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.

 

 

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.

Chapter 4

Whiskey was a chameleon, a cat of many faces. He would sit quietly, diligently washing his paws and looking adorable. But this side of him vanished in a heartbeat when any stranger dared to enter his kingdom—especially one that was messing up his air.

“Sorry, Eggy. Whiskey’s allergic.”

“What!”

“I mean he doesn’t like smoke.”

Eggy shrugged and threw the cat an indifferent glance.

What!? Whiskey’s eyes narrowed, becoming mere slits as he shot the stranger a lethal glare. Breathe your last breath, filthy human!  

Didn’t he know that having the run of the house was Whiskey’s God-given right? Well, he’d soon find out. Turning his back, tail held high, Whiskey took himself off to the kitchen.

“Oh, just a minute,” his house slave said, rushing dutifully after him. It didn’t take more than a little swat with his paw to get her to open up his favorite gourmet food. He liked it from a new can. Always fresh. Vika smiled fondly as she scooped out a generous portion and placed the hand-painted ceramic bowl on a colorful placemat next to the water dish. Whiskey sauntered over. Sniffed.  Walked away. That’ll teach her.

Vika retreated to the living room. “What were you saying, Eggy? I’ve just been so busy with my new computer that I haven’t kept up.”

“My father died last night.”

Stunned silence. Vika felt turned to stone.

“The funeral is the day after tomorrow. Just a very small gathering of relatives…”

“Oh, Eggy…” She walked over to embrace him. Eggy responded by pulling out a fresh cigarette. Vika dropped her arms. A hug seemed so inadequate. She took a step back and realized how self-involved she had become, not even spending much time with her own mother who was left to happily explore Riga all by herself.

Eggy drew in on his cigarette and exhaled a stream of smoke. “He was an old man. Never happy since my mother died. He wanted to join her.” Eggy closed his eyes for a moment  and sighed. “Now they are together.”

Vika felt a stab of sadness—for herself. She had never known marital love. Bernie had been someone she had married. Lived with. But she would not grieve his death. She always—Stop it! she ordered herself. She couldn’t fall victim to self-pity. It wasn’t always about her and her feelings. Here was her friend Eggy standing before her, mourning his loss. She squinched her eyes shut for a moment, then opened them and focused on Eggy.

“Eggy, please let’s go to Sam’s. For coffee or a drink. They’ll let you smoke.”

Whiskey glared at the two of them. She’s not even saying goodbye, he noted bitterly and filed this little misdemeanor away for further consideration.

*  *  *

Misha saw her right away. She was with that tall Latvian chain-smoker. Heads together, huddled over their coffee, what were they up to? He decided not to approach right away but kept an eye on them as plumes of smoke wafted from the table. He knew he was taking a risk but he had attracted all the coffee-loving chain smokers in all of Riga and he needed the business.

Should he send over complimentary drinks? Was it too early in the day? Maybe a dessert? Vika had promised to call back about her plans for the art gallery. Had she forgotten? Should she be reminded? It was tricky. He couldn’t look too eager. After all, he was just helping her out, not setting her up for a scam.

Misha stopped pacing aimlessly around his restaurants. They were leaving. So soon!

Vika glanced up. Saw Misha. Surely he wasn’t coming over.

He did.

“Wonderful to see you again, Mrs Zito,” he said with his very best fake smile.

“Hello, how are you?”

Misha’s smile-mask cracked. He was startled by the perfunctory greeting.

“I was just wondering—”

“This isn’t a good time, Misha.”

“Yes but…”

Vika sighed heavily and relented. She did remember asking about a lawyer. That must have been way back when she was thinking of an art gallery.

“Yes, yes. I’d like to meet the lawyer you’re recommending. Sometime very soon.”

Misha clasped his hands and bowed slightly. God she was infuriating! She had to be pinned down.

“Mr Mazutis is a very busy man. I feel we should set up an appointment.”

“Okay fine. Text me with the time and place,” Vika called over her shoulder as she and Eggy exited  the restaurant.

* * *

Ivars scowled. He was rolling a cigar in his mouth.

“I don’t like it. She’d better not be playing with us.”

Misha gave a shrug. “Take it or leave it.” He hated to see his plan unravel but he wasn’t going to plead with the guy. He couldn’t look weak.

Ivars lit his cigar, inhaled and let out concentric rings of smoke. “Okay. I’ll give her a chance. Or rather, I’ll give you a chance. As long as you’re not going to waste my time.”

Misha’s laugh was more a snort. “You calling the shots?”

“Right now I am. You’re sitting in my living room, drinking my Scotch, telling me stories about this woman who has either changed her mind or is playing hard to get.”

Misha rose, as if to walk away. But no. He was merely stretching his legs and wondering how he could get Ivars excited about the project again. The problem was that he himself had no real plan in place. Not yet anyway.

He said, “I don’t want to meet at the restaurant. Not at my place, nor yours. I think I’ll ask if we could meet at her place. What do you think?”

“If she agrees. When?”

Misha was glad his buddy was on board again. Take-it-or-leave-it always worked. He pulled out his phone. “I’m texting. Her place at noon tomorrow. Of course, if she agrees she’ll have to give us her address.”

“Hold on,” Ivars raised his hand. “Tomorrow, noon? I’d like to see how she responds to that one.”

Misha gave him a quizzical look.

Ivars smiled. “My guess is she’ll tell you to shove it. These American women, you start dictating to them and you end up standing on the railway platform to nowhere, holding a suitcase handle and no suitcase.”

Misha snickered. “Okay, lover-boy. So how would you handle her?”

“Easy.” Ivars leaned back on his couch and took a gulp at his drink. “Find out what she likes. Invite her to a special dinner. Act like you’re interested in her and not her money.” Then he chuckled. “This could be hard for you since she is not your type but try to use your imagination.” Ivars was having fun. “By this time in your life you should have figured out that you may need to charm a woman or two if you want to get at some money.”

Misha didn’t appreciate the lecture. He had to get back in control of the situation again. Vika was his mark. He was the boss. He got up and approached Ivars who was splayed out on the couch. He looked  down at him.

“Fine, smarty-pants. What should we do?”

With a grin, Ivars continued. “Text her with a romantic invitation to a classy restaurant like 3 Pavaru Restorans. Someplace her smoking scarecrow of a guy can’t afford.

“Oh him! Not likely he can afford anything. She pays his way. But about the restaurant. What if someone recognizes me there?”

Ivars smile was wolfish. “Hardly a chance. This place is on a totally different level.”

Misha was getting royally pissed off. “So that’s what you think of me!”

This time Ivars didn’t hold back. He gave a hearty bark of a laugh. “Don’t get your knickers in a knot. You have to think big if you’re talking about real money. From what you tell me the effort will be more than worth the big prize.”

Misha gave a snort. “Alright, big shot. What do I do at this overrated eatery of yours?”

Ivars got up, walked around a bit and planted his cigar in a huge crystal ashtray on the coffee table. He put a friendly arm on Misha’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be there with a classy escort at a table close by.  Once you have her seated we’ll meet “by chance.” Ivars grinned and indicated air quotes. “Then my date and I will join you at your table.”

Misha though this over. His brow furrowed.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Text her the invitation. And send her flowers. That always works.”

 

Chapter 3

Vika sighed happily. She didn’t mind that her precious fur baby had taken over her whole life, such as it was. That was to be expected. She had read somewhere that, in ancient Egypt, cats  were worshipped as gods and she couldn’t agree more.   It was also well known that  cats were thought to be one of God’s better gifts to spinsters, widows and divorcees all over the world. Vika had to laugh. Here she would be, growing old and alone, a big fat cliché—just another crazy cat lady. Oddly enough, she was quite happy to join the ranks of all those lonely gals who had found the perfect companion.

Her days had become completely routinized. When shopping for the very best in cat food, she considered, Would it be Royal Diet, Fancy Feast, or plain old Purina Chow? She tried them all to see which her whiskery-face preferred. Then there was endless play-time with cute little feathery toys she had purchased at Zoo. And grunge work as she kept his king-sized litter pan clean and fresh, adding baking soda to eliminate any unpleasantness. Vika even thought of getting a gold fish to keep her cat amused. And one of those tree constructions to play on. She’d have it custom built. And perhaps he needed a companion cat. That was something to look into. There certainly was no shortage of felines slinking about in the cold, hoping for food and a warm loving home. She was prepared to do everything to make him happy, and, in return, Whiskey had granted her the position of honorary cat, allowing himself to be petted and pampered. She was the lucky one.

For the time being, Vika had decided to stay in her pied-à-terre on Valdemara Street. When she wasn’t waiting on her cat hand and foot, she planned her future. The art gallery had been a brilliant idea. But perhaps a spa or a fitness center? Or, better still, a state-of-the-art cat shelter? Or, to be more serious, she could write a book. I Screwed the Mob. She liked that idea, having worried about all the stuff Misha had told her she needed if she were to open an art gallery. She wouldn’t need a lawyer to write a book. Maybe an agent. And she could have it translated into Latvian. It would be a bestseller and they’d even make a movie from it. Or a TV special like The Sopranos. This thinking got Vika excited. She looked around for some paper, found a notebook and was ready to go. This would be easy. The great thing about true life is that you don’t have to make anything up. She’d start right now. Just then her cell twittered. Damn! Thinking, What fresh hell is this? she said hello.

“Sorry, dear lady. It took me so long to find you a lawyer.”

She thought, What the hell? “A lawyer?”

“Well, yes. To help you with the art gallery. Remember? You asked me.”

Vika thought back. Shit! Did she ask him that?

“Yes, Misha. I do recall asking you for advice,” she said a bit coldly.

“But, ah… there was question of a lawyer. I found someone very reliable.”

A brief silence.

“I don’t know…” she hedged.

“His name is Ivars Mazutis. Perhaps you’d like to meet him. Discuss your plans.”

“Perhaps. Listen Misha, it’s almost time for Whiskey’s supper. I’ll have to get back to you.”

“Whiskey?”

“Yes. Bye for now.”

Vika was annoyed. She wasn’t in the mood to meet anyone new. Especially not a lawyer she had decided she didn’t need. But Sam’s was one of her favorite eateries. No point in making enemies. She’d call him back once her plans firmed up. In the meantime she went back to her notebook and started an outline. Should she write under a made-up-name? She knew it was called something else. A pseudonym? A  nom de plume? So what name should she choose?   Roza Zito? Perhaps… But Zito wasn’t much of a made-up-name. How about a Latvian equivalent? Maybe she’d chose a male name. Victor Zito, or just Vic Zit. Hmm… maybe Eggy could help. Then she could write in cafés like all the great writers did —altho she wasn’t really familiar with “great writers” but she knew some of them wrote in cafés.

And perhaps a lawyer could also be a literary agent. Another hmm…  Maybe this Ivars would do after all.

Once she started, it wasn’t long before Vika’s notebook was full. She felt like a natural. It was common knowledge that serious writers hunkered down with a tumbler of liquor and cigarettes. Vika wondered if creative juices flowed better with booze and cigs. Perhaps. She’d try, but for the moment words rushed through her mind so fast she’d have no time to puff on cigs or imbibe. She’d have to buy herself another notebook. But wait. Didn’t writers use typewriters? Nowadays it must be computers, she told herself. She’d have to get one. And so a new world would open. The Internet. Facebook. Not for a moment did she think of what would happen once her tell-all book was published. She’d have to enter a witness protection program for sure. Silly Vika!

* **

Eggy’s head was spinning. What fun it was to shop with someone who had all the money in the world! He gasped in amazement at all the shiny new models as he   shepherded Vika around Riga’s electronic hubs.  At Datortehnica on Brivibas Street she simply said. “I want the best.” And the best she got. A MacBook Pro for a tad under 5k. That plus Roberts (or Robbie), a computer coach, who would deliver the item, set it up and provide instruction.

Robbie soon became Vika’s best friend. Computer geek extraordinaire, he was a tall gangly fellow, complete with wall-to-wall tattoos and ear plugs, who spoke  English quite well and had decent manners.

Vika had designated a sunny corner of her living room as her study. Here she would put her brand new computer and create her bombshell of a book. She  watched fascinated as Robbie connected wires and installed whatever he was installing. He worked like a wizard, clicking away at the keyboard. Vika realized that he was typing, something she didn’t know how to do. Whatever.

“Peck away at it using one finger. You’ll soon get to be a real speed queen,” Robbie reassured her with a grin. Next he called to set her up with an Internet connection and began to teach her the basics of using a computer. What could she do without him? Robbie’s initial visit was included in the five grand she had paid and anything more would be on her—which was certainly no problem. She booked Robbie for a dozen consecutive sessions and hired him as her back-up tech.

Robbie thought of everything. He’d come back with a printer, paper, and all  things an aspiring writer would need. For fun and entertainment she’d need Facebook. Vika had certainly heard about Facebook but she had thought it was just for kids.

Robbie chortled. “Not in Latvia, it isn’t. Even our president is on Facebook. You’ll love it.”

Vika mused. “Then everyone would know who I am…”

“That’s the idea. You’ll make friends and share stories. It keeps people connected. You could find writing groups and learn a bit about how things work, or don’t work, here in Latvia.”

“Yes, but…”

“What’s wrong?” Robbie gave her a confused look. “I mean, that’s up to you. You can forget about Facebook. It’s not a big deal.”

“No. That’s not it. You see—” Vika hesitated. Robbie looked like a sincere hard-working guy. No way would he have anything to do with the mob. “I’m writing an exposé of organized crime. Here in Latvia and in New York.”

“Wow! Man, that is way cool.”

“Well, yes. I’m not planning on using my real name. I’m making something up. Not sure yet.”

“No problem. Forget about Facebook for now. Let’s get you comfortable just typing out your story. You’ll see how easy it is to edit and find synonyms. The computer will even correct your spelling mistakes. It’s a dream!”

Just then Whiskey decided it was safe to come out of his hiding place. He was hungry. And he didn’t like strangers. He glared at the interloper with angry yellowish green eyes and plotted how to send him packing.

It didn’t take much. The world reshaped itself. Seeing Whiskey’s angry eyes, Vika dropped everything, ran to the kitchen, rummaged around for a tin, filled his bowl and hurriedly said goodbye to the stranger.

Whiskey smiled.

Chapter 2

“Did I order this?” Misha frowned as the waiter placed a fresh drink in front of him. He didn’t expect an answer. He was asking himself. There was so much going on in his head, he couldn’t keep anything straight. A drink right now would put his mind completely out of commission—which could be a good thing. He craved oblivion, an escape, a vacation from his many problems. What he needed was not simply a drink but a bracer, a snort of coke, an anesthetic. But he knew that  would solve nothing.

Sitting at “his” table near the kitchen, Misha looked around the restaurant and his frown deepened. The place was not as crowded as it should be on a Saturday night. He was losing business. He felt failure coming at him and was afraid to imagine how far he’d go for a much needed infusion of cash. Just thinking about it gave him the creeps. He  picked up the drink in front of him and tossed it back in one gulp.

Misha had decided to take his own sweet time getting back to his filthy stinking rich American lady. She certainly was intent on throwing around her money—money she herself hadn’t earned. Mafia money. Besides, she wasn’t serious. Misha could tell she was just playing, just daydreaming, fantasizing. She had no idea what was involved in opening and running a business. Her whole life must be fantasy, her only worry being how to spend someone else’s money. Misha shook his head. He couldn’t believe it. So much money and she wanted to blow it all (although he had no idea how much that all could be) on something so totally useless and absurd as an art gallery! As if Riga didn’t have plenty of those. Hadn’t he himself just hosted Arsy and his art? Nothing to it. But there sure was no money in it.

What she really needed, Misha decided, was someone to manage all that beautiful money for her—in such a way as to give him a piece of that beautiful pie. He grimaced at the implication. That someone would have to do a lot of romancing.  And here was the snag. Sure he could flirt with her but there was a limit. He toyed with possibilities. A handsome hetero man. A lawyer. English speaking. Someone he could trust.

He rolled his mental Rolodex. Ah! There was Ivars. The guy had cut his teeth on expat ladies wishing to regain property confiscated by the Soviets. Those had been largely naïve and unattached women. But would Ivars be up to it? This case was a bit trickier. Vika Zito was no fresh flower child. She was smart and canny and had already found friends. He knew Arsy (not a problem) but was a bit worried about the tall Latvian they called Eggy. Then there were the women. He sniggered remembering the ungainly Simone and the doddering old aunt. What did they know about high finance or anything important at all? It was too much to think about.

Misha couldn’t stand just sitting there and worrying for a moment longer. He left the table and moved towards the front of the restaurant. One of the few remaining guests nodded at him. Misha gave a quick answering nod. He wasn’t in the mood for schmoozing. He said goodbye to the bartender, put on his overcoat and headed for his car.

* * *

This wasn’t the kind of deal you could put together over a cell phone. They’d have to meet in private. Misha decided on a quick call to ask Ivars for a meeting.

Ivars had done well for himself. Fresh out of law school in the early nineties his clients paid him well—for consultation. Ivars hadn’t been able to pass the bar exam and had to be employed by another lawyer. And did he ever luck out! He had found the perfect partner. An expat female lawyer from Chicago. They made a great team until his partner succumbed to alcoholism and eventually returned to Chicago. By then Ivars had largely taken over her practice. Somehow he hadn’t been caught acting for clients even though he wasn’t fully qualified.

But then the lucrative work dried up. “Lady Luck has to step in and take my side,” he had told Misha the last time they’d met for a drink. “I’m almost broke.” As expected, Ivars was glad to hear there would be “work” and immediately invited Misha over for drinks, coffee, whatever.

Ivars was made-to-order for the job. Still youngish at the age of fifty, tall, fit, skilled in English and experienced when dealing with foreigners—especially with clueless females eager to start a fresh new life in a new (yet familiar) country.

The Latvian suburb of Marupe had reinvented itself. Formerly mainly farmland it had become a posh address for ambitious Yuppies and, while not exactly “young,” Ivars fit right in. In fact the neighborhood he lived in was called Old Captain Club Village. But how long could he afford to stay there? His entrepreneurial magic had waned as the chaos and uncertainty of the nineties was replaced by functioning laws and regulations.

What karmic unfairness, Misha muttered to himself as he parked his car in front of a well-maintained town house. He himself had more or less obeyed the law, had worked hard and yet all he had was a small apartment on the sixth floor of an un-renovated building in Purvciems. Maybe it was time for the tide to turn.

Ivars came to the door smoking a cigar. “How about a drink?” I’ve got some nice Glenfiddich single malt,” he said. “Go on into the living room. I’ll bring it in.”

“No, thanks. Just coffee for me.” Misha was a tad nervous. Coffee would steady him.

Suave was the best word to describe Ivars. Yet underneath the air of affluence and self-confidence Misha could detect shimmers of anxiety. They were, after all, both on the cusp of financial ruin.

Ivars blew a smoke ring. He had placed himself and his drink on a cream-colored love seat while indicating the sofa for Misha and his coffee. Misha dove right in.

“It’s a money managing situation.”

“Whose money?”

Misha made a noise which could pass for an abbreviated laugh. “Not mine. There’s nothing much left to manage but I do know someone…”

“Someone rich, I suppose,” said Ivars prodding the air with his cigar.

“Yes. A very rich American lady. Her heritage is Latvian—” Here Misha stopped for a few seconds.  “But her background is basically Mafia.”

Ivars took the cigar from his mouth and studied the coal end. He was nodding his head and concentrated as Misha told him about Vika Zito, about her money and plans for an art gallery.

“She asked me to find her a lawyer who could help with the technicalities. As you can imagine it’s complicated. She can’t even speak Latvian, let alone Russian.”

“Interesting…” said Ivars as he got up to refresh his drink. He looked at Misha who nodded. He had made his pitch; he had earned the Glenfiddich. Misha took a long gulp of his drink and relaxed against the plump sofa cushions. This could work, he said to himself and closed his eyes for a moment. When he reopened them to find  Ivars leaning forward with that damn cigar. It was beginning to give Misha a headache.

“I wonder if she’s still connected to the mob. That could get tricky,” said Ivars as he rested his cigar on a large cut glass ash tray where it continued to stink up the air Misha had to breathe.

“Don’t know.”

Ivars shrugged. “Ah well. Just a thought.”

Misha sat up straight. “Come to think of it, that could be a problem. Maybe. She was involved in getting mob boss, Juris Lapins, put away. She did the same to her husband back in New York. She has guts.”

“And she is still hanging around here? Lapins is sure to have set a price on her head.”

Misha gave a stunted sort of laugh. “Unless he has other plans… Still, all the more reason to get a move on. God only knows how many are out there interested in this ballsy little lady with all that cash.”

Ivars smile was more like a sneer. “But how the hell do you know she’s loaded. Up to now she’s eaten in your restaurant a few times. Must have left a big tip! And about those diamonds. How do you know they’re real?”

Misha paused, stopping the drink on the way to his mouth. “Hey,” he said. “Sounds like you don’t want the job. Should I look for someone else?”

Ivars rose to his feet. “You kidding me? I’m in!”

 

 

    

VOLUME 2

Chapter 1

Vika felt like a society lady sitting at her favorite table in the Hotel de Rome. She had taken the same chair at the same table and in the same elegant five-star hotel where she had confronted Mafia boss Juris Lapins and had him put away for a very long time. She had even ordered the same very expensive Veuve Clicquot Brut and this time her mother was joining her. Savoring the warmth and safety of the elegant cafe on this cold, sunny, winter day, Vika felt such relief and happiness that it almost frightened her.

“Um-um. This is so good,” Irena said lifting her glass. The sun coming through one of the windows created a honeycomb of light across the table, making the crystal shimmer and the bubbles in her glass sparkle enticingly.

Vika wasn’t yet ready to make her happiness permanent. You never know, she said to herself. Did she really have the right to feel so good? Of course she wasn’t going to allow herself to feel powerful, even though she had singlehandedly broken up an international crime syndicate—and gotten rid of her husband in one fell swoop. At least this is what she liked to tell herself. In reality she had disrupted the crime spree of only a few players. There were others out there. She chose not to consider this. And why should she? Intoxicated with so many possibilities, she was starting a fresh new life—and planning a career.

“I’m going into art,” she told her mother.

Irena’s eyes widened. She looked quizzically at her daughter.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, Riga should be another New York. The art capital of Europe. Paris is dead as far as exciting new art is concerned.”

“But you don’t know anything about art.”

Vika was defiant. “I do so. I’m a collector. I have two Arsys.”

Irena couldn’t help laughing. “Two Arsys! That’s a hoot!”

“Mummy dearest, there’s nothing to laugh at. He’s very talented. Have some more bubbly and then I’ll order lunch.”

Irena shook her head. “I don’t feel like eating, Vika.”

“Try to be a ray of positivity, Mum.”

They rarely quarreled. Irena smiled at her daughter. “No, it’s not that.  I’m still a bit jet lagged. I think I’ll just go up to my room and rest a bit.”

Vika smiled back. “That’s fine. Have a little nap. There’s always room service if you change your mind.”

Mother and daughter kissed affectionately. Vika hoped she wasn’t wrong about feeling safe. It was still a new feeling.

* * *

Well-heeled, freshly divorced and brimming with unflagging enthusiasm, Vika had decided to open her own art gallery. It wasn’t long before she started hunting for premises.  She shunned little side streets and headed for the heart of Riga. It had been over two months now that she had been living there. She was no longer an absolute newcomer and had never really been a tourist.

Having explored her favorite part of central Riga, her eyes had alighted on a building on the corner of Barona Street and Elizabetes.

“Let’s hit the pause button,” Eggy said lighting a fresh cigarette. They were having coffee at Sam’s and Vika had excitedly told him of her plans.

“Here’s the reality facing you. You need to get a Latvian permanent visa or a passport  (which means citizenship) in order to own or rent property in Latvia.”

Vika smiled. “Let’s back up a bit, Eggy. I was hiring you as a tour guide and we both know how that ended up. Now I’m offering you a new opportunity. Will you be my…” she stopped as something occurred to her. If she married Eggy all the bureaucratic morass would go away. Eggy was looking at her intently. Vika  thought for a moment, then continued, “… will you be my social coach?”

Eggy took a sip of his coffee. in his mind’s eye, he heard a voice. It sounded like his mother. “What are you getting into, dear son?”  He was about to answer Nothing as he always did when she was alive. Now he wondered if he should be more mindful.

“Well…” he hesitated. “I’d have to think about it. First you have to learn the language. And citizenship would take ages. Permanent visa a bit faster, maybe.”

Vika frowned. “Really? Then how do the Russians who don’t speak Latvian get property in Jurmala?”

Eggy laughed. “You are a newbie, aren’t you? Payoffs, of course. And knowing the right people.”

Vika was still frowning. “You mean bribes?”

“Sometimes yes, but If you meet the proper financial threshold there are plenty of legal loopholes to bypass the system that is meant for mere mortals.”

Now it was finally time for Vika to grin broadly. “There’s no threshold I can’t meet, my friend. So, is that a yes? Will you take the job offer?”

“Let me sleep on it.”

“Sleep on it? You should be paying me for teaching you colloquial English.”

Vika knew Eggy was teaching English and had his own group of devoted students. She bet he did well with those bedroom eyes of his.

Vika chuckled. “Maybe you’d like to book me as guest lecturer.”

Eggy was not amused. “I’m getting a headache, Vika. I’ll think about your situation—and about your job offer. Now I have to get back home and make supper for my father. I’ll text you tomorrow. Either way you’d better start learning Latvian. Find yourself a good teacher. ”

“But Eggy…”

“No, Vika. Not happening. Goodbye for now and good luck.”

Whatever, Vika said to herself and gave Eggy a short finger wave. Next she ordered herself a gin and tonic and looked around. What she really needed was a bodyguard, social coach and language teacher all wrapped in one gorgeous hunk.

Just then Misha winked at her. “Your drink is on the house, dear lady.”

“Thanks, Misha. But please sit down. I need to talk to you. Some serious stuff.”

Serious? What could be serious for this rich American? Misha asked himself. Playing for time he replied. “Let me just make sure everything is alright in the kitchen and I’ll be right back.”

Vika sipped on her drink thinking that perhaps she should eat something. She still felt a bit of a buzz from the Veuve Clicquot she had shared earlier with her mother. A bit of rest and they both would be doing major exploration of Riga. No tour guide needed. It was bound to be exciting for both of them. And Irena did speak some Latvian. Not good enough to teach her the language but good enough to ask for directions and order in a restaurant.

She stopped daydreaming as Misha approached with a nice dessert. “People tell me this is the very best we have. I’d like to know if it tastes good to Americans too.”

“Up to now, Misha, everything in this restaurant was delicious.” Vika smiled as she eagerly polished off the almond pastry drizzled with Armagnac. “But this…this  is sensational!”

Misha glowed at the compliment and signaled to the waiter to bring him coffee.

Vika continued. “Right now I need your advice about some business.”

Misha nodded his head several times and looked attentive.

“You do own this restaurant, right?”

Misha was startled for a moment. Where is this leading?

“Yes?”

“So, here’s the thing. I am going to open an art gallery here in Riga. I’m thinking of buying part of the building on the corner of Barona and Elizabetes. The ground floor.” Just as she said this it occurred to her that possibly she should buy the whole building. There’d be room for her to live and a nice suite for her mother as well.

Vika was so involved with telling him her plans that she hadn’t noticed Misha’s look of surprise. A look that said just how rich is she?

“I will need a lawyer to do all the necessary paperwork. Can you recommend someone I could trust? I need someone I can trust. Someone trustworthy and connected.”

Misha let out a soft chuckle. “And you trust me to tell you?”

“No. Listen. Joking aside. You will help me, won’t you?”

“Sure. Don’t worry. I know a good lawyer. And you will need good insurance. To keep your gallery safe.”

“Protection?”

“We call it insurance. Just so that nothing bad happens. No fire or anything that might ruin your enterprise.”

“Well shit! It looks like I just can’t get away from mobsters.”

“C’est la vie, dear lady. That’s how things are done here. Just like in New York, they say. You did ask for my advice, didn’t you?”

 

 

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.”

“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.