All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
This story shows a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.
In Part 1:
I. Stella Hits The Sauce
II. Trial And Reward
III. One, Two, Three!
In Part 2:
V. Big Yellow Taxi
VI. Tripping Over Memory Lane
VII. Christmas At The Old Vicarage
VIII. All 's Well That Ends Well
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: May 1st - June 9th, 2013.
Thank you for your help, Wendy Arthur - and thank you once again for giving me permission to mention Kate Marshall and CJ Carson *Flower* :)
Looking for crime dramas and romantic thrillers? Look no further than Wendy Arthur's After Montana series. Inducted into the Royal Academy of Bards Hall Of Fame in 2012, the stories in the After Montana series have plenty of sweet romance, steamy bedroom action and three-dimensional, realistic characters that come alive on the page. You can find the After Montana series at the Royal Academy of Bards and at http://marsh a l l c a rson. w ordpress.com
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: For the fourth and final time, Stella Starr and Regina Harrison return with their special mix of zaniness, outrageous costumes, madcap chases and tons of sweet lovin'. No crook is safe with the unstoppable and unpredictable Stell and Reggie in the house - pickpockets, cheating husbands, armed robbers and warring ice cream vendors stand no chance against the intrepid, hard-working investigators of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency...
I - A SWELL PAIR OF CLOWNS
Written by Norsebard
The sound had been brief but Stella Starr had heard it as clear as a thunderclap, and she knew exactly what it had been - the loose floorboard in the hallway.
The thirty-seven year old private investigator pulled down her blanket as she tried to peek through the darkness of her bedroom. Unfortunately, she was unable to see past the tip of her nose without her glasses, but she couldn't be bothered to swing her arm around to her nightstand to get them.
A quick glance at her extra-large alarm clock proved that it was seventeen minutes past three in the morning.
As she was still looking at the clock, the bedroom door handle was slowly depressed, but nary a sound came from the doorway. She whipped her head around and caught a faint glimpse of a tall, shadowy, flannel-clad figure that suddenly slid out of the darkness and appeared next to the bed.
The next moment, a stifled yawn was heard, immediately followed by the blanket being moved aside on the other side of the bed.
Stella answered the commotion by breaking out in a shit-eating grin. Once the shadowy figure had made herself comfortable on the other side of the bed, Stella scooted over and snuggled up tightly to her best friend, business associate and now lover since four weeks, Regina Harrison.
"Oh..." the former model whispered, "I had to pee. I'm sorry if I woke you up."
"I didn't feel a thing. I woke up 'cos you were gone," Stella whispered back, pressing herself against her tall companion's firm body. Within moments, her extra-high quality pillow made her fall asleep like a baby.
The next time Stella woke up, it was just before seven, and she inched across the bed to turn off the alarm clock before it could send out its infernal siren.
After swinging her legs over the side of her bed and putting on her glasses, Stella pulled down in her oversized Bugs Bunny T-shirt and folded her legs up underneath her while she looked at her bedmate.
She shook her head slowly, still completely unable to fathom that she, the perpetually clumsy, unfavored and just plain unlucky Stella Starr, could score such a babe.
On the other side of the bed, the forty-three year old former supermodel with the perfect eyes, the perfect cheekbones, the perfect nose and the perfect hair managed to look cool, suave and in perfect control, even with her eyes closed and her lips parted in sleep.
"Sweet Chicky-Dee, Stell, you're looking at all your birthdays and Christmases rolled into one, yessir," Stella whispered to herself as she stuck her bare feet into her favorite moose-head slippers and waddled off to the bathroom so she didn't have to wait and wait and wait for her long-haired bedmate to finish showering and beautifying herself.
Before she could reach the bathroom, a pile of colorful mail by the front door caught her eye and she waddled over to it pick it up. "Junk, junk, junk, bill, junk, junk, bill, bill, bill... uh-huh. Naffnudkhar Yoga, achieve the Seventh Level of Bliss. Har, been there, done that, buddy... and I didn't need no yoga instructor to get there," she said with a grin as she glanced back at the bedroom. "Ugh, car insurance, fire insurance, credit card bill, gas card bill, library card bill... uh-buh, whut?"
Behind her, the six-foot-one, highly graceful frame of Regina Harrison went from the bedroom to the bathroom, shedding her flannel pajamas as she did so.
Once Stella had sorted the mail after relevancy, she turned around only to find herself face to face with a closed bathroom door. At first, she just stood there with a slightly puzzled expression, but when she heard the shower running and Regina humming her favorite tune, she scrunched up her face until it was only half the size it had been to begin with. "Oh isn't that just typical? Us short people get no respect... NO respect," she mumbled, fluffing her dirty-blonde mop of hair that had already grown back to haystack-like proportions after her haircut.
The words had barely left Stella's mouth before the door was opened and held ajar. A far-from-dressed Regina didn't say a word, but she didn't have to as her actions spoke louder than a whole phonebook could have: she winked and held up a sponge.
"Uh-huh!" Stella squeaked and threw the stack of mail high in the air from where it rained down like a colorful snow flurry, though she had already vacated the premises long before they hit the floor.
Much glorious scrubbing later, Stella sat down on their bed to put on her boots, but as always, the sight of Regina sweeping a shirt over her sculpted shoulders and torso, and pouring her long legs into a pair of charcoal slacks stole her attention away from tying her bootlaces.
The shit-eating grin returned with a vengeance and she had to move her glasses a bit back from her eyes to stop them from steaming up. "It cannot get any better than this," she mumbled and stood up, "it simply cannot- YEOOW!"
Hearing her friend holler, Regina knew what was coming and she hurriedly spun around and wrapped her arms around the wildly flapping Stella who had - once again - managed to tie the wrong lace onto the wrong boot.
"Are you all right, Stell?" Regina said in her trademark silky smooth timbre as she held Stella tight.
Stella had her face buried into Regina's bosom so she was in fact quite all right. "Uh-huh," she mumbled, surrounded by two of her most favorite things in the world.
"Good. Down-a-daisy... c'mon, I better help you with your boots... again," Regina continued, gently easing Stella back down on the bed.
"Thanks, Reggie," Stella said and adjusted her glasses. "You're my friend."
"And a little bit more than that, huh?" the former model said, winking saucily at her new lover.
"Maybe a little bit more than that, yeah."
Crouching down, Regina quickly undid the bootlaces and fixed them up properly. "There. You're all set," she said, putting a warm hand on Stella's jeans-clad thigh and giving it a little rub. "Now... may I give you a little fashion tip?" she continued, wearily eyeing the brown boots, the green socks, the blue jeans and the yellow sweater.
Stella sighed and rolled her eyes. "Does it include telling me to dress differently?" she said flatly.
"Because if it does, you can tell it to the h- whut? No?"
"No," Regina said with a beaming smile. "I was going to suggest that you bought a pair of boots with Velcro bindings. Would save you a lot of grief," she continued as she reached up to caress Stella's cheek.
"Oh... huh. There's a first time for everything, I s'pose. I'll think about it," Stella said and got up, returning the favor by kissing Regina's inviting lips. "Now, c'mon... let's get over to Zeligman's Bakery before all the best donuts are snatched. I be starvin' here!"
Treating her beloved brown AMC Pacer with kid gloves, Stella drove up the little ramp to the parking lot at an astounding seven miles an hour. "There it is again... didya hear that?" she said and pointed in under the dashboard.
"Yeah. There's a whine somewhere."
"There's definitely a whine somewhere," Stella said and nodded grimly. She drove into one of the slots and parked next to their leased Mercedes SLK.
After taking off her seat belt, Regina slapped her thigh and let out the kind of sound one uses when one perhaps isn't a hundred percent sincere. "Oh! I know what it is!"
"Wh- what? Well, spill it, Reggie!"
"It's the car!"
"The car is whining, 'why won't she drive me faster... why won't she drive me faster... why won't she drive me faster... why wo-"
"Ha. Ha. Ha flippin' HA. And another Ha! Don't you go knockin' my drivin'! I drive safely! I've never had an accident... need I remind you which of us had the accident in the SLK? Huh? Huh? So there!" Stella said and waggled her index finger at her best friend. When the tall, former model didn't appear to be ruing her quip in the least, Stella grunted and stepped out of her car.
Everything looked the same as always at the low office building that housed the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency: the asphalt in the parking lot was still cracking up, the pigeons were still cooing on the top of the flat roof, and the radio was still blaring from Billy's garage across the lot. The slight drizzle that came down from the leaden skies only added to the undeniable fact that it was late January.
On her way into the office, Stella remembered to take a giant step over the metal rail at the lower part of the door so she wouldn't stumble and fall flat on her face. She noticed another pile of colorful junk mail but left it for Regina to deal with.
At once, she moved over to the little table behind the door and put down the scrumptious feast they had bought at Zeligman's: a chocolate milk for herself and an orange pulp juice for Regina, plus four donuts - two with chocolate frosting, one with raspberry frosting and jam, and finally a special with lemon curd. "Anything in the mail?"
"Nah, just the usual stuff," Regina said, sorting through the bills and the junk mail. "Naffnudkhar Yoga, achieve the Seventh Level of Bliss," she continued, holding up a flyer held in gold and white that had a photo of a guru on the front.
"Huh, those guys sure get around. We got one just like it back at my pad," Stella said and walked over to her desk where she briefly sat down to stare at the pile of paperwork she had left there the night before. The paperwork suddenly morphed into a dangerous, fanged monster with yellow eyes and bad breath, and she hurriedly moved away from the desk and back over to the breakfast table to escape its clutches.
In the meantime, Regina took off her trench coat, her Mai Sjoblom scarf and her shoes, and walked barefoot over to her own desk where she predictably bumped down into her swivel-chair and put her endless legs up on the corner of the desk.
Stella worked with a rare smile on her lips as she thought about the nice surprise in the shower. She quickly put the donuts on a pair of plates - she took the raspberry and one of the two with chocolate frosting for herself - and poured the drinks into a pair of tumblers. "Reggie, it's funny though..."
"What is, Stell?"
"Well, that I can't stand sugar in my coffee, but I can't live without my donuts," the blonde investigator said as she carried Regina's plate and tumbler over to the other desk, "or my muffins, or my brownies, or my cookies, or my Danish, or my-"
Reaching up, Regina took the plate and the glass and paid for it with one of her trademark two-hundred watt smiles. "I get the picture."
Stella snickered and adjusted her glasses. She was about to speak up when her stomach growled out loud. "Oh... beg ya pardon," she said and clapped her gut with her free hand. "I guess it matches the monster hiding behind the pile of paperwork. I saw it, Reggie, and it was frightening."
"Well, don't bother callin' me, Stell. I don't do monsters," Regina said and went to work on her lemon curd donut.
Stella snickered again and scooted over to the couch where she put down her plate and tumbler on the coffee table. Fluffing the pillows, she sat down and took the plate with the chocolate donut. "Ah," she said with a broad grin as she studied the sugary pastry. "Beauty personified."
"Why thank you, darlin'," Regina said and flicked her perfect hair over her shoulder where it naturally fell in a perfect cascade down her back.
"No, Reggie, the donut!" - munch, munch - "Ain't the chocolate frosted" - munch, munch, MUNCH - "ones just the best thing" - MUNCH - "since sliced bread? Or maybe even" - MUNCH, munch - "since breathable air...?" - gulp.
"Oh... it's gone already," Stella continued, looking at the empty plate. When she realized Regina hadn't replied yet, she looked up only to be greeted by a raised eyebrow. The only logical response to that was a mischievous grin, so that was what she sent the other way.
Opening up wide, she stuffed the raspberry frosted donut into her mouth. Two seconds later, somebody knocked on the door. "OH, FFFFPHARCK'M! Why do-" - gulp - "people-" - gulp - "always-" - GULP - "knock when I-" - GULP! - "eat..."
"I got it, Stell," Regina said and slipped her legs off the table. As she walked across the plush, dark gray carpet they had bought at a Chapter Eleven-sale, she made sure to stop halfway there and flash her boss and bedmate one of her trademark poses. "And just for the record, *that's* beauty personified. Ba-da-bing," she said and cocked her hips to make her rear present itself in the best possible fashion against the charcoal slacks.
"Ba-da-boom," Stella said with yet another shit-eating grin on her face.
Regina was quickly at the door and whooshed it open. Their ever-hopeful neighbor Billy the Mechanic was standing outside, holding a plastic bag and wearing a surprised look on his face.
"Hi, Billy. C'mon on in," Regina said and stepped aside to let the friendly - if slightly clueless - mechanic inside.
"Uh... thanks, Miss Harrison," Billy said and stepped into the office. As always, he was wearing safety boots, a greasy baseball cap, a canary yellow boiler suit that was zipped down to half-mast to reveal a filthy, formerly white t-shirt, and finally a pair of sturdy gloves. "Hi, Miss Starr," he continued, scratching his two-day stubble.
"Yo, Billy. What can we do for you? What's in the plastic bag?" Stella said and got up from the couch.
"Oh, it's a car CD player and a stack of discs that I wanted to ask if I could leave over here... your locks are much stronger than mine." - Through the entire sentence, Billy's eyes had never left the upper, curvaceous part of Regina's slacks.
"Sure," Stella said and put out her hand to take the plastic bag. "I'll put it in the conference room. Just come a-knockin' when you... when you... need... hey, Billy, I'm talkin' here, ya know."
"Wh- uh, whut?" Billy said, snapping his eyes away from Regina's endless legs and the tight slacks to look at Stella's slightly less-than-amused face. "Uh, thanks. Oh, and there was another thing as well. Miss Harrison, uh, I was wondering if I could tempt you to, ha ha, uh, go to Bob's Bucket of Ribs on Friday night? I promise that I'll shower and shave first."
Regina and Stella briefly locked eyes and sent each other a silent message that if Regina didn't tell him about their new relationship at once, Stella would, and that wouldn't be pretty.
Regina nodded unnoticeably and moved to put an arm on Billy's shoulder. At the very last moment, she reconsidered, thinking that her Gianna Giacomelli shirt plus grease and oil residue from the time of President Reagan didn't necessarily mix. "Ummm, Billy... there's something you need to know. Maybe you should sit down..."
An hour later, Regina came back to the office and took off her trench coat and her scarf. "Sorry it took so long, Stell. I didn't want to leave before he had fallen asleep, the poor thing. Boy, that was awkward... grown men shouldn't cry like that."
Stella was sitting at her desk working on the mountain of paperwork armed with a notepad, a ball point pen and a large ruler that she used to whack the paper monster's fingers when it got too frisky with her. "Awkward? I wrote the book on awkward, Reggie. That wasn't awkward, that was just... just... ugh. Poor fella."
"Yeah. Of course, I can understand his shock... it would be a massive blow to anyone to be told that I, the divine La Regina is out of their reach," Regina said and kicked off her shoes on her way over to her desk. "Anyway. Did anybody call?"
"No. That's why I decided to wrestle with this thing," Stella said and gave the mountain of files on her desk a big whack with the ruler. "Gave me a paper cut, too!"
Before Regina had time to come up with a suitable quip, their phones rang. "Do you want me to take it, Stell?" she said, holding her hand above the receiver.
"Nah, I got it," Stella said and picked up her own phone. Clearing her throat, she leaned back in her seat and started toying with the cord. "You have reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. And before you ask, no, we don't actually have a Mr. Harrison Starr working here. I'm Stella Starr, the senior investigator. How may we help you?"
The sound level at the other end of the line was massive. At first, Stella couldn't decide if the call came from a steel rolling mill or an oil rig, but when she could hear music playing and a few kids laughing, she lost her line of thought and ended up quite confused.
'Uh... I'm sorry, it's dreadfully loud here so I didn't understand a word. My name is Meredith Campanero. May I speak to Mr. Harrison Starr, please?' a woman said in a cute English accent.
Stella let out a sound that was a cross between a sob, a grunt, a curse and a choked-up version of the Almighty's name. "We. Don't. Have. Anyone. Here. By. That. Name," she growled into the telephone.
'Great, I'll hold!'
"No, for cryin' out loud... I said we don't have anyone here by that name!" Stella barked in a voice that grew from agitated to one notch below an eardrum-popping '...ucker'-attack.
'Oh... hang on. Oh, it's too loud here... I need to find a quieter place. When do you think he'll be back?'
Stella jumped up from her chair and burned a hole in the carpet with her socks as she tore around and around and around the desk still holding the receiver to her ear. On the fourth revolution, she lost her breath and had to come to a stop.
Huffing and puffing, she bent over and put her free hand on her knee. "Listen, Miss, we don't have anyone here by that name... I'm Stella Starr, the senior investigator."
'Ohhh, now I get it. You're his daughter, right? Yes, I know all about that. I'm working for my father, too. No... no, hang on, something's come up, I have to go.' - Click.
Stella was left holding the dead receiver, and at first, it seemed like she didn't have enough life force left to do anything about it. After a little while, she sighed deeply and put the receiver back down on the phone.
"Stell, what in the world was that about?" Regina said, jumping up from her chair to help her shell-shocked friend back to the safety of her desk - paper monster be damned.
"I dunno and I don'care. I don't understand why people can't read our ads, Reggie? Why do you think people can't read our ads, Reggie? Is it because they're in black and white? Do you think that's why, Reggie?" Stella mumbled in a flat, numb monotone. "The only reason they're in black and white is because color ads cost three times as much and I didn't have much money at the time and-and-and but perhaps we should reconsider getting a col-"
"Gah! The telephone! The telephone!" Stella howled and tore over to the couch to get the furthest away from the horrible plastic creature. When it sent out another shrill ring, she dove for cover under the pile of cushions that had clustered at the far corner of the couch.
Looking at her friend's frantic behavior, Regina sighed deeply and picked up the receiver. "Hello, you've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. This is Regina Harrison."
'Oh, hello, Miss Harrison,' a female voice said in an English accent. This time, there was no noise and the line was crystal clear. 'I'm Meredith Campanero and I rang you a moment ago. I was speaking to the daughter of the-'
"No, you actually spoke to Stella Starr, the senior investigator. We're just the two of us."
'Oh... oh, I'm terribly sorry, Miss Harrison. Oh, deary me... I didn't mean to be rude. Oh, dear!'
Sitting down at Stella's desk, Regina shot her blonde friend a thumbs-up that seemed to calm her down somewhat - at least enough to remove the pillows she had used as a crash helmet.
"What can we do for you, Miss Campanero?"
'Well, like I told Miss Starr, I work for my father's circus. It's just a small one, not one of the large, global circuses, you understand.'
"I see, Miss Campanero," Regina said and waved Stella over to the other phone.
At first, the blonde investigator was reluctant to get anywhere near it, but another, stronger wave convinced her it was okay to come out of hiding. That left another obstacle - Regina's swivel-chair. Gulping, Stella carefully placed her rear on the seat in the hope that it wouldn't run off with her like her own swivel-chair had done on so many occasions that she had lost count. "H- he- hello?" she croaked into the other receiver.
'Oh hello, Miss Starr. Look, I'm terribly sorry for the confusion before. You see, there were laughing children everywhere around me, and I'm sure you know how loud they can be.'
"Y- yes, I do... uh, can. Uh... am."
'My father's circus, Campanero and Daughter, has been hired by the Ocean View Shopping Mall to provide entertainment for children while their parents shop... but would you believe it... some dastardly pickpockets have begun targeting the children! And their parents, too!'
"No!" Stella said and thumped her fist onto the desktop. To do so, she had to remove the iron grip she'd had on the edge of the desk. The results weren't long in coming. "What's the world comin-" - Wheelie! - "OOOF!" - crash, scrape, thump, bump. "Owch..."
At the other desk, Regina buried her face in her free hand and shook her head slowly, making her dark locks whisk back and forth across her back. Sighing, she put down the receiver, got up and walked around the desks.
'Oh dear, Miss Starr, are you all right?'
"Oh, I'm fine, I'm fine... I just took a tumble, but I'm kinda used to that, so..." Stella said, patting down the carpet to find her glasses that had flown off her nose at the point of impact.
Without speaking a word, Regina crouched down and picked up Stella's glasses - then she put her hands under her blonde friend's armpits and lifted her back up onto the swivel-chair.
Once Stella found her glasses on the desktop, she put them on and blew Regina a kiss. "Anyway, where were we, Miss Campanero?"
'Well... uh... all right, I was wondering if you would mind swinging by later today? Today and tomorrow, we'll be at the Gold Square, that's in the eastern part of the mall. Perhaps you'll be able to see something I can't... with your expertise, I mean.'
Right on cue, Stella wiped a pair of huge dust bunnies off her lenses. Once the offending critters were safely into the wastebasket, she nodded into the receiver. "We'll be there, Miss Campanero. You can count on us, the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. We always get our man. Even when it's a woman. After all, our motto is We Never Rest Until The Crook Is Caught!"
'Uh... good, good.'
Chuckling, Regina turned around and glanced at the picture frame that protected their real motto - "If you're not satisfied with our services, you can kiss our..."
"Mmmm-yes!" Stella said with a vigorous nod. "Don't bother to look for us, though. We'll be there completely incognito! We're masters at blending into a crowd, Reggie and I."
'Oh, I'm really looking forward to meeting you, Miss Starr! I knew I should have called you sooner! Ta-ta for now!'
"Uh, ta-ta right back atcha," Stella said and hung up. With a smile on her face, she swiveled around to send a Regina a big thumbs-up - but unfortunately, she gained a little too much speed and had to grab hold of the desk with both hands to stop herself from taking another nosedive.
At the other desk, Regina buried her face in her hands all over again.
"Who's driving?" Stella said as she locked the door to the office behind her some time later. With the door firmly secure, she stuffed her hands into the pockets of her bright yellow down vest and shuffled across the parking lot.
"I'm driving! And we're taking the Merc," Regina said and strode over to the low-slung silver metallic sports car. After unlocking it, she looked at the clouds to decide whether or not they could have the roof down. Since it seemed that more rain was imminent, she kept it closed.
Stella sighed and blinked a couple of times. She had decided to wear her contacts instead of her glasses, but it always took her a little while to adjust to the foreign objects in her eyes. "But I'm a good driver," she said in a whiny mumble that didn't get her anywhere with her tall friend. "No, really, I am!"
Regina decided to play the trump card and quickly walked back to Stella. "I know you are," she said dramatically, putting her strong hands on her shorter friend's shoulders. While Stella was looking up at her, Regina smiled and leaned down to claim the blonde investigator's lips. "But we promised we'd get there today," she husked once they separated.
"Oh, I know and... hey!" Stella said with a huffy expression on her face and her hands firmly ensconced on her hips.
Regina merely grinned and went back to the driver's side door. "Are you coming or what?"
The huffiness couldn't stay on Stella's face for too long and she broke out in a warm smile as she went over to the low sports car. "That one goes on the list, too, ya know. One of these days, Regina Harrison... one of these days, you'll... you'll... regret teasing me so mercilessly!"
Once they were sitting comfortably in the deep bucket seats, Regina turned on the powerful engine and reversed out of the slot next to the Pacer. Selecting Drive, she let the SLK glide through the parking lot until they were at the little ramp - then she entered the traffic on Carter Boulevard, driving south to get to the Ocean View Shopping Mall.
"By the way, Stell," Regina said as they came to a halt at the first traffic lights that had turned red moments earlier. "How many people have asked for Mr. Harrison-Starr now?"
Stella turned around and scrunched up her face. "I don't know... I forgot to update our list. I can't believe I didn't update it! Oh, that's your fault," she said and reached over to give the mile-long thighs a little slap.
"How so, Stell?"
"Well, you know."
"No, I don't, Stell!"
In the meantime, the traffic lights turned green and the two women drove off, equally confused by the puzzling responses of the other. "You know!" Stella said again, leaning in towards her tall friend while wiggling her eyebrows incessantly.
"Careful doing that, you're gonna dislodge your contacts," Regina said drolly.
Stella turned around in the seat and added a second, even gentler, slap on Regina's thigh. "Ha, ha. Look, I'm trying to give you a compliment, actually!"
"By saying it's my fault you forgot to update the list?"
Stella groaned and threw her hands in the air. "I give up. I give up!"
"So do I..." Regina said with a slow, confused shake of the head.
Half an hour later, they arrived at the Ocean View Shopping Mall after two detours - one necessitated by roadworks, and one necessitated by Stella insisting they should stay in the inner lane when they shouldn't. As expected, the building was huge, but the parking lots in front of, on top of, and below it were more than simply huge, they were gargantuan in size. Everywhere they looked, hundreds and hundreds of cars and SUVs filled the slots, leaving very little space for Regina, Stella and their SLK.
"Huh, this isn't gonna work," Regina said while they were on the second, fruitless, tour of the parking lot on the ground level. "D'ya wanna try the roof or the garage instead, Stell?"
"Weeelll, that depends, Reggie. Is it going to rain or not? If it does, there'll be plenty of puddles on the roof, or we may get caught in a shower. I'm not the world's biggest fan of getting caught in rain showers, you know that. I'm not good with puddles either. On the other hand," Stella said and literally held up her other hand, "I remember another time at another mall where the air-conditioning had conked out in their parking garage and the exhaust fumes and stuff created such an awful atmosphere I could hardly bre-"
'Will ya get a flippin' move on!' someone shouted behind them.
When her lecture was rudely interrupted by the driver behind them running out of patience, Stella spun around in the seat and shot him an Evil Eye.
"He can't see you, Stell," Regina said flatly.
"Yeah? Well, maybe we should change that!"
"Maybe we should... but not today," Regina said and chose to drive down the ramp to get to the underground parking garage.
Fortunately for Stella's state of mind, the air-conditioning was working perfectly and it didn't take them long to find a parking space in the area reserved for female drivers. Placed right next to the sliding doors to the escalators, the area was much stronger lit than the rest of the garage, illuminated by rows of powerful lights in the ceiling that didn't create shadows along the walls for potential assailants to hide in.
"Reggie, I almost feel a little guilty for parking here," Stella said as she craned her neck to look at the sign on the wall that proclaimed the area to be reserved for women and families. "I mean, you and me can park anywhere, but others may not be comfortable out there in the semi-darkness. Huh?"
"Good point, Stell. Go ahead, I'll find another place to park," Regina said and reached over to muss Stella's haystack.
"Okay. Okay... I can do this," Stella said and scooted around in the bucket seat to get ready for the most daunting task of her day - getting out of the low sports car.
After opening the door and taking two and a half deep breaths, she bolted from the seat and shot to her feet. It was touch and go for a while, but she managed to maintain her balance and closed the door with a triumphant grin.
While Regina reversed out of the parking space and trickled off into the semi-darkness to find another place to park, Stella shuffled over to a large, colorful display showing the different stores located in the shopping mall.
"Look, Reggie," Stella said once Regina returned to her, "a hundred and sixty shops, a third of which are fashion boutiques. Should be enough even for you, eh?"
Regina went up to stand very close behind her shorter partner and put her hands on the shoulders of the bright yellow down vest. "Oooh, I can feel my credit card glowing already!"
"Ha, ha, yeah... but no. Just no, Reggie. You already have enough clothes for two lifetimes. You don't need more."
"Oh, knife me in the heart and twist it, whydontcha," Regina husked and leaned down to give Stella a brief kiss on the side of her head, earning herself a snicker.
"And besides, we're here to work," Stella continued and took Regina's hand as they walked over to the escalators. "Work, remember? Also, we need to be completely incognito, so... don't do anything that'll get us noticed. Okay?"
"You know me, Stell... I'm cool as a cucumber."
Smiling at her tall friend, Stella stepped onto the escalators. Unfortunately, she hadn't paid attention to its speed, nor to the bright blue sign that said 'Turbo Escalator', so she was taken completely by surprise when she was shot skyward at a rate of knots. Howling loud enough for the entire mall to hear, she clung to the railing like a mountain climber on the outside of Mount Everest.
Regina just groaned.
By the time they reached the first deck of the shopping mall, they didn't need to ask for directions to find the Gold Square - it was right in front of them. "Ha!" Stella said, pointing at two clowns who were entertaining a group of children supervised by a woman dressed in white pants and a dark coat who was most likely the English lady they needed to speak to.
"Brrrr," Regina replied with a shiver.
"What? You don't like clowns? You never told me that."
"Two words. Stephen King."
"Oh... yeah, okay," Stella said with a shrug. "That's what you get for watching all those horror movies, Reggie. You should stick to the good stuff, like me."
"Two words. One begins with a K, the other an M... and all your dreams will be goooood," Stella said with a broad grin.
Regina rolled her eyes but eventually pulled her short friend into a sideways hug and set off towards the small enclosure where the clowns were performing.
The Ocean View Shopping Mall was laid out like a five-pointed star with the five arms each stretching out from the central square. Halfway up each arm, another, smaller, square had been put in between the shops and cafes to break the visual presentation and to give the arms recreational areas that acted like oases from the frenzied shopping.
The five arms were held in glass, smooth floors and shiny chrome like most modern malls, but the management had decided to create themes that could give their customers a sense of the good old days; the shops in the five arms of Ocean View were clustered together in clothing, electronics, sports and hunting equipment, skin care and cosmetics, and finally bakeries and delis.
Campanero's Circus had been allowed to set up a small enclosure in the Gold Square which was in the clothing arm of Ocean View - quite visible by the fact that nine out of ten customers were women who were all carrying multiple shopping bags on their arms with colorful names like Pink Princess World Fashion Outlet, Exclusive Lady Bartholdy, Original Boutique Lana é Mara and Rokkstar Street Tuff.
Stella wasn't particularly impressed with the shops, but Regina was drooling like rarely before, craning her neck this way and that to take in all the sights. "Ooh! Ooooh! OOOOOH!" she said, slamming her hand down on Stella's shoulder when she caught a glimpse of the spring collection in the windows at the Lana é Mara store.
Stella's knees were buckling under the added weight of the six-foot-one former supermodel, and she reached up to pry the strong fingers off her shoulder. "Reggie! Short person in distress here! Regg-gg-ggie! Will! Ya! Get! Ya! Hand! Offa me! For cryin' out loud! We're supposed to be here incognito, woman!" Stella whispered hoarsely, trying to keep quiet so potential criminals wouldn't pay attention to them. Looking back ahead, she could see that some of the kids had indeed turned around to stare at the weird behavior of the adults.
"What? Oh... sorry, Stell. Look, look at that! Oh, the colors... the colors! I gotta... I gotta..." Regina said and pointed excitedly at the many shops.
"Later, okay? We have a job to do... no, Reggie, no!" Stella whispered as Regina suddenly turned around and plotted a course towards the nearest shop. "Down, girl! Down!"
"Oh, but can't I-"
"Later. We're here to do a job!"
"Later! So there!"
The pout that spread over Regina's face was world class, and only rivaled by the depth and darkness of Stella's similar pouts when things didn't go according to her plans.
Knowing she had ruffled a few superstar feathers, Stella grabbed both Regina's arms and held the tall investigator tight. "I need you to stay with me. Okay? I need you to be here, now, in the present, and observe. Can you do that? Can you do that for me, Reggie? Once we've spoken to the nice English lady, I'll unleash you so you can prowl the fashion boutiques. Okay, Reggie?"
"Yeah, okay," Regina mumbled glumly.
"Thank you. Now let's-"
Three spectators to the left of Stella, a woman let out a piercing howl that most decidedly wasn't part of the performance - "My phone! Where's my phone?! My phone's gone!" she shouted as she frantically patted down her pockets and rummaged through her purse to find her phone that had suddenly gone missing.
Stella spun around and stared at the scene with eyes as wide as saucers. "Hot diggity DANG! Those crooks are good! I didn't see a thing!" she croaked, turning around in a wide circle to find the culprits - at the next intersecting hallway, two shadows raced around the corner, but it was impossible for Stella to say whether or not they'd had anything to do with the theft.
Within moments, moms ran everywhere with their children to get away from the troubles - and in the middle of it all stood the two clowns looking like they couldn't fathom what was going on. The nicely dressed woman ran into the enclosure from a small tent and immediately let out an inventive blue streak in the Queen's Finest English.
"That's gotta be Meredith Campanero," Stella said and scratched her cheek. "Uh. Okay. Not exactly the entrance I was hopin' for. C'mon, Reggie, we better introduce ourselves."
"I can't stand this anymore... this is a bloody disgrace... oh... hello, ladies... I'm sorry, but you missed the show," Meredith said in a downcast voice that was matched by her unhealthy pallor. Beyond the dark circles under her eyes and the grayish haggardness of her cheeks, she was a tall blonde with steel gray eyes and a slightly hawkish nose.
Her clothes followed the classic tradition of a circus ringmaster: tight, white riding pants, a dark coat with penguin tails, and a shiny top hat - though she had left the hat on a table at the back of the small stage.
"No, I'd say we got an eyeful. Hi, I'm Stella Starr, this is my business associate Regina Harrison. We're the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency," Stella said and put out her hand.
"Oh... how do you do. I'm Meredith Campanero," Meredith said and shook the hands of both women.
Nodding, Stella hooked her thumbs inside her bright yellow vest and began to look around the small stage. "Are you all right, Miss Campanero? You look awfully tired..."
"I've hardly slept since these bloody thefts began... it's really putting a strain on my nerves. Now, I only need a child crying or laughing loudly to get all frazzled... and that happens twenty times a day here..."
"Man, that sucks," Stella said strongly before she realized that she had said it out loud. "Uh... anyway, we can certainly see that you have a problem. Can't we, Reggie? Reggie? Reggie!"
Hearing her name called out like that, Regina's eyes snapped back to Stella from where they had been - gawking at the Exclusive Lady Bartholdy store that was exactly opposite from the enclosure. "Uh... yes, we can."
Stella mumbled a few inaudible words but soon turned her attention back to Meredith. "So... these thefts happen on a regular basis, right?"
"I'm afraid so," Meredith said and picked up a prop left behind by one of the clowns. "Well, they won't for much longer. The mall management told me yesterday that if I couldn't get it under control, my contract would be annulled. But what do they expect me to do? We're only three people here, including myself, for goodness' sake! We can't be everywhere at once... if those bloody thieves don't stop preying on us soon, they'll need to find someone else's bones to pick clean."
"Oh, but it doesn't matter now, anyway. I'm sure the lady who was pickpocketed today has already called her lawyer to get him to send the management a lawsuit... oh hang on, she had her phone stolen..."
"Hmmm," Stella said again and started rubbing her chin. "Reggie, if you can tear yourself away from the temptations, would you mind taking care of Miss Campanero? I gotta think about this one."
"Sure, Stell," Regina said and screwed on her most winning two-hundred watt smile to add a bit of professionalism to the proceedings. Smiling, she moved forward and started helping Meredith clean up after the show.
Stella scrunched up her face and looked around at the location of the enclosure - or rather, at the many escape routes the crooks could use. "Hmmm. This is a challenge... but I do love a good challenge... once in a while... hmmm. If they..." - she tip-toed away from the enclosure - "or perhaps..." - she tip- toed back - "but what if... on the other hand... perhaps they..." - she tip-toed away from the enclosure and went over to one of the support pillars - "Well, I'd definitely... uh... get away quickly..." - she tip-toed back, but stopped halfway there - "but where to? Hmmm," she mumbled, gesticulating with one hand while the other was deeply buried in her vest pocket.
As Meredith observed the blonde investigator shuffling around and talking to herself, she sighed deeply and shook her head. "Oh, I don't know why I called you," she said and pinched the bridge of her nose. "This is bloody hopeless."
"Well, I've learned that Stella Starr works in mysterious ways. If we give her a little time, she has a knack for coming up with the right answers... though I will admit it looks a little funny..." Regina said, holding a plastic bag that Meredith put a few discarded pieces of paper into.
Stella absentmindedly pulled up in her winter jeans that were just a tad too large for her while she glanced at the props, the enclosure, and finally at Meredith's costume. It was the costume that sent the solution racing through her brain - "A-ha!" she cried, sending her dirty-blonde mop of hair into overdrive as she jumped a foot in the air to celebrate her brainstorm.
Upon her landing, she pointed at the ringmaster's tight pants and the penguin coat. "A-ha! Reggie! I have it... we're gonna do what we do best! We're going undercover... as a pair of clowns!"
To call Regina Harrison mortified would be an gross understatement. Back at the Harrison-Starr office, she sat at her desk and peeked through her fingers at Stella who was sitting in the middle of the floor with no less than seven piles of clothes surrounding her - two of the piles were nearly as tall as she was.
"Stell, this is nuts... we can't go undercover as clowns... what the hell do we know about being clowns?" Regina said flatly, but the easily excitable investigator on the carpet was too busy with sorting the clothes and bopping along to their indispensable Village People CD to listen to the Voice of Reason.
"... Where you can sail the seven... what? I'm sorry, did you say something?" Stella said, holding up a polka-dotted bra but quickly putting it in the pile called 'Maybe a little later.'
"No," Regina said with a long, slow sigh.
"Huh. Musta been my stomach. Hey... food... I can eat. Yeah... can you eat, Reggie? You should, you're getting a little thin... your ribs are showing."
"They are not!"
"We could call the Pizza Express... get 'em to deliver so we can concentrate on finding our costumes. I want a Meaty Mama. It's been too long since I've had a Meaty Mama. With fries. Yeah. Fries with hot chili sauce. Or mayo...? Hmmm."
"I thought they gave your nightmares?"
"Oh no, I have no problems with fries."
Regina rolled her eyes and buried her face in her hands all over again. "The Clog-My-Arteries-Meaty-Mama, Stell..." she said through her fingers.
Stella's first response was to turn around and stick out her tongue at her tall friend. Then she snickered and said: "I'll just snuggle up tighter, Reggie."
"Works for me," Regina said and took the receiver. She quickly found the number for the pizza parlor they always used and waited for one of the guys to pick up the phone.
Later, the office floor had evolved into a proper mess with two opened pizza trays - Regina had decided to go for a Vegetariano to offset the pepperonis, black olives, mushrooms, salty bacon, kebab, chicken, fried sausages and extra cheese on Stella's Meaty Mama - two smaller trays with fries drenched in various sauces, two cans of Slurrpy's finest, two private investigators who were having a great time even if the taller of the two would never admit it, and finally a pile of clothes that could be used for the disguises.
"Okayffm," Stella said around a mouthful of Mama, "ifffm weffm useffm thisffm pairffm offfm pantsffm weffm couldffm-"
"Stell, please don't-"
"-combineffm itffm withffm thisffm-"
"-talk with your mouth-"
"-oldffm shirtffm andffm..." - gulp - "What?"
Regina stared at the angelic look on her friend's face - she had clearly not found a thing wrong with speaking through a Meaty Mama. "Never mind."
Stella briefly furrowed her brow but shrugged and moved the slice back up to her mouth.
"No! Please... please wait, Stell. I want to hear what you have to say. You... you always have such cool ideas and everything," Regina said and put a gentle hand on Stella's arm, hoping the fib wouldn't come back to haunt her.
"Awww," Stella said and duly put the slice back in the box. "Okay. So... we don't have everything we need so I'll need to call Costume Rentals in a little while. But anyway, here's what I got planned for my costume... this pair of electric blue harem pants, that red-and-yellow golf jacket, those pair of bright red socks... you know, pulled up extra-high and outside of the pants..."
The look on Regina's face told more than a thousand words could. "Uh-huh?" she said, looking mortified at the thought of what her own costume would bring.
"Yes, and a green sweatshirt underneath the golf jacket. Or maybe... maybe..." - Stella reached for a green t-shirt instead - "this one. Yeah, this one is probably better. Not so warm. Okay, so... your costume-"
"What do we need from Costume Rentals, Stell?" Regina interjected to put off the horror for as long as possible.
For once, Stella turned serious and put a hand on Regina's side. "Hey," she said, clawing the long torso, "don't worry, Reggie. I've found something very, very special for you. It's in the Rentals catalogue. Something that'll fit your regal stance perfectly."
With their connection flowing strong, Regina flashed one of her patented two-hundred watt smiles and leaned forward to claim Stella's lips in a loving kiss. "Thank you. Mmmm... your lips taste of Slurrpy! Cherry Cola."
"And you taste of... hmmm..." - Stella smacked her lips a couple of times but couldn't find the right words. "Ehh... oh... eh... naw, we better try again," she continued and pulled Regina in for a kiss that went on for quite a bit longer than the first one.
Once they separated, Stella scrunched up her face, wondering why the world had turned foggy all of a sudden. She knew for a fact that she wasn't wearing her glasses so it couldn't be those steaming up, but something definitely wasn't right. "Uh... Reggie... can you see anything?"
"I can see just fine, Stell. Why?" Regina said and touched the tip of Stella's nose.
" 'Cos I'm kinda fogged up here... can contacts steam up?"
"Does that mean I still got it?" Regina husked, flicking her hair over her shoulder where it - naturally - cascaded perfectly down her back.
The smirk on Regina's face was real, as was the look of love in her eyes. "Huh," she said, reaching out to caress Stella's cheek.
"This is such an odd feeling... no, I gotta get it fixed," Stella said and got on her feet. Unfortunately, since she couldn't see where she was going, the first thing she did was to step in the last slice of Regina's Vegetariano, smearing it all over the pizza tray. That in turn made it quite slippery, and while her socked foot continued forward, the rest of her went backward - right into Regina's waiting lap where she landed with a BUMPH!
"OWCH!" Regina howled, not prepared for - or indeed expecting - a five foot four-and-a-half, dirty-blonde and altogether cute little package to land across her legs.
"I can't see anything but I do know that *that* wasn't supposed to happen. I'm really sorry, Reggie... did it hurt?"
"I'll kiss it and make it better... just guide me to where it hurts the most," Stella said and puckered up her lips. Before long, she moved her head back and forth while kissing blindly into the air.
"No, no, ugh... hold your horses, Stell... one thing at a time!" Regina said and reached down to take off Stella's left sock.
Feeling her toes come out in the open, Stella let out a snicker and snuggled down in Regina's lap. "Oooh, baby! In broad daylight!"
"You got pizza crud all over Tweety Bird, Stell."
"Oh... okay. Darn."
Half an hour later, Stella hung up the phone and leaned back in her chair behind her desk. Looking down, she checked if her Tasmanian Devil replacement sock was still keeping the Tweety Bird one company - it was. "Hey, Reggie?" she said, looking at Regina who was sitting at her own desk reading a comic.
"Sorry for ruining your pizza."
"Eh, no big deal. There was only one slice left," Regina said and shrugged in her patented Can't Give A Hoot-fashion.
Stella reached over to the windowsill behind her and took the little Viking troll - complete with a long, blond beard, chain mail, a horned helmet, a broadsword and a round shield - that Regina had bought for her when she had been working for an online TV station at the Copenhagen Fashion Week the previous year. "Still. I hate it when people step on my pizzas!" she said, mussing the soft troll against her face.
"That happens a lot, does it?" Regina said and offered her blonde friend a wink.
"More often than you think," Stella said, matching the wink with one of her own plus adding a cheeky grin. "Anyway, while you were in the bathroom, I spoke to the people at Costume Rentals. They said they'd whip together the order post haste and deliver it later today with an express courier. I ordered a professional makeup kit, a red foam nose, a rainbow-colored wig, a top hat made of soft cloth so it can collapse and, uh, tilt at the top, you know, a pair of bright red clown shoes, a rose that can squirt water, a huge pair of sunglasses with little wipers attached to them and a real, old-fashioned brass bugle."
"Jeeeeebus, we gotta take a picture of you wearing that, Stell!"
"Mmmm... mmmm... mmmm... mmmm-maybe."
Regina put away the comic and went over to Stella's desk where she sat down on the corner. "But what about my costume? That's all for your disguise."
"Mmmm-yeah," Stella said with a highly secretive look on her face. "I got something very special planned for you. Something very special."
"Oh, you said that already," Regina said with a worried look on her face. "Do I need to pop a few sedatives when I wear it?"
"Abso-flippin'-lutely not, Reggie!" Stella said vehemently. Leaning back in her chair, she put her arms behind her mop of hair while a cheeky grin played on her lips.
"Uh-huh. I better find 'em right away."
The next day.
On their way to the Ocean View Shopping Mall, the mood was cheery in the Pacer. Though the sun was low and in Stella's eyes, she had put on her mirror shade hangers and enjoyed the sensation of looking cool for a change.
The Osmonds were playing on the eight-track, and Regina and Stella occasionally sang or hummed along to the evergreen hits while they trickled along on the congested Boulevard.
Most people they drove past pressed their noses flat against their windows as they gawked at the unusual sight of two clowns driving through town.
Like Regina next to her, Stella was in full costume - red nose, rainbow wig and everything - save for her floppy top hat that wouldn't fit inside the antique car. She had spent a good portion of her day standing in front of the mirror while applying her clown makeup, a task that had oh-so-nearly sent her into an '...ucker' rage when it turned out to be far more difficult than she had expected. In fact, if Regina hadn't come to her rescue at just the right time, the mirror would have cracked from her vitriol.
She chuckled when she remembered the look on Regina's face at the sight of her very special costume when they unpacked it. Temporarily lifting her mirror hangers, she looked to her right to glance at Regina who still appeared a bit shell-shocked.
Where Stella's costume was garish and deliberately over-the-top, Regina's was cool, classy and supremely elegant. She was wearing black ballet shoes, long-legged white socks, ivory harem pants, a black belt, an ivory vest with large buttons over an ivory long-sleeved blouse, off-white gloves with black highlights and an off-white cone-shaped hat that the former model was toying with.
Her face was covered in white makeup with a few colorful highlights that included a red dot under her left eye and a comically arched black eyebrow over her right; in short, she was the prestigious White Clown, the King - or in this case, the Queen - of the arena.
"Reggie," Stella said and patted Regina's long thigh, "didn't I tell ya that your costume was special? You look fantastic. We're gonna blow 'em away you an' me."
Smiling, Regina looked back at Stella whose face was painted white with two red, bracket-like eyebrows and a black handlebar mustache under her huge, red nose. "I'm sorry I ever doubted you, Stell."
"Oh, but that's okay. You'll have plenty of opportunity to make it up to me... later," Stella husked.
"Not tonight or tomorrow, though. I promised my aunt I'd visit her... I told you a couple of days ago."
"Oh... yeah. You did. Darnit," Stella said and tapped her fingers on the rim of the steering wheel. The news dampened her mood slightly, but it all came back when she caught a glimpse of the familiar logo of one of Uncle Greezy's Drive-Thrus off to the right of the Boulevard. "Oy, wouldya look at that... I could eat. Can you eat, Reggie? I got the jones for a Super Greezy Twin Deluxe with fries and Tex-Mex sauce. You want the regular?"
"Yeah, but... you can't go in there dressed like that!"
"It's a Drive-Thru, Reggie!" Stella said and let out a resounding Wo-hooo! as she drove off the boulevard and into the fast food restaurant's lot where she quickly went around the building and pulled into the yellow lane.
Stopping at the usual spot, Stella rolled down the window and put her elbow on the sill. After waiting for several seconds for someone to appear in the restaurant's window above them, she suddenly noticed a small sign that read, 'Press the button to get personal service,' accompanied by a red arrow that pointed at a plastic button on an intercom.
"Huh, weird," Stella said and pressed the button.
'Hello and welcome to Uncle Greezy's Family Drive-Thru-'
"Hi, we'd like-"
'-where you can get healthy-'
'-and nutritious fast food for your entire family. Please state your order.'
"Uh... okay... hi, we'd like a Super Greezy Twin Deluxe, a Cheezy Greezy, a small fries with Tex-Mex sauce and extra salt, a Slurrpy! Cherry Cola and a Slurrpy! Carbonated Mineral Water. Thank you.'
Static - static - static - static - 'Effen beffen keffen leffen?' - static - static - static - static.
"Wh- whut?" Stella said and bolted upright in her seat. Reaching out, she pressed the button again. "Naw, I don't want an effen-beffen-keffen-leffen burger, thankyouverymuch! I want a Super Twin Greezy Deluxe-'
"Super Greezy Twin Deluxe," Regina said, poking Stella in the side.
"Huh? Oh yeah, make that a Super Greezy Twin Deluxe, a Cheezy Greezy, buncha fries with Tex-Mex and a couple-a sodas! How difficult can it be, for cryin' out loud!"
Static - static - static - static. 'Effen beffen leffen keffen?' - static - static - static - static.
"Whaddindahell are you tryin' to pull here? Before, you said effen-beffen-keffen-leffen, but now you're saying effen-beffen-leffen-keffen? And what the hell does that mean, anyhow?" Stella growled into the microphone on the intercom.
"Stell, perhaps we should just-"
"No, I want my Super-"
Static - static - static - static. 'Effen beffen keffen leffen?' - static - static - static - static.
"Oy! You lissen ta me and you lissen good!" Stella roared into the intercom, "I'm here with my best friend and we're hardworking women who are just trying to scrape together an existence and we want a couple-a burgers and some fries so we stopped here to get 'em. We don't want an effen, we certainly don't want a beffen, we don't know what the hell a keffen is and we sure as stink on you-know-what don't want a leffen! Can you get that into your head? Huh? So there!"
"Not now, Reggie," Stella said and waved her hand dismissively.
"But, Stell..." Regina said and pointed out of the windscreen.
"Not now, Reggie!"
"Stell, you really should take a look..."
Stella sighed and threw her hands in the air - then she jerked a foot up from her seat as she took in the sight of a six-foot-something man in a cook's uniform standing right in front of the Pacer with a fierce scowl on his face, a meat cleaver in one hand and a bone saw in the other.
The cook quickly came up to the open driver's side window and stuck his meaty head inside. "What part of 'drive around the corner' don't you understand... Bozo?" he bellowed.
"Bozo?! Why, I oughtta!" Stella said, already on her way out of the Pacer.
"Stella! Drive... drive away... now!" Regina said and pointed at the clear road ahead of them.
"But I want a Super Greezy Twin Deluxe!" Stella whined nasally.
"Do you think he's gonna make you one now? We can get some food at the mall... drive! For Pete's sake, drive!"
Rolling her eyes, Stella stepped on the gas to make the Pacer zoom away from the irate cook. Once they were back on Carter Boulevard, she slammed her fist down on top of the steering wheel and let out a growl. "Effen-beffen-keffen-leffen, my furry butt... I should have given him a piece of my mind is what I should have done. I'm famished already and it's only gonna get worse. But he ain't wrecking my good mood. Nuh-uh. I'm in a good mood today. Uh-huh. I'm in a really good mood today..."
Regina didn't and indeed couldn't answer - she had positioned the cone-shaped hat so the hole for the head covered her face completely, thus reducing the risk of anyone recognizing her to a big, round zero.
Two hundred and forty-four deep breaths later, Stella drove into one of the bays in the underground garage of the Ocean View Shopping Mall and turned off the engine. "You can take off your face-hugger now, Reggie. We're here."
Sighing, Regina moved the cone hat away from her face and shot Stella a sideways look.
Echoing the sigh, Stella clipped off the mirror shade hangers and put them on top of the steering column where she could reach them without hassle. After a few seconds, she was unable to maintain the dark look she had on her face and broke out in a cheesy grin. "I guess I do look like a Bozo, huh?" she said, running her hand up and down Regina's thigh.
"Uh-huh," the former model said as she opened the door and stepped out into the semi-darkness. Putting on her cone-shaped hat, she pulled it down just a tad over her left eye so it was on crooked.
Following her friend outside, Stella took a plastic bag with her shoes and props from behind the driver's seat and put it down on the concrete floor. "My-my-oh-me-my, you look sexy in that getup, Reggie. Mmmmm-sexy."
Regina replied to that the only way she knew - she immediately went into one of her Too Cool For Words posing routines that was surprisingly effective despite her costume. "Mmmm?" she said, finishing up by turning around and shooting Stella a smoldering gaze over her shoulder.
"Yeah," Stella said with a grin. "Oh, we better get a move on. Meredith needs us... won't look good if we let her down."
"What about the Turbo esca-"
"Have fun with that, I'm taking the stairs," Stella said and stomped over to a door labeled Stairs To Mall.
Up in the mall itself, Regina and Stella met at the top of the escalators. Stella huffed and puffed slightly from taking the two flights at full speed, but Regina was cool as only a White Clown could be.
"Sweet chicky-dee, look at that... there's twice the number of kids today... yikes..." Stella said after surveying the scene and counting at least twenty-five children plus quite a few parents. "Oh well. The kids'll love us... or run away screaming, I dunno," she continued after putting on her floppy top hat where the crown tilted this way and that as she turned her head.
"At least you have something to do... I don't have anything at all, Stell... what do you even *want* me to do?" Regina said and tried to blend in with the background.
"Eh... we'll think of something... c'mon! Looks like the show's about to start," Stella said and quickly dug into her plastic bag to find her clown shoes and the rest of the props.
With the bright red size-fifty shoes safely on her feet, the rainbow-colored wig and the floppy top hat firmly on her head, the red foam nose stuck onto her own, the squirting rose on her lapel and the brass bugle in her left hand, she waddled towards the enclosure like a stranded manatee, waving to the kids all the way there who responded to her with happy squeals of joy.
Bouncy music started playing from the enclosure, and Meredith Campanero and her own two clowns came out to begin their act. When Meredith caught a glimpse of the additional clowns, she hid a wide smile and turned on the microphone she held in her hand. "Ladies and Gentlemen, Circus Campanero is proud to present the legendary duo, The Colorful Two, who'll be joining us today!"
To the left of the enclosure, two men dressed in identical dark clothes briefly looked at each other but soon decided to go ahead with their pre-conceived plans.
Grinning like crazy under her garish makeup, Stella was waving non-stop at the kids, making the floppy hat flip-flop back and forth and the wide sleeves of her golf jacket fly like they were caught in a breeze. Almost at once, she realized that she was able to make the kids laugh just by doing what came natural to her - goofing around.
Eyeing a little boy in a wheelchair, Stella waddled over there to give him a low-five - then she turned around to do the same to a little girl who looked like she could be his sister. After greeting the children, she put her right foot high in the air and took a giant step to move over to the other kids.
Once the others had been greeted according to the ancient traditions of low-fiving, Stella made a ninety-degree right hand turn and held the bugle high in the air. The children all squealed in joy which made Stella hold off the honk for as long as she dared. When the time was right, she squeezed the rubber ball three times to produce a HONK-A! HONK-A! HONK-A!
With the bugle call still fresh in everyone's mind, Stella hop-hop-hopped further into the enclosure with her knees high and her clown shoes flapping wildly, once again earning herself a loud squeal from the audience.
Regina stared gobsmacked at her easily excitable friend who was clearly having the time of her life in the clown suit. She suddenly felt like she needed to be in there to back her up, and she stepped forward and - just like Stella - did what came natural to her; she posed for all she was worth.
Stepping into the enclosure, she made a half-turn to face the parents and assumed a Bolero-like stance where she held her right hand in the air and the left at the small of her back. Her feet were positioned in a way so her left foot was flat on the floor and her right was pulled back and balancing on her toes, and the muscles in her thighs, stomach and butt were taut and firm so she'd present an athletic figure.
Regina's stance prompted a solid applause from the mothers who all knew that a female White Clown was a rare occurrence, especially one with her height and build, but the kids didn't really know how to respond to her.
Meredith watched with fascination and quickly pulled her regular clowns over to the side. "I think we should let the guests do this one," she whispered, taking a small net with several colorful balls made of soft cotton. "But keep an eye on the spectators... those bloody thieves could be here already."
With her own clowns nodding their acceptance, Meredith stepped into the enclosure and wordlessly handed Stella the net with the cotton balls.
It didn't take Stella two seconds to realize that Meredith wanted to see her juggle the balls, but juggling wasn't exactly at the top of her list of skills. 'But hey... that'll only make it funnier,' she thought and reached into the net to grab a handful of the colorful balls.
With Regina letting out a Hep! to spur her partner into action, Stella threw the balls in the air and pretended to want to juggle them - unfortunately, the very first ball she threw hit the underside of the brim of her floppy hat and went south instead of north. The others promptly rained down from the great beyond and landed everywhere at such a speed that Stella couldn't have caught them all if she had tried.
Through a sheer miracle, the final ball came down right in her hand, and she held it high and let out a roar of triumph. Trying again, she picked up three balls - a red, a green and a blue one - and tried to look like she knew what she was doing.
Out of the corner of her eye, she suddenly caught a glimpse of two men who seemed badly out of place. Not only were they the only men for miles, they weren't laughing or even smiling. While she observed them, she did a much better job at juggling the balls than she had expected, but it only lasted until it dawned on her the men were identical twins - then she put out her left hand instead of her right and dropped all three balls, again much to the glee of the audience.
Regina had noticed Stella being preoccupied with something other than her act and followed the green-eyed stare until she found the twins. "Hmmm," she said under her breath, inching closer to where the two men were but hiding it through a sequence of cool poses and reactions to what Stella was doing.
Each twin was in his mid-thirties and slightly overweight - though not chubby - and had thinning hair, unshaven cheeks and chin, and a small mustache under his nose. They were both wearing dark sports clothes, no doubt to ease their escape whenever they needed one.
The two men split up and moved in different directions along the rear side of the spectators. Nodding at each other, one of them moved in closer to the mother of the boy in the wheelchair, but stopped with a jerk when an electronic entrance alarm from one of the shops nearby suddenly started blaring out an ear-splitting sequence of shrill tones.
Everybody looked around to see where the alarm came from, disturbing the twins so much that the first of them slowly slid back from the mother with the wheelchair. A consummate professional, he knew when to go ahead with his work and when not to, and this was a time to not do anything.
Regina and Stella quickly looked at each other and established that it didn't have anything to do with their case - it had been a shoplifter from the Rokkstar Street Tuff shop who had been held back by the sales clerks. Within moments, uniformed mall security came running from the nearest hallway to apprehend the thief.
As Stella looked back around at her own spectators, she realized the twins had used the kerfuffle to leave. Scouting near and far, she was unable to spot them anywhere.
"Hmmm," she grunted before waddling around with her huge shoes to whip up a little fun for the kids. Just as she was about to play with her water-squirting rose, Meredith Campanero came out into the enclosure and turned on her microphone.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, we're already at the end of the first part of our show. We need a little break now, but The Colorful Two shall return! If you liked their work, we would appreciate it greatly if you were to offer a small donation to our treasure chest. Thank you so much for watching Circus Campanero!"
The kids immediately started squealing - some were even crying - and most of their mothers were clapping at Stella and Regina who responded to it in time-honored fashion by taking several deep bows.
On her third bow, Stella got her right clown shoe hooked up on her left and took a forward tumble where she eventually ended up on her hands and knees. "Ugggh! Reggie! Stella in distress!" she croaked, hoping that Regina was close enough to help her get up because she was utterly unable to combat the pull of gravity on her own with the huge shoes still attached to her feet.
She needn't have worried. At the sight of their favorite clown in trouble, several of the kids rushed over to her and helped her down on her rear end while giving her all the support she needed.
"Awwwww!" she said, stretching out her arms in an invitation to a hug - an invitation that was taken by the whole group of kids who all flew into her arms, swamping her completely and knocking most of her costume askew. "OOOOO-EEEEE!" she howled, buried under what felt like three layers of Kid plus her own clothes.
One after the other, the children went back to their mothers, leaving a beaming Stella alone on the floor. She quickly kicked off her clown shoes and got ready to jump to her feet.
"Stella Starr, you have found your true calling," Regina said and put out her hand.
"Tell me about it! That was just... wow," Stella said and pulled her costume straight after getting a pick-me-up. "Huh. I never knew I had it in me."
"Oh, you could have asked me. I knew all along you'd be the perfect clown," Regina said and pulled her blonde friend into a hug.
"Yeah, and... hey!"
After things had settled down, Regina and Stella - back in her regular sneakers - moved over to Meredith who was counting the donations the satisfied customers had left in their treasure chest.
"How much did you get, Miss Campanero?" Stella said and scratched her hairline under her rainbow wig.
"Nearly a hundred dollars, Miss Starr."
"Oh... that doesn't sound like a lot."
Closing the lid on the chest, Meredith wheeled it into a corner of the tent beyond the enclosure and sat down on it. "Oh, but it is," she said, dusting off her hands. "It's twice the amount we usually get. They loved you, actually."
"I know," Stella said with an embarrassed giggle as she performed a little shimmy on the mall's smooth floor.
Meredith reached up and briefly put a hand on Regina's costume. "Oh, and Miss Harrison, I must say you look smashing as the White Clown. You really seem to understand the character... that it needs to be equal measure suaveness and arrogance. You looked fabulous!"
"Oh, thank you, Miss Campanero. Well," - Regina unnoticeably moved her head up and to the right to let the Perfect Light shine on her jaw and cheekbone - "I have years of experience of expressing suaveness and arrogance from the catwalk. As a veteran of the fine art of modeling, I'm an expert at positioning my body to make it stand out in the best poss-"
"Ooops... sorry, Reggie!" Stella said with a sly grin as she put away the bugle that she had accidentally squeezed twice while it was in her jacket pocket.
If looks could kill, Stella would need to call an undertaker for herself.
"Hmmm!" Regina grunted before turning back to Meredith. "Oh, perhaps you've seen me on the cover of a fashion magazine? I've been fortunate enough to be on several, like Young 2Day, Rebeccah's, Now! Fashion and-"
"No, I'm sorry, Miss Harrison. I don't have time to read the glitteries," Meredith said and got up from the treasure chest.
"Oh, but they aren't... new... they... were... never mind," Regina mumbled and wanted to shove her hands down her pockets but remembered at the very last moment that the harem pants didn't have any.
Stella leaned in and bumped shoulders with her tall friend to send her a message of support. "Reggie... I still love ya," she said once they were alone.
"Thanks, friend... you're my best friend, friend," Regina said, not realizing until she had said it that she had used one of Stella's trademark phrases.
"You better believe it. Now... let's go find someplace to eat. I'm starving here like you wouldn't believe... my intestines are so empty they've wrapped themselves around my spine and are engaged in a furious death-match with each other to have fewer mouths to feed," Stella said strongly and grabbed hold of Regina's arm to pull her away from the enclosure.
Performing a full-body shiver and a matching shimmy, Regina quickly broke free of Stella's touch like she didn't want to get the cooties. "Gawd, I did NOT need that image, Stell!"
"Well, that's what it feels like... so there! C'mon, you know how cranky I get if I don't eat!"
Regina mumbled a few inaudible words but eventually shuffled after her best friend and new lover towards one of the connecting hallways.
The two clowns attracted a lot of attention on their stroll through the mall. Everywhere they went, children of all ages gawked at them or wanted to touch them to feel if they were real. Stella was bursting at the seams at the attention and even Regina was enjoying it - though secretly so.
Like a blonde bloodhound, Stella was relying on her finely honed nostrils to help her find the way. Earlier, she had picked up the scent of Teresa Maddalena Pizza Sauce - she identified two equally strong strands: 'Spicy Oregano' and 'Creamy Sweet Tomatoes' - and she could barely keep up with her feet on the smooth floor. Turning a corner, they finally arrived at the restaurant from where the delightful smell wafted out the opened door.
"Gianluca's Mini Pizzas! Here! Here! Here we are! Here-here-here-here... Reggie!" Stella said and pulled at Regina's arm to get her to snap out of the model walk she had subconsciously gone into.
"Ooof, Stell! I was walkin' here!" Regina said as she was rudely shoved into the restaurant.
"Oh, you can walk anywhere. Look at this! Ohhhh!" - Stella pointed up at a large lightbox that hung over the counter displaying the menu. "I want a Four Seasons... one of each! What do you want, Reggie?"
"I'm not really hungry."
"Of course you are! G'wan, don't hold back... pizzas are good for you."
"In which parallel universe, Stell?"
Before Stella could answer, her phone went off with a loud Tweedle-deedle-ring-ring-tweedle-deedle-ring-ring. "Oh, where's that damn phone?" she said, rummaging through her hefty costume.
"Yeah, for cryin' out loud! You can stop tweedle-deedle-ing now, I heard ya!"
"Ooooh, I'm gonna kill that damn... ah, gotcha," she said and recovered her phone from the last place she looked, the outside coat pocket. "You've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, this is Stella Starr."
"Joe? Whassup there, big boy?"
"Uh-huh? Hang on... Reggie?" Stella said and put a finger over the microphone.
"It's Joe. Just get me something, okay? I need a can of Razzie, too. I'll be outside," Stella said and walked out of the shop to get to a bench near a couple of palm trees.
Regina shrugged and looked back up at the menu. "Hi," she said to the man who came out to greet her. "I'd like two mini pizzas, please, one with falafel and pineapple and one with... hmmm... cheese-mix and sun-dried tomatoes. Also, I need a can of Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz and a mineral water. Okay?"
Outside the pizza restaurant, Stella sat down on the bench and crossed her legs, which wasn't particularly easy wearing the electric blue harem pants. As Joe droned on in her ear about the hardships of life in the inner city and that he needed to update his demands to two gallons of cherry brandy for each successful tip he gave them, she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye.
When she squinted in that direction, she could see at once that the twins she had spotted earlier were walking away from her with determined yet unhurried steps. "Hmmm... now isn't that interesting?" she said under her breath, getting up from the bench to follow the two men. "Huh? Oh, not you, Joe... I mean... ha, ha, you're interesting too, you know, but..."
"Yeah. Listen, I gotta go. Call us when you have something. Bye."
Putting the phone into her pocket, she shuffled after the two men, trying to stay as incognito as humanly possible in her loud harem pants, her even louder golf jacket and her rainbow-colored wig that was so loud it was practically screaming from the rooftops.
Five minutes later, Regina came out of the restaurant holding a paper bag with their mini pizzas and two cans of mineral water - they didn't have raspberry fizz. "Stell? Yoohoo, Stell? Stella Starr... where'd ya go? Stell!"
The smell that rose from the paper bag was so strong and delicious that she had no choice but to move over to the bench by the palm that Stella had only just vacated. Opening the bag, she took a deep sniff - and hurriedly dug in to take her cheese-mix and tomato special before it would get cold, stale and generally uninteresting.
In another part of the mall, the sports and hunting equipment arm, Stella peeked around a corner of two connecting hallways and watched the twins standing in a niche along the opposite wall, clearly splitting their latest loot while trying to keep it out of sight of the people walking past. "Gotcha, you no-good dweebs... hot dippity DANG, I gotcha... Stella Starr on the case, with it, on it, wring it, stun it..."
Reaching into her coat pocket, she found her phone and went through the registry without looking. When she thought she had the right number for Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes at the Bay City Police Department, she pressed the button and pulled up the phone.
'Hi,' a sultry female voice purred, 'You have reached the Hot Line. All our girls are waiting just for *you*. Press one for Tatiana, press two for Mindy, press-'
"Oy! Whaddahell? I thought I had deleted that?!" Stella said hurriedly and fumbled with her phone to erase the entry. With blushing cheeks, she looked around to see if anyone had overheard the incident, but no one had been close enough. "If Reggie had heard that, she'd... she'd... she'd... holy guacamole, I'm glad she didn't hear that!"
Her second search was more fruitful, and soon, she held the phone to her ear and listened to a brief clip from the theme from Knight Rider.
'Bay City Police Department, this is Inspector Moynes,' a familiar voice said at the other end of the line.
"Hi, Inspector, this is Stella Starr. I'm here at the Ocean View Shopping Mall and Reggie and I could use a hand. We're investigating a spate of thefts from spectators at a small traveling circus and we're-"
'A circus? At the mall?'
"Circus Campanero, yes. It's run by a real friendly lady. Anyway, I have the perps in sight and as far as I can see, they're sharing the loot from their latest rounds. I'm hoping they'll return to the next part of the show that's beginning in a little while."
'Okay? All right, we'll swing by with a team. I can't offer you a full squad today because there's been a big stick-em-up at a diamond trader, so...'
"Shoot, what's the world coming to? Oh, by the way, it would be great if you only brought female detectives. There isn't a guy in sight here..."
Inspector Moynes laughed at the other end of the line. 'Will do, Miss Starr.'
"Great. Thanks... talk to you soon," Stella said and closed the connection. Looking up, she just caught the tail end of the twins shaking hands and leaving in opposite directions.
By the time Stella returned to Gianluca's Mini Pizzas, Regina was leaning against one of the palm trees, slumbering peacefully from eating both her own cheese mix-and-tomato special and Stella's falafel-and-pineapple.
At first, Stella chuckled at her friend's relaxed look, but when she took the paper bag and looked down into it, her chuckle got stuck in her craw. "You didn't... aw hell, you didn't... yes you did! You ate my pizza, Reggie! Tell me you didn't eat my pizza!"
ZZZzzzzz... "Whut? Wh- whut?" Regina said, snapping away from the palm tree.
"Did. You. Eat. My. Pizza?"
Stella's face scrunched up to such a degree that it was a miracle she was able to get it back into the proper shape. Her lips went one way, her nose the other, her eyebrows went up; then down, and her jaw just went down for good. "Reggie... why d'ya eat my pizza? You know how much I love pizza!"
"I didn't want it to get cold. Oh, and they didn't have raspberry fizz so I bought two minera-"
"I so dearly love pizza... back when I was a little girl, my biggest wish was always to get pizza on Sundays but Mom didn't want to make pizza on Sundays because she thought it was cheap and trashy but I didn't know what she meant by that so I just thought she didn't want to make it because she didn't love me and I cried myself asleep on many a Sunday evening and-and-and-and it wasn't until I could buy my own pizzas that I was able to enjoy them regularly but even now we don't get pizzas that often because you're always on some kind of mind-numbing health trip that seems to kill all the good stuff, and-and-and-and..."
In the background, they could hear the bouncy music from Circus Campanero start up, but it only made Stella more irate.
"And now we're gonna be late back to the circus and all those wonderful little kids are gonna be so disappointed and they'll think we don't love them and cry themselves asleep tonight!" - DEEP breath - "And it's all your fault for eating my pizza!"
"I bought you a falafel and pineapple, Stell."
"Gawd... pi- pineapple?" Stella said with horrified grimace. "I hate pineapple... who in their right minds puts pineapple on pizzas, anyhow? What were you thinking, woman? Waitaminute, were you trying to poison me?"
Regina just buried her face in her hands and let out a groan.
"Oh, we can't talk now... we gotta get back before Inspector Moynes gets here!" Stella said, grabbed Regina's arm and yanked her off the bench.
Stella and Regina made it back just in time and flew into the enclosure while still adjusting the last details of their costumes, much to the relief of Meredith Campanero who had gained another few dark circles under her eyes in the meantime.
A rumor that the clowns were funnier than usual had apparently made the rounds because the crowd was even larger now - at least forty people were watching and quite a few of them were women who were there without any children.
At first, Stella froze at the sight of the large number of spectators, but she soon began to goof off to the best of her abilities, honking out loud, tripping over her large feet, squirting water from her rose, trying to juggle with the cotton balls, and every other trick she could think of.
Regina easily fell back into the role of the White Clown and assumed a cool, suave and sublimely arrogant persona as she strutted around like a white peacock, engaging in various poses and introducing Stella's tricks with shouted commands.
It didn't take long for the twins to come back into the picture. The two men who were still dressed in dark clothes slowly crept up to the rear of the group of spectators and began to size up their next victims.
This time, Regina caught them first, and she let Stella know with a sly wink that only the blonde investigator could see.
Stella promptly dropped all her balls and let them roll all over the floor so she could goof around without appearing to have noticed the twins. Each time she picked up a ball, she glanced in the direction of the twins who suddenly split up and went to either flank of the spectators.
Furrowing her brow, Stella tried to keep them both in view at once, but she couldn't do it as long as she was performing her character. The next time she glanced up, she realized she didn't have to: Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes and what appeared to be a small army of well-dressed female plain clothes detectives entered the deck from the Turbo Escalator and quickly fanned out to cover all bases behind the spectators and the twins.
As always, the strawberry-blonde Mary-Jane was smartly dressed in a navy blue pantsuit over a rust-colored blouse that matched her recently trimmed hair perfectly. Though she and her fellow detectives were of a sturdier build than most of the female spectators, they were able to blend in very well, not least because the Inspector and her entire team were wearing colorful shopping bags over their arms.
With the police there and ready to apprehend the bad guys, Stella knew their performance was coming to an end so she wanted to do something extraordinary to close it in style. Lucky for her, the embodiment of Extraordinary was standing on the other side of the enclosure in the six-foot-one shape of Regina Harrison.
Moving with surprising grace, Stella waddled over to the White Clown and kneeled down before her. Pulling a move she remembered she had seen mimes use often, she put her hands on her heart and made a pumping gesture that made all the mothers in the audience say 'Awwww' out loud; then she stretched out her arms in an invitation for a hug.
Regina couldn't stop a broad smile from gracing her features as she accepted the hug and leaned down to pull Stella up into her touch. After the hug, they briefly nudged noses, though it wasn't as easy as it looked with Stella's huge, red foam-schnozz getting in the way.
That was the last moment of serenity. Behind Regina and Stella, everything seemed to happen at once - first a mom patted down her jacket to search for her phone. When she couldn't find it, she looked around and caught a glimpse of her expensive iPhone in the hands of a stranger; then, she let out a piercing cry for help.
A split second after that, the entire battalion of female detectives reached into their colorful shopping bags and pulled out their service firearms. "Bay City P.D.!" Mary-Jane Moynes barked loudly. "Nobody move a muscle!"
Unfortunately for Inspector Moynes, most people did move a muscle - in fact, most people moved most muscles and began to scream, shout and run around like headless chicken. The scene evolved from messy to chaotic to pure pandemonium within the space of three seconds, and it only grew worse from there.
Stuck in the middle of it all, Meredith Campanero had turned on her microphone to announce the end of The Colorful Two's performance, but with sheer madness suddenly breaking out all around her, she let out a piercing cry that was amplified to such a degree through the speakers that the skylights high above them nearly came crashing down.
One of the twins exploited the situation by putting both hands on Mary-Jane's shoulders and giving her such a hard shove that she fell on her rear on the smooth, hard floor - then he was gone in a flash.
"Oy! You!" Stella howled and tried to cut him off at the right flank of the enclosure. "Nobody pushes my friends! Oy!"
In the kerfuffle, Stella completely forgot she was wearing clown shoes, so when she tried to clear the low barrier separating the enclosure from the regular floor, her right shoe didn't make it and got snagged on the upper edge.
"YEEEEEOWW!" she howled, hop-hop-hopping forward with her right leg well behind her and both arms well ahead. "Aw hell, this..." - hop - "this... isn't..." - hop, HOP - "isn't... gonna..." - HOP, HOP, hop - "gonna... wo- work!" - HOP, HO- CRASH! - "... oh, man! Those flippin' shoes!"
"I got one twin, Stell, you get the other!" Regina shouted and took off after the other twin who had been on her side of the enclosure, closely followed by several of the female detectives.
Grumbling and cursing, Stella struggled at first to take off her clown shoes but she finally managed to send them flying. Her sneakers were behind the stage in her plastic bag, but she didn't have time to get them - her long-legged, red socks would have to suffice.
Two steps later, she was back on the floor, grumbling and cursing vociferously about the grotesque lack of friction offered by her socks. Taking a rash decision, she whipped off the socks as well and wiggled her toes in the air to make sure they were all there. With a loud grumble, she shot to her feet and set off after 'her' twin, barefoot and feeling like a hunter-gatherer from the late Stone Age.
"Stop the thief! Stop the thief!" she shouted, tearing down the mall's arm until she reached the first connecting hallway. The bugle kept slapping back and forth in her pocket and she thought about throwing it away, but reconsidered and used it to her advantage by HONK-A! HONK-A! HONK-A!-ing furiously like a police siren - well, almost.
Stella was soon joined by Inspector Moynes and a few of the detectives who were much better at keeping their balance in their regulatory sensible shoes. "Hello, Stella... who are... we chasing...?"
"Hiya, Mary-Jane... a couple-a... twins... well, just... one twin... Reggie's got... the other... one."
"Yeah... he's right... ahead of... us..." Stella said and pointed the bugle straight ahead.
"No... he's... not..." Mary-Jane said and shook her head.
Stella looked straight ahead and found herself gawking at an empty space in front of her. Coming to a sliding stop, she punched the air in annoyance and let out a resounding "Oh, F-" HOOOOOOOONK-A!
Regina was having better luck in chasing down her twin. Her ballet shoes had grippy soles that gave her an edge when it came to all-terrain agility. Coupled with her long legs that gave her a good advantage over the shorter thief, she was soon close enough to reach out and try to pull him to a halt.
"You might... as well... quit, Mista... there's nowhere... for you... to run!"
"Like hell there ain't, girlie," the twin barked and kept on running.
Stella furrowed her brow which looked rather ridiculous with her clown makeup and her rainbow-colored wig. "Where could he have gone... he didn't go back... he didn't go up... he didn't go left or right... he's not ahead... where in the flying fig-spread did he... waitaminute...! Wait a blip-bloppin' minute," she said and spun around to check out the shops in the arm they were in.
In the chase, they had moved from the clothing arm to the electronics arm, recognizable through a complete reversal of the gender mix of the clientele. In the clothing arm, more than ninety percent of the customers were women; in the electronics arm, more than ninety percent were men.
The group of heavily armed and well-dressed women - Stella held the bugle like a Colt .45 - attracted a lot of attention from the customers, and soon, they had to throw in the towel.
"Oh, we'll never find him here!" Stella growled and clenched her fists. "Look at all those guys... men, men, men, men everywhere... where the hell do all these men come from!"
"The same place we came from, Miss Starr," Mary-Jane said and put a calming hand on Stella's shoulder. "Come on, perhaps Miss Harrison has had more success."
Turning around, Stella mumbled and grumbled as she shuffled back to the clothing arm with the detectives. "I'll bet she has. I'll bet she just batted her eyelids at him and he swooned at her feet. That's what I do, so..."
Meanwhile back at the enclosure where it all began, Regina and the other twin had wound up running endlessly around one of the palm trees in ever-narrowing circles. The two people had amassed quite a few spectators who were cheering for Regina while booing at the criminal.
Regina thought she was finally close enough to grab hold of him, but he suddenly came to a hard stop that took her completely by surprise.
Her reflexes were slower than she thought they should have been and she was unable to stop before she barreled into the overweight man. Even though she was taller than he was, his bulk made up for the deficit and the result was that Regina found herself flat on her harem-clad rear.
Upon landing, the first thing she did was to whip her head around to cover all possible angles. "Oh Gawd," she mumbled as she scrambled away from the twin, "they all saw me... they all saw me fall on my butt... oh Gawd, I can never work in this town again..."
"Oh yeah? Well they definitely gonna see this!" the thief said and bent down to grab hold of Regina's ivory vest. He pulled her roughly to her feet, but before he had time to do anything to her - apart from clogging up her sinuses with his bad breath - the arm of the mall came alive with a ferocious HONK-A! HONK-A! HONK-A! HONK-A! that sounded like a wild animal on the charge.
The bugle's HONK-A! was soon joined by a trumpet playing The Ride Of The Valkyries, one ringmaster, two clowns, half a dozen female detectives and two dozen yelling Amazon mothers who were all hustling down the hallway towards Regina and the thief.
The thief hurriedly dropped Regina like a bad habit to stare at the oncoming avalanche with wide open eyes - the former model and current White Clown quickly scrambled away from the thief and over to safety by the palm tree.
At the vanguard of the all-conquering Amazon army came one dirty-blonde, five foot-four-and-a-half, one-hundred and twenty-five pounds, tightly coiled package of brightly burning fury who set off in a puma-like jump right into the thief's chest once she was close enough.
The impact made both people keel over and scoot along the smooth floor until they came to a stop seven feet further down the hallway, at the foot of the palm tree Regina was hiding at.
Hopping up to straddle his gut, Stella grabbed hold of the twin's sweatshirt and sent out a growl that made him twitch and close his eyes in fear. "Nobody. Touches. My. Snookums. You got that? Nobody! And with nobody, I mean no-bo-dy!"
The cluster of Amazons that boxed in the thief from all sides made him nod vigorously. "Y- y- y- yes! Yes!" he squeaked, having a look on his face that told a story of impending wetting-of-pants.
"Fine!" Stella barked and stepped off the thief. "Inspector Moynes... he's all yours."
"Oh, Stella!" -- "Oh, Reggie!" - The two investigators let out identical bawls and pulled the other into a firm embrace that made it appear they hadn't seen each other for years.
Taking a little step back, Regina held her best friend and new lover by the arms while looking deeply into her green orbs. "Thank you for rescuing me... he had such bad breath!"
"Oh, my little, tall White Clown Snookums..."
"I was worried that he might... you know... cough on me or something," Regina said, once again wrapping her arms around Stella's smaller body.
"It's all fun and games until someone coughs on you... yeah, I know that oh-so well," Stella said once they separated.
Turning around, the two investigators came to a dead stop when they realized that every single one of the female detectives and the Amazon mothers had been lapping up every single one of the mushy words they had uttered. "Psst, Reggie..." Stella said out of the corner of her mouth, "the way they're staring, you'd think they'd never seen a swell pair of clowns before..."
"Maybe they haven't, Stell," Regina said and resolutely slapped a wet kiss right on Stella's painted lips, earning herself a loud 'Awwwwwwww' from the watching Amazons and detectives, and an acutely embarrassed giggle from Stella.
"Oh, get a room, you two," Inspector Moynes said and pushed the arrested twin through the massed ranks of women. "Anyway, the name of our new friend here is Lucas and I've been speaking to him about where we might find his brother... so far, he hasn't been willing to cough up the location. I was wondering if anyone here could help me with that?"
Adhering to the request, Stella and about two dozen mothers stepped forward which made Lucas step back in an almighty hurry. "N- n- n- no, get them away from me! H- h- h- he's... Richie is probably waiting for me over by a shop called MOPCO Home Electronics!"
"Then that's where we're going. C'mon, Reggie, payback time," Stella said and made a big number of walking directly towards Lucas, making him shy back in terror at the unpredictability of the dirty-blonde puma.
A few minutes later, Stella, Regina, Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes, four of her detectives and a selection of the hardiest Amazon mothers all peeked around the corner of one of the connecting hallways.
"I don't see him anywhere," Stella whispered to Regina who turned around and whispered: "She doesn't see him anywhere," to Mary-Jane Moynes who in turn whispered: "No sign of the perp," to her detectives.
One of the Amazons who was even further back heard that as "She's got the burps," and promptly reached into her purse to find a pack of KillAcid Peppermint that she passed on up the line.
By the time the pack of KillAcid reached Stella, she stared at it in disbelief, not quite understanding why it was there. Shrugging, she opened it to take one anyway, but found that everyone in the chain had already nabbed a tablet, leaving only a few traces of chemical dust.
"Hmmm," she said and returned the pack. "Anybody back there got a Raspberry Fizz?"
'What she say?' the woman at the back said. 'She wants a handkerchief!' another woman replied. Soon, a red, white and blue handkerchief with a sown-on patch of Wonder Woman's likeness went down the chain until it reached Stella.
"Hey... neato!" Stella said and held it up so she could get the big picture. "Reggie, I want one of these... perhaps we can find one on eBay."
"I'll make a note of it," Regina replied as the handkerchief went back through the chain.
Sighing, Stella crouched down and began to rub her painted chin. "Now... why isn't he here? Has he been told? Did Lucas lie to us? Do they share a telepathic connection? I saw a documentary once on the Science Network where two twin sisters could tell what the other was wearing even though they were a thousand miles apart... of course, they had always dressed the same, so..."
'What she say?' the woman at the back said. Another woman chimed in: 'Something about always dressing the same.'
'Ohhhh... I know I wore this outfit yesterday too, but I j- j- j- just didn't have time to change. Kevin's apartment is down by the bay and-'
'I thought your husband's name was Chuck?'
"Uh... wh- it- I- uh..."
'Ooooooooh! Dish the gossip, sister!' a third woman said, but they were soon hushed by the detectives with a: 'Shhh! This is a stakeout!'
'A steak house? But I'm a vegetarian!' -- 'Me too!'
Sighing, Mary-Jane Moynes looked over her shoulder and shot everyone behind her an Evil Eye. "Will you people keep quiet back there?" she said, ending the sentence in a growly grunt.
Stella was oblivious to the exchange going on behind her. All she could think of was why there was no sign of the other twin. "Oh... Reggie... maybe the second twin doesn't exist at all! Maybe... maybe we've been chasing a spectral apparition brought on by a critical lack of digestible content in my stomach... or... or something..."
"No, Stella, I don't think so... quite frankly," Regina whispered into Stella's ear.
"...like that movie... what was it called? Haunted House...? Hmmm..."
'What she say?' a woman said from the back. 'Something about going into menopause,' another woman whispered.
'God, she's only, like, forty!'
Stella definitely heard that. "I'm thirty-seven!" she hissed through clenched teeth at whomever had got it wrong.
'Pardon... oh no, that must be so awful for you...'
"This is ridiculous," Stella said and rubbed her brow. "And I know ridiculous. I wrote the manual, for cryin' out loud... I know for a fact it's still being used to this very day... OOOOH!"
A shadow suddenly fell over Stella while she was pondering what to do. Looking up, she found herself face to face with an astounded Richie who had seemingly come straight from the restroom further down the hallway.
"That's him! That's him! Flip-flopparooney, Reggie, that's him!" she howled and jumped up from her hiding place, closely followed by Regina, Inspector Moynes, four detectives and six Amazon mothers who all bolted around the corner, waving their arms all over and shouting at the top of their lungs.
Faced with two clowns and a pack of screaming banshees, Richie realized he had no choice but to flee, so he spun around and stormed up the electronics arm, racing left and right between the other customers and the stacks of merchandise the shops had put in the hallway.
An orderly pile of radios proved too good to miss and he gave it a good shove as he raced past which sent pink, purple, red, blue, green and yellow radios all over the floor.
Still running on bare feet, Stella effortlessly leaped over the radios, but not all the avenging Amazons were as lucky - one slipped on a blue radio and crash-landed on the smooth floor. Once she was right-side up, her face turned the same shade of blue as the radio when she noticed the seam of her skirt had been ripped all the way from the hem to the waist. It didn't take long for the entire hallway to echo from her cry of "You gonna get suuuuuuuuuuuued!"
"Is she... talking to... us, Reggie?" Stella said over her shoulder as she raced along.
"Don't think... so, Stell," Regina said, looking back just in time to see the irate Amazon throw one of the loose radios into the shop that had put them there.
Stella's finely honed nostrils suddenly picked up a scent she knew all too well - Teresa Maddalena Pizza Sauce. "Oh no... this is... just too... cruel! Cruel I... tell you! Cruel!"
As the mad-cap chase went past another pizza parlor, Stella spotted a display stand outside the restaurant with a sign that said 'Free Salami Pizza Slice - We Dare You To Take One And Tell Us We're Not The Greatest!' "Ooooff! Pizza... pizza... pizza!"
Making a perfect three-sixty turn in mid-race, she stormed back to the small display stand and scooped up three slices of salami pizza. "Oh, Gawd thisffm isffm soffm goodffm!" she croaked as she stuffed the first slice into her face and chewed like she had rarely chewed before.
Gulping it down, she resumed the chase and soon caught up with Regina who was looking back at her with large, round eyes. "Oh Gaaaaaawdffm," Stella moaned as the second slice went down as quickly as the first.
Inspector Moynes slapped her forehead at the sight, though she managed to keep up the pace at the same time. "We're in the middle of a hot pursuit, Miss Starr!"
"Iffm knowffm... Gawdffm, thisffm... isffm gooooodffm! Reggie! Youffm... wantffm someffm?"
"You're asking me... if I want... a salami pizza, Stell? Me? Who in... their right minds... puts baloney on... pizzas, anyhow? What are you... thinking, woman? Are you trying... to poison me?" Regina said around a few huffs and puffs, using Stella's own words from earlier to give her a gentle ribbing.
As a response, Stella stuck out her tongue between a chew and a gulp before she stuffed the third and final slice into her yap.
The end was nigh for the second twin though he didn't know it yet. With the pack of rabid Amazons thick on his heels, he made a sharp right-hand turn and stormed down a connecting hallway until he reached the arm of the Ocean View Shopping Mall that held the stores with sports and hunting equipment.
The only shop available to him was Sam's Hunting Gear, and he raced inside hoping to find a door to the outside - unfortunately for him, Sam's Hunting Gear wasn't connected to the outside at all, and he had no option but to come to a screeching halt at the end wall.
Behind him, the clowns, the detectives and the soccer mom Amazons spread out and formed an impenetrable line of estrogen-fueled toughness that he had no chance of matching.
"Might as well give yourself up, fella. I got a flower and I ain't afraid to use it!" Stella said and held out her water-squirting rose. Behind the rainbow-colored investigator, several of the Amazons took squash rackets that were lined up in the aisle they were in and pretended they were quarterstaffs, just like in their favorite TV show.
"And I got a badge, a gun and a pair of cuffs and I'm just itching to use 'em!" Inspector Moynes said and dangled her handcuffs from her index finger.
Faced with such formidable opposition, Richie did the only thing he could - he threw his arms in the air and hurriedly got down on his knees. "I- I- I- give up!" he stuttered, looking quite pale around the gills.
"Best decision you've taken all day," Mary-Jane Moynes said and slapped the cuffs around his thick wrists. "You have the right to remain silent..."
Hearing that, Regina and Stella turned around and offered each other a slapping high-five.
Commotion at the entrance to Sam's Hunting Gear made everyone spin around and look at the door, but it was only Meredith Campanero who came running with her tongue halfway down her chest. "So... are... we... what's... have... you... is... he... good Lord... I'm out of... shape..."
"Yes, Miss Campanero, he certainly is," Stella said and pointed her thumb at Richie. "Thank you for calling the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. We got our man, like we said we would!"
"I don't know how to thank you, Miss Starr... Miss Harrison," Meredith said and shook hands with Stella and Regina.
"Oh, we'll think of something," Regina said and wrapped her arm around Stella's shoulders.
Once everybody had been given a high-five for participating in the First Annual Grand Amazon Steeple Chase, Stella found her bugle and let out a sequence of celebratory honks that could be heard over the entire arm of the mall - HONK-A! HONK-A! HONK-A! HONK-A! HONK-A!
A little past eight o'clock, Stella drove the Pacer into the parking lot at Rockin' Ruby's and was able to find a spot to park in fairly close to the entrance.
"That was a fun job," she said as she turned off the engine, "but it's pretty good to be back in our regular clothes, huh?"
"Definitely... though, regular, hmmm..." Regina said, eyeing the loud poncho that Stella had decided to wear for the evening's soiree.
"Well, I wear it regularly. So there!"
Regina quickly leaned over and pecked her friend's cheek. "That you do, Stell."
Stepping out of the car, the tall, former model wrapped her Mai Sjoblom scarf tighter around her neck and closed the trench coat. "You'd think it'd be warmer in late January... but no."
"No. Let's get inside," Stella said and put a gentle hand on the small of Regina's back.
Inside Rockin' Ruby's, the fifty-something bar owner Ruby Albrecht was - like always - sitting at her favorite spot at the end of the long bar. When she noticed Regina and Stella come in, she raised her hand in a salute and jumped off her bar stool. "Hi, guys. Chilly tonight, huh?"
"Yeah," Stella said and temporarily took off her glasses.
"What can I get you?"
After taking off her trench coat and putting the scarf inside the left sleeve, Regina flicked her perfect hair back where it naturally landed in a perfect cascade. "Well, I'd like an easy Bloody Mary, Ruby."
"Uhhh... I'm driving, so, uhhh... I'd like a driver's Rum and Coke if you got it," Stella said with a foggy look on her face as she whipped off her poncho to reveal she had decided to wear her winter jeans and a surprisingly classy v-neck blouse.
Once Stella had been freed of the garishly-colored garment, she put her glasses back on. At last able to see which blurry blob was which, she smiled at their host as they made their way down to their regular table, the first of the eight booths.
The evening was still too young for Rockin' Ruby's to be rockin', but a few women were sitting close here and there, sharing drinks and a few laughs. The entire row of bar stools along the counter was empty which was somewhat unusual even for eight o'clock.
Slipping into the plush, red bench seat at the booth, Stella got herself comfortable and began to toy with a napkin that was already on the table. With Regina snuggling up next to her, everything was all right in her world, and she proved it by leaning in and offering her lips in a cute, little gesture.
Regina wasn't slow on the uptake and leaned in from the other side to complete the sweet contact. "Love ya," she whispered for Stella's ears only.
"Love ya right back with whipped cream, chocolate sprinkles and strawberry jam on top, Miss Too-Gorgeous-To-Take-Anywhere-Without-A-Stick-To-Beat-Off-The-Admirers. You really had some of those soccer moms going there, Reggie. Man, they had their sights set on you..."
Cocking her head, Regina sent her new lover one of her patented, smoldering gazes. "Well... what can I say, I-"
"-still got it," Stella said with a snicker that was punctuated by another kiss.
It didn't take long for Ruby to come down to the booth with the drinks they had ordered. "So," she said as she sat down opposite her regulars. "What's up with you guys?"
"Oh, we've had quite the job today, Ruby," Regina said and reached up to muss Stella's haystack. "Stella here proved that she's one hell of a... well, I was about to say 'clown', but I don't want you to get the wrong impression."
"Huh?" Ruby said and furrowed her brow.
Stella chuckled and decided to step in before things got too confusing. "Yeah, we've been down at Ocean View all day catchin' pickpockets dressed in clown suits. I mean... I mean, we were dressed in clown suits, not the pickpockets," she continued, adjusting her glasses. "It was fun, actually. Regina was the White Clown and I was-"
"The children's clown. You should have seen them, Ruby... they loved her like only kids can love someone. And. You. Were. Great," Regina said, kissing the side of Stella's head for each word.
When Stella broke down with the giggles, Ruby rolled her eyes and slid out of the booth. "Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see where you're headed... so I better make a hasty exit before then. Oh, by the way..."
"Yeah?" Stella said, taking a sip of her driver's rum and coke.
"Valentine's Day's coming up pretty soon and I was wondering if you'd like to stop by one day and help me fix up the marquee and the banner? I got something special in mind... a couple of wedding bands hooked together and shaped like the Women's Symbol... things like that. Gold, silver, purple, colorful balloons, roses... stuff like that, you know."
Stella and Regina briefly looked at each other and then nodded enthusiastically. "You betcha!" -- "We'll be there!" they both said as one.
A little later on, Regina pulled back her sleeve and checked the time on her wristwatch. "Oh, I'm afraid this is it for me, honey... I gotta call a cab so I can get home and get ready-"
Stella snorted loudly and chugged down the rest of her rum and coke. "Call a cab!? With Stella Starr's acclaimed taxi service right here, ready to drive you anywhere... north, south, east, west... or just plain ol' wild!"
"Well, we're gonna have to do a rain check on the driving me wild thing, honey, but... I promise that when I get back the day after tomorrow, we'll, uh... make up for my absence," Regina said and pulled Stella close for a kiss.
"Oh, you better believe we will," Stella husked, looking straight into Regina's blue orbs. "Hey..."
"Didya notice anything?"
Grinning broadly, Stella reached up to tap her frame. "Like my glasses aren't steaming up."
Tick-tock-tick-tock. "Well, of course not. We haven't done anything yet," Regina whispered in a voice that was so rich and seductive that the inevitable happened-
Stella's lenses slowly fogged up until they were completely clouded over. The grin briefly faded from her face, but it wasn't long in returning. "Oh... shoot," she said with a crooked grin, shaking her head in mock despair.
THE END of A SWELL PAIR OF CLOWNS
II - OH, PUCK!
Written by Norsebard
DEEP sniff! - "Ohhh... can you smell that, Reggie?" Stella Starr said and pulled Regina Harrison to a halt outside an establishment on the Bay City Promenade called Victor's Amusement Arcade.
Sniff, sniff - "Yes. Popcorn," Regina said, swinging their entwined fingers back and forth.
"Mmmm-popcorn," Stella said in a voice that sounded suspiciously like Homer Simpson. "Slurrpy! Cherry Cola, too. And you know what? It smells like fun. Plenty of good old fun."
Victor's Amusement Arcade was one of a group of stores located on the promenade at the bay that gave the city its name. During the winter months, hundreds of colorful lights were turned on at eight in the evening, bathing the two-mile long curved path along the waterfront in romantic red, yellow and orange light.
As always, the promenade was awash with couples who were enjoying an evening away from their obligations, so to get some privacy, Stella pulled Regina over to the wall of the arcade where she promptly snuggled up next to her tall friend. "I was thinking that it could be a really great way to end our date if we went in there and got some popcorn and a couple of sodas and maybe tried one or two of the machines and stuff...?"
"Sounds like a plan. My treat. After all, you paid for the cab down here," Regina said and put out her arm.
Grinning from ear to ear, Stella took Regina's trench coat-clad arm and waltzed into the arcade.
She only just made it past the entrance before she stopped with a surprised look on her wide-open face - the interior of the arcade was far larger than she had expected; it was an entertainment palace with rows of slot machines and video games, and they even had several old-fashioned amusements like throwing hoops, dunk the sheriff, the wheel of fortune, and a shooting gallery with soft darts.
In the center of the arcade stood a machine that practically cried out for Stella to play with it: air hockey.
"Ooooooo!" she said, adjusting her glasses. "OooooooOOOO! OOOOO! Air... hockey!"
"G'wan, Stell... I'll get the popcorn and the sodas," Regina said with a chuckle. After spending so long with Stella, she knew there were times when it was better for all involved if the easily excitable private investigator was simply unleashed.
"Thanks, Reggie!" Stella said and flew over to the machine in a flash so no one else would get there ahead of them. When she lined up at the blue side, she noticed a small sign on the part of the rim facing her that said 'Playing equipment is rented at the change booth.' "Oh, hoot, where is that... where is... oh, there it is. Shoot... if I leave before Reggie gets back, someone else is gonna snatch it from us... Oh, Reggie, hurry back to me," she mumbled, crossing her legs like she needed to use the little girls' room.
Fortunately, Regina was soon back with a huge box of popcorn and two paper cups of soda; a regular cherry cola for Stella and a Slurrpy! Athlete's Favorite for herself. "Slurrpy! has a new taste out... it's sugar free," Regina said as she put down the two cups on the rim of the playing area.
"Great! Uh, we need to get the puck and the whatchamacall'em over at the change booth..." Stella said and pointed at the small booth at the opposite wall of the arcade.
Two minutes later, Stella grabbed a handful of popcorn and stuffed it into her mouth. "Yoummphf readymmphf?"
"You said 'you ready,' right?"
"I was born ready," Regina said and screwed on her game face. Eyeing her opponent's side of the playing field, she gave the puck an easy whack with her mallet to set the game in motion.
Stella barely had time to take a long suck from her straw before the puck came flying towards her, but she maneuvered her mallet over to intercept it and sent it back to Regina. "You gotta be a little bit faster than that, Snookums. I luuuuurve air hockey and I-"
"Goal for red!" an electronic voice said from the machine.
"Whut?" Stella said, looking down at the puck that had slid behind her goal line without her noticing. "Hmmm. Okay. You wanna play rough, eh? I can play rough. Hell yeah, I can play rough. I can play so rough you gonna wish you was never-"
"Goal for red!" the electronic voice said.
"Whut?!" - Stella looked up at Regina who was grinning from ear to ear. "I think there's something wrong with my mallet... okay... okay, I'm with it now."
Concentrating hard, Stella hit the puck with her mallet and watched it fly across the game area. Whack! - barrier - Whack! - barrier - barrier - Whack! - barrier - Whack!
"Goal for red!" the electronic voice said.
Stella looked long and hard at the cheeky puck and sucked equally long and hard on her straw to get over it. Wordlessly, she gazed at Regina who was still wearing the same wide grin.
Whack! - barrier - barrier - Whack! - Whack! - barrier - "Ha!" - Whack! - "Ooooh!" - barrier - "Ehhhh..." - barrier - Whack! - "Ha!" - Whack! - "Ahhh..." - Whack!
"Goal for blue!" the electronic voice said.
"Har-har! Yippie!" Stella shouted and threw her hands in the air while she performed a little victory dance. "Oh-yeah, oh-yeah, oh-yeah, oh-yeah..."
Regina and Stella both reached for the popcorn at the same time and took the opportunity to tickle each other's hand down in the box.
Winking at her best friend, Regina took a modest handful and prepared to receive Stella's next shot.
Whack! - barrier - "Uh-huh..." - Whack! - barrier - "Mmmm...!" - Whack! - Whack! - barrier - "Yeah, baby!" - Whack! - barrier - "Oh, hell..." - barrier - Whack! - barrier - "I got it, I got it, I-" Whack!
"Goal for red!" the electronic voice said.
"- didn't get it," Stella said and pulled out the puck. "Right. Okay. Okay... right. I can see I need to get down and dirty here," she continued, rolling her shoulders.
"Uh-huh?" Regina said, once again taking a handful of popcorn.
Stella nodded and got ready to whack the puck. "Yep. All right. Here goes."
Whack! - Whack! - Whack!
"Goal for blue!" the electronic voice said.
"Aw yeah, I'm on a roll! Three whacks and it's in!"
Regina chuckled and got ready to receive the next shot from her agitated friend. "That's funny," she said and cocked her head to make her perfect hair fall down her shoulder in a perfect cascade, deliberately holding back the rest of the sentence until Stella lined up for her next shot, "that's what Steve always said," she said at the exact same moment Stella hit the puck with her mallet.
The former model had hoped the use of shock tactics would give her an advantage in the play, but what she didn't count on was Stella's reaction.
Over the course of a split second, Stella popped her eyes wide open, then slammed them shut and went into a full-body tremor that started at the soles of her sneakers and ended at the tips of her dirty-blonde mop of hair. While the tremor traveled up her body, it caused her right arm to spasm, which sent the mallet on a collision course with the puck, which in turn gave the puck such a violent knock that it flew off the playing field altogether and sailed through the air.
By the time the tremor had reached Stella's vocal cords and sent a heartfelt, horrified "Oh, GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAG!" through her parted, twisted lips, the hockey puck had flown a good twelve feet - right into the paper cup of a six-foot-and-change man in biker boots, blue jeans and a leather vest that didn't do a good job of covering his bare, hairless torso.
The man, whose trunk-like, heavily tattooed arm was wrapped around a bubblegum-chewing twenty-something doll in a tight dress, was given a thorough soda-shower that left him dripping wet from head to toe.
Letting out a surprised grunt, the biker slowly wiped his face and eyes free of the sticky stuff as he turned around to find somebody to get even with.
"Oh... puck...!" Stella croaked, looking at the hulking man. "Reggie...!"
"Act natural," Regina whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
"What good is that gonna do?" Stella whispered back in the same manner. "He can see it was the hockey puck... oh shoot, he's looking at me... he's looking at me!"
Stella's eyes rolled around in her head like they weren't attached to anything. At the last moment, a random thought entered her mind and she stepped toward the biker with her arms ahead of her. "Wow, was that rude or what? Did you see that? A cheeky little fella came in and gave me a bump and stole my hockey puck and threw it at your soda! Good thing your tats are waterproof, huh?" she said strongly, patting down her pockets to find a napkin or a handkerchief.
"A cheeky little fella?" the biker rumbled.
"Y- yeah... young fella... late teens or something... curly hair or something... loud t-shirt or something... he tore out the door once he had, you know, splashed you."
"I'm gonna grind 'im into sawdust," the biker said and stomped over to the entrance to look for the mystery teen on the promenade.
"Stell... I think we should leave... now... now!" Regina whispered and grabbed the popcorn and their paper cups. She quickly - but not too quickly - went around the edge of the air hockey table and took hold of Stella's elbow.
"But I wanted to throw a couple of hoops next!"
"Stella! He's gonna throw *us* if he finds out who really drenched him!"
"Uh-oh... he's coming back," Stella whispered and squinted out of the corner of her eye. "Yep, he's looking this way... I think we should hustle, Reggie."
Acting as coolly as she could - which wasn't very cool at all - Stella took her cherry cola and took a couple of dramatic sucks from the straw to calm her nerves. "Any luck?" she said casually as she and Regina walked past the biker on their way to freedom.
"No... you leavin'?" the large man said in a rumbling voice.
"Uh... yeah," Stella squeaked, stopping right in the middle of a step.
"If you see 'im, tell 'im he better not show his ugly face in here. Okay?"
"Will do, Sir. Wow, the kids these days, huh? Come along, Regina, we mustn't be late..."
"For our funeral," Regina mumbled under her breath. Hooking her arm inside Stella's, she nodded a brief farewell to the biker and his bubblegum-chewing girlfriend before hastily vacating the premises.
Hustling up the promenade to get to the cabs, Stella took a final suck from her straw and stuffed her face with a handful of popcorn. "So..." she said after gulping it all down, "uh... okay. You know, there's a valuable lesson in there... never mention Mr. Chiseled Jaw while I'm playing air hockey..."
"Lesson learned, Stell," Regina said, peeking over her shoulder, "lesson learned..."
THE END of OH, PUCK!
III - SWIMSHOOT SUIT?
Written by Norsebard
'Ready when you are!' Stella Starr said through the closed bathroom door.
The former - and soon returning - model Regina Harrison went over to the door and held it slightly ajar so she could look at her friend. "Thanks, Stell. I'll be a couple of minutes."
"No problemo," Stella said and fluffed her dirty-blonde mop of hair. "The weather's nice so I'll wait outside with my folding chair, my fajita wrap, my raspberry fizz, my stopwatch, my pencil and my clipboard... okay?"
"Okay, Stell," Regina said and let out a dry chuckle. When Stella had left the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency and closed the front door behind her, Regina sighed and moved back to the mirror in the bathroom.
Involved in the dog-eat-dog modeling world since she was eighteen, she had never been prone to self-doubt, but now it was hitting her squarely in the gut. Looking at her reflection in the mirror, she felt she was an old woman with far too many imperfections around her eyes, mouth, and on her throat and upper chest to even think about doing a photoshoot - but a photoshoot for a top-of-the-range magazine was what she was preparing for.
"Jesus, who am I kidding?" she mumbled as she tried to count the wrinkles around her eyes. "Forty-three years old... I'm old enough to be the mother of those girls... that's how they're gonna look at me, too. Old and tired. Ugh. What was I thinking?"
Over the course of the past few months, she had noticed that it was getting harder and harder to go through her a-b-c chant - 'A' for traces of cellulite on her arms and thighs, 'B' for the relentless pull of gravity on her bosom, and 'C' for the crow's feet around her eyes - without finding at least one more imperfection on her once so pristine and Goddess-like body.
Sighing deeply, she pulled her long, dark hair into a ponytail and secured it with a blue headband that matched her eyes perfectly. Once her sports bra and running undies were on comfortably, the laces of her sneakers were tied and her black Kowa Trackstar jogging suit was zipped all the way up, she posed a little in front of the mirror to see how she looked from all angles - and just to see if she still could.
Regina let wrinkles be wrinkles and turned off the bathroom light. Moving over to the filing cabinet that held their CDs and DVDs, she rummaged through it until she found the title she was looking for, the soundtrack from the original Rocky movie.
"Yep, this is gonna work just fine," she said and inserted it into their aging boombox - only then did she notice the batteries had gone dead. "Oh, Stell," she mumbled, going back to the filing cabinet to get a hundred-foot extension cord that she plugged into the nearest wall socket before taking the boombox with her.
Outside, Stella had already made herself comfortable on her folding chair. The weather was behaving itself very nicely - not always a given in late February - and she was dressed in appropriate clothes: her favorite purple flip-flops, green Popeye socks, tan shorts that revealed her winter-white legs and a purple half-sleeved T-shirt.
With her, she had a stopwatch, a clipboard and a pencil to measure Regina's progress, and a can of Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz and a freshly nuked fajita wrap for her own benefit - the Greek-seasoned fajita smelled so good she had trouble keeping her saliva on the inside.
Just as she was putting a drinking lid on the soda can, Regina came out and put the boombox down on the ground next to the folding chair.
"I wanted some music for my exercise, Stell. D'ya mind?"
"Mind? Me? Nuh-uh, Snookums," Stella said and shook her head so hard that her mop of hair whisked back and forth.
"Good. It's the Rocky soundtrack."
Grinning, Stella held up things she had prepared for the run. "Ooooh! It goes really well with my clipboard and my stopwatch!"
Regina chuckled and bent over to stretch her legs before starting her run. Standing with her feet together, she stretched down as far as she could and eventually touched the ground with the tips of her fingers. Once she got back up, she turned to look at Stella who promptly shot back to an upright position.
"It's all still there, hon," Stella said, grinning from ear to ear.
"Well, that's good to know. Enjoy your fajita. I'm gonna do fifteen laps of the parking lot. You're keeping time, right?"
"You betcha," Stella said and held up the wrapped fast food. "Uh... the stopwatch, yeah," she said and held up her other hand.
"Right!" - Unable to hold back any longer, Stella took a big bite out of the fajita even before Regina had left her side. Munching on it loudly, her eyes rolled back in her head and she let out an orgasmic sound that proved that it fully satisfied her tough standards.
"Uh-huh," Regina said and took off down the parking lot.
Stella gulped down the first bite and gawked admiringly at her best friend slash business associate slash lover jogging down towards the far end of the lot; in particular at the long legs that were doing an excellent job at propelling her forward, at her wiggling rear end, at her pumping arms and at her ponytail that shifted left and right as she put a foot down on the cracked asphalt.
"Hot diggity DANG, girl, how could I be so lucky? How in the world could I," - she took the can of raspberry fizz and held it to her lips - "...could I..." - but nothing came out of the can - "I be so luc... hey... what the flip?"
Holding it crooked, she noticed with a rising degree of annoyance that she had forgotten to crack open the can before she had put the drinking lid on it. "Aw hell... now I have to take the lid off again but where am I gonna put the fajita in the meantime...? I can't put it in my lap 'cos my brand new shorts will get grease stains and it'll look like I've wet myself... and I can't put it under my arm, can I? Fajita, can, fajita, can... can do," she said and opened her yap.
Stuffing one entire end of the fast food treat into her mouth for safe keeping, she fumbled and bumbled with opening the can, but she finally managed to do so. Then the drinking lid slipped off her lap and rolled along the asphalt. "AW PHARCK'M!" she growled around the fajita.
As she looked to her right - sitting with her head tilted back because her yap was still full of junk food - she could see that Regina was already on the return leg of the first lap. Grumbling again, she held the can of raspberry fizz in one hand and used the other to extract the treat from her mouth.
"Okay... great," Stella said, looking at the five items she was supposed to keep track of at the same time. "Soda... fajita... stopwatch... clipboard... pencil... I ain't got five hands, for cryin' out loud!"
"Hey, Stella! I can give you a hand!" a cheery male voice said right behind her ear.
"GAAAAAAAAH!" Stella howled and jumped a foot in the air, not only dropping the pencil and the clipboard but the can of raspberry fizz, too. As it hit the ground at a bad angle, the precious liquid popped the can's top and burst from it in a pink tsunami that threatened to submerge the legs of her folding chair.
"Oh, you dropped your drink," Billy the Mechanic said and hurriedly reached down to take the can. "It's still half full..." he said, wiping off the dripping can on his filthy canary-yellow boiler suit.
Stella's face scrunched up so much that her eyes almost became invisible. At the same time, her fingers squeezed the life out of the fajita that responded by barfing up a slice of tomato that slid down her thumb, leaving a sticky trail of tzatziki sauce all the way down to her wrist. "Billy..." she said in a voice that didn't sound like hers at all.
"Y- yes, Miss Starr?"
"Y- y- y- yes, M- Miss Starr?"
"You. Owe. Me. A. Soda."
"Of c- course, Miss Starr. I'll get it right away," Billy said and flew back to his garage, running so fast he had to clamp a hand down on his greasy baseball cap to stop it from flying off.
Behind him, Stella rolled her eyes and eventually left them pointing skyward. "Hey you, upstairs... he's a sweet fella, but couldn't you have given him a few more brain cells? Or perhaps just one more? The one he has now is kinda lonely up there..."
In the middle of all the mess, Regina came jogging past. She couldn't avoid seeing the puddle of raspberry fizz on the ground but chose not to make a comment. "Hi, Stell! What's my time?" she said as she jogged past in a narrow circle to start lap two.
"I'll tell you in a sec," Stella said and fumbled with retrieving the pencil and the clipboard from the ground. "Uh... uh... uh... it was... oh, crud." - Looking at the stopwatch, she could see with striking clarity - by reading the display that read 0:00:00 - that she had forgot to activate it.
Hurriedly clicking on the little button to cover for her gaffe, she opened her mouth to invent a time, but Regina was already too far into lap two to hear her.
A shrill whistle from across the parking lot made Stella look up and see Billy standing outside his garage and waving his arms like mad - no doubt to warn Stella that he was coming. Stella could see he was holding a can of soda, so she gave him a thumbs-up with her free hand. "Excellen-ty," she said and quickly took a large bite out of her fajita.
"So what's Miss Harrison doing, anyway?" Billy said as he cracked open the new can for Stella and put the drinking lid on it.
Stella took the can of Slurrpy! Classic Cola - it wasn't a razzie, but it was better than nothing - and offered their friendly neighbor a hint of a smile. "She's trying to get in shape for a modeling job that's coming up, Billy. A photoshoot for a special issue of Swimsuit Illustrated."
"Wow, that's one hell of a classy magazine. I can't afford to buy it, but I always gawk at the pictures down at the supermarket," Billy said with a dreamy nod.
Stella scrunched up her face all over again at the thought of the entire world gawking at *her* Regina in a swimsuit, but she quickly overcame the sense of jealousy by realizing that the world could only gawk - but she could touch. All over. And she did. All over. "Yeah," she mumbled with a shit-eating grin on her face.
"Yeah," Billy echoed dreamily as he watched Regina jog back towards them, already on the return leg of the next lap.
"Ye-... hey! Billy!"
"Less drooling in the presence of ladies, please! It's uncouth and just plain disturbing! So there!"
"Okay," Stella said and stopped the stopwatch as Regina jogged past. "Two minutes thirty-nine! That's way faster than your first lap, honey!" she said loudly, scribbling the data on the clipboard.
As she flashed past, Regina sent her two interested spectators a big pair of thumbs-up. "Great! Two down, thirteen to go!"
"Yeah..." -- "Uh-huh," Billy and Stella said simultaneously as they gawked at Regina jogging away from them; in particular at her long legs, her wiggling rear end, her pumping arms and her...
"Billy! Stop drooling!" Stella barked when she noticed she wasn't alone in staring dreamily at the six-foot-one frame of Regina Harrison moving with plenty of grace, style and class.
"Which... lap... was... that...?" Regina panted as she jogged past Stella's folding chair.
Looking up from keeping track of the numbers, Stella offered her friend a supportive smile and a little wave. "Number twelve, hon! Three more laps to go!"
Stella chuckled and made a note of the time on the clipboard. "So," she said to Billy who was still standing next to her. "The whine under the dashboard... where do you think it comes from?"
"Oh, it's hard to say without looking at it, but... hmmm," the mechanic said, rubbing his two-day stubble with his greasy fingers. "It's got a column shift, so... could be the transmission."
"Ohhhhh, when you say it like that, my wallet gets a cramp. I don't like cramps, Billy... especially not in my wallet. You hear me?"
"I hear you loud and clear, Miss Starr," Billy said with a strong nod. "It could be something easy-peasy to fix. Maybe the motor for the wipers? That wouldn't cost you forty bucks."
Stella nodded back and looked down at her clipboard. After a while, she sighed and looked back at their neighbor. "But it isn't, is it? It's the transmission, isn't it? My old girl is on her last, isn't she? If the transmission is screwed, my old girl is screwed too, isn't she?"
"I honestly can't sa-"
"Go on, you can tell me, Billy. I'm a big girl."
"I need to look at it before I can say, Miss Starr... it could be the wiper motor. Or maybe the heater...?"
The corners of Stella's mouth began to quiver and she sighed so deeply it sounded like her soul escaped through her lips. "Ah. Never mind. Thanks for the cola. I'm gonna use it to drown myself."
Right then, Regina came past to begin her second to last lap. When she noticed Stella's despondent expression, she turned around and jogged back to her. "Hey... Stell... what's... up...?" she said, jogging in place right in front of her friend.
"Gotta... be... something...?"
Billy squinted at Stella before he leaned forward and whispered for Regina's ears only: "Car trouble."
"Oh... the... whine...?"
"Mmmm," Billy said with a telling nod.
"Okay... Stell... come on... why dontcha... go back to... the office... and get... some coffee... or something...?"
Stella nodded despondently and started collecting all her stuff; her clipboard, her stopwatch, the pencil, the boombox, the folding chair and the waste paper from the wonderful fajita that had now turned into a stone in her gut from the bad news.
Her plunge into the bottomless pit of despair was almost complete, but before she could take the last step down, their phones started ringing with reckless abandon inside the office. "I'll get it, Reggie... don't stop your program just because of me," she said in a downcast voice.
With that, she shuffled inside with the folding chair and all the other stuff under her arm.
Once Stella was out of earshot, Billy threw his arms in the air and turned around to face Regina. "I didn't do anything, Miss Harrison! I didn't even say anything! She asked me and I gave her my professional opinion!"
"It's... okay... Billy," Regina said, still jogging in place. "If you... have a... moment later on... do... you think... you could... take a look... at it... just to... calm... her nerves?"
"Sure thing, Miss Harrison," Billy said, scratching his two-day stubble.
Inside, Stella dumped all the gear by the door and shuffled across the plush, dark gray carpet to bump down on her chair. Sighing, she reached across her desk and picked up the ringing telephone with an arm that felt as heavy as lead on a rainy day. "You've reached the Harrison- Oh, hiya, Joe."
"You got something for us?" Stella said and found her notepad and a ball point pen through the dark fog that had saturated her mind.
Quickly clicking on the pen, she started writing down the details of the case as the informant spoke in her ear. "Observing a suspected two-timer. Okay."
"Photographic evidence, okay. Where and when?"
"1457 Twin Oaks Lane, North, tomorrow night at ten, I got it," she said and drew a box around the information.
"Yeah. Where should we deliver the evidence if we get it?"
"As soon as possible at the Rat's Ass, got it. Huh. You know," Stella said and leaned back in her seat while crossing her legs at the winter-white knee, "I've always wondered why bars get such colorful, vulgar names? Why couldn't it be called the Rat's Whiskers, or the Rat's Tail, or-"
"No, of course you don't know anythin-"
"Never mind, never mind, Joe, I'm just trying to hold a polite and friendly conversation here!"
"Whaddaya mean ya busy? How can ya be too busy to listen to the woman who almost single-handedly supports your habit of drinking that awful schlat you call cherry brandy? Now me, I love cherries, but I need to have them in cherry cola or on top of-"
"Okay... okay," Stella said and bolted upright, "you didn't just insult cherry cola, Joe! You didn't just insult my second favorite-"
"We- we better end it right here, Joe, before we say something we'll regret. We'll talk at the Rat's Hiney later tomorrow night... bye, Joe."
Putting down the receiver, Stella kept standing at the desk and stared into thin air, thinking about the unfairness of it all. She sighed deeply and shuffled over to the small table behind the door where she began to make some coffee.
Ten minutes later, Regina came into the office and immediately unzipped her windbreaker top. "Whew, that was tougher than I thought it would have been," she said, bending over to put her hands on her knees. "And hot, too. Yikes, the new Kowa set just keeps the heat inside instead of allowing the skin to... Stell? Stell? Stella, are you in the bathroom?"
"No, I'm over here," Stella said in a muffled voice. The blonde investigator was flat on her back on the couch with a damp washcloth over her forehead and eyes, and a bowl of pretzels within easy reach. "There's coffee on the pot if you want some."
Grunting, Regina turned around and closed the door behind her before shedding her entire jogging outfit to get some chilled air on her flushed body. Once she had stripped down to her black sports underwear, she took the pot and poured herself a mug of the steaming hot dark brown liquid.
"Stell, d'ya wanna trade your pretzels for a slice of gingerbread?"
"Gingerbread? We don't have any gingerbread..."
"Sure we do," Regina said and reached up onto the top shelf of the cupboard to take the paper bag from Zeligman's. She quickly took two plates and put a gingerbread lady on each - then she changed her mind and split her own in two, cutting her in half at the waist. One half stayed on her own plate, and the other bolstered Stella's part of the loot.
Smiling, she brought the two plates and her mug over to the coffee table where she placed them next to Stella's glasses. Once she was free of her delicate load, she dusted off her hands and sat down on the plush carpet facing her prone friend.
When Stella still didn't show signs of coming back to the surface, Regina reached up and gently removed the washcloth. "Hey," she whispered and ran her fingers down Stella's smooth cheek.
"Hey," Stella said, scrunching up her eyes to see better - not that it helped.
"You need your glasses?"
"Yeah... thanks." Once the spectacles were back on the blonde investigator's face, she turned her head to look at her savior. She did, but her eyes didn't make it far past the black sports underwear and the acres of tanned skin. "Oh... wow."
"Aw thanks, hon. Does that mean I still got it?" Regina said and threw her head so her ponytail swished around perfectly.
Smiling, Regina put the plate with the pastries on Stella's chest. "I'm not so sure myself these days. Anyway, here's your gingerbread lady. You can have half of mine, too. I can't have a single calorie too many these days."
"Mmmh. By the way, that was Joe calling. He's got a job for us tomorrow evening over on Twin Oaks Lane. We need to take an undercover gander at a two-timing fella."
"Yeah," Stella said and took a big bite from her scrumptious pastry.
"Stell, I need to take a shower. You can have my coffee if you want..." Regina said and got up from the carpet. "No sugar, sugar," she whispered and tickled Stella's chin before leaning down to kiss the tip of her pert, little nose.
Grinning at the way Regina's rear wiggled on her way over to the bathroom, Stella felt some of her vigor returning, though she wasn't sure if it was her honey or the gingerbread lady that had pulled her back from the bog. "Ah, what am I thinking? I love gingerbread but there sure ain't much fun snuggling up to a gingerbread dame on a cold winter morn' !"
While Regina was taking a long, hot shower, Stella finished off her gingerbread ladies and the coffee and moved over to her desk to go a few rounds against the monster that was living in the piles of paperwork that only seemed to grow larger, not smaller as she went through them.
One case file after the other was sorted, updated, signed, closed and dumped into the filing cabinet, but even after going through twelve files, she still had close to thirty to go.
"Oh, those darn new rules... sheesh... we do everything right and *then* the insurance companies come up with some cockamamie rule that forces us to go through everything all over a-flippety-floppety-gain..." she mumbled, rubbing her brow.
A knock on the door gave her an excuse to leave the desk, and she literally threw in the towel - or rather, a paper tissue - to show the monster that it might as well take five.
As she opened the door, she saw that the knockee was the postman, a fellow in his late fifties with whom she didn't have the best relationship after an unfortunate incident involving his toupee and the backdraft from the door. "Hi," she said, opening the door as softly as she could.
"Good day, Miss. I have one package for you and one for Miss Harrison," the postman said, wearily eyeing the easily agitated woman.
"Yes, and I need your signatures," he said, holding out an electronic apparatus and a stylus pen.
"Okay," Stella said and signed her name on the machine. "Reggie's in the shower. Can I sign for her too, or do you need to get an eyeful to make sure that she is who I say she is?"
The postman looked at her with a somewhat dark, yet expectant, expression on his face. "You can sign for her," he said after a little while, clearly not wanting to tempt fate too much.
"Okie-dokie," Stella said and signed once more on the machine.
The postman nodded a thank you and handed over the two packages that were both wrapped in cardboard; one square and boxy, and one flat and rectangular.
"Great! Thanks," Stella said and slammed the door shut right in the postman's face without any concern whatsoever for his toupee. "Hmmm... one's gotta be the self-defense DVD I bought from the Spyglass Magazine... but what's this?" she said and shook the square, boxy package.
The sound produced was akin to loose gravel rattling inside a tin can, but that didn't help Stella much. Checking the label, she could see it was a neutral package and that it had been sent from Mallarkey Pharmaceuticals Inc. in the Cayman Islands. "Hmmm," she said and put the strange package on Regina's desk.
By the time Regina returned from the shower wearing blue jeans and a white Layla Simonsen button-down shirt, Stella had wheeled the table with the TV and the DVD player from the conference room and into the office itself.
Presently, the blonde fury was down on her knees behind the TV set trying to figure out which cable should go into which jack. "Who was the smart-alec who thought it was a good idea to unplug all the blip-bloppin' cables from the blip-bloppin' teevee..." she grumbled, trying first one, then another cable.
"That would be you, Stell, when you wanted to get us a new flatscreen TV last month but balked at the last moment because it was too expensive," Regina said and sat down at her desk. With a grin, she put her long legs up on the corner of the desk and waved her bare feet in the air. "Just use the SCART cable to connect the TV with the DVD. Both power plugs into the extension socket, extension socket into the wall socket and we're all set. What are we watching?"
A pause. "So you're the cable guy now, Reggie?" Stella said, peeking past the TV.
"Cable *guy*? Moi? " Regina said and put her arms behind her head to make her chest strain against the fabric of the shirt.
"Yeah, good points... I mean, point," Stella mumbled and plugged the SCART cable into the two units.
"ANYway..." Regina said and crumbled up a piece of paper that she threw at her friend.
"ANYway," Stella replied, throwing the crumbled up ball back to the former model, hitting her on the leg. "Oh yeah, the postman was here... there's a package for you on your desk."
Turning around, Regina reached out for the square box but stopped halfway there when she realized what it was. She glanced nervously at Stella who was too preoccupied with the electronic equipment to notice anything.
Regina slowly pulled her hand back and began to tap on the edge of her desk while she pondered what to do and if Stella had figured out what was inside the cardboard box. Suddenly serious, she moved her legs down off the corner of the desk, took the package and stared at it without doing anything.
"Hey," Stella said, peeking around the TV. "I'm a damned good investigator, you know. I can tell when you're trying to hold something back from me. I don't like that one little bit, Reggie, so please don't. You and me share everything... please don't shut me out here."
Regina sighed but offered Stella a rueful smile. "I know. I'm sorry, hon. They're fast-working diet pills. I bought them online."
"Oh man, Reggie...!" Stella said and thumped her fist into the carpet. "You don't need that rat poison! You don't even know what kind of side-effects they have... what if you grow a penis or something...? Finding an earthworm in your shorts would really ruin my day... no, week... no, year... hell, it would ruin my life!"
"I'm not planning on growing earthworms, Stell."
"You never know what you get with those pills, Reggie, and you know it. Hey, I'm a happy-go-lucky soul and I've done some weird things in my past, even though you might not think it with the angelic, wholesome way I live now... but anyway, I'd never, ever experiment with online drugs like that. Never."
Regina shrugged and used a paper knife to tear open the package. Inside were three identical plastic jars with colorful labels that praised the effectiveness of Mallarkey Pharmaceutical's BurnFatBurn! Diet pills that were 'Guaranteed To Produce Weight Loss, at least sixteen lbs. a week, if not more!' "I'll put 'em in the drawer for now."
"For now, Stell. If my exercise regime doesn't tighten up my body, I'll begin taking the pills. The photoshoot is next weekend and I'm not ready for it," Regina said, but she was unable to look Stella in the eye when she said it.
Not wanting to drive a wedge between herself and her best friend and lover, Stella kept quiet. Instead, she got up and turned on the TV and the DVD to check if everything was in good order. When the DVD player's No Disc screen appeared, she went over to her desk to take the other package. "Snookums, you wanna watch a self-defense class DVD with me?" she said and held up the disc that sparkled in the sunlight.
The two women looked at each other without speaking a word; then a cautious smile spread over Regina's features. "Sure. If you're not too upset with me?"
"Oh, I'm not upset with you, hon. I'm just worried on your behalf. Ah, you know where I stand," Stella said and waved her hand dismissively. "C'mon... I read on the reviews that the two instructors wear all kinds of cool, fashionable clothes."
"Well, that certainly does sound like something I would enjoy," Regina said and moved over to the couch where Stella soon joined her.
Twenty minutes into the sixty minute educational program, Regina was trying to count to a hundred-and-ten using her finger- and toenails, and Stella was leaning her head against the backrest of the couch, staring vacantly at the ceiling after being numbed into submission by the dreary video.
"Ten bucks down the drain..." Stella said in a voice that sounded funny because of the way she held her head.
"Uh-huh. Eighty-two, eighty-three, eighty-four..."
"Ten bucks... I could have bought a family-sized pizza for ten bucks... or two burgers... or a burger and fries..."
"Uh-huh. Eighty-seven, eighty-eight, eighty-"
"Ten bucks I'll never get back."
"Twenty minutes we'll never get back," Regina said but suddenly realized she had lost count. Shrugging, she started over with One, Two, Three...
"Yeah." - Sighing, Stella reached out for the remote and pressed Stop to turn off the mind-numbingly dull educational program where the two presenters talked ceaselessly and showed endless data sheets instead of actually going through the things they were trying to teach. "Reggie, do you think we could make a video? I mean, we'd be better than those two."
Regina stopped counting and shot Stella a smoldering gaze. "Well, I'm game," she husked.
Stella opened her mouth to reply, but before she had time to do so, a blush had swept over her cheeks that - once it reached her brain - shut down any rational thought she'd had until then. "Not that kind of video..." she croaked after a little while.
"I know, I was just teasing you," Regina said and leaned in to kiss the tip of Stella's nose to show that she had merely been jesting. "A self-defense video? Yeah, I guess we could. All we need is an HD camera and some kind of editing software for the laptop."
"I could be the creep and you could be the damsel in distress... that could work."
"Wait... why should I be the ditzy dame?"
" 'Cos you look fabulous in heels and a breezy dress, Snookums," Stella said and clawed Regina's thigh. "Oooh, you could wear, maybe, ooh, an umbrella over your arm and I could-"
"What kind of video were we talking about again?"
Snickering, Stella leaned in and bumped shoulders with her tall friend. When that wasn't enough, she grabbed hold of Regina's arm and snuggled up tight. "Oh, ha ha. I think it could work. I better make a note of it," she said and moved to get up, but Regina put a warm, heavy hand on the blonde investigator's bare thigh.
"Or we could sit here and make out...?"
"Or we could sit here and make out," Stella parroted and spun around on the couch so she had the best possible access to her fabulous friend who seemed to get all the bright ideas.
The evening of the following day, two minutes to ten.
The sleek, silver metallic sports car pulled over to park at the curb on the left side of the peaceful, secluded Twin Oaks Lane that was dominated by tall trees and low hedges.
Each side of the street saw an endless row of neat two-story bungalows that all had neat porches, neat lawns and neat driveways. Most of the garage were closed, but here and there, sensible family sedans were on display to show that the families living there were respectable - and neat.
"This is kinda neat," Stella said, clicking on her penlight - quite literally a flashlight scotch-taped onto her pen - to record the time of arrival on her clipboard.
Regina nodded and put the shifter in Park. "And conservative," she said as she turned off the engine.
"That too. Oh... why aren't you wearing your commando cap?"
"It's scratchy and my hair is dark enough without it, Stell."
Stella scrunched up her face and mumbled a few inaudible words at her cheeky friend. "Stop doing that, Miss It's-Okay-To-Talk-Back-To-Anyone-'Cos-I'm-So-Tall-They-Can't-See-My-Face! This is an undercover operation, so I specifically asked you to wear your undercover outfit... black boots, black jeans, black commando-style sweater, black stripes on your face, black commando cap... look at me, I'm fully dressed!"
"Yeah? Well, so am I," Regina said and briefly clicked on the interior light so Stella could see the two fat, black stripes the former model had painted on her cheeks. "And! And I'm wearing black silk panties. Hmmm?"
"Okay, that's... okay," Stella said with a shifty leer. "But I still think you should wear your cap. I mean, what are traditions for if no one follows them? Oh, I remember back when I started taking the evening classes to become a private investigator... the men and women who were there with me were true characters, Reggie... strong, proud and staunch followers of the age-old traditions. Why, one of them even had a Colt 1911 in a shoulderholster... he was a true gumshoe. All right, it was a lighter, but I digress-"
"There he is, Stell, our main attraction," Regina said, pointing over her shoulder and behind her at a man who was walking up the sidewalk on the other side of the street. Briefly turning the ignition key, she pressed the little button that rolled down the window in Stella's door.
Cut off mid-stream, Stella hurriedly adjusted her glasses so she could follow Regina's finger. "Uh-buh, whut? Wh- uh... uh, okay... subject number one arrived at... at..."
"Three minutes past."
"Ten oh three, okay," Stella said and updated the clipboard before taking her camera and preparing it. "Well, he's certainly sticking to his plan. So far, the info that Joe got from the aggrieved wife has been spot-on... let's see if he goes up to one-four-five-seven."
The dark-haired man - in his late thirties and wearing a pale brown camelhair parka coat over a dark blue business suit - slowed down and began to look over his shoulder. Once he had established no one was near him, he made a ninety-degree right hand turn and walked up the driveway of the house Regina and Stella had under surveillance.
"Uh-huh," Stella said and took a quick potshot to see how much she needed to zoom. Once she had adjusted the telephoto lens, she held the camera ready on the windowsill in case anything interesting happened at the house.
The front door was soon opened and the man was greeted by a well-endowed twenty-something brunette in a salmon-colored negligee and fluffy slippers. Judging by the kiss they shared, they appeared to know each other quite well.
"Uh-huh," Stella said again and took a whole sequence of compromising pictures before scribbling a few thoughts on the clipboard.
"Fakes," Regina said dryly.
"No doubt about it. They're kinda balloony."
"But that doesn't necessarily have to mean she isn't a great gal."
"Of course not. But they were too big for her frame."
The businessman and the brunette closed the front door behind them and went into the living room to the right of the door. By looking through her binoculars, Stella could see the woman serving the man a colorful drink with a little umbrella, but she didn't want to pry so she put them away almost at once.
"Ten oh six," she mumbled, adding to her information sheet, "act one starts."
"Ten nineteen, subjects move from living room to bedroom. Ceiling lights briefly on, but soon off," Stella said as she scribbled. "You wanna have a little bet on how long it'll be before he leaves? The prize is a kiss."
"Sure," Regina said and sat up straight in the bucket seat. "Uh... how about... hmmm... thirty-five minutes?"
"Thirty-five minutes, noted, that's five to eleven. I'll say twenty minutes, that's ten forty. People in business suits just don't understand the concept of foreplay."
Snickering, Regina whipped her head around to stare wide-eyed at her shorter friend. She let her eyes roam the black-clad body for a few seconds, wondering what kind of experience Stella had on the matter in order to give such a sweeping statement. "Is there something you're trying to tell me, my precious little dove?" she chirped and took Stella's free hand.
"Ah, that would be a 'no,' my precious little, uh... albatross," Stella said and patted her tall lover's hand before making another entry on the clipboard.
Regina snickered again and moved her hand down to claw at Stella's thigh just to feel her surprisingly strong thigh through the jeans.
"Oh, that damn phone!" Stella said and opened the flap on the sleeve-pocket to get the ringing telephone. "You've reached the Harrison-"
"Whut? No, I'm not interested in getting a subscription for the Shining Light magazine."
"No, a free gift won't sway me. I've never heard of the Shining Light... what is it, anyhow?"
"A magazine celebrating family values with a spotlight on the blessed nuclear family? Oh, I'm a big fan of the nuclear family. That's the one where there's plenty of loving for all involved, right?"
"Ohhhh, I see. The blessed nuclear family is a man and a woman? Right. Tell you what, you've persuaded me. Of course, I'll have to ask my wife first, but... hello? Hello? And a very nice evening to you too, buster. So there!" Stella said and shoved the phone back into the pocket on her sleeve.
"Stella, you eeeeeevil," Regina said and ran her hand up and down Stella's thigh.
"I can only take so much B.S. you know?"
"Oh, I know. And thanks for the promotion, by the way. Stella Starr and wife. Of course, I think it should be Regina Harrison and wife, but..."
"Stella!" Regina replied and broke down with the giggles that soon claimed Stella as well.
Fifteen minutes later, a faint crash somewhere in the distance made Stella furrow her brow and look out of the window. Another faint crash was soon heard that seemed to come from the house they were watching. "Reggie, roll down my window... something's up over there," she said and held the camera ready.
"Here ya go," Regina said and briefly turned on the ignition key to activate the power window.
Stella zoomed in on the facade of the house and took a potshot of the closed front door. "Thanks... yeah, something's definitely up."
Even as Stella was speaking, the front door of the house was flung open and the well-endowed brunette - who was wrapped in a satin sheet - pushed a very, very naked businessman out of her home.
"Ooooooh! Loser! Fifteen-minute-man! You're SO busted!" Stella howled, taking picture after picture of the starkly naked man who was trying to cover himself up while dancing about outside the house - and vice versa.
"Holy cow, that's gotta be embarrassing," Regina said and let out a long, mock wolf call. Chuckling, she started the Mercedes and turned on the lights to let the unfortunate man know he had an appreciative audience.
Seeing the car - not to mention the camera - the man let out a most un-manly squeal and tried to dive for cover behind one of the hedges, but it appeared to be a thorny one as he came out even faster than he had gone in.
"Oh, that was a nice shot," Stella said while clicking furiously. "And he's turning around!" - click, click, click - "Is he turning?" - click, click, click - "He's turning around! He's turning around..." - click, click, click - "he's turn- helloooooo, Willie!"
"I think we have more than enough now, Stell," Regina said and put the shifter into Drive. When Stella didn't reply beyond an inarticulate 'Oooooooo!'-sound, Regina let out a throaty laugh and drove away from the curb.
As the SLK trickled past the unfortunate man, Stella was practically hanging out of the open window to get every last detail. "All right, that should do it," she said and waved cheerily at the businessman who responded in time-honored fashion by flipping them the bird. "The wife... soon-to-be ex-wife... told Joe she wanted them in print, so... uh... who do you think we can get to print, uh... forty pictures of a naked dude this time of night?"
Driving slowly down Twin Oaks Lane, Regina looked across at Stella who was already sorting the images on the display at the back of the camera.
Stella felt Regina's eyes on her and looked up - "Downtown," they both said as one, adding identical cheesy grins.
"And!" Stella added with an even cheesier grin, "I won the bet. You owe me a kiss, Snookums!"
The drive to the luxurious uptown mansion where the photoshoot was to take place had been held in uncharacteristic silence. Regina wasn't in any mood to chit-chat so Stella had kept her lips glued firmly shut all the way there.
It wasn't until they drove off one of the major boulevards to enter the gated, upper class community that Stella couldn't keep quiet any longer. "Snookums, you look a little pale today. You didn't sleep well?"
"I told you we should have spent the night together, hon," Stella said and reached over to put a comforting hand on Regina's slacks-clad thigh. "We didn't even have to do any hanky-panky, we could just have talked all night."
Regina just shrugged.
"Reggie, I haven't looked... but I feel I have a right to ask. Did you take any of those pills?"
Sighing, Regina conveniently ignored the question as she pulled to a halt at a gate where a uniformed security guard came out to greet them. "Hi, we're Regina Harrison and Stella Starr. We're here for the Swimsuit Illustrated shoot," she said and handed the guard the accreditations Steve had mailed them.
The burly guard checked the paperwork thoroughly - even though it was broad daylight outside, he shone a flashlight in Stella's eyes which earned himself an annoyed "Oy!" - before stepping aside and opening the gate.
"Go around the back of the house... you can't miss it, there are trucks and stuff there already," the guard said and waved them through.
Grumbling, Stella rubbed her eyes and let her glasses fall back down on the bridge of her nose. "Trucks and stuff," she mocked, snarling at the man as they drove up a gravelly driveway.
The two-story Roderick Mansion had been built in the late 1930s for Charles Roderick, a much-admired movie star of the silent era. Held fully in white, it was designed to appear like a cross between a Greek temple and an Art Deco palace, though the interior was up to modern standards.
Situated on a hilltop, the mansion had a perfect view of greater Bay City with all its skyscrapers and the ever-present, suffocating cloud of filthy smog that hovered over downtown.
The driveway ended in a courtyard at the back of the mansion where a valet immediately offered to park the SLK among the dozen vehicles that were already present - Italian sports cars, German luxury sedans, American limousines, Japanese vans and pocket-sized family cars of assorted heritage that looked out of place among the splendor - but Regina waved him off and parked it herself.
A bit further into the courtyard, cables of all sizes and colors ran from one of three semi-trailers that were lined up side by side; the diesel-powered generator for the stage lights needed for the photoshoot was already chugging along, sending out the occasional cough of black smoke from the tall stack at the far end of the trailer.
Turning off the SLK's engine, Regina knew exactly where Stella's eyes were. Not on the glamorous mansion or the exotic cars, but locked onto her profile, asking silently why she hadn't yet responded to the last question. Sighing, she turned her head to the right to look at her best friend and lover. "Yes," she said quietly. "I've been taking them. Four at bedtime for most of the week."
To show that it wouldn't ruin what they had, Stella reached over and placed a loving kiss on Regina's lips. "It's okay," she said and caressed the former model's smooth cheek. "I'm not angry or upset or anything. I'm just a little disappointed because you can't see that you don't need them. Is that why you didn't want to come over all week?"
"Yes. I didn't want to lie to you about it. And what you didn't know, you couldn't ask about... well, you know."
"But I did ask."
"Did you at least lose any weight?"
"Yes, but they are diuretic, so..."
"Mmmm. Let me make one thing perfectly clear, Reggie... I love you, which translates to every last inch of you and your body, curves and all," Stella said and ran her hand down said curves and all. "I didn't fall for a coat hanger back then and I don't want to see you turn into one now, so you gotta promise me to dump those pills once we're done here."
"Oh, I promise... and I love you, too," Regina said and gave Stella's hands a squeeze.
A smile slowly spread over Stella's face and she leaned in to give her Snookums another kiss. "C'mon. Let's check out the competition. Uh... would you mind comin' over here to give me a hand up from this roller skate...? I'm not planning on being the clown today."
"I'll be there in a flash, Stell."
The interior of the Roderick Mansion was even more impressive than the exterior, and it was easy to see that no expense had been spared when Charles Roderick had commissioned it from one of the finest architects of the period.
The first room of the mansion, the lobby, was a study in Art Deco and square angles, though it was marred slightly by the two dozen cables that ran along the Italian marble floor and out the front door clustered together in a thick wad of insulation and electricity.
Photographers, photo technicians, crane operators, models, minders, make-up artists, hair care specialists, wardrobe consultants and money men were loitering about or running to and fro in the next room, the grand hall, that had been transformed into a command center for the assembled army of people that seemed to be large enough to invade a medium-sized South American country without breaking a sweat.
"Ho... ly... sh-it..." Stella croaked as she took in the chaotic sight. Her decision to wear blue sneakers, maroon twill Capris and a yellow-and-white Hello Kitty t-shirt suddenly seemed to be the wrong one, at least judging by the fashionable clothes that everyone present seemed to wear.
Regina chuckled and wrapped an arm around Stella's shoulders. She had chosen a neutral charcoal gray pantsuit over a white blouse for the occasion, and she fit in far better.
Off to the right, Regina caught a glimpse of Steve Darrian who was busy fixing the bikini top of a young, nubile model. Mr. Chiseled Jaw, as Stella always called him, was dressed in black shoes, high-waisted steel gray pants with a black leather belt, and a white shirt where the top two buttons were undone to flaunt his manly throat.
Stella felt her Potential Trouble radar buzz in her ear and turned to look at what it was Regina was gawking at. When she realized it was Steve, she hooked an arm inside her tall friend's to show that she was still very much there.
Fortunately for Stella's well-being, Regina pulled her into a sideways hug and reached up to muss her dirty-blonde mop of hair. "You don't have to worry 'bout a thing, Stell. That's all in the past. I kinda like the present. And I wanna make it the future."
Adjusting her glasses, Stella let out an "Awwww," and returned the hug. "You're my best friend, friend. Hey... you're trembling! It's a hundred-and-ten in here, you can't be cold...?"
"I'm stomach-churningly, gut-achingly, heart-stoppingly nervous, Stell."
"Oh if ya need to barf, there's a trash can right over there," Stella said and pointed to the right of them. "Or maybe not? Okay, let's go outside and get some fresh air. I guess they'll call when they need us."
Outside the mansion, a rectangular swimming pool of near-Olympic proportions had been built into the forecourt. The rim of white tiles framing the deep blue, enticing water was punctuated by orange and red parasols creating shadows at several round benches along the sides of the pool.
The air seemed to hum, not only from the fact that scantily clad women were everywhere at the shoot, but from the countless pieces of electrical equipment that were in constant use: lights, cameras, floor fans of every shape and size, and even hair care gear like curling tongs and straighteners.
At the near end of the pool, a photographer had set up a shooting site with a large, white canvas on wheels that reflected the light, a neutral sunbed, and a short-haired, long-legged, dark-skinned model who was lounging on the sunbed in a bright white one-piece swimsuit.
Above her, the photographer was busy working her best angles - not that she had any bad angles - and giving her directions with a French accent, asking her, among other things, to put on a wide-brimmed, bright white sunhat that had been lying on the tiles outside of his camera's view.
"Oh, my... mo... ma... ah... buh... bah... cah..." Stella croaked as she took in the sights of the gorgeous model, especially her sculpted thighs and torso. "N- n- n- now I know why it's called a swimshoot suit... uh... a shimswoot- uh... sw- swimsuit-"
"Don't you recognize her, Stell?" Regina said, rubbing Stella's arms.
"Nuh-uh... I've never met her. I'm quite sure of that. Uh-huh. Quite sure..."
"Actually, you have. That's Lele da Silva."
Stella stared wide-eyed at the model she had met briefly while working on the case of the Invisible Man at one of wealthy socialite Lulu LaFontaine's legendary parties. "That's Lele? Wow... she looks great in, uh... uniform. Or out of uniform, I dunno."
"She's the undisputed number one at the Williamson, Crewe and Rosenthal agency now. A first tier star who moonlights in magazines for kicks. I guess Steve has rented her services for the shoot."
"And you called that, didn't you! Yes you did, Reggie, you big ol' genius, you!" Stella said and nudged herself repeatedly against her friend's arm.
Regina buffed her fingernails against her pantsuit jacket and assumed the opening stance of her Too Cool For Words posing routine. "Well, I do know what I'm talking about."
"She certainly does," a male voice said behind them.
Stella didn't even have to turn around to know who it was - Mr. Chiseled Jaw himself, Steve Darrian.
"Hello, Regina. You look fantastic," the gray-eyed, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, crew-cut Steve said and reached out to pull Regina into a hug, but Stella quickly stepped between the two tall, divine creatures to mark her territory.
"Hi, Steve," Stella said as she pumped his hand up and down like the handle on an old brass well. "You look a little haggard. Not eatin' well? Naw, that can't be it, not with that gut."
Though Steve smiled at Stella, it seemed slightly fake and didn't quite reach his eyes. "Hello, Miss Starr. So you're here too?"
"Oh, I'm not only here, Stevie-boy, I'm Reggie's manager. Yessiree, they call me Miss Twenty-Five Percent, the terminator, the intimidator, the enforcer, the closer, the pitbull, the mastiff, the bulldog, the-"
Grinning, Regina stepped behind Stella and put a pair of calming hands on the blonde's shoulders. "What Stella is trying to say is that she's my wingman so you won't take advantage of me."
"Fair enough," Steve said with a grin that matched Regina's perfectly. "So, uh... I'm a little busy running the show as you can imagine, but I promise I'll swing by when it's your turn."
'I bet you will... so you can gawk at her in a swimsuit, you... you... you... something-or-other,' Stella thought but - unusually - kept it to herself.
"Okay," Regina said, reaching down to entwine her fingers with Stella's.
Steve nodded and began to move away, but suddenly remembered something and turned back toward the two women. "Oh, by the way, the entire show has moved on a bit from the old days, Regina. It's faster now and the triggermen have less patience. It needs to be in the can P-D-Q or else they'll move on to the next girl."
"I'll cope. Thanks for the warning."
"Him and his 'girls'," Stella grumbled as the well-dressed man moved back into the mansion.
"I don't see no girls anywhere, Reggie, only women. 'Girls' is such a derogatory term. He should call us what we are, and that's women."
"You hate his guts, don't you?"
Stella put on her Sunday-finest shit-eating grin and pulled Regina into a hug, not caring where they were. "Him and me are like a pair of fightin' roosters, Snookums. Fightin' over you, of course."
"That's nice. But," Regina said and briefly touched the tip of Stella's nose with an index finger to show that she was about to Make A Point, "I'm not a prize turkey that gets awarded to whoever wins the cockfight. I make my own decisions on who I'm going to be with... and I've already made up my mind, Stell. It's you." With that, she flipped her hair over her shoulder - where it landed in a perfect cascade - and walked into the mansion.
Stella's shit-eating grin faded briefly, but it was soon back at full strength. "Rrrwoar," she said, nodding with a lustful gleam in her eyes.
The dressing room assigned to Regina was hardly more than a plastic cubicle, cramped, hot and uncomfortable, but there was just enough space for two and that was all that mattered at that exact moment for Stella and Regina - it meant they could snog heavily without facing a risk of getting caught.
"Did I boost your self-confidence enough, or should I go on?" Stella said once they separated, breaking out into a snicker at the sight of Regina in her underwear leaning against the inside wall of the cubicle.
"No, I think it's fully charged now."
"Oh... darn," Stella said and performed a little shimmy on the spot.
"Ah, I guess we would give it another little shot. C'mon."
Stella didn't need a written invitation so she quickly stood up on tip-toes and reached out with her puckered-up lips. An inch before their lips would have connected...
SLAM! SLAM! - "Yo, Miss Harrison! Ten minutes!" someone barked outside. The fist pounding on the door was enough to make the entire cubicle rock back and forth like it couldn't decide on staying erect or giving up the ghost.
"HOLY CANNOLI!" Stella barked back, putting a hand on her wildly beating heart. Spinning around, she tore the door ajar and quickly found the guilty party through her impressive skills as a private investigator - it helped that he was the only one outside. "Hey, buster! Yeah, I'm talking to you! The next time, wouldya mind knocking on the flip-floppin' door instead of trying to break it down? Sweet mother of pizza, are ya tryin' to give us a brown streak in our shorts or someth-"
The messenger just waved at the irate Stella and walked away.
"He... he walk- he walked away from me! Nobody walks away from me, Stella Starr! Nobody walk- HEY BUSTER! You better extend those jumbo jet wings you call ears and listen to me! If you slam on the door again like that, I'm gonna serve you a gorgeous, fresh knuckle sandwich that's gonna taste so goooood you gonna eat through a straw for a month! So there!"
"Those arty-farty types get on my nerves... no respect for us hard-working women... NO respect," Stella said and slammed the cubicle door shut behind her, making the whole plastic contraption shake in its foundation.
"In the meantime, perhaps you could give me a hand with the tanner lube and my first outfit?" Regina said with a wink, holding up an extra-large tube of HeroTan and a minuscule paper bag.
Stella blinked a couple of times, but then she broke out into a shit-eating grin and grabbed the lube tube. "O-ho-yeah!"
Eight minutes later, the perfectly bronzed Regina stepped out of the plastic cubicle wearing a black two-piece strapless bikini that was hardly there at all. She quickly pushed her bare feet into a pair of beach slippers and began to move away from the dressing room, but suddenly noticed that Stella wasn't with her. "Stell? Yoo-hooo, Stell? ...Stella?"
Stiff as an ironing board, Stella was leaning against the inside of the cubicle with a goofy grin on her face and glasses that were fogged over to such an extent that small droplets of dew dripped down from the lenses.
"Are you all right?" Regina said and took her friend by the arm.
"Can you walk?"
"Then you gotta stay here, Stell. I really gotta hustle... you heard Steve, they won't wait for me."
That made Stella snap out of her Regina-induced coma and push herself off the wall. "I can walk! I can walk! I've walked since I was two... or three, I can't remember. But I can walk! I can't see... but I can definitely walk!"
"Now's a good time to do it, hon."
The sunbed they had seen Lele da Silva use was empty, but the French photographer who had been taking pictures of her had moved further down the pool to get away from another session that took place in the water featuring a platinum blonde and a brunette who were frolicking merrily in the deep blue water.
As Regina and Stella moved behind the reflective screens to go down to the far end of the pool, the two young women in the water put their heads together and whispered something to each other. Regina heard what they said but chose to ignore it - Stella heard it too, loud, clear and in surround sound, and she couldn't ignore it.
Stopping dead in her tracks with one foot up and one down, she slowly turned around and went back to the edge of the pool where she bent over and put her hands on her knees while looking at the platinum blonde. "So she was already old when you were in diapers, huh? Tell me, kid, ain't it weird to wear a diaper under a swimsuit? How did they get you here? Lure you in with a couple-a strawberry lollipops? Does yo mama know you're here?"
"Stell-la," Regina said in an embarrassed tone from further down the pool where she had sat down under an awning and was being tended to by a hair care specialist and a make-up artist.
"I'll be right there, Reggie," Stella said and turned back to the two young models. "But before I leave you, please allow me to pour from my vast library of knowledge... one, the so-called old woman over there has been in more first tier appearances than you've had salads, and two... the chlorine is dissolving your dye. Have a nice day."
"Ohmygod, ohhhhhmygod!" the blonde howled and immediately grabbed her hair to check every single one of her ends.
Whistling the chorus from I'm Gonna Getcha Good, Stella dusted off her hands and walked over to where Regina was waiting for her turn.
Regina was so busy getting pampered that she didn't have time to scathe Stella when the mop-haired investigator came down to her end of the pool, but a little pointed glance did sneak out between the clouds of hair spray and the frantic touch-ups that tried to gloss over her crow's feet.
Stella just shrugged and kept on whistling.
Behind them, the photographer readied his camera and pointed it at Regina to get a picture of what kind of pictures he would get. "Hmmm," she said, furrowing his brow.
"Hiya, I'm Stella Starr, Regina's manager," Stella said with her hand forward. Initially, the photographer ignored it, but Stella was insistent and he had to take it. "Say, I'm pretty good with a camera. Maybe I can, you know, give you a tip here and there?"
"I doubt it," the photographer said in a French accent.
Mostly ignoring the jab, Stella ground her jaw a couple of times and stepped even closer to the fancily dressed man. "I gave you my name, how about giving me yours?"
The photographer turned around and shot Stella a scathing look that said 'If you don't know me, I don't have time for you' - "Benny Oggadin."
"Ohhhh, Benny Oggadin! ...Sorry, bub, never heard of ya. What kind of scene do you have in mind for Reggie?"
"A picture kind," Benny said and held up his camera. At the same time, he shot Stella a look that said 'if you don't leave now, I will.'
"Stell-la..." Regina whined, earning herself a wave and a little blown kiss.
When the hair care specialist and the make-up artist had finished touching up Regina's already divine frame, she got out of the plastic chair they had put her in and stepped forward.
"Finally," Benny Oggadin said. "Let's get to work. There's a beach ball over there, take it and hold it high. Stand in an X."
"I got it! I got it!" Stella howled and jumped over to the large, multi-colored beach ball. It was so light it nearly flew from her fingers when she raised it in the air, but she managed to hand it to Regina without too many problems.
Smiling nervously, Regina took the beach ball and stepped away from the parasol. Hurrying around the little bench, she stepped into the strong sun, though the direct rays were blocked by the white canvas filter.
Benny Oggadin nodded at the overall look of the scene, but waved his hand impatiently to tell Regina that she should get on with it. "Right. Now stand in an X like I told you. Beach ball high. Spread your legs and your arms... look to your right..." he said while taking picture after picture on his no doubt outrageously expensive professional camera.
Regina did as told but felt too nervous to enter the zone she needed to be in, and it showed. Her jaw and shoulders were tight and her whole demeanor was that of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming Mack RS truck. She moved in awkward fits and jerks that she knew - with a sinking feeling in her gut - wouldn't cut it at a fifth rate fashion show, much less a prestigious event like the Swimsuit Illustrated shoot. For each time she performed a pose that didn't come out right, the knot of nervousness in her gut grew heavier.
Oggadin moved down on his knees to get the full effect of Regina's endless legs, but by the way he was shaking his head, he didn't appear to be satisfied with the setup. "No, don't force it... loosen up... now look straight up at the beach ball... I told you to loosen up, woman!"
Stella's eyebrows went up, down, up, down and finally up at the photographer's disrespectful tone towards Regina. She had to stuff her entire right fist into her yap to stop herself from speaking her mind, and even then, she couldn't hold back a few inarticulate grunts that would have stripped paint off a wall had they come out.
"All right, I'll have to find the best of a bad job," Oggadin said and moved into the shade to see the pictures on the camera's display. "In the meantime, go over to the pool and lie down on that blanket there."
The way Regina sighed and let go of the beach ball told Stella everything she needed to know about her lover's state of mind, and she was at her side in oh point two, grabbing a small parasol along the way to protect the carefully lacquered hair. "Hey, how do you feel? Boy, he's annoying, huh?"
"I feel like shit, Stell, and it's going even worse. I..." - Regina shook her head and let out a long, slow sigh. "I can't do it anymore."
"Whut? Buh... of course you can! I mean... I mean, you're looking like a Goddess in that bi- bi- bikini... of course you can do it!"
"No. I'm just not here... I can't find the comfort zone."
"That's Benny Wotshisface's fault! Not yours!"
"No, Stell. The triggermen have always been like that... earlier, I grabbed the aggression they sent me and returned it tenfold into the pics, but now I cramp up. Ah, to hell with it. I don't know who I was trying to kid... I'm a wrinkled old has-been. It's over," Regina said and shuffled over to the bench under the parasol instead of the blanket like Oggadin had told her to.
Struck speechless at her partner's plunge into the bottomless pit of despair that she knew so well herself, Stella scrunched up her face and followed Regina with a hypercritical eye. When she had travelled from the soles of the tall woman's feet to the tufts of her lacquered hair without finding anything at all that looked remotely like a wrinkled, old has-been, she put her hands on her hips and let out a fighting grunt, almost like she was ready to take on the challenge.
"What are you doing?" Benny Oggadin said in a French accent that grew stronger as he got agitated. "I told you to get on the blanket... oh, why do you model women always have to be so-"
"Gorgeous?" Stella interjected, grabbing a bottle of mineral water that someone had left on the table at the parasol. She quickly unscrewed the cap and handed it to Regina so she could drown her sorrows. "Beats me, too, fella. I mean, all women look great, but some just look greater than others, right? Now take Regina here, I mean, how can anyone not love her legs that go all the way from down there to up here? Or her fantastic midriff, her perfectly sculpted V's, her abs that show up just right without being intrusive, or... of course, the coop de tatt-"
"Coup d'etat. That's not what that phrase means. You mean piece de resistance," Benny said surly.
"Oh I ain't resistin' any of her pieces, bub. Whatever... the coop de tatt, her well-rounded, perfectly-sized, all-natural c-cups. Yessiree, no silicone enhancement there. Now, let me tell you something that you may not know, Sir, and that is that silicone enhancements also lose their shape over the years... yes, it's true. But look at those," Stella said and held her hand under Regina's breasts like she was trying to sell a walleye at a fish market, "tell me, do they look out of shape to you? They most certainly do not. And! And, that's not all. Her eyes. Have you ever seen such gorgeous eyes outside of Hollywood? I think not. Those gorgeous eyes can smile, they can cry, they can shoot fire, they can do everything you've ever wanted from a pair of eyes, if you only know how to break down the barrier that's in front of them. You know what I'm saying? Charm the woman and reap the Goddess. Right?"
"I have no idea what you are talking about. I have better things to do with my time, so it's really quite simple," Benny said and turned to Regina, "if you don't get down on the blanket now, I'll move on to someone who can follow instructions."
Stella took such a deep breath that she appeared to want to suck in the entire atmosphere. Her jaw was working overtime, her skin grew more and more flushed and her fists clenched and unclenched in an ever-faster rhythm.
Regina sighed and got up. "Stella, please," she said and moved over to the blanket where she sat down and waited for Benny to tell her what to do.
"Finally," the photographer said and got his camera ready. "All right. Hands behind you. Turn alongside the pool. Bend your legs in an upside-down V, the right knee higher than the left. Look out over the water. Hmmmm. Keep that... keep that."
Walking around Regina, Benny Oggadin took several pictures from several angles, but it was clear from the many mocking grunts he let out that he still wasn't satisfied with what he saw on the display.
Stella was once again eating her fist to stop herself from barking at the photographer - or even push him into the pool - but her volcanic temper was saved by Steve Darrian who came out to watch how his former main squeeze was doing.
"Benny," Steve said and put a hand on the photographer's shoulder to make him stop. "Take five. Sort the images you've taken and come back out. Okay?"
"Sure thing, Mr. Darrian," Benny Oggadin said and left so quickly it looked like he couldn't wait to get away from Regina and Stella.
Grumbling inwardly, Stella followed him with her eyes until he was out of earshot - then she stormed over to Steve and slammed her hands onto her hips. "What the hell kind of hack did you sic on us, Stevie-boy? I wouldn't trust that fella to take pics of a still life! He clearly has NO idea on how to sweet-talk a woman into working for him! He has NO idea of women as a whole!"
"Actually he's got two Golden Cameras, Miss Starr."
"Yeah? 'Cos he dropped them down the toilet?" Stella growled, blocking Steve's path to Regina.
Regina chuckled darkly and got up from the blanket. "No, he won them two years running for having shot the best fashion cover... worldwide," she said and wrapped the blanket around her body so she wasn't so exposed.
Stella couldn't counter that and reluctantly moved aside so Steve could talk to Regina. Grumbling, she walked over to the edge of the water and looked back at the other models who were working at the other end of the pool. A sneaky thought suddenly entered her mind, but she didn't know if Regina would go for it - she didn't care one half-fraction of an iota if Steve or Benny would approve of it.
"Hey," Steve said and put his strong hands on Regina's arms. "I watched you from the mansion. That wasn't... how can I put it... your best work."
"It was shit, Steve," Regina said and shook her head - her hair was so lacquered up it didn't even move. "The worst waste of time I've ever been involved in. Waste of my time, waste of your time... waste of energy, waste of enthusiasm... just a waste."
"Waitaminute, I have an idea," Stella said, but she wasn't heard.
Steve pulled Regina into a very chaste hug and briefly touched her cheek, mindful not to upset her bronze tan or her makeup. "You gave it your best shot, Regina. They can't all be winners, eh?"
"I guess not," Regina said and pulled the blanket closer.
Stella scrunched up her face and said: "Hey, I got an idea-"
Unaffected by the interruption, Steve turned around and pointed back at the mansion. "If you just put the used swimsuits in the-"
"WOULDYA LISSEN TO ME FOR A FLIP-FLOPPIN' CHANGE!" Stella barked so loudly the entourage down the other end of the pool stopped what they were doing and stared at the wild-haired woman, though she was so used to that she didn't even notice. "I. Got. An. Idea! Not just any idea... a good idea.. a damned good idea... a one-hell-of-a-damned good idea... the next best thing after sliced bread, soft-toned light bulbs and Oreos. I'm gonna take the pictures of Reggie," she said, knocking an index finger into her chest.
"Miss, Starr-" Steve said, but Stella held up her hands before he could even get started.
"Nope! Nuh-uh! Not one word! Nix! Zip it, flip it, shake it, bake it, don'care as long as you tape it! I'm gonna take the pictures of Reggie. So there! In all modesty, I know exactly how to get the best out of her. Ain't that right, Reggie?"
Regina opened her mouth to reply, but all she had time for was an "Uh-"
"Yes it is, and you know it. Steve, this doesn't have anything to do with Reggie and everything to do with Monsee-ur Wotshisface... he wouldn't know how to take pictures of a woman if she jumped up and bit him in the rama-lama-ding-dong! Well, you be lookin' at someone who knows a thing or two about women, Stevie-boy!"
"Stell," Regina groaned, but the blonde investigator was on a roll that couldn't be stopped by anything bar the end of the world. Recognizing the look, Regina pulled out the plastic chair with her foot and sat down.
DEEP breath - "Stevie-boy, I'll bet you're a real swell hunka-chunka who knows his way around women. Stop me if I'm wrong, but isn't the number one priority to create an warm, intimate environment? And with that out of the way, appreciate what she has, make her comfortable enough to come out of her shell... make her smile at you, for cryin' out loud! If you can make her smile, you're more than halfway there. Look, I could go on for hours, but to cut a long speech short, I know I can do a better job with Reggie than that hack. I rest my case." - Once Stella had delivered her soliloquy, she took another deep breath and let it out slowly.
Steve's eyebrows slowly slid up his forehead - then the corners of his lips began to tremble and he let out a loud, braying laugh. "I must say... I've read you all wrong, Miss Starr. Underneath your funny clothes, you're a player. Hmmm. All right. I wouldn't be where I am if I hadn't taken a chance now and then. You got it. The stage's all yours."
Grinning from ear to ear, Stella put her hands in her rear pockets and seized the opportunity to strut like a rampant peacock. "Thanks, Steve. You won't regret it," she said and shimmied back and forth at the edge of the pool. "Oh, and I'd show you my portfolio, but I kinda left it on the back seat of our Rolls-Royce."
"Okay?" Steve said and looked at Regina whose only response was a shrug. "I didn't get that one, but never mind. I'll be right back with a camera... once I've told Benny. That's gonna be fun. Not."
After waving goodbye to Steve, the grin on Stella's face grew even wider on her way over to her downcast friend. Sitting down cross-legged on the white tiles next to Regina, she reached up and put a warm hand on the model's bronzed legs. "Reggie... it's gonna be just fine. Think big bang... think supernova... think, uh... uh... the Tokyo Starlite Show. Right?" she said with a wink.
"From your mouth to God's ear," Regina said with a sigh.
"Awwww, then we're S.O.L. 'cos she's never listened to me before... although you could say I've been blessed," Stella said and ran her hand up and down Regina's calf. Only after she had done it did she remember that the bronzed skin tone had come from a can rather than the sun - and was presently all over her fingers. "Oh... flippety-flop... yuck..."
Ten minutes later - including a minor nuclear detonation when Benny Oggadin was told about Stella's plan - the daring scheme was about to be set in motion: Regina had changed into an electric blue one-piece that matched her eyes perfectly, a breezy, blue silk scarf was ready for its big starring role, the canvas filters were in place, the floor fan was going at the second-to-lowest setting, a borrowed boombox was playing a Village People CD, the camera was ready and Stella was *so* ready she was practically bursting at the seams.
"Right..." she said and checked the camera's settings one more time. Looking up, she glanced at the Goddess in Blue and felt like Moses just before the Red Sea parted - a miracle was about to happen. "Are you ready, Reggie?"
"I'm ready. Please make me look great, Stell."
"Well... that's a given. Here we go," - click, click, click - "Nice and easy..." - click, click, click - "Sway to the music..." - click, click, click - "Let the rhythm move you..." - click, click, click - "Imagine my hands all over you..." - click, click, click.
"Okay, maybe not that one... feel the music sweep over you..." - click, click, click - "Sway along to the beat..." - click, click, click - "You're so beautiful, Reggie." - click, click, click - "Oh, grind those hips, baby!" - click, click, click - "Yes, stretch out... stretch for me, baby..." - click, click, click.
"Sorry, tee hee... uh, let the fan work for you... yes, turn around a little, let the wind catch your hair..." - click, click, click - "And the scarf... play a little more... yes..." - click, click, click - "Baby, look at me... look at me, please..." - click, click, click - "Oh, gawwwd... flip, I think that came out blurry..."
"Stell-la! This isn't a good time to get your glasses fogged up!"
"They're not... naw, I got it, I got it... just a few more, Snookums..." - click, click, click - "You're the most beautiful woman on the planet, baby..." - click, click, click - "Well, you and you-know-who, but, huh..." - click, click, click - "Yeah, put your hand on your stomach again, that was good!" - click, click, click - "No, your stomach, Reggie, not your torpedoes... yeah, yeah, I saw you sticking your tongue out, cheeky so-and-so... don't think I didn't get a picture of it!" - click, click, click - "Oh, that's a great look... and... aaaaand..." - click, click, click - "That's it! Wow..."
Completely unsighted by Stella and Regina, Lele da Silva had been peeking around one of the canvas filters throughout the shoot. Seeing Regina go through her poses in such an unrestrained and natural fashion made the top model's eyes grow wide and sparkly. When the shoot was over, she let out an excited little squeak and hurried back to the mansion to find Steve Darrian.
Letting out a long sigh as the tension left her system, Regina went over to the floor fan and turned it off. Turning around, she reached for Stella and pulled her into a strong hug that ended in a sweet, little kiss. "Thank you for cheering me up, Stell. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. I thought I was a goner, but... but you showed me there's still some life left in the old girl."
"Told ya it was Wotshisface," Stella said into Regina's bosom, beaming like a little sun. "May I say it? Huh? Huh?"
After pulling Stella into another kiss, Regina mussed her nose against Stella's and let out an uncharacteristic snicker. "Oh, go on then... just this once."
"You still got it, Reggie!"
"Awww... thank you, darling. Love ya."
"Love ya, too... with little chocolate sprinkles on top! And strawberry jam!"
While Regina went over to the plastic chair to catch her breath, Stella sat cross-legged on the tiles and checked the photos she had taken. As she clicked through the colorful pictures on the little display, she found that she could be quite proud of what she and Regina had achieved - "Uh-huh... o-yeah... yeppers... mmmm! Mmmmh! O-yeah... uh-huh... oh... look at this one, Reggie," she said and held up the camera.
The photo was the one where Regina had sent Stella a smoldering gaze that rivaled anything any lava stream had ever produced. The electric blue swimsuit was perfect, the wind had caught Regina's hair and scarf perfectly, her body was angled perfectly - accentuating her thighs, hips and chest - and her eyes were like two azure pools of energy that threatened to burn a hole in the lens.
"Yeah... you got lucky there, huh?" Regina said and reached out to muss Stella's wild mop of hair.
"Lucky! Feh... I'm just that good. Hey, did you know you look kinda okay?"
"I think I've been told once or twice, yeah," Regina said and flipped her lacquered hair over her shoulder.
Stella had positioned the two canvas filter screens in such a way that they could have some privacy for the photo session, but it also meant they couldn't see what went on at the other end of the pool.
A wall of cackling, chirping, squealing and tweeting sounds that grew louder by the second made Stella put down the camera on the table under the parasol and get up to move the screens aside.
"Holy sh-!" she exclaimed loudly when she saw an entire battalion of scantily clad models march towards her, led by Lele da Silva in a neon-green, open-sided one-piece, and Steve Darrian who had an unreadable expression on his face. "Re- Re- Reggie! I need urgent backup, pardner! I got wo- women all over the place here... Reggie!"
When Lele saw Stella gawk at her with a panicked look on her face, she put out her arms and ran towards her. "Oh, Miss Starr! It's so gooooooood to see you!" she howled in a charming Brazilian accent as she delivered a bronzed, flushed, crushing hug to the flustered Stella.
"Ba... be... Le... lu... uh... buh... beh... h- hi, Lele," Stella croaked, surrounded by so much flesh and so many exquisite curves she had no idea where to look or put her hands.
"Miss Starr, the other Internet gurus have nothing on you! You are the greatest!" Lele said, grabbing hold of Stella's hands and giving them a strong squeeze.
"Uh... I am?" - Stella had to fight through a thick cushion of inappropriate thoughts involving neon-green and electric blue swimsuits, bronzed bodies, long legs and plenty of feminine curves, but she finally remembered that she and Regina had played a charade the first time they had met Lele at the LaFontaine party. In order to blend in with the guests, they had pretended that Stella was a fashion guru who offered tips online. Her big yap had got her into trouble - no news there - but Regina had stepped in and smoothed things out before they got out of hand. "Uh... but of course I am. You know, we online gurus rarely meet the people we give advice to, so, uh... if you don't mind, you can tell me why I'm the greatest," Stella said with an ever-widening smirk on her face; one that earned her a groan from Regina.
"Remember you told me that all-natural was the next huge thing? It was! I allowed myself to regain some of my natural curves, and not six weeks later, I headlined my first show! I haven't looked back since and you helped me get on that path, Miss Starr!" Lele said and pulled Stella into a new, equally crushing hug.
"Ooofff! O-hoh, well, yeah... you know. All in a day's work for us gurus," Stella said and adjusted her glasses. "Uh, but what's all this about?" she continued, waving her hand at the scantily clad models who were all gawking at her, including the platinum blonde from the pool who had earlier been whispering about Regina behind her back.
Lele quickly went over to Steve and hooked her arm inside his. "I was watching your session with Miss Harrison. It looked so easy, so natural, so right that I thought to myself, Lele, that's the way to go. Isn't it, Steve?"
"Yes," Steve said flatly.
Looking at her old colleague, Regina knew that Steve's hands were tied by Lele's request. In any modeling agency, the wishes of the number one star were law - even if she was only a loaner like Lele - simply because she provided too great a share of the income to risk her seeking greener pastures elsewhere.
"Well..." Stella said, scratching her hairline. "I only did it because Benny Wotshisface was so... ugh... towards Reggie."
"He was like that to all of us, Miss Starr," Lele said and made a sweeping gesture at the other models to a chorus of 'Yeah!', 'That's right' and 'Uh-huh!'. "That's why I and some of my friends would like to ask if you'd do a session with us?"
Stella blinked once, then twice. With a furrowed brow and a comically slack jaw, she looked at Regina, at Lele, at Steve, at the other models, back at Lele, back at Steve, back at Lele and finally back at Regina. Just when she thought she was ready to croak out an answer, her cheeks blushed red and she had to go through the entire chain again; looking at Lele, Steve and the models until her eyes were glued onto the proud smile on Regina's lips. "I... guess... I... could... do... that... Lele..." she said in a curious cross between a hoarse croak and a squeaky chirp.
"She'd love to," Regina said and put her hands on Stella's shoulders.
The befuddled look on Stella's face proved that she had momentarily lost the ability to speak, breathe, or even access her brain on a more general neurological level, but the red blotches that soon rolled over her cheeks and her super-excited, brightly shining eyes told the world all it could ever want to know about her state of mind.
Fifteen minutes later, the end of the pool closest to the mansion had turned into a party zone with colorful inflatable beach balls, plenty of laughter in the air, photographers who were hard at work shooting hundreds and hundreds of pictures, and a merry band of swimsuit-wearing models who shook, shimmied and rocked to the eternal summer soundtrack of the Village People, Gloria Gaynor, Sylvester and all the other stars from the 1970s.
Four big shots from the executive board of Swimsuit Illustrated stood off to the side, watching and commenting on the events as they unfolded. One of the suits pointed at two models who were shooting in the pool, and the group shuffled over there to get a better view.
Stella was kneeling on the edge of the pool, trying to hold the camera steady and combat the wad of cotton candy that had previously been her brain - at least, that's what it felt like to her as she struggled to maintain focus through glasses that threatened to fog up at any moment.
In the deep blue pool, Regina and Lele were frolicking merrily by throwing water at each other, bobbing up and down, teasing each other, and generally behaving like a pair of two-legged mermaids.
Since the last session, Regina had changed into her final costume, an open-sided one-piece identical to Lele's, except it was off-white. When wet, it clung to her body like a second skin and showed with startling clarity that she didn't possess a single inch that could be classified as any less than perfect.
Stella kept clicking like mad, taking so many pictures of the two water goddesses that the camera had grown quite warm. Struck mute, she could only grunt and nod at Regina and Lele, but they were so experienced and talented they didn't need directions as such.
"Stell, I hope you're ready for the big finale... we're pruning so we better quit while we're ahead," Regina said and took Lele's right hand in her left.
"Uh-huh," Stella croaked, nodding so hard her haystack bobbed up and down.
"Okay, here goes!" Regina said loudly and took a deep breath. By her side, Lele did the same, and the two women briefly went under the surface of the water - a second later, they exploded out of it like a pair of leaping dolphins. Still holding hands, they formed a big W as they stretched their arms and bodies out of the water, both leaning back to bring their swimsuit-clad torsos to center stage and showing off what they had, which was plenty.
Stella let out the loudest whoop she ever had as she took a whole series of pictures of the three-second master class in superstar modeling. "Oh, Gawd..." she croaked, shaking her head in disbelief.
As Regina and Lele splashed back down into the water and floated away, Stella bumped down on her rear, put the camera and her glasses safely back from the edge of the pool and began to rub her face thoroughly, too bowled over by the striking visual fireworks to even breathe properly.
Getting up, Stella hadn't bothered to put on her glasses, but perhaps she should have - she hadn't taken a step before she bumped into four dark, blurry shadows that appeared where dark, blurry shadows shouldn't have been. Startled, she took a step back and suddenly found herself in the same situation one of her cartoon favorites had been in many times before: Wile E. Coyote suspended in thin air over the edge of a thousand-foot drop.
Fortunately, the distance to the pool was only ten inches, but it didn't stop time from slowing down to a crawl for Stella. In her two-second hangtime, she opened her mouth to let out an inarticulate, braying, tornado alarm-like shriek while flapping her arms like a bumblebee who hadn't been told she was incapable of flying.
"Oh, Stella..." Regina groaned as the bow wave hit her and Lele and sent them a good ten feet away from the human depth charge.
Hacking, coughing, spluttering and growling, Stella bobbed up to the surface and began to tread water. A few seconds later, she'd regained enough breath to go into one of her best '...ucker'-hissy fits for years - one that simply would not quit, no matter how hard Regina and Lele tried to calm her down.
Some time later, Regina, Steve and Stella, who was wearing a fluffy, hot pink bathrobe that she had borrowed from the wardrobe people while her soaked clothes were being tended to, sat on one side of an impressive mahogany table in one of the suites on the first floor of the mansion.
The other side of the table had been occupied until very recently by three of the four executives from Swimsuit Illustrated - the fourth and final one had received such a shock from the language Stella had spewed out after she had fallen into the pool that he had felt it necessary to spend some time being pampered by scantily clad models.
As the three suits left the room, Steve turned to Regina and tapped his fingers on the smooth desk. "Okay, that went well. They liked what they saw. The first session was a waste of time, just like you said, but the second and third hit the sweet spot... pardon the expression," he said, briefly putting his hand on top of Regina's.
Regina - back in her charcoal gray pantsuit and the white blouse - moved her hand into her lap. She did it without drama, but it was clear to see that she didn't appreciate Steve's attentions. "You don't have to tell me, Steve. I've been to enough evaluations to know how to read between the lines."
"But of course, of course," Steve said and got up, suddenly feeling the temperature in the room dropping by several degrees. "Miss Starr, I know you're Regina's manager, but I need a word with her in private, if you don't mind."
Stella looked at the smooth operator for a few seconds before nodding and getting up from the chair. Instead of going to the door, she went over to Regina and bent down to pull her into a hug from above. "I'll be outside," she whispered for Regina's ears only. "If he gets frisky with you, just holler and I'm gonna come back in and take a hacksaw to his-"
"I'm quite sure it won't come to that, Stell," Regina said and patted Stella's hand.
"Mmmm-yeah, but you never know with these people. I'll be right outside." To show that she meant business, Stella leaned down again to put a sweet kiss on Regina's freshly scrubbed lips.
Once Stella had left the room in her neon-yellow flip-flops and her hot pink bathrobe, Steve put the chair Stella had vacated back where it had come from before sitting down on the one he had used earlier. "Regina, may I be frank with you?"
"I won't accept anything else and you know it, Steve," Regina said and crossed her legs away from her former lover.
"Oh, I know. Anyway, the first session was a disaster. Nothing short of a disaster... Benny Oggadin said a few things about you that I won't repeat, but they weren't complimentary."
"Fair enough. I didn't do a good job."
"No you didn't, quite frankly. However, the second and third sessions proved that you still have what it takes. And with that in mind..." - he reached into his jacket that hung from the backrest of his chair and found a folded-up piece of paper - "Here's something for you to think about."
Locking eyes with Regina, he put the paper on the table and pushed it towards her.
The paper was folded in a way that made it impossible for Regina to read the small print, so she pulled it closer to her without actually taking it. A brief glance at the only visible line told her it was a draft for a contract with the Darrian Modeling Agency.
Regina sighed and tapped her fingers on the paper. After a few seconds, she picked it up and unfolded it. She read it once, then another time to get the true meaning of the figure that was near the bottom of the page. "Seventy-five thousand dollars?"
"For a one-year contract, yes. Catwalk shows, ads, personal appearances in infomercials and shopping malls, photo sessions like this one. A one-year contract with an option for more... both sides will be able to renew or forfeit it with only a month's notice."
"Forfeit it if I'm not performing well enough," Regina said matter-of-factly as she skimmed through the document for a second time.
Steve didn't answer verbally but a waved gesture proved Regina's point.
"It's not something I can decide here and now, Steve. I need to talk to Stella about it. She's very important to me and I don't want to screw up what we have."
"I understand," Steve said and got up from the chair. After sending Regina a goodbye smile that she didn't respond to, he took his steel gray jacket and put it on. "I'll send her back in," he said on his way over to the door.
Once he reached the door, he put his hand on the handle but didn't twist it. "Regina, you only have to look at Helena Christensen to see that it's possible to make a comeback in your mid-forties."
"I'm not Helena."
"No, but you're damned close. I'll respect your decision whatever it turns out to be, but the example she's set is worth putting into the equation. Isn't it?"
Regina nodded briefly but didn't offer any further comment.
"Right," Steve said and turned the door handle.
Stella was quickly back inside and hurried over to where her best friend and lover was seated. "Oh, baby, was that big, nasty fella mean to you?" she said and sat down in Steve's chair. "I'll bet he was. I better give you a little kiss," - kiss - "and another," - kiss, kiss - "and then we have this one, too,"
- kiss, KISS, kiss.
Chuckling, Regina pulled Stella down for a real kiss that nearly made the blonde investigator's knees knock.
"Wow, he musta been really nasty," Stella said as she bumped back down on the chair.
"No, he wasn't nasty at all, actually. He offered me a contract," Regina said and pushed the paper across the table.
Stella took it and began to read, moving her lips as she went through the lines of legalese to keep track of what it said. When her eyes reached the end of the document, she furrowed her brow and shot Regina a puzzled and perhaps even slightly worried look. "Seventy-five grand? For a one-year contract?"
"It's not that much, actually. I don't think Lele will get out of bed for anything less than double that," Regina said and drew an empty pattern on the shiny, smooth mahogany desk.
"Huh. I'd definitely get out of bed for seventy-five grand," Stella said and adjusted her glasses. "Of course, nobody in their right mind would pay me seventy-five grand just to get out of bed... they wouldn't have to... a Meaty Mama and a can of Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz would do the trick," she continued with a cheeky grin on her lips.
"Oh, ha ha," Regina said and reached over to muss Stella's hair. Sighing, she bumped back in her chair and crossed her legs the other way. "That kind of money could buy us a lot of things for the business. We could get your Pacer fixed."
"Yeah, I s'pose we could, but... Reggie, in this contract, it says that you'll do runway shows, a few ads and stuff... now, as your manager, Miss Twenty-Five Percent, don't forget, I think we should dig a bit deeper and find out a few more details before you commit to it. I mean, infomercials... for what?"
"Good point, Stell. I'm far too old to be first tier, I know that. That's for the kids like Lele, but..." - Sighing, Regina got up from the chair and moved over to the windows. Below at the pool, the photoshoot was winding down with the last few photographers taking pictures of the last few models.
Symptomatically, the sun had already left its zenith and was creeping towards the western horizon, a state that matched Regina's mood pretty well.
"No..." she said quietly.
When nothing more came, Stella got up and shuffled over to her friend where she wrapped an arm around the sculpted torso. "Whassat?"
"I said no, Stell. First, second or third tier, the stress is the same. I just can't do the airport, taxi, hotel room, prepping, performance, post-show party, back to the hotel room way past midnight, taxi, airport slog anymore. I don't wanna spend so much time away from you."
"Awwww... you gonna make me cry, Snookums... hell... I'm already cryin'," Stella said and raised her glasses to wipe her misty eyes with the bathrobe sleeve.
"So... how about we find your clothes, tell Steve, and get back to the cozy little office we call home? We could watch a movie tonight... how about Imagine Me & You?"
"Maybe call for a pizza and some razzies or a few cherry colas...?"
"OOOOH! Reggie, you're the woman of my dreams, you know that?" Stella said and crushed herself flat against Regina's attractive, highly desirable and just plain cuddly body.
On their quest to recover Stella's missing clothes, the two women met a group of cheerful, bubbly models led by Lele da Silva who all offered the All-Knowing Internet Guru a big hug or kisses on the cheek. Soon, Stella's cheeks carried residue of roughly seven brands of lipstick in all shades, ranging from husky orange to bright pink.
"We thank you so much, Miss Starr! This was the best event we've been to for a long time... isn't that right, girls?" Lele said and raised Stella's hand in the air.
"Yeah!" the rest of the models cheered before they all rushed in and gave the two investigators a big group hug.
"How come they kiss you but only wanna shake my hand?" Regina said and bumped shoulders with her shorter friend once the swarm of models had moved on.
"Oh well," Stella said and adjusted her glasses with a big grin plastered on her face, "there are several reasons for that. First of all, I'm a guru... then we have the cuteness factor. You're okay to look at, but you sure can't beat my cuteness. Nobody can beat my cuteness," Stella said with her tongue stuck so firmly in her cheek it took her several seconds to get it back.
Flicking her hair over her shoulder where it - obviously - landed in a perfect cascade, Regina shot Stella a sly little grin. "Oh, is that a fact?"
"That is a fact, Miss Big-Ol'-Model-Superstar. That's a very strong fact, yeppers."
"Hmmm. You sure?"
"Fully. You wanna test my cuteness, Snookums?" Stella said and grabbed hold of Regina's hand so she could swing it back and forth on their way down a seemingly endless hallway on the first floor of the mansion.
"Yeah. But it's gonna have to wait until tonight. I'm sure some of the rooms up here are occupied by... ummm... people sharing an intimate moment, but that's not my thing anymore."
Stella stopped walking with one foot up and one foot down. Slowly narrowing her eyes and baring her teeth in a horrified grimace, she turned around and looked at some of the closed doors they had just gone past. They hadn't been able to hear anything through the doors, but that didn't mean nothing was happening on the other side. "No..." she croaked.
"Oh yeah," Regina said and put her hands on her hips.
"Oh, pharrr... no, let's get my clothes and get home," Stella said and resumed walking. She quickly took Regina's hand again to give her some emotional balance. "Uh, Reggie?"
"Did you ever... you know? At a photoshoot?"
"Couple of times."
"Aggh... with Steve?"
"Agggh! There were others?!"
"And you've never had any girlfriends before I came along?" Regina said and leaned down to put a very tender kiss on Stella's cheek.
Stella scrunched up her face but eventually broke out in a cheesy grin. "Weeellll," she said, waving her hand.
"Anyway, it was more than fifteen years ago, Stell... actually, it was closer to twenty years ago now... hey, 'Wardrobe', we need to go in here," Regina said and briefly knocked on the door to a room. When the knock was answered with a 'Yes?' she went inside.
Stella kept standing outside for a moment just to check if any naked models came out. When it was all-clear, she hurried inside to get dressed so they could get back home and wipe all images of Regina with someone else from her mind.
Finally back in her clothes that had been dried with a careful hand by the wardrobe consultants, Stella had her hands shoved down the pockets of her maroon twill Capris - that suddenly matched the lipstick she had on her cheek - as they waded through the mess of cables, canvas filters and assorted other equipment in the grand hall in an attempt to find Steve.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a young model who was almost cowering up against the wall. She was looking so lost and depressed that Stella came to a dead stop just to observe her. "Hey, Reggie... look at her over by the wall. What do you think's going on there?"
Regina turned to look at the young woman. With her trained eye, she could see at once that the woman had the right height, build and excellent facial proportions with a strong jaw, prominent cheekbones and perfectly shaped eyes and eyebrows. She looked no older than twenty, though she was probably younger than that. "I don't know, but why don't you go over and ask while I find Steve?"
"Good idea," Stella said and went over to the young woman before Regina had even completed the sentence.
Regina looked at her lover's gently wiggling rear end and came to the conclusion that she probably *was* the cutest of them all. Chuckling, she continued through the mess of cables until she found Steve with two of the executives from Swimsuit Illustrated. "Steve, can I have a moment?" she said, finding the contract draft from her liner pocket.
"Sure? C'mon, we can sit down here," Steve said and excused himself before moving over to a leather couch arrangement at a secluded corner of the grand hall. "So?" he said as he held out a chair for Regina.
"Thank you for the offer... but no thank you. It's just not gonna work," Regina said and pushed the contract draft back to Steve.
"You know," Steve said and sat down facing his former colleague. At once, he crossed his legs away from her. "I had a hunch you were going to say that. All right. There's nothing I can do to sweeten the deal for you?"
"No," Regina said and glanced at Stella who was talking to the young woman.
Steve followed Regina's glance and nodded knowingly. "I understand. It's for real?"
"It's for real, Steve," Regina said and stole another glance at Stella.
A few crickets had time to chirp somewhere in the far distance before the two people opened their mouths at the exact same time. "We could-" -- "But I-"
"You first," Steve said as he folded up the contract and put it in his pocket.
"Well... although I have to decline the full contract, I would be interested in getting attached to a few ad campaigns for your agency. I guess they would mostly be local. That is... if you would still be interested in working with me."
"Oh, I would, yes. Ad campaigns. Mmmm... I have to say it would be waste of your talents to restrict yourself to a couple of campaigns."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I just can't live out of a suitcase anymore," Regina said and looked back at Stella who was apparently trying to show the young woman how to walk like a duck.
"No, I get it, I get it. Ads... okay," Steve said and leaned forward on his chair. "Well, we do have a few options open. L'Orient is about to launch a campaign for a new skin care product for mature women, and they've already put out feelers for models and actresses in the relevant age bracket. Filippo Wine Imports has put out a tender for a run of TV ads promoting their wines. They want a cool, classy look so I think you'd be interesting for them with your elegance and stature. Also, LaBellaDonna Fashion is eager to promote their fall collection for women aged forty-five plus-"
"Oh, I'm not quite there yet..." Regina squeaked.
"I know, but it could be a good gig for you... print, TV and online. Then we have Pegasus Jewelry, they're always looking for striking women... and you are still a striking woman, Regina. Very much so, in fact."
"You don't have to thank me, I'm only speaking the truth," Steve said and sent Regina one of those looks that sent messages on several different levels.
Regina couldn't hold his look but preferred to glance back at Stella who was showing the young woman something she had found in her pocket. "Yeah, well, I may be getting older but I'm not getting dumber, Steve. You want something I can't give you anymore."
"Awww. We had a pretty good time back when we were together, didn't we? I'll never call you a liar, but if you say we didn't have a good time, then... huh... I'd say you were bending the facts a little. Mmmm?"
Regina took a deep breath to oppose Steve's train of thought, but grudgingly came to the conclusion that he was right. They had been great together; great on the runway and great in bed - but all that was ancient history now. "I did have a good time, Steve... but whenever it got personal beyond what we did in the sack, you screwed me over. Financially, emotionally..."
"I know, and I'm sorry about that. I was young and arrogant back then... and so were you, I might add. We both had knives up our sleeves, ready to hack, slash or stab anyone who could be a threat to our place in the bright lights. Yes?"
Once again, Regina had to concede the point. "Yes," she said and shifted uncomfortably, "but it's also why I don't want to get too personal with this new situation. I'm willing to do ad campaigns, maybe for the companies you mentioned, maybe for others, I don't know... but nothing beyond that. And I do mean 'nothing', Steve."
"I hear you," Steve said and put out his hand. "Let's shake on it. I'll see what I can find and mail the setups to you. Deal?"
"Deal," Regina said and shook Steve Darrian's hand.
Meanwhile, Stella was going at a hundred-and-ten, relaying all her adventures of the day to the young woman to see if she couldn't cheer her up a little bit. "Oh yeah, I went into the pool all right. Caught between Regina Harrison and Lele da Silva. Talk about a glam sandwich, eh? Oh, you know Regina Harrison, right? Of course you do, she was, like, the biggest babe in the history of babes since the dawn of babehood. You see over there by the chairs? That's Regina Harrison and Steve Darrian. I know 'em both well. Actually," she said and adjusted her glasses, "I know 'em better than well. Regina and me are like this," - she clasped hands with herself - "and Steve and me are like this," - she thumped fists with herself.
"Uh-huh?" the timid woman said with eyes that darted back and forth between Stella's wild appearance and the two tall, divine creatures by the chairs.
"O-yeah! Cross my heart, hope to choke on a Jalapeño!"
"Oh... h- here they come..."
Stella turned around and waved enthusiastically at Steve and Regina who were slowly treading their way between the many cables that were being rolled up all around them. "Guys, this is Ann Davenport. She's here for her tryout."
"She was here for her tryout, yes. She was *late* here," Steve said in a slightly harsh voice.
Ann Davenport took a half-step forward but seemed to regret it almost at once and went back against the wall. "Like I told you, Sir, there had been an accident down on the boulevard... my bus got caught in a huge traffic jam..."
"Oh!" Stella said and rolled her eyes so hard they nearly fell out of her head. "You've come by bus? Shoot... buses... you know, I could tell you a few horror stories about buses... and bus drivers, hot rockety BANG, the Bay City bus drivers! Holy flippomatic, just the other week, I-"
"Stell, I'm quite sure Ann knows everything about it," Regina said and put her hand on Stella's elbow. "And Steve, I know for a fact you're not blind."
Steve nodded with a sly grin on his face. "I'm a lot of things, but blind ain't one of them."
"Yeah, but have you looked? Really looked?" Regina said and nodded in Ann's direction.
Steve put Ann under such scrutiny that even Stella felt the gamma rays stream through the air. The young woman grew a slight blush but kept her bluish-gray eyes locked onto Steve's. "You're right, Regina. All right. Ann, was it?"
"Yes, Sir," the young woman said with a nod.
"Ann, let's find a room where you can change. I'm sure we can get one of the triggermen to give us half an hour. Okay?" Steve said and put his arm around Ann's shoulder.
"Thank you, Sir."
"Oh, don't thank me yet. The hardest part is still to come," Steve said and turned back to Regina. "And you... if you ever change your mind, just give me a call. Yeah?"
The double meaning of Steve's words hung in the air like a pregnant hippopotamus and it made the atmosphere between Steve and Regina rather frosty - especially since she thought she had already sent her former lover a clear message.
Regina didn't want to undermine Steve's authority in front of the young woman, so she merely grunted and slipped a hand down Stella's left rear pocket where she gave the well-rounded derriere a little squeeze. "You know, Steve, I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you. Anyway, just stick to the ads and everything's gonna be hunky-dory. Okay?"
"Okay, Regina," Steve said with a far more disappointed look on his face than the one that had been there only moments before.
Stella didn't quite know what was going on, but she had never been one to back down from a verbal sparring match, so she wrapped her arm around Regina's waist and returned the little squeeze she had been given. "Have a great time, Ann. See you on the front page! ...and with that, Stevie-boy, Reggie and me are gonna go back home and give ourselves one hell of a glorious workout 'til the cows come in. A-ripper-derchee, buh-bye and see ya! C'mon, Snookums, I can hear my bell ringing."
An hour later, the two investigators drove into the parking lot at Rockin' Ruby's and quickly found a spot between a truck and an SUV. They didn't climb out at once since they had more pressing matters to attend to first.
Pulling back from Regina's luscious lips, Stella still hadn't lost the cheesy grin she'd worn at the mansion. The look only intensified when she glanced down at the miniature shopping bag she had dangling from her index finger. "You know, Reggie, I think it's quite... uh... thought-provoking to think that the, uh... white swimsuit can actually fit into this teeny-tiny-mini-winnie bag."
"Yeah," Regina said and reached over to run her fingers over Stella's neck under her dirty-blonde haystack. "D'ya think it's a silly idea to donate it to Ruby? I was thinking that she could use it for a raffle or an auction or something...?"
"Naw, naw, I think it's a great idea. And we're keeping the electric blue one, so... heh heh heh..."
Nodding, Regina stepped out of the SLK and waited for Stella to get out so she could close the roof.
"I'm just a little miffed that we couldn't get the pics I shot of you to go with it, but... eh. Maybe later," Stella said and opened the door of the low-slung sports car. Taking a deep breath, she bolted out of the bucket seat in an attempt to combat gravity - a fight she was destined to lose.
Even going at full speed, she only made it forty-five percent up. Flapping her arms, she began to fall backwards until she landed back down in the bucket seat with a BUMPH! and an OOOF!
As she landed, the shopping bag flew from her hand and cartwheeled through the air. The centrifugal forces took over and made the white, open-sided swimsuit flutter around until it landed very nicely on top of her, covering her face completely. "Well," she said in a muffled voice as the fabric clung to her features, "I s'pose this wasn't the worst that could happen... Reggie? Reg-g-gie? Stella in distress!"
"Don't lose your socks, I'm comin'," Regina said and shuffled around the back end of the SLK to help Stella out of the car.
A little later on inside the bar, Ruby Albrecht looked at the miniature shopping bag with a puzzled expression on her face. "An auction is a great idea, but... you mean to tell me there's a swimsuit hiding in there?" she said and leaned against the bar counter.
"O-Yeah," Stella said and adjusted her glasses. "A real neat one, too. Go on, Reggie, show Ruby what we're talking about!"
Even as Regina reached into the bag, a group of highly interested spectators came from the nearest booths to form a human donut around the two investigators. Predictably, it didn't take long for the peanut gallery to let out a few wolf calls and howls.
Grinning, Stella turned around and slapped several high-fives with some of the people they knew from their regular visits. "Hey gals, you'll never believe what I did today... nah, I shouldn't tell ya... don't wanna cause ya no sleepless nights. Suffice to say it involves Reggie here and Lele da Silva. I'm sure you know her."
'She's hot!' someone shouted at the back.
"O-ho is she ever! She's scorching to the touch... which I did," Stella said with an impossibly wide grin on her face. "And my glasses didn't even steam up! How 'bout that, huh? And of course, I shared a swimming pool with them."
'Oh, phooey!' someone shouted.
"Phooey-dooey, I'm tellin' ya no pooey!"
The wordplay was received with much groaning by the peanut gallery, but Regina stepped in and pulled Stella into a hug from behind. "Every word is true," she said, kissing the top of Stella's head.
Regina finally took the minuscule piece of clothing from the shopping bag and took a step back to present the open-sided swimsuit, holding it against her front so everyone could see what they were talking about.
Within a second, Rockin' Ruby's fell stone silent save for the happy sounds that came from the dance floor at the back of the bar.
"Okay," Ruby said to break the silence, "I guess that could be called a swimsuit... or a napkin, I can't really say. I'm more of a t-shirt and Bermuda shorts kinda gal myself, though."
Regina carefully re-folded the swimsuit and put it back in the bag. "In any case, here you go... a white, one-piece, open-sided swimsuit, worn only once by yours truly... and all the more exclusive because of it," she said and handed it to Ruby.
"Thanks, Reggie. Should fetch us a nifty sum at the next community auction," Ruby said and gawked at the miniature bag the swimsuit was in. "Hey... the show's over, gals!" she said strongly to the assembled peanuts, earning herself a few moans and groans.
Once the crowd had dispersed, Ruby put the shopping bag behind the counter and turned back to Regina and Stella. "Anyway. What can I get you tonight?"
"Oh, we can't stay, Ruby," Stella said with an excited little shimmy where her knees went one way, her hips another and her arms did both, though not at the same time. "We got something special planned... a private get-together, if ya catch my drift."
Ruby chuckled and opened the hatch in the counter to go behind the bar. "Sounds nice," she said and started filling a bowl of pretzels from a plastic bag. "Well, don't let me stop ya. Have fun... and don't do anything I wouldn't do."
Regina and Stella were already on their way over to the door, but they stopped and turned around to look at the owner of Rockin' Ruby's. "You know," Stella said thoughtfully, "nude parasailing is pretty much out of the picture..."
"Aw, I knew I shouldn't ha' told you that story! Will you get the hell outta here!" Ruby said and threw a pretzel at the two investigators who quickly ducked the salty stick and hurried out of the door snickering like a pair of demented juvenile delinquents.
THE END of SWIMSHOOT SUIT?
IV - KNIGHT IN A WHITE GOWN
Written by Norsebard
Stella Starr stood at one of the windows overlooking the busy boulevard, eating a nuked BLT sandwich and watching the many lights zoom past the building that housed the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. The hands on the clock were approaching ten to eleven in the evening and it was - unsurprisingly - pitch black outside
With an echoing slurrrrrp, she emptied the can of raspberry fizz she had been drinking and put it in the special plastic bag marked 'For recycling'.
The Paper Monster beckoned though she felt she was unprepared to face it; unprepared to go into the monster's lair with nary a weapon but her ball point pen, her two remaining sandwiches - another BLT and a grilled cheese - and her two cans of soda.
King Frost had made a late comeback so in order to keep warm in the office that seemed far too cold without Regina Harrison there to add some sizzle, she'd had to don a shock green long-sleeved sweater, a pair of Pippi Longstocking socks and her winter jeans that were just a tad too large for her.
Sighing, she sat down at her desk and grabbed the pen and the first of the case folders that she needed to go through. After she had filed the last folder she had been working on, she hadn't closed the notepad she had been using, and the full page of scribbled updates mocked her quite badly.
"Aw, what a night for Regina to visit her darn aunt. Why is she visiting her so often, anyhow? I mean, doesn't she know that her little Stella needs her for some cuddly-wuddly?" Stella mumbled under her breath. Knowing that she was being unreasonable, she hunkered down and went to work delivering body blows to the wretched Paper Monster with her trusty ball point pen.
Half an hour later, she had gulped down the grilled cheese sandwich and was halfway through a can of cherry cola. Even though she had worked fully concentrated, she had only managed to close two further case files, and the paperwork was, figuratively speaking, hanging out of her ears.
Her patience was wearing so thin it could have slipped under one of the vault doors at Fort Knox, and when the Paper Monster lashed out at her by throwing one of the folders onto the plush gray carpet which made Polaroids, hand-written notes and typed sheets fly everywhere, she'd had enough and jumped up from her chair.
"Ooooooo! I can't tell ya how much I hate this sh... sh... sh... crud! Hate it-hate it-hate it! Hate it!" she said, hop-hop-hopping around in a circle in the middle of the office floor.
When the fiery tendrils of fury finally left her, she bent over and put her hands on her knees. "Hate it," she croaked and got down on the carpet to pick up all the pieces of paper.
"Page nine, page seven, page fifteen, page nine... waitaminute... oh, page six, page twelve, page fourteen, page oh-I-don't-need-this-crap!"
Sighing like the weight of the world was on her shoulders, Stella reached up on the desk to find her phone.
She found it, but also sent the notepad and the ball point pen down on the floor where the sharp object nearly stabbed the back of her hand.
"Aw hell... this better not be a telemarketer... hello, you've reached... oh, thank Gawd it's you, Reggie..."
"Naw, I'm lonely... lonely and depressed... lonely, depressed and doing some paperwork."
"Yeah, but the little Paper Monster bugger is really giving yours truly a hard time, Snookums. It would be a lot easier if you were here...?" - While she was speaking, she climbed into the cozy den under the desk and got herself comfortable jammed up against the inner walls.
"Yeah, I know. How's your aunt, anyhow?"
Like she always did when she listened to Regina's dulcet tones on the phone, she felt a wave of warm fuzzies sweep over her like a comfortable blanket. Closing her eyes, she pretended that Regina was there with her, whispering in her ear, nibbling on her earlobe, kissing her neck, running her fingers up and down her...
Jerking upright in the cozy den, Stella realized she was about to slip away into a dream world draped in a pleasant shade of pink, but as long as the Paper Monster kept growling at her up on the desk, she didn't have time for any distractions.
"Whut? Uh, no I'm sorry, Reggie... I didn't catch the last thing you-"
"Yeah, I'm a bit tired."
"Oh no, you gotta hang up already? But your little honey-bunny is missing her big Snookums SO badly," Stella said and performed a disappointed little rock-a-shimmy on the carpet.
"Oh... okay. No, I'm gonna make myself a gallon of coffee. The cherry cola isn't doing the trick tonight."
"Love you too. Bye, Reggie... see ya tomorrow. Here's a goodnight kiss for ya, mmmmmua!"
Stella turned off the phone and threw it up onto the desk. From the BUMPH! and the resulting growl, she reckoned she had whacked the Paper Monster over the head but it didn't exactly leave her ruing the toss.
A yawn cracked her face wide open from ear to ear but she was determined to get back up and continue her chores. Her determination only lasted for two seconds beyond thinking it - then a laziness brought on by the two sandwiches in her gut took over and she bumped back against the inner wall of the desk. "Naw, I gotta... but I don't wanna... but I gotta... but I don't wanna... but I..." - Yawn! - "Gotta... ZZZZzzzzzzzzz..."
Coughing and spluttering, the nine-year old Stella Starr spat out the mouthful of sand she had collected when she had fallen flat on her face on the white beach north of Bay City.
She shook her dirty-blonde mop of hair and sat back on her thighs, eager to get all the sand out so she wouldn't be chewing grits the rest of the day. She knew the best way to do that was to stick her fingers in the corners of her mouth and say: "BLBLBLBLBLBLBL!" really loud and fast - so that's exactly what she did.
"Oh, Stella!" a young, female voice said behind her.
"BLBLBLBL"-ing once again just to get the final grains out, Stella got on her feet and dusted off her hands, her white Casper The Friendly Ghost t-shirt and her blue shorts. Turning around, she pushed up her glasses and glanced at Gennifer, a girl from her class, and once again wondered how two blondes could be so different.
Not only was Gennifer nearly five inches taller than Stella's four foot six-and-a-half, she was obnoxious to the power of five, too. A real abrasive package of designer clothes, snooty attitude and huge, stylish hair. Most of the times, the color of their hair seemed to be the only thing they had in common - except for the love of raspberry fizz.
"Look," Gennifer said and shifted a clipboard covered in stickers of Madonna, Wham! and Whitney Houston, "we don't have all day. Mrs. Jordan gave us a simple assignment: go down to the beach, find some seaweed, put it in a plastic bag and bring it back. Stella, why is that so hard for you?"
"It's not hard, Gennifer... I just tripped over that piece of driftwood. I didn't see it. If you had been in front, you would have tripped, too!"
"I don't have time to argue with you," Gennifer said and began to walk further down towards the edge of the water. "I'm going to find that seaweed now. You can follow if you want, but if you fall into the water, you're on your own."
Stella's chin quivered slightly but she gulped down the tears and settled for sticking out her tongue at Gennifer's back as the obnoxious girl walked along the beach. "I didn't wanna come along to this camp school!" she said loudly, but Gennifer didn't even acknowledge it and kept walking. "My mom made me go! I'd much rather be at home drawing or writing... it's much more fun... I can do what I wanna and not have to... to..."
With drooping shoulders, Stella realized Gennifer had already gone so far she couldn't hear her. Sighing, she bent down and picked up her own clipboard that she had dropped when she fell. Like Gennifer's, it was covered in stickers but hers were of actresses rather than pop stars - Lea Thompson, Ally Sheedy and Molly Ringwald.
An hour later, the entire class was assembled at the dunes overlooking the sandy beach. Mrs. Jordan was droning on about the finer points of seaweed but the on-site biology class couldn't hold Stella's attention. She had her eyes firmly trained on a bird's nest that was balancing on a fork in a branch in one of the trees behind the dunes, and it took all her willpower to look at Mrs. Jordan once in a while to at least seem like she was paying attention.
The bird's nest won out, and Stella exploited a particularly boring stretch in the lecture to slip away. She was quickly at the trees and found an old stump to sit on while she watched the nest. She could hear bird song, but she wasn't sure what kind of bird it would be.
With a smile on her lips and a couple of excited, red blotches on her cheeks, she opened her clipboard to a clean page and began drawing a sketch of what she thought was up there.
A little while later, she suddenly noticed that Mrs. Jordan had stopped talking behind her. Looking over her shoulder, she saw to her great horror that the class had left the dunes and were well on their way back to the camp school compound.
"They left without me... but... but... didn't nobody notice I wasn't there...?" she said in a voice that trailed off into nothing.
Sighing deeply, she adjusted her glasses and began the five-hundred yard trek back to the huts with her clipboard under her arm and rejection set heavily in her shoulders.
Walking into the forecourt of the compound, she wiped her nose on the back of her hand, and then wiped the shiny back of her hand on the seat of her shorts. She caught a glimpse of a group of girls jumping rope next to the mess hall, but she didn't know if she dared to go over there and ask if she could play along.
She kept hemming and hawing for a few minutes but eventually decided there wasn't any point in trying - they'd just turn her down like they always did. Turning left, she went past a group of boys playing rough'n tumble football before shuffling into the mess hall to see if she could find herself an early treat instead.
The field excursion had taken longer than anyone had predicted - especially for Stella after losing track of time - and it was already late afternoon which meant the mess hall was slowly filling up with yapping, giggling and squealing kids who were seated at the tables allocated to the various classes.
At the table belonging to her own class, Stella was relieved to find Laura sitting away from most of the squealing kids, reading a book. Laura 'Law' Cruz was Stella's best friend, or rather only friend, and she was the only one who seemed to fully accept Stella's strong will and quirky ways.
"Hi, Law!" Stella said and reached down to give Laura a little best-friend-hug from above.
"Hi, Stell! Where have you been?" Laura said and put away her book, Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists Of Avalon.
'Law' - thus nicknamed because her father was a detective at the Bay City police department - was only an inch taller than Stella, and she had shoulder-length brownish hair and almond-colored eyes that were set well in a pretty face.
"I found a bird's nest in the trees and went over there and started making a drawing of it... it was such a warm, fun little place where the birds were singing and I heard an animal rustle in the bushes and the sun was shining down on the crowns that were swaying in the breeze and it was really beautiful. But when I was done you had all left... where'd ya go? Uh, I know where you went 'cos you went back here so never mind that, but why didn't nobody notice I wasn't there?"
Laura shrugged and put a hand on Stella's arm. "I don't know," she said truthfully.
"Me neither. Anyway, I found a bird's nest like I told you and I made a drawing of it. You wanna see my drawing?"
"Sure!" Laura said with a big smile.
Matching the smile with one of her own, Stella opened the clipboard to the relevant page and pushed it over to her friend.
After supper - where Stella had drawn attention to herself for exclaiming loudly that the healthy, nutritious soup tasted like nuked shoe polish - all the kids streamed out of the mess hall to mill around in the forecourt.
There was just enough time to play for an hour before the seven-thirty curfew, but when Stella looked around for Law, she couldn't see her anywhere. Sighing, she shuffled over to a stone bench where she wanted to make another drawing, but she was suddenly surrounded by five girls; Gennifer in charge of her pack of harpies.
"Hey, Stella... where are you going?" Gennifer said and blocked Stella's way.
"None of your business."
"Girls, you should have seen Humpty-Dumpty today. Fell flat on her face down on the beach," Gennifer mocked, giving Stella a little push on the shoulders of her Casper t-shirt. "Yeah. Oh, that was so graceful, Humpty. Face in the sand and ass high in the sky... real classy."
"Shut up..." Stella croaked and adjusted her glasses.
"Oooh! Make me, Humpty!"
The far taller girl and her harpies all took a step towards Stella who clutched her clipboard like crazy, afraid that Gennifer would take it again and mock her drawings and little poems that she had worked so hard on.
Then it happened; Snickering, Gennifer reached for the clipboard but Stella hung on. Gennifer tried to yank it towards her, but Stella just clenched her jaw - and her fists - and was determined to fight for her privacy.
"You're not getting it!" Stella said through clenched teeth. She couldn't stop a little sob from escaping her lips, but it only made the harpies bully her even worse.
"Girls! Behave!" a mature female voice called out from somewhere behind the fighting girls.
Through a veil of tears, Stella could see that it was Mrs. Jordan, a teacher she hadn't always seen eye to eye with. This time, however, she was glad to see the older woman because it made Gennifer and her harpies take a step back and temporarily stop their bullying.
Seeing freedom ahead of her, Stella sprinted between Gennifer and the girl to her left and made a break for the beach where she knew she'd be safe. Running as fast as her short legs would allow, she was soon on the sand where her progress was slowed a bit.
She didn't stop running until she came to the tree where she had seen the bird's nest. Panting hard, she bent over to catch her breath before sitting down on the stump she had used earlier. Her calves and thighs were burning from the exertion of running so fast for so long, and she let out a pained groan that was swept away by the salty breeze that always seemed to come in from the vast Pacific.
Using the clipboard as a fan, she waved fresh air at her legs to stop them from burning so badly. She eventually regained her breath, but she knew the worst was still to come.
She looked with deep regret at the path back to the compound. She knew if she wasn't back before the curfew, she'd have hell to pay with Mrs. Jordan, the principal and ultimately her mother, but she didn't care.
"And it doesn't matter anyhow..." she whispered to herself so she wouldn't disturb the bird in the nest, "nobody's gonna notice I'm gone. Well, Law might, but what can she do on her own? No... I might as well... might as well... wait... what is that?"
Behind her, she could hear a horse trotting along the beach. The unusual sound piqued her interest and she turned around and hid behind the stump so she could observe without being observed herself.
Soon, a beautiful woman wearing a white gown came riding into the scene on a tall, white stallion. The woman had long, dark hair that flew in a perfect cascade behind her, and as she came closer to the edge of the beach, she reached out at her gawking spectator.
"What in the world?" Stella said and looked down at her body. Instead of her nine-year old self, she had matured into an adult woman, though her clothes were the same, a Casper T-shirt and a pair of blue shorts.
"Stell?" the rider said, revealing herself to be Regina Harrison.
"Reggie? How... where in Sam Hill did you get that horse?" Stella said and jumped up from her hiding place. "You didn't sell the Merc without asking, did you? Shoot, the leasing company is gonna skin us alive..."
"Shut up and get up here," Regina said and put out her arm.
For once Stella did as told and climbed up on the tall stallion where she slipped into place in front of Regina. When she was safely seated, she felt her lover's arms around her waist pulling her into a strong hug and a sideways kiss. "Mmmm... I love you, Reggie," she mumbled, closing her eyes and enjoying the sweet contact.
'Well, that's good to know... I love you, too, Stell,' Regina said from a million miles away.
"Wh- wh- whut? Whut?" Stella croaked, slowly coming back to the surface. Looking around, she realized at once that she had dreamt the whole thing. She wasn't at the beach north of Bay City, she was still inside the cozy den under the desk. It wasn't 1985 and she wasn't a lonely nine-year old, it was present day and she was a thirty-seven year old woman with the world's most gorgeous girlfriend - and a lower body that had gone numb all the way up to her navel. "Oh, Gawd..." she croaked when she tried to get herself out of the cramped position.
She eventually fell to her right, bumping down on the plush carpet right in front of a pair of shoes she knew quite well. "Reggie?" she croaked, looking up at the twenty feet tall woman who was towering above her.
"Who else? Maybe... Laura... hmmm?" Regina said and winked several times at her blonde companion.
"Oh, I, uh... I said that out loud?"
Crouching down, Regina helped Stella up into a sitting position, but as soon as she let go, the rag doll collapsed again, this time falling backwards. "Yep, you did... hmmm. How long have you been sitting in there, Stell?"
"Ever since we spoke on the phone. When was that?"
"An hour and a bit ago."
Regina chuckled and quickly took off her trench coat to move more freely. With a heave-ho, she reached under Stella's back and numb legs and simply lifted her off the carpet.
"Ohhhh," Stella breathed, leaning into Regina's soft chest. "I love you, Snookums... you're my knight in a white gown..."
"Uh-huh? I look great in white. Anyway, I came by 'cos I wanted to surprise you, but when I peeked in, I couldn't see you anywhere," Regina said and deposited Stella on their couch, "but the lights were still on so I got kinda worried. By the way, who's Laura?"
"A dear friend from school... I was back there, Reggie!" Stella said and grabbed hold of Regina's blazer jacket with both hands, crumbling the delicate fabric in her strong grip. "I was back and it was horrible! Horrible! HOR-rible, Reggie!"
"I believe you... ugh... let go... let go, Stell... this is an original Bruno Lanier! Pleeeeease!"
"Oh... sorry," Stella said and bumped back down on the couch. After a few seconds of hard thinking, she rolled over onto her right and observed Regina trying to straighten out her expensive blazer. "I wonder what she's doing now... didya know her nickname was Law? We called her that 'cos her Dad was a cop downtown."
"Yeah? Maybe Mary-Jane Moynes knows him, or at least knew him from earlier? Perhaps you could ask about him the next time we speak to her," Regina said and whipped off her blazer to survey the damage.
"Yeah... that's not a bad idea... not a bad idea at all," Stella said dreamily, rolling over onto her back. "She was probably the first girl I had a real crush on... I think... yeah. But that was a couple of years later. You wanna hear about it, Reggie?"
Regina gave up trying to straighten the blazer and hung it from the backrest of her swivelchair for later. Kicking off her shoes, she moved over to the couch and sat down on the carpet so she was at eye level with her friend. "I'd love to," she said and gave Stella's hands a little squeeze.
THE END of KNIGHT IN A WHITE GOWN
Concluded in Part 2
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