“The Showstopper!”: Chapter 29

29

 

McKenna tried to swallow his discomfort and hide how out of place he felt in the cavernously empty lobby of the Royale Theater.

In the nearly twenty minutes that he had been loitering around, perhaps four or five couples and one larger group of people had passed by, strolling through the doorway to the main auditorium. All had been glancing over their shoulders nervously, as if concerned that at any moment the building might come down around their ears.

Given the times they were living in, McKenna couldn’t say that he blamed them. The constant threat of the Showstopper had everyone on edge.

What he couldn’t understand why the Royale would be putting on a show at all tonight. After yesterday’s mass exodus, Broadway was a ghost town. Nearly all the other theaters were closed. Why this one would be expending money on such an exercise in futility defied logic.

Well, he certainly wasn’t going to find anything standing here. If he wanted information, he had to go to the source, and he had been around Broadway long enough to know that actors loved nothing more than talking.

Walking through the large oak doors and down the dimly lit hallway, he paused in front of a side door bearing a gold star and the word MANAGER in large, fancy script. McKenna knocked, tentatively at first, and then with more gusto. Still hearing nothing, he slowly turned the filigreed knob and opened the door.

“Excuse me, but is the manager…”

A short, rotund man dressed in a fine silk suit and spotless black shoes was leaning over an antique mahogany desk on which laid an open, unmarked case. The man cackled gleefully as he ran his fingers through the piles of money that filled it to bursting.

“It’s mine,” he murmured. “All mine. That old fool. He must be out of his…”

McKenna coughed politely.

“Excuse me, sir?”

“What? Who?” The man spun around, snapping the case shut and leaning heavily on the bulging lid. He frowned at McKenna. “What do you want, boy?”

“Officer William McKenna, 43rd Precinct. I’m sorry, sir, but do you have a moment?”

“A moment? Oh…” the man stammered, looking around nervously. “No, I’m afraid not. My apologies, my good man, but I simply must go. I have an appointment to keep.”

“Just a minute, sir,” said McKenna, trying to maintain a semblance of authority. “Are you the owner of this theater?”

“Yes. I’m Johnson C. DuBois, manager and entrepreneur,” the man blustered, jamming the case shut and taking it up in his arms. “I’m sure you’ve heard of me. I’m a terribly important person. Now, stand aside. I’m late.”

“Only a few questions, Mr. DuBois. You were here when the Showstopper attacked this theater last week, weren’t you?”

“Showstopper?” asked DuBois, now sweating visibly and staring around as though searching for another exit. “Oh, that Showstopper. No, no, that was nothing. A minor accident, really.”

“But sir, our records say the attack cost your theater over $500,000 in damages to the building alone, not counting props and stage equipment. Do you have any idea why the Showstopper would target you?”

“I’m sure I don’t know, boy. Now, I insist you step aside and let me be on my way, or so help me, I’ll report you to your supervisor for harassing one of the most upstanding members of this community!”

McKenna quickly stepped out of the doorway. If there was one thing he did not need, it was Calvin finding out that he was continuing his inquiries about the Showstopper. That would cost him his badge, and he would never get to the bottom of what was going on without the leverage it gave him.

“If you don’t mind my asking, sir,” he called as DuBois pushed past him and rushed down the hallway, “who is your appointment with? Perhaps I could ask them a few questions as well?”

“Impossible!” the manager yelled back. “I’m going away.”

“But to where?”

“Anywhere that’s far away from here. I’m moving on to greener pastures. A fresh start.”

“I don’t understand!” McKenna protested. “If you’re leaving, then who will be in charge of the Royale?”

DuBois stopped in mid-stride and turned toward him, an uncomfortable expression crossing his doughy features.

“We’re under new management,” he said, and then resumed his march toward the theater’s entryway, banging out the doors and out of this account. Even today, DuBois’s fate remains pure speculation. Some say he moved out to California, where vaudeville acts were just beginning to catch on, and made his fortune in the West. Others claim he left the country entirely, and spent the rest of his days on a sunlit beach in Rio de Janeiro. Only one thing is certain; after that day, no one on Broadway saw or heard from Johnson C. DuBois ever again.

McKenna was confused. Minor accident? New management? What did it all mean? He would need to go to the actors to get a straight answer, or at least one that was less convoluted than what DuBois had handed him.

He continued down the hall and entered the main auditorium of the Royale. The room was spectacular, grandiose, and monumentally empty. Not even a quarter of the seats were filled. It would be impossible to make a profit with an audience this small.

So where had DuBois gotten all that money?

***

Jennifer T. Hawke might have been in a foul mood and completely absorbed by her own conflicted thoughts, but even if the Irish actress had been blind, she didn’t think she could have missed the young police officer bumbling around the backstage corridor.

It might just have been opening night nerves–this was to be her first Broadway performance, after all–but with all that had happened recently, she knew this wasn’t the case.

Try as she might to forget it, she just couldn’t stop the scene from replaying over and over in her mind: Tom arriving at her apartment, their furious row, and then that kiss. That was the part that always got her. The kiss had a strange, dream-like quality to it. Truth be told, she wasn’t entirely sure it had actually happened.

“Of course it happened, you fool,” she scolded herself. “That’s certainly not something you would sit around fantasizing about, now is it?”

But she found that she couldn’t answer her own question. Would she fantasize about Tom Wilkins kissing her? The man was a traitor, a snake, and a rotten liar. After all the things he had pulled on her, she honestly didn’t think she would mind seeing him strung up.

But then the image of his face flashed before her again: troubled, sincere, and unspeakably sad. There was no lie in those eyes. He had meant it when he said that he cared about her. If only things could have gone differently…

She shook her head, dispelling the silly notion. It was useless to imagine because, in all likelihood, she would never see Tom again. This simple truth had made the past several days a living hell for her, and driven her usually bright and cheerful mood straight into the ground.

“Uhhh…excuse me, ma’am…pardon me, sir…I’m a police officer with the…sir, please, just a few questions…”

And now this pussyfooting policeman would be the icing on the cake. How wonderful.

The officer turned away from the actor he was pursuing and nearly collided with her, stepping back and turning red with embarrassment.

“Good Lord! I didn’t see you there.”

Jennifer scowled and moved to walk around him. If there was one thing she was not in the mood for, it was answering some glorified busybody’s questions.

“Can’t you watch where you’re going?” she said irritably, but stopped as the man stepped in front of her. His face was lined with worry and stress, and she instantly regretted being so rude to him.

“I’m sorry, Miss, but please, I need some help. I’m Officer William McKenna with the 43rd Precinct, and I’m in the middle of an investigation. If I could just talk to you for a moment, I’d be very grateful.”

“Oh, I see,” said Jennifer. “ Of course, I’d be glad to help. I apologize for snapping like that, Officer. The last few days have been…difficult.”

“I’m sorry about that,” said McKenna. Jennifer saw his brown eyes quickly scanning her body. He noticed her, all right, but not in the hungry, lustful way that most men did. It actually reminded her of Tom in some ways. “And you are, Miss?”

“Hawke. Jennifer T. Hawke,” she said, doing her best to smile politely. “I’ll try to answer your questions, Officer McKenna, but I’m afraid I don’t have much time. There are only a few minutes until curtain, and the poor boy we’ve got playing Horatio needs help on his lines. We were all surprised when Mr. DuBois rescheduled this show, and none of us are very prepared.”

McKenna nodded.

“That’s exactly why I’m here, Miss Hawke. First of all, do you have any idea why Mr. DuBois would be leaving before tonight’s performance?”

“Leaving?” she asked, surprised. “Whatever would make you think that? Mr. DuBois is in his office. Why, he spoke to the cast not ten minutes ago.”

“My mistake,” McKenna said quickly. “What do you know about the Showstopper?”

At the mention of the name, Jennifer felt her lips tighten and her suspicion change into anger.

“Not much, except that he’s the dirty bastard who killed a dear friend of mine: Joe Adamson. He might not have been a perfect man, but he didn’t deserve that. He just went to see a show at the Tower, and the bloody Showstopper killed him for it. And that other man, shot down in broad daylight…it makes me sick. I hope he rots in hell, that monster.”

Seeing McKenna’s eyebrows rise, she sighed.

“I’m sorry, Officer. I just still can’t believe that he’s gone, and all those others, too. What kind of man could such a thing?”

The young officer shook his head, seeming as sad as she was.

“I don’t know, Miss Hawke. And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you. Like I said, Joe had his faults, but I suppose we all do. Some more than others. That’s something Tom should…”

Realizing from McKenna’s look of confusion that she was speaking out loud, she shut her mouth immediately and cursed her loose tongue.

“Anyway, is that all, Officer? I really must go and…”

“Just a minute,” said McKenna, not moving and looking at her with renewed interest. “What was that about a man named Tom?”

“Nothing, Officer. Nothing at all,” she said, willing the painful memories away with great effort. “It’s actually quite personal, and I’d rather not talk about it if you don’t mind.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Hawke, but I do mind,” said McKenna. “Anything you know could be vital to the case. You have to tell me everything. Please. People’s lives could depend on it.”

Jennifer realized that she had no choice.

“His name is Tom Wilkins,” she explained. “He was the janitor here when I first tried out at the Royale. We met a few times and struck up a sort of acquaintance. He was so witty and modest and kind. At one time I even thought…”

Thought what?

“Thought what, miss?” asked McKenna, echoing the voice in her head.

Jennifer did not want to go on at all, but she knew when she was caught.

“Well, to be honest, I thought he might have fancied me a bit,” she said hurriedly. “But I know now that wasn’t true. Tom never liked me. He’s hated actors ever since his mother and father abandoned him as a boy.”

She felt the tears coming again and gritted her teeth, blinking them away.

“It’s funny, really. I thought he made a pretty fair actor himself.”

“What do you mean, he was janitor here?” McKenna persisted. “Did he leave?”

“Yes,” said Jennifer, eager to get the interview over with. “He got angry one day and quit his job. That’s really all there is to it. May I go now, Officer? I really should be…”

“Miss Hawke, if what I fear is true, the bombing and the assassination may only be the beginning. If Joe and Tom really were your friends, you have to help me.”

She couldn’t understand why, but there was something so serious and earnest in the officer’s tone that she felt compelled to keep talking. It could also just have been her need to unburden herself to someone, even if it was a total stranger.

“All right,” she relented. “Tom was acting strangely. He was always a bit odd; not bad, mind you, but there was something about him I couldn’t quite place. But he seemed distracted. Nervous even. Quitting the Royale wasn’t the only thing, either.”

“You saw him again after that?”

“Yes, the night of the Tower bombing. The night that Joe…”

She suddenly stopped as a terrible thought occurred to her.

“The night Joe died,” she continued, not believing her own words. “I ran into him on the street outside the theater and asked if he wanted to come in with me, but he was so jumpy that I couldn’t get a sentence out of him. He said something about having an appointment to keep and ran off.”

“So he was there the night of the explosion?” asked McKenna, his eyes widening. Jennifer hoped that he was not thinking the same thing as she was. It could not be true. It was ludicrous. Impossible, even.

“Yes, that’s right. Is something the matter?”

McKenna didn’t seem to be listening anymore. He was too absorbed by his own thoughts.

“Officer McKenna? Are you all right?”

Her entreaty snapped the vacant man back to reality.

“Yes. Fine, fine. Thank you, Miss Hawke. Your information could be invaluable in this case. Can you tell me where I can find Mr. Wilkins?”

Jennifer shook her head, unsure at this point whether she would tell McKenna anything of the sort even if she did know.

“I’m sorry, but I have no idea. I suppose Tom never trusted me enough to tell me something as personal as that. You might ask Sir Reginald Coxley, though. He and Tom have been fast friends for years. Do you know him?”

“In a manner of speaking,” said McKenna, seeming astonished at her words.

“Officer, why are you so interested in Tom? Is he in some kind of trouble?”

“No. Not yet, anyway. We can’t hang people on suspicion,” said the policeman darkly. “I have to go, Miss Hawke. Sorry for taking up so much of your time.”

He made to leave, but Jennifer caught him by the sleeve. She had no idea why she wanted to say what she was about to so badly. It was a gut instinct unlike anything she had ever felt, and there was no chance it would work. But all the same, she was compelled to do it.

“Officer, if you see Tom, could you please tell him…tell him…”

“Yes, Miss Hawke?”

She sighed, struggling to find the words.

“Tell him that I’m sorry, and that I miss him. Tell him that I wish it could have ended differently between us. And that…no, that’s all. Thank you.”

McKenna seemed more than a little confused by the strange request, but he nodded all the same.

“No, Miss Hawke. Thank you.”

McKenna walked away down the corridor, but Jennifer stood exactly where she was, rooted to the spot by her mad suspicion.

Tom had been acting strangely. He had been at the scene of the crime. And most damning of all, he had a vendetta against the world of the theater. Could this mean he was in league with the Showstopper? It all fell perfectly into place.

It wasn’t a question. She was certain of it.

“Oh, Tom,” she breathed. “Good God. What have you done?”

***

McKenna couldn’t believe his luck.

The pieces were beginning to come together. A janitor–a man uniquely in a position to move about unobtrusively and who had intimate knowledge about the layout of theaters–who just happened to be acting out of character during a week of major crimes? Not to mention who just happened to be present at the Tower Theater the night the attack took place?

These facts alone made this Tom Wilkins fellow at the very least a person of interest. He needed to find and question him right away.

And Hawke had also mentioned Coxley, of all people. It could not be coincidence. How was the Englishman connected to all of this?

Could this be it? Could he have stumbled on the lead he had been praying for?

McKenna wove his way back through the tangle of actors and stagehands to the door that would take him to the auditorium. He opened it and made to step across the threshold, but froze in his tracks.

Marching down the center aisle were dozens of uniformed policemen. They were lead by a grim but determined Sergeant Lawrence, his head still bandaged under his smartly angled cap.

“All right, you lugs. Move it!” he bellowed. “Let’s go, quick now. Protection detail, set up a perimeter. Martin, you’re with me.”

McKenna slammed the door shut and leaned on the inside, panic-stricken. While he was relieved to see that Lawrence had recovered from his wounds, that meant that men from the 43rd were now in the building.

How could he have been so stupid? Did he really think he was the only one with enough common sense to question why the Royale would be putting on a show? And if they found him already here, his number was up. Decker and Calvin would no doubt both be extremely interested to know what a junior officer with no clearance to be working on a case, and carrying a sidearm and badge he was technically not allowed to have, was doing on a potential crime scene. And that would lead to the stolen files…

The answer was simple. He could not let them find him. He needed a place to hide, and fast.

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