The esteemed Mr. Johnson C. DuBois, Esquire, owner of the Royale Theatre, was in a rather bad mood.
“This is disgraceful!” he bawled. “Unacceptable! I demand an answer at once! Do you hear me? At once! Who is responsible for this catastrophe?”
Andre Levash and the rest of the cast of The Hound of the Baskervilles shuffled their feet and tried very hard to avoid eye contact with their livid employer, mumbling incoherently about nothing in particular.
DuBois furiously stamped on the stage and stumbled to right himself as his foot broke through the splintered paneling with a crack, punching a jagged hole in the surface of the already battered platform.
“Just look at this place!” he raged, beside himself as he surveyed the carnage of the once-pristine auditorium. “My stage! My furniture!” He sniffed tearfully, dabbing at his eye with a handkerchief. “My chandelier!”
Daniels, who had never been terribly bright, made the mistake of speaking up first.
“Ah yes, the chandelier. I’m awfully sorry about that, Mr. DuBois. I always did think it was rather nice.”
“Rather nice?” the manager exploded, cowing Daniels into silence with a look that was terrifying to behold. “That crystal masterpiece was a gift from the crown prince of Denmark himself! It was worth more than any of you will make in the rest of your miserable lives! I should think you would be sorry!”
The cast shuffled some more and muttered a few noncommittal apologies.
“Enough!” snapped DuBois. “My theater is in shambles, and it’s going to cost me a fortune to repair and replace everything. All the props were demolished, and the company I rented them from wants ridiculous sums for compensation. What’s more, my financial backers have backed themselves right out of my business. I’ll have to find new ones if I ever want to see another show. And to top it all off, my credibility with the public has been shattered, and I haven’t the foggiest notion on how to get that back.”
Levash stepped forward, manufacturing the most patronizingly subservient face possible.
“Excuse me, Mr. DuBois, sir, but if I may…”
“You may not!”
Levash dropped the act and sulked while the other actors stared daggers at him.
“As I was saying,” DuBois continued, “I may not know how to get my public faith back, but I know a good place to start. You’re all fired. Clear out.”
Turmoil erupted on the stage.
“What do you mean, fired?”
“You can’t fire us!”
“We haven’t even done one show!”
“This is outrageous!”
“Shut up!” roared DuBois, silencing them. “I can, I will, and I have. I need a new crowd of faces on this stage if I ever want to see my patrons again. But before I do,” he added darkly, stalking across the platform and staring down each sweating actor and actress in turn, “I want an answer. Who is to blame for this mess?”
He folded his arms and tapped his foot expectantly.
“Well? Cat got your tongue, you gutless bunch of dandies? Speak up!”
Daniels spoke again, carefully considering his response.
“Wait a moment. If we tell you what happened, then you won’t fire us?”
DuBois shook his head.
“Oh no, Mr. Daniels. Don’t misunderstand me. You’re going to get fired one way or the other. I just thought it would a kind Christian gesture on my part to offer you all a chance at clean consciences before I boot you out the door.”
“Then why should we answer you?” sniffed Levash, any mask of respect for his employer gone.
“Because,” growled DuBois, shoving his beet-red face belligerently into the actor’s, “if I find out you’ve been holding out on me, there will be no place on this street you can hide. I’ll drum you out of the business and string you up from the rafters!”
The cast stared at the floor in uncomfortable silence. They knew he would do it, too.
“So come on then!” cried DuBois. “Out with it! Speak up, damn you!”
“Well, sir, if I may, I think it may have been the…the…” Daniels said, trying to get up the nerve to utter the words. “The Showstopper, sir?”
The manager smacked his forehead in disgust.
“Of course it was the Showstopper, you imbecile! Who else could have done all this?” He gestured around them. “No, I know perfectly well who committed the crime. But like any other criminal, the Showstopper doesn’t do these things for his health. He must have had some motivation to attack our production.”
“Like what, sir?” asked one of the female cast members, a minor housemaid. Levash wasn’t quite sure, but he seemed to recall sleeping with her at some point.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said DuBois sarcastically. “How about revenge, for starters?”
“Revenge?” Daniels repeated. “What do you mean, sir?”
Levash decided he just couldn’t stand the stupidity of these people for another minute.
“He means that the Showstopper or whoever employed him had a grudge, you half-wit,” he snapped, his harshness making Daniels cringe. “Someone was trying to pay someone else back by making this show fail.”
“Very astute, Andre,” said DuBois, his eyebrows raised. “I wouldn’t have expected such an intelligent remark from you. Tell me, do you have something you wish to share with the rest of us?”
The rest of the cast stared suspiciously at Levash, making his skin crawl.
“Aside from my intellect, which is obviously far superior to these fools?” he said, affecting an air of indifference. “Hardly. I don’t make a habit of associating with common thugs.”
“Come now,” probed DuBois. “The Showstopper may be a thug, but I think we can agree he is far from common.”
His eyes narrowed.
“I seem to recall that you were quite angry when I cut down your lines in the first act and refused you your own costuming and makeup staff. You’ve disagreed with me on many matters during your employment here. Surely you had adequate motive for an act of vengeance?”
Levash had to work very hard to keep from soiling his trousers in fright.
“You have proof, do you?” he babbled furiously. “Conclusive, undeniable proof linking me to the Showstopper? Perhaps that I am the Showstopper? Well, have you?”
He jabbed a finger at the manager.
“You have nothing on me, and you know it. Besides, am I really the only one here who had motive?”
Levash stalked over to Daniels, who eyed him nervously.
“Daniels here has had it in for me ever since I was given the part of Holmes which he so desperately wanted.” He smirked. “And rightfully so, I must say, my good man. Your audition was atrocious.”
“That’s a damned lie!” Daniels exclaimed, now finding himself on the hot seat. “I’m a good actor! I deserved that part! You only got it because you paid off the casting director!”
“And so,” Levash overrode him, “is it really too far-fetched to assume that if I could be driven to destroy my own performance over a few meaningless lines and private attendants, isn’t it similarly possible that this bumbling idiot could resort to such methods because of his anger at me? He knew very well that it would spell the end of my career here and would mean lead roles for him in the future.” He smiled while Daniels quaked in his boots, on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but your sad little plan has backfired.”
“Well…I…err…” Daniels stammered, sweating bullets. “What about Mrs. Johnston, then?”
The older woman next to him gasped and stared at him as though he had slapped her.
“She’s hated Mr. DuBois since the first day of rehearsal when he bawled her out for her sloppy diction!” the weighty actor blurted out. “She’s the one!”
Instantly, the auditorium was filled by angry shouts and bitter accusations as the one-time cast members turned on each other. DuBois had to shout himself nearly hoarse to restore order.
“Right! That’s enough of this, then!” he said with finality. “I will not allow this disgusting witch-hunt to go on any longer. You all make me sick! You can finish each other off in the streets for all I care. Now, get out of my theater! Out, out, out!”
Still grumbling half-heartedly, the actors filed offstage to pack their belongings.
DuBois took another look around at his once-proud theater and sighed.
A young man stepped out from backstage, where he had been eavesdropping discreetly for the past several minutes. He was of medium height and had a slight but muscular build, with calloused hands from years of grueling cleanup jobs and unruly brown hair that strongly resembled the head of the mop in his hand. His dress consisted of faded blue coveralls, with aged, scuffed boots, and a worn work cap clamped over his head.
He doffed the cap respectfully at DuBois, revealing an almost perfectly nondescript face, spotted all over with the grease and grime his life entailed.
“Yeah, boss. What can I do for you?”
The manager regarded the shattered glass, the torn backdrop, the broken panels, and the various pieces of props and other unidentifiable objects strewn about the stage.
“Just…just clean this up, Wilkins,” he said, and walked off in the direction of his office, temporarily defeated.
“Yes, sir. I’ll get right on it.”
The janitor walked behind the curtain and returned a moment later with a bucket full of dingy water. He stuffed the mop head into the water and slapped it down again, attempting to brush the glass fragments into a neat pile.
At the same time, Andre Levash, still fuming and newly unemployed, stalked onto the stage, searching for something upon which to vent his anger. He strolled casually up to the unsuspecting Wilkins, a thin and dangerous smile on his lips.
“So, boy,” he said. “Just because you’re that old walrus’s pet, you think you can laugh at us getting sacked?”
Wilkins shrugged, trying to avoid confrontation.
“I wouldn’t know, sir. My old mother always told me not to laugh at other folks’ bad luck.”
Levash nodded, and then without warning lashed out with his foot. The water bucket was kicked over with a clang, its contents spilling across the stage. Wilkins rushed to pick it up and stop the water from running onto the carpet.
“Confound it!” he exclaimed. “Now I have to walk down to the corner and get more water. These boards warp, you know.”
Levash seized the young man by the shirt collar and glared at him.
“Don’t tell me what the boards do, you little ingrate!” he seethed. “I know you think you’ve better than me. All of you do. But no one, and I mean no one, gets the last laugh on Andre Levash! Do you hear? No one!”
Wilkins ground his teeth, but did his best to keep a civil tongue and not make the situation any worse.
“I’m sorry, sir, but may I get back to my cleaning now? If I don’t step on it, this is going to take all night, and Mr. DuBois will put my butt in traction.”
“Nuts to your cleaning, nuts to Mr. DuBois, and nuts to this theater!” Levash shouted, shoving Wilkins aside. “This doesn’t hurt me. I’m a top-billed actor. I can just go find another job at another theater. I’ll still be rich and famous. And as for you, you’ll be nothing. You’ll always be nothing. Just a sad little boy cleaning up after the real men in this world. Remember that.”
The actor turned and strode off the stage, not forgetting to send the empty bucket flying again with another well-placed kick.
Wilkins stared after Levash for a moment, and then returned to his cleaning, but not before a small, secretive smile flitted across his face as if he understood a joke the actor had failed to grasp.