The Influencers – Joe Flood
A single word scrolled across my screen against a backdrop of turquoise water.
I clicked to reveal an invitation. I read, scanning down the page, searching for the catch. But there wasn’t one. Instead, the offer of a free weekend in Mexico, airfare included.
Experience the latest in luxury with us! Deluxe resort in Tulum, Mexico! Sandy beaches. Mayan ruins. Complimentary drinks.
Shivering in my tiny Queens apartment, I was sold, willing to do whatever it took to escape the dreary Northeast for someplace warm. I clicked accept and hoped that it wasn’t too late.
Only then, did I read the fine print. They wanted photos and social media posts in return for the excursion. A fair trade.
I was an influencer, with more than a hundred-thousand Twitter followers drawn to my sarcastic commentary about the city. I famously got in a flame war with the mayor. “You have no honor, hizzoner,” I tweeted before he blocked me. That got me on Decider’s Social Media Jerks to Watch.
Despite my millennial notoriety, I had a job as a freelance editor, not making enough money to cover the heat in my Queens apartment. I shivered all winter long, a blanket over my shoulders as I created the perfect mix of cutting insults and crippling retorts for my ravenous audience. While I always had the last word online, I needed a vacation.
The e-ticket arrived within minutes of my reply. And just a few days later, I was on a plane to Cancun, the dirty snow of New Yawk fading to the deep blue of the Gulf of Mexico. Peering out the window, I saw gold beaches washed by surf, the sun brighter than I had seen in months.
A man met me at the airport. Had my name on a sign and led me to a van, where several other people waited. They were all around my age, smiling and a bit drunk. Our driver had a cooler full of Tecate which he distributed liberally.
I squinted as Mexico, so green, went by in a blur, all of us influencers engaged in happy chatter, comparing follower counts and clickthroughs as beer worked its way through my stomach.
We stopped for snacks in a little store along the roadside, filling up on exotic potato chips – mango, pineapple, Tabasco and types with names we couldn’t even pronounce. The driver counted us as we got back in, to make sure that he had everyone.
The bright flash of the ocean appeared through the windows and we begged to stop for photos. The driver said we were late. We would miss the cocktail reception! Free drinks! We were assuaged.
The van sped through the funky little town of Tulum, passing bars and souvenir stands. Briefly, I glimpsed the Mayan ruins on a peninsula jutting out into the sea. Then we left the road and bounced down a dirt track into the jungle.
Thirty minutes of this, up, down, right, left and with more than one person about to puke, we pulled up to a crystal clear lake. It was perfectly round, with a little dock jutting out into it. A boat was waiting.
The driver let us take pictures.
“Enjoy now!” he said, watching with amusement as we captured photos in front of this blue spot in the jungle. I leaned over and put my hand in the ice-cold water. I could see down, to where the floor of the lake dropped away into nothingness. It was a cenote, a sinkhole caused by the collapse of limestone.
We boarded the boat. There were six of us. Alexandra, Thomas, Julian, Adele, Mo and myself. As we sat, beers in hand, I realized that were an unusually white collection of folks. Alexandra was a blue-eyed knockout. Thomas appeared to be her boyfriend. Julian and Adele seemed to be friends; he was sleekly gay while Adele couldn’t be her real name – right? And Mo had the long-striding look of a runner. She had mentioned that she was a fitness blogger in the van.
The boat chugged across the lake toward a small island in the middle. We talked excitedly about our luxury accommodations.
“Wifi? Will they have wifi?” Alexandra asked.
“Si, si,” said the man working the outboard.
Another dock emerged from the clutter of greenery. A man in a suit waited.
“It’s Mr. Roarke,” Julian said.
“Where’s Tattoo?” I asked, and we all laughed. Regrettably.
The boat pulled up to the dock and we got out.
“You can call me Fidel,” the man said, smiling. “Because I am the boss.”
We took it as a joke. “El Jefe,” I said, bowing.
“Yes,” he replied. “Follow me.”
“Is our luggage coming?” Alexandra asked.
Fidel turned and we followed him down a dirt track, Julian stepping carefully over tree roots in his sandals. I pushed a branch out of the way as I trailed the group into the brush.
We emerged into a clearing where several faded tents were set up and a campfire smoldered with dark smoke.
“This can’t be it,” Julian said.
“The brochure said a four-star hotel,” Alexandra announced.
Mo turned around, her eyes wide.
Then I felt something sharp in my back. A rough hand on my shoulder pushed me forward.
We stood around the fire. Guards surrounded us, one to an influencer. They looked barely in their teens but they were holding guns and we were not.
“Don’t look at them,” Fidel announced. “Only look at me. Only speak to me. You belong to me now.”
One of the guards held out a plastic bag. We were directed to place our phones in it. I gingerly placed mine in, thinking that I didn’t want it damaged, when it was inevitably returned to me, for this was a mistake, a bad dream.
I don’t remember much for the next twenty-four hours. Fear has a way of erasing your memories, sparing you from existential terror. I remember shaking uncontrollably. Spooning rice into my mouth as Fidel laughed. Crying in the darkness.
My next memory is sitting closely to Mo. Our legs touched and the frisson of contact woke me up from my spell.
“You good?” she asked, leaning in close, her breath warm against my ear.
I was only able to nod. But she was sitting upright, carefully examining our circumstances. The six of us sitting by the fire. Our guards slouched behind us, guns held easily. Fidel absent. Mo pulled her legs up her chest, her palms on the ground. About to spring. About to run.
“Don’t,” I managed. I was afraid.
“Not yet,” she replied.
With a flourish, Fidel emerged from the jungle, putting away his cellphone. “Good news,” he announced. “Contact has been made!”
The plan came out in bits and pieces. Fidel couldn’t help himself, proud of his achievement. Lure influencers to this bit of jungle and hold them hostage until his apocalyptic goals were achieved.
“I am a Christian,” he said, commanding us to bow our heads. “Working to bring Christ’s realm here on earth. A world where we are brothers, all property shared. The world’s governments must fall! Only then will we have justice!”
Between the six of us, we had more than a million followers on Twitter. This was significant to Fidel, reasoning that such influential people would certainly be missed.
We weren’t, of course, the black whirlpool of social media going on as if we had never existed. The next day, Fidel put us in a group and took a photo. A snapshot from hell, the six of us slumped down, looking glumly into the lens. He then uploaded it to Twitter, all of us carefully tagged, along with his demands.
Fidel wanted the abolition of capitalism or we would be executed.
“What is an economic system compared to the life of one person?” he asked, rhetorically, as we listened. “Surely, they will change to spare your lives. After all, what is money compared to human life? Life is superior!”
The photo, thankfully, went viral, too good of a story to pass up for the editors of BuzzFeed. Beautiful white people held captive was clickbait, the top story for the week of February 2-8, across all mediums, our faces splashed across not just the dream world of Facebook but breaking into “real” news, like the Today Show and even the New York Times, where our predicament was noted in Brief Items.
Fidel got the attention he wanted. Podcasters flew to Cancun to interview the reluctant revolutionary who did dozens of sessions a day, for outlets large and small, while we sat and stank in the deep jungle. After a few days, however, another story blew up – a jetliner went down mysteriously in the Indian Ocean. Could it be terrorism? The searchlight of media attention went elsewhere and Fidel returned from his luxury hotel, looking glum.
The guards had been promised money, clearly believing that the capitalist system would persist for a while. Fidel had none, just an iPhone full of media clips to show the angry men. We watched them huddle at the edge of the jungle.
Mo turned to me, already on her heels.
“Please, don’t,” I uttered.
It was then that Alexandra stood. Instantly, the guards were on her, shouting at her to sit down.
“Wait! Wait! I can help, Fidel, I can help!”
“How?” Fidel replied.
“You need a marketing plan. All these one-shot podcasts aren’t going to get you anywhere. You need a campaign!”
“Sit back down.”
“I did work for Capital One! What’s in your wallet!”
“What’s in your wallet,” Fidel repeated, familiar with the tagline even in the jungle.
“You need a press officer, an editorial calendar and b-roll footage for nets.”
Thomas cautiously cleared his throat. “I can shoot b-roll.”
Julian had experience with Google Calendar. Adele knew how to schedule HootSuite. I could write, of course, and Mo, Mo could…
“I can take better pictures than what you’ve done. Do it in landscape, for Christ’s sake,” she said.
“We’ll need computers and internet access, of course,” Alexandra said.
“You have to do more than just put your message out, Fidel. You have to share it. Enlist allies. Empower friends. Build momentum. You can’t do that in a jungle.”
The guards looked at her with hostility, and a little amazement, for speaking to the boss like that. But they were listening.
“There’s wifi in Tulum,” Fidel said, cautiously.
“Let’s go,” Alexandra said, eyes alight with manic glee.
“Yes!” Fidel shouted.
We packed into the van with our captors, the guards talking excitedly in Spanish, as desperate as we were to get out of the jungle.
Fidel had a hotel in mind – The Coronado. It was located just out of town but had power and wifi.
Storming in at 3 AM, we caught the night manager behind the desk before he had a chance to call la policia. Fidel took the man’s keys and rounded up the hotel’s guests, a mixture of Swiss and German tourists. They were locked into the luggage room.
Alexandra and Thomas rummaged through their things until we had a complement of MacBooks, iPhones, digital cameras and other equipment.
“The lobby will be our war room,” she announced, handing out orders. We got set up with our devices while the guards were dispatched to fetch coffee and food.
“I watch you,” Fidel said, orbiting around us.
I got to work writing tweets and Facebook posts condemning capitalism, populating a Word doc full of the screeds. I looked up as the sun emerged, filling the lobby with warm light. Meanwhile, Fidel and Alexandra were on speaker with Vice, negotiating a media appearance.
“Charismatic?” she said. “Extremely! He’s the next Chapo and I’m offering you an exclusive. You need to fly someone down today before we get picked up by ABC, who’s also interested, by the way.”
Mo looked up from her laptop, where she was editing photos. The door was open, the sun a gold orb over the ocean. Outside, sand stretched down toward South America.
She put the laptop down. Nodded toward me.
“No, please, no,” I whispered.
Alexandra had closed the deal – Vice was sending a crew. Julian had created an editorial calendar while Adele was scheduling my tweets in HootSuite. I watched her work. My words, so strange and alien, so sincere, programmed into time slots for Facebook and Twitter.
Around lunchtime, Mo was taking Instagram photos of Fidel when a shot rang out. He jumped out of his pose and ran outside.
A deliveryman had driven up to the Coronado and a guard had sent him fleeing.
We knew there would be problems now. He would tell the police about trouble at the hotel.
“Focus, people, focus!” Alexandra commanded. “I don’t care what’s happening outside! We have a Vice interview to prepare for! Julian, are you done with Fidel’s talking points? Adele, we need more engagement on WhatsApp! And Mo, don’t just stand there!”
We all got back to work. I crafted social media posts teasing the interview while Mo pretended to take photos for Instagram.
The federal police arrived, a dozen in a pickup truck. They wore body armor and carried M-16s.
“I shoot them! I shoot everyone!” Fidel shouted out the front door of the hotel.
“Good, that will buy us some time,” Alexandra said.
Meanwhile, there came a pounding from the luggage room. The Swiss and German tourists were suffocating. They begged us for water and air.
“You need to be patient!” Alexandra shouted, on the other side of the door.
Late afternoon, we glimpsed the Vice crew on the other side of the police barricade, arriving in a Tundra with an ostentatious PRESS sign on the side.
The police said it wasn’t safe to enter. Fidel threatened to shoot a hostage. Vice trained their camera on the hotel. The police relented.
We stood as the Vice crew entered the lobby. There were three of them – a producer, a camera operator and a correspondent, not much older than we were.
Fidel preened when the TV lights went on. The guards stood behind him during the interview, squinting against the glare.
“Hold the guns up higher,” Alexandra instructed.
Fidel condemned capitalism to a receptive Vice audience. They really digged his critiques of wage slavery and exploitation, not just in Mexico, but America, too. A better world is possible, the correspondent agreed.
The lights shut off and Mo was gone. I said nothing, hoping that her absence wouldn’t be noticed. The VICE crew swept out and Fidel beamed.
“Now,” Alexandra said. “Let’s make sure we share this across all channels. Mo, did you get photos for Instagram? We need to gram it. Mo? Mo?”
I saw the guards looking around, mentally counting us. Five. The tall brunette was gone.
Alexandra asked me where Mo was. “You’re her friend, right?”
“I don’t know where she is.”
“You and her are together, right?”
“No, I never met her before this trip.”
“You seem awfully close.”
“I saw you whispering.”
“We aren’t close.”
Fidel charged. “Where is she?” he shouted.
“I don’t know.”
He slapped me hard across the face, triggering a spasm of violence from the guards, all of whom rushed forward to get their blows in. I fell to the floor and tried to protect myself as they punched and kicked me.
It was then that the police entered, like shadows. Preoccupied with beating me, Fidel had failed to notice their approach. A burst of thundering gunfire and he went down. The guards tried to run, then tried to surrender, but they were shot just the same, the sound of automatic fire echoing through the lobby.
Alexandra screamed. “This was working! It was working!” she shouted, as police pumped bullets into the dead bodies of the terrorists.
An officer hoisted me to my feet. “You’re free now!” he announced.
My ears rung. I shrank from my liberator.
The Swiss and German tourists poured out of the luggage room, gasping for air. It took some time to convince them that Alexandra was not with the terrorists.
I talked to Mo once more. It was at the airport, the Mexican authorities thinking it was a good idea that we share a flight home. This was after a day of interviews with all the major networks. We had survived a kidnapping. But rather than bringing us together, it had blown us apart, the camaraderie we shared in the hotel now something that only brought a feeling of deep shame.
Except for Alexandra, our self-appointed spokesperson. The prettiest and the most voluble, she soaked up all the air time, talking in rich detail about the fear and danger of the experience.
Mo and I sat in the back during these interviews, saying little, even when prompted.
We talked as we waited to board the plane, influencers lined up single file like that day in the jungle. Ahead, a door and home. I stopped, unable to move, afraid of what was beyond the gate agent.
“You good?” Mo asked.
“Sure, sure,” I stammered.
Alexandra posed for a selfie with a stewardess.
“She’s going to be famous,” Mo said.
“I have to admire her.”
“She went for it.”
“You should’ve run. Like I did.”
I had no reply. No cutting tweet. No carefully crafted Facebook message. Instead, I stared into her brown eyes, unable to speak a word.
Joe Flood is an award-winning writer and photographer from Washington, DC. Joe won the City Paper short story contest and was a finalist in the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Short Story Competition, while his nonfiction work has appeared in the Washington Post, Hill Rag, On Tap and elsewhere. Read more by Joe, including his new novel, The Swamp, at joeflood.com.