If Emilia, as a young girl, had known what was in that room, she might never have gone in. If she’d known what that red light leaking out from that room meant, all those sobs that went in. Then she’d have never needed to open up the house, years later, to the new police lieutenant. If she’d never gone in, if she’d never sat in that chair, perhaps her father never would’ve asked her, instead of one of her siblings, to keep the secret of the red light room.
Hours before the police arrived, there’d been an omen. It was four in the morning when somebody knocked at her door. Half asleep and in her dressing gown, she led an unknown man to the room. Middle-aged and quite good-looking, he wore a shabby coat and broken shoes. He’d taken the trouble to disguise himself so as to go unnoticed in the neighborhood, but he’d forgotten to take off his gold-crowned watch, which peaked out from under a sleeve. Emilia took him to the room, and after a few seconds of doubt, the man went in.
The rest is history. Actually, all stories are both distinct and the same. The man left from where he’d come in, a bit sadder, a bit wiser, and he’d left a piece of his soul to pay for everything he’d learned that night. But although it was nothing to do with Emilia what would happen next, her gut instinct told her she’d see or hear from him again. And she wasn’t wrong.
Two hours later, a rural policeman knocked at the door. Emilia had hardly gotten back to sleep after that man had gone, and she was surprised to see a law enforcement officer at her house. She invited him in.
“You don’t look like a whore,” he blurted out as soon as he came in.
The officer took a few steps into the tiny kitchen the entrance opened up into. Emilia saw how the man looked around, ignoring her, as if he was looking for pieces of evidence he wanted to find. The flat was humble. From where they were, they could see two more rooms; one was the bathroom, the other was Emilia’s bedroom. When she lived there with her siblings, that room was their parents’ and they slept on mattresses in the kitchen. There was nothing else.
“I’m not,” she said.
“Do you know this person?” he asked, ignoring her response.
He took a photograph from his blue jacket. It had been taken from quite a distance, in the street, but there was no doubt: he was the rich man who’d been hiding under the worn coat.
“His wife’s just found him hanging from the kitchen,” he continued. “She heard him leave early in the morning, and it seems he paid you a visit. One of the servants saw him come back an hour later.”
“I’m sorry,” said Emilia.
The officer grabbed one of the kitchen chairs and sat down at the small table.
“We think he killed himself because you were blackmailing him.”
“Me? Why?” asked Emilia, still standing.
“I don’t know,” the officer shrugged. “Are you his lover? Are you pregnant?”
“I’ve already told you I’m not a whore,” she answered sharply.
The officer gestured with his hand to calm her down.
“I know. Whores don’t do that sort of stuff. Just tell me what he was doing here, and if it has nothing to do with his death, I promise you I’ll leave and never bother you again.”
For the first time since her father had left her in charge, almost eighty years ago, Emilia saw herself at a crossroads. She was never supposed to reveal the existence of the room, something that was to be left to its own devices. Through the grapevine information was given about where to find it. It was the first time that without looking for it, somebody had wanted to find it.
“No,” said Emilia in a moment of clarity. “That man, you say, left his house early in the morning. Had he already said where he was going or did he tell somebody when he returned?”
“Look darling, you’re very young and you don’t know…”
Emilia waved at him to make him stop.
“I don’t believe anything you say,” she said, sitting down in a chair in front of him. “It’s been less than an hour since they found him and they already have a suspect—for a suicide. What are you really doing here?”
The officer rose in his seat and leaned toward Emilia, raising his right hand to her.
“I’m a police officer, I’m asking you nicely. Can I take you to the police station right now?”
“You’re not taking me anywhere because I don’t want to leave this place,” said Emilia in an almost whisper.
She was sure he knew something, but she wasn’t sure how far it’d go. The man leaned on the back of his chair and looked around again, almost distracted. He’s asking for it, thought Emilia. Finally, the officer took a breath and leaned on the edge of the table.
“My father wasn’t a good person,” he started slowly. “I think that’s why things always went so badly for us. If you’re a jerk, you pay back in life in the end. The thing is that, one day, a man came to our house and they were talking for a while. He told my father he knew how everything would be fixed, which was a bit extreme, but in the end…” he paused and cleared her throat, “it would do him some use to clear his head.”
“He gave him an address, and told him to go alone,” he continued. “It was more than twenty years ago, but I remember my father’s face when he left and when he came back. And it was already different.”
“And do you know where he went?”
“Right here, in this very building, flat, and at this same number,” he said.
“And did it work? I mean, did it help him clarify the ideas?”
“My father killed himself five days later. In one shot.” The officer took a pause and stared at her.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, “but I didn’t kill him.”
“I know, it was a long time ago; you’d have been a little girl then. But a few years ago, I was on a neighborhood watch and the suspect came here,” he continued. “I couldn’t believe it. At first I imagined the same person no longer lived here. But when I saw him leave the building, it was like seeing my father again, years before, coming home from that strange visit. I followed him. I even considered risking the investigation by asking him what he’d seen or done, and who lived there. But when I’d almost decided to do it, when I got out of the car and was at the door, he landed next to me on the pavement, after jumping from the window.”
Emilia swallowed. She never got involved in what happened after, life beyond the room. She knew, from experience, that it was something horrible that would change you. But she also knew, from hearsay, that most died old or from stuff unrelated to their visit to the room.
“And there’s this handsome bugger,” said the officer pointing to the photo he’d left on the table. “He controls the northern area alone, and has partners in high places. Last night I wondered if he was going to meet with one of them.” He loosened his shirt collar and clenched his teeth. “I saw him come here. Two hours later we were informed he’d committed suicide. Doesn’t it all seem incredible?”
Dawn was starting to break, and the officer looked out the window.
“Or was it just a coincidence?” he asked almost to himself.
“That’s because, officer, you deal with bad people. As I said, life gives you back what you give it.”
The sun was already shining on the rooftops when the officer seemed to wake up. He turned and stared at her, almost as if the new light had changed her face. He slammed his hand down angrily on the table and made the dinner plates dance.
“I’m getting tired. You’re going to explain what the hell is going on here, or I’ll take you with me and you’ll explain everything at the police station. And I don’t give a shit if they find out where I’ve been.”
It’d been almost a century since her father had left the job to her, Emilia recalled. His instructions had been clear: Only those who want to go in can do so. And they could only come to her if they knew somebody who’d gone in before. For Emilia, the officer’s story made it clear he met all those requirements.
“Follow me,” she said, standing up.
The flat where Emilia lived seemed very small, much tinier if you’d seen other flats from the same building. Years before she was born, her grandfather had split the bathroom with a partition wall, and constructed a small room that could only be accessed from behind a cabinet. Emilia moved the small cupboard and opened the door.
From inside, a strong red light escaped. The officer leaned in to see over the young girl, who was still holding onto the door handle. The space was small, no more than two by two square meters. There was no window, and the only piece of furniture was a wooden chair, which presided the room under a light bulb that emitted a strong red light.
“I know this type of light bulb. They’re like the ones photographers use to reveal film rolls.”
“Yes,” answered Emilia, “that’s exactly what he does with the ones who come in.”
The officer looked at her confused.
“What are you trying to tell me?”
“You have to sit there. Don’t worry,” she said, getting ahead of his protests. “The door doesn’t have a lock, and you can already see the cabinet weighs almost nothing. Go in, sit in the chair, and when you’re ready, come out. I’ll wait for you in the kitchen.”
They all smiled when they heard that. The majority with disbelief, others from nerves. There was always that moment of doubt. The officer grinned from ear to ear and licked his lips. Finally, he raised his brows and, breathing in, leaned in to go under the lintel. He sat down very slowly in the chair and turned his head in time to see how Emilia closed the door.
The sun was already flooding the kitchen when Emilia took the coffee maker off the stovetop. In the background, she thought she heard something like a shriek of anger. She poured the coffee into two mugs and added a sugar lump to hers. Then she took some pastries out of a small tin box, put a few on each little plate, and sat down to read a novel she was already behind on. In the bathroom, the sergeant started to cry, and she felt him fall from the chair. Emilia took a breath and kept on reading.
After half an hour, she’d already finished her coffee when the bathroom door opened. The officer came out with his head hanging. He’d undone his jacket, and had his shirt untucked from his trousers. He went down the bathroom step and closed the door carefully, dragging his feet back to the chair that Emilia handed to him.
“Here,” she said, pouring him a fresh mug of coffee. “It will go down warm.”
The officer combed his fingers through his hair and brought the mug to his lips. He was trembling.
“The problem with those men,” started Emilia, “the ones you’ve told me about, I mean, is they cheated themselves. We live for ourselves, and when somebody shows us who we really are—” she signaled at the bathroom door, “—some can take it, others can’t.”
Emilia was silent for a moment. She didn’t usually offer them coffee or even a chat. But while she was looking at that man, who little before had seemed so strong and secure, shaking like a leaf, she understood why her father had decided to give up. It was difficult being the guardian.
“Thanks,” was the only response he gave before leaving from where he’d come in.
That day, the officer left there a little sadder, a bit wiser. And in one payment he left, unknowingly, a piece of his soul; so Emilia could be the red room guardian until one day she’d give up and distance herself from it to die.
María Entrialgo has a degree from the University of Oviedo specializing in Archeology and European Middle Ages History. As a writer she has collaborated with Spanish artists. Nowadays she is secretary in an english academy in her city, Gijón. She also writes at http://mariaentrialgoe.wordpress.com.
Buy this writer a coffee.
Photo by nick hidalgo