From his perch in the rafters of the Royale, Tom Wilkins watched the policemen stream into the auditorium. He was really beginning to despise these uniformed apes for their terrible sense of timing.
More than anything, he wanted his hands around Archer’s throat. The smug psychopath had been leading him around like a dog on a leash, and now he had brought Jennifer into it, too. After all this was over, he would make the Saboteur pay dearly for it, even if it killed him.
The police were a minor inconvenience. What truly bothered him was Archer. He had seemed quite irate over whatever betrayal Wilkins had supposedly perpetrated, and he was far from stable to begin with. What if the madman had seen fit to make his own adjustments to the show? Perhaps of the explosive variety?
He didn’t dare start poking around, however. The police were everywhere, and the show was about to start. The risk of being spotted was too great. If he was captured and put behind bars, there was no chance that he would be able to stop Archer or clear his name. Risking his freedom now would be an act of monumental stupidity.
But then he thought of Jennifer: her face, her eyes, and her wonderful smile. He cared about her; damn it, he loved her, even if she would never feel the same way about him. If something were to happen to her, there would be no point in living anymore.
In the end, he really didn’t have a choice.
When an attendant clambered up the ladder onto the catwalk a few seconds later, the landing was totally empty.
Despite his swollen and pounding head, Sergeant Lawrence was feeling quite good about being back in the saddle.
“Hey, Martin! Shake a leg, would you? We’ve got work to do, and Decker’s going to have my ass if we don’t do it right.”
“Very funny, Lawrence,” the detective grumbled, hobbling over on crutches with his tightly plastered leg stretched out in front of him. “Consider yourself lucky that I can’t use this thing to kick your ass. I still don’t understand why we’re here, anyway.”
“Sorry,” said Lawrence, trying and failing to hide his grin. “And that, Lieutenant, is why I make the big bucks. It’s simple. This is the only show in town tonight, and our fearless leader marched all of us underlings over here to make sure the Showstopper doesn’t try any funny business.”
“I don’t see what’s so funny about it,” said Martin. “Every time that lunatic shows up, more people die. But it still doesn’t make sense. If this is the only production on Broadway, the Showstopper had to know we wouldn’t give him a pass. It would be idiotic for him to try anything.”
“Unless he just doesn’t care anymore. Like you said, the man belongs in an asylum. He’s already blown up an entire theater. He wrecked your leg and almost put my lights out for good. What makes this any different?”
Martin nodded, his face grim.
“I suppose you’re right. I just don’t know what to think anymore. This whole thing has gotten so far out of control: Calvin out of the picture, Stevens dead, and now Decker running things…”
“I know,” said Lawrence, shaking his head. “But one thing’s for sure; it’s not going to get better until we catch the Showstopper and make him answer for what he’s done. God knows he deserves it.”
“Perhaps,” said the detective doubtfully. “Can I ask you something?”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. I’m probably being paranoid, but do you ever get the feeling that maybe it’s not just the Showstopper we should be worrying about? Like something else is going on?”
Lawrence gave him a quizzical look.
“What do you mean?”
“Take Decker, for instance. He may be in charge now, and he’s the council’s golden boy, but I still trust him about as far as I could throw him.”
The Sergeant snorted.
“Sure. You and every other officer in the precinct. The man’s a menace. That’s plain as the nose on your face. But how many friends have you got on the council, Martin? About as many as me, I’ll bet. There’s nothing we can do.”
“Maybe so. Still, my instincts are pretty good, and right now they’re telling me that Decker’s hiding something from us. He’s defensive and snappy. He withholds evidence from the senior officers. He gets these strange calls in his office and doesn’t put them on record. I’ve checked the logs. I can’t help but wonder what he’s gotten us into.”
“Knowing Decker, it wouldn’t surprise me,” Lawrence growled. “That man’s got as much backbone as a filet of halibut. You know, when this is all over, I’m going to ask for a transfer.”
“The 144th, the 25th, Alaska, wherever. Just as long as it’s not here. I’m getting off this sinking ship before Captain Ahab drags us all down with him.”
“Yeah,” said Martin. “You and me both.”
Peering out from under the lid of the dark and uncomfortable box behind the two men, McKenna groaned and despaired. He had been squatting in this intolerable prison for twenty minutes now, and the officers still showed no signs of moving off. If he couldn’t even get out of a packing crate, what chance did he have of finding out whatever was going on?
It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Lawrence and Martin. He was sure that no matter what situation arose, they would do their best to handle it. But he didn’t just suspect. He knew something was off, and he would be damned if he was going to let Decker and his stooges, no matter how well-intentioned they might be, capture and scapegoat the Showstopper before he had the information he needed.
The idea had crossed his mind to simply pop up out of the box and tell his superiors everything. They might believe him, and at the very least they might be able to work together to stop whatever was in motion. But from listening to Lawrence and Martin’s conversation, he could tell that while there might be some dissent in the 43rd’s ranks, the fear of Decker’s wrath was a much greater motivator. They would report him for certain, and that would be that. No, he was in this alone. He had to find another way.
Now if only he could get out of this damned box…
He heard strains of music drifting backstage. The show was about to begin. If there was any chance, he had to move now. Good God, why wouldn’t they go?
He pressed his hands together and whispered a prayer.
“Hello, Lord? It’s me, William McKenna. If you’re out there and you’re listening, please help me. I could really use a lucky break right about now. If you see fit to send aid to your servant, I swear on my mother’s grave I’ll…well…I’ll never touch another drop of whiskey again, and that’s the God’s…well, that’s Your honest truth. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with…”
And as perhaps the most compelling evidence for the existence of a higher power to date, at precisely the moment that the “Hail Mary” escaped McKenna’s lips, another officer ducked through the curtains and ran up to Lawrence and Martin.
“Sergeant Lawrence!” he panted. “We need you over on the other side of the stage, sir. The actors are going to start the show!”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, sir! They say we have no right to hold them up any longer and that they’re going to lodge a complaint with the head office that we made them lose potential revenue.”
Lawrence ground his teeth.
“Those stubborn jackasses,” he growled. “Don’t they realize their lives could be in danger? Complaint? I’ll show them where to lodge their…oh, fine. Let’s go.”
The three officers marched off with haste, leaving McKenna alone at last. Slowly, he opened the lid and clambered out of the crate, hardly able to believe what had happened. He looked around to make sure there were no other people about, and then looked questioningly up into the air.
“Well…” he stammered. “Errr…thanks. I did mean it, you know.”
“Look, I don’t like this any more than you do,” Wilkins assured the groaning actor gagged and trussed up on the floor of the dressing room. “But it’s for your own good. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.”
The first act of the production was getting on, and he imagined intermission could not be far off. They were entering the window in which he needed to make his move. But he hadn’t dared to try any of his usual tricks. No matter how clever he thought he was, he couldn’t take the chance that sabotage like he had performed in the past would be discovered. By now, his modus operandi was well known to the police, and they would be on the lookout for conventional tactics. He had to stay unpredictable, even if that meant devising what was possibly his most ludicrous plan to date.
Also, this was more than likely his last performance as the Showstopper. He might as well go out with a bang.
Reaching into his sack, he hauled out the contraption he had spent the better portion of the day cobbling together and strapped it to his chest. The Saboteur’s ultimatum had left him little time to prepare and none for proper testing. Consequently, he prayed to whatever God or gods there might be that his plan wouldn’t fall disastrously apart.
Then there was Jennifer. If all went according to plan, he would ruin her debut performance and probably guarantee that she would never get another job as an actress in New York. He felt guilty, but it was better that she live in disappointment than die in agony. All the same, he didn’t expect any gratitude.
There were also the audience members to think about. They may have been snobbish, elitist boors, but he wasn’t sure that he could live with himself if he got more blood on his hands. They had no part in what was happening, so what right did he have to make them pawns in his and Archer’s deadly game?
He found, to his surprise, that he no longer bore even the actors themselves any ill will–perhaps because he had experienced a genuine change of heart, or perhaps because he was simply too sick and tired of it all to care. He had hated actors his entire life, and what had it accomplished? A handful of empty theaters, the most wanted spot on the police’s list of criminals, and an insane copycat who cared more about bloodshed and revenge than principle.
“Oh, so you’re the one with principles now?” he muttered to himself. “That’s rich.”
Wilkins buttoned up his stolen costume and walked out of the dressing room, joining the throng of extras lining up backstage for the crucial scene. It was no longer time for thought. Now was the time for action.
While most of the more sensible theater critics had fled Broadway for fear of the Showstopper, those who stayed behind and attended the Royale Theater’s production of Hamlet universally agreed that, up until “The Murder of Gonzago,” the show had gone surprisingly well. For a company comprised of amateurs and newcomers to the business, there were many promising young talents. For example, Kenneth Clarkson, starring as the Prince of Denmark, had the commanding presence and moral confusion perfectly befitting his role. And who could help but feel sympathy for the conflicted and guilt-ridden Claudius, portrayed so brilliantly by Harrison Wig?
And of course there was Ophelia, acted by the stunning Jennifer T. Hawke. Of all the players in the cast, it was common consensus among those few who witnessed the show that fateful night that the regal young lady with her fiery red hair and heart-wrenching outbursts was the breakout star of the production. Everything she did seemed to come naturally and flow almost to perfection. She was gifted to an extent rarely seen in modern times.
It was during the faux-play scene in the midst of the act, however, where the production seemed to come off the rails a bit. The players stumbled awkwardly over their lines, failed rather spectacularly to grasp the intricacies of Shakespeare’s emotional implications, and generally made a mess of what had otherwise been quite an entertaining show.
What the critics didn’t know was that they hadn’t seen anything yet.
Sitting quietly alongside Claudius and Gertrude, Jennifer couldn’t help but wince as their Hamlet once again tripped over his monologue. He had done it perfectly a thousand times at rehearsal. What in the world could be the matter? She supposed it was just opening night nerves.
Or could it be something else? Perhaps he was feeling the same thing she was; that something was off, amiss, and just plain wrong?
She wasn’t sure what had given her such an idea. Perhaps it was the inexplicable absence of Mr. DuBois. He hadn’t been seen all night, and the backstage area was uncomfortably silent when free of his constant belittling rants. It was funny, she thought, how she only missed him once he was gone.
Perhaps it had been that officer’s questioning that unnerved her. The conversation with McKenna had been irrelevant, of course, but he had seemed in deadly earnest when asking about Tom.
And the Showstopper connection…no, she wasn’t going to do this. Not now. It was a wild and utterly ridiculous notion, and she was letting her nerves about the performance get the best of her. Tom was a lot of things, but he was no killer. Of this, she was certain. There had to be another explanation.
She was so deep in thought that she nearly missed what happened next.
Down in the front row of the auditorium, Sergeant Lawrence yawned loudly and elbowed Martin, who was seated next to him with his bandaged leg propped up on a stool and crutches laid across his lap.
“Is all they do in these shows talk about nothing?” he groaned. “I’ve had more fun investigating a corpse.”
“Shhh,” the detective admonished, waving off his comrade’s question. “It’s just getting to the good part. Hamlet’s about to unmask Claudius as his father’s killer. Admirable police work, actually. Sometimes I wish we had that much class.”
“Please. You couldn’t pay me enough money to dress in that pansy get-up. I want fights, action, and excitement. How about something interesting for a change, huh?”
Martin suddenly leaned forward in his seat and pointed up at the stage.
“I think you might be about to get your wish.”
What the Lieutenant was referring to was the sudden departure of one dark figure from the mass of bodies at the back of the stage. The hooded extra broke ranks with his companions and advanced slowly and purposefully upstage, past a shocked king and queen and the goggling members of the royal court. The man strolled right by Hamlet, who sputtered off in the middle of his speech, unable to believe that some confounded place-filler would dare to steal his spotlight.
There was dead silence in the theater as the audience craned their necks forward to see what was going on.
The extra raised his hands above his head and bellowed out into the still air:
“TO BE, OR NOT TO BE!”
The frustrated Hamlet barely had time to stammer out:
“But that’s my line!”
Then the figure whipped open his robes, and the auditorium erupted in screams.
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.