“The Showstopper!”: Chapter 27

27

 

Rubbing his eyes to clear the fog of words that swam in his vision, McKenna pored over the documents scattered across his rickety desk and once again wondered if he had gone completely insane.

It must have been a fit of pure madness that inspired him to sneak into the precinct’s filing room and filch the original records of the Showstopper case. Although both Decker and Calvin had concluded that there were no more valuable insights to be gleaned from the old reports, and McKenna was reasonably sure no one would miss them, it was still an enormous risk.

And the worst part was that at this point, he wasn’t even surprised at himself for doing it. With how far off standard procedure he had gone, who knew what he was capable of anymore?

He shuddered to think what Decker would do to him if he found out about the stolen files.

Of course, he rather preferred to think of it as “borrowing without permission,” but he was relatively sure that argument would not be swinging any opinions.

Even worse was how Molly would react if she discovered what he was up to. For one thing, she had no blessed idea that he had been kicked off the Showstopper investigation in the first place–something he had conveniently forgotten to tell her about on numerous occasions. Now he had to keep up the act. She was a sharp woman, and was sure to be suspicious of his bringing large, official-looking folders stamped all over with big red CONFIDENTIAL labels back to their rat-trap apartment where anyone could get into them.

McKenna couldn’t decide whose wrath he was more frightened of: Decker’s or his wife’s. He decided it was best to try and avoid both if possible.

But he couldn’t see how that would happen if he didn’t learn something useful from these files soon. He had been over them again and again, scouring the written record for any kind of detail that might give him a lead on the Showstopper.

Since the death of Stevens, he had been floating in a haze of disbelief. The pursuit of truth had become his obsession. Now he was certain that the Showstopper was not the only thing in play here. Something else was going on, and it was his job to find out what it was before Decker, the politicians, or anyone else had the chance to cover it up.

What he had found, however, was nothing: not even a shred of helpful evidence. He might have had more luck hitting his head against a wall.

“Bill! Get your lazy arse in here! It’s time for dinner. BILL!”

“Just a minute, dear!”

“NOW, BILL!”

McKenna sighed and rose to his feet, defeated. If he didn’t have a woman looking over his shoulder and nagging him all the time…

He disregarded the thought immediately. Not only was it mean-spirited and hasty, but also it was foolishness to dwell on things that hadn’t happened.

And that was when the idea struck him.

He sat back down, shuffling through the papers with a new determination. Until now, he had been wasting time trying to make sense out of what had happened. But what if he instead focused on what hadn’t happened?

He reviewed the facts again. Among the numerous playhouses on Broadway, both large and small, there were ten top managers that together owned them all. Theaters belonging to each had all been hit at least once by the Showstopper during the criminal’s spree of destruction, some more often than others.

But wait a moment. That wasn’t true.

He scanned the documents again to be sure there was no mistake. One manager had never been targeted by the Showstopper. He couldn’t believe that he hadn’t noticed it sooner.

“Sir Reginald Coxley,” he read. “The Majestic Theater.”

He vaguely heard Molly hollering in the background that if he didn’t come in for dinner this very instant that she would leave him, but he was no longer listening. He had found the lead he was looking for, and he knew exactly what he had to do.

McKenna rushed out of the apartment and down the stairs to the tenement building’s lobby, where he made a beeline for the public telephone on the wall. He rotated the dial in correspondence with a number written on a crumpled piece of notebook paper clutched in his fist.

“Goodwin?” he hissed. “It’s me, McKenna. No, scoop, I’m not telling you anything about your damned story. Now you listen to me. I need a favor.”

***

The sudden and insistent knocking at the door of his penthouse suite startled Sir Reginald Coxley out of a comfortable reverie.

Grumbling irritably to himself, the Englishman leaned on his cane and shuffled over to the door.

“I say, my dear chap, but are you aware of the time? If you have business with me, I suggest you come back tomorrow. I am an old man who needs rest, and if I don’t get it, I tend to become quite put out. Now, good evening.”

A small voice came back from the other side of the door, tentative but there nonetheless, and with an Irish accent that was difficult to miss.

“I’m sorry, Sir Coxley, but you have to let me in. I’m with the police, and I’m here about a very important case.”

“Bother your important! I haven’t done anything wrong, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar and a fraud. Good evening!”

“Please, sir,” the voice responded. “I’m terribly sorry for it being late and all, but I’d never disturb you unless it was really urgent. With your help, I may be able to break this case wide open. Five minutes?”

Police officer or not, the man’s tone sounded sincere. After a moment’s hesitation, Reg unbolted the latch and opened the door, admitting a red-haired fellow in plainclothes who stared at the luxury around him with noticeable discomfort.

“Thank you, sir,” the man said graciously, extending a hand. “I’m Officer William McKenna, and I’m here about…”

“Just a moment,” said Reg, holding up a hand. “If you have no objections, Officer, may I view your badge?”

The man gulped, but nodded and dug into his overcoat pocket, withdrawing the gleaming gold shield of the 43rd Precinct.

“Is this good enough for you, Sir Coxley?”

“Indeed,” said Reg, offering a smile and directing McKenna into the main room. “My apologies, Officer McKenna, but one can’t be too careful these days. Please, have a seat.”

“It’s all right, sir. And thank you,” said McKenna, sitting carefully in the indicated armchair as though it was a delicate piece of china that might shatter under his weight.

“So, Officer,” the Englishman continued, ambling with minor difficulty over to his couch and sitting down. “What matter of importance brings you to me this evening?”

McKenna hesitated before speaking, as though considering his words carefully.

“Well, in all honesty, sir, the case I’m working on is top secret. I’d appreciate it if you kept this little talk between us for now.”

“Of course.”

“In that case, what do you know about the Showstopper?”

“The Showstopper?” asked Reg, blinking with surprise at the bluntness of the inquiry. “Very little, thank heavens. I know that he is a dangerous criminal who has wreaked havoc up and down Broadway with his destructive attacks, and that he is now wanted for the murders of a prominent politician and a good number of other people in the bombing of the Tower Theater. In fact, I believe I remember your name being used in reference to that incident…you aren’t by any chance the McKenna in charge of the Showstopper investigation, are you?”

“Oh…err…yes, that’s me,” McKenna stammered.

“But as I recall, weren’t you a Sergeant then? What happened to your title, Officer?”

“Oh,” said the Irishman haltingly. “That. Right. It’s just a courtesy thing, really. Nobody actually calls me Sergeant. I don’t like flaunting it around much. It sort of intimidates people.”

“Naturally,” said Reg, skeptical but letting the subject drop for now. “Have you made any new breakthroughs in the case?”

“Oh, various…you know, new things…have recently come to light. I’d rather not say what they are just now. And Stevens…” McKenna shook his head. “I still can’t believe it myself.”

“Nor I. It boggles the mind how a rogue like that could have the audacity to murder a man of Stevens’ caliber in broad daylight. And surrounded by police, too.”

“You think the Showstopper did it, then?”

“Well, of course,” said Reg. “Who else could it be?”

“Of course. Right.”

McKenna looked up and fixed him with a serious stare.

“And about that business with the Tower…before you ask, yes, it happened on my watch. That’s partly the reason I’m still pursuing this case. Those deaths are my fault, so I figure the least I can do is to bring that bastard to justice. If you’ll pardon my saying so, sir.”

Reg nodded sympathetically.

“I understand completely, Officer. You don’t need to explain yourself to me. It must be very difficult for a man in your position to make decisions that can affect so many lives.”

“It can be, yes. If you’ll forgive me again, sir, I’m just a bit surprised that you’re so willing to talk about this. Other managers I’ve spoken to have been…well…less than cooperative.”

“You mean to say they’ve made complete asses of themselves?” asked Reg, chuckling at the policeman’s look of shock. “That’s hardly surprising. Many of them pride that as a talent. I learned long ago that while it may be easier to make enemies than friends, the latter is nearly always more valuable. I do my best to be civil to everyone, including my peers and my actors. After all, isn’t it likely that their superior attitudes caused the Showstopper problem in the first place?”

“On that note, sir,” said McKenna, “this is getting to what I wanted to ask you about. A few weeks ago, you were quoted in an article in the Broadway Revue saying that the Showstopper’s crime wave was a good thing for you. How exactly is that?”

Frowning, Reg rose to his feet and began to pace up and down the carpet, aided by his ever-present cane.

“Ah, yes,” he said. “The heart of the matter. I should have known that weasel Goodwin would twist my words around so that damnable rag he calls a newspaper would sell more copies. I was simply commenting on the phenomenon of the Showstopper in relation to society.”

“Sir?”

“I am a student of human nature, Officer,” Reg explained. “People’s reactions to and fixations on things they cannot control have fascinated me since I was a boy. It often amazes me the lengths people go to in order to convince themselves that they have ownership over their lives. Above all, I am continually awed by humanity’s secret love of destruction, danger, and a good mystery. I merely observed that if a manager could use the attraction of the public to the notoriety and daring crimes of the Showstopper, their theaters could gather larger crowds than they could without the threat to order that he represents.”

“But then, if people don’t have control over their lives,” said McKenna, “what does?”

“Why, fate does, my fine fellow. We all follow the paths destiny has chosen for us, and we have little say in the matter. I am sure the events that set the Showstopper on his path are not all that dissimilar from those that made you become a police officer. Though we may try to fight it, destiny will always win out in the end.”

Reg stopped and shook his head.

“But enough of that. My apologies; I do tend to go on sometimes. In light of recent events, I can understand how my previous comments could be seen as suspicious and insensitive. Please understand I made them in the context of that time, before any of this sordid murder business.”

“It’s all right,” said McKenna. “Nobody’s accusing you of anything, sir. Just one more question. I’ve been going back over the incident reports for the Showstopper’s past crimes, and it seems that your theaters are the only ones that have never been hit. Would you know anything about that?”

The Englishman’s expression darkened again.

“I’m sure I haven’t the foggiest,” he said. “I’d really never considered it.”

He raised his cane and pointed to an object that hung above the mantelpiece across the room. It was a beautiful tapestry adorned with woven vines of elegant ivy and Victorian designs. In the center stood an ancient shield of war, split down the middle and crossed by swords, under which stood the inscription Mihi Vindicta.

“Are you familiar with the Latin, Officer?”

“Can’t say that I am, sir.”

“Then allow me to translate. The mihi vindicta has been my family crest for generations. Back in England, we were once a prominent clan, but we fell on hard times. Our bad luck combined with incessant attacks upon our honor by our many jealous rivals finally succeeded in destroying our inheritance and driving my family into the ground. When I was a boy, I swore I would become a great and powerful man and restore my family’s standing in society. I lived and breathed by that motto.”

He looked McKenna in the eye.

Mihi vindicta: it means, ‘vengeance will be mine’. I promised to avenge myself upon those that had so oppressed me. I came to this country to start anew and give my name a clean slate, but I will never forget where I began and what drove me to become who I am today. Perhaps this, Officer McKenna, is why the Showstopper has not felt moved to sabotage one of my productions. Perhaps he, whomever he is, understands what kind of man I am.”

Reg’s hand tightened on the golden head of his cane.

“And perhaps he knows that if he ever dared to cross me, I would not rest until he was hunted down and made to pay for his foolishness. I am a driven man, a man of purpose: a man of destiny. No matter how long it may take, sooner or later, vengeance will always be mine.”

There was an awkward silence as the Englishman let everything he had said sink in. Finally, McKenna nodded and rose from his chair.

“All right, then. That was all I came by to ask, Sir Coxley. Again, thanks for your time.”

“My pleasure, old chap,” said Reg. “I apologize for rattling on, but I do dearly love company, and I get so little these days. When you get to be my age, you take any opportunity you can for some conversation.”

“No problem at all, sir,” said McKenna, putting on his coat and making for the door. “I really appreciate all your help. But please, don’t tell anyone else about this conversation.”

“Discretion is my middle name, my boy. And please inform me if I can help in any further way. I do hope you manage to bring that scoundrel to justice.”

“Me too, sir. Good night.”

With that, McKenna stepped out of the penthouse and swept the door shut behind him. He sighed and began back down the building’s lengthy staircase, pulling on his threadbare gloves.

It was hard not to feel disappointed. The entire interview had been a waste of time. Coxley had obviously known nothing about the Showstopper, and hadn’t told him anything he didn’t already know.

Certainly, the Englishman was far from the jolly and perhaps slightly senile old man that McKenna had taken him for at first, but that alone was not enough to incriminate him. Furthermore, his skill in bamboozling the questions McKenna had thrown at him left the Irishman’s assessment of his character as beyond reproach: a bit haunted by the ghosts of his past, perhaps, but McKenna knew what that was like all too well.

So once again, he was at a loss. He had hit a dead end with Coxley, and had no idea how to proceed. Perhaps a night’s rest would help to put things in perspective.

One thing, however, latched onto his mind like a stubborn fishhook and refused to let go: the family crest on the wall and the grandiose yet ominous maxim. He was positive he had seen that sigil somewhere before, but where?

***

The following morning, an unexpected figure strolled through the doors of the Royale Theater, leaning heavily on an exotic, custom-made cane with a magnificent gold head.

In his office, leaning back in his chair and staring at the ceiling, Johnson C. DuBois was so absorbed by hopelessness and self-pity that he at first failed to hear the soft but persistent knocking at his door, until the man doing the knocking cleared his throat pointedly.

Growling and frowning, the manager shoved the chair back and stood up, turning to face his antagonist.

“Do you mind? I’ve had quite enough for today, thank you very much. How on God’s Earth am I supposed to get my rest when I have to deal with everyone else’s…”

“A pleasure to see you as well, Johnson,” said Reginald Coxley, smiling evenly.

“Coxley,” DuBois spat. “I might have known you’d show up sooner or later. What is it this time? Come to gloat over my ruin? Well get in line, you limey bastard.”

“Now, now, old boy. No need to make a fuss. I was just passing by, and I couldn’t help but notice that the Royale seemed quiet for this time of day. And why would that be?”

DuBois snorted.

“As if you didn’t know. You’ve got some nerve, Coxley. I’m just doing what everyone else on this street is doing: facing up to the fact that thanks to that Showstopper lunatic, there’s no market for our business here anymore. People don’t want to come see a show if there’s a possibility they’ll get blown apart in their seats before the first act is over.”

He paused for a moment, giving the Englishman a suspicious look.

“Come to think of it, why is it exactly that you’re still here? Seeing as you’re the one who prides himself on being modern and sensible, I thought you’d be the first one off this sinking ship.”

“Despite what you may think of me, Johnson,” Reg sniffed, “I intend to persevere. Though these times may be difficult, I have no reason to run away. After all, I was not the one who caused this fiasco.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Come off it. You all should have listened to me. When the Showstopper first began to offer his services about, I tried to be the voice of reason. I alone insisted that giving credence to such a man would have disastrous consequences, but none of you listened. You were like sharks with the scent of each other’s blood in the water, using the Showstopper as a weapon in your petty feuds and tearing each other apart. It was a disgusting exhibition.”

“Don’t act like you’re not part of this,” DuBois snarled. “What good is your high and mighty attitude going to do when the Showstopper finally comes for you? Then you’ll have no choice but to get down in the dirt with the rest of us.”

“On the contrary, my friend, unlike you I had the foresight to plan for that eventuality.” Reg waved a hand. “But enough of this argument. It is old, and time is wasted when speaking of the past. I am here to talk to you, Johnson, about the future. I have a proposition for you.”

“And what makes you think I would be interested in anything you have to say?”

“Because I know that you are desperate. Not to mention how much you love a good fleecing.”

As badly as DuBois wanted to kick the smug Englishman out of his theater, the allure of easy money was too great to resist.

“You’d better start making sense,” he growled.

“I believe you have a show opening tonight. It is a production of Hamlet, correct?”

“Not anymore. I cancelled it and told all the actors to go home. No use doing a show when you’ve got no audience. They were amateurs anyway. They’d never have made a go of it.”

“Perhaps not under normal circumstances,” said Reg slyly, “but circumstances are currently far from normal. Let us say you were to open your show tonight…”

“Which won’t happen.”

“And bring your actors up to speed…”

“Which I can’t do.”

“You, old chap, would be quite literally the only show in town. You could have Broadway’s entire audience, as well as all their hard-earned money, to yourself.”

The idea of ripping off that many people was quite tempting, but DuBois was unconvinced.

“It would never work, Coxley. First off, after everything that’s happened with the Showstopper, how many people do you really expect to attend a Broadway performance? They would have to be idiots to put their lives at risk by entering a theater.”

“You underestimate human nature, Johnson,” said Reg. “The same attraction to violence and danger that drew you to the Showstopper in the beginning can be used to market your production more effectively. More people will attend for the chance to see the Showstopper than for your amateur show. Believe me when I say that the audience is not the problem.”

“Secondly,” DuBois continued, “if the Showstopper does attack tonight, then I’ll really be ruined. I’ll be completely out of funds. I doubt very much that I’d be able to afford repairs as extensive as the last time it happened. I simply do not have the money to risk another show.”

“In that case, I propose a joint venture,” said Reg, tapping his cane on the ground to emphasize his point. “I will throw my full financial backing behind tonight’s performance. I will also take responsibility for any damages that the Showstopper may inflict to your theater. What do you say?”

So much money, and none of it his problem? DuBois was certain that he must have died and gone to heaven.

“But why would you do this?” he demanded. “What’s in it for you?”

Reg crossed his legs and placed both hands on his cane head, smiling triumphantly.

“Of course, there are a few minor concessions I would require to put this plan into action,” he said. “But we are reasonable men, Johnson. I am sure we can work something out.”

 

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