Ilze Berzins

Chapter 9

Full moon craziness was in full swing. Although it wasn’t your big fat super moon, it got everyone fired up all the same. Dogs howled, cats rumbled, demons and devils danced in the streets, mocking mere mortals who tossed sleeplessly in their beds, beset by strange thoughts and premonitions.

So it was for Irena, still awake late at night, muscles tensed, as scenes of danger and disaster ran through her mind. Vika, where are you?  

Oh what the hell! I can’t take this anymore! Irena finally pulled herself out of bed and started to get dressed.

* * *

Not far from Irena’s hotel room, Whiskey too was wide awake, listening in on a  gang of feline hellions having a rave-up just outside his window. There were three, no, four of the lunatics, snarling, spitting, and yowling their heads off in the misty moonlight. Tequila’s screeching was loud enough to wake the dead; summon  ghosts and vampires back to life. She was the alpha, a full-bodied, honey-colored moonstruck cat, probably in heat again. She was Whiskey’s favorite. Where was Whiskey?

Whiskey could just about wedge himself through the small opening in the kitchen window and go join them. It was usually a tight squeeze for his well-fed, pampered body. Now, having lost weight, he could do it easily. But tonight he didn’t want to go out. His dish had been empty too long. Where the hell was She? Spoiled as he was, Whiskey was nobody’s fool. He knew something was very wrong. She wouldn’t simply have walked out on him.

He had been patiently waiting right by the door when he heard footsteps. Whose? Too heavy to be Her. Who else could it be? Whiskey’s ears flattened as he heard a key inserted in the lock. Fight or flight?

He decided to fight and readied himself to jump on any intruder coming through the door. Claw its face off, he would. Tail lashing, Whiskey was a heartbeat away from the battle of a lifetime.

Damn! It was the Old One. Whiskey pulled back just in time. They did have some sort of relationship—namely a staring contest. Irena had always been the first to look away. This time Whiskey was flooded with relief. Instead of challenging her, he’d   try something else—like pathetic meowing. He was so hungry!

“Where is Vika?” Irena asked.

Whiskey just blinked. How was he supposed to know? But he let her prattle on as he took off to his feeding station, keeping up the noise. Feed me, Old One! 

Irena was hardly old. At seventy-three she still had many miles left on her. But today she felt very old. And very worried about her daughter. She had tried to reach Vika on her phone many times. Nothing. All kinds of horrible thoughts went through her mind as she followed the cat to its dish.

“Phew! That litter box!” Irena had to hold her nose. How long had Vika been gone? Irena started to open a can of Tuna Delight, then paused mid-stream. What was that noise? It was more than a noise; it was a commotion at the front door. She froze hearing several loud voices. Whiskey padded up to her and swatted her ankle, “Food!” Irena reacted quickly and, dumping the entire can into the dish, plopped it in front of the cat.

Holding her breath she proceeded to the hallway and stood close to the door. There seemed to be at least three people out there. She heard English. Was that Vika?

Whiskey was already at the door, standing guard, ready to attack. 

Without opening the door, her voice creaky, Irena tried to shout, “Who’s there? What’s going on?”  But her words came out as a strangled rasp. She felt turned to stone. What should she do?

The next instant, she gasped. She recognized her daughter’s voice. Then a rough female voice speaking Russian. Then a man’s voice speaking both English and Russian. Her sleepless night had made her doubt herself. Was that really Vika out there? Why didn’t she just unlock the door? Come inside?

Next, she heard a male voice in accented English: “She wants her coat back. But it’s ruined. You must pay her.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake! I don’t need her lousy coat. I’ll give her euros. Tell her that and shut her up.”

Irena held her breath. That was her Vika alright. And she sounded in fine form. She expelled the breath she had been holding and managed to summon a stronger voice.

“Vika! It’s you!  You don’t have your key?”

“Open the door for God’s sake, Mum.”

Whiskey streaked to the door. She was back!

Irena unlocked the door, pulled it open. Mother and daughter stared at each other. Irena’s mouth was working, but no words came out. Vika looked like a beaten-up  war refugee. Was she injured? 

“It’s alright, Mum. I’m okay. It’s a long story but first I have to get rid of my company.” 

Vika took off the coat, handed it to the babushka who had been glaring at her.

“One moment. I’ll get you money,” Vika said hurrying into her bedroom. She returned with cash which the caretaker pocketed immediately and, holding her coat, shaking her head, made for the stairs leading back to her basement dwelling.

Vika turned to the scruffy youth who had introduced himself as Buddy and had been translating. “And you. What can I do for you?”

“A cup of coffee, please.”

Vika’s eyes were steely. They held his. “No way, Buddy boy! I’ve been through enough. Time for you to say bye bye.”

Silence hummed. Buddy cleared his throat. Offered a strained and insincere grimace which he intended as a winning smile.

“Listen lady. I want to do business. I need a partner and a little capital.”

Irena watched this exchange nervously, then decided that it was a case for the police. She reached for her phone. The next moment she no longer had it. Buddy had grabbed it out of her hand.

“You’re a nice lady. Let’s do business…”

Tail twitching, tongue clicking , Whiskey was ready.

“And I need—ARGH!” Buddy let out a scream. Whiskey had sprung and sunk his fangs deep into Buddy’s ankle. And he didn’t let go.

His face red and contorted, his mouth still open, Buddy stood like a pillar of salt, stricken, immobile.

Vika moved with lightning speed. Into her bedroom, then back again.

Her face  was set in stone. She held a gun.

“Okay, Whiskey, you can let go now. Good dog… er… good cat!”

It took a lot to make Irena laugh out loud.

This did.

Chapter 8

Her face ashen, Vika hobbled along in a daze. Her shoes were wet, her feet were  killing her. She shivered—not only from the cold but from shock as she huddled deeper into her worn-out coat, afraid to look around in this dark and foreign no-man’s-land. Images of another violent attack flashed in and out of her mind. Holding her breath, she listened fearfully for the sound of footsteps behind her. The street remained silent as a tomb; quiet as the grave. Not her grave. Surely not.   

She wasn’t injured. She hadn’t been raped. During the assault, her mind had switched to passive mode in order to protect herself. She hadn’t struggled when she was dragged into a car by two men. Don’t hurt me… Don’t hurt me is all she whimpered as her watch was being removed. She wanted to cooperate. She wanted to live. There was so much to live for. She thought of  her mother and how worried she must be. She thought of Eggy and Whiskey and about the book she was going to write.

They had taken what they wanted. She remembered being driven a short distance and then pushed out of the car to fend for herself. It could have been worse. At least she hadn’t been thrown into the river or left for dead in some dark alley. It had all happened so fast. Not a word had been uttered by her assailers. They were in a hurry to get the job done.

She’d never forget the smell—tobacco and appalling body odor. How late could it be? Or how early in the morning? No point in checking her watch. It was gone. And so was her phone and her purse. There was nothing left to steal. She felt disoriented. Time was a blur.

Her bedraggled appearance and her shabby clothing protected her in a strange way. She resembled one of the many unfortunates wandering the dark streets of Riga. It would take a real sadist to attack a poor defenseless old woman. But there were sadists, crazy people—Vika pushed that thought away.

Slowing down even more from sheer exhaustion, she started to look over her shoulder. No one was following her. There was nothing but dead darkness. Soon she’d have no more strength left. Would she have to rest somewhere? Sit down on the cold deserted sidewalk?

If she did that, would she ever be able to get up again? A car passed going  too fast for her to hail it. And even if she had been able to raise her arms, would it have stopped to help her?

She felt her body sinking to the ground. Oh God, give me a sign!   

And then she saw it—a dim yellowish light up ahead. A sign of some sort of life! Could it be an all-night bar? A pub? She pulled herself erect and began to walk again, this time with purpose. Maybe someone would help her.

When she got closer to the light she saw that it came from a small store front.  She stopped dead. She wasn’t alone.  Her heart beat frantically as she saw a burly old man coming out of the shadows of the alley right next to the shop. He was followed by a large shaggy dog. Stretching himself and yawning, the man tossed away his cigarette butt and, after coughing, directed a phlegmy spit into the gutter. The dog approached her warily, sniffed at the hem of her coat. She didn’t dare move and was relieved that she had passed inspection. The dog  gave a timid tail wag, then proceeded to check out a white cat which was sitting on a bench washing itself. Vika felt a pang. What was Whiskey doing?

She gritted her teeth, bunched up her fists. She had to try. Lūdzu, lūdzu …please, please… The old man was facing her now. She was immobile; her eyes pleading. Without a word, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a pack and, to her great surprise, offered her a cigarette.

She took it. He came closer and struck a match to light the cigarette. Vika knew how to smoke without inhaling. She puffed and smiled. The old man grinned back, showing a few stubs that should have been teeth. He beckoned her to come inside the shop. She followed, hardly able to keep on her feet. Maybe she’d be able to sit down.

* * *

Vika stumbled a bit before collapsing into the one unoccupied chair. Casting a look around she saw other hunched over figures—all escapees from a bad film noir, she thought to herself. Same mise-en-scène as the place Misha had taken her to. Misha? What had become of him?

The first words she heard were friendly.

“Ciao Reksi!”

How reassuring! A dog friendly place! Vika watched the dog’s happy reaction— tail wagging, paws on the counter, ready for a treat. The old man lit up another cigarette and followed his dog for a chat with the woman behind the counter.  Vika pulled herself up from the chair and, sheltering behind the old man, approached the counter. She still held her cigarette in her hand, not knowing what to do with it.

The solidly built work-weary woman, with warm brown eyes, gave her a tentative smile.

“How can I help you?”

Vika’s face remained pleading. But she shook her head to signal that she didn’t understand. Next the same words were repeated in another language.

Still Vika’s face remained blank.

Another try, “Hello, Lady!”

Vika exhaled with relief. She smiled broadly. “Oh hello! You speak English.”

The woman returned her smile but shook her head.

Vika spied an ashtray on the counter and disposed of her cigarette. Her fingers pushed back strands of hair away from her face and, in so doing, realized that she still wore her diamond studs.

The woman behind the counter stood gawking at the tiny diamonds. Who was this bizarre individual? She certainly didn’t fit in with her clientele, her with her clear complexion and cared-for hands. But why was she wearing rags? Was it a disguise?

Vika noticed the woman staring at her earrings. They were diamond studs but meant nothing to her. With a deft motion she removed both from her ears and placed them in the palms of her hands.

“Lūdzu,” she said.

The woman clasped a hand over her mouth in astonishment.

It was clear Vika was not a local. Could she be a tourist, newly robbed of everything she had? Even her elegant expensive clothing must have been torn from her and these worn old garments put on her. It seemed that the criminals hadn’t had the heart to leave her naked in the darkness of a violent city. What could be her story?

A youngish man joined the woman behind the counter, his eyes riveted on Vika’s outstretched hands. He’d know what to do with those diamonds.

Vika held his gaze. She saw the glint in his eyes as if reflected from the tiny gems she held in the palms of her hands.