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Agent Cooper was casually reviewing the legendary police report of the only LA mass murderer that had not been identified and captured. The alias attributed to the killer was scribbled at the top of the file sheet: The Phantom. It struck Cooper as a clichéd title, but given the description of his crimes, no one laughed when the name was brought into conversation.
The Phantom was unique (though that could be said of all killers) in one fact; he never failed to write a letter addressed to the police for each victim. Cooper removed the latest one. It read:
To my pursuers,
I find that with each passing day you seem farther from finding me…It’s disappointing, frankly. I’m waiting for someone to prove that you aren’t all failures. Don’t let me down this time.
P.S. I’m growing bored with my name…can you think of something new?
The rookie frowned before placing the letter back with the file. He then moved the entire folder back into the cabinet. The Phantom was the whole reason he had joined the police force; every agent dreamed of being the one to take down the b****** that was terrorizing not just the metropolis but the entire country. And yet, the dream of being a hero faded as different cases took priority; the other men and women who had hoped to stop the Phantom rarely thought of him until a new victim was discovered. Cooper, however, checked the file regularly, as if he might divine some new information no one else had already painstakingly reviewed and absorbed.
A knock sounded from behind him, shattering his thoughts. Cooper turned to see Detective Grung leaning against the doorframe; he was flushed and there was a film of sweat around his forehead. “We’ve got a new body,” he whispered, and the agent knew that the Phantom had left his mark once more.
“Where?” Cooper asked, grabbing his coat.
Grung stopped him. “You won’t need it,” he grunted.
* * *
The latest victim was slumped against the outer door of the police station. As Cooper stepped out and around he saw a small crowd gathering; some tourists were pulling out cameras and snapping photos. Grung frowned and motioned towards them. “Glenn, get them out of here. This is a crime scene now and the last thing I want is news coverage.” The agent obeyed and began moving to the onlookers.
He waved an arm, signaling dispersal. “Move along!” he shouted. “This is police business! If anyone stays they’ll be brought in on charges of loitering.” It was a bluff, but no tourist wanted to take a chance, and the locals knew enough to leave when told to.
As Cooper turned to face the crime scene again, he heard a couple of tourists mutter about the lack of clarity their pictures had. The rookie turned back to the steps of the station, where Dr. Henson and his team were already carting the body through the door. Grung motioned for him to step forward. “The face was covered by a ski mask. Henson won’t remove it until they get the body back to autopsy. The eyes were visible at least; black, with a deep scar running from the right cheek back into the scalp.”
“How could you tell?”
“The mask had a slash in the fabric where the gash was cut,” Grung said, tracing the path of the dead man’s scar, using his own face as a canvas. Both policemen reentered the station. “He’s escalating, Glenn. I didn’t even know that that was possible for him. But dropping his latest victim on the police’s own steps? That son-of-a-b**** is too cocky.”
Dr. Henson and his team of interns were preparing the body for an autopsy two days from the doctor’s retirement. He had served as coroner and medical examiner for well over fifty years, and was becoming increasingly anxious to rid himself of The Phantom’s looming presence over his autopsy room. Every other new victim seemed to have met his or her fate at the hands of L.A.’s resident ghost.
The first order of business would be prepping his medical staff for the autopsy. He warned them about the usual extent of damage that The Phantom left in his wake, that they shouldn’t be surprised to find that there might not be enough of a face left to identify the body. When Henson was satisfied that his team could handle the trauma they were about to witness, he asked for silence. “Since we do not have any identification, this man will simply be referred to as John Doe,” he said to no one and everyone. Cautiously, the doctor stepped toward the body and began removing pieces of clothing, saving the mask for last. Once every other fiber was stripped from the deceased, Dr. Henson reached for the ski mask…
…only to see the eyes fly open as the dead man grabbed the doctor’s arm. Henson fought against the grip but to no avail; the zombie used his free arm to latch onto Dr. Henson’s neck and pull him down to the table, swinging his own body up as he did so. The poor medical examiner stopped the fall with his forehead, and blood began trickling into his eyes and mouth. He watched, helpless, as the John Doe began murdering the interns, one after another in a sickening waltz. No one was left standing but the killer, and he slowly began redressing his naked form.
Dr. Henson began pulling himself over to a dropped scalpel, determined to kill the deceiver before it could cause any more suffering. Ignorant of the good doctor’s intentions, the John Doe took Henson’s own overcoat and slid it over its large frame. It then plucked the doctor’s fedora from the hat rack and placed it on top of the ski mask, completing a look that even then, broken and dying, Dr. Henson knew would become the new face of The Phantom. Not wanting to end in such a wretched manner, LA’s finest medical examiner raised the scalpel and embedded it deep into the ghost’s leg.
The Phantom turned and tilted his head at Dr. Henson’s presence and pitiful attempt at retribution. He slowly lowered himself, removed the knife, and then ran it through Dr. Henson’s heart. Two days from retirement, the good doctor thought as the blood pooled around his body, an ersatz blanket for an ersatz deathbed.
Glenn Cooper wasn’t prepared for the chaos. Men and women from the station were fleeing in all directions, and anyone armed was being posted in different locations. All Cooper had been able to catch from the mouths of passersby was that a John Doe had risen from the dead and was working his way into the open air, killing anyone in his way.
And so, being the dutiful policeman that he was, Agent Cooper drew his weapon and began stalking the now abandoned hallways for any signs of the antagonist. The station had been completely evacuated by now, and everything was eerily still and deathly silent, save for the slight buzz of lights overhead. He rounded one corner, then another: left, left, right, left, right, left, until he was lost within a maze that had once been used to protect the public, and would forever more stand as a monument of fear. There were bodies of men and women Glenn had seen and spoken to only hours before littering the halls, their blood drawn out along the lengths of each wall. In the window of two hours, a mass murderer had forever scarred a place of justice. And he might actually walk away with no repercussions.
It was with that thought that Cooper finally saw The Phantom. He had rounded a corner to find the beast waiting at the other end, as if he had known all along that his worthy adversary would turn at that exact corner. The Phantom reached one gloved hand up to his fedora and tipped it, then said, “Good afternoon.”
“Freeze!” Cooper shouted, holding up his pistol.
The Phantom chuckled. “What an interesting thing to shout.”
Cooper didn’t waver, keeping his arm level with The Phantom’s head. “Get down on the ground! Hands behind your head!”
The monster at first seemed to acquiesce, but as Cooper neared he pulled out a concealed pistol and shot three consecutive rounds into the agent. The last thought Cooper had consisted of being dragged by the collar of his uniform.
“Wake up,” said the devil.
Cooper cracked open an eye to the face (or lack thereof) of The Phantom, gazing intently from the holes of his ski mask. He still wore the brown overcoat and fedora, even though wherever they were had no access to the outside world. “What have you done to me?” he rasped.
The Phantom didn’t answer, but instead threw a newspaper onto Cooper’s lap. He quickly read the headline: MR. DOE AKA THE PHANTOM ESCAPES L.A. POLICE STATION WITH NO TRACES. The agent met The Phantom’s, Mr. Doe’s, eyes. “I’ve received a new moniker,” he stated jovially.
“Where are we?”
“We are in one of my many properties. I’ve gathered a vast grouping of ‘undesirable’ business structures over the years. This, however, is my oldest one.”
“You’re going to kill me now?”
Mr. Doe laughed. “No. I’m using you for an experiment, and need you alive for the course of this month. Your essence would be no good to me destroyed.”
“What experiment?” Cooper tried to move, but found he was chained to a chair, arms tied behind his back.
“You’ll see soon enough,” Mr. Doe responded, turning to leave. Cooper watched him limp off to the left, where a large frame stood open, pouring in fresh light. As Mr. Doe closed the garage door, the light was lost to the world, stranding Glenn Cooper in utter darkness.
There was no sense of time in the dark, and Mr. Doe didn’t return for a long stretch of time. At first, Cooper thought he would go mad from the lack of clarity in his prison, but soon decided that dwelling on such things solved nothing.
Water spilled on him from the ceiling three times, minutes or hours or days apart. The first splash hit Cooper before he could understand why it was there, and hadn’t realized it was a gift for him until every drop had fallen. He then prepared himself for the next drop, if there would even be one. It did come though, and by the third one, he had the catching down to a science.
One time the door to his dwelling was slid open, pouring in light that stung his eyes. Mr. Doe strolled in, using a cane for support and carrying a metal chair. He set it in front of Cooper and took a seat. “We’re going to have a discussion today,” he informed Cooper evenly.
“You don’t have a choice. Even if you don’t respond, this conversation will happen.” Cooper didn’t answer, so Mr. Doe kept to his word. “Evil is an unopposed force,” he stated.
“Evil is opposed by good,” Cooper blurted out before he could stop himself.
“Wrong. Good is the opposite of Bad. Just like Wrong is the opposite of Right. Just and Unjust, God and Satan, Pure and Stained, each of these has a balance. But Evil? Evil is simply Evil, without any counterbalance.”
“There are people who stop Evil. They are a counterbalance.”
“They are nothing more than deterrence. Evil still continues and is not negated by their actions. You once attempted to stop Evil, and look at where you are now.” He paused, gauging Cooper’s reaction. “Although I must admit that it was a good effort. You attempted to hold to your rendition of justice and apprehend me in a manner that suits the moral code of humanity. And for that, I applaud you.” His hands came together three times, faux claps as an example.
Cooper breathed heavily. “If Evil was unopposed, it would already have control over the world.”
“Who’s to say that it doesn’t? For all the parades and fireworks of life, there are the explosions and genocides to go along with them. They are just swept into the corner, where they can fester and grow while the ‘good people’ turn an ignorant eye and pretend that their lives are not in danger of being overturned by the very heinous feeling they seek to suppress.”
“You’re insane,” Cooper wheezed.
“Ah, an opinion. You’re in danger of straying into territory we are not ready for. Just for today, we stay with the subject of Evil.” Mr. Doe leaned back in his chair. It groaned slightly under his weight. “To dissect this base instinct, we must first decide upon the correct origin. You may say Pandora unleashed it, or Eve, but in the end, both stories reveal that they are the same; metaphorically, Evil was unleashed by humanity. Can you comprehend this?”
“There’s no point in this conversation. I’m going to die.”
“It’s that defeatist attitude that will kill you, Agent Cooper. You get to live if you participate. There’s a meal in it for you, and I assume food is a priority for someone chained to one location.” Cooper imagined Mr. Doe smiling under his ski mask. “Tell me why you attempted to keep me at bay in the police station.
Driven by hunger, Cooper answered, “Because you are a criminal wanted in accordance with a string of murders and killing sprees.”
“Don’t regurgitate what my police file says about me! I want you to say exactly what drove you back into the station after already being outdoors and safe, what simple urge led you to my location and kept you from escaping. Explain it!”
Cooper sighed and took in a deep breath. “I wanted to kill you myself.”
“Because I became obsessed with your case. You were the only spree killer and mass murderer that the police were no closer to stopping than day one. I…wanted to…”
“…prove yourself,” Mr. Doe finished quietly. “There was something inside you that whispered praise if only you could kill the infamous Phantom.” He said it neither accusingly nor with triumph, but merely as if he understood and sympathized.
Cooper shook free the thought that a murderer might have bonded with him. “What does that have to do with Evil?”
At first it seemed as though Mr. Doe hadn’t heard him, as he stood up and began limping back to the frame of light. He paused before exiting however, and said, just loud enough for Glenn to hear, “The whispered praise you heard? It was driven by pride, and greed, and those are Evil’s apparent offspring. Everyone is Evil, Agent Cooper; the manifestation just varies from one to the next.”
Just as was promised, Glenn was rewarded with food for participating in Mr. Doe’s conversation. It was dropped from the ceiling in the fashion of the water, and luckily Glenn was able to catch each morsel on his tongue: mashed potatoes, corn, and roast beef. It struck the policeman that he was being tended to the way zoo animals were. He wanted to contest the crude manner in which he was fed, but found that it wouldn’t matter. Food is food, after all, no matter how it is consumed.
Was this another test, though? To accept food no matter how it was given to prove that a human could be broken and trained to obey, given the right circumstances? He decided that he could fail one test and give Mr. Doe some sick satisfaction so long as he received energy of any form.
Mr. Doe, once again, did not return for a long time. During the imposed solitude, Glenn reflected on any means of escape from his nightmare. The killer had left no means of plausible escape though, and Cooper’s only hope became the idea that someone had to be looking for him.
Once, Glenn heard banshees shrieking in a continuous echo through his prison cell. It was high-pitched, a female child’s wails, and as suddenly as it started (when it had stirred Glenn from a few precious minutes of sleep) it ceased with a gurgling noise that faded into nothing. Cooper had never met nor seen the girl, and now he never would, but in those moments he felt a connection to the child that transcended all other fickle relationships he had shared with other humans. Glenn realized rather ruefully that true bonds are formed in the presence of horror, when both humans are at their lowest and have nothing to hide from each other. And he knew that after this the little girl would follow him for the rest of his life and then to his grave, just as he would have done for her had their positions been reversed.
It was only a little while after this that Mr. Doe reentered. Again he took a seat in front of Glenn. “Today we talk about how Evil is only an opinion.”
“You killed a girl,” Cooper accused, spitting at Mr. Doe’s feet.
And Cooper had no answer for him that would suit the cross examination. “The last time you said that Evil was a real thing.”
“That conversation has no bearing on this one. They are two separate discussions, and you would be advised to disregard the first one for the time being. Although it is in your best interest to remember both, as they are equally important.”
Glenn scrunched his eyelids together. “Why is Evil an opinion?”
“I’d like to give you an example for an answer. When a new piece of art is unveiled for a museum, it is either deemed phenomenal or trash. But who is to say what it is? Who has the authority to judge it so carelessly? Spectacular pieces of art are only spectacular because mass opinion says that they are. Do you see?”
“You’re saying that what we think is evil is only evil because the majority of people say it is.”
“Exactly,” Mr. Doe responded, pointing a finger at Glenn. “Morality is just a majority opinion. What if seventy percent of humans said that slitting the throats of those who bothered you was acceptable? Would it still be ‘morally’ wrong?”
“You’re biased on the subject. And that’s because Good and Bad is a subjective design. It is based on opinion and tradition. What our parents said was wrong, we said was wrong. All of this is just a line, Agent Cooper, which continues to grow until we’re only mindlessly following the mindless. I instead chose to branch off, to sever the line and think differently. Should I be punished?”
“Whether or not Evil is just mass opinion, it is still what’s considered Evil. So yes, you should be punished.”
He paused, mulling over the statement. “That’s a fine point, Mr. Cooper. So we’ll switch gears. Do you think Evil is learned or inherent? That is to say, are we born Evil, or do we become it through experience?”
“It’s like Nature versus Nurture.”
“I suppose it is. But that does not answer my question. What I implore you to consider is this: if a killer like myself is born Evil, then can we really be held accountable for our actions? If I was born this way, then how could I truly overcome what I was essentially created to do? On the other hand, had I been raised in an Evil environment, then what hope was there ever for me to rise above the circumstances and become an acceptable member of society? I suppose then that it isn’t truly ‘on the other hand’ as I stated. Both events lead to the same end. It is not so much Nature versus Nurture as it is Nature and Nurture, both circumstances working together to acquit me of any wrongdoings, as the blame can be placed on either situation and more than expected would be. But regardless of whether they both lead to the same end, my question is this: which one is the true birthplace of Evil?”
Cooper genuinely thought about his answer. “I think it’s different for different people. Some people might have gained it inherently, but others might have been forced to it through circumstance.”
“Assuming, of course, that Evil is a naturally occurring circumstance.”
Mr. Doe stood and began to leave, but Cooper stopped him. “I have to know something.” His captor turned back and fixed a cool gaze on Glenn. “Why do you wear the mask?”
And for the first time, Mr. Doe’s demeanor changed from his usual lightheartedness to something much graver. “Because my face is my own. If I were to expose my face to the air, then my features would become open to scrutiny by the public.” He sighed, as if truly weary. “As a public figure, everything about me is unrestricted knowledge. My work, the way I conduct my personal business, how I exist day-to-day are all out there in the world and readily accessible by any fool within walking-distance of a library or the Internet.” He turned around and began to leave once again. “I wear the mask, Mr. Cooper, because my face is the last part of me that belongs to only me.”
More time elapsed after the second discussion; in fact, it was longer than his first two waits combined. He was fed a total of seven times, watered a total of twelve. Screams would echo once in awhile, but by then Cooper had learned to shut them out. His reserve was wearing, and during the second conversation it had become increasingly difficult to defend his opinions against Mr. Doe.
Mr. Doe had said that he was conducting an experiment, with Glenn as the test subject. But what possible experiment included mind games and physical torture? None as far as Cooper could think.
After more waiting, Mr. Doe finally came back to sit in his metal chair. “This will be our final discussion,” he informed Cooper.
“What will it be about?”
“I’d like to tell you a story. Four days ago I came across a beautiful young girl while walking through the streets. She smiled at me, and I lifted my head and smiled back. Later, I followed her back to her home and watched as she entered through the back door that she carelessly forgot to bolt behind her. I remained there for an entire night until the girl left in the morning. When she was gone I entered through the unlocked door and eased my way upstairs. I proceeded to brutally kill both of her parents with a knife and then place the bodies on the bed as if they were merely sleeping and the wounds had occurred naturally, leaving behind a note from myself on the pillows. Today I discovered while reading through the news that the same girl was now in a mental institution after brutally attacking her best friend. What caused her to break? Her friend had apparently mentioned getting a new pillow for her bed.” Mr. Doe leaned in. “The discussion for today is this: if I can play God, what is there to stop me from turning anyone into an unstable monster?”
Cooper’s mouth was dry; the graphic details, the grotesque murders, a girl with her life ahead of her cut down; and all because she had decided to be polite in a world so full of misery. “It’s not supposed to be like that,” he whispered.
Glenn Cooper raised his head to match Mr. Doe’s gaze. There was a space of time where their eyes locked, and when both knew what would happen next. The chains holding Glenn back were suddenly as thin as paper, and he tore through them, ignoring the sting of fresh blood on his arms. Mr. Doe didn’t react as Glenn tackled him to the ground. His hands gripped the mass murderer’s neck and he saw the life begin to leave Mr. Doe’s eyes. It wasn’t seeping out fast enough, though, and in a moment of clarity, Cooper thought that maybe, just maybe, seeing the demon’s real face would weaken the brutal beast enough to kill it and finally end its terror over the country. He clenched the mask and managed to rip it free, revealing a flash of grey in the hair and the hideous snake scar that stretched the length of Mr. Doe’s face.
The glory was short lived, especially when Mr. Doe threw Cooper off of him and onto the chair, which broke under the force. “Don’t ever look at my face!” Mr. Doe bellowed, unleashing his might upon Cooper’s own face.
Suddenly there was a loud bang. Mr. Doe removed himself from Cooper’s body with the agility of a jungle cat, and the latter watched through the eye that wasn’t swollen as the zoo keeper carefully fixed his mask back into place, and then the fedora. Glenn turned his attention to see what had caused the noise. A woman was standing at the opposite end of the warehouse, a pistol trained on Mr. Doe’s head. “Freeze!” she shouted.
Mr. Doe had limped easily to the safety of his garage door and the blinding whiteness behind it, having regained his aloofness, and spun now to face the woman. He tipped the fedora once. “Another time, perhaps.” And with those last words, Mr. Doe disappeared into the light. From somewhere within the glow, Glenn heard a click, and moments later explosives detonated around the frame, successfully sealing off Mr. Doe from any hopes of pursuance.
The woman knelt down beside Cooper. Her hand brushed his forehead. “It’s alright now, Agent Cooper. You’re going to be just fine.”
No, he thought apathetically, I’m not. I’ll never be fine again…I almost killed a man in cold blood…and I actually enjoyed the feeling of his life in my hands…
Sickened, Glenn Cooper thought, Mr. Doe was right…we are all monsters inside these bodies.