"This where you found the body?" the detective asked.
"Yeah, what was left of him. Right under the vine."
"You don't seem particularly upset."
"I was the last person out of Sunnydale. You know? The town that went down the sinkhole last spring? I saw some pretty bad stuff then, too. Also, not big with the public breakdowns."
Detective Beasley jotted something down in his notebook.
"Miss Summers, I have to ask this. Where were you between seven last night and five-thirty this morning?"
"Um... home. I was home."
"And home would be where?"
"The old Scobie Manor, by the cemetery."
"Does that mean you're the one who found Hedwig Swenson's body, too? I thought I recognized your name."
"That's me," she said with an ingratiating smile.
Detective Beasley glared at her.
"Do you have any idea how many headaches you've given me?" he demanded. "I got at least twenty phone calls a day for over a week after that article ran in the Gazette from people who wanted me to go over and arrest everyone in that house. I'm still getting grief from folks who don't want to believe what the diary said. And then there was the whole question of whose job it was to bury the body. Do you think you could do me one favor? Just one?"
"Try not to find any more bodies for a while, will you? My wife is threatening to leave me if I don't get home in time for dinner at least one night soon."
"I'll do my best," Buffy said. "Believe me, I don't like finding the bodies any more than you like me finding the bodies."
"Then we have an agreement. Good. Now, about last night, is there anyone who can corroborate your story that you were home?"
"Well, yeah. My sister and my housemates were all there. And Jo Christianson from the commune was there. She came over about six and stayed until about ten-thirty or eleven. Really, everybody saw me there."
"I see. When was the last time you saw Mr. Singh, before you found him today?"
"Yesterday, at about four in the afternoon. That's when I went home. I'd gotten the job and met all my new co-workers. I went home to make dinner and spread the news that there was a paycheck coming in. Once I got home, I didn't leave the house again... except for about half an hour."
"Half an hour? When?"
"I dunno... about tennish, I think."
"Tennish, you think? You took a walk at ten at night?"
"Yeah. In the cemetery. I do that sometimes... to contemplate the nature of mortality. Or something."
"Did anyone go with you?"
"Yeah. My housemate, Willow - Willow Rosenberg. She likes to come with me on my walks sometimes."
"Two girls out in the graveyard taking a walk in the middle of the night? You're sure you didn't come this way?"
"We were out maybe half an hour and we were on foot. We stayed in the cemetery."
The detective grunted and took more notes. Buffy watched with growing discomfort. A uniformed policeman arrived cleared his throat to get the detective's attention.
"Yeah? What have you got, Simmons?"
"Dr. Whipple says she's ready for the body to be moved. And Animal Control is here."
"Animal Control?" Buffy asked. "Why are they here?"
"Miss Summers," the detective said with exaggerated patience, "the body you found this morning was partially eaten. Your boss has two beagles. Until Dr. Whipple tells me they aren't what ate Jalil Singh, Animal Control is going to keep them under observation. Stay here. I'm going to want another word with you in a little while."
With that, the two policemen left to continue their investigations elsewhere. Buffy rolled her shoulders to ease the tension building there. She jumped slightly when she heard footsteps approaching her, but relaxed when she saw who it was.
"You're sure you're okay?" Brad asked anxiously.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," Buffy said. "It's not like this is the first time I've seen a dead body. It wasn't of the pretty, but I'll live. The one I'm worried about is Daisy. The cops can't seriously think her dogs did this."
The pair looked over to where Lyle held Daisy back as Primrose and Poppy were taken away by Animal Control. Despite his obvious fury, Lyle restrained his wife as gently as he could. When she turned to cry against his chest, he led her away quietly. Buffy found herself both wanting and not wanting to watch them. The scene was clearly not meant for an audience, but the tenderness between them was compelling.
"Lyle will take good care of her," Brad said. "And if I know Daisy, as soon as she's had a good cry, she'll come out of her corner fighting. That's always a good show. Animal Control won't know what hit them. Come on, Buffy, take a break. Sit down. I'll get you some coffee. Or I could drive you home."
"No, thanks." She stared in the direction her bosses had gone. "The cops say I can't leave yet. But I'm okay, really. I don't need a break."
"That's the shock talking. Please, sit down and have something to drink. I really don't want to find you huddled in a corner rocking next week when a good cry and a latte could prevent it."
"'Cause employees are hard to find when there's been a fatal chewing on the job?"
"Because I like you." A wry smile formed on his lips. "And because breakdowns in the greenhouse aren't good for the plants. Some of them are very sensitive. Please, Buffy. Just take a few minutes. For the Rhododendrons."
"Okay," she said at last. "If it'll make the flowers feel better. I want to make a phone call, anyway. I... I don't want my housemates to find out about this on TV before I have a chance to let them know what's going on."
They smiled at one another. When she turned to leave, his smile faded. He watched her intently as she left the greenhouse.
Giles looked up from the sandwich he'd just made when the phone rang.
"Bloody wonderful," he muttered to himself. "If it's another long-distance provider, I shall hex them. Boils should do the trick." Reaching over, he picked up the phone and answered it testily. "Yes?"
"What did I do?" came Buffy's voice.
"Sorry... never mind. It's been a long day of telephone solicitations. What's going on?"
"I thought I was retired. Giles, why are they following me?"
"Who's following you?"
"Ghosts, ghouls, vampires. Drusilla. And now, maybe a werewolf, or possibly something else that eats parts of people. Something with a small mouth and a big appetite."
"What's happened?" Giles bit into his sandwich.
"Remember last night when I said I had nothing in common with Jalil? Well, now I do because we've both bought the farm. Only I think he's staying dead, so we probably won't compare too many notes on the subject. Something ate part of him. Actually, several parts of him. He doesn't have much in the way of arm or leg action going on, anymore, not to mention the throat-ripping deal." She listened carefully for a moment. "Giles? Giles, are you still there? Did you hear what I said?"
"Yes. I'm sorry. I just had to chuck my lunch out. I seem to have suddenly lost my appetite. Eaten, you say?"
"Yeah. The cops hauled Daisy's beagles away as the prime suspects, but I'm thinking this one isn't so much natural as super."
"You don't think the dogs could be some sort of man-eating creatures, do you?"
"These dogs? They're completely spoiled. They think of people as giant can openers, not chew toys. Besides, the bite marks I saw are too small. I think they'd be too small for a chihuahua."
"How very odd," Giles mused. "You know, that's the third sudden death of a new employee at that nursery in the last few months."
"The third? You let me get a job at the Bates Motel and you didn't say anything? Gee, thanks."
"Wh-what? You didn't know? There was a story about it in the newspaper not long ago."
"You know I only read the comics all summer. Now I read the sale ads, too. The real news is too depressing. How did the others die?"
"Let me see... I believe one drowned in a birdbath and the other was run through with a pair of hedge clippers, or some such. Both deaths were ruled accidental."
"How do you accidentally drown in a birdbath? If it wasn't for the way Jalil died, I'd say we were looking for a human fiend and it's time to get Columbo on the case. With this one, I think we're looking for something - anything - that isn't Primrose and Poppy. And let's do it quick, okay? I just started liking being alive again."
"I'll consult my books, of course. And I'm sure Willow and Xander will be more than happy to help."
"Great. Tell Will I need her to star in The Return of Net Girl and see if she can hack into the coroner's office. I want to know what they decide made those bite marks." Buffy stiffened suddenly and looked around herself. There was nobody near. She took a deep, calming breath and continued. "Look, I should go now. I'll check back in about two hours and see what you've come up with. And Giles?"
"This is my last case. You know that, right?"
"I'll be certain to pass that information on to the vampires, demons, and assorted otherworldly horrors in the area right away. Will that do?"
"Just be sure to let Hedwig know I'm cool with her if she wants to stay. I gotta go, Giles. I think someone's watching me."
"Do I have to ask you to be careful?"
"No, but it's okay if you do, anyway."
"Would you like me to bring the coven in on this? I'm sure they'd be happy to help out."
"I don't think we need to. Let's see if we can handle this one the Scooby way first. We'll keep your girlfriend as back-up, in case we need it."
"She's not my girlfriend, Buffy."
"I know. But she wants you to be, doesn't she?"
Giles made a slightly annoyed sound.
"Call me," he said shortly. "If I haven't heard from you in three hours, I'll call you."
"Okay, okay, I'll mind my own business. So sue me for actually caring. Bye, Giles."
She hung up the phone and turned to go back to the scene of the crime, but was startled to find Stephanie right there.
"What did I tell you?" the older woman gloated. "First Debbie, then Becky, and now Jalil. Take that as a warning, Buffy: behave around here."
"Or what, Stephanie? What's gonna happen to me?" Buffy folded her arms across her chest. "What do you know about this?"
"I know they all got what was coming to them, and so will you."
"Is that some kind of threat?"
"More of an observation. If I was you, I'd watch my back pretty carefully, now."
As Stephanie stalked back to her counter, Buffy turned to leave. She stopped short at the sight of a garden gnome at her feet.
"What are you doing here?" she asked the plaster statue. "You belong outside, buddy. Come on, I'll take you there." She fixed the gnome with a glare. "And then you can stay out of my way. Got it?"
Picking the gnome up gingerly, Buffy carried it out to the garden statuary display.
That night, the Scoobies held a meeting.
"I tell you, the gnomes are after me," Buffy declared. "Everywhere I go, there's a gnome, looking creepy. I hate those things."
"Maybe they just think you're cute," Xander said with a grin.
The Slayer glared witheringly at him.
"I don't want them to think I'm cute," she said. "I want them to leave me alone. They creep me out."
"Buffy, loathe as I am to bring up ancient history," Giles said, "it's not as if this is the first time you've shown an unreasoning dislike of an inanimate object. I remember when you thought a ventriloquist's dummy was a serial killer."
"Then you should also remember that ventriloquist's dummy turned out to be an enchanted demon hunter and wasn't so inanimate, after all. Sid may not have been a bad guy, but there was a good reason why I thought he was for so long. And he really was icky in a lot of ways."
"But he could only move because he wasn't just any dummy," Willow pointed out. "This is more than one gnome, right? How many gnomes in one place could be cursed demon hunters?"
"I didn't say they were demon hunters. I just said they seem to be following me. Do you really think I'm nuts enough to think they're all on my side?" Buffy began to pace the room restlessly. "No, they're after me for some reason. And someone working in that place is behind it. I don't know who, but I'm working with a killer." She stopped and turned to Giles. "Have you found anything yet? Anything at all?"
"Not as yet, I'm afraid. Unless it's wererats."
"Eeeieew!" Dawn exclaimed. "I don't like rats. I didn't have to know they could be werethings."
"You're the one who wanted to be included in the research," Buffy reminded her. "If you don't want to know about this stuff, you can always just stay away from the Scooby meetings."
"No, that's okay. I'll stay and find out what's going to kill us all this week. At least this way, if I see a rat, I know not to wait for the mousetraps to work."
"And not to wear your gorgonzola perfume," Xander added helpfully.
"Like I couldn't have figured that out on my own." Dawn rolled her eyes.
"Anyway, we were talking about gnomes," Buffy said. "Where did we get wererats from?"
"Bites," Giles reminded her as he ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "You said they were too small for a beagle to make. Rats are smaller than beagles. I know I'm reaching, but I haven't been able to come up with anything more likely."
"What about you, Will? Any luck?"
"The results of the autopsy aren't in yet. Sorry, Buff. I'll keep looking, of course, but there hasn't been that much to see so far."
"Xand?" Buffy could feel her heart sinking at the look on her friend's face. She was pretty sure what he'd say before he opened his mouth.
"Well... it's probably not all that helpful..."
The teenager flipped her book around so Buffy could see it.
"I found a picture of a Klenchock demon doing cave paintings with the entrails of his victims. Who knew there were artistic demons?" She put down her volume. "Hey, I'm gonna get some ice cream. Anybody else want some?"
Everyone else shook their heads. Dawn bounced out of the room, leaving Buffy to shake her head.
"Giles, are you sure she's not evil-infested anymore?" she asked.
"Don't be ridiculous, Buffy; she's just a teenager." He closed his book and stood. "Of course she's evil. You know, I think I might have some ice cream after all."
The other three stared after him as he left.
"Is it just me," Xander asked, "or does he get stranger every year?"
Since nobody answered, they all went back to their research.