Nina thought she had her life sorted—husband, kids, nice house. But now it’s all falling apart. When she agrees to be consoled at her friend Virginia’s super-fancy wellness retreat, Nina expects a week of sleep, noisy tears and gal pal bonding. She doesn’t expect that one of her favourite guests will disappear and that she’ll be drawn into solving the mystery. Nina’s muddled efforts are helped and hindered by other larger-than-life guests including Ed, an obnoxious billionaire, his menacing bodyguard Rufus, and Jim, a mega-VIP who just happens to be Nina’s ultimate celebrity crush.
* This is an updated version of what first appeared in the Writing a Novel Anthology 2016.
‘Tucker time, Nina? Reckon you could even do with seconds. Not like me,’ John patted his solid belly with both hands. Despite his current regime of eating mainly plant based food and teaching tai chi, John retained some of his pre-Lindarra beer-and-bacon curves.
I followed him to the dining hall, grateful for his company. He was explaining his initial confusion about the nirvana of meditation, which he hadn’t realised for some time was an entirely different thing to the Nirvana he’d heard about on the radio. Originally, he’d thought that the meditation teachers were all grunge fans who believed that humming and visualising tranquil streams would help them to commune with the spirit of Kurt Cobain – that is, ‘to reach Nirvana’. He only figured it out after he bought one of the teachers a Nevermind CD for her birthday and she’d asked for the receipt.
None of the other guests were at lunch, but Ginny whooshed in soon after we assembled our meals from the buffet and stood next to our table. Her clipboard was clutched tight to her chest and she was spinning a pen in her other hand, just as she had back at school when she was nervous about an upcoming test or an outgoing boy. She was itching to ask if I had told the police about Ed’s hankie, but with John there she had to dig deep for a scrap of subtlety.
‘So, did you?’ she asked.
‘No. But I will,’ I said. ‘I haven’t had a chance.’
Ginny stopped flicking the pen, groaned and rolled her eyes.
John assumed the wrong kind of intrigue. ‘Oh, you will, will you, Nina? Cheeky. I better warn Jimmy that you’ve got him in your sights. I wouldn’t mess with that Gloria if it were me, but each to their own.’
‘Ha ha. No,’ I said. ‘I’m a red blooded girl, but I haven’t had much luck with married men. Even my own.’
He shook his head. ‘You’re too hard on yourself. Nice lady like you, you must’ve just caught a rotten fish. Good thing you chucked it back into the water.’
John hoed into his beetroot, spinach, and chevre risotto (topped with a seed crumb – delicious) but that didn’t deter him from continuing to speak.
‘I’ve never been married myself,’ he continued, as small bits of purple rice threatened to escape back onto his plate. ‘Got nothing against it, just, well, never happened for me. I got used to just taking out the one tea bag, washing the one mug, cooking one chop.’
Ginny turned to him with a half-smile. ‘I hear you, sister. Dinner for one is my specialty.’
John paused to fill three glasses with deionised water, then held his out for a clink as though it was champagne. We obliged him by tapping.
‘Here’s to us solo flyers,’ he said and took a big gulp. ‘Mind you, working here, I’ve noticed it doesn’t seem to matter much to our guests whether they’re wearing that magic ring. The shenanigans that go on, you wouldn’t believe it. The most common pick up line is one I call “room envy”. They start by asking about couch colours and window size, and soon enough it’s “I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours”. They’re usually not just talking about their villa, if you get my drift.’ John chortled, shoved a couple of extra spoonfuls into his already well-loaded mouth.
‘It’s definitely not encouraged,’ Ginny said, ‘but our toxin‑deprived, nature-soaked guests do seem keen to replace being busy with getting busy.’
John almost stopped eating, wagged his finger and nodded his head. ‘Being busy! Getting busy! I’m going to use that one.’ He finished wolfing down his bright meal and stood up. ‘Rightio, I’m off to get some petrol for the van.’
Ginny’s walkie talkie crackled and she left right behind him, throwing me a backwards glance that was one-tenth apology and nine-tenths disapproval. I was left in the giant room with dozens of empty chairs, a table full of food and a fidgety waitress. I nodded at her to acknowledge our remnant status. She beamed and stepped out from behind the buffet table.
‘You’re Nina, right?’
‘Yes. Hi, and you are—’ She wasn’t labelled.
‘Oh. I’ve lost my name tag. Martina. After some tennis player.’ She whipped her head around to check that Ginny or other boss-type people weren’t around, then pulled out a chair and perched next to me. ‘You’re in Sky Villa with the president? Superfreaky. What’s he like? It’s killing me not to Snapchat my friends about it.’ She bounced up and down like she had to go to the toilet, as though the secret was causing her physical discomfort. ‘Virginia said if anyone blabbed that he was here she’d find us, sack us, kill us and dump our bodies in the dam. So tell me – does he snore? Talk in his sleep? Does he like Pokémon?’
Eight years of world leadership. Massive public policy reforms. A uniquely scandal-free presidency. And these were the three questions the youth of today wanted answered.
I gave her a tight smile. ‘He seems very nice. He’s an impressive man.’
She jiggled some more. ‘But is he, like, funny? Is there anything weird about him? There has to be something. I kind of need a quirk or funny story to make my recap work. Later, I mean, when he’s gone. What do you reckon about a selfie, maybe on the last day or something?’
‘Yeah, I’ve got a blog. About working here. I take photos of all the awesome food and nature and stuff. I’ve got nearly a thousand followers, which isn’t bad, but I’m aiming for ten thousand.’
‘Does Virginia know you’re doing this blog?’
She looked up, screwed up her nose. ‘I doubt it. Old people don’t really read blogs. Do they?’
‘Blogs, yuk, never,’ I said. ‘She might want to know about it, though.’
Martina looked puzzled, shook her head. ‘I don’t think so. I don’t use real names or anything. And I only use photos of people if they agree, otherwise it’s bad karma. A lot of guests like being in it, even if their hair looks bad. FOMO, I guess. I make them, like, a bit famous.’
I tried hard to be my best self and not laugh while she was sitting right next to me. ‘How has Ginny not noticed this? With the taking of the selfies and all?’
‘I’m very discreet. And I think her eyesight might be fading. Don’t you reckon?’
I tilted my head to consider her diagnosis. ‘Hmm. Possibly. But I should tell you, Martina, I had to sign a pretty hefty confidentiality agreement to even be in the villa next door to Jim. The obligations didn’t end when he left. I think you might need to keep this story to yourself.’
‘Awrgh. Really? That’s so unfair. It would have pushed me to at least five thousand. What if I called him Tim Hannan instead of Jim Kanan? Or just describe him as the ex‑prez of a really really important country? I wouldn’t even have to mention that he was black.’ She perked up. ‘Hang on, I didn’t sign any confidentiality agreement, so that doesn’t count, right?’
‘Ah, I think you’ll find the obligation is either explicit or implied in your employment contract. If Lindarra promised confidentiality, it promised that on behalf of its staff too. That’s because Lindarra isn’t a person, it’s an entity made up of people.’
Martina’s eyes grew wide. ‘Wow. Are you a lawyer or something?’
‘I’m a mum, actually. I just, um, read stuff.’
She nodded. ‘Yeah, right. Reading. That’s cool. Good for you. Mainly on paper, right?’
‘Yes, yep. Definitely paper. Sometimes parchment, or even blocks of stone.’
She nodded again. ‘Stone. Yeah, like gravestones when your friends die? Must be hard, getting older. No offence.’
‘None taken. But Martina, I really suggest that you try very hard not to blog about this week.’
Martina laughed. Hard. ‘You mean, at all? Hilarious-much. No way. I can’t not blog for a whole week. A whole week! People would think I’d died. Anyway, I’ve already put some pics up. Don’t worry, there’s none of Prezzy Jim.’
‘How many? What of?’
‘I’ve been a bit slack. Probably only twenty. I’m kind of doing a creepy theme this week. You know, like how the bush is super‑spooky after dark. I made the trees look like monsters, drew little horns onto possums, that sort of thing. And bats. Everyone hates bats.’
‘Were you out taking photos on Sunday night?’
‘Sunday? The night Prezzy turned up at dinner and that old lady lost it, right?’
‘You know she’s missing?’
‘Yeah, course. We all had to talk to the police. It was cool, like being on Law & Order. But I told them what we all reckon, she’s just gone to visit her grandkids or something.’
‘She doesn’t have grandchildren.’
‘Shut the front door! No freaking way. She so looked like a nanna. Actually, she looked older than my nanna. Man, what would you do, that old, and no grandkids? Especially if you didn’t like cruises. Makes me sad just thinking about it.’
‘Well, there it is, definitely no grandchildren,’ I said. ‘So were you out that night?’
‘Oh, that, right, you’re really good at paying attention, Nina,’ she said. ‘Yep, I was out that night. That was the night I found the snarling possum I drew the horns on so it looked all devilly and evil.’
‘Did you hear anything odd, see anything?’
‘Apart from the possum? Nup. The police asked that too.’
‘Nothing? Where were you taking the photos?’
‘The trees at the edge of the tai chi lawn. Actually the scariest thing about the night was the cops. It was all quiet apart from the wind, and the rain had started up a bit, but I don’t mind that, it’s like being in a Coke ad, getting drenched, water spraying everywhere. And my Galaxy’s waterproof. You’ve probably got an old iPhone. They’re not waterproof.’
‘I do. Great. Go on.’
‘So after I took a photo of the possum, I thought I heard, like, a person walking down in the bottom paddock.’
I took a sharp breath. ‘Near Ed’s helicopter?’
‘Yeah. Sort of. But by then I was getting cold and I had the shots I needed so I went back to my room to do the blog. Then I heard all the cops and dogs and stuff and I knew it was just them I’d heard.’
‘And you told the police this?’
‘Why would I tell the police that I heard the police? I thought you were smart. That’s the thing about reading stuff on paper, I guess, you can’t get updates. Harder to keep up.’
I stood up to leave the table, Martina moved back to her post guarding the salads. ‘By the way,’ I said, ‘I thought Lindarra only had mobile phone network at the office – how did you blog from your room?’ Please, young person, explain your technology to me so I can do a cave painting about it.
‘Yep. No network. Mental, right? But really, no one talks on their phones, and we have pretty good broadband, so it’s no biggie.’
‘You have internet access?’
‘Yeah, all the staff except John. He calls it the world wide web. That’s creepy. I keep picturing a ginormous spider taking over the world. But, get this, we don’t even have wifi. We have to use an ugly blue wire. In case the wifi waves interfere with our brains or signal UFOs or something. Totes cray-cray.’
Totes. Super-totes. ‘Martina, it’s been lovely meeting you. I have to go.’
‘Hey, you still haven’t given me any dirt on Mr Prez-man,’ she said, pouting.
‘I’m afraid he’s pretty clean. Good luck with your blog. Just maybe not this week.’
She winked, pointed a finger at me in gun-pose. ‘Gotcha – my bad!’
Nada began her career as a corporate lawyer, but found she didn’t enjoy dividing every working day into six-minute billable units. She went on to work as a trade union officer, political adviser and staff manager before settling on her current profession of Mummy/Warrior/Worrier. This is Nada’s first manuscript.
* If you are interested in contacting the author please email firstname.lastname@example.org.