When we last left off: A popular restaurant's secret recipe for vegetable enchiladas has gone missing, and somehow Ralph's less than charming ex-girlfriend is involved. Ralph and Sage set off to find clues...
The following morning, Ralph and Sage stopped by the Melbourne Bay Grill before its opening. They were greeted by none other than Vlad Collins at the door.
Ralph recognized him instantly. Collins had been wearing a proper chef's uniform in the magazine article, but this day he was dressed casually in a t-shirt and shorts.
“Good to meet you in person, Detective Sage,” said Collins, extending a hand. “Glad you could make it.”
Sage didn't take his hand, choosing instead to pick a piece of tape from a nearby automobile, but she did smile her half-smile. “We wouldn't miss it for the world.”
Collins looked over at Ralph. “Who's this guy?”
“My name's...Red,” said Ralph before Sage could answer. He didn't want to take a chance on Collins knowing his name from Marlie.
“He's my apprentice,” said Sage, casting a playful glance at Ralph. “He's learning the tricks of the trade, and I thought this would be a nice introduction.”
“All right,” said Collins. “Shall we step inside?”
Sage nodded, then turned to Ralph.
“Come, apprentice,” she said, grinning. Ralph rolled his eyes.
Collins led Ralph and Sage through the restaurant's dining room, which was adorned with Aboriginal artwork, pictures of Australia, and neon signs. He led them through a noisy kitchen preparing for the day's meals, and into a large windowed office tucked away next to one of the gas stoves.
A bookshelf leaned up against the wall in the office, displaying certificates, books (mostly cookbooks), and pictures.
One picture was of Marlie and Vlad at a parade with another couple. Ralph gagged.
A keypad safe sat in another corner of the room opposite the door and window, behind an austere desk.
“I had kept the recipe in here,” said Collins, motioning to the safe. “It was a family recipe, combined with a little of my own culinary school learnin'.”
He grinned, then sighed.
“I brought this safe with me when I moved here. I am the only one who knows the combination.”
“No security cameras in here, I noticed,” said Sage.
“I expected the safe to be, well, safe,” he said. “Didn't see any need for one.”
“Did you ever take the recipe out of the safe?” asked Sage.
Collins laughed. “I did last week. I had wanted to surprise my fiancée with a gift, so I removed the folio containing my recipe, stored the package, and replaced the recipe. It was also still there when I gave her the gift.”
Ralph crossed his arms.
“Was she in here with you when you took the recipe out?” he asked.
“She was when I gave her the gift, yes,” said Collins. “But she was blindfolded and facing the other way. I thought it'd be more of a surprise that way.”
“Do you have any enemies?” asked Ralph, feeling rather like Thomas Magnum as he said it.
Vlad gave him a look. “Take your pick. Ex-employees, rival restaurant owners, Gordon Ramsay. I could make you a list.”
Sage inspected the safe, then spoke.
“When did your mother emigrate from Russia?”
Collins' eyes boggled. “How did you know that?”
Sage turned around and grinned. “I noticed a picture of you and Marlie with a middle-aged couple on your shelf. The man's wearing a cowboy hat and bolo tie, and all of you were at a Russian Pride parade in what looked like Coney Island, Brooklyn, which has a large Russian community. You yourself have a typically Russian first name, but your last name is not, and your accent identifies you as Texan.”
Collins smiled. “But how did you know that was Marlie in the picture?”
Ralph gulped; so Marlie hadn't told Vlad about her encounter with Sage last night! He glanced nervously at Sage.
“She's wearing an engagement ring on her left hand, naturally,” said Sage without skipping a beat.
“Hot damn!” Vlad exclaimed. “I'm so glad I hired you.”
“Sage, you never talk about yourself,” said Ralph, walking to his car. “How did you become a detective?”
Sage didn't respond for a moment. Ralph thought he saw her smile waver.
“You don't really want to hear this story,” she said. “You might think it's something simple or cute, but it's not.”
Ralph smiled at her.
Sage opened her mouth to respond, but Ralph's phone rang.
He pulled the phone out of his pocket. The number seemed familiar.
“I'm leaving town, Ralph,” said the voice of Marlie Adder from the other end.
“Marlie?” said Ralph. “Why? Where are you going?”
Sage pointed at his phone and mouthed a word to him. Speakerphone.
Ralph activated the speakerphone and held it between them. Marlie continued speaking.
“I overheard you talking to Vlad earlier,” said Marlie. “You've ruined everything for me!”
“What did you do, Marlie?” asked Ralph.
“I OPENED THE SAFE,” exclaimed Marlie, her voice cracking. “I watched him enter the combination one day. I just wanted to see what Vlad was getting me for my birthday, and now he's gonna think that I took that stupid recipe!”
“Maybe you did,” said Ralph. “I wouldn't be surprised.”
Marlie gasped and let out a sob.
“How dare you accuse me! You were an honest guy!”
The line disconnected.
“So I guess the good news for Vlad Collins is that Marlie Adder is out of his life,” Ralph said.
“True,” said Sage. “But it could also be bad news, too.”
“So my current theory is that someone is trying to wreck Vlad's life,” said Sage, as she and Ralph drove down the freeway. “The recipe and Marlie are both important to him, and I'm thinking that someone has framed her in order to eliminate both variables.”
“Or maybe she's just being stupid again,” said Ralph bitterly, turning the wheel. “Wouldn't be the first time.”
Sage looked squarely at Ralph. Her tone turned stern.
“Seriously, Red,” she intoned. “Quit pouting over her. I hate this dramatic crap and it's clouding your judgment.”
“I'm not pouting.”
“Yes you are.”
“I am not!”
“You are totally pouting.”
Ralph huffed. “Fine, then. Let's say she's innocent. Where do we start?”
Sage smiled. “The kitchen. Anyone could see in through the window and get the combination. Vlad's got an unsafe rather than a safe.”
Sage grinned expectantly. There was a pause.
“No?” said Sage.
It wasn't that funny.
Ralph dropped Sage off at her office building. He returned later that afternoon, running from the rain as he entered the building.
Sage was sitting on her desk in her office, waiting for him, with a notebook in her hand.
“So I've got a list of suspects,” said Sage. “Take a look and see what you think.”
She handed him the notebook. Inside was a handwritten list of kitchen staff. Steve, sous-chef. Jake, line chef. Jordan, saucier. Mark, busboy. Marylou, Desmond, Alice, and Oliver, waitstaff.
“Should be just about everyone, since everyone is a suspect at this point,” said Sage. “We have to figure out who has the most to gain by hurting Vlad.”
“Any ideas?” said Ralph. He didn't have any.
“Actually, lucky us,” said Sage. “I got us a rainy-day movie.”
She pulled a CD-RW out of her pocket.
“Security footage?” asked Ralph.
“Well, look at you!” she beamed. “Actually, I have a buddy who was able to grab us some footage from a security camera across the street from the Melbourne Bay Grill, the night the recipe went missing. Get ready for the ride of your life!”
Sage put the CD in her computer, and grainy black and white footage appeared on the screen.
She sashayed like a Fifties housewife over to a side room.
“Shall I pop some popcorn?” she asked.
But the popcorn didn't help. Ralph tried to watch – he really did! – but three solid hours of security camera footage didn't reveal anything, aside from a chef climbing into a lightly-colored car, a waitress who skipped home while waving a small baton, and a waiter jumping on a motorcycle.
Sage, meanwhile, appeared to be fixated on the footage the whole time. She leaned so close to the computer screen that her nose almost touched it, the whole time popping popcorn into her mouth.
Occasionally she'd whisper someone's name as they'd cross the screen – Jordan when she saw the chef in the car, or Alice when the waitress skipped home – bringing Ralph out of his bored haze for a few seconds at a time.
After the footage concluded, Sage turned to Ralph.
“So what have we learned?” she asked.
“That I have spent three hours of my life that I will never get back in any way, shape, or form?” replied Ralph.
“WRONG!” said Sage. “We've learned that Marlie Adder was NOT there that evening.”
“Proving a point, Sage?” asked Ralph.
“Oh, totally!” exclaimed Sage.
“But she still could have had an accomplice. There's that first voice you heard on her phone!”
“Could be,” said Sage. “But that's not the only thing I've learned. I think I may know who our thief is.”
“Vlad, I'm gonna level with you,” said Sage, back at the Grill. “We've been in contact with Marlie Adder.”
Ralph closed his eyes. This was going to be awkward.
“Contact?” asked Vlad.
“Contact,” said Sage. “Seems Red here dated Marlie back in high school, and seems that she has a penchant for meeting us at darkened car washes to deliver punches like some Jerry Springer reject, and seems like she flees in a convertible at the slightest sign of trouble, and calls Red to cry about it.”
Vlad frowned and shot a glance in Ralph's direction. “What, so Marlie took the--”
“No no no,” said Sage. “She's innocent.”
He kept looking at Ralph. “And you are--”
“He's eye candy,” interrupted Sage. “And a plot device for me to spout exposition to. Maybe an apprentice; I haven't decided.”
Ralph crossed his arms as Sage stared out the office window into the kitchen. She raised her pointer finger and poked it towards the window.
“There!” she said.
A mustachioed man stood mixing a sauce on the nearby gas range. Ralph thought he looked familiar from the security camera footage.
Sage walked out the door and walked over to him. Vlad and Ralph followed.
“Your yellow car was broken into, Jordan,” she said.
The man stared at her. “Yeah, not very long ago. How did you know?”
“Security camera footage from a couple of nights ago,” said Sage. “You park in front of the restaurant usually. I noticed that your car didn't have a window this morning.”
The man laughed a booming laugh. He had a deep voice.
“Lady detective gonna find my stuff?” he asked.
Sage smiled. “What exactly was stolen?”
There was a silence.
“My mascara,” said the man, nervously.
“Nope,” said Sage. “But cute. Like a koala?”
The man gulped and took a deep breath.
“I admit it,” said the man. “I took the recipe because I wanted to see what was in the sauce I mixed. I wanted to make an impression at my family reunion, is all.”
“And the recipe was stolen from your car, yes?” said Sage.
“Yep,” said Jordan. “After I got home. I didn't even hear the glass break; just came out and saw the damage the next morning. I reported it to the police as vandalism.”
Sage patted him on the shoulder. “We all make mistakes, honey. Does anyone else who works here know where you live?”
“Just the boss,” said Jordan, averting his eyes from Vlad. “He has it on file.”
“Which reminds me,” said Vlad sternly. “We need to have a chat in my office.”
“That's our cue to leave,” whispered Sage to Ralph. “Let's get something to eat.”
They went back out into the dining room and sat at a table. The waitress came over to serve them.
“Mr. Collins says your meal is on the house,” said the waitress smiling.
Sage smiled back.
“Congrats on your pregnancy, Alice,” she said, and tipped the amazed waitress twenty-five dollars at the end of the meal.
One hour later, Ralph and Sage were back in Vlad Collins' office. Vlad had left them alone to go work in the kitchen and help handle the remainder of the dinner rush.
Sage sat in the middle of the room, legs crossed, eyes closed. She'd been like this for half an hour.
Ralph continued looking around the room, not really sure what he was looking for.
“Why are we still here?” asked Ralph.
“Shh,” said Sage. “Do you hear that?”
Ralph listened. “I don't hear anything.”
“Try again,” said Sage, smiling softly.
Ralph looked at her quizzically. She opened her eyes, looked up at him and patted the ground next to her.
“Sit here, close your eyes, and try again.”
He sat down and closed his eyes.
“I don't hear anything except the kitchen,” said Ralph.
“Technically that's something,” said Sage. “You get points.”
Ralph opened his eyes. “But why does that matter, Sage?”
She smiled. “The phone call I got from Marlie's phone, asking about the recipe, happened at about this time of day, during the dinner rush. It sounded like Jordan, but the background was far too quiet.”
Sage closed her eyes again and inhaled through her nose.
“Tex-Mex,” she sighed.
“Well, one thing is for sure,” said Sage as she strolled down a city sidewalk with Ralph. “Vlad Collins makes an enchilada that's SO kick-ass, it chases away thunderstorms.”
“Do many of your clients pay with food?” asked Ralph, patting his stomach and looking at the clear sky.
“Sometimes,” said Sage. “One time I got three jars of homemade apricot preserves for helping reunite a lady with her grandfather. I've still got one left if you ever want me to make you toast.”
“Why do you do this kind of thing, Sage?” asked Ralph, slowing to a stop. “I mean, the whole 'wacky private detective working for peanuts' shtick.”
Sage gazed directly into his eyes and smiled.
“Seems worthwhile, doesn't it?”
Ralph gazed back. Sage looked rather pretty.
Ralph and Sage spun around. It was a mud-splotched Marlie Adder, dripping wet and smelling absolutely dreadful.
“What happened to you?” said Ralph, suppressing a laugh.
“MY CAR BROKE DOWN,” said Marlie. “On the highway. I tried to restart it, and tried to call AAA, but my phone didn't work and I ended up hitchhiking my way back to town in the rain. I was nearly to the city limits when some guy drove up and said he was told to look out for hitchhikers. And I finally got a ride...”
“With a pig farmer,” said Sage, casually holding her hand up to cover her face.
“With the PIGS!” exclaimed Marlie, letting out a sob.
“Pigs?” asked Ralph.
“But that's not the worst part,” said Marlie. “I was sitting there in the flatbed next to a pig, when I got THIS little voicemail message.”
She held out her smartphone and pressed Play. A Fifties song began emanating from the tinny speaker.
“Who's sorry now...”
“Connie Francis, 1958,” said Sage.
“I don't know who sent me this song,” said Marlie. “But I'm freaked out.”
“Don't worry, sweetie,” said Sage. “We already know that you didn't steal the recipe. Someone's trying to ruin Vlad.”
“Ruin him?” sniffed Marlie. “But why? He's rich and generous and a chef.”
“No,” said Ralph. “They're not trying to ruin Vlad. They're trying to ruin Marlie.”
Sage gawked at him. “Okay, that's new, Red.”
“No it isn't,” he said gravely. “Because this is how I once said I'd want it to happen. The breakdown, the hitchhiking, the pigs – I posted this exact situation on Facebook after we broke up.”
Marlie Adder slapped Ralph Yollam and called him a four-letter word.
To be concluded...