The Crime Readers' Association

The Retreat, by Chris McDonald

The skyscrapers and landmarks of Manhattan glint in the rear-view mirror as John and Simon leave the city behind. John reaches into the back seat of his boss’s pick-up truck and returns with a bottle of water. He twists the top off and glugs greedily. It’s shaping up to be a hot day, already seventy-three degrees and it’s only just approaching ten o’clock. Even with the air con on, he’s finding it hard to catch his breath.

‘It’ll be good to get out of the city for a while,’ Simon says.

‘Too right,’ John replies, though he doesn’t mean it.

He hates the outdoors. Has done since he was a child and his father had forced him to go camping. He’d made it through one torturous night in some remote woodland before making such a fuss the following morning that his dad had admitted defeat and abandoned the father/son time he’d been looking forward to for weeks. Their relationship had never been the same. John hadn’t thought about his father in a long time. He’s pulled from his memories by Simon’s voice.

‘I know we said we wouldn’t talk shop,’ he says, ‘but I just want to say well done again for closing that deal.’

A wave of pride washes over John, though he passes the praise off with nothing more than a nonchalant shrug.

The strain of a multi-million dollar project had caused everyone’s stress levels to run wild. As team leader, it had been John’s job to keep everyone pulling in the same direction. It hadn’t been easy, but they’d made it to the finish line and pulled it off, much to Simon’s delight. It had been his idea to host this retreat – a thank you for all the hard work. John would’ve preferred a private room at The Marquee, an open bar and a bag of Bolivia’s finest, but felt he couldn’t say no to his boss’s offer.

The two men exchange small talk for a while and as lunch time approaches, Simon suggests getting some grub. John nods, though the tight knot filling his stomach replaces any need for food, as he knows where Simon is taking him. They take the next exit and pull into the car park of a restaurant John knows well. They get out of the truck and walk inside. A waiter approaches and guides them to a table in the corner of the room. The floor to ceiling windows offer a stunning view of the approaching hills; the lush green foliage a welcome sign that winter has well and truly passed. A different waiter comes to the table and asks if they are ready to order. John hasn’t even looked at the menu, but Simon tells the waiter assertively that he will be ordering for both. The waiter writes down the order, smiles, takes the leather-bound menus and leaves.

For a while, the men discuss the latest round of football scores and the latest faux-pas the president has committed. When the food arrives conversation is abandoned.

‘Do you remember when you applied for the job at my company?’ Simon asks, after a few minutes.

John puts his fork down and puffs out his cheeks. ‘It was a while ago…’

‘On the application form,’ Simon interrupts, ‘there was a slightly unusual question.’

John knows the one he is talking about. He remembers showing his girlfriend at the time and they laughed at how ridiculous it was.

‘I asked what your last meal on earth would be. I ask it of all applicants because I believe I can learn a great deal from it. You, for example, said you’d have steak and fries from this place, washed down with a glass of champagne.’

‘Is this my last meal?’ John asks, with a nervous titter.

Simon simply laughs in reply and motions to the waiter. John feels ice run through his veins as an empty flute glass is placed on the table in front of him. The waiter shows Simon a bottle and he studies the label before nodding his head. The waiter removes the cork with a loud pop. The aroma of green apples and white flowers burst from the open bottle and as the champagne is poured, bubbles leap playfully over the rim of the glass.

‘Now,’ Simon says, ‘the restaurant you chose near to where you grew up told me that you were a bit of a home bird; a family man, but one who enjoyed the finer things in life; steak and a glass of bubbly. That’s the kind of man I wanted working for me. Grounded, yet aspirational.’

He motions to the glass.

‘Please, help yourself.’ He flashes a wide smile as John picks up the glass, doing his best to hide his trembling hand, and takes a small sip of the champagne. As it washes over his tongue, he can taste the hints of melon and apple and is almost able to pick out each and every bubble. He can only imagine how much this mouthful has cost.

‘Now,’ Simon says, as the waiter walks away, ‘I know we said we wouldn’t talk shop, and again I apologise, but there’s something I’d like to discuss. Something you might be able to help me with.’

John can fell the sweat forming on his forehead and the material clinging to his armpits dampen. Simon sits forward now, both elbows on the table, his chin resting on his clasped fingers as if deep in thought.

‘You’re my man on the ground,’ he starts, ‘and I was just wondering if you’d noticed anyone on your team acting … suspiciously?’

‘Suspiciously… I don’t think so,’ John splutters.

He watches his boss, the company director, mull over his answer.

‘Well, here’s the thing. Someone, and I don’t know who, has been siphoning money out of the company. And not just a small amount – it’s just toppled over a million dollars. Like I said, I don’t know who it is, but I’ve narrowed it down to your team. As team leader, I was wondering if you could have helped me out. But, if you’ve not noticed anything out of the ordinary, I’ll have to try and sort it myself.’ He smiles and lays his hands flat on the table, palms up. ‘Now, on my honour, that is the last time I will mention anything to do with the office.’

John manages to pull his face into something resembling a smile and excuses himself. He walks to the bathroom and just about makes it to the cubicle before throwing up. When he’s sure that he’s finished, he goes to the sink, washes his hands and splashes some water over his face. He looks at his ruddy face in the mirror, at his bloodshot eyes and his prematurely greying hair.

Does Simon know?

He gives himself a shake. There’s no way that Simon could know. He’s been careful. He’s never got his hands dirty himself. He’s used an offshore bank account registered to a different name and everything he’s done; every piece of correspondence has been completed via a third party, and a trusted third party at that. There is no way that Simon could know, he reassures himself again before walking out of the bathroom and taking his place at the table.

The men finish their meal and John savours every sip of champagne, aware that he may never drink anything as delicious ever again. When the bill comes, Simon insists on paying, much to John’s delight. When it has been settled, John follows his boss to the truck and they begin the second leg of their journey.


John awakes with a start. He rubs his eyes and looks out the window. They appear to be making their way down a small, dirt track. Huge trees, probably here when the first settlers arrived, loom over them, allowing only a little sunlight through. His head hurts. Probably from the champagne, he thinks to himself.

‘Welcome to the land of the living, buddy,’ Simon laughs.

‘Sorry about that,’ John mutters, wiping drool away from the corner of his mouth.

‘Not a problem,’ Simon replies. ‘I was about to wake you anyway, we’re almost there.’

It’s then that John realises that he doesn’t know where there is. His boss had told him that the company retreat was mandatory and that he would drive. Other than that, he knew nothing.

After a few minutes, Simon turns left onto another track. This one is even narrower; wide enough for only one car. Almost immediately, they come to a stop at a gate. The sheet metal glints in the sunlight and a sign declares that the land is private property. Simon gets out of the truck and types a passcode into a keypad that is embedded in the gate. A loud beep sounds and the gate swings open noiselessly. Simon returns to the truck and drives through the opening. John watches it swing closed in his mirror.

‘Are the rest of the team meeting us here?’ he asks, though Simon offers no answer. In the distance, John can see a circular section of forest separated from the rest by a chain link fence. As they descend the hill towards it, John fights the urge to throw up. He’d heard rumours but had always dismissed them as an urban legend.

Five minutes later, they come to a stop beside the fence.

‘We’re here,’ says Simon, the cheeriness in his voice disconcerting. He opens the door but doesn’t get out, noticing that John hasn’t followed suit.

‘What’s happening?’ John asks.

‘What’s happening?’ Simon repeats, confusion flashing on his face. ‘This is the retreat. It’s time to leave New York behind and get back to nature.’

‘This place…’

‘Great, isn’t it? It’s been in the family for generations…’

John stares at him.

‘Grab your bag from the back seat and I’ll get my mine.’

Simon pushes himself out of the truck and John obeys his orders. They grab their bags and walk up to the gate. Simon punches another passcode in and the gate unlocks.

‘After you,’ he says to John, and against his better judgement, John enters the fenced off area of forest.

Inside, John can tell that the land has had some work done. There is a clear area just inside the gate which is flat and seems the perfect place to pitch a tent. Except, now that he thinks about it, he didn’t notice a tent in the back of the truck. The clearing is edged by shrubs and young trees which gradually give way to the monoliths, similar to the huge oaks they’d driven through before.

Simon busies himself with unpacking some equipment whilst John takes in his surroundings – the horror of what is about to happen pressing down on him.

Simon erects a flimsy, foldable table and a camping chair. He pops a beer into the cup holder on the arm of the chair and sinks into it. John turns to him and forces a laugh.

‘This is all a bit Hunger Games, isn’t it?’

Simon’s mouth remains in a straight line.

‘John,’ he says, ‘I’m going to level with you. I know you took the money. My money.’

John splutters, tries to deny it but Simon holds up a hand.

‘There’s no use trying to tell me otherwise. I know.’

He says the final two words with such force that John knows his time is up. Instead of denying, he tries to apologise; attempts to promise that he can get it all back. Again, Simon holds up his hand.

‘What’s done is done,’ he says, and John collapses to his knees. ‘But there is a way out of this. We’re going to play a game. I’m going to give you an hour to disappear into the woods.’

He reaches into his bag and produces a digital stopwatch, which he sets on the table. He presses a few buttons and sixty minutes appear on the display, blinking red.

‘Once those sixty minutes are up, I’m going to follow you into the forest. If you manage to survive the night, and make it back to the gate by nine in the morning, you can walk away with the money you stole and we’ll forget this ever happened.’

‘I’ll phone the cops,’ John interrupts, and Simon laughs.

‘That ain’t gonna happen,’ he replies. ‘For one, there’s no cell service up here, and two, if you told the cops about this, you’d have to tell them what you did.’

‘What happens if you catch me?’ John asks.

In reply, Simon reaches into his bag, pulls a knife out and sets it on the table. The weight of the weapon causes the table to bow in the middle.

‘You’re bluffing,’ John mumbles.

Simon presses a button on the stopwatch and time begins to count down.

‘Am I?’ he says quietly, as John backs away into the trees and is swallowed by the darkness.




Find out more about author Chris McDonald here.

View all stories

Join the CRA

Joining the CRA is FREE. There are no lengthy forms to fill out and we need nothing but your email. You will receive a regular newsletter but no spam.