“Like alchemy endlessness is a fiction.
We are always halfway to somewhere.”
The banner with the words “Good luck Sarge” was still firmly attached to the back wall, despite its slightly off-kilter position. Under it were a few tables, containing the remains of the buffet. Several empty beer bottles were laying around in the room, additional evidence of guests having left the party already.
Sitting at the bar at the other end of the room were two men, one of them with a slight tan to his fair skin, the other with a naturally darker skin tone. The fair-skinned man had brown hair, which was cut so short that other people might have considered him bald at first glance. He was wearing U.S. Army fatigue pants, a long-sleeved shirt and army boots. The other man, whose black hair was trimmed down to half an inch in length, was dressed in jeans, dark-blue t-shirt and comfortable shoes.
“Gonna miss you, Esposito,” the man in the fatigue pants said, patting the other's shoulder. “The team won't be the same without you.”
“I know, bro,” Esposito answered, “but the offer from NYPD is too good to pass up. It's gonna help take care of the bills for my mom's sickness.”
“The things we do for the family, eh?” he said, smiling.
“Yeah.” Esposito raised the beer bottle in his hands to his lips and took a gulp. Then he added, looking at his companion, “You gonna stay in contact?”
“You'll hear from me whenever I'm in town, don't you worry.” The other man grinned. “I won't disappear from your radar.”
* * *
Several years later, somewhere in New York, Detective Javier Esposito was in the middle of knotting up his tie when his work cell phone rang. Picking it up from the bedside table, he eyed the caller ID: it was Ryan. Wondering why his partner was calling him before work, Esposito took the call.
“What's up, Ryan?”
“Oh, thank god.” Ryan sighed in relief. “I already tried three times, man, but you weren't picking up.” For a moment, Esposito had the impression that Ryan was worried, but then he discarded that idea.
“I was in the shower, bro,” Esposito answered. “One of us has to smell nice,” he added, teasingly.
“Ha. Ha,” Ryan said, sarcastically.
“What's got your panties in a twist?” Esposito asked.
”There's a body in your neighborhood, two blocks from where your apartment is, near that little cafe...”
“Angelo's?” Esposito interrupted.
“Yeah, that one. You'll meet me there?” Ryan asked.
“I'll be there in ten.” Esposito hung up.
* * *
About ten minutes later, Esposito arrived at Angelo's, where a uniform directed him towards his partner and into the small side street.
“Get me up to speed?” Esposito asked Ryan as his partner walked up to meet him.
“Sure,” Ryan answered, “Vic's male, late 30s, white, no wallet, no id. Looks like a robbery.”
“You called Beckett?” Esposito asked, as he glanced over to where the dead body was. Lanie Parish, their medical examiner, was kneeling beside it. She probably had just arrived, maybe only a minute or two before him.
“Yeah, she should be here any minute. Castle too.”
“Good,” Esposito said. “C'mon, bro, let's see if Lanie's got anything yet.”
* * *
“Morning, Dr. Parish,” Esposito said.
Nodding to that, Ryan added, “Do you have anything preliminary for us?”
Dr. Lanie Parish gave Ryan a slight glare. “Good morning, gentlemen. I thought one of you would get me a bear claw from that nice store upfront, since it's still quite early in the morning and I haven't had a proper breakfast yet, but no, you'd rather make me work first.” She sounded rather cheerful, despite her wording and the gruesome display before her.
“Sorry, we'll remember it next time,” Ryan said, glancing over at Esposito, who just grinned at him. Giving Parish his best smile, Ryan asked, “So, you got anything yet?”
“All right,” she gave in, “Our John Doe was most likely killed by a gun shot wound to the chest, maybe a 9mm. It's not a through-and-through, so I'm guessing I'll find the bullet somewhere near his spine. As for TOD; lividity and liver temperature suggests somewhere between 3am and 7am. I'll know more when I've had him on the table.” She pulled the dead guy on his back, giving both detectives a good view of the victim's face.
The moment Esposito saw the dead man's face, he felt himself blanching. Staring, he was unable to say a thing for a minute or two as the world and his colleagues' voices seemingly faded into the background. Ryan must have realized what was happening to his partner, because the next thing Esposito noticed was Ryan placing his hand on Esposito's arm asking, “You okay, Javi?”
“I know our vic,” Esposito looked at Ryan, then at Parish, who had stood up and looked at him, worried. His voice breaking a little, he added, “Joseph Michael Taylor, Captain, U.S. Army, Special Forces. He was my friend.”
Esposito didn't notice the exchange of a glance between Parish and Ryan as his partner removed the hand from his arm and gently led him away from the dead body of his old friend.
“You wanna take a break on this one?” Ryan asked, his hand laying on Esposito's back.
Esposito closed his eyes for a moment, took a breath and then looked Ryan in the eye. “No,” he answered, his voice firm, as if making a decision. “It ain't right Joe died this way. He saved my life once, bro. I owe it to him to get his killer.”
Ryan nodded. “Anything else you can tell me about him?” he asked calmly.
“The army was his family, no living relatives. He signed up for life, while I quit when my mom got sick and joined the force. Last I heard, Joe went to Iraq with his team. I ain't got no idea why he's in New York instead.”
Ryan glanced towards the beginning of the alley, noticing Beckett and Castle getting out of her car. Turning back to his partner, Ryan asked, “You want me to deal with Beckett and Castle?”
“Yeah,” Esposito answered. “I'll take a few uniforms to canvass the area.”
Ryan nodded. “You got it, bro.”
As he watched Esposito walk away towards one of the uniforms, nobody noticed the worried look on Ryan's face.
When he'd picked up the call, Ryan had been afraid something had happened to Esposito, as he knew that his partner often went to Angelo's for a coffee before work when he was in the mood for it. Thankfully, that hadn't been the case. However, finding out that Esposito knew the victim brought back shades of the Finch case. Ryan still remembered he'd never before seen his partner as angry as he'd been then. When Esposito had left the precinct, only their talk in the garage had kept Ryan from feeling shut out. He just hoped it wouldn't come to that this time.
Turning, Ryan greeted Castle and Beckett who were approaching the scene.
“Morning, Ryan. Where's Esposito?” she inquired, sounding as if she had expected them both to be there.
“He's starting on the canvassing,” Ryan said.
“Alone?” Castle asked, looking curious. “You two had a fight?”
Beckett punched Castle lightly on the arm.
“Hey!” he exclaimed, shying away and rubbing his arm. “I can ask, right?”
Ryan shook his head but he couldn't help smiling slightly. “Sure you can, but you won't like it.”
“What's wrong?” Beckett asked, frowning.
“Long story,” Ryan said. “Short version: Esposito ID'ed our John Doe - he's one of his army buddies.”
“Oh, crap,” Castle simply said.
* * *
Some time later, Parish, Beckett and Castle had already left the scene and the body had been brought to the morgue, Ryan was waiting for Esposito by the car, hoping to catch him.
“I thought you went back to the precinct with Beckett and Castle,” Esposito said, as he walked up to Ryan.
“Nope. Was waiting for you to drive us back,” Ryan let the keys dangle from his fingers, then threw them over to Esposito who caught them easily. Grinning, he added, “What's a little road rage between friends?” As Ryan hadn't heard from Esposito while he'd been canvassing, he'd suspected that his partner had not turned up anything useful and would want to need to voice some of his frustration.
Stopping at the driver's side, Esposito looked over the hood of the car at his partner. “That obvious?”
Shrugging, Ryan met his Esposito's eyes. “You're my partner.” Judging by the long moment it took Esposito to break the gaze, Ryan's sentence was the only explanation his partner had needed, so he opened the passenger's side of the car and got in.
Having done likewise on the other side of the car, Esposito put the key into the ignition and then suddenly stopped, his hand still remaining at the key.
Knowing full well that Esposito would tell him on his own terms, Ryan waited.
A minute or more later, Esposito let go of the key and turned to Ryan. “You're right. We got bupkis. The patrol put the word out that we're looking for info and the rest of the unis I took with me are still canvassing, but I doubt we'll get much. This looks more and more like a pop and drop, and that's just wrong. Joe wouldn't go down without a fight.”
“We'll find something, Javi,” Ryan said, trying to sound convincing. “I'll have your back, no matter what happens.”
Esposito met Ryan's gaze. “I know,” he said softly, finally starting the car. “I need to call a few friends to find out why Joe was in town.”
“Beckett probably already went the official way,” Ryan said.
“Yeah, probably,” Esposito confirmed and finally turned the ignition.
* * *
Entering the bullpen, Esposito and Ryan saw Beckett at her desk, working. Castle was nowhere in sight.
“Yo, Beckett. Where's your shadow?” Esposito asked, as they arrived at her desk.
“Parent-teacher conference,” Beckett answered, turning towards the two men. “Sorry about your friend, Esposito.”
“Thanks, Beckett,” Esposito said.
“Anything turned up on the canvass?” Beckett asked.
“Nada,” Ryan said.
“The uniforms are broadening their radius but I doubt we'll get much,” Esposito added.
“I've called Fort Hamilton for background information on Captain Taylor,” Beckett said, adding her bit to the impromptu briefing. “Someone's coming over for an interview in about fifteen minutes.”
“You want one of us to sit in?” Ryan asked. At that point, Beckett's office phone rang.
“Hold that thought,” she answered and took the call. “Beckett.”
They weren't able to hear the full conversation, but the things they got from hearing Beckett's side of the call was that it was Dr. Parish and that she wanted someone to come over. By the end, Beckett agreed to send Esposito and Ryan to her.
* * *
His friend was lying on the autopsy table, his face visible, the white sheet carefully placed over the rest of his body. He looked peaceful and despite Joe's death Esposito wondered for a second why his friend wouldn't just open his eyes and laugh at him. The moment passed quickly though when Ryan stood next to Esposito, his partner's shoulder lightly touching his. If Parish noticed anything, she didn't say.
“Time of death is somewhere between 5 and 7am. My earlier guess about the bullet being a 9mm was correct. However,” she looked at the two detectives, “it wasn't where I thought it would be, which means it was slower than expected. I'm waiting for the confirmation from ballistics, but if I'm correct, someone used a suppressor.”
“I've never seen a robber run around with a silencer on his gun,” Ryan said, glancing at Esposito, who met his gaze.
“Me neither,” Esposito agreed, then turned his attention back to Parish.
“I'll leave the conclusions up to you. What I really want to show you is this,” she held out an evidence bag that contained a small rectangular object.
“What's that?” Esposito asked, taking the bag.
“An SDXC-card,” Ryan said, still standing right next to Esposito. When his partner looked doubtful at him, Ryan showed off his geek cred. “It's a newer kind of SD-card, kinda like the ones you use in cameras, but different. You'd need a different card reader for these, plus they have more space, up to 64 GB.” When understanding dawned in his partner's eyes, Ryan smiled.
“Where was it?” Esposito asked.
“It was hidden in a box inside his boots,” Parish answered.
“That's weird,” Esposito commented, and Ryan nodded.
“I haven't got a card reader here,” Parish said, “so I'm gonna send it to IT. They have those.”
As neither Ryan nor Esposito objected and there was nothing else to do in autopsy, the two detectives went back to the precinct to report to Beckett.
While they'd been out, Beckett had conducted her interview and had made a few phone calls: Captain Taylor had been on leave, traveling to New York right after setting foot back into the U.S. He'd arrived in New York on the day he'd been killed, method unknown. Since the police couldn't determine the location of Taylor's duffel bag, nor any other of their victim's valuables, the killer must have taken everything with him.
None of the detectives said it explicitly, but they all knew that Captain Joseph Michael Taylor had been deliberately murdered by someone he hadn't seen as a threat. Afterwards, the killer had tried to cover it up as a robbery gone bad. As nobody had noticed Taylor, or a person following him, a lot of gaps in their victim's timeline remained.
A few days later, their work finally paid off.
The ballistics report was in, confirming Dr. Parish's theory that Cpt. Taylor had been shot with a 9mm parabellum cartridge and that a suppressor had been used. After a few tests, ballistics advised the homicide detectives to look for a Sig SauerP226 as the most likely weapon for the murder.
IT had analyzed the SDXC card, which contained private photos, e-books, a copy of Taylor's testament and a folder titled Esposito. Inside said folder was a file that contained a letter addressed to Javier Esposito and a second folder which was password protected. IT hadn't been able to figure out its password up to this point; with 26 characters the password was too long for their department's decryption algorithm to decipher in a reasonable amount of time. In conclusion, they suggested that Detective Esposito should try, as the adjoining letter contained a hint for the detective. The print out of said letter was attached to the analysis, together with a copy of the content of the SDXC card on a DVD, as their work computers were only equipped with CD/DVD drives and didn't have any card readers.
Since Ryan had been curiously looking over his partner's shoulder while he'd scanned the report, Esposito handed the print out to Ryan to read, while passing the analysis to Beckett. Curious about its content, Esposito put the attached disc into his work computer.
“Hey Javi,,” Ryan read aloud to the team, including Castle, which had convened around Esposito's desk. “I found something that I need your advice on. Since I'm not sure who to trust with this, I'll leave a copy of my findings on the card, just in case anything happens. The password should be easy to guess - 26 characters. Just think of the Russian we met in Dubai.” Stopping, Ryan looked at Esposito curiously.
Esposito knew well what that look meant - Ryan wanted to know more, but he wouldn't ask if his partner wasn't willing to tell.
Castle, however, was not. “The Russian?” he asked eagerly. “Pray, do tell.”
“Not now, Castle,” Beckett intervened.
“It could help him remember if he tells it,” Castle tried.
“He's got a point, Beckett,” Esposito said.
“A word with 26 characters,” Ryan mused, reminding the team of the password's length. “That's fricking long.”
“I suppose it wasn't the alphabet?” Castle asked, a smirk on his face.
“Nope,” Esposito said, not seeing the smirk since he was sitting with his back towards Castle. “Joe was the communications expert in the team. Could hack into anything if need be. You'd've liked him, bro,” Esposito grinned at Ryan, who was sitting next to him. “Always loved to get the newest geek toys.”
“Madden?” Ryan asked, smiling back.
“Whenever we had the chance and enough batteries,” Esposito answered.
“Guys!” Beckett intervened, sounding amused rather than vexed. “We got evidence to look at.”
“So, what about the Russian?” Castle asked, which made Beckett shake her head, a slight smile on her face. Sometimes, Castle was like a dog with a bone.
“Joe and I met Sergei in a hotel bar in Dubai,” Esposito began. “When he heard it was my birthday, he invited us to vodka shots. A lot of them,” he explained, a fond smile on his face. “By the next morning, I had a hangover the size of Manhattan and a new nickname.”
“What did he call you?” Ryan asked.
“His 'magnificent black lion',” Esposito answered.
The intensity of the look that Esposito received from his partner made him fully aware that Ryan really wanted to know how that nickname came to be, preferably over a few beers. At the same time, Beckett tried hard not to look amused and Castle snickered. When Esposito turned, glaring, the author stopped immediately.
“Magnificent black lion is only twenty characters,” Ryan remarked with a smile that said there'd be teasing in Esposito's future. “What's the other six? Your birth date?”
“Could be,” Esposito answered. “Lemme try that.”
“What is his birth date?” Castle asked.
“October 23, 1976,” Ryan said. “Try 10 23 76, bro.”
While Esposito typed in those numbers, with the nickname as one word in the first part, Castle eyed Ryan curiously. Noticing Castle's gaze, Ryan asked, “What?”
“Just wondering why you know his birth date,” Castle asked.
“They're partners, Castle,” Beckett commented. “You just know.”
Any retort was put off by Esposito announcing that the password was the wrong one.
“Try the day you, Joe and Sergei met,” Ryan suggested. “First half same as before.”
Esposito typed it in and the folder decrypted before their very eyes. “You're good, bro.” He grinned at Ryan who smiled back.
* * *
The team knew at first glance that the amount of files inside the folder was massive and probably would keep them occupied for a while. After several hours, they had printed out the digitized documents, dividing them into categories and structuring them in a mind-map on a board next to their murder board that consisted of distribution methods, shipping routes, deliveries and photos of objects. The objects were small, old-looking figurines of unknown value, until Castle recognized them from a website for the virtual Iraqi Museum. After some verification, the team confirmed that the artifacts in the pictures were looted from the museum's real life counterpart in 2003.
While they didn't get anything that added to Captain Taylor's timeline of the day he was murdered, they at least knew now why he'd wanted to get Esposito's advice. Apparently, Taylor had suspected at least one person of his acquaintance inside the army to be involved in shipping stolen Iraqi artifacts to the US. Who it was exactly, he hadn't known, but Taylor had left the team enough clues to narrow it down to just three persons of interest, whose names and photos went up to the murder board.
“We need to talk to them,” Esposito said, staring at the pictures of the three men.
Nodding, Ryan added, “Deveraux, Harris and Stevenson.”
“First we have to figure out where they are,” Beckett said.
“I believe this is my cue to step in,” a female voice said. Turning around, the team noticed a woman in a black suit, matching vest and white shirt standing beside Captain Montgomery. She had short black hair, which was elegantly styled, and brown eyes that sparkled amusedly. Aside from the card at her jacket, identifying her as a visitor, there was a gold badge clipped to her belt. If the gun resting comfortably at her hip hadn't been obvious, Beckett, Esposito and Ryan would have guessed anyway that she was packing.
“Agent McGuire from Fort Hamilton, CID,” Montgomery said, introducing the stranger. “She called me this morning, requesting a meeting. Apparently your victim has also given a copy of his collection to the CID. He was supposed to meet her.”
After being introduced to the team and Castle, McGuire explained, “When Captain Taylor didn't show up, I tried to figure out what happened to him, which led me to the NYPD, especially after I had gotten the alert that someone requested information on him. Anyway, we're already ahead of you. Those documents that the captain collected were only the tip of the iceberg. I can't tell you everything, but we've apprehended a number of people. Deveraux, Harris and Stevenson were among them. We've determined that only Staff Sergeant Deveraux and Chief Harris were in New York on the day of the murder. Major Stevenson is still in Iraq, but has been arrested. Their service weapons have been confiscated and if you want; I can have them sent over to your ballistics lab or we can run the test. That's up to you. So far, neither Deveraux nor Harris have confessed to the murder, but they don't have an alibi for the time. If you want to have them, they can be brought over.”
Beckett smiled, “I'd like that.”
* * *
While Agent McGuire updated the NYPD further on her investigation, thereby preparing the detectives for their questioning of Harris and Deveraux, her colleagues brought the two men over to the precinct, placing them in separate interview rooms.
As the suspects already knew her, McGuire agreed to watch the detectives from the observation room. Beckett and Castle went into the interview room where McGuire's colleagues had put Chief Harris, while Esposito and Ryan went to question Staff Sergeant Deveraux in the second one.
The interrogation of Harris quickly came to an end when the suspect, a rather small, heavyset man described himself as handyman and not a soldier, attested that Deveraux had caught Captain Taylor being far too interested in what the three men were shipping to the States. Harris had heard Staff Sergeant Deveraux telling Major Stevenson that Taylor had been on to them. From what Harris had been able to catch, Major Stevenson had been quite angry and had insisted that Deveraux should make sure the problem went away.
* * *
“Staff Sergeant Deveraux,” Ryan began, sitting opposite Deveraux, while Esposito had sat down at the side of the table, closer to their suspect. “Agent McGuire gave us your personnel file to read. Me, I never served, so I have no idea what all that means, but my partner, Detective Esposito, tells me that's quite a nice career you had going until you messed it up by smuggling.”
Deveraux shrugged. “Everyone's taking a bit, the big suits, the bosses, why shouldn't I have my share too? Sure, they caught me, but who cares? I'll be doing time and then there's gonna be something else up for me.”
Esposito, who had silently kept his eyes locked onto their suspect, coldly said, “I don't think so, soldier.”
“What?” Deveraux asked, arrogantly meeting Esposito's stare. “You got a problem with me stealing?”
“That ain't my problem,” Esposito said, his voice carrying a bit of cold rage. “You killed a friend of mine, Captain Joseph Taylor.”
Ryan pulled out a photo of Taylor and laid it out for Deveraux to see, who briefly glanced at it.
“I served with Joe and he didn't deserve to be killed by a thief like you, Deveraux,” Esposito continued, his voice still carrying a hint of restrained anger. “That CID lady who brought you to us tells me that she's got what she needs to make a murder charge stick on you, too. It might be enough for my Captain and for the CID, but that ain't enough for me, soldier. You know what I'm gonna do?” He paused for a moment, which got him Deveraux's undivided attention once more. “I'm gonna ask the JAG prosecutor to make sure you're put on death row, 'cause last I heard, that still is valid in the army.”
Deveraux blanched and tried to avoid Esposito's stare.
“My friend Joe was a decorated soldier,” Esposito added icily, moving in closer to Deveraux, as if he wanted to whisper something into the suspect's ear without touching him. “Maybe I can ask the army to actually go through with the death sentence.”
“New York doesn't have a death sentence though,” Ryan threw in casually and Deveraux's eyes were immediately upon Ryan. “You'd be sentenced to life, maybe even get a parole after 25 years if you behave nicely.”
“So what's it gonna be, Deveraux?” Esposito said, remaining close to Deveraux and still not touching the suspect.
Deveraux meanwhile remained silent, his eyes anywhere but on the two detectives. Then, he softly said, “I'm sorry.” The devil-may-care attitude that had been present in his voice earlier was now gone completely. “Stevenson said I had to do something, he even gave me the silencer.”
After that, it didn't take long to get a written confession and while Harris went back into CID custody, Deveraux remained in the hands of the NYPD to be processed in due course. It was confirmed that Deveraux's service weapon had been the gun that was used to kill Captain Taylor. The silencer however, remained unobtainable as Deveraux had confessed he'd discarded it somewhere on his way back to his hotel.
* * *
Esposito took a personal day to pay his respects at Captain Taylor's funeral.
Content that his old uniform still fit to a tee, Esposito was glad to see that the members of his old army team had shown up as promised to be the pall bearers for the funeral. As the executor of his friend's will, he had made sure that Taylor got a military funeral, because despite the was he was killed, it was what his old friend had deserved.
As he arrived at the funeral home, Esposito was surprised to see his partner, Kevin Ryan, and Kate Beckett in their police uniforms, waiting for him. They were accompanied by Castle, who was dressed in an immaculate black suit. Looking at the three, Esposito didn't know what to say. Then, after a glance was exchanged, Ryan saluted Esposito and Beckett joined in. Esposito reciprocated the salute, feeling proud. After the salute, Castle added, “The captain and the mayor send their regards.”
Nodding, Esposito walked over to take his place amongst the pall bearers as the procession towards the funeral site was about to begin. Castle, Beckett and Ryan followed, taking their place behind the casket and following it to the burial site.