Willow looked anxiously around the hall before knocking softly on the door. Leaning forward a little, she could hear shuffling feet approach and pause. The redhead held her breath as she waited. After a long moment, the door opened a crack, and Willow found herself staring into troubled blue eyes.
"Tara... I just wanted to see if you were okay."
"Good - that's good. I just thought, if you, you know, wanted to talk at all..." Willow trailed off, looking at the blonde hopefully. Tara made no move to open the door, and looked sadly at the redhead before dropping her eyes to the floor.
"I'm fine," she repeated. "I'm just going to try to get some sleep. Goodnight," she said, her voice wavering slightly as she closed the door. Willow's shoulders drooped when she heard the lock click, and she turned toward her own room.
Settling down at the large oak desk, the redhead pulled out her laptop, intending to document the disturbing events of the day. She looked at the blank screen as her mind drifted, recalling in detail everything that had happened since her arrival on the island.
The walk from the boat had been pleasant, with Giles pointing out the local foliage, the hiking trails, and the bike path that circumnavigated the island. The narrowness of the path made it difficult to get much of a look at her fellow passengers, but Willow's attention had immediately been drawn to the shy blonde who walked behind Giles, listening attentively to his commentary.
As the jungle gave to way to carefully manicured lawn, the guests got their first view of the mansion sitting atop a gently sloping hill and Giles gave the group a moment to take in the impressive sight before encouraging them on. The grey stone walls topped with turrets looked more like an English castle than a tropical resort, an impression that was only magnified upon entry into the house. The rich paneling adorning the Great room and halls was clearly not from native trees. Oriental rugs, antique tapestries, and huge wrought iron chandeliers adorned the interior. Directly across from the entry hall, a ten foot wide, red carpeted staircase led to the second floor, where it curved and branched to the left and right galleries.
Giles showed the guests to their rooms, the three men to the West wing, the seven women to the East. After informing them that their bags would arrive shortly, and that the lunch gong would sound in half an hour, the butler retreated to the kitchen.
Willow had waited for her luggage before heading downstairs, intending to locate Giles and ask him about the island's history. However, when she reached the ground floor and was unable to find the man, she wandered into the library to wait for the others. The room was well stocked, but the redhead was annoyed to find all of the bookcases locked. Despite the beauty of the island and the luxurious accommodations, Willow felt decidedly ill at ease, not least in part from learning that she had unknowingly been locked in her cabin on the boat. At the sound of voices, she walked back into the hall, unconsciously pulling a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket as she looked up at the paintings gracing the walls.
"I'm sorry Miss Rosenberg, but there's no smoking in the Manor," Giles spoke from behind the redhead, who spun around at the sound of his voice.
"I'm not smoking," she snapped irritably.
The butler nodded curtly before moving to sound the gong for lunch. Willow frowned and turned away, bumping directly into the blonde, who smiled warmly at her.
"Trying to quit?"
"Uh, yeah," Willow admitted, "five weeks already and it still sucks."
Tara moved closer, causing the redhead's breath to hitch as she took in the piercing blue eyes.
"Do you want to know what helps?" the blonde asked, and at Willow's nod moved in to whisper, "you just have to find something else to keep your fingers and mouth occupied."
Willow stood frozen as the woman walked away to the dining room, turning once to wink at the redhead, who regained her senses and followed a moment later.
Lunch was served buffet style, with a wide assortment of delicacies from around the world represented. As the last of the guests took their seats, Giles began filling their wine glasses.
"So where exactly is our host, Giles?" Riley asked, as several others murmured in agreement.
"I am to inform you that my employer will contact you in the Great room following your meal."
"You keep saying 'my employer,'" Cordelia pointed out. "Don't you know his name?"
"No, actually, I don't," Giles replied, avoiding the stunned expressions directed at him while he concentrated on pouring. "I've never met him... or her."
"You don't even know if you work for a man or a woman?" Buffy asked in disbelief.
"It's a man," Anya insisted. "My invitation was signed by a man - a Matt Sekhmet or something. Otherwise I certainly wouldn't-" the woman cut herself off abruptly while the others nodded at the familiar name.
"This is ridiculous," Riley declared, pushing himself back from the table and standing to confront Giles. "You tell your 'employer' to show himself, or I'll-"
"You'll what, Officer Finn?" the butler snapped, staring down the larger man. "There are no phones on the island, nor will your cell phones work - Miss Chase," he directed pointedly. "The next boat will not be arriving until Friday, and it's a bit of a swim back to Peru."
"Just what the hell are you telling us, Jeeves?" Faith interjected.
"I'm saying that we are all stuck here, my employer will appear when he or she sees fit, and there's no point in getting huffy with me over it. Now if you'll kindly sit down and finish your lunch, Mr. Finn, you may get some of your questions answered shortly."
Giles stalked out of the room, slamming through the swinging door to the kitchen as the guests stared mutely after him. They remained silent for some minutes, their food ignored as the full impact of the man's words sunk in.
"Huh," Oz stated after a moment.
"Well," Xander offered, clearing his throat. "As long as we're all stuck here-"
"I'm not stuck anywhere, pal. I'm gonna get to the bottom of this if it's the last thing I do."
"Okay... settle down... Finn, is it? All I'm saying is that we're all in the same situation, we might as well introduce ourselves, maybe figure out why we're all here, okay"
Various sounds of assent greeted the suggestion.
"Fine. Officer Riley Finn, Cedar Rapids Police Department. I was offered a position as head of security for this... well, they said it was a hotel."
"Security?" Willow inquired, sitting up straight.
"Yeah, why? Don't tell me that's why you're here too," Riley sneered, looking the diminutive woman up and down dismissively.
"No - well, yes - not like rough people up security... computer security... you know, safeguarding networks. I have a business in Seattle, but I was invited here for a freelance job. I'm Willow... Willow Rosenberg... is me."
"T-Tara Maclay," the blonde began, catching Willow's eye and smiling shyly. "I work at a battered women's shelter in Chicago. Mr. Sekhmet wanted to make a donation."
"You came all the way here for a check," Cordelia stated rather than asked.
"Um, well, it's a really big donation," Tara explained, ducking her head under the withering stare of the brunette.
"Whatever - I'm sure you all know who I am, but for the benefit of anyone living under a rock for the last few years, I am Cordelia Chase, and I'm here to shoot my new calendar."
"Xander Harris," the young man hastily jumped in, smiling at the model. "I'm in construction - I was asked to come out and take over the renovation of this place. Though there doesn't seem to be any going on, or in need, so now I'm just confused... and a little scared."
"Hi, I'm Buffy Summers from Sunnydale, California, and I won a vacation on some radio contest thingy... that I don't remember entering."
"OH! Me too! Oh, I'm Dawn Somerset, and I'm going to UCLA... go Bruins!"
Faith smirked at the enthusiastic coed.
"Faith... I just needed a place to crash."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Cordelia demanded archly.
"It means it's none of your business why I'm here, Princess."
"Oz," the spiky haired man uttered, sensing the growing tension. "Daniel Osbourne, actually, but people call me Oz. I'm here about a recording deal, but it's starting to not seem like such a good idea."
"I'm Anya - Anya Jenkins... I got that 'win a trip' thing too," she hastily added, nodding her head once at the sound of it.
"Well," Riley stated, "now that we know who we all are and why most of us are here, I say we go find out what the hell is going on."
"Shouldn't we w-wait for Mr. Giles?" Tara asked hesitantly.
"He's been gone a while," Buffy commented with a frown.
"He'll figure it out. He told us to go to the Great room after lunch, so I say we go," Riley decided, standing up and looking at the others, who one by one rose to follow him.
Upon entering the room, all eyes were immediately drawn to a large easel placed in front of the fireplace.
"That... wasn't there before," Willow commented.
Pinned to the back of the canvas resting on the easel was a large scroll, with carefully lettered calligraphy forming what appeared to be a poem. As they moved en masse to stand in front of the easel, Cordelia began to read aloud:
One strayed off the path and then there were nine.
Nine little murderers stayed up much too late,
One slept the day away and then there were eight.
Eight little murderers looking up at heaven,
One took a nasty spill and then there were seven.
Seven little murderers practicing their kicks,
One got a muscle cramp and then there were six.
Six little murderers poking at a hive,
One got stung to death and then there were five.
Five little murderers walking on the shore,
One got swept away and then there were four.
Four little murderers sitting down to tea,
One got a bitter brew and then there were three.
Three little murderers looking for a clue,
One found the evidence and then there were two.
Two little murderers thought the game was won,
One joined the other team and then there was one.
One little murderer seeing what they'd done,
Went and found a length of rope and then there were none.
Willow looked at the blank screen on her laptop, sighed, and shut it off. Moving to the bed, she curled up fully dressed, facing the door. The poem had been unsettling enough, but when they'd turned the painting around, all had been shocked to see a surprisingly accurate group portrait of the ten of them. Willow shuddered at the image and pulled the bedspread around her, feeling only a minimal degree of comfort in her makeshift cocoon. The uneasy stillness after viewing the painting had only lasted a moment before they were startled by a voice behind them.
"Now that I have your attention, ladies and gentlemen... let's talk about why you're here."