Summary: Rick Castle goes on a writing retreat and meets a mysterious stranger. Inspired by a prompt from the castlefanficprompts tumblr. Prompt is at the end of this chapter.
"Have you seen any bears yet, Daddy?"
"No, pumpkin," Rick Castle chuckled into the phone. "I don't think there are bears in this area. Don't worry about it."
He stood on the porch of the little rental cabin, looking out over the lawn and the lake beyond, and the forest beyond that. The sun had gone down a while ago, and the last streaks of pink and purple in the sky were fading to deep dark blue.
"Okay," his daughter's voice said into his ear, "but be careful. If you see a bear, leave it alone."
"I will," he promised, smiling. "No poking the bears, check."
"And don't forget to eat something nutritious every day."
"I'm supposed to be saying that to you," he protested mildly. "Make sure your mom buys milk, and puts you to bed at a reasonable hour."
"She will. We'll be fine," Alexis said confidently. "You take care of yourself, Daddy. Don't make any trouble."
"I'm going to be fine too, honey. Don't worry about me, just have fun with your mother and I'll see you in a week."
"Okay. Love you, Daddy."
"Love you too. Bye."
He stepped back through the cabin's screen door to hang up the telephone receiver in its wall cradle. The spiral cord immediately twisted itself into a hopeless tangle, which made Rick smile. It was so delightfully last century.
He took his cell phone out of his pocket and turned it off. It couldn't get any reception up here, and that was fine with him.
He blinked bleary eyes as he moved through the cabin's spacious living room and into the attached kitchen area. It wasn't all that late, but it had been a long drive up from the city: supposed to be three hours, but in reality closer to five with all the traffic. Mostly leaf-peepers and apple-pickers, he supposed; the Columbus Day holiday weekend was a big one for those popular autumn activities. Maybe he should bring Alexis up here for that, some year.
Stifling a yawn, he looked quickly through the cupboards. There wasn't much: cooking oils and spices, a few canned goods, some bottled water. Ground coffee and sugar in hard plastic containers to keep out the mice. But, as promised, he found a loaf of bread in the freezer and a jar of peanut butter in the fridge. That would be enough for tonight, and he'd go shopping in the morning.
He thawed two slices of bread in the toaster, made his sandwich, and ambled back out onto the porch to admire the fading view.
This rustic little cabin in the middle of the woods was a very different kind of peaceful from his luxurious Hamptons house. At this time of night, it was dark and quiet, the day's warmth quickly giving way to a pleasant chill in the air. On the other side of the lake he could dimly see the lights of other houses, and could hear faint voices drifting across the water, but they only served to accentuate the deep quiet of the forest. The same was true of the crickets' chirping and the occasional heartfelt croak from an unseen bullfrog. And the gentle sound of the lake lapping against its banks felt a world removed from the vast, ceaseless roar of the ocean that he was accustomed to at the Hamptons.
He could almost feel himself itching to write a paean to all this wild natural glory, and he shook his head ruefully, laughing at himself. "Get a grip, Rick. You're no Thoreau," he said aloud. He must be punchy from the long day.
But yes, this place was perfect. The very things that made it so different from his usual retreat were exactly what he needed, he thought, to kick-start his writing; to get some new stories flowing. A fresh setting, a fresh perspective.
He stuffed the last of the peanut-butter sandwich into his mouth and went back inside, latching the screen door and closing and locking the inner door as well.
He had already wheeled his suitcase into the larger of the cabin's two bedrooms. Now he dug through it for his toiletry case and went into the bathroom to wash up.
A few short minutes later, he was sliding into the king-size bed, and just a few minutes after that, he was asleep.
The next morning, Rick was pulled up out of a deep sleep by a symphony of birdsong and the insistent touch of a sunbeam on his face. Groaning, he blinked his eyes open and discovered that in his exhausted stupor the night before he had neglected to close the blinds. And the bedroom had a window that faced east.
Well, he was awake now; so be it.
After performing his morning ablutions and getting dressed, he wandered back to the kitchen and concocted a cup of coffee from the grounds in the cabinet. It was adequate - although he made a mental note to get some better coffee as soon as possible - and he sipped it slowly as he wandered around the cabin, taking in all the little details he'd been too tired to look at last night.
The guy who owned the place, Jim, hadn't told Rick much about it except for the bare details, and his property manager - a fancy term for a local guy who was paid a stipend to handle logistics - hadn't been much more forthcoming. But it was clear from looking at the cabin that this had once been a family's weekend retreat: a place where a couple might come frequently throughout the summer with their kids, to get away from the city, and to swim, fish, hike, and so forth.
Rick had tried, delicately, to pry some details out of the property manager - Ben Garrison, a laconic man a few years older than Rick, with calloused hands and a gruff demeanor, who owned a farm a few towns over. Ben was the perfect model for a farmer character, right down to the grubby denim overalls and big bushy beard. But below the surface, of course, there was always more to a person than the stereotype: Ben had, among other things, a sharp mind for business. It was he who had convinced Jim to put in laundry facilities and wifi at the cabin for the convenience of his renters. "He ain't got the electricity upgraded yet," Ben had added, "but long as you don't try to run the laundry an' fridge at the same time, you'll be okay." Rick had studied the farmer's bland expression and decided, tentatively, that this was a joke.
But when he asked about Jim - whom he had only met once, and found him meek and barely sober - Ben had been less than forthcoming. The most he would say was that Jim "ain't been the same since his wife passed." That had been about four years ago, Ben reckoned, but he would say no more. "I don't gossip, Mr. Castle." And Rick had taken the hint and dropped the subject.
Now, seeing the place, he began to form his own impressions of the man who owned it. If Rick had to guess, he'd say that Jim probably couldn't bear coming here any more, being surrounded by reminders of his late wife. But he also couldn't bring himself to sell it, so renting it out by the week was a compromise of sorts.
Besides, if Rick was any judge, the man was probably hard-up for money to support his drinking habit. The poorly concealed eagerness with which he had accepted Rick's request for a late-in-the-season rental spoke volumes.
The cabin's decor was not exactly a shrine to days and people gone by, but there were plenty of homey touches that almost certainly had some ancient sentimental significance. A well-worn quilt square hanging on the wall; an amateurish sculpture of an owl on the sideboard. And, on the mantelpiece, a collection of family photos. Rick stood and studied them for a long moment, sipping his coffee.
Some of the photos included Jim, who in his younger, healthier incarnation was barely recognizable as the withered older man Rick had met. Grief had clearly taken its toll.
A dark-haired woman smiled beside him in some of the shots, or smiled up at the camera alone, her eyes twinkling, her vivacious spirit almost leaping off the paper. This had to be the wife. And in many of the photos she had her arm around a young girl.
Jim hadn't mentioned a daughter, nor had Ben, but whom else could this possibly be? She was there throughout the cabin, Rick noticed now: a baby picture on the wall in the rear hallway, a toddler on the wall outside the kitchen, a gap-toothed tomboy holding up a freshly caught fish in a picture taped up next to the fridge. And on the mantel, she was a little older - early teens, perhaps - smiling gamely next to her mother, her shoulders stooped with adolescent self-consciousness.
Rick peeked into the cabin's second bedroom, which was smaller and plainer than the one he had slept in. It contained little more than a full-size bed, a dresser, a bedside table, and a single uncomfortable-looking wooden chair. Like in the bigger bedroom, the artwork on the walls was generic: nature scenes, a National Geographic calendar. This must have been where the daughter slept when the family came up here for their weekends away, but if the room had ever held any of her personal touches, they were long gone.
Rick was a writer, so of course he couldn't resist drifting over to the bookcase in the main room to check out the offerings. The shelves held a jumbled assortment of battered paperbacks: Jane Austen, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, John Grisham - and, to his surprise, a couple of his own older titles as well. He picked up A Rose For Everafter and thumbed through it, wondering where it had come from.
Had the pragmatic Ben planted these books here after learning that Rick would be renting the place? Or had they been here already, belonging to the daughter, or to one of the parents? Jim Beckett hadn't seemed to recognize Rick, neither his face nor his name, when they met; hadn't given any indication of being aware of who Richard Castle was. Maybe these books were just random thrift-store purchases that Ben had put in the room so the shelves wouldn't look bare.
Rick replaced the book on the shelf and wandered across the room to look at the family pictures above the fireplace again.
He wondered why neither Jim nor Ben had said anything about the daughter. Had she died along with her mother? Surely Ben would have mentioned that. If the daughter was still alive, how old was she now? Old enough to recognize her father's drinking problem, and, perhaps, run away from it?
He shook his head, chiding himself. There he went again, making up stories for real people whom he didn't even know at all. It was none of his business, but he couldn't help it. He had always been fascinated by people's stories.
Grabbing his keys, jacket, and wallet, he left the coffee cup in the sink and headed out.
It was a fifteen-minute drive into the nearest town, mostly over bumpy and bouncy country roads. Rick was glad for the smooth, reliable suspension in his Mercedes. Following Ben's meticulously typed directions, he easily found his way to the grocery store and stocked up on supplies for the next week or so.
After loading the groceries into the car, he decided to stroll along the town's main street for a few minutes. It was a crisp, clear October morning, the overnight chill quickly dissipating as the sun warmed the pavement. Other pedestrians smiled and nodded at him, and he smiled and nodded back, enjoying the small-town ambience.
Near the end of the business district, he found a diner and decided to stop in for another cup of coffee. Maybe, he told himself, there would be a stereotypical waitress: the kind who is old enough to be your grandma, sounds like Bea Arthur, calls everyone honey, and knows all the gossip about everyone and everything in the area.
Much to his delight, there was exactly such a person waiting tables in the tiny diner. Her nametag said Linda, and she recognized him immediately.
"Morning, honey. You're Richard Castle, ain't ya? Coffee?"
"Yes, please," he answered, sliding onto a stool at the counter, "and yes, I am. It's a pleasure to meet you, Linda."
"Yeah, right," she scoffed, snorting as she poured his coffee. "I bet you say that to all the girls."
"Well, you wouldn't lose that bet. But I can already tell that you're special," he shot back, winking. She burst into raucous laughter and reached across the counter to thump him on the shoulder.
"You're a smooth one, Mr. Castle. Don't let my husband hear ya talkin' like that." She took a notepad and pencil from the pocket of her apron. "Eggs, bacon, home fries, toast?"
He sat with his coffee - which was excellent - and did some covert people-watching while Linda put in his order and served a few other customers. Eventually she made her way back over to him.
"Ya got a new book out, hon?"
"Yes, actually," he nodded, "my latest just hit the shelves a couple of weeks ago. Are you a big fan, Linda?"
"The books're pretty good," she allowed. "That Storm fellow sure gets himself into some messes."
"Well, yeah. That's what makes good drama, right?"
"Drama, he says," the waitress chuckled, refilling his cup. "Izzat what brings you up here to our little nothing of a town? Looking for drama?"
"Oh, not really." He shrugged. "I'm just up here for a, um, a writing retreat. You know, get away from the city, some peace and quiet."
"Mm-hmm." Linda nodded. "Well, you'll find plenty a' that up at the Beckett place. That's where you're staying, ain't it? Nice and quiet up that way."
"Yes, it is." He seized on the conversational opening. "So, you know him? Jim Beckett?"
"Oh, sure. Everyone knows everyone around here." And, to his carefully concealed delight, she took the bait. "Such a shame about what happened. A real shame."
Rick deliberately put on his most sympathetic, curious expression. "I heard that something had happened to his wife?"
Linda leaned in closer, her eyes widening theatrically, and in a loud whisper said just one word: "Murdered."
Rick felt his eyebrows leap skyward. "Really?" He hadn't seen that coming.
"Yep." Linda nodded emphatically. "Stabbed to death in an alley in Manhattan. Random gang violence, they said."
"That's terrible," he murmured, feeling the weight of it settle on him. Suddenly Jim Beckett's defeated demeanor made a lot more sense.
"Poor Jim ain't been the same since," Linda went on, unknowingly echoing his thoughts. "Hardly ever comes up here any more. Guess there's just too many memories, you know?"
"I can imagine," Rick nodded. Carefully casual, he added, "And the daughter, what about her?"
"Katie?" He watched over a forkful of eggs as Linda leaned against the counter, her forehead creasing. "Haven't seen hide nor hair of her either. She was off at college when it happened, transferred back to NYU afterward to be closer to Jim, but then ... What I hear, she and Jim had a falling out. Don't know what it was about."
"Hmm," Rick said noncommittally, taking another bite, nodding along with the story. Linda needed little encouragement to continue.
"I guess Katie must have graduated by now, if she stayed in school. She must be, what, twenty-three, twenty-four. But we ain't seen her up here since her mom died, and far as I know, she and Jim haven't spoken to each other in years."
"That's too bad," Rick said quietly. He was dying to ask for more details, but his gut was telling him that he had pushed enough already. So he said no more, just finished off the last of his breakfast and drained his coffee cup.
The sight of him tipping the cup up to his lips broke Linda out of her reminiscence. "More coffee, hon?" she asked, lifting the pot, but he shook his head.
"Thanks, but that's my limit. I should get back to it." He pulled out his wallet and put down a twenty-dollar bill. "It's been a true pleasure talking to you, Linda."
"Likewise," she agreed. "Come on back any time."
"I will," he promised. "I'm staying at the cabin for a week, and I'm sure I'll be back in town at some point."
"Enjoy the quiet, hon. I hope you've got everything you need for the weather up there."
He paused in the act of putting his jacket back on. "The weather? What, you mean like snow?"
"Oh, no." The waitress coughed out a hoarse laugh. "Snow, this early in the year? No, dear. Rain, I meant rain. Big storm due in, from what they're saying. And if that road leading up to the Beckett house washes out, you'll be stuck in there at least through middle a' next week. Ain't no one coming in or out of that road if it floods."
"Oh." Rick zipped up his jacket and shrugged. "Well, I've got enough food and my laptop, so I think I'll manage. Thanks for the warning though."
He waited until Linda had gone back into the kitchen, then slipped another twenty-dollar bill under his plate and departed.
Rick drove back to the cabin, unloaded the groceries, and then stood on the porch again, looking around.
With Linda's warning about flooding in mind, he noticed that the cabin and its lawn were somewhat elevated; the driveway leading up from the road sloped upward, and the wide grassy lawn sloped slightly downward again to the lake. So, even if the road flooded, the cabin should stay dry, he thought.
Looking at the way the lawn rolled gently down to the shore also made him think about the zombie apocalypse. He pictured zombies chasing him across that lawn and up to the edge of the water. He, of course, would plunge right in. Or would he take the time to grab the rowboat and oars? Could zombies swim, he wondered? He couldn't immediately think of a zombie apocalypse movie that had addressed this crucial question. Something to mention to Wes Craven the next time they spoke.
He walked down the four steps from the porch, and strolled across the lawn and down to the edge of the lake.
There was a sturdy-looking wooden dock extending out into the water, the small rowboat lying upside down on the grass, and a tiny shed that passed for a boathouse. He kicked off his shoes and waded into the water up to his ankles. It was cold enough to make him gasp, and he hopped quickly back onto the grass, shivering.
Okay, no swimming, then. Unless pursued by zombies. Or maybe the water would warm up later in the day.
He stood for a moment admiring the view. The leaves had begun to turn, and the trees surrounding the cabin and lining the perimeter of the lake made a gorgeous pointillist portrait in yellows, oranges, reds, and browns, with still a fair bit of green remaining as well. The sun was shining and the sky was a brilliant blue, just a few cottony white clouds drifting calmly along. It was like a postcard. "Upstate New York In Autumn."
It was hard to believe that a big rainstorm such as Linda had described was on the way, but he had seen even in the city how the weather could turn on a dime. So he had better make the most of the nice day while he still could.
He went back inside to get his notebook and pen, and spent a few hours sitting on the grass, working on the outline for the next Derrick Storm book, jotting down ideas for future books or separate stories, sketching out scenes and snippets of dialogue. Occasionally he got up to stretch and wander around. He resisted the urge to get his laptop and begin transferring his notes onto it; that could wait until later, when getting distracted by the internet wouldn't break him out of the zone.
At last his writing hand began to cramp and his stomach to grumble, so he went back inside and was surprised to find that it was well past noon. He put together a sandwich with cold cuts and cheese and vegetables that he had bought earlier, and ate it on the porch with a glass of lemonade.
Finished with his lunch, he surveyed the supplies he had bought and decided to make a lasagna for dinner. Chopping and sauteeing the vegetables, cooking the sauce, and layering everything in the pan was a soothing exercise that allowed his mind to wander; he stopped several times during the process to grab his notebook and jot down new ideas, or topics to research on the internet.
When the lasagna was ready, he put it into the fridge, to be baked later.
Just as he was closing the refrigerator door, he saw a bright flash from outside, followed shortly by a tremendous boom of thunder. Turning, he realized to his surprise that while he'd been occupied with the food, the bright sunny day had turned dark and foreboding. Ominous dark-gray clouds now filled the sky, and the trees were whipping back and forth in a strong wind.
Rick went to the window to make sure he'd closed up the car. Fortunately, he had, because just as he got to the window, the rain began. Within seconds his view of the driveway, the lawn, and the lake beyond was almost completely obscured by the driving rain.
Another bolt of lightning stabbed down, illuminating everything in brilliant white for a heartbeat, leaving him blinking dazzled eyes. Then the thunder cracked again, an earth-rattling sound that felt like the sky was being ripped in two.
Rick was mesmerized by the storm. He watched in awe for a few minutes as the lightning and thunder continued, and the rain poured down unrelentingly, and the wind battered the trees.
Eventually, the thunder began to grow fainter, the lightning more diffuse, and there was a longer delay between each flash and its accompanying boom. But the rain didn't let up, continuing to pound on the rooftop of the little cabin. It was only midafternoon, but the dark and the rain made it feel late at night.
The situation seemed to call for hot cocoa, so Rick went back to the kitchen again and made a pot of it. He poured himself a cup, added marshmallows, and settled in on the cabin's sofa, pulling a comfortably worn-out throw blanket over himself. He spent a few minutes just sitting there, listening to the rain. It was soothing and cozy. He imagined having Alexis here, snuggled up under the blanket with him, her own cup of cocoa in hand, wriggling and giggling as he told her a scary story while the rain and thunder raged outside.
Then he imagined having a different female under the blanket, and a different kind of wriggling. He was thinking about Gina, his editor's new assistant at Black Pawn Publishing. They had slept together a few times, and he was pretty sure she was just using him to get ahead, but he didn't really care. She was hot, and it was all in good fun. He wondered whether Gina would like marshmallows in her cocoa, and whether she would want to snuggle under the blanket or just slide down onto her knees on the floor and...
A new rumble sounded from outside the cabin, and he paused his daydream, frowning. He hadn't seen a flash of lightning, and that didn't sound like thunder, anyway. It was a continuous throaty growl, low and throbbing, cutting through the insistent patter of the rain.
And then it stopped.
Rick sat utterly still, his ears straining to catch the sound again. He suddenly felt uncomfortably like a character in a horror movie, the quiet and isolation of the cabin abruptly less peaceful and more perilous. Telling himself that it was just his overactive imagination playing tricks on him was somehow not helping.
Now a new sound crept into his awareness: a sort of metallic scratching. With a thrill of dread he recognized it as the sound of a key in the lock.
He sat up slowly, placing his cocoa cup on the coffee table and looking around desperately for something, anything, that could serve as a weapon. His eye fell on the fireplace poker, and he hesitated for another crucial moment, appalled by the sheer cliché of it all.
Before he managed to get himself into motion to reach for the poker, the door flung open. Rick leapt up from the sofa, his heart pounding, the throw blanket still hanging from his body.
There in the doorway stood a young woman. She wore a black leather jacket and jeans that were probably skin-tight even when not wet, but now they were completely soaked, along with the rest of her. Dark brown hair was plastered against her head and dripping rainwater into her eyes, which were hazel and currently wide with shock.
For a long moment they both stood completely still, staring at each other, and it was impossible to say which of them was more flummoxed. The rain continued to beat against the cabin's roof, providing a soundtrack to their shared astonishment.
The young woman broke the silence first. "Are you Richard Castle?" she asked in disbelief. "What the hell are you doing in my cabin?"
Author's Note: Thanks for reading! The next chapter will be up in a couple of days.
Big thanks go to Tuuli for squeeing at the right moment, to Meg for initial "it doesn't suck" reassurance, and to Lou for clutch betaing!
Prompt: "Jim has been renting his cabin out for drinking money. With young Alexis visiting her mom for a while Castle rents it for some alone writing time. Estranged from her dad Kate has no clue he's been renting the cabin out. Getting some time off she heads to the cabin to work on her mom's case. Shock when she stumbles across Castle there in the dark. Plus a storm strands them there together. ...blizzard, rain washes the road out etc."