Ilze Berzins

Chapter 35

Christmas could be hell on wheels for those living alone—especially in the dark cold of a Riga winter. Vika shivered. Maybe she’d go to Italy for Christmas. Hang out with little no-Rolex Frankie. She laughed out loud at the thought, but it was a laugh without any merriment. When was it that she had admired his thick black hair and nice profile? It felt like a lifetime ago. Maybe it was.

If she were religious she’d pray for a Christmas miracle. As it was, she fervently hoped that Frankie would soon bring her good news of her mother.

In the meantime life had to go on. Chores had to be done. Garbage needed to be taken out. The freezing cold courtyard of her apartment building was deserted. It was the darkest dark Vika had ever experienced. And it was deadly quiet. Scary. She did have a gun, but it was hidden away. Maybe she should have it on her.

Tentatively she felt her way forward, hardly making out the rubbish barrels. Was there something behind them? Someone? Vika caught her breath.

Out of the black dawn, appeared a tiny skeleton. A shadow, really. Huge glowing yellow eyes. Enormous white whiskers dwarfing a little black face.

Dropping the garbage bags destined for the barrels, Vika snatched up the tiny bundle of bones and rushed back inside. Food! What food did she have for a starving kitten?

She had nothing. But she did have neighbors. Holding the kitten tight, Vika knocked on the nearest door.  She did know some Latvian. Well, at least one word. One important word.

“Lūdzu…” She held up the kitten then pointed to her mouth, smacking her lips, miming eating sounds. “Lūdzu! Ludzu, some milk,” she tried again. The word spun dizzily in her mind. Her only word. Would it work?

From the little roly-poly woman who answered the door came a  blur of words Vika couldn’t understand. Vika stood still, put on a pleading almost-smile and tried her best lūdzu one more time.

The plump little woman turned away and bellowed, “Katia!”

A skinny young woman came running to the door. She smiled. “English. I speak English!”

Vika expelled the breath she’d been holding. Not knowing a word of Russian, Vika gushed in English “Oh Thank you. Thank you. You have food for the kitten?”

As she looked past the two women she saw what might have been a half dozen or more cats all eating from one dish or another.

“My grandmother says she already has too many cats and she can’t take another one. The animal shelter also says they have too many. We can’t afford to take care of so many. My grandmother doesn’t make much money taking care of this building and courtyard.”

Vika rallied. “No, no. I just need some milk. I’m keeping the cat.”

Katia’s face glowed. “Oh good! You’re English. Where do you live? I have so much homework. Even at Christmas. You help me and we’ll give you milk.”

Vika shot her a sharp look. “You give me the milk right now, miss!”

Vika was not used to this kind of bargaining. She drew herself up to her full height, presenting the brand of queenliness which had always got her what she wanted. Her stance had Katia hightailing it to the fridge and running back with a small carton.

“Yes, yes, lady.”

“Thank you. Paldies. And whatever it is that you say in Russian.”

Katia’s face brightened. “I can teach you Russian,” she said hopefully.

“No, thanks,” Vika called over her shoulder as she started to climb the stairs to her own apartment. She was not a person who believed in compromise.

* * *

The day seemed less cold, less lonely. Vika enjoyed the sight of her tiny kitten lapping at the milk for all it was worth. She had to name it. Was it a boy or a girl? Vika had never had a pet before. Irena didn’t like animals indoors. She might have tolerated a cat but never a dog. Bernie had no use for animals so this was a brand new experience.

The thought crossed her mind to bring it to Svetlana who probably knew all about cats. Vika quickly banished that thought but had another idea. She’d host a Christmas Eve luncheon at Sam’s. She knew it was last-minute and that everyone was probably busy but she’d try.

It turned out to be her lucky day. All her guest had accepted the invitation and she was able to reserve a good table.

Being sober might be a handicap, Vika said to herself, determined to be the first to arrive. Sam’s boasted a full wine list and the cocktails were interesting.

* * *

Vika was surprised to see that Sam’s was packed and it wasn’t yet noon. Something else was going on. She recognized Arsy who was smoking and had swapped his waiter’s outfit for a pair of jeans and a leather jacket.  He waved Vika over.

“Some of my paintings,” he announced, trying to sound casual. But Vika could tell he was proud and excited. He was having a one man exhibition. Even though Juris Lapins had ordered him to track down the fugitive Svetlana, she had so transformed herself that he merely glanced at the pretty girl who was following Vika.

The paintings were small, glittering like open jewelry boxes. Lots of metallic paint had created icon-like images. Looking closer Vika saw that each painting was an elaborate surrealistic tarot card. She had never been what’s called a deep thinker but she saw in each painting a hidden meaning, a juxtaposition of the esoteric and the mundane. She wouldn’t have used any of these words. She didn’t even know what she felt. But she was fascinated.

While she stood staring at the paintings her guests arrived. Vika’s heart soared with pleasure. I know all these people. They’re friends of mine. How could she ever feel lonely again?

She ushered Aunt Velga first to the head of the table. Then came Eggy and Simone and Svetlana.

The table had been beautifully set. There were fresh flowers on a white tablecloth, candles and fancy cloth napkins. Champagne was chilling in an ice bucket nearby.

“What a surprise! Arsy’s exhibition! And no one told me!” she exclaimed happily. She filled a glass and took it over to Arsy who was in conversation with an elderly lady. He looked drop-dead gorgeous and the lady was taking it all in.

“I’m reserving these two, please,” Vika stated firmly before returning to her table.

Simone glanced over at Arsy, blushed a little, then continued telling Vika about a special someone in her English class. Svetlana as well wanted Vika’s opinion about a personal matter but all Vika had on her mind was her kitten. What to feed it? How to care for it? Eggy rolled his eyes, Aunt Velga shut hers tightly and tapped her forehead. Vika had all the makings of a crazy cat lady. Would she stop at one? Then who would take care of the cat (or cats) once she left? There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Vika wasn’t staying in Latvia.

Amidst all the merriment, Vika’s cell pinged. A text from Frankie. She couldn’t breathe. Oh God please please please…  

The next moment her eyes filled with tears. Happy tears. Vinny had news that her mother was alive and well. He would be sending Vika instructions how to get in touch with her.

Straight out of a scene from a soppy Christmas movie, Vika exclaimed, “What a wonderful Christmas present!”

Gone were all thoughts of peril and hiding from the mob. Still, one early New Year’s resolution Vika had made was to always carry her gun. She was a good shot.

After the meal, Eggy took it upon himself to walk Vika back to her apartment. It was Christmas Eve, a time Latvians held in the highest esteem. Vika’s heart beat with gladness as she and Eggy dropped into the ornate little church on Lāčpleša Street to praise the Lord. Someone had to get credit for her current good fortune.











Chapter 34

As in every well-run household, there was a certain pecking order in the mule sanctuary. The eldest of the trio, Aunt Velga, called the shots. Simone, the rightful resident, seconded them. And Svetlana, who had transformed herself from a gangster’s moll to a grateful guest, was good with everything that went on. She felt safe and accepted.

Like birds-of-paradise in their tiny cage they preened and polished as they prepared for Christmas. Two Advent candles had already been lit, the apartment smelled sweetly of pine and gingerbread. Yet, the big task still lay ahead—pīrāgi. It was a well-known fact that the only one who could make better pīrāgi than Aunt Velga was God.

“You chop up the onions really fine,” Aunt Velga said to Svetlana who was looking a bit pale. There was certainly no left over glitz and glamor from her former life. Wearing one of Simone’s hand-me-downs, she looked like an ordinary Russian girl. Who would have recognized her? Not her former boss, Juris Lapins. But life wasn’t that kind. Juris had ways and means to track down the most sophisticated disguise.

“Oi!” Svetlana suddenly exclaimed, throwing down her paring knife. She clasped a hand over her mouth and rushed to the bathroom.

Aunt Velga gave her a worried look. Despite having recovered from her injuries Svetlana was still throwing up. Aunt Velga had tried traditional homemade remedies but nothing was working.

“Simone! Stop moping around and come help.”

Aunt Velga was in her prime. Svetlana had breathed new life into the old lady. The routine as caregiver had given her a purpose and had renewed her energy. And Vika had saved the day for the household, insisting on paying Svetlana’s room and board. After all, it was she who had unwittingly involved them all in this mess.

“Here I am!” Simone sang out cheerfully. Fed up with unrequited love, Simone was now mooning less over Arsy. She had to be realistic. Young men were unpredictable. As she chopped the onions, Simone hummed under her breath. There was an older gent in her advanced English class who had caught her eye. You never know, she thought to herself as she kept on humming. You never know.

“One day my pīrāgi will be just as good as yours, Auntie.”

Aunt Velga threw back her head in a mighty bust of laughter. “You have a long way to go!”

Simone giggled and lifted her glass. “To you, Hestia, Goddess of Goodies!”

This friendly exchange at Christmastime was a well-loved tradition, and always accompanied by shot glasses of schnapps.

Simone kept up the onion chopping, hummed some more, lifted her glass again and began to sing. As the delicious aroma of pīrāgi wafted through the hallways of this run-down apartment building there would be knocks on the door. Aunt Velga had easily won the National Pīrāgi Competition and she liked to share. Still in her big wraparound apron and cheerful scarf covering her hair she’d rush to the door with a newly baked pan.

This looked like happiness but it wasn’t entirely. None of them had forgotten the danger they were in. Svetlana was still a wanted woman—especially wanted by Juris Lapins who had given her the precious cargo destined for Bernie. And both she and Simone had witnessed Eggy save all of them from being killed by a gunman. Who knew anything about this gunman? Who was he working for? He must have been from a rival gang. Why would Juris Lapins have sent a killer to stop someone delivering his package? And, more importantly, was the gunman dead or alive?

* * *

For some reason Svetlana saw the ghost of Vika standing over her and saying, “Play your cards right.”

Whatever Vika had to say Svetlana would listen. Vika had been smart. She had squirreled away a small fortune while doing as little as she could for Bernie. Svetlana herself had been foolish. She had dropped out of school without even a high school diploma. Since childhood people had been praising her looks—that’s all she needed, she then thought. She could make it on looks alone. Would she become a movie star? A super model? A beauty queen of some sort? There were plenty of options for this very beautiful girl—tall, slender, high cheek bones, luminous aquamarine eyes with long lashes, a full mouth, perfect teeth. What could go wrong?

Successful beauties have brains—or their relatives have brains, or some mentor takes over. But Svetlana was on her own. She had been raised by her grandmother who had never liked how men looked at Svetlana. She feared for her granddaughter but had no way of controlling her. After leaving school, Svetlana had several low paying jobs.

There was a sharp knock on the bathroom door. She couldn’t stay here forever.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes. I’m coming.”

She still felt nauseous. Especially when it came to the cooking smells. Bacon disgusted her. She’d have to pretend.

“Pīrāgi!” She trumpeted. She’d take one and then hide it in a paper napkin. No way could she eat anything so… so fat and greasy. She knew it was a sacrilege to shun Aunt Velga’s cooking but she just couldn’t keep very much down.

She’d have to tell Dima what was going on. But could she trust him?  He was one of Juris Lapins’ lieutenants. Now that she had something important to tell him, should she contact him? She wondered if Dima knew the gangster who had tried to kill her with his car.

What would Vika do, she asked herself. She would play her cards right. But what cards was Svetlana holding? A couple of jokers?

“I’ll just lie down for a bit,” she told Aunt Velga and proceeded to her makeshift bed. She had even stopped smoking and didn’t feel like sharing the glasses of schnapps which were being passed around in Aunt Velga’s kitchen.

When was the first time she had noticed Dima? Svetlana thought back to her childhood in the derelict apartment block in Purvciems. The kids all looked up to this older youngster. He was so brash, so handsome, so full of life and ambition. But Dima had eyes only for her. Her grandmother had warned her to stay away from older boys like Dima but she was drawn to this energetic bad-boy with his aura of danger and adventure. It was exciting to be admired. At sixteen she became his steady girlfriend. There had been no one else.

How did she get entangled in the dark world of international crime? She did it for love. She’d do anything to please Dima. Dima had pulled her out of abject poverty and Juris Lapins aka “the Godfather” had, in turn, made Dima a rich man.

She still had Dima’s cell phone number. She’d have to think carefully how to proceed.

What would Vika do in her place?




Chapter 33

Someone once said that even gangsters have morals. Perhaps some do but Bernie Zito wasn’t one of them. At the moment he was desperate. His mule, and more importantly her cargo, was slipping through his fingers. Frankie (his man in Riga) had gone AWOL. All the leverage he had left was the mother-in-law.

Vika was shivering, rubbing her arms as if she’d caught a chill. Even though she was seated at the prime table in Osiris—the one next to a fireplace—she couldn’t stop shaking. Eggy had ordered her a hot balzams drink and watched, with concern, as she took a few sips.

This wasn’t the brash flashy Vika he had met at the airport just a short while ago—although it seemed to him that he had somehow known her forever. Gone were the diamonds and the self-confident smile. Her eyes were imploring. She was pale, her voice feeble and hesitant.

“Is this a trick, Eggy? Is it? Is this his way of dragging me back? Back to face his wrath? He would never let me go. He’d kill me.”

Eggy knew nothing at all about organized crime. Well, he knew that it existed. Everywhere. But it had never touched him. Growing up in Soviet Latvia, he had learned to stay silent, to stay invisible, to blend in and to survive.

“I don’t know, Vika. I just don’t know. But it’s monstrous to use an old lady—a mother—to terrorize someone. To terrorize you.”

Vika exhaled a long sigh, her shoulders slumped. Her mind felt paralyzed, as if it just couldn’t take in another thought. Sitting up straighter, she ordered herself to snap out of it. She had to do something. But, other than repeatedly calling and texting Irena, she just didn’t know what to do. She wished she had gotten to know the other people in her mother’s condo building. But back then Vika hadn’t felt the need to be over-protective. Things had run smoothly. Vika had taken her trips on Bernie’s behalf. Irena had enjoyed the comfort and safety of her condo. Nothing could have made Vika think that this seemingly harmonious life couldn’t go on. Until Latvia.

She reviewed her acquaintances in New York. There was no one she could trust. Most of  them were Bernie’s friends. There was just no one in New York she could ask for help. Then it occurred to her. Maybe there was. Where was Frankie? Was he still here in Riga or had he returned to New York?

With shaking hands Vika opened her phone. Saw again the text from Bernie. Your mother has had a heart attack. She’s asking for you. Come home.

She’d try to play him. Yes, Bernie! I’m so worried. Please, please tell me more. Where is she? How bad is it? Can I reach her? Please!

She closed her phone, put it on the table and looked up at Eggy with a wane smile. At least she was trying. She closed her eyes and gently tapped her phone as if in a religious ritual. Suddenly she remembered how hungry she was.

“What’s good to eat here?”

Eggy’s face brightened. “Let’s look at the menu. I think there’s even one in English.”

The phone pinged. The ritual had worked—but not in a good way. A text from Bernie: She needs you to come home. She doesn’t want to die alone.

Vika chewed on her lower lip. She cursed herself for allowing her eyes to mist over and for the tears that were now coursing down her cheeks. No need for a menu.

She needed to act. She needed to call Frankie. He was now her only hope—the last straw she could hang on to.

Luckily Frankie answered almost immediately. He had made it out of the cold. He was in Italy soaking up the warm sun. But there was a bit of good news. Once he had heard Vika’s story he told her he’d ask his cousin Vinny, who was well-connected in New York, to make some inquiries. Frankie himself had retired. He was well out of the game. But Vinny was reliable.

*  *  *

*  *  *

Some gangsters did have—if not morals—at least a modicum of good manners. Juris Lapins had handed Arsy a crumpled pack of cigarettes. He had even reached out and lit Arsy’s fag. Nothing threatening about that!

Arsy exhaled smoke, tried to relax. Tried to see Juris as just a devoted grandfather. Aina’s grandfather. Juris had a chamelionlike ability to become anything he wanted—a doting grandfather, a trusted friend, a ruthless criminal.

Arsy sat there smoking for what felt like hours. In fact only a few minutes had passed. Juris was ready to hear his story.

“Would you like a drink? Coffee?” Juris knew that making people comfortable paid off. His charm was a gift from the Goddess of Gangsters—or from KGB training on how to seduce foreign visitors into revealing more than they were prepared to tell.

“No. Thank you.” Arsy’s smile was uncertain. “I felt I should tell you what I know.”

“Have your coffee first. I notice your hands are trembling. The coffee will calm your nerves. Or would vodka be better?”

Juris signaled one of his boys to serve the coffee, whether Arsy wanted it or not. No one says “no thanks” to Juris.

Arsy accepted the coffee, took a long calming breath and just dove in. He told Juris about the visit from Ivo. In order not to leave anything out, he forced himself to talk about Aina. At the mention of his granddaughter’s name, Juris’ face darkened and the whole complexion of the meeting changed.

Arsy was scared to death.

“My granddaughter has longed to travel. There are excellent art schools abroad. Don’t mention her name again!”

You could hear a pin drop. Arsy’s eyes widened, his complexion turned ashen.

Juris continued in a calm and non-aggressive voice. “Listen up. If you want to stay alive, this is what you’re going to do. This Ivo you’re telling me about was a nobody. You saw him on the steps of the academy. Ivo is no more. He took his last breath on those stairs.”

Arsy’s blood ran cold. He could hardly speak. “What am I supposed to do?” he whispered. From his work as an art forger who had been trying to make just enough money to make ends meet, he had just crossed the line into an even darker and deeper circle in Dante’s Inferno.

Under his breath he murmured in Russian God have mercy on my soul.


Chapter 32

The day dawned in darkness. Or was it dawn and not night when Vika opened her eyes? She marveled: eight o’clock in the morning and still dark! For a few moments she was disorientated. Something was wrong. Where was she? She had taken a sleeping aid the night before and it added to her confusion.

She looked out the window at blackness. Across the courtyard she saw a bare light bulb dimly illuminating someone sitting at a table sipping on a morning cup of something. Coffee? Slowly events started coming back. She was experiencing winter in Latvia where night came early and dawn came late. She was in an apartment which was her third relocation—her most recent relocation forced on her as she fled from danger.

She had arrived in Riga on a simple mission: to pick up a package which in turn she was to take back to Bernie in New York. She had always stuck to her tenet—the less she knew about her role in Bernie’s business the better. That had worked for years. Now it no longer did.

She looked at herself in the mirror, hardly recognizing herself. Her eyelash extensions were starting to fall out and her nails were a mess. Glamor had always been her métier. Until now. She had chopped off her hair and dressed up in men’s clothing to avoid being recognized. She tried to smile at the face in the mirror, then gave up on it and simply brushed her teeth. There was absolutely nothing to eat in the apartment. Not even coffee. She felt like opening her window and screaming at the guy having breakfast to at least throw her a bagel. Not funny! She would have to get dressed and go out. But before that she had to reach her mother.

There had been no response to her previous texts. Vika tried again. Nothing. She ordered herself not to panic. She’d try again but now she needed coffee coffee coffee.

* * *

It was still dark as Vika made her way along Valdemara Street. She was freezing. Her lightweight wardrobe was meant for a quick visit in late autumn. Luckily she had the heavy jacket and the sensible walking shoes  which she had “purchased” from one of Eggy’s male friends. She certainly wasn’t wearing her diamonds, which made her think of Frankie. Would she ever see him again? Then she thought of Bernie and his mob friends. Would anyone ever see Frankie again? She shuddered and checked her phone again. Nothing from her mother.

She was starving. Like never before. Sure she had tried fasting for one whole day but that was in the comfort of her New York apartment where she had sipped mineral water while watching spellbinding movies. How she longed for New York where there was always food all over the place!

Vika hurried by darkened houses, people lining up for buses, pedestrians rushing off to work but there was no little coffee shop, no fruit stand, no street vendor. God had to be kidding, right! She could pass out from hunger. Just fall to the ground. Would anyone help her?

Eggy! Yes! She had a good friend, within walking distance. Where did he say he lived? She took out her cell and punched in his number. She wanted to scream FEED ME! Then she gave a strangled laugh  remembering the carnivorous plant from one of her favorite  movie—Little Shop of Horrors.

* * *

“Poor you!” Eggy laughed—until he choked on his smokers’ early morning cough. “Here we have a starving rich American! What irony!”

“Shut up, Eggy for fuck’s sake! This is nothing to laugh at. I don’t even speak the language. I couldn’t ask anyone around for anything. Just bring me food! Now!”

“Sure, princess.” Vika could hear the sighs of smoke exhalation. “All you have to do is find Lacplesa Street and head on over to Osiris. I’ll be there in a half hour. Anyone on your street can tell you how to get there.”

“But I — ”



As if on cue, freezing rain began to fall and the wind drove it in deep as Vika looked around. What street did he say? And how to pronounce it? Osiris she remembered. She’d start with that.

She approached a couple waiting to cross Valdemara street. “Please Osiris,” she said with one of her best smiles. But just then her cell pinged. It could be her mother. Vika dropped her smile, the couple crossed the street and Vika opened her phone. A text from Bernie. Your mother has had a heart attack. She’s asking for you. Come home.

She ran. As fast as she could. She just ran not knowing where she was going. She saw nothing but darkness all around her. She stopped to catch her breath. Where was she? Right beside a beautiful building. A church? Yes, it must be a church. She needed God right now. Maybe God could wait but would Eggy?  She thought of him sitting in a cozy café with food—and sympathy. Surely he would know what to do.

Vika had stopped a woman exiting the church. The woman waved her away. Oh for God’s sake! No, she wasn’t begging for money.

“Osiris please. Please!” She had started to cry. Pathetic!

Osiris had become some magical destination she must reach in order to survive. It was much like a mirage, an illusion—always farther away no matter how fast she ran.

She heard a voice behind her. A male voice.

“Come, lady.”

“Yes, yes, please Osiris,” she babbled as she turned towards the male voice.

The young man threw down his cigarette and pointed. “You go straight. Not far.” With that he turned away and crossed the street. She was on Lacplesa street. Eggy had said that’s where the café was.

“Thank you, thank you!” Vika called into the wind as she started to run again. She ran with the dedication of a kamikaze pilot. Right now she’d swim through a river of crocodiles just to get to this blasted Osiris.

Ahead she saw Eggy, standing at the entrance of the café, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He was sucking in smoke as if his life depended on it, knowing it would have to sustain him for a  rendez-vous in a non-smoking venue.

Arms outstretched, Vika rushed towards him, embraced him and almost knocking him over as he was about to throw his butt out into the street.

“You made it,” Eggy laughed—his laugh not a laugh at all—stopped  abruptly as he saw her expression.

Vika wondered about the false memory she had of him. Had she really been so mesmerized by those green eyes of his? Wasn’t that a lifetime ago?

“I need to talk,” she gasped.

Eggy ushered her to a corner table. “You need food and a stiff drink. We’ll talk later.”

“No. I’m not hungry. I need help. Look at this text. Bernie has my mother. What am I going to do?”















Chapter 31

Arsy sat, leaning over, elbows on knees. He was looking at his painting and thinking about Aina. He was thinking about scraping the paint off and starting over. No, he was thinking of Aina.

Last night he had almost fallen on his knees, thanking his Russian Orthodox God that the fire was somewhere else and not at his house. Still, the thought of Ivo’s threat and Ivo himself had him nervously pacing around and watching out the window. And thinking about Aina.

He had been lucky. Misha, the owner of Sam’s restaurant, had agreed to hold an exhibition of Arsy’s work. Just in time for Christmas. His work did have a Christmas theme: large angels, black and white, but hardly angelical. More like powerful and ferocious winged beings whose intent was blurred—were they guardians or avengers? The paintings were fairly small. He would have liked them to be enormous but he couldn’t afford the canvas. Also, small paintings (less expensive paintings) would sell better—if they would sell at all. He still thought about his fake Rozentals but wasn’t sure how to approach Vika. It felt as if his window of opportunity had closed. There were other things on her mind, more important than buying forged art. Still, maybe she’d buy a small black and white angel—and give Misha fifty percent.

Aina was constantly on his mind. And so was her grandfather. He had to have a meeting with him. It felt like a life or death situation. He wished it could have been a social visit. In his dreams he was asking for Aina’s hand in marriage. What a foolish dream! How could he even have such dreams? He was practically broke, had no future. Still, it was imperative he warn Juris that a rival gang was gunning for his position as top guy in Jurmala’s syndicate. Arsy feared that people would die if a full scale turf war erupted.

It was clear to him that Aina had no idea what her grandfather was all about. She thought that he was a successful real estate mogul. And Arsy hadn’t had the heart to tell her otherwise. He couldn’t tell her about the art forgeries that her grandfather had commissioned from him. What other business her grandfather had going Arsy didn’t know or care but he was certain none of it was above board and honest.

The stark contrast of the unsuspecting and idealistic Aina with the dark criminal world of her grandfather struck Arsy as particularly poignant. She had no idea how much misery her grandfather had caused. Most, if not all, of his money and livelihood was based, first during Soviet times as an NKVD officer where he had been adept at robbing the hard working people who had had the misfortune of wandering into the cross hairs of the secret police. More lately, he had become even more prosperous, cheating anyone who had enough money to be cheated out of. Either way, he had been winning. But now there was a rival who wanted to take over.

Had he told Aina too much? He could hardly remember. It had felt so good to be able to talk to someone. He had talked and talked and Aina had listened her eyes glowing with understanding and acceptance. Wasn’t this what people meant when they talked about a soul mate? Now he worried. How would her grandfather react once he knew who this Arsy was who had sought out his daughter at the Arts Academy?  Arsy sensed danger from so many directions. How he wished he was wealthy and powerful and could whisk Aina away on a magic carpet, far from this precarious life she had been forced to live. But there was no magic carpet for them. That was just a dream. Arsy had to summon up his courage and resolve to face reality. And that meant facing Juris Lapins, one on one.

* * *

Arsy had no sense of being watched as he walked in the cold misty rain, through the blue-shadowed streets. He needed the air. He needed to burn off the anxiety that was eating him up. Pacing through the dark streets, he saw himself as some mythological knight, ready to sacrifice himself for the one he loved. He was sure he loved Aina. He was sure he’d do anything to protect her from the machinations of the gang coming after her grandfather. It would take guts but he could do it.

Arsy steeled himself, pulled his cell phone from an inside pocket and punched in the number Juris had given him. A minute  later, he was put through to the boss himself. Arsy’s mouth was dry, his mind stumbling, his heart racing. How best to put this? His voice shaking, he managed to get his words out.

“I need to talk to you. It’s important that I see you in person. I can only give you this information in person.”

There was silence on the line. Arsy cringed. Had he made a huge mistake?

“I’m sending someone to get you right now.” Juris’ voice was expressionless.

Arsy gasped. “Right now? I’m worried about my house. A guy threatened to burn it down.”

“I’m sending some of my people to watch your house. A taxi will pick you up at your front door in ten minutes.”

Juris ended the conversation, sending Arsy rushing back to his front door.

* * *

A few minutes later, a sleek black BMW pulled up at the door. Two burly young men got out and gave Arsy the thumbs up. He had to trust them. He had to trust Juris. They were all in this together. Weren’t they all on the same team? He thought of Aina and smiled inwardly. She needed him to do this. He was doing this for her.

A very short while later, a taxi pulled up. Arsy checked the number which Juris had given him. Everything seemed on the up and up. He got in. The driver gave a brief nod but other than that there was silence. It was already pitch dark. Arsy leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. They were speeding onwards to Jurmala.

Neither Arsy nor the driver had noticed a Merc which had also been waiting near Arsy’s front door. But a call had just come in to the driver. They were being followed. The cabbie knew what to do. Abruptly he made a dangerous U turn and the car careered off in another direction, before making several more diversionary moves. The cabbie had made the hazardous decision to drive without lights.

His mind lurching with terror, Arsy started in on a prayer he had learned in childhood. He prayed out loud. In Russian. He knew the mob would shoot first, ask questions later. He wanted a cigarette.

Arsy’s prayers seemed to have worked. Some fifteen minutes later, the cab was at the front gate of a beautiful old house. A call was made, the gate lifted and the cab drove into a large courtyard. Arsy got out and was immediately approached by a body guard who frisked him thoroughly. Arsy was clean. And surprised to see Juris himself coming out of the house to greet him and usher him inside. His face was expressionless and for a fraction of a second Arsy saw a ploy. A trap. Was he going to die? Juris reached inside his pocket. Was he pulling out a gun?

Juris pulled out a pack and offered Arsy a cigarette. With shaking hands Arsy took the fag. Juris lit it. A few deep inhales and Arsy felt a bit  calmer. He squared his shoulders, lifted his head, ready for anything.

“Here, take the whole pack. I’m trying to quit.”