Secret Origins: Palette: 1959: Murder in the Morning, Chapter 1: The Vision on the Wall

by Dan Swanson

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San Francisco, Monday, April 20, 1959:

It was going to be a beautiful spring day in San Francisco, although it would be an hour or so before the sun burned off the chill and the thin morning fog. Alexandra Silverstone, who preferred the name Alex, had arisen hours earlier than normal in order to finish the mural she was painting on the outside of the Far Eastern Treasures curio shop in Chinatown. This early in the morning there was no traffic as she sped silently through the streets on her World War II-era electric motorcycle.

The mural had been commissioned by Liling Kam, the proprietor of Far Eastern Treasures, who was quickly becoming a good friend, although Alex was still confused by the parable her friend had selected as the basis for the mural. I’ve heard that silly story a half-dozen times, and I still haven’t figured out the moral! she thought, laughing to herself. Still, several images from the parable made striking visuals — the Jade Emperor in his disguise as an ancient wise man, freeing the trapped Chinese Desert Cat kitten from a tangle of thorns in the desert, Monkey confronting the majestic Dragon Kings assembled outside their cavern stronghold, the mortal lovers hard at work on the ransom gift, and the Jade Emperor in his glorious palace being reunited with his favorite pet. Moral be darned, she was certainly proud of this work.

As she parked her bike in front of Far Eastern Treasures, a big man wearing a brown trench coat and flat cap came out of the Herbal Garden (a shop three doors down), glanced quickly at Alex, then hurried off down the street in the other direction, vanishing into the fog less than two blocks away. Alex found this to be alarming. In the week she had been working here, Alex had never seen anyone enter or leave the Herbal Garden before noon. She felt compelled to investigate. Only a few minutes later, she was telling her story to the police.

“I checked the front door, and it was unlocked, so I opened it and looked inside,” Alex said, repeating her story for at least the third time to San Francisco Homicide Squad Detective Robert Ironside, a tall, heavyset man with thick dark hair, bushy eyebrows, and an intense look on his face. “The place was a shambles, as you can see.”

The walls of the front room of the Herbal Garden were lined with shelves that were normally filled with bottles, jars, tins, small cloth bags tied shut with colorful threads, flasks, beakers, and whatever other kinds of small containers you could think of. Now these shelves were virtually empty, and the containers were dashed to the floor, where they had been shattered, crushed, torn, smashed, or otherwise destroyed. The mingled herbs, spices, potions, liquors, powders, dried leaves, and whatever else gave the room a pungent, indescribably awful odor. It had irritated Alex’s eyes and almost made her sick when she had first entered, though it had thinned considerably as soon as the door was opened.

“And then–” She faltered, her voice catching at the memory of what she’d discovered. “–then I looked behind the counter and saw Mr. Zheng just lying there with his face all purple and that terrible wire wrapped around his neck.” No longer able to speak, she buried her head in her hands and sobbed.

“Thank you, Miss Silverstone. I’m truly sorry you had such an awful experience,” said Ironside, trying to comfort her. “Do you remember anything else about the man you saw that might help us identify him?”

Alex shook her head. She really didn’t remember anything more, as she hadn’t been paying attention, and the man had only glanced her way for an instant.

“Whoever trashed this place must have made plenty of noise,” the detective continued after a pause. “Did you hear anything?”

“No, sir. I was just getting off my bike when that man came out the door,” she replied around her sobs.

“Well, thanks for the information,” Detective Ironside said. “Why don’t you go home and try to rest and calm down — and if you think of anything else you can tell us, come on down to the station later and ask for me. Are you sure you don’t want a ride home?” When she shook her head emphatically, he gave her his card. “Don’t worry, we’ll get whoever did this!”

Liling Kam, the curio shop proprietor, assured Alex she could finish the mural when she felt better. Putting on her helmet and a heavy leather riding jacket, she hopped on her bike and considered where to go. Her apartment was in the Bayview area not too far from the newly named Candlestick Park, but she decided not to head back there. She wanted to hang out and enjoy the sun, and that neighborhood wasn’t really a good place to just hang out. She thought instead she’d cruise the Golden Gate area and see if there were any new For Sale signs. Her folks had left her a nice inheritance, and she wanted to buy a house in that area.

Alex was cruising slowly westward on Geary Boulevard when she heard the roar of an engine and the squealing of tires to her right — and a car came shooting out of a cross street directly at her. She twisted the throttle hard, and the bike almost leaped ahead with incredible acceleration, tearing her out of the path of the out-of-control car. The instant acceleration of her electric bike had saved the day.

Or was the car really out of control? The tires screamed again as the speeding vehicle swerved slightly to the right, barely clipped the last inch of Alex’s rear tire, and fishtailed into a rubber-burning left turn before roaring off eastward down Geary Boulevard. The rear of the bike wrenched up and around, and Alex was thrown off violently. She tumbled helplessly through the air and smashed lengthwise into and halfway through the tall hedge on the center median strip.

A few minutes later she was speaking with Detective Ironside again while sitting on the back bumper of an ambulance. Although she’d been protected from major injuries by the hedge and her jacket and helmet, she had numerous abrasions and puncture wounds that an emergency medical technician was still patching up.

“You’re the only witness to the murder of Yi Zheng, and whoever did it is out to get you,” Ironside insisted. “Are you sure you didn’t see who was driving? Or can you tell me anything about the car?”

“I’m pretty sure it was a late model Ford Falcon, robin’s egg blue, but that’s all I had time to see,” she replied thoughtfully.

“Stolen,” the detective said. “We just got a radio report. Somebody stole that car not twenty minutes ago and abandoned it a few blocks down Geary.” Looking at her sharply, he added, “You need police protection until we catch the murderer.” He was a little frustrated, as she’d declined the offer twice before. And she did it once again.

“I’ll take your offer of a ride home, especially if you bring my bike,” she said, “but I’ll be OK on my own when I get there.”

He’d already pointed out that her current condition and the condition of her bike argued that she wouldn’t continue to be OK on her own, but she’d insisted that now that she knew she was in danger, it would be different. He couldn’t force her to accept police protection, so he changed the subject. “The bike doesn’t look too bad, considering,” he said, commiserating with her.

“Needs a new tire and tube on the rear wheel,” Alex said. “Handlebars are going to have to be replaced. The seat was ripped right off. Started right up, though. No gas to spill, no transmission to wreck.” She agreed with his sentiment with a wan smile. “I can get parts at Cully’s and have the worst of it fixed before dinner, long as there’s nothing wrong that we can’t see. At least it’ll keep me in the garage most of the day, which ought to make you happy.”

A small panel van with San Francisco Police Department markings showed up. The driver, Officer Donna Sparks, and Detective Ironside helped Alex load her bike in the back. Officer Sparks was pleasant and helpful, even stopping at Cully’s while Alex bought the parts she was going to need.


After a couple of hours of work, Alex Silverstone took the bike around the block. It wasn’t smooth — the wheels needed to be rebalanced — but she could ride it. She plugged in the charger and retired to the living room of her apartment, where she sat on her sofa and simply stared at the wall for an hour, totally exhausted. Finally, she recovered enough to begin replaying in her mind the scene this morning when the murderer hurried from the Herbal Garden.

Closing her eyes, she mentally relived the morning from the time she had awakened. She was astounded at the clarity of the image that was forming on the back of her eyelids. It was almost like watching a Technicolor movie, only more real. Once again, she watched the brown-dressed man step out onto the street. She concentrated on him intently as he began turning toward her.

A clattering sound in the kitchen startled her, causing her eyes to snap open, and she was astounded to see the same scene much larger on the wall in front of her, as clear as if she were looking through a wall of glass. She could hardly believe her eyes — and in that instant of disbelief, the illusion on the wall vanished.

The noise in the kitchen was temporarily more important. It could be that guy coming after me again, she thought with worry. Carefully opening a drawer in the end table, she pulled out a small pistol and crept into the kitchen, only to discover that her cat Bandit had caused the clatter by knocking a spoon off the counter.

Damn, I’m jumpy! she thought emphatically. Maybe I should’a listened when Ironside said I needed protection. Maybe he’d assign Officer Sparks — that wouldn’t be so bad. Leaving the pistol out on the end table, she sat back down to ponder the mystery of the vision on the wall.

Maybe it was a hallucination caused by that awful vapor this morning, Alex wondered to herself. Can I do it again? Taking several long, slow breaths to calm herself, she closed her eyes and once again mentally relived her morning. And once again, the scene grew clear in her mind, more quickly this time. Cautiously, she opened her eyes, and there it was — the vision in her mind somehow projected on the wall, a “movie” of everything she’d seen this morning. Once again, Alex concentrated intensely as the suspected murderer turned toward her, wishing she could stop the action at the critical instant so she could study the man’s face — and indeed, at the critical instant, the vision stopped changing.

Alex peered intently at the face of the man who might have tried to kill her, wishing she could get a close-up of his face, and was stunned when his face expanded, as if her mental camera were zooming in. The face became larger than life, perfect in every detail, and she studied it until she was sure she could draw it from memory. Then she wished it away. Whew! I’m glad I can turn this thing off, whatever it is, she thought with relief.

Then she went to her desk and got out her drawing materials. As she started concentrating on remembering that face, the illusion appeared again, this time on the face of her sketch pad. This certainly made it easy to draw a realistic sketch, and she’d learned more about her newly discovered power.

How come I’m not blowing a gasket? This is really weird stuff! Her thoughts raced. It’s like I’ve somehow always known about this, like it’s been hiding inside me all my life. Just an extension of what I’ve always been able to do.

Continuing to experiment with this new ability, she discovered that what she could do was project illusions on surfaces — illusions of anything she’d ever seen in the past, as well as illusions of things she could imagine. It didn’t have to be a flat surface, and the illusions didn’t have to be pictures — she found she could project the illusion of a different color on her hands and arms. The illusions also lasted as long as she wanted them to. At first she had to concentrate intently, but with practice she found that she could maintain an image with only part of her mind. And she thought her illusions must be real, not just in her mind, because she could also see their reflections in a mirror. So other people should be able to see them, too.

Finally, she decided to take a break. She had a lot to think about, and besides, she needed to take her sketch to the police.

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