Zenn by Chris Green
As an only child growing up in rural Somerset, Kate Dulverton had a sheltered upbringing. Like many young people, she eventually became bored with her sleepy surroundings and moved away to broaden her horizons. She had not been in the city long when Charlotte Anne, in the office where she was temping, took her under her wing. She told her she understood how difficult it could be to make friends in a new place and suggested she might try fitness classes to get to know new people. There was no hope for her, she said, she was too long in the tooth. But that didn’t mean that Kate shouldn’t give it a try. While she was young, and still had a figure to look after. She wished that she had taken care of hers. Too many pizzas and nights in front of the telly with chocolate cake, though, she said. And childbearing didn’t help.
Rose Darling told her there was a fitness group she had heard about called Zenn Fitness. Yes, with a double n. Odd name. Perhaps it had originally been Zen but they were forced to change because this was already trademarked. Zenn was just out of town; she said. Probably only a five-minute drive away. It was more than just a gym. They did everything there. Not only Yoga and Pilates, and they offered free taster days. Perhaps Kate might go along to one of these and report back. If it was any good, she herself might join her, once she had broken the back of the decorating at home. It would give her some time away from Keith and the kids. She deserved some time of her own.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but shouldn’t Kate have realised straight away that something was not right about Zenn Fitness? When the security gate of the compound closed behind her, oughtn’t she have become concerned? Why would the exercise workshop be held in a place that required such strict levels of security? She probably should have registered that the women shuffling dolefully into the Mindfulness class looked anything but mindful. They looked as if they were being drugged. Shouldn’t she have found it odd that for the Yoga session she was greeted not by a nimble slip of a thing in a leotard but a thick-set hulk of a man with long straggly hair and a beard? He said his name was Goliath. Surely no one was called Goliath these days. Yoga was postponed; he said.
A few of her fellow newbies became suspicious and raised concerns about what might be happening, but they were quietly ushered into another room and not seen again. Farouk, a lugubrious Oriental with a missing eye and facial scar, took the others into a hall, where he told them to wait for the Zumba session. Farouk was like something out of a horror movie. What connection could he possibly have with exercise and well-being? They were given an energy drink that had a bitter taste. Rather than give Kate energy, it nearly knocked her out. The Zumba tutor did not arrive.
Prison-like security. Ghoulish guards. Mind games and manipulation. Zenn Fitness had the hallmarks of a cult. But by the time Kate realised this, it was too late. If the truth be told, it was probably too late the moment she stepped through the gate of the compound. She had been ordered to hand in her phone. A security measure, she was told. She thought nothing of it at the time, but as a result, she was now left with no means of contacting anyone in the outside world to alert them to her plight. It slowly dawned on her that she was trapped. There was no way out.
Surely Rose Darling couldn’t have known what went on here at Zenn and still let her go ahead with it. She seemed so friendly. She had lent her a book on aerobics and helped her choose clothes from her Lands End catalogue. They had even been to the pub together once or twice, and she was going to introduce her to a fellow she knew. Phil something or other. She thought they would get along. A perfect match; she had said. Phil was dreamy, and he had an Audi. Rose wouldn’t have consciously set her up for this nightmare. Nor would Charlotte have known what went on at Zenn. By her own admission, it was too late for her to contemplate a fitness regime. She wouldn’t have been aware of Zenn. It simply wouldn’t have been on her radar.
There was no longer any pretence about exercise classes. The workshops appeared to be nothing more than a front for whatever sinister exploitation was taking place here. It seemed they were advertised purely to bring in new recruits. Once they were in place, the classes were not mentioned again. Kate had been led to believe that cults centred around a shared commitment to a cause. Some kind of cranky pseudo-religion with a charismatic leader. There seemed to be no evidence of idolatry or worship at Zenn.
They were separated and left to settle. Kate began to realise that they were effectively prisoners. If the prospect of being held captive here wasn’t so terrifying, the operation would seem surreal or even comic. Goliath and Farouk were just gophers, along with Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum and the woman who was built like a Russian weightlifter. They had not yet come across whoever was running the show or discovered what exactly the show was. It was difficult to link it with an ideology. It was not a cult in the strict sense. Indoctrination did not seem to be the aim. There had been no hint of this. Their captors had something else in mind. Something more straightforward and practical, perhaps. Something designed to generate income. They were a source of slave labour. Whatever they were all here to do, it was not likely to be pleasant.
Shouldn’t she be working on an escape plan? She had tried talking to one or two of the existing captives in the corridor, but they were tight-lipped. They seemed resigned to their fate, frightened at what might happen if they said too much. She would find out what went on here soon enough, they told her. It would be difficult, she realised, to get them to help facilitate an escape plan, should she come up with one. In the meantime, it seemed her best hope was that the girls at work would become suspicious about her disappearance and begin to investigate Zenn.
‘I wonder what has happened to Kate,’ said Rose. ‘She hasn’t been in for nearly a week. And I thought she was fitting in nicely.’
‘You never can tell with these youngsters, can you?’ said Charlotte. ‘Strange though, especially as you put her on to that fitness place. Shame we haven’t got a number for her.’
‘You don’t think she got offended,’ said Rose. ‘ That she thought we might be suggesting she was fat.’
‘Oh, come on, Rose!’ said Charlotte. ‘Hardly likely, is it? Now! I’m fat! Kate was sylphlike by comparison.’
‘And I told her I might try out Zenn, didn’t I? Perhaps I will give them a call and sign up for a session. See if I can solve the mystery.’
‘Good idea. Check it out. I would come with you, but I’m way too old for all that exercise malarkey. …… By the way, Rose. This may be nothing, but I bought a new top the other day, and the label said Zenn Fashions. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but it was made in the UK. I thought it odd because most High Street clothes are made in Bangla Desh or Viet Nam or one of those other Asian places where they have sweatshops with terrible working conditions. I hope there’s not a connection.’
‘Come on now, Charl! That’s a bit far-fetched. I mean, slave labour in Britain in this day and age. Don’t you think you’re being paranoid?’
‘You’re probably right, Rose. I expect Kate has a perfectly good reason for not coming in. I’m sure she’ll be back soon. Perhaps I’ll leave it for now.’
Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved