The Locked Room Problem

By Alberto Chimal

(For Alberto Buzali)

Horatio Kustos has had the Locked Room Problem for some time now. We don’t mean to say that he’s a crime fiction writer: he, who can find wonders everywhere, doesn’t have much of an imagination.

“Although the ‘Locked Room Problem’,” Dionisio Tartán said in 1996, at a public lecture abot the noir genre in the small Mexican city of San Jacobo; he was a writer and that genre was his speciality, “Is really very simple, and it comes from the time of the first ‘whodunits’, those puzzle-like stories in which the main treat is to find out who killed the victim, how and why.”

“Wait a minute, how’s that?” Kustos asks.

But Tartán doesn’t hear him, because he is (was) in another time and place. Kustos is here and now, today, in this apartment atop this horrible building. Anyway, Tartán answers (answered) by saying to his audience: “In every ‘Locked Room’ story a crime is committed in… a locked room, of course, and preferably one locked from the inside, so no one except the victim could possibly have entered. The idea is to find a logic explanation for this impossible situation. The more ingenious the solution is, the better.”

“That’s what I would like,” Kustos says, “a solution.”

“A very simple one,” Tartán said, “can be found in a short story by Chesterton, in which an arrow is found stuck in the corpse’s chest and nobody can figure out who shot him or even how the arrow could have got in the room since it has no windows. In the end we discover that the murderer stabbed his victim with the arrow, then left the room, locked the door and announced the crime so everyone thought he only had discovered the body.”

“That won’t do for me,” says Kustos.

“It may sound a little ridiculous,” Tartán admitted, “but the interest of these stories was precisely to find how clever or how weird a solution the  author would propose.”

“No,” Kustos says, “If it turns out that the only solution has to be ‘weird’ or ‘clever’… Look, let me explain. For example: the other day an alarm goes off at the Monolith Bank in Palmas Avenue in Mexico City, right? Then the police arrive, everything falls into chaos—it was horrible, guns and riot sticks everywhere, really, really dreadful. And then, ‘No, sir, there are no robbers here.’ ‘The alarm was triggered from inside the vault. How can that be?’ ‘I don’t know, officer, I’m just a teller—’ And then they go to the vault and open it and they find…”

“A corpse,” said Tartán.

“No! No! It was me! It was me and the vault had been closed all the time, and I have no idea how I got there! I was taking a shower here, where I live, and suddenly boom! I was there, and I was covered in soap, and I had no towel, nothing…!”

The audience looked at Tartán in astonishment, because the words “A corpse” had no relation to what he had been saying, and also because after those words he said nothing more. Suddenly, Tartán rose from his seat, ran out of the auditorium and locked himself in the nearest bathroom. (They were in a very small cultural center.)

“To get out of there was extremely difficult. But that was not the worst thing that happened to me. It’s been like that for a whole month! Every two or three days, no matter what I’m doing at the time, boom!, I just blink and if I’m not in a vault I’m in a crypt at a French cemetery, or in the private jet of the president of Bolivia, in the middle of a flight, or in one of those ‘dark rooms’ where they…”

“Shut up, please, please, shut up.”

“But you don’t understand. A psychiatrist told me that I suffer from, what did he say, lapses, trances, I don’t remember the word —vhe meant I’m going insane and hear ‘things’ and lose consciousness, and then I go to those places without realizing it — but you do realize that’s preposterous, right? I mean, how could I have flown to the Bolivian airplane…?”

“Shut up!”

“Hey,” Kustos says, “don’t be rude, I understand that — hey, no, wait, can you hear me?”

“Shut up! Of course I can hear you!,” yelled, from the past, Dionisio Tartán, and pressed his hands against his head.

“That’s odd,” Kustos says. “It’s not supposed to happen… Look, don’t worry. Don’t think you’re going… I mean, for example, you may hear voices even though you’re not — even though you’re perfectly sane, like you or me. I think this effect must be a part of the whole problem… In my line of work, doing what I do, from time to time I come across some persons — some very — what’s the word — they do things to you, okay? The Dean of Paraxiphos, or the Interstice People… one or more of those guys must be behind this, I’m sure.”

Tartán began to moan.

“Or maybe it’s the Bear,” Kustos adds, “although the Bear… Anyway, the fact that you hear me must be some side effect to whatever they’re doing to me.” Tartán hit the wall with his head. “Don’t do that. Look, I’m going to prove you’re not insane. If the path between you and me is already, you know, a little bit open, then it’s possible to use a sort of…” Tartán hit the wall again. “Don’t do that!” Kustos insists, and begins to draw signs in the air. “These are like magic. A friend of mine taught them to me, they called him Fito—” Tartán began to scream. “—and they are useful when—”

In 1996, everyone gathered before the bathroom door; inside, Dionisio Tartán kept screaming. But now Kustos concentrates on finishing the magic gestures —

and he finishes them —

and the magic art broadens, for an instant, the rift in the universe, and the body of the writer can pass through it —

and when it appears in the present, here, in Kustos’ small apartment, atop this horrible building, the man stays still, mute with horror.

“You’ll have to excuse me,” Kustos begins, but the poor author of crime novels doesn’t seem to listen to him. He doesn’t look at him either. In fact he doesn’t look at anything. His mouth is open. He falls backwards and hits the floor and lies there, like a dead man.

* * *

The first reaction of Kustos is to try the counter-gestures and send the man back to where (and when) he was. But the counter-gestures don’t work, which can be another side effect of whatever they’re doing to him. (The Pope Glafira, he thinks, may also be behind it all; she can bear such terrible grudges.)

And now he worries because Tartán doesn’t wake up.

And now, of course just until now, he remembers: some time ago he read about a mysterious happening (some people said it was a crime) in 1996, in the bathroom of a small cultural center in a Mexican city: the inexplicable disappearance of a writer (what was his name?), who was never seen or heard from again…

And now Kustos says: “Wake up, please, wake up,” and his victim indeed opens his eyes and tries to say something.

And now Kustos blinks, and he is no more in his apartment, but in the dark: at the bottom of the deepest mineshaft in South Africa (it’s been closed, in fact, for more than forty years), hundreds of meters under.

He will soon realize that, if he fails to find an exit, he will die a horrible death, either from asphyxiation or starvation. But even now he feels happy. Dionisio Tartán has risen from the floor; he has walked to the window, and now he looks at the streets and lights of his own future, and wonders if he has not gone insane after all.

Photo by dotpolka. Used under a Creative Commons license.



Alberto Chimal is a Mexican writer. He has published the novel Los esclavos (Slaves, 2009), the essay collection La cámara de maravillas (The Cabinet of Curiosities, 2003), and several short story books, including La ciudad imaginada (The Imagined City, 2009), Grey (The Flock, 2006),Gente del mundo (People of the World, 1998) and Éstos son los días (These Are The Days, 2004), which won the National Short Story Award in Mexico. He has won several other awards. He is a very sought-after professor of creative writing and maintains the literary website/blog, from which he has launched several online literary projects.

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