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"Echo, can you take Gabe home? His dad called and said he's working on something, so he can't come pick him up. And his mom works weird hours. I know it's a little out of your way since you live in Searchlight, but I'd really appreciate it."

Marta's voice cut through the silence, and Echo looked up from putting away the art supplies. The older woman was a retired schoolteacher who'd opened Cornerstone after moving to Nevada from Denver. She was short and chubby, her once-black hair shot through with wide swathes of white. The hybrid liked her because she sensed her goodness, and the children the center took care of during the day gravitated towards her with ease.

"Sure," she said easily, finishing with one task before adding, "Just let me clean up these books and then I'll get my keys. Tell Gabe he can either wait in your office or outside."

"Thanks, hon. Drop me a note in the morning, and I'll give you some money for gas."

Echo tucked away the books that were scattered around. When she was finished, she scooped up her keys from the small room she ate lunch in, then headed out. She poked her head into Marta's office, but no one was there.

"Hi, Gabe," she said once she stepped outside. The shadows were lengthening as the day grew late, and the boy looked up at her with a small smile. "Hey." He was swinging his feet back and forth. His sneakers were blue. The lenses of his glasses caught the late-day sun, and it turned them opaque. "You're gonna have to tell me where you live, but I can take you home."

Inside the van, the boy's feet pushed aside fast food bags, and Echo winced at the condition of the vehicle. "Sorry it's messy," she said as she started the engine. Gabe shrugged. "My dad has a van. His is always full of junk so he can make stuff."

Though the brunette's ability to make conversation was improving, she had little to say except to occasionally ask about the correct turn to make. This wasn't the first time she'd had to take a kid home because their parents needed to make other arrangements, it was just her first time doing so for Gabe. She wondered what kind of 'stuff' his father made.

"We're the last house on the block," the boy said once they'd turned into a cul-de-sac. The neighborhood was semi-decent, small houses spaced evenly apart. With the exception of the last house, all the driveways were empty. Echo saw the green van, pulled up behind it.

"You should come talk to Dad." Gabe said it as he was getting out, his feet dislodging some debris from the floorboards. "He'll probably try to give you money since you had to come out here."

The hybrid was about to protest that Marta had offered to cover the cost, and then she shrugged. Hell, why not? Learning to talk to people meant actually putting yourself out there and making an effort. The driver's side door opened, and her feet made contact with concrete.

There was a man in the front yard. He was wearing ripped overalls and workman's boots. Welder's goggles covered his eyes. He was coffee-colored. "Dad!" The happy sound made hm turn, and he switched the blowtorch off and set it aside. He was younger than Echo had expected, but when he picked Gabe up she saw the resemblance. Same nose, same chin. She shuffled closer.

"I fixed you something to eat, but it's just a sandwich because your mom fixed her special chili. We'll eat that when she gets home." The man put the boy down, and Gabe darted towards the house, small backpack in tow. Echo looked for something to say. He smiled at her. Then he put out a hand.

"Hi, I'm Errol. As you can tell, I'm Gabe's dad."

The warmth put the hybrid at ease, and they shook hands. "Hi, Errol, my name's Echo." She went up on her toes to look over his shoulder, and he chuckled and stepped aside. "It's barely started," he said, waving a hand at the metal pieces he'd been welding together. "I should have waited until after I picked the kid up, but the idea for a new piece struck me and I figured I should get at it before the inspiration vanished."

"No, it's fine, I don't mind doing taxi service," Echo answered with a head shake. "Marta hardly ever asks me to do stuff after hours because she usually does it, but she had to go to an early dinner with her grandson. So it's okay. Besides, you have to feed the muse when it's hungry."

One of Errol's eyebrows arched, and her cheeks turned pinkish. Up close, he was almost too handsome. "You into art stuff?" She shrugged, self-conscious. "I draw sometimes. I'm not famous or anything."

The eyebrow returned to it's normal post, and he scratched his bristly cheek. "You sound like my wife. She was a singer when we met, but she never thought she was any good at it. I told her not to give it up, but she decided she should walk a different path." His bare shoulders went up and down, a resigned shrug. One thumb hitched in the direction of the house Gabe had disappeared into.

"You wanna come in? I got some hard ciders in the fridge, or if you have a drive ahead of you we've got juice."

She darted a look at him, but his expression was placid. Non-threatening. She liked to think that the Wolf would let her sense a threat, if only because she'd had so much practice looking for one. Errol seemed harmless. "What does your wife do?" "She runs her own business, The Starlight Den."

Echo smiled because she couldn't help it, some of the distrust vanishing. "Judy was nice to me," she said. "Really patient, even though I took forever to pick something out." Errol displayed white teeth in a dark face. "So you're the one. She mentioned you. Said you looked at her books for so long you might never find what you wanted." "Yeah, I should have designed something of my own, something unique, but I..."

The hybrid closed her mouth with a snap. She was vaguely horrified. She'd just been about to tell a total stranger about her wish for a wolf tattoo, specifically mentioning the significance of it for her. Idiot. Imbecile. Moron.

His smile had dimmed when she looked up again, because out of habit she'd dropped her gaze to the toes of his boots, but his expression was kind. "My woman knows people," he said, his tone a little grave. "We had to go through some things to get together, and though we made it, we wouldn't have if we hadn't stuck it out. And she said she liked you, that you've got the light."

"What light?"

Echo's tone was so skeptical when she said it that Errol shook his head, and he touched the denim covering his chest. "In here," he explained, two fingers tapping against the faded cloth. "It's brighter in some people than in others."

The idea that strangers had been talking about her made Echo uncomfortable, even though the talk apparently hadn't been negative. What had the tattooist seen when they'd met, and why hadn't she been more suspicious of her? And worse, who might she tell besides her husband?

But if she'd really intended to do harm, she'd have done it by now. Echo had gotten the tattoo months ago, and nothing had happened. Not everyone was out to hurt her. Right?

"Lemme get some cash from the house," Errol said. "I'll give you a few bucks for the gas and a bottle of cider to take home. Apparently he'd decided that retreat was the better part of valor. Echo had just about made the same realization. She had also had the thought that she should drop by the tattoo parlor tomorrow and speak to Judy. Just in case.

You could really never be too careful.



May 2014

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