Ilze Berzins

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” Dima croaked.

“Aren’t you glad to hear from me?”

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

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

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

“No. This is more important. I just—”

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“England.”

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 35

Christmas could be hell on wheels for those living alone—especially in the dark cold of a Riga winter. Vika shivered. Maybe she’d go to Italy for Christmas. Hang out with little no-Rolex Frankie. She laughed out loud at the thought, but it was a laugh without any merriment. When was it that she had admired his thick black hair and nice profile? It felt like a lifetime ago. Maybe it was.

If she were religious she’d pray for a Christmas miracle. As it was, she fervently hoped that Frankie would soon bring her good news of her mother.

In the meantime life had to go on. Chores had to be done. Garbage needed to be taken out. The freezing cold courtyard of her apartment building was deserted. It was the darkest dark Vika had ever experienced. And it was deadly quiet. Scary. She did have a gun, but it was hidden away. Maybe she should have it on her.

Tentatively she felt her way forward, hardly making out the rubbish barrels. Was there something behind them? Someone? Vika caught her breath.

Out of the black dawn, appeared a tiny skeleton. A shadow, really. Huge glowing yellow eyes. Enormous white whiskers dwarfing a little black face.

Dropping the garbage bags destined for the barrels, Vika snatched up the tiny bundle of bones and rushed back inside. Food! What food did she have for a starving kitten?

She had nothing. But she did have neighbors. Holding the kitten tight, Vika knocked on the nearest door.  She did know some Latvian. Well, at least one word. One important word.

“Lūdzu…” She held up the kitten then pointed to her mouth, smacking her lips, miming eating sounds. “Lūdzu! Ludzu, some milk,” she tried again. The word spun dizzily in her mind. Her only word. Would it work?

From the little roly-poly woman who answered the door came a  blur of words Vika couldn’t understand. Vika stood still, put on a pleading almost-smile and tried her best lūdzu one more time.

The plump little woman turned away and bellowed, “Katia!”

A skinny young woman came running to the door. She smiled. “English. I speak English!”

Vika expelled the breath she’d been holding. Not knowing a word of Russian, Vika gushed in English “Oh Thank you. Thank you. You have food for the kitten?”

As she looked past the two women she saw what might have been a half dozen or more cats all eating from one dish or another.

“My grandmother says she already has too many cats and she can’t take another one. The animal shelter also says they have too many. We can’t afford to take care of so many. My grandmother doesn’t make much money taking care of this building and courtyard.”

Vika rallied. “No, no. I just need some milk. I’m keeping the cat.”

Katia’s face glowed. “Oh good! You’re English. Where do you live? I have so much homework. Even at Christmas. You help me and we’ll give you milk.”

Vika shot her a sharp look. “You give me the milk right now, miss!”

Vika was not used to this kind of bargaining. She drew herself up to her full height, presenting the brand of queenliness which had always got her what she wanted. Her stance had Katia hightailing it to the fridge and running back with a small carton.

“Yes, yes, lady.”

“Thank you. Paldies. And whatever it is that you say in Russian.”

Katia’s face brightened. “I can teach you Russian,” she said hopefully.

“No, thanks,” Vika called over her shoulder as she started to climb the stairs to her own apartment. She was not a person who believed in compromise.

* * *

The day seemed less cold, less lonely. Vika enjoyed the sight of her tiny kitten lapping at the milk for all it was worth. She had to name it. Was it a boy or a girl? Vika had never had a pet before. Irena didn’t like animals indoors. She might have tolerated a cat but never a dog. Bernie had no use for animals so this was a brand new experience.

The thought crossed her mind to bring it to Svetlana who probably knew all about cats. Vika quickly banished that thought but had another idea. She’d host a Christmas Eve luncheon at Sam’s. She knew it was last-minute and that everyone was probably busy but she’d try.

It turned out to be her lucky day. All her guest had accepted the invitation and she was able to reserve a good table.

Being sober might be a handicap, Vika said to herself, determined to be the first to arrive. Sam’s boasted a full wine list and the cocktails were interesting.

* * *

Vika was surprised to see that Sam’s was packed and it wasn’t yet noon. Something else was going on. She recognized Arsy who was smoking and had swapped his waiter’s outfit for a pair of jeans and a leather jacket.  He waved Vika over.

“Some of my paintings,” he announced, trying to sound casual. But Vika could tell he was proud and excited. He was having a one man exhibition. Even though Juris Lapins had ordered him to track down the fugitive Svetlana, she had so transformed herself that he merely glanced at the pretty girl who was following Vika.

The paintings were small, glittering like open jewelry boxes. Lots of metallic paint had created icon-like images. Looking closer Vika saw that each painting was an elaborate surrealistic tarot card. She had never been what’s called a deep thinker but she saw in each painting a hidden meaning, a juxtaposition of the esoteric and the mundane. She wouldn’t have used any of these words. She didn’t even know what she felt. But she was fascinated.

While she stood staring at the paintings her guests arrived. Vika’s heart soared with pleasure. I know all these people. They’re friends of mine. How could she ever feel lonely again?

She ushered Aunt Velga first to the head of the table. Then came Eggy and Simone and Svetlana.

The table had been beautifully set. There were fresh flowers on a white tablecloth, candles and fancy cloth napkins. Champagne was chilling in an ice bucket nearby.

“What a surprise! Arsy’s exhibition! And no one told me!” she exclaimed happily. She filled a glass and took it over to Arsy who was in conversation with an elderly lady. He looked drop-dead gorgeous and the lady was taking it all in.

“I’m reserving these two, please,” Vika stated firmly before returning to her table.

Simone glanced over at Arsy, blushed a little, then continued telling Vika about a special someone in her English class. Svetlana as well wanted Vika’s opinion about a personal matter but all Vika had on her mind was her kitten. What to feed it? How to care for it? Eggy rolled his eyes, Aunt Velga shut hers tightly and tapped her forehead. Vika had all the makings of a crazy cat lady. Would she stop at one? Then who would take care of the cat (or cats) once she left? There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Vika wasn’t staying in Latvia.

Amidst all the merriment, Vika’s cell pinged. A text from Frankie. She couldn’t breathe. Oh God please please please…  

The next moment her eyes filled with tears. Happy tears. Vinny had news that her mother was alive and well. He would be sending Vika instructions how to get in touch with her.

Straight out of a scene from a soppy Christmas movie, Vika exclaimed, “What a wonderful Christmas present!”

Gone were all thoughts of peril and hiding from the mob. Still, one early New Year’s resolution Vika had made was to always carry her gun. She was a good shot.

After the meal, Eggy took it upon himself to walk Vika back to her apartment. It was Christmas Eve, a time Latvians held in the highest esteem. Vika’s heart beat with gladness as she and Eggy dropped into the ornate little church on Lāčpleša Street to praise the Lord. Someone had to get credit for her current good fortune.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 34

As in every well-run household, there was a certain pecking order in the mule sanctuary. The eldest of the trio, Aunt Velga, called the shots. Simone, the rightful resident, seconded them. And Svetlana, who had transformed herself from a gangster’s moll to a grateful guest, was good with everything that went on. She felt safe and accepted.

Like birds-of-paradise in their tiny cage they preened and polished as they prepared for Christmas. Two Advent candles had already been lit, the apartment smelled sweetly of pine and gingerbread. Yet, the big task still lay ahead—pīrāgi. It was a well-known fact that the only one who could make better pīrāgi than Aunt Velga was God.

“You chop up the onions really fine,” Aunt Velga said to Svetlana who was looking a bit pale. There was certainly no left over glitz and glamor from her former life. Wearing one of Simone’s hand-me-downs, she looked like an ordinary Russian girl. Who would have recognized her? Not her former boss, Juris Lapins. But life wasn’t that kind. Juris had ways and means to track down the most sophisticated disguise.

“Oi!” Svetlana suddenly exclaimed, throwing down her paring knife. She clasped a hand over her mouth and rushed to the bathroom.

Aunt Velga gave her a worried look. Despite having recovered from her injuries Svetlana was still throwing up. Aunt Velga had tried traditional homemade remedies but nothing was working.

“Simone! Stop moping around and come help.”

Aunt Velga was in her prime. Svetlana had breathed new life into the old lady. The routine as caregiver had given her a purpose and had renewed her energy. And Vika had saved the day for the household, insisting on paying Svetlana’s room and board. After all, it was she who had unwittingly involved them all in this mess.

“Here I am!” Simone sang out cheerfully. Fed up with unrequited love, Simone was now mooning less over Arsy. She had to be realistic. Young men were unpredictable. As she chopped the onions, Simone hummed under her breath. There was an older gent in her advanced English class who had caught her eye. You never know, she thought to herself as she kept on humming. You never know.

“One day my pīrāgi will be just as good as yours, Auntie.”

Aunt Velga threw back her head in a mighty bust of laughter. “You have a long way to go!”

Simone giggled and lifted her glass. “To you, Hestia, Goddess of Goodies!”

This friendly exchange at Christmastime was a well-loved tradition, and always accompanied by shot glasses of schnapps.

Simone kept up the onion chopping, hummed some more, lifted her glass again and began to sing. As the delicious aroma of pīrāgi wafted through the hallways of this run-down apartment building there would be knocks on the door. Aunt Velga had easily won the National Pīrāgi Competition and she liked to share. Still in her big wraparound apron and cheerful scarf covering her hair she’d rush to the door with a newly baked pan.

This looked like happiness but it wasn’t entirely. None of them had forgotten the danger they were in. Svetlana was still a wanted woman—especially wanted by Juris Lapins who had given her the precious cargo destined for Bernie. And both she and Simone had witnessed Eggy save all of them from being killed by a gunman. Who knew anything about this gunman? Who was he working for? He must have been from a rival gang. Why would Juris Lapins have sent a killer to stop someone delivering his package? And, more importantly, was the gunman dead or alive?

* * *

For some reason Svetlana saw the ghost of Vika standing over her and saying, “Play your cards right.”

Whatever Vika had to say Svetlana would listen. Vika had been smart. She had squirreled away a small fortune while doing as little as she could for Bernie. Svetlana herself had been foolish. She had dropped out of school without even a high school diploma. Since childhood people had been praising her looks—that’s all she needed, she then thought. She could make it on looks alone. Would she become a movie star? A super model? A beauty queen of some sort? There were plenty of options for this very beautiful girl—tall, slender, high cheek bones, luminous aquamarine eyes with long lashes, a full mouth, perfect teeth. What could go wrong?

Successful beauties have brains—or their relatives have brains, or some mentor takes over. But Svetlana was on her own. She had been raised by her grandmother who had never liked how men looked at Svetlana. She feared for her granddaughter but had no way of controlling her. After leaving school, Svetlana had several low paying jobs.

There was a sharp knock on the bathroom door. She couldn’t stay here forever.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes. I’m coming.”

She still felt nauseous. Especially when it came to the cooking smells. Bacon disgusted her. She’d have to pretend.

“Pīrāgi!” She trumpeted. She’d take one and then hide it in a paper napkin. No way could she eat anything so… so fat and greasy. She knew it was a sacrilege to shun Aunt Velga’s cooking but she just couldn’t keep very much down.

She’d have to tell Dima what was going on. But could she trust him?  He was one of Juris Lapins’ lieutenants. Now that she had something important to tell him, should she contact him? She wondered if Dima knew the gangster who had tried to kill her with his car.

What would Vika do, she asked herself. She would play her cards right. But what cards was Svetlana holding? A couple of jokers?

“I’ll just lie down for a bit,” she told Aunt Velga and proceeded to her makeshift bed. She had even stopped smoking and didn’t feel like sharing the glasses of schnapps which were being passed around in Aunt Velga’s kitchen.

When was the first time she had noticed Dima? Svetlana thought back to her childhood in the derelict apartment block in Purvciems. The kids all looked up to this older youngster. He was so brash, so handsome, so full of life and ambition. But Dima had eyes only for her. Her grandmother had warned her to stay away from older boys like Dima but she was drawn to this energetic bad-boy with his aura of danger and adventure. It was exciting to be admired. At sixteen she became his steady girlfriend. There had been no one else.

How did she get entangled in the dark world of international crime? She did it for love. She’d do anything to please Dima. Dima had pulled her out of abject poverty and Juris Lapins aka “the Godfather” had, in turn, made Dima a rich man.

She still had Dima’s cell phone number. She’d have to think carefully how to proceed.

What would Vika do in her place?

 

 

 

Chapter 33

Someone once said that even gangsters have morals. Perhaps some do but Bernie Zito wasn’t one of them. At the moment he was desperate. His mule, and more importantly her cargo, was slipping through his fingers. Frankie (his man in Riga) had gone AWOL. All the leverage he had left was the mother-in-law.

Vika was shivering, rubbing her arms as if she’d caught a chill. Even though she was seated at the prime table in Osiris—the one next to a fireplace—she couldn’t stop shaking. Eggy had ordered her a hot balzams drink and watched, with concern, as she took a few sips.

This wasn’t the brash flashy Vika he had met at the airport just a short while ago—although it seemed to him that he had somehow known her forever. Gone were the diamonds and the self-confident smile. Her eyes were imploring. She was pale, her voice feeble and hesitant.

“Is this a trick, Eggy? Is it? Is this his way of dragging me back? Back to face his wrath? He would never let me go. He’d kill me.”

Eggy knew nothing at all about organized crime. Well, he knew that it existed. Everywhere. But it had never touched him. Growing up in Soviet Latvia, he had learned to stay silent, to stay invisible, to blend in and to survive.

“I don’t know, Vika. I just don’t know. But it’s monstrous to use an old lady—a mother—to terrorize someone. To terrorize you.”

Vika exhaled a long sigh, her shoulders slumped. Her mind felt paralyzed, as if it just couldn’t take in another thought. Sitting up straighter, she ordered herself to snap out of it. She had to do something. But, other than repeatedly calling and texting Irena, she just didn’t know what to do. She wished she had gotten to know the other people in her mother’s condo building. But back then Vika hadn’t felt the need to be over-protective. Things had run smoothly. Vika had taken her trips on Bernie’s behalf. Irena had enjoyed the comfort and safety of her condo. Nothing could have made Vika think that this seemingly harmonious life couldn’t go on. Until Latvia.

She reviewed her acquaintances in New York. There was no one she could trust. Most of  them were Bernie’s friends. There was just no one in New York she could ask for help. Then it occurred to her. Maybe there was. Where was Frankie? Was he still here in Riga or had he returned to New York?

With shaking hands Vika opened her phone. Saw again the text from Bernie. Your mother has had a heart attack. She’s asking for you. Come home.

She’d try to play him. Yes, Bernie! I’m so worried. Please, please tell me more. Where is she? How bad is it? Can I reach her? Please!

She closed her phone, put it on the table and looked up at Eggy with a wane smile. At least she was trying. She closed her eyes and gently tapped her phone as if in a religious ritual. Suddenly she remembered how hungry she was.

“What’s good to eat here?”

Eggy’s face brightened. “Let’s look at the menu. I think there’s even one in English.”

The phone pinged. The ritual had worked—but not in a good way. A text from Bernie: She needs you to come home. She doesn’t want to die alone.

Vika chewed on her lower lip. She cursed herself for allowing her eyes to mist over and for the tears that were now coursing down her cheeks. No need for a menu.

She needed to act. She needed to call Frankie. He was now her only hope—the last straw she could hang on to.

Luckily Frankie answered almost immediately. He had made it out of the cold. He was in Italy soaking up the warm sun. But there was a bit of good news. Once he had heard Vika’s story he told her he’d ask his cousin Vinny, who was well-connected in New York, to make some inquiries. Frankie himself had retired. He was well out of the game. But Vinny was reliable.

*  *  *

*  *  *

Some gangsters did have—if not morals—at least a modicum of good manners. Juris Lapins had handed Arsy a crumpled pack of cigarettes. He had even reached out and lit Arsy’s fag. Nothing threatening about that!

Arsy exhaled smoke, tried to relax. Tried to see Juris as just a devoted grandfather. Aina’s grandfather. Juris had a chamelionlike ability to become anything he wanted—a doting grandfather, a trusted friend, a ruthless criminal.

Arsy sat there smoking for what felt like hours. In fact only a few minutes had passed. Juris was ready to hear his story.

“Would you like a drink? Coffee?” Juris knew that making people comfortable paid off. His charm was a gift from the Goddess of Gangsters—or from KGB training on how to seduce foreign visitors into revealing more than they were prepared to tell.

“No. Thank you.” Arsy’s smile was uncertain. “I felt I should tell you what I know.”

“Have your coffee first. I notice your hands are trembling. The coffee will calm your nerves. Or would vodka be better?”

Juris signaled one of his boys to serve the coffee, whether Arsy wanted it or not. No one says “no thanks” to Juris.

Arsy accepted the coffee, took a long calming breath and just dove in. He told Juris about the visit from Ivo. In order not to leave anything out, he forced himself to talk about Aina. At the mention of his granddaughter’s name, Juris’ face darkened and the whole complexion of the meeting changed.

Arsy was scared to death.

“My granddaughter has longed to travel. There are excellent art schools abroad. Don’t mention her name again!”

You could hear a pin drop. Arsy’s eyes widened, his complexion turned ashen.

Juris continued in a calm and non-aggressive voice. “Listen up. If you want to stay alive, this is what you’re going to do. This Ivo you’re telling me about was a nobody. You saw him on the steps of the academy. Ivo is no more. He took his last breath on those stairs.”

Arsy’s blood ran cold. He could hardly speak. “What am I supposed to do?” he whispered. From his work as an art forger who had been trying to make just enough money to make ends meet, he had just crossed the line into an even darker and deeper circle in Dante’s Inferno.

Under his breath he murmured in Russian God have mercy on my soul.