Once back inside Sage's office, the detective gave Marlie Adder a change of clothes, and ushered her into a small bathroom for a shower.
Meanwhile, Ralph searched his Facebook news feed to find what he was looking for.
It didn't take him long. He sighed as he read the post from some years ago:
I wish really REALLY hard that Marlie's car will break down on the highway, and she'll have to hitch a ride home in the flatbed of a pig farmer's truck. Humility at its finest!“The post only got two 'likes,'” said Ralph as Sage returned from her office's kitchen. “And I don't think either of them knew Marlie personally.”
“You really didn't take her breakup well,” said Sage, handing him a cup of tea.
He took the cup from her, and managed a smirk.
“All things considered, probably not.”
“I want you to know that you're not a suspect, Red,” said Sage. “You're clever, and you might talk a big game, but I don't believe you're that vindictive.”
Ralph laughed. “Vindictive with Marlie? There were days I'd wished I'd been.”
“You told me the basic story,” said Sage. “But I'd like to know the details, if you're okay with telling it.”
Ralph took a deep breath.
“Marlie and I got together for the prom in high school. Neither of us had dates; my sister introduced us, said we'd be a perfect match.”
“That's cute,” said Sage.
“We hit it off immediately,” said Ralph. “Come prom night, I even had a request in at the local radio station to play her favorite song about ten minutes after picking her up.”
“Aww,” said Sage, smiling.
“And we dated pretty much all that summer. Took her out to eat many times, stayed in and watched some DVD's a few times, had some laughs – even took her bowling once – and the whole time she told me how awesome I was, how clever and funny and handsome I was. And I started kinda falling for her.”
“Then I found her blog one afternoon. And I got to reading it. Turned out there was another guy in the picture.”
He let out a sigh.
“And every blog post after one of our dates, she'd written things. She'd called me a complete tool, a weirdo, a moron. Said I was an idiot for not just somehow knowing that she hated me and had someone else.”
A moment passed.
“What did you do?” asked Sage.
“I confronted her,” said Ralph. “She literally ran away and shut herself off from me. Then a few days later I got a letter from her, telling me flat-out that she hated me, and that the sight of my face made her vomit.”
“When was this?”
“Happened right around college,” said Ralph. “And it completely--”
“Broke you?” asked Sage kindly.
“Yeah,” said Ralph. “It's as if I was in some kind of haze afterwards. I became someone that I'm not, and lost sight of who I was. It wasn't difficult to get over Marlie herself, as I had learned her true colors, but I never got over what she did. I never completely trusted anyone again.”
Sage leaned over to him.
“I get that,” she whispered, wrapping her arm around him in an embrace. “I really do.”
Ralph and Sage couldn't see it, but Marlie Adder stood by on the other side of the bathroom door, listening silently.
A little bit later, Marlie helped Ralph narrow down a list of his Facebook friends to those who she thought she'd had known at one point or another.
Then, to Ralph's slight surprise, Marlie excused herself, called a taxi on Sage's phone, and quietly left.
“I can't make heads or tails of this,” said Ralph, after combing through the list for ten minutes. “There are high school and college friends, and former co-workers, and I can't make any good connection between Marlie and any of them.”
Sage looked over his shoulder at the list. She squinted. Their choices certainly were varied:
- Cory Robinson, historian at Fort Concho.
- Peter Schmidt, actor.
- Sarah McGovern-Valero, florist.
- Wendy Crestworth, saleswoman at College Hills Cellular.
- Richard Parsons, magician.
- Andrew Cano, customer support rep at a software company.
- Balzo Leery, radio deejay.
- Victoria Norrell, grad student.
“I don't know,” said Ralph. “I mean, Richard is smart and could probably make something disappear, but he's a good guy. Cory probably wants people to think he's a cool-hearted criminal or something, but he's well above shaming Marlie. And Victoria was a Criminal Justice major when I knew her, but she's got a girly telephone voice.”
“Fine guesses each, but wrong,” said Sage. “Do you need a hint?”
Ralph looked at her. “Please, share!”
“Marlie was getting a present from Vlad last week,” said Sage, grinning. “What do you suppose that present actually was?”
“Surely, it has to be her...whoa.”
Ralph's eyes widened as the realization hit him.
“You see it too, Red!” exclaimed Sage. “There's still hope for you.”
Marlie Adder. That girl.
The plan all along had been her downfall. Ralph Yollam had been right: Marlie Adder was in desperate need of a slice of humble pie.
The plan was foolproof once it clicked into place the moment the saucier stole the recipe. Why not steal what had been stolen? The saucier wouldn't even think about reporting it to the police, and it could easily be pinned on Marlie Adder.
Just to remove any doubt, though, why not call up every private detective in the area and use a low voice? Just to throw one off the trail in case Chef Collins calls the cops or a P.I.
And as for Marlie – how to go about serving the humble pie? Yollam had a good idea; why not go with that? No one will believe that Marlie's innocent, and Marlie's reaction to any trouble is to run away, so there's a starting point.
And what then? How about a fuel leak in that cute little convertible? Marlie would be well outside the city limits before the car would break down. And the forecast looks like rain – even better!
The icing? Call a pig farmer and have him give Marlie a lift back to town, and send that little tramp an apropos song. Poetry.
From all indications, it seems to be working. Collins is on the move. Maybe it's time to even give back his stupid recipe. And forge Marlie's signature on the note, ha ha...
“I'm here to cancel my ex-fiancée's cell phone account,” huffed Vlad Collins, walking into College Hills Cellular and addressing the girl behind the counter.
The girl flashed a smile at him. “Everything all right with the plan?”
“Not really,” said Vlad briskly. “Let's just say that it's for personal reasons. Plus, I met someone else.”
A bleached blonde in a blue dress and sunglasses strolled through the door. She smiled a half-smile.
“Vladimir, dahhhling, we really must be on our way.”
The girl behind the counter grinned. “Taking a trip?”
Vlad crossed his arms, and the blonde sashayed over to the counter.
“We're going to Never-Never Land, Wendy,” the blonde said, lowering her sunglasses. “Maybe we'll see some pirates, or jealous womenfolk, or koalas...”
The girl's jaw dropped.
“Never is there so much wrath as in a woman's scorn,” said Sage, sitting on her desk back at the office. “Wendy Crestworth's boyfriend broke up with her for a fling with Marlie Adder about five years ago, and Wendy never got over it.”
She poured some hot water into a mug and began steeping a teabag.
“It sucked when Marlie messed with me,” said Ralph. “But I never actually wanted to go after her or harm her.”
“It's because you're all right, Red,” Sage continued, smiling at Ralph. “But never underestimate a broken heart. Breakups really suck.”
Ralph rubbed his temple.
“So take me back to the beginning,” said Ralph.
“I'll do you one better,” said Sage. “I'll take you back to the cornerstone of the case.”
“Marlie's phone,” said Sage, beaming. “She hadn't had it but for a week. Vlad also mentioned that he was getting her a gift a week ago. And I got the mysterious phone call from that phone number two weeks ago, so who else would have that kind of access? One and one and one are three.”
She took a sip of tea.
“Wendy probably saw a wedding announcement in the newspaper and realized that Marlie was moving on up, marrying a rich chef. This had to have been unacceptable. Why is the trampy girl who runs through men like toilet paper getting all the luck, while Wendy's stuck in a dead-end job as a cell phone saleswoman?
“So imagine Wendy's surprise when none other than Vladimir Collins himself walks in the door and orders for a smartphone as a gift for his bride-to-be. The opportunity for revenge had to have been far too tempting.”
“Did she bug the phone?” asked Ralph.
“Sort of,” said Sage. “She purchased some spyware from the Internet, installed it on the smartphone, and called Vlad to pick it up. She then waited for an opportunity to engineer Marlie's downfall, and one appeared in the form of Jordan the saucier and the Koala Enchilada.”
“One thing confuses me,” said Ralph. “How the hell did Wendy speak in a low voice? You heard Jordan's voice on the phone asking for the recipe.”
“It almost fooled even me,” said Sage. “Phones suck too. But check this out.”
She pressed a button on her smartphone. A voice rumbled out.
“Teach me the secrets of the Koala Enchilada. Let me know what it's about. Teach me the secrets of the Koala Enchilada. Let me know what it's about. Teach me the secrets of the Koala Enchilada. Let me know what it's about.”
Sage put the phone on her desk, and it continued to repeat the message.
“Wendy set the bugged phone to record audio, hoping to catch Marlie blurting out girly crap, and caught Jordan talking to himself after hours, probably as he prepared to steal the recipe. She then played it back, non sequitur, to every private investigator in the area. Including me.”
“Vlad and Marlie didn't press charges, amazingly,” said Sage. “Wendy fessed up and gave back the recipe without a fuss, so Vlad actually put forth a few hundred bucks to get her into therapy. Talk about forgiveness.”
She grinned and looked at the phone. It was still repeating Jordan's voice, ad nauseum.
“You know, I might make that my new ringtone,” she said.
“Absurd. Simply absurd.”
Sage opened her mouth to respond, but there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” said Sage.
Marlie Adder breezed through the door, strolled over to Sage's desk, and plopped an envelope at Sage's feet.
“Vlad's – and my – payment for your services, Miss Sage,” said Marlie. “Plus two lifetime passes to the Melbourne Bay Grill, all meals on the house. We're both grateful.”
Marlie turned to Ralph. He noticed tears shimmering in her eyes.
“I'm sorry for what I've done to you, Ralph,” she said, trembling. “So, so sorry. I'm a pretty messed-up person.”
She sniffed, then smiled.
“Vlad makes me better,” she said. “He really does. I genuinely love him, like no one I've ever met before.”
Ralph Yollam stood up.
He hugged Marlie Adder.
He watched her leave the office. A moment passed.
“I think I know why you do what you do, Sage,” said Ralph, staring at the office door. “It makes sense.”
Sage stood up from her desk. She wandered over to Ralph, put her arm around him, and whispered in his ear.
“Seems worthwhile, doesn't it?"