Jesse tapped lightly on the apartment door, listening for any sounds of movement on the other side. Several seconds passed, but he waited patiently. He knew Mrs. Peggy Heston was home, and he didn't want to leave the building until he had the chance to talk to her. His patience was rewarded five minutes after he knocked, when the door pushed open a crack, exposing green, questioning eyes.
"Oh. Mr. Madding, is that you?" She opened the door slowly, revealing a cluttered apartment, two little girls, and an orange and white cat. "I didn't think I would see you this morning."
Jesse smiled. "How are you? And the kids?"
"Everybody is good." She looked over her shoulder, then back to Jesse and lowered her voice. "We can talk in the hallway. I don't want them to know what's going on."
Jesse took a step back, watching for any signs of injury or exhaustion as she left the apartment, shutting the door behind her. She seemed healthy. As healthy as he had ever seen her.
"He was here last night, Mr. Madding. He kept pounding on the door and shouting. He scared the girls, but..."
"We found him last night," Jesse said gently. "Well, early this morning. You were right. He had changed." He paused. He never liked this part of the job, but it was his, whether he wanted it or not. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Heston."
"He's not coming home, is he? My Frank isn't coming home."
It was a common story. One that he had seen dozens of times, if not hundreds of times, since he began working with Gideon Keel. Sometimes, loved ones didn't come home. Sometimes demons took their place. And sometimes, it was difficult to tell the difference.
"He was a vampire."
"You're sure?" Her watery green eyes pleaded with him. It's not true. Please tell me this is not true.
"I'm sure. We had conclusive evidence." In the form of three dead bodies, but Jesse didn't think all of the details were necessary or desired. "We had to stake him."
He winced mentally. It sounded like he was talking about putting down some wild animal. But Gideon had only slammed a stake through Frank Heston's heart after he attacked an innocent bystander, then turned his deadly strength against Jesse when Jesse had intervened.
"What am I going to tell the girls?" Her lower lip trembled, and Jesse reacted without thinking, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. She turned into his chest, her body shaking with silent sobs. "Maybe I should have let him come in last night. All he wanted was to see us. Maybe I should have..."
"No," Jesse said sharply. "What happened to him wasn't your fault. It probably wasn't his, either."
"I just want things to be different."
Jesse's other arm went around her. "I know. I know you do."
She didn't speak again. She couldn't. Her tears absorbed her breath. Jesse didn't try to offer any more explanation or apology. He knew he couldn't say anything to comfort her, or to make her understand that sometimes bad things happened to good people. So he let her cry, rubbing her back soothingly while he listened through the door for any signs that her girls could hear her.
Mrs. Heston finally lifted her head. She looked impossibly young with tears streaking down her face. Too young to have children. Too young to be a widow. "Thank you. I know you would have saved him if you could."
"I'm sorry I couldn't do more." He gently pushed her toward the door. "Go be with your daughters. They need you almost as much as you need them."
"Will you ... will we see you again?"
Jesse pulled a small package of tissues out of his pocket and handed it to her. "I'll come by to make sure you're okay."
"Can you find out who did this to Frank?"
A part of Jesse wanted to tell her no. In a city the size of Chicago, it would be impossible to trace back an individual's death to one murderous vampire. But Gideon wasn't the best for nothing, and if anybody could find the guilty vampire, it would be him. Even if he had to beat and burn a swath through the city to do it.
"We're going to do our best. We both want to see justice for your husband."
She dug a tissue out and wiped her face, though she didn't accomplish any more than smearing the tears and make-up across her eyes. "Let me know if you learn anything."
"I just wish I could have said good-bye."
Jesse's heart twisted and he couldn't resist giving her one more, brief hug. If nothing else, he wanted her to know that he understood. She returned the embrace, then broke away and ducked back into the apartment. He remained in the hallway for several seconds, unsure of what he was waiting for. Perhaps a sign that she really would be okay, but he knew that was impossible.
The sun was almost at its apex when he emerged from the building, and he squinted against the bright light. There wasn't a cloud in the summer sky, and while everybody was scurrying around for lunch, he just wanted to collapse and sleep for the next twelve hours. Unlike Gideon, he couldn't just go to sleep after they solved a case--one way or the other. First, he had to contact Derek and let him know why the police department would never find a body in their missing person case. Then he had to supervise any clean-up in the area. He couldn't just leave weapons and blood and possibly guts and body parts around for the neighborhood children to find. After that, he had to contact the family--or find out if there was any family to contact.
But his tasks were completed, and it was Emma's day off. He could go home, crawl in bed between both his lovers, and sleep without disturbance until after the sunset. The fact that his shirt was still damp with Mrs. Heston's tears just made him want to get home faster. He was all too aware of how fragile they all were, and he didn't like being away from them a second more than he had to be.
Jesse considered stopping for something to eat on the drive home, but decided against it. There was enough for a sandwich or two at home, and he didn't feel like dealing with the beginning of the lunch rush. Especially since he was groggy and felt heavy-limbed and half asleep.
The acrid stench of smoke filtered into the Jeep before he saw any flames. Even as the rational part of his mind insisted the smell could be coming from anywhere, a flood of adrenaline dumped into his blood stream. The smoke could have been coming from anywhere, but it wasn't. And when it came to Gideon and Emma, Jesse was far from a rational thinker. He didn't always have the luxury of logic.
The reek of smoke only grew more oppressive as he drove toward their office. Black clouds billowed from the window he left open next to the door. There was no sign of Emma. Or Gideon's car with the darkly-tinted windows. Neither of them had called him. There were no emergency vehicles. Jesse took all of those facts in at once and slammed to a stop outside the front door.
He rushed into the building without thought, covering his mouth with one hand as he stumbled toward the stairs.
The heat made his eyes burn, rolling through the stairwell in palpable waves. Keeping his head low, he only stopped when he reached the door, touching its surface to test how hot it was.
He got lucky. It was only slightly warm.
Jesse pushed the door open and immediately started coughing. The heat was higher in here, and flames licked the exit to the stairs that led up to the office. The rest of the living room wasn't burning yet, but smoke was everywhere.
He didn't wait for a response. He bolted for the open door to the bedroom.