This is the first story I actually published on this web site.
Which technically makes it the first fiction I've ever published to a mass audience. I'm still pretty fond of it.
Stop & Stare
Castle's heart beat faster. The case was over, and they were done. Now or never. If he were the sort of man who prayed, it would be to say the right thing.
"It's too bad. It would have been great."
He could see it there, the light in Beckett's eyes. Knowing the ball was in her court. The breeze fluttered her starkly dyed auburn hair, sun glinting on it, brighter red. She bit her lip.
She stepped up to him, and he was reminded of that moment of the precinct when he appropriated the case files. He remembered leaning in to kiss her cheek. She had frozen, given him a look that could curdle milk, then scowled as he dodged away.
But now, he'd proven something: that he could be worth having around. That he could be useful. Something more than just entertainment.
Her expression flitted from doubt, to hope, to amusement. She leaned closer, and hope grew in him. Then a husky whisper in his ear, better by far than a kiss: "You have no idea."
Well, actually he did have an idea. Or at least, he was beginning to. And then it was turning into lots of ideas, suddenly centering around her.
Beckett turned and walked away. "Did Richard Castle just ask me out?" He had. She felt a little shiver of triumph, that she'd gotten to him, she'd won. Then she pushed it down. He was not her kind of man.
Walking away, she called it back to mind: the third time she and her mom had gone to one of his book signings, before his writing started to go noticeably downhill. Long before he really hit it big.
Richard Castle's fans were still a mellow crowd, drawn by a smart mystery and clever turn of phrase. Katie and Johanna Beckett arrived at the book store two hours early and waited outside behind stanchions, in a line only twenty-deep. When the shop doors opened at ten, she charged in and bought the book, then brought it out to her mom. They traded off reading the first chapter. They knew better than to read it aloud, because Castle could get either steamily or violently graphic, and this was no exception. It started with a bang and ended with another bang. So far, so good. As was their mother-daughter tradition from many book signings over Katie's seventeen years, they drank lattes and shared some home-baked cookies with the other fans in line. An hour passed.
Katie was, as usual, restless. "Anyone mind if I go in and browse again?"
The chubby lady behind them nibbled on one of Johanna's cookies and waved Katie in. "Go on, honey, just don't drool on him before we get there."
Katie blushed under her shock of shaggy, deep-violet hair. "I just... there's this thing..." She went back into the near-unoccupied store.
Johanna winked at the other woman. "She's not quite as tough as she'd like you to think."
The woman shrugged. "Well, she looks like Edward Scissorhands. Tough on the outside, sweet on the inside."
Johanna grinned. "Hope she stays that way, even if the hair color changes week to week."
Inside, Katie found the graphic novel section, and buried her nose in a Wonder Woman comic. She hoped to catch a glimpse of Richard Castle as he warmed up for his fans. Maybe have a little chat about books, if he was nervous or something... "Whatever happens, act casual," she thought.
Castle and his publicist emerged, arguing, from the store office. They carried promotional stuff and water bottles. He wore an off-the-rack suit and a tie with cartoon characters on it. "Look, Gina, I know we're depending on this book's being a success, but can you cut a little slack?"
"I think you've slacked enough, Rick."
"Is this about the writing or about the endless string of appearances?"
"Well, I haven't seen Alexis in a week."
"Oh, think of the stories you'll tell."
They went quiet, and Katie thought the argument had been shelved.
From behind the comics carousel, Kate stole a better look at Castle. He must be at least 25. Maybe as old as 30! Way too old for... "Oh come on," she thought. "Like I'd make any impression on an established writer." But she wished she could talk to him about writing, pick his brain about some plot holes... or were they foreshadowing for this new novel? Wouldn't it be fun, having a cup of coffee together, chasing red herrings? If only he'd turn and see her, give her a moment.
She dropped the book with a rather loud bang. Everyone turned and looked at Katie, all right, but they did not seem intrigued with her literary potential.
"Sorry," she shrugged apologetically, and everyone returned to what they'd been doing. "Becks, you are such a jackass," she thought.
Gina started back in on him, "You might consider working the crowd a little quicker. And could you maybe be a little flirtier?"
"Well, which one do you want, quick or flirty?"
She undid the top button of his shirt, her tone mollifying. "I like it both ways." She pulled off the tie and snapped it into her purse.
"Alexis gave me that."
"You can put it on when we pick her up from your mom's." A light tug flared his collar, exposing a little chest. She gave him a kiss. "Sell the sizzle."
"Good writing doesn't need sizzle." He pulled out a tissue and dabbed gloss off his lip. He shot her a smoldering look. "Mmm. Peaches." Gina didn't even seem to notice.
She sat, testing out a box of permanent pens, and tossed out a couple that were dry.
"Just trust me. Concentrate on the book tour. You can work on the writing during your off time."
He grumbled, "It's not like a switch that can be flipped off and on at will..."
"Your family's livelihood can't depend on whether or not you're in the mood."
Gina busied about setting things up, moving things around, directing the exasperated bookstore staff.
Castle turned his back to the front door a moment, collecting himself, and Katie ducked her head behind a shelf. There he was, one of Katie's favorite authors, his face a mask of anger and frustration, staring right past her. She couldn't help but be disappointed. Just some henpecked guy with bills to pay and a taste for gold-digging bimbos. He took a deep breath, blew it out, and ruffled his hair. It settled, magically, into a perfect swoop over his forehead.
Gina glanced at the clock. "High noon. Showtime."
Castle turned to stand at a plastic lectern, and started fiddling with the pens as they skidded down its incline.
"Ok," he said. "Once this tour's over, we'll know whether I need to go back to waiting tables."
Gina tried to cajole him. "And what, give up showbiz?"
"You sound like my mother."
"Well, if you didn't keep taking her in..."
Re-shelving the comic book, Katie sidled out the door and back into the line, which had grown substantially. She got no flak from the folks behind them, and smiled gratitude at their indulgence. They smiled back, remembering their own bookish, gawky teen years, which her punk-rock look attempted to conceal.
Johanna Beckett looked searchingly at her daughter's glum expression. "What's wrong, Katie?"
Katie shrugged. "Nothing." She reapplied her cherry-black lipstick.
Johanna didn't press. She was reading through a legal brief, making notes on a yellow pad. She smiled, anticipating. "Any minute now."
"We don't have to go in. It's no big deal."
Johanna scoffed. "Are you kidding me? First edition? Local author? It's a moral imperative." Her mom's teasing concealed a deeper story. It was about more than just the book. Katie still had her first signed book by Marc Brown, from when she was three. She had at least fifty more books from at least thirty authors, each one a testament to their shared excitement about the written word. Her mom, no matter how busy, had always set aside time for this ritual: the book, the signing, hot chocolate or lattes. The signings had become much fewer over the past four years, with Katie in school and working part-time, and Johanna taking more challenging cases. Katie's dad, Jim, was the most stable person in their family, working a sedate job in corporate law. Katie was going to be leaving home for Stanford in just a few months. This might be their last signing together, at least until the summer.
"Line's going in," Katie said. "Can I hold the book?"
A store clerk admitted the first in line. Most of the fans seemed quite sane, but the sixth lady burst into tears, got a little hug and a Kleenex from an abashed Richard Castle, and left clutching her book like a life preserver.
Moving forward, Katie held up their copy and receipt to Castle's bimbo, and she gave them a brittle, peachy-lipped smile. "Go ahead."
Katie opened her new book carefully to the inside title page, smelling that new-book smell. Now it was her turn. Her mother gently nudged her forward, and Castle's blue eyes were on her, warm and welcoming. Whatever he'd said before the signing had fallen away. He genuinely seemed to like his fans, despite the pressure to move through them like a cattle call. She smiled back, hoping she didn't have lipstick on her teeth. "I should've checked a mirror," she thought. Her face flamed under a thick slather of one-shade-too-light foundation.
"Thanks for coming." He always shook hands, two-handed but gently, and she was reminded how large his hands were, even though she'd just grown four inches. She was nearly up to his eye level, especially in her Doc Martins. His eyes were impossibly blue. And then as quickly, and warmly, he shook her mom's hand.
The World's Most Embarrassing Mother gushed, "Mr. Castle. We're huge fans. We read the first chapter outside in line. I didn't want to put it down."
His smile radiated at Johanna, genuinely pleased. He glanced at Kate. "We?"
"I have all your books," Katie murmured, and found that she was twisting the hem of her retro Ramones T-shirt into a nervous knot. Suddenly every intelligent question she'd wanted to ask, and all the stupid ones as well, flew right out of her head.
Johanna added, "Not that we'd expect you to remember, but we've been to several of your signings. We're really excited about this new character."
Castle took Katie's book and was already writing his own signature to save time: Sincere thanks, Richard Castle. "So, to whom shall I dedicate this?"
The girl blurted, "Katie. No, Kate. Make it Kate." She hoped that sounded more grown-up.
She watched him write it over the top of his name: "Make it Kate." He grinned up at her. She fought an urge to roll her eyes at him, thinking, "What a cheeseball."
Gina tapped his elbow and showed him a slip. "Line's up to 83."
He handed the book back to Katie.
"Until next time?" he smiled. She waved goodbye, but his full attention was already on the chubby lady behind them in line. They heard her giggling like a schoolgirl as they walked away.
Katie went off to Stanford a few months later, spent a year there, then a semester in Kiev. And then Johanna's murder blew a hole in her family. She stayed in New York, trying to keep her father from going off the deep end, working double shifts as a waitress just to keep herself from drowning. In her time off, she read, worked out like a demon, and planned her strategy: qualify for police academy and punish the bastards that destroyed her life.
Castle put out another book. Missing her mother fiercely, Katie showed up for Castle's next book release party. She even baked cookies, but they were flavorless in her dry mouth, and the silly ritual was not enough to bring back Johanna's life and presence. Katie stayed aloof in line, reading the book she'd already bought, scornful toward the fans he'd picked up with more sex and fewer brains. Apparently he was newly single again, and quite the playboy. A good deal too many under-dressed women carried on about whether he had a really big... pen. Castle and his entourage arrived in a town car, and he barely had a moment to look at anyone, let alone shake their hand. Katie watched in disgust as a woman much too old for her Bebe cocktail dress asked him to sign her arm. For a tattoo.
"I'll keep it very neat," he smirked.
From her place about 25th in, Katie watched him work the line. His little blonde publisher still shadowed him, prodding him forward if he stopped too long to chat, his smile plastered on, his eyes bored. He was busy talking to the blonde when they walked past Katie toward the bookstore entrance. She felt like her loss was an open wound that any idiot should be able to pick out in a crowd.
Katie fought an irrational desire to scream at him. "Do you remember me? Do you remember my mother? Did you know she never got to finish your book? Do you know a real plot hole when you see one? It's here. Right here, blown right through me. I've got a whodunit that would tear your pretty hair out." But she said nothing. She never even made it to the autograph table, because the name she wanted on that book was Johanna, and if he asked, she would fall apart right there and have to be hauled away in a van. She walked away, holding the book under her arm, refusing to be the woman who needed the hug and the Kleenex.
And here she was, ten years later, walking away again. But this time, Kate felt Castle's eyes on her back, or possibly her backside. Did it matter? Sure, he was a decent enough writer, with occasional moments of brilliance. In person, he was amusing and had surprising moments of insight. He was certainly handsome, and a philanthropist, and all right, he smelled so damn good. But... debriefing? Debriefing? That probably meant the removal of his Calvin Kleins. The kind, gentle man who'd shaken her mother's hand had been eclipsed by a maddening, oversexed, spoiled shell of a human being. She knew he'd have forgotten her by the next day, trying out his Sharpie on the next bimbo he could find.
She kept going, certain she'd won, because she hadn't given in. She might have lost every damn thing, and rebuilt her life from scratch, but she still had her pride. She still had her self-control. She still had her wall, and nothing, certainly not a smirking, self-satisfied hack writer with a Peter Pan complex, was gonna take it down.
"Make it Kate."
NO. "Make it, Kate."
She'd made it.