Wilkins stared at Levash, unable to comprehend what the actor had said.
He had killed Levash? What was that supposed to mean? He couldn’t have killed him, and the Showstopper certainly didn’t do it, either. The actor was obviously delirious.
Levash sighed and slumped back onto the blood-soaked floor, as if his body was a puppet whose strings had just been cut.
“Levash,” said Wilkins, alarmed, shaking the unresponsive man. “Levash! Wake up, damn it! What did you mean?”
“About time he knocked off,” a thick Cockney accent drawled from behind him. “I had myself enough of that boring old tripe, didn’t you?”
Whipping around, Wilkins saw a man standing in the doorway of the dressing room that he had never seen before. Every inch of him was clothed in black and ordered with military neatness: polished ebony jackboots, dark pants, black leather airman’s jacket with glinting brass buttons, a low-brimmed black hat and scarf covering part of his face, and a menacing pair of flying goggles obscuring the rest. A black cloak was draped over one square shoulder, and his two gloved hands clutched a dangerous-looking pair of revolvers, still smoking.
This must be the man responsible for Levash’s murder, Wilkins thought. With such similar attire, it was no surprise that the actor had mistaken them.
“Evening, guv’nor,” said the stranger.
“Who are you?” Wilkins demanded. “What do you want? And why did you kill Levash?”
“I killed him because he was an ignorant, gutter-feeding jackass,” the man said. “Probably the same reason you were going to kill him, I imagine.”
“I wasn’t going to kill him!”
“Sure you weren’t. And as for whom I am, the name’s Jack Archer. But I think you know me by another: the Saboteur”
“Of course,” Wilkins breathed. “You’re the bastard who put me up to this job.”
“In the flesh, mate,” said Archer, giving a mock bow. “But I go by a lot of names. How does ‘The Showstopper’ sound?”
“What?” asked Wilkins, certain that he hadn’t heard right. “Wait a minute. You can’t be the Showstopper. I’m the Showstopper! You’re not making any sense.”
“No, you’re just Tommy Wilkins,” said Archer, holstering the weapons at his hips. “A second-rate criminal living a third-rate life. Fortunately for you, Tommy-boy, I like you. You could say I’m an admirer of your work. And I’m about to help you make the big time.”
“What do you mean?”
Archer chuckled. It was a sinister sound that made Wilkins’s skin crawl.
“I’m going to give your business a little lift, free of charge. Tonight will be remembered as the greatest job the Showstopper ever pulled.”
“How is that?” Wilkins demanded. “What did you do?”
Archer shook his head.
“That’s a little surprise from me to you, Tommy-boy. But trust your old uncle Jack. It’s going to be explosive.”
Wilkins cast his eyes frantically around the room, looking for anything he could use to get the advantage. In the meantime, though, he had to keep Archer busy.
“All right. Let’s say for a moment that you’re not totally insane. Why are you doing this? What do you get out of it?”
“I get the satisfaction of knowing I carried on where you turned yellow, mate,” Archer hissed. “And once I’m done, you’ll be the one those flatfoot coppers pin it on.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Don’t play games with me. You and I are fighting the same battle. We both hate actors, Broadway, and this whole bloody town, and we’re getting even the best way we can. But the difference between you and me is that you forgot something along the road. If you really want revenge, you have get your hands dirty. Vengeance without spilled blood is no vengeance at all. Especially not after what you and I have been through.”
“I don’t know who you think I am,” said Wilkins, “but that’s not what I’m about. You don’t know anything.”
But if that was true, why didn’t he believe himself when he said it?
“Shut it!” Archer spat. “I told you not to play games with me, guv’nor. You can’t lie to me like you do to everyone else.”
Wilkins suppressed his dark thoughts with difficulty and stood firm, looking the other man in the eye.
“No. You’re wrong. I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe you.”
“It doesn’t matter if you believe it,” said Archer. “You’re on the path now, and there’s no going back. That’s how life is. It’s destiny.”
Another thought occurred to Wilkins.
“You’re the one who sent the telegram in my name this morning, aren’t you?”
Archer nodded, his goggles looking insect-like in the light.
“Simple. I wanted to give those coppers a taste of what I…” He chuckled again. “I mean, what you were capable of, and to see if you were all you’re cracked up to be. Can’t say that I’m not a little disappointed at how easy I got you hooked, but then life’s a bloody bitch, ain’t it?”
“You won’t get away with this,” said Wilkins, knowing it was an empty threat. Archer had played him like a fiddle and orchestrated the entire affair far too perfectly for him to be caught.
“Of course I’m going to get away with it,” said the other man, giving voice to his thoughts. “Your little reign of terror gives me the perfect cover. I walk out of here, clean as a whistle, and you get dragged out in handcuffs. Can’t think of a much better arrangement.”
His tone became more serious.
“Unless, of course, you wanted to join me. We could be a great team, you and I. We think alike, and we want the same things. I’d be the brain of the operation, of course, but we can figure all that out later. Think about it, mate. This town could be ours.”
“You’re mad,” said Wilkins. “You kill people for sport. You’re nothing like me, and you can go straight to hell.”
“Yeah, I didn’t figure that would fly,” he commented. “My sales pitch needs some work. Anyway, it’s been fun chitchatting and all, but I’ve got to run. I wouldn’t want to steal any credit from your big night.”
Archer stepped back out of the doorway, looking up into the Tower’s rafters and reaching inside his cloak for something. At precisely that moment, however, there came a high, whiny voice from the curtains behind him.
“Andre? Andre, dear, are you still back here? The opening hasn’t begun yet. We still have a few moments to ourselves. Andre, darling, where are you?”
A beautiful young woman entered through the drapes, attired in a lace dress that left little to the imagination. Wilkins had just enough time to think that this situation was entirely typical before the woman spied Archer, froze in her tracks, and shrieked at the top of her lungs.
“Bloody hell,” Archer swore, spinning around, raising his revolver, and shooting her in the head. The actress shuddered, gurgled, and collapsed, blood streaming over her once exquisite features.
Despite its immediate and tragic consequences, however, the act of murder had taken Archer’s focus temporarily off Wilkins, and as soon as it did, the determined and now enraged Showstopper sprang into action.
Rocking back, he stuck out a foot and swept Archer’s legs out from under him. The other man toppled to the floor with a grunt of surprise, and the gun fell from his grasp and skittered across the floor. Wilkins made a grab for it, but was forced to back off when Archer drew his second revolver and put a bullet in the floorboards inches from his outstretched hand.
“Don’t think so, guv’nor,” said Archer, squeezing off another round and narrowly missing Wilkins, who dove behind the row of mirrors for cover. He heard Archer scrambling to his feet outside and quickly palmed another smoke bomb. He tossed it out the open door, where it popped at the other man’s feet and expelled its choking fog.
Archer was unimpressed, however, and laughed at his adversary’s latest move.
“Nice trick, mate, but it’ll take more than a little smoke to stop me.”
From outside, Wilkins heard voices growing closer. No doubt someone had finally been attracted by the noise of the brawl. He couldn’t let Archer get away. He had to know what the madman had done, and he wasn’t about to be arrested for someone else’s crime.
Wilkins ducked out from behind the counter and lunged through the door into the smoke, leaping toward where he had last seen Archer. He was jolted as his body connected with his opponent, and both men crashed to the floor, Archer firing wildly into the air. Wilkins swung his fists, but connected with nothing. Then, a gloved hand crashed into his chin and sent him sprawling. Dazed, he looked up from the floor as Archer’s black shape loomed over him.
“I’ll give you credit,” said the Saboteur. “You’ve got guts. But you ain’t got what it takes to beat me. Just so you know, the offer to join me still stands. With what I’ve got planned for you, I don’t see how you’ve got much choice in the matter. Break a leg.”
With that, Archer drew something from within his cloak and extended his arm above his head, spreading his legs to brace his body. There was a bang, a clink, and suddenly Archer sprang upward and out of the dissipating smoke.
Wilkins could scarcely believe his eyes. Archer had a climbing gun, too! Where in the hell could he have gotten such a thing?
“Look! It’s the Showstopper!”
“Halt! Police! Stop!”
The sound of many booted feet pounding toward him startled Wilkins back to reality. He jumped up and ran for the stairs back to the catwalk, but was dismayed to hear more footsteps coming from the opposite direction. He was trapped. The only way out was to jump down to the stage below. If he tried that, he probably would break a leg. With the way his luck was going today, he wasn’t feeling confident.
And just as he thought that things couldn’t possibly get any worse, there was a whistling and then a plunk as something fell from high above and landed at his feet: a foot-long, brownish stick with a sparking fuse shoved into one end.
“Dynamite!” Wilkins cried to anyone who was listening, and leaped from the catwalk, clawing at the curtains around him to break his fall.
There were shouts of dismay as the steps from both directions attempted to reverse their course, but it was too late. A split second later, the entire area was incinerated in a massive fireball.
Burning debris rained down around Wilkins, who shredded through the remaining drapes and crashed to the floor below. He felt a sharp pain in his leg as his ankle bent in a way that it wasn’t supposed to.
He groaned, struggling to his feet amid the wreckage, and noticed that the fire was spreading to the curtains. He had to get out before the entire theater was ablaze.
Then he heard the shouts and charging footsteps, and he realized that fire was the least of his worries.
On the stage of the Tower Theater–or, if you will, on the magical isle of Prospero–the assembled actors and actresses of King Alonso’s royal court glanced around nervously as a loud boom from backstage reached their ears.
As the audience shifted uncomfortably and muttered amongst themselves, the players struggled to continue with their lines and keep the show afloat.
“So…ummm…” one of the young noblemen stammered. “You were saying, my lord?”
Despite what Tom Wilkins, and others like him, might say about all their less than tasteful characteristics, the spirit of actors in times of crisis is really quite remarkable. Even when the world is coming down around them, the show must always go on.
Wilkins threw the door open and hobbled down the stairs into the bowels of the theater, cursing both Jack Archer and his twisted ankle.
His mind was still racing, trying and failing to process everything that had happened in the last five minutes. Who was Jack Archer? How had he managed to copy the Showstopper’s look almost exactly? And where the hell did Archer get equipment that only Wilkins could design?
All the original plans to every device he had ever dreamed up were under lock and key in the secret loft above his apartment. He had never shown them to anyone, and they were always accounted for. It was inconceivable that anyone could have stolen or duplicated them.
But it seemed that a lot of inconceivable things had been happening lately.
If he was going to figure out anything at all, he needed to think like his enemy. If he were trying to do the most possible damage to a show all at once, where would he go? The machinery room below the stage seemed to be the best choice.
He passed through another doorway and into a dark, low-hanging space tinged with the acrid aromas of metal and oil. Before him stood the massive cogs and gears controlling the curtain, backdrops, and stage trapdoors. Steam hissed out of hydraulic joints all around him, raising the temperature to sweltering levels.
Sweating profusely, Wilkins tried to ignore the unbearable heat and the throbbing in his leg. There had to be some way through the maze of machines. He was running out of time.
Out of the corner of his eye, he suddenly spotted the glint of new metal, a strange sight given the caked layers grease and rust that coated the worn mechanisms around him. Squeezing between two massive turning gears, Wilkins peered down to examine the oddly familiar device on the floor before him.
It was a small box filled with numerous miniature cogs and wheels, spinning and clicking as they ran through their monotonous motions. Fixed to the center plate was a tiny clock face, likely taken from a disassembled pocket watch. Several wires ran out from its right side, where a deep red gouge marked the line that would normally indicate a quarter past the hour. It appeared that there was less than a minute before the watch’s slow-moving minute hand reached the marked point. The wires projecting from the clock ran out of the box and trailed off into the darkness.
Frowning, Wilkins reached inside his cloak for another magnesium flare and a well-sharpened utility knife, flipping its compact blade out of the handle and cutting off a chunk of the whitish material, placing it on a pipe leaking red-hot steam. It instantly ignited, lighting up the area just long enough for Wilkins to see, to his horror, that he and the box were surrounded by stacks–no, mountains–of the same dynamite he had barely escaped a few minutes ago.
He realized then just how small he had been thinking.
He turned and scrambled back the way he had come, tearing his clothes and cutting his hands and arms on projecting bits of metal. He dashed up the stairs as fast as his legs would carry him and burst through the stage door, bowling over an unsuspecting group of actors and police officers while shouting at the top of his lungs.
As Wilkins’s warning drifted out over the auditorium, the space erupted into chaos. Fire from backstage had begun to lick at the walls above the heads of the terrified cast as the gentlemen and ladies in the audience dropped their pretentions of sophistication in a mad, panicked dash toward the exits.
Moments later, the entire auditorium of the Tower Theater blew sky-high, the blast punching through the building’s roof and belching fire into the night.
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.