Ralph Yollam hadn't seen private eye L. Sage in weeks.
Whenever he was downtown, he would visit her building, but she never seemed to be in at the same times he visited.
She would leave him the occasional note taped to the door though, in envelopes labeled “Red,” her apparent nickname for him.
These messages were brief.
For instance: “I'm feeling boring today, Red. Go out and be exciting for me.”
He never did encounter her, though. He even staked out her building while covering a parade for his newspaper, and didn't see her once.
She had, for all intents and purposes, disappeared as if she'd been abducted by aliens, assuming that their previous mystery was any indication.
Or maybe it was her own mystery to begin with. He sort of felt like he'd been a guest star on that one.
In any event, after about two months, he gave up trying to find her, and went back to his daily life.
One morning, Ralph stopped off for a warm (and hopefully caffeinated) beverage at his usual breakfast bistro.
“Medium vanilla chai tea,” he croaked as he handed the barista his credit card. Coffee was gross enough; maybe the sugar in the tea would boost his mood.
“You know,” said a sultry voice from behind. “'Chai' actually means 'tea.' Saying 'chai tea' is redundant.”
Ralph's eyes grew wide; he was wide awake now. He spun around.
“You've stopped coming for my notes, Red,” she said. “I was starting to get worried.”
Ralph felt a flash of indignation, but he brushed it off. “I thought you had been abducted by aliens.”
Sage laughed. “I have not been cavorting with our friend Waldo Sweeney, but I have been busy.”
She beckoned for him to sit down. He got his credit card from the barista and pulled up a chair.
“We really need to better coordinate,” said Sage. “I've got a case for you that may tickle your fancy.”
Ralph leaned in. “I'm all ears.”
She grinned. “What do you know about koalas?”
He must have made a face, because she grinned wider at his expression.
“They're...furry? And Australian,” he said.
“Did you know that it's illegal to eat koala meat?” asked Sage.
“Who eats koalas?” asked Ralph.
“Dingoes and bad people,” said Sage. “Ever hear of the Melbourne Bay Grill?”
Ralph leaned back and thought. “Is it the new place that opened up on 19th Street?”
“The very same,” Sage beamed. “It was popular in a couple of cities throughout the state, before landing here in our lovely town.”
She took a breath.
“They have a unique blend of ingredients that they use in a particular Tex-Mex dish, one that the owner has won awards for. It's called the Koala Enchilada.”
Ralph cocked his head. “Surely they don't use--”
“I already checked,” Sage laughed. “I can say for a fact that they do NOT use koala meat.”
Ralph figured he must have looked relieved, because Sage giggled again.
“Who wants to butcher a cuddly koala?” she asked. “No, they don't use any cuddly creatures at all – just veggies and sauces and herbs – and attach a cuddly marketing nickname to the product to tie into that Australian theme.”
“But that's not the interesting thing, Red. The interesting thing is that the recipe has gone missing, and I think I know who took it.”
Ralph leaned forward again. “Who?”
Sage grinned. “They just called your drink, Red. Better go get it, and come with me – we've got work to do.”
Ralph hoped she would say that.
“I was actually contacted not too long ago about the Koala Enchilada,” Sage said as they walked down the sidewalk. “Some guy contacted me on the telephone out of the blue, said he wanted to figure out what was in it that made it so good.”
“Why would he want you to find that out?” Ralph asked.
“I've got a good nose, as you probably saw the last time we investigated a case together,” she said. “I've also got a keen sense of flavor. Too keen, sometimes.”
She stuck out her tongue at him.
“Anyway,” she continued, “I didn't care to do it. I told him that I wasn't interested in corporate espionage. He hung up on me.”
She looked at Ralph.
“I mean, who does that?” she asked.
“Still, I didn't think about it much,” Sage continued. “Not until yesterday evening. The owner of the Melbourne Bay Grill, Vladimir Collins, contacted me. He had lost the paper that the recipe was written on, and was convinced that someone had taken it from his safe.”
“Why didn't he call the police or something first?” Ralph asked.
“He did,” said Sage. “They didn't even bother to send a plebe to jot down a report. Apparently they thought that he had simply misplaced it. Collins called me out of desperation.”
“And you took the case because of the earlier mystery call,” said Ralph.
“Well, yeah,” said Sage.
They walked into Sage's building and took the stairs up to her floor.
“I wrote down the number a while ago,” she said as soon as they were in her office. “And guess what?”
“It was a burn phone, and the number was disconnected when you called it?” asked Ralph.
“WRONG!” exclaimed Sage. “I haven't called it yet. I'm letting you do the honors since they don't know your voice.”
She thrust a cell phone into his hands. “I've already dialed. Have fun!”
Ralph put the phone up to his ear and heard a dial tone. He desperately looked at Sage. “What do I--”
“Hello?” said a female voice on the other end.
Sage winked at him. Ralph gulped. The voice sounded somehow familiar.
“Hi, yes, I'm looking for an enchilada recipe,” he said.
There was silence on the other end. Then the voice spoke again.
“Meet me at the car wash behind the College Hills 7-11, at ten PM,” she said, and hung up.
Ralph lowered the phone. Sage leaned towards him and whispered in his ear.
“You've got a date, Red! Isn't that fun?”
It didn't sound fun.
Do-it-yourself car washes are creepy places. Even more so at nighttime.
You may find a light or two illuminating the surroundings, but they're always of a faded fluorescent variety, typically in a squalid blue or yellow hue, and emitting a loud buzz.
On the ground below are all manner of fluids. Primarily water, but usually embossed with a colorful sheen of soap and suds from the last patrons of the day.
This brew remains on the ground and permeates each nook and cranny in the pavement, and has a tendency to be quite lovely and unsettling at the same time. Since the sun has set, it wouldn't evaporate as rapidly as it would during the day.
Not far away, the coin-operated vacuums stand in their bays, silent steel sentinels of the parking lot, guarding all manner of detritus and debris that has undoubtedly freed itself from any nearby rubbish barrel.
A gust of wind picked up some rubbish and lifted it into Ralph Yollam's face. It was ten minutes after ten o'clock at the car wash, and no one else appeared to be within the confines of the solitary yellow fluorescent light.
Sage waited around the corner at the 7-11, sipping on Big Red.
“Never worry, Red,” she had told him a half hour earlier. “I'll be nearby in case you get mugged.”
Naturally, this had boosted Ralph's defenses. He wondered to himself whether Sage had said it to get his adrenaline pumping, or to have a laugh.
In any case, the familiar voice – which he still couldn't place – was ten minutes late. He sighed, swatted the rubbish away from his face, and walked towards the street.
He heard rapid footsteps behind him. He turned around.
A fist clocked him across the jaw. Ralph stumbled backwards.
“Ralph Yollam. I thought it was you on the phone.”
The fist smacked him again. He slumped to the ground, disoriented. He covered his face, prepared for another blow.
It never happened. Instead, he heard a thud, then a shriek.
Red liquid splashed on the ground, intermingling with the soapy water left over from the car wash. Ralph looked up and tried to focus, slightly panicking.
Sage had pounced upon the assailant and was holding her to the ground. Red soda dripped from the girl's hair. Sage was smiling serenely.
“Lemme go, lemme go!” yelled the girl.
The girl looked up, and her face caught the yellowish light. Ralph recognized her instantly.
“It looks like you know her,” said Sage, smiling.
“I do,” said Ralph, shocked. “It's Marlie Adder. My ex-girlfriend from high school.”
Marlie spat on the ground. “I was never your girlfriend!”
Sage told Ralph to wait by the car. Two minutes later, she and Marlie joined him.
“Marlie here didn't mean to hit you,” said Sage. “She thought you had stolen the recipe for the Koala Enchilada.”
“Vladimir Collins is my fiancé,” said Marlie, waving her left hand in Ralph's face. A bright diamond ring adorned her finger.
“Nice, huh?” she asked. “It's a flawless diamond, worth $14,000. Vlad can afford it. He buys me stuff, like, all the time.”
“Anyway, after his recipe was stolen, I thought that your call was from some punk wanting a ransom. Vlad tells me that the business is very competitive. I thought I'd try and jump the jerk who was waiting here.”
She made a pouty face. “Instead I found out that the jerk is the little stooge for the detective my fiancé hired.”
Marlie began walking off. Sage called after her.
“Just one quick question, sweetie. A man called me from your phone a couple of weeks ago. Do you know anything about that?”
Marlie scrunched up her face, then frowned. “Don't know what you mean, sweetie. I only got this phone a week ago. Just find the damn recipe, okay?”
She walked to a nearby convertible, jumped in, and drove off. Ralph and Sage watched her go.
“I don't believe her,” said Ralph.
Sage turned her head towards him.
“What happened between you and her?” she asked.
Ralph shrugged. “I don't know. I thought we got along great, until I discovered that she'd been badmouthing me on the Internet, and she didn't deny it. Took me a while to get over her.”
Sage crinkled her nose. “What a total --”
Ralph didn't need to hear the last word. He rubbed his bruised face; he knew firsthand exactly what Marlie Adder was.
“Bitchy though she is, I actually don't think your ex-girlfriend did it,” said Sage, back at her office.
Ralph was slumped in a chair. “What do you mean?”
“Marlie seemed confused when I mentioned that her phone had been used to call me,” said Sage. “Plus, though she is honorable mention for the Worst Fiancée in the History of Matrimony, she'd have way too much to lose if she was caught red-handed stealing the recipe.”
Sage handed an open magazine to Ralph.
“I did a little research on Vlad Collins. Turns out his restaurant business, plus a few lucky investments here and there, are paying off.”
Ralph's eyes boggled. The article was about the richest restaurateurs in the state, and Collins' net worth was in the millions.
“Good Lord!” exclaimed Ralph.
“You can't make many friends on that meteoric a rise to the top,” said Sage, walking over to the window. “I think someone is seeking payback against our client Vlad.”
She opened the window and stepped out onto the fire escape. She made a “come hither” motion with her finger. Ralph followed her out into the night air.
Sage lit a cigarette. She beckoned to the city below.
“Out there somewhere is something that means something to someone. We have to find it, and we'll start with the scene of the crime tomorrow.”
Ralph was slightly startled by the cigarette. “You're a smoker?”
“It's a control thing,” said Sage, blowing smoke away from him. “I was previously addicted to a smoke-free lifestyle. I smoke because I can, not because it's particularly attractive or healthy, which it isn't.”
Ralph gave her a look. “But that makes no sense.”
Sage smiled. “It's a conversation starter, isn't it?”
Ralph Yollam was confused.
To be continued...