They rode down to the village in Corman’s Standard Ten, the car rocking and shaking with every bump in the road. Kenneth’s shikari, Kuthra, drove while Corman and Richard sat in the back and discussed whatever happened to be on Corman’s mind at that moment.
As they traveled farther south, the flat plains of Bangalore gave way to hills and trees and the villages became fewer and farther between. It took the better part of a day, but they eventually arrived at the village of Pennagaram, where Kuthra had said the attacks had taken place.
Richard exited the vehicle and took in his surroundings as best as he was able. The village itself was unlike any he had ever been to before, relatively untouched by British influence, at least in comparison to Bangalore. The villagers looked on at the car with envy, at Richard and Corman with an expression between uncertainty and frightened optimism. Kuthra spoke with someone Richard assumed to be a local leader in rapid Tamil. Corman paid them no mind, lighting a pipe and regarding the villagers going about their business with something not unlike paternal pride. Somewhere off in the distance Richard heard a murmuring noise that he realized must have been a waterfall.
“The elder says that the rakshasa claimed another victim last night. That brings the total to ten in the past two months, he says.”
Corman’s eyes went wide. “Ten in two months? By God, what a beast!”
“What is a rakshasa?”
“Hindi word,” Corman said. “Sort of like a demon, if you will.”
“Why do they call it that?”
“Probably because the bloody tiger’s eaten ten people, I’d imagine.”
Kuthra shook his head. “It has not eaten them, the elder said.”
Corman was silent for a moment. His pipe sat forgotten in his hand until he tapped it and brought it once more to his lips. “What?”
“It does not eat them. Every villager killed has been found whole.” He paused, considered his words. “More or less whole.”
Richard turned to Corman. “I thought you said that tigers who preyed on humans were old and sick and looking for an easy meal.”
Corman snorted. “They are. Usually.” He took another puff on the pipe and frowned. “What the devil kind of animal hunts a human for fun?”
* * *
The next morning, Corman insisted on having a local take them to places where the attacks had taken place. “Gather your things! We have a long day ahead of us. Lots of walking to do.” That Richard brought his old trench knife with him and that he insisted on carrying his rifle rather than letting a shikari do it for him raised laughter from Corman, although not as much as the 1911 pistol Richard wore on his hip.
“What are you going to do with that thing?” Corman said between laughs. “Piss the tiger off before it kills you?”
“It holds seven rounds. Six for it, one for me, if it comes down to it.” Richard grinned at Corman behind humorless eyes. Corman didn’t return the gesture, and the matter was dropped.
The first victim had been on the banks of a river leading to the falls. “A fisherman,” their villager guide explained as Kuthra translated. “He left early one morning and had not come back by the afternoon. By nightfall, his family was worried. They found his body fifty feet from his gear. There was a trail of blood. The rakshasa dragged the man before killing him. His bones were broken, as if the tiger had played with him, batting him about.”
The second victim had never been found. The third victim was a woodcutter who had been killed in the forests around the village. The man’s neck had been snapped, his leg gnawed on it, but the body largely untouched.
After hours of hiking through the woods, up and down the river that ran by the village, the group of five men stood over the spot where the tenth victim had been found. He had been hunting, and the heavy bladed tool that he carried with him bore traces of blood that was not his own upon it. Corman’s cheerful enthusiasm for their endeavor had worn away in the face of the day’s physical and emotional exhaustion. “Well,” he said. “I’m glad someone managed to hurt the damn thing. Not enough, mind you, but I suppose we’ve got to give the blighter credit for trying.”
* * *
Back in the village, Corman began laying out their plans for catching and slaying the tiger. “Tomorrow we’ll catch some wild boars, alive, and tether them to poles near the spots where the beasts’s kills were found. We’ll build a blind in one of the trees, wait for it, and shoot it when it comes. Simple.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to enter the jungle? To try and determine its range and kill it there, rather than hope it comes to us?”
Corman shook his head. “Too much effort. I’d rather just offer it a free meal and wash my hands of the beast when it comes to claim it.”
Richard snorted in disgust. “Weren’t you telling me that these ‘beasts’ were some of God’s most beautiful, most noble creature?”
Corman said nothing. His glare was icy, and had Richard not had any respect for an older man trying to leverage authority over him blown out of his body by an errant artillery shell so many years before, he might have been cowed. “This is my hunt, Mr. Cesar. Don’t forget that.” The older man cleared his throat as if to regain some measure of lost composure. “And besides. Whatever natural nobility this creature may have possessed was lost when it chose to flout the natural order.
“Now, then. There’s work to be done.”
* * *
The day found Richard and Corman tracking boar through the forests while Kuthra stayed behind and directed the villagers in the construction of blinds at each of the kill sites. By the time night fell, three of the hunting blinds sat in the treetops while an equal number of boars sat in wooden cages in the village. Corman’s spirits improved over the course of the day, and he invited Richard to join him for a drink. To Richard’s surprise, Corman was forthcoming with an apology.
“About earlier,” the older man began. “This situation is strange to me. It defies my knowledge as a hunter, and… well, I pride myself as being a rather good hunter. You can see where that might leave me short-tempered. Moody, as it were.”
Richard nodded. He thought that Corman was presuming too much about the creatures he hunted. He didn’t respect them as predators. It never seemed to enter his mind that they were creatures capable of killing him. They were just trophies to be claimed.
Corman went on. “Anyway, tell me about yourself, friend. I feel like I’ve been talking since we met. Why don’t you speak for a while?”
Richard shrugged. “Not much to say. I don’t know. What do you want to know?”
“Do you have any family?”
Richard shook his head. “Mother and father are dead. Brother somewhere in California I never talk to.”
“Had a girl before the war. She’s dead now.”
“I’m terribly sorry.”
“Not as sorry as I am.” Richard pointed at his face. “I was in Argonne. K company. Shelled by my own goddamn side. I spend a month in a hospital and then get a medical discharge. But there was a mix-up in the papers, and word got back to the States that I was dead when I was just injured. And my Becky was so torn up she killed herself.”
“My God. That’s terrible. Like something out of Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.”
Richard said nothing, just stared at Corman in silence. “Yeah,” he finally said. He shook his head. “Like something out of Shakespeare.” He stood up then, rolled his shoulders and his neck from side to side. “If you’ll excuse me, I do believe the drink’s gone to my head. I think I’ll turn in for the night.”
Richard stepped outside of the hut. The temperature was warm still, even though it had been night for a few hours. Eighty or seventy, perhaps, and the air was humid enough that Richard could feel beads of sweat running down his face. Some five miles away, Hogenakkal Falls roared, its sound calling out to him across clear starlit sky. And somewhere much closer, the tiger, the rakshasa slept, or else stalked the jungle, or else sat nearby and stared at Richard as he stared into the dark of the night.