“…I come before you today as our city stands on the brink of chaos.”
Standing atop the makeshift podium outside the 43rd Precinct’s front doors, Stevens surveyed his audience sternly.
The crowd was not as large as he would have liked, probably because of the faked note sent by the Saboteur. Thanks to that little stunt, most of Broadway was now deserted, leaving actors and managers wondering how they were going to make ends meet after their patrons vanished. Many companies were even cancelling their weekend shows to prevent themselves from losing money, and closing down until such time as the market for their talent improved. Only a smattering of brave–or perhaps foolish–citizens and critics remained, more for the chance of spotting that Showstopper cretin than anything else. So the majority of his watchers consisted of the officers he had recruited from other local precinct houses.
Behind Stevens, the collected members of the 43rd were also assembled, with the conspicuous exception of Chief Calvin. Most looked tired, indifferent, disgusted, or a combination of all three.
“There is an individual among us who will stop at nothing to destroy law, order, and all that we hold dear. I am speaking, of course, of the Showstopper.”
There were angry murmurs from the crowd.
“Those of you who have not witnessed his acts of violence and depravity have no doubt heard about them,” the politician continued, reveling in the control he held over them. “And now our enemy has the audacity to taunt us and reveal when and where he will strike next, daring us to respond and playing us like puppets. For too long, you have suffered in silence and been forced to cower in fear as the guardians of the law refused to act and stop this heinous injustice.”
He paused for dramatic effect.
“For those of you who may not know me, my name is Harold Stevens, and I represent the members of the civic council of the great city of New York. I am here on their behalf to tell you brave, downtrodden souls that you are no longer alone. Your elected representatives have heard your cries, and starting today, the police will no longer stand idly by. They will mobilize with a vengeance that the scum of this city have never witnessed!”
A few cheers and a smattering of applause followed this statement. They were buying it, the saps. Stevens smiled and turned up his rhetoric even more.
“With their help and yours, we will end the Showstopper’s reign of terror over Broadway and ensure that his kind never threaten the safety of our way of life again!”
The roar of assent from officers and civilians alike was overwhelming.
The members of the 43rd were silent. Some even rolled their eyes and muttered sarcastic comments to each other. Planted in front of everyone else, Decker crossed his arms and sulked. He wasn’t sure how long he would be able to listen to this rabble-rousing, bureaucratic propaganda without throwing up. Of course, it would all be very well if the words were coming from his mouth, but from Stevens it sounded so insincere.
“I have taken command of both the 43rd Broadway Precinct and the Showstopper investigation,” Stevens continued, straightening his tie. “And since my arrival, significant progress has been made toward catching this devious criminal…”
Across the street and several stories up, Tom Wilkins snorted in disgust.
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Not only was some fancy-dressed dandy he had never laid eyes on before claiming to know all his darkest secrets, but also a politician had taken control of a police house? He had never heard of anything like it.
Besides, the man reminded him of nearly every actor and theater big shot he had ever met. He oozed falsehood and deception. Yet those fools were devouring every word of it like he was a national hero.
He readjusted his position on the roof ledge, trying to stay in the shadow of the rather unfriendly-looking gargoyle he was perched under. Under normal circumstances, he would never have raced across the city’s rooftops in the middle of the day when he could be easily spotted, or made a point of attending what was clearly a public relations stunt. That was, if he had any choice in the matter.
“Be at the precinct on Saturday at noon sharp, guv’nor. There’s something I want you to see.”
Archer held Jennifer’s life in his hands, so Wilkins was powerless to do anything except what the madman wanted. So here he was, risking his life with every passing second.
Still, he felt more secure in his decision to come in secret and as his alter ego rather than unarmed and in person. When you had no idea what to expect, it never hurt to be prepared.
Pulling his collapsible spy scope from his belt, Wilkins extended the tubular device and held it up to his eye, scanning the scene for any signs of the Saboteur’s handiwork, but from Stevens to the crowd to the neighboring balconies, there was nothing to suggest that the villain was about.
Despite this, his mind was not at ease. Archer hadn’t told him to come here simply so Wilkins would have to endure political manure shoveling and name-calling. He knew in his gut that something was going to happen–and more than likely, it would be something very, very bad.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a brief glint of light on metal. Whipping his head around, he directed his scope at the source of the flash and located it on a rooftop several buildings away. The midday glare and distance prevented him from getting a clear view.
Wilkins rummaged through the pockets of his cloak. While he had long ago concluded that, due to weight and utility, some compromises were necessary when designing his contraptions, that didn’t stop him from creating new and more specialized gadgets to augment his older ones.
He withdrew a compact metal cylinder with several levers sticking out from the sides, and using a pair of clamps on one end attached it to the lens of his spy scope. He put his eye up to it again, but the image was so dark and distorted he could barely see anything.
Down on the platform, Stevens was in full campaign mode.
“Our investigations have revealed that the Showstopper is an experienced stagehand, likely one who has spent his entire life in and around Broadway perfecting his criminal trade. This also suggests that the Showstopper is a person with access to many sensitive areas of his targeted theaters…”
Wilkins’s fingers danced quickly across the device’s levers, flicking different sets of lenses into and out of place–more magnification, then less, lower glare, then more light–until he found the right combination that allowed him to see the mysterious object with perfect clarity.
What he saw nearly made him drop the spyglass in shock.
The sun was reflecting off the steel body of a large and powerful Browning automatic rifle, its muzzle mounted on a tripod stand and pointing down at the crowd. The fuse coiled on the ground and threaded through the back of the gun’s cartridge chamber was slowly burning away.
“My God,” he breathed.
He had to stop this. No one else was going to die because of him.
Wilkins leaped to his feet, shoved the spyglass into his cloak, and began to run across the roof, pumping his arms to pick up speed. The next building was around the same height and separated by a ten-foot gap. He cleared it with relative ease and calculated the next jump: a shorter distance, but an uncomfortably large drop.
Bracing himself but not slowing down even a fraction, Wilkins tensed and jumped forward headfirst, curling into a ball to protect his head just before hitting the concrete of the rooftop.
He rolled to cushion the impact before planting his feet and heaving himself upright again, barely breaking stride as he charged onward, his mouth set in a grim and determined line.
“We must question everything,” Stevens continued, unaware of the catastrophe unfolding above him. “We must be vigilant. No action, no matter how innocuous, can afford to go unnoticed if we hope to wrest the Showstopper’s power from him and return to our normal lives. I am appealing to your honor, your love of justice, and your devotion to patriotism…”
Wilkins drove onward, vaulting several more gaps and rooftops until one last obstacle loomed before him; the roof concealing the weapon topped off a building significantly higher than those surrounding it. Not wanting to attract attention by firing his climbing gun, he gathered all his strength and jumped again, clawing for the ledge above his head and barely managing to snag it. Puffing with exertion, he strained his arms and his feet scrabbled on the brick wall. He barely managed to gain purchase, and heaved his body onto the roof ledge.
The rifle lay poised to fire not thirty feet away. Wilkins estimated that the rapidly depleting distance between the sparks on the fuse and the gun left only seconds to spare. He scrambled across the roof, grasping for the weapon that seemed so far out of his reach.
At the last second before the fire entered the weapon’s cartridge chamber, he managed to snag the fuse with one hand and tugged on it. The twine-like material came loose, and its end burned out harmlessly in Wilkins’s hand.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he sat up and brushed the dust from his clothes. He was still on edge, however, and searched the area for anything else out of the ordinary. This was undoubtedly Archer’s work, intended to kill someone in the crowd and cause a panic, as well as further incite the public and the police against him.
Down on the street, McKenna stood silently alongside his fellow officers, his body at attention, but his eyes glazed over and his mind racing. He had a lot of work to do if he was going to track down the Showstopper. All his leads from the original case were cold, and he had no idea whom Decker had pulled in for questioning after he was booted from the investigation. He had to start fresh and somehow find out what Decker knew, but where was there left to go?
Just then, a strange thing caught his eye: a flutter in an upper-story window of the apartment building just across the street from the precinct. He was sure he had seen a flash of something in the dark. Could it have been metal?
He wanted to say something about it, but he had no idea who he would tell. Everybody in his own precinct thought he was crazy, and none of the new officers knew him well enough to trust him. If he raised a false alarm, Calvin would have his badge for sure, and he didn’t even want to think of what Stevens or Decker might do.
He glanced at the officers around him for confirmation, but none of the other members of the 43rd even batted an eye.
Back on the rooftop, Wilkins noticed a small slip of paper tied to the barrel of the gun. He undid the knot and unrolled it, reading its brief contents in sharp, angry pen strokes:
You win this round, mate. I hope you’re happy, because next time you won’t be.
What on earth did that mean? He wasn’t aware that he had won anything. What had he done to so irritate Archer?
One thing was for certain; a man like him would never react this way just for having a random murder spoiled. The self-firing, unconcealed gun and planted note reeked of a set-up.
Dropping flat on his stomach, Wilkins lowered his head and peered through the crosshairs of the rifle to determine the Saboteur’s intended target.
To his shock, the gun was not pointed at the crowd, or at any of the police officers. The sight was centered directly on the politician Stevens’ head.
Wide-eyed, Wilkins grabbed the rifle and pulled open its cartridge housing. The weapon wasn’t loaded. Not a single bullet had been inserted.
It all came together with terrifying speed.
The report echoed up and down the street, making officers and civilians alike stare around and murmur uneasily. No one was sure what had happened until Harold Stevens, whose bombastic address had been cut off in mid-sentence, keeled forward onto his podium and toppled to the ground, a bloody hole drilled through the center of his brain.
Screams of terror and shouts of police officers erupted as Wilkins sat bolt upright and snapped his head toward the source of the gunshot, just managing to catch a glimpse of an oddly elongated barrel retreating into a window on the next building over. He knew exactly what he had to do, and the consequences be damned.
He began to run once more, pulling out his climbing gun. Cocking the weapon and checking to make sure that the dart was properly loaded, Wilkins reached the edge of the building and with all his might launched himself into thin air. As he began to freefall, he aimed at a protruding gargoyle on the nearest corner of the building and pulled the trigger.
With a bang and rattle, the projectile flew true, trailing its cord behind. There was a renewed wave of cries from below as the police drew their revolvers at the second shot before stopping to stare at what was occurring above them.
“Look, up there!”
“It’s the Showstopper!”
The dart crunched into the stone, and Wilkins’s arm jerked as the thread reached its full extension. He arced across the façade of the building at a dizzying rate, eyes fixed on the window where he had seen the weapon. He reached the top of his swing and bore down toward it, flipping his goggles into place with his free hand and kicking his feet out. He smashed through the glass, while simultaneously detaching the climbing gun’s cable.
Wilkins rolled and thrust the gun back into his cloak, coming up with his fists clenched and ready to fight. He was in a small, abandoned apartment, entirely devoid of furniture and with walls riddled by mold-filled cracks. A dark shape stood in the doorway, slowly clapping his gloved hands together. A horribly familiar customized rifle was slung over his shoulder.
“Very impressive, guv’nor. You’re a regular three-ring circus. But if you’ll excuse me, I got some business to take care of. See you in the funny papers.”
Wilkins launched himself at Archer, who parried the janitor’s series of enraged strikes and quickly slammed one of his own into Wilkins’s jaw. The young man saw stars as the Saboteur bolted off down the corridor.
Just as his enemy reached the stairs, Wilkins managed to stagger upright and heave a smoke pellet down the hallway. It exploded at Archer’s feet and billowing clouds of white, powdery gas filled the Saboteur’s vision. This caused him to choke and miss the critical first step, sending him tumbling down the staircase.
Wilkins sprinted to the top of the stairs and prepared to leap down upon the disoriented Archer, his goggles giving him some measure of protection against the thinning smoke. The Saboteur, however, snarled and dug a hand into a pouch on his belt. He cocked his arm back and let fly with a number of his own small capsules.
Sensing a trick, Wilkins dove backward into the hall just as several small but powerful explosions ripped through the floor and walls and sent shrapnel whizzing though the air.
Disoriented and with his ears ringing, he scrambled to his feet, but it was too late. His attacker was gone, vanished like a ghost in the remaining smoke.
First a climbing gun, then timed bombs, and now long-range rifles and explosive pellets? How many of his designs had Archer lifted and perverted for his own use? Worse still, how much of it was his fault for designing the infernal things in the first place?
Covered with dust and debris and bleeding from numerous cuts and scrapes, Wilkins laid there trying to comprehend everything that had happened. There was no clear reason why Archer would want to off a politician, and an assassination like this would only draw more attention to his actions. It defied logic: not to mention that the madman apparently blamed him for forcing his hand. Why?
He began to brush himself off again, but stopped when he noticed a foreign object in his cloak’s outer pocket. It was another folded note, written on paper identical to the one he had found attached to the rifle. Archer must have planted in on him during their brief altercation.
Apologies about having to leave without a proper good-bye. Nothing personal. Remember our deal. Be there tomorrow night, or Jennifer dies. And then I’m coming for you.
Wilkins crumpled the note in his fist. He wasn’t angry anymore. He was far beyond such basic emotions. He was going to get to the bottom of this, and neither Jennifer nor anyone else was going to die before he killed Archer with his bare hands. That was a promise.
He heard the thunder of footsteps on the stairs and the barking of orders. By the sound of it, every last one of the policemen he had seen on the street was currently scouring every corner of the building for the Showstopper. At this point, Wilkins doubted that his being alive when they brought him in was a top priority.
By the time the officers reached the last landing on the stairs, their guns at the ready, the destroyed hallway was deserted and silent, as though no one had ever been there.