Ilze Berzins
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Irresistible heartthrob Pastor Lapins hides his snake oil charm under his clerical collar as he ministers to the unsuspecting seniors of the Ottawa Latvian congregation. Who hates him enough to bring him down? Whoever it is discovers that the pastor doesn’t die easy. Free spirit Stacy Karsubova, a new-comer to the church coffee klatches, finds herself enmeshed in the lives of the seniors and is forced to relive a dark unspoken chapter in the closing days of WWII. The tragic night on which the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by the Soviets in the Baltic Sea continues to haunt the survivors and changes their lives forever.

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Ghosts & Shadows (Page 1)

Chapter 1

I hear a voice behind me, like a whisper. As always, the timing is perfect. Paputchka has been gone for years, but suddenly there he is, lurking near the front door, waiting for Canada Post to bring him his mail. With one hand on his watch, he would time the appearance of the hapless functionary and, if the poor guy was two minutes late, the postmaster would get an irate call. In the winter, the regular was usually in Florida and the substitute was always behind schedule because he didn’t know the route. This was Paputchka’s post-retirement way of recharging his batteries, refusing to go quietly into the night.

Unfortunately, I seem to have inherited his Pavlovian response. Hearing the flap of the mail slot, I rush to see what life has delivered today-as if I don’t have a life, just a mailbox. And in it…

I think of the childhood ditty: I packed my bag for Kalamazoo and in it I put…all the bills, then in another pile, the flyers and ads, and then I feel the sinking boredom of no real mail-until I see a white legal-sized envelope, neatly addressed to me. Things are looking up. I turn the envelope sideways and pry open the flap. Out slithers a glossy folder. Oh my God! Suddenly I’m staring at a photo of my beloved Riga. I’m riveted.

Want more bang for your buck? Book now for your seat on the whirlwind RIGA LA NUIT adventure train! Visit the infamous Riga prison, tour recent crime scenes, former KGB meeting places, seedy bars, brothels. March in Riga’s gay pride parade.

I hear myself hoot out loud. Is somebody having me on? I’ve heard that Toronto’s gay pride parade brings in as much money to the local tourist economy as the Santa Claus Parade. I might as well throw up my hands and say, “Well, why not in Riga?”

But the next second I want to cry thinking of all those budget travel magazines touting Riga as the premier European Stag Weekend destination. Nauseating. I can’t believe it’s my Riga they’re talking about.

The sad truth is that this piece of tourist crap has probably been written by some bimbo desperate to hold on to a job in the Riga Tourist Bureau. But I shouldn’t be so cynical. It could always be one of my distant relatives, and besides, I know how eager they all are for income where ever they can find it.

So, who produced this stuff anyway? I flick through the pages. Okay, there it is. T&A Travel Tours. An involuntary hacking sound escapes my lips. T&A Travel Tours! Do you suppose they think we don’t know what T&A stands for? Last time I looked, it was tits and ass I get up and am halfway to the garbage bin when I stop in my tracks. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just tear this up? It’s as if some Latvian voodoo master has warped my mind, hypnotized me.

Okay. Let’s just chill for a moment. Anyway, since when do things have to make sense? I shrug. Of course they don’t. With an unexpected little tweak of anticipation, I wing back to where I left off.

Ghosts & Shadows (Page 2)

Meet unsavory characters, participate in the old surreptitious Bolshevik execution squad (even more fun when your turn comes up). And breadlines! Wait forever in quiet cold desperation to buy overpriced food-like substances! And open wallet surgery! Get your handbag razored standing in line for the bus, you won’t feel a thing and-

Suddenly an ear-piercing shriek breaks through the words, resonating in my head like the runaway locomotive of a train racing into hell. My hand flies to my heart.

I slump forward. God, it’s only the kettle going off! Get a grip!

Annoyed at being interrupted, but wanting my coffee, I snatch up the pages that have slipped from my hands and steer myself to the kitchen, reading as I go.

Get kicked out of bars, brawl with Russians, visit the giant Lido Windmill (largest and most hideous wooden structure in all of Europe). Dive for lost treasures from the torpedoed Wilhelm Gustloff…

The Wilhelm Gustloff! Now that’s going too far!

I shiver involuntarily. Suddenly I sense currents from the past, powerful enough to drag me under. For a split second I teel as if I’m suffocating, drowning in an angry sea of churning water. Around me I hear women screaming their guts out, reaching for tiny heads and arms which bob up from the waves for a moment, then disappear.

How many times have I heard old Mr Stromanis talking about the Wilhelm Gustloff? Poor man. His family perished when it sank in the Baltic Sea all those years ago. And now some sick weirdo is turning it into entertainment!

Mr Stromanis has even told me he wants to go to the Survivors’ Reunion being held in Las Vegas in the fall. He’s offered to take me with him and now I’ve got this fantasy playing in my head that I hit the jackpot at a slot machine or playing Keeno. I wish!

Two minutes go by and I find myself standing over the kettle. I reach automatically for the handle, grip it tightly and pour boiling water over the ground coffee that I had just measured carefully into my six-cup Bodum beaker. The smell is to die for. I pour the fresh brew into a mug and top it off with a generous splash of Baileys.

My mind starts working quickly. I go back to the pages I had left on the counter and skim them for details. Good heavens, there’s even a video presentation! And it’s tonight! At our Latvian church of all places. Unbelievable! I feel as if I’ve plunged down some surreal rabbit hole and nothing is as it should be any more.

I can’t keep this to myself a single second more. I need to talk to someone. I walk the few yards into my bedroom, pull out the top drawer of my dresser, scrabble around for my phone book and punch in the number. “Hello, Mrs Apse,” I trill.


Our conversations are always a bit chaotic. We both have a tendency to get over-excited, to spew everything out in random run-on phrases.

“Have you seen?” I sputter. “This thing just arrived in the mail! What are people saying? I can’t believe it.” “Hold on,” Mrs Apse laughs. “Oh yes, this thing you’re talking about was mentioned in last month’s Church Bulletin. 1 guess you don’t get it. But you should. I just love our Bulletin. 1 postpone other more important things when it arrives. I love the community up-dates, obituaries, stuff like that and-”

“But isn’t it shocking!” I exclaim cutting through her

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