Ilze Berzins

Chapter 26

Pervasive dream images from childhood cascaded through her mind. You’ll be late you’ll be late hurry hurry hurry…

She was running as fast as she could. She couldn’t be late. She’d be punished.

Heart pounding, Vika thrashed around, struggling against something tying her down, not letting her breathe, not letting her run. What was going on?

Wriggling around, she finally managed to extricate herself from a flimsy sheet and from a rough wool blanket. What happened to her duvet? Her two soft luxurious pillows? And it was so noisy. And cold. She’d have to complain.

Somewhat awake by now but still confused, Vika was surprised to find herself in a narrow little bed—a cot, really. Gradually her unconscious mind, with its storage of childhood dreams and nightmares, receded. She smelled coffee. Room service?

Trying to sit up, she winced. She was sore all over and stiff, having had to scrunch herself into an uncomfortable position on this hard narrow mattress. What was she wearing? Vika couldn’t believe she had on a long flannel shirt of some kind. How come?

Then it all started coming back to her. It was last night. Outside the Hotel de Rome. How could she forget Frankie’s words? “You must hide. Bernie’s business partner here in Latvia is looking for you. He wants some package. He’s dangerous.”

She had reacted immediately, jumped into a cab and taken refuge with Simone and Aunt Velga, joining Svetlana who also was a refugee and was still recovering from her near-death “accident.”

Vika felt bereft. All she had of her own were the clothes she had on her back and her purse. Poor Simone! What a sad end to her birthday dinner last night had been!

There was a soft knock on the door and, as if conjured up, Simone  came in carrying a cup of coffee.

“Did you sleep okay?”

Awkwardly Vika pulled herself up to a seated position, “Thank you for everything, Simone.” She gave a rueful smile. “Your apartment is getting pretty crowded. I’m sorry.”

“Oh nothing, nothing. Everything is okay,” Simone replied, flustered and at a loss for words.

Vika gratefully accepted the coffee. What supreme irony that she who couldn’t live without luxury was now sheltering in a crowded mule sanctuary!

Simone smiled over her shoulder as she softly closed the door behind her.

Vika had to get busy. Her first call was to the Hotel de Rome where she instructed reception not to release any information about her to anyone. “Yes, madam,” was the reply. “We have not done so.”

Minutes later her phone rang. It was a local call. Frankie.

“Just to let you know. Two goons turned up at the hotel last night. The same ones who had been guarding me. I didn’t follow them around but I saw them leave.”

Vika had so many people to thank. It was something new for her since she had always taken her security and her wellbeing for granted. So, she thanked Frankie profusely and took his cell number.

She dreaded the thought that she’d have to go back to the hotel and  retrieve her possessions and, most importantly, the contents of the safe. She had to plan how to do this safely.

Another tap on the door and she heard Simone’s voice. “Breakfast is ready. Please come.”

Where in the world was her soft fluffy dressing gown? Her slippers? Her cosmetic bag? How was she supposed to brush her teeth? Put on her makeup?

We’re all ladies here, Vika finally said to herself. She pulled her jacket over the night shirt and ventured out of the room. She was hungry.

Aunt Velga’s best china was on the small kitchen table. Four places were set. Small bowls of porridge, an egg, and slices of bread. Four ladies sat down. What a moment! Vika didn’t understand Latvian and, of course, not Russian, so the conversation was stilted. Still, all four women felt a sense of camaraderie. And all three of them were fascinated by Vika—the rich American, sitting at their table and not looking rich at all.

Vika stared at what was in front of her. Nothing could win her over like a bowl of porridge. She realized that she had to say something. “Thank you. Thank you,” she said summoning up her best phony smile. She felt as if she was on life support. Just the essentials to keep her alive. Some food. Somewhere to sleep.

Still, the porridge was a problem. She couldn’t make it go away. Couldn’t insult the people who had taken her in. Could she be allergic to porridge? That was a long shot. She tried distraction.

“Oh! I just love eggs. And this bread is so nice.”

Svetlana, sitting opposite her, looked puzzled.

Simone frowned. “Eat the porridge now. It is hot.”

Aunt Velga, who only spoke Latvian in her house, pushed the bowl a little closer to Vika. “Nu?”

Could she grin and bear it? She could.

She cursed this porridge-besotted breakfast table, shivered slightly and dipped her spoon delicately into the thick lumpy mass. Her eyes lowered, she tried for an ummm sound but instead a harsh hacking noise escaped her lips.

But there was a God. Her cell sounded. Saved by the bell!  Vika looked up from her bowl and the balloon over her head said Thank you, Jesus! 

Her gladness vanished two minutes later as Irena described what was going on in New York. Vika looked around the table, at the three good-natured faces, brows wrinkled with concern. My mother should be here. With us. Safe. She said all this to herself as she listened to an account of Bernie’s threats against her mother.

“Listen, mamma, you’re leaving. You’re out of there. I insist!” Vika’s voice grew loud and forceful. “You have plenty of money in your account. Get yourself a ticket to Riga. Promise me!”

All thoughts of porridge were forgotten. Vika wanted a drink. She wanted a cigarette even though she wasn’t a smoker. She wanted something. Drugs? If not drugs outright, Valium would do. But where in the world would she find any of that around here?

Her mother was the only person she had ever loved. Ever would love, by the looks of things. She settled for coffee. There were tears in her eyes. Tears of frustration and anger.

“Please. More coffee. I can’t eat right now.”

Aunt Velga rushed to the coffee pot. Refilled Velga’s mug. And gave her a hug. Even though Velga didn’t understand English, she knew the word mamma.

Gulping her coffee, Vika said with determination, “I must get my stuff out of the hotel. I’ll find another hotel later but right now I need my stuff.”

Three heads nodded in agreement.

What was the plan? Vika couldn’t be seen going into the Hotel de Rome. Frankie seemed sure the goons would be back. Just to check.

Vika turned to Simone. At least Simone understood English. Vika brainstormed, doing all the talking herself, as Simone stared wide-eyes and bobbed her head up and down.

Plan A would have Vika in disguise. She’d ditch the glamor and reinvent herself. She hoped that there wouldn’t be the need for a plan B.

Chapter 25

Arsy was desperate to stay safe in a clearly dangerous situation. He was being shaken down but for what?

“I don’t know what you want from me. I’m just an artist—that is, when I have the time. Mostly I’m just a waiter.” Arsy didn’t like to sound pathetic but his voice came out as squeaky and beseeching. He was scared.

The visitor chortled. “Maybe this is your lucky day. Maybe you’ll get big tips or, better still, a nice commission. Become rich and famous.”

Arsy’s face brightened. Maybe this wasn’t so bad. He hauled himself up from the futon he had collapsed on. “I can show you some of my work.” He reached into his storage space and smiled his special smile. Not the seductive one he used on women but his own natural smile, which was sincere and likable. He clearly had great expectations.

“Look. You might like. Right here where—”

A raised hand interrupted. “I’m sure you’re brilliant. This commission is a little… well, special.”

“Special?” Arsy’s smile started to vanish.

“Here’s the thing. We know you’re an associate of Juris Lapins—”

“But…” This time it was Arsy’s turn to interrupt.

Again he was silenced. “Never mind. I must introduce myself. My name is Ivo. My friends and I have seen you with Juris. Pity he never invited you into his Jurmala mansion. It’s said to be full of original art work. But he hasn’t recognized your talent. Uses you as an errand boy—as a mule. That must be humiliating for someone with your talent.”

Arsy pulled out his cigarettes.

“No. Don’t do that. I’ve quit and don’t want to be tempted.”

Arsy’s shoulders slumped. What the hell did this guy want?

“We want to get to know Juris Lapins a little better. He has a nice family. A beautiful granddaughter.”

Arsy frowned. That’s it, isn’t it? Now I’m a gigolo. He sighed wearily, knowing what was coming.

There was a longish silence as Ivo organized his thoughts. How to make it so that the guy doesn’t refuse? He wanted this to go smoothly. He too had a boss who was watching every move.

“Look, she’s a fellow artist. Currently enrolled at Riga’s Art Academy. You’d have a great deal in common.”

“Except I never went there,” Arsy interjected. His tone was bitter. “That’s for rich kids and those with blats.”

“Okay, sure, but this is one rich kid you’d like. She’s only twenty or something. First year, we think. No matter. All you need is a name and the rest is up to you. We’ll even throw in some cash so that you can wine and dine the little lady. But just don’t disappoint us.”

Arsy answered with a tentative, “Well… I still don’t see…”

Ivo’s  smile was conciliatory “Now, we’re not asking you to marry her. Just make sure she falls in love with you. You’ve got what it takes.”

A brief mirthless laugh followed. Perhaps an attempt to downplay Arsy’s good looks. Although youngish, Ivo certainly didn’t have what it would take. He was short, fattish, almost bald and his teeth were deplorable.

Arsy was dying for a cigarette. He just had to get this over with. “What’s her name?”

“That’s the ticket. Good.” Ivo looked ready to leave. “Her name is Aina. Aina Lapina.”

The name meant nothing to Arsy. He was bamboozled. What the hell was he supposed to do with this Aina. He’d never set foot in the Art Academy. So, now he was ordered to find this girl and make her fall in love. And then what?

On his way to the door Ivo placed a wad on Arsy’s futon. And a photo of a very pretty girl.

“There will be much more if you follow instructions but if you do not…” Ivo trailed off. Narrowing his eyes, he gestured at everything in the room. “This place is an old fire trap. Old timber burns well. I’m surprised that the city hasn’t had it torn down yet.”

Arsy’s eyes went wild. “But just tell me. What are those instructions?”

Ivo was enjoying the panic he had created. The threat of fire usually did the job. “Don’t worry. Right now just make friends with this girl. We’ll get in touch with you after that.”

Arsy was getting even more nervous and started to pat down his pockets again, looking for his pack of cigarettes, knowing he was not allowed to smoke. What was he supposed to do? He paced around his small room while Ivo just smiled.

“Have fun,” were his parting words.

Arsy felt trapped. One hundred euros to seduce a young art student. How cheap! How cynical! He looked at the photo. A very nice-looking girl but not outrageously beautiful.

And what was he to get out of all this? It looked like the famous offer that you weren’t supposed to refuse. Luckily Ivo hadn’t heard about Svetlana and Arsy’s role in spiriting her to safety. And Arsy still had plans to sell Vika the Rozentals he had worked so hard to perfect. And which Juris had rejected—much as he had rejected Arsy’s art production as a whole. It still smarted to remember Ivo’s words: Juris has a house full of art but none of it is yours.

Before doing anything else, Arsy had to protect the meager belongings he possessed. Luckily he was able to insert a padlock on his door so no one would walk in.

* * *

Arsy hoped inspiration would hit him. How was he to proceed? Standing outside the magnificent old building with its red brick façade and majestic spires, he marveled at this artistic mecca which had gathered under its roof Latvia’s most talented art students—or so one was led to believe.

Arsy looked up at the sky. It was already darkening. And getting cold. He could just pop inside, look around. There was no law against that, was there?

He pulled open the heavy door, stepped inside and immediately felt at home. As the door shut behind him, it was as if he had stepped into another world. He loved the smell. Turpentine mixed with some other scents. He thought of his cat Minka. They probably had an Academy cat somewhere—sort of like a mascot. The place exuded decades upon decades of artistic creation, happy camaraderie and dreams come true.

Once past the entrance, Arsy spied a concierge in her cage to the left of him. Another smell. Some sort of liquor. And cigarette smoke. Heavenly! This place had it all.

He noticed a stream of students proceeding down a large staircase, right below a magnificent stained glass window. He followed, hoping to melt in. His Latvian was excellent so that, at least, wasn’t going to be a problem.

It must have been a recess. As Arsy followed, the group ended up in a little café. Cozy and crowded and jovial and friendly. Arsy pulled out his smokes and lined up at the counter. Boisterous chatter, laughter all around. It was heady. He could so easily imagine himself as an art student, discussing the latest trends in the art world over a brew or a coffee. And the girls were lovely. All of them. How in the world would he find Aina Lapina? All he had was a photo of a pretty young girl.

Arsy lifted his beer and sucked on his cigarette. He was cheek to jowl with the privileged—with the kids who had money and the blats (he was sure of that) to be admitted into this circle of happy campers.

Without wanting to, Arsy had attracted attention. He was someone new. Someone so handsome. A bit older than the rest. A lecturer? Sometimes the Academy employed guest teachers. Perhaps Arsy was about to lead a class on Roman Romanticism or something more esoteric like Art Forgery.

Arsy felt that he had a narrow window of opportunity. He had to take a chance and start talking to someone. Any minute now the recess would be over and the students would be filing back to workshops and classrooms.

He was ready to engage eye contact. Start up a conversation. His mind had been busy making up a story. He was looking for a cousin, a friend, a someone…

The next instant Arsy’s mouth opened in astonishment. The caretaker emptying the refuse in the café looked familiar. God! Could it be Ivo? Would there be some creep looking over his shoulder as he searched for the elusive Aina Lapina?



Chapter 24

Vika was getting to be a royal pain in the ass. “We must have balloons and cake and presents,” she said breathlessly.

Eggy rolled his eyes. “That’s not how we do it here in Latvia.”

“Well, bully for you!” Vika shot back. “We’re going to change all that. We’ll have a real birthday party. Simone deserves nothing less. How many candles?”

Vika didn’t wait for an answer. She supplied her own. “Just one single candle. That’s how we celebrate for women of a certain age.” She stopped to give a coy little burst of laughter, remembering that, in France, “certain age” had an erotic meaning. It did give her pause to realize that they were all (including Vika) in the forty-to-sixty age range, although she herself self-identified as being thirty.

Now she was all business. “I’m calling Sam’s. I want a good table, a nice dinner, champagne and a cake. I’ll leave the balloons and clowns up to you. So, toodle-loo. I’ll see you tonight.”

Eggy laughed and rang off with a simple ciao.

* * *

Vika had tried to keep her mood up-beat, using this dinner party to distract her from worrying about her mother back in New York—with Bernie standing over her like a jailor.

She liked to spend money lavishly. Money hadn’t been a problem since her marriage to Bernie. In fact, it was the very reason she had married him in the first place. She had wisely salted a large amount into her own private (secret) bank account and she was determined to spend it now. On others, as well as on herself.

* * *

Vika wasn’t disappointed. The table she had reserved was decorated with a vase of fresh flowers and candles. She had made sure to arrive first. A floral masterpiece, she was at her best, wearing a multicolored embroidered jacket over a dove grey silk blouse, coupled with dark slacks. Her gift to Simone was a fat envelope stuffed with euros which she planned to drop  into Simone’s pocket at just the right moment.

Misha, bobbling and smiling, hovered around with his silky friendliness. He especially liked this rich and attractive American lady and couldn’t do enough to make her happy. Would she ever consent to a rendez vous?

His romantic musing was interrupted by the arrival of the guest of honor, on the arm of her escort. Misha beamed a huge smile in their direction. He was ready with his happy birthdays both in Latvian and in English. It was hard to outshine Vika. And Simone certainly didn’t. She was wearing a heavy knit sweater over a dark blue turtle neck and dark pants. Eggy was equally turtlenecked and sporting his signature tight-fitting trousers.

Brushing aside Misha’s greeting, Simone scanned the room. Where was Arsy? This was every girl’s dream birthday party but the most important person in her life wasn’t there.

The waiter (who wasn’t Arsy), pulled out two chairs and invited the guests to sit. The dinner was the best the chef had to offer— Chateaubriand and assorted vegetables. Tender red meat was still a delicacy in Latvia and it had been prepared to perfection. Happy ummm sounds all around. The meal was delicious.

When the cake was brought out, with one candle blazing, the entire room clapped and burst forth with Happy Birthday!—both in English and Latvian.

Simone was blushing with the surprise and the attention she was getting. But where was Arsy? Could he be late for work? She hadn’t asked about him yet.

Misha was prowling around the table, hoping to ingratiate himself, when Simone motioned to him. She couldn’t wait any longer.

“Where is Arsy?”

Misha shrugged. “Arsy? I don’t know. He gave his notice, then changed his mind, then disappeared.”

Simone looked at him with suspicion. “Disappeared! That can’t be. He was with us when—”

She stopped, alerted by Eggy who had given her a swift kick under the table. To distract her, he refilled her glass. Toasted her once again.

Swallowing her disappointment, Simone drained her glass in a few rapid gulps. Arsy! Why aren’t you here? It’s my birthday!

Vika was the one who got up first. On her way to the ladies’ room she stopped to settle the bill. She was pleased things had gone well and she was especially gratified by Simone’s squeals of surprise as she clutched the envelope Vika had secreted into her pocket. It felt good to make someone so happy.

* * *

It was a pleasant night. Nice big moon. Stars too. And not terribly cold. Eggy and Simone had decided to walk Vika back to the Hotel de Rome. Maybe some cognac at the hotel bar. That would make a nice nightcap after a successful celebration.

A squeal of breaks. A car almost up on the sidewalk. All three of them stopped in their tracks. Vika clutched at her mouth not to scream. They had almost been hit.

A man leapt out of the car and, running up to Vika, grabbed her arm.

“Mrs Zito. Don’t go back to the hotel!”

Vika pulled back and gasped in amazement. This was that same short Italian she had seen on the flight. The same man she had recognized in Osiris the other day. Tonight he looked pale and disheveled.

Vika’s heart was beating like a drum. “What’s going on?”

“Oh. you must…” Frankie was out of breath. He could hardly get his words out. “You must hide. Bernie’s business partner here in Latvia is looking for you. He wants some package. He’s dangerous.”

The cab driver honked, which made Frankie run back to pay him. Then back to Vika and her friends.

“Please go somewhere else. It’s not safe for you. I’ll hang around. See who goes into the hotel. I’m good at following people.” At that he let out a choked laughter which bordered on hysteria.

Vika’s mouth dropped open. “But what about my stuff? Do I have to just leave everything? Where am I supposed to stay?” She thought with a sense of panic about Svetlana’s briefcase and the contents of her safe.

“No, no. Don’t worry. Here’s my phone number. Call me and I’ll let you know what’s happening.”

Both Vika and Eggy turned to look at Simone. A pocket full of euros and champagne bubbling in her brain, she shrugged and stretched out her hands in a “whatever” gesture.

The mule ranch would be pretty crowded. The whole gang would be there—the whole gang without Arsy.

Without hesitation, Eggy let out a sharp whistle and waved his arms. Luckily he had caught the cab before it  pulled away.

No one looked back at Frankie who was was left behind, panting, clutching at his heart and wondering if there was a witness protection program in Latvia.









Chapter 23

Juris’ goons had no trouble dumping Frankie. They had chosen a deserted stretch of beach in Jurmala and, once it was dark and no one was around, they had set him free. Frankie had gotten off pretty lightly—that is, he was alive.

He had always been a pretty good liar. He had told his captors everything he knew—even everything he didn’t know. Trying to ingratiate himself, he had invented some stuff. Mrs Zito is staying at the Hotel de Rome. He himself didn’t know this for sure but hoped that it would be enough to stop the inquisition. It had worked. In fact, Frankie had been surprised by how amiable the whole process had been. He shuddered to think about the treatment he would have had to endure from the New Jersey side of the “family.”

Compared to past experiences, this had been a walk in the park. He had been brought to an elegant old house with a high fence and an electric sliding gate, guarded by two monstrous dogs (he couldn’t make out the breed) patrolling the yard. Once escorted inside, Frankie had been made to sit on a stool in the middle of a large room, a man on either side of him. Juris Lapins, the boss man, had positioned himself behind a massive desk.

Juris had gotten up to offer cigarettes all around and Frankie had noted the still-muscular body of this tall and lean old man. Partially bald, he was clean shaven and had a tanned, rugged face with high cheekbones and light colored eyes. Frankie imagined these eyes could tear right through any bullshit and stop any rival in his tracks. He was a born leader. Ex KGB.

Juris fired up a match, lit his cigarette and regarded Frankie through the haze of smoke.

He had a deep husky smoker’s voice and heavily accented English.

“You work for Bernie Zito?”

Surprised that his mouth hadn’t gone dry with fright, Frankie squinted up at the ceiling as if the answer lodged there. He decided on humor. “Ah yes. Bernie Zito. That name does ring a bell. Where have I heard it before?”

A braying noise, supposedly a laugh, escaped from Juris.

“We have a comedian here!”

The goons guarding Frankie joined in with loud boisterous guffaws. The ice had been broken. Tensions eased.

Juris started in gently. He liked to do that. Killing them with kindness. “We’re all on the same team, Frankie. We need to know what happened to a package which was delivered to Mrs Zito.”

Frankie started to fidget. “Look. Sure, I know Bernie. He asked me to keep an eye on his wife. That’s all. I don’t know about any package.”

The fun was over.

“I’ll call your boss and, if you’re lying, we’ll kill you.”

Frankie started and almost fell off his stool. He knew Juris meant business.

It hadn’t seemed to matter what time of day or night it was. Business always trumped sleep or any other activity. Juris had no trouble getting through. Minutes later, he offered Frankie a reprieve.

“Bernie says you’re useless. Tell us where Mrs Zito is and we’ll let you go.”

Frankie did not hesitate. “She’s at the Hotel de Rome. I don’t know the room number but she’s there.”

* * *

Frankie looked up at the stars and at the moon rising over the tall pines. The waves lapped against the beach which looked endless to Frankie. He was glad it wasn’t raining or, worse, snowing. Still, there was a stiff breeze and he hugged himself for warmth as he walked away from where he had been left—discarded.

It was not his first rodeo. Things could have gone differently. He could have been on a beach in New Jersey where he could have barely escaped with his life. This time he hadn’t even been searched. Not even roughed up a bit. But, still, he was older now, less flexible and felt that he couldn’t go on living this sort of life forever.

His adventures (or misadventures) had brought him this far. He was alive for a reason. For a purpose. He didn’t know exactly what that purpose was. All in all, looking back at his life, Frankie could attest to the fact that what hadn’t killed him had truly made him stronger.

He looked up and down the beach as far as he could see. He still had a lingering fear that the goons could come back or that the dogs could track him down and tear him to pieces. The beach remained completely deserted.

He was lucky. He still had his watch, his wallet and his phone. The sea air was bracing and his power walk along the seaside had made him warmer. And had energized him. He wasn’t so old that he couldn’t begin a new life. Start all over. Away from Bernie and his life of crime.

But what had just happened? He had sicced Juris on Mrs Zito. Why had he done that? To save himself, of course but also because he wasn’t sure she was there. Now he prayed that she wasn’t at the Hotel de Rome but somewhere safe.

And what was he going to do about it? He was going to warn her, of course. There were really bad people out there looking for her. It would take more than a clutch of diamonds to keep her safe.

He couldn’t stay on this beach forever. He used a boardwalk to access a road and consulted his phone to see, on GPS, where he was. Next, he called a cab and managed to make himself understood.

His big worry now was how to get to Mrs Zito before the goons could find her. A horrible thought crossed his mind. Maybe they already had.

Frankie couldn’t keep the panic out of his voice as he told the cab driver to go faster. This was an emergency. The driver looked back with a surly mad-at-the-world expression.

“Camera,” he said pointing at the roadside. The guy wasn’t interested in getting a fine or losing his license.

Frankie’s adrenaline shot through him like a bolt of lightning. Faster. Faster. He felt like jumping out of the cab and running all the way to the Hotel de Rome.

He had to save Mrs Zito.

Chapter 22

It was well past Halloween and even past Martin’s Day but Madame Zenunda’s parlour still had that spooky vibe. The small room was steeped in darkness with a few candles flickered on window sills and a weak electric fire casting a feeble glow. Thick velvet curtains muffled street noise and soft eerie background music put visitors in the right mood for her readings and séances.

Arsy fired up a cigarette. Exhaling a thin stream of smoke he reached for the coffee cup Madame Zenunda had just refilled. He frowned. The words she had for him were hardly reassuring.

As the Moon transits Neptune there could be trouble.

But he hung on to the words “could be”. Madame Zenunda was kind. She minimized danger, especially for someone she liked. And she never charged Arsy for a reading. She saw the value of having a nice, strong, young man living close by—even though their two cats (Minka and Noir) fought like fiends, hissing, clawing and mauling each other whenever they got a chance.

His eyes glowing in the dark, Noir sidled up, rubbed himself on Arsy’s shanks then jumped up on one of the chairs, yawned and lay down. The cat’s job was to look menacing, to add a sense of mystery and magic to the whole mise-en-scène  but he managed to simply look bored.

Arsy popped another cig from his pack and lit it from the butt. He was no longer rationing. The stress of the past days had turned him into a chain smoker—not that he could afford it. He wished Madame would cast a spell that would attract euros or dollars and cause the evil spirits that he sensed lurking around him to recede into the shadows.

The tiny lady, hunched over her cards, sighed heavily. Her penetrating black eyes, peered up at him. “I wish to help you my friend. You must sell your art work.”

“Art work? What art work? How do you know about—”

She raised her withered, ring-encased, claw-like hand to silence him. “Madame Zenunda knows everything.” Closing her eyes dramatically, the old lady continued, “I sense that you have produced a masterpiece. A beautiful and very expensive painting.”

“How interesting!” Arsy exclaimed with mock sweetness. “You’d like to buy it?”

A quirky cackle escaped her lips. “We gypsies have no money, my friend. I make only a few kopeiki.”

Arsy managed an ironic smile. “So, you who know everything, tell me who will be the buyer.”

“Aha! But if I tell you, you will have to give me something,” she returned Arsy’s smile with a coy  little smile of her own.

Arsy gave a short bark of laughter. “What’s your take? I will give you a commission. Ten percent.”


No one was going to call him stingy. “Okay. Twenty percent.”

Arsy waited to see how Madame would reply. There was more silence. Which was interrupted by soft snuffling sounds. Haggling with Arsy must have exhausted her. Madame Zenunda had dozed off.

With a sigh Arsy got up, shooed away Noir who had awakened and was now marking him again. He too felt suddenly sleepy but made sure to blow out the candles before taking his leave.

* * *

Feeling his way up the unlit back stairs, Arsy had to hold on to the walls not to fall over. He felt very tired.

Arriving at the door to his studio Arsy stood still, key in his hand, and stared. The door to his studio had been jimmied. Normally Minka would be greeting him at the front door but she was nowhere to be seen.

What had happened? He had left the Twilight Zone only to stumble into his own real-life Horror Show.

He was completely unarmed. His body felt unable to protect itself.

The lights were on. His eyes were not fooling him. There was a man sitting in his one and only easy chair. Arsy surprised himself by not falling down in a faint.

“You should get that monster declawed. And you should not depend on magic spells to solve your problems. You look tired. Sit down and talk to me.”

Arsy just stared, unable to cough up a response.

“I myself performed some magic with the coffee pot downstairs. She’s a nice old woman. Reminds me of my grandmother,” he said and gave a mirthless laugh which sounded more like a snarl.

“Where’s my cat?” Arsy asked feebly as he collapsed on his futon.

“Never mind your cat. Let’s talk seriously. You may not know it yet but there’s a new show in town. New players. Jurmala Juris will soon be history. Here’s your chance to do the right thing.”

Is he making me an offer I can’t refuse, Arsy asked himself. He had seen the Godfather and also the Sopranos on TV.

“Yes. Sure. I do. I mean… I will.”








Chapter 21

Frankie let out a gigantic sigh of relief. “Whew! That was close.”

But, on second thought, maybe he should have hung around, talked to her, tried to find out where she lived. He needed more to tell Bernie. A whew wouldn’t cut it. Bernie would want to know who she was with and what was going on. This was the second time Frankie had seen Vika with a man. This latest one was not as young and handsome as the goon who had knocked him down at the Hotel de Rome. Either way, he knew Bernie wouldn’t like it.

Making his way back to the Radisson he kept kicking himself. What was he? Some kind of chicken running away like that? He wasn’t thinking on his feet. All he wanted to do was get out of this cold wet Nordic country. He didn’t have the language and he couldn’t even read other people’s body language. He was lost. He thought he could drink but there he had been—one drink in a restaurant and his mind had shut down. All he wanted to do was to lie down.

But first he had to call Bernie, something which he always dreaded. He had his own bottle of lousy vodka—everything was lousy here—the coffee, the drinks, the women… the women. That’s how the hell he had landed in that crowded restaurant after all. Following a blonde. Strange thing was, the blonde disappeared. Into the washroom. Frankie guessed it was the washroom but maybe not. Maybe there was a back door and the blonde didn’t like him trailing her.

He had decided to wait for the blonde to reappear. But then those two took a seat right next to him. He didn’t like to think about it. Had he missed a chance to get news for Bernie? Well, he could make something up. Hell, he’d have to make something up. Starting with  Vika’s romances. That would drive Bernie crazy but it also meant that Frankie didn’t have to offer anything else. He could claim he had been trailing these two all day as they walked hand in hand, stopping for a kiss… But he couldn’t get too carried away.

Frankie took off his shoes, poured a good measure of vodka into a tumbler and sat down on his bed. He could get Bernie any time on his special personal cell. Drawing a deep calming breath, Frankie punched in the numbers.

“Good news. I finally caught up with Vika. She’s got a guy.”

There was silence on the other end.

“Hello? Bernie are you there?”

“Yeah, I’m here. I don’t give a fuck about her love life. Does she still have the stuff? Who has it? This Svetlana?”

Frankie was at a loss. He had hoped to drive Bernie crazy but here he was, wanting information Frankie didn’t have.

“I’m working on it, Bernie.”

“What do you mean working on it? I need answers now. You gotta tell me if this Juris is double crossing me. He’s telling me he can’t find Svetlana so you better find her. And fast.”

Bernie didn’t wait for a reply. Frankie was left with nothing—with nothing but fear, that is. How the hell was he going to find some Svetlana?

He searched his memory. Yes, he did remember seeing Vika and some tall blonde (weren’t they all tall blondes?) on Elizabetes Street. Right before an accident which had virtually shut the area down. It certainly wasn’t Vika who had been hit. Could this be the Svetlana Bernie was looking for? No way could Frankie get a hold of any information about the accident. He didn’t speak the language. Knew nothing about how things worked around here. He’d simply have to make something up to tell Bernie. Like, maybe… Svetlana was killed in an accident. End of story.

This didn’t make Frankie feel any better. He felt all alone as if he were in a cold dark ocean in a small boat that was sinking—sinking fast and he didn’t even have a life preserver.

Shit! And his bottle was almost empty. He’d get more. And besides, he needed some fresh air. Then, as if the gods looked down for a good laugh, he said out loud, “I’ll be back in a jiffy.”

* * *

There would be no jiffy.

Striding along Barona Street Frankie was still grinding his teeth. Unable to relax. Maybe if he walked faster, or if he ran, he could get rid of his mounting anxiety. It was colder now, wind blowing wet snow in his frowning face. Frankie shivered, not only because it was freezing but also because of the waves of near panic flooding his brain. What was he so afraid of? Bernie couldn’t send a goon all the way from New York, could he?

The streets had emptied, people celebrating at home or in restaurants. Frankie felt vulnerable. He didn’t even have a switch blade or his brass knuckles. Trying to get those on the plane at JFK could have been a felony charge. He had kept his nose clean these last years so he wouldn’t be on the Department of Homeland Security’s “no fly” list.

He had tried to steer his kids away from the kind of life he had led so that they wouldn’t always have to look over their shoulder to see if someone was about to take them down.

These last years Frankie had tried to tap dance around those “heavy” jobs. He had taken this job with Bernie thinking there’d be nothing to it. A trip with all expenses paid just to follow a dame around. What could be dangerous about that?

Ever since his wife had died of breast cancer, Frankie had lost all drive for adventure. There was nobody at home to bring “the goods” back to. The kids were grown. Had their own jobs but were not married yet. No grandkids.

Now here Frankie was on the dark streets of Riga. There was nothing flashy about him. Nothing to attract a mugger. Still, he didn’t want to stop even to light a cigarette. He’d quickly pick up a bottle of booze and head back to the hotel. Booze was everywhere in this town. There had to be a store coming up soon.

From the corner of his eye Frankie noticed a car pull up. He started to walk even faster. Until he froze. He heard a gruff voice just behind him. “You Frankie Caputo?”

Frankie supposed that the terrified sound deep in his throat was a yes.

The next second an arm gripped his shoulder. God! There were two of them!

“We’re going for a ride. Ever been to Jurmala?”

The guttural sound coming from Frankie’s mouth could have meant anything.



Chapter 20

Praise Jesus! Finally a day to get away from the smorgasbord of fear, suspicion and escalating rounds of payback which have been plaguing Vika’s first days in Riga.

The eighteenth of November dawned cool and overcast. Irena would have loved this bleak enchanting day. Vika smiled thinking about how her mother relished this gloomy barren month—her sweet November. It must be some melancholic remembrance of love lost and regained, some secrets her mother kept from her but had hinted at. Vika herself loved the heat of July. Not in New York but in the Hamptons where Bernie owned a small villa and where people in his line of work gathered to enjoy summer.

Right from early morning Vika could tell this would be a day she’d always remember. Tiny flakes of snow sparkled in the wind as Latvia’s flags fluttered throughout the city. There was a palpable air of excitement and celebration. Vika heart soared knowing she would be a part of it.

Eggy had called her the night before and offered to accompany her to the ceremonial events which were held every year to mark Latvia’s independence. Vika’s only regret had been that she hadn’t brought sensible clothes. Usually her overseas trips didn’t last long—merely a day or two to accomplish her mission and look around a bit. Now the thought of leaving Latvia in a few days shocked her. Of course not! How could she leave? How could she go back? Then the appalling reality— her mother alone in New York with Bernie sniffing around—stopped her in her tracks. Fear certainly wasn’t about to leave her alone. Still, she was determined, if just for a few hours, to focus on this special day.

Eggy offered his arm and Vika felt honored, humbled and confused all at the same time. This was clearly a gesture of protection and companionship. She was not used to friendly gestures.  Bernie had just wanted to parade her around his rich old work buddies. To make them jealous.

As if drawn there by some enchantment, throngs of people streamed towards the Freedom Monument. Vika’s heart was tight with emotion. This was no rowdy July fourth parade with painted faces and boorish behavior. This was solemn and heartfelt.

Time seemed to stop as she stood there, doing nothing but looking.  Eggy pointed upwards to the monument of Mother Latvia holding aloft her three stars

“Shots were fired. There’s a hole in her shoulder as a reminder,” Eggy explained. “We had to fight for our country and for our freedom.”

Vika made no reply but her eyes glistened with tears. She thought about her grandmother, Anna, and fragments of remembered conversations jostled for her attention.

Then, when the national anthem was played, she could no longer hold back the tears. Memories took hold. Her grandfather sent to Siberia by the communists for putting flowers at the foot of the monument. Her grandmother once taking her to a Latvian expat church service commemorating this day. A long forgotten past, buried for so long, now claimed her.

Eggy lightly put his arm around her shoulders. He tried for levity while handing Vika a clean handkerchief.

“We could have attended a special service in the Dome Cathedral but you would have had to get up early. Impossible, right?”

“I could really do with a nice warm drink right about now,” Vika said, her voice tremulous as she wiped her eyes and returned the handkerchief. She liked Eggy but gone was the spellbinding effect he had had on her earlier.

“I know just the place. Ladies really like it. My friend, Gunita, is a regular.”

“Your friend Gunita…” Vika trailed off with a sly smile.

“No no. Just a good friend. I spent a whole year at the Art Academy and I still have friends from those long past days. Perhaps you’d like to meet them some day.”

“Some day? Don’t I wish,” Vika replied with a sigh, suddenly thinking of her mother and trying not to think of her husband.

Mingling with the flow of pedestrians, they strode along Barona Street all the way to Lacplesa Street and arrived at Osiris. Vika on Eggy’s arm. She was finally starting to feel comfortable with this style. She saw women arm in arm. Men too. This was Europe. This was how things were done in polite society.

“This place used to be so popular with foreigners. Now it’s not as interesting—as many things have become less interesting,” Eggy said with uncharacteristic nostalgia.

Today the place was packed. It was really small and nondescript but Vika could sense a certain artistic vibe. The crowd was lively, everyone celebrating. And everyone polite. They were able to squeeze themselves into two remaining seats, sharing a table for four.

Eggy ordered coffee and Balzams. “No need for food, we’re all invited to Simone’s for a dinner party.”

Vika smiled happily. “How nice!”

“Simone would have liked to be here with us but she’s been up all night helping Aunt Velga with preparations. And Arsy will be there as well. Svetlana is recovering. So, it’ll be quite a party.”

Vika was glad she wouldn’t be alone. She really needed to be with local people right now and the thought of spending the evening back at the hotel had appalled her.

“Should I bring something? Maybe—”

Momentarily distracted, Vika stared. One of the patrons they shared the table with looked strangely familiar.

She leaned towards him. “Excuse me, but haven’t we met somewhere?”

Dark eyes in a swarthy face stared back. Blank. Expressionless.

Vika persisted. “Yes. Now I remember. On the plane. You warned me not to wear my diamonds.”

A shrug and a non comprende is all she received as the man threw some coins on the table and left in a hurry.










Chapter 19

It’s autumn in New York that brings the promise of new love…

Irena never got tired of listening to Frank Sinatra sing “Autumn in New York.”

Autumn in New York is often mingled with pain…dreamers with empty hands…

One of Irena’s favourite fall traditions was to lose herself in the  velvety sensuous voice of Frank Sinatra. The song was so evocative of the nostalgia she herself felt at this time of year. … dreamers with empty hands. Not always had her hands been empty. She smiled, so grateful for her treasure trove of happy memories.

Although the blaze of fall foliage no longer crowned the trees of Central Park and it was getting cold, Irena had always enjoyed November. Strange, since almost all of her acquaintances suffered from one form or another of seasonal affective disorder. Not Irena. She found the crisp weather invigorating. She went on long walks all across Manhattan to enjoy every moment of her sweet November.

Just like her daughter Vika, Irena had two watches—one set at New York time; one set for Riga. She waited and waited for Vika to call her. She had texted several times but there had been no response. Not even Frank Sinatra could mitigate the sense of unease she now felt. She couldn’t stop worrying about the overheard conversation Bernie had with a Juris. Who was this Juris? And why was Bernie so enraged finding her at the door to his study?

The bring of her cell pulled her out of her thoughts. Hoping it would be Vika, she snatched it and answered.

“Mamma, I’m OK. I’m fine,” Vika started. But Irena immediately knew that was not true. A mother knows.

“Vika! Tell me what’s going on.”

“Nothing to worry about, mamma. Just please…one thing…if Bernie asks you about me, just tell him you’ve had no news.”

Irena gasped. “So, you are in trouble, aren’t you?”

“Well, it’s a bit complicated right now. I just want to enjoy Riga without Bernie bothering me. You know what I mean. I just need a holiday from him.”

Irena made a guttural noise in her throats. She often did when Bernie’s name was mentioned. They both needed a holiday from Bernie but this was not about to happen.

“Listen, Vika. I texted you what I had overheard. Bernie talking to some Juris. The name Svetlana was mentioned. What does all that mean?”

“Yes. I certainly noted that,” Vika replied hesitantly. She didn’t know what it meant but she had been worried sick. And had stopped communicating with Bernie.

There was a brief silence before Vika continued. “I’m very concerned about you, mamma. I wish you were here in Riga with me. Is there any chance—”

Vika heard a gasp from Irena. “Wait. There’s someone at the door.”

Don’t answer the door!” Vika all but screamed.

Irena didn’t hesitate. She immediately deleted Vika’s calls, set the phone to mute and placed it on her side table. She knew it was Bernie and she’d have  to let him in. It was his condo.

The minute Irena cracked open the door Bernie barged right in, nearly shoving his mother-in-law aside. Irena had been through a great deal in her life. She knew how to hide fear. Before facing him, she forced herself to breathe normally and plastered on a phony smile of welcome.

Bernie’s face was pinched with barely contained rage. “Hey! What’s going on here? My wife won’t answer my calls.”

Irena flapped her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Oh you know Vika. She gets so carried away. She must be excited to be on her own and she—”

Bernie cut her off. “Where is she?”

Irena feigned surprise. “In Riga of course. You yourself kindly invited me to join Vika but she’d have none of it. Never liked her old mother trailing after her. She’s a free spirit.”

“Yeah sure. Free spirit with my money. How far would she go without me? Tell me that!”

Irena stared at Bernie’s red face. He looked dangerous, almost out of control. She knew she had to act quickly to appease him however she could.

“Don’t worry Bernie, she’s always put you first. You know that, don’t you? Now, can I get you a drink? I was just about to make myself a very dry martini.”

Bernie’s eyes roamed the room. Lit up when he spotted the phone.  “Turn it on!” he barked. “I want to look at your calls.”

Irena’s relief was almost palpable. Thank God she had deleted Vika’s calls. And, since there hasn’t been much activity, she hoped her bases had been covered.

Bernie snatched the phone, went through it. Everything seemed legit. But still he wasn’t satisfied.

“I’m taking it for now.”

Irena’s mind raced. She couldn’t let that happen. “Oh Bernie, no! I’m an old lady. I must have emergency access to the outside world.”

Bernie glared at her but relented.

“If Vika calls you, tell her to call me immediately.”

“Absolutely, Bernie. Absolutely. And if she calls you, please let me know.”

Irena was almost dizzy with relief. “Now, the drink?”

Bernie frowned. “Forget it.”

With that he turned and left. He was royally pissed off. Walking to his car he kept muttering under his breath, What good are these dames anyway? Got to get rid of them. Irena was too expensive and completely useless. Vika needed to be replaced by a younger fresher mule. And this Frankie Caputo? Unusable.

It was time to take matters into his own hands. He felt sure that Irena was hiding something from him. The deal with Juris wasn’t going through. What happened to Svetlana? And to Vika?

He needed to reach the guy who had put him in touch with Juris—Jurmala Juris, as they called him, or simply JJ.

What a bummer! He’d have to go down to Brighton Beach—the headquarters of Russian Mafia in the USA. He had never had anything to do with that bunch before. Oh well, there was always a first time for everything.







Chapter 18

At first Simone couldn’t believe her ears. Who? Who’s calling? Who? Simone kept repeating the words, wondering if the call was even for her. She didn’t have a cell and shared the house phone with her aunt Velga.

A minute later, her face broke out in a delighted smile. Yes, it was Arsy! It was really him! She managed to keep her voice from shaking even though the rest of her was all aflutter. She just knew her trip to the beauty salon had paid off.

Yes, of course he could come over. And Vika too? Why Vika? But never mind. She couldn’t waste time thinking about that. She had only a few minutes to tidy up a bit, make herself presentable, hide away aunt Velga. They each had their own bedroom and Aunt Velga’s had a TV. She would often be relegated to some show while Simone helped a client with English translating.

* * *

Simone threw the door wide open.

It was Arsy. Just standing there.

When she could finally speak, Simone spoke her first words. “Come in. Come in,” she simpered. Her face was a rosy blush, an embarrassed mixture of disbelief and delight.

“Would you like some coffee?”

Arsy shook his head. “No. I just need to talk to you. Please listen.”

Simone’s shoulders slumped in disappointment. Why the hurry? Was he here to borrow money? She disliked the thought but there it was. Still, tilting her head slightly she adjusted her face. Forced it to have an   understanding expression.

“I…that is, we… need your help,” Arsy stuttered. He was very fidgety. Shuffling his feet nervously, he pulled out his crumpled empty cigarette pack, crumpled it some more.

“Help? What help?” Simone gave her head a sharp little shake. She was becoming  flustered. This wasn’t just a social call. What in the world could he want?

“We left you after lunch at Sam’s. Remember?”

Simone’s face hardened. Yes, she certainly remembered. She and Eggy were left with the bill and Misha was still waiting for payment.

Nervously clicking his Zippo lighter, Arsy continued.

“We found Svetlana. She’s injured and… she’s afraid.”

Simone’s eyes narrowed. “She’s in the hospital, right?”

Arsy just stared at her. His mouth opened and closed. Opened and closed.

Simone almost shouted, “Where is she?”

Arsy found his voice, finally. “Outside. In a cab. Please help us.”

Simone swiveled her head. She heard the sound of a door opening. Her aunt had come into the living room.

Aunt Velga glared at the two of them and asked angrily, “Why are you speaking Russian in my house?”

For a fraction of a moment both Simone and Arsy looked completely lost. Frozen in time. As if they didn’t know where they were or what was going on.

Arsy was the first to snap out of it. “Sorry ….” He went on in Latvian, apologizing as best he could. Vika would kill him if he didn’t settle this quickly. He turned on Velga his finest most boyish and most appealing look. “We need your help. Please help our injured friend.”

Velga stared at nothing for a long moment. This segued perfectly with  the TV melodrama she had just been watching. Cinema verité, indeed.

She loved her fantasyland. Clasping her hands together, she replied, “Yes, yes, right away, right away,” hiding her excitement behind a worried frown. She always craved distraction. Her life could be so boring.

Simone clapped a hand over her mouth to hide her shock. “But, dear auntie, how can we…”

* * *

Adrenaline shot through Arsy like a bolt of lightning.

“Nu, davai! Let’s go!”

Luckily Simone’s apartment was on the first floor—ordinarily not a desirable location but this time it was perfect.

Hauling themselves out of the taxi, the mules herded themselves into the small apartment. Velga ran towards Svetlana who was barely able to stand.

“Nu, nu, nu,” Velga crooned as she directed Svetlana towards her room. “You need to rest. You need to rest.” The repetition of words was comforting and, for the first time in a long time, Svetlana smiled.

Vika collapsed on the couch. “Simone, I’m so very sorry. You don’t deserve to be involved in all this but there was no other way. Svetlana was in danger at the hospital. We needed a safe place. I couldn’t take her to my hotel. Questions would have been asked.”

Arsy was standing first on one foot then on the other. “Doesn’t anyone in this house have a cigarette?”

Vika jumped up from the couch. “I’ll get a cig from the cabdriver. In fact I’ll get his whole goddamned pack. Then I’ll send him on his way. I’ve had enough of his grumbling.”

Now it was Arsy’s turn to make amends with Simone. “Don’t worry. It will all work out. It looks like Mrs Zito isn’t that interested in being a tourist but she’ll certainly pay well for the trouble we’ve put you to.”

Velga bustled back into the living room, providing her version of a happy ending to this endless day. “I’ve managed to settle down Svetlana quite nicely. She doesn’t want to eat but she’s asking for cigarettes.”

Arsy laughed. He lit up his fag, blew a stream of smoke into the air and visibly relaxed. Vika had raided her minibar stash and returned to the couch.

She always wore two watches. One set for Latvian time, one for New York.

She said to no one in particular, “I must call my mother. She must be worrying.”

And not only her mother would be worrying. Vika gave a slight shudder thinking about Bernie’s rage just about now. She’d make sure that Irena didn’t breathe a word to Bernie about where she was and what was going on.


Chapter 17

A gangster from New York working with a gangster from Jurmala? And why not, for God’s sake? When it came to organized crime, here was film-noir stuff at its best, meticulously organized and with far-reaching connections. At times different factions of the organization were rivals, at times they worked  together. And they had their mules.

And the mules were now in a pickle—Svetlana hysterically gripping Vika’s arm, begging for help. Vika frozen, lost for words. Arsy pulling out his crumpled pack of cigarettes and his Zippo. Damn! The pack was empty.

It was no lucid dream; it was nightmarishly real. Vika was in real pain from  the vice-like grip and Svetlana’s long red talons digging into her flesh.

“Help me,” Svetlana gasped. Vika flinched as Svetlana shot her a pleading look straight through the heart.

Coughs and moans from other patients only added to the desperate atmosphere in the hospital room. This was no Lourdes. There would be no miracles.

“Please, let go,” Vika begged. It was actually the pain that had finally roused her out of her trance.

Svetlana’s terrified eyes communicated so much. She was helpless, fighting for her life. Truly a moment ordained by the gods. Vika held her gaze. How could she walk away from this? Go back to her nice hotel? She who had lived largely for herself. How could she? She couldn’t.

Svetlana had let go of Vika’s arm. She rubbed at it, inwardly shaking like a leaf. She was more scared than she had ever been in her life. But she couldn’t show it. She had to take action.

“Can you walk?”

“I try.”

Holding on to Vika, Svetlana slowly lifted herself to a standing position. Carefully took a step.  Arsy moved to her side and she took a few more.

Vika made her decision. “Let’s go!”

* * *

There was no one in the hallway when two people in blue lab coats ushered a patient from the ward to an exit door. Vera had mysteriously vanished. Either her shift was over or she was in hiding. They were on their own.

Once in the stairwell it took both Vika and Arsy to maneuver Svetlana down the three flights. They made their way slowly and painfully. Svetlana groaned and let out deep sighs of exhaustion but she was determined to make it out of the hospital.

At the exit, Vika grabbed their outerwear which they had discarded and left in a corner. Arsy ran ahead and flagged down one of the cabs parked at the hospital’s main entrance.

Thank God I’m rich, Vika breathed to herself. I can take care of this. At least for now.

The cab had pulled up close to the exit. No questions would be asked. A good payment would be expected. Carefully Svetlana was helped into the back seat. Vika, sitting beside her, made a shush sign with a finger on her lips. Svetlana nodded. She understood.

Meanwhile in the passenger seat Arsy was speaking to the driver in Russian. Vika hoped he was telling him something reassuring. This was not a kidnapping—at least not as far as the mules were concerned.

“Arsy, I can’t get Svetlana into the hotel in the condition she’s in. She needs time to recover a bit. Clean herself up. You know…”

It seemed that Arsy hadn’t been smoothing anything out but simply bumming a cigarette. His cheeks had turned cadaverous sucking in the nicotine. “Okay. Okay. Whatever…”

Vika’s voice was steely. “Give the driver your address.”

“No,” Arsy almost shouted. “That’s no good. Juris knows where I live.”

Bummer! What a snag! A knot took hold in Vika’s stomach. What am I to do? Not knowing what directions to give to the cab driver, Vika had to think quickly. I just need more time. Maybe…

She was in a strange country, not speaking the language, relying on people she didn’t know, getting even deeper into a situation she couldn’t control. She made her decision. She leaned towards the driver and told him in a firm voice, “Hotel de Rome.”

But no one got out of the cab as it pulled up in front of the hotel. Svetlana had slumped down in her corner of the back seat. Vika worried that she could be cold.

“Tell the driver to wait,” Vika instructed Arsy in a no-nonsense voice. “And give me your jacket.”

Covering Svetlana with the jacket, Vika racked her brain. Her old friends, (her tour guides, that is) were probably still miffed at her for the lunch at Sam’s. Sam’s! My God! Was that only a few hours ago? A lifetime had gone by. How can so much living be crammed into just a few hours? Vika flashed back to dozing on her daybed for hours on end, day after day, time stretching long and empty ahead of her. And here she was racing through time, defying it. She felt more alive than ever.

But she needed help. Who could she call on? As if an answer to a prayer Simone’s earnest round face appeared before her. Vika pulled out her phone. Eggy must have her number, she said to herself as she typed in his number.

Shit! He didn’t pick up. No answering machine. She’d have to wait and call back. There was nothing else to do.

She tried to relax but the harsh voice of the cab driver assaulted her ears. “You pay now!”

Vika rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, hold your horses.”

Dipping into her handbag, she went for the inner zippered compartment, found her cache, pulled out a fifty  and handed it to Arsy.

“Tell the driver there’s more where that came from. But he’s got to chill.”