Later in the morning, Stella had put the plumber's disguise back into the wardrobe to reveal the regular clothes she had worn underneath it - or what she considered regular: an orange Bugs Bunny T-shirt, white Pippi Longstocking sports socks and finally a pair of green shorts that, for a change, had no cartoon characters of any kind printed on them.
She tried to keep her spirits up by doing a bit of paperwork, but the laptop on her desk continued to steal her attention. She had installed a program that automatically changed the background image at regular intervals, and she had set it to show a continuous slideshow of nothing but home-snapped pictures of her Pacer. Deep sighs often escaped her, but at least she knew the car would be safe in Billy's capable hands.
Regina sashayed around the office with a metal watering pot to give their potted plants a little morning refreshment so they could withstand the high temperatures. As always, she had shed her sandals to walk around barefoot on the plush, pale-gray carpet they had bought at a Chapter 11 sale. Their boom box - that stood on the flat top of one of their filing cabinets - had been tuned to a news station, but the various features, interviews and updates were typically so depressing that she soon changed it to a music station to keep things a little livelier.
When a smartphone started ringing, Stella's eyebrows shot skyward while a nervous twitch developed at the corners of her mouth - it was obvious she still suffered from the knock-on effects of her telephone-induced nervous breakdown the other day.
"That's mine," Regina said and put the watering pot down on the low coffee table by the couch. Strolling over to her own desk, she sat down in her swivel-chair and swept her endless legs up on the corner. The caller-ID on the telephone said Mercedes Dealer, so she accepted the call and put the gizmo to her ear. "Hello, this is Regina Harrison speaking."
"Yes, that's right. We're aware of that… a message has appeared on the display."
"Hmmm, today is not a good day…"
"Okay… I see. Right. Hmmm." - Regina looked over her shoulder at Stella whose face had already gained a dark shade at the potential bad news for their trip to the Meet The Police-day.
Sweeping her legs off the corner of the desk, Regina checked the wall-mounted clock and then the one in her phone to make sure she could depend on what they read. "I can be there in, oh, thirty minutes… will that work?"
Over at the other desk, Stella slammed a ball point pen onto the desktop with such force it bounced, cartwheeled over the edge and disappeared down into the plush carpet. Growling, she got up from her four-legged chair and went down on her hands and knees to search for it.
"All right. I'll be there. Thank you very much. Goodbye," Regina said before she closed the connection and put the smartphone back onto her desk. "Stell-"
"Tell me, Missy Way-Way-Way-Too-Tall-To-Walk-Through-A-Regular-Door," Stella growled while kneeling on the carpet, "what part of 'annual Meet The Police-day' can't you get into your skull? Annual. Meet. The. Police. Day, Reggie. Day! As in today! Not tomorrow, not next weekend, but today. To. Day!"
"I know, but-"
"Did you forget we just wheeled the Pacer over to Billy's, Reggie? Or do you expect us to take a cab downtown and then back here, Reggie? Do you know how much that'll cost, Reggie? Or perhaps you wanna take the bus, Reggie? Ohhhhh, Lawrdy no, not public transportation! Nooooooo, not for the Queen of the Catwalks! You might run into regular folks on the bus! We can't have that, can we, Reggie? Meet The Police-day, Reggie! Day! As in today, Reggie! To! Day! Do I make myself clear?"
Regina waited for the worst of the thunderstorm to pass over before she folded her hands in front of her exquisite tunic and broke out in a wide, reassuring, two-hundred watt smile. "Stella-dahling, that was the Mercedes dealership about the SLK. It needs to go through the regular inspection, and they have time for it today because another customer has canceled. They have a new shipment of cars coming in this weekend, so all their mechanics will be tied up with that."
"So? Whydahell should I care?" Stella grumbled as she continued to pat down the plush carpet. When she found the ball point pen, she clambered to her feet and dropped down in her chair with a heavy thud. Leaning to her right, she propped up her head on her arm and assumed a surly grimace.
"They offered a cash discount if I was able to come by today," Regina said with a smile. She knew that would get Stella's attention, and it did. "There's plenty of time to go over there, get the SLK serviced and then come back here. Even if there's a snag somewhere, I can just do my thing-" - she flicked her hair over her shoulder - "and sweet-talk them into handing over a loaner for the day. I can be persuasive, you know that," she added with a cocky grin and a couple of winks.
The mental images conjured up by Regina's words made the mask of annoyance disappear from Stella's face, and she even broke out in a goofy smile. "Yeah… yeah, I know," she said as she adjusted her glasses. "Okay. But please don't stop for a salad and an iced tea or what-the-frick-ever on your way back here. I get really antsy when I have to wait for something I don't know when 'll happen… and when I get antsy, I often get cranky as well… and I don't wanna get cranky on the Meet The Police-day."
"Works for me, Stella-dahling," Regina said and sashayed closer to the other desk. For the final two steps, she went into her good, old model-walk that saw her hips slam left-to-right. "But first… a little kissy for good luck."
"Now that we can agree on," Stella said and jumped up from the chair to hold up her end of the sweet deal.
Two hours, fourteen minutes and forty-seven seconds later, Stella beat a relentless figure-of-eight around the plush, pale-gray carpet. She had changed clothes yet again to don a set fit for a grand day out: pale-purple sneakers with dark-purple shoelaces, faded blue-jeans that had been cut off just above the knees, and a batik T-shirt that looked like a long-haired sheep dog had been in charge of decorating it after rolling around in spilled paint. She also wore the pair of mirror-shade hangers for her glasses that Regina had given her for Christmas a few years back, and finally her pale-green and utterly shapeless Happy Camper bucket hat that was all the rage in Europe for summer excursions - all in all, she looked as cool and classy as always.
Her face was scrunched up into a mask not dissimilar to that of a bullfrog stuck in a particularly nasty bog that was plagued by frequent bursts of swamp gas. She had her smartphone ready in her hand so she could answer it the second the theme tune of Xena Warrior Princess would ring. "Where. Is. She? Why. Is. It. Taking. Her. So. Long. For-Evelyn's-sake!" she growled using monosyllabic words for the most part.
Coming to a halt by the coffee table, she tried to take her mind off the little unwanted drama by picking up a plastic jar containing pretzels. A few of the salty sticks ended their life between her jaws, but not even that was enough to settle her mounting annoyance with Regina. She began to pace again, but it only lasted for a few steps before she came to a halt in the middle of the office.
"How the frickety-frick-frack can it take her so long to drive over to the blip-bloppin' leasing company's blippety-blip-bloppin' dealership to drop off the frickety-frick-fracking Mer-say-des! Ohhhhhh-holy guacamole, I'm gonna be so annnnnnnnnnnnnnngry if we miss the start of the-"
"IN A TIME OF ANCIENT GODS!" suddenly boomed out of the smartphone at maximum volume - the caller ID identified it as Regina. Pressing the button at once, Stella whipped the telephone up to her ear and drew a deep breath. "Reggie? Where the flip are you, woman? And why is it taking you so piff-paffin' long to get back here?"
"I told you from the outset it was a stinky, crappy, rotten, awful day to pick for it, but you said 'Ohhhh no, Stella, there'll be plenty of time!' Well, 'scuse the flippety-floppety-poobah outta me, Sister, but time is running out!"
'I'm aware of that, but-'
"Ohhh! She's aware of it!" Stella cried and threw her free hand in the air. "That's something at least! But it won't slow down time or give us another half hour of leeway! Listen to the sounds that are coming from my lips… time. Is. Running. Out, Reggie."
"Yes it is! So there!"
'Stell, it's only-'
"I'm already, uh… ready, and I have in fact been ready for the better part of fifty minutes and the Slurrpy Razzie I had while I waited for you ran straight through me so now I need to pee again!" - Deep breath - "We really need to get going in an almighty hurry 'cos there's a set time for the guided tour and if we're late, Mary-Jane will start without us and that would make me oh-so-upset and sad and angry and upset and you would not believe the kind of sad and angry and upset I would be!" - Pant, pant, pant, pant!
'Whoa… settle down, Stell! I'm on my way. The mechanics were all asking for selfies, and you know me… whenever I see a camera, I just can't say no!'
Grumble, grumble. "And that's just fine, Reggie, but why did it have to take you that long? How many mechanics were there, anyway? A-hundred-and-seven?"
'No, just fourteen.'
"Couldn't you just have done, like, a group selfie or something?"
'Then it wouldn't have been real selfies, Stell…'
"Hm! But never mind that now. How much longer do I have to wait for you to show up, fer-cryin'-out-loud?!"
'Five minutes at the most. Oh, and they couldn't get the SLK ready in time so I got a loaner. You can't miss it… in fact, you'll probably need a stepladder. See ya in a few, Stell… mmmua!'
"Uh, wait… whut? A stepladder?" Stella said, but the connection had already been terminated. She stared at the inactive telephone for a moment or two before she shrugged and put it in her right-hand-side pocket.
Six minutes later, three rapid honks from somewhere outside in the parking lot made Stella run over to the window to peek out. At first she thought a thunderstorm had decided to swing by since the view out of the window was completely obscured by a wall of charcoal gray - but then she realized she was in fact looking at the flank of the Mercedes GLS-Class SUV loaner Regina had talked about. "Ohhhhhhh shiiii-" she said as she leaned her head back, back and back to get the full view of the automotive behemoth. She nearly fell onto her behind as an inevitable result of the neck-craning, but she managed to grab hold of her desk before her rear-end could be introduced to the plush carpet.
After righting herself, she grabbed the things she had laid out - a pack of Oreos, her favorite lip balm, a new bottle of suntan lotion, her keys and finally her expensive, super-intelligent, super-advanced, super-complicated camera - before she flew out of the door so they could get going.
Regina turned the extra-large vehicle around while Stella locked the door. The SUV needed more turning space than the average supertanker, but she managed to get it pointed in the right direction after a three-point U-turn. A broad grin spread over her face as Stella opened the right-hand side passenger door and stared wide-eyed up into the splendor that featured leather upholstery and all sorts of other luxury items. "Hiya, Stell. A step up, huh?"
"I'll frickin' say," Stella said, putting the roll of Oreos up in the footwell so it was safe and sound - then she clapped eyes on her sweetheart. "What the flippety-flip-flop, you had time to go home and change your clothes? You knew I'd be hopping around like a crazed Easter bunny on a choccie-trip until you got back, and you went home to change clothes?! What was wrong with that tunic-thingy, anyway?"
Once Regina had realized her original outfit did not feel right after all, it had taken her a while to decide what to wear for the day's events - it needed to be classy but not too extravagant; it also needed to accentuate her assets without making it appear like she needed to accentuate her assets.
Ultimately, she had chosen to go with the same pair of Spanish-style sandals, but she had changed into a pair of off-white designer jeans and a pale-blue, low-upper-hem, spaghetti-strap tank top that was covered by a jacket-like shirt made of white cotton in the same shade as the jeans - it featured a bronze zipper and bronze buttons on the breast pockets. The shirt had full-length sleeves that she had rolled up to just below her elbows to flaunt her tanned arms. She wore the shirt open and loose, but she knew the overall look would not suffer in case the breeze necessitated zipping it. All in all, she looked cool and classy as always.
"Well, it didn't really say the things I wanted to express today," she said and flicked her hair over her shoulder. "That's all, really. You changed clothes too!"
"That's not the same," Stella grumbled; her grumbles grew louder when she happened to catch a wide grin on Regina's face. "Okay, maybe it is," she said in a mumble. Then she cocked her leg in order to get her purple sneaker high enough to climb the mountain of a sport-utility-vehicle.
A couple of clumsy moves later, she came to a grinding halt. "Sweet Mother of Pizza, you weren't joking before about the stepladder," she croaked after she had become stuck in a highly ungraceful position with one leg way up, one leg way down, the heavy protective casing for her camera on a strap around her neck and the lip balm and the suntan lotion poking her thigh from inside her pocket.
Trying the best she could to literally get a grip strong enough to swing herself up, she let out a constant stream of grunts, groans, grunts-and-groans, moans, more grunts, more moans, more grunts-and-groans and finally a deep sigh. All her best efforts proved to be inadequate to overcome the challenge at hand. "Crud…" she said when she had to admit defeat by stepping back down onto the parking lot's uneven asphalt.
"Perhaps you should put the camera casing in the back first, Stell?"
Stella took off her bucket hat to wipe a few beads of sweat off her brow. She glanced at the rear of the SUV, but her mirror shades meant she could hardly see that far. "D'ya think I can reach up into it?" she said with a shrug.
"Good point. Hold your horses, I'll be right down," Regina said and used her far longer legs to step right out of the tall SUV.
An additional two-and-a-half minutes later, a push, a shove and a groaned heave-ho had finally sent Stella Starr up into the Mercedes' leather seat. Snuggling down while she waited for Regina to get back behind the wheel, she marveled at the luxurious cockpit that seemed to have twice the number of knobs, dials and digital displays of an early model of the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet - not to mention about fifty times the number of knobs, dials and various analog meters found in her beloved AMC Pacer.
"You wanna listen to some music, Stell?" Regina said after she had closed the door and turned the key to let the engine come alive with a deep purr.
"Sure!" Stella said with a grin as she looked at the highly advanced piece of electronic entertainment equipment that had been integrated seamlessly into the dashboard. "I guess there's no eight-track player here, huh? Or a tape deck… but wait… there isn't even a CD player!"
"No, it's all done digitally now, Stell. Internet-based radio stations or music sites of your choice. Streaming, you know."
As the silky-smooth SUV began to roll across the parking lot headed for the steep ramp that would take it down to one of Bay City's main arteries, Stella's left eyebrow crept upward as she let out a "Hmmm… and another piece of history gone down the drain. And for what? Digital nonsense. I'm not good with that. It'll never catch on."
"Your camera is digital…"
"That's different. But enough about that now. If you can find All Sixties, All The Time on that thing, I'll be a happy camper," Stella said and adjusted her Happy Camper bucket hat.
Regina chuckled as she turned on the entertainment console and went through a few menus; she selected All Sixties, All The Time when the station's ID appeared on the display, and the dulcet, laid-back tones of DJ Doug soon filled the luxurious cabin as he introduced one of the '60s favorites that everyone could sing along to.
With Stella a happy camper, Regina turned up the volume a bit more before she activated the turning signal and waited for a gap in traffic. When one came, the heavy SUV blended in with boundless ease and was soon roaring off toward downtown.
Much to Stella's chagrin, the behemoth vehicle even had an integrated GPS-guide among the cluster of instruments, so for a change, the intrepid - but occasionally direction-less - investigators from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency were able to find the Stoddart-Wilmington Plaza at their first attempt. Finding somewhere to park the cruise liner proved to be more difficult, but they managed to squeeze in between a couple of similarly-sized vehicles a short distance from where all the action took place.
The entire perimeter of the Stoddart-Wilmington Plaza had been cordoned off using police demarcation tape for the day's special event - it only seemed fitting given the sheer number of old and new police vehicles that filled out the open space in front of the historical five-story building housing Bay City's original police station, the First Precinct. Rebuilt in its current location in 1910 after an earthquake had leveled most of downtown, the building was in constant use until the late 1990s where the demands had outgrown the old structure.
Eight tall flagpoles had been put up to mark the outer rim of the plaza. The poles were connected by wires that held several rows of small banners and standards that fluttered in the gentle breeze; red-white-and-blue paper flags were joined by the police colors of white-and-pale-blue to create a colorful backdrop.
Dozens of concession stands and small booths or stalls that offered various amusements had been set up in a cluster down the far end of the square, and what seemed like a battalion of uniformed officers mingled with an even greater number of summer-clad visitors. Kids could be heard squealing in joy from participating in the amusements, and it was even possible to hear the faint tones of the much-lauded Police Brass Band that promenaded the nearby streets until it would return to the plaza for its next concert later in the afternoon. Now and then, a siren started wailing from one of the many police cars, but it was soon quelled before it could get obnoxious.
"Hoooooooly flip-flop-a-rooney, Reggie! Wouldya look at all this awesomeness! Can't wait… can't wait… can't flippin' wait!" Stella cried at the top of her lungs; she did need to wait to begin with, but that was for Regina to come around and help her back down onto the ground. While she waited, she took the opportunity to stand on the doorsill to literally get an overview of things. "Ain't this awesome, Reggie? Reggie? Hey… Reggie? Where'd ya go?" she continued, looking around to find her helper.
When she discovered that the model was busy snapping selfies with a few visitors who had presumably recognized her, Stella let out a grunt and rolled her eyes. It appeared it would take a while before her lovely assistant would have time for her, so she decided to jump down on her own.
Baring her teeth in a concerned grimace, she drew a deep breath before she took the deep plunge. It felt like she was free-falling for several seconds before her purple sneakers finally made contact with the pavement - the impact was hard enough to bend her knees, upset her bucket hat, fluff out her hair and send her glasses and the mirror hangers half an inch down the bridge of her nose. "Oh… whaddahell do they make those damn things so tall for? Cars should be down near the ground… like my Pacer!" she growled as she shoved her glasses back up to her eyes.
"Whassat, Stella-dahling?" Regina said once she had finished serving the needs of the star-struck visitors. On her way over to the passenger-side door, she snatched the camera casing from the rear of the SUV. Since her outfit was far, far too expensive and high-class to risk getting it wrinkled by the casing's simple Nylon carrier-strap or stained by the cheap plastic, she held it as far away from her as her long arm could reach.
"Nothin'! Can we go now?" Stella said as she grabbed the camera casing. She had fewer qualms about getting her batik T-shirt wrinkled - nobody would ever be able to tell the difference - so she put the Nylon strap around her neck at once. "Or do you need to take another, oh, seven-thousand blip-bloppin' selfies before we can get started?"
"Do I detect a certain upset tone in your voice, Stella-dahling? How could I turn them away when they're flocking to see perfection personified?" Regina said and flicked her perfect hair over her perfect shoulder where it landed in a perfect cascade down her perfect back. "After all, I still got-"
"Reggie… sometimes, silence speaks volumes! And right now, I can smell popcorn! Let's go!"
" 'But, Stell' nothing! Popcorn! So there!"
As Stella spun around and stomped off, Regina narrowed her eyes while trying to figure out how the various parts of the sentence could possibly be connected. She gave up a short while later, shrugged, and set off after her sweetheart. Along the way, she noticed several people looking and pointing at her - she responded by slapping a two-hundred watt smile onto her face, flicking her perfect hair all over again and going into her patented model-walk where she let her ample hips slam left-and-right in a wildly exaggerated fashion as she walked.
"Holy smokes, Reggie," Stella said as she tried to get enough free space around her to take a picture of one of the many classic police cruisers lined up on the plaza, "I don't think I've ever seen this many po-leese officers in one place before… I mean, everywhere I look, I'm staring into the back of a uniform!"
"It's definitely a popular event… and all for charity, too."
Stella had no time to reply as a gap in the human wall suddenly widened right in front of her. Stepping ahead at once, she managed to get several shots of a black-and-white Bay City Police Department cruiser from the late 1930s. Two officers wearing period uniforms stood next to the old car, and they looked appropriately authoritative and menacing to reflect how the police had acted in those days.
Satisfied with the quality of the images - it had taken her an entire afternoon with the instruction guide to figure out where to find the Automatic setting on the super-intelligent, super-advanced, super-complicated camera - Stella stepped back to Regina. "Widows and orphans, yeah. We definitely need to donate to the cause before we leave."
"Oh, I already have, Stell. Two-hundred dollars from each of us."
"Uh… how?" Stella said and flipped open her mirror-shades so she could get a clearer view of her companion. "We haven't seen a donation box anywhere… we only just got here!"
"Oh, it's all done on the Internet now. There's a Donate Here button on the main police website," Regina said as she held up her smartphone.
The corners of Stella's mouth dropped south at once, and she let out a grunt of disappointment. "And another important staple of everyday life gone the way of the Dodo bird… now what the blip-blop is wrong with a blip-bloppin' donation box? You could chat to the person manning it to hear their story, and… but nobody gives a fluttering fig leaf about that nowadays. Ye Gads, the world is so shallow now. Tell me, Reggie, when do you think we'll be reduced to talking heads on someone's computer screen?"
"Well, number one… there's no way… and I mean n-o way that someone like moi could be reduced to a mere talking head, and number two… there are already thousands upon thousands of videos and images of me out there on the Internet as we speak," Regina said, flicking her perfect hair over her shoulder and holding her chin up so the Perfect Light would fall on it.
"Yeah? Can't imagine why," Stella said surly before she shuffled off to get a few photos of the next classic police cruiser on display.
Regina let out a miffed grunt at the needling, but her mood improved at once when she noticed several teenage girls holding up their telephones to get pictures of her.
Stella wandered off on her own. Reveling in the joyous atmosphere around her, she took deep sniffs of the gloriously scented air whenever she happened to shuffle past concession stands or roaming vendors selling popcorn, ice cream, hot dogs, banana splits or freshly-made donuts and pancakes as well as various warm and cold beverages.
From one moment to the next, a giant shadow fell over her. Not a split second later, a meaty paw clapped down on her left shoulder with the weight of a two-ton blacksmith's hammer. "Hiya, shorty!" a woman said right behind her in a cheery voice.
Stella spun around ready to fire a sixty-cannon broadside at the unknown female for using such derogatory language when she was in fact not short, but five foot four-and-a-half inches tall - the half-inch was very important to her - but then she realized that her entire line of sight was filled out by a human oak tree wearing a windbreaker that carried the logo of the Bay City Fire Department.
"Wa-hey, it's Sparky! Hiya, Kristy!" Stella said with a grin as she flipped open the mirror hangers and shoved her Happy Camper bucket hat back. "Oy, I haven't seen you for far too long… how the flip ya been, ya big lug? Slap me a high- on second thoughts, let's just bump fists," she continued as she clenched her right hand and held it up instead of getting slapped a high-five that would sting for a week.
The senior firefighter Kristy 'Sparky' Newbourne - a member of the legendary Engine 15 crew who were always first through the door of any burning building in their precinct - did as asked and bumped fists with the far shorter, far skinnier and far more fragile Stella Starr. Her one-inch crewcut was just as imposing as it had been in the past, as were her broad shoulders that could barely fit inside her windbreaker. Beneath it, she wore a red T-shirt that was strained to its breaking point by her bulging arms. "Aw, I've been just fine. Same-old, ya know. Hey, I don't think you've met my girlfriend yet, have you?"
"I saw pictures of her when we worked your case way back when, but I haven't had the pleasure in the flesh… so to speak," Stella said with a grin as she adjusted her glasses.
"Terri," Kristy continued as she put a gentle arm around the waist of an elegant, pale-skinned African-American woman whose features could be called refined or even delicate, but whose mahogany-colored eyes were strong, "say hi to an old friend. Stella Starr, this is Terri Schmitt."
"Hi, Terri. Nice to finally meetcha," Stella said and shook hands with the well-dressed woman who wore a coffee-brown business skirt suit over a pale-tan blouse.
"Hello, Miss Starr. Likewise," Terri said in a velvety voice. "Kristy and I were so relieved when you and Miss Harrison were able to solve our case. Blackmail is such a terrible crime."
Stella nodded somberly as she thought back to the exciting case that had involved a scorned lover of Kristy's who would not take hit the road, toots! for an answer. "Aw, it was all in a day's work for Reggie and me. Yeah. It was definitely an interesting case. I remember it well 'cos I only just looked at the case files the other day when I was doing a little paperwork," she said as she remembered being chased through the night-time streets of Bay City by a creepy, ghostly figure on a motorcycle - among other things.
"Say," Kristy said, "where's Missy Tall'n'Gorgeous, anyway? You guys haven't split up or anything, have ya?"
"No-no… Reggie's around here somewhere. Just follow the sound of clicking cameras and you'll find her. In front of 'em, not behind," Stella said as she held up her expensive camera.
Kristy nodded and reached out to do a see-ya-later fist bump with the investigator. "Right. Well, it was nice seein' ya. Terri's on her lunch break so we can't stay long… she works at City Hall, ya know," she said while flashing a proud grin.
Stella grinned back and shook hands with Terri once more after having her fist well and truly bumped by the tough firefighter.
A little while later, Regina caught up with Stella while the latter had her entire upper body inside the driver's side door of a prototype vehicle called Tomorrow's Police Car.
"The prodigal returneth, huh?" Stella said over her shoulder. "Tell me, how many piccies and selfies were snapped this time?"
"I cannot possibly say," Regina said as she threw her head to flick her hair over her shoulder. When she was dissatisfied with the level of perfection displayed by her dark tresses, she tried again and got a far better result on the second pass.
Chuckling, Stella pulled out of the advanced vehicle that seemed a step up from even the average space shuttle. "Yeah, right… I'll bet you counted the blip-bloppin' clicks."
"Weeeellll… I may have."
"A hundred photos easily."
"Is that all?" Stella said with her tongue stuck firmly into her cheek - it earned her a dark glare, but she tempered her comments by adding a wink and a little kissy.
Regina could not hold the dark look for long; she broke out in a wide grin that was quickly followed by a pair of puckered-up kissy lips.
Just as Stella moved away from the prototype, her eyes fell on a toggle-switch on the futuristic dashboard. A red label that said Experimental siren followed by something she could not read had been attached to the flat surface underneath the toggle. She stared at the label for a few heartbeats while she weighed the options - she had heard several other sirens while she had strolled around taking pictures, so the officers present did not mind the public activating them; on the other hand, an experimental siren would obviously not be like the regular ones.
Ultimately, she leaned in and flicked the switch just to hear how an experimental siren would sound. The moment she had done so, she was able to read the entire text on the label. It said Experimental siren - Do Not Touch! "Ohhhhhhh-shiii-" she croaked as a wall of noise suddenly burst out of the prototype vehicle. The siren consisted of random tones, white noise, pink noise, more random tones, more white noise and several computerized signals that rose and fell while climbing and descending the scale. Worse, the combination of noises grew louder and louder until they had reached a level commonly referred to as Too Loud By Far. "Ummm, Reggie… I think we better… get that popcorn now… or something…" she said as she backed away from the prototype vehicle.
Regina was too busy grimacing and protecting her ears to notice what Stella had been trying to tell her, but she certainly felt her sweetheart's strong hands that grabbed her by the arm and sent her hurtling into the gathering crowd to get away from the doomsday-siren before it would reach its crescendo - and before the Bay City Tactical Unit would show up to arrest the dastardly individual who had activated it.
Coming to a panting halt at one of the roaming popcorn vendors, Stella performed a classic Who, me? by moving up on tip-toes to look back at the unfolding activity behind them. The doomsday-siren was finally shut off so it would no longer threaten anyone's eardrums. "Wow, can you believe that? The nerve of some people!" she said to the person behind the popcorn machine - a bearded young man who had already seen it all and then some. Even so, he squinted warily at Stella's batik T-shirt.
The wearer of said T-shirt did not notice it, so she moved over to the vending machine on wheels to get her fair share of the salty snacks. "Okay, now that I'm here, I might as well get some popcorn. I'll have a-"
She came to a dead stop when she clapped eyes on the many types of popcorn sold by the vendor. Not only did they have the classic salted variety, they offered peppered popcorn, caramel popcorn, chocolate popcorn, marshmallow popcorn, bourbon fudge popcorn, spiced rum popcorn, liquorice popcorn and even chili-flavored popcorn. "Oh, Gawwwwwd," she croaked, feeling her legendary inability to decide on what to buy reach out from the great beyond to slap her across both cheeks - first the left one, then the right, and then both at once as a goodbye present before it withdrew to where it had come from.
Staggering backward, she clutched Regina's arm all over again as she pointed frantically at the popcorn vendor. She could only let out a croaked "Reggie… I need hellll-p," before she fell silent.
Regina sighed and reached over to pat Stella on the hand to get her to release her death grip. Once she had been liberated, she reached into her jeans pocket to find her wallet that contained her titanium-colored credit card. "Hello. We'll have a regular popcorn, please. Just salt. A medium-sized-"
"Regg-gg-ggie…" Stella croaked.
"Sorry, make it a large-"
Regina blinked a couple of times while a few crickets found space in their busy schedule to chirp a little. Then she let out a sigh. "Just give me the biggest you got."
"Sure thing, Miss," the bearded vendor said before he moved over to grab a huge cardboard cup - or bucket, to be exact - from the Extra-Extra-Large pile.
Stella could only grin and let out a goofy chuckle - Regina knew her too well.
Five minutes later, Stella dug into the popcorn like she was worried the world was about to run out of the white, puffy things. She and Regina had continued along the line of classic police vehicles and were looking at a large paddy wagon that had seen regular use as late as the mid-1990s.
"Boy, these popcorn-" - Munch, munch, MUNCH - "sure are yummy. Thanks a whoooooole-" - Munch, MUNCH, munch - "bunch for buying 'em for me." - MUNCH, munch, munch - "You know how indecisive I can-" - Crunchy-crunchy-munchy - "get on rare occasions…" - Crunchy-munchy-crunchy - "well, never mind that now."- Munchy-crunchy-crunchy - "Are you sure I can't tempt you to-" - MUNCH, MUNCH! - "have a few, Reggie? I mean," - Munch, munch, MUNCH - "they're extra-extra yummy 'cos-" - Munch, MUNCH, munch - "they're extra-extra salty… just-" - MUNCH, munch, munch - "the way I love 'em. It's funny, though, ain't it?" - Crunchy-crunchy-munchy - "I like my women spicy-" - Crunchy-munchy-crunchy - "and my popcorn salty." - Munchy-crunchy-crunchy. Snicker, snicker! Snicker-snicker-snicker. Snicker!
"No thanks, Stell. I don't do salty. You know that."
"Yeah. Your loss… I love-" - Munch, munch, MUNCH - "salty popcorn. I always have. Ohhhhh," - Munch, MUNCH, munch - "when I think back to the nights-" - MUNCH, munch, munch - "where I cried myself asleep-" - Crunchy-crunchy-munchy… crunch… munch… gulp - "because I wasn't allowed to eat popcorn like all my friends. Or pizza. Or burgers. Or candy. Or cake. Or drink soda pop. Or go to birthday parties. Not even when my verrrry bestest friend in the whole, wide world Laura Cruz turned ten."
Slowing down her frantic gestures, Stella eventually stopped stuffing her face when the dark memories rose to the surface. "I used to fantasize about being allowed to eat and drink as much of that as I wanted to… I made a promise to myself that I would never hold back when I finally grew up. Huh. I guess I kept my promise. Shoot, where did that come from? I haven't thought about that in years. Don't like to think of it now, either. Hm."
She let out a long sigh before she resumed eating the popcorn; it was clear by the distant look in her eyes that she did not enjoy revisiting the old days.
Regina smiled wistfully as she reached around Stella's shoulder to pull her into a comforting sideways hug. "You had a difficult childhood, Stell. But look at the kind of woman you've become. Quirks 'n all."
"Yeah, I s'pose," Stella said as she scooped up the final few popcorn from the extra-extra-large bucket. All that remained was the usual residue: a handful of corn grains that had escaped the popping procedure. She had tried chipping a tooth on one of those when she had been too greedy once, so she put everything into the nearest trash can.
"How old is your dad now?"
"He's not my dad. He's my father. There's a big difference. In his late seventies."
"Perhaps you should think about reconcil-"
"No. C'mon, Reggie… let's find a soda pop vendor. I'm kinda thirsty."
Another wistful smile played across Regina's features; she knew how touchy the subject was for her sweetheart, so she decided to save it for a rainy day so they could comfort-snuggle on the couch back home while talking. "Golly gee, Missy… you're kinda thirsty? I wonder why?" she said and stuck out her tongue.
It proved to be the small spot of brightness that Stella needed to escape the gray tendrils of gloominess that had already reached out for her. Grinning in unison, the two investigators soon set off to find some sugar to go with all the salt.
The first several concession stands they came across on their tireless quest for something sugary and unhealthy to drink only carried Frizzie's, but the notorious burping water - as Stella had started to call it following the unfortunate, and unpleasant, discovery that her stomach was unable to handle the greater level of carbon dioxide in Frizzie's range of sodas - would not be the thing to have when going on a guided tour of the old precinct house, so they had continued undaunted until they had found a stand selling Slurrpy's finest.
The vending booth had a special Mix Your Six offer that Stella simply could not refuse, especially not since the offer included a free cooler shoulder bag that carried the colorful logo of the Slurrpy Beverage Company. The intrepid investigators had bought two self-mixed six-packs which would more or less cover their needs, or Stella's need, to be exact, for the rest of the afternoon.
Regina had bought two cans of regular carbonated mineral water, two cans of Diet Pineapple Perfection and two cans of Diet South Seas Exotic Fruit Squash, while Stella had gone decidedly old-school and had splashed out on two cans of Cherry Cola, two cans of Raspberry Fizz, one can of Orange Squash and one can of Classic Cola.
Fully armed and operational with the straps for both cooler bags slung over her shoulders and the Nylon strap for her protective camera casing around her neck, Stella strode forward with a big grin on her face. Her Happy Camper bucket hat was in place, the mirror-hangers were lookin' cool, and she was once more in a good mood after the temporary dark cloud had obscured her personal rays of sunshine earlier. The scheduled time for the start of the guided tour was almost upon them, and - even better - they were ready for it.
Regina caught up with her a short while later after being detained by a few summer-clad people asking for a few selfies. "Dahling, I hope you don't mind carrying both cooler bags?" she said as she flicked her perfect hair over her shoulder.
"Nope! I can certainly see how your precious jacket-shirt-thingamadoodad there might suffer if it came into contact with such common things! Right?" Stella said with a wink.
"Uh… right. Just to let you know, this is a genuine Lady Bartholdy. It doesn't mix well with condensation…" Regina said as she ran her fingers across the exquisite fabric.
"Well, of course it doesn't! Let's not risk getting any stains on you," Stella said in a voice that was perhaps a little too sugary and sing-song for the context it was used in. "And besides, this way I'm always close to my beloved Slurrpies. Oh, and don't worry 'bout your stuff. There's no way in all of blippety-blip-bloppin' Noobah-Roobah-Poobah-land that I would ever, ever, evarrrr touch one of the cans with the spritzer-water… or those awful, awful diet sodas. Yuck."
"Uh… right… I think you should try one before you-"
"I'll do that right after you try one of the Cherry Cola Extra Cherrys, Reggie," Stella said over her shoulder.
Regina had to let out a chuckle - Stella knew her too well. "Ah… point taken."
The two investigators continued to stride through the large crowd en route to a small area close to the impressive set of stone steps that led up to the historic police precinct house. As the number of people around them thinned out, they were able to spot their old friend, Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes, who appeared to be preparing for her temporary role as the official tour guide by leafing through a small stack of notes.
A handful of late-fifty-something women wearing colorful summer clothing were waiting by a sign that read Guided tour of the First Precinct starts here! The way they were chatting with each other suggested they were all part of the same group, so Stella upped her pace in case Mary-Jane only accepted a limited number of guests for each tour of the historic building. "Looks like we gotta hustle, Reggie… I don't wanna wait until the next one," she said over her shoulder.
When no reply came back at her, she looked back to see why - and promptly let out a long groan when she realized that Regina's attention had once again been stolen by someone pointing a camera at her. "Ohhhh, Reggie… we ain't got time for that crap now! We're gonna be late! Reggie? Reggie!"
The lure of the lens proved far too strong for the model, so Stella might as well have been speaking to a door, a stone pillar or one of the Bolivian mountain goats that lived out in the Bay City Zoological Gardens. Rolling her eyes behind her mirror-hangers, she stomped off in a huff to at least get to Mary-Jane Moynes and explain the situation before the guided tour would start.
The strawberry-blond Inspector Moynes was as always impeccably dressed in a burnt-orange, square-shouldered pant suit that covered an O-necked blouse held in a classy shade of peach. She carried her service sidearm in a holster on her right hip, and her shiny, golden badge was prominently displayed hanging over the edge of the suit jacket's breast pocket in a wallet-like leather holder.
Stella could not stop a broad grin from spreading over her lips as she took in the sight of the woman she and Regina had come to consider a good friend. Their professional relationship had evolved into real friendship after the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency had helped the Inspector's niece out of a bad fix when the young woman had become involved with a gang of no-good fences through no fault of her own.
It was no secret Stella admired the top-professional, rock-solid, bone-tough, quick-witted, but surprisingly friendly Mary-Jane Moynes - the woman simply checked all the boxes when it came to the attributes that Stella hoped to achieve herself some day.
"Hello, Miss Starr," Mary-Jane said once Stella was close enough. The Inspector's eyebrows went up, then down, then up again at the sight of the twin cooler bags, the Happy Camper bucket hat, the mirror-hangers and last, but not least, the colorful batik T-shirt.
"Hiya, Mary-Jane!" Stella cried as she put out her hand for a good, old-fashioned shaking. "Wow, this is a great event! Reggie and me 've had a grrrrrreat time so far! Oh yeah, Miss-Too-Tall-To-Walk-Through-A-Regular-Door-Without-Leaning-Forward is kinda busy right now but she'll be here before long… I hope. Anyway, she saw a camera, and you know how she gets whenever she sees one of those things. Oh boy, I can't wait for the guided tour! It's gonna be sooooo exciting! Which reminds me… is it okay to take pictures in there, or would that be a huge no-no 'cos there might still be confidential information or sum'tin?"
Mary-Jane narrowed her eyes as she processed the flow of words. When she had finished parsing it, she offered the investigator a reassuring smile. "We can wait a few minutes for Miss Harrison. Oh, and feel free to take as many pictures as you like, Miss Starr. All classified or confidential information was removed when the precinct house was no longer an active police station."
"In the meantime, let me introduce you to the others who'll be joining you and Miss Harrison on the tour," Mary-Jane said and put a hand on Stella's back to guide her over to the group of fifty-something women. "They're a reading club who specialize in true-crime books like new attempts to solve cold cases, biographies of known criminals and that sort of thing."
"Oooh, those are some of my favorite books to read too!" Stella said and flipped open her mirror hangers.
"Ladies," Mary-Jane said to the group who stopped chatting to look at the new person in their midst, "meet Stella Starr, a fully licensed private investigator from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency."
"Hiya! Nice ta meetcha!" Stella said, reaching out at once to shake a few hands.
Some of the members of the book club cast a sideways glance or two - or three - at the investigator's unusual clothing and accessories, but the majority smiled and shook Stella's hand at once.
The wait for Regina to join the rest of the group so the guided tour could get underway grew from short to medium-length to long to embarrassing to annoying to infuriating and finally to producing a thoroughly fed-up "Oh-howdahell can it take her this long? Whaddahell is that woman doing?! I hate selfies! Hate 'em, hate 'em, frickety-frick-frackin' hate 'em with a passion!"
Crickets were chirping away like an entire symphony orchestra. Wristwatches and telephones were checked, telling glances were exchanged and there was even a rooster that began to gurgle in rain water to have its crowing voice ready for the next morning.
"Miss Starr," Mary-Jane said as she pulled her cue sheet out of her pocket once more. "I'm afraid we can't wait for Miss Harrison. We need to get going."
Stella's face instantly scrunched up into half its size. She tried to stand up on pale-purple tip-toes, but her meager height meant she had a hard time seeing around the wall of uniforms that seemed to fill out every last inch of available space. "Yeah… I understand, Mary-Jane. You need to keep the schedule. Aw, it's her frickin' loss!" she growled as she shuffled back to join the members of the book club who had been waiting for too long already.
Two seconds later, Regina appeared from the heaving mass of people with a broad grin on her face. She sashayed across the open square in her legendary model-walk, but she slowed down when she suddenly noticed that Stella, Mary-Jane and the rest of the group were already halfway up the stone staircase leading to the precinct house. "But… Stell! Oh, that's unfair. I get asked for a measly selfie and my Snookums abandons me!" she said in a mumble. "Stell! Wait up!" she cried, waving at her sweetheart who had nearly reached the main entrance in the meantime.
Hearing her name called out, Stella spun around with a sour look upon her face and a growly tone to her voice: "Reggie, for cryin' out loud! This ain't no catwalk show! Will ya get a blip-bloppin' move on! The guided tour's already started!"
"Yeah, yeah… keep your pants on," Regina said as she put the longest of her endless legs forward to break into a semi-run that was designed to get somewhere fast without ever taxing her expensive deodorant.
As the two investigators hooked up once more in the lobby of the old precinct house, Regina flicked her perfect hair over her shoulder - horror of horrors, the short jogging session had upset a few of the dark strands so she needed to do it twice before she was satisfied. "Hi again, Stell-" she tried, but was cut off at once:
"Not now, Reggie. This is more important."
"More important than moi? IN-conceivable!" When the attempt at lifting the mood was met by a scrunched-up glare, Regina reached up to scratch an eyebrow. "Ooookay… hi, Inspector!"
"Good afternoon, Miss Harrison. How nice of you to finally join us," Mary-Jane said in a cool but professional tone of voice. She added a smile to take some of the sting out of the words, but the message had come across and it resulted in a pair of ultra-rare red blotches appearing on Regina's cheeks.
Just like in any police station anywhere in the world, smooth linoleum covered every inch of the lobby's floor from wall to wall. Not only was it far less expensive to buy and lay on compared to wood, it was far easier to keep clean when the inevitable spillage would occur. Over the eight decades where the precinct house had been in active use, tens of thousands of people had walked through the doors; a great deal of those had needed to see the watch commander whose desk had been placed on a two-foot-tall wooden dais so he - it had always been a man, and most often someone of Irish or Scottish descent - could have a clear view of the proceedings.
A long counter made of wood, not dissimilar to the cashier counter in a bank, separated the lobby's public area from a multitude of desks that had been placed in orderly rows beyond it. The far end of the ground floor saw a wooden staircase that went up to the various offices on the upper floors as well as down to the feared holding cells in the basement.
Several posters offering the visitors glimpses of various anti-crime campaigns, police procedures and public service announcements from years gone by adorned the wall opposite the watch desk. The posters from the 1910s to the 1940s were far more dramatic and direct in their visual language compared to those from the later decades that often used humor to get their message across. One from 1919 was a guide to proper conduct for police officers when dealing with Prostitutes and Other Types of Wayward Womenfolk. A public service announcement from 1931 revolved around how big a threat the rat nuisance was to Bay City, and how to kill them most efficiently.
The large, square room - nearly one-hundred-and-fifty feet long and ninety-five feet wide - had a double-height ceiling. The semi-open gallery that ran around the entire rim of the first of the upper floors was given a strong touch of class by a series of impressive, well-crafted stone columns.
"May I have your attention, please," Mary-Jane said as she reshuffled her cue cards to the first page. Once the group from the book club had settled down - and Stella had stopped snickering due to the rapidly mounting excitement - she went ahead with her rehearsed speech: "Following the great earthquake of 1909, the building housing the First Precinct was erected here using some of the woodwork and most of the bricks of the old one that had collapsed. It was opened in March of 1910 and served as the city's primary police station until November seventeenth, 1997, where the needs had simply outgrown the facilities. Since the building itself is on the city and indeed state preservation list, a status it was granted in 1958 by then-Mayor Silas S. Lambert, it proved impossible to upgrade to fit the modern standards. Thus, the First Precinct was relocated once more to its current location over on Eleventh Street."
A murmur rippled through the crowd of true-crime enthusiasts and private investigators - by the tone of the grunts let out, most seemed to prefer the classic building at the plaza that had plenty of heart and soul compared to the faceless, factory-like, concrete-and-steel high-rise that had superseded it.
"Now, if you'll care to follow me," Mary-Jane said as she began to stroll toward the large, wooden staircase at the far end of the lobby, "we'll go down into the basement to view the holding cells. Some of the cells were left as-was so they reflect the standards as they were in 1997. Others have been restored to how they looked earlier in the century. One has even been brought back to the original specifications of 1910, and that's the one we'll begin with."
"Can't flippin' wait! I'll bet it's awesome!" Stella said with a grin. She missed a step when she realized that everyone was giving her funny looks, but it had happened so often in her life that she was able to get back on an even keel before long. Shrugging, she shuffled down the staircase with a calming hand on each of the cooler bags so they would not waddle around and thus upset her downward motion - the last thing she felt like doing was to take a rolling, hair-flying, soda pop-spilling tumble down the staircase.
Downstairs, the mood permeating the surroundings was distinctly different to the wide-open lobby on the ground floor. Everything was narrow and cramped, and the dimly-lit hallway in front of the row of holding cells made the atmosphere dark and oppressive. Of the original fourteen holding cells, nine were open to the public - one for each decade the building had been in use. Like Mary-Jane had said, the group moved past the newer cells until they reached the one that had been brought back to the standards required in 1910.
"Oooooh… now this is what I call scary," Stella croaked once it was her turn to cast a peek inside the gloomy cell. Everything was made of dark wood; the only splash of color was a white crucifix that had been painted onto the wall. A bunk bed and a simple chair next to it were bolted to the floor so the detainees could not use either as a weapon. A dim, naked light bulb was attached directly into a socket in the ceiling so only the police personnel responsible for the cells would have been able to manipulate it. The toilet facilities consisted of a square, wooden wash bowl and a crude hole in the floor.
Regina took a split-second look at the hole in the floor before she gasped and pulled back in an almighty hurry. She almost pinched her nose until she remembered that it was a recreation of the 1910-look rather than the real thing - but it only required very little imagination to draw an unpretty picture of how the people that had been thrown into the cell would have used it.
Regina and Stella shared a long look before they both let out nervous - and thrilled, in the case of Stella - chuckles and sought out each other's hand.
After Mary-Jane and the group had studied all the holding cells, they moved two flights upstairs to the first of the upper floors. There, several offices had been recreated using the same concept as the cells in the basement: thus, they each represented a decade.
It was not possible for the members of the public to enter the displays as such, but the guided tour brought the visitors to less than ten feet from the busy desks, the overloaded filing cabinets and the highly detailed city maps on the walls that often carried several pins, little flags or hand-written notes to show where a crime had taken place or where wanted criminals were known to hang out. Period-correct clothing had been put on hallstands and across backrests of chairs like the owner had just left it to have a talk with the chief, and the various clerical utilities used through the years were laid out on the desktops next to coffee cups and the like.
Stella could not hold back a snicker at the sight of the bulky typewriters, the gigantic computers and the even larger dot-matrix printers from the days of the early-to-mid 1980s, and Regina could not hold back a dreamy sigh at the look of the clean, elegant lines of the genuine mid-1960s garb in that office. When they moved further down the line of recreated dioramas, Stella's pale-purple sneakers flat-out refused to go any further once they came to the one representing the 1940s.
"Hoooooly can-of-mackerel-in-spicy-tomato-sauce, wouldya slap yer eyeballs on this piece of awesomeness right here!" she breathed as she took in the numerous items on display in the office that a sign identified as being from 1947. Her mirror-hangers were still flipped open so her eyes had plenty of room to dart here, there and everywhere as they took in all the cool and classic sights. "Ohhhhhhh, wouldya look at that… oy-oy-oy… habba-wabba… look- oooooooh, and they even have a- oooooohhh!" she continued in a state of rapture; she almost mellowed out into a pool of melted butter at the sight of all her favorite things from the golden age of detectives.
Not only was the office hallstand home to a black police uniform jacket and several pale-brown trench coats, a dark-brown fedora had been put on the hat tray at the top to suggest that one of the classic Film Noir detective characters played by Humphrey Bogart, Robert Ryan, Richard Widmark, Alan Ladd or even James Cagney had just gotten back from the mean streets after pounding the beat - or pounding a goon.
A pair of real, honest-to-goodness shoes with rubber soles had been put under a small table that carried a pale-blue coffee pot and several porcelain mugs. A half-full bottle of O'Connor's Single Malt whisky stood next to the coffee pot like it was the most natural thing in the world to have a quick one even while at work.
A leather shoulder-holster carrying a silver-plated Colt 1911 hung casually over the backrest of a wooden chair, and a pair of metal handcuffs took up space on the desk next to a .38 revolver that had been stripped so it could be cleaned. A newspaper had been unfolded on another tabletop - next to the ubiquitous overfilled ashtray that sported a pipe, a cheroot and several cigarettes - and a magnifying glass had been placed by a photo like the police detective who had sat at the desk had needed to do a little in-depth investigation using the tools of the day.
This particular period held little interest for Regina so she looked slightly bored with the whole thing, but Stella was practically on fire. Moving much faster than usual, she took the expensive and super-intelligent camera out of the protective casing and snapped so many pictures and video clips of the office that steam almost began to rise from the lens.
Every single item in the display was photographed in all possible angles and with all possible zoom-settings. For each photo she snapped, she checked the image thoroughly on the camera's display on the back before she moved onto the next motif so she would not get any nasty surprises later on. It was a lesson learned the hard way, much to the detriment of her vocal cords and her shaggy hair that had almost been pulled out when the precious images had been worthless.
She even tried some of her camera's advanced mood-filters like sepia or one called 'retro' though she was wary of going too far with the special effects - she much preferred to play around with all the trickery back home using her laptop's photo-manipulation software.
Regina concealed a yawn or two, but Stella was bouncing around with enough energy to provide electricity for an entire neighborhood in case one of the turbines out at the McCullough power plant had another of its all-too frequent breakdowns.
"Reggie, I was born in the wrong decade. This is where I should have lived! Or when, if ya wanna be pedantic about it. Can't you see me in a trench coat and… and… wearing that fedora over there? Ohhhh, I can. Pounding the mean streets of Bay City chasing bad guys while the fog rolls in from the bay… and using all the wonderful slang from that time like bean-shooters and boozehounds. Flim-flam artists! Getaway sticks!" Stella said in an excited voice. Quieting down for a split second to summon her inner actress, she really went to town in an exaggerated Bogie-style accent: "Don't need no giggle-juice in my cup o' tar taday, fella. What a couple-a sharp-eyed shamuses we be. Hey, dolly, you's a swell pot o' honey with a nice set o' gams, awright."
Snickering, she adjusted her hat, her camera, her hat again and finally the two cooler bags. "Awesomesauce! Reggie, you could have been my secretary, of course. You woulda been perfect for that. Holy blip-blop-a-rooney, this woulda been the right time for me. Exactly the right time…"
"Stell," Regina said before she had to conceal another yawn, "you wouldn't have been able to do any of that. Our place in society was set in stone. All you would have been allowed to do was to look pretty in a sensible, tan dress and have the dinner ready for when your husband came home from work. If you were a bachelorette, you could perhaps work as a typist or a nurse but that would change the moment some nice fellow would ask for your hand in marriage. Then you would have three kids in three years… and that was it. End of story."
Stella scrunched up her face as she pondered Regina's words. The last few photos were snapped of the office from the 1940s before she put the camera back into the casing and clicked the little button shut. "Yeah, I s'pose you're right. It couldn't have been much fun to be an intrepid, entrepreneurial woman back then."
"You'd do all right, though," Stella said as she shuffled further down the line of offices to the one representing the 1930s. "I mean, gorgeous is gorgeous, and they've had models and advertising and stuff since the dawn of time."
"Why, thank you," Regina said and flicked her perfect hair over her shoulder. "I guess you're saying I still got it. I happen to agree… and some of the print ads from as far back as the 1920s are really elegant, too. Not to mention the fabulous dresses they wore to dance the Charleston!"
Chuckling, Stella shuffled on until she realized that a couple of fairly vital components of the guided tour were missing: Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes and the members of the true-crime book club. She and Regina had spent so much time at the office from the 1940s that the others had moved on without them. Furrowing her brow, she came to a stop and looked behind her. Then she turned around and looked ahead. Then she looked behind her all over again.
"Ummm, Reggie," she said, wiping her nose on the back of her hand.
"Didya happen to notice which way Mary-Jane and the others went?"
"They're gone?" Regina said and duplicated Stella's motions from earlier - she looked in every direction without seeing anything or anyone even remotely resembling the police inspector and the summer-clad ladies from the book club. "Wow, they really are gone… no, I didn't notice anything."
"Uh… me neither. Didya happen to pay attention to what Mary-Jane said about, uh, where they'd go next?"
"Me neither. Ohhhh, boy. Flippety-flip-flop," Stella said and reached up to scratch her hair.
"Well, if you're worried we'll be stuck here, the exit's just a floor down. It's not like we can't find our way back outside… even without GPS."
"It's not that! Mary-Jane's gonna think we didn't care a flying hoot about her guided tour, ding-dong-darn'it," Stella said, shrugging so wide the cans down in the two cooler bags clinged and clanged together.
"Weeeellll, technically speaking, she moved on without us… not the other way 'round."
"But she had other obligations, Reggie! Durn, why does it always have to be this way? Things were going so great and we had so much fun looking at allll those super-neat things from the golden days of the detective bizz… and then we got punished for it. Or I got punished for it. Typical," Stella grumbled before she turned around to cast brief glances at the final offices that represented the first two decades of the old precinct house. The displays had lost their lure on her, and the corners of her mouth were already heading south.
To compensate, she unzipped one of the cooler bags and reached into it without looking - the can she found was one of Regina's carbonated mineral waters rather than the raspberry fizz she was aiming for, but she only had eyes for the empty hallways. Cracking open the soda in nothing-flat with the touch of a true expert, she moved the can up to her lips. Before she could take a sip, she furrowed her brow and looked the other way. "Didya hear that, Reggie?"
"No. What was it?"
"Distant voices. Dunno if it was Mary-Jane and the book-clubbers or someone else, though… I guess there must be janitors or custodians or whatever around tho' we haven't seen any." Even straining her hearing, she was unable to pick up anything so she broke out in another shrug and held the can up to her lips.
"Ah, Stell-" Regina said, pointing at the can containing the fizzy liquid that would most likely be toxic or even semi-lethal were it to come into contact with the sugar-craving Stella's lips.
"Not now, Reggie. Okay… okay, we need to think," Stella said and lowered the dastardly can. "Logically, where could they go from here? Where would they go? We've been at the holding cells and the offices… and the watch desk downstairs, of course. What's left? Hmmm… the dispatchers' room, perhaps? Or the archives? Or the mess hall? Did they even have a mess hall here? Hmmm… they probably didn't."
"I said not now, Reggie. I'm thinking," Stella said while assuming an expression that told a tale of thinking very, very hard about where their friend could have gone off to. When nothing came to her, she put the can to her lips once more, but a thought came to her before she could drink: "You know, you'd be a halfway decent investigator if you would only stop to think once in a while."
"A halfway dec-?!"
"The science of investigating requires plenty of thinking, Reggie. Not just strutting around on a catwalk with your torpedoes pointing ahead and your caboose wiggling. Observing, deducing, thinking. They're all building blocks of being a good detective. Especially observing," Stella said, waving the can of carbonated mineral water around as she spoke. "I'd like to think I have an eye on each finger. I see things-"
"You sure 'bout that?" Regina mumbled out of the corner of her mouth.
"Huh. Thought I heard something. Never mind. Where was I?" - The can was once more headed for disaster before Stella's mind connected the dots and she was able to pick up where she had left off: "Oh yeah. I see things that others don't. Therefore, I can easily work out various permutations and draw the logical conclusions to whatever it is I'm doing at the time."
"Uh-huh?" Regina said in the drollest fashion she could muster.
Nodding, Regina had to work hard to keep a goofy smirk off her face. She could see with crystal clarity what was about to happen, but since the halfway decent comment still smarted, she would let her sweetheart find out for herself for a change. "So what do we do now, oh ye great leader?" she said, rubbing her chin.
"Do? We roam around a little and find Mary-Jane and the others, of course. But first, I need a swig o' sugary yumminess," Stella said and finally moved the can up to her lips. After she had taken the first deep gulp of the carbonated mineral water, several things happened in rapid succession.
As the sugar-free fizzy liquid was introduced to Stella's tongue, the pink organ sent an urgent distress call to her brain. The proverbial emergency bells started ringing in the upstairs department, and the order to close the watertight shutters was quickly issued. Her throat reacted in record time by sealing off the liquid's access to the gullet. Unfortunately for all departments involved, the swig that had been taken on board had been too large and had come with too great velocity to be contained in the region commonly referred to as the mouth. Thus, the tidal wave of fizzy-water could only go in one direction, and that was up Stella's nose using the unloved back door.
Not only did her dirty-blond, shaggy haystack stand up to such an extent that her Happy Camper bucket hat was blown clean off, her eyelids flew open to their outer stop - the resulting bug-eyed expression looked unpleasant. The strong jerk that followed was akin to the brief dance fad of the early 1980s known as Electric Boogie. It only lasted for a few seconds, but that was enough for the muscles in her outstretched arm and hand to clench and thus crush the can of Slurrpy Carbonated Mineral Water that she had accidentally sampled.
Regina took a hasty step back as the clear liquid squirted everywhere from the ruptured can, but even that was nothing compared to the fountain of clear, sugar-free fizzy-water that spewed from Stella Starr's nose and mouth oh-point-three of a second later.
Hacking, coughing, spluttering, wheezing, hacking, spluttering, coughing, wheezing, hacking and spluttering, Stella jerked, shook and shimmied around on the spot half a dozen times to get all the horrible mineral water out of her system. When she could finally speak, the first croaked words across her lips were: "Ohhhhhhhhh, yuckety-yuck-yuck…"
"Are you all right, Stell?"
"Yeah, yeah… thanks, Reggie," Stell croaked in a raw voice. "Gawwd, what sucky-yuckiness. That wasn't a razzie!"
"No," Regina said, picking up the sorry remains of the crushed can. The mineral water was long gone - it had created a great, big pool on the smooth linoleum floor - so she scrunched up her face as she threw the unrecognizable hunk of twisted metal into the nearest trash can. "That was in fact one of my cans."
Stella continued to hack, cough and wheeze as she raised her glasses up on her forehead to wipe her eyes on her batik T-shirt. "Musta been. Sorry 'bout that. You can have one of mine… how about the Classic Cola?"
"Ah… no thank you," Regina said and bent down to pick up the pale-green, shapeless bucket hat instead. Using a thumb and an index finger, she held it away from her clothes like she was afraid the color - or the lack of taste - would be transferred onto her classy, white Lady Bartholdy outfit if she was not careful.
Stella looked around the corridor they were in to find towels or at least some paper tissues to wipe up the mess she had made, but none were to be found. After plonking the bucket hat back onto her haystack and wiping her nose on the back of her hand, she broke out in a shrug. "We really oughtta wipe that up, but… uh… don't see no spill-be-gone anywhere."
"How about using your T-shirt, Stell? Nobody would ever be able to tell the difference…"
"Oh, ha-HA-ha! And another HA! Just to let you know, Miss I'm-So-Darned-Snobby-I-Can't-Even-Look-At-Mona-Frickin'-Lisa-Without-Scoffin'-At-Her-Threads, this batik T-shirt is a genuine store-brand product bought in a genuine store and made in the genuine People's Republic Of China, and I love it 'cos it didn't cost an arm and a leg and it's nice and comfy to wear and it's worth a whooooooole stack of your jacket-shirt-thingamadoodads!"
"Well, that's not exactly-"
"Yes it is! So there!"
"C'mon, Reggie… we're wastin' daylight here. We gotta find Mary-Jane before she calls in the shock troopers. This way!" Stella said, pointing the wrong way down the corridor - the one they had just come from. A second later, she realized her error and pointed in the other direction. Then she set off in a determined stride that made the remaining cans cling and clang together like she was a medieval knight wearing a full suit of plate armor.
Regina was literally left in the wake as Stella waded straight through the puddle on the floor. A deep sigh escaped her and she put her hands on her hips as she watched the intrepid investigator stride away. Her eyes slowly rolled upward, but it only lasted for a short while - then she broke out in a wide grin and followed her sweetheart into what would undoubtedly be another eventful chapter of their grand adventure.
The foot-chase was on to catch up with the inspector and the members of the book club. Although Stella and Regina tried hard to observe, deduce, work out the permutations and draw the appropriate conclusions, their quest was a fruitless one. They went up the stairs, down the stairs, back up the stairs and back down the stairs; they turned left and went down one corridor, then turned right and went down another corridor that was identical to the first one. Then they turned around and retraced their steps all the way back to their starting point to try again. Going right instead of left on their next pass, all they found were closed doors. Another attempt at going left into a third corridor yielded nothing, and so did trying a fourth corridor that again saw nothing but closed doors greeting them.
Twice they had heard Mary-Jane's voice somewhere close; twice they had run off in that direction; twice they had reached a dead end only moments later.
"Oy… oy-oy-oy… this isn't going like I had expected it to," Stella said, rubbing her forehead furiously when it dawned on her that finding their friend was far more difficult than imagined. "You got any bright ideas, Reggie?"
"No," Regina said and checked the time on her telephone. "I don't have the Inspector's number coded in on this phone, so we can't even call her to ask where-"
Stella cut her off at once by putting not one but both hands in the air. "And there's no blip-bloppin' way we'd do that, anyhow. That would be to admit defeat, Reggie! We're private investigators… we never surrender!"
"Uh, right… but this isn't as much about surrendering as it is finding-"
Regina piped down at once when she heard Mary-Jane's voice clear as day - and not only that, but somewhere close. The tone of her voice offered the impression that she was reading from her notes, which meant the guided tour was still going on.
When scattered laughter reached the two investigators a few moments later, they both set off in the direction it had come from. Ten steps further down the corridor, the voices and the laughter faded away like someone had turned a dial back down to zero. "Oooooookay," Stella said, whipping off her bucket hat to give her haystack a thorough scratching. "This is gettin' mighty creepy. Are we stuck in the Twilight Zone, Reggie?"
"I hope not. I have a photoshoot on Saturday."
The grunt Stella let out was soon followed by the phlum made by the hat as it was plonked back onto her dirty-blond locks. "Ordinarily, I'd growl, grunt, retch and moan at anything involving Steve Darrian, but since he's indirectly paying for my Pacer getting fixed, I guess I better hold back on the growling, grunting, retching and moaning. Naw, scratch that… I'll still growl, grunt, retch and moan at him!"
"Okay. I'm not sure what that has to do with anything, but, uh… okay…" Regina said as she scratched her hairline just above her right ear.
From one second to the next, Mary-Jane's voice reappeared out of the ether. Stella was not about to fall for the same supernatural trick twice, so she waved her hand in dismissal and let out an annoyed grunt. Instead of checking out the voices, she set off along the non-descript corridor to venture out into another attempt to find their friend.
Regina kept standing at the spot where she and Stella had had their latest conversation. Her superior height meant she had a better view of the far end of the corridor - or to be exact, the opposite end of where Stella was heading - and she was thus able to see a very familiar sight appearing as if by magic:
Mary-Jane Moynes suddenly came from the left-hand side of the corridor and walked across the far end with the members of the book club in tow. The experienced police inspector's sixth sense kicked in, and she came to a full stop before she waved at Regina.
Chuckling, Regina waved back; then she turned around and put her hand next to her mouth. "Stell! Stella-dahling! Guess what?" she said loudly.
"We don't have time for riddles now, Reggie! We gotta find Mary-Jane!" Stella shouted back over her shoulder.
"That's right! She's here! You missed her by three seconds!"
"Well, why diddencha tell me sooner?!" Stella shouted as she spun around and hurried back toward her sweetheart. The camera casing, the cooler bags and all the soda cans they contained were sent into a swinging overdrive as a result of the rhythmic motions as Stella zipped along the corridor. Once she made it back to Regina, she only slowed down a fraction so they would not risk losing their friend all over again. "Flippety-flip-flop, Reggie… ya shoulda told me right away!"
"I did tell you right away. I'm a lot of things, but a psychic isn't one of them. I need to see something before I can- Stell, be careful… remember the floor is sloping downward here!" Regina said, pointing at the smooth linoleum that did in fact have a distinct slant to it.
"My sneakers got high-grip soles, Reggie! I'm cool!" Stella cried back, but as her legs moved ever faster and she continuously picked up speed down the slope - like a World Cup skier heading down a ski jump - it struck her that the problem she faced had less to do with 'slipping and falling onto her butt' than 'stopping before she would splat against the wall on the opposite side of the connecting corridor.'
"Oooooooooooooooooh!" she cried as the camera's protective casing and the cooler bags containing the remaining cans of Slurrpy's finest had built up so much swinging momentum that she found herself completely and utterly unable to stop. "Stella in distress! Stella in distress! Reggie, hellllllp! Ooooooh… wall! Wall! Stella in distr- gotta stop… I can't… ooooh-ahhhh… gotta stop… gotta… I… ugh… ughhhh! Gotta… stooooooooop! Regg-gg-gg-ggie! Stella in distress!" she cried at the top of her lungs as she tried every which way she could to get slowed down in time.
Her bucket hat blew off all over again, but that was about to be the least of her concerns if she could not arrest the forward motion before she would suffer a nose-first impact with the hard, pale-gray wall that seemed to welcome her in with open arms.
She considered throwing herself onto the floor, but such an approach would most likely result in just as many painful boo-boos and owies as meeting the wall head-on would, only in different spots on her body. Letting go of the cooler bags was another option, but that would require plenty of hand-to-eye co-ordination since the left, full one sat higher on her shoulder than the right that had already been dug into - and she did not have enough mental surplus in the present situation to carry out such a tricky operation.
The last-ditch rescue attempt would be to jump up, spin around in mid-air, come back down on her feet and then let her high-grip soles take care of business while the rest of her uncontrolled being would continue to slide backward. She was hopeful she would stop before the wall reached her - or vice versa. It could perhaps be filed under O for Overly complicated plan, An, but Stella Starr had a long history of making the overly complicated work. At least from time to time.
Thus, she jumped up with a resounding "A-hep!"
Once she was airborne, she spun around and came back down with a bump. Going backward at high speed while her legs moved like drumsticks was perhaps less amusing than going forward, but her high-grip soles soon kicked in to do what they had been designed for: she gradually slowed down until the swinging momentum of the cooler bags and the camera casing had been neutralized.
Coming to a panting, wheezing rest a mere foot from the wall, she let out a long sigh of relief before she gathered herself up by taking several deep breaths and adjusting her mirror-hangers that had been knocked askew by the frantic action. A moment later, her spring-green, shapeless Happy Camper bucket hat came rolling down the slope and ended up at her feet. "Wa-hey! Awesomesauce!" she said as she leaned down to pick up the hat. Plonking it onto her wild mop of hair, she turned to her left where the inspector and the others were still waiting for her. "Hiya, Mary-Jane! All's well that ends well, huh? Is the tour still going? When do we break for lunch?"
Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes and the members of the true-crime book club just stood there like life-sized cardboard cutouts. Every last one of them stared wide-eyed at Stella Starr and her curious ways; one or two of them even shuffled around on the spot like they had no clue what to do or say.
"Hello again, Miss Starr. We thought we had lost you," Mary-Jane said flatly.
Stella shook her head hard like nothing at all had been wrong the entire tour - it even made the cans cling and clang together down in the cooler bags. "Oh no, Reggie and me were always right behind you. We were just doing a little detecting. You know. Checking out the sights. Ain't that so, Reggie? Reggie? Now where did she go… Reggie?"
"She's right there, Miss Starr," Mary-Jane said, pointing at the odd sight of Regina Harrison walking down the slope with her long, dark tresses deliberately swept around her face so she would not be recognized by anyone - not that anyone was present who had not already met her.
"Ah, right! C'mon, Reggie, you big liquorice stick! Can't let Mary-Jane wait, ya know!" Stella said and took off in a shuffle that turned out to be headed in the wrong direction altogether. When she noticed the inspector pointing the other way down the corridor, she turned around and shuffled after the members of the book club while whistling the opening few bars of Manfred Mann's classic summer hit Doo-Wah-Diddy-Diddy.
The rest of the guided tour went without further hitches, glitches, snags, upsets or dramas. After a while, Regina literally let her hair down and assumed her regular image of perfection, and Stella remained on her feet throughout - the latter was a greater surprise than the former.
As they walked around the upper floors of the old precinct house studying the final few items, offices and objects on display, Stella crunched loudly on an Oreo or two that had made it through the wild descent without being reduced to crumbs. In between crunching, she slurped even louder from a can of raspberry fizz - she had triple-checked that it was the correct one before opening it. Being the very definition of gentle politeness, she had offered her fellow tour-goers a cookie so it would not look like she hogged the treats for herself, but the others had all declined for reasons beyond her grasp. She was pleased since it meant there would be more for her to crunch on, but it puzzled her nonetheless.
After the eventful and highly dramatic tour - at least when it came to Stella and Regina's involvement - the group soon found themselves back on the ground floor by the watch commander's desk where they had started. Stella had timed it to perfection as she twisted off the top of the final Oreo and licked the yummy stuff off the bottom part just as Mary-Jane put her notes in her pocket. Once the dark cookie had met its fate between the jaws of doom, the final, noisy slurps of the can of raspberry fizz went the same way.
"And that was all for this guided tour of the old First Precinct. I hope you have enjoyed yourselves," Mary-Jane Moynes said, looking at the motley group of true-crime enthusiasts, world-class supermodels and somewhat disheveled, loudly munching-crunching-slurping private investigators. "It has certainly been a pleasure to show you how police work evolved from 1910 to the late 1990s. Of course, the past twenty years have seen a tremendous revolution in information technology. These days, we employ facial recognition software, satellite-based GPS tracking of suspects or suspect vehicles, multi-spectral surveillance equipment that can eavesdrop on any form of electronic communication all over our jurisdiction, and countless other things that were deemed science-fiction as late as the year 2000. At the mere touch of a button, our uniformed officers in the field have access to the central databases for fingerprints, the National Crime Information Center, the DNA archives, and even the Department of Motor Vehicles in case they want to check a license plate for outstanding parking tickets or an expired insurance tag."
For each technological marvel mentioned by the inspector, Stella let out a dark grunt and her face gained another shade of the type of expression typically described by dictionaries as 'surly.' When she could not take it any longer, she threw her hand in the air like she needed to be excused.
"Yes, Miss Starr… do you have anything to add?" Mary-Jane said, already dreading the stream of words that might come from the innocuous-looking blond.
"Aw, do I ever!" Stella said and adjusted her bucket hat and her glasses. "First of all, thanks a whooooooole bunch for showing us all that neat stuff, that was awesome. But… ugh… all that technology-stuff is fine and dandy for those peeps preferring to sit behind computer screens while on the job, but for us real investigators, the only thing that counts… or only things that count to be exact… are eyes, brains, intuition and pounding the beat from A to B to C to D to where-the-flip-ever chasing the bad people or who-the-flip-ever we've been hired to find or what-the-flip-ever. That was true way back when, it's true now and I'll bet it'll be true in a hundred years also."
It took the experienced inspector a moment or two to parse the lengthy volley, but she eventually nodded as the core message filtered through. "Oh I agree, Miss Starr, but don't forget the criminals are all using information technology now as well. Every drug dealer in Bay City uses scrambling software on their mobile telephones, car thieves use directional data collectors to intercept the codes sent between the key remotes and the locks in the cars, and burglars often look at people's social media profiles to see when they're away on holiday, et cetera."
"Whoa… really? Crud, that's just… diss-pick-a-bell…"
"I'm afraid so, yes. If we don't use the technology available to us, we'll fail our most important task of catching those who need to be caught."
"I s'pose you have a point there…" Stella said while a gloomy expression darkened her sunny face. Shortly after, one of Regina's long arms reached around her to pull her into a sideways hug that erased the glum look and brought on a wistful smile.
"It's how modern crime-fighting works, Miss Starr," Mary-Jane Moynes said before she turned back to the rest of the group. "Thank you very much for participating," she said in a stronger voice so everybody could hear her. "Before you leave, I'd like to hand out a token so you can get yourself a free cup of coffee and a donut at the police mess tent. After all, that's the regular diet of any beat cop, right?"
Laughter rippled among the investigators and the members of the book club. Soon, they lined up in front of Inspector Moynes to collect their tokens. Stella and Regina went last, and when it was their turn, Mary-Jane offered them a smile in addition to the small plastic token. "Thank you for coming today. I hope the tour captivated you."
"Aw, it did, Mary-Jane!" Stella said as she held onto the token like it was a gold medal. "The holding cells were creepy, but the offices upstairs were so awesomely cool that it could hardly get any cooler! Ohhhhh, the one from nineteen-forty-seven with the trench coat and the fedora and the genuine gumshoes and the magnifying glass and the- ohhhh, it was so cool to see all those tools of the trade that have fallen by the wayside. Y'know… it's weird, but I feel hopelessly nostalgic for the passing of a time that was never mine to begin with!"
"Ah… all right. I see. I think. Anyway, I'm glad you had a good time, Miss Starr. Miss Harrison. Let's stay in touch."
"Oh, absolutely! 'Bye, Mary-Jane! C'mon, Reggie. Let's get some coffee and our donuts while there are still some to be had," Stella said before she shook hands with their old friend. Once all the regular customs and traditions had been met, she spun around and took off in a cling-clanging stride to get to the main entrance.
On her way out of the door, she went past a few visitors who were there early for the next guided tour. They stared at her colorful garb, the camera casing and the twin cooler bags over her shoulders, but she only had eyes for the prizes that awaited her in the mess tent.
Chuckling, Regina reached out to shake hands with the police inspector as well. "I loved the clothing from the 'sixties upstairs, Mary-Jane. Such fantastic styles and fabric quality. The designers of today could definitely learn a thing or two from the old masters. Excellent stuff."
Before Mary-Jane had time to answer, Stella poked her head back inside the lobby of the old precinct house: "Reggie! Now what's keepin' ya? There's a giganto line at the mess tent already and I reall-ll-ll-lly want a free donut with chocolate frosting. You know how unlucky I often am… well, pretty much the whole time, ack-chew-ly, now that I think about it… but anyway, I'm gonna be sad, upset and depressed if I can't get a donut with chocolate frosting 'cos I really, really, reall-ll-ll-lly want one of those. If ya want your coffee and donut… naw, scratch that part… 'cos sugar is sooooooo scary, ooooh… but anyway, if ya want some free coffee, you better stop flappin' your gums and put your getaway sticks to good use by heading this way, Sista!"
Several crickets had time to chirp - and several of the next visitors had time to stare - before Regina waved at her sweetheart. "I'll be right over, Stell!"
After Stella had left for the second time, Mary-Jane put a hand on Regina's arm and leaned toward her so she could speak for her ears only. "Tell me, Miss Harrison… is she always like that? I mean, even when you're… ahem, you know… together…?"
"Pretty much so, yeah," Regina said while sporting a wide grin. "Fortunately, I have ways to mellow her out. If you know what I mean," she added with a wink or two - or three.
The comment did not need a verbal follow-up, so Mary-Jane settled for grinning and nodding.
"Whaddaya mean you're out of chocolate-frosted donuts?" Stella croaked as she offered the square-built police officer behind the counter at the mess tent a wide, despondent look. The officer could only shrug and point at the empty shelf where the donuts in question had been. Stella stared and stared and stared and stared and stared at the emptiness that reflected what went on in the pit of her soul at the exact same moment.
Her eyes slid over to another shelf that was still quite full - it carried donuts with white frosting that had subsequently been rolled in colorful harlequin sprinkles. It did not take a mathematical genius to figure out that the white donuts were nowhere near as popular as the ones with chocolate.
The talkative fellow Mr. Scuttlebutt was always on the move at festivals, jamborees and other big events - especially regarding which food tents sold lower-quality products - so to take the 'less popular' theory a step further, it was a sure bet the white donuts were less tasty than the brown ones or else there would have been far fewer of them left.
"I want a donut so I guess I hafta take one of the white ones, then," she said and placed her token on the counter. "And make the coffee black, if ya don't mind. And by black, I mean no milk and definitely no sugar. And don't think of adding any kind of artificial sweetener to it, either, 'cos I hate-hate-hate that sick stuff. Artificial sweetener, my hairy thighs. It's all just a chemical cocktail unlike real, proper white sugar which is a natural product… it's just that I can't have sugar in my coffee for some pee-queue-leee-arrr reason. I dunno why 'cos I chug down sugar by the bucketload in all other situations and with every other kinda meal… sorta… not pretzels and popcorn 'cos they're supposed to be salty, but I just can't have sweet coffee. So make it black, please."
The square-built officer stared at the odd customer like she had two, three or perhaps even four heads, but he eventually poured black coffee into a to-go mug made of seepage-proof cardboard. After putting the mug on the counter, he donned hygienic, disposable gloves before he reached over to snatch a harlequin donut and put it on a plate akin to those used for serving hot wieners.
Stella's face was scrunched up into a pre-emptively disappointed grimace as she took a cautious sniff of the white donut. It smelled like any other donut she had ever had between her teeth and gums, but following the incident with the carbonated mineral water, she had grown wary of simply biting into anything she did not know what was.
"Stell, others would like to get some coffee too," Regina said as she nudged Stella out of the way so she could move up to the counter. To impress the police officer, she flashed a two-hundred watt smile at him while she flicked her perfect hair over her shoulder. "Black coffee. Hold the donut, please," she said with a grin as she put her token on the counter.
Back to the Academy