When the two investigators hooked up once more, Stella had yet to sample the harlequin donut. She was about to ask Regina to test-bite it for her, but she soon realized that not only would the health freak object, she would have no point of reference when it came to the taste, anyway.

"Well… I suppose I better… try…" she said and put the donut to her lips. A quick grimace followed before she took a tiny bite. It was chewed on vigorously before she gulped it down with a: "This is… oh… pretty good, actually. It's kinda yummy… and… there's a lemon-flavored cream filling!  Naw, it's definitely yummy!  Wa-hey!"

"Isn't that nice?  I'm so happy for you, Stella-dahling," Regina said as she took a tiny sip of her pitch-black coffee to literally test the waters. Her eyes went wide for a moment as the liquid filtered down her gullet. "Oh… careful with the coffee, Stell… it's kinda hot-"

Too late - Stella had already chugged down a large swig. Black coffee was black coffee was black coffee no matter who made it, and being a tough Private Eye who had been doing the jigga-jagga-wigga-wagga tribal dance 'round the brown coffee bean plenty a time, she had no problem drinking it hot. What she had not counted on was the fact that it was not merely hot, or steaming-hot, or scorching-hot, or burning-hot, or even scalding-hot, but pure, liquid lava tapped straight out of the molten center of the Earth where it was the hottest.

For the second time in less than forty-five minutes, a fountain of liquid spewed from her mouth. That it was brown and flat rather than clear and fizzy made no difference to her or to the pavement that got a colorful washing; her face was immediately contorted into a mask of gruesome grotesqueness that rivaled anything ever seen in any of Regina's beloved horror movies. Steam poured from under her collar and out of her ears as an unfortunate side-effect, and her eyes began to roll freely in her head. A squeak, a croak, a groan and another squeak escaped her before the final blackish-brown drops of lava had left her mouth.

The camera casing and the twin cooler bags had managed to avoid getting drenched, but Stella's pale-purple sneakers and the dark-purple shoelaces had suddenly gained an odd shade of brown. Her bare lower legs had suffered a good splattering as well, as had the lowest hem of her cut-off blue jeans.

"Oh… gawwwwd… I think my tongue just suffered fourth-degree burns!" she croaked as she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. She patted all her pockets for a handkerchief, but came up short - then Regina stuffed a couple of napkins over Stella's face and gave it a good wiping.

"Whoops-a-Stella," she said as she wiped, wiped, wiped and wiped a little more.

"Oooof!  Umphhh. Thanks, Reggie!" - Wipe, wipe, smother - "Umphhhh!  Awww, you're my friend!" - Wipe, smother, wipe - "My best friend… my only friend-" - Smother, wipe, wipe - "in a cruel, cruel world that only exists-" - Smother, smother, WIPE - "-to torment Starrs of the, uh, Stella variety." - Wipe!

After Regina had finished wiping the last of the brown droplets off her sweetheart's face, she tried to brush a few strands of the haystack back up under the Happy Camper bucket hat to make her look just that little bit more stylish, but the hair refused to do what she asked of it - then she gave up trying. "You're welcome, Stell," she said as she crumpled up the spent, damp napkins and threw them into the nearest trash can. "I know I make fun of you from time to time, but drowning in burning coffee shouldn't be treated lightly."

"No," Stella said in a depressed tone of voice that had been brought on by the fact that her emergency spewing had resulted in spilling more than half of her free coffee. The corners of her mouth drooped even further when she realized the yummy white donut with the harlequin sprinkles and the lemon-flavored cream filling had literally been in harms' way - it had been soaked through by the brown tidal wave. She still tried a test-nip of the round pastry, but it disintegrated between her fingers and splattered onto the ground in a hundred pieces. "Oh… durn. I guess it wasn't meant to be… durn, durn, double-durn."

"Stand by, Stella-dahling," Regina said and took a very long step back over to the police mess tent. Ten seconds and another two-hundred watt smile later, she returned to Stella with a brand new white donut. The new one even had more harlequin sprinkles on it than the old one had. "A-la-bingo!  Here you go, Stell. Courtesy of the Bay City Police Department and moi, the incomparable, the undeniable, the legendary Regina Harrison," she said, presenting not only her own to-go mug but the donut - that had been wrapped in a napkin for reasons of safety and to counter sticky fingers of the uncool kind - to the flabbergasted Stella.

"Oh!" Stella breathed as she stared at the donut, the coffee, Regina, the donut, the coffee, the square-built police officer in the mess tent, the donut, the coffee, the police officer, the donut and finally up at Regina's smiling face. "Oh… thank you. You don't know how much it means to me…" she said in a choked-up voice.

"Trust me, I know. Let's move on, huh?"

"Sure thing, Reggie. There's plenty more to see here," Stella said and began to shuffle off further along the rows of tents and booths. To avoid a repeat of the coffee-brown drama, she blew and blew and blew and blew over the surface until the liquid lava had cooled down sufficiently for her to sample it. Even so, it was still on the warm side of what she preferred.

Undaunted, she just transferred her attention to the surprisingly yummy white-frosted, lemon-flavored donut instead. "Y'know, Reggie-" - Munch, munch, MUNCH - "I really wish I could-" - Munch, MUNCH, munch - "do more for you." - MUNCH, munch, munch - "You're always helping-" - Munch, munch, MUNCH - "me get back on my feet-" - Munch, MUNCH, munch - "or give me a hand-up to-" - MUNCH, munch, munch - "get out of the Merc, or-" - Munch, munch, MUNCH - "push me up in that Godzilla-sized-" - Munch, MUNCH, munch - "SUV we're driving today, or-" - MUNCH, munch, munch - "a hundred other things like wiping my-" - Munch, munch, MUNCH - "mouth and giving me your-" - Munch, MUNCH, munch - "coffee and this awesome donut!" - MUNCH, munch, munch - "But what do I do for you?" - Munch, munch - "Too little. Way too little." - Munch - "It really pains me sometimes…" - MUNCH - "It really does." - Munch, munch. Gulp.

"You do plenty for me, Stell. Plenty," Regina said and sought out the hand that had been busy with the donut. They swung their entwined hands back and forth a couple of times while Stella sipped from the coffee that had finally cooled off enough for her to drink it. "Remember when I had the flu a couple of years ago?  You were there for me the whole time. Okay, then you ended up getting the bug which made everything a whole lot worse, but… you were still there for me. And I've learned one hell of a lot from you, too. All I know about the detective business, I got from you."

"Awww, yeah, well… you know," Stella said with uncharacteristic shyness.

They came to a halt at a small, square area of the Stoddart-Wilmington Plaza that had been cordoned off by blue-and-white police demarcation tape. Inside the makeshift arena that had been made safe by a thick layer of gym matting on the ground, a female martial-arts instructor wearing a pale-gray Bay City PD sweatsuit was displaying her extraordinary fighting abilities to the gap-mouthed members of the public. At one point, she invited a large fellow into the ring and asked him to stage a mock-attack on her - a quarter of a second later, he was face-down on the gym mats. Everybody clapped and cheered at the self-defense expert and at the unfortunate gentleman who took it well all things considered.

Moving on further down the line of booths, stalls and food tents, Regina gave Stella's hand a little squeeze as she leaned down to the blond spitfire. "But do you know what the very best thing is… no, make that the second-very-best thing… you ever did for me?"

"Oh… no?"

"When you took the picture of me in the electric-blue swimsuit at the Roderick Mansion. In the pool, remember?  The pic that made the cover of the special issue of Swimsuit Illustrated. That was the starting point of my great comeback. Really, Stell, I owe you so much I can hardly fathom it. That's also why I insisted on paying for getting your beloved Pacer fixed. I wouldn't have had that kind of money if you hadn't taken those pictures of me and Lele da Silva that day, so…"

Stella became distant for a moment as she thought back to the big event at the old movie star mansion high in the hills above Bay City; Steve Darrian had been there, of course, as had a high-strung, professional photographer who had failed miserably in getting Regina into the right frame of mind for the highly important photoshoot. He had lost his temper with her which had only made her even more nervous and even less natural. It had taken the unique touch of Stella Starr to get everything back on track - and ultimately onto the cover of the market-leading, best-selling magazine. "Yeah," she said as she returned to the present. "I guess that was a good moment. Yeah."

They continued on with their hands still entwined. The next amusement looked fun - the objective was to attempt to throw a beach ball through a hoop that kept moving up, down and side-to-side - but the line of people in front of it was so long that Stella knew she would lose her temper before she would get the chance of putting a fifty-cent piece on the counter. The notion of challenging her aim was soon dropped.

The next few amusements they went past were less to their liking: a BB-gun shooting gallery that seemed to be solely visited by broad-shouldered police officers bragging to each other about their latest results at the shooting range, and something called The Mad Chef where the objective was to smash ceramic plates and other types of earthenware to bits using rock-hard baseballs - it was a little too destructive for Stella's taste, and even beyond that, she had seen plenty of mad chefs at their recent misadventures at Chez Gabrielle to last for several weeks.

After a while, they came to a section of the Stoddart-Wilmington Plaza that seemed to be in the process of being readied for a larger event. Several officers from the Meet The Police Day organizing committee were still working to set up whatever was to take place there, and only a few visitors found it interesting enough to look at for more than two minutes.

"Just out of com-PLE-te curiosity," Stella said as they came to a halt in the area that was just that bit quieter than the rest - although quiet was a relative term given how many people were at the popular event. "What do you consider the best thing I ever did for you…?"

"Oh, that's an easy one. That you made me aware I could find love in places I had never even considered exploring, Stell. That was a real eye-opener," Regina said matter-of-factly.

Red blotches exploded onto Stella's cheeks from the surprising, heartfelt statement, and she needed to turn away briefly so she could wipe a little fog off the edges of not only her glasses but her mirror-hangers as well. She opened her mouth several times to reply, but it was only on the third try she was able to go beyond squeaks. "I don't know what to say, Reggie. That was definitely one of the highlights of my life, too… now, I can't imagine living without you… 'cos I kinda love ya."

"I kinda love ya, too, Stell. So that's good, huh?" A few loving smiles were exchanged before they moved on from the open area. "Who knows where I would have ended up… or who I would have ended up with… if we had been unable to connect," Regina said after a short moment of silence; their entwined hands were still swinging back and forth.

"Billy the Mechanic, perhaps?" Stella said with a warm snicker.

"Well, that's kinda what he thinks is happening now!" Regina said in a matching snicker. "Poor fella. I don't think he'll ever really understand…"

"Probably not. At least Steve wasn't able to get his claws back into you."

"No. I learned that lesson the first time. It cost me so much… so damn much. Financially and otherwise."

"I know I brought him up, but please, Reggie… no talk of that land-shark now. I just had an awesome donut, I don't wanna ruin it by thinking of Mr. Chiseled Jaw. Deal?" Stella said as she reached down to unzip one of the cooler bags.


Taking one of the cans without looking, Stella almost repeated the horrific incident from earlier, but Regina snatched the Diet Pineapple Perfection straight out of Stella's hand before anything bad could befell the intrepid investigator. "I better take that one, Stell. I'm guessing that you wouldn't appreciate a Diet-anything."

"Ugggh… no. Gag!  Thanks, Reggie… I keep sayin' it, but you're my friend!" Stella said and immediately unzipped the other cooler bag to get one of her own cans - her fingers, and subsequently her lips, were soon wrapped around a good, old-fashioned Slurrpy Cherry Cola.


A short half hour later, an electronic howling-whining-static-noise that sent everyone's teeth on edge - and nearly upset Regina's hair - was heard from the public address system's many speakers. 'Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention, please!' a cheery male voice said from the ether. 'The event you have all been waiting for, the legendary tug-of-war between the best of the Bay City Police Department and a select group of volunteers, will commence in ten minutes' time!'

After a short break to allow room for the expected cheerful response from the visitors, the announcer continued over the public address system: 'The blue team consists of the strongest, bravest officers the Bay City Police Department has to offer, and they welcome all who have enough strength and courage to challenge them in the ancient war game!  So come one, come all, and measure yourself against the team who has been victorious for eight of the past ten years!'

"Oooooooooh!  A tug-of-war!" Stella said, jumping up and down which made the remaining cans cling and clang down in the cooler bags. "I love to watch a good, ol' tug-of-war… it's just like tractor pulling, only with people!  It's always awesome to look at all that effort and muscle!  Don't you think so, Reggie?"

"Weeelll… it sounds sweaty, bloody and muddy, Stell. I'm not good with any of those things."

"Yeah, but- huh?  Oh, sure they sweat, and that can get a little tricky if one of 'em is a garlic-addict, I agree," Stella said and waved her hand in dismissal - or like she was fanning the air already - "but they only bleed if something goes wrong and they end getting yanked onto their butts… or noses, depending!"

"Oh, that's certainly reassuring… now I can't wait to watch."

Stella opened her mouth to continue, but she narrowed her eyes down into slits instead at the droll dead-panning. A second later, she broke out in a grin - she could give as good as she got seven days a week and twice on Sundays. "Right!  Ooooh, I knew you'd see it my way, Reggie!  C'mon!  The tug-of-war waits for no one!"

"But, Stell-" Regina whined, but it was already too late; her hand was grabbed, and the strong grab-ee dragged her through the crowd and back to the open area they had spent a few minutes at not too long before.


Once there, they inevitably ran into Kristy 'Sparky' Newbourne who would never let such a juicy challenge pass her by. It also gave the big, tough firefighter an opportunity to flaunt her stuff of which she had plenty. Regina could certainly sympathize with that particular aspect, if not the tug-of-war itself.

The powerfully-built woman had just shed her windbreaker when Stella and Regina showed up. "Hiya, guys. Knew you'd be here," she said with a grin. "Hi, Regina. We didn't meet before," she continued as she put out her hand for an old-fashioned shaking.

"Hello, Kristy. Nice to meet you," Regina said with a grin as she looked at the firefighter's trunk-like upper arms that were as wide as most people's thighs. "I see you keep in shape."

"Well, I try, you know," Kristy said as she happened to flex her biceps and her pectoral muscles at just the right point in the conversation.

Stella snickered out loud before she had to adjust not just her glasses but her Happy Camper bucket hat as well. "Tell me, Sparky, you got four other people hiding inside your T-shirt or sum'tin?"

"Naw!" Kristy said before she flexed a little more just in case her friends had missed it the first time. "There's only room for one!"

Another snicker from Stella followed at the sight of the flexing muscles. "Ain't this great?  I didn't know about the tug-of-war, but we're definitely gonna cheer for you!"

"Thanks. Hey… I couldn't persuade you to join up, could I?"

The reactions from the two private investigators could not possibly be any different: Regina drew a deep, shocked gasp while her eyes opened wide and her face turned whiter than a newly-washed, snow-white lace wedding dress. She hurriedly shook her head, and the fact she did not even care that the rapid left-to-right motion upset her dark tresses proved how horrified the mere suggestion had made her.

Stella, on the other hand, performed a quadruple fist-pump before she let out a resounding "Aw, hell yeah!  You better blippety-blip-bloppin' believe you could persuade us, Kristy!  Hot-diggity-bing-bong, Reggie!  This is our big chance for some awesome action!"

"No… no, no, no, no, no-no-no-no…"

"Aw yeah!"

"No!" Regina whined, taking a hurried step back while throwing her arms in the air. "See these hands?  Like I told you this morning, these hands just can't do physical labor… oh God, just thinking about it gives me the shivers. No. Just no. I can't. And what if I get knocked over?  I bruise so easily and I have an important photoshoot next Saturday. No. This is all yours, Stell."

Stella and Kristy both stared wide-eyed at the unusual stream of words that came from the usually so unflappable woman. When it appeared the rejection was final, they broke out in similar shrugs despite the vast difference in their body types.

"Uh… okay," Stella said, scratching her neck. "But then you'll need to keep an eye on all our stuff. The cooler bags and the camera… and Kristy's jacket and things."

"Oh, I can do that. I can definitely do that," Regina said and let out a sigh of relief.

Around them, several beefy volunteers among the visitors reported for duty to the police officer in charge of the tug-of-war. As the combatants were let into the arena that had been cordoned off with blue-and-white demarcation tape, they each received a green armband and a token for a hot dog or a beverage of their choice at the mess tent once the competition had finished. "Kristy," Stella said, eyeing the increasing number of people being let in, "we better get a move on before the team is deemed full."

"Yep. Let's do it, shorty," Kristy said and handed her windbreaker to Regina - then she slapped a meaty paw down onto the far smaller Stella's shoulder to give it a good, old go-get-'em-squeeze.

The heavy weight nearly made Stella's knees buckle, and she had to wait until Kristy had removed her hand before she could take off the two cooler bags, the protective casing for her camera, the bucket hat and the mirror hangers.

"Are you sure you know what you're doing, Stell?" Regina said as she put the strap for the camera around her neck - the twin cooler bags rested at her feet since she was still worried the condensation would stain her elegant Lady Bartholdy outfit. The Happy Camper bucket hat was put on top of the coolers since she was even more worried that the shapeless horror would gain an unhealthy interest in her exquisite being. "Because… honestly… from looking at the prime beefcake lumbering around out there, I'd say you're a good one-hundred-and-fifty pounds lighter than most of them."

"Yeah, I know," Stella said as she turned her head to take in the sight of the grunting, flexing, posing and strutting fellows - and Kristy - who were warming up to the main event. Then she craned her neck to look at the grunting, flexing, posing and strutting people on the opposite team who all wore dark-blue police department sweatsuits. The bulky officers were all men, and they all wore their bushy mustaches with pride. "But it's all fun and games. Don't worry about it."

"But I do worry!  Everything is fun and games until someone gets it in the neck!  Or until the Minotaur ahead of you takes a wrong step and crushes your foot… or until you take a wrong step and make the hairy beast behind you fall on top of you… you'll end up flat as a pancake, Stell!  How will you ever have another Meaty Mama if you're wafer-thin?  Or how will I ever get another kissy if you've been ground into sawdust…?"

"Hey, I'm gonna tell Kristy you called her a hairy beast!" Stella said with a snicker; her joke only earned her a dramatic sigh from Regina. "I know, I know… I'll be careful. I promise. Cross my heart, hope to d- uh… win!"

"Nice save," Regina mumbled.

When the announcer informed the participants that there were only three minutes to go until the start of the big event, Stella hurriedly stood up on tip-toes to deliver one of those kisses that Regina would miss in case the worst-case scenario would play out.

Once they had separated, she zipped over to the police officer in charge who had to do a double-take at the petite woman's meager size compared to the human mountains he had let in so far. He still gave her the green armband and the token for the free beverage or hot dog, but he could be heard mumbling "she's gonna get creamed," as he closed the tug-of-war for further entrants by wrapping the demarcation around an orange cone.

Almost prophetically, the green armband was far, far too wide for Stella's arm. The clock was literally ticking, so instead of wasting precious time fumbling and bumbling with it, she put it around her neck - she chuckled when it proved to be a better fit.

"Better late than never, Stella," Kristy said as she went through the final part of her grunting, flexing, posing and strutting routine. "I almost thought you had left me high and dry."

"No chance. No flippin' chance!" Stella said with a grin. Despite her bluster, she had to gulp at the sight of the mountains of meat nearest her.

Eight out of the ten competitors on the green team were on the wrong side of two-hundred-and-seventy pounds, and nine of the ten were six-foot-something as well - Stella was obviously the odd one out in both categories. Only two of the eight men could match Kristy's physique that resembled the popular image of an Olympian god. Among the remaining six, there were plenty of beer-guts, drooping pants and hairy limbs on display as well as all kinds of facial hair, flattened noses, wifebeater undershirts and well-worn Bay City Bulldawgs caps.

The blue team on the opposite side of the playing field looked even heavier, taller, meaner and just plain old scarier, so to take her mind off the coming battle, Stella decided to grunt, flex, pose and strut like the rest of them. It proved to be less impressive somehow, and she soon gave up to save her strength for the real deal.

Kristy finished her warming-up routine by cracking her knuckles. Once she was all set, she assumed her game face and stared out over the square that would soon be transformed into a conflict zone.

Stella noticed and tried to mirror the expression in order to intimidate the opposition - unfortunately, it was not easy given her thick glasses and teeny-tiny frame.

'Ladies and Gentlemen!' the announcer said in a cheery fashion. 'One minute to go!'

"Hooooooly dippity-doppity-flippety-floppety, Stella Starr… was this such a good idea?" Stella mumbled as a strong sense of pre-battle jitters fell over her. The tremble that rolled through her caused her to shuffle to the left, then to the right, then to the left and then to the right all over again. "Yikes on bikes… Reggie could end up being right this time. Ohhhhh, I don't wanna be pancaked by any of these hairy brutes!"

Too late she realized she had spoken loudly enough for the closest of the brutes in question - a biker-type individual with plenty of tattoos and even more facial hair - to shoot her puzzled looks. "Ha… ha. Ha. Present company of hairy brutes excluded, of course… ha-ha. Ha," she croaked while trying to paint a smile on her face. When the big fellow turned back to glare at the opposition instead of at the tiny woman in their midst, her smile faded at once. "Oy… oy-oy-oy…"


The ancient game of tug-of-war was usually held on a grassy field so the combatants could dig their heels into the surface to literally gain a foothold, but the city council of Bay City had very little interest in digging up the paved Stoddart-Wilmington Plaza to sow grass for a ten-minute event that only took place once a year. Gym matting had been tested and rejected as the large pieces of shock-absorbing material proved impossible to fix into position once the titanic tussle would get underway, so the current competitors would need to play the old game on a hard surface.

To deal with the inevitable rope burns, strained muscles and sore throats from too much berserker-style roaring, a doctor and four nurses from one of the nearby hospitals were on stand-by. At present, they were inspecting their first-aid kits' stock of Band-Aids, gauze, wound clamps, general painkillers, and bottles of demineralized water to be ready for whenever they were needed.

The hemp rope the competitors were to use had already been laid out on the playing area with a bright-white cloth tied to it at the exact center. The rope was hand-crafted by retired members of the Bay City Coast Guard Rescue Service; four inches in diameter, it was forty-five foot long and weighed in at nearly fifty pounds.

Fifty pounds was also roughly the weight of the nervous boulder that bounced up and down in Stella's gut. With worried eyes, she watched the impartial referee walk onto the field dressed in white and carrying a wireless microphone and a metal whistle that he wore on a chain around his neck. The man usually worked as a sewage-canal inspector in the Bay City Department of Infrastructure so he was no stranger to hairy brutes - albeit more usually of the four-legged, ratty kind.

Gulping hard, Stella turned to Kristy Newbourne who stood next to her. "Uh… ummm… you're probably gonna call me a big chicken now, but, uh… I'm beginning to wonder if this was really such a good idea after all…"

"Stella, it's not going to be the violent bust-up that I have a feeling you think it'll be," Kristy said as she put her meaty paw on Stella's shoulder all over again - and just like the first time, it made the petite woman's knees buckle. "I've been in several tugs-of-war back at my fire station, and it's kinda fun once it gets going. Don't fret, okay?  It'll be fun, I promise."

"Uh… right. Okay, I'll give it a shot… or a pull… or a tug… or whatever the proper terminology is," Stella squeaked, cautiously eyeing the referee and the mean team in dark-blue across the field.

Before long, the talk among the combatants came to an end as the referee turned on his wireless microphone. "Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen, and welcome to the main event of the annual Meet The Police Day," he said to the competitors as well as the fair number of spectators who had lined up beyond the demarcation tape.

The referee continued: "Two teams will contest this battle of strength and courage. Each team is made up of ten people, or pullers as they are called. The blue team represents the Bay City Police Department, and the green team represents the brave citizens of our fair city."

Rounds of applause were heard from the spectators at the presentation of the teams, and the assembled ranks of prime beefcake, meatheads, beer-guts and broad-shouldered hairy brutes all waved their hands or their Bay City Bulldawgs caps at the adoring masses.

Stella took the opportunity to spin around and wave at Regina, but she scrunched up her face in a huff when she realized her sweetheart was busy doing selfies with several of the spectators. She kept staring at her for as long as it took their connection to be re-established; once it had, Regina waved back at the fearless investigator who was about to jump into war-by-hemp-rope.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," the referee continued, "as you can see, the center of the rope is marked by a piece of cloth that has been tied around it. The Notary Public has measured the rope and has verified the cloth is at the exact center. At the beginning of the contest, the center cloth will be lined up parallel to a pole inserted into the ground… or in this case, an orange cone put on the pavement. Two further cones stand exactly ten feet on either side of the central cone. The team that tugs enough on the rope to make the cloth reach the cone on their side has won the tug-of-war."

"Holy baloney," Stella said out of the corner of her mouth, "I never knew there were so many rules and stuff to tug-of-war!  I mean, this is almost as complicated as the detective business!"

Kristy let out a deep, rumbling laugh as she cracked her knuckles again to be ready for the referee's whistle. "Aw, it's not complicated at all, Stella. Just pull on the damn thing and hope your team pulls better than the other fellas."

"Huh. Yeah. I suppose I could do that," Stella said and adjusted her glasses.

A shrill, loud whistle followed by a shouted: "Participants!  Assume your positions!" made a loud cheer break out among the spectators. Soon, the nineteen hulking combatants and the petite hopeful ran over to the rope and got ready to pick up a section of it.

Palms were spat into, cheeks were slapped, drooping pants were pulled up, muscles were flexed and shoulders were rolled as the final preparations for the coming struggle. Stella had few muscles to flex, there was no need to adjust her jeans and she flat-out refused to slap her cheeks - she had never been into that sort of thing - but she spat in her palms and rolled her shoulders with the rest of the contenders.

"Get set!" the referee shouted. He gave all twenty participants a moment to achieve firm grips and hunker down with the rope before he blew the whistle hard. "And pull!" he cried and took a step back.

Stella Starr only fully realized what she had gotten herself into when the shrill sound of the whistle had finished rolling over the playing field. All around her, the meaty mountains tugged, pulled, grunted, groaned, roared, tugged, pulled, grunted, roared, groaned, grunted, tugged, pulled, roared, groaned and grunted. Sweat sprang forth from everyone's pores as the rope was manipulated; the white cloth soon wiggled back and forth across the playing field's center line.

In the enclosure a short distance away from the playing field, the spectators let out cries of support, rhythmic chants and wild cheers whenever one of the teams gained an inch or two. Flags, hands and caps were waved at the combatants, and everybody seemed to have a wonderful time - everybody save for Regina who had put a well-manicured hand up near her eyes so she could cover them in a hurry in case her sweetheart would end up as the bottom bun in a beefcake burger.

Stella fought hard to do her part of the tugging, not one person on Earth could claim otherwise. Although she had both hands on the rope to try to pull for all she was worth, all that ended up happening was that she was jerked forward whenever the members of the blue team had the upper hand, and jerked backward whenever her own team gained the advantage. Her shaggy haystack of dirty-blond flew one way, then the other way, then the first way all over again, and it was only by sheer good fortune that she was able to keep her glasses on her nose. Her poor tongue - already abused by the molten lava masquerading as coffee - was in constant jeopardy of being bitten as it flopped around in her mouth by each jerking motion, so she clenched her teeth to try to lessen the danger.

For one of the members on the green team, grunting, groaning and roaring proved to be completely insufficient means of expressing themselves during the extraordinary circumstances. In short, the unknown puller let out a constant stream of highly embarrassing squeaks. When Stella realized it was herself, she blushed as red as Kristy's T-shirt before she clammed up faster than Ali Alt could spell her name.

Back and forth the two teams went while grunting, groaning, tugging, pulling, sweating, roaring, groaning and grunting. Now and then, loud, explosive farts escaped some of the competitors as they clenched every muscle they had. Whenever that happened, it drew an "Oooooooh!" from the cheering spectators who found it all rather amusing.

The teams were evenly matched, but it seemed to Stella that her side was perhaps winning the war. She had lined up as the fifth puller with Kristy right behind her; she was unable to see the cloth at the center of the rope because of her meager height compared to the full-sized slabs of beef surrounding her, but other points of reference suggested they were successful in pulling the rope backward.

Then the blue team started a surprise counter-offensive that made a cheer rise from one group of the spectators and a groan from another. The groans, grunts and roars were echoed among the participants of the green team who suddenly had to put far more muscle into the ancient game than earlier.

Back and forth the intense battle raged - neither team was able to keep up any kind of pulling momentum before their opponents had hunkered down to counter it. The cloth tied to the rope fluttered wildly, but it had hardly moved from its starting spot at the center line since the start of the contest.

Then the members of the blue team upped the stakes by applying the same tactic that had seen them end up victorious in eight of the last ten games: instead of remaining in place and simply tugging on the rope to upset their opponents, they did the exact opposite by merely holding onto the rope while inching backward one hard-fought baby-step at a time.

Remarkably, it was Stella who first noticed the change in strategy. Every last one of the meatheads, man-mountains and hairy brutes around her just increased their grunting, groaning, roaring and sweating - and occasional farting - to combat the pull that grew ever stronger, but she actually tried to think on her feet to work out why their previous plan no longer worked although their effort had not slacked off.

She looked at the ground, the rope, the pullers nearest her, the ground again, the rope again and finally off to the side to see how the spectators were reacting and if they were pointing at anything that could give her a clue. Then the proverbial light bulb went off over her head. "Oy!  I got it!  I flip-floppin'-blippety-blip-bloppin' got it!" she suddenly cried at the top of her lungs. "Lissen to me!  Lissen, everybody!  Forget about pulling the crib-crabbin' rope 'cos that ain't gonna work!  Move backward!  Use your big ol' timber logs and move back… one step at a time!  Lissen to me, it's gonna work!"

None of the competitors on the green team could be bothered to listen to the dirty-blond puller no matter how surprisingly loud her voice had been. Stella bared her teeth in an annoyed grimace and began to let out a constant stream of mumbled grumblings about the grotesquely limited brain capacity of the nearby Neanderthals.

"You sure 'bout that, Stella?  No pulling?" Kristy groaned between clenched teeth. Her ample arms bulged from pulling on the thick rope, and her red T-shirt had in fact developed a tear along the right-hand sleeve from the severe strain it had been put under.


For the first time in the contest, the cloth tied to the center of the rope had left the central cone behind and was creeping ever closer to the blue team's home cone as a result of their changed tactics. Like the referee had explained, once the cloth would reach one of the two team cones, the game would be won.

None of the bulls, grizzly bears or man-mountains on Stella's team seemed overly interested in following her idea, or even listening to it for that matter, because they just kept on grunting, groaning, roaring, sweating and using their arms to tug and pull at the rope although that formula was failing them.

"Oh-fer-Flipper's-sake!" Stella roared as she was jerked forward once more by the relentless pull of the opposing team. Only a dozen inches or so remained until the cloth would reach the wrong cone, and that would be a bitter defeat that Stella was not ready to accept. "What the riffer-raffer is wrong with you buncha meatheads?!  Ya wanna win this thing, dontcha?  Dontcha?!  You ain't winning right now!  Use your over-developed butt cheeks to walk backward, ding-dong-darn'it!"

A few members of the green team began to grumble about their supposed cheerleader rather than concentrating on the contest, and that only worsened their situation - it was all headed for a big, fat disaster until Kristy drew a deep breath and let out a resounding call to battle that echoed across the entire playing field: "Listen to tiny Tinker Bell, fellas!  We need to move back!  One step at a time… follow my lead!  And step!  And step!  And step!"

Unlike the petite interloper, the tough firefighter had already done enough to gain the respect of the other pullers, so they tried the new approach without grumbling too hard. The rope's motion toward the blue team's cone was soon arrested by the combined efforts of the brutes on the green team; then, inch by inch, the rope was pulled back toward the central cone as the new tactic worked wonders.

"And step!  And step!  And step!" Kristy roared while the spectators cheered.

All Stella could do was to hang onto the rope - while her haystack flew about - as the heavy hulks around her did all the back-stepping. She grinned from ear to ear at the successful development, but it soon became obvious that the blue team was unwilling to sample the unpleasant taste of defeat just yet. "Oy… oy!  Kristy!  Trouble!  We're in trouble!" she cried when the tug from the other side was suddenly stronger than her own team's pull.

"I'm on it.  And step!  And step!  Harder!  Harder!  Clench your asscheeks and step!  And step!  And step!" the firefighter roared as she followed the plan by taking baby-steps backward.

By now, the cloth at the center of the rope was dangling less than ten inches from the green team's cone. One or two steps further and they would win the whole thing - but the blue team fought back at the last moment which prompted a loud cheer from some of the spectators and a similarly loud groan from another camp. Literally through working in perfect step, the police officers were able to pull the cloth back another fifteen inches which made the challenge even greater for Stella, Kristy and their fellow meatheads.

"Ooooooh, that does it!" Stella cried as her hair continued to be thrown about from being jerked forward all over again. "Now I'm gettin' mad!  And that's mad with a capital Emm Aye Dee!  The world better watch out when I'm mad 'cos that's when wild and wacky things start to happen!  Are we really gonna let that buncha mustaches win this thing?  Keep steppin' back!  And one more step backward, everybody!" When no additional effort seemed to come from her fiery speech, she shook her head in frustration. "Ohhhhh!  Why won't anyone lissen to me, fer-cryin'-out-loud?  I just gonna hafta do it myself!  And heave-ho!"

Slamming the heels and the high-grip soles of her purple sneakers onto the hard ground, she grabbed the rope hard and clenched all her muscles - even those she did not know she had - to set the next part of her plan in motion. Grunting, groaning, roaring and sweating, she took a baby-step back, then another, then another.

Kristy tried her best to follow her, but it took the eight other members of their team longer to up their own efforts. Finally impressed by the passion for the cause put forth by the tiny pipsqueak, they really put their legs into it and began to walk back once more. Soon, the cloth tied to the rope had almost reached their home cone; three more inches and they would win the hard-fought event.

The three inches were delivered by a superhuman tug from Stella whose eyes were already rolling freely in her head. Hulking out to the Nth degree, she let her inner cavewoman take care of business by performing the decisive baby-step that made the waggling piece of cloth reach the green team's cone.

Then everything happened at once: The referee blew his whistle which let out a shrill noise. Then he threw his hands in the air to declare the green team the winner of the annual tug-of-war. Most of the spectators let out a wild cheer as did Kristy and the others. To play a little joke on the mustachioed police officers who were still hunkered down in their full combat-positions, the bulky members of the green team all let go of the rope at the exact same time - that is, all the members of the green team save for Stella Starr who was still trying to get her inner cavewoman shoved back into her dirt hovel for later use.

When the rope slacked off from one second to the next, the members of the blue team all fell onto their rears much to the delight of a section of the spectators. However, they held onto the rope as they fell which suddenly made it taut again. Stella had yet to release her death grip on the hemp rope, and the sudden forward motion launched her into an impressive ballistic glidepath.

She barely had time to let out a croaking "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!  Stella in distress!" before she found herself cruising through the wild blue yonder at an altitude of seventeen-thousand four-hundred feet with the wind gently rustling her hair and whistling in her ears. After coming nose-to-beak with two pigeons, a seagull and a colorful tweety-bird that she had no time to identify, she went through a series of well-executed acrobatic maneuvers. Two lazy corkscrew spins were followed by one-and-a-half loop-di-loops, a reverse somersault and even the infamous Hammer Drop skydiving specialty - head down, butt up - before she lined up to land on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier that battled through choppy seas far below her.

In most instances of such an event, the sea would be blue and the flight deck gray; here, the reverse was true. The involuntary aviator paused for a moment to ponder the peculiar aspect of her record-breaking flight into the upper atmosphere, but she came to realize there was nothing she could about it at that point in time - she would just have to come in on a wing and a prayer as always. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a tall, dark-haired figure dressed in white running across the gray sea with her arms flailing wildly all over the place. It was an interesting tidbit of information that she stored for later.

The merciless headwind tore through her shaggy haystack as she entered final approach. It struck her how calm she actually was considering she had no experience in landing supersonic aircraft anywhere, but she figured it had all happened so fast she had not had time to get scared or think about the details.

It proved to be anything but a textbook landing. The first impact had her ramming an elbow into someone's gut as she ended up on top of a blue sweatsuit - it earned her a ferocious belch directly into her right ear. The subsequent bounce sent her into the air once more; the second touch-down saw her accidentally ram a knee into someone's groin. Another bounce and another haystack-shaking forward somersault later, she came down for the third and final time directly at the feet of one of the nurses who had come running onto the field at the sight of the airborne disaster.

"Oy… oy, oy, oy… oy-oy-oy," Stella croaked as she rolled over onto her back to stare up at the blue sky that she had just seen up close and personal. The seagull and the two pigeons were still circling around up there, but the colorful tweety-bird was nowhere in sight. Panting heavily, she patted herself down to check if she had left any body parts behind at the customs desk - much to her relief, everything was still attached, even her glasses that had stayed on her nose through sheer magic.

When she noticed the tall figure dressed in white barging through the crowd, immediately followed by an equally tall figure dressed in red, she moved her hand up to offer the unknown persons a proper salute. "Asch-tronaut Schtella Schtarr reporting for duty, Sch-irrrr!"

"Ohhhh, Stella, are you all right?  Please talk to me!  Stell?  Stell?  Are you in there?  Stella?" Regina cried, kneeling next to the supine woman. Like Stella had done herself just a moment earlier, she patted down the entire frame to check for any missing components. When it earned her a tickle-snicker rather than a moan of pain, she let out a sigh of relief and dove down to place a huge, smothering lip-lock directly on her sweetheart's kisser. "I told you it was dangerous!  I told you!" she said while her hand flew around to caress Stella's chin, cheeks and forehead.

"Yeah, yeah… you told me," Stella croaked as she moved to sit up. With Regina's help, she was able to get into a comfortable position. She briefly reeled at the sight of the massive crowd of meatheads, hulking brutes, hairy fellows with prominent beer-guts, nurses, doctors and mustachioed police officers surrounding her, but she broke out in a goofy grin and gave them all a wave. When a tall oak wearing red stepped into her field of view, she needed to crane her neck back to take in the whole figure. "Hey, Sparky!  We did win, right?"

"We sure did… and all thanks to you. Man, that was the craziest shit I've ever seen!  And believe me, guys, I've seen some crazy shit in my time!" the firefighter said as she threw her wide arms into the air to illustrate the point.

"I believe you," Stella said and let out a snicker. The laughter got stuck in her throat when she happened to cast a glance at the doctor and several nurses who had turned to administer first-aid to an unfortunate mustachioed fellow in blue who seemed somewhat red-faced as he clutched his privates. Stella bared her teeth in equal measures of sympathy and embarrassment as she clambered to her feet.

Regina soon pulled the fearless aviator into a strong hug. "Congratulations," she whispered for Stella's ears only. "I'm so proud of you… here's another kissy just for you!  Mmmua!"

"Oooooh!  Thanks, Reggie!" Stella said before their lips met.

"Jeez, you guys," Kristy said with a grin as she thumped a meaty paw onto Stella's back after the kissing was complete. "I can't take it anymo'. Get a room or something, whydontcha?"

"Aw, we will… don't you worry 'bout that, ya big lug," Stella said with an even wider grin as she adjusted her glasses. "But first… I do ba-lieve we just won a token for a hot dog, didn't we?  Loooooove me some hot dogs… and all the trimmings!"

Regina grimaced at the mention of hot dogs and especially the trimmings - she recalled a situation at a certain flea market in Ramona Battista Park not too long ago that had also involved hot dogs and trimmings. That the day had nearly seen Stella wind up in jail did not add much positivity to her grimace. "Ah… yeah… perhaps we should skip the-"

"C'mon, Reggie… let's grab our- wait a minute… the Slurrpies!" Stella said, grabbing hold of Regina's arm. She whipped her head around several times while she looked for something that was missing although it should have been there. "Where are the awesome Slurrpy cooler bags?  And my camera?  And my mirror hangers?  And my hat?!  Ohhhh, I love that hat!"

"They're safe, Stella-dahling. I left them with Mary-Jane. She came by while you were, uh… tugging. Look," Regina said, turning around to point at the familiar figure of Inspector Moynes who guarded the items with all her natural authority.

"Phew, that's a load off," Stella said and waved at the inspector who duly waved back. "Hey, Kristy, after we're done here, I think we'll head out to Rockin' Ruby's for a refreshment or two. You interested?"

"Always, but I can't today, Stella. I'm on the night shift this week, so…" Kristy said with a shrug; the gesture made her tight T-shirt grow even tighter across her bulky shoulders.

"Okay. Durn. Maybe some other time, then?"

"You betcha."

"Right," Stella said and looked from one tall oak to the other. As the crowd dispersed around them, the main event was effectively over although they had yet to receive their prizes for winning. "Okay, let's get the tokens so we can get down wi'da hawt dawgs… and a Slurrpy. Or two. Or three. I think this success calls for a Cherry Cola to begin with, and then we'll see where we can go from there," she said as the three women began to shuffle over to the tail of the line that had begun to form where the police officer in charge of the tug-of-war handed out the tokens.

"Ugh," Kristy said, "anything but a Slurrpy. Gimme a Frizzie's and I'm in heaven. And especially no cherry cola… Jeez. Can't stand that artificial gunk…"

"Uh-buh-whut… I-beg-yer-pardon?!  You prefer Frizzie's to Slurrpy?  And you call the cherry colas artificial guh- guh- guh- gunk?!" Stella cried and promptly lost a step.

"Yeah!  Ya got a problem with that, shorty?" Kristy said with a lopsided grin and a little thump on Stella's shoulder.

The split second Stella drew a sharp intake of breath, Regina knew what was coming. She let out a deep sigh that was a perfect match to the length of her sweetheart's deep breath.

Another second later, Stella jumped into a long-winded, arm-waving, spit-flying, hair-shaking, fiery, intensely emotional and just plain overly protective defense of all things Slurrpy and especially her beloved cherry colas. It carried on all the way over to where they received their tokens, all the way back to where Mary-Jane Moynes was waiting for them, and all the way over to the police mess tent - it was only when she stuffed the business end of a hot dog with all the trimmings into her wide yap that she piped down, and even then, Regina and Kristy's ears were only spared for a few moments…








Written by Norsebard

A merciless battle of wits and strength had broken out in the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. Several exhausting rounds had been fought already, and the two prizefighters had found themselves to be evenly matched when it came to the determination, skills and winning instinct needed to come out on top. That they each possessed more inveterate stubbornness than an entire herd of crabby mules was only icing on the cake when it came to the entertainment value of the match.

In the greenish-brown corner, the tireless Paper Monster had so far put up a formidable defense that had seen it use its pointy, sharp tail to lash out at its opponent time and time again - but as the match had dragged on past the first dozen rounds, it had found itself on the proverbial ropes despite trying every suggestion in its little, black book of foul tricks to remain an active participant in the fight.

In the dirty-blonde corner, the fearless Stella Starr and her trusty ball point pen had fought back valiantly despite multiple smarting paper cuts and a mouth - and tummy - that had almost gone numb from chugging down the extra-extra-strong coffee that her supportive cheerleader Regina Harrison had made by the bucketload.

At present, the shaggy-topped pugilist wore band-aids on six of her fingers, another across her left nostril and a further one above her right eye. That and her dark expression of dogged determination made her look like a rough'n'ready bruiser from a filthy back alley rather than a private investigator.

As the gong sounded to end yet another round, the combatants withdrew to their corners. Stella downed another half-mug of pitch-black hi-octane rocket fuel in a single gulp, and since she needed no mouthpiece protecting her teeth for her fight against the Paper Monster, she had plenty of opportunity to wolf down most of a raspberry-frosted donut sponsored and delivered by Zeligman's Bakery as well - Zeligman's, Est. 1928: When Only The Very Best Will Do. Proud suppliers to the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency.

The laptop's screensaver kicked in to show an animated number-girl holding a sign while wiggling her hips to a pumping beat. Stella had insisted that Regina found one that used the image of a fully dressed woman rather than a traditional, scantily-clad bikini babe, but that had proven difficult to find. Though Regina had offered to use a bikini-image of herself so it would all stay in the family, so to speak, they had finally agreed on one that used a cartoon

character instead.

While all that was going on, Stella's number-one, real-life cheerleader Regina waved a towel in the fatigued fighter's flushed, sweaty face. "C'mon, Stell!" - Wave, flappy-flappy-flappety, wave - "I know you can do it!" - Wave, flappy-flappy-flappety, wave - "Only three more files to go!" - Wave, flappy-flappy-flappety, wave - "C'mon, Stell!" - Wave, flappy-flappy-flappety, wave - "Show that nasty critter how Stella Starr kicks hiney!" - Wave!

"I'm… trying… Reggie… it's… tough… so… so… tough…" Stella croaked around panting, sweating and pouring down another ten-gallon drum of rocket fuel. As she put down the empty mug in the only free spot on the desk, her smarting fingers were trembling from the amount of caffeine that she had taken onboard over the past few hours. Strong fatigue rolled over her now she was inactive, and all she could do was to stare straight ahead without actually seeing anything.

Recognizing all the signs of a looming burn-out before the vital third - and final - stage of the moon rocket could be ignited, Regina swept the towel over her shoulder and moved to stand behind her sweetheart's four-legged office chair. She soon settled in and let her slender, well-manicured fingers perform a deep massage of the taut muscles in her sweetheart's neck.

Stella's eyes popped wide open at the intimate touch, and she was utterly unable to stop an orgasmic moan from escaping her throat. "Ugh… ugh… Gaaaaaawd… ohhhhhhh… no… not now, Reggie… we… need… to… wait… hold-it… stop… I… can't… lose… focus… now!"

"Ooops!  So sorry," Regina said with a grin as she stepped back.

Before Stella could fully catch her breath, the gong sounded on the laptop's screensaver - and then she was thrust back into the ring fighting the dreaded Paper Monster.

Regina could see at once by Stella's uncoordinated gestures that instead of providing the much-needed boost she had hoped to provide, the massage had left the dirty-blond champion floundering. The end of the match may have been in sight, but there was still time for Stella to lose it all if they were not careful.

Something drastic needed to be done, so Regina left the corner of the desk behind to hustle into the storage room at the back of the office. The familiar sound effect of whip-whip-zippety-zippety-whippety-whip-zip was soon heard as she used her many years of experience getting dressed in a hurry at runway shows to don one of their disguises. She could not recall they had ever used that particular one, but it had been on special discount in the catalogue of Spyglass Spywear - one of their regular suppliers of disguises, surveillance equipment and other indispensable things for any serious Private Eye - so Stella had bought it just in case such a job ever came their way.

Hurrying back into the office, Regina raised a pair of spring-green pom-poms and waved them in the air. The rest of the disguise consisted of white boots that reached halfway up her calves, a pleated short-short-short skirt held in green-and-white, and an emerald-green sweater that had the swooping logo of the Bay City Four-Leaf Clovers pro-shuffleboard team on the front and rear. She jumped into position and let out a resounding: "Gimme an S!  S!  Gimme a T!  T!  Gimme an E!  E!  Gimme a double-L-A!  L-L-A!  Wots-that-spell?  Stella!" she cried, jumping up and down while shaking the green pom-poms and wiggling her rear end.

"Hoooooooo-ly squid!" Stella croaked as she stared wide-eyed at Regina's disguise and in particular at the four miles of bare skin on display above the boots, below the skirt and all along her endless legs. Even as Stella was watching with wide, staring eyes, Regina attempted to do a high kick like a real cheerleader would, but - for once - it was not as perfect as it could have been though it was certainly not for a lack of trying.

When fighting Paper Monsters, it has always been unwise to take one's eyes off the opponent for any length of time - even for a good cause like gawking at the cheerleaders - and Stella discovered that much to her detriment when an evil paper clamp snuck up on her, lashed out, and gave her a nasty blood-blister. To add insult to injury, it afflicted a finger that had not yet been nicked.

"Owwwwch!  Why I oughtta!" she groaned through clenched teeth while she waved her abused finger around. Even more determined than before, she thrust back into the battle with her ball point pen pointed straight ahead to act as a fearsome lance. Then she put it to good use by doodling her signature on yet another file to officially close that particular case.

"Oooooh-sweet, Stella!  Two more!  Two more!  Two more!  G'wan, you can do it!" Regina cried, going through all kinds of shimmies, shakes, weaves and attempted high-kicks as she waved, fluffed, shook and threw her impressive spring-green pom-poms.

"I'm givin' it all I got, Reggie!" Stella croaked as she delivered a few body blows to the Paper Monster and all its evil minions by flipping open the cover of the next case file. "But- but- but- this blip-bloppin' critter is one helluva tough opponent, I'm tellin' ya!"

Plenty of dust was kicked up as the battle raged back and forth. The fearless investigator ducked, weaved and doodled; similarly, the Paper Monster came off the ropes fighting, then fell back with a whimper to lure Stella into a trap. As Stella's treacherous opponent came out yet again, it tried a sneaky new approach by sending a stack of files onto the floor - fortunately for Stella's blood pressure, the paperwork had already been processed and was ready to be put back into the filing cabinets.

"Gimme an S!  S!" - Shake, shimmy, dip-down-low, hop-up-high, wiggly-wiggly-fly - "Gimme a T!  T!" - Shimmy, shake, dip-down-low, hop-up-high, wiggly-wiggly-fly - "Yip-yip-yee!" - Shake, shimmy, hop-up-high, dip-down-low, wiggly-wiggly-fly - "Gimme an E!  E!" - Shimmy, shake, hop-up-high, dip-down-low, wiggly-wiggly-fly - "Ooooh-ooooh-eeeeh!" - Shake, shimmy, dip-down-low, hop-up-high, wiggly-wiggly-fly - "Shim-shimme-nee!" - Shimmy, shake, dip-down-low, hop-up-high, wiggly-wiggly-fly - "Gimme a double-L-A!" - Shake, shimmy, hop-up-high, dip-down-low, wiggly-wiggly-fly - "L-L-A!" - Shimmy, shake, hop-up-high, dip-down-low, wiggly-wiggly-fly - "Wots-that-spell?" - Shake, shimmy, dip-down-low, hop-up-high, wiggly-wiggly-fly - "Stell-ll-lla!" Regina cried before she momentarily took off her pom-poms so she could have her hands free - then she bent over to scoop up the errant files.

Stella glanced at her cheerleader at just the wrong moment. Bending over in a short-short-short skirt was bound to highlight certain aspects of the bend-ee, and though the globular sights only distracted the dirty-blond prizefighter for a second or two, it was enough for one of the Paper Monster's pointy tail to lash out and provide the pre-occupied opponent with a paper cut on the right-hand pinkie.

"Owch!  Oh-fer-Flipper's-sake!  Mah pinkie!" Stella croaked as she jumped in her chair. "Ohhhhhhhhh-now-yer-reallllly-gonna-get-it!  I'm gonna- gonna- gonna- murder that no-good, down-low, dirty- take this!  Ha!  And this!  Double-Ha!" she cried as she flew through the case file to give it the final check-up and add her signature to the final page.

"Go-go Stella-dahling!  Gimme an S!" Regina continued after placing the stack of errant paperwork on her own desk for safekeeping.

By the time the last case file had been opened and was nearing completion, the Paper Monster in the greenish-brown corner seemed to come to terms with its impending defeat. Although it kept up a mighty defense until the end by causing its formidable opponent to become greatly confused - it had inserted several pieces of paper into the folder that belonged to a different case file altogether - its resolve weakened until it had to surrender with a sulking pout. Then it withdrew to its corner to wait for a new opportunity to strike another time.

"And… and… and… I'm done!  Ohhhhhhhhh, I'm done…" Stella croaked after throwing down the ball point pen following the final doodled signature. Falling against the backrest of her four-legged chair, she whipped off her glasses to give her flushed face a thorough rubbing.

In an instant, her number-one cheerleader waved the towel in her face to make it all better. "Oh, I'm so proud of you, Stella-dahling!" - Wave, wave, flappy-flappy-flappety, wave - "That was one of your best fights ever!" - Wave, wave, flappy-flappy-flappety, wave, wave! - "May I offer you a word of advice?" - Wave!

"Aw… yeah… but only if it's a positive one, Reggie," Stella said as she tried to regain her breath and composure after the ferocious match. Her hands were still trembling as the rocket fuel blasted around her bloodstream, and she had the oddest sensation in her tummy - it seemed a grizzly bear had just rolled over onto its side to check its calendar to see whether or not it was time to get up.

"Perhaps you should do the paperwork on a regular basis instead of letting it pile up like this?"

"That wasn't a positive one, Reggie," Stella said and shot Regina a dark gaze. "You know how fast-paced and hectic our line of work is. I mean, when a case comes our way, we need to act, and act pronto. That means 'now' in Eye-talian-"

"Ya don't say…"

"-and there just isn't any time for paperwork, ding-dong-darn'it!"

Regina kept up waving the towel for a few moments further until the flush had all but disappeared from Stella's face. "Mmmm-true… but then we have days like yesterday where nothing at all happened from when we got here until we went home again. Couldn't you perhaps have gone through, oh, just a couple of-"

"No I couldn't, Reggie!" Stella said and pinned her sweetheart to the spot. As she did so, the grizzly bear in her tummy revealed its bad mood by letting out a guttural growl - it had clearly discovered it had been stirred from its hibernation ahead of time. "You know full well I had to be over at Billy's the whole day… he had made a prioritized list of things to do to my Old Girl, and we needed to discuss the details!"

"You say the whole day… it was an hour and a half. Two hours tops."

Reeling at the dastardly backstabbing from her supposed number-one cheerleader, Stella needed to grab hold of the armrests to stop herself from sliding off the seat. "Oy!  Are you keeping a stopwatch on me, Reggie?!  I don't belieeeeeeeeve it!  I'm bein' scrutinized here like a… a… booger under a microscope!"

"Oh Gawd, Stell-" Regina croaked, squirming all over from the imagery.

"I had no time for paperwork yesterday 'cos the Pacer was more important. So there!"

A few seconds went by with nothing but chirping crickets and panting, trembling prizefighters. Then Regina fluffed the towel and put it over her shoulder. "Yes, dahling," she said as she leaned down to place a small peck on Stella's lips.

"Right!  And with that out of the way," Stella said as she scooped up a pile of the case files that she had worked hard on all morning. Once they had been tapped into an orderly stack, she got up from the four-legged chair and put them under her arm, "I gotta file these and then it's time for another donut and some coffee."

On her way over to the filing cabinets, she came to a halt and pressed a hand against her tummy that let out a hideous gurgle at the exact same time. The disturbed grizzly bear performed one of those classic grizzly-feats by standing up on its hind legs and roaring Now I'm Gonna Tear Ya To Shreds With My Eye Teeth For Waking Me Up Early, Ya Miserable So-and-So!

"On second thoughts," she croaked once the bear had put all four legs back on the ground, "ugh… ughhh… I think the rocket fuel's about to come back to bite me… I better have a Slurrpy Classic Cola instead. Always soothes my sensitive tummy when I've had a pepperoni too many."

"A pepperoni pizza too many," Regina mumbled out of the corner of her mouth. Picking up her spring-green pom-poms, she shook them hard to make it appear they had made the noise instead of her.


"Nothing, dahling!"

"Yeah, right…" Stella growled. She was about to let rip with a quality selection of hand-picked, gold-plated barbs when her sensitive tummy knocked on the proverbial door and told her the grizzly bear was getting mighty peeved and threatened to bust down the walls of its cavern unless something was done about its poor living conditions - and in an almighty hurry.

"Be right back!" she groaned before she hurried over to the bathroom door. The files under her arm clearly hindered her, but the snag was solved by dumping the entire stack on Regina's desk first. "And this is your problem to deal with!"

"Yes, Ma'am!  Yippity-yippity-yee!" Regina cried, jumping into another high kick before she shook her fluffy pom-poms to within an inch of their lives.








Written by Norsebard


The banner hanging above the fire-proof metal door said it all: Darrian Modeling Agency - Open Try-outs - SAT and SUN. On the door itself, a large sign that had been sticky-taped onto it read: No admittance beyond this point for ANYONE without proper accreditation.

The reinforced door and the wall it had been built into were both part of a large warehouse that Steve Darrian's agency had rented for the weekend. A small army of roadies had worked hard to construct a proper forty-yard runway so the young, hopeful models could strut their stuff in surroundings that would match those found on professional events. A host of dressing rooms - or dressing tents, to be precise - had been built at the far end of the raised platform, and chairs and tables meant to be used by relatives, talent scouts and photographers had been set up on three of the four sides of the rectangular runway.

At present, several representatives from the Zane-Larkin Agency and the Stone Brothers had their heads together discussing the quality of the young models they had seen so far. Both agencies were scouting for fresh faces to fill out their third-tier rosters so they were in direct competition with each other; even so, everybody knew everybody in the small world of talent scouting so a little shop talk was inevitable.

The people from Williamson, Crewe & Rosenthal kept to themselves as always. They were the big-shots who had all the world's top supermodels like Lele da Silva on their roster - the woman of Brazilian descent who had inherited Regina Harrison's title of Undisputed Queen Of The Catwalks - so they could afford to remain in the background.

Regina Harrison and Stella Starr were there in person as well. Regina's decades of experience, her sharp eye for fresh talent and her close working relationship with Steve Darrian obviously demanded her presence, but it had taken plenty of bribing to make the mop-topped investigator come along. Stella had eventually relented with her only demand being that she would not have to spend any time alone with Steve. The deal had been sealed with a kiss which made it all a little sweeter.

When it came down to it, Stella need not have worried: Although Steve had a chair with his name on it on the right-hand side of the runway not too far from where Regina and Stella sat, he had been so busy with this, that and everything else that he had yet to sit in it during the first three hours of the try-outs.

Regina - who wore a low-key outfit consisting of a white shirt, a dark-blue sports blazer and a pair of slacks in a matching color so she would not outshine the young models - had moved her chair over to one of the tables so she could keep a thorough record of the talent who walked past her up on the runway.

The other member of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency was sprawled all over her chair while being fast asleep and snoring loudly. As the next part of the show got underway, the pumping disco rhythms that burst forth from several speakers stirred Stella and made her rub her face. She cast a disinterested glance at the young hopefuls who sashayed down the runway in the peculiar walk that Regina had also mastered - the one where their hips slammed left-and-right while their upper bodies hardly moved. A very wide yawn was her response to the whole thing. Rubbing her face again, she realized the two cans of Slurrpy Classic Cola she had downed earlier in the day as a pre-emptive pick-me-up for what would undoubtedly be a snoozer of a day were knocking on the proverbial door to be let back out.

Shuffling around, she got up and stretched her arms sky high to get the last sleepies out. She had agreed to dress low-key as well - though for an entirely different reason than Regina - so she wore a pair of white basketball boots, regular blue jeans and a loose green-and-red flannel shirt over a black T-shirt. As she looked at her sweetheart, she noticed that the hard-working woman had her game face on while observing the young models, so she did not want to disturb her with something as trivial as needing to go. Yawning again, she moved away from the chairs to search for the restrooms she knew had to be around there somewhere.


Regina's ball point pen flew across the ruled paper to create a copious amount of notes as she took in every last detail of every last hopeful who had made the tour of the runway. The fact that it was an open try-out meant there was a great deal of chaff among the wheat, but she had seen one or two potential third-tier prospects for Steve's agency over the course of the show's first afternoon. Many of the young models were minors which meant their parents were there as well; it created a distraction, but one that she would not allow to color her evaluation.

The infamous 'ten percent' rule said that out of a thousand prospects who tried to be spotted at these kinds of try-outs, a hundred would be selected and go into some kind of low-level, third-tier modeling career. Ten of those would climb the ladder to become second-tier models. One, and only one, of those would enter the glittery, diamond-studded, near-mythical upper echelon and become a phenomenon: the first-tier superstars with whom the world was on a first-name basis, and who could easily demand a five or six-figure sum for even getting out of bed in the morning.

Regina had yet to see anyone who had the potential to advance to that category among the current batch of hopefuls, but even she could be surprised from time to time - when a certain look came into demand, the golden spotlight might fall upon someone who had not even been considered a week before.

Once the last of the young models on the runway had sashayed back to the dressing rooms, Steve came out to inform the various scouts and photographers they were taking another short break but that they would return fifteen minutes later with a new group of models wearing urban clothes from the Street Tuff by Rokkstar brand. As the pumping music died down and the spotlights directed at the runway went off, Regina tapped her paperwork into an orderly stack and got up from the chair.

It was only then she noticed that Stella's chair was still empty. "Hmmm… Stell?" she said, looking around the showroom for the easily recognizable shock of dirty-blond hair. The hair and the rest of Stella Starr were nowhere to be found. Furrowing her brow, Regina stuffed the large amount of notes into her briefcase and pushed it under the table before she went on a quest to find the missing investigator.


Nobody had seen Stella in the dressing tents, nor had she been at the free catering service which was so out of character that Regina could hardly fathom it - at least not until she caught a glimpse of the vast selection of fresh fruit, healthy snacks and cans of diet soda and carbonated mineral water on offer.

Two short flights of stairs had been built leading up to the central point of the runway so the models had a second means of getting back to the dressing tents in case of a logjam. Regina soon climbed the four steps to use the runway as a platform to scout for her missing sweetheart. "Hmmm!" she said again, scratching her dark tresses when she realized something odd was going on.

After walking back down the matching flight of stairs on the other side of the runway, she crouched down to peek in under the flat surface of the catwalk to see if Stella had found a comfy, little spot to sleep in among the metal scaffolding. The notion was a solid one, but Stella was not down there either.

"Where in the world could she have gone?" Regina mumbled. She caught a brief glimpse of a harried-looking Steve Darrian who had grown a tail of scouts and agents that all wanted a slice of his time; she did in fact consider that he might have had something to do with Stella's disappearance, but cast it aside at once - though there was plenty of bad blood between the two people who were both stubborn as a mule at the best of times, it was not quite that bad. Or at least not yet.

Returning to the chairs reserved for the Darrian Modeling Agency as well as Harrison-Starr, Regina suddenly noticed something reflecting the light on the floor below the chair Stella had used. Bending over, she picked up a credit-card-sized piece of plastic - and then she groaned long and hard when she realized she was looking at Stella's mug shot on her official accreditation.

The piece of plastic was supposed to be attached to the lapel of Stella's flannel shirt through a small pin, but the locking mechanism had become loose so it had obviously fallen off without the wearer noticing anything. "Oh, Stell," she groaned, checking that her own accreditation was still in place - then she spun around on her heel and strode over to the metal door they had used to get into the warehouse. Among other things, the restrooms were out there.


It only took Regina oh-point-three of a second to recognize the dense cloud of vitriol that floated around the paved, open area just beyond the exit. Another oh-point-three seconds later, her ears picked up the familiar sound of Stella Starr in the middle of one of her infamous gold-plated, ocean-going, five-star, red-faced, hair-tearing, spit-flying temper flares where every other word out of her mouth rhymed with …ucker.

"Oh, Stell," Regina groaned again as she looked to her left, then to her right to find her sweetheart before it could get any worse. Seven broad-shouldered security people who all had shaved heads, bull necks and hairy paws were huddled up near a corner not too far from the row of portable restrooms like they had trapped a ferocious raccoon, a rabid dog or possibly a ferocious, rabid Stella Starr.

The men - none of which were shorter than six-foot-six - all wore black military boots, black combat outfits and black wraparound sunglasses to be as intimidating as possible, but it did not seem to work too well with the dangerous animal they had cornered. One of the men wore a red armband around his trunk-like upper arm identifying him as the Chief Of Security, and he spoke into a walkie-talkie like he was asking someone for permission to return fire.

"Well, at least I found her," Regina mumbled as she strode over to the security personnel. Peeking past their broad backs, she was able to catch a fleeting glimpse of Stella who seemed to be ready to ignite her booster rockets for her seventh and final stage.

"Excuse me, Gentlemen… excuse me, please… coming through… hello?" Regina said as she stepped forward. Moving in between the beefy guards proved to be difficult, so she ended up having to barge her way through while holding up not only her own accreditation but Stella's as well.

"Reggie!" Stella cried in a semi-hoarse voice. "Holy blip-bloppa-rooney, am I glad to see you!  I've been stuck here on latrine-row for a frick-frackin' half hour!  I had a Slurrpy too many so I hadda pee, but then these… these… frickin' overgrown garden gnomes wouldn't let me back in 'cos I had lost my riffer-raffin' whatshamacallit… the one you have right there!" she said while pointing frantically at the credit-card-sized piece of plastic. Then she turned back to the Chief Of Security. "See!  See there, ya buncha numbskulls!  Told ya I had it… didden I tell ya?  Yes, I blip-bloppin' did!  More than once!  More than twice!  Hell, I told ya fifty frickin' billion times that I had it!"

"Stell, we better leave now," Regina tried. When her words had little effect, she took hold of her sweetheart's shoulders and led her back through the black, threatening wall of beef.

Neither the Chief Of Security nor any of his guards could be bothered to make any kind of comment on that. Instead, they gave the accreditation of both Regina and Stella an extra-thorough inspection before they allowed the two women to go back inside.

Stella almost lost her ability to speak when the men did not even grant her an apology, but she got the last shot in when she spun around in the doorway to let out a resounding: "Ha!  ha!  And another ha!  And you!  You there, Chief Buster, you get a har-di-flip-floppin'-har-har for good measure!  Thank you and good night!  And if I ever catch you doin' this to other defenseless wimmenfolk, me and Atomic Stella gonna make you wish yo mommas never went into labor!  Ha!"

"Stell…" Regina groaned, but Stella just drew a deep breath to carry on. It was perhaps not the most prudent thing to do in that situation, so Regina leaned down to slap a full-contact lip-lock onto Stella's mouth to make her understand that it was a good time to calm down - it worked.

Back inside the rented warehouse, Regina put her hands on Stella's shoulders and guided her over to their chairs. "Now sit. Please. You know how to sit, don't you?  You just bend your knees and slap your butt onto the seat."

Though Stella did follow the request, she turned around at once to shoot her sweetheart a sideways glance. "Haw, haw… what gives, Reggie?  I hadda pee… I mean, is that a crime?  I guess it is around here. What a buncha-"


"All right, all right. I'll be as quiet as a mouse," Stella said and made the familiar gesture of zipping her lips. It lasted less than a heartbeat before she drew another deep breath: "Okay, maybe not as a mouse 'cos mice are kinda noisy when you think of it. They squeak and all sorts of other things. Naw. I'll be as quiet as a camel. Wait, don't camels bark?  I think they do. I saw that on National Geographic once. Or was it a sea lion?  Yeah, I think it was a sea lion instead, ack-chew-ly. They definitely bark. I don't know what the frick a camel does to be honest. Whinny?"

"What does it matter what kind of sound a camel makes?!" Regina said and threw her arms in the air. Letting out a deep sigh, she clutched her hands to her heart. "Please, Stell… I'm working and it's really important. Just sit there or go back to sleep."

Chirping crickets.

"Are we a little irritable today, Reggie-dahling?"

Regina scrunched up her face into an annoyed mask. She counted to ten, then seventeen on the inside before she broke out in a sugary smile that was perhaps not quite sincere. "A little, yes. In fact, I was about to ask Steve if he would mind sitting here for a little while so we could bask in his soothing presence."

"A-ha… yes. Okay. Mmmm-hmmm. Uh-huh. Mmmm. I see," Stella said, shuffling around on the chair. "Point taken, Snookums. Tell ya what, I'll go back asleep, then you can take all the notes you like… okay?"

"Works for me, Stella-dahling," Regina said and sent her sweetheart a few kissies - just in time, too, because Steve Darrian soon came back out onto the runway to announce the start of the next part of the try-outs. Regina sat down at once and took the large amount of notes out of her briefcase so she could continue writing down everything she saw.

"Yeah… what we don't do for l-o-v-e," Stella mumbled as she scooted down low in the chair and crossed her legs at the ankles. Though the pumping rhythms began to stream from the speakers once more, she closed her eyes and was soon headed back to dreamland. Then she mumbled: "I could drink a Slurrpy… I wonder if the catering people could find me a raspberry fizz if I asked really nicely…?"








Written by Norsebard





Just over a week later.

The dog days of August offered a good opportunity to reflect on the summer as it entered its final few weeks. All in all, it had been a positive affair for the many inhabitants of the large city by the silvery bay that had given it its name. Some days had been too wet and windy, others had been too hot and humid; most had been just right with plenty of sun and a gentle breeze that swirled down from the blue skies and their eternal companions, the fluffy white clouds.

Those thoughts and more ran through the mind of Stella Starr as she stood by the window overlooking the parking lot in front of the low building housing the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. The bay by the low stone fence where she had always parked her AMC Pacer was still vacant. When Billy had begun working on it, he had discovered several new, urgent problems that needed to be fixed before the Old Girl could return to the street.

A long sigh escaped Stella just thinking about the time-consuming restoration, not to mention the added cost. She had hoped the car would be in one piece for a special event - a car show celebrating the vehicles made by the American Motors Corporation of all things - that had cropped up out of nowhere in the last weekend of August, but now it appeared it would not be ready in time. She did not even dare to dream that it would be back on the road in time for her best friend Laura Cruz' wedding in September.

She had fallen into one of her periods of melancholy so she could not help but reflect on the waning days of summer and how the weeks, months and years simply flew by - soon, they would once more be stuck in the middle of the chilly, wet, overcast and generally dreary winter. Only the bright colors of her beloved Christmas period stopped Stella from spending the months from mid-October to mid-March snuggled up in her bed under her warm winter duvet twenty-four-seven.

Even her garb was far more subdued than usual: instead of the garish shorts and tank tops featuring her favorite cartoon characters or provocative statements, she wore a pair of well-worn blue jeans and a loose, olive-green shirt that covered a black O-neck T-shirt. At the far end of her legs, she wore a pair of charcoal-gray sports socks so even they were devoid of any splashes of color. Her shaggy mop of dirty-blond hair resisted any kind of styling from even the world's greatest hairdresser wielding the world's largest tube of gel, so everything up top had remained standard.

It was always impossible to predict how many assignments they could expect to get at any given time, but the past few weeks had been an unusually slow period for the agency - a fact that did not improve her mood nor her cash flow. An even worse fact was that her arch-nemesis Steve Darrian was scheduled to come over in the not-too distant future.

A quick glance at the wall-mounted clock revealed that the relentless hands had already moved around to the pre-arranged meeting time. Sighing, she moved away from the window and shuffled over to her desk. A glass of lemon-flavored iced tea stood on the corner of the desk, but it had been a while since she had sampled it. Picking up the glass, she chugged down the lukewarm refreshment on her way over to her four-legged chair to get it over and done with.

The familiar sound of splashing water offered a hint what went on in the bathroom at the other end of the office. Stella scrunched up her face and let out a long sigh at the thought that her business associate slash main squeeze Regina Harrison insisted on doing something as potentially seductive as taking her second shower of the day - and not only that, but using one of her outrageously expensive perfumes as well - just because Steve was to come over.

Stella needed to do something with her hands to take her mind off all the negativity ganging up on her, so she moved up the glass of iced tea to allow the three half-melted ice cubes at the bottom to run into her mouth. Once the three cubes were resting on her tongue, she put the glass down on the desk's blotting pad and reached into the bottom drawer instead.

A faint smile spread over her closed mouth as she spotted one of the only things that added a bit of life and color to her generally depressing childhood: a Rubik's Cube. It was not the original one she'd had back then - that had been played with so often it had simply fallen apart - but it was a genuine product from the 1980s that Regina had bought for her from an online vintage toy shop. Touching the quality plastic soothed her, and she was soon lost to the world twisting, turning and trying to combine the colors.


Ten minutes later, Regina exited the bathroom and clicked off the lights with her elbow. She continued to rub the moisturizing cream into her hands and lower arms as she stepped back into the office. Her lips glistened in a faint, pink color and she had added a little blush to her cheeks as well as a dark eyeliner around her ice-blue orbs. Unlike the norm, she wore her dark tresses in a tight ponytail but she had left a few locks hanging down across her forehead to act as bangs.

She wore dark-blue ballet flats, a pair of form-fitting, Navy-blue cotton slacks - that accentuated her endless legs in a business-like rather than a provocative manner - and a white silk shirt that featured wide lapels and an eight-inch tall V-shape at the top so the world could see the tanned, unblemished skin on her throat and upper chest. The quality ensemble from the Lana é Mara clothing company was accompanied by a good squirt of Striking Beauty by LaBelle, a perfume that had won a gold medal at the World Perfume Awards in Monte Carlo.

The two women briefly locked eyes before Regina sashayed over to her desk and sat down on her swivel-chair. She put her legs up on the corner as always but kept her shoes on for a change. When Stella's only reaction to her grand entrance was another drawn-out sigh, she craned her neck to look at her shaggy-topped sweetheart. "Still down?"


"What can I do to help?"

"Nothing right now. Thanks."

"Is it because of Steve?"

Stella sighed again and put away the Rubik's Cube. After shutting the bottom drawer, she leaned back in her four-legged chair and put her arms behind her head. A strong whiff of Regina's outrageously expensive perfume wafted across the office and completely drowned out her own two-for-$2,95 noname roll-on deo stick that she had bought at CoolMart. "Yeah… it is. And also because you think you need to get dolled up for that land-shark. I mean… look at you. You're wearing make-up for cryin' out loud. And a Wonderbra. Reggie, if there are two things you don't need, it's make-up and a push-'em-up. You're gorgeous enough without all that fakery."

"Why thank you, dahling," Regina said and attempted to flick her hair around - because of the ponytail, her hair did not obey and refused to fall into its regular, perfect cascade. "Does that mean you think I still got it?"


Chuckling, Regina reached for her smartphone to check the time. "I see your point, Stell, but the reason I'm doing it is that Steve doesn't. To him, a woman without make-up might as well be a piece of furni-"

"I don't wanna hear it, Reggie. So save your breath," Stella said and thumped her right fist onto her chair's armrest.


Exactly on cue, a ridiculously long stretch limousine entered the parking lot in front of the low building housing the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. While the barge-sized vehicle performed a seven-point turn to come about, Regina got up from her desk and sashayed over to Stella's. "Please be nice. Steve is a very important part of my second career in front of the camera. And my second career is very important to me."

"I know, I know," Stella said and got up from her four-legged chair. "And it's very important to me that you're happy and content, so… I'll be nice. I promise."


"Unless he makes a pass for you. In that case, I'll wake up Atomic Stella and get her to take out the blip-bloppin' trash."

Regina blinked a couple of times before she pulled her sweetheart in for a sideways hug. "Don't you worry 'bout that. If he does make a pass for me, I'll go all wacky wabbit on him!"

Now it was Stella's time to blink a couple of times at Regina's uncharacteristic silliness; then she broke out in a snicker. "Works for me, Reggie!"


Three minutes later, Stella let out an "Enter!" as a response to the brief knock-knock on their front door. As Steve Darrian walked into the office, Stella let out her umpteenth sigh of the day while she tried to screw a smile onto her face. The first three attempts all failed before the fourth one seemed to want to stick around - alas, it only lasted for fifteen seconds before it too melted off her features.

Mr. Chiseled Jaw - as Stella preferred to call him - presented an impressive, square-shouldered figure as always by wearing gray leather loafers and a steel-gray business suit that seemed to have silvery sparklies woven into the fabric. The suit covered a pink button-down shirt and a steel-gray tie that matched the outer colors. Gold cufflinks and a diamond-studded tie-pin held this and that in place. His broad frame, square jaw and fashionable two-day stubble had not changed since Stella had seen him last, but his hair had been heavily gelled and swept back to make him resemble a cross between a big-city mobster and a sneaky divorce attorney. He carried a dark-brown leather briefcase in his right hand that was also home to a fat gold chain around his wrist.

"Regina… still looking wonderful," he said in his trademark silky-smooth baritone the moment he clapped eyes on his former lover and current number-one attraction. Ignoring the fact that Stella had tried to do the polite thing by extending her hand for a shaking, he went straight over to Regina and moved in deep for a double-cheek-kiss.

Before he could get that far, Regina stopped him by putting out her own hand. A brief grunt escaped his lips, but he settled for greeting her in the traditional fashion - at least to begin with.

And Stella kept standing in the middle of the office with her hand stretched out ahead of her.

Instead of acknowledging the other, senior member of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, Steve moved over to the couch by the low coffee table. The leather briefcase was put on the table and clicked open before he reached into a pocket to find a handkerchief. After brushing off the seat of the couch to get rid of various crumbs and other leftovers, he pulled up his expensive pants so he would not risk getting baggy knees as he sat down.

And Stella kept standing in the middle of the office with her hand stretched out ahead of her.

"Come, have a seat, Regina," their guest said as he patted the spot next to him on the couch. "I have a couple of really exciting things to share with you today. Before we get to that, you need to approve the selection from the last shoot. Then we need to schedule the next one."

"All right," Regina said as she first looked at Steve and then over at Stella who had yet to move out of her right-hand-forward position. She knew the bad blood ran both ways, but she could not remember it had been quite that bad the last time they had met. She sat down on the couch to get things underway though her lips were pulled back in an annoyed grimace. Almost at once, Steve offered her a silky smile that made her move another couple of inches away from him.

And Stella kept standing in the middle of the office with her hand stretched out ahead of her.

"I've updated our star gallery with what I considered the best images from the last session," Steve continued as he pulled a hi-gloss print-out of the aforementioned online collection of promotional images from his leather briefcase, "and there's already been interest from a South African jewelry company and a Swiss manufacturer of suitcases."

"That's nice," Regina said, eyeing Stella rather than the print-out.

Steve nodded and pulled several more items from his briefcase, including a tablet computer. "Oh, it's more than merely nice, Regina. It's very good news for all of us," he said as he accessed the tablet to enter the appointments app.

And Stella kept standing in the middle of the office with her hand stretched out ahead of her.

"We've already agreed on the photoshoot in early September, but I believe we should go for a second one the following week, or weekend, and then one in mid-October," Steve continued as he gave the tablet's display a couple of swipes to access the proper week. Once he had found it, he came to a halt and shot Regina a gaze that said When are you going to come to your senses?  Dump that frog and come back to me without even trying to conceal his true agenda - it caused Regina to look away.

A grin flashed across Steve's face before he continued working on his tablet computer. "We need to strike while the iron is hot… and believe me… if it got any hotter, it would melt."

Regina stopped the negative grunt she was about to let out; she replaced it with a more neutral "Mmmm…"

And Stella kept standing in the middle of the office with her hand stretched out ahead of her.

"Nothing has been set in stone yet, but I've had first contact with a representative from a Canadian outdoors clothing company. He was interested in girls who had a certain rugged, outdoorsy quality to them for a location shoot in a forest somewhere up in the Pacific North-West. From what I could read between the lines of our conversation, he was really asking about you."

"Well," Regina said and rubbed her chin as a reflex at the sight of the burgundy flush that had fallen over every inch of Stella's face as a result of Steve's barely-hidden contempt for her, "I'm not exactly the rugged, outdoorsy type, you know…"

Steve waved a dismissive hand at the objection. "Ah, once you're wearing nubuck boots, cargo pants and a ribbed sweater while leaning against a fallen tree, you'll be shining like the supernova you are. They love you. They want you. They're gonna get you… and they'll pay through the nose for the privilege."

And Stella kept standing in the middle of the office with her hand stretched out ahead of her.

Regina'd had about all she could take of the extremely embarrassing cold shoulder on display, so she leaned over to put a hand on their guest's arm before he could go on. "Steve… please… can't you just shake hands with Stella so we can stop this idiotic circus act?"

Steve turned to look at the other member of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. A fake smile fell over his lips as he got up from the couch and put out his hand. "Oh, hello Miss Starr. I'm so sorry for my indiscretion. I completely missed you before. I see you still haven't discovered which end of the brush you use to fix your hair."

Regina groaned; Stella settled for shaking hands with the slick operator to begin with. She clenched her jaw hard while she wrestled with Atomic Stella to try to keep the inner spitfire cool, calm and collected. After swallowing a couple of times to get at least some of the volcanic temper to go away, she screwed yet another smile on her face. "Mister Darrian. Oh, happy sixtieth birthday, by the way. You don't look a day over fifty-nine… but I think you need a new plastic surgeon. The scars are beginning to show a little around your eyes. Or maybe they're just wrinkles, I dunno."

Regina groaned even louder and buried her face in her hands.

The aforementioned eyes of the forty-eight-year-old Steve Darrian narrowed down into dangerous slits at the horrifying insult, but he eventually matched Stella's fake smile with one of his own.

Once the traditional greeting had been accomplished and the traditional barbs had been exchanged, Stella spun around on her heels and stomped back to her four-legged chair at her desk.

Steve grinned mischievously as he sat down next to Regina once more. "With that out of the way," he said, casting a sideways glance at Stella while he spoke - then he turned to shoot his old lover a longer gaze, "let's move onto the first of the exciting things I wanted to share with you. I've invested some money in a Hollywood casting agency to broaden my horizons a little. It's already paid off, because yesterday I was contacted by an agent representing a well-known movie actress."

"Oh?" Regina said, putting down the collection of hi-gloss images after only giving it a quick leaf-through.

"Yes. The actress has the leading role in a new, large-budget crime drama that's currently in pre-production at Fox. P.Q. Archersson I take it the character is called. There's already talk about planning a series around her if it's a hit. The agent told me that her client has expressed interest in getting to know the ins and outs of the real-life private detective business so she has something to build her character on. She's one of those method actresses… you know?"


"It would make good promotional sense for my modeling agency, for the actress and for your company if you accepted the deal so she could tag along with you for a few days… or cases, or whichever way you actually work here. How about it?"

Regina scratched her cheek as she looked over at Stella. "Well… I can't make that decision on my own. Stell?"

Stella sighed and folded her arms across her chest. Her first impulse was to shoot the suggestion down in flames, but with the period being so slow for the detective agency, it could perhaps be an interesting diversion to see things from a different perspective. Another sigh followed before she broke out in a shrug. "Yeah, okay… let's try it. What's the name of the actress?"

"Oh," Steve said with a nonchalant wave, "I'm not sure I ought to divulge-"

"Her name or forget it," Stella said in a surly tone.

"Millie Jordan. You agree?"

Stella let out a "Mmmm…" that could mean anything but that was predominantly positive. Moving down her arms, she reached for the laptop and accessed the Internet at once to look up the actress on the largest of the online movie databases. Millie Jordan had been credited with parts in twenty-four movie projects with another three labeled In development - one of which was the crime drama in question - but Stella only recognized a few of the titles. Most seemed to be contemporary relationship dramas, but a few of her earliest works appeared to have been silly teen comedies of the forgotten-in-fifteen-minutes kind. "Mmmm… okay. All right," she said as she closed the lid on the laptop.

"Good!  I'll give the agent a call as soon as we're done here," Steve continued before he turned back to Regina. "Now… the other exciting thing I wanted to share is that I've found a movie script that has a fabulous part with your name written all over it."

The pause in his delivery was meant to stir Regina's interest, but it seemed it did not have the desired effect - when she did nothing but shoot him a neutral look, he continued: "I know how much you like horror movies, and this is a medium-budget slasher picture filmed locally. Although the director and the leading actors are relative newcomers, several big genre names have been attached to it as well to draw in their fans."

"I don't know why you're telling me this, Steve… I don't know the first thing about acting."

"Oh, Regina, that's not true," Steve said in a silky-smooth voice as he put a hand on his former girlfriend's knee. The large, well-manicured paw made a few rubbing gestures on the Navy-blue slacks before it became still. "You act every time a camera's pointed at you. This wouldn't be any different except you have a few lines to say, of course. And you have such a wonderful voice. Sultry. Husky. Sexy."

A sudden, but certainly resounding, noise that was a cross between a snort, a groan and a muffled curse flew across the office from the direction of Stella's desk.

"Uh-huh?  Do you mind…?" Regina said, pointing at the unwanted hand that continued to squeeze and caress her knee.

Steve grinned but pulled back nonetheless. "I don't need a clear yes or no right now, but it's a great part. It's almost tailor-made for you… she's the owner of an all-night diner and it's her son who's the main antagonist. Or blood-thirsty maniac if you will. The diner's the spot for many of the movie's vital scenes so you'd get to act with the big names. There's a pretty nifty sum on the line for you if you agree to it. I think you should at least consider it."

Rubbing her brow, Regina looked across the office at Stella, but the senior investigator was too busy scowling and mouthing obscenities directed at Steve to add her two cents' worth to the discussion. "Well… sure, I might consider it…"


"Hold it, Steve… I need to read the script first. The entire script, not just my scenes or lines."

"Oh, I can definitely arrange that," Steve said with a broad grin. "I'm connected, you know that. In Hollywood, everything's just a phone call away."

Regina let out a snort not too dissimilar to the one that had escaped Stella earlier. "We're not in Hollywood… and what's in it for you?"

"Oh, plenty."

A few words that shared a passing resemblance to "like the casting couch, you crummy ball of blip-bloppin', fricky-frackin' green puke," followed by another snorting, growling groan wafted across the office from Stella's desk.

Steve ignored the barb completely. Closing his briefcase, he got up from the couch and put out his hand. When Regina took it, he pulled her into a half-hug that ended in the double-cheek-kiss he had been cheated out of when he got there. Regina responded to it by turning as stiff as an ironing board while he was close.

It did not stop a broad grin from spreading over Steve's face. "It was a pleasure as always. Did I mention you look absolutely stunning today?  Just my type. Mmmm-hmm-hmmm. But you always were," the owner of the modeling agency said as he strolled over to the front door. "I'll be in touch," he said and left the office - and once again, he could not be bothered to look in Stella's direction.

Exactly two-point-seven seconds went by after Steve Darrian had closed the door before Stella jumped up from her chair, strode across the plush, pale-gray carpet, wrapped her arms around her sweetheart, pulled her down toward her and gave her a storming kiss she would remember even on her one-hundred-and-first birthday.

"Whoa!" Regina croaked once they separated. She stared wide-eyed at the mop-topped woman in her arms like she could not quite fathom what she had done to deserve such a present.

"That, my dear Reggie," Stella said and moved her hand down to rest on the taller woman's side, "was my way of saying that I kinda love ya and that I kinda wanna keep ya… uh, in a completely non-creepy, non-possessive and non-stalkery way, of course."

"How fortunate that I kinda love ya too, and that I kinda wanna stick around, then, huh?  And forget about Steve. He's yesterday's news."

"He's yesterday's stinky tuna wrapped in yesterday's news," Stella said with a grin.

"Oh, that's even better," Regina said before she returned the favor by leaning down and repeating the storming kiss to equal the score.


The next day had already seen a little of this, a little of that and plenty of the other by the time the hands of time had rotated around to just after two o'clock in the afternoon. A courier service had dropped off the movie script just after eleven, and Regina had been busy going through it with a fine tooth comb ever since. She had found a pair of brightly-colored highlighters in her desk drawer to mark out her lines and interesting scenes, but the caps had remained on ever since putting them on the coffee table.

Stella had spent a good portion of the day with the receiver for the old-fashioned landline telephone pinned down between her cheek and her shoulder: first in line on the line, their old informer Joe had called. She was surprised to even hear from him since she was under the impression that he had gone belly-up in a bottle of his beloved rat-gut Cherry Brandy; he was very much alive and claimed to have a fantastic tip for the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. His asking price was his standard gallon of low-grade brandy, but Stella had managed to lure the information out of him without adding to his already woozy condition. It had proven to be a bust like always.

Then a client had called - without asking for Mr. Harrison Starr which had startled Stella to such a degree she had nearly taken a tumble off her four-legged chair - with a small job for them. The lady at the other end of the line had just finalized her divorce, and she needed someone to drop off the paperwork to her future ex-husband the following day. It was a standard job for the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, so Stella had asked for their standard fee of $300. Everything had been agreed upon, and they were to pick up the files from the lady's house the following day after she had returned home from work.

A short thirty minutes after that, Millie Jordan's agent had called and had gushed a stream of endless, meaningless platitudes into Stella's ear about how wonderful the actress was, and how wonderful the movie project was, and how wonderful it was that a bona fide detective agency would reach out and invite someone into their midst. Stella's entire part of the conversation had been nothing but "Uh-huh… okay… yeah… well… nuh-uh… I see… how 'bout that…" while the agent had taken care of the rest of the tidal wave of words. In short, the actress was going to show up between two-thirty and three o'clock for a chat.

When all that had been settled, Stella had called Zeligman's Bakery to make them come over at no later than twenty past two with a small carton of cream and a large box of their award-winning chocolate muffins.

The hands of time had ticked on while Stella had thought about the many calls she had participated in, so she broke out in a wide yawn and got up from her chair. She was in a better mood than the day before now that Steve Darrian had slithered back out of her immediate life, so the clothes she wore were of her regular, colorful type: a maroon T-shirt that featured an image of Taz - the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character - and a pair of bright-red Bermuda shorts that almost reached her knees. She'd had bare feet at first, but her twinkletoes had turned frosty for some reason so she had donned a pair of white sports socks.

Shuffling over to the percolator on the small table just inside the front door, she prepared the ground coffee beans, the water, the mugs and the plates they were to use when the actress showed up. "Hey Reggie… you haven't said a word all day. What's the script like?" she said as she dug a measuring cup into the ground coffee and scooped up the usual amount for a potful.

"Sick," Regina said without taking her eyes off the white pages.

"Sick?  Good-sick or bad-sick?"

"Bad sick."

"Figures. So are ya interested or not?"


Stella waited for further words of wisdom, but when none came, she turned on the percolator and shuffled into the center of the office. She put her hands on her hips while studying her sweetheart who lounged on the couch. Though Regina only wore a relatively simple set of clothes - pale-gray slacks and a shirt in a darker shade of gray over a white V-neck T-shirt - she still managed to look like a million dollars.

Grinning, Stella adjusted her glasses to get a better look at her entire life's one stroke of outrageous fortune - namely being in the right place at the right time when Regina Harrison, completely forgotten and deeply depressed about it, had come to see her about a job once upon an eon ago.

Their special connection could not be denied, and Regina soon looked up to wink at her. The wink was mirrored in kind before Stella shuffled closer to the couch. "So… what's wrong with it?  Is it badly written?"

"Well… no, not really. It does have some merit, and it could be okay if the director knows what he's doing," Regina said and put a thumb next to the block of dialogue she had reached so she could look at her sweetheart while talking to her. "But my character's really only window-dressing for the most part. Background stuff with a few exceptions… and even that's only a little bit here, a little bit there. Then she gets brutally murdered by her son just after the halfway point which is what makes him lose what's left of his mind and go on a bloody killing spree."

"Typical. Horror's nothing but mysogoni- uh… missygona- myso… goma… gymnastic crap if you ask me."


"That too."

Chuckling, Regina returned to the script. As she flipped the page, she let out a long grunt. "Okay… huh. Do I need to tell you that the son dismembers his mom with a chainsaw and puts her severed body parts into the diner's freezer?"

"No!  You!  Blip-bloppin'!  Don't!" Stella cried and jerked back. Grimacing hard, she needed to shake her head several times to get the words out of her ears before they could enter the main brain box and fester in her gray matter. "That's exactly why I hate horror flicks!  I mean, what's the frickin' point?  If I wanna be scared, I'll just turn on the news and watch a press conference from the frick-frackin' White House. For-Evelyn's-sake, when I watch a movie, it's because I wanna laugh or fall in love or just forget the world around me. I hate horror with a passion. Hate it!"

"And I love it," Regina said with a grin before she returned to the script. Now that her character had been shown the proverbial exit in such a messy way, there was even less in it that could hold her interest. Instead of continuing to read it in a painstaking fashion like she had done so far, she upped her pace to make it through the final forty pages in a hurry.

Before Stella could ask why Regina would even want to read such filth, someone knocked on the door. "It's probably that actress wots-her-name," she said as she shuffled over there. Once she had the door open, the knock-ee was revealed to be the delivery service from the bakery instead.

A young man wearing the traditional black and dark-brown colors of Zeligman's Bakery held up a large carrier bag. "Miss Stella Starr?" he said after checking the address and customer data on his hand-held digital device.

"The one and only, Mister," Stella said with a grin. "You got the box of chocolate muffins and the carton of cream we ordered?"

"Yes, Miss. That'll be sixteen dollars ninety-nine."

"Kinda expensive but definitely worth it. Hold yer horses, Mister, I need to get my wallet from my jacket so I can slap a couple-a bills into your palm," Stella said, but before she could leave, the young man held up the digital device.

"Please remember that Zeligman's Bakery doesn't accept cash payments for home deliveries any longer, Miss Starr."

"Buh… you don't whut?!" Stella croaked, coming to an abrupt halt before she had time to even move away from the open door. "Since when?!"

"July thirty-first was the final day of the old system, Miss Starr. We can only accept credit cards or an electronic money transfer now. This is a card-reader-"

"I don't care if it's a swipp-swoppin' telegraph station… cash is all I have!" Stella said as she slammed her hands onto her hips.

The young man drew his lips back in a worried grimace, but the situation was defused before it could turn any worse for either of the implicated parties. "Here," Regina said and moved her titanium-colored credit card across the digital device's electronic reader. A short ba-da-beep was signaled indicating the automated money transfer had been completed, and that the order had been paid for in full. "Okay?"

A second ba-da-beep was heard before the young man could say either way. "Yes, Miss. Thank you, Miss," he said as he handed the full carrier bag to a scowling Stella.

After the door had closed behind the man from Zeligman's Bakery, Stella's scowl only grew deeper. "I don't be-flip-floppin'-lieve it… what the frick is the world coming to?  Now the damn delivery people won't accept cash!  I mean… what's wrong with cash?!  I love cash!  You can hold it, you can fold it, you can stack it to count what you have, you can even use the coins as ballast in your pockets for-cryin'-out-loud, and you can alllllways pay for stuff even when there's a blip-bloppin' blackout and the entire blip-bloppin' grid is down!  Try using your plastic-fantastic-money-transfer-thingamadingdong there when there's a blackout!"

"That's how the modern world turns, Stell," Regina said on her way back to the couch and the movie script.

Stella came to a grinding halt, turned to her sweetheart and let out an emphatic: "Yeah?  Well you can keep it. Gawd, how I hate the modern world. I've said it before and I'll say it again… I was born in the wrong decade. Or century."

"We had that talk, remember?"

"Yeah-yeah… I know. Cookin' pot roasts and poppin' out babies," Stella said and put down the carrier bag on the small desk next to the percolator that sent out a delightful smell of freshly brewed coffee. She had barely taken out the box of chocolate muffins before a second, more frantic bout of knocking could be heard. Puzzled, she opened the door again, and once again found herself face to face with the delivery service from Zeligman's. "Huh… I hope you're not fishing for a tip, friend, 'cos I still only have cash…"

"No," the young man said in an agitated voice. Moving a little back, he pointed at something that was out of Stella's line of sight. "Does the cool Mercedes SLK belong to you?"

"Uh… yes. Why?"

" 'Cos there's a real shady-looking fellow standing next to it checking it out… kinda sinister-looking… like a car thief or something…"

"I-beg-yer-pardon?!" Stella cried while her hair stood out from her head. She was already halfway across the metal rail at the foot of the door when she realized she was only wearing socks, not shoes. Growling, she hurried back to her desk and jumped into a pair of green flip-flops - then she stomped across the pale-gray carpet once more.

"Stell!" Regina said strongly from the couch. "That's what they invented the police for!  If there are bad men outside, I think we should call for help and not just head off into war!"

"Oh, hell no!  Nobody but nobody messes with any of my stuff!  Nobody!" Stella growled as she exited the office building and strode across the uneven parking lot.

It only took her a handful of steps to verify what the young man from Zeligman's had told her - a person dressed in black ankle boots, faded black jeans, a stonewashed denim jacket, black fingerless gloves and an Army-green commando-style knitted cap that had been rolled down past the ears was indeed looking in through the driver's side window of the low-slung sports car.

"Oy!  Oy, you there!  Fella!" Stella roared on her way over to the unknown individual. "That's right, chump, I'm talkin' to ya!  Oy!  For-Flipper's-sake, can't you hear me say oy?  Gettafrick away from that veee-hickel!  And that means now, chump!"

"You talkin' to me?" the person said in a confrontational tone. Although he did follow Stella's barked command, he remained near the silver-metallic Mercedes while folding his arms over his chest.

"Naw, I'm talkin' to the other seven chumps around here!" Stella barked as she got closer. "I suggest you get your bee-hind the frickety-frick-frack outta here or else we're gonna call… the… cops… whaddahell, you're a woman!"

"No shit, Sherlock. What's it to ya?" the shady-looking female said in a tone that was no less aggressive or confrontational than the one she had used earlier.

Up close, Stella was able to see that her opponent was in her late twenties and that her plucked eyebrows were pale-brown and matching the color of her eyes. Her delicate nose featured a refined swoop halfway down, her jaw was firm, she had a very fine set of bright-white teeth, and her skin was much nicer than what could be expected from such a shady character dressed in such an outfit.

A bell started ringing somewhere at the back of Stella's mind as all the visual inputs were stacked, sorted and put into the proper sequence. After a few moments, the neurons began to create connections which in turn created electric currents that zipped and zapped between the many filing cabinets up there. When the answer flashed onto the proverbial scoreboard, she slammed her hands onto her hips all over again. "Millie Jordan… I mean… what the flippety-flip-flop's the meaning of this?" she said in a voice that was less growly on the whole.

"Wrong, Sherlock. I'm P.Q. Archersson. The best feckin' private dick in the feckin' bizz," the actress said before she put out her clenched fist for a quick bump. When Stella did not reciprocate the gesture, she shrugged and moved her arm back. "You Stella Starr or Regina Harrison?"

"The former. Peek-You Archersson?" Stella said, narrowing her eyes. Though she was not fond of remembering anything Steve Darrian had ever said - it gave her heartburn even at the best of times - she recalled the slick operator mentioning that name. Then it dawned on her: It was the name of the character the method actress was to play in the crime drama. "Ohhhhh, yeah… okay. I get what's going on here. You're acting. Okay."

"Wrong again, Sherlock. I don't feckin' act. I am. You with me?"

Stella had only just had time to find the early traces of a smile before the brusque comment and the aggravatingly confrontational manner in which it had been delivered swept it off her face once more - a dark scowl took its place. "Riiiight," she said with a slow nod. A few moments went by before she continued: "Well, Peek-U. Now you're here, ya might as well come over for some coffee and muffins. They're from Zelig-"

"You can keep yer feckin' muffins," P.Q. Archersson said and set off toward the office in an odd, shuffling walk - it looked as if she had picked it up from watching homeless people push their rusty shopping carts around.

Stella promptly lost a step while she stared at the figure in the grungy clothing who shuffled along ahead of her; she could already predict that having a tag-along, and especially this tag-along, would be one of those events that would tax her boundless, near-angelic patience to the outer limits.

That the actress did not want the muffins had already earned her a red note in Stella's little black book of good behavior, but there was a silver lining even to that dark cloud - it meant there would be more muffins for her. Still, it did not outweigh the abrasive style she seemed to want to employ. "Uh-huh… Steve Darrian, I hate your guts," she mumbled as she picked up the pace so she had time to explain the situation to Regina before she would call in the shock troops.


A short while later, the supposedly esteemed guest of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency had literally claimed the entire couch as her private property. She sat right in the middle of it in an aggressive, forward-leaning manner that saw her legs spread out wide and her elbows resting on her knees. Her fists were clenched like she expected to dish out knuckle-sandwiches of the worst kind at any moment. Her sinister scowl had yet to leave her face as her eyes did a slow tour of the office and all the various items there, like the metal filing cabinets, the boom box, the potted plants, the desks and the two real investigators.

The scowl went well with her inner-city style of clothing. Despite the pleasant ambient temperature inside the office, she still wore her fingerless gloves, the commando-style cap and even the denim jacket. A few whisks of greasy hair fell onto her forehead, but she did nothing to tuck them back up under her cap. The right-hand side of her jaw had a faded bruise in a prominent place like she had gone a round or two against a southpaw fighter. She was lean, mean and seemingly ready to break out into violence at the drop of a hat - or the wrong comment.

Regina and Stella shared a very long look. It was clear by the horrified expression on the model's face that she was none too pleased with the look or behavior of P.Q. Archersson a.k.a. Millie Jordan. Stella tried to smooth down the ruffled superstar feathers with a reassuring smile as she prepared the coffee, the cream and the delightful-smelling muffins, but it proved to be more difficult than she had imagined - perhaps because she had severe second thoughts about the entire deal herself.

"So… Peek-U," Stella said as she carried a tray loaded to the brim with a handful of napkins, three mugs, three plates, the coffee pot, a small jug for the cream, a stack of Regina's favorite - read: deathly dull - bone-dry, sugar-free bran cookies and a big stack of the high-quality chocolate muffins over to the low table by the couch, "I think this is a good time to get formally introduced. I'm Stella Starr, I own the detective agency. My lovely assistant here is Regina Harrison, better known as the Queen of the Catwalks, ha-ha. I'm sure you've seen her likeness in a hundred… naw, make that a thousand fashion rags and other types of magazines."

"Ya think I'm some kind of feckin' brainless bimbo?  I don't read that feckin' crap," P.Q. said in a growly voice.

Hearing that, the corners of Regina's mouth - and her eyes, too - really began to twitch. She had been about to say that she had appeared in Fashion 4U, My Stylish Home and even Family Fashion over the past few weeks, and that her recent print ads for Sovereign Jewelry Design, a company connected to the Royal family of Abu Dhabi no less, had earned such a strong score among several demographic segments there was a good chance it might turn out to be the campaign with the highest approval rating in the third quarter, but she clammed up in a hurry and just stood there like a marble statue.

Stella and Regina shared another very long look as Stella put the tray with all the goodies onto the low table. "Okay. I don't read those magazines either… or not often, anyway," she said as a late follow-up to P.Q.'s blatant negativity as she distributed the various items. "But, uh, anyway, let's have some coffee and muffins-"

"You got bubblegum in your feckin' ears or something, Sherlock?" P.Q. said and shot Stella an aggressive glare. "I already told ya outside I don't want no feckin' muffins."

Now it was Stella's turn to stand there like a marble statue. Two statues and a rude method actress being so close to each other in such a confined space was perhaps too much of a good thing, so Regina snapped out her stony condition first and moved over to her desk; there, she grabbed her swivel-chair and wheeled it over to the coffee table so she could avoid sitting anywhere near their uncouth guest.

With Stella still incapacitated, Regina brought over the four-legged chair as well so they all had somewhere to sit. "There, there. Have a muffin and some coffee… that'll help," she whispered into her sweetheart's ear as she guided her around to the chair.

Stella eventually sat down and pulled her chair closer to the table. She opened her mouth to counter the actress' abrasive statement but closed it again before she could speak. Then she opened her mouth for a second time, and closed it again just as fast. Nothing came to her that did not involve the opening volley of one of her legendary temper-flares where she uttered words that nearly all rhymed with …ucker or derivatives of which, so she settled for a non-committal grunt.

Several crickets chirped as she poured black coffee into her mug followed by a dash of cream. After the task had been accomplished, she handed the pot to Regina. She held up the tray of Zeligman's finest chocolate muffins though she knew full well the model would never eat anything that sugary - as expected, Regina shook her head and napped a handful of her beloved bone-dry, sugar-free bran cookies instead.

The scowl that had remained on the actress' face throughout the scene had now been joined by a similar one worn by Stella. Grunting in displeasure about all the health fanatics she seemed to be surrounded by, she reached for one of the high-quality chocolate muffins and began to peel off the protective paper at the base.

Determined to get the most out of the tasty - and expensive - chocolate cakes, Stella had just taken the first bite of her first one when she noticed P.Q. Archersson pulling the third mug over to her.

Instead of pouring coffee or cream into it like most people would, the method actress reached in under her denim jacket to retrieve an aluminum hip flask. Unscrewing the cap, she poured a clear liquid into the mug; then she proceeded to gulp it all down in two swigs.

"What. Is. That?" Stella said in a slow, deliberate fashion while she stared at the flask. Even Regina stopped chewing on a dusty bran cookie to shoot the actress a disapproving glare.

"Vodka. I need it," P.Q. Archersson said as she swept her jacket aside with a well-rehearsed gesture to re-attach the hip flask to her belt. "It keeps me goin' in the daytime and it makes me black-out at night before the bad dreams come. It's mine. Ya just gonna hafta buy your own feckin' booze, Sherlock."

"I don't want- okay… I mean… vodka!  Look, you need to underst-"

"Chill, Sherlock. It's only tap water," P.Q. said with a scowl - an expression that clashed severely with the content of her statement. "But when I say it's vodka, I think it's vodka… and when I think it's vodka, it works like vodka. It numbs my senses and gives me that feckin' little thrill that only quality booze can give. I do the same when I shoot smack."

Stella's hand that carried the half-eaten muffin kerphlumped down onto the plate. Instead of eating, she stared and stared and stared and stared and stared at the actress. Then she turned to Regina to stare a little more. When her sweetheart had nothing to offer in terms of explanations or the like, she turned back to stare even more at the actress. Shaking her head slowly, she took another bite of the yummy chocolate muffin - then she wished she had waited another five seconds.

When P.Q. Archersson finally took off her denim jacket and flung it on the couch next to her, the bite in Stella's mouth immediately went down the wrong pipe at the sight of a dark-gray pistol stuck into the waistband at the back of the method actress' black jeans.

Stella let out a horrific noise akin to an entire pack of wheezing, coughing and spluttering gargoyles as her windpipe was blocked by the boulder-sized muffin-fragment. Already turning blue, then green, then lobster-red in the face, she tried to thump herself on the back to get everything cleared, but she was unable to.

The actress just cast a semi-detached glare at the dramatic scene, but Regina was at her sweetheart's side - or back, to be precise - in a hurry and began to thump for all she was worth. "Stell!" - Thump, thump - "Stell, talk to me!" - Thump, thump - "Can you breathe?" - Thump!  Thump! - "How about now?" - THUMP! - "Or now?" - THUMP!  THUMP! - "Stell?" - THUMP!  WHACK!  BAM!  THUMP! - "Ohhh, this isn't good!  Not good at all!" - WHACK!  WHACK!  WHACK!  BAM!  THUMP! - "Stell?" - Thump, thump - "Can you breathe now?" - THUMP!  THUMP! - "Stella-dahling, please don't make me-" - THUMP!  WHACK!  BAM!  THUMP! - "perform the Heimlich on you!  I've just had-" - WHACK!  WHACK!  WHACK!  BAM!  THUMP! - "my nails done!" - Thump, thump, thumpety-thumpety!

As the offending fragment of the chocolate muffin finally gave up the unequal struggle with Regina's constant thumping, whacking and bamming, it screamed out of Stella's mouth, bounced across the pale-gray carpet and smacked into one of the metal filing cabinets until it came to a rest sunny-side-up.

Reeling from the harsh treatment inside her windpipe and on her poor upper back, Stella fell against the backrest of her sturdy four-legged chair where she took several deep, wheezing breaths to reboot her system and regain control of her faculties. Her eyes continued to roll for a moment longer, but she eventually settled down and took off her glasses to give herself a good pinch on the bridge of her nose.

"Ohhh, thank Gawd…" Regina mumbled as she moved back to her swivel-chair to take a long swig of coffee and throw an entire bran cookie into her mouth in one go. While the wheezing Stella continued to find her equilibrium, Regina cast a dark glare at the method actress who had yet to move as much as a pinkie to come to Stella's rescue - the glare was returned in force and seemed to have no effect whatsoever.

"Thanks… Reggie…" Stella croaked, "you're… my… friend… my- my- my- only… friend… in… a… mean, mean… world…" A few deeper, rattling coughs came and went before she could lean forward again to pick up the plate that she had thrown down when she had suffered the sneak attack by the dastardly bite of muffin. "Is…" she continued, pointing a trembling finger at the handgun, "that… a… real… g- g- gun…?"

"Feck yeah," P.Q. said and whipped the hardware out of the waistband. "A Glock Ten. I've named it Killjoy 'cos it only takes one feckin' bullet from this feckin' baby to wipe the feckin' smirk off the face of any feckin' a-hole. It saved my sorry ass more than once. You wanna hold it?"

"No!" Regina barked. "This is a wholesome household!  We don't do guns!"

"Was I talkin' to you, babe?" P.Q. said, waving the Glock around like it was only a movie prop. "No, I was talkin' to Sherlock here. Hey, Shagster… wanna hold it?  You afraid of guns?  It won't bite ya."

Stella scrunched up her face into a dark mask that came as a direct result of the combination of multiple factors: not only was she still smarting over the loss of most of one of the expensive chocolate muffins, she was seething at the ridiculous rudeness of the actress - and she was planning to buy a voodoo-doll resembling Steve Darrian so she could dish out plenty of supernatural punishment on him for saddling them with such a difficult brat. "No thanks, Peek-U…. Like Reggie said… we don't… do guns," she croaked in between taking a few wheezing breaths.

"Your feckin' loss," P.Q. said and shoved the Glock back into the waistband. Then she downed the rest of her tap-water-vodka.

A seventy-strong cricket orchestra played the first few bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - better known as Fate - before Stella had finally had enough. Leaning forward, she put her empty plate on the low coffee table once more and pushed the full coffee mug a bit further away in case she needed to come out swinging.

"Look, lady," she said in a low, angry voice, "this B.S. stops here. We were told you were a serious actress who wanted to tag along with a couple of real private investigators to check out how the business worked. Now excuse the blip-bloppin' stuffing outta me, but the impression we have of you right now is that you're some kind of third-rate dilettante who thinks she's oh-so-frickin'-cool 'cos she talks trash and has a frickin' gun down her frickin' pants. Well, lady, I'm gonna let ya in on the blip-bloppin' harsh realities now… I'll bet that sorta idiotic razzle-dazzle will score big points among your sheltered actor friends, but it won't fly out here in the real world. Ain't that so, Reggie?"

"Very much so," Regina said and broke out in a whole sequence of nods.

Grunting, Stella turned back to P.Q. to continue - and to add gravitas to her message, she even pointed an index finger at the actress: "So either you get your head screwed on right, lady, or you can forget all about this deal and get outta my sight right this frickin' minute. Your choice."

To begin with, the scowl worn by 'P.Q. Archersson' only grew deeper - but from one moment to the next, that and the rest of the method acting was cast off like an smelly winter coat to reveal Millie Jordan who broke out into a wide smile. "Oh, what a strong, realistic delivery, Miss Starr!" she said in a brighter and far friendlier manner. "You had real fire and intensity in your voice… would you mind if I borrowed parts of that for my performance?  You'll get a mention in the end credits, of course."

Stella just stared and stared and stared and stared and stared at the weird transformation that had taken place right in front of her. Regina shuffled around uncomfortably. Stella just continued to stare. Ten embarrassing seconds of nothing but shuffling and staring went by before she realized she had been asked a question that she needed to answer. "Well… you can borrow anything you like, uh… Miss Jordan?"

"That's right. Millie Jordan, hello. Pleased to meet you, Miss Starr. Miss Harrison," Millie said with a smile. After taking off her fingerless gloves, she put out her hand for the traditional greeting.

Stella shook it, as did Regina, but the real investigators were visibly wary of the completely altered woman sitting opposite them. "So… uh… Miss Jordan," Stella said after a while - she paused just to see if this new persona was an act or not. When the actress seemed to be sincere and even paying attention to her, she cleared her throat and snatched a new muffin to get started on the serious business. "Reggie and me would like to show you a couple of real-life case files, and tomorrow evening, we'd like to invite you to come along on a small-scale job. We're to drop off some divorce papers. Nickel and dime stuff, but it's the backbone of our business."

"Oh, I'd very much like that, Miss Starr!" Millie said with a smile.

"Good. But without that gun," Stella said and pointed a thumb at the Glock before she bit into the muffin.

"Oh, that's just a prop. I had the movie's weapons master make it for me. It's a proper shell, but it's all locked solid inside. It's basically a glorified paperweight."

Stella took a break from chewing on the high-quality chocolate muffin to let out a sigh. "That's something at least. We don't do guns. Never have and never will," she said before she held up the tray. "Treat yourself to some coffee and a muffin… they're awesome. We'll make a real private eye out of you yet!" she continued with a grin.

"Oh… that part wasn't an act," Millie said, eyeing the pastries cautiously. "I refuse to eat food that's made with white sugar. In fact, I won't even touch it because I can smell the sugar on my fingers for the rest of the day."

"Buh… what kinda nons-" Stella croaked, but she was cut off before she could really get going.

"And there are so many potentially harmful substances in coffee that it just disgusts me," Millie continued with a smile. "It's bad, bad, bad for the entire digestive system. But I'd very much like to try one of those yummy-looking bran cookies if I may?"

"Be my guest," Regina said and took the tray from Stella's unresponsive hand. Once the actress had scooped up several cookies, Regina put the tray onto the low table and swiveled it around so Stella could reach the remaining muffins.

The movement of Stella's jaw slowed down until it came to a complete standstill. She stared at Regina who - admittedly - shared most of the actress' notions on food save for drinking coffee. Then she looked down at her plate and her full mug of cream-and-coffee; then at the actress, then at Regina once more and then back at her plate where a yummy muffin was just begging to be introduced to her teeth. "The world's gone frick-frackin' moon-barkin' crazy," she mumbled as she bit off another large chunk of the expensive treat so they would not go to waste.


Part 4

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