It wasn't a deer.
Glazed eyes stared up at the sky, a gash in the animal's neck spilled over with red-tinted water, washing out the blood that was once there. Orange-striped fur peaked in wet clumps around its body. Its mouth gaped open, exposing its pitiful little fangs. No match for whatever had killed it.
"A cat.” Adam's voice had lost its previous warmth.
I nodded and looked at him as he stepped around me to stand on the other side of the carcass, carefully avoiding the animal's tail. It was a house cat. A big one, maybe eighteen, twenty pounds, but still, once somebody's pet. There was even a blue leather collar around its torn neck.
I braced myself and took a deep breath, trying to sort out particular scents underneath the reek of blood, death and wet ground. A few things came through, a touch of cedar, a hint of Mexican oregano as if the cat had brushed against a bush or two in its wanderings. The sharp bitterness of its maleness. An unneutered tom. Great. Some bozo hadn't bothered to fix his cat and it had either run off or had been dumped out here in the boonies, only to become prey for something bigger and nastier. Then suddenly, a scent I recognized. Shit. It couldn't be. We never hunted pets. I needed to get out of here and make a phone call.
"Do you recognize it?” I asked Adam, hoping it wasn't his cat.
"No.” The once rich voice was brusque and flat. “We have a lot of strays abandoned around here. You really didn't see what ran past?"
"It went by too quickly. But from the looks of it, it could have been a bigger cat or other natural predator.” I was lying, but I couldn't explain to Adam what I suspected. I could see where sharp teeth had shredded the cat's neck.
"Damn.” The soft word spilled out almost in a whisper.
"Yeah,” I said. “Not much like those deer."
Adam's head snapped up, eyes blazing green fire in the glow of the flashlight. For a split second, a trick of the light made it seem as if there was a real flame behind them.
"How did you know about that?” His voice rose, clipping the syllables.
"Hey, take it easy there, Adam,” I said, backing up. “Everyone knows."
"It's a small town. Things like that get around. Look, there's no point in staying out here in the wet. Let's go back."
"I'm sorry,” he said, calming down. “It really bothers me that someone could come poach on my land and hurt the animals that I spend so much time rescuing."
"Most of our exotic stock comes from defunct hunting ranches,” he said, ducking under a particularly vicious mesquite branch. “I couldn't let them go to another trophy-hunting place."
"Good for you.” I meant it. I hated those places.
"You don't believe in hunting?"
"It's not that,” I said. “Real hunting's fine as long as you eat what you kill.” Okay, so the way I meant it wasn't exactly the traditional shoot, skin and butcher, but it was true. “I just want the prey to have a fighting chance. Not like these places that treat the game like pets, putting out feed and acclimating them to humans, then ‘too bad, so sad'—it's now somebody's future wall-hanging."
I opened the back door of the Land Rover, and pulled out a couple of towels I kept in a gym bag in the back. I didn't explain that I mostly used them to wipe down the car. I'd just washed them and they were clean.
"Here,” I said, and tossed him a towel.
He smiled as he swabbed the water from his skin, trying to sop up the worst of it. “That's better, thank you."
"You're welcome,” I said and continued to mop water from my hair. A losing proposition. My hair was still braided; in order to really dry it, I'd have to undo the braid and spend a good hour or two with at least two thick towels. That would have to wait until I got home. I peeled off my soaking flannel shirt, leaving me in a thin cotton tank top that was just as wet. But it was more comfortable than the sopping flannel.
Adam looked like he was a candidate for