From The Files of The Harrison-Starr Detective by Norsebard

FROM THE FILES OF THE HARRISON-STARR DETECTIVE AGENCY

by Norsebard

Contact: norsebarddk@gmail.com
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DISCLAIMERS:

This (hopefully) humorous tale is an original story and it’s to be categorized as a Beyond Uber. All characters are created by me.All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.

This story hints at a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.

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In Part 1:

I. Stella Hits The Sauce

II. Trial And Reward

III. One, Two, Three!

IV. Hullaba-Hoop

In Part 2:

V. Big Yellow Taxi

VI. Tripping Over Memory Lane

VII. Christmas At The Old Vicarage

VIII. All ‘s Well That Ends Well

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NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:

Written: July 30th – September 30th, 2012.

Thank you for your help, Wendy Arthur – and thank you for giving me permission to mention Kate Marshall *Flower* 🙂

As usual, I’d like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support – Thanks, everybody! 😀

Description: Stella Starr and Regina Harrison are back once again with their unique brand of zaniness, over-the-top chases and rapid-fire banter. This time, they match wits with, among others, a recipe thief and a gang of counterfeiters – however, their relationship is evolving and they have an itsy-bitsy problem keeping their hands off each other for long enough to actually do the jobs they’ve been hired to do. In other words, it’s Situation Normal for the unpredictable and unstoppable investigators from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency…


Part 1I – STELLA HITS THE SAUCEWritten by Norsebard
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CHAPTER 1

With an annoyed huff, Stella Starr – recently turned thirty-seven but still as youthful, uninhibited and just plain unlucky as ever – jumped up from her chair in the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency and began to pace back and forth on the plush gray carpet she had bought in a Chapter Eleven clear-out sale.

A quick glance at the clock on the wall proved that it was twenty past nine in the morning and that her business associate slash main squeeze Regina Harrison had been gone for more than half an hour already. While she was digesting that information, she turned her attention back to her fingernails. Once she had chewed those on her right hand down to the nubs, she started torturing those on her left.

After four complete tours of the office – where she had straightened the curtains, organized a pile of letters on Regina’s desk, closed two drawers in the filing cabinet, opened another and stared hard at the bottle of Bourbon she had in there, fluffed all the cushions on the couch twice and finally put the brand new multi-unit remote control into the center of the coffee table so it wouldn’t end up getting crushed under the Butts of Doom like the old one had, Stella tore at her dirty-blonde mop of hair and let out a primordial howl.

The howl seemed to do the trick, because as soon as the last, strained, off-key note left her vocal cords, she could hear their leased Mercedes SLK turn onto their lot and drive up along the low building that housed the office.

“FI-nally!” she barked and hopped into her purple flip-flops, intent on telling Regina every little bit of what she had on her mind. It took her a few seconds to ease her socked feet – Daffy Duck on the left, the Tasmanian Devil on the right – into the flip-flops, but when she was fully armed and operational, she whooshed the front door open and stomped across the parking lot.

“Reggie! You sure took your sweet time gettin’ back here with my donuts!” she said as she rapidly closed the distance to Regina Harrison, the forty-three year old former model with the perfect curves, the perfect hair and a perfectly fed-up look on her face. “Don’t you understand that I can’t do anything at this time of the day without my donuts? Where are they?”

“Here,” Regina said and held up a brown paper bag. “They didn’t have the ones with the pink frosting today so I took two with chocolate instead.”

That information hit Stella across the brow like a baseball bat and she stopped dead in her tracks with her mouth gaping wide open. After a few seconds, she scrunched up her face into the Mask of Sublime Sulk that she just knew would stay there the entire day.

Chuckling, the former model reached out and pulled her shorter friend into a hug. “Yeah… and that’s not all. On the way back, a teenager in a beat-up old Vee-dub Rabbit rear-ended me at an intersection… look,” she said, pointing at the sorry state of the right-hand light cluster on the Mercedes.

Not seeing anything at first, Stella eventually overcame the intense disappointment that she couldn’t get her favorite pink donut and leaned down to scrutinize the damage to the leased car. Sighing deeply, she adjusted her glasses and stood up straight. “Oh, they’re gonna kill us, Reggie.”

“I know. I got his insurance info, but… he was a college kid. You know how it goes.”

“Yeah… we’re gonna get stuck on the bill. Shoot!”

“Perhaps Billy the Mechanic can fix it?” Regina said and pointed at their next-door neighbor whose garage hadn’t yet opened for the day.

“Eh… who knows.”

“Stell?”

“Yeah?”

“What are you wearing?” Regina said flatly as she took a sliding step away from Stella in case the psychedelic clash the short investigator was wearing was contagious. Apart from the big fashion no-no of having socks in flip-flops, Stella wore a pair of pale green jeans that had been cut off below the knees, a peach T-shirt and her favorite pink hoodie – the one with the white tassels.

Snatching the brown paper bag from Regina’s hand, Stella spun around and stomped back to the office. “Clothes! So there!” she barked over her shoulder at the bemused Regina who quickly patted down her own classy black suit to see if any of Stella’s wild colors had sought out greener pastures.

With a brief look at the leaden early October skies, Regina decided on closing the Mercedes’ hard top, but she had barely watched the hood click shut before Stella’s terrified voice cut through the quiet parking lot: ‘All the chocolate frosting has FALLEN OFF! GAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH….!’

Ten minutes later, Stella took a bite out of the second, equally bare, donut and used a spoon to scoop up a crushed pile of chocolate frosting from a saucer. The look on her face told a story of raging inner storms, causing Regina to keep at a safe distance.

Sitting down at her desk, the former model kicked off her shoes, reached into a drawer to find her PSP and finally swung her endless legs up on the corner. Snuggling down in her swivel-chair, she turned on her gaming device and began to play a noisy racing game.

“Reggie… mmmpff…” Stella said around a bite of a donut and a large swig of strong, black coffee. “You know… mmmpff… how much I… mmmpff… can’t stand that… could you… mmmpff… please put it on mute?”

“Doesn’t have a mute, Stell,” Regina said with her nose pressed into the small display to keep up with the frantic action.

“Swell. Just swell. I know you’re seven foot eight an’ all, but I had really hoped that you’d see things from my perspective…” Stella said and threw a crumpled-up ball of paper at her friend.

Regina flashed Stella one of her patented two-hundred watt grins but soon returned her attention to the game. “Round one usually only takes ten minutes or so. It won’t be long, Stell.”

Sighing, Stella took another bite out of the bare donut, but just when she picked up the spoon to get some chocolate frosting, their phones rang. “Oh… oh… ohhhhh…!” Stella groaned, chewing frantically to get everything down so she could make herself intelligible.

“Yes… mmpff… you’ve reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?” Stella said, struggling to get the last bit of donut through her throat.

‘Oh, hello. I’d like to speak with Mr. Harri-‘ a female voice said at the other end of the connection.

That was all Stella had time to hear before she pulled out a desk drawer, put the receiver into it and slammed it shut. Leaning forward, she put her elbows on the desk and buried her face in her hands. “Reggie, we’ve gotta… gotta! …buy an ad in the local papers where there’s a photo of us. This can’t go on! Every time someone asks for Mr. Harrison Starr, I lose ten years of my life,” she said in a muffled voice.

“Mmmm?” Regina said, too focused on the game to have time for Stella’s high-strung pleas.

“Aw, such compassion and humanity! I’m gonna scratch ya off my will, Reggie! Thanks a lot for your helping hand, buddy!” Stella said and tore open two of the desks drawers, the one with the receiver and the one with the piece of paper titled ‘People who ask for Mr. Harrison Bleepin’ Starr!’.

After drawing yet another fat pencil line on the paper – it turned out to be the thirty-first – Stella cleared her throat and picked up the receiver. “I’m sorry, Miss, but we don’t actually have anyone here by that name. I’m Stella Starr, the senior investigator. Please state the nature of your call.”

‘Oh… ‘beg pardon. My name is Maggie Hendricks. I was wondering if you had time to take on a case that involves theft of top secret documents?’

Sitting up straight, Stella snapped her fingers in the air to get Regina’s attention. When that didn’t work, she threw another ball of paper at the former model. When that didn’t work either, she put her hand across the speaking-piece of the receiver and let out a resounding: “REGGIE! WORK!”

Taken completely by surprise, Regina jumped a foot in the air and dropped the PSP onto the carpet where it responded with a whistling effect and an emphatic ‘Game over!’. Mumbling something under her breath, she straightened down her hair and picked up her own receiver.

“Miss Hendricks, my business associate Regina Harrison is also on the line. What is this about, exactly?” Stella said and found a pencil and her notepad.

‘Hello, Miss Harrison, I’m Maggie Hendricks,’ the woman said.

“Hello, Miss Hendricks.”

‘Well, I’m the recipe manager at Teresa Maddalena Tomato Sauces & Quality Pizza Toppings. Maybe you’ve heard of our products?’

“Heard of you?!” Stella said and jumped up from her chair at such a speed that her pencil went flying onto the carpet. “Heard of you?! Hell, I’m having your stuff for dinner at least three times a week! Oooh, your new Tex Mex range is really great not to mention your older things like the tomato sauce with chunks of chili peppers, that’s one of my favorites and-and-and also your Sweet & Sour sauce with pineapples… and… oh! And your Genuine Italian sauce with basil and oregano and… I love your stuff!”

While Stella was gushing her heart out into the telephone, Regina seriously considered calling Binge Eaters Anonymous, but she relented when she saw the excited look on Stella’s face.

‘Oh, that’s good, Miss Starr. Yes, we’re quite proud of our products.’

“And by reading between the lines, you’re saying someone is stealing your recipes?”

‘I’m afraid so, yes.’

“Oh, that’s just… just… just… despicable!” Stella said and indignantly raised her left arm in the air to make her look like a mirror image of the Statue of Liberty. “A crime against good taste!”

“Good taste?” Regina mumbled and once again looked at Stella’s colorful outfit.

‘So does that mean you’ll take the case, Miss Starr?’

“Yes! Yes! Yes, we’ll take it!” Stella said and began to search for her pencil. Looking around, she finally found it down on the floor on the other side of the desk.

‘Oh, that’s excellent. Here’s where we live,’ Maggie Hendricks said and began to give Stella the address of the factory.

“Uh… no, uh, plea- uh, please wait… I don- uh, don’t have…” Stella said, desperately trying to make the cord for the telephone stretch far enough for her to pick up the pencil.

Knowing exactly where Stella’s quest was headed, Regina stifled a grin and hurried over to the pencil. After handing it to Stella, Regina gave her a quick, little kiss on the forehead that left the blonde investigator beaming.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t have a pencil,” Stella said into the receiver. “Could you repeat that, please? Uh-huh… okay. Got it. See you there. Oh! Oh, hang on, Miss Hendricks… d’ya think it would be possible to have parts of our fee paid in… uh… kind…? I mean, a selection of your sauces? Just twenty-five, thirty, fifty jars or so? Yeah? Excellent. Thank you,” she said and hung up.

Once Stella had put down the receiver, she moved into the center of the office and put her hands on her hips. Two seconds later, she pumped the air repeatedly and let out a series of uninhibited whoops and wild dance moves. “Woo-hoo! Tomato sauce! Tomato sauce! Yeah, baby! Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, free supply of Teresa Maddalena tomato sauce! Woo-hoo!”

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A brief while later, Regina was kneeling on the floor in the conference room, deeply engaged in one of her favorite pastimes – digging through their many disguises to find the best one for the job. From the office, she could hear Stella still boogieing along to an imaginary beat, ooh-ing, ahh-ing, yip-ing and yow-ing to her heart’s content.

Closing the closet door, Regina put the pile of clothes she had found over her shoulder and started pulling the large, portable mirror across the floor.

“Boy, Stella is really hot and running just because we got a job for the people who make her favorite tomato sauce… sheesh, how silly can you get…?” she mumbled as she tried to balance the mirror and the clothes. Suddenly feeling a strong need to check that her forty-three year old face was still the same it had been earlier in the day, she gave herself a thorough check-up in the mirror.

Unbeknownst to Regina, Stella had boogied into the doorway to the conference room and was busy watching the former model study herself. “Sheesh… how silly can you get?” Stella mumbled under her breath. “Yes, you’re a knockout. Now can we get a move on?” she said out loud and took the bundle of clothes from Regina’s arm.

“All right, all right, Miss Starr… sheesh!”

Once the two investigators were standing in the center of the office, Stella wrapped an arm around Regina’s waist and pulled the tall woman closer. “Isn’t it time for a little kiss?” she said, tickling Regina’s side.

“Mmmm! Of course, with you, it’ll always be a little kiss,” Regina said and leaned down to claim Stella’s lips a mere heartbeat before the blonde investigator could pour out the can of Outrage she had already cracked open.

Separating from her kissing mate’s soft lips, Stella slid her hands onto Regina’s butt and gave the two globes a little squeeze. “Five foot” – squeeze – “four” – squeeze – “and a half.” – squeeze – “The half-inch is very important to me.” – squeeze.

“Oh, I know,” Regina said and put another little kiss on Stella’s nose. “So… let’s get-”

“It is, Miss Too-tall-to-walk-through-regular-doors!”

Chuckling, Regina pulled her shorter friend into a good, strong embrace. “I know, Stell. Imagine if all women were as tall and gorgeous as me? I mean, just think of the consequences,” she said and took a step back to slip into the posing routine she liked to call ‘Too Cool For Words’.

Stella just waved her hand and let out a snort. “Keep dreamin’, toots,” she said in a mock sarcastic tone. “Anyhow, wotcha find for me?”

“Well, my first thoughts were night… dark. Blend in. Then I thought… tomato sauce,” Regina said and helped Stella out of the pink hoodie. “Then I thought… pizza commando,” she continued and eased a black commando-style sweater over Stella’s wild locks and peach T-shirt.

“The pizza commando strike team, eh? I sorta like that,” Stella said and posed a little bit in front of the portable mirror.

Nodding, Regina held up the rest of Stella’s costume. “Yup. Here’s the rest of it… black jeans for stealth. A black commando-style knitted cap for coolness and finally a pair of black Rokkstar track shoes for speed.” Leaning in, she tried to fluff Stella’s mop of hair into something resembling a hair style, but soon gave up and just pulled the knitted cap down over her ears.

“O-yeah. Lookin’ good!” Stella said and pushed her glasses up her nose.

“Stell, when are you going to use the gift certificate I gave you for your birthday last month? It’s only valid until Christmas, you know,” Regina said as she bent down to get a Stella-eye-view of her latest creation.

“Oh… I will. Eventually. It’s just that… you know…” Stella said and took the cap off, making her hair jump out in every direction at once.

Regina tried to shield her eyes, but the shock of hair was so strong it penetrated her grip and poked her on the side of her nose. “I’ll come with you and hold your hand. Maybe next week? How about it? I promise it won’t hurt.”

“I know, but… well, a fancy hair salon just isn’t me, Reggie.”

“You would make me a very sad girl if you didn’t go, Stell,” Regina said wearing a schoolgirl pout.

Reaching up, Stella gave the former model’s soft lips a little pinch with her thumb and index finger. “Pouts don’t work on me, missy. But I’ll make it there before Christmas, I promise. And now… we’re OFF to see the pizza, the wonderful pizza of-”

“Oh, Stell!” Regina groaned, clapping a hand over her eyes.

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“Pffff…” Stella said an hour and five minutes later as she turned off the engine of her beloved AMC Pacer that had carried them – eventually – to the parking lot reserved for guests in front of the Teresa Maddalena Tomato Sauce & Quality Pizza Toppings-factory.

“I told you to hang a right, Stell. You said ‘no’ and stayed in the center lane. I begged you to hang a right. You said ‘nooooo’ and stayed in the center lane. Six miles up the freeway. Through the four-leaf clover. Six miles down the freeway. Back where we started. I told you to hang a right, Stell!” Regina said, drawing an imaginary route in the air with an index finger.

“Yeah, yeah, Reggie. I know for a fact that you can’t read a map, either,” Stella said and lifted her glasses to rub her weary eyes.

Huffing, Regina released her safety belt and put her hand on the lever to open the door. “Maybe not… but at least I can follow a thirty by twenty foot bright green road sign!”

“Yeah, yeah. We’re here, ain’t we? I need a soda pop before we go in… that roll of Oreos I had to chow down to soothe my nerves kinda made me thirsty,” Stella said and brushed an entire legion of Oreo crumbs from her black commando-style sweater and onto the floor.

“Well, you’re outta luck ’cause we didn’t bring any. Maybe you can sweet-talk your way into getting a jug of tomato sauce to chug down!” Regina growled on her way out of the Pacer.

When the door closed behind the former model, Stella shrugged and released her safety belt. “What’s up with her today? Okay, so it took an hour and five minutes to drive seven blocks, but… sheesh.”

A few minutes later, Stella and Regina joined up in front of a low building that had a marquee that read ‘Teresa Maddalena Tomato Sauce & Quality Pizza Toppings – Visitor Center.’ A sign had been placed adjacent to a pair of double glass doors instructing the visitors to wait for an employee at the yellow line.

The parking lot was so non-descript that Stella felt a pang of disappointment. She tried to take a deep breath, but she couldn’t even catch the slightest whiff of tomato sauce – all she could smell was Regina’s fancy deodorant called Striking Beauty by La Belle and her own two-for-two-ninety-five cheapo roll-on deo stick from CoolMart that had already begun to irritate her pits.

The factory buildings surrounding the parking lot were large and gray and the eight smokestacks were impossibly tall, but everything was very anonymous. The only hint of their location was a huge neon sign on the front of the largest building where the lyrical name of the company had been written in the font they used on their products.

Waiting at the yellow line like they were supposed to, Regina hooked her arm inside Stella’s and leaned in to bump shoulders with her friend. “Sorry I barked at you, Stell. I was just frustrated.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” Stella said with a wicked gleam in her eye. “I’m sorry for calling you a gray-haired, uptight, haggy hasbeen with a wrinkle-complex and… no, wait… I just thought that.”

Plenty of fire and brimstone shot out of Regina’s ice blue eyes when she spun around and stared at the grinning Stella, but the cheeky look on the blonde investigator’s face was just enough to wrestle her away from giving her a piece of her mind. “Oh, that’s funny. Heart attack-kinda funny. Just so you know, I still got it. Are we even?” she said flatly.

“We’re even, hon,” Stella said and snuggled up to the tall, graceful former model.

A few seconds later, one of the glass doors opened to reveal an elegant woman in her late forties wearing a top-of-the-line burnt orange pant suit. When the woman spotted Regina and Stella, she waved her arm to signal that the two investigators should approach her.

“And that’s our cue,” Regina said and flicked her hair out of her collar to look her best. Stella just wiped her nose with the back of her hand and pulled up in her black jeans so they wouldn’t creep down and reveal more than absolutely necessary.

“Hello, I’m pleased to meet you. Really glad that you could come. I’m Maggie Hendricks. We spoke on the phone,” the woman said as she put out her hand.

“Hello, I’m Stella Starr. This is my business associate Regina Harrison,” Stella said. After shaking hands with Maggie, Stella assumed a serious-but-not-overly-obsessive game face that she hoped would convince the woman that she wasn’t just there to score a box of tomato sauces.

Maggie briefly stopped her introduction to look at the two, seemingly very different women, but she soon shrugged inwardly and returned to the presentation. “Hello, Miss Starr, Miss Harrison. Well, let’s go to my office. I have everything lined up.”

“Excellent,” Regina said and put her hand on the small of Stella’s back to usher her inside.

Unfortunately, Stella was so taken with feeling Regina’s hand on her back that she looked up at the former model instead of down at the floor – with inevitable results.

BUMP-FUMBLE!

“Ouch! Oh whattheflyingfig did they put a step there for… uh, I mean… oh dear, it didn’t see that step, ha ha,” Stella said, smoothing down her commando cap that had nearly come undone. Once the pain in her big toe had receded somewhat, she resumed walking after Maggie, though with a slightly less confident step.

“Here it is,” Maggie said and walked into a lavish office equipped with a large desk and several very comfortable armchairs.

Stella almost let out a wolf call at the sight of the office, but thought better of it at the last moment.

“Please, have a seat,” Maggie continued and closed the door behind the two investigators.

Regina purposefully waited for Stella to sit down in one of the armchairs – she figured it would be better for their image to do that instead of helping the inherently clumsy investigator up from the dark gray carpet – before she went over to the other one.

Crossing her legs, Regina leaned back in the chair and let her six-foot-one frame do the talking. Soon, she gave off an unmistakable air of owning the place which led to Stella casting a highly admiring glance at her.

Holding her fingertips against each other in a pyramid-shaped gesture, Regina arched an eyebrow and looked directly at Maggie. “What are we dealing with here, exactly?”

“Well,” Maggie said, fiddling nervously with a ball point pen. “Miss Harrison, Miss Starr… as you can probably imagine, our recipes are worth millions. If they fall into the wrong hands, our competition would catch up with us or possibly even gain an advantage. And lately, a few recipes have gone missing. Some of our new Tex Mex sauces and some of the older ones.”

“I see. Go on,” Stella said and wrote down what had been said in her notepad.

“We have reason to believe that the thief is an employee or a former employee, but, according to our legal team, we cannot move ahead without solid evidence. That’s where you come in.”

“Oh. Excellent… most excellent! Collecting evidence is one of the things we do best.”

“Uh… that’s good. That’s very good.”

“I see hidden cameras. Yes, definitely hidden cameras,” Stella said excitedly while typing large words in her notepad. “Possibly heat-sensitive devices. Maybe even ones that have the brand new neural-identification capability, you know, Reggie, the cameras that can identify a man at two hundred paces from the way he farts… uh, I mean, coughs.”

‘And those cameras cost two arms and two legs, Stell,’ Regina thought and narrowed her eyes.

Sighing, Maggie put away the pen and picked up two pieces of paper she had prepared in advance. “It all sounds very good, but-”

“Oooh, are those ransom notes?” Stella said and scooted to the edge of her armchair.

“Er… no,” Maggie said, giving the blonde investigator a confused look.

“Please go on, Miss Hendricks,” Regina said to keep the conversation going.

Maggie glanced at Regina and Stella with a puzzled look on her face, but finally decided that the two women had to be experts if their unusual methods were anything to go by. “Uh… okay. No, this document is a pledge of confidentiality. All our employees must sign it. Legal matters, I’m afraid,” Maggie said and handed Stella and Regina a page each.

“Oh, but we’d never do anything that would hurt the Teresa Maddalena company, would we, Reggie…?” Stella said with a grin as she took the document. “Hey… wait a minute… the page is blank…? Didn’t you just say that all employees must sign it?”

Groaning inwardly, Regina wanted nothing more than to clap her hands over her eyes, or shake some sense into Stella who seemed to have left her home without her brain – or possibly both, one after the other.

“They… and you… get one each,” Maggie said flatly, staring at Stella.

Stella grinned again and immediately set off doodling her name on the dotted line. “Ohhh… clever. Don’t you think that’s clever, Reggie?”

“Mmmmh… yes. Quite,” Regina said, concentrating hard on her own paper so she wouldn’t have to look at the befuddled stare she just knew Maggie would be sending them.

-*-*-*-

After zooming back to the Harrison-Starr office to get two mini-cameras – and nearly getting lost all over again on their way back to the factory – Stella stepped into the center of Maggie’s office and pulled down in her commando cap, pulled up in her jeans and pulled out in her sweater that was too tight across her throat. “I am Stella Starr and I am ready… ready to rumble,” she said in a hoarse whisper that was meant to prove that she, Stella Starr, was the baddest of the bunch.

“Oh, goody,” Regina said flatly, holding both cameras, a selection of protective plastic covers, the cables, the connectors, the mini power supplies, the mini-flash drive recorders, a pair of pliers, a pair of tweezers and the crimping tape.

“Reggie, we need to see the office and the hall with brand new eyes. You understand? We need to… to… to think like the thief,” Stella said and made a three-hundred sixty degree turn in the office with her arms stretched out wide, vaguely resembling a helicopter coming in to land. “Where would he come in? Where would he go? Where would he find the recipes? And how would he escape?”

While Stella was running through the list, Regina looked at the door, the far wall of the office, the seven metal filing cabinets at said wall and finally the door again. “Gee, I don’t know, Stell. Maybe he’s Inviso-man come to life.”

“Whoa… no way… you think?” Stella said in a state of wide-eyed surprise.

“No.”

“Oh… ah, we’re wasting daylight. Let’s do it!” Stella said and stomped out of the office. Two seconds later she came back and snatched one of the cameras from Regina’s full hands. “What are you standing there for? C’mon!”

Regina took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Looking towards the heavens – or rather, the strip lights in the ceiling – she shook her head and followed her easily excitable business associate into the hall connecting the offices in the administrative wing of the Teresa Maddalena factory.

“Hmmm,” Stella said, repeatedly rubbing her chin. Trying to see the hall with new eyes, she looked left and right to get a mental image of what the thief would see when he or she entered it.

Like the rest of the administrative wing, the hall was fairly non-descript with a thick, dark gray carpet on the floor, white walls and cream doorjambs and doors. There were windows to all the offices, but off-white net curtains obscured the views.

“Hmmm,” Stella said again and handed the camera back to Regina. “No, I need to do it the right way, Reggie. Stay here, I’m just gonna… well, you’ll see when I get back here,” she continued and took off down the hallway.

“Okay,” Regina said and sighed deeply.

A few seconds later, Stella came back into the hall. In the meantime, she had rolled her commando cap so far down that it covered her eyes, and the first thing she did was to whack her nose and forehead against a bright red metal box marked Fire Equipment. Cursing and swearing, she staggered backwards and promptly bumped into a water cooler that nearly toppled over – fortunately for their bank accounts, it was satisfied with sending out a few, watery burps instead.

By now, Regina was ready to admit defeat, but Stella had only just begun to fight.

Once she had rolled up the commando cap past her eyes and made sure the water cooler was standing upright, she took a stealthy step forward, moving with such grace and agility that it resembled a pregnant rhinoceros searching for a water hole somewhere on the African savanna. Moving her left leg in a huge arc, she quickly went over to the left side of the hall and tip-toed along the wall until she reached the first window.

Looking left and right, she threw herself onto her stomach and crawled past the window and the door of the first office. When she was in the clear, she jumped up and continued to tip-toe down the hall.

Suddenly, a door to one of the other offices was opened and a man dressed in an expensive business suit stepped out into the hall. The man held a clipboard and a stack of papers but he nearly dropped it all when he caught a glimpse of Stella and her disguise.

“Hiya, Buster. Great day for a stroll, eh?” Stella said as the man walked past her with his jaw down to his chest. “Nice meetin’ ya,” she continued as he turned the corner at the water cooler and made a hasty exit.

“Oh, Stella…” Regina groaned, but the blonde investigator sent her a hand signal that showed that she was adamant they should continue with the simulation.

After taking a tip, a toe and the first half of another tip, Stella threw herself down onto the floor and inched her way across the carpet. “There,” she said and pointed at a spot next to the floor panel six feet away from the door to Maggie’s office. “That’s where we’ll put the first camera. Right down on the floor, pointing at the water cooler. We’ll get ‘im when he enters the hall.”

“Okay,” Regina said dejectedly and made a small note on her notepad that she had managed to dig out of her pocket while still holding on to all the bits and doo-dads she was schlepping around.

Down on the floor, Stella jumped up like a Jack-in-the-box and put her hand on the doorknob. Leering first left and then right to mimic what she imagined the thief would do, she zoomed in on the bright red metal box with the fire equipment. “Ah-ha! There! On top of the metal box. Right next to the… shoot, I can’t see what that is…” Stella said and tried to jump up and down to identify the strange objects lying on top of the red box.

“Looks like a box of tissues,” Regina said casually, briefly looking up from jotting the details on her notepad.

“Yeah, you’d know, Miss So-Tall-I-Don’t-Need-A-Ladder-To-Look-Over-A-Fence,” Stella said and snickered.

Regina just shrugged in her patented ‘Can’t give a hoot’-fashion and closed the notepad. “Those cameras shouldn’t be too hard to set up, Stell. We have a white and a red plastic cover for them so they’ll blend in nicely.”

“O-yeah. Tomato sauce, here we come!” Stella said and punched the air.

*
*
CHAPTER 2

The next morning, Stella tried to evade the raindrops on her way over to the front door of the Harrison-Starr office, but she wasn’t entirely successful. Just as she reached the locked door, she could hear their telephones start ringing inside, but in her haste, she couldn’t get her hand into the pocket of her brand new pair of tight jeans to get her keys.

“Oh… uh… oh… uh… UH! UHHHH!” she growled as the rain slowly made her immaculate haystack into a soggy mess. Digging, groping, searching, clawing and scratching, she was finally able to get her fingers down to her keys, but when she wanted to pull them out of the pocket, she discovered that she couldn’t – at least not while she was holding onto the keys.

“Aw hell, no!” she shouted in the middle of the parking lot. Moments later, the rain started coming down harder than ever and she was soon wet to the core.

And the telephones kept ringing.

“Where. Is. Reggie. When. I. Need. Her?! Oh, this is just so… so… so… All right, that does it! I don’t give a flying fig who can see me!” she roared and unbuttoned her jeans. Bending down, she pooled the tight jeans at her ankles, revealing that she was wearing a pair of white and yellow Power Puff Girls boxers.

Finally able to get to the keys, she tore them out of the pocket and inserted them into the lock. As she whooshed open the door, the telephones stopped ringing.

Seemingly struck by a coma-inducing arrow, Stella kept standing at the opened door with her jeans pooled at her ankles and rain running down her neck and glasses. The chilly breeze drifting around her bare legs made her hop-hop-hop inside where she slammed the door shut, kicked off her shoes and tore off her pants and left it all on the gray carpet in the center of the office.

Walking over to her desk, Stella stared at the silent telephone, not quite believing what had just happened. When she couldn’t will it into ringing again, she went back to the tight jeans and stepped up on them.

Then the inevitable explosion happened and she started jumping up and down on the jeans with steam pouring out of her ears and off of her wet hair.

Letting out an explosive blue streak that contained every single one of her favorite ‘…ucker’ words, she stomped hard down on the jeans while cursing the rain, the telephones, the keys, the people who made the keys, the tight jeans, the designers of the tight jeans, the parents of the designers of the tight jeans, the website she bought the tight jeans on, rainy Tuesdays, rainy Wednesdays, rainy Thursdays and every other rainy day, and finally the tight jeans all over again just to make sure that they’d feel positively cursed.

When the fire slowly left her, her frantic stomping on the jeans became less and less frantic until she could barely muster enough energy to raise her legs in the air. Sighing, she ran a hand through her wet hair and looked up.

Regina was standing in the doorway holding a paper bag from a bakery and wearing a full-face smirk. “Nice boxers, Stell,” she said as she hung her jacket on the hallstand and put the paper bag down on the small table behind the door.

“How much did you see?” Stella croaked.

“Everything. And I heard even more.”

“Where were you when I needed you, Reggie? There I was, drowning, fighting to stay afloat, trying to get my keys… trying to get in here before the phones stopped ringing…”

“Who was it?”

“Huh?”

“On the phone?” Regina said and split two white-bread baguettes down the middle with a large kitchen knife.

“No idea. I didn’t make it in time.”

“Oh.” Taking pity on her friend, Regina put the knife and the bread aside and walked over to Stella. “Tell you what… before we have breakfast, let’s go into the bathroom and get you out of that wet stuff. I’ll dry your hair and bring you some new clothes. Okay?” she said with her hand on Stella’s cheek.

“Okay…” Stella said, looking like a soggy puppy.

Two minutes later, Regina wrapped a warm towel around Stella’s head and started giving her a real world class rubdown. Going quickly back, forth, left, right, above both ears and down the neck, she quickly had the dirty-blonde haystack back to its regular, wild appearance.

“A-la Bingo!” Regina said and pulled the towel away from her creation.

The look of her hot pink, deeply flushed skin and the way her hair stuck out in all directions made Stella laugh out loud and reach behind her to pull Regina into a backwards embrace. “Oh, that’s too cute… thanks, Reggie. You’re my friend. My best friend. Hell… my only friend.”

“You’re welcome, Stell.”

“What did you buy for breakfast?”

“French baguettes. You want cheese or jam on ’em?” Regina said and hung the towel over a clothesline to let the water drip off.

Shrugging, Stella closed her terrycloth bathrobe and stood up from the small footstool she had been sitting on. “One of each… I’ll start with the cheese. I feel cheesy today… it’s a good match.”

“You’re not cheesy, you’re just unlucky,” Regina said and kissed Stella on her forehead. When Regina could see that Stella wasn’t satisfied with that, she leaned down and quickly claimed her soft lips.

Just as Regina put her empty plate into the sink, the telephones started ringing again. “I got ’em, Stell. Just sit tight, okay?”

“Sure thing. I’m not moving a muscle,” Stella said and looked longingly at the former model’s long, powerful stride as she hurried over to her desk. Grinning, she went back to the last bite of her raspberry jam baguette.

Sitting down with a bump, Regina picked up the receiver and got her pencil and notepad ready. “You have reached the Harrison-Starr Detective… oh, good morning, Miss Hendricks.”

Mumble, mumble.

“You’ve had a new theft?”

“Aw hell,” Stella said and put her plate down on her desk. Getting up, she quickly closed her bathrobe and padded over to Regina’s office on bare feet.

Mumble, mumble.

Regina scribbled hastily on her notepad, flipping the page when it was full. “Two recipes are missing… Chicken Tikka Masala Mix and Shanghai Sweet and Sour. Noted.”

Mumble, mumble.

“Yes, we’ll be right over… at least, that’s the plan.”

Mumble, mumble.

“Yes. See you then, Miss Hendricks. Goodbye,” Regina said and hung up. “All right, Stell, they’ve had a new incident.”

Stella put her hands on her hips and assumed a suitably scrunched-up expression. “Mmmm. Let’s get dressed and go check the cameras. Who knows… we may get lucky.”

“Speaking of which…”

“Yes…?”

“What on EARTH were you thinking jumping into such tight jeans at your age?” Regina said with a wicked gleam in her eye, pointing at the offending pair of pants that were still lying where Stella had thrown them.

Stella just shrugged and moved over to take a closer look at the jeans. “Oh, well, they were the best selling item on the website and- hey… hey, hey, hey… at *my age*? *My age*, Reggie? Just for that, I’m gonna wear my poncho today! Ah!” she said when Regina opened her mouth to protest. “I won’t accept no hemming out of you! It’s gonna be my poncho today. Yes, my poncho and my favorite pair of torn blue jeans. You know, the ones where the right rear pocket is hanging loose. And! And my black muscle shirt that has ‘Ain’t I Purdy?’ across my boobs!”

“Actually I was just pulling your leg,” Regina said and flipped her notepad shut. When she didn’t get a response, she looked up and sent Stella a couple of saucy winks.

“Oh… okay. Scratch the muscle shirt and the torn jeans. But I’m still wearin’ my poncho! So there!” Stella said and spun around on her heel to get dressed.

-*-*-*-

A fair while later at the Teresa Maddalena factory – this time, Stella actually managed to hang a right on the freeway when Regina asked her to – the blonde investigator took her laptop from a carrier bag and put it down on Maggie Hendricks’ desk.

“Are you sure it’s all right, Miss Hendricks?” Regina said, sitting down in the same armchair she had used the day before.

Closing the office door behind them, Maggie started wringing her hands even before she had fully let go of the doorhandle. “Oh, yes, yes… anything to stop this awful mess.”

Stella smiled at the nervous woman and opened the lid of her laptop. “Well, we’ll definitely do our best,” she said as she took the protective casing off the recorder and put it on the table before she inserted the flash drive itself into the socket.

Quickly transferring the video files, she started the Player program and began to skim through the recordings. The office was warmer and more humid than it had been for their earlier visit and she was sweating like a pig underneath the poncho and the black commando-style sweater that she had chosen instead of the clothes she had threatened to wear.

While she could handle a little sweat, the heat emanating from her flushed face meant that her glasses kept steaming up. Growling under her breath, she had to wipe off the lenses on a regular basis, but that meant that she couldn’t control the mouse pad, and that in turn meant that she kept missing the cues on the recording.

Slowly getting fed up, she tried raising her glasses, but then she couldn’t even see the desk she was sitting at, much less the laptop. “Reggie?” she said in a strained voice. “Would you mind checking the recordings? I’m having a bad day… a really bad day. No, it’s not even a really bad day, it’s one of those days where everything just works against me. This is like getting a root canal and experiencing Chinese water torture at the same time. No, it’s not even that… it’s getting a double root canal while someone is pulling your toenails off…”

“I got it, Stell. Don’t worry,” Regina said and put a calming hand on the jumpy Stella’s shoulder.

“Oh!” Maggie said and clapped her hands together. “I’ve just had the greatest idea. Miss Starr, you said you frequently use our products, didn’t you?”

“Uh… yes?”

“Would you like to go on a guided tour of the factory? We’d get to see the-”

“YES,” Stella said and jumped up from the swivel-chair. Quickly shedding her poncho, she folded it neatly and put it over the backrest of one of the armchairs. “Hold the fort, Reggie. I’m finally gonna see some tomato sauce,” she said in her best John Wayne imitation.

“Yes, dear,” Regina said, sending Stella a blinding, two-hundred watt smile before she went to work on checking the recordings.

-*-*-*-

A few minutes later, Stella and Maggie walked onto an enclosed gangway that was hanging from thick steel wires nearly forty feet off the ground. The metal gangway was lined with windows on either side to give the visitors a clear view of the production lines below.

“This is the start of our all-in-one production facility. To your left, you can see the enormous wash boilers needed to clean the vegetables of traces of soil et cetera. Now, moving on,” Maggie said and put a hand on the small of Stella’s back, “you can see the chutes where the tomatoes are brought down from ground level. To maintain production, we need four thousand tons of tomatoes every single day.”

“Sweet Chicky-dee!” Stella said, pressing her nose against the window just as another load of tomatoes came streaming down one of the chutes. “Whoa! Rush hour at Tomato World!” she said with a loud laugh.

“Yes. Moving on, the tomatoes will be sent through a selection process where advanced, ultra-fast scanners will find and discard misshapen units,” Maggie said and pointed down at a series of metal wing-like structures that whacked the occasional tomato off the main line.

“Aw, this is too cool,” Stella said, reluctantly moving away from the scanners.

“Yes, I think so, too. Now, Miss Starr, I must advise you to protect your ears. I’m about to open one of the windows to give you an idea of the noise level that’s coming from the machines,” Maggie said and put her hand on a handle for a sliding window.

Putting her hands over her ears, Stella nodded enthusiastically. “Sure! Go on!”

As Maggie opened the window, the noise level grew exponentially, but far more rewarding to Stella was the sudden onslaught of the most delightful smell of tomato sauce she had ever experienced. Completely taken by surprise, her eyes popped wide open and she let out an orgasmic, throaty groan that made Maggie’s cheeks flush red.

“Oh! Uh…” Maggie said, not quite knowing how to respond to the groan. After a few seconds, she closed the window and screwed on the most winning smile she could muster. “Ahem. Yes. It’s a wonderful smell, isn’t it?”

“Uh-huh,” Stella croaked. Almost at once, her croak was comprehensively drowned out by an animal-like growl that came from her stomach. “Oops,” she said with a snicker, patting her gut.

“Happens all the time. At the end of the tour, you’ll have an opportunity to sample a few of our products,” Maggie said, turned around and walked over to an electronic panel on the opposite wall of the gangway. “Now, the next section is not for the faint of heart. Miss, Starr, how do you feel about heights?”

Adjusting her glasses, Stella shrugged and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Heights? Oh… well… you know. I’m a strong, modern, resourceful woman. I can handle heights…”

“All right,” Maggie said and pushed a button on the electronic panel. With a hum, the underside of the floor they were standing on moved aside to reveal a sheet of armored glass, giving them a full, unrestricted view of the entire factory forty feet below them.

At first, Stella’s face just lost all color. Then she felt her guts plunge into her boots before they bounced back up into her throat. Breaking out in a full-body shiver, her glasses steamed up at once, rendering her incapable of seeing anything at all. Slamming back against the windows, she reached out with both hands and let out a screeching shriek that achieved a perfect harmony with the tomato-squashing machinery below.

Feeling that she was about to fall to her death, she put her arms out ahead of her and began to tip-toe across the sheet of glass to get back to terra firma.

“Uh, Miss Starr, you’re going the wrong way… the wrong way, Miss Starr! This way!” Maggie said, but when she could see that her guest was too far gone to understand, she pressed the button to let the solid floor slide back into place. “I thought you said you were a strong, resourceful woman, Miss Starr…?”

“I l- l- lied…” Stella said in a voice that resembled Minnie Mouse on a strong helium bender.

Rolling her eyes, Maggie grabbed hold of Stella’s left arm and pulled her in the right direction. “I see. So, to our right, we have the…”

-*-*-*-

While Stella was practicing her mountain climbing skills, Regina worked hard at analyzing the recordings. After much fast-forwarding, she had found the exact entry and exit of the thief, and she had managed to separate the sequences and blow them up to make the thief’s face clearly visible on the small laptop screen.

Feeling quite proud over her achievements, Regina leaned back in her seat and put her hands behind her head. “Yeahhhh… I still got it,” she said with a beaming smile. A few seconds went by where she felt a warm buzz slowly traversing her system, but the wonderful feeling vanished with a flick of a switch when it struck her that the thief was none other than…

“Willie Nelson?! What in the WORLD?!” she said out loud, on the brink of emulating one of Stella’s more infamous traits by moving up to the edge of her chair. Groaning, she buried her face in her hands – though mindful not to upset her perfect hair.

“Willie Nelson…?!” she said through her hands, shaking her head. “Oh, hell… of course the thief would wear a mask. Oh, hell!”

At the same time, Maggie led a shocked and babbling Stella into the office and helped her sit down on the first armchair. “Evell… bubbl… bebbl… webbl… Reggie…” she croaked, still looking as pale as a ghost.

“Wh- what happened to you?” Regina said and sat up straight.

“Oh… glass floor… fell to my death… ebbl… nebbl… I’m dead, Reggie… qibbl… and I soiled my undies…”

“Ewwww! Stella!” Regina said and shied back from her friend.

Slowly regaining some of her color, Stella began to move around on the armchair like she was in discomfort. “I couldn’t help myself! The floor vanished and there I was and I was staring the Grim Reaper in the face and he reached out for me, Reggie, but I resisted at first though I wasn’t strong enough and he took me and I fell to my death and I was impaled through my gut by a piece of tomato squashing machinery and I guess I peed my pants a little…” she said breathlessly.

Arching an eyebrow, Regina shot an accusing glare at Maggie who threw her arms in the air in return.

“It was just the regular tour. I asked her if she had a problem with heights and she said no,” Maggie said, returning the dark glare.

“Hm!”

“ANYway! Have you made any progress? Quite frankly, I don’t feel we’ve got value for our money yet, Miss Harrison.”

Regina cast a sideways glance at the odd image of someone looking like Willie Nelson stealing tomato sauce recipes, but quickly closed the lid of the laptop so Maggie couldn’t see it and ask even more questions. “Oh, detective work rhymes with hard work, Miss Hendricks. You’d be surprised how difficult it can be sometimes.”

Maggie didn’t seem too impressed as she crossed her arms over her smart pant suit and started tapping her fingers on her left arm. “Didn’t you get anything at all out of the recordings?”

“They were… uh, inconclusive, Miss Hendricks.”

“Inconclusive?”

“Uh… yes,” Regina said, locking eyes with Stella and sending her a few winks that the fairly frazzled investigator picked up on and returned in kind.

Snorting loudly, Maggie walked over to the other end of her desk and tapped her knuckles twice on the corner. “I demand to see some results tomorrow at noon. At the latest, Miss Harrison. Tomorrow, you’ll hand over the thief to us or the authorities, or you can go home. Do I make myself clear?”

“Very clear, Miss Hendricks. Very clear,” Regina said, already forming a plan in her mind. Looking at Stella squirming rather uncomfortably in her seat, Regina cocked her head and put an index finger across her lips. “And here’s what we’ll do. We’ll go home to our office now and make arrangements for tonight. We’ll return just after eleven p.m. and set up a camouflaged surveillance booth out in the hall. When the thief arrives, we’ll jump out and snatch him.”

While Regina was speaking, Stella’s eyebrows slowly crept up her forehead – first the left one, then the right. Not quite understanding where Regina was getting all that spunk and all those good ideas from, she nevertheless admired the tall, graceful former model for being such a solid anchor in her life. Grinning broadly, she moved to the edge of her chair and waited for Regina to finish. “Yes, Miss Hendricks. Undercover surveillance is probably the one area where we are the market leaders.”

“Market leaders?” Maggie said, sounding like she wasn’t bowled over by that statement.

“Why, yes! It wasn’t long since we broke up a fencing ring through hard work and clever disgui- YEEEEOW!” Stella howled, suddenly slipping off the edge of the chair and finding herself on course for a head-on collision with the carpet.

Her glasses had miraculously stayed on her face through the crash, the bump and the scrape, but when she peeked over the desk, she noticed that Regina had buried her face in her hands all over again and that Maggie was rolling her eyes like there was no tomorrow. “Oops,” Stella said, clambering to her feet and dusting off the knees of her black jeans. “Anyway, I was saying…”

“I heard you the first time, Miss Starr,” Maggie said frostily. “I’ll give the security guards orders to let you in tonight. Now, would you please vacate my office? I have a lot of work to do.”

Closing the laptop, Regina pushed the chair back and got up. “Certainly. We’ll contact you when we’ve apprehended the thief, Miss Hendricks”, she said and helped Stella out of the office, followed by a condescending snort by their host.

Once they had exited the Teresa Maddalena visitor center, Regina got the car keys from Stella, opened the Pacer’s hatchback and stored the carrier bag with the laptop. “Hmmm”-ing out loud, she took an empty plastic bag out of the rear before closing the hatch.

“Stell, I better do the driving. Here ya go,” Regina said and placed the plastic bag on the passenger seat.

“Awww… you’re my best friend, Reggie,” Stella said and pulled Regina into a hug. “I wouldn’t know what to do without you… Jeez, I’m such a helpless toad this week.”

“You’re just a bit off, Stell. We all suffer that from time to time,” Regina said as she helped Stella get comfortable on the plastic bag. Quickly leaning in and kissing the blonde investigator on the lips, Regina pulled the seat belt down and waited for Stella to lock it. “And besides, you won’t be-*lie*-ve who the thief is,” she said as she put her hand on the door to close it.

“Oh, is that why you winked at me?”

“Yep!”

When Regina was clearly building to a crescendo, Stella lost patience and gently slapped her friend’s gut. “Well, spill it, girl! Who is it?”

“Willie Nelson.”

“Get outta town!” Stella said with eyes as wide as saucers.

-*-*-*-

At ten minutes to eleven, Stella drove the Pacer into the deserted parking lot in front of the factory. Working swiftly and stealthily, she tip-toed to the rear of the car and opened the hatchback.

For the special occasion, Stella had decided to go all-out on her pizza commando outfit. In addition to her roll-up cap, fingerless bicycle gloves, sweater, black jeans and a pair of sturdy boots, she had found a black nylon shoulder holster that she thought made her look insanely cool – it was also the perfect hiding place for her cell phone – and finally, she had applied two fat, black stripes on her cheeks like all the bad boys did in the movies.

After wiping her lenses, she looked left and right to make sure they were alone. To make extra-extra sure, she knelt down and peeked in under the AMC Pacer, but it was clear there, too.

“Hmmm… let’s see. Three cans of Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz, check. Three cans of Slurrpy! Carbonated Mineral Water, check…”

“Stell?” Regina said from inside the car.

“Yeah?”

“Weren’t we supposed to be dark and silent?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Well, when you have the hatchback open, the interior lights come on. We’re lit up like a Christmas tree, hon.”

Taking a step back, Stella noticed that Regina was right and she quickly slapped her forehead. “Darn! Okay… uh, okay… got it,” she said, climbed up into the rear of the Pacer and reached up to close the hatchback.

Once she was snug among the plastic bags, she shuffled around so she was sitting up straight. “Thanks, Reggie. Now… where was I…? O-yeah, two rolls of Oreos, check. One roll of sugarfree cookies, check. Flashlights, check. Motion detector and sensors, check. Undercover surveillance hiding place cardboard thingies, check.”

Up front, Regina was unable to stop a chuckle from escaping her lips.

“Now what?” Stella said.

“Nothing. You got my stuff back there, too?”

Stella opened a plastic bag and peeked in to see if Regina’s arsenal of fashion magazines, night creams and various other doo-dads was safe. “Yep, all there.”

“Good. It’s eleven o’clock. Let’s get crackin’,” Regina said and stepped out of the Pacer.

After quickly breaking Stella out of her self-imposed prison, the two women sneaked across the parking lot carrying two plastic bags each. Maggie had alerted the security guards of their arrival like she said she would, and a few minutes later, the two intrepid investigators were ready to set up shop in the hallway outside the office where the thefts had taken place.

“Right…” Stella said, surveying the site. “Right. Okay. If we put this one here… or maybe here… or… maybe here…” she continued, moving the fake front of a chocolate bar vending machine back and forth to find the best location for it.

“Don’t forget I need to have room for my legs in there, Stell,” Regina said, holding the two sides of their hiding place.

“Mmmm, that’s true. Okay, that’s another ten feet forward, then,” Stella said with a gleam in her eye.

“Cute. Too cute.”

“Heh, heh… sorry,” Stella said and peeked around the fake front. “No, it should be fine here. Don’tcha think?”

Clicking the top and the two side-pieces in place to complete the illusion, Regina took a step back and cocked her head. “Yeah. That’ll do. Perhaps we’ll need an Out Of Order sign so the thief won’t start pushin’ our buttons,” she said and pulled Stella into a sideways embrace.

“Good thinkin’, Reggie.”

Stella quickly scribbled ‘out of order’ on one of the pages of her notepad before tearing it off and holding it up to where the coin slot would have been had it been a real vending machine. “Oh… shoot. I don’t have any adhesive tape,” she said and began to look around for some.

“Me, neither.”

“Darn… uh… okay. Never mind. Ah, I doubt he’ll have time to stop for a snack, anyhow,” Stella said and shoved the note into her rear pocket.

Taking the first of the two sensors for the motion detector, Regina quickly went down to the other end of the dimly lit hallway and put it up against the panel underneath the Fire Equipment box. “Psst! Is this too obvious?” she said, pointing at the sensor.

“Nope, that’s good, Reggie. Let’s see if this gizmo here works,” Stella said, took the electronic receiver box and pressed a small button marked On. “Okay, try to move past it…”

The split second Regina walked past the sensor, the box in Stella’s hand blurted out such a strong electronic beep that she jumped a foot in the air and let out a resounding “GAAAAAAAHH!” while hurriedly clapping her hands over her ears. That in turn meant she couldn’t hold onto the box which slowly tumbled end-over-end in mid-air and came down directly on her right instep. “OUCH! Oy, oy, oy, oy, OYYY…!”

“I guess that means it works,” Regina said dryly, making sure to stay perfectly still until Stella had adjusted the volume.

With both her eyebrows and the corners of her mouth twitching uncontrollably, Stella mumbled a whole series of curses while she thumped her index finger down on the volume slider that had been set at maximum for some inexplicable reason. “Okay… it’s all right. You can come back now,” Stella said and turned her face away from the box in case the volume slider wasn’t working properly.

At the lowest setting, the box only flashed a warning sequence on an LED and that made Stella look up and give Regina a thumbs-up.

“All righty, then,” Regina said and strode back through the hall, deciding to try her patented model-walk just for kicks; cascading hair, a hand on her slamming hips and everything else a seasoned pro like her could think of. Once she was back at Stella’s side, she reached down and closed the blonde’s slack jaw. “I still got it… and that gap-mouthed look SO isn’t you, dahling.”

“Uh-nuh… heh, heh. Let’s snuggle up, Reggie. We’re all set,” Stella said and clicked the side wall off its hinges so they could crawl into their top secret hiding place.

Half an hour later, Stella’s butt was going numb and she cracked open a Raspberry Fizz to take her mind off it. “Pass the O’s, please.”

“Here ya go.”

“Thanks,” Stella said and made so much noise opening the pack of Oreos that a herd of elephants could have walked past them without any of them noticing.

Sighing, Regina stretched her long legs the other way so she wouldn’t get a cramp. “Stell, what are we going to do about the Merc?”

“I don’t” – munch, munch – “know, Reggie.” – munch, munch – “I guess we’ll” – munch, munch – “have to call the” – munch, munch – “leasing company.” – slurrrp – “Jeez, they’re gonna” – munch, munch –“tear us a new one.” – slurrrp.

“Yeah. Not looking forward to that.”

“No…” Stella said and fell silent for once. A little while later, she held up the next Oreo at Regina. “Want one?”

“No, thanks. Want a cookie?” Regina said and popped one of her own snacks into her mouth.

“Nah. Thanks, anyway. I can’t stand that sugarfree stuff. Tastes like cardboard pulp,” Stella said and stuck out her tongue.

Taking the next cookie, Regina responded to Stella’s tongue by sticking out her own. “Wouldn’t know. Never had it.”

A sudden creak out in the hallway made them shut up and hold their breaths, but when the motion sensors hadn’t detected anything after nearly half a minute, they shrugged and went back to their cookies and sodas.

“What are you looking at?” Regina said and emptied her first can of Slurrpy! Carbonated Mineral Water.

“Oh, you know… you.”

“Yeah? Go on.”

Grinning, Stella gave the tall investigator a playful slap on the endless thighs. “Shoot, we’ve been in some strange situations, haven’t we?”

“Yeah, we have.”

“Including some we couldn’t have anticipated,” Stella said, looking squarely at Regina’ soft lips.

“Yeah,” Regina said and looked Stella in the eye. “Are you sizing me up for a kiss?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“Uh… yeah. Here, let me help you,” Regina said and leaned in towards her friend. For a brief moment, the two women just looked at each other with matching silly smiles creasing their lips, but then they decided on taking it to the next logical step and began to kiss.

The kiss went on and on and on and on until Stella reluctantly had to break it off to get some air into her lungs.

CREAK!

“Whut…? Oh, that damn creak… how many times have we heard that now?” she growled.

Regina clicked on her penlight and looked at a piece of paper where she kept a running score. “That was the fifth time.”

“Shoot, we’re gonna miss him when he comes for real if this old house keeps on groaning like that.”

“I think it’s the ventilation shafts. The sound is kinda metallic,” Regina said and put the paper and the penlight away.

“Eh.”

Looking to her left, Regina cast a stolen glance at the short investigator, and even though she wasn’t able to see much in the semi-darkness, she knew that Stella would still have a smile on her face from the kissing. “So… you wanna kiss again?” she husked, gently putting her fingers on Stella’s arm.

“I thought you’d never ask,” Stella replied and hurriedly pulled Regina down towards her.

While the two investigators were enjoying themselves, a man dressed in black clothes and a Willie Nelson mask peeked around the corner of the hallway. Immediately spotting the new – and fairly strange-looking – chocolate vending machine at the other end of the hall, he paused briefly but soon shrugged and went about his business.

Moving with cat-like grace, the man crept stealthily along the hallway, triggering the silent alarm on the motion detector’s sensor. In ten long strides, the person was at the door to Maggie Hendricks’ office, but kept standing there for several seconds while he took a very good look at the new vending machine.

He wondered briefly why a brand new machine would make such weird noises – almost like someone was snogging heavily – but he soon concentrated on getting the door to the office to open.

With a faint click, he depressed the handle and slipped inside.

Behind the fake front of the vending machine, Stella and Regina were far, far too occupied with each other to notice the LED on the electronic receiver box blinking so strongly that it nearly shorted out its own fuses.

The LED blinked stronger and stronger until it’d had enough with the tardiness of its owners and decided to go a step up on the volume scale. Moments later, a low, but shrill, electronic beep emanated from the box.

“What’s that?” Regina said around a series of kisses as the humming sound finally reached her ears.

“Mmmm… mmmm…” – kiss, kiss, KISS – “mmmm… dunno.” – kiss, KISS, kiss –
“What do you” – KISS, kiss, kiss… kiss! – “think it is, Reggie?”

“Dunno. It” – kiss, kiss – “actually sounds a bit” – kiss! – “like-”

“LIKE THE MOTION DETECTOR!” Stella whispered hoarsely and pulled back from Regina at such speed that it took the former model’s lips several seconds to understand that they were suddenly trying to snog thin air.

Regina shot her kissing mate a slightly dirty look for giving her such a nasty case of the kissus interruptus, but when the gravity of the situation dawned on her, she slapped her forehead and scrambled for her penlight.

“Damn… damn, damn, damn!” Stella whispered, trying to get the left wing of the vending machine to flap out so she could catch a glimpse of the door to the office. “It’s open… thedoorisopen… ohhhhhh, I don’t believe it!”

“That means he’s still in there, Stell!” Regina whispered, punching Stella’s shoulder.

“Yeah… yeah! Stella Starr is gonna save the tomato sauce! Reggie…! Wish me luck!” Stella said and grabbed both of Regina’s hands with her own, bumping the penlight out of Regina’s grip and sending it down to an uncertain fate on the dark floor.

“Good luck, Stell… but watch out for the-”

Before Regina had time to say what it was Stella should watch out for, it had happened. As Stella crawled out of the undercover surveillance hiding place, her boot snagged on the fake front, creating a chain reaction that started with a belly flop onto the carpet for her own good self and ended with the whole cardboard structure collapsing on top of Regina’s head.

“YEEEEEOOOOW! ABUMPH!” — “OOOOOOOF! OH, STELLA!” the two women howled as one. In the hitherto silent hallway, their shrieks sounded like a pack of avenging ghosts, and it sent a clear and unmistakable signal to the thief that it was high time to make a hasty exit.

Holding a stack of papers, the thief jumped into the doorway where he quickly stopped to stare wide-eyed – under the mask – at a woman dressed in black fumbling around on the floor, and another woman trying to get herself free from the wings of the obviously fake vending machine. Shaking his head, he set off down the hall, running so quickly that he was gone in a matter of seconds.

“REGGIE! STAY HERE! I’LL GET ‘IM!” Stella howled and took off after the thief, leaving Regina to find her own way out of the mess.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever… just leave me here, boxed in like a turtle’s pecker,” Regina growled as she finally managed to climb to the top of the pile of colorful debris. Sitting in the middle of the completely ruined vending machine, she did the only thing she could in such a situation: she found her comb and began to restore her precious hairdo.

*
*
CHAPTER 3

Stella blasted through the hall to try to catch up to the thief, but when she reached the water cooler at the end of it, he was long gone. Bopping up and down on the balls of her feet, she couldn’t get her brain to work quickly enough to make a decision on where to go, so she had to resort to a tried-and-tested solution. “Eenie-meenie-minie-moe…” she said, pointing left and right in sequence with the old schoolyard rhyme, “gotta-work-out-which-way-to-go… left… no, right!”

Snapping right, Stella stormed down the next hallway before turning hard left then hard right then hard left then another hard right until she was so incredibly lost that she had no idea how to get back to Regina. Fortunately for her, just as she came to a screeching halt, she caught a glimpse of the thief trying to sneak through the other end of the same hallway she was in.

“Halt!” she bellowed. “Halt! I’m Stella Starr and you’re busted!”

Predictably, the thief set off again instead of halting.

“Awfercryin’outloud!” Stella shouted and set off after him.

The chase took her and the thief through sections of the factory she hadn’t seen before, not even on the guided tour, but when they made a hard right onto the enclosed gangway that worked as the viewing platform, she knew exactly where she was.

Huffing and puffing from the exertion, Stella leaned against the doors leading onto the gangway, but tried to look cool, calm and in complete control. “Hey… Mister!” – pant, pant – “It’s time to” – pant, PANT, pant – “give it up. Ya can’t” – pant, PANT – “escape. My business asso-” – pant, pant, pant – “associate is probably calling” – pant, PANT, pant – “the cops as we speak. Y-” – PANT, PANT, pant, pant –“Ya might as well give up…” – pant, pant – “and save me some sore feet. These boots” – pant, pant, DEEP BREATH – “weren’t made for runnin’, ya know!”

The thief’s only reply was to set off down the enclosed gangway.

“Awwwww… he had to run… of course he had to run! Jumpin’ Jehosaphat, I gotta stop eatin’ so many Meaty Mamas!” Stella said and set off after him. Three paces on, she came to a new stop and threw her arms in the air. “I can’t believe I just said that! Aaargh!”

Growling, she continued the chase.

-*-*-*-

Meanwhile, back at the collapsed vending machine, Regina had stacked the three cardboard wings and the top in a neat pile so they were ready for the next assignment.

After picking up their various cookies, magazines and cans of soda and putting them into the plastic bags so they wouldn’t leave too much of a mess, she moved into the office and took a few pictures with her cell phone.

One of the filing cabinets had been opened, but Regina didn’t have any gloves with her so she didn’t want to touch it in case Inspector Moynes could extract any fingerprints.

Two pieces of paper were lying on the floor, looking very much like the thief had dropped them in the kerfuffle. Crouching down, she could only read one of them – the other was facing down – but it didn’t take her long to recognize it as a recipe for a seasoning sauce in the Tex-Mex range.

“Hm!” she said and held up her cell phone. She quickly dialed the number they had been given for Maggie Hendricks but thought better of it at the last digit. Instead, she deleted the entry and called Inspector Moynes.

‘This is Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes. Go ahead,’ the Inspector’s familiar voice said at the other end of the line.

“Hello Inspector, this is Regina Harrison. We may need your help in a little while at the Teresa Maddalena Tomato Sauce and Quality Pizza Toppings-factory. We’re in-”

‘What in the world are you doing out there, Miss Harrison?’

Stepping out of the office, Regina took their bags and the cardboard wings and began to shuffle down the hall, intending to store everything in the Pacer. “We’re trying to catch a thief who’s been stealing recipes.”

‘Uh-huh? Definitely sounds like something you’d be hired for… never mind. All right, we’ll be there shortly.’

“Thank you, Inspector. Stella is hot on the thief’s heels as we speak.”

‘Okay…? Thanks for letting me know, I better alert the Major Disasters Unit as well, then… see you in a while, Miss Harrison.’

“See you later, Inspector,” Regina said and laughed a little at Mary-Jane Moynes’ joke until she realized that the veteran police detective may not have been joking at all.

-*-*-*-

As Stella was steaming down the enclosed gangway, the thief kept standing at the other end almost like he was taunting her. When she was close enough to yell at him, he calmly pressed the button that activated the sliding floor before he slipped into the darkness beyond the viewing platform.

Squealing loudly, Stella matched the sliding floor’s motion by sliding to a halt just in front of the armored glass. “Oh! OHHHH! OHHHHHHHHH!” she howled, clutching her commando-style cap.

“I’m not wetting my pants again…! I’m not wetting my pants again…!” she said as she inched out onto the armored glass, trying to look anywhere but at the working machines far, far below her. At that time of the evening, only one of the four production lines was active, but the gruesome sounds it made as it mercilessly squashed the tomatoes being loaded into it made a cold shiver race up and down Stella’s spine.

“I’m not wetting my pants again…!” Stella whispered, using the metal railing that lined the gangway as her guide across the glass floor. “Especially not ‘cos I’m wearing the black silk boxers Reggie gave me for my b- b- b- birthday!” she stuttered, inching closer and closer to safety.

Finally reaching the other side, Stella slammed an index finger down onto the button and shot the sliding floor a whole series of increasingly rude hand gestures.

She realized that she had to be clever and more than a little lucky to catch the thief after that misadventure, but she held her breath and tried to listen for any footsteps. Thinking that she heard something coming from her left, she took the left path in a T-branch and was soon walking down yet another hall.

“Ye Gads, I’m never gonna find Reggie again… ever. I’m gonna starve to death in here… in a hundred years, they’ll find my bones in a dead end somewhere, trying to claw my way through the wall to get to a pizza… irony of ironies to starve to death in a food processing plant… but that’s me, Stella Sta- YEEE!”

Suddenly finding herself face to face with the thief who had come from the other angle without Stella noticing, she jumped a foot in the air and let out a brief, surprised yelp. When she landed, she put out her hands ahead of her and roared: “Stop right there, fella! I’ve got ya covered!”

The thief jerked one way and Stella followed him there; then he jerked the other way and Stella followed him there as well. Then he started jerking the first way again but changed his mind at the very last moment, spun around and ran back to where he had come from.

Stella was predictably caught mid-jerk and she flapped her arms furiously in the air to regain her balance – she actually succeeded in staying on her feet for once. Growling wildly, she adjusted her glasses and set off after him.

-*-*-*-

Humming quietly to herself, Regina picked up the motion sensor and put it into one of the plastic bags. At the end of the hall, she turned left at the water cooler to follow the main path back to the parking lot, but soon found her way blocked by a closed and locked fire door.

She tried to pound on it but it was far too solid for her, and when she tried the door handle, it didn’t do anything. “Oh… swell,” she said and turned around to find an alternative route back to the Pacer.

Three minutes later, she found herself staring at a different closed and locked fire door; a few minutes after that, yet another closed and locked fire door.

“Oh, this is just peachy. This is just too damn much! Sheesh, I’m never gonna see Stell again. I’m gonna starve to death in here…! In a hundred years, I’ll be an undead mummy, shuffling around, desperately clutching my leathery face to straighten out my ten gazillion wrinkles…”

-*-*-*-

Meanwhile, Stella was sneaking silently through the show room the factory used for promotional purposes like presentations of their new products and handing out samples after the guided tours.

Everywhere she looked, there were stacks of Teresa Maddalena merchandising and promotional items, including several sets of the stainless steel barbecue cutlery they used in their brand new BBQ range, a life-sized standee of a celebrity chef holding a glass of Mushroom & Sweet Pea Tomato Sauce, shot glasses, beer glasses and wine glasses with the company logo, and on a display stand all by itself, a bright red oven mitt that had been used by a famous actress in a tv commercial and that now sported her elegantly scrawled autograph.

Stella stopped to take a closer look at the oven mitt. She had actually contemplated buying one for herself for Christmas, but up close, she could see that the quality wasn’t any better than the unbranded mitts that were sold for a third of the price.

Shrugging, she moved on in search of the thief that was supposed to be in there, but wasn’t.

Sighing deeply, she stopped again and took off her commando cap. After scratching her sweaty hair thoroughly, she plopped the cap back down on her wild locks and began to look around at the other merchandising items.

Over by the far wall, a five-foot tall pyramid had been built of various Teresa Maddalena jars with the oldest designs and products forming the base. The ten layers above it were made up of more and more recent jars until the pyramid ended in the newest product, the ‘Teresa Maddalena Salsa Hot Peppers! Creamy & Crunchy,’ which stood by itself at the top of the glass cone.

Sighing again, Stella put her hands into her pockets and went over to take a look at the pyramid, already counting how many of the different products she had tried in her years as a heavy user.

Suddenly and without warning, the pyramid started to tilt toward her.

At first, Stella thought it was a false reflection in her lenses brought on by the faint light catching the many glass jars, but when the first jar hit the floor with a loud CRASH!, she knew it wasn’t. “Oh… OH… OHHHH! OH SHIIII…” she howled as she ducked and bopped and weaved and hopped and ducked some more to get out of the way of the dozens of falling jars.

“What in the” – hop, duck – “flying fig is this?” – weave, bop – “Some kind of earthquake?” – duck, duck, weave – “Damn, damn, damn…” – bop, duck, hop – “Oh man, all those great sauces!”

“Ha! Missed me!” she roared once all the jars had fallen off without even a single one hitting her. Turning around, she strutted away from the pile of jars only to set her boot down on a Sweet Chili Mix which rolled away underneath her foot, taking her with it. “YEOW!” she howled as she watched her leg fly up and the rest of her body fly down towards the carpet.

FUMBLE!

“Owch! Aw, hell…!”

A dark shadow that raced past her proved that it hadn’t been a random earthquake after all, and when Stella just caught a clear glimpse of the thief exiting the show room, she let rip an impressive series of her favorite “…ucker” words.

Two minutes later, Stella sneaked along the next hall, sensing that the thief was so close that she could practically reel him in with only the old elastic band she had found in her jeans pocket.

Coming up to a new T-branch, she followed her nose and headed for a pair of double doors that carried a sign that said ‘Caution! Mortal Danger!’ and two yellow and black warning icons: one was the traditional skull-and-bones symbol and the other looked like a man stumbling over a crate.

“Eh… he wouldn’t go in there… or maybe he would… nah, he probably wouldn’t… but maybe he would… mmmm… he would,” Stella said and grabbed hold of the center locking rail.

Pulling it upwards, Stella discovered four things in the space of as many seconds: The first was that the doors didn’t open in, but out; the second was that her fingerless bicycle gloves got trapped in the rail leaving her utterly stuck; the third was that she was thrown forward so fast by the automatic doors that she didn’t even have time to squeal; and the fourth and final one was that the warning icon she had thought depicted a man stumbling over a crate in fact didn’t – instead, it depicted a man dangling thirty feet above a concrete floor.

Literally hanging on by a thread, Stella briefly looked down but decided that it wasn’t the best thing to do. With a little hard work, she was able to twist her hands and grasp the locking rail itself, but other than that, she was in a spot of bother and she knew it. Gently swinging back and forth, she watched the Out of Order note she had intended to put on the fake vending machine fly out of her rear pocket and flutter to the ground like a giant snowflake.

Gulping loudly, she blinked several times and began to mouth a silent prayer. “Out of order… Out of order?! Aw shoot, Stella Starr… this time, you’re up to your neck in doo-doo…! My neck is all that’s gonna be left of me if I fall down… oh, shoot, why did I say yes to this gig? If I ever get out of this mess, I’m gonna swear off… uh… uh… ummm… showering on Sundays. And where the HELL is Reggie when I need her? Reggie? Reggie? REGGIE? REGGIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!? HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELP!”

-*-*-*-

Regina had gone back to the office to wait for the Inspector to arrive when she suddenly heard Stella’s cry filter through the ventilation ducts. Jumping up from the chair, she began to pace back and forth on the office floor while racking her brain to come up with a way to beat the sneaky fire doors.

“Oh, Stella…!” she groaned and clutched her head, mindful not to disturb her ‘do too much. “Oh, if something happens to you, I’ll never forgive myself! But what can I do? What can I do? What can I… wait… wait a minute… I have Maggie’s number…”

Quickly digging into her pocket, she found her cell and brought up the right number in the registry. After waiting for a few seconds, she could hear a drowsy female voice at the other end of the line.

‘Yeah-mmmm?’

“Hello, Miss Hendricks? This is Regina Harrison. We’re having an emergency out here at the factory. We’ve, uh… we’ve caught the thief but-”

‘You what?!’ Maggie said, suddenly sounding a lot sharper.

“We’ve caught the thief,” Regina fibbed, hoping that it wouldn’t blow up in her face later on, “but the fire doors have all closed and we’re trapped here!”

‘Uh… okay…?’

“Can’t you call the security guards at the front door and get them to reset the system? I think Miss Starr is in trouble and I really need to get to her.”

‘Uh, yeah… I’ll do that. Uh… I’ll hang up now and do it right away.’

“Good! Talk to you later,” Regina said and pressed a button on her cell. Ignoring the many plastic bags with all their stuff, she strode through the halls to get back to the first fire door, hoping that she wasn’t too late to save her best friend – and kissing mate.

-*-*-*-

Dangling off the door, Stella had plenty of time to think about life in general and her present situation in particular. She wasn’t really in pain, but her shoulders were slowly growing numb from the odd angle she had them in, and her sweater had crept up and was tickling her tummy skin something fierce.

“I wonder if I’d be able to fall the rest of the way without crushing myself into a pile of sticky, chunky debris…?” she mumbled, trying to gauge the distance to the bare, hostile-looking concrete floor. “It must be thirty feet down… and I’m five foot four and a half… that’s twenty-four and a half feet straight down… onto concrete… aw Hell, I’d be better off trying to climb up!”

Creaking back and forth, she tried to look up at her wristwatch that had come into full view after gravity had pulled the sleeve of the sweater down to her elbow, but she couldn’t read the hands in the semi-darkness. “On the bright side, there aren’t any flies in here and I don’t have to pee… now. If I can only hang on for another six hours or so, someone will find me… nooooo, I don’t wanna diiiiiiiiie!”

-*-*-*-

Clenching and unclenching her fists, Regina waited impatiently in front of the locked fire door. After counting to a hundred and thirty nine in French just to take her mind off Stella’s potential plight, she began to worry that Maggie Hendricks hadn’t been able to convince the security guards to reset the system after all.

Just when she had found her cell phone to call Maggie and ask what the blazes was going on, a deep, electronic hum was heard from the door, and soon after, the massive fire door slid aside.

Letting out a few unladylike curses, Regina stormed down the hall to search for her friend. At first, she didn’t know where to go, but after checking a few branches without much success, she came to a full stop and closed her eyes.

With her senses fully extended, she tried to tap into the ether to pick up Stella’s characteristic vibe, but soon came to the conclusion that The Force didn’t exactly work in real life the way it did in the movies.

Growling, she set off down the next hall. Ten paces further on, she came to a new stop, getting a strange feeling in her heart that could only come from Stella. Quickly spinning around, she stormed back up the hall she had come from and turned left instead of right at the next T-branch.

-*-*-*-

A few minutes later, Stella sighed and squirmed around to make her sweater tickle her tummy less. When that didn’t work either, she sighed again and leaned her head against her right arm. “There were so many things I didn’t get to say to Reggie… like, how about you and me and some whipped cream, baby…? Or… wow, you’re tall. Should I go up or d’ya wanna go down? Ye Gads, that’s just tasteless and unfunny… must be the tomato fumes that’re affecting my brain. And it would never work with Reggie, anyhow. She’s a lady. A real lady. Oh, man… I’m paying her wages… you’d think she’d wonder WHERE I WAS AND WHAT I WAS DOING?! WHY HASN’T SHE COME FOR ME? FER CRYIN’ OUT LOUD! REGGIE! REGGIE?!”

Suddenly a dark shadow swept across the door, causing Stella to look up in a hurry. “Reggie! I knew you’d come for- …you’re not Reggie… you’re Willie Nelson!” she said, staring at the darkly clad figure that was standing at the edge of the drop.

-*-*-*-

Regina tore through the confusing maze of identical halls, going left, right, left, right, left, left, left and finally right until she was standing in something she thought could have been a show room at one time… now, it was just a mess and a half.

“Oh, Stella!” she said out loud and pinched the bridge of her nose when she saw the levels of destruction to the various items on display.

Holding her breath, she tried to listen for any unusual sounds, but the blood thundering past her ears prevented her from hearing anything at all. Moving back to the door to the show room, she tried to suss out where Stella could have gone to, but found it hard going.

“Stella… Stella, Stella, Stella… where are you?” she whispered and tried the mind scan thing again.

Stepping out into the hall, she began to move slowly in the direction she thought was the right one.

-*-*-*-

Seventy yards and two hallways away from Regina, the figure wearing the colorful mask of Willie Nelson leaned forward and stretched out an arm to grab hold of the door Stella was dangling from. With a mighty heave-ho and a most decidedly male grunt, the person was able to get the door to swing slowly back towards the hall.

“Wh- what are you doing? And who the hell are you?” Stella said as she came closer and closer to the lower edge of the floor she had fallen off earlier.

“My name is irrelevant… and I’m trying to get you up. I woulda thought that was kinda obvious,” the man in the mask said as he leaned down and grabbed hold of Stella’s belt.

At first, Stella squirmed under the man’s touch, but once she realized what he was trying to do, she let go with one hand and reached for the edge of the hall. “Oy! If you grope my butt, my gee-eff is gonna wipe you out, buster! Hell, she might decide to do that anyway!” she said as she pulled herself upwards and closer to safety.

With a series of increasingly throaty grunts, she managed to get her leg swung up on the floor of the hall, and from there, it wasn’t too hard – even for Stella Starr, clumsy-queen extraordinaire – to get fully back to terra firma.

Sitting up on her knees, Stella reached up towards her shoulder holster – a gesture that made the masked man throw his hands in the air. “Whut? Nah, it’s just my cell. Don’t worry,” she said and quickly dialed Regina’s number.

“Oh… okay,” the man said and visibly relaxed. “Hey, are we colleagues or something? Why are you dressed like that?” he continued, pointing at her dark clothes and at the two black stripes on her face.

“No, we’re certainly not colleagues! I’m Stella Starr, owner of the Harrison- Starr Detective Agency. I’ve been hired to take care of… well, you.”

Moving swiftly, the man jumped up and pushed Stella aside so the phone fell out of her hand and clattered along the carpet. “That’s not gonna happen!” he said and took off up the hall.

“Ooof! Oh, you miserable son of a…” Stella howled as she clambered to her feet. Suddenly feeling the ground shake rhythmically – almost like someone was running towards her with a hard stride – she spun around and stared wide-eyed at a six-foot-one Warrior Princess who was thundering along the hall at full speed.

At the exact moment Regina and the fleeing thief crossed paths, she spread out her arms and gave him such a whack across the chest that he spun around three times in mid-air before landing right on his butt with a bump and a crunch. Groaning faintly, he gave up the ghost and fell backwards onto the carpet.

“Stella!” Regina howled, continuing her stride.

“Reggie!” Stella howled in return, running towards her friend with her own arms spread out ahead of her.

The two women soon met in the middle and flew into each other’s arms. At first, Stella was just picked up and given such a crushing embrace that her face nearly turned blue, but after that, they went into the mother of all kissing frenzies.

Once they separated, Stella returned the crushing embrace with one of her own and took a step back from the tall former model. “Thanks for searching for me, Reggie.”

Blushing, Regina just snickered like everything that had happened was no big deal. “Oh, you know.”

“Yeah. I do. Trust me, I do. I was hangin’ on by my chinny-chin-chin there for a while, though… shoot, at one point I thought I was gonna soil my undies all over again… but I didn’t want to do that ‘cos I’m wearing the silk boxers you gave me,” Stella said and wrapped a strong arm around Regina’s waist.

“I guess the moral of the story is… always empty your bladder before you go to work…?” Regina said and took off Stella’s commando cap so she could run her fingers lovingly through the wild, dirty-blonde mop of hair.

“Something like that, yeah. Okay… let’s see who this fella is,” Stella said and went over to the passed-out thief. Kneeling down, she removed the Willie Nelson mask to reveal a man in his mid-twenties with a handsome face, dark brown eyes and just the faint beginnings of a mustache on his upper lip.

Kneeling on the other side of the man, Regina grabbed hold of his arms and lifted him up into a sitting position. “Do you know what happened to the papers he took, Stell?”

“No… I sincerely hope you’re not askin’ me to frisk him…”

“Well, if you won’t, I will,” Regina said and quickly patted down the unconscious man. “Nothing in his pants,” she said, earning herself a loud Snort! in the process.

“Nothing under his shirt, either. Oh wait, here they are… Clever… really, really clever,” Regina said and raised his shirt to reveal a flexible plastic folder that was strapped to his back underneath his clothes. Pulling off the folder, she opened it and found three recipes.

Reaching over, Stella punched Regina’s shoulder with such force that the former model made a horrified face and began to massage her abused skin at once. “Excellent work, Reggie! Excellent work.”

“Ouch… ohhh… thank you… I hope that didn’t leave a bruise… anyway, I’ve already called Inspector Moynes. It shouldn’t take them too long to get here.”

“Actually,” Stella said and pulled Regina close so she could give her a little kiss on the cheek, “I don’t know where ‘here’ is. All that chasing made me so confused I have no idea how to get back to the office or the main entrance.”

“Wanna hear a secret?”

“Always, Reggie.”

“I don’t know where the Hell we are, either…”

“Oh… maybe we haven’t been saved at all… shoot,” Stella said and scratched her chin.

Beneath them, the thief stirred and soon came to. When he realized that the two women were pinning him down, he tried to break free but he soon discovered that they were far too strong for him. Sighing, he let himself fall back down onto the carpet.

“Is this the thanks I get for saving you?” he said in a pleasant voice.

“No,” Stella said, adjusting her glasses, “this is the thanks you get for stealing recipes from the Teresa Maddalena Tomato Sauce & Quality Pizza Toppings. But since we’re on the subject of saving me… we’d like to know your name?”

“George Hendricks.”

“Hendricks?” Regina said, scrunching up her face.

“Yeah. I’m Maggie’s ex-husband.”

Snorting loudly, Stella wiped her nose with the back of her gloved hand and plopped her commando-cap back down on her wild locks. “When? In kindergarten?”

“Laugh all you want,” George said and huffed indignantly. “We had a great couple of months together. I made her smile. Have you ever made someone smile?”

Stella grinned broadly and sneaked a glance at Regina who was indeed wearing a big smile at that very moment. “Uh-huh,” she said and pushed her glasses up her nose.

“Good for you,” George said surly.

“I’m guessing the smiles didn’t last,” Regina said. “Considering you resorted to stealing from her.”

“Yeah well, I’m only taking back what’s mine, lady!”

“Come again?” Stella said, cocking her head.

“That’s right…! Most of these recipes are mine! I made ’em! And now she’s skimming a fat profit from my work!” George said and tried to struggle briefly, but Regina and Stella were still too strong for him.

‘That’s a lie!’ a female voice said from somewhere behind the three people. When Stella turned around to see what was going on, she spotted Maggie Hendricks hurrying up the hall with Inspector Moynes and three uniformed policemen in tow.

Once Maggie reached her ex-husband, she put her hands on her hips and shot raging fire at him with her eyes. “That’s a lie, lie, lie, George, and you know it! It’s the same lie you told the judge in our divorce settlement case, but she chose to believe *me*!”

“Well, *she* would, wouldn’t *she*?” George said as he was dragged to his feet by two beefy policemen.

Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes – as always impeccably dressed in a burgundy pant suit and a dusty gray blouse – reached behind her back and found a pair of handcuffs that she proceeded to slap on George’s wrists. “Mr. Hendricks, you’re under arrest for stealing documents from the Teresa Maddalena company. My associates will read you your rights. All right, he’s all yours,” she said and patted one of the beefy policemen on the shoulder.

A moment later, George was dragged away, grumbling severely over the unfairness of the world.

“We’ll meet in court! Again!” Maggie shouted after her ex-husband and flashed him a very unladylike hand gesture.

Grinning broadly, Stella turned around and slapped Regina a fat high-five. “Hey, Inspector Moynes. You look great today. That’s a new style for you, ain’t it?” she said and wrapped an arm around Regina’s waist.

“Yep,” Mary-Jane Moynes said and ran a hand through her strawberry-red hair that had become quite a lot shorter than when Stella and Regina had seen her last. “It was time to try something new.”

“Well, it looks great on you,” Regina said, nodding.

“Thank you, Miss Harrison. Well… I guess this one has ended on a high, huh? I better radio the Major Disasters Unit and tell them to stand down,” the Inspector said and took her portable radio.

Scrunching up her face, Stella turned towards Regina and shot her a puzzled look. “The Major… what?”

“I’ll tell you later, Stell,” Regina said and moved over to the Inspector. “Uh, actually, Inspector, the, uh… show room may need a little clean-up…” she said quietly.

Maggie Hendricks – having accidentally overheard Regina’s words – jerked forward and put a strong hand on Regina’s upper arm. “The show room? Our show room? The Teresa Maddalena Vintage Line show room with the many priceless items that we have just had insured for nearly two million dollars…?” she said in a voice that changed from hoarse to shrill with just about every other word.

Stella’s eyes popped wide open at that news and she began to inch away from the others in an almighty hurry before Maggie could bring out the heavy artillery. “Well… uh… I… uh… it was an accident… Hell, it wasn’t even that… it wasn’t even me, fercryin’outloud! It was George… he pushed it… the pyramid… gotta go! Reggie! See ya downstairs!”

With that, she took off down the hall, running so fast she left little indents in the carpet.

“But Stell! You don’t even know which way is out!” Regina shouted after her, but her words had no effect on the madly running woman.

-*-*-*-

Just over an hour later, Stella drove the Pacer into the packed parking lot in front of Rockin’ Ruby’s and began to look for a suitable place to park. Through a stroke of good fortune, they were able to find one near the entrance.

Turning off the engine, Stella checked her wristwatch which read a quarter to one, A.M. “Shit, Ruby closes in forty-five minutes… this gig took longer than I had expected.”

“Well, if you hadn’t had the clarity of mind to pick up your cell, Stell, we’d still be looking for you. I mean, what possessed you to get yourself locked into the freezer…?” Regina said and opened the passenger door.

“Yeah yeah, rub it in,” Stella said and followed her friend out of their car.

After locking it, she snuck a hand down Regina’s rear pocket and gave the full globe of wonderfully sculpted flesh a few squeezes.

As a reply, Regina snickered and leaned down to give Stella a kiss on the blonde hair that had only just lost its frosty quality.

Stepping inside Rockin’ Ruby’s, they were greeted by a few cheers from the assembled barflies and a quick wave by Ruby Albrecht – the former pro-softball player who had bought a bar when her career was winding down – who sat at her customary spot at the end of the long, highly polished counter.

“Hi, guys. Wow, Stella, you’re looking sharp tonight,” Ruby said and touched her own cheeks to illustrate the black lines on Stella’s face.

“I know. Thanks, Ruby,” Stella said with a wide grin.

Getting up from her bar stool, Ruby opened a hatch in the counter and moved inside to prepare two glasses. “Did you have a big one? Usually, you’re here much earlier. Don’t forget we close in forty-five.”

“We know. Yeah, we did have a pretty big one, actually. We just saved the Teresa Maddalena Tomato Sauce company,” Stella said and walked through the fairly narrow bar room to slide into the booth reserved for them – the last of eight cozy booths that lined the outer wall.

“Huh?”

“Long story, Ruby,” Regina said and slid in next to Stella. Underneath the round table, she began to claw at her friend’s stomach, a move that earned her a wide, genuine smile.

“With you guys, it always is,” Ruby said and let out a loud belly laugh that made several of the barflies turn around and stare at her. “Anyway, what are you having?”

Stella bumped shoulders with Regina and took the former model’s fingers in her own. “To keep with the theme… Bloody Mary. With a celery stick if you have it,” she said as she began to play with the slender, graceful digits.

“Sure. Reggie?”

“Oh, a driver’s Gin Tonic, thanks.”

Once they had given their orders, the two investigators turned to look into each other’s eyes and were soon lost to the world.

“You got it. Hey, you missed a load of excitement tonight. Earlier on, one of the regulars…”

Unfortunately, neither Stella nor Regina had time to listen to Ruby’s story, or even the soft, romantic mood music playing from hidden speakers for that matter. Underneath the table, Stella put a hand on Regina’s thigh and began to caress it through her black slacks.

‘I wonder why she’s always so warm… duh, you dimwit… it’s because she’s sizzling hot all over… after all, she’s still got it,’ Stella thought and broke out in a cheesy grin.

“Whassup?” Regina whispered.

“Oh, nothing.”

“Uh-huh?”

“Uh-huh. Just thinking about you.”

“Awww… but I’m right here. You could act, you know… not just think…” Regina said and closed her eyes, clearly waiting for a kiss.

Pulling back slightly, Stella studied the gorgeous face right in front of her. Not quite believing that she of all people had managed to snare in a former world class model, she just shook her head and let out a chuckle. ‘Act… aw Hell, would I like to act… I’m dying to act… Ye Gads, I haven’t acted for… shit, months,’ she thought and leaned in to provide the kiss Regina was waiting for.

Even as their soft lips were touching, another, slightly more depressing, thought flashed through Stella’s mind: ‘But what if she doesn’t like it when I act… when we take the next step… I mean, it’s gotta be a pretty mindblowing thing for her… what will happen if she doesn’t like it…?’

Once they broke off the kiss, the drinks had magically appeared on the table. “Cheers, Reggie,” Stella said and used the celery stick to stir her Bloody Mary. Her smile wasn’t quite as wide as it had been only moments before, but she knew that she should value what she had over what she might never get.

“Cheers, Stell. Hey, are you okay? You look really tired all of a sudden,” Regina said and ran her fingers down Stella’s cheek.

After taking a swig of her drink, Stella put it down and dabbed her mouth with the napkin. “No, I’m fine, I’m fine. It’s been a hard night ‘s all.”

“Mmmm-yeah,” Regina said and took a sip of her GT.

“Hey?”

“What?”

“Wanna kiss again?”

“O-yeah,” Regina said with a smile as she leaned in to claim her friend’s lips.

*
*
THE END of STELLA HITS THE SAUCE

-*-*-*-
-*-*-*-

II – TRIAL AND REWARD

Written by Norsebard
Stepping out of the bathroom, Regina Harrison flicked off the light with her elbow and closed the door with the heel of her boot. “You’re sure it’s okay that I leave a little early today, Stell?” she said and walked over to the hallstand by the front door.

“Oh, sure, sure… no problem,” Stella said, looking up from her indispensable Rubik’s Cube.

“I mean, it’s not like we’ve had anything at all to do today, right?” Regina said, put on her fashionable trench coat and flipped her hair out of her collar.

“Yeah, tell me about it. Nah, it’s just fine, Reggie. I’m busy with the paperwork and stuff anyhow.”

“Uh-huh?”

Stella recognized the tone of voice as being one, possibly one-and-a-half, notches below full-on sarcasm, and she looked up from her Cube and flashed her friend a wide, toothy grin.

“See ya tomorrow, Stell. Watch your neck if you’re planning on sleeping on the couch,” Regina said and opened the door to the parking lot. A chilly breeze and several drops of rain quickly entered the Harrison-Starr office and swirled around Stella’s jeans-clad legs.

“Brrrr! Don’t steal all my heat, Reggie! The radiators are hoppin’ already!”

“Sorry,” Regina said, but the smile on her face proved that she probably wasn’t. With a quick wave, she stepped out into the late October afternoon and closed the door behind her.

Putting away the Rubik’s Cube, Stella got up from her chair and watched her friend step into the slightly battered Mercedes SLK and drive out of their parking lot.

Once she was sure Regina was gone, she let out a little whoop and turned on her laptop. “Fashion Express here I come! Oooh, imagine that… Stella Starr… using a fashion web site! Sheesh, Reggie must be rubbin’ off on me,” she said excitedly as she pulled the laptop in front of her chair.

Five minutes later, Stella scrunched up her face and tapped the funeral dirge on the desktop with her short fingernails. Trying the web site just one more time for good luck, she once again found herself staring at the same, sublimely annoying error message that she couldn’t make heads or tails of – ‘Shopping cart showing -1 items. Cannot proceed to checkout without Error in MySQL line 809.’

Groaning out loud, she rubbed her face repeatedly, hoping that it would make her come up with the golden solution. After trying that twice, and trying the web site just one more time, she gave up and reached for her telephone.

‘You’re calling the customer service for Fashion Express dot com-‘ an automated female voice said at the other end of the line.

“Hello, my name is Stel-”

‘You’re the twelfth caller. Please hold.’

“-la Starr… whut? Hold? You want me to hold? I’m number WHAT?”

The only response Stella got was a dreadful muzak rendition of Barry Manilow’s Copacabana playing in her ear.

By the seventh time Copacabana started, she was ready to eat her chair – wooden frame, screws, cushions and all.

The song suddenly faded down, but just as Stella took a deep breath and got ready to say her piece, the automated voice took over: ‘You’re calling the customer service for Fashion Express dot com. You’re the tenth caller. Please hold.’ – Then Copacabana started over for the eighth time.

Stella’s face wasn’t its usual pale pink color anymore, it was dark red. “Listen to me, Sista!” she barked into the telephone. “I’m gonna tell you wotcha gonna do! Why don’t you take your fu… fu… fu… flippin’ web site and your flippin’ hotline and shove it up your fu… fu… shove it where the flippin’ sun don’t shine! I’m done! I’m SO done with you and your flippin’ miserable web site and your-”

‘Hello?’

“GAH!” Stella howled, suddenly realizing that she had heard a human voice instead of the automaton. “Yes! Yes! Hello! I’m Stella Starr and I’m having a problem with your web site!”

‘What kind of problem, Miss?’

Moving forward on her chair, Stella frantically adjusted her glasses. “Uh, buh, I’m… uh, trying to buy a scarf but there’s a problem with the checkout. It gives me an error message that says that I have minus one items in the shopping cart even though I’m one hundred percent certain I’ve clicked on the scarf!”

‘All right. What’s the catalogue number for the item you’re trying to buy, please.’

Realizing that the number was so tiny on the screen that she almost needed a magnifying glass, Stella pulled the laptop really close so she could get every digit right. “Well, okay, it’s… it’s really long, God, I… okay, it’s number five-eight-five-four-seven-two-three-six-eight-nine-seven-seven-seven-six-seven-four-three-nine-one…! Didya get that…? Please don’t make me repeat it!”

‘I got it, Miss. Please hold.’

“Oh God, not the Copacabana again… anything but the Copaca-!”

‘Miss, just to verify, the item you’re trying to buy is a hot pink down jacket in size extra-extra-extra large, yes?’

“What?” Stella said, nearly falling off her chair. “No, no, no, it’s the silk scarf designed by Mai Sjoblom! In Royal Blue with streaks of gold! It’s right there on your web site! It’s a Christmas present for a very choosy woman so it has to be correct! God, Reggie would freak OUT if she got a hot pink down jacket…”

‘I’m sorry, Miss, but the scarf is no longer-‘

“Ohhhhh no, don’t say it! Don’t say it!”

‘I’m afraid the Mai Sjoblom scarf is no longer sold by us.’

“Ohfercryin’outloud! There’s a flippin’ picture of it on your web site…!”

‘A technical glitch, I’m afraid, Miss.’

“Oh, crud. All right… never mind. Thank you for your help,” Stella said and put the receiver back down on the telephone.

Leaning back on the chair, she let out a long, slow sigh and tried to reach for the heavens to see if anyone would take pity on her. When nothing happened, she pulled herself upright and started on her second task.

“All right,” she mumbled, moving back to the web site’s home page. “Money back guarantee… returning products… how to return a product… okay,” she said and clicked on a link that said ‘Two-Week Money Back Guarantee! Information here.’

After the page had loaded, Stella tried to follow the instructions but had to admit defeat halfway through, thinking that they might as well have been written in Venusian.

“If I get the Copacabana, I’m gonna scream… or hurl… or maybe scream, then hurl,” she mumbled under her breath as she punched in the digits on her old-fashioned landline telephone.

‘You’re calling the customer service for Fashion Express dot com,’ the automated female voice said at the other end of the line. ‘You’re the third caller. Please hold.’

“Third is better than twelfth. Eh, I’ll hold,” Stella said out loud and got comfortable.

After three complete cycles of The Girl From Ipanema, she was about to change her mind when she heard a click on the line, followed by a female ‘Hello?’

Thinking it was the same woman who had helped her before, Stella sat up straight and assumed a friendly voice. “Hi, it’s Stella Starr again. Listen, I need help with your money back guarantee. I have bought a pair of skinny jeans that don’t fit and now I want to ship ’em back to you, but I can’t quite work out your web site. Can you help me?”

‘Lady, you shoulda thought about that sooner. It’s not my fault you can’t get your ass screwed down into our jeans.’

“Buh… uh… I’m… I’m sor-” Stella said, feeling a giant, neon-yellow question mark come to life above her head.

‘Why’d the Hell ya buy skinny jeans for, anyway? Did your boyfriend pressure you into buying ’em? I mean, Jesus, who looks good in skinny jeans, huh? Rail-thin actresses, that’s who. Lady, the asses on us regular folks just can’t fit into those pants.’

“Uh, but, I mean… it wasn’t my a-”

‘If you’re really serious about pursuing your money back guarantee, you’re gonna make my day even more miserable than it already is. You know why? ‘Cos I’m gonna hafta go through a mountain of paperwork just because you can’t follow the instructions on our web site. They’re in English! You do read English, don’tcha?’

“I. Beg. Your. Pardon?!” Stella barked, feeling the giant question mark above her head pop away and turn into an equally giant exclamation point – this time in bright red.

‘Maybe you don’t and that’s cool, too, but just don’t buy stuff from a web site that’s in English. Okay? Do you still wanna go through with it?’

“Yesssssssss,” Stella hissed.

‘Jesus… all right. Stuff like that makes me cranky. I’ve warned ya, lady.’

Stella just stared at the receiver but soon put it back to her ear and took a very, very deep breath. “Cranky? Cranky? Let me tell you something about being cranky, ‘lady’. First of all, I wanted to buy a very good friend of mine a Christmas gift but then it turns out that there’s something wrong with your flippin’ web site! Then you force me to listen to Copaca-flippin’-bana four hundred and ninety-five times in a row… and then you tell me you don’t even have that item! And now! Now! NOW you tell me that YOU’RE getting cranky because I call you and try to claim my STATUTORY RIGHTS for some piece of fu… fu… fu… flippin’ crap you’ve sold me that cost me $49.95 and that I only wore once where I got so flippin’ wet that I nearly got pneumonia ‘cos I couldn’t get my hand into my flippin’ pocket to get my flippin’ keys so I could get out of the fu… fu… fu… flippin’ rain!”

‘You wore the jeans?’

“FLIPPIN’ HELL, YES!”

‘Well, in that case, you’ve wasted not only your time but my time as well ‘cos you’ve forfeited your rights. The money back guarantee is only valid for clean, unsoiled products.’

“Unsoiled? Whaddahell do you think I did with ’em? Ate a stack a’ chili bean burritos and let rip the Apocalypse Fart?”

‘Rules are rules. You have forfeited your money back guaran-‘

“Okay… O-kay… OKAY! That does it! I’m officially mad. No, I’m not just mad. I’m emm aye dee. Get it? It spells Mad. Mad like in so flippin’ furious I wanna come over to your flippin’ warehouse and dump those flippin’ skinny jeans down your flippin’ mail box! That’s the kinda mad I am! That’s Emm Aye Dee! MAD!”

‘Oh, will you calm down, lady? So you can spell… whoop-di-do. It ain’t got nothin’ to do with me so leave me the Hell out of it! Call me back when you’ve calmed down! Jesus, I’m gettin’ a rash just listenin’ to ya!’

CLICK

Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep…

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, I’m gonna… I’m gonna…” Stella said and put the receiver down on the telephone with surprising tenderness. “I’m gonna… kill something. Yes. Ha, ha, ha… Ha! I’m gonna kill something! Ooooh, I’m gonna… kill… something… Ha, ha, ha! Kill… HA! Ha…!”

Jerking up from her chair and shuffling into the center of the office, she began to twist and turn in place like she had been possessed by an evil spirit. Clenching and unclenching her fists, she felt an explosion bubble up inside her, but she didn’t know when it might come nor how long it would last when it arrived.

Outside, Regina drove the Mercedes back into the parking lot and double-parked in front of the door to the office. “Can’t believe I left without my wallet…” she mumbled as she got out of the low-slung sports car and strode over to the building.

The very same split second Regina stepped into the office, Stella went bang and turned into an extremely loud and awesomely colorful supernova. The rage and fury that exploded out of the petite woman came in volcanic volleys that threatened to blow out the windows and take the roof clean off the building.

Again and again, Stella sent out waves of acid mixed with fire and brimstone that coagulated into burning hot walls of air that were so thick and heavy with vitriol that Regina seriously considered donning the kind of protective gear technicians used when they checked the fuel rods in atomic power plants.

After a while, the volcano slowly died down, leaving a very tired and very raw Stella Starr standing in the middle of the floor with spittle on her chin and glasses that were misted up so badly she couldn’t see anything at all.

“Stell?” Regina said and hung her trench coat on the hallstand, knowing that it would be a while before she could go home.

“Reggie?” Stella croaked.

“Yeah, it’s me. I forgot my wallet.”

“Oh…”

“What’s happened, hon?” Regina said and dug into her pocket to find a handkerchief.

“Oh, you know… just the usual fun and games.”

“Uh-huh?” Regina said and used her hankie to wipe Stella’s chin. After putting it away, she pulled her friend into a warm, comforting hug. “Hey, how about we call for a Meaty Mama and some fries and stuff? Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“I guess… maybe a Cherry Cola?”

“Definitely. C’mon,” Regina said and helped Stella over to the couch.

Once the fiery investigator was safely seated, Regina took off the misty glasses and gave them a quick wipe-down on her blouse. “There you go, Stell,” she said and kissed Stella on the forehead.

“Thanks, Reggie… man, people have been so mean to me after you left,” Stella croaked as she adjusted her glasses. “Sheesh, it’s scary…”

“You can tell me all about it in a little while. But first, it’s pizza time,” Regina said and took the telephone from her own desk.

Taking a deep breath, Stella shook her head slowly. “You better watch out, baby. There’s a Weirdo thing goin’ on with the phone right now… I think it’s some kind of zombie bug that eats good manners or something.”

“Uh-huh?” Reggie said, thinking how much she liked Stella calling her baby and letting it show in a broad genuine smile. Then she heard the pizza guy come on the phone and concentrated on ordering their food.

*
*
THE END of TRIAL AND REWARD

-*-*-*-
-*-*-*-

III – ONE, TWO, THREE!

Written by Norsebard
*
*
CHAPTER 1

“Stell…” Regina Harrison said, sitting on the couch in the Harrison-Starr office and holding Stella Starr’s hands in her own. “If you don’t want to see it, it’s okay. I won’t be upset. I know that it’s not really your thing.”

Screwing a smile on her face, Stella nodded faintly and gave Regina’s hands a little squeeze to emphasize that she was okay with watching a fifteen-year old recording of one of Regina’s catwalk appearances. “No, no, Reggie… I’m… it’s okay. Honest. Can I get a Razzie before we start?”

“Sure! I’ll just cue the DVD. There’s no need to watch all the introductory stuff anyway… the most important part is at the end,” Regina said with a childish snicker. Grabbing the remote, she pressed Play on the menu screen of the ‘Highlights of the 1997 Berlin Fashion Week’ and was soon lost to the world.

“Uh, yeah… okay,” Stella said and got up from the couch.

A thumping disco beat soon echoed through the office, forming the soundtrack for a seemingly endless line of male and female models who were strutting down the catwalk. Some came in pairs and some came on their own, but they were all wearing extravagant – or even outrageous – clothes. At the end of the catwalk, the models briefly played to the audience before they spun around and began the return trip.

“Have you been on yet, Reggie?” Stella said holding an opened can of Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz and a bowl of pretzels.

Kicking off her shoes, Regina quickly pulled her legs up underneath her. “Shhh!” she said and waved her hand dismissively.

“Well, excuse the hell outta me!”

On occasion, the cameras switched to the audience to show equally long rows of critics and fashion reporters who were busy taking notes on the quality of the garments and the elegance of the models.

“No, I haven’t been on yet… soon, though. Really soon. I don’t think it’ll be possible for you to miss me,” Regina said and flashed Stella a broad grin.

“Oh, was it that bad? Wotcha do, trip over your dress? No, let me guess… you fell off the catwalk and headbutted one of the critics in the crotch?” Stella said as she sat down and snuggled up next to the former model.

“Nooooo! Silly! Look, there’s Steve!”

On the screen, a young and dashing, broad-shouldered, square-jawed Steve Darrian stepped onto the catwalk while all the other models walked the other way, eventually leaving him all alone on the platform.

Wearing a gun metal gray business suit that was cut so squarely across the shoulders he looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he strode up to stand alone at the far end of the catwalk.

“Oh, wasn’t he a hunk back then?” Regina said and crushed the red, heart-shaped pillow Stella had bought for her.

Growling deep in her throat, Stella took a long swig of her Raspberry Fizz and turned to look at Regina’s profile. “Yeah, well, I guess. You shoulda seen me fifteen years ago, Reggie. I was the Goddess Aphrodite personified!”

“You were?”

“No,” Stella said and grabbed a handful of pretzels that she proceeded to stuff into her mouth.

“Oh… ah, I didn’t mean it like that,” Regina said and caressed Stella’s thigh.

“It’fff okay, Reffie. I’m not that infffecure… I fffink. Not now, anyway. Back fffen, Gofff, I wafff fffo…” – gulp – “I don’t wanna talk about it,” Stella said, chewing darkly on the pretzels.

On the screen, Steve took off his jacket and flung it over his shoulder.

“And here we go!” Regina said and pointed at the screen.

The camera quickly panned back to the entrance onto the catwalk where it waited idly for a few seconds. In the hall, the lights were dimmed and the music was slowly being faded out, leading to an excited murmur rising from the audience – then Regina burst onto the catwalk, bathed in the light from a single, powerful spotlight and wearing a sensational, extravagantly cut dress held in ivory and gold. Her hair cascaded over her right shoulder and her golden makeup made her resemble the popular image of Cleopatra.

“Ho… ly… sh…” Stella said, dropping the bowl of pretzels onto the carpet.

A few seconds later, the recording showed the much younger Regina begin to move up the catwalk, going very slowly so everyone could get a good look at the dress. Along the way, she was bathed in a non-stop shower of flashes and accompanied by a thunderous applause, but her face remained perfectly neutral to the point of appearing cold and detached. Halfway there, she met Steve who was walking the other way, and for a brief moment, the two superstars performed a little erotic pas-de-deux for the cameras without actually touching.

“Good… God… almighty!” Stella croaked, clutching the can of Raspberry Fizz so hard that it was almost buckling under her grip.

By the time Regina reached the end of the catwalk, the camera zoomed in on her face and her stone cold, ice blue eyes before it slowly journeyed down her body to show the dress. “Holy Guacamole, you were gorgeous back then, hon…” Stella said, completely lost in the image that was presented on the screen.

Regina just grunted. As her younger self filled the TV screen, she reached up and touched the crow’s feet that now lined the outside of her eyes. Sighing deeply, she moved her hand further down and felt the wrinkles around her mouth and the coarse, aging skin on her throat and upper chest. “Mmmm. Thanks.”

“I really oughtta know this, but my brain is so fried I can’t work it out… how old were you back then?” Stella said and put her hand on Regina’s thigh.

“Twenty-eight. It was an eternity ago.”

On the screen, the younger Regina turned around and slithered back towards the entrance, followed by a rapturous applause from the audience. Just before she reached the point where she had entered the catwalk, she turned back around and was joined by the French star designer Cyrille de Flamand on the way back to the far end of the platform.

Sighing, the current Regina found the remote and pressed Stop twice to end the show. “Well. Maybe we shouldn’t have watched it. Now I just feel old and-”

Moving swiftly, Stella reached up and put a couple of fingers across Regina’s soft lips. “Okay, hold it right there, Missy. You’ve matured, Reggie. You’re not old, you’re just… just… uh… just… like a Scotch. They get better with age, don’t they?”

“Mmmm…”

“And besides, look at you! You still got it,” Stella said and poked a finger into Regina’s side to get her to lose the dark frown she had on her face.

Shrugging, Regina pressed Eject on the remote and watched the tray slide out of the player. “Well, if you say so. Thanks, Stell,” she said and got up from the couch.

“I do! So there! And you’re welcome… friend. Oh shoot, look at what the younger you made me do,” Stella said and pointed at the pile of pretzels on the carpet.

“Do you want me to get the vacuum?”

“No, they were too expensive to throw away like that. I’ll just blow the dust off ’em,” Stella said and got down on her knees to scoop up the salty snacks.

Shaking her head, Regina took the DVD and put it into its box. “Sheesh!” she said and began to giggle as she rolled the portable table with the TV and the DVD player back into the conference room.

*RINNNNNGGGGG!*

“I got it, Reggie!” Stella said and put a handful of slightly dusty pretzels on the coffee table. Two heartbeats later, she had flung herself into her chair at her desk and had picked up the receiver of her old-fashioned landline telephone. “You’ve reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you? And no, we don’t actually have anyone here by that name. My name is Stella Starr and I’m the senior investigator.”

‘Uh, pardon?’ a female voice said at the other end of the connection.

“So you weren’t about to ask for Mr. Harrison Starr…?”

‘Uh… no.’

“Typical,” Stella grumbled. Clearing her throat, she pushed the drawer with the piece of paper that said ‘People who ask for Mr. Harrison Bleepin’ Starr’ shut and leaned back in the chair. “Anyway… I’m sorry. Go on.”

‘Well, I’m Megan Austin. I’m calling for the Top Rope Wrestling Club on Carter Boulevard. I was wondering if you would like to sponsor our annual Smash ’em Up event that we hold for the Little Friends In Need Foundation?’

“Oh… your annual… what?”

‘Smash ’em Up, it’s a wrestling event that our club organizes to give some of the less privileged children a fun day away from their problems.’

“Ohhh… all right. We’ll that’s definitely a worthy cause,” Stella said as she pulled her laptop close and began to search for ‘top rope wrestling club smash ’em up’ on the Internet to verify that she wasn’t being conned. After a few seconds, she found a link that she clicked on.

“Mmmm!” she exclaimed loudly when she realized that she was looking at a web site for a wrestling club for women – colorful, beefy women in wild makeup and even wilder, skin-tight costumes, judging by the pictures.

‘Is that a yes, Miss Starr?’

“Whut? Oh… yes, that was a yes, Miss Austin. Uh, how much are you looking for?” Stella said and reached into the second drawer to find her wallet.

‘Seven hundred dollars.’

“Seven… h- h- hundred…” Stella stuttered, staring at the measly thirty dollars she had in her wallet. “Shoot, I’m… I’m sorry. I don’t have that kind of money right now…”

‘Oh…’

Just then, Regina walked back into the office and closed the door to the conference room behind her.

“Uh, stay on the line, Miss Austin,” Stella said, waving frantically at Regina. “I may have something for you after all.”

Through a long line of increasingly confusing hand signals, foot signals and wild nods with her head that made her dirty-blonde mop of hair fly all over the place – and her glasses nearly fly off her face – Stella made Regina aware that she should go over to her own desk and pick up her phone.

Shrugging, Regina did just that. As she sat down, she kicked off her shoes and flung her endless jeans-clad legs up on the corner of the desk. Picking up the receiver, she looked at Stella who nodded vigorously in return.

“Miss Austin? My business associate is on the line now,” Stella said into the telephone.

“Hello, this is Regina Harrison,” Regina said.

‘Hello, my name is Megan Austin. Like I told your associate, I’m calling for the Top Rope Wrestling Club over on Carter Boulevard. Would you like to sponsor our annual Smash ’em Up event that we organize for the Little Friends In Need Foundation? We need seven hundred dollars to get everything up to scratch.’

Scrunching up her face, Regina put a hand across the microphone and turned around to look at Stella who once again replied by nodding and pointing wildly at the web site on her laptop.

“Yes, we would, Miss Austin,” Regina said, already looking for her checkbook.

‘Oh, thank you! I know a buncha kids who’ll be very happy now.’

“Well… that’s cool.”

‘Yes! To show our gratitude, we’ll give you two free tickets for the event. It’s this Saturday and it starts at two in the afternoon.’

Over by her own phone, Stella punched the air and let out a silent whoop, but Regina’s next reply almost made her fall off her chair – “Oh, you know… wrestling… that’s not really our thing-”

After waving her hand frantically without Regina noticing, Stella decided to pull rank for once and break into the conversation. “Oh, free tickets! That would be too cool! Thanks, Miss Austin. We’ll be there on Saturday at two!”

‘All right. Once again, thank you very much. Please bring the money to the event and we’ll square everything before it starts.’

“We will,” Stella said, grinning broadly. “And thank you.”

After hanging up, she crumpled up a piece of paper and threw it at Regina. “Free tickets! Yeah, honey-hoosh! And you almost said no… Jeez, Reggie!”

“Stell… wrestling…?” Regina said as she put down her own receiver.

“Wrestling, yep. Hey, it’s like a fashion show with a square catwalk!”

“Uh-huh?”

“You better believe it is, Miss-Too-Flippin-Famous-To-Know-Anything-About-Real-Sports. And the wrestlers all look fantastic. Come over and take a look,” Stella said and turned the laptop around so Regina could check out the photos on the web site.

-*-*-*-

Saturday dawned dry and less gloomy which really helped Stella hit the right mood for the charity event. Whistling loudly and slightly off-key, she sat in the center of the office and stared at three of their huge Bags of Disguises. “Shoot, I can’t make up my mind… what kind of costume do you think I should wear today, Reggie?”

Regina was sitting at her desk with her legs up on the corner, but the tell-tale super-excited look on Stella’s face made her take them down and join her friend on the carpet, mindful not to get carpet lint on her stylish, elegant pant suit. “Oh, I don’t know… why do you feel you need to wear a costume? I’m sure the wrestlers are going to be very colorful…”

“I know that, but I just wanted to… to… fit in. Or maybe stick out. You know? Back when I worked for my father, I remember that when we were involved in charity events, the higher-ups always showed up in their dull business suits… but there’s no fun in that,” Stella said and pushed her glasses up her nose.

“Oh, I have no doubt you’ll fit in *and* stick out all at the same time, Stella Starr,” Regina said and leaned in to muss Stella’s wild mop of hair.

“Ha, ha. No, seriously… the costume? Wrestlers… that made me think about maybe the naughty nurse…? Or the Cop? Or Bob the Plumber for that matter…” Stella said and pointed at the various bags of clothes.

Scrunching up her face, Regina began to tap an index finger against her lips. “Uh, Stella… it’s an event for kids… I’m quite sure they wouldn’t know what to do with the naughty nurse, the cop, or the plumber.”

“I s’pose.”

“You could always go as yourself,” Regina said and took a good look at Stella’s fluorescent-orange fleece vest, her purple-and-blue batik long-sleeved t-shirt, her green jeans that were cut off below the knees and her white-and-green Pippi Longstocking socks. “Can’t get more colorful than that,” she continued, flashing Stella her patented two-hundred watt smile.

Stella narrowed her eyes dangerously but couldn’t hold it for long and eventually broke out in a cheesy grin. “Oh yeah? Ah, this isn’t about us, anyway. I mean, it’s not like they’ll ask us to wrestle with them, right?”

“God, I sincerely hope not,” Regina said and pulled the most horrified grimace Stella could ever remember seeing on the former model’s face.

An hour later, Regina pulled the slightly battered Mercedes SLK – they still hadn’t called the leasing company to tell them about the incident – up to the end of a long line of cars waiting to drive off the Boulevard and onto a paved parking lot in front of a cluster of low buildings.

“Whoa, this is a popular event!” Stella said, craning her neck to check out the mass of people milling about in a closed-off area of the lot that had been lavishly decorated with red, white and blue festoons and balloons, huge, colorful banners and many other types of party equipment.

“Yeah. How come we’ve never heard about this before?” Regina said, looking in the mirror at even more cars following them into the turning lane.

“No idea.”

“Hey, you did bring the free tickets, right?”

“Yep, they’re right here,” Stella said and put her hand inside her fluorescent-orange vest to dig into her liner pocket. “And no, I won’t drop ’em out of the window, Reggie,” she continued and waved the two printed pieces of paper that had arrived in the mail only the day before.

“I didn’t say you would, Stell!”

“But you were thinking it!”

“Oh, so you can read my mind now? Quick, Stell, what am I thinking… right… this… minute?” Regina said and drilled her ice blue orbs into Stella’s emerald green ones.

Blushing, Stella snickered and looked back out of the window. “Never mind.”

“Uh-huh,” Regina said and drove into the parking lot where they were quickly and efficiently ushered into an available slot by a female parking attendant wearing a ballgown and wrestling boots.

On their way over to the main building, Stella snuck her hand inside Regina’s and gave it a little squeeze. “Awww… look at all those happy kids over there, Reggie. Whoa, that’s one hell of a moonbounce, huh? I loved moonbounces when I was a kid.”

“I believe you,” Regina said dryly.

“I did! It was the only place where I could goof off to the max without getting hurt. Man, I used to bounce around like… like…”

“Like you do now, Stell?”

“Oh, you!”

Stepping through an opened pair of double doors, the two investigators entered the low building and were greeted by an enthusiastic cheer from a crowd of kids who were watching two female wrestlers going at it hammer and tongs in a ring that had been erected in the center of what was apparently the main room of the building – one of the wrestlers was dressed in an all-gold spandex costume with a white logo across her chest that said MD, and the other wore camouflage army pants and an olive green tank top that matched her Latino coloring perfectly.

“Oh, my…” Stella said, staring at the two well-built ladies.

The brief match ended when the army woman jumped off the top rope and whacked her elbow across the other one’s brow, earning herself a chorus of jeers and boos from the crowd.

“Ouch,” Regina said and scrunched up her face. “I don’t care if it is faked or not, that’s gotta hurt… I heard that slap way over here.”

“Mmmmm-yeah.”

In the ring, the army woman strutted over to the ropes and puffed out her chest like some overgrown fighting rooster. When she heard the jeers, she waved her hand in disgust and climbed down from the ring.

“Hi,” a female voice said behind Stella and Regina. “You must be the ladies from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. I’m Megan Austin, we spoke over the phone…?”

Turning around, Stella began to reach for the free tickets in her pocket but stopped with a jerk when she realized that she was looking directly into Megan’s shirt-clad bosom. Quickly looking down to see if she was wearing stilts – which she wasn’t – Stella gulped and took a half-step back to be able to see the other woman’s face. “Whoa… I thought Reggie here was tall…”

“I get that a lot,” Megan said with a grin and put out her hand. In her mid-thirties, the veteran wrestler was built like a square brick with long limbs and a long torso. Her short, stylish hair and her pretty, if angular and strong-jawed, face only added to the ensemble.

Stunned, Stella just offered Megan the free tickets, but Regina stepped in between them and shook hands with the tall woman. “Stell, I’m quite sure Megan wanted to shake hands.”

“Ohhh… okay. Hi, I’m Stella Starr. This is my business associate Regina Harrison. We’re really excited to be here today,” Stella said and shook hands with the wrestler. “Ummm… I hope you won’t mind me asking, but-”

“I’m six foot three plus another three inches on my boots. And yes, I was teased mercilessly when I was a teenager,” Megan said with a laugh. “That’s why I turned to wrestling when I was old enough.”

“Uh-huh? Well, I’m five foot four and a half, and I was teased, too.”

Nodding, Megan hooked her thumbs through the forward belt hoops on her jeans and assumed a cool pose that scored several brownie points with Regina. “You know what I say? I say, To hell with all bullies.”

“Word!” Stella said and put out the free tickets. “Reggie’s got the check. Man, you’ve really got something going here… it looks great!”

“Thanks,” Megan said and took the check from Regina’s hand. “Hey, do you have any promotional material, like business cards or something? We have a stand set up for you over there where you can sit down, but we didn’t really have anything to put on it.”

“Uh, no… we’re kinda just ourselves,” Stella said, looking at Regina who shrugged in return.

“Okay… tell you what, I’m about to make an announcement anyway, so why don’t I introduce you? That way, people could come in here and-”

Stella quickly put up her left hand in a ‘Stop’-gesture while she wrapped the right around Regina’s waist. “Oh no, Megan, we’re here to mingle. Mingle is what we do best so if you need us for anything, we’ll be, uh… mingling.”

“Okay,” Megan said with a laugh.

Moving back to the door, Stella suddenly stopped and turned around. “By the way… the moonbounce… is that for adults, too?”

“No, I’m sorry, Miss Starr, it’s just for kids.”

“Aw darn,” Stella said and snuggled up to Regina on their way out of the door.

An hour and countless introductions later, Stella and Regina met in the middle holding a can of Carbonated Mineral Water and a Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz, respectively.

“Hey,” Stella said, pointing at Regina’s can of Fizz. “Where’d ya get that? I’ve looked everywhere but I could only find a stash of this dull stuff,” she continued, holding up the mineral water.

“Well, I’ve looked everywhere, too, but all *I* could find was this sickly sweet stuff!”

“We obviously haven’t looked closely enough, have we?” Stella said with a chuckle as she swapped the two cans.

Regina quickly took a healthy swig from the mineral water and proceeded to run her tongue along her teeth to feel if any of them had gone missing after the sugar torture she had exposed them to. ‘Phew!’ she thought when they were all still there.

“What have you been doing, Reggie? Did you get us some new customers?”

“Well, no… but I did solve the Case of the Missing Lollipop. The kid had put it into his pocket and forgot all about it,” Regina said and flashed a wide grin.

“Oh… that’s nice. Probably won’t help us pay the rent, but still…”

“Did you get anything?”

“Ah, no. Not really.” Shrugging, Stella took a long swig from the Raspberry Fizz and let it slush around her mouth for a while so all her teeth would feel right at home.

Behind them, a fanfare blaring out of a pair of speakers heralded the arrival of a line of outrageously colorful female wrestlers who posed and strutted their way across the parking lot to get to a dais under a canopy.

Megan Austin led the way, acting as a six-foot-six tug boat dressed in a screaming orange prison coverall complete with a four-digit number on her back in large, black letters. Wearing a fierce scowl on her face, she growled at every single person she met on her way to the dais, including Stella and Regina.

Squealing loudly, Stella clapped her hands repeatedly and began to jump up and down on the spot in sheer anticipation. “Oooh, this is gonna be good… this is gonna be so goooood!” she howled, giving Regina a shoulder block when the former model didn’t seem as enthusiastic.

Behind Megan, the second wrestler in the line was dressed like a ballerina right down to a pink tutu and the pointy shoes; the third in line wore a tiara, an electric blue ballgown and a small, white purse; then came the woman in the gold spandex and the one in the camouflage pants, and finally, on her own at the end of the line, a woman dressed as a harem girl in baggy blue pants, a tight, skin-colored body stocking and a burgundy wrap-around that covered her bosom – on her face, the woman wore so much makeup that she resembled a peacock.

One after the other, the six wrestlers stepped up on the dais, all playing their characters to perfection. When Megan turned on her microphone and began her spiel, Regina and Stella were swamped by all the families who suddenly rushed forward to get to the edge of the dais.

“Whoa! Holy flip!” Stella said as she was practically run down by a stampeding army of gleefully squealing kids and parents pushing their offspring ahead of them. In two seconds flat, Stella and Regina went from standing at the head of the queue to standing at the rear of it, and almost at once, Stella could only see the backs of the parents in front of her.

“Oh… rats,” she growled, trying to jump up and down just to catch a glimpse of the wrestlers on the dais.

“You want a piggy-back?” Regina asked and leaned down, but Stella just shook her head.

“Naw, that would look too weird… even in this crowd.”

“Okay.”

Up on the stage, Megan growled into the microphone, making the kids squeal just a little bit louder. “I’m Chains and this is my posse… the Ballerina, the Prom Queen, the Golden Girl, Nasty Sarge and Ria, the Slave Girl. Give them a warm welcome, will ya!”

The audience responded immediately by clapping and cheering loudly, eventually taking so long to settle down that Chains had to growl into the microphone again. “Right! For our first event, the Survivor match, we need an assistant referee. Can I get a volunteer?”

“Ooh!” Stella said and threw her arms in the air. When she noticed that she couldn’t be seen from the dais, she began to jump up and down and let out a series of hoots and whistles – unfortunately, everyone around her did the same so she ended up being quite literally lost in the crowd.

After a short selection process, Chains picked a young boy in the center of the audience. “You! The young fella in the wrestlin’ T-shirt. I guess I don’t hafta explain the rules to you, huh?”

“Rats,” Stella growled, thrusting her hands into the pockets of her vest.

Feeling sorry for Stella, Regina kissed the side of her head and pulled her into a warm, sideways hug. “Do you really want to volunteer for something, Stell?”

“Oh yes. Wouldn’t it be fun? I think it would be a lot of fun,” Stella said and pushed her glasses up her nose.

“Okay, then,” Regina said and looked back up at the dais.

Once the young boy and his father had been brought to the stage, Chains grabbed the microphone again and cleared her throat. “And for the Main Event, we need a volunteer who-”

Shooting her arm in the air, Regina roared “HEP!” in a stentorian voice that spooked Stella so badly that she nearly soiled her undies.

Up on the stage, Chains – or rather, Megan – had to stifle a snicker that would have been very out of character. Pausing briefly, she looked at Regina, Stella and then to her left at the wrestler known as Ria, the Slave Girl. ‘Well, that’s gonna be something worth seeing… I think I better record it… it’ll get us a ton of hits on YouTube,’ she thought as she let out a creepy chuckle in her Chains-voice.

“I sure didn’t see that one coming… congratulations, lady, you have just entered yourself in a one-fall match-up against the winner of the Survivor. I hope you’ll enjoy it, mwuhahahahaha…”

The entire audience broke out in an ear-splitting cheer, and most of them turned around and began to applaud Regina who just stood there like a marble statue that had just realized it had volunteered itself to be beaten, knocked, thrown, thumped and finally thrashed into submission by a professional wrestler who did that sort of thing once a day and twice on the weekends.

“Hell yeah! Reggie! You go, girl!” Stella howled, wrapped her arms around Regina’s waist and gave the tall, former model the crush of a lifetime. “Ohhhh, I’m so proud of you! Go on, my warrior queen, the stage is yours!”

“Buh… I… you… it wasn’t… it was… f- for you…” Regina said in a flat, dull monotone. Suddenly realizing what she had got herself into, she tried to spin around and run back to the Mercedes at the speed of sound, but Stella held onto her with all her might, even though she was dragged eight feet along the parking lot.

“But I don’t wanna fight! What do I know about fighting? Oh God, they’ll grind me to a pulp!” Regina howled in a high-pitched voice that didn’t sound like her own at all.

“Reggie! You gotta! Listen to ’em! Get up there and show ’em what you’re made of!” Stella said and gave Regina a strong push towards the dais.

Gulping loudly, Regina walked across the parking lot and onto the stage on knees that were knocking so badly she could hardly walk straight. Once she had joined the wrestlers and the young boy and his father, she raised her arms in the air and quickly waved to the crowd, feeling so hot under her collar that she was worried she would faint on the spot.

Down among the audience, Stella beamed like a little sun as she watched the tall, graceful, former model join the tough wrestlers on the stage. “That’s my girl! Uh-huh! That’s my girl!” she shouted while doing an impromptu Irish jig, making the people around her laugh at her antics.

-*-*-*-

Fifteen minutes later, the entire group of excited kids and expectant parents had filed into the low building and were standing at a safe distance from the indoor ring, most holding a little paper flag in the color of their favorite of the female wrestlers – orange, pink, blue, gold, green or burgundy.

The sound level was one notch below deafening and it only grew worse when Chains stepped into the ring holding an old-fashioned announcer’s microphone. “Settle down! Settle down!” Megan said in her gravelly voice. “Here’s the rules for the Survivor. Six wrestlers go in, six fight, one comes out the winner! This is a no holds barred contest… the wrestlers are allowed to use the ropes, all choke holds, all legwork, all body slams. The wrestlers are eliminated only by getting thrown over the top rope. Over the top rope and she’s outta there! The wrestlers can gang up on each other, but they gotta remember to watch their backs! All right? Let’s rock and roll!”

With that, Chains turned off the microphone and stepped down from the ring.

At once, the crowd began to cheer wildly and fly their paper flags, chanting the names of the six wrestlers – except Regina who just stood there in a frozen, wide-eyed, pale-faced state of shock.

The first to heed the call was the Prom Queen in blue who waltzed down the aisle from the backstage area and into the ring. The second was Nasty Sarge in her green outfit and the third was the pink Ballerina.

While her wrestlers were assembling in the ring, Megan stepped over to Stella and Regina who were standing off to a side to offer the stunned model some support. “Wow, you’ll definitely get a story for the grandkids today, Miss Harrison.”

“I… uh…”

“Oh, it won’t be as bad as you think. You’ll be fighting Ria, the Slave Girl,” Megan said and pointed at the aforementioned wrestler who was belly-dancing her way towards the ring to a great cheer from the crowd.

Adjusting her glasses, Stella leaned in towards the tall wrestler and whispered: “So it’s already been decided who’s going to win?”

“Oh yes. We gotta take care of each other. The Ballerina’s real name is Amy, but it’s her time of the month and she doesn’t want to be thrown around too much so she’ll be the first to go. Then it’s Nasty Sarge, Maria Consuela… you can’t let a villain win one of these things, you know.”

“Of course not,” Stella said with a grin.

“Then it’s myself, I have a little knee injury I’m nursing, so… then it’s Marge, the Golden Girl, and finally Suzanne, the Prom Queen. She and Ria al-Hadiq work really well off each other so we often save them for last. Ria knows how to play to the audience, she’s definitely a future star.”

“Oooh, that sounds so cool… don’t you think it sounds cool, Reggie?” Stella said and slapped Regina’s gut.

“Mmmm!” Regina said, not quite able to wrap her brain around the fact that she was about to enter the ring with a professional wrestler – or even that she was speaking to a six-foot-six inmate in prison orange with a mean vibe and a honey-sweet voice.

Megan glanced up and noticed that she was running late. “Anyway, I gotta go. Once the match is over, come to the backstage area. I’ll introduce you to my girls. You’ll still be here after the Survivor, right?”

“Oh, don’t you worry about that,” Stella said with a cheesy grin. “I know just the thing to keep her here,” she continued and attached her lips to Regina’s with such suction that it would take a Caterpillar loader tractor to pull them apart.

*
*
CHAPTER 2

*DING!*

The chime of the ringside bell acted as the opening bugle call in a cataclysmic struggle between the six colorful wrestlers who had lined up in the corners of the ring. To the great cheer of the crowd, the women immediately began to grapple, groan, grunt and growl.

It didn’t take long for the fighters to go up on the top ropes and fly down onto their opponents, or wrap their arms around their waists and flip them over their hips, or even apply sleeper holds that were meant to pacify the fiercely scowling women.

Because Megan had told them how the sequence of events would unfold, Stella tried to look beyond the spectacle and study how the wrestlers actually interacted with each other. “Aw, this is fascinating stuff! I wish we had some popcorn!” she said and poked her elbow into Regina’s side.

“Mmmm!”

“Look… look at the Ballerina. It’s like Megan said, they’re actually taking care of her. She’s mostly being manhandled up against the ropes by Nasty Sarge… she hasn’t even hit the canvas yet.”

“Mmmm… fascinating,” Regina said flatly.

“And there she goes!” Stella howled as the Ballerina flew over the top rope and landed with surprising grace on the thick mat beyond the ring. Once there, she performed a pirouette before she shuffled off backstage, sulking and pouting all the way there accompanied by appreciative hoots by the crowd.

Nasty Sarge only had a few moments to savor her small victory because Chains soon picked her up by the scruff of her neck and the seat of her camouflage pants and held her high above her head for several seconds – then she threw the army wrestler out of the ring with such force that she bounced twice on the thick mat. Getting up, Nasty Sarge put her hand on her back and began to squeal and moan, earning herself a large round of jeers from the crowd on her trip away from the ring.

“Ohhhhhhh! Wow! Did you see how she bounced, Reggie? Reggie? Reggie…?”

“I. Saw. It.”

“Oh, cheer up, hon! They’d never do that to you!” Stella said and pulled her friend into a hug.

“And you know that… how?”

Smiling broadly, Stella stood up on tip-toes and claimed Regina’s lips in a sweet, little kiss. “Trust me… that’s all I’m sayin’. Just trust me.”

A huge cheer heralded Chains’ exit from the ring, the result of a collaboration between the Golden Girl and the Prom Queen – who promptly turned on each other and engaged in a ferocious catfight that included two body slams and a flying forearm to the brow.

Through all this, Ria the Slave Girl had ducked and dived her way out of the worst problems with the occasional high-skill maneuver to keep her in the game. It didn’t take long for the Prom Queen to eliminate the Golden Girl, but she was only allowed a few celebratory poses before Ria had clobbered her from behind with a fierce double-fisted punch to the back of her head.

“Ooooh!” Stella howled, throwing her arms in the air in glee.

The two wrestlers went at it in a mean knockdown fight where they both showed a very high degree of wrestling skills, making the crowd go into a near-frenzy.

The finishing move came when both wrestlers climbed to diagonally opposed turnbuckles, jumped off them and flew towards each other five feet off the canvas. Meeting halfway across, they grabbed hold of each other and fell heavily into the ring. Ria quickly bounced up like a rubber ball, but the Prom Queen just let out a childish wail and thumped her fist into the canvas several times.

In no time flat, Ria picked up the Prom Queen and threw her over her shoulder in a Fireman’s carry. Already posing to the crowd, Ria simply dumped the Queen over the top rope to become the winner of the Survivor.

To massive applause from the audience and her theme music – a Middle Eastern instrumental – booming out of the speakers, the Slave Girl shimmied across the canvas in a victory dance where her hips, stomach, chest and arms moved in perfect synchronicity.

Stella clapped and cheered along with the rest of the audience, constantly nudging Regina in the side with her elbow. “She’s kinda sexy, don’t you think? Huh? Huh?”

“I wouldn’t know, Stell. My brain left twenty minutes ago,” Regina said flatly.

“Take it from an expert, she is.”

Up on the stage, Ria’s theme music stopped and she reached down to take a microphone that was lying on a table next to the ring. “I have been told there’s a challenger among you! A challenger who believes that she can beat me, Ria! The undefeated champion of the Survivor! You know what I say to that? I say Ha! And if you didn’t hear that, I’ll say it again… Ha!”

All the kids in the audience began to cheer and fly their burgundy flags, and most of the dads began to whistle at the scantily-dressed Ria and at the prospect of seeing another fight between two such gorgeous creatures.

“Them’s fightin’ words, Reggie!” Stella said and nudged Regina some more.

“Yeah, but… oh, will you stop doing that! I need all my ribs in one piece!” Regina said and rubbed her aching side.

“Sowwy,” Stella said with a cute, little pout.

“You always say that pouts don’t work on you, Stell. Well, they don’t work on me, neither!”

Waiting impatiently, Ria puffed twice into the microphone to let Regina know that her spiel had been a cue for her to join her in the ring.

“I think she wants you to go up there, Reggie!” Stella said and gave her friend a little push.

– Groan! – “I’m going… I’m going,” Regina said and walked up to the ring. Taking a small flight of stairs so she wouldn’t look like a dork when she climbed up, she stepped through the ropes and went in to stand next to Ria.

“Ah!” Ria said and pretended to give Regina a thorough once-over. “The challenger! The match will commence after a short intermission. Don’t go anywhere, folks, this will be spec-*ta*-cular!” she said and turned off the microphone.

Looking down at all the expectant faces in the crowd, Regina began to get a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. It only got worse when she caught a glimpse of Stella’s flushed face that showed all the tell-tale signs that the blonde investigator was going through a full-blown super-excited phase – she had red blotches on her cheeks and her eyes were so shiny Regina could see them very clearly even twenty-five feet away.

Gulping, Regina briefly waved to the crowd before climbing down from the ring.

Three minutes later, Stella and Regina moved aside a white curtain that had been put up to cordon off the backstage area. Five of the wrestlers were sitting on chairs, some of them in their outfits and some in terrycloth bathrobes.

Megan put down a cup of coffee and got up from her chair. “Hi, guys!” she said and quickly shook hands with the two investigators. “Let me introduce you to my girls. Here’s Amy, the Ballerina.”

“Hi,” Amy said and shook hands with Regina and Stella. In her late twenties, she appeared to be a petite woman with a pale complexion, but a closer look revealed tough, wiry arms and legs and a determined look on her face.

Moving on, Megan pointed at the empty chair. “The Golden Girl is in the bathroom right now so you’ll have to say hello later. This is Suzanne, the Prom Queen.”

“As witnessed by my ballgown… I’m also moonlighting as the parking attendant,” Suzanne said in a pleasant voice. Up close, Regina and Stella could see that she was much older than what she had appeared to be in the ring, at least in her mid-forties, but also that her upper body would leave many bodybuilders in the dust.

“Here’s Nasty Sarge, Maria Consuela,” Megan said and thumped the knee of the twenty-nine year old Latina in the camouflage pants.

“Hey,” Maria said and shook hands with Regina before she thumped fists with Stella. “Sistas. Love your duds.”

“Thanks,” Stella said with a broad grin.

Matching the grin, Megan gave Maria Consuela another little thump before she moved on to the last of the wrestlers present. “And finally, we have Maria al-Hadiq, Ria between friends. Ria, why don’t you and Miss Harrison work out the details of your match?” Megan said and put a motherly hand on Ria’s shoulder.

The twenty-five year old woman of Egyptian descent nodded and flashed Regina a broad smile. “Sure thing, Megan,” she said in a surprisingly honeyed voice that held a very faint accent. “Miss Harrison, if you’ll follow me to the dressing rooms, I’m sure we can find something in your size.”

Hearing that, Stella turned to Regina and gave her an almighty thump on her shoulder. “Wa-hey! Lucky you!”

“Ouch! Oh, Stell! I wish you wouldn’t do that! You know how easily I bruise,” Regina hissed and rubbed her shoulder. Sighing, she turned towards Megan and held up her hands. “Megan, I know I’m going to sound like a big chicken now, but… my best friend here is a lot more enthusiastic than I am about this whole thing… can’t Stella wrestle against Ria?”

“Well,” Megan drawled and looked at Stella’s glasses. “Miss Starr, how well do you see without your glasses?”

As her reply, Stella took off the aforementioned items and immediately scrunched up her face like a latter-day Mr. Magoo simply to be able to see five inches in front of her nose.

Regina bit her cheek and conceded the point. “Yeah, okay… that’s not gonna work.”

“No,” Megan said with a grin. “Oh, you’ll be fine, Miss Harrison. Ria will be real gentle with you. It’s all for charity, you know. Can you dance?”

“Uh… dance?”

“Yeah, wrestling like a lot like dancing. Choreographed moves, actions and reactions, knowing when to hop and when to dip…”

“Well… yeah. I guess I can dance…”

“There, you see? It’ll be fine. Ria, the clock is ticking. Please take Miss Harrison to the dressing room now,” Megan said and pointed at her wrist even though she didn’t have a watch on her arm.

“You got it, Megan,” Ria said and got up from her chair. “C’mon, Miss Harrison, let’s find you an outfit.”

“Costumes are our specialty… would you mind if I tagged along?” Stella said.

“The more the merrier!” Ria said as she took Regina by the hand and walked into a room adjacent to the backstage area.

“Oh, this is so flippin’ neat!” Stella exclaimed and punched the air.

The dressing room was almost as large as the first room in the backstage area, but it seemed a lot smaller because all four walls were covered by huge, three-story closets save for the space where the door went. The shelves were all packed to the brim with all kinds of colorful clothes like spandex suits, boas, glittery pants and tops, masks, gloves and wrestling boots.

“Sweet Chicky-Dee…!” Stella said, staring wide-eyed at the huge amount of clothes.

“Yes, it’s kinda impressive, don’t you think?” Ria said and put out her hand in a dance-inspired move. “So, Miss Harrison…”

“Oh, please… since you’re ten minutes away from killing me, you can call me Regina or Reggie,” Regina said and began to unbutton her blazer jacket.

“Regina, that’s such a pretty name,” Ria said and went over to the shelf marked extra-large.

“Thank you.”

“It’s funny,” Ria said as she scooped up an armful of clothes and put them down on a table in the center of the room. “I feel like I know you from somewhere… You’re kinda familiar.”

Chuckling, Regina began to unbutton her cufflinks and her shirt sleeves. “Oh, well, I’ve been on the cover of several major fashion magazines, like Young 2Day, Fashion 4U and Vicki’s. Maybe you’ve seen me there?”

“Oh… no, I… I’m sorry, I don’t read fashion magazines. Do you know if there’s maybe an actress who looks a bit like you? Hmmm… maybe someone from the 1990s?”

Regina blinked a couple of times and scrunched up her face in an annoyed little pout.

Knowing that it was time to smooth down a few ruffled superstar feathers, Stella helped Regina unbutton her shirt. “We get that alllll the time,” she said with a little grin.

“Oh… okay. Anyway, here’s a good, supportive sports bra. Once we’ve found your costume, you can change in here. We’ll guard the door.”

“Thanks,” Regina said flatly, kicking off her shoes and loosening the leather belt on her slacks.

“What kind of outfit would you like to wear? Do you want to do a character or just be neutral?”

“Neutra-” Regina started to say, but – predictably – Stella cut her off before she could finish the sentence.

“Character! Oooooh yeah, you have to be a character, Reggie. And some character you’ll be! Man, the audience are gonna stare their eyes right outta their heads,” Stella said, hop-hop-hopping from one leg to the other across the floor.

Grimacing wildly, Regina just shook her head repeatedly. “No, Stell,” she said, whining like a five-year old who’s been told that she couldn’t go to the candy store.

“Hell, yeah!”

Ria reached into the pile of clothes she had prepared and found a costume that consisted of black spandex tights, a black t-shirt and a pale blue jacket-like top that matched Regina’s eyes perfectly. “How about… this one,” she said and held up the tights and the top.

“Oooh, you gotta wear that one, Reggie!” Stella said.

“My ass is gonna look like a barn in those tights,” Regina mumbled, but Stella just gave the body part a reassuring pat.

Ria grinned and put aside the items she needed to make the costume. Once she had stored the other garments back into the closet, she put a finger on her nose and let out a long “Hmmmm. Your hair… you need to pull your hair up in a hard bun, Regina. Long hair is just too dangerous. Even if we’d never pull it on purpose, it could get caught in the turnbuckles or my fingers.”

“All right,” Regina said, looking at an item on the table that hadn’t been part of the pile of clothes Ria had found. “What’s this?” she said and picked up an old, diamond-studded half-mask.

“That? Oh, that’s just an old thing,” Ria said.

When Regina held the mask up to her face, she promptly earned herself a loud squeal from Stella.

“You gotta use that! Oh, shoot, you gotta use that, Reggie! It’s perfect! You’ll look so badass you’re gonna make ’em squirt! Uh, figuratively speakin’, of course…!”

‘Five minutes, Ria!’ Megan shouted from outside the dressing room.

“Okay!” Ria shouted back. “Right, Regina, here’s the plan. First we perform a stare-down… that’s really simple, you just come up into the ring and meet me in the center. There, we’ll give each other a good, long stare that’s supposed to build up tension.”

“Oh, Reggie here is an expert at staring down people, ain’t that right, Reggie?” Stella said.

“Well, if you say so.”

“Oh, I do! I’ve been on the receiving end of enough of ’em to know!”

Chuckling, Ria sorted the costume and laid it out so Regina could hop into it quickly. “That’s good. After the stare-down, we’ll go to our corners and get ready to rumble. I promise that I will be very, very careful and gentle, Miss Harrison, but it can get kinda rough out there at times even when we’re going at half speed, so you need to be prepared for some knocks.”

“Okay,” Regina said, nodding – but at the same time feeling an entire aviary of butterflies flapping their wings in her gut.

“You can try to pick me up and slam me if you like, no worries there. I’ll just do most of the work. Choke holds, slaps and running pulls are fine, too, but since you’re a rank beginner, we better stay away from the advanced stuff, like climbing up on the turnbuckles and the ropes.”

“Uh… yeah.”

“The objective is that you win, obviously, so when the time is right, I’ll make a fall and you’ll have to come down on top of me and pin me into submission. Megan will end the match by doing a three-count and ringing the bell. Oh, and if you feel the least bit panicky, just signal me and I’ll do a dirty trick and get myself disqualified. Okay?”

“Okay… what kind of dirty trick are we talking about, exactly?” Regina said and began to bite her nails.

“Oh, maybe hit you over the head with a folding chair, or try to gouge your eyes out or something like that,” Ria said with a cheeky grin. “No, I’ll obviously fake it.”

“Uh… okay.”

Stella laughed at that and hooked her arm inside Regina’s to make her feel safe and comfortable. “Ria, what if I jump into the ring to save my friend from you?”

“Now that could get messy,” Ria said with a laugh. “All right, that’s all there is to it. Regina, a final word of advice… if you get injured, just put your right hand on your opposite shoulder real quickly and Megan and I will find a way stop the match at once. Like this,” she said and took a step back. Starting to duck and dive to simulate a wrestling move, she quickly clapped her left shoulder with her right hand and then continued on like nothing had happened.

“Okay… I can remember that.”

“Good. All right, Regina… it’s all yours,” Ria said and waved her hand over the costume.

“Thanks…” Regina said and picked up the half-mask. ‘Hmmm… it’s trying to tell me something… what is it…? The name… I need a name… oh! Oh, I got it!’ she thought as she tried to hold the mask to her face.

Turning around with the mask still in place, she flashed Stella and Ria a wide grin and a steely stare. “And you can call me Dolly. Dolly ‘The Diamond’ Knockout to be exact.” Her grin only grew in intensity when she saw the gobsmacked look on Stella’s face.

“You betcha! Wow, Megan is gonna love that one!” Ria said and ushered the stunned Stella out of the dressing room.

“Dolly… The Diamond… Knockout!” Stella stuttered as she skipped along the hall to get back to the main room. “Woo-hoo! I can’t wait to see that! I flippin’ can’t wait!” she howled and spun around in a pirouette in the middle of the hall with no care at all for her own well-being – predictably, upon landing, she put one foot on top of the other and fumbled, bumbled and stumbled for several steps until she had regained her equilibrium.

“Careful with the stunts, Miss Starr. Megan will have my butt on a platter if anything happens to either one of you,” Ria said and grabbed for Stella, but the blonde investigator just waved her off.

“Naw! I’m cool. Dolly ‘The Diamond’ Knockout! Yeah, baby!”

Stepping up to the curtain that marked the end of the backstage area, Ria moved it aside to take a look at the size and the composition of the crowd. “They’re all there… cool. Listen, I don’t want to snoop, but are you and Miss Harrison together? You know?”

“Well,” Stella said and adjusted her glasses. “Yeah. Kinda. We’re kissing.”

“That’s cool.”

“Yeah, but we’re best friends, too, and I don’t wanna, you know… push anything that we aren’t ready for. That would kill me. It would kill me stone dead if I pushed Reggie away…” – suddenly realizing what she was doing and saying, Stella shrugged and adjusted her glasses all over again. “Oh hey, I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to offload all my laundry on you, Ria.”

“Oh no, it’s all right, Miss Starr. I better get ready, I think Megan may have a coronary if we’re not out there in an almighty hurry,” Ria said with a smile and put her hand on the small of Stella’s back.

Stella found herself a ringside seat but soon turned so antsy that she couldn’t sit still. It didn’t take long for her to begin to pace back and forth along the ring, waiting anxiously for Regina – or rather Dolly The Diamond – to make her entrance.

In the ring, Ria played to the crowd and taunted her opponent for not showing up, but even she was beginning to get a little concerned.

A minute later, the Golden Girl strode into the main room, pulled aside the curtain and gave a quick thumbs-up to Stella, Ria and Megan.

At that moment, Dolly ‘The Diamond’ Knockout’s theme song started blaring out of the speakers, announcing to the world that they were about to see history in the making. When Stella heard Regina’s theme – an instrumental version of Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend – she let out a wild squeal and began to jump up and down on the spot.

Then *she* entered; Dolly ‘The Diamond’ Knockout. Standing six-foot-three in wrestling boots, she slid across the floor and up the short flight of stairs. Along the way, she winked at Stella who had been transformed into a gap-mouthed, unblinking marble statue by the sight.

In the space of eight short minutes, Regina Harrison had turned into the eighth wonder of the world. The black tights made her already shapely legs look indecently fine, the pale blue jacket-like top was the perfect mix of tight in some places and loose in others, a black Dracula-style cape across her shoulders gave her a regal appearance and the diamond-studded half-mask made her look like a comic book superheroine come to life by accentuating her strong jaw and ice blue eyes.

As the crowd roared insanely behind her, Stella just raised her steamed-up glasses and polished her lenses repeatedly. “Sweet… mother… hubba. Just… wow,” she croaked and lowered the glasses again, only to see them steam up instantly once more.

Dolly ‘The Diamond’ followed the plan she and Ria had worked out and went up to the Slave Girl to give her a fierce stare-down – the ‘down’ part wasn’t hard since she was six inches taller than Ria. ‘Man, this is a lot more fun than I thought it would be! I guess Stella was right all along… can’t say that to her, though. Her head will explode… but, oh God, how am I ever gonna do the fights…?’Regina thought, almost losing her confidence.

In the meantime, the Golden Girl came over to Stella and leaned in to whisper in her ear: “Hi, I’m Marge, we haven’t met yet. Nice to meet ya. Miss Harrison had a little problem getting her long hair into a bun. We had to make it two buns or else we wouldn’t have made it.”

“Okay… I was getting worried and I think Megan was, too. Hi, I’m Stella Starr,” Stella whispered back, looking at the other woman who appeared to be in her mid-thirties, though it was hard to tell from the amount of gold-tinted makeup she wore for her character. “By the way, why is there an M-D on your costume instead of a G-G ?”

“Oh, it’s short for Mega Dy-” Marge started to say before her words were cut off by the ringside bell going *DING!* *DING!*, however Stella caught the gist of the message and responded to it with a wide grin.

In the ring, the stare-down was completed and Ria and Dolly went to their respective corners while Chains climbed into the ring to be the referee. Taking off her cape, Regina wanted to throw it onto the floor, but Stella was there in an instant and took it from her.

“Dolly! Fight! You gotta fight, ya hear me? Fight! Wipe the floor with her!” Stella said in a hoarse, raspy voice that didn’t sound like her at all.

Regina blinked a couple of times and bared her teeth in an embarrassed little grimace. “You’re overdoing it just a little bit, Stell…”

“Fight!” Stella howled and clenched her fist in the air – though she did add a wink to ease Regina’s mind.

“Uh-huh,” Regina said and went back into the ring.

After bobbing up and down a few times to get used to the wrestling boots and the outrageously form-fitting tights, Regina decided to mirror everything Ria did just to make it look like she knew what she was doing. When the Slave Girl went to the ropes and waved to the crowd, Regina did the same at the other side of the ring, earning herself a big cheer from the spectators.

Suddenly Ria spun around and charged Dolly by pushing the new wrestler up against one of the ring’s four turnbuckles. Roaring out the strain, Ria held her arms in an X across Regina’s throat and made it appear like she was choking the stuffing out of her.

Regina was quick to catch on and made it look like she really was mashed up against the turnbuckle. Astounded that she couldn’t actually feel anything, she glanced down and saw that Ria’s arms were only resting against her skin – the entire exertion was faked.

“Break the grip, put your hands on my shoulders and push me away,” Ria whispered for Regina’s ears only.

Doing as told, Regina reached up and broke the X with her arms. Once she was free, she gave Ria a feather-light push that made the other wrestler fly back, perform a backwards roll and land on her stomach accompanied by a huge cheer from the crowd. Regina understood that she needed to follow it up at once to make a show out of it and stormed out of the corner with an almighty roar while flailing her arms in the air.

“Wipe her out!” Stella howled, slamming her fist into the canvas.

In no time flat, Regina had reached Ria’s position and put a hand under her armpit. With no effort at all, she pulled the Slave Girl to her feet intending to try the turnbuckle-move again only in reverse, but before she had time to do it, Ria made a counterstrike by grabbing Regina’s arm and spinning her around.

Still spinning, Regina slammed up against the ropes and was flung back like shot out of a cannon. In the center of the ring, Ria grabbed her around the waist and brought her down hard in a sideways slam.

At ringside, Stella let out a loud “Ooohhhh!” and clutched her head. “Glad that wasn’t me… I woulda hurled all over the place!”

Ria removed the hand she had put behind Regina’s head to protect her and pretended to lean down to taunt her. “Did it hurt?” she whispered for Regina’s ears only.

“No… not in the least… I landed really softly… but it winded me,” Regina whispered back, staring wide-eyed at the Slave Girl.

“Good… pretend you’re woozy,” Ria whispered and began to shimmy away from the fallen wrestler to show the audience a few bold dance moves while Regina caught her breath.

Unable to hear the conversation, Stella began to slam her fist into the canvas. “Get up! Get up!” she yelled at the top of her lungs.

Regina rolled over and got up on her hands and knees, shaking her head like she was seeing stars. After a few seconds, she staggered to her feet and turned around to see where Ria was.

The Slave Girl immediately made her presence felt by throwing herself into the ropes and running back towards Regina at full speed.

Not knowing what to do, Regina just kept standing in the center of the ring, bracing herself for an impact that never came. Inches before the two women would have collided, Ria acted like she had run into a brick wall and threw herself backwards onto the canvas.

When Regina didn’t react, Ria looked up and winked at her opponent several times while inconspicuously pointing at her stomach.

To the massive roar of the crowd – not to mention Stella who was roaring so loudly that she singlehandedly drowned out everything else – Regina suddenly remembered that she was supposed to end the match by pinning Ria into submission. Playing to the audience, she waved her arm in the air and fell down on her knees. Once there, she grabbed Ria’s leg and put her weight onto the Slave Girl’s stomach, expecting to hear a three-count.

Next to them, Chains threw herself down onto the canvas to see if Ria’s shoulders were flat on the floor. When she established that they were, she began to slam her hand into the canvas.

Ria knew that the setup looked a bit too fake, even for pro wrestling, so after Megan had counted to two, she bobbed her shoulder off the ground to stop the count.

“Break!” Megan growled in her Chains-voice and jumped to her feet.

Stella answered that immediately by jumping up on the edge of the ring and letting out a resounding “Whaddahell you mean, Break!? That was a clear three! One-two-three! Even my dead Grandmother could see that it was a straight-up three count and not a one-diddy-two! So there!”

“Break!” Chains repeated, secretly thinking that she should invite Regina and Stella back for a championship bout.

Huffing, Stella threw her arms in the air and jumped off the corner of the ring.

Inside the ring, Ria winked at Regina and pulled her closer. “That didn’t look good enough… let’s have a bit more drama first,” she whispered.

“Okay… gotcha,” Regina replied in a matching whisper and pulled away from her opponent. Suddenly remembering a few bits and pieces from the rare occasions she had watched wrestling on television, she went over to the corner where Chains was waiting and began to bitch and complain to the referee just to make a nuisance out of herself – much to the joy of the audience.

Jumping to her feet like a coiled-up spring, Ria was soon ready for more, and she danced around the center of the ring, trying to find the best hold to defeat her much taller opponent.

Her opportunity came when Dolly turned away from arguing with Chains, and she took it with both hands. Jumping on Dolly from behind, she whacked her over the shoulders with a two-fisted punch and a quick whisper in Regina’s ear to act stunned and drop down on her knees.

Once Dolly was on her knees, Ria calmly stepped in behind her and applied a sleeper hold by wrapping her arm around the taller woman’s neck. Holding the inside of her elbow directly in front of Regina’s throat so she had plenty of space to breathe, Ria groaned loudly and pretended to throttle her with all her might.

“Oh no! Oh, nooooooo!” Stella howled from her place at ringside. “Dolly! Get up! You can beat her! C’mon!”

Meanwhile, Ria sent a quick glance to Megan who replied by nodding almost unnoticeably. After nodding back, Ria leaned in and whispered in Regina’s ear. “Go limp when I nudge your back. Once I release my hold to gloat, grab my left arm and pull forward. I’ll do the rest.”

“Mmmm!” Regina groaned, timing it perfectly to make it sound like she really was struggling to stay conscious.

“Go Doooooolllllly!” Stella roared, slowly getting the audience to follow her in a rhythmic cheer to get Dolly ‘The Diamond’ Knockout back on her feet.

In the ring, Regina felt Ria’s knee press gently into her back, telling her to go limp. Flaking out to the best of her abilities, she could clearly hear Stella howling a pained “Noooooo!” somewhere to her left. Behind her, Ria released the hold and began to gloat like she said she would. At once, Regina grabbed hold of the Slave Girl’s left arm and pulled it forward.

With a surprised yelp, Ria performed a forward salto that made her fly clean over Regina’s head and land heavily right at the center of the canvas.

Realizing that Ria wanted to end the match, Regina jumped up and quickly ran around to the other side of the supposedly winded Slave Girl, circled her once more and then dove down to form a bridge above her. This time, she grabbed hold of both Ria’s legs and really put her back into making the submission hold look authentic – she even added a loud roar to the proceedings just for a laugh.

This time, Chains delivered a clean one-two-three count that made the crowd explode in a frenzy of waved flags, whistles and cheers. Just as Regina let go of Ria’s legs, she was assaulted from behind by a dirty-blonde whirlwind that attached itself to her upper body with such strength that she nearly toppled over.

“YOU WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON!” Stella screamed directly into Regina’s ear. “Ican’tflippin’believeit, you won! You won, Dolly!”

Sitting back on her thighs, Regina snickered loudly as Stella pulled her right arm high in the air to mark the victory in the time-honored fashion. Regina’s theme song began to blare from the speakers, and soon, all the wrestlers filed back into the main room and climbed into the ring, waving their arms in the air and tossing keychains and assorted other merchandising into the audience.

As the weirdness of the bizarre goings-on finally caught up with her, Regina went into an adrenaline-induced, gut-aching laughing fit that soon claimed Stella as well. Walking arm in arm, the two women traversed the entire ring to wave to the crowd from all four sides, receiving massive cheers everywhere they went.

Finally allowed a modicum of rest, they moved down the short flight of stairs and went into the hall between the main room and the backstage area. Two steps beyond the curtain, Stella forced Regina up against the wall, pulled her head down and devoured her lips, mouth and tongue in an all-singing, all-dancing, all-wrestling, ferociously sizzling submission hold – a.k.a. a lava-hot kiss that went on for so long that they both began to see black and golden spots in their vision.

“Whoa…” Stella croaked when they finally had to break off the searing kiss. Leaning her head against Regina’s chest, she panted hard to get her breath back. “Oh, momma… you certainly know how to get me hot and bothered. Man, Reggie!”

“It’s the costume, Stell,” Regina said and began to muss Stella’s neck.

“No, it’s you. I’ve got a thing for you, Reggie. I’ve definitely got a thing for you…”

“Does that mean I still got it?”

“Yessssss…”

“Well, that’s good… I’ve got a thing for you, too, you know,” Regina said and pushed her and Stella away from the wall so she could get on with her quest of finding a chair before her wobbly legs would fail her and she’d fall flat on her butt. “Oh, I need a breather… this was tough… but fun. I’ll give you that,” she continued as they shuffled off down the hall to get to the dressing room.

“I knew you’d feel that way, Reggie. Perhaps we should enlist you to a wrestling school so you could learn the basics…?” Stella said and gave Regina’s waist a little squeeze.

“Ah, that would be a ‘no’, Stella.”

“Awwwww…”

“No.”

“Awwwww…!”

“No,” Regina said and claimed Stella’s lips again to get her to forget all about her silly plan.

Behind them, Nasty Sarge and the Golden Girl came into the hall laughing and play-fighting loudly with each other – but when they saw Stella and Regina kissing, they slapped each other a fat high five and turned around to give the two investigators some privacy.

*
*
CHAPTER 3

Just as Regina sat down with an ache-induced groan in the dressing room, she and Stella could hear the crowd chant ‘Dol-ly! Dol-ly! Dol-ly! Dol-ly!’ from the main room.

“What’s that?” Stella said, moving around Regina to help her get her hair back out of the two buns. “Oh… Oh! They’re chanting for an encore! Dolly, we gotta go back there! They want you!” she suddenly howled and pulled Regina up by the armpit.

“Ugh! Oh… not so fast, Stell… if you tear the tights, they’ll get a lot more than they ever wished for…”

“C’mon! Let’s hustle!” Stella said and pulled the reluctant Regina back out of the dressing room and through the hall.

Moving the curtain aside, Stella stepped into a veritable storm of cheers and whistles. “Here she is! Dolly ‘The Diamond’ Knockout!” she roared and pulled Regina into the main room where she was practically assaulted by a shower of flashes.

“Jeez!” Regina said and shielded her eyes. “Thank you… thank you!”

“Get up in the ring, Dolly,” Stella said and gave Regina’s buttocks a fair-sized squeeze to get her to move her timber logs.

Jerking forward with a howling “Yooww!”, Regina spun around and shot Stella an exasperated look, but the blonde investigator just grinned and shooed her up into the ring where the other wrestlers were already waiting for her.

Once there, Regina’s old instincts of being a natural in the limelight came to the fore and she began to wave to the massed ranks of big and small, young and old spectators who had come to the Top Rope Wrestling Club to get a respite from their everyday problems and issues.

Megan slowly shuffled over to stand next to the fully-dressed Dolly ‘The Diamond’ Knockout and gave her a big pat on the shoulder. “Excellent stuff, Miss Harrison. You’ve definitely got talent for wrestling.”

“Thanks, Megan. I had no idea whatsoever what I was doing,” Regina said with a smile.

“Well, it didn’t show. Uh, your business associate is, uh, how can I put it… a bit of a firebrand, isn’t she?”

“Yes… yes, she is. Would you mind if I pulled her up here, Megan? She loves this sort of thing,” Regina said around a few waves.

“Oh no, no. Go right ahead.”

Grinning, Regina went over to the edge of the ring and began to shout Stella’s name to get her attention, but she wasn’t able to get through to the blonde investigator who was so focused on the crowd that she was unable to hear anything else.

Just as Regina was about to give up, Megan noticed and gave her a thumbs-up. With an athletic jump, she cleared the ropes and landed next to Stella – then she scooped her up on her arm like she weighed nothing at all and carried the squealing blonde into the ring.

Regina stared wide-eyed at the display of strength, thinking that Stella looked just like the dummies ventriloquists used for their shows.

“WHEEEEEEEEEEEE!” Stella squealed as she was let go by Megan. “Thanks, Chains! That was fun!” she said and slapped the tall wrestler’s stomach.

“Come on, Stell,” Regina said and pulled her friend into a sideways hug. “Let’s wave to the crowd… after all, this was the goodbye tour of Dolly ‘The Diamond’ Knockout. She’s gonna retire after this event!”

“Awwww…?”

“Yes!”

After a little while, Megan took the microphone and turned it on. “Settle down, settle down… may I have your attention, please! In a few minutes, we’ll be signing trading cards at the long table you see over there,” she said and pointed at the far wall of the room. “We’ll all be there and we’ll all be signing so you don’t have to worry about missing a thing.”

When the crowd started cheering again, Megan added in her Chains voice. “We ain’t leavin’ ’til you do!” which nearly brought down the house.

Hearing that, Stella wrapped her arms around Regina’s waist and pulled herself into a crush. “Didya hear that? You’re about to get famous, dontchaknow!”

“Hon, I’m already famous,” Regina said, flashed Stella her two-hundred watt smile and cocked her hips to underline her words.

“Mmmmm-yeah…?” Stella teased, sticking out her tongue at her best friend.

Puffing out her chest, Regina grinned broadly and waved some more at the crowd. “Look at ’em… I still got it.”

“Uh-huh?”

“I do!”

“I’m agreeing with ya, Reggie! Sheesh!”

“Yeah, right… you won’t get my autograph tonight, that’s a fact.”

Looking up at Regina, Stella bit down on her tongue before she could speak what she really wanted. “That’s okay, I’d rather have your lips, anyhow.” – ‘Or my lips around your… nah, I won’t even think that. I’ll only jinx it.’

-*-*-*

Ten minutes later, all the wrestlers – including Regina – were seated at the long table, ready to sign and hand out the stacks of colorful trading cards that had been placed in front of them.

Feeling so excited that she was about to burst, Stella snatched the unguarded microphone and turned it on. “That’s right, folks, form orderly lines, please! Step right up, folks, there’s plenty for ev’rybody!” she said, sorting the crowd by height so the little ones would be at the front – she knew from painful experience that if the short ones weren’t given preferential treatment, the world would just pass them by.

At the table, Ria looked at the curious scenes with some confusion. “Psst, Regina…” she whispered, leaning in towards Regina, “has Miss Starr ever worked as a carnival barker?”

“No, she’s… well, she’s Stella,” Regina said with a shrug.

“Oh… I see. Oh look, how cute!” Ria said and pointed at a very young fan who was dressed in a wrestling jogging suit and holding a baby-soother.

The young fan was supported by his father, and together, the two came up to stand in front of Regina. “Go on,” the dad said, nudging his son forward.

“Ummm… may I have your autograph, please?” the young fan said, wringing the soother between his little fingers.

“But of course,” Regina said, smiling broadly. She quickly doodled her name on a blank piece of hi-gloss paper that Megan had put at her spot since she obviously didn’t have a trading card of Dolly ‘The Diamond’ Knockout. Once she was done, she gave the paper to the young fan’s dad and flashed him one of her two- hundred watt smiles. “You do have a camera or a camera phone, Sir?”

“Oh, sure!” the man said and held up a cell phone.

“Well, would you and your kid like to have your picture taken with me?”

“Uh-huh, Dad!” the young fan said, nodding vigorously.

“If it’s not too much trouble…?”

“No trouble at all,” Regina said and waved at Stella who was still sorting the spectators into straight lines. “Stell! We need you over here!”

“Stella Starr on the case, no disgrace, time to get down to the party place!” Stella sang as she made her way back to the table. “I’m here… whassup, Dolly The Diamond?” she said to her slightly shell-shocked friend.

“Uhhhh… ah… would you mind working as my camera person from now on instead of being a traffic cop?” Regina said, thinking that Stella had finally lost the marble that held all the others in place.

“Oh! I’m really good with cameras… one of the few things I’m really good at, but that’s another story,” Stella said and smiled at the father and the young fan.

“Good, ‘cos I think a lot of the people will want a photo of me, so…”

“Yeah, yeah, no worries. All right, Mister, if you will,” Stella said and waved her hand to show that she wanted the two fans to line up next to Dolly ‘The Diamond’ Knockout so she could snap the photo.

“Here’s my phone,” the father said and handed it to Stella.

Holding the phone steady using a two-handed grip, she stood with her rear end pushed out backwards and her legs slightly apart to get the best angle. Eventually, Stella found the three people on the small screen. “Right… okay… say… cheese-a-licious!”

“Cheese-a-licious!” the Dad said, but his son just looked confused – the photo still turned out great, though.

“Here you go, Mister,” Stella said and handed the phone back to the man.

“Thanks!” he said and put a hand on his son’s shoulder so they could join the line for Ria, the Slave Girl.

Stella walked around the table and ran her hand up and down Regina’s upper arm. “That was fun,” she said, admiring the tall, graceful – and now badass – former model so much that it hurt. “Do you think we could persuade Megan to let us buy that costume? I mean, it’s gonna show up in my dreams anyway, so why not go the full nine yards and take it home with us…?”

“Well-”

“I mean, you look so damn fine in it my eyes tickle on the inside, which is a really odd feeling, let me tell you, and I just think we could get so much mileage out of it it’s ridiculous.”

“Stell, I…”

“Okay, we may never go on another wrestling job again, but at least we could have…”

“Stell!”

“… it hanging in our closet and I could take a look at it from time to time and remember what fun we had here and how stupendously sexy you looked in it, especially those tights… what do you think, Reggie?”

Sighing, Regina lifted the half-mask and rubbed her face. “I think we need to get home pretty soon so you can have a chill-pill, Stell,” she said while signing another piece of blank paper and handing it to a fan with a smile.

“Nooooo, I’m perfectly chilled. I’m so chilled I smell like ice, Reggie. Don’t believe me? Here, this’ll prove it,” Stella said and waved her vest at Regina so she could smell the chilliness.

When Regina’s only response was a deep sigh and an arched eyebrow, Stella leaned in and gave her a little crush. “I’m just goofing off, Reggie. But I do think you’re looking damn fine, girl,” she said and gave Regina a quick little kiss on the cheek.

-*-*-*-

When the event was finally over and the last wrestling fan had left, Regina fell back in her seat and pulled off the half-mask. “Phew,” she said and sighed deeply. “I haven’t signed my name that often since… since… since ever, actually. Not even when I was at the top of the modeling game did I have to sign that many autographs.”

“Want me to give you a rub-down, Reggie?” Stella said, sitting on the corner of the table.

“Maybe a little later… okay?”

“Sure,” Stella said and returned the wink Regina had just sent her.

Next to them, Ria let out an echoing yawn and stretched her arms over her head to release some of the tension in her back. “Man, I can’t wait to hit the showers.”

At the other end of the table, Nasty Sarge got up and mirrored Ria’s movements, making her back and her neck pop and crackle. “Me, neither. You’re gonna shower with the rest of us, ain’t ya Miss Knockout?” she said with a cheeky grin.

“No she ain’t, Maria Consuela. Miss Harrison will shower first… by herself,” Megan said strongly, grabbing the Sarge by the scruff of her neck. “And because you thought it was funny to crack an inappropriate joke at someone who just gave us a check for seven hundred dollars, you’ll be going in last… when there’s only cold water left. Get it?”

“Aw, I was only makin’ fun, Megan,” Maria Consuela whined, but there was no appeasing her imposing boss.

“There’s ha-ha-fun and there’s urgh-fun. This was urgh-fun, Maria. You might as well siddown. It’ll be a while for you,” Megan said and placed the Sarge back on the chair.

Chuckling, Regina stood up and bent over to stretch her weary back and rear. “Oh, I’m not that easily offended, Megan… wouldn’t work around someone like my friend, Miss Stella ‘Gonna Shake A Bottle Of Nitro’ Starr.”

“Oh, that wasn’t ha-ha-fun, neither!” Stella said and stuck out her tongue at Regina who promptly stood up straight and shrugged in her patented ‘can’t give a hoot’-fashion.

Two seconds later, Regina’s face cracked open in a warm smile, and she put out her arms and pulled Stella into a warm hug to show that she was only goofing off, too.

“ANYway”, Megan said with a chuckle, “Miss Harrison, if you take the last door to the right in the hall, you’ll find a really nice bathroom. Towels, bathrobes and anything else you might need is already there. Just put the costume on the low table and throw the towels in the laundry basket once you’re done.

“Will do, Megan. I promise I won’t use all your hot water,” Regina said as she went past the sulking Maria Consuela.

Once Regina had moved behind the curtain, Megan came up to stand in front of Nasty Sarge and put her hands on her hips. “Oh, but I will,” she growled.

“Aw, Megan!” Maria Consuela whined, but it was to no avail.

-*-*-*-

By the time Regina returned from the shower, she was amazed to see all the tough wrestling gals sit in a circle and listen intently to one of Stella’s wild stories from her investigative career.

Stella was going flat out, using her head, hands, arms and legs to illustrate how she and Regina had managed to catch the jewel thief known as the Invisible Man who had specialized in robbing the parties held by the Godmother of fashion, Lulu LaFontaine.

When Stella had finished telling the tale by showing how the jewel thief had been brought down by getting bashed over the head with a wok, she bowed several times to the cheering and whistling wrestlers – then she noticed that Regina had come back, giving her such a look of love that her ice blue eyes were shining.

‘Awwww… she really does love me,’ Stella thought, choking up quite badly. “Anyway,” she said out loud after clearing her throat a couple of times, “that was how my dear, best friend Reggie and me took care of business. Anyone else wanna tell a story while I get something to drink?”

“No, I think it’s time for us to hit the showers, Miss Starr,” Megan said and got up. “Not you, Maria. You’re going last,” she continued when she noticed that Nasty Sarge had already started to rise.

“Aw, Megan!” Maria Consuela whined, but she still couldn’t appeal to Megan’s soft side.

On her way over to Stella, Regina straightened the collar of her blazer and flicked her hair out of it, thankful for being able to let it hang loose instead of having it forced into the two tight buns. “Hey,” she said and put her hand on Stella’s cheek.

“Hey. Didya see me? Well, of course you did. I couldn’t let you have all the fun, could I?” Stella said and leaned into the touch.

“You were great, Stell. You want a Razzie or something?”

“I was about to look for a Cherry Cola, actually. Megan, do you have any of those?”

“Cherry Colas? No, we didn’t buy any of those. Can’t stand that sickly sweet stuff,” Megan said, unzipping her prison fatigues to reveal that she was wearing a black T-shirt underneath.

“Ohhh!” Stella howled. “Cherry colas iz the best thing ever! Well, except for Slurrpy’s Raspberry Fizz, Oreos and Meaty Mamas. But that’s another story…”

“We still have a couple of Raspberries, Miss Starr. They’re backstage,” Megan said with a grin.

“Excellen-ty! You want another mineral water, Reggie?” Stella said and went on the prowl for a can of soda.

“Yes, please.”

After taking two steps into the hall connecting the main room to the backstage area, Stella came back through the curtain with a huge blush on her face. “It’ll have to wait. There be naked women out there. Plenty of naked women…”

-*-*-*-

Twenty minutes later, five freshly-showered and very different-looking women – brushed hair, regular clothes and even a touch of makeup on some of them – came back and began to clean up the main room; Maria Consuela was still in the shower, as promised by Megan.

“What’s up, Megan?” Stella said, throwing her empty can of Raspberry Fizz into a trash can.

“In an hour’s time,” Megan said and glanced over her shoulder at a clock hanging on the wall, “make that fifty minutes, two representatives from the Little Friends In Need Foundation are going to come over and evaluate the events.”

“Oh! Oh, we wanna help,” Stella said and jumped off the edge of the table she had been sitting on.

“No, no… we’ve got it covered,” Megan said with a smile.

“Hell no, I insist! Harrison-Starr to the rescue! C’mon, Reggie… I’ll get the vacuum, you can sweep the tiles!” Stella said and thrust her arm in the air. “Uh, Megan, where’s your vacuum cleaner?”

Chuckling, Megan put the armful of discarded paper flags she was holding into a plastic bag and pointed at the hall. “In the first closet to your left, Miss Starr.”

“Okie-dokie. We’re on it!”

A few minutes later, Stella gave the carpet surrounding the wrestling ring a thorough workout, mindful not to stumble over the long cord and singing at the top of her lungs: “Oh, mama’s little baby loves shortnin’, shortnin’, mama’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread! OHHHHHH, mama’s little-”

Ria and Marge, the Golden Girl, were looking at Stella really putting her back into it, wondering how on earth there could be so much energy in such a petite package. “Miss Harrison,” Marge said, “pardon me for bein’ blunt, but how in the Holy Hell did you and Miss Starr ever meet…? I mean…” she said and pointed her hands at Regina and then at Stella.

“She was hiring for her Detective Agency and I applied for the job. That’s all there was to it,” Regina said with a chuckle as she swept the tiled floor under and around the long table.

“Really? Hm! How long did it take for you to, uh…”

“Get used to her?”

“Yeah,” Marge said with an embarrassed laugh.

“Four minutes,” Regina said with a grin so broad that a Jumbo jet could have taxied in between the corners of her mouth. “She became my best friend pretty much straight away. We support each other, we’re there for one another when things are tough… or good, for that matter. Stella and me, we… well, we just fit together.”

Shaking her head slowly, Marge looked at Stella who had become horribly entangled in the power cord despite her best efforts to stay away from it, and was dancing about on one leg, trying to hold the vacuum while she attempted to unravel herself. “That’s just too damn cute,” Marge and punched Ria’s shoulder.

“Of course,” Regina continued, leaning against the broom, “we have up days and down days, but that’s how it is in any relationship. Then we’ll just make some hot coffee or cocoa and get a roll of Oreos and watch a movie and we’re best friends again.”

“I’ve always said that makeup sex is the best there is, anyway,” Ria said, but suddenly remembered what Stella had told her earlier. “Oh, I… oops. Oh shoot, look at the time, I’m really late for… uh, something!” she said and zipped away from Marge and Regina, leaving the two women with highly confused looks on their faces.

Five minutes early, a dark gray SUV from the Little Friends In Need Foundation pulled up to the building. Two people in dull gray suits, a man in his fifties and a woman in her sixties, stepped out of the van and went through the double doors.

“Shit! They’re here already,” Megan shouted to her girls while polishing the windows in the main room that seemingly had a hundred and twenty-nine kids’ noses smeared all over them.

“D’ya want me to stall ’em, Megan?” Stella said and jumped up from her chair, but Megan just shook her hand and straightened down her shirt.

“Nah, I got ’em, thanks. Hello, Mr. Norton, Mrs. Banks. Welcome back,” Megan said and shook hands with the two evaluators. Even without her wrestling boots, she dwarfed them completely, especially Harry Norton who was a good foot shorter than the wrestler.

“Good afternoon, Miss Austin,” Eunice Banks said, casting an appreciative glance at the spit-shined appearance of the wrestling club.

Turning around, Megan ushered the two people into the main room and closed the door behind them. “Let’s go backstage and get into the evaluation… but first, please allow me to introduce you to Stella Starr and Regina Harrison, our sponsors.”

“Hi, we’re from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency,” Stella said and shook their hands. “Our motto is ‘Everything We Do, We Do For You’,” she continued with a cheesy grin.

Eunice Banks stared briefly at the colorful, wild-haired woman ahead of her but soon snapped out of it and recovered her manners. “Oh… that’s good to know if we ever need a Detective agency.”

“Yep. This is my business associate Regina Harrison… also known as Dolly ‘The Diamond’ Knockout,” Stella said with a beaming smile.

“I… see. Fascinating,” Eunice Banks said, shooting Regina a sideways glance.

Walking into the main room from the hall, Megan held back the curtain and spread out her arms. “The backstage area is ready for you if you have the time, Mr. Norton, Mrs. Banks.”

Once Megan had taken Harry Norton and Eunice Banks behind the curtain, Stella looked at the colorful crowd she had been mingling with for the last several hours and felt a pang of pride that Regina had looked so good in the ring – not to mention how she had filled out the costume.

“The costume!” she said and slapped her forehead which made her wild hair flip out in all directions. “Hey, guys… do you think Megan would mind if we bought the costume Reggie wore today?”

The wrestlers looked at each other and seemed to shrug collectively. “Buy it? Hell, you can get those old rags for free, Miss Starr,” Suzanne, the Prom Queen, said. “D’ya want me to get it for you right away?”

“Yes, please, if you don’t mind…?”

“Doesn’t bother me whatsoever,” Suzanne said and got up from the couch she had shared with Amy, the Ballerina.

While her couch-mate was away, the Ballerina put her legs up on the seat and draped her arm over the backrest. “I’m hungry… anybody wanna call for a pizza or something?”

“Pizza?” Stella growled, feeling her hunger genes kick into action at once.

“Yep… or whatever you like, Miss Starr,” the Ballerina said with a smile.

“Oh, I could eat a pizza… mmmm… no, I could wolf down a pizza, actually. Okay… uh… yeah, I got a great idea!” Stella said and made a three-hundred sixty degree turn on the floor. “Yeah, baby!” she continued and snatched her cell phone from her pocket.

After a quick look into the registry, she found the pizza parlor they always used and gave them a call. “Hi, it’s Stella Starr…”

Mumble, mumble.

“From Harrison-Starr, yeah. Listen, I was wondering if you delivered to the other end of the Boulevard as well? The wrestling club up at the other end of Carter?”

Mumble, mumble.

“You do? Great! I’ll call you back in a couple of minutes with our orders,” she said and hung up. “Neato. Okay, junk food’s on me!” she shouted to the wrestlers, quickly earning herself a big cheer.

“Do you have enough money for that, Stell?” Regina said, finding her wallet.

“Sure, sure, Reggie… I’ll just whip out the plastic. I want a Meaty Mama… what’ll everybody have…?”

“Well, Megan always has three cheeseburgers with a ton of fries, hold the mustard but plenty of ketchup. I want two bacon burgers with a ton of fries, with extra onion rings… and they better make ’em crispy!” — “Fried chicken, deep fried potato squares, sweet chili sauce, hold the salt!” — “Mexican salad with extra peppers!” — “A Quattro Stagioni Pizza!” — “Pizza with spicy meatballs, hold the onions!” — “Two veggie burgers with everything and a baked potato in herbal sauce!” — “Ooh, a baked potato sounds good… I think I’ll have that instead of the deep fried potato squares…”

“Oy, oy, oy, oy, OY…! Wait up, gals… I need to make a list,” Stella said and began to look around for a piece of paper and a pencil.

-*-*-*-

*Several* hours later, after a healthy session of good, nourishing junk food, and a few joyful goodbyes, high-fives and see-ya-arounds to their new friends, Regina drove the Mercedes SLK into the parking lot at Rockin’ Ruby’s, closely followed by Megan’s Chevrolet Tahoe.

While they rolled around at five miles an hour trying to find a space to park in, the familiar jingle announcing the ten o’clock news was heard over the station they had been listening to.

“Oh, do we have time to listen to the news, Reggie? We’ve been out all day… we’re really behind the flow,” Stella said and put her finger near the volume button.

“Sure. It’ll take us a few minutes to find a spot anyway.”

“Neato,” Stella said and turned up the volume.

‘…two further taxi drivers have been victims of the counterfeiting gang colloquially known as the Phoney Crew,’ the male newscaster said from the hidden speakers. ‘Earlier on today, Police Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes made the following statement:’

“Wa-hey! Mary-Jane!” Stella said and tapped her knuckles against the dashboard but quickly shut up so they could listen to what the Inspector had to say.

‘The Task Force that was set up late last week to combat this unacceptable flurry of criminal activity is working closely with the Organized Crime Unit of the FBI and also the management and the drivers of the Taurus Cab Company, the Hermanos Rodriguez Cab Company and the Bayside Exclusive Taxi Services to ensure that-‘

“Wow, what’s that all about?” Regina said as she slotted the SLK into an available spot.

“No idea… first I’ve heard of it.”

‘So far,’ Inspector Moynes continued on the radio, ‘the Phoney Crew has kept to the taxis, but there’s a risk they could try to move on to convenience stores, diners and other smaller shops once they realize how close we are.’

“Hmmm,” Regina said and turned off the engine which silenced the radio. “I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more about that later on.”

Pulling the little lever for the door, Stella studied the former model’s profile for a few seconds before she looked down onto the ground like she always did when she had to step out of the low-slung sportscar. “You could be right… hey, great parking, Reggie. No curbs!” she said and shuffled around in the seat.

“You don’t need curbs to fumble, Stell,” Regina said, waiting for the inevitable. When it hadn’t come after a few seconds, she looked to her right and saw to her great surprise that Stella had actually managed to get out of the SLK without falling back down into the deep bucket seats.

Snorting in a somewhat disappointed fashion, Regina took the keys and stepped out of the car.

After locking the sportscar, she joined Stella at the rear and hooked her arm inside her friend’s while they waited for Megan who had to park her larger vehicle further up the parking lot. “Bravo… you didn’t fall, Stell.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you. Yeah, I’m growing up, aren’t I?” Stella said and shuffled around on the spot. “No more fumbling over curbstones.”

“Yeah. By the time you’re fifty, you may even be able to stay upright for an entire day!” Regina said and snuggled up to Stella who shot her a slightly dirty look in return.

“Well, Miss-Trying-To-Combat-The-Pull-Of-Gravity-By-Buying-Double-Hinged-Bras,” Stella said and began to shuffle off towards their regular haunt. “I can stay upright just fine! It’s just that sometimes, the ground is uneven and-”

FUMBLE!

“Owch! Damn potholes!” Stella growled, hopping around on one leg while she massaged the toes on her left foot that had been smashed against the jagged inside of the pothole.

“Damn potholes, yeah,” Regina said and waved at the easily recognizable six-foot-three frame of Megan who was jogging towards them from clear down the other end of the parking lot.

Stepping inside Rockin’ Ruby’s, they were met by a wall of stunned silence instead of the usual raucous murmurs. Every single one of the barflies – and Ruby Albrecht herself for that matter – were staring at Stella and her companions, the two impossibly tall women.

“Hi, everybody!” Stella shouted and waved to the gobsmacked crowd. “I’m here with Tall and Taller… and yes, they have given me a crimp in the neck. But like I always say, it’s better to get a crimp in the neck than to be a pain in the ass!”

Stella’s odd humor broke the tension and the barflies began to murmur again, stealing the occasional sneaky glance at Regina and Megan who had changed again into a very classy pair of black jeans and a black denim jacket over a red V-neck T-shirt.

Getting up from her customary position at the end of the bar, Ruby Albrecht took one of her drinks menus and limped down to the first booth where Stella, Regina and Megan had already made themselves comfortable.

“Hi guys,” Ruby said and placed the drinks menu in front of Megan. “Hello, I’m Ruby Albrecht. I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure,” she continued and put out her hand.

Shaking the offered hand, Megan shot her a wide smile. “No, that’s right, I’m new here. Hi, I’m Megan Austin.”

“She’s a wrestler… a damned good one, too,” Stella interjected.

“Really? Pro or Olympic?” Ruby said.

“Oh, Pro. My stage name is Chains.”

“Right… well, have a look in our menu,” Ruby said and tapped an index finger on the leather-bound book. “Once you’ve found something you’d like, just tell either of these nice ladies and they’ll come up to the bar and get it for you… right?”

Regina temporarily stood up to take off her blazer jacket and then put it on the bench seat next to her, making sure it was neatly folded so it wouldn’t crease. “Sure, Ruby. What happened to your leg?”

“Oh, you’re not gonna believe it… when I opened at four, I went into the dance hall like I always do to turn on the air conditioning and stuff, but then I stubbed my toe on the door step… and that meant I took a swan dive and whacked my knee on the floor… sheesh, can you believe it? I must be getting old.”

“You have my full commiseration, Ruby,” Stella said and tipped her non-existent cap.

“Yeah, I imagine you have a bit of experience in that area,” Ruby said with a laugh.

After briefly looking into the leatherbound drinks menu, Megan closed it again and leaned back in her seat. “Actually, if it’s not too much trouble, I’d like something non-alcoholic, please. I don’t drink alcohol.”

“Oh… okay. Sure,” Ruby said and took the menus. “How about an Alexander’s, that’s raspberry juice, Classic Cola and an ounce of cream, or a Cherry Cooler with carbonated mineral water, two teaspoons of icing sugar, some lemon juice and some Ginger Ale? Oh, and two cherries on top.”

“Cherry Cooler sounds great, thanks.”

“Okay. How about you guys?”

Stella looked at Regina who offered her a shrug in return. “Well, let’s have three Cherry Coolers for a change, Ruby.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” Megan said, but Stella just waved at her.

“No, we’re cool. It’s fun to try something new for a change. Three Cherry Coolers, please, Ruby.”

“Sure thing… coming right up.”

Once the jovial bartender had left the booth, Regina put her hand under the table and started caressing Stella’s thigh. “How come you don’t drink alcohol, Megan? Your body is your temple and all that?”

“Oh, no, it’s because of a clause in my contract for my day job… uh… my day job is… promise you won’t laugh,” Megan said and looked left and right to see if anyone was listening in on her.

“We won’t,” Stella said with a grin.

“I’m a kindergarten teacher.” – When she was met with stunned silence, she chuckled and began to play with a napkin on the tabletop. “Yeah, that’s the response I always get. It usually gets worse when I say it’s run by a local Church.”

That was more than Stella could cope with and she promptly choked on some saliva. Coughing and spluttering, she fell across the table and had to have Regina thump her on her back several times to get back to life. “Run by-” – cough, splutter, cough – “-a Ch-” – cough, splutter, cough – “Church!” – cough, SPLUTTER, cough – “Holy” – splutter, splutter, cough – “Sh…” – cough, splutter, cough – “what do they” – cough, cough, cough – “say about your” – cough, splutter, SPLUTTER – “wrestling gig…?”

“Oh, they’re okay with it, actually.”

“Wow… imagine that.” – croak, croak – “Huh! Now, if that had been a question in a pop quiz, I woulda failed. Would you have guessed that, Reggie?” Stella said and took off her steamed-up glasses to polish the lenses.

“Not really,” Regina said with a grin. “Tell me, how do the kids react when you play with them?”

“Oh, they love it,” Megan said with a grin.

The conversation was put on pause when Ruby came back with three Cherry Coolers, complete with straws, little umbrellas and ice cubes shaped like voluptuous female bodies. “Here ya go, guys. It’s been a while since I’ve made one of these and I found out I was a little rusty… if they taste like shit, just yell at me and I’ll get you something else.”

Taking a sip, Stella’s face lit up like a little sun. “No, they’re just perfect, Ruby.”

“Good. If there’s anything else, just call, okay?”

“Sure,” Regina said and took her own drink. “Cheers!”

“Cheers!” Megan said and took a healthy sip from the straw. “Hey, this is pretty good.”

Nodding, Stella put down her glass and predictably began to play with the umbrella. “Yep. So, Megan, once we’ve had our drinks, you wanna go and dance or something? Ruby’s got a great dance floor. It’s just over there,” she said and pointed at the entrance to the separate dance hall.

“Um, no thank you. When I dance, I look like a ostrich trying to escape a pack of hunting lions,” Megan said with a chuckle.

Hearing that, Regina scrunched up her face and thought of something they had talked about earlier in the day. “Wait a minute… didn’t you say that wrestling was a lot like dancing?”

“Sure I did, but when I wrestle, I wear a costume. In there,” Megan said and pointed at the entrance to the dance floor, “I’m just me.”

“Now I can definitely understand that, ‘Chains’,” Stella said with a grin. “Oh, let’s have another toast… to good friends and to strange occupations!” she shouted and grabbed her drink.

“That’s two, Stell,” Regina said and bumped shoulders with her friend.

“Are you complainin’?”

“Has anything good *ever* come out of complaining to you, Stell…?”

“Smartass.”

“Why, yes it is, actually.”

“Word! Cheers!” Stella shouted and took a good swig of her drink.

“Cheers,” Regina and Megan said as one, both chuckling over the excited look on Stella’s face as she savored her Cherry Cooler.

*
*
THE END of ONE, TWO, THREE!

-*-*-*-
-*-*-*-

IV – HULLABA-HOOP

Written by Norsebard
A few days later.

“All ready, Stell!” Regina Harrison shouted after she had finished plugging the cable for the portable TV and DVD into the wall socket. Taking a step back, she cocked her head and eyed the TV closely. A few seconds later, she stepped back to it and pushed it an inch to the right so it was perfectly level on their plush gray carpet instead of tilting a little to the left.

‘You’re ready?’ Stella Starr said from the bathroom.

“All ready!”

‘You’re ready… now?’

“Stell!”

‘Okay, okay… I can’t believe you talked me into doing this… I mean, Holy Cannoli!’

When nothing had happened after a further fifteen seconds, Regina went over to the bathroom door and tapped her knuckles on it. “Stell?”

‘Yeah, yeah, yeah… *sigh*’. Two seconds later, the door handle was depressed and Stella stepped out of the bathroom. She only made it half a step into the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency when she stopped dead in her tracks and stared at the outfit Regina was wearing.

The tall, former model had donned a black Rokkstar Track and Field windbreaker with a white stripe across the chest, loose, Zumba-style sweat pants – that sat indecently low on her hips – in deep purple with gold highlights, and finally a matching purple sweat band around her head to keep her long, dark hair out of her eyes. As usual, she looked as if she had just stepped out of a cover of a fashion magazine.

Stella briefly looked down at her own exercise outfit, thinking that it had looked a lot better on the mannequin in the shop – she was wearing a powder blue body suit that looked puffy around the top because of the sports bra she wore underneath, a pair of knitted dark blue leggings and a mismatched pair of wrist bands; one red, one yellow.

Chuckling, Regina put a hand across her face, pretending to be shielding her eyes. “Stell, you know what? With those leggings, your outfit looks almost exactly like the dancing costume from… that movie with the welder… what was it called?”

“Flashdance,” Stella mumbled.

“Flashdance, yeah. Though wasn’t that a darker color?”

“Dark blue. Okay, so I had a baby-crush on Jennifer Beals back then and I guess I’ve harbored one ever since so when I found this outfit in a sports equipment store I thought I’d be able to look just a little bit like her if I bought it but I look like I always have and nothing like her not that anyone could because that was probably the sexiest she’s ever looked…” Stella said in a single stream of words. “Oh, who cares.”

“I care. It’s an okay outfit, Stell.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Wait a minute, how old were you when that movie came out?”

“Seven.”

“Uh-huh?”

“Like I said, it was a baby-crush,” Stella said and pushed her glasses up her nose.

“Must’ve been. C’mon, Stell… this is gonna be fun,” Regina said and began to warm up by shaking her limbs and pulling her legs up towards her.

“Well, if you say so… Reggie?”

“Yeah?”

“Why do you always look so dazzlingly sexy no matter what you wear? And why do I always look like a-”

“Cute, little number?” Regina said with a broad grin.

“Wasn’t exactly what I was gonna say,” Stella said with an embarrassed smirk as she went over to stand next to Regina, “but thanks, anyway.”

“You’re welcome. Stell, you should stretch a bit before we start,” Regina said and mussed Stella’s unruly mop of dirty-blonde hair.

Reluctantly, Stella began to perform a few stretching routines to get her limbs, muscles and cartilage ready for the torture she was sure would follow. After bending down and touching the floor twice and doing a few hops – on the first one, she cleared the carpet by nearly two inches – she was ready. “That’s it. Anymore of this and I’ll be bombed out before we even start,” she said and used her wrist bands to wipe a few imaginary drops of sweat off her forehead.

“Good. Now… let’s go. Here’s ‘Tiffany Reilly’s Full Body Workout for Women, Medium Impact Class,’ ” Regina said and took the remote she had put behind her on Stella’s desk. Pressing play, she put the remote back on the desk and waited for the DVD to start.

A few seconds later, the DVD opened with an establishing shot of a set made to look like a fitness club. Scattered around the set, five athletic women in identical skimpy gray sportswear were stretching their limbs and preparing for the exercise program.

As soon as Stella saw the fit women, she pushed her glasses up her nose and broke out in a wide grin. “Now, I could get used to this, actually… mmmm!”

Before long – and to the sound of canned applause – the famous fitness expert Tiffany Reilly stepped in from the left side of the screen in a white sports bra and a pair of bicycle shorts that were so tight Stella was convinced they were banned in Iowa and neighboring States.

‘Hello, I’m Tiffany and you’re watching my brand new Full Body Workout for Women, Medium Impact Class. I hope you all have your stair stepper ready because we’re about to start.’

“We do!” Regina said gleefully as she put two twelve-inch high stair steppers down on the carpet; one in front of herself and one in front of a slightly downhearted Stella.

‘All right,’ Tiffany Reilly said from the DVD as the camera moved down to show her aerobics shoes that – judging by the caption and the logo on the shoes – had been provided by a fairly well-known manufacturer. ‘Here’s how we do this routine. Now watch me as I go through it at half speed. When I say Go, we’ll do it at full speed. Are you with me? Here’s the routine at half speed.’

While Tiffany performed the stepping routine, Stella stared wide-eyed at the TV, trying to keep up with the increasingly convoluted choreography. By the seventh step, she had lost track of what she was expected to do and let out a long, slow growl. “Oh, who the hell can follow that kind of… Reggie, am I stupid or is that-” she started to say but cut herself off when she noticed that Regina was following the program to the letter. “Never mind.”

“You don’t have to follow it religiously, Stell. Just find a sequence that works for you,” Regina said and gave Stella’s shoulder a little squeeze.

“Yeah, yeah…”

On the DVD, the camera pulled back to show Tiffany getting ready for the real work. ‘Girls, are you ready?’ she said. When the five athletic women all nodded, Tiffany clapped her hands and shouted ‘Go!’.

A pumping beat started playing, and soon, all six women were hard at work on the stair steppers, occasionally letting out whoops and cheers to keep their spirits up.

Regina matched them step by step by going up, going down, moving right, going up, going down, moving left, going up, going down, shaking her left leg to the left, going up, going down, shaking her right leg to the right, going up, going down-

By then, Stella was miles behind, having stopped after going up for the first time – instead, she was completely and utterly mesmerized by the sight of the graceful, long-limbed Regina employing all her many skills to keep up with the complicated program.

Realizing that she hadn’t blinked for nearly half a minute, Stella shook her head and returned to her feeble attempts at keeping up. She tried going up, going down, going left, going right, going up, going down-

Then Regina unzipped her Track and Field windbreaker and threw it onto the couch, revealing a black, formfitting sports bra and acres upon acres of smooth, gloriously tanned skin.

Oh-point-five of a second later, Stella didn’t pull her leg high enough and failed to clear the front of the stair stepper. Losing her concentration, not to mention her balance, she nearly took a fumbling swan dive over the top of the stair stepper and onto the floor, but by flailing her arms in the air and letting out an “Ooooooooooooh!”, she managed to stay erect – just.

“Are… you… all… right?” Regina said around her routine.

“Yeah, yeah… damn, girl! Couldn’t you have warned me or something?”

“About… what?”

” ‘About what…’ Sheebus! That your torpedoes would make an appearance!”

Going up, going down, moving right, going up, going down, moving left, going up, going down, shaking her left leg to the left, going up, going down, shaking her right leg to the right, Regina just smirked and shot Stella a cheeky look. “Are… you… saying… I… still… got… it…?”

“Ha flippin’ ha! Never mind! How long is this nonsense, anyway?” Stella said and resumed her own program. Instead of trying to follow the impossibly complicated setup Tiffany was going through on the DVD, she just went up and down with one leg at a time.

“Twenty… minutes…”

“Get outta town!”

“Uh… huh…”

Sighing, Stella looked towards the heavens. After a few seconds, her eyes sort of slipped down to watch Regina’s upper body instead.

Once the first part of the exercise was over, an animated hourglass counting down from five minutes was shown on the DVD while Tiffany talked about the importance of stretching between the three steps of the Medium Impact Class.

“Yap, yap, yap,” Stella croaked, staggering over to the couch where she promptly flaked out.

Chuckling, Regina shook her limbs and sat down on the carpet where she began to stretch her buttocks and calves. “Stell, may I offer you some advice?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“On whether it’s got anything to do with what I put in my mouth,” Stella said and threw an old crumb at Regina while she shot her an Evil Eye.

Regina grinned and pretended to catch the crumb. “Okay, let’s forget that for now. Anyway, the second part of the program should be easier for you… it’s the Power Band, remember that?”

“Oh… the elastic band you stuff under your foot?”

“And around your legs and back, yep.”

Stella shivered, remembering quite vividly the instant waxing she’d suffered when the Power Band had slipped out of her grip and had nipped every single one of the little hairs on her right arm. Grimacing, she massaged said arm and sat up straight. “Okay, but I need something before we get to that,” she said and got up from the couch.

A short while later, she came back from the conference room with one of their bags of disguises. Diving into it, she quickly found a black-and-red ice hockey goalie mask to protect her eyebrows and two pale green latex veterinarian gloves that reached up to her elbows. “All ready. So there!”

A few minutes later – fully equipped and ready for anything – Stella got down on her knees and tucked her Power Band in under the knitted leggings. “Yeah, baby!” she exclaimed in a voice muffled by the ice hockey mask. “Watch out Miss Universe, Stella Starr is on the case!”

“D’ya think you’ve got enough protection there, Stell?” Regina drawled as she put her Power Band under her shoes and began to pull it up rhythmically, giving her biceps and pectoral muscles a good workout.

“Mmm-hmmm… you betcha!” Stella said and took a good grip on the two handles. With a deep breath, she managed to pull the Power Band up to her chest and hold it there for a few seconds, bringing out a surprising amount of muscle tone in her arms. Groaning and shaking from the exertion, she let go of the elastic band and let it fall down limply. “O… kay,” she said, huffing and puffing, “that’s one.”

“Nineteen to go,” Regina added, switching to a backhanded grip for the next set of ten pulls.

“Yeah, right. In your dreams, Reggie,” Stella said and shot her friend a pointed look through the mask. “I’ll be satisfied with… with… wi- HA-CHOOOO!”

“Bless you.”

“Thanks… oh… ewwwwwwww… I sneezed all over the inside of the mask…!”

“Oh Jeez, Stell!” Regina said, pulling a horrified face and a quick shimmy-shake to get rid of the willies that were crawling all over her skin.

When she noticed Stella trying to wipe the inside of the mask with one of her latex gloves, she put the Power Band away and went around Stella’s desk to grab their indispensable box of tissues. “Here you go… Stell… here…” she said, holding the box in front of Stella who didn’t respond at all. “Stell?”

“I can’t see a thing… my glasses kinda got coated…”

“Oh fer Chrissakes!” Regina howled and had to shimmy again. “C’mon, let’s go into the bathroom so you can get cleaned up,” she said and took Stella by the hand.

“Thanks, Reggie… you’re my pal. My best pal. My only-”

“You’re on your own the second we cross the doorstep,” Regina said strongly, keeping a safe distance from the mask and the glove Stella had used.

“Oh…”

Five minutes later – minus the mask but plus a freshly washed face – Stella came back into the office only to see Regina performing magic with an extra-large fitness ball. The former model was horizontal in the air, keeping her abdominal muscles on top of the ball while she held onto her own desk to keep the balance.

“Whoa, you’re… you’re really Supergirl, ain’t you?” Stella shouted, grinning broadly at the sight of Regina’s shapely rear end pointing straight up. “While you’re trying to learn how to fly, I think I’ll do something fun for a change and take the hula hoop,” she continued and went over to fetch the last of the fitness accessories.

On the DVD, Tiffany Reilly and her five athletic companions were enjoying themselves with fitness balls and hula hoops as well, but Stella just waved her hand and let out a “Pfffff! They don’t know how to do it properly! Reggie, you may not know this, but back in day, I was a hula hoopin’ champion! Yessiree, I won the Golden Hoop. I beat nine other girls from my ‘hood in the finals, can you believe that?”

Stepping into the hula hoop, Stella pulled it up and prepared to give it a spin. “Yeah… those were the good old days. Of course, I was five years old at the time…”

Regina looked up at her friend and grinned. “Careful… Stella… it’s… not… like… the… old… ones… it’s… got… weight… in… it…”

Unfortunately, Stella was too preoccupied with thinking about her glorious, award-winning past to hear what Regina said. Letting out a whoop, she gave the exercise hula hoop a mighty spin, expecting it to react just like the hoops she had used as a girl.

The first indication that something was wrong came after a complete tour. Once the hula hoop came back, Stella started moving her hips to make it stay up, but she hadn’t counted on the added weight so it pulled her a step to the side.

Undeterred, she increased the pace of her gyrating hips, thinking that she was merely a bit rusty after not touching a hula hoop for years. As the hoop gained momentum, she did, too, matching the centrifugal force with her own.

“Look at me, Reggie!” – wobble – “I’m hula hoopin’ ” – wobble, wobble – “Oh, this is so much fun!” – wobble, wobble, WOBBLE – “… but why is it…” – wobble, WOBBLE, WOBBLE – “… pulling me to the side…?” – WOBBLE, WOBBLE, WOBBLE!

Side-stepping frantically, Stella tried to get the hula hoop back under control only to find it possessed by a power greater than hers. Before long, the hoop led her on a guided tour around the office, bumping into the desks, the filing cabinets, the coffee table, the hallstand, and finally the TV that nearly keeled over.

“Yikes, I’m-” – wobblewobblewobble – “I c- can’t control-” – wobblewobblewobble – “the damn thing…” – wobblewobblewobble – “Mayday! Mayday! Stella…” – wobbleWOBBLEWOBBLE – “Stella in distress! Stella in distr-”

“Watch out, Stell, you’re comin’ straight for me!” Regina howled and tried to get off her fitness ball – but it was much too late.

“I’m going dooooooooown!” – WOBBLEWOBBLEWOBBLE – “Ooooooh!” – KER! – “Yeoooow!” – FUM! – “Ooooof!” – BLE! CRASH!

Once the dust had settled, Stella groaned and moved her nose out of Regina’s gloriously tanned belly button. Crossing her eyes to see if her beak was still attached, she gave it a little tweak to make it snap back to its original shape.

“Oh, Stell!” Regina growled, trying to push the fitness ball away so she could get fully over onto her back. Doing so, she accidentally bumped her elbow into the desk which sent a full stack of files down on top of them. “Oh. Just. Perfect.”

“And they say exercise is good for you… pah, what a load of sh…” Stella mumbled as she sat back on her thighs and began to pat down the carpet to find her glasses that had gone flying in the crash landing.

Sighing, Regina took pity on her friend and reached up to her cleavage where Stella’s frame was neatly placed across the two tanned globes almost like it had been put there by an unseen hand. “Here ya go, Stell. Caught ’em with my boobs.”

“Thanks, Reggie… you’re my pal,” Stella said and pushed them up her nose. “Wait… you caught them with your b-” she continued once they were in place.

“Yep.”

“Oh,” Stella said, taking them off again to polish the suddenly steamed-up lenses.

On the DVD, Tiffany Reilly went into a goodbye-speech where she thanked her five athletic companions and the many sponsors who had made it possible to create the DVD, and soon, the end credits began to roll.

“Boy, an hour just flies by when you’re having fun, huh…?” Stella mumbled, looking at the sorry state of the office where the hallstand had been knocked over, the items on the coffee table had been distributed all over the carpet, the vase with the dried flowers had fallen down between two of the filing cabinets – and last but not least, the week’s worth of paperwork that needed to be sorted again.

Inside Regina’s chest, a chuckle was formed that soon bubbled to the surface where it burst out of her with a bang. It was soon joined by many, many more, and before long, she reached up and pulled Stella down next to her to give her a good, old-fashioned crushing hug to have someone to share her laughing fit with.

Wrapping her arms around Regina’s inviting torso, Stella soon succumbed to the infectious laughter and began to laugh out loud herself – all the while showering the former model’s throat, cheek and lips with a string of little, loving kisses.

*
*
THE END of HULLABA-HOOP

V – BIG YELLOW TAXI

Written by Norsebard
*
*
CHAPTER 1

With a deep sigh and a slow shake of the head, Stella Starr put the sorry remains of her Rubik’s Cube down on her desk – while she had been playing, one of the squares had fallen off in her hand.

Sighing again, she leaned back in her seat and put her hands behind her back. “Great…” she mumbled under her breath as she stared at the Cube. “Not only do I have a winter depression because we’ve got nothing at all to do, now my most favorite toy in the world is broken… aw, shoot.”

Stella could feel that she was about to slip down into the familiar pitch black, bottomless chasm of despair so she pushed the chair back, pulled up in her winter jeans that were just a tad too large for her this time around, pulled down in her rainbow-colored sweater so she wouldn’t get a touch of frost on her stomach, and went straight over to the kitchenette behind the front door of the Harrison-Starr office to make herself a cup of strong, black coffee to compensate.

Once she had warmed her chilly hands on the steaming mug, she went over to the window to peek out. Outside, Regina Harrison – her best friend and kissing mate – was having a discussion with Billy the Mechanic, their friendly neighbor, on whether or not he’d be able to fix the damage to the right rear light cluster on their leased Mercedes SLK.

Chuckling at the sight of Billy giving Regina a closer inspection than the car, Stella went back to her desk and sat down to get started on the pile of paperwork that was so tall it nearly rivaled the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Ten minutes later, Regina came back in and closed the front door behind her. “Hi again, Stell,” she said as she hung her heavy jacket on the hallstand just inside the door and flipped her long, dark hair out of the collar of her blazer.

“Hey, Reggie. So…?”

“Well, Billy said he needed to make a few calls,” Regina said as she kicked off her shoes and walked barefoot across the plush gray carpet to get to her own desk, “but he thought he’d be able to fix it.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah. He said there wasn’t any structural damage behind the panel. It’s only the light cluster itself that’s been smashed.” Taking a few papers, Regina leaned back in her seat and put her mile-long, slacks-clad legs up on the corner of the desk.

“What’s that gonna cost us?” Stella said flatly.

Turning around on her swivel-chair, Regina wiggled her eyebrows and shot Stella a wide, two-hundred watt grin. “Uh… a date. With moi.”

“Ohhh… a date,” Stella said a rubbed her forehead. “Remember the last time you went on a date with Billy? You were sick as a dog afterwards… and then I was sick as a dog!”

“I remember, Stell. Don’t worry, this time I’ll bring some protection.”

Hearing that, Stella scrunched up her face into such a horrified mask that her rosy cheeks lifted her glasses and nearly poked her in the eyes. “Oh GAAAAAAAAAAG, REGGIE!”

“Not like that…” Regina said, shooting her friend an exasperated look.

“Yeah, well… you never know where things might lead,” Stella mumbled and jumped out of her chair to take her mind off that particular subject. After fidgeting for a few seconds, she made a beeline for the couch and threw herself on it. Once settled, she moved down flat on her stomach and rested her head on her arms. After a few seconds, she began to swing her legs back and forth in the air behind her, showing off her Snoopy socks and her purple flip-flops.

Regina put down the paper she had been holding and cocked her head, thinking there was something she had missed. “Me and Billy? That’d be a laugh and a half, Stell.”

“Mmmh!”

Getting up, Regina quickly crossed the room and patted Stella’s jeans-clad butt to get her to move into a sitting position. Once the couch was clear, she sat down, hooked her arm inside her friend’s and pulled her close. “Though, maybe if he shaved and showered… he’s got skilled hands, you know,” she said dreamily just to tease Stella.

“I’ll give you skilled hands,” Stella mumbled, snuggling up next to Regina’s warm body.

When it finally dawned on Stella that Regina was sitting very still, she felt like slapping herself over the head. ‘Great, you schmuck… more foot-in-mouth… how often can you do that without scaring her away?’ – “Ha, ha, that was just a jok-” Stella started to say, but when she looked up and caught the smoldering gaze in Regina’s ice blue orbs, the words were cut off like someone had flicked a switch somewhere.

Regina thought the wide-open, gobsmacked look on Stella’s face was too cute not to reward, so she leaned in and claimed the blonde investigator’s soft lips in a sweet, little kiss. “It’s okay, Stell,” she whispered. “I know it must be a real burr in your shorts, but… but I’m not fully ready yet. I promise that you’ll be the first to know when I am. Okay?”

“Okay,” Stella squeaked.

“Good,” Regina said and kissed Stella again for good measure. “Now, will you please tell me what’s bothering you? I can tell you’re a bit off…?”

“Ah, it’s my Cube… my Rubik’s Cube that I’ve had since childhood and that I’ve played with ten thousand seven hundred and ninety-nine times without any problems whatsoever… today, when I used it in my, uh, meditation session, one of the blocks just broke off in my hand,” Stella said with a despondent shrug.

Stretching up, Regina looked over Stella’s dirty-blonde mop of hair and glanced at the desk. “Awwww… I’m sorry. I know how much that silliness means to you, Stell,” she said and reached up to muss Stella’s wild locks.

“Thanks, Reggie… you’re my friend. I’ll never find a Rubik’s Cube again. Not one of those, anyhow. The modern ones are so… so… plasticky.”

“Yours was plastic, too, Stell.”

“Yeah, but it was quality plastic… eighties plastic!”

“Uh-huh?” Regina said and stifled a smirk.

Stella managed to catch the smirk anyhow and poked the tall, former model in the ribs. “Don’t you start, Miss I’ll-Never-Touch-Anything-That-Isn’t-Made-Of-Natural-Products!”

“That’s me, hon… all natural!” Regina said and jumped at the chance to start a tickling squabble – but just when she had prepared her long fingers to grab plenty of Stella, someone knocked on the door.

*Knock, knock!*

“Go away, we’re not here!” Regina shouted, earning herself a loud snort from Stella.

‘Miss Harrison? It’s about the car,’ Billy the Mechanic said from the other side of the door.

“Oh… okay! Wait a minute!” Regina shouted.

‘Sure!’

“Stella,” Regina said solemnly and leaned in towards her blonde friend. “Just to show that you don’t have to worry about a thing when it comes to me and Billy, here’s a little kiss that I hope will tell you how I feel about ya…”

The only thing Stella had time to do before her lips were claimed by the deepest, sexiest, steamiest kiss she had ever shared with the gorgeous former model was to raise her eyebrows – two seconds later, she couldn’t even remember that she had eyebrows.

Every last part of her was tingling with a sweet buzz that raced through her as their tongues made love in her mouth; a buzz that threatened to make her do all sorts of adult things to the woman who had her hands firmly on Stella’s sides with her thumbs hovering precariously close to the suddenly tight peaks.

Pulling back from the big kiss, Regina placed a little peck on Stella’s nose and got up from the couch. “Are you convinced?” she husked on her way over to the door.

“Convinced?” Stella croaked, flaking out on the couch to the point of appearing boneless. “I d-… maybe… I d- don’t even know who I am… or who you are… or where I am… but, Gawd, that was the best sex I’ve had in years…” she said through her fogged-up glasses.

“I’ll bring you up to speed later, Stell,” Regina said with a grin. Flicking her perfect hair over her shoulder in a perfect cascade and standing up straight to really show off her perfectly curved six-foot-one frame, she assumed a suitably neutral smile and opened the door.

Billy the Mechanic – as ever wearing work boots, a canary yellow boiler suit over a filthy black t-shirt and finally a greasy baseball cap – stepped into the office and scratched his two-day stubble. “Hi again, Miss Harrison. Uh, I’ve made a few calls and I… oh, hi, Miss Starr,” he said when he noticed Stella reclining on the couch with a goofy grin on her face.

“Billy, my man!” Stella said in a funny voice, giving the mechanic a sort-of floaty wave.

“Uh, yeah… okay,” Billy said and scratched his hairline. “Anyway, I have a friend down b-”

Over on the couch, Stella grabbed the cue with both hands and let out a loud chuckle. “You have a friend? I have a friend too, Billy. A really, really, reeeeeeeeeally good friend…”

Billy stared at Stella and then at Regina who offered a shrug in return. “Uh… good for you, Miss Starr. Has she been, uh…?” he said, moving his hand in the time-honored fashion to illustrate someone taking a drink from a bottle.

“Don’t you worry about that, Billy. You were saying?” Regina said.

“Uh, yeah, I have a friend down by the bay and he has a light cluster in stock. My van is busted so it’ll take a couple of days for it to get here by mail,” Billy said and started playing with his zipper.

“I luuuuuuuurve busty vans!” Stella howled, earning herself two identical wide-eyed stares.

Regina sensed that Billy was starting to get just a little creeped out by Stella’s uncharacteristic behavior, so she put a reassuring hand on his greasy shoulder and leaned in towards him. “It’s her time of the month and she’s trying some new medication,” she whispered.

“Ohhhh. I, uh… see. Anyway, Saturday night. Pick you up at eight and don’t be late, right?” Billy said with a grin the size of a 1976 Plymouth.

“Right.”

“And we’re going to Bob’s Bucket o’ Ribs, right?”

“Right.”

“Yeah, ‘cos they’ve got a new thing this month. All you can eat for $4.99. Ain’t that cool? Wanna bet how many ribs I can chuck down, Miss Harrison?”

“No, thank you,” Regina said and pulled back her hand. “And I don’t want to bet how many you can upchuck, either,” she continued, looking around for a napkin to remove the layer of grease that had been transferred from Billy’s shoulder to the palm of her hand.

Billy, not quite getting the finer points of Regina’s answer, just nodded and grinned. Suddenly discovering that the former model had bare feet sticking out of the bottom of her slacks, he grinned even broader and began to wiggle his eyebrows. “Wear somethin’ sexy, yeah?”

“Sexeh!” Stella shouted, immediately followed by a girlish giggle fit that made Billy chew on his cheeks.

Groaning, Regina nodded and ushered the mechanic back towards the door. “I’ll give it some thought, Billy.”

“Fishnet stoc-”

“Out of the question.”

“Oh… okay. See you Saturday night,” Billy said and left the Harrison-Starr office.

On the couch, Stella was clearly still suffering the aftereffects of the kiss, shaking her stuff and bopping up and down to an imaginary beat. “Uh-huh, uh-huh, pick me up at eight, uh-huh, uh-huh, yeah baby, you can keep your hat on!”

“Stella, Stella, Stella…” Regina said with a sigh as she closed the door and walked back to the couch.

Unable to hold back the laughter that had threatened to burst to the surface, Stella leaned her head back and let out a loud belly-laugh that proved that she wasn’t as whacked-out as she appeared to be. “Sorry, Reggie. I just wanted to lighten the mood.”

“Any more lightened and we’d all be floating on little pink clouds,” Regina mumbled as she sat down next to Stella and began to muss the blonde investigator’s wild mop.

“Whassat?”

“Never mind. No, actually, I said you’re a devious little-” Regina said and tried to get back to where she had left off.

“Five foot four-and-a-half, thankyouverymuch!” Stella said, grabbing Regina’s long fingers before they could make contact with her tummy.

“Well excuse me, Stell.”

“Good. Now shut up and kiss me again.”

“Yes, dear.”

-*-*-*-

An hour later, Stella was trying to play a game of Queen’s Solitaire – that didn’t quite hold the same magic as her Rubik’s Cube – when she happened to look up just as a yellow shadow flashed past the window overlooking the parking lot.

Intrigued, she got up and went over to the window to see for herself what was going on. “Hey, Reggie, did you call a cab?” she said over her shoulder after spotting a yellow Ford Crown Victoria from the Taurus Cab Company parked next to her beloved AMC Pacer.

“No?” Regina said, pretending to be doing some paperwork but in reality reading a sizzling novel.

“Well, somebody did ‘cos one just drove into our parking lot.”

“Mmmm?”

“Yeah. Maybe it’s for Billy,” Stella said, leaned forward and craned her neck so she could look at Billy’s garage.

Seeing that, Regina rolled her eyes and put away the book. “Careful, Stell. Whenever you’re doing that, you have a tendency to meet the carpet.”

“Well, just in case you haven’t noticed… when I turned thirty-seven, I seem to have left all… well, nearly all… well, some of my clumsiness behind. Do you realize I haven’t tripped over anything for nearly two days? So there!”

“Just sayin’, Stell. Don’t shoot the messenger,” Regina said and picked up the book again.

Returning her attention to the taxi cab in the parking lot, Stella scrunched up her face. “Oh, the driver’s getting out… it’s a woman. Kinda neat-looking, too. No, she walked past us… oh, now she’s turning around… I think she’s looking for something… she’s looking at all the buildings… yeah, she’s definitely looking for something.”

“Gee, you think, Stell?”

“Ha flippin’ ha!” Stella said and spun around to flash Regina a hand gesture. Unfortunately, as she did so, the tip of her right flip-flop caught the edge of the carpet. Even more unfortunately, she didn’t notice until she was standing nearly horizontally in the air with one leg ahead of her and one leg so far behind her she looked like an elaborate hood ornament. “YEOOOOOW!” she howled, trying to stay erect.

When the flip-flop finally let go of the carpet, too much weight had been transferred forward for Stella to stay upright, and she hop-hop-hopped across the floor, flapping her arms in the air – directly into the door that opened at just the wrong time.

“Hello?” a female voice said from the other side of the door.

One second later, Stella rammed the door knuckles-forward which in turn made it slam shut, right onto the foot and knee of the person outside who had already begun to walk in.

“OWWWWWCH!” Stella howled, hopping, dancing, shimmying, shaking, cursing and swearing while clenching and unclenching her fists – their visitor was doing much the same out in the parking lot.

“Oh, Stella,” Regina groaned and hurried over to the door to see if she needed to find their first aid kit. Looking outside, she could see that the cab driver was basically okay, if a little miffed at being physically assaulted by a sturdy metal door. “Hi… sorry about that. Uh… do you want us to call an ambulance?”

“Nah, I’m fine, I’m fine… Jesus, lady!” the cab driver growled, rubbing her right knee. In her early thirties, her skin tone was a couple of shades darker than pink, and she had a soft, friendly face with deep brown eyes and a few freckles on her nose and cheeks. Her hair had been bleached white-blonde but dark brown roots were showing here and there.

“Anyway… is this the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency? I may have a job for you,” she continued and pulled her black jeans up and her dark blue fleece vest – that had crawled up when she had been hopping around on one booted leg – down.

“Yes, that’s right. I’m Regina Harrison, one of the investigators. Listen, please come inside,” Regina said and stepped aside. “It’s much too cold out here,” she continued with a two-hundred watt smile, thinking that they better butter up the presentation to compensate for the less-than-fortunate start.

“Thanks,” the cab driver said and unzipped her vest to reveal a dark gray hoodie.

Closing the door behind them, Regina looked to her right but couldn’t see Stella anywhere. Thinking that her clumsy friend had taken yet another tumble, she went around the desk and looked underneath it – without success. “I seem to be missing my business associate… oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”

“I didn’t say it,” the cab driver grumbled. “I’m Lucinda Huerta, hi.”

“Delighted to meet you. Please take a seat on the couch while I… oh, there you are,” Regina continued as Stella came back from the bathroom with two pieces of wet toilet paper wrapped around her skinned knuckles.

“Here I am,” Stella growled, looking just as miffed as the cab driver.

“Stella, this is Miss Huerta. She says she may have a job for us,” Regina said, winking furiously out of their potential customer’s field of view to make Stella aware that she better screw on her best smile.

Thus equipped, Stella closed the distance between herself and the cab driver and put out her aching hand. “Hi, Miss Huerta, I’m Stella Starr, the senior investigator of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?”

“Well,” Lucinda said and crossed her legs at the knee after shaking hands with the blonde fury. “I have a little problem.”

Stella quickly moved her chair over to the coffee table and sat down – then she realized she’d forgotten her pencil and notepad and she shot up from the seat to get them. Two seconds later, she shot back down and flipped the notepad open. “Problems are our specialty. Please go on,” she said with a smile.

“Have you heard of the Phoney Crew?”

“Oh!” Stella said excitedly, “The gang of counterfeiting con men?”

“Yep. I’ve been conned,” Lucinda said and began to play with a loose thread on her fingerless bicycle gloves.

“Wa-hey!” Stella said and turned around to flash Regina a big thumbs-up. When she realized it looked like she was celebrating someone else’s misfortune, she quickly put the thumbs-up away and assumed a serious pose. “I mean… oh. I’m truly sorry to hear that.”

Lucinda scratched her hair but decided that the two investigators were all right, despite their slightly odd behavior. “Uh, yeah. The thing is, I don’t know which of my passengers pulled the stunt on me. When I went through my purse at the end of my shift, I discovered that a Benjamin Franklin was phoney. The ink had smeared slightly, but other than that, it was a near-perfect fake.”

“Mmmm… I see,” Stella said, busy making notes in her notepad.

“Yes, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had my cab’s heater turned up a bit higher than usual ‘cos there was a fierce wind blowing, I wouldn’t have noticed a thing. It only smeared when it got warm,” Lucinda said with a deep sigh.

Dotting the Is and crossing the Ts in her notes, Stella turned around and looked at Regina who was sitting at her desk with their laptop running in front of her. “Mmmm. Right. Reggie, do you have anything to add?”

“Yes I do, Stell. Just a moment,” Regina said as she typed on the keyboard. “Hmmm… hmmm… hmmm… okay. I’ve just read on the police advisory web site that they strongly recommend the cab drivers who have been conned to report it at once to their garage bosses so the authorities can keep a detailed map of the incidents and try to build an M.O. for the criminals. Have you done that, Miss Huerta?”

Lucinda leaned back in her seat and began to chew on her lips. “No,” she said quietly after a little while.

“May we ask why not?” Regina said, cocking her head.

“Well…” Lucinda said, but soon stopped. She began to smooth down a few imaginary creases on the top of the backrest of the couch with her fingers, but never got very far before she started over. After a little while, she grimaced and shrugged. “He hates my guts.”

“Oh,” Stella said and made a little note. “Because you’re a woman?”

“No. Because… uh… because I’ve got a criminal record. And my garage boss, Al Jones is a real law and order kinda guy. Look,” Lucinda said and suddenly leaned forward to put her elbows on her knees, “I need this job. I need the money. If I tell Al, he’ll kick me out on my ass… I’ve tried to live on the street after I did my time and I just can’t do that again. I covered for the phoney hundred bucks with some of my own savings so Al wouldn’t blow a gasket, but the guys at Taurus Cab Company have already been conned nearly half a dozen times. It’ll happen again, and it could really easily happen to *me* again… but I can’t afford that!”

When it didn’t look like her story had swayed the two investigators into helping her, Lucinda sighed and got up from the couch. “Never mind. I can see you’re not-”

“No, no, no, hold your horses,” Stella said and jumped up from her chair. “We’re just thinking about your situation. That always takes a little while with us. You’re definitely in a tight squeeze… Reggie?”

“Miss Huerta, just out of complete curiosity… where did you hear about us?” Regina said and closed the laptop.

“Ruby Albrecht. Ruby calls me sometimes when one of her regulars gets too drunk to get home alone.”

Smiling, Stella put her hand on Lucinda’s elbow and gave it a little squeeze. “You know, I think we’ve seen your cab there from time to time. You often park by the neon sign, don’t you?”

“Yep. So…?”

“Congratulations,” Stella said, snatched Lucinda’s hand and began to pump it up and down like an old water well. “Harrison-Starr is on” – pump, pump – “your case. Have no fear,” – pump, pump – “we’ll get to” – pump, pump – “the bottom of it in” – pump, pump – “no time. Yep. Me and” – pump, pump – “Reggie here are gonna wipe” – pump, pump – “the floor with those counterfeiters.”

“Well… that’s good” – pump, pump – “to hear. But, uh, what’s that” – pump, pump – “gonna cost me?” Lucinda said and pulled her hand back from the blonde investigator before her shoulder would fall out of its socket.

“Oh, we can talk about that later. Right, Reggie?” Stella said and winked several times at her friend.

Regina sat down on the corner of her desk and made a few sketches in her notepad, already laying grand, detailed plans on how they’d be able to help the cab driver. “Right. This requires coffee. Black, and plenty of it. Miss Huerta-”

“And bagels,” Stella interjected.

“And bagels. I’ll giv-”

“With cream cheese, jam and caraway seeds. Not on the same one, of course,” Stella said, responding to the highly confused look on Lucinda’s face. “One… no, better make that two with cream cheese spread, not the garlic one, the one with their special herb mix. Two with cream cheese spread, two with strawberry jam… they make the best jam, like, ever. It’s actually a strawberry puree and they add just a touch of Caribbean spiced rum to it… I know that sounds weird, but it’s really good. Oh, and just one with caraway seeds. Those little buggers get everywhere, huh! I find ’em in my teeth even days later, but they taste so good,” she continued with a great, big smile.

“Anything else while we’re at it, Stell?” Regina said flatly.

“Oh no, I’m good. Okay, maybe some chocolate spread.”

Regina reached for the telephone but stopped when she’d had time to properly parse Stella’s stream of words. “Chocolate? On a bagel?”

“Yeah, you’re right… hmmm… hold the chocolate spread,” Stella said with a grin.

“All right. I’ll give the Bagelmeister a call. In the meantime, Miss Huerta, please sit down. We have a few details we need to sort out in order to find the best solution for you.”

Sitting down, Lucinda let out a breath of relief. “Thanks. Hey… uh… and the fact that I got a criminal record won’t bother you?”

“Well,” Stella said, keeping an eye on Regina while she placed the phone order to make sure that the former model got everything right. “Depends. Did you kill anyone?”

“No.”

“Plan to kill anyone?”

“No.”

With a disarming grin, Stella leaned forward and patted Lucinda’s knee. “Then we don’t need to know.”

“That’s grand of you, Miss Starr, but I feel like I should tell you anyway just to be straight. Eight years ago, I got busted for possession with the intent to sell… weed. But that was a BS call. Yes, I had a lot of doobies on me when I was arrested, but that was because I bought for the entire building I lived in at the time. The cops didn’t believe me and none of the residents backed me up,” Lucinda said with a shrug. “I got three to five, but I was let out after two on good behavior. And d’ya know the worst part?”

“No?”

“I don’t even smoke that shit. Never have. I was just the quickest. I could outrun the dealer’s goons if I had to. That’s why I was picked to get it.”

“Oh, shoot…” Stella said and made a horrified face. “Wow, that’s awful. Well, thanks for telling us, Lucinda, but like I said before, it doesn’t really matter.”

Hanging up after literally spelling out their order – not once, but twice – to the slightly clueless telephone operator at the Bagelmeister, Regina flipped her notepad shut and walked over to the coffee maker to prepare for their brainstorming session. “Coffee, Miss Huerta?”

“Yes, please. Black and strong,” Lucinda said and got up to take off her fleece vest and her hoodie, revealing a black t-shirt with a colorful cartoon of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote across her bosom.

The sight proved irresistible for Stella who was nearly swept off her feet by an overwhelming, spirit-consuming urge – an urge that was so strong that despite her best efforts to keep everything inside, she was unable to stop herself from pointing at the t-shirt with a trembling finger and say: “Meep! Meep!”

-*-*-*-

A short forty-five minutes later, Stella, Regina and Lucinda left the office and walked over to Lucinda’s yellow Ford.

“So,” Lucinda said as she unlocked it. “Miss Starr, I don’t mind you taking over my cab for tomorrow night, but you gotta promise me to bring it back in one piece. Al Jones will have my ass on a platter if you dent it.”

“Oh, I’ve had a license for nearly twenty years. I can drive,” Stella said, looking at the surprisingly pristine bodywork. “You don’t have to worry about a thing,” she continued with a broad smile that was meant to instill confidence in her abilities but that happened to bring forth a loud snort from Regina.

Lucinda looked from one investigator to the other but eventually shrugged and moved on. “Okay. I think you probably need to get used to how it drives, so have a seat,” she said and opened the front door.

“Yippie!” Stella squealed and jumped inside. Once her rear end was firmly down in the well-worn seat, she turned the ignition key and marveled at the sound of the potent engine.

“Yeah, it’s the two-eighty-one Modular engine. I guess it has two-hundred and thirty-something horses. It’s been serviced recently so they’re all home. Take a look at the automatic shifter, Miss Starr,” Lucinda said, leaning into the cab and pointing down at the stick. “It’s only got two forward gears, High and Low. We don’t need anything else for driving in the city. When we’re in heavy traffic, we only use Low. That’ll kick in an extra fan up front that keeps everything cool. Okay?”

“Yeah-yeah-yeah!” Stella said, bobbing her head excitedly.

“Okay. Now, if you look to your left, on the left side of the dashboard, you’ll find the alarm button. See it?”

“Yep,” Stella said and craned her neck.

“It’s designed so you can find it without looking. I won’t click it now ‘cos if I do, it’ll get me into all kinds of hot water, but if you’re ever in trouble, just click on it and a display at the dispatch will flash red with your current location. It’s one of those click-once-stay-in buttons,” Lucinda said with a smile.

“Nifty. Thanks!”

“Okay, that’s it, more or less. Go on, take it for a ride…” Lucinda said, stepped back from the cab and closed the door.

Squealing loudly, Stella selected Reverse and backed out of the slot next to her Pacer, careful not to run over any feet. Once it was straight, she put it into Low but waited a few seconds to apply the throttle.

“Miss Harrison, I’m beginning to get second thoughts about your plan,” Lucinda mumbled and scrunched up her face.

Regina chuckled and closed her jacket a bit better to stop the cold from getting inside. “I know my friend takes some getting used to, but she certainly knows what she’s doing. Once you know her better, you’ll see that she actually delivers every time.”

“Oh… that’s good,” Lucinda said, but her voice was drowned out by a loud roar from the Ford’s engine as the heavy cab set off with a screech and thundered up the parking lot. Down at the other end, the brake lights came on and the car nearly stood on its nose as it slowed down. Once it was steady, the little white light for the Reverse came on and it soon came back towards them, going a fair bit more carefully than before.

“Miss Harrison… Miss Starr isn’t used to driving potent cars, is she?” Lucinda said flatly.

“Nope. That’s her car right there, the Pacer,” Regina said and pointed at the brown classic parked next to the low-slung silver metallic sports car they were leaning against.

“Hmmm…” Lucinda said and rubbed her chin.

Chuckling, Regina reached over and put a reassuring hand on Lucinda’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’ll be all right. And I’ll be real close at all times to make sure of that.”

“Oh… well, okay.”

After Stella had come to a halt in front of the two women, she put the shifter in Park and turned off the engine. Opening the door, she stepped out wearing a beaming smile. “O-yeah, this is gonna be great.”

Twenty minutes later – after giving Stella a crash course in how to operate the GPS and the taximeter – Lucinda got into her cab and drove out of the parking lot, leaving two waving investigators in her wake.

“She’s a nice lady,” Stella said, hooking her arm inside Regina’s once the yellow Ford had turned right onto the Boulevard.

“Yep.”

“Say, Reggie, do you know what time it is?”

Regina pulled up in her sleeve, but before she had time to check her watch, Stella had put a hand on her arm to stop her.

“It’s costume time,” Stella said with a wide grin.

A short while later, Stella emptied out three plastic bags of clothes onto the plush gray carpet in the center of their office and took a step back to survey what they had to work with. “Boots… check. Blue jeans or dark brown chinos…? Chinos, check. A white Slurrpy! Root Beer T-shirt, check. It’s got a little hole in it under my left armpit, but who’ll see that, right? Flannel shirt… hmmm, flannel shirt… hey, Reggie, should it be a red-and-green or a green-and-blue shirt?”

“Green-and-blue with brown chinos, Stell? You must be jok-” Regina said, sitting at her desk.

“Green-and-blue it is, then. Okie-dokie. It’ll work great with the chinos,” Stella said, oblivious to what Regina had actually said – the former model with the perfect fashion sense just rolled her eyes and went back to her paperwork.

The next item Stella found was a sleeveless pale blue denim vest that she held against her upper body. “Hmmm… Reggie, wouldn’t this look sensational over the flannel shirt? I mean, that would be a fashion statement, wouldn’t it?”

“Only if you’re trying to look like a…” Regina mumbled, but the Evil Eye that Stella shot her made her change her mind on the spot and say a simple: “Yes, dear.”

“Ha flippin’ ha! I know what I’m doing! So there! Okay, boots, pants, tee, shirt, vest. Okay. I’ll go change in the bathroom for a test run,” Stella said and picked up the various items she had found.

“Do you need a hand, Stell?”

Stella abruptly stopped walking with one foot in the air and one on the carpet. She just stood there for a few seconds, but then shook her head and continued on towards the bathroom. “No, thanks. But it’s a nice thought. Would ya mind holding it for a rainy day?”

“No problem, Stell,” Regina said with a laugh.

Once Stella had changed into her taxi driver disguise, she came back out into the office and stood in front of Regina’s desk in a laid back yet assertive pose with her legs slightly apart and her thumbs hooked inside her belt loops. “Wanna go for a ride, toots?” she drawled in a voice that was an octave deeper than her regular one.

Regina had to admit that the costume was a good fit – even if the colors clashed – and she clapped her hands a few times at her friend to show her appreciation. “Oh, that’s pretty good, Stell. Bravo. But… hmmm…” she said and cocked her head. “There’s something missing… something… hmmm… a hat.”

“A baseball cap or something?”

“No, not a baseball cap…” Regina said and walked around Stella to check her out from all angles. When she caught a glimpse of the rear side of the formfitting chinos, she couldn’t help herself – she simply had to reach down and give Stella’s rearward facing globes a little squeeze.

“Oooo!” Stella squealed, but Regina just whistled and continued her inspection.

“Who did that? Wasn’t me, nuh-uh,” Regina said, shaking her head. “No, I’ve changed my mind. You don’t need a hat, you need… something else… hmmm.”

Turning back around, Regina did another Tour of Stella to try to find out what was missing from the ensemble. “Oh, and another thing… when are you going to get that haircut, Stell? You’re too shaggy now,” she said and brushed two large tufts of dirty-blonde hair away from Stella’s ears.

“I know, I know… I was actually planning on going on Friday after we close for the weekend,” Stella said and ruffled up in her own hair.

“Mmmm. I better come with you to the salon. You know, to hold your hand and introduce you to the various tools Annette will use on you… like sheep shearers and stuff,” Regina said and leaned in to kiss Stella’s neck underneath her curtain of hair.

“Whaddahell you think I am? Some kind of kid who gets scared of scissors?”

“The thought did cross my mind, Stell.” Chuckling, Regina took a step back and let her trained eye glide down Stella’s body with the intensity of an X-ray. Once she reached the boots, she shrugged and took Stella’s hands in her own. “No, I can’t see it now. I thought there was something missing, but I’ve decided that you’re just fine as you are. A real diamond in the rough… natural, unpolished, rough around the edg-”

“Hey!” Stella said strongly and poked an index finger into Regina’s side.

“Ouch! Are you challenging me to a tickler?” Regina said and spread out her fingers to be ready for an all-out assault.

“You better believe I am, Miss Tall-and-Big Foot!” Stella said and mirrored the fighting stance.

“Ooooh! That was low, Stell! Of course, only being knee-high to a Cadillac will do that to a woman!”

Laughing out loud over her best friend’s scathing insult, Stella did the only thing she could in that situation – she jumped ahead fingers-first and began a terrible, merciless campaign of Tickle And Tease across Regina’s long, shapely torso.

*
*
CHAPTER 2

Just after nine PM the next evening.

Swallowing a nervous lump in her throat, Stella concentrated hard on looking at herself in the portable mirror so she could get the buttons of the flannel shirt lined up right – she had already messed it up twice.

When the third attempt went south as well, Regina slid up behind her after exiting the bathroom. “Easy does it, Stell. D’ya want me to do you for you?” she said and put a pair of calming hands on Stella’s shoulders.

“No, thanks. I’m calm. In fact, I’m calmer than calm. I’m so calm they could use me for… oh… yes, please,” Stella said, admitting defeat when the fourth attempt went off the rails at only the second button.

“Okay,” Regina said with a smile and reached around Stella’s body. With a sure hand, she did the buttons all the way up, except for the top three which she left undone. “There. That’ll look best,” she said and pulled the blonde investigator into a little backwards hug.

“Thanks, Reggie. You’re my friend.”

“You’re welcome. D’ya want me to undo your chinos as well so you can tuck the shirt down?” Regina whispered in Stella’s ear.

A few indecent, yet oh-so-tempting, thoughts later, Stella shook her head, making the shaggy, dirty-blonde mop of hair fly left, then right. “No, I better do that myself,” she croaked.

“Okay. Here’s your vest,” Regina said and helped Stella get her arms into the denim vest after the shirt had been safely tucked into the chinos.

Once everything was lined up just right, Stella took a deep breath and let it out slowly thinking that she was ready – then she turned around and nearly choked on her tongue when she was exposed to the full brunt of Regina’s costume.

“Oh… my… flippity-flip-flip…” Stella croaked, eyeing the three-inch pumps, the tan nylons covering the mile-long legs, the burgundy skirt that came to just above the knee – make that the *tight* burgundy skirt – the open jacket and the flouncy mother-of-pearl plunging V-neck blouse that did a wonderful job of accentuating the tall, former model’s bosom and her gloriously tanned upper chest.

“Stell?” Regina said as she flipped her long hair out of the jacket’s collar, knowing that it would cascade perfectly down her shoulders and back.

“Uh-huh?” Stella said with her mouth all agape and her tongue all a-drooling.

Regina smirked and tapped an index finger on her chin, knowing exactly where Stella’s eyes were. “I’m up here, Stell.”

“Uh-huh?”

“That look in your eye… does that mean I still got it…?” Regina said and went into one of her favorite poses, the one where she cocked her ample hips one way and her head the other.

“Uh-huh… you still got it, Reggie.”

Smirking even wider, Regina closed the distance between herself and the blonde investigator and straightened the collar of the denim vest that had somehow turned itself the wrong way amidst all the excitement. “Wanna hear a secret?”

Regina’s hands on her neck didn’t exactly help the hazy stupor Stella was in so she just nodded.

“You’ve got it, too,” Regina whispered and leaned in to place a nice little kiss on Stella’s lips.

“Uh-huh… whut? Me? Waitaminute… me? Getouttahere. Now you’re just teasin’ me, Reggie,” Stella said with a snort, but added a little wink at the end of the sentence.

An insistent honk-honk from the parking lot signaled the arrival of Lucinda and her yellow taxi.

“Oh, it’s showtime,” Regina said and took the keys for the Mercedes. “Are you ready, Stell?”

Stella quickly curled herself up into a little ball and shimmied on the spot to get rid of all the uncertainty that had crept under her skin. Her knees, her hips, her arms, her hands and finally her hair were all given a great, big shake, accompanied by a resounding raspberry. Once she had completed the Shimmy Cure, she reached up to punch Regina’s shoulder. “Yup,” she said and pushed her glasses up her nose with a grin.

Outside, Lucinda turned off the engine and got out of her cab to wait for the two investigators. “Hi,” she said when Stella and Regina came out onto the parking lot. “Wow, Miss Starr, you really look the part,” she continued, eyeing Stella’s disguise.

“I… I do?” Stella said and stopped dead in her tracks.

“Sure. You’ll fit right in,” Lucinda said and walked around the back of the cab.

“D’ya hear that, Reggie? I guess you’re not the only swell gal here, huh?” Stella said and gave her friend a shoulder block.

Chuckling, Regina returned the block. “Well, I tried to tell you three minutes ago, Stell, but you told me to get outta here.”

Puffing out her chest, Stella began to strut around the parking lot like a peacock in full bloom. “Yeah… you better believe it. O-yeah, watch out world, Stella Starr is on the case. Fresh, hot and with her eye on the money, eh, Reggie? Ho-boy, those counterfeiters better watch their rears… there won’t be nothin’ left once the incomparable Stella Starr is done with ’em!”

Grimacing in a slightly embarrassed fashion, Lucinda looked at the impeccably dressed Regina who merely shrugged in return. “O… kay… uh… okay. Miss Starr, I’ve had something made for you… here,” Lucinda said and handed Stella a small plastic card the size of a credit card.

“What is it?” Stella said, looking at the details.

“It’s one of my old Driver’s ID-cards. We don’t look alike… at all… but the photo on this one is really old and fuzzy so no one will be able to tell that you aren’t the one on the ID-card. I’ve taken the new one so you don’t have to worry about that. There’s a spot for it above the rear view mirror, just slide it in. Okay?”

“Okay! That’s clever. Ain’t that clever, Reggie?” Stella said and waved the plastic card in the air – and promptly dropped it onto the pavement.

“Clever, yeah,” Regina drawled as she watched Stella smirk embarrassedly, pick up the card and wipe it clean on her vest. “All right, let’s recap. Stell, the taxi is all yours. Go left towards Downtown and proceed to East Sixth Street. You don’t have to wait for us at the intersections.”

“You got it, Reggie!”

Nodding, Regina turned towards their client. “Lucinda, you’re with me in the Merc. Once we reach the street where you live, I’ll drop you off and you’ll wait there until you hear from us. I have your home number,” she said, patting her jacket pocket.

“Works for me, Miss Harrison. I can watch some teevee. I’ll be fine.”

“Good,” Regina said and unlocked the SLK. “If nothing happens, we’ll drop off the cab at one A.M. or so at your address, then you can drive to your garage. Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Lucinda said with a smile.

“YIPPEE!” Stella howled and skipped over to the Ford. “And now! Now it’s time for some rock and roll, baby!” With a surprisingly graceful slide, she opened the door and slipped into the driver’s seat. Moments later, she offered Regina and Lucinda a big, fat thumbs-up before driving off down to the other end of the parking lot to make a U.

“Miss Harrison…” Lucinda said flatly. “I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but… I… uh… I’d suggest that Miss Starr reduces the doses of whatever it is she’s taking…”

“Lucinda, she’s clean as a whistle. She doesn’t even drink beer,” Regina said with a chuckle. “She’s just… Stella.”

“Oh. Okay,” Lucinda said and got into the Mercedes just as Stella brought the taxi to a halt behind them and honked a couple of times to show that she was about to make her first run as a fully-fledged taxi driver.

-*-*-*-

Dark clouds gathered over the small convoy as it drove towards downtown, soon producing a light but steady drizzle that created a spectacle on the windshield as the many drops of rain reflected the headlights of the other cars on the busy boulevard.

Stella had only driven eight hundred yards from the Harrison-Starr office when a man in a business suit stepped out onto the street and waved his arm at her, clearly intent on hailing her. Biting her lips, she checked the rear view mirror and noticed that Regina was flashing her headlights. She took that as an indication that she should drive on.

As she drove past the man, he shouted a few obscenities at her that she could quite clearly hear through the closed windows. “Sheesh, I hope you wash your mouth with soap before you kiss your mother, chump,” she growled, looking in the right-hand side mirror at the man who stepped back onto the sidewalk.

In front of her, the traffic lights turned red and she rolled to a halt. Just then, her cell phone rang, and she quickly answered it, expecting to hear Regina’s dulcet tones. “Yeah?”

Mumble, mumble.

“Whut… Joe? Man, how the hell are you? It’s been a while.”

Mumble, mumble.

“Yeah, no… yeah, no… I can’t talk right now. I’m driving but I have a hands-free… I mean, I don’t have a hands-free… I mean, I do have one, but it’s not hooked up yet.”

Mumble, mumble?

“No, uh… hang on, it’s green so I gotta go. Listen, call me again in two minutes, okay? I’ll have the hands-free hooked up by then,” Stella said and hung up.

Mumbl-!?

Digging into her pocket, she found the necessary cables and earplugs. At the next intersection, she quickly plugged the appropriate things into the appropriate jacks – or tried to, at least – and then tried to mash the white earplug into her ear. Unfortunately, the phone rang at the exact same moment, and she didn’t manage to clear the thick tufts of hair that covered her ears.

“Hello Joe, I… oh! Damn that piece of sh… earplug!” she said as the electronic device popped out of her ear and began to swing back and forth on the end of the cable that was attached to the phone itself. “Oh, why da’hell did they design it like that…? Damn that… that… that crap!” she growled, trying to snatch the earplug in mid-air as it swayed left to right.

Ahead of her, the line of cars had begun to move at the green light, but Stella was too busy to notice. Three seconds later, the cars behind her started tooting their horns, led by the easily recognizable sound of the Mercedes.

When Stella looked up and shot Regina an Evil Eye in the rear view mirror, she could see the former model wave at her with a wicked smile on her lips. “Oh ha, ha… how funny, Reggie. How mindblowingly funny… aw hell, it’s already changing to yellow again… I better mash the gas,” she mumbled and did just that.

With a loud roar from the powerful and recently serviced V8 engine, the Ford jumped forward and cleared the intersection in oh-point-two. Squealing almost as loudly as the car, Stella hurriedly hit the brakes and got back down to a safe twenty-five miles an hour, the fastest she felt like going in a strange car – or any car for that matter.

And then the phone rang again. “Aw, hell… hell-hell-hell,” she growled and finally managed to snatch the earplug. After inserting it – and rolling her eyes repeatedly – she settled down in the seat and tried to assume a cool pose. “Hi Joe, I’m ready to talk now.”

Mumble, mumble…

-*-*-*-

Fifteen minutes later, Lucinda leaned forward and pointed at an empty spot underneath a street lamp between an old VW Bug and a beat-up Toyota minivan that had a plastic bag for a rear window. “There… that’ll do just fine, Miss Harrison,” she said and unbuckled her seat belt.

Pulling over to the curb, Regina took a brief look at the state of the neighborhood and offered Lucinda a sympathetic smile. The buildings on either side of Sixth Street were all five- or six-story brownstones that hadn’t been properly looked after for the past few decades. Here and there, broken windows had been replaced by pale brown planks, and colorful graffiti covered most of the lower parts of the brownstones.

“Yeah, I know… but it’s not as bad as it looks. It’s a pretty safe ‘hood. We take care of each other here. You should swing by in the height of summer… sometimes, we spontaneously reclaim the street and hold the greatest parties you can imagine,” Lucinda said and pulled the little lever for the door.

“Sounds nice. All right, we’ll get back to you no matter what happens. I hope we’ll get somewhere tonight, but I’m sure you know that sometimes, you just can’t make predictions,” Regina said, leaning over towards the passenger side door.

“Sure, sure…” Lucinda said, sticking her head back inside the low-slung sports car. “Well, I’ll keep my phone turned on. Talk to you later, Miss Harrison,” she continued, closing the door behind her.

Pulling away from the curb, Regina flashed her headlights at Stella who had double-parked fifty yards ahead of her – now, the meaty part of their plan was about to commence.

When Stella caught a glimpse of the headlights, she activated the turning signal and drove on down Sixth Street. A few moments later, her phone rang again. “Yeah?”

‘It’s me, Stell. Are you ready?’

“Yeah, yeah! I have the hands-free set plugged in, I remembered to pee before we left, I know what to do with the GPS… I think,” Stella said and looked at the confusing, colorful video screen on the center part of the dashboard, “uh… I’ll work it out… in short, I’m all set. Hey, did you see that fella who wanted a ride?”

‘I saw him. And I think most of the street heard him.’

“Yeah,” Stella said and chuckled.

‘Anyway, we’re in the target area now so let’s follow the plan, Stell. First, you cruise around for ten-fifteen minutes to see if the counterfeiters will bite-‘

“And if they won’t, we’ll try the Central Station.”

‘Yes, where I’ll do a little charade to see if we can flush out the rats.’

“Yeah, I remember, Reggie. I wasn’t born yesterday, you know!” Stella said and peeked in the rear view mirror.

‘Good thing, too, because if you were, I’d be in trouble for some of the things I’ve been thinking about, Stell.’

“Yeah, and… wh- whut?” Just cruising along minding her own business, it took a few seconds for Regina’s words to filter through Stella’s brain, but when they had, her eyes popped wide open and she stared so hard at the mirror that she nearly burned a hole in it with her green orbs. “Whatcha just say, Reggie?” she croaked.

‘It’s a bad connection, Stell. I better hang up now,’ Regina said, and Stella could clearly hear the broad, saucy grin through the telephone.

“Did she just say that…? I think she did… but she couldn’t have… but I think she did… but she couldn’t have. Holy hell, she did say that! Wa-hey! … oh, that big tease!” Stella said in a voice that grew in intensity for every syllable.

-*-*-*-

Twenty-two minutes later, Stella drove up to the end of a long line of cabs at the Central Station and turned off the engine. Craning her neck, she could just barely make out the large, white face of the old-fashioned clock on the upper part of the historical railroad station. In the darkness, it was difficult to see the hands, but she reckoned it was close to nine fifty, PM – a quick glance at her cell phone confirmed that.

Behind her, Regina drove into an empty slot in a parking zone on the other side of the nearly deserted forecourt and got out of the car, clearly pretending to be a businesswoman headed for the trains.

Out of the side window, Stella watched the tall, graceful model pull a small portable suitcase out of the trunk of the Mercedes and begin to roll towards her. As Regina went past Stella’s taxi, she winked before continuing inside the Central Station itself.

“To flush out the rats, she said… oh, if I could only be a rat,” Stella mumbled, keeping her eyes firmly trained on Regina’s gently wiggling rear as she tripped along on her three-inch heels.

Thirteen minutes later, a myriad of people of all shapes, sizes and colors carrying backpacks, suitcases and a variety of other gear poured out of the station and made beelines for the cabs. The drivers who had been chatting next to their cars hurried back inside and got ready to drive to wherever their potential passengers wanted to go.

Stella scrunched up her face and sat up straight in the seat – they hadn’t made a contingency plan for such a situation. “Aw hell… Reggie… hurry back to me… aw, hell…” she mumbled, looking at the throng of people jostling for the cabs.

Inevitably, the taxis ahead of her all got passengers and began to move out of the line. From talking to Lucinda, she knew she had to follow the rules, so when it was her turn, she started the engine and rolled up to a small, yellow sign on the forecourt marking the taxi rank.

Within a few seconds of arriving there, she noticed with a rising sense of horror that an elderly man hauling a heavy-looking suitcase on wheels was headed straight for her. When he signaled at her, she sighed and stepped out of the cab to put the suitcase into the trunk. “Jumpin’ Jehosaphat, Stella Starr… you iz about to get a baptism by fire,” she mumbled to herself as she put the enormously heavy suitcase into the trunk. “Oy! Whatcha got in here, Mista? Man, this thing is heavier than Kelsey’s burgers, and that’s saying a lot…”

“Things I need for my business,” the elderly man said and got into the back seat.

“Yeah?” Stella said and quickly got into the cab. “What kind of business? Are you a dentist or something?” she continued, looking at the elderly man’s black suit, black derby hat and the somber expression on his face.

“No, I’m an undertaker. Twenty-sixth Street high numbers, please.”

“Un- un- un- undert- t- taker…?!” Stella stuttered, almost driving straight into a concrete flower bed that separated the pedestrian area from the street.

“Yes.”

“Wh- wh- wh- what’s in the suitcase?” she stuttered as she tried to punch in the address on the GPS; her trembling fingers made it difficult to hit the little keys.

The elderly man sighed and took off his derby to scratch his thin hair. “If you must know, it’s promotional material for my funeral parlor. I’ve just visited a trade fair where I bought several calendars, busin-”

“GET OUTTA TOWN! They make calendars for funeral parlors?!” Stella howled and spun around in her seat to take a good look at the elderly man.

“Yes. Will you please drive now? I’m tired and need to get some rest. A long rest will do me good,” he said and leaned back in the seat.

“Long rest… funeral parlor… long rest… funeral- Brrrrr!” Stella mumbled and activated the taximeter before she took off from the forecourt, turning right onto the boulevard like the lady with the silky smooth voice who was stuck inside the GPS told her to.

Stepping out onto the forecourt, Regina just caught a glimpse of the taxi’s red taillights as it drove away from the station and turned right. “Hmmm… I hope my little friend is up to the task,” she said under her breath.

She dug into her jacket pocket to find her cell phone so she could stay in contact with Stella, but thought better of it at the last moment. “Ah, she’s a big girl… she’ll be fine. Though I better follow her… she can get lost on her way from the bathroom to the front door.”

As she picked up her empty suitcase and began to walk away from the station, no less than three people loitering in the grand hall whistled wolf calls at her, making her grin broadly and slam her hips left and right in her trademark model-walk.

-*-*-*-

“He wanted to go where?” Regina said into her cell phone twenty minutes later. After following Stella at a leisurely distance, she had lost the blonde investigator’s trail when the traffic lights at a busy intersection had turned red between their two cars, and since then, she had tried to find a way to get the two cars back together.

‘His funeral parlor. Ain’t that creepy? I thought it was creepy. Anyway, you know what’s even more creepy?’

“No?”

‘You’ll never guess his name. Go on, try to guess his name, Reggie!’

“It could be absolutely anything…”

‘No, that’s not it.’ – snicker, snicker – ‘Do you give up?’

Regina chuckled at Stella’s silly humor, picturing the red spots on her friend’s cheeks and the excited sheen in her eyes. “I give up, Stell.”

‘Clint Addams. I kid you not. Two D’s and everything.’

“Like the Addams Family?” Regina said and activated her turning signal so she could turn left onto one of the connecting streets.

‘Exactemundo. Weird or what? Which reminds me… where in Sam Hill are you, anyway?’

“I’ve just turned down Twenty-second Street, headed West. Where are you?”

‘I have no idea. I’m hopelessly lost!’

Shaking her head slowly, Regina moved past a slow delivery van from one of the major newspapers that was snailing along in the inner lane. “Well, uh… what does it say on the GPS, Stell?”

A long, long, long pause.

‘Oh. I didn’t think of that,’ Stella said once she came back from the forty seconds in the wilderness.

“Uh-huh? Well, what does it say?”

‘I’m still going west on Twenty-sixth Street, closing in on Avenue C.’

“We’re running parallel to each other, but you’re ahead of me. Okay, I’ll double over to Twenty-sixth at the next intersection. Pull over somewhere and wait for me, okay?”

‘Okay, Reggie… sorry about that. It didn’t cross my mind to look at the little display because I don’t have one in the Pacer you know and all this newfangled technology is really confusing the brown stuff out of me- I just don’t think that way, Reggie, you know that and-and-and… but now that I’ve found out where I am, I think I’ll pull over right here and wait for you.’

“Ah, yes. Please.”

‘I’m pulling over as we speak, Reggie. Hey, I got the munchies. I wonder what Lucinda has in her glove box…?’

“Well, you could-”

‘WOOOHOOOOOOOOOO!’ Stella howled into the cell phone, spooking Regina so badly that she completely missed turning right in the intersection she was driving through.

“Jesus! What happened, Stell? Are you all right?” Regina howled back.

‘I just found a brand new, pristine, virginal roll of Oreos!’

“Well good for you, Stell,” Regina grumbled, trying to see if she could make a U so she could get back on track – unfortunately, the traffic was so heavy that she wasn’t able to.

‘Oh… oh, I got’ – munch, munch – ‘a new customer, Reggie. Uh…’ – munch, munch – ‘ hang on, it’s’ – munch, munch – ‘a little old lady’ – munch, munch – ‘with a couple a’ – munch, munch – ‘Chihuahuas. D’ya remember if’ – munch, munch – ‘Lucinda said anything’ – munch, munch – ‘about allowing’ – munch, munch – ‘dogs in her cab?’ – munch, GULP.

“I haven’t a clue, Stell,” Regina said, still trying to find a route that would get her over on Twenty-sixth Street.

‘Oh, it doesn’t matter now, anyhow. I gotta go, Reggie. I’ll call you once I’m free again. Okay?’

“Okay,” Regina said and sighed.

Over on Twenty-sixth Street, Stella stepped out of the cab and walked around it, casually glancing at the office building she had stopped in front of. On the sidewalk, a lady in her late fifties was holding a leash with two Chihuahuas both dressed in pale pink horsecloth that had been made to resemble the dress and the pillbox hat their owner was wearing.

“Good evening, Ma’am,” Stella said and opened the back door. “Your dogs are well-protected from the chill, huh?”

As a reply, the lady offered Stella a warm smile and the leash with the two dogs. “Yes they are, driver. Would you mind having the dogs up front? If they can’t see out, they have a tendency to get car sick,” she said as she pulled up in her pink dress and sat down on the back seat.

“Uh… car sick…? Okay, I can do that,” Stella said, already thinking that if she could prevent mopping up dog-puke, her evening would improve greatly.

“Excellent. Barbara!”

From a glass door in the office building, a female assistant – with a harried, ragged look on her face – came out with six more Chihuahuas on three leashes. Seeing the cab, the small dogs began to yap incessantly and run around in circles, quickly tying their leashes into big knots.

“Uh… buh…!” Stella exclaimed at the sight. Soon, all eight dogs yapped simultaneously, creating such a wall of sound that it completely drowned out even the loud, swooshing noises coming from the traffic behind them.

“Would you mind holding these?” the female assistant said, handing Stella the remaining leashes without waiting for a reply. When her hands were free, she hurried back inside and only glanced very briefly at the unfortunate taxi driver.

“Mi- uh… mind? Yes, I would mind!” Stella said, but it was too late. Three Chihuahuas went one way around her legs; four Chihuahuas went the other way, and the last one kept standing somewhere in the middle where it went into such a brutal yapping frenzy that Stella became quite deaf on both ears, though mostly the right.

Once the leashes holding the seven galloping Chihuahuas were fully extended, the dogs all spun around and raced back the way they had come from – and within two seconds, Stella had been tied up so fiercely that she couldn’t move an inch without falling on her butt or her face. To compound her misery, her glasses began to slip down her nose from whipping her head around so much while keeping track of the dogs.

“Oh, heeeeeeeeeeeeell!” she howled, but even that didn’t appease the dogs. With superhuman strength, she moved one leg in a parabolic arc to get it above the tangled-up leashes, and twisted her way out of the mess once the sole of her boot reconnected with the pavement, but the few inches she had managed to move just made everything worse.

When one of the dogs decided to run in the opposite direction to all the others, its leash snapped to attention and went straight up, slapping Stella quite literally across the juncture of her legs. “Ooooooooh! Unfair!” she squeaked in a high-pitch voice, trying to push up her glasses, control the dogs and get the leash out of her crotch all at the same time.

In the end, she let out a long, tormented sigh and resigned herself to doing it the hard way – by crouching down and picking up the first of the demon dogs.

Holding the first Chihuahua in her left hand, she used her right to open the passenger side door. Once it was open, she chucked the dog down into the footwell and got ready to grab the next. Unfortunately, as soon as she turned around to get the next dog, the first Chihuahua tore back outside and onto the sidewalk where it joined its family.

“Oooooh, you didn’t just do that… yes, you did… ooooooh… do you like hot dogs?” Stella hissed in a steely voice that was low enough not to be heard by her passenger while she chased the eight demon dogs around on the sidewalk.

“I like hot dogs very much…” – fumble, grasp, poke – “mmmm, yes… freshly made” – fumble, fumble, poke – “hot dogs with mustard and pickled” – fumble, poke, poke – “cucumbers and stir-fried onions” – poke, grasp – “and chili ketchup and-and-and…” – fumble, fumble – “I think I’ll make myself a few hot” – fumble, grasp, poke – “dogs when I get home… mmmm, yeah…” – fumble, poke, poke – “I got plenty of dogs, I only need some bu- bu- buns! OH, YOU DAMN MUTTS! WILL YOU GET INTO THE FU… FU… FU… FLIPPIN’ CARRRRRRRR!” she suddenly screamed at the top of her lungs, jumping up and down and stomping her boots onto the pavement in a hissy fit that was only a half-notch below an all-out ‘…ucker’-attack.

Miraculously, the dogs obeyed her command and shuffled into the footwell and onto the front seat.

Feeling drained of ninety-eight percent of her life force, Stella just stood there, huffing, puffing, panting and moaning, with watery, unseeing eyes and a jaw that was so slack she had problems keeping her tongue inside. After a few seconds, she shut the door to make sure the dogs didn’t escape again.

“I need a coffee break,” she croaked on her way over to the driver’s side door. Finally sitting down, she turned around in her seat and looked at the lady in pink who didn’t seem to have paid attention to any of the things that had gone on around her. “Where’d ya like to go, lady?”

“Oh, 3139 Avenue C, please. And make it snappy, I’m late for a date.”

“A date?” Stella croaked as she punched in the address on the GPS. When the directions flashed onto the screen, it dawned on her that the destination was just around the corner.

Slumping down into the seat, Stella stared wide-eyed and mouth-agape out of the windshield, eventually starting the engine and driving off in a blurry haze, accompanied by eight drooling, whining and yapping Chihuahuas.

-*-*-*-

Some time later, Stella turned right into the parking lot of a 1950s-style diner she remembered from another job she had worked on in that part of the city. The diner – located a block away from the Central Station – was designed to resemble a Streamliner rail car with large windows and plenty of polished aluminum.

The lot was mostly empty so Stella had no problems finding a spot near the entrance. After she had turned off the engine, she just sat there, staring into The Void – mentally and physically knocked out after the trips she had made so far.

The traffic lights in the intersection next to the diner kept blinking red, yellow and green for several minutes until they finally persuaded her to get on with the program. Sighing deeply, she reached over to the dashboard and turned on her phone.

‘It’s Regina. Stell?’

“Yeah, it’s me. I’m at the 1950s diner at the corner of Nelson Boulevard and Eleventh Street. I need a coffee break so badly it’s just not funny… how the hell Lucinda can do this day-in, day-out I have no idea… please… pleeeeeeeeease, Reggie, come and give me a friendly smile… or something… anything…!”

‘I’ll be there. I was waiting for you at the Central Station.’

“That would’ve been next on my list, but I j… j… just couldn’t go on without some coffee, you know. Mmmm, cooooffffeeee… makes my day… brown, hot, so tasty, mmmm… aw Jeez, that’s it, I gotta get some,” Stella said and slapped her cheeks repeatedly when she realized that she was fantasizing about skinny-dipping in an ocean of black coffee. “Uh… just come into the diner once you’re here, okay? Do you want me to order something for you?”

‘No, that’s okay, Stell. I won’t be long.’

“Great. Stella out!”

Swinging open the driver’s side door, Stella climbed out of the taxi and staggered on clay feet over to the diner, looking more like an early – rejected – version of one of Frankenstein’s monsters than a thirty-seven year old human being with wild hair, thick glasses and an unquenchable thirst for coffee and tall, graceful former models.

“Coffee. Black. And when I say black, I mean black-black… like in, hold the sugar. And strong. Black and strong, get it?” Stella croaked as she slipped onto one of the twenty bar stools that lined the long, period counter made of hardwood and shiny aluminum.

The waitress – a friendly-looking woman in her late forties who was wearing an outfit that was a faithful interpretation of a 1950s hostess uniform – chuckled and wiped her hands on her colorful apron. “Comin’ right up. You a cab driver?”

“That’s right,” Stella croaked and ran both hands through her dirty-blonde mop of hair.

Taking a glass coffee pot, the waitress poured a healthy amount of a pitch black liquid into a large mug and pushed it across the counter. “Then you get a free refill. Here you go. That’ll be a buck fifty, please.”

“Neato! I could definitely use it…” Stella said, grabbed the mug and chugged down a large gulp. “Awwwwwwww Gawd… I needed that,” she continued, wiping a few brown droplets away from the corners of her mouth with the back of her hand before she found her coin purse and dug out three fifty-cent pieces.

“I could tell,” the waitress said with a new chuckle as she checked the handful of coins Stella gave her.

As the rich, slightly bitter taste developed in Stella’s mouth and throat, she licked her lips and leaned down towards the mug to sniff the black coffee. “Wow… this is great stuff!”

“Thanks. Tough night?”

“Oh, boy… you have no idea,” Stella said and raised her glasses to pinch the bridge of her nose.

Out of sight of Stella, the waitress scribbled something on a small piece of paper and hid it in the palm of her hand. “Well, I’m all ears,” she said and leaned against the counter right in front of the temporary taxi driver.

A second later, she inconspicuously pushed the piece of paper across the counter with her index finger, sliding it under the mug while Stella wasn’t looking.

When Stella raised the mug to savor another sip of the strong, black elixir of life, she couldn’t help but see the note. Furrowing her brow, she picked it up and read it. It said: ‘I’m off at 2. See you then?’

“I… uh…” Stella said, taking a much better look at the waitress. Beyond the slightly garish uniform, the woman had almond-shaped eyes that were a foxy shade of deep brown. Her skin had gained the occasional line here and her pale brown hair had streaks of gray there, but all in all, she looked terrific. ‘Oh, man… damn, she looks great… but… oh, shoot, why couldn’t this have happened last year instead…? Why noooooow…?’ Stella’s inner voice whined.

Before Stella’d had time to line up all her thoughts in a neat little row so she could speak without embarrassing herself, the bell above the door sent out a harmonic ding, heralding Regina’s arrival. “Oh, there you are, Stell. I thought I’d lost you again,” the former model said as she walked into the diner, still wearing her exquisite costume.

“Uh… hi, Reggie,” Stella said and hurriedly put the little note into her right jeans pocket.

The waitress just chuckled dryly and offered Stella a wink and a quick smile before moving over to her new customer. “Hi. What can I get ya?”

“Cafe Latte, please,” Regina said and slid up on the bar stool on Stella’s right.

Feeling more than a little guilty, Stella reached into her jeans pocket and found the note. Initially she wanted to crumple it up, but changed her mind at the last moment and simply transferred it to her left pocket so it wouldn’t be so close to Regina.

“We don’t have Latte here, Miss. You can get regular coffee with milk or cream if ya want…?” the waitress said, polishing the counter in front of Regina.

“Coffee with a touch of sugar and a healthy amount of cream, please,” Regina said and found her wallet.

When the waitress turned around and began to make a new mug of coffee, Regina leaned in and bumped shoulders with Stella. “Hey. No offence, Stell, but you look like S. H. I. T. right now.”

“That’s how I feel, too, Reggie…” Stella said, deliberately staring into her mug so Regina wouldn’t see the guilty look on her face.

After the waitress had put down Regina’s mug of coffee, she leaned against the counter again. “That’ll be a buck fifty. Have you been together long?”

“Uh…?” Regina said and looked at Stella.

Chuckling, Stella drained the last drops from her own mug and put it down on the counter. “It’s okay, Reggie. She’s family.”

“Oh. Year and a half last month, but we…” Regina said, but stopped when she looked at Stella’s profile. “Yep, a year and a half,” she continued a few seconds later.

“That’s so cool,” the waitress said. “Opposites attract and all that, eh? By the way, I’m Diane. Hi.”

“Hi, I’m Regina. This is my boss, my best friend and a whole lot more, Stella,” Regina said and once again bumped shoulders with the blonde investigator.

“Pleased to meet ya, Regina and Stella. Are you ready for your refill now?” Diane said to Stella, holding the glass coffee pot.

Stella answered the waitress’ question at once by pushing her empty mug forward with a very broad grin on her face. “Thought you’d never ask!”

*
*
CHAPTER 3

“That was a mighty fine coffee, Diane! We’ll be back, count on it!” Stella said as she held the door open for Regina some time later.

Diane chuckled and put down the mug she had been wiping. “Thanks, Stella. Lookin’ forward to it.”

“Yup,” Stella said and closed the diner’s door behind her. “Mmmm… it’s a nice evening now. Chilly, though,” she continued, looking up at the dark sky where a few twinkling stars peeked through the thinning cloud cover.

“While I was waiting for you, I heard on the weather update that we’ll have a touch of frost tonight,” Regina said and pulled her jacket closer.

“Mmmm. I can believe that, look,” Stella said and pointed at the plumes of steam that came whenever they breathed or talked. “This is a night for staying under the covers… deep under the covers.”

Digging into her pocket to find her car keys, Regina let out a little chuckle as she remembered observing a few surprising events. “While we’re on that subject, did you notice how much the waitress was giving you the sweet eye?”

Caught right between an in- and an exhale, Stella just gulped and began to look for a hasty exit. Inside her, she could feel a wave of guilt flow over her, and the little note in her pocket suddenly felt like it was about to burn through the liner and etch the waitress’ words into her skin on a permanent basis. “I have NO idea what you’re talking about- Oh, look! Is that a UFO? Wow, I think that’s a UFO! Yeah… yeah, that’s defin-”

“Stella…”

“No-no, that’s def- definitely… a… U… F… aw, hell,” Stella said and let out such a sigh that her shoulders slumped in sympathy. “Before you came, she gave me a little note where she asked if I was interested.”

“Well, were you?” Regina said with such a smirk that it was a miracle it could even fit on her face.

“Aw, no… not really, but… well… I… in a way… uh… if I hadn’t… if we weren’t… well, we are… but she was really, really… on the other hand… mmmm, she was kinda se-… aw, hell. Yeah. Yeah, I guess an itty-bitty part of me was interested,” Stella said with another sigh, squirming around on the spot like a beetle had snuck down the back of her Slurrpy! Root Beer T-shirt. “Is this where you’ll slap me and walk away?” she continued in a tiny voice.

“Stella Starr, you don’t know me very well, do you?” Regina said and pulled her best friend and kissing mate into a hug in the middle of the parking lot next to the cars. “Hey, no fretting allowed. If I feel my position is threatened, I just send a loud and clear message… like this.”

Acting on her words, Regina suddenly leaned in and claimed Stella’s lips, potential spectators be damned. Powerful at first, the kiss soon mellowed into a romantic lovefest where as much time was spent playing with each other’s lips and mouths as it was with proper kissing. “Mmmm? Did you get my message?” Regina husked, raising Stella’s steamed-up glasses so she could look her straight in the eye.

“Ungh-huhngh…” Stella mumbled, trying to focus on the tall, blue and black blob in front of her nose.

“Good. Now, how about we got on with the program? I think we’re close. I can feel it in my gut,” Regina said and tenderly pushed Stella away from the door so she could get into the Mercedes.

“Ungh… huhngh… feel… feel… feeeeeellll… steam… glasses… feel… oh… Gawd… mmmm… kiss…” Stella mumbled as she staggered cross-legged over to the yellow taxi to resume her duties.

Just as Stella began to polish her lenses, her cell phone rang, forcing her to speed up the wiping in order to see which of the dark shadows on the car’s dashboard was her phone. With the cell ringing off the hook, it was a stressful process for the investigator who still didn’t have a full deck of cards to play with after the kissing assault she’d just been exposed to.

After hurriedly finishing the first lens, she pushed her glasses up her nose and punched the little button on the phone. “Mmmm-yeah,” she said, taking her glasses back off so she could continue with the other lens.

‘Hi, it’s me…’

“Reggie? Did you forget something? Maybe your tongue somewhere down my throat?” Stella said saucily.

‘No, I still got it… heh, heh, heh…’

“Oh you big, juicy celery stick… you definitely still got it,” Stella said and finished wiping both lenses.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever been called that before…’

“Now you have. Whassup?”

‘Nothing. I just wanted to hear your voice.’

“Awwwww…!”

‘See you in a little while, okay? I’ll wait for you at the central station.’

“Okay. Hey… it’s been too long since we’ve said it,” Stella said and turned on the engine.

‘I know. Love you, Stell.’

“Love you too, Reggie. Mmmua. Later.”

‘Later… princess.’

“Oh you didn’t just say that!” — Dead air. — “Yes, she did! Man!” Chuckling, Stella craned her neck to stare at the silver metallic Mercedes SLK as it drove out of the parking lot and turned right onto Nelson Boulevard.

With an amused huff, she reversed out of the slot and rumbled along the paved lot on tickover until she reached the Boulevard. ‘Hmmm,’ she thought. ‘Reggie was right… I do feel something in my gut… a big, empty hole. I better stop at an all-night convenience store…’

Ten minutes later, Stella came back out of a Korean grocery store humming a happy tune and carrying a double-sized roll of Oreos and a six-pack of Slurrpy! Classic Cola – Raspberry Fizz and Cherry Cola were both sold out – when she noticed two people waiting at her taxi.

Hesitating at first, she loosened up when she realized they were both well-dressed and clean-cut. One of them was a man in his late fifties or early sixties wearing a pale brown camelhair trench coat, gray pants and black shoes, and the other was a far younger woman, probably in her late twenties, who was wearing what seemed to be a white wig and a white three-quarter length plastic coat, and whose bare legs rose above a pair of white go-go boots.

‘Shoot, that’s gotta be cold,’ Stella thought, looking at the woman’s legs. Realizing that the couple were hoping to catch a ride, she sped up to get over to them before they changed their mind. “Hi, I’m right here… I just had to get some provisions for the… never mind. Hi,” Stella said and chucked the items into the trunk of the Ford.

“Good evening,” the man said in a pleasant voice. Up close, Stella could see that he was closer to being mid-sixties than what she had initially thought, and that he had a very short haircut and an angular face with deep-set steel gray eyes. “My wife and I would like to be taken to Hotel Imperial… if you’re available.”

“Oh, I’m available all right,” Stella said and went out onto the Boulevard to open the left side passenger door for the man. ‘My wife and I…? Uh-huh… pull the other one,’ she thought as she went around the taxi and helped the woman in next to her alleged husband, catching a glimpse of her rather revealing dress underneath the plastic coat.

Getting in, she turned on the engine and punched in the name of the hotel on the GPS – it was nine blocks further down Nelson Boulevard, in the opposite direction of the Central Station where Regina was waiting for her.

Once the directions flashed up on the screen, Stella activated her turning signal and headed out into the traffic that was still as heavy as ever.

Two blocks down the road, the couple began to bicker loudly over a few details in a financial transaction the man had apparently promised the woman, and pretty soon, the constant arguing began to grate severely on Stella’s nerves.

Another three blocks on, Stella was ready to eat the filthy floor mat at the bottom of the footwells to get her two passengers to shut up.

When she pulled to a halt at an intersection where the traffic lights turned red just as she came up to it, the volume of the bickering increased and she almost – almost – turned around and gave them a piece of her own mind, ‘…ucker’ words and all.

Just as Stella swallowed an ill-tasting sandwich comprised of angry thoughts with a dash of gall and vinegar, the man leaned forward and tapped her on her shoulder. “Driver, stop here. I can’t take anymore of this nonsense! How much do I owe?”

“Four dollars fifty, Sir,” Stella said, trying really hard not to growl as she pulled over to the side so she wouldn’t suffer another hooting concert. After putting the shifter in Park, she turned on the interior lights to get a better view of things.

“Here,” the man said and waved a hundred dollar bill next to Stella’s head. “I don’t have anything smaller. Can you break it?”

Stella just stared at the little picture of Benjamin Franklin, hearing all kinds of warning signals go off in her mind. “I… uh, I’m not sure, Sir. I need to check my wallet,” she said and glanced in the rear view mirror to try to get a better look at her passengers – or hopefully spot the silver metallic low-slung Mercedes SLK that was sure to come racing when Regina reacted on her telepathic message to get the flying fig over there.

Unfortunately, she was unable to see either of those things; her passengers both kept out of her line of sight and Regina was nowhere to be seen.

“I, uh…” she said and leafed through the small bills she had in her wallet while she racked her brain to come up with a solution that would prove whether or not these two annoying people really were the counterfeiters known as the Phoney Crew or if she had just been unlucky.

“Look, can you break it or not?” the man said in a voice that grew evermore impatient by the second.

“Yeah yeah, I can, I’m just a bit… uh… dyslexic. I can’t count that high so I-” Stella said, smiling apologetically at her passengers.

“Dyslexic means you jumble up the words… that’s got nothing to do with reading figures,” the man said surly.

Thinking fast, Stella knew the longer she could stall, the better her chances got of exposing her passengers, so she decided to go all out as the local joker – it wasn’t much of a stretch, after all. “Oh sure it has! Why, that bill you’re holding there,” she said and pointed at the hundred dollar bill, “I can’t even see if that’s a tenner or a thou.”

“A thou? What’s a thou? Oh… a thousand dollar bill…?” the man said and narrowed his eyes. “How long have you been driving a cab, anyway? There haven’t been thousand dollar bills since what…? The 1930s?”

The man leaned back in his seat and exchanged a few knowing looks with the younger woman whose posture and expression suddenly changed from a meek girl to a far more sly woman – but by leaning back, Stella caught a glimpse of the look they shared which sealed the deal in her mind. ‘Yep… The Phoney Crew is in the house.’

With her left hand, Stella reached for the alarm button on the left side of the dashboard and clicked on it like Lucinda had told her. “Oh no, really?” she said out loud in order to keep the game going while they waited for the police to arrive, “Oh-gosh almighty, good ding-dong-darnit, I knew I got snookered last week… hey, why do you think dyx… dis… dyslexic is such a tough word, anyhow? Did they make it that way to grind us poor folks suffering from it even deeper down in da’doo-doo?”

Stella suddenly felt that the alarm button hadn’t stayed in, and she began to stomp her index finger down on it like crazy. “It’s just like abbri… abbra…” – click – “abbreviation… why is” – click, click –“abbreviation such a long word?” – click, click, CLICK – “I mean, that’s just wicked, man.” – click, CLICK, CLICK! – “Just wicked…”

Stella’s voice trailed off when she realized the alarm button didn’t react like Lucinda had told her it would. ‘It’s one of those click-once-stay-in buttons,’ she had said – but it didn’t stick, no matter how many times Stella clicked on it.

“Look, Driver,” the man said and took a firm grip on Stella’s shoulder. “Can you break this or what? Quit jerking us around.”

Even though the man’s grip was merely firm rather than brutal, Stella decided to play one of the most convincing characters she knew, the Hysterical Woman. “Oh God no, please don’t hurt me! Pleeeeeeease don’t hurt me!” she said and threw her arms forward so they were just next to the cell phone that was still attached to the dashboard. With a nifty sleight-of-hand trick that she performed so fast her passengers didn’t see a thing, she activated the speed dial which she knew was always on Regina’s number.

“You can have all the money I have in my wallet but that’s only thirty-nine dollars and fifty cents… and two buttons and a bunch of nickels and dimes that everyone picks up everywhere and I’m always thinking about putting them into the… the… the… oh shoot, I can’t remember the name of the darn things, but those… thingamamumbojumbos they have in some supermarkets where you can donate all your nickels and dimes to charities and stuff even though they’re not worth anything but when enough people do it they score millions on the darn things and-”

“WILL YOU SHUT UP?!” the young woman howled, suddenly breaking her silence with a shrill, piercing bark that sent Stella into a series of sobbing whimpers.

“Ohhhhh! I don’t wanna diiiiiiiie here” – sob, sob – “on Nelson Boulevard, it’s” – sob, sob – “such a bleak and dreary” – sob, sob – “street and there’s nothing here” – sob, sob – “but a big hole in the ground and-“– sob!

-*-*-*-

At the parking lot in front of the Central Station, Regina stared wide-eyed at the cell phone as it spewed out Stella’s sniveling diatribe: ‘-name of the darn things, but those… thingamamumbojumbos they have in some supermarkets where you can donate all your nickels and dimes to charities and stuff even though they’re not worth anything but when enough people do it they score millions on the darn things and-

WILL YOU SHUT UP?!’ another female voice barked, making Regina understand that Stella had struck gold.

‘Ohhhhh! I don’t wanna diiiiiiiie here on Nelson Boulevard, it’s such a bleak and dreary street and there’s nothing here but a big hole in the ground and-‘

Immediately closing the connection to her best friend – and praying for her safety – Regina dialed Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes’ direct number and tapped impatiently on the rim of the steering wheel while she waited for it to be picked up.

‘It’s Inspe-‘

“Inspector Moynes, it’s Regina Harrison. Harrison-Starr is working undercover on the Phoney Crew case and I have reason to believe that Stella Starr has the counterfeiters in her cab right now, as we speak. We need some back-”

‘Dammit!’

“I beg your pardon?”

‘Half the police force is tied down on a bank heist over here on Third Street! It’s pandemonium over here! They laid out spikes to cover their escape and the first nine, count ’em, n-i-n-e, police cruisers at the scene all got their tires shredded to bits!’

“Oh… but can’t the other half-”

‘I don’t know what’s up or down, Miss Harrison… I’m afraid Stella is on her own for the time being.’

“Oh… okay. I’ll… okay,” Regina said and hurriedly closed the connection. Rubbing her face repeatedly, she grabbed the cell phone again and dialed another number.

‘Taurus Cab Company, how may we help you?’ the female dispatcher said at the other end of the line. While the lady was speaking, Regina started the SLK and quickly reversed out of the parking slot.

“My name is Regina Harrison and I’m from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. I’m currently working on exposing the Phoney Crew… I’m sure you’ve heard of them?”

‘We have indeed, but…?’

Looking to her left, Regina decided that a twenty-foot gap between two cars was more than enough and barreled out onto the boulevard, inevitably accompanied by toots and honks from the other cars. “Right now, one of your drivers is in trouble on Nelson Boulevard right next to a construction site or something where there’s a big hole in the ground. I don’t know where that is exactly, but-”

‘We don’t have an alarm in that area, Miss Harrison. Are you sure?’

“Yes, I’m sure. The cab number is Two-three-four-two, Lucinda Huerta.”

‘Two-three-four-two… all right. Stand by.’

“Okay… but not too long…” Regina said and swerved between two cars. Ahead of her, the traffic lights turned yellow, but she just gunned the engine and made the sports car fly across the intersection.

‘Miss Harrison, it could be just before the corner of Nelson and Nineteenth Street. There’s a construction site there.’

“Good. Thanks! I’m only a few blocks away now… — oh, Stella… don’t do anything that’ll make ’em get mad at you,” Regina mumbled, but forgot that she still had the phone to her ear.

‘What’s that, Miss Harrison?’

“Oh… nothing. Okay, I… yeah, I’m a block and a half away now… I can… I can see the cab parked at the curb! It’s at a funny angle and the interior lights are on. Yes, something’s definitely going on!”

‘Is it near the corner of Nelson and Nineteenth Street?’

“Yes, yes! The south side of Nelson.”

‘All right. Thank you. I’ll call the cavalry.’

“Thanks!” Regina said and threw the cell phone onto the passenger seat. Slowing down, she turned off the lights and let the Mercedes glide up behind the cab.

Looking ahead, she could see two people in the back seat, apparently engaged in an animated conversation with the driver. A cold shiver ran down her back as she stepped out of the sports car and snuck up on the sidewalk – and cursed under her breath when her three-inch heels and the tight skirt restricted her movements.

‘Think… think… what would Stella do…? Okay… I got it,’ Regina thought and resolutely reached into her jacket pocket to find a napkin.

Fully armed with a piece of soft paper from the 1950s diner, she smeared her ‘Cherry Blossom by Angel Malaise’ lipstick halfway across her left cheek, twisting her usually so pretty face into a grotesque, ghoul-like appearance. With the lipstick residue, she dabbed her forehead and the tip and bridge of her nose to complete the image of a woman who’d had a drink too many.

Once the details were in place, Regina worked herself into quite a state – yet stayed perfectly calm on the inside – and reached for the passenger side door. “Hey… ish there room fer one morrrre? Shcoot over, lady, I ain’t sheen a cab here for hoursh…” Regina slurred and tried to barge her way into the back seat next to the young woman in the plastic coat.

Up front, Stella jumped a foot in the air when the door was yanked open – bumping her head on the roof of the cab – but when she saw the identity of the intruder, she breathed a sigh of relief and felt a cheeky grin spread out over her features.

“Oh, what is this? Is the circus in town?” the man barked, quickly removing the hundred dollar bill. When he caught a glimpse of Regina’s haggard face and the sorry state of her makeup, he grimaced wildly and reached for the little lever to open the door.

“Oy!” Stella howled. “What about mah money! You owe me, Mista! You owe me plenty!” Even while she said that, she opened the front door and jumped out of the cab so she could stand guard at the rear door to stop her two passengers from making a run for it – of course, if they really did plan that, she wouldn’t be strong enough or fast enough to stop them both.

On the back seat, Regina leaned in across the young woman and pretended to reach for the seat belt. “Oh, come on… jusht shcoot over a little… I don’t shmell or anything,” she said and pulled out in her blouse to sniff down her front. “Well, maybe a leeeeeeettle, but it’sh not gonna shtick to you or anything…”

“Oh God,” the young woman whined and tried to shy away from the intrusive drunkard, “get away! Get away from me, you disgusting old cow!”

For the first few seconds after being slapped across the face by that awful insult, Regina’s chin quivered and she very nearly broke her cover, but then a wave of lava-hot fire bubbled up inside her and she let rip with a mighty: “Cow? Cow?! COW?! Well, lemme tell you shomething, little misshy… I wash a shupershtar while you were shtill pooping your diapersh! Uh-huh! It’sh true!” she said, moving her face really close to the young woman and showering her in spittle that flew all over every time she said a ‘sh’-sound.

The young girl just stared in wide-eyed terror at the little droplets of spittle that landed on her plastic coat, and she tried to wipe them off with a few jerky gestures. “Ewwww… you drooled on me! Oh God, I’m gonna need a tetanus shot!”

Outside, Stella tried to push against the back door but knew she was running on borrowed time. Suddenly, her keen hearing picked up a familiar sound – not a police siren, but a distant thunder that was closing fast and quickly building into an all-singing, all-dancing Crescendo in V8-Major.

“HELL YEAH!” she howled and punched the air in delight when she spotted the first two Taurus Cabs come from Nineteenth Street and tear through the intersection. Within seconds, the two cabs were followed by a load of others coming from all directions, and soon, Nelson Boulevard was completely blocked and awash in yellow.

“Sweet chicky-dee, you are in SO much trouble now I hope you brought a clean pair of shorts, Mista!” she said through the closed window to the well-dressed man in the back seat. Gloating, she momentarily looked away to wave at the nearest cab driver – but she shouldn’t have.

The man took her inattention as his cue, opened the door and gave it an almighty kick that made it whack across Stella’s legs. In one, fluid motion, he was out of the car and made a run for it, ignoring the fact that his accomplice cried out after him.

At first, Stella just stood there like a marble statue, blinking a few times with unseeing eyes and wondering why it felt like she suddenly had four kneecaps – two on each leg. Little by little, the pain traveled up her thighs, past her hips, her stomach, her chest cavity, her shoulders and her arms and hands until it finally registered in the stem of her brain. “Oh… oh… ohhh… ohhhh… OHHH…! OHHHHHHHHHHHH! OWWWWWWWWWWWCH!” she squealed, leaning forward at once to massage her aching knees.

Seeing what happened, the assembled cab drivers all moved as one and jumped out of their cars to take care of business, roaring obscenities and barely hidden threats at the running man for hurting one of their own.

The well-dressed man tried to escape the lynch mob by ducking, diving and running between two cabs, but a pair of beefy drivers grabbed him under his arms and raised him a foot in the air to make even the thought of escape an illusion.

‘Yeah, that’s him! That’s him all right! I remember his ugly mug from last week! He conned me out of eighty bucks, that dipstick!’ one of the cab drivers shouted.

‘Yeah! He had a girl with him! She’s still in the cab!’ someone else shouted.

Inside the Ford, Regina chuckled and decided to end the charade. Wiping her mouth clean of the remaining spittle, she leaned in and calmly clicked the seat belt in place, trapping the young woman who was just sitting there with a sour expression on her face. “Tell you what,” Regina said, making sure the young woman couldn’t go anywhere. “Your game is up. Why don’t you spill the beans now instead of later? It might help you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the young woman said surly.

“Suit yourself,” Regina said and patted the squeaky plastic coat. “But all things considered, I don’t think they’ll allow you to wear this in the Women’s Correctional Facility. Nor your rouge, your eyeliner, your extra-long lashes, your cute little gold necklace with the four-leaf clover charm, your… need I go on?”

The woman’s lips narrowed down to two colorless lines in her face and her blue eyes became rather shifty. “I… if I… if I tell what I know about Carl, do you think it would help my case…?”

“Well, I’m not a cop, but I think it would, yeah,” Regina said and stood up straight when she felt Stella’s hands around her waist.

Pulling Regina into a strong squeeze, Stella buried her face in the former model’s inviting chest. “Oh Reggie, I’m so glad you found me… boy, you’re a sight for sore eyes… uh, well, actually, you’re a sight to make sore eyes with that lipstick, but, eh…” Stella said and caressed Regina’s cheek. “Hey! How about that little phone trick I played on them, huh? Was that cool or what, huh? Yeah, yeah, just say it… it was cool. Too cool. Soooo incredibly cool that it should be on a permanent display at the Smithsonian!”

“I’ll admit it, Stell. It was cool.”

“Yeah, baby! Did you call the cab drivers?”

“Yep.”

“That was pretty cool, too. Thanks,” Stella said and intended to steal a quick kiss, but just when she was about to get up on tip-toes, Regina cleared her throat and pointed over Stella’s shoulder.

Behind them, the two beefy cab drivers who were still holding the squirming man came over to Stella and Regina and dumped him on the pavement behind the cab. To make sure the man didn’t get a notion to try to escape all over again, the first of the two cab drivers stepped on his camelhair trench coat.

“Hi, pal, we heard you were in trouble,” the driver said with his size fourteen boot firmly down on the coat.

Turning around, Stella hooked her thumbs inside her belt loops and puffed out her chest. “Yeah, these two white collar rats were flashing me a funny greenback but I held sway until the troops arrived. Thanks to my lovely assistant here, I think the Phoney Crew is done doin’ the dirty to ya.”

“To us? You’re a driver, too…?”

“Only temporarily. I’m Stella Starr, this is Regina Harrison. We’re the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency and we’re working with Lucinda Huerta. We kinda borrowed her wheels for the night,” Stella said and pushed her glasses up her nose.

“Oh…” the first of the beefy drivers said, scratching his head.

“ANYway,” Stella said and crouched down. “Let’s see how much funny money this fella is actually packin’,” she continued and found the man’s wallet.

“Okay… mmmm… mmmm… Mr. Carl Smith Jr., resident of Sunnydale, Florida… mmmm… here we go, one, two, three, four, holy flip Mista, whatcha do, win the lottery or sum’in? … five, six, seven, eight… eight hundred bucks.”

“That’s my money, you thief!” the man barked, trying to wrestle his way out from under the cab driver’s boot. “Gimme back my money!”

Chuckling, Stella stood up straight and fanned the eight hundred dollars out across the trunk of her taxi. “This is nobody’s money. Hey, friend… what’s your name?” she said to the second of the beefy drivers.

“Eddie.”

“Eddie, right. Have you been conned by this rat?”

“No, but several of my buddies have.”

“Right. And how did they find out?”

“The ink smeared,” Eddie said, looking with great interest at the eight hundred dollars.

“The ink smeared when it got warm, yep. And now…” Stella said and rubbed her chilly hands together.

‘D’ya want me to warm them for ya, sweet pea?’ a female voice shouted from the back of the pack.

“No thanks, I got all I can handle right here,” Stella answered with a chuckle as she eyed Regina’s tight skirt. When her fingers were warm enough, she took the first few bills and rubbed them.

At first nothing happened which made a wiggling little worm begin to chomp at Stella’s nape hairs, but then the friction made the money warm, and soon, the ink started to smear on all eight bills. “Well, whaddaya know! Lookie here, I got me some green fingers, huh, fellas?” Stella said loud enough for everyone to hear while she raised her stained hand high in the air.

A ripple of discontent began to spread out between the cab drivers and they started moving in on the counterfeiter who immediately covered his head with his arms, but Stella just stepped in front of him and put her hands on her vest like a Sheriff in the Wild West. “No, guys, I know how you feel about this piece of dillweed, but I think we should hand him and his girl over to the proper authorities. They… oh-” she said, picking up the sound of an approaching siren. “And there they are, right on cue… for once…”

An unmarked squad car with a removable flashing light on the roof came hurrying down the Boulevard and drove up onto the sidewalk where the taxis blocked the street. When the car had stopped, Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes stepped out, shaking her head emphatically at the sight of a dozen cabs and drivers, a man sitting on the street, Regina Harrison with lipstick all over her face and her rear squeezed into a burgundy skirt that had everyone’s attention, and Stella Starr wearing a flannel shirt, a pale blue, sleeveless denim vest and a grin that reached from one ear to the other. “Good evening, everybody… so… that’s the Phoney Crew?” she said, pointing at Carl Smith, Jr.

“Yep! Hi, Mary-Jane!” Stella shouted, still grinning.

“Well, one half of it, anyway. Hello, Inspector,” Regina said and shook hands with Mary-Jane. “Did you get the mess at the bank cleaned up?”

“Heh! Not really… this is my Captain’s car… the only one I could find with four working tires,” the Inspector said and pointed her thumb over her shoulder. As always, she was impeccably dressed in a very smart pant suit held in black and gray, but for once, her angular but not unpretty face was drawn and showed clear signs of fatigue.

That news made Stella scrunch up her face, but Regina just whispered “I’ll tell you later.”

Mary-Jane Moynes took a brief look at the smeared hundred-dollar bills and went back to the squad car to get a plastic evidence bag. Once the counterfeit money was safely tucked away in the bag, she hoisted Carl Smith, Jr. to his feet, slapped a pair of handcuffs around his wrists and began to read him his rights.

“Inspector, I think the young lady in the back seat of Stella’s cab is ready to tell you a few things,” Regina said quietly into Mary-Jane’s ear.

“I see? That’s interesting. I got it. I’ll just put this charming man into my squad car and then I’ll play the Fairy Godmother,” Mary-Jane said and hoisted the well-dressed man to his feet.

Once Carl Smith, Jr. was seated in the back of the squad car, Stella came up to him and leaned into the open door. “Oooh yeah… another successful night for the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. Have a real nice life, Mister Flo-ri-da. The moral of this story is, mess with us and we mess with you. So there!” she said and knocked the door shut with her rear end.

Upon returning to Regina and the cab, Stella squealed loudly when four strong hands grabbed her around the waist and her butt, raised her high in the air and plonked her down on the shoulders of several of the cab drivers who all began to cheer, whistle and shout her name.

“YEOOOOOOOW!” she howled, grasping at all she could find to keep her balance. When she realized that she was stuck up there for the immediate future, she raised her hands in the air and played along with the celebrations. “It’s too much… too much, fellas! Oh, whaddahell am I saying? Go on, shout my name! Gimme an S!”

-*-*-*-

An hour later, after delivering the yellow Ford Crown Victoria back to Lucinda – and Lucinda surprising the hell out of Stella by slapping a wet kiss right on her lips when they told her she didn’t have to pay a dime for the operation – the two investigators pulled away from East Sixth Street and began to cruise through the night to get over to Rockin’ Ruby’s.

“I had fun tonight, Reggie,” Stella said, sitting in the passenger seat of the Mercedes and looking out of the window at some of the places she had driven past earlier in the evening.

“Yeah? I believe you. I mean, with not one, not two but three gals showing interest in you, how could you not?”

“Three gals?”

“Well me, and-”

“Duh!” Stella said and slapped Regina’s thigh.

“And the waitress and now Lucinda,” Regina said with a broad grin.

Matching the broad grin with one of her own, Stella snuggled down in the seat and put her hands on her denim vest. “Yeah… Yeah! I guess I’m kinda irresistible, huh?”

“A hot little number with too shaggy hair,” Regina said and reached up to muss Stella’s haystack.

“I know. I’m gonna-” – YAWN! – “oh… pardon me,” Stella said and covered her mouth with the back of her hand. “Shoot, I’m bombed. Wouldya mind if I caught a few winks on our way over to Ruby’s?”

“Nope,” Regina said and turned off the radio so the car would be quiet.

Before long, Stella’s breathing deepened and she began to snore. Even the occasional pothole couldn’t wake her up, and by the time Regina was ready to drive into the parking lot in front of Rockin’ Ruby’s, the gentle snores had morphed into a bad case of rolling thunder.

Chuckling, Regina drove through the parking lot and went back out onto the Boulevard. “Rain check-time,” she said quietly to herself, smiling at the cute way Stella was flaking out with her face being all-relaxed and peaceful, and the way the tip of her pink tongue was visible through her parted lips.

As the traffic lights turned red ahead of her on their way home to the office, Regina came to a gliding halt on the empty street. Looking to her right, she let her eye take in all Stella’s soft, friendly features, combining them into an image in her mind that sent a slow wave of wonderful warmth and rose-tinted joy through her system. ‘Damn, Reggie… you’re in love… you’re really in love… with a woman… with Stella… wow. Just… wow.’

Glancing up, she caught herself in the rear view mirror and sent a silent promise to the slightly odd-looking woman staring back at her that it wouldn’t be long before she and Stella would take the final step.‘But I want it to be unforgettable. Mmmm. Well, hand on my heart, with Stella Starr involved, how could it ever be anything but…?’

At that final thought, she had to clamp her hand over her mouth in order to stop herself from laughing out loud. At the same time, the traffic lights changed to green, and she gently squeezed the throttle to continue on home.


*
*
THE END of BIG YELLOW TAXI

-*-*-*-
-*-*-*-

VI – TRIPPING OVER MEMORY LANE

Written by Norsebard

Ten days later.

The gloomy, windy, rainy weather outside the windows of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency’s office matched Stella Starr’s mood perfectly. She felt so melancholic because of the late time of the year that only a full dose of fluffy-bunny coziness could cure it, but she didn’t know where it would come from.

Sighing deeply and shoving her hands into the pockets of her favorite hoodie, she turned away from the window overlooking the soggy parking lot and sat down at her desk.

“Hey, Reggie?” she said loud enough to be heard through the closed bathroom door.

‘Yeah?’

“Are you still showering?”

‘Yeah. Five minutes, Stell. Do you need to go?”

Chuckling, Stella picked up her pencil and began to doodle in her notepad. “No, I just wanted to talk a little.”

‘Okay… won’t be long. What time is it?’

“Quarter to five!”

‘Thanks. How about making some coffee and a little sandwich or something? The salad I had for lunch didn’t last as long as I thought it would.’

“Ohhh,” Stella said and jumped out of her chair. “Good idea! I’ll do that! But not coffee… hot chocolate and buns… yeah!” she continued and opened the cupboard above the sink behind the door. After a little rummaging around, she found a box of instant cocoa and a plastic bag with two left-over raisin buns they hadn’t eaten the day before.

Quickly taking their electric kettle, she poured some cold water into it and turned it on. While the machine was slowly heating up, she opened the fridge to get the butter and take a look at what they had in stock.

“Hmmm… somehow I think Reggie will kill me if I serve raisin buns with tomato sauce. We better stick to the butter,” she said and closed the refrigerator door again, having only found the last remaining twenty-six jars of Teresa Maddalena tomato sauce she had been awarded after their successful apprehension of the recipe thief.

Five minutes later, Stella put two plates down on the coffee table with two identical, well-buttered raisin buns. “Yum-yum,” she said as she poured the steaming hot water into two mugs and stirred like crazy to get the cocoa powder to dissolve.

Just as Stella had made herself comfortable on the couch, Regina stepped out of the bathroom in a pair of relatively simple blue jeans, a black tank and a red-and-green flannel shirt that she hadn’t bothered to close.

As always, butterflies began to flap their wings in the pit of Stella’s stomach, and they only grew stronger when Regina stopped in the center of the office and began to brush her long, dark hair away from her face and into a perfect cascade down her back.

‘Grrrrrrowl,’ Stella thought, but chose to take a bite out of her bun instead of speaking what was on her mind.

Before she sat down, Regina took a lighter from her own desk and lit the two tea lights that had been placed on the coffee table. “So,” she said and clicked off the lighter. “Can it get any better? Hot cocoa, cool buns, sweet babes.”

Snickering, Stella blushed red and pulled her head down between her shoulders. “Sheesh, Reggie…”

“Well, I was mostly talking about myself, actually,” Regina said and threw her head so her perfect hair fell perfectly over her other shoulder. With a grin, she spun around and cocked her hips to give Stella an unrestricted view of her derriere. “Mmmm?”

“Yeah, yeah, Reggie… you still got it,” Stella said and threw an embarrassed gesture at the former model. “Whatever! Now come over here and get some while it’s hot. The cocoa is already sugared so you don’t need any.”

“Yes, dear,” Regina said and quickly sat down next to her friend.

“Ohhhhh-yeah,” Stella said ten minutes later, leaning her head against Regina’s broad shoulders. “I always get so damn melancholic this time of year. It’s when the light changes outside… when it never gets beyond gloomy even in the middle of the day, I just can’t screw up my enthusiasm for anything.”

“I know, Stell. This is the second winter we’ve worked together and you’ve always been like this,” Regina said and took a sip of her cocoa.

Sitting up straight, Stella stared at her tall friend with an unreadable expression on her face. “The second winter…? Diggity-damn, you’re right, Reggie… man…”

“I feel like I’ve known you forever, Stell,” Regina said and mussed Stella’s recently styled Pixie cut that had already begun to grow untamed in places.

“Awwww! Thanks, friend. Hey… d’ya wanna look through our archives before I go under in a sea of melancholy? I mean, just for fun?”

“Sure.”

“Neato!” Stella said and jumped up from the couch. In two heartbeats, she was standing at the row of filing cabinets and put her hand on top of the first of them. “Now, Reggie, where should we start? Should we start at the beginning?” she said and pulled out the top sliding drawer.

“The beginning is always a good place to start, Stell. But, uh… you better watch-”

“Or,” Stella said, oblivious to Regina’s warning, “should we work our way back instead?”

Pulling out the second drawer, Stella turned toward Regina without noticing that the metal filing cabinet began to tilt towards her. One second later, she definitely noticed when the heavy drawer thumped into her shoulder and the cabinet itself threatened to squash her like a bug. “OOOOOOOOHHH! Stella in distress! Stella in distress! Reggie! Reggie!” she howled, trying to push back at least one of the drawers to restore a modicum of balance to the charging metal beast.

Regina wanted to slap her forehead, but she knew she might not have an employer slash kissing mate if she waited too long, so she jumped up from the couch and tore across the office. Once she was there, she calmly put a hand on the filing cabinet and pushed it back towards the wall. “There, Stell. I’ll close the second drawer… we better start at the beginning. C’mon,” she said and took a wad of files from the top sliding drawer.

“Ye Gads…! Damn, that coulda been nasty!” Stella said and pinched the bridge of her nose.

“I know, dear. C’mon, let’s sit down and take a look at our old cases,” Regina said and wrapped a comforting arm around Stella’s shoulders. “Here… eat the rest of your bun to calm down… and have some cocoa. D’ya want me to make you some more?”

“No thanks, Reggie. It’s only just cooled off enough for me to drink it…”

“Okay. Well, here’s the first one…” Regina said and snuggled up next to Stella. Opening the folder, she took a brief glance at the title and let out a little laugh. “Wow, it really is the first one… our very first case together. Remember the Merry Widow?”

“Ho-boy, do I ever! Huh, that was a strange case.” After taking a long swig of her cocoa, Stella decided that she wanted to get even more comfortable and she quickly kicked off her flip-flops, crawled up into the couch and rested her head in Regina’s lap. “Do you mind?”

“Of course not, Stell,” Regina said and mussed Stella’s cute hair. “Do you want me to read your closing comments aloud?”

“Oh, yeah. I love listening to your voice,” Stella said and made herself comfortable on her living cushion.

“Awww… well, here goes. Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm… Miss Harrison and I were hired by the recently widowed Mrs. Priscilla Tate to find her husband. After much confusion by Yours Truly, it turned out she meant her first husband – she never explained this properly, but I digress. Fro-”

“She didn’t!” Stella said and punched her fist into her palm.

“I know, I know, Stell… anyway… where was I. Oh yeah… from certain pointers in her mannerisms, my nose was telling me all along she merely wanted to see if he still had access to his family’s money, and as it turned out, my nose was correct. Aft-”

“Ha! My nose is always correct!”

“And it’s so cute, too!” Regina said and tweaked said body part, earning her a squeak and a little poke in the tummy. “Do you want me to go on?”

Too preoccupied by shooting Regina a slightly cheeky look, Stella just nodded.

“Okay. After an in-depth search that didn’t yield any tangible results other than two surprising items we couldn’t connect to anything (see the enclosed list), we contacted the police force and spoke with a very charming Detective, Mary-Jane Moynes.”

“Hey, we really oughtta invite Mary-Jane over for some pancakes or something… or maybe waffles with whipped cream or-” Stella said thoughtfully.

“Stell!”

“Well, excuse the hell outta me! Jeez-Louise!”

Chuckling out loud, Regina went back to where she had been cut off. “She provided the final piece of the puzzle that allowed us to find Mr. James Michael Lancaster, namely an arrest sheet for interfering with police business in a drunken dispute in front of an adult establishment. The arrest sheet also had his last known address. Miss Harrison and I paid the handsome Mr. Lancaster a visit, took a snapshot and sent it to Mrs. Tate who promptly sent us our check and told us she’d have nothing to do with someone like him. Turned out Mr. Lancaster had sworn off worldly wealth and had joined a religious group known as the Apostolic Angels where he worked as a street missionary. Signed, S. Starr.”

Stella sighed contentedly and snuggled even further down into her warm pillow after taking another sip of her cocoa. “I remember that. Man, he was an odd one… remember he wanted to recruit me into his group? Me, not you… he said you were a lost cause.”

“Yeah,” Regina said with a throaty chuckle.

“We were so inexperienced back then… but it was a good case to start with. And everyone got what they wanted… mostly. Priscilla didn’t, I guess. Oh, well. What’s the next one?”

“Mmmm, let me see,” Regina said and reached over to the table. “Okay, it’s the Alley Cat.”

“Oooh! The mythical Alley Cat. That was a scary one. That was when we met Joe for the first time, wasn’t it?”

“Yep.”

“G’wan, Reggie, read the closing comments.”

“Sure. Okay, they go a little something like this… Yesterday afternoon, Miss Harrison and I received a phone call from a Mr. Joe Schmoe (we have reason to believe he’s using an assumed name.)… no! You think, Stell?” Regina said and mussed Stella’s hair.

“Oh ha, ha!”

Grinning, Regina settled down and resumed reading the file: “Mr. Schmoe had some information for us that he claimed could lead to the capture of the much-sought after cat burglar known as the Alley Cat. Mr. Schmoe had apparently heard about the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency through a person we had briefly visited in connection with the case of the Merry Widow. After a promise of paying Mr. Schmoe in cheap cherry brandy, he agreed to meet us at a local dive called the Stinking Pit. Thinking that preparing well was better than feeling sore in the morning… Hey, Stella, what did you actually mean by that?”

“Uh… I can’t remember. Ah, who cares now. Go on!”

“… sore in the morning, we decided to invite the nice Detective Moynes we had worked with before. The stake-out (our first) was fascinating and we learned a lot from the Detective regarding the proper equipment, work ethics and the dress code for night stake-outs. At-”

“Ooooh! Remember how Mary-Jane reacted to my poncho?” Stella said and laughed out loud. “She made me take it off right there in the stake-out van! But when she saw I was wearing a bright white tank underneath, she wanted to throw in the towel and go home…”

“I remember, Stell. You’ve always been a colorful woman.”

“Hey, colorful is my middle name, Reggie!”

“I can attest to that…” Regina said saucily. “ANYway, At the stroke of midnight, we spotted the Alley Cat entering an alley (appropriately enough), near the bar where he prepared to break into a third floor apartment. Moving ahead as one (Yours Truly may have drawn attention to ourselves after fumbling very slightly while getting out of the van we had rented)-”

“Unngh…”

“We crossed the street (drawing more attention to ourselves, I’m afraid – Yours Truly had no choice but to start a shouting match with the driver of a delivery van… but he shouted at me first, so there)-”

“URGH!” Stella said and shook her head. “I remember him, he was a… oh… go on,” she continued off Regina’s pointed look.

“- and ran into the alley. After a frightening chase on, above and below the fire escapes, we apprehended the Alley Cat and handed him over to the proper authorities. We collected the three thousand dollars reward and gave Joe Schmoe a gallon of cheap brandy like he had requested. I added his name to our list of informants (our first). Signed, S. Starr. And there you have it, Stell,” Regina said and closed the file.

Shivering slightly, Stella let out an embarrassed chuckle and scooted to her left so her cheek was resting against the black tank top covering Regina’s flat stomach. “Oh, those fire escapes… yikes, I still have nightmares about them from time to time…”

Regina sensed that Stella wanted to connect, so she put the files away and began to gently run her fingers through the short hair. “We’ve had one hell of a good run together, haven’t we?” she said quietly.

“Yeah. And I’m lookin’ at the very best part of it,” Stella said and looked up so she could lock eyes with her best friend.

Smiling, Regina began to draw little patterns on Stella’s forehead that mysteriously turned into an I Luv U. “Are you looking forward to Christmas yet, Stell?”

“But of course! Who isn’t excited about Christmas Morning? I mean, presents and candy and coziness by the bucketload and the tree and hot cocoa and all the wonderful Christmas songs and carols and just laze about all day in our bathrobes or PJs and… and having the best company in the world just makes it better.”

“Awww,” Regina said, kissed two of her fingers and put them gently down on Stella’s lips. “So… what would you like for Christmas?”

“Y- you mean you haven’t even thought about my presents yet?!” Stella howled and slipped off Regina’s lap.

By shooting her arms out at a speed that would have humbled a Kung-Fu master, Regina was able to grab onto Stella’s shoulders at the very last second before she disappeared down the black hole between Regina’s knees and the coffee table. “Whoa, whoa, whoa there, Cowgirl… Of course I have. I was just teasing you.”

“Oh…”

After pulling Stella back up and pushing her glasses back up her nose, Regina reached over her and took her mug of cocoa. “Actually, I think I have the perfect gift for you,” she said and took a sip.

“Could I persuade you to spill the beans?” Stella whispered, but her plea was met by a resolute shake of the head.

“Nope. You’ll find out when we meet here on Christmas Morn’,” Regina said in a tone of voice that left no doubt that she would keep her word – Stella would have to wait for Christmas morning to find out.

“Rats,” Stella said with a scowl that wasn’t entirely sincere. ‘Of course, I’d be perfectly happy with one present that was, oh, six feet something tall and wrapped in a purple silk band,’ she thought, breaking out in a cute snicker.

Looking down, Regina noticed the special look in Stella’s eyes and began to scratch her hair to keep it there. “What’s on your mind, Stell?”

“Oh, nothin’, Reggie. Nothin’ at all.”

“Mmmm?”

“Yep,” Stella said and got up from her warm cushion to sit on her thighs next to Regina. “Hey, wouldn’t this be a good time to kiss?” she said and puckered up her lips.

Before they had time to get intimate, the phones started ringing.

As soon as she heard the familiar shrill sound, Stella rolled her eyes and buried her face in the nook of Regina’s shoulder. “Oh, I hate that damn phone… worst invention of the twentieth century,” she growled and climbed down from the couch – Regina just chuckled.

Stella was at her desk in two steps and threw herself down on her chair where she picked up the receiver. “You have reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. You’re talking to Stella Starr, the senior investigator. How may we help you?”

‘Uh, hello, Miss Starr… is Regina there?’ a male voice said at the other end of the line.

“Yes, she is. And who is calling, please…?” Stella said and waved at Regina to get her to pick up her own phone.

‘It’s Steve Darrian,’ the man said, causing Stella to stare at the receiver and get an uneasy feeling in her gut. Covering the microphone with her hand, she looked up and saw the graceful Regina waltz over to the other desk. She wanted to announce the caller, but found that the surprise had stolen her voice.

In the meantime, Regina sat down at her desk and took her own receiver. “This is Regina Harrison,” she said, suddenly looking up and locking eyes with Stella when Steve introduced himself in her ear. “Oh… hi, Steve. Has something happened?”

Hanging up so she wouldn’t have to listen in on the conversation, Stella leaned back on her chair, put her hands behind her head and watched Regina speak to Steve. ‘Of all people, why did it have to be him…? Of all Reggie’s associates and exes, why did it have to be Mister Chiseled Jaw who called…? And why did it have to be right now…? Dammit.’ *Sigh*.


*
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THE END of TRIPPING OVER MEMORY LANE

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VII – CHRISTMAS AT THE OLD VICARAGE

Written by Norsebard

*
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CHAPTER 1

“Ohhhhh!” Stella Starr howled and dabbed her suddenly misty eyes with the sleeve of her Elmer Fudd sweatshirt as the old black-and-white movie she and Regina Harrison had been watching while nesting on the couch faded out and the credits started. “Ohhh… Miracle On 34th Street is such a wonderful movie… don’t you think, Reggie?”

ZZzzzz…

“Reggie?” Stella said and moved away from Regina’s soft shoulder where she had been resting her head.

ZZZZZzzzzz…

“Reggie…? REGGIE! The movie is over!”

Zzz- “Whut…? Oh… I guess I must’ve dozed off…” Regina said and did the same thing Stella had done only seconds before – wiped her eyes.

Hearing that, Stella scrunched up her face and shot her best friend slash kissing mate a slightly dirty look. “Dozing off in the middle of Miracle…” – grumble, grumble – “That’s gotta be a felony in half a dozen States or so…” – grumble, grumble – “Jeez, no respect for the Christmas traditions…” she mumbled, adjusting her glasses.

“Eh,” Regina said with a shrug. “Hey… where’s my candy?” she continued, pointing at an empty bowl in front of her on the coffee table.

“I ate it. You weren’t interested and I already had all mine, so… so I took yours,” Stella said and stuck out her tongue.

“I was sleeping,” Regina said flatly.

“Yeah? I thought you were afraid of getting a sugar rush.”

“Well… I was. We already have one drama queen in our little family,” Regina said and pulled Stella into a sideways hug.

Grinning, Stella let herself be smothered by the tall, graceful former model whose long digits were getting increasingly busy trying to find their way under Stella’s arm so they could tickle her half to death.

To show that she wasn’t an easy victim and that she could give as good as she got, Stella’s own fingers opened one of the buttons in Regina’s ivory Lady Bartholdy shirt and began to crawl around on the black tank top she was wearing underneath.

Soon, Regina and Stella progressed to the next logical step and began to exchange little kisses. Nibbling at each other’s tongues and lips, they were soon swimming in oceans of bliss and were fully lost to the world – until their telephones rang.

*RINNNNNNNGGGGGGGG!*

“One of these days…” Stella said while resting her forehead against Regina’s shoulder, out of breath and feeling horrendously targeted by the Clammy Hand Of Fate.

“… what?”

*RINNNNNNNGGGGGGGG!*

“One of these days, I’m gonna dump those phones down the toilet… and flush,” Stella said and got up as the telephones continued to produce their shrill, mood-killing sounds.

*RINNNNNNNGGGGGGGG!*

Chuckling, Regina put her hands behind her head and leaned back on the couch. “The plumber would definitely get dollar signs in his eyes from that, Stell.”

*RINNNNNNNGGGGGGGG!*

“Reggie, can you see my mug?” Stella said and pointed at her face as she sat down at her desk.

“Yeah?”

“Does it look like it gives a sh…? — Hello, you have reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?”

‘Hi, Miss Starr, it’s Steve.’

“Oh…” Stella said and spun around to look at the clock on the wall behind her – it was a quarter past one in the afternoon, way past the time Steve Darrian had said he would be there. “Oh, hi, Steve… uh…” she continued, slapping her forehead so loudly that Regina heard it way over on the couch.

‘I’m in my car outside. I knocked, but no one came to the door, so… I kinda looked through the window to see if you were in. Well, you were… and, uh, I thought I better call ahead instead of just barging in.’

“Oh…” Stella said again, squirming in her seat like she had been caught with her hand down the honeypot. “Yeah, okay. No, just come in. It’s… we’re ready.”

‘I’ll be there in ten seconds, Miss Starr,’ Steve said and closed the connection.

As Stella hung up, she scrunched up her face and sent Regina a few guilty glances. “That was Steve.”

“Yeah?” Regina said and buttoned her shirt.

“He’s outside. He looked in… just now.”

Regina leaned forward and put her elbows on her knees. When Stella didn’t go on, she cocked her head and shot the blonde investigator in the Elmer Fudd sweatshirt and the cut-off jeans a puzzled look. “And you’re embarrassed by what he saw?”

Stella shrugged half-heartedly and concentrated very hard on pushing a minuscule item around on her desktop. “No…” she said, waiting for Steve to make an appearance in the door. “But he’s your ex, and it’s… well, it’s complicated.”

*Knock, knock*

“Not for me,” Regina said and got up from the couch where she shrugged in her patented can’t-give-a-hoot fashion. On socked feet, she quickly closed the distance between herself and the door and let Steve Darrian inside.

As always, Steve looked like a million dollars in his fancy, black high fashion business suit and a white shirt where the top button was undone so the world at large could see his two-day stubble, his manly throat and the thin gold chain he had around his neck.

‘And there he is, Mister Chiseled Jaw. Oh yay… just my favorite person in the world to see right now,’ Stella thought as she reluctantly rose from her chair and crossed over to stand in the center of their office. Feeling defiant, she put her hands on her hips, hoping that the broad-shouldered, square-jawed, crew-cut former model with the steel gray eyes would challenge her and Regina’s little moment on the couch.

Smiling at Stella, Steve put down a small leather briefcase he was carrying, went up to Regina and put out his hand. Once she took it, he pulled her close like he wanted to kiss her on the mouth.

Unlike the last time they had met – in the very same spot – Regina wanted nothing to do with it and turned her cheek at him, demanding wordlessly that he either kissed her there or forgot all about it. Steve chose to give her a European greeting by laying a brief smooch on her cheek.

‘Whoa… look at that body language,’ Stella thought, stifling a smirk. ‘Holy ice box… that was cool enough to freeze lava… maybe there’s hope for me yet.’

“Ladies,” Steve said in his trademark voice, an impossibly silky baritone, and made a short bow. “Regina, please allow me to say that you look marvelous.”

Shuffling backwards, Regina went over to stand next to Stella. After a few seconds, she wrapped an arm around the blonde investigator’s waist. “Thank you.”

“And Miss Starr, I’ll say that your fashion sense has improved greatly since my last visit,” Steve said, smiling broadly.

Stella just furrowed her brow, trying to work out if that was a barb or not. Deciding that it – probably – wasn’t, she nodded and offered the former model a quick smile in return.

An odd moment of sullen, repressed silence filled the room where all three people shuffled back and forth on the spot, hoping that one of the other two would say something.

“Regina, I-” — “Steve, we-” Steve and Regina said over each other after the silence had grown to oppressive levels.

Smiling, Steve put out his hand and waved at his former lover. “You first. Age before beauty.”

Stella drew a sharp breath and was just about to give Steve Darrian a full broadside with all her thirty-seven cannons when Regina gave her shoulder a calming squeeze. “Thanks. Well, if you looked through the window before, I guess you saw that we were kissing.”

“I did,” Steve said and seemed the tiniest bit uncomfortable. “Uh, may I?” he continued, pointing at the couch.

“Sure. Stella, how about some coffee?” Regina said and squeezed her friend’s shoulder again. “I have the impression that Steve wants to say something to us… or perhaps just me.”

Looking up, Stella nodded and tenderly bumped shoulders with Regina. “Coffee? Okay, I can do that. You want something in it, Stevie-boy? Brandy, whisky, bleach?”

Steve was right in the middle of sitting down on the couch, but stopped dead in his tracks and cast a puzzled glance at Regina – not Stella. “Ah, just coffee… thanks. Though, I would like some cream and sugar if you have it.”

“We do,” Regina said, sending Stella a silent message – a steely stare with her ice blue orbs that left no room for misinterpretation – that if she didn’t play nice, she’d lose her kissing privileges for the evening, or possibly even longer if she did something really horrible, like poisoning their guest.

Receiving the message loud, clear and in glorious Technicolor, Stella just turned around and began to whistle an innocent little ditty while she rummaged around in their cupboard above the sink to find the items she’d need to make coffee.

“Sorry about that, Steve… I think Stella is a little jealous and insecure,” Regina said quietly as she sat down next to her old colleague.

“Oh, it’s all right. So… you’re together now?” Steve said, turning towards Regina on the couch.

“Yes. Unambiguously so.”

Grunting, Steve leaned back on the couch and let his eyes roam down Regina’s well-shaped torso and mile-long legs. “Well… I won’t say that it’s weird or strange or anything like that because they’re all negative words and I support you fully, I hope you know that… but I will say that I’m a bit… confused? Surprised is probably a better word. I mean, you’ve never shown interest in women before, Regina… and we’ve both worked with some of the most gorgeous, sexy women on the planet.”

“That’s true, but Stella isn’t just any woman. She’s quite special… you could say she opened my eyes,” Regina said and leaned forward so she could give Steve a direct, no-nonsense look.

Putting a warm hand on the lower part of Regina’s back, Steve chuckled quietly. “So you’re really in love? It’s not just rabid lust?”

“Hey,” Stella said sternly, interrupting the scene by putting down three mugs and three plates with slices of buttered toast and two small ceramic bowls of strawberry and blackcurrant jam, “rabbits got a bad rap in my opinion. So what if they go at it like… well, rabbits… they have a strong family base too, you know.”

As Stella walked back towards the kitchenette behind the front door, Steve narrowed his eyed and scrunched up his face. “Uh… Regina, is she… uh, is she… always like that?”

“No, she actually has a laser-sharp mind… but sometimes, it gets a little too cheeky for its own good!” Regina said in a voice that grew in volume as she spoke the sentence to make sure that Stella got the message.

As Stella took the metal coffee pot off the machine, her lips creased in an evil, little grin, and she started whistling the theme from the Twilight Zone on her way back to the couch.

“Anyway,” Steve said and began to rub Regina’s back, but stopped when she deliberately moved away from him, “here’s what I wanted to talk about. Through the help of a mutual acquaintance, my agency won the tender to set up and organize the yearly photoshoot for Swimsuit Illustrated. We’ll use girls from my roster for a five-day shoot in early January.”

“Women,” Stella interjected, munching on her buttered toast with a thick layer of strawberry jam on top.

“Pardon?”

“Women, not” – munch, munch – “girls. I” – munch, munch – “hope.”

“Let’s meet halfway and call them models. That’s what they are, after all.”

“Mmmm.” – munch.

Regina took her mug of coffee but didn’t feel like drinking from it. Deep down inside, she knew what Steve was after – a part of her even welcomed it – but it sent a cold shiver racing down her spine. Could she even do that anymore, with all the crow’s feet, the wrinkles and the little imperfections that had begun to crop up on her formerly so perfect skin? “But what’s that got to do with me? I’m long since retired, you know that,” she said, putting down the mug.

“Well, I know that, but the publishers remembered that we used to work together and they asked me about your availability,” Steve said and cocked his head.

At the other side of the coffee table, Stella stopped munching and just stared at the two tall, divine creatures with the perfect measurements, the perfect faces and the perfect mindsets for the nasty business they had been nearly born into. She looked intently at her best friend, hoping that she would shoot Steve down in flames on the spot.

Regina leaned back on the couch and began to rub her chin. “So… let me get this straight… from reading between the lines, you’re offering me a photoshoot with Swimsuit Illustrated…? Not just a fourth-rate magazine, but Swimsuit Illustrated…? The number one-rated illustrated genre magazine in the country?”

“Yes, that’s right, Regina. The publishers got their fuses lit when Helena Christensen made a comeback earlier this year. I’ll bet you’ve been following that closely…?”

“Well…” Regina said with a half-shrug. “I guess I have, yeah.”

“Mmmm. She’s mid-forties now, yet she’s as hot as ever. And so are you… I mean, look at you,” he said and waved his hand at her body. “Some of our contemporaries have lost it all because they couldn’t stay away from the white stuff, but you… you’ve lost nothing. Nothing at all.”

Hearing Steve buttering Regina up so heavily, Stella lost all her appetite and plonked the plate down on the table. “Where’s the catch, Stevie-boy?” she said sternly.

“No catch. I know I screwed up the last time we met, and I’m sorry for that, but this is a square deal. I have the contract ready to be signed in my briefcase,” he said, pointing at the small leather briefcase he had put just inside the door.

“Okay, now you better wait an itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie,” Stella said and began to rise from her chair, but Regina put out her hand in a calming gesture.

“I’m not going to sign anything today, Steve. Not before I’ve had a lawyer take a look at it. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a cynical forty-three year-old, not an impressionable teen anymore.”

At that, Steve leaned his head back and laughed out loud. “I didn’t expect anything less, Regina. Right… I’ve said my piece. Thanks for the toast and the coffee, Miss Starr. I better get on my way now,” he said and got up from the couch to collect his briefcase.

Stella didn’t know what to think of the whole, surprising mess so she just shot up from her chair and went over to the door where she put her hand on the handle so Steve couldn’t make an escape before she’d had time to speak her mind. “Steve,” she said so quietly that Regina couldn’t hear it on the couch where she was still sitting with an unreadable expression on her face, “you really hurt Reggie with that stunt you pulled the last time. This better not be a load of hot air, you hear me?”

“It’s not,” Steve said in a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s fifty thousand dollars.”

“Uh… buh… wh- whut?”

“Goodbye, Miss Starr… bye, Regina!” Steve said loudly and motioned to open the door.

After a few frozen heartbeats, Stella stepped aside to let the former supermodel through. When the door clicked shut behind him, she staggered into the center of the office and just stood there like a marble statue of the Patron Saint of the Terminally Confused.

Another few heartbeats later, she exploded in a Shimmy Shake where she threw both hands in the air and let out a primal squeal while she performed a three-minute dance in twelve seconds flat by frantically wiggling around on the spot and kicking out with first her right then her left leg – showing off her Pippi Longstocking socks.

Regina calmly took the plate with her slice of toast and leaned back on the couch to enjoy it while she waited for her best friend to wear herself out – predictably, she didn’t have to wait long. “Stell? What was that all about?” she said once Stella sat down with a bump on the gray carpet.

“Oh, nothing… just FIFTY THOUSAND little reasons!” Stella squealed.

“Oh… okay. Yeah, that would be the standard bonus for the model who’s selected to be the cover girl. Of course, that amount has to be split between herself, her agent, her minders, her… you get the picture,” Regina said and put down the empty plate after wolfing down the slice of toast.

At first, Stella just scrunched up her face, but then she shot to her feet and slammed her hands onto her hips. “The cover- wait a minute… waitaminute! He did it again! I don’t belieeeeeeeeeeeve it… he did it again!”

“Did what, Stell?”

“He fed me a crap sandwich! After all you’ve done for him! After all *I’ve* done for him! I mean… I mean… I made him toast and coffee, that… that… that… UGH!”

Regina dusted off her hands and rose from the couch. Scooping up the plates and the mugs, she went over to the kitchenette and put them down in the little sink. “Yeah, that’s how it works, Stell. The going rate for doing pictures for a top rated magazine is about three thousand dollars, but if one of your shots is selected for the cover, you’ll hit pay dirt.”

“UGGGHH!” Stella howled while looking like she was about to tear out her Pixie cut, roots and all.

Seeing the early warning signs for an all-out ‘…ucker’-attack, Regina knew she had to choose her words and actions carefully. “Do you want to watch another movie to take your mind off the recent frustrations?” she said softly as she opened the faucet and began to do the dishes.

“Mmm-hmmm!”

“Okay. Hmmm. I feel like watching The Shining or something simil-”

“No,” Stella said vehemently.

“No?”

“No.” Turning around, Stella stomped over to the filing cabinet where they kept their DVDs. After a little cursing and a lot of rummaging around, she finally found the movie she was looking for. Picking it up, she blew a layer of dust off the colorful, joyous cover and then opened it to check that the disc was present and accounted for – and most importantly, free of scratches.

“Then what’ll it be, Stell?”

Closing the filing cabinet, Stella playfully juggled the movie in her hands as she went over to the portable television and DVD player. “Something wonderfully Christmassy,” she said and turned on the TV.

“Stell, honey, we’ve been watching Christmas movies all week,” Regina said and put the last of the plates back up into the cupboard.

“And now we’ll watch another. December ninth is the perfect day for watching a Christmassy movie… and I have just the right one… Little Ashley’s Christmas Miracle.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Oh, you will… you will, no doubt about that. I didn’t watch it at all last year, but a couple of years ago, I think I played it something like twenty-two times over the course of the month.”

“Yikes, Stell! Who’s in it?”

“Kate Marshall. It was one of her first movies.”

“Oh, I shoulda guessed,” Regina mumbled.

With reverence, Stella opened the tray on the DVD player, put Little Ashley’s Christmas Miracle down into the depression and clicked on Close. “Well, I’m hoping to break that record this year.”

“I’m hoping the DVD goes missing…” Regina continued, still mumbling under her breath as she rolled her shirtsleeves back down and hung the towel on the little hook on the white tiles behind the door.

“Whassat?”

“Nothing, dear. I’m sure it’s an, uh… a sweet movie,” Regina said with a slightly fake smile that Stella fortunately didn’t see – if the blonde investigator had seen it, her response would have been even more caustic than the one she had already drawn a deep breath for:

“Well of course it’s sweet! It’s a Christmassy movie, after all. If a Christmassy movie can’t be warm and sweet and homey and comfy and feel like an old slipper every time we watch it, what’s the whole point of watching Christmassy movies? Of course Christmassy movies are sweet! So there!”

“But can’t we-”

“No, we can’t because I know all the lines backwards and I wanna look at lovely young Kate,” Stella said while she navigated through the menus on the DVD. “Oh, it’s such a fun movie where all involved had such a good time… you can tell, you know… oh, and all those wonderful set pieces like when the first snow falls over their little town, or Ashley’s dream sequence with the dance in the toy factory, or the Christmas dinner… oh, you gotta see the scene with the Christmas dinner!” she gushed, clutching the cover to her bosom.

“Uh-huh…?”

“Or when lovely, beautiful young Kate with those oh-so-green eyes and her pert nose and those super-cute rosy cheeks is looking out over the winter landscape on Christmas Eve from her bedroom window and sees the dozens of torches that mark the edges of the snowy trail that leads up to her house door and-and-and she’s so much looking forward to the morning but she’s worried that her father won’t make it back in time… and she sings her own little song accompanied by a music box with a dancing ballerina, ‘O Father, Please Hurry Home To Us’ or when-” she continued dreamily.

“Oh, brother…” Regina mumbled under her breath.

“-Santa finally arrives with a bag full of toys and goodies and… whassat?”

“Nothing, dear.”

“Yeah, right…” Stella growled before her sentimental side took over once again and she found herself floating away on a pink-lined cloud. “…Toys and goodies and his little elves and Missus Santa, and everything works out in the end ‘cos Kate’s father comes home in time and they dance around the Christmas Tree and sing such wonderful songs that are just so much fun to sing along to… right?”

“Mmmmh… but now I know how it ends, Stell,” Regina whined. “Can’t I-”

“Right?!”

Conceding an unconditional, devastating surrender, Regina just nodded her head and assumed an appropriately obedient pose. “Yes, dear,” she said, looking down at the ground almost like she was afraid to look Stella in the eye.

Predictably, Stella wasn’t able to stay upset for long and went over to her best friend and pulled her into a big hug. Just as the movie’s intro music started behind them, she stood up on tip-toes and planted a good-sized kiss on Regina’s lips. “Right. Now get your butt on the couch and let’s watch! Kate Marshall beckons!” she said and hooked her arm inside Regina’s.

“Yes, dear.”

-*-*-*-

Just as the end credits finished rolling up the screen – Stella wanted to watch the whole thing because there was a little bonus clip at the end where the cast came out in their costumes and took a bow – their phones rang, and Regina shot up from the couch to answer it, relieved to have survived yet another attempt at clogging up her arteries with an overdose of Christmas Saccharine.

In two long strides, she sat down on her swivel-chair, picked up the receiver and swung her legs up on the corner of her desk. “You have reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. How may we help you?”

Mumble, mumble.

“Oh, hi Joe. What’s up?”

Mumble, mumble.

“You met a guy in a bar? Why, congratulations, Joe!”

Mumble, mumble!

“Oh… not like that? Just kidding,” Regina said and found her pencil and her notepad.

Mumble, mumble.

“Yeah, yeah… Okay? The guy at the bar told you that the employees at the Westminster Dinner Theater have been victims of petty thefts? Mmmm,” she said, scribbling furiously.

Mumble, mumble.

“Okay.”

Mumble, mumble.

“555-5785, I got it,” Regina said and drew a fat pencil-box around the telephone number.

Mumble, mumble.

“Right. We’ll call Mr. Desmond at the theater and get the details of the case sorted. If there’s anything in it for us, we’ll pay you your regular fee, right?”

Mumble, mumble.

“A gallon of Cherry Brandy, right…”

Mumble, mumble!

“Yes, Joe, we’ll get a better brand than the one we got for you the last time,” Regina said flatly, thinking that an inner-city informant with an expensive habit shouldn’t really be in a position to make demands on the brand of his favorite rat poison.

Mumble, mumble.

“Mmmmm-yes. Okay… bye, Joe,” Regina said and hung up. Putting her legs down from the corner of the desk, she read her note a couple of times to get the facts straight before she presented it to Stella. “Stell?” she said loudly and got up from her chair.

‘In here!’ Stella said from the conference room.

Regina came up to stand in the doorway with the note in her hand. She had already opened her mouth to speak when the sight of Stella on her knees with her well-shaped butt pointing almost straight up trying to get the wheels of the portable TV over a bump in the carpet proved too hard to overcome. Taking a deep breath, Regina did the only thing she could at that time – she let out an echoing wolf call.

“Oh wow, you can whistle!” Stella mumbled when she finally got the reluctant wheel over the bump in the carpet so she could put the TV away. Sitting back on her thighs, she broke out in a girlish snicker when she realized that Regina had whistled at her butt. “Uh… whassup?”

“That was Joe. He’s got something for us,” Regina said and put out her hand to help Stella up from the floor. “There’s been a spate of petty thefts at the Westminster Dinner Theater and the employees are getting mightily irritated.”

“Which is understandable,” Stella said and pushed her glasses up her nose. “So…?”

Walking back into the office, Regina leaned in and bumped shoulders with her shorter friend. “So I got a phone number where we can talk to a Mr. Desmond. I guess he must be in charge or something,” she said, offering Stella the note.

“Mmmm-okay,” Stella said and looked at the clock on the wall. “Mmmm, it’s ten to four now… I was hoping we could call it an early day…”

“Oh! D’ya have a hot date, Stell?” Regina said and began to poke Stella in the sides with her long fingers.

“Uh!” – poke, SQUIRM, poke – “Yee!” – poke, poke, squirm – “Oy!” – poke, squirm, poke – “Uh!” – SQUIRM, SQUIRM, poke – “Lay off, Reggie! I do not have a hot date… I just wanted to go to the Laundromat!”

“Oh… hey, isn’t that where you met whatshername…? Danielle?” Regina teased.

“She moved out months ago! Sheesh, are you insecure or what? It doesn’t become you, old girl,” Stella said and sat down at her desk.

“Old g- OLD GIRL!?”

“Yes, I said that,” Stella said with a cheeky wink. After dialing the number, she leaned back on her chair and waited for someone to pick it up. The first attempt just produced a busy signal so she pulled the laptop over to check out the potential customer while she waited a couple of minutes to try again.

Regina sat down on the corner of Stella’s desk and began to play with all the little knick-knacks the blonde investigator had assembled over the years. “You’re lucky I like you so much. Women much taller than you have been mauled for less, you know.”

“Ha ha, killer.”

“I’m serious,” Regina said and stuck out her tongue in a gesture that showed that her blonde little friend was rubbing off on her.

Stella looked up and furrowed her brow. ‘Hmmm… I wouldn’t be surprised if Regina really could dish out some knuckle sandwiches if she wanted to…’ she thought, but wisely chose not to say anything. Instead, she concentrated on her laptop where she quickly found the Westminster Dinner Theater. “Hmmm… hmmm… hmmm. Okay, it was founded in 1886… hmmm… hmmm… hmmm… they mostly play old favorites. Their Christmas special for this year is an old English musical comedy called Christmas At The Old Vicarage. Sounds-”

“Never heard of it,” Regina said with a shrug.

“-great. Whassat?”

Regina’s only response was to turn around and flash Stella one of her two-hundred watt smiles.

Muttering unintelligible words under her breath about the sorry state of the world and the severely lacking knowledge and insight into the grand art of pop culture of former models who have turned into private investigators, Stella took the receiver and tried calling the theater again.

‘You’ve reached the stage manager’s office, it’s Jonathan Desmond. What can I do for you?’ a male voice said at the other end of the connection.

“Hello, Mr. Desmond, I’m calling from the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. My name is Stella St-”

‘Oh yes, I heard that you’d be calling. All right, I’ve got time to speak now so you can put Mr. Starr on the line.’

Stella calmly put down the receiver and got up from her chair. With a certain amount of fire slowly seeping into her calmness, she went around the desk, got down on the gray carpet and performed three push-ups. When it didn’t seem to be enough, she did one more for good measure and then got back on her feet.

“Hmmm?” Regina said, swinging her leg back and forth on the edge of the desk.

“Hmmm!” Stella growled and sat down on her chair. Sighing, she pulled out the drawer and made another fat line on the piece of paper where she kept score of the ‘People Who Asked For Mr. Harrison Bleepin’ Starr’.

Stella quickly counted the lines and came to a staggering conclusion. “He was the thirty-fourth person to get it wrong, Reggie! The thirty-fourth…!” she whispered to Regina before taking the receiver and putting it to her ear. “Hello, Mr. Desmond? I’m sorry, we don’t actually have anyone here by that name. I’m Stella Starr, the senior investigator.”

‘Oh… I see. I’m terribly sorry.’

“Common mistake, Mr. Desmond. Let’s cut to the chase and find out what this is all about, shall we?” she said and found her pencil and her notepad.

‘Uh… yes. Well, in short, several of our actors and actresses have experienced thefts from their dressing rooms. It has mostly been smaller, less valuable items, like powder compacts or little hand mirrors, but two brooches and a gold ear ring have also gone missing.’

“All right,” Stella said and made notes. “How long has it been going on?”

‘Ever since December first. That’s when we started playing our current production.’

“Mmmm. How many people have access to the dressing rooms, Mr. Desmond?”

‘Oh a lot, I’m afraid. It’s a very busy musical comedy with a rather large cast so a great deal of people have access. We play two shows a day, at three and at eight, but it’s always happened at the late show, never at the three o’clock matinee.’

“Hmmm? That’s odd.”

‘Yes. Well, I…’ Jonathan Desmond said and chuckled, ‘You’ll probably think that we showbiz people are a bunch of loonies, but superstition is a big thing here, you know, and…’

“Go on,” Stella said, shooting Regina a little smirk – she certainly knew how showbiz people occasionally seemed to live in another little world compared to regular folks.

‘Well, some of our actors and actresses are convinced that it’s the theater ghost who’s stealing from them.’

“The theater ghost?” Stella parroted out loud, earning herself a chuckle from Regina. “Hmm! Now, I have to admit that it does sound interesting…”

‘Will you take the case?’

“Mmmm… hang on a minute, Mr. Desmond,” Stella said and put her hand across the microphone in the receiver. “They think it’s the theater ghost. What do you say, Reggie? Should we take it or not?”

“Well, I don’t really know, Stell. It sounds a bit weird. Maybe we should give it a pass? Perhaps if we-”

“All right. Hello, Mr. Desmond?” Stella said, cutting Regina off before she had time to state and clarify her arguments.

‘Yes?’

“We’ll take it.”

‘Oh, excellent!’

Snorting, Regina slipped off the corner of the desk and went over to her own where she sat down and folded her arms across her chest with a huffy expression on her face.

“I’m afraid we won’t be able to make it to tonight’s show, but we’ll be there tomorrow evening in time for the late show,” Stella said and checked the information on the theater’s web site.

‘That’s a good plan, Miss Starr. Please come to the theater’s rear entrance at forty-four MacInnes Street at a quarter past seven at the very latest. After that, it all goes a little crazy. I’ll have a gofer waiting for you there.’

“Good. All right… talk to you tomorrow evening, Mr. Desmond. Bye,” Stella said and made to hang up.

‘Goodbye, Miss Starr,’ the stage manager said and ended the call.

After hanging up, Stella leaned back in her seat and put her hands behind her head. A few heartbeats later, she glanced at the sour expression on Regina’s face and felt a stab of guilt for putting it there. Knowing that she’d better get on top of it before it could grow into something scarier, she got up and shuffled over to her best friend and kissing mate. “Hey… I’m sorry, Reggie,” she said and ran her fingers up Regina’s long upper arm.

“Why did you ask my opinion when you had already made up your mind?” Regina said, pushing a paper clip around on her desk. After a short while, she reached up and interlaced her fingers with Stella’s to show that she was only moderately upset.

“I was afraid you’d say no… and it sounds really exciting. A theater ghost! Christmas At The Old Vicarage!”

“Sounds awfully saccharine to me, Stell.”

Pushing her glasses up her nose, Stella nodded vigorously, making even her tight Pixie cut bob up and down. “Yes, isn’t it wonderful?”

“Mmmm… mmmm. Mmmm… maybe,” Regina said with a chuckle. Getting up, she shuffled a few papers into a neat pile and clicked off her desk lamp. “I think I’ll call it a day, Stell. Since it’s gonna be a late one tomorrow, there are some things I need to get sorted tonight.”

“Steve’s contract?” Stella said, biting the inside of her cheek.

“Yeah. I need to send an opening email to my personal attorney. And things.”

Shuffling back and forth on the spot, Stella looked like she was about to burst from holding back a question – or possibly because she needed to go to the bathroom – but it wasn’t until Regina cocked her head and waved her hand in an impatient gesture that she blurted it out. “May I ask for a goodnight kiss, please? You know, a make-up kiss…?”

“I didn’t know we had a falling out, Stell?” Regina said and leaned down towards her best friend.

“Oh, we did… I put a frown on your face and I don’t like tha-MMMMPF!” – the rest of the sentence was cut off by Regina’s lips making a firm connection with Stella’s.

For the first few seconds, Stella just stood there and allowed herself to be kissed senseless, but then she mellowed out and put her back into reciprocating the sweet contact.

*
*
CHAPTER 2

The next evening, at five past seven.

As Stella and Regina drove slowly up MacInnes Street in Stella’s beloved brown AMC Pacer, she wiped a few drops of sweat off her forehead and began to look for somewhere to park. “Phew… rush hour traffic… it’s a killer, especially today.”

“…And we only got lost four times on our way here,” Regina said flatly.

“Oh ha, ha. You didn’t know where we were either!”

“No, that’s right… I got confused after the first three wrong turns.”

“Ah, who cares,” Stella said and slotted into a parking space between an SUV and a fancy sedan. “We’re here. Huh… the rear doesn’t look as extravagant as the front, eh?” she continued, looking up at the non-descript, dark gray rear side of the building housing the dinner theater.

Unbuckling her seat belt, Regina pulled the little lever for the door and stepped out of the Pacer. “When do they ever?” she said as she put her foot down on the street.

“Oh… you know… it happens now and then. Heh, heh…” Stella said, looking squarely at Regina’s perfectly sculpted slacks-clad rear end as the tall, graceful being maneuvered herself out of the old car.

A few minutes later, the rear entrance opened and a gofer – a teenaged woman wearing sensible shoes, black jeans, a black T-shirt with the words I’m Here To Help printed in white, and an old-fashioned headset that seemed to be nearly as large as her head – stepped into the doorway and began to look around, clearly looking for something or someone she couldn’t find.

Feeling thoroughly ignored, Stella moved up to the door and put out her hand. “Hi. We’re the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. We have an appointment with Mr. Desmond…?”

“Oh… I was expecting a guy…” the gofer said, shaking hands with first Stella and then Regina. “Never mind, it’s right this way,” she continued and hurried back into the rear entrance.

The supremely annoyed look on Stella’s face prompted Regina to wrap her arm around her blonde friend’s pale blue lined sports windbreaker and drag her inside, chuckling all the way in.

The backstage area of the dinner theater was a chaotic mess of people running around in a maze of corridors, seemingly at random and in various states of undress. Now and then, commands were issued from an array of very old PA speakers, but the messages were so distorted and garbled that it was impossible to get much out of them.

“Buh…!” Stella said, staring wide-eyed at the anthill-like scenes.

“Welcome to the wacky world of showbiz,” Regina said and gave Stella’s shoulder a little squeeze.

Ahead of them, the gofer didn’t check if her guests could keep up with her, with the inevitable result that they couldn’t. In two steps, she had vanished into the crowd.

Stella didn’t mind too much as she simply kept standing where she had stopped, still staring wide-eyed at the incredible display of organized chaos.

Suddenly, an incessant ringing filled the corridors, quickly followed by one of the people running around shouting “Forty-five minutes!”.

“Oh! My! God! Reggie! Reggie! This is it!” Stella howled, clenching her fists into little balls.

“What is?”

“This is my calling! Can’t you hear it? Can’t you see it?”

“Uh… no…?”

“This is what I want to do for the rest of my life… showbiz, baby!” Stella howled, pushing her glasses up her nose.

Regina rolled her eyes and put both hands on Stella’s shoulders to guide her through the throng of people. “Uh-huh. And a month ago, you wanted to be a wrestling promoter… or remember when you wanted to be a recording artist…? Or a photographer…? Or a…”

“Yeah, yeah, just twist that knife will ya?” Stella said and wiped her nose with the back of her hand.

Ten minutes later, they found the Stage Manager’s office on their own and knocked on an old-fashioned, wooden door. When it was answered with an ‘Enter!’ they stepped inside.

The office was surprisingly small, only twenty by twenty-five feet, and the walls were covered by shelves heavily laden with binders of all colors and sizes.

“Hello, Mr. Desmond. We’re the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency,” Stella said and closed the door behind them.

“Good evening, Miss Starr,” Jonathan Desmond said and got up from behind a wooden desk in a Victorian design that had so much clutter on it, it was a miracle the four legs hadn’t crumbled into sawdust ages ago.

While Stella shook hands with Jonathan, she observed that he was older than she had imagined him to be; at least in his early fifties. He was a clean-shaven, balding man with fairly regular looks, except for a pair of piercing eyes and a strong brow. The high-waisted, brown polyester pants and the short-sleeved white shirt he wore didn’t do much for him, though – even Stella Starr, the undisputed Queen of Fashion Disasters could see that.

“Hello, I’m Regina Harrison, the other part of the Agency,” Regina said and shook hands with Jonathan Desmond.

“Good evening. Please, have a seat,” Jonathan said and gestured at two chairs that were standing in front of the desk as two deserted islands in the middle of a sea of clutter. “By the way, didn’t you see my gofer? I sent her out, oh, nearly fifteen minutes ago…?”

“Oh, she found us, all right,” Stella said with a chuckle, “but she was so quick on her feet that she was swallowed up by the anthill out there.”

“Oh… yes, Andi is quite rapid. Well,” Jonathan said and sat down at his desk, clearly thinking about how to begin the conversation without embarrassing himself.

“The theater ghost…?” Stella said as she flipped open her notepad.

“Ah yes… the theater ghost. Now, Miss Starr, Miss Harrison, you must understand that we do things slightly differently here in our little world. There are so many superstitions at this theater that most things we do require a pre-emptive chant or a mumbled prayer in order to work.”

“Mmmm!” Stella said excitedly, wiggling her eyebrows. “Go on.”

“Well, I-”

*Knock, knock!* — “Chief, I’ve kinda lost your two visitors… oh…” Andi the Gofer said as she stuck her head in through the opened door.

Turning around, Jonathan assumed a slightly dour expression and began to tap his fingers on the only free spot on the desk. “Luckily, they were able to find my office on their own, Andi.”

“Uh… yes.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to find Teddy Hutchins and ask him to come to my office at once?” Jonathan said, wearing a chilly smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“Uh… yes. I’m on it,” Andi said and pulled her head back from the door.

“Thank you!” Jonathan said, but the door had already closed. With a little grunt, he moved back to his regular spot and turned to face Regina and Stella. “Sorry about that… she can get a little confused at times.”

“Oh, that’s quite all right,” Regina said with a grin. “We’re not unfamiliar with confusion, are we, Stell?” – the only answer was a hooded squint from the emerald green orbs.

Jonathan shuffled a few files into something vaguely resembling order and got up from his chair. “Good. Anyway, Teddy Hutchins is our jack-of-all-trades. He’s worked at the theater since he was nine years old so he knows all there is to know. He’s the one you need to talk to. I’m sorry, Ladies, from now until showtime, I’ll be too busy to do anything but shout at my employees. I’ll see you again once the show is under way,” he said and moved over to the door.

“All right, Mr. Desmond,” Stella said and got up as well. “We’ll wait here for Mr. Hutchins to arrive. I need a word… or two… with my *assistant*, and… yes.”

Five minutes later – that Stella and Regina had spent trading barbs and kisses – the wooden door to the office was slowly opened to reveal an elderly man in a blue denim overall. “Hello…? Well… neither of you ladies is Mr. Harrison Starr, I know that much…”

Stella’s eyes nearly rolled back in her head and she had to bite down on her tongue to stop the inevitable explosion from coming. After a few seconds of damage control, she managed to screw a smile on her face and got up from her chair. “Well, I’m afraid your gofer is a bit of a goof-er instead. I’m Stella Starr, this is my business associate Regina Harrison,” she said and put out her hand.

The elderly man stepped into the office and shook Stella’s hand. “Delighted to meet you, Miss Starr. Miss Harrison. Oh, the young people today… they only have room in their minds for all their electronic gizmos… it’s messing with their heads, in my opinion. Oh, never mind, I don’t want to turn it into a lecture,” Teddy said and walked into the office.

“Please, Sir, have my seat,” Regina said and moved over to the desk.

“Why thank you, young lady. Much obliged,” Teddy said and sat down, producing a cracking sound in his knees as he did so.

Stella quickly sat down on her own chair and found her notepad. While she flipped it open to the appropriate page, she took a good look at the elderly man sitting next to her. In his mid-seventies, Teddy seemed to have kept most of his strength but had perhaps grown a bit frail with age, as witnessed by the looseness of his denim overall. His cool blue eyes were a little soft and his jaw a little weak, but all in all, he seemed to be with it. “Mr. Hutchins, I-”

“Oh, call me Teddy… I insist.”

“Teddy,” Stella said with a smile, “can you tell us about the recent thefts that have occurred at the theater?”

“Well, yes and no. I only have access to the men’s dressing rooms, of course, so I can’t say what’s been going on in the ladies’,” Teddy said and shuffled around uncomfortably.

“Of course. Go on.”

“During the eight o’clock shows, several items have been taken from the men’s dressing room. At least two powder compacts, a wristwatch, mmm… several cufflinks… and I believe that one of those newfangled eye-somethings has gone missing, too.”

“Eye-somethings?”

“Eye-pots? Is that the name?”

“Oh… yeah, okay,” Stella said and made a correction on her notepad.

“It’s the damnedest thing, though… the rear entrance is locked once the show starts. I stand guard there so I know that no one has come or gone in any of the instances where the thefts have occurred… which would indicate that the thief stays somewhere inside the theater, right? Well, I have roasted all my helpers over an open fire but they all say, unconditionally, that they’re not the culprit. Well, someone is.”

Regina – still standing after Stella had stolen the other chair from under her nose – shuffled over to the desk to lean her rear end against the edge. “Teddy, Mr. Desmond says that the buzz blames it on the theater ghost. Is there any truth to those rumors?”

“Ah, the theater ghost… look, Miss Harrison, I’ve been working here since 1946 and I’ve never, ever seen the ghost. I’ve been everywhere, I know every nook and cranny, every underground corridor, every storage room like the back of my hand, and I can assure you that it’s just a myth. It makes for a good story for Halloween, but that’s it,” Teddy said vehemently.

“Halloween is past us,” Stella said and crossed her legs, “but we’d still like to hear the story, wouldn’t we, Reggie?”

“We would,” Regina said with a nod.

“Well… all right,” Teddy said and unnoticeably moved to the edge of his seat, prompting Stella to do the same. “According to the myth, the original owner of the Westminster Theater, Rupert Swann, was a cheery English fellow who had specialized in the brand of comedy known as slapstick. It’s been largely forgotten today, but it was quite popular back then… mostly.”

“Oh, slapstick hasn’t been completely forgotten, Teddy,” Stella said and adjusted her glasses with a knowing grin on her face.

“Hmmm? Well, I’m sure Rupert Swann would have been pleased to hear that. By ‘mostly,’ I meant that it didn’t catch on here and Rupert got into problems with the men controlling his finances, the local branch of one of the major banks at the time.”

“Nothing new there,” Regina said dryly.

“You said it, Miss Harrison. Well, Mr. Swann was a sensitive man… I’m sure you know what I mean… and it really got to him that his favorite repertoire wasn’t a success. After more financial problems in the fall of 1905, he was ordered by his bank to switch to a more dramatic repertoire so they could recoup their investment. He refused, went home and shot himself in the head in the smallest of our storage rooms. I guess he wanted to die where he felt happy.”

“Oh dear,” Stella said and nearly slipped off the edge of her chair – Regina caught on at once and shot forward with her arms ahead of her to pick up the clumsy investigator, but Stella managed to hang on by her fingernails.

Teddy noticed and moved back to the backrest to avoid a similar fate. “Yes. The ghost stories didn’t begin until the early 1940s when a Medium, Miss Suzette de Peligro, a crazy old bat,” – he rolled his eyes – “claimed to have heard from Rupert Swann during a spiritual session. From that moment on, he was the talk of the theater, and soon, there were sightings everywhere. But like I said to begin with, I’ve never, ever encountered the ghost.”

“Mmmm,” Stella said and closed her notepad. “It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Teddy. I’m sure you’re a busy man so we’ll let you get on with your day now.”

Getting up, Teddy took a few moments to get his balance, but then began to walk back to the door. “Thank you, Miss Starr. Miss Harrison. There’s always a chance we’ll bump into each other later, but if we don’t, have a very nice day.”

Once the door was closed behind the jack-of-all-trades, Regina folded her arms across her chest and let out a “Hmmm…”

“I’ll raise your Hmmm with one of my own, Reggie. Hmmm!” Stella said and got up. “I think we’re just dealing with a regular thief of some kind. Someone who knows how to make him- or herself scarce. No ghost… shoot.” – At those words, the corners of Stella’s lips went down and she bared her teeth in a disappointed grimace.

“Awww… c’mere, let me give you a widdle cuddle,” Regina said and pulled Stella into a hug. “Let’s go to the dressing rooms. The show’s about to start… we may get lucky and catch whoever it is red-handed.”

“Good idea, Reggie,” Stella said and reached down to give Regina’s left buttock a little squeeze as a return favor.

-*-*-*-

An uneventful hour and a half later.

Sighing, Stella put her hands behind her back and began to shuffle the other way down the long, softly lit corridor that led to the men’s dressing room.

The stage itself was located directly above the maze of corridors, and she and Regina – who was guarding the ladies’ dressing room forty yards further down a connecting hall after winning a quick bout of rock, paper, scissors – had both been able to follow the progress of all three acts; the songs, the laughter and finally the applause had all echoed through the long, empty halls, creating an eerie atmosphere.

The corridor was as deserted as it had been throughout the show, and not even the numerous lavishly decorated picture frames promoting premieres from the past that adorned the cream, red and golden hall could hold Stella’s interest any longer.

Sighing again, she came to a halt at the door to the dressing room and looked at the elaborately scripted sign that read ‘Dressing room #2 – men only. No women allowed!’

After a few seconds, Stella reached into her pocket and dug up her cell phone. With a quick flick of the wrist, she called Regina and hoped the former model hadn’t fallen asleep at her post.

‘It’s Reggie… any news?’

“None. You?”

‘Nope.’

“Wild goose chase. Man, I’m bored.”

‘Mmmm!’

“I think the show’s over now… the applause has died down and I think I can hear people moving to the exits,” she said and cocked her head to hear better.

‘Yep. The first of the background performers have already shown up over here.’

“Yeah? Any lookers?”

‘Wouldn’t know, Stell.’

“Yeah, right,” Stella said and began to shuffle down to the other end of the hall. “With all the dressing rooms you’ve been in, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve seen more good-looking gals than I have… in the flesh, I mean.”

‘I only have eyes for you, darlin’,’ Regina drawled.

“Awww… how cute. Mmmm. There’s something fishy here, though. Who knew that we were going to keep watch the way we have? You, me, and-”

‘Teddy…? Are you saying that he’s the thief? Come on, Stell…’

“Back in the office, he could have played us like violins… well, I’d be a violin, you’d be a double-bass.” – snicker, snicker.

‘Ha, ha. Hang on…’

“Strike Team Stella standing by,” Stella said in her best authoritarian voice.

‘Okay, we’re in the clear, Stell. A large group of dancers just entered their dressing room and I’ve been told that everything’s A-OK in there.’

“Damn! Uh… that’s good. But bad… but good. Ah, you know what I mean. I better wait for some of the men to return, but… hey, can’t you come over now? I’m soooooo lonely over here…” Stella whined.

‘I’ll be right over.’

“Thanks, Reggie. You’re my friend!” Stella said and closed the connection.

Five minutes later, the corridor where Stella had kept watch for more than ninety fruitless minutes was filled with sweaty, steaming warm male dancers and actors who filed into the dressing room, all talking excitedly amongst themselves about the relative merits of the various dancers and the ups and downs of the show they had just finished.

“Oy! Hey, waitaminute…!” Stella said as the last man closed the door to the dressing room right in her face. “Oy! I need to know if everything’s okay!”

Not long after, the door was held ajar and a sweaty dancer stuck his head out. “Everything’s just fine in here, sweety. D’ya wanna come in and check for yourself?” he said in an effeminate voice.

“Uh, no thank you. I saw a naked guy once… I have no need for a repeat performance,” Stella said and scrunched up her face.

The dancer just giggled and pulled his head back in.

“Uh-huh,” Stella mumbled under her breath. To her right, Regina waltzed into the corridor with her hands deeply stuffed down the front pockets of her slacks. “And where the hell did you go? Didn’t you say you’d be right over?”

“One of the dancers wanted to have her picture taken with me… how could I say no to that?” Regina said and pulled her cell out of her pocket to show Stella what she meant.

“Huh? If she’s the one who wanted a photo, how come it’s on your phone…?”

Smirking, Regina held the phone under Stella’s nose so she’d be able to see all the lurid details on the small display. ” ‘Cos I asked one of the other dancers to take one for me while we were at it… I knew I could use it to torment you, Miss Rosy Cheeks.”

Seeing the photo made Stella scrunch up her face all over again – it showed Regina with her arm wrapped around a shorter woman’s waist. The woman was still wearing her costume – a pink, frilly dress with a short, pleated skirt – and she was standing in an acrobatic split with her left ankle on Regina’s right shoulder. “Buh…” Stella croaked, looking up at her friend.

“Yeah, she was really limber.”

“Reggie. Harrison. You. Lucky. Sonova…”

The rest of Stella’s mumbled curse was cut off by Jonathan Desmond entering the corridor. “Hello again, Miss Starr. Miss Harrison. Do you have an update?”

“Yes, Mr. Desmond, we do,” Stella said and cleared her throat of a nasty taste of envy. “Nothing has happened this time. All items are accounted for.”

“Oh… strange. That’s the first time in nine days without a theft,” Jonathan said and rubbed his chin. “Makes one think that the thief has somehow listened in on our conversation…”

“Yeah. Well, whatever it was, nothing was stolen tonight,” Stella said and poked Regina in the side to make her put the cell phone with the evocative photo back in her pocket so it wouldn’t distract her – Regina did so with a two-hundred watt grin.

“Hmmm”-ing out loud, Jonathan turned around and put out his hand. “Ladies, let’s go back to my office.”

-*-*-*-

The next day, December eleventh, proved to be wet, windy and generally miserable, and as a result, Stella’s spirits were even lower than they had been the evening before when their long, dreary stakeout had yielded nothing.

The day at their office had progressed like a snail going uphill in molasses until noon where Stella had literally cried enough and had put on her favorite comfort garments – her poncho, her black Ain’t I Purdy?muscleshirt, her warm winter jeans and her ladybug socks.

Without her beloved Rubik’s Cube to take her mind off the misery, all she could do to combat her charcoal-tinted mood was to lie down on the couch with a cool, damp washcloth over her eyes, noisily chew her way through a roll of Oreos and listen to soft, happy music playing from their old boom box, but even that wasn’t enough. In short, she was adrift on an ocean of despair, and she didn’t even have a paddle.

From her desk, Regina looked at her sensitive friend with a wistful smile, very much wanting to play on her PSP, but knowing it would be unfair to expose the fragile Stella to all those electronic sounds that drove her crazy even on her good days.

In the end, she decided to start working on the huge pile of paperwork she had sitting in her Inbox instead. After a minute or so of studying the first file, the sounds of her ball point pen scribbling her thoughts down on paper echoed through the office where they mixed with The Village People’s Greatest Hits from the boom box.

At the stroke of two, their phones rang, but even though Regina reached for it with lightning reflexes, she couldn’t stop the shrill, relentless noise from blasting through the somber silence that had fallen over the office after the CD had ended.

“You have reached the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency. This is Regina Harrison. How may I help you?” she said and leaned back in her seat.

‘Hello, Miss Harrison, this is Jonathan Desmond from the theater.’

“Oh, hello, Mr. Desmond. Is there a problem?”

On the couch, Stella pulled the damp washcloth aside and turned her head to look at Regina.

‘No, not as such. I’ve called to say that I’ve just come up with a brilliant idea… if I may say so myself, ha ha. Instead of spending another night down in the corridors, would you and your business associate be interested in participating in the show tonight? In walk-on parts, of course. That way, you’d be close to the action… so to speak.’

“Well… it’s an interesting notion, Mr. Desmond, but I’m not sure that it would work very well,” Regina said and cast a sideways glance at Stella who had moved up into a sitting position and was busy yawning and stretching her back.

‘Oh…’

On the couch, Stella swung her legs over the side and began to dab-dab-dab around for her glasses that she had put on the coffee table. When she couldn’t find them, her face scrunched up into a mask of frustration.

“One moment, Mr. Desmond,” Regina said and put her hand across the microphone. “They’re just to the left of where your right hand is now, Stell! No… no, that’s not left… yep, you got ’em,” she continued with a smile.

Pushing her glasses up her nose, Stella returned the smile and added a little thumbs-up. After yawning again, she got up and began to shuffle off to her own desk.

Regina watched Stella’s dejected shuffle and realized that the only thing that could boost her suffering friend’s spirits was a nice, little surprise. “Hello, Mr. Desmond?”

‘Yes, I’m here.’

“We would very much like to take part in the show tonight,” Regina said, looking squarely at Stella and hoping that the despondent trooper had heard what she had said – from the comical position Stella was in, it appeared that she had.

‘Oh, that’s great! Please come to the rear entrance at six thirty sharp. I’ll meet you there and then we’ll go to your costume fittings. How does that sound?’

“That sounds just fine, Mr. Desmond. See you then. Bye,” Regina said and hung up.

Stella was still frozen between two shuffles, standing with one leg firmly on the ground and one crooked and about to be raised. Slowly, she turned towards Regina and stared at her with a pair of very wide emerald green eyes. “Sh- sh- show? To- to- to- tonight?”

“Yes, hon. Mr. Desmond asked if we wanted be on stage in the show tonight. I said yes… as you may have heard,” Regina said and moved over to her friend.

Stella was still too gobsmacked to do anything but breathe with her mouth slightly agape, so Regina just pulled her into a crushing hug and rubbed her hands up and down the back of the poncho.

“We’re… gonna… be… gonna be… gonnabeinthe… SHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW!” Stella suddenly howled straight into Regina’s left ear, making the former model yelp loudly and jump a foot in the air.

Upon landing, Stella squealed in joyful giddiness, grabbed Regina’s hands and began to swing her around and around and around and around and around until they were both so dizzy they couldn’t walk straight.

-*-*-*-

At six twenty-five PM, Stella raced around the corner of MacInnes Street in the Pacer and came to a screeching halt in front of the rear entrance – well, as screeching as it would get from driving at twenty-three miles an hour. “We’re here,” she said and reversed into the same parking slot they had used the day before.

“Mmmm!” Regina said, clinging onto her seat belt with both hands.

“Oh, get off… I got us here in one piece, didn’t I? In one piece and on time… what more can ya ask for? I drove well today, Reggie, admit it.”

“Well, you drove today, yes,” Regina said as she unbuckled and made to open the door.

“I drove well! So there!” Stella said and jumped out of the car, not even bothering to look for her eternal nemesis, the dreaded curbstones.

Inside the car, Regina just sighed and looked at the pale brown upholstery on the Pacer’s ceiling. “Mmmm-yeah,” she said and stepped out of the classic.

Five minutes later, Jonathan Desmond came out to greet them. After shaking hands again, he ushered them inside where they quickly went through the underground corridors until they reached a storage room labeled Costume Dept.

The storage room was protected by a huge sliding door made of metal that looked like it weighed a ton but that moved very easily when Jonathan took the handle. “Miss Starr, Miss Harrison, as private investigators, you must be familiar with costumes…?”

“Oh yes,” Stella said, pushing her way past Regina to be the first to see the inside of the storage room, earning herself a pinch in the backside for her tactics, “we have a wardrobe filled with all kinds of outfits.”

“Well, we have slightly more than a wardrobe,” Jonathan said with a smirk as he pushed the sliding door to the side and turned on an array of strip lights.

“Ho… ly… sh- sh- sh- SHIIIIIIT! REGGIE! WILL YA LOOK AT THAT!” Stella exclaimed in a resounding voice when she realized she was standing in the doorway of a room the size of a small football field that was quite literally filled to the ceiling with clothes from all periods and of all shapes and sizes. If she had been wearing her glasses, she was sure they would have steamed up, but even her contact lenses became a bit misty around the edges. “Oh my… oh my… fu… fu… flippin’ Gawd!” she continued as she stepped inside.

For once, Regina shared her best friend’s enthusiasm and stared wide-eyed at the endless shelves and racks of clothes. “Wow… this is really impressive,” she said dreamily.

“Yes, we think so,” Jonathan said with a chuckle. “Believe it or not, we have more than this. We have a depot in another part of the city for the older costumes,” he said and stepped in behind the two stunned investigators.

Moving in a trance-like state, Regina slid over to a metal rack and began to run her fingers through the fine, high-quality fabrics. On one rack alone, she found a red-and-gold Roman toga, a black leather battledress in an Amazonic cut, a Native American hunting suit made of suede, and a fluffy, pink ballgown, all in her size. “This is amazing… just amazing. I could live in here,” she whispered.

Stella just stood in the center of the large room with her eyes bugged out on stalks, trying to take it all in.

Chuckling, Jonathan reached into his pocket and found a list of characters and their corresponding costumes. “Miss Starr, I… uh… Miss Starr? Miss Starr?”

“Uh… whut?” Stella said, snapping out of her stupor.

“I’ve found a character that would match your physical presence, but if you don’t want to play it, we can try something else,” Jonathan said, studying his list.

“Oh, you know, I’m not that choosy. What kind of character is it? An ass’ ass?” Stella said and broke out in a girlish snicker.

“Not exactly, no. You’d be playing one of four ghosts who are roaming the Vicarage on Christmas Eve. You have two scenes where you cross the set from stage-right to stage-left while howling and rattling your ball and chain.”

“Ghost…?” Stella said, expecting Regina to shoot her a full-sized barb based on the ball-and-chain comment, but the former model was so preoccupied with the clothes that nothing came her way. “Well… I’m guessing it would be closer to Casper than to Poltergeist, right?”

“Oh, yes, yes… everything is played for laughs. You’d be wearing a white gown and white makeup, and the ball and chain are made of plastic,” Jonathan said with a smile.

“You know, I think that would be fun, actually. Yes, please!”

“All right. Now, Miss Harrison, your costume… uh… Miss Harrison? Miss Harrison?”

“Just call her old girl and she’ll be here in a flash,” Stella said out of the corner of her mouth.

“Oh, I better not,” Jonathan answered in a mumble. “Miss Harrison!”

When Regina finally realized that someone had addressed her, she forced herself away from the racks of clothes and moved back to Jonathan and Stella. “Yes?” she said, deliberately placing herself in a position where she couldn’t see any of the shelves.

“The character that would suit you best is a friendly neighbor who’s visiting the Vicarage for a cup of tea and a crumpet. You’ll also be in two scenes, though the two of you only have one shared scene.”

“All right… I’m six-foot-one and I don’t have any hang-ups when it comes to natural or synthetic products, though I prefer natural. I won’t do nudity though I’m fine with sheer fabrics but only if the lighting is right. My measurements are thirty-six-C-”

“Uh, Miss Harrison-”

“-twenty-nine-”

“Miss Harrison, the costume has-”

“-thirty-five… sorry?”

“Miss Harrison, the costume has already been assembled. You’ll wear exaggerated makeup, a pink, low-cut dress and a black high-bouffant wig. All you have to do is to find the right size and put it on,” Jonathan Desmond said and scratched his hairline in an embarrassed fashion.

“Oh…” Regina said dejectedly. “Okay. I can live with that.”

Feeling left out, Stella screwed on her most cheeky smile and turned around to face the stage manager. “I’m five-foot-four-and-a-half, please note that the half inch is very important to me, and my measurements are not quite that much, a little bit more and not quite that much…” she said in a sing-song voice that made Jonathan grin at her.

“Oh, ha flippin’ ha, Stell! Excuse me for trying to be professional!” Regina said and bumped shoulders with her best friend.

The rapid-fire banter made Jonathan look from one investigator to the other, but he finally decided that he would be better off staying out of it. “Ahem. Well. Yes… Miss Starr, your costume is stored in row six, rack eleven, that’s over there,” he said and pointed at one end of the large room. “And Miss Harrison, your costume is stored in row fourteen, rack three… that’s over there,” he continued, pointing at the other end of the storage room.

“Right…” Stella said, looking to her left to try to spot the specific row Jonathan was talking about.

“There are Quick Change dressing rooms over there,” he continued, pointing at yet another part of the storage room, “and when you’re finished here, just turn off the lights, close the door and head to the makeup department, which is located at…”

Smirking, Stella knew that she had already reached her maximum capacity for directions, so she just turned towards Jonathan and put a hand on his elbow. “Uh, we’ll find it, Mr. Desmond.”

“All right. Well, that’s it. Break a leg, both of you. I hope you’ll enjoy the experience… see you after the show,” Jonathan said with a smile.

“Thank you, Mr. Desmond,” Stella said before slapping Regina’s shoulder. “Reggie, let’s… oh, Reggie, there’s no time to sulk now! We’ve got work to do!”

Grunting, Regina put down her arms that she had been holding across her chest and softened the sour expression she’d had on her otherwise so pretty face. “Mmmm!” she growled, still looking a bit miffed about having her preferences brushed off.

“Reggie, let’s get crackin’!”

-*-*-*-

Twenty minutes later, Regina and Stella bumped into each other in the midst of a throng of waiting lead actors and background players in the middle of the narrow corridor outside the makeup department, both fully dressed, made up and ready to rumble.

“Cheese-O-Flip!” Stella exclaimed loudly when she realized that Regina appeared even taller and bustier than normal.

The former model had screwed herself down into a pink pleated skirt á la 1790, and an even pinker top that was cut so low that her two little friends looked like they could jump out and make a run for it at any moment.

The black high-bouffant wig they had made her wear was definitely something Marge Simpson would have rejected, and combined with the garish makeup that consisted of a white face, black, exaggerated eyebrows, two bright red dots on her cheeks and a pair of outrageously stylized lips forever frozen in a puckered-up state, she looked so strikingly awful that Stella couldn’t stop a full-blown belly laugh from bubbling through her chest and up to the surface.

“Yeah yeah, laugh it up, Missy. It’s not that you look any better…” Regina mumbled, wanting most of all to shove her hands down her pockets – but her costume didn’t have any.

“Whaddaya mean, Reggie? I look el fanta-sticky!” Stella said and spun around so her ghost-gown flared out.

Her costume was far simpler than Regina’s, just a three-quarter-sleeved white gown with a shredded lower hem that dragged along the floor, white gloves that came to her elbows, and a plastic ball-and-chain that looked so much like the real thing that it seemed weird that Stella could balance it on her pinkie. Her makeup was simpler, too, just a white face with pale blue eyebrows and two pale blue lips.

‘Fifteen minutes! Fifteen minutes! Everybody to your places!’ Jonathan Desmond’s voice droned from the dilapidated PA system, leading to a mass exodus from the makeup department of dancers, lead actors and actresses and background players of all sizes and colors.

Once the hustle and bustle had returned to regular levels, Regina reached out and thumped Stella’s ghostly shoulder. “Break a leg, Stell. But not literally… okay?”

“Sheesh! Of course not, Reggie,” Stella said and made another windmill in the suddenly deserted corridor. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

“Famous last words…” Regina said under her breath, but she quickly flashed a two-hundred watt smile at Stella to take the sting out of the delivery – unfortunately, her smile was transformed into something far more demonic by her painted puckered-up lips, and it made Stella stare wide-eyed at the horrendous sight.

“You know, Reggie…” Stella said flatly, transfixed by the grotesquely painted lips, “I can’t be-LIE-ve I’m saying this… but I think we better wait with the kissin’ thing… I don’t wanna have nightmares for a week…”

*
*
CHAPTER 3

‘This is it… this is it… this is it… Stella Starr, this is it… this is it…! You better not stink it up!’ Stella chanted in her mind as she tried to get herself psyched up to go on stage for the first time in her life.

Standing at stage-right, she looked out onto the darkened room and took in the vast number of faint, orange stars glinting in the darkness – in reality, they were the lamps on the small, round dinner tables.

With her cue coming up fast and her three experienced ghost comrades almost ready to go on, she began to count the potential number of people who could be looking at her when she went on stage – but when she reached a hundred and twenty-two tables, she choked up and began to panic underneath her white makeup. If the cue hadn’t come at that exact moment, she would have high-tailed it out of there faster than she could spell her own name.

Right on cue, her three comrades-in-gowns began to shuffle onto the stage, dragging their plastic balls-and-chains and howling in eerie voices. Stella felt a shock of panic penetrate her heart that made it skip several beats, but once it settled down into a regular, fast rhythm, she felt a calm fall over her and stepped onto the stage.

Howling eerily with the rest of them, Stella dragged her feet and tried to act as scarily as she could, thinking that it had to be the oddest thing she had ever done.

While the four ghosts roamed the stage, the ever-present cheery music changed into something more sinister than the usual light-hearted fare, but it only lasted for a short while; then, the lead ghost went up to the edge of the stage and began to sing the Ode to Eternal Suffering, a comical piece that made the audience laugh a great deal at how familiar words and sentences were twisted to fit the ghoulish theme.

As the lead ghost sang, Stella waited out of the spotlight at the rear of the stage, swinging her ball-and-chain to the best of her abilities while sneaking a glance out into the wings to try to spot Regina – unfortunately, she couldn’t see her friend anywhere.

Stella’s scene came to an all too quick end when the lead ghost came back from the front of the stage and shuffled off to stage-left with her comrades, followed by rapturous applause from the audience.

‘Whoa… those were the hardest three minutes of my entire life…!’ Stella thought, huffing, puffing, panting and moaning like a steam locomotive with a tear in the boiler. She was sweating like a pig underneath the white gown, and her head was so hot and damp that her makeup had begun to peel off at her temples.

Suddenly, one of her ghostly friends grabbed her arm and whispered “Come on!” right in her face.

“Whut? Where? Where…?!” Stella said, following the other ghost at half tempo as they hurried along one of the theater’s many hallways.

“Back to the other side! We’re back on in five minutes!” the other ghost said, releasing his grip on Stella’s arm to increase his pace.

“But can’t we…?!” Stella said, pointing behind her, but the other ghost was far too busy running through the halls to pay any attention to her. “Aw hell… hell, hell, hell!” she groaned, raising her gown in a most un-ladylike fashion and hustling to keep up with her stage-mates.

While all that was going on, Regina waited in the wings, shifting her outrageously revealing top for the umpteenth time in the last two minutes and sighing deeply over being burdened with such a cumbersome costume.

On the stage, the curtain had fallen to give the stagehands a few minutes to set up a new set, the living room at the vicarage.

Jonathan Desmond was timing everything on a stopwatch, and when the countdown reached a certain point, he waved his arm, signaling the stagehands to leave at once. When the crew had gone off the stage, Jonathan turned around and waved at the actors, Regina among them, to get them to assume their positions.

Regina was one of the last ones to shuffle onto the stage, mortally afraid that she would accidentally turn the musical comedy into a triple-X feature by moving too fast and exposing herself.

When everybody was in place, the orchestra segued from the intermission music into a slightly different version of the song the lead ghost had performed before the break.

After the curtain had risen, the actress playing the daughter of the house went up to the edge of the stage and started singing a melancholic little ditty on how she didn’t love the insipid man she was supposed to marry but rather the strapping young son of the local blacksmith.

Regina tried to play her role to perfection by pretending to drink tea, chat with her fellow background players and eat biscuits, butter cookies, crumpets and about two dozen other different pastries that had been laid out on a portable table – in reality, they were all made of very lifelike plastic.

Two minutes into the song, the orchestral mood changed to minor keys and a pale blue filter was added to the lights on a certain part of the stage – then the four ghosts entered again, staggering along on wobbly legs.

For one of them – namely Stella Starr – the wobbly legs wasn’t method acting but very much fact. Panting hard, she almost had black spots in her vision from tearing through a confusing maze of underground corridors to get back to stage-right in time.

Once there, the makeup artist had shouted “Touch-up! Touch-up!” and had re-applied Stella’s makeup by smearing white grease all over her temples – now, she was almost ready to call it quits.

Shuffling in behind the others, she just barely caught a glimpse of Regina who was standing off to the other side, holding a tea cup that was too small for her long fingers.

On the stage, the lead ghost went into a soliloquy about how the young woman would end up in a damp, dark grave if she didn’t listen to her heart. The sentimental, haunting song went on for a few minutes, giving Stella a chance to catch her breath.

Suddenly, commotion at stage-left made both Regina and Stella turn their heads and look towards the wing.

Though several people tried to stop her – Teddy Hutchins among them – an actress not connected with the scene barreled onto the stage, tearing her hair out and screaming at the top of her lungs: “A GHOST! A GHOOOOOOOOST! THERE’S A GHOST DOWN BELOOOOOOOOW!”

At first, the audience just began to cheer and clap, but the other actors all looked at each other with huge, neon-green question marks hanging above their heads.

The screaming actress grew more and more hysterical, and not even the calming hands of Jonathan Desmond who had raced onto the stage could stop her. “IT’S TRUUUUUUUUUE! THERE’S A GHOST DOWN BELOW!” she screamed, sobbing wildly.

That was more than enough for Stella and Regina who both put down their props and jumped into action. “DON’T PANIC!” Stella shouted. “STELLA STARR IS ON THE CASE!” – with that, she pulled up in her white gown and took off across the stage like the devil himself was on her tail, earning herself a huge round of applause from the spectators.

Two seconds later, Regina did the same, though she found running a tough job because she had to a keep a firm two-handed grip on her top so she wouldn’t fall out of it.

They soon met in the wing at stage-left and gave each other a quick high-five. “Back again, like hot and dawg!” Stella said loudly, bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet.

“Or Fred and Ginger,” Regina replied with a smile.

Soon, someone shouted frantically at the end of the corridor leading to the wing, and Stella and Regina quickly set off to catch themselves a thief.

The two investigators stormed through the narrow, softly lit halls to follow the progress of the theater ghost slash thief by turning left, turning right, going straight, turning right, turning left, climbing a few stairs, going straight, doubling back because of a locked door, climbing a few more stairs, turning left and finally turning right.

“Lighting… here! C’mon, Reggie!” Stella said and scrambled through a heavy door. At the other side of the door, they found themselves balancing on a narrow ledge forty feet in the air, looking down at the stage far, far below. As it said on the door, the ledge was used for the lights, and no less than twelve powerful searchlights were lined up, sending out so much heat that Stella’s makeup melted on the spot.

The wild applause of the audience was impossibly loud up there, and Stella wanted to clap her hands over her ears, but she didn’t dare take her hands off the wooden railing that lined the ledge. “Ho- ho- ho- holy sh…!” she croaked as she staggered across.

Regina let loose top be loose top and held onto the railing with both hands. Once they had safely made it to the other side, she pulled the pink top back up and got her assets safely tucked in – then she noticed that she had walked straight past a lighting technician who had promptly fainted at the sight. Turning around, the tall, former model with the voluptuous chest shrugged in her patented ‘can’t-give-a-hoot’-fashion.

“He- he- he’s not here, Reggie… c- come on, we gotta get a move on,” Stella spluttered as she opened a door at the far end of the ledge matching the one they had come out of.

Nine further staircases, turns, T-sections and narrow corridors later, they opened a door and found themselves in the middle of the audience. A split second later, everyone started clapping and cheering, and Regina and Stella sort of waved to the crowd on their way up the aisle.

“This is a nightmare, right? This is one of those Meaty Mama-induced nightmares, right?” Stella said out of the corner of her mouth as she waltzed up the aisle to get to yet another door, accompanied by the orchestra playing the Can Can to underscore the absurdity of the situation.

“It’s a nightmare, all right! A living nightmare!” Regina howled, trying desperately to keep her top in place while squinting at the many people they were passing.

Up on the stage, complete pandemonium had broken out with the hysterical actress running around in circles, trying to avoid the on-set paramedic who was in turn trying to get her to take a sedative.

In the middle of it all, Jonathan Desmond stood with slightly parted legs, a horrified expression on his face and his hands firmly clutching the top of his balding head.

-*-*-*-

Wherever Regina and Stella went in the theater building – and no matter how fast they ran – they never saw more than the fallout of the crook they were chasing.

Running past a fainted stagehand, Regina effortlessly jumped over the prone body without as much as a second glance. “How many was that, Stell?”

“Six!” Stella answered between deep breaths, ten feet further up the hall.

“Damn…! Who is this guy? He coulda gone to the Olympics… *we* coulda gone to the Olympics…” Regina mumbled as she ducked and dived through a group of stunned people in the hall they were running through.

Stella took a sharp turn to the left and found herself in a dark hallway. Undeterred, she kept up the pace and stormed down the corridor, intent on nabbing the thief, ghost or no ghost.

Behind her, Regina turned left as well, but didn’t feel like running through a dark hallway. “Stell! Stella!” she cried, but her friend was long gone. “Shit… there’s no way I’m gonna run in the dark… no way,” she said, patting the walls to find a light switch. When she finally found it, she flicked it on at once.

Fifty yards further down the corridor and through a ninety-degree left that opened up into a storage room, the strip lights blinked to life above Stella who had to close her eyes until the blinking had stopped so she wouldn’t get disoriented. Once the lights were fully on, she opened her eyes again and carried on – but a split second later, she came to a screeching stop and let out a hoarse scream that echoed back through the hall.

“Stell? Stella?! STELLA?!” Regina howled and increased her tempo to save her kissing mate from whatever horrors she had encountered.

Regina barreled through the ninety-degree left with no regard for her own safety and – inevitably – ran at unabated speed into a ghostly figure dressed in white who was standing in the center of the corridor, quivering in her boots.

In the impact, the two figures got their arms and legs all tangled up and took a nasty spill onto the concrete floor of the storage room, both howling in different keys – the ghost in a high-pitched squeal and Regina in a deeper, but no less frightened timbre – as they fumbled along and eventually landed in a heap on the hard, unforgiving floor.

The squealing eventually trailed off, going into similar dry, rattling coughs. “Urrrggh…” a very human voice said from somewhere inside the ghostly gown that had come undone in the wreck and was wrapped around the person’s head.

Groan – “Stella?” Regina said, pulling up her top while the other person was covered by the gown.

“Yeah?” – cough, croak, cough.

“Are you all right?”

“I dunno…” – cough, croak, cough – “I saw a real ghost and then…” – cough, cough – “I got mowed down by a freight train…” – croak, croak. Stella said in a voice muffled by the gown.

“That was me.”

“The ghost?”

“No, the freight train,” Regina said and pulled her legs out of the mess. Once she was in a sitting position, she took a good look around the storage room and began to roll her eyes to such an extent that the Surgeon General would have disapproved of it had he been around. “Stell, you didn’t see a ghost.”

“Sure I did! It was a ghost, Reggie… it was white and-and-and everything… it looked like it was screaming at me!”

Pulling the gown away from Stella’s head, Regina scratched the blonde investigator’s heavily gelled scalp, thankful that nothing bad had happened to either of them. “No, you didn’t, Stella. We’re in a storage room full of mirrors. You saw yourself. Look.”

Once the gown had fallen from her eyes, Stella looked around and realized that Regina was right. The storage room they had entered was used for interior sets, and there were large mirrors, wardrobes and other types of furniture everywhere they looked. “Oh… okay,” she said quietly. “Tell that to my shorts…”

“Eww, Stella, you didn’t,” Regina said and scooted away from her friend.

“Just a little bit… hey, Miss Unflappable-Cos-I’ve-Supposedly-Seen-It-All, had you been the first one in here, you woulda wet your pants, too!”

Getting up, Regina dusted off her hands on the rear of the costume and turned away from Stella so she had plenty of time to get her bosom back inside the dress. “I haven’t wet my pants since I was five years old… well, not from being scared, anyway…”

“Ha, ha… oh… hey…!”

“More pantie-wetting, Stell?” Regina said flatly.

“Oh, will you get off my case? No, look,” Stella said and pointed at one of the far walls of the storage room. “There’s light flickering underneath that door… and someone just moved past it.”

“Hmmm”-ing out loud, Regina rubbed her chin which made her top fall down again.

Unfortunately, Stella turned around at the exact same moment and caught a full, unrestricted view of the two gloriously tanned – and presently powdered – globes of flesh. Gurgling throatily, she spun around on her axis and fell flat on her butt, out cold and counting tweety-birds with her tongue hanging out of her mouth.

“Oh, Stella!” Regina groaned and slapped her hand across her forehead.

“Stell? Stella? Yoohoo, Stella?” she continued, waving her pleated skirt in her friend’s face to get her to wake up. “I guess this means I still got it…? Heh…” she mumbled when even her best efforts weren’t enough to counter the effects of Globa Regina.

Five minutes and as many mumbled hallucinations later, Stella finally sat up and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Whoa… that was scary. I had the weirdest dream…” – she looked around – “or not. Ugh, hate it when that happens. Reggie?”

“Over here,” Regina said, studying the door where the light was still visible through the small crack between the frame and the doorstep.

“Are you, uh… dr- dressed?”

“Fully,” Regina said and adjusted her new, homemade top. In the meantime, she had torn a large piece off the skirt and had wrapped it around her upper body like a bikini top to make sure that no one else would get a free show that night.

“Thank God. There are some things a woman just shouldn’t be exposed to…” Stella said and got up from the dusty floor. “When she isn’t ready for ’em,” she continued, dusting off her hands.

Turning away from studying the lock on the door, Regina chuckled and followed Stella with her eyes. “I’m glad you added that last part, Stell… makes me feel less like a mutant.”

“Mmmm! Is the door locked?”

“No.”

“Wanna see what’s on the other side?” Stella said and put her hand on the door handle.

“Uh… not really…” Regina said and scrunched up her face at the thought of perhaps meeting a creature from another dimension.

With a cheeky grin, Stella depressed the handle but kept the door closed. “Don’t worry, baby… I’ll protect you no matter what’s in there. Well, maybe not if it’s the tooth fairy… I’m not good with fairies,” she said and pulled the door open.

“I’M STELLA STARR AND YOU’RE BUSTED!” she shouted as she stuck her head through the door.

When she realized the room was empty, she furrowed her brow and pulled the door wide open. “Uh-huh… not exactly what I was expecting,” she said quietly, stepping into the next storage room.

The next room was far smaller than the one with the mirrors – only fifteen by fifteen feet – and it was mostly empty, save for a wooden box that had been placed seemingly at random in the middle of the floor, and a few cardboard cutouts of gnarly, old trees that were leaning against the far wall.

The room was lit only by a naked bulb hanging down from the inner ceiling, but the light was strong enough to show that the wooden box was very old. The wood had deteriorated with age and had turned dark brown, but there were signs here and there that it had originally been a paler shade of brown.

The top cover of the box was lavishly decorated with a stylized picture of a swan, but the paint was peeling quite badly. Across the lower part of the cover, two words had been etched into the wood in an old-fashioned hand: Rupert Swann.

“Whoa,” Stella said and knelt down next to the box. “Reggie… come and see! This is really, really old. A hundred years easily,” she said, running her hand over the coarse surface, marveling over the feel of the texture of the wood under her fingertips.

“Yeah… Rupert Swann…?” Regina said and tapped a fingernail against the expertly etched name. “Remember Teddy’s story? Rupert Swann was the original owner of the Westminster Theater. He… uh, he…”

Feeling a chill race up and down her spine, Stella scrunched up her face and began to whisper, “Killed himself in one of the storage rooms. Sweet chicky-dee, it may have been this one… but why is the box here?”

“Beats me… I think we should skedaddle, Stell,” Regina said and looked over her shoulder.

“Not yet… I want to see what’s in it… oh… it isn’t even locked… look,” Stella said as she slid two fingers underneath the lid and gently pushed it open.

The box proved to be a veritable treasure chest, with cufflinks, powder compacts, small hand-mirrors, shiny lipsticks, two brooches, a gold ear ring and an expensive wristwatch – and right in the middle of it all, a bright white iPod.

“Well… well, well, well!” Stella said and leaned back on her thighs.

“Jackpot,” Regina said, still looking over her shoulder. “Wait… did you hear something?” she suddenly whispered but Stella was too preoccupied with the stolen items to pay any attention to her. Regina narrowed her ice blue orbs, looking intently at the larger storage room behind them. She felt something, but couldn’t put her finger on what it could be.

Stella reached into the wooden box and took one of the two brooches. Its gemstones shone brilliantly in the harsh light, sending a little kaleidoscope of colors across the walls and the gnarly, old trees. “It’s the old guy, I’m sure of it, Reggie. It’s the old guy!”

“Which old guy?” Regina said in a puzzled voice.

“Well, Teddy, of course! It’s gotta be him!”

“Uh… why?”

” ‘Cos he told us that cockamamie story to keep us away from this room, that’s why,” Stella said and picked up the iPod as well.

“Can’t be the old guy.”

“And why not? Maybe he’s a young guy in disguise… have you thought about that, hmmm?”

“Stell…” Regina said flatly.

Shrugging, Stella put down the brooch and picked up the iPod instead. “All right, forget the disguise…”

“It couldn’t have been Teddy Hutchins. He was one of the people trying to hold back that hysterical actress when she bounded onto the stage, Stell! I know ‘cos I looked straight at him,” Regina whispered hoarsely.

“Oh… okay. Maybe he had a helper or someth-”

Both women suddenly froze. Independently of each other, they felt someone – or something – join them in the small storage room. Stella looked around with eyes as wide as saucers but found that they were all alone. And yet, she could feel it very clearly; a strange chill that swept around her legs.

“Reg- g- g- gie…?” Stella stuttered in a squeaky voice.

“Gr- gr- grab the b- b- box and get the he- he- hell…”

“Outta here!” Stella said, grabbed the box and stormed out of the small storage room with Regina hot on her heels.

They didn’t slow down at all until they were standing in the wing at stage-right, trembling quite badly from the spine-chilling encounter and panting like a pair of heavyweight boxers from the exertion.

“Whoa… that” – huff, puff – “wasn’t funny at” – HUFF, puff – “all, Reggie…” Stella croaked.

“Nuh-uh!”

“I think” – huff, PUFF – “it groped my” – HUFF, puff – “butt!” – Deep breath!

“Maybe it” – huff, puff – “thought you were” – huff, puff – “a relative, Stell…?”

“Could be…” – Huff! Deep breath! – “Why do we always get mixed up in these things, that’s what I wanna know,” Stella said and dabbed her peeling ghostly makeup.

Regina was in no position to answer – the former model in the odd costume had gone over to the edge of the wing and was staring out onto the stage where a complete and utter chaos of near-astronomical proportions had broken out.

The actors on stage had joined hands and were doing a rendition of Row, Row, Row Your Boat while rocking left and right. At center-stage, the hysterical actress had been pinned down by no less than four dancers, but she was still kicking and screaming so wildly that the paramedic couldn’t feed her the sedative. The orchestra had replied to the madness by playing psycho versions of old Christmas standards, and, most surprisingly, the entire audience were giving the unrestrained anarchy a standing applause.

“Reggie?” Stella said flatly as she came up to stand next to her tall, gobsmacked friend.

“Yeah?”

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s not Christmas At The Old Vicarage… that’s Chaos At The Old Vicarage…”

“Yeah.”

“I think it’s time for us to get changed and get the flying fig outta here before it turns into a Roman orgy,” Stella said and took Regina’s arm.

“Yeah… wait, a Roman orgy?”

“Reggie!” Stella groaned, hooked her arm inside Regina’s pink dress and dragged her away from the wing.

-*-*-*-

*Knock, knock*

“Mr. Desmond? Yoohoo, Mr. Desmond?” Stella said through the closed door to the stage manager’s office. “Nah, I don’t think he’s back yet. Let’s just leave the box here and…”

“The door isn’t locked…” Regina whispered, pointing at the missing catch with a trembling hand.

“Oh… no, no, no, Reggie… don’t get all spooky now!” Stella croaked as she leaned against the door. “If you get all spooky I get all spooky and then I’ll wet my pants again and then you won’t speak to me the entire way back and-and-and it’s late and I wanna go over to Ruby’s SO badly and get a Razzie with a Tequila chaser and those great salty pretzels that we can only get over there but I’m gettin’ a tummy cramp from all this ghosting-around and I need to go home and change my undies before we go anywhere and- AAAAAOOOOOOOEEEE!”

Right in the middle of Stella’s stream of words, the door was flung wide open from the other side, sending her on a wild ride into the office, hop-hop-hopping across the floor with the box stretched out ahead of her as a means of leverage.

The opened door revealed a thoroughly drunk Jonathan Desmond. His watery eyes betrayed his level of intoxication – the half-empty bottle of Scotch in his hand confirmed it – and all in all, he looked like he could keel over at any moment. “Oh… it’s you,” he slurred and stepped back into his office.

“Uh… yes, Mr. Desmond,” Stella said and held out the box, but the stage manager had already gone back to his chair. “I, uh… come on, Reggie. That’s not a ghost.”

“No shit, Stell,” Regina said and closed the office door behind her.

“Whaddaya want? I’m busy,” Jonathan slurred, taking another long swig from the bottle.

Stella put the wooden box down on the table in the least cluttered spot she could find and took a step back so the drunken man had a chance to see her through the Whisky-induced haze. “Here, Mr. Desmond. Here’s a box with all the stolen items. We found it in one of your storage rooms.”

“And the thief?”

“Ah, we didn’t exactly catch him… or it… or whatever, but we’re confident that he… or it… or whatever won’t try again. Ain’t that right, Reggie?” Stella said, nodding hard to show Regina that she should agree with her.

“Yes,” Regina said, rolling her eyes.

Jonathan tried to reach for the box, but it wasn’t until the third attempt that he was actually successful. Opening the lid, he stared down into it and counted the items. “There’s stuff in here… looks good… wait… I’ll sign your check.”

Hearing that, Stella smiled and shot Regina a big thumbs-up. The former model was less enthusiastic, however, because she had already noticed how much the Stage Manager’s hands were shaking.

After a very deliberate process of finding a checkbook, finding a ball point pen that actually worked and filling out the details, Jonathan tore off the top check and handed it to Stella. “Is that enough?”

“Four hundred dollars…?” Stella whined, scrunching up her face as she tried to read what the drunken man had written.

“Eh…? Gimme,” Jonathan said and snatched the check from Stella’s fingers. After a hasty scribble, he gave it back to her and pointed at the door. “And now, if ya don’t mind… I’m busy and I’m gonna be for hours,” he said and took a long swig from the bottle.

“Four thousand dollars,” Stella said with a grin, showing Regina the check. “Thanks, Mr. Desmond. It was nice doing business with you… oh…” – suddenly, Stella’s keen hearing picked up an unmistakable sound in the distance; the sound of wailing sirens, or to be precise, a full train of fire engines coming their way.

“Now what?!” Jonathan Desmond slurred and tried to get up from his chair. At first, he wasn’t able to find the armrest so he could give himself a boost, but yet again the third attempt proved successful.

Sensing that trouble was about to come a-knocking, Regina grabbed Stella’s arm and pulled her towards the door. “Dressing rooms, street clothes, go home… now!”

Before, the mess outside the stage manager’s office and on the stage had merely been chaotic, now it was positively apocalyptic. People were running to and fro like headless poultry, the orchestra was still playing crazy versions of the old Christmas hits – presently a psychedelic rendition of Oh Come All Ye Faithful – and the actors were still singing on the stage, but the arrival of nearly a dozen fully-equipped firefighters and just as many paramedics had sent the audience into a mad rush, sending people, chairs, tables, plates, wine bottles, mushroom soup, tenderloin, gravy bowls, French fries and mixed salads everywhere.

Stella and Regina had come to a hard stop on their way back to the dressing rooms, standing at the corner of one of the corridors that led to the stage with their jaws suspended just above their navels, gawking at the mass-hysteria.

“Oh, look!” Stella suddenly said excitedly, pointing at one of the firefighters. “Isn’t that Kristy? C’mon, let’s go say hi!”

Using her Kung-Fu reflexes, Regina’s arms shot out and grabbed hold of her excitable friend before she could scoot off down the hall. “No, Stell! This is not a good time… we can send her an email when we get home… okay? Let’s change and go home now, okay?”

“Yeah sure, but she’s right there, and-”

“Stella… Change. And. Go. Home.”

“All right, all right… Sheesh, Reggie!” Stella said and stuck out her tongue at her tall friend.

Regina decided to take full advantage of the opportunity and dove down to lay a wet, sloppy kiss on Stella’s lips. “Home?” she husked, nibbling a little on Stella’s tongue.

“Okay… you needgn to ‘et go of ay kongue now, honeyguns…”

“Huh?”

“Ay kongue! ‘ET GO OF AY KONGUE!”

“Oh…” Regina said and released her soft lips from Stella’s pink tongue. “Love ya,” she whispered, aiming to kiss Stella again, but the blonde investigator shied back from her, pointing at the painted puckered-up lips that still adorned Regina’s mouth.

“Love ya too, but nuh-uh,” Stella said, shaking her head vigorously.

Once they were back in their street clothes and mercifully free of the grotesque makeup, Stella and Regina shuffled hand-in-hand back through the empty corridors to get to the rear entrance. Above them, they could hear all sorts of chaos and mayhem, but it wasn’t really their concern anymore.

“Reggie, this was a weird one… not sure what to think of it, to be honest,” Stella said and gave Regina’s hand a little squeeze.

Flicking a few strands of hair out of her right eye – knowing that it would cascade perfectly down her back – Regina returned the squeeze and swung their hands back and forth. “Me, neither… it was just… too… damn…” she said in a voice that trailed off into nothing when she realized that someone they hadn’t met before was walking towards them in the hallway.

It was a man in his early fifties, of medium height and build with salt-and-pepper hair and an impressive mustache. He was wearing a coarse, charcoal gray suit in a very old cut and a pair of strange-looking short boots.

Judging by the gleam in his eyes, he seemed to be enjoying himself greatly, and as he passed by the two investigators, he tipped his non-existent hat and spoke in a melodic, old-fashioned English accent. “Jolly good show tonight, my friends! Well done! Just like the good old days. Champagne and oysters in the lounge in twenty minutes!” – with that, he was gone.

Regina blinked once, then twice, then a further time for good measure before slowing down and glancing over her shoulder at the empty corridor behind them. “Stella,” she croaked. “Did you see him?”

“Oh, the old fella? Yeah?”

“Wasn’t there something odd about him?”

“No… I, uh… I kinda presumed he was an actor… I mean, the show is set in the old days,” Stella said and looked down the deserted hall.

“Mmmm! Mm-mm-mmmmm!” Regina said, pressing her lips together. “Mmmm… home! Now!” she continued, grabbed Stella’s arm and hustled up the corridor to get away from all the weird goings-on at the Westminster Dinner Theater.

Barging out of the rear entrance in an almighty hurry to get to the Pacer before the next close encounter of the ghostly kind, they nearly bowled over a smartly dressed woman who came the other way, but just managed to avoid sending her down for the ten-count at the very last moment.

“OOOF!” the other woman groaned as she pressed herself up against the inside of the rear entrance. The short, strawberry-blonde hair and the smart dusty-green pantsuit gave away at once that it was none other than their contact – and friend – at the police precinct, Inspector Mary-Jane Moynes.

“Oh… hi, Mary-Jane!” Stella said, flashing the police officer a broad smile.

“Hello, Inspector,” Regina said.

“Hi… I shoulda known,” Mary-Jane said, rubbing her back where a metal handle had given her fair-sized whack. “I shoulda known… I heard about the disturbance on the radio and I thought I’d check it out… then I saw your Pacer and I put two and two together. What have you been up to this time?”

“Oh, little o’ this, little o’ that,” Stella said with a snicker.

Grinning crookedly, Inspector Moynes stepped away from the door and thumped Stella’s shoulder. “Uh-huh?”

“Oh yeah, but we had nothing at all to do with this one… you know those theater folks, they’re nuts,” Stella said, nodding.

“In a good way, of course,” Regina added.

“Of course,” Mary-Jane said. “You’re leaving?”

“Yeah. I need a little, uh… pit stop first,” Stella said and squirmed, pulling down in her windbreaker and up in her winter jeans that were just a tad too large for her, “but then we’ll go over to Ruby’s. Wanna come?”

“I can’t, Stella, thanks. My shift has only just started.”

“Oh, okay. Well, in that case, stay safe, Mary-Jane,” Stella said and put a hand on the Inspector’s elbow. “Talk to you later, eh?”

“Yup. See ya, Miss Harrison. I better go inside and evaluate the situation,” Mary-Jane said and put out her arm to usher the two investigators out of the hall.

“Bye, Inspector Moynes,” Regina said while Stella went over to the Pacer to unlock it. Once she was sure Stella was out of earshot, she licked her lips and leaned in towards the Inspector. “If you see a fella with a huge mustache and an old-fashioned suit, don’t ask him any questions, just run. Okay? Just run.”

“Uh… okay, Miss Harrison,” Mary-Jane said, suddenly worried that the tall, former model had spent too much time with the esoteric Stella Starr.

-*-*-*-

An hour later, Regina drove the Mercedes SLK into the parking lot at Rockin’ Ruby’s and began to cruise around for a good place to park. The two lanes closest to the entrance were full, but there was a gap for the silver metallic, low-slung sports car between two huge pickup trucks in the third lane.

“Wow, it’s pretty full tonight, huh?” Stella said as she unbuckled her seat belt.

“Yeah. Remember when Ruby had a Singles Night? We pretended to be on a date. That was kinda fun,” Regina said and put the shifter in Park – and accidentally ran her hand up and down Stella’s jeans-clad thigh a couple of times.

Stella remembered that well; her thoughts were soon accompanied by a red blush that gently tinted her cheeks. “Uh-huh… that was fun. Yep,” she said dreamily.

Taking the key out of the ignition, Regina accidentally rubbed Stella’s thigh a few more times. “I wonder why Ruby doesn’t want to have a web site…? I mean, it’s gotta be really expensive to run ads in the papers all the time, especially when it’s only a local newspaper that doesn’t get much circulation. I wouldn’t have thought she’d get a lot out of that.”

“Oh, that’s hard to say,” Stella said and tickled the back of Regina’s hand. “What are you having tonight, Reggie?”

“Dunno.”

“D’ya think Ruby knows how to mix one of those? Let’s go find out,” Stella said and let out a girlish snicker as she leaned over and placed a kiss on Regina’s cheek.

“Yeah, let’s. Hey, watch the-”

“I know, I know,” Stella said and opened the door. Turning around in the bucket seat, she counted to four and then jumped up to race out of the sports car. Unfortunately – and inevitably – she didn’t quite make it.

Halfway up, she lost her forward momentum and fell backwards with a loud “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Landing on the seat with a soft phlum, she sighed deeply and adjusted her glasses that had slipped down her nose. “Reggie?”

“Yeah, hon?”

“I hate this car.”

“I know, hon. Sit tight, I’ll come over and crane you out,” Regina said and effortlessly stepped out of the car with her long, svelte, black-jeans-clad legs doing most of the work.

Once Stella was safely erect, she sighed again and stood up on tip-toes to give Regina a little thank-you kiss. “Thanks. Hey, look!” she said, pointing at the plumes of steam that came whenever they breathed.

After closing her trench coat and tying a knot on the belt, Regina took the collar of Stella’s pale blue sports windbreaker and gave it a little shake. “It’s cold tonight. You better zip your jacket. We wouldn’t want you to catch the flu this close to Christmas.”

“God forbid!” Stella said and zipped her lined jacket all the way up – the collar roughly came to her nose. “Mmmfp uhhppg fphfphmm mmhhfppr…?” she mumbled somewhere underneath the thick fabric.

“My sentiments exactly, Stell,” Regina said and wrapped an arm around Stella’s shoulder.

“Hi, Ruby!” Stella shouted the moment they stepped inside their regular haunt.

“Hi, Stella! Hi, Reggie!” Ruby Albrecht shouted back from her regular spot at the far end of the highly polished counter.

“Hi, Ruby,” Regina said and began to untie the knot on her belt.

While they took off their winter jackets, Stella and Regina noticed that Rockin’ Ruby’s was really living up to its name. The entire row of barstools was full with happy, chatting women of all shapes and colors, and seven of the eight booths were occupied by equally happy, chatting women – there was even a male guest among them.

Unzipping her windbreaker, Stella folded it across her arm and stepped up to the retired pro-softball player who was nursing a Club Soda. “Boy, it’s really happenin’ tonight, huh, Ruby? Glad to see our booth is still open.”

“Well, of course it is. I put a little Reserved card on the table,” Ruby said with a grin.

“Oooh! Excellen-ty!”

“You’re looking sharp tonight,” Ruby said and pointed at Regina’s outfit that consisted of black jeans and a black denim shirt with red highlights around the collar and the breast pockets.

“Thanks, Ruby. It’s a genuine Lana é Mara,” Regina said and held out the little slip identifying the shirt.

“Wow, is that a fact?” Ruby said with her tongue firmly in her cheek. “Stella, you’re looking like you always do… which is great,” she continued, winking at the blonde investigator who had slipped into her Elmer Fudd sweatshirt to go with her winter jeans – Stella just grinned in return and pushed her glasses up her nose.

Stepping off the bar stool, Ruby opened a section of the counter and slipped behind the bar. “What’s your poison tonight, gals?”

“I’ll have a Driver’s Rum Daiquiri Twist, please,” Regina said as she scooted into their booth and got comfortable on the plush red bench seat.

“Comin’ right up. Stella?”

“Oh, I think I’ll have a Slurrpy! Raspberry Fizz and a Tequila chaser. I’ve been dreaming about one of those the entire day. Hold the lemon, the salt and the worm, please, if ya don’t mind,” Stella said and leaned against the counter.

Already beginning to mix Regina’s Rum Daiquiri Twist, Ruby looked across the counter and flashed Stella a wide smile. “No problem. Have a seat. I’ll be right down with ’em.”

“Thanks!” Stella said and shuffled in next to Regina. “She’ll be right down.”

“I heard.”

From the dance floor behind the bar, the sounds of thumping 1980s electronic pop music occasionally filtered through the chatter from the barflies, prompting Stella to crane her neck and look back at the separate room where multi-colored spotlights did their best to set the mood. “Wanna dance a little later on, Reggie?”

“Well… why not?” Regina said and pulled Stella close.

“Great! Oh… thanks, Ruby. Woooow!” Stella said excitedly, making way for Ruby to put the two drinks they had ordered down on the table along with two napkins. Stella’s Raspberry Fizz had been poured into a tall glass that had been decorated with a drinking straw and an umbrella with little pictures of hula-girls.

The experienced bartender chuckled quietly to herself, knowing exactly what to do to get such an enthusiastic reaction out of Stella. “You’re welcome. If you’d like anything else, just come up to the bar. It’s kinda busy tonight,” Ruby said and wiped her fingers on her apron.

“We will,” Regina said.

“Oh! Which reminds me,” Ruby said and put her hands on her hips. “Have you guys been watching teevee tonight? Channel 21 Eyewitness News has been running Breaking News all evening. An old theater downtown has been almost ravaged by vandals or something… I couldn’t quite work it out. It was kinda odd.”

Stella and Regina immediately looked at each other with similar wide-eyed expressions. “No, we don’t know anything about the Westminster Dinner Theater. Nuh-uh!” — “Nuh-uh! How’s your knee, Ruby?” they quickly said, speaking over each other.

“Okay…?” Ruby said and furrowed her brow. When her two guests were suddenly very interested in the texture of the round table even though they had been seated there countless times, she shrugged and scratched her hair. “Eh, my knee’s much better now, thanks. Anyway, if you need anything, come-”

“Come up to the bar. Yep, thanks, Ruby,” Regina said and raised her Rum Daiquiri Twist in a toast to the bartender.

Once Ruby had left, Stella broke down in a bad case of the giggles and squeezed herself up against Regina. “Oh Reggie, we’re gonna get in trouble for that… So much trouble…”

“Nah. We’ll be fine. We’re always fine,” Regina said and pulled Stella even closer.

“Let’s hope so. Oh… this place means so much to me,” Stella said and looked around the bar; at Ruby, at the guests who were having a gay old time and at the cozy decorations and furniture. “It’s our home away from home, isn’t it?” she said and took a long sip of her Raspberry fizz through the drinking straw.

“Yeah. I guess,” Regina said and did the same with her Rum Daiquiri Twist, though without a straw.

“There are so many great memories here… like at the Singles Night… that’s when I discovered I had fallen so hard for you, Reggie, that… well, that… oh, you know,” Stella said and buried her face in the nook of Regina’s shoulder.

“I know.”

“Or when we kissed for the first time… okay, not the first-time first time, that was kinda lame… but the *real* first time… on the dance floor at the Woman In All Her Glory fashion show. Oh my God, your lips on mine… and-and-and I was so… God…”

“Like this?” Regina said and suddenly pulled Stella’s head to the side so she could claim the soft lips in a sweet kiss that tasted of raspberry, Rum and their own, unique flavors.

Snickering, Stella adjusted her glasses that had already begun to steam up. “Like that, yeah.” – Feeling a wave of warmth flow over her, Stella moved her left leg over Regina’s right so they were sitting very, very close in a ‘W’. Sighing contentedly, she wrapped her arms around the former model’s long, exquisite torso and snuggled up to her. “Reggie?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you so much it tickles… it’s kinda scary, actually,” Stella said into Regina’s shoulder.

“Scary?”

“Yeah… I’ve never loved anyone that much before. It’s intoxicating… but scary.”

“Mmmm,” Regina said and took a sip of her drink. “I’m scared, too,” she said quietly after a short pause.

“You are? Of me?” Stella said and briefly moved her head away from Regina’s shoulder.

Reaching up, Regina mussed Stella’s Pixie cut and then pulled her back into the cuddle. “Of course not. Of the… well, the next step. I’m scared that I won’t be good enough to fill your needs. That I won’t be able to satisfy you or that-”

“Ha! Regina Harrison, somehow I just can’t see that happening!” Stella said saucily.

“But I-”

“Oy! Not. Gonna. Happen. So there!” Stella said, giving her best friend a tickling poke in the gut for every syllable.

“Well it’s-”

“I said So there! Don’t you hear good? What part of ‘So There!’ don’t ya understand, woman? Mmmm?”

Regina nodded and pretended to cower to her mistress, but Stella wouldn’t accept it and repaid the favor from earlier by stealing a fair-sized kiss right on Regina’s luscious lips. “No cowering allowed, Reggie,” Stella whispered. “Panting, yes, screaming, yes, cowering, no. We’re equals. In life, in love, in b- b- b- ahem… in bed, and everywhere else. You understand?”

“I understand, hon,” Regina said and offered her best friend slash kissing mate a blinding, two-hundred watt smile. “Oh, I wish Christmas Morning would hurry up and get here,” she said, gazing earnestly into Stella’s green eyes to see if she had received the underlying message of the words that had just been spoken.

A few seconds went by without a reaction, but then Stella’s glasses slowly began steaming up… first a little bit, then a lot, and finally so much that glistening droplets of dew began to drip down from the frame.

“Stell…? Stell…? Yoohoo, Stella?”

“I’m here…” Stella croaked from somewhere behind the curtain of fog and dew. “Please gimme the shot o’ tequila… I need it n- n- n- now,” she said and put out her hand.

Grinning, Regina acted out the request and put the full shot glass into her lover-to-be’s trembling hand. “Cheers, Stell.”

“Ch- ch- cheers, Reggie,” Stella croaked and chugged down the contents of the glass in a single gulp.


*
*
THE END of CHRISTMAS AT THE OLD VICARAGE

-*-*-*-
-*-*-*-

VIII – ALL ‘S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

Written by Norsebard

Daylight hadn’t yet fully conquered the night on the morning of December 25th when Regina Harrison drove down the Boulevard in the leased Mercedes SLK on her way to the office of the Harrison-Starr Detective Agency, but the highly excited shine in her eyes was more than enough to illuminate the street.

In all her adult years, she had never been as buzzed about a Christmas Morning as she was today – it wasn’t even the first time she’d share it with Stella Starr – but this year was so unbelievably different from the first one there was simply no comparison.

‘Last year, we were very formal… exchanged one gift and then Stella gave me my Christmas bonus… exactly two hundred dollars,’ Regina thought as she came at a halt at a red light, chuckling over the odd memory. ‘This year… oh boy, oh boy, oh boy… this year is going to be a whole ‘nother story.’

The traffic lights were slow in changing back to green, but even though she was nearly alone on the Boulevard, she didn’t want to run a red. Instead, she used the break to turn the rear view mirror down and take a good look at herself. “Regina Harrison… when the day is over, you will have done something you could never, ever have predicted you would do. Man, I hope I’ll be able to deliver… my stomach is churning like a salad shaker!” she mumbled quietly to herself.

Not long after, she pulled into the parking lot at five to nine, and at once noticed the red-and-green Christmas stocking hanging off the radio antenna on Stella’s beloved AMC Pacer like the fox tails of yore.

Chuckling, she walked around the back of the low-slung silver metallic sports car and quickly took two shopping bags from the trunk, a little one with her PJs and a large one with the presents she had bought for her best friend slash kissing mate slash soon-to-be-quite-a-lot-more.

On her way into the office, she only had time to utter a brief “Hi, Stella! Merry Christ-” before her senses were overwhelmed by Christmas Incarnate – everywhere she looked, there were green and red festoons, little elves, snowglobes, waving Santas, dancing Santas, sitting Santas, standing Santas, glowing Father Christmases, fake snow by the truckload, blue, red and purple electronic tea lights flashing like mad, rotating figurines, a regiment of multi-colored wooden toy soldiers, a group of little she-elves dressed in purple satin, a row of snowmen and- women, Rudolph with all his brethren pulling a sleigh, a naughty resin figure of a young Mrs. Santa in a fluffy bra and short shorts, a collection of cheesy flashing XMas ties spread out on the coffee table, and finally, in the middle of it all, Stella Starr wearing pink-dotted PJs and a pair of moose-head slippers. “-mas… holy shit!”

Stella was busy putting the final touches on the tree and the other decorations while wiggling her hips and singing along in the cutest off-key way imaginable to the boom box that was playing Guy Lombardo’s version of Frosty The Snowman.

“Wow,” Regina croaked, staring wide-eyed at the incredible display while hanging her trench coat on the hallstand, revealing a very smart black pant suit.

Spinning around, Stella tore over to Regina and wrapped her arms around the tall, former model. “Merrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry Christmas, Reggie!”

“Merry Christmas, Stell,” Regina said and leaned down to claim Stella’s lips in a sweet, little kiss. “Oh… you taste great. Cinnamon?” she said as they separated.

“Yep. I bought some cookies and buns and pastries and assorted other stuff on my way over here… which was kinda early so I got ’em hot out of the oven over at Zeligman’s Bakery.”

“You must’ve been more than just ‘kinda’ early to have had time to do all this stuff,” Regina said and waved her hand at the many decorations.

“Oh… I guess it was six thirty. But it was totally worth it. I mean, isn’t this just paradise…?” Stella said and wrapped an arm around Regina’s waist. “Hey… waitaminute! The invitation called for PJs or a bathrobe an’ I ain’t seein’ you wearin’ any o’ those, Missy!”

“I couldn’t very well drive over here in my PJs, could I? I have it right here,” Regina said and patted the smaller of the two shopping bags. “It’s a genuine Quentin Bradley, designed to look like a 1950s housecoat.”

“That’s supposed to make me impressed, right?” Stella whispered, earning herself a little nod. “Okay. Well, it didn’t work ‘cos I’ve never heard of him. Anyway, g’wan, get changed. We’ll light the tree when we’re both ready, and then there’s hot cocoa, mulled wine with hazelnuts and raisins on the nuker, and eggnog and plenty of coffee on the machine,” Stella said, slowly gaining the tell-tale shining eyes and the red blotches on her cheeks.

Regina stole a little kiss and went over to the bathroom – there, she turned around and shot Stella a wink. “I have your presents in the other bag… so don’t bother to look anywhere else,” she whispered before she went to get changed.

After watching the door close, Stella chuckled and put her hands on her hips. “Oh, she knows me too well,” she said out loud. “Ohhhhhhh, this is gonna be *the* best Christmas ever!” she continued dreamily, sending a few prayers to anyone who’d listen that everything would be going smooth and romantic and that she would finally be able to show Regina Harrison how much the gorgeous former model actually meant to her.

In the bathroom, Regina quickly stripped down to her bare essentials and held up the flannel PJs she was going to put on. Looking at herself in the mirror with an excited – yet slightly frazzled – gleam in her eye, she stepped into the PJ bottoms and marveled at the soft, cool feeling on her skin that had begun to run a bit hot in places.

Three minutes later, Stella moved like a master of ceremonies at an awards banquet as she plugged the cord for the Christmas tree lights into the wall socket with a dramatic gesture. Taking a step back, she kept her finger on the light switch for effect. “Now?”

“Let me kill the roof lights… okay,” Regina said and turned off the strip lights in the ceiling. “Now!”

“Ta-DA!” Stella said and flipped the light switch. At once, a wonderful red, green and golden light shone from the more than seventy LEDs that she had put around the five-foot tall tree. Once the lights had shone steadily for a few seconds, they started flashing in various sequences – first long, then short, then two blinks, then three blinks, then the green LEDs by themselves, then the golden LEDs and finally the red LEDs before it reset and started over.

“Awwwwwwwwwww… Merry Christmas, Reggie,” Stella said, sniffing to hold back the tears of joy that threatened to spill down her cheeks.

“Merry Christmas… that’s so beautiful, Stell,” Regina said and pulled Stella into a strong hug, turning the two of them around so they could enjoy the full impact of the tree.

“Thanks,” Stella said into Regina’s warm and comfy PJs. “Is it time for the presents now?”

Laughing out loud, Regina pulled a bit back from the hug and looked into the short, blonde, occasionally confused, but never less than intense investigator. “Yes. It. Is,” she whispered, punctuating her sentence by kissing Stella’s eyebrows and nose. “If you sit down on the couch, I’ll bring the shop-”

“No, not the couch… let’s do it on the floor next to the tree!” Stella said and only realized her Freudian slip when it was too late. When it did get through to her, her face instantly turned red, her glasses steamed up and she had to look away while she performed an embarrassed little shimmy that made her moose-head slippers perform something akin to the Macarena.

Not wanting to bring more embarrassment to her friend, Regina decided to let the cute gaffe go and hurried into the bathroom to get the large shopping bag.

Ten seconds later, she came back into the office where she noticed that Stella had sat down cross-legged and was playing with one of the little decorations, a silver cherub with wings made of the finest tulle.

“Right,” Regina said and dove into the bag just as the CD on the boom box began playing Bing Crosby’s I’ll Be Home For Christmas. “I believe this one has your name on it,” she said and sat down close to her best friend.

With an excited squeal, Stella took the strangely square package and tore the wrapping off it at once – a new, old, multi-colored Rubik’s Cube was inside. “Awwww! This is great! It’s an original! Where in the world did ya find it…?” Stella howled as she flipped and turned the plastic package in her hands.

“Online. A second-hand toy store in Minnesota had them in stock,” Regina said with a wide grin.

Stella put down the Cube like it was made of the finest porcelain and took the first present for Regina. “Thank you so much, it’s lovely… I hope this will be, too,” she said and gave Regina a rectangular, soft package.

“Thanks, Stell,” Regina said and began to unwrap it. Before long, she was holding a genuine Mai Sjoblom scarf, four feet long and held in royal blue with gold highlights. “Oh, this is wonderful, honey! Thank you. Mmmm… it’s a Mai Sjoblom,” she said and wrapped it around her neck without even looking at the little slip.

“Oh, you can tell that just by looking at it, can ya?”

“Oh yes, yes. It’s the basic design of the cut…” Regina said and pointed at the scarf, “look at this section where the lines meet diagonally. Mai Sjoblom in a nutshell.”

“Uh-huh?” Stella said and adjusted her glasses. “Well, it was either that or a hot pink down jacket.”

“I… uh… okay. I’m glad you chose this one. It’s really, really nice, Stell… thank you,” Regina said and flicked the end of the scarf over her shoulder where it – naturally – landed in a perfect cascade down her back.

Stella chuckled and shook her head slightly. “Well, I gotta say it looks just perfect on you. Mmmm-yeah.”

“Thanks. Does that mean I still got-”

“Yesssss!” Stella said with a long groan.

Smirking, Regina reached into her bag to get the next present. “Now, this one… I’m thinking you may be able to guess what it is. Careful, it’s a bit fragile,” she said and produced a large, flat, somewhat heavy present.

Stella took the present and tried to put it to her ear to listen if it would tell her anything, but when it didn’t, she grinned and shook her head. “Nope,” she said and removed a piece of adhesive tape that held the wrapping together. Once the present had been released from its glittery prison, she pulled it out carefully and promptly lost her jaw at the sight of a ten by twelve-inch on-set still of Kate Marshall from her hit show Deadline.

The still was encased in a frame of brushed aluminum, but Stella couldn’t tear her eyes away from the signature and the dedication long enough to notice – “To Stella, my #1 fan – and my friend. Kate xoxo,” Stella mumbled, using an index finger to trace the letters that had been written in a gold pen across the lower part of the still. “Oh… she’s even added a little smiley at the end…!”

“D’ya like it, Stell?” Regina said, already knowing the answer from the dreamy look in Stella’s emerald green orbs.

“Oh Gawd, yes! Thank you so much, Reggie!”

“You’re welcome, hon,” Regina said and reached over so she could caress Stella’s cheek that had suddenly gained a few red blotches.

Stella was completely lost to the world, just sitting there and staring at the frame. “This is definitely going on my nightstand… or maybe in my bed… no, my nightstand is probably safer. Then I can say goodnight to Kate every night and-and-and maybe if I’m lucky, really lucky, she’ll reply in that husky whisper of hers, too…”

Hearing that, Regina grimaced and scratched the side of her nose. “Uh… okay.”

Like she had done with her Rubik’s Cube, Stella put the frame away like it was made of the finest, most fragile porcelain in the world. “Oh Jeez, Reggie… my last two presents for you are gonna seem so trivial compared to this… Gawd, I’m so happy for what you’ve already given me.”

“I hope you’re not planning on withholding ’em, then… c’mon, girl, I’m excited here!” Regina said and tickled Stella’s legs.

“Well, in that case… here’s a little thing for the both of us…” Stella said and handed Regina a small cardboard holster, similar to the ones used for plane tickets in the old days.

Regina took it at once and looked at the back of the holster. “Ooh… issued by the Bay Area Music Festival Organization? Tickets?” she said and tapped on the cardboard to get whatever was kept inside to come out. As she had predicted, two rainbow-colored ticket-holders with the silhouettes of a group of women on the cover fell out into her hands.

“Yes, two all-access tickets for the four-day Bay Area Women’s Festival next June. It’s gonna be an ‘All-Grrl Extravaganza’… well, that’s what it says on the event posters, anyway,” Stella said and adjusted her glasses, feeling just a bit embarrassed for not being able to match the gifts Regina had bought for her.

To keep with the womanly theme, the boom box began playing Brenda Lee’s I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus, a song that always made Stella bop along to the melodious silliness.

“Wow, I’m really looking forward to that… thanks a bunch, Stell,” Regina said, putting the ticket-holders back into the cardboard holster.

Toning down her bopping, Stella shrugged and began to play with one of her moose-head slippers. “Ah, it’s nothing, really. Just-”

“Pffff, Stell, don’t give me that… this is a great gift. We’ll have a couple of great days there, I’m sure of it. You’ve definitely earned the kiss I’m planning on giving you in a little while.”

Blushing slightly, Stella ducked her head down between her shoulders and let out the cutest giggle imaginable. “I love Christmas… I mean, where else can you get this… all of this,” she said and waved her hand at the tree, the presents, at Reggie and at all the little trinkets she had put up as decorations. To underline her words, the boom box began playing Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.

“Mmmm,” Regina said with a warm chuckle. “Okay, Stell, lend me your glasses, please,” she continued with a smirk that grew so wide when she thought of how Stella would react to her next gift that it hardly fit on her face.

“My glasses?”

“Yep.”

“Uh… okay,” Stella said, took off her frame and handed it to Regina.

Just to be on the safe side, Regina waved her hand in the air in front of Stella’s face, but her blonde friend was blind as a bat. Smiling broadly, Regina reached into her shopping bag and took the last item, a small plastic case just large enough for a pair of spectacles. The small click it produced when it was opened was enough for Stella to cock her head and furrow her brow, but Regina just grinned some more and clicked her gift onto Stella’s frame.

“Here, honey. You can put them on now,” Regina said, took Stella’s hand and helped her put her glasses back on.

As Stella pushed the frame up her nose, she could see at once that the gift had been a pair of shades, and she let out a little squeal. “Hanger shades! How cool! Thanks, friend!”

“My pleasure, Stell… of course… you may wanna have a look at this,” Regina said and held up the small plastic case the hangers had been bought in – or rather, the little mirror on the front of the plastic case.

“OOOOOOOOOOO! MIRROR SHADES! SU-WEEEEEEEEEEEEET!” Stella howled in a pitch high enough to break every single window in the office – fortunately, she didn’t sustain it for that long. Instead, she threw herself forward, wrapped her arms around Regina’s upper body and pulled herself into a crushing hug. “I looooove ’em!”

“Thought you might,” Regina slurred, trying to speak through her thoroughly squished-up cheek.

Snickering, Stella went back into sitting in a cross-legged position and started playing with the mirror on the plastic case, going through all kinds of cool, tough-gal poses.

“Oh, look at that… there’s hope for you yet, love,” Regina said and patted Stella’s knee.

“Gee, thanks, Miss-I-Used-To-Be-A-Supermodel-But-Now-I’m-Just-Your-Average-Bombshell,” Stella said and stuck out her tongue at Regina, but quickly blew her a kiss as well. “Right… onto the last one. Now, I’ll admit that-”

“I have one more present for you, Stell,” Regina said, suddenly appearing quite nervous. After she had spoken, she smiled shyly and started biting her lips almost like she wasn’t sure what was going to happen.

“Y- you do? But… we agreed on three each…?”

“It’s a special gift. A very special gift,” Regina said quietly.

Stella suddenly connected the dots and took off her mirror shade hangers to look at her best friend through her clear, regular lenses. Inside, Stella knew what Regina alluded to – the uncharacteristic nervousness of the normally so unflappable former model was a very good pointer.

Shifting closer, Stella was surprised that her glasses didn’t steam up when she placed a very loving kiss on Regina’s soft, but cool, lips. “Oh…?” she said after a little while. “Mine can wait. It’s just a silly little thing, anyhow.”

Regina looked up and locked eyes with the woman who had gradually grown from a mere friend to her best friend and ultimately to her kissing mate – now, another chapter of that particular book was about to be written. Wordlessly, but with a heavily beating heart, she unbuttoned her PJ top and let it fall off her shoulders, revealing her starkly naked chest with the two gloriously tanned globes. “Will you show me what to do?” she whispered, feeling the pulse point on her neck tap a frantic polka.

“Love,” Stella said in a husky voice that surprised even herself, “I’ll show you things that you didn’t know existed…” – with that, she matched her lover-to-be’s bravery by unbuttoning her own top and pull it off her shoulders. Unlike Regina, she was wearing a bra, but it only lasted for a few seconds, then it was on the floor next to the presents and the long-forgotten, wildly blinking Christmas tree.

When Regina reached out with both hands, Stella shifted forward again and wrapped her arms around the naked torso in front of her. Scooting so close they were touching all the way down, she buried her head in the nook of Regina’s shoulder and let out a deep, long, contented sigh.

“You are beautiful,” Regina whispered.

“Hell-lo, Reggie… you need glasses,” Stella countered fairly quickly.

Regina chuckled and began to run her fingertips up and down Stella’s bare back, marveling at her partner’s response – a sigh and a little tremor. “No, I mean it. You are perfect.”

“I take it all back… you don’t need glasses… you need an eyeball transplant or two,” Stella mumbled into Regina’s naked, heated skin.

Chuckling loudly over the ridiculous exchange, the two women arranged their PJ tops on the plush carpet and slipped down onto them. Soon, their lips met in a kiss that left no doubt as to the nature of the things that were about to happen.

Unable to hold back any longer, Stella began to pay very close attention to the intricate details of the tall, fit body underneath her lips, moving down the left side of Regina’s throat to her pronounced collar bone. “Reggie?” she whispered amidst a series of little kisses.

“Mmmm-yeah?”

“There’s something you can do for me…”

“Anything…” Regina husked, nibbling on an ear lobe that was too tempting to ignore.

Snickering, Stella leaned in and whispered something in her lover’s ear.

“Huh? You wanna stop already?” Regina said, furrowing her brow as she pulled back a little bit.

“No, silly!” – kiss, nibble, nibble – “Please.” – KISS, nibble, kiss – “Just say it…” – nibble, nibble.

“Okay… uh…” Regina said while Stella continued to administer her sweet affections. “Uh, I… th-”

“G’wan!” Stella said with a husky snicker.

“The End…?”

Forty minutes later, the Seismological Laboratory at the North Bay University registered two brief but distinct earthquakes in the general Bay area – the first came in at three point six on the Richter scale, but the second was a potentially window-rattling four point one. Oddly enough, the epicenters appeared to be above ground…


*
*
THE END of ALL ‘S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

-*-*-*-
-*-*-*-

THE END of
FROM THE FILES OF THE HARRISON-STARR DETECTIVE AGENCY

Continued in Last Words From The Harrison-Starr Detective Agency

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