Ilze Berzins

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5

Arseniy tried to make a beeline for his favorite seat near the back door of the bus. It wasn’t easy. Today the bus was full and he was forced to shoulder his way through a motley crew–all bound for the working class area of Maskavas Street. He almost gagged at the potpourri of smells—the stink of wet leather, unwashed bodies, stale tobacco, garlic and musky cheap cologne.

Head down he worked his way through the bus, jostling and elbowing and fending off curses—until, to his horror, he suddenly lost his footing. Stumbling and flailing he wound up kicking over a huge shopping bag. Which belonged to someone. An angry woman. He knew he’d get it. And sure enough. Rough Russian argot assailed him, plus a swift blow to his shin. God, he hated people!

Deflecting some of the shoving and pushing, he finally wedged himself into a seat next to a snoozing man. The old man reeked of alcohol. Far from being his favorite seat Arsy was relieved to have somewhere to sit. Almost immediately, despite conversations (mainly in Russian) buzzing all around him, he entered his happy place. Never mind. One day soon I’ll have a car of my own and maybe a large apartment on Elizabetes Street. Yes! Just you wait and see.

Arsy shut his eyes. His thoughts settled briefly on the woman who had been waiting for him outside of Sam’s, the one who had trailed along beside him. He vaguely knew her from the restaurant and thought that her name could be Simone. What a talker she was! But a useful talker. His instincts told him that she could well play a role in his most recent project. I’ll keep her in mind, he said to himself and moved on to revisit his plans for a better future.

The time had come. His days working as a waiter were now over. He had already given his notice. He would simply drop in to pick up his paycheck from Sam’s, then vamoose out of there. These days he needed more time to spend in his studio.

Arsy was still wearing his waiter’s wear – black trousers and a white shirt but had put on a scruffy windbreaker and a ball cap since it was November, getting cold  and always about to rain. He knew that people stared. He stood out in any crowd. He was young — tall and muscled and handsome and usually a smile from him eased every situation. But not this time and not on this bus. He was used to women ogling him when he worked at Sam’s but crowded buses were another matter.

He smiled to himself. It won’t be long now. Won’t be long. Those words had become his mantra. Pretty soon he was going to let the world know what he had discovered. A new Janis Rozentals—a lost masterpiece, the ultimate sleeper! The painting had been found, he would declare, rolled up and hidden under floorboards in an apartment which had just been renovated.

For some reason, riding on a bus always helped him think – and plot. From his knapsack he pulled out a book that was holding him spellbound. Forging Ahead. It was a book about Tony Tetro, a California artist known as the world’s greatest living art forger. He’d love to meet Tony Tetro—who had even fooled Prince Charles. It wasn’t an ideal time for reading but just holding the book gave him a thrill. He had another book in his knapsack. Five Ways To Spot A Fake. This he had studied assiduously.

His Rozentals “discovery” was a credible story. When Latvia had been invaded by either Germans or Russians the pillage of everything precious had taken place. In the ensuing chaos, Latvians scrambled to salvage whatever they could, hiding their treasures, wherever they could.

Arsy had researched the work of Rozentals and had chosen a painting as obscure as possible. Not one of the monumental much-loved works that were prominent in books and catalogues. None of those would do. He had even managed to find an old canvas from the late 1800s. Some nondescript art but excellent to be worked over to become a Rozentals masterpiece.

Lost in his fantasies about Tony Tetro and Prince Charles, Arsy almost missed his stop. An intake of breath and with one quick movement he jumped off at just the right moment. But disaster ensued. Losing his balance he collided right into a fat lady with incandescent orange hair. There was a dog with her. Yelps and barks and snarls and an earful of Russian obscenities peppered him like hail.

The miscreant’s teeth had sunk deeply into his trouser leg, narrowly missing his flesh. And wouldn’t let go. Arsy kicked and shouted but to his amazement the dog wouldn’t let go. His adrenaline pumped. He was ready to grab the little fucker and throttle it to death. What a scene! His good pants too. A huge rip. If he had a gun he’d shoot both of them dead.

All it took was a fierce kick with the other foot and the dog let go. Snarling and barking and cursing the duo disappeared down the derelict street.

Brushing himself off Arsy proceeded to his studio. It was dark by now. How he couldn’t wait to get out of this neighborhood! Potholes, missing pavement, graffiti on almost every shabby building. The sidewalk was muddy and littered with cigarette butts and other detritus. People shambled by. Some in a rush, others seemingly in a daze. It was always dangerous at night and Arsy was glad he was packing a switchblade.

Without any more unfortunate encounters he had arrived safely at his doorstep. A discrete sign next to the doorbells announced Arseniy Roban Art Studio. Just as he was reaching for his key he received a text on his phone. It was from his  business associate—a former KGB officer who owns multiple apartment buildings in Jurmala and lives in a gated mansion overlooking the sea. Arsy envied the lifestyle. He had never been invited inside. Perhaps soon that would no longer be the case.

Svetlana has something for you. She’ll wait by your door.

Arsy looked up from his phone and immediately his eye was caught by a sensational vision—a true beauty, not so young but soo glamorous. He needed to believe in beauty. Even to believe in love. His mood changed instantly. There was so much ahead for him – beautiful women, trips abroad, a house in Jurmala.

He felt like using his famous line: I’d love to paint your portrait? But her expression stopped him cold. She stared at him with a forbidding frown. But also with a tiny contemptuous smile on the side. Tall, blonde, his type. He could tell that underneath the light coat she had a great body. Surely not an escort. He wouldn’t pick her up. Not worth it. Even after a short dalliance it was always hard to get rid of them.

He was surprised when she spoke. Her voice was low and very cold.

“I have something for you.”

Oh God! He had made a mistake! Why had Juris sent this knockout and not one of his regular male “associates?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4

Destiny was kind. Arseniy was not on duty at Sam’s. More likely he was enjoying his day off – perhaps reading, listening to music or exercising at a gym somewhere in Riga.  Simone refused to think that her young Adonis could possibly be with a woman. The fact that Arseniy hardly knew Simone existed didn’t deter her from believing that one day soon they’d be an item.

Having found out when his shift ended, one day Simone had followed him out of the restaurant. He had been polite and the two of them walked along Dzirnavu Street before Arseniy said bye and hopped on a bus. A friend of Simone’s had seen the pair and, observing her cloying body language, assumed they were lovers. She never corrected that notion.

First thing tomorrow she’d fix herself up, reinvent herself — warm light Swedish blonde highlights, expertly styled hair (short and sassy), manicure and a pedi. She had good skin, good bones and decent teeth — the type of healthy natural beauty that many Latvian women enjoyed. Ageless. Well, not exactly completely ageless, but at fifty-four she could, with her lithe voluptuous body, still project a certain sex appeal.

Sam’s was sensationally popular. Even though the restaurant was full of jovial people, it didn’t feel crowded. And it was not too loud. Perfect for what Egmonds had to say to Simone. They would be discreet but didn’t have to whisper. Besides, the non smoking policy was largely ignored. Egmonds liked that.

Simone scanned the room quickly, impressed by the diversity of the nicely dressed, but not stuffy, clientele. She heard English and  Latvian being spoken but Russian hadn’t yet reached her ears. Which was a good thing. It added class to the place. She knew why her friend preferred Sam’s to Osiris—and not just for the easy smoking policy. This place was fun and lively. Osiris was tiny and a tad pretentious.

On their way over Egmond had mentioned that there was a secret doorman who had a knack for discouraging the vatniks – as he liked to call Russians.

After an ice cold vodka cocktail with little amuse gueles on the side, she cheerfully wished Egg bon appetite before digging into her Chicken Paprikash with Spaetzle. (She liked to call her friend Egg, sometimes even Eggy, when she was in a good mood.) This feast had set her spirits soaring.

Egg had ordered a merlot. She wondered, How can he afford it? But had Egg not hinted that there would be serious money to be made? Once their plan was put in motion, that is.

Egg was not given to sentimental attachments. Divorced years ago, father of an unknown number of children, he was giving romance a long holiday.

* * *

After ordering coffee and glancing quickly at neighboring tables he turned his attention to Simone.

“You’re not having anything more to drink. Now, pay careful attention.”

Simone shook her head as if to clear it. God only knew she had been looking forward to cognac or brandy. But c’est la vie. She downed the little bit of wine left in her glass, moved a tad closer and focused.

“I’ve told you how all this started, right?”

Simone murmured an uh-huh and nodded her head.

“On Facebook,” she said with a wry little smile. “At first I couldn’t believe it. I thought this Facebook was just for kids. My aunt Velga likes Draugos and she—”

“Never mind your aunt!” Egg held up his hand cutting her off. “Now, listen carefully.”

A waiter was approaching their table with the coffee. Good strong hot coffee. Just the thing to enjoy with a smoke. Simone was tempted to bum a fag, but resisted.

Before taking a sip Egg lit up another cigarette and hunched over. With his dark leather jacket and intense eyes he looked like a pal of Tony Soprano about to put out a contract on somebody.

He again looked around to make sure no one was listening. His his voice went down a notch, almost to a whisper.

“We’re not doing anything wrong. No one is going to get hurt. It’s just a golden opportunity to make some cash. She has plenty while we … well, you know how it is.”

Simone knew. She scrunched her face up just thinking of the hardships—sharing a tiny flat with her aunt Velga who gave her bits of money for looking after the old lady. Aunt Velga was in her eighties but still spry enough to clamber down all those stairs and go sit in a nearby park. Even in winter she did this. But she left all the household chores to her niece.

As she sipped on her coffee Simone felt a chill– no one is going to get hurt sounded ominous.

“So, you’re going to move on this lady you met on Facebook. What if she has a bodyguard?”

“You’re crazy,” Egg snapped.

He glowered at her. She could be so stupid. “You’re reading too many of those crumby detective novels. Watching too much TV. No one travels with a bodyguard.”

Simone glowered back. “But you said she was rich. What does her husband do? Does she even have a husband?”

Egg rolled his eyes. “I don’t care about her husband. I know she’s travelling alone.”

“Arriving when?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow!”

Her face crumpled. Tomorrow was Simone’s make-over day. Still, maybe she could squeeze in the hair salon early in the morning.

“Yes, you heard me. Tomorrow. Buy some nice flowers. We’re meeting her flight at seven in the evening. I rented a car.”

Simone released a little sigh of relief. Seven! This would give her plenty of time for her hair. Perhaps even  a new outfit. And flowers of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3.

Simone whirled around.

“Where the hell did you come from!”

Panic had turned to rage. She shot out her hand to hit him. But Egmond was quick. It took less than two seconds to paralyze her in an armlock.

She doubled over, screaming. “Stop! Let go!”

“Not so fast! What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?”

Egmond wasn’t going to wrestle her to the ground. He released her arm then     turned away. He pulled a crumbled pack of cigarettes from his pocket, extracted one and planted it in his mouth. He inhaled deeply then let out a stream of smoke which enveloped him like a shroud.

Simone rubbed at her arm. Her headscarf had come lose and her hair hung in stringy wet strands across her face.

She reared back at him.

“Idiot! What are you doing sneaking up behind me!”

Simone’s shrill voice echoed throughout the decrepit courtyard. A window on the first floor opened. People were always fighting, getting drunk, having sex. Nothing special. With a loud bang the window closed.

It was pitch black in the narrow deserted entrance way. The rain had started up in earnest again and a bedraggled cat crossed in front of them. A black cat probably but who could tell in this darkness. With a tail flick the animal vanished into the safety of the disrepaired front door — which hung ajar summer and winter.

The cigarette had calmed him. “Let’s at least get out of the rain. Come inside and I’ll go upstairs and get us an umbrella.”

Simone couldn’t let go. “You’re late!  I’m freezing and you promised to meet me instead of leaving me alone in this dark dungeon you call a courtyard!”

“Calm down. I had an errand to run for Paps. Now step inside and I’ll be back in a flash.”

With shaking hands Simone rummaged into her outsized handbag. Luckily she had refilled her flask that very morning. A few deep gulps of vodka, a series of long exhalations and she felt more like herself. It was at moments like this that she really needed a cigarette but she had just quit. Besides she hated the ultra strong brand Egmonds preferred.

* * *

Egmond’s long strong legs had worked wonders. He was back in a jiffy. Smiling ruefully at her appearance he handed Simone a towel for her wet hair. Then unfurled the large umbrella. They had been friends for ages and he was glad that this little melodrama was over.

“Now, let’s get a bite to eat and some nice wine. You certainly deserve it.”

Simone eyed him with suspicion. Thinking he was up to something.

“Meanwhile, darling Simone, put a smile on your face, please?  All is well. ”

Edmond was a good looking man. In his late fifties but still energetic and virile. He knew how charming he was. Usually it didn’t take much to wrap a lady around his little finger. He knew Simone was eager to hear every little detail about the plan he had concocted.

A stray dog growled at them as they left the courtyard and headed for Brununieka Street. Turning right they made for Brivibas. The dog had started barking now and was following them at a distance.

“Usual place?” Simone asked sweetly. The vodka had warmed her and she was hungry for a decent meal.

“No. Let’s go to Sam’s.”

As if punched Simone staggered backwards. “Sam’s?”

“You heard me, darling girl. I love the clientele. Lots of foreigners. Lots of rich foreigners and the food’s good.”

“But Osiris is closer and—”

Egmond’s good humor vanished and he cut her off angrily. “Feel free to forget about it. I’ve let you in on this gig and now you’re squawking. Besides Osiris is not my scene. It’s too much of an arty hangout, filled with hysterical, high-strung, high-maintenance women.

He lit another cigarette and watched her intently. Simone made an ahhh sound. She needed the job—the gig, as he lightheartedly called it. No way was she going to tell him that Arseniy worked at Sam’s. She knew she looked like crap with her wet hair and mascara running. Maybe today (Wednesday) was his day off.

She prayed it was.