Throughout the following day, Wilkins tried to keep his mind on his job, but the distractions in his life always kept him slightly off his game. He would be mopping up an area of the stage, and then realize that he had been daydreaming and scrubbing the same spot for a good twenty minutes. He fumbled with his cleaning supplies as though he had never used them in his life.
Every time he slipped, he would curse and resolve not to lose focus again, but would only find himself making the same careless mistake some time later. It seemed that there was nothing he could do to keep his mind suitably occupied.
It was probably the rapidly approaching date of his next job, he reasoned. He was so excited by the prospect of some payback that he couldn’t keep his head together.
But he knew that wasn’t true.
Wilkins shut the door on his doubt, but the thing that makes doubt such a pain in the ass is that it never goes away entirely, no matter how much you try to fool yourself. It wasn’t the job that was bothering him.
So, naturally, it must be the Saboteur business. Money alone he might have been able to overlook, but what really stuck in Wilkins’s head was the name, or more accurately, its implication: that someone out there was watching him and taking an unsettling interest in his work.
He read the papers. He knew that the Revue and its fellow agents of misinformation were portraying him as a dangerous loony and a menace to public safety. At first, he had eaten up the headlines of his reign of destruction, partly because of the thrill his criminal activities gave him, and partly because of the attention. After a lifetime of being shoved aside, ignored, and abandoned, people were finally taking Tom Wilkins seriously. He had worked feverishly to come up with new and creative ways to wreak havoc and showcase his genius, concentrating on the perfection of his daring deeds and silent escapes.
Seeing that name on the note, however, had made him start to feel things he thought he had left behind long ago. He was unsettled and angry for reasons he couldn’t understand.
The Saboteur. It was not just the name of a client. It was the name of an admirer.
He had no idea why that thought should bother him as much as it did.
But even this was not the real reason he was distracted. That reason was Jennifer T. Hawke.
She was whirling about not twenty feet from where Wilkins stood cleaning behind the curtains. In fact, he had made it a point to find long, arduous jobs to do backstage just so he could watch her scenes unobserved. He leaned on the mop handle and gazed at her, awestruck and powerless to stop himself.
She was graceful, elegant, talented, and the most beautiful…well, one of the nicest people he knew. It confounded him how a person like her could take to such an odious profession willingly.
Jennifer stormed across the stage, her radiant hair tossing about and catching the light, delivering a moving ultimatum to her beloved Hamlet–a gawky young man who seemed lost and impotent by comparison. Her voice rose and fell melodiously, powerful but controlled. She was so in character that real tears of passion glinted on her cheeks, and Wilkins had to restrain a mad desire to rush out on stage and deliver a knockout blow to the bastard who had caused them.
But regardless of how he felt, she was still one of them. He couldn’t afford to lose control in her presence, or he would be finished.
“Ophelia” finished her monologue and fled sobbing offstage toward Wilkins. The janitor stepped forward to comfort her before noticing that her weeping was actually barely restrained laughter.
“Hello, Tom!” she said, favoring him with a smile that made him feel slightly light-headed and brushing tears from her face with the back of her hand. “It’s good to see you. How was I?”
“Well, Miss,” Wilkins said, in what he hoped was a deferential tone, “I’m no director, but I thought that bit just now was great. You sure had me going there.”
“You really think so?” She beamed at him. “I feel terrible. I almost burst out laughing at that poor man! He just looked so…”
“Surprised?” Wilkins suggested. It was about as kind as he could manage without throwing up.
“Yes, surprised! That’s it. Like he didn’t really expect me to do anything.”
“Lots of folks are like that around here. Don’t take it personally. They just don’t really expect much out of women. If you’ll pardon my saying so, Miss.”
“Well thank the God you’re not ‘lots of folks’, Tom,” Jennifer said. “And how many times do I have to tell you that my name’s not ‘Miss’. It’s Jennifer. All right?”
“Sorry, Miss,” Wilkins said, grinning in spite of himself. “It’s a tough habit to break. It might take some time.”
“Well then, I for one hope you plan on sticking around,” she said, smiling too, “because I want to be there when you do.”
Their eyes met, and in that brief moment something passed between them: some might call it a spark. For Wilkins, it seemed as though time had stopped, suspending the two of them between seconds for an eternity. But at that instant, a careless voice shattered the illusion.
“Jennifer! Where are you, dear?”
Their gaze broke and Jennifer giggled confidentially.
“Oh my,” she said. “That must be Joe. I suppose he’s been looking for me.”
“Joe?” Wilkins asked casually, surprised at the sudden jealousy that rose to his mind.
“Yes. Joe Adamson,” Jennifer explained, smiling distractedly in a way Wilkins found uncomfortable. “He’s been walking me back to my apartment the past few nights. I suspect he may have taken a fancy to me.”
“Oh, really?” said Wilkins, suppressing the urge to grind his teeth.
“Funny, isn’t it?” she commented, oblivious to his pain. “Well, I suppose I could do worse. He’s a reasonably handsome and intelligent fellow.”
Wilkins didn’t think it was funny at all, and he really didn’t think that Jennifer could do any worse. This Adamson fellow was no doubt just like every other actor before him: a clown in training, on the fast track to becoming a full-time professional bum. People like that were the reason his life was dedicated to pulling the wool from the public’s eyes and showing people the powerless, posturing con artists that they really were.
“Hello, Jennifer? Are you back here?”
A moment later, Adamson’s self-satisfied face peered behind the curtains. The young actor had undergone quite a transformation since walking into Mr. DuBois’s office and resolving to become more like him. Much like the monkeys in the jungle before him, he had quickly learned to ape the mannerisms of those above his station, including an entirely unfounded overconfidence and clothes that would have made the king of France look like a street peddler. In other words, he was well on his way to becoming a real actor.
“There you are,” he said, with a smile so fake that Wilkins almost laughed. “What are you doing back here?”
“Hello, Joe,” said Jennifer, shooting the new man a look that made Wilkins chew his lip with indignation. “Sorry about that. Just trying to catch my breath.”
“I understand,” said Joe. “That was quite a performance. DuBois was very impressed. Although, in the future,” he added, stepping closer to her and sliding an arm around her waist, “you might want to consider giving a tad less emotion. You don’t want to distract the audience from the story.”
“Ummm…right. Thank you, Joe,” said Jennifer, throwing an awkward glance in Wilkins’s direction. “It’s very sweet of you to give advice. Shall we?” She gestured with an arm toward the theater doors.
As hard as Wilkins attempted to slam the brakes on his loose tongue, he just couldn’t let the comment slide. Allowing this jackass to have the last word and belittling Jennifer was something he simply wouldn’t stand for.
“I thought she did a fine job,” he said truculently. “And with all due respect, sir, neither you nor anybody else has any right to tell her otherwise.”
The two actors froze. Jennifer looked at him silently, her eyes wide, and shook her head as though urging him to let the matter go. But it was too late. Adamson turned his full attention on Wilkins, inspecting him as one might use a magnifying glass to study an insect.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe we’ve met. Just who are you supposed to be, exactly?” he asked, peering down the bridge of his nose at the shabbily dressed young man.
“Tom Wilkins,” Wilkins said, squaring his shoulders and trying to look as authoritative as possible. “I’m the janitor here at the Royale.”
“My, my, a janitor!” he exclaimed. “How quaint! While I appreciate your intentions, my friend, please allow me to point out that Miss Hawke does not need defending from the likes of you. And perhaps, in the future, you should consider leaving the analysis of high art to those with high tastes. But I’ll certainly call you whenever I need something cleaned for me.” He smiled smugly. ”Come along, Jennifer. It’s getting late.”
With this parting shot, Adamson guided Jennifer off toward the stage stairway. Jennifer gave Wilkins an apologetic look, but made no effort to prevent herself from being swept away by her escort.
Wilkins glared after them, trembling with rage. His fists were clenched so tightly that his knuckles turned white and his fingernails dug into his palm. The wood of the mop in his right hand creaked ominously.
He had taken a lot of insults from a lot of people in his life, but the knowledge that he was alone, with no one to help him or to turn to, had given him the resolve—or at least the numbness—to become immune to the venom others threw his way on a daily basis.
For some reason, however, ever since he had met Jennifer, the barriers protecting him from the world seemed to be evaporating. Adamson’s words had stung him. For the first time in a long time, Wilkins was genuinely hurt, and the response of his long suppressed fury, now bubbling to the surface, was too great for him to control.
Perhaps the worst thing was the look that Jennifer had given him. It was as good as an admission that despite their supposed friendship, she knew he was below her and pitied him for it.
With the force of a hurricane, Wilkins kicked the tin bucket away and marched out past the curtains, down the stairs, and shoved his way through the milling crowd of actors in the auditorium, many of whom stopped what they were doing and stared at his passage.
He spotted DuBois in conference with two other costumed men at the far end of the first row of seats and elbowed his way over to him, oblivious to the gripes and complaints of the actors he pushed aside. The manager’s jaw dropped when he saw the janitor striding toward him, mop in hand and fire in his eyes.
“Not now, Wilkins,” he said gruffly. “This isn’t a good time. Whatever you want, it’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
“I’m done waiting,” said Wilkins, and heaved the mop at his boss, who caught it.
“Now look here, Wilkins,” DuBois growled. “I don’t know what kind of nonsense you’re up to, but I’m not in the mood. Got it? Now go backstage and start getting this place ship-shape. It looks like a pigsty in here!”
“That’s not my problem anymore, sir.”
“Wilkins, what is the meaning of this?” shouted DuBois as the janitor began to walk away. “I demand that you come back here this instant!”
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Wilkins called over his shoulder. “I dumped a whole bucket of water stage left. You’d better hurry before it gets to the prop room.”
“Why are you telling me this?” DuBois demanded, confusion now taking dominance over his anger.
“Because from now on, you’ll have to clean up your own messes,” said Wilkins, seizing the heavy oak doors and flinging them wide with a bang that made everyone present flinch. “I quit.”
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.