The three-pronged metal dart flew through the air and smacked into the center of the clapboard target, a thin cord trailing from its end like silk from a spider’s abdomen.
Grasping the handle of the oversized, heavily modified, and still smoking Colt .45 revolver with both hands, Wilkins put a leg forward to brace himself and pulled the thread extending from the barrel of the weapon taught, tugging at it first gently, and then with all his might.
The fiber twanged with tension, but the projectile didn’t budge an inch, and remained lodged in the wood where his self-honed marksmanship had put it.
Wilkins was jubilant. Once again, Reg’s connections had come through for him, and judging by the light beginning to filter through the gaps between the roof planks above him, he had spent yet another sleepless night testing and tinkering with his small arsenal of devices. He would be lucky to get in an hour or two of sleep before going to work.
But at the moment, he couldn’t care less about his job. The only thing that mattered was that his most ambitious contraption to date was working perfectly.
Of course, he had no reason to expect anything less. Over the years since he and Reg set up their little arrangement, none of his toys had ever failed to work as marvelously in practice as they did on paper. This was partially a combination of his mechanical skill, which he knew to be unmatched, and the reliability of Reg’s contacts in the city’s industrial district. After all, a factory consisted of hundreds of workers assembling thousands of identical machines day in and day out. For the right price, they were more than happy to provide for a few custom orders.
In addition, Reg’s part in the deal also ensured that his theater would never be targeted by the elusive Showstopper.
The attic where Wilkins currently stood and kept his makeshift laboratory was probably the most fortunate find of his life. While not spacious by any means, a man of reasonable stature could stand under the intruding reinforced roof beams without stooping too much, and the room was large enough to house three refurbished work benches littered with mechanical parts, half-drawn plans, and a few naked light bulbs fed by electrical wires that Wilkins had managed to covertly tap into the building’s power supply.
He supposed the space was a leftover from construction and had probably been used for storage, but over the years had been abandoned and forgotten as building owners came and went. The entrance hole in the ceiling was nearly impossible to spot, and he had only stumbled across it by dumb luck after losing his balance one day and accidentally pushing it open while trying to fix his light.
Once he was certain the attic was both secret and secure, he had pillaged the garbage yard down the street and snuck the benches up a piece at a time. Around the same time, his landlady had experienced an acute shortage of light bulbs, courtesy of her young client’s consistently “faulty” electrical fixture. Within weeks, he had created the workshop of his dreams.
These were, of course, his good dreams. A kind that were few and far between.
Satisfied with the night’s progress, Wilkins carefully disconnected his light sources and lowered himself down through the access hole, pulling the trapdoor back into place overhead.
He stripped off his filthy work clothes and collapsed on his stiff and uncomfortable cot, tugging a few worn and patch-covered blankets over himself, but could not find the willpower to close his eyes. This was not because he was not tired: far from it. He was exhausted beyond rational thought. He had simply grown to dread the memories that his troubled mind inevitably pulled to the surface during sleep.
Reaching over to where his pants lay on the floor, he dug into the pocket and removed a gold pocket watch, flipping the cover open to reveal an antiquated photograph of a young woman. He gazed at it for several minutes before angrily snapping it shut and throwing it back into the pile of clothing, rubbing his eyes in frustration.
The memories would never go away. The total despair, the hungry days and sleepless nights, the crash of the gun and the sound of the body hitting the floor…as hard as he tried to forget, he knew it would never happen. A man’s past defines him, and it catches up to him no matter what he might do.
Accepting that he wouldn’t be getting any rest, he got up from the cot and slipped silently back into his work clothes. He shook a few loose coins out of an old sock he kept hidden under the bed, and left his apartment by the fire escape.
Knowing he had time to spare, however, he turned away from Broadway and walked a few blocks further into the slums. In the early morning light, the streets were populated only by discarded papers tossing restlessly in the breeze, and the only other soul he saw was the occasional vagabond sleeping in an alley or a doorway. Out of habit, he pulled his cap low over his face and flipped his collar up to avoid any prying eyes. He could never be sure who might be watching.
Off this road was another even smaller and dirtier side street. Wilkins paused at the corner for a moment, looking around to make sure the coast was clear, and ducked quickly onto the secluded row. Stepping around overturned trash bins and drifts of refuse, he strolled past one dreary and lifeless building front, then another, then a third…
At the fourth house, he spotted what he was looking for: an ancient, rusting message box hanging on the façade with its strangely polished and gleaming flag turned to the upright position.
This was the method—a closely guarded secret among the high circles of Broadway—for contacting the Showstopper. The criminal wasn’t foolish enough to arrange for face-to-face meetings. One could never be sure if a prospective client had inadvertently attracted police attention, or might be baiting you into a trap to collect the rather large price on your head.
Requests were sent via notes, covertly deposited in the drop box, detailing the time and place of a show, to which the Showstopper would reply with his conditional fee. Afterward, the client had two days to leave the agreed-upon payment in the box.
This rule was rarely broken. People who attempted to cheat the Showstopper found themselves the target of even more destructive attacks than those inflicted on their enemies.
And how did Wilkins know all this? Well, as it turned out, he had a great deal of insight and control over the Showstopper. In point of fact, he was the Showstopper.
It wasn’t about the money–although it did come in handy to convince Reg’s factory contacts to look the other way. It was really about seeing people’s dreams torn apart and their hopes crushed, just as his had been.
Enthused at the prospect of causing chaos, he gave a cursory glance around and then jogged over to the box, but upon throwing it open found nothing but dust inside. Confused, he stuck in his hand and felt around just to be sure.
It was empty. Only a false alarm.
“Damn,” he said.
His mind racing, Wilkins attempted to recall the previous day’s message from one of his regular patrons that had lead to the destruction of the Royale. It had been the first time in nearly a week that he had received a job offer, and he was ecstatic to finally have something to occupy his empty thoughts. Had he forgotten to put the flag down?
Try as he might, he simply couldn’t remember the moment with complete clarity. Now that he thought about it, he probably hadn’t lowered the flag, which meant that his excitement was over nothing more than his own stupidity.
Slamming the drop box shut, Wilkins cursed himself for his impatience. At this point, he should have been above rushing heedlessly into unsecured situations. If the whole thing had been a setup by the police, he could very well be in handcuffs right now. He couldn’t afford to be so careless.
But he would have plenty of time to deride himself later. The sun was beginning to peek over the skyline, and a curtain of light was slowly sweeping across the dingy side street. Soon, he would need to be at the Royale to start his morning shift.
Pulling his jacket close against the cold, Wilkins turned and departed the alley, this time taking care to flip the metal flag down. He knew that in his line of work, even the most minor of mistakes could be the difference between sitting pretty and riding the lightning.
Though he was still disappointed over the lack of a message, he managed to shake it off. Another opportunity would come. As long as people were people and actors were less, Broadway would be the Showstopper’s playground.