"We need to take him down," Tara growled as she paced a groove in her apartment's expensive wooden flooring with her pacing.
"He's too powerful. Next time, we may not be lucky to get away with just a beating," Willow pointed out.
Tara threw her hands up. "We have to do something. He needs to be exposed as the criminal that he is," she fumed. "Not to mention we have to rescue Lily."
Willow was just as angry, and worried. But she had to be the voice of reason -- Wilkins had threatened her verbally, and hurt Tara physically. But unlike Tara he had not betrayed her trust and loyalty. She knew the sort of person he was when her dealings with him started, but Tara was brought up to believe that he was a good person. That Tara was livid was not unexpected. "I know, Baby. But we need to be careful. We don't have physical strength, or even strength in numbers. We have to be smart."
"I know, I know." Tara's pacing picked up.
Willow looked at the pitiful amount of evidence they had. It wasn't enough to pinpoint anything on the ex-mayor. "What's the source of his power?" she asked, thinking aloud.
"Money," Tara said simply.
Willow's brilliant mind kicked into fifth gear. "Then we follow the money. He must have a weakness somewhere we can exploit."
"Aside from the shell companies that he oh so conveniently has me as fall-guy?" Tara said bitterly.
"No. More than that. We need to break things down. Start with the two million dollar and wires. Why Albania? That has to be the key." Willow was in full thinking mode now. "We need to do research. He's dirty, I can feel it in my bones. Insider trading is too obvious, he's not doing it through me. Gambling ... that's a possibility. He probably has bent cops and politicians lined up in his pocket. But we're back to the why Albania question. Terrorism? Oh, gods. Money laundering, he's up to his neck in money--"
"You're talking to yourself, hon," Tara interrupted.
Willow looked up sheepishly. "Yeah," she smiled.
"I'll leave you to it," Tara said.
Willow's mind had already re-started and she was furiously making notes.
Tara listened to Willow's pen scratching on the yellow legal pad while she did her own thinking.
"Faith," she said suddenly.
"Yes. Major skanky bitch. Hate her," Willow looked up from her work.
Tara stopped pacing. "Albania. She has connections there. Brags about being related to big landowners, presidents and generals. We ignore her because no one knows anything about Albania and because it's, you know, her."
"Possibly. He may be using her connections," Willow mused. "What does it have to do with Lily?"
"I think she saw or heard something," Tara paused. Then took a deep breath. "Will, we need help. If this is international fraud, we don't have the resources."
Willow tapped her pen in thought. "What about Detective Lockley?"
Tara shook her head. "I don't know. She doesn't seem to have the jurisdiction."
"Let's call Buffy," Willow said. "I trust her to keep this quiet. She'll know what to do."
"Wow. Tara. Wow." Buffy couldn't stop grinning at Tara.
Willow rolled her eyes. "Are you sure you're not related to Xander in some way?" she asked her friend.
The Special Agent-in-training laughed. "He wishes. I just can't believe it. You two. Wow."
Willow waved her hand in front of Buffy's awestruck face. "Cut it out, Buffy. We're together. Very happily together. You get first dibs who you want to be bridesmaid for, as long as it's me. Move along." She could joke with Buffy. Buffy was the first person she told about her feelings toward Tara, and her pillar of support when all she felt was depression.
"Right. What's the sitch?" Buffy's game face came on and she was all business.
They had taken the shuttle down to Washington DC to meet Buffy, who looked trim and fit. Buffy was staying at dorms in Quantico and, upon hearing Willow's brief summary, had arranged for them to meet in the offices of a security consultant friend of hers. It was Saturday, when only a skeleton staff was in resident. "Besides, they're very professional. No one will ask any questions," she added.
Willow and Tara took turns recounting the events and suspicions. Buffy sat quietly listening, stopping them to ask frequent questions.
"I pulled everything I could find," Buffy said when they finished, taking out a thick file marked 'Confidential' and flipping it open for their benefit. "Being a politician it's easy for a student agent to retrieve his information, for the purpose of a term paper of course," she winked. "There are a lot of allegations but nothing solid that the bureau can use to build a case for arrest. There are annotations in his file that the money trail will probably be the most enlightening, but short of subpoenaing a foreign government or going through his bank accounts ..." she spread her hands.
"I have some luck in that department," Willow added. "Focusing on a specific amount, I tracked it in and out of his account. It came in through an auction house in New York for the sale of several paintings. It went out to a bunch of accounts in Albania, like I told you."
"How come your bank hasn't reported this?" Buffy frowned.
Willow hung her head in self-reproach. "He was wiring to charities and he is a registered foreign investor in Albania. I should have put my foot down for additional due diligence, but I was over-ruled by my boss. I know, not an excuse, but there wasn't enough wrong-doing other than to file a standard SAR."
"This seems to be his MO, and why he keeps slipping under the radar," Buffy pointed out.
Willow was relieved not to have been told off by her friend. "There's more. A few payments were made to individuals. I don't recognize the names, may be you can."
Buffy read the list of names Willow handed over. "Not familiar. But I can run these through the NCIC database."
"Can you do that safely?" Tara asked.
Buffy nodded. "Yep, it's routine. I'll also see what I can do with this auction house and these Albanian accounts." She looked at her watch. "Got to go now, meet me back here tomorrow morning?"
"I wish I can help you look," Willow fidgeted.
Buffy took one look at her two anxious friends. Dark circles and frown lines. Not good. "Why don't you try to see if you can dig up some info on that particular auction. Find out who the dealer was, what was sold. It should be on the internet."
Tara smiled gratefully at Buffy, knowing that she had given the duo a time-consuming task to defray their nerves. They spent the rest of the day researching. Dinner was at their hotel and they retired to their room early. Even their lovemaking was overshadowed by anxiety and it was quick and stilted. Afterwards all they had left was to cuddle close and fall into a fitful sleep.
"Dmitri Balthazar. Damn, this is big," Buffy said as she strode into the meeting room next morning. "Oooh, doughnuts. You have jelly?"
Willow and Tara were already there, having brought breakfast. Buffy helped herself to the calorie-ridden pastry while her two friends read the file she brought in.
"How big?" Tara asked.
"Art dealer. Shady. Suspicion for fraud and smuggling but only one conviction for passing a bad check," Buffy said between bites.
"And the same one who handled that sale," Willow leaved through the research and found the relevant pages.
"Yep. So why is he representing a no-talent artist, why is Richard Wilkins buying and selling paintings from the same artist and why are so many other people wanting to buy them?" Buffy pointed to several color print-outs.
Tara looked at printed versions of the paintings that formed a large part of the group that had changed hands for $2 million. She wasn't an artist herself but had enough appreciation of fine art to realize those were bad works of art. Spots and splodges of paint on plain backgrounds had more in common with a bad home decoration job than something one would put in an art gallery.
"He will say it's part of his being an all-round philanthropist," Tara said.
"So this explains the incoming funds. But not the outgoing ones to Albania," Willow reiterated. She knew that the Albanian angle was significant, but she couldn't put a finger on why.
"Some of those names on your list are suspected to have connections to the Russian mafia, and one is a front for a European clearing house for stolen art," Buffy said.
They were stunned into silence. Stolen art was big business. They were in over their heads.
"I thought we'd catch him for some irregular accounting or insider trading; we report him to the SEC and he gets to be the new Martha Stewart. But art theft? Russian mafia?" Willow shook her head in disbelief.
"Everything seems to be pointing to an art angle," Buffy remarked. "Let's say he's trafficking in stolen artwork through his Albanian contacts. Balthazar helps him find buyers. He ships them hidden in a consignment of cheap paintings."
"We don't have any proof," Tara added, for the hundredth time.
"Not enough to go to the authorities. The bureau won't be interested," Buffy agreed.
Willow was staring into space, tapping her pen and deep in thought. Buffy and Tara exchanged a look and waited for the redhead's brain to churn out its conclusion.
Willow turned to Tara. "How long has he been interesting in the arts? I know when I asked him about this amount he gave me some spiel about investing in the arts being the newest trend."
"He's always been a collector, even when he was mayor. You may remember how he likes supporting local communities. He loves getting his picture in the papers with sick children sitting on his lap," Tara said.
Willow took the copies of the paintings and stared at them intently.
"Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Never heard of him," she mused. "Posh name. Lives in Greenwich. Must be loaded. Do you think we should check him out? Pretend to be journalists for one of the art magazines. Ask for an interview."
"That might work," Buffy said slowly. "But be careful, okay? If he's behind the attack on Tara and your friend's disappearance, he's dangerous. I'll help you out as much as I can. Call me, whatever time it is."
Willow nodded. They hugged each other as they said their good-byes. "We can't afford to make any mistakes. We'll be careful."