Wilkins sped down the darkening streets, dodging and shoving aside obstacles–much to those obstacles’ protests and complaints–his mind in a frenzy of panic.
Reg was wrong. He had to be. Jennifer couldn’t be dead.
He stared into every passing face, hoping that one of them would be hers; radiant and smiling, telling him with her sweet voice that everything was going to be all right.
And every time he saw a stranger looking back at him, his heart sank a little lower.
He was aware that these feelings had no basis in reason. She was an actress, she was involved, she was out of his reach…the list went on and on. But none of that seemed to make the pain in his chest abate in any way. It was as if Archer had cut him open and torn his heart out.
The truth was that if she was dead, he had no one to blame but himself.
The cold, logical part of him insisted that this was not fair. He could not have predicted the rise of an imposter bent on bloodshed, could not have anticipated the Saboteur’s actions, and could not have prevented what happened at the Tower.
But it was because of his accursed obsession with inventing, and his selfish vendetta against a system that he had begun to realize would never change, that he had likely given a madman the tools and the motivation to carry out mass murder.
He was the one who had started all of this. He was the one who had set the runaway train on its disastrous course. He might as well have set the timer on the bomb himself.
At one time, he had believed his cause to be a noble one: dealing out justice to despicable people. But that was wrong. He had been wrong to let anger and grief rule his life. Even the usually overriding memory of his parents’ betrayal was buried beneath a landslide of guilt.
The papers were right. The Showstopper was a menace. A monster, even. And someone needed to stop him before he spilled more innocent blood.
Still in a state of shock, Jennifer paced compulsively up and down the mock Oriental carpet in her modest but well-decorated apartment, trying and failing to wrap her mind around what had happened.
She only remembered bits and pieces: the screams, the fire, the mad stampede toward the theater’s exits, and then that terrible explosion and heat…it seemed too fragmented and horrifying to be real.
But all she had to do was look down at her pale and slender hands, covered with dirt, dust, and specks of blood, as well as her once-beautiful multicolored dress, now spotted, stained, and torn, to prove to herself that it had happened. All of it had. This nightmare was not one that could be dismissed.
One flash in particular was frighteningly clear in her mind. She was turning to flee from Sir Coxley’s reserved box and looking down at the panicking crowd when her eyes connected unexpectedly with Joe’s. He was in the fifth row of seats and surrounded by people, with no hope of escape.
In that moment, she saw that he knew what was about to happen, and that he was terrified. His eyes had begged her for aid–perhaps even forgiveness–and she had simply run away and abandoned him as the fireball consumed everything.
Tears spilled down her cheeks.
In spite of everything he had said and done, Joe had still been a person–one who, like so many others, had not deserved the unspeakable fate that had befallen them at the hands of that lunatic they called the Showstopper. What kind of man could have committed such an atrocity?
She was jarred back to reality as she realized someone was knocking on her door. Actually, it seemed more like someone was trying to break it down.
“Miss Hawke! Miss Hawke, are you there?”
Jennifer took a deep, shuddering breath.
“Whoever it is, go away!” she sobbed, unable to control herself. “Go away, damn you! I don’t want whatever blasted thing you’re selling. Leave me in peace!”
The insistent knocking came again.
“Jennifer, it’s Tom! Tom Wilkins! Please, open up! I just have to know that you’re all right.”
So, it was the traitor himself. He wanted to see that she was all right? That was a laugh. With what she now knew about him, it was more likely that he wanted to gloat over her suffering.
Her mother had been right. Men were never what they claimed to be. They always wanted something from a woman, and Jennifer was determined not to provide it.
“You can go away too, Tom Wilkins!” she shouted, sounding as forceful as she was able–which was not very. “I don’t want any more of your lies!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Wilkins from the other side of the door. “Please, just let me inside.”
There was no chance. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing the sorrow he had caused her.
“No! Leave me alone!”
“Look, I’m sorry, but I have to see you. You’re all I have left, Jennifer. Please.”
In spite of her anger, something in the young man’s voice tugged at her heart. It was a sincerity that couldn’t be faked. Unable to believe she was doing it, Jennifer walked slowly over to the door and withdrew the bolt before stepping back to the main room.
The door squeaked open and Wilkins ducked inside, his worried eyes taking a moment to appreciate the apartment before alighting on her.
“Thank God you’re not hurt,” he sighed, crossing over to her. “When Reg told me you were at the Tower last night, I nearly…”
Jennifer was tempted for a moment to let him embrace her as he clearly planned to, but then remembered why she was angry and pushed him away.
“Nearly what?” she challenged him. “Nearly went and danced a jig, did you? Nearly felt like celebrating the fact that there was one less actor on Broadway? Oh, you’re a peach, Tom. You really are.”
Wilkins recoiled from her dirty look, seeming shocked.
“Jennifer, what are you…”
“And that’s Miss Hawke to you, thank you very much!” she snapped. It simply wouldn’t do to allow Tom to be familiar with her. He was a cheat and a liar: lower than her, and lower than everyone else. Especially the dead.
“Fine, Miss Hawke,” the janitor replied, irritated by her attitude. “I don’t know what you’re on about, but I just came to…”
“No more lies, Tom!” Jennifer demanded, fresh tears clouding her eyes. “I know the truth now! Like how you play everyone else for fools. But I’m not one of them. I know what you are!”
Wilkins backed away and gulped, suddenly looking very nervous.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” he said, as though carefully choosing his words. “But if you’re talking about the Show…”
“Yes, about the show!” he cried, misunderstanding him. “And what you think of the theater! The way you lie to people straight to their face and hate them just because of what happened to your parents all those years ago!”
The young man flinched as though she had slapped him, a frightening rage entering his face that she had never seen before.
“What do you know about it?” he spat. “Nothing!”
“I know enough,” Jennifer sniffled.
“Did Reg tell you?”
“No, of course not.”
It obviously sounded as forced to Wilkins as it did in her head.
“You may call yourself an actress, but you could use some practice in lying,” he snorted. “He did tell you. I thought as much. That old ass just couldn’t keep his mouth shut.”
“Don’t you talk about him that way!” said Jennifer, appalled by his tone. “Tom, Sir Coxley is your friend. He knows you trust him. He would never do anything to hurt you.”
“Come off it. And stop insulting my intelligence. Your kind can’t hide the truth from me. I know you too well.”
“Oh, so I’m the liar now?” Jennifer fired back, her own anger surging in her chest like a hot wave. “After all the time you toyed with me, those compliments and kind words, all while you loathed me every second, now you have the nerve to call me a liar?”
“Yes!” Wilkins shouted. “I can read you like a book.” He laughed humorlessly. “You’re just as bad as the rest of them. I guess I’m just an idiot for not seeing it sooner.”
So it’s to be the easy way out, is it? Jennifer’s mother’s voice echoed in her head. Letting someone else take the fall for you, as usual. You’ve got no gumption, girl. Never have. Not to mention no sense of responsibility. The boy’s right. You never would make a good anything, much less an actress.
“Tom, Sir Coxley had nothing to do with this,” she insisted. “I was curious, so I snooped around a bit and found out what happened on my own. That’s the truth. I swear.”
“Not likely,” Wilkins shot back, clenching his fists. “My mother couldn’t pay for a proper burial, so they threw her in a ditch to rot with the rest of the paupers. No one cared about her name, and it would be impossible to find anyone that so much as remembers what she looked like. My father skipped town a few months after, with a fresh young lover and enough dirty money to set himself up for life. Who knows where that rotten bastard ended up? So short of digging up my mother’s corpse and putting the question to her…”
“Listen to yourself. Talking about your own mother like that,” said Jennifer, disgusted by his tone but feeling like the worst hypocrite alive. “You should be ashamed. Why do you hate her so much?”
“Well why don’t you just ask your friend Sir Coxley?” said Wilkins snidely, giving the room another suspicious once-over. “Now that I think about it, this is a pretty fancy apartment for an amateur actress without even a background role to your name or any rich relatives that I know of. Old skinflint DuBois would never pay this well, no matter how desperate he was. Sir Coxley wouldn’t have anything to do with that, would he?”
He’s a quick one, her mother said approvingly in her head. I like this lad, Jennifer. So, you aren’t above living off the kindness of others after all. I seem to recall you berating me about how you needed independence many a time. Or were you just flapping your gums again? Lord knows you did plenty of that.
“And what of it?” she said, both to her mother and to Tom. “Not everyone is as incapable of genuine friendliness as you. Some people actually mean what they say once in a while. It’s a shame you haven’t learned that.”
“Don’t turn this around on me!” said Wilkins, jabbing a finger at her. “You’re the one that should be ashamed here. Every day, people like you sell their souls to the Devil just for the satisfaction of duping a few half-wits and making a few dollars. What kind of life do you call that?”
So it was true after all. He really did hate her. The thought made her feel a pain that couldn’t be described in words.
“Tom, I’m sorry that’s how you see me,” Jennifer said. “I really am. But I’ve dreamed of being on Broadway my entire life, and I’m not about to apologize to you, or anyone else, for loving the same world your parents did.”
“I thought you were different!” Wilkins shouted at her.
“I thought we were friends!” she screamed back.
The young man folded his arms and turned away.
“Well then, I guess we’re both fools, aren’t we?”
“Well, at least I was. That’s clear enough,” said Jennifer, the sadness weighing her down like a millstone around her neck. “You’ve broken my heart, Tom Wilkins. I hope you’re happy. Now get out.”
Wilkins nodded, seeming to accept her ultimatum, but he couldn’t resist taking one final crack at it.
“Oh, I’m sure. As soon as I leave, you’ll just go and have a good cry with your actor friend. What was his name again? John, Jacob…”
And there it was: the worst thing he could say. The one thing that could make her misery complete and drive her over the edge.
“Joe!” she shrieked, with a fury that caught Wilkins completely off guard as she rushed at him, hammering his muscular form with her fists. “His name was Joe, you heartless bastard! It should have been you there instead of him! I wish it was!”
“His name was?” asked Wilkins, holding her at arm’s length. “What do you mean, was?”
“He’s dead!” Jennifer cried, the strength leaving her and the truth flooding out. “We had seats in the fifth row, but before we went into the theater, we had an argument and I left him. I sat in Sir Coxley’s box, so he was down there when…oh, God!”
“You don’t know that. You got out. Maybe he did, too.”
“No. I saw him again, at the hospital. He was so bloody, so badly burned…it was awful. But it was him. He still had the pink carnation I gave him yesterday in his jacket pocket. If we’d never argued, we both would’ve been there and at least we could’ve died together. He’s gone because of me.”
She shuddered and trailed off, what little composure she still had spent. Wilkins stared at her, seeming unsure of what to say next.
“I’m sorry,” he said finally, the old sincerity returning to his voice. “I’m sorry for all this. I never meant for any of it to happen.”
“You never what?”
He stepped closer to her and touched her gently on the shoulder in an awkward attempt at comfort.
“Look, I realize Joe was really important to you, but it’s just that…well…”
The young man took a deep breath.
“Don’t you think there might have been things about him that you never knew? Maybe things that weren’t completely…well…genuine?”
He was right, of course. But that didn’t make Jennifer feel any better.
“How dare you,” she hissed, throwing his hand off her. “You’re one to talk, you snake! Maybe Joe wasn’t perfect, but at least he did didn’t lie to me from the minute we met. At least he didn’t loathe me and wish me dead just because of what job I have. No matter what happened to you and your cursed parents, he was a human being. Not like you, you animal! I wish I never met you!”
“Don’t you talk about them!” Wilkins snapped, his anger returning as well. “You never get to talk about them! You don’t know anything about me. I’m sorry I tried to help you, I really am. I cared about you, and I thought you deserved better. I was wrong.”
“Right,” Jennifer said. “You care about me. That’s a good one.”
“Damn it!” he shouted, throwing his hands up in frustration. “Why does it always have to be this way with you?”
“You muddle things up for me. You throw me off balance. I don’t know how to be around you.”
“Fine, then,” she said, walking to the door and throwing it open. “I can fix that. Get out. I never want to see you again.”
For some reason, she was not at all certain that this was something she wanted, but there was no way she would let this cretin get the last word. She would drive him away and slam the door. Her mother would be proud.
It seemed that Wilkins felt the same way.
“Fine,” he said flatly. “But before I go, I just want you to know that I never lied to you, and I don’t hate you. Actually, I rather think I…” He stopped and shook his head. “No, forget it. I’m finished with this.”
He started out the door, but Jennifer caught him by the arm.
“Hold on, then,” she demanded, holding her chin up defiantly. “What were you going to say? Don’t spare me your bile, Tom. I can take anything you can dish out.”
They glared silently at each other for a moment. Then, without warning, Wilkins stepped close to her, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her. Jennifer was so surprised that her legs nearly gave out. Feelings she had never before experienced flooded over her, and all her anger seemed to wash away.
After what felt like an eternity, they broke apart and regarded each other in disbelief. Tom seemed almost as shocked as she was.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
“But…” Jennifer stammered, unsure of where to begin, before Tom cut her off again.
“No. I was wrong. This isn’t real, no matter how much I want it to be. Goodbye, Miss Hawke. Don’t worry. You won’t see me again.”
“Tom, wait a minute…”
“Goodbye,” the young man repeated, turning up his collar and buttoning his coat. Glancing up briefly, he regarded her with eyes hopeless and sad. “Have a nice life.”
With that, he bolted from the apartment, leaving behind the confused and tear-streaked girl who was too stunned to call after him.
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.