“This is for your father,” the man says, handing me a small USB thumb drive. “And this is for you,” he says handing me a set of Russian nesting dolls.
“What just happened back there? Where are you taking me? Tell me now or I will scream,” I demand.
“Someone wanted to get their hands on the item your father sent you here to receive. I stopped them from doing that. Now we will have dinner,” he says matter-of-factly like he’s a telemarketer reading from a script for the thousandth time today.
He’s completely devoid of emotion as his eyes face forward with a glassy stare that reveals nothing.
I quickly look him up and down noticing how well he fills out his suit, and wonder what the tattoo on his hand would reveal if I had any idea what it meant.
It’s hard to tell with tattoos these days. Twenty years ago they were still an obscure item that weren’t safe to have if you wanted a white-collar job or a loan from a bank. These days it seems like every hipster in South Beach has at least three.
And I have one myself. Maybe it’s because my dad seemed more interested in shouting into his phone in Russian than raising his only daughter. His idea of parenting was sticking me in front of the TV with a remote control in my hand.
And somehow I managed to click my way to Miami Ink’s debut episode in 2005 when I was five. I was just a kid, but I was fascinated for all six seasons until the show went off the air.
I became addicted to art and ink and found myself watching Eastern Promises every week for years. That film was like an addictive elixir of both the dark underworld of my Russian heritage mixed with how the tattoos on your body tell your entire life story in Russian prisons.
That led me to Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volumes I, II, and III, Russian Criminal Tattoo Police Files by Arkady Bronnikov, who is regarded as Russia's leading expert on tattoo iconography and was also a senior expert in forensics at the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs for more than 30 years.
But when I look at the tattoo on this alpha bad boy’s hand I have no idea what it means.
And that scares and excites me all at the same time.
My dad does “good deals with bad guys” as he likes to say, so it’s no surprise that I’d meet a character like this one who’s either leading me to safety, or to a quick death.
And just because my dad practically keeps me locked up around the clock at our estate in Miami, doesn’t mean I’m some sheltered kid who’s in need of an adventure.
But an adventure sure has come knocking in the form of this six foot five man who looks about as thick as the bronze statues I saw at Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport when I arrived just a couple hours ago.
“You are?” I ask.
“Artem. Your father’s best friend,” he says.
“What if I’m not hungry?” I ask.
“Have you ever had Russian borsch?”
“Yeah, they have a place back home,” I say, still not sure what this guy is all about but I’m very interested in finding out.
“Please. Do not insult my country or my hospitality. If you have not tasted it inside Russia then you have never tried it.”
It takes everything I have not to laugh out loud, partly because his deadpan answers that are about as lacking in contractions as they are in length remind me of the bad Russian guys in so many movies. Artem’s not doing much to dispel that myth.
But the real reason my first reaction is to laugh is fear.
He is big, well dressed, stoic, and powerful as I just saw in the metro.
“Russia can be dangerous place,” he says, his accent thickening. Apparently he’s not a fan of indefinite articles either. “But not when I am near.”
“Does this restaurant also have vodka?” I ask.
“Do you know what vodka mean in Slavic language?”
I shake my head.
“Little water.” He pauses. “And yes. The have a lot of little water.”
“Good, because I have a feeling that I’m going to need it,” I say.