Smiling and waving weakly, Jennifer’s troubled green eyes stayed fixed on the janitor until he rounded the next street corner and disappeared from view. She sighed, releasing her breath in such a rush that she suddenly realized just how nervous the encounter had made her.
That Tom Wilkins. What an odd young man he was!
Though not, she was forced to admit, entirely in a bad way. He was nice enough, with compliments that never failed to pick her up when she was feeling unsure of herself, and that small but genuine smile that once in a while crossed his sad face was worth its weight in gold as far as she was concerned. It seemed that because his displays of kindness were so spontaneous and unintentional, they were somehow made all the more meaningful.
Tom might not be able to lay out the smooth, practiced flattery of many other men she had known, but there was something charming about his unrefined manners and lack of pretense. In truth, he was quite unlike any other person–let alone any other man–she had ever met.
Even so, there were other things about him that intrigued and confused her. He was clearly quite intelligent, but never made any attempt to share his knowledge. He seemed rather worldly, but in many ways was almost painfully naïve. And she was certain he was hiding something from her. Possibly many things.
Oh, sure. She was one to talk. Especially considering that she had written the book on concealing things from others. It was the same as always. She was projecting her own failings onto other people, making up reasons not to trust them. She had to let it go.
Now that she thought about it, Tom was actually a handsome young man as well, in a quiet and mysterious sort of way. And they way he looked at her was odd, too. It almost made her wonder if…
Get a grip, lass, her mother’s voice whispered sharply in her ear. Or else you’ll let the men in this world walk over you like a doormat. Lord Almighty. One smile and you’re spellbound.
“Shut up,” Jennifer muttered to herself. This was no time to be dwelling on the past, especially now that she was right smack in the middle of the life she had always wanted.
While people like Tom Wilkins might not have been able to understand the attraction, young Jennifer T. Hawke had wanted to be an actress for as long as she could remember, even way back when she was still just Jennifer Harrigan, daughter of a deceased cotton factory laborer and a mother whose only purpose in life seemed to be to hound and harass her rebellious child.
It was true. Despite what she had hinted to Tom and many others since she ran away from home in the immigrant slums of Boston to the big and bustling city of New York that shone with siren-like allure in the darkness of the world, her old mother was very much alive.
And probably, Jennifer reflected with satisfaction, quite put out to boot, given that she no longer had a defenseless child around to push, prod, and in general make life miserable for.
For years, she had chafed under her mother’s foul moods and insufferable lectures on proper womanly behavior, especially as her budding interest in the stage took a further toll on the relationship. In fact, it had probably been the old witch’s forbidding her ever to see another play that had finally compelled her to flee their shabby, claustrophobic apartment. Or possibly the day when her mother had discovered the dresses and costumes that Jennifer had spent years sewing together and daydreaming over and burned them all in their apartment building’s backyard as the little girl wailed and begged to no avail.
In any case, she had come to the conclusion that it was either her mother or herself as far as her future was concerned, and that in the end, the world wasn’t big enough for the two of them. So she packed a bag with what few belongings she had and disappeared in the night, determined to follow her dream no matter what the cost.
She often felt guilt for what she had done, and despite the years of tyranny and cruelty, she couldn’t help but wonder what her mother might be doing at this moment, alone in their formerly shared room. Perhaps thinking about her.
She scowled and shook her head.
“Damn it all, anyway,” she swore under her breath. “It’s my dream. My life. Why shouldn’t I have the right to be happy and spend it how I choose?”
A well-dressed, middle-aged gentleman passing on the sidewalk caught the tail end of her self-directed rebuke and turned toward her.
“Excuse me, Miss? Are you all right?”
You watch those men-folk well, girl. They’re up to no good, and they always want something.
She hated to admit it, but not everything her mother had attempted to teach her over the years had completely missed the mark: the most maddening being the old woman’s suspicious and cynical views toward members of the opposite sex. From the time of her youth, Jennifer had been an exceptionally attractive girl, enough so to draw attention from a great number of boys.
Much to her resentment, her mother invariably sent them packing with a tirade of insults often, but not always, accompanied by a barrage of household objects. But the idea of men having ulterior motives for paying attention to her was something that had stuck in her mind like a fishhook, impossible to dislodge or ignore. As she had grown and matured in both body and mind, and suffered many times over for the sake of men who never cared about anything other than using her for their own pleasure, she had begun to realize that her mother was right.
Even now, looking into the face of a stranger who she would like to believe was concerned for her well-being, Jennifer couldn’t help but notice the uncomfortably aware, almost predatory glimmer in his dark gaze, and the way his eyes crawled up and down the curves of her body like lecherous insects. Oh, he had noticed her, all right. Just like every other man she had ever met. If she responded in any way that could be interpreted as open, there would be the personal inquiry, the invitation to join him at some sleazy, backroom bar where the alcohol content was higher than the caliber of the bouncer’s gun, perhaps a short walk back to his place, and then…well, she preferred not to think about it.
Men may be people, too, she reflected, but confront them with something they want and primal instinct always trumps human kindness.
Sure enough, the man opened his mouth to speak again, this time in a much more involved and calculating tone.
“Are you feeling well, Miss? You look a touch ill. Perhaps if I could trouble you to adjourn to…”
“No, thank you,” said Jennifer, attempting a smile that she didn’t feel at all. “That’s quite all right. I’m fine, really. Good evening.”
Leaving home had been easy. Leaving Boston was the hard part. Thanks to the infernal cleverness of her skinflint mother, Jennifer never had a penny to her name and nothing valuable to barter with. She had heard that the train conductors at the station sometimes took pity on hard-luck cases, especially young women, and for this purpose had invented an entirely forged back-story, complete with a somewhat more respectable last name.
The first few conductors were resistant to her pleas for help, but one of the older men on staff eventually became aware of her plight, and in her desperation, she had gotten him to notice her that way men usually did. In the end, he had let her board the New York-bound express line free of charge…that was, after she had done a few things for him that, in his judgment at least, were worth the twenty dollars in lost revenue.
She wasn’t proud of what she had done, but it was only what she had to do. Otherwise, she would still be stuck in that decrepit apartment, under her mother’s thumb, and with no possible hope for the future she wanted, rather than standing in the place of her dreams agonizing over her decisions.
The stranger seemed about to press his luck in a further grasp for conversation, but another look at the girl’s angry stare made him reconsider. Doffing his top hat and bowing his head, he headed off down the sidewalk again. It was only as he passed that she saw the telltale black medical bag tucked under his arm. He was a doctor.
She sighed in relief, but the feeling soon gave way to anger once again–this time at herself. How rudely she had treated that poor man, when his only desire had been to help her!
But she never felt that way when she was around Tom. Sure, he looked at her the same way everyone else did, but there was something different about it. It was more respectful, as though he realized what he was doing and was embarrassed with himself for it.
Such a sweet and innocent young man. What would he think of her if he knew everything that she had done?
“Jennifer! Oh, Jennifer!”
At least there was one person who would understand, she thought, as she turned to see Joe Adamson pushing his way through the throngs of people. The young man’s shabby clothes of just a week ago had been replaced with a fine suit, complete with waistcoat and gold chain, and his formerly rumpled and untidy hair was now slicked back, making him look like quite the gentleman. He smiled and waved as his eyes met hers.
Jennifer smiled back. While Joe might have been exactly the kind of man her mother would have flown into a rage over her seeing, it was comforting to spend time with a person who cared about her and had similar interests. Joe had been one of her first real friends in New York. If anyone could relate to what she was going through, he could.
“Hello, Joe,” she said as the young man drew up beside her. “I was afraid you were going to miss the performance! And thank you again for this lovely dress. I only wish I could repay you somehow.”
To her surprise and–if truth be told–no small amount of pleasure, Joe leaned toward her and kissed her on the cheek.
“Not for the world,” he said, fixing his tie and grinning as though thoroughly pleased with himself. “And you’re welcome. It was no trouble at all, really. I was held up longer than I thought. Some people just have no concept of what proper diction and oral sensitivity can do for you. Imagine that!”
He laughed, and Jennifer laughed as well, albeit with less feeling. It was true that sometimes the way Joe looked down on others and showed a readiness to judge them, despite his own humble roots, bothered her a bit, but that was just the self-confidence that was part of his charm. Wasn’t it?
“Yes. Hard to believe,” she said awkwardly. “I suppose you can’t be aware of everything, though.”
Joe’s face grew more serious.
“Perhaps. Speaking of which, as I was making my way down the street, I couldn’t help but notice you seemed to be talking with someone. May I ask who it was?” Seeing her hesitation, he gave her a smile that she sensed immediately was insincere. “My apologies for being forward, but you know how jealous I am.”
“Not at all,” said Jennifer. “It was just a friend. You remember Tom? Tom Wilkins?”
The young man’s brow furrowed in disapproval.
“Wilkins? You don’t mean that insolent little guttersnipe that spoke out of turn to us as the Royale? What was he doing bothering you again?”
“No, that’s not it at all,” said Jennifer, trying to smooth over the situation. “He’s just a friend, really, and he stopped to say hello. He’s actually quite an interesting person. You might like him if you got to know him.”
“Not likely. Me, associate with common street trash like that? I’d rather throw myself in front of an automobile. You’d better be careful, Jennifer. No good can come of hanging around a low-life like that. People could get the wrong impression.”
Jennifer’s discomfort flared into irritability at the remark.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded.
“It means that you really should be more mindful of the company you keep,” said Joe, his tone that of a schoolteacher lecturing a slow child. “You may be a woman of class now, but reputation is a thing easily lost in a place like this. One mistake, and people look down on you for the rest of your life. If you continue to go around with scum like Wilkins, even I couldn’t be seen with you. People like him are beneath us. They might as well not exist, and if you degrade yourself by consorting with them, you might as well not exist, either.” He gave her a stern look. “And if I ever see that bum Wilkins near you again, I swear I’ll personally give him a thrashing he’ll never forget.”
He took her by the arm, attempting to forcibly lead her back toward the theater. Unfortunately, this was just the wrong thing to say, in that it was exactly the kind of shortsighted, classist, and hateful speech her mother might have made. Jennifer’s irritability exploded into rage, and all the negative thoughts came flooding back.
“Get your hands off me!” she spat, wrenching her arm from Joe’s grasp and stepping away. “Yes, Joe. I understand perfectly. I understand that you’re more worried about this reputation nonsense than you are about a person’s feelings. You don’t know Tom. He’s a good, kind, and decent man, unlike some others I could name. I’ll tell you what. If you care so much for respectability, then why don’t you just go into that theater and watch the show by yourself? That way you won’t have to drag me along and tarnish your precious social standing.”
“Don’t start with this, you fool,” said Joe, a flatness entering his tone that frightened her as he tried to grab her again. “Can’t you understand that I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to you? At my side, you could reach the pinnacle of entertainment. Fame, money, stardom…we could have it all! Together!”
“All but compassion, you mean,” Jennifer shot back, planning to follow it up with another cutting remark, but she stopped short as her eyes, unusually sharp with suspicion and fear, noticed something that they hadn’t before: a strange smudge on the white collar of Joe’s shirt. A pink smudge. One that vaguely resembled the brush of freshly coated lips.
She searched the young man’s person for other signs: a welt on his neck, too low for shaving, possibly from too-eager teeth; and a strand of silvery-blonde hair caught behind his ear.
“And how do you explain this?” she hissed, plucking the hair away and holding it in his face. “And that?” She pointed to his collar and neck. “Are you sure it’s really me you want beside you for life, or maybe just for the night?”
Joe’s face fell, making him look like a child caught red-handed stealing another’s bread. While he had managed to mimic the mannerisms and attitudes of other actors fairly well so far, he had yet to master the art of lying.
“Ummm…well…” he stammered, color flushing his cheeks with embarrassment. “If I said I’d take either, would it make this situation any less awkward?”
His question was answered with a loud crack as Jennifer slapped him across the face.
“I don’t know what kind of girl you think I am, Joe Adamson,” she said, barely preventing herself from clawing the traitor’s eyes out. “But I’m not that kind of girl. And what’s more, you’re not the man I thought you were. I think I’ll take my chances with Tom Wilkins, thank you very much.”
“But your reputation…” Joe protested lamely, a red handprint forming on his cheek.
“Reputation?” Jennifer asked. “Coming from a scoundrel like you, that’s a good one. I hope you have fun tonight with whomever you end up with, Joe, because it certainly won’t be me.”
With that, she turned on her heel and stormed off toward the theater, leaving Joe standing shamefacedly on the street corner. Her heart may have been slightly bruised and her confidence shaken, but she would be damned if she let a man come between her and the art she loved above all others. No, she would still see the show. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing that he had ruined her night.
Her mother would be proud. After all, no matter what Jennifer told herself, she was that kind of girl. This most recent turn of events only continued to prove the old woman right.
No, that wasn’t true. She still had Tom. He was different. She was sure of it.
But if that was so, then why had he been acting so strangely before? Could it be that he had secrets of his own?
Despite the excitement and anticipation that pervaded the bustling lobby of the Tower Theater, Sir Reginald Coxley could not shake the feeling that something was about to happen. What that something was, though, he couldn’t quite say.
Socializing with the other managers and actors as was expected of him, Reg tried to maintain an appearance of joviality and good will, despite the fact that he had little desire to engage in idle gossip this evening.
Perhaps he was preoccupied by the situation with Thomas. The boy had been on his mind of late, particularly after he had related the manner in which he left his job at the Royale earlier that afternoon.
And it wasn’t just Thomas’s employment issues that bothered him. The young man’s attitude had seemed off recently, and he resisted any attempts Reg made to pry further into the problem. He had been lost and pedantic, his customary caginess absent.
Then again, Thomas was moody and unpredictable even at the best of times. If only there was some way he could get inside the boy’s head…
A flash of brilliant red out of the corner of his eye interrupted Reg’s troubled thoughts. Turning to look, he spotted a familiar face attempting to push by him through the crowd, and he gave a gentlemanly half-bow.
“Excuse me, Miss Hawke? Is that you, or do my old eyes deceive me?”
The stunning young woman looked up, as though startled by the sound of her name from another’s mouth, but relaxed when she saw who was addressing her.
“Oh. Hello, Sir Coxley. It’s wonderful to see you again.”
“So lovely to see you as well, my dear,” said Reg, tipping his fashionable bowler hat politely. “And if I may say so, you look positively magnificent tonight.”
Jennifer managed a distracted smile.
“You’re the second person to say that, actually. After that dinner party last week, I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t have the pleasure of speaking with you again, sir. I’m sorry for not noticing you sooner, but I’m little under the weather.”
“Never fear, Miss Hawke. There is nothing to forgive,” said Reg. “I am, if truth be told, just a stuffy old man who enjoys keeping to himself. As for you, my dear, I have heard nothing but good things. An agent of mine sat in on your rehearsal yesterday, and he told me you were the highlight of his afternoon. I daresay you have a bright future ahead of you on Broadway.”
“You say the kindest things, sir,” said Jennifer, blushing but grateful for the compliment. “I only wish that Mr. DuBois saw me that way.”
“Johnson DuBois wouldn’t know talent if he stumbled over it. All that man cares about is lining his pockets. Pay him no mind, Miss Hawke. Your work speaks for itself.”
“Thank you,” she said, and then frowned again. “Is something the matter, sir? You seem…”
“Preoccupied?” Reg sighed. “Yes, dear girl, I suppose I am.”
“I hope I haven’t…”
“No, no. It’s quite all right,” the gentleman assured her. “Just worrying after a friend. He’s been acting very peculiar, and he recently lost his job at…”
“At the Royale?” Jennifer blurted out, her eyes widening.
Reg blinked, taken aback.
“Why, yes, Miss Hawke. However did you know that?”
“Is his name Tom Wilkins? A janitor?”
“You know Thomas?” Reg asked, suddenly very interested.
“Of course! He was at the Royale when I first arrived there.”
“Yes, that makes sense.” The Englishman cursed himself silently for not making the connection sooner. His age must be making him foggy. “Forgive my inquiry, Miss Hawke, but Thomas and I have been friends for years, and I know him well, or at least as well as anyone can. Conversation has never been his strong suit. I am actually somewhat surprised you managed to make his acquaintance.”
“He’s a good lad. I liked him from the first moment I laid eyes on him,” said Jennifer, a far-off look entering her face. “Such a sweet boy…”
Noticing that Reg was still watching her, she coughed and continued.
“I mean, he’s not the kind of man you’d expect to be cleaning floors after you.”
“I have often thought the same thing myself. Quite a singular chap, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is. But when I saw him on the street not ten minutes ago, he was jumpier than a tomcat on a train track.”
“Really?” Reg asked, concerned. “That doesn’t sound like Thomas at all.”
“But it was! He seemed awfully nervous, and when I asked if he wanted to join me for the show, he ran off babbling about helping his aunt or something.” Irritation crossed her face at the memory. “I’ve got half a mind to give him a good telling off the next time I see him. It was really rude!”
“If you knew him as well as I do, my dear,” said Reg, “you might not be so quick to judge him.”
Jennifer was confused, and the anger left her expression.
“Why is that, sir? What is it about Tom? Did something happen to him?”
The gentleman looked away uncomfortably.
“I really should not say. It is a private matter. That Thomas trusted me enough to tell me about his past still amazes me to this day. I very much doubt he would approve of me gossiping.”
“But it’s not gossiping, sir,” said Jennifer, giving him a pleading look. “Really, Sir Coxley, I must know. What’s his story?”
Reg pondered for a moment, and then sighed.
“All right, my dear. If you insist. You see, Thomas was born poor in a pauper’s hospital. His mother, God rest her soul, was a stagehand at one of the old theaters. I am still uncertain as to which one, even after much inquiry. His father was an actor, quite famous actually, and with more money than he knew what to do with.”
“But if that’s true,” asked Jennifer, “then what was his mother doing in the poorhouse?”
“Well, Miss Hawke, as far as Thomas’s father was concerned, the boy was not his son. He was the product of a brief and meaningless fling between an actor and a stagehand, as is all too common on Broadway. Once the child was born, his father wanted nothing more to do with Thomas’s mother, and disavowed all the time they had spent together.”
“That rat!” Jennifer exclaimed. “The nerve of him to leave that poor woman, and with a child, too!”
“Indeed. For years, his mother struggled to raise Thomas as best she could in wretchedly bereft conditions the likes of which I do not care to imagine. On several occasions she tried to convince her former lover to come back to her and their child, but was always refused.”
“And then what happened?”
“When Thomas was perhaps three or certainly no more than four years of age, his mother learned that his father was sleeping with another woman, an actress at the same theater, and that in fact, he had had a sequence of mistresses in the years during and after their romance. This finally proved that she had meant nothing to him. She purchased a loaded revolver with the last of her money and shot herself in the head before young Thomas’s eyes.”
“Good God,” Jennifer gasped. “How terrible! I could never imagine what that must have been like.”
This was, of course, a lie. Tom Wilkins didn’t have a monopoly on family strife. She knew what it was like to grow up without a real parent. But an innocent child having to watch his own mother give into despair and abandoning him to the cruelty of the world was too horrible to contemplate.
“After the ordeal was over,” Reg continued somberly, “Thomas was sent to the workhouse with the rest of the city’s orphans. He lived there for many years, and when he was too old to receive any more charity, they kicked him out into the streets to fend for himself. He was alone in the world, lost and afraid, but he managed to find a job cleaning up after hours at one of the smaller theaters in the district. He has been doing the same work ever since.”
“That poor boy,” said Jennifer, her eyes wide. “I had no idea. I’m sure I would’ve lost my mind if that had happened to me.”
“Agreed. And that was when I met him. My theater was one of many that he held odd jobs at in those years, and I, too, felt sorry for him. To that end, I tried very hard to become friendly with Thomas. It took time, but eventually he opened up to me, and we became not merely polite acquaintances, but friends.”
Reg dropped his gaze.
“Even so, I am convinced there is still a great deal on Thomas’s mind that he chooses not to share with me. Putting complete faith in others is extremely difficult for him. Perhaps even impossible. I still have hope that with time, he will find it in himself to trust me completely.”
“But why wouldn’t he trust you?” Jennifer asked. “Or me, for that matter? What’s he so afraid of? He must know there are people that…” He paused, considering her words. “Well…that care about him.”
“It’s simple, my dear. Because of his father’s betrayal and his mother’s destruction, Thomas is scarred by the horrors he has witnessed. More specifically, he has come to resent everything that reminds him of that pain.”
Reg looked at her with regret.
“Thomas despises Broadway, the world of actors, and show business in every detail. I have no doubt that my place in this society plays some part in his refusal to confide everything to me. But he especially loathes actors. They are the same people who by proxy rejected him as a child and took everything from him. He hates them with every fiber of his being.”
Jennifer was stunned, her growing sympathy for Tom derailed like a fast-moving train.
“But he can’t hate you,” she said, shaking her head. “Or me! We’re friends. He likes me. I thought that…”
Reg sighed heavily.
“I am sorry, Miss Hawke, but you asked to know the truth. Perhaps too much knowledge can be just as damaging as too much of anything else.”
His ears caught the drifting, discordant sound of the Tower’s orchestra beginning to warm up.
“My apologies, but the show is soon to start. Surely you do not want to miss the performance?”
Jennifer nodded, but Reg could tell from her blank and empty look that her heart was no longer in it.
“Of course. The performance,” she said, shaking herself as though waking from a dream. “Unfortunately, sir, I’ve had a bit of a problem with my tickets. I’m afraid I don’t have anywhere to go.”
This was only partially a lie. Despite the pangs of her aching heart and her shock at the reveal of Tom’s true nature, there was no way in hell or on Earth she would go crawling back to that snake Joe Adamson for comfort.
But Reg smiled and put a fatherly arm around her narrow shoulders.
“Normally that might be a matter of concern, Miss Hawke,” he said, guiding her toward the stairs. “But you have friends in high places. Go up this staircase and turn left. My private box will be at the end of the hall. It is the closest one to the stage, and it has a spectacular view, if I do say so myself. I was quite lucky to reserve it when I did. I would be more than happy to share that good fortune with you.”
Jennifer gave him a distant smile. She may not have cared about the show much anymore, but at least the Englishman’s kindness didn’t seem forced or manufactured. She felt comfortable around him, just as, up until a few minutes ago, she had felt about Tom.
“That’s very generous of you, Sir Coxley. Thank you. But I don’t want to intrude.”
“Think nothing of it, my dear,” said Reg. “It would be my pleasure. I find it distressing that there is so little good company on Broadway these days. Now, you had best hurry along before the curtain opens. I will be there shortly, but I must attend to some business first.”
Jennifer nodded, no longer possessing the strength to argue, and drifted off through the crowd like a mere shadow of her formerly energetic self.
“But Tom…” she whispered to herself, a solitary tear rolling down her cheek. “How could you? I thought we were friends. I thought that…never mind.”
Reg watched her mount the stairs and disappear to the floor above, a strange expression on his aging face, before turning in the opposite direction and heading off across the lobby with purpose in his limping step.
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.