Ilze Berzins

Chapter 37

Vika’s feet took wings. She was inside her apartment in two short minutes. She had a hungry mouth to feed. Throwing her shopping bags on the counter, she reached for her kitten who had come out of hiding. “Oh precious! My precious baby!” She bubbled over with delight as she kissed the little black face with the enormous white whiskers.

“Hello, Whiskers!” she cooed happily. “It’ll be Whisky for short. My black little Whisky face!” Vika was silly with rapture. Her first pet ever. A little creature to love.

When this was all over she’d retire to a nunnery. And bring Whisky with her. They’d make an exception after her huge donation to the convent. She wasn’t quite sure what she meant by this being all over. She had the package which was so important to the crime syndicate. Both Juris, here in Latvia, and Bernie in New York would kill for it. Chapter

Suddenly a startling thought occurred to her, I could ruin them both. But did she have the nerve? She should start by examining the contents. See what the hell the fuss was all about.  And then run to the nunnery!

It was fine to fantasize but her most pressing concern now was for her mother. Vinny had not yet contacted her with information. Trying to keep from worrying, Vika unpacked her groceries, which included kitty litter, food for Whisky and something nourishing for herself. She had negotiated her shopping quite well and hummed to herself as she organized her kitchen. But when her phone pinged she froze, her hand stilled in the act of pouring herself a cup of coffee. Vinny? Oh please, let it be Vinny.

She forgot the coffee, grabbed her phone, opened it and made a face. Instead of Vinny, she heard Simone’s stumbling English.

“Svetlana has gone. She sent me a text. But she didn’t tell me where she was going.”

Vika just stood there, her mouth open. “Gone?”

“Yes. She and her boyfriend. They were afraid of what Juris would do to them. Something about a package.”

“Ah…” Vika let out a deep sigh. Next he’ll be coming after me.

Bernie was just a menacing dark shadow, far away, unreal, but this Juris loomed over her like certain death. The thought of what she had to do burst on her like an explosion far off among the stars. She had to act first. Stave him off before he got any further. There wasn’t much time.

After agreeing to get together the next day, Vika ended the conversation. Pumping adrenaline, it took her no time at all to unearth what she had hidden —the package and the gun. Next the logistics. She’d ask Arsy if he knew of a way to contact Juris. As it happened, she had arranged to meet Arsy at Sam’s in the afternoon to pick up the two paintings she had purchased.

And so, the machine infernale had been set into motion, ready to play out an inexorable event almost of Greek tragedy proportions.

* * *

You’re Crazy!  Those were Arsy’s first words when he heard what Vika was planning.

“I can give you Juris’ cell number, but you mustn’t say I gave it to you. He’s a very scary guy. I don’t know why you’re doing this.”

Vika gave a short burst of nervous laughter. “Because I can. Or rather, because I must.”

“I still think you’re crazy. You can get yourself killed.”

“This isn’t my first rodeo.”

“Rodeo?”

Vika smiled. “That’s just an expression, Arsy. I’m used to danger. I’ve lived with it all my life.”

She fell silent, thinking, and sipped on her coffee. Arsy’s lighter clicked open and lit his cigarette. He had stopped rationing. Life was just too stressful.

Then, as if speaking to herself, Vika went on, “Actually, I need to prove this to myself. I’m not just a tired-out old mule working for my Mafia boss husband. I have my own power.”

It was Arsy’s turn to fall silent. What power did he himself ever have?

“Now listen. If anything happens to me, you must look after Whisky.”

Arsy frowned. “What! What are you talking about?”

“Oh! I forgot to tell you. I have a sweet little kitty. You must look after her—at least I think it’s a her. And please hold on to my two paintings for a while. Here’s a spare key to my apartment. Just in case…”

* * *

“I’ve got something you seem to have lost, Mr Lapins,” Vika said casually, as if it was just small talk. Her words sounded like clinched dialogue from a bad crime film. But in real life these were pretty dangerous words to be tossing at a Mafia boss.

There was silence on the other end. Vika held her breath.

Then came the gruff wary response. “Who are you?”

Vika’s voice did not waver. “Sorry. I should have introduced myself. I’m Mrs Bernie Zito.”

Juris gave a brief snort of surprise. “Well, hello. How is your dear husband? And what is it that you have for me?”

“You must be talking about my dear soon-to-be ex. He’s left his business interests overseas to me.”

Juris made a blubbery sound with his lips. “Pfff.  He’s a fool!”

“Fool or no fool, that’s part of the divorce settlement,” Vika added with a full-throated laugh. She hurriedly reached for her glass of vodka. And wished she was a smoker. She needed something.

Silence. Juris Lapins wasn’t used to being laughed at.

“Now this package, Mr Lapins. What should we do about it? What I can suggest is—”

“Listen carefully,” Juris cut her off. What followed was like something straight out of a John le Carre’s spy novel. He was ready to pay her off for the package. She could name her price.

“I’ll meet you tomorrow in the courtyard behind—”

“No way!” Vika said sharply, cutting him off. “No courtyards.”

Another silence. Vika could tell he wasn’t used to being cut off.

“Well, then. Where do you want?”

“No dark alleys. I’m thinking somewhere classy. Like, perhaps, the lobby of the Hotel de Rome. At noon tomorrow. I’ll even buy you a drink.” With that she hung up on him. Pretty ballsy move but she had to show him who was boss.

* * *

Vika hadn’t given herself any time to panic. In for a penny, in for a pound, she said to herself as she tossed back what remained in her tumbler of vodka. Despite the certain danger, she was determined to look her best. Her looks had always been her calling card, and her weapon—for seduction, for privilege, for power. No longer young, she still had what it took. Sumptuous allure plus a canny sense of self-preservation to back it up.

She planned to make him wait.

Still, there was little time to lose. The beauty parlor or a quick trip to the American Embassy? She chose the embassy.

* * *

Heads turned at around twenty minutes past noon as a glamorous woman strode into the lobby of the Hotel de Rome. It was the perfect occasion to display her diamonds and her fashion sense—her stately pace showing off her lovely legs clad in stiletto-heeled booties, her snug-fitting cashmere coat suggesting voluptuous curves. And all the while she kept her large leather shoulder bag (large enough to carry an Uzi) close to her side.

Vika stopped near reception, looked around calmly but avoided eye contact.  If she were in a gangsta film she would be taking out a cigarette and watching for someone to rush forward with a light. Instead, she checked her watch. Let him feast his eyes on me for a little while, Vika said to herself and smiled smugly.

She didn’t have long to wait.

Juris Lapins had never been what one would call a ladies man but Vika and the whole mise-en-scene fascinated him. Here was a female to be reckoned with. He was sure it was Mrs Zito. Too bad he’d have to kill a stunning woman like that.

Pulling himself up to his full height (he was still a fit good-looking man) he strode purposely forward.

“Mrs Zito, I presume,” he said with an ironic grin.

“How do you do,” Vika replied coolly. She didn’t offer him her hand and ignored the hand he had thrust out at her.

“Shall we sit down near the bar. I always have a cocktail before lunch.”

Juris gave a slight bow. “It would be my pleasure to join you.”

Happy with her table, Vika ordered a spritzer. She had to keep her wits about her. Juris had a beer.

For a beautiful woman she has such cold eyes, Juris said to himself. She fixed them on him and, for an instant, he was afraid. She had killer eyes. The eyes of a lioness who is about to kill a hyena who had strayed too near to her cubs.  It dawned on him that this is how his victims might have felt when he was about to send them to Siberia.

But he had to snap out of it. He had to show her that he had the upper hand.

“So, Mrs Zito. We didn’t come here to stare into each other’s eyes.” Vika just looked at him.  “As beautiful as yours are,” he added lamely.

Vika offered him a flirty giggle. “Thanks for the compliment. I’m just wondering if you’ve brought some friends with you so that I can stare into their eyes as well.”

Juris suddenly felt completely unprepared for this banter. He laughed nervously and surprised himself by how high-pitched his voice sounded. He cleared his throat, trying to be nonchalant.

“As a matter of fact there are a couple of my friends at that table behind you.”

Vika smiled back at him. “Maybe you should look around. I have some friends who would like to introduce themselves to you.”

Before Juris Lapins could look back or even signal to his lieutenants they were all surrounded by plain clothed police. The men had appeared as if out of the woodwork and the café personnel had disappeared without a trace.

There was no one around to witness the sight of the criminals being cuffed, frisked and then quietly escorted out into the waiting black vans. This was not so very different from what Lapins himself had done in the sixties, seventies and eighties except now the shoe was on the other foot and his trip was going to be not to Siberia but to the West.

Still he protested. “What about my rights? I’m a Latvian citizen!”

He received his answer. “We’ll read you your rights all right when you’re in New York.”

Juris was in full panic mode. “But you can’t take me to America. I have my rights.”

He heard a snigger. “Sure, but when you were a Russian citizen you did not recognize Latvia. The only country you recognized was Russia and you didn’t believe Latvians had rights. Now suddenly Latvians have rights? It’s time for you to see the world. We have a ticket for you. Destination New York. Or would you like to go to Russia? We’ve heard you’ve made some new enemies there since you lost your little package.”

* * *

Vika ordered a bottle of the best champagne money could buy. And, wouldn’t you know it, a text came in just then from Vinny telling her Irena was on a flight to Latvia. And Bernie had been detained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” Dima croaked.

“Aren’t you glad to hear from me?”

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

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

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

“No. This is more important. I just—”

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“England.”

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, yes, lady.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 34

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

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

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

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

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

“Simone! Stop moping around and come help.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

“Are you alright?”

“Yes. I’m coming.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would Vika do in her place?

 

 

 

Chapter 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s good to eat here?”

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arsy was scared to death.

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

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

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

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

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

                         

Chapter 32

The day dawned in darkness. Or was it dawn and not night when Vika opened her eyes? She marveled: eight o’clock in the morning and still dark! For a few moments she was disorientated. Something was wrong. Where was she? She had taken a sleeping aid the night before and it added to her confusion.

She looked out the window at blackness. Across the courtyard she saw a bare light bulb dimly illuminating someone sitting at a table sipping on a morning cup of something. Coffee? Slowly events started coming back. She was experiencing winter in Latvia where night came early and dawn came late. She was in an apartment which was her third relocation—her most recent relocation forced on her as she fled from danger.

She had arrived in Riga on a simple mission: to pick up a package which in turn she was to take back to Bernie in New York. She had always stuck to her tenet—the less she knew about her role in Bernie’s business the better. That had worked for years. Now it no longer did.

She looked at herself in the mirror, hardly recognizing herself. Her eyelash extensions were starting to fall out and her nails were a mess. Glamor had always been her métier. Until now. She had chopped off her hair and dressed up in men’s clothing to avoid being recognized. She tried to smile at the face in the mirror, then gave up on it and simply brushed her teeth. There was absolutely nothing to eat in the apartment. Not even coffee. She felt like opening her window and screaming at the guy having breakfast to at least throw her a bagel. Not funny! She would have to get dressed and go out. But before that she had to reach her mother.

There had been no response to her previous texts. Vika tried again. Nothing. She ordered herself not to panic. She’d try again but now she needed coffee coffee coffee.

* * *

It was still dark as Vika made her way along Valdemara Street. She was freezing. Her lightweight wardrobe was meant for a quick visit in late autumn. Luckily she had the heavy jacket and the sensible walking shoes  which she had “purchased” from one of Eggy’s male friends. She certainly wasn’t wearing her diamonds, which made her think of Frankie. Would she ever see him again? Then she thought of Bernie and his mob friends. Would anyone ever see Frankie again? She shuddered and checked her phone again. Nothing from her mother.

She was starving. Like never before. Sure she had tried fasting for one whole day but that was in the comfort of her New York apartment where she had sipped mineral water while watching spellbinding movies. How she longed for New York where there was always food all over the place!

Vika hurried by darkened houses, people lining up for buses, pedestrians rushing off to work but there was no little coffee shop, no fruit stand, no street vendor. God had to be kidding, right! She could pass out from hunger. Just fall to the ground. Would anyone help her?

Eggy! Yes! She had a good friend, within walking distance. Where did he say he lived? She took out her cell and punched in his number. She wanted to scream FEED ME! Then she gave a strangled laugh  remembering the carnivorous plant from one of her favorite  movie—Little Shop of Horrors.

* * *

“Poor you!” Eggy laughed—until he choked on his smokers’ early morning cough. “Here we have a starving rich American! What irony!”

“Shut up, Eggy for fuck’s sake! This is nothing to laugh at. I don’t even speak the language. I couldn’t ask anyone around for anything. Just bring me food! Now!”

“Sure, princess.” Vika could hear the sighs of smoke exhalation. “All you have to do is find Lacplesa Street and head on over to Osiris. I’ll be there in a half hour. Anyone on your street can tell you how to get there.”

“But I — ”

“Cioa”

“Bastard!”

As if on cue, freezing rain began to fall and the wind drove it in deep as Vika looked around. What street did he say? And how to pronounce it? Osiris she remembered. She’d start with that.

She approached a couple waiting to cross Valdemara street. “Please Osiris,” she said with one of her best smiles. But just then her cell pinged. It could be her mother. Vika dropped her smile, the couple crossed the street and Vika opened her phone. A text from Bernie. Your mother has had a heart attack. She’s asking for you. Come home.

She ran. As fast as she could. She just ran not knowing where she was going. She saw nothing but darkness all around her. She stopped to catch her breath. Where was she? Right beside a beautiful building. A church? Yes, it must be a church. She needed God right now. Maybe God could wait but would Eggy?  She thought of him sitting in a cozy café with food—and sympathy. Surely he would know what to do.

Vika had stopped a woman exiting the church. The woman waved her away. Oh for God’s sake! No, she wasn’t begging for money.

“Osiris please. Please!” She had started to cry. Pathetic!

Osiris had become some magical destination she must reach in order to survive. It was much like a mirage, an illusion—always farther away no matter how fast she ran.

She heard a voice behind her. A male voice.

“Come, lady.”

“Yes, yes, please Osiris,” she babbled as she turned towards the male voice.

The young man threw down his cigarette and pointed. “You go straight. Not far.” With that he turned away and crossed the street. She was on Lacplesa street. Eggy had said that’s where the café was.

“Thank you, thank you!” Vika called into the wind as she started to run again. She ran with the dedication of a kamikaze pilot. Right now she’d swim through a river of crocodiles just to get to this blasted Osiris.

Ahead she saw Eggy, standing at the entrance of the café, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He was sucking in smoke as if his life depended on it, knowing it would have to sustain him for a  rendez-vous in a non-smoking venue.

Arms outstretched, Vika rushed towards him, embraced him and almost knocking him over as he was about to throw his butt out into the street.

“You made it,” Eggy laughed—his laugh not a laugh at all—stopped  abruptly as he saw her expression.

Vika wondered about the false memory she had of him. Had she really been so mesmerized by those green eyes of his? Wasn’t that a lifetime ago?

“I need to talk,” she gasped.

Eggy ushered her to a corner table. “You need food and a stiff drink. We’ll talk later.”

“No. I’m not hungry. I need help. Look at this text. Bernie has my mother. What am I going to do?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 31

Arsy sat, leaning over, elbows on knees. He was looking at his painting and thinking about Aina. He was thinking about scraping the paint off and starting over. No, he was thinking of Aina.

Last night he had almost fallen on his knees, thanking his Russian Orthodox God that the fire was somewhere else and not at his house. Still, the thought of Ivo’s threat and Ivo himself had him nervously pacing around and watching out the window. And thinking about Aina.

He had been lucky. Misha, the owner of Sam’s restaurant, had agreed to hold an exhibition of Arsy’s work. Just in time for Christmas. His work did have a Christmas theme: large angels, black and white, but hardly angelical. More like powerful and ferocious winged beings whose intent was blurred—were they guardians or avengers? The paintings were fairly small. He would have liked them to be enormous but he couldn’t afford the canvas. Also, small paintings (less expensive paintings) would sell better—if they would sell at all. He still thought about his fake Rozentals but wasn’t sure how to approach Vika. It felt as if his window of opportunity had closed. There were other things on her mind, more important than buying forged art. Still, maybe she’d buy a small black and white angel—and give Misha fifty percent.

Aina was constantly on his mind. And so was her grandfather. He had to have a meeting with him. It felt like a life or death situation. He wished it could have been a social visit. In his dreams he was asking for Aina’s hand in marriage. What a foolish dream! How could he even have such dreams? He was practically broke, had no future. Still, it was imperative he warn Juris that a rival gang was gunning for his position as top guy in Jurmala’s syndicate. Arsy feared that people would die if a full scale turf war erupted.

It was clear to him that Aina had no idea what her grandfather was all about. She thought that he was a successful real estate mogul. And Arsy hadn’t had the heart to tell her otherwise. He couldn’t tell her about the art forgeries that her grandfather had commissioned from him. What other business her grandfather had going Arsy didn’t know or care but he was certain none of it was above board and honest.

The stark contrast of the unsuspecting and idealistic Aina with the dark criminal world of her grandfather struck Arsy as particularly poignant. She had no idea how much misery her grandfather had caused. Most, if not all, of his money and livelihood was based, first during Soviet times as an NKVD officer where he had been adept at robbing the hard working people who had had the misfortune of wandering into the cross hairs of the secret police. More lately, he had become even more prosperous, cheating anyone who had enough money to be cheated out of. Either way, he had been winning. But now there was a rival who wanted to take over.

Had he told Aina too much? He could hardly remember. It had felt so good to be able to talk to someone. He had talked and talked and Aina had listened her eyes glowing with understanding and acceptance. Wasn’t this what people meant when they talked about a soul mate? Now he worried. How would her grandfather react once he knew who this Arsy was who had sought out his daughter at the Arts Academy?  Arsy sensed danger from so many directions. How he wished he was wealthy and powerful and could whisk Aina away on a magic carpet, far from this precarious life she had been forced to live. But there was no magic carpet for them. That was just a dream. Arsy had to summon up his courage and resolve to face reality. And that meant facing Juris Lapins, one on one.

* * *

Arsy had no sense of being watched as he walked in the cold misty rain, through the blue-shadowed streets. He needed the air. He needed to burn off the anxiety that was eating him up. Pacing through the dark streets, he saw himself as some mythological knight, ready to sacrifice himself for the one he loved. He was sure he loved Aina. He was sure he’d do anything to protect her from the machinations of the gang coming after her grandfather. It would take guts but he could do it.

Arsy steeled himself, pulled his cell phone from an inside pocket and punched in the number Juris had given him. A minute  later, he was put through to the boss himself. Arsy’s mouth was dry, his mind stumbling, his heart racing. How best to put this? His voice shaking, he managed to get his words out.

“I need to talk to you. It’s important that I see you in person. I can only give you this information in person.”

There was silence on the line. Arsy cringed. Had he made a huge mistake?

“I’m sending someone to get you right now.” Juris’ voice was expressionless.

Arsy gasped. “Right now? I’m worried about my house. A guy threatened to burn it down.”

“I’m sending some of my people to watch your house. A taxi will pick you up at your front door in ten minutes.”

Juris ended the conversation, sending Arsy rushing back to his front door.

* * *

A few minutes later, a sleek black BMW pulled up at the door. Two burly young men got out and gave Arsy the thumbs up. He had to trust them. He had to trust Juris. They were all in this together. Weren’t they all on the same team? He thought of Aina and smiled inwardly. She needed him to do this. He was doing this for her.

A very short while later, a taxi pulled up. Arsy checked the number which Juris had given him. Everything seemed on the up and up. He got in. The driver gave a brief nod but other than that there was silence. It was already pitch dark. Arsy leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. They were speeding onwards to Jurmala.

Neither Arsy nor the driver had noticed a Merc which had also been waiting near Arsy’s front door. But a call had just come in to the driver. They were being followed. The cabbie knew what to do. Abruptly he made a dangerous U turn and the car careered off in another direction, before making several more diversionary moves. The cabbie had made the hazardous decision to drive without lights.

His mind lurching with terror, Arsy started in on a prayer he had learned in childhood. He prayed out loud. In Russian. He knew the mob would shoot first, ask questions later. He wanted a cigarette.

Arsy’s prayers seemed to have worked. Some fifteen minutes later, the cab was at the front gate of a beautiful old house. A call was made, the gate lifted and the cab drove into a large courtyard. Arsy got out and was immediately approached by a body guard who frisked him thoroughly. Arsy was clean. And surprised to see Juris himself coming out of the house to greet him and usher him inside. His face was expressionless and for a fraction of a second Arsy saw a ploy. A trap. Was he going to die? Juris reached inside his pocket. Was he pulling out a gun?

Juris pulled out a pack and offered Arsy a cigarette. With shaking hands Arsy took the fag. Juris lit it. A few deep inhales and Arsy felt a bit  calmer. He squared his shoulders, lifted his head, ready for anything.

“Here, take the whole pack. I’m trying to quit.”

 

CHAPTER 30

If you want to hide a diamond put it in a tiara.

Eggy headed for the tiara. He dropped his crew off at Spice shopping centre and made a smooth-as-silk move right into the gorgeously decadent luxury car dealership off Lielirbes Street. He left the key in the ignition. Wouldn’t that be someone’s lucky day? A black Mercedes with tinted windows! More luxurious than even the president of Latvia could ever dream of.

Having dumped the Merc, Eggy headed back to his crew. A cab had just dropped someone off at Spice and the four of them descended on it like a murder of crows on fresh road kill. Vika, Svetlana, Simone and Eggy piled in. They had been getting increasingly more nervous, even scared. What would they find once they arrived back at Simone’s?

A turning point had been reached. This was no longer an exciting adventure but a life and death situation where one or all of them could fall victim to a gang land killing. The medical diagnosis would be that they were all in shock.

Simone rummaged in her purse for her flask, found it (luckily it was full) and passed it around to the women in the back seat. Eggy, in the front passenger seat, was about to light a cigarette when the driver sharply reprimanded him not to stink up the cab. Other than that it was dead silence. Outside the streets glittered, carpeted in snow which shone incandescent in the lamplights.

As they drove over the Vanšu Bridge the panorama of the old city stretched before them, the reflected light dancing on the river Daugava—a magnificent sight often depicted on post cards. Vika had shut down her mind and stared at the passing scenes as if she were watching a travelogue.

Out of an abundance of caution, they asked to be let out a couple of  blocks from Simone’s place. From there Simone called Aunt Velga. “Oh yes, an ambulance came and took away a man who was lying on the pavement.” That’s all Velga had seen. She had been busy in the kitchen when the incident had occurred. Simone was glad of that.

Eggy, free to light up again, took full advantage and inhaled smoke as if his life depended on it. He was worried sick. Had a neighbor seen what had happened? Seen him shove a man to the pavement, possibly killing him? Yet he consoled himself with the fact that he had probably saved Svetlana’s life.

The four of them seemed to be members of the less-said-the-better club. Here they were, standing on a street corner, uncertain about what to do next.

Eggy smiled a chilly smile. It was a cover for anxiety, or even panic.

“If the police question any of us, it was self-defense.”

Three pairs of wide eyes fixed on him. Heads nodded.

The snow kept falling and it was getting cold. Vika didn’t have the right shoes for this weather even though she still had on a man’s heavy jacket which she had used as a disguise.

Once they got out of the warm cab it didn’t take long for the cold to penetrate. They shivered, stomped their feet, blew into their hands. At the same time they were reluctant to move away from each other, needing comfort and support from the group.

Vika took the lead. “I think Simone and Svetlana should go home. It’s not a long walk from here. I know Eggy has a home.” Then she shook her head and gave a sad little smile, “But I’m not sure about mine.”

Eggy frowned. “You have to be careful, Vika. I hope the driver of the Merc didn’t get on the phone to one of his buddies and tell them about your apartment.”

Vika gave a short bark of laughter. “Ha! Remember, I’ve got the gun! And Bernie taught me how to shoot, how to defend myself. In his line of business, it was always best to be prepared.”

Eggy’s frown deepened. “ A gun. Yes, you picked it up. I’m no expert on guns. They’re not so easy to get. Not like in USA.”

“Really!” Now Vika’s laugh was genuine. “It was easy for me to get one right here in Riga. Besides, how do people protect themselves?”

“Pepper spray, usually.”

Eggy shrugged. He was freezing and losing patience. “Anyway, let’s go. We’ll take public transport. You’ll get to experience what a lot of tourists don’t. I’ll get you back to your apartment and from there I can easily walk home. My father will be waiting for me.”

Vika sighed. “Yes, your father…” she murmured.

Two gents, (one tall, one short) hopped on the trolleybus and headed for central Riga. No one bothered to glance at them. Everyone was lost in their own thoughts. They spoke little during the ride, other than agreeing to meet again the next day.

* * *

At the front door of her apartment house on Valdemara street Vika pulled a wad of euros from her purse. “Give this to your buddy. Of course if he wants his clothes back that’s okay  too.”

Eggy made a snuffling noise, his version of a laugh. “I wish mine would fit you.”

Unbidden, a thought flew into Vika’s mind. She was no longer just a tourist. She had friends. She smiled. Then she stood on tiptoes and gave Eggy a heartfelt kiss.

* * *

Vika was back on track. Her mother. Bernie. But before she made a move to contact them she toured her small apartment. Nothing seemed disturbed. Still, she made sure the curtains were closed and the door had been double locked before she inspected her hiding place. Svetlana’s package was safe and sound.

When was the last time she had eaten? She couldn’t even remember. Of course there was no food in the house. The fridge was empty as were the kitchen cupboards. In New York she’d simply pick up the phone and order: Chinese, Indian, Italian. Could she wait till the next morning? Bending over to remove her shoes she noticed how easy it was. She had lost weight. Fasting was a great idea.

As she got ready for bed (thank God there was hot water) Vika worried.  She didn’t trust this seemingly peaceful interlude. Was this the calm before the storm? Or were they in the eye of the storm, waiting for the other wall of the eye?

She picked up her phone to call her mother but realized it would be late at night in New York. She texted, giving instructions. She needed her mother out of the grips of Bernie. Next she sent a loving text to her husband. Kill him with kindness was her modus operandi.

Chapter 29

Aina smiled at him. Her face was almost translucent. Nothing was hidden. Everything was in it. Her honest gaze made Arsy blush. How in the world could he go through with the sham Mademoiselle story?

“I’d be pleased to do the interview,” Aina said politely.

Arsy hesitated. Aina was different from any other girl he’d ever met. She had natural beauty. Yet she also had a a sense of style with her red boots and simple black dress and glorious reddish blond hair. Her eyes sparkled and there was humor in them.

Aina looked into Arsy’s handsome face—oh that smile!  The idea of being part of Mademoiselle intrigued her but getting to know this gent intrigued her even more.

The next moment, the very air they breathed became thick with romance. Arsy forgot all about Ivo who had peered out of the kitchen to watch the encounter.

“Would you have a bit of time? Say twenty minutes or so. We could go to the place across the street. It would be more private and we wouldn’t be disturbed.”

Aina replied without hesitation. “Yes. Let’s go.”

* * *

Ivo felt a chill. He shivered. Could he somehow sense the Angel of Death hovering nearby? If he did, he quickly tuned out, kicked aside his bucket and mop, and followed the two as they headed for the front door. But once outside, Ivo stopped. His face contorted. His hand clutched at his chest. The next moment, he slumped to the ground.

A sudden shaft of light, left over from summer, bathed him in gold. Seconds later, the light vanished.

Arsy half turned, noticed a man lying on the top step of the stairs. He knew instinctively that he should keep walking. Luckily Aina hadn’t noticed anything. Arsy knew that she would have been horrified.

He hurried her across Raina Boulevard to the little coffee shop on the corner. Just before taking the stairs leading down into the basement, Arsy looked over his shoulder again and noticed a woman (it could have been Liga) bending over the slumped body.

A mixture of emotions coursed through him. Shock. Relief. Sadness.

He had been out of touch with his feelings for so long. Feelings were luxuries. He had tamped them down and just got on with the business of staying alive. Now they came flooding back as he looked at this lovely girl smiling across the table from him.

“I want to tell you a story,” he said.

Aina looked at him quizzically.

“It’s not about Mademoiselle. It’s about something much more important.”

Aina leaned closer. Arsy was glad she hadn’t glanced at her watch. This was going to be a very long story.

* * *

Snow had started to fall. Bunches of big weightless flakes slowly slipped from the sky, smoothing a fresh white eiderdown over the city. The first snow of winter was always a magical surprise.

Arsy and Aina left the café and started to walk along Raina Boulevard. A hush had descended. They were alone in the world. Just the two of them.

Dream images drifted in and out of Arsy’s imagination. The two of them snug as could be before a roaring fireplace, drinking tea and sherry, with a dog at their feet. There were more fantasies: the two of them in a flowering meadow with the sun shining on Aina, bathing her in golden radiance.

Real life interrupted.

“It’s late, Arsy. My grandfather’s driver always picks me up at five o’clock. I must go back to the Academy.”

Back to the Academy! Arsy certainly didn’t want to go back there. Ivo’s buddies could be hanging around. And Ivo himself could be alive and well after a dizzy spell. If indeed it had been Ivo. Arsy started to doubt himself. He had spilled his guts to Aina. He trusted her. But there could still be danger for them both.

“Call the driver, Aina. Tell him to pick you up right here in front of the café. I think it’s better. Let’s walk back and I’ll wait with you.”

Aina agreed and, some fifteen minutes later, was chauffeured back home.

* * *

After saying goodbye to Aina (with promises to meet again) Arsy decided to stop at a grocery store on his way home to buy pastries and a bottle of wine for Madame Zenunda. He didn’t forget Minka who also deserved a treat—a can of smoked lamprey.

Then he took the bus back to Maskava’s Street and his studio. Staring out at the snow still falling over the quiet city his mind started to flow with memories from his childhood. He was indeed an orphan. All alone in the world. His mother had died when he was ten years old; he never knew his father. His maternal grandparents had brought him up. Now they were both deceased.

His fascination with art had always comforted him. In the world of art anything was possible. Each painting he saw in the art galleries of Riga pointed to another reality—a more beautiful reality—a portrait of what life should be like. And could be like. If he worked hard.

While working as a waiter and at menial jobs (mainly in renovation projects), he taught himself to draw. His sketchbook had been his constant companion and, when he had saved a bit of money, he purchased oil paint and canvas.

Arsy had met Juris Lapins at one of the Jugendstyl building sites on Elizabetes Street. Juris had walked in as if he owned the place—and he probably did. At the time, Arsy was having a short lunch break and was working on a drawing. Juris had walked up behind him silently and Arsy had not even noticed. Juris had watched for who knows how long before he startled Arsy by saying, “Not bad for someone who never went to the Arts Academy.”

That meeting had been Arsy’s entrée into the world of crime. He had refused to do anything violent. He figured that working at art forgery was still working at art so that was okay. Of course he had no idea at the time that it was Juris Lapins, in his  KGB officer days, who had sent Arsy’s father to Siberia.

Nearing his bus stop, Arsy stopped daydreaming. He was pulled out of his reverie by loud sirens. His heart stopped beating. Firefighters didn’t turn up for no good reason. Clutching his shopping bags, Arsy raced towards his house.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 28

Two nicely-dressed gents, one tall, one short, entered the Hotel de Rome and approached the bank of elevators. They attracted little attention since a large tour bus had just disgorged a mass of Asian tourists who were streaming into the hotel and heading for reception. The lobby was cheek to jowl and so was the elevator which stopped at the fourth floor where the two got off.

Then it was as if they had grown wings. In a New York minute, they were inside room 407. Then it was only a hop, skip, and jump to get into the safe, raid the mini bar, and grab up everything else. Like thieves in the night, the two retraced their steps, glad to see the commotion in the lobby as yet another tour bus had arrived. Thank God for tour buses. Even in this off season.

A gleaming black Mercedes with tinted windows idled at the entrance. Not for the first time did Vika breathe I’m so glad I’m rich. It was one of the few times in her life that she had felt almost overcome by the knowledge that she had so many possibilities. It was certainly much more fun spending money this way than getting a face lift or buying obscenely expensive shoes.

Hands slapped in high fives as the Merc ferried the two a short distance to Vika’s new digs. She took it as a sign of good omen that the sun had just peeked out and the permanent twilight of Riga’s skies was momentarily ablaze with shafts of golden light.

For both of them this adventure was so much more exciting than visiting Latvia’s predictable tourist traps. Sitting beside her, Eggy too was wreathed in smiles. He felt like a character in a spy movie. Life was certainly interesting with this rich American—although Eggy no longer thought of Vika in those terms. She was cool. A friend.  And he was glad that a buddy of his had been able to lend Vika a suitable outfit.

Vika giggled. “I don’t want to give these clothes back, Eggy. I feel so free and, more importantly—I feel so invisible.”

Eggy snorted a laugh back at her. “For a few euros your wish can come true.”

“Deal!”

For a few sunny minutes, the friendly banter continued as both savored the success of their mission. Vika had previously consulted Air Bed and Breakfast on the Internet. She had rented a small apartment on Valdemara Street. On the third floor, which was important. Less desirable were apartments on either the first or the sixths floor. Elevators often malfunctioned and first floor was less safe. Vika had been delighted at what she considered low rent. Four hundred and fifty euros per months was a steal.

Luckily the apartment was furnished. When the limo deposited the two at the entrance Vika felt, for a brief crazy moment, that she and Eggy were moving in together. She felt light headed with fantasies and imaginings. There was everything here that she needed—except for a safe and a mini bar. Would there be room here for her mother as well?

“I’ve rented the Merc for the day. Anywhere special you’d like to be chauffeured to?” Riga was her oyster. She didn’t want to devour it on her own.

“Let me think,” Eggy replied, with a laugh as he rocked his hands in a comme ci, comme ça gesture.

“Take all the time you need. First, I have to go see Svetlana. I have some of her stuff and her briefcase. So, let’s go to Simone’s. Maybe she’ll enjoy a chauffeured tour of Riga as well.”

But before any of that, she’d have to find a safe place for the small package which Svetlana had been ordered to give her on behalf of Juris Lapins. And which she herself was meant to carry on to Bernie in New York.

The thought that the driver of the Merc could in any way be affiliated with organized crime didn’t occur to either of them. Their mission-accomplished moment was so intoxicating that they had thrown caution to the wind.

* * *

It was a fine late November day. Simone decided that Svetlana should start exercising outdoors. She had recovered well and longed to be out and about again. By four o’clock it would be dark and both women wanted to catch whatever precious bit of sunlight they could.

As they exited the house they were surprised to see a black Merc with tinted windows pull up in front of the house. Wide-eyed they stood on the spot and watched as the driver got out and went around the car, ready to open the passenger door. Who were these people? What was happening?

The next instant Svetlana let out a scream. She pointed at the driver.

“That’s him! He’s the one that tried to kill me!”

The driver wheeled around to see who had just screamed. He recognized who it was. Slowly he reached under his jacket and pulled out a gun. He raised it. But hadn’t noticed that Eggy had gotten out of the car and was behind him. Eggy lunged. The gun discharged into the air and simultaneously the shooter did a face plant on the pavement.

No one moved. This moment was their existential turning point. Nothing would ever be the same again for any of them. Absolutely nothing.

There were gasps of horror and Svetlana slumped to the ground. The driver lay motionless. Was he dead?

Vika was the first to react. Adrenaline fueled her. She grabbed the gun from the sidewalk and shouted.

“The key’s still in the ignition. We’ve got to get the car out of here. And now. Before police arrive.”

It was amazing good luck that the street was still empty. There was no foot traffic and the few cars which had passed by hadn’t bothered to stop.

They all knew that any minute now a crowd would be gathering.

“Get in the car right now! I’m driving!”

Vika was already behind the wheel and revving the motor as   Eggy and Simone lifted Svetlana into the back seat.

“We’re ditching this baby in some dark neighborhood. Any ideas, Eggy?”

“Just keep driving straight ahead and get out of this neighborhood. Then just pull over and I’ll take the wheel. We’ll be heading for Pardaugava.”