Faith, Oz, and Willow retraced their steps to the dining room and through the swinging doors Giles had passed through several hours before. They found themselves in a small, immaculately maintained butler's pantry, the shelves filled with neatly stacked dishes and cups. Another set of swinging doors led to the spacious kitchen, fully outfitted for use by a hotel or restaurant. The trio found numerous storage rooms, walk-in refrigerators and freezers, but found no sign of Giles. Ignoring the door that led out to the rear patio and gardens, they instead passed through a short corridor, off of which they discovered a large laundry room, and several empty servants' quarters. The last room on the hall was locked, but when Faith pounded repeatedly on the door, no answer came.
The three went back through the kitchen to continue their search of the ground floor, walking slowly through the library, sitting room, trophy room, ballroom, and finally the game room.
"Ooh, a pool table - who wants to take me on?" Faith enthused, throwing a ball hard against the bumper and watching it careen around the dark red felt.
"We're looking for Giles, Faith," Willow snapped. "We're not here to play games."
Faith placed her hands wide apart on the mahogany rails, leaning forward as she regarded the redhead. Despite the smile on the brunette's face, Willow felt an undercurrent of danger in the woman's stare.
"See, that's where you're wrong, Red," Faith teased, pushing herself away from the table and walking around it, trailing her hand over the polished wood. She circled it completely before coming to a stop in front of Willow, who thought uncomfortably of the documentary she'd watched several days before of the snow leopard stalking the lame jackrabbit. "I think games are what this place is all about. And I think you're playing us all."
"I already told you-" Willow started, trying to remain calm as she felt her face flush.
"Yeah, right... only I'm not buying it. Why don't you drop the innocent act. I notice you haven't opened your envelope, Red. Scared of what's in there?"
Willow felt unbridled rage rearing up inside her, and fought to suppress it in the wake of Faith's taunting. Oz stood silently throughout the exchange, not liking Faith's tactics, but fully recognizing his own curiosity to find out what the redhead's story was. When he saw the look of panicked anger on Willow's face, he stepped in.
"It's going to be dark soon. Should we look outside or wait til morning?"
Relieved by the interruption, Willow exhaled the breath she'd been holding.
"We haven't checked the rooms upstairs-maybe we should do that, and if he doesn't turn up by morning we can search the grounds."
"Sounds like a plan," Oz concluded softly, motioning for Willow to lead the way as he placed himself between her and Faith.
Upstairs they found another, smaller library and sitting room, as well as ten rooms on each wing. They went through each of the ten unoccupied rooms-three on the women's wing, seven on the men's-opening closets and bathrooms, but again found no evidence of Giles' presence. Upon returning downstairs, they noticed that the Great room was empty, and heard voices coming from the kitchen. Expecting to find the missing butler, they hurried to the room, but instead discovered the other guests, minus Dawn, preparing the leftovers from lunch for dinner.
"Any luck?" Xander inquired, his mouth full of reheated roast duck.
Willow simply shook her head. The hopeful faces of the others drooped and darkened as they returned their attention to their meals. No attempt at conversation was made as they half-heartedly picked at their food. As each finished eating, they drifted back into the Great room to congregate at the bar. Willow noted with chagrin that Tara retreated upstairs to her room, leaving the redhead and Buffy standing at the threshold of the dining room alone.
"I'm gonna go take some food to Dawn," Buffy stated suddenly, moving back to the kitchen.
Willow followed behind her, leaning forward over a counter top as the blonde loaded up a plate.
"How is she?"
"Really upset," Buffy sighed. "She wouldn't talk about it much, only that it happened a couple of years ago. Poor kid was only seventeen."
"None of this makes any sense," Willow exclaimed with a frustrated grimace. "Most of those things couldn't possibly be considered murder. Faith, maybe... and I don't know about Anya... and Riley."
"The cop?" Buffy asked, turning around with a chicken leg in her hand, her eyes wide with incredulity. "But he said-"
"I know what he said," Willow whispered, glancing over to the door quickly. "But I remember hearing a report of an unarmed suspect being gunned down in Cedar Rapids a year or so ago, and the cop being investigated for racial profiling. Then all of a sudden the story just disappeared... like it was hushed up."
"And you think-"
"I'm just saying there could be more to it than what he told us."
Buffy eyed the redhead warily before turning back to her task.
"I guess none of us can really know who's telling the truth and who isn't," she murmured as she picked up the plate and walked out of the room.
Willow did not miss the clear inference in the seemingly casual remark. She unconsciously reached into her back pocket and felt the folded envelope there.
"I guess not," she spoke to the empty room.
Tara closed the door softly behind her and sat down at the desk. She opened her envelope with shaking fingers and pulled out a single card of heavy stock, completely filled on both sides. As she read through the single-spaced typescript, tears formed and silently fell to the page, smearing the ink slightly. The "facts" of her case were laid out as bullet points, and while no source was listed for the information, Tara immediately recognized the insinuations and half-truths as those made by a particularly vindictive reporter. Entirely absent from the report were the years of abuse suffered by Tara and her mother at the hands of Donald and Donald, Junior. Also missing was any mention of Tara's mother's death, ostensibly from a fall down the basement stairs. Tara had seen the "accident," however. Several months later, when they came for her, she knew the murderous look in their eyes, and was prepared. That their mysterious host chose to include only the most damning information filled Tara with a dread she hadn't felt since the split second before she fired the first shotgun blast into her father's stomach. Moving to the bed, she curled up against the headboard, clutching a pillow and rocking nervously.
Willow stepped out the back door off the kitchen and breathed in the fresh, cool air. Strands of party lights hung around the patio, unlit and unnecessary under the light of the full moon. She extracted the envelope from her pocket and opened it hesitantly. Stepping away from the shadows of the house, Willow tilted the card and held it close to her face in order to read the small print. The redhead's forehead creased as she read the card, her eyes darting over the words that barely registered in her mind.
Oh my god... if this is true... I have to find out...
Willow hurried back inside and up the stairs before she realized she had no access to the Internet. Hesitating at the top of the stairs, she listened to the laughter and clinking glasses from downstairs.
Okay, Willow, you can go back down and join the drunken revelry, or you can try to talk to the one person who's really been nice to you, and who you totally offended, and should therefore apologize to... and hey, if she wants to talk, commiserate, maybe snuggle, well that's okay too. Her decision obvious, the redhead tread quietly to the door.
The antique grandfather clock struck midnight, making Xander jump and stare bleary-eyed in its general direction. The last of the others had retired to bed an hour ago, physically exhausted after their long journeys, mentally exhausted by the events on the island. Swaying toward the staircase, Xander instead veered off through the front door, barely making it off the front steps before he vomited violently into the bushes. Standing unsteadily, he wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve and walked further onto the lawn, taking in huge gulps of oxygen. Deciding that the fresh air would do him good, he staggered around the side of the house and found a rack of bicycles. Pulling out the first one, he struggled to climb onto the vehicle, ripping the cuff of his pant leg on the chain. In the full moon light, he could make out the dirt bike path leading away from the mansion, back down the hill toward the dock. He pedaled slowly, closing his eyes as the cool breeze washed over him, clearing his head. The bike picked up speed on the downward slope, and as he entered the woods, Xander blinked into the darkness, frantically seeking out the path's course. He barely noticed the fork in the path until it was on him, and he realized with horror that a person was standing in the junction, blocking the left lane. He jerked the handlebars to the right, narrowly avoiding a collision with the hooded figure and chuckling at his own panic as he felt the ground level off. His relief at seeing the wide-open expanse before him turned to confusion as he felt the bike fall away below his legs. His alcohol-soaked brain had little time to process that he was falling as well, and he was barely able to choke out a sharp cry before he smashed into the rocks at the bottom of the sheer cliff.
Two hundred feet above, a hooded figure leaned over the edge of the precipice to look at the tangled mass of limbs lying several yards from the mangled bicycle. When there had been no sound or movement after several minutes the figure moved silently away, remaining hidden in the trees until approaching a carefully camouflaged door at the side of the house.