March 15, 1860
New York City
“It was from Aunt Dinah’s quilting party, I was seeing Nellie home!”
Robby’s melodic tenor echoed in the narrow corridors backstage as he made his way to his dressing room. He exchanged winks, grins, or backslaps with everyone who squeezed past him. He was in a damned pleasant mood. The standing ovation they’d just received had put him on top of the world.
“Seeeing Nellie hoooome!” he bellowed in the big finish as he banged into his dressing room. His name, ROBBY RIVERTON, was on the door, and there was a water pitcher and a single rose on the table. This was the good life.
He plopped down at his dressing table. In the mirror Jenny Daley appeared, looking like an exotic flower in her red kimono. She leaned against the doorframe. “How you have a scrap of energy after three shows a day, I’ll never know.”
“Tis the reward of a pure and saintly heart,” Robby said, laying on a thick Irish brogue.
“Bollocks. You’re depressingly young. That’s all.”
Jenny Daley was a huge star of the New York stage. She played Lady Macbeth in their current production, and easily convinced the audience she could bend a man to her will with her raven hair and green eyes. She’d managed to outrun her age so far, though Robby figured she had to be nearing forty.
“You hardly even break a sweat,” Jenny complained.
“Nonsense. I’m wet as the Hudson in unmentionable places. Lord, I’m parched.” Robby reached for the pitcher. It was vilely hot onstage, especially under the costumes and makeup. He tilted the china pitcher over a glass, but nothing came out.
“Flory!” he bellowed. He went to the doorway, squishing Jenny aside, and stuck his head out. “Flory!”
Jenny stuck a delicate finger in her ear. “And to think I once had excellent hearing.”
Flory, a mousy little thing of about fourteen, came running. “Yes, Mr. Riverton?”
Robby ignored the hearts in her eyes. “My pitcher is empty again. How many times must I remind you to keep it filled?”
Her face fell. “Sorry, Mr. Riverton.” She bobbed a curtsy and ran off with the pitcher. With a huff, Robby returned to his chair.
“Don’t be hard on the girl,” Jenny tsked. “She’s awfully mashed on you, Robby.”
Robby began wiping off his makeup. “You forget, I was that girl. I labored backstage for four years, and I always had water ready for the actors.”
“Yes, but you are smart and capable,” Jenny said gently. “Thank God not everyone is, or we’d have even more competition than we have now.”
Robby gave her a smile in the mirror. “You’re right. Though how you stay so humble, I’ll never know.”
She made a face. “I’ve been set down a peg or two in my life. Now, are you coming out with us tonight? Don’t tell me you’re working, for I shall despair if you say no.”
Robby grimaced. “Not tonight, me bonny lass. I have an audition tomorrow. Need to memorize my lines.”
“Oh? What’s the play?” Jenny slunk into the room with renewed interest.
“Nick of the Woods at the Tripler.” Longing shot through Robby’s chest. He really wanted this role.
“Ooh! That ghastly thing?” She looked delighted.
“Yes, life in the wilds of Kentucky. It’s quite bloody, you know.”
“The play is? Or the real Kentucky?”
She shuddered. “Lands. You couldn’t drag me any farther west than Philadelphia.”
“I concur. But playing a frontiersman would be loads of fun. Don’t you think? All that growling and snarling and…hair.” Robby made claws with his hands and grimaced horribly at her in the mirror.
She laughed. “Darling, you growl like a kitten. You’d sooner be cast as Nick’s wife. Want to borrow my red dress for the audition?” She smiled at him prettily.
“Nick doesn’t have a wife. He has animal pelts, and knives, and a vengeful heart.”
“Pity. You’d be a shoe-in for Mrs. Of-the-Woods.”
Robby would never live down the fact that his first big break at Burton’s New Theater had been in a female role. He’d been working in costuming when the actress playing Ophelia fell ill with the flu, as did the understudy and several other cast members. Hamlet had been his mother’s favorite, and Robby had every line of the play memorized. He’d stepped forward and, at nineteen, got his first role on stage. The audience and critics had loved his “tender insanity.”
Well, why not? Men played women’s roles in the olden days. If anything, Robby considered it a double feat of acting—playing the part of “Miss Angeline Smith” who was playing the role of Ophelia. He was blasted proud of that performance.
“I can growl,” he said firmly. “When you come see me in Nick of the Woods, I shall put you into convulsions of terror.”
“Well, good luck, my bene boy. We shall miss you tonight. You know what they say about all work and no play.”
She kissed his cheek and glided from the room, a picture of grace.
She didn’t give Robby the chance to respond, but what he said about all work and no play was that if he were very diligent, and very lucky, he might one day be as famous as Jenny Daley.
Robby finished removing his makeup, thanked Flory and gave her a sweet smile when she returned with water, and put on an undershirt and dressing gown. He settled down with a bottle of wine an admirer had sent backstage, turned up the lantern to its highest pitch, and dove into the realm of the dreadful Nick. He paced and grimaced, shouted and groaned.
He could growl, damn it. He needed a role like Nick. He’d been playing pretty boys for five years now, always the son or the young, naive lover. Hence his role as MacDuff’s son in the current production and not Macbeth. He needed to prove he was ready for mature roles despite his baby face.
He was so focused on his task that he lost track of time. Then tiredness hit him like a sledgehammer from out of the blue, and he could barely keep his eyes open. He glanced at his pocket watch. It was just after midnight. The unsavory elements would be out and about, and it was a twelve-block trek to Mrs. Grassley’s boarding house. He should have left hours ago.
When he exited the back door of the theater, the sky was pitch black and the city was transformed by the flicker and shadow of gas lamps. It was cold, the sort of cold that made the inside of your nose crisp and brought tears to your eyes. Robby pulled on his gloves, struggling with them under the back door’s gas light. At least the cold woke him up. If he walked fast, he’d be home in no time.
Only he got no farther than one step. He was suddenly aware that near the opening of the alley were moving shapes. There was a shouted, “No, please,” and a barely there snick of a knife.
Robby blinked in surprise. His eyes adjusted to the shadows just in time to see the act. Two large men held the arms of a dignified-looking fellow with gray hair, an elaborate moustache, and a three-piece suit. A fourth man, a short bulldog of a brute with thick jowls, a heavy wool coat, and a bowler hat, attacked the gray-haired man, jabbing forward with his right arm. The victim’s face contorted with agony as the knife plunged. Bowler-Hat stabbed again and again until the man with the gray hair slumped, lifeless. And still the knife moved once, twice.
Robby was so close, he could see the sticky glint on the blade.
He only realized he was panting in terror by the rapid cloud of condensation that formed in front of his face and faded, formed and faded. Then he made an involuntary sound, a sort of lowing, and the three men snapped around to look at him.
“Don’t stand there, you nimenogs. Get him!” Bowler-Hat bellowed.
The men who were holding the victim let him drop to the cobblestones. It wasn’t until they’d taken a step toward Robby that he found the sense to move. He briefly considered going back into the theater, but the door had locked behind him, and there was no time to muck around with keys now. He dove to the right. The alley wasn’t a dead end, thank God. He came out on Centre Street, the sound of his pursuers loud in his ears. He ran harder and faster than he’d ever run before in his life, on and on, street after street, turning as often as he could. He finally turned onto a familiar street and, seeing no one when he glanced behind him, dove into the Long Shoreman.
Jenny and her friends frequented the establishment often, and Robby was not unknown there. The owner, Phil, was a good sort. After no more than a brief plea, Phil stuffed Robby into his private office then vanished again. With his ear pressed to the door, Robby heard Phil’s voice and the angry demands of his pursuers. The back door banged as someone rushed out.
For a long moment all was silent, and there was only the pounding of Robby’s blood in his ears. Then a light tap on the door startled him. Robby stepped back to let Phil in.
Phil carried a whiskey bottle and two shot glasses, and he filled them. “They’re gone. Here, drink this.”
Robby took his and swallowed gratefully.
“What the hell was that about?” Phil grumbled. “Is The Weekly Sun hiring thugs as their critics now?”
“I saw a murder.” Robby’s voice was hushed, as if it were afraid to come out. He dropped down onto a settee crowded with coats, the strength leaving his limbs.
“No kiddin’? Did ya really?” Phil didn’t sound especially surprised. Murders were far from uncommon in New York City. “Well, we can smuggle you outta here after a bit, and you should be all right. I told ’em you went out the back and off they went.
Robby shook his head. It had all been such a blur. But a heavy, dark feeling was settling on him, a sense of utter doom and dread. “No, they saw me coming out of the theater. Had to have gotten a good look at my face. There’s a gas lamp above the door.”
“Oh. That’s a bit of rum luck.” Phil pushed aside some coats and sat down next to Robby. He poured them both another shot.
“And I was so thrilled to have that new poster of me stuck up at the front of the Burton too,” Robby said with a bitter laugh.
It had pricked Robby’s pride every time he passed that poster. There were five glass frames hanging at the front of the theater, and several were dedicated to the current and next production, so being featured in one of the remaining slots was the privilege of a drawing attraction.
The poster depicted Robby standing with one foot on a stool, a dashing cape cast over his shoulder, his face angelic as he looked toward the heavens. The costume, complete with leggings and puffy pantaloons, was from his recent role as Laertes in Hamlet. His face, unfortunately, was completely bare in the image, without even whiskers to disguise him. WITH ROBBY RIVERTON the poster proudly announced.
Yes, it was rum luck. The rummiest. Robby wondered how long it would take the men to trace him to Mrs. Grassley’s boarding house. A day? An hour?
“Ah, Robby, I wouldn’t worry about it,” Phil said amiably. “They’re probably some no-accounts who won’t even bother to go look at the front of the theater. Why should they? You saw something, they scared you off, end of story. It was dark, wasn’t it? You probably didn’t get a good look at their faces. They’ve no reason to track you down.”
Robby stared at Phil, that sense of doom settling deeper. Ice crept up his spine and he thought he might cast up his accounts. This couldn’t be happening. Dear Lord, his life was ruined. Scorched earth. He couldn’t go back to the Burton, or any other theater in New York. He probably shouldn’t even go back to Mrs. Grassley’s to collect his things.
Because he had recognized them, or at least one of them. He’d just seen Mose “The Terror” McCann, leader of the Bowery Boys and the most notorious gangster in New York, murder a man in cold blood. And Mose McCann was known for being smart, vicious, and very careful to never leave witnesses.
Robby grabbed Phil’s shoulders with both hands, like he might grab a life raft in a treacherous sea. “You must help me get out of town, Phil. Because if I don’t, I’m a dead man.”