The following day.
On the stroke of thirty-two minutes and fifty-eight seconds past four o'clock, Stella ushered Regina out of their office so she could lock the front door behind them. Save for a brief spell where dark clouds had rolled over Bay City without doing anything but block out the sun, the weather had been pleasant, and the late afternoon had continued in the same vein by being a warm, sunny affair with a gentle breeze and zero percent risk of rain.
Even so, the two investigators wore subdued clothing due to the serious nature of the job they were going out on. Handing over divorce papers was never to be taken lightly. Receiving such official documents - perhaps even unexpectedly - represented an enormous upheaval in anyone's life, and if the people delivering them were dressed or acted inappropriately, it would be to rub salt into the bleeding wound.
Stella's idea of subdued was perhaps somewhat different to that of an undertaker, but she wore black shoes, dark-blue jeans held in place by a brown canvas belt, a burgundy T-shirt and the same loose, olive-green shirt she had worn when Steve Darrian had visited them.
Regina was the epitome of classy and elegant as always: she wore white, open-toed sandals, a pair of charcoal-gray slacks and an off-white jacket from a pant suit over a charcoal-gray top. She had stuffed the leather portfolio they always used for such assignments under her right arm so it was safe. To get her balance right, she carried a small, gray purse on a golden chain over her left shoulder - it held all the vital accessories: lip balm, a small comb, a larger hair brush with an extendable handle, a pack of wet wipes and a vial of the nail polish she wore in case of an emergency of the chipped-nail kind.
While Regina kept standing at the office door to wait for their ride, Stella strolled around the uneven parking lot kicking her heels and counting the days until her beloved AMC Pacer could return to its regular parking bay. She came to a halt to glance down at the countless oil stains that littered the cracked asphalt. Sighing, she turned away from the permanent marks left behind by her old car to stroll back to her sweetheart. "Y'know, Reggie," she said once she was close enough to speak without needing to raise her voice, "it was a good thing we remembered that the SLK is only a two-seater. If we hadn't thought of it, Millie Jordan would've had to be strapped to the trunk or the hood as we drove over there."
Regina chuckled and moved the portfolio a bit higher up under her arm. "Or we could have gone in two vehicles? I'm guessing she wouldn't have sprouted wings and flown over here."
"Oh… uh… yeah. I guess…"
"Besides, it's not like we forgot… we just had to work it into the conversation to make her feel like she was a real member of the agency. And when she offered to drive us over there, everything fell into place."
"I did forget about the SLK being a two-seater," Stella mumbled as she continued to kick her heels. It was only fun for another minute or so before she glanced at the time on her telephone - it just turned over to four-thirty-seven as she watched which was seven minutes past the scheduled time. "And she's late, too. I'll bet she calls it fashionably late back in her own world."
"But that's not how we do it here in the detective business," Stella said with her back turned to the parking lot so she would not have to look at the empty bay where the Pacer was usually parked. "Here, we need to be able to depend on each other-"
"Not now, Reggie… I'm so-lillo-kwaying."
"Where was I?" Stella said and scratched her hairline. "Oh yeah. In the detective business, we need to be able to depend-"
"Gaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Stella cried as she jumped up on tip-toes. Not only did she flail her arms in the air, her shaggy mop of dirty-blond locks followed hot on the heels of her arms and stood out in all directions. When she fell back down on her flat feet, she spun around to see what on Earth had been the cause of the honking when she was 99.99% sure that nothing whatsoever had driven into the parking lot while she had spoken.
She had to stare wide-eyed at the black-and-silver luxury sports-coupe with black-tinted windows and chrome wheels that had come to a rest three inches behind her. How a twenty-one-foot long and seven-foot wide vehicle could sneak up on her like that was a deep, dark mystery to her; she knew for a fact she did not have a hearing problem because she was able to pick out the sound of cooing pigeons when they were still on final approach half a mile out from taking a massive dump on her beloved Pacer, but she had not heard but a single peep from the large sports-coupe before the driver had honked at her.
Leaning down, she tried to look through the blacked-out windows. Her quest was unsuccessful until the passenger-side one was rolled down to reveal a broadly grinning Millie Jordan behind the wheel. "Oh… hello again, Miss Jordan," Stella croaked as she offered the temporary member of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency a little wave.
"Good afternoon, Miss Starr! Miss Harrison!" the movie actress said as she waved back at the two investigators. "Jump in… I'm sorry I'm late. Bay City traffic, you know."
"Oh, we know," Regina said and opened the front door on the vehicle's passenger-side. "Stell, I need more space than you, so would you mind sitting in the back for a change?"
"And there she goes again calling me short! I'm not short! I'm five-foot-four-and-a-half inches, thank-you-very-much!" Stella growled as she opened the rear door and climbed onto the luxurious bench seat.
After Stella had received the leather portfolio they always used for important documents so she could put it on the back seat, she cast a wide-eyed stare at the space-age dashboard that was filled with all kinds of colorful electronic meters, instruments and read-outs - but even that surprise faded in comparison to what happened next.
Before she had time to even think about reaching for the seat belt, she was forced backward and eventually thumped into the backrest when the car took off at surprising speed - and in complete silence save for a faint, electronic hum that came from somewhere underneath them. "Oy!" she cried as she swept her shaggy mop of hair out of her eyes. "Whaddahell kinda ghost car is this?! It's possessed, ain't it? Just like in that awful, awful horror flick you made me watch the other week, Reggie… I knew we shouldn'ha watched that flick! Look what happened! It came true!"
As Millie Jordan made a U-turn and began the drive back to the ramp leading down to Bay City's main arteries, she furrowed her brow and looked in the rear-view mirror at the supremely frazzled investigator on the back seat. "No, it's not possessed, Miss Starr… it's an electric vehicle. A TelStar e909/C."
"Uh… it's a whut?" Stella said, shaking her head.
The furrows on Millie's forehead only grew deeper while she moved out into the heavy traffic with all the ease in the world. The acceleration of the large vehicle was so instant that Stella thumped against the backrest all over again, and all she could do was to let out a surprised "Oy! Oy-oy-oy… Oy!" - Then she fumbled and bumbled with the seat belt so she would not be taken by surprise a third time.
Regina chuckled as she looked over her shoulder - the look on Stella's face was priceless, and she wished she'd had their camera ready to catch it for posterity. "You have to excuse Miss Starr. When it comes to cars, she's never made it further than nineteen-seventy-five," she said with a grin.
"Oh…" Millie said in a tone that made it quite clear she did not understand a word of what was going on.
"Oh, har-har-hardee-blip-bloppin'-har!" Stella growled from the back seat. "Miss Jordan, you have to excuse Miss Harrison here. She thinks she's a real witty stand-up comedienne. But. She. Ain't. So there!"
The jab caused Regina to scrunch up her face, cross her arms over her chest and let out an annoyed huff.
Millie looked from one of her passengers to the other and back without speaking. After a moment, she concentrated on driving instead of asking questions.
The traffic was as heavy and intense as ever, but Millie Jordan had the large vehicle zipping from lane to lane to get around nine out of ten of the cars they came across. Now and then they got stuck behind a delivery van or truck, but it only took a short application of throttle for the silent TelStar e909/C to whoosh past even the most lumbering of their obstacles.
In the back, Stella held the seat belt in a double-handed death-grip. Her eyes were out on stalks and her throat had gone completely dry as a result of the insane speeds they were using to get through Bay City. She had a clear look at the digital speedometer on the space-age instrument panel, and she could hardly believe her eyes when it often read more than forty miles per hour, and in some cases even forty-five - that the radial road they were travelling on had a speed limit of fifty miles per hour was completely irrelevant to her. "Look," she croaked in a trembling voice, "I know we're running a little late, but I would prefer to get there in one piece! And not in the back of a blip-bloppin' hearse, either! Would it be possible for you to slow down just a little? I mean… like ten miles or so slower…?"
"Slow down?" Millie said and glanced at the speedometer that ready forty-one miles per hour. Then she looked into the rear-view to see if the mop-topped lady in the back was trying to pull her leg. When that was blatantly not the case, she furrowed her brow all over again and looked to Regina for an explanation - the other member of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency was still too miffed to go through the senior investigator's many idiosyncrasies. "Well, okay, but… I don't understand. Forty isn't exactly fast… it's just regular city speed. I had the stunt co-ordinator of one of my earlier movies give it a test run when I'd just bought it, and he pushed it out to one-hundred-and-eighteen on a closed circuit… that was fast. Not forty!" she said in a puzzled voice.
"A hundred and eighteen! Mi- mi- miles per hour?!" Stella croaked. "Oh Gawd, I don't wanna die! I'm way, way, WAY too young and- and- and- ohhhhh, Gawd! Slow doooooooooown!"
Though Millie Jordan scratched her cheek a couple of times, she figured she might as well follow the request. Soon, the TelStar cruised along the radial road at a far more sedate thirty-three miles per hour that made it seem they were running in slow-motion compared to earlier.
The first part of the evening's assignment went without any kind of snags for a change. After arriving at the home of the woman filing for divorce, they were soon given the appropriate paperwork and the directions to her future ex-husband's new apartment. They were also offered coffee and a slice of freshly-baked, home-made raspberry pie with a dash of whipped cream to mark the special moment. The two health fanatics Regina and Millie obviously declined such sinful nourishment, but Stella needed to don the proverbial straitjacket and weld a metal brace around her head to keep her jaw shut - or else she would have spent the next two hours there.
The silent TelStar e909/C soon slithered onto the residential West Rampaugh Street that was located on the southern edge of the bohemian Bay City neighborhood known as the Heights. The street ran east-to-west so the sun continued to blast down between the multi-story brownstones and onto the asphalt that was already hot after having been baked the entire day.
Cars were parked bumper-to-bumper on either side save for infrequent no-parking areas in front of the familiar red fire hydrants. Most of the vehicles were older models that had been well-loved and thus well-kept, and Stella had to let out a melancholic sigh as she spotted a tan AMC Gremlin from the mid-1970s that was parked in close company of an old Oldsmobile Delta 88 and an even older Volkswagen Microbus.
At ten to six in the evening, the Heights still saw plenty of activity: a handful of teenagers played a co-ed street soccer match while a few earthy bohemians sat on a nearby stoop and kept up a running commentary. Several young parents were out on evening walks with baby carriages or strollers, and they even outnumbered the ubiquitous pet-owners who let their Fidos, Cleos and Cujos roam on long leashes made of hemp or other natural materials.
"We need to find number three-four-two West Rampaugh Street. We can't be far off," Stella said as she unclicked the seat belt to be able to lean forward. Soon, she stuck her head between the comfortable front seats of the luxury sports-coupe to have a look at the brownstones lining the street.
"There's three-two-seven," Regina said, pointing at the numbers that had been painted onto a glass door leading to a stairwell. "Three-two-nine… three-three-one… it's on the other side of the street."
All three women looked to their left where they soon found 3-3-2 and 3-3-4. "I don't see anywhere to park," Millie said as she had the large vehicle trickling along at a few miles per hour. Though gaps between the parked cars did in fact exist, the twenty-one-foot by seven-foot TelStar required so much space for pulling in and getting out that it took most of a supermarket parking lot just to make a ninety-degree turn.
A few mumbled grumblings escaped Stella, and they sounded suspiciously like "That's what yer get for buying the blip-bloppin' USS Enterprise instead of a regular-sized car like my dear Old Girl."
"Oh! There's a gap for us!" Millie suddenly cried before pressing the throttle hard to get to the vacant bay before someone could beat them to it.
As the silent car lurched forward with tremendous speed, Stella was thrown backward against the bench seat uttering a croaked "Oooohhhh!" Her hair went one way, her glasses the other, and the portfolio containing the important paperwork flew out of her hand and landed somewhere down in the footwell.
A second later, she was thrown forward again as Millie jammed on the brakes up against the curb. This time, the unfortunate investigator not only bopped her nose on the backrest of Regina's seat - it left a smear, but only a little one - but had a big hunk of her cheek trapped between her teeth. Her shaggy haystack tried to take flight all over again, but that was the least of her concerns in the present situation.
While groaning and clutching the cheek that had been exposed to her integrated meat-grinders, she patted down the seat next to her to find her glasses and the important paperwork. The glasses were soon located which was a good start, but after looking down into the footwell, she let out a sigh as she realized the leather portfolio had spewed out its contents, and that a manila folder had opened itself. As a result, the divorce papers had been distributed all over the quality carpets. "Someone somewhere hates my guts…" she mumbled as she leaned down to scoop up all the pieces of paper.
The stairwell at 3-4-2 West Rampaugh Street was found before long, and Regina held the glass door open for Stella and Millie. The three women briefly looked at the row of mailboxes in a small lobby while Stella cross-checked the information with the name and apartment number printed on the documents. "Yep. Mr. Stevenson. Fourth floor," she said as she shuffled over to the foot of a wide, squeaky-clean stone staircase. After giving it a thorough inspection like she expected it to give her its entire life-story just because she lent it an ear, she turned back to the others and said: "Which is upstairs. Follow my lead. Miss Jordan… watch and learn… and don't do anything I wouldn't do."
As the three women began to walk up the staircase, Millie furrowed her brow and looked at Regina who could only shrug and grin in return.
After the important documents had been handed over, and all that needed to be said and done had been taken care of with the proper respect and seriousness demanded by such a case, Stella, Regina and Millie descended the staircase once more to get back to the actress' luxury sports-coupe.
"That was definitely an educational experience, Miss Starr," Millie said as she buckled up and got comfortable behind the steering wheel. "My head was full of pre-conceived notions about Mr. Stevenson after what his ex had told us, but they were all swept aside by reality. I thought he would be a gruff fellow, but he actually wept when he got the papers. I learned a lot… not just as an actress but as a human being."
"Good. That's why you came along in the first place. The real world we live in is far removed from a movie script where the characters are nothing but monochrome stereotypes. Out here, there are countless nuances," Stella said from the back seat. Reaching for the seat belt, she had only just managed to put her fingertips on it before Millie started the TelStar and drove out of the parking bay with an acceleration worthy of a triple-stage moon rocket. "Oyyyyyyy!" she cried as she was thrown back against the bench - and yes, her hair flew all over the place all over again. At least her glasses remained on her nose this time around.
"Of course," Regina said from her spot up front as she attempted to flick her perfect hair over her perfect shoulder - alas, there was no room for her trademark move, "some of us do display stereotypical behavior from time to time…"
"Oh, hardee-har-dee-flippin'-har-har, Reggie! Shaddup!"
"Yes, dear," Regina said with her tongue firmly stuck into her cheek. They drove through the rest of West Rampaugh Street in complete silence - save for the constant rumbles, mumbles and grumbles that came from the miffed passenger in the back - before they left the Heights behind and entered one of Bay City's main arteries once more.
Ten short minutes later, the familiar colors and logo of one of Uncle Greezy's Family Restaurants came into sight up ahead, and Stella's tummy responded at once by crying for attention. Looking down, she seemed to hold a lengthy internal conversation with one of her most vital body parts before she pulled the seat belt out to its outer stop so she had space to lean forward and stick her head between the seats. "Hey Miss Jordan, d'ya think we could stop at Uncle Greezy's? It's just after the next intersection. Reggie and me only had a light lunch and that was eons ago… I'm starved."
"I could eat too, now you mention it," Regina said. "You know, I think I'll have a Mediterranean salad and a carbonated-"
"No, no, no, no, no," Stella whined, but Regina nodded for each whine that escaped her sweetheart's lips.
Millie only added to Stella's misery when she said: "A salad would be perfect! My treat!"
Stella finally finished whining to let out a sigh. She could not stop her head from wanting to shake itself multiple times, however, so she allowed it just this once. "Oh, you don't have to do that, Miss Jordan…" she said in a mumble.
"Well, in that case… thank you oh-so-muchly," Stella said before her voice turned even more mumbly. She ended up letting out something akin to: "Nobody buys salads at Uncle Greezy's fer-Flipper's-sake… it's like driving into a gas station to buy a band-aid or a stick of bubblegum… or a pair of undies!" but the other two women in the car could not tell for sure, and Stella was not about to spill the beans.
A few moments went by in silence that was only broken by the faint hum that came from the TelStar. Then Millie pointed through the windshield at the large logo by the side of the six-lane street. "This drive-thru coming up right here?"
"Yep… except Reggie and me never use the drive-thru. I always go in to order," Stella said as she shuffled around on the comfortable rear bench to be able to look out of the windscreen. A few crickets had time to chirp before she let out a sigh and a: "It's a long story that we don't wanna bother you with."
"Well, I'd still love to hear it…"
Grinning, Regina put a hand on Millie's arm. "It's a very long story."
"Ah. I see. Watch out, Uncle Greezy… here come the Power Girls!"
"Awesomesauce!" Stella said just before she made the severe mistake of unbuckling too soon. Not a second later, Millie flew across the intersection, stood on the brakes, hung a sharp right and bounced over the flat part of the curb to get into the restaurant's parking lot.
The frantic action was hardly enough to upset the hairdos of the two women in front since they were both pinned down by their seat belts - though Regina held down her locks out of sheer habit - but in the back, Stella only had time to let out a croaked "Ooooooooooooohhhhhh, too faaaaaast!" before she was thrown backward, then forward, then to the left, then up into the roof, then backward, then up into the roof for a second bite at the cherry and finally to the right where she mashed her nose against the window - it also left a smear, and one that was slightly larger than the first one on the rear of the seat.
Panting from the unwanted stunt work, she fell backward onto the bench seat and let out a croak. Her hair looked as if someone had thrown a live hand grenade into a haystack, and her glasses were perched precariously on the very tip of her nose. "Ugggghhh… I guess that's why they invented seat belts," she croaked as she pushed her glasses back up her nose so she could see where she was, what she was doing right that moment, and what she was meant to do - get out of the car was the short answer to the final part of the puzzle.
After reaching for the little lever that would open the door so she could leave the silent, electric death trap, the next problem presented itself immediately: the TelStar e909/C had so little ground clearance because of its super-low profile tires it would be a mountainous struggle for the slightly clumsy, somewhat tail-heavy investigator to get out on her own. The squat, aggressive attitude of the vehicle had not posed a problem for her back on West Rampaugh Street since the old surface had tilted away from her to offer her a head-start off the back seat, but the parking lot in front of the fast food restaurant was as flat as a pool table.
Sighing at the gross unfairness of the world, she tried to get her rear out of the car once, then a second time, then a third time. Then she gave up and waited for Regina to step out and give her a hand up.
A short seven minutes later, she strolled out of the family restaurant with a wide grin on her face and a joyous bounce in her step. She carried no less than four to-go paper bags in her hands so she was certainly all fixed for a delightful late-afternoon snack.
The back door was even opened for her by Regina, and she responded by offering her tall sweetheart a few kissies. Hopping into the back seat, she handed the first bag to Millie Jordan who retrieved her salad and can of Slurrpy Diet Sporty Yellow at once.
Once the business with the door had been dealt with, Regina sat down and made herself comfortable up front.
"Man!" Stella said as she wiggled around on the back seat to have room for herself and the remaining to-go bags. "I was so lucky in there. The place was packed, but they opened a new line just as I walked in. I sprinted up there… I guess I had to push a couple-a fellas aside, but, uh… anyway, I got there first. At least they still accepted cash… it would realllllly have made me upset if they hadn't. I have some change for you, Miss Jordan," she said as she checked out which of the bags were her own. The one that had no aroma whatsoever had to be Regina's. "Here ya go, Sweetcakes," she continued as she moved the second of the four bags between the seats. "A Mediterranean and a can of dishwater. How you can drink that awful stuff is beyond me. I mean, there's no taste… no sugar… no nothing. It's just fizzy-water. Why is that so exciting?"
"It just is, dahling," Regina said and looked around for something to crack open the can with so her delicate fingers and well-manicured fingernails would not be harmed. Millie had already foreseen that situation and had reached into the center console to get a specially designed tool that could crack open any stubborn can.
In the back seat, Stella balanced her own two to-go bags on her legs. Opening the first one, she took a deep sniff and broke out in a wide grin. "Awwwwwww-yeah! I was gonna get a Super Greezy Twin Deluxe 'cos that's probably my favorite burger… well, the Beef-Bacon-Cheese Wham-O Slam-O is kinda awesome too… but anyway, Uncle Greezy's had a special offer this week that I wasn't aware of. Check this beauty out, guys! A deep-fried half-pound jalapeño-frankfurter and a whoooooole box of mashed potatoes spiced with Spanish peppers and hot chili ketchup! Ain't that just the awesomest yumminess you've ever clapped your eyes on? Ooooh, I can't wait to-"
"You're not eating meat in my car."
Stella furrowed her brow. Her jaw had remained hung open like a barn door, but she slowly closed it to prevent any flies from entering the cavity. Someone had said something, but her brain had a hard time processing it. Then she added another few furrows to the already impressive collection of ridges up there. It had in fact sounded like the actress had said something about not eating meat in her car, but that could not be right. Another furrow or two were added before she broke out in a highly intelligent and certainly eloquent, "Huh?"
"I said, you're not eating meat in my car," Millie said and twisted around in the driver's seat to glare at the offending deep-fried jalapeño-frankfurter that Stella continued to hold in her hand. "I won't stop you from eating it… they're your arteries… but it'll have to be outside. I won't have my car stink of meat for the next two weeks. It's pretty bad already."
"But… but… it's just a deep-fried frankie…"
"Perhaps, but it stinks. And think of the carbon footprint left behind from all the processing it took to make it!"
Now Stella's eyes narrowed down into slits in addition to the vast, and constantly growing, collection of furrows along her forehead. "What footprint? I'm no professor, but I guaran-ding-dong-tee ya they didn't put blip-bloppin' piggy-hooves in it when they made it! Uncle Greezy's is a first-class junk food bizz who-"
"Stella, that's not what that means-" Regina tried, but she was cut off at once by Millie who even added an accusing index finger much like Stella had done herself the day before when the exaggerated method acting had been the point of contention between them.
"You're not eating that gross piece of stinkiness in my car. And that's final. You want meat, you eat outside," Millie said in a voice that made it very, very clear that her opinion was the only one that counted.
Stella clammed up at once and just stared at the actress. Several long seconds went by that were filled by the world-famous Cricket Symphony Orchestra playing a good portion of the somber adagio from Verdi's Messa Di Requiem. "All right. Fine. Fine! Reggie, I need a hand gettin' out! I know when I'm not wanted! And I certainly know when my deep-fried frankie ain't wanted!"
Sighing, Regina put her box of salad on top of the dashboard before she exited the TelStar. It only took her another second or two to come around to the back to help Stella out balancing her two to-go bags.
As Regina watched her sweetheart stomp away in a fiery huff, she had a little voice whispering in her ear that they ought to stay away from Uncle Greezy's Family Restaurants in the future. Weird things always happened when they were there, but since she had no idea how to break that news to Stella without risking a thermo-nuclear detonation, she filed it under L for Later.
Stella Starr was a woman on a mission, and a furious one to boot. Her face resembled a thundercloud as she stomped around the restaurant's external eating area trying to find just ten inches of space where she could park a rearward-facing cheek while she enjoyed her deep-fried jalapeño-frankfurter, the spiced mashed potatoes and the quadruple-XL-sized cup of Slurrpy Cherry Cola Extra Cherry she had bought for Millie's money - it was so large the young fellow who operated the soda pop machine behind the counter had put two drinking straws in the cup thinking that Stella was buying it for an entire family.
Around and around and around and around she stomped on a futile quest to find a vacant spot. There were happy people everywhere around her: Large families, young singles, dating couples, married couples, parents with baby carriages, old people with walking frames, itty-bitty kids, young kids, teenaged kids and the type of twenty-something man-children who still dressed as loudly as they had done when they were young kids.
Every single picnic table - of which there were plenty - she went past was filled to capacity. Nobody seemed to want to budge as much as an inch so she could slide onto the wooden bench. The tables and benches that were equipped with large parasols carrying the colorful Uncle Greezy Family Restaurant logo were the most popular with the countless guests, but even those that were exposed to the late-afternoon sun were chock-a-block with people who enjoyed eating a fair selection of the restaurant's extensive menus.
Stella needed to go all the way 'round on a second, third and fourth tour of the external eating area before the cards finally fell her way. A single spot at the very end of a picnic bench became available just as she turned a corner. Rushing over to the free spot, she threw herself onto the wooden seat to beat a young couple by inches. The frankfurter, the box of spicy mashed potatoes, the spoon for the mash, and finally the quadruple-XL-cup of Cherry Cola Extra Cherry were soon put on the table - then she dug into it like she had not eaten for the entire day.
After the first bite, she discovered the deep-fried jalapeño-frankfurter had become lukewarm and the mashed potatoes had turned stale and lumpy after the long delay. The ice cubes in the gallon-sized cup of cherry cola had all melted and had diluted the delightful, dark-brown sugary beverage to the point where she needed to lift the lid to check if it was even cherry cola at all or one of the dreaded carbonated mineral waters instead.
Stella Starr found it a little difficult to keep up her spirits after that.
Two minutes later, it grew worse as a middle-aged woman sat down next to her carrying a tray featuring a small burger and an even smaller cup of soda. The new guest was obviously not the problem, but the medium-sized dog she had on a long leash was. The mutt - that seemed to be a curious mix of a dachshund and something else entirely - flew around the legs of its owner as well as the legs of everyone else at the picnic table while it did nothing but bark its head off. It barked and barked and barked and barked and barked and barked until Stella was ready to wring its neck with her bare hands. And then it barked a little more.
She considered leaving the picnic table to try her chances elsewhere, but a quick look-around at the tables nearest her proved there were no free spots anywhere. Sighing, she tried to block out the noisy mutt as she chomped on her lukewarm frankfurter, used the spoon to dig into the spicy, lumpy, stale mashed potatoes and slurped from the flat extra-extra-extra-extra large cherry cola. The mutt kept up its frantic barking the whole time, and it mattered little that the owner tried to shush it by uttering various commands and tugging on the leash.
When a gentle hand was put on Stella's shoulder, the mop-topped investigator broke out in a wistful smile - she was able to recognize her sweetheart's touch at once even when they attended a Bay City Bulldawgs game and were in the middle of a thousand pushing and shoving football fans.
Regina soon came around to stand next to the eating woman. The disparity in height between them was far too great to achieve eye-contact, so the taller of the two crouched down so they could share the same space. "Hi, Stell. How's it hanging?"
"Hi, Reggie… So-so. As usual," Stella said around sticking a spoonful of lumpy, stale mashed potatoes into her mouth. "Wan'some mash? It's really spicy and yummy… well, it used to be spicy and yummy. Now it's spicy and lumpy."
"Huh… no thanks."
"Maybe some other time…?"
"Maybe," Regina said with a grin. Reaching up, she ran a tender thumb across Stella's cheek. The caress earned her the smile she had hoped to see, but it did not last long.
"It's weird how these things always happen to us… to me," Stella said and adjusted her glasses. While she spoke, the mutt continued to bark its head off while running around the picnic table. "Can you believe the nerve of that actress?" - Bark, bark, BARK - "I mean… okay, so she doesn't want-" - Bark, BARK, bark - "me to eat my frankie in her car, okay," - BARK, bark, bark - "fine, all right, but-" - Bark-bark-bark-bark - "couldn't she have found a-" - Bark-BARK-BARK-bark - "nicer way to put it?" - Bark-bark-bark-bark - "It made me real mad… like-" - Bark-BARK-bark-BARK! - "emm aye dee mad, but I-" - BARKBARKBARKBARK! BARRRRRRRK-BARK! - "didn't want to mouth off-" - Bark, bark, BARK - " 'cos she's some kind of-" - Bark, BARK, bark - "celebrity or something and-" - BARK, bark, bark - "she might go on a TV talk show-" - Bark-bark-bark-bark - "or something and trash our-" - Bark-BARK-BARK-bark - "detective agency or something…" - Bark-bark-bark-bark.
"I don't think she'd do that," Regina said around a noisy Bark-BARK-bark-BARK!
"Aw, you never know with-" - BARKBARKBARKBARK! BARRRRRRRK-BARK! - "those actress-ses. But I am-" - Bark, bark, BARK - "tellin' you one thing, Reggie," - Bark, BARK, bark - " and that is the next-" - BARK, bark, bark - "time we see Steve, I'm gonna-" - Bark-bark-bark-bark - "kill that… that… that… mo-" - Bark-BARK-BARK-bark! - "-ucker stone dead. And I mean it!" - Bark-bark-bark-bark - "I will!" - Bark-BARK-bark-BARK!
"In that case, I'll come and visit you in prison… I'll even bring you some raspberry fizz if they'll let me." - BARKBARKBARKBARK! BARRRRRRRK-BARK!
"Thank you, Reggie. You're my friend. My best friend." - Bark, bark, BARK - "My only friend in a world that's always so, so," - Bark, BARK, bark - "SO, so evil and mean and cruel and vicious and brutal to us little people." - BARK, bark, bark - "And I don't mean that in the sense than I'm short-" - Bark-bark-bark- bark - " 'cos I'm not, but… you know." - Bark-BARK-BARK-bark.
"I know. I better get back to Miss Jordan. Just come whenever you feel like it. All right?" Regina said before she rose to her full height. Before she left, she leaned down and placed a little peck on Stella's lips - and the mutt kept on barking.
"I will. Thanks again, Reggie," Stella said with a wink before she turned back to her diluted Cherry Cola Extra Cherry. She suddenly remembered the change she had in her pocket; it belonged to the actress, but Regina was already gone so it would have to wait.
Once she was alone with the final few bites of her lukewarm jalapeño-frankfurter, her lumpy mashed potatoes and her not-exactly-a-cherry cola, her telephone started ringing somewhere deep down in her jeans pocket. After wiping her greasy fingers on a napkin, she retrieved the electronic marvel.
Although the caller-ID said Unknown Caller, she still accepted the call just in case it was a potential client who had already tried the regular landline at the office. There was obviously always a risk it was a telemarketer or worse, but then she would just Stella-Starr her way out of the conversation. "Good afternoon, you've reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?" she said while she stuffed an index finger into her other ear in an attempt to block out the barking and the rest of the ambient noises.
And the mutt kept on barking. Stella scrunched up her face as she tried to listen to what was said into her ear from the other end of the connection. And the mutt kept on barking. "I'm sorry, it's kinda loud here… could you repeat that?" she said, but the second attempt fared no better than the first as the mutt simply refused to quit barking.
A scant two seconds later, the needle on the delicate instrument monitoring the temperature of Stella's temper flew into the red zone, bounced against the upper peg a couple of times and then blew clean off the scale. An entire row of warning lights flashed on-and-off as the short fuse on the hydrogen bomb inside her was finally lit. Another few seconds went by that were filled with sparks, smoke and plenty of hissing - and then the inevitable detonation occurred.
Turning to the noisy mutt in question, she drew a deep breath and let out a roaring: "BOW-WOW-WOW-WOW-WOW-DI-BOW-WOW-WOW-WOW-WOW-DOO-BOW-WOW-WOW-WOW-WOW-BOW-DUMM-BLIP-BLOPPIN'-BOW-BOW-BOW-WOW'SER! SO THERE!" that echoed across the entire eating area.
Not only was the dog stunned into absolute muteness, everyone else at and near the picnic table seemed to have lost the ability to speak as well. Several cars stopped out on the street in a vain attempt to see what had gone down, and even the kitchen employees of Uncle Greezy's Family Restaurant came out of a fire exit to gawk. Smiling at her success, Stella turned her attention back to her telephone. " 'Beg pardon, Mister. There was a nasty dog here. You were saying?"
The bounce had returned to Stella's step once she made her way back to the TelStar e909/C, and she was even whistling a merry tune - that bore a vague resemblance to the old cowboy novelty favorite I Hav' Mah Hoss I Hav' Mah Lasso, A Li'l West-ah Ol' El Paso - as she opened the passenger door and climbed onto the comfortable back seat of the low vehicle.
"Miss Starr," Millie said in a sincere voice, "I'd like to apologize-"
"All water under the bridge," Stella said with a dismissive wave. "No skin off my hairy butt. Yesterday's worries, tomorrow's opportunities. Let bygones be bygones. F'ggeddaboud-id. Buh-bye bad news. See ya on the flipside, we're southbound and down. A-ripper-durr-chee, mate."
"Ah… that's… that's… good to hear," Millie said and cast a cautious peek at Regina who could only - again - grin and shrug at Stella's wild mood swings and somewhat unusual mangling of the American language. "But I'd still like to apologize."
"Apology accepted, Miss Jordan. It happens. Believe me, I know. By the way, here's your change," Stella said and handed over the collection of coins that were left from the twenty-dollar bill she had been given. "So… while I devoured plenty of yummy fat, salt and sugar and you chomped on your grossly dull rabbit food, I had a phone call from a new client," she continued while she pointed at her smartphone like she thought she would be able to show what she meant although the display had long since gone back to being black. "It was the owner of a small coffee shop over in the arrival hall of the Bay City Central Station. He's been having a little trouble with pickpockets lately, and he found our ad in the local rag."
Hearing that, Regina let out an: "Hmmm! Sounds right up our alley, Stell."
"Yes, in-dee-dee! Miss Jordan… would you be interested in coming along?"
"Oh…" the actress said with a faint blush spreading over her cheeks. "Would you still want me to tag along even despite the… uh, frankfurter incident?"
Stella grinned as she shoved the telephone into her pocket and reached for the seat belt. "We sure would. Something like this really makes Harrison-Starr shine… it's our best kinda job. You'll learn a lot, I guarantee it. And better still, this calls for…" - she held a long rhetorical pause to build up plenty of excitement among her two interested listeners - "Disguises! Awwwwww-yeah!" she cried, pumping the air with her entire arm.
Despite the lightning-fast, white-knuckle drive through the city - for Stella at least; she had barely been able to breathe when the digital speedometer had reached fifty miles per hour at one point - they arrived back at the Harrison-Starr office in one piece and in fine fettle.
Soon, Stella, Regina and Millie were huddled around the large wardrobe in the storage room beyond the office itself. In addition to the packed closet, the storage facility saw a good deal of varied items like their portable TV set and DVD player, an old bunk bed that had not been used since Regina had joined the company, a pair of six-foot-tall electric fans, a full-sized mirror on wheels used by both investigators whenever they needed to test out new costumes, and finally a sideboard full of hopelessly obsolete pieces of electronic surveillance gear that Stella could not get herself to throw out.
The mop-topped investigator had turned on the strip lights in the ceiling so they would be able to get a full and unrestricted view of all their fantastic - and occasionally tacky - disguises. "Let's do it," she said as she removed a few items from a badly scratched third-hand table adjacent to the vast closet so they would have plenty of room to look at the treasures.
"Okie-dokie," Regina said and reached into the wardrobe to take out one disguise after the other - they were all hanging on coat hangers and wrapped in protective plastic so they would not get too dusty between uses.
The disguises were divided into two equally large groups separated by a wooden beam inside the closet to stop any potential confusion or mix-up before it had a chance to develop. Back in the early days of their working relationship, Stella had accidentally snatched one of Regina's disguises for a single-person job, and she had looked like she had worn a circus tent throughout the entire gig. Similarly, Regina had suffered through wearing what amounted to a corset during a foot chase that had ended in a big, bad bust for all involved when she'd had to cry enough without catching the bad guy - or in that particular case, the bad girl.
"Okay, let's see what we got here. Hmmm," Stella said as she held up some of the plastic bags containing her disguises. They all carried labels listing the contents, but she was not always able to read her own scribbles. Whenever she was in doubt, she needed to move the label up to her nose and squint for all she was worth. "Aw, this is Bob the Plumber. I just used that the other day… or the other week, actually. Dang, how time flies… anyway, it's such a classic, but perhaps not the best for tonight. The Irate Girlfriend? Hmmm… that could work. I'll put it on the short list. The Artist… no. The Cop… no, that would be counterproductive in this context. Same for the Dumpster Queen. I'd just wind up getting arrested… again…"
"Wow," Millie said as she stared into the fully-stocked wardrobe, "this is almost as big as the costume repository at the Westminster Dinner Theater where I first got into acting!"
"Oh, you've worked at the Westminster?" Regina said with a grin.
"Yes! I started in the chorus line just after my tenth birthday and I stayed there for six years," Millie continued as she held up one of Stella's disguises labeled The Fashion Guru. Last used April, 2012 "It was definitely a fun time. We did all kinds of great musical shows like Cinderella… Holly And The Magic Snow Man… Rapunzel… The Ugly Duckling… even Peter And The Wolf. I was the duck!"
Regina continued to grin as she looked at Stella who was still busy wading through the disguises. "Stell and I were there a couple of years ago for the big Christmas musical production. Remember that, Stell? 'Christmas At The Old Vicarage' I believe it was called."
"Ohhhhhhh-yeah, I remember," Stella mumbled; a blush spread over her cheeks as she recalled the utter pandemonium that she and Regina had caused among the actors and even the spectators when they had been forced to chase what everyone thought was a thieving ghost through the entire theater building. That they had in fact met and said hello to a real ghost in the endless, spooky corridors below the stage after the show had ended was even more chilling.
She shook her head to snap out of the Twilight Zone and return to the disguises. "The Postal Worker slash Letter Carrier… no. Or maybe… hmmm. Okay, onto the short list."
"Oh, look!" Regina said and held up one of the disguises from her pile. "Here's the French maid! I didn't think we had that anymore. I'll bet you have fond memories of this one, Stell! Huh? Huh? Eh-eh? Huh?"
Stella stopped what she was doing. Not because she had already grown tired of going through their disguises, but because her glasses had fogged over to such a degree little droplets of dew dripped off the underside of the lenses. "Darn that French maid," she mumbled as she took off the glasses and proceeded to wipe them on a handkerchief she'd had in her jeans pocket. "It's been a while since that's happened. I thought the new anti-mist solution worked, but…"
"No, you're not. You're a big meanie, Reggie. I thought you wus my friend."
"I am, don't you worry about that. But I guess it means I still got it," Regina said and went into the opening part of her Too Cool For Words-posing routine. They did not have time for the full show, so after wiggling around a little, she skipped ahead to the final pose where she put her pinkie in her mouth and shot Stella a smoldering gaze - on this occasion, however, the gaze was wasted since the glasses were not yet back on the shaggy-haired investigator's nose.
Undaunted, Regina shot the world at large and the two other women near her in particular one of her two-hundred watt smiles; then she flicked her perfect hair over her perfect shoulder where it landed in a perfect cascade down her perfect back.
"Yesssssss. You still got it," Stella said with a sigh.
Millie Jordan looked from one of the investigators to the other while letting out a constant stream of little snickers.
The snickers were echoed by Regina before she folded up the plastic bag containing the outrageous - and outrageously provocative - disguise. "The French maid better go back into hiding. We wouldn't wanna cause a stir at the Grand Central… there's plenty of weirdness going on over there as it is," she said with a grin as she shoved the coat hanger carrying the protective plastic back into the wardrobe.
The next batch of disguises were not really to her liking: the nun's habit she had used at the flea-market affair was too warm, the skirt that went with the disguise known as The Librarian was so tight it prevented her from running, and the thick down pillows she needed to strap onto her tummy and rear-end underneath a tacky Western suit when using the Texan Oil-Tycoon disguise - that came complete with a foot-long fake cigar and a glue-on Van Dyke beard - were just wrong-wrong-wrong.
After she had put all those back, she found a Postal Worker slash Letter Carrier disguise identical to the one Stella had already dug out. "Hmmm," she said, squinting at the medium-blue uniform as she held it up. "Stell, I have an idea. Well, a couple of ideas, actually."
"And they are?" Stella said and put down the disguise known as the Irate Girlfriend that she had originally short-listed.
"How about I went as the letter carrier tonight?" Regina said and held up the disguise she was talking about. "Blue is my color, you know that. And I could carry a few bits and bobs in the bag to make it look heavy. The jacket has wide pockets which are well-suited for picking. And…" - she put down the first bag to pick up a second one - "then the newest member of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency could wear your Commando gear. You know, the black pants, the black sweater, the knitted cap and those things. Miss Jordan," she continued as she turned to their tag-along, "like we saw yesterday, that kind of costume matches your looks perfectly… and you could do your method-thing, too!"
"Oh, that would definitely be exciting, Miss Harrison," Millie said with a smile.
Stella seemed less enthusiastic to begin with, but she eventually broke out in a shrug. "I guess that could work. We're roughly the same size, so… okay. But… hmmm… then I'll… hmmm." She fell quiet and began to rub her chin - it was a tell-tale sign that something was brewing just behind her intelligent, green orbs.
Suddenly zipping over to the wardrobe, she dug through a full section of the protective dress bags before she found the one she had been looking for. "A-ha!" she cried as she pulled back out. "My poncho! My wonderful, wonderful poncho! Oooooooooh, it's been far too long since I've worn it! And a clutch over my shoulder so the pickey-pockey has sum'tin to go for. Oooh-yes-yes-yes, my poncho and the clutch and the T-shirt from the Irate Girlfriend and I'm all set! Okay, I need some pants too or else my patootie 'll get cold… hate it when that happens. Hot-diggety-bing-bong, Reggie, that's what I'm gonna wear!"
"Oh no, Stell… no, no, no," Regina whined as she clapped a hand over her sensitive eyes to protect them from the visual assault created by the loud piece of hideousness.
"Oh yes! Yes! Yes, Reggie!" Stella said as she whipped her beloved poncho out of the plastic cover. The Big Thing With The Many Sunflowers was soon fluffed and then put on. Breaking out in a wide grin at the homey feel of the low-grade polyester fabric, she zipped back inside the large wardrobe to snatch her shapeless, spring-green Happy Camper bucket hat and a pair of ultra-cheap, fire-engine-red sunglasses. The clutch took a little longer to find since she needed to go through Regina's stash for that particular item, but she eventually found a good specimen that would be a juicy target for any pickpocket worth his salt.
Once she had all the accessories on immediate stand-by, she zipped over to the tall mirror and wheeled it back to where the big costume parade took place. After plonking the bucket hat onto her haystack, she slid the cheap sunglasses over her real glasses and the clutch over her shoulder to let the world know that The One And Only Stella Starr had arrived. "Purr-fect! Just purr-fect. There's no blip-bloppin' way it can get any better than this… purr-fect!"
"No comment, Stell. No comment… well maybe just one," Regina said as she peeked through her fingers. "If there's a chain or a carrier strap on the clutch, it's not a clutch at all… then it's a regular purse."
"Tomato-tomahto, potato-French fry, Reggie. Completely irrelevant," Stella said and posed in front of the mirror for the benefit of herself and the others.
Regina could only shake her head and let out a groan-grunt-groan-grunt-groan, but Millie whistled and broke out in a round of applause at the frivolous explosion of colors and styles on display. "Oh, that's great, Miss Starr. Just the thing for standing out in a crowd!"
"Oh, and for blending in too. You'll be amazed," Stella said with a grin before she turned back to Regina. "How about it, Reggie? You're the Letter Carrier, Miss Jordan's the Commando and I'm the-"
"Absolute pits," Regina said flatly. She still kept her eyes protected by her hands, but she spread her fingers for a fraction of a second to take in the colorful sight - then she hurriedly covered her eyes all over again.
"Whut?! This is a mother-beautiful disguise, Reggie!" Stella said as she grabbed hold of her sunflower-adorned, polyester poncho and held it out. "Don't you start… don't you start on your Oh-I'm-So-So-So-Embarrassed-To-Even-Walk-Next-To-You-When-You're-Wearing-Your-Poncho-act 'cos I don't wanna hear it! I'm wearing the poncho and the clutch and the bucket hat and the sunglasses and that's final! So there!"
A few crickets had time to chirp and warm up to a lengthier session of dramatic mood music, but Regina cut them short with a "Yes, dear."
Seventeen minutes later, the black-and-silver TelStar e909/C drove onto the wide open forecourt of Bay City's central railroad station; Millie needed to trickle around the packed short-term parking zone several times before she found a gap wide enough for the large sports-coupe.
The majority of the facade of the historical railroad station's main building was wrapped in tarpaulin and had been so since mid-April. Even the familiar large-faced clock on the upper part of the building had been taken down for repairs. Over the course of the summer months, a regiment of bricklayers and other craftsmen had worked on bringing the badly withered surface back to its original luster. The type of masonry and brickwork used when the station was rebuilt after the major earthquake in 1909 - that had leveled much of downtown Bay City - had not been able to withstand the acid rain and the high amount of airborne pollution that flew around in the later decades.
As the three women got out, they pretended not to know each other and split up at once. Millie Jordan fell into the same shuffling walk she had used when she and Stella had first met each other - it went well with her dark, foreboding disguise. She was soon on her way shuffling toward a newspaper vending machine to buy a Bayside Chronicle so she would have something to do.
Regina went the other way in her postal worker uniform. True to form, it had looked far too neat when she had donned it, and it had taken a lot of ruffling by the expert ruffler Stella Starr to make it appear like Regina had just come off a long, hard working day.
Stella went straight for the railroad station's main entrance. After a brief look-up on the all-knowing - and occasionally misleading - Internet, she'd had to admit that the accessory that hung over her shoulder was in fact a purse and not a clutch. Whatever the proper term, she had opened the click-lock and had pushed the small bag nearly onto the back of her poncho so it could swing freely while being away from her hands. The open flap would provide a tempting target for any serious thief; the cocked mouse trap down in the purse would provide a severe whack on said thief's fingers.
Once inside the main building, she noted that it still carried a mix of smells not found anywhere else in Bay City. The air inside the Grand Central Station was heavily laden with a combination of the countless people spending countless hours there, of the candy, snacks, food and beverages being prepared and sold in the various mini-shops, of the old dust that trickled down from the rafters whenever a rolling train made the entire building tremble, and of the diesel fumes and the stink of warm metal that exuded from the many locomotives that frequented the tracks below.
A little further on, she glanced around the busy place without appearing to be doing so. To her left, a mime and a juggler tried to entertain the waiting passengers, but they had few takers. A young lady played a soulful tune on an acoustic guitar, but her success was no greater as the people around her just kept walking without ever noticing her.
To Stella's right, a couple of homeless men sat on a bench sharing a brown paper bag that presumably contained an alcoholic beverage of some sort. She could pick up a faint scent of cherry brandy, and she glanced at the men a second time to see if one of them was their long-time informer Joe. Neither of the homeless men looked familiar, but they certainly had trouble in store in the shape of one of the Central Station's caretakers and an officer from the Transit Police who were headed their way in determined strides.
There was nothing Stella could do about that, so she moved on. The twelve platforms were all one level down from the ground floor, and a whole row of busy escalators continuously brought passengers to and from the trains below. It seemed a train was just about to arrive at the station, because the public address system let out a melodic donggg-dinggg-bonggg before a female voice announced which platform the This-That-and-The-Other Express was arriving at, and where it would go after leaving the central hub - and as always, the message drowned in the constant noise and poor acoustics of the huge, open building.
Looking straight ahead, Stella cast a brief glance at one of the four busy kiosks that sold everything from apples to the newfangled Zarroyd Energy Drinks. According to the oh-so-clever advertising campaign, the energy drink had a taste that would make the person drinking it break out in a loud Zarroyd! and then explode in a shower of golden sparks after imbibing. Stella had very little interest in either, so she moved on.
As was always the case, several kids accompanied by their dads - never their moms - flocked around a large model railroad that had been built up against the far wall of the Central Station. The permanent display had won several awards for its build-quality and high attention to detail. As a child, but even as a young adult, Stella had often stood there for hours watching the choo-choos drive around and around while wishing she could hop on board and experience an adventure that would bring some color into her oatmeal-gray life.
She shuffled on like she had all the time in the world. The P.A. system soon announced another train arriving, and not long after, another large group of passengers were brought upstairs by the escalators. It appeared to be a regular commuter train since most people wore business clothing, but one or two carried travel bags or pulled suitcases on wheels.
Stella's target - Honest Lou's Coffee-teria - was up ahead, but she would reach it soon enough. Her highly colorful disguise stood out in the crowd, but like she had experienced a million times in her life already, once people had noticed the sunflower-adorned poncho and the green bucket hat, they cared little about the person wearing them.
Stella and Regina reached the small shop at the exact same time though they came from opposite directions. Stella remained at one of the seven tall café-style tables meant to be used by busy passengers who did not have the time or the need to sit down while they drank their hot drinks. The shop did have one regular low table that had three chairs around it, but it was vacant.
A single-sheet menu detailing the selection of coffees for sale had been put on the café-style tables, and she picked up one of them to study it. Honest Lou's Coffee-teria appeared to be a place that sold good-old, solid coffee rather than one of those semi-fake barista shops that had popped up all over Bay City in recent years. When a delightful aroma of good, old-fashioned coffee wafted past her nostrils, she took a deep sniff because she knew chances were she might not have the opportunity to buy something.
At the same time, Regina went up to the polished counter and dumped her leather mail bag down at her feet. Her postal worker uniform consisted of black boots, medium-blue straight-legged pants, a black belt, a white shirt, a black tie, a medium-blue all-weather jacket and finally a medium-blue cap that was made of a sturdier fabric compared to most baseball caps. The jacket and the pants both had white stripes going down the outside of the sleeves and the legs. Her shirt had been ruffled, the top button had been opened and her tie had been shoved to the side to offer the impression she had worked all day.
A piece of circular, hard plastic had been inserted into the jacket's right-hand side pocket to make it stand open on its own. The tip of a leather wallet poked out - just the thing for a sneaky pickpocket. A three-foot long super-elastic band had been attached to the wallet to provide a nasty surprise for anyone wanting to snatch it; the band ran through a small hole in the pocket and was attached to Regina's belt so it would not tear the expensive disguise to pieces in case the ploy worked.
Regina sighed and took off her cap so she could tousle her bangs. To support the desired illusion of a dead-tired postal worker, she had dabbed her face in a watery solution of baby talcum that gave her a pale, haggard look. Similarly, through clever application of an eyeliner-pencil, she had drawn faintly-gray lines under her eyes and across her forehead to make it appear she had lived through a long, hot and tiring day.
"Evenin', Ma'am," the owner of the coffee shop said as he noticed he had a customer. 'Honest' Louis G. Hunnicutt was a large fellow in his late-fifties who had bought the small shop at the Central Station after the bar and grill where he had worked as a bartender had closed down to give way to an apartment complex.
He wore ergonomic sandals, cotton pants and a charcoal-gray flannel shirt where the sleeves had been rolled up to his elbows. The shirt was protected by a pale-gray apron that carried his Coffee-teria's logo. His slight potbelly, his sun tan, his curly, graying hair and his sparkling eyes gave him an air of friendliness, but he had not earned his original nickname of Thumper by being a push-over. If it came down to it, he could - and would - deliver a hefty wallop.
"Hiya," Regina said with a tired smile, "A cup of black coffee, if ya don't mind. Just regular, old-fashioned black coffee."
"You got it. That'll be a buck-fifty," Louis said as he took a regular, old-fashioned glass pot off an electric hotplate and poured plenty of regular, old-fashioned black coffee into a large cup. "Had a rough day? You look plum worn out."
"Yeah, I had a long route. Damn hot, too. Here ya go… keep the change," Regina said as she put a five-dollar bill on the counter.
"Much obliged, Ma'am," Louis said as he placed the large cup on the counter; then he scooped up the bill that soon disappeared into his cash register.
Regina pulled the cup over and began to sip from it. All through the exchange, she'd had an eye on each finger to check out the people nearest them. So far, nobody seemed to have had an unhealthy interest in the bag at her feet or at the exposed wallet in her pocket.
A moment later, she was joined by Stella who leaned against the counter a mere foot away so they could hear each other, and so Louis Hunnicutt could hear them both, without letting the rest of the world in on their plans.
"Mr. Hunnicutt?" Stella said as she took off her cheap, red sunglasses. She tried to push them down the upper hem of her poncho but soon found there was no room. Instead, she put them on the counter where they represented a bright splash of color among the silvery aluminum and white cups.
"There's no way in hell you're from the IRS, so I s'pose it's safe to say yes to that question," Louis said and let out a rumbling laugh that made his potbelly wiggle. Once he had settled down again, he continued wiping down the counter with a damp cloth.
"We're Regina Harrison and Stella Starr from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. She's Regina and I'm Stella," Stella said and squinted left-to-right to keep track of the people in her vicinity. A man seemed to be considering buying some coffee, but he carried on after checking his wristwatch. "You called… and here we are," she said with the purse containing the cocked trap still swinging freely on her back.
'Honest' Louis Hunnicutt stopped what he was doing to stare at the colorful character in front of him; then at the supposed postal worker who was anything but. "Whoa… that was quick! It's only… hell, it's not even an hour since I called you! And I gotta say those are damned clever disguises. The mailman had me fooled… and you… are you supposed to be some kind of rodeo clown?"
Stella briefly scrunched up her face at the seemingly innocuous question. She glanced down at her beloved poncho that everyone else seemed to find loathsome - or just plain ridiculous - for some inexplicable reason. "Ah… no. No, I'm not. I'm wearing my regular clothes."
"Oh… pardon the hell outta me, then," Louis said and resumed wiping down the counter. "Well, like I said over the 'phone, I'm having trouble with a pickpocket. Lately, a couple of my customers have been, well… robbed sounds so overly dramatic… but they've lost a few valuable items like a telephone and even a credit card here at my little shop. I think it's just the one guy who's found a good hunting ground, but the Transit cops are too slow in gettin' off their asses when I call 'em, and I can't run after him myself… bad knees. I need to do something, though, 'cos if word gets around it's not safe here, I can kiss this whole thing goodbye. And I've worked too damn hard for that."
"Mmmm," Stella said, reaching up under her poncho to get to the fanny pack she wore around her waist - it contained a few pencils, her telephone and a flip-over notepad. The latter and one of the former were soon in her hand so she could take notes for the subsequent proper case file. "Can you give us a description of the man you suspect to be the pickpocket?"
"Yeah. Young fella in his mid-twenties. Some days he's unshaven, other days he's clean-shaven… it varies. Dark hair. Never combed," Louis said as he studied a person dressed in dark that came closer to the coffee bar; the person walked in a weird shuffle. Furrowing his brow, he continued: "More than once, I've seen him wear a black or real dark-gray sweatsuit where the sleeves are cut off at the elbows. He's got hairy arms, now that I think of it…"
Then the owner of the coffee shop interrupted himself to let out a strong "Hey, fella!" directed at the person in dark. "This ain't no damn warming shelter. If you wanna spend time here, ya gotta buy something."
Stella and Regina turned to look at the weirdly shuffling person behind them. Stella had to admit - grudgingly - that the young actress knew what she was doing when slipping into another character. There was nothing of her own grace in the shuffling, hunched-over homeless woman they were looking at. "Ah, Mr. Hunnicutt," Stella said as she turned back to the gruff man behind the counter, "allow me to introduce our temporary, uh… intern. Miss Jordan."
"Whoa! She's one of you detective-people, too? Goddamn, I'm impressed!"
"That's nice," Stella said with a grin. "Miss Jordan will be staying here while Miss Harrison and I fish around a little. That way, we can have a base for the operation."
While Stella had spoken, Millie had reached the counter and moved in between her companions. The Bayside Chronicle she had bought as well as a few coins were soon put on the shiny surface; the coins were counted several times so she had one dollar fifty ready for a hot cup. "A cuppa warm water, Ssssir," she said with a clear lisp.
A puzzled expression fell over Louis' face, but he shrugged and proceeded to pour some water into an electric kettle that stood next to the old-fashioned glass coffee pot.
It only took a moment for the water to heat up, and while the owner poured the steaming-hot, clear liquid into another of the large cups, Millie winked at Stella and Regina who both winked back.
Another customer joined them at the counter, so their private conversation came to an end. The dead-tired letter carrier soon emptied her cup and tipped her blue cap at 'Honest' Louis Hunnicutt who offered her a goodbye-nod in return. Then she took her leather bag and continued on her way in a tender walk like her flat feet were killing her.
The homeless woman dressed in black kept standing at the bar nursing her cup of hot water, but the woman in the colorful poncho put her sunglasses back on and left the establishment as well.
Stella shuffled off in the opposite direction to Regina so they could perform their patented figure-of-eight sweep that would see them join up twice on each pass of the premises - she had a good feeling about the operation; it would be successful, she was certain of that.
Over the course of the next thirty minutes, Stella's feeling about a successful outcome to the assignment steadily dropped from good to fair to so-so to blah to never-blip-bloppin'-mind. She eventually came to a halt in the middle of the historic arrival hall, slammed her hands on her hips and let out a deep sigh.
There were plenty of people around her - scores if not hundreds, in fact - but none seemed even remotely to be a pickpocket. Of course, as Stella knew all too well, pickpockets did not have a dress code as such. Sometimes they wore grungy street clothes, other times they wore nicer outfits, and they could even wear business suits and expensive gold wristwatches. She had yet to see a pickpocket in a pink tutu, a leopard leotard or a green-and-white romper suit, but she was sure they were out there somewhere applying their evil trade.
She was getting nowhere fast, so instead of taking another sweep of the Central Station like her original plan had been, she reached into her fanny pack to find her smartphone. After accessing Regina's number in the registry, she hit the correct spot on the display and put the telephone to her ear. "Hi, Reggie, it's me…"
'I know, Stell. It says so right there on the little screen.'
"Oh… that's right. I just can't get used to that… back in the olden days, a telephone was-"
'But never mind that now. Seen anyone suspicious lately?'
"No," Stella said and let out a long sigh. "I think it must be that blip-bloppin' pickpocket's day off or something. Maybe he's watching wrestling on pay-per-view, I dunno… but he sure ain't here. How are things at your end?"
'Oh, my end is just fabulous like it's always been, dahling!' - Snicker, snicker! - 'But my feet are getting sore. Pretty soon, I won't have to fake that flat-footed walk…'
Stella kept vigilant all through the conversation with her sweetheart. Her sharp eyes roamed across the many passengers to see if anyone looked suspicious, or behaved in a suspicious manner, or just seemed to be out of place. A member of the latter category was easy enough to find - namely herself.
The bright colors of the poncho, the cheap sunglasses and the shapeless bucket hat acted as a splash of sunshine in the sea of business-grays and browns that surrounded her. More than once, she had been leered at in a most uncool fashion - though she had no time for narrow-minded individuals, it still distracted her from her primary objective. "This is going be a big, fat waste of time, Reggie. Crud, it already is. We're probably gonna have to come back tomorrow and try again… at least Mr. Hunnicutt seemed pleased with our disguises."
'Yeah… perhaps we could try to-'
From one moment to the next, Regina stopped talking. Stella checked her own telephone to see if the connection had been terminated, but it was still active. Then a bumping, thumping sound akin to Regina's telephone being dropped on the hard floor filtered into Stella's ear - it was immediately followed by sounds of a struggle, a comical sproiiiiiingggg, a hard slapppp!, a loud 'Gawwwwwwd! That's gonna bruiiiiiiiiise!' and further sounds of a struggle.
"Reggie? Reggie?! Regg-gg-ggie?! What's going on over there?!" Stella cried into her telephone. She spun around several times to see if she could pick up signs of a commotion, but none of the passengers nearest her turned their heads to look at anything beyond the usual goings-on at the busy Central Station.
A few moments went by before the telephone was picked up again; another few fumbles were heard before Regina came back on the air in a croaking voice: 'Reggie in distress! Ooooooh, Reggie in distress!'
"I'm coming, Pookie! I'm coming!" Stella said and took off in an almighty hurry - then she realized she had no idea where her sweetheart actually was at that point in time. "What's going on, Reggie? Talk to me! And where are you?!"
'I had him! I almost had him, the sonova- he took the wallet, but the elastic band we put on it worked, Stell…'
"That's nice, but where are you, ding-dong-darn'it?!" Stella cried into the telephone as she tore around the packed arrival hall searching high and low for not only the pickpocket but for the postal worker slash Regina Harrison as well.
'It worked too well 'cos the damn wallet came back at me at the speed of sound and it whacked against my poor, poor boobs! I bruise so easily, you know that, and I'm gonna be very, very upset if I'm black and blue for the important photoshoot!'
"We can deal with your boobs later, Reggie!" Stella roared into the telephone - the comment made at least forty people stare at her - "Right now it's more important to tell me where the frickety-frick-fracker you are?!"
'Uh… I don't know- yes, I'm right in front of Yao Tsu Linn's Soles & Keys!'
"I don't know where that is, for cryin' out loud!" Stella roared as she continued to hustle around the large central station looking left, right, up, down, ahead and behind her.
'About three-hundred feet from the coffee shop… maybe four-hundred…'
"But in which direction?! Ohhh, this is gettin' ree-dee-queue-luss! Usually, I'm the chizzle in the sizzle who don't know up from down and you're the cool, classy dame who always have all the right answers and this- this- this- just ain't cutting it, Reggie! It just ain't cutting it."
"We need to have some sort of- of- of- oh, riffer-raffer, I don't know what I'm trying to tell you but I'm sprinting around like a completely insane woman in a poncho and a bucket hat over here while you need my help and I have no idea how to get to you and this! Is! Killing! Me!"
"It's blip-bloppin' killing me and I mean that from the bottom of my sneakers! You better call an undertaker right away 'cos I don't know how much more I can handle! Did the bad man hurt you, Pookie?"
'Not as such, but my chest is really sore…'
Stella's eyes were out on stalks and her tongue was practically hanging out as she was running, shouting and scouting for Regina all at the same time; then she flew past an unshaven, mid-twenty-something man in a black sweatsuit where the sleeves had been cut off. The man had hairy arms and seemed to hustle as much as she did. The two people running at full speed in the opposite direction of each other shared a single glance as they crossed paths - then the young man upped his tempo even further.
"Buh! Uh-buh-wub-buh! Buh!" Stella cried as she came to a sliding halt, spun around and stared at the rapidly vanishing pickpocket. "There he is! There he is, the blip-bloppin'- Reggie, I got'im! I got'im!"
'But where are you, Stell?! Ohhh, this is too much… and my poor boobs…'
"Whaddayamean where am I? I'm right here! Which is where he is!" Stella cried as she took off like a scalded cat in the pickpocket's tracks. Soon, she was back at full speed flying through the passengers who hurriedly moved aside for her so they could be spared being knocked down like bowling pins.
'But that's not where I am!'
"Well, that's not my fault! Just get over here in a hurry! I don't have time to talk, Reggie. Bye!" Stella cried and closed the call. Once the telephone was back in her fanny pack, she had both hands free to pump herself forward as she stormed through the arrival hall.
Though the cumbersome poncho slowed her down like a polyester parachute, she was not about to take it off; she just knew that someone well-versed in the wacky world of 1970s fashion would pilfer it. At the exact same time, the Happy Camper bucket hat had a mind of its own and simply blew off just as she went past a hot dog stand. "Mah hat! I lost mah blip-bloppin' hat!" she cried the moment she noticed that her haystack stood out in all directions - she had no time to smooth down the shaggy mop or even look around for the hat as she tore through the crowds.
The pickpocket was only a black spot somewhere up ahead, but Stella followed him to the best of her abilities. The two runners turned left, then right, then left, then right; then they went straight ahead for a short while before another sequence of hard left-right-left-right turns was carried out. They flew past a noodle shop, a small bookstore, an even smaller newspaper kiosk, another hot dog stand, a soft-ice vendor and even the office belonging to the Transit Police - nobody was home in the latter, a fact that annoyed Stella no end.
After running around in a dizzying circle for a while, the chasee and the chaser ran toward the escalators. Though good eyesight was more than likely a necessity for a pickpocket, this particular criminal chose an escalator that moved in the wrong direction - it went up while he and Stella were headed down.
The young man barged past several passengers who were rudely pushed aside up against the escalator's moving hand-rail. More than one dangerous situation arose, but it was nothing compared to when Stella Starr appeared on the scene and attempted to overcome the fact that the moving steps all rolled in the opposite direction of where she needed to go.
Her arms and legs pumped like the external components of an overworked combined harvester as she ran against the stream of the escalator while letting out a croaked: "Ob-bob-ob-bob! Ob-bob-ohhhhhhh-bob! Ob-oooh-oooh-oooh-ohhhh! Ob-bob-ob-bob-ob!" as the steps came at her with such a speed she could barely keep up. "Com- com- com- com- com- ing- ing- ing- ing- ing thr- thr- thr- thr- through! Wat- wat- wat- wat- watch out! Sta- sta- sta- sta- stand bah- bah- bahhhhh- bah- back!"
The escalator was finally history as they arrived at the lower end and the flat platform beyond it. Stella's eyes rolled freely in her head at the insane exertion she put herself through, but the chase was not over yet. She and the pickpocket flew down the busy platform while a train pulled by a diesel locomotive entered from the other end. The pickpocket tried to block his chaser's path by turning over a plastic trash can, but Stella managed to avoid it at the last moment - her acrobatic maneuver could best be described as half a windmill jump with a twist.
The twist came upon landing as her left sneaker just caught the side of the trash can. Not only was she forced into an ungraceful one-legged, hoppa-hoppa-hoppity-hoppa-hoppa-hop-hop while flailing her arms in the air and letting out an "Ooooooooooooooooh!" to remain upright, her purse flew off her shoulder and ended up bouncing along the platform. The cocked mousetrap inside it sprung itself through the series of impacts, and the hard sound scared a gray pigeon into taking off in a feather-flying, last-gasp escape.
Worse, the trash can sailed past the bright-yellow warning line, over the edge and onto the tracks below. A split second later, the heavy locomotive crushed it which in turn created an explosion of garbage that spewed all over the hitherto squeaky-clean area - the driver of the train activated the two-tone signal horn at once which sent a wall of noise blasting across all the platforms.
Stella let out a croaking groan as she resumed chasing after the bad guy. Around and around they went in a blurry, motion-sickness-inducing sequence of hard turns and wild swings. Through, over, under, across, left, right and around they went; ducking and diving past information screens that carried the timetables, more trash cans, the automatic ticket machine and all the passengers who cried out in anger at the irresponsible activity on the narrow platform.
"I'm gonna hurl… I'm gonna hurl… don't wanna hurl… I'm gonna hurrrrrrrl," Stella croaked with her tongue hanging out of her mouth like a sick dog. Changing directions and picking up speed once more, she and the pickpocket both raced back toward the escalator. Going uphill was far easier than the opposite direction had been since the upward-moving steps helped the forward motion, but Stella still needed to hang onto the rubber rails with both hands as her feet had a hard time finding the proper rhythm. She fumbled and stumbled over step after step until she gave up and allowed the escalator to do the work it was designed for.
Once she reached the top - huffing, puffing, wheezing and moaning like a steam locomotive with a tear in the boiler - she took off all over again and resumed chasing after the dastardly pickpocket who continued to elude her.
Then she noticed a couple of familiar figures in the middle distance: not only did Regina wave her postal worker cap at her from a spot next to one of the newspaper kiosks, the woman next to the tall model was none other than Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes who commanded what seemed to be an entire battalion of black-clad officers from the Transit Police as well as a few people from the Major Incident Unit.
As the police officers fanned out and formed a human chain, the pickpocket came to a sliding halt in the middle of the arrival hall. A few juicy obscenities were let out before he gave up the unequal struggle with the long arm of the law. As he was instructed to get down on his knees with his hands in the air, Regina and Mary-Jane hurried over to the panting Stella to see how she was doing.
"Oh-" - Huff, puff, wheeze, moan - "Am-" - Huff, puff, moan, wheeze - "I-" - Huff, moan, puff, wheeze - "glad-" - Moan, huff, puff, wheeze - "to-" - Huff, puff, wheeze, moan - "see-" - Huff, puff, moan, wheeze - "you-" - Huff, moan, puff, wheeze - "Reggie…" - Moan, huff, puff, wheeze - "Hiya-" - Huff, puff, wheeze, moan - "Mary-" - Huff, puff, moan, wheeze - "Jane…" - Huff, moan, puff, wheeze.
"Hello, Miss Starr. Never a dull moment, eh?" Mary-Jane Moynes said. As she invariably was, the strawberry-blond inspector was impeccably dressed in a teal pant suit over a turquoise O-neck blouse. Her gold shield was dangling around her neck on a metal chain as always. She had her sidearm drawn, but she holstered it now the drama had come to a peaceful solution.
"No." - Moan, huff, puff, wheeze - "Gawd…" - Huff, puff, wheeze, moan - "Not gonna-" - Huff, puff, moan, wheeze - "hurrrrl…" - Huff, moan, puff, wheeze - "not gonna-" - Moan, huff, puff, wheeze - "hurl…" - Huff, puff, wheeze, moan - "not gonna…" - Huff, puff, moan, wheeze - "Oh, Gawd…" - Huff, moan, puff, wheeze - "Mah… hat…" - Moan, moan, grumble, grumble, moan, moan - "Lost… mah… hat! And- and- and the cluh- cluh- cluh- purse!" - Moan, moan, grumble, grumble, moan, moan!
"Ohhh, that doesn't matter, Stella-dahling!" Regina said and pulled the exhausted and badly winded Stella into a smothering hug. "Thank you for trying to save me… it's the thought that counts…"
"Yeah… You're welc-" - Moan, huff, puff, wheeze - "welcome." - Huff, puff, wheeze, moan - "This was a bad one…" - Huff, puff, moan, wheeze - "A bad, bad, bad one…" - Huff, moan, puff, wheeze - "But Harris- Harriso-" - Moan, huff, puff, wheeze - "Harrison-St- Starr-" - Huff, puff, wheeze, moan - "de- delivered as-" - Huff, puff, moan, wheeze - "always. Told ya-" - Huff, moan, puff, wheeze - "that elastic band would-" - Moan, huff, puff, wheeze - "work. Saw the trick in an old-" - Huff, puff, wheeze, moan - "Laurel and Hardy movie… once… phew!" - Huff, puff, moan, wheeze-wheeze-wheeze. Deep breath.
"It worked a little too well," Regina said and rubbed her chest.
Once Stella was free of the smothering hug, she leaned over to put her trembling hands on her knees to reel in the last of the breaths that had all threatened to emigrate to Far East Asia if she kept up the torturous strain on their well-being. "Did… you… bruise?"
"Well, you know, I haven't actually checked 'em yet…"
"Aw," Stella said with a sly grin as she stood up straight, "there's… plenty… of time to… do that tonight. But there's one… thing I'd like… to know… what the fricker-fracker… does it matter for… the photoshoot if your… boobs are bruised? What kind of… gig is that, anyway? I'm already gonna… kill Steve at first sight, so I might… as well do it twice!"
"Ahem," Mary-Jane Moynes said while one her perfectly styled eyebrows crept up her forehead.
"Oh, I didn't mean it like that, of course. Ha-ha," Stella said as she squirmed under the inspector's pointed look. "Private Eye slang, you know. I meant that I wanted to shake his hand and tell him what a fantastic fella he is. Then I'd bake him a mud cake with shredded coconut or chipped almonds on top. Ha-ha."
"Obviously. Well, it looks like the boys have finished processing the pickpocket. I gather Mr. Hunnicutt and one of his afflicted customers are going to press charges against our man so I guess it's in the hands of the judicial system now. Thank you very much for catching the criminal, Miss Starr."
"Aw, you're most decidedly welcome, Mary-Jane! Alllllllllways happy to help the po-leese!" Stella said as she stuck out her hand to give her friend the proper, traditional goodbye-greeting.
Back at Honest Lou's Coffee-teria, the slightly disheveled pair of colorful characters strolled up to the shiny counter to catch their breaths and have a final chat with the owner of the establishment. Once they got there, they were met by the sight of Louis Hunnicutt serving a couple of customers - but Millie Jordan was not one of them. In fact, the method actress was nowhere in sight.
"Uh…" Stella said, turning this way and that to try to find the third wheel on their wagon. "That's funny, I coulda sworn we had Millie with us when we got here tonight…"
"We did, silly," Regina said and gave Stella's shoulder a playful little thump.
"So… where'd she go?"
"Well, we can spend the next hour guessing, or we can ask Honest Lou and know for sure in ten seconds," Regina said with a grin as she strolled over to the counter where one of the two customers had just finished his cup of coffee.
"Smarty-pants," Stella mumbled.
"Yes, they are, aren't they? Quite smart tho' they're uniform pants. I like them," Regina said and went into a short posing routing that saw her spin around and wiggle her rear end a couple of times to underscore the point, "they have a real comfy fit."
"Wussen't what I meant," Stella said and adjusted her glasses that had begun to mist over after the unexpected spectacle. "Not that I'm complaining or anything…"
"Hello again, ladies," Louis Hunnicutt said as he wiped down the counter with a damp rag. "I gotta say, that was one hell of a show you put on there."
"Why, thank you, Sir!" Regina said, but Stella elbowed her in the side while whispering for her ears only: "My chase, Reggie! Not your wiggling!" to which Regina simply said, "Oh…"
"Yeah," Stella said in her regular voice. "All part of the game for the intrepid, fearless investigators of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. Speaking of which… did you happen to notice where our intern went? She was supposed to wait for us here, but…"
"Sure I do 'cos she told me to give you a message. She got a phone call that made her real pissed-off. She said the movie had been dropped so she needed to see her agent at once. And then she split," Louis said before he went over to serve another customer who had already placed a few coins on the counter.
The two investigators stared at each other. A few crickets had time to chirp before Stella broke out in a wide shrug. "The movie was dropped…"
"So she split…"
"Okay. All right. Huh. Okay. I guess that's Holly-weird for ya. WHATever. Hey! She's still wearing my commando disguise!"
"I guess she'll be going commando tonight… ba-da-boom-tsssh!" Regina said and let out a little snicker.
"Don't give up your day job, Reggie, 'cos, sheesh!" Stella said and shook her head. "Anyway. At least I got a semi-warm jalapeño-frankie out of it. The spicy mash was pretty good too, if a little lumpy. Naw, make that a-lotta lumpy."
Regina suddenly furrowed her brow as a thought came to her; she looked toward the main entrance of the Central Station before she turned back to the senior investigator. "Uh… Stell?"
"She drove us over here. How are we supposed to get home?"
"Oh, Gee Whiz, Reggie… I don't know! Public transportation or a cab," Stella said with a wink.
A few more crickets joined the chorus before Regina took a deep breath. "Cab. Definitely a cab. No bus. Buses weren't made for someone like me."
"I agree. It would be so grotesque, so gruesome, so grandiosely embarrassing to all involved if the Queen of the Catwalks had to spend but a single second in the company of all us regular people. Ye Gads, I dread the thought! Ooooooh!" Stella said while she waved her hands in the air like she was frightened out of her wits - the dark glare she got in return only made her grin grow wider.
"And with that out of the way," Stella continued as she went over to the counter. Digging into her fanny pack, she found a dollar and a fifty-cent piece and placed them on the shiny surface. When Louis came over to her to take her order, she said: "About our fee…"
A groan escaped the potbellied man who soon crumpled up the damp rag and threw it under the counter. "Yeah. I can go as far as three-hundred dollars."
"Ack-chew-ly," Stella said with a grin, "This tall drink o' water and me were thinking more along the lines of a free cup of coffee. Ain't that so, Reggie?"
"We sure were," Regina said with a grin that matched her sweetheart's.
Nodding, Stella continued: "I'll pay for mine, and then Reggie could perhaps get a free refill of the one she had earlier?"
Louis Hunnicutt narrowed his eyes as he looked at the two colorful women. "Are ya shitting me or something?"
"Naw! Here's a buck-fifty for my cup," Stella said and pushed the coins toward the owner of the coffee shop. "Make it black… and when I say black, I mean black-black. Real black. Black as in… black. Aw, I don't hafta tell you what black coffee is!"
'Honest' Louis let out a chuckle as he swept the coins into the cash register. "I'm gonna hold ya to it… one all-black coming up for the rodeo clown, and a refill for the mailman. You betcha," he said as he took the glass coffee pot and poured the dark-brown liquid into two cups.
"This time I'd like a little milk in mine, Mr. Hunnicutt. Low-fat if you have it," Regina said as she leaned against the polished counter - the request was answered at once by a short squirt of semi-skimmed milk into the cup.
Though Stella scrunched up her face at the 'rodeo clown' comment, the low did not last long as her nostrils soon picked up the delightful scent of expertly made black coffee. "Thanks a bunch, Mista!" she said as she reached for the full cup.
The coffees were duly sipped and savored. After she had emptied the cup, Stella leaned her back against the counter while she cast a long gaze at the many people who moved through the busy railroad station in droves. The public address system announced the arrival of yet another express, and soon, the floor began to tremble when the train rolled onto one of the platforms below their feet.
"Anybody know where I can find the owner of a spring-green bucket hat?" a young voice suddenly said not too far from Honest Lou's Coffee-teria.
Hearing that, Stella put down the cup at once and whipped around to look in the direction of the fair speaker. When a young boy of no more than eight summers ran towards the coffee shop holding Stella's beloved Happy Camper hat, she let out a croaking squeak and set off to intercept him with both arms stretched out ahead of her. "Oy! Oy, li'l fella… oy-oy-oyyyyyy! That's my hat!" she said as she reached for it.
The very young man took a hurried step back, but when he clapped eyes on the polyester poncho with the large sunflowers on it, he broke out in a polite smile. His dad - the hot dog guy - had told him that the hideous hat belonged to a shaggy-haired lady who wore an even more hideous thing over her head that adults referred to as a poncho.
Once the woman plonked the hideous hat back onto her blond locks and donned a pair of even hideous-er cheap sunglasses, the young fellow did not doubt for a second that he had found the right owner. Smiling, he waved at the lady before he ran back to his dad's hot dog stand.
"How 'bout that, huh!" Stella said as she returned to Honest Lou's Coffee-teria wearing the full, colorful ensemble. "I got my hat back! Oooooh, I love this hat. My hat… my poncho… my coffee… and my big-ol' stick of dyn-oh-mite right here!" she said and wrapped an arm around Regina's waist so she could pull her closer for a sideways hug.
The hug created such waves inside Regina's coffee cup it nearly spilled over, but the tall woman took it all in her stride and kept cool. "That's nice, dahling," she said as she kept the cup in perfect balance. "I guess that wraps up our business here?"
"Yep. It was nice meetin' ya, Mr. Hunnicutt," Stella said and reached over the counter so she could shake hands with the owner of the coffee shop.
"Likewise. Miss Starr, right?"
"That's right. Stella Starr and Regina Harrison. We're the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. If one of your buddies is ever in trouble, just whisper our name in his ear… Harrison-Starr always delivers."
"Great! We'll definitely be back here at some point 'cos you make one helluva fine black coffee," Stella said with a broad grin. "Reggie, drink up and say goodbye to the nice fella so we can go outside and catch a cab before the next train comes in and hogs 'em all."
While Regina shook hands with Louis G. Hunnicutt as well, Stella strolled toward the main entrance humming a new version of the old cowboy novelty favorite. This time, she changed the lyrics to I Hav' Mah Hat I Hav' Mah Poncho, A Li'l West-ah Ol' El Gonzo because not even the incomparable Stella Starr could make Poncho rhyme with El Paso.
The return trip to the Harrison-Starr office turned out to be a lengthy and highly frustrating one through no fault of the two investigators: It went off the rails right from the get-go when the taxi stand on the forecourt was empty by the time they joined fifty other people who were waiting there to hail one.
Taking the bus was still out of the question for reasons too numerous to list - most involved Regina's sensitive nose being exposed to all sorts of human odors - so Regina had tried to call their old cab-driver friend Lucinda Huerta. Although the Hispanic regular from Rockin' Ruby's would gladly have helped, she was working flat out in another part of Bay City where a large-scale concert was just wrapping up.
Several cabs had finally shown up at the Central Station, but Stella and Regina were rudely pushed, shoved and just plain bowled out of the way time and time again by the other - increasingly irate - people who had waited for cabs longer than they had.
After a long delay that did nothing for Stella's good mood and volcanic temper, she and Regina were eventually allowed to move to the front of the line of people waiting. Perhaps they should have wondered about the magnanimity suddenly displayed by their fellow waitees, but the vehicle from the Taurus Cab Company was there, and it was theirs, so other concerns mattered little.
Unfortunately, the cabbie turned out to be a knucklehead who broke all existing world records for Clueless Driving On A Public Road - several of which had previously been held by Stella Starr and Regina Harrison - by getting lost no less than six times on their way across town.
When they finally got back to the office and had paid the cabbie, the hands of time had moved around to nine o'clock. The sun was on its last legs, and orange cones of light were already being cast down from the tall lamp posts onto the uneven parking lot. Stella let out a long sigh as she glanced at the empty parking bay where her beloved AMC Pacer had spent so much time until recently.
Yawning, she reached into her pants to dig out the keys for the front door - she remembered to cock her leg in order to get her sneaker a good two feet off the ground so she would not trip over the metal rail at the door. Stepping inside the office, she turned on the rarely-used strip lights in the ceiling before she shuffled over to her own desk to click the 'on' button on the small anglepoise lamp she had there.
Stella had time to turn on the similar lamp on Regina's desk as well as the metal standard lamp next to the couch, and even a third anglepoise lamp that stood atop one of the filing cabinets before the other half of Harrison-Starr entered the office.
"Well, he's back onto the street," Regina said as she closed the front door behind her. With the mood lighting in place on the desks and elsewhere, they did not need to suffer through the harsh glare from the strip lights, so she turned them off at once. "I can't believe he couldn't find his way out of the damn parking lot!" she said as she took off the uniform jacket and loosened the tie even more than it already was.
"No, he was really sum'tin else," Stella said and broke out in another yawn that she concealed with a hand. Sighing, she removed her bucket hat and her poncho and threw them onto the couch. The dirty-blond haystack was given a fair ruffling before she shuffled over to her desk. "It's too late for Ruby's tonight. And I'm not in the mood, anyway."
Before Regina could answer, Stella's smartphone began ringing using its custom In A Time Of Ancient Gods-ring tone. Reaching into the fanny pack, she found the telephone and looked at the display. "It's Millie Jordan," she said to Regina before she accepted the call and sat down on her four-legged chair at her desk. "Hi, Miss Jordan. Whassup? You sure left in a hurry."
'Hello, Miss Starr. I'm sorry I had to leave like that, but I had a call from my agent. The entire film project I was doing research for has been dropped.'
"We heard… Mr. Hunnicutt told us. What happened?"
'I think it was the same old thing. I don't have all the details, but it seems the director and the main producer got into some kind of heated argument that ended in the director being shown the door.'
"Well, that just sucks. Pardon my Puerto Rican."
'Oh, I agree, Miss Starr. Doubly so because the director was the one who got me attached to the project in the first place. I wasn't the producer's choice, so… well, I guess he'll find someone else for the starring role now. The script is still solid so I suspect he'll go ahead with a new cast and crew.'
"A crap-tastic development, Miss Jordan. That's the only way to phrase it. Y'know," Stella said and shuffled around on the chair, "when we first met, I was kinda… kinda… kinda… uh… concerned about your pee-queue-lee-arr behavior and appearance, but, y'know… when I discovered it was all an act, I was amazed. You're definitely a talented actress."
'Thank you very much, Miss Starr. I know my method approach can infuriate some people, but it works for me.'
"And that's the most important thing in my book," Stella said with a grin.
'I agree. Say, will you be at the office tomorrow morning at ten or so?'
"Ah… I think we will, yeah."
'Good, because I'd like to swing by with a bottle of wine for your good self and a gift certificate for Boutique Madeleine for Miss Harrison to show my appreciation of your efforts. Oh, and I need to return your commando disguise, of course! When I caught up with my agent, she couldn't stop staring at the clothes! Actually, she said she would ask around for a new movie project where I could wear such an outfit. Maybe a paramilitary role or something like that.'
"Yeah, the Commando Gal is a cool cat awright. But anyway, I've never heard of that store you mentioned, but I'm sure Reggie would love, love, love a gift certificate to it…"
Hearing that, Regina popped her head out of the storage room where she had wiped off most of the Postal Worker slash Letter Carrier-make-up and had changed back into a more casual set of clothes: slacks and a pale-blue pilot shirt over a white undershirt. She was almost done save for tucking in the shirt and buttoning her slacks, so she clicked off the lights and moved back into the office itself to try to pick up a few more details of the conversation. It did not take long before she sat down at her desk and moved her endless legs - and bare twinkletoes - up to rest on the corner.
"But, uh… tell ya what, Miss Jordan," Stella continued into the telephone, "if you could make it a couple of six-packs of Slurrpy's greatest instead of the bottle of wine, we have a deal for sure!"
"Yeah, because I don't drink wine… it gives me heartburn and a bad tummy and stuff. Naw, I'd much rather have a few yummy cherry colas or razzies or even some of the new tastes that debuted this summer like the pineapp- oh, and it needs to be Slurrpy, not Frizzie's! Please remember that… Slurrpies. Do I need to spell it out to you? I know you're allergic to sugar and all those-'
'No-no, I got it. Slurrpies. Noted, marked and locked in!'
Stella grinned and nodded and nodded and grinned a little more. "Excellen-ty! When you come over, I might even be able to persuade Reggie to share one of her packs of deathly dull… oh, I mean, yumm-mm-mmy… bran cookies that you health enthusiasts seem to prefer over real food!"
'Oh, thank you very much!' Millie said and broke out in a hearty laugh. 'Well, it was fascinating to work with you, Miss Starr. Please give my regards to Miss Harrison. See you tomorrow, then… at ten or so, give or take.'
"You betcha! Bye-bye, Miss Jordan," Stella said and closed the connection. She was about to put the telephone back into the fanny pack, but reconsidered and put it on the desk instead. A moment later, she worked the plastic click-lock and removed the entire pack from around her waist since it was no longer needed.
"What was that I heard about a gift certificate, Stell?" Regina said from her desk.
"I knew that'd get yer attention! Miss Jordan is going to pop over tomorrow with the commando gear and some Slurrpies. Oh, and a gift certificate for a clothes store I've never heard of. I guess that would be for you."
"Ooooh, I like the sound of that! What's the name of the store?"
"Eh, can't remember," Stella said while displaying a devious grin. "Boutique something-or-other."
"That's no help… they're all called Boutique something-or-other…"
Stella decided to draw out the mounting excitement a little longer before she used a casual voice to say: "Perhaps Boutique Madeleine?"
"Boutique Madeleine?!" Regina cried and spun around on her swivel-chair to shoot Stella a lustful, greedy glare. When even that proved insufficient, she jumped up and flew into the center of the office. There, she went into a full rendition of her legendary Too Cool For Words-posing routine that featured plenty of Yips, Yees, Oohs, Ahhhs and Schwings before it ended in the traditional smoldering gaze and the pinkie-in-mouth stance.
"Does that mean you approve?" Stella said with a grin that was so wide a 1974 Cadillac Convertible could have driven straight through it without touching her cheeks. "Holy squid, Reggie… you have that posing-thing down pat. If you play your cards right, you might have a shot at a career in that field…"
Regina let out an unrestrained snicker at the thought of getting a gift certificate for one of the most high-class clothing boutiques in all of Bay City - it was the place where such luminaries as Lele da Silva, Paola Cantabilato, Sigrid Swensson and all the other top-tier, world-famous supermodels shopped.
Once she moved out of her stance, she flicked her perfect hair over her perfect shoulder where it landed in a perfect cascade - then she strolled back to her desk in her patented model-walk that saw her hips slam left-to-right.
Grinning at her sweetheart's behavior, Stella leaned back in her four-legged chair and put her arms behind her head. "Y'know, Reggie… this turned out to be a pretty riff-raffin' fine day after all. I coulda lived without the jalapeño-frankie being lukewarm and the mashed potatoes being so lumpy and stale, but… uh… beyond that… yeah, it was a fine day. We caught a bad guy and helped a good guy… and we met Mary-Jane, of course. That's always fun."
"I agree, Stella-dahling."
"Little Ashley's Christmas Miracle would be the perfect ending to such a fine day. Mmmm-yeah," Stella said in a dreamy voice.
Regina swiveled around once more to shoot another look at her sweetheart. When it became clear the mop-topped investigator had not been joking about the unusual choice of evening entertainment, she shook her head in puzzlement. "You wanna watch a movie? Now? And a Christmas movie in August?"
"Yeahhhhh, it's such a wonnn-derful movie. So sweet and innocent and wholesome and angelic and delightful… just like me."
"Uh-huh?" Regina said with her tongue firmly stuck in her cheek.
Failing to notice the slight touch of irony in Regina's voice, Stella continued: "And it's been a long, long, looooong while since we've watched it."
"Probably because it's a Christmas movie, Stell…" Regina said while she pretended to scratch her nose to hide the comment.
"Yeah, right. Anyway, it'd be a great night-cap. And then we could head home so I could give your chest a close inspection for any potential bruises… a real close inspection," she said and adjusted her glasses to hammer home the finer points of her suggestion.
"Now that definitely works for me, Stella-dahling," Regina said with a grin as she got up from the swivel-chair. "I suspect you want some snacks or something, so I'll let you take care of that while I wheel in the TV and the DVD."
"Snacks? Yeah, I guess I have room for some snacks and a soda pop," Stella said in a thoughtful voice as she rubbed her tummy to ask what it felt about such a notion. Her stomach agreed at once, but it took a little while for her mind to go through all the usual suspects when it came to such things: like pretzels, LoopyCheeze or the newish LooPeanut flavor. Oreos dunked in milk, cheesy nachos or chili-flavored tortilla chips, extra-salty potato chips, or even breadsticks dipped in hot salsa sauce were also considered. None seemed to tickle her tastebuds at that exact point in time.
Then the proverbial light bulb suddenly went off over her head - she reached for her smartphone at once while a delighted grin spread rapidly on her face. "Hot-diggety-wing-wang, Zeligman's has a twenty-four-seven home delivery service now! How could I forget! Ooooooh, hot chocolate and whipped cream… and warm waffles coated in raspberry jam and icing sugar! And Little Ashley's Christmas Miracle on the teevee! What a feast! What a blip-bloppin' Christmas-in-August feast for me and my gal," she said as she hurriedly found the number for the award-winning bakery in the telephone's registry.
While she waited for the call to be answered at Zeligman's, she furrowed her brow as a thought came to her. "Hmmm… Reggie might object to all those calories… not to mention the sugar… huh. I better ask if they have any of those grossly dull, bone-dry, zero-sugar, zero-soul things she calls cookies. Hello?"
"Yep, it certainly is a good evening," Stella said with a grin as she snuggled down in the four-legged chair. Regina re-entered the office at the same time pulling the portable TV across the plush carpet, so she was given a big, swinging thumbs-up to show that everything was A-OK. "This is Stella Starr from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. I suspect you have our customer details near the top of your list of-"
"Oh, at the top of your list? Yeah, well… what can I say, you know? Anyway, you better write this down 'cos it needs to be purr-fect. You writing yet? All right… first up, I want a…"
THE END of MADNESS TO THE METHOD
VII - ONE PICTURE & A THOUSAND WORDS
Written by Norsebard
Just after ten PM on a weekday that had been partially overcast, less warm than the recent days had been and just plain uneventful all the way through from the crunchy cereal at breakfast to the spicy pork chow mein at supper - although Stella Starr did suffer a temper-flaring calamity with the pair of chopsticks that came with the Chinese takeout - a familiar silver-metallic Mercedes SLK sports car appeared in the shadows on Cypress Lane in the Bay City neighborhood known as Ashleigh Woods. It only had a single occupant who sat behind the steering wheel holding an electronic device of some kind; it was used to keep track of a dark house on the other side of the street.
Now and then, a car trickled past on the lane searching for somewhere to park. Both sides of the residential street saw plenty of vehicles already, so finding a gap was not an easy task for those who came home late from work. Most of the houses were illuminated by lamps in the windows or the tell-tale flickering, bluish light that typically came from a TV - some houses were already dark which offered a hint the residents were either out or needed to get up early the following morning.
Dressed in dark clothing so she could blend in with her surroundings, Regina Harrison lowered the pair of binoculars that had been equipped with a high-tech night-vision scope. The house she had under surveillance was far too dark and quiet for her liking, and it was clear the information they had been given about the nature of the goings-on at the address had not been one-hundred percent correct.
When her smartphone began ringing, she put away the binoculars and reached for the other electronic device that she had put on the passenger-side seat. She let out a sigh when the caller-ID said Steve. "It's Regina. Hi, Steve," she said into the telephone.
"No, I haven't had time to study the data sheets yet… I've only given them a quick once-over. But they-"
"I've been busy, Steve. I do have another job, you know. But there were-"
"We're on a stakeout."
"I can't discuss the open cases, Steve. Let's get back to the-"
"Like I was about to say," Regina said in a steely voice to cut off the boss of the modeling agency before he could get going, "I've only had time to skim the data sheets of the four models who caught my eye at the try-outs. Chastaine Crosby definitely has potential for a second-tier career, and so does Jason Marrinson. The cutie, curly-haired, sparkly-eyes-and-dimpled-cheeks look of the latter is very popular in Japan right now."
"I agree. Also, Jessie McKittrick is a solid third-tier model as is Orlando Semiliani, but perhaps a little less so. McKittrick's Australian roots could give us a foot in the door in the print market there. She's a fresh-faced local and you know how much they love home-grown talent down under. I didn't get a chance to talk to her, but if she has a sexy Aussie dialect, or is willing to fake one, we could look for TV ads as well."
"Yeah, like Crocodile Dundee… except as a big city girl," Regina said and let out a dry chuckle.
"Yeah, that could work too."
"A personal appearance on the Home Shopping Network? Promoting what?"
"Excelsior Gold & Gemstones? They have classy products. Okay."
"Yes, I wouldn't be adverse to that. When, how, what, where?"
Mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble.
"September twentieth. Studio Forty-One downtown. Be there at six PM. Make-up at six-thirty. Two-hour live show at seven to nine. Okay, noted," she said, updating her itinerary app while she spoke to Steve.
Looking through the windshield, Regina could see a hunched-over homeless woman shuffling along the sidewalk on the side of the street where the SLK was parked. The woman carried a plastic bag filled with scrap paper and empty cans. Her clumsy, tender-footed walk and down-and-out appearance meant that the few people she met on the sidewalk gave her an extra-wide berth as they went past her. "All right. Something's about to happen so I need to call you back later."
"Yeah, I'll study the data sheets as soon as I get home-"
"I know very well we need to move fast. This isn't my first day doing this, Steve!" Regina said as she assumed a surly expression. Outside, the homeless woman came closer and closer.
"Okay, tell you what… since you're so damn impatient… get in touch with the talent managers of Crosby, Marrinson and McKittrick right now. They're the most interesting and they'll be in demand. Orlando Semiliani can wait a couple of days. If he's picked up by Zane-Larkin or someone else before then, it wouldn't be a big loss. All right?"
"All right. I gotta go. Bye, Steve," Regina said and closed the connection before the owner of the agency could complain too much. Sighing, she slipped the telephone into one of her dark outfit's many pockets to make way for the homeless woman who was about to come around to the driver's side of the elegant sports car.
The graceful model had to chuckle at the sight of the hunched-over, badly disheveled woman outside. The legendary Dumpster Queen was one of Stella Starr's favorite disguises, and it was easy to see why: the gray wig was even more unruly than her own shaggy haystack of dirty-blond hair, and the maroon cardigan that she had swept over her shoulders was so large and shapeless it completely obscured the silhouette of the real woman underneath it.
Stella wore cotton gloves - a white one on her left hand, and a blue one on her right - a filthy skirt, and even a different pair of glasses compared to normal. The frame was from the early 1960s and was shaped like the popular image of Batman's wings; they were equipped with plain glass so she needed to wear her contact lenses in order to see past the tip of her nose. "Pop the trunk, Reggie," she said and pointed at the back of the SLK once she had made it around to the driver's-side window.
Nodding, Regina reached for the little button which made the trunklid release.
Shuffling back to the rear of the car, Stella glanced around to see if anyone was near. Establishing that she was alone, she put the plastic bag containing the lightweight collection of scrap paper and empty aluminum cans up into the trunk before she whipped off the skirt, the gloves, the wig and the cardigan to reveal a dark outfit similar to Regina's. The glasses came last and were put into a protective plastic case so the vintage frame would remain out of harms' way. Once her transformation was complete, she took a couple of magazines from the plastic bag and shut the trunk.
She moved up to the passenger-side door of the low-slung vehicle; grunting in anticipation of a troubled landing, she opened the door and made to sit down. Just as she had expected - feared, really - the distance down to the bucket seat was so long that she lost her balance and ended up thumping into it far harder than she had wanted. "Owwwwch! Mah butt!" she croaked as she hopped around in the seat to give her abused rear a little pat to make sure everything was still attached and in a round shape back there.
"Yeah, yeah. Dang this itty-bitty roller skate! If I ever get hemorrhoids, I'll know what to blame!"
"Blip-blop-almighty," Stella said and threw her hands in the air despite the fact there was hardly any room for the overly dramatic gesture when the car's hard-top was in place. "I can't put into words how much I miss my Old Girl!"
"But Stell, that's pretty much all you ever talk about! Ba-da-boom-tsssh!"
"I'll remember you makin' fun of me in such a moment of pain, Reggie… my butt hurts and now my heart hurts too! I thought you wus my friend! And look, I even bought you a fashion magazine in that convenience store down there-"
"Ooooh!" Regina said and reached for it at once - but Stella kept it out of her sweetheart's long reach.
"But now I don't know if you deserve it!"
"I'm sowwy for making fun of you, Stell," Regina said with the most ridiculous hangdog-face that had ever been painted onto a former supermodel's features anywhere in the world.
The two investigators were unable to keep their stern facades for long and soon broke out in identical snickers. After handing Regina the World Fashion Monthly glittery magazine that she began to look through at once, Stella held up a cheap gossip rag that had been on a special, super-low discount at the Korean convenience store down at the corner of Cypress and Chestnut Lane.
"By the way, I think we were given crappy info 'bout that house over there, Reggie," Stella said as she glanced over at the dark house across the street. "The client told us she suspected her daughter had become mixed up with cannabis dealers, but… I dunno. I couldn't see anything that pointed in that direction. Or smell anything for that matter. Everything was dark and quiet over there. No fences, no guard dogs, no boarded-up windows… no nothing. There's a regular mail box with a name on it. There's even a family car parked in the garage, fer-Flipper's-sake!"
"Yeah," Regina said and looked at the house they had under surveillance. "I think the daughter has just eloped with her boyfriend and now the Mother Dragon is trying to get her baby girl back."
Stella chuckled at the colorful, but certainly fitting, description of the woman who had come to their office the day before. "I'm beginning to agree with you. Let's give it another twenty minutes… then we can call it a day and head out to Ruby's."
"Deal," Regina said with a grin before she concentrated on her glittery magazine. A mere four pages into it, she proudly held up the magazine to show Stella an ad for the Brandi McBain Clothing Co. that featured a certain R. Harrison wrapped up in a snow-white, over-sized sweater and looking exceedingly happy about it. "Eh? Eh? Eh-eh-eh?" she said, nudging Stella's arm with her elbow.
"Yeah, yeah, you big liquorice stick…" Stella said with a grin before she went back to reading the gossip rag. She was soon lost in the headlines that were rarely less than colorful and sordid: 'Pony Kept In Seventh-Story Apartment' 'Woman Marries For The Tenth Time - Never Divorced!' 'Alien Creatures Landed In Oregon! - An Oldtimer Reveals The Truth' and 'Elvis Fathered My Grandson.'
Turning a page, she stopped with a jerk to stare wide-eyed at the very first headline she read. The attention-grabbing row of red letters screamed: 'La Regina pregnant?'
Below the headline, they had printed a paparazzi-style snapshot of Regina Harrison crossing a street somewhere while sporting a clear baby bump - or pot-belly - behind her shirt. Stella did not blink at all as she read the connected article; then she read it for a second time while she attempted to wrap her brain around the peculiar logic of the piece. It was only at the end of the second pass that she remembered she had better blink to keep her contact lenses moist.
It seemed that neither Regina Harrison nor her representatives had bothered to deny the alleged pregnancy, so it simply had to be true. Or worse for all concerned, even if the pregnancy was a false alarm, the model who was admired for her sculpted yet graceful build might turn into an overweight blimp because the street where she had been walking at the time the photo was taken was home to several pizza parlors and restaurants offering, among other things, deep-fried chicken. That she was holding a shopping bag from the Eléna Quimpaña fashion boutique and not a greaseproof pack of deep-fried chicken wings appeared to have been conveniently ignored.
Stella cast a sideways glance at Regina who was lost in the glittery magazine; then she cast her a second, a third, a fourth and a fifth sideways glance while she tried to come up with a plan on how to break the news gently. She eventually came to the conclusion that whatever she tried, the news would be received somewhat badly so she just leapt into it: "Congratulations, my sweet, sweet Reggie! When are you due? And when were you gonna tell me?"
"Whut?" Regina said, tearing her eyes away from the colorful fashion pictures.
Chirping crickets. Regina let out a puzzled grunt. More chirping crickets. The grunt grew deeper and sounded like a groan. Even more chirping crickets. She reached for the gossip rag to see for herself. An entire big-band of chirping crickets. Before The Chatternooga Brass & Strings Band featuring Jiminy Crickett could get started on the evergreen I Met My Sugar Plum Honey In September, they were suddenly and rudely swept off the stage by the crying, croaking, squeaking, squealing, groaning sound that poured from Regina's throat.
Six-point-nine seconds after clapping her blue orbs onto the unflattering photo of her, she let out a throaty gurgle that soon turned creepy. Then she dropped the gossip rag and began to move around erratically. She eventually passed out cold and thumped her head against the closed driver's side window.
"Hoooooooooooooly squid! Reggie?!" Stella cried and tried to shuffle around in the bucket seat to get to her sweetheart. There was so little room in the cramped sports car that she had a hard time getting anywhere, but she managed to twist around enough to grab hold of the fainted woman. The only tool she had at her disposal to rectify the dramatic situation was the gossip rag, so she grabbed it from Regina's lap, folded it up and waved it around to make it provide some fresh air though it was actually the cause of the fainting in the first place.
"Reggie? Talk to me…" - Wave, flipper-flapper-flutter-flutter, wave - "Reggie? Are you all right?" - Wave, flipper-flapper-flutter-flutter, wave - "No you ain't! Reggie?!" - Wave, flipper-flapper-flutter-flutter, wave - "Crud, and we don't have any smelling salts or anything!" - Wave, flipper- flapper-flutter-flutter, wave - "Not even a pretzel! Reggie?" - Wave, flipper-flapper-flutter-flutter, wave - "Pleeeeeeeeease wake up! Reggie!" - Wave, flipper-flapper-flutter-flutter, wave, wave, WAVE!
"Uggggggh…. ugggggh… uggghhh… ugh!" Regina croaked as she slowly came to. She opened her eyes before too long, but it took a fair while longer for her bluer-than-blue orbs to retain their focus - not to mention to stop rolling around.
"Regg-gg-gg-gie! You're back! Sweet Mother of Pizza, thank you!" Stella cried while she continued to fan the gossip rag in her sweetheart's face. "Lawrdy, I don't think I've ever seen you faint like that… holy blip-blop-a-rooney, you're not- you- you're not really pregnant, are ya?!"
The only answer to that question was a croaked "Ugggggh…. uggh, uggggggh, nuh-uh-gggh…" that was delivered with a shaking of the head and a weak waving of a hand.
"That's kinda good 'cos it woulda put one giganto damper on my day… week… month- year- hell, my entire frickin'-frackin' life," Stella mumbled.
"Not pregnant… it's the pict… the p- pictuhhh…! What- what- what a horrrrrrible pictuhhh of me! I look… I look… I look… fatter than the Goodyear blimp!" Regina croaked as she began to rub her face.
Stella let out a nervous snicker as she cast another glance at the shot that had clearly been snapped by a paparazzi using an extra-large telephoto lens. She turned it this way and that to see if a new angle would improve the shot, but it remained the same. "Yeah, it's kinda crappy… so… Snookums… what's the deal?" she said as she closed the gossip rag so they would not risk another fainting spell.
"Deal? There's- there's no d- deal… it's all b- b- bogus! The last ti- ti- time I wore that sh- sh- shirt, it was a bl- bl- bl- blustery day… the darn thing billowed out. Gawd…" Regina said and finished off her facial rubbing by running her sleeve across her forehead. Shaking her head, she sat up straight. "We need to break off the stakeout, Stell… I need a shot of something potent to soothe my nerves!"
"Good plan, Pookie! I hear Ruby callin' as we speak!" Stella said and leaned over to offer Regina a kiss on the cheek.
"But you need to drive… I can't even spell my name right now!"
"Ugh… you know I don't like to drive this roller skate," Stella whined; it soon became clear she had no choice. A sigh followed. "All right, all right… but you gotta come over an' give me a hand-up or else we're stuck here all night!" Sighing again, she pulled the little lever for the door while she waited for assistance.
Despite the endless nature of Regina's legs - that should in theory provide some difficulty in connection with getting out of the low-slung Mercedes - she climbed out with no drama whatsoever. She was at Stella's side right away and offered her a hand up so they could swap over.
Soon, the mop-topped investigator had the sports car purring at the curb. "Reggie, I've said it before and I'll say it again," Stella said as she selected drive on the shifter. "You better buckle up tight 'cos this thing and me don't get along… and the feeling's mutual!"
Regina nodded though the statement had left her a little puzzled. She already had her hand on the seat belt, and she pulled it out and clicked the lock in place at once. "Right. It doesn't actually make much sense grammatically speaking, but… all right."
"Haw, haw!" Stella said and turned the steering wheel all the way left before she gave the throttle the teeniest-tiniest-touch she could give possibly it. Predictably, the car responded by taking off from the curb at the speed of sound - that it had three times the horsepower while only weighing half as much as Stella's beloved AMC Pacer obviously played a vital part in the rocket-powered launch.
Howling, Stella frantically spun the steering wheel straight inches before they would have plowed into the line of cars parked on the other side of Cypress Lane - Regina howled even louder than Stella, but that was because her hair had been messed up in the fracas.
"See what I mean? See what I frick-frackin' mean?!" Stella cried as the SLK fishtailed down the quiet residential street despite the fact she only gave the gas pedal the same amount of pressure that was needed to keep her Old Girl trickling along in a forward motion.
"Easy on the throttle, Stell! Don't stand on it like that!" Regina shouted as she used both hands to hang onto the seat belt for dear life - as a result, her hair was still in a messy state.
"I am easy on the throttle! Awwwww, I hate this piece of frickin'-frackin'-frockin', blip-bloppin'- aw, and now we hafta brake as well!" Stella shouted back before she transferred the weight of her foot onto the brake pedal - again using the same brake pressure that was needed for her Pacer to come to a stop. One second later, the anti-locking brakes kicked in, and the seat belt restraining-system worked overtime as the two women were thrown forward by the shock deceleration.
Regina let out a long, pained whimper as she thumped back against the bucket seat's backrest - not because she had been hurt, but because the latest vehicular stunt had left her precious hair looking just like Stella's wild haystack.
"I hate this caaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!" Stella cried at the top of her lungs as they waited at the corner of Cypress and Chestnut. The worst was yet to come - now they had to drive clear through Bay City to get to Ruby's.
One of the most peculiar events in the history of Rockin' Ruby's occurred when the glass door was opened to reveal Stella and Reggie who were still affected by the frantic trip through the metropole. Once the various patrons and barflies lining or sitting at the shiny counter had had a chance to check out who came in, they were all hit by an acute outbreak of absolute muteness leaving the usually so lively bar room in complete silence.
Everyone present gawked at the taller of the two investigators; first in general and then at her mid-section in particular. Then everyone turned their heads to gawk at Stella like they were trying to gauge her reaction to the shocking revelation.
Regina was obviously no stranger to be gawked at by all and sundry - in fact, on the rare occasions where she was ignored, she was prone to falling into an abject state of depression that rivaled any of Stella's gloomiest moments - but even she had not expected such a welcome in their regular haunt.
"Reggie," Stella whispered out of the corner of her mouth, "either one of us forgot to zip our fly, or they've all read that crummy gossip rag…"
"I'll bet my bottom dollar it's the second of the two, Stell," Regina said in a mumble as a blush began to taint her cheeks.
"Crud," Stella whispered back before she moved over to the counter to grab a handful of beer nuts that she threw into her yap at once. Letting out a grunt as she crunched loudly on the salty snacks, she moved over to the booth that had been reserved for them and slipped onto the plush, curved bench.
To avoid being gawked at to quite such an extent, Regina moved over to study Ruby's bulletin board that carried newspaper clippings, classified ads, various notices of this-and-that for sale, and all the news from the community. She could not find anything there that she had not read five times already, but she kept on studying it in the hope the patrons would soon lose interest in her.
Ultimately, Regina's cheeks were spared further blushing when Ruby Albrecht came out from the storage room at the back carrying a full crate of bottled, imported beer. It only took the experienced bar owner a few seconds to figure out what was going on. "All right, people, that's enough… there's being interested and there's crossing the line. Yeah?" she said as she put the crate down onto the floor behind the counter.
Nodding and grunting, the patrons and barflies turned back to their drinks, but they soon put their heads together and began to mumble things like Pregnant? - She does have chubby cheeks all of a sudden - And her boobies are already ballooning, too! - Poor Stella - Naw, she ain't pregnant, she's just gained weight! and Still looks damn fine, though…
Regina groaned as she shuffled over to their regular booth. She knew that when such a rumor had festered - and it always seemed to follow a perverse logic: the nastier the rumor the faster and deeper the festering - it would take a miracle to clear up the misunderstanding.
Sliding in next to Stella, she plonked her elbows onto the round table and used her arms to prop up her head. The sigh that followed was deep and long.
"Oh Reggie," Stella said and hooked her arm inside her sweetheart's, "don't listen to those blip-bloppin' barflies… you know their beery breath is worse than their bite."
"Yeah, I know… but what about Steve? And all the clients? They're always so damn fickle. This is gonna go down like a lead balloon… I just know it…"
"Because of the pregnancy claim?" Stella said and let out a snort. "Honestly, Honey-bunny, if they're that fickle, they can go scr-"
"Not the pregnancy thing… that's happened before. No, it's the awful, awful, awwwwww-ful picture of me! Image is everything in the industry, Stell! Everything… I look so… so… so… Gawd. Fat!"
Stella snorted again; the second time carried an even more disdainful tone pointed at A) the various clients of Steve's agency, and B) the fashion industry as a whole where something as ridiculous as a two-pound weight gain would be treated as a grave threat to a model's chances of even having a career much less making it to the top. "But those people can see your portfolio-thing! The online photo gallery-thingamajibberjabber you showed me the other day… they can see that you still got it, Reggie!"
"They'll think those photos were manipulated…"
Before Stella could counter that claim, Ruby came down to the bench carrying a pencil and a notepad that she flipped open to an empty page. "Hi, guys… what can I get you tonight?"
"Something that'll make me go blotto," Regina mumbled, but Stella took over at once:
"Naw, make that something that'll cheer us up, Ruby!" she said as she rubbed Regina's arm. "How about a couple of… ooooooh, how about two Raspberry Alexanders? That's a non-alcoholic drink, right?"
"Yep. A third each of raspberry juice, cream and Slurrpy Cola. But it can get spruced-up with a dash of coconut rum if you want."
"All-righty, then! Two Alexanders, if you please!" Stella said with a grin. "I'll just have the regular non-alcoholic one 'cos I'm driving, but give Reggie a double with a coconutty twister. Okay?"
"You got it. I'll be right down with 'em," Ruby said and closed the notepad. Once the official business was over, she leaned down toward the morose model. "Hey Reggie, I suspect you've heard that crap rumor floating around…"
"Mmmm," Regina said with a faint nod.
"Back in my active days when someone tried to pull a sneaky trick on the pitch, I just turned the tables and gave that player plenty of hell. Can't you sue them or something?"
"That'll only generate even more negative publicity…"
"Yeah, I s'pose that's right," Ruby said and used the dull end of the pencil to scratch her hair. "Still… I think you oughtta fight back. Who knows where this might end up if ya don't?"
Regina let out another deep sigh that made Stella run a hand up and down her back. "True… I'll let Steve deal with it. He's a pitbull when it comes to stuff like that. And we have plenty of lawyers, so… yeah."
"That's better," Ruby said with a steely grin. "Anyway. I'll be right down with your Alexanders."
"Thanks, Ruby!" Stella said before she leaned against her depressed sweetheart. A plan had formed deep within her mind as she had listened to Ruby's advice. An offense was sometimes the best defense against that nasty fellow Mr. Malicious Rumor who seemed to pop up in the oddest of places - even in the friendliest girls-only place in all of Bay City. "Pookie, here's what I think you could do about those gawkers up there… I'm not saying you should do it, but it's definitely for your consideration," she said before she leaned in even further and put a hand up near Regina's ear so she could whisper at the lowest volume she could muster.
Less than a minute later, Regina nodded a couple of times and slapped a quick kiss on Stella's cheek. Then she slid out from the bench and went into the center of the bar room. Coming to a halt right behind the row of patrons and barflies - who were still whispering her name - she unzipped and whipped off her dark jacket, pulled her black tank top out of her pants and flung it away with a flamboyant gesture. Her all-supportive sports bra was firmly in place so it was less of a peep show than it had initially appeared, but her flat, tanned stomach and her toned arms and shoulders were in full view of everybody.
To a fitting soundtrack of pumping disco that started playing from her own smartphone that Stella held up over at the booth, Regina went into her favorite - and practically world-famous by now - posing sequence known as the Too Cool For Words-routine. She went through all kinds of poses, shimmies, turns, twists and hip-wiggles that saw her presenting her sublime frame from all angles to all interested parties. It all ended in the traditional closing stance where she spun around, cocked her hips, put a pinkie in her mouth and shot everyone present a smoldering gaze.
The various patrons and barflies had all been stunned into silence for the second time that evening - all they could do was to sit there sporting identical wide-eyed stares and blushing cheeks. She sure don't look pregnant to me! someone said, immediately followed by an And she sure ain't fat, neither! A third barfly just had time to let out a I still say her boobies are balloo- owwwch! before she was silenced by an elbow in the ribs.
Once Regina was done, she picked up her clothes and fell into her patented model-walk all the way back to the booth and her waiting cheerleader. The entire peanut gallery began to snicker, then laugh, then finally whoop, cheer and whistle at the improvised floorshow.
"Awwwwwww-yeah! You still got it, Reggie!" Stella cried. She punched the air in delight before she put the smartphone onto the table so she had her arms free - then she dragged her sweetheart down for a lengthy, all-encompassing, full-bodied lip-lock.
"And there isn't a dry seat in the house," Ruby said laconically as she put a tray with the two Raspberry Alexanders onto the round table. "Just for that, Reggie, you can come up for a free refill once you've had your Alexander… oh, and for the record… this is a respectable establishment, young lady! Tummies are okay but buns, boobs et cetera ain't!"
"Don't worry, Ruby. This was a one-off performance," Regina said with a wide grin as she slipped her tank top back on. Flipping her precious hair free, she made sure it landed in a perfect cascade down her shapely back.
Stella's grin was even wider than that - in fact, it reached from ear to ear plus a short distance further. After savoring the first sip of her sweet, creamy, refreshing drink, she took the napkin and dabbed her lips. "Awesome, Snookums… just plain ol' flip-floppin' awesome," she said and leaned in to bump shoulders with the graceful model who still had more than plenty in her arsenal. She noticed that a few of the patrons were still looking in their direction, so she could not help but give them a little food for thought: "And the encores are allllll mine, girls!" she said loudly while her grin only grew cheekier.
Twenty minutes later, the Cheerful Fairy - known to her Fairy friends and relatives as Cheers - had visited Stella and Regina's table and had sprinkled everything in that special brand of fairy magic called Happy Dust. The two investigators sat close so they could steal a few kisses, glances and everything else they could think of, and that included a couple of sips of each other's drinks.
"Holy blip-bloppa-rooney, it's been a weird couple of weeks," Stella said as she took the final sip of her non-alcoholic Raspberry Alexander - Regina still had half of her second, coconut rum-laced one left. "I mean, first the job at the French restaurant and all that… that… business. Huh, that crazy Mista Bow-so-lay… yikes, I hope I'll never run into him anywhere."
"You better not… I think he'd pluck your chicken," Regina said and let out a tipsy snicker.
"Yeah, and- huh? Uh… right. Right. And then that day with all the wrong calls… oh my frickety-frick-fracker, that was the day from Hell, lemme tell ya. I wasted a perfectly good ice cream on all those poobahs who called that day. Hate it when that happens," Stella said and drained the very last drop out of the tall glass. Smiling in pleasure at the great, refreshing taste, she put down the empty glass and began toying with the napkin instead. "The tour of the old precinct house was fun. Oy-oy-oy, that office from the 'forties. Holy can-of-anchovies, that wus luvverly stuff. I coulda spent a week there!"
Letting out another tipsy snicker, Regina leaned in to bump shoulders with her sweetheart. "I know. I could barely drag you away from that display…"
"Yeah. The tug-of-war was fun, too… I coulda done without taking off and that landing, but… uh, yeah," Stella said and scratched her neck as she thought back to the green-and-red complexion of the poor police officer who had received a knee in the groin upon Stella's second landing. "It was fun to see Kristy again, though. She's such a great gal."
"Definitely. And then you were so brave wrestling the Paper Monster, Stell! That was a sight to behold…"
Snickering, Stella offered her sweetheart a couple of exaggerated nods. "You betcha! Of course, I had theeee best cheerleader in allllll of Bay City!"
"Ooooh-yeah," Regina said before she leaned in to steal another kiss from her sweetheart's soft lips. "You're right, it's been a busy and kinda weird couple of weeks. I know that Millie Jordan had her peculiarities… and that we all got off on the wrong foot when she pulled her method-stuff… but she was a cool woman once we got to know her better."
Stella shrugged. "Mmmm. Yeah. I suppose. She didn't like my jalapeño-frankie and I didn't like the way she drove. She was kinda reckless if you ask me… I mean, we went faster than forty miles per hour at one point!" she said, tapping her knuckles on the table top in a clear fit of pique.
"On a road that had a fifty-mile-per-hour speed limit, Stell…"
"But of course, dahling!"
A few more snickers flew back and forth before Stella borrowed Regina's drink for a moment to take a tiny sip of the coconut rum-laced version of the Raspberry Alexander. "And now this blip-bloppin' pic in the blip-bloppin' gossip rag… like I said, it's been a weird, weird couple-a weeks. Let's hope things will settle down from now on."
Chirping crickets. More chirping crickets. Even more chirping crickets.
"Don't those frick-frackin' chirpin' crickets ever get tired of chirpin'?" Stella growled, looking under the table, at the bench seat next to them, down in her empty glass, up at the ceiling and even inside Regina's impressive dark tresses for the buggy Greek chorus that had an unfortunate tendency to always intrude on their quiet moments.
"I don't know… why don't we ask 'em? But no! Then they'd be chirping again! Ba-da-boom-tsssh!" Regina said before she broke out in a seriously tipsy snicker.
"Jeez, Reggie… a couple of drinks and you're three sheets to the wind…" Stella said as her sweetheart's snickers claimed her as well. The Happy Dust sprinkled by the Cheerful Fairy was still in full effect, so neither of the two investigators showed any signs of wanting to stop any time soon. Grinning, Stella gave Regina a little nudge to make her slide off the curved bench. "C'mon, Miss Too-Tall-To-Fit-Through-A-Regular-Door… let's go onto the dance floor and wiggle our patooties for a while. Then we can go home and wiggle 'em a little more."
"Yes, dahling!" Regina said as she clambered to her feet. Once Stella had joined her by the edge of the booth, they hooked their arms inside each other's and strolled toward Rockin' Ruby's legendary dance floor - it was time to show the world how a couple of swell gals could move…
THE END of ONE PICTURE & A THOUSAND WORDS
THE END of THE MISLAID MAIL OF THE HARRISON-STARR DETECTIVE AGENCY
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