“BE VEWWY, vewwy quiet, we’re hunting—” Ethan broke off as a shotgun, held in a pair of unusually beefy hands, swung toward him and took up position about three inches from his left nostril. “Joke, okay?” He swallowed and tried to ignore the chill tap-dancing down his spine. “Sense of humor failure, much?”
His heavy black brows casting his dark eyes in even darker shadow, Logan very noticeably didn’t move the gun away. “Joking like that is what gets guys killed out in the bush.” His voice, with its American twang, was a low rumble that reminded Ethan equally of Clint Eastwood at his meanest and the roaring of the tigers in the local zoo. Ethan had always liked to lie in bed and listen to them on a summer’s evening. Apparently Logan had spent so long in the company of dangerous animals he’d started to sound like one. Not to mention behave like one.
Ethan found himself wondering what it would be like to lie in bed listening to Logan. If he’d been asked to describe his companion’s physical appearance, the word “tiger” would probably not have sprung to mind. “Bear,” on the other hand—that would do nicely. Well over six feet tall, Logan seemed to lumber rather than walk. He was not so much hirsute as full-on furry, and if he fancied a snack, Ethan could all too easily imagine him scooping up live salmon in those great paws of his and swallowing them whole. Talking of swallowing things whole…. Ah. The barrel of the shotgun was still glaring coldly in Ethan’s general direction. It probably wasn’t the time to get distracted.
Judging discretion to be the better part of valor, particularly when he was a foot shorter and around a hundred pounds lighter than the other guy, Ethan put his hands up in mock surrender and smiled ingratiatingly. “We’re not in the bush, though, are we? This is Parkhurst Forest on the Isle of Wight, not the African Serengeti. On a global scale, it barely qualifies as a shrubbery.” He paused significantly. “And right now, I’m thinking it’s more likely to be that gun of yours that gets me killed. Do you think you could point it somewhere else?”
“You call this a gun?” Logan’s lip curled around his cigar. “My three-year-old daughter has toys that could out-shoot this piece of shit. The gun laws in this country are crazy. How the hell is a man supposed to protect himself and his family?”
Damn. Logan had a daughter. That probably meant he had sex with girls. Or at least a girl. Well, had done once, unless it was some test-tube, turkey-baster baby…. Ethan wrenched his thoughts to more immediate matters. “You’re seriously telling me you think that giving a gun to every nut-job who can come up with the money makes a country safer?”
Logan took the stub of his cigar out of his mouth, glared at it for a moment, then ground it out beneath one size-fourteen heel. “You got a nuclear deterrent, don’t you?”
“Not personally, no.”
“But you get my drift, right?” All credit to Logan: for a big guy who was trying to get a point across, he used minimal looming.
Actually, Ethan wouldn’t have minded a bit more looming. Possibly even some menacing, as long as the shotgun wasn’t involved. There was a difference, in his opinion, between hey, that’s kinky, do it again and shit, call the police now, and the use of shotguns was so far on the other side of the line it had probably fallen off the edge of the island.
“I suppose so,” Ethan conceded. “But—oh, I don’t know. Do we really need all the firepower in this particular instance? This isn’t the full might of communist Russia we’re up against. Wouldn’t a carrot on a stick do just as well?”
“This ain’t some fluffy bunny we’re up against, kid,” Logan snarled. “This is your worst nightmare come to life. This is the Jackalope.” The capital J was clearly audible, and it remained hanging in the air between them for a moment like the trail left by a sparkler on Bonfire Night.
Ethan laughed. “Hey, if it was my worst nightmare, I’d be naked and up in front of my old maths class, with Mr. Frogmore beating me with a blackboard rubber for being too thick to understand calculus.”
Logan’s surly expression seemed to soften as he nodded his dark, shaggy head at Ethan. “Yeah, I heard all about the kind of shit that goes on in your English schools. Wouldn’t be allowed to happen in the US of A, that’s for sure!”
“Uh, I didn’t—oh, never mind.” Ethan unclipped his lens cap. “Listen, why don’t I get a couple of shots before we get into it? You want to get into hunter pose? Aim that gun of yours at something that’s not me?”
“You can put that thing away. I’ll pose for pictures when I got the jackalope. Not before. You think I want you snapping pictures, flashing your little light-bulbs and scaring away anything in a half mile range?” He strode off into the forest, and Ethan scurried to keep up with his long stride.
“Hey, you want to make your mind up about these things? One minute they’re the creature from the Black Lagoon, only not so cuddly, and the next you’re telling me they’re scared of a little flash of light?” The more Ethan thought about it, the more convinced he was that Logan had brought him on a wild goose chase. Wild rabbit chase. Whatever. After all, seriously, whoever heard of killer rabbits with antlers?
But if jackalopes were real, and Ethan was on hand to take the first ever authenticated photographs of the furry little freaks… well, he could kiss goodbye to photographing dodgy Victoria sponges at village cake competitions for the Isle of Wight County Press. He’d have it made! Besides, it wasn’t like there were any other well-built, good-looking guys queuing up to take him on walks in the forest on a Saturday afternoon. Even if this one was straight, Ethan might as well make the most of it.
He supposed he’d better try and get a bit of a story out of the guy. “So what makes you think the jackalopes are here? I mean, you’re not suggesting they’re native to the Isle of Wight, are you? I think people would have noticed by now if the place were overrun with horny rabbits. Uh, rabbits with horns. You know what I mean.”
Logan paused in the act of examining a frond of bracken that looked exactly like every other frond of bracken, as far as Ethan could tell. “You ever hear of a guy named Drew Van Matthews?”
Ethan shook his head. “Nice name, though. Kind of reminds me of an author I once heard of—”
“Guy’s a fanatic. Breeds the little fuckers in his top-secret base in Indiana. Wants to spread the jackalope throughout the world.”
“And he’s starting with the Isle of Wight?” Ethan didn’t even try to keep the incredulity out of his voice.
Logan laughed, a short, harsh bark without humor. “You think he’s never tried this kind of crap before? Places like this make him cream his panties—self-contained ecosystems. It’s the perfect way to see how the critters adapt to the climate, local food sources, what-the-fuck-ever.” He sat back on his haunches, the bracken seemingly forgotten. “I’ve been tracking this asshole forever. Almost had him in Sicily, but he jumped ship and made it to Gibraltar.” Logan laughed again, this time like he meant it. “Hell, he won’t be going there again. The monkeys ran him and his jackalopes right outta town.”
Ethan shuddered. “Yeah, I’ve met those monkeys. Went to Gibraltar when I was a kid.” Sometimes he still had nightmares about the one who’d stolen his ice cream and run off, shrieking defiance. It’d had chocolate sauce on it and everything. The ice cream, not the monkey. Well, the monkey probably did too, but Ethan had been too upset to notice. He did sometimes have dreams about people covered in chocolate sauce, but those were generally a lot more pleasant.
“This place, though—it’s perfect for him,” Logan went on. “Britain in microcosm.”
“Well, most Brits think of it more as the 1950s in microcosm, but pretty much, yeah,” Ethan agreed. He frowned. “Hey, these jackalopes of yours—they don’t eat squirrels, do they? We’re very protective of our squirrels round here.”
“Yeah, I heard about that. One of the last remaining habitats of the British Red Squirrel, right?”
“Now the rest of the country’s been invaded by American grays, yes.” Ethan couldn’t stop himself glaring at Logan, although the big man probably hadn’t been personally responsible. Ethan was hazy on the details, but he was fairly sure even rabbits couldn’t have bred their way up through six hundred miles of country in Logan’s lifetime. Okay, the guy was kind of weathered, but Ethan put him at twenty-eight, maybe thirty, tops.
Logan shrugged and puffed out his chest a little, not that it needed it. “Hey, is it our squirrels’ fault they’re bigger and tougher than the little red guys? It’s survival of the fittest out here in the wild. Now get your skinny British ass in gear, we got jackalopes to hunt.”
Ethan bristled. “My ass—sod it, arse—is not skinny. I’m just lean and well-toned,” he added in a lower tone, worried Logan might take exception and point the gun at him again.
Logan’s gaze roamed over Ethan’s body. “My three-year old daughter’s got a bigger—”
“Yes, all right!” Ethan snapped. “I get the picture.” He stomped off across the bracken, taking vicious pleasure in flattening as many fronds as he could.
They crept deeper into the forest, Logan occasionally stopping to examine the bracken, the bark of certain types of tree, and once, a small pile of animal droppings. To Ethan’s disgust, Logan picked some up, rubbed it between his fingers, and gave it a good sniff.
“I hope you’re not planning on tasting that,” Ethan muttered, having been mentally scarred by watching Due South when he was younger.
Whatever Logan might have said—and from his expression, it wouldn’t have been anything complimentary to Ethan—was interrupted by the thucka-thucka-thucka of a helicopter sounding overhead. Ethan looked up automatically, but he could see nothing through the thick forest canopy.
“What the hell’s that all about?” Logan’s bushy black brows huddled together like cats in a basket as he frowned and looked up.
“At a guess, I’d say there’s been an escape from Parkhurst Prison.” Ethan flicked open his phone and opened up the Internet browser.
Logan stared at him. “So you have to tell all your Facebook friends about it?”
“No,” Ethan said with exaggerated patience, “but it might be nice to know if there’s a homicidal maniac running round the forest with us.”
Mutely, Logan raised the gun.
Ethan rolled his eyes. “Oh, yes. How silly of me. Another homicidal maniac, then.” He looked back down at the screen. “Uh-oh, this isn’t good. Breaking news: Reggie Carter, gangland killer, escaped from Parkhurst just over an hour ago. Says here he used a ladder he’d built in the prison workshop to scale the prison wall—what the bloody hell did they think he was building a twenty-five-foot ladder for? Anyway, we’d better clear out until he’s found.”
“No way.” Logan turned and stomped off, as if the discussion was over.
“Um, way,” Ethan protested, scurrying after him. “I didn’t sign up for any hostage situations. And anyway, we’d only be getting in the way of the police search.”
“Anyone gets in my way, they’re going to regret it,” Logan snarled. “Now move it or lose it. I’m not waiting around here all day for you to grow a pair.”
“I’ve got a pair,” Ethan muttered, but he looked around fearfully as he hastened after Logan.