“Well, hell’s bells! That’s got to be the damndest story I ever heard!”
The pudgy Irishman rocked back and forth on his barstool, cackling madly, as his sagging belly trembled with derisive mirth.
“I always knew you were a clown, McKenna, but I didn’t know you actually worked in a circus!”
Breaking his deep concentration on his fourth–or maybe it was his fifth–shot of highly illicit whiskey, McKenna glared across the smoke-filled back room, but said nothing. He had already had a bad enough day as it was, and he wanted to avoid going home to talk about it for as long as he could. Anyway, if he walked in the door drunk, there would surely be hell to pay. At least here, he just had to sit quietly and listen to other people say the things he already thought about himself.
“Oho! So the big man’s not going to talk, eh?” the man chuckled. “The honorable Sergeant McKenna, if you please, won’t even spare a word for a lowly, salt-of-the-earth fellow like Dasher O’Toole? What’s the matter, McKenna? Got your gold-plated knickers in a bunch?”
The various thugs and dockworkers gathered around him laughed.
“Gold-plated knickers!” hooted a man with a bulbous red nose and hairy biceps that bulged like cords of wood. “That’s a good one, Dasher! You sure told him!”
“Can it, Fergus,” growled George O’Malley, the ostensible proprietor of the establishment, his aged brow furrowing with distaste as he scrubbed at the makeshift bar with a rag. “You too, Dasher. Can’t you see the poor man’s had a hard day?”
“I’ll say he has!” snorted Dasher, his beady and bloodshot eyes glinting. “And I plan on enjoying every minute of it. So, McKenna, tell me again about what you said to that fancy-pants politician and that half-wit Chief of yours.” He chortled merrily. “God damn, that’s never going to get old.”
McKenna’s fists clenched, but he managed to keep himself under control. There were rabble-rousing malcontents like Dasher O’Toole in every neighborhood: swindlers and hustlers, leeches on the rump of society that would slit their own mother’s throat for the promise of a few pennies. They had no credence, and deserved none in return. The only thing to do was to ignore them.
Still, Dasher and his cronies had a way of getting under his skin. And ever since he had joined the police force, his self-appointed nemesis had done everything possible to humiliate and discredit McKenna in front of whoever was present at the time. It was something about betraying his heritage and thinking he was above the rest of them, etcetera, etcetera. Fortunately, the total patronage of the dockside speakeasy at this hour included only the aforementioned parties and a pale, gaunt fellow sitting at one of the tables in the back of the room.
He suddenly got the feeling that he was being watched. He turned his head slightly, and out of the corner of his eye noticed that the mysterious man was staring at him intently.
It was probably just morbid curiosity. The stranger was amused by the ruckus Dasher was making, and that was all. But McKenna couldn’t help wondering if it really was that, or maybe something else.
“Hey, I’m talking to you,” said Dasher, settling his not insignificant bulk on the stool next to McKenna. “Don’t ignore your old mate. Tell us how a wet-behind-the-ears sellout like you figured out the Showstopper’s grand plan.”
“It’s not the Showstopper,” McKenna groaned, his words slurring from the whiskey. “You don’t understand. He’s never done anything like this before. There’s something else owing gone…going gone…”
There was another roar of laughter.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the rising star of the New York police,” Dasher crowed. “Officer Bill I-was-Sergeant-for-a-day McKenna. Rogues of the street, beware! No liquor cabinet is safe!”
The barrage of mean-spirited humor that followed fairly shook the ceiling. McKenna stared at his bootlaces, not uttering a sound. O’Malley, still busying himself with important chores, felt sorry for the younger man and whispered to McKenna as he walked by.
“Hold your tongue or get out of here, you damn fool. Don’t give these bums more clubs to beat you with.”
“Hey, O’Malley! The next round’s on me over here!” Dasher shouted, getting up and leaving McKenna to rejoin his friends.
Sighing, McKenna pushed the untouched glass away and carefully lowered himself off the stool, testing to see how sturdy his legs were and concluding that he could probably make it home before collapsing. He gave the room a last, disheartened glance, and noticed that the back table was now empty. The patron who had occupied it was nowhere to be seen.
Dasher noticed his progress toward the door and decided to fire off a few more choice remarks.
“McKenna! Where’re you going, lad? Come on back here! I’m not finished with you yet! Oy!”
Ignoring the bully’s drivel, McKenna pushed through the hidden door, stumbled across the deserted pool hall beyond, and stepped out into the night. The air was cool and smelled of the sea. The tide must be in, he thought absently. It was the end of October, and the weather was just starting to turn from the comfortable temperatures of fall to the biting chill of winter.
It was ironic in a way. The year was on the wane, just like his career as an officer. He wondered if he should consider other employment opportunities.
With his mind thus occupied, McKenna failed to notice the pale man from the back table lurking in the shadows just on the opposite side of the door. With a stony expression fixed on his face, the man reached into the pocket of his coat and drew forth a glinting dagger, perhaps six inches long. Silently, he advanced on the drunken officer’s back, raising the knife in front of him and preparing to spring
Only blind luck, and Dasher O’Toole, saved McKenna’s life. Just before the assassin stuck, the muscle-bound drunkard burst out onto the street and grabbed McKenna’s shoulder, attempting to finish what he had begun inside.
Unable to stop in the middle of his motion, the killer lunged forward, pressing a concealed button on the hilt of the weapon. There was a mechanical clicking noise.
“All right then, McKenna,” Dasher growled, his breath reeking of alcohol, as he raised a fist menacingly. “As I was saying, you no-account, stuck-up, son of an…URK!”
It is worth noting this is not the progression of conversation Dasher would have liked, but he really had no choice in the matter; especially considering that he had suddenly discovered two feet of steel protruding from his throat.
McKenna whirled around, watching in horror as the big man’s mouth opened wide in surprise and the strength left his grip. Then, with a terrible squelch, the blade withdrew from his windpipe, and what little life had kept Dasher upright left him. The stab had gone straight through the back of the neck, severing the spinal cord like a hot knife cutting through butter. Dasher O’Toole, the self-proclaimed greatest grifter in all of New York, was dead before he hit the ground.
McKenna began to backpedal, nearly tumbling over in his haste, and stared in shock at the man now bearing down on him. Where only seconds before there had been a short blade, the pale man now held a segmented three-foot sword, which he waved back and forth with deadly proficiency.
Because he was frightened out of his wits, McKenna was able to think quite clearly for a man as intoxicated as he was. He instinctively grabbed at his hip for his service revolver, but of course it wasn’t there. He was no longer a commissioned officer, and had thus been forced to turn in his weapon. He also knew that at this hour, it was unlikely that there would be anyone nearby willing or able to come to his aid.
Stepping over Dasher’s body, the pale man stalked forward, trying to close the distance between himself and his victim. He swiped with the sword, and McKenna jumped back a step as the blade drew sparks from the building’s brick façade. The killer’s sleeve drew up momentarily, and McKenna saw a mark on his arm: a tattoo in dark ink of a circle, bisected by a jagged line and crossed by two more in an ‘X’ pattern.
He didn’t have much time to think about it, though, as the man sprang again, thrusting the blade straight for his heart. The young officer’s life flashed before his eyes, but fortunately for him, the luck that protects only the drunk saved him as he lost his balance and fell heavily on his back. The thin sword whistled as it pierced the air where his body had been seconds before.
McKenna scrambled back, staring around for something to save himself with, as the assassin adjusted his grip on the sword and prepared to impale him like an insect. As the man towered over him, McKenna’s hand happened upon a pile of something gritty–perhaps dirt or dust from a shattered cobblestone. Grabbing a handful of the stuff, he flailed his arm and threw it directly into the man’s face. The killer made no sound to indicate his discomfort, but the gleaming point of the blade paused and he stopped moving, trying to clear his vision with a sleeve.
Taking the moment he had been given, McKenna struggled to his feet and stumbled off down the street, glancing over his shoulder to see if he was being pursued. Spotting the entrance to a side alley on his left, he veered toward it and dove inside, praying that his pursuer had not seen him.
What he was faced with made his heart plummet: a few old barrels and piles of litter stacked against three blank and unforgiving walls. McKenna turned around and around, searching for another means of escape, but there was none. He had nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide.
Silent as ever, the killer rounded the corner and spied him instantly. He began to advance while twirling the sword about and cutting the air in front of him like a grain reaper. McKenna backed away as quickly as his wobbly legs would carry him, but the other man was moving too fast. The blade was already up and humming toward his exposed throat like a murderous hornet. McKenna was jarred suddenly as he backed into something substantial, most likely a barrel, and a wild thought occurred to him. He put his hands behind him, grabbing for the lid of the container, and swung it out in front of him just as the sword reached its target.
The blade whined and bit through the makeshift shield to about a third of its length before it lodged in the wood, the point tickling McKenna’s skin. The assassin stared uncomprehendingly at this turn of events, and the pause was just enough for McKenna to let loose a swing with his right hand that rocked the pale man’s jaw and snapped his head to one side. The young officer was jubilant. He had done it!
The victory was short-lived, however, as his assailant’s expressionless face turned back toward him, shrugging off the blow with terrifying ease. Cracking his neck, he tugged at his blade, trying to pry it free of the barrel lid. McKenna floundered and threw another punch, but the man deflected it with a flick of his free arm and delivered a powerful backhand that nearly knocked the Irishman over.
With McKenna dazed and his eyes filling with tears of pain, the man lifted his boot to the wooden lid and shoved the officer onto his back with a quick but forceful push, yanking the sword free at the same time. McKenna had the blind fortune not to crack his head on the ground, which barely gave him time to dodge as the man stabbed at him.
McKenna rolled first one way and then the other as the sword point clashed against the ground, throwing sparks into the dark. There was a sudden clang as he knocked into a cold metal object buried in the refuse strewn about him. He barely had time to register what it was–an old, rusty fire poker, probably discarded by some upper-class family ages ago– before the murderer was upon him, the sword whistling down in a killing arc.
McKenna squeezed his eyes shut, grasped the poker, and threw it up to defend himself. There was a sudden pressure on his arm and the sound of a sigh, but not the anticipated bite of metal cleaving his head in two.
Opening his eyes, McKenna was shocked to discover that not only had the blade’s swing halted in the air only inches from his face, but also that the pointed end of the poker was now lodged in the assassin’s stomach. The man stared at McKenna for a moment, still not saying a word, and then dropped to the ground, where he moved no more.
Panting and sweating, McKenna laid there on the cold ground, unable to believe how narrowly he had escaped death. After several minutes spent trying to regain some small amount of intelligent thought, the young officer got shakily to his feet, stumbled out of the alley, and sprinted off down the road, calling out for someone–anyone–who would help him.
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.