India welcomed the drenching rain. Many of her peers would bitch and moan about a little precipitation forcing them to change their plans. For her, it served a purpose, a veil pulled over the world around her. For a brief moment in time, she could blend in with the masses who don protective hoods and umbrellas. Most people saw through her disguises during the day, especially the paparazzi. Those bastards. In a torrential downpour, India could be free. Cut from the tether of her own celebrity.
Wok Bak Cafe. The words on the marquee up ahead signified that she was near her final destination. A sigh of relief. As she passed the bright front window of the bustling cafe, her relief was short-lived. The alley down which she had to turn was darker than death. The rain suddenly got louder. A single street light shining on a wall in the distance provided only the slightest illumination. India retrieved her phone from her pocket and turned on the flashlight. A long deep breath preceded her march down the dark corridor. If things were to go fatally awry, there’d be questions. Why was she there that time of night? Was she addicted to drugs? Was she having a mental breakdown?
The overhang blocked much of the rain, but water running off the roof splashed the ground with a vengeance, wetting her shoes and ankles. Looking to her left, she anxiously hoped to find the side door near the rear of the restaurant. For a moment, she sensed that someone had followed her down the alley. She had a Taser, but if someone grabbed her from behind, there was no guarantee that she could pull it out and use it. India reached into her other pocket before turning to look behind. No one. She no longer saw people passing by on the busy sidewalk she had just left.
As she turned to continue down the alleyway, she noticed a door. She had no clue how she missed it. The light from her phone definitely encroached on it as she turned to look behind. Deeply receded into the brick wall, the door looked out of place. It was an ornate wooden door one might expect to see inside an eighteenth-century church. There was no handle or knob. India was anxious for a change of scenery, so she didn’t hesitate to knock. She glanced nervously down the far end of the alley. She was sure she saw something moving in the shadows.
Knock. Knock. Knock. This time she used the heavy door knocker which creaked on its hinges. She was not sure if she heard an answer over the roar of the rain.
India decided to answer a question that was never asked. “It’s me. The lady you talked to earlier. I’m out here.” She muttered the rest under her breath. “Alone in the dark and the pouring rain.”
Just as she was about to grasp the knocker again, she heard a large bolt slide followed by the clicks of several smaller locks. The heavy door opened. She fully expected the loud groan of ancient hinges, but there was almost no sound. A face peeked through the crack, eyes squinting from the phone light. “Yes, come on in, child.”
“Oh, sorry,” India said as she switched off her light.
She stepped into a dark hallway as the door opened wider. An amber incandescence filled the room at the end of the hall. The small hunched-over figure led the way. She couldn’t see much more than an outline of the little old man. “You didn’t have any trouble finding it, I presume.” He spoke with what sounded like an eastern European accent. India wanted to ask him what country he was from but decided it might come across as crass.
“No,” she replied. “It wasn’t hard to find at all. The alley is just much darker than I expected.”
“My apologies. There are no light fixtures outside.”
India had to duck slightly to enter the room. It was surprisingly large, considering where it was situated. The side that should share a wall with the restaurant appeared to go too far in that direction. Beyond the L-shaped counter were several aisles with shelves full of items from various time periods. Some looked like expensive antiques or cleverly crafted counterfeits.
The frail man walked to the other side of the counter, turning to face India. He was bald with wisps of gray hair encircling his crown. The lines of his face and neck could conceal many stories within their folds. Soup stains decorated his dingy shirt, covered by an open vest stretched long by heavy objects in the pockets over the years. A large medallion that resembled an Aztec calendar hung from his necklace that appeared too flimsy to support its weight. The man noticed her staring at it.
“You like?” he asked with a pleasant smile.
“No.” There was an awkward pause. “I mean, yes. It’s such an interesting-looking piece.” India had considered herself an amateur collector of antique jewelry and decor. Her eyes were naturally drawn to anything ranging from gaudy to obscure. “Where’d you get it, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“It’s something that’s been in my family for a long time.” The man chuckled. “I’m just amazed that someone as young as you would be so attracted to such a… baroque piece of hardware.”
“Well, I just love things like that. Not for wearing, of course, but to collect.”
“Only a senile old man like me would dare wear something so ostentatious.”
“Oh, no. I didn’t mean–”
The old man waved a hand at her. “I’m just teasing. I can’t sell this one, but I have similar pieces in the back if you’d like to check them out.”
“No,” India shook her head vigorously. “My sister tells me all the time that I waste too much money on useless junk.” She paused to think for a moment. “I mean, not that your stuff is junk.”
“No need for apologies. I would never sell you junk, but much of what I have here really is junk.”
India frowned as she chewed on her bottom lip. She figured that might be the best way to keep her mouth shut.
“So now we need to get down to business. If you would, please have a seat.”
India removed her raincoat and pulled a wooden stool up to the counter. Before placing the wet raincoat on the other stool, she pulled a pack wrapped in plastic and duct tape out of an inner pocket. “A hundred K like you said. Feel free to count it.”
“Put that away, for now, Ms. Smith. I have to verify some things before the transaction.”
India was glad he said her name. She had forgotten which fake last name she had used over the phone. If he was about to ask for ID or other identifying information, she was going to walk right out that door and never look back.
“If you would please remove your sunglasses,” the man urged. “It’s probably a little too dark for those anyway.”
“Yes, of course.” That explained why she couldn’t see much in the alley. They were such a frequent accessory when she was in public that she often forgot about them. She was instinctively hesitant to take them off.
“Don’t worry. Who you are outside of my shop is no concern of mine. Now, come a little closer and look directly at me.”
India was perplexed but did as instructed. The little old man gazed fixedly into her eyes. She blinked and looked around uneasily before eventually meeting his gaze. The room appeared to grow dark around them. After a while, India could no longer see the rest of the old man’s face. Only his eyes and the medallion were visible. She felt nauseous and could faint at any moment.
“Good!” the man said enthusiastically. Just like that, the room brightened and went back to normal.
“What the hell was that?” India asked with a hint of concern in her voice.
“Nothing special. I just needed to verify that you’re a good fit. There are also a few things I need you to understand about this camera. You might want to write this down.”
“I’ll remember. My profession requires me to cram a lot of useless words into my head.”
“Very well then. As I stated before, this camera is cursed, but you can avoid the side effects of the curse if you follow all the rules. The camera needs to capture as much of your entire body as possible. The more skin, the more powerful the effect. The next part is the most important.”
“Hang on. Are you saying I need to be photographed nude?”
“If that’s your preference. I’m just saying that the effect is far more powerful if more skin is exposed.”
India didn’t take the man for a sleazeball, but shedding her clothes in front of a complete stranger was a bit much. He hadn’t acknowledged her fame upon seeing her in person, but it could have been a ruse just to earn her trust. The photos could end up all over social media. In all fairness, it wouldn’t be something the world hadn’t seen before. She appeared nude in several of her films and had even done a few love scenes. What could it hurt? If the man were to ask for obscene poses or the use of sex toys, she would kindly refuse and abruptly end the photoshoot. Her trusty Taser would also stay within reach.
“Is anyone else here?” India’s voice sounded so timid to her own ears.
The old man had his back turned while possibly loading film into the camera. He froze for a few seconds before answering. “No, I’m the only one here.” He resumed his work. “As I was saying–”
“Mind if I use the bathroom?”
“It’s right over there.” It was closer to the front than expected.
India took her raincoat to the bathroom. Thankfully the space was quite clean and well kept. She stood on top of her shoes after taking them off, careful not to touch the floor with her bare feet. Her body trembled slightly as she took off her pants and unbuttoned her top. She was not sure why she was so nervous. She had gotten undressed on set without her nerves getting the best of her. After she was totally naked, she put on her thick beige raincoat.
When she came out, the man was focused on writing something. The camera was in front of him, next to its leather case. “So where are we gonna do this?” she asked.
The old man chuckled. “Right here at the counter, I suppose.” He turned around with the camera as India removed her raincoat to expose her naked flesh under the amber glow. It fell to the floor at her feet. She inadequately covered her recently tanned breasts and pubic area with her hands.
“Oh, Ms. Smith,” the man said calmly without reacting too surprised. “You misunderstood, or perhaps I wasn’t quite clear. I won’t be taking any pictures of you. You must do it yourself in the comfort of your own home.”
India froze as her entire body stiffened. She could feel the heat of every part of her body that flushed. A horrified expression contorted her face, elucidating her embarrassment profoundly. The old man must have understood what she felt because he averted his eyes. She wanted to bend over to pick up her coat but couldn’t move. The hunched-over gentleman walked over, still averting his eyes. Carefully picking up the raincoat, he placed it over her shoulders with her arms and hands still clasped in place.
The room warped and rippled as India’s eyes filled with tears. She wasn’t sure which horrible memory had entered her psyche to invoke whatever she was feeling. She doubled over, shrinking lower than the little man. “It’s OK,” he assured her. “Nothing happened here, nothing at all. Just a little miscommunication.”
India’s body convulsed as her cries grew more audible. The man walked her back to the bathroom, ushered her inside, and closed the door. India stood before the mirror, unable to stop the tears or the sobbing. “What the fuck is wrong with me?” She stared at herself for the longest time before rinsing off her face and getting dressed.
She couldn’t leave fast enough after everything was packed up, and she paid the man. He was kind enough to write down the instructions and rules for her. She was glad he did because she wouldn’t have remembered half of it in her state of mind. Neither of them mentioned what had previously happened.
On the drive home, India couldn’t stop thinking about some of the things the man said. She could take as many pictures of herself that the roll would allow, but she could never remove the film. She also had to make sure no other person or animal was in any of the pictures she took. Either of these actions would break the effects of the camera and result in unpredictable consequences.
If she were to ever remove the film from the camera, she needed to burn it immediately. The final rule was the most important of all. Under no circumstances was she to ever have the film developed. Breaking this one could prove fatal. He repeated the words at least three times and wrote them in all caps: NEVER EVER DEVELOP THIS FILM.
When India got home, she wasn’t concerned with the ‘hows’ or ‘whys’ of the camera. She took it out of its case. This thing had to be at least eighty years old. She wondered if she had just gotten shafted by the old man. She put the thought out of her mind, remembering that he could have taken advantage of her several other ways.
Her staff had left for the night with the exception of her housekeeper, who lived there. India asked not to be disturbed as she set up the room. The camera went on a tripod in front of her mirrored closet. Two lights with umbrellas were posted on either side. Carefully following the instructions, she attached the timer to the camera.
She had taken a long, relaxing bath and shaved her legs earlier, welcoming the feeling of the pink silk robe flowing against her skin. She stepped out of her bathroom feeling magnificently beautiful. No makeup. No tears. No regrets.
When the timer started, she felt a few butterflies that sometimes accompanied her first scene of a major film. She took a couple of photos wearing her robe. It didn’t take long for it to dip below her shoulders then to her waist before falling past her ankles. She turned and posed for the clicking camera in a manner that she could never do with a photographer present. She showed it her best side and her worst. Smiles. Serious. Elegant. Sophisticated. Sexy.
When she finished, she fell upon the bed, enjoying the sensation of the satin sheets and the comforter against her nakedness. What she felt was pure bliss. A greater high than any drug could have induced. That little antique camera had just captured the way she would look for many, many years. The little old man was clear. It couldn’t stop the aging process, but it would slow it down dramatically. The drawback was that it could only do this for the parts that it ‘saw.’ All internal organs and brain function would age like normal. She would end up as the sexiest ninety-year-old alive. She would be the youngest-looking person to die of old age.
She felt like this solo photoshoot was the best she’d ever had in the thirty-two years of her life. If only she could see the results. It’s likely the photos were highly publishable. Then those dreaded words rumbled within her head. Never ever develop this film. It made her shudder. What had she done? What would happen if she developed her pictures?
Copyright 2021 Darrell Winfrey