Thanks to dragondancer123, my wonderful beta who also gave me the idea for this story!
October 24, 1985
October 24, 1985
Wind whispered through the suburbs, kicking up fallen leaves in its path. The dry leaves danced in miniature cyclones, skittering along the asphalt. The wind was warm, but strong, and a nearly full moon hung in an inky sky. It was everything a Halloween night should be.
Except it wasn't Halloween.
Shawn Spencer shifted the garbage bag to his left hand so he could open the trash can lid with his right. Stopping there, he pouted a little. Such a perfect night. Not too warm, but cool enough to wear his gorilla suit without sweating too much. It was the kind of night where you could almost see ghosts blown about on the wind, witches shrieking down the streets, vampires haunting the graveyard. Too bad Halloween had to wait another week.
"Shawn? Are you gonna throw that bag out or just look at it?"
Shawn turned. His father was framed in the window, a tiny silhouette. "I think I'll just look at it, Dad."
"Throw it out and get back inside."
Shawn opened the lid but made no move to obey the rest of Henry's demand. Sure, it was a school night, and sure, he had homework to do, but it wasn't due until Friday. He had time. Besides, he wasn't about to waste a perfect pre-Halloween night with chores and homework. He'd rather daydream about his costume.
"Come on, Shawn. Stop dawdling and get it done."
Rolling his eyes, Shawn tossed the bag into the can, slammed the lid with a clang, and glanced back toward the house. Henry was gone, the curtains back in place over the window. He could stay out another minute before Dad yelled at him to get back inside. He gazed at the street again, picturing it on Halloween night. He'd look awesome in his gorilla suit—even better chasing Gus, the giant banana, from house to house. Shawn smiled. He could see it now; running up to one house after the other, breathlessly asking 'Have you seen a giant banana?' By far the best costume idea he'd ever had.
Shawn was about to head back inside when something moved, then disappeared into the corner of his vision. Squinting, he tried to make it out. A dog? No, too big to be a dog. He took a few steps forward until he got a good look. Just some lady, glowing faintly.
He glanced back at the house again. The curtains were still closed, his Dad still absent from the window. Probably cleaning up from dinner. Shawn had a minute or two to investigate. Besides, wasn't that what good detectives did?
Shawn started across the street, walking briskly. He saw the woman move and jogged the rest of the way. She darted through a neighbor's yard; Shawn hopped the fence and followed.
"Hold up!" he shouted, breaking into a run. She was just ahead. Another burst of speed and—
A strong hand caught his arm, and he nearly tripped. Shawn looked up.
Dad. And he didn't look happy.
"Shawn, what are you doing?"
Shawn panted. "Let go of me!"
"Not until you tell me what the hell you're doing running through the neighbors' yard!"
"I saw a ghost, Dad! She was right there, and I ran after her and—"
"A ghost?" Henry rolled his eyes, straightened, and moved his hand from Shawn's wrist to his shoulder. "Come on. We're going inside."
"But Dad! She was right there!" He tried to break free, but Henry held him firm. He knelt down so he and Shawn were eye-to-eye.
"All right, Shawn. Let's run with this for a minute. How do you know that was a ghost? Hm?"
"She was glowing, and-and she ran right through the fence—"
"Oh, did she? And why do you think she did that?"
"Because that woman—whoever she was—wanted you to follow her. Now tell me, Shawn, do you really think following a stranger all over Santa Barbara is a good idea?"
"It is if you're a detective."
"Not if you're eight years old, it isn't!"
"But Dad! I know what I saw!"
"I don't care what you saw. What I care about is the fact that you were gonna follow her to God-knows-where alone! Shawn, you could've been killed!"
Henry paused to let that sink in, and it did. He stood, put a hand on Shawn's back, and gave him a gentle shove.
"Come on, Shawn. We're going home."
Shawn didn't argue. But he did pause to glance over his shoulder. All he saw was houses and neatly-kept yards, leaves and grass shaking in the wind.
"Remind me again why we're here, Shawn?"
Shawn ducked around a passerby. "Because it's fun. Why else?"
"I was hoping for a little more reason than that."
"Oh, come on, Gus. Don't tell me you don't think these guys are hilarious."
"Not really." Gus glanced over his shoulder; as if afraid someone might be listening. "They take this stuff really seriously."
"I know. And that's what makes it so funny. A bunch of middle-aged dropouts all meeting up in Santa Barbara to celebrate Halloween a week early." He chuckled. "What's funnier than that?"
"A lot of things, Shawn. For one, most of these people have college degrees. Doctorates. That's more school than you'll ever have."
"Or want." Shawn grinned. "They give out doctorates in this stuff? Seriously?" He laughed again. "And I thought a degree in bagpiping was lame."
"They don't give degrees in bagpiping."
"Sure they do. And if I ever go back to school—which I won't—that's what I'll major in. Then I'll be Dr. Shawn Spencer, psychic detective and PhD holder in the Art of Bagpipes."
"That's the second worst plan I ever heard."
Shawn stopped and eyed Gus quizzically. "Really? Knowing me your whole life? What's the worst?"
Gus grabbed Shawn's arm and pulled him along. "Going to a ghost hunters' convention when you don't even believe in ghosts."
"Well, at least I don't say so."
"You just did."
"Did so." Gus halted midstride, and the couple behind him nearly ran into him. "Where are we going again?"
"The workshop in some conference room named after some dead guy. It's on…" He checked his brochure. "'Spectral Communication: Barriers between English and the Language of Fear.'" Shawn tugged Gus along like a child towing a parent into the matinee showing of Barney Goes to Vegas.
"That workshop sounds really lame."
"Then why are we going to it?"
Shawn wrapped his arm around Gus' shoulder. "Because, Gus, there is far too little laughter in the world. So many people are obsessed with trivial things like job security and pharmaceuticals—"
"Pharmaceuticals are not trivial."
"Whatever. The point is, when we see someone giving the gift of laughter, we should support them, regardless the cost. Or level of stupidity."
"Is that why you went to see Beverly Hills Ninja eight times in a row?"
"Hey, that movie was awesome. And here we are." He pulled Gus through the open door, cutting off further argument. They found two unclaimed chairs toward the center of the room, sat down, and waited for the speaker to arrive.
Danny Fenton felt lucky. He had, after all, just claimed a chair toward the back of the crowded John Paul Jones conference room without cheating—namely, walking through a wall or coming up through the floor. Not only that, but he'd made it through the first two hours of the Spectacle of Spectral Speculators and Speculation without a speck of trouble. Yes, Danny was indeed fortunate.
He felt no guilt over skipping his parents' first workshop. FentonWorks gadgets were the only ones he'd encountered that could actually detect him, let alone hurt him. Not that his Mom or Dad ever listened when the ghost detectors all but screamed his name, but it would still be nice to not be revealed in the middle of a ghost hunters' conference.
Chatter died down as a small man took his place behind the podium. A stocking cap covered his red hair and his bow tie was slightly askew. Mismatched socks—one red with blue polka dots, the other green-and-orange plaid—peeked out from beneath the cuffs of his slacks. Had he been stocky rather than wire-thin, Danny would've been tempted to call him a leprechaun to his face.
"Good morning, everyone," he said with a quick smile. "Thank you for attending this workshop. It may end up being the most important hour in your life, because what you learn in this short time may one day save your life."
An hour of learning how to bridge a nonexistent language barrier could save your life? Danny saw a few attendees lean forward and tried not to roll his eyes.
The speaker reached down and hefted a bulky briefcase onto the podium, flipped the latches and let it pop open. Half a dozen papers fluttered to the floor.
"Oops." He chuckled nervously and bent to retrieve them. Straightening, he shuffled them into a neat pile, looked for a place to set them and found none. He dropped them on the floor.
"So," he said, clearing his throat. "I'm here to talk to you today about the language barrier between humans and ghosts. As you probably know, communicating with ghosts can be…well, let's just say it can be difficult. Ghosts rarely say what they mean. Their words are often rich with double meaning—and when you find that hidden meaning, it can be pretty frightening."
Danny thought back to this morning in the hotel room. He'd wanted cornflakes and couldn't find them. His Mom didn't seem to have any trouble translating "Hey, we brought cornflakes to the hotel, right?" to something she could understand. She hadn't seemed nervous when he poured a larger-than-average bowl for himself, but maybe she'd just laughed out of fear.
Or maybe this guy was an idiot.
"I've made a list of common phrases you and I use," the speaker said, rifling through his briefcase. "Damn, where'd I put….here they are!" He held a stack of papers triumphantly, then began passing them out. "What we're going to do is analyze these phrases and think how a ghost might say them."
Danny raised his hand. He couldn't resist.
"Yes?" He seemed relieved to have a question—any question—and Danny felt a stab of guilt for what he was about to do.
"How do you know how a ghost might say these phrases? I mean, have you ever met one?"
"Well, I…I haven't…haven't met any…certainly not the way you mean…but I have heard them talk. I've seen them before. And let me tell you, they don't talk the way we do!"
There were a few chuckles. Danny tried again.
"But how do you know? How do you know 'Hey, give me a lift to the airport' didn't just mean 'Hey, give me a lift to the airport'?"
"Well, for one thing, ghosts don't ride in airplanes."
"How do you know?"
"Why would they need airplanes when they can fly on their own?"
Danny felt the other ghost hunters staring at him, but he was having too much fun to care. "Well, maybe an airplane is faster. How fast can they fly?"
"I don't know! I'm just a communicator."
"Have you ever asked one if he'd rather take an airplane?"
The speaker huffed, planting one hand on his hip. "Listen, Mr…."
"Fenton. Danny Fenton."
He crossed his arms. "Well, Mr. Fenton, I don't know where you get your ideas, but I'd think your parents would teach you better."
"They did. They abandoned the whole 'same language, double meaning' thing six months ago. Turns out most ghosts just say what they mean."
"Perhaps the illustrious Jack and Maddie Fenton are wrong on this one." He leaned so hard on the word illustrious that it sounded like an insult.
"Dude, we live in Amity Park. That place sees more ghosts in a day than you've seen in a year, probably. I think my parents know what they're talking about."
The leprechaun's eyes narrowed. "Well, maybe Jack and Maddie shouldn't have abandoned a perfectly good theory so soon. After all, I based my talk on their research."
Danny had to suppress a smirk. "Whatever you say, dude."
"All right then. Shall we?" Taking a quick, composing breath, the speaker marched back up the aisle. A young man with spiky brown hair turned in his seat and gave Danny a thumbs-up. Danny could only grin in reply.
The leprechaun took his place behind the podium. "Now, if you'll look at—" He stopped, gasped, sucked in a breath and let it out, panting.
A man in the front row half-stood from his chair. "Mister, are you all right?"
The speaker shook his head. His hand clutched his heart as he gasped.
"Someone call an ambulance!"
Twenty cell phones were pulled out of pockets and purses, Danny's among them. He frantically punched in the numbers.
"911, what's your emergency?"
"Hi, uh—there's a guy here and I-I think he's having a heart attack."
"Where are you?"
"The convention center, downtown. I'm at the ghost hunter's conference."
"Can you describe what he's doing?"
"He's, uh—" Danny forced himself to look up front, where the speaker had collapsed on the floor. A man held two fingers to the speaker's throat, looked up and shook his head.
"He's dead," Danny said. His voice seemed to echo in the room.
The brown-haired man stood to his feet and looked directly at Danny. "Tell that dispatcher to send the police," he said confidently, pausing to glance at the fallen speaker. "This man was murdered."
Look at the review button. So pretty...so pretty you want to press it...