STRAND HOTEL, NEZAHUALCOYOTL, MEXICO
The hotel room was like a sauna, a single fan hypnotically turning underneath the yellowed ceiling. Its swishing sound was the only discernable noise, except for the chatter of cicadas and the occasional passing car outside. Neil Hunter raised the hand mirror, beads of sweat slipping through his stubble. For a moment he thought about throwing it to the floor, before ignoring the urge and looking at his reflection in its cheap plastic frame. Was he too late? A camera lay in pieces on the table beside the bed, its workings laid bare. The memory card was snapped in two, the sensor crushed into a thousand tiny silver shards. “Not me, please not me,” he whispered to himself as he studied the familiar lines of his own face. He opened his eyes wide. Nothing. His shoulders relaxed as he felt the tension leave his body. Not yet. How long till he was safe? The shrill buzz of a mobile phone disturbed his thoughts.
“Hi Dad, it’s Danni. You OK?”
He took a deep breath before answering.
FIVE DAYS EARLIER
The house had been difficult for Hunter and his driver Fabio to find amongst the tangle of streets in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a small town on the south-eastern tip of Mexico. In this region, there were many places that still adhered to the old Mayan ways, and San Cristóbal was one. They drove past a small church, all dusty red brick and timber, windows boarded up, door ajar.
“We are here, Mr. Hunter. The old legends say that in that church there is a doorway to Xiballa, the afterlife.”
A bird screeched above, the tropical air heavy with dew and dust. “Here,” said Fabio, pushing on the brakes of the old landrover, causing it to judder to a halt. They climbed out and stared at the house in front of them, sandwiched between two derelict buildings. “Please, Mr Hunter, we must be careful. If this is where he lives, Ajk’uhun, the Keeper of the Holy Books, then we will be in great danger. We will be in the presence of a man of great power, a shaman. He will have visited some of the thirteen levels of heaven, including the underworld. You must act, speak and think with great care.”
Hunter walked towards the front door, its surrounding wooden frame barely holding it in place, the faded brown paint peeling from the slats. A sign hung above the lintel, only noticeable when one stood directly underneath. It depicted a monkey-like face, drawn in profile, with a semi-circle of dots attached to the left side. “You are right Fabio, this is his mark.”
Hunter knocked on the door, woodworm dust blossoming lazily into the hot air. No answer. He knocked again, this time forcefully. Still nothing. He pushed, and the door swung open. The room was dark, the air thick with tobacco smoke and sweat. A few cheap sticks of furniture were scattered around and a large picture of Jesus and Mother Mary hung on one wall. The colours of the cheap print were gaudy and bright, as if to draw your attention away from everything else surrounding it. A middle-aged man was slumped in an armchair, eyes closed, chest gently rising and falling. His face unshaven, he looked like a beggar, clothes dishevelled and ill-fitting. He did not stir at their entrance, seemingly unaware of this intrusion.
“Senor, podemos pasar? Sir, may we speak?” said Fabio. The man did not move. He was deaf, unconscious or asleep - it was impossible to tell which.
“Senor?” repeated Fabio. No response again.
“Can this really be him?” said Hunter. “He’s not as I expected.”
Fabio turned towards his employer. “Look at his eyes. It is him.”
Hunter peered through the gloom. The man’s eyelids were almost translucent, the pupils visible underneath. Hunter took his mobile from his pocket, pressed the camera button, then switched the phone light on, illuminating the face in front of them.
“Do we wake him? Is he sleeping?” Before Fabio could respond, Hunter lifted the digital camera hanging from his hip and pointed it at the man’s face. Fabio moved to stop him as the flash fired, illuminating the room. The man in the armchair opened his eyes. The irises were huge, black, frightful. Staring directly at Hunter, he screamed in a deep resonant voice, “NO! GIVE IT BACK!” The man’s chest rose deeply, and a sigh escaped his lips. Then he slumped back into the armchair, his mouth open, revealing a row of black, sharpened teeth. Hunter moved towards him, only for Fabio to grab his shoulder to stop him from getting closer. A rushing sound filled the air, and the two intruders watched in horror as the man’s face seemed to cave in, skin darkening and flaking away, revealing the bones beneath. His lips peeled back, the jawbone dropping to leave what remained of his mouth gaping wide. His torso seemed to melt into the chair, clothes slipping to the floor as they were emptied of their contents. A foul-smelling pool of brown liquid remained, covering the armchair and the surrounding floor.
“We must leave. Now!” shouted Fabio, pulling Hunter by the arm. “Now, before it is too late.” The two men stumbled out of the door into the street.
“What the hell happened, Fabio? What was that? Who…..” Hunter exclaimed as they ran from the building.
“We have to get far away from here. You don’t know what you’ve done you fool!” said Fabio as they stumbled back to the car. Fabio almost pushed Hunter into the passenger seat before rushing round to the driver’s door, jumping in, and starting the engine. The engine turned but misfired. “Start!” pleaded Fabio. The engine coughed, then fired into life. They left in a rush of squealing tyres and dust. Twenty minutes later, he pulled the car over to the side of the road and killed the engine. He opened the car door and vomited into the road, his retching loud and painful.
After he finished emptying his stomach, Fabio leaned back in his seat and looked at Hunter. “What we have done is terrible. We came in search of Ajk’uhun and we found him and we killed him as surely as if we had shot him in the head. What we saw was his soul leaving his body, and his mortal frame disintegrating. This being has talked directly to Itzamna, the God of Fire, who created all the earth and the other twelve levels of the heavens.”
“But what happened, Fabio? Why did he die?”
Fabio clasped his hands together. “Mayans believe mirrors can capture your soul, that to look into one is to risk losing that which makes us human. Your camera uses a mirror to capture the image. Did you know that in some Mayan towns, they can still imprison you for simply taking a photograph of someone? When you took the photograph, you tore out the soul of a man who has lived for a thousand years!”
“So we....I...took his soul when I photographed him? Is that what you are saying?” Hunter looked with growing horror at the camera on his lap.
“Not only that, but the photograph you took carries a terrible curse. If you look at the image, your soul will soon be pulled towards his. It may take seconds, or minutes, or hours, but be sure you are doomed to follow. He has gone to the underworld, and should you look at that image, then that is where you will go too. You saw his eyes, didn’t you? We believe that when you are cursed, your own eyes will begin to resemble his, turning black. This is how you know. And the dark edges of his soul still live in your camera. What we have done is terrible, unforgiveable. There is a price to pay if I am to save my own soul!”
Suddenly, he pulled a knife from his belt and dragged it across his wrist, severing the artery. Blood spurted up and out, covering them both.
“I must make a sacrifice, Hunter. I hope it is enough...”
The blood continued to gush from his wrist, covering everything in a dreadful crimson flood. As Fabio’s eyes rolled back, he gasped for his last breath.
“Beware the camera, Hunter. Do not look there, for the picture will kill you as surely as my knife has killed me.” He flopped forward, his head striking the dashboard with a dull thud.
It was five days later that Hunter found himself sitting on the chair in his hotel room in Nezahualcoyotl, the sprawling slum town on the outskirts of Mexico City. He’d spent two days in custody before the police had released him. Even though they believed him about the suicide, it had taken a hefty bribe for him to be released from the police cell. He knew he must leave the country before the inquest, aware that there were too many questions that remained unanswered about Fabio’s death. The call from his daughter brought him back to the real world with a start.
“Hi Dad, it’s Danni. You OK?”
“Hi, Dan. Yes, I’m OK. How about you?”
“I’m fine Dad, I’m fine.”
“Where are you, Dad?”
“I’m in Mexico.”
“You coming home soon?”
“Soon Danni, soon.”
“Well, I’m glad Dad, we’ve missed you. Listen, I won’t keep you, but before I go, I have to tell you the most amazing thing that happened this afternoon.”
“What’s that Danni?”
“You know we share the same cloud drive on our mobile phones?”
“Yes Danni. I must sort that out one day. I’m always getting to see pictures of you out with your friends. Sometimes, I feel like a voyeur!”
He smiled, forgetting for a moment the terrors of the last few hours and days. Suddenly, a sense of unease enveloped him. What was it? What had he forgotten?
“Well dad, I was looking at the photo of the old man you took last week–you know the one I mean?”
Hunter’s eyes opened, his mouth falling open, words failing to come to his lips. His phone......
“Well, I posted it on Instagram about an hour ago and it’s gone viral. I’ve got over ten thousand views already. I’ve seen nothing like this before. It’s amazing!”
Hunter dropped the phone to the floor. A low groan falling from his lips. Too late.....too late....
Ajk’uhun grinned, his eyes blazing with a terrible fire as he watched the souls file past him to the gateway of the underworld, where Itzamna waited. So many, so many! His revenge was terrible and without end.