This (hopefully) humorous tale is an original story and it's to be categorized as a Beyond Uber. All characters are created by me though a few may (will!) remind you of someone.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
This story shows a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.
I. Where's The Can Opener?
II. Stellus Interruptus
III. Stella & Regina Meet The Police
VI. Madness To The Method
VII. One Picture & A Thousand Words
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: June 28th - August 1st + August 20th - 21st, 2019.
As always, thank you for your help, Phineas Redux :)
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 private investigators Regina Harrison and Stella Starr return with more crime-fighting zaniness, over-the-top disguises, rapid-fire banter, clever charades, madcap chases and tons of sweet lovin'. Unpredictable and unstoppable, undaunted and uncombed, Regina and Stella always go the extra mile to help people in need. This time, they go undercover at a French restaurant, end up in a huge tug-of-war at the Meet The Police-day, wrestle the Paper Monster, and meet an actress whose method-acting clashes with Stella's personality. It's business as usual for the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, but don't worry - Reggie and Stell know what they're doing…
I - WHERE'S THE CAN OPENER?
Written by Norsebard
Some monsters are easier to defeat than others. Show Count Dracula a crucifix and a clove of garlic and you can be pretty sure he'll take the first bat flight back home to Transylvania. Threaten the Wolf Man with the business end of an extra-large can of shaving cream and you will have him mewling like a needy puppy. Even Doctor Frankenstein's creature, the good old Mister Micks N. Madge, can be sent out on a wild goose chase the big lug will never return from by showing him a flower and then pointing at a nearby lake.
But the dreaded Paper Monster that had invaded Stella Starr's desk defied all attempts at inflicting harm to it, and not only that, but it defied all description as well. Towering piles, tilting stacks and unruly heaps of pages cluttered up the desk to such an extent it was impossible to see what kind of material it was actually made of. Open cases, closed cases, solved cases, unsolved cases, forgotten cases and hopeless cases that Stella wished would just fly out of the window were all in there somewhere; next to each other, below some and on top of others.
The other desk in the office belonging to the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency provided a stark contrast by being neat and tidy. That particular desk belonged to the retired-then-unretired Queen of the Catwalks, the former supermodel Regina Harrison whose strong work ethic would never let her rest as long as the files from any given case were away from their comfy home in one of the filing cabinets - well, quite often she would just put them on Stella's desk instead in the hope the senior investigator would understand that her well-manicured hands were just too valuable for such trivialities as manual labor.
The two desks were lined up not too far from an impressive row of metal filing cabinets that carried a few trinkets and an old boom box on their flat tops. The ensemble was rounded out by a pair of mismatched chairs - a swivel-chair and a four-legged one that would never run off with anyone - a few potted plants, a low coffee table that was littered with sandwich wrappers, coffee mugs and empty soda cans, and finally a soft, comfortable sleeping couch. The couch was presently occupied by the one and only Stella Starr.
Wrestling Paper Monsters always came at a high cost, and the price Stella had paid this time was that she had spent the entire night in the office. Her business associate slash main squeeze Regina Harrison had been busy working a late-evening photoshoot for the modeling agency run by her manager Steve Darrian, and the bed back home in the apartment shared by Stella and Regina had just been too empty for her to catch any sleep.
The first half of the night had been spent at her desk where she had been up to her elbows in paperwork. The second half had seen her sprawled on the couch where she had been up to her proverbial elbows in bad dreams about being on a papier maché Titanic and drowning in a sea of pink raspberry fizz and crimson Teresa Maddalena tomato sauce when the big thing finally went down.
The flip-over calendar showed the time of the year had already reached the latter part of August. It meant the night had been warm enough for her to sleep in the clothes she had worked in, namely a pair of sunflower-yellow shorts and a washed-out, greenish-bluish-reddish T-shirt that carried the print Good Girls Go To Heaven, Bad Girls Just Go! Go! Go! written across its front and onto its sides.
At present, she was on her back with her left leg suspended over the back rest. The right one was drooping over the leading edge of the seat, and the pale-purple flip-flops that had graced her bare feet earlier in the evening had landed in a pile at the nearest leg of the low coffee table. Her arms were here and there, and her head had fallen down into the gap between two cushions. The latter position in particular gave the infamous Snoring Machine plenty of opportunity to do its worst.
When the two connected telephones started ringing, it tore her from the bad dream but failed to stir her fully. The second ringing made her let out a croaked "All right, all right… ZZZzzzzz… Jeez-Louise, I'm coming… ZZZzzz… coming…" without actually doing anything beyond that. The third ringing was ignored wholesale, but the fourth, fifth and sixth assault on her eardrums by the infernal signal could not be pushed aside.
Turning over onto her right-hand side without opening her eyes, Stella realized too late that she had been sleeping on the couch rather than the wide bed back home. The circumstance was underscored by the unfortunate fact that she found herself suspended in mid-air for a few seconds - then she belly-flopped onto the plush, pale-gray carpet she had bought at a Chapter 11 sale back when she had first opened the detective agency.
And the connected telephones kept ringing.
Her shaggy haystack of dirty-blond hair blew out upon impact with the carpet; the rest of her soon followed with a groan, a curse and a sigh as the direct result. Her glasses had been snatched clean off her nose by the evil fingers of gravity, and despite her best efforts of patting the carpet near where she had come in for the crash landing, she was unable to relocate them.
And the connected telephones kept ringing.
"Oh, fer Evelyn's sake… will ya quit makin' that blip-bloppin' noise!" she groaned as she clambered to her feet. It took her a few moments to get her bearings without her glasses to assist her, but she managed to slip-slide-and-shuffle over to the front door. Whooshing it open, she stared out onto the empty parking lot in front of the low office building. All she could see was a bright blur - which was better than a dark blur all things considered - but it offered her very little in the sense of discovering a cause of the infernal noise in the background.
And the connected telephones kept ringing.
"Oh man… I'm stuck in the Twilight Zone… again," she mumbled as she whooshed the door shut; it struck her it might be the two old-fashioned telephones installed on their desks that were making the blip-bloppin' noise, so she shuffled over to the nearest one to try her luck there.
And the connected telephones kept ringing.
Since she was unable to recognize its clean shape in her blurry state, she walked straight past Regina's uncluttered desk before her outstretched hand eventually came into contact with her own. After inching around it, she kerphlumped into her four-legged chair, picked up a tape dispenser and put it to her ear. Before she could open her mouth to ask what the person at the other end was thinking disturbing her at such an ungodly hour of the morning, the weight of the dispenser convinced her that she had made a wrong turn somewhere.
And the connected telephones kept ringing.
Her hand pat-pat-patted along the cluttered desk top until she found what she had an inkling would be the telephone. Picking up the receiver for a second bite of the cherry, she had time to utter a croaking "Hello?" before the feel of the cool earthenware resting against her cheek convinced her that something was amiss yet again.
And the connected telephones kept ringing.
Shaking her head, she put down the empty coffee mug and finally found the proper tool for the task. There was no mistaking what she had grabbed hold of when the spiral cord caught onto her shaggy hair and gave it a little yank. Grimacing at the unexpected pain, she reached up to uncoil her hair while she let out a: "Hello, you've reached the Harris-"
'Bonjour, Mademoiselle! This is-'
"Bonnie Sure?! Holy flip-flop-a-rooney… you definitely have my sympathies, pal! I'll bet you were teased in school…"
'-Jean-Francois Deveraux calling from the world famous, award-winning restaurant Chez Gabrielle. May I speak to Mr. Harrison Starr, please?'
As the line grew silent, several things happened at once. First up, Stella rolled her eyes skyward multiple times. Then she clapped a hand over her face and let out an annoyed groan. Then she smacked the receiver onto the desktop twice. Then she pulled out the drawer that held the piece of paper where she kept a running score of the people asking for Mr. Harrison Bleepin' Starr.
The lack of glasses meant she was unable to update it, but she made a mental note of adding yet another fat line next to the countless other fat lines that she had put there over the course of her career as a private detective. Moving back to the receiver, she let out a quiet sigh before she said: "We don't have anyone here by that name, Mr. Sure. I'm Stella Starr, the senior investigator. I'm all ears, so state your case."
'Uh… who's Mr. Sure?'
"Didn't you say-"
'No, my name is Jean-Francois Deveraux.'
Stella furrowed her brow while she tried to focus long enough to get the little tape recorder in her mind rewound to the proper spot. It proved difficult, so she settled for letting out a brief grunt and an "Oh… okay…"
'But never mind that now. Miss Starr, like I said, I'm calling from the world-famous, award-winning restaurant Chez Gabrielle… nobody serves authentic French cuisine like we do. I'm sur- uh… certain you've heard of us.'
"Can't say that I have. The only French stuff I ever eat iz fries. You know, French fries. I love 'em, but only if they're extra-extra-extra salty and crispy. Hate spongy fries… hate 'em with a passion."
Several chirping crickets started playing over the connection. It made Stella look at the receiver even though she was unable to see anything - not even the color of the old apparatus. "Uh… hello?"
'I'm going to let that slide, Miss Starr,' Jean-Francois Deveraux said in a voice that had grown distinctly cooler.
"Yeah, fries are great with sliders, that's right. Go on," Stella said, leaning back on the chair so she could flake out a little while the man spoke into her ear.
'We have recently received word that we're about to be visited by one of Bay City's most important gourmet critics. He's known as a strict, stern fellow with an outrageously critical eye on even the most irrelevant of details, so every procedure needs to reach a perfection rate of a thousand percent on our part.'
"Uh… okay… we always strive to achieve perfection too, so I definitely feel your pain," Stella said as she nodded into the telephone. That 'perfection' and 'Stella Starr' went together like oil and water was less important at that moment in time.
'Yes, so after much debate among the owners of the restaurant, we decided to hire a detective agency to go undercover among the staff to flush out any potential problems ahead of the important event. A bad review can break the back of any restaurant, even one as influential as ours.'
The words restaurant and undercover teamed up in Stella's mind to plant a seed - a seed that soon grew into a seven-foot beanstalk resembling her particular brand of unbridled enthusiasm. It made her snap to attention and lean forward to find a pencil and some paper to take notes on. "All right, Mr. Su- I mean, Mr. Devve-row. That does sound like a job the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency would be perfect for. We have over a decade's worth of experience when it comes to undercover activities of all kind, not to mention a lifetime's worth of experience when it comes to food… so…"
"Yeah," Stella said as she pat-pat-patted the desk for any kind of writing utensil. Her search was hindered severely by the lack of glasses, and it meant she was unable to even attempt to find the laptop that had been buried somewhere under the Paper Monster's overweight tail section. "Uh… hold on for just a moment there, Mr. Devve-row… I just need to… just need to… uh… hold on!"
Putting down the receiver, Stella jumped up and zipped over to the couch to search for her long-lost glasses so she could jot down every detail needed. In all her haste, she found the coffee table before she found the glasses - and she did so in true Stella-style by whacking her shin against the hard edge.
The pain that rose from her leg caused her to perform a semi-professional, one-legged, arm-flailing version of the traditional Sicilian folk dance The Tarantella while she bit her lips hard so she would not scare off the potential client by roaring like a baboon with a splinter stuck in its red butt.
Once the worst of the pain had receded and her eyes had stopped rolling around freely in her head, she got down on her knees to search the plush carpet for the missing frame. As the law of averages would have it, she needed to pat down what had to be a square mile of the fluffy thing before her fingers touched the metal frame - by then, she had found two petrified pretzels, a LoopyCheeze snack that had gone missing around Easter, and seventy-five cents in small coinage.
The glasses were soon back on her nose, and she was soon back at the cluttered desk. She reeled at the sight of the nasty, drooling Paper Monster that had taken up permanent residence there, but she beat it off by shoving aside a large pile of folders. Pinning down the old-fashioned receiver between her cheek and her shoulder, she grabbed a pencil and a notepad. "Hello, Mr. Sur- uh, Mr. Devve-row. I'm back. I need the address of your restaurant…"
While the main details were being relayed into Stella's left ear, she scribbled like mad to get everything committed to paper. A broken-up sequence of "Uh-huh… okay… uh-huh… all righty… uh-huh… okay… uh-huh… yup… gotcha," escaped her mouth as the tip of the pencil flew across the pad.
Once she had drawn a fat box around the name and address of the restaurant and several other important details like the name of the supervising chef she needed to get in touch with, she pulled the laptop closer and flipped open the lid. The search engine was soon accessed and Chez Gabrielle entered in the field.
The various links that appeared at the top of the results were all viewed with great interest. The restaurant turned out to be a high-profile establishment that had earned plenty of awards and top reviews on the Internet's many sites and food blogs. It all boiled down to one thing:
"Now, Mr. Devve-row … with regards to our fee," Stella said as she pushed the laptop away and leaned back in the chair. A smug grin spread over her features - she always felt like a heel asking for money from the regular people wanting to hire the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, but such a gold-plated business could and would pay through the nose. "I'm afraid I can't go lower than nine thousand dollars for our services. We'll have several expenses-"
'That's a fair price, Miss Starr. I accept your demands.'
Stella's eyes popped wide open and her mouth formed an 'O' at the surprising comment - she had expected the man would haggle about the large fee. "Uh… yes. Yes. It's certainly a fair price, I agree. It fits our motto which is Always Fair Prices, Always Professional Conduct."
As she spoke, she craned her neck to look at the plaque on the wall behind her. Their real motto read: 'If you're not satisfied with our services, you can Kiss Our…'
'Good! Very good, Miss Starr. Thank you very much. I'll see you in two nights' time, then. Goodbye.'
" 'Bye, Mr. Su- I mean, Mr. Devve-row," Stella said and put down the old-fashioned receiver. She nodded to herself a couple of times before she turned back to the piece of paper in the drawer - now that she had regained the ability to see, it was time to update the list of people asking for Mr. Harrison Bleepin' Starr. She let out a long, slow sigh upon realizing that Bonnie Sure had been the forty-ninth person to get it wrong.
She was surprised to find that the clock had already reached a quarter past eight in the morning; an urgent need for this and that soon came a-knocking. "All right. Enn Bee Cee, here I come… newspaper, bathroom and coffee," she said and got up. Behind her, the Paper Monster let out a sigh of relief and made itself comfortable on the desk once more.
By the time the relentless hands on the clock had moved around to a quarter past nine, Regina Harrison arrived on the scene and drove the sleek, silver-metallic Mercedes SLK onto the uneven parking lot. Given such warm and pleasant weather, she had the automatic roof folded down so she could have an unrestricted view of Bay City's many splendors - and, of course, so the residents of Bay City could have an unrestricted view of her splendors.
After steering clear of the worst of the potholes, she parked the leased vehicle next to Stella's chocolate-brown AMC Pacer - the senior investigator's pride and joy - and activated the roof. Once it was fully up, she tested the locking mechanisms and stepped out of the car.
The sleek Mercedes was no longer the latest model, and it had inevitably received a few dings, scratches and bumps over the years. The leasing contract expired at the end of the month, and the general consensus between Stella and Regina was that they were not going to renew it this time.
A yawn caught her by surprise just as she swung her long, slacks-clad legs out of the low-slung vehicle. Her hands were tied up carrying her blazer jacket and a cardboard tray from Zeligman's Bakery containing two to-go coffee mugs and a paper bag filled with fresh, warm slices of pastry, so the wide-open expression upon her face was allowed to run its course unhindered.
After closing the driver's side door with her rear, she strolled across the parking lot in her typical I'm Far Too Sexy For My Own Good-style. Though she was tired after working until two in the morning at the photoshoot, her complexion was healthy and unblemished, and her long, dark, perfect tresses cascaded down the back of her off-white silk shirt in their customary, perfectly perfect fashion.
Unlike Stella who tripped over the metal rail at the foot of the door to the Harrison-Starr office nine times out of ten, the entryway offered no dramas for the suave, elegant woman whose forty-fifth birthday was looming in the not-so-distant future. Once inside the office, Regina cast a short glance at the grotesque piles of folders on Stella's desk. It prompted a deep sigh; then she put the cardboard tray onto the small table by the kitchen sink behind the door.
"Stell?" she said loudly when she realized the office held no trace of her sweetheart. Everything was quiet so she had plenty of time to hang her blazer jacket on the hallstand. The door leading to the storage room at the far end was closed, but she still put it on her list of things to check out. First up was to inspect the small, cavern-like space underneath Stella's desk - she had discovered her sweetheart sleeping down there more than once - but the little nest was as empty as the rest of the office. "Stell?" she said once more after she had gone into the center of the square room.
'I'm on the can!' came as a muffled reply from beyond the bathroom door. 'I'm almost done. You need to go?'
"Not right now, thank you!" Regina said and let out a snicker. "I bought us some of Zeligman's coffee!"
'Already had a couple-a mugs… that's why I'm on the can again. But thanks, anyway.'
"You're welcome. I'll just eat the warm, runny pastries myself, then!" Regina said, putting her hand next to her mouth to act as an amplifier. The heinous threat to world peace produced an urgent result just as she had expected.
"Oh-no-you-won't!" Stella said as she cracked the bathroom door ajar so she had room to pop her head out.
Regina stuck out her tongue at her sweetheart before she sashayed back to the cardboard tray she had left on the small table by the sink. On her way across the plush carpet, she slammed her ample hips left-and-right in her patented model-walk just to get Stella's undivided attention.
Ten minutes later, the two investigators sat at their respective desks enjoying the warm pastries and sipping from the to-go mugs containing Zeligman's Premium Blend coffee. Ordinarily, Regina would never indulge in anything as unhealthy as the high-sugar, low-nutrition pastries, but there was a time and place for everything. She had kicked off her shoes like she always did in order to drape her endless legs over the corner of the desk, and she had spread out a large, white paper napkin over her chest so her dark-blue, three-hundred-dollar slacks or her off-white, four-hundred-dollar silk shirt would not risk getting stained by the raspberry filling or the pink frosting on her treat.
Stella's print T-shirt already looked like she had used it to mop up a colorful spillage of an unnamed kind, so she had skipped the napkin part - it mattered little since her pastry with chocolate frosting and a filling of creamy remonce was wolfed down in three easy chews. "How did the photoshoot go, Reggie?" she said as she picked up the final crumbs and licked her fingers clean.
"Oh, it went well, thank you," Regina said before she took another sip of the Premium Blend. A few moments went by that she filled out by picking up her pastry and giving it a thorough gaze. She turned it around a couple of times to find the juiciest bit before she would move in for the killing chew. "It was hard work, but we got all the shots we needed. We didn't wrap up until a quarter to two last night."
"Yes, it got very, very late. We had a couple of representatives there from the clothing company… they seemed to be satisfied with the coverage," Regina continued before she sunk her teeth into a corner of the pastry that was just begging to be devoured.
"Or satisfied with the cleavage," Stella grumbled under her breath as she shoved the Paper Monster's tail aside to make room for the empty plate. The dastardly critter tried to resist her at first, but she gave it another hard shove which beat it into submission - it also sent two pieces of paper fluttering off the top of a crooked pile and onto the plush carpet below. Sighing, she got up to retrieve them. "Y'know, Reggie… I've said it before-" she said after putting the first page back on the desk.
"But I'll say it again-"
"I'm sure you will."
Stella narrowed her green eyes down into slits. While she did that, her right hand crumpled up the second piece of paper though it had come from one of the important case folders - she needed a missile to throw at the graceful model. "Are you making fun of me, Reggie? You know I don't like it when you make fun of me, Reggie. I don't like being made fun of whatso-blip-bloppin'-ever, Reggie. Why do you always make fun of me, Reggie? Is it because I'm wearing glasses, Reggie? Or is it because I'm short, Reggie? I'm not short, Reggie… I'm five foot four-and-a-half inches… the half-inch is very important to me, Reggie. Or is it because-"
"It's because I kinda love ya. And people who kinda love each other are free to tease a little," Regina said and offered her sweetheart a wide, two-hundred watt smile that was accompanied by a series of winks before she concentrated on her to-go mug of Zeligman's Premium Blend.
"Oh…" A few seconds went by before Stella responded to the smile with one of her own. The crumpled-up would-be missile was smoothed out again and put back into the arsenal for later. Since the drama had been defused for the time being, she shuffled around the desk and sat down on her chair. "I kinda love ya too so that's good. But anyway… I gotta say it. I still don't like that you work so closely with Mr. Chiseled Jaw. Steve's not good for you, Reggie… he's just using you. Your looks… your name. Everything."
"Well, I am a model… just about the best there is," Regina said and threw her perfect hair over her shoulder; it fell into a perfect cascade down the back of her silk shirt. The few times it had failed to do so in the years she had worked for Stella Starr had caused much hysteria, hyperventilating into a paper bag, lengthy combing sessions to get every single strand of hair back under control, and even a few emergency calls to 1-800-SAVE-HAIR.
"I suppose that's true," Stella said with a grin as she adjusted her glasses.
A few seconds went by in silence while Regina finished her raspberry pastry. Once the plate was empty, she put it on the table and swung down her legs so she could offer Stella a sincere look. "Steve and I were lovers, yes, but it's been nearly fifteen years. A lot of champagne has flowed down the fountain since then, Stell. I'm here now, and that's what matters."
"Yeah, I know. It's just… just…"
"Besides, Steve had his new starry-eyed girlfriend with him. Twenty-one, fresh out of kindergarten," Regina continued with a grin.
Hearing the sordid headlines, Stella nearly fell off her chair though the four-legged design was meant to prevent just that. "Oh-fer-Flipper's-sake! That's practically cradle-snatching!" she said as she clambered back up onto the seat and slid her behind all the way back so it would not happen again. "He's your age! He oughtta act it… I mean, whaddahell's wrong with having an older girlfriend… like you?"
"Se- se- se- se… seasoned?!" Regina croaked in a voice that grew evermore nasal and whiny. It took a fair amount of trembling lips for her to realize that she had been played like a ping-pong ball as fair payback for the earlier incident; when she did, her own eyes mirrored Stella's by narrowing down into sky-blue slits. "I'll get you back for that," she whispered in a hoarse, husky voice.
"Can't wait," Stella said with a grin that reached from ear to ear - and even a little wider. With yet another drama defused, she leaned back in the chair and put her arms behind her head. "Okay, now that we have the evening's entertainment all planned out, how about we went over the new case?"
Regina blinked a couple of times before her miffed looks loosened up and returned to her usual Goddess-like state. "All right," she said in a voice that needed a little more persuasion to get back on track. "Toiling over a stove is simply out of the question, dahling, so I can't go undercover in the kitchen. How about I played an uppity, difficult customer instead? I could wear a fabulous outfit… sorry, disguise… and just let my natural charisma and presence awe all those present! It'll be a smash hit, I guarantee it." The suggestion was delivered with an elegant flicking of the perfect hair that, as always, landed in a perfect cascade down her back. To back up the claim, she leaned her head to the side to let her perfectly shaped chin catch the Perfect Light that streamed in through the windows.
Stella was about to let out a long raspberry at what she considered to be a rare case of inch-thick irony on Regina's part when it dawned on her that the model had meant every last word. "Ah… yeah. Or something," she said and reached up to scratch her neck. A few more scratches went by before she continued: "ANYway, that works for me 'cos that means I can be busy stirrin' the pots and flippin' the pans. I love food and I'm a pretty dog-gone good chef if I do say so myself. It's a match made in heaven."
"Uh-huh?" Regina said in a voice that was in fact tinged with inch-thick irony - only this time, it went clear over Stella's head.
"Yeah. I mean… what's the worst that can happen?"
Chirping crickets. More chirping crickets. Even more chirping crickets. An entire corn field's worth of chirping crickets.
"Was that a rhetorical question, or do you want me to answer that, Stella-dahling?" Regina said with a wink.
Two point three-eight-seven seconds later, the air was thick with crumpled-up paper ball missiles that screamed from one desk to the other. The dastardly, treaty-breaking airborne assault was quickly backed up by plenty of hoots, squeals of laughter and hollered threats of inflicting plenty of sweet payback of the tickling kind later on when day turned to evening.
Several hours later, a quick tap-tap-tapping on the front door prompted Stella to look up from behind the belly of the ugly, fire-breathing beast nesting on her desk. She had in fact worked tirelessly the entire morning following the brief outbreak of war, and the pile of folders in the Done At Last-tray was now taller than the one in the tray labeled Yet To Be Processed. It had cost her four paper cuts, a tummy-ache from too much caffeine, and a snapped ball point pen that had been in the wrong place at the wrong time when she had lost her temper over something minute and irrelevant. "It's open," she said as she put down the pen she had been using.
She glanced up at the wall-mounted clock that read eleven fifty-five. At that time of the day, it could only be the mailman or their friendly neighbor, Billy the Mechanic. As the door swung open, their guest proved to be the latter of the two possibilities. No more than a quarter of a heartbeat later, a fleet-footed Regina Harrison jumped up from her swivel-chair and beat a hasty path from her desk to the bathroom.
Chuckling at her business associate's predictable behavior when it came to their male guest, Stella got up from the four-legged chair to greet their visitor. "Yo, Billy. Whatup?" she said as she stretched her tired back - it responded by sending out an elegy of snaps, crackles and pops. Her upset tummy told her that more coffee was out of the question until much later, so she took her favorite mug and rinsed it under the hot faucet.
"Hiya, Miss Starr," the mechanic said. His upper lip, chin and cheeks were covered in a two-day stubble as they invariably were, and he was dressed in his usual uniform that consisted of well-scuffed safety boots, a horrendously filthy boilersuit - that had been canary-yellow once upon a time - an even filthier T-shirt and finally an ancient baseball cap that was so greasy he hardly needed to use extra lubrication whenever he worked on a car's undercarriage. "Uh… I've done a quick inspection of the Pacer like you asked me to, and… uh… it's… not… looking too good."
A disappointed grimace spread over Stella's face as the meaning behind Billy's words sunk in. Her heart plummeted into her boots; it was a good thing she had been so productive in the hours leading up to the lunch break because it was a near certainty the rest of her day would be spent on the couch with a damp wash cloth over her forehead and eyes. "It's not?" she said in a monotone. The hot water stung her fingers so she turned off the faucet and put the mug down into the sink for later.
"No," Billy said and whipped off his greasy cap.
The gloomy gesture made the corners of Stella's mouth twitch, and she needed to shuffle back to her chair in an almighty hurry before her face would be introduced to the carpet for the second time that day. Once she had her rear safely on the four-legged chair's seat, she grabbed hold of the armrests and let out a croaking: "Tell me straight up, Billy… I'm a big girl. I can handle bad news… what's wrong with the old Pacer?"
Billy scratched his neck before he broke out in a wide shrug. "Well, it's kinda easier to say what isn't wrong. The window wipers work just fine-"
"- but there's a crack in the windshield. The shocks are worn out and need replacing. The rear-right spring leaf is rusty and the rear-left has a broken bracket. Both drum brakes in the rear have missing components. There's a stress-fracture in the forward exhaust pipe that needs fixing before it'll get worse. The transmission oil is badly discolored and smells pretty bad, too. At least a dozen bushings are brittle. The steering rack is bent and the rear-end leaks. Several of the pinch welds only pinch rust, not metal. There's rust in the trunk floor, the shock-towers and the wheel wells… also on the underside of both doors and the hatchback. There's a big leak in the radiator and a smaller one in the gas tank. The oil filter is just about clogged up… oh, and the lock in the driver's side door only works every third time."
Each item on Billy's lengthy list of horrors made the corners of Stella's mouth droop further and further south until they were resting just below her navel. Her heart had long since parted company with the rest of her being, and all she could do was to slump in the chair with a thousand-mile expression in her eyes. "What's all that going to cost me, Billy…?" she croaked once she had worked up enough energy to do so.
"Honestly, Miss Starr," the mechanic said as he twisted, tugged and pulled on his greasy baseball cap in a bout of acute embarrassment. "It's not worth it. You can buy a brand new car for less. Wouldn't it be best if I found someone you could sell it to?"
"Sell it? Sell my Old Girl?" Stella croaked in a voice so hoarse it did not sound like hers at all. "Sell my baby… no, no, no… not my baby. Not my baby!"
Billy's eyes shifted left-to-right a couple of times as he took an involuntary step back - a similar situation in the past that had not ended well for him or his well-being flashed across his mind's eye. "It's just a car…" he mumbled. Determined to get out of the hot spot in one piece, he inched over to the door in case the volatile Stella Starr would go supernova on him. When she drew a deep breath that could go in either direction, he swooshed the door open and sprinted across the parking lot to get back to the safe haven inside his own office.
Behind him, Stella let out the deep breath and slumped even further into the chair. "Sell my baby…" she croaked, shaking her head in a slow, despondent fashion.
Regina took the opportunity to crack open the bathroom door and peek out. "Is he gone?" she said in a stage-whisper. When Stella was in no condition to reply, she glanced around the office to find out for herself. Satisfied the mechanic - who was simply unable to understand the finer points of Regina's position along the spectrum of potential love interests - had vacated the premises, she stepped out of the bathroom and clicked off the lights with her elbow. The last of the moisturizing cream was rubbed into her hands as she strolled back to her desk and sat down.
"Billy thinks I should sell my baby," Stella said in a voice so gloomy and depressed it almost sounded like the world was about to end.
"Which baby would that be, Stella-dahling? Moi? I suppose we could do that, but only for an eight-figure sum. Ba-da-boom-tsssh!"
Judging by the dull look in Stella's eyes that was cast back at the grinning Regina, the joke fell as flat as the contents of a week-old can of Slurrpy Raspberry Fizz. "Not you… my Pacer," she continued in the same croak she had used before.
"Ohhhh. Okay," Regina said and nodded solemnly. "In that case, it would be for a three-figure sum."
Stella just stared and stared and stared and stared and stared at Regina before she took off her glasses and let out a deep sigh that came from the bottom of her soul - she could not even work up the energy to be properly insulted over the flaming rudeness.
Stella's prediction of needing to spend the rest of the day on the couch with a damp wash cloth draped over her forehead and eyes did not manifest itself fully - although she did lie down for several hours, the couch-time was interrupted by long stretches where she stood silently at the window overlooking the parking lot and her chocolate-brown 1975 AMC Pacer. A deep sigh escaped her lips now and then, but that was all the activity her vocal cords were exposed to for hours on end.
Symptomatically, the weather had made a turn for the worse by growing overcast and humid. Dark clouds rolled in from the silvery bay that gave the metropole its name, and it would not be long before they would be squeezed by an unseen hand. A faint, distant rumble proved it could even turn out to be one of the dreaded August thunderstorms that would send everyone caught in the resulting deluge scrambling for the hills - or the shopping malls.
At a quarter to five in the afternoon, Stella once more turned away from the window and began to shuffle back to the couch. On her way there, she cast a gloomy glance at Regina whose endless legs had barely moved from the corner of her desk the entire day. A pair of white earphones went up to the model's perfectly sculpted ears to reveal she was listening to something on her smartphone.
An insistent nagging from somewhere behind Stella's Good Girls Go To Heaven, Bad Girls Just Go! Go! Go! T-shirt proved that dinner-time was creeping near. Despite her glumness - or perhaps fueled by it - she had a hankering for something greasy, salty, sugary and generally unhealthy; shuffling back to her desk, she found the three-wing flyer from their local pizza parlor and began to study it.
As Stella had hoped for, a large box of wonderfully salty, crunchy fries, two cans of the wonderfully sugary Slurrpy Super Summer Apple Twist and above all the wonderfully greasy pizza had given her a much-needed boost that brought her back from the murky depths of Lake Gloomy. She had decided to get her absolute favorite to combat the severe funk: a deep-pan version of the good, old Meaty Mama with an extra round of everything including ham, regular cheese, mushrooms, black olives, fried bacon, kebab, pepperoni, sausages, fried chicken and an extra-extra thick layer of nuked mozzarella cheese on top.
The combined efforts of all that yummy awesomeness even made her ignore the annoying fact that Regina had once more sprung for a deathly dull can of carbonated mineral water and one of her even more deathly dull salads with sweet peas, grated carrots, raisins, chunks of orange peel, pickled bell peppers, weirdly colorless bamboo sprouts and plenty of other unrecognizable stuff in it.
As Stella leaned back on the couch with the final slice of her greasy Meaty Mama about to meet the same fate as its brethren, she let out a grunt. "Y'know what would really be good for us, Reggie? And when I say us, I mean me and my Pacer?"
Regina's napkin appeared at exactly the right moment; it was soon pressed into double duty to not only wipe her lips but soften a little ribbing: "A one-way trip to a junkyard?" she mumbled into it before she grinned at the fiery woman sitting next to her to see if the message had been picked up.
Stella was too busy chewing on the final slice to hear the mumbled comment, which was probably best for all concerned. "A sponsor," she said once she had swallowed the first bite of the pizza. "Yeah… a real, honest-to-goodness sponsor. Someone who could see the potential… no, the historical value of my baby. Someone with deep pockets, obviously. She's a genuine piece of Americana that just isn't made anymore."
" 'Cos everyone came to their senses!" Regina mumbled.
Grumble, grumble. "Yeah, right… don't you start, Reggie. Better yet, don't get me started!" Stella said and threw a pizza crumb at the long-legged liquorice stick next to her - then she picked it up again and popped it into her yap so nothing would go to waste.
After putting the empty salad box and the plastic fork she had used onto the coffee table, Regina leaned over to place a peck on Stella's cheek to defuse the situation before it could escalate. "I'm glad to see you back on an even keel, Stell. I hate it when you're so down. D'ya wanna watch a DVD or something?"
"Eh… why not. But not one of those grooo-some zombie movies you bought the other day! Those awful flicks always give me nightmares… even more so than the Meaty Mamas do!"
"Deal," Regina said as she got up from the low couch to get their portable TV set and DVD player from the storage room. As she reached the center of the office, she spun around and performed the first part of her patented Too Cool For Words-posing routine. Although she did not make it to the closing move - where she would put her pinkie in her mouth and cock her hips - the first part was enough to earn her a round of applause and a few whistles from the peanut gallery. "Why, thank you! Thank you very much…" she said with a grin before she continued: "Does that mean I still-"
"Yesssssss," Stella said, deliberately drawing out the S to make it sizzle.
The grin on Regina's face grew even broader at the praise. "I already knew the answer, but it's always nice to hear it. Anyway, I got just the right DVD for such a slow day… and it's not horror, I promise."
"Go on," Stella said as she chomped on the final half-inch of the final slice.
"Well, let's see," Regina said and began to count off on her fingers. "It's got action, drama, a touch of humor and plenty of gorgeous women." To get a full hand, she added: "And it's only an hour and twenty minutes so it won't outstay its welcome."
Stella let out a few grunts as she tried to go think her way through their DVD collection to find one that matched Regina's list. Her neurons were unable to get the various parameters lined up to produce a title, so she broke out in a half-shrug instead.
Grinning, Regina spun around to complete the task - it only took her a few seconds to disappear into the storage room at the back of the office where they kept all their disguises and various electronic equipment.
Three minutes later, everything was in place and ready to go. Regina used her tall frame to block out the TV screen as she went through the DVD's various menus to get it to play.
Over on the couch, Stella slurped the last few drops out of her second can of Super Summer Apple Twist. She tried to crane her neck left and right to be able to see the screen, but each move she made was mirrored by one performed by Regina which obscured the view. "Hey… what gives, Reggie? Why all the secrecy? It's not Sawhorse Eight or whatever those movies are called… is it?"
"No-no-no-no," Regina said in a sing-song voice once she had everything lined up. Jumping back to the couch, she snuggled up next to her sweetheart and pressed play on the remote. "No horror. And besides, they haven't made that many… yet."
As the DVD began to play, Stella's eyebrows moved up, then down, then up, then down at the images that were playing on the TV - then the left eyebrow was stuck in a permanent upward-arch while the right one nearly came down into her eye. "What's. That?" she said, pointing the empty soda can at the TV.
"But not a movie… what is that?"
Regina let out a giddy snicker as she dug herself even further into Stella's side. She grabbed hold of the senior investigator's arm so the fiery woman could not even contemplate taking off for the next hour and twenty minutes. "It's the full-length version of the 1999 Rio de Janeiro All-Stars Golden Galla!"
"What-the-gumball? A modeling show? You're showing me a modeling show, Reggie? Oh-fer-Evelyn's-sake!" Stella cried as she threw her free hand into the air. "If you think you can make me watch a bunch of underdressed, overstyled models strutting around for a blip-bloppin' hour and a half, you got anoth-"
"Look, there's Steve!" Regina said and pointed excitedly at the TV.
The retching noise that came from Stella's throat gave off a distinct impression that she was a split second from hurling, but the fries, the Meaty Mama and the Slurrpy Super Summer Apple Twist stayed down where it had all ended up.
Then her attention was grabbed by the scruff of its neck and the seat of its pants by the dramatic entrance of a tall, dark-haired goddess clad in a flowing, white robe that was equipped with golden highlights and mile-long slits up the toned, tanned thighs.
As the younger Regina Harrison - who wore an expression that told the TV cameras pointed at her that she was the undisputed number one star and that no-one else in the industry was even close to her level of perfection - strode along the catwalk in her inimitable style, Stella flaked out with a: "Ohhhhhhh, wouldya look at that! Weeeellll… I s'pose I could watch that lady right there for a couple of minutes…"
"Yeah… thought you might," Regina breathed, never taking her eyes off the younger iteration of herself. Almost by second nature, she began to shuffle around on the couch to follow the choreography she had performed twenty years previously.
Within a few moments, the entire couch began to bounce up and down as a result of the mirrored routine. "Whoa, sister!" Stella said as she grabbed hold of the cushions to stay upright. "Oy… oy… oy!" - Bounce, bounce - "Oy-oy-oy!" - Bounce, Bounce! Bounce - "OY! Diddentcha hear me say oy?!" - Bounce, Bounce! Bounce - "Lay off that fancy-" - Bounce, bounce, BOUNCE! - "-bouncin', will ya? I'm gettin' seasick here!" - Bounce, Bounce! Bounce - "And we can't afford a new couch on top of-" - Bounce! - "what the Pacer's gonna cost me!"
Regina settled down without taking her eyes off herself. The passiveness only lasted for a few seconds before she went to work all over again - and neither the creaking, groaning couch nor the dramatic sigh that came from Stella who tried to hang on for dear life could make her stop.
Two days later.
During the height of summer, Bay City only really came alive in the evenings. As the sun entered the final stage of its journey to the oceanic horizon and the scorching temperatures fell accordingly, the bright lights went up in the entertainment districts of the free-spirited metropole by the Pacific Coast. Dance halls, clubs, dinner theaters, movie houses, regular bars and upscale restaurants were all heaving with summer-clad people who took full advantage of the fact they were finally able to breathe after the relentless heat of the daytime hours had eased off.
Long lines of cars roamed the avenues that were bathed in a glorious, golden light from the setting sun. Some looked for a place to park, others had already had all the fun they could handle and were on their way home, and others still were merely out to enjoy themselves cruising around with their friends.
Music could be heard from all the vehicles save for a select few: all genres and decades seemed to be represented, and the brassy big-band sound of The Glenn Davies Starlight Orchestra battled with the grimy trip-hop breakbeats featured on Phatty & Phreaky's latest track. Similarly, the Lloyd Baker Trio took care of the jazzy bossanova flavors while Ernie Nelson & The Steel-Guitar Kings let the world know that the only place to be was Back Home In Tennessee.
One of the few drivers who did not listen to any kind of music was Stella Starr. She had her ailing AMC Pacer going at nearly twenty-two miles per hour down the avenue which was pretty much the top speed in regular traffic. The whisks of black, blue and occasionally gray smoke that puffed out of the exhaust at regular intervals offered a hint that not all was well with the classic vehicle.
Behind the steering wheel, Stella's face was contorted into a worried grimace. For every chugga-chugga-clinka-clunka-plinka-plonka-squeaka-squonka produced by her beloved Pacer, she added another few tender caresses to the upper part of the dashboard to calm down the old girl - and herself.
When the high-strung car finally responded to the caressing and settled into a steady rhythm, Stella had time to look at the various instruments. The temperature gauge crept upward; the fuel gauge crept down. The odometer seemed to run backward at times which left her immensely befuddled, and the hazard lights could not make up their mind on whether or not they should be flashing even without the switch being activated. The only instrument that behaved itself was the speedometer, but that had so little to do it was hardly stressed.
Her telephone was active on the passenger seat, but she had her hands-free kit hooked up so she could stay on top of the traffic and add more caresses to the dashboard when needed. She had a white earphone mashed into her right ear to keep up with the words coming through the connection, but it was anything but easy for her to remain focused given all that went on with the vehicle.
She narrowed her eyes when she realized she had missed a whole lot of what Regina was trying to tell her at the other end of the line. After a brief check of the instruments to see if she had time to do something else for a moment or two, she leaned back in the seat to try the telephone again: "Cobra Team Silver, this is Cobra Team Brown, over."
'Go ahead, Cobra Team Brown, over,' Regina said into Stella's ear, and it was actually possible to hear her rolling her eyes half a dozen times at the faux-military lingo that Stella had insisted on using to give everything the proper flavor.
"Cobra Team Silver, this is the Cobra Strike Force commander speaking. Uh, Reggie… I didn't get a word of that…"
There was no mistaking the long, deep sigh that swept through the connection and into Stella's ear. 'All right. I guess I need to repeat myself though it'll pose a strain on my poor vocal cords. What was the last you heard?'
Stella grimaced once more as she checked the rear-view mirror. A black GMC van not too dissimilar from the one used in the legendary A-Team TV show was tailgating her. It appeared the driver was middle-finger-wavingly annoyed with the speed they kept, but there was nothing she could do about that. "Uh… I've been kinda busy here, Reggie, but I definitely heard you saying 'hi, it's me…' "
'Oh, for the love of- that was five minutes ago, Stell! Tell me, what are you doing out there?'
"Pickin' my nose and scratchin' my butt, Reggie! Whaddaya think I've been doing? I've been driving for Flipper's sake! I'm trying really, really, reall-ll-ll-lly hard to keep my beautiful baby on the road but it's not easy with all this traffic and people and more traffic and more people everywhere, Reggie! Look, look! There's a jaywalker crossing the street right in front of me! Did you see that?"
'This is a telephone, Stell, not a video-'
"That's the kind of conditions I have to deal with here, Reggie. And if that wasn't enough, and it was, I have another blip-bloppin' fool right behind who seems to want to ride my bumper, and not in a good way! Uh, not that there's any good way of riding anyone's bumper, but you know what I mean. I hope. And the traffic lights all turn red when I reach 'em, each and every one of 'em and every single blip-bloppin' time, too… and the Old Girl has let out a couple of rolling farts a couple of times, and once it even stalled on me at an intersection and I was so, so, SO worried I wouldn't be able to get her refired, but she did come back to life even tho' I needed to twist the blip-bloppin' ignition key seven times after it had happened… seven times, Reggie, count 'em! One-two-three-four-five-six-seven times!"
'I heard you.'
"Oh. Okay. But anyway… I didn't hear you and now you know why. What were you saying before?"
Another deep, long sigh followed. 'All right. Once you've turned right onto Avenue C, you need to go straight ahead until you reach Eighty-third Street. Have you reached Avenue C yet?'
"Mmmm," Stella said, craning her neck to get her bearings. She had cars ahead of her and cars behind her; buildings to the left of her and more buildings to her right - in short, she was somewhere in Bay City. "Can't say… I think so. I've definitely turned right, and I'm definitely driving on a busy street, Reggie…"
'They're all busy at this time of the evening! Oh, Stell… I wish you'd download that GPS app-'
"Naw! Ain't never gonna happen, Reggie! I want nothing to do with that gee-pee-ess nonsense. Tell me, what's wrong with a good, old-fashioned street map? Isn't that why they were invented in the first place? Gee-pee-ess my fuzzy butt. I'm sticking with the paper maps. So there!"
'And your paper map is spread out on the coffee table right this moment, Stell. You forgot it.'
"Uh… I guess that's true," Stella said, wiping her nose on the back of her hand. "But hey, that's why I have you in my ear, right? So go on, Cobra Team Silver… the Cobra Strike Force Commander needs directions!"
Chirping crickets. Deep sigh. More chirping crickets.
'I'm still here. All right. Let's say for the sake of everyone's peace of mind that you're actually on Avenue C. When you reach Eighty-third Street…'
Stella could hardly believe her good fortune when she caught a glimpse of the bright marquee on the front of Chez Gabrielle. She had only gotten lost three times along the way, and while the twenty-minute trip from the Harrison-Starr office to the restaurant had turned into a forty-five-minute drive for some mysterious, inexplicable reason, it mattered little now she had reached her destination.
A small sign that read Employee Parking ---> at the far end of the building housing the restaurant was a good pointer to where she was meant to go. Though the alley she needed to drive down was narrow and the Pacer wider than most modern cars, she was in high spirits and was able to successfully navigate into the semi-filled parking lot at the rear of the restaurant.
It seemed she had reached Chez Gabrielle during a lull: several kitchen staffers dressed in white or pale gray outfits stood outside a rear door. Some smoked cigarettes, others chewed gum or spoke to each other. They offered Stella - or the ailing Pacer - a few curious glances as she drove into the nearest available parking slot between a Honda Civic and a Chevrolet Aveo.
"Stand by, Cobra Team Silver… Bay City… the Eagle has landed," Stella said into her telephone with all the solemn-ness she could muster. Then her face cracked wide open in a goofy grin as she turned off the smokey engine. "I've alllll-ways wanted to say that. Awesomesauce! Now I can scratch that off my bucket list…"
'Wow, isn't that something?' Regina said in an only vaguely sardonic fashion.
The Pacer's tired, old motor kept running for a few cycles even though the keys were in Stella's hand and not in the ignition. It eventually came to a coughing rest that sent another puff of black-bluish-grayish smoke out of the exhaust pipe. Climbing out, Stella closed the door and used it to lean against. "Thanks a whole bunch for guiding me here, Reggie. You're my friend… my best friend… actually, my only friend in this terrible, terrible world, but I digress."
'It was my pleasure, Stella-dahling-"
'Pardon me plenty. I obviously meant Cobra Strike Force Commander,' Regina said, and once more it was possible to hear her roll her eyes. 'Okay, let's follow the plan we hammered out over lunch. Go inside, introduce yourself using your cover name, then get settled in doing whatever they have planned for you while keeping an eye on the other employees. I'll show up in a short half hour or so to shake the lemon tree. Which reminds me, the check from Jean-Francois Deveraux has already cleared.'
"Neat-o! Mmmmmua, kissy, baby! Big kissy! Mmmua! And here's an even bigger kissy! Mmmmmmmmmmmua!" Stella said, making plenty of kissy-faces and appropriate sounds into the telephone before she took out the earphone and stuffed everything into her rear pocket.
Stepping away from the chocolate-brown Pacer, she came to a halt almost at once when she realized that everyone standing at the rear door to the restaurant was gawking at her like she had three heads. Being gawked at was nothing new for Stella Starr, however, so she continued on.
Although she did not wear a disguise as such, she had assembled an outfit that would enable her to blend in perfectly with the employees: sneakers, regular blue jeans, a neutral T-shirt and an equally neutral windbreaker. She wore her contact lenses rather than her glasses which transformed the look of her face - it was by design in the remote chance that she met someone she knew. "Stella Starr," she mumbled under her breath as she took in the sight of the welcoming committee. "This is it… crunch time. Showtime. Big time. No trouble-time. Keep it cool-time. Be the best investigator you can be-time. Ooooookay… here goes nothing."
"Hiya!" she said out loud, waving enthusiastically at the kitchen staffers once she was close enough. Some waved back while others continued to gawk. "I'm Esther-Marie Mewller… I'm a temp. Ack-chew-ly, ya might call me a temp-er. Ha-ha! Ain't that funny? I thought it was funny but you're not laughin'. Eh. No skin off my hairy thighs. So… where's the chief around here? The big Kahuna? You know, Mister Trés, Trés Importantimonty?"
One of the female kitchen staffers pointed at the rear door to the restaurant - the rest were too stunned by Esther-Marie Mewller's stream of words to even blink.
"Through the door, yeah? Thanks a bunch… aw yeah, this is gonna work out just fine for you's and me's. Be seein' ya over the pots and pans, fellas," Stella/Esther-Marie said before she opened the rear door and stepped into the back section of the restaurant.
Just shy of ten minutes later, Stella had introduced herself to Jean-Francois Deveraux' supervising chef Armand Beausoleil who had given her a long-necked wooden ladle, a white stove-coat with an integrated apron, and a gray hairnet to keep the strands of her haystack on her head rather than in the soup.
The kitchen area of Chez Gabrielle was a busy place indeed. Much larger than Stella had imagined it would be, it was made up of five wide aisles that each saw a fair number of industrial appliances like heavy-duty stoves with six or even eight hotplates, ovens of all sizes, massive soup bowls that seemed to be able to hold at least ten gallons each, and sturdy dough-mixers so they could make their own bread, patty shells and baguettes. Six double-wide refrigerated units stood side by side at one of the walls, and - of course, since it was a French restaurant - there were several fully-stocked cabinets for keeping bottled wine at the correct temperature as well.
White tiles covered the floor, the ceiling and the outer walls. All the appliances were made of aluminum, and every surface shone like it was polished five times a day. Powerful LED lights were installed everywhere to make sure that no shadows would fall over the food as it was prepared. The many ovens and stoves created plenty of heat that was visible as flickering mirages against the white background, but a high number of ventilators dealt with the haze in a highly effective manner.
Exiting the supervisor's office, Stella came to a screeching halt by the threshold to the kitchen itself. Not only were her nostrils treated to a wonderful wave of aromas - that made her stand up on tip-toes while she took a deep breath through her nose to get as much in as she could in the least amount of time - her ears were assaulted by a less-than wonderful wave of noise. The ventilators hummed, the frying pans sizzled, the soup pots bubbled, the mixing machines let out steady grinding noises as the large hooks worked hard on kneading the sticky globs of dough, and countless knives constantly hit carving boards as they chopped onions, garlic, parsley, carrots, and every other kind of vegetables, fruit and spices known to the human race.
When the supervising chef - who belied his colorful surname by being a stern-appearing fellow in his mid-forties whose shaved head and hawkish nose were matched by a pair of angry, beady eyes sitting below bushy eyebrows - noticed his new temp had yet to enter the kitchen to begin her duties, he spun around and shot her a dark glare. Although he was dressed in white like most of the employees in the kitchen, his demeanor seemed better suited to be wearing a black Stormtrooper uniform.
Stella/Esther-Marie screwed a fake smile on her face as she held her prized wooden ladle high. Moving ahead with a fearless step, she entered the battle zone known as the kitchen of Chez Gabrielle. A quick count proved she joined no less than fourteen other staffers who were busy working the various pots and pans, so her actual job of keeping a close eye on them would no doubt prove to be a challenging one.
"My first impression of you is not a positive one, Miss Mewller," Armand Beausoleil said far louder than what the situation called for - it was obvious he wanted to let his regular employees know they were also included in the stern message he was about to lay down. "I won't accept anyone wasting as much as a second in my kitchen. Do you hear me? This is a world-class restaurant. I demand a world-class effort from everyone. You're a temp. I'll kick you out in a heartbeat if you let me down. Remember that, because you won't get a second chance."
Stella blinked several times as the supervising chef's words sunk in. There was no denying that a lit match was already being held near her legendary short fuse, but she forced herself to extinguish it. Though a scathing barb with the strength of white-hot lava had already been lined up on her tongue, she had a bigger picture to look at so she did her best to swallow it. "Yessir, Mr. Bow-so-lay, Sir," she said in the meekest voice she could produce - and even that took plenty of world-class effort.
Armand Beausoleil spun around and continued down the third of the aisles until he stopped at one of the extra-large soup pots. "Get your ladle and stir the bouillabaisse at regular intervals. This is one of our most important dishes so it needs to be done right. And don't leave your post until you're relieved. If I catch you slacking off, I'll kick you out."
"Yessir, Mr. Bow-so-lay, Sir… I'll stir the boo-ya-baysch. I'm good at stirring up things," Stella said sincerely while nodding for all she was worth.
The snappy reply made the supervising chef bare his teeth and narrow his beady eyes; the facial gestures made his already uncharming features look even more menacing and sinister. For a second or two, it seemed like he was going to jump a few scenes ahead in the script and kick out the temp for her answer, but he settled for letting out a grunt before striding away.
Once Stella was alone among a sea of kitchen staffers who all seemed to fear the volatile supervisor, the smile promptly melted off her face. "Hooooooly blip-blop-a-rooney, what a cranky dic-" she mumbled under her breath.
She suddenly noticed that the very person she was mumbling about was shooting her another Evil Eye for not stirring the bouillabaisse like he had ordered her to. The fake smile returned in a flash as she zipped over to the vast soup pot and dunked her long-necked wooden ladle into it. Soon, she began to stir like she had done nothing else for the better part of the past four decades.
At much the same time, a tall, elegant woman entered the restaurant through the glassy double-doors at the main entrance. In addition to her hyper-stylish black shades and high-heeled pumps, she wore a five-thousand dollar pant suit made of electric-blue silk. A wide-brimmed, off-white summer hat - carrying a scarf tied around the base of its crown that matched the color of the pant suit - graced her black locks. In short, she looked and behaved like she was worth a billion dollars at least. Subdued but high-quality jewelry worth more than the average stock broker would earn in a year graced her wrists, ears and neck. She carried a small, white clutch in her left hand that only had room for her credit card, a pack of paper tissues, her favorite lip balm and a special, little something that she would keep out of sight until later.
That the silk pant suit was in fact a low-price - though top-quality - freebie from the clothing company she had just finished the photoshoot for was nobody's business; similarly, the jewelry was merely Hollywood-grade colored glass that she had borrowed from the wardrobe department at Steve's agency.
After standing still near the entrance for a few moments to make sure that everyone present had had plenty of time to get an eyeful of her, she strolled away from the double-doors and into the restaurant itself.
The wall-to-wall carpet was held in deep orange with a few dashes of forest green to create a contrast. The inner ceiling was made of hand-planed planks of dark wood, and it had been brought down a foot from the roof itself to make room for mood lighting and carefully placed loudspeakers. Unintrusive lounge music could be heard playing from the speakers which created a pleasant atmosphere. The outer walls were adorned by several original oil paintings and watercolors made solely by French-speaking artists from all over the world, and the well-stocked bar that had been put up just beyond the main entrance seemed to carry mostly French wines, beers and other types of alcoholic beverages.
A small desk resembling a lectern had been put up next to the bar. The Maitre D' seemed to have little to do, so the elegant woman strolled over to him. Her cold expression was the very definition of arrogance, and after briefly lowering her black shades so she could give him a full dose of her ice-blue orbs, she held her perfect chin up so she could look down her nose at the middle-aged fellow who wore the traditional black livery.
"I'm Countess Louisa La'Dilledalle-Ohsovicti. I have a table reservation for seven o'clock," she said in a voice that not only dripped with arrogance, but that reeked with self-importance reaching higher than the peak of Mount Everest.
The Maitre D' smiled and bowed and smiled a little more before he began to leaf through a leather-bound tome containing the reservations. A few beads of sweat formed on his brow when he was unable to find the Countess' name anywhere. His eyes began to flicker between the tall, imposing woman and the semi-full restaurant until they landed at a table for three up near the far wall of the establishment. "Ah yes, Countess La'Dilledalle-Ohsovicti. Of course. If you will follow Henri to table nineteen, he'll make sure-"
Regina/the Countess cast an ice cold gaze at the table in question before she let out a snort that proved she held the unfortunate man in absolute contempt. "I'm not sitting there. I'm the natural center of attention here. Therefore, I demand to be seated in the center of the restaurant," she said, arching a dark eyebrow to add a little more weight behind her words.
"Ah… ah… I see. Of course, Countess La'Dilledalle-Ohsovicti," the Maitre D' said as his eyes darted hither and yon to find a table that would be better suited for the woman who was clearly among the elite group of Very Important Guests. When no such table was available at the moment of asking, he waved a young waiter - Henri - over to him and whispered a few words in his ear. The young man soon hurried over to a table for two that was already occupied.
A little bribing followed, and the courting couple who had been sitting at the table were relocated to the table that Regina/the Countess had rejected. Plenty of frosty stares were exchanged between the two people and Regina as they walked past, but her many years of experience working in front of the camera meant she was able to stay in character though it did irk her that someone else's date might turn sour because of her.
Henri was soon joined by a second junior waiter, Loïc. The well-styled and well-behaved young men both wore black shoes and pants, a white double-breasted shirt, a narrow waist belt held in crimson and finally a bow tie in a matching color.
They worked together in a smooth-running, highly efficient one-two combination as they prepared the central table by changing the table cloth and adding silver cutlery, crystal wine glasses and porcelain tableware. Once the two waiters had ushered the Countess over to the table, they pulled out her chair and made sure she was seated comfortably. When she had replied with a curt grunt and the briefest of smiles, they offered her a leather-bound menu that listed the cuisine and the selection of wines on offer before they withdrew so the Very Important Guest would not get stressed by their presence.
Regina took off her wide-brimmed summer hat and put it across the knob on the backrest of the chair on the opposite side of the table. Her dark tresses were soon flicked over her shoulder where they landed in a perfect cascade down the back of her silk top.
She was secretly impressed by the professionalism displayed by the young waiters and the Maitre D' despite her trying behavior. On her journeys all over the world when she and Steve Darrian had been top-tier supermodels, she had dined at some of the best restaurants that had ever existed. From what she had seen during her brief stay at Chez Gabrielle, the front-room employees were not far off the standard required in far more prestigious establishments - she made a mental note of it for her later report.
The stage was set for the next phase of her charade, so she opened the menu to find something that might tickle her palate. The black shades got in the way, so she took them off and put them on the table with a cool gesture. As she had expected, the prices ranged from just barely acceptable to extremely outrageous. Her trained eye soon found an organic white wine she knew from earlier, and that she knew would work well with the salad she had planned to order. Though it would be a pricey meal, her titanium-colored credit card - that the ad campaign promised Would Open Doors And Pave The Way For You Around The World - had been issued for just such a purpose.
She was about to wave Henri or the other young waiter over to her when she came to a screeching halt on the inside. It suddenly dawned on her that her real name was on the credit card - it would blow the charade wide open before it could even get going.
Though she kept up her cool, unaffected facade, her lips were submitted to a little chewing for a brief moment or two. She arrived at the decision to do what she had done countless times during her modeling career: she had to fake it at first, and then hope the situation would be resolved before she needed to whip out her plastic.
Putting down the leather-bound menu, she raised her hand and offered Henri a wave that was sublimely arrogant yet appropriate for her high-class status.
Back out in the restaurant's kitchen, Stella/Esther-Marie was deeply engaged in pulling a challenging double-duty. Not only did she use her long-necked wooden ladle to stir the bouillabaisse with great vigor, she let her all-seeing eyes trail over the other employees to suss out who could pose a problem when it came to not giving a 'thousand percent' like the owner of the restaurant had said over the telephone.
Her first glance offered no instant clue, nor did her second. Everyone in her vicinity seemed to be a hard-working, dedicated kitchen staffer who took great professional pride in keeping on top of everything so they could produce a solid product for the guests of the establishment. Although there were frequent conversations between the various employees, nobody goofed off or cracked jokes - in fact, nothing was said that did not concern the dishes they were preparing or the ingredients needed for the next item on their endless to-do lists.
"Hmmm," she said, offering those nearest her a sideways glance: two women in their mid-twenties and three men who were perhaps five or so years older. They were all handling the lethal cleaving-knives with precision, chopping spices, vegetables and chunks of meat that would end up in another of the vast soup pots. The next aisle, the one with the dough-mixers, saw three female staffers who were in their early-forties and a young man who seemed to still be a teen - the latter appeared to be the all-purpose errand kid because he zipped back and forth between the aisles carrying boxes of fruits and vegetables, trays loaded with vials of spices, and many other kinds of cooking utensils to wherever they were needed.
Another man - who was in his fifties - had an aisle to himself. Standing next to a long row of steaming hot bread ovens, the broadly-framed fellow wrestled skillfully with large globs of dough to shape them into baguettes and other types of bread for the soups and regular dishes. Now and then he reached into a legion of jars that had been lined up on the table to add pinches of flour, salt, thyme, caraway seeds, poppy seeds and several other kinds of flavors and spices to the dough he was working on at the time. The artistic fellow wore a different outfit to the others: the logo on the back of his short-sleeved T-shirt identified him as working for a local bakery.
Stella's eyes kept moving from one employee to the next until she reached two angry, beady eyes that glared back at her from below a pair of bushy eyebrows. Armand Beausoleil had his teeth bared in a sneer, and it was obvious he was most displeased with the temp's lack of effort. A sour barb bubbled up Stella's gullet, but she screwed a goofy smirk on her face and concentrated on stirring the large soup pot for the time being.
Business went on as it always did in the restaurant. As the evening progressed from early to prime-time, there was more to do for Henri, Loïc and the other members of the team of swift, young waiters. Guests came and went in pairs, small groups or even larger parties, and each time a table became vacant, a team of male and female busboys cleared it in record time before a second team dressed it to be ready for the next guests.
The familiar sounds of endless clinks and clonks when the cutlery hit the plates were joined by conversations that ranged from subdued to moderate. Unintrusive classical music could be heard playing from the hidden speakers as a constant background accompaniment. Now and then, laughter wafted from one of the tables when someone had delivered a good punch line, but the guests seemed to understand that it was an exclusive establishment and not a beer hall since such outbursts were rare.
Regina/Countess Louisa La'Dilledalle-Ohsovicti sat at the central table mulling over the fact that she could find nothing wrong whatsoever with any of the front-room employees. The Maitre D', Henri, Loïc and their young colleagues all acted in pleasant, respectful and highly professional manners, so if the owner of Chez Gabrielle had been worried about a potential problem for the important newspaper critique, he could relax a little.
The organic white wine was excellent and just the right temperature, the irregularly-shaped chunks of rural olive and garlic bread that had been delivered to the table in a reed basket to accompany the salad were expertly made and had a good, strong taste, and the ambience in general around the busy Chez Gabrielle was exactly as it should be.
Though Regina/the Countess was more than pleased with what she had seen so far, it would be a good stress-test of the waiters to create a little artificial drama. Letting out a disgusted snort, she pushed away the plate with the salad she had barely nibbled on yet. "Henri! Oh, Henri!" she cried, waving her white cloth napkin in the air like she was surrendering.
The young waiter appeared at her table in oh-point-nothing-at-all, seemingly ready for anything. "Yes, Countess La'Dilledalle-Ohsovicti?" he said while putting his arms behind his back.
"This salad is terrible!" Regina/the Countess said, pointing a disgusted though well-manicured index finger at the offending meal. "How dare your chef put such a vile concoction on my plate and then have the gall to call it salad? The lettuce leaves aren't crisp and they're too warm, the sunflower seeds are too grainy, the pieces of sweet corn are all far too mushy and the lemon-flavored dressing does not have the proper degree of acidity. I made it known when I ordered that my sensitive skin requires a very particular degree of acidity, and this… this garbage does not meet my strict standards! It's far too sour! Remove the plate at once. I want a new salad of the same kind, but one that is actually made well!"
Henri's cheeks gained an unhealthy shade of red as a result of the Countess' tiresome tirade, but much to his credit, he remained the same, pleasantly polite fellow he had been before. "Yes, Countess La'Dilledalle-Ohsovicti," he said as he hurriedly removed the plate with the salad before the difficult guest could find something else wrong with the dish. Moving away from the table, he zipped through the swinging doors and went into the kitchen.
Stella's attention was diverted from her important work stirring the large soup pot when the young waiter entered the workspace not too far from where she was busy with the bouillabaisse. A snicker escaped her when she overheard Henri explain the long list of problems to the cranky supervising chef who only grew crankier by the second. She had an inkling who the difficult guest might be. They had not worked out the particulars of Regina's part of the plan as such, but this had all the hallmarks of her classic snobbishness.
Several less-than-complimentary words followed from the perpetually angry Armand Beausoleil about the lineage and nature of the supposed Countess, and it all turned somewhat heated until he let out a barrage of curses not unlike one of Stella's world famous, five-star volcanic detonations as he slapped a new portion of salad onto a fresh plate.
Still snickering, the undercover investigator in question made a few mental notes - not only about the suitability of the supervising chef to be anywhere but safely installed inside a padded cell, but of some of the acid-dripping cusswords that spewed from his mouth as he submerged a dipper into the lemon-flavored salad dressing to get the lettuce leaves and the other ingredients drenched to the customer's liking.
When a curious smell of woodsmoke reached Stella's nostrils, it took a few moments before her mind made the connection that something might be up with her long-necked wooden ladle that she had left in the large soup pot. Turning back to the bouillabaisse, the frightful sight made her jump up on tip-toes while her eyes nearly rolled out of her head.
Although she had only been distracted for a minute or so, the superheated soup had made the wooden ladle's shaft and head turn brown and even black in places. Wisps of smoke - not steam - rose from the soup that had gained an unfortunate shade of greenish-brownish-gray, and several onions and even a few prawns imported directly from the icy waters of the North Atlantic rose to the surface where they rolled around belly-up among the boiling bubbles that came from the deep, murky sea. If that was not bad enough in and by itself, a most peculiar smell that had not been there before wafted off the soup whenever one of the bubbles burst.
"Oh… crud… rip-a-rat-a-new-one," she croaked as she tried to use the sorry remains of the ladle to stir the smoldering bouillabaisse. All she got out of it was that the long-necked tool snapped in two; she literally held onto the short end of the stick while the bottom half disappeared down into the thick substance like a submarine would do if someone had forgotten to close one of the deck hatches before diving.
Taking a fast step back, she whipped her head around to search high and low for something she could use to stir the soup and retrieve the missing foreign objects. When she clapped eyes on a long dipper made of orange melamine, she snatched it and went on her life's most important fishing trip while stirring for all she was worth. It took her several deep-soup adventures - one of which nearly saw her lose her hairnet into the pot in all her eagerness to get the deal back on track - but she eventually managed to scoop up all the missing wooden fragments. Though the smell was still on the odd side of the fence compared to earlier, the soup changed color and returned to normal.
She let out a quick, thoroughly tormented groan as she threw the blackened pieces of the long-necked ladle into the nearest trash can. Sneaking a glance over to the supervising chef, it appeared the cranky man was so busy with the salad and cussing out the difficult Countess that he had yet to notice that something had gone very, very wrong elsewhere in the kitchen - and Stella thanked the bouillabaisse gods for little favors.
Regina understood she needed to be careful not to overplay her hand as the hyper-critical Countess Louisa La'Dilledalle-Ohsovicti, so after she had taken a tiny nip of the new salad that Henri had placed on her table, she let out a relieved moan and kissed her fingers in a strikingly Gallic fashion. "Ah! C'est magnifique! Merci beaucoup, Henri!" she cried before she dug in to get the most out of the $60 dish that tasted exactly the same as the first serving.
The sigh of relief uttered by Henri as he left the table was audible, but it was soon replaced by a sharp intake of breath when the young man happened to look in the direction of the glassy double-doors at the main entrance.
Regina could not fail to be disturbed by the sudden, loud noises that came from the large group of people who entered Chez Gabrielle. Even without playing her charade, she crinkled her nose at the sight of a mid-twenty-something fellow whose scraggly beard and unkept hair clashed severely with the elegance of the establishment. The grungy, deliberately threadbare clothing worn by him and the group of people walking in behind him was a distinct and immediate eyesore, but it did not appear the Maitre D' was about to throw out the noisy party.
Then it dawned on her that she had seen the grungy man before. When he came closer to her, she was able to recognize him as a celebrated social media phenomenon - one of the New Big Things who had millions of followers on all the platforms. The unruly people behind him obviously made up his entourage who appeared as if they believed they owned the place.
Jean-Francois Deveraux, the owner of the restaurant, had been pulled into the dining area from his corner office by the sudden onslaught of noise. The sour look on his face suggested that he was about to throw out the potential troublemakers even if the Maitre D' was not, but when he discovered the identity of the man chiefly responsible for the disturbance, he changed his demeanor and instantly became a boot-licking lackey.
Now Regina really crinkled her nose at the way the owner tried to bend over backwards to appease the Very Important Guest whose expression was so self-important that it put even Regina's Countess in the shade. Several tables were cleared to make room for the Internet phenomenon and his cohorts, and it mattered little if they were occupied or not - the other guests were simply directed to different tables or told to pay and leave.
"Quite shocking behavior," an elderly man said from the next table. The distinguished-looking, late-sixty-something gentleman wore a pair of white, starkly-creased pants and a pale-gray cotton shirt that was clearly of a very high quality. A dark-gray blazer jacket featuring a white handkerchief in the breast pocket had been folded up neatly on the free chair next to him, and a straw hat with a gray band around the crown had been put on top of it. An old-fashioned fountain pen and a notepad had been lying on the table, but he soon removed the two items and slipped them into one of the blazer's pockets. His plate was empty as was his glass of wine, but the waiters were too tied up with the people causing the hubbub to have time to come over to him and settle the check.
"Indeed. The youths these days," Regina/the Countess said to her neighbor. She added a polite smile while remembering to play her role.
"I was referring to Mr. Deveraux," the gentleman said and let out a brief chuckle that he concealed with his napkin.
"And I agree wholeheartedly, Sir," Regina/the Countess said, looking back at the pandemonium that reigned supreme in the wake of the arrival of the noisy entourage. It seemed they all wanted beers, burgers and barbecued chicken wings, but why they had chosen to visit a famous French restaurant for things they could get in any junk food parlor was beyond her.
She may not have been a real countess, but she was certainly one of the undisputed Queens of the Catwalk and she still had fairly high notions of herself. It would be an embarrassment of Olympian proportions if she was forced away from the table for the benefit of the noisy, crude members of the entourage, so she decided to pull the plug herself so she could go out in style.
After squinting left and right to make sure nobody would be watching her, she moved her hand into her clutch and found the special little something she had brought with her: a doggie bag. Snickering under her breath - and thinking of how Stella would have reacted if she had been there to see her - she scooped up the final few chunks of the excellent rural olive and garlic bread and put them into the bag. The whole thing was soon back in the clutch which left her hands free to chow down the remains of the tasty salad and empty out the glass of white wine.
The Internet star's entourage was soon behaving as badly as all the clichés would have everyone believe, and the noise level grew exponentially in a matter of minutes. The grungy mid-twenty-something figurehead shared a table with three young women who would have been described as groupies in earlier times, and judging by the starry looks in their eyes, that was still the best label to put on them.
All the waiters were busy serving the noisy people, so Regina pushed out her chair herself. Wearing a miffed expression and letting out a perfectly insulted huff that she did not even have to fake too badly, she got up from the table, donned her wide-brimmed summer hat and her black shades, and strode over to the desk that resembled a lectern. When she reached it, it soon became obvious that she was not the only person who'd had enough of the noisy invasion.
The poor Maitre D' was so overwhelmed by the tidal wave of complaints that faced him that all he could do was to stand there with his arms flailing in the air. Beads of sweat ran down his flushed forehead as he attempted to smooth out a few of the guests' ruffled feathers by offering free flutes of champagne or a ten percent discount on the check, but it was clear by the look of panic in his desperate eyes that he tried, and failed, to make sense of the whole thing.
Regina felt sorry for the middle-aged man who had been a consummate professional when he had greeted her, but there was little she could do to help him - in fact, she was about to make it worse. Her tab had reached a whopping $175 though she'd only had the plate of salad and two medium-sized bowls of the organic white wine, but since the matter with the wrong name on the credit card had not been resolved, she simply strode out of Chez Gabrielle without paying; she made a note of doing a money transfer later on.
A good deal of the sidewalk and even part of the street's inner lane in front of the restaurant was occupied by a garishly-decorated Hummer equipped with tinted windows and chrome wheels. The vehicle that had already been a big, clumsy thing to begin with had been converted into a stretch-limousine which made it even more clumsy and ungainly.
The show-off vehicle and the annoying entourage of career Yes-people inside were timely reminders that even social media stars who did nothing but preach political and environmental truths to their masses of faithful followers could, and would, fall into the exact same traps as everyone else once fame and fortune came knocking. Regina had seen dozens if not hundreds of such upstarts in her career on and off the catwalk, and she had no doubt that this latest phenomenon would be forgotten by all within six months at the most.
Strolling along the sidewalk like she had all the time in the world, she moved further and further away from the valet parking where she had left the SLK. She eventually came to a halt at the corner of the building by the sign that read Employee Parking --->.
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she hoped she had an audience - and always did - whenever she hit the town, but the undercover nature of the present assignment meant it was best if she was by herself for a change. A slow turn, like she was tracking one of the cars driving past, proved that although she did see a few people looking in her direction, most of those present on the sidewalk were gawking at the garish Hummer. Everything was clean-and-green, so she hung a right and continued down the narrow alley to be close to the rear door in case Stella needed her assistance.
The kitchen of Chez Gabrielle had always been a high-intensity workplace, but it had just reached a new high - or low, depending on the point of view. Armand Beausoleil was hovering one notch below a full-on detonation of a hydrogen bomb matching any that had ever been tested among the atolls. The irate supervising chef stomped around the aisles screaming profanities and barking orders at the kitchen staffers that they should get their fingers out and deliver what they had been hired for, or else he would see to it personally they would be sent out into the cold without pay.
His complexion had turned reddish, and his angry, beady eyes were on fire as he grabbed a plastic crate and turned it upside down so he could stand on it to present an even more terrifying presence than he already did. A throbbing vein zig-zagged across his forehead which gave him a devilish appearance. "We have a very special guest in our restaurant right now, and Mr. Deveraux and I demand one-thousand percent perfection from each and every one of you!" he cried, making a sweeping, accusing gesture at everyone there. "The very special guest has the attention of millions of people, and mark my words, if you screw up and generate bad publicity for Chez Gabrielle, Mr. Deveraux and I will make sure you will never again work in another restaurant in this town or anywhere else!" For each syllable of each word, his voice grew in intensity until he was nearly screaming his lungs out at the staffers.
Stella's legendary short temper and even shorter fuse had already forced her to count to seven-hundred-and-fifty-six on the inside to remain cool, but the vitriol that spewed from the supervising chef in large quantities meant she needed to constantly move up the limit or else she would explode. A quick glance at her fellow staffers proved that everyone had reached their own limits - for each screamed word that followed, their morale dropped another few percentage points.
Then the proverbial light bulb flickered to life somewhere above her head. It meant her lava-like blood cooled off in an instant; instead, she felt an urge to let out a chuckle as all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle suddenly fell into place for her. Jean-Francois Deveraux had feared the kitchen staff would let him down with regards to the important critiquing, but the real culprit was clearly the supervising chef who should not be working with people, full stop. It was plain as day to anyone but him that the staffers were already doing all they could, and that they had reached a top level of craftsmanship that could not be bettered.
Stella tried very hard to keep her inner Li'l Devil under lock and key, but the sneaky little firebrand begged and pleaded to be released to wreak havoc on the whole situation. The options were weighed a couple of times while Stella bobbed from one foot to the other - then the Li'l Devil had provided enough strong arguments to win the case. An evil grin spread across her features as she thrust a hand in the air. "Oy! Oy, Mista Bow-so-lay?"
Armand Beausoleil was cut off mid-stream by the appearance of the waved hand, and he zeroed in on Stella with a non-stop stream of venom pouring from his eyes. "This better be good, Miss Mewller," he said in an angry, hoarse voice.
"Actually, my name is Stella Starr. I'm the senior investigator for the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency." - A murmur rippled through the other kitchen staffers at the surprising revelation. Stella noted that several of her fellow employees assumed gloomy, concerned looks like they were greatly worried about their jobs.
"Frankly, I don't give a crap if you're the reincarnated Marie Antoinette. We have a million things to do-" Armand said, but Stella cut him off:
"I was given the task of flushing out any weak links among the kitchen staff. Well guess what, Mista Bow-so-lay… I found one. A great, big, fat one."
"Who? Tell me the name and I'll kick out the person-"
"Holy can-of-mackerel-in-pepper-sauce," Stella said and threw her hands in the air. "Do I need to spell it out to ya, Bub? Look in a flip-floppin' mirror for the answer to that asinine question!"
Another murmur rippled through the kitchen staffers, and this one was laced with a few traces of laughter rather than concerned grunts.
Armand Beausoleil had been stunned into absolute muteness for once, so Stella decided to go in for the finishing touch - or kill shot, depending. "But okay, Mista Bow-so-lay, you're expecting your people to go above and beyond the maximum effort they're already providing for this mysterious guest. How about treating them like human beings for a change, huh? They might give you that thousand percent you ask of 'em."
A few utterances of "Yeah!" "Well said," and "Damn straight," were heard from the other people there, making Stella's grin even broader.
"And on that note, let's get this show on the road," she said and turned back to the supervising chef who had yet to break out of his sudden bout of muteness. "I heard a tweety bird say that those people out there want burgers… so let's give 'em burgers! Hey Mista, where do ya keep your ketchup?"
The other kitchen staffers cheered at the much-needed revolt against the oppressive reign of the camp commandant before they went back to their respective tasks, but Armand's complexion gained another five or six shades of red by the fighting words. Even that was nothing compared to what came next. "Ket- ket- ket- ketch- ch- ch- chup?" he croaked, needing to lean against the wall to remain erect.
"Yeah, you know… ketchup? The red, sticky stuff? Smells great, tastes even better. Aw, you ain't got no ketchup?" Stella said and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. "That ain't right, Bub… ketchup is the universal method of getting even the worst kwee-seene to taste just right. Oh, and another thing… I guess I kinda accidentally ruined your boo-ya-baysch there so I guess we need to crack open some of Campbell's Finest instead. Where's the can opener?"
"You- you- you ruined my bouilla- ba- ba- bai-hhhh?! Get out! Get out my kitchen, you miserable little-" Armand roared, pointing at the rear exit.
Stella assumed a perfectly offended, even insulted, expression as she slammed her hands onto her hips. "That's discrimination and I'm calling the union! I'm five-foot-four-and-"
From one moment to the next, Armand Beausoleil jumped off the plastic crate and stormed over to Stella with his hands stretched out ahead of him like he wanted to strangle her.
"Hooooooooly mac'n'cheeeeeeese!" Stella cried as she took off from the irate man. She wished she had her long-lost, long-necked wooden ladle with her to fend him off by giving him a few solid smacks over the forehead, but she would have to do without it. She wore sneakers with high-grip soles, and they gave her a good advantage as she tore around the tiled aisles. Armand's regular shoes provided less grip which meant he crashed into all kinds of appliances and staffers left, right and center. Stella's fellow staffers cheered her on while making sure to put up little roadblocks for their irate boss - she responded by waving and grinning at them as she flew past.
As Stella raced past the rear exit to the employee parking lot, the door opened to reveal Regina who had been alerted by the crashing noises. The model wore a thoroughly puzzled look on her face that immediately turned into a frown when she saw Stella being chased by a big brute.
It was fairly obvious to all but the blinkered that something major had happened in the kitchen and that it would inevitably involve Stella, but the details were yet to come to her. "Stell, what did you do to that fellow?" she said with a sigh the next time the two investigators were in the same general area.
"Do? I beg ya pardon! Hardly anything! This guy is nuts!" Stella cried as she raced past, pointing over her shoulder at the irate supervising chef who was still chasing her.
"It must have been something…"
"Not! The! Right! Time! Reggie!" Stella wheezed as she made a hard left around a two-gallon soup pot of bisque followed by an immediate right around a frying pan featuring a boeuf bourguignon. She used another of the vast soup pots as a marker for when she should turn onto another aisle; there, she raced past two plates of steaming-hot quiche Lorraines and crêpes Suzettes that had come straight from one of the ovens before several smaller pots that seemed to be rice cookers came and went. Another frying pan that held a nine-egg omelette and a large cooking pot where a coq au vin was simmering had soon been reduced to blurry streaks in the air before she came to a brief halt at the wine cabinets. "Stella in distress, Reggie… don't just stand there! Tackle him or something!"
Regina shied back just as the large fellow flew past her. As a strongly scented wave of sweat followed in his wake, she crinkled her nose and used her hand to fan the air. When it was insufficient to block out his undeniable presence, she pinched her nostrils instead. "Oh, I can't, Stell. Fighting is your business. And I've just had my nails done," she said in a muffled voice.
"Aw, Jeez! Thanks a blip-bloppin' bunch, Reggie! I thought you wuz my friend! I'll remember that!" Stella cried as she resumed her frantic escape. She eventually made a right-hand turn onto the aisle where the middle-aged man from the bakery was still preparing the baguettes and the soup bread despite all the brouhaha going on around him. "D'oooooh shiiiii-" she cried when she realized she would not be able to evade his large frame.
At the very last moment, the amused baker stepped aside which allowed Stella a free pass around his bulky girth. Armand Beausoleil was less lucky and came to a flour-spewing impact with the overweight man. As the two fellows ended up on the floor in a heap of arms, legs, aprons and globs of dough, flour began to rain down from above like a late-August snow flurry. Soon, the two men had gained the looks of a pair of miller's apprentices as the white substance covered every part of them. The mild-mannered baker chuckled like it was nothing new to him, but Armand let out such a stream of caustic French cusswords the tiles nearest to him almost split in two.
Slowing down, Stella eventually came to a halt and put her arms on her hips. She continued to pant for a short while as she offered the supervising chef a dark glare. "Hey Bub, that's what ya get for trying to mess with the one and only Stella Starr. Look at the mess ya made… and look at that poor fella you landed on! I'd be worried about my job if I wuz you. And Reggie… thanks for nothing!"
"Oh, you're very welcome, Stella-dahling. Always happy to provide assistance," Regina said as she strolled over to her business associate and main squeeze. The contrast between the two was even greater than normal because of her elegant clothing and inch-high heels, but it did not stop her from wrapping an arm around Stella's shoulder and giving her a little sideways squeeze - she only needed to crouch down a little further.
Stella snickered at Regina's words and at the fact that she was at eye-level with the model's ample chest. She was about to open her mouth to comment on the fascinating aspects of both points when another atomic detonation occurred by the swinging doors to the restaurant itself:
"Armand, why hasn't the VIP been served yet? This is unacceptable!" Jean-Francois Deveraux roared at the top of his lungs. "Armand?! What in the flaming hell is going on out here?!" he continued when he saw the mess - and the people - on the floor.
Regina and Stella shared a long look before they sashayed over to the owner of the restaurant to explain a few interesting tidbits about the way the kitchen of Chez Gabrielle had been run.
Jean-Francois glared at the two women until he eventually figured out that something was suspicious about the whole deal. His eyes moved from Regina to Stella and back several times before they were drawn in by the wide grin on Stella's face. "Aren't you the temp who was hired not two hours ago? Mewller-somebody?" he said, wagging a finger at Stella. "Will someone explain to me what's going on back here? I don't appreciate being kept in the dark in my own restaurant."
"Sure thing, Mr. Deveraux. Let's turn on the lights for ya," Stella said before she assumed a cool, professional facade that was more difficult to maintain than she had imagined while wearing a hairnet and a stove-coat. "We're Regina Harrison… that's this tall drink o' water right here… and the one and only Stella Starr, who would obviously be yours truly. That's right, we're the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. I do bah-lieve that we-"
"You can say that again, Mister. We're the private investigators you hired," Stella said with a grin. "We've delivered the goods… cracked the case… brought home the bacon… ridden the pony… squeezed the tube… cut the omelet… buttered the baguettes… shoveled the coal… like Harrison-Starr always do. Well, save for the incredibly rare instances where the evil world conspires against us… or me, to be precise-"
"Stell… just the facts," Regina whispered, giving Stella a little nudge with her elbow.
"But I digress," Stella continued like nothing at all had happened. "There's your weak link. Right there, recreating that wonderful, wonderful old Christmas song Frosty The Snowman with that nice baker-man fellow who acted as his crash mat. Armand Bow-so-lay," she said, pointing at the aisle where the supervising chef in question had only just clambered to his feet.
Despite Armand's best efforts of brushing the flour off him, he remained coated in white from top to toe - all that was visible was a pair of angry, beady eyes and two lips that had been reduced to tight lines in his chalky face. Over the course of the next few seconds, his facial color changed from flour-white to lobster-red as a result of everyone staring at him.
Jean-Francois' expression changed as well, but in his case, it was to grow more concerned about the fact that the Very Important Guest and his entourage had gone unserved for nearly ten minutes - a brief glance at his wristwatch proved that the clock was literally ticking. "Armand? What's the meaning of this?" he said before wiping a bead of sweat off his brow.
Before the irate supervisor had time to gather enough thoughts to answer his boss, Henri and Loïc hurried through the swinging doors and into the kitchen. Both of the young waiters came to abrupt halts on the smooth tiles when they caught a glimpse of the tall, picturesque Countess Louisa La'Dilledalle-Ohsovicti standing in the vicinity of one of the temps and all the restaurant's big cheeses. "Ah… Mr. Deveraux," Henri said, wringing his hands. He reluctantly tore his concerned eyes away from the two women to focus on his employer. "I'm terribly sorry to disturb the… the… whatever this actually is… but we have a problem…"
"A problem? 'A' problem, Henri?" Jean-Francois Deveraux growled, "I dare say we have more than one!"
"Get to the point, Henri!"
Everyone, including Stella and Regina, turned to study the young waiter with great interest; Henri bared his teeth in an embarrassed grimace and looked to Loïc for a little moral support. Since his fellow waiter was no help, Henri cowered and took a step back while he delivered his next message: "The Very Important Guest and all his people have left!"
"Without paying for the beverages they had already been served… and… and some of the… the… silver cutlery has gone missing… and an entire table cloth, too. And a crystal vase… flowers and everything," Henri squeaked, wringing his hands to the point of nearly tearing his skin off.
"What- the- fuh-" Jean-Francois croaked; unable to go on, he spun around and pinned Armand Beausoleil to the spot with a fiery glare. "That does it! See what your lack of discipline and dedication has led to?!"
While Stella let out an "Ooooooooh!" and stared at the supervisor who appeared more stunned than angry at the accusation, Regina smirked - she had a small matter of a $175 check to deal with. "Ah, Mr. Deveraux," she tried, but she was cut off before she could get properly started when yet another person came into the kitchen.
"Good evening, Mr. Deveraux," the distinguished, sixty-something gentleman in the dark-gray blazer jacket said. "I'm Chester McMillan from the Bay City Sentinel. I need a word with you. Perhaps it should be in private."
Jean-Francois Deveraux' eyes nearly rolled around his head at the implications. Armand Beausoleil's expression instantly changed from stunned to sublimely angry; Henri and Loïc let out identical groans while Regina tipped her wide-brimmed summer hat at the gourmet critic who was notorious for his outrageously critical eye on the restaurants he reviewed for his newspaper. The distinguished gentleman responded to the Lady's gesture by mirroring it with his straw hat.
Now Stella spun back around to stare at the gourmet critic. "Oooooooooooh!" she cried all over again, clapping her hands in glee. "This is like one of those Agatha Crusty-"
"Christie," Regina said out of the corner of her mouth.
"-novels where all the murder suspects join hands in the kitchen at the end to sing kumbaya just before someone gets hauled off to the slammer! Haw-yeah, this was definitely worth stirrin' the boo-ya-baysch for!"
Regina furrowed her brow at the odd word, but she had no time to inquire what Stella was trying to tell her before Chester McMillan continued:
"Mr. Deveraux, I had expected you to invite me into your office, but very well. I shall list a few bullet points of my critique right here. You can all read the rest in tomorrow's Sentinel. Though the meal I was served was merely adequate-"
"Adequate?!" Armand squeaked; the scathing comment added another level of red to his face. By now, his skin was so hot and flushed the flour was starting to cake - it made him look like a circus clown who had tried to apply his stage makeup on the fourth day of a three-day bender.
"-it was my intention to give your restaurant a positive review as I had received excellent support from this young fellow right here," - the critic gestured at Henri whose face exploded in a blush - "with regards to selecting the proper wine for the meal. Alas, the progress of the evening has made me change my mind. While your excellent Maitre D' and his dedicated staff of waiters did all they could to stem the tide of the terrible infestation that affected us all, the battle was simply lost from the outset. Not for a lack of effort on their part, but for high treason on the part of their employer. Treason? Yes indeed, because you, Mr. Deveraux, allowed the disruptive elements to enter your restaurant. In fact, you welcomed them and thus betrayed not only your staff but the very culinary arts, and all for the sake of petty mammon. Ladies and Gentlemen, my dissatisfaction with Mr. Deveraux' decision cannot be expressed in mere words… therefore, my final review will be two of six stars."
"Oooooooooooooh!" Stella squealed yet again. Standing up on tip-toes, she leaned in toward Regina to whisper: "The you-know-what is gonna hit the fan in five, four, three, two-"
Even before Stella could finish the doomsday-countdown, the inevitable apocalyptic event occurred in two places at the same time inside the kitchen of Chez Gabrielle. Not only did Armand Beausoleil let out a volley of French words that needed no translation, Jean-Francois Deveraux did one better by storming over to his supervising chef with all and sundry staring wide-eyed at the two men.
"You! Are! Fired!" he shouted directly into Armand's flushed face.
It seemed that the god who had been selected to control the subjects French cuisine and short-tempered chefs had accidentally pulled the plug out of the amplifier because the entire scene fell silent from one moment to the next. Even Stella had run out of Ooooooohs and could simply stare at the rapidly increasing drama. Strictly speaking, the supervising chef had only had a bit part to play in the evening's failure with the owner taking the leading role, but that appeared less important to most involved.
Still too stunned to speak, Stella tugged on Regina's sleeve instead. When the two women made eye contact, Stella pointed at the rear exit. A quick nod was exchanged between the two before they tip-toed down the aisle to get away from the event that would surely end up being registered on the seismographs set up on the campus of the North Bay University.
Even before the investigators had reached the exit, the inevitable happened - though not in the sense that everyone had expected. The fired Armand Beausoleil let out a groaning, croaking, squeaking sound that eventually morphed into a near-insane cackle as he staggered around the kitchen. When he reached the large soup pot of bouillabaisse that Stella had worked so hard on, he grabbed hold of the handles and simply yanked it off the stove.
As the countless gallons of steaming hot soup were distributed all over the white tiles, a tidal wave was created that rivaled anything ever produced in any overfilled bathtub. Most people in the kitchen shrieked and sprinted for cover as the sticky, strongly-smelling substance filled out every nook and cranny of the entire aisle before it forcibly splish-splashed its way through the rest of the kitchen.
The canned chef let out a maniacal laugh and ran over to the next large cooking pot which contained a multiple-gallon portion of hollandaise sauce. With a gleeful heave-ho, he yanked that off the stove as well and watched how the contents went everywhere onto the floor and even halfway up the sides of the aluminum appliances. The next pot along the line of stoves was a slow-cooking, chicken bouillon broth containing sliced potatoes, haricot verts, green peas, onions and other root vegetables of several different types. That too went down to join the bouillabaisse and the hollandaise sauce in a wicked menage-a-trois.
"What kind of lunatic asylum is this?" Chester McMillan cried while climbing onto the flat top of one of the inactive stoves to save his shoes and his expensive white pants. "I have never been so insulted in my life! Zero stars! Did you hear me, Mr. Deveraux? I'm giving you zero stars!"
While Henri and Loïc stormed back into the restaurant to shut and seal the swinging doors so the soup-tastrophy would not spread to the expensive carpet as well, the kitchen staffers - including the large baker who found it all rather chuckle-worthy - ran toward the rear exit in an orderly fashion.
The only ones who remained where they had been were Armand Beausoleil and Jean-Francois Deveraux. The former continued to cackle and laugh like a maniac as he jumped up and down in the soupy sauce to spite his former boss by creating giant, sticky splashes - the mess went everywhere and splattered every surface that had yet to be affected by the whole mess. Jean-Francois' face told a story of believing it must all be a nightmare. As the vile tidal wave eventually rolled the other way, he was drenched up to his knees by the chicken bouillon broth. Several chunks of carrot and even a few slices of semi-cooked potatoes got stuck to his loafers which ruined them completely.
Stella and Reggie provided the rescue services as they helped the kitchen staffers out onto the back parking lot. A quick headcount proved they were all there - Stella accidentally counted the chuckling baker twice because of his girth, but she remembered to subtract one after she was done. Once all were present and accounted for, she wiped a bead of sweat off her brow and let out a content grunt. "No injuries to report, Reggie! Well, my long-necked wooden ladle didn't make it, but it was given a proper send-off so that's good. Sorta."
"Nothing. Hey… you look kinda good today, you big stick o' dynamite, you!" Stella said, reaching for the electric-blue silk pant suit.
"Oh-gosh, thank you. I try, you know," Regina said with highly put-upon modesty that seemed extraordinarily fake given the circumstances. She still wore her wide-brimmed summer hat so she could not flick her perfect hair over her shoulder, but she did enter the first part of her legendary Too Cool For Words-posing routine.
"Yeah, I know you do. I know how long it takes you to get your face painted on in the mornings!" Stella said and stuck out her tongue. "And where'd ya get that gold and those diamonds? Didya rob a jewelry store on your way here or sumtin'?"
Regina's lips trembled several times at the joking mention of her important morning chores - the make-up and the A-B-C chant were very important to her: 'A' for applying the anti-cellulite moisturizing cream on her arms and thighs; 'B' for battling the relentless pull of gravity on her bosom, and 'C' for covering the crow's feet around her eyes. "No, I borrowed them from Steve. Or his agency, to be exact," she said in a semi-mumble.
"Oh. Forget I asked. Yikes on bikes!" Stella squeaked as she suddenly had to jump back from the rear exit - a small wave of an unidentifiable, icky mess slushed out onto the parking lot's asphalt from underneath the lower part of the fire door. "Okay… now there's something you don't see every day. And to think I worked so hard on stirrin' that durn boo-ya-baysch."
"Stell," Regina said while checking that her high-heeled pumps had not suffered any damage by the sticky flooding, "would you mind repeating that word, only a tiny tad slower? Boo-ya-what?"
One of the female staffers put up her hand to break in: "Bouillabaisse, Miss."
"Ohhhhh. Right," Regina said, nodding to herself.
"Boo-ya-baysch… like I said," Stella said with a shrug. "What, my French ain't good enough for ya all of a sudden, Reggie? What is boo-ya-baysch, anyway?"
"A rural fish soup, Miss," the female staffer said.
"Oh… that explains the prawn. I don't do fish. Too many bones. Naw, that's not the whole truth so help me Xena Warrior Princess… I do enjoy the hell out of a big ol' Philly O'Phish burger out at Uncle Greezy's Family Restaurant of course… ohhhhh, yum-of-yumminess. A fishy and a Slurrpy Cherry Cola… maybe one of the new Slurrpy Cherry Cola Extra Cherry! Ooooooh, they're so good!" Stella said in a dreamy voice - she even licked her lips. "Hey, Reggie, d'ya think we could make a quick stop on our way back to the office? I haven't had a Philly O'Phish for weeks… "
"Sure, Stella-dahling," Regina said as she wrapped an arm around her partner's shoulder. "But first," she continued, tearing the hairnet off the shaggy haystack that fluffed out in every direction as a result of the sudden liberation, "this hideous monstrosity has got to go! I swear, it's even uglier than your poncho."
"Well, I had to wear- I-beg-ya-pardon! Don't be dissin' my poncho! I love my poncho! So there!" Stella said and poked a finger into Regina's electric-blue side. "I can't believe it… she's dissin' my car, she's dissin' my clothes… tell me, Miss I'm-Too-Sexy-For-This-Song, is there anything, anything at all about me that you do li- MMMPPF!"
The full-contact lip-lock that took place between the two investigators proved that Stella did in fact possess one thing that Regina could not find any faults with - except perhaps when too much time went by between kisses.
When they separated, it was to a chorus of scattered applause and a cheerful whistle or two. Stella was far too kissed-out to be able to talk, so Regina took it upon herself to accept the congratulatory messages. "Thank you… thank you very much. You are too kind. Just keep it coming," she said while performing a slight bow. "Thank you. So… will you be all right? I mean, your workplace has become a little sticky…"
The female employee who had already helped Stella and Regina twice broke out in a shrug. "We'll just have to clean up the mess. Mr. Deveraux needs us… and with the slave driver gone, we might even get better working conditions. I don't think any of us want to leave Chez Gabrielle. All in all, this wasn't the worst that could happen."
"Well, that's great. Best of luck for the future," Regina said before she turned back to face her business associate and so much more. "Stell?"
"Uh-huh…?" The senior investigator said with a goofy grin playing on her well-kissed lips.
"Are we done here?"
"Can you even drive?"
"Ah. Good. Can't be any worse than your regular driving. Ba-da-boom-tsssh!"
"Uh-huh- What?! And there she goes again! I-don't-belieeeeeee-ve-it! Every chance she gets… every single chance she gets…" Stella said and threw her hands in the air. "Well, lemme tell you something, Miss I'm-So-Tall-I-Need-To-Duck-To-Get-Under-The-Frickin'-Alexander-Copelson-Bridge, I'm an excellent driver! In fact, if everyone on the road drove as cautiously as I do, there would be-"
"Don't interrupt me! There would be far fewer incidents and accidents and fender-benders and bumper-knockers because everybody would behave and drive slowly so they would have plenty of time to look out for their fellow people on the street! So there!"
"Yes, dear," Regina said with a grin.
After taking a few deep breaths to get everything inside her back under control, Stella winked at Regina to show she had not taken the little needling to heart - or at least not too badly. "Good! And with that, we're outta here!" Spinning around, she strolled over to her beloved Pacer to get the Old Girl fired up once more.
The streets of Bay City were still hopping busy when they rejoined the traffic at the intersection of Avenue C and Eighty-third Street, so it was quickly decided - by a severely long-winded telephone conversation that mostly went from Stella to Regina - that the two Cobra Strike Force teams should forget about going to their regular Uncle Greezy's and head to the new one built on the gargantuan parking lot in front of the Ocean View Shopping Mall instead.
Regina made it to the Ocean View Mall first, and she did a slow tour around the centrally placed drive-thru while she waited for the chocolate-brown menace to Bay City's environmental standards to show up. Because of the lateness of the day, there were fewer soccer-mom-mobiles and sensible family sedans than usual, but the parking lot still saw plenty of vehicles in the shape of trucks and the types of cars typically driven by younger people.
Several strapping young fellows ate their burger meals on the lowered tailgate of a Ford F350 Dually truck that sported a custom paint job, and Regina made sure to pass them at a speed low enough for them to get a good view of her - not that she needed male attention specifically, but any attention was good attention. She grinned when one of them nudged his buddies and pointed at her. "Ohhhh yeah, I still got it," she mumbled in a sing-song voice while she lowered the black shades to wink at herself in the rear-view mirror.
When the old Pacer finally trickled over the speed bumps and drove into the vast parking lot, it - true to form - let out a rattling noise and a cloud of pale-blue smoke the instant the throttle was applied. The creaks, groans and loose-bolt-in-a-tin-can rattles could be heard all over the parking lot which made the young men at the Ford truck put down their cups of soda to stare.
Chuckling, Regina drove the far less polluting Mercedes SLK into a slot that had a free space on either side which would leave plenty of room for Stella to park the Old Girl wherever she wanted.
Although it would have been far quicker and easier to just use one of the family restaurant's drive-thru lanes, Stella had developed a strong mental aversion to drive-throughs of any kind following the unfortunate - and by now legendary - Effen Beffen Keffen Leffen-incident that had resulted in a meat-cleaver-wielding short-order cook coming out of the restaurant to 'share the moment' with the difficult customer.
The easily excitable Stella had her entire left arm and most of her head out of the window so she could find Regina and the silver SLK. When she spotted the pair, she waved for all she was worth and made a beeline for their aisle - it meant she needed to drive the wrong way down several lanes, but the red signs did not stop her.
Regina kept the black shades on but left the wide-brimmed hat on the passenger seat as she swung her endless legs out of the low-slung sports car. She had already clicked on the button to close the automatic roof when she remembered the goodies she had pilfered from Chez Gabrielle: the irregularly-sized chunks of rural garlic and olive bread were still in the doggie-bag in her clutch.
Though they were wheat-based rather than the far healthier whole-grain types, she would prefer quality bread over an artery-clogging Greezy-burger twenty-four-seven-three-sixty-five, so in short, she let the roof slide back down once more. Though the sun was playing hide and seek with the horizon far out in the Pacific Ocean, the last traces of daylight were still golden which added a glorious shine to her already tanned skin. All in all, she was not displeased to stay where everyone who passed by could see her.
As Stella drove into the slot on the SLK's left, the old Pacer responded by letting out a rolling fart and another cloud of smoke. This time, it was grayish-black which did not improve matters one iota, but at least it dissolved quickly.
"Hiya, Reggie! Boy, that went well! It only crapped out on me once, but I got it back. Obviously 'cos I wouldn't be here if I hadn't," Stella said as she stepped out of the old car and closed the door with her butt - her hands were far too busy being rubbed together in a strong bout of giddy expectation to have time for something as ordinary as closing the door the regular way. "Awwwwww, I gotta get me a real fatty-daddy Philly O'Phishy and an extra-extra-extra-extra large cherry-goodie. Can't flippin' wait! You want something, Reggie? And don't say a can of carbo-"
"-nated mineral water, if you please," Regina said with a grin.
Two customized trucks had time to trickle past looking for somewhere to park their wide machinery before Stella answered: "Well, all right. I'll allow your weird tastes just this once. A can of spritzer-water. Wow. Ain't that perfectly dull. Nothing to chow on?"
"No, I had a great salad over at the restaurant and I also have a few chunks of olive bread left."
"You sure? I mean, Uncle Greezy is the number one place in the whooooole wide world for unhealthy junk food… never mind. Back in a flash," Stella said and hurried away from the Pacer before the line inside the family restaurant would grow too long.
A short ten minutes later, Stella came zipping back holding a tray loaded with all the goodies she had bought. In addition to an Uncle Greezy's Premium Quality Philly O'Phish and a super-duper-sized cup of Slurrpy Cherry Cola, she had bought several packs of sauce to go with the burger meal, and a family-pack of French fries that was as big as a shoebox belonging to one of the Power Forwards of the Bay City Rockets pro-basketball team.
Apart from a stack of napkins and a neon-pink drinking straw for the cherry cola, the last remaining item on the tray was Regina's can of carbonated mineral water. It stood forlornly by itself in the far corner since none of the members of the dreaded McJunkphood clan wanted to play with it.
"I'll take this one… should ease your load a little," Regina said and picked up her can. Two seconds later, she needed to hurriedly put it down again as Stella thrust the entire tray into her hands so she had her own free to open the Pacer's passenger side door. The non-vegetarian smells of the fish burger made Regina crinkle her nose, but she held her breath which made it better.
Stella slid onto the passenger seat with a wide grin on her face - with the steering wheel out of the way, she had plenty of room to give her elbows a good, swinging work-out while getting down to some serious business chowing her way through the burger. She pointed at her lap and Regina complied with the non-verbal request by putting the tray across the senior investigator's legs. "Thanks, Reggie! You're my friend!" Stella said as she tore the protective cover off the French fries.
"You're welcome, Stella-dahling," Regina said and rescued her can of mineral water all over again.
Stella snickered as she pulled the top off the first pack of sauce. Once she had squirted the hot sauce all over the steaming hot, salty, crisp fries, she duplicated her motions and prepared the second pack of sauce. Lifting the top bun off her burger, she took a deep sniff to get the most of the warm, fishy scents that rose from the deep-fried filet - then she squirted mustard sauce all over the fish burger to keep things equal. "Awwwwww, don't tell me this ain't yum-yum-yumminess incarnate, Reggie!" she said as she stuffed one of the napkins down her front so her T-shirt would remain virginal for as long as possible.
"Whaddahell ya mean, weeeellll…? I don't wanna hear it, Reggie! Fat, salt, sugar, yumminess! So there!" she said, pointing at the burger, the fries and the soda pop in a fast sweep. "This is yum-yum-yumminess incarnate! Right? Any further smart comments?"
"If you say so, dahling," Regina said and added a little kissy. Leaning back against the SLK's door, she tried to get the can cracked open, but her long fingernails would not allow it. Sighing, she was about to put the can away when Stella stuck a screwdriver out of the window. Another few kissies were exchanged before the little flap on the can met its fate through the hard tip of a chrome vanadium flathead.
Two-point-three-eight-seven seconds later, Stella Starr was lost to the world as she picked up the Premium Quality fish burger and started devouring that and the fries at a frantic pace while occasionally slurping from the super-duper-sized cup of Slurrpy Cherry Cola through the lengthy, neon-pink drinking straw.
"Mffbmphmn ghanughnifm mmpha-" - slurrp, munch, munch - "yamnishamnam wunipham yumyumni-" - munch, slurrrp, munch - "bhumminaph womnom phalibay-" - munch, munch, slurrrp - "grumnirat slabnium phralltawahna-" - slurrrp, SLURRP, slurrrp - "yimopnya mlop… " - munch, MUNCH, munch, slurrrp. Slurrrp. Slurrrp. Gulp! - "… don't you think so, Reggie?"
"Well, it's hard to say, but it was certainly an eloquent presentation," Regina said while keeping a perfectly straight face. She took a little sip of her carbonated mineral water before she continued: "Personally, I've always felt that Tolstoy had a deeper insight into the human psyche than Dostoevsky, but I can definitely see how someone can hold the opposite view."
"I have no idea… no blippety-blip-bloppin' idea whatsoever what you're talkin' about, Reggie. None," Stella said while she performed a slow shaking of the head.
"Didn't you ask me about my preferences with regards to nineteenth-century Russian authors, Stell?"
"Why, thank you! I'm glad you noticed. Yes, this pant suit is of a really good quality despite the meager retail price of three-hundred dollars. Usually, I wouldn't dream of wearing clothes worth less than a cool thou', but-"
"Reggie! Enough with that, okay?" Stella said as she crumpled up the grease-proof paper that had been around the fish burger. Despite the moniker, the paper had been soaked through in places, but that had been from the mustard sauce being squirted where it should not have been rather than the Premium Quality Philly O'Phish leaking in the other direction.
"Okay," Regina said with a grin before she leaned over to caress Stella's cheek. The grin they exchanged proved that everything was all right once more. She used the lull to bite the last remaining chunk of olive bread in half. She had offered Stella a sample when she had opened the doggie-bag, but the eating machine had claimed it was too healthy for her so she had declined.
After Stella had taken another deep slurp of the cherry cola, she put the large cup to the side and grabbed a handful of the hot-sauce-drenched crispy fries instead. "Like I was saying-" - munch, crunch, munch - "this was one of the stranger cases we've had." - Munch, crunch, munch - "I mean, we took care of business in-" - Munch, MUNCH, CRUNCH, munch - "-less than two hours. Not that I'm complaining or anything…" - crunch, munch, munch - "I can remember many a time where we had to-" - Munch, MUNCH, CRUNCH, munch - "-wait twice that long at a stake-out just for-" - munch, crunch, munch - "the suspicious person to show up-" - MUNCH - "Wait!" - Munch-munch-crunchy-CRUNCHY-munch-Gulp! - "The check did clear, right?"
"The check cleared before we even left home, yep."
"Phew. That's something at least. I think Mr. Deveraux is gonna need a whooooooole buncha cash now," Stella said before she left the fries behind to take a deep slurp of the cherry cola.
"I think that's a safe bet."
"Yeah." Once Stella had snatched the final few fries from the shoebox-sized container, she turned her full attention to the cherry cola where the lid was soon popped off so she could scoop up the remaining ice cubes. Though plain cubes were far too dull for her tastes, cherry cola-flavored cubes would always be a hit. "So… now what? It's not even nine o'clock," she continued as she held the cup at an angle to allow several ice cubes to slide into her mouth.
"Well, we could go over to Ruby's or we could go back to the office and watch a movie."
"Mmmm…. mmm… mmmm… mmmmmmmmmmmm…" Stella said around the jawbreaker ice cubes, "Ruby… no. A movie… mmmm… eh… mmmm… I guess we could mmmmm… mmmm… mmmmmmmmmmmm… watch a movie. Needs to mmm… mmmm… mmmmmmmmmmmm… be a comedy tonight, though. Mmm… mmmm… mmmmmmm… no, I'm not really in the mood for a movie…"
"Which makes it Rockin' Ruby's, then."
"Mmmm… mmmm… mmmm… mmmmmmmmmmmm… mmmm… mmmmmmmmmmmm… yeah."
Chuckling, Regina leaned in to the Pacer to place a peck on her sweetheart's cheek. A quick tickle - and a resulting snicker - followed before she moved away from the old car's passenger-side window so Stella had room to get out. "See you over at Ruby's in a little while. If you're not there in an hour or so, I'll call the Coast Guard," she said while she swept her long legs around the steering column of the sports car.
Stella had already been on her way out of the Pacer to return the tray - and to wash her hot-sauce-mustard-sauce-fish-burger-French-fry-afflicted fingers, hands and arms up to her elbows - when she stopped with one foot on the ground and the other still up in the footwell. "Huh? Why the Coast Guard?"
Regina started the purring engine before she answered with a: " 'Cos you're often all at sea, Stell! Ba-da-boom-tsssh! Bye!"
"I don't belieeeeeeeeeve it!" Stella cried as she watched Regina reverse out of the parking slot and roar away. The long-legged, perfectly-haired model waved out of the open top, and Stella duly waved back before the sleek SLK disappeared onto the wide avenue. "First she kisses me, then she slaps me down! Un-be-blip-bloppin'-lie-va-bell! Unnnn-believable! But hot-dang, how I love that big, ol' stick o' dy-no-mite!" she continued around letting out a string of chuckles.
By the time Stella drove the smoking, rattling, coughing, farting, chugga-chugging, clinka-clunking, plinka-plonking, squeaka-squonking AMC Pacer onto the parking lot in front of Rockin' Ruby's - which was not only the friendliest girls-only bar in all of Bay City, but also the favorite watering hole of the intrepid investigators from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency - her expression was a great deal less happy than when she had left the Ocean View Shopping Mall sometime earlier in the evening. It did not even lift her spirits when she exchanged a quick hiya-nice-to-see-ya-wave with the young charmer Caitlin O'Herlihy who drove the other way in her pristine, gold-colored 1969 VW Bug.
As the Pacer came to a much-needed rest in the nearest available parking slot, Stella could finally lean back in the seat since she no longer needed to caress the dashboard at all-too frequent intervals. After turning the ignition key and pulling it out, she waited the usual ten-fifteen seconds before the engine stopped running. The sour ending added no silver lining to the rain clouds that had invaded her state of mind. "Oh shoot, Old Girl… what's gonna become of you?" she mumbled as she let her fingers run along the rim of the steering wheel that had seen better days just like the rest of the vehicle.
Sighing, she got out and locked the door - it took three tries for the lock to engage - before she shuffled over to the silver-metallic Mercedes that Regina had parked another few slots up the same lane. When she was close enough, Regina stepped out of the low-slung vehicle to greet her.
"Wow, I was making a joke before, Stell… I was beginning to get a little worried about you," Regina said, checking the time on her smartphone - she had spent twenty-five minutes waiting for Stella which was longer than her own drive to Ruby's had taken in the first place. When she moved her eyes up to her sweetheart's face, she let out a grunt of understanding. "It crapped out on you again, didn't it?"
"O-yeah," Stella said in a gloomy voice as she and Regina shuffled over to the main entrance of Rockin' Ruby's. "In the middle of an intersection. A busy intersection. A busy intersection that was suddenly and mercilessly invaded by seven million six-hundred-and-fifty-four-thousand cars, trucks and city buses. And they all honked at me. I didn't give a fluttering fig leaf about that part 'cos people honk at me all the time, but… y'know, I really thought the Old Girl had gone belly-up then. No matter what I tried, it refused to come back. Then I tried one more time. I got lucky, I s'pose."
"Why didn't you call me? I would have come back to you in a flash."
"Yeah, I know, but… I thought about it afterward, but there wasn't enough time to do anything but twist the durn key over and over and over and over and over and over again when it happened."
"Mmmm," Regina said as she held the door open for Stella. All the tell-tale signs of another trip to Lake Gloomy - close to the infamous Camp Downer at the foot of Mount Morose - were evident on Stella's expressive face. "Tell you what, Stell… I have an idea. Or perhaps 'suggestion' is a better word. You can obviously say no, but… I think you should hear me out," she said as she and Stella entered the establishment. When a sigh was the only reply, Regina assumed a grim expression - this was a bad one.
As most who were in the loop in Bay City knew by now, Rockin' Ruby's was owned by 'Rocking' Ruby Albrecht, a former pro-softball player who had put aside her hard-earned dollars and cents for the girls-only bar she had always dreamed of owning when she realized that her playing days would soon be over.
It had started out as a low-key establishment, but it soon grew, and it did not take long for it to turn into a popular hangout for the types of people who weren't always overly welcome in the mainstream bars and clubs.
There were too many meat markets in Bay City's night life already, so when Ruby had supervised the updating of the blueprints for her new place, she had insisted on keeping the dance floor separate from the main bar room. The fairly narrow main room was equipped with a long, polished counter, a few tasteful pictures on the walls, ten bar stools and eight cozy booths lining the wall opposite from the fully-stocked bar. The rear section of the bar, beyond the access to the dance floor, was wider and saw an additional fifteen regular tables.
Ruby knew it was important to keep everything well-maintained at all times to keep it from prematurely reaching that rundown, slightly sorry state that all bars would eventually get to, so the new bronze highlights inside the booths had been polished, and the crimson carpet that covered the floors at the seating areas had been subjected to a professional cleaning that made it look brand-spanking new all over again.
"Hiya, gals. I wondered if you'd show up tonight," the fifty-something 'Rocking' Ruby said from her customary spot on one of the tall stools down at the far end of the bar. She was a square-built woman in her late-fifties who had kept fit and in ship-shape despite the fact that she hadn't been a professional softball player for over fifteen years. Her hair was more gray than blond now, but her eyes were as sparkling and on-the-beat as ever. Taking off her brand new set of reading glasses, she closed the newspaper she had been thumbing through and slipped off the bar stool. She was soon in place behind the bar after flipping open a section of the counter that worked as a hatch. "So… what can I get ya?"
"I'd like a driver's rum and coke, Ruby," Regina said as she helped Stella take off her windbreaker. Once the jacket was off the short blonde's shoulders and put on the hallstand, Regina fluffed the haystack to make it a little more presentable. Then she tried again. Then she tried for a third time. Surrendering to the fact she might as well give up the unequal struggle with the forces of Mother Nature, she wrapped an arm around the mortified Stella's shoulders instead and brought her over to the bar. "I don't know what Stell would like, though," she said, mussing the slumping shoulders a little.
"Oh… anything," Stella said in a mumble - it seemed she had already had her ticket to Lake Gloomy punched and was ready to depart on whatever track the Glum Express would use to exit Downcast Station. Her condition had turned so bad so rapidly she did not even express an interest in the bowls of pretzels and other types of beer snacks that Ruby had placed on the counter behind the row of bar stools.
Regina and Ruby Albrecht locked eyes for a second or two. The experienced bar owner had seen it all before, so she reached for a cocktail mixer and a bottle containing a colorful alcoholic beverage at once. "I'll whip up a l'Exotique for our depressed friend. Take a seat in the meantime, gals. I'll be right down with 'em."
"Make it an easy one, please, Ruby. She's driving too," Regina said as she gave Stella a little nudge to get her underway.
"You betcha," Ruby said as she poured some of the colorful contents of the bottle into the mixer.
Down at the booth that Ruby always held back in reserve in case Regina and Stella showed up - it literally said Reserved! on a small cardboard note that had been put in the center of the round table - Regina helped Stella sit down and then slide onto the curved bench seat. When even the lushness of the red velvet and the softness of the seat failed to make much of an impression on the senior investigator, Regina reached up to scratch her neck. "Yikes, this is a bad one. Let's see if I can't cheer you up a bit, Stell," she said before she slid in next to the glum woman.
Stella only had time to let out a long, slow sigh before Ruby showed up with their drinks. The briefest of brief smiles flashed across her lips when she noticed the tall drink that was split into four distinct layers of bright, exotic colors. Ruby had added two swizzle sticks that carried an umbrella and a flamingo, respectively, and Stella used the flamingo to give the l'Exotique a gentle stirring that mixed the layers.
Regina's rum and coke was soon put on the round table as well, and once Ruby had gone back to the bar to serve the next customers, Regina leaned in toward her depressed girlfriend - it was time to explain the details of her wild notion. "Okay… here's what I have in mind, Stell. How much did Billy say it would cost to get the Old Girl back on top form?"
A long sigh escaped Stella's lips before she took a small sip of the colorful, tasty l'Exotique. "He would only make a loose estimate, but even that was way above ten grand," she said, wiping a spilled drop off the side of the glass using her napkin. Another sigh soon followed. "I can't afford that, Reggie. Hell, the company couldn't even afford that."
"But I can."
A third sigh left Stella before she shook her head. "If that's your suggestion, you need to come up with a better one. You hate that car."
"Perhaps, but I kinda love you. Like I've said a hundred-and-seventeen times already," Regina said and rubbed shoulders with her sweetheart. "Look, I have the money, and you have a car in serious trouble. I know how much it means to you… and you mean a lot to me. It's the perfect solution to a nasty, nasty problem."
Stella shook her head slowly as she took another sip of her drink. "I don't know, Reggie," she said, toying with the napkin and the two swizzle sticks. A few moments went by before she let out the umpteenth sigh of the past five minutes. "When we grew into being far more than business associates, one of the first things we agreed upon was to keep our finances separate. Mostly so I wouldn't spend… make that waste… all your money on stupid things like my Pacer. And with good reason, huh?"
"Stell, that chocolate-brown car is a lot of things, but stupid isn't one of them. Aren't you always telling me it's a genuine piece of Americana?" Regina said, once more leaning over to give Stella a thorough shoulder-rubbing.
"Heh… yeah. It is. They don't make 'em like that anymore."
"They certainly don't. Now… do you know how much I brought home from that photoshoot the other night?"
"No… how much?" Stella said while furrowing her brow.
"Sixty thousand dollars."
Five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-eleven-twelve seconds went by where all Stella could do was to stare at Regina while her jaw worked itself free of its hinges and began to flap in the gentle breeze that was cast down from the large fan in the ceiling. "O… kay. To pose in front of a camera. Okay. Huh. Okay. I'm in the wrong blip-bloppin' bizz here…" she said once she had regained the ability to speak.
"Like him or not… and I know you don't… but Steve Darrian is one hell of a clever businessman, Stell. He's a damn-near master at squeezing lucrative contracts out of the companies that hire his agency. And as long as I feel like posing in front of the camera, I'm part of that because Steve knows full well I'm the biggest drawing card on his roster."
"But it might be more than ten grand to fix the Pacer, Reggie… so, I… shoot," Stella said, wiping her nose on the back of her hand before she took another sip of the l'Exotique. "It's still a lot of money no matter how you twist or turn that sum."
Regina mirrored her sweetheart's actions by taking a sip of her own drink. As she put down the glass, she leaned into Stella's side so the entire room would not hear the details. "It's a lot of money, yes, but it's my money so I get to choose what to spend it on. And besides, I have another advertising gig coming up in the last week of August and two more in September."
"Whoa… for the same amount of moolah?"
"More or less."
"It's all about being there, and it's all about having that undefinable 'it.' And, you know… I still got 'it' in spades," Regina said, flicking her perfect hair over the perfectly-made shoulder of her perfect low-price pant suit where it - obviously - landed in a perfect cascade.
"Yeah," Stella said as a relieved chuckle bubbled up out of nowhere. "Yeah, you still got it, that's a fact. You're serious, ain't ya? I mean, this isn't one of those tease-the-flip-outta-Stella moments, is it?"
"I'm as serious as a ten-fingered tickling," Regina said while a dead-serious mask fell over her features. She could only hold it for a few moments, then her face cracked wide open in a great, big, wide two-hundred watt smile.
"Hot-diggity-dang, Reggie… maybe there's life in the Old Girl yet!" Stella said before she took a long swig of her l'Exotique.
Regina mirrored her by taking an even longer gulp from the driver's rum and coke. "Let's hope so," she said as she put down the half-empty glass. "Okay. I foot the bills… you provide the thrills. How about that?"
"Deal! Sweet, Reggie… way too sweet… thanks a whooooooooole bunch!" Stella said before she wrapped an arm around the taller woman's waist and gave her a crushing sideways hug - then it was high time for a kiss or two to celebrate the moment.
Ruby Albrecht chose that moment to get the evening's entertainment going by putting on a CD containing a slew of dance classics from the 1990s and early 2000s. Soon, the guests flocked to the dance floor that had been built adjacent to the main bar.
"Haw! I loved that song," Stella said as Bump! Shake Yo Rump! by The Supple Sistaz began to play. "Hey Reggie, could I perhaps tempt you to-"
"Let's go shake our rumps, Stella-dahling! That's just what the doctor ordered for you," Regina said before she grabbed Stella by the hand to drag the wildly squealing - and highly thrilled - woman with her.
THE END of WHERE'S THE CAN OPENER?
II - STELLUS INTERRUPTUS
Written by Norsebard
Four days later - the middle of the afternoon.
The plush, pale-gray carpet that covered the floor of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency's office resembled a paper mill run amuck. Piles of paperwork had been stacked up everywhere while Stella Starr worked hard to get the better of the self-afflicted mess in her filing system - it had turned so bad lately the drooling Paper Monster had threatened to hand in its resignation and seek more rewarding employment elsewhere if she did not get on top of things.
The stacks of files all carried little sticky-note labels that said '0-9' 'A-Z' 'Original cases' 'Later cases' 'Miscellany' 'Got No Idea What This Is' and finally 'Needs To Be Looked At Again Because There's Something Completely Wrong With It Though I Don't Know What It Is Yet' - Stella had worn out a felt-tip pen on the last label alone.
The senior investigator sat cross-legged in the middle of the whole, horrendous mess. After working for four hours straight, her face carried a petrified look that told a tale of dearly wanting to do something fun instead. Now and then, she let out a sigh and reached up to rub her tired face.
It only made it worse that August had struck back with regards to the ambient temperatures. It had already gone past hot and hotter and was now working on achieving the state best known as hottest. A high level of humidity had come on the heels of the heatwave which made it all unbearable.
Stella wore only the most basic: a loose pair of shocking-orange summer shorts and an even looser pale-brown narrow-strap tank top from where Spongebob Squarepants flashed his customary wacky grin. Beyond that, she had bare feet, bare legs and bare arms. A pair of neon-green flip-flops stood ready by the door in case she needed to go outside, but that was it - she had even forfeited the top half of her underwear since the elastic band chafed on her flushed skin. She needed her glasses to do the paperwork, but she had been forced to wrap toilet paper around the sections of the arms that reached behind her ears, or else the metal would gnaw and chafe something fierce.
She had just reached for the next case file when the connected telephones started ringing. Groaning out loud, she stared at the nearest desk - Regina's - from where the landline telephone kept on producing the shrill sound.
It refused to quit, so she clambered to her feet and padded over to the desk. "Good afternoon," she said after snatching the receiver off the hook and sitting down cautiously on Regina's swivel-chair. "You've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?"
"Uh… wait-a-minute… you want me to what?"
"No, Ma'am, this isn't the window cleaners."
"No! I mean," - Stella adjusted her glasses in a clear bout of frustration - "how often do I have to-"
Mumble, mumble! Slam!
Grunting, Stella stared at the dead receiver. "And a very fine afternoon to you too, Sister Sunshine," she said as she put it back on the telephone.
Seventeen minutes and thirty-seven seconds later, she whistled a jaunty tune as she doodled her signature with a ball point pen and put aside a finished case file; all her efforts were finally paying off as she was more than halfway through the stack of files labeled 'Needs To Be Looked At Again Because There's Something Completely Wrong With It Though I Don't Know What It Is Yet.' She had just picked up the next one when the telephones started ringing.
"Oy-oy-oy… it's one of those days," she groaned, slapping a hand against her forehead. Clambering to her feet all over again, she padded over to Regina's desk and snatched the receiver off the telephone - this time, she remained standing. "Good afternoon. You've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agen-"
"Uh… come again, Sir?"
"You'd like to order a slab of beef, fifteen pounds of lamb chops and seventy pounds of ground pork… yeah, wouldn't we all. Listen, Mister, you've got the wrong number. This is a detective agency, not a-"
"Yeah, that's right. The Harrison-Starr-"
"Yeah. Okay. Bye," Stella said and put down the receiver once more. She remained at Regina's desk for a few seconds while several beads of sweat trickled down her bare front underneath Spongebob Squarepants' wide grin.
"I need some coffee," she mumbled as she glanced over at the percolator on the small table just inside the front door. "Ugh… it's too hot for coffee. Iced tea. Yeah. Aw… ain't got no iced tea. Ding-dong-darn'it!"
The proverbial light bulb went off over her head as she remembered a flyer that had been in the mailbox the day before. Shuffling over to her own desk, she rummaged through two drawers before she found it: it was an ad for a new ice cream parlor not too far from the office whose range of products included a long list of beverages as well as conventional, organic, vegetarian and vegan ice creams. Better still, they offered free delivery for the first two weeks. "Aw, thank the ice cream gods!" Stella said and punched in the number on her own smartphone.
The delivery was as swift as promised, so Stella retired to the couch by the coffee table for her much-needed break. Her bare feet were up on the corner of the table as she flaked out with the chilled surface of the box of Mango-Jango Buncha-Berry ice cream resting on her flushed tummy. A seventeen-fl.oz. can of lemon-flavored iced tea stood on the table a good distance from her. It was out of range, so she had rigged up an ingenious system of connecting three foot-long, neon-green, twisty and loopy drinking straws that she had inserted into the can.
She had considered long and hard if the ice cream should be Peppermint Chocolate Chip, a good old Tutti Frutti, a Pineapple Sorbet Special, a Stracciatella, or even a pistachio mixed with a healthy dose of bourbon-laced cream vanilla, but she had tried all of those before. A Mango-Jango Buncha-Berry was new to her, and new flavors were always fun to explore.
Taking the tip of the hugely long straw into her mouth, she only had time to take a teenie-weenie sip of the iced tea before the connected telephones started ringing. And ringing. And ringing. And ringing. And ringing. And ringing. And ringing.
"Go away!" she barked at full volume. "Cantcha see I'm eatin' ice cream?!"
And the telephones kept on ringing.
"Oh fer cryin' out loud! I hate my life! Hate-it-hate-it-hate-it-fricky-fracky-frocky-hate it!" she barked as a single word as she put down the straw, the spoon and the box of ice cream to make her way over to Regina's desk.
"This better be important!" she growled into the receiver.
"Oh, whaddahell is this? Crap on Stella Starr-week? No, this ain't no flippety-flip-floppin' hardware store!"
"Look, fella… you're just gonna hafta call the right number and I'm sure some poor sap will tell ya how to install your flippin' roofing felt!"
Panting hard to get some oxygen back into her system, she growled out loud several times before she shuffled back to the couch. Two steps from her port of call and the delicious-smelling ice cream that she had not even had a chance to sample yet, the telephones started ringing.
Stella just stood there with one foot in the air and the other on the ground. Her eyes rolled around in her head, and her hair seemed to have been exposed to some kind of weird electricity since it stood straight off her head in all directions. A red blotch appeared on her left cheek; it soon spread to her right cheek, then her forehead, then the tip of her nose, then out to her ears and down her neck and throat. She had yet to move, but she eventually turned around to go back to the telephone on Regina's desk. Moving in fits and starts like her body was being run through a faulty film projector, she stumbled back to the desk and the receiver.
Her eyes were wide and staring blankly; her veins were throbbing; her hair was still sticking out and her complexion resembled that of an over-ripe tomato. She needed to use her left hand to assist the right as she reached for the receiver. "Yesssssssss?" she croaked into it.
"Whaddayamean Hi? Don't you people understand what kind of torture all this insane telephone business is to a gentle, peace-loving soul like me? Well, lemme tell you something, pal! I ain't buyin' and I ain't sellin' and I don't give a stuffed Yuletide Elf if you're buyin' or sellin' 'cos I want no part of neither and- and- and- my iced tea is gonna get warm and my Mumbo-Jumbo-Very-Berry or whatever the flying Poobah bird it's called is gonna melt if you people keep frickin' harassin' me, and if my ice cream melts before I get back to it I'm gonna be so angry, so angry, so frickety-frick-frackin' annnnnnnnnnnnngry you people are gonna hear it in frickety-frick-frackin' Nantucket! That ain't no threat, no, that's a promise!"
'Wait, Stell… it's me, Reg-'
"Ha-HA-ha… ha-HA! HA! Now I'm mad! You hear me? I'm Emm Aye Dee, mad. Mad! Maddd-d-d! And lemme tell you sum'tin else too, pal! If you people don't stop callin' me, I'm gonna- I'm gonna- I'm gonna sic my alter ego on you and you don't want that 'cos when Atomic Stella comes out of her shell, lemme tell you, you better run and hide in your bomb shelter, pal, 'cos it's gonna be big, you hear me? It's gonna be bigger than a realllllllllllly big thing and you know how big they are. So! Stop! Callin'! Me! So there! Goodbye!"
"Aaaargh! That does it! That blippety-blip-bloppin' does it! What part of goodbye don't you people understand?! Goodbye means goodbye, see ya, get the flip outta my ear! Like goodbye!" - SLAM!
Pant, pant, pant, pant. Deep, wheezing breath. Pant, pant, pant, pant. Deep, wheezing breath. Pant, pant, pant, pant. Deep, wheezing breath. Pant, pant, pant, pant. Deep, wheezing breath. Sigh.
And then her smartphone started ringing.
"No! No! I can't take it anymore! I can't- can't- make it stop! Make it stop, fer cryin' out loud!" she shrieked with her arms flailing in the air. When the smartphone could not be bothered to listen to her, she tore over to her own desk and grabbed the electronic marvel. The caller ID said it was Regina, so she accepted the call - it took four tries to get her shaking fingers to hit the little button on the display. "Reg- gg- gie? Thank God it's you… ohhhhhhh, the world has been so mean to me all day, Reggie… ohhhhhh, I hate my life and the world and everyone except you… and maybe a couple of other people… but I definitely hate the world."
'Are we having a bad day, Stella-dahling? That was me before on the other line…'
'I just wanted to ask if you needed anything. I'll be over in twenty minutes or so, I just need to stop at the convenience store first.'
Stella's bloodshot eyes stared at the evil, nasty world surrounding her. She was still panting, but her breath eventually evened out. "No, I'm good… on second thoughts, couldya buy a pack of Oreos? Just regulars… or originals… or what-the-flip-ever they're called. Not one of the new tastes. I need an O so badly you won't believe it. And some whole milk."
'A pack of O's and a milk. You got it, dahling. See ya in a few. Mmmua.'
"Mmmua-right back atcha, Reggie," Stella said with the faint beginnings of a smile playing at the corners of her lips. She had no pockets in her outfit so she left the smartphone on her desk before she shuffled back to the coffee table to get some ice cream before it would melt away into a sticky pool.
And then the landline telephones started ringing.
Ten miles away at the Bay City International Airport, the technician who monitored the Doppler radars in the control tower furrowed his brow at the unexpected, and highly unusual, readings that flashed up on the screen. According to the super-sensitive equipment, there had been a sudden, violent spike in the ground-to-air ratio of static electricity that had led to a level-seven discharge commonly referred to as a lightning strike.
He picked up a pair of powerful binoculars and moved over to the nearest window to see for himself. Though it was still hazy and thus humid, the sky was free of thundercells as far as he could see. Grunting, he exchanged the binoculars for the radio on his belt - the expensive radar clearly needed to be recalibrated.
THE END of STELLUS INTERRUPTUS
III - STELLA & REGINA MEET THE POLICE
Written by Norsebard
The big day that Stella Starr had been looking forward to for weeks had finally arrived: she and Regina Harrison were driving downtown for the annual Meet The Police event where their long-time friend, Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes, would give them a guided tour of an old police precinct house. But first…
After moving onto the uneven parking lot in front of the low building housing the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, Stella slammed her hands onto her hips and let out a dark grunt. Her opponent was given a hard, relentless glare that would make all but the bravest or the most foolish quiver to the core.
She had dressed for the occasion by donning one of the disguises that had served her the best over the years: the dark-brown coverall that had a large Bob's Plumbing logo on the back in gold on a reddish background - she had foregone the fake mustache and mouth beard that went with the disguise because that would have been too much of a good thing, even for her somewhat unusual standards. The coverall and the sturdy safety boots would be perfect for the drama that was sure to unfold over the coming minutes or perhaps even hours. To protect her glasses from shrapnel or other types of fallout in case the going would get tough, she had a pair of sturdy motorcycle goggles hanging loose around her neck.
On cue, Billy the Mechanic stepped out of his garage on the opposite side of the large parking lot. He wore his standard outfit of an excruciatingly greasy baseball cap, a black T-shirt that had been worn so often the original lettering had come off, and finally a formerly canary-yellow, now oil-colored boiler suit where the zipper had been pulled down to half mast. He wore safety boots like Stella, but as an addition to his ensemble, he pulled on a pair of thick working gloves that looked as if they had seen every kind of action from acid to fire and back.
Even a quarter past nine in the morning, the sun beat down from a clear blue sky. At least the temperatures had dropped from the unbearable levels they had been at earlier, and the high-pressure system that had swept over Bay City following a few thunderstorms had meant the humidity had packed its bags and relocated to somewhere else so it could haunt some other poor sap.
Stella began moving ahead with measured steps. A church bell began a slow, somber chime somewhere in the middle distance; above her, a bird crowed. Billy matched her and set off from his garage from across the parking lot. When they met near the middle, Stella spat out a sesame seed that had been stuck in her teeth since eating a well-buttered bagel for breakfast. "Billy," she said in a drawl.
"Miss Starr," Billy said, scratching his two-day stubble. "So this is it, huh?"
"The sooner we get started, the better."
Stella narrowed her eyes as she and Billy both turned and began to move in perfect step. Ten paces further along the parking lot, they both came to a halt as the severity of the task ahead began to grow clearer. She drew a deep breath that she held for a while; then she let it out through her nose. "Billy, whatever happens here today, I know you'll have done all you could. If it goes wrong, I guess it just wasn't meant to be," she said quietly.
Nodding somberly, Billy took off his greasy cap to wipe his brow.
Stella fell silent. Her eyes focused straight ahead on the familiar sight of her beloved, chocolate-brown 1975 AMC Pacer. The old car would soon be on its way to the endless scenic route in the vehicular hereafter unless it was subjected to a thorough A-to-Z restoration.
The money for such full-scale repair work had simply not been there until the other half of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, the retired-then-unretired former supermodel Regina Harrison who had become Stella's business associate slash main squeeze, had suggested that she would foot the bill. Stella was certainly a proud woman when it came to the matter of her personal finances, but she was also a realist - at least to a certain extent - and had thus accepted the deal with surprisingly few objections. "All right. Let's get the show on the road," she said as she stepped over to the old vehicle.
"Will it start?"
"Can't say… gotta get the door open first," Stella said as she fumbled and bumbled with the reluctant lock in the driver's side door. The third try to unlock it proved to be the charm, and the door soon squeaked open. Sitting down on the driver's seat, she inserted the key into the ignition and twisted it. The first attempt only produced a cough and a puff of black smoke. The second, third and fourth attempts produced more coughing and more smoke - gray, then blue - but the fifth attempt finally yielded a result.
As the tired engine came to life, it belched, groaned and backfired twice. The latter even included small flames that shot out of the exhaust. It settled down eventually which allowed Stella to select reverse so she could back away from the stone wall she always parked up against. The transmission whined as the internal components spent a long time searching for the correct cog, but once everything had lined up, the Pacer actually moved backward. Getting it to move forward again after she had come to a halt was more difficult, but she succeeded after adding a few tender caresses to the old girl's steering wheel and dashboard.
The speed soon increased to a couple of miles per hour, so Stella shut the door and settled down in the seat to imprint all the details of her beloved ride in case the repairs failed and its next stop would be the junkyard. Ahead of her and the Pacer, Billy ran backward on their way to his garage; he gesticulated so she could keep the vehicle in a straight line that would take her to the pneumatic lift.
In the middle of the highly dramatic situation, a low-slung, silver-metallic Mercedes SLK drove up the ramp at the far end of the parking lot. The sports car - that had its roof down so everyone could get a clear view of the driver - soon trickled past the chocolate-brown dinosaur before it slotted into one of the parking bays up against the stone wall. After turning off the engine, Regina Harrison climbed out to watch the opening gambit of Operation Fix The Pacer Or Die Trying.
Over by the entrance to Billy's garage, Stella used the mechanic's precise gesticulating to aim at the two aluminum skids she needed to drive up on in order to get the vehicle onto the pneumatic lift itself. As the front wheels reached the first part of the skids, the steep angle was too tough to overcome for the tired, old engine, and it simply refused to drive up onto them no matter how hard Stella's safety boot pressed down on the throttle pedal.
Billy groaned out loud at the thought of needing to push the car onto the lift, but that was nothing compared to the constant stream of grumbles that poured out of Stella. She rolled down the driver's side window so she could lean her elbow on the windowsill and peek out when she needed to. The motorcycle goggles got in the way, so she took them off and put them onto the passenger seat.
"Perhaps it needs a head start, Miss Starr… try to roll backwards and then slam the gas!" Billy suggested as he took off his cap to wipe his brow all over again.
"Ten-four, good buddy," Stella said and did as asked. After the Pacer had rolled three feet back, she selected drive and slammed her boot onto the throttle pedal. The new tactic worked to begin with, but as soon as the wheels hit the aluminum skids, it came to a jerking halt that threw the goggles down into the footwell, forced Stella up against the steering wheel and sent her shaggy mop of hair flying all over the place. "Oh-fer-Evelyn's-sake… now we can't even get the Old Girl up on the blip-bloppin' lift," she said as she swept her dirty-blond locks out of her eyes. "For cryin' out loud, why can't anything ever go like it's supposed to? Story of my blip-bloppin' life right there… worse than one of Reggie's awful horror flicks…"
"Good morning, everybody," Regina said as she walked into the garage looking like the personification of a mile-high stack of one-hundred dollar bills. Perfection took time, especially in the morning, so she nearly always left their apartment half an hour after Stella save for the days where they needed to go somewhere together.
The extra thirty minutes came in handy for her daily - extensive - beautification process and for selecting her clothing that was rarely less than exquisite. On this day, she wore a genuine Eléna Quimpaña three-quarter length cotton tunic dyed in a dusty shade of forest-green. It was tied around her slender waist by a belt that carried the same pale-brown color as her summer slacks. Down below, she had bare feet in medium-heeled Spanish-style sandals.
"Good morning, Miss Harrison," Billy squeaked before he whipped off his greasy cap. The mechanic gained a slight blush and looked as if he was about to break out a question akin to Gee whiz, Miss Harrison, you're such a swell dame an' all. Wouldya like to go to the Bucket Of Ribs with me on Friday or Saturday night to swill a buncha beers and chow down the $4.99 All U Can Eat special? but all that came over his lips was a goofy grin.
"Reggie! We need your help!" Stella cried out of the open window.
Regina flicked her perfect hair over her perfect shoulder so it could come to a perfect cascade down the perfect tunic on her perfect back. "Anything for you, Stella-dahling," she said once she had reached the chocolate-brown vehicle.
"Gimme a push! We gotta get the Old Girl up onto the lift!"
"A p- p- pu- a push?!" Regina croaked and stepped back in a hurry. "I don't do physical labor. You know that! Look at these hands… do they look like they're any good at physical labor? Well, they aren't!"
Billy scratched his two-day stubble in a bout of embarrassment. A few crickets had time to chirp before Stella let out a huff, dropped that part of her plan and made the Pacer roll back to try the head-start thing again - unfortunately, the second attempt at getting up on the aluminum skids was no closer to succeeding than the first two had been.
Now Billy really went to work scratching his two-day stubble. At the same time, Regina rubbed her chin as she pretended to be working on a solution as well. Inside the car, Stella used the hand-crank to roll up the window to have a private moment with the car she knew so well and that she had driven around the mean streets of Bay City ever since she had earned her driver's license at the tender age of sixteen. "My dear Old Girl," she said in a quiet, sincere voice as she leaned forward to put a gentle hand on the Pacer's dashboard. "I know how difficult it is for you, but we need to get you up on that lift. There are so many things wrong with you that won't get better before you get up there. Trust me, I understand the pain and anxiety you're feeling. It's just like when we people need to go to the dentist… holy crapola, when that sadist gets near me with his drill and his diabolical grin I just about soil my shorts… but a tooth ache or a gum boil is still worse. I can't promise it won't hurt, but I can promise it'll all get better once Billy is done. He's okay. He knows what he's doing. So… please, get up on the lift. Do we have a deal? Let's try again."
Leaning back in the seat, Stella selected drive and let the car trickle up to the skids. Instead of trying to force anything, she let the old Pacer go at its own speed as it performed a slight hop to clear the bump at the first section of the pneumatic lift. A gentle application of throttle later, the car rolled up onto the two aluminum skids until it came to a rest in the perfect position.
Stella sniffled hard, and she needed to lift her glasses to wipe away a tear of joy that had leaked from her left eye. "Thanks, Old Girl. I knew you could do it… I knew you wouldn't let me down," she said while she added another tender caress to the cracked dashboard. After grabbing the wayward goggles, she opened the door, climbed out and hopped down onto the concrete floor next to the workings for the lift. Regina and Billy applauded her like she had performed a magic trick, but she was still too choked-up to speak so she could only offer her friends a sad wave.
She took a step away from the chocolate-brown Pacer, but she was suddenly overcome with emotions and had to rush back to the car. Draping herself across the rounded hood, she attempted to pull it into a broad hug while sniffling and letting out a croaked "Love ya, Old Girl… the next time we meet, everything's gonna be all right… it's gonna be all right… I promise!"
Now it was Regina's time to blush at the unusual scene; Billy had moved on from scratching his stubble to scratching his neck as he stared at the odd sight of a woman dressed in a coverall and safety boots draped over the hood of a forty-four-year-old vehicle. Still, it was not the weirdest thing that had ever taken place in his garage, so he broke out in a shrug and just rolled with the tide.---
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