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* * *
Three A.M. A chill wind comes out of the west.
Michael stands, once again, before the Ritz-Savery. The silken finery is in a dark, stained, frayed state, and the beret is woefully out-of-place. The light from the exterior lamps of the hotel is reflecting through his eyes, giving them an unearthly glow.
Words are flickering through the red haze.
Ahn-Drea. This whole thing is because of Ahn-Drea. _She_ was the one that suggested that Wallace fire me. That's what made him do it.
A low growl.
The red haze is still there. And the alcohol isn't helping any.
He looks up, far up, to the top floor of the Ritz-Savery, and an entire universe of hate and pain and bitter frustration finds a point to revolve around at last.
Michael Bix fingers the key to the Divine Ahn-Drea's private elevator.
* * *
That goddamned baseball...
She's playing catch with her goddamned baseball again...
Michael approaches the door to the penthouse. Knocks, very, very softly. A menacing knock. The baseball stops.
"Who is it?"
No reply from Michael.
The sound of someone coming to the door. Perhaps a look through the peek-hole. Then... the door opens...
"Michael! What..." The Divine Ahn-Drea she stops cold, seeing the hideous apparition clad in tattered Robes of State before her; he bears little resemblance to the fairly classy Dalmatian she had known twenty-four hours ago. Even in his state of wrath, Michael notices that she is still wearing the baseball cap.
Michael raises one clawed hand.
Years of anger collect in his upraised arm.
For Jenny. For her cowardice. For Murphy, for going out of business at the worst of all possible times. For the two goddamned frat boys. For the freight-yard foreman. For a thousand and one different bigoted casting directors. For the house managers of the world. For Wallace, who had given him a chance and taken it away again. For the Divine Ahn-Drea herself. For those two bastards in the bar, their taunts, their mockery. For every stare, every crosswise glance, for every carefully-washed dish in the public diners, for every theater seat left deliberately empty between himself and the next, far more normal, person, for every slight, every comment, everything.
For the fucking disease. For the ruination of his life.
Ahn-Drea's head snaps sideways. She staggers with the force of the blow, stumbles, falls backwards into the penthouse. Her temple connects solidly with the edge of the coffee table. Blood.
And suddenly, two more words filter up through the rapidly dissipating red haze...
* * *
The streets of the city. Three-fifteen A.M. A canine shape staggers through the unpopulated alleys and byways, bearing another shape in his arms. The first is tall and spotted; the second, being borne, wears a baseball cap. Her eyes are closed, and blood freely flows from a gash at the temple and a series of three parallel scratches along one cheek...
And to Michael's estimation she seems disturbingly light...
Were Michael in any command of his faculties tonight, he would have simply stayed in the penthouse, dialed the emergency number, waited for the ambulances to arrive, and sorted it out from there.
He had called the emergency number for Jenny.
Jenny had never come back.
In a blind fit of panic, he had hauled the bleeding, unconscious form of the Divine Andrea to the elevator, punched the street-level button, dragged her out into an alley behind the hotel... then hoisted her up in his arms and started walking...
Hospital. Medical clinic. Something. Damn it, Andrea, don't die...
Blindly, he staggers through the streets of the city, searching for something that will stop the bleeding, stop her life from slipping away...
Alley to alley... alley to alley... one after another...
And then, cresting the intersection of a cross-alley...
He walks directly in front of a parked squad car. For a second, Michael Bix and the police officer therein lock gazes. His eyes go to the Divine Andrea. They notice the blood. They return to Michael...
Michael takes off running, still bearing the strangely childlike figure in his arms.
A split-second later, the cross-alley erupts into a hell of lights and sirens.
He ducks down another alley, too small for a car to follow...
Which in turn, emerges onto another street...
Somewhere behind him, the sirens blaze... drawing closer...
Michael runs. Street by street by street... minute by minute... sirens closing...
Turn a corner here...
Suddenly, by some mad coincidence, the vast bulk of a building complex comes into view. Emblazoned upon the upper surface of the tallest building are the words, "Mercy Medical Care Center..."
Michael breaks into a sprint. The Divine Andrea groans, and her eyelids flutter...
Sirens, all around now...
He reaches the complex. The doors hiss silently aside as he bears Andrea directly into the main lobby. The night receptionist is there...
The night receptionist sees a nightmare in black and white clad in ruined blue robes and a wine-colored beret. Her eyes go wide. Bix staggers to the desk.
"Here..." A pause for one or two panting gasps... "Save her.." He offers the figure forward.
The receptionist screams, and then, "Help! Somebody!" She stabs at call buttons. People, hospital staff, begin swarming into the lobby...
The police finally arrive.
Michael is grabbed solidly by the collar, jerked backwards, leaving Andrea deposited like some unholy offering upon the altar of the reception desk. He is forced to his knees. From somewhere far, far away, Michael hears the click of handcuffs...
no... it's not supposed to end this way...
He is dragged backwards, weeping, screaming, howling.
The doors hiss open, preparing to allow his departure...
He cries out, "ANDREA!"
Andrea's eyes flutter open...
Suddenly, from the desk, comes a magisterial voice, a precision-tuned voice, rehearsed and retrained over and over from many years on stage and screen.
"Stop." The voice commands.
Andrea sits up. There is a moment of silence.
"Let that man go." A gesture to the bound, crumpled Dalmatian form on the floor.
The lobby goes strangely still.
"You are under the impression he is the perpetrator of all this. He is not. He simply stumbled across the aftermath of the mugging. He was the one that brought me here. If you want the real perpetrator..."
Another slight pause. Andrea is keeping her face carefully straight.
"He's a short gentleman, about 5'2". He has a swarthy complexion, a black beard, a scar on his forehead and a pronounced Scottish accent."
Michael looks up at her in shocked silence. Andrea meets his gaze. And gives the faintest of smirks.
Faced with the intimidating presence of the baseball-cap-clad figure at the desk, the police officer feels himself retreating slightly, if only in voice.
"Still... I mean... um. We should probably take him in... you know... for questioning..."
The Divine Andrea removes the baseball cap and shakes out her hair. The transformation from tomboy to diva takes less than five seconds. A collective gasp. The police officer stammers out, "Andrea Dowling..."
Andrea smiles. "Glad to see you recognize me, officer."
The officer stammers for a bit longer. "I... er... I mean... sorry to have... erm... The wife loves your work, Ms. Dowling..."
"Give her my best..." replies the Divine Andrea, airily.
"Now, let that man go."
"Yes. Erm. Ma'am. You know. We just thought... you know... him being..."
"Yes, yes. I know what you thought. Just let him go."
The shackles come undone.
"Leave." Commands the Divine Andrea.
The police officer, stammering apologies, backs out the door to the lobby and is gone.
"Now," she says calmly to the collected mass of nurses and orderlies behind her, "I am going to faint."
She does so.
* * *
A recovery room in the hospital. A few hours later. Michael sits, uncomfortably, in a chair. The fear of the past few hours has sobered him as quickly as a thousand cold showers might have. Andrea lays on a bed, chemical ice-compress to her head. There has been silence for some time. Finally, Michael speaks.
"Glad to see... there wasn't serious harm done."
"Mild concussion, they say. Nothing to worry about. I was just out cold for a few minutes, there."
"I'm feeling much better now," she adds, helpfully. The blood has been cleaned from her cuts; as head wounds will, they had been bleeding at a level disproportionate to their size.
"Sorry." Says Michael.
Andrea sighs. "You realize, of course, that for ninety-nine point nine percent of the people in the Western Hemisphere I wouldn't have done that."
Michael nods, remorsefully.
"I mean, I give you my key and everything, and less than twenty-four hours later you show up at my door, and without a word of explanation, you smack me silly..."
"Why did you do it?" Asks Michael, despairingly.
"Tell Wallace to can me!"
Andrea sighs. "Michael... I'm sorry about that. I should have talked with you first. I..." She stops. Then starts. "I was doing it for your sake. I couldn't stand to see you go on, night after night, with people practically laughing at you up there... I only suggested it... I never dreamed he'd do it on the spot..."
"Ah. Thanks. You told him to fire me for _my_ sake. How silly of me for not seeing this sooner."
"Damn it, Michael, you're not in any position to give me any sarcasm here." She pauses and collects herself. "Michael... a few more months with us on tour and you would have been ruined as an actor. You're not stupid. You know how you were delivering those lines last night..."
With no feeling. Complete apathy. His entire focus was on that one goddamned screaming kid. And on the audience. And on himself. Not the character, not the scene. Total, utter self-consciousness and self-shame. The twin banes of the actor. Michael knows that she's right.
"The theatre is a tough business, Michael..."
"Yeah. For me especially."
"Not just for you, Michael. For everybody. It's a goddamned tough business. It's insane. There's no work anywhere, it seems. People like me... are less than one in a million. And frankly, there's a lot of unknowns out there with a hell of a lot more talent than I've got. Call it luck, fate, politics, whatever. It's a mess, is what it is. And yet, we go on loving it."
"We do that a lot. Love the things that hurt us."
Andrea nods. "The theatre is a bitch, Michael. It's kinda like alcohol. The body interpreting the signs of mild poisoning as pleasurable. Speaking of which..." She sniffs at him... "I though you said you didn't drink?"
Despairingly, Michael replies, "I didn't. At the time."
"Planning on giving it up again, now?"
Michael nods sadly. And begins crying. After a moment...
"C'mere, Bix." He sadly goes over to the bed and rests his head on Andrea's knee. She scritches him behind the ears. "You're going to think I'm nuts. Hell, _I_ think I'm nuts. I mean... anybody else that would do that to me... I'd think twice about calling them a friend again." She pauses. "But I get this tremendous... something... from you... It's like you yourself. Sure, you've got your black spots... but really, I mean, _really,_ you are _mostly_ white."
"Don't joke about the fur." He cries quietly, still.
"Sorry. Anyway. I'm going to be on tour with Wallace for a while longer... probably a couple of months, maybe a year... but after that..."
She hunts around on a nearby table for a bit, eventually producing a pen and a small complimentary notepad with the name of the hospital on it. She scribbles a note.
"I've got a flat in Greenwich Village. I live there, most of the time. Here's the phone number." She presses the notepad into Bix's hand. "When you get your life all straightened out... give me a call, okay?"
Bix, again, is speechless. Dumbly, he accepts the pad.
"In the meantime, you've got a great big beautiful city to work with. Hell, you might even find an acting job here. Maybe not a steady one, but hook up with a local Rep theatre, and you'll at least be working..." She smiles. "You're too cute. They won't be able to resist you."
Bix smiles, overwhelmed. He begins crying again. Finally...
"Andrea. Thank you."
"No problem, Bix. Now get out there and break a leg."
He hugs her, for a long time. After the all-too-short embrace, he arises, fixes the beret on his head, arranges the tattered shreds of the Robes of State around his narrow canine shoulders...
"See you later, Andrea."
Michael makes his entrance. Onto the rest of the world.
* * *
The grey light of dawn is all about as Michael Bix steps forth from the hospital. Somewhere, a winter-bird chirps. He wanders the streets for some time, engaged in deep... but pleasant... thoughts. Suddenly, rounding yet another corner in his life, he sees a scene that stops him short.
Directly ahead, the sodium flicker of a tired streetlamp is casting its last light of the evening... directly upon a bare concrete wall...
A lemon-yellow window of light, in a basement far lost in time...
A space to perform. An empty space. A space craving to be filled with new life. Quietly, Bix approaches the light. Stops.
And with the attention to detail that only a true actor can have, he shapes his altered canine paw / hand into the crude semblance of a dog. He puts his hand into the light, and for a moment a clumsy dog-shaped shadow is cast upon the bare concrete wall. This scene holds for a moment.
Then the sun finally crests the skyline of the city, and the streetlamp winks out. And Michael Bix stands there, casting an elegant, dog-shaped shadow onto the bare concrete sidewalk in the light of a new morning.
A whole world full of empty spaces. Theatres everywhere you look. And the actors therein are simply shadows cast by the greatest light of them all.
And Michael Bix looks up at the sun , eyes closed, lets it warm his face for a while.