Buffy confirmed the identity of the third man as Quentin Travers. The Travers auction house came out clean in her investigation. It was not unexpected: if the enterprise was following the "small deals, don't rock the boat" operating model, the vast majority of the company's transactions would be legitimate.
The identity of Dawn was more difficult to ascertain, with no image, no voice and no last name to go on. Buffy sent Willow a list of possibilities based on geographic and temporal proximity to Wilkins, Balthazar and Travers as well as link, however tenuous, to the art world.
Willow spent many hours at her laptop while Tara returned to work. Her time off was coming to an end and she requested an extension, which Patrick approved far too readily. She realized her first task when she returned to work was probably to pre-empt Patrick and hand in her resignation letter. Truth was, she couldn't face going back to the desk. The world of high finance and gambling other people's money had lost its luster and excitement. She had a good idea what she could be doing with the rest of her life, and it involved spending as much time as she could with Tara. With everything that had happened in recent weeks, work was the furthest from her mind.
She opened up the webpage for Travers & Son, it was her daily check on whether Wesley's paintings had been added to the catalog. Only once she had an idea of the dimensions could she match them against online databases of missing art. She and Tara talked about what they could do to bring Wilkins and gang to justice. It seemed like the best way was to figure out which of Wesley's paintings were fronts for stolen works and tip off Buffy so she could get the FBI involved. Buffy wasn't sure she could convince her superiors but she would give it her best shot. They had no idea how to rescue Lily, but the head cook was still sending two trays of food a day, so she was probably safe in a way. Tara tried to ask Luke casually, but the silent big man was not forthcoming.
The Wyndam-Pryces hadn't been added although there was a teaser to the effect that several lots would be available. Willow absently surfed the site to look for anything new. Her eyes came to a stop further down the page and she did a double-take. Interesting.
By the time Tara got home Willow was so restless with waiting that she pounced on the blonde before she even stepped over the threshold.
"Ooof. You really missed me, didn't you?" Tara said, shedding her coat and throwing it onto the chair in the hallway.
"No. Oh no, no, I don't mean no. Um well, of course I missed you," Willow backtracked.
Tara's eyes narrowed. "But?"
Willow bounced in excitement. "I saw something interesting. Not exactly pertinent to the case, well it could be. May be, I dunno. Anyway it's interesting, in an interesting sort of way."
Tara took Willow by the hand. Willow was obviously up to something, her distracted babbling attested to that. "Lead the way, Sherlock."
It was the same website Willow had been checking. Tara thought that finally Wesley's paintings were in the catalog. But it wasn't the case. Willow scrolled down and indicated that she should look at the page. She didn't see it immediately, but when she did and couldn't help but slump down on the nearest chair.
"Oh my god," was all Tara could utter.
"I take it you haven't been in touch?" Willow asked directly.
Tara shot her a look that said 'what do you think?' "No," she clarified. "But it could be nothing. She is an antiques dealer."
"There's a viewing tomorrow, may be we should go. Case the joint," Willow's excitement hadn't abated.
Tara sat up in mild alarm. "But we don't want them to see us."
"Travers doesn't know who we are. If Wesley is there, we're his favorite reporters following up on his article," Willow reasoned.
Tara felt a little uneasy, but couldn't see any flaw in the logic. Perhaps her apprehension wasn't at the case, but at the prospect of facing yet another unknown. There had been too many unexpected events lately. She stared at the screen glumly.
Upcoming events: Charity Auction
"Wow, Aunt Hallie. What a blast from the past."
The auction house was more casual than they expected. As the world transitioned from old money dominance to new money influence, many of the traditional pretensions were falling by the wayside. The scruffy twenty-something in everyday work shirt could easily outbid the gentlewoman in a three-strand pearl necklace. Perhaps even several times over.
The display of items for sale, however, reflected the opulence and craftsmanship of the era they were produced. A crowd had gathered around the highlight of the evening's viewing - diamonds, gold, silver, sapphires, emeralds were housed under large glass cases, an impassive security guard standing next to each one.
Tara had searched the room for Hallie upon arrival but it was too crowded to pick out individual faces. She hadn't seen her aunt for so long, she wasn't sure if she would recognize her or vice versa.
Willow's comforting arm at the small of her back saved her from turning around and leaving. "Let's try to enjoy ourselves. Get a feel of the atmosphere," Willow suggested.
Tara nodded and they mingled and listened to the small talk of collectors and dealers proliferating in the room.
She shouldn't have worried. Her aunt hadn't changed. A little plumper and with more gray in her hair, but her commanding presence turned heads wherever she walked.
They kept in the background, observing and learning.
Hallie was smiling and talking to a group of dealers when her eyes looked across the room and locked with Tara's. A smile of surprise came unbidden to the older woman's face and she waved at Tara to come over.
"Tara! Dear lord, is it really you?" she exclaimed.
Tara blushed. "Yes it's me."
"Look how you've grown. And so beautiful." Hallie pulled Tara into a tight embrace, then letting her go, appraised her with a broad smile. "I always knew you'd do well for yourself. What are you doing here?"
Tara couldn't help but warm to the older woman's obvious affection.
"We've never been to a charity auction before and thought it'd be interesting." They had talked about their cover for the event, and decided the truth was always the best option.
Aunt Hallie's eyes twinkled. "We?"
Willow was standing unobtrusively behind her, and Tara pulled her forward. "You remember Willow?"
"How can I not? It's been a long time, Willow," she said, just as warmly, and shook Willow's hand. Tara took Willow's hand and kept it in hers.
The intimate gesture didn't escape the eagle eyes of Hallie. She smiled pointedly at the two young women. "You two?" And laughed at the matching blushes that erupted on their faces. "I'm so happy to see you. We must catch up," she continued.
Other people were lining up to talk to her, so they arranged to meet the next day. She invited Willow and Tara to her hotel for tea, just like all those years ago.
Different time, different place, but nothing had changed. The china was still from England, the cutlery was from Germany and waiters paraded about in penguin suits.
Hallie listened intently as Tara recounted an abbreviated, older-relative-friendly, version of her life's progress since they last met. It was like coming full circle. The last time they had tea together, Hallie opened up a whole new world for two fifteen year olds. Now, almost ten years later, they were living in that new world.
"You work for Richard Wilkins?" Hallie asked. Both Willow and Tara noted her dark cloud that passed over her features at the mention of his name.
"Yes. He offered me a job in New York. I'm a general administrator for his organization. Aunt Hallie, is there something wrong?" Tara asked, concerned at her aunt's look.
Hallie thought for a long time before answering slowly. "I don't want to be disrespectful to your boss, Tara. But you do know what business he is in?"
Tara nodded. She wanted to add that she was one of the people who contributed to his success in New York.
"Be careful," Hallie said. Something was clearly on her mind, but she wasn't sure how much she could reveal.
Willow raised one eyebrow at Tara, whose thoughts had retreated far away.
An unbidden air of unease descended upon them.
"Is, is there some history between you and him?" she asked.
Hallie took a sip of her tea before answering. "Let's just say there is no love lost between us," she said simply. "The world of business is full of thorns, it's when things turn personal that makes it harder to stomach."
Tara looked back at Willow and her mouth pursed as she made up her mind. She indicated her left arm, still in its plaster cast. "He did this," she said.
"Broke your arm?" Hallie's eyes raised in alarm. She frowned as a myriad of different scenarios flashed through her mind. "He's unscrupulous, but doesn't strike me as the violent type. You weren't his ..." she left the question handing in the air.
"Well, he doesn't get his own hands dirty," Tara snorted ruefully. "Um, Aunt Hallie, can I trust you?"
The older woman leaned forward and placed one hand gently on Tara's. "You've already decided you can. I know I've been badly derelict in my duties as your aunt, I intend to remedy this as much as I can. Do you need something, child?"
"Are you really the Duchess of Albemarle?" Tara blurted.
If Hallie was taken aback at the sudden digression, she was too poised to show it. She did, however, laugh heartily. "Dear girl, no. The peerage has been extinct since 1688."
Willow's curiosity finally snapped. "So you're pretending?!"
"Why of course, my dear."
The matter-of-factness of that declaration stunned them into silence.
After a few seconds, the tension broke and they burst out laughing, attracting irritated looks from the other patrons at the posh hotel.
"So tell me about what Wilkins did to you," Hallie turned serious after the laughter died down.
For the second time that afternoon Tara found herself playing narrator for her life's story but this time without the careful edits. She told Hallie about Willow's suspicion about Wilkins' activities, Detective Lockley's warning and how she was beaten up because she was nosing around. After a brief wordless affirmation from Willow, she described how they followed the money trail and their hunch about the true nature of Wesley's paintings.
Hallie again listened with rapt attention, but without interruption. After Tara finished, she poured herself a cup of tea and took a few sips before regarding first Tara, then Willow, with a penetrating gaze.
"You need my help," she remarked.
"Without reasonable doubt and suspicion, the FBI won't get involved. They may take your allegations seriously, but they'll handle the investigation their way and this means rushing into it like a bull in a china shop. They may as well hang bells on their necks. You'll be lucky if they find a shipment invoice," Hallie said.
"Wilkins and his cohorts need to be caught red-handed. This means they almost have to be holding the stolen paintings in their hands when the feds come through the door."
"That's our plan," Willow pointed out.
"There's a difference. Your plan is to inform the FBI after the sale. They'll then have to intercept the buyers and search them. They can't do that without a warrant - who is going to get that for them? Even if they believed you, by the time they get a judge to sign off, the buyers would have taken the paintings to Belgium already."
"We'll think of a way," Willow said with determination.
"What do you mean by we need your help?" Tara asked.
"You need someone to outbid his buyers. And when the successful buyer demands an inspection of the paintings, they accidentally discover the real contents and call the police."
They were smart, they understood what Aunt Hallie was offering straight-away. "No! We won't put you at risk, Aunt Hallie," Tara insisted.
"Why would I be at risk? It's perfectly reasonable to ask for a viewing after purchase."
"Are you sure? They're dangerous people. If they discover what we're up to -"
"- but they won't. And don't underestimate this old broad. I have a few tricks up my sleeve," Hallie smiled. "Besides, I have my own grudges to square with Wilkins. This is as much for me as for you."
"We won't argue," Tara said. She took her aunt's hand in hers. "Thank you, Aunt Hallie. Thank you."
Hallie placed her other hand on Tara's. "We're doing the right thing, Tara." She reached out to Willow. "And for you too, Willow. I'm happy you have each other, take good care of my niece."
Willow felt a lump in her throat at the older woman's words. "I will," she choked.
Hallie gathered them close to her. "There's one more thing. After this, you'll never be able to go back to him. Are you ready for this?"
Tara answered without hesitation. "Yes. There was a time when I would gladly follow him without question. But he abused my trust. I want nothing to do with him anymore."
It was settled then. They spent the rest of tea making plans before the conversation turned to other topics.