Ignacio was opening drawers, running skilled fingers along their interior. Covered in slim black gloves, his hands performed the task in the dark better than his eyes. The small suitcase at his feet already contained several pieces of expensive jewellery, a camera, a pair of swanky sunglasses, a big ornate key. And a bra. Apart from everything else, Ignacio enjoyed taking a piece of his victim’s underwear. A pair of stockings, a G-string –especially if a beautiful woman lived in the house he was breaking into– sometimes a bra. Little by little he had created a personal collection of mismatched lingerie. When the Russian girl returned, perhaps she’d notice that among other possessions she was missing a bra, the sheer one with the flowers patterns. Ignacio nursed a soft spot for women’s brassieres.
This quirk had become the signature of his burglaries. At first, nobody noticed. Who cares about a garter belt or a pair of knickers when their house has been stripped bare? Later on, however, a scrupulous police investigator had noted that some women, in their testimonies on recent burglaries, mentioned the disappearance of an undergarment. When asked for a description, most of them blushed, explaining it was just ‘rather special’.
To this burglar, who removed ‘rather special’ pieces from women’s wardrobes, the television and the newspapers of Moscow had given the nickname ‘The Underwear Thief’. They painted the profile of a pervert who could at any moment turn into a rapist.
Ignacio didn’t worry much. They’d never catch him. He had a plan. They had a plan. Outside the block of flats, Jamal was waiting, keeping watch inside the van they had stolen the week before. Tonight’s victim, the Russian girl, wouldn’t return from the university before nine, as every Thursday. They had been spying on her for three weeks. They knew her schedule with precision.
Ignacio glanced at his watch. Half six. He had enough time. Gently lifting sofa cushions, he groped for hidden objects. He needn’t persist. The most important item, the big ornate key, was in his suitcase. It was the first thing he had looked for upon entering the flat and had found it in the locked desk drawer. Ridiculously easy for him to pry it open. To his surprise, her gold credit card lay side by side with the key. He had smiled.
This was a girl full of surprises. Before finding out about the key and the villa it opened in the suburbs of Moscow, they had intended to rob her apartment. They’d seen her downtown using her gold card one day and had stood behind her, pretending to wait for a transaction. With the decoder in pocket, which captured the different frequencies of the ATM’s keys, they had found out her PIN. Usually, they forged the cards. But if their victim was loaded and carried around a gold card, they stalked them and broke into their house.
They were stunned when, following her that afternoon, they saw her entering a shabby block of flats in the poorest neighbourhood of Moscow. How odd, her having a gold card and living in such a miserable place. They started spying on her. Soon they discovered she worked as a maid at one of the rich houses in the suburbs. She also had an affair with the owner, whom she visited on the nights when his wife was out. That was where the gold card and the money came from; presents from him.
Though they didn’t care much about the card any more, Ignacio took it. They could withdraw the cash limit. As for the key, they had a plan for breaking into the villa. Following the couple, they had discovered that they also stayed out late on Thursdays. She played cards at a casino in Arbatskaya square, while he met another mistress of his at the other end of Moscow. Thursday was the perfect day.
Ignacio decided to leave. He closed his suitcase and moved cautiously, avoiding the windows, towards the entrance hall. He had every reason to be satisfied. With a little luck they’d feather two birds in one go. Take the girl’s cash and empty the villa. That’s why they needed the van. There would be a rich catch tonight!
Crossing the living room, he smiled at his reflection in the mirror. In a suit and tie, as always when on the job. Nobody suspects such a well-dressed gentleman. He proceeded to the hallway to put on his shoes. He always left them at the place where he entered from and walked in socks; a creaking floor, an unforeseen obstacle, something you hadn’t noticed and the noise could betray you.
A noise was heard. The lift. Ignacio remained still. He checked the buzzer on his belt. Dead. Everything was fine. If the girl showed up, Jamal would give a signal and Ignacio would have time to react.
Waiting in the silence, the dim shapes of the apartment reminded him of Elsa’s room in the mental clinic. He wondered what his wife might be doing that moment. She’d be sitting on her bed, voiceless, staring as always into nothingness. Four months had passed since he had last seen her. Ignacio meant to get her out but kept putting it off. Every time he scraped together some money he spent it on chicks and booze. He was a man; he had to have his fling somehow. He never forgot Elsa though; she was the woman of his life. And the baby. His daughter. Four months old. In the establishment, since Elsa was judged unfit and he was missing. He’d take her back. A change would help Elsa pull through. She loved her daughter, even though she had tried to kill her, throwing her to the floor of the maternity ward. Ignacio had beaten her fiercely, holding her mouth shut so that they wouldn’t be heard from the corridor. How else would she understand she couldn’t treat the baby that way? Then they had locked her up. ‘Postnatal depression combined with chronic symptoms of schizophrenia,’ the doctor had said. Bullshit! Ignacio knew Elsa well. There was nothing wrong with her. He’d change everything after tonight’s robbery. Take his two women and disappear.
He heard the lift’s noise again. Ignacio pressed his ear to the door. It stopped on the floor where he was. Steps echoed down the corridor. He ran back to the bedroom and looked out the window. He almost had a stroke. Jamal was crossing the street from the park to the van, zipping up his trousers. The fool! How long had he been away? What if, in the meantime, the girl had returned?
The footsteps paused. The key sounded in the lock. Instinctively, Ignacio opened the wardrobe and squeezed in with his suitcase, pushing aside some clothes hangers. He crouched down, folding his legs up.
The light in the entrance hall came on and the steps approached. Ignacio bit his lip. The shoes, he had forgotten his shoes by the door! How could she not have seen them?!
Suddenly the bedroom was illuminated and Ignacio saw the girl through the slit of the wardrobe doors. She dumped her bag and threw herself face down on the bed. Her legs visible below the skirt. Nice chick!
The spinning of car wheels sounded from the street. That idiot, Jamal, must have seen the light, panicked and sped off. Now Ignacio was on his own. He cursed his partner inwardly while making a great effort not to move. His legs hurt in this unnatural position. The buzzer flashed in the dark. Arsehole, he thought, I couldn’t care less about your warning now.
If only she went to the bathroom, he wished. He’d grab his shoes and disappear. Otherwise he wouldn’t risk jumping out of the wardrobe and running. She’d scream, someone might come to help her… forget it.
It began to rain. He waited. His legs killing him. The girl wasn’t moving. Had she fallen asleep? No, she got up. Any moment now she would open a drawer or even the very wardrobe he was in and everything would go to hell. He watched her kneel and reach under the bed. She pulled a shoe box, opened it, took something out.
Rope? What on earth…? The girl unwound it on the bed. Ignacio was watching puzzled. She switched off the pendant light. For some moments everything was black, he could hear her feet and raindrops on the window, then light came from the lamp on the bedside table. She sat down, took out a packet of cigarettes and lit one with unhurried movements. She inhaled and released the smoke softly, creating silver clouds in the semi-dark.
After a while, she stubbed out the cigarette on the floor and stood up. She took the rope and made a knot. A noose. Ignacio was watching in a blur, as though in a dream or nightmare. The girl climbed on the bed and tried to tie the other end of the rope around the chain of the pedant light. She couldn’t reach it well. He saw her legs stretching, her short skirt riding up, revealing her thighs and part of her arse. It looked like Elsa’s…
Ignacio remembered meeting Elsa for the first time. At a football match. She’d passed by him and sat a few seats ahead with another guy. Thousands of fans screaming their lungs out on the stadium tiers, and he was staring at her. Forgotten the game completely. Strange! It had never happened to him before. He had walked up to her and asked for her phone number. The other guy –a sissy jerk with glasses– tried to put up a fight. He got a sound thrashing, of course. As if Ignacio would let it go! Two hard smacks on the face while his team was scoring. The others cheering, celebrating. Elsa –whose name Ignacio didn’t know then– screaming, trying to separate them. She had left the other guy in the end. A week and a half later. But not before a second beating took place. The sucker had tried to stand in the way. Poor arsehole… Some phone calls and Ignacio’s persistent visits to Elsa’s house were enough to make her his own. The funny thing was, he had found out her number from the ridiculous messages her ex had sent her on his mobile. Ignacio had swiped it during the fight.
The girl in front of him was preparing to hang herself, for sure. Should he get out and run for it? What if she started shouting? He didn’t mind letting her. But if they pinned her suicide on him?
The girl managed to tie the rope to the pendant light. She climbed down and started pushing the bed. What the hell was she doing?
The way she was bending over, neck stretched out to the front, reminded him of roosters. Their posture before attacking to rip each other to pieces. Cockfights; another passion that Ignacio nursed. He’d got into it for the fun of the bet. Later on, he discovered he enjoyed the bloodshed. The way the cocks made a shamble of each other. Shouting all around, swearing, quarrels, money changing hands and the cocks butchering themselves in the cockpit. Skinning each other, dropping half dead and trembling. Wild stuff!
The girl had moved the bed up to the wall. Ignacio understood; so that she wouldn’t be able to reach and step on it. She brought a chair under the noose. She staggered up. Shit! She was really going to do it! Should he let her? If he waited, he could leave unnoticed afterwards. No risk at all. She’d die quietly, he’d return to the original plan. To hell with her! If she wanted to hang herself, let her. He owed her nothing, after all.
The girl passed the noose around her neck. But she didn’t jump.
She started singing.
Her voice, low and slow, filled the small room. Ignacio noticed that what she was singing wasn’t exactly a song, at least not like most, that ended in words sounding alike. That thing… what was it called… rhyme! Yes, her song didn’t have rhyme. It sounded more like phrases with some kind of melody.
Even though his Russian wasn’t that good, he caught words here and there. Something about the sun, solntse, and hair, volosy. The sun –something– on our hair. Ah! The sun is falling on our hair, this he understood. She was almost whispering but he could hear her with clarity from inside the wardrobe.
The sun is falling on our hair. And then it went: and we, and we say… he didn’t catch that. He hadn’t heard it on the radio before. And now, what was she saying? Oh! Zoloto, which meant gold. Probably its golden rays, yes, that, and are catching us, yes, are catching us she said, maybe she meant are touching us? And we, and we –the girl said it twice– carve the light on our skin. Ignacio felt proud of himself for recognising entire sentences, despite not grasping their meaning; he wasn’t good at philosophies.
What followed he didn’t catch, apart from the word for eyes, glaza, and after that: and we, and we are travelling. The way she was standing on that chair, unmoving, she appeared like a statue. The girl continued: We are travelling always travelling, and Ignacio tried to stretch out his legs a bit. Rain was heard on the glass between her silences.
And we go away, away, away. He had started pushing unconsciously on the wardrobe door. The girl repeated the phrase slightly changed, and we go away, somewhere far away, and kicked the chair hard. Ignacio blasted the door open.
The girl made a move in the air as if trying to turn towards him. She was shaking her arms and legs violently. Her body contorted. The pendant light jolted, dropped by a centimetre or so but it held and Ignacio stood in his place. The girl was reaching with her hands for the rope without catching it. Choking sounds.
It lasted a while. Her body remained swaying like an abandoned swing. Ignacio was once again alone in the room. He got closer and stood in front of her. Her eyes wide open. Bulging. He wondered whether she had seen him. Her face was blue. He could smell her perfume. Why destroy such a body?
Now he felt more relaxed, despite the impulse to rush out of his hiding place. Lucky that the pendant light had been securely fixed to the ceiling, he thought.
He started to go. By the entrance hall he put on his shiny black shoes. Before stepping out, he stopped short. He returned to the bedroom. He removed from his suitcase the sheer bra with the flower patterns. He folded it carefully and placed it inside the drawer where he had taken it from, among the rest of her underwear. He approached her again. The way she was hanging from the ceiling, she seemed like a large dead bird that wouldn’t fall to the ground. He raised her blouse and lowered her bra. Nice breasts. Juicy. He put his hand under her skirt and pulled down her underwear. He passed it around her shoes and slipped it in his suitcase. That was it. Time to go.
Closing the door, he noticed the name on the doorbell. He called Jamal. The villa was waiting. He took the lift and went out into the street.
Seventeen years later
Catalina was reading in her room. It was the only book her father had given her, a year before the car crash in which he died. He had been driving drunk, they had said. She remembered the day he had caught her rummaging in a small suitcase in the attic. Inside, next to the book, she had found a woman’s underwear, paled by time.
‘¿Amante del pasado?’ she had asked, smiling knowingly. Ignacio hadn’t replied.
Catalina examined the inside cover of the book.
‘Katerina Kondrashchenko was born in Novgorod, Russia. She was studying Theatre at the Faculty of Fine and Performing Arts of the Moscow State University. The present collection contains translations of the poems discovered in her apartment on the morrow of her suicide.’
That’s why Ignacio hadn’t answered. She didn’t blame him for keeping something of hers. It must have been a big blow for him, her namesake’s suicide. She imagined her father young, before meeting Elsa, spending happy moments with his lover, la poetisa, somewhere in Moscow. She smiled.
She turned a few pages and stopped at the twenty-first. This was her favourite of the collection. It didn’t say much as a poem, but she liked it. She had even dressed it in a melody of her own inspiration. The title was ‘Immortality’. Catalina sang it:
The sun is falling on our hair
and we, and we say we’ll never die.
His golden rays are catching us
and we, and we carve the light on our skin.
The light is running from our eyes
and we, and we are travelling
-without knowing it-
We are travelling always travelling
and we go away, away, away.
We are travelling always travelling
and we go away, somewhere far away.
Her mother’s voice came from the ground floor. She was calling her and her father for lunch. Elsa always forgot that Ignacio had passed away.
Descending the stairs, Catalina glanced at her watch. Three. Elsa’s psychologist would arrive at four. El cabrón. She didn’t want to come across him. She didn’t like the way he looked at her. Besides, she had to hurry for another reason. She shouldn’t be late at her new job. The owner of the villa in the suburbs of Madrid, which she had taken to cleaning recently, was so warm and friendly that he had even trusted her with the big ornate key.