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...And, of course, within twelve hours everything had gone wrong...
Sunday. The Ritz-Savery. Michael's Room.
Wallace is here. It's a meeting that Michael has been dreading all day. After departing Andrea's penthouse and returning to his own room to finish the night's sleep that he had begun in Andrea's bed, he had arisen, washed up, gone for a bite of breakfast at the hotel coffee shop, returned to his room...
Wallace had seen last night's performance.
Michael had shuddered slightly, had started pacing back and forth across the carpet until his claws started ruining the pile...
Wallace had seen the show last night... and wanted to Chat about it...
Gotten ice from the ice machine...
A Little Talk... later today... he _saw_ that fiasco...
Flicked on the television... scanned the channels... flicked off the television...
Waited some more...
Finally, in a last-ditch desperate attempt to keep his mind off the upcoming meeting, Michael had begun cleaning the room. By the time he was finished, the bed had been crisply made with full military corners, the obligatory hotel wall-art had been dusted with a washcloth, front and back, the lampshades had been cleaned and straightened, the tub / shower and sink had been scrubbed down with the only cleansers he could find (hotel shampoo and facial soap), the towels had been neatly folded and replaced in their rack, and, for the hell of it, there was a fresh roll of toilet paper on the dowel.
The waiting had begun again.
A few hours later, a maid had entered the room after knocking on the door and receiving no response. She had walked in, completely unprepared for the sight of a six-foot humanoid Dalmatian sitting there in the middle of a sparkling- clean room performing general maintenance on the room's air-conditioner. She had stood there for a moment, taking in the scene. Then, nodding slightly to no-one in particular, she had gone on about her work in the other rooms on the floor, rooms clearly occupied by somewhat saner patrons.
After every possible venue for activity had been exhausted, Michael had lain upon the immaculate bed, attempting to reason with himself.
A few pointers. Yeah. That's all he wants to give. Tough audience last night, eh, kid? Glad you've got a few days of break before the next show, huh? Glad we didn't schedule a matinee for today, get some sleep, rest up, few days you'll be back on track. Oh, by the way, a few notes for you...
Michael had known it wouldn't be that easy. He never anticipated, though, exactly how hard it would be.
"Wallace... you can't do this to me!"
Wallace looks guilty. It is an expression Michael has never seen him use.
"Legally, no. I can't."
A note of frantic desperation enters Michael's voice. "We've got a contract!"
"I know, kid. I know. And if you took it to claims court, every jury in the free world would see it your way. I'd be defaulting on you. Now, I'm prepared to pay you all remaining promised salaries..."
"Fuck the money, Wallace! I want to act!"
Wallace's guilty expression becomes even more pained. "I know, kid. I can't force you to leave. But I'm sure I could see clear to getting you an extra default payment in addition to your remaining pay..."
"I _repeat_, Wallace, Fuck the Money, I Want To Act!"
Wallace sighs. "I know, kid. I know." Wallace closes his eyes for a moment. and then begins sorting through some newspaper clips that he has brought along to the meeting. "You seen the notices?"
Michael grits his teeth. "Yes."
"Here. 'The show is curiously lacking in direction, however, and fails to bring itself to the proper climax.' Another one. 'The production is an astonishing one up until the final critical scene, which, due to its unfocused nature, left this reviewer with an empty feeling.' There's more."
Grasping any straws he can, but knowing full well the reason for these particular clips, Michael says, "See? They don't have anything specifically to say about _me..._"
"Michael, the reason the play has gotten so out-of-focus is that in the one scene that everything finally comes to a head, nobody is paying any attention."
Yeah. They're watching the fucking doggie... say it, Wallace...
"What about Peoria! They loved it in Peoria!"
"Michael..." A deep breath... "The reviewer in Peoria was one of your people."
Not you, too, Wallace... please tell me you didn't just say "one of your people..."
Wallace talks for a while longer, but Michael does not hear a word.
"one of your people..."
Wallace is still talking. He must be. Michael can see his lips moving. But all he's saying, over and over again, is "one of your people..."
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Michael gathers his last vestiges of strength. He screams. "I don't _Care_ if I'm ruining the show! I don't _care_ about the fucking notices! I don't _care_ about your bloody newspaper clippings! I WANT TO ACT! You _told_ me I could act, Wallace! Damn, it, you _KNOW_ I can act! You liked me! Has that all changed, now!?"
Wallace looks deeply hurt.
He fucking _should_ look deeply hurt. Michael wants him to _be_ deeply hurt.
A brief pause.
"I didn't want to have to tell you this, kid... but... Andrea..."
"Has expressed specific concern about it. She thinks that maybe we should let you go."
The bottom drops out of Michael's mind. Andrea. Ahn-fucking-Drea. Little miss here's-my-personal-key-come-up-and-talk-anytime-you-want. Little miss I-know-this-has-been-a-hard-run-for-you-so-far. Little miss here-I-am-all-glamour-up-the-ass-but-I'm-really-a-nice-girl-deep-down Ahn-fucking-Drea..
She offered me drinks...
"I didn't want to have to tell you that, kid. It's your choice, whether you want to stay on or not. I would completely understand..."
Like hell you would, Wallace. All you fucking care about is the show.
Deep down, Michael knows that the show is all that he himself cares about as well.
And if to save the art as a whole, one of the artists must be destroyed, so be it.
Long live the Theatre. And long live Harald Wallace's _Merchant of Venice._
"Gimme the check."
An expression of pained relief passes over Wallace's jowly face.
"Thank you for understanding."
I don't understand, Wallace. I won't ever understand, or accept it. Not completely.
"You got a pen I could use, Michael?"
"Sure." Bix lifelessly hands him one.
"If there's anything I can do for you in the future..."
"Forget about it."
"Thanks, Michael. You're a good man."
He finishes filling out the check. And turns to go. As he is almost to the threshold, Michael calls out to him...
He turns around. "Yes?"
"Sorry for screwing up your show. I know it meant a lot to you."
Wallace does not answer. He turns to the door, opens it, and leaves.
Michael sits on his immaculate bed.
* * *
"Hi, Michael! Is there something I can do for-"
The costumer stops short.
Michael is standing at the costume shop door, grinning. It is not a pleasant grin. It is a polyethylene smile, a fierce rictus, an adamant grimace that could withstand sledgehammers. It is a grin normally assigned in the minds of men to padded cells and straightjackets.
"Hi!" Says Michael brightly.
"Um. Hello... is there something-"
"I just got canned!" There is a mad glee in his voice that is making the costumer nervous.
"I'm. Um. Sorry, is there something-"
"Yes, indeed! I want my fucking costume!" The smile has not wavered.
"As a souvenir!"
"You really got laid off?"
Michael nods, brightly.
"Oh... I'm. Um. So sorry for you... but, well, I mean, Michael, we really can't allow that, I mean, your understudy will have to wear something... "
"Come on! You'd have to alter it anyway!" The voice bobs cheerfully up and down like a balloon on a string.
"Um. Well. I mean. Alterations are easier than making an entire new... um..."
The costumer trails off as a subtle shift comes over Michael's expression. On the surface, the look does not change. Still madly cheerful. But there is a shift in the eyes... and suddenly, the costumer realizes that when a dog smiles at you, it can also be showing its teeth...
Michael's eyes flit for a demi-second to the man's throat. And back again.
"Oh, well, I'm certain that new fabric won't be too hard to find... after all, this is a big city..."
"Thanks! I thought you'd see it my way!"
Michael rummages around in his pockets and eventually removes two twenty-dollar bills out of the roll that Wallace's check had garnered him. Wallace's money. Correction: formerly Wallace's money. Now, Michael's money. Money that Wallace had used to kill his own guilt. He presses the bills into the nerveless hands of the costumer, then collects the mass of Azure cloth that is the Venetian Robe of State, complete with long, flowing royal blue cloak. He then picks the wine-dark beret from the rack, pops it on his head, adjusts it to a sufficiently jaunty angle, checks himself in the mirror, and walks out.
He is humming.
* * *
The Duke of Venice strides through the streets of the sunset city, wind whipping his cloak into a frenzy of silken cloth. All about him, the passers-by stop and stare.
Let them the fuck stare.
Michael is still humming a mad, cheerful little tune as he floats through the masses. Some of the more uneasy citizens are giving him a wide berth, thus assuring Michael clear and unhindered passage through the streets. One, two, three blocks... ah. Here we are.
There is a public phone carrel here. A man occupies it.
Michael Bix, still grinning, approaches the man, boldly, and taps him on the shoulder.
"Excuse me. Sir. May I see the yellow pages? I assume there is a copy there, isn't there? In one of those nifty little binders?"
Wide-eyed, the man steps aside, his phone conversation temporarily put on hold. Michael Bix flings open the yellow pages. Let's see. B. B. B. Ah Ha! Bars!
Michael laughs aloud at the incongruity of the yellow pages! The man formerly at the telephone carrel stares at him even more wide-eyed! Who the fuck cares!
T. T. T. Taverns! Here we are! Dozens upon dozens of them. Let's see...
Michael Bix closes his eyes, raises a finger dramatically in the air, and stabs it down onto the phone book. He then opens his eyes and looks down at where his finger has fallen.
It sounds like a good a place as any.
"Never again, Bix..."
The smile wavers.
"Never again, Bix... Promise me..."
A long moment passes.
Jenny killed herself.
Jenny killed herself because she couldn't bear the thought of being a SCAB, like her boyfriend was.
Jenny killed herself at the very time that Michael needed her most.
All bets are, therefore, off.
Promises are breaking all over the world tonight. What's one more...
* * *
The Blind Pig Gin Mill.
Two A.M. Closing time.
"You believe that?" says a besotten black-and-white spotted figure in royal robes. "Come to... fucking phone booth, pick one at... y'know. Thing. Not deciding. Equal Chances. You know..."
"Random." suggests a lupine form seated at a far away stool, who is, at this late hour, is the only other person in the place save the barkeep.
Michael snaps his fingers. "S'it. Yeah. Random. An' I pick the one bar in this fucking city owned by SCABS, run by SCABS, patronized by SCABS, whole fucking deal. 'My people', tha's what he said. Fucker. My fucking people."
The barkeep fixes his placid, bovine gaze upon Michael Bix. He says nothing.
"I said, d'you believe that? Fucking coincidence, eh?"
The barkeep still says nothing.
"What the fuck is up with you, big man? I said-"
The lupine form smiles slightly and cuts in. "Dear boy. Before you go on getting miffed at this gentleman any further... you may wish to consider how often you have actually heard the man hold a conversation tonight with anyone, not just yourself..."
The barkeep's face registers the faintest of smirks. Michael ponders.
The barkeep scratches some letters on a notepad with a pen and holds the end result up for Michael's perusal.
"Bloody fuck. 'Thought you were being awful quiet."
The lupine form laughs, good-naturedly. "Don't worry, dear boy. Only one of many amusing little peccadilloes about this place. You stick around here long enough, you learn them all."
Michael fixes the wolf with a withering gaze and holds an unsteady finger in an accusatory gesture.
"I am _not_ sticking the fuck around. You are not my fucking people. I am never the fuck coming here again. You hear me?"
The wolf looks sadly at the Dalmatian. "Sorry. I understand. It's hard to think about it that way sometimes. If you..."
"Listen, bright-boy. I'm not talking to you. 'F' I wannid t' talk, I'd go the fuck talk to madame _Ahn-Drea._ Bitch."
The wolf sighs and returns his attention to his final drink of the evening before nipping off back home. He knows the name of Ahn-Drea quite well, by now. The unfamiliar Dalmatian at the far end of the bar has been talking about her all night... and none of it good...
Michael whistles to the barkeep. "Another one, over here, big man. Just keep 'em coming." He pushes a sodden twenty-spot across the counter where it sticks in the vast puddle of condensation and spilled liquor that has been accumulating in front of Michael all evening despite the barkeep's best efforts to clean it up.
The barkeep gingerly picks the twenty out of the mess with one hoof-like hand and gives it back to Michael. He scritches again on the notepad and holds it up to Michael.
Last Call was Five Minutes Ago.
"Fuck that. Make a goddamn exception. Special case here."
The barkeep shakes his head firmly.
Michael stares at the barkeep in a bleary but distinctly challenging manner. "I said, make a goddamn Exception."
The barkeep shakes his head again, his eyes meeting Michael's in an equally challenging fashion, only less bleary.
The wolf mutters to himself at the end of the bar. "'When he is best he is little worse than a man, and when he is worst he is little better than a beast.'"
Michael's head jerks over in the wolf's direction. "What?"
The wolf does not make eye contact but instead stares straight ahead. "Said of the nephew of the Duke of Saxony, when in his cups. _The Merchant of Venice._"
"Listen, bright-boy. Don't go giving me Shakespeare. I _know_ fucking Shakespeare. I _act_ in fucking Shakespeare. I did that fucking play last night. So don't you go giving me Shakespeare."
The wolf continues staring straight ahead. Michael again fixes his attention on the barkeep. Stares at him.
The barkeep shakes his head.
Michael reaches behind the bar for a bottle.
The barkeep's hoof-like hand comes down in a solid grip that, while not immediately painful, suggests that pain is not completely out of the question. Nor are, say, broken bones.
The red haze begins burning at the corner of Michael's vision, and a low growl escapes his throat.
With his one free hand, Michael Bix throws a punch.
And then, without knowing exactly how he got there, Michael Bix is on the floor. The huge bovine barkeep is over him, hot breath streaming from his nostrils like some crude geothermal force. Eyes still fixed straight ahead, the wolf comments, "Ah, yes. Yet another one of those amusing little peccadilloes. Never attempt to punch the barkeep. Silly little thing, really."
From his position on the floor, Michael struggles against the barkeep's grasp. It is rather like attempting to struggle against continental drift. This position for a moment, and then, with an embarrassingly small amount of effort, the barkeep lifts the silk-clad Dalmatian from the floor and deposits him outside. The door closes with a thud.
There is a moment's pause.
Then from out on the street comes a long, drawn-out howl. A howl no human throat could produce. A Pleistocene howl, dragged up from the very roots of the evolutionary record.
It is an _angry_ howl.
The wolf looks concernedly towards the door. "Oh, no." He goes to it and swings it open. "Look, my dear boy, awful sorry about that. If you need a place to sleep tonight..."
But there is no one there.