Chapter 12: First Contact (published May 2, 2021)

When Hunt returned to the conference room, he saw that Beckett and her team were now busy working the phones, typing into their laptops and staring at their search results, all while conducting a joint play-by-play and brainstorming session.

Ryan spoke up, with a voice that cut through the chatter. "Guys, I think I've found Castle. Credit card was run mid-morning at the Notte. Maybe he checked in?"

"Our luck today, bet he just had breakfast and left," Espo replied, exasperated at the lack of his own progress.

"Javi, it's not nothing," Beckett noted. "Good job, Kevin. It's the first solid info we have on Castle. But don't call the hotel. Let's get some uniforms in the area to follow-up, check to see if he's there."

Hunt had entered so silently that Beckett hadn't notice his return until she looked up to respond to Esposito. Since then, she had been watching him as she had been speaking and as he crossed the room toward the table.

"Mr. Hunt, where are you on getting a call arranged with Mr. Castle?" Beckett asked, her voice firm and insistent.

Hunt responded by touching the screen on his phone. A second or two later, the conference room phone began ringing. "That will be Mr. Castle," Hunt announced.

Beckett quickly moved to press the speaker button on the phone before the second ring was finished. "Beckett."

On the train, a quick grin with a hint of melancholy flitted across Castle's face at the normalcy of Beckett's salutation in what was decidedly not a normal situation. "Hello, Detective. This is Richard Castle. I understand the NYPD wanted to speak with me?"

Beckett didn't rise to the bait of the added formality. "Castle, where are you? We saw the promo at the end of the midday news . . ."

"I'm sorry, it sounds like I'm on a speaker phone," Castle interjected. "Who else is listening to this call?"

"It's just Ryan, Esposito, and your Mr. Hunt, and we're in our conference room." Beckett caught Ryan's gaze and tossed her head toward the open conference room door. "Ryan's closing the door."

"Thanks. Not sure I can be too paranoid, unless you're going to tell me that you caught your shooter since last night." Castle paused for a couple of beats, allowing an opening for any such news. Hearing none, he continued. "Hi, Kevin. Espo."

"Castle," Espo replied neutrally.

Ryan was more upbeat in his tone, in an attempt to relieve the tension. "Hey, Castle. You good?"

"Yeah, tired but safe. So far anyway."

"Listen, Castle, we're all happy that you're safe," Beckett said, taking control of the call.

"You're being promoted as appearing tonight on the Cottera show to talk about my mother . . ."

"That wasn't supposed to happen. Apparently, 'surprise' or 'unannounced' doesn't mean to TV news what it means to the rest of us."

"So the promo's accurate?" Beckett asked, seeking confirmation.

"Well, yes," Castle admitted, with some reluctance. "Though I wouldn't have written it that way."

Espo heatedly interjected, "Does that mean you're going . . ." but immediately stopped when Beckett raised her palm in the universal stop signal.

With Hunt present, Beckett wanted to preserve the mutual pledge that she, Castle, Espo, and Ryan had taken after Montgomery had sacrificed himself, even if Castle might be ready to violate it. That prevented her from directly asking about Castle's intention on discussing their deceased captain, so she had to tread lightly and hope she and Castle could still communicate in subtext. "Does that mean that you're going to talk about . . . everything?"

"The promo is accurate." Castle repeated slowly, unwilling to confirm anything beyond what had already been publicly disclosed. "Well, as accurate as a TV station's marketing department can be."

"OK, you need to come in for a sit-down interview before tonight's interview," Beckett quickly followed-up. "How soon can you get here? Do you want uniforms or maybe a couple of us to pick you up at the Notte?"

"You found that, did you?" Castle said. "You won't find me there. I checked in because everyone's gotta be somewhere. I couldn't stay at the loft and if someone was trying to find me, best to get them to focus on somewhere I wasn't."

"Castle, if you're worried about your safety, we can come to you, as quietly or in as much force as needed," Beckett offered.

"I really don't have the time today. But like I told Gates this morning, I can come by tomorrow if you all still want to talk with me."

"So you did call Gates this morning. Did you also tell her about the DNA match?" Beckett asked, though the accusation was clear in Beckett's tone.

"You needed to be removed from the Costas investigation." Castle's inflection left no doubt of the firmness of his opinion on the matter.

"You disloyal bastard," Beckett spit out, her voice low and not attempting to conceal the hurt and betrayal she felt.

On the train, Jordan wasn't sure what Castle had just heard, but something he heard had affected him. Castle couldn't put the call on the phone's speaker, or hold the phone between his and Jordan's heads, without drawing way too much attention to them. So Jordan had to be satisfied sitting close enough to him to hear his side of the call, watching him, and attempting to fill in the blanks in the on-going conversation but also in her profile of Castle. Whatever had been said by Beckett didn't so much change Castle's expression, but now there was something in and around his eyes that completely contradicted the slight grin he'd been wearing since the call started.

In the conference room, Hunt, who always exuded a certain stillness, might as well as have been carved from stone when Beckett finished the expletive.

"Literally correct that I'm a bastard, but that's hardly on me," Castle replied, with as much emotion as if he were discussing the day's weather. "As to your accusation of disloyalty, you're wrong. If you'd given any thought to our time together, my work with your team, you couldn't say that."

"Castle, I'm not in the mood for an attempt at 'witty' repartee," Beckett retorted, her voice beginning to crack and her voice rising. "We're trying to find a murderer – a murderer that tried to kill me too – and you're interfering with my investigation. I'm so close to solving my Mom's murder, I can feel it," Beckett swallowed and paused, slowly blinked her eyes once, like she was deciding whether to stop or continue.

Tired and frustrated, Beckett chose to continue.

"And what happens? You, you . . .," Beckett sputtered, swallowing some alternative pejorative that she'd almost hurled at Castle, "you get me taken off the case while you're booking yet another next talk show appearance so you can use my life, my Mom's death? To, what, sell a few more books, maybe bang Miss Bikini Interviewer, or find another willing actress so you can provide a very personal recommendation on casting a different Nikki Heat?"

Ryan and Espo had been increasingly uncomfortable at being present to see and hear Beckett, and it was Ryan who spoke. "Hey, why don't . . ."

Beckett didn't let Ryan stop her from finishing. "Or maybe you're closer to The Dragon than you've already admitted you are, and you're doing whatever he wants to keep me away from the case."

On the train, Jordan saw the pain becoming increasingly pronounced on Castle's face. Jordan still didn't know what was being said to Castle, but whatever it was, it was being said with enough volume that Jordan could pick out discrete words here and there. Jordan watched as Castle closed his eyes and swallowed thickly a few times as he listened to Beckett's rant. The moment it got quiet, Castle spoke.

"Beckett," Castle said softly. "Hush."

Beckett saw nothing but red. "Wha, what did you say to me?!" Beckett spit out, her voice hard and rising. "Just who the fuck . . ."

At that moment, Captain Gates opened the conference room door and stepped in. "Detective Beckett . . ." she said, seeing the need to interrupt whatever exchange she'd walked into.

Castle had heard the conference door open and a new voice speak, and his increasing paranoia spoke up. "Who's that? Captain Gates? Anyone else?"

"It's only me, Mr. Castle" Victoria Gates had immediately recognized the voice, and announced herself as she re-closed the door. "It's good to hear your voice, as odd as it is to say that. You have saved us from having to spend more time finding you. When can we expect you in?"

"Good afternoon, Captain. I promised you I'd come in tomorrow. That offer's still on the table, but that's the best I can do."

Gates looked around her officers in the room and received non-verbal confirmations that they had already gotten the same answer, before settling her gaze on Hunt.

Beckett brought Gates up to speed. "Captain, this is Jackson Hunt, from Castle's security firm. He arranged for Castle to call."

Hunt answered Gates' unspoken questions. "Mr. Castle's not with any of our people, and he hasn't told us where he is either. He has assured us, however, that he's currently safe."

Gates turned back toward the speaker phone. "Mr. Castle, I'm afraid that isn't good enough, in light of tonight's interview. You've drawn more than your normal share of attention, including this time from downtown, and we need to talk with you before tonight."

"I gather I haven't been charged with anything?" Castle asked, cutting to the chase. "Not suspected of a crime, either?"

"Not yet," Gates conceded. "But we'd like to ensure that you don't get charged with obstructing an investigation. Coming in would help us assist you in ensuring that doesn't occur. Plus, if the DA has a different opinion on your activities, you showing up here and talking with us before tonight's appearance would demonstrate your full cooperation with the NYPD."

Castle saw in the front of his train car that the door was beginning to be opened by the conductor, and knew he only had a few moments before the conductor yelled out for tickets and gave the conference room too much information about where he was. "Sorry, I need to go now. I have a lot to do and promises to keep before I sleep. I'll be there tomorrow morning at 9, unless plans change again. Until tomorrow."

A second or two later the conference room was filled with the sound of the dialtone from the speakerphone.

Gates looked at her detectives. "Well?"

"Beyond confirming that the TV promo for tonight's show is accurate, we don't get anything," Beckett admitted.

Gates sighed. "That's certainly not going to satisfy 1PP. Well, since I can't produce Castle, at least I can Detective Beckett." Gates said, as she turned toward Beckett. "Detective, your presence is required at the city courthouse."

"Sir?" Beckett responded, taken aback.

"The City Counselor is seeking a restraining order enforcing the confidentiality clauses in the agreement that Mr. Castle signed when he began to shadow you," the Captain explained. "In light to the sensational nature, the City could hardly be expected to do nothing. The Counselor may need you to sign an affidavit in support, and he's asked for you to be present at the hearing in case he needs a live witness."

"Sir, surely Ryan or maybe Espo could represent the Department," Beckett responded, exasperated at being re-directed again.

Gates shut down Beckett's attempt at getting a substitute. "I already suggested that, but the City Counselor specifically asked for you. Said something about expecting that Judge Markway will be the judge assigned to the request, and the Counselor seems to think that your history with the judge could add some credibility and help offset any concerns that the judge might have."

Gates continued, responding to an argument she expected Beckett might make. "And even if it's not Markway, the Counselor thinks your relationship with Castle and the possible mention of your mother's murder in the promo could generate some sympathy from the judge, which could be helpful in getting an injunction. Sorry Detective, nothing either of us can do except follow orders."

Hunt cleared his throat to interrupt and then interjected. "Captain, Detectives, I'm going to take my leave. I came here looking for Mr. Castle, and while I didn't find him here, my time here was productive."

"Mr. Hunt, thank you for putting us in touch with Mr. Castle," Beckett stated.

"Least I could do under the circumstances."

Captain Gates addressed Hunt. "Can we have your number if we need to contact you?"

"Here's my firm's number," Hunt deflected as he handed Captain Gates and each of the others a Universal Security business card. "They can get in touch with me if you need to talk with me. It was nice meeting you all. Captain, Detectives," Hunt said, nodding as he took his leave and headed for the elevator.