In the center of the stage, Wilkins loosened the shoulder straps of his harness, and the device fastened to his chest dropped to the floor with a loud clang. He then hit the deck, throwing himself to the stage and pulling his cloak over his face to shield himself. At the same time, he yanked a cord tied to his wrist that was attached to the device.
Around him, most of the actors and actresses attempted to exit the stage simultaneously. A few stayed still, their eyes wide and unbelieving.
In the audience, Lawrence leaped to his feet as patrons abandoned their belongings in the aisles to run for the door.
“It’s the Showstopper!” he shouted. “Get him!”
It all happened so quickly that Jennifer barely had time to blink before the masked man took his dive and the contraption he had carried exploded.
But it didn’t actually explode. Rather, it blew apart, the built-up pressure within its workings finally finding an exit. Various valves all over the boxy device snapped open Jennifer and everyone else in the immediate vicinity were hit by a wave of multicolored stage paint and something that smelled like a dead skunk.
The impact of the paint bomb threw some of the still standing actors off their feet. They shrieked, their costumes ruined as the liquid burned their nostrils and obscured their vision.
Covered in paint and her eyes stinging, Jennifer staggered to her feet and saw that the entire stage was a disaster. The audience had not been spared, either, although the police officers in the front row had received the brunt of the blast. The first several rows of seats were splattered with a reddish-orange mixture, leaving the men sitting in them with painted faces and spotted clothes like circus clowns.
It might have been funny, she thought, if it wasn’t also so terrifying.
Only yards away from her, the man who could only be the Showstopper rose to his feet, detaching his paint-splattered cape and letting it fall to the stage. Underneath, he was clothed in a dark cloak and pants, along with a hat and scarf that hid his face. Jennifer found herself shaking with fear, but was unable to move. She was staring down the monster that had killed Joe and so many others, and would more than likely kill her as well.
Several officers rushed up the stage stairway, yelling orders to each other, and charged at the Showstopper, who seemed a bit shaken from his stunt. The masked man recovered quickly, though, and threw a flurry of blocks and punches, taking only a token number of hits himself. In seconds, the policemen were on their backs. One of them, however, managed to grab hold of the villain’s headgear as he fell and yanked it off, revealing a messy head of brown hair underneath. The madman’s back was still toward Jennifer, hiding his face from her.
Another group of officers mounted the stairs, and the Showstopper’s hand dug into a pocket of his cloak. Jennifer cringed, anticipating the bloodbath that was certain to follow, but instead of pulling a gun, the man threw a few small capsules at the floor directly in front of the police. The objects popped open as they hit the ground and released a thick white smoke, which disoriented the officers and made them lose their footing on the stairs, comically falling over and into each other.
Jennifer frowned, confusion overtaking her terror. The man was the Showstopper; he had to be. Who else would conduct such a daring attack on a theater using these bizarre methods? But if this was so, where was the violence and death that accompanied him? He could easily have shot the policemen down in cold blood, but instead relegated himself to simple parlor tricks. What was going on?
The man drew what looked like the bastard child of a revolver and a crane winch from inside his cloak and she once again flinched, but the Showstopper showed no interest in her, pointing the weapon up toward the rafters of the theater. He turned, trying to get a good angle, but when he saw Jennifer, he stopped dead in his tracks.
That mess of unkempt hair, pale and narrow but still handsome face, haunted eyes…Jennifer drew in a sharp gasp as she registered a level of shock few people ever feel.
Standing only a few feet away, Tom Wilkins looked shocked as well.
“Jennifer…” he said.
So it was all true: everything she had feared and more. Tom wasn’t just working with the Showstopper. He was the Showstopper.
No, it couldn’t be! She had known Tom had secrets, but this…it was unthinkable. The revelation seemed to warp the very fabric of her reality. She was no longer sure of anything.
A single tear rolled down her cheek.
Tom stared at her, seeming unsure of what to say next. He never got the chance, however, as a large policeman had managed to sneak up on him during the few moments of distraction and seized his shoulder.
“Look’s like you’re coming with us, you scum,” he snarled, his uniform still dripping with wet paint and smelling like a public lavatory.
“I don’t think so,” Tom responded, whirling around and smashing a fist into the officer’s jaw. The big man stumbled back, stunned, and three other officers crashed into his immovable bulk with painful grunts.
Jennifer watched as Tom once again raised the gun over his head and fired. With a bang that made her jump, the device fired a dart upward toward the ceiling, trailing a guide rope behind. For a split second, his eyes found hers again, and she saw in them total and utter despair.
“I’m sorry,” he said, before pulling on the trigger once again. Just before the mob of police could grab him, the Showstopper seemed to leap upward off the stage and vanish into the darkness above like a phantom.
In the chaos that followed, nobody noticed Jennifer T. Hawke stumbling off the stage and into the curtains.
She had no idea where to go. It was as though her entire world had fallen apart. Her acting career was finished, that much was certain: flushed down the drain by Tom’s actions even before it had the chance to begin. She should have been furious, but all she felt was a terrible, hollow emptiness where her heart had once been.
She supposed that it was bitterly poetic. Everything she had used her web of lies about her family status and background to build up had finally been unraveled by the one liar in the world more skilled and prolific than she was. Maybe this was what she deserved for duping so many people and abandoning her mother for the sake of her career.
And maybe, just maybe, Tom had been right. Was selling out and losing her dignity, her self-respect, and everything she had believed in worth it after all?
That was when she heard the sinister chuckle, and felt the cold metal of the gun press against the back of her neck.
“’Evening, m’lady,” drawled a thick Cockney accent. “Lovely night for a stroll, don’t you think?”
McKenna rushed down the long hallway, searching desperately for someplace to hide.
Confounded theaters! He had seen the carnage the Showstopper had let loose on the stage, and he also knew it would be mere minutes before Lawrence and his officers turned every square inch of the Royale upside-down to find the criminal. As for himself, he had bolted off in some random direction to find the exit and gotten hopelessly lost in the bowels of the building. As always, his rotten Irish luck had nothing if not impeccable timing.
His mind flashed back to the action of only minutes ago: how the Showstopper had dropped that dye explosive, made smoke from nothing, and escaped the scene by means of a gun that allowed him to fly. What manner of man had access to contraptions like that? No wonder they had never been able to catch the bastard.
McKenna was also bothered by how this evening’s crime once again failed to add up. The Showstopper started out as a harmless prankster, turned into a murdering psychopath, and then returned to bloodless capers like nothing had changed?
He was now more certain than ever that someone else was pulling the Showstopper’s strings. The randomly shifting nature of the attacks didn’t make sense in any other context. But who was it, and why?
McKenna ran past a flight of stairs, and his heart leaped into his throat as he heard someone hurrying down toward him. He swept his head around, looking for a door to duck into, but there was no such cover within easy reach. He flattened himself against the wall, trying not to breathe, and was shocked to see a thin but muscular man in dark clothes dismount the staircase and run past him down the corridor.
It was the Showstopper. It had to be! What were the chances? Maybe his luck wasn’t so rotten after all.
McKenna was so startled that the criminal had almost rounded the corner at the end of the hall before he got his nerves enough in order to move.
“Hey, you! Stop!”
The Showstopper whirled around and spotted the officer, his eyes wide with surprise. Even so, he disregarded McKenna’s order and continued to run.
“I said stop!” McKenna shouted, drawing his revolver and firing a warning shot into the floor just in front of the Showstopper’s path. The criminal didn’t even flinch. He skipped over the point of impact and sped around the corner, out of sight.
“Wait! Come back here! Hey!”
Running faster than he ever had before, McKenna sprinted down the hallway after the Showstopper. Everything he had been praying for had fallen right into his lap. He couldn’t afford to let the man get away.
Rounding the corner, puffing and sweating with exertion, he slowed to a walk and stared in puzzlement.
In front of him, the small corridor was blocked off by a tangle of ladders, boarded barriers, and hanging ropes and pulleys. No doubt someone or other had been doing work down here recently; from the varying colors of the walls on both sides of the blockage, he guessed it was a new coat of paint or whitewash. It would have been impossible for a person to navigate through it so quickly, even one as nimble as the Showstopper.
But that meant…
A closed door behind McKenna burst open and the Showstopper leaped out of the dark, tackling the officer to the floor. The impact knocked McKenna’s breath away, and the gun slipped out of his hand. Choking, he made a grab for it, but the criminal swept it out of reach and put a knee on his windpipe.
“Nice try, pal,” the Showstopper growled, “but no two-bit cop gets the drop on me. Now that you and your friends are after me, I guess I’ll just have to cut your throat.”
“First of all,” McKenna wheezed, “they’re not my friends. And secondly, I’m not afraid of you. I know you won’t kill me.”
The Showstopper snorted.
“Oh, really?” he asked sarcastically. “Well, seeing as I blew up a theater full of people and shot down a man in public, I’d say your evidence for that is pretty sketchy, wouldn’t you?”
“No, you don’t understand! I know that none of those things were your fault. You’re not the guilty one.”
“Shut up!” the Showstopper spat. “What do you know about guilt? I’m the one who chose this life, and I’m the one who let those people die! I am guilty, so don’t you even pretend to know anything about me. What’s to stop me from snapping your neck right here? It can’t get any worse for me than it already is, so what’s one more dead Irish bum in a uniform?”
McKenna threw his knee up into his assailant’s groin with all his might. The Showstopper grunted and the weight pinning the officer to the floor faltered. McKenna pushed off from the ground and rolled across the floor, taking the stunned Showstopper with him, until he came within reach of his revolver. Cracking the criminal across the face with a walloping punch, McKenna grabbed the gun and stood up, cocking it and panting. He took a moment to register what he was seeing.
Before him was a young man, surely no older than his early twenties, with a square jaw, straight nose, and longish brown hair hanging disheveled in front of his eyes.
The Showstopper lay back on the floor, bleeding from the gash McKenna had inflicted on his cheek.
“Go ahead,” he taunted the policeman. “Pull the damn trigger. If they catch me, I’ll be going to the chair anyway, so you might as well just end it now. What’s the matter, paddy? Got no guts?”
McKenna pulled the trigger, and the Showstopper flinched as the bullet buried itself in the floor just inches from his head.
“Now you shut up and listen to me,” the Irishman said. “I know you’re the Showstopper, and I also know damn well that there’s something else going on here. You’re being manipulated. I don’t know how or by whom, but you’ve been so erratic recently that unless you’ve gone barking mad, I don’t see how there’s any other explanation. So I want answers, and I want them now!”
The Showstopper laughed.
“Why should I tell you anything? Best case, I go to prison for life. Worst case, you shoot me right here. Either way, I’m not feeling very motivated.”
“Because if you’re half as intelligent as I think you are, you’ll know I’m not lying when I say that if you help me, I’ll speak for you when the time comes. I’ll do my damndest to bring whoever is pulling your strings to justice. And because if you’ve got even a shred of a conscience, you’ll agree that all that matters is stopping what’s happened from happening again.”
McKenna glared at him.
“And for your information, that theater your boss blew up was on my watch. A lot of good men I sent in there to catch you died. They weren’t just collateral damage. So I know a damn sight more than you about guilt, and I’ll go to hell before I let a sniveling brat like you tell me that they died for nothing.”
The two men stared at each other for several tense moments.
“The word of one officer’s not going to mean much,” said the Showstopper. “Why should I trust you?”
“I’m not even an officer. At least, not at the moment. So right now, I can’t really think of a good reason. Look, I don’t mean to rush you, but the officers upstairs probably heard my shots, and they’re most likely on the way down here to arrest the both of us.”
“Oh, great. That makes everything so much better,” the man on the floor said, making McKenna’s blood boil anew. He cocked back a fist to hit the criminal again, but the Showstopper held up his hands in surrender.
“Wait, wait! All right, fine. Maybe somebody else was behind the bombing. But even if I told you everything I know, you’ll never find him. He’s too good for that. And that’s if you even believed all of it. The only one who can stop him is me. You have to let me go!”
The Irishman shook his head stubbornly.
“Not a chance. I don’t mean to sound self-centered, but you’re my only way out of this mess, and you sound like you could use a friend right now.”
“Why would you want to be friends with me? Even if I didn’t kill all those people, I’m still a criminal. I’ve ruined so many shows that I’m starting to lose count, and I’ve been keeping my secret identity from everyone who knows me. I’m not exactly the poster-boy for being trustworthy.”
“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. We can deal with that later. But right now, the most important thing is stopping the madman who’s after both of us. Agreed?”
“Both of us?” asked the young man, giving him a strange look. “What do you mean, both of us? What’s your problem?”
“Someone’s trying to murder me, and I think my precinct might be corrupt. But there’s no time. Do you want my help, or don’t you?”
“And you’re sure you won’t just let me go? This isn’t your fight.”
“It’s as much my fight as it is yours. So shut up and start talking, or I’ll let them take us in.”
The criminal thumped his head back to the floor in frustration, but realized he was trapped.
“His name’s Jack Archer,” he began, “but he calls himself the Saboteur. He’s a British bomber who’s been stealing my inventions and using them to kill people, and using me as his straw man. And he’s planning on doing it again.”
McKenna snapped his fingers.
“Of course!” he exclaimed. “A bomber! He’s the one all the council’s missing explosives have been going to. I bet Stevens and Decker were in on it, too. They kicked me off the investigation and had me busted because they didn’t want me poking around anymore.”
“I’m not getting any of this, just so you know,” said the Showstopper, looking confused. “But it sounds like a pretty wild theory. No offense.”
“Trust me, after the week I’ve had, I’m ready to believe anything.”
“Wonderful,” the criminal said, rolling his eyes. “I finally get to talk to somebody open-minded, and he’s the man who’s about to arrest me. My luck just gets better and better. So are you going to let me up, or what?”
McKenna thought about it for a moment, and then groaned. Making sure the other man made no sudden moves, he slowly backed off to a safe distance and lowered his weapon.
“I’m William McKenna, by the way,” he said. “Who are you?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“Are you going to start this nonsense again?” McKenna scowled. “You want my help? Well, it only starts when you start trusting me. Name! Now!”
“Fine,” said the Showstopper reluctantly, rising and eyeing him warily. “I’m Tom Wilkins, and I was…”
He stopped, noticing the shock on McKenna’s face.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“What did you say your name was?”
“Tom Wilkins. Why?”
“Do you by any chance know Jennifer T. Hawke?”
Wilkins looked away for a moment.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said evasively, but the split second of emotion McKenna saw in the young man’s eyes was more than enough confirmation.
“Don’t lie to me,” the officer said. “We don’t have time for it anymore. I know you two know each other. And pardon me if I’m out of line, but are you…involved?”
Wilkins laughed without humor.
“Some policeman you are, McKenna. She’s an actress, and I’m a just a janitor. Nothing like that could ever happen. Not to mention the guy she really cared about got killed because of me.”
He shook his head.
“It always comes back to Jennifer, doesn’t it? If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t even be here right now. Archer threatened her life unless I sabotaged the show tonight.”
“I see,” McKenna mused. The pieces were beginning to come together. “But why would Archer want you to pull a simple prank on the Royale after everything that’s happened?”
“I don’t know, but one way or another, I’m going to settle things with him. Archer’s going to pay for what he’s done.”
McKenna nodded, a bit uneasy at Wilkins’s grim determination.
“I agree. But right now, we have to get out of here. Then we can make a plan. The stakes are high, and we can’t afford to go off half-cocked and do anything stupid. Truce?”
Wilkins considered it for a moment.
“Just answer me one thing, McKenna. If I decide to go with you, and somehow we do manage to bring Archer down, what happens to me?”
The Irishman sighed and shrugged, taking a step closer to him.
“I don’t know. I’ll do everything I can, and the police might be willing to give you time off for helping to bring in a mass murderer. But that doesn’t change that they’re still after you for millions of dollars in destroyed property, and breaking so many other laws that I can’t even list them. You won’t go to the chair, but things don’t look much brighter than that.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Wilkins. “For what it’s worth, thanks for being honest with me. If a character witness would help, look up Reginald Coxley. He’ll vouch for me.”
“Sir Coxley?” McKenna exclaimed, clapping a hand to his forehead. “This is incredible! With the things that you and I know, we can expose all the corruption on Broadway! And if Archer gives us Stevens and Decker, we could…”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” said Wilkins, and threw a swift uppercut to McKenna’s jaw. The officer dropped to the floor like a ton of bricks, unconscious before he knew what had happened.
“Sorry,” the janitor murmured, “but I’m sure as hell not planning on rotting in prison for the rest of my life. And if anyone’s going to get Archer by the throat and make him confess, it’s going to be me. I don’t know you, and I can’t trust you. I’m sure you’d understand.”
With that, the Showstopper squeezed through the barrier and bolted off down the corridor on the other side, leaving his would-be ally to his fate.
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.