Hi everyone! It has been quite a while since I committed fanfic, so I may be rusty... but here nonetheless is my contribution to the 2018 Castle Halloween Bash. Thanks to Travis at CastleFicPromoter for extending the deadline until Friday so I could squeak in with this offering. :)
Hustling out of the building that housed his publisher's office, Richard Castle was surprised to see the darkened sky, the streetlights beginning to switch on all along the block. The day had turned to evening while he'd been closed up in a room with his editor, picking through the plot of his latest novel. It was mid-January and winter still had a tight grip on New York City.
A chill wind ruffled Rick's hair and stroked down his neck, making him shiver. He fumbled to turn up the collar of his wool coat, juggling a stack of manuscript pages from one arm to the other as he fished in a coat pocket for his hat. He turned left and began to stride quickly down the sidewalk toward the subway station. The edits had taken longer than he'd expected, and the babysitter would be getting antsy.
As he passed by another tall brick building, a woman emerged from inside it, her arms as full of paperwork as his. Distracted, she didn't see Rick in time to stop her rush through the door, and they collided, papers flying in all directions.
"Oh! Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry. My fault," the woman gasped, snatching at some of the papers as Rick quickly slapped his foot down on others to keep them from blowing away.
"It's okay," he said. "No problem. Just let me-" They both crouched on the sidewalk, hurriedly gathering up the piles of paper.
"My husband's usually the clumsy one," the woman commented with a shake of her head. "But today it seems to be me. Oh, I'm going to be late again. I'm supposed to meet him and our daughter for dinner. They'll tease me about it, as always," she added with warm humor in her voice.
Rick glanced at her face as he separated some of her papers from his and passed them over. She was older than him, probably in her mid-40s by his estimate, with softly curling dark brown hair and friendly laugh lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth.
"Is your daughter in kindergarten?" he asked with his best charming grin, drawing a light laugh.
"Aren't you sweet," she chuckled. "No, no, she's a sophomore in college, actually. Stanford. She's just home for the winter break, flying back out there in a day or two."
"Stanford?" he repeated, lifting his eyebrows. "She must be smart."
"Well, I'm biased, but I certainly think so." Her smile flashed again, infectious. He couldn't help returning it.
"I know what you mean," he told her. "My daughter actually is in kindergarten, and she's the smartest one in the whole class."
"Of course she is," the woman agreed with a solemn nod, her eyes twinkling. "Here, this one is yours." She handed over the last piece of paper, sliding it neatly onto the top of Rick's pile.
"Thanks." He rose to his feet and offered her a hand to help her up as well. They both clasped their respective stacks of paper against their chests. The woman was twitchy, clearly anxious to be on her way, but she paused to shoot Rick a final rueful smile.
"Again, so sorry," she began, but Rick waved it off.
"No harm done. Have a nice dinner with your family."
"Thank you, I will! Good night!" And she was off, rushing toward the bus stop on the corner.
"Really gotta get myself a briefcase," Rick muttered to himself as he resumed his progress to the subway station.
By the time Rick got himself home, dismissed the babysitter - with a hefty tip added to her pay as apology for his lateness - and got Alexis fed, bathed, and into bed, he was ready for some downtime. It would do him good, he told himself, to put the book aside for the evening, and get back to it with fresh eyes in the morning.
So he spent the rest of the evening playing video games and fell into bed well after midnight.
The next day, after taking Alexis to school, he returned to his loft and sat down at his desk with a cup of coffee, preparing to dig into the plot changes that he and his editor had discussed.
But when he began to spread the manuscript pages out on his desk, he found an envelope tucked between them - an envelope that he didn't recognize.
Bemused, he frowned at it, turning it over in his hands. It was an ordinary letter-sized envelope, addressed but not stamped or sealed. The intended recipient was a Katherine Beckett at Stanford University, and the return address was a Johanna Beckett on the Upper West Side.
Stanford! Rick blinked as he suddenly remembered his encounter with the woman on the street last night. She must have been Johanna, and this was a letter to the daughter she had mentioned.
Curious, Rick couldn't resist slipping out the sheet of paper that was nestled inside the envelope, folded neatly into thirds. The letter was just one page, but both sides were filled with a neat, elegantly looping handwriting that somehow seemed to fit perfectly with the glimpse he had gotten of Johanna's personality.
I'm writing this while you're home with us for winter break, and I'll mail it the day you leave, so it should get to you a few days after you get back. I thought that having some mail from me might help to ease the transition into the new semester.
I just want to tell you how very proud I am of you, and how...
Rick stopped reading, suddenly feeling embarrassed, as if he were trespassing on an intimate moment between mother and daughter. Flushing guiltily even though he was alone, he carefully re-folded the sheet of paper and slid it gently back into its envelope.
Laying the envelope on his desk, he sat for a moment and just looked at it, pondering the options.
He could stick a stamp on it and drop it in the mail. That would be easy enough, but from what little he had read, he knew that the woman - Johanna - had wanted to mail the letter on a particular day. Maybe it was silly, but Rick didn't like the thought of messing up the plan that Johanna had clearly thought out. And he had no way of knowing which day Johanna's daughter - Katherine, also known as Katie - would be going back to college.
He could mail it back to Johanna, but what if it got lost and never arrived? Or arrived too late? They'd been planning to meet for dinner last night, so for all he knew, maybe Katie was already flying back to California today. He had no way of knowing.
No, he told himself, the only real solution was to bring the letter back to Johanna personally. That way, she could mail it when she wanted to. And it gave Rick the perfect opportunity to procrastinate on his book edits a little longer.
Besides, he found himself thinking as he got up and went into his bedroom for a blazer, he was curious about Katie. He already knew that she was smart, and if she was half as good-looking as her mother-
He cut that thought off, shaking his head at himself. "A college sophomore, Rick? Come on, you're 26, old man," he told himself aloud. But he couldn't quite help the way the corners of his mouth hitched upward at the thought.
Within minutes Rick had his coat and scarf on, the envelope tucked into the inner pocket of his blazer, and he was closing the door of the loft behind him. Energized, he took the stairs and then hustled down the sidewalk in the chilly morning air.
The subway took him to within a few blocks of the Becketts' address shown on the letter, and even that short walk had his cheeks pink with the chill by the time he burst into the lobby with a whoosh of air. The heat embraced him as soon as the door swung shut, and he exhaled gratefully.
"Hi," he said, approaching the doorman's desk. "I'm here to see the Becketts in 4-G. I have something for them."
The doorman's attention was on his computer, and he answered without looking up. "More flowers?" Then, as Rick blinked in confusion, unsure how to answer, the doorman lifted his eyes from the screen and took him in. "Or not," he said. "What is it, then?" His expression was cool, teetering on the edge of suspicious.
"I - it's just a letter," Rick explained, taking it from his inner pocket. "For Katie Beckett. I thought I'd deliver it myself."
The doorman's lips pursed in thought for a moment as his seen-it-all eyes examined Rick. But at last he gave a quick shrug and a nod.
"All right. But they've been having too many visitors as it is, so don't take up too much of their time. They need their privacy."
"Okay..." Rick said, feeling his forehead crinkle in bemusement. Since when were doormen so protective of their tenants? It was kind of weird.
But he didn't question it further when the doorman waved him on toward the elevators. He gave the man a quick nod of thanks and pressed the Up button.
A minute or two later, Rick was knocking on the door of 4-G. There was only a brief pause before it opened.
The young woman standing before him had to be Katie, no question about it. The resemblance to the woman he'd bumped into yesterday was unmistakable. But he knew immediately that something was wrong.
She looked at him without interest from eyes that were shadowed, almost bruised-looking, and red-rimmed. Her cheeks seemed thin and hollow. Rick's experience with women might not be quite as extensive as the reputation he'd tried to cultivate, but he could certainly tell when a woman had been crying.
Her voice was dull and flat as she asked, "Yeah?"
Before Rick could respond, an older man spoke up from the room beyond. "Who is it, Katie?" He pushed himself up from an armchair and approached them as they stood awkwardly in the doorway.
The man, like the girl, gave off an almost palpable sensation of unhappiness - no, more than that - of grief, despair. Rick couldn't put his finger on how he knew, but it was clear to him from looking at the man that he was ten years older than he had been last year.
Something very, very bad had happened in this family, and Rick was at a loss. He didn't know exactly what was going on, but he suddenly felt acutely conscious that he was intruding.
"I'm sorry," he said quickly, wishing he knew how to reach them. "I don't mean to bother you. It's just, I, uh." He cursed himself internally. What had happened to his vaunted facility with the English language? Meeting the young woman's eyes, he pushed on. "I bumped into your mother yesterday, and she dropped a le-"
Rick stopped in mid-sentence, startled by the intensity of the man's and the girl's reactions. Katie jerked backward as if she had been struck, her already pale face going sheet-white, but her dark eyes went even darker with anger.
Her father, on the other hand, lit up. His whole face went bright with excitement as he sucked in a sharp breath. "I knew it!" he exclaimed, and there was something manic in his eyes that Rick didn't like at all. "It was all just a terrible mistake. She's fine. She's just fine."
"Dad!" the young woman exclaimed, looking shocked at him. "You're-"
"Tell us everything," the man interrupted, stepping forward to take Rick's elbow and tug him over the threshold, into a spacious, comfortably furnished living room. "Where did you see her? What did she say? Where has she been?"
"Uh..." Deeply nervous, Rick looked from father to daughter and back again. The man's eyes were avid, the girl's narrowed and almost hostile. "Uh, it was in Midtown," Rick managed, "around 40th and Lexington, near my publisher's office. I'm a writer," he added, belatedly realizing he hadn't even introduced himself. "Rick Castle. Mr. Beckett, sir." He held out his hand.
"Jim," the other man said, shaking his hand. "Wait - Castle?" He turned to look at the bookcases tucked neatly into the corner of the room. "I think we have some of your books."
"Mom's," the girl said, still sullen. Jim nodded, his eyes softening.
"Yes, that's right. They're hers. My daughter, Katie," he added by way of introduction, gesturing toward her.
"Kate," she corrected firmly, as Rick held out his hand in her direction. She merely glanced at it, scowled, and looked away.
"Nice to meet you," Rick said anyway, awkwardly pulling his hand back. What on earth was going on here?
"You said 40th and Lex?" Jim asked, his eyes bright with that same manic edge. "That's right near her office. She works late a lot."
"Yeah," Rick said, unnerved by Jim's eagerness and his daughter's silent distrust, her glare boring into his skull. "Uh, so anyway, I was just passing by the building and she came out and bumped into me. We both dropped a lot of papers so we stopped to pick them up."
"And you claim this happened last night," Kate interjected. Her tone, her body language, her eyes were ripe with suspicion.
"It did," Rick insisted. "She told me about you." He shifted his focus to her, determined to persuade that hostile gleam out of her gaze. "She told me you go to Stanford, and you're flying back to start the new semester in a few days. She was in a rush to meet you - both of you," he corrected, glancing at Jim to include him in the statement. "She said she was going to be late to meet you for dinner, and you would tease her about it. She said you always tease her when she's late."
Jim quirked an eyebrow. "Well, that's true. We certainly do that, don't we, Katie-bug?" Ignoring his daughter's wince at the nickname, he went on, "Tell us the rest, son. What else did she say?"
"I..." A little desperately, Rick looked around the room, noting the decorative mantelpiece along the far wall, bearing a profusion of family photos. The woman he'd seen yesterday was featured in many of them, smiling alongside her husband and daughter. "Isn't she home? She could tell you herself."
"She's not here," Kate snapped harshly, folding her arms across her chest. "She's not here, and you didn't bump into her last night, because she died a week ago."
Rick blinked at her in shock, barely registering the way Jim flinched at the angry words. She couldn't mean - Horrified, he saw the gleam of fresh tears pooling in Kate's eyes, although she refused to let them fall.
"I don't understand," he breathed... but as an icy chill ran down his spine, setting his skin prickling, he thought that maybe he did.
"I can see that," Kate bit out. "So let me spell it out for you. Whatever bullshit you're selling, we're not buying."
"Katie," Jim said in a tone of reproach. She shook her head, anger flaring again.
"No, Dad. We're not going to fall for some kind of scam or-"
"It's not a scam," Rick interrupted, indignation breaking through the confused whirlwind of his mind. "I don't know what the hell is going on here, but I did see her. I did." Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the envelope again. "She dropped her papers, and I dropped mine, and this got mixed up with my stuff, so I came to give it back." He pressed it into Kate's hand. "Here. It's for you."
Rick paused, looking once more from daughter to father and back. "I'm really sorry," he said more quietly. "I'm so sorry for your loss, and, and for disturbing you. I'll leave you alone now."
He turned and left their apartment.
Rick went home, his mind spinning.
Was he hallucinating? Had his always-active imagination finally taken him off the deep end? Was he having a particularly vivid dream? He pinched himself, hard, and let out a grunt of pain that had several hardened New Yorkers edging away from him on the subway.
No, he wasn't dreaming or imagining things. The letter had been real. And as he thought about it, pacing in long strides back and forth across the length of his loft, the explanation slowly began to form in his mind.
Ghosts only appeared to people when they had unfinished business to clear up, after all. So Johanna must have needed his help to get her letter to Kate - the last piece the young woman would have of her mother.
That was all. That had to be the explanation. Rick had been the conduit, and now that he'd accomplished the task, Johanna's spirit was finally at rest.
Telling himself that it all made sense, he forced himself to sit down at his desk again, to open his computer and pull up the file for the book he was supposed to be revising.
But he couldn't put the Becketts out of his mind. He kept replaying the two encounters again and again: the brief, seemingly innocuous one with Johanna on the sidewalk, and the longer one, fraught with grief and confusion, with Kate and Jim.
After a fruitless hour of trying to concentrate on his book, Rick gave up. He could feel the Beckett story pulling at him, more strongly than any of his novels ever had - something he wouldn't have thought possible. And he knew he had no choice but to go where it took him.
He checked the clock to make sure had plenty of time before Alexis would be done with school. Then he grabbed his coat again and headed back out.
The subway ride was miraculously smooth again, and within minutes he was standing outside Johanna's office building again, on the exact spot where he had stood the night before.
It all looked so ordinary, prosaic: a plain stretch of sidewalk, just like any other. Lifting his head, he let his gaze drift across the similarly ordinary surroundings. Buildings, fire hydrants, cars going by. It was all entirely normal.
Somehow, he wasn't surprised when his eyes landed on Kate Beckett, standing against the side of the building, watching him. She wore a warm wool coat, scarf, and hat, and yet she looked chilled: her shoulders were hunched, hands tucked deep in her pockets.
"I don't believe in ghosts," she said as Rick approached her. But her voice was watery, the words not nearly as firm as he thought she'd intended.
"I do," he replied. "But I never expected to actually see one."
She shook her head slowly, a troubled frown creasing her forehead. She pulled one hand out of her coat pocket, and the letter was clasped in it, the paper already showing many more creases than it had when Rick first found it - and, if he wasn't mistaken, more than a few tearstains soaked into the paper.
"My dad..." Holding the letter, frowning at it, she trailed off. Then shook her head again and took a breath. "My dad believes. He thinks you were... It helps him." She lifted her face and met his eyes. "It helps him to believe that you were sent as a message."
"A message from beyond?" Rick suggested, only half joking. Kate scoffed and rolled her eyes, but he also thought he saw, for the first time, a hint of a smile dancing at the corners of her mouth.
"You look like her," he blurted out, startling her. She stared up at him with wide eyes, and he kicked himself for the gracelessness of it, but he couldn't stop himself. "She was lovely. Inside and out. I could tell," he said softly. "And I'm so sorry. I'm so very sorry for your loss."
He saw Kate's lower lip tremble before she pulled it between her teeth again to still it. "They don't know who did it," she said quietly. Her eyes were brimming with tears again, but they also glinted with anger, the same anger that throbbed in her low, fierce voice. "Someone stabbed her in an alley and left her there, and the police don't know who. They say it was just random gang violence. They're investigating, but-" She cut herself off, pressing her lips together in annoyance. "Never mind," she muttered.
Rick took a step closer to her, still feeling that pull. He could no more turn and walk away from her than he could from his own hand.
"Listen," he said, "when is your flight back to California?"
She eyed him cautiously. "It was supposed to be today, but I postponed it," she answered slowly. "Why?"
"Well..." He half turned and gestured down the block. "There's a little diner with the best omelets. I haven't had lunch. Do you want to..." He almost lost his nerve, seeing how her eyes narrowed, but pushed on. "I mean, if you wanted to talk about her. I'd be happy to listen. I only got such a quick look at her, but she seemed very special."
"She was," Kate agreed, her expression softening. There was something like longing in her eyes. "And I don't have anyone - I can't talk to-" She broke off again, took a deep breath. "Okay. Yeah. An omelet sounds good."
The January wind was as cruel that day as it had been the previous day: sharp icy fingers that probed their way through any slight gap in your clothing to chill your skin. And yet, as Rick and Kate walked past the spot where he had dropped a pile of papers, for the barest instant they both felt a surge of warmth wrapping around them. And when they had gone by, an almost imperceptible lightness was left in the air where they had been.