A/N: So...been going through a bit of a quarter-life crisis. (kidding/not kidding) I turned 25 today and realized that there's so much in life that I haven't done yet. One of those not done yets include completing a novel-length story. As such, I am determined to finish this thing and add that to my list of accomplishments. ;)

A big shout-out to Lydian Stone for handing me my 400th review for this story. That's a milestone I've never reached in almost nine years of fanfiction writing, so thank you to all of you out there who've been kind enough to drop me a note or two.


Chapter Twenty-Two


"Don't you think this whole bus locker thing is a little cliché?" Castle commented as he lengthened his stride to match Beckett's determined march. The crowds gave them wide berth, and while Castle briefly indulged in the illusion that the Red Sea of humans was parting at his behest, it was more likely that nobody wanted to get in Beckett's way. She had the face of someone who wouldn't mind mowing down an innocent pedestrian or two.

"If this situation is too trite for your delicate writer's sensibilities, you could always just—oh I don't know—leave?"

"Oh heck no. Just because it's overdone doesn't mean it's not fun."

His shoulders popped up in an innocent what? gesture when her eyes rolled toward the ceiling in an unmistakable plea for divine intervention.

"Just don't get in the way," she said, though they both knew it was only for show. For the first time in their relationship, she was the one who called him, and whether or not she was willing to admit it, it marked a turning point.

Or so Castle liked to believe.

To be honest, he'd been surprised when Beckett actually called him the next morning.

He hadn't been entirely serious about going to check out the bus-locker with her. (Okay, no. He was entirely serious because bus-lockers and conspiracies and drug cartels were just way too good to pass up on.)

He just hadn't thought that Beckett had taken him seriously.

With everything she'd so eloquently not said yesterday at the station and then the call this morning practically inviting his presence (he liked to believe that Beckett was really just being caring when she emphasized for the umpteenth time that if he was really busy, he shouldn't come with), Castle was feeling quite the optimist on this wonderful New Year's Eve.

"TSA tore down most of these a few years back, but some terminals still have them," Beckett explained as they neared the rows of grey, beaten lockers. "This happens to be the one closest to Coonan's apartment."

Spotting the locker that sported the same number as the little token attached to the key, Beckett inserted the key and was just about to turn when Castle stopped her.

"Whoa, no no no! Don't do that!"

"What?" Her t was sharply aspirated and if he were a more cautious man, Castle would have shut up.

Alas, he was not and would not.

"Once you open it, then we'll know. Could be an alien corpse in there, Ark of the Covenant—"

Beckett rolled her eyes and pulled the locker door open.

"—or Johnny Vong DVDs," finished Castle, frowning at the neat row of DVDs staring back at him from the depths of the locker. "This can't be a coincidence."

"First rule of investigating a homicide, Castle." Beckett pulled out a DVD case and cracked it open to find a packet of unidentified white powder tucked behind the DVD. She held it up for him to see. "There are no coincidences."

"I'm sorry, Beckett, but your coolness factor just dropped by like ten points."

The eye-roll was an automated response now. "Whatever shall I do?" Her tone was dry as the Sahara.

"Hey, don't mock. You had that whole Miami Vice vibe going so well. Right up until you handed off a sample to do a field test with that kit-thingy—what d'ya call it again?"

"Marquis reagent."

"Yeah, that. So not cool."

Beckett snorted, even as her foot tapped an impatient rhythm against the linoleum floor. "What? Did you expect me to slice the bag open with a pocket knife, stick a finger in and do a taste-test?"

"You know, when you say it like that, it sounds kinda dirty."

Eyes a deadly laser, Beckett shut him up with a single look. "For future reference, Castle. Just about the dumbest thing you can do is to put an unknown substance in your mouth. Never mind the fact that it could be toxic, even if it were just your regular street drugs, cops are sometimes required to undergo random drug testing. The last thing any cop needs is a black mark on his record because they were idiotic enough to taste-test something in the field."

His thick eyebrows pushed together in a disappointed frown. "Oh, I hadn't thought of that." Then he shrugged it off with a lop-sided grin that formed deep dimples in his cheeks and gave him an air of something oscillating between boyish enthusiasm and rakish charm. "Welp, I guess you can have your points back then."

"Whoop dee-doo."

"Detective?" A uniformed officer handed her a thin vial, the powder and the reagent mixed together to give them quick and easy results to test for common drugs.

"Thanks, LT."

Beckett held the vial up to the light, the white powder now a deep, purple-red liquid, sloshing about the glass tube with bold viciousness.

"Oh yeah. It's heroin," she said with a triumphant grin, a feral glint in her eyes. "Looks like good ol' Johnny has some explaining to do."

The Box belonged to Beckett.

It had been that way since the very first time she'd stepped into the interrogation room as a detective-in-training with Royce, and the knowledge that this room was her domain had only cemented itself through the years. Young she might be, but no one in the Twelfth would dispute the fact that she was the best in that room—the most intimidating because she acted like she owned the place.

And she did. Oh she did.

Castle propped himself up against a corner of the room, but she paid him no heed. She'd allowed him to come in here with her under the condition that he keep his trap shut and let her do all the talking. She was under no illusion that he wouldn't open his big mouth sometime during the questioning, but some part of her wanted him to see her like this. To see the beast lurking so close beneath her usual façade. To see that she was dangerous and not to be trifled with.

And okay, maybe she got a crazy thrill out of him seeing her so in her element as well.

It didn't hurt to know that the mere five minutes she'd spent perusing the notes she purposefully splayed in front of her had Johnny Vong so scared, she could see beads of nervous sweat trickling down his neck and diving into the refuge of his collar.

The predator in Beckett purred in delight as she reclined lazily against the uncomfortable chair in a show of ease. Across the table, Vong sat with his shoulders hunched forward, his eyes jumping around the room in rapid fire. His cuffs were going to get a permanent wrinkle in them from how much he'd twisted the cloth about with his gaudy ring-laden fingers, and his foot tapped an erratic rhythm against the tile floor.

She made him nervous.

Good. He should be nervous.

Part of the reason she was so good at this was because she knew instinctively how to gain a witness' trust and to draw out a suspect's weakness. A man like Vong was almost fun to interrogate. His weakness was fear, and his type were usually the easiest to intimidate and to shake into saying what she wanted to know.

Almost on cue, Vong broke. "I don't know what you want. I do nothing wrong," he stuttered out, his accent heavy with nerves.

She almost grinned. The initial denial was so…predictable.

She chose to dance around the issue a little, drag out the tension and see what she could wring out of a nervous man.

"Mr. Vong, you run a successful, let's call it 'business venture,' shall we?" She waited for Vong's affirming nod before continuing, "So much so that you've got enough capital to pay for informercials that run through the night. How'd you manage that?"

She gave him an encouraging look and the consummate salesman in Vong couldn't resist the lure to sell his product.

"Ah, Detective. The secret is that it's not about the money. I make dreams come true. I help people to achieve their goals."

"Uh-huh. And if those goals happen to coincide with your making a pretty couple of hundred per deal, then that's just a happy coincidence, isn't it?"

Johnny smiled, lips spreading in an indulgent grin. "Like I said, I give people what they want."

"Like heroin?"

"No, no, no. Drugs are for losers. I'm a businessman."

Oh, Vong was getting confident, wasn't he? She loved it when suspects thought they had the system beat.

Gifting Vong with an absent smile, Beckett fingered the case file as she prepared to deliver her killing blow.

"Here's the deal. Heroin-trafficking? That's good for a ten-year prison bid. That's bad, but that's not your biggest problem. Your biggest problem—" she pulled out the crime scene photo of Coonan's body and slid it in front of Vong "—is the fact that you had Jack Coonan killed to cover up your heroin smuggling operation."

"Wait. You're saying Jack Coonan's dead?" Vong exclaimed, no trace of a foreign accent to be found. He sat up straight, pulling the photo closer to him as he scanned it in disbelief, and in his eyes was a sharp intelligence that he'd masked by playing the smarmy scam artist. So did his true colors come out.

"Whoa, careful there Johnny," Castle said with a little incredulous laugh. He broke the rules by coming over to sit next to her and engaging in the interview, but she let it slide. It's not like she expected him to stay where he was anyway. "Your accent's starting to fade a little."

Vong shot him an annoyed glare. "Look, I didn't come over on a boat, okay? I've never even been to Laos before. I'm from Danville, California."

"And this whole 'Johnny Vong' thing?"

"No one wants to buy a real estate system from a Harvard M.B.A., but show them an idiot with a Rolls Royce, and they'll knock down doors. So I played Johnny Vong. People want all that Horatio Alger crap, so that's what I give 'em."

Castle tilted his head. "Well, that and heroin."

Beckett kept the smile to herself when she saw the irritated and startled look Vong shot Castle. Maybe it was kind of useful having Castle in the interrogation after all. It was keeping Vong off-balance, at the very least.

"How'd you know Jack Coonan?" she asked.

Vong shook his head. "Whatever you think you know, I promise you, I did not kill Coonan. You have to believe me."

"Do I? Nothing about you is real."

"No, I—" Vong cut himself off with a frustrated sigh, one hand scrubbing up and down his face. "I needed the money to take the program national. He needed a way to get the product into the country. It was stupid, but once you make a deal with the devil, you belong to him."

Oh yes. Now they were getting somewhere. She forced herself to tamp down on the adrenaline rush of closing in on her prey, but she still came out too eagerly. "Who do you belong to? Who are you working for?"

"He'll kill me."

"I can protect you."

Vong shook his head, genuine fear widening his eyes and edging him with the beginnings of hysteria. "You can't. Nobody can. You don't know what he's capable of. You don't believe me, ask Jack Coonan."

No, no, no, damn it! She was losing him.

"Mr. Vong—"

"No. I'd rather lose ten years of my life than all of it."

Vong raked his hands through his hair, and Beckett wished she could do the same with her own.

"Whoever he's working for scares him a lot more than prison," Beckett said as they settled at her desk after the interrogation.

"Well, we already know that he's just a rung on the ladder. Whoever's on top must be one hell of a terror."

Beckett growled, her eyes darting all over her notes but finding nowhere to land. "Damn it. I know there has to be a connection, but I just can't find it."

Castle's phone chirped and he groaned.

"What?"

"My event planner. I need to go back to the loft for some last-minute preparations," he said, his shoulders scrunching up like a little boy in trouble.

"Then go! And leave me in peace," she said, making shooing motions with her hands. He hesitated, his eyes lingering on the case notes spread out on her desk. "Castle. Out. If there's any new developments, I'll let you know."

"But—"

"Castle."

"Fine." His lips pursed in a childish pout and his arms crossed in front of his chest like a six-year-old might do when trying to give someone the cold shoulder.

She really shouldn't indulge him, she knew, but…

"I'll see you tonight," she said, five words tossed out in casual nonchalance but by the way Castle took in a sharp breath and the sudden vibration of excitement in his body, he understood it for what she meant.

"Until tonight, then."

She didn't need to look to hear the soft smile in his voice. She shivered as the deep tones washed over her and ignited warmth in places she didn't care to think about.

Damn if Castle didn't make her feel like the Grinch with an all-too-quickly growing heart ready to burst out of her chest.

Kate was just coming back from a quick coffee break at the shop around the corner from the station (she needed something that wasn't the sludge of the break room's coffee) when she walked into a bullpen that was eerily silent. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled and she couldn't shake the feeling that everyone was watching her.

That, and Lanie was there. She never came down to the station. Lanie loved to lord it over Kate that all the detectives in the city had to come to the OCME for consultation, not the other way.

Uncurling the scarf from around her neck in a bid to study the situation a little longer, Kate draped the soft cotton on the back of her chair before turning to face the ME and the older gentleman standing next to her. "Lanie, what…are you doing here?"

Lanie turned to face her and the sinking pit in the detective's stomach widened its maw at the bleak expression on her best friend's face.

"It's about the Coonan case." Lanie gestured at the man standing beside her. "This is Dr. Clark Murray. He's a forensic pathologist. I asked him to consult."

Beckett reached out to shake his hand, briefly appeased to know that this was about Coonan, but still confused as to what was going on. "I'm, uh, Detective Kate Beckett."

Taking a deep, fortifying breath, Kate indicated for Dr. Murray and Lanie to sit. "So what do you have?"

Lanie handed Dr. Murray a case file and he pulled out a close-up of the wounds on Coonan's torso. "Note the rectangle bruising around the wounds, here, here and here," he began, gesturing at the photo to better visualize his point. "It's caused by the hilt of the knife striking with force enough to compress the skin."

Beckett nodded, following so far. "And as a result, the injuries penetrate deeper than the actual length of the blade."

"He's also honed his blade so fine, it's brittle enough for bits to break when it strikes bone. Which is why slivers of blade were found inside both of his victims. We now know those slivers come from the same murder weapon."

Beckett perked up at that. "Wait, two victims? How many people has he killed?"

Lanie answered that one. "Five—that we know of."

"So we're looking at a serial."

Dr. Murray cocked his head to the side. "Yes and no. We believe we're dealing with a professional, someone with extensive military training."

"A contract killer," Beckett concluded, the beginnings of a thirst for the hunt stirring in her blood. This was huge. Exposing a contract killer and helping to bring him down would almost guarantee her transfer to Homicide.

Nobody else seemed eager to give her more information though, and that should have tipped her off.

Dr. Murray continued his explanation. "I've used tomographic reconstruction of Coonan's wounds to generate a 3-D model of the blade used." He pulled out a clay replica from an evidence bag and handed it to Beckett. "It's a special operations knife, the kind favored by Special Forces in Gulf War I."

This time he pulled out an example of the real thing and placed it on the table. Heart thumping wildly for no reason Beckett could understand, she picked up the knife, noticing too late that her hands were shaking.

What the hell?

"He kills with a single blow, using these other wounds to camouflage the skill with which the initial stroke was delivered. The very same method and the very same weapon that the killer employed…ten years ago."

Dr. Murray's voice hitched just slightest bit, but Kate heard it. She heard it and she knew.

Time slowed, the earth pausing on its axis as the world fell away from her. She heard nothing but white noise roaring in her ears, felt nothing but her heart squeeze, squeeze, squeezing so damn tight that she couldn't breathe.

Kate fingered the notched edge of the blade and revulsion surged through her when she realized what she was holding. It wasn't the exact weapon used, but this was the same type of knife that had killed her mother. Her mother. She knew from poring over previous ME reports that her mother had died a violent, painful death, but now…now she could see all too clearly in her mind's eye the keen blade sinking deep into tender flesh and ripping breath from life. Phantom gasps of pain whispered by her ears, the spark of life fading slowly from eyes that once knew joy immeasurable.

Kate turned and saw Lanie watching her with careful eyes like she was Atlas and the world too finally too much for her to bear, crushing her with its gargantuan weight.

"L-Lanie?"

Lanie shook her head, tears welling in those dark eyes. "I'm so sorry."

"Detective Beckett, there is no doubt in my mind that Jack Coonan was killed by the same man who murdered your mother."

The earth groaned beneath her feet as the world churned back into movement, the steady march of time tick-tocking away even as it left Kate behind to drown, fingernails scrabbling at slippery walls as she slid down down down.


.

.

.

.

A/N: I couldn't resist poking fun at the heroin-tasting because, really Beckett, as sexy and fun as it was on the show, that was a really, really dumb thing to do.