One day in early December, just after sundown, the lights went out: not just in the Castle family apartment building, but across New York City, far and wide enough that looking out the picture windows showed pure blackness, no twinkle and glow to indicate the bustling metropolis it usually displayed. Casa Castle was more than prepared for such eventualities; in a matter of minutes Alexis, Rick, and Martha had carved a cozy candlelit haven from the darkness. That done, they set about gathering blankets, board games, munchies, and beverages for an epic carpet picnic.
“Okay so,” Alexis began, “We’ve got Apples to Apples, Dixit, Dominoes, and Uno. I like them all, so maybe you and Gram should decide. We could assign a number to each game, and put the numbers in a hat, or you could play rock/paper/scissors to see who gets to pick.”
“You know what I wanna do?” Rick said, the dim lighting hiding the gleam in his eye not at all.
“Oh Richard please, no storytelling round robin. You always take so long with your turn that I can’t remember the whole thing,”
“Oh, yeah, and then he spends the rest of the game yelling ‘plot hole!’ every time we mess up. I’m with you on this one, Gram. Sorry Dad.”
Rick clutched his heart dramatically. “You wound me. I was going to say, ‘I wanna make hot chocolate.’” He was up in a flash, lighting a cook-top burner with a match and emptying the milk jug into a saucepan. “You two can start without me, I’ll be right there with two mugs of nirvana.”
Once Martha and Alexis had started dealing out Uno cards, he pulled out a bar of Callebaut dark chocolate and a small stash of artisan-made peppermint marshmallows from their secret hiding place on top of the upper cabinet and unwrapped them, whistling as he chopped the chocolate. He’d been saving them for Christmas, but this was the perfect time to mix up a special treat for his two best girls.
There must have been a lull in their chatter. They heard the kitchen torch flaming on.
“Seriously, Dad? I’m getting the fire extinguisher.” Alexis grabbed the canister and plunked it down on the counter next to Rick.
“Oh ye of little faith,” said Rick, turning the skewer that held the marshmallow so that the flame just kissed the edge of the sweet confection, “I’ve been toasting marshmallows this way for a while now. It’s all in the wrist—” The words caught in his throat when the marshmallow, which had up until that moment been developing a perfect golden brown color and delicate crispness, burst into flames.
Martha shrieked and splashed brandy over the edge of her snifter. Alexis leaped into action with the fire extinguisher - or would have, except that Rick turned his back to shield the blackening marshmallow from the spray. “I can blow it out, I can blow it out!”
Alexis couldn’t hear him over the blaring whistle of the smoke detector. She danced from foot to foot as she tried in vain to get a sight line on the marshmallow, extinguisher at the ready. Martha went to the sink and turned on the cold water, then made sure the torch was out. Still, Rick blew on the marshmallow. He might have kept trying until it went out for lack of fuel, utterly blackened, or even gotten it to go out a little before that, if somebody hadn’t started pounding on the door. Rick yelped. Since he was distracted, Martha grabbed the skewer and plunged the marshmallow under the tap, where it hissed sadly.
Rick wiped his sticky hands, grabbed the fire extinguisher to use as a weapon, and went to peer through the peephole. Nothing--no lights in the hallway. He glanced back to make sure Alexis was out of sight, and opened the door.
Javier practically fell through it, supporting a limping Kevin. “Castle, thank God! I didn’t think we were gonna get away. They…they’re not people anymore. And whatever they are, they’re fast.” Kevin suddenly slumped against him, and Javier lightly smacked his cheek to rouse him. “Ryan, buddy, stay with me, open your eyes.”
Rick grabbed Kevin’s other arm and drew it over his shoulder, helped Javier get him onto the couch. “Alexis, the first aid kit!”
“Got it, Dad, on your left. What happened to him?”
Rick rummaged through the first aid kit, firing a barrage of questions: “Did he hit his head? Could it be food poisoning? Did you guys have dinner at Mama Gina’s sushi again? How many times do I have to tell you? That place is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
“It was the zombies. I don’t know how it started, just—one minute we’re walkin’ up fifty-seventh, next thing I know everything goes black. We didn’t make it more than a block before we passed a subway entrance and this crowd of weirdoes shambled out of it, grabbing people and—It was ugly. They were out for brains.”
“Oh God!” Rick interjected, “The zombie virus must’ve been on the subway!” He looked half horrified and half ready to go investigate.
“Anyway there was a wall of ‘em, at least forty, clawing after us. Ryan fired at one that was mauling this old homeless lady, but it didn’t even slow the guy down. He just went after Ryan instead, tripped him and grabbed his foot, started dragging him away. I kicked the sucker in the head and we…We bolted, man.”
“We’ll have to get word to the CDC, the National Guard, maybe even the Pentagon. But first we need an ambulance.” Rick whipped out his cell phone and started to dial.
“No!” Javier said, swatting the phone out of Rick’s hand, “We saw an ambulance full of zombies running people down out there. It’s too risky. We just have to hole up and try to figure out a way to get help without bringing zombies. Your place was the closest. I didn’t think we were gonna make it at all. They already got your doorman—”
“Reggie?” asked Rick.
“Reggie?” Alexis breathed, her wide eyes shining with tears.
Kevin sat up abruptly, looking abashed. “I’m sorry, bro, no way. Freaking Castle out is one thing, but I can’t do it to her.” He turned to Alexis, contrite. “I’m sorry honey. It was just a joke—Reggie’s fine. Look, he even gave me his handkerchief to use for a fake bandage, see?” He proffered the handkerchief stained with ketchup and bearing Reggie’s initials, ROJ.
“I knew it!” Rick bellowed. “If this had been a real zombie apocalypse, you guys wouldn’t have made it. Forty zombies against two cops in street clothes? Please. No contest. Nice try, please play again.” Rick headed back to the stove to stir the hot chocolate and give his heart a chance to stop pounding.
“Admit it, dude, you were totally on the hook,” Javier called after him, “two more minutes and you would have been climbing into a hazmat suit with WRITER printed on it.”
He sampled the now-steaming chocolate, and paused thoughtfully, scanned the kitchen for something to add, to punch it up—he brightened when he spotted the tall, elegant candy canes in a vase on the counter. He unwrapped two, and stood a candy cane in each cup before he poured. He topped each cup with a marshmallow, and carried the mugs back out to the living room.
“Ooh this smells amazing,” said Alexis, stirring her chocolate with the candy-cane.
“Mother?” He offered her the second mug and she carried it over to the bar, splashing in a generous second-helping of brandy.
“Can I interest you boys in something to drink? I make a pretty special hot chocolate,”
“And I can make it just a little more special,” Martha said, brandishing the decanter of brandy.
Both of them accepted, and settled down opposite Alexis where she was shuffling the Uno cards. “Shall I deal you gentlemen in?” she asked, with a little smile that told them both they were forgiven.
There was a knock at the door.
“I’ll get it,” Martha sang out through the door, “Who’s there?”
“It’s Dr. Lanie Parrish, Castle knows me from the NYPD?”
“Oh hello Dr. Parrish! Come in and warm up, dear, you must be freezing.”
“Lanie! Fancy meeting you here!” said Rick.
“Castle. Care to trade one of your killer martinis for one of my freaky morgue stories?"
"Sounds like a fair trade to me! I'd offer to take your coat, but it's starting to get chilly in here."
"I bet you love this, don’t you?" Lanie said, gesturing to the candles, "no computers or television to distract people? Nothing to do but talk talk talk. I admit, I don’t know anybody else who’s more entertaining than 500 channels on cable.”
Castle leaned in to kiss her cheek. “Flatterer. Your wish is my command. Appletini? Lemon drop?”
“Straight up Martini. Shaken, not stirred.” Lanie pronounced seriously.
“The lady doesn’t mess around, I like it. Got a classy little Bond-girl revolver under that suit?”
“Or something,” she chuckled at his raised eyebrow.
Kevin and Javier whooped over the Uno game in the living room. “I guess I’m not the only one who knows how to find a party in a blackout, huh? Hello boys. Hey Alexis.”
“Lanie! Just in time to get into the game!” Kevin crowed, waving a handful of Uno cards at her.
“I think I’ll wait a little while. ” She settled on the couch where she could see all the action - the card game, Castle whistling away at the bar, even the creepy blackness where Castle’s impressive skyline view should be.
“Here, take the blanket, it’s already warm,” Alexis said, getting up to drape her cozy down throw over Lanie’s lap. “We’ve got another one up in the linen closet. Take a look at the pile of games if you want, we don’t have to play Uno all night.”
“One martini, straight up,” said Rick, passing Lanie a glass, “can I get you anything else?”
Lanie tasted the martini, then swallowed a larger mouthful with a lusty little groan. “I owe you a really juicy story. How about the one where I extracted an entire leather riding crop from the colon of a…” Lanie trailed off when Rick waved a frantic “cut take” gesture in front of his throat.
“Alexis!” he sing-songed over a panicky smile, “I was just wondering where you’d gotten to.”
“Don’t let me interrupt, I just went upstairs to get the other down blanket.”
“Oh it’s nothing,” Rick said, throwing an apologetic glance at Lanie, “We were just going to get some more board games from the front closet. After you, Lanie.”
Alexis shrugged and settled down to deal another hand of Uno.
Again, there was a knock at the door. “I’ve got it, Mother,” Rick called, opening the front closet for Lanie and gesturing to the game shelf then turning to open the door. “Why, Detective Beckett!—”
"Castle, before you say anything, I am warning you: if you as much as breathe a word to anybody that I was here I'll kick your ass."
Of course, Lanie emerged from the closet exactly then. "I'd like to see that," Lanie purred, her lip curling up in a sly smirk.
"Beckett!" said Javier, "Just about the whole gang's here. Should I call up the Chief and tell him what he's missing?"
Kate just rolled her eyes.
Lanie leaned in close and lowered her voice, but not quite enough to exclude Rick, before she continued. "He should be shirtless and sweaty when you kick his ass. Girl, what happened to you? I thought you a hot date in midtown tonight.”
Kate glared at her briefly. “My plans were interrupted by a call from Metropolitan Hospital, where my date works as a cardiac surgeon.”
“A surgeon! He must be quite the silver fox.” Rick quipped. “What’s his name? Maybe my mother knows him.”
“At least he’s old enough to legally hold a job, unlike the…ladies you usually go for.”
“Ooh, she’s got you there, Castle,” Lanie put in, ushering Kate inside. “Now, I recommend a martini. It’ll cure what ails ya’.”
“Or I could whip you up a hot chocolate,” Rick suggested, “made with the good stuff. Callebaut 67% dark chocolate, artisan peppermint marshmallows, maybe a little homemade Tahitian vanilla extract?”
“That actually sounds really good.”
“It’s excellent,” Kevin piped up from his seat on the floor, “especially with brandy in it.”
“Well, you’ve got a regular party happening here, don’t you, Castle?” Kate said, gesturing to Alexis, Martha, Kevin and Javier enjoying the Uno game.
Rick shrugged, a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. “I guess I have a reputation for responding to adversity with board games and alcohol. I’ll get you that hot chocolate. Make yourselves comfortable and I’ll be right back.”
“What brought you here, Lanie? I know Ryan and Esposito think Castle’s more fun than a litter of puppies, but you?”
“Honestly? His liquor cabinet. Well, that plus heat rises and he’s like, forty floors up.”
“And he has a gas stove!” Kate put in, looking around to make sure Rick wasn’t listening in, “Everything in my place is electric. I’d be eating cold cereal and going to bed early if I’d gone home,” she kept her eye on Rick, who dug a clean spoon out of the silverware drawer and tasted the hot chocolate, then paused before rummaging through the cabinets.
“What’s he up to?” Lanie asked.
“I don’t know,” said Kate, “and that makes me nervous. I’m gonna go check.”
They parted with a smile. Kate entered the kitchen in time to see Rick pouring a trickle of creme de menthe into the saucepan.
“Tweaking your recipe?”
“Just trying to preserve the delicate chocolate-mint balance. My mother keeps throwing it off with the brandy. What do you think?” he took out a fresh spoon and offered her a taste.
“Wow. That’s pretty damned adult hot chocolate, Castle.”
“So? We’re legal.”
Kate tilted her head in acknowledgment. "I guess there's no danger of anyone hitting the roads in the pitch black."
"Just hunker down somewhere warm and enjoy it," he told her. "I'm gonna put some snacks together for the gang, I'll be right out."
She took the opposite end of the couch from Martha, and joined in The Uno game. A few minutes later Castle arrived with a platter of cheese and crackers and fat red grapes, which he held for her and Martha before setting it on the floor next to the cards. That done, he settled on the couch next to her.
As soon as he did, the lights came on. “Oh, man!” said Alexis, “I just pulled into the lead!”
“I just got my hot chocolate,” Kate said mournfully, “and I probably shouldn’t drink it now. It’ll be a madhouse on the subway.”
“Fear not,” Rick said, rising from the couch with a flourish, “I can solve this problem in a flash.” With that he made the rounds of the apartment, turning all the lights off. Everyone cheered; he stopped briefly in the kitchen before reclaiming his place next to Kate.
“Here,” he said, brandishing the packet of marshmallows, “I forgot to give you yours.”
She shook one out and dropped it into her cup, stirring it around with the candy-cane. She took a long sip and melted into the cushions. “Oh my god. This is perfect!”
“Yeah,” said Rick, settling his arm across the couch so it was almost around her shoulders, “it’s perfect.”