Detective Collins looked down at the body on the autopsy table. He'd looked at bodies before. Corpses, rather. He and Patterson were APPD's homicide team, and did a lot of death investigations, even if Amity Park hadn't had an actual murder for years. A single casre of involuntary manslaughter, yes, several instances of assault, yes, a good number of accidental deaths, yes, murder, no.
Apparently, the knowledge that a so-called permanent solution to a problem might not be all that permanent, and that the problem might come back with superpowers was enough to put a damper on that kind of thing.
The corpse wasn't exactly a normal one, and it hadn't come to police attention in the normal way. Still, Collins was just doing his job.
So why the hell did he feel like a damn graverobber?
"Got anything for us, Molly?" he asked the ME.
"If you mean a cause of death, that's a hard no," said the red-haired woman. "If you mean a whole bunch of weird stuff, then yes. This is the strangest body I've ever seen. I think I'm going to have to call out for a second opinion."
Collins and Patterson exchanged looks.
"I think you'd better not," said Patterson. "This is the kind of thing that should stay in Amity Park."
Molly eyed the other woman shrewdly. "The rumors are true, then?"
Collins cleared his throat. "What rumors?"
"This is Phantom's body."
"Where did you hear that?" asked Collins.
At the same time Patterson said, "So he claims."
"The paramedics told me," said Molly. "It's been all over the hospital."
Great. As if this case wasn't 'interesting' enough. "What's so weird about the body?" he asked, bringing them back to the topic at hand.
"Well, first off, half of it's missing."
Collins looked down at the body. As far as he could tell, all of it was there, even if it was far from adult-sized.
"I know what you're thinking," said Molly. "I get it. I didn't notice at first, either, not until I took the x-rays. His bones are half as dense at they should be. At first I thought that he just had some kind of bone disease- that would make identification easier, right?- but then I started weighing other parts of him, and his everything only weighs about half as much as it should for a teenager of his height."
"Are you sure that's not just because of decay? Or because he was burned?" asked Patterson.
"Yes, I'm sure. He's pretty well preserved actually."
"Is he?" asked Collins, dubiously, looking at the blackened and whithered corpse.
"Yeah. What you're seeing here," she gestured at one of the corpse's arms, "it isn't skin. I know he looks burnt, but he's actually got all his layers. This is something he was wearing. I've sent a sample out for analysis, but I think it's mostly plastic and cloth."
Patterson sighed. "Guess that rules out burning to death, or someone trying to burn the body afterwards. What could have caused the, uh, halving?"
Molly shrugged. "Might have to do with how he died, or becoming a ghost. I don't know. I only deal with the bodies of the dead, not their spirits. You'll have to ask the Fenton, or the GIW."
"Anything else?" asked Collins.
Molly shrugged. "I found a lot of ectoplasm residue on him, and something that might be lichtenberg figures, but I won't know for sure until I can get his clothing off, and I'm not sure we want to do that until we figure out what happened to them and what they're made of."
"Right," said Collins. "Good call."
"Everything else is in here," said Molly, handing the file to Patterson. "But, just so you know, he does have the proper height, age, and body type to be Phantom."
"Any que-" the phone in the back office rang, cutting Molly off. She groaned. "Hold that thought." She ran off into the other room and shut the door.
"Sooooo," said Patterson, playing with the end of her braid. "Who gets to interview the Fentons?"
"Both of us," said Collins, looking at Molly's report. She hadn't written anything about how long the kid had been dead.
"Aw, you're no fu-"
The temperature of the already-cold room dropped, and all of Collins' hairs stood on end, indicators of an agitated and very close ghost. Both Collins and Patterson had their ectoguns (standard issue for APPD) out in second.
A ghost shimmered into view on the other side of the examination table.
"You need to stop this," he said, green eyes boring first into Collins', then Patterson's. "People are going to get hurt."
"Is that a threat?" asked Collins.
Phantom recoiled as if slapped. The shock faded, and his face settled into a more standard offended scowl.
"No, of course not. It doesn't make it any less true. So stop."
"Why not?" asked Phantom, aggrieved. "It isn't like this is about justice. I don't need justice. It was an accident."
"Because we don't know who this is, and we don't know who you are," said Collins. He did not add that, even if the body on the table had belonged to Phantom, they could not take his word that his death had been an accident.
Phantom threw up his hands. "I'm the guy who's been protecting Amity Park from ghost attacks for the last two years! And that's my..." he faltered. "My, um. My c- My body," he finished quietly. He took a deep breath, and some of his earlier fire came back. "Why would I lie?"
Collins could think of dozens of reasons, up to and including Phantom being the killer, though he doubted the young ghost had a murderous bone in his body. Either of them.
"It would really help," said Patterson, "if you could come down to the station to be interviewed."
Phantom's expression softened. "If it would help-" he broke off and shook himself. "I'll think about it." He frowned down at the body, looking rather ill.
"Is there any proof you have that this is your body?" asked Collins, slowly, more cautious than Patterson. He remembered hearing somewhere that ghosts didn't like being reminded of their deaths.
Phantom shifted slightly, and his gaze slid away from the corpse. "Other than knowing you had found... it, and being able to feel it? Not..." He trailed off, rubbing a circle into the palm of his left hand. Jerkily, he tugged off the glove. He kept his hand curled tight, and half hidden, as he stared down at the ground. Then he spread out his fingers, and thrust his hand at Collins. "This," he said. "It'll be the same on... it... as me."
In the center of Phantom's palm was a burnt-in star. It had seven points that faded out to lightning bolts as they twined up his arm, disappearing under his jumpsuit.
"Is that from when you died?" asked Patterson.
All the lights in the room flickered, and the the ghost hissed before vanishing. A light bulb near the door burst in a spray of glass.
The temperature returned to normal levels.
"What the hell, Patterson? You don't ask a ghost about their death. And what was the whole 'it'll really help' thing?"
"Sorry," said Patterson. "I know, I know, but how often do you get to interview the victim of one of these things?"
"Literally all the time. We do assault cases ninety percent of the time."
"When you put it that way..." Patterson grimaced. "The 'help' thing... Well, ghosts are supposed to be governed by their Obsessions, right? I took a class on that, a couple of months ago. Anyway, there's big speculation that Phantom's Obsession is heroism, or helping people. I thought maybe I could use it. It almost worked. You saw how he considered it."
"Yeah," said Collins. He rubbed his face, thinking.
Phantom said he could feel the body. How much could he feel? If he could just tell what was happening to it, that wouldn't be so bad. But if he could feel it like it was still his body? That sounded like torture.
Molly walked back into the room. She frowned. "What happened?"
"Phantom decided to pay us a visit. Say, Molly, I know you don't want to strip off his clothes, yet, but if you could just clean off his left hand..."
"So," said Collins, drumming his hands on the steering wheel. "Let's recap. What do we know?"
"The body is the right age, sex, and size to be Phantom, and has the same scars as Phantom," said Patterson. "The body is really weird and has a lot of ectoplasmic residue on it. Molly can't tell how long it's been dead. Forensics thinks it's been there two years, based on soil settling and a picture search. The cairn only started showing up around then, at the end of summer."
"Which is before the ghosts started to be a big thing," added Collins.
"Which makes the ectoplasm even weirder."
"And now, we're consulting with the only ghost experts in town who aren't the GIW to find out what could have caused that."
"But, unfortunately, said ghost experts are also the only people in town who had access to ectoplasm before the ghosts showed up."
"Which means they're suspects," finished Collins, moving from knowledge into theory. He sighed. "Of course, since Phantom claims to have buried his own body, he could have left the ectoplasmic residue."
"It's also possible some other ghost hunter did it," said Patterson. "The GIW did exist before the ghosts became a problem. Or it could just be a natural result of turning into a ghost."
"Right," said Collins. "So, who's going to ring the doorbell?"
The two detectives looked up at the front door of Fentonworks. Everybody knew what happened to people who rang the Fentons' doorbell.
Patterson sighed. As the more junior of the pair, she knew how this was going to pan out. "I'll do it."
She got out of the car, and went up the stair. Collins followed, but stayed a safe distance back.
With an air of resignation, Patterson pressed the doorbell.
Surprisingly, the door opening did not herald a flood of green goo. One of the Fenton children had opened the door. The boy. An unidentifiable expression passed over his face before he turned and shouted, "Mom! Dad! The police are here to see you!"
Odd. How did he know Collins and Patterson were detectives? They didn't have their badges displayed.
He scampered off as Jack Fenton bounded to the door. "Hi there!" boomed the big man. "Are you here to talk about ghosts?"
The Fentons, once you got past the goo, were actually very hospitable. Maddie brought out tea and cookies, and sat the detectives down in the living room.
"What did you want to talk about?" she asked.
Collins and Patterson exchanged a glance.
"We were wondering," said Collins, "if there is any way to tell if someone has become a ghost by looking at their corpse."
Maddie clicked her tongue. "That's a common misconception. People don't become ghosts. They leave ghosts. Ghosts are impressions on ectoplasm, not people."
There was a very faint, unamused scoff from above, and Collins looked up to see the Fentons' son crouched behind the banister of the stairs. He noticed Collins' gaze and fled.
Meanwhile, Jack and Maddie's explanation was winding down. "But to answer your question, no. There's no way to tell if a person's death produced a ghost unless you encounter the ghost. The body would be completely normal. Is this about the body you found in William Park?"
Collins frowned. It was easy to forget how sharp the Fentons were.
"Yes," he said, deciding it wouldn't do any good to hide the fact.
"And you think it's ghost related somehow?" pressed Maddie.
"A ghost claimed the body was theirs."
"Hm," said Maddie, thoughtful.
"Well, it isn't impossible for a ghost to form with the Obsession of finding the person that murdered the human they are modeled on," said Jack. "I'm actually surprised you didn't encounter one sooner."
"The ghost in question wanted us to stop investigating," said Collins, watching their reactions. He wondered if he was revealing too much, but he really did need more information about ghosts and he refused to go to the GIW unless it was absolutely necessary. He'd talk to the cults (there were many in Amity Park, several of which were dedicated primarily to Phantom) first.
Maddie frowned. "That can't be right. What ghost was it?"
"Phantom," said Collins.
Jack and Maddie were already shaking their heads.
"That's impossible," said Jack.
"There are record of Phantom going back to the beginning of human history. Farther, even." Maddie got up and walked to a bookshelf, where she pulled out a large heavy book. She thumped it down on the coffee table, and began to thumb through the pages. "Here, look. This town in China even used effigies of him as a kind of 'spirit scarecrow.' Apparently he would show up periodically to fight 'evil spirits.' Ghosts. Just like now."
The dolls on the page did bear a shocking resemblance to Phantom. Maddie turned the page, and another. Each one had pictures of Phantom, though all in different styles, and clearly all from different cultures.
"There aren't a lot of these, true," said Maddie, "and when we were in college, a lot of it was dismissed as a hoax. But they existed when we were in college."
"So either our Phantom is the same, or he's imitating the legend," said Jack, "and the legend was never well known."
"We prefer the former theory, obviously." She sat down and leaned back in her chair. "Now, as for the body, normally, if this was any other ghost, I would say that they caused the death, but..." She pursed her lips, then shrugged. "As dangerous and inhuman as Phantom is, I doubt it. We are fairly confident his Obsession falls in the lines of 'protecting people,' and that wouldn't allow murder."
"He's definitely involved somehow, though," said Jack. "It's possible he's protecting the killer."
"I feel like we know less now than we did before," complained Patterson.
"Yeah..." said Collins. "Did you notice their kid? Did he seem a little off to you?"
"Maybe a bit," said Patterson, playing with the end of her braid. She paused, looking back at the Fenton house. "You know, I saw this theory on a website once," she said, slowly.
"What kind of website?"
"Conspiracy, I think, but it could have been a cult one. You know how it is. The theory was that the Fenton's son was secretly Phantom. The kid who posted it got laughed off, of course, but... Y'know, I think it was picked up by a cult or two. They're hard to keep track of. They keep having those schisms, and merging, and, you know."
"The Fenton kid would have had access to ectoplasm before the ghosts showed up," said Collins. Could his theory about Phantom masquerading as one of the living be correct?
"I guess anyone slimed by the Fentons would have, too, though," said Patterson.
"Right. Wonderful. You want to talk to the Cult Division first, or start interviewing kids?"
"Is the 'Cult Division' still Cameron Daily and his computer?"
"You know it is."
"Let's get started on those kids."
"Well," said Danny talking to Sam and Tucker over the Fenton Phones, "they're getting clues, but they're buried in so much junk that they're useless, or they're completely inconclusive."
"That's good, right?" said Tucker.
"Not if they think I killed someone!"
"It doesn't quite sound like that's what they think," said Sam. "Even your parents don't think that."
Which had been really nice, actually. Which was sad. But, hey, odd manifestation of post-human consciousness was a step up from evil manifestation of post-human consciousness. Right?
"They think I'm covering up a murder, then, Sam. That's just as bad." His tail twitched and flicked as he rode invisibly on top of the detectives' car. Ever since his... that... had been dug up, he had felt uneasy. Anxious.
Basically, what was dead people were supposed to feel like when their remains were disturbed.
"I can't just go on letting them think that," said Danny.
"Don't. You're just going to get yourself into more trouble," cautioned Sam.
Danny bit his lip. "It's just an interview," he said, eyeing the police station. "It isn't like they can arrest me."
He flew in.