Coffee. Coffee would be good. He walked to the coffee machine in the break room for the 12th Precinct and then blinked at the machine. There were times like this when he wished it was a little simpler to operate. As he waited for the machine to do its caffeinated work he snuck a glance at his watch. He'd had three hours of sleep the previous night, punctuated by nightmares from the current case. The coffee machine finished its slurping noises, he added some milk and a dash of sugar and then sipped it. Oh sweet caffeine. Get in there and wake me up.
As he wandered out of the room and scowled at the board again he caught sight of Captain Gates emerging from her office. She was walking fast – and had a huge smile on her face. His heart leapt.
"Ok, listen up people!" Gates called out, putting her hands on her hips. "I've just heard that that anonymous tip was right on the money – Amanda Crossman has been found alive and well. Detectives Beckett and Esposito are taking her to the hospital right now, with a heavy escort, to get her checked out. As for her kidnappers, they seem to have vanished, so we're not taking anything for granted. CSU is checking out where she was held so that we can get some more answers."
Richard Castle, author, lover of mysteries and above all father of a girl who had been kidnapped herself once, let out a long breath of air and closed his eyes for a long moment of silent thanks. When he opened them again he saw that Gates was next to him and that, wonder of wonders, she didn't look exasperated at his presence. "I know that you were taking this one personally Mr Castle."
He nodded slightly. "Amanda Crossman does look a bit like Alexis." He smiled weakly. "Bad memories and bad dreams ensued."
She nodded sympathetically at him. "Go home and get some rest Mr Castle." Then she snorted wryly. "At least you can – I have that week-long seminar on inter-agency co-operation that I'm suddenly now free to attend." She walked back into her office, fielded a short phone call and swept back out again with her briefcase in hand as Castle swallowed the last of the desperately-needed coffee.
Wandering over to his fiancee's desk he looked over it for a pad and a pen. "There's never one there when you need one," he muttered as he tested what seemed to be an empty biro.
He turned to see Kevin Ryan to one side. He too was holding a coffee and looking pale and tired. "Hey Ryan – you recovered from that bug then?"
The detective shuddered. "Don't remind me. If you get it make sure that there's a toilet nearby at all times."
Castle thought about this and shuddered. "Ok, moving on rather rapidly, I need a pen. I seem to have run out of usable ones and I need to leave Kate a note saying that I've gone home to fall into bed."
Ryan looked around and then pulled one out of his own pocket. "There you go."
"Thanks." He leant over the desk, scribbled a note and handed it back – just as another detective sidled up to Ryan.
"Hey Kev – is Gates gone for the day?" He looked rather like Ryan, who blinked at the new arrival.
"Oh, hey Charlie. Castle, this is my cousin, Charlie O'Connor. One of the newest detectives here – got his badge just last week. Charlie, this is the famous Rick Castle."
"Pleased to meet you," O'Connor said with a strained smile, before looking back at Ryan with a hint of desperation. "Is Gates gone for the day?"
"I think so," Castle muttered. "She said something about a seminar she had to attend."
"Oh thank god," O'Connor moaned. "I didn't want her to see me begging you for help."
Ryan frowned at his cousin. "Help with what?"
O'Connor held up a folder of notes and a laptop. "Kev, I'm working on a case that makes absolutely no sense at all. I've gone through this from all angles and I have no idea what to do about it." From the look on his face he was desperately worried.
Castle swapped a concerned look with Ryan, who held his hands up in a placating gesture. "Whoa, slow down Charlie. What's the case?"
"Smash and grab robbery at a jewellers on the corner of First and East Sixth Street," O'Connor said as he handed over the folder. "It's a Mom-and-Pop operation that does some good business."
"Wait a sec, the corner of First and East Sixth? Not Vanner's?" Ryan groaned at his cousin's startled nod. "That was where I got Jenny's ring. Damn it, they're good people. When was the robbery?"
"3am last night." O'Connor opened up the laptop. "Here's the security camera footage."
Intrigued despite his tiredness Castle bent over the screen next to Ryan. Ok, so there was the inside of the shop, with a view of the door and the security screen outside – which was then just ripped out of its doorframe. He blinked incredulously. And… there went the door. Two men ran in, looked about, smashed the glass display cases with their hands – no blood? – and then started stuffing their rucksacks with as many rings, gems, brooches and other glittery things as they could get their hands on. As there was shattered glass in with everything that must have hurt them some, even with the gloves they were wearing, but there seemed to be no reaction although…
"What's wrong with their faces? Are they wearing some kind of masks?" Castle frowned at the screen.
"I'd say so, but what kind of a thief wears a mask that just makes your forehead look lumpy?"
"Well, at least they're not Klingons."
The two men on the screen suddenly looked at each other and then ran out of the shop.
"Whoa, they were fast. How long were they in for?" Ryan asked.
"Exactly thirty seconds," his cousin replied grimly. "So they have to be pros. In and out in half a minute."
"How did they rip the security screen out of its frame? A car?"
O'Connor winced at his cousin. "That's the first freaky thing. They tore it out with their bare hands."
Castle frowned. "It couldn't have been a very good one then."
Another wince from the young detective. "That was the first thing I checked. It was in good shape. Well maintained. But somehow still bent out of shape. Anyway, they fled the scene on foot with several thousand dollars worth of stolen goods and we have footage of them on three cameras – two ATMs and a security camera. They're running flat out here - " He loaded up another video of the two men running flat out at great speed on the other side of the road from the ATM camera. "For about a block. Then they slow down." Another piece of footage, closer this time, with the men walking sedately and without their masks.
"Whoa. Who are these guys, Olympic athletes?" Castle asked, now seriously intrigued.
Ryan looked at him, puzzled. "Say what again?"
"Those two just ran flat out for a block – but they're not breathing heavily in that footage. Super-strong and able to sprint like that? Who are these guys?"
"I don't know," said O'Connor unhappily, "But here's the last piece of footage, from an ATM on the other side of the street."
Ok, so the two men were walking along – and then they both dived into the entrance to an alley. The camera angle was wrong to see all the way inside, but they certainly weren't at the entrance. And then ten seconds later another man, dressed in dark clothing and with a hood pulled up to hide his face, appeared and also ducked into the alley. And O'Connor then froze the picture.
"Right, so they go into an alley, probably to divvy up the loot with that other guy. Must be their fence or something. So what?" Ryan looked puzzled.
"Kev," O'Connor sighed, "That's a blind alley. There's nowhere to go except out the way they came – but they don't come out again. I've checked the footage. Three men walk into an alleyway and don't walk out again. There's no doors down there, no fire escapes, nothing but sixty feet of brick wall on three sides. And besides, thirty seconds after the third guy goes in, this happens."
O'Connor jabbed at the keyboard and the video continued. Half a minute after the third man had gone into the alley a squad car from the Precinct drove past, slowing down for one of the officers to shine a powerful light into the space between the two buildings, before driving off. "Now, I talked to those officers and they both said that there was no-one in that alley. Hell, there was nothing in it – no dumpsters, no dumped junk, no abandoned cars, nothing. Place was bare and empty. Still is – I walked down it an hour ago. Now how the hell can three people walk into an alley and just vanish? And how the hell can I explain this to Gates?"
Castle looked at Ryan, who looked right back at him. "Well this is interesting, isn't it," Castle said with massive glee as he leant back in his chair. "There must obviously be another way out of that alley… secret door? Oooh, a secret door, like we had in that murder in what is now my very successful and very atmospheric bar!"
Ryan rolled his eyes almost as expressively as Beckett would have if she had been there. "Or perhaps sewer access?"
"No manhole covers - I checked," his cousin replied grimly. "No windows, no access to basements, nothing. There's an old bricked-up entrance to a loading dock to the building to the right hand side, but I tapped every brick on that wall. Nothing. Besides, even if there was a secret door where the loading bay was it would be useless now."
"Why?" Castle asked.
"Because the place is a high-end Italian deli and they stuck a walk-in refrigerator where the old loading bay was. A refrigerator with a security system that makes my local bank look like amateurs."
Ryan frowned at his cousin. "Why would an Italian deli need a security system for a cold room?"
"God," muttered Castle, "I'm more tired than I thought. Is the deli Domenici's?"
"Ummm," O'Connor muttered as he flicked through his notes. "Yes. I saw some of the prices for the hams they have hanging in the windows. Almost gave me a heart attack."
"Understandably so – Domenici's is the finest Italian deli on the East Coast, if not the country. They import only the best from Italy, as verified by the Italian consulate. My mother goes there once a month, escorted by Alexis and having been personally searched for credit cards by myself. Otherwise she'd max everything out. The place is that good – and that expensive. No wonder they have a good security system."
Ryan chewed his lip in thought. "Any mob connections?"
Castle responded with a short laugh. "Hell no! Just the opposite in fact. It's the only neutral ground for the Families."
"It is? Why?"
"It's where their mothers and grandmothers and wives go to shop. Look, I did some research into the history of the place a few years ago. Apparently about ten years ago a low-level but very ambitious mobster for the Gambino family made the mistake of telling old man Domenici that it would be a good idea to accept his 'protection'." Castle illustrated the last word with air quotes. "That was at 10am. At 2pm the same day Tommy Gambino himself walks in to talk to old man Domenici. He apologises profusely, says that it will never happen again, says that the man who had been there that morning had been disciplined, apologised yet again and then handed over a briefcase containing $25,000 in compensation for the insult. Oh and he asked Domenici if he could please let Nona Gambino know that he'd been there personally, as otherwise she'd make Tommy Gambino's life a living hell."
Ryan and O'Connor just stared at him, fascinated. "So what happened to the mobster who offered protection?" Ryan asked eventually.
"Vanished. Although there is a rumour that there's a multi-story car park on the Lower East Side that has a concrete pillar that wasn't on the original plans."
They absorbed that bit of information, winced and then turned back to the screen. "Ok," Ryan said eventually. "That takes care of the building to the right. What's to the left?"
"The New York Toy and Teddy museum," Castle replied with great gusto.
"You're kidding," Ryan said after a pause.
"Nope," O'Connor sighed. "And they have a damn good security system as well. Some of their exhibits are insured for millions of dollars."
"Why would a teddy bear be insured for that much?"
"Well, if that little bear had been hugged by the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, or clutched by Queen Elizabeth the Second when she was a baby, then yes, it would need to be insured for that much." Castle smiled at the look on Ryan's face and then looked at O'Connor. "So, no way in through their either?"
"And what's the building at the bottom of the alley?"
"Back of a fire station. Nothing odd reported there last night either."
"What, no call outs? In this weather? It's been 100 degrees all week."
"There was one at midnight, some firebug, but by 3am they were all back in the building. Nothing further."
Castle drummed his fingers on the table happily, before grabbing the note he'd left for Beckett and tearing it up. "Well then," he said cheerfully, "Let's go see this alley!"
The alley itself was an oven when they walked into it. The heatwave that had gripped the city saw no sign of going away any time soon and Castle was glad that he'd left his jacket back in the car. As he entered the alley, rolling up his sleeves as he walked, he frowned. "This is one very clean alley. No litter, no feral cats, no nothing. He squinted at the ground. "You were quite right, Detective O'Connor, no manholes either."
"Apparently the local neighbourhood's keen on cleaning up. The Major's Clean City campaign made its mark here. Call me Charlie please Mr Castle."
"Ok Charlie – and you can call me Castle. So – here's the bricked up old loading dock." He squinted at the former opening. "Yup, that's been bricked up pretty well. Can't see any obvious openings or doorways." He looked around and then up and down the walls. Something was bothering him, something was scratching metaphorically at the back of his head. "What's that?" He strode over to one side where he could see a strange mark on a brick.
The closer he got the odder it looked. It seemed as if something had carved a shallow curving groove into the brick. "Interesting. I wonder what caused this?" He reached out and felt the groove, before frowning at it. "Ryan, Charlie, come and have a look at this. If I didn't know any better something incredibly hot's been used to carve this."
Ryan rolled his eyes but walked over to it, followed by O'Connor. Then he blinked at it. "Odd?"
"Run your finger over it – it feels glassy – as if it's been melted somehow." He turned and looked around at the horizon.
"That is freaky," Ryan agreed as he ran a finger over it.
"Well, I can't see a misshapen skyscraper around and-"
"Oh, I was at a book signing in London last year. They're building this big skyscraper there that's bigger on the top than at the bottom. Looks like a giant walkie-talkie. Thing is, the architect got his sums wrong and because the South face of it curves, when the Sun shines on it from the right angle the glass would concentrate the heat – like a giant looking glass. Some poor guy claimed that it melted the dashboard of his car. Thing is, I don't think that that's the case for this melted slash thing on the brick. No skyscraper nearby."
Ryan shrugged and stepped back. "This is freaking me out a bit," he said quietly. Then he looked down. "What's that stuff down there?"
O'Connor looked down at it. "Dirt."
Castle frowned at it, that itch still going strong. It was worse here. "The rest of this alley's so clean that you could have a picnic off it. Why did they miss that?" He squatted down to look at it. It looked familiar for some reason. Smelt familiar as well. Why?
Ryan had pulled a pencil out of a pocket and had stirred the dirt around a bit, before sniffing the end of the pencil carefully. "Smells like ash of some sort."
A memory from the past slammed through his brain and he stood hurriedly. "Oh hell."
"That's ash alright – only not bonfire ash. Human ash."
Ryan and O'Connor backed away from it quickly. "How do you know?" Ryan spluttered.
"I did a stint at a funeral parlour at spring break one year when I was at college. Long and rather stupid story, but you never really forget the smell of human ash." He looked around the alley again. "Ok, so this is going from the bizarre to the macabre. Three men walk into an alleyway and vanish, leaving a melted mark in the wall and a pile of human ash – presuming, that is, that the ash is related to everything. Curiouser and curiouser."
"Ok," Ryan said nervily. "Let's bag and tag the ashes. Maybe some passing mourner tripped and spilt the remains of Great Uncle Ernest?"
Castle squinted at the ash. "There are two piles there, not one. Ok. Moving on to a less creepy topic, as I can't see any incineration devices in the area. We are now left with only one direction to go in the hunt for the nefarious jewel thieves – up."
The two detectives stared at the wall. "You think that they climbed a sheer wall in thirty seconds?"
"Well, we know that they're strong and good runners. Is it too much to think that they can't climb either?"
"What did they climb with?"
"Well, they both had rucksacks. What if the two thieves had ropes and grappling hooks on them?"
Ryan thought about that for a second. "One problem."
"They jammed a load of stolen jewellery into those rucksacks, along with what might have been glass. Some of that must have fallen out if they'd pulled out ropes from the bags, especially as it was dark at the time. I don't see anything around."
This was a regrettably good point. "Ok – so perhaps they had the ropes already set up here."
"Why here? There's no train station near here, nothing. Why climb the walls here?"
Another good point. "Charlie – were there any helicopter flights over here last night?"
"No," he replied. "I checked when Gates was keeping an eye on unauthorised chopper flights over the city, as a part of the Crossman kidnapping."
Castle sighed. "Long shot anyway. And the squad car would have noticed a chopper picking up our three mysterious men." He looked up at the wall. "Ok, I think we should bag the ash and then check the roofs."
Getting up to the roof of Domenici's was far easier than Castle had thought. Entering the deli he had been rather surprised to see a dozen heads (some with black Sicilian headscarves on them) swivel towards him and various eyes narrow, but the moment that he introduced himself to Billy Domenici, who had taken over from his father five years before, those eyes unnarrowed and the words 'Martha's boy, the writer, such a good boy' started to fill the air. The younger Domenici escorted them into his office pleasantly, listened to them and then immediately agreed to take them up to the roof.
As Castle, Ryan and O'Connor stepped out onto the roof the heat hit them like a hammer. "Oof, it's hot," Castle muttered as they walked over to the edge of the building that faced the alley and looked at the lip of bricks that jutted out there. After a few minutes of inspection he sighed. "Ok, I'm not seeing any scrape marks from a grappling hook. Or hooks."
"I'll check the others," O'Connor muttered and walked over to the building at the rear, which was the same height as the deli and the museum, hopping over the brick dividers. After a few minutes he came back. "Nothing."
"This is freaky," Ryan muttered, obviously frustrated. "Where the hell did they all go?"
Castle nodded and then looked over at Ryan's cousin. "Charlie, have you still got your laptop on you?"
"Yeah," O'Connor replied, pulling it out of his bag.
"Let's get into the shade and take a look at that last piece of footage again."
They retired to the stairwell and looked at the screen. "Why do you want to see this again?" Ryan asked as O'Connor called the relevant footage up.
"Something's been puzzling me. Where did that third guy come from? He wasn't on any of the other footage." They looked at the screen and then Castle jabbed at it with his finger as he stifled a yawn. "See? He's only in the third segment. Where was he in the other two? Where did he come from?"
"Perhaps a car dropped him off?" O'Connor said with a frown.
"Where? There were some parked cars on the first clip, but none on the second and third ones – they're parking meter zones. And no cars drove past. So where did he come from?" He stared at the third clip again. "You know, I'm wondering if the third guy was tailing the first two, not meeting them. Look at how they tilt their heads here when they hear him coming and then dive into the alley." He drummed his fingers against his arm. "I'm wondering if they were trying to avoid him – or even attack him. Run that last bit again."
"Ok," O'Connor said.
"What's that odd flash there? It's just a split-second. A gunshot? No, people would have heard it. And a body would have been even more difficult to move."
"You're reading a lot into this," O'Connor said uncertainly.
"Hey, he's Castle," Ryan said with a smirk. "At least he hasn't claimed that aliens beamed them away."
Castle tilted his head and looked at Ryan. "Aliens? Me? Seriously?" Ryan just looked back and raised his eyebrows. After a moment Castle conceded defeat. "Ok, well, some of my theories have been a little… unlikely. Although I have seen some pretty unbelievable things. Anyway – what's your explanation for this Ryan?"
Ryan frowned in thought, opened his mouth – and then closed it. "I don't actually have one just yet," he said reluctantly. "Give me some time to think about it."
O'Connor looked at them both with a combination of relief and concern. "So I haven't screwed this investigation up then?"
Castle thought things over and then said at the same time as Ryan: "No." O'Connor sagged with relief.
On the way back down Castle started to suspect that he was beginning to run out of caffeine, because all of a sudden he had next to no energy. He was therefore happily astonished to see Alexis waiting outside. "Hey! What are you doing here, sweetheart?"
His daughter smiled ironically at him. "Looking for you Dad. You're exhausted. Come on home."
He yawned massively and then turned back to Ryan and his cousin, who were looking around the alley again. "Sorry guys," he said with another yawn, "My ride awaits!"
"Go home and get some sleep Castle," Ryan called back. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Castle smiled and got into the car. As Alexis signalled and pulled out he wondered vaguely how she'd known that he was there, but then sleep claimed him.
When he woke up again after his nap he noticed several important things. The first was that he was sprawled on the sofa in his living room and that was important because he couldn't remember getting out of the car. The second thing was that he was still tired but that the edge had been taken off his fatigue. The third thing was that someone was cooking something that smelled delicious.
Groggily he sat up and peered over at the kitchen. Then he blinked. "Hey," he called out. "What's cookin', good-lookin'?"
"Hey to you too," Kate Beckett said as she turned from the pan just long enough to smile at him. "You sleep well?"
"I just had a nap for-" he glanced at his watch and then did a double-take. "Four hours?"
"You tossed and turned for a lot of last night," Beckett said. "I'm not surprised that you're so tired."
Castle stood and did his best to get out the kinks that had appeared in his spine. Then he wandered into the kitchen and stared at the pan. "Wow – is that salt and pepper squid?"
Beckett smirked at him and then slapped at his hand with the spoon. "It's not ready yet!" She glowered briefly at him and then added some more seasoning, before tasting. "Ok, now it is. You get the wine and I'll serve up."
Castle thought about sampling a quick bit of squid and then thought better of it. Instead he walked to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of white wine. "Where's Alexis? And my Mother?"
"Martha's gone to teach her acting class. And Alexis said that she had an errand to run." Beckett served up the squid and then carried the plates and cutlery over, as Castle joined her with the chilled white wine.
"Looks good," Castle said as he drooled at the plate. Then he took a mounthful and closed his eyes in ecstasy. "Tastes even better." They ate in companionable silence for a minute or two, until Castle eventually took a sip of wine and looked up. "How's Amanda Crossman?"
Beckett sighed and took a sip of her own wine. "Unhurt - but she'll need therapy."
He winced. "That bad?"
"That bad. Rick, the scum that kidnapped her had some very nasty plans for her and they shared those plans with her. She told me when Esposito was out of the room."
He looked at her and then noted the slight green tinge to her face. "What were they planning? Who were they?"
"They were a bunch of complete whackjobs who were in a cult that lived in a huge house with all the windows boarded up. And they wanted her as a human sacrifice. Apparently tonight's going to see a lunar eclipse and they wanted to raise some Babylonian demon god whose name I can't even pronounce, or some such crazy stuff."
Castle reflected on this for a long moment. "Seriously?" he asked incredulously. She nodded. "Wow, that's so out there that not even I could make it up. So – a cult? What happened to them?"
Beckett finished off her squid and then took a sip of wine. "Well that's the crazy part of it. Apparently the kidnappers had some kind of falling out that involved a lot of fighting and screaming and odd noises. Amanda said that all of a sudden two hooded people turned up out nowhere and got her out of the place at a run. She thinks that one was a man and the other was a young man, but she can't really describe them because it was so dark and, well, the hoods." She shrugged. "Weird as hell, but they rescued her and she's safe and unharmed and under heavy guard at the hospital. She was able to tell us where she was being held and we've got CSU all over the place. Some of those kidnappers might still be out there and we can't take any chances with those whackjobs. Although if they turn up wearing masks again we'll spot them."
"Masks?" Castle muttered as he finished off his own squid. "What kind of masks?"
Beckett rolled her eye. "Weird ones again. They looked as if they had lumpy foreheads. Oh and yellow contact lenses."
He froze. "Lumpy foreheads?"
"Yeah." Then she caught the look on his face. "What's wrong?"
"You know Ryan's cousin, Charlie O'Connor?"
"The rookie detective? Sure."
"He came asking Ryan for help on an odd case. Break in at a jewellers. Two men, wearing odd masks that gave them lumpy foreheads, broke in – showing almost superhuman strength – grabbed as much as they could from the display cases and then ran out thirty seconds later."
"Sounds like professionals," Beckett said thoughtfully. "And lumpy forehead masks?"
"They ran for a block and a half and then they dived into an alley next to Domenici's – the Italian deli that my mother loves so much. They were followed by a third man. Who was hooded. Quite a coincidence."
Beckett took another sip of wine. "What happened to them?"
"That's the mystery. They all vanished. It's a blind alley with no sewer access, or access to the roof or doors windows or basements. Not even a dumpster. A squad car went past less than a minute later and according to Ryan's cousin the officers who shone a light down the alley didn't see a soul there."
They stared at each other for a long moment. "I'll have a word with Ryan and his cousin tomorrow morning," Beckett said eventually. "That has too many coincidences for my liking."
"Me too," Castle said as he thought about what Amanda Crossman had been though. "Although that isn't the oddest thing. We found this odd mark on the wall and two piles of human ash underneath it."
Beckett absorbed this and then smiled puzzledly. "Ok," she said eventually. "You have had the weirder day."
"Do I get a prize?"
She sent a smouldering look his way. "Deal with the dishes and then meet me in the bedroom. I'll see what I can arrange."
He leapt into action.
When Castle and Beckett arrived at the 12th Precinct the next morning, both moving a little stiffly, they found Ryan staring at the office of Captain Gates with an odd look on his face. The door was closed and the blinds were pulled shut.
"What's up?" Castle asked as he sipped at his second coffee of the day and smacked his lips.
"I'm not sure," Ryan said thoughtfully. I came in and Gates was already in and being cranky at people. Then Javier turned up with this file and look on his face that scared the crap out me."
"What kind of look?" Beckett asked with a frown.
"That kind of thousand-yard stare where he knows that bad things are either about to happen or actually have just happened."
"Oh, that's not good," she replied. "What was the file?"
"I think it was the initial CSU report on the place where Amanda Crossman was being held. All I know is that a minute after he went in there the door was closed and the blinds were shut."
"Hmmmm." Beckett looked at the office and then turned back to Ryan. "I need to talk to you about your cousins' robbery case."
"Ah – did Castle fill you in on how weird it all is? Charlie's really worried about it."
"Yeah – look, do you have image of the robbers?"
"I think so." He frowned and then pulled out a photocopied picture. "Yeah, here you go."
Beckett stared at it and then looked at Castle who nodded. "Fits what she saw."
"What who saw?"
"Amanda Crossman. Apparently the robbers in your cousin's case wore the same mask as her kidnappers."
"Whoa," Ryan breathed. "Ok, we need to tell Gates."
"Excuse me," said a new voice. "I'm looking for Captain Gates?"
Castle turned to see a brown-haired man with green eyes standing to one side. He was dressed in a suit, was holding a briefcase and seemed to have appeared out of absolutely nowhere. "Can I ask who's looking for her?"
The stranger smiled slightly and pulled out his ID – a wallet with an embossed shield and an ID card. "Special Agent Timothy McGee, NCIS."
Castle exchanged odd glances with Ryan and Beckett. "Her office is over there, but she's in a meeting right now."
McGee looked over at the door and smiled slightly again. "I know. She's expecting me. Thanks." And then he strode off to the office. He knocked politely on the door and appeared to be unphased by the loud bark of 'WHAT?' from the inside. He then slipped in.
The three fascinated watchers waited, but the office seemed to be oddly silent and devoid of loud explosions. After a while Castle looked at the others. "What's a Navy cop doing here?"
Ryan and Beckett both shrugged.
After about five minutes the door to the office opened and Gates stuck her head around the doorframe. "Detective Beckett – a word."
Beckett stood and walked into the office, followed by an intrigued Castle, who closed the door behind him with his very best butter-won't-melt-in-my-mouth look. To his surprise Gates did not glare at him, but was instead busy glaring at a large and obviously very old book with what looked like a black leather cover. McGee was sitting serenely in front of her desk whilst Esposito – a very pale and wide-eyed Esposito – was staring at the Federal Agent.
"You wanted to see me Captain?" Beckett said eventually.
Gates looked up, scowling. "This is Special Agent Timothy McGee of NCIS. In the wake of the CSU report into the Crossman kidnapping case that turned up some… complications… of the occult kind I contacted an old friend of mine in the FBI, who mentioned that Agent McGee was in town for the same seminar that I attended and that I should consult with him as an… expert."
Castle blinked. Ok, this was so far beyond weird that it wasn't funny.
Gates took a very deep breath, closed her eyes, opened them again and then exhaled slowly before finally speaking. "The Crossman kidnapping case is closed. The kidnappers have been… dealt with."
Beckett looked at her incredulously. "I'm sorry Ma'am? For all we know they're still out there! CSU didn't find any bodies!"
Esposito snorted slightly in what was almost amusement and then went totally still when he received an atomic glare of death from Gates.
"They are dead. Case closed. Move on to something else." She bit the words out as if she was chewing bullets.
Beckett was cut off by another look from Gates – an oddly gentle one. "Detective Beckett, if I said that there was a large amount of human ash in the building where Ms Crossman was being held, would you know why?"
This was insane. More human ash? Castle was about to open his mouth when Esposito's shake of the head caught his eye. Taking the hint he was silent.
Beckett on the other hand looked as if she was about to explode into a million pieces. "They murdered other people in that place?"
Gates smiled slightly. "In a way," she replied. "In a way. Detective Esposito, I think that you're better informed about this than Detective Beckett. Please let her know about the… um, realities of the situation as you see fit."
"Yes Ma'am," Esposito snapped with an almost military edge to his voice.
"Which just leaves this," Gates said as she ran her hand over the surface of the book. "It was found in the house."
McGee cleared his throat and then reached into his pocket and handed over a packet containing a moist hand wipe. "You might want to use this. I recognise the cover on that book. It's human skin."
Gates jerked back from the book as if it was radioactive and then broke all speed records for the deployment of a hand wipe as everyone else - with the exception of McGee - stared at it with revulsion. "So what do we do with it?"
"I know some people in London who specialise in taking care of books like this," McGee said quietly. "I know that it's evidence, but it's incredibly old and also incredibly valuable. If the wrong kind of people find out that you have it in the precinct house, they'll try anything to steal it."
"How much is it worth?" Castle blurted, startled.
McGee looked at it assessingly. "Oh, to the right collector about a million dollars."
Castle felt his eyes bulge. "For that thing?"
"Oh yes." McGee looked at him. For some reason there was something about him that reminded Castle about something else. But he couldn't put his finger on what. He also seemed to be very calm about everything – by far the calmest person in the room.
Gates pushed the book towards the Fed using a handy pen, which she then wiped off with the remains of the wipe. "Please take this off our hands as soon as you can."
"Can do." McGee wrapped the book up in an old-fashioned and very large linen handkerchief that he'd pulled out of a pocket and transferred it to his briefcase. "I'm flying back to Quantico tomorrow. I'll be touch Captain Gates." And then he left.
"Ok people, let's get on with life," Gates sighed and then shooed them all out of her office. Beckett and Castle walked back to Beckett's table almost on autopilot, where they saw a baffled Ryan. "Hey, my cousin called. That robbery? The owner called Charlie about half an hour ago. Apparently he was overseeing repairs to the security shutters when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He looks around and sees two rucksacks on the ground next to him, with all the stolen jewellery in it. No sign of who returned it." Then he took a look at the closed, set, look on Beckett's face and the 'oh crap' look on the face of Castle. "Ok. What happened?"
"The Crossman kidnapping? It's closed." Beckett spat the words out through tight lips.
"What? The Feds declare it shut? I thought we were working with the FBI on it, not Navy cops?"
"Well, Gates declared it shut. That guy McGee? He's an 'occult expert'."
Ryan peered at her uncertainly. "Excuse me?"
"Oh," Castle sighed, "you heard right."
"Evil cult planned to sacrifice her, I think via some evil book."
Ryan was still staring at them as if they'd gone raving mad when Esposito arrived at the desk. "Ok," he hissed, putting down a sketch of one suspect kidnappers, along with a picture of one of the robbers. "Listen up, because I ain't saying this a second time. If any of you ever see a suspect with a 'mask' like this, back the hell away. Run if you have to. Because these scum will kill you without a second thought. Sometimes they even get creative about it. You see one – you back away. Call me. I know some people and we will get it done. You all got that?"
They all stared at him until his blazing glare finally got through to them and various tense nods were sent his way.
"Is this cult widespread?" Ryan asked, looking pale.
Esposito closed his eyes for a long moment, breathing deeply and then looked up at them. There was a look of such pain – long-buried, remembered, pain – that Castle could see Beckett suppressing her desire to grab his shirt and shake the answers out of him. "No, but they are very, very, dangerous. So please – don't go anywhere near them. And there's something else. I can't explain it to you now, because you'll need proof. You'll need to see… something that I can't explain." He sagged slightly as he ran his hands through his hair and then he left for the break room.
The rest of the day was something of a bust after all that high drama. There was an open and shut shooting of a would-be robber at a convenience store that had an owner who had a very scary wife with an excellent aim… and that about it.
Castle and Beckett went back to the apartment at the end of the day in something of a funk. Gates had spent the rest of the day in a very dark mood, whilst Esposito had only been half in the room, judging by the way that his attention kept wandering.
"Well, that was a hell of a day," Castle quipped as he walked through the front door, followed by Beckett. "Hello Mother, how are you?"
"Fine, Richard," Martha said as her son kissed her on the cheeks. "Well, kind of fine. My granddaughter has turned down a chance to see one of the great stage actors to ever grace Broadway with me and is instead in her room. Meditating."
Castle looked at his mother. "I'm sorry, did you say 'meditating'?"
"Yes," Martha replied flatly. "You heard me correctly Richard."
Castle looked at Beckett, who shrugged. "Maybe she needs to find herself?"
He thought about this and then he brushed it off. "Well, as long as she isn't meditating with someone like Pi, she can go ahead and find her inner Alexis. Right – time for food. And a large glass of wine." He looked over at Beckett, who was staring out of the window. "What's wrong?"
"Just thinking about that damn case. And whatever it is that Esposito needs to tell me." She sighed. "Something tells me that whatever it is we're not going to like it very much."
He put his arm around her and she leant into him. "I know the feeling," he said and then frowned slightly. For some reason the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end and he wondered if there was something wrong with the air conditioning. "Come on, let me show you how to make the famous family spaghetti vongole."
"Do you think I'll ever be able to tell my Dad about this? He'd find it pretty amazing."
"Maybe. If you think that he can handle it. It'll depend where you want to go with your gift. Some of us protect the innocent. Some like to heal. One thing – if you do tell your father you'll have to be able to prove what you are."
"Have you told your own father?"
"Not yet. He's an Admiral. I don't see him very often. I'll tell him eventually. Now – meditation is the door to the Force. Imagine a river. Not a fast-moving river. A river like the Hudson. Deep and therefore powerful. That's the Force."
"I can picture it."
"Now, I'm going to teach you some meditation techniques that you need to practice every day. And I mean every day. First…"