After what would no doubt go down as the shortest career of a ranked policeman in New York City history, freshly demoted Officer William McKenna was back to doing what he did best: bringing other people their coffee.
The change, however, was not nearly as calming as one might imagine. After the events of several nights previous, McKenna now refused to walk the streets after dark alone, and would frequently employ a grumbling and resentful fellow officer to accompany him on the long stroll between the precinct house and his family abode.
Even when in such company, he would never travel unarmed. As a non-commissioned member of the force, he was not permitted to carry a gun or a truncheon, but there would always be an improvised weapon, such as a candlestick or a letter-opener, concealed beneath his coat and gripped by his white-knuckled hand, ready to be brandished at a moment’s notice.
Not to mention the fact that he was compelled to look over his shoulder at least three times a minute. His nerves were a mess. He could barely even sleep at night anymore.
All of it was made infinitely worse by the fact that no one, not even his friends–if it could be said that he had any–believed him.
“Hey, McKenna,” said Decker. “Look out! The imaginary man with the magical knife might be sneaking up on you.”
McKenna sighed and set the steaming cup down as the Captain burst out laughing behind what had until recently been the Irishman’s desk. Some nearby officers snickered unkindly. Others rolled their eyes and wished Decker would shut his big mouth before someone shut it for him, but of course made no move to follow through on the threat.
“BOO!” Decker yelled, making McKenna jump nearly a foot in the air and causing a bit of coffee to slop over the lip of the cup as he did so. This merely brought another gust of mirth from Decker as the young officer hurriedly tried to mop up to puddle with his handkerchief.
“Good God, this is never going to get old,” the Captain chuckled, drying tears of laughter with his sleeve. “So tell me again, paddy. How long was the knife he almost stabbed you with?”
McKenna bit his tongue. He didn’t need any more trouble.
“Oh, come on, McKenna. Be a pal. You can’t expect to come running into Stevens’ office like a lunatic and raising Cain over an imaginary killer and not have people ask questions. So how long was that knife he had?”
The expectant and insulting grin on Decker’s face baited McKenna into speaking before he could stop himself.
“It was around three feet, actually. Maybe four. I’m damn lucky to be alive.”
“Sure, sure,” said Decker, making an elbow-bending motion to the hilarity of the nearby officers. “Of course. A four-foot knife he just happened to pull out of his back pocket. And tell me, paddy, how much did you have to drink before this happened? Hitting the good stuff, eh?”
“Forget it,” said McKenna. “You can believe whatever you want…sir.”
Even though Decker was in a superbly good mood, he wasn’t about to take something he perceived as an insult lying down.
“You know, McKenna, I guess I can see why a bum like you wouldn’t want this job,” he said. “Now that Calvin finally did something intelligent and put me in charge of the Showstopper case, I’m going to go places in this precinct. Not that he had a choice. Our new boss Stevens realizes that things need to change around here starting at the top, and he knows I’m the man to do it.”
He smiled triumphantly.
“People better get used to me calling the shots around here. With the friends I have now, it’s only a matter of time before that simpleton Calvin gets the boot and I take over the 43rd. I suppose certain people were born to do certain jobs. I was born to lead and succeed, and you were born to be a fat, lazy, no-account drunk that’ll never make it past junior officer.”
With every word, McKenna felt himself growing smaller and smaller, and he knew there was nothing he could do about it.
“So I understand you dropping this case,” Decker concluded. “I really do. You’re just like the rest of your kind; no motivation, no morals, and no manhood.”
He stared the Irishman down, as though daring him to make a move. The other officers turned away, embarrassed for McKenna, but too cowardly to intervene.
“Is that all, sir?” asked McKenna.
“Just one more thing,” said Decker, grasping the handle of the mug, flicking his wrist, and sending the contents splattering across the young man’s pristine uniform.
“Now we’re even, you immigrant bastard,” he snarled, shoving the empty cup back into McKenna’s limp fingers. “Looks like I need some more coffee, Officer. So hop to it.”
His head hung low, McKenna shuffled away from the desk and back across the precinct floor, unsure of whether he actually intended to fetch his superior more coffee or not. He felt all his hopes crumbling around him, and wondered if things could get any worse.
“For what it’s worth,” said a snarky voice from behind him, “I believe you, sport.”
Yes, McKenna concluded. Things could most definitely get worse.
“I’m not in the mood, Goodwin,” he growled. “Get lost.”
The reporter pushed the brim of his hat up and folded his arms, acting hurt.
“Is that any way to talk to your personal private investigator? You do realize that sticking my neck out for someone else isn’t exactly in character for me, right?”
“I never asked you to be my personal anything, scoop,” said McKenna. “So scram. If the Chief, if Stevens…hell, if even Decker saw me talking to you, they’d have my badge rather than just my masculinity.”
Goodwin sniffed and turned away, lighting a cigarette.
“Fine. That saves me the trouble of telling you about all the juicy dirt I dug up on that scumbag Stevens. I’m sure you wouldn’t want it, anyway. It’s only information that could be vital to you and your Chief’s jobs, not to mention the survival of this precinct. You get the idea.”
“Right. Because you’ve been so honest and open in the past,” said the Irishman. “Why would you tell me this? It’s not out of the goodness of your heart or for the love of your city, and don’t pretend like it is. What do you get out of it?”
“The same thing I’ve always wanted from you, McKenna,” Goodwin smirked. “The story. The report that’s going to make me the most famous newsman in the country. Once this case gets cracked, my name will go coast to coast.”
“I told you once, and I’ll tell you again,” said McKenna. “I’m not going to be your source. I won’t talk.”
“Everybody talks. I’ve cracked tougher nuts than you before. It just takes patience and time.”
As badly as McKenna wanted to send the presumptuous reporter packing, his curiosity got the better of him–or perhaps it was just his anger, paranoia, and depression.
“All right, Goodwin,” he sighed. “You win. So what do you know?”
“Thought you’d never ask, sport,” the reporter grinned. “I did some research into the council’s records, and it seems your new boss is quite the busy bee.”
“Stevens won’t be my boss for long,” McKenna insisted. “He’s slick, but he can’t keep Calvin down forever. The Chief’s going to…”
“I wouldn’t count on that if I were you. Stevens may be new at the politics game, but he plays it like a professional. My contacts tell me he’s got his hands in every pie the council’s got from law enforcement to landmarks, plus some friends up where the air gets pretty thin.”
The reporter smiled.
“I’m also fairly sure he’s engaged in some minor rum-running, but then again, who isn’t?”
“Well, it’s a start,” said McKenna, “but are you sure there’s nothing else? Something concrete we could pin on him?”
“As always, I assume that when you say ‘we’, you mean ‘you’, McKenna. Information aside, I can’t give you anything. I’m certain that some of my editors are on the council’s payroll, and if I made any move against him in print, they’d shut me down faster than you could down a shot of whiskey.”
“Damn it, scoop! What good is it to have hundreds of people hanging on your every word if you won’t even use it when you have the chance to really change things? You wouldn’t do it when I told you the Showstopper wasn’t responsible for the Tower bombing, and you won’t do it now.”
“I’m still not sold on that one, by the way,” Goodwin said, raising an eyebrow. “Who else but the Showstopper would be crazy enough to blow up a theater?”
“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?”
There was a moment of silence between them.
“In any case,” the reporter continued, “it’s obvious Stevens is crooked, but nobody’s got anything solid to stick to him. That is, if he hasn’t gotten to them first and bribed them to clam up. He’s smart enough to cover his tracks.”
“I thought you said you had something important to tell me.”
“Like I said, I took the liberty of perusing some of the more recent council sessions, and apparently in the last few months Stevens managed to weasel his way onto the board of the Committee for Municipal Appropriations.”
The reporter sighed.
“It means he’s in charge of construction: bridges, roadwork, new buildings, anything that takes silver and steel. Specifically, he seems to have taken an interest in acquiring and managing demolition materials.”
“Demolition…” McKenna’s eyes widened. “You mean like explosives?”
“Very good, sport. Looks like you’ve been exercising the old noodle. Anyway, all construction records are public knowledge, so I did some snooping, and it turns out the numbers don’t add up. Extra materials get contracted to certain sites and just up and vanish. Stock inventories contradict each other. The committee pulls in more money than what it ships out is worth. Something’s not right.”
“So you think he’s offloading them on someone else illegally?”
“Either that, or someone’s lining his pockets to look the other way while they steal them. If I were you, I’d keep a close eye on that rat from now on. Now that he has this kind of authority, he’s not going to just walk away when all this is over. It won’t be long before he starts remaking your precinct in his own image, and once that happens, how long do you figure he’ll keep altar boys like you around?”
“This can’t be happening!” McKenna exclaimed. “I’m the only one who knows the Showstopper wasn’t responsible for that attack.”
“Yeah, about that…tell me, how is that again?”
“It’s a simple pattern. Nearly a year this Showstopper business has been going on, almost sixty separate incidents reported, and you know how many people have died?”
“None,” the reporter replied instantly. “Except for the bombing the other day. I do keep track, you know. It’s in the job description.”
“Exactly. So after all that, he just one day gets up and becomes a homicidal maniac overnight? It doesn’t fit. If he wanted to kill people, he could have done it long before now. Lord knows he’s had the opportunity.”
“All right then, McKenna,” said Goodwin. “For the sake of argument, let’s suppose for just a moment that you’re not completely crazy and that I actually believe you. I’m not sure about either of those, by the way. How do you plan on convincing anyone else? Stevens will never take you seriously even if he’s not involved, and from what I can tell, you’re running a little short on friends around here.”
“I have friends!” McKenna protested, hurt. “But Decker hates me, and everyone knows he wants Calvin’s job. No one’s going to stand up to him because they’re sure he’ll be the next Chief.”
“Well, what about Calvin, then?”
The Irishman shook his head.
“No chance. He hates Stevens as much as the next man, but the council refused to even hear his appeal. He’s beaten, and he knows it. He’s also not too fond of me right now. I’m the officer who got a building blown up on his watch, after all.”
Goodwin shrugged, taking a long drag on his cigarette.
“Sounds to me like you’re right out of luck, sport.”
“No,” said McKenna, the sudden spark of an idea kindling in his mind. “There’s something we forgot about. There’s one person who could tell us exactly what’s going on.”
“What are you on about?” the reporter demanded, his baffled and frustrated expression giving McKenna no little satisfaction. “Who could you possibly…”
He trailed off as he recognized the small, dazed smile on the policeman’s face and whipped the cigarette out of his mouth, pointing a finger in alarm.
“Now wait just a goddamn minute…”
“The Showstopper,” McKenna finished, hardly able to believe he was saying it. “He’s the key. He has all the answers. I have to find him before Stevens, Decker, or anyone else does.”
He chuckled, uncertain of whether he was brilliant or simply deranged.
“I’m going to catch the Showstopper.”
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.