Life since graduation had not been easy for Ralph Yollam.
The recession and decline of newspapers changed the face of journalism. Problem was, he had been a Journalism major.
When you're unemployed, it's not easy to pay off your student loans. Ralph had been eking out an existence using up the remainder of film and developing paper from a photojournalism class, by working for peanuts as a freelance photographer.
Anyway, after a series of uninteresting photographic misadventures, Ralph found himself on assignment, covering a local downtown rock festival, hoping he could bluff his way to the front of the crowd with a phony press pass.
Since his car had exploded and was in the shop, he resigned himself to riding a city bus.
The blonde (bleached?) definitely caught his eye. What the heck, he thought. Small talk.
“Heading over to the town rock festival?” he asked.
“Uh huh.” She didn't seem bored with her reply.
“Have you seen any of these acts before?” he asked. “I don't know who I should go see.”
She cocked her head and smiled a half smile. “You're a freelance photographer, aren't you?”
Ralph was shocked for a moment, but looked down at the camera around his neck. “Yeah, I guess.”
“You either are or you're not,” said the girl.
“...Ralph Yollam, by the way,” he said.
“Sage,” she said.
“Sage? Is that your first or last name?”
“Yes,” Sage said.
The two spent the remainder of the bus ride making small talk about the rock festival. Sage seemed to know her rock acts, so Ralph followed her to the first venue at the festival.
Said venue was a bar that seemed smaller on the outside compared to the inside, was filled with twentysomethings and middle-age people alike, all milling about the stage in the back, waiting for the act to start.
“Hope we can find good seats,” said Ralph.
Sage didn't respond.
Ralph looked around. Sage had disappeared.
“Typical,” Ralph sighed, and made his way to the front of the crowd. He popped the film into his camera.
A man stepped up to the microphone on stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight's act: the Calendar Squirrels!”
A guitarist walked onto stage and sat on a stool. Ralph took the guitarist's picture as he warmed up, and wondered what had happened to the rest of the band. Surely THIS guy wasn't the entire Calendar Squirrels.
The guitarist looked around for his band. No one else followed him onto the stage. The crowd began to murmur in confusion.
After about a minute, the guitarist got up and ran backstage. As soon as he had disappeared, a woman's scream erupted from the backstage. The crowd immediately began to shuffle away from the stage nervously.
Ralph felt a hand grab his shirt collar and give a tremendous YANK. He found himself in a dark corner, face to face with Sage.
Backstage, Sage followed the shrieking into a storage room, Ralph on her heels. The two stopped to find a woman and the guitarist both staring at a pile of clothes on the floor.
“The band...! The band...gone...” cried the woman.
Sage kneeled over the pile and lifted a sock with her finger. She pointed at Ralph with her free hand.
“Yo Red. We need some pictures here.”
She pointed at the guitarist. “You might want to call the cops. Your band has been kidnapped.”
The police arrived and took witness statements. The sobbing woman, Rhonda, was a girlfriend of the band’s drummer, and had gone away for ten minutes, only to return and find the band missing. The guitarist, Clancy, had been at the bar’s smoke porch chatting with fans, and was not with the rest of the band.
Sage disappeared from the room again. Ralph had taken a few pictures of the scene, but he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do. Maybe a newspaper would buy the photos; the scene was certainly sensational enough.
Ralph meandered to the exit and left the building. He had taken three steps when he got another YANK on his collar.
It was Sage.
“Stop doing that!” said Ralph.
“Doing what?” said Sage.
“Disappearing and then yanking on my collar like a collar ninja!” said Ralph.
“Like I said, I hate crowds, and I was working,” said Sage, who was still smiling a half-smile. “Out back having a smoke and talking to the barflies, verifying the guitarist and girlfriend's alibis.”
“Alibi?” said Ralph. “What are you, a police officer?”
“Of a sort. Come with me, Red, this collar ninja's got work to do.”
Two blocks down, Sage led Ralph into a crumbling office building. They ascended a staircase and went down a hallway. Sage reached into her coat pocket for some keys.
Ralph caught a crusty inscription on the door's opaque window: L. Sage, Private Investigator.
“You're a private eye?” said Ralph.
“Yep,” said Sage. “Good eye there. I'd prefer 'private dick' but I don't like the connotations.”
The office was straight out of film noir. A dusty desk with a telephone and a small light. An ancient fan sat up in the corner.
Sage led Ralph into a side room that he immediately recognized as a photographic darkroom. “Thank God you had your camera. I'd photograph these things myself, but I was out and about and unprepared.”
Ralph was amazed. “You have a darkroom--”
“One of several side diversions that I come back to from time to time whenever I'm bored,” said Sage. “Like right now.” She reached for Ralph's camera.
“Hang on, hang on, hang on,” said Ralph. “I still have five pictures on this roll. I'm not ready to develop just yet.”
Sage struck a pose.
Three minutes later, Ralph found himself in the dark with Sage, unwinding the roll of film from his camera and loading it into a development tank. Twenty minutes after that, and they had negatives.
Ralph observed Sage the whole time. Her soft gaze never wavered, her half-smile never faded. Her pattern of speech was one part NPR announcer, one part valley girl. She had no discernable accent beyond “American.” Interestingly, she could be both manic and serene at the same time.
Ten additional minutes produced some photo prints of the crime scene. Sage held the prints up to the light.
“How were you able to figure out the musicians had been kidnapped and not raptured?” asked Ralph.
“You're too normal, Red,” said Sage. “That sock I picked up had been recently laundered, as were the other clothes. There was no trace of sweat, no trace of deodorant, meaning they hadn't been worn. PLENTY of liquid Gain scent, though. The clothes were perfect duplicates of what the band had been wearing, but not their actual clothes.”
“And how were you able to deduce that I was a freelance photographer earlier?” asked Ralph.
Sage took a breath.
“Your college ring is facing outward, and based on the year on the ring, you haven't been a graduate for very long. You're using a traditional film camera, and I noticed several rolls of black and white film in your pocket, which film students use. You're burning off leftover film from a photography class.”
“Yes, but where does 'freelance' come in?” asked Ralph. “I could be just a hobbyist.”
Sage kept smiling. Ralph doubted if she ever stopped.
“Your phony press pass,” she said. “One wonders if you ever conned beer as a teen.”
By midnight, the prints (and their copies) had been completed to Sage's liking. The two looked over the pictures, Ralph not knowing what he should be looking for.
“See that?” said Sage, pointing at a glob of something on one of the shirts. “What do you think it is?”
“I dunno,” said Ralph. “Wax or Jell-O or coffee or something? It's in black and white.”
“Details,” said Sage. “I've got a friend in the crime lab, I'll see if I can get a favor from him in the morning.”
Sage sat down at her desk, dramatically took a slug of whiskey from a bottle, and was out like a light.
Ralph looked around, grabbed some of the redundant prints they'd made, and quietly excused himself from her office.
Ralph sold one picture, although at a reduced price since the paper wanted color pictures. He made it home at 2 AM and crashed on his couch.
At 8:32 on the dot, Ralph was awakened to his phone ringing. It was Sage.
“The internet has given us some answers, Red,” said Sage. “Get up to my office.”
Ralph blinked the sleep out of his eyes. “How did you get my number?”
“Found it on Facebook,” said Sage. “Plus, I pickpocketed your phone for an hour and you didn't notice.”
“Why are you calling me?” asked Ralph. “You're the detective, and you have all the pictures you need.”
“You fascinate me,” said Sage. “I collect fascinating people. And given that you carried off those prints of the pictures you took of me, so do you.”
This had to be a first. A pretty girl asking Ralph to come see her. The last pretty girl that Ralph had interacted with, a college classmate, had punched him in the face.
Come to think of it, it happened quite often with that girl. Chalk it up to childish, collegiate behavior. On Ralph's part.
Anyway, Ralph found that his interest in Sage was purely academic. How does an attractive young thing become a private eye? Maybe if he observed her in the field, he'd pick up some answers.
The old building looked different in the daytime. Ralph ascended the flights of steps and found himself back at Sage's office. He knocked on the door.
She appeared, smiling that same half-smile as before. “Hey there. Come on in.”
Ralph went into the office. All the blinds were drawn, and a few lamps lit up the room. The darkness wasn't unlike the other night, really.
“You wanted to see me?” asked Ralph.
“Answer me this, Red,” said Sage. “What is the motive for leaving bright green goop at a scene of a rapture?”
“The goop is green?” asked Ralph. He didn't remember it.
“Why would anyone use green goop?” asked Sage, not listening to Ralph. “I mean, what practical reason is there for leaving it?”
Ralph shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe they were kidnapped by zombies or ninja turtles or something.”
Sage grinned. “How about aliens? Take a look at this.”
She waved him over to a laptop computer. On it was a public access video that the band had posted to YouTube a year and a half before.
Sage moved the scrollbar three minutes in and pressed play.
“So if you could do something big, to make a name for yourself, what would it be?” asked an interviewer on the video.
The drummer laughed. “We'd stage an alien abduction. Something very Andy Kaufman, to get our names out there.”
Sage turned back to Ralph.
“That'll do, Red. That'll do.”
TO BE CONTINUED...