Piotr hated working the night shift in this part of the Kremlin. The place was creepy as hell. The gothic architecture towered over him, laughing a frozen smile; the furnishings were heavy and dense and stank of mold and centuries of cigarette smoke and pain and death. He could never get the smell out of the carpets and the drapes, no matter how much Febreze he used, when he could even get it. The babushkas in the market shoved various potions into his hands when he asked, but those made everything smell even worse. God knows what they were concocted from. Lard or rotten fruit soaked in vodka?
He shuddered to even think about it.
At least it was quiet, late at night. No one gave him a hard time, and mainly he had the run of the building.
Well, most of the building. Sergei, the day manager, warned him about going into certain rooms. “Don’t those get dirty, too?” Piotr asked, but Sergei just puffed out his chest, gave him a warning look, and said he’d take care of those rooms himself.
At the time, Piotr shrugged and obeyed, but there was the oddest odor coming from one of those “forbidden” rooms, and by the day it had been getting worse. It smelled like the kitty litter box in his cousin’s apartment. Yes, he was not supposed to go in, but who would Sergei blame if the higher-ups discovered something horrible in one of their important rooms? Certainly Sergei would point his long, snooty finger at him. It was simply the way things worked around here. That’s how it had been in Russia for centuries. Shit rolled downhill. And Sergei was adept at stepping out of the way.
But tonight, it was just getting to be too much. He tried to ignore it, but the aroma made his eyes water every time he came near. Finally he got his cart and rolled it over to the door and was reaching for his keys when a finger tapped his shoulder. He screeched like a little girl and must have jumped a foot.
Hand on his heart, he turned. His eyes widened. He tried to get some kind of sound to come out of his mouth, but all that resulted was an impotent squeak.
The man just smiled, a smile that reached impish eyes. Big joke, Piotr thought. Sneak up on the night guy. But then he realized who this man was, and he didn’t know what to say. He had never seen the president before. Of course he’d seen him on the television, and once in a while a glimpse as he swept out the door and into a waiting car, but never…this close. And never…while Piotr was on the brink of doing something terribly wrong.
“It stinks,” Piotr blurted, then cursed to himself as his cheeks flamed red. “I… I only come to clean…”
The president then set his hand on Piotr’s arm. Piotr could only look at it, imagining how he’d go home to his wife and say the president touched him. Actually touched him.
“Don’t trouble yourself…what is your name?”
“Piotr,” he said, barely getting the syllables out.
“Piotr,” the president repeated. “A fine name. A fine and bold name, one that should be shouted with the chest held high!”
“Piotr,” he said again, shaping his lips around each sound.
“Better!” The president raised a finger like a conductor. “Keep practicing. But maybe in the East Wing. I will take care of things here.”
“Piotr,” he repeated, louder and bolder.
“Marvelous,” the president said, giving his arm a small nudge.
Piotr began walking away, pushing his cart before him. Saying his own name under his breath. But then he stopped. His wife… how she would nag him if he didn’t get a picture on his phone; she would again think he was lying!
He stopped. Turned in time to see the back of the president as he eased open the door. In the sliver of light it revealed, he thought he saw a thatch of orange-blond hair. And more. Piotr’s cheeks flamed again; his eyes widened. Knowing he had seen something he shouldn’t have. The American president on a bed with two girls, at least! No. This was bad. This was very bad. And it smelled very bad. He had to get away. He gripped the handle of the cart and began to push just as the president called his name.
Piotr froze. “Y…yes, Mr. President?”
“You were right, after all. We have a bit of a mess to clean up.” He pulled out two fifty-ruble banknotes, which he tucked into Piotr’s pocket. “Give it about ten minutes, and you’ll take care of this, yes, like a good man? And then maybe we’ll see about moving you to a better position.”
A better position. Better than Sergei’s? His wife would be so happy.
“Can I… may I get a picture?”
The man laughed. “A picture. Of course you can get a picture. The girls love to have their pictures taken. But only if you send me a copy and promise not to show it to anyone else.”
Piotr stood up straighter. He’d meant of himself with the president, but… “I can do this thing for you.” Ha. Not only would his wife be proud, but how it would get Sergei’s goat pleased him, too.
“Very good man. With a brave and wonderful name.” He pulled more money out, pressed it into Piotr’s palm, and sauntered away.