Kate grabbed her partner’s shoulder as they stepped through the gate encasing the rundown apartment building that F.B.I. information had led them to. “Castle, are you positive you can do this? This is your last chance to back out.”
He held her hand there, trying to think about how cold her fingers were. “I promise, Kate, I’m fine.” His smile was weaker than her belief in his words. “Besides, Huang came to us, not the F.B.I., and he deserves for us to see it through to the end.”
She broke. Her heart beat out of her chest more out of fear for him and his heart than for her own safety. So she broke her façade for a moment; just long enough to throw her arms around him and kiss him so he would never forget where he kept his heart. She would protect it no matter what happened. He kissed her back roughly, exhaling his anxiety through her body, letting her absorb away some of his guilt. They lingered together longer than they should have before she slipped into his side and snuggled as they approached the door.
The building was in mild disrepair but was by no means unmanageable with the right eye for renovation. To a passerby, it would have been a point of passing satisfaction to see the construction sign on the front door but for the detective and her partner it was an excuse. A simple way to keep out prying eyes. He pressed the rusting buzzer to apartment 4F and a breath later, the couple was permitted entrance.
Kate never left his side and his hand around her waist wouldn’t have had it any other way. She squeezed his bicep as they stepped off the elevator to find all of the doors on the fourth floor apartments removed and the furniture removed. Everything smelt damp and the world around them was too dark to see. It was the first time since meeting Kate Beckett that he wished he wasn’t stuck in a spy movie. At the end of the hallway in front of apartment 4F stood two burly Chinese men in suits and tightened jaws.
She squeezed his arm again as they approached until they were pulled apart by the two men who began to pat them down for weapons. Part of her wanted to keep an eye on him and the other part needed to see his blue eyes shining with reassurance because she was seriously regretting her decision to wear a skirt even if it was just a pencil skirt. The couple kept their eyes locked as the men continued their precise pat down until a pair of hands came to the skin under Kate’s skirt and she let out a gasp; the men sneered at each other, still silent. The man’s fingers swept slowly up the inside of her thigh, callused and weathered hands scratching the surface of her skin. The inside of her cheek was pressed so tightly she feared it might start bleeding and her hands shook at her sides with a desperation to move; but any move that was out of character would have meant the end of Castle’s life with the flick of the guard’s wrist. His fingers travelled higher, sending tremors of repulsion across her flesh. She had to stop him.
Kate jumped when Rick barked something in Mandarin and both men took a step back, equally as startled. Surprise turned into a glare when the men reluctantly stepped aside to allow them a sort of gateway into the next room. Inside was too dark to see anything except for the stream of light illuminating a corner of the room, dust and misuse floating in the air. Kate was still looking at Rick who had lost his colour in a fraction of the time it took him to gain the confidence to order those men away from her. Taking her cue, Kate sniffed at the guards haughtily and wrapped her arm tightly around her partner’s bicep. Rick startled out of his daze and cupped his girlfriend’s hand as a show of possession and appreciation. Both men glared as they stepped through.
In a dark corner of the dark room only lit by the splay of moonlight through an opposite window, a man appeared out of the shadows and Rick held her arm tighter to his side. He was a head shorter than Rick but his expression was attentive, his eyes observing his opponent like they were playing a game of chess already half way through. He tried to stop the analogies and metaphors in his head but honestly, it was the only thing keeping him from punching the man out and alerting the guards which would certainly mean Kate’s end. He observed the man’s upright gate and expensive suit; his wire-framed glasses perched on his nose and his thin lips, always smiling.
The man never looked at Kate and a part of her was so glad. He extended his smooth, precise hand to Rick who took it in a hardy shake while the men exchanged a greeting in Mandarin, laughing like they were old friends. Like they were in some café in midtown getting coffee and catching up on old times instead of boxed into an unused apartment building, seeking evidence to arrest the man Castle was shaking hands with. The only indication that Rick was even distressed came from his vice grip on her arm, never changing as they slipped further into darkness. He led them silently down a hallway neither had noticed. Their world was pitch black now and the journey seemed to take forever but they finally made it and neither could hide their gasp.
The other room was opened and half shadowed in darkness from the burnt out bulbs keeping the back of the room caged in darkness; nothing could escape it. At the edge of the darkness stood eighteen boys and girls no older than fourteen standing in two rows, all well groomed and precious-looking. They could have been standing there waiting to take a family photo had it not been for the tear stains and the whimpers that slipped out from a few as the group approached. Kate hazarded a glance at her partner who had suddenly turned so white that she broke again and kissed his cheek. It didn’t seem to relax him but that was all he could do.
“What exactly are you looking for?” The man’s English was precise, schooled, and that made Rick graduate from pale to ghost – not that it showed in the darkness.
So it began. Kate pressed up on her toes to reach her partner’s ear and whispered her request. Rick nodded and answered for her “my wife is looking for a companion to keep her company during the day. She gets lonely when I am away.”
The business man nodded in understanding, his hands folded in front of him; never once did his eyes stray to Kate. She wanted to throw up. “Does your wife have any preferences?”
Again Kate whispered in his ear and he nodded before responding “she wants a girl around twelve years old with very short hair and light brown eyes.”
The world stopped when he raised his eye brow in suspicion. “That is a very specific request to make.” Rick answered something in Mandarin that made the man throw his head back in even, full-bodied laughter while the group of children before them all whimpered and curled into each other.
Kate swore that she would make it up to Rick, whatever it took to get the image of this night out of his head; out of both their heads.
With a snap of the man’s fingers three young girls no older than twelve stepped forward from the crowd. All had short hair, smartly cropped, and light brown eyes – from what was visible through the shadows. They stood so still in their line and that was when Kate realized that there was no guard in this room to enforce obedience physically. They did without thought. She closed her eyes and missed Rick pulling her away from him as the man instructed him to tell his wife to take a look.
Kate released his arm and immediately missed the support of his body against hers. As in so many things, they needed each other. She slowly approached the three girls with their chins jutted out defiantly. She recognized it as her own sign of bravery. She bent down to look at all three girls and she addressed them one at a time. “What’s your name?” Her voice was shaking too much, she knew that, but she could only hope that the man ignored her as he had in all other things. She caressed each girl’s tear stained face, their skin cold from surrender and lack of sun. The girls answered one by one, their voices matching in tone and volume. They never broke the silence that smothered the room.
Kate lingered over the young girl’s soft features before snapping to her feet and stepping back into her partners arm. She whispered in his ear and he wrapped his arm tighter around her waist. “My wife doesn’t like any of them.”
The man straightened, clearly offended. He readjusted his suit jacket but his voice remained cool. “There will be a new shipment arriving within three weeks if you wish to return. If your wife can be patient, that is.” Still he refused to glance at Kate but his pointed look to Rick was very clear.
“I assure you that she will be.” Rick gave a pointed look of his own “Provided you are actually able to deliver on your end.”
“On that you can be certain.” God, Kate wanted to kill this man. “And we will be reopening the subject of payment.”
“My deposit wasn’t enough of a reassurance?”
“It was more than enough Mr. Strike, however it was just that; a deposit. My fee is very steep.” Rick answered again with some remark in Mandarin that had Kate crying out to hold her lover; to take him away from this horrible place and erase it from their memories.
With a final handshake their business was concluded and the man waved them away. Rick tugged Kate’s arm, dragging her away even as she took one last look at the children trapped in the darkness.
The moment they were out of sight and around the corner for safety sake, the couple collapsed onto the brick wall behind them. Rick held his knees and tried to desperately to remember to breathe, knowing he hadn’t since he had stepped off the elevator on the fourth floor of that apartment building. Kate had mirrored his position until she saw his sickly green complexion and then her legs gave out and she collapsed to her knees beside him. She caressed his legs and arms gently, offering whatever support she could. “I’m sorry Rick, I am so sorry Rick.” She repeated the mantra over and over until his breathing had evened out and he surrendered to the gravity of the moment. He fell into her arms and allowed her to just hold him, inhaling her scent and using it to keep him tethered to reality.
“I’ll be fine, Kate, as long as you can confirm that that was Huang’s sister.” She nodded solemnly, willing herself away from the images that would give her nightmares for months. “Then it was worth it.” She collapsed into him, bringing her hands to his cheeks to plant a firm kiss on his trembling lips. The lingered, swept up in each other’s embrace.
The finally parted but Kate kept as much contact as possible while she helped her partner to his feet. He held her hands firmly with skin as cold as the room they’d left. “Why don’t you head over to the college? I’m sure Alexis is due for a visit from her dad.”
He slowly shook his head, still barely able to look at her. “No, the best thing I can do right now is keep every other little girl safe.”
She kissed his cheek. “You’re amazing.” She whispered.
He echoed her words without smiling. “So are you. Now let’s take this son of a bitch down.”