Slowly and painfully, Wilkins fluttered back to consciousness, his nostrils filling with the acrid scents of smoke and burning flesh.
Turning his head, he found himself staring at the charred face, slack jaw, and dead eyes of one of the officers who had tried to arrest him, his hair still burning at the tips.
With a moan of revulsion, the janitor rolled over and away from the terrible spectacle, surveying the scene around him as a cold night breeze whipped across his torn clothes and his aching, blistered body.
The bomb hidden in his attic had done its work well. The far side of his apartment was totally gone, the floorboards splintered and trailing off into thin air, and most of the wall and ceiling had been vaporized, giving him a spectacular view of the stars. There was little doubt in his mind that Archer was responsible. Just another massacre he could blame on the Showstopper.
For that matter, why wasn’t he dead with the rest of them? Perhaps they had been closer to the origin of the blast and had somehow provided a buffer from the explosion. More likely, it was sheer dumb luck. Or maybe it was just his curse: to continue his miserable, meaningless existence while everyone else around him met horrible ends.
Mustering what little strength he had left, Wilkins braced his arms against the shattered floor and picked himself up as ash, wood splinters, and rubble streamed off of his tattered costume. Now he looked more villainous than ever.
But the only thing on his mind was warning Jennifer. The police had probably already picked up Reg, so hopefully that would keep his old friend safe for the time being. Jennifer and McKenna, however, were still in danger. That Irishman would need to defend himself and stay on his toes until Wilkins had time to get to him. As much as he hated to admit it, he might still be useful going forward.
He moved his arms and legs to make sure nothing was broken. He was certain something was cracked–perhaps quite a few somethings–but at least he was mobile. And there was only one place left to run.
“Well, McKenna, I think you have some explaining to do.”
The bruised and dazed Irishman stared at the floor, avoiding the withering glare Chief Calvin fixed him with. The jig was up, and he didn’t have the strength left to defend himself.
On the other hand, the bump on his chin courtesy of Tom Wilkins, a.k.a. the Showstopper–and McKenna swore that he would pay that idiot back for betraying him as soon as he got the chance–had succeeded in jogging some memories he had not considered for quite a while. The most prominent among them was the image of Coxley’s family crest. Damn it all, he was sure he had seen that picture before!
“Come on, then. Out with it!” Calvin growled. “You know, McKenna, you’re damned lucky to be talking to me instead of Decker. If that traitor heard what you’ve been up to, he’d give you life in Riker’s Island quicker than you could down a shot.”
“Yes, sir,” said Lawrence, looking over at Martin, who nodded in agreement. “That’s exactly why we brought him to you. Good thing Decker went out with that last patrol, because we knew you’d be reasonable about it and…”
“Shut your trap, Sergeant. As far as I’m concerned, you’re all no-good turncoats just like Decker. Where was your goddamned support when him and Stevens railroaded me out of my job?”
“But Chief,” Martin began, “That’s not how it was, really. We just…”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses,” Calvin snapped. “Get out of my sight, both of you!”
The two officers beat a hasty retreat, and McKenna was left alone with Calvin.
“Chief,” he said, “I know what I did was against orders, but I did it for the right reasons. You and I both know something strange is happening on Broadway, and I was only trying to help. Please, sir. It’s the truth.”
“Where are the files you stole?” Calvin asked, not even looking at him.
“How did you…”
“It may surprise you, McKenna, but I’m not as stupid as I look. When Lawrence and Martin dragged you in here, I put two and two together and did some checking. Now where are they?”
There was no point in lying.
“They’re…at home. In my apartment. With my family.”
The Chief shook his head.
“Why, McKenna? I gave you a direct order. I told you what would happen if I caught you messing around with this case again. I even tried to warn you about what would happen if you kept nosing around in this business.”
He sighed and shook his head.
“I suppose I wasted my breath, like usual. I’ll send an officer down to your place immediately to pick up the stolen property. In the meantime, give me your badge.”
“Your badge, McKenna. Now!”
The officer reached into his pocket and pulled out the golden shield, dropping it into Calvin’s outstretched hand. As he did, McKenna felt all the air rush out of him like a deflated balloon. All the hard work, the dirty jobs, the things he had given up for that badge and that chance…all of it had been for nothing.
Calvin turned away.
“I know you’re too thick to understand,” he said, “but this is for your own good. Now, I don’t care where you go, McKenna, but get out of my face. You’ve caused enough trouble for one day.”
“But sir,” the Irishman protested, taking a brave step forward, “I think I may have made some connections on the Showstopper case, and you should know that…”
“So who helped you?”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“I’ve been over those reports backwards and forwards. There’s nothing new in them. So you had to have gotten some outside information. Who gave it to you?”
McKenna would rather have not told him, but the Chief was clearly going to learn it one way or the other. It might be better if it came from his own mouth.
“It was Goodwin, sir. The reporter. I know what you’re going to say, but he’s done some looking, and he thinks that…”
“What?” Calvin thundered. “You’re working with that news buzzard now? Good God, man! I’ve met some prize fools in my time, but you take the cake.”
So much for honesty.
“Chief, listen,” McKenna persisted. “Goodwin found out that Stevens was selling demolition materials on the black market: maybe to the man who’s been framing the Showstopper for these attacks and who tried to get me out of the way. And I’m sure Sir Reginald Coxley has something to do with all this, too. The theaters he owns have never been hit by the Showstopper.”
“Whatever that damned reporter’s been feeding you, you should believe the opposite,” Calvin growled. “Quite frankly, I’ve had enough of these wild theories of yours.”
“I can only say I’m sorry for what happened at the Tower so many times,” said McKenna, beginning to grow angry. “The reason I was at the Royale was to catch the Showstopper before Decker could, and I did. I found him. I actually spoke to him!”
“Ha! A bumbling fool like you single-handedly apprehended the Showstopper? That’ll be the day.”
“But I did, sir! He said that I was right. He wasn’t behind the bombings. Someone else is setting him up to take the fall for everything.”
Calvin shook his head again.
“Even if I could believe that were true–which, in case you were wondering, I don’t–then double-shame on you for taking a psychopath like that at his word. Get out of here, McKenna. I don’t want to see you within five blocks of this precinct again, or I might reconsider telling Decker about this little incident.”
McKenna could see that there was no winning this argument. But he could at least do one thing.
“If you want me to leave, sir, that’s fine,” he said. “I will, and gladly. But until you’re certain you’ve captured the man responsible for all this, can I ask that you take my family into protective custody? Even if I’m completely insane, on the off chance that I’m not, how would you feel if you let an innocent family be slaughtered? Please.”
The Chief stared at him for several moments before finally groaning and muttering an assent.
“All right, McKenna,” he said, picking up the telephone. “I’ll humor your lunacy this once, but that’s as far as my generosity extends. And I’m still telling you to clear out. Once they bring the bastard in, I want you gone. Understand?”
His head pounding with exhaustion, Wilkins somehow managed to raise a hand and knock weakly on the apartment door.
“Jennifer,” he whispered. “It’s me, Tom. Please, open up. I’m in trouble, and I need your help.”
There was no answer.
Wilkins knocked again with all the strength he had. He knew that coming to Jennifer was a long shot, but with his hideout destroyed and Reg temporarily missing in action, it was the only option he had left open to him.
She would hate him for what he had done. It would hurt, but he could accept it. God knew he deserved it after everything he had put her though. All he wanted was the chance to explain himself. Then, he could go to stop Archer and die with no more regrets on his conscience.
“Please, Jennifer, you’re all I have left. There’s no one else. I need you.”
Hearing nothing, Wilkins finally pushed the door open and stumbled into the entryway. The first thing he saw was Jennifer. She was sitting on the couch, hands folded in her lap, and still looking beautiful despite being covered from head to toe in splashes of his multicolored paint. Her eyes widened with shock.
Wilkins sighed and hung his head.
“Jennifer, I don’t know what to say. You know the truth now. I’m the Showstopper, and I always have been. I lied to you from the start, and I’m sorry.”
“What are you doing here?” she hissed, looking around fearfully.
“I need you to know that I never meant to hurt anybody, and I never killed anyone, I swear. There’s a madman out there who knows about me, and about you. He’s manipulated me into taking the blame for his crimes, and I don’t have anywhere left to hide. I had to come.”
“That’s not important right now,” the girl said, casting her eyes around again. “Tom, I need to tell you that…”
“What do you mean?” Wilkins demanded. “Of course it’s important! What was I supposed to do? He threatened you, Jennifer. You should never have gotten involved with me, and you don’t deserve to get dragged into this. I know it doesn’t mean much, and you probably don’t care, but I was trying to protect you.”
“That’s as may be, but I never dreamed you’d be stupid enough to come here! Now you listen…”
But the janitor was too far into his well-rehearsed speech to stop now.
“I realize I’ve wasted my life trying to get revenge. All I did was turn myself into a monster. The police are after me, Jennifer. They want to put me away for things I haven’t done, and all I want is to find the man who framed me so I can make him pay. I probably won’t survive, but I don’t care anymore. The fact that you and everyone else will be safe is all that matters.”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Jennifer cried, tears in her eyes. “Get out of here, Tom. Go! Now!”
Wilkins took a deep breath and stepped into the main room, looking at her with a mix of sorrow and awe.
“All right. If that’s what you want. But before I do, I need to tell you one thing. Jennifer, I…”
Wilkins stopped mid-sentence and turned to find the cavernous muzzle of a revolver pointed straight at his face.
“That was a mighty touching speech, guv’nor,” drawled Jack Archer, who had been standing just on the other side of the door. “I honestly think I was tearing up a bit. So, I see my little surprise in your room didn’t finish you off. Too bad. It would’ve given me an excuse to gut that spineless piece of garbage Decker. But I guess we can’t always get what we want. Glad I decided to stake out this joint to wait for you, though. And in such good company, too.”
That’s all I can share for now of “The Showstopper!”. But if you want to find out how the story ends, all you have to do is what I hope you were planning on doing anyway and get your own copy of the book! You can find it on Amazon and Kindle, and as always, leave me your thoughts and comments here, there, or on my Facebook page at Kyle Robertson, Novelist.