Author: Trom DeGrey
It helped that Willow was a morning person. She loved getting a full day in, whether it was a day off or a day at work. It also helped that she had enjoyed her dinner with Tara last night and had gone home and slept like a baby. She had decided during her drive in to work this morning that cutting away some of the extraneous issues in their relationship had been what had led to her good night's sleep. It all helped. Otherwise her good mood might have soured when she reached her desk and found that her request for information on DRM, Inc. still hadn't been filled. Odd, she thought, but settled herself in and looked through her messages as she sipped her coffee.
"Aren't we chipper," Meers sneered on his way out the door. Willow ignored him and read the message from Sheldon Earhart, her investigative partner in Homicide. Sheldon was a year from retirement and had seen it all - twice. He appreciated Willow as a good cop no matter what squad she chose to work in and he made it clear to his colleagues that he didn't approve of or have time for their holier-than-thou shenanigans. Willow was immensely grateful that he had been assigned to the drive-by case.
She printed off her reports for Sheldon to add to his file and went down the hall to the Homicide squad room. The place was bustling. Every Homicide detective on the force was milling around the room. Willow slipped in unnoticed and made her way to Sheldon's desk in the far corner of the room.
He was sitting in front of his keyboard, typing with two fingers. Willow could tell he'd had his iron grey military cut buzzed since she last saw him yesterday afternoon. He had also traded yesterday's rumpled blue suit for a rumpled black one that made his cocoa colored skin seem a shade darker. Willow sat down in the witness chair he had next to his desk facing him.
"What's all the hubbub?" she asked.
Sheldon looked up and smiled. "Morning, Willow." He accepted her reports with a nod of thanks. "Check out all that red on the board," he said, gesturing over his shoulder to the white board that took up the better part of the far wall.
Every squad room had one. It showed open and newly closed cases and the detectives assigned to them. Red meant open, black meant closed. There were nine names in red at the top of the board.
Willow gasped. "You had nine new murders last night?"
Sheldon nodded and leaned back in his creaky chair. "Yep," he said. "And we think six of them are related."
Willow looked at him. "How so?"
"They were all employed by the federal government as customs inspectors. And get this," he said, leaning forward in his seat. "All of them worked the north docks."
Willow rose slowly from her chair and walked toward the board. She recognized three of the red names at the top, but it was the seventh name down that sent her running out of the squad room.
Willow wrenched her cell phone from her belt as she pounded down the stairs of the precinct and across the parking lot to her own car. She speed-dialed Tara. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon," she muttered as the phone rang. She got behind the wheel of the Jag and brought the engine rumbling to life.
"lo?" Tara croaked.
"Wake up, Tara. It's Willow. You've got to wake up."
Tara grunted. "Wass goin' on?"
"Where do you live?"
"What?" Tara muttered. "Why?"
"Tara! Tell me!" Willow demanded. "I have to see you right now!"
"What the hell's going on?" Tara asked, her voice finally sounding clear and awake.
Willow took a deep breath. "Tara, Xander Harris is dead."
Willow sped west across the city and was surprised to finally find herself in an historic block of homes. She gawked at Tara's house for a moment from the street and then began to laugh as she pulled up the driveway.
Most of the block consisted of Mission style houses with a few Victorians thrown in here and there. Tara's was the only Spanish Colonial in the neighborhood and it had long been Willow's favorite. Admit it, you like it even more now that you know it's hers.
Willow followed the driveway back to a detached garage behind the house. The Mustang was sitting out, gleaming in the hot morning sun. A small well-tended yard spread out from the driveway and Willow spotted a tiny garden toward the back by the eight foot cedar privacy fence.
Tara was waiting for her on the enclosed back porch as she got out of her car. Tara stepped out and Willow saw that she was still in her pajamas of grey cotton shorts and a white t-shirt with a blue bear on it that said, "Snuggle Buddy." Willow made herself not laugh. Tara's hair was pulled back in a long braid and she was barefoot. Willow noticed her toenails were painted a sparkly pink. She smirked at the incongruity of the picture Tara presented her with this morning. Some hard ass PI.
"Coffee should be done," Tara said and waved Willow inside.
The back door brought them into the kitchen and Willow stopped short. Tara had decorated in a distinctly southwest style. Golds mixed with terra cottas and splashes of brighter bolder colors dominated. Willow had always wondered what the inside looked like and had sometimes allowed herself to daydream about decorating it. She chuckled.
"What?" Tara asked, pouring two mugs of coffee.
Willow looked at her a moment and then decided to confess. "This has always been my favorite house in this neighborhood. I'm slightly appalled that you have better decorating taste than I do."
Tara smiled and sat down at the kitchen table, putting Willow's mug next to her. "I got it from Mom," she said. "We both loved this house too. We would drive by it every week when I was a kid and then go home and cut out pictures from magazines of how we would decorate it." Tara shrugged and looked down into her coffee. "I got lucky when it came on the market."
Willow saw a sadness clouding Tara's eyes. "I bet your mom would have loved what you've done with it."
Tara looked up and smiled. "Thanks," she whispered.
They watched one another for a moment; Willow fascinated by this side of Tara that she knew she wasn't quite seeing all of and Tara terrified but determined not to close Willow out. She gave me something last night. Her nerve finally faltered and Tara looked back down into the reflective dark of her coffee. "So, what happened?" she asked, wincing at the loss of the moment.
Willow sat down next to Tara and picked up her own cup of coffee. Almost had you. "I was in Homicide's squad room this morning and saw they had nine new murders last night."
Tara looked up in surprise. "Nine? Isn't that an awful lot, even for this town?"
Willow nodded. "Yeah, they were more interested in the six they thought were related, but I think Harris has to be thrown in there as well."
"Who were the other six?"
Willow eyed her for a moment and then said, "They were all shipping inspectors that worked the north docks."
Tara put down her cup with a thud. "Oh shit," she whispered. "What the hell tipped Fin off?"
Willow shook her head. "I don't know," she said, "but I thought we should look through Fin's ledger again and see if anything stood out. I was just looking for names on that list of inspectors we had and when we started seeing the DRM pattern, I quit looking."
"Me too," Tara said. She pushed back from the table. "The pictures are upstairs."
Willow followed Tara out into a large dining room, her low heels clicking on the hardwood floors. An oak table and chairs were pushed against the wall to the right, leaving the room open and spilling into a formal living room. Willow saw a more informal room with a low couch and recliner to the left as she walked through the dining room.
The formal living room made up the front of the house and Willow spotted a framed picture on the mantel above the fireplace. She detoured over to it as Tara made her way to the stairs. The picture was of a young Tara and her mother. Their faces were pressed cheek to cheek and they were close to the camera, filling the frame. Tara had a tooth missing and her mother's blue eyes. A child's glee and an adult's world-weariness stared back at Willow. She jumped when she felt Tara walk up behind her.
"I was six," Tara said.
"You look like her."
Tara smiled. "Thanks."
They stood a moment longer, but Tara felt less willing to reveal anything now. Things were moving and she felt several steps behind. She tugged at the sleeve of Willow's navy blue jacket. "Let's go," she said and turned and went back across the room to the stairs.
Willow took one last long look at the photo before following. She ran her fingers lightly over the intricately carved banister as she followed Tara up, reveling in the cool interior of the house. A bathroom sat at the top of the stairs and Willow could see it was decorated with lighthouses. They turned left down the hall and then left again into a long narrow room with a stained glass window at the far end. A Mission style desk took up space on the right wall and Tara sat down in the swivel cane back chair and turned on the lamp. Willow scrutinized the light, wondering if it was Tiffany style or the real thing. She wasn't sure with Tara.
Willow walked over to the window; two stylized tulips, one yellow, one purple. "It's beautiful," she said, running her hand over the warm glass.
Tara looked over her shoulder and her breath caught for a moment. The colored glass cast a rainbow across Willow's features, giving her an almost ethereal fairy appearance. She shook herself. "Tulips were Mom's favorites," she said and turned back to the files. "They're also a bitch to grow around here," she mumbled.
Willow looked over at Tara who was bent over her desk diligently searching. Who are you Tara Maclay? She knew she should be more upset, that things should seem more urgent to her, but Willow felt an odd sense of calm. She had felt it the moment she realized this was Tara's home, and the more she saw of not just the house, but of Tara in it, the more at peace she felt.
Willow rolled her eyes at her sentimentality. Don't go renting the U-Haul just yet, Rosenberg. She walked to the desk and looked over Tara's shoulder. She had found the pictures.
Tara spread them out and pointed to the three names that they had identified and linked to DRM, Inc. "These three are dead?"
Willow nodded and leaned down. She pointed to another name. "Him too." She scanned the rest of the photo and pushed it aside. Tara put another picture in front of her and Willow immediately found another. "This one." She looked further and finally pointed again. "There's number six." She continued reading, oblivious to Tara's discomfort.
Tara kept telling herself that she desperately wanted to lean away, but it was a lie. Willow was wearing her functional ponytail again and it left the long expanse of her neck exposed and a scant few inches from Tara's face. She swallowed at the lump in her throat and took a deep breath, but that only brought Willow's distinct smell of peaches with the undercurrent of something spicy to her. Tara shivered. Would you focus! Someone died! A lot of someones died! She looked up when Willow gasped.
"What?" Tara asked, but Willow had straightened and walked away. "Willow, what?"
Willow turned and now even the light cast from the stained glass window couldn't give her face color. "I think I got them killed," she whispered.
"How do you figure?"
Willow came back to the desk and scanned the last picture again. She pointed to a name near the bottom. "Brett Hawkins," Tara said. "Who's he?"
Willow paced back over to the window and leaned against the frame. She blew out a deep breath. "He's the Department's business liaison," she rasped. "When I requested those manifests for the north docks and then that info on DRM, he was the one it had to go through." Willow rubbed at her forehead as a headache began to rage.
"Do you have any vacation time?"
Willow looked puzzled. "Yeah. What's that got to do with anything?"
"Take it," Tara said and busied herself with putting the pictures back into her files.
"What?" Willow said and pushed away from the wall.
Tara turned back around. "I said take it, Willow. Go someplace where you can see the stars, but get the hell out of town for awhile."
"Why would I do that?" Willow demanded, anger taking over her fear.
Tara stood. "Because they know you've been snooping around. You're in danger, Willow and I can't deal with that and all this shit too. Get out of town and let me handle this."
Willow lunged into Tara's personal space. "No way! I told you I was in this and that's not changing."
Tara threw her hands in the air. "Would you stop being so stubborn! This is your life we're talking about!"
Willow crossed her arms and Tara blew out a breath of frustration. She slumped down into her desk chair and rubbed her eyes.
Willow gasped again.
Tara looked up. "Now what?"
Willow looked stricken. "Lt. Giles requested everything for me."
Tara sat up straight. "Call him while I get dressed. Tell him to meet us at Mike & Rosie's," she said and rushed out of the room.
Willow opened her phone and speed-dialed Lt. Giles' direct line.
Tara slung the Mustang into a parking space half a block from Mike & Rosie's Diner. "Do you know every dive in this city?" Willow asked, eyeing the shabby front canopy with deep suspicion.
"Best omelets in town," Tara said and got out of the car.
They found Giles in a back booth near the kitchen doors. Tara bent and kissed him on the cheek before sliding in across from him. Willow sat down next to her and flipped over her coffee cup.
"Don't do that," Tara and Giles both said and he flipped the cup back over.
"The food is excellent, but their coffee makes Nichols' seem like gourmet," he said.
Willow's eyes widened and she grinned at Tara. "You just want to order for me too then?"
"I think I can do that if you can fill Rupert in on all the pertinent info," Tara said and waved down a waitress.
Willow launched into the tale, leaving out how Tara had broken into the warehouse to get them the ledger in the first place and glossing over their visit to Xander Harris.
Giles removed his glasses midway through the story and absently cleaned them for the duration. He eventually laid them aside and scrubbed at his face for a moment. "So, you're telling me I may be in danger because I requested some information through our business liaison who is accepting bribes from this Fin fellow?"
Tara nodded. "I think Willow might be in danger too. She needs to take some vacation and get out of town. We don't know what Harris might have told them before they killed him."
"You could be in the same amount of danger then," Willow countered. "He saw you too. He could have told them we were working together."
"I can take care of myself," Tara said with a frown.
"And I can't?" Willow snapped.
"Ladies," Giles interrupted, "I'm sure you're both more than capable of taking care of yourselves. Our primary concern now is what to come forward with, if anything at all. I assume the ledger was obtained illegally?" He arched an eyebrow at Tara who suddenly found the table top particularly fascinating. "As I thought," he murmured. He studied them both for a moment. "I believe we need to carry on as if we know nothing concerning the homicides, which, in fact, we do not."
Both women began to protest, but Giles raised his hands to silence them. "Yes, these murders point to your case and this mysterious Fin," he allowed. "But if these six inspectors were willing to take bribes from Fin, what other illegal activities could they have been involved in? It may not, in fact, be related."
Willow gawked at her lieutenant. "Sir, you cannot be serious here. What about Harris then?"
"Anybody could have gotten him," Tara said, picking up the thread. "He had more enemies than he had ugly Hawaiian shirts."
Willow looked at each of them for a moment and then put her head in her hands. "I can't believe you two. I can't believe you're really going to keep this information out of Homicide's hands when it could break open their case."
"It would give them nothing, Willow," Giles said. "What little information you could give them is purely circumstantial and inadmissible in court because it was obtained illegally. Tara could, conceivably, wind up in jail. Now we wouldn't want that, would we?"
Willow looked over at Tara who batted her eyelashes flirtatiously. She looked back at Giles. "Can I think about that?"
Giles laughed and replaced his glasses. "Let us all consider ourselves forewarned and continue as we have been," he said. "I'll begin to look into our Mr. Hawkins and see if I can't catch him at something."
They all sat back when the waitress brought their breakfast. Willow stared for a moment at the biggest omelet she'd ever seen and then pushed it away. She watched as the other two began eating in earnest. "We're really not going to tell anyone anything?" she said in a small voice.
Tara rolled her eyes. "Would you just eat? We have to figure out what to do next. Did you find anything out about DRM on the internet last night?"
Willow sighed and pulled her plate forward. "No," she grumbled. "Nothing other than what we already knew from the manifests anyway." She took a bite of her vegetarian omelet and looked at Tara in surprise. "Diss iz wheelie dood."
Giles and Tara both laughed and the three of them ate the rest of their breakfast in relative silence. Tara eventually excused herself to go to the bathroom and Giles took the opportunity to talk to Willow privately.
"So, how are things going between the two of you?"
Willow shrugged and watched Tara disappear into the bathroom. "We've had our moments," she said. "But we seem to have an understanding now."
Giles nodded and studied Willow for a moment. "You do seem to have a camaraderie."
Willow wasn't fooled by his noncommittal tone. "What are you thinking, sir?"
Giles shook his head. "Oh, nothing, nothing, Willow. I assure you. I just didn't know how well Tara would work with someone else." He smiled. "She seems to get along with you rather well though. It's nice to see."
Willow shrugged, feeling somewhat uncomfortable. "Like I said, we've had our moments. We just had to work some things out."
Giles' smile widened. "She's a royal pain, isn't she?"
Willow blushed and looked up at him through her lashes. "Yes, sir, yes she is," she admitted.
Giles laughed. "Just stick with it Willow. I think you've made a real break through with her. I've never seen her as relaxed with someone as she has been with you this morning. She also seems to genuinely care about your safety."
Willow grinned. "I'll try and keep that in mind the next time she sends my blood pressure into orbit."
Tara walked up as the two shared another laugh. She bent down and kissed Giles on the cheek again. "Tell the Department I said thanks for breakfast," she said with her lopsided grin. She looked at Willow. "You ready?" Willow nodded and they left together.
The sun was beating down on the late morning sidewalk and Willow was happy to get out of it and into Tara's car. "This is weird," she said, scanning the sidewalk as she buckled her seatbelt.
"What's that?" Tara asked as she fastened her own seatbelt.
"Knowing we could be a target."
"What's this 'we' shit again?" Tara said with a snort.
Willow frowned at her. "Just what does that mean?"
Tara grinned. "You, Willow. You are a target. Not me."
"Why just me?" Willow demanded. "Harris could have told them about you too."
"Yeah, but I can disappear in this city whenever I want," Tara replied.
Willow thought for a moment and then blurted out, "So, let's do that."
Tara looked at her quizzically as she started the car and turned on the air conditioning. "Do what?"
"Disappear. I'll take vacation like you wanted and we can just continue this case underground."
Tara stared for a moment. "You're serious."
"Yeah. Why not?"
Tara began to laugh. "No way. Absolutely not."
"Why?" Willow demanded.
Tara leaned back in her seat and laughed some more. "One, things would probably turn not exactly legal pretty quickly and you would have a conniption and two, I don't think we could stand to be around one another all the time."
Willow frowned again. "What's wrong with us having to spend more time together?"
Tara smiled. "I think we've already decided that I can't handle you. Have you given any thought to if you can handle me?"
Willow blushed spectacularly. "You're just going to use last night's confession against me as often as you can now aren't you."
Tara laughed. "You didn't confess to shit! I'm the one that put my ass out there."
Willow fidgeted. "You already know more about me than almost anyone else alive. What else do you want?"
Tara was silent for a moment. She was startled by Willow's statement, mostly because she felt like she didn't know much of anything about Willow. "Almost anyone?" She raised an eyebrow. "What do I have to do then to become the greatest Willow expert alive, eh, little girl?"
Willow snorted. "Oh please, I've got your little girl." Tara began to laugh all over again. Willow looked over at her and shook her head. "We don't solve this case soon, you may become a Willow expert by sheer attrition."
Tara waggled her eyebrows. "I knew I was wearing you down." She laughed when Willow sighed and began rubbing her eyes. She stopped abruptly when her cell phone rang. "Yeah?"
"You and your redhead need to come see me right now."
"On our way," Tara replied. She hung up and glanced over at Willow. "We need to go see Anya. She's found something."