"This is the place?"
Castle entered the pub cautiously, regarding patron and staff alike as though each one suffered the same particularly unpleasant and contagious infection. Beckett walked briskly ahead of him. "What's the matter, Castle?" she asked, flashing her badge at the man behind the counter. "Too low class for a best-selling author?"
"Can I help you?" the bartender asked, slight worry to his voice as he acknowledged her authority.
"I need to ask you some questions about a woman who was at your bar last night. Can you tell me who was working the evening shift?"
"Yes, ma'am, that would be me," he said, sounding a little shaky despite the fact that he looked like a pretty tough guy and talked with a heavy New York accent like Esposito's. Beckett slapped a picture onto the counter face-up, showing a beautiful blonde woman.
"Meg Pennant. Do you recognize her?"
The bartender prised the photo from the bar and held it up to the light. "She's been in here a few times."
"Last night?" Beckett pressed.
"Yeah, I think so," he said handing the photo back to the detective. "I think I saw her sometime early in the evening."
"Do you know if she was with anyone, or did she leave with anyone?"
"I couldn't say for sure," he said regrettably. "It was packed last night. But I can tell you she was talking to one of our regulars." He pointed to a blonde man in a suit sitting at the end of a booth with two other guys and two girls. "Barney Stinson."
"Thank you, sir," Beckett said. She turned around to find Castle had been leaning over her shoulder to hear.
"What kind of a name is that? Barney?" he asked with a low tone and a derisive laugh. Ignoring him, Beckett walked over to the table where the man was sitting. The other people at his table seemed to be engaged in light conversation, but this man was staring straight into a Blackberry.
"Barney Stinson?" she asked.
"Yes?" the man asked as he looked up from his phone. As soon as he saw her, he stumbled to his feet and held out a hand, leaving his phone forgotten on the table behind him. "Why, hello," he said suavely as he shook her hand leisurely. "And what's your name?"
"Detective Kate Beckett," she said, "NYPD. I'd like to talk to you in private if I could," she said, acknowledging the others at the table with a nod. Barney smirked at her suggestion.
"Sure," he said, and added under his breath, "it's plenty private at my place if you plan to take me out in handcuffs." Beckett rolled her eyes while Castle narrowed his.
"That won't be necessary, sir, if we could just –"
"Why don't I buy you a drink?" he asked smoothly, punctuating the question with a wink and a tap of her chin with the tip of his index finger.
"Actually, I don't –" Beckett began, but Barney disappeared over to the bar. "—drink on the job," she finished to herself.
"I don't like this guy," Castle whispered. "Who hits on a detective within seconds of meeting her?"
"You did," she pointed out before sauntering over to the bar. Castle grumbled and begrudgingly followed.
"Thanks, Carl," Barney was saying to the bartender, who had brought him a scotch and a vodka cranberry.
"Please, call me Barney," he said to the detective, passing her the drink he'd bought for her.
"Barney," she began again, placing the drink decidedly back on the counter next to his elbow, "I need to ask you some questions about a woman who was in this bar with you last night."
Barney smirked. "Aw, if you're jealous, Kate—"
"Detective Beckett," she corrected him curtly.
"Hey, no worries, I dig the fiery red-head thing," he grinned. Then he dropped his voice, "even if it's clearly not natural."
"Come on," Castle interrupted, suddenly feeling very protective. "This guy isn't going to give us anything."
"Do you mind, buddy?" Barney said to him, suddenly unpleasant. "The lady was talking to me."
"Mr. Stinson – Barney –" Beckett said, her patience waning. She handed him the picture of Meg asking, "Do you recognize this woman?"
"Of course," he said, taking the picture briefly. "I took her home about a month or two ago." He handed it back between his index and middle fingers. "She was kind of a creeper."
"A 'creeper,' sir?" Beckett asked. Castle snorted, earning the quick glare over the shoulder from the detective. He thought this guy must have some nerve to accuse anyone else of being creepy.
"Yeah, I'd barely known her five minutes before she was talking about getting married," Barney said with some disgust at the word. "Can you imagine?" He leaned back against the bar on his elbow, looking off into the distance mysteriously. "I'm much more interested in the fun," he droned on, swirling the ice and amber liquid around in his glass. He returned his gaze to Beckett, his eyes wandering down and back up her figure. "Do you like to have fun, detective?"
"Did you see her last night?" she interrupted impatiently, trying to steer him back to the point. Castle noticed her cheeks turning a little less pale, and it made him very eager to smash the rejected glass of vodka and hold it to the man's throat. "Here at this bar?" Beckett asked.
"She stopped by, yeah," Barney said. "She threw her arms around me and started begging for another chance. I shrugged her off, and she left," he said, waving his scotch at the door nonchalantly. He regarded the detective curiously. "Why do you want to know? Was she busted or something?"
"Ms. Pennant was found this morning, stabbed to death behind a dumpster."
Barney's posture stiffened. "Wow. I'm – I'm sorry to hear that."
"You don't sound too sincere," Beckett observed.
"Look, I'm not happy she's dead," Barney said soberly, "but I'm not going to pretend like I'm going to miss her."
"You had relations with this woman?"
Barney smirked, obviously quite pleased with himself. "Yes, ma'am."
"And you don't feel just a little sorry that she's been stabbed to death?"
"Detective," Barney said with the quiet, condescending tone of an adult explaining something very simple to a child, "this is New York. This kind of thing happens all the time."
"Can anyone vouch for your whereabouts last night after Ms. Pennant left the bar?" she asked, sounding tired. Barney looked thoughtful, and Castle found himself digging nails into his palms. Barney grinned and nodded, shaking a finger at the detective.
"The girl I went home with last night," he said proudly. His head cocked to the side as his posture relaxed. "What was her name..."
"You take your time," Beckett drawled with an eye-roll, turning on her heel and grabbing Castle's arm to walk him away from the bar. Once a safe distance out of earshot, she spun him around to face her. "Castle, what is the matter with you?"
"What, me?" Castle spluttered. "What did I do? I've been good."
"You were growling that whole time," she said under her breath. "I didn't think there was anything more irritating than your incessant chatter, but this is like a whole new level of annoying for you."
"Sorry," Castle muttered, a bit humbled. He hadn't realized he was being so obvious. "It's just, he isn't exactly a model citizen, is he?"
"And, what, you are?" Beckett asked scathingly.
"Never said that," he admitted."I just think he's being uncooperative and we should follow some other leads, that's all. Besides," he said even quieter, his mouth moving to the side of his face. "He's skeeving me out."
"Castle," she said intolerantly, "I'm going to run to the car and call Esposito, tell him to run this guy up. I want you to sit on your hands and keep your mouth shut until I get back." Without even giving him a chance to argue, she disappeared out the front door. Castle wasted no time returning to the bar where Barney Stinson leaned.
"Tabitha," he announced proudly, not looking at or talking to anyone in particular. "Her name was Tabitha. Ausland. Very Scandinavian. Very drunk."
"Is that a big accomplishment for you?" Castle sneered. "Remembering the name of the girl you slept with eighteen hours ago?"
Barney's head turned, locking eyes with Castle. He pushed himself away from the bar by his elbow. He was a great deal shorter than the writer, but his disposition matched Castle's to the letter. "You got a problem with one-night stands, buddy?"
"Not at all," Castle said. "In fact, I'm a big fan of them. I just don't try to impress women I've just met by flaunting it. Usually doesn't work. See, women don't respond well to jerks."
Barney smirked, and Castle was beginning to think he did that a bit too much. "Women like that," he said, pointing to the door though which Beckett had disappeared just moments ago, "aren't impressed by flowery words or gentlemanly courtesy."
"What do you mean, 'women like that?'" Castle demanded, temper flaring.
"You're better off," he pressed on, ignoring Castle's interruption, "gauging them for their sexual appetite." He tapped his temple twice with his index finger and then pointed it at Castle, smiling with an arrogance that would make Castle seem modest.
"You've got it all figured out, huh?" Castle asked dryly.
"Trust me, dude, I've... studied enough women to know."
"Well, you don't know this one," Castle mumbled. He sounded a bit more threatening than he intended, which put Barney on his guard. He set his scotch down on the counter behind him without breaking eye contact.
"You have some claim on this chick?" Barney asked, arching an eyebrow expertly.
"You might say that," he responded tersely.
"In other words, no." Barney scoffed.
"Back off her," Castle warned, stepping a breath closer to impose his height on the other man. It was a desperate attempt to gain an edge in the argument that usually worked on less confident opponents. But he'd never been up against Barney Stinson before.
"Okay, dude," Barney sighed, lifting a hand in front of him in a warding-off motion, "you're not a threat to me. From where I'm standing, I've got all the game. I can promise you, tonight, the lady will be grinding her hull against the barnacle."
"You know what, why don't you step back—"
"Why don't you step up?"
Beckett returned with a scowl on her face. She stepped in between the two and rounded on Castle, speaking with a dangerously low voice.
"If you alienate any more of my witnesses, I will have the captain end this arrangement, and I will lock you up myself for interfering with this department's criminal investigations, you got it?"
Castle's jaw slackened as he worked his tongue to respond, but over Beckett's shoulder he saw Barney making a whipping motion with his wrist. He fell silent.
"Mr. Stinson," Beckett said in her best cop voice, turning now to the well-dressed man, "we'll be in touch if we have any more questions for you. Thank you for your time."
"Anything for New York's finest," Barney said, reaching out to shake her hand again. "And detective," he continued more quietly and pulling her towards him so that even Castle, leaning over so far to eavesdrop that Beckett's minor intake of breath at Barney's proximity could have vacuum sucked Castle down to the floor, could not overhear. "I meant what I said about the cuffs. You'll find I can be just as bad in the bedroom as I am good." Quite satisfied with the look of intrigue, mouth slightly agape, with which he left the detective, Barney smiled sweetly and returned to his friends at their booth. Castle eyed Beckett suspiciously when she turned around.
"Well, that was unpleasant," he said disdainfully. Beckett merely smiled distractedly and brushed past him out the front door. Castle cast a final look over his shoulder to the table where Barney Stinson now sat, his boiling temper beginning to settle the farther away he walked. When he reached the car, Beckett was already inside, the engine running.
The first few minutes of the car ride were tensely silent. Castle stole a few glances whenever they drove by the New York street lamps, filling the car with a bright yellow-orange glow. He didn't like the way she was chewing her bottom lip. The last time he'd seen her do that, it preceded her low-toned suggestion to him about how good she was in the bedroom. The fourth time he eyed her, he noticed she was clutching something against the wheel.
"What's that?" he asked.
"That. That paper under your hand."
"Oh," she said, tucking the exposed corner of the card beneath her palm with her thumb so it was no longer visible. "Business card."
"Whose?" Castle asked, less a question and more a dare for her to say anyone other than Barney Stinson. She said nothing. Castle looked out his window as they passed the 79th street station, the features on his face so strained that they were beginning to hurt. "You're not actually going to call him, are you?" His eyes affixed to the side-view mirror outside the door, watching the city lights falling from the top of the mirror and disappearing at the bottom. He couldn't look away because he could almost hear her grinning at his anxiety. Her silence infuriated him, and she knew it.
The next time their car slowed to a temporary stop amidst late New York taxi cab traffic, Castle broke the silence. "I make seven-layer bean-dip of the gods."
Beckett's eyes slowly shifted to the right, blinked twice, and returned to the road. "Okay."
Traffic kept their car stationary for a few more minutes. When it picked back up, Castle spoke again. "When I was six, I rode the Amtrak all the way to Washington DC. By myself."
"It was the first time I'd ever traveled by myself. I was going to see my mother. She had been performing in the area for three weeks and she bought me a ticket to come see her last show."
"I wasn't scared at all."
"What is this?" she asked, shooting him a brief sideways glance through narrowed eyes. "Are you trying to impress me?"
"No," he said but quickly realized he didn't have a much better explanation except perhaps sudden insanity. He pinched the window switch with his thumb and index finger, flicking it down and up mechanically. "I mean," click, click, click, "you're not serious."
"This... Barney guy. I mean, he was a tool."
"Castle, I don't think you have the right to call anyone a tool," she remarked, flipping on the child safety locks. Castle's window froze partially open. He paused briefly to pout and then continued flicking the switch up and down fruitlessly.
"Name one way that he's better than me," Castle challenged. "Seriously."
"He doesn't flaunt his money," Beckett started, but Castle snorted.
"Please," he groaned. "Did you see that suit he was wearing? That's several thousand dollars. Who wears a suit like that to a bar on a Tuesday night? It's nothing to sneeze at."
"All right, well at least he was polite."
"Polite!" Castle exclaimed, picking up the pace with the switch as his agitation increased. "All that talk about women and sex?"
"He was polite in that he didn't try to kiss me when he said good-bye," Beckett retorted.
"Oh, now that's low," Castle protested. "Besides, the way you were looking at him? You probably would've undressed him right there on the barstool if he'd tried to kiss you." What would have been silence between them was supplanted by the clicking of the window switch.
"Okay, either you knock that off," she snapped, "or I let you out here." She nodded to the corner of the intersection as they passed through, riddled with hunched-over shifty-looking figures with deep-set eyes hidden by shadows. Castle grumbled, his hand dropping to his knee, defeated. The novelist in him, constantly on the prowl for how to use real-life experiences in his writing, couldn't help but feel determined to use this too.
Yes. Nikki Heat would meet someone much like this Barney Stinson, and he would probably end up dead.