“The Showstopper!”: Chapter 6

6

 

“You spineless bunch of layabouts! Are you trying to make this precinct a laughing-stock?”

The senior officers of the 43rd stared at the floor uncomfortably, cringing under Calvin’s verbal assault.

“It’s not like that, Chief,” came the sullen mumbling from Captain Robert Decker, the precinct’s second-in-command. “We’ve all thought it over, and on the whole, we just don’t really care for the idea of…”

“Of what, Captain?” Calvin demanded, the vein in his forehead starting to swell. “Getting off your fat, lazy ass and doing something for a change, or of actually obeying an order given to you by your commanding officer? Which one sounds better to you?”

“But Chief…”

“Can it!” the burly man roared, glaring around at his officers. “This is outrageous! I ask my best people to cooperate on an assignment that could be crucial to the survival of this house, and all you can do is make excuses? Did you all lose your manhood on the way to work this morning?”

“What the Captain means, sir,” Sergeant Lawrence jumped in, “is that you asked one of us to take charge when really this case is too much for one person to handle. This Showstopper thing has been going on for months, and we still don’t have a single solid lead. Where would we start, sir?”

“Not to mention that it’s going to be a press circus, sir,” added Lieutenant Martin, the precinct’s ranking detective. “Whoever’s in charge will be stalked by reporters at all times. With such a high-profile case, there’s no telling how much worse a slip-up could make things, even a minor one. The news hawks would have their scandal, and the public would eat us alive.”

“So you see, Chief,” said Decker, trying to reassert some semblance of authority, “we think the best idea would be for you to petition the council and see if we can get any support on this. If we don’t have their backing before we dive into this, it could be a public relations disaster.”

“Petition the Council?” Calvin snorted. “Wouldn’t that be nice. They’ve been looking for an excuse to eliminate this precinct for years and extend the 85th’s authority over Broadway just so they can cut corners on their precious budget. And I’ll be tarred and feathered before I let Marcus Blakely, the council’s favorite lap-dog, take over my beat. That incompetent bungler wouldn’t know a clue it walked up and smacked him in the mouth. No, begging for help is exactly what they want us to do, and I’ll be damned if I give them the satisfaction. They think they’ve got us with this ridiculous case, but by God and all that’s holy, we’ll show those suit-wearing apes.”

He turned his glare back to his troops.

“That is, if one of you can manage to step up and take charge. Well? Who’s it going to be?”

What Calvin didn’t know was that exactly at that moment, a solution to the problem at hand was walking through the office door.

That solution’s name was Officer William Patrick McKenna, ironically among the lowest level of officers present in the precinct on that fateful day. He loved the law and took great pride in wearing the uniform, especially at home where Molly and his children could see the sleek blue jacket, the starched black slacks, and gleaming brass buttons.

What McKenna didn’t like to talk about was that after nearly three years of work in the 43rd, he had yet to be partnered with even the lowliest of beat cops, and the most important task he had been entrusted with to date was bringing Chief Calvin his morning coffee. It was a simple exercise to be sure, as the Chief never deviated from his order of steaming hot, as black as humanly possible, and never sullied with the moderation of cream and sugar.

He was almost positive that it had to do with his being Irish. As the first generation of the McKenna family to be born in America, he had yet to lose many of his people’s traditional ways, including but not limited to a heightened taste for alcohol, sailor-caliber language, and a County Cork accent to boot. Such characteristics frequently made him a subject of amusement for his well-adjusted New York colleagues.

These petty matters, however, did not sway his devotion in the slightest.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways, dear,” he would say to Molly roughly three to four times a day while perusing the contents of his family’s heirloom King James Catholic Bible. “As long as I labor faithfully and in good cheer, there’s a chance that God will smile on me and the Chief will offer me a promotion. Stranger things have happened, you know.”

And roughly three to four times a day, his wife would sigh, throw up her hands in and get back to washing clothing, doing dishes, or caring for the tykes, muttering under her breath, “I honestly don’t know how I went and married such a fool,” and McKenna would be left wondering what all that was about anyway.

So for the sake of himself, Molly, the tykes, the Chief, the coffee, and all others concerned, McKenna kept bringing the Chief his morning cup of caffeinated auto fuel, even as each day his hope took one step closer to being lost.

By what McKenna would himself call divine providence, and what historians years later would refer to as a simple case of being in the right place at the right time–or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on which historian you asked–the Irish officer strolled into Calvin’s office that morning and had a head-on collision with destiny.

In this instance, destiny took the form of Captain Decker, who intended to turn around and release some of his frustration on his subordinates. This single event would become a hallmark in police history comparable to the capture of Al Capone and the appointment of J. Edgar Hoover to head the infant FBI.

The only immediate consequence, however, was a grunt of surprise as McKenna collided with Decker, steaming hot coffee flying from the mug in his hand and splattering across the front of the Captain’s immaculate uniform.

“You blithering idiot!” Decker roared, hopping about as the liquid stained his shirt and burned the skin beneath. “Watch where you’re going! Do you have eyes? Assault! You’re a public menace, that’s what you are! Damn it all, this will never come out!”

McKenna froze, horrified, as beads of cold sweat broke out on his brow and began to stick his close-cut red hair to his forehead. He didn’t understand how this could have happened. Not after everything.

“You damned careless lot of Irish sewer rats!” Decker spat. “It’s no wonder this city’s in such a state with all you useless loafers blundering about! I don’t care if you make a dog’s wages, but you’re going to give me every last cent you earn until you pay for this uniform!”

At that moment, an image flitted through McKenna’s mind of his wife and children, deprived of his meager police salary, hollow-faced and starving on the street. While a person in a more stable state of mind would no doubt dismiss such a panic-induced fantasy, the heart-wrenching vision, combined with McKenna’s pent-up disillusionment, anger, and stress were more than enough to rouse his mighty Irish temper. He then proceeded to let loose one of the longest and loudest set of put-downs and insults in New York City history. And as said history is a storied one to be sure, you can imagine what this particular incident was like.

In keeping with the professional nature of this record, specific details as to the content of Officer McKenna’s outburst have been omitted. What little can be written was instead gathered from witness commentary after the fact.

Mrs. Millicent Francis, an elderly woman waiting for assistance on the matter of her missing tabby cat that morning, said she heard the tirade from clear across the lobby of the crowded precinct.

“Oh yes. It was terrible to hear a man say such things in public,” she said. “Language like that could curdle all the milk in a field of cows and peel the bark off a tree at fifty yards. I certainly hope he doesn’t kiss his children with that mouth.”

Sheldon Lawrence, a former officer from the 43rd Precinct and one of those present at the time of the incident, was of the opinion that Decker had it coming.

“Personally, I think he deserved every bit of it,” he said. “Decker was a snob and a boor, and none of us liked him much anyway. He had no right to go off at McKenna like that, but it didn’t matter on account of that paddy ran him down like a freight train over a bicycle. Not sporting at all, that, but very entertaining.”

Lawrence also said that McKenna’s rant utilized colorful language of a sort rarely seen, even in immigrants, along with several choice references to Decker’s mother, his family, his masculinity, and his relationship to certain four-legged canine animals and various subspecies of primates.

In any case, it is not the intention of this writer to digress, but merely to provide adequate background information for the undoubtedly educated and discerning reader.

***

The senior staff stood in thunder-struck silence as McKenna, red-faced and panting, felt his stomach drop into a bottomless pit. He winced as his shell-shocked haze was invaded by the sound of Calvin roaring in the background, no doubt demanding his resignation.

Hanging his head in shame, the Irishman silently cursed the temper of his forefathers and his own stupidity as he turned to the Chief to hand over his badge and quite possibly beg for forgiveness. It was then that he realized Calvin was not shouting. In fact, he was not even angry. The Chief was leaned back in his chair, purple-faced and laughing hard enough to burst an artery.

“Brilliant, man!” he cried, smacking his desk with a fist for emphasis. “Absolutely fantastic! You’ve hit the nail right on the head!” He composed himself with visible effort and rose to his feet, scratching his head as if trying to remember something he had misplaced.

“Errr…McKendrick, isn’t it? The paddy lad who brings me coffee?”

“It’s M-M-McKenna, sir,” McKenna stuttered through a mouth that seemed full of sandpaper. “Sir, I apologize. I’m so terribly sorry. Let me explain…”

“Explain nothing!” Calvin shouted, slapping the officer’s back with such force he nearly fell over. “You just said everything I’ve ever wanted to say to these fair-weather fellows. Not many men would have the guts to do that. And if there’s one thing I hate,” he growled, surveying the sheepish group of officers, “it’s a yes-man. Boy, I wish I had a dozen like you.”

McKenna considered telling Calvin that he was getting on 30 years old and was therefore no longer a boy, but decided not to press his luck.

“Yes, sir,” the Chief mused, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “If only more people around here had the courage to say what they mean. I could use someone like that.”

Suddenly he froze, a light bulb forming in his mind. It was, granted, perhaps not the brightest in the history of such light bulbs, but it was a light bulb nonetheless.

“Say, McClellan…”

“McKenna, sir.”

“Whatever.”

Calvin rested a meaty hand on the Irishman’s shoulder and looked him straight in the eye.

“I think I may have a use for you after all. What do you say?”

McKenna shrugged, trying his best not to offend.

“You’re the boss, sir.”

“Now what kind of an answer is that, man?” asked the Chief, frowning.

McKenna realized the bind he had placed himself in. Now that Calvin thought he was outspoken and tough, he had to keep up the act, or he could very likely kiss his job goodbye.

“Sorry, sir,” he said, attempting to look more confident than he felt. “What I meant to say was that I’d be very interested.”

As the rest of the senior officers listened attentively, Decker sulked in the background and glared at McKenna, his distaste for the Irishman blossoming into instant hatred. All this funny business was definitely going in his next letter to the council.

“That’s better,” said Calvin, thumping McKenna on the back and not noticing the younger man’s grunt of pain. “Now then, boy, what I had in mind was putting you on a case. A case of great importance that’s been giving me a good deal of headaches lately.”

McKenna’s breath caught in his chest. Had he heard right? Did the Chief want to put him on a case? Was this the Lord’s call he had awaited for so long?

“But I’m only an officer, sir,” he blurted out. “Only ranked staff members are allowed to take cases.”

“A detail,” said Calvin. “Can I count on you, lad? Are you the kind of man who will see this through to the bitter end, no matter how difficult the going gets? Or will you let me down? Well?”

McKenna weighed his options. On one hand, he knew he was inexperienced, unprepared, and criminally under-qualified to take on a major investigation. It was obvious to any sane man what his answer should be.

But on the other hand…

Well, to be honest, he wasn’t really sure what the other hand was. His attention-starved imagination, however, was more than happy to jump in, filling his head with ludicrously exaggerated and highly improbable visions of parades, fame, fortune, and all the whiskey he could ever drink.

So in the end, the decision was what would be referred to in the parlance of modern times as “a real no-brainer.”

Calvin was watching him closely.

“What manner of man are you, Sergeant McKenna?”

McKenna crossed himself, asking for divine mercy and praying that God, or whatever other deity took pity on fools, was listening.

“I’m your man, sir,” he said. “What case did you have in mind?”

“The Showstopper!”: Chapter 5

5

The evening rainstorm was in full force by the time Wilkins pushed his way out of the service entrance and into the alley behind the Royale.

He snatched a discarded newspaper out of a nearby trash bin and held it over his head in a fruitless effort to keep dry. His boots splashed through puddles of dirty water as he trudged out into the brick and asphalt jungle of Broadway.

It was now almost 10:30 at night, which put him at fourteen hours since he had started work for the day. Granted, the theater was far from spotless, and the chandelier had yet to be extracted from the remnants of the stage, but it was passable for one day and a decent enough job not to arouse the suspicion of his employer.

The flooded sidewalk, at this hour frequented only by the local bums and a few well-dressed fellows bearing umbrellas for the drunken and giggling girls on their arms, was illuminated by the flickering yellow glow of the new electric streetlamps.

Abandoning the newspaper, Wilkins pushed his wet hair out of his face and dodged around the few pedestrians, who cocked their eyebrows at him with a mix of distaste and amusement.

Levash’s comments still stung. The man was an ignorant fop whose capacity for greed, lust, and cruelty were matched only by the size of his ego. How dare he presume to know anything about another person’s life!

But then, Wilkins reminded himself, Levash was an actor. What did he expect? After all, not everyone was cut out to do honest work.

Actors. Everything about their so-called profession repulsed him: their essential lack of honesty, their grossly overinflated sense of self-importance, their sickening ease in lying, and how they were capable of spurning their fans and yet always keep them coming back to eat out of their hands for another night.

Occasionally they tried to pull the same tricks on him: the half-truths, the double-talk, and the smooth persuasion. But Wilkins had been around them for so long that he knew all the telltale signs and was familiar with every tactic. They couldn’t pull the wool over his eyes anymore.

Mr. DuBois would be quite pleased with himself if he realized just how close he had come to the truth about things.

At the next small intersection, Wilkins made a sharp left and glanced around to make sure no one was watching before hurrying down a dark concrete stairway built into the ground beside the building on the corner.

He didn’t need to worry about actors. They would all get what they deserved sooner or later. The Showstopper would see to that.

At the bottom of the stairs stood a door. Glancing over his shoulder again just to be safe, Wilkins raised a fist and rapped out a special sequence of knocks. A head-level peephole promptly slid open, and a forbidding pair of dark eyes peered through the slot.

“Macbeth,” the janitor whispered.

A gravelly grunt came from behind the door.

“Nice try, chump. That was last week’s password. Now get out of here before I give you a lump no amount of makeup will cover.”

Wilkins rolled his eyes, unimpressed.

“Come on, Crane. Give me a break. It’s Tom Wilkins. You know me. And I happen to know the password for this week is ‘Macbeth’. Besides, you know actors and their stupid superstitions. Would one of them ever actually just say it like that? Quit fooling around and open the damn door already.”

“Humph,” the voice growled, sounding hurt and much less intimidating. “Well, you don’t have to be rude about it. Can’t blame a man for being careful.”

With the clicks and sliding sounds of multiple bolts being drawn back, the door creaked open and Wilkins stepped over the threshold, giving the immense bald man behind it a pat on the shoulder.

“Sorry about that, Crane. It’s been a long day.”

The bouncer muttered a grumpy assent as Wilkins passed by him and into the dimly lit interior of what the locals referred to as the “Curtain Call Saloon.” On a dreary night like this one, the speakeasy was populated by the usual crowd of workers, gentlemen, and drunks who tolerated each other’s presence only for the sake of preserving their own easy access to prohibited alcohol.

It was funny, Wilkins reflected, how few things could bring people together like shared vices.

Peeling off his soaked topcoat, he was about to take a seat in his customary corner when he heard a jolly British voice emanating from the front of the room.

“I say there, Thomas! Thomas, old boy! Come and sit down.”

Wilkins grinned and picked his way among the overturned crates, barrels, and spare lumber that served as the saloon’s furniture toward the front bar, where a middle-aged and well-dressed man cheerfully waved to him.

“Hello, Reg,” he said. “I didn’t expect to see you here tonight.”

Sir Reginald Coxley smiled and clapped his young friend on the back, grimacing at the wet smack his gesture caused.

“Good to see you, Thomas,” he replied. “Heavens, my boy, you look like…”

“Yeah, yeah, a drowned rat. I know. And how many times do I have to tell you? It’s Tom. Just Tom.”

Reg chuckled, the crinkles in his aging, yet still handsome, face momentarily appearing and disappearing, and ran his hand through his groomed salt-and-pepper mane. The gold figurehead of the specially tailored cane leaning against the bar beside him glinted in the half-light.

“Of course, Thomas. Please, allow me to purchase your drink. Use the money to save up for an umbrella.”

Wilkins normally would have declined such charity, but he had learned long ago that it was pointless to argue with Reg.

“Thanks,” he said. “You know, Reg, you ought to be more careful. A man of your stature in a place like this could draw a lot of attention.”

“I’m flattered by your concern, my boy,” the manager said, “but stature or not, like any other man, I sometimes find myself compelled to satisfy my urges. Don’t worry about me, Thomas. I may be an old man, but I can take care of myself.”

“All right,” said Wilkins, smiling. “So, how’s business?”

Reg beckoned the bartender over and instructed him to fetch two glasses of whatever qualified as his finest liquor.

“Good, quite good. That is, as good as can be expected, given the circumstances.”

“Circumstances?”

The gentleman reached into the inner pocket of his checkered waistcoat and withdrew a folded copy of the day’s newspaper. The top headline instantly caught Wilkins’s eye.

“Have you read the papers today, Thomas? That Showstopper chap is at it again. From what I’ve heard, he fixed up the Royale right and proper.”

Wilkins snorted.

“You could say that. I spent the whole day cleaning up after him. I’ve never seen such a mess made of a theater.”

“Ah, yes!” Reg exclaimed. “You’re working at the Royale now, as I recall. So is it true, then?”

“Every bit. The place looks like the Devil himself passed through. I’ve been at it since this morning, and I’m not even close to being done.”

“You poor lad. It must be an absolute bore. But speaking of business,” Reg added with a sly grin, “I have something for you that might cheer you up.”

He hoisted a small packing crate from the bar beside him and into Wilkins’s outstretched arms.

“Really?” Wilkins asked as the bartender deposited two glasses of something vaguely resembling motor oil in front of them. “It’s finished?”

“To the letter,” Reg confirmed. “Though I must say that my manufacturer and I were quite intrigued by the design. He said, and I agree, that he has never seen a contraption of its like before.”

Wilkins turned the box over in his hands, ensuring there were no marks of damage during transport, and gratefully shook his friend’s hand.

“Thank you, Reg. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“You’re quite welcome, Thomas. But if you don’t mind my asking, what did you say this curiosity was for?”

“Oh, this? Ummm…it’s nothing, really. I was just thinking a few weeks ago about how much easier my job would be if I didn’t have to take the curtain rods down first before I cleaned them. With this I can climb up to the rods myself and clean them in half the time, if you see what I’m saying.”

Reg looked puzzled, but seemed to accept the explanation.

“Quite ingenious, to be sure. I’m impressed, Thomas.”

Wilkins shrugged.

“Just trying to make my job easier and my day shorter. March of progress and all that.”

“There is no denying that you have an inventive mind, Thomas,” said Reg, leaning closer to the janitor. “But if this is so, then why then are you content with mopping other people’s floors for a living? Why not patent your creations and sell them to the world? You could be the next Thomas Edison, and rich beyond your wildest dreams. Is having a normal life really worth the sacrifice?”

Wilkins knew the question was innocent and well intentioned, but the sudden stab of painful memories put him immediately on the defensive.

“I didn’t choose this life, Reg,” he said. “It was given to me. You know that, and I’ve accepted it. I don’t have any grand ambitions or dreams of fortune, and I’m sorry if that disappoints you. Normal?” He laughed humorlessly, looking away. “I’d give anything to have a normal life.”

Reg laid a hand on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Thomas,” he said. “I should not have pursued the matter. Your life is your business, and I should not forget about what happened when your parents…”

Wilkins held up a hand before his friend could complete the sentence.

“It’s all right, Reg. I’m sorry, but I’m just tired. Maybe it would be best to call it a night.”

“Quite right,” the older man agreed, extending a hand. “Pleasant dreams, Thomas. I hope to see you tomorrow.”

“You bet, Reg,” said Wilkins, taking his shot and shaking with his benefactor. “Thanks for the drink.”

***

Trying to keep himself from skipping with delight, Wilkins raced down sidewalks and across streets, pausing only to give way for a few passing automobiles. Turning into an alleyway off the road several minutes later, he bounded up a rickety iron fire escape attached to the side of a run-down tenement building.

Arriving at the structure’s sixth and highest floor, the young man pried open a window and slipped carefully through the gap, ducking out of the downpour and into his apartment.

The small flat was a single, shabbily furnished box of a room, consisting of a stained sink and grime-smeared mirror that served as Wilkins’ washroom, immediately adjacent to the cot and empty crate that doubled as seat and night stand respectively. The floorboards creaked, perforated here and there by intruding nail heads, and the room’s old coat of whitewash was chipping away to reveal the bare brick of the walls.

But none of these domestic problems caused Wilkins the least bit of worry. The most important thing about a living space was not how it looked, but how well it suited your needs.

Ignoring the pile of soiled dishes and the soggy footprints he was leaving behind, he walked across the apartment, taking time only to turn the power knob on the wall for the bare and solitary light bulb planted in the ceiling. Picking up the crate, he heaved it into the center of the floor and clambered on top of it, stretching to reach the ceiling boards and running his fingers over them with painstaking care.

Suddenly his hand stopped, his fingertips catching an invisible crack that was familiar only to him. Wilkins jumped and pushed at the boards, and with a creak and snap, a roughly square piece of the ceiling gave way and fell aside, leaving behind a portal of total darkness. Wilkins thrust his package up through the hole and then, seizing the ledge on either side of the gap, hopped up from the crate and heaved his body into the black.

“The Showstopper!”: Chapter 4

4

 

The esteemed Mr. Johnson C. DuBois, Esquire, owner of the Royale Theatre, was in a rather bad mood.

“This is disgraceful!” he bawled. “Unacceptable! I demand an answer at once! Do you hear me? At once! Who is responsible for this catastrophe?”

Andre Levash and the rest of the cast of The Hound of the Baskervilles shuffled their feet and tried very hard to avoid eye contact with their livid employer, mumbling incoherently about nothing in particular.

DuBois furiously stamped on the stage and stumbled to right himself as his foot broke through the splintered paneling with a crack, punching a jagged hole in the surface of the already battered platform.

“Just look at this place!” he raged, beside himself as he surveyed the carnage of the once-pristine auditorium. “My stage! My furniture!” He sniffed tearfully, dabbing at his eye with a handkerchief. “My chandelier!”

Daniels, who had never been terribly bright, made the mistake of speaking up first.

“Ah yes, the chandelier. I’m awfully sorry about that, Mr. DuBois. I always did think it was rather nice.”

“Rather nice?” the manager exploded, cowing Daniels into silence with a look that was terrifying to behold. “That crystal masterpiece was a gift from the crown prince of Denmark himself! It was worth more than any of you will make in the rest of your miserable lives! I should think you would be sorry!”

The cast shuffled some more and muttered a few noncommittal apologies.

“Enough!” snapped DuBois. “My theater is in shambles, and it’s going to cost me a fortune to repair and replace everything. All the props were demolished, and the company I rented them from wants ridiculous sums for compensation. What’s more, my financial backers have backed themselves right out of my business. I’ll have to find new ones if I ever want to see another show. And to top it all off, my credibility with the public has been shattered, and I haven’t the foggiest notion on how to get that back.”

Levash stepped forward, manufacturing the most patronizingly subservient face possible.

“Excuse me, Mr. DuBois, sir, but if I may…”

“You may not!”

Levash dropped the act and sulked while the other actors stared daggers at him.

“As I was saying,” DuBois continued, “I may not know how to get my public faith back, but I know a good place to start. You’re all fired. Clear out.”

Turmoil erupted on the stage.

“Fired?”

“What do you mean, fired?”

“You can’t fire us!”

“We haven’t even done one show!”

“This is outrageous!”

“Shut up!” roared DuBois, silencing them. “I can, I will, and I have. I need a new crowd of faces on this stage if I ever want to see my patrons again. But before I do,” he added darkly, stalking across the platform and staring down each sweating actor and actress in turn, “I want an answer. Who is to blame for this mess?”

He folded his arms and tapped his foot expectantly.

“Well? Cat got your tongue, you gutless bunch of dandies? Speak up!”

Daniels spoke again, carefully considering his response.

“Wait a moment. If we tell you what happened, then you won’t fire us?”

DuBois shook his head.

“Oh no, Mr. Daniels. Don’t misunderstand me. You’re going to get fired one way or the other. I just thought it would a kind Christian gesture on my part to offer you all a chance at clean consciences before I boot you out the door.”

“Then why should we answer you?” sniffed Levash, any mask of respect for his employer gone.

“Because,” growled DuBois, shoving his beet-red face belligerently into the actor’s, “if I find out you’ve been holding out on me, there will be no place on this street you can hide. I’ll drum you out of the business and string you up from the rafters!”

The cast stared at the floor in uncomfortable silence. They knew he would do it, too.

“So come on then!” cried DuBois. “Out with it! Speak up, damn you!”

“Well, sir, if I may, I think it may have been the…the…” Daniels said, trying to get up the nerve to utter the words. “The Showstopper, sir?”

The manager smacked his forehead in disgust.

“Of course it was the Showstopper, you imbecile! Who else could have done all this?” He gestured around them. “No, I know perfectly well who committed the crime. But like any other criminal, the Showstopper doesn’t do these things for his health. He must have had some motivation to attack our production.”

“Like what, sir?” asked one of the female cast members, a minor housemaid. Levash wasn’t quite sure, but he seemed to recall sleeping with her at some point.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said DuBois sarcastically. “How about revenge, for starters?”

“Revenge?” Daniels repeated. “What do you mean, sir?”

Levash decided he just couldn’t stand the stupidity of these people for another minute.

“He means that the Showstopper or whoever employed him had a grudge, you half-wit,” he snapped, his harshness making Daniels cringe. “Someone was trying to pay someone else back by making this show fail.”

“Very astute, Andre,” said DuBois, his eyebrows raised. “I wouldn’t have expected such an intelligent remark from you. Tell me, do you have something you wish to share with the rest of us?”

The rest of the cast stared suspiciously at Levash, making his skin crawl.

“Aside from my intellect, which is obviously far superior to these fools?” he said, affecting an air of indifference. “Hardly. I don’t make a habit of associating with common thugs.”

“Come now,” probed DuBois. “The Showstopper may be a thug, but I think we can agree he is far from common.”

His eyes narrowed.

“I seem to recall that you were quite angry when I cut down your lines in the first act and refused you your own costuming and makeup staff. You’ve disagreed with me on many matters during your employment here. Surely you had adequate motive for an act of vengeance?”

Levash had to work very hard to keep from soiling his trousers in fright.

“You have proof, do you?” he babbled furiously. “Conclusive, undeniable proof linking me to the Showstopper? Perhaps that I am the Showstopper? Well, have you?”

He jabbed a finger at the manager.

“You have nothing on me, and you know it. Besides, am I really the only one here who had motive?”

Levash stalked over to Daniels, who eyed him nervously.

“Daniels here has had it in for me ever since I was given the part of Holmes which he so desperately wanted.” He smirked. “And rightfully so, I must say, my good man. Your audition was atrocious.”

“That’s a damned lie!” Daniels exclaimed, now finding himself on the hot seat. “I’m a good actor! I deserved that part! You only got it because you paid off the casting director!”

“And so,” Levash overrode him, “is it really too far-fetched to assume that if I could be driven to destroy my own performance over a few meaningless lines and private attendants, isn’t it similarly possible that this bumbling idiot could resort to such methods because of his anger at me? He knew very well that it would spell the end of my career here and would mean lead roles for him in the future.” He smiled while Daniels quaked in his boots, on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but your sad little plan has backfired.”

“Well…I…err…” Daniels stammered, sweating bullets. “What about Mrs. Johnston, then?”

The older woman next to him gasped and stared at him as though he had slapped her.

“She’s hated Mr. DuBois since the first day of rehearsal when he bawled her out for her sloppy diction!” the weighty actor blurted out. “She’s the one!”

Instantly, the auditorium was filled by angry shouts and bitter accusations as the one-time cast members turned on each other. DuBois had to shout himself nearly hoarse to restore order.

“Right! That’s enough of this, then!” he said with finality. “I will not allow this disgusting witch-hunt to go on any longer. You all make me sick! You can finish each other off in the streets for all I care. Now, get out of my theater! Out, out, out!”

Still grumbling half-heartedly, the actors filed offstage to pack their belongings.

DuBois took another look around at his once-proud theater and sighed.

“Wilkins!”

A young man stepped out from backstage, where he had been eavesdropping discreetly for the past several minutes. He was of medium height and had a slight but muscular build, with calloused hands from years of grueling cleanup jobs and unruly brown hair that strongly resembled the head of the mop in his hand. His dress consisted of faded blue coveralls, with aged, scuffed boots, and a worn work cap clamped over his head.

He doffed the cap respectfully at DuBois, revealing an almost perfectly nondescript face, spotted all over with the grease and grime his life entailed.

“Yeah, boss. What can I do for you?”

The manager regarded the shattered glass, the torn backdrop, the broken panels, and the various pieces of props and other unidentifiable objects strewn about the stage.

“Just…just clean this up, Wilkins,” he said, and walked off in the direction of his office, temporarily defeated.

“Yes, sir. I’ll get right on it.”

The janitor walked behind the curtain and returned a moment later with a bucket full of dingy water. He stuffed the mop head into the water and slapped it down again, attempting to brush the glass fragments into a neat pile.

At the same time, Andre Levash, still fuming and newly unemployed, stalked onto the stage, searching for something upon which to vent his anger. He strolled casually up to the unsuspecting Wilkins, a thin and dangerous smile on his lips.

“So, boy,” he said. “Just because you’re that old walrus’s pet, you think you can laugh at us getting sacked?”

Wilkins shrugged, trying to avoid confrontation.

“I wouldn’t know, sir. My old mother always told me not to laugh at other folks’ bad luck.”

Levash nodded, and then without warning lashed out with his foot. The water bucket was kicked over with a clang, its contents spilling across the stage. Wilkins rushed to pick it up and stop the water from running onto the carpet.

“Confound it!” he exclaimed. “Now I have to walk down to the corner and get more water. These boards warp, you know.”

Levash seized the young man by the shirt collar and glared at him.

“Don’t tell me what the boards do, you little ingrate!” he seethed. “I know you think you’ve better than me. All of you do. But no one, and I mean no one, gets the last laugh on Andre Levash! Do you hear? No one!”

Wilkins ground his teeth, but did his best to keep a civil tongue and not make the situation any worse.

“I’m sorry, sir, but may I get back to my cleaning now? If I don’t step on it, this is going to take all night, and Mr. DuBois will put my butt in traction.”

“Nuts to your cleaning, nuts to Mr. DuBois, and nuts to this theater!” Levash shouted, shoving Wilkins aside. “This doesn’t hurt me. I’m a top-billed actor. I can just go find another job at another theater. I’ll still be rich and famous. And as for you, you’ll be nothing. You’ll always be nothing. Just a sad little boy cleaning up after the real men in this world. Remember that.”

The actor turned and strode off the stage, not forgetting to send the empty bucket flying again with another well-placed kick.

Wilkins stared after Levash for a moment, and then returned to his cleaning, but not before a small, secretive smile flitted across his face as if he understood a joke the actor had failed to grasp.

“The Showstopper!”: Chapter 2

2

 

Monday, October 18, 1922

The Broadway Revue

Scourge of Broadway Strikes Again!

“Showstopper” Criminal Linked to Malicious Series of Production Accidents

By Trevor Goodwin, Staff Reporter

 

The Showstopper.

It is a name every actor on Broadway fears and despises. A name that directors scarcely dare to whisper in opening night prayers, hoping against hope that their production will not be the evening’s offering of target practice. A name that unleashes inner terrors and grants wings to fanciful imaginations.

Following his career debut in the Main Line Theater’s disaster-ridden production of The Wedding Guests almost a year ago today, this unseen fiend has wreaked havoc on playhouses up and down Broadway Row, transitioning from an amusing nuisance to a frighteningly enigmatic threat to public safety. Several prominent companies are now deep in debt from refunded ticket sales and destroyed property, and hundreds of promising young actors and actresses now wander the streets without work, their dreams of stardom cruelly smashed.

Who is this masked menace, and why has he apparently begun a one-man crusade to bring down Broadway? Speculation among the citizenry abounds while facts remain elusive.

Mrs. Susan Lepré of Brooklyn said she believes the Showstopper has an unhappy history with theaters.

“I heard the man has a wooden leg and a brass hook for a hand,” she said. “He lost them in a stage accident when he was a child, and now he has a vendetta against playhouses for life. Isn’t that just the most romantic tragedy you’ve ever heard?”

Miss Danielle Rousseau of Manhattan said she finds the danger surrounding the criminal intriguing.

“I’ve heard he can slip in and out of shadows like a phantom,” she said. “It’s some kind of ancient art they teach in the Orient. That’s how he gets in without anyone seeing him. I just wish I could meet him. He’s so daring and mysterious. I’ve fallen in love with him, so I have!”

Mr. Joseph Thompson of Queens had a decidedly less positive opinion.

“The man’s a fool, and a damn reckless one at that,” he said. “Putting innocent men and women at risk who are just trying to make honest money is the most despicable thing I can think of, and he doesn’t even have the guts to show his face. Yellow-bellied slime.”

Mr. Clifford Hicks, also of Queens, demonstrated firsthand just how many wild rumors exist surrounding the Showstopper.

“I’ve heard tell that the Showstopper’s got the wings of a bat and sucks the blood of people he can find alone on the streets at night,” he said. “Of course, I make it a habit never to put much stock into tall tales and womanly gossip. But that’s the word on the street.”

The public is not the only ones in an uproar over the Showstopper. Mr. Terrance Banks, owner of the Regal Playhouse that was attacked last month, said he is concerned that his ability to put bread and water on the table for himself and his family may be compromised.

“That maniac is out to ruin my business and my livelihood,” he said. “Thanks to the blasted Showstopper, actors won’t sign onto my payroll, my productions are being cancelled, and my company is losing money in buckets every day. He must be stopped!”

In spite of the overwhelming nature of such views, Sir Reginald Coxley, manager of a modest theater chain including the Majestic, said that his profits have actually increased thanks to the Showstopper.

“More gentlemen and ladies from outside the city are paying to see my productions now, hoping not only for quality entertainment, but also to catch a glimpse of the notorious criminal in action,” he said. “Quite an interesting study of human behavior, really, and a savvy manager will continue to reap the benefits.”

When asked if he feared his productions might be next on the Showstopper’s hit parade, Sir Coxley simply laughed and declined comment.

One question on the mind of every New Yorker during this time of crisis is where the police are in the meantime. Broadway’s law enforcement community has thus far refused to assign more men to the Showstopper case, despite increasing public outcry. Even more shocking is the fact that high-ranking members of the New York City Police Department appear not to take the Showstopper or the threat he poses seriously.

Police Commissioner Clarence Calvin, head of Broadway’s 43rd Precinct, said he believes the Showstopper case is not even worth his time.

“The man’s just another one of your standard kooks,” he said. “They pop up, give the people some cheap thrills for a while, and disappear when the gawkers lose interest. My officers and I already have our hands full keeping real thugs and murderers off the streets. We can’t afford to run around on a wild goose chase after every nut in a cape and cowl. I’ve got hangnails that are more pressing to me than the Showstopper.”

Despite Calvin’s dismissive attitude, there are other individuals who feel the threat is even greater than most people realize. Mr. Hamilton Saxby, a Bronx-born set designer, former prop master, and expert on theatrical technology claimed to have studied the Showstopper’s methods of disrupting and destroying productions. He said his findings were alarming.

“This is not just some two-bit prankster looking for thirty seconds of fame,” he said. “So far, not one of the Showstopper’s attacks has been a simple hack-and-slash job. The level of ability demonstrated here shows that each crime is carefully planned down to the slightest detail, and the sheer complexity of means and timing in the incidents so far are representative of a brilliant, if perhaps deranged, intellect.”

Mr. Saxby also expressed concern regarding the means the Showstopper uses to perpetrate his crimes.

“My examination of the few gadgets and devices recovered intact from crime scenes has confounded me,” he said. “The engineering comprehension involved in their creation must be years ahead of our time. What’s more, their specialization indicates a mind that can foresee every possible situation and build a device tailored to tackle any challenge.”

Mr. Saxby concluded with a warning to the police.

“They are tragically underestimating what’s happening here,” he said. “All the evidence indicates that the Showstopper is very real, and very dangerous. I fear that if action is not taken soon, this man–mad or not–may well become unstoppable.”

As protests against law enforcement’s stubborn inaction grow stronger every day, it seems contrary to logic and the laws of common decency that the sole line of defense against the city’s scum and villainy continue to look the other way on the Showstopper affair. If the citizens of New York cannot expect aid from those who have sworn to serve and protect them, where are they to turn?

Even in this dark time, however, hope still exists for Broadway and its population. Sources inside City Hall say that as recently as last week, several city council members proposed the passing of an executive order to force the police to mobilize against the Showstopper threat. The result of these valiant efforts by our trusted elected representatives remains to be seen.

“The Showstopper!”: Prologue and Chapter One

As promised, this week I’m putting the very first installment of my debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, online. And you’re all in for a treat this time, because for the first installment I’m giving you not just the prologue, but the first chapter as well.

Also, if you’re reading this first on my website, from now on, I’d like to direct you to my Facebook page, Kyle Robertson, Novelist, for all further updates on my writing and new chapters as they’re posted. Like it and follow it if you can. I’d really appreciate the support.

Finally, just as a reminder, my book is still available on Amazon.com and Kindle, and with the holidays coming up, a great adventure/mystery/crime/romance/fantasy novel like this one makes a present that’s got everything you could ask for. You can buy a paperback version for $9.99, or get an eBook for your Kindle at the low, low price of $1.99.

That’s it for now, so enjoy the first two chapters of “The Showstopper!”

Showstopper

 

PRESIDING OFFICER’S NOTES

POLICE COMMISSIONER WILLIAM MCKENNA

NEW YORK CITY 43RD PRECINCT, 1934

 

Ah, the Showstopper affair.

Indeed, it was one of the strangest cases in all my experience as an officer. Working in the New York City Police Department’s Broadway precinct, I thought I had seen it all. Certainly, none of us who were involved in that intricate web of corruption, death, and deceit will ever see one of its like again in our lifetimes. This knowledge at once relieves me beyond all telling and at the same time fills my soul with an irrational–and dare I say perverse—disappointment.

Seated behind my cluttered desk in the backroom office that will only be mine for another seven hours or so, up to my eyebrows in filing boxes and craving a nip of scotch more than anything else the whole of creation, my hands shake and my heart skips a beat to recall the details surrounding those frantic two weeks. So many twists and turns, so much betrayal, shock, and heartbreak…it is nearly impossible for me to imagine discussing it.

However, I suppose I must try. Some choices the Good Lord makes for us, and we must deal with the consequences as they come.

Only a moment ago as I sat here, shuffling through yet another pile of backlogged, disorderly cold case folders that for some reason each require my personal attention, my numbed hands slipped and a single packet landed face-up on my desk. It was a large, coffee-stained, and dusty compilation of documents bearing the label in faded black ink: SHOWSTOPPER.

The reappearance of this old but unforgettable adventure triggered many memories, taking me back to when the 43rd Precinct was the hottest division of law in the city, and when the suggestion that one day the old girl might get run out and have to be retired would have earned you a week’s worth of “paddy” jokes at the speako down the street.

Regrettably, my responsibilities as ranking officer have deprived me of sleep a great deal recently—thank the damned council bureaucrats for that—and the endless paperwork associated with closing a precinct has left me fatigued beyond rational thought.

The sight of the Showstopper file, however, seemed to somehow revitalize me. I was suddenly more focused than I had been in days, and possessed by an excitement I could not logically explain. I suppose it was because I knew the time was finally right to share the story that I have waited so long to tell.

Technically speaking, all cold cases are still classified by order of our esteemed city council, and will as such be stored in the moldy, forgotten basement of City Hall until God himself comes calling. But if at some point in the future these files are to be released to the public, then why shouldn’t I take this chance to set the record straight with a personal account of the case that changed my life?

If I am to tell this tale, I should warn whoever may read it that I do not pretend to be acquainted with all the facts of the case. The only people who could fully explain the events of those few weeks—Mr. Thomas Wilkins, Miss Jennifer T. Hawke, and Mr. Jack Archer—are all gone now, in one way or another. For my part, I will attempt to do the best I can with what I know, and filling in the holes will be left up to your judgment.

I can only assure you of one thing: that the events I will shortly describe are in no way a fabrication or forgery of any kind. They are all true, and they really happened, no matter what any history book or politician may tell you. A lot of good men, many of whom I knew and a few of whom I considered my friends, gave their lives for this case. With everything else that I already bear, I don’t need a lie of this scale on my conscience.

I am not insane. I was just an overconfident, hotheaded young rookie in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I was dragged into a situation far more complex and with far higher stakes than I could have possibly imagined. While honesty compels me to admit that mistakes were made, I have no regrets. When you take a job in law enforcement, you learn to live with the things that you’ve done. You might not get off so scot-free the next time around.

Now then, where was I? Ah, yes. The Showstopper case.

The year was 1922. The city was bustling, the theaters were jam-packed every night, and Broadway was the toast of America. The economy was booming, the money was flowing as freely as illicit liquor from clay jugs at the swinging speakeasies, and it looked like things could never stop going up.

In hindsight, it surprises me that given the circumstances, no one suspected what we were in for. In my experience, this is usually what things look like right before they all come crashing down around you.

 

PRELUDE

 

1

 

“Elementary, my dear Watson. To catch this beast, we must draw it out of hiding. I propose a trap!”

There was a sharp sucking noise as every one of the five hundred audience members in the swelteringly hot, three-tiered gallery drew a breath of shock. Well-dressed gentlemen in their reserved boxes doffed their top hats, repositioned their fine cigars in their mouths and puffed contentedly, grinning like small children captivated by a new toy. Women with gaudy jewelry and fine garments clapped hands to their mouths and fanned themselves furiously, some squealing with surprise and delight at the unexpected turn of events.

Andre Levash leaned back casually in his center-stage armchair, studied his ivory prop pipe, and worked diligently to suppress a smirk. He had never seen the Royale so full, and the mob was in the palm of his hand tonight. There was a rush of excitement in the air. He could almost taste the odors of anxious sweat mixed with the sweet perfume of a few lovely ladies making eyes at him from the front row. Or maybe that was just the smell of the money that would line his pockets after this contemptible sham was over for another day. Either way, once he was done, none of these people would know what hit them.

“A simple creature requires but simple bait,” he drawled, continuing his line. “But I suspect that this hound has a master who is much more intelligent than he, or perhaps she, would wish us to believe. Therefore, I propose the ultimate temptation for this devious mastermind. A prize that their ego will not allow them to refuse.” Levash paused for a moment, adjusting his tweed vest and letting the sentence sink into the rabble’s mind.

God, how he loathed audiences! They were invariably unimaginative, pretentious morons with weak minds and even weaker wallets. Wallets he was only too glad to help pick. As the Royale’s top-billed actor in Hound of the Baskervilles, he would be the one getting most of the cut when the bean counters in DuBois’s box office had fleeced these fools for everything they had.

On some occasions he almost pitied them: the poor idiots who would give their eyes and teeth just to live out their fantasies through others. But then he remembered the feeling of hundred-dollar bills in his hands, and such trifling thoughts could never stand before pure greed. He was a king, an emperor among men. Perhaps even a god.

“Myself!”

The auditorium was immediately filled with cries of shocked women and loud guffaws of men, all completely engrossed in the action, mingling with the false surprise and horror of “Watson” and the four other actors lounging on chaises around the stage. Rising to his feet and thrusting his arm to the heavens, Levash let the sound wash over him and smiled in triumph. The pretty girls in the front row swooned theatrically, giggling and pointing at him while whispering behind their hands. He certainly wouldn’t be lacking for companionship tonight.

What Levash, and everyone else for that matter, failed to notice was that up in the highest catwalks and rafters of the Royale Theater, a new player was taking the stage. Crouching low between the giant spotlights to avoid being seen, a figure of medium height and a slight but muscular build slung a canvas sack down from his shoulder and watched the ongoing production with unsettling intensity.

The mysterious figure was clothed entirely in black: heavy black boots, black pants, black coat and cape, and a turned-up black collar that together with a low-brimmed black hat almost totally obscured his face. He shifted silently, his shadowy gaze darting to and fro across the stage, mentally noting the positions of each person and prop and making a few brief final calculations.

His gloved hands dug into the bag and began to assemble a device consisting of numerous metal and wooden components. Bolts clicked and grooves slid into place as the man deftly pieced together what resembled a single-chambered rifle with an abnormally elongated barrel. Locking the last clasp into place, he rotated the barrel and extended a short telescopic eyepiece, clipping it to the top of the weapon. He inserted a lone bullet into the chamber and slowly cocked the rifle, scanning the catwalks to make sure that the telltale noise had gone unnoticed.

Seeing no one, he reached into his cloak and withdrew a gilded pocket watch on a gold chain, its lid engraved with twining Victorian ivy and the lacey cursive initial “W”.

Down on the stage, Levash picked up a glass of brandy from the small chair-side table to take the signature drink that would end the scene. The liquor was specially ordered from Yorkshire, England, and he refused to go onstage without it. Officially it was imported fruit juice, but seeing as he had paid the police to look the other way on the shipment, it really didn’t matter what he called it.

The dark man opened the watch, checking the time as the tiny second hand ticked around the surface of the clock face, and glanced back at Levash, whose hand was slowly bearing the glass to his lips. For a moment, his gaze lingered on the inside of the watch’s cover and on a small photograph, yellowed with age, of a comely young woman in a simple cloth gown. A few tentative strains of applause were beginning to drift up from the gallery, anticipating Levash’s gallant gesture and the blackout to come.

Everything was right on schedule.

Levash swigged a mouthful of liquid from the crystal glass, throwing a condescending look of gratitude to the boors in the audience, and then immediately pitched forward onto his knees, retching at the vile taste that assaulted his tongue. The glass dropped from his limp fingers and shattered across the stage, drawing gasps and cries of surprise from the gallery.

He choked as the noxious substance dripped down his chin and reflexively spat the rest out directly into the faces of the young ladies in the front row. They screamed in disgust and began to sob, their expensive gowns now ruined and stained.

Infuriated but still trying to maintain character, Levash bit back a series of bitter curses and forced himself to his feet, brushing down his clothing and attempting an empty grin and flourish, but found no support in the dead silence of the mortified crowd. Somewhere in the back of the auditorium a man laughed nervously, while a small group of women with peacock-feathered hairpieces tittered to each other and cast accusing looks at him through the dim light.

“That wasn’t my liquor!” Levash hissed out of the corner of his mouth. “Who in the hell put that pigswill out here instead of my brandy? I’ll have their…”

“Oh, gracious! Mr. Holmes, are you all right?” interrupted Martha Johnston, the somewhat pudgy older actress seated to Levash’s right, attempting to rise from her chair and cover the error. Her efforts were somewhat hampered, however, when the seat of her dress stubbornly refused to disconnect from the cushion. Caught halfway between sitting and standing, she fought as quietly as she could to get herself unstuck, but quickly lost her balance and fell heavily back into her chair with a thud and a rather unladylike squeal. To Levash’s continued horror, the seemingly solid back legs of the chair snapped like kindling and Martha tumbled backward, head over heels, across the stage, the frills of her dress flying every which way as she shrieked with rage.

Commotion erupted in the gallery. Doubt and speculation mixed with harsh laughter and a few screams of fainting women. The actors still standing proceeded to panic, abandoning the pretense of character altogether. A few rushed over to help the struggling Mrs. Johnston, while others simply remained stock still in their places, numb with disbelief.

“The chair legs,” said Levash. “They were sawed through!”

His eyes went wide with a sudden realization.

“Don’t move! Just shut up and don’t move!”

“What in God’s name are you babbling about, Andre?” asked Watson angrily, turning to face the would-be detective. His face was a purple mask of fury. “What the hell are you playing at?”

“No, Daniels! Stop!”

Ignoring Levash’s pleas, Daniels took a menacing step toward the leading man, but was interrupted by a loud snap as the left pocket of his coat spontaneously caught fire. The burly actor shouted in alarm and danced about, beating wildly at his burning jacket and eliciting mean-spirited jeers from the audience.

Up in the catwalks, the stranger smiled through thin lips. All was going according to plan. Now for the final touch.

He raised the rifle to his shoulder and peered through the spyglass, lining up the crosshair sights on his target. There was a strangely muffled pop that went unnoticed by the crowd and the actors. The result, however, did not. With a loud twang, the projectile cleanly severed the cable anchoring the Royale’s priceless three thousand-candle crystal chandelier to the ceiling.

The audience members screamed and the actors on stage wailed, rushing from the path of the falling glass juggernaut.

“Look out!” cried Levash, who leaped out of the way and straight into Daniels, who was still desperately trying to put out his burning costume. Both actors tumbled off the front of the stage, landing in the front row of seats with an unceremonious thud and moans of pain.

Down came the chandelier, smashing through the beautiful hardwood stage with an ear-splitting crash and crushing thousands of dollars worth of props and furniture in the process.

In one fell swoop the production, and indeed the entire theater, had been damaged beyond repair. Grumbling, crying hysterically, and everything in between, the crowd poured out of the Royale at breakneck speed, nearly trampling each other in their mad rush to exit the building before the entire structure decided to come down around them.

Still smiling with satisfaction, the man in the rafters quickly disassembled the rifle, shoved the components back into his bag, and vanished from the theater, leaving no trace that he had ever been there.

In the deserted auditorium, all that could be heard were the muttered curses and broken sobs of the actors and actresses whose careers on Broadway had just been demolished as surely as their performance.

In the midst of the carnage, a dazed Andre Levash raised his head from under Daniels’s groaning, smoldering bulk and managed to growl one word, barely coherent from pent-up anger.

“Showstopper.”