“Will you listen to this stuff?” roared Chief Calvin, slapping the page in front of him to punctuate his outrage. “It’s slander, that’s what it is! Pure, grade-A, unadulterated horse manure!”
Spitting curses left and right, the heavy-set man balled up the entire newspaper in his fists and threw it across the room with unnecessary force. Grey pages and black type flew as Calvin pounded his desk, never clean on a good day but now covered by scattered pieces of newsprint in addition, his fury unabated.
“Greer! Get in here!”
The young Lieutenant who arrived in doorway a few seconds later found his superior tearing through drifts of newspaper pages with frightening brutality. The fire in Calvin’s eyes made Greer nervous in spite of his training, and he knew that something must be terribly wrong. Either that, or someone had made a comment about the Chief’s weight again.
“Yes sir?” he said, removing his squad cap. “Is everything all right?”
“Certainly not!” Calvin fumed. “In fact, I don’t know how things could be any further from all right than they are right now.”
He spotted the mangled front page poking out of the chaos on the desktop and seized it, thrusting the screaming headline into the Lieutenant’s face.
“Here, read this. It’s ludicrous! Completely ridiculous! Utter scandal!”
Greer tucked his cap under his arm, straightened the page, and cautiously scanned the article.
“Well?” Calvin demanded impatiently
The Lieutenant scratched his short hair and blinked.
“Boy, sir. This is some wild stuff.”
Calvin snorted derisively.
“It’s ridiculous, I know. Who publishes this bilge, anyway?”
“I mean the hangnails part especially, sir. Did you really say that?”
With a dangerous growl, the Chief grasped the paper in Greer’s hands and ripped it in half. The young officer sensed that he had might have said something wrong.
“Get out! Out, I say! Out!”
Greer turned and bolted from the office, barely managing to dodge the large and rather expensive-looking brass nameplate that went whistling past his head and slammed into the wall. The impact knocked Calvin’s meticulously framed police academy diploma from its hook and sent the entire piece crashing to the floor.
Needless to say, this did nothing to improve the Chief’s mood.
“Damn it all!” he cried, shoving his chair against the back wall with a bang and rising to his feet, fragments of newspaper clinging to his shirt. “What do I have to do to get competent help around here?”
He stomped out of his office, and was immediately surrounded by the clamor of voices, the jingle of telephones, and the clicking of typewriters that comprised the soundtrack of daily life at the 43rd Precinct. Officers conversing or filing reports and assistants rushing about with stacks of dossiers all shied away as Calvin plowed through them like a thundercloud on a summer day. Everyone knew it didn’t pay to be in the way when the Chief was in one of his moods.
One man who obviously could not take a hint, however, spied Calvin from across the room and started toward him, earning suspicious glances from the regular staff. He was pale and rail-thin, with a hollow face, sunken eyes and cheeks, and neatly parted black hair, wearing a condescending pinstripe suit so crisp that it looked fresh off the press. Everyone he passed would later file sworn statements that they had felt a distinct chill, as if the man carried his own frigid aura with him.
Calvin saw the stranger in his peripheral vision and rolled his eyes, cursing to himself. Just his luck; a politician. And today of all days. He swerved and did his best to avoid the interception, but the suited man dodged a knot of secretaries and caught him by the arm.
“Mr. Calvin, sir. May I have a moment of your time?”
Calvin glared at him and shook off the man’s hand like it was diseased.
“That’s Police Commissioner Calvin to you, boy,” he growled. “And no. I’m quite busy, actually. So blow.”
He attempted to walk away, but the man reached out and snagged his uniform sleeve again. Calvin looked into his eyes and saw a confident, malevolent authority. He suddenly understood that the question was only a formality. This greasy garter snake had something to say, and he meant to say it regardless of whether or not Calvin was interested in listening.
The man saw he was understood and smiled with no good humor whatsoever.
“Shall we go to your office, Police Commissioner?”
Calvin’s fists tightened and relaxed, itching more than anything to knock the smug look off the man’s face, but that would just be more paperwork for him and more bawling from the almighty crybaby that was the city council.
“For one thing,” he hissed through gritted teeth, “if you really wanted privacy, you’d know that would be the last place to go, Mr. Whoever-you-are. And also, just stick with ‘Chief’. I hate people who sound like they swallowed a dictionary. Now follow me, and hurry up.”
Calvin turned and lumbered toward the far corner of the station with the flashy shadow at his heels. Ignoring the stares and curiosity of his men, Calvin led him into a dimly lit and cramped back room. Every inch of wall space was hidden by metal filing cabinets and stacks of old case folders that grew out of open drawers and up from cabinet tops. Even more piles covered the bare wooden floor until only a space about eight feet square remained.
“Shut the door,” Calvin ordered as they entered, and the other man obliged. The heavy oak door closed with a slam, and blessed silence prevailed. Calvin took a moment to enjoy the reprieve, breathing in the dusty smell of antiquated paperwork and trying to bring his blood pressure under control. Feeling that his emotional state was now stable enough for conversation, he finally addressed the intruder in what he thought, for him, was quite a calm manner.
“All right, boy. Now let’s try this again. Who are you, what are you doing in my precinct, and what in the hell do you want?”
“My name is Harold Stevens,” the man said, the thoroughly unpleasant smile sticking to his face as though it was plastered on. “And it’s not a question of what I want, Chief Calvin. Rather, it is what you want that should be the topic of discussion here.”
“Wonderful,” Calvin groaned. “It’s the council again, right? How am I supposed to get any work done around here with those oversensitive jackasses breathing down my neck?”
“Don’t shoot the messenger, Chief,” said Stevens. “Believe you me, if I didn’t have an extremely important task to perform, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a low-rent district like this.”
Calvin bristled at the comment, but tried his best not to let it show. He probably could have done better.
“And on that subject,” said Stevens, “my task was simply to deliver a message. Here it is.”
He reached inside his jacket with a well-manicured hand and withdrew a folded slip of paper, extending it to Calvin. The policeman snatched the note from him and perused its contents, the storm clouds on his brow growing darker with every line.
“You can’t be serious,” he said.
Stevens said nothing.
Calvin took a threatening step toward the suited man and thrust the paper back at him.
“If this is your idea of a joke,” the Chief growled, “it’s a bad one. If you look very closely, you might notice that I’m not laughing.”
Stevens’ expression remained indifferent, but when he spoke, his voice adopted a flat and menacing tone Calvin did not care for at all.
“I assure you, Chief Calvin, that this is not a joke of any kind. In light of recent events, the council insists that you take action on this matter.”
“This is ludicrous!” Calvin cried. “Drop all our other work in favor of one absurd case? We have jobs to do here!”
“Yes, you do,” Stevens replied coldly. “Unfortunately, the council is not impressed by how you do them. You would also do well, Chief, not to mistake this for a request. You will comply.”
“This ‘Showstopper’ thing is just another nutty publicity stunt. For all we know, it could be the theaters themselves trying to drum up some business. Maybe you big shots downtown are worried about it, but I’ve been working in this neighborhood my whole life. Believe me when I say that much stranger things have happened.”
Stevens scowled, finally dispensing with his façade of civility.
“Come off it, Chief. Read the papers. Your department is ignoring a threat to city security, and the press is having a field day. Public opinion is turning against you–and, more importantly, turning against us. The people are no longer confident that the police or their elected leaders can protect them, and it’s causing mass chaos on a level we’ve never seen before. If you aren’t intelligent enough to see that, our esteemed city council may have to reevaluate your status in this precinct.”
“Save it, Stevens,” Calvin growled. “I didn’t work on this force for thirty-five years so I could get pushed around by every prancing politician with a monkey suit and an agenda in this city.”
He stepped across the narrow floor space to the door and opened it.
“Now, I’m only going to say this once. Get out.”
“You’re making a mistake, Chief,” said Stevens, frowning. “Nothing good comes from bucking authority.”
“Maybe I am making a mistake,” retorted Calvin, “but at least I know what the hell I’m talking about. If your bosses want my badge over this Showstopper business, they can have it. Until then, I’m the only one who gets to make threats around here. Now get your sorry ass out of my precinct before I exercise my authority and order my officers to throw you out.”
Stevens walked over to the door, but instead of leaving, he jammed it shut again and turned back to Calvin.
“Your reputation for stubbornness proceeds you, Chief,” he said. “My friends on the council told me you might respond this way. In fact, both they and I are of the opinion that any amount of threats won’t make you change your mind on this matter.”
The man’s malignant grin resurfaced.
“If we were to threaten your officers, however…”
“You pasty-faced son of a bitch,” Calvin snarled, his clenched fists rising. “This is between the council and me. You have no right to…”
“We have every right,” Stevens countered, “to take any action necessary to ensure our law enforcement body is protected against corruption.”
“Yes, Chief. Corruption. Or would you prefer to call it criminal laziness?” the politician sneered. “What other names are there for when the guardians of law and order willfully refuse to perform their duties?”
“This will blow over,” Calvin insisted, knowing he might as well be talking to a wall. “It’s not worth wasting time on when I have to worry about keeping the real bad apples out there in line. After all, in the months he’s been active, how many people has the Showstopper killed? I’ll save you the trouble of looking: none. Not a single one. There are plenty of mad hatters running around this city right now who do three or four before breakfast!”
He glared at Stevens.
“Every officer you take off important work is more blood on your hands, and the hands of everyone on the council. I couldn’t live with that. So can they? Can you?”
The pale man’s stony expression told Calvin he might as well have not said anything.
“You have your orders, Chief,” he said. “I suggest you follow them, or there will be consequences.”
With his parting shot delivered, Stevens brushed off his lapels, opened the door, and strode briskly out of the room. Within moments it seemed that events of the past fifteen minutes had been nothing more than a particularly bad dream. Calvin might have been inclined to believe it if not for the document clutched in his hand, featuring the prominent seal of the City of New York.
The message was clear as day. There was no room for interpretation.
Shoulders squared with unwelcome purpose, Calvin strode out of the file room and bellowed at the first officer to cross his path.
The lad jumped in surprise and hurriedly snapped to attention, presenting an awkward salute.
“Oh! Ummm…Chief Calvin! What’s up?” Matheson flinched and quickly added, “I mean…what’s up, sir?”
Rookies. Calvin rolled his eyes, but didn’t let his irritation distract him.
“Matheson, find Sergeant Kelly and get him on the horn to the whole precinct. All personnel have been reassigned and are to drop all active cases until further notice. And while you’re at it, tell the ranking officers I want them in my office five minutes ago. Got it?”
“Yes sir,” said Matheson, unsettled. He had never seen the Chief like this before. “If I may ask, what the heck’s going on? Ummm…sir?”
“Show business, Matheson,” Calvin muttered. “Just show business.”