“You know, Thomas,” Reg speculated one summer night at the Curtain Call, “I may have finally hit upon what you need.”
Wilkins set down his bootlegged beer and raised an eyebrow at the Englishman. He was in unusually good spirits. This was in part due to the effects of the liquor, and also the exceptional job he had pulled off the previous evening when the Showstopper struck the Shakespearian.
“Oh, really?” he joked. “Well, don’t keep me in suspense, Reg.”
“Come now, old boy. I’m quite serious, you know,” said Reg, with a friendly smile. “I’ve devoted a great amount of thought lately as to what you are currently lacking in your life. You always tell me that you are content, but I believe we both know this is not really the case.”
While mention of his private life would on any other night have put Wilkins on alert, his heightened confidence and mild intoxication convinced him to let the comment slide.
“Think, Thomas. Surely you must know what I am talking about.”
Wilkins thought for a moment, and then shrugged.
“Sorry, Reg. Can’t say that I do.”
“Don’t be coy,” said Reg. “You cannot lie to me, Thomas.”
If only he knew, Wilkins thought.
“So tell me,” he said, interested in spite of himself. “What is it that I so desperately need?”
“Well, Thomas, since you ask, I shall go out on a limb and attempt to explain. One thing that your life conspicuously lacks is…how shall I put this…a woman’s touch.”
Wilkins threw back his head and laughed at the suggestion.
“A woman’s touch?” he chuckled. “Reg, if I didn’t know you better, I might think you were implying that I need to get a girl!”
Reg took a sip of contraband scotch, his free hand straying to the golden handle of his cane.
“Deny it if you like, Thomas, but you cannot contradict me on this point. A strapping young fellow such as you should never have to fear for lack of feminine company. Why is it that you seem bent on avoiding such relationships?”
Wilkins yawned, trying to change the subject.
“How would I pick up this lady friend, exactly? I’m a janitor, Reg. I spend my days cleaning floors and my nights passed out in my bed. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for romance. And what would I do with her, anyway? Show her my mop collection?”
“Well, since you ask,” said Reg, “might I suggest starting with the job you mentioned? You work in theaters all across Broadway, Thomas. You see top-billed players strutting about on the stage day in and day out. Surely you cannot say that in all this time, there has never been even one fine young lady who caught your attention?”
The abrupt and unexpected question served to jolt Wilkins to his senses.
“An actor? Are you serious, Reg?” he asked, repulsed. “Me, courting an actor?”
He slammed the rest of his beer down on the counter, drawing several stares.
“Me with an actor? That’ll be the day. Most of the actors I’m around don’t even know I exist, and the ones that do go out of their way to make life miserable for me. To them, I’m not even a human being. How could it ever be any different?”
“Of course,” Reg sighed, seeing he had pushed too far and casting his eyes down. “My apologies, Thomas. I didn’t mean to offend. But doesn’t have to be this way. You needn’t be lonely forever.”
“Look, Reg,” said Wilkins, attempting to compose himself. “I know you mean well, but it’s just not meant to be. I have more important things to do with my life than worry over a woman. Some people just have to be alone.”
Though it left his heart heavy, Wilkins’s mind was made up. As long as actors still tried to pretend they ruled the real world instead of just the imaginary ones in their heads, the Showstopper’s job would not be finished. And he refused to indulge himself in petty pleasures and distractions.
But that’s the funny thing about love. It finds you when you least expect it. And once it does…well, there’s not really much you can do about it.
It began as just another day.
In the auditorium of the Royale Theater, Johnson C. DuBois’s Amazing Amateur Acting Company was totally engaged in preparation for its production of Hamlet. With one notable exception.
“WHERE IN THE BLAZING HELL IS SHE?” roared DuBois, red-faced. “WHERE IS MY OPHELIA? WHAT’S THAT? I KNOW SHE’S NOT HERE YET, DAMN IT! SOMEONE FIND HER AND TELL HER TO GET HER FANNY UP HERE NOW!”
He turned back to the stage, where the rest of the cast was standing in awe of their boss’s stupendous racket.
“WHAT THE DEVIL ARE YOU FOOLS LOOKING AT? IF SHE’S NOT HERE, JUST SKIP TO THE NEXT SCENE! WE’LL GO OVER IT LATER! NOW GET BACK TO WORK!”
Lurking in the backstage shadows, Wilkins suppressed a smirk. The way this production was going, the Showstopper wouldn’t be needed to ruin it. These uppity, ignorant clods would do it themselves. And if DuBois shouted any more, he would most likely be carted off to a hospital and saved the humiliation of watching his latest scheme destroyed by the ineptitude of his actors.
Not that Wilkins would mind seeing Mr. DuBois in a hospital. The money-grubbing dullard was almost as distasteful as the people he hired. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
He was so busy gloating that he didn’t notice DuBois turning his frustration on him.
“WILKINS!” the manager bawled. “THE DRESSING ROOMS ARE AN ABSOLUTE DISGRACE! GET DOWN THERE AND CLEAN THEM UP BEFORE I TAKE THAT SHAGGY HEAD OF YOURS AND USE IT AS A MOP!”
“Yes sir, Mr. DuBois,” he said, starting back to reality and seizing his pail and broom. “Right away!”
He lugged his equipment through the curtains and down the stairway, fuming as the actors snickered rudely at his plight.
Now that he thought about it, perhaps the Showstopper would pay the Royale a visit come opening night, free of charge. They would all regret the day that they laughed at Tom Wilkins.
He was so wrapped up in this train of thought that he dismounted the stairs and barged right into the dressing room, failing to notice the half-clothed woman in front of the row of mirrors until he literally ran into her.
She gave a little cry of surprise and immediately ducked behind a nearby screen. Wilkins, for his part, was so shocked that he dropped his things with a crash and an uncharacteristic gasp.
“Sweet Jesus!” the woman exclaimed in a strong Irish accent. “Haven’t you heard of knocking?”
Wilkins moved to gather up his supplies while stammering an apology.
“I…I’m…ummm…terribly, terribly sorry, ma’am. It was completely my fault. Just an accident, and it…ummm…won’t happen again. Really very sorry, Mrs….ummm…”
“It’s ‘Miss’, thank you very much!” the woman said. “And barging in like that. Scared me half to death, you did!”
Wilkins continued his torrent of apologies while slowly backing out of the room.
“I’m so sorry. Really, I’m sorry, Miss. It won’t happen again, I swear. I had no idea that…”
“Just a moment!”
Wilkins shut his mouth. The voice booked no argument.
“What’s your name?”
Wilkins was stunned.
“I asked you what your name was.”
Wilkins’s mind raced. This young woman was obviously one of the new actors. If he told her who he was, there was a good chance that she would go straight to DuBois and have him fired just for spite. On the other hand, if he just tried to slip away, she might raise hell anyway, and it likely would not be difficult to figure out who the culprit was.
“Why should I tell you?” he finally managed to blurt out.
“Well,” said the woman, “the way I see it, you’ve already seen me without half my clothing. So it’s the least you can do, really. Unless, of course, you’d like to buy me dinner or something instead?”
The statement was so straightforward that Wilkins almost laughed.
“Look, Miss,” he said, “I’m really very sorry that I walked in on you. Mr. DuBois just told me to clean up down here, so I came down. The whole cast is up on stage. I had no idea anyone would still be around here.”
“The whole cast except for me, you mean,” she corrected him, still hidden behind the screen. “And stop apologizing before you lose your voice.”
“You must be Ophelia,” said Wilkins, making the connection. “Mr. DuBois’s been looking everywhere for you, and I hate to be the one to tell you, but he’s not in a good mood.”
“That old windbag, not in a good mood?” said the woman sarcastically. “Well, that’ll be a first. I’m Jennifer T. Hawke, by the way. Jenny if you like.” Wilkins was certain he could hear the smug grin on her face. “There, I told you my name. Now you have to tell me yours.”
Wilkins wanted more than anything to extract himself from this increasingly awkward situation, but for some reason he couldn’t stop himself from opening his mouth.
“I’m Tom. Tom Wilkins. I’m the janitor around here. I…well, you know…I clean up and all. But everyone just calls me Wilkins. Or nothing at all. Just ‘boy’ and ‘snipe’ and the like. So I answer to anything, really.”
“Finally he finds his tongue!” said woman with delight. “Well, Mr. Wilkins, accidents happen. I suppose I could be moved to forget this little misunderstanding.”
Wilkins knew a catch when he heard one.
“And what would I have to do in return?”
“Well, just let me take a look at you, lad!” said Jennifer. “After all, you got a good enough look at me, didn’t you?” She laughed, a light and easy sound that made Wilkins’s stomach flutter uncomfortably.
“Well,” he stammered, “In all honesty I didn’t see much…I mean, it wasn’t good…oh, damn it. What I mean to say is…”
Just then, the screen was pushed aside, and the words died on his lips.
She was a few inches shy of his height and seemed around the same age, with fiery red hair that curled down past her shoulders to her upper back. Her skin was pale, but not unhealthily so, and she had striking green eyes that seemed to laugh at his uneasiness. She had a short, soft nose, cheeks with just the slightest hint of rose, and full lips curled into a charmingly roguish grin.
She was slim, long-legged, and moved with the practiced grace of a dancer. Her clothing was nondescript, consisting of a simple brown dress that, while not unflattering, was nothing like the gaudy monstrosities other actresses always took such pride in parading about.
In a word, Jennifer T. Hawke was stunning.
“Hello there, Mr. Wilkins,” she said.
For the first time in his life, Tom Wilkins was speechless. He had no ready comebacks at hand, and no idea what to do or say.
Jennifer, however, had no such impediments.
“Let’s have a look at you then,” she said, stepping up to him and examining his face with her enchanting gaze. “Hmmm…your clothes could use some work, but that’s a man for you. On the other hand, I see that you’re strong, intelligent, and not altogether unattractive.” She reached up to push the brim of his cap back and sighed. “That raggedy old hair will have to go, though. Won’t do at all.”
“If you’ll pardon me for asking, Miss,” said Wilkins, beginning to sweat, “how can you be sure about all that?”
“I’ve got my old mother’s gift, God rest her soul,” said Jennifer. “That woman could read people like a book, she could. See plain through them.”
They paused for a moment, looking into each other’s eyes as if transfixed, until Wilkins finally got up the nerve to break the silence.
“I’m…ummm…sorry, Miss,” he said, licking his dry lips, “but Mr. DuBois really does need you. You should probably get upstairs right away.”
“Got your mind on business, eh?” said Jennifer, sounding a bit disappointed. “But I suppose you’re right.” She started for the door. “Thank you!”
“Oh, Miss Hawke,” Wilkins called, “don’t you have a costume? Mr. DuBois tends to get put off if his actors aren’t in dress.”
Jennifer snorted, a rather unladylike act that Wilkins was instantly charmed by.
“What, that hideous thing? My mother would toss in her grave if I went prancing around in something like that. I’ll ask DuBois for another costume. In the meantime, this will just have to do.”
She twirled, her dress swirling around enchantingly, and smiled at Wilkins.
“Well, I’m off. I’ll see you around…Tom.”
With that, Jennifer dashed off up the stairs, and for the second time in as many minutes, Tom Wilkins was speechless.
As he walked through the streets in the gathering dusk, Wilkins tried to think. He had been trying for the last six hours, but it still wasn’t working.
Actually, he was thinking about something: Jennifer T. Hawke. He just couldn’t get the girl out of his head.
He told himself there was nothing to it. It had been only a chance encounter, and nothing more.
But that was a lie. It had been something more. He had felt it in his gut all day as he worked around the theater, secretly taking any opportunity he could to peer out onto the stage in the hope of seeing Jennifer in action.
And see her he did. It would have been impossible not to. Whenever she entered, she owned the stage. Her passion, vitality, and raw talent far outshone the other amateurs.
After initially berating and threatening her for her tardiness, DuBois had tried for the rest of the day to find anything else that could be an excuse to antagonize her further. She gave him no opportunities. She was like a blazing star in a field of flickering candles.
Wilkins knew that he had to forget about her. There were important things that required his full attention.
But he wasn’t entirely sure that he could. Jennifer was without a doubt the single most attractive girl he had ever met, and she had a fiery, rebellious personality that he had taken to immediately.
She was perfect. How could she possibly be one of them?
Shaking his head, Wilkins rounded the corner of his private alleyway, making his nightly check on the Showstopper’s secret box. He wasn’t hopeful. There hadn’t been a job offer in several days, and he was beginning to wonder if the market for his skills was drying up.
Not to mention that he was more paranoid than ever. What if someone had discovered the Showstopper’s identity? What if they had tipped off the police, and there were officers lying in wait only steps away?
It had gotten so bad that he now exclusively used the fire escape to get in and out of his apartment, in fear that if he used the lobby, he could be more easily ambushed. He was always on edge and constantly looked over his shoulder when he went out on the street.
So when his eyes adjusted to the gloom and made out the raised flag, his heart soared. Glancing around the alley and finding nothing amiss, Wilkins dashed down the littered pavement to the dilapidated house front and threw the drop box open. Unfolding the single sheet of paper inside, he quickly read the note scratched on it.
To the Showstopper:
I have some business that needs attending, and I have been informed that your expertise in this area is unmatched. Thursday night at 8 o’clock. The Tower Theater. The production is The Tempest. Use whatever means you deem necessary. It is of little consequence to me. As an incentive and a show of my faith in your abilities, I have enclosed half of your commission ahead of time. You will receive the other half when your task is completed.
Wilkins read the note twice more to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating, but did not recognize the handwriting or the pseudonym of his patron. The Saboteur? Who did this man think he was?
It was only then that he looked into the box again and noticed a rather sizable wad of money that had fallen out of the note when he picked it up. Grabbing it and leafing through bill after bill, Wilkins counted a total of three hundred dollars.
He was stunned. He had never been paid this much for a job before, especially in advance, and this was only half the take. Three hundred dollars. With that, he could pay the rent on his apartment for years and still have money to spare. It was unheard of.
Despite his suspicion, Wilkins knew better than to dispute his customers. If this Saboteur fellow wanted to give him six hundred dollars for a night’s work, who was he to argue? Besides, his mind was already absorbed by the kinds of delightful mayhem he would unleash on the unsuspecting actors.
He swore to himself that once the job was done, he would look more into this Saboteur. Patron or not, the man’s tone was far too familiar for his taste, and taking this much money at one time made him uncomfortable. It could raise many unwanted eyebrows. Once Thursday night was past, he would investigate this funny business.
He could not have known that by Thursday night, it would already be too late.
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.