McKenna stared and shook his head. He had been doing it for about six hours straight, and he still couldn’t believe his eyes.
His gaze swept the charred and still smoking heap of rubble that had once been one of Broadway’s finest establishments. Despite all the efforts of the local fire department, most of the Tower Theater had been obliterated in the initial explosion, and what remained had burned to the ground in just under ninety minutes, causing heavy damage to several nearby buildings in the process.
He was sure that it must be a record of some kind.
Lieutenant Martin hobbled over to him across the debris-strewn pavement, leaning heavily on the long board that he was using as a crutch. A hasty and bloody bandage covered his free arm.
McKenna looked up at him.
“You all right, Lieutenant?”
“Doc says I was damned lucky to have been low on that staircase when it collapsed,” said the detective. “Otherwise I would’ve been flattened when the balconies came down. Might’ve crushed more than just the leg.”
“Lucky,” McKenna echoed. “Not like the rest of them. Has the count changed?”
“They found a few more bodies. The total’s up past fifty now. And there’s a lot still unaccounted for.”
McKenna swore under his breath and kicked at a stone.
“This is my fault. Those people died because of me!”
“Look, Mac,” said Martin sympathetically, “no one knew the Showstopper was this nutty. Matheson and Greer and the others…well, they were just excitable, that’s all. Wrong place, wrong time.”
McKenna didn’t believe a word of it.
“What about Lawrence?”
“He took a hit on the head pretty bad. They’re not sure when he’ll come out of it.” Martin sighed. “He saved my life, you know. Grabbed me by the collar and just hauled me out of the fire. We almost made it to the door before that beam cracked him one.”
“Well, I guess it could be worse,” said McKenna bitterly. “Two and two’s not bad, right? At least we’re even.”
“It’s not your fault, McKenna,” said Martin. “You couldn’t have known this was going to happen. It’s not fair for you to blame yourself.”
“Oh, sure. That changes everything. Just because I’m an ignorant fool, that gives me a pass?”
Martin gave him a serious look.
“No, it doesn’t. You never get a pass on losing good people. But you’ve got to put your ass back in your trousers, stand up, and catch the guy who did this. Otherwise, they died for nothing, and we can’t let that happen. Right, Mac? Mac?”
But McKenna was no longer paying attention. Out of the corner of his eye, he had spotted a familiar man in a tweed coat, shirt and tie, and slightly wrinkled slacks, crowned by a felt fedora. The man was standing over by a knot weeping survivors, his head down and scribbling away in a notebook.
“Excuse me for a minute,” he said testily, walking off and leaving Martin hanging in the middle of his sentence. Pushing by several ash-coated men and women, he seized the man’s arm in passing and dragged him out of earshot of the others.
Recognizing his assailant, Trevor Goodwin’s frown of annoyance quickly changed to his customary smirk.
“Well, what do you know? It’s my old pal, Sergeant McKenna. Hello, sport. Fancy meeting you here. Is this a story or what?”
McKenna raised a fist threateningly.
“I’ve got your story right here, scoop. Now get lost. This is a crime scene. No civilians allowed. And that includes nosy news-hawks.”
“Sounds like someone got up on the wrong side of the bed today.”
“If you don’t beat it, you’re going to wake up on the wrong side of the gutter! After you threw me to the wolves in that last article, pardon me if I don’t give you a damn medal.”
His demeanor unruffled, Goodwin struck a match and lit a cigarette.
“Calm down, sport. That wasn’t personal. Just business. Nothing I could do. Anyway, I wouldn’t want my star witness to bust an artery.”
“What do you mean, star witness?” the Irishman demanded.
“I mean this,” said the reporter, sweeping an arm across the scene and grinning. “The biggest story that ever hit this town. And you were right there when it happened. I’m going to go places with you, McKenna.”
“First of all,” said McKenna, incensed, “I was most certainly not ‘right there’. I was at home with my family, asleep. They woke me up to bring me down here.”
“Really?” Goodwin asked, writing something in his notes. “Not even here? That’s interesting. So, cough it up. What’s your statement?” He looked up expectantly.
“You’re really going to twist this around on me? For God’s sake, man! People died here!”
“Yes, yes,” said the reporter, exhaling smoke and feigning concern. “And it’s really terrible, I’m sure. But I’m on a deadline. How do you think the Showstopper got past your men?”
“Now wait just a damn minute,” said McKenna. “What makes you so sure the Showstopper did this?”
Goodwin rolled his eyes.
“Playing dumb doesn’t suit you, Sergeant. Of course the Showstopper did it. First there was a theater, now there isn’t one. Who else could have done it? Saint Patrick?”
McKenna didn’t rise to the bait, though he was sorely tempted.
“Get your facts straight, Goodwin. The Showstopper has never done anything like this before. It would be totally out of character for him.”
“Look, sport. Even if the Showstopper didn’t do this–which is impossible, by the way–the entire reading public, not to mention my editors, thinks he did. If I said otherwise, I’d be laughed out of my job.”
“Even if it’s not true?”
“I’d rather be wrong and get paid to be wrong again than be right and starve.” The reporter sighed. “I can’t believe I’m even asking this, but if you don’t think the Showstopper did it, then who did?”
“I don’t know. Maybe some kind of…”
He noticed Goodwin’s pencil moving snatched it away from him.
“Don’t change the subject, scoop. I told you to blow, so blow!”
“I have to get a story,” Goodwin hissed, “and one way or another, I’m going to make one out of this. It would be better if you talked to me, because someone else might not be so easy on you.”
Even though he did very much blame himself for what had happened, McKenna bristled at the implication when it came from someone else’s mouth.
“I don’t like your tone, Goodwin. Are you saying this was my fault?”
“Not me, no. But I can’t speak for everyone. Someone has to take the blame, sport. That’s the way the world works.”
Goodwin leaned closer to McKenna, taking the cigarette from his mouth.
“Come on, McKenna. You don’t want to do this. Talk to me. Tell me what’s going on here. I’d really hate to have to shoot you down in tomorrow’s issue.”
“You’re not giving me much of a choice. Either you spill what you know, or I find someone else who will. Take your pick.”
McKenna shook his head firmly.
“No. Forget it. I’m not endangering more people’s lives.”
“I’m giving you a chance to defend yourself,” Goodwin insisted. “That’s more than you’ll get from a stranger. This story could end your career.”
“There’s no story here, Goodwin,” said McKenna, turning away. “It’s just a big mess for all of us. And I sure as hell don’t need you to protect me. Get out of here.”
Goodwin shrugged, his expression somewhere between amusement and pity.
“I sure hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Out!” McKenna spat, storming away from the reporter and back toward the crime scene. That vulture Goodwin could pick at someone else’s carcass.
Dodging a fire wagon, he spied Martin clumping toward him and biting his lip fretfully. At the sight of McKenna, the detective stopped and waved his arm. McKenna raised his hand to wave back, but then realized that these were not friendly hellos, but instead gestures of panic.
“Martin, what’s wrong?” he shouted. “What’s going on?”
“McKenna, get out of here!” said Martin, raising a finger to his lips. “You don’t understand. It’s just that…”
“MCKENNA! THERE YOU ARE, YOU IRISH BUM!”
“…Chief Calvin’s here,” Martin sighed, hanging his head.
McKenna turned just in time to see the burly, uniformed body stomping toward him, and the pudgy face purpling with volcanic wrath.
“Chief Calvin, sir,” he babbled. “I apologize, sir. I had no idea that you were…”
“Cut the horse manure, Sergeant!” Calvin roared, almost foaming at the mouth. “What in the hell happened here?”
“Well, you see, sir, I can explain…”
“Good God, man!” the Chief overrode him. “I could have lived with some damaged property. I could even have handled some small amount of incompetence. But no! You had to go and lose a building! A whole building! Do you know what that building was?”
“Hot?” McKenna blurted unwisely.
“That was our future! Our future, McKenna! And you might as well have put a torch to it!”
“Sir, I know I have things to answer for,” McKenna stammered.
“You’re damned right you do, and I’ve got a good mind to let you do it right before I kick you out of my precinct once and for all! And another thing…”
But the tirade was interrupted as a young officer broke through the throng of bystanders.
“Chief Calvin! Begging your pardon, sir, but there’s a visitor just arrived who says he’s here to see you. Said it was important business and that it couldn’t wait.”
“I was born with someone waiting to see me!” Calvin shouted, making him cringe. “I’ve got a wrecked building, a dozen wounded men, more dead, and nothing to go on except hearsay and rumors. Whoever it is, he can damn well wait his turn!”
“I would tell you not to be hasty, Chief Calvin,” said a cold and sarcastic voice. “But if I did, I would be wasting perfectly good advice on someone who is not worth the effort.”
“Oh, dear God. Don’t tell me,” Calvin groaned, and rubbed his forehead in preparation for the headache he knew would shortly be upon him. “What do you want now, Stevens?”
“Not happy to see me, Chief?” asked the politician, a mocking smile on his thin lips as he stepped from the crowd. “Not to worry. The feeling is entirely mutual.”
While McKenna might have said something anyway out of his respect for Calvin, he figured a little sucking up couldn’t hurt, either.
“Listen,” he said, taking a step toward the suited man, “I don’t know who you are, but how about you show some respect, huh?”
“Shut up, McKenna,” Calvin growled. “Stay out of this. You’re in enough trouble as it is.”
“Ah! So this is the celebrated Sergeant McKenna,” Stevens observed, eyeing the Irishman critically. “Congratulations, Chief. You may have found an officer even more incompetent than you to handle this case. Birds of a feather flock together, I suppose.”
“Why don’t you try saying that again?” McKenna began hotly, but Calvin seized him by his uniform collar and dragged him back.
“I told you to shut your trap, McKenna! Now get lost. I’ll have words with you later.”
“No, please,” said Stevens. “Stay, Sergeant. You might as well hear this. It involves you as well.”
Stevens snapped his fingers, and another officer appeared at his side, carrying a small case. Flicking the locks off and opening its lid, the politician withdrew a paper and handed it to Calvin.
“Given recent events and your complete lack of progress on the Showstopper case, our city council finds your incompetence in this matter disturbing, as do I. Effective immediately, I am authorized by the council to take charge of your precinct, as well as this investigation. You will ensure that I am informed of all goings-on, and I will have your total cooperation in all official matters. Read the warrant. I’m sure you’ll find that everything is in order.”
“The Showstopper is my investigation,” said McKenna, venturing into the conversation again. “It’s my responsibility. We may not see eye to eye, Mr. Stevens, but you must let me continue on this case. For the people who died here, sir. Please.”
“Your services are no longer required, Sergeant McKenna,” Stevens said. “It was a grave, although unsurprising, error in judgment to have you placed on this case in the first place. If it wasn’t for your bumbling, these people you mentioned might still be alive.”
McKenna flinched as though Stevens had hit him, while Calvin snatched the warrant away and contemplated it for several minutes.
“I don’t know how you managed to pull off this little stunt,” he growled, furious, “but rest assured that I’ll be looking into it. I’ll pull every string and call in every favor I’ve got if it means getting you the hell off my street. Got it?”
“From a man of your dullness and stubbornness, I wouldn’t expect any less,” Stevens replied. “But don’t hold your breath. You don’t have too many friends on the council these days. I’ll be seeing you, Chief. Sergeant.”
With that, Stevens took his case and strolled off through the crowd, which parted for him like the Red Sea. Calvin ground his teeth in anger, while McKenna just stared at the pavement, speechless.
“That greasy weasel thinks he’s going to order me around, does he?” said Calvin, to no one in particular. “I’ll take him apart and use him for a punching bag, as God is my witness!”
He stormed by McKenna, muttering oaths that would have made a career sailor blush and glaring around for someone new to yell at. The Irish officer was so lost that he failed to notice Trevor Goodwin stroll up beside him.
“Well, I think that went well. Don’t you, sport?”
“I thought I told you to scram, Goodwin,” said McKenna tiredly.
“And I’m glad I didn’t listen to you,” said the reporter, “or I would have missed out on a fascinating conversation. Eavesdropping is really quite relaxing, you know. You should try it sometime. It might help lower your blood pressure.”
“Like hell. Now beat it.”
“It looks to me as though you have a problem,” said Goodwin, ignoring him. “And his name is Harold Stevens.”
“You know him?” asked McKenna, suddenly curious.
Goodwin’s eyes narrowed.
“Mostly by reputation. Met him once at a charity gala during Mayor Hylan’s reelection campaign. Well enough to know that he’s bad news.”
“That means so much coming from you.”
“Don’t get smart with me, McKenna,” Goodwin snapped. “I happen to be serious.”
“As a heart attack.”
“I don’t know,” said McKenna, feeling a bit antagonistic. “I actually thought you and him might get along pretty well. You seem like you have a lot in common.”
“I’d cut the attitude if I were you, sport,” said Goodwin, glaring at him. “And keep your mouth shut unless you know what the hell you’re talking about. A reporter’s got about as much in common with a politician as a salmon’s got with sunburn. So don’t insult me, and I won’t insult you.”
“All right, all right,” the Irishman sighed. “I’m sorry. So you were saying that he’s trouble?”
“With a capital ‘T’. Men like Stevens, they’re locusts. Wherever they go, disaster follows them. If he’s going to be hanging around, you’d better start watching your back.”
“What are you trying to say, scoop?”
“I had a hunch that something big was going on around here,” said Goodwin, “and now that Stevens is here, I’m sure of it. What I can’t figure out is what his angle is. Not yet, anyway. But I will.”
“Wait a moment,” said McKenna, holding up a hand. “Are you trying to tell me that Stevens is after something?”
“Don’t be an idiot. Of course he’s after something. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be here. When was the last time one of the mayor’s lap-dogs took over a law enforcement body?”
“If that’s true, there’s got to be some way we can prove it.”
“Look, McKenna,” said Goodwin, “I admire your selfless altruism and all, but you might want to try balancing it with some common sense. Where there’s one politician, there’s bound to be more. They’re like rats. You can’t take them down alone, and they’ll kill you for trying. Personally, I’ve got nothing to prove.”
“But if Stevens might be corrupt, we can’t just sit on our hands and do nothing!” McKenna exclaimed.
“Saying that man might be corrupt is like saying there might have been a leak on the Titanic,” said Goodwin. “It’s proving it that’s the hard part. And for your information, I’m perfectly capable of sitting on my hands. You live longer that way.”
“But what’s the point of living just to watch other people get hurt?”
The reporter groaned.
“Look, sport, I like you. You’re a good guy. Maybe a little impulsive, a lot ignorant, but generally all right. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll do some research into Stevens and see what turns up. But remember, you started this. So wherever it goes, it’s all on you. I was never involved. And if you tell anyone otherwise, I’ll give you a firsthand demonstration of how the pen is mightier than the sword.”
“I don’t appreciate the threat,” said McKenna grouchily, “but fine. Just one more thing, Goodwin.”
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.