Black Knight in Red Square
Black Knight in Red Square
WARREN HARDING AUBREY THOUGHT HE was feeling the effects of a trio of double vodkas on the rocks. Actually, he was dying.
His once hard belly ached slightly as he got on the elevator of the Metropole Hotel and told the young woman he wanted vosem. When she pressed the button marked eight, he knew his minimal Russian had not failed him this time.
The girl on the stool was named Maria Nevanskaya. She had been riding up and down for almost fourteen hours a day five days a week for three of her twenty-five years. Normally it would take the appearance of a babbling ax murderer or of the general secretary himself to draw her attention. But this was not a normal week. It was the first week of the Moscow Film Festival, and the hotel was filled with foreigners. The lobby elevator dispatcher, Verochek, had abused Maria about her lack of courtesy to the guests. She guessed, quite correctly, that Verochek had himself been abused by Karlenko, the Metropole's Communist Party supervisor. So as the elevator slowly rose to the sound of the weary restaurant orchestra playing "I Want to Hold Your Hand," Maria turned to her drunken passenger and asked, in what she thought was French, if he was ill.
Aubrey was lost in thoughts of 1954, when he had begun the metamorphosis from Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent in Korea to hired typist who would cover anything anywhere in the world for a standard fee and all he could drink, which was an impressive amount. The French word mal got through to him, though, and he grinned at the woman and shook his head. He wanted to say something to her, but the taste of blood in his mouth and her apparent indifference stopped him. His hand went to his mouth and came away dry.
As the elevator door slid open on the eighth floor, Aubrey took a step forward feeling as if he were wading in knee-deep water. He almost collided with the desk of the dezhurnaya , the floor woman who sat watching him. Her hand automatically went up to protect her key box from his potential drunken onslaught. Each floor in each hotel in Moscow, with the exception of the gargantuan Rossyia, had an old dezhurnaya to guard the keys, the morals, and the sanctity of the establishment and to serve, when necessary, as the eyes and ears of the KGB. As Aubrey knew, these old women could shift from motherly sympathy to matronly scorn without apparent reason. None could speak any language but Russian. This dezhurnaya, Vera Olganova, eyed Aubrey suspiciously, and with little of the Party's careful courtesy to the foreign visitor, found his key and reluctantly handed it over. Aubrey clutched the key, took a step, began to fall, and tried to steady himself by grabbing the nearest object on the woman's desk, which happened to be a small framed portrait of Lenin.
Vera Olganova snatched the portrait from him with a grunt, and Aubrey had to hold the edge of the desk to keep from falling. She decided that the foreigner had intentionally and politically reached for the picture, which she now clutched to her cascading bosom, saving it from desecration at his capitalistic hands. He merited a report to the proper authorities even if he was drunk.
"Sorry," Aubrey said, hoping he wouldn't throw up.
She placed Lenin safely on the far end of the desk, facing away from the disrespectful Westerner.
Aubrey, praying that he would make it to his bathroom, took a dozen steps, inserted the key into the lock of room 808, turned it, and pushed open the door. With a great effort, he managed to raise his hand and flick on the lights. He was unaware that he'd left the door open behind him and that he had dropped the key.
The nausea subsided slightly as he found himself eye to eye with a painting of a thin man with his bushy head held high and a stern expression on his face. Aubrey put out both hands and leaned against the wall, trying to outstare this