By the time dusk began to fall across the city, Wilkins had spent the better part of the day wandering through the urban jungle in a state of shock.
He gingerly touched his bandaged head, limping from the numerous other injuries he had received in his desperate dive from the Tower’s second story window. He supposed he should consider himself lucky that he had landed in a heap of rubbish piled in the alley; better still, that he wasn’t dead in the explosion like so many others.
But being dead might be preferable to living with what had happened last night. How had things gone so wrong and gotten so far out of his control?
Jack Archer. The Saboteur. Who was he? How did he get his equipment? What did he want, and why did he need Wilkins to get it?
After stumbling back to his apartment, he had performed a frantic inventory of his weaponry, counting smoke bombs, unpacking and repacking trick flares, and even making sure his climbing gun was still stowed securely in his pack. Nothing was missing or appeared to have been tampered with.
It was impossible that someone else could have stolen his creations, yet obviously true. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t wrap his head around it.
Wilkins snatched a paper from a nearby newsstand and was confronted by its screaming headline.
October 28, 1922
The Broadway Revue
Showstopper Suspected in Theater Firebombing
Dozens Killed, Still More Missing After Cowardly Attack
By Trevor Goodwin, Staff Reporter
It wasn’t his fault. None of it was! Why couldn’t anyone see that?
He balled up the page and heaved it into the street, where it was promptly shredded by a passing automobile. It was only twenty-four hours after the crime, and already everyone was blaming him. What kind of justice was that?
“I know how you feel, mister,” said the balding clerk behind the counter. “Don’t worry about the paper. I won’t charge. That damned Showstopper deserves to be strung up after what he’s done.”
“Maybe it wasn’t the Showstopper,” Wilkins argued, hardly able to believe what he was saying. “It could’ve been someone else, and he’s just the easiest person to blame.”
The man snorted.
“Hogwash, son. That yellow-bellied bastard’s worse than the people he’s after, and he hasn’t even got the guts to own up to it. If I had that coward in front of me right now, I’d beat him bloody!”
Wilkins muttered an apology to the vendor before walking on up the sidewalk. Every now and then he would pass small groups of people, from well-dressed gentry to shabby street lurkers, all angrily decrying the Showstopper’s latest outrage.
“I used to think that guy was all right,” spat one particularly ragged and dentally challenged drifter. “Sticking it to them damn actors and rich types. But this is my street, and if anyone’s going to cause a ruckus around here, it’s going to be me! I sure as hell don’t need that jackass killing people left and right and making us all look bad!” The assertion was met with a resounding round of affirmative grunts and snarls of agreement from his poorly attired comrades.
“It was all quite romantic at first,” mused a passing young lady to her group of friends. “Now I’m ashamed to say I thought so. The depths some people will sink to, the brutality…it’s simply shocking!”
“He’s a criminal…”
“He’s a menace…”
“He must be stopped!”
It sickened him how quickly people’s whims changed and their attentions were diverted. They praised and crucified with equal opportunity.
But perhaps he deserved it. He was the one who had taken things too far. He had been reckless, and had put people’s lives in danger. Was that what the Showstopper stood for?
He told himself, however, that this was nonsense. It wasn’t his fault Archer had blown the theater to kingdom come. He couldn’t be held responsible for the actions of a madman. But it seemed that no one else cared enough to ask questions.
In the search of his old blueprints, he had also managed to dig out some designs that had never made it to the practical stage. One had been an incomplete schematic of a cog-driven device calibrated to work in conjunction with a timepiece. It was a disturbingly perfect rendering of the bomb he had found under the Tower’s stage.
It was impossible. He knew that. The device had been one of the few that Reg’s contact had been unable to manufacture, so a working model couldn’t exist. Besides, he had never meant for it to be used as a weapon.
A drink. He needed a drink. And as luck would have it, his wayward feet had carried him straight to the dingy staircase descending to the Curtain Call Saloon.
Banging on the heavy door and muttering the password, he stepped inside and staggered across the mostly empty room to the bar. He planted himself on a makeshift stool and slumped onto the counter, his head in his hands.
“What’ll you have, son?” asked the shifty-eyed bartender. “Little early for a nip, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know, and I can’t say that I care,” said Wilkins. “Give me the strongest stuff you’ve got. And leave the bottle. I’ve had a hell of a day.”
“Thomas? Is that you?”
Wilkins nearly fell off his seat in surprise when he saw Reginald Coxley rise from the corner table he had been sitting at and limp over to him.
“Good Lord, Reg! You nearly gave me a fit. What are you doing here?”
“The same thing as you, I would guess,” said Reg, smiling. “Had a dreadfully long day, and needed a spot of something to straighten me out. Terribly sorry, old chap.”
“No, no,” said Wilkins, “it’s nothing. I just never expected to see you in here this early.”
“Pardon me for saying so, Thomas, but you look like hell.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve been through it and then some today,” Wilkins sighed, his eyes drawn for the first time to the rough strip of cloth reaching from Reg’s hand into the folds of his coat. “But what’s happened to you, then?”
“Oh yes, that,” said Reg, drawing back his shirt collar to show Wilkins his tightly bandaged arm folded across his chest. “I was in the lobby of the Tower Theater last night when the…how shall I call it…the incident occurred.”
“What?” Wilkins exclaimed, horrified. “I didn’t know that you were…I mean, I read about the explosion in the papers this morning. Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes, quite all right,” said Reg, waving off his young friend’s concern. “I was knocked to the floor when the first blast went off, and some molding dislodged from the ceiling and fell on my arm. The doctors assured me that I would be right as rain in a few weeks. Fortunately, I wasn’t in my box at the time,” he reflected, scratching the stubble on his chin, “or I imagine there wouldn’t be enough left of me to warrant a doctor’s attention.”
Reg had been at the Tower? Wilkins was mortified. He had given Archer the tools to commit mass murder, and then walked right into the madman’s trap and nearly gotten his best friend killed. Was this what happened when he put his quest for revenge before anything else? Was Reg’s life really worth that little to him?
“Yeah,” he agreed, “probably not. I’m really glad you’re all right, Reg. First round is on me.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, Thomas. Sadly, many others were not as fortunate as I,” said Reg grimly. “They say there’s at least fifty dead now, not counting the officers who were in the building when it exploded. What could that Showstopper fellow possibly hope to gain from such an atrocity?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, Reg,” said Wilkins, eager to change the subject. “Listen, can I ask you something?”
“Anything. You know that, Thomas.”
“All right. Does the name Jack Archer mean anything to you?”
As he said it, Reg’s breath seemed to catch in his throat and his face paled. A strange expression flitted quickly across the older man’s face: a moment of guilt, and then another of trepidation.
“Jack Archer,” he whispered, more to himself than to anyone else. “Now where in the world did you hear that?”
“What is it, Reg?” asked Wilkins. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”
“You may be right, Thomas. Where did you come by that name? I really must know.”
He obviously couldn’t tell Reg about his encounter at the Tower, so Wilkins scrambled for a reasonable excuse.
“Oh, I don’t remember. I might have heard it once or twice between actors when I worked at the Royale. Just sort of stuck in my head, that’s all.”
“That is not a name you drop in idle conversation, Thomas. Especially not when you’re talking to an Englishman like me.” Reg stroked his chin. “Jack Archer? Why, I haven’t heard of him in years. Why would someone here be talking about it now?”
“I don’t know, Reg,” said Wilkins impatiently. “And I won’t until you start giving me some answers. Who is this man? And what did he do to make people so sensitive about him?”
“My apologies, old chap,” said Reg. “You took me quite by surprise, but I’ll do my best to explain. But are you sure you want to hear this?”
Wilkins’s face hardened.
“Trust me, Reg. I’m sure.”
“Very well, then. Jack Archer was an Englishman, born in the slums of Liverpool in the latter half of this past century. His family lived in terrible poverty, and they struggled just to get food to their table. From his childhood, Archer worked in a leather factory, but he always dreamed of going to London and becoming an actor.”
“He was an actor?” Wilkins prodded, hiding the confusion that enveloped him. What would an actor be doing killing other actors?
“Yes. Well, he wanted to be, at least. The worst part was that despite everything, Archer had great promise. He was possibly the most talented actor of his entire generation. It came to him just as naturally as breathing. For years, his family slaved away in misery to save up the money to send him to London. He was their only hope for a better future.”
“So did he get there?”
“Oh, he got there, but that was where it stopped. No one would have him. No playhouse or theater would hire him. In their eyes, he was of the lower class, and less than human. All the wealthy managers turned up their noses at him, and all the actors ridiculed his presumption to be worthy of joining their world. They saw him as dirt, and they treated him as such, cheating, demeaning, and abusing him until he had nothing left: not a pence to his name.”
Wilkins didn’t think he could ever hate actors more than he already did, but now he found that this wasn’t true. In some kind of sick, twisted way, he could almost feel bad for Archer, even after everything the madman had done. Hearing his story was almost like looking in a mirror.
“And what happened to his family?”
“It was truly a tragedy. They risked everything they had to send him away, and without a top-billed actor’s income to support them, they slowly starved to death in the streets. He was their last chance, and he failed them.”
“That’s terrible,” said Wilkins, his mind racing. Now everything made sense. Archer had a vendetta against the world of theater because of what had happened to him in his past. Small wonder he would want to inflict as much pain as possible on those who inhabited them.
Before, Wilkins had been certain that despite his own anger and frustration, he would never sink to the depths of depravity that the Saboteur lived in. But when he asked himself what he would have done if their positions had been reversed, he found that he was hesitant to answer. Where would he have stopped? Or would he have stopped at all?
“It’s not the end of the story, though, is it?” he asked, attempting to get the dark imagery out of his head.
“No,” Reg said. “Not by a long shot. With the failure of his career and the fate of his family, Archer decided he had nothing left to do in life than to make the people he held responsible suffer as he had suffered. The first murder occurred in 1889, when the manager who had first denied Archer a leading role in his production was found with his throat slashed. From the gashes, bruises, and burns all over his body, the police concluded that he had been tortured horribly before his death. A week later, an actor who had beaten Archer out of a part in another show was discovered in his flat under similar circumstances. More murders followed, each more gruesome than the last. The authorities deduced the identity of the killer, but no matter how hard they tried, Archer always managed to slip through their grasp.”
“So he decided to get justice…I mean, revenge, by any means necessary.”
Reg raised an eyebrow, but continued.
“Correct, Thomas. By 1890, it was clear that Archer was determined to eliminate every last person that he thought had wronged him, even in the most minor of ways; and with his continued freedom, he grew bolder in his attacks. That September, a man dressed in black lobbed a crude gelignite explosive from a balcony seat onto the main stage of the Baker Street Theater.”
“Indeed. Five cast members and three people in the audience were killed in the blast, with many more injured. The manhunt for Archer was stepped up, but to no avail. Four more theater bombings took place in the months that followed. By 1891, London was in total chaos.”
“But did they ever catch him?” Wilkins persisted.
“That is the mystery, Thomas,” said Reg. “Around that time, Archer disappeared.”
“What do you mean, disappeared? Like he just left or something?”
“Precisely. What little trail there was went cold, and the murders and bombings abruptly ceased. The police assumed Archer had either died or left the country for fear of being apprehended, and the case was closed.”
“And that’s it?”
“What little remains to tell is at best hearsay, and at worst pure fantasy. Some people believe that Archer did in fact leave England: that he travelled across the Channel to Germany and stayed until the outbreak of the Great War. They say that out of anger, Archer defected and served as a spy and fifth-column saboteur throughout the conflict.”
“You really think he would’ve done that?”
“Who knows what the deranged are capable of, Thomas? Others say that he became a flier in the Luftwaffe and flew against the Allies in many battles. There was a German ace known as the Black Baron who shot down more aircraft in those years than any other pilot. The few witnesses of those engagements claimed the Baron matched Archer’s description.”
In spite of himself, Wilkins was fascinated.
“So what do you believe, Reg?” he asked.
The gentleman fixed him with a serious look.
“To be honest, I have no idea what to believe,” he said. “All I know is that if Jack Archer’s name has resurfaced after all these years, we had better hope that you simply misheard. Otherwise, we are all in very deep trouble. No good can come of this.”
“I think you might be right, Reg. If I hear anything else, I’ll be sure to tell you.”
“Much obliged,” said Reg. “If you don’t mind, there is something I wanted to discuss with you.”
“Of course. What is it?’
“It has come to my attention that we may have a mutual acquaintance. Do you by chance know a young woman by the name of Jennifer T. Hawke?”
“Do I know her?” exclaimed Wilkins, a pleasant rush of emotions washing over him at the thought of the girl. “Why, I’m…”
Noticing his friend’s confused expression, he trailed off and cleared his throat.
“Well, what I meant to say is, yes, I’m acquainted with her. How did you know?”
“We met several weeks ago at a social function,” Reg explained, “and I spoke with her again last night. Quite a charming girl. She certainly is one of a kind.”
“What was that, Thomas?”
“Nothing. So what did you talk about?”
The older man shrugged.
“Oh, this and that. Your name came up, actually.”
“Really? What for?”
“She seemed worried about you. Frankly, I’ve been a bit concerned as well. You haven’t been acting like yourself lately. You can talk to me, Thomas. I hope you know that. I want to help you, and so does Miss Hawke.”
Reg gave him a significant look.
“That poor girl seemed quite beside herself, I can tell you. Was there anything going on between you two?”
“No, nothing like that,” said Wilkins with a nervous laugh. “We’re just friends, Reg. That’s all.”
“I see. Well, that doesn’t make this any less difficult.”
“What’s wrong, Reg?” asked Wilkins, a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. “What haven’t you told me?”
Reg regarded his young friend sorrowfully.
“Thomas, I saw her last night in the lobby of the Tower. She was attending the same show as I.”
“Good Lord!” Wilkins cried. In all the excitement, he had forgotten about his encounter with Jennifer. “Where is she? Is she all right?”
Reg shook his head.
“I don’t know, Thomas. I haven’t seen her since last night. I invited her to share my personal box for the show, as she lacked a seat of her own. As I said, it was the one closest to the stage. I fear that she may be…”
“No,” said Wilkins firmly. “She’s all right. She has to be.”
He jumped up and grabbed the Englishman’s shoulders.
“I need you to tell me where she lives, Reg.”
“Thomas, I don’t think…”
“Damn it, I have to know!” Wilkins shouted, making the bartender glance in their direction. “Please, tell me. You must have some idea.”
“I do not know exactly,” Reg relented, “but I believe it is located somewhere on West 251st Street. I must admit, Thomas, I feel somewhat responsible for this entire affair. If there is anything you wish to talk about…”
“Not now. I’m sorry, but I have to go. The bottle’s on me.”
Wilkins grabbed his coat and dashed out of the speakeasy, nearly running over the first few people trickling in for the evening rush. Reg looked after him for a moment as the bartender finally brought over their drinks, and then shook his head again as he downed both glasses in sad succession.
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.