“Excuse me, sir,” the snappily attired young officer said, “but if you wish to enter the theater, I must insist that you and your belongings be searched. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
It was the night of the Showstopper’s next hit, and all had been going quite well for Tom Wilkins. That was, until this pest of a policeman had blocked his path.
The janitor shifted the worn carpetbag that contained his tools and disguise on his shoulder, trying to maintain a façade of normalcy while he invented some kind of excuse to get him and his gear inside the theater. He had passed several more officers on patrol down the street, and had to resist poking his tongue out at them to mock their blindness and congratulate himself on the brilliance of his cover.
As was his habit, he had arrived at the Tower quite early, and precisely on schedule. Glancing first one way and then the other, Wilkins had strolled across the street like a man on the way to a very important appointment. Which, despite his less than clean-cut appearance, was precisely the case.
Now, however, his supreme confidence was beginning to falter. This doughy, simple, glorified excuse for a bloodhound was not supposed to be here. What was going on?
“Sir?” the officer asked, peering at Wilkins in a manner that made him very uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, sir, but did you hear me?”
“Yes, yes,” said Wilkins, feeling very much like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “My apologies, Officer. What’s all this about?”
The man opened his mouth to say something, but at the last minute seemed to think better of it and closed it again.
“I can’t explain. Police business.”
The officer had obviously meant the statement to be his final word on the subject, but Wilkins was too observant for that. He knew a running mouth when he saw one.
“Come on now, Officer,” he said chummily. “I’m just a guy like you, trying to get by. Who would I tell?”
A bead of sweat trickled down the young man’s forehead, and the corner of his mouth twitched.
“Sir, I really can’t say. If Chief Calvin found out I told anyone, I’d be out of a job and probably a few limbs short.”
Wilkins sensed that a little more muscle was needed to crack this nut, so he laid on the flattery.
“How could I lie to you?” he said. “You’re a man who puts ruffians and scum behind bars for a living. Surely you can tell if I’m trustworthy?”
“I’m not even going inside,” Wilkins added. In a technical sense, this was also true. “I was just curious, that’s all. Be a regular guy, huh? You were one once too, you know.”
The officer sighed loudly, as if he had been holding his breath for the past several minutes.
“Oh, all right. Anyway, you seem like you’re on the level.”
Wilkins smiled. It was hook, line, and sucker.
The officer glanced around to make sure no one was watching and leaned in close.
“I don’t know the whole story,” he whispered. “None of us do. But there’s a rumor going around that the Showstopper was planning an attack for tonight.”
“You don’t say,” remarked Wilkins, feigning disinterest to cover up a flood of panic. How in the hell did the police get tipped off about this job? How much did they know? And more importantly, had someone sold him out? He needed answers, and quickly.
“How did you get that kind of information?” he pressed.
“That’s the crazy part. Scuttlebutt is the bastard actually had the nerve to send a note to the precinct with all the details, like he was daring us to try and stop him. Can you believe it? A handwritten note!”
“No,” Wilkins breathed. “No, I can’t believe it.”
A note? What note? He hadn’t written any note! His face paled, and his eyes grew wide with shock.
“Sir, are you all right?” asked the officer, concerned. “You seem to have taken a bit ill.”
“You have no idea,” Wilkins muttered. “Must be this damnable cold weather.”
“Right you are, sir. Good evening.”
Wilkins’s mind raced as he walked away down the street. Who could have betrayed him? A former employer, a vengeful patron, or perhaps someone even closer? He had to know who sent that message.
Taking several deep breaths and emptying his mind, he willed himself to remain calm and ran through the facts. Whoever sent the message had intended for the police to catch him unawares. The entire situation was obviously a trap, but knowing there was a trap was the first step to avoiding it. Nothing was lost as of yet. While he had never gone up against an organized and likely armed security force before, he was certain it would not be too difficult to outmaneuver these flatfoots.
His logic mastering his panic, Wilkins resolved to stay the course. The Showstopper would carry out his attack on the Tower as planned, right under the noses of the police. Then he would hunt down whoever had stolen his good name and make them wish they had never been born.
He dug out his pocket watch and checked the time. The show would begin in less than half an hour, and he was still outside the building, surrounded by police, and with no visible means of entrance. Whatever he was going to do, he needed to do it quickly, and it needed to be good.
He glanced back over his shoulder and was startled to see the young officer staring after him in an inquisitive manner. Aware he had been caught looking, the man averted his eyes and turned his back, but this did nothing to soothe Wilkins’s nerves.
He swore under his breath and tried to reassure himself. If he was slipping so badly that an idiot like that could see through him, he might as well turn himself in. The police might be aware of the Showstopper’s intentions, but they had nothing else. They had no notion of when or how he would strike, and no idea what method he would use to gain access to the theater.
No, he had nothing to worry about. He just needed to concentrate on coming up with a plan, and not draw any more unwanted attention.
“Tom? Tom Wilkins! Is that you?”
Well, so much for that.
He turned, almost in a daze, to see Jennifer T. Hawke bounding down the sidewalk toward him, her long, lustrous red locks flowing behind her like a wave.
Wilkins forced a smile while inwardly wishing that he could vanish. Of all the possible times and places, it had to be here and now that she finally noticed him. This day was getting better and better.
“Hello, Miss Hawke,” he said politely. “It’s good to see you. What brings you out tonight?”
Jennifer laughed, making his stomach flutter.
“It’s wonderful to see you too, Tom. And the play, of course! I wouldn’t dream of missing a performance like this.” She gestured toward the doors. “The Tempest! I feel like I’m dreaming. Do you know Andre Levash is playing Prospero? Andre Levash, in the flesh. He must be one of the most talented men on Broadway!”
“Wow. That’s really something,” said Wilkins, savoring the irony. Levash and the Showstopper were meeting again, but tonight’s performance would end his career permanently before he had a chance to suffer at Wilkins’s hands any further. What a pity.
“Just look at this crowd!” Jennifer continued, caught up in the moment. “Half the town must be here tonight. I’ve never seen so many people in one place. It’s incredible!”
“Like rats packing a sewer pipe,” Wilkins muttered.
He looked her up and down and was awed by her brilliance, as well as the gaily-colored dress she wore.
“If you don’t mind my saying so, Miss, you look great.”
“You think so?” she asked, doing a twirl for him. The multicolored hues of the skirt flashed in the light of the streetlamps. “Joe bought it. Normally I don’t care for bright colors, but he insisted that it was perfect for me. And here I was thinking men had no sense of fashion.”
Despite his surge of disappointment at the mention of the detestable actor, Wilkins still found it in his heart to compliment her.
“I think a guy would have a hard time finding something you wouldn’t look good in, Miss.”
Jennifer beamed at him.
“You’re sweet,” she said, reaching out and touching his hand. “I like that.” Then she slapped playfully at his wrist. “And stop calling me ‘Miss’, Tom, or so help me I’ll…”
“Yes, I know. Sorry,” Wilkins assented, fighting to keep his feet on the ground and his serious thoughts from floating away.
“But enough about me,” Jennifer said, giving him a mischievous smile that he found charming beyond words. “I heard you quit the Royale. And that you gave old DuBois the what-for.”
Wilkins shrugged, trying to downplay the subject.
“It was a moment of insanity. I’m actually looking for work now with the…”
“More like a moment of brilliance,” she interrupted, her green eyes dancing. “That furry-chinned windbag needed a kick in the ass, and you were just the right person to give it to him. You should have seen the color of his face when I walked in. I was sure he was going to explode!”
“I hope I didn’t cause too much of a scene,” Wilkins said.
“Absolutely not. You were perfect,” she said, regarding him with what might have been admiration, though Wilkins was sure this could not be true. “You know, if I were you, I’d quit the mopping business and see if you have what it takes to get on that stage instead of being under it all the time. Who knows? You could make a good actor yourself.”
Him, an actor? Never. He would rather bash his head in with a brick.
“I’ve never really been much for the spotlight.”
“Hmm,” she said, nodding but looking unconvinced. “So, are you here for the show, too?”
“Oh…ummm…” Wilkins stammered, forgetting himself. “Just passing by. Actually, I was thinking about going in and asking for a job. Seeing as I’m fresh out of one.”
“Perfect! You should come in and sit with me. I’ve got no one to talk to right now, but Joe said he’d be along. Something about helping one of the other girls with her tongue technique.”
Typical, Wilkins thought. Adamson was scum just like the rest of them. He didn’t deserve someone like Jennifer.
The fact was that he really did want to accept her offer. It would be so easy. He would say certainly, of course he would accompany her. They would walk across the street to the theater, arm in arm, and he would toss his bag into the nearest alleyway. He could forget about the job, forget about the Showstopper, and finally be free of his burden. They would see the show, have a wonderful time, and then maybe…
No. He had to stop thinking with his heart and listen to his head. He was mad if he believed for one second that someone like Jennifer would be even remotely interested in him. She wasn’t inviting him because she liked him. It was charity, and nothing more. Why was he indulging these fantasies when there was a job to be done? After all, work was the one thing that had kept him from going insane after what the world and the people in it had done to him.
“Tom?” asked Jennifer. “Are you feeling all right?”
He was lying to himself if he thought anything could happen between them. If he threw his life as the Showstopper away, he would be nobody, just like everyone always told him he was. The secret was the only thing that made him feel that his life actually mattered. But how could he refuse his feelings?
“I…” he mumbled. “Well you see…ummm…”
Beaten into submission by his overwhelming desire for retribution, his romantic longings retreated into his subconscious for now, trumped by the Showstopper’s sense of duty.
“What? I’m sorry, is that the time?” he said, giving his watch a cursory glance. “I’ve just remembered that I have to meet someone. I really must be off.”
“What’s wrong?” Jennifer asked, catching his sleeve and looking him in the eye. “Where do you have to go?”
“Oh, to see my…errr…my aunt,” said Wilkins, brushing her off and stepping away. “I’m sorry, Miss Hawke, but I really have to go. She can’t abide it if I’m late.”
Jennifer laughed nervously.
“It’s all right, really. I understand. Maybe another time.”
“Good, that’s good,” Wilkins said. “I hope you and Mr. Adamson enjoy the show, Miss. Goodbye!”
He turned and strode off down the sidewalk.
“So, will I see you around?” Jennifer called, giving a half-hearted wave.
“No! I mean, yes! Perhaps! Goodbye, Miss Hawke. Pleasant evening!”
Wilkins turned onto a nearby street and dove into the first alley he came upon. Crouching in the shadows, he gasped in the frigid air, overcome by self-loathing.
What a fool he was! It was disgraceful running off on a lady like that, never mind one who might have an interest in him. He was deeply ashamed. For all he knew, he had blown his one chance at improving his relationship with Jennifer.
But the unsympathetic Showstopper side of him scoffed at these pathetic sensibilities. What if one of the officers had been watching that conversation? A careless display like that could have been enough to arouse suspicion and land him in a cell. He wasn’t going to weep over Jennifer. She was a lost cause to begin with. At least now there were no more distractions to keep him from focusing on his work.
He sighed and let his feelings for her slide off, disturbed that he was able to do it so easily. Was there anything besides revenge that he truly cared about anymore? What had he become?
Enough. He tossed his bag on the ground, opened it, and began searching through its contents. He picked up smoke pellets, magnesium flares, sticking gum, a spring-loaded extending saw, and various other objects, examining each and tossing them back again. There had to be one thing among his creations that could help him in this situation.
At the very bottom of the bag, his groping hand struck an irregularly shaped metal object. Grasping the thing and withdrawing his hand slowly, Wilkins was amazed to see his new climbing gun clutched in his fist.
Of course! He had almost forgotten about this one. He had nearly decided not to pack it, as the gun had never been properly tested in the field. He had no idea if it was even capable of doing what he wanted it to.
But there was only one way to find out.
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.