Part 2 - Disclaimers in Part 1
V - DIAMONDS ARE A P.I.'S WORST NIGHTMARE
Written by Norsebard
The March sun was shining, the coffee was hot, the donuts had chocolate frosting and the pictures in the scrapbook that documented the revived modeling career of Regina Harrison were hi-gloss and just plain ol' sensational. All in all, Stella Starr was happy with life.
Whistling through her teeth, she put a tray with her coffee mug and a plate with the two donuts down on the low table and immediately jumped up into the couch. Folding her legs up underneath her, she opened the scrapbook to the first page before taking the mug in her left hand and the first donut in her right.
The opening page was an ad Regina had done for Pegasus Jewelry. She was supposed to promote a gold necklace, but the only thing Stella didn't look at was the actual piece of jewelry - Regina's cheekbones were so sharply defined, her eyes were so blue and her entire appearance was so husky and smoldering that all Stella could do was to let out a wolf call and a throaty moan. "Yeah, baby... you still gotmmff itmmff," she mumbled around a bite of donut.
After taking a sip of her coffee, she flipped the page and nearly fell off the couch at the sight of Regina's endless right leg promoting a well-known brand of nylons. "Yeahhhhh...." she breathed, running her fingers up the picture of the thigh.
The next photo was one of Regina in gold lamé and a black top hat. The ad was supposedly promoting a bar of soap, but that wasn't what Stella had in mind when she saw the picture. "Oh-hoooooo, Reggie... niiiice..."
The final photos in the first batch were screen captures from a TV ad promoting the Bay City Florists Online Delivery Services in which Regina - in a stylish pantsuit and high heels - played a businesswoman who was given a bouquet of roses from Random Guy who seemed to be very enamored with her character. The company's tagline was 'Bay City Florists, flowers create magic,' and the sequence of screencaps showed very clearly what kind of magic had been created as Regina and Random Guy ended up walking away hand in hand. "Ugh... don't like that one... nuh-uh," was Stella's only comment before flipping the page to the next image, a promotional headshot of Regina.
Just as she took a big bite out of her chocolate frosted donut to get the image of Regina with some guy out of her mind, the door burst open and the real Regina Harrison stormed into the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency.
Regina was wearing regular blue jeans and a maroon shirt over a black tank, but the six-foot-one frame of the dark-haired, graceful woman seemed far more agitated than usual, and at first, she couldn't even speak.
When she did, Stella wished she hadn't: "Stell, somebody's broken into your Pacer!"
There was no reaction from Stella during the first second after the awful announcement; the second second didn't bring anything either, but by the time the third second rolled past, the blonde investigator let out a fire alarm-like scream that threatened to blow out every single one of the windows. "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-" she screamed, jumping up from the couch.
Regina immediately clapped her hands over her ears, but that meant she couldn't stop Stella from tearing through the office and storming out the door in her short-sleeved red-and-green checkered flannel shirt, her baby blue jogging pants - that had a hole on the right knee - and her Tasmanian Devil socks. "-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA... my- my- my- c- c- car... my Pacer! Oh no, my Pacer! What did they do those fee... fi... fo... fu... miserable rotten ba... bas... criminals?!"
On her way over to her beloved brown AMC Pacer, she had no problem figuring out what had happened - the hatchback was wide open. She quickly came to a screeching halt at the car and began to hop, skip and jump around, alternating between her left and right leg. Her eyes were nearly bugging out on stalks, her face was pale except for two red blotches on her cheeks, and the muscles on her neck stood out very clearly, creating a trunk-like effect on her otherwise so slender throat.
Regina came up to stand behind her friend and lover but decided it would be best for all involved if she waited for the volcanic activity to blow over before she attempted a hug.
Instead, she looked at the lock on the hatchback. "It wasn't jimmied, it was smashed open," she said, leaning in to study the completely ruined cylinder. "Oh, whoever it was left us a little gift... he dumped a plastic bag in the trunk. Or is that yours, Stell?"
A jerky shake of the head made Regina grunt and look back at the strange, small plastic bag. "Odd. Really odd. Okay, other than that, it doesn't look like anything's been stolen. I'm gonna go in and take the keys, Stell... okay? Stell, please don't go nuclear on me while I'm away... okay?"
A jerky nod made Regina hurry back to the office to get the keys.
Two minutes later, Regina unlocked the driver's side door and peeked inside, mindful not to touch the steering wheel in case the burglar had left fingerprints. "Naw, everything looks like it should here, too... the eight-track player is still there... of course, nobody in their right mind would take that. Never mind."
Regina closed the door and crossed over to the passenger side, casting a sideways glance at Stella who still hadn't calmed down. After opening the other door, she bent over and peeked into the glove box. "Kenny Rogers, The Carpenters, The Osmonds, Jackson Five... no, the cartridges are all there, Stell. Really weird. Looks like he went through all that trouble just to dump a plastic bag..."
When Regina came back to the rear of the Pacer, Stella had cooled down enough for a hug, so she pulled the fiery blonde into a crushing, comforting, soothing embrace.
"My car," Stella croaked, sniffing deeply while looking at the ruined lock.
"I know," Regina cooed, patting the back of Stella's head.
Stella sighed deeply and moved away from Regina, though not before placing a loving kiss on the tall woman's lips. "I came in at six thirty because I wanted to do some paperwork... I didn't hear a thing so it must have happened really quickly. What do you think he left us in the bag?"
"No idea, Stell. You wanna find out?"
"Yeah... hang on... I'll get the oven mitts and the sausage tongs..."
Wearing an ice hockey goalie mask, a long windbreaker she had put on backwards and oven mitts that reached up past her elbows, Stella inched closer to the Pacer with the sausage tongs out ahead of her like it was a mine detector.
When she finally arrived at the car, she used the sausage tongs to give the suspicious-looking plastic bag a little push and was relieved to see that nothing disgusting came out of it. "Well, he didn't use it to take a dump," she said behind the mask.
"Ew, Stell... why'dya have to say something like that," Regina said and took a hasty step back from the brown car.
Stella chuckled darkly behind the goalie mask but soon sobered. "Sorry... oh, to hell with it, I'm just gonna... give... it a little... shake..." she said and pushed the plastic bag around the carpet in the trunk.
"Oh... there's a note," she said when what looked like a luggage tag slipped out of the plastic bag, "something's written on it... and it's bloody..."
"Bloody?" Regina said and pushed her way past Stella to peek in.
"Yup... bloody. Can you see what the name is?"
"Mmmmm... no. Not really... looks French..."
"I'll give it another little pu- Cheese... oh... flip...!"
Stella had finally managed to give the plastic bag a strong enough push to empty it out onto the upholstery. Instead of the bubblegum wrapper, the spent condom or the ketchup and mustard-smeared hot dog tray she had expected, she and Regina were looking at seven rocks - and not just any rocks; seven expertly cut diamonds that glittered like mad in the spring sunshine.
"Oooo-kay..." Stella said as she raised the goalie mask to get a full view of the diamonds. "Reggie... you know a lot more about that stuff than I do... do they look real to you?"
Grunting, Regina reached into the trunk of the Pacer to pick up a rock. She held it up against the blue sky and marveled at the way the colors and light played in the many little facets. "Uh-huh!"
"Oooo-kay... well, we can't leave them out here," Stella said and rubbed her chin. The oven mitts made the gesture quite difficult so she took off her entire protective equipment and ran her hands through her dirty-blonde haystack of hair that had been flattened by the goalie mask. "Reggie, pack 'em up and... Reggie? Reggie, snap out of it, will you? You can gawk at those rocks when we get 'em into the office... Reggie!"
Regina was far too busy with admiring the diamonds to listen to her shorter friend, but she certainly felt the index finger poking her rather rudely in the gut. "I beg your pardon!" she said, rubbing her side.
"You're pardoned," Stella said, scooping the rest of the diamonds back into the bag. "And while you're at it, I need that rock you're holding... Reggie? Reggie!"
"Rock. Bag. Now," Stella said and held up the bag.
"Oh, all right." - Sighing, Regina put her favored rock into the bag and watched with a look of unbridled desire as Stella wrapped it up and put it inside one of the oven mitts to keep it safe.
"I thought you only looked at me like that," Stella said with a pout.
"Yeah, but you're my little diamond, honey... diamond in the rough, of course."
Stella chuckled out loud, but the sound got stuck in her throat when she looked at the sorry state of her car. "Hmmm. Yeah. You big, lovable goof."
"But of course!" Regina said and flicked her hair over her shoulder where it obviously landed in a perfect cascade. To underline her words, she turned around and cocked her hips in Stella's direction, thus performing the first stance of her much-loved Too Cool For Words routine. "No?" she said and put her pinkie between her lips.
Stella rolled her eyes and went back to her beloved car. "Reggie, why don't you go in and try to call Inspector Moynes... these rocks gotta come from somewhere. I'll put the bloody luggage tag into one of those fancy evidence bags I bought a stack of at the flea market... and, uh... I better ask Billy if he has room for my old girl. Can't leave her out here like this," she said as she caressed the old bodywork around the tail-lights.
The request was answered by a little snicker and a pat on the rear. "I thought you only looked at me like that," Regina said, echoing Stella's earlier words.
"I know, I know. Call the Inspector," Regina said and shrugged in her patented can't-give-a-hoot-fashion. With a flurry, she spun around and walked inside, remembering to slam her hips left and right in her favored model-walk as she crossed the parking lot - though the look was spoiled somewhat by the oven mitt containing the diamonds.
Stella observed the slamming hips and drew a pretty picture in her mind, quietly giving herself a little physical pick-me-up even though she had more important things to deal with.
Fifteen minutes later, Stella came back into the office and closed the door behind her. "Billy wasn't in. There was a note on the door saying that he'd be back tomorrow. I couldn't get the hatchback to close by itself so I've jammed it shut with some rope that's attached to the jack and the spare tire," she said and moved over to the table where she'd had such a good time earlier.
One of the donuts had fallen onto the floor in the earlier excitement and had deposited all its chocolate frosting on the carpet. "Shoot... and I'll bet my coffee's gone cold, too... yep. Uh-huh. Of course. Why not. Double shoot."
Regina was sitting at her desk with her legs resting on the corner like always. When Stella came over to her, she waved at her boss, friend and bedmate with her bare feet, a gesture that was repeated with a single Howdy by a rather filthy Tasmanian Devil.
"They must be insanely busy today," Regina said, holding her hand over the microphone in the receiver, "I've been on hold the whole time."
"Do they still use the theme from Knight Rider?"
"No, it's a new one. I know it but I can't place it... here, listen," Regina said and held up the receiver.
Stella quickly bent down and put the old-fashioned telephone to her ear. "Hmmm, you're right... that's a TV oldie... but which one... it's definitely from the 1980s. Bum-bu-bum-bummmm, bum-bum-bu-bummm... hmmm. I gotta think. Hey, you want some coffee?"
"No, thank you."
"I do. I only got half a mug before," Stella mumbled and moved over to the small table behind the door, constantly humming the theme song in her head.
While the coffee machine was blubbering merrily, Stella moved over to her desk to turn on their laptop. After writing the log-on code, she took the evidence bag with the bloody tag and put it on the desktop. "Waitaminute... is it Spenser For Hire? No. Hmmm."
The challenge called for all the brain power she had, so she shuffled around the desk to her chair where she had enough peace and quiet to rack her brain to come up with the right title. "It's not Kojak or Streets Of San Francisco... no. Baretta? No. Rockford Files? No. They're all from the 1970s. Hmmm. Hmmm!"
She shot up from the chair and began to pace back and forth, using one hand to rub her brow while clenching and unclenching the other behind her back. "Riptide? No. The Incredible Hulk? No... another 1970s show."
At the other desk, Regina let out a chuckle at her friend's antics.
"Jake and The Fatman? No. Airwolf? No... that's very recognizable. Is it even a TV theme?"
"Gotta be," Regina said and held up the receiver, "it's too cheesy to be from a movie."
"Oh, you never know with the 1980s... that was a colorful decade," Stella mumbled under her breath, remembering the recent dream she'd had where she was nine years old.
By the time the coffee machine let out a shrill, electronic Ding, Stella had nearly worn a hole in the carpet. Growling at her inability to connect with the theme song, she strode over to the little table and poured herself a full mug of dark, hot coffee. "Miami Vice...?" she said around a sip.
"No way. Not even close. I watched that show religiously," Regina said from the other desk.
"Hmmm," Stella said and moved over to the laptop. Shrugging, she found the search engine they always used and entered a few keywords. "Hmmm... listen to this article, Reggie. Diamond trader robbed in broad daylight. In the artisan district, the forty-two year old diamond trader Avi Friedman was held at gunpoint and robbed of a briefcase containing cut diamonds at a value of nearly one million dollars. Yikes."
"Friedman... that's not the name that's on the bloody note, though."
"No... okay, here's another article," Stella said and clicked on the next link. "Case of armed robbery of diamond trader breaks open, arrests made. Two men in their late thirties, Jules Foch and Vincent Charlebois arrested in connection with the armed robbery of diamond trader Avi Friedman. Further man wanted for questioning. Police are asking for information from the public. Hmmm. That was more than a month ago."
"Foch?" Regina said and swung her legs off the corner of the desk. "Could that be it, Stell?"
Grunting, Stella took the evidence bag and held it so she could see the name. "Mmmm-yeah... mmmm-no... F-a-u-c-something-something-something. It looks like it, though it doesn't use the same spelling as in the article."
"Doesn't necessarily mean anything."
"True. Any luck with the Inspector?"
"Nope," Regina said and held out the receiver where the cheesy theme was still playing.
"21 Jump Street? No. Ohwhatthehellisthatsong?!" Stella said and threw her hands in the air.
Twenty minutes later, Regina was no nearer getting through to Inspector Moynes and Stella was no nearer to finding the title of the song despite going through every online music and television database she could think of.
"I can't stand that Muzak anymore... I give up," Regina said and slammed the receiver down on the phone.
"Can't say that I blame you, Reggie... bum-bu-bum-bummmm, bum-bum-bu-bummm. Bum-bu-bum-bum-"
"Stop humming!" - Spinning around, Regina took an elastic band and fired it slingshot-style at her wild-haired friend.
"Sorry!" Stella squealed while she ducked to get out of the way of the missile that only made it two-thirds of the way there.
"No, you're not!"
"Ha!" Stella cried, peeking over the edge of her desk. "Missed! Again!"
"Oh, you! I didn't miss, I was aiming at the desk!"
"You didn't hit that either, Reggie... you wanna borrow my glasses?"
"No thanks. If I offer a cease-fire, will you come over here and give me a kiss?"
Predictably, Stella was out of her chair before Regina had even finished saying the S-sound in 'kiss'. The blonde investigator strode across the plush carpet and leaned down to meet her friend's friendly lips halfway there. "I will, Snookums," she said once they separated.
"Good. So, you wanna go back to the case we've stumbled over?"
Stella kept standing with her hands on the armrests of Regina's swivel-chair. She had a look in her eyes that showed she was thinking very, very hard about it, but she ultimately nodded and leaned down to give her lover another brief kiss. "We better," she said on her way back to her own desk.
Regina smiled and put her legs back up on the corner of her desk. "All right. What do we actually have here, Stell? One," - she started counting off on her fingers - "we have a bag containing seven cut diamonds. Two, we have a foreign name on a bloody luggage tag. Three, we have a news article that gives us the info that a million dollars worth of cut rocks were robbed from a trader... where's the connection?"
"Where's the connection... and number Four, where's the connection to us? Why did they end up in my Pacer? The rotten, miserable, good-fer-nothin' so-and-so..." Stella grumbled, taking notes in her notepad.
"The name on the luggage tag isn't the same as the trader, so it could be one of the robbers or a shady customer."
"Yeah," Stella said and put down her ball point pen. Leaning back in her chair, she rubbed her chin several times and began to tweak her right earlobe. "Reggie... do you... nah."
When Stella didn't continue, Regina shrugged and took her own notepad to scribble down a few thoughts and ideas.
"Reggie, could it be... nah."
"Stell! Will ya get to the point!"
"CoulditbetheFrenchmafia?" Stella said, speaking so fast that it came out as a single word. She had barely spoken the sentence before she ducked her head down between her shoulders and began to squint at all the windows.
"The French Mafia?"
"Yes!" Stella whispered. "They're a rough bunch. They have a hundred-and-ten different ways to make you talk, you know... water torture... they make you drink a lot of wine but won't allow you to soften it with water or go to the little girls' room... they put burning bamboo sprouts under your fingernails-" she whispered, slowly ducking so far down she ended up with her nose being level with the edge of the desk.
"If it's the French Mafia, don't you think they'll have burning baguettes instead?"
"-make you suffer through a load of foreign movies with subtitles... hey... baguettes? I'm trying to be serious here, Reggie!"
"Uh-huh? The French Mafia, yeah right. That's such a stereotype, Stell... like every Asian person knows martial arts. You've been watching too many movies. Just because the names are foreign doesn't mean they're with the Mafia. They could be kindergarten teachers for all we know."
"Sure, but... kindergarten teachers don't usually rob diamond traders at gunpoint..." Stella said and scratched her eyebrows.
"It was an example, Stell," Regina said flatly.
"Oh... okay. I knew that."
"Oh, we gotta do something!" Stella said and jumped up from her chair. Reaching into her bottom drawer, she found a small, brown digital wristwatch that she put on. With a sigh, she pressed one of the buttons and watched the digital readout come alive.
"A Dictaphone watch."
"When ya buy that?"
"Couple of weeks ago. Hush, it's ready," Stella said and stood up straight - it only lasted for two seconds, then she hunched over again to be a smaller target in case Mafia assassins had already lined up outside the office building. "My name is Stella Starr and I'm a Private Investigator. I am recording this message out of my own free will. If I'm to disappear or d- d- die before this case is wrapped up, I would like to... to... no, that's not right. Uh... okay... if I'm not to survive this assignment..."
"Oh, Stell," Regina groaned and buried her face in her hands.
Ten minutes of Stella's ramblings was all Regina could take, so she reached for the phone and tried calling the police station again. 'Perhaps I should call the asylum instead...?' she thought and looked at her very blonde friend who was acting out some of her past history to record it for posterity. 'Nah... she's too cute for that.'
The awful Muzak started again, but unlike her first attempts, it was mercifully short. An electronic click proved that she had finally reached her destination.
'You've reached the Bay City Police Department, First Precinct. How can I help you?' a female voice said at the other end of the line.
"Hi, this is Regina Harrison from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. I need to speak with Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes, please," Regina said and found her notepad.
'I'm sorry, Inspector Moynes isn't available, Miss Harrison.'
"Oh... all right. Do you have anyone there who worked with her on the Avi Friedman diamond robbery case?"
'One moment, please...'
Regina could hear the secretary mumble a few words in the background, but they were too muffled to make out.
'If you'll hold for two minutes, you can speak to Detective Faucher. He worked with Inspector Moynes.'
"I'll hold," Regina said and put her hand over the receiver. "Stell... Stell! While you're freaking out, I'm actually working here!"
Stella stood up straight and stopped acting out an incident that had seen her accidentally dent the fender of her father's Plymouth when she was twelve years old. "Whut?"
"I'm earning my wages, Stell. I can't get hold of Mary-Jane but I'm about to talk to one of the detectives who worked with her on the case."
"Oh... that's good. Just keep it up and there's a strong chance you'll end up as a halfway decent investigator one day."
Regina swept her legs off the desk, spun around and shot Stella a dark, insulted glare, but she couldn't hold it for long - then she stuck out her tongue and waggled it at her friend.
"Ah, you know I love you, Reggie! I love you so much the skin between my big toe and the next one itches when I think of ya," Stella said with a snicker. Turning off the recording device in her wristwatch, she shuffled over to her chair and picked up the phone, ready to talk to the detective whenever the contact was established.
When the detective finally came to the phone, he only had time to say, 'Hello, this is Detective Calvin Faucher,' before Stella's eyes popped wide open and her jaw became slack.
With trembling fingers, she slammed her own receiver down on the phone and jumped up from the chair. In oh point two, she was at Regina's desk where she checked the name on the bloody luggage tag - 'F-a-u-c-h-e-r.'
Yelping, Stella tore the receiver from Regina's hands and slammed that down as well.
"What the F-?!" Regina said, nearly falling off her chair.
"-Frenchman! A French detective! He's a spy! An agent sent in to eliminate us before we can dig too deep in the mysterious and quite frankly scary case of the stolen diamonds. Reggie! Don't you understand that if you had spoken to him at length, he would have tracked down our position and sent out an extermination team to exterminate us?"
"He didn't have to... I told the secretary that I was from the Harrison-Sta-"
"OH NO! No, no, no, no, no, we're gonna die, Reggie! They're gonna send one of those assassination squads and w- w- w- wipe us out! I' don't wanna die, Reggie! I look horrible in a dark suit and with my arms crossed over my chest and a hole in my forehead and I especially look horrible in a lined coffin where there's no room to breathe or even crack a fart and-and-and-"
"And we're gonna hafta find our passports and pack our suitcases and leave at once... oh no... I don't think I've kept my passport updated... I haven't been abroad for a decade and even then I was only down to Tijuana with a girlfriend and that was only for a weekend 'cos she wanted me to smoke pot laced with some other gunk but I didn't wanna and-and-and she made goo-goo eyes at a guy while we were down there... can you believe that? But it was such a flop that I never saw her again and I cried myself asleep for a week but I was so much younger then and I wanna grow old and I don't wanna die!"
"What in the world has gotten into you today, Stell...?" Regina said and rose from her chair. "Are you on some kind of medication? You didn't drink a fermented cherry cola or something, did you?"
"It's them!" Stella shrieked and jumped a foot in the air. "The assassination squad! The extermination team! They've found us! They've found us! Goodbye, Reggie! I want you to know that I loved you!"
With that, Stella sprinted away from a gawking Regina, threw herself down on the carpet and dove under the couch. It was a snug fit, but by sucking in her gut she could pass under the lower edge. Once she was fully under, she had more room to breathe.
"Stell, I don't know where your cell is! Stella?" - no reply.
"I knew this would happen one day... she's had one Meaty Mama too many... she's snapped..." Regina groaned and began to look around for the telephone.
"Stella, I don't know where your phone is, for cryin' out loud!"
"Mumble, mumble, mumble!"
"In my vest pocket!" Stella said, briefly popping her head out from underneath the couch. In the minute she had been down there, she had assembled quite an impressive collection of dust bunnies in her hair.
"Okay," Regina said and hurried over to the hallstand by the door. "And Stell, you need a new ringtone. The one you have now just gotta go... Hello, this is Regina Harrison?" she said after she had found the phone in the pocket.
"Oh, hi, Inspector Moynes. I've been trying to reach you all morn-"
"OOOOOOOOOH!" Stella howled underneath the couch.
"No, that was Stella... she's a bit beside herself today."
"Mmmm-yeah, that's a good way to describe it," Regina said and looked at the gray-haired Stella who quickly popped back inside.
Chuckling at the Inspector's words, Regina walked across the carpet to sit down at her own desk. Once she was there, she put her legs up on the corner and made herself comfortable. "Yeah, that's very true, Inspector."
"Well, we wanted to ask if there has been any recent development in the Friedman diamond robbery case."
"Yes, it's come up in one of our investigations."
Mumble, mumble... mumble, mumble, mumble.
"Okay. Well, it was worth a shot." - Regina leaned forward and took her notepad. In it, she wrote that Inspector Moynes hadn't made any progress in the case based on the simple fact that the two men who had been arrested weren't talking.
"I'm really sorry, Inspector... I don't think Stella can talk now."
From underneath the couch, the aforementioned investigator crept closer to the edge and stuck out her nose and glasses. "What's it about?" she whispered.
"I'll ask," Regina said with her hand across the little hole where the microphone was on the cell. "Inspector? May I ask what it's about?"
"Okay. Hang on," Regina said and covered the microphone again. "Stell, it's the info you requested about the father of your old friend from school."
"Oh!" Stella said and tried to scoot out from under the couch. Bumbling and fumbling, she - inevitably - got hung up on the lower edge and began to moan and groan while she tried to get herself free. The moaning and groaning soon grew to such a level that it became quite embarrassing to listen to.
When Stella let rip with a juicy groan, Regina shot to her feet and hurried over to the couch to help with the extraction. "Stell... Stell, listen to me... you need to get your head out first... yeah, that's it... get your head out first... then you gotta suck it in... don't panic, we'll get you out... you came in so you can come out..."
Groan... moan. Groan! Moan, groan! Ooooh! Moan! Groan!
"Uh, no, Inspector... it's not quite what it sounds like," Regina said into the cell phone.
With an echoing PLOPP! Stella finally broke free of the underside of the couch and rolled out into the middle of the floor where she ended up flat on her back with her hands out to the sides, panting like crazy. Her short-sleeved red-and-green checkered flannel shirt and her baby blue jogging pants were covered in dust bunnies, and she was holding a four-month old pretzel in her hand. "That wasn't one of my best ideas," she croaked, wiping her nose and face free of the gray bunnies.
"Ya think?" Regina mumbled under her breath, sticking out her tongue and the cell phone so Stella could finally get to talk to the Inspector.
Stella blew her much, much taller lover a little kiss and took the phone. "Hi, Mary-Jane, this is Stella," she said, putting her free hand under her head and snuggled down on the plush carpet.
Now it was Regina's turn to groan. Rolling her eyes, she knelt down next to her prone friend and began to remove the dust bunnies one at a time, remembering to tickle the unpredictable investigator at random intervals just to keep her on her toes.
It took most of the afternoon for Stella to calm down from her paranoia, but even after mellowing out, she preferred to bend over each time she went past the windows - which was a bit unfortunate considering she was setting the coffee table for a quick afternoon snack while Regina was in the bathroom.
Tip-toeing across the carpet carrying the coffee pot and a bag from Zeligman's, Stella came to a full stop at the first window. Hunching over, she flew forward for three paces and then walked regularly for the next three. The following three paces were taken at full speed, and then she walked regularly for the final three.
"Coffee's ready, Reggie!" she said and poured the hot liquid into their two mugs.
'Almost there! Two minutes!'
"Uh-huh!" Stella said and opened the paper bag from their favorite bakery. She had sent Regina down there to get something they could both enjoy, but the further she got into the bag, the more the contents stood in opposition to her expectations and her sweet tooth. "Jewish biscuits, vanilla butter cookies, yay! Bran digestives... diet cookies, low-fat biscuits... eww... aw, hell."
Behind the grumbling investigator, Regina came out from the bathroom and clicked off the light with her elbow. It didn't take her long to notice the sour look on Stella's face, and she knew exactly what was wrong. "You don't like what I've picked, Stell?"
"Mmmm-yeah, well... bran digestives?"
"They're good for you."
"You know, that's what my Mom always said when she tried to hook me up with some guy," Stella said and put a holed vanilla butter cookie around her pinkie. "Anyway, at least you got Jewish biscuits and these wonderful things," she continued, taking a bite of the cookie.
When it proved to be as sugar-free as the others, her face practically melted and she let out a groaning cough that sent crumbs all over the place. "What's..." - cough - "this...?" - cough, cough - "This ain't-" - cough, COUGH, cough - "a vanilla butter cookie?" - cough, COUGH, COUGH!
"They're all sugar-free, Stell."
Suffering from an acute state of shock, Stella drew a sharp breath to speak her mind but didn't stop to think that she was nursing a mouthful of crumbs. Half a dozen of the little, scratchy buggers immediately went down the wrong pipe, a fact that was underlined by the way her face turned red, then white, then blue, and the way her entire body spasmed and jerked around.
"Regg-" - cough-cough-HACK-splutter-cough-hack-COUGH-splutter-SPLUTTER-hack-cough-COUGH! COUGH!-cough-SPLUTTER-hack - "-eggie! Are ya trying to-" - COUGH, HACK, COUGH - "kill me?" - SPLUTTER!
Regina threw herself onto the couch and folded her legs up underneath her. Offering Stella a slightly mischievous two-hundred watt smile, she took a Jewish biscuit and bit it in half. "They're great. I like 'em," she said after gulping it down.
"I can't believe you said that..." - cough - "I know for a fact you taste excellently-"
"Stell!" Regina said with a groan.
"Sorry, that you have excellent" - cough, cough - "taste... but ya gotta be" - splutter, cough - "kiddin' when you say you like 'em!"
Regina leaned forward and took two bran digestives. "I like 'em!" she said with a grin as she popped the first into her mouth. "Mmmmmmmh! Oh yeah, delish!"
"You weird... you very weird," Stella mumbled under her breath. "I need an O. I'm sure I got a roll of O's somewhere around here... O... O-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, where are you? O?"
She looked into the top drawer of her desk: "No O." - The bottom drawer: "No O. Where are my O's?" - The top drawer of Regina's desk: "No O here." - The bottom drawer: "No O here either! Reggie, did you eat my O's... nah, scratch that."
"O...?" Stella said, running her hands through her wild mop of hair. "O...? O! O, ya gotta be here somewhere!"
Walking with determined steps, she quickly crossed the distance to the cupboard behind the door: "No O... whaddahell?"
Stella spun around and strode up to the row of metal filing cabinets that formed the other wall of their office. "O... O... O... a... b... c... d... O... O... O... e... f... g... O... O... O... No O," she said as she pulled out each drawer in succession.
"Have ya thought about checking under, Gee I dunno... O?" Regina said with a wicked gleam in her eye.
"Oh, ha ha... HA, flippin' ha. And another HA! Of course I've thought of checking under O, Miss I-Think-I-Got-All-The-Best-Ideas-'Cos-I-Got-A-Halfway-Decent-Head-On-My-Shoulders! What do you think I'm doing here?" Stella said and pulled out the metal drawer labeled 'O.' - "... ahhh. My O's!" she continued gleefully as she finally found a brand new pack of Oreos.
She quickly tore open the pack and took out the first cookie. After sniffing it to verify its authenticity, she opened her yap and threw the entire treat inside without bothering to twist off the lid. "MMMMpf! Ommmmpf! Lovemmmmpf mymmmmpf O'smmmmpf!"
"Uh-huh?" Regina said and matched Stella's eating binge by taking on a whole diet cookie at once.
Munching like a madwoman, Stella bounded up into the couch and snuggled down next to her best friend. "Ommmpf?" she said, holding up the pack.
"No thank you, Stell. They're not good for me."
Munch, munch, GULP! - "Yeah, right... how can you say that with a straight face when you're eatin' those tasteless things? You know what?"
"I'll have another O just to compensate," Stella said as she took the next Oreo from the pack and twisted the lid off in time-honored fashion. After making short work of the creamy center, she popped both wings into her mouth and chewed on them in a rather noisy manner.
"OH, PHARCK'M!" Stella growled and smacked her forehead so hard her haystack flew in all directions. "Alwaysmmmpf whenmmmpf I'mmmmpf eatingmmmpf!"
Snickering, Regina clawed Stella's thigh and rose from the couch. "I'll get it, Stell."
The next morning dawned bright and sunny but Regina and Stella were too busy following the ancient scrolls of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, to notice.
An hour later, it was still bright and sunny and now Stella had plenty of time to notice. After pulling her bedroom curtains aside, she opened the window and took a deep breath of the clean, crisp March air. A ray of sunshine caressed her bare skin in much the same way Regina had done earlier, and she closed her eyes and let out a long, sated "Ahhhhhhhhh..." that showed that her internal batteries had been fully recharged.
Turning back to the bed, she let her eyes glide up and down the bare thigh that was visible just beyond the edge of the blanket. The grin she wore was real and it only grew wider when she sat down and ran an index finger up the thigh and in under the blanket.
"I thought you'd had enough?" Regina husked, clawing Stella's bare back.
"Of you? Never."
"Awww... thank you."
"Thank *you*, Snookums," Stella said and leaned down to give Regina a sweet good-morning kiss.
Regina reached up and pulled her lover down towards her. With a cute little sigh, she and Stella snuggled up close and were satisfied with simply sharing the same space. "Stell, I have an idea about the diamonds," Regina said as she ran a finger across Stella's bare stomach.
"Yeah? Spill it, girl."
"I think we should contact Avi Friedman and tell him we have some information that we need to deliver face to face. If he agrees to meet with us, we could ask him about the name on the bloody luggage tag."
"But not give him back his diamonds?"
"Not at first, no," Regina said and gently touched the tip of Stella's nose. "Don't forget, it said in one of the online articles that he was strangely reluctant to help the police, or even give the press what they needed to print sketches of the robbers. If we sense he's hiding something, I think it's best to give the diamonds to Mary-Jane... if not, we could give them back to him."
"Hmmm. Okay. I can go with that. That's for a little later, though."
"Well, I was going to do it now-"
"No. Later," Stella said and began to nibble on Regina's throat.
"Okay... muuuuuch later."
It was *still* bright and sunny an hour and a half later when Regina and Stella came out of the apartment complex with a spring in their step and a silly song on their lips.
Stella was wearing red tennis shoes, purple Capris, a blue Rokkstar Street Tuff T-shirt and her yellow vest. Regina was more elegant in dark gray jeans and a long-sleeved, ivory Lana é Mara blouse from the summer collection that had premiered only a few days before - but despite their differences, they looked fabulous together.
Regina quickly unlocked the SLK and helped her lover down into the dreaded bucket seats. Once the blonde investigator was safely strapped in and the roof had been lowered, the path was clear for the events of the day.
"Sweet Chicky-Dee, I got the munchies... there's gotta be something worth eating in here," Stella growled and opened the glove box. After a little rummaging around, she found a bag of Hot Chili tortilla chips. "Oooh! Hot Chili!" she said and dug in even though the bag had already been opened for a week or more.
"Stell... we've only just had breakfast... how on EARTH can you eat tortilla chips now?!"
"Watch me, Reggie." - Soon, she was chewing on a mouthful of tortilla chips and she made sure Regina was able to hear her crunch them. "Want one?" she said around a couple of chews.
"No, thank you... uggh," Regina said as she started the engine and reversed out of the parking space.
Traffic was slow so Stella had plenty of time to drive Regina off the wall with her incessant crunching - and she did. The number of dark looks she received increased exponentially as they trickled through the boulevards and connecting streets to get to the Harrison-Starr offices.
Crunch, crunch, CRUNCH, crunch.
CRUNCH, crunch, CRUNCH, crunch.
"D'ya think you-"
Crunch, CRUNCH, crunch, crunch.
"Would you mind stop-"
CRUNCH, crunch, CRUNCH, crunch.
"-ping? You're driving me-"
Crunch, crunch, CRUNCH, crunch.
Crunch, crunch - "Whassat, Reggie? These things are so loud I can't hear a darn thing." - CRUNCH, crunch.
"How many do you have left, Stell?" Regina said in a voice that bordered on the hysterical.
CRUNCH, crunch - "Not many." - crunch.
"Would you mind giving it a rest?"
Crunch, crunch - "Huh?" - CRUNCH, CRUNCH.
"Cut it OUT!" Regina howled, grabbed the bag of tortilla chips and threw it in the back seat.
Snickering, Stella blew her slightly agitated lover a little kiss while she dusted off her fingers and her mouth. "Well, there's no need to go all Ellen Ripley on me. Why didn't you just say so?"
Regina's lips moved but nary a sound came out - perhaps for the better, judging by the glares she occasionally sent her wild-haired companion.
Ten minutes later, they were stuck in the traffic jam from hell. The boulevard they were on was bumper-to-bumper with scores of cars, taxis, trucks and buses of every size ahead of them, behind them, to their left and to their right - and nothing moved.
"Pfffff," Regina said and turned off the engine. She considered standing up to take a look, but she couldn't be bothered.
As always, the distance from thought to action was shorter for Stella, so she simply unbuckled her seat belt and stood up. "Naw..." she said with a shrug as she shielded her eyes to see better. "Metal boxes everywhere. Out in the really, really far distance, I can see an ambulance and a cop car. Must be an accident."
"Probably. You have your cell?"
"Yeah," Stella said and patted her pocket.
"I think we need to go ahead with the plan," Regina said and sat up straight. "What if you called Avi Friedman's office and asked him for a meeting?"
"Good plan, Reggie... uh... what's his number?"
"You're the boss, boss," Regina said with an impossibly wide grin that earned her an immediate swat on the thigh.
"Hello, Mr. Friedman?" Stella said five minutes later after trying four different directories. "This is Stella Starr calling for the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. We believe we have information pertaining to your stolen diamonds and we want to ask if you're interested in meeting us later today at our offices on Carter Boulevard. And by us, I mean myself and my business associate Regina Harrison."
"Oh... all right, Kazuki's on Thirty-third Street?" Stella said out loud while looking at Regina.
Grabbing the cue, Regina leaned over and found their map book inside the glove box. After a bit of leafing one way, then the other, then back to the first way, she found the street and how to get there. Nodding, she gave Stella a thumbs-up.
"Works for us, Mr. Friedman," Stella said into the phone. "At noon?"
"At one, noted."
"No, Sir, no..." Stella said and shifted uncomfortably, "we're not attention-seeking gold diggers who are out for a free lunch or a quick buck off a high-profile criminal case. No."
"Yes, I'm sure you were jesting, Sir. Kazuki's at one. See you there, Mr. Friedman," Stella said and closed the connection. "Attention-seeking gold diggers..." she grumbled while putting the phone back in her vest pocket.
Chuckling, Regina reached over and mussed Stella's hair. "He's probably just being paranoid, Stell. You oughtta be able to sympathize with that... after all, you spent a lot of yesterday hiding under the couch."
"Yeah, but... hey... now that gives me a really good idea!"
"I don't wanna have sex under the couch, Stell," Regina said flatly.
Stella didn't even hear Regina's objection - she was already well on her way into building a grand, rose-tinted scheme for their immediate future. "If we ever get out of this metal hell, I want you to hold the conversation with him at the restaurant, Reggie. I shall be undercover! Deep undercover!"
"Uh-huh?" Regina said, already dreading what that would imply.
Kazuki's on Thirty-third Street proved to be a moderately-sized family-run Asian seafood restaurant with - among other features - white tiles on the floor, a long bar counter made of shiny aluminum and ten tables equipped with integrated lamps that looked like old brass bells from fishing boats. There were several more tables in a small enclosure beyond the back door, and it seemed that most of the restaurant's visitors had chosen to sit outside.
The centerpiece of the interior was a huge water tank by the front door that had been divided into two smaller basins; one for lobsters and one for Chinese mitten crabs.
Regina was sitting at a table close to the lobster basin. She had chosen to dress up for the occasion and was wearing a gun metal gray pant suit over a black, O-neck blouse. Her no-nonsense outfit, her black shoes with one-inch heels and her neat ponytail made her look the part of a serious investigator.
Moving with casual grace, she checked her wristwatch and saw they still had a few minutes before Avi Friedman was scheduled to arrive. To kill time, she picked up the menu even though she had already ordered a small platter of boiled vegetables and pickled seaweed in ginger sauce.
Even though sushi was apparently Kazuki's specialty, raw fish was the furthest from Stella's mind. Not only couldn't she stand it, she was already enjoying a crisp plaice filet with French fries and a huge glob of home-made spicy tartare sauce. Now and then, she reached for her can of Slurrpy! Cherry Cola and took a few noisy slurps through the drinking straw.
Moving with anything but casual grace, she reached into the pocket of her dirt brown cover-all - that had the name of her company, Bob's Plumbing, on the back in red and gold - and found her cell to check the time. One PM sharp.
Her mirror shade hangers enabled her to perform a visual sweep of the interior of the restaurant without the other guests noticing anything, and she exploited that anonymity to the fullest by checking out Regina's legs.
After one more dreamy sweep of her best friend's endless thighs, she smoothed down her dark mustache and goatee, and took the drinking straw to perform another noisy slurp.
Two minutes past the top of the hour, the glass door was opened and a well-dressed, clean-shaven man in his early forties with slightly dark, Middle Eastern features stepped into Kazuki's. He was somewhat heavy-set though his pale gray business suit did a good job of camouflaging his belly. A bulge halfway between his belt buckle and his right hip hinted at the presence of a firearm, or at least a holster.
Walking into the restaurant, his gray tie flipped up from the slight breeze that ran through the shop from the enclosure at the back, but he quickly smoothed it down against his white shirt.
His eyes were of an indeterminate color, but strong, and he used them to check out the few customers, glancing at the men and women with the air of someone who had plenty of experience of recognizing potential trouble. "Miss Starr?" he said, walking over to Regina's table.
"Regina Harrison, in fact. Mr. Friedman?"
"Nice to meet you," Regina said and rose from the chair. Putting out her hand, she noticed that she was an inch or two taller than he was.
Avi gave Regina's hand a strong shake and kept his eyes on hers throughout. "Nice to meet you, Miss Harrison. Have you placed an order yet? If you haven't, I can recommend the lobster," he said in an accent that was difficult to place.
"I'm sorry, I don't eat fish, Mr. Friedman," Regina said and moved back to the table.
Grunting, Avi held out her chair and made sure she was seated before he sat down on the other chair.
Within seconds, a waiter came out with Regina's seaweed. He quickly took Avi's order of the sushi du jour and went back into the kitchen.
"Now, Miss Harrison," Avi said, eyeing the odd dish that had been drenched in white sauce. "Your associate said over the phone that you have information pertaining to the shipment that was taken from me?"
After slicing open a pickled seaweed leaf and cutting a boiled asparagus in two, Regina put down her cutlery and focused on the eyes of her dinner partner. "We do, Mr. Friedman."
"Does the name Faucher mean anything to you?"
"Faucher? No," Avi said, but his eyes told a different story. "If that's all, I'm afraid this has been a waste of time."
Regina sensed at once that the man sitting opposite her was far more in the know that he let on, and she took her sweet time in stabbing the boiled asparagus she had cut in two. "The name was on a bloody luggage tag," she said and put the vegetable in her mouth. "That in turn was inside a small plastic bag with seven cut diamonds," she continued after a few seconds of elegant, classy chewing.
Avi leaned back in his seat and furrowed his brow.
Before he could speak, the waiter came out with his order. The plate of sushi du jour looked inviting, but Avi started pushing it around almost at once, having seemingly lost his appetite. "And the diamonds are... where?" he said, suddenly locking eyes with Regina.
"Oh, they're safe. They've been handed over to the Bay City Police Department."
The mumbled curse that flew from of Avi's mouth was in a language neither Regina nor Stella could understand, but the meaning was very clear. He briefly scrunched up his face and looked like he was about to blow up, but he cleared his throat and stuffed a large piece of sushi into his mouth to cover his temper.
At her own table, Stella was halfway through her plaice filet. She pretended to read a newspaper, though the only one she had been able to find was a week old and from Japan. Taking her can of cherry cola, she leaned back in her seat and observed the businessman closely.
Like Regina had noticed earlier, Stella could see that Avi was wearing a holster on his right hip, though - like Regina - she was unable to see if he was actually armed or not.
She briefly glanced at her tall, graceful friend who was eating her Oriental dish with relish. 'Brrrr... seaweed... yikes... and asparagus... gimme fat and salt any day. Yeah. Fat, salt and French Fries. In tartare sauce. My arteries will clog up but at least I'll die happy. Okay, a massive coronary is probably never particularly funny, but... eh.'
Avi dabbed his lips on a napkin and pushed the sushi away after only eating a single piece. "Miss Harrison, I feel I better tell you the whole story... or at least, the whole story from my perspective. You see, I wish you hadn't handed over the diamonds to the police. I believe... or suspect... there's a mole somewhere in the police force. Among the Detectives who worked on my case, to be exact."
Two tables over, half a mouthful of cherry cola, fries and tartare sauce went down the wrong pipe of a man in a dirt-brown cover-all - 'Carl', according to the name tag - making him gasp, wheeze, moan, cough, splutter, hack and croak to get everything back out.
Bolting upright, 'Carl' put his arms in the air and tried to apply the Heimlich maneuver to himself, but it wasn't until one of the waiters came rushing to his assistance that he was able to dislodge the French fry that had already gone halfway down into his lungs. A final croaking cough sent the offending item spewing forth from his mouth, onto the table and down onto the white tiles.
In the disturbance, 'Carl's' goatee had been pushed onto his left cheek and his mustache was drooping quite severely, but he hurriedly slapped them back in place. The fries suddenly seemed less attractive, but he still had half a plaice filet left and resisted quite vociferously when the waiter wanted to take the plate back to the kitchen.
Avi had noticed the incident with the beard, but shrugged - it was Bay City after all.
"Where was I? Oh yes," he continued, pushing his chair a bit back so he had room to cross his legs. "The diamonds came from a mine in rural Congo. I bought them in a cut state at an online auction in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The day before the robbery, they were flown to the United States, to BCX, where I picked them up at the customs office. They were sealed in a secure mail package that was transported back to my own office in an armored limousine. I've used this procedure for years and there's never been any problems."
"Only this time, there were."
"This time, I had barely stepped out of the limo before I was robbed at gunpoint by three men. Two of them were tall and beefy, and the last was slender... the last one appeared younger, too. They were all wearing ski masks so I couldn't identify them when the police showed me photos."
"Hmmm," Regina said and pushed away her empty plate.
"The police managed to arrest the two beefy men some time later, but they're not talking. The third man and the diamonds are still missing."
"Were the diamonds insured, Mr. Friedman?"
"Oh, yes. I'm not insane." A ripple rolled over Avi's upper lip, but if it was supposed to be a smile, he didn't have much luck with it.
"Mmmm. Why do you suspect a mole inside the detective squad?"
"The two men they arrested were French Canadians. One of the detectives in the squad is of French Canadian descent... and he has two brothers, one who's a customs officer at the airport and one who's been in trouble with the law several times... I've checked. And the diamonds have yet to resurface. Mmmm?"
Regina nodded and dabbed the corners of her mouth on a napkin. "Well, that does sound a bit... uh, fishy," she said, eyeing the nearly untouched plate of sushi.
"Indeed. And now you've handed over some of the diamonds to the police... Miss Harrison, would you care to make a wager on how long the diamonds will remain in their custody?"
Nodding, Regina cast a brief glance at Stella who was really, really busy reading the Japanese newspaper. "I wish we had known this earlier, Mr. Friedman."
"So do I. It's been a pleasure speaking with you, Miss Harrison," Avi said and pushed back his chair. With a smile, he put out his hand and waited for Regina to shake it.
'I was right...' Stella thought, gripping the empty can of cherry cola so hard it nearly buckled, 'I was right... there is a conspiracy... and it's the French Canadian Mafia! Among the detectives! And it was the guy Regina nearly spoke to... Sweet Chicky-Dee... we got diamonds! We got guns! And we got Le Quebecqueers! Oh Gawd, I'm gonna need a clean pair of shorts before this thing is over!'
"Are you all right, Stell... uh, Carl?" Regina said when they crossed Thirty-third Street ten minutes later to get to the SLK. "It sounded like you were trying to hack up a lung back there..."
"I almost did... I'm kinda raw..." Stella wheezed.
Regina quickly unlocked the Mercedes and helped Stella down into the bucket seat. "I'll bet. Want a tortilla chip or two?"
"Nuh-uh!" Stella said and shook her head quite hard, once again upsetting the glue on the back of the mustache. "Oh this darn thing... I thought we had it licked... guess not," she continued as she pulled the fake beard off completely and put the two items into the pocket of her cover-all.
Regina got in and turned on the engine. When there was a gap in the traffic, she activated her turning signal and drove out into the inner lane. "It was a great piece of pickled seaweed, though."
"Oh, yuck... yuck... and another yuck to give you three to choose from! Womankind isn't supposed to eat pickled seaweed, Reggie! They're... they're yucky."
"And how would you know? Besides, womankind isn't supposed to eat so much fat and salt, either, you know."
"Nonsense," Stella said and waved her hand dismissively. "plaice filet, fries and tartare sauce are good for you."
"In which parallel universe, Stell?"
"Didn't we already have this conversation? I love it! So there!"
Regina opened her mouth to complain but realized there wasn't any point. Instead, she went out into the fast lane and mashed the gas to beat a yellow light that changed right in front of them, earning herself a howling - and very predictable - "OOOOOOOOOOOOOH! Reggie!" in the process.
Some time later, Stella - back in her regular clothes including her yellow vest - drove her beloved AMC Pacer into Billy's garage and up onto a pneumatic lift. After turning off the engine, she stroked the vinyl dashboard a couple of times and whispered a few words of love to her favorite old girl.
Sighing deeply, she stepped out of the car and shut the door behind her. "Now, Billy," she said in a voice that was quite croaky after her deathmatch with the French fry, "we're talking about fixing the lock on the hatchback, right?"
"Right," Billy the Mechanic said, nodding. As always, he was dressed in a horrendously filthy canary-yellow boiler suit over an even filthier T-shirt that advertised Slurrpy! Root Beer. Chewing on his cheek, he pushed his greasy baseball cap up his forehead so he had room to scratch it.
"And then we got the whine under the dashboard," Stella continued, caressing the Pacer's roofline. "I've tried to prepare her for your coarse hands, but she's a lady, Billy, don't forget that."
"Some ladies like it rough, Miss Starr," Billy said with a goofy grin that faded from his face a split second later after it registered that Stella didn't find his quip funny at all.
"When was the last time you were on a second date with someone?"
"Uh... it's been a while..."
"Do you think the two are connected, Billy?"
"Wh- which two, Miss Starr?"
"If you don't know that," Stella said and pushed her glasses up her nose, "then I'm afraid I can't help you. One and one makes three, Billy, but only if you can get to two first. Right?"
Billy had no idea what his wild-haired neighbor was saying, but he had even less idea how to phrase the question so he wouldn't get an even more confusing answer. In the end, he settled for smiling and nodding. "Uh, don't worry, Miss Starr. Your car is quite safe here. I'll treat her like she was my own."
"I've seen your van, Billy... shoot, I've driven in your van. Please don't," Stella said and stepped away from her brown Pacer.
"Uh... okay. Uh... right. I need to call for some parts and stuff so it's probably gonna take me a couple of days... I'll be over when it's done," Billy said and put out his filthy hand.
Stella initially shied back from it but she didn't want to look like an uncouth animal so she gave him a thump on the shoulder instead - the results were the same, an oily hand.
Later that same afternoon, Regina turned the SLK onto Eleventh Street, a one-way street in the middle of the artisan district. The condition of the road was quite poor with many potholes, but it didn't stop her from giving the powerful car plenty of right foot.
Stella was eating genuine Italian 'gelato', an ice cream wafer cone she had bought from a street vendor. The two scoops - pistachio and strawberry - practically melted under her tongue, and she let out a constant stream of near-orgasmic moans and groans as she savored the quality ice cream.
Just as Stella extended her tongue to lick another layer off of the pistachio, the Mercedes went into the deepest pothole in the northern hemisphere.
Unperturbed, Regina kept her foot on the gas which made the car lurch back out of the hole like a gazelle on the run from a cheetah. The shocks and springs groaned and the steering wheel shook hard in her hands, but she kept going.
The hard knocks the car received were enough to make both scoops of ice cream first break free of the wafer cone and then shoot up into the air like the cork from a champagne bottle.
Trying to get as much hangtime as possible in their fifteen seconds of fame, they went through a triple corkscrew with a twist before they came back down and ended their days splattered against the windshield of a Chevrolet Malibu that was following the SLK.
"WHAT THE FLIPPETY-FLIP-FLOP... WHERE'S MY ICE CREAM?!" Stella howled with her tongue hanging out of her mouth, ready to lick off the pistachio that wasn't there anymore.
Regina glanced in the rear view mirror but chose not to say anything. Instead, she pointed over her shoulder and came to a halt in the middle of the street.
Growling from somewhere deep in her throat, Stella unbuckled and jumped up to kneel on the seat.
The Chevrolet behind them had its wipers going at their fastest setting, but all they did was to smear the 'gelato' all over the windshield. The driver eventually realized he had only made the mess worse and stopped the car with a hard jerk. Two seconds later, he jumped out onto the street and offered Regina and Stella a very impressive master class in Inventive Cursing In Spanish.
"Reggie...? I think we better leave," Stella said and hopped back down in the bucket seat. As Regina gunned the engine, she took a brief look at the wafer cone but came to the conclusion that it was all she had so she might as well eat it.
"Okay, pull over... there's a public pay phone over there," Stella said and pointed diagonally across the street they were driving on, Fourteenth Street, which was still in the artisan district.
"Yup," Regina said and pulled the SLK over to the curb. After turning off the engine, she shuffled around in the seat and put her arm across the backrest of Stella's seat. "And now what?"
"Now we're gonna flush out a rat... a detective rat. Shucks, can you believe it, Reggie? I sure can't. Y'know," Stella said and took one of those very deep breaths that told a story of having a long story to tell. "When I grew up, the police were sacred. We kids looked up to the policemen, right? I'll bet you did, too-"
"But when something like this happens, Reggie, people start to lose faith in the police. That's when anarchy comes into the picture. Anarchy and violence. Anarchy, violence and awful behavior like wearing bell bottoms to the opera... brrrr. Even I draw the line there-"
"Huh... what's that got-"
"But ask yourself, where would we be without having faith in the police? Vigilante hell is where we would be, Reggie... isn't that right?"
"Yessir, vigilante hell where everyone would need to buy a weapon of some sort to protect him or herself and their family. Isn't that right, Reggie?"
This time, Regina didn't even bother to open her mouth - she merely nodded.
"Right", Stella said and adjusted her glasses. "That's what I say." The seriousness of her statement seemed to weigh on her shoulders that began to slump ever so slightly.
Regina took the opportunity to muss Stella's hair. "So what shou-" she started to say, but was once again rudely interrupted by the fiery investigator:
"And now we're gonna flush ourselves a detective rat, Reggie!" Stella suddenly exclaimed, pounding her fist into her open palm. "And we're gonna do it by calling Mr. French Canadian Mafia Bigshot and say that we have a pack of diamonds that we're willing to sell for... uh... ten thousand."
"They're worth a helluva lot more than that, Stell."
"Sure, but a street punk wouldn't know that, right? Ten thousand in cash or else we're gonna send 'em to his immediate superior. Uh, would that be Mary-Jane?"
"Me neither... never mind. That's what we're gonna do. Yeah," Stella said and flopped back against the backrest. "We're gonna need something that can distort our voices... better make that *my* voice, he's already spoken to you."
"A napkin? A handkerchief?"
"No and no."
"I'll... uh... think of something," Stella said and pulled the little lever on the door.
Through a minor miracle, Stella was able to get out of the low-slung sports car on her own, and she was soon standing by the curb waiting impatiently for a gap in the traffic.
Three times she stepped onto the street and three times she had to jump for her life; once for a bike messenger who came screaming past her going at least thirty, once for a garbage truck that had roughly nine orange LEDs flashing on the front to warn pedestrians - Stella didn't see it until it was almost too late - and once for a black BMW convertible that cruised down the street with the radio going at 'eleven.'
Sighing, Stella shot the pay phone across the street a longing glance, wondering if she'd ever get there. She suddenly realized the street was clear, but the split second she put her foot down on the asphalt, a paramedic ambulance came blasting past with full lights and sirens.
Inside the SLK, Regina buried her face in her hands and let out a long, sobbing groan.
Stella looked left, then right, then left, then right, then left again before she finally ventured away from the sidewalk. She crossed the narrow city street in four seconds flat and hurried over to the pay phone to make sure nobody got to it before her.
As luck would have it, the phone hadn't been vandalized and it even had a signal when she tried to lift the receiver. "All right... okay. All right. Uh... now what... huh... oh, yeah... my vest," she said and quickly whipped off her yellow down vest.
She cleared her throat a couple of times to get the frogs out, but suddenly realized they made her sound all street-tough and harder to identify, so she roared briefly into the vest to get the frogs stuffed back down. Flashing Regina a thumbs-up, she dialed the number for the detective squad and waited for the secretary to pick it up.
Stella just caught the tail-end of the Muzak used at the precinct, but was still unable to remember where it came from. "Bum-bu-bum-bummmm, bum-bum-bu-bummm... oh, what is that theme song... Scarecrow & Mrs. King...? No. Moonlighting? ...no."
'You've reached the Bay City Police Department, First Precinct. How can I help you?' the familiar female voice said at the other end of the line.
"Yo, girlie, I wanna talk to detective Faucher," Stella said into her vest in her best grizzly impersonation.
'You need to speak up, Sir, it's a bad connection.'
"Whut...? I said, I need to speak with detective Faucher."
"Detective Faucher, for cryin' out loud! Detective Faucher!" Stella roared, forgetting all about speaking through the yellow vest.
'Oh... please hold.'
"Yeah yeah, I'll hold..."
Much to Stella's frustration the Muzak started over. This time, she tried to whistle along to the electronic beats to kick her brain into remembering which show it came from, but she could simply not put a name to the theme. A few clicks and hisses told her someone new had entered the line, and she quickly raised her vest.
'This is Calvin Faucher. What's this about?'
Stella took a deep breath and eased herself into her street persona. "Yo-yo-a-loha, fella. This here's a friendly call from yours truly, the one and only Razzie, from a pay phone on Fourteenth Street. Now I gone and found myself a nice little bag of surprises... seven cut rocks... diamonds, baby. And a niiiice little luggage tag with someone's name on it. A name that sounds sus-pee-ciously like the one you just used. Yeah, ain't that a nice little bag of surprises. How 'bout that?"
"So? Fella, fella, fella... so they're yours for ten thousand dolores, baby."
"Get lost? La Meea-mya? Yeah, well, okay, fella... if I was you, I'd start practicing bending over and kissin' my ass goodbye 'cos my next stop will be the post office, baby, and dere, I'm gonna send your boss three or four of the rocks plus the luggage tag with your name on it. How's them rotten apples, fella?"
"Ten thousand dolores, baby," Stella said, looking up and down the street to check if anyone was watching her.
'You're calling from a pay phone on Fourteenth Street?'
"Dat's right, fella. Right next ta Hansen's Jewelry Imports."
'I'll be there in twenty minutes.'
"With da money, baby... don't forget da money! You won't see me, but just put da money on top of da phone. Oh, and I've left you a little something so you can see I ain't feedin' you no bullshit sandwiches. It's a photo."
"Huh," Stella said and put the receiver back on the phone. Scrunching up her face, she tried to analyze how the conversation had gone, but she couldn't come to a firm conclusion. With a grunt, she reached into her vest's liner pocket and took a print-out of a photo they had taken of the bloody luggage tag - it wasn't the world's greatest print, but it would have to do.
Holding the photo by the edges so she wouldn't leave fingerprints, she looked around for something to pin it down with. It didn't take her long to find a medium-sized cobblestone that someone had kicked out of the pavement, and she picked it up and used it as a paperweight on top of the pay phone's metal casing.
After checking that the print-out was secure under the cobblestone, she put on her vest and went up to the curb to wait for a gap in the traffic.
"So?" Regina said once Stella was safely back in the low-slung sports car.
"Well, he bought it hook, line and sinker... I think he'll show up... but I don't know what he's actually gonna do when he does. He's definitely crooked, that's a fact."
"Hmmm. I guess we just have to wait."
"He said twenty minutes, so... yeah. I wonder if there's still a couple-a tortilla chips left...?" Stella said and went on the prowl for the missing bag.
Sixteen minutes later, a dark gray, unmarked squad car entered Fourteenth Street and rolled very slowly down towards the pay phone at Hansen's Jewelry Imports.
Regina caught a glimpse of it in the door mirror and quickly patted Stella's thigh. "He's here... lose the chips, Stell."
Crunch, crunch - "Oh, PHARCK'M... alwaysmmpf whenmmpf I'mmmpf eatingmmpf..." - Crunch, CRUNCH, crunch, CRUNCH, gulp!
"Maybe if you ate less you'd be fine...?"
"Oh, ha ha. What do you know about eating, Reggie? I only ever see you nip at your salads. That's not eating, that's grazing."
"You're calling me a cow?" Regina growled, but a saucy wink made it clear she was only kidding.
On the street, the squad car trickled up alongside the silver metallic Mercedes and suddenly came to a stop right next to it.
"Shit," Regina said and made sure to look away from the unmarked police car. "Stell... hurry... we gotta make out!"
"Huh! You know, I've wished you'd say- MMMMPF!" - Stella never made it very far with Regina reaching over and claiming her lips, laying a lovely one on her that went on and on and on.
Behind them, the driver of the squad car had seen enough and drove on towards the pay phone.
"He's gone," Regina whispered and pulled back from her thoroughly kissed friend whose glasses had been transformed into a fogged-up mess.
Wearing a goofy grin on her face, Stella squirmed merrily in her seat as she slowly came back down to earth. "Woooow," she croaked, taking off her glasses to wipe the lenses. "Hot diggity DANG, Reggie... your kissing is improving. Remember our very first kiss? It was like smooching with a wooden chief... but now... ho-boy, watch out below, heh, heh, heh."
"Silly," Regina said and clawed Stella's thigh. "C'mon, we've got work to do. He's parked at the wrong side of the street and is getting out."
Stella finished polishing her lenses and pushed her glasses up her nose. Grunting, she reached into the glove box to take her favorite pair of binoculars. She could see at once that the driver of the dark gray squad car hadn't bothered to close the driver's side door nor turn off the engine.
She quickly zoomed in on the detective and let her eyes glide up his beefy form, from his black shoes, past his gray pants, gray shirt, black tie and up to his closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair. It was easy to see by his strong appearance and decisive gestures that he wasn't a rookie but a veteran - the scuff marks on the worn holster on his hip only accentuated that.
"He's found the photo I left for him," Stella said, zooming in on the pay phone where the detective was studying the print-out. "He's touching it bare-handed so he obviously isn't worried about leaving prints or smearing mine. Hmmm."
Regina kept a close eye on the wing mirror in case the detective had called for backup before he went into the situation, but so far, she could only see the regular traffic.
"He just took his cell," Stella whispered although the detective would never be able to hear her. "He touched the screen once... make that twice. He must be calling a number from the registry."
Regina grunted and looked back at their target. "He's probably wondering why there isn't anyone here to meet him. The photo's gotta set off a really nice train of thought, too."
"Huh, I'll bet," Stella said and lowered the binoculars.
The detective put his phone back to his ear and nodded a couple of times like people invariably do. After speaking a few sentences, he put the phone into his breast pocket and stepped back to the waiting squad car to turn off the engine, though he didn't get into it.
"Now what?" Regina said, but Stella could only shrug.
Seven minutes later, Regina noticed a dark shadow in the left mirror. Before long, a black armored limousine with pitch black windows went past them and pulled over on the wrong side of the street behind the squad car.
"Ho-ly flip! That's a limo! A huge limo! Get the license plate, Reggie," Stella said and hurriedly rummaged around for her notepad. "I can't find my notepad! Get the license plate... where's my notepad? MY NOTE- I CAN'T FIND MY NOTEPA- AW, HELL!"
"Nine WXS one-oh-seven. Stell... Nine WXS one-oh-seven..."
"NINE WXS ONE-OH-SEVEN, STELL!"
"Wh- whut? You found my notepad?"
Regina slapped her forehead and buried her face in her hands. "Nine William X-Ray Sierra one-oh-seven... why don't you use your wristwatch?"
"Where's my pencil-"
"Screw your pencil, use the super-secret-agent-spyscope-dictaphone-wristwatch you got on your arm, Stell!"
"Huh, calm down, Reggie... there's no need to yell... okay, okay... it's on," Stella said and pressed the appropriate button on the electronic device. "What's the license plate again, Snookums?"
"Nine William X-Ray Sierra one-oh-seven," Regina said into the miniature microphone on the watch.
"There... that wasn't so hard was it?" Stella said with a little grin. She didn't have time to look at Regina, but if she had, she would have dropped stone dead. Instead, she took her binoculars and swept them across the scene. "Naw, can't see who's in the limo... must be a bigshot in the French Canadian Mafia."
Right on cue, Calvin Faucher stepped back from the armored limousine that soon took off down Fourteenth Street. Half a minute later, the detective climbed into his unmarked police car and drove the same way.
"Should we follow him, Stell?" Regina said with her fingers on the ignition key.
"Hmmm. He's got a gun, but... yeah, let's go," Stella said and reached for her seat belt.
Twenty minutes and just as many turns later, Regina had to come to a full stop at a mesh gate on wheels that blocked the road they were on. The cross-city trek had taken them to the huge warehouses on the docks where they couldn't drive in without proper accreditations.
"Okay," Stella said and reactivated her wristwatch. "The detective was able to get into the docks by flashing his badge to a security guard, but we don't feel like flashing anything so we can't follow him. The squad car seemed to turn left roughly two hundred yards down the first warehouse, through a sliding metal door. Uh, the metal isn't sliding, the door is. Oh, you know what I mean."
"You're talking to yourself, Stell," Regina said flatly.
"We're the only ones who'll ever get to listen to it... never mind..."
"Anyway," Stella continued into her watch, "we've marked the location on our map and are about to head home. I arranged for Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes to drop by a little later today for coffee, cookies and perhaps a Danish or two, maybe one of those really great pastries that have strawberry jam in the center. I forget their name, but-"
"That's completely irrelevant, Stell!"
"-they taste really great, and... whut?"
"Who cares about the pastry!"
"Boy are you cranky today, Reggie. I thought after the morning we had that you'd be in a better mood. Huh! ANYhow... Inspector Mary-Jane will swing by, hopefully with news on my old friend Laura. Uh, Stella Starr out."
"Out and about," Regina said and turned the car around to get back in the right direction. "Now all we need to do is to work out how we get home from way, way, way out here."
"Oh, that shouldn't be a problem," Stella said and took their map book.
Groaning, Regina put her left elbow on the windowsill and clutched her forehead- "Famous last words, Stell..."
"Nonsense... we're smart, capable women who know exactly what we're doing! So there!"
The return trip from the docks was a wild and woolly adventure, and the two investigators had visited neighborhoods they didn't even know Bay City had. Worn out, hungry, thirsty and with a near-empty gas tank, they finally arrived home at the Harrison-Starr offices.
Regina had barely driven into the parking lot before Stella cried "STOOOOOP!" in her ear, causing her to slam on the brakes.
"Look!" Stella whispered, pointing out of the windshield. Fifty yards ahead of them, a dark gray squad car was parked at an oblique angle to the office building. The driver's side door was slightly ajar, but nobody was in it. "It's Calvin Faucher! He's come to finish us off!" she continued in a whisper, grabbing hold of Regina's arm.
"He can't know anything about us setting him up, Stell," Regina said, but kept her foot on the brake just in case.
"I don't wanna die... I look awful in a black suit in a white coffin with a red hole in my forehead..."
"You told me that already... oh! Someone's coming!" - A figure came out from behind the car and opened the driver's side door fully. It didn't take Regina two seconds to recognize Mary-Jane Moynes, and she let out a long, slow sigh of relief.
Stella was less convinced and kept her firm grip on Regina's arm. "It looks like..."
"It is, Stell," Regina said and took her foot off the brake to let the SLK glide forward. They were soon at the parking bays and chose the one nearest to the Inspector's car. "Now remember, act natural... okay? We know she isn't one of the bad people, but she probably doesn't know about the mole in her squad."
"Act natural. I hear ya," Stella said and pulled the little lever on the door. Bolting upright, her general tiredness and the shock of seeing the Inspector prevented her from getting any further than forty-seven percent up - then gravity took over and she fell backwards onto the bucket seat with an UFF! and a BUMPH!
This time, Regina hadn't had time to get out before she was human-divebombed by her lover, so she ended up with a lapful of blonde investigator. "Owch... not that natural, Stell..." she said, mussing the dirty-blonde haystack.
Snickering, Stella clambered down and out of the car and eventually found the asphalt with her feet. "Hiya, Inspector!" she said with an overly cheery wave.
"Hi, Stella," Mary-Jane Moynes said and stepped forward to shake hands. As always, she was impeccably dressed in a pale coffee pantsuit over a dark brown blouse. Her short strawberry-blonde hair was styled perfectly and attracted many jealous looks from Stella. "Hello, Miss Harrison."
"Hello, Inspector. We've known each other for so long now," Regina said and closed the roof on the Mercedes, "please call me Regina."
"All right," Mary-Jane said with a grin. "Well, Stella, I have something for you... I've found a few pieces of information about your old friend and her father."
"Yes, and I also have a few gifts from my niece, some chocolate and a bouquet of flowers. Remember you helped her with the two fences some time ago?"
"Oh yeah, yeah... chocolate, eh? I'm a great fan of chocolate," Stella said and unlocked the door to the office. With a head that was swimming from all the events of the day, she completely forgot to raise her leg high enough to clear the metal rail at the bottom of the door, with inevitable and highly predictable results - BUMP! - "YEOOOOW!" she cried, hop-hop-hopping into the office on one foot.
"Uh, are you all right, Stella?" Mary-Jane said, holding the door to allow Regina to come through.
"Yesssss!" Stella hissed through clenched teeth. She hopped over to her chair and fell down into it with a bump. Kicking off her shoe, she went to work massaging her toes on her right foot that had taken the brunt of the impact.
Regina closed the front door behind them and kicked off her own shoes, not in sympathy, but because she loved how the plush carpet tickled her feet. "Have a seat, Mary-Jane. Would you like some coffee?"
"Yes, please," the Inspector said and moved over to the couch.
"So," Mary-Jane said and put down the coffee cup. "Laura Cruz' father left the force on medical grounds eleven years ago. Prior to that, he had been working in the archives for two years. He was taken off active duty when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in the summer of 1999. That was before I entered the squad so that's why I couldn't remember him."
"Right," Stella said, munching on a chocolate.
Nodding, Mary-Jane took another of the chocolates. "He passed away seven years ago due to complications from the cancer."
"Oh, that's sad. I wish I had known... I would have contacted Law."
"Well, that's what we called Laura in school 'cos her Dad was a cop," Stella said with a wistful smile.
Sensing that Stella needed some support, Regina reached over and put a comforting hand on her back.
"Hmmm," Mary-Jane said and took another sip of her coffee. "Laura Cruz herself has only recently returned to the States. She had been working in South America as a teacher for underprivileged children for the better part of a decade. From what I could dig up, she was working for an NGO that had to cut down on its overseas projects... hence her return."
"Oh..." Stella said, leaning into Regina's touch.
"Yes. She's actually living right here in Bay City now. She's attached to the North Bay University as an external lecturer in social sciences."
"Wow... how about that," Stella said, but their conversation was interrupted by the Inspector's cell ringing.
Mary-Jane quickly got up and answered the call. "Uh-huh? Okay? Right. I'll be there." - After closing the phone and putting it back in her pocket, she scooped up the last of her coffee and snatched a chocolate. "That was my Captain... there's been a development in a case we've been following. So... I gotta go. It was nice talking to you, gals. I hope you can use the info I gave you," Mary-Jane continued, putting out her hand.
"We sure can, Inspector. Thank you very much," Stella said and gave the hand a thorough shake before Regina did the same.
As the dark gray squad car did a three-point turn in the parking lot and drove out onto Carter Boulevard with its lights flashing, Stella watched it from the window with her hands shoved down her pockets and a pensive look on her face. "So Law is working at the University. Huh."
"Is she someone I should be worried about, Stell?" Regina said and came up to stand behind her lover.
"Of course not. But I won't hide I had a huge crush on her when we were teenagers. I never really found out how she felt, but, uh... I had a feeling we were on the same wavelength. Anyway. I think I'll contact her, but... man, she's done so much in her life. What have I done, Reggie?"
"Are you kidding? You're a licensed private investigator, a real clever one, too. You've helped countless people over the years. And you know what I say... brains are sexy," Regina said, husking the last words into Stella's ears.
"When did you ever say that?" Stella said with a laugh. Turning around, she wrapped her arms around Regina's waist and pulled her close.
"That's good enough for me. Now come down here so I can kiss you senseless."
"Yes, ma'am," Regina said and did like she had been told.
A quarter past eleven the same evening, Regina turned off the SLK's headlights and trickled up close to the mesh gate on wheels that blocked the road at the docks.
Stella held an opened pizza tray on her lap and was chewing noisily on the second-to-last slice of a Quattro Stagioni. Now and then, she put a two-foot long, neon-green drinking straw shaped like a butterfly between her lips and took an equally noisy slurp from a can of raspberry fizz that she had put in one of the cupholders.
"How the hell can you eat now, Stell? I simply don't get it," Regina said and turned off the engine.
"Does that" - munch, munch - "mean you don't" - munch, munch, MUNCH - "want the last slice?" - Munch - gulp.
"Yes. That's exactly what it means," Regina said flatly.
The blinding grin on Stella's face was real, though it was marred slightly by a splash of tomato sauce that was smeared all over her upper lip. "Suit yourself."
Regina and Stella were both wearing their commando fatigues: black boots, black jeans, black sweaters, black knitted caps and two fat, black stripes on their cheeks. This time, Stella was wearing her nylon shoulder holster where her phone was easy to reach - she had chosen that position over the Velcro-latched pocket on the sleeve because she could only access that with her right hand.
Shuffling around uncomfortably, Regina watched in disbelief as Stella munched down the last slice as well. "Tell me again, why are we here? I thought you were afraid of the French Canadian Mafia?"
"Well, I am... but we've got a chance here, Reggie. A chance to nail a couple of big kahunas. I mean, that's gotta count for something, yeah?"
"Stell, we don't actually know what's in there... it could be a rotary club meeting for all we know... or a bingo hall for bad guys."
"Oh... you think?"
"No, I don't think... I was just giving you a few examples, Stell..."
"You know," Stella said as she licked her upper lip from one edge to the other, "I doubt it's a bingo hall." - When her tongue wasn't enough, she took a napkin and dabbed her mouth.
"You missed a little sauce."
"Where? Here?" Stella said and dabbed her upper lip.
"No, to the right..."
"No, Stell, to your right..."
"No, Stell, that's not your right."
"Is too!" Stella said and held up her right hand.
Regina briefly scrunched up her face but decided that action was the best solution for all involved, and resolutely took the napkin. After a thorough dab-dab-dab to mop up the sauce, she crumbled it up into a ball and threw it in the back. "There. No more sauce."
"Thanks, Reggie! You're my friend!"
"You're welcome... have you thought about how we gonna clear that barbed wire on top of the mesh fence?" Regina said and pointed at said obstacle.
Stella reluctantly followed Regina's finger but soon turned back to her friend. "Barbed...? Wire...? Oh, flippety-flop," she said in a voice that trailed off into nothing.
"Huh," Stella said as she jumped down on the other side of the fence. Looking up, she could see that the fire blanket they always carried in the trunk had done the trick - they had simply folded it twice and placed it over the four rows of barbed wire. "Told you it would work, Reggie. They do it all the time in the movies."
"Don't gloat yet, we still have to get back over the darn thing," Regina said as she pulled herself up and swung her legs over the fence. From her position roughly eight feet in the air, she had a great view of the warehouses on the docks and could see that lights were on in the one they wanted to check out.
"Piece of cake, Reggie!"
"Don't say," Regina said and jumped off the fence, "Ugh... don't say things like that. It's only gonna come back and bite us."
Even though streetlights that cast an orange glow on the asphalt were legion in the docks, most of them weren't working which left the piers quite literally in the dark. From somewhere to the right of the two investigators, the sound of waves gently slapping against the underside of the docks broke the silence, and Regina made a mental note not to let her blonde friend out of her sight - after all, Stella plus saltwater made for a very poor cocktail.
No-nonsense barking from large dogs in the middle distance made both Regina and Stella clam up and look into the darkness.
"Psst, Reggie... did you remember the doggie treats?" Stella whispered.
"No I didn't, Stell!"
"Me neither... let's skedaddle... meet you at the first warehouse... that's the one, right?"
"Okie-dokie..." Stella said and ran hunched over into the darkness, like she had seen her heroines do countless times on television.
Regina rolled her eyes but followed the dirty-blonde wondergirl.
Three minutes later, they arrived at the first warehouse and were able to climb up onto a pile of metal boxes that had been placed outside a row of windows since the last time they had been there. Once perched on the flat top, Regina looked down upon the pier and wondered quietly how on earth Stella had managed to get up without drama. She didn't want to tempt fate so she kept quiet and settled for a half-shrug.
The row of indescribably filthy windows were overlooking the concrete floor of the first warehouse that was littered with scores of large crates that had been placed at random - or that's what it looked like, at least.
It soon dawned on them that they didn't need to look at the crates, but rather at a small table near the center of the floor. An ugly man in a dark suit came in from the other side and placed a black briefcase on the table.
As he opened his jacket, an Uzi became visible.
"Uffda..." Stella breathed, "that's the Mafia right there..."
"I'm beginning to agree with you," Regina whispered into Stella's ear. Sudden movement behind them made her clamp her hand down onto Stella's shoulder and whisper: "Don't. Move. We. Got. Company."
Stella had time to let out a pained squeal, but after that, she bit down on her lips and looked down onto the pier with wide eyes.
Two sentries with large, black Rottweilers on metal-studded leashes came around the corner below the two investigators. They took their time going past the warehouse, but didn't look up - they didn't even hear Stella's knees knocking though it was quite loud up on the metal boxes.
After a horribly long wait, the sentries walked further along the warehouse and eventually turned the corner.
"Gawd," Stella croaked.
Regina shook her head and wiped a few beads of sweat off her brow. "That was close," she whispered.
"It was too close... for my shorts..."
"I couldn't help it! It was only a little squirt..."
"We don't have a plastic bag you can sit on..."
"Who knows if we'll even get out of here alive! And you're talking about plastic bags!"
"Hush! Someone's coming!"
For the umpteenth time in the years she had worked with the easily excitable investigator, Regina scrunched up her face at the insult of being cut off like that, but a deep sigh and a look toward the heavens cured it.
The metal sliding door they had seen Calvin Faucher's squad car drive through earlier in the day rolled all the way up to reveal two men walking outside to smoke a cigarette - both were heavily armed.
"Oh, this wasn't a good idea after all," Stella whispered.
"Now she tells me... hey... hey, look at that," Regina whispered back, pointing at a narrow catwalk inside the row of windows. "D'ya think we could open one of the frames and get in there?"
"Dunno... let's try... quietly!"
"Oh, no kidding?"
"Ha, ha... less sarcasm, please. Sarcasm is like iced coffee... it's only okay to a certain point, then you choke on it."
"I have NO idea what you're talking about... there... put your hand there. Okay... and now pull..."
"UGGGN- Oy, whaddahell you think I'm doing?" Stella whispered, spinning around to look at her friend. "I'm pullin' like a blip-bloppin' crazy motherhumper on speed! So there!"
"Well, pull harder!"
"Pull harder," Stella growled, yanking the rusted window frame towards her. With a creaky, agonizing groan, the window opened enough to allow the two women to crawl inside.
Once Regina and Stella had reached the narrow catwalk that overlooked the interior of the warehouse, it became clear to them they should have brought a tourist phrase book - the conversations were held exclusively in French.
Down below, three men were talking amongst themselves over the briefcase; their talk was occasionally punctuated by laughter or what appeared to be lewd comments.
Once upon an eon ago, Regina had worked an entire summer in Paris, and she was racking her brain to rediscover the long-forgotten neurons that could translate what the men said. Unfortunately, she was unable to recognize more than a few scattered words here and there. One word she did pick up was 'diamant,' which meant 'diamond'.
One of the three was a slender man who appeared younger than the two others, like Avi Friedman had mentioned at Kazuki's, and Regina narrowed her eyes to give him a closer look. At first glance, he was joking like the others, but a more thorough inspection betrayed that he was nervous - he was constantly switching his weight from one foot to the other, and he was clenching and unclenching his fists to a beat only he knew.
"Stell, look at the slender one," Regina said, whispering into Stella's ear.
The blonde investigator answered by nodding.
"He's as jumpy as a kitten," Regina continued, earning herself a new nod.
The whole catwalk suddenly began to vibrate to such an extent that they had to grab hold of the railing. The reason soon became evident: the sliding door rolled up and a dark gray squad car drove into the warehouse.
"Oy! Ob-ob-ob-ob-ob-ob-ob-ob-ob-ob-ob-ob-OB!" Stella croaked, bouncing up and down while trying to hold onto everything she had - and hold down the pizza and razzie she had just eaten.
A second before the rapid oscillations stopped, Stella's cell phone flew from her holster, bounced along the catwalk, slid down a chute and ended up on top of a crate some ten feet below them. "Oh... blergh... webbl... ibbl... upbbl... blergh..." she croaked, clutching her face that had grown rather green around the gills.
Even Regina was affected by the vibrations, though she was more concerned about her hair. Breathing deeply, she smoothed down the strands that had broken free from her commando cap, and made sure that everything was picture perfect. "Oh! Look, Stell!" she whispered and pointed down.
Near the small table on the floor, none other than Calvin Faucher stepped out of the squad car with a briefcase similar to the one the other goon was holding. As Regina and Stella were watching, the detective opened his briefcase and took out a large bag of diamonds that he put on the table.
"I knew it... I knew it, Reggie!"
"For once, I'll agree with you... you called this one," Regina said and mussed Stella's neck.
The four men below continued to speak in French, and it didn't take long for one of the goons to open the original suitcase which was crammed full with dollar bills. The men grinned and swapped the bag of diamonds for the money.
"We gotta do something before they leave," Stella whispered while rubbing her chin, "but what... uh... I know, call Inspector Moynes."
Down below, one of the goons presented a bottle of booze that he unscrewed and took a long swig from. After wiping the neck on his sleeve, he gave it to detective Faucher who also took a healthy sip.
Reaching for her phone, Stella only grabbed her nylon shoulder holster. "Wh- whut? My phone? Where's my ph-? Reggie, have you seen my phone? I swear I had it when we got in here!"
"Where's my ph-"
"You musta lost it."
"There's that sarcasm again, Reggie! Remember what I told you about sarcasm?"
"Stella, while we're on the subject... remember to breathe so you'll get oxygen to your brain... here, use my phone," Regina said and reached into her Velcro pocket on her arm.
Breathing deeply, Stella snatched the phone but offered her lover a reasonable facsimile of one of her own two-hundred watt smiles as a thank you. After dialing the number to the precinct, the inevitable happened: "Oh... it's that Muzak again," Stella said quietly. "Bum-bu-bum-bummmm, bum-bum-bu-bummm... bum-bu-bum-bummmm, bum-bum-bu-bummm... oh, what the flip is that song?! Remington Steele? No..."
"We should have asked Mary-Jane about that Muzak is what we should have done, Stell."
"Well, why didn't you?"
"Why didn't *you*?"
"I had chocolate on my mind. So there! Bum-bu-bum-bummmm, bum-bum-bu-bummm... oh... it's not Charlie's Angels, is it? Hmmm... no."
Looking down upon the men who were still sharing the bottle, Regina suddenly scrunched up her face. "Stell? Is your phone on?"
"You found my phone? Where?"
"Yes I did, Stell... and I'm asking if the phone is on?"
"Well... of course it's on," Stella said and looked at her tall friend like she had grown a second head. "...why?"
"Is it on silent?"
"Uh... can't remember..."
"Did you at least change the ringtone from that tweedle-deedle nonsense?"
"For your information, yes I did."
Stella quickly gasped and looked down into the warehouse. "To... to... to... oh, I loved that show..."
Out of nowhere, a dark, manly voice suddenly proclaimed the world to be 'IN A TIME OF ANCIENT GODS, WARLORDS, AND KINGS-'
"OH, STELL!" Regina howled and slapped her forehead.
"I think I found my phone," Stella croaked, looking over the edge of the railing and down onto a crate some distance below where her phone had lit up like a Christmas tree from the incoming call.
'A LAND IN TURMOIL CRIED OUT FOR A HERO-' the phone continued.
Somewhat predictably, the four men down below began to holler, and they all drew their guns and aimed them at the catwalk high above the concrete floor. One of them found a powerful flashlight that he used to sweep the upper levels, and it didn't take more than a few seconds for Regina and Stella to quite literally find themselves in the spotlight.
"Up there! Two men!" one of the goons shouted and took a potshot at the two investigators - fortunately for Stella and Regina, he was a bad shot and it hit the concrete wall several yards away from them.
"Gimme my phone! We gotta hustle, Stell! Now!" Regina howled and jumped towards the open window with her recently reclaimed phone in her hand, but Stella shook her head vehemently and hustled the other way instead to get to her own telephone. "Oh, will ya forget the damn thing! Stell! Oh, man!"
Stella didn't listen. Hunched over and running along the catwalk, she couldn't quite see where she was going in the semi-darkness that was frequently disturbed by the cone from the flashlight.
Predictably, she put her foot on the wrong section and found the chute that had also claimed her telephone. "OoooooOOOOOooooOOOOH!" she howled when she felt the catwalk disappear under her boot.
One foot was suspended in thin air and one was still on the catwalk, but gravity won out and she went down the chute on her rear, bump-bump-bumping all the way down - she actually managed to snatch her phone when she went past the crate it was suspended on - until she landed on the concrete floor with a BOOMPH! that kicked up a fair-sized cloud of ancient dust.
Coughing and spluttering, Stella checked all her body parts and was relieved to find that all were still there. She hadn't even lost her glasses on her way down, but when she looked up, she almost wished she had.
Above her stood four men with dark, serious looks on their faces - and they all had their weapons drawn.
'IN A TIME OF ANCIENT GODS, WARLORDS, AND KINGS-' suddenly blasted out from the phone, but Stella hurriedly turned it off to avoid any misunderstandings involving her good self and the many firearms in the area.
"Hi... uh... health and safety inspection!" she said and got on her feet. Dusting off her rear, she made a big number of looking all the men in the eye. "Oh boy are you guys in trouble! Yessirree, that chute is gonna cost you plenty. It won't cut it anywhere, not downtown, not out here. Nosirree, but you know what? I'm gonna let it slide this time... so... see ya, fellas."
"Grab that little twerp and tie her up! And get the other one!" Detective Faucher barked and waved his gun in Stella's face.
"Little twerp?! I'm five foot four-and-a-half, thankyouverymuch!" Stella howled, but it was to no avail - the three French Canadians grabbed her arms rather coarsely and forced her over to a tarpaulin-covered wooden crate that was placed against one of the walls of the warehouse. "Oy...! Quit ticklin'!"
As she was pushed against the crate and her arms were tied to the nylon netting for the tarpaulin, all sorts of dark thoughts raced through her mind, and she began to look around for the instruments of torture she was sure she'd be exposed to - like strong wine, subtitled foreign movies or even the dreaded baguettes that would be shoved under her fingernails and set alight.
Outside, the quiet pier had turned into a beehive of activity with the goons, the sentries and their barking Rottweilers all searching high and low for the missing person.
High and low, but not high enough: instead of climbing down, Regina had taken full advantage of her long legs and had swung herself up on the roof of the warehouse - made of sheets of corrugated iron - where she kept well out of sight by huddling down next to a large ventilation shaft that had a fan on top. The corrugated sheets were highly unstable and felt like they could buckle under her weight at any moment, but she had no other option.
Panting in fits and starts, she took her telephone and used her trembling fingers to dial the number for the police precinct. "Not the Muzak, not the Muzak, not the Muzak," she chanted while she waited for the connection to go through.
'Good evening, you've reached the-'
"This is an emergency! Patch me through to Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes at once!" Regina barked into the phone - speaking strongly but quietly enough for the goons not to hear her.
The secretary immediately followed orders, and a series of clicks and hisses were heard in the telephone.
"Inspector, this is Regina Harrison. Stella is in trouble and we need urgent help! We're down at the docks... the first warehouse after the gate," Regina said and tried to look down the ventilation shaft for any sign of Stella - she couldn't see anything. "She's being held captive at gunpoint by the people who stole the diamonds from Avi Friedman..."
"How soon can you- wait... you know? How can you know?"
'We know because right now, we're not even seventy yards from where you're hiding! You've stumbled smack-bang into a joint task force operation against organized crime!'
"Aw, shit... but there's a crooked cop in your squad, Mary-Jane... Calvin Faucher is working with the-"
'No he's not, he's an undercover operative. His job is to flush out the men who benefited from the robbery on Avi Friedman.'
"But the name on the bloody luggage tag... and Calvin's brothers... and the limo... it's all a charade? Aw, shit!"
'You can say that again.'
"And I will. Shit! Shitshitshitshit-shit!"
'Much as I would like to, there isn't anything we can do for Stella right now. We have to wait for Calvin to give us the signal... or else the entire sting will have been for naught. I really like you gals, you know that, but this will be a millstone around my neck if it falls into the crapper. I'm sorry.'
"Yeah... okay. I understand, Mary-Jane," Regina said and rubbed her forehead. "I, uh... I'll think of something. Talk to ya later."
Groaning, Regina put the phone back in the pocket on her arm and closed the Velcro flap. She looked up into the night-time sky that reflected such a sheen from the tens of thousands of lights in and around greater Bay City that not a single star was visible. "Stell... I'm gonna save you if it's the last thing I do," she whispered and began to climb down the sheets of corrugated iron to get back to the open window.
Down on the floor, Stella had her face firmly scrunched up - not because she was afraid or needed to pee, but because of the booze-laced breath of the man standing right in front of her.
"Sweet chicky-dee... fella... could you go breathe somewhere else?" she croaked, trying to turn her head away from his mouth. "Please? Your breath is strong enough to strip off paint..."
"Strip? Now there's an idea," the man said with a crooked grin.
"Naw, I don't think it is, ac-chew-ly. I already seen me a naked guy a couple-a times, and believe me, it's not something I wanna experience again..."
Calvin came over to the hostage and put a hand on the guard's shoulder. "Your boss will be here soon, J.P.," he said and shoved the other man away from Stella.
Once Calvin was alone with Stella, he went closer to the tied-up woman than the guard had ever been. "And you, you little twerp... I don't think you quite understand the crap you've gotten yourself into. These guys don't play nice. As soon as the big boss gets here and the transaction is completed, what do you think is gonna happen to you?"
"Burning baguettes?" Stella croaked.
Calvin narrowed his eyes and took a step back from his hostage. "What?"
"B- burning baguettes under my fingernails?"
"Ah, how can I put it... no. No, I don't think it's gonna be burning baguettes."
"Gawd, that's a load off my mind..." Stella said and drew a deep a sigh of relief. "But you... Mista, lemme tell you, the world doesn't look favorably on crooked cops... you may be all big and strong now, but when the judge throws the book at you, you iz going down with the rest of them!"
"Are you threatening me?" Calvin growled and moved his face right up next to Stella's.
"N- n- n- not really..."
"Which gang do you belong to, twerp? You're too short for the Rippaz and you're too white for the Cobras... you're a woman so you can't be a Lord of The Streets, but you're not woman enough for the Amazon Army."
"Not woman enough?! I beg your pardon!"
"What's your stake in all this? Who's your-"
Calvin didn't have time to finish the sentence before two honks were heard from outside the warehouse. 'It's the boss!' one of the goons shouted.
"Tick-tock, tick-tock... your time is running out, twerp," Calvin said before spinning around on his heel and walking into the center of the warehouse.
Stella gulped once, then once more, and finally once more for good measure. "Reggie... Snookums... this is one of those situations where I really, really, really need your help," Stella croaked, feeling sweat trickle out from every pore in her body, "so will you please come and save your little honey-bunny before she's t- t- t- torn to shreds...? Pleeeeeeeease...?"
Unbeknownst to Stella, her Snookums was watching her at that very moment, though there was very little Regina could do as she was crouched down on the catwalk high above the concrete floor to present the smallest possible target.
"Hmmm," she mumbled, looking with apprehension and worry at the show that was going on below her.
The supposedly crooked cop walked over to the sliding gate and opened a small, integrated door. At once, he started talking to someone outside; someone whose voice was awfully familiar.
"Well, I'll be..." Regina mumbled and crawled back to the row of windows to see better. Sure enough, Calvin Faucher was talking to Avi Friedman, the diamond trader, who was wearing a pale gray business suit, a white Panama hat and an evil grin. "Now that's what I call an S.O.B. This whole thing stinks to high heaven. Betcha ten bucks this is an insurance scam..."
Patting each other on the back, the two men stepped through the integrated door and walked back inside.
Down below, Stella could hardly believe her eyes when Avi Friedman came in with Calvin. "Oooooh, if I get my hands on that... that... that..." she mumbled, coming up short verbally but continuing the blue prose in her mind. Soon, her lips were working overtime from cussing out the trader.
What happened next left Stella completely and utterly confused.
Avi stepped over to the briefcase with the money and Calvin patted him on the back - then the crooked cop took a step back from the businessman and said "That's a done deal!"
Three seconds later, the sliding door exploded inward and a myriad of police officers wearing black body armor, goggles and assault rifles stormed into the warehouse and threatened everyone into a quick and painless submission.
Behind the shocktroopers came Mary-Jane Moynes with several other plain-clothes detectives, holding her service pistol ready and wearing a bulletproof vest with the letters MCU - Major Crime Unit - on the back.
The black vest clashed with her pale coffee pantsuit, but for Stella, the Inspector was a sight for sore eyes. "Mary-Jane! Wo-hoooooo! I knew you'd save me! Reggie? Reggie! Reggiiiiie...?!"
A loud and echoing 'I'm here, Stell! I'm co-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-oming!' was heard from the other side of the warehouse, and soon, a figure dressed in black flew down the chute until she landed on the floor with a BOOMPH! just like Stella had done earlier.
Back on her feet in oh point zip, Regina stormed between crooks, shocktroopers and detectives with but a single target on her radar - her little honey-bunny.
"Oh, Stell! Are you all right?" Regina said and wrapped her arms around Stella's body that was still tied to the wooden crate. They started kissing at once, even before Mary-Jane could find someone who could untie Stella.
"I am now!" Stella said in one of the very few moments she could tear her lips away from Regina's. "Ooooh! We-" - kiss, kiss, kiss - "MMPF! There's-" - kiss, KISS, kiss - "someone... some-" - KISS, kiss, kiss - "who wants to talk to us!" - KISS, KISS, kiss.
"They can find their own damn honey-bunny!" Regina growled and immediately went back to wrestling with Stella's lips.
"Yeah, MMPFH!" - KISS, kiss, kiss - "that's nice, but... uhhhh..." - kiss, KISS - "I think we... ungh..." - KISS, KISS, nibble - "hafta st- stop... MMPF! ...stop now-" - kiss, nibble.
Regina agreed and pulled back from her partner with a sigh. With a last, little stolen kiss and a cocked eyebrow, she faced the interloper who turned out to be a blushing Mary-Jane.
In the meantime, another detective came to Stella's rescue and used a pocket knife on the ropes that were restraining her arms. When the ropes had been cut, she put her liberated limbs to good use by wrapping them around Regina's waist.
"Hi," the Inspector said without actually looking at the two investigators out of fear of blushing even harder. "So... is that how you always say hi, or...?"
"Naw," Stella said with a grin, "this was just a little Nice To See Ya. You should see what a real I've Missed You, Baby looks like."
"Uh-huh? I better take a rain check..."
Behind the Inspector, the various goons, crooks and criminals were led out to a large, black bus that had been parked outside the smashed sliding door. Once the warehouse had been cleared of opponents, Calvin Faucher came over to the three women with a curious look on his face. "Hi... I'm Calvin," he said and put out his hand.
"Hiya, bub," Stella said and shook it. "I guess you aren't as crooked as you appeared to be, huh?"
"No. By the way, I'm sorry for calling you a twerp back there..."
"Oh, that's all right. I've been called worse... though I can't remember when," Stella said and gave Regina's waist a squeeze to make her stop shooting fire with her suddenly fiercely blue eyes.
"And your name is...?"
"Stella Starr from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. This is my lovely assistant Regina Harrison," Stella said and gave Regina's waist another little squeeze.
"Oh," Calvin said and scratched his hair, "you tried to call me, didn't you?"
"That's right, Detective," Regina said.
Calvin chuckled and began to rub his chin. "Boy, this could have turned into a mess... I wasn't sure which peg to put you on, Miss Starr..."
"The feeling was mutual, Mr. Faucher," Stella said with a wink. "When I saw you come in with ol' Avi, I sorta-kinda guessed that it was an insurance scam or something in that vein... right?"
"Hey, that's what I said!" Regina interjected.
"Yes it was," Mary-Jane said, "Avi Friedman contracted a known group of thugs to perform the robbery. Unfortunately for him, we already had an operative inside the gang. After the robbery, our operative was attacked and chased by some of the gang members but he managed to escape with a portion of the rocks... unfortunately, they caught up with him and gave him a good beating. He hasn't been able to tell us where the diamonds went."
"I know where they went!" Stella said with an impossibly broad grin. "We found the bag with the diamonds in my Pacer. It's in our office... in my desk drawer. What a string of cosmic co-inky-dinks, huh? Wow, you'd almost think a higher being was playing us like puppets, huh? She pulls my strings and I jerk this way... she pulls another and I jerk that-a-way... ain't that right, Reggie?"
Regina flashed one of her trademark two-hundred watt smiles and pulled Stella close, but Calvin just stood there with a comical look on his face and his jaw halfway down his chest.
Mary-Jane noticed her colleague's dumbstruck look but could only offer a half-shrug as compensation. "Eh... it's always like this when Stella and Regina are involved... you'll get used to it... eventually."
"In short, we still got it," Regina said, much to Stella's amusement.
"You better believe it, Snookums," Stella said and stood up on tip-toes to lay a wet one on her partner's lips.
Half past twelve, Regina drove the silver metallic sports car into the parking lot at Rockin' Ruby's. The bar closed at one, so they had no problems finding a spot near the entrance.
"So," Stella said, counting off on her fingers, "crook one hired crook two, three and four to rob him. Once they had, crook two and three turned on crook four and wanted his cut of the loot, too. What crook one, two and three couldn't know was that crook four was an undercover cop. Crook four dumped the diamonds in my car with a note for a person that crook one, two and three mistook for a fellow crook, namely crook five. It turns out crook five wasn't, he was also an undercover cop. Well, then we have crook six, Mr. Bad Breath-"
"Uh... yeah?" Stella said, holding up four fingers on one hand and two on the other.
"Does it matter? The diamonds are safe, you're safe, a handful of crooks are off the street and Mary-Jane got a huge feather in her cap. Win-win all 'round, really."
"You're right," Stella said and reached over to claw Regina's stomach. "Well, I do have one regret."
"That we... again... failed to ask Mary-Jane where the Muzak came from..." Stella said with a snicker.
Regina chuckled and reciprocated the clawing by caressing Stella's thigh. "We're just gonna have to live with it."
"Yeah. Uh, Snookums...?" Stella said and pointed at the door.
"I know, I know..."
Once Stella was safely out of the low-slung sports car, the two investigators walked hand in hand across the near-deserted parking lot until they reached the door to the bar.
Stella, as always the perfect hostess, decided to hold the door open for Regina. Just as she opened it, a very familiar bum-bu-bum-bummmm, bum-bum-bu-bummm wafted out from the TV that Ruby had recently installed above the bar counter.
"Holy SHIT! That's it!" Stella cried and forgot all about the door - inevitably, the spring-operated door bounced back and thumped into Regina's left side.
"OWCH! Stella! That's gonna leave a bruise!"
"That's it! Ha-ha! That's it!" Stella said, jumping up and down while pointing excitedly at the colorful pictures on the TV. "It's the A-Team! Bum-bu-bum-bummmm, bum-bum-bu-bummm! Ho-yeah, baby! I knew that I knew it... uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh! It's the A-Team, Snookums!"
Regina growled as she rubbed her arm, but she couldn't stay angry with her easily excitable friend for too long. "Well, that's good, Stell," she said and pulled the bouncing investigator into a sideways hug.
Ruby Albrecht rose from her customary place at the end of the shiny bar counter and came up to greet her two regulars. "Hi, gals. Uh... what's that about the A-Team?"
"Long story, Ruby. Hiya," Regina said and took off her commando cap to let her long, dark locks fall down over her shoulders where they - inevitably - ended up in a perfect cascade.
"When isn't it with you guys...?"
Grinning, Stella pushed her glasses up her nose and squeezed herself flat against Regina's side. "Hi, Ruby. Oh, we're in a good mood today. We busted an insurance scammer and a French Canadian Mafia cell!"
"Yeah! So... uh, I'd like a funny drink if you have one. With an umbrella and stuff. Maybe layered? I mean the drink, not the umbrella," Stella said while nudging herself repeatedly against her tall friend.
"Okay. Comin' right up."
"And a driver's rum and coke for me, Ruby," Regina said and schlepped the bouncing Stella down towards their regular booth.
"Sure," Ruby said and went behind the counter to get the napkins, but when she turned back around, Regina and Stella were already snuggling up to each other so furiously that the napkins were pushed aside for later. "Sheesh, you guys... get a room," she said, chuckling under her breath at the sight.
THE END of DIAMONDS ARE A P.I.'S WORST NIGHTMARE
VI - MOVIE HORROR
Written by Norsebard
"Wrath Of The Midnight Ripper," Stella Starr mumbled as she and Regina Harrison left the movie theater with the rest of the late show crowd. "Brrr... I should have known it wouldn't be family-friendly fare... gawd..." she continued, slurping up the last of her half-gallon-sized cup of Slurrpy! Cherry Cola before dumping it in the appropriate trash can in the lobby.
"Aw, it wasn't that bad," Regina said, crumbling up the plastic bag her rice treats had been in and sending it the way of the Dodo in another trash can.
"Yes, it was, Reggie... when the Midnight Ripper came into that dorm... with his pickaxe and his insane eyes and his scar and-and-and-and his long, creepy fingers... brrrr. Gawd."
"You mean fingers like these?" Regina husked and let her long, slender digits play around on Stella's exposed neck that suddenly sprouted ten thousand goosebumps in oh point nothing-at-all.
"Don't. Do. That. Reggie," Stella croaked, swatting away Regina's hands faster than she could spell her own name.
"Sorry," Regina said and sought out Stella's hand instead. Walking out of the glitzy, glamorous lobby with the many posters promoting the future premieres and the films that were already playing, the two investigators strolled along the sidewalk to get back to their Mercedes.
The April weather showed itself from its best side and there was still a touch of warmth in the air even a quarter past eleven. The sky was mostly black although there were still a few bright streaks in the western skies.
The parking lot next to the movie theater was well-lit, but the fact that it held cars, trucks and SUVs of every size created deep shadows between the vehicles.
Stella shivered and pulled her yellow down vest even closer as she stepped into the paved lot. She wished she had decided to wear something more substantial than a Bugs Bunny T-shirt and a pair of thin summer jeans, but when they had left her apartment, the temperature had been too high for anything else.
"You cold?" Regina said and found her car keys.
"I'm scared shitless!" Stella whispered.
"No... not because of the Midnight Ripper?"
"It was really quite tame, Stell. Even if it did get kinda bloody along the way... uh, and he got blown up at the end with that dynamite and everything. But it was a great full-burn, don't you think? They're already filming yet another sequel, actually."
"La-la-la-la-la, can't hear ya, don't wanna hear ya, ya might as well stop talking," Stella said and jerked her head around to look for pickaxe-wielding Midnight Rippers lurking in the shadows. "Never gonna watch another horror movie again in my life. Never. Never-ever. Never-ever-ever... nuh-uh. No way, no how, no ma-"
"Hiya Misshy, got a light?" an elderly man said right in front of Stella just as she went past a tall SUV. From his slurred voice and the funny way he was holding his unlit cigarette, it was evident that he'd had a drink too many, but Stella didn't have time to acquaint herself with such details.
All in the space of one second, she gasped loudly, stood up on tip-toes, stared wide-eyed at the elderly man, let out an inarticulate groaning shriek, spun around, jumped up and finally wrapped herself around Regina's tall, sculpted body like a girl kangaroo looking for her mother's pouch.
"Whoa, Stell!" Regina said, staggering first backward and then forward as she tried to compensate for the added weight.
The inebriated man wiped his nose on the back of his hand and looked like he didn't understand a thing of what was going on. "Hey..." he slurred, trying to focus his watery eyes, "where'd she go? I jusht ashked if she had a light... I got this chigarette here and I wanna shmoke it..."
"I don't have a light either, Sir," Regina said, grabbing Stella's trembling butt cheeks to keep her from sliding off.
"Awww, that'sh good... pregnant women shouldn't shmoke," the man said, swaying left and right. "How long d'ya have to go before you pop your load there, Misshy?"
Despite her terror, Stella couldn't stop herself from snorting loudly and muss her head into Regina's upper chest.
"Oh, I'm not... uh..." Regina said, but realized that to a drunken man, she would indeed look pregnant.
"Musht be any day now," the man continued without noticing Regina's hesitation. "I mean, you're sho big... musht be tripletsh or shomething... you're really brave getting pregnant... I mean, at your age an' everything."
Regina groaned and took a staggering step backward. "At my age? At my age?! I'm forty-three, thank you very much!" she howled, almost forgetting to keep a firm grip on Stella's rear.
"Oh... okay. Naw, you look a good ten yearsh older. Musht be your gray hair," the man said and tried to wipe his blurry eyes.
"I don't have gray hair!" Regina screeched. This time, she did forget to hold onto Stella's butt which meant that her precious cargo dropped like a stone onto the paved lot - or rather, down onto her feet. "Owch! Stell!"
"Ooooh, Reggie... my butt!" Stella groaned, reaching behind her to rub her aforementioned body part.
The inebriated man was already swaying back and forth like a leaf caught in a storm, but seeing the pregnant woman give birth in the middle of the parking lot gave him such a shock that his eyes nearly rolled back in his head. A split second later, he spun around on his axis and hurried away from the two women, letting out a long, wailing groan as he disappeared back into the shadows.
"Okaaaaay..." Stella said from her position on the ground where she was still holding onto Regina's long legs just to be on the safe side in case the inebriated man had really been the Midnight Ripper. "Now look what you've done!"
"What I've done? He insulted my hair! What was I supposed to do, Stell... take it on the chin? Naw, not with me... not with Regina Harrison... not when I so clearly still got it!" Regina said and flicked her perfect hair over her shoulder where it obviously landed in a perfect cascade down her long back.
"Tell you what we're gonna do, Stell... one, you get off my legs. Two, we're going over to the Merc. Three, we drive home and spend the rest of the night in our jammies and then under the blanket."
"Awright!" Stella cried and scrambled away from Regina's legs with a wide smile on her lips.
While the blonde investigator got on her feet and hurried over to their car where she bounced up and down like an excited puppy, Regina rolled her eyes and looked toward the heavens. "Sheesh... and all because I wanted to see a nice, little horror movie..."
"Are ya comin' or what, Reggie?"
"Yeah, yeah... don't get all wadded up. I'm right here," Regina said and pressed the little button on the fob to unlock the SLK.
THE END of MOVIE HORROR
VII - FIRE & ICE CREAM
Written by Norsebard
To call Stella Starr nervous would be an understatement. She wasn't just nervous, she was nail-bitingly, stomach-churningly, cold sweat-inducingly nervous. Pacing back and forth while waiting for news on her most beloved old girl, she had already worn down the fingernails on her right hand and was about to go to work on those on her left.
The late April weather was nice and warm - as witnessed by her bare feet in her purple flip-flops, her loud, zebra-striped tights and her red, shapeless t-shirt that drooped stylishly to leave her right shoulder visible - and yet she felt cold to the core.
Finally, the man she was waiting for came out to greet her.
"How is she? How is my old girl? Pleeeeeeease tell me she's all right! I can't go on if I don't get her back!" she said, rushing over to the man and grabbing hold of his lapels.
"Whoa!" Billy the Mechanic said, trying to pry his neighbor's surprisingly strong fingers off his filthy, canary-yellow boiler suit. "Whoa... Miss Starr! You're gonna get oily and stuff!"
"I don'care! Tell me how she is!"
"Your Pacer is just fine, Miss Starr," Billy said and gave up trying to release himself from Stella's iron grip. Instead, he reached up and pushed his greasy baseball cap back from his forehead so he could run an oily hand through his sweaty hair.
"Ohhhh!" Stella howled, jerking away from Billy's manly chest to bury her face in her hands. "I was so worried... SO worried..."
"It's just a car..." Billy mumbled.
"No! No, it's not just a car! It's THE car, Billy! I've... I... you just don't... we... she's my old girl!" - With that, Stella hurried into Billy's garage to look at her pride and joy, her beloved brown AMC Pacer.
"Uh... okay," Billy said, looking like he didn't know if he should call the local psychiatric ward or not. Shrugging, he felt it best to keep a close eye on the easily excitable woman. "Uh... anyway. I've replaced the lock cylinder on the hatchback and sent the paperwork to the insurance company. They've gotta square that between themselves and the cops and stuff... don't want anything to do with that."
Stella nodded vigorously, too preoccupied with running her fingers over the fixed hatchback to answer verbally.
After getting the bill from a messy table at the far wall of the garage, Billy came back to Stella and handed it to her. "And the whine under the dashboard... well, that was an overheating control box for the turning signal. No big deal. I got one from a wrecking yard for next to nothing. All in all, it'll be eighty bucks, Miss Starr."
"Thank you, Billy," Stella whispered reverently, draping herself over the side of her Pacer to reconnect physically with her old girl.
"Uh... yeah. No problem," Billy said and scratched his two-day stubble.
Five minutes later, Stella reversed out of Billy's garage and drove slowly across the parking lot to get to the slot closest to the door of the building housing the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency.
Getting out, she whistled a merry little tune as she reached back in and started wiping Billy's thumbprints off the dash and the steering wheel with a fluffy rag. "Ahhh... all is right in my world," she said out loud as she put the rag back in the glovebox.
Her world became even more right when her merry whistling was joined by the Beach Boys who blasted out of a car radio behind her. Turning around, she could see her business associate, best friend and now bedmate Regina Harrison driving up the short ramp and trickling closer to her in the low-slung, silver metallic Mercedes SLK.
Driving with the roof down, Regina slowed down to almost nothing and put up her hand in the age-old gesture of 'yo honey-bunny, slap me a high-five' when she went past Stella.
With the high-five duly slapped, Stella hurried after the SLK as it drove into the next slot after the Pacer. "Good morning, Snookums. She's back!" she said, pointing at the Pacer.
"So I see," Regina said and turned off the engine. After unbuckling, she took Stella's hand and pulled her down for a strong How Ya Doin' kiss. "Mmmua! Sorry I couldn't pick you up this morning. I know how much you hate going by bus."
"Aw, it wasn't too bad... I only had my toes crushed once... and I got a backpack in the gut... and a toothless guy kept leering at my boobs," Stella mumbled and adjusted her glasses.
"Oh, that's good." - Taking the key from the ignition, Regina opened the door and stepped out of the car, only to be met by a long, insistent wolf call.
While the wolf call was still fresh on her lips, Stella took a step back to get the big picture - or more to the point since it was Regina, the tall picture.
The six-foot-one former Queen of the Catwalks was wearing black shoes, form-fitting black jeans, a nylon belt with a black buckle, a white, broad-strapped tank top designed to look like a men's undershirt from the 1960s, and finally an open, breezy summer shirt with three-quarter length sleeves, held in a shade of blue that matched her eyes perfectly. To round off the ensemble, she had a pair of pitch black sunglasses perched on top of her dark locks.
Grinning at the wolf call, Regina went into the first pose of her favorite Too Cool For Words routine - the one where she cocked her hips and put a pinkie on her lips - and let out a sensual sigh that was meant to show she was ready for anything her blonde companion could throw at her.
"You know, Reggie," Stella said and made a big production number of furrowing her brow and narrowing her eyes, "if you practice that pose a bit more, I have a feeling you could go places."
"Oh, you!" Regina said and pulled her lover into a crushing hug.
"OOOF! Okay, okay, okay... you still got it!" Stella mumbled, squished up next to Regina's c-cups.
"An' don't you forget it!"
Stella broke out in a cheesy snicker at her position in life and the world in general, but decided to get the most out of it while it was there, and snuggled down into her lover's grasp. "Oh... no chance of that ever happenin'!"
"Hey, are we still on for the harbor fair today and tonight? They're advertising it every three minutes on the radio," Regina said once they finally separated.
"Oh, you bet your cute little belly button we are," Stella said and did her absolute worst to tickle Regina's stomach in the vicinity of said belly button. "And we're taking the Pacer. It's the bicentennial anniversary of Bay City... what better way to celebrate that than to drive down there in a genuine piece of Americana?" she continued, pulling her tall lover over to the building.
"Genuine piece of... something," Regina mumbled, but Stella didn't pick it up - fortunately. "Stell... ummm..." she said out loud once they were at the door.
"Are you... are you going to wear those zebra-striped tights to the fair?" Regina said out of the corner of her mouth while Stella put the keys into the lock on the front door.
Stella stopped dead and turned around slowly, forgetting all about the keys. Putting her hands on her hips, she thrust out her jaw and sent Regina a glare that said: 'Go on, insult my clothes... no no, don't hold back. I'd love to hear it' - "Yes I am. So there!"
"Would you rather I went pantless to the harbor fair, Reggie?"
"Well, that would definitely draw atten-"
" 'Cos if you do, just say it. Or maybe you don't wanna go to the harbor fair with me at all, Reggie? 'Cos if you don't, just say it. I got a whooooole phonebook of gorgeous women who would love to come along."
"You know what, Stell, your zebra-striped tights are a really good fit," Regina said and nodded enthusiastically.
"Mmmm!" - Stella spun around and finished unlocking the front door. Whooshing it open, she strode inside and went over to her desk that had recently been liberated from the clutches of the dreaded Paper Monster.
Regina followed a bit slower and gave Stella a couple of sideways glances as she kicked off her shoes. As always, the plush carpet tickled her feet as she walked across it, but the tickling would have to wait - she was on a mission.
After briefly stopping at her desk to put down her sunglasses, she went into the conference room and began to rummage through the first of their wardrobes to look for something very particular that she knew would transform Stella's outfit from ridiculous to not-quite-as ridiculous.
Before Regina could make it back, their phones started ringing. "I got it," Stella shouted and reached across her desk to pick up the receiver. "You've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. This is Stella Starr, how may we help you?"
'Hello?' a female voice said at the other end of the line. 'Are you Mr. Harrison Starr's secretary? Is he in?'
"No," Stella croaked in a strangely choked-up voice. "Mr. Harrison Starr isn't in 'cos there is no Mr. Harrison Starr and there will never be no Mr. Harrison Starr unless something very very wonky happens and either Reggie or myself will have a sex change operation which I can guarantee you will never, ever, ever, EVER happen!" - DEEP breath.
"Think nothin' of it... common mistake," Stella croaked and pulled out the drawer where she kept the information sheet recording the number of 'People asking for Mr. Harrison Bleepin' Starr.'
A quick count-off proved that the mysterious caller was the forty-seventh different person to get it wrong. After drawing a fat line with a pencil, Stella slammed the drawer shut while rolling her eyes to such an extent they nearly fell out of her head.
'My name is Carrie Stephenson and I... I think my husband is cheating on me.'
"I see," Stella said and sat up straight. She quickly took her notepad and flipped it open to a new page. "Go on," she continued, taking the pencil she had only just used.
'Well, he's a businessman who's always worked late, but recently, there's often a faint smell of wine and perfume on his collars. I used to work for him, but when I got pregnant, he hired a new secretary... a very beautiful woman.'
"Mmmm. And the scent of perfume on his collars isn't just a new brand of aftershave? You know, we had that in a case once where the husband... it's nearly always the husband, but I digress... anyway, where the husband had tried a new brand of aftershave without telling his wife and she conked him over the head with a cast iron frying pan... or was it a wok? It could have been a wok, I can't remember. It was one of the two."
'Ah... no. I always buy his colognes et cetera.'
"All right. Well, I suppose you would like us to put your husband under surveillance? We have a special discount this month on stakeouts. Cameras, sound recording, the works, everything is included in the price."
'Uh... surveillance? Well... possibly... do you think it would help me?'
"Well," Stella said and locked eyes with Regina who was pushing the full-sized mirror into the office with a wide leather belt hanging loose over her shoulder and an impossibly flashy two-hundred watt smile on her lips, "in my experience, we nearly always catch them in the proverbial act, so... yes. It would give you an insight into what he's doing. It might be perfectly harmless."
'I... I would like that... yes. I would like you to observe my husband at and after work. He's working at-'
"Oh, we don't need that information now, Mrs. Stephenson. I'll start a case file and do the necessary paperwork later. Do you have a number where we can reach you without your husband knowing about it?"
'Yes, it's 555-6548.'
"- Four-eight. Got it. Thank you for choosing the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, Mrs. Stephenson. I promise we'll get to the bottom of it. After all, our motto is 'We'll never let a two-timer get away with it.' "
'Thank you! Thank you, Miss Starr. I'll talk to you later. Bye-bye!'
"Goodbye, Mrs. Stephenson," Stella said and hung up. After making a few notes on her notepad, she turned around and looked at the real motto which read 'If you're not satisfied with our services, you can kiss our...' -- Shrugging, she turned back to Regina.
"A new client, Stell?" Regina said and sat down on the corner of the desk.
"Yup. What's that you got there?"
"Oh, ha flippin' ha. I have eyes, you know."
"Oh, I know. It's a belt that will transform your outfit from... mmm... mmm... mmm..."
"Spit it out, Reggie!" Stella said and thumped her fist down onto the desktop.
Regina grinned and rose from the corner of the desk. "From slightly tawdry to sublime. C'mon, get up," she said and held up the belt. "Get up... you know I only bite when you ask nicely."
"Yeah... tee hee," Stella said with a snicker. "Oh, all right."
Getting up, Stella went over to stand in front of her friend. Snickering again, she stood up on tip-toes and stole a little kiss from the tall woman's lips. "So?"
"Let's go over to the mirror. Okay. Stand with your back to me... yep, like that," Regina said and put the leather belt around Stella's waist once she was in position. After tightening the belt on top of the red oversized t-shirt, she pushed it down onto Stella's hips and allowed the strap to hang loose. "Is that great or what? You may thank me," she continued, trying to fluff the dirty-blonde haystack of hair into something resembling a hairstyle.
Stella cocked her head and looked at her reflection. She tried different poses to see how the belt moved with her, and was quite surprised at how cool it actually looked. "Hmmm. Well. Yeah. The belt looks great, but..."
"But?" Regina said and leaned in to give her shorter lover a kiss on her neck.
"The zebra tights gotta go..." Stella said with a shrug.
Nodding, Regina added another little kiss for good measure. "Two words, my little honey-bunny. White. Capris."
"You planned this all along, didn't ya, Reggie?"
Regina shook her head slowly and offered Stella a "Who me?" along with her patented Can't-give-a-hoot shrug.
"I plead the Fifth," Regina said and leaned down to make her presence felt on Stella's neck.
"We're all going on a- summer holiday!" Stella sang at the top of her lungs a few hours later when she and Regina were cruising down Carter Boulevard - at a mind-blowing thirty-three miles per hour - to get to one of the connecting streets that would take them downtown. "Oh... I love that song. And I love that it's possible to buy brand new eight-track cartridges on eBay!" she said, stroking the Pacer's ancient player that was working itself through her newly acquired Cliff Richard's Greatest Hits.
"And I love how you look in those white Capris, hon," Regina purred, stroking Stella's thigh.
"Thank you... though clothes aren't everything, you know. It's what inside that's really important."
"But of course... especially when it's you," Regina husked.
Stella turned her head and flashed Regina a very broad smile. "Awww!" she said, returning the favor by reaching over and clawing Regina's endless thigh.
"Oh! Fifty-fifth Street! Hang a right here, Stell! Here!" Regina suddenly said, pointing to the turning lane to their immediate right.
Stella yelped and hurriedly looked in the mirror - she saw at once she couldn't make it into the inside lane, but she tried anyway. The wheels were barely touching the white line when a delivery van let it be known through an excessive application of its horn that there wasn't any room for the brown Pacer.
In a flash, they were past the intersection and were well on their way towards Fifty-fourth Street. "Oh, shoot... oh, flip... oh, flop... oh, flippety- I was too busy with your thigh to notice the street," Stella growled and whacked her fist down onto the rim of the steering wheel.
"As long as you weren't too busy with the street to notice my thigh, we'll be just fine, you and me," Regina said with a grin, but it faded fast when she caught a glimpse of the dark look on Stella's face. "Ooookay," she said and minded her own business.
"Ah, we can still get there if we take Fifty-third Street. There's an under- and overpass back to Fifty-fifth," Stella said and made sure to use her brand new, whine-free turning signal before she swept into the inner lane where she slowed down to a safer twenty-eight miles per hour to be able to keep up with the street signs.
Regina furrowed her brow and immediately reached for the glovebox to get their map book - then she remembered it was still in the Mercedes. "Are you sure about that, Stell? I think there are roadworks on Fifty-fourth and Fifty-third. I think we have to go all the way down to Fiftieth Street to cross back to Fifty-fourth."
"Now you're confusing me, Reggie," Stella said and furrowed her brow. "We can't get to the harbor fair by going down Fifty-fourth, only Fifty-fifth... but we need to use Fifty-third to get back to Fifty-fifth 'cos Fifty-third isn't... no... shit... 'cos Fifty-fourth isn't connected to Fifty-fifth Street."
"Didn't you just say there are roadworks on Fifty-fourth Street?"
"Uh... yeah," Regina said and looked up at the signs to see where they were, "I meant Fiftieth. We need to go to Fiftieth Street to cross back to Fifty-fifth. I'm pretty sure there are roadworks on Fifty-fourth and Fifty-third... right?"
"Whaddaya mean 'right'? You askin' me? I haven't got a clue, Reggie!"
"Well, me neither! Maybe we can use Fifty-second or Fifty-first? I don't know... it's been ages since I've been down either one."
"No, Fifty-first Street won't work 'cos that's a dead end that ends in a parking lot outside a huge shopping mall."
"You sure about that?"
"You betcha front teeth I'm sure." - Tick-tock, tick-tock - "Or is that Fifty-second Street?"
"I think it's Fifty-second Street, Stell, 'cos I remember a print ad that says 'Come to Monisha's Mall on Fifty-Second Street... your one-stop shopping paradise for designer clothes, cosmetics and accessories.' "
"Yeah, you'd remember stuff like that," Stella mumbled under her breath.
"Oh. Oh! Look!" Regina suddenly said and pointed out of the windshield at a large, orange sign that said 'Roadworks! Fifty-fourth and Fifty-third Street Closed! Detour along Fifty-fifth Street.'
"Fifty-fifth Street!" Stella howled and sat up straight on the Pacer's plush velour seat. "They put the sign *after* the blip-bloppin' intersection! Now we have to go all the blip-bloppin' way down to blip-bloppin' Fiftieth Street to get back to blip-bloppin' Fifty-fifth! Aargh!"
By the way Stella gripped the steering wheel, Regina knew that even the most innocuous word, comment or question could send the blonde investigator into a spit-flying '...ucker'-rage, so she chose to be as quiet as a mouse and crawl way over to the passenger side door.
Twenty minutes later, Stella drove off the busy Fiftieth Street and into the forecourt of a gas station to cool down and to get some sugar for her sensitive system. Before she had even said a word - apart from an inarticulate growl - she left the car and stomped across the lot to get to the convenience store.
Still minding her own business, Regina flipped down the sun visor and dove right into one of her favorite pastimes - looking at herself in the little mirror on the flipside. "Mmmm... o-yeah... uh-huh... mmm-hmmm," she said, trying to cock her head at different angles to find the best possible Perfect Light.
Regina's serenity was rudely interrupted by a young boy who came over to the Pacer and peeked into the opened window. Though she tried to go on with her posing, the boy's continuous licking on a lollipop that seemed to be a foot long made it impossible, and she eventually flipped up the sun visor and put her elbow on the windowsill. "Hi," she said, looking at the boy's denim coverall, Batman t-shirt and red beanie cap.
"Hi." - Lick, lick, LICK, lick.
"What are you doing out here by yourself?"
Lick, LICK, lick, LICK - "Waitin' for my parents to come back out of the store."
LICK, lick, lick, lick.
"You know, all that sugar isn't good for you."
Lick, lick, LICK, lick - "My Mom says it's okay."
"Oh. Well, who am I to argue with your Mom," Regina said and chewed on her cheek, wishing for Stella to return so they could get on with their agenda.
"I'm not allowed" - LICK, LICK, lick, lick - "to talk to strangers."
"But you came to me?"
Lick, LICK, LICK, lick - "You didn't look scary."
"But of course I don't look scary! Kid, let me tell you a story of how I, Regina Harrison, once stole the show from one of the-"
"Will-yam." - LICK, lick, lick, LICK.
Lick, lick, LICK, LICK - "Will-yam."
"William? That's your name?"
"No, Will-yam." - LICK, lick, lick, LICK.
"Will-yam, right. Okay, Will-yam, many, many years ago, I shared a special catwalk at the Cannes Film Festival with one of the greats... she was considered a Goddess, but I got the headlines, and she didn't appreciate that one b-"
"Are you a hundred years old? You have wrinkles everywhere." - LICK, lick, lick, lick.
Regina's bragging got stuck halfway down her throat, and she blinked a dozen times to get the shock under control. Then she hurriedly flipped down the sun visor to look at herself in the little mirror. "S- sure... I have one or t- two here and th- there, but n- not everywhere... Stella... heeeelp! Oh, where is she when I need her?"
LICK, LICK, LICK, lick. - "My parents are back. Goodbye," Will-yam said, spun around on his heels and ran over to two people who came out of the convenience store carrying two six-packs of Slurrpy! Classic Cola and a shopping bag filled to the brim with candy and potato chips. "Mommy, I just spoke to a woman who's a hundred years old!" Will-yam said excitedly, jumping up and down and pointing at the Pacer.
"Stella... where are you...? I need you so badly..." Regina croaked, slipping further and further down in the seat so the eyes of the world wouldn't be on her hundred-year old wrinkles.
Two minutes later, Stella came back out of the gas station store licking a huge raspberry lollipop. Not knowing that her Snookums needed some moral support, she took her time crossing the parking lot, stopping to look at a few specials that were lined up outside the store.
"Wannammpf lickmmpf?" she said as she sat down in the antique car - Gulp! - "Hey, what's wrong with you?"
"I'm a hundred years old and I have wrinkles everywhere," Regina croaked, trying to stretch her skin with her hands.
"Y'know, you look like a ghoul when you do that. Uggh. Don't like it one bit."
"A ghoul? What's worse, looking like a ghoul or a wrinkled old woman?"
"Snookums," Stella said and started the Pacer. "You need to lick a little lollipop. Here. And don't make me say that again, my tongue still hasn't recovered from the first time."
"Sugar isn't good for you..." Regina croaked.
"Pah. A lollipop is always good for you. Now eat while I get back out on the street."
Sob, pout, sulk - "Thank you, Stell... you don't think I look like I'm a hundred years old, do you?"
"Uh... no...? Ah, you still got it," Stella said and accidentally ran her hand all the way up and down Regina's thigh.
Sob, sob, pout, sulk - "Thanks, honey-bunny..." - with that, Regina put out her tongue and started licking the raspberry lollipop at a ferocious pace. "Mmmmpf! Sugarmmpf..."
Stella narrowed her eyes and watched Regina lick the tooth-achingly sweet candy like there was no tomorrow. "Snookums... did we go through one of those personality-swap techno-gizmo thingies like in that Syfy movie we watched the other day? 'Cos... I don't know... your behavior is a little odd..."
"But I lovemmpf sugarmmpf..."
"Uh-huh?" Before driving onto Fiftieth Street, Stella made sure to check everywhere for the Candid Cameras she was sure had been put up while she had been in the convenience store.
By the time they made it into the zone close to the fairgrounds at the end of Fifty-fifth Street - after doubling back, over, under and through the various side streets and detour routes - the huge raspberry lollipop had been reduced to a tiny little slip of vaguely pink sugar.
"Mmmm... I love lollipops," Stella said as they rolled up to the end of a seemingly mile-long line of family cars that were all waiting to get into the fair's designated parking area, the gigantic asphalt lots outside the Bay City Bulldawgs' stadium that had been commandeered for the event. "If only they didn't make you so thirsty."
"Uh-huh," Regina echoed, wishing she had something - anything! - to remove the taste of artificial raspberry flavor from her lips and tongue.
Stella leaned out of the opened window to see if she could suss out how long it would take - 'long' was the short answer. "Wow... how many people d'ya think are here, Reggie? A million? Maybe more?"
"Oh, I don't think-"
"And they only have one guy sitting in the booth. Isn't that typical, Reggie?"
"Well, yeah but-"
"I think it is. They want our money for the parking and the stuff at the harbor fair, but they won't provide us with a decent service."
"Maybe there was another guy but he needed to pee?"
Grunting, Stella popped out the spent lollipop stick and put it in the ashtray. "Well, wouldn't that be typical? You'd ha' thunk he could have a bucket or something in there to take a leak in," she grumbled, raising her foot off the brake to let the Pacer trickle forward a car-length.
"Wanna listen to some music while we wait, Stell?" Regina said, already holding the next eight-track cartridge ready.
"Which one is it?"
"Disco Explosion '79!" Regina said with a broad, near-two-hundred watt smile.
Chuckling at the look on her friend's face, Stella reached over and patted the endless thigh. "Right on, sista! Let the music play!"
"That'll be twenty dollars, please," the uniformed man said once Stella and Regina had made it to the glass booth.
Stella already had her wallet out, but the staggering amount of money needed for such a simple operation made her come to a dead halt and stare at the man with wide-open eyes. "Naw, back it up, fella... we only want a spot to park in... not buy the whole dang stadium..."
"Twenty dollars, please."
"To park here? Twenty dollars for a measly parking spot at a football stadium that belongs to a team that plays so flip-floppingly awful they went two and fourteen last season even with their best line-up...? Hell, they couldn't even beat the conference whipping boys! Aw, screw that, WE ARE the conference whipping boys!"
"Twenty dollars, please."
Stella's jaw moved in erratic patterns, her fingers were playing a Speed Metal anthem on the steering wheel and there was a strange growl coming from somewhere deep in her throat - in short, she wasn't best pleased. "All right," she growled and gave the parking attendant two ten-dollar bills.
The uniformed attendant tore off a stub from a notepad and handed it to Stella with a fake smile and an even faker: "Follow the yellow lines into the parking lots. Have a nice day, Ma'am."
"That's Miss, buster!" Stella barked and mashed the gas. The old girl lurched forward and cleared the area around the booth in world record time.
Regina glanced at her friend but wisely kept to herself.
Following the yellow lines, Stella drove over several speed bumps and went past a first, then a second, then a third lot that had already been filled to capacity and subsequently closed. There were already thousands upon thousands of cars, SUVs and trucks parked in orderly lines in the lots, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out they would need to go on a trek resembling the forty days in the wilderness to get to the actual fairgrounds.
"Sheesh..." Stella said with a sigh as the fourth parking lot was closed just as they came up to it. "I'm beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea after all, Reggie..."
"Mmmm-yeah... oh, there's a guy waving us into the fifth lot," Regina said, pointing ahead at a uniformed man who was wearing a fluorescent vest over his fatigues.
"I see him. At least we'll get one of the first slots," Stella said and made a ninety-degree right hand turn to get into the fifth lot. After a bit of maneuvering, she rolled into the slot and turned off the engine.
A scant minute later, the entire row they had been led into was filled with family cars of all types - and suddenly everyone swarmed out at the same time and assembled in a sort-of illogical place halfway down the parking lot.
"Stell, it's gonna be fine, I promise. We're gonna have a great afternoon and a magic evening here," Regina said and leaned over to place a nice, little kiss on Stella's cheek.
"Well, if we're both pulling in the same direction, I guess the rope won't be as heavy, huh?" Stella said and repaid the favor by claiming Regina's lips.
After getting out and locking the car, they started on the long trek that would take them down to the main gate of the harbor fair - with the sun beating down on them mercilessly.
Fifteen minutes later, Stella schlepped herself across the burning hot asphalt desert. Struggling to put one foot ahead of the other in a desperate attempt to simulate actual walking, she resembled a lost soul trying to cross the Sahara. "Water... water..." she croaked.
Her mop of hair was damp and flat against her head, her glasses were misted up and had slipped down to the tip of her nose, and her overall level of freshness was two notches below what was required for her general sense of well-being. "Water..."
"There's a soft drink vendor over there, Stell... Stell? Stella?" Regina said, looking as fresh as a daisy who had just come out of the shower. "Oh, Stell..."
"I guess it's up to me," Regina said, put two fingers in her mouth and let out a shrill whistle that made everyone, including the vendor, turn around and look in her direction. When she made eye contact with the vendor, she waved an arm in the air to let him know there was money to be made.
The soft drink vendor waved back and hurriedly turned his ingenious vehicle around - a reverse tricycle with a huge cooler box welded onto the front.
"Hi," Regina said once the vendor had reached them. "My friend and I need a drink. Whatcha got?"
"Cold Frizzie's Carbonated Mineral Water and Frizzie's Diet Cola."
"Uggh... none of the above. I can't stand Frizzie's," Stella croaked, "you ain't got no Slurrpy! razzies or cherry colas?"
"No we don't, I'm afraid. The harbor fair is sponsored by Frizzie's," the vendor said. In his early twenties, the man was sharply dressed in gray pants, a white t-shirt and a white garrison cap that sat crooked on his dark, curly locks.
Chuckling, Regina quickly opened the lid of the cooler box and took two cans of Carbonated Mineral Water. "How much?" she said, digging into her pocket for her wallet.
"That'll be six dollars, Miss," the vendor said and held out a money pouch.
Hearing that, Stella's eyes popped wide open and she gasped so loudly she would have choked on saliva had she had any. "Six... doll... ars?" she croaked, "six dollars for two cans of soda!?"
"Hush now, Stell, I got it," Regina said and gave the vendor a ten dollar bill. "Keep the change. Okay?"
The vendor happily put the bill into his purse and got back on the tricycle. "Thanks! Have a nice fair!" he said as he wheeled away.
Stella tried to follow him with her eyes but her misted-up glasses made it difficult for her. "Six... dollars... six!"
"Things are expensive at fairs, Stell, you know that," Regina said and cracked open Stella's can. "Here. It's nice and cold... it's gonna give you the burps if you're not careful."
"Thank-ye!" Stella mumbled and hurriedly grabbed the can. Throwing her head back, she drained every last drop of carbonated mineral water in what seemed to be a single gulp. "Ahhhhhh!" she said, rolling the cool can across her forehead once it was empty.
Regina scratched her eyebrows at the insatiable nature of her partner but eventually shrugged and cracked open her own can. Like a proper lady, she only took modestly sized lady-sips. "Oh, this is nice and refreshing. Are you ready for the last part of the trek, Stell?"
"How far do you think we have to go?"
"Well, I'd say another half a mile or so."
"Oh, Gawd..." Stella said and bent over to put her hands on her knees. "Naw, I'm a strong woman, I can handle-" - inevitably, the carbonated mineral water performed its ancient, vengeful trick by giving her such a kick up the backside that she had no choice but to let out a resounding "BUUUUUUUURRR-"
"Mmmm-yeah, Stell, told ya that would happen..."
"Dear God, Stell, they can hear you clear down in L.A..." Regina mumbled, looking around to see if anyone was close enough to get an unfiltered dose of the Stella's - a few were, but they seemed to be purposely ignoring the belching woman.
"Bless you," Regina said and patted Stella on the back to get every last burp out before they made it to the entrance.
With the mineral water doing a good job of cooling off Stella's internal pathways, the last half-mile was less strenuous than the first had been, and her good mood had returned to the point of hooking her arm inside Regina's and humming the final bars of Donna Summer's I Feel Love.
The main gates soon came into sight, and even better, there weren't many people in line. Stella immediately felt even better and she leaned in to bump shoulders with her tall lover. "You know what I'm looking forward to the most, Reggie?"
"No? The merry-go-round? The fireworks?"
"The merry-go-round and the fireworks are gonna be great, no doubt about it... but I was talking about meeting Laura again. Yeah. That's going to be so much fun," Stella said dreamily, pulling Regina's arm closer to her. "Law and I were the best of friends back then... yeah."
"Stell, the more you speak of her, the more I get the impression the crush you had on her was perhaps, uh... a little bit more than that...?"
"Well... from my point of view, yes, it was more than just a crush, but... hey, are you worried?"
"Nah. I'm cool," Regina said with a smile that never quite reached her eyes.
"Look, Snookums," Stella said and pulled the two of them to a stop just outside the main entrance, "you have absolutely nothing to worry about. Nothing at all. I love you with chocolate sprinkles on top... hell, I love you with tutti-frutti sprinkles on top! And you know how much I love tutti-frutti... and not only that, there's strawberry jam and whipped cream, too! Huh?" Stella said, poking an index finger into Regina's white undershirt.
Laughing, Regina leaned down and gave Stella a little hug. "All right."
"All right," Stella echoed. "At least there aren't too many people at the entrance. It shouldn't take us too-"
"Whut? The road runner? Here?!" Stella said and spun around to see where the honking had come from.
Out of nowhere - or rather, coming from the very parking lot Regina and Stella had just trekked out of - a white shuttle bus drove past them and pulled up close to the main entrance where it deposited a full load of happy, excited and first and foremost fresh families who all swarmed over to the gates that soon jammed to a gridlock.
"A shut- shut- a shuttle b- b- bus...?" Stella croaked; then screeched, "they have a shuttle bus? We've just crossed the flip-floppin' Gobi desert on foot and they have a shuttle bus?!"
The last words of the sentence had been presented in such a screeching manner that Regina involuntarily clapped her hands over her ears.
"Wait, wait... lemme see that stub," Stella screeched and began to rummage through her pockets. When she finally found the parking stub, she flipped it over and read: "Free shuttle buses are available at sections four- AAAAAAAARGH! We coulda taken the blip-bloppin' shuttle bus, Reggie! We coulda taken the shuttle bus! We coulda saved six bucks for those blip-bloppin' sodas if we had taken the shuttle bus! We coulda been here fifteen minutes ago if we had taken the shuttle bus! And now... now... NOW we have to wait for all those people to get through the entrance and they're families with little kids and old people and old kids and little people and it's gonna take an eternity to get everyone through 'cos they all wanna pay with plastic but oh-no where's the credit card I don't have the credit card, do you have the credit card, Frank? No I thought you had it, honey. And-and-and they go through all their pockets only to find it in their purse and it takes a blip-bloppin' e-TER-nity to get everyone through and in the meantime all the best seats will be taken at the free promenade concert and the best hot dogs will be eaten and we're gonna be late for the meeting with Laura and why does it always have to be this way... why, why, why, why, WHY DOES IT ALWAYS HAVE TO BE THIS WAAAAAAY!? Oh God, I hate my life!" - DEEP, DEEP breath.
"Oh, Rippa Rat A New One, the next shuttle bus is already on its way here... hurry, Reggie! We gotta get in line before the next shuttle bus comes and dumps a new load of... Reggie? Reggie, why are you wearing your shirt like that? I mean, it wasn't designed to be held over your head like that... Reggie? Why's your face so red? Did you get stung by a bee or something? Aw hell, we can't wait... c'mon, Reggie, we gotta hustle."
Not wanting to waste another second, Stella grabbed the mortified Regina's arm and dragged her up to the tail end of the shortest line. "There... that wasn't so bad, was it? You want me to pay for the general admission? Reggie? ...Reggie?"
Regina's acute and violent embarrassment over her fast- and loudly-talking friend lasted until well after they had gone through the main entrance - in fact, she didn't lower her blue shirt until they went past a string of vendors who sold all kinds of sugary and salty sweets from portable, wooden huts.
"Ooooh!" Stella said, looking at the first of the vendors. "Popcorn... mmmm! Salt! Smell that salt? That's the good stuff right there, baby. And caramel fudge! Reggie, you want a box of caramel fudge popcorn?"
"No, thank you," Regina said, lowering her pitch black sunglasses so no one could recognize her.
"Awww, don't be Chief Woodenhead today, Reggie! Live a little!"
"I'd rather, uh..." Regina said and looked up and down the row of vendors. A brightly decorated hut further down the left side caught her eye, as did the sign that said 'Genuine Italian Gelato Sold Here!' "I'd rather have an ice cream... if you're buying? There's an Italian ice cream vendor down there... you kinda like that, don't you?" she said and pointed at the colorful hut.
"Oooh! Italian gelato? Remember the pistachio dream that was SO rudely snatched from me when we worked on the case with the stolen diamonds?"
"That's what I was think-"
"You *are* talking my language, Reggie! For a while there, I was worried. I could definitely eat a pistachio... well, c'mon then," Stella said and hooked her arm inside Regina's to drag her along.
The alley was filled to capacity with families who came from the main entrance; mostly children, but a great number of adults as well. To get to the ice cream vendor, Stella and Regina needed to thread their way through hundreds and hundreds of kids and grownups holding balloons, boxes of popcorn, huge wads of cotton candy and lollipops that were so large they made the specimen Stella had bought at the gas station seem like a toothpick.
At one point, a particularly impressive wad of hot pink cotton candy was on a direct collision course with Regina's blue shirt, but she managed to evade it by spinning around on her axis which earned her wild applause from the adults in the vicinity.
Once at the ice cream parlor - a sign held in red, white and green proclaimed it to be Andrea de Barazzo's Ice Cream - Stella pressed her nose flat against the glass to look at the twenty-four different flavors she could pick. "Well, pistachio is one... but I want two scoops. Oh, I'm not good at deciding what I want... especially not when there's so much to choose from..."
"I'll say," Regina said under her breath, remembering an unfortunate incident in a coffee shop some time earlier.
"Stracciatella... espresso... chocolate chunk... tiramisu... creamy cherries... Stracciatella, definitely. Or maybe tiramisu..." Stella mumbled as she studied the plastic containers with the inviting, colorful flavors. "Aw hell, this is such a beautiful day, you know what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna take stracciatella and tiramisu. And pistachio. Yep. What do you want, Reggie?"
"Noooo, c'mon," Stella whined, but she could see rather quickly that her tall, ascetic friend couldn't be swayed by the mighty lure of sugar, so she shrugged and stepped up to the tall counter. "Hi," she said to the young man who came out to greet her.
"Buongiorno!" the man said with a sweeping gesture and a small bow. The ice cream vendor had friendly, dark brown eyes set well in a slightly round face, and he had short, dark brown hair that was almost a perfect match for the color tone of his eyes.
"Wow, are you really an Italian?" Stella said with eyes as wide as saucers.
"Nah, I'm Andy from Pittsburgh... but the girls love that stuff," the man said and broke out in a chuckle.
"I'll bet," Stella said and raised Andy's chuckle with a snicker. "ANYway, my dear old friend Reggie and I would like some ice cream. Whatcha got that's low calorie?"
"Low calorie? Are you trying to insult me?" Andy said, but added a wink to take the sting out of the words.
Stella's reaction wasn't late in coming - a broad smile that only became broader as she turned around and began to poke a thumb into Regina's side. "Ha! Ha, and another Ha! I knew it, Reggie! You can't get that low-calorie, no-taste gunk here..."
"Then I'd like a small plain vanilla in a wafer cone, please," Regina said, squirming under Stella's ceaseless attack. "Ooof! Cut it out... cut it out or I'm gonna tickle ya half to death, Stell!"
"You know," Stella said and stopped at once, "I don't think you can... but we'll see... tonight." - The last word was delivered in a whisper.
Behind them, Andy had already finished scooping up a small plain vanilla and was putting it into the wafer cone. "Here you go, bella donna," he said and handed it to Regina. "Have you made up your mind yet, Miss?" he continued, turning back to Stella.
"Yup," the blonde investigator said, pushing up her glasses with an index finger. "I want three scoops in a cup. pistachio, stracciatella and tiramisu."
"Pistachio, stracciatella, and tiramisu coming right up," Andy said and went to work on the various ice creams. It didn't take him long to get it done, and he soon handed the cup, a small plastic spoon and a large white napkin to Stella. "That'll be five dollars. I hope you'll like it enough to come back to Andrea de Barazzo's Ice Cream."
"Oh, you betcha," Stella said, eyeing the cup of ice cream with a lusty gaze.
After paying, Regina and Stella strolled on down the line of vendors until they reached an open area where the free promenade concert would take place later on in the day. The stage was ready for the orchestra, but the stagehands were still putting in the benches needed for the audience. Now and then, the sounds of the musicians tuning their instruments wafted through a huge, dark gray backdrop that had been put up all along the rear side of the stage.
Beyond the area where the benches were being put up, a large group of well-dressed people of all ages - the dress code seemed to be summer suits and straw hats for the gentlemen, and floral dresses and large hats for the ladies - had gathered and were talking excitedly amongst themselves.
They were behaving in accordance with their class, but it was clear to see they were all eager to get to the best seats once the ropes cordoning off the spectator enclosure were removed.
"Ohmmpf, Immpf lovemmpf freemmpf concertsmmpf," Stella said, digging into her Italian ice cream with gusto.
"Whatssatmmpf?" Regina said, busy licking a hole in her plain vanilla.
"Immpf saidmmpf, Immpf lovemmpf freemmpf concertsmmpf."
"Suremmpf," - Gulp! - "I just can't understand a word of what you're saying, Stell," Regina said with a broad grin.
Stella scrunched up her face to see if Regina was making fun of her but decided that she wasn't. Unable to keep the sour look for too long, she broke out in a snicker while she bumped shoulders with her friend. "I said, I love free concerts. There's no obligation to stick around if you think it's boring. You don't even have to sit there and fry in the sun, you can walk around like we do now."
"It says on the event poster they'll play Sousa Favorites. That's marching band music, Stell," Regina said out of the corner of her mouth.
"Yeah? Well, that's fun!"
"Mmmm-if you say so."
"I do say so," Stella said and hooked her free arm under Regina's. "C'mon, finish your vanilla. I'm gettin' thirsty again so I think I'll look for a hut that sells soft drinks." - sniff, sniff - "And I've found one already. It's over here, Reggie."
The sea of humanity seemed to thicken when Stella tried to push her way through it, but she managed to make it over to another of the vendor huts - though she had to take it one cautious step at a time.
Just as she put up her right leg to take the last step onto the wooden sidewalk in front of the soft drinks hut, a group of screaming, playing children tore past her, going so fast she only had time to see a colorful blur. "Whoa! Yikes, that was clos-"
BA-DA-BOP! said a balloon that hit Stella's cup with the last of her ice cream. The paper cup flew out of her grasp and sailed through the air, but through her lightning-fast Kung-Fu reflexes, she managed to grab it back before it could make an unfortunate impact with the paved ground. "My ICE CREEEEEEEEAM! Oh, sweet Chicky-Dee, I saved it," she groaned, holding onto the paper cup with all the strength of a tigress. "Oh... ohhhh... that was close... I better... I better..."
Digging in with the plastic spoon, she took the rest of her remaining ice cream - the pistachio - and scooped it into her mouth in a single, huge gulp. Turning around, she flashed Regina a thumbs-up as she began to suck on the ball of ice cream in her mouth.
Instead of looking at Regina, she should have looked ahead, but it was too late to change how the world turned. With the very next step she took, her shoe hit the edge of the wooden sidewalk which sent her into a forward parabolic flight and made her howl a muted "WHOOPBBBL!" on her way closer and closer to the wall of the soft drink vendor.
Even worse than that, the howl made her swallow involuntarily which sent the entire ball of ice cream down her pipe. She managed to wrestle back her balance before she smacked the wall with her beak, but the ice cream that sunk deeper and deeper into her gut gave her such a freeze-induced head- and backache she might as well have headbutted the hut into submission - it wouldn't have hurt any less. "Gaaaaaaawd," she croaked cross-eyed, clutching her aching sides and waddling around numbly in a lazy figure-of-eight.
Regina considered pulling her shirt over her head again, but her nurturing feelings towards Stella won out, and she stepped forward and pulled the unfortunate blonde into a comforting hug, rubbing her arms up and down the petite back to keep her warm.
"My pistachio..." Stella croaked once she had regained the ability to speak.
"I know. Shhh," Regina said, giving her lover a little squeeze.
The soft drink vendor they were standing next to had several large and colorful signs hanging outside advertising 'Bay City's Number One Favorite Soft Drink - Frizzie's Sold Here!' but Stella could only shake her head at that slogan. "And it was all for nothing... they only sell Frizzie's... I can't stand Frizzie's... far too much fizzy... they make me belch."
"Ahem. As we found out down on the parking lot," Regina mumbled.
"C'mon, Stell, let's move on. I can see the first amusements from here," Regina said as she looked over Stella's shoulder.
"Amusements?" Stella said, forgetting all about her sulking. "Ooooh, let's go, Snookums! Maybe they got air hockey!"
Regina chuckled as she watched Stella stride off and move through the massive, noisy crowd with the poise of a professional rodeo rider. "I love her, but she's so high-maintenance I almost need hazard pay... on the other hand, ya sure can't beat the fringe benefits... mmmm... she's definitely got it," Regina mumbled to no one in particular before following her fiery lover into the crowd.
The first amusement they went past, a shooting gallery where the object of the game was to shoot balloons with colorful soft darts, didn't prove exciting enough for Stella so she carried on full steam ahead. The second amusement, a huge wheel of fortune where the prizes were tickets to various concerts, was more interesting, but the spectators were five deep all along the counter so that was out of the picture as well.
The third booth, a basketball game, was exactly Stella's idea of a good time - well, more or less - and better still, it was deserted. On their way to the amusement, a strange and curious sound of...
... filled the air between Stella and Regina who was still walking two steps behind the blonde investigator just to make sure the white Capris were still doing their job.
"What in SAM HILL is that? Is that the promenade concert?" Regina said, stopping to perform a full three-sixty degree turn to find the source of the unusual atonal melody.
"Nope! It's my new ringtone," Stella said and reached into her pocket to find her phone. "Ya like it?"
"Mmmmm-eh, how can I put it..."
"You don't like it...?"
"I didn't say I didn't."
"You didn't say ya did."
Regina took a deep breath and considered stuffing her fingers into her ears, but she stopped herself at the last moment. "Aren't you going to-"
"- take it, Stell? It could be important."
Mumbling something unintelligible that sounded suspiciously like "First she doesn't like my tweedle-deedle ringtone then she doesn't like my Xena ringtone now she doesn't like my twit-twot ringtone... maybe I'm gonna make one that combines all three just to put a burr in her shorts," Stella pressed the little button and put the phone to her ear. "You've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. This is Stella Starr, the senior investigator."
"Oh hi, Joe. Any news?"
"A job? You have a job for us?"
"*You* have a *job* for *us*? GET OUTTA TOWN!"
"Nah, just kidding, Joe," Stella said and leaned against the counter of the hoop hut. "I don't have my notepad with me so you'll have to go real slow."
"Whaddaya mean you always do? Cheeky so-and-so..."
Mumble, mumble. Mumble. Mumble, mumble.
"Okay? A secretary needs a safe house for a couple-a days?"
" 'Cos she's blown her embezzling boss...? Uh, Joe, that's not really our thing-"
"Oh... okay. She's blown the whistle on her boss. Right. Phew," Stella said and gave Regina a thumbs-up.
"Okay, we've got another thing lined up, too, but if you call tomorrow with her number, we'll get in touch with her."
"Great, Joe. Thanks... bye."
Once the phone was safely tucked away in Stella's white Capris, she put out her hand which made Regina come over to her and take it. "Hey, Snookums, that was Joe."
"So I gather."
"Yeah, he was contacted by a gal who feels threatened by her former boss' business associates after she ratted out on him to the IRS. She needs to disappear for a few days while the authorities take care of it... or else it might be a permanent thing... wouldn't want that."
"Nope. Your place, my place, hotel room?"
"Oh, definitely a hotel room. It's deductible," Stella said with a grin before reaching up and stealing a quick kiss. "And now! Now we're gonna shoot some hoops!"
Turning around, she went up to the counter and put down the fifty cents required to get five balls. "Hiya doin'," she said to the young woman manning the booth. "Five balls if ya don't mind."
"Would you care for some competition, Stell?" Regina said and put down another fifty cents.
Stella grinned and made a sweeping gesture with her hand. "Be my guest... just prepare to get whipped. Metaphorically speaking, of course," she said with a wink.
The young woman quickly took the coins and put five garishly colored foam balls in each of the baskets that Regina and Stella stood in front of. "The game is simple," she said and pointed at the vertical line of hoops they were supposed to hit, "aim for the smallest hoop at the top of the line. That will give you five points. If you miss that, the ball will roll down to the second, third or fourth hoop that will give you four, three and two points respectively. If it misses all four, it will be collected in the fifth hoop at the bottom that will earn you one point. Once you've thrown the five balls, your score will be tallied and you can select a prize. All right?"
"Okie-dokie!" Stella said - Regina settled for nodding.
Stella took the first foam ball and held it up to her eye. Concentrating so hard she could barely breathe, she threw the ball which missed the first hoop completely and rolled all the way down into the fifth- "Oh, fuh-get'it!"
Grinning, Regina threw her first ball, but she couldn't hit the smallest target either and it rolled all the way down to the fourth hoop which gave her two points.
"Beginner's luck," Stella growled and took her second ball. Concentrating a little less, she threw it - and missed the first hoop completely. That particular ball ended its run in the third hoop, so it wasn't all bad. "Ha! I'm leading!"
"But for how long?" Regina said and carefully selected her second ball from the remaining four. Scrunching up her face, she threw the ball with a loose wrist and watched it sail through the air, ultimately landing in the second hoop, earning her four points. "Uh-huh? You *were* leading."
Stella mirrored her partner's look as she took her third ball. "C'mon," she whispered to the foam creature, "c'mon, this one's gotta count... go!"
Using the loose wrist technique, she let it go with a whoop - but watched it bounce off the center railing between the two lanes and fly clear off the playing field. "Shit!"
The young woman behind the counter quickly bent down to take the stray ball and threw it down the fifth hoop. "I'm afraid that will only count as a one-point score, Miss."
"Yeah, all right," Stella grumbled, chewing on her cheek to calm down.
"My turn," Regina said and took her third ball. Deciding to have a bit of fun with it, she threw it crooked like a curveball, but watched in disbelief as it flew straight down the second hoop, giving her another score of four points. When she heard a choked-up, grunting gasp from her right, she turned towards Stella to offer her a two-hundred watt smile as a consolation prize.
Now Stella really chewed on her cheek. The fourth ball was a neon-green one, and she took that as a good sign since it was also the color of one of her favorite pair of socks. After taking a deep breath to loosen her limbs, she let the ball go and watched it roll lazily through the air, heading for a date with destiny - or rather, with the first hole. Two seconds later, it went down into the five-point hole with a satisfying PLOPP!
"Yabba-dabba-dooooooooo!" Stella howled and jumped a foot in the air. Upon landing, she immediately went into an outrageous performance of the Hucklebuck that the inventors of the party dance had never envisioned. "Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, do the Hucklebuck, meh-heh, bah-hah, bee-hee, wee-wee, with a little roll and a lotta rock... I got a five, I got a five, I got a five! Didya see that, Reggie, I got a five!" she shouted while she twisted, jittered, shimmied, shook, rocked, snaked and hula-ed her way across the alley.
"I kinda noticed, Stell... and so did they," Regina said drolly, looking at the people who were all staring in wide-eyed disbelief at the outpouring of emotions displayed by the short blonde. "Well, let's see what I can do," she continued, throwing her own fourth ball. Unfortunately, it was a bust that fell directly into the fourth hoop.
"Two points, Miss," the young woman said. "That brings your tally to twelve points. Your... uh... dancing friend has ten points."
Hearing that, Regina grinned and took her last ball. "Yo, dance muffin, time to throw your last ball. Oh, and you're down on points to moi , the foam-goddess."
Stella did the Bay City Hokey-Pokey on her way back to the counter, but when she took the last foam ball, she was deadly serious. "This is it... this is it... one ball for the win... c'mon foamy!" - The ball gained enough height but not enough oomph and could only make it to the third hoop, but it did fall into that without drama. "Oh, pooey..." she said, chewing on her cheek again as she glanced across the playing field to her tall partner.
Regina screwed on her game face and took her last ball. After holding it up to her eye to aim, she let it go - only to see it bounce off the rim of the second hoop and roll all the way down to the fifth and final one.
"One point, Miss," the young woman said and collected the balls.
"Feh," Regina mumbled, stuffing her hands into her jeans pockets.
Stella counted on her fingers and soon came to the conclusion that she and Regina were tied on points - and that they had both made thirteen. "Brrrr," she said with a shiver. "Good thing I'm not superstitious..."
"You *are* superstitious, Stell," Regina said surly.
"Yeah, but if you say you're not, the Specter Of All Things Thirteen will move on to the next unlucky geezer..."
"Congratulations," the young woman said. "You both have thirteen points. You may choose a prize from the second shelf, over here," she continued, waving her hand at a shelf of slightly cheesy prizes that mostly consisted of plastic items of no real value.
Stella's eyes fell upon a sixteen-piece 3D puzzle of the Eiffel Tower, and she quickly put up her hand. "The puzzle!"
"The puzzle, all right," the young woman said and turned to Regina. "And you, Miss?"
"You know..." Regina said, squinting at the items that were so far below her high standards that it was simply ridiculous. "Tell you what, in the spirit of competition, I'll let my partner here choose my prize. Is that okay?"
"Well... okay. Sure," the young woman said and turned back to Stella.
"Oooooh! Thanks, Reggie!" Stella said and pulled Regina into a sideways hug. "In that case, I'd like the... the... oh! Is... is that a yo-yo with red and green LED lights? Ooooh! Gotta have that one!"
"The yo-yo is yours, Miss," the young woman said and put the blinking yo-yo on the counter next to the 3D puzzle. "Thank you for playing."
"You're welcome!" Stella squealed, clutching her two prizes to her bosom.
"Would you like a plastic bag to carry your prizes in?"
"Uh... if you got one, yeah!"
Regina couldn't stop a warm chuckle from escaping her lips at the sight of her highly excited lover stuffing her winnings into a neutral plastic bag, and she wrapped her arms around Stella's shoulders and gave her a fair-sized crush from behind, taking the opportunity to steal a kiss on her neck. "Way to go, Stell... you earned 'em."
"Thanks, Reggie... love you to bits! I'll even let you play with my new yo-yo!"
"Gee, thanks, Stell..."
On their way over to the marquee where they had arranged to meet with Stella's old friend Laura, they shuffled past Andy the Ice Cream Man who was pushing a cart around equipped with a large freezer box and a parasol held in red, white and green.
"Hi!" Stella said as she recognized the friendly ice cream vendor. "Your pistachio was flippin' great!"
"Well, that's good to hear," Andy said and tipped his non-existent cap.
Smiling at the man, Stella turned back to Regina and kept walking, but a sudden commotion behind the two investigators made them turn around and look back.
A young woman pushing a very similar ice cream cart - also equipped with a freezer box and a parasol, though hers was plain yellow - had bumped into Andy's cart and was blocking his way.
The young woman who was in her mid-twenties and dressed in white looked like a fury unleashed with sparkling dark hair and dark brown eyes that shot fire at Andy. "I told you before, Andrea, this is my turf! I don't want you to sell your second-rate crap over here!" she hissed through clenched teeth.
Andy stared at the dent on the front of his cart and then up at the fury. "You dented my cart! You did that on purpose! You knew your bumper is higher than mine... you rammed straight into it!"
"Pah! Don't change the subject, Andrea. You're not welcome over here!"
Stella observed the heated exchange with round, confused eyes. She didn't really want to get involved, but the 'second-rate crap' comment made her grunt and stride forward to give the fury a two-dollar slice of reality.
"No, Stell... noooo," Regina whined, but it was too late.
"Oy, Missy," Stella said as she came up to the two warring ice cream vendors, "I think you need to get off the boil and calm down just a fraction. I've just bought a pistachio, stracciatella and tiramisu from Andrea's hut and that wasn't second-rate crap, lemme tell ya."
"Stay out of this, shorty!" the fury said and stomped back to her own cart. "If you had tried Giovanna Fiorito's Original Gelato, you'd see that what Andrea sells is crap!"
Stella stopped dead in her tracks with a gaping mouth, one foot up and one foot down. Soon, the second foot was lowered as well, and an animal-like growl started somewhere deep in her throat.
"Aw, hell," Regina groaned, rubbing her brow. "Stell, we don't want to keep Laura waiti-"
"Shorty?" Stella growled, stepping forward menacingly. "Ohhhh, you didn't... OHHHH you didn't... yes you did! Shorty? Who you callin' shorty, Missy? I'm five foot four-and-a-half... that ain't short. I'd really like an apology, Missy!"
"Yeah? Well, you're not gonna get one! Shorty!" the fury said and threw Stella an Italian hand gesture that didn't need an interpreter.
Behind the hissing alley cats, the orchestra at the promenade concert began playing one of John Philip Sousa's lesser known marches with great aplomb, painting the perfect backdrop to the red blotches that had formed on Stella's cheeks.
Blinking several times, Stella stepped forward with the corners of her mouth twitching uncontrollably. "Ha, ha... HA... ha... HA! Ha, ha, ohhhh you didn't... ha, ha. HA FLIPPIN' HA! Lemme tell you a story about Li'l Red Hiding Hood, Missy, ha, ha, HA, she ended her days being torn to shreds in the yap of a horrible wolf monster, ha, ha, ha... anytime you're ready, Missy. Anytime you're ready!"
Knowing she he had to stop the bare-knuckle world championship bout before actual blows were exchanged, Regina stepped in and put her hands on Stella's taut shoulders. "Oh, look at the time, Stell. We're going to be late for the meeting with your old friend, Stell. You remember Law, don't you, Stell? She's waiting for us at the marquee. We don't want to disappoint her, do we, Stell? Stell?"
"Not now, Reggie... I'm about to tear her a new one..."
"Can we do it a little later, Stell? We're drawing attention to ourselves..."
"I thought you loved attention, Snookums?"
"Not like this," Regina groaned out of the corner of her mouth.
The situation defused itself when Giovanna Fiorito threw her arms in the air, spun around and went back to her own ice cream cart. With a "Pfffff!" she pulled back and disappeared into the crowd.
"Yeah, you just take a hike there, Missy! Big piece of... of... of... roasted chicken kebab!" Stella said, throwing the ice cream vendor a homemade hand gesture that didn't need an interpreter either.
Regina let out a sigh of relief and rolled her eyes repeatedly behind her black shades. "Okay, that was fun... not."
Sighing deeply, Andy reached into his freezer box and found a small gift for the hopping mad Stella: a prefabricated strawberry ice cream cone. "Here, Miss... thanks for your help. Giovanna is a pain in the butt. She seems to think she's got dibs on this part of the harbor fair or something... only she doesn't."
The corners of Stella's mouth were still twitching furiously, but the sight of an ice cream cone made her calm down. Deflating like a leaky balloon, she bent over and put her hands on her knees. "Thanks, buddy. I could use a good ice cream."
"Well, in that case, just swing by Andrea de Barazzo's place, eh?" Andy said and closed the lid of the freezer box.
"You betcha, Andy," Stella said with a smile as she unwrapped the cone before it melted. "Oh, I better be going. Reggie? Reggie? Reggie, where are you off to now...? Oh, there you are. Wait for me, Reggie!"
The marching music kept playing in the background, but as Stella and Regina moved further down the alley to get to the marquee, it slowly blended into the regular din of the fair and was soon only part of the ambience.
"Oy, wait up, Reggie!" Stella said, hurrying after her long-legged companion. "Man, how about me and her, huh? Sweet chicky-dee, I was about to drop the hammer on her..." - LICK, lick, lick.
"If you had," Regina said and came to a stop to wait for Stella, "the security would have kicked us out in oh point nothing at all." - Holding out her arm, she waited for her fiery friend to take it before walking on.
"Nah... they wouldn't dare." - LICK, lick, LICK - "Not with me, not with Stella Starr! And definitely not with you."
"If you had fought that woman, I wouldn't have been anywhere near here, Stell," Regina said with a cheeky grin.
"No, you're definitely more of a lover than a fighter... but you can move, baby!" - Lick, lick, LICK - "Remember when you wrestled? Gawd, you looked so fine in those tights... hey, we still got that outfit, don't we?"
LICK, LICK, lick - "Oooooh, I just got an el-fanta-sticky idea!"
"What, the masked wrestler and the fair maiden?" Regina said and leaned in to bump shoulders with Stella.
"I can see we've reached that phase of our relationship where we can read each other's minds, Reggie," Stella said with an impossible wide grin. "All the more reason to love you." - Lick, LICK, LICK - crunch, crunch, crunch, GULP!
"Well, I love you too, honey-bunny... I just wish you wouldn't go all-street brawler quite so frequently... oh, here we are," Regina said and pointed at the marquee.
Becky's Buffet Bonanza was the biggest marquee at the entire festival, and it had enough seating for several hundred customers at any one time. Looking at the thirty rows of benches and tables, and at the impressive buffet line at the back of the tent, it was hard to imagine that it was a temporary pavilion and that none of it had been there a mere three days earlier.
"Ooooh," Stella said and took a deep sniff. "Food... and plenty of it. Excellen-ty! Tell you what," she said as she hooked her arm inside Regina's and went into the marquee. "I promise I'll try to keep calm in the future. How's that?"
"Works for me, Stell. Here's a kiss for later, mmmua."
"Thanks, Snookums! Here's one right back atcha, mmmua. Hey..."
"Are we overloading on mush?" Stella said with a cheesy grin.
"Is that even possible?"
"Nope! Watch out below, it's eatin' time!"
Three minutes later, Stella came to a dead stop halfway down the buffet line. She was clutching a plate with excited, trembling fingers but furrowed her brow and let out a highly confused grunt at the dishes that were lined up under the warm spotlights - and then another one just for good measure. "Waitaminute... tofu burgers... celery sandwiches... soy bean hot dogs... what in the WORLD?!"
"Becky's is a vegetarian buffet, Stell... didn't you read their ad?" Regina said and shoveled salad into a plastic tray before snatching a soy bean hot dog and drowning it in a healthy squirt of organic seasoning sauce.
"No, I didn't... oh, no... oh, hell... oh, hell no..."
"Ohhellno!" Stella whined, putting down her plate like a petulant child. "And-even-worse-they-only-got-Frizzie's..." she mumbled, making it sound like a single word.
"C'mon, it's good for you. Grab a tofu burger, Stell, it's great. It's got everything a meat burger has."
"Except the most important part!"
"Look, they've got different kinds of cheese over there... you can make a really delish cheeseburger," Regina said and pointed further up the buffet line.
"But I don't wanna have a burger without the meat, Reggie..." Stella whined, shuffling from side to side in the line like she needed to pee and didn't know where the ladies' were.
"Still the carnivore, eh? It's good to see that some things never change, Stell," a warm female voice said from somewhere behind the two investigators.
It didn't take Stella one second to figure out who the voice belonged to. Spinning around with a happy squeal on her lips, she put out her arms and pulled her old friend Laura Cruz into a crushing, best-friends-who-haven't-seen-each-other-for-far-too-long hug. "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh! Law! Gaaaaawd, it's so good to see you!" she said, burying her face in the nook of the slightly taller woman's neck while giving her the crush of a lifetime.
"Hello, Stell," Law said with a broad smile once she had been liberated from her human vise.
Like Stella, Laura was thirty-seven, but that was where the similarities ended. Laura had always had Latin coloring, but her skin tone seemed to have deepened slightly since her adolescence and she was now a warm bronze. Her dark brown hair was smooth and at shoulder-length like it had been in the old days, and her eyes were still almond-shaped and held in a glorious shade of brown.
She was wearing form-fitting, dark brown slacks and a breezy, off-white blouse with a plunging V-neck that allowed a peak at the top of her cleavage. Around her neck, she had a crucifix and two small women's symbols on a gold necklace that stood out in striking contrast to her bronzed skin.
"Sweet Mother of all things holy, look at you," Stella said as she held Laura at arms' length. "You're gobsmackingly gorgeous! I wanna say you haven't aged a day since I saw you last, but that would be a lie 'cos you're ten times the amount of hubba-hubba now than you ever were back then! Hubba!"
"Geez, thanks, Stell," Laura said and broke out in a huge blush. "You know how I recognized you? Your hair. You still got the same haystack," she said with a snicker.
"And the haystack stays until my dying breath. Oh, I'm such a schmuck. Law, I want you to meet the, uh..." - Stella looked at Regina and decided to tell the honest-to-goodness truth - "the woman I love more than anything in the world, Regina Harrison."
"Awwwww!" Laura said and put out her hand. "I'm delighted to meet you, Miss Harrison. Wow, so you're the one who tamed Stella, huh?" she said with a wink directed at her old friend.
"Oh, I wouldn't exactly say that, Miss Cruz. And please, call me Regina or Reggie," Regina said and shook hands with Stella's friend. Looking at Laura, Regina couldn't help but study her general features and quickly came to the conclusion that she could easily earn a living off her looks if she wanted to.
"Sure... if you'll call me Laura or Law."
"Okay," Regina said with a grin.
Stella grinned too and pulled both woman into a cozy, little group hug. "Law, whaddaya say we blow this tofu stand and find somewhere else to eat? They only got vegetarian stuff here."
"I know, Stell, that's why I suggested it. Aren't most women vegetarians these days?"
"Blergh... not you too?!" Stella said in a nasal voice that came dangerously close to screeching.
Five minutes later, Stella, Laura and Regina sat down at a secluded part of one of the benches and began distributing the dishes they had bought - salad and the soy bean hot dog for Regina, a salad for Laura, and a herbivore, meatless cheeseburger for Stella.
Regina smiled at her sulking lover as she cracked open the first of three cans - a Frizzie's Diet Cola - and pushed it across the table. "Here, Stell, a diet cola for you, mineral water for the adults."
"Uggh... they ain't got razzies..."
"No, that's right, they didn't have any raspberry fizz but the diet cola is just as yummy."
"No, it ain't."
Laura chuckled into her salad as she watched the exchange. "I see that nothing has changed, Stell. You're just like an upscaled version of your old self."
"I don't think I'll ever change, Law," Stella said in a moment of striking insight. "Hmmm. Being true to who I am has given me so much, so... you know," she continued, reaching over to give Regina's hand a squeeze.
"Wow, you guys complement each other so well it's uncanny," Laura said and scooped up a forkful of salad. "How long have you been together?"
Regina looked at Stella who nodded in return to let her know that she could tell their story. "Well, we've worked together for close to three years now, but we only took the big step last Christmas."
"Yeah, it took a while before Reggie understood the error of her boy-seeking ways," Stella said with a shit-eating grin.
"Oh, I see," Laura said, nodding knowingly. As she was eating, she furrowed her brow and looked at Regina's profile. "Pardon me, but I feel like I've seen your face somewhere... but that can't be right, I mean, you're a private investigator..."
"Well," Regina said and flicked her perfect hair over her shoulder where it landed in a perfect cascade, earning herself a snickering groan from Stella, "you very well could have. It just so happens that I've been in a few ad campaigns recently for the likes of Bay City Florists and Pegasus Jewelry. Prior to that, you could have seen my face on the cover of several fashion magazines like Young 2Day, Now! Fashion and Michelle's."
"No, it was in a late night movie on TV... hmmm. Maybe I'm mistaken."
"Oh," Regina mumbled and hurriedly focused on her soy bean hot dog.
"What my dear friend is trying to say," Stella said and reached over to give Regina's free hand a reassuring pat, "is that she was one of the world's top models back in the 1990s."
"Oh... oh, I'm terribly sorry, I didn't mean to be rude..." Laura said and quickly reached out to offer Regina a brief touch. "From late 1994 to the summer of 2010, I lived in the rural regions of Central and South America and we didn't have many fashion magazines there..."
"I can imagine," Regina said, holding a piece of hot dog on her plastic fork. "No, it's quite all right. I'm getting used to it..." - the last words were delivered in a voice that trailed off into nothing.
Stella grew tired of pushing her meatless cheeseburger around and decided to take a bite out of it just so she could confirm that it was a tasteless critter compared to the real thing - but much to her surprise, it was juicy, spicy and, yes, tasty. "Oymmpf! Thismmpf ismmpf goodmmpf!" she said, nodding vigorously.
While Stella was chewing, little dribbles of tomato and barbecue sauce ran down the corners of her mouth, and Regina was quick to take a napkin and dab them away. "Thanksmmpf, Reggiemmpf!"
"You're welcome," Regina said and put the spent napkin down on Stella's plate for future use. "So, you're teaching at the North Bay University, Law?"
"Yes, that's right, though I'm not part of the faculty as such. I'm an external lecturer so I need to have an assessor in my class at all times. Of course, I know twice as much about the subject as that old egghead ever will. Eh..." - she waved her hand dismissively - "But that's all boring stuff. What I'm dying to know is... are you gals really gumshoes, you know, like Sam Spade, Larry Kent, V.I. and those people?" Laura said and wiggled her eyebrows.
Munch, munch - gulp! - "We are," Stella said, wearing a proud smile. "We're fully licensed Private Investigators. We have all sorts of cool electronic gizmos that we use all the time, we've got a cool company car, and even better, we've got a wardrobe full of costumes that we use when we need to go deep, deep, deep undercover. Which is often!"
"That's cool, Stell... have you helped many people, then?"
Munch, munch, MUNCH, munch, gulp! - "Oh, we've had and solved nearly fifty cases, Reggie and me... yeah. We haven't hit a dead end yet in any of them... though, o' course, following the law of averages, I s'pose we'll have one sooner or later. It certainly won't be for a lack of commitment, huh, Reggie?"
"Nope," Regina said and mussed Stella's haystack.
"But it must be dangerous!"
MUNCH, munch, munch, MUNCH, gulp! - "Weeellll, I guess we've both been held against our will a couple of times... and shot at... and nearly run over... and threatened by all sorts of people with bad breath... and squared off against ghosts... and invisible men... and burglars, two-timing husbands, fences and what have you, but... you know, all in all, we've had a great time. And there's been a lot of fun along the way, too."
"Gawd," Law said and made a horrified face at Stella's casual description of their line of work.
"What can I say, Law. It's my calling," Stella said with a broad grin plastered on her face. "Isn't that right, Reggie?"
Mirroring the grin, Regina leaned in and placed a little kiss on Stella's cheek. "Yep. Stell is a natural. She's definitely worth investigating, if you know what I mean..." - wink, wink.
"Uh-huh?" Laura said and returned the saucy wink.
MUNCH, munch - Gulp! - "Oh... darn, it's all gone," Stella said and looked at her empty plate. "I think I want another... it was pretty good, ac-chew-ly..."
"Told ya it would be, honey-bunny," Regina said and thumped her fist into Stella's shoulder.
After their less-unhealthy-than-usual fast food dinners - during which Stella went up to the buffet for her third helping of herbivore cheeseburger; the Frizzie's Diet Cola was a bust like she knew it would be - Stella and Laura easily slipped into their school personas and dove right into reminiscing about their childhoods and adolescence:
"Ohhhh," Stella said and clapped a hand across her forehead, "do you remember when I fell in arts and crafts... with a whole bucket of white paint in my hand... flip-flopparoony, we had white paint EVERYwhere..."
"I remember... several days later, I found white paint in my pocket! I still don't understand what you needed that much paint for, Stell... we were making salt and pepper shakers for Goodness' sake!" Laura said, snickering under a politely placed hand.
"But they needed to be painted, didn't they?" - Remembering the embarrassing moment, Stella buried her face in her hands and snickered like a schoolgirl.
The sound sent a warm wave through Regina's heart, and she reached over and pulled her lover into a sideways hug. "Law, I'm sure you know this already," she said, mussing the blonde haystack, "but Stell doesn't need a reason. She just... well... does it."
"I know," Laura said, winking at her old friend. "There was another time... I think we had gone on camp school up north of the city... by the beach. Remember that one, Stell?"
"Sure I do... I just dreamt about it the other month. That was why I decided to try to find you again, Law."
"Oh wow, really?"
"Sure! Cross my heart, hope to choke on one of Reggie's pap bran digestives!" Stella said and made the sign of the cross in front of her. "I was working late one evening wrestling with the Paper Monster-"
Laura scrunched up her face and looked to Regina for an explanation. -- "Our case files." -- "Ohhh... okay."
"-and I kinda fell asleep under my desk... long story, don't ask... and I dreamt of you and the whole camp school thing. I dreamt of Mrs. Jordan and you and the nuked shoe polish dinner and the school compound and the bird's nest I found in the trees and my drawing of it and I dreamt that I got bullied by that ba... bi... be... ba... Gennifer-with-a-G and her pack of venomous harpies and I ran out onto the beach where I... where dear ol' Reggie here actually saved me on horseback, but that's another story."
"But you didn't know me back then, Stell!" Regina said and leaned in to bump shoulders with Stella.
"Hey, it was a dream! There are no rules in dreams, ya know."
Laura chuckled at Stella's long-winded description and thought back to the many, many long-winded descriptions she had heard during their years together in school. "Well, in reality, the school principal sent out a search party for you when you hadn't made it back before the curfew. Boy, was he mad... hopping, spit-flying, screaming mad."
"Yeah. I got grounded for a month when we got back home," Stella said thoughtfully.
"Mmmm. Do you still draw?"
"No... I don't have the time for it. And besides, I couldn't draw worth a damn even back then," Stella said and waved her hand in disgust. "They were only stick figures. Bad ones at that."
"But they came from the heart, Stell."
"I s'pose they did, but... no. Law, do you ever hear from some of our old friends from school?"
"Not really, no. Of course, I've been out of the country for so long, so..." Laura said and toyed with her empty soda can. "Though... I did read something in the newspaper about everyone's favorite Gennifer-with-a-G."
"Oh? Her obituary?"
"Stell!" Regina said, gasping loudly.
"Reggie, I'll bet my bottom dollar you were never bullied the way me and Law were, so... you'd share my view of her if you knew her. That's all I'm saying."
Laura nodded solemnly. "It's true, Regina. She was an awful bitch, pardon my French, to anyone outside her little circle of so-called friends. Anyway, even before I left, she married the owner of a small-scale car dealership out in the 'burbs because he got her pregnant at eighteen. The article I just read covered the baptism of their fifth kid."
"Wow, five kids? I'll bet she has plenty to do, huh? Yoo-hoo, Gennifer-honey, junior's crapped his diapers again and it's your turn to change 'em," Stella said with an evil snicker.
"Yup," Laura said, echoing the evil snicker.
"So I'm guessing she wasn't someone you'd call a best friend?" Regina said cautiously.
"No!" -- "Hell, no!" Laura and Stella said as one.
A few moments of thoughtful silence passed between Laura and Stella where they both relived being at the receiving end of Gennifer's nasty behavior, but the blonde investigator soon drew a deep breath and returned to the present:
"Law, listen," she said, sobering, "I'm sorry about your Dad. He was a great guy. If I had known, I would have contacted you, but..."
"It's okay, Stell," Laura said and put her hand on top of Stella's. "That was eons ago... I had only just made it back from Ecuador when he died. I knew he'd been ill for some time, but I wasn't prepared for it to end that fast."
"How are your parents?"
The question was simple but the answer was anything but. Stella opened her mouth to reply, but she closed it again almost at once. After a casual half-shrug, she reached across the table to take Regina's hand in her own for some much-needed moral support. "Mom's fine, but... well, I don't know how Dad is at the moment, honestly."
"You haven't kept in touch?"
"I... no. Well, we spoke at last year's Christmas dinner, so..." Stella said and performed a new shrug. "Mmmm, I said we 'spoke', but in reality, the things that were left unsaid outweighed the brief chats we did have. Eh."
"He doesn't approve?" Laura said quietly, reaching out for Stella's other hand to offer her own support to her old friend.
"He doesn't approve of anything I do. He never has. He can go stuff himself for all I care," Stella said and shuffled around uncomfortably. "New topic, please. This is gettin' entirely too serious for my tastes. Law, there's gotta be a sweetheart in your life...?"
The deep, heartfelt sigh that came from Stella prompted Regina to get up from her spot on the bench and shuffle to her left to sit behind her lover. Putting her long legs on either side of the bench to make room between them, she pulled Stella into a strong hug from behind that earned herself a wistful smile.
"Stella, I'm so sorry for bringing that up," Laura said quietly. "You may slap me silly if you want."
"I don't wanna slap you silly, Law," Stella said and shook her head so much that her wild mop of dirty-blonde hair swished back and forth against Regina's chin. "You couldn't know."
"I should have known, but never mind that now. Please allow me to say that from this side of the table, you two share a bond that just blows everything else out of the water... I get the warm fuzzies just looking at you! And the only other time that happens is when I'm with my girlfriend," Laura said with a wink.
"The Harrison-Starr Detective Agency is only happy to provide you with the warm fuzzies... we'll put it on your bill," Stella said around a chuckle.
Laura broke out in a wild snicker that didn't calm down until she had found her wallet in her front pocket. "Her name is Alejandra. Here's a couple of pictures of us from the QuickiePiccy-machine down at the Central Station," she said and held up a sequence of three photos.
"Aw, she's gorgeous," Stella said, adjusting her glasses.
"You better believe she is," Laura said and put the photos back in her wallet. "Y'know, I've traveled the Americas coast to coast and tip to tip... and then I find my soulmate right here in the Heights in Bay City. Isn't that funny? We met at a function at the University and it just said zap."
"Oh, that's really romantic," Regina said, mussing Stella's neck with her long fingers. "It's easy to see the love in those photos."
"Thanks, Regina. Yeah, I'd say we both got it bad."
'Fire!' someone shouted from out front.
"Speaking of which," Laura continued, oblivious to the cry, "have you guys ever considered-" - Before she could complete the sentence, the cry was repeated:
"Whaddahell?" Stella said and sat up straight around her living cushion. Moments later, a fire alarm started ringing its head off somewhere further into the fairgrounds, creating a small-scale panic among the eating guests at Becky's Buffet Bonanza.
'One of the ice cream huts is on fire!' a man shouted out front, running past the marquee with his arms flailing in the air.
"God, she didn't!" -- "Reggie, you think it was Whatshername?" Regina and Stella said over each other.
"Th- there's a fire?! And who's Whatshername?" Laura said and got up from her bench to get a clearer view.
"Reggie, we better check it out... lemme out," Stella said and waited for her long-limbed backrest to scoot off the bench. As soon as she had room, she hopped up and ran out to the alley between Becky's and the other vendor huts.
The alley was awash with families escaping from the fire alarm, if not the actual fire itself. With the din of the crowd rapidly growing to impossible levels, Stella couldn't hear a thing, but she thought she could smell a faint whiff of burning wood on the leading edge of the breeze.
Soon, the harbor fair security personnel hurried the other way to at least try to control the crowd before a real panic would break out, but they were too few for the massive number of guests to be of any use.
"Right," Stella said and slammed her hands onto her hips. "Reggie, it's Harrison-Starr to the rescue. If it really is Whatshername-"
"Wasn't it Giovanna?" Regina said and put her hands on Stella's shoulders as she looked at the sea of humanity that moved from left to right in front of the Buffet Bonanza.
"-Huh? Giovanna? Can't remember, only that she gave me the sour burps... ANYway, if it really is her who's gone bananas and set Andy's hut or his cart alight, uh... we may have had, uh... a hand in it. Hey," she said and turned around, "are you okay with it?"
"Yeah, well... sure. Why the hell not," Regina said with a shrug. "But we're not exactly dressed for firefighting, you know," she continued, touching her cotton shirt.
"No, but, uh... oh, we'll deal with that when we venture into the fiery inferno," Stella said and waved her hand dismissively.
"Go ahead, I'll tell Law what we're gonna do... okay?"
It took Regina a couple of seconds to make up her mind, but when she did, she nodded and grabbed Stella by the shoulders to steal a very quick - but sloppy - kiss right on the blonde investigator's lips before she moved too far out of range for it to be effective.
Snickering, Stella watched her companion hurry against the stream of people until she couldn't see the blue shirt or the free-flowing hair any longer. "Law," she said, moving back into the Buffet Bonanza, "I'm sorry, but we gotta cut it short. Looks like Reggie and me have some work to do."
"Gawd, Stell, this is dangerous! I'm sure the fire department is already on their way here!" Laura said and pulled Stella into a crushing, protective hug that nearly saw her smothered against the bronzed skin.
"OOOF! Uh... yeah, but... uh... oh, this is kinda nice... ahem! Anyway, Law, it's a long story, but there's a risk we're already involved if it's the person we're thinking it could be..."
"Tell you what," Stella continued as she pulled back from her old friend, "I'm trusting you with the 3D puzzle and the LED yo-yo I won. I know you'll take good care of them..."
"Law, I think you should leave with the crowd. If the festival is evacuated, you'll have a head start. Okay? I got your number and you got mine so we can easily find each other again once everything has calmed down. Okay?"
"Okay, but... Gawd, please me careful, Stell... here's something for good luck," Laura said and quickly grabbed hold of the back of Stella's head to pull her close - then she slapped a wet kiss right on her lips.
"Oooh... ah... uh-buh... eh... webbl... buh..." Stella said and staggered back from the kiss with a cross-eyed, befuddled look on her face, "Ebbl... I'm... a webbl... kissin' pirate today... gawd... Buh!"
By the time Stella made it to the burning ice cream hut, she was relieved to see that it wasn't Andy's - though her relief was short-lived when she realized that it was actually Giovanna Fiorito's Original Gelato hut that had caught alight instead. "Aw hell... maybe we need to flip our view of this whole disaster on its head..." she mumbled, looking around for Regina.
On the rear side of the vendor hut, bright flames were licking up the wooden surface and they were getting closer and closer to igniting the roof as well. Several of the window panes had already been shattered and most of the colorful plastic advertisements that adorned the walls of the hut had begun to melt, dripping toxic material down onto the pavement and releasing fumes into the air.
"I'm here, Stell!" Regina shouted as she came around the rear of the hut with a thirty-pound foam extinguisher.
"Have you started yet?"
"Yeah, on this side... we gotta do it together."
"Ten-four, good buddy... that's a clean and green five by five," Stella said and began to run around the other - deserted - huts to find a fire extinguisher she could use. "Oh, there's a peachy one right there," she said and made a beeline for a bright red extinguisher that was hanging next to a stove inside a sausage parlor.
Quickly taking it off the rack, she broke the safety catch and held it ready. DEEP sniff - "Oh, I love the smell of roasting frankfurters in the afternoon... but let's go kill that fire... Reggie! Let's gooooo!"
Regina walked around the burning hut, mindful not to singe her precious eyebrows or to get soot in her hair or on her blue shirt. She squirted the foam at the lowest part of the fire, but it re-ignited almost at once. "Stell? Start here..." she said and pointed at the biggest flames.
"Okie-dokie-gotta-stop-the-smokey," Stella said and held the foam extinguisher ready. "And let her rip! Yahooooo!" - with that, she squeezed the trigger and watched in wide-eyed excitement as the icy, white foam squirted out of the extinguisher and mixed with the same material that came from Regina's similar tool.
"Ooooooh! More fire, Cap'n!" Stella squealed as the flames broke through in another place close to where they were squirting. She adjusted her beam, but that meant the first fire seat only had Regina's foam on it which proved not to be enough.
"Jeez, I think we're gonna need some assistance, Stell! Two aren't enough," Regina said and stepped away from the flames that quickly shot back up.
"Yeah... I can hear sirens but they're still kinda far away..."
"Is Whatshername still in there?" Stella said and got up on tip-toes to look through the smoke and flames.
"No, the hut is empty," Regina said and looked down as her extinguisher began to gurgle. "And so is this one. Naw, I think we gotta pull back, Stell."
"Hang on! I'm coming with the big guns!" a male voice shouted from somewhere off to their right.
Running back out into the alley, Stella shielded her eyes with her hand and soon spotted Andy hurrying towards her pushing a funny-looking cart with a huge, dome-like structure and a coil with a hose on it.
"Oy! Andy! Where da hell did you find that big thing?" Stella shouted and helped the ice cream vendor push the cumbersome cart between the huts and around the back.
"Abandoned at a fire post up near the promenade stage..."
"Well, that's reassuring," Stella grumbled as she grabbed the nozzle and unrolled a hundred-foot hose. "Reggie! Look what Santa Claus has brought!"
Regina threw away her empty extinguisher and grabbed the one Stella had dropped before, but she couldn't do much on her own. In the far distance, they could still hear sirens, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the fire department wouldn't get there before the fire had spread to the adjacent huts.
When Stella realized Regina hadn't heard her, she cupped her mouth and let out an echoing "Yo! Miss Too-Tall-To-Fit-Through-A-Regular-Door! We got company!" - that did the trick.
With Stella manning the hose, Andy and Regina pushed the cumbersome cart in place and stood well back, just in case the dome-like structure exploded.
"I'm ready!" Stella shouted, holding the hose under her arm like she had seen their firefighting friend Kristy Newbourne do at a Meet-and-Greet at her fire station. "Hit it!"
Praying silently that it wasn't about to get worse instead of better, Regina leaned down and did as told.
When the foam came through the hose, it was with such a powerful surge it nearly lifted the petite Stella clear off the ground - "OOOOOOOOEEEEIIIII!" she howled, dancing left and right while wrestling the Incredible Hose Monster.
"OoooooOOOO!" - squirt, squirt, foam shower - "OH YEAH!" - SQUIRT, squirt, FOAM - "Now we're talking'!" - squirt, foam shower, SQUIRT - "Oh that's too MUUUUUCH" - FOAM, FOAM, FOAM - "OH YEAH, got it now" - FOAM, squirt, foam shower - "No I don't, ugggh!" - SQUIRT, SQUIRT, foam - "Yikes, what is this shiiiii- OOOOOOH! -thing" - FOAM, foam, FOAM - "Crud, this beast got fangs, baby!" - SQUIRT, SQUIRT, foam - "Suck on this, f-lame-o!" - foam shower - "Gotcha now... gotcha now..." - foam, FOAM, foam - "Yeah, choke on this, you naffy little critt- OOOH! " - FOAM, squirt, SQUIRT - "Sneaky, are ya?!" - SQUIRT, SQUIRT - "Hose 'em! Hose 'em down, baby!" - foam shower, dribble, click, click, clonk - "Eat my foam, Mr. Hot Buns! So there!" - click, click, CLONK, click, CLONK.
"Wo-hoooooo!" Stella squealed, quite literally riding the wave.
"Stell! Stella! You can stop hosing now, we've turned off the foam! The fire is out!" Regina roared to be heard over Stella's excited squeals.
"QUIT HOSIN', THE FIRE IS OOOOOOUT!"
"Oh... okay. Darn, just when it was gettin' real good," Stella said and dropped the hose. Putting her hands on her slightly sooty hips, she studied the charred, foam-covered remains of the ice cream hut and gave herself a high-five for a job well done.
Regina shook her head in disbelief at what she and her expensive clothes were exposed to, but began to coil up the hose nonetheless, mindful of not getting chemical foam suds on her black jeans.
"Ummm..." Andy said, brushing soot out of his hair, "excuse me for being kinda blunt, but your friend is a... is a... she's, uh... intense."
"Yes, she is," Regina said with a chuckle. "This was nothing, though. You should see her when she really gets going."
"Oh... okay," Andy said and scratched his ear.
'There he is!' a shrill female voice suddenly shouted from somewhere beyond the burned-out hulk. 'I want him arrested! He's destroyed my business! I want him arrested!'
'You said that already,' another female voice said, more dulcet and mature by far.
"Huh, I know that second voice," Stella said and shuffled off to the right - sure enough, none other than Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes came down towards her with a hysterical Giovanna Fiorito in tow.
As always, the Inspector was impeccably dressed, though she was wearing white, comfy shoes, sand-colored slacks and a classy burnt-orange blouse rather than her trademark pantsuit.
"I want him arrested! Him! Him right there," Giovanna screeched, pointing at Andy with a horrified look on her face.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, hang on a minute there, Missy," Stella said and put up her hands in the age-old gesture of 'Stop your whining before you give me the sour burps all over again.' - "Andy helped us put out the fire. Hi, Mary-Jane," she said with a sheepish grin.
"Stella Starr... oh hell, I should have known," Mary-Jane said and briefly looked toward the heavens for guidance. Grinning, she put out her hand and waited for Stella to shake it. "Hi. We gotta stop meeting like this... I can't even get away from you on my day off. Where's Regina?"
"Down the back. She's checking the foam," Stella said with a broad grin. "ANYway, Andy came with that big thing right there... the cart. If he hadn't, we wouldn't have been able to save anything from the hut," she said and tapped her knuckles against the charred wall.
The crrreakkkk it produced made her step back from it in a hurry, but she kept the smile on her face.
To counter that, Giovanna moved forward and shook her fist at Andy and Stella. "Inspector, you can't listen to these two! They're in it together! Little Miss Blondie Runt here took his side in a shouting match we had earlier today! They're in it together!"
The aggressive language made Stella scrunch up her face and chew on her cheek, but she showed remarkable zen in restraining herself from punching Giovanna into next week - brought on by Mary-Jane's presence. If the Inspector hadn't been there, however, the catfight would have been glorious, if short-lived.
Mary-Jane let out a sigh at the way Giovanna was speaking in exclamations, but she stood up straight and turned around to face the shrill woman. "Miss Fiorito, you need to calm down. Your hut has been saved... mostly... and it appears it's been saved by the same two people you accuse of starting the fire. That doesn't add up."
"Yes it does! That man there has been wanting to drive me out of the market for months now! Every fair or festival I go to, he puts up his hut as well! And now, he's obviously recruited his over-the-hill blondie girlfriend there to make my life a living hell! Well, I won't take it anymore! I won't!"
Stella's nostrils flared at being called over the hill, but she took a few deep breaths and thought about what would have happened if it had been Regina who had been called that - she was sure it would have been apocalyptic. The thought of her tall lover going tribal on the shrill woman made Stella's day, and it also made her burst out in an evil snicker.
"And now she's laughing at me! At me!" Giovanna exclaimed loudly, but no one seemed to want to listen to her, least of all Inspector Moynes who kept pulling annoyed faces at the sound of the woman's voice.
Hearing the agitated voices, Regina wondered what was going on and shuffled up from behind the hut to put her hands on the shoulders of Stella's fire-red t-shirt. "Hello, Mary-Jane... nice to see you. Wow, we meet in the weirdest places, huh?"
"Mmmm-yeah, no kidding. Hi, Regina," Mary-Jane Moynes said and reached out to shake hands with the tall investigator.
"So," Regina said and gave Stella's shoulders a squeeze, "I'm obviously not a fire inspector, but I think I may have found the cause of it."
"Yes. It looks like the fire started on the floor of the hut, near the compressor for one of the freezers. It looks old and neglected."
"Does it now?" Mary-Jane said and turned back to Giovanna.
"Whaddaya have to say for yourself?" Stella said, flashing the shrill woman a shit-eating grin.
Giovanna's chin started to quiver but she shook her head vigorously and crossed her arms over her chest in a strong display of defiance. "I'm not speaking a word without an attorney present! I want that man arrested, Officer! And if you won't, I demand to talk to someone who will! Right this very minute! I refuse to stand here and be insulted by some... some... some arsonist and his bleached blonde airhead girlfriend who probably can't even spell her own name and who's too dumb to understand she shouldn't swallow her bubblegum!"
GASP! - "Okay, okay," Stella said and put up her hands, "just hang on for a sec there... I can sense where this is going, and it's not gonna be a happy-fluffy-bunny place, lemme assure you. Why don't we-"
" 'Happy-fluffy-bunny,' " Giovanna mocked, pulling faces at Stella's colorful speech. "What are you, straight outta kindergarten? Nobody who's playing with a full deck speaks like that!"
Scrunching up her face, Stella looked back at Regina who shrugged in return. "Hey, Missy," Stella drawled, "I have an itty-bitty nursery rhyme for you... a real swell little ditty that goes a little something like this... cut the crap, ain't no jack, stick a dirty sock down in your yap... so there!"
"Stell, Stell, Stell," Regina groaned and clapped a hand over her eyes.
By the time Stella finished, Giovanna really got going. Her eyes glazed over, her chin quivered like she was caught in an earthquake, her fists clenched and unclenched, her cheeks were tinged by two red blotches - and when she had taken a very deep breath, she let rip with a five-star, ocean-going, super-shrill '...ucker' rage that left most of Stella's similar rages gasping in the dust in comparison.
"Whoa there, amazonette," Stella said, smoothing down her haystack that was blown backwards from the sheer volume and the vitriol of Giovanna's words, "Sweet chicky-dee, do you really kiss your Momma with that mouth? Yikes on bikes..."
Unsurprisingly, the comment only made Giovanna scream louder.
Two hours later, most of the fair and the world at large had returned to normal - Giovanna Fiorito had been sent to the fair management to cool down - and Stella, Laura, Regina and Mary-Jane were standing on the pier with what felt like an extended family of ten thousand interested spectators who were all watching a tug boat dragging a manned barge several hundred yards out into the bay.
With the disturbance, the show was running a little late, but the fading light would only amplify the colors of the grand fireworks display that was scheduled to come on, so no one complained - well, except Stella who kept looking at her watch.
"Mmmmm," she grumbled, "they better get a move on... Deadline starts in an hour..."
"Why didn't you set the recorder, Stell?" Regina whispered into her partner's ear.
" 'Cos it only works every other time."
"Not when I set it."
"Yeah, well... darn thing hates my guts."
"Mmmm," Regina said again and leaned down to give Stella a couple of kisses on her neck. "I'm afraid you're gonna have to catch it in a rerun. Did you forget we promised Ruby the other day that we'd swing by and help her select the music for her Sophisticated Lady theme night after we wrapped things up here?"
Stella looked up; then down. "Yessssss..." she whispered, shaking her head slowly.
"Stell, if Kate Marshall were here, I'm sure she'd agree that you should help a good, old friend like Ruby instead of watching the show. Right?"
Grumble, grumble - "Probably. That's the kind of warm, gentle, beautiful, empathic woman she is."
Standing on the right of the two investigators, Mary-Jane turned to shoot them a curious glance while she dug into her pocket to find her Smartphone. "What are you two lovebirds whispering about? Kate Marshall is an actress, right? What kind of love shack are you guys running, anyway? Hey... do I need to give Vice an anonymous tip?"
"Oh ha, ha, Mary-Jane," Stella said and stuck out her tongue at the Inspector.
"Ha ha right back atcha," Mary-Jane said and put her phone to her ear. After a few seconds, the connection was established. "Hi, honey... I'm down at the wharf. You're coming, right? The fireworks are about to start. Mmmm? Okay, but don't take too long. See ya in a few."
Grinning, Stella reached over and gently thumped the Inspector's shoulder. "Why, Mary-Jane! Are you here with a date?"
"I am. He said he'd be here shortly."
"Awww, that's so cute and cuddly and romantic," Stella said with a dreamy smile on her face. "Lookin' at the fireworks is always fun. I remember one time, this was years ago by the way, way before I met Reggie, where-" - she suddenly came to a hard stop and performed a perfect double-take - "Waitaminute... he?"
"He, yes. I'm not allowed to have a boyfriend, Stella?" the Inspector said as she put away her phone.
"Uh... sure, but... uh... I, uh... sorta... kinda... always thought that... I had you pegged for a... never mind."
'Oh, look!' somebody shouted, 'there's a countdown on the barge! Nine, eight, seven, six...'
Regina decided to save her lover from the acute embarrassment that had already formed on her fair face so she took an arm and ran her fingers up and down it. Leaning in, she mussed the dirty-blonde haystack one more time.
"Egg on my face, Reggie... egg on my face," Stella croaked.
"Don't tell me you had a crush on Mary-Jane, Stell!"
'Five, four, three...'
"No, but... well, maybe a little one. What if I had asked her out...? Or made a pass at her? I mean, I was pretty sure about her and she looks really great don't you think... and I've been kinda lonely from time to time you know that and sometimes, a bit of fun is the best cure for loneliness and she was always sort of there and-and-and... but of course, then I got to know you a little better..."
"A little better, yes," Regina said and mussed Stella's neck with her long fingers. "Why would you need to ask anyone else in the whole wide world when, I, Regina Harrison, the Goddess of Love reside here in your presence?"
"Okay, yeah, good point. Good thing I didn't have to. Mmmua, love you, big girl... love you with... uh... with all my heart... yeah," Stella whispered and let her hand roam across Regina's well-shaped derriere.
'And here we GOOOOOOO!'
"Love you too, little Miss Haystack," Regina whispered back. With a smile, she leaned down to claim her partner's lips in a wet one just as the fireworks were sent high in the sky from the barge.
Soon, the evening sky was lit up in green, blue, red, gold and silver from the exploding fireworks. Beautiful patterns were drawn by the expert pyrotechnist, and all the spectators clapped and cheered loudly, especially at a series of colorful fountains that sprayed golden sparks high in the air from each end of the barge.
Behind them, Mary-Jane's date came running into the area and soon wrapped his arms around the Inspector. To everyone's surprise, he looked to be a decade younger than her, but the smile on her face when he gave her a smooch proved once more that age was irrelevant when it came to love.
"Huh," Stella said and looked around for her own smoocher. With the colorful fireworks as a backdrop, she pulled Regina down for a proper kiss, one that took her breath away and offered a hint at what kind of entertainment the rest of the night would bring - well, as soon as they were done at Rockin' Ruby's.
On Stella's other side, Laura cheered loudly at the fireworks. Once it died down with a huge, starry explosion high up in the sky, she grabbed Stella's free arm and pulled herself into a squealing, hopping, crushing group hug.
"OOOF! Glam sandwich!" Stella croaked, crushed by glamorous women from both sides at once. "Ooooh, this would be a good place to die..."
When the fireworks display was over, the spectators began to dissipate and go back to the various eateries and amusements. Laura, Stella, Regina, Mary-Jane and her date lingered on for a few more minutes, but since they didn't really have anything to look at on the pier, they trickled back up into the fairground itself.
"Stella," Laura said and hooked her arm inside her old friend's. "I think I'll call it a night. It's been so much fun to see you again. This time, we have to... HAVE to stay in touch. I'm going to El Salvador and Nicaragua for six months come October, but I demand to see you again before then. Okay? I want to show you where Alejandra and I live and everything. You *and* your gorgeous sweetheart," she said and winked at Regina who grinned in return.
"You definitely have a deal, Law. Hey, I want to show you our office, too... and my pride and joy, my favorite old girl... my Pacer," Stella said with a broad grin, holding the little plastic bag with her winnings from the hoop game.
"Deal," Laura said and pulled Stella into a chaste hug where she kissed both the blonde investigator's cheeks. "Oh, I've had so much fun tonight!" she said, suddenly yanking Stella into an all-singing, all-dancing best-friend hug.
"Ooooooh! So have I... hot diggity DANG!" Stella said with her face buried in the nook of Laura's bronzed neck.
"Bye-bye, my friends!" Laura said and waved with both hands as she walked up the incline to get to the fairgrounds.
Chuckling, Mary-Jane and her date walked over to the shell-shocked Stella and offered her hand. "That's it for us, too, gals. I think Denny and I need to get home so we can finish the evening in style."
"Oh, that's gre-" Stella said, but suddenly came to a dead stop as the hidden meaning of the Inspector's words filtered through to her brain. "Well... buh... buh... buh-bye..."
"You have to excuse my blonde friend here... she's new to all this lovey-dovey stuff. Have a great evening," Regina said and shook hands with Mary-Jane's date and finally the Inspector herself.
Once Mary-Jane and her boyfriend had disappeared in the crowd, Regina turned back to Stella who still hadn't fully recovered from the shock. "Stell? Stell? Stella, are you all right? Yo-hooo," she said, waving her hand in front of her lover's face. "Do you need to lie down or something?"
"I'm fine," Stella croaked. "I just didn't expect that at all... it seems so random. Next thing you know, someone's gonna tell us none of this really exists... that we're just characters in someone's series of stories."
"Well, *you're* certainly a character," Regina mumbled after making sure Stella couldn't hear her.
With their friends gone, Regina and Stella eventually strolled off to the exit, too. Holding hands, they were enjoying the relative peace and quiet of the fair that had attracted a slightly older clientele after most of the families had left.
After a little while, they made it up to the upper part of the fairgrounds and nodded a goodbye to Andy who was busy scooping up ice cream for an elderly couple.
"I don't think we're fictional characters, Stell," Regina said while she swung her partner's hand back and forth. "I mean, it would take a genius of unfathomable proportions to create someone like moi ."
"Quick, what did we do last Tuesday?"
"Last Tuesday...? Nothing. Nothing at all... I was bored out of my skull the entire day, and then we said an early nighty-night and went home separately."
"Do you really think someone would go through all that trouble just to invent a day where nothing at all happened?"
While Stella thought about that, they left the fairgrounds and started looking around for the shuttle buses. Instead of the large, white vehicle, they found a sign that said, 'Shuttle service closes at eight PM.' - Shrugging, they went on the long trek to get back to the Pacer.
"Yeah, well..." Stella said after a while. "Writers do the strangest things sometimes... it would explain some of the weird stuff that's happened to us... to me... over the years... and in my life. And maybe last Tuesday was never, uh... shown... or something? I dunno."
" 'No' is the short answer to my question, Stell... of course we're not fictional!"
"Well, hmmm..." Stella said, scrunching up her face. Coming to a full stop, she did a slow three-sixty degree turn in the middle of the huge parking lot to see if she could spot any signs of a higher being manipulating them through letters, words and paragraphs. "Wait... oooooh, holy guacamole! What's that up there! In the sky!"
"There! There! It's an eye! It's a blip-bloppin' eye! They're lookin' at us! Ooooooh, they're lookin' at us!" Stella howled, pointing at a large orange-white disc that hung low on the horizon.
"That's the moon, Stell," Regina said flatly.
"Oh... okay. I knew that. I just wanted to see if you did."
"C'mon, let's drive over to Ruby's. I'll buy you a raspberry fizz!"
"Yippie!" Stella squealed and jumped a foot in the air. Upon landing, she raced ahead so she could have the Pacer hot, ready and running for Regina. Fifty yards into her sprint, she turned around, threw her arms high in the air and shouted: "Loooooooove you!"
"I love you too, you crazy, wonderful little firebrand..." Regina said, waving back at her boss, best friend and loving partner.
THE END of FIRE & ICE CREAM
VIII - THE QUEEN & THE YAPSTER
Written by Norsebard
Sitting on the couch in the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, Stella Starr had barely wolfed down her final slice of pizza before she opened her yap and took a DEEP breath: "Yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap auction yap yap yap oh, beauuuuutiful Kate yap yap yap dinner yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap CJ yap yap yap yap yap oh, sweet Kate yap yap yap yap yap yap Deadline yap yap yap yap" - DEEP breath - "yap Kate Marshall yap yap yap yap..."
At her desk, Regina Harrison just nodded, hoping that her easily excitable friend would soon be worn out from the incessant yapping - after all, it had already been a full twenty-four hours since they'd had dinner with the TV star Kate Marshall and her wife, the FBI agent CJ Carson following the earlier Helping OUT Our Kids charity auction.
Putting her glasses on the nightstand, Stella Starr had barely snuggled down in bed before she opened her yap and took a DEEP breath: "Yap yap yap Deadline yap yap yap yap yap yap Kate Marshall yap yap yap yap yap yap auction yap yap yap yap yap yap dinner yap yap yap yap yap yap Kate Marshall yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap CJ Carson yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap" - DEEP breath - "yap Kate Marshall yap yap yap yap..."
Under the covers, Regina Harrison just sighed, wishing that her easily excitable friend would soon be worn out from the yapping.
Sitting down on a chair in her kitchen, Stella Starr had barely poured milk on her cereal before she opened her yap and took a DEEP breath: "Yap yap yap yap Kate Marshall yap yap yap yap dinner yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap auction yap yap yap yap yap yap CJ at the FBI yap yap yap yap yap yap Kate Marshall yap yap yap yap Little Ashley's Christmas Miracle yap yap yap yap yap yap yap awwww so sweet yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap" - DEEP breath - "yap Kate Marshall yap yap yap yap..."
Behind the newspaper, Regina Harrison just groaned, praying that her easily excitable friend would soon be worn out from the yapping.
In the middle of a stakeout:
Lowering the binoculars, Stella Starr had barely jotted down the latest observation on her notepad before she opened her yap and took a DEEP breath: "Yap yap yap yap Kate Marshall yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap wokam.com yap yap yap yap auction yap yap yap yap yap yap gorgeous CJ yap yap yap yap yap yap Kate Marshall yap yap yap yap Deadline yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap two thousand one hundred dollars yap yap yap yap yap" - DEEP breath - "yap Kate Marshall yap yap yap yap..."
Behind her sunglasses, Regina Harrison closed her eyes and shed a little tear, begging any higher power that would listen to make her easily excitable friend worn out from the yapping.
After work, driving over to Rockin' Ruby's:
Throwing the empty pack of Oreos she had just wolfed down into the back seat, Stella Starr had barely finished crunching the last cookie before she opened her yap and took a DEEP breath: "Yap yap yap yap Kate Marshall yap yap yap yap Little Ashley's Christmas Miracle yap yap yap yap auction yap yap yap yap dinner yap yap yap yap yap yap promotional photo yap yap yap yap yap yap CJ and Kate yap yap yap yap Deadline yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap" - DEEP breath - "yap Kate Marshall yap yap yap yap..."
Rubbing her clammy brow with a trembling hand, Regina Harrison thought about how she could make her escape by taking the red-eye to somewhere more peaceful - like one of the world's war zones - all the while cursing inwardly that her easily excitable friend hadn't yet been worn out from the yapping.
As they drove the silver metallic, low-slung sports car into the parking lot at their favorite haunt, something odd happened - Stella piped down.
For a few seconds, Regina just thought her blonde lover had lost her voice but the annoyed look on Stella's face told a different story. "What is it, honey-bunny?" Regina said as she turned into a slot and turned off the engine.
"You haven't listened to a word I've been saying, Reggie!"
"Oh, well, I wouldn't say that..."
"Yeah?" Stella said and adjusted her glasses. "Then I'd like to hear you explain why you just nodded and smiled when I said that Kate Marshall had two heads and that she was in fact an illegal immigrant from Venus?"
"Well, I just... thought... that... uh... you know, men are from Mars and-"
"Sorry... you're right," Regina said and reached over to put a hand on Stella's jeans, "I guess I did zone out."
"Oh, Reggie!" Stella said and blew a raspberry.
"Yes, but I was there, hon... remember? I heard all that was said at the auction and at the dinner table and... everything. Yes, CJ is a gorgeous woman... well, she would be," Regina said and flicked her perfect hair over her shoulder where it unusually didn't land in a perfect cascade, instead hitting the headrest - "And, yes, I know all about Kate's roles in her movies, shows and guest appearances and even the little videos she made for wokam.com... and I still think it's eerie how you and Kate look so much alike..."
"Regina Harrison, the next time you want to watch one of your old fashion show DVDs, I might not be interested!"
Softening her demeanor, Stella leaned over and placed a sweet kiss on Regina's lips. "But that doesn't mean I don't love you any more. Huh, Snookums?" she husked, tracing Regina's lips with an index finger.
"Love you too, honey-bunny," Regina said and pulled Stella over for a real kiss, though the blonde investigator was impeded somewhat by the fact that she hadn't yet unbuckled.
By the time the lovebirds entered Rockin' Ruby's, the place lived up to its name by being quite rockin' indeed. The entire row of high stools at the shiny bar counter were filled with drinking women, music and laughter could be heard from the dance floor further into the bar, and all but one of the booths were occupied - as always, Ruby Albrecht had put a 'Reserved' sign on the first booth.
"Hi, Ruby!" Stella shouted as she stepped into the bar, waving at the owner who was sitting at her favorite spot at the end of the counter.
After taking off her yellow down vest, Stella quickly fluffed her haystack of dirty-blonde hair and adjusted her pink hoodie - the one with the white tussles - that she wore over a white tank.
Ruby waved back, but much to Stella and Regina's surprise, everyone in the bar turned towards them and began to cheer, clap and whistle lewd wolf calls.
"Uh... did I forget to zip my fly?" Stella said out of the corner of her mouth while discreetly feeling down the front of her jeans.
"No, I checked," Regina said casually, grabbing the opportunity to go into the first pose of her Too Cool For Words routine that really accentuated her baby blue blouse and deep blue slacks and blazer. "Thank you, dahlings!" she said in an exaggerated upper class accent as she walked up the aisle between the bar stools and the booths, remembering to slam her hips from side to side.
"Uh... buh. Yes, thank you, dahlings!" Stella mimicked with a big grin on her face. She didn't have Regina's hips so she couldn't quite achieve the patented model walk, though her efforts did earn her applause. "Now will someone pleeeeeease tell us what in the WORLD is going on here?!" she said once she reached the far end of the counter.
Ruby Albrecht stepped forward and offered Regina her hand. "Oh, we're just celebrating the cool fact that our tall friend here has made the comeback of the decade," she said, waiting for the model to shake it.
Regina scrunched up her face but shook Ruby's hand nonetheless. "You mean the ads I did? Well, thank you, but-"
"Nope! Girls, time to flash our friends the big news!" Ruby said and hurried over to the patrons who sat on the bar stools. As one, the women turned around and showed Regina their Smartphones that were all displaying the Swimsuit Illustrated web page - or more precisely, the sneak preview of the coming issue.
"Buh...!" Regina groaned as she stared at the image on the little displays.
"Whut? Whut-whut-whut...? Lemme through... short person wanna see!" Stella said and pushed her way past Regina. When she was able to catch a glimpse of the displays, her jaw dropped down to her navel. "Buh... uh, buh... Re... buh... beh... hub... dub... we... that's... that's... YOU!"
Regina Harrison graced the cover of the coming issue of Swimsuit Illustrated, throwing herself backwards in a pool like a leaping dolphin while wearing an open-sided, off-white one-piece swimsuit. The wet suit clung to her body like a second skin, revealing that she was very much a woman. Below the evocative photo, the words 'The Return Of Queen Regina!' were typed in an eye-catching red that underscored the entire surreal situation.
"Cheese... Oh... Flip," Stella croaked, feeling her glasses misting up. "That's... that's... that's my shot... I took that picture... I... don't... be... lieeeeeeeve it...!"
Chuckling, Ruby stepped forward and began to clap at the two investigators. The late-fifty-something former Pro Softball star suddenly put two fingers in her mouth and let out a wild, piercing whistle that made the cheering even louder. "Way to go, guys. Wow, everyone here at Rockin' Ruby's are really proud of ya... and even better, your first drink will be on the house!"
Through the shock, Regina had lost the ability to speak and was simply staring at the phone she had been given by one of the barflies. A little sniff was soon followed by another, and then another. Her chin began to quiver and her eyes misted over - and all of a sudden, the floodgates burst and she let out a sobbing, Stella-like howl right in the middle of Rockin' Ruby's.
Stella was at her best friend's side at once and pulled the tall woman into a crushing hug. She had a hard time understanding it herself, but that mattered less with her lover crying. "There, there, Reggie... you big, old superstar, you... there, there... hey... waitaminute... wait-a-minute..."
"Thank you. Wha-" - sniff, sniff - "What is it, Stell?" - sniff, sniff.
Stella had been rubbing her hands up and down Regina's tall back, but her movements slowed down when a vague, distant memory of something quite foggy started knocking on the inside of her skull, asking to be let out so it could join the party. "Didn't Steve say something about... what was it... what did he say... just before last Christmas... oh, shoot, what was it... waitaminute, I got it... Steve said something ab- about FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS, BABY!"
The last words were delivered in an air-raid siren like quality and volume straight into Regina's delicate ears, and it made the tall woman jump back with a "GAAAH!"
"FIFTY! THOUSAND! DOLLARS!" Stella said, bouncing around like a rubber ball in a washing machine. "Oooh yeah, uh-huh, oh-hoh, eh-heh, ah-hah, aw yeah-yeah-yeah... Reggie, c'mon here... you know what?"
"No?" Regina said, still rubbing her ear.
After leering left and right, Stella leaned in to whisper very quietly into Regina's other - good - ear. As she pulled back, she had a shit-eating grin on her face that didn't seem to want to be going away any time soon.
"Well," Regina said and smoothed down an eyebrow that had gone all erect from hearing Stella's idea, "I second that motion, but we definitely need to be at home to do that, Stell..."
Ruby came back to the two investigators and put her hands on their backs. "I think I get it... but you do have time for a drink, right? Like I said, it's on the house."
Stella was too bouncy to speak at once, but she eventually nodded - just before she ran down the line of bar stools to high-five every single person there.
Ten minutes later, Regina closed the connection in her cell phone and leaned back against the backrest of the red bench seat. "That was Steve. He wanted to congratulate us... and he confirmed the amount."
"Speechless," Stella said, slurping loudly from her colorful mojito that Ruby had decorated with an umbrella and a pink flamingo on a toothpick.
"Yeah. Of course, like he said, we need to split it between my agency-"
"Which is me."
"-and the photographer-"
"Which was me."
"-and my minders and general staff."
"Which is me. Speechless!" - Stella suddenly sobered and leaned back to put a warm hand on Regina's thigh. "Snookums, it's your prize. I want you to use it on whatever you want and need. If you want to blow it all on designer clothes, be my guest."
"Heh... I want to show you the world, Stell. Perhaps we can squeeze a vacation into our busy schedules?"
"Well, I wouldn't say no to that... I've always wanted to go to Disneyland!" Stella said and stole a quick kiss.
"Disn- MMUA -eyland?! I was thinking about Paris or Milan... or Rio... or Buenos Aires..."
"But I wanna go to Disneyland!"
Regina blinked a couple of times as she studied the pout that had already begun to form on Stella's face. Shrugging, she pulled her best friend into a sideways hug. "Okay. But I have an even better idea."
"Better than Disn-"
"Spill it, girl," Stella said and poked Regina in the stomach.
Smiling, Regina snuggled up next to her easily excitable lover and held on tight, knowing from experience how the blonde fury would react to the following news - "Well, I happen to know that the studio where they film Kate Marshall's show Deadline has guided tours, and that it's possible to be there when they shoot scenes..."
"Oooooooooh! I love you, Regina Harrison!" Stella said and broke through Regina's firm grip to wrap her arms around her tall lover.
"And I love you, Stella Starr..."
Stella began to rock back and forth while she squealed out her enjoyment of the situation and how much she actually loved the tall woman - though most of it came out as a mumble because she was speaking into Regina's bosom - but she eventually rocked so hard the inevitable happened-
"Uh... no wait... hang on, Stell... Stell!" Regina said and tried to grab hold of the tabletop. "STELLLLLLL! WE'RE GOING DOOOOOOWN!"
Moving in perfect synchronicity, the two investigators slipped off the edge of the bench seat and landed in an unruly heap under the table with Stella sprawled on Regina's stomach.
BA-DA-BUMPH! - "OOOF!" -- "Oy! Wa-hooo, Reggie!"
'Are you guys all right?' Ruby said from somewhere further up which prompted Regina to flash her a thumbs-up. 'Uh-huh,' the bar owner said and went back to her business.
Regina and Stella briefly looked at each other - Regina's precious hair was all over the place and Stella's glasses had slipped down to the tip of her nose - but they soon succumbed to warm, infectious laughter that bubbled up from their hearts.
Before long, the scene had turned into a veritable lovefest where they laughed, nibbled, kissed and exchanged heartfelt declarations of love while they held each other tight.
Pausing for a moment to climb back up on the bench, Stella and Regina looked deeply into each other's eyes, both thinking about what they had been through together, what they had now and what they would have in the future - then they grinned and continued the glorious laughing, nibbling and kissing in their new, and far more comfortable position.
"I think this could be" - nibble, kiss, NIBBLE - "the start of one hell of a" - KISS, KISS, nibble - "sizzling night, Reggie," Stella husked into Regina's mouth.
"I agree, Stell." - Nibble, KISS, nibble.
"Oh, Jeez, you guys! You're scaring the little girls up here at the bar!" Ruby said from behind the counter, but this time, the investigators were far, far too busy with each other to even wave in the bar owner's direction.
Three minutes - and thirty-seven kisses - later, Stella and Regina chugged down their free drinks, grabbed their jackets and made a beeline for the door, once again followed by a concert of cheers and lewd wolf calls from the patrons and Ruby Albrecht.
Outside, Stella paused for a fraction of a second to take a deep breath, but the sight of Regina jogging back to the SLK gave her the impetus she needed, and she was soon hot on her partner's tail, laughing out loud into the cool, refreshing evening air...
THE END of THE QUEEN & THE YAPSTER
THE END of
LAST WORDS FROM THE HARRISON-STARR DETECTIVE AGENCY
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