I wish I’d never been born. No, that’s not quite true. I wish he’d never been born. The magnificent Oliver Jones with all his genius ideas. But he wasn’t a genius. They were all wrong, and if he’d never existed, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do the things I’ve done. “Build a city,” he said. “It’ll be an English paradise.” He was so, so wrong.
He was running out of time. Oliver had been at work in his study for hours and had come up with virtually nothing. He was supposed to be coming up with his next big entrepreneurial enterprise of 1995, an idea that would have the common people of England jumping from their chairs when they saw it announced on TV or their eyeballs bugging out of their heads when they read about it in the magazines and the papers like they had with his last project proposal. So far, all he’d gotten was a thick layer of wadded up sheets of paper covering the floor of the study. Oliver removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation.
He wished desperately that he could just escape to some relaxing little haven where he wouldn’t have to worry about stimulating the real estate market, like a nice little villa where he could spend his days surrounded by similar people who knew exactly what kind of experience he was looking for. Oliver’s eyes popped open wide. He was back in business.
Oliver could see it all in his mind’s eye: A luxurious little city of quaint little villas lining each street in all manner of whimsical pastel shades, people strolling leisurely along the sidewalks or whizzing past in golf carts, maybe a few facilities for various recreational activities here and there, palm trees and a tropical cabana down at the nearby beach. No, wait. That wasn’t right. There were enough island retirement paradises already. Scratch the pastels and the Bahamian breeze; give everything a more rustic shade and bring it all closer to home. England didn’t have anything that would even come close to something like that. Until now. Oliver knew there had to be space available somewhere. He buzzed his secretary and told her to get him a list of all the vacant spaces in England. He bustled around his office, grabbing his coat and hat, and just barely managing to take the list from his secretary and thank her before he sped out the door.
Oliver knew he’d need a solid plan before he could actually pitch his proposal; a mere idea and a picture in his head wouldn’t cut it. So, he toured all over the country observing the sites his secretary had written down for him. There were a few he didn’t even bother to get out of the car for; single properties like abandoned office buildings or warehouses. Then, there were a couple of locations worth checking out. One of the northernmost vacancies spanned a whole city space, but it was more of a ghost town than a luxury city. Oliver didn’t particularly want to engage in such a sizable demolition project, plus the chill in the air wasn’t likely to have many people in the mood to go out for afternoon walks to enjoy the fresh air. The longer Oliver stood surveying it, the creepier it appeared, so he shuffled back to his car and got back on the road, confident that the perfect place was still out there.
After a couple more disappointing sites, he found it. Empty land with enough space for a city, and in close proximity to the beach as an added bonus. It was situated just above Liverpool and couldn’t have been better suited for Oliver’s new Paradise City. As he gazed fondly at the flat expanse of green land before him, he decided he liked that turn of phrase. “Paradise City” would fit nicely on the welcome sign.
As Oliver sped down the country road on his way back to the office, he phoned his secretary and asked her to set up a conference call with some of his famous friends. He made sure to include members of the music industry, painters, filmmakers and any other celebrity he knew that might want to get in on this project on the list he dictated to his secretary. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel excitedly and smiled and the countryside flying past him as he rocketed toward the office.
When he burst back through the doors to the lobby of his office building, his secretary hurriedly waved him back to his desk where the members of the conference call were all already connected and waiting for him. He had to stop and wipe his sweaty palms down the side of his pants before he lifted the phone from the receiver. He greeted everyone on the line and then immediately launched into his pitch, talking a mile a minute and nearly without a single pause until he had laid out his idea in its entirety. The line went silent for a moment when he finally finished his speech. His secretary looked on in nervous anticipation as Oliver listened for some reaction amid the echo of his own rather heavy breathing coming from the phone. Finally there came an answer.
They loved it. Every single voice on the line offered rave reviews, and a relieved Oliver shot a thumbs up to his secretary as he thanked them for their kind words. She scurried from his office to go call the next batch of people he’d need to consult with: the real estate agents and other professionals on the business end of things. When they all filed into his office, not much later, they found it covered in a wide variety of papers. City maps were draped over chairs, legal documents they’d need to read through and sign were stacked on every corner of Oliver’s desk, and crude sketches of ideas Oliver had drawn up were scattered at random over any surface where they fit.
It took the team several meetings to wade through it all, and with each one they were able to brainstorm more ideas, better ideas that added a variety of shops and a gas station to the city center, and every time they left that office they had come that much closer to turning this idea into a reality. They were able to make steady progress throughout just about every new stage of development. The only snag came when they presented their plans to the government. In its concern with all the ordinances, permit, and regulations that would need to be seen to in order to get this project green-lighted, the stern-faced men of the committee that dealt with such things were hesitant to give Oliver’s team the approval they needed. After some brief sweet-talking and a few promises that the committee members might be able to meet some of the famous future residents of the villas, though, those stern faces began to look much more agreeable.
After two years of planning and blueprinting and double-checking, everything was ready to go. Oliver thanked his lucky stars that everything had worked out so far, and as he watched the contractors break ground at the building site, he crossed his fingers ad squeezed them tight in hopes that it would all be downhill from there.
If I had only known then what I know now, I’d have snuck into that site and burned every last inch of what they’d built to the ground. None of those buildings would’ve had people in them. Nobody would’ve gotten hurt. But I didn’t know these things then. And I didn’t burn anything down. And people- good people- did get hurt.
Ten years later, any and all good luck Oliver’s team had been granted flew right out the window. The financial crisis hit after they had built more than 425 of the 500 villas they had planned for. The city center already had half its intended stores and half the houses surrounding it were already occupied. The construction of the remaining houses had to be put on hold when Oliver realized how dangerously close to empty his pockets had become since the beginning of the crisis. All his partners in the project were frustrated and nervous, unsure of how to proceed as the rest of the houses could no longer be built and the existing houses had become much too expensive for most people to afford anymore at around 3.5 or 4 million euros. Very few of their meetings ended as positively as they used to.
Their best bet was to sell off the whole project to another party, but it looked to be near impossible and none of them put much faith into the idea. Of the 200 people that were living in the already-inhabited villas, at least 90% were unable to improve their own situations because of how low a price they would be able to get for selling their villas off, some of them only worth as much as 900,000 euros. 80% of those 200 people were aged 45-90 years old and the other 20% was comprised of younger people.
Many of the inhabitants were writers who went to their villas to write their books, but there were some families who lived there permanently. Though there wasn’t a police station included in the city layout, if some thing were to happen, there were two security guards, Chris Paul and Mark Straitham, who had been hired and could be called upon when a resident’s party got a little too noisy or some other small disturbance occurred. For larger disturbances, the residents were encouraged to call the Liverpool police, who would arrive within about 20 minutes.
Since the town was mostly populated by middle-aged folks, there weren’t really any problems to deal with. In the times of the town’s first inhabitants is when Mark Straitham was appointed as one of the security guards on duty. He was 42 at the time and almost a full two meters tall, an Englishman from Essex who usually displayed an enthusiastic and pretty cheerful demeanor, unless the job required something a little more stern. Over the course of his 10 years of army service, he had accrued a decent-sized collection of medals and he had held on to the memories that went with them.
He had experienced several wars over that decade with the army, including both the Gulf and Iraq wars. He still had nightmares about the battles he fought in during both conflicts in which he’d see the terrified faces of his fellow soldiers as gunfire lit the dark night around them or the fury on the faces of the enemy as they hurtled towards him wearing vests laced with explosives. He’d participated in research studies and had undergone tests by some psychologists who had shown Mark results that showed he had largely bypassed the larger effects of his trauma and had improved quite a bit in the years since his service. When he’d told his cousin, one Oliver Jones, that he’d completed his courses and training to get his UK Security Industry Authority license, Oliver had promised to get him all set up with a job as a local security guard in the luxury city he was building.
Mark had been the only guard for the first little while as the new buildings had begun popping up all over the previously bare stretch of land. After almost 4/5 of the houses had been built, just before the financial crisis struck, was when the need for a precautionary second security guard arose. Chris Paul is my name, and I was a college dropout, in my early twenties, and looking for employment at the time. I had been raised an only child in the village of Halewood, not too far from Paradise City. My father had passed away when I was very young, and my mother had become far too self-absorbed to bother communicating with me at all anymore, unless she was sending me the money she believed was the only thing I could possibly want from her.
But I didn’t want it. In fact, I wanted to step away from my life of luxury and to become a self-sufficient and responsible man. One day, as I’d been skimming through The Guardian, I came across an advertisement in great, bolded text spread across the page saying that “anyone who ever dreamt of protecting big, famous stars like Bono, Russell Brand, and many others, now has the opportunity to do just that!” I considered myself a good observer, and with a height of about 1.7 meters and a perfect bill of health, I knew I fit the profile of a good security guard.
I applied the next day and, with my excellent health, clean history, low wages, and a few recommendations from good references, was selected by the security company from all the other applicants for the job. I underwent much the same training program as Mark to become a security guard, except for the fact that my commitment was only part-time. I went to work as a security guard in Paradise City only 4 days of the week, then went to school one day out of the week, as well. I worked hard to become a good security guard, and I was indeed pretty good at my job.
I was a neat and very well-behaved boy, like a guard was supposed to be. But I was also weak in character. Even my friends could tell I was a push over. They found it quite easy to manipulate me and use me to their advantage whenever they pleased.
I know these things now, but I was a silly child then. I should have realized, I should have fought harder against what they were turning me into. But I just wanted to fit in.
I also happened to be a very good listener. I always listened to the stories of people who I judged to be of a similar age as my parents and I always tried to heed any advice they gave me. With how distant I’d grown from my mother and the complete absence of my father, I saw these people as the role models I didn’t have in my own family.
Such a silly little child.
The first couple of months on the job were pretty easy for me. I liked chatting with the residents I sometimes ran into during my shifts and I hadn’t had to deal with any really sticky situations as of yet. All that changed when disaster struck Paradise City in late 2007/early 2008.
It was a murder. The Liverpool Police had been called and arrived quickly to the crime seen. There they found the victims, an elderly movie star and her husband, hung side-by-side from the ceiling of their villa’s living room by barbed wire that had been wrapped around their necks. From the looks of the ribs poking out from the bodies that had both been found in a state of semi-undress, the couple had also been deprived for a lengthy period of time. Investigators could find no sign of forced entry and forensic specialists were unable to get any DNA evidence from the scene that didn’t belong to the couple who had owned the villa.
We two security guards had been the ones that found the couple first and put in the call to the Liverpool Police, and the detective that showed up shortly afterward had been shocked at the violence of the crime, especially since it had taken place in such a calm little town. We nonchalantly explained to him that, because of the emptiness of the city and its houses, sometimes homeless or hitchhiking junkies around the neighborhood would go to Paradise City and sleep over in an uninhabited house for the night, or sometimes just headed to the city looking for entertainment when they were bored. We assured him that this was who was behind the murder.
I had just wanted to make him proud. He reminded me so much of my father, what little I remembered, and seeing that pride sparkle in his eyes was what I lived for. I just didn’t want him to leave me, too.
At our suggestion, the Liverpool detective, Stockington, investigated the city, coming up with 20 unidentified, homeless junkies that he dragged into the office for questioning. After interrogating all of them and subsequently investigating each one’s story, none of them appeared to have done anything wrong. So, with a heavy sigh, Stockington let them all out of the mass holding cell he’d corralled them into the night before. He tried to issue a restraining order to the homeless horde, warning them to stay at least one kilometer away from the border of Paradise City. They all heard him, but very few obeyed his order.
The next murder came only a few weeks after the first. This time, two junkies had been killed, prompting us security guards to surmise that there had probably been a fight between the two victims that had ended in each killing the other. That’s the theory we laid out for the Detective Stockington, but the detective wasn’t quite convinced. He decided he wanted to determine the context of the crime’s occurrence for himself. He rented out a small house in the city itself, hoping that the two weeks he’d paid for would suffice, and began his investigation to find out if this murder had any connection to the first crime scene he’d been called to within the city limits.
The first warning. We should never have allowed him to stay.
John Stockington was an outstanding detective from Peebles. He’d been promoted several times and had even been appointed as an honorary citizen in the many cases he’s solved both inside and outside his own city. He prided himself on his singular focus and attention to detail. It took a lot for a criminal to outsmart him.
As he pored over the files and reports he’d placed all along the bright white kitchen counter, Stockington couldn’t help feeling as though there were important details missing. He reached for his coat and headed for the door, in search of some answers. The detective stopped at a few of the inhabited homes and asked the residents some questions about the victims in both cases and about the whereabouts of the residents on the dates of both crimes.
When he arrived at the tiny little building we call “Security Headquarters”, he asked us most of the same questions, but I don’t think he got what he was looking for. I let Mark do most of the talking, and that man can be pretty vague when he wants to be. I saw the hard set of his thin-lipped mouth and the bushy brows that furrowed low over his eyes. Even after Mark had dismissed him, the man remained frozen in the corner where he’d been standing for what felt like forever. I tried to focus on the card game I’d been playing with my fellow guard, but the look Stockington was throwing me was very unnerving. It felt like he was taking me apart with his eyes. When he finally left, I was finally able to breathe again.
The second warning. We should have known.
Ten days later, just as the sun had dawned over the rooftops of our troubled little city, we got a call. Blood traces had been found in a barn some ways away. They belonged to an elderly person. This time the killer had sliced the victim into pieces: each limb, and the head, and then two halves of the torso.
The call had come in from Justin Ellington. He was a 32-year-old guy who’d written a very successful book straight out of the gate and had decided to stay at Paradise City while he constructed his second. When we met him out at the barn to question him about the crime scene, he appeared very nervous and jittery. Before we could launch into our own questions, he asked if he should call the detective and tell him the same things he told us.
I slid my gaze to Mark who stood at my side. He advised Justin to at least wait until morning so as not to interrupt the detective’s investigation into the other murders. Justin just smiled and nodded his understanding. He turned and headed for the door.
We should have just let him go.
Before the man could take more than a few steps, Mark had reached for the hunting knife he’d hidden in a pile of hay along the wall and charged up behind Justin. He sank the knife into the younger man’s neck and laid him down on the floor. Poor guy hardly knew what hit him. He didn’t make a sound as we watched the blood spill from his wound into the dirt on the floor of the barn. I must say I had not expected that.
“What the hell?” I asked Mark. “What’d you do that for?”
“He was gonna rat on us, you know he was,” Mark answered as he hefted Justin’s limp upper body into his arms.
“C’mon, empty his pockets. Make sure he didn’t record any of that,” he urged me.
“Why would he be recording something like this?” I asked, kneeling next to the body.
“He’s a writer, they do that kinda thing. Who knows why?” Mark answered.
I shoved my hands into the dead man’s pockets and came out with a cell phone that had been shut off and a folded scrap of paper. I smoothed it out and read the neat handwriting I found there.
“Oh my god,” I whispered, trying to keep my anger in check.
“What is it? Was he giving us up?” Mark huffed, dropping Justin back on the floor.
“He didn’t even know! But you killed him!” I cried. “He thought it was that old boxer, Hennessy, because he’s got a history with drugs and criminal record a mile long! You killed him and he didn’t even have a clue!”
Mark came over and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Listen, kid, I’m sorry. I thought he was gonna report us to the detective. You know I’m just trying to look out for us, yeah?” he asked me, trying to get me to meet his eyes.
“Yeah,” I admitted quietly, turning my head to avoid his gaze.
“And you know we can’t be too careful, yeah?” he asked as he gave my shoulder a squeeze.
Finally, I looked at him.
“Yes, I know! I just wish you hadn’t done that.”
“So do I, my boy, but it’s done now. Help me clean up his mess, won’t you?”
And we did. We split Justin’s corpse into pieces, just like we’d done with the old man earlier, and hurriedly put them into a refuse sack and stashed it where we’d stashed the other sack with the other body. We scrubbed the floor as quick as we could and left before anyone saw us.
Why didn’t we disappear right then and there? We could’ve done it. We could’ve done it together.
A few days later, Detective Stockington had geared up for a run around the neighborhood in his blue and white sport suit. He figured this would be his last one, since his two weeks were almost up and he hadn’t made much headway on the cases. As he swung his arms and pumped his legs, Stockington tried to breathe steadily. He sucked in a big breath as he rounded a corner between a barn and a little valley out behind it. The he immediately coughed it back out.
The air there stunk something terrible and was full of swarming flies. The detective knew something was up. He immediately called in a forensics team.
Not much later, the team emerged from the valley and reported to Stockington that two men- one elderly, and the other younger- had been cut into pieces and stuffed into refuse sacks that had likely been down in that valley for at least two days. The detective raced back to the Liverpool lab to run the victims’ fingerprints.
Once he had matches on both the men, he was able to contact their friends and family. He had initially been surprised to find that neither victims’ friends or families had suspected they were in any trouble. Then the old man’s estranged wife informed him that he had contact with very few friends and had likely led a very lonely life since she’d left. The younger man’s mother told the detective that her son had asked for a brief break from communication so he could focus on writing his next bestseller, so she hadn’t had any contact with him for a while. Stockington hated having to tell these people what had happened.
Later that day, the detective called us up at headquarters asking to meet up so we could go over the most recent murders. I could tell Mark was a bit on edge, but he agreed anyway. When he arrived, he stepped out of the car and walked towards where we were waiting for him, but he got a call before he could reach us. He walked back towards the car a few meters, shooting constant glances back at us thought the doorway. It was peculiar behavior, and it made both us security guards quite uneasy.
“Sorry, gentlemen, guess we won’t be able to chat as much as I’d hoped,” he called to us in his gruff voice. “They’ve found fingerprints on one of the sacks used to dispose of the bodies. Apparently our killer’s getting a bit sloppy. Anyway, I’ve got to head back to the lab to wait for those results. Hang tight, boys.”
He winked at us, then turned on his heel, heading for his car, but I sprang into action. I yanked the fire extinguisher from the wall and swung it hard at the detective’s head. He went out like a light and fell to the floor. My mind instantly went into overdrive trying to figure out what to do with the body, trying to calm my nerves and rationalize this thing I’d just done. I told myself I’d done it for me and Mark. I refused to lose Mark or myself that way. I was not willing to give up our lives so easily.
Mark beamed proudly at me, but when I made to move Stockington’s body, he motioned for me to leave it. I supposed he was right- we wouldn’t have time to deal with it now.
“What does he mean fingerprints?” I gasped, as Mark raced around the room grabbing the biggest bags he could find.
“Don’t you remember? We weren’t wearing gloves when we did the kid. We didn’t plan for him,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“What do we do?” I asked, trying not to let my voice shake.
“What do you think?” he replied, holding a bag out to me. “Start packing. I wanna be out of here before sunrise. We’ve taken care of him now, but he still could’ve gotten a warning out about us earlier.”
I did as I was told.
I should have stopped. I should have screamed at him that this was all his fault, that he had turned me into an utter monster. I should have just turned myself in.
Maybe an hour later we were all packed up and ready to load the car. After slinging our bags into the backseat, we climbed in and Mark started the engine. The sound of helicopter blades chopping through the air approaching fast stopped us dead in our seats before Mark could even put it in “drive”.
“MARK STRAITHAM AND CHRIS PAUL, YOU ARE SURROUNDED! DROP ANY WEAPONS YOU MIGHT POSSESS AND COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP! SURRENDER NOW AND NO ONE WILL GET HURT!” came the booming, tinny voice from the loudspeaker on the helicopter.
I risked a peak out the back window and found that there were, indeed, several members of some CO19 division crouched in the bushes behind headquarters with all their guns trained right on us. I turned back around.
Then the negotiator took a turn. He must have been using a megaphone from one of the Specialist Firearms Command. As he reiterated exactly what the helicopter agent had said, Mark and I tried to reason out what to do next.
“How bad would it be to just do what they, to just surrender?” I asked, timidly.
“It would be worse than death, because there’s no wa- Wait a minute, that’s it!” Mark cried, turning to me and gripping me by the shoulders.
“What?” My voice sounded so small compared to all the noise coming from outside.
“We’re not surrendering. We’re not going to prison.” Mark’s wide eyes looked manic, and I was slightly worried they’d bore a hole into my face soon.
“We’re going to go down in a blaze of glory,” he said, like it was the most natural thing in the world.
And for some reason, I thought it was.
But before I could tell him so, he squeezed my shoulders even tighter and stared deep into my eyes.
“Chris, being on the job with you made me feel alive. It’ll be a pleasure to die by your side,” he practically whispered, unblinking.
The negotiator had moved on to babbling about the reasons we should choose to do what was right and be honorable and all that, but I could hardly hear him with the blood pounding in my ears the way it was. When I looked Mark square in the eyes the last time, I saw that pride sparkling back at me. And then he stepped out of the car and pulled his gun. He didn’t even get a shot off before a sniper felled him with a single bullet to the chest.
I pulled my gun, too, and stepped from the car. I realized too late that my gun was empty. I tried to load it, but felt a searing pain in my leg and dropped both my gun and the ammo. I managed to see Detective Stockington holster his weapon and I knew he’d gotten me.
When I hit the ground, I was still breathing, but everything sounded as if I were under water. The negotiator must’ve seized control of the situation, because I could just barely make out his fuzzy orders to the unit to get me to a doctor. I heard the flurry of heavy boots as the team rushed toward me, though I was concentrating far more on the effort it was taking to drag myself around the car and leaving a trail of blood in the dirt. I needed to see Mark, just one last time. And that’s when I began to cry
I could see from my position on the floor that all the light had gone out of Mark’s eyes. The father figure I had waited so longer and had finally found was gone. The CO19 officers must’ve seen it, too, because they focused all their attention on me. When they discovered my shallow breathing, they hoisted me up and bustled me into the back of an ambulance.
My chances of survival couldn’t have been good. They kept sticking me with things and asking me to stay awake, but they had to have known I was not going to make it. The lights began to dim in my field of vision. I didn’t fight it.
I should’ve fought harder. I should’ve run from that building and begged them to lock me up. I should’ve known Mark would leave me, too, in the end. There were a lot of things I should have done. Maybe if I’d done them, I wouldn’t be in so much pain now. I wouldn’t have to live with myself, this pathetic excuse for a man.
“Build a city,” Oliver said, “Paradise City! And what a paradise it will be!” I should not have believed him.
Asia El Rayan has written numerous short stories, articles and interviews in newspapers and magazines all over the world. She has been a member of the short story club in Cairo (Egypt) since 1982, and a member of the Dutch-based El Hizjra Literature Club since 1998. Rami el Harayri has written several screenplays for award-winning short fiction films, including Landscape of the Elderly (2012), Never Too Late (2014) and Damp Soil (2015). Never Too Late received a Silver Remi Award at the WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival in 2015.