the uncanny tale of "the question"
Lightning lit up the night sky as the sirens danced with the booming thunders. The engines stopped revving in front of a seemingly abandoned barn house. “Proceed with caution, suspect is said to be armed and dangerous, shoot to kill.” “Sir?” “Good men follow orders, officer. I suggest you take this man seriously, for you own sake.” Usually, the captain would try to boost the team’s spirit but the case at hand was something that required him to order with a cold voice expressing sheer ruthlessness. “How many lives? How many people must suffer for our own incompetency?”, he asked himself. He was preparing another speech already to ensure the police are doing their best but it simply was not enough. Suddenly, the radio crackled “Sir?” he leaped towards the receptor, “SPIT IT OUT! TELL ME YOU TOOK HIM DOWN!” He received silence as a reply. Silence that spoke more than the words of encouragement that he had bombarded at Lusitania City’s finest. He gasped for breath. Everyone could hear his shaking breath over the comms but no one dared to raise their voice. “What do we do with the body?” One of the rookies asked their senior officer. The officer scratched his head and said with a defeated tone, “Get it to the coroner.” “You have to tell me there’s more, we already did it for all the other victims. No traces.” The officer covered his face and said “…..and pray.” If only they knew about their captain who breathed his final breaths looking at the man responsible for this anarchy. Lightning crackled and the captain saw the face of his murderer. His eyes widened as he recognized the face in an instant. In disbelief, he mumbled, “…you?1”
3 DAYS LATER……
The phone ringed with enthusiasm as it could not recall the last time someone had dialed the deserted number. Its owner, however, was rather displeased. Reluctantly, he picked up the phone and said in a mocking voice “Are you here to shame me again ’cause I am far from being interested.” The woman on the other line was rather surprised. She stammered and said, “Sir, this is the insurance company-“ “Oh look! Still not interested. Goodbye.” Saying this he hung up the phone and returned to drafting an email. He was going to be kicked off the force soon. The police could not afford a near 60 year old detective on the field but the man had a stomach to feed. He was applying to fast food services, retail, anything that would let him die with a whole heart and a full stomach before reuniting with his wife. He started reminiscing about his glory days and how he had become nothing but an insult to his past self. His thoughts were interrupted by another phone call. He grumbled and said “Must be a particularly bad day.” He picked up the phone and was greeted by a familiar voice, “’Ello, pal.” “You dare dial this number?!” “Look, I don’t take any pleasure in it either. Its just that…..” the man sighed before continuing “….boss man’s dead, Max. Last night. Calculated move.” Max might have been senile and full of untamed rage but he always had a soft spot for the captain, for he was the first friend he made on the force. “You’re invited to the funeral. I know we don’t see eye to eye but think about it.” Max hung up and ran his palm over his bald head. He pushed his chair backwards and rode it towards a shelf protected by a glass pane. A badge shone at him, the one engraved with the once prestigious Lusitania Police Department.
At the funeral, Max slowly walked towards the coffin to say his goodbyes. He wanted to cry but it felt as if he had used them up already. He bent down and whispered, “I came with my badge…..” he snickered “….you never allowed me to part with it. ‘you will find the courage to return’ you said. I thought this was the day, but” he opened the pocket of his friend’s coat and slowly rested the badge. “This is where it belongs. I’m sorry, old friend.” He turned his back on the coffin and started trotting to exit the room. He felt suffocated but he convinced himself to have one last look. His voice broke as he murmured “Forgive me but I am not the one who can give you justice.” He closed the door behind him and started making his way to the garden. He pulled out a cigarette to ease his nerves but a calm voice said, “Overcast.” He quickly turned around to find a very unfamiliar face. “We have an overcast today. Unless you like your cigarette wet, I wouldn’t prefer lighting one. Waste of many you know” Max took in a few deep breaths and said “I swear to god I would have blown your head off.” “With a pistol with no bullets?” Max was caught off guard “i- how did you know?” “Your pistol isn’t cocked, safety is on and the barrel is facing the sky. As far as I know, that’s your style of saying “unarmed but still dangerous”. Oh and the pistol is loosely placed in case you need to throw it.” “Wow! You are good!” the man took a few breaths of relief and said with pure enthusiasm, “Oh my god! Maxwell Graham complimented me! Uh sir I am a huge fan!” Max liked the appreciation and he laughed with the man “That is great. Thank you I am honoured.” “No, sir. The pleasure is all mine.” They laughed a bit more but slowly, silence prevailed. Seizing the opportunity at hand, Max placed his gun in the man’s mouth and shuffled into an alleyway. “WHO ARE YOU?! YOU HAVE 20 SECONDS.” The man struggled to speak but he didn’t dare to draft up a negotiation at gunpoint. Max removed the gun from his mouth and placed it on his head. “Not loaded but I can shove it down your throat if you don’t speak!” “My name is Grant Rubenberg. Transfer from San Somanto City. I came here for 6 months to learn from you!” tension filled the atmosphere as Max slowly started to back away. “I need your ID.” Grant gestured towards his back pocket. Max placed his gun back in its place and said, “At ease.” Grant was unsure about turning around to meet the eyes of the ruthless detective. “C’mon now. No need to be a wimp.” Grant turned around slowly and Max whispered “You are an enforcer of justice, kid. The second you don this uniform and that badge, you become a different person and that person needs to learn that surrender is never an option.” “Understood, sir.” “You wanna work with me?” Grant nodded calmly in order to not offend Max “Well, you better drop the formal salutations then. In the eyes of Justice, you and I are equals.” Grant gave a clumsy smile in reply as Max gestured him to walk with him. “So, what do you know about-“ “ The question?” Grant was riding a high tide but Max’s glare was enough to shoot him down. Max never enjoyed being interrupted. As much he wanted to discipline the kid, he allowed it to slide as he found the excitement justifiable. Max took out his handy notepad and started to write down every little detail of the crime scenes linked to his mystery man. Grant stammered for a second after he peered into the note pad to see how dedicated Max was to the case. “Sir, with all due respect, why waste your breath on something like this? Someone so insignificant. I am sure the department would crack the case eventually.” “You really think that I want to do this? I am least bothered by him and his elaborately schemed murders.” “Then why risk your life? For the people who abandoned you.” Max sighed and quickly dried the one tear that had escaped its chamber “To avenge the one who didn’t.”
It was fascinating for Max to see one man bring the entire police force down to its knees. Patience and a good plan can do wonders. He opened the last case file while his partner observed astutely. In a grave and serious tone, he asked “You have went through 42 case files. How are you not sick already.” “I have seen worse, kid.” Grant scoffed and rolled his eyes. “There are going to be 3 more murders. I just need to find out how they’re all linked to each other.” “They don’t have to be.” “We aren’t dealing with a psychopath here. There’s always a pattern with this sort of people.” “And why 45 murders in total?” “The weapons used to carry out this spree were all banned in 1945. Now I did think it was a mere coincidence but all of the victims were born in 1945 as well. Something about this man isn’t adding up.” “Aren’t you concerned about yourself? You were born during that cursed year too right?” “Kid, I am a man who has outstayed his welcome. If I die while bringing scum like him to justice, I would be fine with it.” Grant shook his head in reply.
The car door closed with a booming sound as Grant started bolting towards the crime scene, tearing through the police tapes. “Hey woah woah woah! Who are you? You are not allowed in here!” screamed a guard as he rushed past him but Grant barely had time to tackle any sort of irrelevancy. He rushed through the hoards of police men and feel clumsily at the feet of his mentor. He looked up and he didn’t waste a single breath as he blurted, “I KNOW WHO DIES NEXT!” Max looked away and with a heavy heart he said, “We have lost too many people.” Grant was confused at this sudden remark. “What? What do you mean?” “Captain shut us down, kid. The captain suggests stopping the man hunt.” “Tell me you beg to differ.” “He isn’t wrong, you know.” Grant couldn’t believe what his mentor had just said. In pure shock he said, “So, just let the other two die right? Just let two innocent people pay the price for your rigidness! Of course the captain would love you to cooperate. Afterall, he was the only officer who wasn’t participating in this wild goose chase when our former captain was murdered.” Grant slapped the dust off of his coat and started to walk off when the guard caught up to him. “You are going to regret making me run after you, kid.” Grant equipped a polite tone and said, “You are right. Arrest me…..” he looked back to have a glance at his ‘hero’ and continued “…..I am no less than an accomplice to murder.” With bridges burning like a forest fire, he walked out in hopes of investigating the upcoming murders by himself.
Anger and frustration had clouded Grant’s judgement to an unprecedented extent. His blood boiled thinking about Max, how could he idolize someone who is willing to sacrifice innocent people to catch a few extra minutes of nap time. He drove as far away from the scene as possible but he couldn’t get the thought of his mentor turning his back on the world out of his head. Suddenly, something clicked. Something cleared the fog and he could see the picture clearly. His mumbles of disappointment were replaced by an awkward silence that indicated the calm before the storm. He turned the car around as fast he could, almost drifting and crashing into a pole. The havoc that the stunt caused on the street was not even close to being his primary concern. He pulled into the parking lot recklessly and rushed into the police precinct. He rushed into the captain’s office to find him conversing with Maxwell. While gasping for air he said, “Detective Maxwell Graham, you are under arrest for spying on a fellow detective without proposing them as a suspect and for large scale manslaughter.” Maxwell started protesting but Grant ignored him and continued reading his rights to him. The disastrous argument went on for another minute and then the captain decided that he had heard enough. “SILENCE!” he screamed and the debaters fell silent. “Grant, I need to talk to you. Maxwell, leave.” “bu-“ “I DON’T BELIEVE I STUTURRED! GET OUT!” The captains irrational behaviour shocked them both but Maxwell agreed to leave. Maxwell waited outside patiently. 15 minutes. Then half an hour. Then an hour but no sign of an end to the conversation. Eventually, Max fell asleep. His brain couldn’t handle such stress especially at his age. Even his trustworthy cup of coffee couldn’t help that. Finally, Max noticed Grant stomp out of the room, untamed rage in his eyes but Maxwell needed to know the reason behind his betrayal. Maxwell kept on inquiring and Grant had to express how heart broken he felt by the actions of his idol. “You turned your back on this city. The department did their job. Your ego was just too much for them to handle.” Grant slowly shuffled into his car and rolled down the window to add insult to injury “You call that psychopath, ‘scum’? What good are you?”
The hot-headed rookie spent a week following the next victim, stalking him and noting down his every move. He wasn’t going to allow another life to be taken. He was spying on him from across the road when the man took a sharp turn into an alley. Noticing this, Grant quickly started his engine to follow him but he started feeling uncomfortable. Like someone was breathing on his neck. He slowly inched towards his pistol and as soon as he grabbed it he turned around and opened fire. Nothing. Nothing but a few pieces of glass and a rear window hanging on by its last thread. His breath started shaking so he rolled down the window to catch his breath. Little did he know that someone was waiting for him to do exactly that. As soon as he thrusted his head out of the car, everything went dark. Felt as if someone pulled his plug, one sting and he was shut down. He woke up in a dark place, a cabin in the middle of nowhere. He was startled by the distorted breaths of his abductee. He slowly walked in front of him and under the unsteady light bulb, Grant saw “the question”, in the flesh. A trench coat with animal fur covering the collars. His face bandaged up completely leaving space only for his eyes and nose. His words were difficult to decipher as the last minute costume didn’t have an opening for the mouth but his defining feature had to be the question mark on his face. Was it red paint? Was it blood? Grant couldn’t afford to think about these questions as he feared his life might be in the balance. The Question lifted the poor detective up and tossed him around like a ragdoll. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?!” he screamed but the voice was still distorted. Grant was shocked as he instantly recognized the voice. “I should’ve known it was you. Calling off the manhunt since me and Max were getting too close. Your outburst at the office after I started arguing with Max. Tell me. How does it feel to be an unhinged psychopath…..” he narrowed his eyes and continued “….captain?”
Meanwhile, at Max’s apartment, he was busy staring off into space unaware of the perilous journey that his former partner had taken. He started to feel the adrenaline drain out of his body once again, a feeling he didn’t realize he would miss so dearly. He threw the case files on the floor, unable to bear the fact that he abandoned the people he swore to protect. He pulled out the antennas of his trusty radio, in hopes of solving one last case before preparing himself to meet his late wife. The radio started to make static noises but he was determined to not leave his seat this time. He waited for a few minutes but the lack of active crime reports shocked him. The city hadn’t been that peaceful in the last 30 years. He started to shake the radio and slapping it. He just couldn’t believe this. Suddenly, he heard it. A few words, indecipherable. He pressed his ear against the radio and quickly realized that the static noise was nothing but a microphone brushing against a piece of cloth. After discovering this revelation, he started paying more attention. He heard a familiar voice. “Christ! It’s Grant!” he thought to himself. Grant’s shaky breaths made the old timer even more worried. Then, like the moon in the night sky, the following words entered the old man’s ears in a crystal clear manner. “How does it feel to be a criminal, captain?” and with those words, the link was disrupted. He quickly stood up and started to lean into the wall. He slowly slid down, unable to catch his breath. He was feeling too many emotions at once but mostly ruled by disbelief. “How could I let this happen?” “How did I not realize this earlier?” “Is it my fault that Grant is dead?” too many questions clouded his mind. In time, his motive became clear. The cruel feelings of anger and revenge made it obvious to him what his goal should be. He quickly transmitted the radio frequency to the precinct in hopes of a pin point location. While he waited, he thought to himself about how well he had taught his protégé. How he made him understand that one man is not enough for any sort of mission and that simple cooperation can do wonders. It had done wonders, they were now closer than ever to taking down The Question for good. Soon, the results returned and he knew exactly where to look for his mystery man but frustration clouded his judgement. Bringing the police meant that someone else could take his kill and he wanted to bring down his colleague all by himself. He rushed to his car with all the ammunition that he could find. He didn’t just want The Question dead, he wanted him to be blown to kingdom come. After a successful race against the clock, Max reached his destination to end this once and for all. He went in cautiously but could hear screams made of pure agony. “Grant must be alive!” he said to himself as he could feel a rush of relief in his veins. However, he couldn’t let this news affect his focus. Even if his partner was alive, he would be under immense pain to scream in such a way. The objective was still clear, killing The Question and putting an end to his tyranny. He slowly started to take steps towards the source of the sound and there he was in all his glory. The Question, standing over Grant who could barely breathe due to the beating he had received. His abuser slowly brought forth a shiny object. Max’s eyesight had betrayed him when he needed it the most. The emptiness of the cave allowed the reloading and cocking of the “shiny object” to be heard wide and clear. “I don’t know how I am going to get out of this mess but I am taking you with me!” screamed the culprit with his finger an inch away from the trigger. BLAM! The sound echoed sharply followed by a scream that depicted agonizing pain. The Question found himself with a bullet hole in his hand. Max was old but he grew up on tense moments as such where even a second can change the course of the game. The Question snarled and looked up to have a look at the face of his assaulter. “YOU! I should’ve known you’d be into this!” screamed the maniac while threatening Max with his gun. Max started firing like a mad man, hoping to god his frail old fingers would pull the trigger right for once. Much to his disappointment, The Question didn’t have to take a single step to dodge the bullets. “My turn.” Said The Question with his characteristic grin. To an extent, Max was ready to die. He had done enough good in life to die happily but he believed that his wife wouldn’t even want his coffin to be situated next to hers if he accepted death when he could’ve saved a life. In a split second, Max tackled The Question, making the pistol go flying out of his hand. They wrestled and got a few punches in after every other minute but it was obvious that the frail man was far from gaining the upper hand. Max was a formidable opponent but he lost his breath easily. Seizing the opportunity, The Question landed a powerful uppercut to knock out his opponent but he was far from being done. He dragged the man across the floor leaving a bloody trail behind and he thrusted his head through a wall. He did it once. Twice. Again and again and again until and unless his colleague’s head exploded. One last blow and Max would’ve breathed his last. The antagonist took his footing and gloriously started to push the defeated cop’s head forward with all his might when suddenly he heard a sharp noise. The Question started to encounter a sudden shortness of breath, something the adrenaline pumping in his veins couldn’t make up for. He looked down to blood dripping from a tiny hole in his stomach. “No.” he said weakly as he fell to his knees. Max couldn’t register what had happened, his ears were ringing and everything seemed hazy to him but he could make out one thing, a hand. He tried to focus more and saw the face of his protégé. “I have got you, partner.” Said Grant slowly. He was oblivious to the fact that Max couldn’t hear him properly, he was just too tired to care. Arguably, he seemed to be in worse shape than his mentor. He slowly laid down in his arms and handed him The Question’s pistol. “I believe it is your job to finish him.” He said before passing out in his mentor’s arms. “Mentor” did I say? Forgive me, but I feel like he would’ve seen him nothing short of a father figure. Max sobbed holding his partner’s deceased body dearly. In time, the sobs turned into wails. The Question returned to his senses. He smiled looking at what he had accomplished. He knew he was going to die but he just couldn’t let go of such a perfect opportunity to mock the grieving detective. “Yeah! That’s right! Cry! But you can’t change the fact that SCUM like him deserve to be buried 6 feet beneath the-“ Max didn’t need these accusations, what he needed was the picture of The Question with a bullet in his head and that he was able to fulfil. Not for himself, but for the person who didn’t lose faith in him when he lost faith in himself.
2 MONTHS LATER……
“With great pride, I call upon the stage, Mr. Maxwell Graham for his exemplary efforts in taking down the greatest threat the city had ever faced.” Said the mayor with visible pride in his eyes. Maxwell walked up on the stage with such energy that it left the crowd completely stunned. “Maxwell, I bestow upon you this medal of valour. The mic is all yours.” Said the mayor stepping aside. Maxwell cleared his throat and started looking at his flashcards. He scrolled through them for a while and with a sigh he whispered to himself, “Not today.” He looked at the audience and continued. “There’s an empty seat in the crowd today. I saw many people being infuriated by the fact that they couldn’t seat themselves there. Why? Because no one could recognize the name. I always wanted to be a poet, I used to idolize William Wordsworth but there was this one quote of his that never sat well with me, “The world is beautiful and worth fighting for.” That empty seat belongs to the man who made me agree with the second part. In truth, we are all going to be empty seats. You will be remembered for what? A year? A decade if you’re lucky? These pieces of metal shouldn’t be your goal in life. Your goal should be to inspire others, doesn’t matter if its just one person. Live to inspire…….” Max zoned out and his eyes focused on the empty seat screaming in bold letters, DET. GRANT RUBENBERG “…..and in death, your legacy will be carried on. Thank you.”
He returned to his humble abode to relax himself, he hadn’t really moved past the loss of his friend. He changed into his night clothes to hopefully fall asleep ignoring all the guilt that would haunt him every second when his doorbell started ringing out of the blue. He painstakingly got out of bed and treaded towards the door. He swung it open to be greeted by a gust of cold wind. He searched down the hallway but couldn’t find anyone. He turned around to go back and cursed these wretched pranksters when his foot brushed against something. A piece of paper. A letter. He picked it up ever so delicately and brought it inside with him. He sat on his couch and opened it to find a dusty VHS tape. He carefully placed it in his recorder and suspected that it was from someone he knew. Who else would use VHS in this era? After quite a wait, the video booted up with the bold title of “The one case you couldn’t solve” written in black and white. This intrigued Max, perhaps it wasn’t a prank after all. He leaned forward to pay close attention as the horrifying video began playing. It skipped through 41 frames which Max caught instantly. He rewound the video and played it again frame by frame. Each of them showing the aftermath of what looked like a rabid beast’s attack but something didn’t feel right. Something felt….familiar. As soon as the 42nd frame began, he realized exactly what it was. “The Question murders.” He said to himself. Then he saw it all. A man walking into the former captain’s office and dropping a cyanide tablet in his coffee, his back turned to the camera, sporting a trench coat. The screen went static and started playing a new scene. Drugging the captain and carrying him off as Max was busy sleeping. The screen went static again and started filming The Question torturing the captain and dressing him up as himself in what seemed to be a garage. The scene finally ended with the real villain locking the dress up villain in his dicky. Max got down on the ground and crawled towards the television set to have a closer look as he couldn’t believe his eyes. The screen went static and all he could see was his own reflection. The screen lit up again with the final seconds of the tape and there he was, the mastermind behind it all. Grant Rubenburg, styling his hair and wiping the blood off of his face looking at the rear view mirror. Then he looked directly into the camera and said “Checkmate.” With a natural charismatic smirk that fooled Lusitania’s finest with ease. The screen went dark with only a red painted question mark being displayed and Max savoured the last drop of tear that rolled down his cheek as he saw the same deadly smirk in the reflection of the screen.
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