Date: August 19th 2027 Time: 1:31 PM.
Location: District Court – Courtroom No. 4.
It took a long while for the missing spectators to return to their seats. Some refused to enter the courtroom until the badgers had been removed. Phoenix couldn’t blame them for feeling that way, but at the same time, he felt bad for the animatronics- the kids- the entities in question. It wasn’t their fault they’d been turned into walking monstrosities. Sure enough, once they’d been moved into the defendant lobby to ‘wait’, the gallery slowly filled up again. Widget had been returned to Athena, but she refused to wear it. Maybe it needed a good cleaning first.
When the trial finally continued, everyone still looked shaky. Even Blackquill.
“Whew. Well, that was… Well.” The judge was playing with his gavel in an antsy manner, seemingly needing something to do with his hands. “I can’t say I saw any of that coming. I’m still not sure if I fully understand the situation.”
Phoenix shook his head. It was a slow, solemn gesture. “I think that by now, we have enough shreds of information to piece this tragic tale together, Your Honor. …For one, I don’t doubt that the testimony of the kids was truthful. It all started in June, when they broke into the workshop to see the animatronics up close, but had the misfortune of being caught by Mark Genta. A stickler for protocol and rules, Genta had a bad habit of scolding colleagues and park guests alike. Sad as it is to say, the kids got him riled up to the point where he must’ve lost his temper and acted on that frustration.”
It was grisly, really, to imagine that something like that could happen right under everyone’s noses. Back when the disappearance of the children first appeared in the news, Phoenix hadn’t put too much thought into the details. Hadn’t attempted to imagine where or how misfortune could strike kids in a place that was swarming with people. This was how. A security guard on a power trip and a bit of rule-breaking in a place that was meant to be off-limits.
“This is only speculation, but I believe that afterwards he may have done exactly what the prosecution was accusing my client of; hiding the bodies in a blind panic. The animatronics themselves were the only things present in the workshop that could serve such a purpose, and there was no way he could take them out into broad daylight to find an alternative. There was a security camera right outside the door, after all. Ironically, I was told by Detective Fulbright that the reason Gatewater Land switched to animatronics is because someone hid a body inside a mascot suit eight years ago. Maybe that’s where Genta got some of his inspiration too.”
“That’s terrible…” Athena hung her head, one hand idly rubbing at her eyes. “Did he really think he was going to get away with that? I mean, someone would’ve figured it out eventually, right?”
“Mmh, I have no doubt that he planned to move the bodies as soon as possible, but I’ll bet the park was already crawling with police that very same day. And then, as Mr. Butz testified, the security policies changed because of the incident. There were at least five guards walking around during the day and two of them during the night. With one of them having to stay behind in the office and watch the cameras at all times, Genta’s hands were tied. The badgers’ torsos are fully sealed, which would’ve created a sort of vacuum to keep the bodies from decaying, but things couldn’t stay like that forever and he knew it. In the meantime, he made sure to work as many shifts as possible and do all the animatronic maintenance on his own, perhaps desperate that someone else might open them up and discover his horrible secret. A few months passed and that’s when he was really driven into a corner. The Gatewater Group allowed a spirit medium to try and channel the spirits of the kids he’d murdered. I’m sure this is why he was present in person, keeping a close eye on the proceedings. He must’ve had some sort of plan to intervene, should the children’s spirits threaten to expose him as the killer.”
“You mean… He would’ve killed the spirit medium too?” the judge guessed, causing the entirety of the gallery to gasp. Phoenix cast a glance sideways to see Pearls covering her open mouth with both hands and Maya looking almost offended.
“I don’t think so, no. There would’ve been far too many witnesses, what with all the parents in the room. It would’ve been something simpler. Triggering the fire alarm, maybe. Either way, whatever backup plan he had, he didn’t need to resort to it. The channeling appeared to be a failure and everyone left the workshop, not realizing the spirits had hidden themselves inside the very animatronics which held their old bodies. Still, this must’ve been the final straw for Genta, who set a plan in motion to dispose of the evidence. He was scheduled to run the night shift with Larry Butz, a colleague notorious for 'loafing off instead of doing his job’. In fact, I suspect he may have already known about Mr. Butz’s tendency to take naps while he was out on patrol. It was the perfect opportunity to move the bodies. He headed to the workshop and as we know, he changed the animatronics’ settings to have them walk towards the docks, then freeze. My theory is that he planned to open them up over there. That way, he could drop the bodies in the water and return the animatronics before his patrol was even over.”
“Hang on…” the judge cut across him. “What about the security camera footage? Even if Mr. Butz was asleep, all the recordings go on archive. Someone could’ve gone back and checked.”
Hm. Good point. The judge was sharper than Phoenix gave him credit for, sometimes. He mulled it over for a moment, but the answer was really quite simple. “I suppose he planned to tamper with the footage, or maybe even delete it. The chances of someone realizing there were a few minutes of a seemingly random night missing were close to zero. Imagine his surprise when he realized it wasn’t a seemingly random night. Instead of the animatronics heeding his commands, they turned on him and 'brought him to justice’, so to speak, leaving my client to discover the body once they were done with it.”
“A truly chilling tale… Does the prosecution have any objections to this theory?”
Blackquill couldn’t manage much more than a stiff shake of the head. It seemed like this turn of events had left the man utterly speechless. No more morbid jokes, death threats or sword metaphors. That was one good thing to come from all this tragedy. Even Fulbright looked uncharacteristically solemn.
“I see. Well then… It seems we can’t prosecute anyone for what happened. Both the man who killed four innocent children and the children who killed him in turn are… well, dead. As for the defendant, it’s clear he had nothing to do with any of this. That’s why I’m ready to announce my verdict.” The judge raised his gavel and slammed it down one last time. “Not guilty.”
Larry’s name was cleared, but there was no confetti this time. Nobody cheered. What a depressing ending to a depressing trial.
Date: April 2nd 2028 Time: 9:28 AM.
Location: Gatewater Land – Main Gate.
April. It was the start of theme park season. Gatewater Land’s grand opening of the year. Truthfully, Phoenix hadn’t paid too much attention to that sort of thing. Not until he got an invitation from one Larry Butz to meet with him in the park. Larry, who miraculously hadn’t been fired from his job after the trial in August. In fact, he’d insisted that he had more work to do than ever, which Phoenix found very hard to believe. Following the scandal involving the badgers, Gatewater Land had closed its doors- gate, to be precise- to the public immediately. A 'reorganization’, or so the staff had called it. Phoenix had rather hoped they wouldn’t open the gate at all anymore, but here they were.
Gatewater Land’s grand revival for 2028.
He wasn’t the only one to receive Larry’s invitation. The entire Wright Anything Agency was standing by just beside the main entrance, along with their two favorite spirit mediums: Maya and Pearls. Finally, there was one more person. It’d been over three months since the UR-1 retrial, but it was still hard to believe that Simon Blackquill was a free man. Phoenix would be content to limit their encounters to the courtroom. Sadly, it wasn’t up to him. Athena had invited Blackquill along in another one of her fierce attempts to get him to 'socialize’. On the one hand, it’d worked. On the other hand, Phoenix had to question whether engaging in a debate on the Steel Samurai with Maya could count as socializing.
Most of their group looked uneasy to be here. That was only natural; the gruesome tale that’d unfolded last summer had soured the park for them. Apparently, Pearl had had trouble falling asleep for weeks. Phoenix could sympathize; it’d been the same for him. He didn’t even want to think about what the Gatewater Group had done with the fully mobile animatronics after everything was said and done. Maya had exorcised the spirits from them, of course. Convinced them to return to the afterlife, so the bodies could be retrieved from within and given a proper burial. …Hopefully, the animatronics themselves were destroyed with fire or something equally terminal.
Much as Larry had invited them, they still needed to pay for their own tickets. Which meant that Phoenix needed to pay for their tickets. Blackquill, at least, had the decency to take his entry fee out of his own wallet, but he was the only one. With himself, Apollo, Athena, Trucy, Maya and Pearls, that came down to a lot of money to be in a park that held bad memories for all of them. This had better be worth it.
Oddly enough- or perhaps not oddly at all- other visitors didn’t seem to share their sentiments. Gatewater Land was more crowded than Phoenix had ever seen it. There were so many excited people making their way inside, he had to wonder if they were being paid to be here and pretend to have a good time.
“Nick! NIIIIICK!!! There you are! Finally!” Larry came rushing towards them, muscling his way through a whole horde of innocent bystanders. He looked remarkably like his usual self; careless and reckless. To complete the ensemble, he was once again wearing his security guard uniform. “Hey guys! Glad to see you all could make it!”
His gaze swept across their group, then came to a sudden halt when he met Blackquill’s eyes. Apparently, nobody had told him that the prosecutor who tried to have him convicted for murder would be joining them. There was a moment of awkward silence where Larry looked like a deer who was caught in headlights and might crack under pressure. Then Blackquill breathed a loud “hmph”, breaking him out of his alarm again.
“What’s this all about, Larry?” Phoenix asked loudly, hoping to draw his friend’s attention towards himself before something very blunt could slip out of Larry’s mouth.
“What’s it all about? More like what’s it not about?!” was the reply, which only served to fuel more curiosity. “See all these people? That’s a lot of expectations we have to live up to. I’m hoping we really nailed the atmosphere, so I want you guys to have one of the first runs and tell me what you think. If you’ve got feedback, you have to tell me after you’re done, okay? It’s not too late to tweak some stuff.”
“… What stuff?”
Larry went from surprised to offended so fast that he might’ve sprained a facial muscle or two. “What stuff?! Nick! Haven’t you been keeping up with the news?!”
Phoenix shrugged helplessly.
“Oh, c'mon, it was all over Gatewater Land’s Tweeter page! Theme park enthusiasts have been blogging about it for months! Maya knows what I’m talking about, right Maya?”
“Err… Sorry, Larry.” Maya shook her head, one of the few within their group to have the decency to look apologetic about it. “To be honest, Pearls and I hadn’t thought about Gatewater Land until you contacted us.”
“So… None of you know?” Larry cast one last desperate glance at everyone, apparently willing them to read his mind. It was to no avail. It seemed that everyone had been actively avoiding news about the theme park until now. A moment of silence, then Larry pulled himself together again. “Boy, are you guys gonna be surprised! Here, come with me! We’ll go see it right now!”
“Go see what, exactly?”
“The new haunted house, of course!”
Date: April 2nd 2028 Time: 9:28 AM.
Location: Gatewater Land – Purple Badger’s Panic.
When Larry had described it as the 'new haunted house’, Phoenix had already felt his stomach give an uncomfortable churn. It’d been a feeling of dread that’d only worsened when Larry led them towards what was actually the old haunted house. After a man had died in there (…again), the park had hastily torn most of it down, only to replace it with something new. Something that Larry had refused to describe to them until they got there.
For once, being friends with a security guard had paid off. Using Larry’s loud shouts of “move aside, VIPs coming through!” they’d made their way past a very, very long queue of people, all of whom had shot looks of contempt at them. Then, at last, they’d made it to the haunted house. On the outside, the appearance was remarkably like the old one. The only indication that it was something new were two particular eyesores. The first was a sign above the door that read Purple Badger’s Panic. The second was an animatronic situated in a glass booth right by the entrance.
A purple badger. A purple badger clutching a nightstick, a security guard’s badge pinned to its chest. Phoenix felt a little bit of his faith in humanity wither at the sight of it.
“Isn’t it great?” Larry proclaimed with no lack of pride.
“Great isn’t the word I’d use for it,” Athena said through clenched teeth. Widget had turned yellow with dismay, adding a loud “More like disturbing.”
“I feel awful just looking at it…” Pearls added, sidling closer to Maya in an attempt to seek comfort.
Phoenix drew a long breath through his nose before asking what was probably on everyone’s mind. “Is that what I think it is?”
“It’s the Purple Badger! He’s the villain in the new badger spin-off series, the Badger Kids!”
… And there went another shred of Phoenix’s faith in humanity. Dead, just like that. He sighed and turned his attention back to the Purple Badger. The lifelessness in its eyes reminded him of Genta’s own back when that man was still alive. What if the hauntings weren’t over? What if spirits could still form ties with animatronics without even needing Maya to call them? The thought alone was enough to have him shiver. …Well, at least this monstrosity was stuck in a glass booth. No way for it to escape. Probably. Hopefully.
“Uncanny resemblance, right?” Larry asked, nudging Phoenix’s upper arm with his elbow. “He’s got a catchphrase too. Waaait for iiit.”
So they waited. Sure enough, after ten seconds had passed, the badger raised the hand holding the nightstick and tilted its head backwards. “Authorized personnel only…!”
Pearl recoiled so badly that she almost tripped over Trucy, the two of them colliding with an awkward thump. If she were eight years younger, she probably would’ve burst into tears. Meanwhile, Blackquill looked ready to smash a fist through the glass and break the animatronic into little pieces.
“I’m surprised it’s not called the Nasty Badger,” Phoenix found himself muttering. The memory that Genta’s colleagues had already decided on a badger nickname for him before he was murdered was hard to shake.
“Nick, please. Don’t be so disrespectful. A guy died,” Larry hissed back at him.
Once the initial horror had ebbed away, most of them were once again giving the haunted house a leery stare. There had to be more to this thing than met the eye. If it was built from the ashes of that awful incident last year, who knew what kind of horrors could be waiting inside? Ultimately, Athena was the one to voice that morbid curiosity out loud.
“So… What’s Purple Badger’s Panic?” she asked in a tone of voice that was more timid than usual.
“It’s only the greatest thing ever!” Larry insisted, which Phoenix found very hard to believe. “You make your way through the house and as you do, you see the Badger Kids getting up to all sorts of mischief as they try to avoid getting caught by the Purple Badger. There’s lots of jumpscares, so people with heart conditions aren’t allowed inside. When you reach the end…- Well, I’m not gonna spoil it for you guys.”
It seemed to Phoenix like this whole attraction was already spoiled. Spoiled in the same way that milk spoils, anyway. What a horrifying way to turn gruesome deaths into a cash cow. At the rate this was going, he wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing got itself a movie adaptation.
“There’s really a new spin-off series?” Maya actually looked mildly intrigued at the concept. “What does that mean for the Red Badger?”
“His adventures are over, of course. The Red Badger’s totally out of fashion! He had a good run, but nobody cares about his international investigations anymore. The Badger Kids are the next big hit! They appeal to people of all ages, because kids can relate to them and adults can appreciate the mature undertones that are hidden in their tales. Besides, that incident with Genta caught the attention of everyone who’s into horror stories, so you can bet they’ll be interested too!” Larry pressed an illustrated pamphlet into Maya’s hand. It depicted four small, spunky, colorful badgers. “Their stories are gonna be released as picture books and guess who’s in charge of the whole thing?”
Suddenly, this whole disturbing story became crystal clear. Phoenix would’ve accused the police department and the Gatewater Group of milking tragedy for all it was worth, but if something smells…
“You don’t mean…” he began, but he couldn’t quite find the right words.
“That’s right! Laurice Deauxnim is back, baby! These Badger Kids are my return ticket to fame!”
“So you can go see that girlfriend of yours in Italy?”
“Who, Jezebel? Naw, she’s ancient history. We broke up after the murder trial last year. Suits me just fine! Now I can focus all my time and effort on the Badger Kids.”
“Figures. And the police department’s really okay with this?”
“Are you kidding? They basically begged me to help them out with developing this story! I even got the stamp of approval from Dick Gumshoe himself!” Larry laughed loudly and beside him, the Purple Badger once again spouted his catchphrase. “…Hey, speaking of which, what happened to that detective guy with the sunglasses? He’s a big badger fan, right? I kinda expected him to be first in line.”
Just like that, half their group suffered another turnabout for the grave. In fact, Blackquill promptly turned away, which didn’t do much to hide his cringe from view. As for Athena, she visibly deflated. Apollo was pointedly staring at the long queue of people waiting to enter the house and Trucy cleared her throat loudly. If Larry really had been that busy developing the Badger Kids, they couldn’t blame him for not knowing about what’d happened during the trial in December, but that didn’t stop the wave of awkwardness that washed over them. One thing was true, Detective Fulbright would’ve been first in line for this.
“Errr. Touchy subject?” Larry guessed, because not even he could remain oblivious to their responses.
“Something like that.” Phoenix waved a hand and hastily changed the subject. “So who wants to go get some snacks?”
“Oh no you don’t!” Larry grabbed him by the shoulder before he could even turn around. “I invite you guys to see our new pride and joy, and you just walk away? I don’t think so! You’re going inside!”
Hah. Even with his fear of heights, Phoenix would sooner ride the ferris wheel ten times in a row than enter this house of hauntedly bad taste. At least he could take comfort in the fact that he wasn’t the only one who despised the prospect. There was a collective groan of dismay from their entire group. Even Blackquill looked dispirited.
Unfortunately for them, Larry’s determination and indignation were hard to combat. A few failed objections later, the whole lot of them was being guided into the house. Phoenix took his steps with such extreme reluctance, it felt like his shoes were filled with lead. He’d have to make sure to stick close to Pearls and Trucy so he could cover their eyes at the right moments. The last thing he needed was for them- or him- to get plagued with nightmares again. He’d do the same for Athena, but Blackquill seemed to have already taken that task upon himself. Must’ve been nice to have a huge, intimidating would-be samurai for a bodyguard.
Just as he passed by the Purple Badger, the animatronic once again sprang into motion and the words 'authorized personnel only’ continued to haunt Phoenix’s mind long after he was out of earshot.