Continue to Lamplight Chapter Thirty-Four


Author: watson
Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: BtVS characters, concepts and dialog belong to Mutant Enemy, Fox, The WB, UPN and others.

Professor D'Hoffryn's account of the events would not have looked out of place in an action-adventure movie. Whether by accident or design, the detectives assigned to the case were Lockley and Gunn, and the professor found himself with an audience of four by his hospital bed.

He was indeed a professor of art. His specialty was looted art and artifacts from the Second World War, not exactly relevant but he had sufficient knowledge of art crimes to speak on the subject with confidence. He was also a dear friend of Hallie's and had been briefed about the possibility that the purchases would contain stolen paintings.

As planned, he inspected Wesley's paintings carefully while Travers and Wilkins stood watching. While Wilkins wore an impassive mask, Travers was a picture of agitation.

He had just uncovered one corner of a panel and was trying to determine if it was paint underneath when Dmitri Balthazar and the defeated bidder burst into the room. The young dealer - Professor D'Hoffryn heard Travers refer to him as Ben - began to accuse Travers of treachery, making references to a previous agreement to purchase the paintings. He spied Hallie and immediately offered to buy the paintings from her, citing that his foreign buyers would not take kindly to this development, and they should all fear for their lives.

Hallie staunchly refused to budge, Ben grew more hysterical, Travers tried to defend his position. A shouting match ensued, which led to pushing and shoving. Balthazar and Wilkins made half-hearted attempts to separate the two but were largely content to let Travers bore the brunt of Ben's fury. He appealed to them, but his pleas landed on deaf ears.

Wesley crouched in terror behind some crates.

In the meantime Professor D'Hoffryn had eased the canvas off the back of one of the panels. A frown spread over his normally impassive features. His next words brought the brawl to a sudden stop.

"This is a fake."

"What?" The chorus of several voices assaulted him as he stood up.

"Not this side, I doubt anyone would want to forge a Wyndam-Pryce," he said as he turned over the back of the panel to reveal an oil painting of a religious scene, the type that was seen in churches all over the world. "A Flemish diptych, stolen from a cathedral in Antwerp in the 1970s. Or rather, a very good copy; the forger really understands the Rubenseque style that seems to be what most 17th Century Flemish artists tried to emulate."

"What's that painting doing at the back of my painting?" Hallie exclaimed, as was her line.

"Fake?!" Ben shouted.

Travers and Balthazar had both paled. "No, it can't be," Travers tried to explain. "There's a perfectly good explanation for this."

Ben wasn't having any of this. Two words into his cellphone and seconds later reinforcements arrived in the form of a formidable petite blonde woman and a dozen small, masked men who positioned themselves in a half-circle around Ben and the blonde. It was as if they had been waiting outside for his signal.

Wilkins just had time to call for his troops and the sounds of fighting soon filled the normally quiet storeroom.

Somehow in the middle of it, someone pushed Professor D'Hoffryn to the ground and was scrambling for the paintings. He made a grab for one but wasn't strong enough. Someone else hit him on the head. The last thing he heard before blacking out was Hallie screaming for help and someone yelling "Get Artina!"

"There are no paintings matching your description at the scene," Detective Gunn said. "Wyndam-Pryce and Travers are in custody, but Wilkins and Balthazar have disappeared. As, um, Duchess Hallie."

"From the professor's description, the other party was a brother and sister duo by the name of Ben and Glory Keys. They represent high rollers from the Middle East and Asia - getting them into exclusive gambling rooms, providing escorts, that sort of stuff. Very well connected," Detective Lockley added. "And not the type of clients who will take well to someone selling them fake art."

Willow wore a half-smile. "Not good for Mr Wilkins. Why am I not sorry for him?"

"We don't know who Artina is though," Detective Gunn mused.

"It's a boat. That's the name of his yacht," Tara interjected. She slumped against Willow, haggard with worry about her aunt.

Kate Lockley sat down next to Tara and placed a gentle hand on Tara's arm. "We'll do everything we can to find her, Tara."

Tara sighed, closing her eyes to battle the onset of tears.

Willow bent down and brought Tara's chin up with her fingers. "Hey, I know what you're thinking. You are not to blame for what happened to your aunt. We'll find her. The police will find her, okay?"

Tara could only manage a sniff. Intellectually she understood what Willow was saying, but it didn't stop her from tearing herself up.

"Tara, I'm sorry for how we parted last time. Believe me when I say that Gunn and I will bust our asses to get to the bottom of this," Kate Lockley said fiercely. "They've gotten away with too much. I'll give anything to bring them in."

Tara nodded to Kate. "What do you think happened?"

Kate and Gunn traded exasperated looks. "We'll know more when the forensics come back. And the Artina angle is really going to be helpful. My guess is, he took the paintings and possibly your aunt to the yacht. With the terrible twins and their clients after his skin, he'll need to run. The good thing is, now we know the boat's name, the coast guard will help us track it," Kate said.

"Why don't you go home? You look beat," Gunn added.

"Keep us updated? And if you need anything else?" Willow said as she took Tara's hand and they made their weary way home.

The trail grew cold.

Travers sang like a canary, and the cops didn't even need to break sweat. The enterprise had been running for years. Balthazar was the front man who approached potential buyers, mostly private collectors who derived pleasure out of owning a piece of art that no one else did, even though it was stolen and had to stay out of sight. Wilkins, and through him his Albanian contacts, sourced the paintings. They would groom an innocent artist, perhaps just out of art school or someone who was unbelievably naïve, and sell the work for small amounts at auctions. The buyers would pretend to be Mr and Mrs Everyman, on the lookout for an affordable original painting for their living room.

Wesley was a clueless bumpkin and a fool, he said, but not part of the complicity.

Travers had no idea the paintings were forged. In fact, he became disturbed and had to be physically restrained when he started spewing expletives toward Wilkins and threatening to kill him when the topic came up. He was also fairly sure Balthazar didn't know about the fakes. He gave the police names, places, and descriptions. Overnight, dozens of valuable stolen paintings were recovered. Some were forged, but most were real. It seemed Wilkins was picky about his art collection.

A week went by but there was no trace of the fugitives. Wilkins took his private crew - Faith, Luke and a bevy of foot soldiers, and completely disappeared, together with Lily and Hallie. A search of his homes didn't unearth any suspicious paintings. Dawn Knudsen also vanished.

The coast guard tracked Artina, a 160-foot luxury superyacht, up the Canadian coast until it reached Newfoundland. Satellite pictures showed it was making its way across the Atlantic.

Ben and Glory Keys surfaced in Las Vegas with oil barons and industrialists from South America. They refused to reveal any information on the incident in New York although police informers confirmed rumors that the Asian syndicate who were the intended buyers had put a price on Wilkins' head.

A large billboard announced the club was closed "for renovations." Most of the employees were dismissed. Lilah Morgan, Alan Finch et al found themselves jobless and, fearful of repercussions from the people their boss was fleeing from, skulked back to whichever backwater towns they originated from.

The FBI took over the investigation. The nightmare of liaising between NYPD, FBI and agencies from other countries was left to a tiny, studiously serious woman by the name of Special Agent Winifred Burkle. Agent Burkle was proper and by-the-book, although willing to share information with two civilians. She rightly pointed out that a) intercepting Artina while it was at sea was both dangerous and a jurisdictional catastrophe waiting to happen; b) since they could track the route taken by the yacht, it was a matter of waiting till it reached a friendly port and requesting the respective government to take appropriate action. "Art theft and forgery are taken very seriously by the international community and it is one of the areas where foreign governments are likely to agree and co-operate," she said crisply.

Satellite images all but confirmed the presence of Hallie, Lily, and an unknown young girl thought to be Dawn on board the yacht. The abductees didn't seem to be harmed, although the presence of burly guards, even in the middle of the Atlantic, was plain to see in the photos.

It became a waiting game.

Tara moved out of her apartment. At first it was a temporary measure, she needed Willow so much it became painful. Those first few days after the incident at the auction house she couldn't function properly unless Willow was nearby. She was angry at herself for being so weak and needy but Willow's selfless support helped her regroup.

Willow resigned from her job. She told Patrick that she needed to take care of a personal matter and she was doing the Bank an injustice if she continued to stay on the payroll and not contribute to the bottom line. Patrick looked like he had aged ten years since she saw him last, she had a gut feeling that he wouldn't be that long at his job either. Her timing might have been perfect.

Tara still didn't want to fully move in with Willow. "How clichéd is that?" she smiled dryly. Ironic, since as she spoke, she was unpacking her clothes into closet space that Willow had freed up for her.

Willow was lounging on the bed, looking through vacation brochures. She had hinted that they should take a short trip away, but Tara wanted to stay near home, to be reachable. "Well, we're both unemployed. It's a waste of money to be renting two apartments. Speaking purely from a financial standpoint, it's the sensible step," she said.

"Right. So it's all about money." Tara stopped unpacking and crossed her arms, trying to keep a straight face.

"Well," Willow hesitated. "There're other factors. You know, like we can shower together any time we want, I don't have to worry about you constantly; I get to see you first thing in the morning and last thing at night."

A large lump suddenly developed in Tara's throat. She crossed the room, kicked off her shoes and climbed on the bed, facing Willow. "You say things like that, Willow Rosenberg, and you know I can't say no."

Willow put the brochure aside and studied Tara. Tension lines were etched into her lover's face, but her eyes were soft and gentle. Willow reached out and cupped Tara's face in her palm, and was rewarded when Tara leaned into it automatically. "I know it's a big step. Do you think we're not ready?"

Tara closed her eyes, feeling Willow's touch on her. "I guess I knew at the back of my mind, we'd come to this stage of our relationship eventually. And we'd know when it's time. I am ready, just as you were ready before me. I-i-i don't know, I just don't want us to move in together because we didn't have a choice. That it should be a decision we make, as a couple, rather than me being practically evicted because the apartment was paid for by someone I don't want to associate with anymore."

An earlier Willow would have missed the nuance in Tara's words. But she had finally begun to understand why she loved Tara so much. Tara was the strongest person she knew, and a lot of her strength came from her pride. Not arrogance, but a belief in her own values. She held herself to a high moral standard, and as far as Willow could tell, had never wavered below that standard. Her humility and self-respect was what made her so special.

Willow knew in her heart of hearts that they would be together for a long time. She knew it, from the moment she saw Tara again six months ago. No, she's known it since she was a teenager. But what a teenager felt was nothing like the depth of feeling she had for the woman sitting next to her. It was as if they had fallen in love, had always been in love, yet the last step was so fast and so profound that they hadn't had time to absorb. And as she saw her emotions reflected in soft blue eyes, she knew it was a feeling shared by Tara as well.

"What do you think of taking some time to mull over it? I think we know we are committed to each other, but we don't need grand gestures," Willow smiled. And was overjoyed when Tara smiled back. "Go away with me? Someplace quiet until the yacht reaches port and things start getting hectic. We'll still be in touch if Detective Lockley or Agent Burkle wants to contact us. No one can escape the dreaded Blackberry nowadays."

Tara sighed. Of course it was a good idea. Of course they'd be reachable. "Quiet sounds good," she said in a contemplative voice. "How about we go to Aunt Hallie's house? Someone needs to take care of it, get it ready for when she goes back."

"And it looks like the yacht is heading for Europe. We can fly to anywhere in Europe in a few hours from Zurich."

"I'll contact her housekeeper, let her know we're coming."

"I love you, Tara."

"I love you too, Will."

Continue to Lamplight Chapter Thirty-Six

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