Ilze Berzins

Chapter 37

Vika’s feet took wings. She was inside her apartment in two short minutes. She had a hungry mouth to feed. Throwing her shopping bags on the counter, she reached for her kitten who had come out of hiding. “Oh precious! My precious baby!” She bubbled over with delight as she kissed the little black face with the enormous white whiskers.

“Hello, Whiskers!” she cooed happily. “It’ll be Whisky for short. My black little Whisky face!” Vika was silly with rapture. Her first pet ever. A little creature to love.

When this was all over she’d retire to a nunnery. And bring Whisky with her. They’d make an exception after her huge donation to the convent. She wasn’t quite sure what she meant by this being all over. She had the package which was so important to the crime syndicate. Both Juris, here in Latvia, and Bernie in New York would kill for it. Chapter

Suddenly a startling thought occurred to her, I could ruin them both. But did she have the nerve? She should start by examining the contents. See what the hell the fuss was all about.  And then run to the nunnery!

It was fine to fantasize but her most pressing concern now was for her mother. Vinny had not yet contacted her with information. Trying to keep from worrying, Vika unpacked her groceries, which included kitty litter, food for Whisky and something nourishing for herself. She had negotiated her shopping quite well and hummed to herself as she organized her kitchen. But when her phone pinged she froze, her hand stilled in the act of pouring herself a cup of coffee. Vinny? Oh please, let it be Vinny.

She forgot the coffee, grabbed her phone, opened it and made a face. Instead of Vinny, she heard Simone’s stumbling English.

“Svetlana has gone. She sent me a text. But she didn’t tell me where she was going.”

Vika just stood there, her mouth open. “Gone?”

“Yes. She and her boyfriend. They were afraid of what Juris would do to them. Something about a package.”

“Ah…” Vika let out a deep sigh. Next he’ll be coming after me.

Bernie was just a menacing dark shadow, far away, unreal, but this Juris loomed over her like certain death. The thought of what she had to do burst on her like an explosion far off among the stars. She had to act first. Stave him off before he got any further. There wasn’t much time.

After agreeing to get together the next day, Vika ended the conversation. Pumping adrenaline, it took her no time at all to unearth what she had hidden —the package and the gun. Next the logistics. She’d ask Arsy if he knew of a way to contact Juris. As it happened, she had arranged to meet Arsy at Sam’s in the afternoon to pick up the two paintings she had purchased.

And so, the machine infernale had been set into motion, ready to play out an inexorable event almost of Greek tragedy proportions.

* * *

You’re Crazy!  Those were Arsy’s first words when he heard what Vika was planning.

“I can give you Juris’ cell number, but you mustn’t say I gave it to you. He’s a very scary guy. I don’t know why you’re doing this.”

Vika gave a short burst of nervous laughter. “Because I can. Or rather, because I must.”

“I still think you’re crazy. You can get yourself killed.”

“This isn’t my first rodeo.”


Vika smiled. “That’s just an expression, Arsy. I’m used to danger. I’ve lived with it all my life.”

She fell silent, thinking, and sipped on her coffee. Arsy’s lighter clicked open and lit his cigarette. He had stopped rationing. Life was just too stressful.

Then, as if speaking to herself, Vika went on, “Actually, I need to prove this to myself. I’m not just a tired-out old mule working for my Mafia boss husband. I have my own power.”

It was Arsy’s turn to fall silent. What power did he himself ever have?

“Now listen. If anything happens to me, you must look after Whisky.”

Arsy frowned. “What! What are you talking about?”

“Oh! I forgot to tell you. I have a sweet little kitty. You must look after her—at least I think it’s a her. And please hold on to my two paintings for a while. Here’s a spare key to my apartment. Just in case…”

* * *

“I’ve got something you seem to have lost, Mr Lapins,” Vika said casually, as if it was just small talk. Her words sounded like clinched dialogue from a bad crime film. But in real life these were pretty dangerous words to be tossing at a Mafia boss.

There was silence on the other end. Vika held her breath.

Then came the gruff wary response. “Who are you?”

Vika’s voice did not waver. “Sorry. I should have introduced myself. I’m Mrs Bernie Zito.”

Juris gave a brief snort of surprise. “Well, hello. How is your dear husband? And what is it that you have for me?”

“You must be talking about my dear soon-to-be ex. He’s left his business interests overseas to me.”

Juris made a blubbery sound with his lips. “Pfff.  He’s a fool!”

“Fool or no fool, that’s part of the divorce settlement,” Vika added with a full-throated laugh. She hurriedly reached for her glass of vodka. And wished she was a smoker. She needed something.

Silence. Juris Lapins wasn’t used to being laughed at.

“Now this package, Mr Lapins. What should we do about it? What I can suggest is—”

“Listen carefully,” Juris cut her off. What followed was like something straight out of a John le Carre’s spy novel. He was ready to pay her off for the package. She could name her price.

“I’ll meet you tomorrow in the courtyard behind—”

“No way!” Vika said sharply, cutting him off. “No courtyards.”

Another silence. Vika could tell he wasn’t used to being cut off.

“Well, then. Where do you want?”

“No dark alleys. I’m thinking somewhere classy. Like, perhaps, the lobby of the Hotel de Rome. At noon tomorrow. I’ll even buy you a drink.” With that she hung up on him. Pretty ballsy move but she had to show him who was boss.

* * *

Vika hadn’t given herself any time to panic. In for a penny, in for a pound, she said to herself as she tossed back what remained in her tumbler of vodka. Despite the certain danger, she was determined to look her best. Her looks had always been her calling card, and her weapon—for seduction, for privilege, for power. No longer young, she still had what it took. Sumptuous allure plus a canny sense of self-preservation to back it up.

She planned to make him wait.

Still, there was little time to lose. The beauty parlor or a quick trip to the American Embassy? She chose the embassy.

* * *

Heads turned at around twenty minutes past noon as a glamorous woman strode into the lobby of the Hotel de Rome. It was the perfect occasion to display her diamonds and her fashion sense—her stately pace showing off her lovely legs clad in stiletto-heeled booties, her snug-fitting cashmere coat suggesting voluptuous curves. And all the while she kept her large leather shoulder bag (large enough to carry an Uzi) close to her side.

Vika stopped near reception, looked around calmly but avoided eye contact.  If she were in a gangsta film she would be taking out a cigarette and watching for someone to rush forward with a light. Instead, she checked her watch. Let him feast his eyes on me for a little while, Vika said to herself and smiled smugly.

She didn’t have long to wait.

Juris Lapins had never been what one would call a ladies man but Vika and the whole mise-en-scene fascinated him. Here was a female to be reckoned with. He was sure it was Mrs Zito. Too bad he’d have to kill a stunning woman like that.

Pulling himself up to his full height (he was still a fit good-looking man) he strode purposely forward.

“Mrs Zito, I presume,” he said with an ironic grin.

“How do you do,” Vika replied coolly. She didn’t offer him her hand and ignored the hand he had thrust out at her.

“Shall we sit down near the bar. I always have a cocktail before lunch.”

Juris gave a slight bow. “It would be my pleasure to join you.”

Happy with her table, Vika ordered a spritzer. She had to keep her wits about her. Juris had a beer.

For a beautiful woman she has such cold eyes, Juris said to himself. She fixed them on him and, for an instant, he was afraid. She had killer eyes. The eyes of a lioness who is about to kill a hyena who had strayed too near to her cubs.  It dawned on him that this is how his victims might have felt when he was about to send them to Siberia.

But he had to snap out of it. He had to show her that he had the upper hand.

“So, Mrs Zito. We didn’t come here to stare into each other’s eyes.” Vika just looked at him.  “As beautiful as yours are,” he added lamely.

Vika offered him a flirty giggle. “Thanks for the compliment. I’m just wondering if you’ve brought some friends with you so that I can stare into their eyes as well.”

Juris suddenly felt completely unprepared for this banter. He laughed nervously and surprised himself by how high-pitched his voice sounded. He cleared his throat, trying to be nonchalant.

“As a matter of fact there are a couple of my friends at that table behind you.”

Vika smiled back at him. “Maybe you should look around. I have some friends who would like to introduce themselves to you.”

Before Juris Lapins could look back or even signal to his lieutenants they were all surrounded by plain clothed police. The men had appeared as if out of the woodwork and the café personnel had disappeared without a trace.

There was no one around to witness the sight of the criminals being cuffed, frisked and then quietly escorted out into the waiting black vans. This was not so very different from what Lapins himself had done in the sixties, seventies and eighties except now the shoe was on the other foot and his trip was going to be not to Siberia but to the West.

Still he protested. “What about my rights? I’m a Latvian citizen!”

He received his answer. “We’ll read you your rights all right when you’re in New York.”

Juris was in full panic mode. “But you can’t take me to America. I have my rights.”

He heard a snigger. “Sure, but when you were a Russian citizen you did not recognize Latvia. The only country you recognized was Russia and you didn’t believe Latvians had rights. Now suddenly Latvians have rights? It’s time for you to see the world. We have a ticket for you. Destination New York. Or would you like to go to Russia? We’ve heard you’ve made some new enemies there since you lost your little package.”

* * *

Vika ordered a bottle of the best champagne money could buy. And, wouldn’t you know it, a text came in just then from Vinny telling her Irena was on a flight to Latvia. And Bernie had been detained.







Chapter 36

It could just as well have been Sammy “The Bull” sitting in the living room of Juris’ house, drinking vodka and saying, “ You shoot him in the head. I’ll get rid of the body.” And, just as casually, Sammy would pull a cigarette from his pack of Camels, rip off the filter, light up and smile through the smoke as if he hadn’t said what he had just said. It was simply routine business.

The beautiful old house in Jurmala had surely been intended for a large happy family. How ironic then that at present it was occupied by a Mafia boss and his goons. From the outside, the house looked peaceful enough, which could prove that places don’t absorb the evil waves that vibrate off the people who live there. This faded beauty was Juris Lapins’ mini mansion. Yet there was no evil poltergeist going crazy in the rooms just because Juris and his friends congregated there to plot criminal activities which included bumping some people off.

At the moment all eyes were on Svetlana. Juris had sent her to deliver a package to Vika who, in turn, was to take it back to Bernie in New York. This is how international criminals had organized. Not trusting regular couriers and certainly not using conventional means of communication. Top secret documents were handled personally. And by a very select number of mules.

“Dima, how’s that girlfriend of yours doing?”

A couple of the henchmen guffawed at Juris’ question. Dima was toying with a cigarette he couldn’t decide to smoke. He shrugged. He had had a lot of practice being evasive.

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her and I haven’t heard from her.”

Juris barked out a laugh. “But you must miss her. I know, I do. It’s time for us all to see her again. I gave her a very important job to do. I need to know how it went.”

Dima nodded his head and looked glum. He had heard that someone (someone, but who?) had run over Svetlana, tried to kill her. She had been taken to a hospital in Riga but after that there had been no sightings.

Juris threw Dima a meaningful look. “So, off you go. You won’t find her in Jurmala.”

Dima mumbled something as he got up. He knew that defying his boss would get him a choice site in a cemetery.

* * *

Driving back to Riga, it took Dima only a few minutes to notice that someone was following him. He didn’t recognize the car. Juris was too smart to send someone Dima knew. He took this calmly. He was going home to Pardaugava where he had been living with Svetlana for the past three years. Nothing for anyone to see. Where he’d go next would take some figuring out.

Their apartment was tiny but cozy. Everything in it reminded Dima of Svetlana. She was the decorator and homemaker. The best feature was the window which looked out on a pretty park where Svetlana liked to take their cat out on a harness. She adored that cat and Murka had been sulking ever since Svetlana had left. Dima himself had mixed feelings. He cared for Svetlana but hoped that she had found a way out of the criminal sphere in which he had entangled her.

Murka had refused to eat after Svetlana vanished. To Dima’s astonishment, the cat had just leaped up to his feeding station above the fridge and was gobbling from his dish like crazy. What was that? A sign? Dima was superstitious. The stars must be aligned, Dima said to himself as he lit up a Marlboro and observed the cat.

Just then his cell pinged. He almost dropped his cig as he rushed to answer. Moments later, his mouth went dry; he couldn’t speak.

Murka installed himself in Dima’s lap, purring like mad.

“My God! Is that my Murka? Speak to me, Dima!”

“Hello,” Dima croaked.

“Aren’t you glad to hear from me?”

“Sveta. Listen. It’s not safe for you to contact me. Juris is looking for you.”

“I know all that. I have something very important to tell you.”

“Do you have the package Juris told you to deliver?”

“No. This is more important. I just—”

Dima interrupted. “I’ll meet you in the café we often go to. You know the place. In one hour. Now hang up. It’s not safe.”

He ended the call, poured himself a generous measure of vodka and tossed it back, neat. What has she to tell me? Has she been set up by rivals to entrap me?

* * *

Dima had his own twelve–step program. Admit to being helpless in the face of Juris and his Mafia family. Only God could help him. And his own wits. He left the apartment via a broken window in the basement and proceeded down a back alley.

He recited childhood prayers as he made his way to the café where he and Svetlana often had drinks or a quick something to eat. Juris had his assassins. Dima knew he could be followed, so he dipped in and out of side streets keeping a wary eye to make sure no one was trailing him.

Arriving at the café, Dima didn’t go in. He scanned the surroundings. Waited. A few minutes later, he saw a taxi pull up outside the café. The door opened. A girl stepped out. Svetlana? He paused for a moment, staring at her. Who else could it be?

In a few quick steps he reached the taxi, signaled for it to wait, grabbed the girl and shoved her back into the cab. Jumping inside himself, he asked the driver to take them to a house in Maskavas Forstate where his mother lived.  They would be safe there—at least for a little while. He instructed the driver to take a roundabout route to throw off anyone following.

Svetlana was ecstatic. She threw her arms around him. “How I’ve missed you! I have so much to tell you.”

“Wait! Don’t say anything now,” Dima ordered.

He had the taxi drop them off on a back street where he knew the short cut. During their walk to the apartment Svetlana gave him the good news.

* * *

“Matushka, we have to act fast! I have got to pick up the suitcase I’ve stored with you. I’ll explain everything.”

“Yes, Dima, may God help us. Svetlana! What happened? You look so different. Have you both eaten? I’ll warm up some soup.”

“No, no. There’s no time. Just a quick cup of coffee. Svetlana has news for us both.”

Svetlana started to cry. “Matushka, I’m having a baby. I’m happy but scared too. We have to get away. The boss is angry with us and could have us killed.”

Dima’s mother clapped her hands, her eyes filled with tears. “A baby! A grandchild! You can’t leave now!”

Her son put an arm around his mother’s trembling shoulders. “It will be alright. I’ll send for you. Trust me. We’ll be together. Soon.”

Dima had been the brightest in the bunch Juris had selected to be in his inner circle. Dima was expert and meticulous at so many things he could easily forge money or passports. Little did Juris know that, even back then, Dima was looking for a way out. He had also produced two excellent passport forgeries: one for himself; one for Svetlana. His get-away suitcase at his mother’s home was packed with money and valuables. He knew the day would come.

“We’re not taking a taxi to the airport. I’ll just hot-wire some old jalopy and we’ll be off.”

“The airport! My God, Dima! Where are you going?”


“Minutes ago I got a call telling me that I must immediately call the boss if I see you or Svetlana. And I’m not to tell you that he called.”

“Good. You tell them that I’ve gone to Kaliningrad to stay with my cousin Vadim who has a car repair shop.”  Dima smiled, knowing as did his mother, that his cousin was actually in Liverpool.

Svetlana took her mother-in-law’s hands. “Please Mamushka. Look after my cat for me. Take all the good things from our apartment and keep them. And one final favor. Please try to get this message to Simone for me and tell them I’m OK. But please don’t mention England.”

Mamushka gave a brief snort of laughter. “What’s wrong with you, Svetlana? Didn’t you just say Kaliningrad? And you’re taking the bus, aren’t you?”