Ilze Berzins

Chapter 7

Ivars was a good listener. He had to be with Misha’s hysterical rant sounding in his ear. He was also a good liar.

His tone was hostile, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You turn up at a fancy restaurant with your cleaning lady and you expect sympathy from me? I spent big bucks on the escort and the restaurant and here you are whining about something.”

Misha couldn’t believe his ears. He was fuming.  “About something? You’re crazy! The American is missing—you know the one? The rich one. The one you were interested in.”

Ivars honked out a laugh. “Nonsense. Are you trying to dupe me? You bring a baboushka to the restaurant and tell me she’s rich. Show me what’s rich about her. That old cloth coat? You are the crazy one if you want me to believe that.”

The tirade was followed by stunned silence for almost three seconds. Ivars could hear the wheels turning in Misha’s brain as a new thought crept into his confusion.

“Well… you might be right. She comes to my place with all those diamonds and flashy outfits. But then she does a dirty trick on me, turning up dressed like a pauper. And then, I don’t know what…”

Misha voice faltered. He felt uneasy standing out there in the pitch blackness of the very late night. Every sound unnerved him. He thought he heard footsteps,  quickly looked around and saw no imminent danger. He wiped his forehead and  and continued,

“We couldn’t get into the restaurant because of the way she was dressed. Then she wants to go to a dive and just disappears. I was being played. But I can’t figure out why. She had—”

A thud. A dead phone. Ivars flinched. He  could just imagine what was happening—Misha standing there in his good suit and using an expensive phone. What were the chances he’d walk away unharmed?

* * *

Eggy also heard the thud. And he too could imagine what was happening. Not only that, he could hear it. He could hear that there were at least a couple of Russians carrying on their banter while probably stripping Misha of his  possessions as he lay unconscious on the pavement. Eggy was mute with horror as his ears witnessed the ongoing assault and robbery. He clutched at the phone, his knuckles whitening

Vika’s phone must have been pulled out of Misha’s pocket as the Russians argued about it. It seemed to them that the phone was broken because of its shattered screen. One of them wondered if the gemstone-studded case had any value. The other one decided to take it anyway. But the worthless phone itself with the shattered screen was put back in Misha’s pocket. They figured they would take the good phone and laughed that at least their victim would have one, however worthless, phone on him. Why would he need two? Although, if he stopped to think about it, mob bosses sometimes have three or more.

Eggy’s mind was racing. Where was this happening? He had no idea where the “dive” could be that Vika and Misha had gone to. He could just imagine Misha lying on the pavement, passersby walking around him, taking him for just another drunk. No one would call an ambulance and no ambulance would come. Why would anyone pollute their vehicle with just another drunk?

Eggy paced and smoked. He couldn’t pull himself away from his phone, feeling he had to stand guard even though he couldn’t think of what to do. Still, he might hear something else, get a clue of where this place was and who was involved.

But couldn’t he do something? Somehow contact the police, bringing along the phone to see if they could locate the place it was being used from. But he couldn’t hang up. Couldn’t call anyone else. And, oh God!, more important than anything, where is Vika?  

Eggy fired up cigarette after cigarette, his smoke-filled room starting to look as if it was on fire. He listened attentively but heard no more conversation coming from Vika’s phone. Just some scuffling around. He guessed that the owner of the booze can could be locking up for the night and a body lying in front of his place was not a good look. Eggy could just picture Misha being relocated to some dark alleyway on a side street. Luckily the phone was still working. But how long before the battery died?

Eggy’s patience was rewarded. A minute later, he was able to make out a muffled conversation. There seemed to be two men discussing what to do with Misha. The men thought that Misha was too well dressed to be any old drunk. Besides, he didn’t stink of booze.

Eggy squeezed his eyes shut in a silent prayer for Vika’s phone to keep working. His prayer was not answered as, moments later, there was nothing at all on the other end. No murmuring, no rustling. The phone had died. And so had his hope for learning more. Where was Vika?

* * *

It appeared that there were good Samaritans after all—even in this skuzzy crime-ridden neighborhood. Dimitri, the owner of the no-name dive in Maskachka, called the police. But was it indeed the act of a good Samaritan or just fear of retribution?

Dimitri carried on a lengthy inner discourse, weighing different scenarios and likely outcomes. He had to be smart to survive in this decrepit part of town where a full cast of shady characters assembled and liked to hang out till all hours. He had a reputation to maintain. His entire living (as well as his life itself) depended on him doing the wise thing at the right moment. And this was one of those moments.

If this guy, dressed up in an expensive suit as he was, happened to be someone important, Dimitri could end up paying for it if he were to just dump him in an alley. Word would get around. Dimitri had noticed that the guy had spoken in good cultured Russian when he was ordering his drink and food. This was no ordinary prolo from the neighborhood.

But who was he? Why had he chosen this place? Dimitri did not want to incur the wrath of any overseers from Russia. After all, they were still the movers and shakers in this former colony. He had worked it out in his mind. There was unlikely to be any harm in calling the police. The guy obviously needed medical attention and the police would look after him whether he was a big time criminal or not. Better than letting him croak in the alley.

As he mulled over his options a stray cat slunk out of the nearby alley. Dimitri smiled. He liked cats and often put out a bowl of milk at the back door. He guessed the cat was heading that way.

Dimitri lit up a fresh cigarette. He was exhausted from the day’s work and the long hours. Sure he could just take off and go home but again, he had a reputation. He had to act like a good citizen and take care of a fallen comrade.

His phone trilled. It was his wife wanting to know if he was coming home. No matter the hour she would always wait up for him.

“Yes, yes soon. I have a small problem to take care of,” he assured her.

Dimitri looked down at his small problem. The guy was coming to. Who was he? It could pay off to know more about him. Could there be a reward for turning him in? Or for helping him out?

Which way would it go?







Chapter 6

You asked for it, sweetie, Vika muttered under her breath as she crept along behind Misha, following him to a small table next to the bathroom door. She had wanted to see the underbelly of Riga and so here they were  in a dark, dingy, hole-in-the-wall  basement somewhere in Maskachka.

“What the hell…” said, Vika as she slumped down on a rickety chair. It wasn’t really a question. There was no answer.

Gape-mouthed, she just sat there rolling her eyes as Misha pushed himself through the motley crowd to reach the bar. It was self-service.

The two of them did not go unnoticed. Especially Vika. To her dismay, she had attracted company. Bloody hell! He looks like the walking dead, she continued her inner monologue. Someone you’d meet in a nightmare.

A scruffy dude, well past his prime, plunked himself down on the chair opposite her and let out a stream of Russian sweet talk—at least she assumed that that’s what it was since the guy was leering suggestively at her. Or maybe he was asking for money. Either way, he was bad news, sizing her up through the smoke, and smelling of stale tobacco and dirty clothes.

Vika leaned back in her chair and tried to avoid his gaze. But she couldn’t help noticing him staring at her hands—staring at her manicure and at her watch. Shit! She hadn’t thought of that when she had dressed down for her “date” with Misha. She always wore her watch. Her gold Rolex.

Just then her cell sounded its little chime. For someone dressed so shabbily she sure has a snazzy phone, noted the dude. He was eager to listen in.

The call was from Eggy. She didn’t want to take it, didn’t want to speak English in this rough Russian stronghold. But she did take the call, hurriedly telling Eggy that she would call back. And just like that, the walking dead dude had slunk off into the bathroom and Misha made it back to the table with a tray. Cabbage soup, herring and beer. Vika took a whiff. She wanted to vomit.

Misha noted her expression. “You wanted some local color,” he guffawed. “There’s plenty to see. Not much like the Hotel de Rome or your quiet corner in central Riga, is it?”

Vika rose to her feet. The noise, the smell and the smoke had almost decked her. She had to get out. She had to breathe.

“Now I’ve seen it. Let’s get the hell out of here,” she snapped.

Misha shrugged. “Suit yourself, dear lady.” Next he threw back his head and  treated her to a hyena-like laugh. “I’m hungry.”

Vika couldn’t stand this one minute longer. She’d catch a cab—there had to be cabs around somewhere. Or maybe a bus. She turned away from Misha who was still laughing. She felt all eyes on her as she made her way through the largely male crowd and out the door.

Out on the pavement Vika shivered, not only from the cold but also from apprehension. It was dark. There was a dim yellow street lamp somewhere in the distance. Should she walk towards it? She wrapped her arms around her, for warmth and comfort.

The sidewalk was deserted and there was almost no traffic. She hadn’t paid much attention when they arrived. She started to berate herself for being so careless. How the bloody hell did I get into this? The sky was black and blank. No stars.

Not knowing where she was, not knowing how to get back home, Vika pulled out her phone and called Eggy.

“Please get a cab and come get me.”

There was a brief silence.

“But where are you?”

Vika looked around, searching for a street sign. “I don’t know. It looks—”

Her eyes widened. Her mouth opened. The phone dropped from her hand. She was too surprised to scream as a hand grabbed her hair and yanked her forward. The smell! Was it the zombie from the basement? That smell could have come from anyone that smoked, drank or had not washed. She didn’t have long to contemplate. A rough hand covered her mouth and everything went black.

* * *

Having stuffed his face with cabbage soup and herring and swilling down two beers, it occurred to Misha that he had better not leave Vika out on the street so late at night.

When he went outside he saw an empty sidewalk.

“Lady! Where are you?”

No reply. No Vika. Looking down, Misha spotted the bejeweled phone case and what must be Vika’s phone. “Hello? Hello?”

Misha picked it up and, though the screen was broken, the phone was still working.

He answered, “Hello? Who is this?”

The reply was almost like an echo. “Hello, who is this?”

Then louder. “Where is Vika? She just called me so what are you doing with her phone? Who are you?”

Misha recognized the voice. “Eggy, she was just here and now she disappeared. And dropped her phone on the sidewalk. If it wasn’t for the phone no one would know she had been here.”

“Where is here and who are you?”

“This is Misha from Sam’s restaurant. I’m the owner.”

“What? She disappeared from your restaurant?”

“No, no. She wanted to go to… to a dive, she called it—”

Eggy interrupted, “Since your Latvian is so bad, I’ll speak English. I never use Russian if I can help it.”

Eggy had always been convinced that Sam’s was merely a front for criminal activity. That and being a great place to sit and smoke with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. But now things were serious. He was worried as hell.

Misha continued, “Okay. Like I said she wanted to see a rougher side of life in Riga so I brought her here to an eatery in Maskachka.”

“And so?” Eggy’s voice rose in anger.

“Well, she left. She left before I did. Then, before I knew it, she was gone. Disappeared.”

Eggy could hardly contain himself. “Did you call the police?”

Misha stuttered, “But… I… I’ve not had a chance. I’m calling right now.”

The back and forth finally screeched to a halt. Misha pulled out his own phone. Thinking that Vika’s phone was turned off, he put it in his pocket.

Instead of the police, Misha called Ivars.

Chapter 5

Whiskey just stared, his whiskery face serene and  indifferent. He liked sleeping with Vika, enjoyed her cuisine but these emotional late night confidences were getting really boring.

“You know Whiskey,” she would say in her soft whispery voice, “I’d never be sure a man actually loved me unless he was rich.”

Whiskey felt a bit hurt. “Isn’t it enough that I love you?”

There wasn’t an answer. Clearly Vika was so self-involved she didn’t pick up the subtle twitching of his whiskers as he tried to communicate without his usual  vocalizing. Still, his yellow eyes smiled. He was glad there were no rich men around. He wanted Vika all to himself.

That night she had gone on and on about the tall chain smoker and how sorry she was for him. But Whiskey wasn’t worried. This guy was as un-rich as anyone could possibly be. There was also the matter of the flowers. Someone had sent them and she wasn’t happy about it, muttering under her breath about some Misha she clearly didn’t like. Whiskey had observed with satisfaction that the bouquet was carelessly left on the kitchen counter and soon forgotten.

* * *

Like everyone else, Whiskey could tell spring was just around the corner. Much like lonely gals everywhere, Vika’s thoughts had turned to romance. Tonight she had a date—hardly a romantic rendezvous but something she had roped herself into and felt she couldn’t get out of.

She dressed way down. No makeup and not a diamond in sight. And the pièce de résistance: a coat and dress she had borrowed, for a few euros, from the caretaker of the building.  Holy Cow! What a shock it was to look at herself in the mirror and see a middle-aged, matronly, dowdy, working-class, seen-better-days woman! Turning this way and that, Vika laughed out loud. Certainly no point in looking seductive even though she knew men like Misha liked glamorous women. And this particular man liked them rich. Still laughing, she thought of Misha’s embarrassment walking into a classy restaurant with a  shabby plain-jane by his side. She felt that Misha was intent on softening her up, perhaps setting her up for some sort of scam and Vika had to pre-empt. Chuckling she remembered rolling her eyes as Misha bumbled on with gushy compliments. If he were to say ‘dear lady’ one more time she’d punch him—even through the phone. Clearly he wanted something. She knew it wasn’t her body. Maybe he wanted to practice his English? She chortled at that absurd notion. It was all just too funny. Still, she couldn’t forget that she had indeed asked him for advice. The least she could do was accept his dinner invitation and let him know in no uncertain terms that she had moved on.

Whiskey watched her carefully and telepathically reminded her to say goodbye. She got the message. After a parting kiss on the whiskery face, Vika whisked herself off. She wasn’t even wearing perfume.

* * *

It was mud season in Riga. Snow was melting, but then suddenly it started to snow all over again as winter hung on for dear life. Misha had recommended she take a taxi to the classy restaurant. That was fine for him to say. She had no idea how to simply call a cab. One couldn’t just hail a passing cab like you could in New York. She’d have to trudge all the way to a hotel and get a cab waiting by the front door.

It had started to rain and, cursing under her breath, she began to run. Her feet were getting wet and her limp hair hung in strands plastered around her head. Not a pretty sight. Then suddenly she caught a lucky break. Quick as a bunny, she managed to shanghai a cab letting out a passenger—which made her think,  not for the first time, that it was time to buy a car.

* * *

Misha noticed a bedraggled woman getting out of a cab. He averted his eyes. To his dismay the person started to approach him. Misha turned away. Was she going to beg for money to pay for the cab? But no. She spoke.

“Aren’t you glad to see me?”

Misha’s mouth dropped open. He couldn’t believe his eyes.

Still dripping wet Vika did look a sight. Misha let out a gasp. Who was this?  Where had the flamboyant jewel-bedecked American lady fled to? This one looked like the hired help he used to clean his restaurant at night. What would people think? More importantly, what would Ivars say?

The place was swank enough. Velvet-draped and elegant. Candlesticks and chandeliers and soft mood music playing in the background. Plus plenty of bowing and scraping from the uniformed wait staff—no females, as it was always considered ultra-high class to engage men only. Here she would rub shoulders with the crème de la crème of Riga’s social scene.

Do I look out of place?  Inwardly snickering, she laughed softly—but loud enough for Misha to hear. He finally closed his gaping mouth and came to his senses. He tried on a smile.

“Dear lady…”

The look Vika shot back at him stopped any further blandishments. She hooked her arm under his and walked them both inside.

The maître d’ standing at his station regarded them with distaste. He did not move forward to greet the couple. There were murmurs of surprise from the elegant diners. Heads turned. Eyes rolled. How was this going to be handled?

Steeling himself, Misha approached. “I have a reservation,” he stated as firmly as he dared.

The maître d’ threw a contemptuous look at Vika and glanced down at the muddy puddle at her feet. “We have a dress code.”

Misha reddened, shuffled his feet nervously and proceeded to speak in Russian. Vika wondered what they could be saying but guessed with amusement that no compliments were coming her way.

The upshot was disappointing. There was no reservation. There was no table.   Never mind. Vika wasn’t ready to quit Misha. She needed Sam’s where Eggy could smoke in peace and where she could leisurely sip on a cocktail and people watch.

She flashed her Cheshire Cat smile.

“That’s okay, Misha. Take me somewhere more cozy. When I was a kid my friends and I liked to go slumming. You know, go to a rough out-of-the-way dive where you could meet the criminal class. There must be places like that in Riga. I mean, I know for a fact that there are plenty of criminals around. They must eat somewhere.”

Misha brightened. All was not lost. He allowed himself some lighthearted laughter.

“Good idea. But, you know, you might bump into some of Juris’ friends. You remember him, don’t you?”

Vika shrugged. “I can take care of myself.”

“True but in this case you have nothing to worry about. How would anyone recognize you dressed as you are?”

It was Vika’s turn to laugh.

The merriment came to an end as Misha’s phone sounded its little chime. He frowned but took the call. It was Ivars. Misha spoke quickly in Russian. It was at that moment when Vika decided to learn Russian. What was Misha really up to?

Misha took a deep breath. He had exhausted his emotional repertoire. Now he felt only relief that he hadn’t spent the hundreds of euros it would have cost him to eat with the crème de la crème.

Perhaps a night out with this scruffy lady in some dingy café might give him new ideas.