I-80 West isn't a straight slash through the trees, thank God. There're plenty enough bends and curves to keep me from being completely mesmerized. The window's down and the winter air beats on my face. The roar fills my ears and head. The wind, the road, the engine, I don't care where it comes from. It keeps the ghosts out. At least for a bit.

In spite of the cold, sleep tempts me. I'm not used to driving alone. The night's too lonely. I miss Madison, dammit. She would tell me jokes right about now, or make with the funny voices. Heading to a call, we did that. Heading back, we were usually too full of things to think about to do much talking. Then again, heading back, we were usually too wound up to worry about falling asleep at the wheel.

I miss Madison. So much for the open window keeping the ghosts out. I turn on the radio and crank it. We used to sing, but I don't. Not alone. I poke at it until I find a station that isn't easy, or classy, or lite. I want fast, I want guitars. Instead, I get AM stations. Finally, I find some right-wing nutjob and scream obscenities at him and his tripe. That works for a bit, but soon, I'm tired of it. I'm tired of all the stupid people, especially this bozo in my ear. I shut him up, and it feels good.

The silence is good, but lulling. Sleep still has a habit of sneaking up on a person. I'm blinking it away, but it's gaining on me. Before I wind up a pretty splat against a tree, I had better pull over.

===

"Sir? Sir?"

I bounce against the seat belt with that waking spasm. My eyes shift from the black of dreams to that blinding light. It's no better - I still can't see squat.

"Sir? Are you all right?"

I roll down my window. "Yeah. I'm peachy." He aims the flashlight into my lap for a second, then points it back at my eyes.

"All right. I just wanted to be sure you didn't have car trouble."

By Braille, I start my engine. "Nope. Just catching some shut-eye."

"Okay. If you don't mind, can I see your license and registration?"

With that light in my face, locking eyes with him would be difficult. Besides, cops hate that. I lean over to the glove and rummage through it very slowly, for two reasons. First, cops are real jumpy during traffic stops - lot of cops get shot during these innocent stops. Second, the whole time I'm stalling, I'm holding a piece of paper and loading it up with Power. I feel that hollow in me grow. Until now, I was ignoring it. Not great, but enough that it wasn't always on my mind. Now, it's front and center, and I still have the license to juice.

I'm blinking again when he flicks the light down to check the paperwork. Somewhere in the spot-filled vision I hear, "Everything seems to be in order, Mr. Morgan." He hands them back to me, patting them into my hand, more accurately. I feel them spent, empty of Power. Good, he got the full dose. Now, the question is, was that enough? As I start to see again, I hear him tapping away on his computer. He starts his car, and, if everything goes right, he's going to give me a thumbs-up as he goes by.

He does.

I get out, look around, and find the sheet he tore out of his notebook with my particulars. Sure, they're fake, but I still don't want them on the record. I just hope he knows how to nuke me from the camera and computer, too.

Either way, I need to ditch this car, just to be safe.

===

That little wake-up call did the trick. The engine wants to go above the speed limit, and so do I, but that's just asking for trouble. I'm awake, though my dream is still bouncing around in my head. For the first time since I can remember, it wasn't about me killing her and her dad. I guess I have enough waking thoughts about that. About frigging time. There's only so many times I can apologize for that, especially when there's no one to apologize to.

No, this dream's about Brynn. She's running through the fields, blond hair bouncing and in a silly lavender sundress, like something out of The Sound of Music or something. Only, in that film, I don't think they had black oil slicks flooding over the hills, stinking of landfill and old Chinese food. She plows into me and I barely get my circle Ward up in time before it slaps against the walls. The stench chokes us. I created the ward to keep the stain out, but forgot about that rancid little detail.

Streaks of ooze start climbing the wall like some kind of crazy weed, but one made with ink instead of chlorophyll. Climb all you want, fucker. The Ward isn't anything physical. It's keyed to you, and you'll be stopping yourself no matter how high you go. Good Christ! I'm talking to a grease spill. I cover my nose with my jacket and watch it snake up until it's like I'm in a well. Climb all you want. The start of a smile warms my cheek.

That's when Brynn screams, and I look down to see myself standing in a puddle of it.

I suppose I should thank that cop for waking me. I really don't want to see the sequel. Still, it's preferable reliving me watching that Demon possess Madison . Again. On the steering wheel, I'm aware of my index finger straight, quivering, with that bright blue-white leaf-shaped blade of St. Elmo's Fire dancing a hairs-breadth above it. I scowl, and it flickers out. Just what I need, wasting Power like that. Real smart.

The pit in my gut grows. It grows wider, deeper, darker.

According to the GPS, it's another hour until I meet up with Brynn and fill up. It's going to be a long hour.

===

I make it in forty minutes. It's oh-dark-thirty, and there's still people all over the house. Crime tape is all over, like someone TP'ed it in yellow. No meat wagons. At least that means the screaming's stopped. Here, anyway. I pull up and walk over to the nearest uniform. "Cig?"

"Can't. New rules."

I nod and put the pack back in the go-bag. "Let me guess. Contaminating the scene?"

"Either that, or it's against regs for us to be happy."

I fish out my pre-loaded business card. "Heard that. They had that rule when I was walking beat, too."

"I'm Browning." He hands it back to me, empty of Power. "How do you like social work?"

"When I'm on a house call, I can't smoke either." We share a laugh. Maybe his is even real. I hate lying. I hate even more that I'm so used to it.

"Anyhow, right this way, Mr. Morgan." He lifts the tape for me.

"Jack. Call me Jack. Who's in charge here?"

He points me at a guy in a long coat who doesn't give a damn about contaminating the scene. As I head there, I charge the card back up, ignoring the black hole between my chest and hips. "Detective Forrester? I'm Jack Morgan from Social Services. Is Brynn Harper among the ... " I point my chin at the house.

He flicks his eyes at me, the card and back. They're tired eyes, to go with a tired face. "Morgan, eh? I've never seen you before." His shoulders aren't tired, and they stiffen just a bit as he speaks.

"I transferred from Allentown a week and a half ago. Dan something-or-the-other dropped this Brynn Harper file on me just before end-of-day, when the news broke." I give him a hapless shrug. I don't look young, but sometimes old-timers still take pity on fresh meat.

It works. He returns a grudging nod. "She's at the hospital."

"Which one?"

"There's only one."

"Sorry, I'm new here."

His eyes narrow. I thank him and beat feet before he asks any more questions. He doesn't say a word, but I can feel his eyes studying me. Maybe I should have put more Power into that card.

As I head back to the car, I hear Officer Browning's being called. He turns, nods and starts heading my way. I stay loose act like there's nothing unusual. He's a few steps from me, still walking, looking past me. I nod, and he nods back with a smile, then passes me up. He's heading back the way I came, up toward Forrester.

I'm definitely going to have to ditch the car after this.