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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.