Her hands were always steady, they had to be in her profession, yet for the life of her right now she was unable to stop them from trembling – something as simple as fitting the key to her apartment’s door seemed beyond her at that moment. The hallway on the 6th floor was well lit, but that did not stop Alejandra from turning her head left and right. After a third unsuccessful attempt the keys fell to the floor and she swore loudly in a mixture of Russian and Spanish. Taking a deep breath she steadied herself. No one knew who she was, and the theft had occurred as planned. A glint in her eyes appeared as her gaze trailed to the side of her door; a cello case was propped upright next to it. No one knew.
The door creaked, it was an old building -decades ago a World-class hotel- that had seen better days, but it still held some glitter from its days of yore, even if some parts could use a fix or two; it was home. The door closed behind, darkness filled the space save for an open window that cast a silvery glow on the floor. Being used to traversing dark places, Alejandra easily made her way to the small living room in the center of the main room. She placed the cello case with care, as if holding a tired lover, over a glass coffee table. It was a beautiful case, black with a glossy look to it.
Taking a seat on her favorite red velvet chair -facing the window as she liked it-, her hands caressed the surface of the case with a gentleness akin to affection. Music had always been her greatest passion, one that her mother had both instructed and influenced her years ago – before the influenza, before the orphanage.
Alejandra breathed heavily, her chest raising up and down with anticipation. She considered the instrument in front of her; a part of her, the one that still remembered Saint Petersburg -the conservatory, her mother’s lessons, red autumn leaves and snowy streets of her childhood-, had to, no…needed…to touch and play this work of art and craftsmanship.
With reverence, she undid the locks of the case and opened it slowly, she did not even feel her hands trembling slightly. Lips parted slightly, there were no words. An index finger traced the length of one of the cello’s chords while the other hand’s fingertips felt the wooden frame or the instrument. Soft and hard, she closed her eyes and opened them again, looking for something. She found it and mouthed the words as her eyes read words tucked in the inner sides of the cello: Stradivarius, 1688. Marylebone.
The theft had been rather easy. It was a high-valued instrument, but it wasn’t like going after a head of state. Security was tight, but not airtight. Two ampoules of chloroform, a black dress to look like she belonged in an orchestra and a sly smile was all it took. She had come a long day from pickpocketing wallets from tourists in St. Petersburg. Mercader made sure of that. Alejandra took her hands away from the priceless instrument, placing them on her knees as she gave out a heavy sigh.
It all began with a cough many years ago. Her name had been Alessandra back then.
She lived with her mother, a concert player and music instructor, who always made time for her despite a busy schedule. “Family first, above all.”, she would always say in her soft voice.
Her father, a famous novelist, was killed when she was a baby. Always a peace-loving man, her mother used to tell her, he tried to break apart a fight outside of the cafe where he would spend his afternoons writing. For his troubles, he was shot at point blank in the face. Her mother never remarried, but instead purged her grief through her love for her daughter and music.
One day a 7 year old Alessandra snuck into her mother’s studio in their small flat -a sacred place where she would compose and play her music undisturbed. Her eyes opened wide as she saw all sorts of instruments across the small circular room, the sheets of paper with musical notes spread about the floor and over a desk. A framed picture of her father and mother holding her as a baby sat on a corner of it.
Timidly, she gave a small step and then another, until she stumbled upon a large instrument that looked like a huge violin. An odd stick lay next to it. Remembering how she had seen her mother make music with it before, she placed the bow over the instrument and moved it back and forth. She cringed at the sound she made before jumping when someone cleared her throat behind her. Alessandra turned around and saw her mother looking from the doorway. The girl held her breath for a moment; her mother’s face broke into a smile. She walked towards her and kneeling to see eye to eye, she caressed her left cheek softly, “Would you like to learn how to play it?” Yes, oh yes, she would!
“It” ended up being a cello, and she came to dominate it -as well as the violin- in time.
Years later Alessandra and her mother were playing near a fountain in the Summer Garden under the warmth of the Sun. They played a string duet of a Tchaikovsky piece; Alessandra played cello while her mother led with her violin. The colors of Spring painted the grand city as people enjoyed the outdoors after the harsh Winter. Daughter and mother enjoyed their time together outdoors playing when a coughing fit made her mother stop. “Mama, are you alright? Should we stop and go home?”, her mother only smiled, “It’s nothing, probably just a cold. It will go away soon enough.” Alessandra returned the smile and they resumed playing.
Weeks later she was burying her mother, only a month after they had celebrated her 12th birthday. Alessandra had no known relatives, she was alone; the State intervened – an orphanage was her next stop.
A grey building, falling into pieces, with grim-faced staff and her peers, other children that had no one left to care for them -or simply no one wanted them- were now her existence. She had cried herself to sleep every night on her first week there.
Life in the orphanage was cruel and stifling for her. The staff did not really cared for her beyond making sure she was fed, dressed, healthy until she was 18 years old. Then she would be kicked out to make her way by whatever means necessary -most girls ended as prostitutes or worse. She was terrified of living there until her time ran out. She fled after her first month in there.
The streets were hard, but she was quick, managing to pickpocket with relative ease to have some extra rubles to buy food -easy after the first three attempts and a black eye. Three years later she was shadow among the crowd. One day she saw a man walking down the street, he wore a long red overcoat and used a black cane for support. He was whistling a very merry tune, as if he had no care in the world. Alessandra considered that a happy man must be a rich man. Using the nearby alleyways she snuck up close to him and made a grab for his pockets -if she was caught, he could outrun a cripple-, but a sharp blow from the man’s cane to her hand made her scream in pain. She attempted to run, but found herself being tripped over and fell hard on her sides.
The man kept whistling and kneeled next to her, putting his cane over Alessandra’s head, he wore sunglasses and was grinning, “Joder, miss! I did not hear you sneak up on me until the last second. That was good, very good. But sadly, you can’t have my wallet. That is what you wanted, no?”, Alessandra glared at him, tears streaming down her eyes from the pain of the blow and the humiliation of being caught by a cripple. She remained quiet, “Well, well, well…I seem to have caught a mute bird! Tsk, this will not do. No, not at all. Why don’t you tell me a story, little birdie! If I like it, I promise to let you go.”, his accent was thick, a foreigner. She considered running, but something in her eyes must have tipped him off, as his voice spoke in a softer, deadlier tone, “Pajarita, I may not be a fast man, but believe me: you won’t get to take two steps before my cane breaks your legs. So, start singing.”. Defeated, but also feeling curious about this man, she told him her story.
By the time she was finished, they both were sitting at the edge of the sidewalk. It was a sunny day. “Ay, pajarita, your story is a sad one indeed. A bit like mine, though in my case my father was a drunken cabron. My mother? Never met her.”, he patted her back and tussled her hair a bit. “Here I am, far from my beautiful Madrid, exploring the World, and like you, relieving people of their riches. You’re not new at this, but you lack…finesse. Although….”, he gave her an appraising look, “…you did manage to sneak up on me. To do that to someone of my profession, that takes quite a bit of talent.”, he gripped the cane with both hands and turned it around, then faced Alessandra, a glint in his eyes, “Would you like me to teach you how to be better at it?” Yes.
His name was Jose Mercader.
The years with him gave Alessandra a very different education. She learned how to navigate the streets, how to follow marks and pickpocket them in ways that made her own efforts crude by comparison. Mercader took her across Europe as his daughter, Alejandra Mercader; together they performed many high-profile robberies. A duet of thievery, so to speak.
In that time she learned that Mercader had been at one time a mercenary involved in several black-ops, though he never got into much detail about them, “Not my finest moments, pajarita. What I do now? Feels like a clean and legal profession by comparison.”, the topic always made him somber and quiet for a few days, as if he suddenly remembered that he was waiting for something or someone.
One day Mercader came home with a package: a violin. She smiled and hugged the man, “Hey, hey, enough of that! What? You think old Jose forgets things you tell him? Well, no. You’ve earned it, pajarita.” She named the violin Alyona, her mother’s name. With time she got a cello and named him after his father. Mercader would sit and smoke his pipe for hours in whatever place they were visiting at the time, just listening to her play for hours in silence.
Those days were as close to her being happy as when her mother had been alive, but it all came crashing down when the Spaniard’s past caught up with him. They had been staying in a small city in Holland, in a cottage at the edge of a forest, casing the mansion of wealthy farm owners. She had gone grocery shopping as Mercader smoked his pipe, sitting on his chair facing the window -his favorite position-, “I miss the Sun from Spain, so I try to get it as much as I can from wherever I am.”, he told her when she asked about this habit of his. When she arrived outside of the cottage she knew something was wrong when she found the door had been forced in. “Jose?”, she called out trembling after picking up a knife they bought for cutting things. She found him where she had left him. His pipe had long gone out as it hung from his lifeless mouth.
Five bullet holes were spread across the chair. She never found out who killed him, but the message was clear – this was payback. She left Holland on that same night after burying Mercader, she did not marked the place where she dug the hole. “When I die, pajarita, don’t bury me in a marked grave. I don’t want my enemies to piss over it.”, he would always joke. She was 24 years old, Mercader had been 56.
Alejandra settled in Granada a year later. Though it was not Mercader’s home city, she enjoyed its cultural and laid back atmosphere -she had never been a fan of capital cities, all were full of rude people and found the hectic pace too chaotic for her taste. She still pulled heists, though with less frequency -both had made enough money to live in comfort and leisure for many, many years-, and instead dedicated most of her time giving children private violin and cello lessons as well as composing music. Of course, she still held both the violin and cello from her time with the Spaniard, and no one but her could touch them.
She now stared at the Stradivarius cello, “My last.”, she whispered, pulling it out of the case and set it gently on the ground. Giving it an appraising look, she smiled, “Mercader.” A fitting name. She picked the bow stick inside the case and placed it over the strings. Slowly, she began to play a Tchaikovsky piece.
Her family was now complete.