It seemed to Tom Wilkins that after all his years of labor and suffering, his carefully fabricated world was collapsing before his eyes.
Sitting on his bed and staring at the same wall as he had for hours, he tried to recall where it had all gone wrong. When had he stopped standing for something? When had he become a man who alienated good people and attracted bloodthirsty lunatics like Jack Archer? Where did justice end and revenge begin?
As always, he returned to the same conclusion: that the path he had chosen for himself had been a terrible mistake. The years he had spent plotting his revenge were meaningless. He had wasted his life and lost perspective.
More importantly, he had lost Jennifer. And that seemed to be the worst injury of all.
He wanted to die.
No, that wasn’t it. He wanted a part of himself to die: the part that had driven him to this dead end devoid of possibility, hope, or love. The Showstopper part.
Wilkins felt a suffocating weight bearing down upon him. He needed to talk to someone. Someone who would understand and to whom he could confess his crimes without fear.
But was there any such person? Jennifer already hated him for his insensitivity and his lies. If he told her that to top it all off, he was also the most wanted man on Broadway and one who was believed to have slaughtered dozens of people–including Joe Adamson, the man she had probably loved–he had no doubt that she would turn him over to the police. They may have been friends in the past, but he knew from experience just what grief-stricken and vengeful people were capable of.
That left only Reg, who was probably as close as Wilkins would ever come to having a best friend. Despite this, he had chosen never to tell the Englishman about the demons that tormented him. He was just beginning to realize that this was not to spare Reg from sharing in his problems, as he had so often justified it, but because he could not bring himself to place faith in anyone.
He was sure he could trust Reg. Wasn’t he?
The Englishman had never let him down before, but that was in times of fair weather. How did he know Reg wouldn’t desert him when the skies turned foul? Come to think of it, he always had thought the man’s kindly and helpful demeanor was unusual, even too good to be true. What if Reg had seen through him all along, and was just waiting for the proof he needed to stab Wilkins in the back and ensure his dominance on Broadway?
With great effort, he pushed away his overwhelming stream of paranoia. If he couldn’t count on Reg, then he couldn’t count on anything.
He picked himself up from the cot and shuffled out of his apartment down the stairs to the main lobby, which was deserted at this late hour. Taking the telephone off the wall, he punched in the number for the manager’s private penthouse.
After several minutes of nothing and calling twice more with no success, he smacked the receiver back in its cradle. Where could Reg be at this hour?
He dragged himself back up to his room, picking up the loaded revolver that he had bought at the pawnshop down the street. Sitting again, he toyed with the gun as his thoughts grew darker.
He wasn’t sure why he had bought it. He normally had a great aversion to weapons. He was certain he didn’t want to kill himself; he was too much of a coward for that. Even his stupid, love-struck mother had possessed more backbone than him.
Putting the revolver on his lap, he pulled the watch out of his pocket and flipped it open, staring at the innocent-looking picture. Why had she done it? Why had she fallen for feelings that weren’t real? Why had she been such a fool?
But he could no longer criticize. He had done it himself and made the same mistakes with Jennifer as she had with his father. He hadn’t learned anything. He was just like her after all.
Enraged, Wilkins threw the watch across the room with all his might, where it struck the wall and rolled off across the floor. Instantly regretting his actions, he jumped up and raced over to it, picking it up again.
The once perfectly polished gold cover was now dented and scratched. Opening it, he saw the glass face cracked and the mechanism stopped between seconds. It would never work again.
And all the while, the old photograph of his mother stared up at him, silent and accusing.
Dropping the timepiece in despair, Wilkins snatched up the gun and pressed the muzzle to his head, willing himself to have the guts to pull the trigger.
But no matter how miserable he was, he just couldn’t do it.
Searching for something to vent his anger on, his eyes alighted upon the Showstopper costume, strewn carelessly in a heap next to him. Wilkins stood up and grabbed a matchbook, turning for a moment to heave the still-loaded gun out the window. It plummeted to the alley floor and bounced into a storm drain, lost for good like so many other things.
Taking a match, Wilkins scratched it along the iron bed frame to light it and then slowly and purposefully picked up the dark cloak and pants, drawing them toward the fire. If he didn’t have the conviction to kill himself, he could at least end the part that had caused all this. He would be the Showstopper no more.
Just before the flame touched the cloth, however, there was an unexpected knock at his door.
“Mr. Wilkins,” called the high, reedy voice of his landlady. “Mr. Wilkins, open up!”
Shaking out the match and tossing the costume under his bed, Wilkins rushed to the door and opened it just enough to see the woman’s thin, knife-like nose and thinning tufts of grey hair.
“Mrs. Kingsley, I’m sorry. You startled me,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to see you at this time of night. I’m sure I already paid my rent through…”
“No, no,” said the old lady impatiently. “I’m not here for the rent, you foolish boy. I’m also not here for my health, you know. It’s plain indecent to be up at this hour, but I couldn’t get any sleep because the damned telephone’s been ringing off the hook for the last five minutes. I don’t know what you’re playing at, but there’s a man on the line that wants to talk to you. Says it can’t wait.”
“Is it Reginald Coxley? I’m expecting a call from him.”
“What is that, an English name? Bah, those immigrants. I have no idea who it is. Just said they needed to talk to you. So if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to get back to bed.”
“Absolutely, Mrs. Kingsley,” said Wilkins, opening the door. “I’ll go down right away. Thank you.”
The landlady mumbled to herself as she turned and headed back down the stairs.
“Taking calls at this hour. No good comes from it. Mark my words. Young people these days…”
Not paying attention, Wilkins bolted past her and back to the lobby, where he snatched the telephone off the table eagerly and held it to his ear.
“Hello? Reg, is that you?”
The thick Cockney accent that answered torpedoed any good feelings he might have had.
“Evening, guv’nor. It’s your old pal Jack Archer, calling to make a proposition to you.”
“Archer?” Wilkins gasped, clamping a hand over the receiver. “Where did you get this number? How do you know where I live?”
“I could count on one hand the things I don’t know about you, Tommy-boy,” said Archer. “Incidentally, you should try to do a better job keeping your identity a secret. If I figured it out this easy, how far behind me do you think the police are?”
“Shut up. I’ve had it with you and your threats. So you can take whatever proposition you have and blow it out your ear. I’m ending this whole thing right now. I’ll never be your stooge again. The Showstopper is history.”
“Easy there,” Archer chuckled. “I was only pulling your leg about the police, anyway. Those buffoons won’t find you until I’m good and ready. I’ve still got use for you.”
“Like hell you do,” said Wilkins. “On second thought, maybe I’ll just march down to the precinct right now and turn myself in. I don’t care anymore. Your plan of using me to do your dirty work is over, Archer. I’ll have satisfaction enough from seeing your perfect plan fall apart. Then we’ll both fry together. How does that sound, guv’nor?”
There was silence on the line for a moment. Then Archer was back, his voice slower and full of menace.
“That might not be such a bright idea, mate. I suggest you reconsider.”
“Or what? You’ll kill me? Go right ahead. I’m not afraid of you.”
“Fine,” the Saboteur spat. “If that’s the way you want it, I guess I’ll just tell your girlfriend you were too much of a coward to help her right before I put a bullet in her pretty little head.”
Suddenly, Wilkins was all attention.
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Tommy-boy,” said Archer dangerously. “You can’t fool me the same way you fool those simpletons at the theater, so stow it. I’m talking about that Irish tart, what’s-her-name.”
“You murdering scum,” Wilkins snarled. “Jennifer’s got nothing to do with any of this. Leave her out of it!”
“Ah, yes,” said Archer. “I remember now. Jennifer T. Hawke. The girl who stole your cold, black heart. I suppose killing her is wasted beauty, but as the Frogs say, c’est la vie. I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s not like you had much of a chance with her, anyway.”
“What do you want?” asked Wilkins, unwilling to show how the comment had stung him.
“It’s nothing difficult. Just do what you do best one last time.” The Saboteur’s tone dripped with spiteful irony. “I’ve got a job for you. As long as you’re not above doing your old uncle Jack’s dirty work, that is.”
The janitor said nothing.
“You hear me, guv’nor? I said I’ve got a job for you. Now unless you want your girl to catch a bad case of dead, I suggest you cooperate. How about it?”
After several seconds, Wilkins spoke again.
“That’s better,” said Archer smugly. “I’ll make this simple. Tomorrow night. The Royale. Know the place?”
“You could say that.”
“I know you’re probably thinking what a grand old coincidence this is,” said the Saboteur. “You ending up back where this all started. But me, I don’t believe in chance. I believe in fate. Destiny. Everything that goes around comes back around sooner or later. Get my drift?”
“I didn’t figure you for a philosopher, Archer. I always thought of you more like a parasite. Or a slug, maybe.”
“You’re a regular comedian. Now shut your bloody gob. Like I said, tomorrow night at the Royale. The show is Hamlet. Savvy?”
Wilkins’s eyes widened.
“Wait…that’s Jennifer’s show! You want me to sabotage her first performance?”
“Bright boy. You’re going to finish off that clown DuBois’s crummy little company once and for all, and end her career before it even begins.”
“You bastard,” Wilkins hissed.
“I rather like to think of myself as judge and jury. And if you don’t do what I tell you, I’ll show you how well I can play the executioner, too. So that’s her choice. Humiliation or death. It’s your call, mate.”
His heart sinking, Wilkins realized that there was no bargaining with the madman. He had to do what he wanted, or Jennifer would die. No matter what was between them–or, more accurately, what wasn’t–he couldn’t let that happen.
“Fine. You’ve got a deal, Archer.”
The Saboteur chuckled.
“I knew you’d see it my way. I hope you don’t mind that I won’t be paying you for this one. Call it an act of charity.”
“Call it whatever you want,” said Wilkins. “But if I do this and you touch a hair on her head, I’ll kill you like I should have done back at the Tower.”
“I’d like to see you try. But a deal’s a deal. Nothing happens to the girl long as you do exactly what I tell you. Now listen here…”
Wilkins listened well and took careful note of everything Archer said, all the while wondering if it was possible for him to sink any lower.
You can find the full version of Kyle Robertson’s debut novel, “The Showstopper!”, available online at Amazon or on Kindle.