“The Showstopper!”: Prologue and Chapter One

As promised, this week I’m putting the very first installment of my debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, online. And you’re all in for a treat this time, because for the first installment I’m giving you not just the prologue, but the first chapter as well.

Also, if you’re reading this first on my website, from now on, I’d like to direct you to my Facebook page, Kyle Robertson, Novelist, for all further updates on my writing and new chapters as they’re posted. Like it and follow it if you can. I’d really appreciate the support.

Finally, just as a reminder, my book is still available on Amazon.com and Kindle, and with the holidays coming up, a great adventure/mystery/crime/romance/fantasy novel like this one makes a present that’s got everything you could ask for. You can buy a paperback version for $9.99, or get an eBook for your Kindle at the low, low price of $1.99.

That’s it for now, so enjoy the first two chapters of “The Showstopper!”

Showstopper

 

PRESIDING OFFICER’S NOTES

POLICE COMMISSIONER WILLIAM MCKENNA

NEW YORK CITY 43RD PRECINCT, 1934

 

Ah, the Showstopper affair.

Indeed, it was one of the strangest cases in all my experience as an officer. Working in the New York City Police Department’s Broadway precinct, I thought I had seen it all. Certainly, none of us who were involved in that intricate web of corruption, death, and deceit will ever see one of its like again in our lifetimes. This knowledge at once relieves me beyond all telling and at the same time fills my soul with an irrational–and dare I say perverse—disappointment.

Seated behind my cluttered desk in the backroom office that will only be mine for another seven hours or so, up to my eyebrows in filing boxes and craving a nip of scotch more than anything else the whole of creation, my hands shake and my heart skips a beat to recall the details surrounding those frantic two weeks. So many twists and turns, so much betrayal, shock, and heartbreak…it is nearly impossible for me to imagine discussing it.

However, I suppose I must try. Some choices the Good Lord makes for us, and we must deal with the consequences as they come.

Only a moment ago as I sat here, shuffling through yet another pile of backlogged, disorderly cold case folders that for some reason each require my personal attention, my numbed hands slipped and a single packet landed face-up on my desk. It was a large, coffee-stained, and dusty compilation of documents bearing the label in faded black ink: SHOWSTOPPER.

The reappearance of this old but unforgettable adventure triggered many memories, taking me back to when the 43rd Precinct was the hottest division of law in the city, and when the suggestion that one day the old girl might get run out and have to be retired would have earned you a week’s worth of “paddy” jokes at the speako down the street.

Regrettably, my responsibilities as ranking officer have deprived me of sleep a great deal recently—thank the damned council bureaucrats for that—and the endless paperwork associated with closing a precinct has left me fatigued beyond rational thought.

The sight of the Showstopper file, however, seemed to somehow revitalize me. I was suddenly more focused than I had been in days, and possessed by an excitement I could not logically explain. I suppose it was because I knew the time was finally right to share the story that I have waited so long to tell.

Technically speaking, all cold cases are still classified by order of our esteemed city council, and will as such be stored in the moldy, forgotten basement of City Hall until God himself comes calling. But if at some point in the future these files are to be released to the public, then why shouldn’t I take this chance to set the record straight with a personal account of the case that changed my life?

If I am to tell this tale, I should warn whoever may read it that I do not pretend to be acquainted with all the facts of the case. The only people who could fully explain the events of those few weeks—Mr. Thomas Wilkins, Miss Jennifer T. Hawke, and Mr. Jack Archer—are all gone now, in one way or another. For my part, I will attempt to do the best I can with what I know, and filling in the holes will be left up to your judgment.

I can only assure you of one thing: that the events I will shortly describe are in no way a fabrication or forgery of any kind. They are all true, and they really happened, no matter what any history book or politician may tell you. A lot of good men, many of whom I knew and a few of whom I considered my friends, gave their lives for this case. With everything else that I already bear, I don’t need a lie of this scale on my conscience.

I am not insane. I was just an overconfident, hotheaded young rookie in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I was dragged into a situation far more complex and with far higher stakes than I could have possibly imagined. While honesty compels me to admit that mistakes were made, I have no regrets. When you take a job in law enforcement, you learn to live with the things that you’ve done. You might not get off so scot-free the next time around.

Now then, where was I? Ah, yes. The Showstopper case.

The year was 1922. The city was bustling, the theaters were jam-packed every night, and Broadway was the toast of America. The economy was booming, the money was flowing as freely as illicit liquor from clay jugs at the swinging speakeasies, and it looked like things could never stop going up.

In hindsight, it surprises me that given the circumstances, no one suspected what we were in for. In my experience, this is usually what things look like right before they all come crashing down around you.

 

PRELUDE

 

1

 

“Elementary, my dear Watson. To catch this beast, we must draw it out of hiding. I propose a trap!”

There was a sharp sucking noise as every one of the five hundred audience members in the swelteringly hot, three-tiered gallery drew a breath of shock. Well-dressed gentlemen in their reserved boxes doffed their top hats, repositioned their fine cigars in their mouths and puffed contentedly, grinning like small children captivated by a new toy. Women with gaudy jewelry and fine garments clapped hands to their mouths and fanned themselves furiously, some squealing with surprise and delight at the unexpected turn of events.

Andre Levash leaned back casually in his center-stage armchair, studied his ivory prop pipe, and worked diligently to suppress a smirk. He had never seen the Royale so full, and the mob was in the palm of his hand tonight. There was a rush of excitement in the air. He could almost taste the odors of anxious sweat mixed with the sweet perfume of a few lovely ladies making eyes at him from the front row. Or maybe that was just the smell of the money that would line his pockets after this contemptible sham was over for another day. Either way, once he was done, none of these people would know what hit them.

“A simple creature requires but simple bait,” he drawled, continuing his line. “But I suspect that this hound has a master who is much more intelligent than he, or perhaps she, would wish us to believe. Therefore, I propose the ultimate temptation for this devious mastermind. A prize that their ego will not allow them to refuse.” Levash paused for a moment, adjusting his tweed vest and letting the sentence sink into the rabble’s mind.

God, how he loathed audiences! They were invariably unimaginative, pretentious morons with weak minds and even weaker wallets. Wallets he was only too glad to help pick. As the Royale’s top-billed actor in Hound of the Baskervilles, he would be the one getting most of the cut when the bean counters in DuBois’s box office had fleeced these fools for everything they had.

On some occasions he almost pitied them: the poor idiots who would give their eyes and teeth just to live out their fantasies through others. But then he remembered the feeling of hundred-dollar bills in his hands, and such trifling thoughts could never stand before pure greed. He was a king, an emperor among men. Perhaps even a god.

“Myself!”

The auditorium was immediately filled with cries of shocked women and loud guffaws of men, all completely engrossed in the action, mingling with the false surprise and horror of “Watson” and the four other actors lounging on chaises around the stage. Rising to his feet and thrusting his arm to the heavens, Levash let the sound wash over him and smiled in triumph. The pretty girls in the front row swooned theatrically, giggling and pointing at him while whispering behind their hands. He certainly wouldn’t be lacking for companionship tonight.

What Levash, and everyone else for that matter, failed to notice was that up in the highest catwalks and rafters of the Royale Theater, a new player was taking the stage. Crouching low between the giant spotlights to avoid being seen, a figure of medium height and a slight but muscular build slung a canvas sack down from his shoulder and watched the ongoing production with unsettling intensity.

The mysterious figure was clothed entirely in black: heavy black boots, black pants, black coat and cape, and a turned-up black collar that together with a low-brimmed black hat almost totally obscured his face. He shifted silently, his shadowy gaze darting to and fro across the stage, mentally noting the positions of each person and prop and making a few brief final calculations.

His gloved hands dug into the bag and began to assemble a device consisting of numerous metal and wooden components. Bolts clicked and grooves slid into place as the man deftly pieced together what resembled a single-chambered rifle with an abnormally elongated barrel. Locking the last clasp into place, he rotated the barrel and extended a short telescopic eyepiece, clipping it to the top of the weapon. He inserted a lone bullet into the chamber and slowly cocked the rifle, scanning the catwalks to make sure that the telltale noise had gone unnoticed.

Seeing no one, he reached into his cloak and withdrew a gilded pocket watch on a gold chain, its lid engraved with twining Victorian ivy and the lacey cursive initial “W”.

Down on the stage, Levash picked up a glass of brandy from the small chair-side table to take the signature drink that would end the scene. The liquor was specially ordered from Yorkshire, England, and he refused to go onstage without it. Officially it was imported fruit juice, but seeing as he had paid the police to look the other way on the shipment, it really didn’t matter what he called it.

The dark man opened the watch, checking the time as the tiny second hand ticked around the surface of the clock face, and glanced back at Levash, whose hand was slowly bearing the glass to his lips. For a moment, his gaze lingered on the inside of the watch’s cover and on a small photograph, yellowed with age, of a comely young woman in a simple cloth gown. A few tentative strains of applause were beginning to drift up from the gallery, anticipating Levash’s gallant gesture and the blackout to come.

Everything was right on schedule.

Levash swigged a mouthful of liquid from the crystal glass, throwing a condescending look of gratitude to the boors in the audience, and then immediately pitched forward onto his knees, retching at the vile taste that assaulted his tongue. The glass dropped from his limp fingers and shattered across the stage, drawing gasps and cries of surprise from the gallery.

He choked as the noxious substance dripped down his chin and reflexively spat the rest out directly into the faces of the young ladies in the front row. They screamed in disgust and began to sob, their expensive gowns now ruined and stained.

Infuriated but still trying to maintain character, Levash bit back a series of bitter curses and forced himself to his feet, brushing down his clothing and attempting an empty grin and flourish, but found no support in the dead silence of the mortified crowd. Somewhere in the back of the auditorium a man laughed nervously, while a small group of women with peacock-feathered hairpieces tittered to each other and cast accusing looks at him through the dim light.

“That wasn’t my liquor!” Levash hissed out of the corner of his mouth. “Who in the hell put that pigswill out here instead of my brandy? I’ll have their…”

“Oh, gracious! Mr. Holmes, are you all right?” interrupted Martha Johnston, the somewhat pudgy older actress seated to Levash’s right, attempting to rise from her chair and cover the error. Her efforts were somewhat hampered, however, when the seat of her dress stubbornly refused to disconnect from the cushion. Caught halfway between sitting and standing, she fought as quietly as she could to get herself unstuck, but quickly lost her balance and fell heavily back into her chair with a thud and a rather unladylike squeal. To Levash’s continued horror, the seemingly solid back legs of the chair snapped like kindling and Martha tumbled backward, head over heels, across the stage, the frills of her dress flying every which way as she shrieked with rage.

Commotion erupted in the gallery. Doubt and speculation mixed with harsh laughter and a few screams of fainting women. The actors still standing proceeded to panic, abandoning the pretense of character altogether. A few rushed over to help the struggling Mrs. Johnston, while others simply remained stock still in their places, numb with disbelief.

“The chair legs,” said Levash. “They were sawed through!”

His eyes went wide with a sudden realization.

“Don’t move! Just shut up and don’t move!”

“What in God’s name are you babbling about, Andre?” asked Watson angrily, turning to face the would-be detective. His face was a purple mask of fury. “What the hell are you playing at?”

“No, Daniels! Stop!”

Ignoring Levash’s pleas, Daniels took a menacing step toward the leading man, but was interrupted by a loud snap as the left pocket of his coat spontaneously caught fire. The burly actor shouted in alarm and danced about, beating wildly at his burning jacket and eliciting mean-spirited jeers from the audience.

Up in the catwalks, the stranger smiled through thin lips. All was going according to plan. Now for the final touch.

He raised the rifle to his shoulder and peered through the spyglass, lining up the crosshair sights on his target. There was a strangely muffled pop that went unnoticed by the crowd and the actors. The result, however, did not. With a loud twang, the projectile cleanly severed the cable anchoring the Royale’s priceless three thousand-candle crystal chandelier to the ceiling.

The audience members screamed and the actors on stage wailed, rushing from the path of the falling glass juggernaut.

“Look out!” cried Levash, who leaped out of the way and straight into Daniels, who was still desperately trying to put out his burning costume. Both actors tumbled off the front of the stage, landing in the front row of seats with an unceremonious thud and moans of pain.

Down came the chandelier, smashing through the beautiful hardwood stage with an ear-splitting crash and crushing thousands of dollars worth of props and furniture in the process.

In one fell swoop the production, and indeed the entire theater, had been damaged beyond repair. Grumbling, crying hysterically, and everything in between, the crowd poured out of the Royale at breakneck speed, nearly trampling each other in their mad rush to exit the building before the entire structure decided to come down around them.

Still smiling with satisfaction, the man in the rafters quickly disassembled the rifle, shoved the components back into his bag, and vanished from the theater, leaving no trace that he had ever been there.

In the deserted auditorium, all that could be heard were the muttered curses and broken sobs of the actors and actresses whose careers on Broadway had just been demolished as surely as their performance.

In the midst of the carnage, a dazed Andre Levash raised his head from under Daniels’s groaning, smoldering bulk and managed to growl one word, barely coherent from pent-up anger.

“Showstopper.”

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