This (hopefully) humorous tale is an original story and is to be categorized as a Beyond Uber. All characters are created by me though some of them may remind you of someone.
This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top-right corner and find something else to read.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: January 4th - 19th, 2020.
- Thank you very much for your help, Phineas Redux :D
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: The unpredictable, unstoppable, undaunted and uncombed private investigators Regina Harrison and Stella Starr return once more with more zaniness, rapid-fire banter and tons of sweet lovin'. Stella has taken it upon herself to organize the wedding of her oldest and best friend Laura 'Law' Cruz. To reduce the risk of everything turning into utter chaos, she's helped by a few steady hands she and Regina have worked with over the years; even so, the strain, the stress and the important speech she's to hold threaten to send Stella hurtling head-first into a bitter defeat. In short, it's business as usual for the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, but don't worry - they know what they're doing…
It wasn't the first time Stella Starr had found herself in a peculiar situation, but she was hard-pressed to remember the last time it had been quite that weird.
There she was, cool, calm and very comfortable as she rested her behind in a red swim ring that floated around a swimming pool. How she had got there, she had zero idea. Her right hand held a tall glass that contained what could only be a Slurrpy Cherry Cola featuring a slice of lemon, a few ice cubes and a foot-long, neon-green drinking straw. She wore a pair of bright-yellow shorts, a Bugs Bunny T-shirt, a pair of cheap sunglasses and finally her beloved spring-green Happy Camper bucket hat that had been mashed down upon her dirty-blond mop of hair. Her bare feet and twinkletoes were playing in the pool and were used to propel her around to wherever she wanted to go. So far so good.
The train of logic began to wobble on its tracks when she noticed the liquid she floated in wasn't regular water but pinkish and smelling suspiciously like Slurrpy Raspberry Fizz. The situation grew even more peculiar as she looked around. The swimming pool she was in seemed not to be connected to much - in fact, it seemed to fly through space on its own.
It only grew weirder after that. In whichever part of whatever galaxy she found herself, the heavens bore a strong resemblance to the popular image of the decorated top of a pizza. Without straining her eyes, she could make out ham and peperonis as well as black olives and chunks of bacon, kebab and fried chicken. The sun that shone down upon it all from the center of the pizzaverse was a fried egg - the yolk had ruptured, and the yellow stickiness had flooded the neighboring parts.
"Hmmm?" she said, but the lure of the cherry cola was too strong so she took a long sip instead of thinking too much about her surroundings. Happy chatter from somewhere behind her made her use her bare feet as paddles so she could turn the swim ring around. Another "Hmmm!" escaped her as she clapped eyes on three women walking toward the swimming pool - or to be exact: a pre-teen girl, a teenager, and finally someone who appeared to be in her late seventies.
The teenager wore a Goofy T-shirt and a pair of loud, polka-dotted shorts. The pre-teen had donned an even louder outfit in the shape of a onesie that resembled a kangaroo complete with a pocket, two big ears and a long tail. Only the oldest of the three bathing beauties wore subdued clothing: beach slippers, sandy Bermuda shorts and a peach T-shirt.
Stella narrowed her eyes behind her cheap sunglasses as she took in the scene. There was something awfully familiar about the three gals who approached her. Looking from the pre-teen to the teenager to the seventy-something woman, it dawned on her that they were all her - they were all Stella Starrs, only of different ages. Yet another "Hmmm!" escaped her as she went back to sucking on the drinking straw.
As the three additional Stellas took swim rings that hadn't been there before and ventured into the pool of raspberry fizz, they all met in the middle holding long drinks that were conjured up out of nowhere. The pre-teen slurped noisily on a glass of cola of some kind, the teenager threw her glass away and drank from a can of Slurrpy Sporty Green, and the oldest of the three new Stellas sipped from a glass of what could possibly be a Pineapple Perfection.
"Its kinda nice to see a familiar face around here. Hiya," the first of the Stellas said before she gave her foot-long drinking straw a little workout. She moved her eyes from one Stella Starr to the next while getting a shy look, a disinterested glance and a warm smile in return, respectively. "So… you wanna order some takeout, or…?"
"Nuh-uh. Father's gonna kill me. I'm alweady in big, big twouble…" the youngest Stella said as she shook her head hard which made her floppy kangaroo ears wobble. She wore a pair of clumsy-looking, thick-lensed, metal frame spectacles that looked odd in such close company with the brown tones of the elaborate onesie. As she floated around in the pink pool, the costume's long tail had already become soaked through and was on the brink of detaching itself from the rest.
"I could eat a corn dog," the teenager said. Unlike the youngest of the Stellas, the teen wore contact lenses which improved her somewhat androgynous looks by leaps and bounds. She also had far shorter hair - though it still kept its shaggy state - compared to the other three.
A few moments went by filled by all four Stellas taking a few sips of their beverages. "Me too," the original Stella said as she began to paddle around in the quest to find a telephone of some kind. "I'll call the Pizza Palace… dunno if they'll deliver way-the-frick out here, though. Anybody know where we are, exactly?"
"Nuh-uh," the youngest Stella said. The teenager just shook her head.
Stella continued to paddle around so she could look at the oldest of the four women present. Before she could open her mouth to inquire about the elder Stella's eating preferences, the Nestor of the group spoke up:
"You need to do more if you want to hold onto her," the oldest Stella said in a voice that had grown half an octave darker compared to the regular Stella's. "Your connection is strong, but even the strongest chain can be broken if you're not careful. You need to open up. You need to let her know how much you love her. You need to keep your eyes open for the countless threats and temptations that exist out there in the vast, glorious, gruesome, threatening world. Slow down. Let her feel loved. Appreciated."
The mop-topped Stella moved up her cheap sunglasses to have space to shoot her older self a puzzled gaze. "Uh… who are you talking ab- Reggie? Do you mean Reggie?"
"No, Norma Schwappenheimer from the nursing home! Of course I'm talking about Regina!" the oldest Stella said in a brief flash of the customary fire that seemed to have stayed with her over the course of the decades.
The legendary band of crickets, The Spaced-Out Disco Freaks, just had time to warm up before the original Stella bought the clue and interrupted the performance. "Uh-buh… okay. I knew that… but I do love her. I know I don't say it as often as I should, but… aw, she knows that I love her," she said and waved her free hand in dismissal.
When all she got back was a gloomy glare from the oldest Stella, she furrowed her brow. "Doesn't she? Are you… are you saying that I might lose her? To whom? To Mr. Chiseled Jaw Steve Darrian?"
"To anyone who catches her eye and her heart, Stella. You did, remember? She turned her life upside down to be with you. She became an all new woman. Such a commitment needs to be rewarded. It needs to be nurtured. It needs to be-"
"Hey!" the teenaged Stella said as she slapped her hand into the pink liquid to create a splash that caught everyone's attention. "Wouldya mind keeping your hormones under wraps? You can discuss your love life in private, people. There are tons of babes out there… who cares if one of 'em takes a hike. I want a corn dog, and I want it now. And that's spelled enn-oh-dubya. So there!"
"That's wight! You pwomised us food," the youngest Stella said; she nodded hard which made her costume's long ears flip-flop back and forth. The kangaroo's tail finally broke off and floated through the pink pool like a four-foot-long water moccasin, "and all this mushy stuff is weally icky!"
Before the thirty-something Stella Starr could react to either comment, the heat was literally turned up by the sublimely shapely shape of a six-foot-one former supermodel appearing poolside.
Regina Harrison wore black shades, a white, wide-brimmed sun hat and the electric-blue one-piece she had worn for the Swimsuit Illustrated photoshoot that had been the starting point for her glorious comeback. The shades and the sun hat were soon shed to reveal her baby-blues and her long, black hair. Using her tanned, mile-long legs, she stepped up onto a springboard that hadn't been there before. The graceful, late-forty-something model soon reached high into the sky and performed a perfect swan dive into the deep end of the pink pool.
Surfacing a short while later, Regina frolicked around and around in the fizzy liquid until she swam over to the swim ring occupied by 'her' Stella. She ran her fingers up and down Stella's bare leg to coax a smile out of her - the reaction came at once and soon turned into a gigantic, ear-to-ear grin of unrivalled proportion and brightness.
Then Regina tugged hard at the swim ring which sent Stella sprawling into the pool. Her arms went one way, her Happy Camper bucket hat the other, and her cherry cola formed a dark-brown cascade through the air until it splashed down into the pool not too far from where the pre-teen Stella was floating. A long, squeaking yelp escaped her as she went under, but it was silenced by a mouthful of the pink raspberry fizz.
The surprise dunking should have caused one of the nuclear detonations that Stella Starr had always been so (in)famous for, but her sweetheart's strong arms that held her tight and kept her safe offered enough consolation to keep the raging atoms inside the proverbial bottle.
Plenty of dripping-wet kissing followed.
The kissing suddenly turned a little odd as Regina faded out of view - the model was replaced by a goose-down duvet that didn't provide quite the same response in the all-important subcategories of kissing known as Enthusiasm, Effort or indeed Lusciousness.
Stella Starr stopped kissing the duvet to crack open an eyelid. She was in bed. At home. In the middle of the night. She had her tongue wrapped around a corner of the duvet. The latter action was quickly discontinued followed by several frantic wipes of her lips on the sleeve of her oversized sleeping T-shirt to get the yucky taste out. Then she looked to her left.
Though the bedroom was dark, she could see the shapely lump of the six-foot-one Regina Harrison next to her. The former supermodel was lying on her left side, facing away from Stella. It was obviously just a coincidence, but the warning uttered by the seventy-something Stella rang through the thirty-something Stella's mind.
A quick glance at the electronic alarm clock on her bedside table proved it was only twelve to three in the morning. She and Regina had a few items on their work-related to-do list for the following day, but it wouldn't be too bad - the subsequent days were going to be insane, however, since the two intrepid investigators would go all-in to work flat-out on getting everything sorted for the wedding of Stella's best friend Laura 'Law' Cruz and her fiancé Alejandra Gutiérrez.
The low, dangerous rumbling from somewhere down below the duvet offered a hint as to the origins of the weird, psychedelic dream. Another rumble followed before Stella reached under the duvet to pat her upset stomach. "Darn those black olive, mushroom, pepperoni, salty bacon, kebab, chicken, fried sausages and extra cheese Meaty Mamas… I love 'em but my poor, li'l tummy sure doesn't… and they always give me nightmares!" she mumbled into the darkness of the night.
She let out a short grunt before she rolled over onto her left side. Moving up really, really close to the rear of her sweetheart, she wrapped an arm around the slender waist and made herself comfortable. Even completely passive, the model's sheer presence was enough to make the mop-topped private eye break out into a smile. Regina's natural scent and her strict regime of applying plenty of skin creams at bedtime created a heady mixture that went quite some way to soothe Stella's upset soul - and even her tummy.
Stella was typically the little spoon in the team, but she didn't care where she was as long as they had physical contact. Closing her eyes, she tried to go back to sleep - but the oldest Stella's words kept churning on in her mind: 'Your connection is strong, but even the strongest chain can be broken if you're not careful. You need to open up. You need to let her know how much you love her… let her feel loved. Appreciated.'
"Love ya like ca-razy, ya big stick of dy-noh-mite," Stella whispered to the sleeping Regina; she smiled as the whispered words sunk in. Snuggling down, she allowed sleep to catch up with her.
The breakfast table had already been set by the time Stella shuffled into the kitchen and headed for the chair that literally had her first name printed onto the seat as well as the backrest. They had found it in one of their regular trawls through the Bay City thrift stores for items that could be used for disguises or surveillance purposes, and Stella had fallen in love with it on sight.
Although Regina had in fact worn a disguise on the day so she wouldn't be recognized entering such a store - a full beard, an old cowboy hat and a US Air Force mechanic's coverall from the surplus store that she had made look sexy much to Stella's resignation - she had relented and had bought the chair as an early birthday present for her Sweetums.
Given that Stella's eyes had typically yet to catch up with the rest of her for the first twenty minutes after getting out of bed, the backrest of her chair had been draped with a throw that she could recognize by touch alone. Pulling it out, she sat down with a bump and reached for her favorite mug though she knew it would still be empty.
The coffee machine was hard at work producing the dark-brown nectar, and the upright toaster sent out its regular ticking noises which meant it was in the process of creating toasted magic. A voice squawked a traffic report from the retro radio that stood on the kitchen table by the bread box - it seemed the morning rush hour was as crazy as ever, and that it had only grown worse after a five-vehicle fender-bender on Fifty-first Street.
They had their morning routines down to a fine art. Once Regina had turned on the various appliances, she would wake up Stella and head into the main bathroom for a little bodily TLC. Her long list of post-shower chores included checking all her vital spots while saying the A-B-C chant: 'A' for inspecting her arms and thighs for traces of the dreaded cellulite; 'B' for the relentless pull of gravity on her bosom, and 'C' for the crow's feet around her eyes.
An ultra-close, ultra-thorough inspection revealed she hadn't developed any new danger zones overnight, so she finished off by applying plenty of high-quality anti-aging skin-care cream onto all the appropriate places: her face, her throat, her upper chest and the inside of her elbows. After slipping into her underwear, she sprayed half a can of deodorant all over.
Once the anti-aging cream had been absorbed by her skin, she reached for her beauty box and applied just the right amount of bronzer foundation and other types of discreet, classy, elegant makeup. The hair brush was put to heavy use as the last item on her list, and her long tresses were given a severe morning workout to make them perfect.
The mirror was too good to ignore; she went into an abbreviated version of her favorite Too Cool For Words posing routine that ended with her putting her pinkie in her mouth. "Ooooh, I still got it," she mumbled to herself as she gave her reflection a thumbs-up. The morning TLC over for another day, she exited the bathroom and strolled into their bedroom to get dressed - on her way there, she fell into her patented model-walk that saw her hips slam left and right.
Stella hadn't moved an inch by the time Regina made it back to the kitchen. The mop-topped investigator just sat there like one of the stone heads on Easter Island, and Regina even suspected the stone heads were more animated. "Good morning, dahling," she said as she leaned down to place a small kiss on the side of Stella's head.
The retired-then-unretired top supermodel of the 1990s - and the current undisputed number one on the roster of women and men employed by the Steve Darrian Modeling Agency - wore a pair of open-toed sandals, dark-blue, form-fitting slacks and a pale-blue pilot shirt that was covered by a Navy-blue, long-sleeved pullover. Standing up straight, she flicked her long hair out of her collar. It fell into a perfect cascade down her perfect back like she had hoped it would. If it hadn't, she would have thrown a Stella-class hissy fit which wouldn't have been pretty at that time of the day.
"Mmmmuh…" Stella croaked without even the slightest attempt at moving any part of her body.
"Isn't it a nice morning? They said on the radio the sun will come out later."
"The coffee's ready. Would you like me to pour you some?"
"Ooookay. Good thing I made it a little stronger today," Regina said and let out a chuckle. Reaching for the coffee pot, she was soon pouring some of the dark-brown, steaming-hot liquid into Stella's favorite ceramic mug.
She barely had time to shift a sugar bowl, another bowl filled with Peach Melba yogurt with a sprinkling of nutty muesli on top, a spoon, and finally a plastic jar containing coffee creamer over to where Stella could reach them before her smartphone began to ring. The sound was curiously muted so it didn't come as a surprise when she patted her rear pocket only to find it empty. When she had changed into her current outfit, the telephone had remained where she had put it - on their bed. "I better answer that," she said and strolled into the bedroom.
"Mmmmuh…" Stella said and broke out in a lazy nod; her first sign of actually being among the living. As Regina's dulcet tones could be heard from the other end of their fourth-floor apartment, Stella's brief lucid moment ended and her eyes slipped shut once more. It mattered little since she already held her mug between her fingers. Working on autopilot, she poured a teaspoon's worth of coffee creamer into her liquid nourishment and gave it a good stirring.
Before she could take the first sip, the elder Stella's words echoed through her mind all over again. Though she knew it was merely a Meaty Mama-induced dream, she knew better than to ignore free advice; especially when it concerned such an important topic.
She'd rather lose her eye teeth than watch Regina walk away, but she knew she could do little about it if it ever happened given that she was at an acute physical disadvantage compared to ninety-nine percent of the gals and guys listed on the roster of Steve's agency. Worse, Regina worked closely with most of them on a regular basis when they were out on a photoshoot - and in her particular line of work, 'closely' was to be taken quite literally as romantic-looking setups were common in order to create certain moods for the ads. After all, if the potential customers couldn't identify with the picture-perfect models shown in the print or TV ads, there was little point to any of it.
Moving up her coffee mug, Stella pushed the negative aspects aside to revisit one of the funnier moments in her dream. A lazy smile spread over her features as she recalled the outrageous kangaroo costume worn by the youngest of the four Stellas present. She couldn't remember ever owning such an outfit, but it wouldn't have been out of place in her world when she had been that age - which would have been the mid-1980s, give or take.
Inches before the much-needed morning coffee would have made contact with Stella's lips, tongue and palate, Regina let out an emphatic "No!" and yanked the mug out of her hand.
"Mmmmuh-hey! What the riffer-raffer?!" Stella cried, sitting up straight. Her eyes flew open from the surprise, and they could barely believe what they saw: Regina emptying the mug into the kitchen sink before giving it a thorough rinse. "My coffee! Why, I oughtta…! You better have one helluva good explanation, Miss I'm-So-Tall-I-Need-To-Duck-My-Head-To-Fit-Under-The-Frickin'-Saint-Louis-Arch!"
"The coffee creamer, Stell."
"Yeah? So? I always use the blip-bloppin' coffee creamer in the morning, Reggie! Holy can-of-anchovies, I-"
"So why did you pour sugar into your coffee instead of the creamer?"
"Whut? I did not!" Stella said and whipped her head around to look at the items on the table. The bowl with the yogurt and the nutty muesli remained untouched since she hadn't gotten around to it yet. The brand new plastic jar of coffee creamer was untouched as well, but there was a peculiar trail of white sugar grains from the glass bowl to where the ceramic mug had been. "What the blippety-blipper-blopper? Who switched the creamer and the darn sugar? Oy-oy-oy, that woulda been nasty! And when I say nasty, I mean real doomsday stuff! Like a flip-floppin' a-paper-clipse!"
"A-paper-clipse! So there!"
"Now I'm in a bad mood, Reggie. I don't wanna be in a bad mood, Reggie. I hate being in a bad mood, Reggie. I clip-cloppin' hate it when something goes wrong at the breakfast table, Reggie! It kills my entire day stone-dead," Stella growled as she folded her arms across her chest in the good, old display of You Don't Wanna Mess With Me, Buster, 'Cos I'm Already Miffed And It Would Only Take A Little Thing For Me To Go Ballistic!
Regina broke out in a smirk but kept it well out of sight of Stella. She knew better than to interfere in one of her sweetheart's legendary grumbles - especially at the breakfast table. The term Morning Monster seemed to have been coined to describe Stella Starr because that's what she could morph into when she'd had enough things go wrong too early in the day.
Instead of responding to the grumblings, Regina went over to the coffee machine to prepare a new potful of the Drink Of The Gods. "The fresh coffee will be ready in five minutes, Stell. Don't forget I'm out of the door in two so you need to make it on your own for the rest of the morning."
Stella twisted around on the chair while her face contorted into a horrified mask at the news. "Uh… uh… yeah… uh," she croaked. With the words of warning uttered by the eldest Stella still bouncing around in her mind, her eyes took in the tall, exquisite shape of her girlfriend like it may be the last time she ever saw her. "Uh… did I forget something? I guess I forgot something… are you going out on a photoshoot? Or a runway show? Or did you find a new
Snookums and you and her… or him, I s'pose… are eloping to Mali… or Bali… no… Cali…?"
Regina stared wide-eyed at the mop-topped - and clearly confused - investigator for a moment or two before she shook her head. The puzzled look remained in her eyes even while she spoke: "None of the above, Stell. I'm taking the SLK to the dealers, remember? The lease runs out today. They'll go through it with a fine-tooth… comb… and- Stell? Stella? Hullo, Stella Starr, are you in there?"
"Uh-buh… whut? Uh… yes. Yes, I'm here. And so are you, thank the Great Pizza Chef In The Sky," Stella mumbled as she turned back to the table. She rearranged the sugar bowl and the jar with the coffee creamer a couple of times before she realized her odd behavior needed an explanation. "I just had a bad dream last night 's all. A bad dream where an older Stella Starr told me that I needed to do more to make sure you didn't find a new squeeze and run off to get hitched or whatever you actually do these days…" - Deep breath - "Holy matrimony is perhaps an old-fashioned concept, but I still think it's really romantic, ding-dong-darn'it… but never mind that now." - Deep breath - "So when you told me I needed to make it on my own this morning, I got worried that my bad dream was coming true much faster than I had feared, but I had forgotten all about the stuff with the blip-bloppin' SLK and the lease ending all that stuff, but-but-but-" - Deep breath - "and I wasn't just a little worried, no, I was really, really, reallllllly worried that- that- when you said that 'cos I kinda love you and I don't want you to feel negligent or-"
"Oh-my-frickin'-Gawd! You do feel negligent?!" Stella shrieked as she grabbed hold of the edge of the table so the world wouldn't start to tilt and throw her off.
Regina shook her head several times in a row as a tidal wave of complete and utter puzzlement rolled over her. It was obvious from the way Stella's haystack stood out in all directions and the red blotches that had developed on her cheeks, nose and forehead that the fiery woman was about to suffer an acute meltdown of the uncool kind, so Regina hurried forward, went down on her knees and grabbed hold of her sweetheart's hands. "No-no-no, wait… hang on, Stell! I don't feel neglected in the least… where on Earth did that nonsense come from?"
"The dream… the dream…"
"Sometimes a dream's just a dream, Stell. But what could have- ohhh-yeah. Of course. The Meaty Mama," Regina said, nodding affirmatively when the recollection of the mountainous pizza Stella had eaten the night before made the ill-fitting pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fall into place. "Tell you what… we're cool. I'm cool. You're cool… well, maybe not right now, but otherwise. We have our speed bumps like everyone else, but don't we always sort them out? Of course we do. And why? Because we love each other. Right?"
"Right… old Stella said I should tell you more often… and I do. Love you, I mean."
"And that's always appreciated," Regina said and leaned in to place a tender kiss on Stella's flushed forehead. The little peck wasn't enough, so she added another one on the lips. "I need to go to keep the appointment with the Merc dealer. I'll meet you at the office at around eleven or so. Okay?"
"O- okay. I'll make a pitstop at Zeligman's on my way there… I need a full tray of raspberry pastries to overcome this frick-frackin' early-morning near-catastrophe," Stella mumbled. She managed to crack a smile at Regina who responded by flicking her perfect hair out of her collar all over again - it landed in a perfect cascade down her perfect back to prove that everything had returned to normal in their world.
The busy streets of Bay City went by in a blur for Stella Starr as she drove across town in her beloved, award-winning, chocolate-brown 1975 AMC Pacer. The vintage vehicle was still in a pristine state after being thoroughly restored over the summer, and it had never attracted more attention of a positive kind.
Unlike the lowest point where the car had been nothing but a moving smoke bomb, people waved at her in a most friendly fashion. Many gave her big thumbs-up as she went past them which was a marked improvement over the time when all she saw were waving middle fingers or index fingers tapped against someone's temple.
After the tree-shaped Alpine Air air freshener that had been bobbing back and forth from the stem of the rear-view mirror since the restoration had lost its fragrance, it had been replaced by a pair of furry dice that made Stella smile each time she saw them. The period-correct sock on the steering wheel was another source for happiness as was the eight-track player that had been cleaned by an old pro who had worked on those units for nigh-on forty years.
The trip from their apartment to the low office building housing the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency was accompanied by one of the Country rebel Tanya Tucker's albums playing on the eight-track. Despite the singer's husky, sexy tones and Regina's heartfelt reassurances at the breakfast table, the last traces of the upsetting dream continued to create a niggle in Stella's mind. She was so preoccupied that she nearly missed the turn off the avenue when it came, but the Pacer's brakes had become so good she could stop in time.
She took it extra-careful up the steep ramp that led to the uneven parking lot in front of the Harrison-Starr office so the oil pan and the expensive RoarMaster exhaust would stay on the car rather than rattle across the asphalt. Once up there, she let the Pacer trickle over to her regular slot against a stone fence. She was in no rush, so she let the song that was playing come to an end before she switched off the ignition and stepped out of the Pacer.
The sun was high in the sky rather than Blood Red And Going Down like the intense country song had described, but the autumn weather meant the bright rays held little warmth - thus, Stella had already dug her winter jeans out of the deepest part of her closet, and she had chosen a neutral, long-sleeved sweater and a lined jacket to go with it. To stay true to her typically colorful persona, she wore a Pippi Longstocking T-shirt underneath that was a good match to her Tweety Bird socks and her Tasmanian Devil undies.
Moving around to the back of the AMC Pacer, Stella opened the rear hatch to look at the goodies she stored there. A brief stop at the famous Zeligman's Bakery had seen her buy an entire tray of pastries like she had said she would - she had even been allowed to actually borrow the metal tray until the following day so they didn't have to use fourteen paper bags on all the treats.
The shelves that held the award-winning Danish had only been half-full after the daily invasion of morning commuters, so she had needed to buy a few of these, a few of those, a little of this and a little of that to get the tray full. Her legendary inability when it came to such matters as making up her mind had almost turned the whole thing into a horror show, but she had steeled her backbone and had let her heart and tastebuds take over.
To be forced into making such important decisions at such an ungodly hour of the day - and after the unpleasant morning she'd had - had been too much of a good thing, so she had needed to wolf down a strawberry pastry even before driving away from the bakery.
Canary-yellow movement not too far from where she had parked made her lose her train of thought and look up. As expected, her friendly neighbor Billy-the-Mechanic had been lured over by the colorful machinery and was approaching her at a rapid clip.
The fellow wore a greasy baseball cap, heavy safety boots and his customary oily, grimy, filthy boiler suit that was zipped down to half-mast to reveal a black ZZ Top T-shirt that was no less oily, grimy and filthy than the outer layer of clothing. "Hi, Miss Starr!" he said with a friendly wave before he reached up to scratch his two-day stubble. Given that his hands were perpetually oily, a long, brown smear was left across his chin.
"Hiya, Billy! Wouldya look at these palate-pleasers!" Stella said with a grin as she pointed at the tray of goodies in the back of the Pacer.
"Wow… awesome. You must be expecting a ton of company today!"
"Nope. These are all for me," Stella said while sporting a somewhat embarrassed grin over the fact she had been busted fair and square.
"Okay? Do you have one with banana-cream filling?" Billy said as he leaned down to study the pastries.
Stella squinted at the mechanic; it didn't appear that he was trying to joke around, so his weird request needed to be taken at face value. "I most certainly do not have one with banana-cream, Billy! Who the riffer-raffer wants a banana-cream Danish?"
"Uh-huh. Okay. Uh-huh. But I don't. So there."
"Too bad," Billy said and took a step back from the rear hatch. As he grabbed a wad of twist from his boiler suit's rear pocket and tried to wipe off his hands, he let his experienced eye move across the Pacer's doors, wheels and fenders. "It still looks good, Miss Starr. Next month, we should get it up on the lift so I can check if the rear-end has started to leak again. And tighten the exhaust brackets and stuff. Oh, and change the tires so you'll have a little more tread to play with if the weather turns bad this winter."
"That's my man, Billy!" Stella said with a grin. She moved out her arm to slap the mechanic a high-five, but reconsidered at once when she realized there wasn't a square inch of him that wasn't covered in some kind of oily or greasy residue.
They had just finished speaking when a yellow cab from the Taurus Cab Company drove up into the parking lot and stopped in front of the office. Billy's attention was snatched away immediately as Regina paid the driver and stepped out. His grin broadened and he even whipped off his baseball cap to smoothen down his locks. The gesture added a layer of glistening material to the hair, but that was in fact the intended outcome so he was happy.
Stella just sighed and rolled her eyes. Even if she was still concerned that someone might catch Regina's eye one day, she was certain it would never, ever be Billy the Mechanic - not even if he would end up being the last man on Earth.
Getting the message through to him had proven to be the most difficult part. He and Regina had actually been on a single date once over at Bob's Bucket Of Ribs for their notorious All U Can Eat For $4.99-night - fights over the last rib were guaranteed - but it had left such a mark on the model that it had made her swear off all male involvement thereafter. That had been the night where she had caught such a nasty head cold that nearly ten days had gone by before she could breathe through her nose again.
Predictably, Regina stopped dead in her tracks when she spotted Billy at the Pacer. She offered him a brief wave out of sheer politeness before she made a ninety-degree right-hand turn and strode over to the front door of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency office - then she went inside in a flash.
Billy continued to grin even as he turned back to Stella and the tray of pastries in the back of the Pacer. "She's got it bad for me, Miss Starr," he said with a wink.
"Mmmm-yes. It's so obvious… 'specially as she's running away each time she sees you, Billy," Stella said with her tongue so far into her cheek it made a large lump. She eyed the occasionally clueless mechanic to see if the proverbial light bulb would finally go off, but it didn't.
"Yeah! Some girls play hard to get, but they always come around in the end. Or just come, heh-heh."
Stella scratched her cheek. Then she furrowed her brow. Then she scratched her cheek and furrowed her brow a little more. "Rrrrrrright…" she eventually said.
"Anyway… are you sure you don't have one with banana-cream filling?"
"I'm sure. Completely sure. One-hundred-percent-a-rooney-sure. No banana-cream anywhere. I'm busy, so… bye-bye-Billy-bye-bye," Stella said as she grabbed the tray and hurried across the parking lot before the heavy, reinforced office door would have time to close and thus leave her stranded.
"Bye, Miss Starr! I'll close the hatch for ya!" Billy said with a new wave before he did what he had said he would. He kept standing at the Pacer for a moment or two longer before he shrugged and shuffled back to his garage.
"Reggie! C'mon out and slap your eyeballs on this awesomeness incarnate!" Stella chirped as she put down the tray of pastries on the low coffee table by the couch. Whistling a happy tune, she zoomed over to the metal filing cabinets at the other end of the office to get a few dessert plates and their mugs from the drawer labeled 'P' for Plates And Other Stuff Used For Eating. Once everything was lined up, she turned on their boom box that stood atop one of the cabinets. As the Village People began playing from the CD they had left in the player the day before, she zoomed over to the coffee machine to make a fresh potful.
A few moments went by before Regina cracked open the door to their bathroom. "Is he gone?" she said, looking around for the unwanted interloper in the canary-yellow boiler suit.
"He never came in," Stella said while she poured water into the coffee machine.
Grunting, Regina stepped out of the bathroom and clicked off the lights. "All-righty, then. Oh…" she said as she clapped eyes on the tray of pastries on the low coffee table. "You actually did buy a full tray of those calorie bombs… I thought you were joking…"
"Joke about pastry? Never."
Regina chuckled as she shuffled over to the spot in the office allocated to her desk and chair; as usual, she had shed her shoes and walked barefoot on the plush carpet Stella had bought at a Chapter 11 sale back when she was only starting out. "Right. What was I thinking?" she said as she sat down on her swivel-chair and put her dark-blue slacks - and thus her endless legs - up on the corner of the desk. She picked up a file that she had left there the day before, but it couldn't hold her interest for long. Turning it over to the back page, she doodled her signature on it and put it in her out-tray. Case closed.
With the paperwork out of the way, she glanced over at Stella who seemed to be in a better mood than earlier in the day - at least judging by the dancing wiggles she performed to one of the Village People's classic disco tunes while she waited for the coffee to filter through. "How's the big speech for the wedding coming along, Stell?"
"Ugh, transcribing the recordings is a ton of work," Stella said and turned around so she could lean her backside against the edge of the small table inside the door. "Y'know, Reggie, that was one of the best ideas you've ever had… using my phone to record myself reminiscing about Law and allllll the crazy, kookie stuff we did back then. Oy-oy-oy, that was a buncha fabulous trips down memory lane, lemme tell ya… but sorting my thoughts afterwards so I can get 'em onto paper… or into the word processor… is whipping my butt for sure."
"Gee, who'd have thunk it?" Regina mumbled.
"Yeah, right," Stella growled; a moment later, she broke out in a grin and sent her sweetheart a kissy that was responded to in kind.
The coffee machine interrupted the conversation by sending out a small ding to let the world - and the ever-impatient Stella Starr - know it was ready. Whistling some more, she took the glass pot and poured a healthy amount of the steaming-hot liquid into one of her favorite mugs. Regina was soon serviced as well which left the pastries center-stage. "Now… which one should I gobble up first, Reggie? One with raspberry, strawberry, orange, apricot or chocolate filling?"
"Oh, they're your arteries. Don't ask me," Regina said and reached into one of her desk's drawers to retrieve a walnut-and-oats health bar. The snack was soon unwrapped and nibbled on with great and certainly audible relish.
Stella stared at the dull, bone dry piece of supposed healthy candy with a look on her face that said she would rather run a marathon in hiking boots than sink her teeth into such a snack. She opened her mouth to offer a snappy retort, but remembered the elder Stellas words. Instead of mouthing off, she shrugged and nabbed a pastry with chocolate filling.
A couple of hours later, Stella removed her earphones, closed the lid on the laptop and let out a long sigh. She pushed the electronic tool away before she leaned forward to rest her head on her arms on the desktop.
"That bad, huh?" Regina said from her own desk. She had just finished signing the appropriate paperwork for a large-scale photo session for Steve's modeling agency. For once, she was going to be behind the scenes rather than in front of the camera since it was going to be a series of advertisements for a company that produced clothes for six-year-olds.
"Worse," Stella said in a mumble.
"Now you understand how I've suffered all these years sorting out your trains of thought…" Regina said, flicking her perfect hair over her shoulder.
Stella just sighed. "Yeah, yeah… stab me in the blip-bloppin' bee-hind, whydontcha?"
Before the mood could go too far south, the connected telephones of their old-fashioned landline began ringing. With Stella visibly out of commission for the time being, Regina picked up the receiver and flicked her hair around all over again so it wouldn't get in the way. "Hello, you've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?"
"Oh hello, Sir. Yes, we're certainly familiar with The Diomedes Diamonds Corporation," Regina said and began to wave her hand to catch Stella's attention.
"I can't say, Sir. You need to speak with the owner of the agency. I'll get her for you. Please wait." Her previous attempts at getting Stella's attention hadn't worked yet - chiefly because Stella's eyes were closed while her head was buried in her arms - so it clearly took a larger instrument to get the job done.
A ball of scrap paper from the trash can next to the desk was the best solution for the task at hand. The ball flew through the air in a perfect arc until it impacted on the top of Stella's wild haystack with a Bop! It took a swan dive into oblivion from there, but its task had already been accomplished so it mattered little. Once the intrepid investigator looked up, Regina grinned and pointed at the receiver.
Stella grunted and pulled her own telephone closer. The forward-leaning position didn't work for a lengthier phone conversation, so she shuffled around to slouch in her four-legged office chair once she had the receiver next to her ear. "This is senior investigator Stella Starr. I'm all ears."
"I see. Well-"
"Frankly, Sir, keeping track of a shipment of precious gems is beyond what we usually do here at Harrison- beg' pardon?"
"Well," Stella said and rubbed her nose on the back of her hand while her internal calculator processed the hefty sum that had been mentioned - it would certainly buy quite a few Meaty Mamas over at the Pizza Palace, but perhaps that wasn't such a good idea. "That's definitely a nice, round figure, but it's a question of manpower… or womanpower to be exact. Frankly, we're not equipped or even trained to carry out such a task. I'm afraid we need to decline the job, Sir, but if you have any suspected insurance fraud that needs investigating, or divorce papers that need to be delivered, we're your gals. Hello? Hello? Well, that's just rude," she said and hung up.
Regina shot Stella a puzzled look that was responded to by a shrug. "That was a bust. Weird fella. At least he didn't ask for Mr. Harrison Starr," Stella said as she picked up the earphones. She weighed her options for a few moments before she mashed the electronic gizmos into her ears and pulled the laptop closer to carry on transcribing her occasionally surreal recordings.
The rest of the day went by in accordance with the script known as A Typical Day In The Life Of The Strong, Intrepid, Boundlessly Spirited And Just Plain Unlucky Investigators Of The Harrison-Starr Detective Agency: after a couple of chocolate pastries and the second half of the healthy snack bar for lunch, they drove around the bustling Bay City in the Pacer to drop off or pick up several official documents.
Among other things, they needed to stop at City Hall where Stella got into a spit-flying argument with an overzealous parking attendant. Regina needed to pacify the ruffled tempers with an autograph and a selfie. Later on, they received their regular fee - and were treated to dust-dry raisin scones and bitter tea - when they delivered a report on a potentially cheating husband. Back in the Pacer, Stella mumbled something about understanding the poor fella if all the food served was like that.
Next up was a quick tour on the freeway to a downtown costume shop to pick up a vast pile of second-hand clothes that would be perfect for disguises. A theater had been forced to sell off their inventory, and Stella had nearly gone through the roof with joy when she had seen the types of outfits on offer on the theater's website. A couple of phone calls later, and the owner of Roy's Pro Costume Shop where they had often made good deals had promised to buy as much as he could for them.
It was considered a smashing success when they only managed to get lost twice on the freeway despite the presence of Regina's GPS-equipped telephone, so to give themselves a prize for persistence - if not accuracy - they stopped at an Uncle Greezy's Family Restaurant for a Super Greezy Twin Deluxe cheeseburger, fries, hot sauce, an extra-large cup of Raspberry Fizz On The Rocks, a small salad featuring bamboo sprouts and dried peas, and finally a can of Slurrpy Carbonated Mineral Water. No bonus points will be awarded for guessing which investigator bought and ate which menu.
After that, they headed into the final stage of their journey: a stake-out in an upscale residential neighborhood close to Willshire Avenue. It didn't take long for them to find the avenue itself, but nearly ten minutes were wasted driving up and down the elegant street before they finally found the quiet side street they were aiming for. They had driven past it four times in a row, mostly because Stella didn't think it was a real side street but merely an alley that she might not be able to reverse out of if they got stuck down the far end. Regina's fifth attempt of persuading her to at least try proved that it was in fact a proper street.
They were soon parked at the curb; the curvy, chocolate-brown Pacer stood out like a sore thumb next to the boxy SUVs and elegant sedans it was flanked by. They were there to conduct a stake-out of a house belonging to a potentially dangerous - and certainly anti-social - person, namely one of those pesky people who borrowed books at the public library without ever bringing them back.
Stella let out a grunt as she lowered the powerful night-scope binoculars. A quick look at the smartphone in her lap proved the recording app was running. "All right. This is senior investigator Stella Starr-"
"Why do you keep saying that, Stell?" Regina said without looking up from the fashion magazine she was reading. "Nobody but you and me will ever hear that recording."
"Humor me. Okay?" Stella said flatly.
"By all means, dahling."
Stella's jaw moved like she was about to jump into a fiery defense of her love of all things associated with old-fashion gumshoe'ing, but she kept her lips tightly shut so it wouldn't spill over into the real world. "Don't pay any attention to the peanut gallery," she continued for the benefit of the smartphone's app - the peanut gallery in question just stuck out her tongue.
"Like I said, this is senior investigator Stella Starr. The object of the stake-out is directly ahead of our present location. Well, it's actually diagonally across the street, but never mind that now. It's a house and I have a clear view of it through my Douglas Industries series M-seven-double-oh night-scope binoculars," Stella said before she reached down between the Pacer's seats. There, she rummaged around in the box of French fries to scoop up one or more before it, or they, would turn squishy and yucky. Mission accomplished, the fries soon ended their days between the Jaws Of Doom.
"So do I, Stell… 'cos it's broad daylight outside," Regina said, briefly glancing up from the glittery pages of the fashion magazine. The house across the narrow side street was quiet, and several of the curtains had been closed like nobody was home yet.
A concerto of chirping crickets broke out somewhere on the Pacer's back seat.
Stella sent a steely glare in Regina's direction before she mouthed a few choice words. She soon turned back to the house and concentrated on munching on the fries. Once they were gone, she turned around in the seat. "Well, excuse the stuffing outta me for trying to bring some enthusiasm to our dreary work, Reggie!"
"You're excused," Regina said without looking up from the magazine. Her eyes continuously moved left-to-right as she read an article written by a fashion guru. It offered the readers the top-ten accessories that all female fashion-hounds should own and wear for the coming winter months, and it seemed scarves, fleece gloves and ear muffs were hot again while trench coats and striped jogging pants were out in the cold.
Stella had already opened her mouth to add her twenty-five cents' worth to the conversation - there was no way she could limit herself to two cents - but then she remembered the elder Stella's words about calming down and making Regina feel appreciated. Instead of growling, she sighed and went back to studying the house through the night-scope binoculars.
"Are you still thinking about that dream, Stell?" Regina said a short while later.
"Yeah. Is it that obvious?"
Another silent minute went by; it ended when Regina reached over to rub Stella's thigh. "It's not like you to brood like this. Well, it is, actually, now I think about it… but not over something like a dream. It's a waste of energy if you ask me."
"Mmmm-yeah. The older me sounded like she spoke from experience, though."
A brief chuckle escape Regina's lips before she leaned in toward her sweetheart to deliver the punch line: "The older you didn't exist. It was all in your mind."
Stella lowered the binoculars to offer Regina a long gaze. "Oh, you never know with these things, Reggie. The mind… especially mine… can be a spooky place."
Regina nodded solemnly at the undeniable truth to Stella's words while she let out a mumbled "I believe that!" that Stella fortunately didn't pick up. She made it another couple of pages into the magazine before it lost her interest. Closing it, she put it down in the footwell for later. She studied Stella's profile for a moment or two - it was obvious by the mop-topped investigator's uncharacteristic silence that she was still brooding about the dream. "All right. Let's spin the proverbial bottle. What could drive us apart?"
"Aw-Jeez, Reggie! You wanna have that conversation now? We're in the middle of a stake-out!" Stella said and pointed at the house in question. When she realized that wasn't a good argument since nothing at all happened in, at, or anywhere near the house, she shuffled around on the plush, 1970s-era seat cover while doing anything but looking at her sweetheart. "I-don't-wanna-talk-about- it," she eventually said in a mumble.
"I think we should. To clear the air and to show us what we need to be aware of."
A sigh, another sigh, a third sigh and a thorough cheek-and-forehead-rub were conducted on Stella's side of the Pacer before she turned around to face the inevitable. "Oh, all right then. You first, Reggie. That way, I can think of how to slash my wrists using the dull nail file I have in the glove box."
"Right," Regina said and sat up straight. She needed a moment to collect her thoughts before they came out in a no-nonsense voice: "I'd walk away if you started distrusting me and my actions, or if you began spying on me whenever I went on a photoshoot just to see if I got hot and heavy with someone. I'd walk away if your lingering jealousy toward Steve ever turned into something ugly. You know we were lovers, but that was more than a decade ago. That chapter of my life is closed permanently." Once she was done, she reached over to rub Stella's thigh a little more. "Okay. That's it. Your turn."
Stella looked at her sweetheart like she didn't know what to say. A long sigh escaped her. "I'm always concerned… no, worried… no, deathly afraid I'll wake up one morning and find a Dear Stella note sticky-taped onto my forehead. You're surrounded by gobsmackingly gorgeous gals and handsome hunks whenever you go on a photoshoot… how the frickety-fricker-fracker can I ever compete with them-"
"Wait, Stell… we're playing 'what would make you walk away,' not-"
"But that's just it, Reggie! I'd lose everything if I ever walked away! Or more to the point, if we broke up and you moved out. I've spent too many years alone already, and I hated every last moment of them," Stella said and whacked her hand down onto the dark-brown sock on the Pacer's steering wheel. A few moments went by before she wiped her nose with the back of her hand and picked up the night-scope binoculars once more. "You'd find someone new in a flash, but I'd lose everything. Everything," she mumbled in a way that made it clear the debate had been closed.
Three minutes - that felt like an eon - went by in complete silence before Regina had finished sorting through the surprising, even shocking, thoughts and emotions that rolled around inside her from Stella's heartfelt message. "Stell, may I let you in on a little secret?" she said in the most sincere voice she could muster so it wouldn't appear she was trying to be a smart-alec.
"Oh boy, here it comes," Stella mumbled while she continued to look through the binoculars.
"No, just listen… it's difficult for me to express what my heart tells me, but… I'm not really into women."
Stella let out a puzzled grunt as she took in the honesty and sincerity that shone in Regina's bluer-than-blue eyes. A few colorful images of things they had done behind closed doors rolled past her mind's eye - none of which seemed to back up the surprising words. "Huh… okay. You coulda fooled me, Reggie…" she said, scratching her cheek.
"No, it's all you, Stell. It's only you. Like you said, I've been around top models for all of my adult life, but apart from Steve, nobody has ever given me any kind of physical thrill. Nobody has ever made my heart flutter like you do, and that includes Steve. I know it at once whenever I see you after we've spent some time apart. My heart just soars. It's the real deal… I feel it deep inside," Regina said and snuck her hand around the back of Stella's neck to give it a little caress.
"Jeez… I do all that?"
"Oh yeah. So you see, I'll be right here by your side for as long as you want me. The moment you tell me to take a hike-"
"Which will be the day after the biff-boffin' a-paper-clipse!"
"Apoca- never mind. What I feel for you goes beyond labels, Stell. I felt it almost from the very start. It just took me a while to get my head wrapped around it. Remember our first kiss?" As Regina spoke, she tickled the back of Stella's neck.
A husky chuckle left Stella's lips as the kiss was replayed in her mind's eye. Across the street, a hunched-over little-old lady shuffled along the sidewalk dragging a shopping-trolley filled to the brim with library books, but the two investigators had no time for outside distractions like that.
It was obvious that nothing would happen on the stake-out, so Stella put the night-scope binoculars away for good and secured the click-locks on their protective box. "I remember it like it was yesterday, Reggie. It was out at Ruby's of course. Ooooh, actually we had two first kisses! The first-first one didn't do diddly-poobah for me, but the second-first one made my glasses steam up."
"Yeah, well," Regina said with a grin. "I had to learn the fine art of kissing a girl first, you know."
"Well, what can I say… you've definitely caught up since then. You're a fast learner. Now if I could only get you to appreciate a good, old Super Greezy Twin Deluxe with fries and hot sauce and alllllllllllllllll the trimmings, we'd be purr-fect."
"Ah-" Regina said, holding up a cautionary index finger like she wanted to convey there was a limit to what she would like to expose her vegetarian tastebuds to.
Stella grinned and reached over to trap the wagging finger with two of her own. "I know, I know. You just lurrrve your deathly-dull salads and your awful mineral water. Now pipe down and kiss me silly."
"Yes, dear!" Regina said before she leaned across the center console and did exactly what she had been told.
The big day had finally arrived: the one that would see the large-scale, life-altering event that Stella Starr had alternately dreaded and looked forward to ever since being told about it several months back. It had already caused her bottomless despair and boundless joy. It had frequently wadded her nerves into a tight knot as she toiled over the speech she was expected to give, and on the same token, it had sent her on many glorious trips down memory lane that had left her swallowing in jubilant nostalgia - and many cups of hot cocoa.
In short, it was to be the wedding day of one of Stella's 'bestest' and oldest friends, Laura 'Law' Cruz and her wife-to-be Alejandra Gutiérrez. Like all wedding days, everything had to be perfect - and not just one-hundred percent, or one-thousand percent, or even ten-thousand percent perfect; no, everything had to be one million percent perfect from first to last.
Enter Stella Starr and her unique ways of organizing such an event.
Laura Cruz had been unfamiliar with Rockin' Ruby's, the friendliest women-only bar in all of Bay City - not to mention Stella and Regina's number one watering hole for many a year - so Stella had introduced her to Ruby Albrecht and had thus set the wheels in motion for the whole thing.
The retired softball star had quoted Laura a very reasonable estimate for holding an all-inclusive post-wedding bash on the vast parking lot of the establishment. When the offer had been accepted after a short round of negotiations, the news had sent Stella into overdrive on a physical as well as a metaphorical level.
The plan was simple enough on paper. The wedding itself was to be conducted at noon sharp at the Church Of The Blessed Heart downtown. Once the ceremony had been completed, the newly-weds were to be driven across town to Rockin' Ruby's. Their limousine - acquisitioned from Steve Darrian's fleet and driven by one of his regular chauffeurs who was accustomed to handling VIPs - was to lead a convoy of wedding guests to their destination where they would spend the rest of the day and evening in an enormous, heated, water-resistant, wind-resistant, everything-resistant marquee tent. There would be a live saxophone dance band, a professional photographer, tons of high-quality food and hundreds of beverages of all kinds ranging from Slurrpy Raspberry Fizz'es to genuine French Champagne that carried unpronounceable names on their labels.
In her typical humble and down-to-earth style, Stella had simply designed the post-wedding bash to eclipse everything that had ever come before it. Of course, after delivering the Stella-style sales pitch, now she had to deliver the Stella-style goods.
By the time dawn broke on the important day, Stella had already been going at bursting point for hours. She had been bouncing around to such an extent that she hadn't even bothered to go to bed the night before - she knew it would just be a waste to get the bedsheets crumpled. Regina had insisted on getting her eight hours of beauty sleep, but Stella's high-yield nuclear reactor would allow her no rest until the wedding and everything connected with it was consigned to the history books.
Breakfast had been a one-sided affair as usual, but unlike ninety-nine percent of their mornings together, this particular iteration had seen Regina being the quiet, reflective one. Stella had flailed around enough for both of them despite Regina's repeated warnings that she needed to slow down or else she would run out of energy before the ceremony would even start. The warnings had mostly fallen on deaf ears, but at least Stella had downed some yogurt, two slices of well-buttered toast and half a pot of strong coffee to keep her levels up.
Regina had driven the Pacer through the morning traffic and into the parking lot at Rockin' Ruby's because Stella continued to be wound up tighter than a high-precision stopwatch. The mop-topped investigator was easily excitable and fiery even on a quiet day, but her glowing eyes and the red blotches on her cheeks hinted at her being near a coronary. Even tied down by the Pacer's seat belt, she couldn't sit still for more than nought-point-three seconds at a time - she shuffled around incessantly and fidgeted and twitched and gnawed on her fingernails and fidgeted and twitched a little more.
The brown car had barely come to a stop in the first available slot before Stella flew out like she had been shot from a twelve-inch Howitzer. She didn't even have time to close the door behind her but raced across the parking lot with her hair going in one direction, her arms in the other and her legs moving like the manic drummer of the Speed Metal Fanatics playing their signature hard-rock anthem.
She had zero time for anything but to make sure the volunteers and hired helpers stuck to her meticulous plans on how to erect and weather-proof the marquee tent. Little puffs of dust were kicked up by her track shoes as she made a pretty good attempt at breaking the land-speed record for mop-topped investigators.
Left in all her glorious lonesome, Regina leaned over the empty seat to cast a concerned glance at the sprinting Stella Starr. "Oh, you're very welcome! Always glad to help!" she shouted after the retreating form knowing she would never get a reply. She eventually turned off the ignition and removed the cotton gloves she had worn so her delicate, well-manicured fingers wouldn't have to get into contact with the brown sock on the Pacer's steering wheel.
Unlike Stella who wore a slapped-together ensemble because she knew she would radiate so much energy over the course of the day that her clothes would turn very funky indeed, Regina had already changed into the outfit she would wear to the ceremony: a sublime electric-blue pant suit over a deep-V-neck mother-of-pearl blouse that allowed a peek at her upper chest and the magnificent - and expensive - gold necklace that graced it. Her long tresses were styled like a mermaid's with plenty of swoops, volume and nearly a can's worth of lacquer, and down below she wore subdued, dark-blue pumps with one-inch heels that would give her a perfect stance and accentuate her long legs to an even greater degree than usual.
The Pacer's passenger-side door was soon closed before she went back to the rear hatch to check their cargo: a large bag of home-made confetti for later, the dress bag that held Stella's elegant party clothes, and finally a small cooler box that contained a few cans of soft drinks and some sandwiches for when the inevitable little hunger would sneak up on them. Everything was fine, so she took the cooler box and set off to find Stella, Ruby or one of the numerous helpers they had bribed into giving them a hand on the big day.
As she walked across the parking lot, she couldn't help but enter her patented model-walk that saw her hips slam left and right. It only took a couple of seconds of that for one of the helpers to let out a piercing wolf call at her, and she responded by tilting her head upward to get the Perfect Light to caress her chin. With all the grace in the world, she flicked her perfect mermaid hair over her perfect electric-blue shoulder safe in the knowledge it would fall into a perfect cascade down her perfect back.
Within a three-minute timespan, Stella tore around between seven hotspots that all required her full and undivided attention: checking out the work done to the marquee tent itself, supervising the construction of the dais for the dance band, monitoring the heavy-duty power supply, laying the cables needed for the microphones, amplifiers and loudspeakers, creating space for the numerous buffet carts they had ordered from a highly-recommended catering company, wheeling in a huge amount of foldable chairs and tables, and finally unpacking the crates of rented tableware and verifying they were in good shape - or at the very least in one piece.
The term whirlwind didn't begin to describe her. True to form, she flipped her lid at regular intervals when something was done poorly or just out of sequence, so it wasn't long before the hired helpers and volunteers began to drift away to be safe from the living yelling-machine. It soon left certain areas short of manpower, so Stella needed to pull up her sleeves and do even more.
Huffing, puffing, wheezing and moaning, she finally came to a stop and put her hands on her aching sides. She needed to bend over to breathe for a moment or two, but she regained that particular ability before long. Her heart tried to gallop its way out of her chest as a result of her blood pressure going off the scale, but she pushed all those minor ailments aside for when she had time to deal with them - which would be 'later.'
Then something blocked out the glorious early morning sun which left her standing in deep shadows.
She was about to make a comment on it in her inimitable style when she realized the culprit wasn't a dark cloud after all, but a pair of impossibly tall, impossibly wide, impossibly fit women dressed in sturdy coveralls. "Uh-buh… whoa!" she croaked as she needed to lean her head back to take in the full scope of the vast spectacle before her.
The first of the pair of volunteer helpers was Kristy Newbourne, the formidable firefighter from the legendary Engine 15 crew - always the first crew to jump into the fire, and always the last to return to their station. Although her bulky, pumped arms and trunk-like thighs were hidden by the baggy coveralls, her short hair had been given a fresh buzzcut which seemed to suggest the rest of her was in the same kind of shape.
Clocking in at five-foot-eleven-and-a-half in socks, the broad-shouldered Kristy was often the tallest and always the widest in any group of people, but she was dwarfed by the six-foot-six mountain range of a woman next to her. The screaming-orange prison fatigues that had a four-digit number stenciled onto its back gave it away at once: it was Megan Austin, the pro-wrestling promoter who frequently entered the ring playing a no-good heel known only as 'Chainz.' That the soft-spoken, kind-hearted Megan also worked as a kindergarten teacher for a local church came as a surprise to most people until they got to know her.
"Hooooooooooly can-of-sardines-in-hawt-sauce!" Stella cried and waved both arms in the air just to underscore her unbridled enthusiasm for seeing her old friends again. "Megan! Sparky! It's soooooooooooooo blippety-blip-bloppin' great to see ya 'cos we got a million-and-one things to do today and there's sooooooooo little time and everywhere I go there's always some kind of weird, weird stuff going on-" - Deep breath - "and I don't have time for any dramas what-so-frickin'-frackin'-ever 'cos the wedding is gonna happen at noon sharp come dillweed or pink bubbles and I don't wanna be late 'cos it's my best friend Laura who's getting married-" - Deep breath - "but I guess you kinda knew that already since I kinda asked you to come over to help with all the stuff and things and stuff!" - Deep breath - "I've only been here for a short half-hour and I'm already worn out and I really, really need a Slurrpy and a sandwich or sum'tin but I think Reggie has 'em and I can't find her anywhere and I even went back to the Pacerrrrrr but she wasn't there and-and-and-" - Deep breath - "the Slurrpies and the sandwiches wussen't there either and we have so oh-my-biffie-boffie-baffin' much we need to do and we have no time for it!"
"Did you catch that?" Kristy said with a grin.
Megan shook her head. "Not a word of it."
"Me neither, but we get the picture, Shorty," Kristy said and reached out to give Stella a teeny-tiny slap on the shoulder that pushed the investigator two feet backward.
"Hey!" Stella cried, coming to a screeching halt before she could carry on with part two of her rambling diatribe. She adjusted her glasses several times while she offered the two tall oaks a couple of incendiary glares. "Who ya callin' Shorty, Biggy? I'm five-foot-four-and-a-half, thankyouverymuch! That ain't short, that's the purrrrrrr-fect height for someone like me! So there!"
Megan Austin chuckled in her typically velvety voice. "She may be the shortest, but she's definitely the loudest!" she said and nudged Kristy in the side with her elbow.
The human oak trees snickered loudly at the joke and the perfectly offended look upon Stella's face. The snickering attracted the attention of the other helpers and volunteers, and they were soon joined by Regina who completed the trio of impossibly tall womenfolk.
"Aw, fer-Evelyn's-sake… this is bad, bad, bad for my self-esteem," Stella mumbled as she needed to take a step back in order to get the full view of her three companions.
"Hello, Kristy… Megan," Regina said and shook hands with the two tough workers. "I presume you know what to do and where to do it?"
"Hello, Regina," Megan said. "Well, we're actually waiting for new orders 'cos we're already done with the first job. Kristy and I put up the entire marquee tent by ourselves. We had a couple of guys helping us at first, but they ran away with their tails sorta dragging when they discovered the combined strength of the Terrible Twins here."
"Can't imagine why!" Regina said with a chuckle that soon claimed the others as well.
Kristy leaned over to deliver a small slap on Megan's broad shoulders. "Some guys just can't handle real women. And speaking of real women… oh-me-oh-my, Reggie… 'scuse me for being shallow, but you sure know how to fill out that pant suit, girl!"
When Stella noticed that Regina still carried the cooler bag with their food and soft drinks, she began to wag an index finger in the air in the hope of breaking into the conversation without appearing too rude or impolite - not that the three women present hadn't already been exposed to that side of her.
"Why thank you, Kristy! Are you saying I still got it?" Regina said and did what came natural to her - she posed a little by twisting and turning to show off the outfit.
Stella slapped her face and let out an "Oy-oy-oy… oy!" at her partner's non-stop quest for seeking confirmation though it wasn't needed, but she found herself thoroughly ignored - the others simply didn't look that far down.
"I guess I am," Kristy said with a grin.
Regina grinned back and flicked her mermaid hair to add a little elegance to the scene. "Just to let you know, this is an original Giacomo Sbartellati. Imported directly from Milan where he has his design studio," she continued as she ran her fingers across the front of the exquisite piece of clothing.
"Oh, wow…" Kristy and Megan said as one in a pair of voices that proved quite clearly they had never heard of the fellow.
Stella tried waving her hand a little more intensely, but she could hardly reach high enough to catch the attention of the three tall women whose heads were so far above ground it was a miracle they weren't enshrouded by clouds.
"Yes, isn't it amazing?" Regina continued without picking up the sarcastic tone in the voices of her acquaintances, "the sleeves are lined with blue silk so they're always cool on the skin, and the cross-section in the back has been reinforced with not one but two additional layers of fabric to make sure it'll never twist or skewer."
"I'm just blown away," Kristy said with a grin. Megan nodded in a somewhat exaggerated fashion to show she was blown away too. "So… how much did that set you back?"
Regina flicked her mermaid hair out of the pant suit's collar - it landed in a perfect cascade as it was supposed to. "Oh, it was a freebie. I got it for being in one of their ads."
Buddy Crickett & His Chirping Cricketeers made their first appearance of the day by playing a jazzy rendition of the old evergreen Can't Believe What I Just Heard.
"Fer-cryin'-out-loud!" Stella finally roared, "Can't you people see me waving down here! Well, that's exactly what I'm doing! Waving! So there! Reggie, hand over that stash of goodies so the famished one among us can get a blip-bloppin' bite to chew on!"
"Yes, dear," Regina said and handed over the cooler bag.
"Thank you! Fih-nally!" Stella said before she unzipped the bag and stuck her entire right forearm into it. The first sandwich she found was a pastrami-and-cheese double-decker - that Regina had even slipped a couple of lettuce leaves into when Stella hadn't been watching - and it was quickly unwrapped and subjected to the Jaws Of Doom.
"A freebie, huh?" Megan said after Stella had made temporary room in the conversation by filling her yap with the sandwich. The wrestler turned to Kristy Newbourne who could only shrug. "You know, we're in the wrong line of work."
Kristy chuckled. "Yeah, no kiddin'. The only freebie I've ever had from the Bay City Fire Department was a red T-shirt that I got on my very first shift after signing up. And it didn't even fit!"
Before Regina could add her two cents' worth, Stella had finished chowing down the first sandwich. "You know what you gals oughtta do?" she said around trying to break open a can of Slurrpy Pineapple Perfection. "You gals oughtta hire a pro photographer and make a Tuff Gals Of Bay City wall calendar. Who knows where that might lead. Like the one we made of you, Reggie… remember?"
"I certainly do," Regina said with a smile. "We did it over at Billy's garage. It sold really well locally. It was one of my first baby-steps back into the modeling world, actually."
"A calendar?" Kristy and Megan said as one. A moment later, Megan continued on her own: "Was it safe for work? Are there still copies to buy?"
Buddy Crickett's jazz band returned for a brief encore before Megan turned to her companions. "What? I'm interested in the technical aspects of such a-"
"Yeah, yeah, of course you are," Kristy said and let out a loud laugh.
A rare blush crept over Regina's cheeks; Stella just smirked, adjusted her glasses and went back to working on the recalcitrant metal flap on the can. "Well, in any case, there's plenty more to do here before we can drive to the church, so… which reminds me, are you gals going to be there for the ceremony?" she said, finally giving up on getting the Pineapple Perfection to cooperate - she put it back into the cooler box so it would be nice and chilled for when she found something to use on the flap.
"Naw," Kristy said. "I don't know the ladies involved so it would feel inappropriate… I think weddings should only be for the families and close friends. I'll stay here in case any late troubles develop that need urgent fixing."
Megan nodded. "Yeah, that's pretty much how I feel too. I'll stay for the free buffet, though… don't wanna miss that."
"I wish I could do that," Kristy continued, "but I have an all-night watch that begins at nine tonight so I can't stay for too long. Terri will swing by after work to pick me up… unless she's been detained at City Hall. Hope she hasn't 'cos then I'll have to take a cab home to catch a few winks and stuff before I go to the fire station."
"At least Terri is of regular height!" Stella said and stuck out her tongue at Tall, Taller and Tallest who all chuckled at her antics.
A white Freightliner delivery van that carried the logo of a stylized camera next to the words Miriam Johnston Photography on its sides drove into the parking lot and soon began to cruise around for a place to park.
Stella's brief respite was clearly over, so her reactor kicked into high gear once more which made her shove the cooler box into Regina's arms - then she sprinted toward the wedding photographer in typical fashion: with her arms flailing in the air and her shaggy mop of hair flapping about in the breeze.
Regina let out a dry chuckle at the sight. "I better keep a close eye on Stell… she's somewhat unpredictable in her current frame of mind. See ya around, gals," she continued as she bumped fists with the powerful duo before they went their separate ways.
Stella intercepted the photographer just as the mid-twenty-something fellow had opened the van's rear doors and stepped up into the cargo hold. Wearing basketball boots, torn jeans, a plaid shirt and a Bay City Bulldawgs baseball cap, the young man - who had shoulder-length hair, a scraggly beard and several piercings on his ears and around his face - didn't exactly resemble the popular image of a professional wedding photographer, and it made Stella come to a screeching halt and throw her arms out wide in confusion.
She ran around to the side of the van to look at the logo once more: it did indeed said Miriam Johnston Photography and not Miriam Johnston Grungy Wear. Since she could not connect what her eyes picked up with what she knew about the wedding photographer that Laura had paid through the nose for, she tore back to the young fellow and pointed an accusing index finger at him. "Hold it right there, pal! What the riffer-raffer's going on? Who are you? And where's the blip-bloppin' real photographer?"
"Come again? Was that even English?" the young man said from his spot up in the van's cargo bay. He had already picked up a large box, but he put it down again to dust off his hands while he waited for an answer.
The van's entire cargo hold was filled with camera tripods of varying height, heavy-duty light stands, large filter screens for diffusing natural and artificial light, square boxes that all had reinforced edges, and an entire rack of reels containing what had to be miles of power cables for the lighting gear. "I'm Felix Gorman… I work for Miriam Johnston. And who the hell are you, if I may ask?"
"Me? Me?! I'm Stella Starr!" Stella cried, throwing her hands in the air all over again. "I'm busting my hump trying to organize this thing and lemme tell you something, pal-" - Deep breath - "that's not easy when everything and everyone and everything just wants to mess with me and trip me up and-and-and-and not follow any of the battle plans I've made for the whooooooooole thing-" - Deep, deep breath - "and now you're here but you're late and I don't know who you are 'cos you sure as stink-on-you-know-what don't look like the picture on your blip-bloppin' website with that beard and the piercings and the long hair and all that stuff 'cos the picture in the person… uh-buh-duh-buh… the person in the picture was a woman but you're not and you're late-"
"I'm not late. I'm supposed to be here at ten to set up," Felix Gorman said in a surly tone of voice.
"That's late! That's very late! That's oh-so-very-late it can't get any oh-so-very-later!" Stella cried as she pointed frantically at her wristwatch. "Look! Look! It's ten thirty right now and there's only an hour and a half until the ceremony begins and we're not even a tenth of the way through my plans and-"
"It's nine thirty, lady."
"-there are ten billion things that can still go wrong and- whut? Nine thirty?" Stella checked her watch again: the hands of time were indeed showing nine thirty. "Oh. Okay. All right. Okay. Oh. Well. I better… okay. Thank you for being here so early," she said, stuffing her hands deep down her jeans pockets while shuffling around on the spot.
Felix stared at Stella like he was ready to pack up and head for home.
"Ooooooh!" Regina suddenly chirped as she hurried closer to the photographer's van. "Did I sense a camera nearby? I did! I did sense a camera! I'm ready for my close up now, Mister!" she said and flicked her mermaid hair over her shoulder. In a most shocking fashion, it didn't land in a perfect cascade on the first try. Another flicking was necessary, and she did so with a sweeping flurry that proved she enjoyed it.
"Reggie! Awww, thank The Great Pizza Chef In The Sky you're here," Stella mumbled, "'cos I think I just made a pretty bad oopsie when it comes to something I said to the photo-guy here…"
"Surely not, Stell! That's not like you at all," Regina said with her tongue stuck firmly in her cheek - it only produced a groan and a strong blush to creep over Stella's already flushed face.
Felix Gorman let out a deep, long sigh before he picked up the square box he had already handled once. Stepping off the rear of the van, he moved the reinforced box over to a table that he had already set up for that purpose. The sturdy container was soon opened to reveal a pair of ultra-high quality cameras - a modern top-of-the-range digital one and a genuine Rosenblatt Ambassador from the 1960s - as well as a wide selection of lenses and other accessories that had all been pressed into a foam base to keep them safe.
Regina grinned broadly as she leaned in to take a gander at the precious products. "Ooooh, very nice. That's definitely top-professional stuff."
"Thank you," Felix Gorman said before he at least tried to smile at the two women. "Now, can I please have some working space? I have a lot of things to set up and test before my boss gets here, so…"
"You bet," Regina said and put her hands on the embarrassed Stella's shoulders to help her find someone else to yell at. They had only made it a single step away from the van before one word in particular registered with her. "You need to test the cameras? Weeeellll, it just so happens that I have some experience modeling. Oh, there's no need to sell myself short. I'm sure you already know me from countless ads in magazines and on TV. I'm Regina Harrison."
Felix looked at Regina for two tenths of a second; upon returning to his unpacking chores, he let out a brief "Never heard of ya."
Regina came to a dead stop right in the middle of a syllable. For the first several seconds, all she could do was squeak until she had regained enough equilibrium to utter a mumbled "Oh… never mind, then…"
Shrugging, Felix continued his work without noticing the effect his blank dismissal had had on the tall woman. Another square box was transferred from the van to the table; that one contained extra memory cards for the digital equipment and plenty of spare rolls of film for the old-fashioned analog camera. The 1960s-vintage Rosenblatt was famous for its ultra-crisp black-and-white photos, but even the color pictures it produced were more lush than most of its modern counterparts.
Regina stared at the photographer's assistant while a mortified expression fell over her face - even her mermaid hair seemed to understand that Something Bad had just happened because it lost some of its luster and volume. Her jaw moved like she was trying to form a word or two, but it never amounted to anything. Sighing, she and Stella eventually slunk off to do something else far, far away from the young man.
After the two intrepid - and currently depressed - investigators had made it back to the marquee tent that Kristy and Megan had worked so hard on, Stella sought out Regina's hand and gave it a little pat-n-squeeze. "There, there, Pookie… don't think about what that bad fella said. The whooooole world knows you. Just because he's too young to read doesn't mean you're ready for the retirement hom-"
"Are you saying I'm old?!" Regina screeched in a voice that was seven or eight notches above the regular volume of the dreaded nails-on-a-chalkboard sound effect.
"Flippety-flop, that didn't come out right," Stella said and upped the frantic patting of Regina's hand. "No-no-no, of course not!" - Pat-pat-pat-pat - "Ha-ha… yeah." - Pat-pat-pat-pat- "Ugh…" - Pat-pat-pat-pat - "What I wanted to say was… no, what I meant was…" - Pat-pat-pat-pat-affirmative squeeze. "Never mind. Welcome to my world, Reggie. A world of constant rejections, defeats and embarrassments."
"Well… thank you. I don't think I'll fit in. When can we go back to my world?"
"I've spent thirty-five years looking for the exit," Stella said in a somber monotone.
The depressing topic needed to be offset by a little romantic touching, so they entwined their fingers and swung them back and forth as they walked away. Now and then, Regina glanced over her shoulder at all the exquisite camera equipment Felix Gorman continued to set up. Several deep sighs escaped her.
When Stella noticed, she leaned in and said: "If it's worth anything, you're still riff-raffin' fa-bew-luss to me, Reggie."
"Why, dahling… does that mean I still got it?"
"Thank you, dahling. It's always nice to hear," Regina said and sent Stella a few kissies that were responded to in kind. "At least we have each oth-"
"Ooooooh! Slurrpies!" Stella cried as she eyed a large, electrically powered cooler box that carried the colorful logo of her favorite soft drink company. In no time flat, she let go of Regina's hand and sprinted over to the treasure chest to get a free Slurrpy or two - or three.
Regina was left in the dust with a miffed expression on her face; it only lasted for a moment before she shook her head and broke out in a chuckle - then she followed her sweetheart over to the newly-installed cooler box to see if a Slurrpy Carbonated Mineral Water could possibly be hiding somewhere among what would undoubtedly be hundreds of cans of sugary soft drinks.
Zero Hour was almost upon Stella Starr, Regina Harrison and every last one of their colorful companions, associates, casual acquaintances and dear friends who had shed blood, sweat, tears and plenty of four-letter words - and a few spit-flying, …ucker-rhyming, five-star, gold-rimmed, ocean-going hissy fits courtesy of one Grand Mistress S. Starr - turning the dull parking lot at Ruby Albrecht's bar into the greatest, grandest, most spectacular party zone ever seen in the history of Womanhood.
The merciless hands of time had moved around to ten past eleven which meant there was only fifty minutes to go until the ceremony would start at the Church Of The Blessed Heart, and it would start at the stroke of noon regardless of where Stella and Regina were by then: safely sitting on one of the rock-hard pews, stuck in traffic or locked in a rubber cell from going ballistic after the extreme stress all morning.
Even Regina was feeling the mounting pressure as she glanced cautiously at the white digits of her smartphone's digital clock. They had already accomplished a great deal around the parking lot over the course of the morning, but there was much left to be done for Ruby and the dedicated band of volunteers and hired helpers before they were ready for the onslaught of the entire wedding party who would turn up for the grand feast expecting to be awed.
Stella was in full General Patton-mode. She stood atop an overturned beer crate issuing such a lengthy list of orders to her faithful followers that even the sturdiest among them reeled at the workload. Her arms and her shaggy mop of hair never remained still for long, and her glasses were given a solid workout as she had to push them up her nose no less than nineteen times over the course of the fiery speech - all the energy she burned off made her skin flushed and slick.
Several highly important items on her meticulously designed work sheet were yet to be completed, like setting the tables, accommodating the saxophone dance band - who had yet to show up, much to the detriment of Stella's blood pressure - and arranging the refrigerated buffet carts that had only just arrived in the back of a large, lumbering catering truck. There was much work to be done, but the merry band of workers were getting there through their combined efforts.
Perhaps most importantly, a shower, a solid squirting of a high-powered deodorant and a change of clothes were sorely needed for Stella, but nobody dared to even whisper that to the fiery investigator.
"Right!" Stella said and smacked her hands together. "Everybody got that? You all know what you need to be doing for the next hour and stuff? Remember, I have all the faith in the world in you bayu-tiful people! I know you'll get it done, even if it'll cost you skinned knuckles, black eyes, torn tendons, broken bones-"
"Stell," Regina whispered out of the corner of her mouth as a wave of unease rippled through the volunteers, "that's not helping…"
"Not now, Reggie. Where was I? O-yeah… blood, sweat and tears is what I'm saying, people! Come on, let's show the world what we're capable of! Lemme hear it… wed! Ding! Wed! Ding! C'mon, chant with me… wed! Ding! Wed-"
When the response to Stella's chanting proved to be nothing but blank stares and embarrassed grunts, she piped down in a hurry and stuffed her hands into her pockets. "Okay, so maybe I got carried away for a moment there, but… but… will you do it for me? For old Stella? Please?" she said in a voice that slowly turned into a semi-whining mumble from its original bombastic levels.
Predictably, Kristy Newbourne was the first among the helpers to pick up the gauntlet. "C'mon, boys and girls! Let's kick some ass and get this show on the road!" she yelled while she thrust a clenched fist high in the air.
"Yeah! Rock and roll, baby!" Megan Austin roared in the growly voice she used when she wrestled as Chainz. The tall oaks slapped each other an echoing high-five before they split the volunteers equally among them and set off to finish the tasks they had been given.
Once everyone had left to go to war, Ruby Albrecht shuffled over to Stella and Regina. The late-fifty-something retired softball star tried to hide the concerned grimace that had been etched onto her face all morning, but she wasn't entirely successful. Her graying hair appeared damp at the roots, and chances were it stemmed from nervousness rather than exertion. "Holy smokes, this is a bigger project than I had envisioned… this would have crashed and burned if so many hadn't showed up to help," she said as she took in the impressive sight of the myriad of volunteers who went to and fro carrying this, that and the other.
Her eyes slid past the huge marquee tent, the catering truck, the vans from the Slurrpy! Breweries, Inc. and Miriam Johnston Photography, and all the rest of the proverbial three-ring circus that had been built out of nothing on her parking lot. It all seemed like it only needed the tiniest of hiccups to collapse into a smoking heap of shattered dreams and porcelain shards, but she didn't even want to think that.
"Yeah," Stella said, wiping several beads of sweat off her brow while she took a look at the anthill-like activity going on around them. "At least they're sticking to my plans. Sorta."
Regina was about to add a little quip to the conversation when someone honked long and insistently from the other end of the parking lot. A gold-colored 1969 Volkswagen Beetle that had been decorated with strips of white lace on the radio antenna and in an X across the hood soon raced into the lot closely followed by a charcoal-colored eight-seater Chevrolet SUV that carried similar wedding decorations.
As the Beetle came to a screeching halt in the first available parking slot, the driver's side door flew open to reveal Caitlin O'Herlihy, the early-twenty-something self-proclaimed Girl Scout - always on the look-out for gorgeous gals to woo - dressed in her usual outfit of fashionably worn blue-jeans, a black leather jacket and wraparound shades. "Damn thing wouldn't start! And then the traffic was crazy… nothing but clogged-up streets everywhere. Are we too late? Please tell me we're not too late!" she said as she pushed her sunglasses up into her short hair to take in the frantic activity all around.
"You're right on time, Caitlin," Regina said with a grin. "We're almost done here… then we'll head off to the church."
"Phew! That's a load off… man, when my Bug wouldn't start, I thought I had messed up the whole deal," Caitlin said and shook her head. "Well, I guess I don't have to tell you guys about old cars, huh? The Pacer's still lookin' good, by the way."
Regina briefly waved to Caitlin's best bud Debbie Schwartz and her girlfriend Samantha Welles - who were both waiting in the SUV - before she turned back to Caitlin. The young, spiky-haired charmer may have been a mischievous rebel with a girl in every bar around Bay City, but she had a strong dress-sense which pleased the rather relentless fashion snob in their midst. "Stell, do you have anything specific for Caitlin to do, or do you just want… her… to… Stell? Stella?"
Stella just stood there breathing. A blank stare filled her watery eyes, and her complexion was a mix of pale-gray and flushed-red - whatever the shade was called and wherever it could be found on the pantone register, it certainly didn't look healthy. After several long seconds had gone by, it seemed to register that Regina had spoken to her. She responded in time-honored fashion by uttering a "Huh?"
Regina chewed on her cheek. It was obvious she needed to take charge from now on or else there would be a very large bill for an extended stay at a sanitarium for treating nervous breakdowns in their immediate future. "Never mind, Stell. Caitlin, if the traffic is as bad as that, perhaps you and Debbie should drive to the church right away. You also need to find a place to park. The plan itself is unchanged… once the ceremony is over, you'll join the convoy and chauffeur some of the closest relatives of the brides back here. Did you get all that?"
"Ten-four, good buddy!" Caitlin said with a broad grin. After sending Regina, Ruby and the strangely absent Stella a big thumbs-up, she strode over to the SUV to update Debbie and Samantha with the latest news. The two vehicles soon left the parking lot once more to get to the Church Of The Blessed Heart in good time.
Ruby Albrecht - who had been keeping a worried eye on the seemingly moribund Stella during Regina's conversation with the young Caitlin - let out another deep sigh before she shuffled off into the marquee tent. Her next task was to supervise the distribution and electrical installation of the buffet carts and to prepare them for the countless boxes of food and beverages that were being readied in the back of the catering truck. She shook her head all the way there like she was seriously regretting ever getting involved in the whole thing.
Once Regina and Stella were alone, Regina took her sweetheart by the shoulders and gave her a gentle nudge in the general direction of the building housing the bar. "And you, dahling, need to hit the showers."
"No time," Stella croaked as she dragged her reluctant feet along the pavement.
"Oh-ho, believe me… shower-time. Now. We wouldn't want the church to be evacuated when we show up, would we?" Regina said into Stella's ear so they could keep it among themselves - not that Stella's strongly smelling state was a secret by any stretch of the imagination.
It was a brand-new Stella Starr who emerged from Ruby Albrecht's private shower fifteen minutes later. Not only had she been scrubbed from head to toe, she had been doused in one of Regina's top-quality deodorants - like the pant suit, it had been a promotional gift from a company Steve's agency had made an ad campaign for - and had donned a set of clothes so fine and elegant it was no surprise she hadn't picked it herself.
Walking into Ruby's small back office across a narrow corridor from the bathroom, she went over to Regina who sat in a swivel-chair reading an old magazine on making craft beer. "Eh, I dunno, Reggie… is this really me?" Stella said as she touched the exquisite fabric of the garments she wore.
She did a slow three-sixty-degree turn as she presented the ensemble to Regina's ever-critical eye: the off-white smoking jacket, the black V-neck tunic, the red silk waist belt, the sharply creased black slacks and the black patent-leather shoes. The three black items were even of the exact same shade which was almost impossible to achieve for all but the well-connected Regina.
"It's you, Stell. Exactly you. Purrrr-fectly you," Regina said as she put down the magazine to move around the new-and-improved Stella Starr in order to study her from all angles. She adjusted a minute detail here and another minute detail there before she tried to make the shaggy haystack sit a little better.
It seemed the quota of fashion miracles allocated to the chronically unfashionable Stella Starr had been spent on the clothes as the unruly and shaggy hair refused to be anything but unruly and shaggy. She soon left it as-was. "Oh, I'm so proud to have fih-nally uncovered the sparkling gemstone I knew all along that you could be!" she said and clutched her hands to her heart. "No more hideous T-shirts, no more God-awful baggy shorts or bucket hats, no more tasteless ponchos-"
"And there she goes again dissin' my poncho! Don't be dissin' my poncho, Reggie! Not now, not ever! My poncho is pure gold, you hear me? Pure gold!" Stella said as she slapped Regina's hands off her.
"Harrumph! Let's get to the church. I don't wanna miss the start," Stella said and flicked her shaggy hair out of her smoking jacket's high collar. "You know how grumpy I tend to get when something goes wrong… and lemme tell you, if we miss this particular event, I'm gonna be so annnnn-gry you'll need a spatula to scrape me off the ceiling."
"And stop saying that!"
Stella drew a very large lungful of air to throw a world-class hissy fit at her sweetheart, but not only didn't they have time for that, she suddenly remembered the elder Stella's words from the Meaty-Mama-induced dream. Grunting, she filed the hissy fit under 'H' to save it for a rainy day.
Regina stuck out her tongue before Stella had time to do much of anything; the drama was soon defused, and they left Ruby's office holding hands and snickering at all the silliness such a swell pair of dames could get up to when no-one was watching.
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