The shadows shifted in the red haze, the smoke from the Shadow Man curled up behind him and the children of the Russian Underground unfurled from their positions in what could only be an act of preparation for fight or flight.
Even the poker game had stilled. All eyes were riveted on us. The Americans.
Standing in the Red Den of Sin face to face with Gabe, if we were looking for a savior in him we were sorely mistaken.
Shadow in the Russian Underground
Whatever he had seen during his consecutive Russian trips had been allowed to surface and he wore it as a shield in the Russian Underground like a man operating in the confines of a penitentiary. Like the Shadow Man, Gabe was just another ghost in the machine.
I thought he’d been bantering with me on the airplane about being a spy but he’d adopted another persona so completely, it was the only answer that made sense.
British spy, Russian spy, double-agent, the only question that mattered now was:
Whose side was he on?
“Wait a minute…” Betty Lou had pushed her way up next to me for closer scrutiny. She looked from me to Gabe. “Aren’t you– ?”
“What are you doing here?” Gabe interrupted. I was surprised to hear his voice weighted heavily with a Russian accent. And strangely aroused. Was there no end to this man’s skill set?
Captain Dave stepped forward. “We apologize for the intrusion. We’re lost. Simple navigational error.”
“My fault…” I raised my hands in a gesture of surrender. “The door was open, it shut behind us and here we are.”
Gabe considered us, expressionless. Behind him, the drifters shifted with the shadows and somewhere beyond the Shadow Man, a match struck.
It flared in the darkness, offering a glimpse of a woman with amber hair and dark eyes. So pale was her skin, I wondered whether she’d ever seen the sun and then she was gone.
Now I admit, I was tipsy enough to say the wrong thing and sober enough to recognize the right thing which was to say nothing.
But I’ve never been very good with silence.
My dream man was yet another wolf in sheep’s clothing (who might actually kill me).
There was clearly a hierarchy here in the Russian Underground and like the Shadow Man, that woman had something to do with it. My blond ambition got the best of me.
I threw a sideways glance at Betty Lou and it seemed she felt the same way (she didn’t she told me later).
“If you’re gonna kill us because someone left the damn door open, I’d like to be drunk enough not to feel it. If not, let us get back to the hotel.”
This is apparently what I said as I walked over to the table full of Stoli’s. I don’t quite remember because like I said, it was all very dreamlike.
That’s when the woman spoke.
I don’t know what she said because she said it in Russian but the effect was instantaneous. Bodies returned to former languid positions, the poker game resumed and the tension in the room deflated like a pricked balloon. Thankfully. My next move was to start hawking our jackets and it was damn cold outside.
I hefted the bottle to “Drink to that” but it was plucked from my hand, by Gabe. First he betrayed us and now he steals my drink?
I was liking him less and less.
“Come,” he instructed us to follow him.
THE DRINKING GAME
We were in a small room. Like the previous room, there were a handful of chairs, a table and no windows. On this particular table there were exactly five shot glasses sitting before each chair and a decanter of clear liquid I assumed was Russian Vodka.
Gabe gestured for us to sit and poured out a shot, one for each of us.
“You’re not joining us?”
“This is reserved for guests. It’s a traditional Russian way to celebrate… A successful transaction.”
“Successful for who?”
The question lingered as Gabe poured the final shot.
It should’ve been a red flag that he wasn’t imbibing with us but then again, it was the 90s. It would be at least another decade before we received warnings from the airline to beware proffered drinks from strangers in foreign locations.
I’d love to tell you what happened next, but I can’t.
None of us can. And it wasn’t because we were lightweights.
My eyes were slits. There was no light. No clock. No sense of where I was or even who I was. Even that thumping in my head was foreign to me…
Who’s damn head was on my neck?
I sat up to do something, take my head off I think. Putting it on the nightstand seemed like a fine idea but the thumping knocked me back over before I could remove it.
Huh? Oh… shit. Sand, headache and a man in my room.
Something cold pressed against my forehead. I tried to shake my head, to say I didn’t want anymore damn margaritas but all I felt was thumping and all I heard was that croak again.
Drink this… That sounded familiar. Drink…Vodka… Russia… Red Den of Sin…
“It’s a traditional Russian way to celebrate…” The clinking of glasses, the last thing I remembered.
I peeled open my eyes to find Gabe sitting next to the bed, holding a glass of clear liquid.