Ilze Berzins

Chapter 13

Believe it or not there is actually something called the invisible woman syndrome. If women start to no longer be attractive as they age, they becomes less relevant—and invisible.

Vika and Irena didn’t buy the invisible women stuff. They thought of themselves  as the “Fadeaway Girls”—fading silently and smoothly into the background of ordinary life, and then slipping quietly away like the fog which vanishes without leaving a trace.

There would be no classy Louis Vuitton luggage or stylish outerwear for this journey. Vika had hastily called on Simone for simple clothing and large plastic carry-all bags.

* * *

And so it was that early one morning, arm in arm, two elderly women (one carrying a cat in a large satchel) made their way slowly on foot, arriving at the central station just minutes before the bus for Talsi was to take off.

Irena did the talking, purchasing the tickets but avoided chatting to anyone else. She had a foreigner’s accent and body language that set her apart. Vika kept her head down fixated on her satchel, cooing and babbling to her disgruntled cat who was ready to jump in her face and put an end to the nonsense. Vika rolled her eyes and sent out a silent prayer.

It was answered. The Goddess of Happy Endings looked down on mother and daughter and willed them a pleasant journey.

You will stop running. You will stop being afraid. I will not abandon you. I will show you a Latvia free of dirty dealings and intrigues. I will send you to Brivzemnieki where you will discover the wonders of this land—the majestic stork nests high up on power  masts, the  fields of wild flowers buzzing with  bees, the regal oaks,  the white Baltic birch groves, dew-filled early mornings luminous with sunlight, clear translucent ponds and exquisite water lilies, traditional saunas, brown Latvian cows, song festivals and children dancing.

And always the sea. The endless sea.

Chapter 12

It was a warm spring morning. Vika wasn’t normally up early, but important decisions had to be made. And really soon. Still in her robe and sipping on coffee, Vika sighed as a thought flitted by. Somewhere she had heard the aphorism: If you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life. Perhaps. But she herself  hadn’t stayed in London long enough to feel anything in particular. The trip had been simply to deliver a quick illicit item for her husband/crime boss Bernie Zito.

Vika  shuddered at the recollection, still not quite believing what an idiot she had been. She must have been sleepwalking throughout that whole period of her life and the tide had not turned in her favor. Now she was paying the price. And all the money in her bank account couldn’t get her out of the pickle she was in.

Riga was a different matter. As brash and spunky as Vika was, in Riga she had become a wounded and hunted animal. She was indeed tired of being afraid, both for herself and for her mother. Now on her second cup of coffee (which she enjoyed with a liberal splash of Balzams), Vika started to plan her getaway. There was just so much danger she was able to tolerate. How far out of reach did she want to get? Well, she could become an astronaut and fly to the moon, she laughingly said to herself. Pretty far-fetched science fiction but still it was high time to find some safety.

Besides, the weather was getting warmer. She could well pack up her mother, her cat and her computer and head for some fresh air and sunshine. The Midi of France? Tempting but not realistic.

The telephone ringing pulled her out of her deliberations. It was Irena reminding her of their lunch date at Osiris.

* * *

Irena had become addicted to the cappuccino served in her favorite café. And she liked the clientele—especially one client whom she had befriended. Or had he befriended her? Either way it had been mutual attraction which had developed into friendship over shared interests.

Two heads shot up as Vika came through the door. Irena waved and the gent at her table stood up. Vika arched an eyebrow. Who’s this?

She was about to find out.   

“Vika, I’d like you to meet my friend, Otto Silins.”

Vika just stood there, blinking as if disoriented.

The gent gave a head bow and waited for Vika to extend her hand. She didn’t. Vika hadn’t planned for this. Irena had never mentioned any of her friends before. But now she had serious things to discuss with her mother and wasn’t in the mood for socializing. Still she smiled politely, if not sincerely, as Otto pulled out a chair for her, across from the two of them.

“May I order you a refreshment?”

You can get the hell out of here, Vika thought as she sat down. Then, after a brief inner struggle, she said, her voice cold as ice, “My mother and I were to have lunch here. I’ll wait for the menu.”

Irena leaned forward in her chair. “What about a cocktail. You usually enjoy a drink before your meal. I mean, when we go out.” Irena babbled nervously. “They have such a good variety. I can recommend Balzams with currants. Or with cherries, if you prefer.”

“Just a glass of white wine,” Vika said to the waiter who had approached. “I’ll have Greek salad. What about you, mum?”

Sure it was borderline rude to ignore Otto but Vika had serious business to discuss. In the end, the two women ordered the same Greek salad. Now it was time for conversation.

Otto checked his watch. “Irena, I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you. I just remembered an appointment,” he said softly in Latvian.

“Please telephone me later,” Irena offered, giving her friend an apologetic smile.

Vika watched as the tall, handsome, older man got up, gave her another polite head bow, and headed for the door. She rolled her eyes.

Irena rarely got angry but this time she did.

“Listen here,” she said evenly. “You were very impolite. I’m shocked at you.”

Vika nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry. But there’s so much on my mind. I’ve made a serious decision and I need to talk to you. I had no idea you wanted to include someone I don’t know.”

“Well, you don’t know anyone, do you?” Irena snapped. “You and your gangster friends. You don’t know any decent people.”

Vika bristled. “Eggy. He’s decent. You like him, don’t you.”

Irena laughed. “He’s too young for me.”


Irena ignored this. “So, what’s the serious decision?”

Vika ordered a second glass of wine. Waited for it to arrive. Looked quickly around to be sure she wouldn’t be overheard.

“We have to get out of here. Out of Riga, I mean. It’s too dangerous for both of us. Eggy tells me that even you have been threatened.”

Irena’s jaw dropped. “But I love it here. I’ve made friends and…”

Vika leaned even closer to her mother, heads together like conspirators. “Your friends won’t disappear. But we must. If we want to stay alive. Your friends won’t enjoy coming to your funeral. But right now you mustn’t tell anyone.”

Irena’s eyes widened. She was silent for a few heartbeats.

“I see…” she finally said warily. “ You know more than I do about what’s going on. I mean about the danger we’re in. It was bad enough in New York. Now…”

Vika frowned. “Yeah. New York. The less said the better.”

Still, she was relieved that her mother wasn’t going to fight this. Never mind her new gent.

“It won’t be so bad,” she continued. There are lovely parts of Latvia to discover. Summer in Riga isn’t such a treat. The place is full of tourists…” Vika caught herself. What was she?

“It’s just that I have such good friends here,” Irena offered a bit sadly.

Vika smiled coyly. “Your Mr Silins might like to visit. We’ll find a beauty spot just for us—and for trusted friends. Somewhere the goons wouldn’t think of looking. We’ll be country girls. You’ll like that.”

Irena considered. “But where? Where are we disappearing to?”

Vika sipped on her wine. She felt like ordering a third glass. And why not? She wasn’t driving. She turned towards the bar and lifted her near empty (near full?) glass as a signal. “Would you like some more, mum?”

“I certainly would, Vika. I certainly would.”

The two women’s heads were almost touching they were so close. Vika leaned back to accept her glass of wine. As did Irena. Then they were back close to each other again, almost whispering.

“Eggy has a cousin in Talsi. That’s a little village—or rather a small city in the western part of Latvia.

Irena’s face brightened. “Of course I know Talsi! It’s a beautiful place in Kurzeme. My  mother’s family had a homestead not far from the center of town.”

Vika felt as if she could finally breathe easier again. “I’m so glad you’ve agreed. Eggy is already arranging things with Mara—that’s his cousin. But the important thing is to slip out of Riga like thieves in the night. No one must know. We can’t be seen leaving Riga.”

Irena was close to tears. “I’m so glad Eggy is helping.”

“Yes, but it would be too dangerous to have Eggy escort us. The goons are watching him. No one must be able to trail us as we’re leaving. One suitcase each. Plus Whiskey of course. We’ll be just two old cat ladies taking the bus to Talsi. Nothing special.”


Looking much like refugees from a noir crime movie, two dudes huddled close together on a café patio in central Riga. The same question ping-ponged between them: where is Vika? They both wanted an answer, but for different reasons.  

The men had locked eyes on each other, waiting to see who would blink first. Eggy finally did and had even considered walking away. But he just couldn’t. This guy (who had introduced himself as Alex) had important information. He knew about Vika’s gold Rolex and there could be more to get out of him. Better to refresh his coffee and try to build some rapport.

Eggy sucked in some smoke and looked around. “By the way, do you happen to know the owner of this place?”

Alex nodded. “Sure, but what does he have to do with your lady friend?”

“Well…” Eggy paused. Wondered how much he should disclose. If he gave a little something maybe this Alex would open up a bit more.

“I believe Misha was the last person to see Vika before she went missing. If we  find him we might find our lady.”

Alex gave Eggy a long pensive look. Then he motioned to the waiter who was adjusting the heat lamp.

“We’d like some fresh coffee. And we have a question for the owner.”

Eggy counted the seconds of silence. Four. Five.

“Coffee coming right up,” the waiter finally replied, turning away.

Alex frowned and repeated in a louder voice. “Please ask Misha to come over to our table. We have a business question.”

The waiter reddened. “Sorry. I’m new here,” he mumbled. “I’ll ask the bartender to speak with you.”

Moments later the waiter was back with the coffee but the bartender was unavailable.

Alex and Eggy looked at each other as if they were on the same team—which they were when it came to Misha. Eggy snorted while Alex gave a brief bark of laughter. Someone was clearly covering up something. A new question arose: where is Misha?   

For the time being, there wasn’t much they could do about Misha. Eggy had run out of cigarettes and was now bumming from Alex—not a bad thing since it was  great way to get close to someone.

They sat in silence for a few beats, smoking away, sipping on coffee and staring into space—until they spotted a stray dog which was shyly approaching their table. Alex smiled. He took the unused cream for the coffee and poured it into his saucer. He placed the saucer carefully down near his chair and made a soft coaxing sound with his lips. The dog lapped up the cream and wandered off. But not far. Eggy could see him curled up just outside the patio. Waiting?

Alex was still smiling when he turned to Eggy. “ I just love dogs. I have two myself. Now, getting back to our conversation, do you think your friend, Mrs Zito, has been honest with you?”

Eggy’s eyes widened. He thought for a moment. “Well, she’s a bit naïve, of course but I think she’s been pretty open with me.”

It was Alex’s turn to let out a derisive snort. “Naïve? Really? With a husband like New York mob boss Bernie?”

Eggy sat up in his chair. He had wondered about Vika’s husband.

“She must have been abused. They talk about battered woman’s syndrome or something like that. It must have been horrific.”

Alex couldn’t hold back laughter. “You’re the one who is naïve. She had a pretty luxurious lifestyle. Did she tell you why she had come to Latvia?”

Eggy frowned. This was confusing. He wasn’t going to tell Alex about his plans to rip her off. But things had certainly changed.

“Well, her mother is Latvian. She must have been looking for her roots, her ancestors—something like that.”

Alex shook his head. “Not true, my friend. She was a mule. Delivering secret documents from Bernie to our own crime boss, Juris Lapins. Now listen. This is interesting. Some people, and I won’t mention names, say that there was stuff missing from the packet of documents Mrs Zito had given to the police. And you know what was missing?”

Eggy had been listening in stunned silence. Was his friend Vika a criminal?

“What?” he croaked. “What was missing?”

Alex gave a sardonic half smile. “The password to the bitcoin account.”


A numbness sloshed through Eggy’s thoughts. What the hell is bitcoins? He didn’t say anything. Didn’t want to look like an ignoramus.

Alex continued. “So we just have to find her and ask her for the password. The reason she’s not in jail is because she cooperated with the police. Which is a great opportunity for us. We need that password.”

And what then? Eggy thought but didn’t say.

“Listen, I’m going to follow up with Misha. I’ll do some digging around and I’ll let you know what I find. Here’s my cell number. And let me take yours.”

Eggy hesitated. Playing for time, he asked Alex for a fresh cigarette. Should he walk away from all this? Alex was clearly a criminal. And what about Vika? How well did he really know her? He sifted quickly through his memories of Vika—her gusto, her vitality. She had made everything a celebration and had helped him when his father was ill.

Exhaling a large plume of smoke, Eggy  made an effort to shrug his doubts aside as Alex broke into his thoughts by offering his phone number. Eggy reluctantly followed suit.

* * *

Eggy couldn’t think straight. He needed to clear his head. How had he become involved with this Alex? And what was this bitcoin stuff?  Leaving Sam’s patio he just walked. Without much purpose. Walking always helped him think and calmed him. He couldn’t go home. He didn’t want this Alex following him again and finding out where he lived.

Earlier that day, he had decided to go to Vika’s apartment house. Perhaps the concierge knew something. Had seen something. But now he didn’t dare. The strange thing was that he again felt as if he was being followed. Several times he had looked back over his shoulder but saw no one suspicious.

To distract himself he glanced into shop windows as he marched along, his long legs serving him well. Before crossing Barona Street, he suddenly stopped. A familiar figure was coming towards him. It was Irena, Vika’s mother. Eggy hailed her. He had met Irena at his father’s memorial service and they had chatted amicably.

Irena looked puzzled for a moment but it quickly became clear to her who Eggy was. He seemed to be Vika’s only friend in Riga. She liked him but, under these circumstances, she didn’t trust anyone.

Irena granted Eggy the smallest of smiles. “It’s nice to see you,” she said politely.

Eggy was eager for news. “I’ve been looking for Vika. We speak on the phone regularly but now I can’t reach her. Where is she?”

Irena blinked at him. “She’s okay,” is all she had to say.

Eggy realized that Vika’s mother was being cautious. Regretfully he had to accept that.

“Please have her call me. I have some important news for her.”

Irena nodded, turned away and continued on her journey.

Eggy gnawed on his lower lip. She doesn’t trust me. For some reason this really troubled him. He was still mourning the death of his father and Irena had been so kind to him at the service. Had he lost her friendship?

He stopped at a corner store to buy cigarettes. Leaving the store, his eyes were caught by something familiar. It was the stray dog from the patio. Had the dog been following him? Was he waiting for him? Eggy had nothing against dogs. Growing up, his family had a cat. There had been no way to keep a dog in a small fifth floor apartment.

Eggy didn’t speak to the dog. Didn’t reach out a hand to pet him. There were many strays in Riga. There was a time people could no longer afford to keep their dogs and abandoned them out on the streets. Eggy sighed. How cruel life was. Sadly, not much had changed since the first chaotic years of Latvia’s second independence.

He lit up a cigarette and continued strolling aimlessly. He’d go to Vermane’s Park. Just sit on a bench and mull over all he’d heard from Alex. He’d go over his encounter with Irena and try to make sense of it all. But he was hungry. Luckily there were many decent eateries in central Riga. He stopped in at the Lido on Elizabetes Street and bought pork cutlets and potato salad to go.

Exiting the restaurant, what did he find? Yes, it was the familiar black and white patio dog.  This time Eggy couldn’t hide his smile. Could this be Fate?  

He approached, bent down and held out his hand to be sniffed.

In a soft voice he spoke to the dog. “Good boy! I think I’ll call you Sam.” 

The dog knew he had found a master. His tail started to wag and Eggy was glad that he had bought a double order of cutlets.

Chapter 10  

Five o’clock and the much-awaited Happy Hour finally descended on Riga’s parched inhabitants. What could be better than a very, very dry martini, double, stirred not shaken and offered up in a well-chilled crystal cocktail glass? Well, the only thing better would be two or more of these divine martinis. And Happy Hour could well be stretched out to two or more hours seeing as it was held in such high esteem by just about everyone here on God’s green earth. All it took was a drink or three to smooth out the rough edges of the day and then to usher in a leisurely dinnertime with plenty of wine and easy conversation—the truly civilized way of drinking.    

But instead of gin, rum, or whiskey, Irena was serving up chamomile tea to Vika  who was sprawled out like a log on the sofa with Whiskey kneading her chest and drooling all over her neck—half cat, half love-crazed masher.

Things were no better across town where a nurse was injecting meds into Misha’s arm. He had not yet opened his eyes and his case was fast becoming a medical mystery.

* * *

Vika took a sip of the tasteless lightly-scented brew which her mother had handed her and sighed. She had slept through the day. She was still groggy and her thoughts were unclear, as if her mind was operating underwater. New York and especially Central Park were lovely in springtime. All she had to do was book a flight; then she’d be home. She let her thoughts run free until they became dark and murky. Back home to what? She felt a swell of fear but managed to shoo it away. There was no going back.  

Even though her husband was in jail, he still had buddies around who were glad to do his bidding. Vika was sure that a contract had been put out for both herself and her mother. Sure she could be mugged and robbed in Riga but she knew of no overt mafia directive to finish them off. But that didn’t reassure her really. Could Juris Lapins have been a part of the attack? But then she’d have been seriously injured if not killed. Still, by having been the one to get Lapins sentenced to jail, she had saved him from the rival gang. Now Lapins was probably conducting his business from his cell. Instead of revenge, Vika figured that she had been the victim of a thug-level robbery—not at all uncommon in Riga these days. Lying there safe and fairly sound with her cat all over her, she still felt all kinds of doubts and fears creeping around her body, swelling her mind. Was she suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder?

She had a lot to process. Was Misha involved in her mugging? Who else could have been a part of the assault? The gold Rolex was the least of her worries. It was insured. Her phone held data which could eventually be replaced. It was in the Cloud. The diamond studs were nothing. She had another pair. The damage was to her sense of self. She had been reduced to a helpless victim. Was there anyone she could trust?  Was there even any sense in contacting police? Well, she’d need a police report for the insurance, wouldn’t she?  

Something inside her had changed. Something had been knocked out of her. Her world had shifted, changing form. A feeling of  emptiness remained and it frightened her.  Where do I belong?  She had no answer. Suddenly her face was wet, tears coming for the first time in a very long time. She was glad that her mother had stepped out to do some shopping.

* * *

Eggy couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being followed. Did he know too much? Had he overheard too much? Or was he being paranoid? He couldn’t  put out of his mind the conversation he had heard on Vika’s phone between Misha and some man called Ivars. They had been talking about Vika and about her disappearance. He had also heard Misha being mugged before Vika’s phone had run out of juice. He had saved the conversation on his phone and was wracking his brain about what he should do with this information.   

Five o’clock and Sam’s should be hopping. There was even an outdoor patio with heat lamps now that spring was finally settling over Riga. Eggy looked forward to sitting with a coffee and his cigarettes and sussing out whatever he could from the wait staff. Surely they would know what happened to Misha.

Eggy took a seat on the patio and, a few minutes later, noticed that a man he had not seen before had sat down at the adjoining table. For some reason he looked out of place at Sam’s. Too rough-looking, too furtive—certainly not a regular, more like a goon or even a hit man. He was wearing the ubiquitous gangster-wear– black leather jacket, jeans and heavy ass-kicking boots. Dipping his head, the dark-haired burly man lit up a cigarette and disappeared behind a curtain of smoke.

Eggy was no slouch when it came to lighting up. Before long, one side of the patio looked as if it was on fire. As usual Eggy was dressed all in black. Not gangster-wear but stylish skinny dark jeans, a black turtleneck and a dark blue denim jacket. Instead of boots he was wearing a pair of sensible sturdy walking shoes. Eggy was famous for his mop of lush salt and pepper hair and his signature soul patch. Despite the hostile vibe these two shared a stylistic brotherhood. Super-cool, minimalist, understated.  

A waiter approached to take orders. Eggy asked for a coffee. The man at the adjoining table did the same. This was not the time to ask about Misha. Eggy would wait.

Eggy took a sip of his coffee and almost choked when he heard the man speak in accented Latvian.   

“So, where’s your American friend today?”

Recovering, Eggy frowned and blurted out. “What?”

“You know who I mean. The lady you’ve been seen with around here.”

Eggy’s forehead creased in deep dislike. Who is this creep and what does  he want? Eggy always chose to avoid confrontations. He wasn’t a fighter but he was no pushover either. He couldn’t get a bead on the guy.

He half rose out of his chair. Fight or flight. “What the hell do you want from me?”

“Just being friendly,” came the reply. The words were followed by a rheumy smokers laugh which ended on a gasping hacking cough. The guy sounded as if he was about to stroke out or have a heart attack.

Eggy chose his moment. He leaned forward in his chair, shooting smoke at his interlocutor. “Why don’t you mind your own damn business,” he said angrily before quickly adding, with a smirk, “If you don’t mind me saying so.”

The guy had recovered from his coughing fit and continued his fake friendly approach. “But, my friend, it is my business. I’m very concerned about this lady. About her well-being, that is.”

Eggy let out a snort. “Concern yourself with your own well-being and leave me alone. “ With that he got up, preparing to leave the patio.

The stranger also got up and opened his hands in a gesture meant to appease. “Come on now,” he coaxed. “Bring your coffee over and sit down at my table. I can explain a few things.”

Eggy hesitated.

“Let me introduce myself. My name is Alex and what I have to say is for your own good.” He paused to light up a fresh smoke, took a deep inhalation and his black eyes bored into Eggy’s wide-eyed suspicious expression. “And, more importantly, it’s for your friend’s well-being as well.”

Eggy shrugged. His instinct told him to be careful. But he did want some explanation. So, still frowning, he reluctantly took a seat. His mind was a hive of questions. Was this guy one of Juris Lapins’ men, tasked to keep an eye on Vika? Surely Lapins must want revenge. And now she had disappeared. Maybe this guy knew something.

“What I can tell you is that I have information that some guy was trying to fence a gold Rolex with the name Vika engraved on it.”

Unable to control his astonishment, Eggy gasped.  He felt his mouth going dry.

Alex met Eggy’s eyes dead-on and asked the magic question.

“Where is she?”

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.”


“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.”