by Dan Swanson
At the police station, Alex Silverstone was quickly shown to Detective Robert Ironside’s office. His desk was piled high with folders. She traced the scent of hot pizza to a large pizza box sitting on one of the chairs.
“I’m surprised to see you here, Detective — isn’t your shift over?” she wanted to know.
“Homicide doesn’t work in shifts, Miss Silverstone,” he replied. She could hear exhaustion in his voice. It must have been a long day. “What can I do for you?”
“This is the guy who came out of Herbal Gardens this morning,” she said, passing him the sketch.
“Woof!” he exclaimed. “I talked to this guy today. Hold on, I’ll show you.” He started pawing through folders. “Say, did you do that yourself?” he said, gesturing at the sketch as he continued digging, and she nodded her head. “If you’re looking for work, the Department can always use a good sketch artist.” Finding the folder he was looking for, he pulled it out and motioned her over to look at the photo in the folder. “Here it is: Mickey ‘the Muscle’ Blake. What do you think?”
“That’s him, all right. Why’d you talk to him? What did he say?” she wanted to know.
“We think Mickey’s part of a protection racket in Chinatown,” he replied. “He loves his flat caps — got a million of ’em and wouldn’t be seen without them — so that’s why your description sent me to him. But he’s got an alibi. Shacked up with his girlfriend, he says, and she backs him up.” He looked puzzled. “So how’d you make this drawing of somebody whose face you said you hadn’t seen that well before?”
This question made Alex uneasy. She didn’t want to reveal her newfound powers, so she changed the subject. “What kind of floozy would spend the night with this kind of bum?”
“The kind he paid for,” Ironside sighed. “So we don’t put a lot of weight on her statement; he could’a bought that as well. Right now, though, it’s your word against the two of them. But you can’t dodge my question like that. How’d you come up with that sketch?”
“I went home and concentrated on remembering him, and realized I’d seen him more clearly than I first thought,” she said in earnest. “This really is the man I saw.”
“Likely it is,” he agreed. “But coming in with a sketch hours later, after you already said you couldn’t I.D. the guy — you might’ve made it of the first guy you saw on the street, or somebody you don’t like.” Seeing a growing anger in her eyes, he changed tracks and said, “That’s not what I think, but it’s what his slick lawyer will say. It’s just not enough to bring him in. We’ll keep a closer eye on him, but that’s all I can do right now.”
At that instant, someone knocked on the office door and asked Ironside for a word. As the detective stepped out into the hall for a private chat with his colleague, Alex picked up Blake’s dossier and paged through it. The police knew a lot about him — where he lived, where he hung out, the people he associated with, how he usually dressed, and even his favorite drink. But they didn’t have enough evidence to convict him of anything; until they did, he was just one of the usual suspects. Since the police couldn’t really do anything about him right now, she decided that for her own safety she was going to have to take matters into her own hands.
“Have you changed your mind about police protection?” Detective Ironside asked when he came back into his office. Shaking her head, she thought it might be fun palling around with Officer Sparks for a while, but a cop following her around right now would only get in her way. A nasty smile ghosted across her face as a plan formed in her mind. That smile must have alarmed Ironside, for as he shook her hand, he emphasized, “You should try to stay inside until we crack this case. Don’t do anything stupid.” She nodded, acknowledging his words without agreeing to them, and took her leave.
When she got home, Alex Silverstone raided her closet and found an old wig and a costume she’d worn for Halloween last year when she’d dressed as a construction worker. Fashioning a false beard and mustache from the wig, she donned her disguise and sat down in front of a mirror.
OK, Yi Zheng, it’s time for a comeback, she thought and projected an illusion of his face superimposed over her face and studied it in the mirror. The hardest part was the bald head; she thought she might have to shave her head to help the illusion. But the immediate visual feedback helped. “OK, got it,” she finally said to herself with smug satisfaction. “Now for the other guy.”
She altered the illusion of Yi Zheng’s face into another that was similar but not Asian and clearly not the same person as the murdered shopkeeper. I think I’ll call you Ray, she thought at the new image, imagining Ray smiling in return. Nice to see you!
Alex practiced until she could switch faces from Yi Zheng to Ray instantly and maintain either face without concentration. Then she practiced projecting Yi Zheng onto her wall as she had seen him this morning, and she mixed in some special effects she’d seen in a recent teleplay called Ghostbusters, starring Fred MacMurray. Funny how much Fred looks like Captain Marvel, she noted to herself, smugly satisfied that her new powers were easily up to the demands of her scheme.
Then she dressed in her blue-collar working man’s outfit, appropriately padded to disguise her female figure, and went back to the streets. It was almost midnight by now. The police dossier had disclosed that Mickey “the Muscle” Blake usually closed down a sleazy North Waterfront bar with several of his friends.
Only fifteen minutes at this time of night, she thought. If he follows his regular routine, I’ve got plenty of time. Starting the bike, she instantly swore out loud. “Damn! The headlight isn’t working!” No time to fix it — no other way to get there in time. I’ll have to hope the streetlights give enough light.
This proved much easier than she’d thought, and she gradually realized that she was using another aspect of her new powers — she could see very well in much lower levels of light than she had been able to before. This discovery excited her, and before she reached the North Waterfront, she discovered even more.
When she concentrated on something, just as her memory could zoom in on illusions, her eyes could zoom in like a telephoto zoom lens on a camera. She barely retained control of her bike when she was trying to zoom in on a street sign a couple of blocks away and failed to notice a pothole. After that, she turned her full attention back to riding and soon pulled up to Blake’s favorite watering hole.
Wearing the face of her creation, Ray, she entered the bar. It was a dingy place, poorly lit, which stank of spilled beer and stale smoke. A tired-looking woman wearing too much makeup sat at the bar. Half a dozen men stood around the pool table, and about the same number were playing darts. Two of the larger tables were crowded, and there were ten or so more patrons sprinkled throughout the rest if the room. Somehow the whole atmosphere screamed dejection; even Elvis playing on the jukebox seemed subdued.
Sure enough, Blake was seated at one of the crowded tables. Judging from the number of empty glasses on the table in front of him, he was drinking heavily tonight, much more so than his friends. The police dossier hadn’t mentioned extensive drinking. Was Blake drinking heavily tonight to either celebrate or forget this morning’s murder?
Doesn’t really matter why, she concluded in relief. Now, at least, I won’t have to buy him a drink. Her plan would work best if Blake was drunk, but she hadn’t been sure how to guarantee that.
Alex turned Ray’s face to the bartender. “Boilermaker,” she ordered in the deepest, gruffest voice she had, and managed not to wince at the slightly grimy shot glass and beer mug. She wasn’t planning to drink the beer, and the rotgut whiskey would surely kill anything lurking in the shot glass that might be dangerous. Ray selected a table in Blake’s direct line of sight, but it was Yi Zheng who pulled out the chair and sat down.
With her zoom-in vision, it was fairly easy for Alex to keep a discreet eye on the thug and gauge where he was looking. When she saw him stiffen in shock at the sight of the man he had just killed, calmly drinking in his own favorite bar, Yi Zhing looked directly at Blake, raised the whiskey in a salute, and threw down the shot. Alex did this partly for theatrical effect and partly for courage — she was just starting to realize she was bearding a drunken killer in his den. The whiskey shot hit her stomach like a firebomb and exploded outward; she could feel the heat spreading through her body.
The theatrical effect was all she could have hoped for. Mickey “the Muscle” Blake started in astonishment, his chair falling over backward when he stood up, then shoved away from the table, spilling the drinks of several of his drinking companions. By the time he got to his feet, Ray had again replaced Yi Zheng.
“You can’t be here! You’re dead!” Blake yelled. Some of his friends stood there in anger, and a man at the table behind him was climbing to his feet as well, upset about Blake’s chair smashing into his back. Alex sat back to enjoy the fun.
Blake was flabbergasted when he saw Ray sitting where he’d just seen Yi Zheng a moment before. “You’re not–” he stopped himself. The man next to him was trying to force Blake back into his chair, while several of his other friends were trying to calm the patron from the other table. The air in the bar was filling with loud laughter and louder voices as patrons anticipated a fight breaking out, and the bartender was picking up the phone with one hand and reaching for a hidden drawer beneath the bar with the other.
“But I just saw Zheng — right there!” Blake was still blustering loudly.
“Dat ain’t him!” the man restraining him shouted in his ear. “Zheng’s dead, you maroon. Ya said so yerself! Siddown and shut up ‘fore Willie calls the coppers.” Another man hurriedly restored Blake’s chair, then helped the shouting man roughly force Blake to sit down.
“Willie! Next round’s on Musclehead Blake!” shouted the friend restraining the patron whom Blake had angered. “Less youse don’ siddown, and den you’ll be mighty sorry,” he muttered in the other man’s ear as he flashed a gun. “Yer choice, bud.” The other man silently sat down.
“&@^% it! I ain’t buying no drinks for no #@&6ing buddy!” Blake complained.
“Shut the @#&^ up, you @#&^ing jackass!” the standing man snarled. The rest of the table muttered agreement. Blake sullenly shut up, and everyone else cautiously sat down. The bar’s other patrons quieted, disappointed that they had been cheated out of that night’s free entertainment.
Ray slapped a half dollar on the table and stood up. “This place ain’t fer me,” he muttered audibly and walked toward the exit. After Ray opened the door, Yi Zheng turned back to sneer at Blake, then disappeared into the night.
Alex was glad she’d had that shot; she’d never done anything that scary before. Hopping on her bike, she watched the door closely. She didn’t have to wait very long. In only a couple of minutes, Blake came storming out of the bar, swearing at the top of his lungs.
“Who da @%&^ does dat $*&&^%ed Willie tink he @%&^ ing is, cuttin’ me off?” the murderer cursed. “$*&@^%ed mother@%&^ er! He’ll @%&6 ing pay!”
Alex wasn’t impressed with his swearing; it showed no imagination. She didn’t use profanity herself, but she could appreciate art in any form, and the repeated use of the same two curse words over and over again wasn’t art — it was boring drivel.
Blake stumbled to a car, swearing and muttering threats under his breath. He saw something white and glowing reflected in the outside mirror and spun around, screamed in terror, then fell to the ground blubbering when there was nothing there.
The bar’s bouncer stuck his head out and screamed, “Damn it, Blake! Go home and sleep it off!”
The drive home wasn’t easy or pleasant for Mickey “the Muscle” Blake. Something white and glowing was following him, but he could only catch glances of it in his outside mirror. Whenever he craned his head around to look for it or slammed on the brakes and leaped out of the car, it was gone. Other times he would see it on a side street somewhere in front of him, and the image was clearer — a floating human figure, glowing a pale white. He couldn’t make out the face, but he didn’t need to.
“$*&@^%@%&^ing ghost. I know yer dead, I killed ya myself. Never gonna drink $*&@%&^ing&^% tequila agin. Gotta be seein’ tings,” he ranted as he drove. Finally reaching his destination, he banged into another car as he parked, then stumbled into an apartment building, apparently ignoring the glowing apparition that appeared on the wall of his building.
Alex drove around the building until she saw a light come on in one of the windows. She climbed up the fire escape and peeked through the window to that apartment. It seemed to be a two-room efficiency apartment.
Suddenly, the tiny round screen of the TV was glowing, showing the tortured purple face of Yi Zheng. Blake screamed and viciously kicked the screen, which imploded loudly, spraying the room with shards of glass. The ghostly image floated up the wall, and the now-bleeding Blake pulled out a pistol and fired twice into the wall. This was more than Alex had expected, and the apparition vanished. Blake sank to the floor, sobbing. Alex could hear police sirens wailing, and the lights in the nearby rooms were going on. She hastily climbed down the ladder, and silently vanished into the night.
The next day, Alex Silverstone went back to the police station. She was quickly shown to Detective Ironside’s office, and he was all smiles as he shook her hand.
“We picked up Mickey Blake last night after he caused a disturbance in his apartment building,” the detective said. “He actually surrendered to the police and claimed he was being haunted by the ghost of Li Zheng. Couldn’t wait to confess to the murder — and your accident, too, by the way. He’s going to go away for a long time.”
“That’s great news,” Alex cheered.
“Still more to come, too. Now that news of his death has spread through Chinatown, the store owners there are going to the police with stories about the protection ring. With their information and the information Blake gave us last night, we’re gonna bust everyone in that racket.”
Alex left the station with a big smile on her face. If I’m going to continue using this power, she thought to herself, I’m going to need an alias like Mary Marvel or Bulletgirl. She thought for a moment about how her ability seemed to manifest itself from her artistic talents and began thinking along those lines. Hmm… I think I’ll call myself — Palette!
The sun was shining brightly in a cloudless sky, there was a gentle breeze, and the temperature was perfect. She thought she’d head over to the Golden Gate area. It looked like a great day to buy a house.