Ilze Berzins

Chapter 15

Vika felt as if she were in a film. Here she was, a damsel in distress in a melodramatic noir. She herself couldn’t believe what was going on. It seemed so unreal. She found herself outside a restaurant in Riga, with a man she didn’t know, going off to search for a woman she didn’t know. Crazy! Yes, it was really crazy of her. She thought about that a moment, but quickly banished any apprehension. Oh, but the unknown was so exciting! She felt more alive than she had been in ages. Certainly it was more thrilling than trudging through tourist sites in the company of a paid tour guide–no matter how riveting his eyes. Or lounging on her comfy daybed in Manhattan, staring aimlessly out the window at a park with a lot of  trees and bushes.

The film cut to the other lead character. Arsy was taking charge. He reached an arm out to her. “Come. Let’s sit in the park. I’ll make phone calls.” He pulled out his cell and his pack of cigs. He allowed himself an extra today. Just to calm his nerves.

“You say a Svetlana was hit by a car on Elizabetes Street yesterday?” Vika nodded, shuddering at the memory.

Arsy looked at her earnestly. “I will help you.”

She gave him an uncertain smile. She knew absolutely nothing about this guy. Could she trust him? Well, she had to. There was no one else. She listened intently as Arsy continued,

“One of my relatives could give me information. It could take a bit of time but I think we’ll be successful.”

Vika relaxed.

It was a mellow afternoon. Most of the trees were bare but a few colorful bushes still blazed in the fading gray light. How eerie and mystical to see the dark coming on this early. She pulled her pashmina tighter around herself. November had always been a grim month for her. A touch of depression, a feeling of futility. How strange that she actually felt quite exhilarated, sitting here in this pretty little park with a perfect stranger. She grinned to herself. Perfect all right. This Arsy was a hunk. And this park was so much more intimate than Central Park.

Arsy looked intense as he talked on the phone. Vika could tell it was Russian and not Latvian. She had no strong political views even though her mother had told her stories about the brutal Soviet occupation and her family’s flight from the Bolsheviks. It seemed such a long time ago to Vika. She had never been what one would call a “thinking person” but, just recently, thoughts were stirring and she loved the sense that she could learn something—something about the country of her ancestors.

She pulled out her phone. She should text her mother–but didn’t get to do that as Arsy had finished his conversation and was turning to her.

“Now we must wait. They will call back.”

Vika frowned. “How long will we have to wait?”

“Fifteen minutes. Half an hour,” Arsy replied with a shrug

“But it’s so cold!” Vika shivered and rubbed her hands together. She certainly wasn’t dressed for the weather.

“Oh sorry,” Arsy grimaced sympathetically. He began to take off his jacket. “Put this on.”

Vika waved him away. “No, no. I have a better idea. Please come back to the hotel with me. I need to put on warmer clothes.”

“Nice to have a cup of coffee too.” Arsy gave a half smile. He had been on duty at Sam’s since early morning.

“You bet!” Vika smiled. “And with a nice shot of liquor,” she added companionably.

* * *

Coffee with a jigger of whiskey was just what the doctor ordered. Vika, wearing soft faded jeans and a quilted jacket, had joined Arsy in the café of the Hotel de Rome.

Arsy was wide-eyed at what to him seemed like splendor and opulence. It was a palace There must be lots of rich people here, he said to himself. It would be great to get a job at this hotel. Job? He didn’t really want to think about that. He really wanted nothing more than to get back to his painting.

The whiskey had done him good and he thought of the fake Rozentals. And he thought of this nice rich American who could be talked into investing in a Latvian masterwork. He hoped to get to know her better. This was an excellent beginning.

For her part, Vika had raided the well-stocked mini bar. Just some extras for the road. She wasn’t going to do the driving and she had already enjoyed a mini bottle of a new wonderful brew. Balzams.

Now, let the adventure begin! She hugged herself, almost giddy at the thought of the escapade which lay ahead. Not for a moment did she think of any real danger. Once she was in, she would have no way of getting out. Real life was not a movie. Oddly enough, she had no inner voice warning her to be careful.

Earlier she had examined the contents of Svetlana’s briefcase and, aside from the package destined for Bernie, had found her personal belongings. A packet of cigarettes, a cosmetics bag, keys, and an appointment diary. Where was her money and her ID? Perhaps in a pocket.

Sipping her coffee, Vika wondered if this place was the the famous Otto Schwarz café her grandmother had spoken so much about. That’s where the beautiful people had once congregated, shared romances and intrigues. The thirties were indeed the golden age of Latvian society and Vika had listened spellbound. Elegant ladies, spiffy gents, artists, and poets and what were then called gay Paris types. Looking around, she sighed. All that had seemingly vanished. What remained were a bored waiter, a barman aimlessly polishing glasses, and a few remarkably inelegant  patrons, apparently killing time.

Vika’s reverie was interrupted by Arsy’s cell phone’s brring. He spoke a few words, then eagerly gave Vika a thumbs up.

“We have located a Svetlana in the Trauma Hospital. It’s quite far from here. We can’t walk.”

“No worries,” Vika said cheerfully. She mentally reviewed the wad of euros in her handbag. “We’ll get the porter to call a cab.”

Vika was enthralled by the dark that had crept up on them. It surprised her as it was only a little after four. Yet, it was a pleasant surprise. And only added to the delicious anticipation. She couldn’t wait.

Fortified by their spiked coffee, the two of them headed to the exit. And as fate would have it, something significant happened. Striding through the door, Arsy collided with a man coming the opposite way and almost knocking him to the ground. “Ah ti sukin sin!” Arsy spat in annoyance.

Even though he didn’t understand Russian, the short Italian understood being cussed at. But he swallowed his anger. He had to stay focused. Brushing himself off, he wondered, Who’s the dude? The Rolodex in his mind took a whirl. Nothing there. Maybe the bruiser’s a gigolo. The thought made him give out a brief snort.  Good for Mrs Z. And, by the way, what’s she doing here?

The Italian was left to watch in annoyance and puzzlement as the couple got into a taxi and were whisked away. He didn’t even get a chance to catch the cab number

Trying to compose himself, he looked around. What to do? He approached reception and inquired as nonchalantly as he could if Mrs Zito was a guest at the hotel. He was met with an icy stare.

“I can’t give you any information. There is no Mrs Zito staying here.”

Anyone passing nearby could hear his angry muttering. “Damn! I’m tired of this. Bernie should have planted some sort of electronic bug on her so he could track her movements himself.”

The next time Frankie Caputo would talk to Bernie Zito he would tell his boss to track his lovely wife from her phone. A lot easier than sending Frankie on these harebrained missions.

He hated being here. The people were four times his size and he couldn’t even carry a piece. He had no connections. Frankie was more at home in New York or even in Napoli where he understood the language. And they understood him.

* * *

The cab dropped them off at the hospital entrance. Vika paid the fare, delighting the driver with a generous tip. She was busy counting out the euros and hadn’t seen Arsy glancing covertly at her,  noticing the tip. She was bracing herself, hoping that Svetlana would not be severely injured.

A hospital visit seemed straightforward to her. They’d both be going into the main entrance and checking in with the staff on duty.

But Arsy had other plans.

“My cousin, Vera, wants us to meet her at the service door. It’s better that way,” Arsy explained. “And we’ll have to give her something for her trouble.”

Vika was puzzled. What trouble?

“You know the word blats?”

She shook her head.

“Here you find nothing without blats. Nobody knows anything unless you pay them. And sometimes you have to pay people so that they don’t know anything.”

Vika threw back her head and laughed.

“Oh! Just like New York!”

 

 

Chapter 14

The cab let Irena out on Fifth Avenue. As usual a doorman rushed over to usher the elegant older lady into the prestigious Art Deco building. Irena was able to bypass the concierge when he offered to call  Bernie, explaining that she had the key to the twelfth floor apartment.

Vika had given her the key and she often used it since Bernie was rarely at home during the day and she wanted to sit in Vika’s boudoir — as Vika called the small sunlit room off her bedroom where she felt the most at ease. Vika, as well as Irena, often lounged on the cushioned day bed that faced the window that faced Central Park. Beside her was an antique side table with just enough room for her favorite gardenia plant and her cocktail. The only other furniture was a small French desk where Vika would arrange her appointments and write in her journal.

Irena was worried. A mother knows. She feels it in her bones. Sure Irena had received short texts from Vika saying she was enjoying Riga, but this did not satisfy her. What was she enjoying? Vika had not described any of the beauty spots—had not mentioned the Opera House nor historic Old Riga with its cobblestones and architectural splendor. Now she regretted that she had not gone along with Vika. Leaving her to her own devices could be dangerous. Vika was foolhardy. Had been since birth. Just throwing herself into every adventure which came her way. For someone like her daughter there would be so many ways to get into trouble. She wondered if she should tell Bernie that she had changed her mind about going to Latvia.

* * *

The soundless elevator opened directly into a foyer up high on the twelfth floor. Irena paused before going further, startled by the sound of Bernie’s voice. It was unusual for him to be home at this time of the day. She wondered if she should just turn around and leave. But some instinct told her that something was going on that she should know about. Bernie’s voice was rough and very loud. He sounded like a gangster, his speech clipped and fast like a wise guy. She had only heard his smooth talk—false and ingratiating as it was. She had never trusted that voice. Never trusted him.

Bernie was raging—shouting at someone about a Svetlana. It seemed that he was on the phone with a Juris – clearly a Latvian name. She was baffled. And intrigued. Could he be talking to someone in Latvia?

Something must have alerted Bernie of her presence. He pulled open the door of his study and gave Irena a menacing stare.

“What?”

How crude and unwelcoming! Irena felt a chill. She lowered her head in a submissive posture. “I just wanted to sit in Vika’s sunroom. I miss her. It gets lonely for me and I haven’t heard from her today.”

The look Bernie gave her could have stopped a bullet. A fleeting thought crossed her mind. Has he ever killed anyone? She hated the thought but couldn’t help wondering. Still, Irena knew what worked best with Bernie: she had to appear docile and subservient.

“I’m sorry, Bernie. I know I should have phoned. But I was so worried…”

Bernie’s lips stretched in a half smile. He didn’t want to antagonize the old lady. But he had to get rid of her. He needed to call Juris back. What a fuckup!

“Irena, there is nothing to worry about. Our Vika is having herself a grand time. She’s booked into one of Riga’s best hotels and she has Latvian friends.”

“Latvian friends? You mean strangers she met on Facebook?”

“Vika’s a smart cookie,” he humored Irena. “No way would she friend some Charles Manson types. Just stop worrying. Please!”

The “please” from this stocky bully sounded like an order. It quivered in the air like a threat. And Irena couldn’t quell the panicky feeling gnawing at the pit of her stomach. For the first time ever, she was  afraid of her son-in-law.

Irena turned to leave. And Bernie, like an aggressive bulldog, was at her heels, ushering her to the front door.

* * *

Irena lived in a brownstone on a quiet street lined with trees and garbage cans.  New York was chaotic.  An old city. But she felt peaceful and safe in her condo.

Back home again, Irena drew a deep breath. She just had to reach Vika. She’d call and text until there was a response – if that’s all she’d do that day. Maybe Vika knows a Juris or a Svetlana. What else could Irena do? Contact the American Embassy? She really had no one to advise her.

She had never approved of Bernie. There had never been an ounce of romance in him. She knew he had come from humble beginnings. From owning a Chick’nKing franchise in the Bronx to working his way up to taxi medallions in Manhattan. Then the money poured in. His businesses became secretive and international. At around this time he met Vika.

Vika had never been in love with the crude businessman but she loved what he could give her. She loved their fabulous apartment overlooking the most prestigious neighborhood in New York and Central Park. She loved decorating. She had the large apartment decorated tastefully. It was contemporary with some exquisite antiques and a few art pieces.  The color scheme was a mix of white, ivory and soft rose.  She had some friends, but Bernie was controlling and warned her not to get too close to anyone. People are not to be trusted.

So, little by little, her active and popular daughter had become a recluse. Spending hours in her boudoir. Only going out when she had to be on Bernie’s arm during one of his business functions. Irena didn’t know that her daughter had something to hold over Bernie’s head. Vika had never told her mother about her secret international missions. Nor about her private bank account.

By now it was evening and she still hadn’t heard from Vika. She thought back to Bernie talking to a Juris. They had no Latvian friends in New York. Was he talking to someone in Latvia? And could this somehow have something to do with not being able to reach Vika. Was Vika in danger? And had she herself overheard too much? Was she in danger as well — a sitting duck in her own apartment?

She went back to her front door to double check that the deadbolt was locked.

 

CHAPTER 13

“Play it again, Sam,” were Ingrid Bergman’s famous words to the piano player in Casablanca. Who in the world would ever forget them? Certainly not the owner of Sam’s, a trendy cafe/restaurant in Riga.  Misha was too subtle to plaster the place with old posters advertising the film. Nor did he have a tinkling piano in one corner of the cozy restaurant. But the vibe was there. Nostalgia reigned. And, for some reason, a happy mix of expats and local Latvians chose to assemble there. The entire place was a smoking section, even though this was against regulations. Bogie would have liked that. And, besides, the food was good and not too expensive.

Sitting at the bar, one could spin yarns as long as forever and no one would ever care. Somehow the place made patrons remember things that weren’t there and talk about things that had never happened. The ambiance fostered fantasies and was comfortable with half-truths, tall tales and even outright lies.

For a number of these reasons, Sam’s had become the go-to place for Eggie. He could sit with his cigs and coffee for hours, just staring into space and no one would bother him. But this noon time he was expecting two ladies to join him. It was quite brilliant of him to use Simone as a go-between—simple Simone, as he often thought of her, but also useful Simone.

And here she was, standing momentarily at the entrance of the restaurant as if to herald a celebrity. No one would be disappointed. Vika was resplendent. She had not held back. Her diamonds were meant to be worn and not locked up in a safe. Even if just for lunch.

Bernie had liked her to be showy and showy she was. It wasn’t vanity as much as habit—always pandering to Bernie’s preference. She hadn’t adjusted yet to modest yet elegant Riga.

Sequins all over her bright blue t shirt, and an enormous, multi colored, cashmere pashmina (banned in the USA) draped over her shoulders, form fitting black leggings and stiletto booties. Here in Latvia there were no PETA advocates to lecture her about cruelty to Pashmina goats.

All eyes turned to her as she followed Simone to Eggie’s table. Some eyes were more focused than others. Arseniy happened to be on duty, having postponed his retirement due to lack of money. Star struck, he stared at her like an eagle about to swoop down on colorful prey. The flash of diamonds on her fingers, her ears, her wrist dazzled him. Without hesitation, he made a beeline for Simone who was ushering the diamond-studded princess to a nearby table.

“So good to see you again, Simone (it took a few moments to come up with her name).”

Seated between Eggy and Vika, Simone blushed with pleasure. She turned coy, looking up at Arsy from under lowered eyes. Eggy exhaled a stream of smoke and Vika gave the waiter a quick appraising look.

“We’d like to see a menu, please,” she said in English, ignoring Arsy’s million-watt smile.

He bowed slightly. “Yes, lady.”

“But wait. We’ll have our drinks right now.” Vika turned to Eggy and Simone who were momentarily puzzled. “I’m having a mint julep. How about you?” She smiled to herself. She was the guest. Those two will pick up the tab. “And then the wine menu, please.”

Eggy wanted coffee. Simone chose orange juice.

“How are you enjoying Riga so far?” Eggy asked inanely, hoping to break the ice.

Vika felt like rolling her eyes. Instead she simpered, “It’s marvelous! So beautiful! So… um… European and–”

Her words were interrupted by Arsy who was approaching with an obsequious expression on his brazenly handsome face. “Bartender said no mint—how you say?”

“No mint juleps. What kind of a joint is this?” Vika flapped her hand in  exasperation. “Okay bring me gin and tonic. And make it a double.”

How to get the conversation to hospitals—to hospital visits? She hadn’t  stopped thinking of Svetlana. She decided to be direct.

“Yesterday I had a real shock. I met a lady at the Radisson and we became quite friendly. She was hit by a car on Elizabetes Street. An ambulance came. I want to visit this lady. Can you help me?”

Simone’s face was expressionless. Eggy pulled out his crumpled pack and lit another cigarette. No one spoke for a full minute. This was not going as planned. The silence was broken by Arsy who gave a slight bow, deposited the drinks and presented the menus.

Vika frowned. Her voice took on a lofty tone. “Lemon, or better still, lime, please.”

Arsy’s shoulders slumped. He had some choice words for this sukha. Still, one look at the dazzling tennis bracelet on her wrist and he again offered his slight bow and ingratiating smile.

“Yes, lady.”

Vika turned to her companions who were sipping their coffee and juice.

“I was hoping you could help me. I have no one else to turn to.”

Vika didn’t do pathetic very well. She had never had to cajole or sweet talk to get her way. She looked at Eggy and Simone expectantly. Strange that Eggy’s eyes had lost their power over her. She knew how to take control of a situation. Living with Bernie had taught her a thing or two.

“If it’s a question of money…” She let the words trail off.

Arsy was back with a wedge of lemon and ready to take orders.

“I’ll have your best fish dish and a salad,” she said. Then seeing the puzzled expression on the waiter’s face she relented. “Alright. Fine. I’ll have the chicken. She looked around. Yes, chicken it was for the three of them.

“And a bottle of… um… ,” She consulted the wine menu. “Burgundy.”

Eggy and Simone exchanged worried glances. They had invited her for lunch. This meal would ruin them.

Speech lapsed into silence as the meal was presented and the wine poured. Over coffee Vika again tried to glean information about hospitals but didn’t learn much. There was shoulder shrugging and lighting up of cigarettes but nothing else.

Misha, the owner of Sam’s had observed their table Wreathed in smiles, he approached.

“How was everything?” To which Vika replied, her tone icy, “It was alright.” She was getting tired of the sycophantic attention she had attracted.

Once coffee and dessert were over, she allowed Eggy to pick up the tab. It was just a little test to see what these folks were really up to. She could just imagine them regrouping. How much more money were they prepared to lose?

Misha was still standing there, with Arsy hovering close by. Vika decided to pose her question.

“Tell me. I’ve been trying to find out.” She shot a disparaging look at her table companions. “If a person is hit by a car on Elizabetes Street which hospital would the person be taken to?”

Misha gave her a startled look. “When did this happen? Who was hit?” Vika waved this away. “Just tell me.”

“Let me see. You said Elizabetes Street. I think there are two possibilities. Trauma Center Vidzemes priekspilseta and the Second Rigas hospital Zemgales priekspilseta.”

This didn’t mean anything to Vika. She gave Misha a sort of smiling frown. “I don’t quite understand…”

Arsy saw his big chance. Ignoring his boss, he pushed himself forward.

“I’m off in an hour. I can help you find… I have sister working in one hospital and  cousin working in other. Then we can go.”

Misha spread his arms magnanimously. “That’s good, Arseniy. But you can go right now. Lunch is almost over and I can help out myself.”

 

CHAPTER 12

Vika was transfixed. It was like everything seemed to have stopped,  then started ticking again, but all in slow motion. The ambulance had arrived. A crowd had gathered. How long could she just stand there with people jostling around? She shook herself and realized that she’d have to somehow put one foot in front of the other and go to her new hotel. How lucky for her that everything had been moved out of the Radisson. She just couldn’t have stayed. She had to be as far away as possible from the sight of a car gunning towards Svetlana. Was she still alive? Was she badly injured? Vika was sure it was no accident.

Her phone had kept pinging and she turned it off. She didn’t want to hear from anybody. She wanted to cocoon herself and remain in the semi trance which had enveloped her. And which was protecting her.

Once safely in her room Vika stripped down and pulled the soft white dressing gown around herself. She raided the minibar. Of course you can handle this. Of course you can… she crooned to herself as she wrapped the duvet around herself and huddled on the bed with drink in hand. For the time being she felt safe. But for how long? Bernie would be trying to reach her, wanting to know about the transaction. The thought of Bernie made her shudder. It wasn’t a good idea to think about life with Bernie. Whenever she did she felt stuck, sucked down, defeated. Best not to think about him at all. He was far away.

Just then a thought occurred to her: she would text Bernie and tell him that Svetlana hadn’t turned up. Would she be protecting both herself and Svetlana? There was really no one that she could talk to. No one she could trust.

The gin and tonic had relaxed her. She opened her phone and saw the messages. Egmonds. Oh God! Him! Her interest in the man had evaporated—vanished like the morning dew with the sun’s first caress. Sightseeing with a tour guide was the last thing which interested her now. What a fiasco! She’d simply pay him off and take her time visiting Riga on her own. The one call she did make was to her mother, Irena, just to quickly assure her that all was well. She didn’t dare tell her the truth. She ignored all the messages from Bernie. She’d deal with that later.

When was the last time she’d eaten? She thought back to her first full day in Riga. Nothing but orange juice and coffee. The drink had made her dizzy. Perhaps she just needed to sleep. But first she placed the contents of Svetlana’s briefcase into the safe.

* * *

The next morning the phone on her bedside table rang. Vika interrupted her breakfast-in-bed to answer. Then she made a grimace. What the hell! A lady was at reception looking for her. Who? Vika struggled to remember the name of the woman who had greeted her with flowers at the airport. That seemed like another lifetime ago.

“Hello, hello. It’s me. Simone. Remember we met at the airport. I’d like to see you.”

With a groan Vika fell back against the cushions piled up on the headboard. She had to get this over with.

“Okay. Come up.”

She immediately called room service for fresh coffee. Looking around, she sighed with relief that the room was reasonably tidy. She hadn’t had time to unpack or make herself completely at home.

A few minutes later there was a commotion at her door. Vika had posted a DO NOT DISTURB sign and now here were two people who were holding a conversation. Vika crawled out of her bed and put on her dressing gown.

“Enter!” she called through the door.

Simone entered first, followed by a waiter with a tray.

“Sorry, sorry…” Simone began. She was flustered but Vika waved her aside.

Turning to the waiter she indicated that the tray was to be placed on a side table. Next she pulled out a bill from her wad of fivers which she had at ready for tipping.

“Paldies,” she said with a self-satisfied smile. See. She could speak Latvian quite well.

She turned to Simone. “Excuse my dishabille. I’m just resting from the excitement of being in Riga. But do have some coffee. How do you take it?”

Simone stared blankly. She was at a loss. Dishabille? How does she take her coffee? She wished Eggy were here. He’d have Vika in bed in a heartbeat but she, Simone, had to soldier on alone. All she could think of saying was “thank you—or paldies.”

“Have you had breakfast? It’s so easy to send for some eggs, an omelet maybe?”

Simone was tempted. But better not. Eggy had given her instructions.

She sat down next to Vika, crossed her legs at her ankles, pulled down her skirt to cover her knees and took the coffee cup.

“Now, how in the world did you find me?”

Simone was taken aback. “Well, Egmonds told me.”

Vika looked at her skeptically. “How did he know?”

“I don’t know. He just told me you would be here.”

Vika frowned. That was strange. She hadn’t told anyone where she was going. Still, she decided to let it go for now. Simone had that blank, clueless look.

“Perhaps you’d prefer some nice orange juice? Freshly squeezed. Too much coffee gives me acid,” Vika said companionably. She wanted to put Simone at ease. And put herself at ease as well.

“No, no. Paldies. But I have an invitation for you. Egmonds and I would like to take you for lunch at one of our favorite restaurants. It’s not far from here. Many people like it. Will you come?”

Vika softened. This woman was so earnest. She had no doubt that Simone was wearing her finest again. A wool skirt, a heavy grey jacket over a pink blouse and sensible shoes.

The terrifying sight of watching the car crash into Svetlana had sent Vika in a different direction. She now had a mission. Maybe these people will help me find out where Svetlana is, she thought to herself. I need someone to help me. But will they help? The glimmer of doubt suddenly became a glare. Could these people have anything to do with what happened to Svetlana? She shrugged the troubling thought away. They looked too naïve and simple to be involved in anything like that. Still, all the more reason to get to know them better.

She smiled at Simone. “I’d be delighted to accept your invitation.”

 

Chapter 11

Eggy frowned in exasperation. Vika was not answering his telephone calls. He had tried texting but again no response. The only thing left was to show up at the Radisson and see how she was doing. It could be more serious than just jet lag. Maybe she was ill.

He still had the old Toyota Yaris which he’d rented to show Vika around. But better to walk. He needed to burn off his anxiety and besides, it wasn’t that far. He had strong, long legs which had served him well for his fifty plus years.

It was now barely daylight and rain had started, making the damp penetrate through his light jacket. He shivered as he hunched his shoulders. Not great weather for sightseeing. He once again asked himself why the American had chosen November for her trip. Was there some special reason she had chosen this time of year?

Head down, he strode purposely along Barona Street until he reached Elizabetes Street where he turned right. Before passing through the hotel’s revolving doors he rehearsed what he’d say. He had to find a diplomatic way to let Vika  know that she should stay in touch. After all, it was she who had requested his services.

Eggy was completely unprepared for what came next. He was in for a huge surprise. He stood stock still at the reception counter, his mouth almost open in astonishment. He couldn’t understand it. The clerk had just told him Mrs Zito was no longer at the hotel.

“She checked out earlier and left no forwarding information,” the pretty young woman at the counter said with a regretful expression on her face.

Whoa! She’s gone! Eggy clamped his lips tight. His hands made fists. He badly needed a cigarette. But even more badly he needed details.

Eggy faked an easy smile. “Surely there must be a way to find Mrs Zito. She asked me to meet her here…”

He glanced at her nametag. Linda. Time for some strategic romancing.  Effortlessly he activated his secret weapon. It was all in the eyes. Eggy was a tall, handsome man but his eyes seemed to have a special power over women. He used this tactic carefully and only under the most dire circumstances. This was dire enough.

Linda blushed slightly and smiled sweetly. Eggy could tell that she was ready to make a special effort.

“Please wait just a moment,” she murmured, her smile deepening.

Looking around quickly to make sure her supervisor was not around, she summoned the porter who had just loaded baggage into a waiting taxi. He approached the counter and they had a short discussion.

Beaming, Linda turned back to Eggy.

“It appears that Mrs Zito’s luggage had been picked up earlier this morning.”

Eggy turned up the voltage on his smile.

“Who picked it up?”

“Well… I— ” she stopped. Confused and uncertain.

Eggy kept up the pressure. “You see, Linda. I’m a very good friend.”

Befuddled, she drew in a nervous shuddering breath. “Yes, yes. But I’m not sure I should tell you. We have a policy…”

Eggy was not used to this withholding. Is she playing with me? Linda  was an attractive woman somewhere in her thirties. Eggy just stood there. Looking her in the eyes.

“Well, maybe you can give me a hint,” he said softly.

His voice was also an asset. Linda had no recourse. She hesitated but then, with a sudden conspiratorial grin, she winked and said, “You’ve heard the expression ‘All roads lead to Rome.’”

Gotcha! Eggy didn’t bother winking back. Abruptly he turned away and was out the door in a flash. Hastily fingering a cigarette out from his pack, he lit it and sucked on it so hard his cheeks hollowed out.

Now he had to figure out what to say to Simone. She had bought herself a new outfit had spent money at the beauty parlor. She’d kill him if they lost Vika.

He too had spent money on car rental, had taken time off his job working at Gunas Gramatas, a used books store on Barona Street. He wasn’t paid much but, with the occasional English lesson and his father’s pension, he could make ends meet. But that was no way to live. He wanted to move to a decent apartment, buy a car, travel a bit. He had hoped that with Vika’s contributions he could see his way to living a little better.

Eggy dropped the cigarette, ground it with heel and reached for another. He had to think. It was raining hard now and completely dark. He couldn’t just storm over to the Hotel de Rome and confront Vika. Not in the shape he was in. By the time he’d make it over to the hotel he’d look like a soaked rat and the doorman probably wouldn’t let him in. Besides, he couldn’t behave like a stalker. He needed Simone to make the move.

This godforsaken weather… Eggy kept muttering to himself as he hotfooted it back to his apartment on Bruninieka Street. Damn! He had one more errand to do: stop at the grocery store to buy supplies. He had promised his father that he’d make milk soup with dumplings for dinner.

 

 

Chapter 10

Vika knew today’s rendez-vous would be no chatty coffee klatch. In the past, transactions had gone down quickly. Pick up the package, put it in the hotel safe, deliver it to Bernie. But here the vibe was different. She had a strange premonition that this was going to be dangerous.

But first she had to check out of the hotel. She had already arranged to have her luggage picked up by the Hotel de Rome. To her surprise,  when she approached the desk, she found it wasn’t that easy. The pretty, well-groomed girl at reception just stared at her. The smile was gone.

Impatiently, Vika asked, “You don’t understand English?”

“Yes, Madam,” the girl replied evenly. “But your agreement here in English says you were going to stay for ten days. Wait right here. I’m going to call the manager.”

What a pain! Vika’s checked her watch. Nervous that she could miss Svetlana, she turned to look around the lobby. Saw no one that could be her contact.

A minute later, a tall youngish man stepped up to the desk.

“How can I help you, Mrs Zito? Is there a problem with your room? We can move—”

Vika cut him off. Her voice had gotten louder. “There are many problems. I don’t have time to list all of them but, trust me, I will. I know how Trip Advisor works.”

The manager held up his hand. “Please, Madam. I understand. We will not charge you for the full ten ten days.”

“Fine,” Vika snapped.

“But… but you must pay for another night. We need the time to prepare for another guest.”

“What!” She leaned towards him. Felt like slapping him.

The manager took a step backwards. “Yes, madam.” He sighed and shook his head sadly.

“Goddamit! You’ll be sorry!” With that she turned away and scoured the lobby for her “friend” Svetlana.

She was still fuming and checking her watch. It was well past noon.  There was the usual flow of people, heading to elevators or getting off elevators. An elderly couple was having coffee at one of the nearby tables, a gent waiting for an assignation, hotel staff scurrying around.

Where are you hiding, Svetlana? Her feet seemed to have a mind of their own as she paced back and forth. By now it was almost twelve thirty. Maybe she won’t turn up. But how likely was that? Vika hated delays and complications. Bernie would be furious. She pulled out her phone to call him. She told herself not to worry. She worried.

Something made her stop midway. A taxi had just pulled up at the front door. Traffic seemed to stop as a tall spectacular-looking blonde alighted, brandishing a cigarette and holding a briefcase. Vika immediately put her phone away and headed outside. Finally, finally. It had to be Svetlana.

“Svetlana?”

The woman gave Vika a look—not hostile, not friendly. She flicked away her cigarette and motioned to Vika.

“This hotel no good,” she said contemptuously making a sour face. Her voice was husky. A smoker’s voice. Vika wondered if Svetlana had been banned from the hotel. Had she been mistaken for a prostitute? Was she a prostitute?

Vika waited, her face expressionless.

“Come,” the woman said, taking Vika’s elbow and steered her away from the hotel. “We go there,” she continued, pointing to the nearby Lido restaurant.

Even though the two women had not introduced themselves it was clear to Vika that this was Svetlana. And Svetlana must have been assured by Vika’s appearance. Rich. American.

Stepping inside, Vika frowned. “Self-serve! Yuck! You didn’t like the Radisson but you like this! Can’t we do better? Is this left over from the Soviet Union?”

Svetlana gave a humorless laugh. “Okay, okay. Let’s walk. Nice park across the street.”

They turned to exit the Lido and just about ran into a short good-looking Italian.  Vika didn’t even register that she had seen him before.

As they stepped out onto the sidewalk Svetlana removed another cigarette from her pack, lit it and inhaled. She stepped off the sidewalk into the street.

For a flicker of time everything stopped. Vika’s heart stopped as she realized what was about to happen. They had barely stepped off the sidewalk, Svetlana leading the way, when a car came roaring down the street. Svetlana went flying. For a horrifying moment she landed on the hood of the car. Then the car veered, threw her to the ground and sped away. Vika must have screamed. At that moment all she could fixate on was Svetlana’s briefcase which had landed a few feet away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 9

Vika sailed into the Hotel de Rome like the warm wind which carries the scent of rose petals. In fact, the fragrance was the sophisticated Miss Dior which she had generously dabbed on her earlobes, behind her knees and on her décolletage. Miss Dior was her signature perfume. It  suited her as did the stylish black jeans and the pink quilted jacket she had carefully chosen for this day. Her first full day in Riga.

Unlike the Swedish-owned Radissons, this legendary hotel had history and class. Without hesitation Vika had pulled out her credit card and had reserved a room, sight unseen. All the boxes had been checked: a well-stocked minibar, a fluffy white bathrobe and slippers, plus a state of the art spa equipped with massage rooms and a swimming pool.

Vika had awakened early. Almost lightheaded with anticipation. She had jumped out of bed, excited as a child to start her adventure. Once she had dispensed with this Svetlana she would be free to really start exploring. First thing, she texted Egmonds and begged off for the day. She needed to rest.

Breakfast was a quick glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and black coffee. She had until noon. She breezed through the rotating door and, with a rush of pleasure, breathed in the heady air of life all around her– smart looking people probably rushing off to work, groups of tourists starting their round of sightseeing, mothers with prams.

Watching the traffic she hurried across the busy Elizabetes Street. Having consulted her travel guide, she knew she was heading in the right direction. Towards Old Riga. Both her grandmother and her mother had told her so much about the Opera House and the surrounding area. She had admired countless pictures and postcards which her grandmother had carefully collected. Would reality disappoint?

* * *

In many ways Vika had been born under a lucky star—in fact, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, just a short train commute to fabled Manhattan. On the other hand, her mother, Irena, had been born in Esslingen. Her  parents had been lucky to find themselves in the American zone of post war Germany. In 1950 the family was able to move to America. A Latvian family who had settled in 1905 sponsored them. These early expats were called “Veclatvieši.”

Once in New Jersey, Irena’s parents quickly adapted to the American way of life. They had a head start with English since classes had been given in Esslingen to prepare the refugees for life in their new homelands. Irena had been a lively, pretty girl and had met another second-generation Vēclatvietis, Edgars (Eddy) Berzins. They married and Vika was born. Eddy died when Vika was only five years old. She had been brought up by her grandmother and her mother.

Vika had texted her mother again in the morning, expressing wonder at how dark the morning was. Her mother had replied that it would get even darker. There would only be a few hours of daylight during the winter months. Vika had shivered deliciously. How spooky! How wonderful! This trip was so much different from the others Bernie had sent her to. This time she was emotionally involved and felt instinctively that here was a life altering adventure.

Keeping an eye on her watch (she couldn’t be late for Svetlana) Vika ventured further into Old Riga. She’d hit all the high spots her grandmother had spoken so glowingly about. Already she found everything around her astounding and delightful. The gloomy weather only added to the atmosphere. It all seemed mysterious and cloaked in surprises which were around each and every corner. And safe. No beggars accosted her, no one importuned her – although she had been warned to guard her handbag and to leave her diamonds in the safe.

Reluctantly she turned back. It would have been great to pop into a café for a quick brunch but Vika was too nervous about her meeting with Svetlana. Who was this woman? What was this all about? She had always wondered but knew well enough not to ask questions. She had agreed to Bernie’s requests early on in their marriage. Well, she had married for money and realized that she was expected to pay a price.

A shady business savant, Bernie’s fortune had been derived by mysterious means. One of Bernie’s talents or businesses was moving forgeries of art and antiquities. He liked that. It was diversion from his many other endeavors.  Also it was an opportunity to become friends with some of the wealthier people, get his picture taken with them. He was very good at his jobs, all involving wealth and status, though everyone saw him differently. His very close associates called him “handyman.”

* * *

Vika had spent two years at a local community college and received an associates degree in hospitality, travel, and tourism. There were still a few travel agencies left in Manhattan. And, as fate would have it, Bernie sauntered into the office which employed her. He had asked a lot of questions but hadn’t booked anything. Vika had been  disappointed. She counted on commissions and this guy was wasting her time.

When he appeared a second time, Vika groaned. Not him again.  Mediterranean-looking, sporting a perpetual tan, he was short and stocky. A hunk if you consider 5 feet 8 hunk-worthy. In heels Vika    towered over his head. He was in his forties, compared to Vika’s twenty-one.

This time the client was more down to business. He was ready to book a trip, and not just talk about it. To Vika’s amazement he asked her to join him. They married a few months later.

At first, the trips were new and exciting. Initially they travelled together but then Bernie started sending her alone on these globe-trotting trips which always involved either picking up or delivering a “package.” She realized she was being used. So many times she had wanted out but then the lavish lifestyle and security always pulled her back in. Bernie was good to her mother, having bought her a condo not far from where they lived. Still, with each trip she sensed a sea change. Something would finally happen to liberate her from this, to her, meaningless wandering.

How would she break free and would Riga be the place to do it?

God, she hoped so.

 

 

 

Chapter 8

Never can you climb over this wall. You’re not strong enough. Your body is for others, not for you.

Vika had underlined these three short sentences in a magazine which she had been reading on the plane. They were about Marilyn Munroe but so many women could relate.

Luckily she herself had been strong enough to climb over that wall. She was free. Bernie was thousands of miles away and now her body was finally her own.

She was proud of herself. It was nervy going off alone on this adventure in what used to be Soviet territory. A delicious sense of the unknown, of the unexpected, of the wild and thrilling–even of the dangerous–sent shivers of anticipation down her spine. She was  ready for Riga—Paris of the North, her mother had called it. And here it was: an exciting, beautiful, culturally-rich metropolis waiting to be discovered and adored.

After checking into the Radisson Blu on Elizabete Street, Vika had said goodbye to her new acquaintances. They had agreed to meet the following morning for breakfast in the hotel. At reception an unexpected thought had briefly crossed her mind. Why did she even need tour guides? Everyone at the hotel spoke English. Besides, she herself had compiled a brief personal dictionary of useful phrases which her mother had made her practice until her accent was perfect.

Vika gave a quick finger wave to Eggy and Simone before proceeding to the glassed-in elevator. She got off on the fourth floor and easily found her room. Plopping down on the bed she let out a huge sigh of relief. It was nice to be on her own. The first thing she did was text her mother to tell her how happy she was on her first day in Riga. Next, she threw off her shoes and stripped off her clothing. She was ready for a warm soothing shower. It was time to relax and pamper herself. And enjoy herself to the hilt.

She considered herself in the mirror. Her gorgeous body and pretty face had attracted her most recent asset: Bernie. Along with a seemingly unlimited cash flow, flowing unstoppably her way. She had been sailing through life on looks. But there was more to her than that. She was smart. She would find a project. Something meaningful. Once she reached a certain age (and it was coming soon) Bernie would find a new much younger conquest to parade on his arm–that is, if he hadn’t already. He was not the lonesome type.

Stepping out of the shower Vika automatically reached for the fluffy white bathrobe hotels provide. Bathrobe? She gaped in disbelief. There was no bathrobe. Nor were there slippers.

Her sense of wellbeing evaporated. What kind of an outfit is this? How many stars does this joint have? She wrapped herself in one of the towels and strode to the minibar. Minibar? What minibar? Just a couple of bottles of warm mineral water with price tags attached on top of an empty fridge.

Her mind shot back to something the receptionist had said. Yes, we do have a pool. It’s just down the street. Only five minutes away. At the time Vika had paid little attention. All she had wanted was a nice shower and a stiff drink. Well, she’d simply change hotels. This one was unacceptable. After all, she had standards.

One thought led to another. Bernie had made the reservations. She had no say in that but had trusted him to pick out the gems. The Amrath Grand Hotel in Amsterdam had been sensational. All the luxury imaginable, art, history and exquisite service. Didn’t Bernie realize that this Blu would not suit her at all? Was this the best Riga could offer or was Bernie about to downgrade her?

A bold new thought occurred to her. Why not strike off on my own? People seemed to speak English quite well. She had plenty of cash and unlimited credit on her cards. Sure, she had arranged to meet her guides for breakfast — but what the hell. Besides, she hadn’t really liked the effect this Egmonds had on her. She didn’t want to limit herself. Maybe all Latvian men were as enticing as this one.

Vika heard a voice, probably her mother’s. You’re getting so thin. Go and eat a nice warm supper. She knew Irena wouldn’t encourage her to drink but that’s what she needed right now. The thought of having to call room service for a drink – and for a bathrobe, slippers, a heavy blanket and an extra pillow was depressing. Paris of the North! My foot!

With expert hands she quickly styled her thick blond hair (at least there was a hairdryer), put on a cozy, soft blue, cashmere sweater, loose slacks, and comfy flat shoes. She decided to put her diamonds into the safe (at least they had that).

Riding the glass elevator to the main floor she felt squeezed into a corner as some loud mid-Western Americans got on. She averted her eyes. She wanted nothing to do with America right now.

Arriving at the main floor she headed straight for the bar. Then she’d have a late supper. She’d start with a dry martini and perhaps a nice Italian red wine with her meal. She longed for comfort food – pasta with cheese sauce. Easy enough, she hoped. Not Latvian food but there would be plenty of time to get into that later.

As usual several gents at the bar tried to engage eye contact but she ignored them. To be truthful she was getting a little tired of being ogled. Besides, she knew her best years were behind her and realized that she’d have to come to terms with  her fading beauty. Her mother, Irena, was still a handsome woman. But that was quite different.

Just as she was ordering her drink she heard the ping from her phone. Shit! A text from Bernie. So soon. With a weary sigh she opened it. It was as cryptic as possible. Tomorrow at noon your friend Svetlana will meet you in the lobby.

She instinctively knew this was no friend of hers. It was Bernie’s way of telling her what her mission was on this trip. She knew not to ask for details. The same as in beautiful Amsterdam, the same as in Rome.

Bummer! This meant that she’d have to stay put, at least until tomorrow afternoon.

Vika had been so busy with Bernie’s text that she didn’t think that the Italian nursing a coffee in the back of the dining area should have looked familiar.

 

 

 

Chapter 7

As usual she was sitting on her stool, making her distinctive chattering sounds as she watched birds perched on electrical wires at the window. But now she was hungry. Time to get him up.

She leapt from the stool to the futon and, purring loudly, she started to rub her forehead on Arsy’s unshaven chin. Next came the kneading and the sandpaper tongue kisses which did the trick. With a groan Arsy opened his eyes. Pulling the fat tabby to his chest he gave her a brief cuddle.

“Good morning, Minka! I have so much to tell you, but first coffee.”

Rolling out of his futon Arsy grabbed his sweat shirt. It was getting cold. Early November. His mind went back to the beautiful Svetlana and the message she had delivered. It wasn’t good news. In fact it was terrible news but he’d think about all that later.

The cat yawned and started to sway her tail. With a muted yowl she leaped  up to her feeding station and waited for her bowl of milk and the sardines she had ordered for breakfast.  Minka needed her strength. Today would be the day she’d make short shrift of that Noir who was probably already skulking by the door.

* * *

Arsy’s home studio was originally an attic. During soviet times the attic was common usage. The people who lived in the house could use it for storage or to hang up their wash (you can imagine the conflicts and shit fights…)

After 1991 the apartments were privatized. Some Latvian guy  more or less took it over (blats). He then sold it to an American Latvian who thought it could make a nice studio. The American had started renovations but then someone filed a claim in court. It turned out that the attic had not been properly privatized and so the American was given the boot.  Enter business man Juris Lapins. He was expert at bribing court officials and easily gained ownership of the attic. It suited his purpose to let Arsy live and work in it. But now there was trouble in paradise—if you can call the primitive digs a paradise.

Arsy was comfortable in his studio. The floor space was not great but it had running water with sink and toilet. Very primitive but doable and it was his own.  Not like the leftovers from soviet times when the bathroom was shared. He had a small space heater for those cold days and colder nights. His only furniture was a futon he had found which someone had discarded, two stools, one for himself and one hopefully for an eager young student who would model for affection. That and a rickety old table on which he had a  hot plate to make coffee or soup.

Most of the room was taken up with his paints and canvases he tried to sell on the street, at fairs and to tourists. Plus his special corner where he labored at producing replicas of old masters—all forgeries. These canvases brought in the money and took up most of his time and expertise.

From his studio he had a view of rooftops and other tall buildings. He loved his the large windows facing north and which also allowed a peek at the east.  Drop cloths and newspapers served as carpet on the beat-up wood floor. The place smelled of turpentine and linseed oil, though he himself preferred liquid based acrylic. Certainly no old master used acrylic but for his modern knockoffs acrylic paint did the job.

The ground  floor of the house on Maskavas Street was divided into three commercial spaces: a Narvesen—one of a chain of Norwegian convenience stores, a launderette and an unoccupied cubby hole waiting for a tenant. The main floor was the domain of Madame Zenunda, a well-known tarot card reader along with the formidable Noir. The old lady did well. She had two rooms and a bathroom to herself. She had succeeded in scaring away the tenant of the other room. Her neighbor had been superstitious about the “spell” Madame Zenunda had cast on her.

* * *

Sipping on his morning coffee Arsy sucked on his first cigarette of the day (he allowed himself only three). Had he been too hasty giving up his day job? His studio was now in jeopardy and, even worse, Juris was not happy about his most recent Rozentals. “You know those nosey art experts. They will not be fooled. No way can I pass this around. You yourself will have to find some rich foreigner—some Latvian American who has admired Rozentals in books but never examined the real stuff.”

Arsy squinched his eyes shut against the smoke from his cigarette. Rich foreigners didn’t grow on trees. In the summer he’d see them gawking at landmarks in Riga and sitting in expensive restaurants. He’d seen some of them at Sam’s even though it wasn’t really a high class joint. But now in November? He would have to go fish at the airport for those expats coming for the November 18 Independence Day commemoration. And that was a daunting task. The commute itself was  tough and, besides, these days the airport was heavily surveyed by security. He would have to chat up some female guard to be able to hang around. That part was easy. But what to do when he saw a target?

He gave a humorless laugh. Maybe he should consult Madame Zenunda. He had sweet talked the old lady meeting up with her on the communal back stairs when she was putting out her trash.

 

Chapter 6

Vika shivered with anticipation. This was going to be an adventure! She had traveled extensively but this was her first trip to what had once been called eastern Europe–recently updated to northern Europe. Which sounded better to her. She could just as well be going to Scandinavia. In fact, that’s what she had told her friends who had no clue where Latvia was. And who though eastern Europe was filled with unwashed masses of peasants toiling on the land, drinking, eating garlic and wearing headscarves.

What excited Vika was new people, new places. The moment she saw Simone and Eggy waiting for her at Riga’s International Airport she instinctively knew that these were to be her Latvian guides. She was relieved to see such nice looking people. No one else had that polished look. Most of the people in the terminal looked like happy families picking up relatives or folks holding up signs searching for businessmen or aquaintances.

***

Eggy blew out breath in a soundless whistle. Here she was in the flesh! His casual Facebook friend turned client. A beautiful wealthy client at that.

She was certainly striking. Her posture was that of a runway model. As was her air of confidence. She had chosen a soft silk ivory-colored blouse, camel skirt, and jacket. Sheer hose, black heels with red soles, a small black leather tote bag to carry her passport, tickets, itinerary and essentials every woman must have. On display were also her diamonds – in her ears, on her ring finger and on the tennis bracelet Bernie had given Vika for her “varda diena” (Vika made sure all holidays in both cultures were celebrated – with diamonds of course.)

Simone felt a little frisson of anxiety. How will she be able to keep up her own appearance as they shop and take walking tours?  Yes, today she was glamorous, but everyday?

Bowing slightly, Eggy extended his hand. He looked elegant in his one and only suit, the formality softened by a masculine scarf draped loosely around his neck.  Obviously his mother hadn’t taught him to wait until the lady extended her hand first. No matter. Vika took his hand and smiled sweetly while thinking: Isn’t he supposed to kiss my hand or something? This is Europe, for God’s sake!

Eggy returned her smile. Vika held her breath. He had the most mesmerizing eyes she’d ever seen. A clear, bright, blue which subtly suggested intimacy – but not too much.

To her surprise she didn’t even mind that he wasn’t wearing a gold Rolex. He was tall and slender with a mass of salt and pepper hair and a trendy “lady pleaser” patch of hair just below the lower lip. She wondered if he was a jazz musician or just a trendoid carry-over from the 1950s and 1960s.

Vika turned away in confusion—a feeling she  wasn’t accustomed to.  Usually men melted encountering her sensuality and sex appeal. Now it was her turn to melt.  She didn’t at all like this unaccustomed feeling. Surreptitiously she checked for a wedding ring. Didn’t see one.

The spell was broke. Wreathed in smiles, Simone approached with her bouquet. She looked very classy with her new hair (no longer grey but a champagne blonde) and her professionally applied makeup. She wore an amber broach on her beautiful patterned scarf, which she wore over a beige jacket. It was to be Vika’s introduction to upper crust elegance, and today Simone had carried the look.

Vika was glad for the distraction. She turned to Simone before she embarrassed herself ogling Eggy and graciously accepted the exquisite bouquet  of mixed deep red & white flowers, bound with natural jute and wheat stems.

“Thank you, or rather, paldies,” Vika said demurely. “I don’t really speak the language. It’s so kind of you both to greet me. The flowers are such a wonderful surprise!”

Simone chimed in eagerly. “Is no problem, I speak English. And Eggy speaks some– just enough to get into trouble!”

 

The right words were said. With that, they all laughed politely and proceeded to baggage claim.

* * *

The short Italian who had spoken to Vika on the flight was very pleased that he had gotten a good look at her  greeters.  She had paid no attention to him or anybody from the flight.

The short dark-haired Italian without the Rolex was a nobody. He was glad of his obscurity. It was good to be a fly on the wall. After all, he had his orders: remain   invisible and file your reports.