By Sergeant Matheson’s estimate, it was around twenty minutes before seven that things began to go dreadfully wrong.
Only moments ago, he had completed a thorough search of the very last patron in line outside the Tower Theater: an impeccably dressed gentleman with a monocle who peered down his nose at the short, rotund police officer turning out his jacket pockets. Matheson had, of course, found nothing at all suspicious, and the man strode off with a loud “Humph,” incensed at having his time wasted in such a manner.
Matheson glanced down the sidewalk and caught the eye of Lieutenant Greer, who shrugged his shoulders and offered an apologetic look.
It just didn’t add up. The rumors he had been hearing about an imminent attack by the Showstopper now seemed very silly indeed. He and the other officers had checked everyone entering the building, as well as the staff before them, and given the entire theater the once-over, but nothing out of the ordinary had been found. The fact that the structure itself was clean proved the Showstopper was not an inside saboteur, and therefore was unlikely to be currently employed by the Tower.
It was also true, however, that every one of the Showstopper’s crimes occurred inside theaters. Obviously, he had to enter the building from the street like everyone else at some point before the show started. And if everyone going in was clean, too…
Relieved, Matheson realized that the criminal couldn’t possibly be here. In order to get into the theater now, he would have to take on several dozen armed police officers directly. Surely not even the Showstopper was that crazy.
Just then, a loud bang rang out, making him jump.
“Matheson, what the hell are you doing?” Greer yelled, glaring at his fellow officer. “Holster your weapon!”
Matheson’s wide eyes and empty hands was all the explanation he needed.
“Hit the deck!” Greer cried, and dove behind the nearest trash bin as another shot sounded. Matheson ducked behind a lamppost and drew his revolver, his hands shaking.
He began to panic. It had to be the Showstopper. Who else would be attacking the police outside a theater? The man really was a lunatic!
He peered out from behind the lamppost, but quickly withdrew his head as a string of three quick shots split the air. He had managed to see what he had been looking for, though: flashes of gunfire from an alley across the street.
“Greer, he’s in the alley! Can you see him?”
“No!” the Lieutenant called back, squinting over the trashcan. “But I can hear him. It’s curtains for you, Showstopper!”
He raised his gun and squeezed off a shot that ricocheted harmlessly off the brick. Another volley by the unseen opponent drove him back into a crouch.
“This isn’t working!” Matheson shouted. “We’re pinned down. What do we do?”
“Why are you asking me?”
“Well, you’re the Lieutenant. Think of something!”
“Hey, Matheson! Greer!”
The Sergeant turned and brandished his gun, but he lowered it as the familiar faces of Lieutenant Martin and Sergeant Lawrence ducked down behind a nearby newsstand.
“It’s the Showstopper,” Matheson said. “He’s shooting at us from that alley over there. I think he’s trying to get past us and inside the Tower.”
“We heard the noise from around back,” said Lawrence, grinning gamely. “So he wants to get in, does he? Well, over my dead body.”
“Would you mind rephrasing that, Lawrence?”
“Shut up. Matheson, you, Greer, and Martin will cover me. I’ll run across the street and get the drop on the son of a bitch.”
“Hey,” said Greer, annoyed. “How come you get to bag the Showstopper? I’m the senior officer here.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Lawrence growled. “Sir. I didn’t realize that you wanted the Showstopper bad enough to get shot down like a dog in the street. So, does anyone have a problem with the plan?”
No one did.
“Good. When I say ‘now’, get up and give me covering fire. And for the love of God, try not to shoot me.”
There was another series of bangs, followed by a deafening silence. Lawrence nodded.
“All right, he’s reloading. Now!”
Matheson, Greer, and Martin jumped up, aimed their weapons, and proceeded to pelt the entrance to the alleyway with a hail of bullets. Lawrence ducked low, drew his gun, and pulled his cap snugly down on his head before breaking cover and hurrying across the pavement, firing wildly. The three officers emptied their guns and ducked down again as more shots came from the alley.
“Well, at least the man’s persistent,” Martin observed. “He just doesn’t know when to quit.”
“He hasn’t hit anything yet,” said Greer. “Where did he learn to shoot?”
Matheson said nothing and kept his eyes fixed on Lawrence, who was now pressed against the glass of a shop window on the opposite side of the street and reloading his revolver.
Something didn’t seem right, but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out what it was.
Lawrence inched along the building’s façade and toward the alleyway. He was already imagining the promotion he was going to get for this. Maybe even a raise. Then again, just seeing the look on Decker’s face when he marched the Showstopper into the 43rd would be compensation enough. While he did feel bad for McKenna and the bind that he was in, this was an honor that he wanted for himself.
“Showstopper!” he called, mustering as much bravado as he could. “As a duly appointed officer of the New York Police Department, I hereby place you under…”
He swung around the corner of the alley, weapon at the ready.
There was no one there. The alley was totally deserted.
Across the street, Matheson, Greer, and Martin raised their heads to see what was going on.
Lawrence turned to them and raised his hands in frustration.
“He’s not here!”
A loud bang at his feet made him leap back in alarm. He knelt on the pavement, and with the muzzle of his gun poked at a tattered, blackened string of paper and wax.
“What the hell is this?”
Matheson suddenly realized what had been bothering him. He had heard the sound of those gunshots before many times. In fact, they sounded suspiciously like…
“Firecrackers?” asked Lawrence, confounded.
That was when the flame burning down the fuse of the sparklers reached the end of its string and lit another one that raced along the ground at his feet.
There was a whoosh, and the world was filled with white light.
The plan worked even better than Wilkins had hoped.
After planting the decoy fireworks and the follow-up flare, he snuck back across the street under cover of the thinning crowd and picked the lock on one of the storefront doors, casually slipping inside and closing it behind him. Changing into his Showstopper attire and donning his equipment, he sat back and watched the comedy unfold.
Just as he had thought, the officers misinterpreted the sound of the sparklers and mounted a hasty offensive, their fearless leader receiving a blinding flash and a spray of burning powder for his troubles. He would be fine in a few minutes, of course, once his vision had fully returned and his headache subsided, but it was more than enough to make him howl in surprise and pain and send his fellow officers stumbling to help, leaving the path to the theater unguarded.
He stepped out onto the sidewalk and rushed over to the alley beside the Tower. Glancing up, he saw his entrance: a window ledge perhaps thirty feet above him. Time to see if his climbing gun was up to the challenge.
He reached into the folds of his cloak, digging for the device, and that was when he heard the click of the gun behind him.
“Hold it right there, Showstopper!”
Wilkins froze, cursing to himself. He must have miscounted. Not all the officers had gone to their comrade’s aid. One had stayed behind, and was now aiming a weapon at him. Perhaps they weren’t as incompetent as he had thought.
He decided to try diplomacy.
“Matheson,” said the voice breathlessly. “And that’s Sergeant to you, buddy. So turn around slowly and put your hands on your head.”
“Let me ask you something, Sergeant.”
“Shut up. Just turn around and put your hands up. Now!”
“All right, all right. I’m turning around. Just calm down.”
Wilkins turned to face the pudgy and wide-eyed officer, glad that his scarf and collar were still hiding his face.
“All right,” Matheson said. “ Now, hands up!”
“Answer me one thing first,” Wilkins persisted. “You’ve got me. I’m not going anywhere. Just let me ask one question and then I’ll do whatever you want. No funny business, I swear.”
Matheson considered for a moment and then sighed.
“Fine. One question. But then you put your hands up and come with me. Understand?”
“Of course,” said Wilkins. “So how did the police really know I was going to be here tonight?”
Matheson’s face fell.
“That’s it? That’s what you wanted to ask? How do you think, stoop? We got your note.”
“This again?” asked Wilkins, annoyed. “What are you talking about? I didn’t send any note!”
“I don’t care what you say, scum,” the officer said. “You’re going away for a long time. Come on, hands up!”
Wilkins smiled and snatched something from the bottom of his pocket before raising his hands to the sky.
“Yes sir, Sergeant. Whatever you say. I’ll put my hands up…”
In a split second, he palmed the smoke pellet he had fished from his cloak and flicked his wrist. The capsule fell to the ground and split open, bursting into a cloud of thick white fog.
Shocked and unable to see or breathe, Matheson coughed and fired, the bullets buzzing past Wilkins’s head as he struggled to orient himself. He only had a few seconds before the smoke began to clear, so he needed to work fast.
Reaching back inside his costume, he pulled out the climbing gun and extended his arm over his head, struggling to hold his aim due to the contraption’s ungainly weight. He could no longer see the window he needed to shoot through because of the smoke, but he had no choice. If he didn’t act, he would be arrested, and if he missed, he would not have time to reload and try again. His life depended on making this shot.
For a long moment he waited, calming himself, and then pulled the trigger. The gun fired with a kick that rattled the bones in his arm and the dart shot upward, trailing the thin cable behind it. It arced sideways and disappeared from view beyond the smoke. Wilkins gritted his teeth, but was tremendously relieved by the crash of the projectile smashing through the window. Glass tinkled down around him as he tugged on the gun, testing the strength of the dart’s hold on whatever it had impacted. It seemed solid enough, and he hoped it would be sufficient to support his weight.
“Greer! Martin! Someone help me! He’s getting away!”
Regardless, he was out of time. Wilkins pulled the trigger again, and his arm was nearly ripped from its socket as the gun shot upward toward the window, dragging his body along like a rag doll on a rope. He smashed through the remnants of the window frame in his uncontrolled ascent and was catapulted through the opening, landing in a heap on the floorboards.
He lay there for a moment, partly assessing his wounds and partly stunned that his entire harebrained scheme had actually worked. There were a few cuts on his face and hands from glass shards, and his head hurt a bit, but that was mostly superficial.
He rose to his feet and glanced around him, judging from the jumbled furniture and other assorted objects stacked precariously around him that he was standing in a closet used for prop storage. He had to move fast. It would take only minutes for the officers he had just escaped from to warn those standing sentry duty inside the theater. At least from the silence it appeared that for now, his entry had been undetected.
Wilkins negotiated his way across the room and located the door. He slid it open a crack and peered out onto a wooden catwalk lit by bare bulbs hanging by their wires from the ceiling. The limited illumination and dark swathes of curtains around the walkway concealed much of the surroundings, as well as exactly how high up he was, but given what he had scaled, it could be no more than the third story.
He needed to locate the props and costumes being used for the performance in order to prepare, and if the faint strains of music drifting up to the catwalk were any indication, he had very little time indeed.
Wilkins crept down a rickety staircase and gradually became aware of the telltale murmur of voices. At one point, he concealed himself inside a curtain as two gaudily dressed actresses strolled by, chattering away in obnoxious, high-pitched voices. Ducking around another corner, he spotted a row of painted doors built into the wall ahead: the dressing rooms. Now he could get to work.
Glancing around to make sure no one was nearby, he approached the first door and nudged it open, attempting to ascertain if it was occupied. Seeing no one, he was about to enter and make a few choice alterations to the unfortunate owner’s coat when he heard a low moan coming from the next room over. Stepping back and resting a hand on the butt of the climbing gun at his hip, he listened closely for a moment. Hearing nothing more, he drew a deep breath and then kicked down the door.
There on the floor lay the great Andre Levash, his fabulously scandalous fur costume reddening in the spreading pool of his own blood.
“You…” the actor groaned, raising a trembling finger that dripped with crimson. “You…”
His voice trailed off as his arm lowered and thumped wetly back to the floor.
Wilkins was speechless, and shocked nearly beyond rational thought. One look told him there was no chance for Levash. From the powder burns on the costume’s midsection, he had obviously been taken by surprise and shot twice in the stomach at close range. The man had perhaps minutes to live.
Levash moaned, his eyelids fluttering in semi-consciousness.
“Levash,” said Wilkins, regaining the power of speech and kneeling by the actor’s side. Seeing that he was unresponsive, he grabbed Levash’s shoulders and shook him. “Levash, wake up!”
Levash coughed, spraying droplets of blood.
“Showstopper…” he murmured. “No, please…”
“No, not the Showstopper,” said Wilkins, sweeping off his hat and untying the scarf that covered his face. “It’s me, Tom Wilkins. Who did this to you?”
“That’s not important. I need you to tell me who did this to you, and quickly!”
“Wilkins…” Levash’s eyes rolled wildly, without recognition. “Showstopper…how did you…” His gaze turned glassy and far-off, wandering away from Wilkins’s face.
“Stay with me, you bastard,” said the janitor, smacking the actor’s paling cheeks. “Who did this to you, Levash? Answer me, damn you!”
Levash, barely conscious, whispered something he could not hear. Wilkins bent closer and put his ear within inches of the dying man’s face.
“Levash, please. Who did this to you?”
The actor opened his eyes again and stared directly at him. Wilkins would never forget the naked honesty in that haunted look.
“Why…” he stammered. “You did.”
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.