoulder safe in the knowledge that it would end up down her back in a perfect cascade.
"Hooooooooooooooooooly cannoli!" Stella howled from her precarious position down in the fountain the moment she caught an eyeful of La Regina. "Go get 'em, Reggie, you big stick of dynamite! Woo-hoo, Harrison-Starr is on the case!"
After grinning, waving to the crowd of stunned onlookers, and strutting like a peacock like only an undisputed Queen of the Runway could, Regina set off in a fast sprint to intercept Mike Petersburgh who was still lingering just inside the park's perimeter.
Stella's eyes remained on Regina's enticing Lycra shorts for a little while before she decided that she had suffered through enough torture for one afternoon, and that she needed to clamber out of the fountain before some smart-alec would get the bright, and somewhat sick, notion that it would be oh-so-funny to see if an Easter Bunny would sink or float.
The first problem cropped up even before she had started: she was literally and metaphorically caught in a rut. The level she found herself in, the lowest of the three, was only forty inches deep, but it presented an almost insurmountable obstacle for someone as clumsy and ill-equipped with the harsh realities of the world as she. She knew all too well that the world required - even demanded - perfect agility, natural grace and astounding hand-eye coordination from the people walking the earth, and that it would regularly take a massive dump on those who weren't agile, graceful or coordinated.
Of course, it didn't help that she wore a fluffy, furry, and somewhat cumbersome Easter-bunny costume.
"Hmmmm"-ing out loud, Stella tried to swing her chubby thigh up and over the basin's edge, but found that the lead in her butt prevented her from moving her leg that far up. Her next attempt didn't prove more successful, so she took a step back and began to rub her chin. When she had finished rubbing her chin to little effect, she lowered her hand and rubbed her aching behind as well. "Ouch, for freak's sake… my poor, little patootie… man, this is one of those days… think, Stella. Think."
Up on the well-groomed lawn surrounding the fountain, a little kid of five or six years of age, who was sucking on a gigantic, bell-shaped lollipop, shuffled up to stand next to the metal standard that carried the panel that was home to the button that would open the valves of the two dozen nozzles that would send a ton of water spewing down into the fountain's three basins.
The kid - who wore a pale-blue denim overall, a red-and-white striped shirt, and a baseball cap that sat the wrong way 'round and that was equipped with a little propeller like the beanie caps of yore - shuffled closer to the metal standard and the alluring button.
Stella felt rather than saw the approaching danger. Leaning against the inside edge of the basin after yet another unsuccessful attempt at scaling the sheer cliff, she turned her furry head in a slow, horrified fashion to look at the little kid with the huge lollipop. "Oh, no you don't!" she cried, but the sounds only escaped her mouth as a sequence of warbled, weird syllables that wouldn't have persuaded anyone to cease their activities.
The kid pressed the button, and a deep rumble began inside the fountain.
"Aw, sweet-chicky-dee, Stella Starr…" Stella mumbled, leaning down to thump her furry forehead against the edge of the basin. "This is not my day… has it ever really been my day? Well, I s'pose the day when I met Reggie was kinda okay, but-" she continued, but that was all she had time for before the fountain's nozzles released their load and sent a ton of water cascading down into the lowest of the three basins - and all over the bright-orange Easter Bunny who occupied the bottom one.
"Ooooooooooooooooooooh! Co- co- co- co- co- co- co- co- co-ho-ho-ho-hollllld!" she cried, jumping up on tip-toes and throwing her arms out wide as the ice-cold water hosed her down from top to toe. Her incentive for escaping the watery grave increased exponentially, but her chubby thighs hadn't grown sportier in the moments that had passed since the last time she had tried to get up and over the edge. Trying again, her foot slipped at the wrong moment, and she keeled over into the water that had already pooled a couple of inches at the foot of the basin.
The costume was drenched at once and pinned her down with the strength of an industrial wind machine. Though she flailed her arms and legs like a ladybug that had fallen onto its back, she was in no position to get out of the basin on her own - at least not while she remained inside the furry, bright-orange Easter Bunny costume. "Oy! Ooooh! Oy!" - Blub, splash, blub! - "Reggie! Reggie!" - Blub, SPLASH, blub! - "Oy! Ooooh, if I get my hands on that little critter-" - Splash, splash, blub, blub! - "Oy! Oh, fer cryin' out loud!" - Blub, blub, SPLASH! - "Stella in distress!" - SPLASH, blub, splash, blub! - "Regg-gg-ggie!" - Blub, splash, blub! - "Stella in distress!" - Blub, blub, SPLASH, splash!
"All right, that does it! That frickin'-frackin' does it! Now I'm mad!" she roared at the top of her lungs while she tried not to drown in the sweeping tides that rolled over her from the fountain's many nozzles.
Roaring out loud, she reached for the costume's zipper intending to yank it all the way down. Her cold, wet fingers fumbled and bumbled with the tiny head on the metal zipper, but she eventually got hold of it and executed that part of her escape plan.
Once she was free of the main, pot-bellied part of the costume, she found enough strength to sit up in the cold water and rip off the chubby thighs that had caused her untold problems in getting up over the edge. The furry arms were next, and soon, her involuntary bath was conducted in a pair of home-dyed, sunflower-yellow denim shorts that had been cut off just above the knees, and her favorite, black muscleshirt that carried the Ain't I Perdy?-print on the front in white.
Standing up in an almighty hurry, she put her hands onto the edge of the basin and used all her strength to pull herself up enough for her to swing a leg up and over. The athletic maneuver was finally successful, and she welcomed the sensation of dirt and dry grass between her wet fingers. Her soaked clothes caused plenty of puddles and splashing sounds as she rolled away from the fountain of doom, but she didn't care; soon, she ended up flat on her back with her arms spread out wide.
Panting, groaning, puffing and moaning, she stared skyward at the fluffy, white clouds that graced the pale-blue heavens. Remarkably, her glasses had remained on her nose throughout the insane adventure in the water-torture chamber, but she needed to shove them up a bit to make them sit just right, so she did.
A moment later, she wished she hadn't as three pairs of black-clad legs complete with shiny, hobnailed jackboots came into view next to her. "Oh, ain't that just typical," she croaked, "you only get here when I don't need you! Where the hell were you when blip-bloppin' Moby Dick tried to pull me under down the- Oy?!"
The hands that grabbed her soaked armpits weren't polite or gentle in the least, and she was yanked to her feet with very little regard for her well-being. "I beg yer pardon?! Whaddahell ya think ya doing? I'm the victim here, fer cryin' out loud!" she barked, staring at the three security guards who all wore dark expressions to go with their black-bluish-gray uniforms. She let out a long groan when she realized that one of them was the human lump from the parking booth.
"Miss," the female security guard said in a stern, well-rehearsed voice as she reached for a pair of plastic handcuffs that she wore on the back of her utility belt, "you are being put into temporary custody for repeated public disturbances, for using coarse language in the presence of children, and for littering a public fountain."
"Coarse language and littering?" Stella croaked, staring at the three security guards, the fountain where she had nearly met her fate, up at the sky to try to spot the drone with the Candid Camera that she just knew had to be there somewhere, back at the security guards, down at the sea of water that pooled at her feet, back at the security guards and finally over at the little kid with the bell-shaped lollipop.
She suddenly realized she still wore the Easter Bunny's furry hood with the fluffy ears, but she tore the soaked item off and flung it into the fountain with a perfect throw that any little-league softball player would have been proud of. "Littering, my black-and-blue hiney! How about arresting that little brat who turned on the water instead?"
The three security guards exchanged brief glances before they went into action and grabbed hold of Stella Starr. As easy as one-two-three, her hands had been tied behind her back, and the human lump had her by the wing.
"Okay…" Stella croaked, "okay… okay, this has been fun and games so far, but… uh… but…"
In the near distance, several penetrating police sirens could be heard cutting through the din that was a constant background noise at the flea market. Stella grimaced as it dawned on her that she might not get away with it this time.
"Miss, you are being taken to a holding cell in the parking lot until you've cooled off," the human lump said as she yanked Stella's arm forward. "Now let's go."
Gulping, Stella had no choice but to follow the fierce guards, and she sloshed ahead in her soaked shoes and clothes. "Reggie… this would be a really, really good time for you to make an entrance… pleeeeeease, Reggie…" she mumbled, looking everywhere for the tall, dazzling nun.
Led away by the forceful phalanx of stern, no-nonsense security guards, Stella shuffled through the small, peaceful section of Ramona Battista Park on her way to a life behind concrete walls and metal bars. For each sloshing step she took, the realization that all her legendary bad luck had finally given her one, last bop over the head grew stronger and stronger until it had reached a point of laser-like intensity. She was destined for a chain gang, she just knew it. The rest of her miserable existence was to be spent as the soap-girl for Large Marge, Joany Ears, Scarred Sammi Sideways and Maggie The Knife.
On the small group went; reaching the closed-off street where all the booths were lined up, Stella could hear the shocked, scandalized whispers that came from all sides at once. Her glasses had slipped down her nose so she couldn't even return the stares that she just knew were hurled at her from all and sundry.
The police sirens had stopped, but she was in no position to determine if that was a good or a bad thing. The clicking of many heels up ahead was tough to determine the nature of as well, but Stella Starr was finally rewarded with a silver lining to her personal, pitch-black thundercloud that followed her everywhere she went when a female voice of some familiarity cut through the air featuring plenty of professional steel and backbone.
"I'm Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes, Bay City PD. Where are you taking Miss Starr?" the voice said, causing Stella to let out a whoop.
"Woo-hoo, Mary-Jane! Just in time, too!" Stella cried, trying to focus on the colorful blob somewhere off to her left. "Oh, flippety-flop, am I glad to see you… actually, I can't see a damn thing here… will somebody please push my glasses up my-"
When the metal frame was pushed into place by a long, slender digit, Stella's grin broadened even further as she looked around to find the Inspector they had worked with on numerous occasions. Instead of spotting Mary-Jane Moynes, she got an eyeful of Regina Harrison who was still dressed in the sporty outfit that continued to draw countless admiring stares from the onlookers. "Oh… Reggie! Reggie, thank you so, so, so, SO, so much for calling Mary-Jane and the boys in blue! I was in real trouble back there… I nearly drowned and the Easter Bunny is no more… I had to let it go or it would have dragged me under… and then the stormtroopers arrested me for littering! I'm the heroine here, I'm not supposed to go to jail! I mean, I have a crappy singing voice, and I don't even know all the lyrics to Old Man River… how am I supposed to… to… oh, Reggie, I've missed you so…"
"Shhhh, we'll talk about that later, Stell," Regina said, moving back to stand next to Inspector Moynes and several uniformed police officers while the loose, confusing threads from the grand tapestry of life were being sorted out.
"Aw, sure," Stella said, finally finding time to getting a look at the strawberry-blond Mary-Jane Moynes who, as always, was smartly dressed in a rust-colored pantsuit over a salmon-pink blouse. The veteran detective's shiny police badge sat proudly on her belt next to her service firearm, and she kept her right hand near the holster while the situation was unraveled.
"… but, uh," Stella continued, moving her eyes back to Regina's silver sports-top before they slid a bit further north, "tell me, did you catch the crook? Please tell me you caught the crook…?"
"I did. Or rather, we did," Regina said, sporting a broad grin that was responded to in kind all over Stella's mug.
Mary-Jane Moynes had a hard time wiping the amused grimace off her face at the sight of the thoroughly drenched, not to mention handcuffed, Stella Starr, but she stored it for later and once more assumed her customary expression of authority. "Officer, uh…" - The experienced senior police detective leaned forward to read the small name tag on the large security guard's considerable chest; she had to blink a few times at the unfortunate associations it produced - "Officer Cockb… uh, Cockburn, you never answered my question. Where are you taking Miss Starr… and why is she restrained?"
The muscles holding Felicia Cockburn's jaw in place worked overtime at the interference of the police department, but she squared her shoulders and continued to hold Stella close to her. "Inspector, this woman is being detained for littering, causing several public disturbances, and for excessive use of coarse language. And for being a boil on my ass cheeks!"
Inspector Moynes smirked at the final part of the statement, and also at the similar smirk that she saw on Stella Starr's face.
"And we're taking her to the holding cells just outside the perimeter," Felicia Cockburn concluded.
Stella locked eyes with Mary-Jane to at least try to convey her side of the story, but the humorous twinkle she found in the detective's eyes proved that the Inspector already understood the basics, if perhaps not all the details.
Just as Regina opened her mouth to add her two cents' worth to the debate, commotion behind her stopped her short; the rude interruption of someone who most decidedly wasn't used to being interrupted made a black eyebrow creep upwards on her forehead while the corners of her mouth made a tour in the other direction.
Diana Petersburgh, the chairwoman of the houseowners' association who organized the flea market, broke through the crowd of interested onlookers with a firm grip on her son's earlobe. The woman's dark expression already offered a strong hint at the gloomy thoughts that rolled around inside her mind, and it was confirmed when she spoke in a darker register than usual: "Officer Cockburn, release Miss Starr at once."
"But… Mrs. Petersburgh!"
"Release her right this minute," Diana Petersburgh said and pulled her son up to stand in front of the group of women. When nothing happened, she scrunched up her face into an even darker mask than before, and shot the large security guard an angry glare. "Officer Cockburn, need I remind you who's paying your wages?"
"All right, all right… sheesh," Felicia Cockburn said, clicking open the lock on the plastic handcuffs so Stella's arms were liberated once more.
The smallest - though most fiery by far - of the women present took full advantage of her newfound freedom by jumping ahead into Regina's waiting arms. After showering her main squeeze with a long line of little kisses, she finished off the long-awaited reunion by laying a wet'un right on the un-retired model's kisser. "Thank Gawd we got to do this now, Reggie… I had already received 'Welcome To Our Cellblock' postcards from Large Marge, Joany Ears, Scarred Sammi Sideways and Maggie The Knife!"
"Uh… buh… whut? Who… who are… never mind," Regina said and broke out in a relieved chuckle.
"I'll tell you all the sordid details later. Inspector Moynes, now we can say a proper hello," Stella said with a grin. After performing a small, soggy bow, she put out her hand for the police detective to shake.
"Miss Starr. I had a hunch that your detective agency would be involved somehow," Mary-Jane said with a grin as she shook Stella's damp hand.
Stella grinned back and made sure to wrap a dripping arm around Regina's slim, sporty waist so the junior investigator wouldn't run off again. "Yeah? How so?"
"Oh, because we received thirty-two nine-eleven calls within a five minute timespan… and they were all from panicky people telling us that a nun was being chased by the Easter Bunny, and that the nun had stripped down to hardly anything at all to escape the furry critter."
Regina and Stella looked at each other and broke out in identical goofy grins. "Well, they were mostly right," Stella said, winking at their old friend from the Bay City Police Department.
"Looks like it. Well, in the face of all that, how could we stay away? We had just barely arrived at the parking lot when I spotted Miss Harrison cornering the suspect, so… here we are."
"Purr-fect timing, Inspector! Purr-fect timing!" Stella said and thumbed her nose at Officer Cockburn and her fellow stormtroopers.
The three security guards and Mike Petersburgh didn't seem to find the situation amusing at all, and neither did Mike's mother Diana. The woman who had hired - and then fired - the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency cleared her throat and stepped into the center of the circle of people so everyone could see her. "Ladies, I'm… uh… I need to make a sincere apology to Miss Starr and Miss Harrison. They suspected that my son had something to do with the spate of thefts that had plagued the flea market this year, and although I dismissed them at once, they were right on every level. My son was the…"
When Diana turned to glare at the young man in question, he looked as if he wished the ground would open up and swallow him whole. The stormy glare his mother offered him made the rest of the group - save for Stella whose butt still hadn't recovered from the two knocks in rapid succession - wince and shuffle around on the spot in embarrassment or even slight sympathy.
Diana Petersburgh had developed a lump in her throat, but she cleared it once more and pressed on: "My son wasn't just an incidental part of the crime spree, he was the brains behind it. He was the thief. My son stole toys from little kids. It breaks my heart to say it, but that's what went on here… at the flea market that's been such a positive story for the Durango Hills neighborhood until now."
Nobody had anything to add to that until Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes stepped forward and began to confer quietly with Diana Petersburgh - it seemed young Mike had earned himself a free ride downtown in the back of a squad car.
Diana nodded somberly before she grabbed hold of her son all over again and dragged him away from the others. As the two people exited stage left, Felicia Cockburn and her fellow officers in the flea market's uniformed security forces turned around and left the confrontation so she didn't have to speak to - or even look at - Stella Starr for a second longer. As she marched off in her hobnailed jackboots, a slew of mumbled curses revolving around Easter bunnies, nuns, and the unfairness of the world was swept away by the gentle breeze.
All those exits left Stella, Regina and Inspector Moynes by themselves. The latter moved over to the two investigators and put her hands on their shoulders while sporting a warm smile. A moment later, the smile faded from her face as she pulled her right arm back to stare at the damp sleeve that she had picked up from Stella's soaked clothes. "Oh… how nice. Miss Starr, may I suggest that you go home and change into something warm and comfy? We wouldn't want you to catch a cold."
"We sure wouldn't, Mary-Jane. Colds just run and run and run in our little family," Stella said and gave Regina's waist a squeeze. Looking at each other, the two investigators bared their teeth in similar grimaces upon remembering a particularly memorable, and highly nasty, cold bug that had claimed them both at the same time once upon an eon ago. "Mmmm-yeah. I'm beginning to chafe as well, so, uh… yeah. Reggie?"
"Yes, dear Stella?"
"Let's salvage what's left of the costumes and then-" - Stella whistled in a comical fashion as she pointed towards their office somewhere to the west of the crime-riddled Durango Hills - "head home for some coffee, a donut or two, and a good rub-down."
"In that order, dear Stella?"
Stella's lips drew back in a grin until most of her neat teeth had become visible. "Not necessarily…" she said and stood up on tip-toes to congratulate her business associate on a job well done in the best possible way.
After all the frantic fun and games during the daytime hours, the evening presented the perfect backdrop for some rest and relaxation. The sky was painted in marvelous blues, pinks and purples by the time Regina and Stella drove into the parking lot at Rockin' Ruby's in their leased Mercedes SLK, and a few stars had already come out to flash their twinkles down upon the women and men inhabiting the green-and-blue earth.
For once, the intrepid partners of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency had no problem finding a parking bay near the entrance of the most popular girls-only bar in the entire Bay City area. Even so, they remained in the low-slung sports car's plush seats for a little while to allow the tune they were tra-la-la-ing along to to play out.
After reaching up to turn off the radio before the commercials would come on and blow out the windows and the hard top, Regina shuffled around in the driver's seat and offered her partner one of her patented two-hundred watt smiles. "I guess the day turned out pretty fine after all, huh?"
"It sure did, Snookums," Stella said and adjusted her glasses that were on the verge of steaming up all over again when the vivid images of their sizzling rub-down session rolled through her mind. "It was a clever idea to use hot towels. One of the better you've had."
"Why, thank you!"
"Yeah… we should definitely try that again some other time… although… I hope it won't be because some dung beetle pushed me into a fountain."
"Let's hope it won't," Regina said and reached over to caress Stella's thigh.
Since the senior investigator's clothes had been so wet that even their heavy-duty tumble dryer had been unable to get them dry in time for the nightly excursion to the favorite haunt, she had hopped into a pair of well-worn blue jeans, a white Elmer Fudd T-shirt, and an unbuttoned flannel shirt that was held in the traditional checkered pattern of red-and-green.
The flannel shirt still carried a whiff of Regina's delightful, natural scent as she had been the last one to wear it, and Stella took full advantage of that by wrapping it tightly around herself and snuggling down into the soft fabric. Unfortunately, she was still in pain down the other end, but to ease the discomfort of her aching behind, she sat on a pillow she had snatched from the couch in their office.
"Oh, since we're here, we might as well go inside for a drink, Reggie," Stella said and reached for the little lever that would open the door. She gulped when she thought of what was to come.
"Do you need a hand getting-"
"No, I got it… I just need to get a head-start, then I'll… A-hep!" Opening the door ahead of time, Stella jumped up from the deep bucket seat in a flash and tore out of the low-slung vehicle.
A few seconds into her brave endeavor, it looked as if she might actually have some success for a change in her hopeless quest against the laws of physics, but then gravity overruled her flailing arms and sent her butt-first back down into the bucket seats. "Ooooooh! I hate this stupid car! Oooof!" she cried as her aching rear end made an impact on the soft cushion. "And the car hates my guts… why does it have to be so blip-bloppin' low to the ground… aw, my butt… my poor butt… Reggie, we need a new company car! I can't take much more of this sh-… I just can't… and my butt is gonna pack up and emigrate to Mexico if we don't move quickly…"
"We certainly can't have that," Regina said with a chuckle as she opened the driver's side door and used her long legs to exit gracefully. She was at Stella's side within moments and pulled the hapless crusader to her feet. "How about a Humvee?" she said once they were standing close.
"No. Too tall. We need something in the middle… oh, I know! How about a genuine piece of Americana… that gorgeous, gorgeous car, the AMC Pacer?"
"A genuine piece of something," Regina mumbled under her breath, but when she realized that Stella had heard every word, she flashed her a broad, two-hundred watt smile to compensate.
Rolling her eyes, Stella reached in to grab the pillow. "Yeah, yeah. That's what you all say… all you goddesses of the world… nobody cares about us unloved runts or the unloved cars. Well, I happen to love my Pacer, so there!"
"And I happen to love you, Stell… so there!" Regina said, sticking out her tongue at her lover.
Struck dumb and mute for several seconds, Stella eventually broke out in a cheesy grin after recovering from the shock of being hit by one of her own trademark quips. "Oh, enough chitter-chatter… let's get something to drink."
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 girls-only 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 assisted in drawing the blueprints 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.
The crimson carpet that covered the entire floor near the counter and the seating area had recently been changed, and Ruby had performed a gentle update of some of the details inside the booths - from chrome to gold or bronze - to give the bar room a warmer, cozier feel.
Stepping into Rockin' Ruby's, Stella and Regina were met by interested looks from the patrons sitting in the booths and at the stools at the bar counter. Regina answered the looks by taking off her trench coat and her sports blazer, and accidentally slipping into her 'too cool for words'-posing routine that caused a lot of wide-eyed stares and blushing cheeks.
When Stella snorted and rolled her eyes at her girlfriend's predictable nature, Regina flipped her hair out of the collar of her pilot shirt. It fell down her back where it - obviously - landed in a perfect cascade. "Sorry. Old habits die hard," the former supermodel said, positioning her head so her face would be in the Perfect Light from the soft-tone spotlights that Ruby had installed in the ceiling. "But I still got it," she added in a not-so-covert stage-whisper.
"Sheesh, you poser, you. Keep practicing and you might get a career out of it. C'mon honey, let's sit down before Ruby needs to break open a new box of barf bags for the gals here."
Ruby Albrecht herself - a square-built woman in her mid-fifties who had kept fit and in ship-shape despite the fact that she hadn't been a professional for more than fifteen years - sat at her customary spot at the end of the shiny counter, but she put down the newspaper she had been reading and waved at some of her best, and most regular, customers. "Hey, gals. What's up with the pillow?"
"Long story, Ruby… long, long, long story," Stella said and adjusted her glasses.
"When isn't it with you two? I take it you've been working today?"
"We sure have," Stella said as she waited for Regina to slide her long legs and shapely rear onto the plush covers of the red bench seat at the first booth. As always, Ruby had put a small cardboard note on the table that said 'Reserved' so other patrons wouldn't use the booth by accident. Once the long-legged Regina was in place, Stella put the pillow on the seat and lowered herself onto it with plenty of care. "Ohhh… that's nice. Nice and cushy. Yeah, we were up in the Durango Hills area. The big flea market… ever heard of it?"
"Can't say that I have, no."
"Well, we were, and we busted a toy thief," Stella said with a grin. The smile disappeared from her face when a view of her crusty, and no doubt eager, would-be cellmates flashed before her eyes. "And I got arrested… but that's another story for another day…" she mumbled.
"Whoa! Spill it, girl!" Ruby said and held up her hands.
Nodding, Regina reached over to pat Stella's hands that were palm-down on the tabletop. "It's still too fresh, but it'll all be in her memoirs, Ruby. Every last gory detail. It was ugly."
"So were the security guards…" Stella mumbled.
"I can imagine," Ruby said, chewing on her cheek. "Anyway, what can I get you?"
"I'd like a driver's Rum and Coke, please, Ruby," Regina said before she leaned in to bump shoulders with Stella who had grown all-too introspective after revisiting Large Marge, Maggie The Knife and the others. "Stell?"
Hearing her name called, Stella looked up in a daze like she had been a million miles away, or perhaps behind a million bars. "Uh… I don't know… uh… a Fire Engine. A Jäger and a Raspberry Fizz. Make it a Slurrpy, if ya don't mind."
"But of course, Stella," Ruby said and let out a chuckle. "You think I'll allow that crap Frizzie's burping water into my bar? I'm running a classy establishment here, young lady!"
The three women chuckled at the undeniable fact of every part of the statement. As Ruby walked back up to the bar to mix the drinks, Regina snatched the opportunity to steal a kiss from Stella's lips. "Cheer up. Your butt will be just fine in a day or two. And I promise I'll keep a close eye on it to keep track of its progress."
"Thanks, Reggie. That's good to know." Stella said, but fell quiet as Ruby returned with their drinks and two napkins. Once the owner of the bar had gone back to the counter, Stella sipped her Jäger-and-Razzie and began to toy with her white napkin. "Uh… do you ever ponder the improbability of the two of us hooking up? I do. Often," she said quietly, using an index finger to push the napkin around the smooth tabletop.
"Well," Regina said and sipped her driver's Rum and Coke. "Let me say it like this… before we met, I was a happy het who had no problem with spending a couple of nights doing the rock-and-pump routine with a guy."
"Oh, GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAG! T.M.I.!" Stella croaked, holding up her hands in the age-old Time Out-gesture. A few seconds went by before her curiosity got the better of her and she lowered her hands again. "Like Steve?"
"Steve and others, yep. But I was different then, Stell. I had something they wanted… my face. My body. And I made damn sure they paid through the nose just to get near me. I always had an agenda back then, and I never surrendered my absolute control over what went down. Especially not in the sack."
"Yeah. Looking back, it's not something I'm proud of. When I grew older, I lost some of what I had. Some of my allure… and I was no longer a hot commodity. You know that part."
"I do… and it's BS, pardon my French," Stella said and gave Regina's hand a strong squeeze. "It was BS then, and it's BS now."
"Thanks, Stell. I was empty inside when I saw your ad in the paper… I hadn't worked for a while. I had lost my looks and my status. Nobody cared about Regina Harrison anymore. But then we met. Once we started to get serious, I could feel in my heart that what we shared was, and is, night-and-day different to the bad old days. The modeling industry is a nasty swamp filled with piranhas, you know that."
"Ho-boy, do I ever," Stella said and broke out in a shiver when she thought back to the brief contact she'd had with that world - and especially Steve Darrian, Mr. Chiseled Jaw himself. Although there were good people involved, like the world-class supermodel Lele da Silva whom Harrison-Starr had met and even worked with on two occasions, the majority of players only looked after Number One.
Chuckling at Stella's reaction, Regina took a quiet sip from her drink. "Back then, a relationship was all about mind games and 'what have you done for me lately.' For you and me… well… it's all about trust, isn't it? Mutual, inherent trust. Warmth. Kindness. I know we tease each other all the time, but there's always love between us… right? There's magic at work here, Stell… we shouldn't question it."
"Awwww-Gawd, Reggie… that's exactly how I feel… though in fewer words. And, uh, of course, I've never, uh… rocked-and-pumped with any guy, but, uh… yikes… it doesn't matter."
"No, it doesn't," Regina said and finished the heart-to-heart by leaning in to offer Stella Starr a loving kiss on the lips. "So… that's what's on my mind about you and me," she continued when they separated.
"And what a lovely thing it is, too," Stella echoed, crossing her eyes to look at the lenses that had begun to steam up as a late knock-on effect of Regina's kiss. Chuckling, she took off her glasses and wiped them on her napkin.
Regina chuckled as well and took a fair sip of her Rum and Coke. Once her heart had settled back down from the giddy heights it had been at when she had poured out her emotions, she stuck out her elbow to give her partner a little nudge. "Hey, not long to go now, huh? The big premiere is just around the corner."
"Ooooh, I can't wait!" Stella said, only attempting a single bounce in her seat before her aching butt sent out a distress call. "Owch… damn that dung beetle… Friday night can't come soon enough. Infinity One, baby! Kate Marshall, o-yeah!" - To celebrate, she took a good swig of her Fire Engine.
"What's her name on the show again? Chesnick?"
"No! Jeez, that's almost-"
"Will you knock it off with the blip-bloppin' names already?! Her character's name is Le'Ana Bezwick and it's gonna be so flippin' good!"
An uneasy silence spread around the table, but the cheeky sparkle in Regina's eyes proved that she had even more gentle ribbing in store for Stella. "You know, the way you speak of her almost sends a chill down my spine… I'm staring into the abyss here. Should I be worried, Stell?" she said over the rim of her tumbler.
"I beg your pardon? You brought her up… and you can't expect me not to respond to that! I happen to feel that Kate Marshall is one of the best actresses of her generation and that her new show will propel her into the super-stardom she so richly deserves!"
"But nothing, Reggie! Kate Marshall is a fantastic woman and I love her! So there!" The next few seconds went by in silence before Stella understood that Regina had snared her in hook, line and sinker. "Oh you big stick of salty liquorice! That was a mean one to play on me… when we get home, I'm gonna getcha but good!"
"Promises, promises," Regina Harrison husked in her most seductive, spice-laden voice. Not only did it earn herself another pair of fogged-up spectacles, a shout of 'Oh, get a room for Chrissakes!' came down from the peanut gallery up at the bar.
"Reggie?" Stella Starr croaked.
"Yes, dear Stella?"
"Let's drink up and head home. Something's just occurred to me that we need to explore further… in private…"
"Sounds like a plan," Regina said and chugged down the rest of her driver's Rum and Coke. Chuckling, she waited for Stella to empty her own drink; then, the two investigators of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency paid Ruby for the beverages, and said their see-ya-laters to all the nosy barflies who responded in time-honored fashion by whistling and whooping at the two women as they beat a hurried path to the exit…