The Retreat is a great theme, provided by KL Caley at This lovely photo reminds me of places I’ve been–for conferences and the like. It also inspired me to a story more like one of Rebecca Douglass’s than my usual fare 🙂 (with thanks to Elly Griffiths for stealing Nelson’s name.) It’s longer than usual to start off the new year–just under 1500 words.

the retreat
a beautifully lit retreat with large windows overlooking a little pond and a decking area. Twinkling lights surround the pond

The Retreat

“Such a lovely place!”

“Oh, look at the pool – it’s natural.”

“I hope to god that’s a lake. The pool’s supposed to be heated.”

Penny said nothing. Her smile fixed on her face just as it had every time the friends had met in the last five years. 

Tanya was right, though–it was a lovely place. Had she told the others how she found it, or only Penny? Tanya was famous for confiding in people, and then playing them off each other.

Juni? Juni had a hankering for every new fad, and had been talking of river-swimming for the whole of last summer. To Penny’s knowledge, she’d not got as far as dipping her toe in ‘natural’ water so far. Maybe a dip in this lake would suit her.

And Sonja… she had never really been friends with Sonja. They tolerated each other, maybe even got on better with each other than the others did because they didn’t pretend. Sonja liked her luxuries. Penny suspected that lack of even simple gifts in Sonja’s childhood had driven a desire for the trappings of wealth some of the others had by birth. Not Penny, though. She knew a load of wealthy people, because her father trained racehorses for them. There was nothing that made training racehorses profitable enough for more than the appearance of wealth. Which was one reason Penny had become an accountant. Of course, the other was that she was good at maths.

And now, she was calculating how long till dinner and whether she could be away from the crowd until then.

“I suggest we all find our rooms, have a shower or a swim,” Tanya nodded to Sonja, who turned a quizzical eye on Juni, “and meet in the bar at seven, for a snifter before dinner. Okay with everyone? Here are your keycards.”

Trust Tanya to have prechecked the rest of them in. Penny took the one she was given, and headed to her room. 

Her bag was already there. No, that wasn’t hers, it was Sonja’s. Now where would Sonja be? She peered down the corridor, and laughed as she saw Sonja’s face appear a few doors along.

“Have you got my bag?” they said in unison, and smiled, or chuckled, as each preferred.

“Wanna change rooms or bags?” Sonja asked.

“This faces inwards, it’s not a bad view, but I suspect you’ve got the better room.”

“Oh, who wants a room with a view?” Sonja walked up to her, keycard in hand. Penny retrieved ‘hers’ and they swapped. “See you at dinner.”

Sonja’s door closed before Penny had taken more than a step towards her new room. Once she got there, she gasped.

This was a suite, not a room. Why would Sonja… she turned, thinking about swapping back, but then… if Sonja had closed the door and not raised an immediate objection, then she shouldn’t really worry.  She explored the suite, selected a ginger and vanilla tisane from the extensive range of flavours—no coffee—and took the prepared drink to the stressless lounger in the bay window.

For a few moments, she let her mind go blank. Just relax, enjoy the view. The birds on the water, the flowers around the edge. Think beautiful thoughts. 

The reflection of the lowering evening sun distracted her. How long had she sat here? Only a few minutes, surely. Yes, her watch said… her watch said only twenty minutes after the train time. She tutted to herself, and started winding it up as she looked for her phone. How could the battery be dead? She’d charged it this morning. She looked for the television. Er… no television. In a hotel? Oh, yes. The Retreat. An Escape from the Pressures of the Modern World. Surely something could tell her the time.

Phone. Only for reception, restaurant, gym, or the salon. 


“Er, yes, please could you tell me the time—my watch has stopped.”

“Well, we encourage that at the Retreat.”

“But I’m supposed to meet my friends at seven, before dinner.”

“You’ve got ten minutes, but I’d take as long as you need. Relax, Ms Portway, there’ll be plenty of time to spend with them while you’re here. Have some ‘me’ time.”

“Er, thank you.”

She had a point. 

After her leisurely shower, Penny arrived in the bar relaxed, rested, and suitably ready with counter-arguments for being late.

The others were sitting at a table, reading menus. Correction. Sonja and Tanya were sitting at the table. Well, at least she wasn’t last.

“You’re going to love the food here. It’s so healthy.” Tanya beamed at her as she sat down.

“Healthy, yeah. One weekend in ten years we get to eat healthy.” Sonja growled loud enough to be heard, but resumed a normal voice as she read out the appetisers, followed by the mains.

“Delicious!” Tanya said.

“I’m not a rabbit.” Sonja put down the menu and stared across the room. Several other tables with groups of women were tucked into various corners. Two men and two women occupied the most prominent table, in the centre of the window side of the room.

“I don’t think rabbits eat quinoa,” Penny ventured, with a grin. Sonja laughed, and got up. “Back in a mo’.”

“It looks good to me. I’m having the pomegranate braised lettuce with yoghurt and mooli dressing,” Tanya said, “followed by the warm goats cheese salad with a side of steamed asparagus.”

“Asparagus isn’t in season,” Penny murmured. “Where do they source their produce?”

“River Cottage, darling.” Tanya tapped the bottom of the menu. 

Penny was fairly sure even River Cottage couldn’t produce fresh asparagus in September. They were famous for seasonal fare.

They ordered anyway, although Penny wondered aloud where the others were.

“Juni’s probably off in a dream somewhere, and I bet Sonja’s buttering up the chef.”

“Unsalted reduced fat buttering up, no doubt.”

Tanya laughed. “You haven’t changed. Still as witty as ever.”

Penny smiled, the smile that needed to be fixed on again. She wasn’t the witty one. What was Tanya talking about?

The food arrived, and they ate their starters in silence. Penny finished hers and frowned. Where were the others? “Would you excuse me a moment?” She stood up.

Tanya just nodded, still chewing the mooli that had been dressed, rather than part of the dressing.

When Penny asked whether her companion had gone to talk to the chef, the waiter at the door explained she had walked in the direction of the salon. 

Curious. Why the salon? And where was Juni? She didn’t even know where her room was. Reception, perhaps they could help.

“Juni? What is her surname?”… “No, we have nobody of that name staying here tonight.”

“But my friend, Tanya McGarry, she booked us all in.”

“McGarry, let me see. Yes, four rooms. All in her name, I’m afraid.”

“Well, she won’t be in room 32 or 37, because that’s where Sonja and I are. What are the other two.”

“I can’t tell you that. Security.”

Penny let out a breath and stared at the wall behind reception. A pretty doe with far too long lashes gazed back at her. A romantic painting no doubt. “Please could you call her for me?”

“Which room?”

“The other two Ms McGarry booked. Ms McGarry’s in the dining room, so she won’t answer.”

The receptionist saw the sense of it. Privacy versus helpfulness were clashing in her training.

After she’d tried both numbers she looked up. “Neither room is answering.”

Penny sighed, thanked her for trying, and returned for the rest of her meal. She resumed her place, and wondered where Tanya had gone. A waiter served her main meal of the warm goats cheese salad with a quinoa and orange bowl. “Has Ms McGarry had hers?”

“Ma’am.” was all he said as he walked away.

This was most vexing. She was now sitting at a table on her own in a beautiful place that she really didn’t want to be in, spending far too much money she didn’t really have, and her companions had all disappeared.

What was going on?

She was considering a pudding, and fantasising about sticky toffee versus apple pie and custard, when a gentleman in a smart suit walked up to her, accompanied by a woman police officer and a man with ‘the Retreat’ emblazoned on his breast pocket.

“Ms Portway? Please come with us.”


“We’d rather discuss this in private.”

“Discuss what?” but she was already getting to her feet. I mean, how bizarre could one evening get?

In the manager’s office, the smart suit became DS Nelson of the Kings Lynn police. “I want to ask you some questions in respect of the disappearance of Ms Tanya McGarry, and the deaths of Ms Sonja Malaczewska and Ms Juni Salawi.”

From a retreat to a nightmare in one sentence.

(c) J M Pett 2022


The Retreat | #writephoto Flash Fiction
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