Times Past, 1960
Murder in the Evening
by Dan Swanson
When artist Alex Silverstone attends a play with her policewoman friend Donna Sparks, they expect nothing but a wonderful evening out! What they didn’t expect was to become witnesses to an actual murder! Can Palette use her power of visual projection to solve the crime before the killer gets away?
San Francisco — Spring, 1960:
“You know, there’s going to be a murder tonight in the theater district,” Policewoman Donna Sparks mentioned casually to her friend Alex Silverstone over lunch. They’d met not long ago when Alex had been a witness to a murder, and they really enjoyed each other’s company. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Secret Origins: Palette: Times Past, 1959: Murder in the Morning.]
Today they had met in a small café not far from Police Headquarters, a place frequented by off-duty cops. Alex was in the process of finding a house to buy, and she’d wanted her friend’s professional opinion on the safety and desirability of some of San Francisco’s neighborhoods.
“Mother Gaia!” Alex exclaimed, startled. “If you know about it, I hope you plan to stop it!”
“Relax!” Donna chortled. “This same murder happens every night. It’s a scene in the play Time of Lips at the Golden Gate Theatre. The playwright, Neil Wentzell, is local; in fact, he lives in Haight-Ashbury.” That was one of the neighborhoods the two had been discussing.
“I guess the joke’s on me,” Alex chuckled. “I’ve read the reviews in the San Francisco Examiner, and it’s supposed to be very good.”
Donna spoke casually. “The lead actress, Tobi Hennon, was one of my best friends in high school.” Then she added thoughtfully, as if the idea had just occurred to her, “She offered me a standing invitation to come see it anytime; the theater will let her friends sit in a private balcony for free. Would you like to see it with me?”
“I don’t have any plans for tonight,” Alex replied, just as casually. “That’d be boss!”
“Bitchin’! Meet me at the Golden Gate Theatre at 6:30!” Donna smiled at her friend, and they went back to discussing good places for Alex to look for a house.
Two young, attractive ladies, dressed to the nines, could easily have found companions for the evening. Alex, tall and slender with short blonde hair, wore a colorful red and green dress. Donna, a brunette, was even taller and much more solidly built, and her tight, low-cut black gown showed off her figure spectacularly.
The early scenes in the play told the story of a beautiful young social climber named Mimi Easton, who’d married a much older wealthy man. Mimi had been seduced by the chauffeur, Sean LeBlanc, a handsome, smarmy young man played by actor Reuben Rebosa. Once Mimi was in too deep, LeBlanc had begun blackmailing her to steal from her husband for him, while continuing their affair. The last scene had closed with a soliloquy by Mimi, in which the audience learned that she was determined to escape the grip of her blackmailer, and just as determined that she would not going back to being penniless. Tonight she would break free.
The curtain opened with Mimi confronting LeBlanc in his bedroom. He was sitting up in bed, dressed in pajamas, knuckling sleep from his eyes, while she was wearing a long, forest green formal evening gown. Her face and posture radiated incredible anger, and she held a pistol in a very professional, two-handed grip, standing with her legs apart, the gun aimed directly at his chest.
“I’ve had enough from you, you bastard! No more blackmail, no more pain, no more of that torture you call sex!” she screeched.
“You haven’t the courage!” LeBlanc mocked. “Besides, you’d never get away with it. You’ll get the death penalty!”
“Now, why would anyone connect me with your suicide?” she asked, innocently. “The gun will be in your hand, and all the old men who I’ve been dancing with at my husband’s birthday party will swear I was there the whole time. You can’t imagine how disgusting it was to let all those old drunks paw me like that!”
“Give me the damn gun, bitch!” he ordered harshly. The audience gasped at the language. He started to climb out of bed. “I’m going to punish you for this, you little worm!”
“I warned you!” she cried, and two shots rang out. LeBlanc jerked backward and collapsed on the bed, blood welling from his chest. Mimi stalked forward determinedly, but when she picked up LeBlanc’s hand, she screamed.
“Oh my God! He’s really dead! I killed Ben!” She collapsed to the floor and began sobbing. “Somebody put real bullets in my gun… Oh, God, I’m so sorry. Oh, Ben…” she wailed over and over.
“This can’t be part of the play!” Donna yelped excitedly. “She called him by his real name!”
Alex concentrated, and her vision zoomed in on the actor’s chest. “Those are real bullet holes, and he’s not breathing!” she gasped. The watcher in the box opposite the two women jumped to his feet and rushed through the door in the back of his box. As the lights came up, Alex could see that confusion was spreading throughout the audience. Donna was already halfway to the stage and shouting orders. When Alex reached the stage, Donna had already taken charge.
“I’m a cop! You–” She pointed to the frantic stage manager. “–make sure nobody leaves until I let them go!” She then ran to the theater office to find a phone and call headquarters.
The play’s author, Neil Wentzell, had rushed onto the stage from his private box. “How could this happen?” he mused sadly. “I guess my play will have to close. I wonder if it will ever reopen?”
He finally noticed Tobi’s wails and dropped to the floor to put his arms around her. “Don’t worry, Tobi, it’ll be fine. It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have known. Don’t worry, dear, I’ll take care of you!”
“Oh, Neil, I can’t believe it,” she wailed again, as she buried her head on his shoulder. “Ben can’t be dead! I can’t be a killer!”
It wasn’t long before Homicide Detective Robert Ironside, a tall, heavyset man with thick dark hair, bushy eyebrows, and an intense look on his face arrived to take charge of the crime scene and the investigation. Ironside was Donna’s boss, and Alex had met him in the past, when she’d been the only witness to a murder in Chinatown.
Ironside quickly verified that Tobi’s pistol had been fired recently. It was a model that automatically ejected spent shells, and a few minutes’ search turned up two casings. Unfortunately, they had been trampled in the rush to the stage, and it was extremely unlikely that any prints remained on the brass.
The Homicide doctor looked up from examining the body. “The young woman is certainly an excellent shot. Both bullets went through the heart, and he died instantly.”
“No, no — I didn’t know I was shooting real bullets!” Tobi protested. “I would never have killed Ben. We were in love! He proposed to me last night!”
“I’m sorry, young lady,” Ironside said gently, “but I’m going to have to arrest you for manslaughter. Whether it was innocent or not, there’s a dead man here, and you fired the bullets that killed him.”
Donna pulled Tobi’s arms gently behind her back; the young actress was too stunned to resist. “I’m really sorry about this, Tobi!” she whispered in her friend’s ear. “I believe you, and I’m sure you’re innocent. I’ll be there to help you as soon as I’m done here.”
“Officer Sparks, you take everyone’s statements, and make sure you know how to find them. Then turn ’em loose.” Ironside gently pushed Tobi toward the door. “I have to take you to the station for booking.”
Meanwhile, Alex had “wandered” backstage, and slipped into Reuben Rebosa’s dressing room. She saw a handwritten letter lying on his makeup table, but as she picked it up, something smashed into the back of her head. With an explosion of pain and a flash of bright light behind her eyelids, she collapsed to the floor, unconscious.
She woke up sometime later to see Donna bending over her, gently slapping her face. She explained what had happened, and the two women quickly searched the room. The letter was gone; in its place was a pile of paper ashes in an ashtray.
“There’s more going on here than a simple shooting,” Donna deduced. “Someone didn’t want you to read that letter. There must have been some kind of clue in the letter, but now we’ll never be able to find out what it was.”
“Maybe we can,” Alex replied. “I have a trick you haven’t seen yet.” She moved a chair to face an empty space and sat down. She stared at the wall, and Donna was stunned when a picture appeared. Somehow, projected on the wall was a moving picture of this very room. The point of view swept around the room and stopped when the letter on the makeup table came into view, and then the point of view seemed to approach the table. A hand reached into the scene and picked up the letter, and then the picture turned to black.
“Outta sight!” the amazed cop exclaimed. “That was lookin’ through your eyes, wasn’t we?” Alex nodded, but the picture on the wall didn’t jiggle. “Well, it proves there was a letter, anyway,” she continued. “Too bad you didn’t see it long enough to read it.”
“Phew!” Alex sighed in relief. “I was afraid you’d think I was some kind of freak or something.”
“Silly girl. We got heroes that fly, some with wings, and one with blue skin. I should be worried about somebody who can make motion pictures from her eyes, especially one who looks like you?”
“Thanks!” Alex answered. “But I’m not done yet. Watch this!”
The hand holding the letter appeared again on the wall, and this time it wasn’t moving. Then the letter started to expand, and stopped when it was approximately twice life-sized. The picture was crystal clear; the two women had no trouble reading it.
“Well, that sheds a lot of light on this case. Why don’t we go catch the real killer?” Donna proposed. “I’ve got his address.”
Alex had parked her motorcycle, a big, heavy, World War II-era electric. As Donna climbed on behind her, Alex quipped, “Watch those wandering hands, girl!”
“You wish!” Donna laughed back. And they zoomed off.
Alex knew exactly where they were going; she’d been looking for houses in the Haight-Ashbury area earlier today. With her superior night-vision, even the darkest streets looked like broad daylight, and she raced through the streets like a maniac. And not just the streets; she slashed through alleys and once even bounced through a vacant lot. Donna whooped and hollered like she was riding a roller coaster until they reached the street where their target lived.
The house was halfway up one of San Francisco’s famous hills. Alex turned off the bike’s lights, and they silently ghosted up the hill. The advantage of an electric bike, Alex thought smugly. Instant acceleration, no gearshift, and totally silent! She pointed to the house with the matching street number as they passed; it was a multilevel building set into the hillside, with the garage at street level. The garage door was open, the garage was empty, and there were no lights on in the house.
Donna leaned forward and whispered in Alex’s ear, “Looks like we beat him home — if he’s coming home…”
They parked the bike behind a neighbor’s hedge and settled down to wait. Explaining in advance what she was doing, Alex projected the illusion of shadows on the skin and hair of the two women, making them even harder to spot on the dark street. They didn’t have long to wait; in a few minutes, a car rolled around the corner and up the street, and pulled into the garage.
The two women had already discussed their tactics. When he got out of the car, Donna called to him. “Hey, mister!” When he turned to the street, Alex cast the illusion of complete darkness on his face, and then they both charged. Unable to see his opponents, the man wasn’t able to put up much of a fight. In less than three minutes, he was lying on the floor with Donna’s knee in his back, while Alex found something they could use to tie him up.
“Use his car to take him downtown to the station,” Alex suggested after they searched his car. “I’m going back to the theater to look for a gun.”
When she reached the theater, Alex stood facing a wall, and once again, a projection of what she’d seen earlier appeared. Her task was easier, because she already had a good idea what to look for. Wentzell had been the man alone in the box opposite; she focused on him and concentrated, and the view zoomed in. He had something in his hand, but even her powers had limits; she couldn’t quite make it out. But it was the right size to be a pistol. He rushed out the door, and through the door, she could see a window.
Wentzell had reached the stage as quickly as she had; he hadn’t had time to make any elaborate detours. She’d check the areas below that window, and any other windows between him and the stage, and she was sure she’d find that pistol outside one of them.
Back at Police Headquarters, Tobi was sitting in a chair next to Ironside’s desk, her hands now handcuffed to the chair. An intern rushed up to his desk carrying some papers and a plastic bag. “Lab told me to get this to you soonest!” he panted.
The bag held the gun Tobi had used on the stage. After a quick scan, the detective stood and began unlocking the handcuffs. “The lab’s determined that this gun has never fired anything but blanks. You’re innocent, and free to go.”
Tobi sighed with relief. “That means I didn’t kill Ben! But who did?”
“Neil Wentzell, author of the play.” Donna walked into the room, pushing the bound author in front of her. “And, here he is, sir! He knew when Tobi was supposed to shoot, so she used her shots for cover and shot Ben from his private box. He knew we’d eventually figure out that Tobi hadn’t done it, but he planned to be miles away and moving fast by now!”
“How’d you find this out?” Ironside asked.
“Alex found a letter in Ben’s dressing room, from Wentzell, warning him that he’d better stop seeing Tobi, or he’d regret it. Apparently Ben ignored his warning, even asking Tobi to marry him, and Wentzell decided to carry out his threat.”
“I never wrote any such letter, and I don’t even own a pistol!” Wentzell snarled. “And besides,” he continued sarcastically, “how could I have fired two shots so exactly in synchronization with someone else that nobody in the audience heard any extra shots? I was over sixty feet away, and her back was to me.”
“Because you used a silencer! Nobody could hear your shots, so it didn’t matter if you fired an instant earlier or later than Tobi did.” They all turned at that triumphant statement to see Alex walking through the door. She had a rubber glove on her left hand and was gingerly holding a pistol with a silencer attached.
“That’s not mine! I never saw it before in my life!” Wentzell said.
“I’ll bet it’s got your fingerprints on it,” Alex replied calmly. She knew it did; she’d used her ‘replay and enlarge’ power to closely examine the gun when she’d found it. “I’ll also bet the ballistics lab matches it to the bullets from Ben’s body.”
“Where’d you find that?” Ironside asked her.
“In a trash bin behind the theater,” she replied. “Wentzell didn’t seem very concerned about the murder, and he rushed out of the theater as soon as Donna — er, Officer Sparks — let him go. After we caught him, I figured he’d probably tossed the gun out a window, so I drove back to the theater and searched the area around the windows. Just got lucky, I guess…” Her ability to see infrared helped; she hadn’t had to use a flashlight or wait for daylight.
“I’ll take it from here,” Ironside told the women. “Officer Sparks, you’ll see a nice bonus in your next paycheck, and I’m going to recommend to Commissioner Cahill that you get a commendation, Alex.”
“That and a dime will get me a cup of coffee,” Alex replied sarcastically. “What about a reward?”
“He wasn’t running loose long enough for anyone to offer a reward,” Ironside said sympathetically. “I guess this time you’re going to have to let the SFPD owe you one. Next time you help us out, pick somebody on our Most Wanted list,” he joked. Then he became serious. “Still got a job for a great sketch artist, if you’re interested…”
“In your dreams!”