Return to The Price of Vengeance Chapter Thirteen



The Price of Vengeance
CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Author: Trom DeGrey
Rating: R to NC-17
Distribution: Ask first please.
Disclaimer: I don't own these characters - they're owned by Mutant Enemy and Joss Whedon - and I'm not making any money off of them. I'd be a lot happier if neither of those statements were true.


Willow stopped at the duty sergeant's desk and got a copy of the night's call log. It was early and she hoped she didn't look as raw as she felt. She hadn't slept, instead, coming in after a hot shower and a change of clothes to look into some things before day shift fully arrived.

She scanned the call log and was relieved to see that no units had been called out to the warehouse. Willow hadn't really expected it, but her anxiety levels were at an all-time high and she wasn't taking any chances with anything. Just keep it together. You've got a lot to do today.

They had exchanged few words after arriving back at Tara's. Shock and an overload of information and emotion had silenced both of them. They had spoken just enough to arrange meeting at the Juvenile Files desk as soon as Becky Walters arrived at eight. Tara had agreed she should come in a back door and that they should avoid being seen together as much as possible. Willow had a little less than two hours to accomplish what she wanted.

She stopped at her desk long enough to check that she had no new messages and to jot a note for both Lt. Giles and Sheldon Earhart. Giles wouldn't be in for at least another hour, but she wanted the vacation paperwork completed as quickly as possible. Willow was jittery. The station house had been her second home for years now and she hated feeling suspicious and threatened here.

She went down the hall to the Homicide squad room and stopped short when she stepped inside. Charlie McDonough was already sitting at his desk. Willow had always thought he was a nice enough guy and a hardworking cop. He had a stay-at-home wife and six kids and, for a moment, Willow felt a flicker of something like understanding. His name had been in Finn's ledger. He's the enemy now. She swallowed at the bile in her throat and walked back to Sheldon's desk. She tucked the note, telling him that she was going on vacation and it looked like Nichols would be assigned to their case, under his phone. She did her best to leave as quietly as possible, cringing as her green heels clicked with each step.

McDonough looked up. "Well, hey, Rosenberg. You're here early."

Willow froze. Make it short. "Yeah, stuff to do this morning."

He nodded. "Me too."

They stared at each other for a long moment, their cop instincts telling them there was more going on than either was saying. Willow knew; she just needed to get out before McDonough figured something out. "Well, gotta run. Going on vacation." She started toward the squad room door and hoped he didn't see her grimace. Too much information!

"Oh? Where ya headed?"

She stopped, her mind racing. Willow half turned and blurted out, "Vegas." She tried to leave again.

"I thought you hated Vegas."

Willow stopped again and slowly turned back toward him. She was losing her mind. Two years ago, she had gone to Las Vegas with her then new girlfriend and had hated every moment of the trip. She had grumbled about it for weeks afterward and had taken plenty of flak from other detectives over it. "Yeah, well, I thought I might try it again on my own this time. See if it isn't more fun that way." She waved at McDonough awkwardly. "See ya!"

"Have fun!" he called after her.

Willow rolled her eyes and blew out a deep breath as she made her escape. She briefly considered going back to her own desk, but her paranoia won out and she headed downstairs to the back of the station house where especially rowdy apprehensions were dropped off. Lt. Max Edwards was processing a body receipt. She handed it out the window to the bounty hunter and then a sergeant appeared and carted the cuffed fugitive to the in-house lock-up. "Detective Rosenberg, what can I do for you?"

Willow smiled. Max was the most laid back cop she had ever met. Even when a .40 caliber bullet had ruined her left knee and taken her permanently off the streets, Max had rolled with it all, telling jokes the whole way. "My computer is on the fritz upstairs," Willow said. "I figured it would be quieter here than anywhere else if you don't mind me borrowing one of yours." She also knew no one from the processing department was in Finn's bribery ledger.

Max buzzed open the door. "Sure. Take Onai's. He's out for a couple weeks. His wife finally had the baby."

Willow smiled and walked back to the desk Max had pointed to, relieved to see that it was in the far corner of the small office with her back to the wall. She fidgeted as the system booted up. Only Max and the sergeant where in the office so far this morning, but Willow knew the place would get busy soon, just like the rest of the station. There was a constant energy in the building, but it seemed even criminals had to sleep sometime and the early morning hours were the quietest.

She accessed the Bureau of Motor Vehicles database first. Willow punched in the license plate number from the pick-up truck and waited a moment while the ancient system thought over her request. Finally, an address came up and she was shocked to see that the truck was registered to a Riley Finn. The address threw up a red flag in her mind and she realized she had just seen it a few hours ago in Finn's quick reference binder. She wasn't familiar with the street and looked around to see if they had a map of the city tacked up. Willow found it on the north wall. Millcreek Drive was on the western outskirts of the city in an area that looked residential. He wouldn't have used his real address would he? Willow scratched her chin. Finn had shown a shocking amount of ineptitude when it came to hiding his activities from more than the most cursory of investigations, but this would have been careless in the extreme. She tucked it away in her mind to tell Tara later.

Willow returned to the desk and exited the BMV's records. She clicked into the Department's link to different federal databases and accessed the ATF's files. She typed in the serial number she had been stunned to find on the Desert Eagle and waited. The information came faster this time and Willow grabbed the edge of the desk. "Holy shit," she whispered. The gun had been part of a shipment of them stolen directly from its Israeli producer. "That had to be Tetrakofsky," she muttered.

She exited the database and hopped on the internet. After a few minutes of searching, she found what she was looking for. Three months ago, a jaw dropping 3,000 of the mammoth handguns had been stolen from the manufacturer. Willow wondered how many Finn - how many Richard Maclay had ordered - purchased. It occurred to her that Tetrakofsky or any other gunrunner worth their spare clip wouldn't hold on to that amount of merchandise for that long. She wondered if Finn had had them for that length of time or had purchased them from a second party. She sighed. "Doesn't matter," she mumbled. She knew they would only be able to catch so many people. She just wasn't sure how wide the net could be cast. More than anything, she wanted to get the missing kids back and keep the guns and drugs she had seen a few hours ago off the streets of her city, but Willow would dearly love to be able to snag the Maclay men and anyone else higher up if she could.

She looked at her watch and frowned. The morning had gotten away from her already and she had to meet Tara in just a few minutes. Willow shut down the system and said thanks to Max as she left. She stayed on the ground floor and walked to the other side of the building where both juvenile and adult records were actually physically stored.

Willow turned the corner and stopped short. Most of the cops on the force knew that nice legs or a flash of cleavage could bribe Becky Walters into a peek of a juvenile file. From the looks of things, it appeared that Tara knew this too. She was leaning against the wall just outside the office. She looked poured into her black skirt and her cinnamon colored blouse was unbuttoned at least once more than modesty dictated. Maybe twice.

Tara straightened when she spotted Willow, her black heels clicking on the floor. "Looks like we had the same idea." Willow's green skirt was short, shorter than Department policy if Tara had to guess and her matching silk shirt left little to the imagination.

Willow chuckled and walked over to her. "Looks like it." She stepped into Tara's personal space and looked at the left side of her neck. "It's lightened up enough for you to cover it."

Tara blushed slightly, but kept herself from running her fingers self-consciously over Willow's mark. "Yeah, thankfully. I didn't think a turtleneck would be terribly sexy."

"Personally, I think you could have pulled it off." Willow frowned when it was obvious that Tara was as tired as she herself felt. "Are you okay? Did you get any sleep?"

Tara shook her head. "Not a wink. Put my time to good use though and got the word out about any new drug or gun suppliers. We'll see what turns up." She sighed. "I'm sorry I was so monosyllabic when we got back to my place. Are you alright?"

Willow shrugged. "Don't worry about it. I was pretty much in the same state of shock you were I think. I didn't get any sleep either. Came in here a while ago and did some work." Willow finally gave in to her niggling desire and looked up and down the empty hall before leaning in and giving Tara a quick kiss. "Let's go see if Becky's in yet before someone spots us out here."

They both breathed a sigh of relief when they went into the office and found Becky Walters standing at her desk. If her unfashionably short black hair wasn't enough to tip one off as to her personal preferences, then the rainbow ring on her right hand and penchant for Doc Marten's usually was. Becky was in all black today and raised an eyebrow as she sat down. "Detective Rosenberg, you're keeping awfully motley company this morning."

Willow grinned and let herself behind the counter. She sat down on the corner of Becky's desk and crossed her legs slowly. "I ran into Maclay here out in the hall." She put her hand down near Becky's on the desk and leaned on it, knowing the shift in weight would cause a sliver of her belly to be exposed and her shirt to pull tight across her chest. She bit her lip to keep from laughing when she saw Becky swallow hard.

"So, uh, what can I do for you, Detective?"

"We both want what only you can give us, Beck," Tara said as she too let herself behind the counter and mirrored Willow's position on the other side of the desk.

Willow hoped Becky didn't notice the goose bumps that Tara had managed to raise on her. An obscene amount of leg and cleavage were on display across the desk and Willow's pensive mood was quickly being burned away.

"Uh," Becky managed. She looked from Willow to Tara and back again. "Um."

"We each just need to steal a look," Tara purred.

They both saw the shudder rocket through Becky. She waved her hand over her shoulder. "Go. Go, go, go," she rasped.

Tara and Willow each slid off the desk and walked to the back of the office where the door to the records area was. They grinned at each other as Willow pushed open the door and they walked in.

"We're a hell of a team, aren't we?" Tara said. Willow giggled as they made their way down the hall and into the seemingly endless rows of records.

She led the way through the musty shelves, her eyes flicking quickly through the files when they reached the 'F's. She pulled a folder of medium thickness and said, "Here it is: Finn, Riley J."

Tara gestured to a small research table along the far wall. "Let's crash. Looks like there's a few things to go through."

They sat down next to one another and Willow put both hands on top of the file. Her eyes grew large and she whispered, "I can't believe I'm about to do this."

Tara shook her head. "You broke into a warehouse last night, shot out somebody's tires and blasted a dumpster - which, by the way, I got a good laugh over in the shower this morning - and now you're spazzed over looking through a juvie record?" She snorted. "Get over it, Danger Girl and open the frickin' folder."

Willow frowned, but flipped open the file. Seven mug shots condensed onto a single sheet of photographic paper lay on top. A clean-cut boy next door stared dolefully back.

"What the fuck?" Tara muttered.

"What?"

"I knew him." Tara looked perplexed. "I didn't know him by that name though. Are you sure that didn't get mixed in with the wrong folder?"

Willow picked up one of the magnifying glasses lying on the table and held it over the ID board under the young man's chin. She shook her head. "It says 'Finn, Riley J.' What name did you know?"

"Jimmy Riley," Tara murmured, growing uneasy.

Willow laid the photos and fingerprint card aside, quickly scanning his personal information. "His middle name is James."

Tara felt her heart rate pick up. There were too many coincidences.

Willow put her hand on Tara's forearm. "Are you okay?" Tara's face was flushed.

She nodded, but never looked away from the file. "What was he busted for?"

Willow turned back, flipped over the personals sheet and quickly scanned the first arrest report. Not quite believing her eyes, she began skimming through the other six.

Tara felt her chest tighten. One word on the first arrest record stood out to her. "Are they all for prostitution?"

"Yeah." Willow was confused. "Tara?"

Tara finally looked up at Willow. She felt sick to her stomach. She had a horrible suspicion this was all about to become even nastier than she ever could have imagined. "He hung out with my brother," she said. "I don't know if I'd call them friends though. Donnie treated everybody but Dad like shit." Tara pulled the photo sheet over to her. "They were a lot older than me, but I remember Riley. He was always nice to me." Tara's face lit with a sudden realization. "Oh my god, Willow, for his record to be juvie, I had to have known him when this was happening."

Willow began to read more carefully. "Do you remember him not being around for long periods of time?"

"No, but like I said, I was just a clueless kid. My brother is eight years older than me."

Willow scanned the last few pages and then looked up at Tara in shock. "He never did any time. He never spent any time in Juvenile Detention."

Tara's blood ran cold. "He had a friend somewhere. Who presided over his appearances?"

Willow riffled through the papers again. She swallowed hard, barely able to get the name out. "Richard Maclay."

The silence sat on them like a pressing stone. Willow risked a glance at Tara. Her face had hardened to an emotionless mask. "Dad had to have pulled some strings. I don't ever remember him working Kiddie Kourt. Did Riley ever name anyone?"

Willow speed read the interviews. "He gave up the name of his pimp after the last bust. Don Sorenson? Did you know him?" Willow watched as all the color drained from Tara's face.

"Sorenson was my mother's maiden name."

Willow looked back down at the file. "Jesus Christ," she muttered as all the lines connected themselves and the picture coalesced before her eyes.

Tara sat back in her chair. "So my brother was a pimp and not only did Dad know about it, he made sure Donnie always had a full stable."

"Do you think your father was getting a cut of the take?"

Tara barked out a mirthless laugh. "I guarantee it. Motherfucker never did anything for anyone unless there was something in it for him." Tara rubbed her hands over her face, silently wondering how many lives had been ruined. "I thought it was just me," she whispered.

Willow felt her heart lodge in her throat. "What?"

Tara turned sad exhausted eyes to Willow. "It's why I ran away," she said. "I was fifteen when Donnie started trying to make me turn tricks. Mom hadn't been gone that long and Dad said he didn't believe me. Now I know why." Tara took a few ragged breaths, closing her eyes against the tears burning there. Guilt rumbled in her chest. "Willow, what have I done?" she choked, hanging her head low.

"Tara, you can't blame yourself. You didn't know about this."

Tara let out a soft sob. "You don't understand. I'm a party to it. I've turned a blind eye to them for years."

Willow stared hard at Tara, trying to make sense of what felt like a confession of some sort. Realization felt like a kick in the gut. "They're paying you."

Willow hadn't thought she had shouted, but the truth bounced off the walls like a blast from an air horn.

Tara hid her face in her hands. Willow looked away. She burned to comfort Tara, but she had to know the truth. "Explain it to me."

Tara wiped at the tears that had begun to spill with the backs of her hands, taking a few deep breaths to try and gather herself. "I'd been out of prison a couple of years," she said, her voice shaking, "I was trying to make the PI thing work when Dad calls me outta the blue. Donnie decided he wanted to get in to politics and they wanted to make sure I didn't cause any waves."

Tara sighed and finally looked up at Willow. "It's not an excuse, but the money let me work for the street kids that couldn't pay me." She looked down at her hands. "I was so na´ve. It never occurred to me that Donnie might be doing this to anyone else." She began to tear up again. "Willow, you've got to believe me. I didn't know this was happening." A sob wracked Tara and guilt overwhelmed her again.

Willow finally followed her heart, pulling Tara to her in a fierce hug. Tara clung to her, burying her tear-streaked face in her shoulder. Willow gently rocked her, playing everything over in her mind. She gave whispered voice to her final verdict.

"They owed you."

Tara jerked her head up, looking deep into Willow's eyes. "They owed you," Willow said louder, her eyes brimming with anger. Tara shook her head, trying to pull away and wrap herself again in her cloak of self-recrimination.

But Willow held tight.

"No, Tara, they owed you. They still owe you and if I can figure out a way to do it, they're going to go down for this whole mess."

Tara felt the new chink in her armor. That Willow could be so protective of her made her want to believe, but her inner demon howled a warning and for once, Tara listened. Believing in the good things in life was for suckers and Tara Maclay was no sucker. She gingerly moved away from Willow and slumped back into her chair.

Willow watched grimly as Tara folded back into herself. What was it about this wounded woman that drew her so strongly?

Tara took a deep breath and felt her emotions settle some. "Why would Riley finally give up a name - a dead end name - on his last bust? I mean, if he wanted to get back at them all he had to do was tell the truth." She snorted. "Oh, god. Who the hell am I kidding? The truth never sticks to my father or brother. But why give up a name at all then?"

Willow shrugged. "Finn has no adult record. Maybe he agreed to give the police a red herring in exchange for his freedom."

"Maybe they just got rid of him when he hit legal age," Tara countered. "Dad couldn't doctor his case for whatever reason and Riley tried to give the cops a hint as to who was involved. He feared telling them outright but hoped someone would dig hard enough and follow it back to Dad and Donnie."

"Maybe," Willow allowed. "But wouldn't he come out of the woodwork when Donnie ran for office? I mean, I think we can assume there were others besides you and Finn. They couldn't keep everyone quiet with money, could they?"

Tara looked stricken at the thought. She rubbed her eyes and sighed heavily. "Then maybe they moved him up the ladder. A keep your enemies closer kind of thing." She looked at Willow. "If that's the case, then it points to Riley being the one getting his hands dirty for them even more."

Willow sighed and flopped back in her own chair. "I don't know. There are too many options and not enough facts. I just know I'm getting tired of trying to pick my way through this web and not get caught."

Tara smiled. "Why, Willow Rosenberg, are you trying to tell me you just wanna bust some heads?"

"Fuckin' a," Willow muttered.

"I'm such a bad influence."

Willow cocked an eyebrow and picked up their now comfortable game. "We'll see."

Tara shook her head, happy to move away from her emotional brownout. "Why don't I do some discreet checking into my family and the people they have around them, and since you're down here breaking the rules already, why don't you see if Riley's file leads to anyone else."

Willow frowned as Tara got up from her chair. "You're doing wonders for my conscience here."

Tara sighed. "Jewish girls, all the guilt of a Catholic girl, but not nearly as much fun." Willow just pointed toward the exit, causing Tara to laugh. "Come by the office when you're done."

"Okay, make sure you give Becky's shoulders a rub on the way out." Willow grinned as Tara's laughter echoed down the hall. She sat back for a moment and thought about everything she had just learned. She took a deep breath to keep her own tears at bay. She couldn't even fathom how Tara had grown up and become the decent person she was. Willow shook her head. "Focus on the work for now."

She turned back to the folder and began picking through it again. Thirty minutes later, Willow blew at her hair in frustration. Don Sorenson was the only name mentioned.

She replaced Finn's file and went looking for Sorenson, not really expecting to find it. She wasn't disappointed. Willow next went to the 'M's just to be thorough. Not to her surprise, there was no Donald Maclay, but there was a Maclay, Tara B. Willow bit her lip. It was an invasion, no two ways about it. What would Tara do?

She reached out and pulled the file.

She next went to the end of the shelves and down a short flight of stairs into a room three times the size of the other. Adult files were stored here. Willow double-checked that there was no Finn. She then checked for a Jimmy Riley and a Don Sorenson. Finding nothing, she finally made her way back over to the 'M's. Again, no Donald, but a surprisingly thick folder for Maclay, Tara B. Willow had been startled when Tara mentioned being in prison. It had never occurred to her to check to see if Tara had an adult record. Willow pulled the file and found a table in a corner.

The Juvenile record held five arrests - the gambling bust Giles had mentioned, two trespassing and two shoplifting. The trespassing and shoplifting had gotten her minimal time because she'd been stealing food and clothing, but the gambling had gotten her fourteen months - until her eighteenth birthday.

Willow frowned. Couldn't they figure out who her father was? Why the hell did they keep releasing her back to Children's Services so she could just run away again?

Willow flipped open the adult record. It held two arrests and three charges. Again, she'd been picked up for stealing food, but the third charge was assaulting a police officer. Shocked, Willow began reading in earnest. The officer's report simply stated that as he tried to get Tara out of the cruiser she had attacked him and somehow managed to break his nose. Willow was glad to see that she wasn't the only one who thought it all sounded fishy, as an internal review had been conducted. Whatever the results, the charge was dropped to resisting arrest, but Tara had still gotten six months and turned twenty-one in the state women's correctional facility.

Willow seethed. What the hell was going on? How did this girl fall between the cracks so many times?

She looked at the arresting officer's report and had to pick her jaw up off the floor. His name had been whited-out. In, fact, his name was nowhere to be found in the file. Willow took in the date and address where the arrest took place. She refiled both of Tara's folders and stalked out. She was on a mission.

Willow was grateful to see a friend behind the desk at Duty Records. "Hi, Karen."

Karen Schultz didn't know a stranger and as a fellow redhead, she especially liked Willow. "Well, hey girlie! What can we do for you today?"

"How far back do your duty rosters go?"

"We keep physical records for two years and then microfiche after that. I'm not sure how far back the archives go though. How far back do you need, sweetie?"

"Fourteen years." Willow mentally crossed her fingers.

Karen frowned. "Hm, that's probably pushing it, but give me the date and we'll try." She disappeared back into the shelves, leaving Willow to fidget for a few minutes until the ancient printer next to Karen's computer began to work. Karen reappeared from the back and stapled the packet together. "It's your lucky day, Detective."

Willow smiled her thanks and quickly flipped to the roster of beat cops, looking for those assigned to third shift in the northeast quadrant of town that night. The bile rose in Willow's throat and she felt her rage flare up and boil over as one name stood out from the list.

"Meers."


"Okay, Anya, thanks," Tara said into the receiver. She rolled her eyes. "I really don't think Willow wants a job, but I'll be sure to tell her again. Uh-huh. I know, lots of money. Okay. Bye." She laughed as she hung up the phone. Anya was like a dog with a bone sometimes.

Tara looked up at the sound of her office door. An obviously fuming Willow turned the lock behind her. "I didn't do it," Tara said, leaning back in her chair and putting her feet up. "You know, all the bad PI stories start out with some sexy mysterious blonde wandering into the office and begging for help." Tara put her hands behind her head. "I'd settle for a redhead," she purred. "And a little begging won't hurt your chances either."

Willow walked over and sat on the desk next to Tara's feet. "Tara, what happened?"

"With what?" she asked, genuinely puzzled by both Willow's question and her mood.

"Meers," Willow whispered, pinning Tara with her eyes. "I realize you thought I had already checked your record, but I hadn't. I didn't look at it until this morning after you mentioned being in prison."

Tara crossed her arms. "That wasn't very thorough of you, Detective."

Willow finally smiled. "Look, Tara, Meers is on Vice. I know what a son-of-a-bitch he is. Will you tell me what happened?"

Tara frowned. "I didn't know he was with Vice. He's the one in your squad from Finn's ledger." The fact sat in her gut like a brick. Tara mulled over that situation in her mind and finally shrugged. "It wasn't anything major I guess. He tried to get grabby with me as he hauled me out of the cruiser and I head-butted him and busted his nose. Thankfully, his partner was an honest guy or else I might still be in the pen."

For a moment, Willow thought she was going to have an aneurysm her blood pressure shot so high. "It wasn't anything major?" she said incredulously. "Am I understanding this correctly? You were handcuffed and that piece of shit tried to feel you up?"

Tara almost looked embarrassed. "Yeah, basically," she said quietly.

Willow closed her eyes, reminding herself to breathe. She suddenly jumped up from the desk and began pacing the room, her mind going a thousand miles an hour.

Tara put her feet down and leaned forward, worried by the myriad of emotions skittering across Willow's face. "Willow?"

"I've been kidding myself, haven't I?"

Tara tried to diffuse the situation in her usual manner. "Yes, you can't possibly resist me, so just give in now. I can clear off the desk."

"God dammit! I'm serious!"

Tara walked around her desk and grabbed Willow by the hands to stop her pacing. "Willow, shit like that happens everyday on police forces everywhere."

Willow yanked herself out of Tara's grasp. "God, don't I know that." The bitterness made her voice thick. "Don't I know that now."

"Then why are you so bent out of shape?"

Willow sighed. "Tara, I could have gone anywhere. The FBI recruited me. The US Marshals recruited me. Hell, the Secret Service recruited me, but I stayed here in the city I grew up in because I wanted to make a difference." Willow suddenly looked like a lost little girl. "But I don't," she whispered.

Tara bit her lip. She had seen a lot of cops burn out, but watching Willow crumble like this was killing her. "You make more of a difference than most," she said, "and you care. Most cops can barely remember what that feels like anymore."

Tara tried to reach out again, but Willow turned her back and walked away, determined to hang on to her anger. "How did you keep falling through the cracks? Why couldn't someone figure out who your father was?"

"We designed it that way."

Willow whirled in shock. Tara shrugged. "There was no way I was going back. The police chief called Dad after I was picked up the first time. I just made it clear to the old man that he could either drop me off at the next corner or I had some shit on him that could make his life ugly."

"Did you have something on him?"

Tara grinned. "Not really, but he wasn't willing to call my bluff."

Willow thought for a moment. "The police chief. Meers?"

"Yeah, Dad and Charlie Meers got to be good buddies. Mostly because both their sons were so good at fucking up." She shrugged again. "Anyway, Dad called in a couple of favors and my personal records disappeared."

A thought occurred to Willow. "Why didn't he just make you disappear?"

"I let him know that if anything happened to me the press would get all the family's dirty laundry."

"Another bluff?"

"Initially, yes, but not now. Rupert has a sealed envelope. If I don't live to be a little old lady, he knows what to do with it."

Willow walked over to the window, trying to digest all this new information. "By the way," Tara said, "way to change the subject." Willow frowned back at her. "Look, Willow, don't let my shitty story break your back. You do more good than you realize."

"Now how the hell would you know that?"

Tara smirked. "Because, Detective, unlike you I checked out my partner before hitting the streets with her." A small smile played at Willow's lips. "Can I ask you something personal?" Tara asked tentatively. Willow shrugged. "Why? Why didn't you go to the Bureau or the Marshals or the Secret Service? Why stay here?"

Willow looked back out the window, out at the city that she always seemed to be fighting and that lately, she felt like she was losing to. "Jesse," she whispered.

She turned and walked over to one of the chairs in front of the desk, sinking wearily into its comfort. Tara curled up in the chair across from her. "We'd been friends since we were little kids," Willow murmured. "We all knew his mom drank too much, but we all thought she was just one of those high society ladies - a social drunk, you know?" She finally looked over at Tara and her green eyes grew hard. "Well, she wasn't. She stayed drunk and beat the hell out of Jesse." Willow rubbed her hands over her face, her voice beginning to sound as weary as her body appeared. "He finally had enough and ran away one night." A humorless laugh escaped her. "It led to my first act of defiance against my parents." At Tara's confused look, Willow said, "I stayed out all night looking for him. What I saw kept me here."

"How old were you?"

"Sixteen."

Tara grimaced. The streets at sixteen were an especially scary place even if you were used to it like she had been. Tara couldn't even imagine what it had been like for a privileged prep school kid like Willow, even for one night. "What happened?" she asked, almost dreading the rest of Willow's story.

"I looked everywhere," Willow whispered, her eyes glazing over with memories from half a lifetime ago. "I ended up in parts of the city I didn't even think existed. It was like some bad novel - guys trying to sell me drugs, people begging for money, sleeping in the alleys. It seemed like anyone would fight over anything. And some of the prostitutes." Willow shuddered involuntarily. "A lot of them didn't look that much older than me, but their eyes." Willow looked up at Tara, hoping she understood.

Tara nodded. "Having to live like that makes you old fast, but it always eats your soul first."

Willow nodded in agreement. "My rose colored glasses were gone and I just couldn't turn my back."

"What happened to Jesse?" Pain and grief settled over Willow's face. Tara hated those two ghouls marring her elfin features, but she understood now that they had earned a rightful place there.

"I don't know," Willow rasped. "He was never found."

Tara slumped back into her chair. She hated that Willow understood so intimately that this city lived off its' young. She cast about for something to say, but there wasn't anything that could take that shadow from Willow's eyes. Burdens could be shared, but scars were meant to be borne alone. "I'm sorry, Willow," she managed. "I'm sorry."

They sat in silence for a few minutes, taking comfort in each other's company. "It looks like this case has turned into a not so pleasant trip down memory lane for both of us," Tara finally said.

Willow nodded and made a conscious decision to change the subject. "Speaking of our case, you're not going to believe what I found this morning." Tara cocked an eyebrow. "The truck is registered to Riley Finn at an address that was also in the binder I memorized."

"One of the warehouses or something?"

Willow shook her head. "I don't think so. It's in a residential area on the western edge of the city."

"You don't think he'd be that dumb, do you?"

Willow shrugged. "He hasn't shown us a lot of brains so far. I'm not familiar with the area, but if it's secluded enough, it might be a good place to keep the girls."

Tara chewed this new information over for a moment. "Sounds like that would be a good place for us to start then. Do you want to check it out tonight?"

Willow slumped further into her chair and frowned. "Yes, but I think I screwed up." Tara raised an eyebrow again. "I ran into one of the Homicide cops on Finn's list this morning and blurted out something about going on vacation. It wasn't a very good lie."

Tara shrugged. "So? They don't see you around anymore, what are they going to tell Finn?"

"That I gave them a lame excuse. Give them a little more credit, Tara. I think I'm going to have to sell this better and I think if we can show us splitting up somehow, it'll go a long way toward making my disappearance more believable."

Tara frowned, but nodded. "I guess it is a little too convenient, you just leaving for no apparent reason. Do you have something in mind?"

Willow nodded. "Yeah, and it involves Meers."

Tara grinned. "I like it already."

Willow quickly detailed her plan. When they'd settled everything Tara asked her if she was interested in a late breakfast. "Yeah, I'm starving. I couldn't eat when I got home."

Tara grinned. "Me neither." She called down to the deli on the first floor of her building and ordered them each a breakfast sandwich. "So, did you find out anything else interesting this morning?" she asked as she hung up the phone.

"Just that the gun I took was part of a load stolen from the maker in Israel. What were you doing while I was busy breaking enough rules to give me gray hair?"

"Early word back from the street is that there's been no new influx of guns or drugs that anyone has noticed. I don't know what that means though." Tara giggled. "I also called Anya, who wanted me to remind you that there's lots of money to be made as a dominatrix." Willow groaned. "She's going to check into Dad and Donnie's finances and see what can be seen."

"What's it going to cost you?"

Tara looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I don't know yet."

"God, I hope I get to see it," Willow said with an evil smile.

Tara frowned. "Thanks. Anyway, I'm thinking about going over to the Herald to look through their archives and see what I can find out about Donnie's campaign when he ran for office seven years ago."

There was a knock at the door. Tara got up and waved Willow off. "I'll get it." She opened the door, paid for the two sandwiches and then closed and locked it again. Tara resettled in her chair and handed over Willow's sandwich.

Willow noticed Tara's breakfast - eggs, cheese, green peppers and tomatoes - and suddenly did a mental review of everything she had seen her eat before. "Oh my god, you're a vegetarian."

Tara stopped with her sandwich midway to her mouth and grinned at Willow. "Oh my god, you're a detective?"

Willow hung her head and laughed. "Sorry."

Tara laughed and shook her head. "So please tell me you're better at detecting things written in files than you are at detecting things right in front of you."

Willow raised her head and sighed; the smile fled her face. "There's nothing else in any of the records."

Tara shrugged. "Can't say as I'm surprised. It's a wonder we found what we did."

Willow nodded. "How about we try the Social Security office too? Someone there owes me a favor." She snorted. "Someone there owes me a big favor."

Tara began to laugh again. "Boy, I am a bad influence. Assault, breaking and entering, twisting arms for information - you're showing real promise Willow."

"I bet you say that to all the girls."

Tara tilted her head back and let loose with a full-on belly laugh. It was a beautiful sound and Willow decided she wanted to hear it as often as possible. She frowned when her watch beeped the hour at her.

Tara fanned her flushed face. "Oh boy, that's the best laugh I've had in a while." She looked up at the clock on the wall above her desk. "Do you think Meers will be in now?"

Willow shrugged. "I don't know. It's the one real hitch in my plan." She sighed. "I should go and check in with Lt. Giles though. I was a little worried about being seen this morning, but since I opened my big mouth to McDonough I guess I'd better play this vacation thing to the hilt."

Tara nodded. "I'll follow you over just in case Meers is there." She sighed. "Are we being too paranoid? I mean, I'm sitting over here wondering all of a sudden if you were followed or if someone saw you come up here."

Willow smiled. "Too paranoid? I don't think that's possible right now, do you? Considering the players?"

Tara shook her head. "No, you're right. We can't be too careful where my family is concerned. For a second, I thought maybe your plan for Meers was a little too melodramatic, but we can't take any chances."

Willow nodded. "That's what I thought too. So, yes, I was careful about coming over here. I've got enough paranoia for both of us right now."

Tara chuckled. "Well, you got yourself in here; you get yourself out unseen then. I'll be a few minutes behind you."

Willow raised an eyebrow. "You might want to consider changing clothes before you walk into my squad room. Someone might arrest you for indecent exposure."

Tara looked down at her chest, smirking at the amount of cleavage and black lace bra she had on display. "Hm, no wonder the sandwich guy turned so red."


Continue to The Price of Vengeance Chapter Fifteen


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