Ilze Berzins


If you want to hide a diamond put it in a tiara.

Eggy headed for the tiara. He dropped his crew off at Spice shopping centre and made a smooth-as-silk move right into the gorgeously decadent luxury car dealership off Lielirbes Street. He left the key in the ignition. Wouldn’t that be someone’s lucky day? A black Mercedes with tinted windows! More luxurious than even the president of Latvia could ever dream of.

Having dumped the Merc, Eggy headed back to his crew. A cab had just dropped someone off at Spice and the four of them descended on it like a murder of crows on fresh road kill. Vika, Svetlana, Simone and Eggy piled in. They had been getting increasingly more nervous, even scared. What would they find once they arrived back at Simone’s?

A turning point had been reached. This was no longer an exciting adventure but a life and death situation where one or all of them could fall victim to a gang land killing. The medical diagnosis would be that they were all in shock.

Simone rummaged in her purse for her flask, found it (luckily it was full) and passed it around to the women in the back seat. Eggy, in the front passenger seat, was about to light a cigarette when the driver sharply reprimanded him not to stink up the cab. Other than that it was dead silence. Outside the streets glittered, carpeted in snow which shone incandescent in the lamplights.

As they drove over the Vanšu Bridge the panorama of the old city stretched before them, the reflected light dancing on the river Daugava—a magnificent sight often depicted on post cards. Vika had shut down her mind and stared at the passing scenes as if she were watching a travelogue.

Out of an abundance of caution, they asked to be let out a couple of  blocks from Simone’s place. From there Simone called Aunt Velga. “Oh yes, an ambulance came and took away a man who was lying on the pavement.” That’s all Velga had seen. She had been busy in the kitchen when the incident had occurred. Simone was glad of that.

Eggy, free to light up again, took full advantage and inhaled smoke as if his life depended on it. He was worried sick. Had a neighbor seen what had happened? Seen him shove a man to the pavement, possibly killing him? Yet he consoled himself with the fact that he had probably saved Svetlana’s life.

The four of them seemed to be members of the less-said-the-better club. Here they were, standing on a street corner, uncertain about what to do next.

Eggy smiled a chilly smile. It was a cover for anxiety, or even panic.

“If the police question any of us, it was self-defense.”

Three pairs of wide eyes fixed on him. Heads nodded.

The snow kept falling and it was getting cold. Vika didn’t have the right shoes for this weather even though she still had on a man’s heavy jacket which she had used as a disguise.

Once they got out of the warm cab it didn’t take long for the cold to penetrate. They shivered, stomped their feet, blew into their hands. At the same time they were reluctant to move away from each other, needing comfort and support from the group.

Vika took the lead. “I think Simone and Svetlana should go home. It’s not a long walk from here. I know Eggy has a home.” Then she shook her head and gave a sad little smile, “But I’m not sure about mine.”

Eggy frowned. “You have to be careful, Vika. I hope the driver of the Merc didn’t get on the phone to one of his buddies and tell them about your apartment.”

Vika gave a short bark of laughter. “Ha! Remember, I’ve got the gun! And Bernie taught me how to shoot, how to defend myself. In his line of business, it was always best to be prepared.”

Eggy’s frown deepened. “ A gun. Yes, you picked it up. I’m no expert on guns. They’re not so easy to get. Not like in USA.”

“Really!” Now Vika’s laugh was genuine. “It was easy for me to get one right here in Riga. Besides, how do people protect themselves?”

“Pepper spray, usually.”

Eggy shrugged. He was freezing and losing patience. “Anyway, let’s go. We’ll take public transport. You’ll get to experience what a lot of tourists don’t. I’ll get you back to your apartment and from there I can easily walk home. My father will be waiting for me.”

Vika sighed. “Yes, your father…” she murmured.

Two gents, (one tall, one short) hopped on the trolleybus and headed for central Riga. No one bothered to glance at them. Everyone was lost in their own thoughts. They spoke little during the ride, other than agreeing to meet again the next day.

* * *

At the front door of her apartment house on Valdemara street Vika pulled a wad of euros from her purse. “Give this to your buddy. Of course if he wants his clothes back that’s okay  too.”

Eggy made a snuffling noise, his version of a laugh. “I wish mine would fit you.”

Unbidden, a thought flew into Vika’s mind. She was no longer just a tourist. She had friends. She smiled. Then she stood on tiptoes and gave Eggy a heartfelt kiss.

* * *

Vika was back on track. Her mother. Bernie. But before she made a move to contact them she toured her small apartment. Nothing seemed disturbed. Still, she made sure the curtains were closed and the door had been double locked before she inspected her hiding place. Svetlana’s package was safe and sound.

When was the last time she had eaten? She couldn’t even remember. Of course there was no food in the house. The fridge was empty as were the kitchen cupboards. In New York she’d simply pick up the phone and order: Chinese, Indian, Italian. Could she wait till the next morning? Bending over to remove her shoes she noticed how easy it was. She had lost weight. Fasting was a great idea.

As she got ready for bed (thank God there was hot water) Vika worried.  She didn’t trust this seemingly peaceful interlude. Was this the calm before the storm? Or were they in the eye of the storm, waiting for the other wall of the eye?

She picked up her phone to call her mother but realized it would be late at night in New York. She texted, giving instructions. She needed her mother out of the grips of Bernie. Next she sent a loving text to her husband. Kill him with kindness was her modus operandi.

Chapter 29

Aina smiled at him. Her face was almost translucent. Nothing was hidden. Everything was in it. Her honest gaze made Arsy blush. How in the world could he go through with the sham Mademoiselle story?

“I’d be pleased to do the interview,” Aina said politely.

Arsy hesitated. Aina was different from any other girl he’d ever met. She had natural beauty. Yet she also had a a sense of style with her red boots and simple black dress and glorious reddish blond hair. Her eyes sparkled and there was humor in them.

Aina looked into Arsy’s handsome face—oh that smile!  The idea of being part of Mademoiselle intrigued her but getting to know this gent intrigued her even more.

The next moment, the very air they breathed became thick with romance. Arsy forgot all about Ivo who had peered out of the kitchen to watch the encounter.

“Would you have a bit of time? Say twenty minutes or so. We could go to the place across the street. It would be more private and we wouldn’t be disturbed.”

Aina replied without hesitation. “Yes. Let’s go.”

* * *

Ivo felt a chill. He shivered. Could he somehow sense the Angel of Death hovering nearby? If he did, he quickly tuned out, kicked aside his bucket and mop, and followed the two as they headed for the front door. But once outside, Ivo stopped. His face contorted. His hand clutched at his chest. The next moment, he slumped to the ground.

A sudden shaft of light, left over from summer, bathed him in gold. Seconds later, the light vanished.

Arsy half turned, noticed a man lying on the top step of the stairs. He knew instinctively that he should keep walking. Luckily Aina hadn’t noticed anything. Arsy knew that she would have been horrified.

He hurried her across Raina Boulevard to the little coffee shop on the corner. Just before taking the stairs leading down into the basement, Arsy looked over his shoulder again and noticed a woman (it could have been Liga) bending over the slumped body.

A mixture of emotions coursed through him. Shock. Relief. Sadness.

He had been out of touch with his feelings for so long. Feelings were luxuries. He had tamped them down and just got on with the business of staying alive. Now they came flooding back as he looked at this lovely girl smiling across the table from him.

“I want to tell you a story,” he said.

Aina looked at him quizzically.

“It’s not about Mademoiselle. It’s about something much more important.”

Aina leaned closer. Arsy was glad she hadn’t glanced at her watch. This was going to be a very long story.

* * *

Snow had started to fall. Bunches of big weightless flakes slowly slipped from the sky, smoothing a fresh white eiderdown over the city. The first snow of winter was always a magical surprise.

Arsy and Aina left the café and started to walk along Raina Boulevard. A hush had descended. They were alone in the world. Just the two of them.

Dream images drifted in and out of Arsy’s imagination. The two of them snug as could be before a roaring fireplace, drinking tea and sherry, with a dog at their feet. There were more fantasies: the two of them in a flowering meadow with the sun shining on Aina, bathing her in golden radiance.

Real life interrupted.

“It’s late, Arsy. My grandfather’s driver always picks me up at five o’clock. I must go back to the Academy.”

Back to the Academy! Arsy certainly didn’t want to go back there. Ivo’s buddies could be hanging around. And Ivo himself could be alive and well after a dizzy spell. If indeed it had been Ivo. Arsy started to doubt himself. He had spilled his guts to Aina. He trusted her. But there could still be danger for them both.

“Call the driver, Aina. Tell him to pick you up right here in front of the café. I think it’s better. Let’s walk back and I’ll wait with you.”

Aina agreed and, some fifteen minutes later, was chauffeured back home.

* * *

After saying goodbye to Aina (with promises to meet again) Arsy decided to stop at a grocery store on his way home to buy pastries and a bottle of wine for Madame Zenunda. He didn’t forget Minka who also deserved a treat—a can of smoked lamprey.

Then he took the bus back to Maskava’s Street and his studio. Staring out at the snow still falling over the quiet city his mind started to flow with memories from his childhood. He was indeed an orphan. All alone in the world. His mother had died when he was ten years old; he never knew his father. His maternal grandparents had brought him up. Now they were both deceased.

His fascination with art had always comforted him. In the world of art anything was possible. Each painting he saw in the art galleries of Riga pointed to another reality—a more beautiful reality—a portrait of what life should be like. And could be like. If he worked hard.

While working as a waiter and at menial jobs (mainly in renovation projects), he taught himself to draw. His sketchbook had been his constant companion and, when he had saved a bit of money, he purchased oil paint and canvas.

Arsy had met Juris Lapins at one of the Jugendstyl building sites on Elizabetes Street. Juris had walked in as if he owned the place—and he probably did. At the time, Arsy was having a short lunch break and was working on a drawing. Juris had walked up behind him silently and Arsy had not even noticed. Juris had watched for who knows how long before he startled Arsy by saying, “Not bad for someone who never went to the Arts Academy.”

That meeting had been Arsy’s entrée into the world of crime. He had refused to do anything violent. He figured that working at art forgery was still working at art so that was okay. Of course he had no idea at the time that it was Juris Lapins, in his  KGB officer days, who had sent Arsy’s father to Siberia.

Nearing his bus stop, Arsy stopped daydreaming. He was pulled out of his reverie by loud sirens. His heart stopped beating. Firefighters didn’t turn up for no good reason. Clutching his shopping bags, Arsy raced towards his house.





Chapter 28

Two nicely-dressed gents, one tall, one short, entered the Hotel de Rome and approached the bank of elevators. They attracted little attention since a large tour bus had just disgorged a mass of Asian tourists who were streaming into the hotel and heading for reception. The lobby was cheek to jowl and so was the elevator which stopped at the fourth floor where the two got off.

Then it was as if they had grown wings. In a New York minute, they were inside room 407. Then it was only a hop, skip, and jump to get into the safe, raid the mini bar, and grab up everything else. Like thieves in the night, the two retraced their steps, glad to see the commotion in the lobby as yet another tour bus had arrived. Thank God for tour buses. Even in this off season.

A gleaming black Mercedes with tinted windows idled at the entrance. Not for the first time did Vika breathe I’m so glad I’m rich. It was one of the few times in her life that she had felt almost overcome by the knowledge that she had so many possibilities. It was certainly much more fun spending money this way than getting a face lift or buying obscenely expensive shoes.

Hands slapped in high fives as the Merc ferried the two a short distance to Vika’s new digs. She took it as a sign of good omen that the sun had just peeked out and the permanent twilight of Riga’s skies was momentarily ablaze with shafts of golden light.

For both of them this adventure was so much more exciting than visiting Latvia’s predictable tourist traps. Sitting beside her, Eggy too was wreathed in smiles. He felt like a character in a spy movie. Life was certainly interesting with this rich American—although Eggy no longer thought of Vika in those terms. She was cool. A friend.  And he was glad that a buddy of his had been able to lend Vika a suitable outfit.

Vika giggled. “I don’t want to give these clothes back, Eggy. I feel so free and, more importantly—I feel so invisible.”

Eggy snorted a laugh back at her. “For a few euros your wish can come true.”


For a few sunny minutes, the friendly banter continued as both savored the success of their mission. Vika had previously consulted Air Bed and Breakfast on the Internet. She had rented a small apartment on Valdemara Street. On the third floor, which was important. Less desirable were apartments on either the first or the sixths floor. Elevators often malfunctioned and first floor was less safe. Vika had been delighted at what she considered low rent. Four hundred and fifty euros per months was a steal.

Luckily the apartment was furnished. When the limo deposited the two at the entrance Vika felt, for a brief crazy moment, that she and Eggy were moving in together. She felt light headed with fantasies and imaginings. There was everything here that she needed—except for a safe and a mini bar. Would there be room here for her mother as well?

“I’ve rented the Merc for the day. Anywhere special you’d like to be chauffeured to?” Riga was her oyster. She didn’t want to devour it on her own.

“Let me think,” Eggy replied, with a laugh as he rocked his hands in a comme ci, comme ça gesture.

“Take all the time you need. First, I have to go see Svetlana. I have some of her stuff and her briefcase. So, let’s go to Simone’s. Maybe she’ll enjoy a chauffeured tour of Riga as well.”

But before any of that, she’d have to find a safe place for the small package which Svetlana had been ordered to give her on behalf of Juris Lapins. And which she herself was meant to carry on to Bernie in New York.

The thought that the driver of the Merc could in any way be affiliated with organized crime didn’t occur to either of them. Their mission-accomplished moment was so intoxicating that they had thrown caution to the wind.

* * *

It was a fine late November day. Simone decided that Svetlana should start exercising outdoors. She had recovered well and longed to be out and about again. By four o’clock it would be dark and both women wanted to catch whatever precious bit of sunlight they could.

As they exited the house they were surprised to see a black Merc with tinted windows pull up in front of the house. Wide-eyed they stood on the spot and watched as the driver got out and went around the car, ready to open the passenger door. Who were these people? What was happening?

The next instant Svetlana let out a scream. She pointed at the driver.

“That’s him! He’s the one that tried to kill me!”

The driver wheeled around to see who had just screamed. He recognized who it was. Slowly he reached under his jacket and pulled out a gun. He raised it. But hadn’t noticed that Eggy had gotten out of the car and was behind him. Eggy lunged. The gun discharged into the air and simultaneously the shooter did a face plant on the pavement.

No one moved. This moment was their existential turning point. Nothing would ever be the same again for any of them. Absolutely nothing.

There were gasps of horror and Svetlana slumped to the ground. The driver lay motionless. Was he dead?

Vika was the first to react. Adrenaline fueled her. She grabbed the gun from the sidewalk and shouted.

“The key’s still in the ignition. We’ve got to get the car out of here. And now. Before police arrive.”

It was amazing good luck that the street was still empty. There was no foot traffic and the few cars which had passed by hadn’t bothered to stop.

They all knew that any minute now a crowd would be gathering.

“Get in the car right now! I’m driving!”

Vika was already behind the wheel and revving the motor as   Eggy and Simone lifted Svetlana into the back seat.

“We’re ditching this baby in some dark neighborhood. Any ideas, Eggy?”

“Just keep driving straight ahead and get out of this neighborhood. Then just pull over and I’ll take the wheel. We’ll be heading for Pardaugava.”

Chapter 27

Arsy smiled his signature lady-killer smile at pretty much every female he ran into at Riga’s famed Arts Academy. He wasn’t looking for love—at least not now and not here. Some goon had threatened to burn his place down if he wouldn’t agree to romance an art student named Aina Lapina. He had been told that Aina was the beloved granddaughter of mafia kingpin, Juris Lapins.  Juris had been Arsy’s boss. Until he wasn’t. Now Arsy had a new boss. A rival Mafioso fighting for Juris’ turf.

How he wished he had never become involved in this criminal world. He had been sucked in with the promise of art commissions and riches. He needed money. How else could he keep his art alive? It’s what he lived for, worked for. Now it was too late to simply walk away from the gangsters. He had become much too involved. So, here he was on this sunny fall day, scouring the halls of Latvia’s best art college, looking for a girl he had been ordered to seduce.

Swilling his beer in the café of the academy, Arsy had the insane notion that his girl would just appear. His readings with Madam Zenunda had reinforced his belief in magic. Somehow the one he was seeking would be drawn to him while he sat there, dejected and hopeless—and soon drunk. He wondered if he were to just give up and place his head on one of those café tables. Would someone come and give him a helping hand?

Someone did. But it wasn’t his girl. Liga was in charge of the café. She was also the wife of the vice-director of the Academy of Arts—having beaten off several ladies vying for that position. Even though she was well on the wrong side of forty, Liga’s vibe was still youngish. She was very talkative (actually a wellspring of gossip) and very ambitious. She wanted more out of life (deserved more out of life) than to cater to these spoiled kids who thought they were better than anyone else. But, for the moment, she had to stay put.

The rush at the café was over. Liga had wiped down the small bistro tables and emptied out overflowing ashtrays. Now it was time to relax.   She reached into her pocket for her cigarettes, fingered one out. And  was surprised when the handsome young man who was still drinking his beer leapt to his feet, pulled out his lighter and approached to light her cigarette. She smiled at him and inhaled the smoke as if it were heavenly ambrosia.

Her smile was not coy or coquettish but still laden with sensuality and promise. She was certainly not a student (there wasn’t an adult education program at the academy) but certainly had been demoted as spouse of one of the big shots at the academy. Why was she doing this menial job while her husband had such a good position? Clearly her husband wasn’t satisfactory—financially, for starters.

The sultry voice was both maternal and seductive.

“I haven’t seen you here before? Are you a student?”

Arsy felt like taking a brave risk. Telling her everything. And getting her help in locating the Mafioso princess. Still, something in Liga’s demeanor told him she couldn’t be trusted. And how did Ivo get a job here anyway? Arsy still heard him clattering pots and pans in the back kitchen. How did he get placed here? To spy on Arsy?

“No, I’m a journalist,” Arsy lied.

Exhaling a billow of smoke, Liga smiled indulgently (as if she didn’t believe him) and asked,  “Who do you write for?”

“I’m free-lance.”

She gave him a quizzical look.

Arsy had to think fast. He had to invent a story. He looked around the room as if for someone to come help him. Madame Zenunda?

“An American magazine has given me an assignment.” That was pretty noncommittal. Pretty general. He hoped she would back off.

“Which one?”

Arsy frowned. What the hell was her problem?  What does she want from me?

“At the moment my assignment is confidential.”

“What are you writing about? Is that confidential too?”

She was playing with him. “Yes, it is,” Arsy said firmly. He had to take charge of this conversation. “And who’s that fellow banging around in the kitchen? He looks out of place here.” A Mafiosi goon parading as a school janitor. That was a new one for Arsy.

“No, no he does a good job. By the way,” Liga said with a conspiratorial grin, “there’s still fresh coffee. With a shot of brandy? Are you interested?”

Arsy breathed a sigh of relief. “You read my mind but hold the coffee.”

As Liga got up for the coffee Arsy noticed her shapely body, encased in a tight black sweater and brown slacks. She was stacked—to use a colloquialism. But not his type. He thought fondly of Mrs Zito. She was no spring chicken either but was still warm and alluring.

Arsy was pleased Liga had decided to lay off—at least for the moment. He noticed that Liga had stubbed out her cigarette. Ever the gentleman, he rummaged in his pockets intending to offer her one of his. Damn! The crumpled pack was empty again.

Time for his lady-killer smile. Liga smiled back and reached into her purse. So few people these days enjoyed smoking. So many had quit. But these two hadn’t. They both fired up, blew streams of smoke at each other. Liga enjoyed her spiked coffee, Arsy savored the generous dose of brandy. They lifted their drinks, toasting someone or something. The mood had become quite companionable in this cozy, dark, little café.

But Arsy hadn’t eaten anything that day and the alcohol made him slightly dizzy. It was time to cut to the chase.

“Listen. Do you know the students here? It’s a woman’s magazine I’m working for and I’m supposed to interview several girls about lifestyles —how they feel about a career in art, about marriage.” Arsy couldn’t believe his own spiel, making up bullshit as he went along. At least he was able to think on his feet. No one had ever accused him of being the dullest tool in the shed.

Despite Arsy’s brilliant account, Liga had turned away from him. She got up from her chair to greet a trio of lovely young things who had just sauntered into the café.

“Ciao ladies! Just in time to meet an international journalist.” Her smile was ironic. With a knowing look, she turned back to Arsy.

“What did you say your name was?”

Unfazed, Arsy replied, “I didn’t.”

The brandy had made Arsy surly and sure of himself. He almost shouted BINGO when he heard one of the girls calling the other girl Aina.

And, just like that, Arsy came out of his daze. He used his killer smile one more time. And his most persuasive voice,

“Aina, Aina! What a pretty name. I have a sister called Aina. She’s very pretty and intelligent. Tell me, Aina, would you like to be interviewed? It’s for a magazine called Mademoiselle. You may have heard of it. It’s American but with a French name. It’s a very sophisticated magazine.”

Arsy savored the fortunate stroke of serendipity which had led him to Aina. He would waste no time. He’d tell her what the goon was after. He’d warn this pretty girl. Who then would warn her grandfather. And God only knew what would happen then. But before that, he had to make sure he had the right Aina.

The pretty young woman blushed. Arsy was pleased he had pulled that out of his hat. Mademoiselle? How the hell had he come up with that? But no matter. It worked. He hoped Ivo had been watching from somewhere in the back kitchen where he was still banging around, washing dishes or sorting garbage.