Wesley had six paintings in the auction. Willow matched three against possible missing pieces - a pair of 60" x 20" that came to a point and a small 3" x 3" - hundreds of thousands of paintings were lost or stolen and many of them had the same dimensions, it was like trying to find a needle in several haystacks.
"It's easy. I'll buy them all," Hallie announced when they updated her. She silenced their protests by simply pointing out that they couldn't let a single one get away. She declined Willow's offer to fund the purchases. "No. The money can't be traced to you. Besides, if we guessed right and even one contains a stolen painting, the finder's fee will cover my outlay on all of them."
The auction couldn't come soon enough, the days leading up to it were nightmarish in terms of waiting and apprehension. They debated whether to attend the auction in person, and decided they couldn't not go. Willow called Wesley to ask the artist to pretend he didn't recognize them, insinuating that they were working undercover for the event. She sweetened the request by dropping hints that she might be open to a dinner invitation if he played his cards right. Wesley, ever so gullible and with visions of himself as a tuxedo-clad James Bond entering Casino Royale with Ms Rosenby on his arm, enthusiastically agreed.
They slipped into the auction room at the last minute and found seats at the back, out of the sight of Wilkins and his cohorts. Aunt Hallie was seated strategically in the middle of the room, in direct sight of the auctioneer.
The auction itself was professional and quick-paced. A beginner would be caught completely unawares at the speed at which various lots were sold. They held their breath, trying not to move a muscle, until they realized the auctioneer had the uncanny ability to distinguish between an involuntary twitch and an imperceptible nod that signaled a competitive bid. Aunt Hallie was less subtle, as she slipped easily into her eccentric Duchess persona. Her bids were vociferous, and she turned to talk to her neighbor constantly, earning her irritated glances from Wilkins. He visibly scowled when she made her first bid on a Wyndam-Pryce and an uncharacteristic angry red flush spread over his face and neck when she won. She, on the other hand, gave him an icy look that would wither lesser men.
The second painting was the 3" x 3" and bidding was fierce. It was soon clear that Hallie's competition was a clean cut man in his late-twenties, who, by the third round of bidding, was perspiring freely and was talking fiercely into his cellphone. Innocent onlookers were oblivious, but Willow and Tara noticed Wilkins quietly shake his head at the auctioneer in some sort of secret signal. The auctioneer in turn caught the eye of the bidder who slumped dramatically to indicate he had reached the top of his bid. Aunt Hallie won that round.
Plus two subsequent paintings easily. Probably decoys with nothing hidden.
By the time the twin panels were brought out, the tension in the air was so palpable that there was a collective intake of breath when the two pieces were uncovered. Bidding was intense, bordering on frenzied.
"I don't care if they look horrendous. If the Duchess of Albemarle is after them, I need to try to get my hands on them too," one dealer was overheard to be saying.
The auctioneer was giving his introduction when Willow's cellphone vibrated. She growled inwardly, annoyed at the timing of the caller, until she saw Buffy's name on the caller display. She excused herself and quickly made her way to the outside lobby.
"What's up, Buffy? The auction is getting to be interesting," she said.
Buffy's voice was apologetic. "I'm sorry Will. I tried, but they can't get a warrant to search the premises."
Willow felt disappointment hit her like a ton of bricks. "Well, hopefully Aunt Hallie can do better. She's bought all the ones so far, so if they have hidden treasures she'll call the police immediately," she said. It wasn't perfect, because there would be inevitable delays after the auction was finished.
"I have something else," Buffy said. "Remember Wilkins was talking to someone called Dawn? It may be a coincidence but he was the legal guardian of one Tyrol Dawn Knudsen. She's nineteen now, and lives in New Jersey - apparently they still keep in touch."
"Wow, he sure likes them young."
"I don't think she is involved in the club side of his business, otherwise Tara will have come across her before, right? Someone went to a lot of lengths to cover her background, even in the FBI databases. But I found out she's the daughter of Heinrich Knutzhorn. He's a master forger, now serving thirteen years in a Virginia prison."
"A forger. Do you think it's a coincidence?" Willow asked, though she knew it was a rhetorical question.
Buffy laughed as she too thought Willow was asking the obvious. "In the FBI we are trained that coincidences don't exist. If there is no correlation between Richard Wilkins, Dawn Knudsen and the art Tara's aunt is about to own, I'll eat my hat. And you can choose which one."
Willow's mind was again at work. "He said something about bringing the originals and enjoying them. Buffy, do you think that he has Dawn Knudsen making forgeries and selling them to his buyers as originals? The buyers can't do anything because they're stolen. It's the perfect scam."
"If that's true, Tara's aunt is about to pay thousands of dollars for fakes."
"I have to warn her. I'll call you later."
Willow hung up and hurried back to the auction room. She quickly told Tara the developments and they tried to catch Hallie's attention. To no avail, she was on the verge of winning the current bid, against stiff competition from the young man. A few buyers had entered the fray but had dropped out.
The room erupted into spontaneous clapping when, with a dejected shake of his head, the young man conceded defeat to a clearly triumphant Hallie. She beamed amid the whoops and whistles unbecoming of a posh auction room. Wilkins by that time looked like he was about to implode. He had to swallow the explosion when the defeated bidder marched up to within inches of him and started gesticulating furiously. Wesley, standing on the podium next to Travers, had the drunken look of someone who had just won the lottery. Quentin Travers looked confused and, in the absence of instructions, rapped his gavel repeatedly to restore order. No one listened and he declared a recess to anyone who was paying attention.
Hallie strode confidently to the podium and held out her hand. It took Travers a few seconds to gather his wits before taking it shakily and touching the knuckles stiffly with his lips. She turned to Wesley and his greeting was so exuberant, he looked like he was about to fall on his knees in supplication.
Tara took Willow by the hand and started to make their way closer. Even from halfway down the room they heard the loud "What?" from Travers followed by Hallie's "NOW, Mr Travers."
Travers hummed and hawed, and finally caught Wilkins' attention. The ex-mayor deflected the young man's attention toward Balthazar and joined Travers and Hallie.
"Is there a problem?" Hallie the Duchess asked condescendingly. "It's perfectly reasonable for a buyer to view art they just acquired, Mr Travers. Especially art that one bought out of, shall we say, a whim. They do look awfully frivolous, but one felt enormously drawn towards them."
"I understand, Your Grace. It's just that we, um, our regular facilities are out of commission today. Um, we had a failure in our, um, air conditioning system and we don't want to place such valuable pieces in those condition. Why don't I arrange for your acquisitions to be brought to your hotel today?" Travers said, desperately trying to backpedal.
"I'm quite sure we can do the inspection in your storage facilities. I brought my own expert with me," she indicated a tall unsmiling man in a three piece tweed suit, monocle firmly placed over one eye. The man had been sitting next to her throughout the auction. "Professor D'Hoffryn from the Bucharest Academy, I'm sure his reputation precedes him."
"Pleased to meet you, professor," Travers muttered and held out his hand.
Professor D'Hoffryn snapped his heels together and greeted the auctioneer in a stiff, Central European accent. "Charmed."
Hallie pushed just a little more. "The professor's time is valuable and so is mine," she said imperiously.
Travers wrung his hands together, looking very flustered. Lucky for him, Wilkins interrupted. "Gosh Travers, you should agree to the Duchess' request. I've been back to your storerooms, they're quite acceptable. In fact," he turned to Hallie, "with Your Grace's permission, I will accompany you to the inspection. I have the pleasure of being Wyndam-Pryce's sponsor and I'd like to tell you a little more about what I think of his work."
If Hallie was surprised at the development, she didn't show it. She smiled curtly at Wilkins. "Do lead the way, Mr Wilkins."
"I wish I can go with them," Willow said as she watched Hallie, Professor D'Hoffryn, Travers, Wilkins and Wesley disappear into the back corridors of the auction house.
"It'll be too suspicious. We'll just have to wait this out," Tara tried to commiserate. She shared the same feeling, and on top of this she was worried about her aunt's safety. She didn't know if D'Hoffryn was friend or foe. Hallie said she would bring "an acquaintance" but didn't elaborate on the identity of the tall man with her.
The auction room was nearly empty now. Shortly after the defeated bidder and Dmitri Balthazar also made their way inside; their altercation seemed to have come to a peaceful conclusion.
The minutes dragged on, with no activity. The wait was pure agony.
Tara leafed through a brochure but couldn't take in a single word.
They discussed calling Buffy but decided against it.
They strained their ears for the sound of sirens. If Hallie had discovered the real paintings according to plan, she would call the police.
More minutes passed.
Everything was quiet.
Finally Willow's patience wore out. "I'm gonna die if I don't go see what's going on."
Tara bit her lip and cautioned. "It's dangerous, Will."
Willow put on her resolve face. "It's not like it's Fort Knox. Worse case scenario is someone tells us off for going into private facilities. We apologize profusely and leave," she said.
Truth was, Tara was impatient too. "Okay, let's go."
They went through a door that said "Private - No Entry." They peered into offices and work rooms, finding nothing suspicious. When they heard sounds of approaching footsteps they grabbed a file and pretended to be having a discussion. The employee didn't give them a second glance.
They came to a door marked "Storerooms - Temperature Control in Operation" that opened up to a modern corridor lined with steel doors with sophisticated looking keypads at the side wall.
One of the doors was ajar and they shared a look before pushing against it gingerly. It was dim but what they could see caused them to drop all sense of stealth and rush inside.
An unconscious Professor D'Hoffryn was lying on the floor, broken frames and wooden crates all around him. There was no sign of Travers, Wilkins, Wesley or, most importantly, Aunt Hallie.