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Five Nights of Turnabout

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Date: August 17th 2027 Time: 9:13 AM.
Location: Wright Anything Agency.

Over the past eight years, Phoenix Wright had continued to stay in touch with his two favorite spirit mediums. Badge or no badge, adopted daughter or no adopted daughter, grape juice or no grape juice,  he could never forget just how much the Feys meant to him. Pearl had come to visit from time to time, Maya had come to visit only about once a year. The life of the new Master of Kurain was a busy one and Maya had been determined to perfect her skills. To use them to help people, just as Phoenix had helped people in court.

Less than a month ago, Phoenix Wright had come across Pearl Fey at the Shipshape Aquarium. She’d once again proven to be an indispensable assistant of sorts and now that he had his badge back, cracking a case with her had been filled with bittersweet nostalgia.

Now it was August and he was greeted by the sight of not one, but two Feys waiting for him in his office. Maya’s brown eyes honed in on him the moment he walked through the door. She was wearing the same sort of robes as she always wore, her long hair still adorned with a small bun. The only difference between then and now was that she looked just a bit more graceful. A bit more defined. Pearl was standing by her side, hands clasped together, looking positively delighted at the reunion. It was a picture that he could barely process.

As soon as he entered the room, there was a synchronized cry of “NIIIICK” and within seconds, he had two young women pulling him into a hug. Somehow, their reunions always turned increasingly more dramatic whenever Maya was involved. Eight years had passed, but she was still the same girl at heart. He doubted she would ever change. He wouldn’t want her to.

He’d known they would be coming today, though he hadn’t expected them to be here this early. They always enjoyed walking to the Wright Anything Agency from the nearest train station and somehow they were always a good hour off from their expected time of arrival, either for better or for worse.

“Look at you!” Maya exclaimed when she finally backed out of the hug. Her gaze sweeped up and down his appearance with a wide smirk, then she punched him on the arm. “Finally back in the fancy blues, huh? When Pearls told me about how you cleaned yourself up, I didn’t want to believe it, but here you are. I’ve gotta say, that old hoodie won’t be missed. Or the hat. Or the five o’ clock shadow. …Wow, lining it all up like that, you really let yourself go for a while, didn’t you?”

Oh, that was right. Maya hadn’t changed over the past eight years, yet Phoenix had. After losing his badge, he’d changed for the worse, only to revert back to his former self once Apollo Justice had cleared a path to the truth. The Dark Age of the Law wasn’t over yet, but this was a start.

He chuckled, running a hand past the back of his head. “It’s nice to see you too, Maya. Pearls.”

“Mr. Nick. Thank you for allowing us to stay here for a few days.” Pearl dove into a polite bow that Phoenix literally waved away.

“Hey, don’t mention it! I’m just glad you two are finally taking a proper vacation.”

“It’s not a vacation, Nick! Not yet, anyway,” Maya huffed, her cheeks puffing up with indignation. “I told you, we’re going to Gatewater Land on official Kurain business! Once that’s done, we’re going for the Badger Burgers and once that’s done, we’re on vacation.”

Phoenix chuckled again. It was true that when Maya had sent him a letter last week, she’d mentioned some sort of business to attend in Gatewater Land. However, he’d assumed that it was simply an excuse to leave Kurain Village and visit the theme park with Pearl again. When was the last time they’d even gone there together? Eight years ago, he supposed, just before he’d lost his badge. They’d taken one of the rowboats onto the lake outside the park and Phoenix had fallen into the freezing cold water.

Good times.

“So what is this official Kurain business, anyway?” he asked, because the more he thought about it, the less sense it made. What did spirit channeling have to do with a theme park sponsored by the police department? Was she hoping to exorcise ghosts in the haunted house? If so, she’d be sorely disappointed.

Maya’s expression turned quite a bit more solemn and she began digging through her pockets. “It’s… Uhm. Here, read this.”

A newspaper clipping was pressed into Phoenix’s hand. The headline was far more grim than anything he could’ve imagined. Then again, he vaguely remembered hearing about this a few months ago. It’d been all over the news for a while. Kids Vanish At Local Theme Park. Bodies Not Found. He didn’t need to read the rest of the article. It was full of speculation.

“Oh… The missing children? That happened back in June, didn’t it?” Phoenix tried to give the clipping back to her, but she waved a hand at him, indicating he could keep it. He wasn’t about to say no to that. If there was anything he’d learned since the start of his attorney career, it was to hold onto everything for at least a week, just in case.

“That’s right. There were four of them in all. The police never found out what happened. That’s why the parents turned to spirit channeling instead. …They just want closure.”

“If anyone can reach those kids, it’s Mystic Maya!” Pearl chimed in, her eyes betraying a bit of sadness despite her proud smile.

“Don’t you usually channel spirits in Kurain Village? I mean, you guys have a special channeling chamber and everything.”

“Well… That’s the problem. I tried to channel them in Kurain, but I couldn’t reach them.” Maya pressed a hand against the side of her face, looking thoughtful. “Sometimes, when a person has a strong attachment to the place where they died, their spirit won’t want to leave it. That’s why even the strongest spirit mediums will sometimes have to travel to that location for the summoning. Besides, which kid would ever want to leave Gatewater Land? Staying there forever and ever seems like a dream come true, doesn’t it?”

Phoenix felt a chill run up his spine at the prospect. Suddenly, exorcising the haunted house didn’t seem quite so farfetched anymore. “So you’re meeting with the parents in the park to attempt another channeling? Right in the middle of all those people?”

“Don’t be silly, Nick. The park’s letting us use one of the back rooms. The Gatewater Group wants this mystery solved just as badly as we do, you know. Once that’s over with, we can celebrate by going on all the rides!”

Just then, Trucy entered the office as well, carrying a plate of teacups. She smiled brightly and stepped over to the coffee table. “There you are, Daddy! Finally! It’s not nice to keep your guests waiting.”

“Haha, my bad. It’s a good thing I’ve got such a thoughtful daughter to play hostess while I’m away.”

Someone has to keep this place running!” Trucy said, sticking out her tongue in a teasing manner. “What time are we meeting Polly and Athena at the park again?”

“Not until eleven. We still have plenty of time to catch up.”

The group gathered around the coffee table as Trucy distributed the cups. Maya looked like she was just about to  remark on the absence of actual tea when Trucy whipped a pot of it out of her magic panties, eliciting some loud applause from the two Feys. That trick would never get old. Once everyone was provided with a steaming cup, Trucy took a seat next to Pearl and Phoenix realized that these two would no doubt attempt to combine their powers over the next few days. Trucy was always in search of a new mommy and Pearl was still convinced that he was Maya’s 'special someone’.

This was going to be an interesting vacation.

———————

Date: August 17th 2027 Time: 11:42 AM.
Location: Gatewater Land – Proto Badger’s Proto Workshop.

While Phoenix hadn’t taken Maya and Pearl to the local theme park for quite a few years, he had taken Trucy there almost every summer. He’d seen the park gradually develop and grow. He’d seen new rides appear while the old ones grew more worn by the year. Innovation would stop at nothing, not even the merchandising. Gift shops with Blue Badger toys were located at every corner. He’d never accuse the police department of being sell-outs, of course. Not out loud.

Maya had marveled at all the changes and buried her face in pamphlets the moment they walked through the gates, pointing out all the things that they should definitely experience once her channeling was over, from the indoor animatronic show to the new roller coaster, to the Bad Badger’s Bountiful Burger Stand. She’d even wanted to participate in the new and improved picture contest, up until Phoenix pointed out that they didn’t have a camera. Sure, most phones were equipped with that sort of thing nowadays, but he’d never trade in Ol’ Trusty. With how much it’d endured over the years, that phone was a legacy all on its own.

Luckily, the appearance of Apollo and Athena had drawn Maya’s attention away from forcing Phoenix to buy a camera for her. His two assistant lawyers had never heard too many stories about the great Master of Kurain, even if they’d no doubt come across her name in past case files. Perhaps that was why the both of them had looked a bit flustered to finally meet her in person. It’d only taken five minutes and a few anecdotes for them to realize that there was no need to be nervous at all. …Well, Phoenix supposed he didn’t mind being the butt of their jokes if it meant they could bond over it.

Before they knew it, it was nearing twelve o’ clock and Maya needed to start preparing for her channeling. Phoenix and the others decided to accompany her and Pearl to the back room that’d been reserved, where the parents would be waiting as well. A plan that’d seemed sound up until the point where they reached a small building known as the Proto Badger’s Proto Workshop and found their way barred by a security guard. A thoroughly unpleasant one. Phoenix couldn’t quite tell if this guy was tired or just plain lacking in manners. Either way, he was reminded of a tall, surly troll guarding a bridge. Definitely not the sort of guy to cross.

“Authorized personnel only,” the guard grumbled.

“My name is Maya Fey,” Maya replied with a bright smile, not at all deterred by the man’s attitude. She waved a hand at the rest of the group. “And these are my assistants. I was told to report here for the channeling?”

The guard’s gaze sweeped over them all and Phoenix felt another chill run up his spine at the sight of his dull eyes. A moment of silence, then he breathed a bit of a sniff and stood up even straighter, folding his arms behind his back. Apparently, this guy had some superiority issues. “…I was told you would only have one assistant present.”

“That’s Pearly! Don’t worry, I’m releasing the rest of them out into the wild.”

The lighthearted remark wasn’t enough to break through the guard’s bad temper. He simply grunted and stepped away from the door, which Phoenix interpreted as permission to enter. Honestly, this whole thing came off as unsettling. Then again, maybe that was because of several other incidents related to spirit channeling that Phoenix had experienced in the past. Maya’s parting words weren’t exactly helpful.

“We’ll meet up again later, okay? …Well, unless you hear hysterical screams coming from here. Then we’ll probably meet up in the detention center again like the good old days.” Maya snickered into her hand, but Phoenix was sure that his face reflected something else entirely and the moment she caught sight of that, her amusement died down again. “Nick, I’m kidding! Lighten up!”

“Sorry, it’s just… You know. Old memories die hard,” he muttered, and the next second he felt an explosion of pain on his arm where Pearl had punched him, causing him to stumble sideways. It never ceased to amaze him just how much force she could pack.

“You should have more faith in Mystic Maya! She’s the Master now!” the young girl insisted.

She had a point. Phoenix had spent most of his years since his disbarment pretending to play the piano without a real profession, but Maya? Maya had trained to be the very best, like no one ever was. She hoped to surpass her mother, the great Misty Fey. Phoenix was sure that some day, she would. There was no way anything would go wrong during the channeling.

“Right. You’re right, Pearls. Sorry.” He cleared his throat, then tried again. “Good luck, Maya.”

There was a buzz of murmuring from his fellow lawyers and Trucy, who all provided Maya with their own well-wishes. The last thing he heard from the Master of Kurain before she passed through the door with her cousin was the demand: “Don’t ride the Big Whoop rollercoaster without me!

———————

Date: August 17th 2027 Time: 12:34 PM.
Location: Gatewater Land – Ferris Wheel.

The ferris wheel. Trucy just had to insist on wanting to ride the ferris wheel. Every year, it was the same story. Every year, Phoenix had agreed out of fatherly love and spent roughly ten minutes fearing for his life almost a hundred feet up in the air. Every year, there was the cold sweat worse than any he could suffer in court. The Wheel of Torture, he’d jokingly dubbed it.

No more. Now that he had junior lawyers under his wing, he had patsies. Now Apollo was the one a hundred feet up in the air with Trucy, while Phoenix sat on a picnic bench staring up at them. These were the kind of fatherhood skills that made just a bit of pride swell in his chest. It was good for those two to do some bonding as siblings, even if they were still unaware of that fact. Meanwhile, Athena had been nice enough to wait on the ground with him, idly sipping lemonade through a straw. The Blue Badger’s theme song, which was playing non-stop through the speaker system, had basically become white noise by now.

Half an hour. It’d been over half an hour now since the channeling started. Had Maya been able to reach those kids yet? The Proto Badger’s Proto Workshop was halfway across the park. He wouldn’t be able to see her exit that place even if he wanted to. Maybe he should-

“Hey Nick! Fancy meeting you here!”

The familiar voice had Phoenix whirl around in his seat so fast that he nearly twisted some vital muscles in his neck. It seemed completely unbelievable, but there he was. Larry Butz, in the flesh. Much like Maya and Pearl, Phoenix hadn’t seen all too much of his old friend over the past years. Most of it wasn’t even his own fault. Laurice Deauxnim had been surprisingly popular for a while. Franzy’s Whippity Whip Trip, his first picture book, had captivated audiences worldwide after being misinterpreted as 'progressive, ironical satire’. Laurice had smelled fame and traveled the globe for a few years, drawing and promoting his new books until he’d been officially dubbed a 'has been’ by the art community.

Now he was right back where he started. Good old Larry, with his usual slouching demeanor and air of 'loser’. Phoenix liked him better this way.

“Larry! What’re you doing here?” he asked, even if he could already guess the answer. Larry was wearing a security guard uniform, after all.

“Is that any way to greet your old friend?” Larry crossed his arms over his chest, tilting his head with a frown. “How about you introduce me to your young lady friend instead? You didn’t adopt another teenage daughter, did you?”

Athena jumped to her feet before Phoenix could even open his mouth. She flashed the attorney’s badge on her lapel at Larry, not realizing she was teetering close to spilling her lemonade. “The name’s Athena Cykes! I’m a new junior attorney at the Wright Anything Agency! Enchanté!”

“…Buongiorno! The name’s Butz. Larry Butz.” The reply came with a wide grin and rosy cheeks. Larry was as easily charmed as ever, it seemed. Once that was done, he turned his attention back to Phoenix. “So this is one o’ those padawans you were talking about, huh? I hear the Wright Agency’s making a real comeback in the defense attorney world. About time, too. This Dark Side of the Law thing has gone on for way too long.”

“That’s not the only good news. I got my badge back last month,” Phoenix announced, realizing he’d forgotten to include Larry in the list of people he’d informed back then.

“You’re back in court? Seriously?! Nick, that’s great! Seems like we’re all going back to our roots, huh?”

It was surprising how something as simple as a thumbs up from Larry Butz could make Phoenix feel right at home again. Today was just full of nostalgia, wasn’t it? “No kidding. When’d you get back into the security scene?”

“A couple months ago. They wanted some extra people after the thing with the missing kids, so I figured this was my big chance at a comeback! Watching security screens is like riding a tricycle, you know. I’ve been working overtime like crazy, too. I have to save up enough money to go see my darling Jezebel in Italy. …I met her on my book tour. After hours, if you know what I mean.” Larry shot him a wink that was utterly unnecessary. Phoenix knew what he meant. “She’s totally crazy about me, Nick!”

…Yup. Some things never changed.

“Crazy is the right word for it, alright,” he muttered to himself.

Larry kept rambling as if he hadn’t just heard that, crossing his arms over his chest with a deep frown and an unfocused gaze. “The only trouble is, some of my colleagues aren’t exactly the bright rays of sunshine you’d hope for. Talk about a tense work atmosphere. I’ve got another night shift coming up with the Nasty Badger himself- that’s what some of us started calling him. He’s always got something to complain about. He’s a total workaholic too, so whenever I’m working overtime, I run into him again. What a pain… You know what I’m saying, Nick?”

“I think I can picture something,” Phoenix replied truthfully.

“Speak of the devil… Here he comes now.”

Phoenix turned his head to see a security guard pushing his way through the crowd. Not just any security guard, either. It was that guy who was standing by outside the Proto Badger’s Proto Workshop. Did that mean the channeling was over? It was no wonder Larry wasn’t looking forward to his next night shift. Phoenix likely couldn’t spend five minutes with an unpleasant guy like that, let alone six hours.

“I’ve gotta run before he starts another ten minute rant about how I’m wearing my tie backwards,” Larry made quite the impressive face before turning on the spot and preparing a sprint. “See you, Nick! Athena!”

It was amazing just how fast one man could run, especially in a crowded area like this one. Larry weaved his way through the masses with impressive ease and was out of sight within seconds. Athena let out a low whistle. As someone who was an avid pursuer of that elusive exercise known as 'jogging’, she would no doubt hope to reach Larry’s level some day.

Not long after, the 'Nasty Badger’ arrived on the scene, accompanied by none other than Maya and Pearl. What a sight for sore eyes those two were, especially in comparison to the guard towering over them.

“Hi guys!” the two Feys virtually sang in chorus, stepping so close to Phoenix and Athena that he was sure it was more of an attempt to get away from their chaperon.

“I see Butz is too busy loafing around to do his job again…” the guard grumbled, raising a hand to pull his cap further down over his eyes. “What a joke.”

Phoenix would hope that he hadn’t gotten Larry in trouble, but then… Larry always got himself in trouble either way. If something smells, one could surmise with good confidence that it was the Butz. Or, at the very least, that the Butz was somehow involved in the scenario.

Pearl turned to face the guard, lowering her head in a respectful bow. “Thank you for helping us find them, Mr. Genta.”

The guard gave one last half-hearted grunt, then lumbered off in the same direction Larry had chosen. Phoenix couldn’t say he was sorry to see him go. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one. Maya breathed a loud sigh by his side and Pearl started to shake her head.

“Feh… He’s finally gone. What a creep.” Maya made sure to wait until the guard was obscured by a crowd of people before sticking out her tongue at his retreating back. “I swear, the whole time I was trying to channel, I could feel his dead eyes watching me.”

“Well, he was just doing his job…” Pearl mumbled, even if she didn’t sound entirely convinced herself.

So that guard was present in the room during the channeling… Phoenix couldn’t help but wonder why. Was it to protect Maya from danger, or to protect the parents from any danger Maya might’ve posed if the channeling had gone wrong? Had Gatewater Land caught wind of the bad reputation channeling used to have and prepared accordingly? …Well, that wasn’t important now.

“So how did it go?” Athena asked, basically taking the words out of Phoenix’s mouth by doing so. “Did you manage to channel the kids?”

Maya’s huffy demeanor deflated again and she turned her gaze to the floor. “Well… No. I tried and I tried, but I couldn’t channel a single one of them. At one point, I could’ve sworn that I sensed them, but then the feeling slipped away again. …Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.”

It was painfully obvious that Maya was torn up about this second failure, and Phoenix couldn’t blame her. She wasn’t just doing this for the Kurain name. She was doing this for the parents, who needed closure. She was doing it for the kids, so their bodies could be found. Unless… There weren’t bodies to be found? Spirit mediums could never channel the living. Or maybe they were taken somewhere else to be murdered and their spirits were tied to that place instead. Or maybe… Maybe something was messing with Maya’s powers. Maybe the spirits were being channeled by someone else. There were so many rules and limitations to this technique, Phoenix could never make an educated guess.

Either way, Maya needed some cheering up.

“Hey… Did you want to hit up the burger place next?”

Right on cue, both Pearl and Athena whirled around to shoot two nasty glares his way. Glares that clearly said 'how could you be so inconsiderate?!’ Maya lifted her head just in time to spot them, her lips quirking into a meek smile. Those two may not have realized what Phoenix was doing, but Maya had realized it and was content to play along. That was the whole point.

“Of course! If we eat burgers now, we can have more burgers before we leave tonight!” Maya clapped her hands together in delight, then froze as if hit by a sudden realization. “…Oh, but the Badger Parade starts at one! We have to go find a good spot, or we won’t be able to see!”

“The Badger Parade?” Phoenix frowned. What was that again…? It sounded like something new. Maybe he should’ve had a look at the pamphlet when they entered the park.

“Geez Nick, don’t you know anything? It’s when the badgers walk through the main street! There’s a float and everything! The Badger Parade is the only chance you get to see the fully mobile animatronics in action. If we miss this, we’ll have to watch the indoor show with the lame old ones that can’t even bend their legs.”

“Oooh, fully mobile animatronics!” Now Athena was starting to look excited as well. “That’s so rare! I have to see this!”

Pearl sighed and hung her head, apparently giving up on the serious atmosphere. That was for the best. Focusing too much on the channeling wouldn’t help Maya any. They could always figure out a different strategy later. For now, they needed to enjoy Gatewater Land for what it was. There was a full day of family fun ahead of them. … Well, the second Apollo and Trucy rejoined them, anyway.

———————

Date: August 18th 2027 Time: 6:04 AM.
Location: Phoenix’s Bedroom.

Phoenix was having the oddest dream. …No, it was a nightmare, really. He was stuck in the ferris wheel with Maya, dangling far higher off the ground than the damn thing would ever allow in reality. He could feel the world spin and his legs struggled to keep him standing upright, even as Maya told him not to worry about it. In fact, she was nonchalantly eating a hamburger despite the way the ferris wheel’s cart creaked and swayed. Phoenix glanced downward and even though they were so very far from the ground, he could see Larry standing below, shouting at him that they should have it fixed in a jiffy. Larry, who was just a security guard and had no authority to make such wild claims. The 'Nasty Badger’ guard was standing right next to him to remind him of that fact.

Out of nowhere, Phoenix was struck by the sudden realization that Pearl must’ve been the one to sabotage the ferris wheel. That this was just another one of her matchmaker ploys. He decided to alert Larry and his fellow guard about this, but the men were gone. Maya was gone as well. Now it was just him and the ferris wheel. The height was dazzling and never-ending. He was going to die, wasn’t he? The Blue Badger’s theme music began to play over the cart’s speakers, but that wasn’t the only sound to reach his ears. Somewhere in the distance, some kids were laughing.

That’s when his ringtone broke through the dream to throw him a lifeline, allowing him to a way back into reality. It was a sluggish, disoriented kind of awakening. For a few seconds, he was utterly convinced that if he were to move too close to the side of his bed, he could still fall to his death. Then proper coherency reminded him how stupid that notion was and he slapped a hand onto his nightstand to grab his phone. …What time was it, even?

“'Ullo?” he asked in a hoarse grunt once he’d finally found the proper button to answer the call.

NIIICK!” the person on the other end of the line hollered with such ferocity that Phoenix had to move the phone away from his ear with a cringe. “You just couldn’t resist, could you?! I spent EIGHT YEARS free from stuff like this and the second you get your badge back, BAM! Did you curse me or what?! I’ll GET you for this!!!”

“… Who is this?”

“Don’t play stupid with me! Who do you think it is?! This is all part of your master plan, isn’t it?! Ruin poor old Larry’s life again! Just because I don’t have a kid and like… five sidekicks to feed doesn’t mean your career’s more important than mine!”

“Larry, it’s… It’s six in the morning. Can this wait?”

No! He’s dead, Nick! He ain’t gettin’ any deader!”

Those words were enough to wipe the remaining dredges of sleep from Phoenix’s mind. He sat up straight, something nasty and heavy making its way towards his stomach to settle there. “Calm down for a second, Larry. Who’s dead?”

Mark, man! Mark! Who else?!”

“I don’t…- Who?”

“Mark Genta! You know, the other guy on the night shift.”

The other guy on the night shift… The thoroughly unpleasant guard who’d supervised Maya’s channeling. Larry’s colleague. The 'Nasty Badger’. He was dead? But how? He was just fine yesterd- … Oh no. It was Larry who was calling him in a panic, so that could only mean one thing. Phoenix wasn’t sure how to broach that particular subject. He didn’t want to know the answer, even if it was painfully obvious.

“Larry… Where are you right now?”

“I’ll give a hint, it starts with D and ends with “-ention center”,” Larry said in a flat tone of voice, and Phoenix had to strain every muscle in his jaws to stop himself from saying 'dention center’ out loud. “You’d better get down here. This is your fault and if you don’t find a way to prove that I didn’t do it, I’ll come back to haunt you after they execute me!”


To Be Continued

Chapter Text

Date: August 18th 2027 Time: 7:26 AM.
Location: Detention Center.

It’d been a tough call between waking the others and allowing them to sleep a bit longer. If this was exactly what it sounded like, Phoenix had another defense case on his hands and he’d need to enlist one of his junior lawyers as assistant. Then again, maybe it was better for him to go on ahead and scout the situation, as it were. To get as much information as possible out of Larry, mano a mano, without the others getting his new client riled up even more. Knowing the Butz, he’d go out of his way to avoid being much help during this investigation.

Sure enough, Phoenix entered the visitor’s room by himself and there was Larry, on the other side of the glass. The man was still wearing his guard uniform, looking worse for wear. That wasn’t surprising. It must’ve been a crazy night. What also wasn’t surprising was the enraged look on Larry’s face.

“About time you got here! You think you can take it easy now that you’ve got another case?! I’m docking your pay! Consider it a personal favor from a friend to another friend!”

Considering Larry’s track record, Phoenix hadn’t been expecting to get paid at all. He decided not to breathe a word about that. Instead, he ignored Larry’s outburst for the moment and strode over to the chair to take a seat. Where should he even start? Someone was dead- again- and Larry had a tendency to explode whenever he felt cornered. …Well, some of the proverbial landmines would have to be stepped on either way.

“… So. How about you tell me what happened?”

Geez, Nick! What’s with that disappointed tone of voice?! You sound like my mother! Don’t tell me you think I did it?!” Larry blurted out, his hands clenching into fists.

“No. I don’t think you did it, but I can’t prove that unless you help me out and give me some information.”

“I don’t know what happened, Nick! Only the killer would know! Are you saying I’m the killer?!”

Phoenix drew a deep, calming breath through his nose. Somehow, Larry was even crabbier than usual. Maybe it was the night shift that was to blame. “Larry, please. Just tell me your side of the story.”

“Fine, fine.” Larry sat back in his own chair, still looking more than a little tense. “So I was on the night shift with Genta, right? And some time after three in the morning, I realized he wasn’t back from his patrol round. I tried getting in touch with him over the walkie talkie, but he wasn’t answering, so I went out into the park to find him. Must’ve spent a good fifteen minutes wandering around before I noticed the door to the haunted house was open. So I went inside and… And I found him.”

Once that was said, Larry went surprisingly quiet. Surprisingly grim. Stumbling upon a body was always an unpleasant experience. Phoenix had learned that lesson the hard way more than once. It’d be best not to press Larry on the details for now.

“Mark Genta, right?” he asked, hoping to steer the topic away from the crime scene with a gentle nudge. “Can you tell me a little more about him? Did anyone have a reason to kill him?”

Larry managed some sort of bitter chuckle. “Are you kidding? Genta was a piece of work, that’s for sure. A real stickler for protocol. At first, I thought he just had it out for me, but then it turned out nobody could stand him. It’s not just his colleagues, either. He’s gotten in trouble a couple times for starting fights with visitors who broke the park rules. …I heard that one time, he yelled at a diabetic who passed out while waiting to go on one of the roller coasters. The poor sap was 'needlessly holding up the line’, Genta insisted. Can you believe that?”

“…So what you’re saying is that everyone who’s ever set foot in Gatewater Land could have a grudge against this guy?” Phoenix could feel his confidence sink towards his shoes.

“Yup, that’s what I’m saying. The only reason they arrested me is because I was supposed to be the only other person in the park, I’m pretty sure.”

Great… So anyone could have a motive, but only Larry had the opportunity. That’s what the prosecution would claim, anyway. The first order of business once Phoenix got to Gatewater Land would be to find clues that someone else might’ve been there that night. Maybe the security cameras had caught something. Or maybe the security cameras had only caught the defendant and the victim. That’d be bad for his case, but it wouldn’t be the first time. …Speaking of which…

“No offense, Larry, but isn’t it a little strange that someone died on your watch? I mean, isn’t the whole point of a security guard to prevent that sort of thing?”

In hindsight, Phoenix really should’ve seen this coming. He shouldn’t have been surprised at all, yet he couldn’t quite stop himself from recoiling when several Psyche-locks sprang into being across Larry’s chest. Ominous red fixtures that held onto the secrets in his old friend’s heart. The magatama still hadn’t lost its touch.

Hey! Are you saying I wasn’t doing my job?!” Larry smacked his fists down on the counter again, his cheeks flushed with indignation. “I was watching the cameras the whole time! I saw nothing, you hear?!”

Hm. So either Larry had seen something, or there was a reason he’d seen nothing. It could go either way and at the moment, Phoenix didn’t have a single 'key’ to break those locks. He’d have to come back to the detention center later, once he had a better idea of what happened last night. In fact, he had learned virtually nothing from Larry. All he knew was that a guard had been murdered in the haunted house and the Butz was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There was no avoiding the question, now. “Larry… How did Genta die?”

It was at that exact moment that Larry began to choke up. He cringed, scrunched his eyes shut, ruffled his spiky hair with both hands and finally broke out into hysterical tears. Larry had always had a flair for dramatic reactions, but somehow, things were a little different this time. He pressed the palms of his hands up against his eyes, his voice reaching a whole new level of high-pitched.

“It was HORRIBLE! The WORST! I’m never gonna unsee that! I won’t be sleeping soundly for YEARS! Nobody deserved that- not even Genta! I feel sick just thinking about it! Don’t make me say it, Nick! It’s TOO MUCH!”

The outburst was so loud that even the guard turned his head to watch Larry with a curious expression. It was the first time Phoenix had ever seen anyone react quite like that to finding a body. To become upset was only natural, of course. Only human. It was obvious that Larry wasn’t going to breathe a word about the crime scene out loud, but that only fueled the curiosity. What on Earth happened to Mark Genta?

———————

Date: August 18th 2027 Time: 8:33 AM.
Location: Wright Anything Agency.

“Poor Larry…” Maya muttered to herself, once Phoenix had finished explaining the situation to everyone at the office.

“And poor Mr. Genta,” Pearl added, both her head and her hair ringlets drooping forward. “I can’t believe he passed away. We just met him yesterday.”

“Maybe Larry’s right, Nick. Maybe you did curse him with your attorney’s badge somehow.”

Me?! I can’t even manage a curse when I bump my toe on the nightstand!” Phoenix spluttered. Maya’s claim was totally ridiculous. There was no way he had anything to do with what happened. If anyone accidentally cursed Larry, it would’ve been Maya and her channeling. … No, best not to joke about that.

Unlike the two Feys, Phoenix’s junior lawyers were starting to look pumped. Athena smacked a fist into the palm of her other hand, her gaze turning fierce. “Curse or no curse, it’s up to us to prove Mr. Butz’s innocence!”

“Finally, a new case for us to sink our teeth into!” Apollo smirked in a cocky manner, crossing his arms over his chest.

Apparently, their resolution was contagious, as Maya regained some of her usual pluck as well. Or maybe it was because she’d already gotten indirectly involved yesterday that she felt this case was her responsibility. “Ooh, are we going to investigate the crime scene, Nick? It’ll be just like old times! We’ll bring Pearly too!”

“Does that mean I get to do more forensicking with Luminol? Last time was so much fun!” Pearl was virtually singing, both hands pressed to her cheeks to hide an excited blush.

“Hang on, hang on!” Much as Phoenix hated to be the bearer of bad news, it seemed like everyone was getting ahead of themselves just a bit too far. “The defense can only have one official assistant, remember? I can’t bring everyone.”

There was an explosion of protest as everyone attempted to get a word in. Phoenix had had several assistants and proteges over the years, to the point where people like Larry and Edgeworth had joked about it. Still, he never expected to find himself in a position where those same assistants would bicker over who got to join him during an investigation.

“Nick, you’re bringing me, right? C'mon, it’s my vacation!”

“Yeah, Mr. Nick should bring Mystic Maya!”

“No offense, but Maya’s not a defense attorney. Mr. Wright needs an officially licensed lawyer by his side in court. Maybe one who’s also trained in psychology, hmmm?”

“That’s no fair, Athena! You got to assist at the aquarium last month! It’s my turn!”

“You’re such a baby, Apollo! Why can’t you settle for being the office’s best toilet scrubber?”

“Why you-”

“HOLD IT!” Phoenix hollered through the buzz of arguments, causing further noise to die in their throats. “Settle down, everyone! If you’re all going to behave like little kids, I’m bringing Trucy instead.”

“Ooh, we could make a father-daughter outing out of it!” Trucy looked absolutely delighted at the prospect, but then seemed to think better of herself. She rapped her knuckles against the side of her silk top hat, smiling wryly. “…But I think you should bring someone else, Daddy. Probably Miss Maya. She won’t get another chance like this any time soon.”

“I agree with Trucy, Mr. Nick!”

“Hah. Look at that, I got the majority vote!” Maya smirked in a way that was hardly befitting of the Master of Kurain.

“Fine, fine. You can come for the investigation…” Phoenix sighed, admitting defeat for the most part. “But Athena had a point- I need an actual lawyer to assist during the trial. Considering how much the crime scene upset Larry, it’s probably best to bring the one who can double as a therapist, but don’t you worry, Apollo. I’ve got a special job just for you.”

“Really? A job for me?” Apollo’s eyes narrowed. He probably suspected what was coming. He’d known Phoenix for over a year now, after all.

“That’s right. You get to take Pearls and Trucy into town for a shopping spree. Doesn’t that sound fun?”

———————

Date: August 18th 2027 Time: 9:36 AM.
Location: Gatewater Land – Main Gate.

In all honesty, Phoenix hadn’t thought too hard about what he might encounter at Gatewater Land today. That’s why it came as a bit of a surprise when they approached the main gate and people were passing through it without a problem. A murder had happened and Gatewater Land was still open for business, apparently. Then again, Phoenix didn’t want to try and calculate just how much money the owners would miss out on if the park was closed for even a day. What stung even worse was that Phoenix ended up having to buy a ticket for himself and his two associates.

Another thing that came as a mild surprise (though he should’ve expected he wouldn’t catch a break) was a certain detective’s dulcet tones. A certain detective who looked dismayed, perhaps even close to hysterical tears like Larry, yet that look washed right off the man’s face when he spotted Phoenix and his two cohorts entering the park. There was one last dismissive gesture towards the officer he’d been talking to, then Bobby Fulbright started marching towards them.

“Here comes justice…” Athena muttered under her breath.

Phoenix felt exhausted just looking at this guy. It wasn’t that he disliked Fulbright, it was that he had a long history with certain other detectives who were far more willing to help the defense without being manipulated into it. Why couldn’t Ema Skye have been in charge of this case…?

“Mr. Lawyer!” Fulbright called the second he was close enough. He flashed them all a toothy grin, which struck Phoenix as foreboding. “We meet again! In justice we trust!”

“Detective. Errr. Good morning.”

“Good morning, Detective Fulbright! In justice we trust!” Athena sang in a far more cheerful voice, matching the man’s salute with one of her own. She’d apparently decided to get a headstart on buttering him up. It was working.

“You’re Mr. Butz’s defense, right? Ha ha ha, the first thing he did when we arrested him was demand to see his lawyer. He must really trust you!”

“…Yeah, sure,” Phoenix muttered. He could already picture Larry shouting his head off even as they forced his hands behind his back and he doubted that trust would’ve been too much of a factor in it.

Meanwhile, Maya was staring up at Fulbright with mild awe. “So, are you the new Gumshoe?”

The detective turned his head as if noticing Maya for the first time. He seemed taken aback for a few seconds, then he burst into booming laughter. “Ha ha ha! Boy, I wish! I’ve got a long way to go before I can match that level of righteousness!”

“That would be hard,” Maya clasped her hands together and nodded her head with a smile. “But I believe in you, Detective. Everyone can be a Gumshoe if they just try hard enough!”

“Ooh! Why, thank you, miss! I’ll keep doing my best!”

Somehow, Phoenix found himself utterly unsurprised that Fulbright would consider it a life goal to 'be a Gumshoe’. Furthermore, Maya was one of the few who would utter that as a genuine compliment. With two sweet-talking sidekicks like her and Athena, Phoenix would have smoother sailing ahead of him in the investigation department. Maybe- just maybe- he could get enough information to prove Larry’s innocence before the trial could even be given a chance to start.

Then again… The more he thought about it, the more he started to get a nasty suspicion. “If you’re here, does that mean the prosecutor on the case is…?”

“You got it! It’s Prosecutor Blackquill! In fact, he’s here in the park right now to see the crime scene with his own eyes!” Fulbright explained, confirming Phoenix’s worst fears and more.

Oh…”

“I know it might seem unconventional to have him join in on the investigation, but I got special permission to bring him here. I think it’ll do him a lot of good to soak up some of the justice in the area.” Fulbright turned to gaze at the scenery with some level of fondness. “There’s no place that’ll defrost a criminal’s heart quite like Gatewater Land! With all the Blue Badger influence, he’ll see the error of his ways in no time.”

Phoenix sincerely doubted that such a miracle would occur. That wasn’t the only thing wrong with this picture, either. “Errr. Aren’t you supposed to be chaperoning him to make sure he doesn’t… You know…”

“He got a little overwhelmed by all the noise and the crowds, so he’s resting in the security office right now. Bless him. But don’t you worry, I’ve got two of my guys watching him.”

“Why did they assign Prosecutor Blackquill to this case? You’d think other prosecutors would’ve jumped at the chance to take it,” Athena mused. She had a good point. This park was the police department’s domain, which meant their reputation was being jeopardized. The Prosecutor’s Office would be prepared to jump through hoops to help their law enforcement buddies.

“Sure, but Blackquill’s been eager to prove himself in court after the aquarium debacle. Besides, out of everyone in the Prosecutor’s Office, he’s got the most knowledge about animatronics.”

“Animatronics?” Phoenix repeated with a frown. “What have animatronics got to do with anything?”

There was a moment of silence. Then Fulbright began to twiddle his fingers together, looking more than a little conflicted. “Ahh… Well, you’ll find out soon enough.”

Well. That was foreboding. What with a remark like that and Larry’s absolute refusal to talk about how the victim died, Phoenix was sure they were in for quite a party.

“Listen, do you think we can look around for a bit?” he asked, knowing he’d have to tread carefully from here on out.

“Of course! The park is public domain, after all!” Fulbright paused for a moment, fiddling with his aviators. “Just don’t head for the crime scene or any other areas limited to authorized personnel. Breaking the rules of the park would be most unjust.”

The memory of Mark Genta barring their way into the workshop with the insistence of 'authorized personnel only’ echoed through Phoenix’s mind, just for a moment. Then he pulled himself together. “But Detective-”

“No, no. The police department can’t allow the defense to trespass. That’s how it is. What if you were to make evidence disappear for the sake of getting your client declared innocent?”

“We don’t need to resort to underhanded tricks like that!” Athena cut in immediately, Widget shining a bright red in response to her obvious indignation. “We believe in our client’s innocence! The problem is that we can’t prove it in court unless we have all the evidence we need, so we need to see the crime scene with our own eyes. Helping us stop a false conviction is the best kind of justice, don’t you think?”

“Ah. Well, that’s… Hmmm…” Fulbright was starting to look conflicted again, his great shoulders slumping and a mild pout tugging at his lips.

“Besides,” Athena pressed on, because now that she was getting close, she needed to give him that final shove. “If, through some sort of fluke, Mr. Butz really is guilty, I’m sure Prosecutor Blackquill will find a way to prove it. You believe in his skills too, don’t you, Detective?”

Fulbright went from dismay to utter horror, both hands clutching at his head. “Ngaaah! You’re right! I do believe in Prosecutor Blackquill’s skills! If that’s the case, then… Then I guess I should let you guys investigate!”

Wow. And to think, people called Simon Blackquill the master of the Power of Suggestion. Athena wasn’t too bad at psychological manipulation herself. Phoenix had to make sure never to get into a debate with her. There was no way he’d win and if it came to something like her salary, he literally couldn’t afford to lose.

“Alright, I’ll give you guys permission to enter the security guard office and see if your client left any proof of his devotion to justice,” Fulbright decided, standing up straight again. Even so, he still looked a bit conflicted. “As for the crime scene… I can take you there, Mr. Lawyer, but you might want to leave these kids outside. We’re still in the middle of extracting the body- well, what’s left of it, anyway, and it’s not a pretty sight. Even some of the forensics guys had to step out for fresh air.”

An eerie silence fell. The implication was like a sudden cold breeze that caused the hair on the back of Phoenix’s neck to stand on end. He opened his mouth, failed at producing words and ended up closing it again. When he turned his gaze to the floor, he saw Maya shuffling her feet by his side. The crime scene was the haunted house, wasn’t it? What could’ve happened in a place like that?

Athena was the first to find her voice. “…E-extracting the body from what?”

Fulbright heaved an incredible sigh and mumbled something under his breath.

“Come again?” Phoenix asked.

“The… The Blue Badger.”

———————

Date: August 18th 2027 Time: 9:50 AM.
Location: Gatewater Land – Haunted House.

The first thing Phoenix became consciously aware of was a massive headache. The second thing he became aware of was that he was lying down. The third thing he became aware of, after his eyes fluttered open, was a pair of expensive shoes and bare ankles right by his side. He groaned and sat up straight, clutching at his head with one hand. The sound of Detective Fulbright’s loud voice was incredibly unwelcome.

“Oh- It’s okay, guys! He’s up!”

“What happened…?” Phoenix asked, though the moment those words left his mouth, he remembered.

He was in Gatewater Land’s haunted house. Detective Fulbright had taken him there to see the crime scene. They’d muscled their way through a crowd of curious onlookers surrounding the house, then passed under the usual yellow tape. He’d been led through a long spooky corridor, rounded a corner and caught a glimpse of forensics crowded around something horrible. He remembered lots of blue and white fur strewn all around, a pool of blood oozing in all directions.

And then nothing. He must’ve passed out. He wasn’t even in the same corridor anymore. The detective and his men must’ve moved his unconscious body away from the crime scene and into the adjacent 'dining room’. Comical moving paintings and 'floating’ forks seemed like such a joke all of a sudden.

Fulbright crouched down by his side and slammed a hand down on his shoulder. “Don’t push yourself, Mr. Lawyer. That was a mighty impressive fall.”

“… Duly noted.” Phoenix shook the man’s hand off again, attempting to conserve what was left of his wounded pride. It was a good thing he’d heeded Fulbright’s warning and told his two assistants to wait outside. They didn’t need to see what Phoenix had seen, nor did they need to see him faint.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about it. To be honest, such a horrifying display of injustice almost had me black out too. It brought me to tears, that’s for sure! To think someone would use the Blue Badger, the very personification of the law, for a crime so gruesome… It’s enough to chill anyone to the bone!” Fulbright paused for a moment and leaned backwards, the light of all the fake torches reflecting off his orange aviators. “And to think, the park switched to animatronics because someone hid a body in a mascot suit eight years ago… It just made things worse, didn’t it?”

So this was why they’d assigned a prosecutor with knowledge about animatronics. This was why Larry refused to talk about Genta’s death. Someone had forcefully stuffed the guy into an animatronic suit despite the exoskeleton that was already in there. The corpse had been utterly crushed by metal crossbeams and wiring. What a terrifying way to die. Assuming Genta hadn’t already passed on when he’d been stuffed in there, anyway. He would’ve had to be unconscious, at the very least, or he would’ve fought back, right?

“So… So that was the Blue Badger?” Phoenix asked, trying to get some of the more nonchalant facts straight, because he didn’t want to dive into the nitty gritty just yet.

“It was the haunted house’s version of the Blue Badger, to be precise. Gatewater Land’s got ten, maybe twelve animatronics in total. This one isn’t all that mobile. Its only purpose is to stand up and raise a hand at thirty second intervals. Luckily, the haunted house’s functions are shut off every night, so the badger couldn’t move.”

Phoenix really didn’t want to think about what would happen if the animatronic were to stand up after having a body crammed into it. He coughed loudly and made another valiant effort to change the subject. “What about the other animatronics in the park?”

He’d already had a suspicion that Fulbright had a soft spot for the badgers, but it was truly confirmed now. The moment that question was asked, the man’s face lit up like a Christmas tree and he started to ramble away. That was good. It gave Phoenix some more time to regain his composure and pretend he wasn’t sick to his stomach.

“Let’s see… There’s a Proto Badger in a different section of the haunted house. He drops down from the ceiling and slashes a sword behind a pane of glass that’s supposed to look like a mirror. Then there’s the main four who perform during the indoor stage show. Those are pretty much rooted to the spot too. All they can do is twist their upper bodies a bit and play musical instruments. Instruments of justice, of course! Except for the Bad Badger, who plays a saxophone of doom. There’s a cowboy version of the Blue Badger in one of the Wild West rides- that one’s my favorite. And then there’s the four who are used for the parade, of course!”

“The fully-mobile ones?” Phoenix had seen the parade just yesterday. If he hadn’t been told beforehand that those four badgers were animatronics, he wouldn’t have believed it. They’d moved just like actual people.

“That’s right! They’re the pride and joy of the park. Mighty expensive, too. That’s why they’re only brought out for the parade and their programming is limited to walking that particular route. Whenever they’re not out in the open, they’re locked away so guests won’t prod at them. There’s a lot of other special regulations for those four, apparently, but I don’t really know the details.”

“Right. And the Blue Badger was the father of the others, or something…?”

Fulbright huffed as if that question was an insult directed straight at him. “You don’t know? Aren’t you up to speed with the Blue Badger’s adventures in his pursuit of justice?”

“Errr.”

The Blue Badger’s adventures… It was laughable, really. Considering how the Blue Badger was born in the first place, he’d think twice about spinning tales of justice, but the police department had apparently had a different opinion on the matter. Their mascot had come a long way from a wriggling piece of plywood. …No, even before that, it was just a drawing of a vase that had knocked someone out cold. Phoenix was painfully aware of the Blue Badger long before that creature was 'cool’.

Fulbright reached into his pocket and pulled out a pamphlet, which he pressed into Phoenix’s hand. The Lore of the Badger Friends, it read. The illustrations of the four badgers felt in bad taste right now, but the descriptions were helpful. The Blue Badger, who was devoted to keeping the peace, and his wife, the Pink Badger, who was shackled to him by the wrist. Then there was the Proto Badger, the original badger and Blue’s best friend. Finally, there was the Bad Badger, an ally of evil with a ringbeard, ominous sunglasses and a gun.

There was another page featuring the Red Badger, who was apparently the main character in some spin-off series. Needless to say, his name matched his design and he wore spiky sunglasses to complete the ensemble. Like his blue counterpart, the Red Badger had a spunky female companion, a luggish best friend and some villain who was an international criminal mastermind. …The things they came up with these days just to sell more merchandise.

“The Blue Badger is the greatest ally of justice! His sense of righteousness gives him power and his motto is to serve and protect. Not a single criminal is free to wander the streets so long as the Blue Badger is around! He’s kind of my idol,” Fulbright chuckled sheepishly, and Phoenix felt as if a few more puzzle pieces in regards to the detective’s eccentric nature just clicked into place.

“Thanks for the information. I feel very… enlightened.”

“Did you still want to investigate the crime scene? The boys covered the body with a sheet for now.”

Truthfully? No. He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to be anywhere near a massacre like that. He’d have to investigate, though. For Larry’s sake. That’s why he managed a stiff nod of the head and pushed himself back to his feet.


To Be Continued

Chapter Text

Date: August 18th 2027 Time: 10:05 AM.
Location: Gatewater Land – Outside the Haunted House.

One thing was for sure; once this case was over, Phoenix would never enter the haunted house again. No matter how much anyone would beg, he wouldn’t set another foot in that place. Not after what he’d seen. In fact, he might just avoid Gatewater Land altogether. There were other amusement parks in the vicinity. Places where people weren’t brutally murdered. Or, if they were, Phoenix wouldn’t have to know the gruesome details.

Sheet or no sheet, his sweep of the crime scene was an incredibly hasty one. Aside from the corpse itself, the hallway was virtually empty and virtually clean. No proper indication that the killer was anyone other than Larry. Were it not for the one piece of evidence he did spot, he would’ve deemed the investigation a waste of his peace of mind. There was a gun lying on the floor. One that Detective Fulbright warned him not to touch. One that had already tested negative for fingerprints.

So Genta was shot before he was stuffed into the Blue Badger? Something about that seemed odd. …Even odder than the situation already was.

With that done, Detective Fulbright escorted him back outside, where Maya and Athena were still waiting. They were sharing a bag of roasted peanuts and seemed to be totally absorbed in their conversation. They must’ve been discussing something amusing, because Phoenix could hear them laughing even through the hubbub of the other park guests.

“Oh, hey Nick! Hey Detective!” Maya chirped the moment she spotted his approach. “I was just telling Athena about that time you had amnesia and went ahead with a trial anyway. Remember that? Remember the banana glove?”

“Hah… Yeah, I remember.” Phoenix chuckled awkwardly and rubbed the back of his head. Ten years later, that was still a little painful. Maybe he could counter with an anecdote of his own, but then, Maya didn’t get embarrassed easily. It was best not to try.

“I didn’t know you were such a trooper, Boss! Going that far to protect your client…! It’s trés admirable!” Athena was absolutely moved to tears for a moment, then she regained her usual vigor. “The only way for me to top something like that would be to show up in court despite being in a coma!”

“Let’s just hope it never gets to that point, alright?”

“So how was the crime scene? It wasn’t really as bad as Detective Fulbright said it’d be, right?” Maya asked.

“Well, actually-”

“Your trooper boss passed out!” Fulbright blurted out, his loud tone of voice drowning out anything else Phoenix might’ve still wanted to say. “Ha ha ha, it’s a good thing we caught him before he hit the ground or we would’ve had another victim!”

…Dammit.

“No way! Nick! You fainted?!” Maya exclaimed with such volume that anyone who might’ve missed Fulbright’s bellowing would still be clued in on the embarrassing truth.

“Boss… Was it really that bad?” Athena slumped forward, looking frazzled. Her gaze shot from Phoenix to the haunted house and back again. She didn’t even notice she was spilling roasted peanuts all over the ground.

“I didn’t faint,” Phoenix grumbled. “I was just… resting my eyes. And my body. …On the floor.”

Fulbright slammed a hand against his back, causing him to stumble forward a bit. “No need to act so tough, Mr. Lawyer! It’s okay to admit your own weaknesses!”

Phoenix didn’t reply. He only shook his head and tried his very best to ignore Fulbright’s toothy grin. If he didn’t know any better, he’d think the detective was mocking him.

“So… Did you find anything at all?” Athena asked, her voice torn between hopeful and desperate.

“Nothing concrete. The killer was careful not to leave behind any kind of prints. We did find a gun, but… I don’t know if ballistic markings can be compared even if they do retrieve the bullet from uh… Yeah.”  Phoenix didn’t want to picture anything else related to that. He hastily cleared his throat and turned his attention to a little kid who was screaming at his mother about a balloon.

“Oh…”

“Geez, that’s even worse than that guy who was stuffed into his own safe,” Maya mused, raising a hand to her chin. “Was anyone’s name written in blood?”

“Not that I could see, no.”

“So the body and the murder weapon aren’t gonna be much of a clue… Maybe we should head for the security guard office, then!” Athena suggested.

Phoenix nodded in agreement. “Right! If we can just prove that Larry wasn’t at the crime scene, there’s no way the judge could declare him guilty.”

Just then, one of Fulbright’s officers came running towards them. He sprang into a salute that the detective returned with five times as much vigor. “Detective, your presence is required at the crime scene.”

“Oh, duty calls! That’s a shame, I was just thinking of going with you guys to check up on Prosecutor Blackquill. You three can handle him by yourselves, right?”

Rats. Detective Fulbright had mentioned that Blackquill was 'resting’ in the security office, hadn’t he? The very same office that they’d have to investigate. That would make things troublesome. Phoenix would rather not have the prosecution breathing down their necks as they attempted to gather some trump cards. Would Blackquill even allow them to snoop around? Fulbright’s permission would probably matter very little to him.

“Well, actually-” Phoenix began, but once again he was cut off by the good detective himself.

“Good! I knew I could count on you! Oh, before I go…” Fulbright reached inside his jacket and pulled out a manila envelope, which he held out for Phoenix to take. “You can have this copy of the autopsy report. It’s virtually useless, but who knows? Maybe you can work your lawyer magic to find some use for it! Good luck and in justice we trust!”

With that, Fulbright headed back towards the haunted house, accompanied by the officer who’d called for him, leaving Phoenix with no chance to even thank him. Then again, would thanks even be warranted? He frowned at the concept of 'virtually useless’ and opened the envelope to slip the documents out into the open. This sure was a pointless autopsy report if he’d ever seen one. Both the time of death and the cause of death were unknown. The only kind of 'lawyer magic’ he could think to apply to it would be to have it disappear into Trucy’s magic panties so it wouldn’t take up needless space in the court record.

Hopefully, they could find something worthwhile in the office.

———————

Date: August 18th 2027 Time: 10:24 AM.
Location: Gatewater Land – Security Guard Office.

The walk across the park was a relatively silent one. Athena was focused on finishing her peanuts and Maya seemed to be resorting to less small talk than usual. Perhaps the gravity of the situation was finally getting to her. Or perhaps she was nervous about meeting a prosecutor who’d been convicted for murder. …Then again, it wouldn’t be the first one with those qualifications she’d meet.

Sure enough, they entered the security guard office to find two of Detective Fulbright’s men standing by the door to keep watch. In the chair across from the security screens sat Simon Blackquill, looking awfully comfortable. A nearby desk fan was causing some of his unruly bangs to flutter. He cast one quick glance their way, arched an eyebrow, then seemed to decide they were unworthy of his full attention and leaned back in the chair.

“Nick, look…! It’s the Monochrome Samurai, Warrior of Retro Olde Tokyo,” Maya said in a hushed voice that Phoenix knew Blackquill would pick up on.

“Authorized personnel only, Wright-dono,” the prosecutor called in an almost bored tone of voice. “You’d best take your assistants and depart, lest you find yourself on the sharp end of my blade.”

“But that Detective Fulbright guy gave us permission to investigate this place!” Maya snapped back immediately.

“Hmph. Fool Bright’s reckless disregard for procedure will be punished soon enough. Needless to say, I will not allow you to sully this place with false evidence or farfetched tales.”

“Not this again…” Maya seemed to inflate with indignation, trying to make herself a bit taller despite the fact that Blackquill’s gaze was still on the screens before him. “How about you, huh? You could make important evidence disappear just to get your precious victory in court.”

“With two of Fool Bright’s henchmen standing guard? Not likely.”

“Well, then… The same counts for us! We can’t exactly plant false evidence with these guys watching us, right? Besides, you’ve already searched this place top to bottom, so if we stick something new here, you’d know.”

There was a familiar jangling sound as Blackquill raised his shackled hands above his head, then finally behind it, leaning back on them as if they were a pillow. “Very well, then.”

Unbelievable. Maya had won an argument with Simon Blackquill. That seemed… suspiciously easy. Why would he relent without putting up a proper fight? Was he already convinced there was nothing of value to be found in the office? Either way, Phoenix supposed they should be grateful. He’d learned a long time ago that what might seem worthless in the prosecution’s eyes could be exactly the clue they needed.

“Don’t worry, Prosecutor Blackquill,” he said with a smile, hoping to keep the peace now that they had it. “We’ll try to keep the noise down so you won’t get too stressed out.”

A small silence followed. Then Blackquill finally turned his head to glance their way, his eyes narrowing maliciously. “What is that meant to imply?”

“W-well… Detective Fulbright said that you got overwhelmed by the noise in the park and you had to rest, so…” Phoenix trailed off into a quiet mutter.

“Tsk, yet another grand delusion from the grand fool himself. If there was anything overwhelming, it was his incessant blathering about justice. That sort of preaching grows tiresome fast.” Blackquill leaned further back in the chair, the feather clenched between his teeth tilting up and down for a moment. “… I care very little for the faux lore related to that would-be badger. It is enough to give anyone a headache.”

“… So you’re here to hide from Detective Fulbright’s badgering?” Athena concluded with a proud grin, causing Phoenix to cringe at the bad pun.

“Hide? Hardly. I’ve merely tucked myself away to avoid his overbearing presence.”

Phoenix had to battle an incredibly strong urge to point out that that was technically the same thing. Instead, he cleared his throat. “Anyway, let’s get to investigating!”

“We should check the air vents!” was Maya’s very first suggestion.

“The… what?”

“See? Those vents!” She pointed a finger towards a vent near the ceiling. “There might be something hidden inside them. We can go ask someone for a ladder.”

Phoenix heard Blackquill breathe a huff of amusement and spotted a look of absolute confusion on Athena’s face. “Errr… Maya, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Fine, then. A stepladder.”

“How about we take a look at the security system first? The cameras might’ve caught something.”

There was some murmuring of agreement from both his assistants, then they huddled before the screens. Blackquill grunted and moved his chair aside with extreme reluctance, allowing them more space. Or maybe he was attempting to get more space for himself. Phoenix was fine with either one.

Oddly enough, there were only three screens for viewing, while there were eight cameras spread throughout the park. From the looks of things, a security guard would have to switch between cameras manually. … Who would construct an inconvenient system like that? Honestly… Even as Phoenix pondered that much, Maya and Athena had each commandeered a screen to flip between the cameras.

“Here, look, I’ve got the main gate and the main street on this one. With a view like this, you wouldn’t have to fight to get a good spot when the parade starts!” Maya pointed out.

“This one covers the Big Whoop rollercoaster, the hall with the indoor animatronics show and the ferris wheel.” Athena took a moment to squint at the tiny little screen. “Uno momento… Is that guy picking his nose?”

Gross!” Widget blurted out.

Phoenix flipped a switch to see what the last screen could do. “Let’s see… I've got the stadium, the door to the Proto Badger’s workshop and the Wild West entrance on this one. But then… Where’s the haunted house?”

“There is no camera for the haunted house,” Blackquill’s usual drawl came from the corner. “Highly inconvenient, yet there is nothing to be done about it.”

Phoenix could feel his stomach sink at that news. If they couldn’t see who else might’ve entered or left the haunted house, they couldn’t prove that someone other than Larry could’ve committed the murder. This was more than inconvenient- this was bad.

“Well… There’s still recordings of everything else, right? Let’s rewind to last night and see if there’s anything out of the ordinary.”

“You are wasting your time, Wright-dono. The prosecution has already confiscated last night’s footage as evidence. It is the sharpest of blades that will serve to slice through whatever case you hope to build as if it were packet of butter.”

Oh no… Oh no… That was definitely bad. What did the prosecution see on the footage that would make it so important? Or what didn’t they see? If Blackquill wasn’t hogging the only chair in the room, Phoenix would’ve taken the opportunity to sit down himself, as he could feel his strength slowly leaving his body.

“So… So we can’t watch it anymore?” Maya asked.

“Indeed, you cannot. Not until Fool Bright’s testimony tomorrow.”

“Aw maaan…”

Nothing else for it but to leave the footage be and examine the rest of the office, then. Honestly, there wasn’t much out of the ordinary there. Phoenix’s attention went from a charging station for the walkie talkies to a few ugly posters of the Blue Badger and his friends on the walls, then to a plushie that squeaked when its tummy was squeezed. Maya was once again peering up into the air vents and Athena  was rifling through some papers.

How were they supposed to find anything in here? This wasn’t the scene of the crime. This was just the area where their defendant was supposed to be while his partner was being murdered across the park. If they couldn’t prove that Larry was here the entire time, it’d damage their case pretty badly.

In the end, there was only one thing that Phoenix thought to file away in the court record. It was something he’d found stashed in one of the drawers. Blackquill had cast a quick glance his way when he’d examined it, but said nothing. Apparently, it wasn’t a threat to the prosecution’s case either. Phoenix would have to agree on that much.

After a few more minutes of fruitless searching, the door slammed open and Detective Fulbright came marching into the office. “Hey, in justice we trust! Did you guys finish your investigation?”

“I guess so….” Athena muttered, though her tone of voice signified defeat rather than accomplishment.

“Good! In that case, I’m gonna ask you all to clear out. I’ll be taking Prosecutor Blackquill down to the crime scene one more time.”

“Why?” Phoenix asked immediately, seeing a window of opportunity. “Did you find something?”

“Well-”

“That is none of your business, Wright-dono, and it is a matter of utmost justice that the investigative team stops sharing leads with the defense,” Blackquill snapped. Just like that, Fulbright covered his mouth with both hands and Phoenix saw his last chance to get useful information shatter.

Everyone, even Fulbright’s two agents, moved themselves out of the security office. As they did, Phoenix cast one last desperate glance at the security screens, willing himself to see some sort of clue. Anything that could help. Anything at all! …There was nothing. The door was closed and locked behind them.

“Now, remember what we agreed. You guys will believe in your client’s innocence and I’ll believe in Prosecutor Blackquill’s ability to prove him not innocent. Lady Justice will decide which of us is right!” Fulbright shot them another toothy smile and Phoenix felt his heart sink even further.

Maya, it seemed, still wasn’t deterred in the slightest. “You got it! Prepare to eat a tall order of humble pie, Detective!”

“Fool Bright… Have you been placing wagers?” Blackquill’s eyes narrowed into another glare and he moved his hands apart, stretching the chain of his manacles as far as it could go. “If you are truly a betting man, perhaps we ought to raise the stakes and gamble with the remainder of your career. No self-respecting detective should be allowed to stoop this low.”

It was amazing how fast Fulbright’s upbeat attitude could be broken. The man’s shoulders slumped and he pouted, twiddling his fingers together. Blackquill couldn’t actually get his handler fired, Phoenix was sure, but if he tried hard enough he could probably manipulate Fulbright into resigning. Let’s hope it’d never come to that.

A look of mischief crossed Athena’s face, just for a split second. Then it was replaced by a far more genuine grin. “Hey detective! We were just talking to Prosecutor Blackquill about the badgers and his heart betrayed that he’d love to go see the indoor animatronics show with you! He’s probably just too prideful to admit it out loud.”

The consequences of Athena’s words were so grand, it was like a bomb exploded. Fulbright’s expression once again lit up with childish excitement. At the same time, Blackquill’s eyes widened with horror and his complexion managed to turn a shade paler. Maya snorted into her hand and even Phoenix had to fight very hard to keep a straight face.

“Is that so?! Ha ha ha! No need to be embarrassed, sir! I’d be happy to take you to the show! As they say, justice is appropriate for all ages!”

“Fool Bright, I do not-”

“C'mon, off we go!” the detective grabbed Blackquill by the arm to force him along. “If we head over there right now, we can get good seats for the eleven o’ clock show!”

Blackquill’s objections grew softer and softer as he was dragged down the hall, until finally they were out of sight and out of earshot. The two officers, it seemed, were content to keep watch outside the office, ensuring there was no way for Phoenix to get back in and double-check it.

“I… guess that’s all we can find here,” he admitted grudgingly.

“No, c'mon Nick!” Maya gave him a quick shove, startling him right back out of his discouragement. “We have to stay a while longer! At least until the parade! You already paid for our tickets, so we might as well, right?”

Phoenix sighed. On the one hand, Maya had a point. They might as well stay a bit longer just in case there were any more clues to be found. On the other hand… Maya looked like she’d pay more attention to the rides than the upcoming trial.

———————

Date: August 18th 2027 Time: 2:31 PM.
Location: Detention Center.

It seemed like ages ago when Phoenix last spoke to Larry. It seemed like ages ago, but it was only this morning. Now he was back, this time accompanied by both of his assistants and just a bit more information in hand. If he was perfectly honest with himself, he could guess exactly where breaking those Psyche-locks would lead. He could guess it, but he had to be a hundred percent certain.

“Nick! Back so soon?” Larry looked a whole lot happier to see him than earlier that day. Happier to the point where it was suspicious. “Usually it takes you a whole day to investigate a crime scene. And I see you brought two of your lovely padawans this time.”

Maya hurried forward and took the only chair in the room before either Phoenix or Athena could object. “Hi Larry! Listen, you’re an employee at Gatewater Land, right? Think you can get me a discount on the merchandise?”

“Straight down to business, I see. That’s real cold, Maya.” Larry chuckled, rubbing the back of his head. “Tell you what, how about you and Nick get me off the hook for murder first, then we’ll talk.”

“Did you really think we wouldn’t get you off the hook? C'mon, there’s no way you killed anyone, no matter what that Blackquill guy says!”

“So you found the real killer already?”

“Well, no…”

“You found evidence that I didn’t do it?”

“Not really, but…” Maya trailed off and lowered her head. Apparently, Larry’s questions were rubbing in the reality of the situation. The reality that they were once again up suspect creek without any sturdy paddles.

“Surely you know how this goes, Mr. Butz,” Athena cut in, moving to stand right beside Maya and placing a hand on the wooden counter. “They take it to court, some suspicious witness testifies, we expose their lies and blow their cover as the real killer! Even I’ve been here long enough to know that much!”

“So… You’ve got a suspicious witness?” Larry asked, apparently holding onto his last shreds of hope.

Athena took a moment to mull that over, her gaze straying to the ceiling. “Uhh. I don’t think there’s any witnesses at all. The only person we should expect to give testimony for the prosecution would be Detective Fulbright.”

“Wait… Does that mean Detective Fulbright is the real killer?” Maya looked positively horrified at the prospect.

“Don’t be silly!” Athena replied immediately, standing up straight again. “There’s no way a hero of justice would kill anyone, no matter how much of a jerk the victim was. Ridicolo!”

Larry sighed and buried his face in his hands. “That’s it. I’m done for. Death row, here I come.”

At this point, Phoenix decided to finally interject. They could keep bickering back and forth about their lack of evidence, but there was still one lead left. One last mystery they could definitely crack. He approached the glass pane as well, taking his place by Maya’s other side. The magatama was virtually burning a hole through his clothes, so he slipped one hand into his pocket to grab a hold of it.

“Larry, I only have one question for you. If you were watching the cameras the whole time, why is it that you didn’t see anything suspicious?”

Just like that, Larry was sitting up straight again, his narrowed eyes locked with Phoenix’s own. Just like that, Psyche-locks appeared, rattling ominously. Just like that, Larry was back on the defensive, his voice raised and his hands curled into fists. “What’s that supposed to mean, huh?! What, you’re blaming me for missing something that happened in the span of two seconds?! My eyes can’t be everywhere at once!”

“That’s not all. You yourself told me that you have walkie talkies. I saw the charging station. Don’t you think that Genta would’ve contacted you at the first sign of trouble instead of entering the haunted house all by himself?”

“I… I dunno. Maybe he didn’t trust me enough to help him out,” Larry mused, though even as he said it, he looked torn. As if his argument was more of an excuse than proper reasoning.

Phoenix knew exactly where this was going. He’d prepared for this moment. That’s why he took out that particular piece of evidence he’d uncovered on the crime scene. The one that Blackquill had barely acknowledged. He placed it on the counter for Larry to see. Sure enough, the man’s eyes widened in horror. Now Larry also knew that Phoenix knew where this was going.

“I found this in your office. It’s an alarm clock.”

“S-so?”

“So it was set to go off at 3:13 in the morning. When did you say you noticed Genta wasn’t back from his patrol round, again? Just after three?”

There was a moment of silence. Then Larry broke, as did the Psyche-locks around him. They vanished. Larry banged both fists on the counter. “Okay! Okay! You got me! I was sleeping! Are you happy now?! I was sleeping on the job!”

Both Maya and Athena breathed exasperated sighs in perfect unison. As for Phoenix, he only shook his head. He’d honestly hoped that this wouldn’t be the case. He’d honestly hoped that by now, Larry was better than this.

“How about telling us what really happened?” he asked, because he knew that the story would get a bit more detail now that the truth was out into the open.

“Fine…” Larry sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. “Every night shift, Genta would go on a patrol from 2:30 to 3:15. He’d always come back right on the second. He had a thing for punctuality and being on schedule, you know. Trouble is, when you’re sitting alone in that office, you get kinda hypnotized by the flickering lights and the hum of the desk fan. Besides, I work like fifty five hours a week. Sometimes I just kinda… doze off. That’s why I’d always set an alarm clock to go off right before Genta came back, just in case. If I ever got caught, I could kiss my job goodbye.”

Phoenix found that was quite possibly the worst excuse anyone could ever give. “So you 'dozed off’ again and didn’t see anything that happened on the cameras from the moment Genta left on his patrol until the alarm woke you up.”

“… Right. Then, when it was 3:15 and he didn’t come back to the office, I figured something was up. That’s when I went out to find him. But I guess… That really makes it my fault, huh? He was my partner and I should’ve had his back, but I was too busy being my usual irresponsible self. If he tried to call for help over the walkie talkies, I didn’t even hear him. They might as well declare me guilty, because I’m the reason he’s dead. Isn’t that how it is?”

When something smells, it’s usually the Butz. This wasn’t the first time his irresponsible nature had caused trouble during a murder case. In fact, it was eerily similar to the situation with 'the guy who was stuffed into his own safe’, Kane Bullard, where Larry had left the building while on security duty altogether. Still, things were just a little different this time. Just a bit more painful. As Larry said, he should’ve had Genta’s back. Did that really make it his fault?

…No, of course not. They should believe in their client, even in the darkest of times. Larry would never harm a fly- the genuinely remorseful look on his face proved as much. The only one who deserved to be sent to death row would be the killer.

“That’s not how it is at all,” Phoenix insisted. “There’s no excuse for falling asleep on the job, but that doesn’t make it your fault. Someone else has to take responsibility and I’ll prove it in court tomorrow.”

Someone else… He’d have to prove there was someone else… That might’ve been his biggest bluff in years.


To Be Continued

Chapter Text

Date: August 19th 2027 Time: 10:58 AM.
Location: District Court – Courtroom No. 4.

Phoenix wasn’t feeling up to this. Not really. He wasn’t feeling prepared. … But then, when had he ever? Not eight years ago and not now. If anything, it was nostalgic and looking at it like that, it was also oddly reassuring. He’d faced impossible odds before and had always come out on top. Besides, his defendant wasn’t an orca this time. That had to count in his favor too.  

It was almost time for the trial to start and Blackquill was being escorted into the courtroom by his usual entourage and the usual turning of heads from the gallery. The prosecutor looked as exhausted as ever and Detective Fulbright, who was marching after him, looked as enthusiastic as ever. Larry was already occupying the defendant’s bench, arms crossed and fingers digging into his upper arms. He was as tense as could be, apparently. Mirroring that feeling, Athena was brushing her fingers through her hair in an antsy manner by Phoenix’s side.  

He breathed a bit of a sigh, then cast his gaze into the gallery instead. Maya, Apollo, Trucy and Pearl had scored front row seats. Of course they had; they’d gotten here extra early. His eyes met Maya’s and she shot him two thumbs up, along with a wide grin. …Yeah, they’d be fine.

Everyone rose to their feet when the judge entered. Somewhere in the back of Phoenix’s head, he began to wonder why they always assigned the same one to his cases. This man had seen him come out victorious in court every single time. …Well, not counting the Matt Engarde incident or the forged evidence incident, but both 'defeats’ had their own story to them. It’d gotten to the point where it seemed like their history might start to influence the judge’s- well- judgment. Not that Phoenix would complain, of course. He doubted any other judge would let him get away with so many bluffs and oddities.

Once everyone had settled back into their seats, the judge slammed his gavel to call order. “Court is now in session for the trial of Larry Butz- … Hang on, aren’t you Laurice Deauxnim? I’ve read all your books to my granddaughter. She couldn’t get enough of Franzy’s Whippity Whip Trip.”

“A-awww, really? Always nice to hear about my fans,” Larry replied, sounding slightly hopeful.

“I should hope you’re innocent, Mr. Butz, because it’ll break her heart to hear you murdered someone.”

“O-oh…”

Really? That’s what the judge was worried about? They had bigger fish to fry, here. Or bigger badgers to dissect. …Blegh, why did Phoenix have to go back to that mental image again? Best to focus on the trial proceedings instead.

“The defense is ready, Your Honor,” he announced, puffing out his chest in a heartfelt attempt to show off his confidence. It was shaky, but it was there.

Prosecutor Blackquill’s words were even more concise. He jerked his head slightly sideways, eyes narrowing. “…It’s time.”

“Time?” the judge repeated. “Time for what?”

“Time to get this show on the road?” Athena guessed.

“Time for justice?!” Fulbright’s voice boomed through the courtroom.

“Time to admit defeat and give the defendant a not guilty verdict?” Phoenix grinned widely, even if he wasn’t entirely joking.

“No, you fools. Time for the opening statement of this gruesome case.”

“Oh, right! Of course!” The judge sat back and shuffled through a stack of papers, apparently not even willing to question the notion that the opening statement was the prosecutor’s duty. “Let’s see… The victim, Mark Genta, was murdered in the early morning hours of August the 18th. He was on duty as a security guard in Gatewater Land. His body was found in the haunted house. The defendant, Larry Butz, was his colleague and the first person on the scene. … That doesn’t seem particularly gruesome to me.”

“Rest assured, Your Baldness. As we dig further into the details of this crime, chills will canter down your rickety spine soon enough,” Blackquill replied with a mean smirk. “It will become clear that our defendant is no man, he is a mere beast. The prosecution will not rest until such a dangerous, unhinged individual is removed from society.”

“… Hey! Who’re you callin’ unhinged, buddy?! I’ll remove you from society!” Larry called from the defense’s seat. Phoenix cringed with a mix of shame and dread.

“A bit too late for that, I’m afraid.” Blackquill placed a hand against his chin, his shackles rattling. He was still grinning.

“Order!” The slam of a gavel, then the judge cast a glance around the courtroom. “Shall we get to our first witness?”

Blackquill didn’t say anything. He merely nodded and gave another jerk of the head. Seconds later, Detective Fulbright came jogging up to the witness stand. The man was radiating so much confidence that it was almost shameful, somehow. “See, I knew it was time for justice!”

“Fool Bright, you know what to do.”

“Ha ha, of course!” The detective raised two fingers in a salute. “Bobby Fulbright, homicide detective in charge of this case. I’ll be explaining the reasons for the defendant’s arrest and the findings of our forensics team.”

That was exactly what Phoenix had expected would be the first testimony. The reasons for arrest seemed clear-cut enough and he couldn’t prove that someone else had been on the scene. Not yet, maybe not ever. If that was the case, maybe he could focus on the findings of the forensics team. The murder weapon, maybe. Any contradiction worth tackling. He gulped and braced himself for what was to come.

“Proceed, detective,” the judge said.

Fulbright nodded and launched straight into it. “The police department received a call from the defendant, Mr. Butz, at 3:43 in the morning. We arrived on the scene to find him in a state of shock. He kept screaming that he didn’t do it and that he needed to see his lawyer. Suspicious behavior, to say the least! We had to detain him for his own good. Naturally, we asked around later and got some witness testimony that Mr. Butz had been in a fight with the victim the day before the incident. There’s our motive, right there! Now, as for the victim himself… At first, it was really hard to tell just what happened, thanks to the state of the body. He was… forcefully stuffed into an animatronic badger suit, you see. It was a heinous sight to behold! After our thorough investigation, we concluded that Mr. Butz must’ve clobbered him over the head with a blunt object before attempting to hide the body in a blind, reckless panic. Then, after making a mess he could never hope to clean up, he did the right thing and contacted the authorities.”

An eerie silence followed. Someone in the back of the gallery coughed loudly. Or maybe they were gagging- it was hard to tell. Larry had turned fifty shades paler and cringed. As for Phoenix, he felt himself pursing his lips. Watching Fulbright’s cheery smile as he discussed such morbid scenarios was nauseating.

“Errr. Stuffed into an animatronic badger suit, you say?” the judge asked once he’d found his voice again. “Is that even possible? I’m not really sure what to picture…”

“We have photos of the crime scene, if Your Baldness wishes to have a more accurate mental image of all the gore that ensued,” Blackquill suggested. “You can quite clearly see the eyeballs and teeth of the victim as they popped out the front of the-”

NO! N-no, that’s quite alright! The defense may cross-examine the witness!”

Phoenix nodded. He could see only one angle from which to launch his first attack and while he wasn’t sure where it would take him, it was better than standing still. Athena nudged his arm in an encouraging manner. Time to make the good detective regret sharing so much information about the investigation beforehand! “Detective Fulbright, if I may… You say that my client must’ve clobbered the victim over the head with a blunt object. I say that’s just baseless speculation!”

“Hah?” Fulbright looked utterly shocked for a moment. Then he slid his aviators back up his nose. “Baseless? What’s so baseless about it?”

Phoenix pulled out a manila envelope and tapped a hand against it. “I have here the victim’s autopsy report. It says, and I quote, “Cause of death: Unknown”. How can you claim that anyone clobbered the victim with vague forensic information like this?”

The crowd launched into a bit of murmuring and Fulbright opened his mouth to respond, but Phoenix wouldn’t allow any of that. He had even more stashed away inside the court record to stop the detective’s logic in his tracks.

Furthermore. There’s this gun that was found at the scene of the crime, which you conveniently neglected to mention. I took the liberty of looking into the matter myself and wouldn’t you know it? Gatewater Land’s security team doesn’t own fire arms, nor does Mr. Butz have a license to carry one at all. This implies that unless my defendant is a magician capable of pulling a weapon out of his pants, a third party is the one who turned this incident into a gunfight.”

Even more noise washed over them from the gallery’s end of things. Phoenix didn’t need Athena’s ability to know that they were starting to question the detective’s 'baseless speculation’. As for Fulbright himself, he stood completely still, eyebrows raised with surprise.

“What’s the matter, detective? Badger got your tongue?” Phoenix asked, smirking.

“No, it’s just…” Fulbright deflated and began to press his fingers together, looking torn. “I’m not sure where to begin with pointing out the contradictions to your contradictions. I’ve never been the one to disprove someone’s words with evidence before. It’s sort of intimidating. Should I shout “hold it” or “take that”…? Or maybe I can coin my own catchphrase…”

“What are you talking about…?”

“Well-”

“What Fool Bright is attempting to say,” Prosecutor Blackquill cut across him in a sharp tone of voice, “is that it seems you are behind on the times and sorely mistaken with your own baseless speculation, Wright-dono. That outdated autopsy report you are brandishing is nothing more than a feather duster compared to the might of the actual sword.”

O-outdated?!” Phoenix repeated, knowing exactly what was coming up. He’d fallen into that enticing trap once again, hadn’t he?

“After the body was successfully extracted from the animatronic, a new autopsy report was compiled. One with far more information than the first draft. It has even been submitted to the court as evidence before this trial began. To be honest, I’m not certain how you could’ve obtained that first version short of digging through the police department’s trash.”

Phoenix felt his confidence plummet like a ton of bricks and he shot an accusing glare Fulbright’s way. It missed its mark spectacularly, as the man was staring up at the ceiling with an expression that failed to cover his obvious guilt in the matter. …Great. Of course the information he’d gained on the first day would be 'trash’.

The judge shuffled through some papers to uncover the updated autopsy report and had a copy passed on to the defense’s bench. Phoenix glanced down at it with no limit to his apprehension and Athena leaned closer to do the same. Time of death: Shortly before 3:04 AM on August 18th. Cause of death: Heavy blow to the back of the head with a blunt object. It was exactly like Fulbright theorized.

“Hang on… How can the forensic team get this kind of detailed information? I thought the state of the body made that sort of thing impossible.”

“Easy!” Fulbright laughed and smacked a hand down on the witness stand. “The way some skull fragments were situated didn’t match up with the damage done by the insides of the animatronic’s head.  It suggested a blow to the back of the head that was forceful enough to shatter the skull, leading to instantaneous death. Then there’s the time of death, which they got from the victim’s watch. After it was crushed between the animatronic’s hand and the bones of the victim’s arm, it broke and stopped moving. That means the victim was killed before 3:04.”

Another eerie silence. Once again, someone in the back of the gallery managed a stifled retch.

“Then… How do you explain the gun that we found?”

“Ha ha ha! Mr. Lawyer, did you even take a close look at the gun in question? It’s not really a gun at all! It’s just a prop used by one of the animatronics. It can’t fire any bullets!”

Ah. Well. Now Phoenix just felt silly. Even more evidence to be classified as trash. “So we’re dealing with a missing murder weapon.”

“Not at all! We recovered it later in the day!”

“Y-you did? Well, what is it?”

Fulbright raised a finger in a 'one second’ sort of manner, then patted himself down as if searching his pockets. …Did he forget to bring the evidence? One of the detective’s subordinates came running up to him and handed him what appeared to be a black club, before retreating back into the obscurity of the gallery. Blackquill looked like he was suffering some secondhand embarrassment, but Fulbright simply laughed it off.

“Ha ha ha, right, thank you! Yes! It’s this nightstick. Every security guard carries one of these. We found it in the bushes just outside the haunted mansion. It has the victim’s blood on it and it’s covered with the defendant’s fingerprints. In fact, we have reason to believe that this one belongs to the defendant, as he wasn’t carrying his when we arrested him.”

Phoenix’s jaw dropped. This was it. They were done for. A conclusive murder weapon and a motive. How were they supposed to turn this thing around now? Athena muttered a soft “dios mio…” by his side, hanging her head.

“The prosecution would also like to submit this as evidence,” Blackquill noted, the smirk on his face so twisted that Phoenix suspected this was nothing more than revenge for tricking Fulbright into dragging the man to the animatronic show.

The judge announced that the murder weapon was accepted by the court and it felt as if he was using his gavel to slam another nail into Phoenix’s coffin. …Rather, it’d be Larry’s coffin. They had to put a stop to this right now. Turn it around, think outside the box, believe in the client… C'mon…!

“OBJECTION!” he blurted out, his following argument only half-formed in his head. He’d just have to stumble his way through it. “This nightstick alone doesn’t prove my client’s guilt! I mean… Err. If it’s his, then it’d be logical that his fingerprints would be all over it, wouldn’t it? That doesn’t mean he used it to hit the victim!”

Blackquill produced a very loud tisking sound, tapping a finger against his forehead. “A fellow inmate once told me that the only traps we are liable to spring in life are the ones we set out ourselves.”

“Ooh, that sounds very wise,” Athena admitted, even if it was a bit reluctantly. She seemed to be noting the saying for future reference. “Was he a poet, maybe?”

“… He worked for a local pest control company. His hands were marred with scars from failing to set up mouse traps. That is not the point.”

“Then, what is the point?” Phoenix asked, because he was missing it. What did springing traps have to do with animatronics?

“The point is that unless this nightstick magically came to life and decided to assault an innocent man on its own accord, the defendant is the only one who could carry the burden of guilt. This is a court of law, Wright-dono, not kindergarten. I expect even you to have a firm enough grasp on reality to accept basic facts.”

“But if someone else came into the park-”

“No one else entered the park that night,” Blackquill cut across him immediately, assuming an offensive stance as if he was about to draw a sword. “And the prosecution is prepared to prove it with no room for doubt.”

…Crap.

“So it’s time for that testimony, right sir? You got it!” Fulbright grinned and saluted again.

More testimony… Great. Maybe it’d give them another contradiction to poke at. The slightest inconsistency that could start something bigger. Phoenix sure hoped so. At this rate, the judge would move on to his verdict and Phoenix might as well hand in his badge all over again. He’d never forgive himself if Larry got declared guilty. Nobody would forgive him. He placed both hands on the defense’s bench, listening intently to the detective’s testimony.

“Gatewater Land is located on an island. Even if someone were to take a boat there, it’s surrounded by a huge brick wall that’s impossible to climb and equipped with a security system. That’s why the only way into the park is through the main gate, which is locked tight after closing time. Gatewater Land’s cameras record 24/7 and send a live feed to the security office. All the footage is digitally stored for safekeeping, so even if a guard missed something at the time, they can always go back and review the videos. Sadly, there aren’t any cameras near the crime scene, so we can’t be sure who entered it that night. However, there’s a security camera that’s directed towards the gate at all times, so naturally, the police examined that night’s footage. Not a single person can be seen.”

… … Crap.

Phoenix’s desperation must’ve been written all over his face, because Blackquill’s smirk grew just a bit wider. He raised a hand to his mouth and a sharp whistle rang through the courtroom. The next moment, Taka the hawk descended onto the judge’s head, eliciting a funny sound of alarm. A small object was dropped onto the judge’s desk.

“All of that night’s footage was copied onto this USB drive,” Blackquill explained, “and the prosecution would like to submit it as evidence, so that the court may verify with their own eyes that there were no trespassers.”

“Errr… The court accepts it,” the judge muttered, his gaze straying upward even though he couldn’t see the hawk that was perched just outside his range of vision.

What now? What was Phoenix supposed to poke at? If the police really did examine all of the main gate footage from that night, it’d have to be impossible that someone entered through there. Then, what was the loophole? Hm…

“Hold it!” He slammed a hand down on the bench, then directed his finger Fulbright’s way. “Just because nobody entered that night doesn’t mean that nobody else was there! People were coming and going out of the park like it was nothing the day before the incident! Someone could’ve hidden and waited for nightfall before emerging!”

“Unlikely! Gatewater Land keeps a tally of the amount of people entering the park and the amount of people that passes through the exit. That way, they can be sure all the visitors have left before they close up,” Fulbright explained. “The numbers for the day before the incident matched up perfectly, meaning nobody could’ve stayed behind.”

That left Phoenix speechless for a moment. It was a good thing that Athena had his back, as the way she jumped into the argument helped cover up Phoenix’s proverbial stumble.

“What if someone entered the park without going through the main gate? Either the day before or the night itself? The system wouldn’t count them and the camera wouldn’t spot them!” she argued, her eyes narrowing in fierce determination.

“Was something lodged in your ears when the witness gave his testimony?” Blackquill drawled from across the courtroom. “The park is as heavily secured as a fortress, surrounded by walls and water from all sides. Unless you mean to imply that someone dropped in with a parachute?”

The prosecutor started laughing hoarsely, slamming a hand down on the bench as he did so. A few people in the gallery chortled along. Taka finally left the judge’s head to settle on the prosecutor’s shoulder instead, earning him an affectionate scritch. Going by the content look on his face, it seemed like Blackquill was already convinced he’d won. Phoenix wished he could prove that someone might’ve parachuted in, but the court would demand evidence without so much as a second thought. … No, hang on… What if, instead of dropping in from above, someone came in from below?

“Well… Nearly every amusement park has a tunnel system, right?” he began to muse aloud, rubbing a hand along his chin. “To allow for easy maintenance to the rides and things like that? Besides, having only one way in and out of the park sounds like a serious hazard. What if the tunnel system connects to the main land to help serve as an emergency exit?”

Fulbright frowned, his gaze shooting to Blackquill and then back again. He drew a deep breath and began to fiddle with his aviators. “The tunnels need special clearance to be accessed. It’s not like anyone could just waltz in there.”

“Wait, so… It is possible to enter the park through underground tunnels?!” Phoenix was absolutely dumbstruck. That was just wild speculation on his part.

“Ah, well… Possible is kind of a big word. Technically it is a possibility, but the location of the mainland’s entrance isn’t public knowledge and there’s a security system in place, so it’s more like impossible.”

“Impossible unless you’re an employee who knows about these details! Possibly even a former employee!”

Finally! Finally, they were getting somewhere. This was the opening that Phoenix had needed. If he could prove that someone entered the park through the tunnels, it’d mean that Larry wasn’t the only one with the opportunity to murder. Maybe there was even someone out there with a much more substantial motive.

Fulbright seemed to be thinking along the same lines. Panic was becoming obvious now. It was the wonderful moment where the detective in charge of the case would begin to question themselves, aggravated by the fact that Fulbright was- well- Fulbright. False arrests were quite unjust, after all.

“AAAH! That’s true! Former employees would know about that! How could I miss something so obvious?!” the man was hollering, both hands clutching at his head.

“Don’t beat yourself up over it, detective,” Athena said in a tone of voice that was perhaps a bit too smug. “We all make mistakes.”

“Nooo, this is terrible! How could I-”

A loud slam of the bench and a sharp “Fool Bright” shut the detective up again, as Blackquill was finally butting in. “I know your mind is as dull as a rock, but at least make an attempt not to fall for the defense’s parlor tricks. Possibilities are not truths, they are only hypotheticals. The defense has no evidence that someone traversed the tunnels that night.”

“Nor does the prosecution have evidence that someone didn’t!”

“The burden of evidence lies with the defense, not the prosecution. We have already outlined the truth as we see it and we stand by that claim.”

“Uhoh…” Athena whispered.

How were they supposed to prove something like that? They couldn’t. Not with the evidence they had in hand right now. The only other thing they still had at their disposal right now was testimony, but it was clear from Fulbright’s expression that he wouldn’t be any help either. Then…

“Your Honor, at this point in time, the defense finds a ruling to be premature,” Phoenix announced, preparing himself for another blind leap of faith. “The possibility of a third party entering the scene of the crime is one that needs to be examined. In fact, if someone did sneak into the park that night and got caught, it’d be the perfect motive for murder. That’s why we’d like to request a second witness to take the stand.”

“A second witness?” Blackquill echoed, looking highly skeptical.

“It’s the job of the security guards to keep an eye on the park, right? That’s why the defense requests that the defendant, Larry Butz, testifies about the security routine and the possibility of someone using the tunnel system that night.”

“Hmph. How shameless. The defendant himself would be only too happy to imply that a figment of your imagination infiltrated the park, Wright-dono.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time a defendant is called to testify. Besides, he’d have to stick to facts, not implications. If someone was in the park that night, a closer look at the security measures will help us determine when they might’ve been caught and how. … It’s up to His Honor to decide.”

He cast his gaze up to the judge and did his best to look confident. To look like he knew exactly what he was doing. To look sympathetic and lord-knows-what-else might sway the old man. This was the moment where their long history together would have to pay off. This was the moment that the judge would have to recognize, as they’ve been in this position before. Humoring Phoenix’s bluffs had usually paid off and revealed the truth.

The judge seemed lost in thought for a moment. His eyes were closed and he was stroking his beard with one hand. Then he finally reached a decision. “I’m no stranger to your unconventional courtroom tactics, Mr. Wright, which is why I’ll allow it. However, be warned that if this testimony doesn’t go anywhere, it’ll result in a hefty penalty for the defense.”

“I understand, Your Honor. Thank you.”

Blackquill tutted loudly, his frustration radiating off him with such ferocity he might turn nuclear at any second. Fulbright abandoned the witness stand and Larry pushed himself to his feet, looking more than a little hesitant about the whole thing. “Nick, are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

To be honest, not knowing what he was doing summed up roughly fifty percent of Phoenix’s courtroom actions. He knew better than to voice that much out loud, though. Instead, he gave a firm nod of the head. Larry sighed and took his place by the witness stand.

“Name and occupation?”

“Larry Butz. I’m one of the security guards at Gatewater Land. Then again… I guess I’ll be getting the pink slip soon either way.”

“You heard Mr. Wright. Can you give us some testimony about the way nighttime security is handled?”

“Sure. Let’s see… Ever since the incident in June, the park changed its policy. Now, at least two guards need to be on duty at all times. During the daytime, we usually have five of them roaming the park. As for the tunnels, you’d have to open them up with a special security override that changes every month. So, I dunno, I guess it's possible for current employees to enter them whenever they want. One of the rules for the night shift is that there need to be a few regular patrol rounds, just to be sure there isn’t any suspicious activity happening where the cameras can’t catch it. Because someone needs to be present in the office at all times, that means the other night guard has to stay behind. Genta always liked to handle the patrols himself whenever he was on duty. From 2:30 to 3:15 was the last round he would’ve made. So… Yeah, if someone else was wandering around the park that night, there’s a good chance he would’ve caught them. As for me, I was watching the cameras the whole time!”

Blackquill tutted again. “As I said, nothing more than hypothetical fantasies that cannot be proven. The word “if” is not a solid foundation for any argument.”

That much was true, but Phoenix saw a different angle to attack from. He even had evidence to back him up. It meant making Larry look even worse, but… Well, this was a pursuit for the truth, and it was still better than being branded a murderer.

“Larry… I’m sure you remember the talk we had yesterday. About how much of your attention was really on the cameras.”

“N-Nick! C'mon, man! What kinda lawyer are you?! You’re supposed to be on my side!” Larry banged two fists down on the witness stand, his cheeks flushing with indignation.

“You’re already getting the pink slip, so why not just admit it?” Phoenix took out the alarm clock and set it down on the defense’s bench for everyone to see. “While Genta was out on his patrol round, you were taking a nap! The alarm proves it!”  

The gallery exploded into a loud buzz of whispering and murmuring. Even the judge looked appalled, causing Larry to become even more flustered.

“Look, it was a really long day, okay?! So what if I closed my eyes for a second?!”

“The autopsy report proves that the victim was murdered at 3:04 in the morning. If you were sleeping until the alarm woke you up at 3:13, that means you couldn’t have been the killer.”

“T-that’s…”

Even more noise from the gallery. It seemed like a wave of confusion was washing over them, increasing in strength as it went. The judge was just about to slam his gavel when it was Blackquill who finally put a stop to it.

Silence! The defense is once again grasping at pitiful straws! If this is how you do battle, Wright-dono, you are not worth my attention. Not only is it impossible to prove the defendant was truly asleep, it’s impossible prove when he would have dozed off.”

“That’s true, Mr. Wright,” the judge coined in. “Napping is not considered a proper alibi in any court of law unless a witness can confirm it.”

Phoenix felt his confidence slip away again, but he had to keep on trekking. He had to keep his argument going. “No, but… It’s not just an alibi. See, if the defendant was asleep, it explains how he would’ve missed a third party and if the victim had called for help, he wouldn’t have heard it.”

“How many times must I repeat myself before you accept it? There was no third party.”

“Yeah! There was no one else in the park, Nick!” Larry’s voice took on a slightly squeaky tone. Maybe all the yelling was finally affecting him. “I mean… C'mon, that’s impossible, right?! The whole point of the upgraded security is to keep people out! When I went out to find Genta, I didn’t see anybody suspicious!”

A hushed silence fell. Why was Larry, of all people, agreeing with the prosecution? Phoenix cast a glance to his side to see that Athena was playing with her earring as if she was lost in thought. Then he spotted something else from the corner of his eye and turned his head further to see Apollo waving at him. The moment their gazes met, Apollo gestured towards his bracelet. The realization clicked immediately and Phoenix reached into his pocket, where his fingers met the magatama. Psyche-locks shot into being all around the witness stand.

“Boss… I don’t really get why, but Mr. Butz’s heart is all messed up.” Athena’s mutter took a few additional seconds to register inside his brain.

“…Yeah. He’s lying.”


To Be Continued

Chapter Text

Date: August 19th 2027 Time: 11:29 AM.
Location: District Court – Courtroom No. 4.

Just like that, the case had taken on a whole new turn. A whole new meaning. Larry had insisted that he hadn’t seen anyone else in the park- that it’d be impossible. But if that was true, why was Apollo’s bracelet reacting? Why were there Psyche-locks? Why was it that Athena could hear discord? …Why would Larry insist on something like that at all, if admitting there might’ve been someone else would help his case?

What was he hiding?

He turned his full attention to Athena, but he didn’t need to open his mouth. It seemed like she already knew exactly what he was thinking. A slam of the bench later, she’d started her assault. “Your Honor! The defense would like to examine the defendant’s statements just now in closer detail!”

“Closer detail?” The judge looked absolutely dumbstruck. “But why? He was just repeating the prosecution’s earlier claim. Isn’t it damaging to your case?”

“It’s precisely because it’s damaging to our case that we need to examine it more closely. Mr. Butz’s statement is damaging to himself as well, so why insist on it? The fact of the matter is that the defendant’s heart is filled with discord. The defense believes he’s purposely hiding the truth because it upsets him and a quick therapy session may draw it out of him. Besides, the defendant claimed that he 'didn’t see anybody suspicious after he went out to find his colleague’. While it agrees with the prosecution’s claims, it’s technically new information, which means we require detailed testimony on the matter.”

Heh. At times, Phoenix forgot just how great a lawyer Athena could be when given the right incentive. Analytical psychology really was a breath of fresh air in the courtroom. The judge seemed to contemplate the matter for a moment, then turned to Blackquill. “Does the prosecution have any objections?”

“Going by that lass’s determined face, I highly doubt the prosecution has a choice in the matter,” Blackquill replied. “… Regardless, if the defense wishes to take a blade and impale their own foot with it, who am I to stand in their way? Most prosecutors could only wish for a trial where their opponent does the work for them.”

“Well… Alright then. The court will allow further testimony on the matter,” the judge announced with a slam of the gavel.

Larry turned positively livid. “Awww, c'mon! It’s like this whole court is against me! I thought you guys were supposed to be looking after me! And what about that jerk of a prosecutor, huh? Just goes to show that having connections with the Prosecutor’s Office doesn’t pay off!”

Phoenix ended up shaking his head. Of course the Chief Prosecutor wouldn’t go easy on Larry. Why should he, if he too was convinced that their old friend was innocent? No matter how great the prosecutor assigned to the case, the truth would prevail and get Larry off the hook again. It was a matter of trust, really.

“It shouldn’t pay off, Larry, and I’m shocked that you think it would. We’re going to prove your innocence with our own strength, but in order to do that we need your testimony. So let’s hear it. What happened after you went out to find the victim?”

Maaaan…”  Larry cringed and huffed, then did as he was told. “Okay, so… I know there’s supposed to be one guard staying behind in the office at all times, but when Genta didn’t return and I couldn’t reach him over the walkie talkies, I broke the rules and went out to find him. I spent fifteen minutes wandering around all over the place. That’s when… I mean- I just happened to see that the door to the haunted house was open. There was nobody else around, you hear?!”

Phoenix cast a quick glance over his shoulder, into the gallery, to see that Apollo was once again gesturing at his bracelet. There it was, clear as day. A lie. Larry’s story still made it clear that he wasn’t the culprit, but at the same time, he was hiding that there might’ve been someone else who would’ve done it. What a contradiction. Athena would find the cause of it without a doubt.

“Sehr gut,” she exclaimed as she gave Widget a quick tap. The Mood Matrix’s screen unfolded before her and she began to enter the information into it. “Let’s see what we can find!”

It didn’t take long for the little gadget to go absolutely berserk. All the flickering lights and shaky images could only mean one thing. There was some serious noise going on. Whatever the truth was, it made Larry upset. The visualizations weren’t helping, for the most part. They were exactly as Larry described them.

“Hm… I’m getting a lot of fear and shock at those last two statements. Something here has to be the cause for it,” Athena mused to herself.

“He just happened to notice the door to the haunted house was open? I don’t know… That sounds a little fishy, don’t you think?”

“Maybe. It’s all we have to go on right now.” She turned her attention back to Larry himself and raised her voice. “Mr. Butz! Withholding information in court is considered perjury! How about you tell us what really happened when you approached the haunted house?”

“Are you callin’ me a liar?!” Larry shouted back at her, hands curled into tight fists.

“I ain’t callin’ you a truther! You were filled with fear when you saw the door to the haunted house was open. Why is that?”

“T-that’s… I thought… I mean… It was just a trick of the light!” Larry was losing it, now. He ruffled his hair with both hands, lips stretched so thin they were turning white. “There’s no WAY I saw what I thought I saw! That’s CRAZY! I was just tired and my mind was playing TRICKS on me! That’s all it was!”

“What do you think you saw, Mr. Butz? Go right ahead and tell us, we won’t judge you.”

“It was… I saw silhouettes of four people leaving the house. It was dark, so I couldn’t see much more than their outlines, but they were HUGE! And… There was something really weird about them! I guess I musta blacked out for a second. By the time I pulled myself back together, they were gone! And then I figured… Maybe they were never there.”

Four huge, weird people? …That did sound crazy. First there were no culprits, now there several of them? Athena had assured Larry they wouldn’t judge, but it sounded more like a trick of the light than something Larry actually could’ve seen. Even so, Athena updated the Mood Matrix with the new information and the noise level died down to 50%. The visualization changed to include four ominous, blurry silhouettes by the haunted house door.  Did that mean Larry really did see four people? Or maybe he saw something else that only looked like four people.

“Hm… Can you tell us a little more about the silhouettes, Mr. Butz? They seem to be a huge cause for alarm,” Athena  pointed out, her gaze caught on the screen. “What sort of impression did they leave on you?”

“A suspicious one, of course! There aren’t supposed to be people in the park at night! And Genta was nowhere to be found! Of course I’d be alarmed! They were really big and shady, a-and… I think one of ’m was a girl.”

“… A girl? What makes you say that?”

“I dunno. I just… I guess I saw something that just seemed to scream 'girl’, but I can’t remember what it was…”

Wow. This story was getting crazier by the second. What was it that the judge had said about a penalty if Larry’s testimony didn’t go anywhere? They’d be heading in that direction soon enough if they couldn’t find an explanation for what Larry had seen- or thought he’d seen.

“Once again, the defense has managed to waste the court’s time in a spectacular manner,” Blackquill remarked with a mean sneer. “Perhaps we are to believe that four ghosts fled the confides of the haunted house that night?”

Ghosts? That was even sillier than four trespassers. There weren’t any ghosts in the haunted house, there were only-

…Oh. OHHH.

Just like that, everything fell into place. There it was, right in front of him. The truth. He didn’t know what this meant, or how it was possible, but… Oddly enough, there was evidence to support it. Yes, the court record was on his side for this one. The court record, and one more thing. Detective Fulbright had given it to him the other day, hadn’t he? He started digging through his pockets, harboring the frantic hope that he still had it. That he hadn’t accidentally tossed it out. Hold onto everything for at least a week, that was his personal motto. And there it was. A crumpled up little booklet- a pamphlet.

“HOLD IT!” His shout echoed through the courtroom and he pointed a finger at Larry, even as the other hand held onto the evidence with such force that it crumpled. “Larry, let me get this absolutely straight. You believe you saw four people. You described them as 'huge’, meaning they were larger than the average human being, and you believe one of them was female. Is that correct?”

“Uh… Yeah. Why?”

“Could it be that the reason you thought one of them was female was because she was wearing a bow on her head?”

“… Hey! Hey, yeah! I think she was! How’d you know?”

“Are these the four individuals you saw?”

Phoenix stepped out from behind the defense’s bench to hand the pamphlet to Larry in person. For a few seconds, there was nothing. Then Larry seemed to reach the same realization. His eyes widened in shock and the hand holding the pamphlet began to shake.

“Haaah?! NO WAY! You don’t think…- Nick! You seriously think that’s possible?!”

“What?” Athena piped up from behind the bench. “What’d you show him? Who’d he see? Boss!”

Phoenix decided it was best to ignore Athena for now and keep moving forward. He had to secure his foothold before he could delve into the details, because he knew things were going to get messy soon enough. “The defense would like to have this pamphlet submitted as evidence, as we believe it reveals the true identity of the four silhouettes lingering near the scene of the crime moments before our defendant stumbled across the body himself.”

“Errr. Sustained. Let’s see it, then.” The judge held out a hand and Phoenix passed the pamphlet on to him. From the corner of his eye, he could see Blackquill craning his head to try and get a look at it as well, but the distance was simply too great. The judge frowned, then began to read a segment from the pamphlet aloud. “All guests, read this tale and read it well. Since it was founded, Gatewater Land and all those who visit it have been protected by the Blue Badger and his two pals. …Mr. Wright, what is the meaning of this?”

“Why, it’s the lore of the Blue Badger, of course. The Blue Badger is Gatewater Land’s mascot and as such, he and his pals can be found all across the park. If it pleases the court, I would like to draw your attention to the segment about the Pink Badger.”

“Pink Badger… Blue Badger’s lovely wife and partner in law enforcement. Note her unique, pink bow,” the judge recited.

“Precisely! That is why the defendant believed one of the four silhouettes was female. The pink bow is the Pink Badger’s defining feature. Aside from being, well, pink, but the defendant has also testified that it was very dark at the time.”

“What rubbish!” Blackquill was finally getting his second wind, smacking a hand down on the prosecution’s bench with so much force that Taka, who was still perched on his shoulder, became visibly startled. “You expect us to believe these imaginary badgers were present at the scene of the crime?! As you yourself have already said, images of those monstrosities can be found all over the park. The dimwitted defendant may have caught a glimpse of a poster or something similar!”

“But there’s more!” Phoenix returned to his own bench to stand by Athena’s side with a casual stroll. “The court may also recall what was found at the scene of the crime the very next day. Our red herring murder weapon, so to speak. A pistol that would not fire any bullets. It was Detective Fulbright himself who testified that it was a prop belonging to an animatronic. Now, Your Honor, please turn your attention to the Bad Badger’s portion.”

“Let’s see here… Bad Badger, Blue Badger’s greatest nemesis. A vile criminal with a gun.

“The Bad Badger is the only one of the badgers to hold a gun. Now, as far as I know, Gatewater Land’s haunted house only has two animatronics; the Blue Badger that was used to 'hide’ the body and a Proto Badger a bit further on. One has to wonder, then, how the Bad Badger’s gun ended up in there. There are two Bad Badger animatronics in the park. One is in the stage show, rooted to the spot and holding a trumpet of doom-”

Saxophone!” Fulbright called at him from across the courtroom.

“Err, yes, thank you, Detective. Saxophone of doom. Which leaves only one other Bad Badger; the fully mobile one used for the parade. And before you ask, yes, there are four fully mobile badger animatronics in total. That is who the defendant saw that night!”

The gallery erupted into a steady hum of disbelief and with that, he dared to cast another glance towards the Mood Matrix’s screen. Sure enough, it had already updated itself to support Phoenix’s theory. The four silhouettes in the visualization had gained more detail and now the shape of their heads matched those of the badgers. Apparently, Larry believed that he’d seen the four animatronics as well.

Still, that turned out to be the final straw for Blackquill. His eyes flashed dangerously and the next moment, he’d smashed his manacles down on the prosecutor’s bench with a loud crashing sound. Smashed them with such force that the chain connecting them was broken to pieces, little bits of metal flying every which way. A few people in the gallery screamed and for some reason, Detective Fulbright looked surprisingly calm about that turn of events. Sure, it wasn’t the first time Blackquill had broken his shackles, but that didn’t mean he was allowed to! There’d be consequences, right? …Right?

Wright-dono…!” the man hissed under his breath, head bowed so far that half his face was hidden behind matted hair. “You are making a mockery of these hallowed halls. If you cannot keep your tongue from spinning fairy tales, I will cut it out of your mouth…!”

“Fairy tale? Not really. My theory checks out so far.”

“A theory that could very well have been rehearsed with the defendant beforehand. Is that not why you insisted to have him take the stand? …You claim a toy gun proves that the animatronics somehow made their way to the crime scene? I beg to differ. You cannot prove when that gun was left there, nor can you prove it wasn’t planted there by the defendant himself to throw us off the trail. Unless, of course, you have concrete evidence that it was the Bad Badger who was living up to his name that night?”

“Err. Well, I think in order to do that, we might need some more testimony on the four badgers and how they work. If they behaved out of the ordinary that night, there might be a way to look into it. Wouldn’t you agree, Your Honor?”

He cast another hopeful glance up towards the judge, who simply sighed and shook his head. “Mr. Wright, at this point I’m willing to go with the flow. I’d be lying if I said I’m not curious to find out where you’re going with this.”

“Thanks, Your Honor!” he chirped, trying his hardest not to smirk, because he knew Blackquill was watching him like a… Well, not a hawk. More like a particularly nasty vulture. “So, how about it, Larry? What can you tell us about the badgers?”

Larry tilted his head, a deep frown settling on his face. That was foreboding. Sure enough, his testimony seemed like it was nothing helpful at first glance. “Uh… I don’t know too much about ’m, to be honest. Those things are really expensive, you see. Most of the time, they’re deactivated and locked away in the Proto Badger’s Proto Workshop so kids can’t poke at ’m. I think they have an internal clock so they can activate automatically when it’s time for the parade. Maintenance is scheduled for once every two weeks, but I never got to touch ’m. That was Genta’s thing. He was really particular about it, too. Never let anybody else near those things. Guess he was worried someone else might break them.”

Huh… Now that Phoenix thought about it, didn’t Detective Fulbright say some similar things yesterday? That the fully mobile badgers were the pride and joy of the park, meaning they were only brought out for the parade? And their programming was limited to walking that particular route? He was sure the parade didn’t pass right by the front door of the haunted house, certainly not in the middle of the night. Did that mean someone could’ve messed with the badger’s settings? Well, he’d still have to prove they were out there at all. That was the whole point of Larry’s testimony.

…Hang on… If they were out there, that means they came from somewhere!

“Your Honor, I believe the answer that we seek is hidden right here in the court record! And it was submitted by the prosecution, no less!”

“What rubbish is this?!” Blackquill snapped, eyes narrowing into another dangerous glare.

“I’m referring to the camera footage, of course. Both the police department and the prosecution focused on the main gate, because they wanted to prove that no outsiders entered the park. That much is true, but the badgers aren’t outsiders and there’s more than one security camera in the park. When the USB drive was submitted, Prosecutor Blackquill stated that all of that night’s footage was copied onto it. If we dig a little deeper, I’m sure we’ll find exactly what we’re looking for.”

“But Boss… Didn’t they already say there’s no cameras outside the haunted house?” Athena looked apprehensive, for some reason. Oh, ye of little faith…

“That’s fine. We don’t need to see the badgers’ destination. We only need to see whether they went out to play when it was past their bedtime, so to speak. The defense requests that we examine the footage that was shot just outside the Proto Badger’s workshop. I know for a fact that there’s a camera with a very nice view of the door.”

Blackquill slammed his manacles against the prosecutor’s bench again, sure to leave a few scuffs in the polished wood. “I trust you understand one thing, Wright-dono. If we fail to see your phantom badgers leave their cozy little home, I’ll be the one badgering you into an early grave.”

“…Duly noted.”

Not even a minute later, a bailiff was carrying a large laptop into the courtroom so they could examine the footage. The earliest time stamp was 9 PM, the park’s closing time, on the day before the crime. That’s where they started watching. Just like Phoenix had claimed, one of the cameras had an impeccable view of the Proto Badger’s Proto Workshop. In fact, it was so detailed that he could even read the 'authorized personnel only’ sign on the door. With only one way in and out of the workshop,  there was no way those badgers could’ve made it to the haunted house without passing by there.

Phoenix started fast forwarding through the footage. At 10 PM, there was nothing. At midnight, still nothing. This was when the night shift would’ve started. At 1:23 AM Phoenix saw movement and hastily paused the footage, only to spot a rather confused-looking squirrel.

“That’s a far cry from a badger!” Blackquill had joked, before bursting into a few vicious guffaws. Phoenix felt his cheeks burn with indignation, but didn’t give up.

2 AM, still nothing. It wasn’t until the time stamp reached 2:43 that the footage gained relevance, though not quite in the way Phoenix had envisioned. Instead of the badgers leaving the workshop, someone else was entering it. After throwing a shifty glance at his surroundings, anyway.

“Hold on…” the judge muttered, because not even he could be oblivious to how bizarre this turn of events was. “Isn’t that the victim? What’s the meaning of this, Mr. Wright?”

“I… I don’t know, Your Honor,” he admitted. “Maybe it’s part of the routine patrol?”

“It’s not. What the hell did he think he was doing?” Larry was looking, if possible, even more confused than the rest of them.

If only there were cameras inside the workshop. If only they could see what Genta was doing in there. Phoenix allowed the footage to keep playing and waited. Not even two minutes had passed before the door opened again. In a way, Genta was exiting the workshop. Still, in a way, Phoenix had been right about the animatronics all along.

Out trooped the Proto Badger, holding a curious object aloft in one hand as if it was leading a marching band. Upon closer inspection, Phoenix was fairly sure it was the nightstick. The Blue Badger appeared next, Genta’s unconscious body slung over its shoulder. …No, not unconscious. He was already bleeding from his head and according to the autopsy report, death had been instantaneous. The Blue Badger was carrying a corpse. The Pink Badger followed closely behind it, as the duo was shackled together by the wrists. That was part of the badger lore. Bringing up the rear was the Bad Badger, its sunglasses flashing ominously in the hue of a nearby ornate street light. It was clutching the prop gun in its hand.

The badgers exited stage right and a stunned silence washed over the courtroom. Nobody dared to speak, not even Blackquill. Detective Fulbright looked like he’d suffered a blue screen of death, his expression frozen in horror until his system would finally 'reboot’. Athena had both hands pressed to her cheeks, her jaw halfway to the floor.

“Errr. And there you have it,” Phoenix proclaimed.

The judge blinked, his gaze moving from the defense’s bench to the laptop, then back again. “… What is it that we have here exactly, Mr. Wright?”

“Decisive evidence that, uhm. Well, my client didn’t do it. He wasn’t anywhere near the scene of the crime. It’s these badgers who committed murder for some reason.”

“They were framed!” Fulbright hollered, apparently having snapped himself out of his shock again. “There’s no way the Blue Badger and his pals would commit murder! They’re allies of justice! Even the Bad Badger isn’t really a bad guy! They wouldn’t harm a fly!”

“Why would someone want to frame a bunch of animatronic badgers?” Athena asked, frowning.

“I-I don’t know…! To slander the police department’s good name, maybe?”

Fair enough, Phoenix supposed. Seeing the police department’s own mascot carrying a corpse around wouldn’t be good for publicity. Still, there had to be more to this story. There was something huge that they were missing. Why the animatronics? Why Genta?

“You all have gotten so absorbed staring at a select few trees, you’re neglecting the bigger picture of the woods we’ve found ourselves in.” Blackquill stood up a bit straighter, the feather clenched between his teeth jiggling up and down for a moment. “Animatronics have no minds of their own. They are merely puppets to be toyed with, meaning there is a puppet master involved. These badgers have certain programming that may be tampered with, and who is in a better position to commit sabotage than an employee of the park? An employee like, say, the defendant?”

Athena’s jaw dropped all over again. “Whaaat?! You still think Mr. Butz is involved?!”

“I have ample reason to. We’ve received no reports that the animatronics were misbehaving the day before the incident, nor the day after. The only person who could have initiated this nightmareish mode after the park’s closing hours, then changed it back after the deed was done, is the person standing before us now. Depending on how the controls are accessed, one need not even enter the workshop to do it. ”

“T-that’s…!”

“Hey, c'mon! You think I know how to mess with those things?!” Larry’s voice was reaching a funny high note and Phoenix could see Taka squirm in an uncomfortable manner. Was his old friend going supersonic? “That’s giving me WAY too much credit! I can barely change the settings on a microwave!”

“There is but one way to be certain. The controls for animatronics with a price tag as grand as these no doubt hold records. If we contact Gatewater Land, they will be only too happy to provide us with a copy. Then, we will have the evidence we need to lock you away for good.”

“Geez… Suit yourself, man.”

“Should I declare a recess?” the judge asked. It was funny how he was taking advice from the prosecution on matters like that instead of deciding for himself. If there was an actual puppet master in the courtroom, it’d be Blackquill.

“A brief one will do, Your Honor. Fool Bright here will get in touch with the right people and relay the information back to us within five minutes’ time.”

“I will?” Fulbright looked confused for a moment. Then Blackquill’s glare darkened and the man hastily corrected himself. “I-I mean, I will! Leave it to me! In justice we trust!”

With that, the detective dashed from the courtroom, leaving Blackquill without a handler to keep him in check. A few people seemed unnerved at that notion, but Phoenix doubted there’d be any trouble in the next five minutes. Speaking of which, the judge seemed to have once again lost track of the fact that he was supposed to be guiding the trial. Blackquill had noticed the same thing.

“… The clock is ticking, Your Honor.”

“Ah, right! Court will now take a brief recess!” the judge hastily announced with a slam of the gavel.

They didn’t bother returning to the defendant’s lobby. There was no point; the recess was too brief. Instead, they grouped around their bench and Larry joined them, frazzled as could be. This trial was really starting to take a toll on him. Phoenix hoped it’d be over soon, but with the direction they were going, what sort of ending were they even looking at? Blackquill had had a good point; animatronics didn’t have minds of their own. Who was it who’d sicced the badgers on Genta, and why?

Larry sighed, crossing his arms over his chest. “Man, Nick… I forgot how crazy things could get when you stand in court. And to think you only got your badge back last month…”

“No kidding. Not even the Tenma Taro case got as weird as this,” Athena chimed in.

“Nice to know everyone’s blaming me for this…” Sure, Phoenix had a tendency of landing himself in the middle of some odd trials, but Larry was a beacon of misfortune as well. Maybe it was the combination of the two of them that was to blame. Plus Maya, who was partly involved in all this and drawn towards murder cases like a magnet too. Yeahhh, Phoenix was definitely not the sole problem here. “… How about you help us fill in some more blanks, Larry?”

“Like what?”

“Like the nightstick. Is it really yours?”

“Hm…” Larry took a moment to ponder the matter. “I guess it’d have to be. I lost it the day before the incident. It was just after I talked to you guys and ran off to dodge Genta- remember that? I dunno what happened. One second it was strapped to my belt, the next it was gone.”

“So someone stole it?” Athena asked, looking slightly shaken at the concept.

“Maybe. I didn’t think too much of it at the time. I mean, it wasn’t the first time I accidentally left my stuff lying around for other people to take. That’s why I ended up butting heads with Genta that day, actually. He found out about the nightstick and scolded me for losing park property.”

A distant memory stirred in Phoenix’s mind. Something that had already turned hazy in all the chaos, even if it’d happened only about an hour ago. Fulbright had testified that witnesses had seen Larry arguing with Genta. So that’s what that was about… Ironic, then, that that same nightstick had proven to be Genta’s downfall. Insufferable as the guy had been, he’d been right to get mad at Larry.

“The prosecution seems to think that’s motive for murder,” he ended up pointing out.

“Psh. Please. It wasn’t even really an argument. It was just Genta rambling on and on while I smiled and nodded. I zoned out after about a minute.” Larry waved a hand that was far too nonchalant for Phoenix’s liking. “…Anyway, if something like that was motive for murder, Genta would’ve been killed a hundred times over by now. He was uptight enough to pester anyone who didn’t follow protocol down to the letter. Makes me wonder why he diverted from the patrol route to get inside the workshop…”

“Maybe he’d realized something was up with the badgers and he wanted to fix them? You did say that he was in charge of maintenance checks…” Athena speculated. It seemed like a sound explanation, but something about it was off somehow. Evidently, Larry agreed with that.

“Hmm… I dunno. Even with how protective he was of those things, it’s fishier than Shipshape Aquarium. …Guess we might find out when that detective comes back with the settings records.”

So they waited. On the other side of the courtroom, Blackquill was too busy lavishing Taka with attention to take advantage of the fact that his handler was absent. That was for the best. Phoenix glanced over to his favorite spectators to see that they were all giving him encouraging smiles and thumbs up. Vaguely, he wondered if he’d have to take them to Eldoon’s for celebratory noodles when this trial was over and if so, whether he had enough cash in his wallet to pay for that sort of thing. Trucy might need to lend him some of her allowance.


To Be Continued

Chapter Text

Date: August 19th 2027 Time: 11:50 AM.
Location: District Court – Courtroom No. 4.

As the seconds ticked on, those who’d taken a bathroom break were slowly trickling back into the courtroom to return to their seats. Just before they hit the five minute mark, Detective Fulbright came bursting through the door like a particularly clumsy elephant, papers in hand. …What was that look on his face? Was that dread? Did that mean the prosecution was about to be proven wrong, or did it mean the case was about to get even more complicated?

As he strolled down the aisle to approach the witness stand, the judge took his gavel in hand to call the court to order. There was really no need; the gallery had fallen silent the moment Fulbright had entered the room.

“Court will now reconvene for the trial of Larry Butz,” the judge announced in a booming voice. “Did you get the records we were looking for, detective?”

“Uh. Yeah. Gatewater Land mailed them to me the second I asked for them. Prosecutor Blackquill was right, they do keep tabs on the animatronics’ AI settings and who accesses them.” Fulbright shuffled his feet awkwardly and Phoenix couldn’t help but wonder what was in store for them.

“Let’s hear it. Who had the macabre idea of turning harmless park mascots into serial killers?” Blackquill demanded.

“That’s… Well. According to these records, the settings were accessed at 2:43, but the authorization code belongs to the victim.”

An explosion of noise followed those words. Spectators in the gallery were no longer bothering to whisper or murmur; they were outright talking, some even shouting coarse exclamations of surprise. Phoenix couldn’t blame them. Genta was the one who changed the settings? That didn’t make sense! Why would he instruct the badgers to attack him? Then again, 2:43 matched the time stamp in the security footage. If the control panel was in the workshop after all, it’d have to have been Genta. Did he do something wrong while changing the settings, maybe? …What kind of mistake would change a simple parade route to ‘hit a guy over the head, carry his body to the haunted house and stick him into another animatronic’…?

Blackquill smashed his manacles on the prosecution’s bench yet again, and the crowd instantly fell silent to heed his words. “What an amusing ploy this is turning out to be! Tell me, defendant, did you use the victim’s own authorization to set his death in motion?”

“NO!” Larry snapped immediately. “Give it a rest, dude! I keep tellin’ you it wasn’t me! I don’t even know Genta’s codes! You really think he’d leave that kind of info lying around?!”

Larry had a good point there. If Genta truly was that uptight, he wouldn’t have told a soul about his authorization codes. That confirmed that he was the only one who could’ve tampered with the animatronics.

…Apparently, that wasn’t all. Fulbright cleared his throat loudly and everyone turned their attention back towards the witness stand. “Prosecutor Blackquill, I think you should know… Uhm. The records hold details of the AI settings.”

“…And?” Now it was Blackquill’s turn to become apprehensive. In fact, Phoenix was sure everyone in the courtroom was waiting with bated breath.

“And the thing is… They don’t match up at all.” Fulbright pouted, twiddling his fingers together. “You’d think the settings would involve striking someone and carrying the body to the haunted house, but they don’t. According to the records, they were supposed to activate, walk towards the docks where the rowboats are and then freeze indefinitely. That’s what makes it so strange. They clearly didn’t go to the docks at all and if the settings were never changed back to the parade default, how come they were operating just fine yesterday?”

By now, Phoenix could barely even hear the gallery’s reaction. His mind was far too busy going around in circles to pay attention to anything else. This was one of the biggest contradictions he’d run into in a long time. Not only did the badgers ignore the new settings, they’d apparently acted outside their programming and were now 'going about their business’ as if no one had tampered with them at all.  How was that possible? A glitch? Glitches couldn’t accomplish something quite that specific, could they?

Fulbright had said that Blackquill had been assigned to this case because he was the only prosecutor who was familiar with animatronics, but not even he looked like he could give an explanation. If anything, he was at a loss for words. With all that they knew now- what with the camera footage and the AI settings, there was no way the judge could declare Larry guilty, right? But then, would it really be okay to leave things at that either way? A man had died, but for what? Why? They had to find the truth.

The need for answers drove Phoenix to do what he always did when he was in a pickle; double-check the court records. Maybe there was still a clue somewhere. Something he’d missed. Anything that could explain why the animatronics would turn faulty. Why Genta would even seek them out in the first place.

The updated autopsy report, the Bad Badger’s gun, the Badger Lore pamphlet, the footage, the nightstick… None of it was useful. None of it had any leads. And then, after rummaging through his pockets again, he found one more thing. A clipping given to him by Maya, two days ago. He reread the title and a connection was made. Something that caused his eyes to widen and a bitter taste to dawn in his mouth. Kids Vanish At Local Theme Park. Bodies Not Found.

Four children, four badgers.

He would’ve dismissed the thought as quickly as it’d come, but the more he thought about it, the more sense it made. The more odd little tidbits tied into his theory. It couldn’t be a coincidence.

“Boss, are you okay?” Athena asked, leaning forward to cast a better peek up at his face. “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”

Ooof. Ironic choice of words. “I… I think I know why the badgers are acting funny.”

“Really? You do? Eccellente! Leave it to the great Phoenix Wright!”

“Will you be sharing another farfetched theory with the class, Wright-dono?” Blackquill jeered at him from across the courtroom. “Allow me to wager a guess. They were being guided by their good friend Mr. Monkey, the lovable mascot of Global Studios?”

Phoenix sniffed loudly. It wasn’t like Blackquill had any right to talk of farfetched theories; Phoenix had been right about the badgers so far. And no, Mr. Monkey was not involved this time. “Not even close! Actually, I’d like to tell you all a story that’s based on facts. It starts with this newspaper article.”

The clipping was handed to the judge, who peered down at it with a scrutinizing stare. “Kids vanish at local theme park… Hang on, I remember this. Didn’t this happen in Gatewater Land as well?”

“Exactly right, Your Honor!” Phoenix shot the man an encouraging smile, even if the conclusion wasn’t much of an accomplishment. The name of the theme park was mentioned in the article, after all. “A few months ago, in June, four children went missing in the very same theme park where our own murder happened. The mystery was never solved. At a loss, the parents enlisted the help of a very special someone, the one and only Mystic Maya Fey.”

“Maya Fey… I know that name. Isn’t she that magician daughter of yours?” the judge asked.

“Err… No, Your Honor, that’s Trucy. Maya was my assistant for several years and was involved in several murder cases as well. She’s… She’s sitting right there in the gallery.”

Maya got to her feet and waved a hand at the judge, looking torn between amusement and confusion. Of course she would be. She had no idea why Phoenix was drawing attention to her, but if his theory was correct, her presence turned out to be vital.

“Oh! Goodness, you’re right. It’s been a long time, Ms. Fey.” The judge chuckled sheepishly and ducked his head.

“Mystic Maya is now the master of the Kurain Channeling Technique, following in the footsteps of her mother, Mystic Misty Fey. That’s right, she’s a certified spirit medium! The parents of the missing children contacted her in order to have her channel their spirits. When did this happen, you ask? It was two days ago- the day before the murder!” Phoenix took a pause for dramatic effect and was satisfied to hear a few murmurs from the gallery. Blackquill, on the other hand, looked impatient. Best to keep talking, he supposed. “That very morning, Ms. Fey told me something very interesting. She claimed that it’s possible for spirits to develop a strong attachment to the place where they died, meaning they will refuse to leave it. That’s why she had to do the channeling in Gatewater Land itself- The spirits would not come to her in Kurain Village.”

“What poppycock,” Blackquill muttered loud enough for everyone to hear.

“I assure you, Prosecutor Blackquill, the Kurain Technique is far from poppycock. Thanks to its reputation, the Gatewater Group allowed Ms. Fey and her assistant, along with the parents, entry into a secluded room to channel the spirits. Where was this room? Why, it was in the Proto Badger’s Proto Workshop. There was also one security guard present to supervise the ordeal. It was our victim, Mark Genta. Coincidence? I think not.”

More whispering and murmuring. Maya exchanged a quick glance with Pearls, the both of them looking far more serious than before. Apparently, they saw what Phoenix was getting at. The judge, it seemed, did not.

“Mr. Wright, are you saying Ms. Fey is the one who tampered with the animatronics and murdered the victim?”

“W-what? No, Your Honor… Please allow me to finish.” Phoenix cleared his throat loudly. “The channeling was a failure, for reasons none of us could fathom. However, once it was over, Ms. Fey told me that she 'could’ve sworn she felt the children’s presence at one point, then it vanished again’. Now, please bear in mind that during the channeling, she was in the middle of the workshop, close to the four animatronic badgers. It’s my belief that the spirits she was searching for developed not only a strong attachment to Gatewater Land, but to its mascots. A haunting, so to speak. Genta, who was present for the channeling, may have returned to the workshop for that very reason.”

The spectators were completely on edge, now. Once Phoenix had finished making his argument, they devolved into rabble. Some looked indignant, as if their intelligence was being insulted. Others looked unsure or even excited. Pearl was covering her mouth with both hands and Apollo was sweating bullets. The noise was incredible and Athena cringed, covering her ears. Phoenix instantly felt apologetic. Her ability could be troublesome, sometimes.

There was a sudden hissing- no, a slicing sound- and he recoiled just in time to feel something whizz mere inches past his face. Blackquill was jumping into the offensive in a literal sense. He looked ready to be convicted for murder all over again, with Phoenix being the unfortunate victim.

Wright-dono! This farce has gone on long enough! Spirit channeling? Hauntings? What balderdash! The only phantoms in this world are mere mortals lacking humanity! Butchers who have yet to meet their maker! If you are truly so interested in the deceased, I will-”

Whatever the rest of that threat was, they didn’t get to hear it. Detective Fulbright had finally stepped in to do his job, apparently. Blackquill started into an upright stance, limbs shaking and hair frizzing as currents ran through his body. His cries of pain were spasmodic in a way that was almost comical, but they died down within a few seconds, as did the convulsing. He slumped forward, clutching at his chest with one hand and breathing heavily.  

“Now now, Prosecutor Blackquill. Remember our talk about playing nice in the courtroom?” Detective Fulbright stepped towards the prosecutor’s bench to try and place a hand on Blackquill’s shoulder, but it was shaken off before it even reached its destination. That much was understandable. Anyone who’d just gotten tasered wouldn’t want to be comforted by the idiot doing the actual tasering.

Begone, Fool Bright…!”

Fulbright didn’t argue; he simply took a few steps back to allow Blackquill his space. Phoenix saw that as a chance to continue his plea.

“Please, Your Honor. You’ve seen the power of the Kurain Channeling Technique first-hand in this very court. Spirits can be summoned from the afterlife and if that’s true, who’s to say they can’t inhabit inanimate objects?”

The judge closed his eyes, apparently thinking the matter over. A moment of silence passed before he finally spoke up. “I only have one question for you, Mr. Wright. …How do you intend to prove your theory? In this court of law, evidence is everything.”

Evidence is everything. The court needed to see firsthand that his theory was correct. That for some reason, the spirits of the missing children were inhabiting the four animatronics, influencing their actions. That they were still in there even now, because if they weren’t, Genta’s new settings would’ve kicked in and forced the badgers to freeze up indefinitely. As far as he could tell, there was only one way to prove it. Only one way to be certain.

He couldn’t believe he was about to say this. Then again, after a parrot, a professional assassin and an orca, maybe this wasn’t quite so out of place.

“Evidence is everything, Your Honor, and so is testimony. That’s why the defense requests a chance to cross-examine the animatronic badgers responsible for the murder.”

What followed was a ruckus so great that the judge had no choice but to declare a recess. The audience in the gallery refused to settle down, Blackquill had to be tasered into submission all over again and even Athena looked like she needed to take a seat to recover. Granted, the shockwave of emotions from all around them probably had to do with that.

Considering such a horrid aftermath to his suggestion, Phoenix could count himself lucky that the judge was humoring his request at all.

———————

Date: August 19th 2027 Time: 12:51 AM.
Location: District Court – Courtroom No. 4.

It took a long time for the badgers to arrive at the district court. Even if they were fully mobile, it wasn’t as simple as having them step into a car. As it was, they were immobile. 'Deactivated’. They had to be wheeled inside the courtroom one at a time. The Pink Badger and the Blue Badger had been unshackled for the first time, or else moving them would’ve been close to impossible. Phoenix had seen them walk the parade twice by now; once before the murder and once the day afterwards, after they’d wrapped up their investigations in the park. Both times, he’d been astounded by how lifelike their movements were. Up close, they looked even bigger and bulkier. If the Blue Badger had been unsettling before, these animatronics still made it ten times worse. To think, these things were designed to entertain children…

If they were still adhering to their old settings, they were scheduled to activate and prepare to start walking the parade a few minutes before 1 PM, which would be entirely impossible from here. Who even knew what would happen once the clock struck that moment? …Well, they were already broken either way. That much had been proven without a doubt.

Pearls had seem skeptical of his theory. Maya not so much. She’d agreed that it was certainly possible for spirits to manifest in hauntings. Both Trucy and Athena had insisted they were supporting him all the way. Apollo opted to have 'no comment’ on the matter. Larry was pretending he didn’t even know Phoenix.

By the time all four of the badgers had been moved into the courtroom to stand grouped around the witness stand, the recess had dragged on for a good fifty minutes. Enough time for everyone to have lunch, at least, but Phoenix knew he had to make this count. If he’d wasted everyone’s time with this, he could kiss his badge goodbye. And to think, he’d only had it back for a month.  

Everyone was giving the animatronics a leery stare. Everyone except Detective Fulbright, who looked absolutely delighted despite what they’d seen on the security footage. Spirits or no spirits, the truth of the matter was that for some reason, these animatronics had killed a man. It was time to find out why or how. The judge called everyone to order once more.

“The court will now reconvene for the trial of Larry Butz! As you can see, the… err- the new witnesses have arrived in the courtroom.”

Silence followed. The badgers remained perfectly still, their heads drooped forward slightly. If they were haunted, were they already aware of what was going on? Were they just playing dumb? Or were the spirits inside 'sleeping’? Would such a thing even be possible? Blackquill was huffing loudly from his own little corner of the courtroom.

“…How do you intend to have them give testimony, Mr. Wright?” the judge wondered. He had a good point. If the badgers wouldn’t move and wouldn’t listen to new settings, how would Phoenix squeeze information out of them?

“We wait a few more minutes, Your Honor,” he stated as-a-matter-of-factly. “They’re supposed to activate any moment now. Let’s see what happens when they do.”

So they did. They waited, everyone in the gallery exchanging shifty glances. The tension was so thick you couldn’t cut it with a knife- you’d need a chainsaw instead. Once the clock struck 12:58, a few clicking and whirring sounds echoed through the courtroom, starting everyone back into a state of awareness. The badgers twitched and raised their heads, then stood up straight. Phoenix waited with bated breath. Waited for the badgers to try and walk the parade route despite not being in the park anymore. Waited for their AIs to crash or for them to topple over, or whatever else animatronics might do when the situation 'does not compute’.

Nothing happened. The badgers still stood rooted to the spot, now fully 'awake’.

“… Ah,” Phoenix said.

“Is this just as planned, Mr. Wright?” the judge asked.

Was it? Honestly, he wasn’t sure what his plan was. He’d have to bluff his way through it. …Again. “Well… Yes. As you can see, the animatronics are now active and… Ready for questioning, Your Honor.”

Right at that moment, Blackquill cracked up and devolved into loud guffaws, slamming a hand down on the prosecutor’s bench with a rattling noise. Detective Fulbright had replaced his shackles during recess, but that didn’t seem to hinder the man in the least. Of course it wouldn’t.

“What’s so funny?” Athena demanded, looking twice as offended as she normally would be. Maybe she was suffering indignation in Phoenix’s stead.

“I believe the defense should know that these animatronics were not outfitted with any kind of voice box. They are not capable of speech, nor can they produce sound at all. Expecting testimony from them would be as if one was expecting to draw blood from a rock. It is simply not possible.”

“W-WHAAAT?!” Phoenix’s jaw dropped. Blackquill… He’d known all along, hadn’t he?! He’d known that the badgers would never be capable of giving testimony. How could they expect to hear the animatronics’ side of the story if they couldn’t speak?!

“This is really bad, Boss…!” Athena hissed at him. “Now what do we do?”

What should they do? The only thing they could do, Phoenix supposed. Hope for the best. “I’ll improvise,” he whispered back at Athena.

He stepped out from behind the defense’s bench to stride towards the badgers. Their heads turned to face him and he stopped in his tracks- just for a moment. The sight of their lifeless eyes was causing the hair on the back of his neck to stand on end. A deep breath to steady himself, then he kept walking. The people in the gallery moved onto the edge of their seats. Maybe they were expecting the badgers to lunge at him. No such thing happened.

“… Hey,” he said awkwardly. “Um. Do you know where you are?”

Silence.

“You’re in the district courthouse. Do you know why we brought you here?”

Silence.

“…Can you give me your names?”

Simon Blackquill was snickering. This was getting them nowhere. Either the badgers didn’t understand him, or they were unable to respond. Or maybe they were just being pains in the butt on purpose. It was Orla the orca all over again. Then again, if that was the case, he didn’t need words. All he needed was a reaction and if questioning wouldn’t do, he’d have to present evidence. He hurried back to the defense’s bench, grabbed the folder of case information and fished out the victim’s profile, complete with a picture. Then he returned to the badgers to hold it up for them.

“Do you know this man?”

It happened so fast that it took Phoenix a few additional seconds to process it’d happened at all. One moment he was still holding the profile, the next moment it’d been snatched from his hand by the Blue Badger, who promptly ripped it to pieces. All the spectators gasped and the judge literally slid out of his seat.

“I… I’ll take that as a 'yes’,” Phoenix ended up muttering, at a lack for any better words.

“M-Mr. Wright!” the judge called from the floor behind his desk. “Your witnesses are destroying evidence!”

“Tisk tisk. What naughty badgers you’ve brought before us. Perhaps the defense is deserving of a penalty,” Blackquill’s eyes narrowed dangerously and Phoenix knew he was treading on thin ice.

“Now, hang on! Hang on! It’s clear from their reaction that they know more than they’re letting on. All we need is a way to get the truth from them.”

But how? Could they write their testimony down, maybe? Were those big paws even capable of holding a pen? …Maybe the spirits of those kids were too young to know how to write. Could they draw the scenario with crayons? Even by his standards, that seemed silly.

“Boss, catch!”

He looked up just in time to see Athena throw something his way and hastily raised both hands. It took a bit of fumbling, but he managed to catch it all the same. …It was Widget. “Athena, what…?”

“One of Widget’s functions is to voice what I’m thinking, right? Well, if the badgers are haunted, that means their spirits are capable of thought and they can use Widget to speak!”

“That’s… That’s genius!” Phoenix was so relieved he could just about burst into tears. What’d he do to deserve such smart apprentices?

“I know,” Athena said, grinning from ear to ear.

By now, the judge had clambered back into his chair and Blackquill’s amusement had completely died down. Phoenix suffered a moment of utter apprehension before holding Widget out to the Blue Badger. What if the animatronic would attempt to destroy it just like Genta’s profile? This little gadget was one of Athena’s most treasured belongings, he was sure of it. Luckily, no such thing happened. The Blue Badger held out a fuzzy paw to accept Widget, so Phoenix tied it around the animatronic’s wrist as if it were a bracelet.

This was it. The moment of truth.

“Do you know why we brought you here?” he asked again, staring directly into the Blue Badger’s void eyes.

The animatronic twitched. Its head tilted forward, then sideways. Widget turned red for a split second, then yellow, then finally settled on green. Happiness. When a voice came from the trinket, it sounded erratic. As if it was being hampered by static. “Ju-Ju-Justice.

The gallery instantly exploded into another buzz of alarm. Some people even jumped to their feet to get a better look, Maya included. Detective Fulbright threw both his hands up and Blackquill clutched at his chest, looking like the shock was manifesting itself in physical pain.

“No waaay!” Athena’s voice called out over all the noise.

As for Phoenix himself, he did his very best to stay calm. He’d been in the presence of spirits before. …These were spirits, right? They’d have to be. There was no way the animatronics’ AI could accomplish anything like this.

“Justice? What do you mean?”

That is what the c-c-courthouse is for. Bringing bad guys to justice.” The Blue Badger raised a hand in a salute and the other three mimicked the gesture in utter silence. Seemed like they were all on the same page.

“You are more than just animatronic badgers, aren’t you? You’re the children everyone’s been searching for, isn’t that right?”

Yes and n-n-no. We were children once. Now we are n-n-not. We are the Blue Badger and his friends.

The gallery started whispering so loudly that the judge had to slam his gavel several times. Phoenix had been right. The children that Maya had attempted to channel… They’d been right under their noses the whole time! No wonder the animatronics had seemed so lifelike. Four kids had been taking them through the motions of their purpose at Gatewater Land.

“Did you know that man?” Phoenix gestured at the pile of torn paper on the floor. Mark Genta’s profile.

Yes.

“Can you tell us about your relation to him?”

Re-re-relation?” The badger turned to his companions who all shrugged and shook their heads. “We do not understand.

“How do you know him? Why did you hit him over the head?”

He was a b-b-bad guy.

A bad guy? Phoenix wouldn’t disagree with that much. Mark Genta had been thoroughly unpleasant. There wasn’t a single person he’d met so far who thought differently. Even so, he got the feeling there was more to the badgers’ words than just that. If Genta had been thoroughly unpleasant a few days ago, then perhaps back in June as well.

What if-

No, that was crazy. He couldn’t put words in the badgers’ mouths. Or- well- Widget’s 'mouth’. The badgers- the kids had to testify on their own accord.

“Bad? Why is that? …Please, tell us everything that you know.”

It is the same for all f-f-four of us. There was a field trip. We were in Gatewater L-L-Land. It was fun. …We love the Blue Badger and his friends. We w-w-wanted to see them… after the p-p-parade. That’s why we did it. …We broke the ru-ru-rules and snuck into the Proto Badger’s Proto Workshop. But we were caught by that man. A security guard. …Authorized personnel only.” The Blue Badger twitched suddenly and tilted his head sideways in a jerky manner. Widget turned a bright blue- the color of fear. Beside him, the other three slapped their hands to their mouths as if feigning horror. “He yelled at us. He yelled so much that his face turned pu-pu-purple. …It was funny. We called him Purple Guy. That ma-ma-made him yell even more. …Then… Something happened. Something b-b-bad. Our memories stop there.

… So that was it, then. It was the exact suspicion that had dawned on Phoenix. The reason those four kids went missing- the reason they died…! What a horrible truth. Just like that, his opinion of Genta had reached an all-time low. Further down than rock bottom, if that was even possible. He glanced away from the badger to survey the courtroom, realizing that everyone was wearing the same grim expression.

“Your memories stop there, but that isn’t all there is to the story, is there?” he asked, still trying his best not to lose his cool. The temptation to flee the courtroom was getting stronger by the second.

There was a nice la-la-lady. The one right there.” All four badgers turned on the spot to stare at Maya, who leaned backwards in her seat, looking almost guilty. Pearls quickly placed a hand on her shoulder. “She was trying to c-c-call us back. Back to the workshop and back to our parents. …But h-h-he was there. He was waiting for us. The Purple Guy. Authorized personnel o-o-only. We didn’t want to get into trouble. So we hid.” The Blue Badger twitched once more, then straightened up and placed both hands on his hips to strike a pose. “The Blue Badger and his friends are allies of ju-ju-justice. Even the Bad Badger is just misunderstood. They kept us s-s-safe from the Purple Guy. He did not see us. …Later, we got to walk the parade. It was fun. …But Proto d-d-did something baaad.

“Something bad?” Phoenix repeated, rubbing a hand past his chin. “What do you mean?”

There was another security g-g-guard watching the parade. Proto took his club. Stealing is bad. Proto s-s-should be ashamed. But Proto insists he was only bo-bo-borrowing.

The Proto Badger gave a rather nonchalant shrug, shaking his head. Apparently, the culprit wasn’t all too remorseful about stealing Larry’s nightstick- Phoenix had no doubt that that was what they were referring to. It matched up perfectly, as the weapon used to murder Genta was last seen shortly after the spirit channeling, meaning it was shortly before the parade.

…After the parade ended, we slept. We slept until we were awoken in the m-m-middle of the night. It was the Purple Guy. …We kn-kn-knew we had to go to the docks, but we didn’t want to. The Blue Badger and his friends always defeat the bad g-g-guy. That is why we fought the Purple Guy. We brought him to justice. We hurt him, just like he hurt us. Then we hi-hi-id him, just like he hid us.

It was as if a chill washed over the courtroom. People scarcely dared to breathe. Apprehension rose and Phoenix got another nasty suspicion. A suspicion worse than all the others before it. One horrid, morbid realization. He opened his mouth, but it took a few more seconds before he uttered any actual words. “When… When you say you hid him like he hid you, are… Are you talking about what you did to his body in the haunted house?”

The Blue Badger twitched and slumped forward for a moment, then pulled itself upright again. Widget was back to its green hue of happiness. Both hands went to the badger’s belly, rubbing it. “The Blue Badger and his friends keep us s-s-safe. They have been since the day we left this world. Now we are inside them, body and soul.

Silence. Silence up until the moment where a woman in the back of the gallery began to scream. One loud, horrified wail. Following that was panic. Much as the bailiffs and Detective Fulbright attempted to keep order, most of the spectators were tripping over themselves in an attempt to get to the door and rush through it. Within twenty seconds, half the courtroom was abandoned. Maybe, if Phoenix’s legs still had enough strength left in them, he would’ve ran too. They didn’t. At least he wasn’t the only one forced to stick around. His fellows from the Wright Agency, the two Feys, Blackquill, Fulbright, the judge and a handful of spectators remained in their spots as well, no matter how leery they looked.

Meanwhile, the Blue Badger and his friends glanced back at the abandoned seats with tilted heads, giving off the impression of a group of confused children. That’s exactly what they were.


To Be Continued

Chapter Text

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.


The End