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Published by EVERNIGHT PUBLISHING ® at Smashwords


www.evernightpublishing.com




Copyright© 2017 J.J. Collins



ISBN: 978-1-77339-438-1


Cover Artist: Jay Aheer


Editor: Karyn White



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.



DEDICATION


To Carmine Infantino

Not just a Flash in the pan



SPEED DATING


Romance on the Go ®


J.J. Collins


Copyright © 2017


Chapter One


After several years of hunting men, and things that passed for men, Dillon Royce’s instincts had been honed to razor points. He felt their warning now—watching eyes, focused on him like the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass, as if someone were judging where best to slam the knife. Or, if the body at his feet was any indication, where best to aim its claws.

He forced himself not to run his gaze over the landscape. All the shrubs, scrawny bushes, small trees, and of course the varieties of cactus, some with bright, jaunty flowers. When he thought “desert” he thought dunes and camels. Welcome to the American Southwest.

So much plant life. So thick in too many places. So many places to hide.

Stay cool. Lull the arrogant fucker into a sense of complacency. There were four cops and two Wildlife Managers out here with him. He couldn’t put their lives at risk.

Twin wheeling shadows passed over him and the victim. A pair of vultures, cheated of their breakfast. It might be their morose regard that had him on edge, but he doubted it. Turning his back on his unseen audience, he knelt beside the corpse.

Even this early in the morning, the unforgiving Arizona sun wasn’t doing the naked body any favors. Now that they’d taken their photos and swept the scene for evidence, the cops were glad enough to back off with their hands over their noses and, in two cases, slightly green faces. Dillon felt a brief twinge of sympathy for them when the smell hit his own nostrils. Nothing he hadn’t dealt with before. Too many times before.

The man had been killed by a shifter, Dillon had no doubts about that. Belly ripped clean open, guts spilled, but all organs present and accounted for. Bite marks on the legs, scratches from claws on the torso. The shifter had stripped his prey and chased him down. Hunted him. With no entrails eaten, it could only be for sport.

Which left the final touch all that more appalling. Dillon moved his gaze lower, between the victim’s legs. What remained of the penis had been mangled beyond recognition. By teeth, unless Dillon missed his guess. The balls were the only body part missing. He wouldn’t be surprised if at least one hardened cop had puked upon finding the body.

A larger, wingless shadow fell across him and the corpse. “Animal attack,” Detective Barrows said loudly, although his eyes proclaimed that he, like Dillon, knew better. “Think it could be the same one?”

Dillon hid his sour smile. “Almost positive. Same sitch as the other two—naked human male, remote location, probably chased for a while before he was run down and gutted. And, of course, the—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Barrows said tersely. Like the others, he kept his eyes averted from the mess between the victim’s legs. “What kind of animal are we talking here?”

“One that doesn’t like men, that’s for damn sure.” Dillon stood and readjusted his cowboy hat against the angle of the sun. “Educated guess? I’d say a dog or cat. What’s the major predator situation out here?”

“Coyotes,” one of the game rangers said. In spite of his hat, his face was ruddy with sunburn, and he was already sweating from the heat. “Maybe feral dogs. Or a puma, but they run shy of humans. Whatever it is, it’s not afraid of people. I’d say javelina, but they’re usually not so…” His eyes flicked toward the victim’s crotch, then hastily away again. “Specific.”

“Any tracks?”

The man shook his head. “Ground’s too hard.”

Dillon nodded. With his hat’s brim low and his face hidden, he scoured the surrounding land. His eye caught a flash of movement off to the right. He held still, as if lost in thought, and kept a peripheral stare on the spot, but no other action occurred.

“Who found the body?” he asked.

“We got an anonymous tip,” Barrows said. “Just after dawn. Body hasn’t had a chance to cook. He was probably killed overnight. We’ll know for sure once the coroner gets his ass out here.”

“And you called Game and Fish?”

“No.” The other ranger tentatively raised his hand. With big brown puppy eyes and brindle-black hair spilling out from under his hat, he looked about twelve years old. He seemed much more at ease out here, his skin well tanned and hardly sweating at all. “I was out on patrol and spotted the cops. Thought I’d check it out.” The way he squinched up his face at the corpse told Dillon the kid regretted that decision. “If it was an animal attack, we’d need to be called in anyway.”

“It was an animal,” Barrows said firmly. “I don’t know what else could—”

“Jaguar,” the kid broke in.

“Excuse me?” Dillon said.

“Big cat. Loves the desert.” The kid jerked his hand at the body. “A jaguar could do that to a man with no trouble.”

“It’s not a jaguar,” the other game ranger said, a bit shortly. “We haven’t had a jaguar sighting in these parts in close to a hundred years.”

“Then what about the reports? We’ve been getting calls,” the kid told Dillon and Barrows. “People saying they saw a spotted cat out here. Something’s been spooking the pronghorns. We’ve got a small herd we’re trying to encourage. They’re usually all over the place. When I drove through here this morning I didn’t see a single one.”

Dillon and Barrows exchanged a look. Barrows raised an eyebrow that said this was news to him. Dillon glanced at the corpse again. A big cat could do that, sure. They liked to go for the belly. Though no one had reported any cat sightings, spotted or otherwise, at the other two locations.


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