The Council: Biden Edition

This week’s flash fiction was inspired by current events. Warning: weaponized political satire in operation. Proceed at your own risk. Don’t try this at home. And if the men in black suits show up at my door, it’s been nice knowing you.

——

Forty-four leaned back in his computer chair, rubbing his temples.

“Honey.” Michelle had just come in from the garden. “What’s wrong? Joe again?”

It was easy enough to guess; Obama-and-Joe internet memes slid one after the other across his screen. Going through the Biden folder sometimes lifted his spirits, but it wasn’t working. He’d gone up to Delaware, took him out for a beer, saw all the new pictures of the grandchildren. He told Joe the world was different now. There were things you couldn’t do anymore. A teary-eyed Biden had thanked him effusively, then grabbed him in a bear hug and landed a big fat kiss on his cheek.

He was starting to believe that nothing he told the man would make any difference. It was a bitter pill to swallow. Here he’d been trying to bring change to the country, and he couldn’t even change Joe Biden. Maybe nobody could.

“I’m starting to think you’re right about him,” he said.

“You know I am. I’ve spent time with that man. He’s not going to change. But he does need to feel useful. He needs to feel that he can still make a difference. You know what to do.”

After she left, he picked up the phone.

—–

“Man, thank you for this.” Joe grabbed Forty-four’s arm as the former president swung his car off the Beltway toward Earl’s neighborhood. “A mission. Like old times.”

Maybe this was not Forty-four’s best idea. But it was too late now. He’d already made arrangements with Earl. The Council was expecting them. If he could sell this idea, maybe all was not lost. Lord knows they’d been short of ideas lately. “Look. Before we go in, there’s a few things I need to make you aware of.”

Joe waved a hand. “Yeah, yeah. I get it. Mum’s the word. Secret society and all that. I get it, and believe me, I’m honored.” He grinned like a kid. “So, they’re all gonna be there, really?”

“Be cool, Joe. I mean it.”

“How come this is my first invite?”

“Excuse me, but when were you president?”

“I could have been. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Hillary’s in, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t have—”

“Special circumstances,” Forty-four said. “And don’t call her that when we’re at Earl’s. Forty-three-and-a-half will do.”

Biden tapped a finger on the side of his nose, gangster-like. “Ah. I get it. So what’s my number?”

“We don’t usually…” Damn. That hang-dog face. “Okay. We’ll call you Forty-four-and-a-half. Work for you?”

“Fine and dandy.”

—–

As Forty-four figured, Joe lit upon Earl like the old friends they were. A tap on the arm warned him to cut it short, as the others had started arriving.

“Thank you for your indulgence,” Forty-four said as they all got seated. “I think you’ll find that our guest has some very special skills to bring to the table.”

Thirty-nine nodded sagely after a long clasp of Joe’s hand, as did Forty-three after a deep look into each other’s eyes. Forty-two seemed also in agreement, and pleased to see his former colleague. But Forty-three-and-a-half smirked and said under her breath, “What are they going to do, out-gaffe each other? Smell each other’s hair?”

“Now, Hill,” Forty-two said. “She’s been a little out of sorts lately.”

The look she gave him would wither most men. Forty-two just smiled. Forty-four did not want to be him on the car ride home. He didn’t blame her, though. Having to hear that “lock her up” nonsense everywhere she goes.

“Now if you’ll indulge me a moment, I have an idea. Forty-four-and-a-half here is going to help.”

Joe broke into an impish smile. “I’m gonna give him the business.”

Silence.

It lasted until Forty-three, steepling his fingers under his chin, said, “Perhaps you haven’t taken a full measure of our adversary.”

“Full measure? I’ve been measuring that guy since the first day he even thought about taking our jobs. And forgive me for saying so, but I’ll tell ya the God’s honest truth. You’ve been doing it all wrong.”

“Oh, please do elaborate,” Hillary said.

“Thank you. Madam Secretary, I mean, Forty-three-and-a-half.” He winked at her. “See, he thinks he’s this big tough guy. And most of what you’ve tried on him was tough-guy measures. Barry—sorry, Forty-four—remember how you made fun of him at that Correspondent’s Dinner, and he lost his ever-loving mind? Why don’t we just weaponize it?”

“A weapon of mass satirical destruction,” Forty-one mused, his eyes twinkling.

Joe pointed at Bush the Younger. “He gets it. Dontcha see? We go crazy with the memes. Find one of them Russian bot thingies to spread ’em around. Everywhere he goes, he’s met with an army of orange baby balloons. Then we can hire Alec Baldwin…”

“He’s gonna stroke out.” Forty-two hid a guilty smile behind his hand.

“Wait,” Forty-three-and-a-half said. “Can we get plausible deniability on that?”

“That’s why we’re keeping you out of it. Take a walk in the woods or something. Write another memoir.”

“Screw that,” she said. “I want to be there when it happens.”

“No.” The strength of Forty-four’s voice surprised him. And that he was now on his feet. “The last face he sees…is gonna be mine.”

Flash Fiction: The Caddy

I was putting his nine iron back in the bag when the thunder started. Which was weird because the sky was almost totally clear. But in Florida, you never knew. You’d think we’d be used to the changing weather, but there was something different about this rumble. It sounded like a warning.

At least he thought so because I swear he flinched.

I’d only caddied for him a few times, when his regular guy couldn’t make it. “Everything all right, sir?”

“Yeah. Yeah, fine.” Making a tight fit in the passenger seat of his golf cart, he wiggled a hand into the front pocket of his khakis and came out with a sweaty ten-dollar bill and shoved it at me. “Kid, take a walk, okay?”

I took a walk. I’m not stupid. The pay there was shitty. I only worked for tips. And, occasionally, whatever food was left over.

Still, I had this sense of something not quite right. If his heart finally exploded (and among the caddies we were taking bets as to when) I didn’t want to be the guy who walked off and left his charge in trouble on the back nine. I’d never work in this town again. So I took a few steps away and hid behind a bunker.

“What?” he said, seemingly to no one. “Seriously, in the middle of one of my best games—”

Lightning flashed. Like that sky-to-ground shit. So close I nearly pissed myself.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. You want me to stop lying so much. Sure. I can do that.”

Thunder. It sounded like the sky was laughing.

“Watch me, loser. I got this.”

Loser. He’d called God loser? Because that was another thing discussed among the caddies. That while he played the course, he talked to God. And it wasn’t always respectful. He talked to God like he was someone who worked for him. I never called myself that religious, but even I knew that wasn’t right. You don’t call bullshit on God. If you want to live.

Another rumble came like a question.

He threw his hand up. “Because it’s easier than the truth,” he said. “Hell, nobody cares what you tell them. I know what they wanna hear. And it ain’t the truth. If I went out and told the truth I’d lose a million Twitter followers, easy. I’d never sign a boob again.”

The sky responded. The clouds darkening. “For fuck’s sake, how can you be that naïve? You must be a Democrat.”

I totally expected lightning after that. Like, for the whole club to get blasted off the face of the earth. I even put my arms up over my head.

Nothing.

He shot his middle finger toward the sky. “Pussy. Loser. I don’t know what those evangelicals see in you. Maybe they’re smoking something. I think you fucked it up, and you fucked it up big, and now you’re trying to blame it on someone else.”

I’d never heard thunder that loud before. It shook the ground.

But the man only chuckled. “Obviously you’ve forgotten we had a deal. And that you signed a solid NDA. I’ll have your ass in court so fast you won’t believe it. Acosta won’t even believe it.”

The sky responded and the man laughed louder.

That was when I saw it. The dark spot at the edge of the rough. He was facing away from me, and the words flooded my brain, as insistent as a command from…well, Him. “You know what to do,” I swore it was saying, and for some reason I could not take my eyes from the iron sticking farther out of the bag than the others.

I crawled over there—fortunately he was occupied with whatever trash-talk he was doing with the Big Guy—inched it out of the bag and, employing skills I’d honed playing pool and darts in many, many bars, I sailed it true and it landed near the dark spot.

Thunder sounded like a snort of amusement.

“What?” The man turned. I ducked away, back behind the bunker. “Aw, who the fuck left that over there. Caddy. Caddy? Hey. Pablo!”

My name was Juan.

He worked his cell phone out of his pocket. “No fucking signal. We had a deal. We had a deal! Five fucking big shiny bars wherever the hell I am.” A slow, rolling peal of thunder. “Fine. Be that way. I’ll just have to get it myself. No thanks to you.”

He tossed the phone onto the seat next to him and struggled to pull his bulk from the cart. Scowling, he lumbered across the green toward the rough. As he was bending, he clutched his chest, dropped to the grass, and it seemed the earth, through that dark spot, opened up to swallow him.

I could do nothing but stare for what felt like minutes. Then I snuck out from behind my hiding space, got the club, cleaned it up pretty, and put it back in the bag. The sky looked a little lighter. The dark spot was just as green as the rest of the thirteenth hole. I thought it best to leave the cell phone where he’d dropped it.

I felt something then, like a hand in my shirt pocket. Very slowly, I checked it and found a crisp new twenty.

I’m not stupid. I dropped that twenty into the first church collection bin I saw.

The Council, Reflective: Flash Fiction

Earl’s eyes were warm and kindly as he poured Forty-four another beer, then busied himself behind the bar, leaving him his privacy. Or as much privacy as he could have with two Secret Service agents guarding the door. He was grateful for their service, thankful for all the people who’d helped him through the years. Toward the end of his second term, Forty-four had grown wistful about returning to civilian life. He and Michelle had made plans. But given the circumstances of the world and the existence of the secret Council, he’d resigned himself to the reality that his life might never again be truly his own.

Michelle was okay with that as well—to a point. From the tension he plainly saw on her face, they’d reached that point. When he’d told her about the package that had been intercepted, she nodded, said she needed to call the girls, and spent the rest of the afternoon in her garden. He knew better than to bother her there.

Was it too soon for the Council to meet again? Forty-one said that it “wouldn’t be prudent” to risk a meeting so close to the election, then added, “Remember that Jim Comey fellow and all the trouble he caused.”

But Forty-four felt a need for their collective wisdom to help unburden his soul. As Thirty-nine once told him, when at a loss for direction a few months after leaving office he’d come down to Georgia to help nail up some drywall, many hands lighten a load. At least the dastardly mailings gave him an excuse to call Forty-two and Forty-three-and-a-half, ask how they were doing. The connection and Bill’s sense of humor did help somewhat. “Keep in touch, Barry,” Madam Secretary said as they wound up their call. “Just don’t expect any emails.”

He slipped his phone back into his pocket and tried to focus on the basketball game on the TV. It wasn’t working. He tapped a long finger on the bar. “Hey, Earl?”

He turned, his face brightening. “Something I can get for you, Mr. President?”

“No, I’m good here. I just want to know…how’s it going for you, for you and your family?”

Earl shrugged, his hands busy polishing glassware. “Can’t complain much. Wish certain things didn’t cost as much as they did. Wish I had a little more to leave the grandchildren.” He lowered his voice. “Wish that fool who took on after you would go back under that rock he crawled out from”—at this Forty-four nearly spit his beer across the counter—“but time will out, don’t it always?”

“Amen,” Forty-four said, lifting his glass.

“I like what you said, on the TV.” Earl nodded toward the set above the bar. “About getting the kids out to vote, not standing for hate and such. Ah, makes me wish we could change that law about you only getting two terms.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that. Of course he’d heard plenty about how his two terms were two too many.

“You coulda done so much more good,” the barkeep added, tightening one wizened hand into a fist.

If you only knew, Forty-four thought. “Thank you, my friend. It’s always good to hear.”

When he left, he pressed two twenties onto the bar and wouldn’t take no for an answer. After the agents saw him home, he was in some ways pleased that Michelle had already gone to bed. He had some phone calls to make. Yes, he could get behind a microphone and hopefully inspire a few people, but it would be nothing compared to the clarion call they could all make together.


Thank you for reading. If you want to catch up on this sporadic, whenever-I’m-inspired series, you can read the first one here, the second one here, and the third one here.

The Council: Notorious

A little story inspired by current events. Warning: satire alert.


The Council: Notorious

In case he’d been followed, Forty-four looked right and left before disappearing inside the door. Once again, they’d had to change locations. Once again, he blamed that on Forty-two, chatting up the waitresses. But Forty-four could always trust this place. A few times he’d escaped from his official duties and enjoyed a draft and part of a basketball game here.

“Evening, Earl,” he called to the barman, noting with some satisfaction that he was the first to arrive.

The barman nodded, already at work procuring the beverages. “The usual, Mr. President?”

“Now, you know you don’t have to keep calling me that.”

“Yes, sir, but you know I always will.”

As he took a seat at the big table in the back, he decided to give Earl twice the usual payment. Not only was he closing his whole business down for the night to cater to them, but good people who could keep a secret in this town were worth their weight in gold. If anyone cottoned to what they were doing, not only would the Council be driven deeper underground, but the current occupant of the Oval would waste no time splashing the fact of their existence all over the media, with his fool jibber-jabber about “Deep States” and “enemies of the people.”

Earl brought Forty-four’s beer, set the tall, frosty glass on a bar mat. “Any new ‘usuals’ I should know about this evening?”

Forty-four ticked off the orders on his fingers. “Two Diet Coke and rum, one iced tea”—he was about to give Forty-one’s and Thirty-nine’s orders before he stopped himself, feeling a hint of sadness that they were too infirm to make the trip, that their time on this planet was growing shorter. “And we’ll be having a special guest, but I’m not sure what she’ll be drinking.”

Earl grinned. “I know just about everyone in this town, Mr. President. You tell me who and I’ll tell you what.”

“Notorious in a black robe,” was all he said, and Earl laughed.

“Oh, my lord. Last time she was in she schooled me on wine and made me order a case of a particular vintage of California red. Might have a bottle or two left.”

Soon the others began trickling in. Madam Secretary, whom they’d christened “Forty-three and a half,” looked more relaxed than he’d seen her in years. After some brief chitchat, Earl made himself scarce and they got the two missing members on the line and settled down to business.

“First of all, thank you for your time, and to those present, thank you for coming out in this weather. Especially you, Justice. I know I speak for…well, most of us when I say I don’t want any harm befalling you.”

“Here, here.” Madam Secretary hoisted her glass, her husband following her lead.

“No need to worry about me,” the deceptively small but iron-tough woman said. She flicked her stiletto-sharp eyes, huge behind her giant glasses, toward Forty-three. “You, on the other hand…”

Forty-three gave one of those humble Texas-boy shrugs that made so many, including Forty-four’s own wife, overlook his history. That made quite the picture, him handing Michelle a piece of candy on national television during McCain’s funeral. “I know y’all want to take me to the woodshed for whipping up the undecideds for the Court nomination, but I hope I made up for it by getting Fox News to stop airing those ridiculous rallies.”

“And we’re grateful for that, at least,” Madam Secretary said.

Forty-four frowned into his beer. He’d had a long talk with Michelle about picking his battles post-presidency, and certainly it stood to reason that those on the other side of the aisle were doing the same. He preferred those battles where they were all standing together. Like the one they regretfully had to address again tonight.

“Now. As you’re undoubtedly aware, our last attempt to restore order in the Oval has failed. Apparently Mr. Putin feels his work is done and has focused his attentions elsewhere. That’s why I’ve asked the good justice to join us this evening. Not in her official capacity, of course.” He eyed each member of the Council in turn to gauge their discretion, and he felt reassured. Even by Forty-three.

The justice sat up straighter. “I have the evidence you need.”

“Please let it be a blue dress,” Forty-two muttered, and his wife speared him with an elbow.

“It is airtight,” the justice said. “And it is damning. You are not to ask how I procured it. Let’s just say that not only does our newest associate not hold his liquor as well as I do, but he becomes quite talkative. About many, many sensitive subjects.”

Forty-three grinned. “You drank him under the table and he spilled his guts?”

“In vino veritas.” Then she stood, took one last sip of her wine, and started for the door.

“Wait,” Forty-four said. “You have security?”

The diminutive justice laughed. “I have an army of women. And a black belt. I’m good.”

The Council Redux: Flash Fiction

Here’s what my evil little muse called upon me to write for this week’s Two-Minutes-Go. It’s a sequel to a piece I wrote a while back, creatively titled The Council. Thank you for your indulgence.

—–

The Council Redux

The alley is slick with rain and god knows what else. Forty-four doesn’t want to think about what he may have just squished beneath his shoe. The establishment he slinks into, all neon and tarnished brass, is certainly a peg down from their last meeting place. But the location had become compromised. He has a good idea how that happened; Forty-two has gotten a bit loose-lipped in his retirement. Any hint to the press that they were meeting could mean the end of a secret institution that has performed an important public service for centuries. They had a close call a while back, and made out like they were joining forces to raise more money for hurricane relief.

He greets the owner and says he’ll wait for his party. Finally, the men start arriving. With one addition: an honorary member they’ve started calling “Forty-three and a half.” Under the circumstances, it was only right. Eventually they shake off their raingear and sit at the round table to shake off the chill. Except for Forty-three, still on the wagon, the beverages are stronger than in prior meetings. It seems the order of the day.

When all are settled and braced, a long silence passes and Forty-one, in his wheelchair at the head of the table, clears his throat. “Afraid we have to give this another go,” he says. “Best laid plans and all.”

They nod somberly. What they’d planned last time was supposed to have looked like a heart attack, but apparently Forty-five suspected and had one of his sycophants sit in the Oval Office chair instead. Bet now he wishes he’d asked Omarosa to do it.

“I might have some ideas,” Forty-three and a half says, a sly smile crossing her face.

Forty-two smirks, hides it with a swallow of his Diet Coke and rum. “Praise God let it be the business end of one of your high heels.” He touches his forehead. “That thing still gives me a twinge when it rains.”

She rolls her eyes. “Hit him where he lives.”

“Tried that,” Forty-one wheezes.

“No,” she says. “Not in the Oval. In his Achilles’ heel.”

“What, the bone spurs?” Forty-two asks.

“Try again,” his wife replies.

A small, thin voice with a Georgia accent pops in from Forty-four’s cell phone speaker. Thirty-eight isn’t well enough to travel these days. “With all due respect, Madame Secretary,” he says, “I believe you were less than successful at exploiting his weaknesses.”

“You know what I’m talking about,” she says.

Forty-four nods. “Yes, indeed I do.” He waves a hand in her direction. “Madame Secretary, it would be my utmost honor to let you make the call.”

“I’ll do it,” Forty-three pipes up. “After all, I’ve looked into the man’s soul.” He presses a few keys on his phone, then smiles when a voice answers. “Good afternoon, Mr. President,” Forty-three says in Russian, astounding Forty-four with a skill he did not believe his predecessor possessed. “We have a situation here. I believe one of your assets is defective.”

The Jacket: Flash Fiction

“You bastard.” She tore off the jacket and threw it at her husband. His expression fell somewhere between that irritating smirk and complete befuddlement as he attempted to catch it, but it just slithered down his body and landed on his expensive shoes. “You used me! You are always using me.”

He calmly bent, which reddened his face, plucked up the garment and spread it lovingly across his office chair. It burned that she didn’t remember the last time he tried to touch her with such tenderness, at least when the cameras were not on him. “You knew the deal, sweetheart.” He didn’t even look at her when he said it. Which made her even angrier.

“What. That I am to be your weapon of mass distraction?”

“If the Louboutin fits.” She turned away, crossed her arms over her chest. He tugged in a deep breath and sighed. Made a kind of murmuring sound at her, like he was trying to make up. As if. This was going to cost him big time. And not just in his credit card. “Aw, come on,” he said. “It was a joke.”

She spun toward him. “You. You are a joke. You think I do not hear what they are saying? That I am some kind of…kind of…” The English words failed her. And she wanted to make that his fault, too. “Eva Braun.”

There came the befuddlement again. And then a smile. If it would not spoil her manicure, she would punch it off his fat, orange face. Hell, maybe it would be worth it.

“At least Eva stood by her man.”

Was he again trying to be funny? Did she used to like this about him? She was finding it hard to remember. The money? Yes, the money had been good. But she could make her own money. She was not that poor, struggling girl anymore. “Eva Braun died by her man.”

A pall fell over the room. “So, whadda you want?” He pulled open a drawer. “Tiffany’s?”

“I want you to stop it.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“The children. Stop it with the children.”

He made a rude noise with his lips. “Sweetheart. I know what I’m doing. They’ll cave and give me my big, beautiful wall and everything will be great again. Why don’t you let Ugo take you up to Manhattan this weekend. Buy yourself whatever you want and leave running the country to me.”

“Running the country…? You are running it…like a shithole country.”

He straightened and glared at her.

She pulled herself up taller, glad that she’d worn her highest heels. “Yes, that is what I said. A shithole country. You have no idea what you are doing and you have surrounded yourself with people who are giving you shitty advice. When you even choose to listen to them. You will become one of those one-term presidents that people pity. Yes. They will pity you. They will call you a weak loser and they will pity you.”

He stepped closer, his mouth tightening, his arms hugging themselves across his body. “I don’t like what you’re saying. What you’re saying sounds like a person who doesn’t have any faith in me. It sounds like you think I’m some kind of low IQ, low quality person.”

“If the cheap suit fits.” And then she decided. But maybe she had already decided, and it took a few blows to her ego for it all to sink in. “Yes, I think I will go to Manhattan with Ugo. And I will stay there with him. At least he is nice to me. He does not treat me like some kind of stage prop, to be trotted out whenever he wants the media to think he has a heart.”

Then she turned with a flick of her hair and slammed the door shut, damn what his idiotic advisers would think. She might tell the National Enquirer herself. Maybe even write a book. But first, she had a call to make. She was certain Mr. Mueller might be interested in what she had to say.

The Night Guy: Flash Fiction

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.

The Oval: Wishful Flash-Fiction Thinking

Once again sleep dodged him, that bitch, and while the custom-made mattress was the most comfortable thing he’d ever set his ass on, its emptiness made his chest so tight he could barely breathe, let alone think. He dug his fingers into the pillow top as if it was his salvation. Like Leo in that movie about the iceberg. They said push the button, if there was anything he needed. A Diet Coke, one of those tiny new cans that made his hands look bigger; a fast-food run; adoring letters from his fans. But what he needed they couldn’t provide. They couldn’t even fake. They couldn’t force his wife to sleep in his bed. They couldn’t change the way she looked at him, like she was a hostage and he, her puppet master. Twice in the last six months, she’d threatened to leave him, and it didn’t sound like she was kidding. Prior to that he’d thrown some jewelry at her, promised her anything, and she calmed down. Now even that wasn’t working. He could bust into her room, and if she wasn’t comatose on Ambien, he could make demands, point to the many legal agreements she had signed. But that would only make things worse.

Maybe it was time to ask for help from a higher power.

He slipped out of bed, as quietly as he could for a man of his inestimable size, and in just his robe and Batman socks, padded first down the hall then down the stairs. Those he passed averted their eyes, because they knew not to speak unless he spoke first. Especially in the middle of the night. Especially when he was wearing his Batman socks.

His heart surged when he reached the Oval. He loved everything about that fucking room. It even smelled good, like new money. Like the tears of his enemies. Reagan said he would never step on the seal, but Reagan was a pussy. He was in charge now. He stepped right on the damn eagle’s throat, wiggling his toes into the plush carpet. But even that left him feeling hollow. And that made him angry. He sat in the big chair, spun around, trying to recapture the experience, draw power from the walls and the massive desk and the flags.

He closed his eyes and thought about Washington. Thought about Teddy Roosevelt. Tried to conjure the ghosts of his predecessors; the ones who hadn’t been losers, anyway. Then the voice came back to him. The voice he’d been trying to ignore. It had blabbed on and on about the tone of the office, how you rise to the occasion, blah blah blah, so many big words he’d let his attention drift to the portrait of Dolly Madison on the wall. Damn, that was one hot babe. Maybe he could get the women around here into some corsets. “Read the letter,” the voice had told him, at the end of their “conversation.”

“Read the letter.”

He hadn’t wanted to read the letter. This was his job now, and he was going to do it his own damn way. In fact, he almost asked the cleaning girl, that Kelly what’s-her-name, to throw it the hell out, sight unseen. He didn’t know why he’d kept it. Maybe he was smarter than he thought. Maybe he knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that there’d be a sleepless night like this one. Hell, maybe it would give him a good laugh. So he reached his tiny hands underneath the desk drawer and pulled off the envelope that had been taped there.

As he’d thought, there was a bunch of gibberish, words with way too many syllables, and he skimmed down to the bottom, looking for the bullet points. There were always bullet points. But the last sentence was what caught his eye. “If you take absolutely nothing away from this letter, from our conversations, from the good counsel of your trusted advisors, always remember this: happy wife, happy life.”

That last bit landed like a lead balloon in the pit of his stomach. He sat there for damn near an hour, still clutching the letter, still thinking about those words. Who would have thought it all made so much sense? And then he felt light, like he hadn’t in years. Like he hadn’t since he stood at the very top of the first skyscraper his father had even taken him to.

He did two things after that. He pulled the divorce papers she’d given him from his desk drawer and signed them. And then he called his speechwriter.

“I’m off this bus, kid. Write me the best fucking speech of your life. Make me sound like a goddamn hero, stepping down for the good of this beautiful country. I want tears out there, kid. Real fucking ugly-cry waterworks.”

Then he hung up, padded back to his residence, and slept better than he had in years.