Willow paused before leaving the darkness of the hidden passage and walking out into the Great room. She took several deep breaths, and tears began to swell in her reddened eyes and stream down her face. With a final look over her shoulder, she stepped through the doorway. Her wide eyes immediately met Dawn's.
The teenager sat calmly on the sofa, a smug smirk on her face as she watched Willow shuffle listlessly into the room, her right arm hanging limp at her side, a revolver in her hand.
"Dawn?" the redhead breathed, her head slowly pivoting to look at the passage before snapping back toward the young woman. "It was you?"
"Yuh huh," the girl cheerfully replied, practically bouncing in her seat. "Fooled you, right? That note I left for you made Tara look pretty bad, didn't it? Sorry you had to kill your little girlfriend. Well, not really."
"So Tara didn't-"
"Oh please," Dawn scoffed. "She couldn't even put a bullet into someone who was begging her to pull the trigger. You really think she could have orchestrated all this?"
Dawn raised her chin proudly and watched the hacker's shock dissolve into anger.
"Why did you do this? How did you do this?" Willow demanded, her voice trembling with quiet rage. Almost as an afterthought, she raised the gun and pointed it at Dawn.
The teenager smiled patronizingly. From her seat, she could see that the revolver pointed at her was the empty one, but apparently Willow had not bothered to check.
"Let me guess, you want the full 'bad guy soliloquy'? Why not, I've got some time to kill, and I know how much Willow Rosenberg has to figure things out. That, by the way, is how I did it. You were all so easy...your reactions, your weaknesses...you all did exactly what I expected."
"So you knew Xander would get drunk and go for a bike ride?" Willow challenged, her voice incredulous. She moved to the side of the bar and let her arm rest on the surface, the gun still pointed at Dawn.
"Get drunk, yes. The bike was a guess. Once a drunk driver, you know? It was habit for him to get wasted and get in a vehicle, so I simply provided the fully stocked bar and the vehicle."
"And if he hadn't taken it?"
Dawn picked at a loose thread on the couch cushion. "Then I would have waited for him to pass out and chucked him over the cliff. Not as poetic in the justice department, but whatever gets the job done."
"But how could you-I mean, you're so-"
"Small and weak?" Dawn spat. "I could have managed on my own, but I had Giles to help with the heavy lifting. Buffy didn't exactly walk to the beach, and Cordelia couldn't have found the pool with a map and a guide dog."
"So Giles was in on it." Willow stated.
Dawn narrowed her eyes at the redhead and glanced at the passageway.
"Then I guess he set this up?" the hacker hastily asked, trying desperately to goad the girl to keep talking. "Planned it all out, got you to go along with it?"
"It was my plan!" Dawn shouted, all her attention returning to Willow, who managed to smother any visible signs of relief. "Giles was just my lackey," she huffed dismissively.
Willow kept perfectly still and silent, waiting for Dawn's bruised ego to settle so the girl could continue. She didn't have to wait long before the teenager haughtily continued.
"Faith was simple, I just had to push her over the balcony. As for the others, well, my Daddy was in the pharmaceutical business. It's amazing what you can do with creative chemistry and the right poisons."
"Buffy's skin?" Willow confirmed, receiving an eager nod in reply.
"Yep. Cordelia had a little paralytic that kept her still while I drowned her in her bathtub. Giles carried her to the basement for me. Oz got arsenic, Anya got the strychnine."
"Her pills, or the Amaretto?"
"Both," Dawn replied with a grin. "I figured she'd probably wash them down with her favorite drink, but I didn't know who would get stuck in the pool room, so last night I slipped into her room and replaced her pills with my own special batch."
Willow bristled at Dawn's arrogant tone, but willed herself to keep calm and let the girl talk. The teenager did so happily, relaying with relish how she electrocuted Giles, shot Riley, and set the scene for Willow to find Tara, the proverbial smoking gun in her hand. Willow shuddered, her mind flashing back to the moment she'd entered the dimly lit office and found Riley lying across the desk in a pool of blood. She'd remembered the poem then...one found the evidence...and sure enough, there was a file under his arm; a file that contained a single sheet of paper: Tara's confession. Willow closed her eyes as fresh tears spilled out over her cheeks.
"But...why?" Willow gushed, her body shaking anew.
Dawn rose from the couch and walked toward Willow, who raised the gun and stepped behind the bar. The teenager rolled her eyes and held out the photograph she still had in her hand. Willow did not take it, but she craned her neck to peer at the snapshot.
"That's me and Dad," Dawn said, withdrawing the photo to look at it herself. "He was so proud of me that day." She smiled down at it before ripping it in two and tossing the pieces aside. "He wasn't so proud two months later when I told him I was pregnant. The first fucking thing he did was take back the car. Then he said he'd cut me off if I didn't get rid of it," she fumed, her hands rising to cradle her abdomen. "I knew he'd do it, too. If he hadn't been such a bastard, Mom never would have left."
"Dawn, that's horrible," Willow said, uncomfortably allowing the small bit of sympathy for what had been done to the killer.
"I refused of course," Dawn continued, not acknowledging the redhead's remark. "I threatened to call the DA and confirm all those charges you and your hacker friends had exposed. He was furious," she laughed. "He 'summoned' me home from college, and I knew he was planning something, so I made a little plan of my own."
Willow held her breath and watched as Dawn strode back to the couch to sit. With the teenager's back turned, Willow allowed herself one quick glance at the painting above the fireplace, and the camera she knew was hidden there. She nodded once.
"It was supposed to look like a break-in," Dawn said, resuming her story. "Poor Daddy killed during a robbery. Only 'poor Daddy' had given his trusty manservant Giles the day off, so I didn't have my convenient witness. No witness equals suspicion, which equals insurance investigators, which equals my inheritance put on hold for who knows how many years."
"This was all about money?" Willow accused.
Dawn stared daggers at the redhead, her nose flaring in contempt.
"When I confronted him, he laughed-laughed!" she continued, her voice rising to an hysterical shout. "I followed him down the hall, and when I tried to-he pushed me down the stairs! My own father!"
Dawn's hands again found her belly, which she kneaded through her shirt.
"I could feel the blood pouring out of me, and heard him running down the stairs, calling for an ambulance. When I woke up in the hospital the next day, I knew I'd lost the baby. That was bad enough, but then Daddy's lawyer came by to break the news about his suicide. Oh yeah, and that the insurance company wouldn't pay on his twenty-five million dollar policy since he offed himself!"
"But what does that have to do with us? None of us-" Willow began, but Dawn interrupted, her voice once again flat and cold.
"While I was recuperating in the hospital, I had a lot of time on my hands. Did a lot of surfing on the internet, reading the news...you know how it is. Funny thing, but the same day Daddy's conscience got the better of him, some sorority girl drowned, and some old lady got fried in a tanning booth. Just two of the thousands and thousands of people who die every day, right? I started following the ones that got off-I still can't believe they let your girlfriend go-and moved down here, since Daddy's house was being sold off to pay reparations to the families of the people who died from his company's 'criminal negligence.' All those killers getting off scott free, just like my Daddy did. I decided that they-you-would get what you deserved, and so would I."
"You're insane," Willow whispered.
"Whatever. I'm also about to be very rich." Dawn waved off Willow's confused expression and continued before the hacker could pose a question. "You weren't the only people who killed someone that day and didn't go to jail, you know. There were plenty of others: random thugs, lovers' spats gone violent. No, you all have one other thing in common-money."
Willow laughed despite herself, a guffaw ripping from her chest.
"Don't believe me?" Dawn raised her eyebrows. "I'm not even going to go into how much that model was worth, but it's a lot. Anya had scored big time on her two dead sugar daddies. Giles came from a wealthy family that's anxious to keep an unpleasant teenage indiscretion of his under wraps. Buffy: trust fund baby. Oz...well, you know who his dad is right?"
Willow stared blankly.
"Oh come on! Daniel Osbourne...musician? Ring any bells? Anyway...Finn had dirt on half the politicians in Iowa, who are willing to pay a hefty sum to keep him-or his information-quiet. Harris worked for the biggest construction company in California. And you-you've been doing quite well yourself, haven't you? Ever since you sold out and starting enhancing the security of Fortune 500 companies instead of hacking it."
Willow looked at the floor. Her shoulders slumped as she tried to wrap her mind around the circumstances that led her and a seemingly random group of people to this place. Her forehead crinkled when she realized Dawn had neglected to mention one name.
"What about Tara?"
Dawn smirked. "That women's shelter that your precious Tara worked for? Along with a dozen others, it's funded by the Somerset-Hewitt Charitable Trust. My mother. My extremely wealthy mother, who abandoned me when she left my father. While you were all flying to Peru, I was sailing over from here and wiring ransom notes for all of you, each tailored to suit to your individual bank accounts. As of this morning, my untraceable account had passed the seventy-five million dollar mark. Of course, when the police arrive, they'll find nothing but dead bodies, and a surprisingly large amount of evidence pointing to Willow Rosenberg. They'll be here in an hour. So, if I were you," she said, rising and walking over to the chair placed in the center of the room, "I'd make sure I wasn't alive to take the blame."
"I'll tell them the truth," Willow countered, shuddering at the noose hanging from the ceiling rafters. "They'll believe-"
"Believe what? That you're innocent? Yeah right. I'm not the only killer here. I would have loved to see the look on Tara's face when you shot her."
Willow at last let her fašade drop and smiled coldly. She stepped out from behind the bar and sidestepped over to the fireplace, keeping the revolver pointed at Dawn, who waited patiently, unfazed by the weapon aimed at her chest.
"Speaking of, you're awfully cocky for someone with a gun pointed at you," Willow said.
"Yeah, well, if you were half as smart as you think you are, you'd know that gun isn't loaded," the teenager countered.
"I don't think she meant that one."
Dawn froze, her skin prickling all over. She backed up, refusing to tear her eyes away from Willow to confirm the obvious. When her legs hit the coffee table, her gaze faltered, and she jerked her head to the right.
There, standing in the doorway, the other gun in her hand, was Tara.