Hello all! Here is my contribution to the 2017 Castle Halloween Bash. I hope you enjoy it.
"Daddy, what is this place? This stuff is all weird. I thought we were going to the grocery store."
"No, no," Rick Castle said with a grin, guiding his daughter deeper into the little shop. "We don't need any groceries, pumpkin. This is a different kind of store - a magic store!"
Alexis frowned at him, then cast her gaze along the crowded tables of merchandise. "It doesn't look like that other magic store we go to," she said dubiously. "The one with the trick decks of cards and the Rubik's Cubes and all that."
"This is a different kind of magic. Real magic," he proclaimed. "You know, like in Harry Potter."
"Harry Potter is fiction, Daddy."
"Yes, very true. And so are the books that I write." He picked up a crystal charm from a table, turning it in his fingers so it caught the light from dozens of candles flickering on high ledges along the walls. "And that, my dear child, is why we're here. To attend a séance, for writing research."
"What's a séance?" Alexis asked, shifting her backpack higher onto her shoulder. She picked up a bundle of incense and sniffed it carefully.
"Well, it's a sort of magic ceremony where a person who has mystical psychic powers attempts to contact the souls of the dead," he explained. "Derrick Storm is going to attend a séance in my next book, so I thought it would be fun for us to come to one and see what it's like."
"It does sound like it could be interesting," Alexis said cautiously. "As long as you're sure we can be done in time."
"Of course! You know I would never make you miss trick-or-treating," he exclaimed, nudging her shoulder teasingly. "How else will I get my candy fix?" Seeing his daughter's narrowed eyes, he quickly changed the subject. "Anyway, they say that Halloween is the best time to do something like this. Traditionally, many cultures have recognized the last night of October and first day of November as the time of year when the veil separating the land of the living from the land of the dead is at its thinnest."
"I know that. In Mexico they call it Día de los Muertos," Alexis said. "We learned about it in social studies."
"Right. So you know this is the perfect time for this research," he beamed.
"Okay," Alexis said, nodding, although she still seemed skeptical. "But what dead souls are we going to contact?"
"Hmm... I don't know. What about Mister Fluffyface?"
His daughter's little face twisted in thought. "I don't think that would work," she said judiciously. "Living hamsters can't talk, so dead ones probably can't either."
"You may be right. But-"
Their conversation was interrupted by a loud clacking from the bead curtain at the back of the room. A young woman burst through the beads, anguish written all over her face. Tears were streaking down her cheeks, smudging her mascara.
She dashed through the shop, heading for the exit. As she passed by Rick and Alexis, the corner of her purse caught the side of Alexis's backpack, knocking it off the little girl's shoulder. The zipper hadn't been all the way closed; books and papers spilled out across the floor.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," the young woman sobbed, bending over to scoop up the pile of stuff.
"It's okay. I've got it," Rick said quickly, bending to help as well. He took the items from the young woman's hands. Their fingers brushed, and he startled, lifting his head to her. She lifted hers as well, and their eyes locked.
For a long moment it was as if everything else had faded away - the shop, Alexis, his book, Halloween - as if there were nothing at all in the whole world but him and this young woman.
Then the moment passed and she yanked her hands back, popping back up to her feet. "I'm sorry," she said again, tears beginning to spill over again. "I have to-" She broke off, covering her face with a hand, and rushed out the door.
Two other young women emerged from the back room, wide-eyed. "Kate!" one of them called. "Come back. Please. She didn't mean it. Kate, come on."
"I didn't," the other girl agreed breathlessly. "I just thought-"
"You didn't think, Suzie," the first one snapped. "God, you're such an idiot." She turned her back with a huff and toss of her head. "Kate!" she called again, and hurried out of the store in pursuit.
"Why was that lady so upset?" Alexis asked as Rick pushed her schoolwork back into the backpack and zipped it up securely.
"I don't know, pumpkin," he said gently. "It's not our business. Her friend will help her out." But his gaze lingered on the door, and he couldn't shake the memory of the young woman's grief-stricken face, her wide green eyes... and the jolt of pure electricity that he'd felt when their hands touched.
An older woman emerged from the back room now, wearing a long flowing dress and copiously adorned with jewelry: pendants hanging from her neck, silver hoops gleaming at her ears, a riot of sparkling bracelets on her wrists, a constellation of muted gemstones adorning her fingers. Her eyes were heavily lined with kohl and her lipstick was dark red. "Good afternoon, sir," she said in a low, syrupy voice. Her accent was Eastern European, possibly even real. "You must be Mr. Castle, and who is this young lady?"
"I'm Alexis," his daughter said politely, holding out her hand, even as her wide eyes were sweeping up and down the woman's dramatic form. "It's very nice to meet you."
"Ahh." The woman shook Alexis's hand with a solemn expression. "It's a pleasure to meet you as well, Alexis. I am Morgana." She gestured toward the bead curtain, still gently swaying in the doorway. "Please, come in."
They followed her through the beads and a small antechamber, and on into the séance room beyond. It was dimly lit, the walls lined with narrow tables that bore flickering candles, gemstones, small pewter figurines, and other mystical trinkets. Flute music was playing very faintly, a meandering ethereal tune. In the middle of the room was a wooden table, bare except for a single unlit candle and a small bowl of water. At least, Rick hoped it was water.
"Spooky," Alexis commented, but she didn't sound nervous; her tone was approving. Rick smiled to himself.
"What was that lady so upset about?" Alexis added, addressing Morgana, who was bustling around the room, rearranging the items on the shelves.
"Alexis," Rick chided. "That's none of our business, sweetheart."
"No, the child's curiosity is understandable," Morgana said. "The young lady's friends brought her here under false pretenses. You understand?" She looked Alexis in the eye, her expression serious. "One cannot enter the séance unprepared or unwilling. One must approach the departed spirits with only honesty and sincerity in one's heart."
Alexis nodded, wide-eyed and speechless. Rick had to admit, the soi-disant psychic was convincing. She certainly had charisma. He wished he could take out his little notebook and jot down a few sentences to jog his memory later, but he sensed that would demonstrate a lack of - what was it she had said? - honesty and sincerity.
So he simply nodded as well, and waited for Morgana to tell them to sit. She showed them each which chair to take; he and Alexis were seated across from each other, with Morgana at the head of the table, to Rick's left.
"Now, we are ready to begin," the medium announced once they were all seated. "First, we wash our hands, so that we can enter the trance state with clean hearts and minds."
She dipped her fingertips into the bowl of water, then pushed it toward Rick. He copied her motions, and then Morgana gave Alexis the bowl. After Alexis had dipped her fingers as well, Morgana set the water aside and lit the candle.
"Let us all join hands," she instructed. She placed her hands on the table, palms up. Rick put his left hand in hers, and Alexis did the same with her right. He reached across the table to take his daughter's other hand.
"Now," Morgana continued, "close your eyes, and open your mind and heart to the spirits of the departed." She closed her eyes. Alexis closed hers also, but Rick kept his eyes open, watching Morgana with interest.
She chanted a few syllables of something that sounded like Latin, and then, without opening her eyes, she said calmly, "We must all close our eyes."
"Daddy," Alexis scolded in a stage-whisper. How did she know?
"Sorry," he whispered back. He closed his eyes.
Morgana resumed chanting. Rick tried to open his mind and heart, whatever that meant. Really, he was just trying to focus his other senses on Morgana and figure out how she was going to do... whatever she was going to do. He and Alexis were holding both of her hands, so whatever she had in mind would require either an accomplice or some kind of mechanical assistance, maybe a Rube Goldberg-type contraption that she operated with her feet?
Or maybe she really was psychic?
He became aware that his mind had been wandering and he had no idea how much time had passed. Alexis's and Morgana's hands in his were warm and still. The medium had stopped chanting.
"Open your heart," Morgana said, her voice almost a whisper.
"Hello," said another voice.
Rick heard Alexis gasp. His eyes popped open.
"Daddy," his daughter exclaimed, struggling to keep her voice low, "there's another lady."
He looked to his right, and was startled to find a woman sitting there. She had long, straight brown hair, and a sad expression. She looked almost as surprised to see him as he was to see her.
"Oh," she said. "Aren't you Richard Castle?"
He could only blink in astonishment, trying to figure out how she had gotten in. The room was dark and warm, the air close, almost stifling; if the door had been opened, he would have sensed a change in the air currents. And none of the cabinets, he was quite sure, were large enough for someone to hide in. And there was no tablecloth, so it wasn't possible that she'd been hiding under the table.
Where the hell had she come from?
"Yes," Alexis said, giving the newcomer a friendly smile. "He is Richard Castle. I'm his daughter, Alexis. What's your name?"
"Oh." The woman's face softened as she looked at his little girl. "Nice to meet you, Alexis. My name is Johanna."
"You have not met?" Morgana asked, sounding surprised.
Alexis turned back toward the medium. "No. Should we have?"
Rick was still gaping. It had struck him that there had only been three chairs in the room. Yet, here was the woman - Johanna - sitting on a fourth chair. How was this possible?
"I'm sorry," he said to Johanna. "It's nice to meet you. I take it you're a fan?"
She smiled sadly. "I was. I used to try so hard to get my daughter to read your books, but she wouldn't have anything to do with anything I liked. Typical teenager." She cast her eyes toward Alexis again, and said more lightly, "Well, you'll find out in time."
"Beloved spirit," said Morgana, breaking in, "you are welcome here. We await your message."
"Are you dead?" Alexis asked curiously. "You don't look dead."
"Yes, I am," Johanna answered. "I'm not sure what I'm supposed to look like, really. This is the first time I've been able to come back like this. I tried last year, but I couldn't make it work."
"The spirit may not pierce the veil on her first All Hallows after death," Morgana explained.
"So you've been dead for two years?" Rick managed, still staring in amazement. He could hardly believe it - he hadn't really expected Morgana to be able to conjure an actual ghost. Spirit. Soul. Whatever. Ghosts were real! They were really, truly talking to an actual dead person! His pulse was racing with excitement.
"I suppose so." She shrugged. "Time has no meaning any more, you know."
"Right, of course," he nodded, still watching her avidly.
"O beloved spirit," said Morgana again, "have you a message for us?"
"Oh..." Johanna looked around at each of them uncertainly. "I don't understand... I was drawn to this place. I thought I felt the presence of my daughter. Isn't she here, my Katie?"
"Katie? I don't know a-" But he did, Rick realized. The girl who had run out of the shop crying - her friend had called her Kate. "Yes!" he exclaimed. "She was here, but she left before we started the, uh, the ceremony." He glanced back at Morgana, who inclined her head solemnly in confirmation.
"She was sad," Alexis put in. "I bet she misses you."
Rick blew out a breath, turning his eyes to Johanna again. Of course, his daughter was right. Kate had looked barely out of her teens, far too young to have lost her mother.
Johanna's expression became, if possible, even sadder. "I never wanted to cause her so much pain," she said softly. She turned her gaze toward Morgana, and then toward Rick. "But you asked if I had a message, so yes, I do. Can you get it to her? Please?"
"I - well - I don't know if-" he stammered. Alexis glared at him across the table.
"Of course we can," she told him. Turning her attention back to the ghost, she repeated, "Of course we can. My daddy can do anything. Just tell us what the message is."
A faint smile touched Johanna's face. "Your daughter is so sweet," she told Rick.
"Thank you." He smiled fondly at Alexis. "I think she turned out pretty well."
"Our time with the spirit is short," Morgana warned, startling him.
"What do you mean?" he asked, looking at the psychic, and then anxiously at Johanna again. "We've only just started talking."
"The veil cannot be breached for long," Morgana said, her tone regretful. "Please, conclude your business now."
"Okay. Okay," he said quickly. "Tell us your message for Kate."
"Just tell her..." Johanna's voice sounded far away, echoing hollowly in the small space of the room. The outline of her body was wavering, growing fuzzy, like a photograph that was out of focus. "Please, tell her not to let my death consume her. Not to let it destroy her. I've seen some glimpses of the future, and she becomes so hardened by grief and anger, throwing away her life in pursuit of my killer. Please, don't let her do that."
"She's fading, Daddy!" Alexis whispered urgently. Her hand in Rick's tightened, her little body straining toward Johanna, as if to try to pull the spirit back by force of will.
"Please," Johanna repeated, her voice even fainter now. "Tell her to find a way to be happy, to have a good life. Tell her to find love. Tell her..."
But the rest of her words were swallowed up by the ether. Her body faded, and she was gone.
"No," Alexis protested, her chin trembling. "We didn't get enough time to talk to her."
Morgana released both of their hands. "I am sorry, my dear," she told Alexis gently. "The spirits cannot stay with us, you know. They must be allowed to find peace."
"I guess that makes sense," the girl said. Her voice was watery, and her eyes were shining with unshed tears when she looked at Rick. "I just wish she could have talked to her daughter."
"Yeah, I know," he agreed. "But at least we can hope that we helped her feel better." He pushed back his chair and stood up, surprised at how stiff his back muscles felt. He stretched, swiveling his head from side to side.
"And we'll get the message to her, right?" Alexis stood too, looking up at him with anxious hope in her eyes. "Her daughter, Kate. We have to find her and tell her what the ghost lady said."
Rick put his arm around Alexis's shoulders, pulled her in for a hug. "We'll certainly try, pumpkin."
When they emerged into the main shop area, they blinked and squinted against the light. It wasn't brightly lit, but their eyes had grown accustomed to the dim interior of the ceremonial room.
"Thank you very much," Rick said to Morgana, shaking her hand, as Alexis wandered through the aisles, examining the incense and candles and little packets of dried herbs. "That was truly fascinating."
"You're quite welcome," the psychic answered in her mellow voice. "I will warn you, Mr. Castle, that memories of a séance often fade quite quickly. If you intend to use this experience as material for a story, I suggest you write it soon."
"Oh... okay, thanks," he said, surprised. It was hard to imagine any of that experience fading from his memory, but he supposed he would take her advice and jot down a few notes later tonight, after trick-or-treating.
On that note, he checked his watch and gasped. "Alexis! It's getting late, pumpkin. We've got to rush home and get our costumes on."
Much later that night, after Alexis had crashed from the sugar high and he had washed her sticky little face and hands and put her to bed, Rick sank down into his desk chair and opened his computer. It had been another fantastic Halloween, and now he needed to get back to work.
He opened a blank document in his word processor, thinking that he would start by taking some general notes about the séance and then see if it developed into a scene he could use in his book.
"Let's see," he muttered to himself, "candles, bowl of water..." He made some notes about the appearance of the room, the appearance of Morgana, the way they had arranged themselves. He remembered how they had dipped their fingers in the water, and held hands. And then...
...nothing. His mind was a blank. He couldn't remember any of the details of the ceremony after he had closed his eyes.
Frowning, he jumped up from his chair and began to pace. How could this be? The whole thing had been so vivid in his mind. Morgana had said that the memories would fade, but he hadn't thought she meant so quickly, or so completely.
Had she rattled the table, made moaning noises? Had an apparition dropped down from the ceiling or sprung out of the cabinet? Had an actual ghost appeared?
Wait! That was it. Yes. There had been a ghost, a real live - no, no - a real dead ghost. Her name had been... He grunted in frustration, smacking the side of his head with the flat of a palm. Damn it, he couldn't remember what the ghost had said her name was. But he remembered - dimly, vaguely - the look on her face, the sad sound of her voice. And she had asked him to do something. What was it?
Did it have something to do with the young woman who had run out of the shop in tears before they began the séance? He scowled, pacing some more. No, that didn't make any sense. "Come on!" he said aloud, as if he could force the memories to unlock themselves in his brain just by ordering them around.
With a groan, he thudded back down onto his chair and began typing furiously. He typed out everything he could remember about the ghost, which wasn't much.
Connection to upset girl? he typed.
Ghost asked me for a favor?
What did ghost want?
He let out another anguished grunt and shoved the keyboard aside. Maybe a stiff drink would help jog his memory.
A few glasses of Scotch later, he fell into bed and was out like a light within seconds. His dreams were murky and tormented, full of agonized, dimly seen shapes reaching out to him from the darkness, begging him for help.
When he woke in the morning, he had a hangover and no memory of the dreams at all.
One year later, Rick was back on the same street, returning to the magic shop. He had spent a large portion of the intervening year trying in vain to recapture his memories of that séance, the ghost whose face he only barely recalled, and the favor she had asked of him, which of course he hadn't been able to perform. The feeling nagged at him daily, that he had made a promise and he needed to keep it.
He'd even questioned Alexis - trying to keep it casual and low-key, not wanting to upset her - but she apparently didn't remember any more of the experience than he did.
It was Halloween again, and while Alexis was in school for the day, he thought he'd pay another visit to the magic shop, maybe talk Morgana into doing another séance for him. Maybe he could get the ghost back and ask her to repeat her request.
He walked down the block toward the shop's location. It was a brisk October day, and he huddled inside his woolen coat, wishing he'd brought a scarf and hat. But it didn't matter; he would soon be inside the warmth of the magic shop.
Outside the storefront, he stopped short and stared, his mouth falling open.
"What the hell?" he muttered.
The spot was a perfectly ordinary, innocent-looking café, with an enticing display of croissants and tarts and brownies in the window, the rich dark smell of coffee emanating from the doorway.
Blinking, Rick took a step back and looked up and down the street. No, this was the right place. He was sure of it. He swiveled around, checking the opposite side of the street just in case, but there was no magic shop anywhere on this block.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his notebook, flipping back through a year's worth of random notes until he found the page from last year.
Lady Morgana. Séance. Halloween Day, 3pm. And the address.
He looked from the page to the number on the door of the café, and back to the page again. Yes, this was definitely the right address.
Flummoxed, he pushed open the door and entered the café. A portly older woman greeted him with a smile.
"Afternoon, sir. Coffee?"
"No, I..." He blinked at her, still confused. "I mean, yes, I'll have a mocha, thank you, but... what happened to the shop that used to be here?"
"Don't know what you mean," she replied as her work-worn hands began efficiently preparing his drink. "Husband and I've owned this café right here for more'n twenty years. Took it over from his pop."
"Twenty years?" Rick repeated in astonishment. "No, but I was here last year and there was a..." He trailed off. The woman was giving him that wary look that New Yorkers used when an apparently normal person suddenly started acting crazy. "Never mind," he said weakly. "I must have gotten the wrong street."
He paid for his coffee and left, shoving the notebook back into his pocket.
He'd read about this kind of thing happening, of course. Not so much in mystery novels, but in scifi/fantasy, it was a pretty common trope - the mysteriously disappearing store. One minute the quaint little shop was in its place, seemingly ageless, its proprietor dropping some important tidbit of knowledge into the hero's ear or selling him an important artifact; but when the hero came back later for more information, the shop was simply gone. It had never been there at all.
But that was fantasy. This was real life.
The coffee, at least, was delicious.
Time passed, and Rick was eventually forced to give up on his frustrating quest to regain his memories of the séance and the ghost to whom he owed a favor. He had retained enough of the flavor and feeling of the experience to write a fairly realistic séance scene in Unholy Storm, which turned out to be his biggest best-seller yet.
As the years ticked by, he found himself questioning his own memory of all that had happened that day. Maybe Morgana had just been a charlatan, tricked him into thinking he'd experienced something truly supernatural. Maybe she'd just chanted some Latin and moved the table with her foot and convinced them that a ghost was visiting. Yeah, that must be it.
He put the whole thing aside and forgot about it.
Until one evening, at the gala release party for his final Derrick Storm novel, when a tall dark-haired cop strode up to him, showed him her badge, and demanded to speak with him about a murder.
He recognized her immediately, and at the sight of her, in a dizzying rush, the entire experience came flooding back into his memory. It was all there - the mystical ceremony, the ghost, the conversation - all of it. The young woman running out of the magic shop, sobbing. The dead mother and her desperate plea.
But he knew, within mere moments of having met Detective Kate Beckett, that she wasn't a woman who would take kindly to being told that he had spoken with the ghost of her mother eight years ago. She becomes so hardened by grief and anger, Johanna had said, and he had promised not to let that happen - but it seemed he was too late.
So he vowed to dedicate himself to making it right. No, it wasn't too late for Kate, he swore to himself. He would fulfill his obligation to Johanna, no matter what it took. He would become Beckett's shadow, her constant companion; he would find a way to get her out of her shell, to bring joy back into her life. To make her laugh. To make her have fun. And - what else had Johanna said? Tell her to find love. Well, maybe he could do that too, in time.
Alexis, whose memories had similarly come rushing back as soon as she saw Beckett, didn't quite understand why he wouldn't just tell her the whole story. But she agreed to go along with him and stay quiet.
It took almost a year until Beckett told him: "I have a hard job, Castle, and having you around makes it a little more fun." Another year after that until she began describing him as her partner. She showed him pictures of Johanna, opened up to him more and more.
And almost a year after that, one gloomy night just before Halloween as they were prowling through a haunted house in search of a ghost-hunter's killer, he finally told her that they had met before.
"I remember that," she said, astonished, staring at him in the dim light of the McClaren house's empty living room. "That was you? The kid whose backpack I knocked over, that was Alexis?"
"Yeah," he admitted. "We were there to attend a séance, for book research, and you came flying out of the back room."
"My friends tried to convince me to do a séance too," she murmured, her forehead creasing as she dredged up the memory. "To try to contact the spirit of my mom."
"Oh, no," he said, horrified. "They must not have known you very well."
"It wasn't Maddie's idea. I don't think I ever spoke to that girl Suzie again," she said darkly. "What an idiot. Who would possibly think that would be comforting? To pretend that I could talk to my mom again, just because it was Halloween?"
Castle nodded and carefully bit his tongue.
The anger on Beckett's face faded as she thought over the memory. When her cheeks turned slightly pink in the light of the candle and she averted her eyes from him, he knew that she was remembering the rest of it - the spark, the electric connection that had flashed between them when their hands touched for that one moment so long ago.
Beckett cleared her throat and turned the conversation firmly back onto their murder mystery, but he had seen enough. He smiled quietly to himself as he boosted her into the secret hiding space above the room.
Seven months later, lying in his bed with Beckett for the very first time, listening to the steady sound of her breathing as she drifted into sleep, her bare skin pressed tantalizingly against his, he debated whether to tell her the rest of the story. But no, not yet. It wasn't time. He hadn't finished keeping his promise to Johanna.
He told her the whole thing on their wedding night. After they had said their vows and danced their first dance before their little family; after they had smiled and laughed and finished off the champagne; after they had bid goodbye to the minister and their three beloved family members; when it was just the two of them again, sitting on the beach under the stars at the Hamptons, he finally told her about that long-ago séance.
Kate was silent for a long time after he had finished. She didn't move from her spot snuggled up in the curve of his arm, so he knew - or he hoped - that she wasn't angry. But when he tilted his head forward to get a look at her face, he was dismayed to see the tracks of tears on her cheeks, shining in the moonlight.
"Kate," he whispered.
She turned her face to him, and her eyes were solemn, but not despairing.
"Castle, I don't know what to say," she admitted. "You know I don't believe in any of that stuff. Ghosts. Magic."
"Yeah, I know," he agreed, nodding.
"But... I know that you believe it," she continued. "And no matter what really happened that night, that experience was what eventually led you to push your way into my life, so... how can I object?"
He gazed at her, feeling almost breathless with adoration. "I love you so much," he managed.
She smiled, her eyes soft, mirroring his heart. "I love you too."
It was several weeks past Halloween already, but as he wrapped his wife in his arms and brought his lips to hers, he could swear he felt an unseen presence. And maybe it was just the ceaseless roar of the ocean, the shifting sands, or the sighing of wind in the trees, but he could have sworn he heard a voice gently breathing, Thank you.