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"Maybe it's a tiger," Annja Creed said as she perused the latest police reports on her iPad. The translated reports had been emailed over to her as she flew from New York City to India. And she was now looking at grisly pictures of mutilated bodies that had been recovered, some of them partially eaten. The remains of Annja's in-flight meal were on the tray in front of her. But somehow, the limp turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich on stale wheat bread no longer seemed very appetizing. If it ever had, Annja thought.
"Don't tigers tend to eat everything?" Frank asked. "Some of those bodies just look, well, sort of ..picked at."
Annja looked at the big man seated next to her. His innocence seemed to be waning fast. Frank Desalvo was fresh off his stint as an intern at another cable channel and had landed the job of cameraman on this assignment. The program Annja worked on, Chasing History's
Monsters, had snapped Frank up for his keen eye, the producers had said. Annja suspected it was because he wasn't established enough to command a higher salary.
He was likable enough, even if he still had the arrogance of a young twentysomething. With a mop of black hair and wide brown eyes, his splotchy beard made him look a few years older than he was. Annja figured he wore a beard for that reason.
"Not necessarily, although I'm not exactly an expert on man-eating tigers," she said. "They may not have been hungry enough to devour the entire body. Or perhaps they were simply defending their territory."
She continued to scan through the reports. "Whatever the case, the locals are terrified and the police haven't been able to track or trap the offender."
"Which makes for great television."
Annja frowned. "It means more people might lose their lives."
"Well, sure. But at least it's nobody we know, right? That makes it easier."
Annja came across one very gory picture and thrust the iPad in front of Frank. "You think this is any easier for the family of this person?"
Frank blanched visibly. "I guess not."
"Try to remember that the stories we cover are about people, just the same as you and me. They're not objects. We can't disconnect from them. There's too much of that going on in the world as it is, all right?"
"You're the boss."
Annja nodded. "Yes, I am."
She took a breath and went back to reading. There had been three deaths so far. Two men and a woman.
All residents of a new luxury complex on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India's sixth most populous city.
Annja started surfing the net to find out more about the city she and Frank would be heading into. After several minutes, she started forming a picture of the place in her mind and found herself getting more excited all the time.
Hyderabad was only about five hundred years old, although recent archaeological excavations had uncovered settlements dating back to the Iron Age, around 500 BC.
I would have enjoyed being on those digs, she thought.
Hyderabad enjoyed a hot summer, a very moist monsoon season and a delightful winter between late October and early February. Annja was relieved they were going to be in the city during the winter. She'd had enough of monsoon seasons of late, and a hot summer didn't appeal much to her, either.
With 3.6 million living in the city or its outskirts, Hyderabad certainly had plenty of potential victims for a rogue tiger to choose from. Except locals had reported hearing something that didn't sound like a tiger at all, but a mysterious creature that sounded as if it was part cat and part wolf.
The combination had aroused the intense curiosity of Chasing History's Monsters, and naturally, Annja was dispatched to find out the truth.
But in a city as cosmopolitan as Hyderabad, was there any place a mysterious rampaging creature could hide? Or was it a case of mistaken identity or some psychopath covering his tracks by making his victims appear to have been attacked by a wild animal?
Annja went back to reading while Frank flirted with the flight attendant. Hyderabad's primary industries were split among real estate, pharmaceuticals, information technology, tourism and filmmaking. She found that last part intriguing. She'd heard of Bollywood before, but Hyderabad apparently had Tollywood, after the major film production complex located at Telugu Cinema. Annja paused. What if someone at Tollywood was getting especially imaginative with the props department? "Annja."
She glanced up. Frank wore a grin a mile long.
"I think I'm in love."
"Again?" Frank had been working hard to seduce anyone with breasts the entire flight, having declared at the start of their journey his intention to join the Mile-High Club the first chance he got.
So far, his membership application had been soundly denied.
"Yeah, but this is the one." Frank nodded. "I'm telling you." He unbuckled his seat belt and stood. Pausing, he leaned over Annja. "Don't wait up, okay?"
"Sure thing, Casanova." She watched him amble off down the main aisle toward the lavatories.
There's somebody for everyone, she thought with a grin. Frank wasn't ugly, per se, but there wasn't much to write home about.
Delving back into her iPad, she learned that Hyderabad's film community had the largest IMAX theater in Asia and a host of cutting-edge technology. She frowned. The sort of technology that could distort images and make people think they were seeing something when, in fact, they were not.
She went back to the police reports. According to the cops, the first case had come in sometime around ten o'clock only a few weeks prior to Annja's trip. Sanjeet Gupta had been taking a walk around the residential complex and had not come home. A phone call from a distraught wife brought the police running even though only a few hours had passed since the husband was last seen. They conducted a search and came across Gupta's body lying facedown near a culvert. His arm and part of his upper torso had been torn away, resulting in massive blood loss. Part of his face had been gnawed off, according to the medical examiner.
She glanced back at her quick facts on the residential complex. It catered to the extremely wealthy. The top niche of Hyderabad's social elite seemed to live in the complex. No wonder the police responded so quickly, she thought. The rich always get preferential treatment.
There was a click overhead and the public address system came on. The flight attendant started talking in what Annja thought was Hindi, but then went on to repeat her announcement in several other dialects. Annja was reminded of the fact that while Urdu and Hindi might be the popular languages of India, regional dialects ranged extensively.
At last, the attendant switched to British-accented English. "Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has advised that we are starting our descent into Hyderabad. At this time, we would like to ask you to shut off all electronic devices, put your trays into their upright position and make sure to remain in your seats with the seat belts on at all times."
She clicked the PA system off; almost on cue, the plane started to bank. Annja gripped the armrests at the suddenness of the movement.
And then they dipped lower. Annja heard the flaps coming down.
Where was Frank?
She found out a moment later when the door to the bathroom opened and he stumbled out, a wet stain across the front of his pants. Lovely.
He clambered down the aisle and slumped back into his seat. "So," Annja said, not really wanting to know, "was it everything you hoped it would be?"
Frank frowned. "They don't make airplane bathrooms all that large, do they?"
"No, they do not."
He sighed. "Stupid cable channels always make it look better than it is in real life."
"They're in the business of selling fantasy."
"She never showed, anyway."
"But your clothes"
Frank held up his hand. "The damn plane banked and I nearly felt into the vacuum toilet. I got blue stuff all over me. So I had to wash it out of my pants." He sighed. "I'm not exactly a professional when it comes to dry cleaning."
"Looks more like you did wet cleaning."
"Funny." Frank grabbed a copy of the in-flight magazine and started fanning himself. "So, you really think this thing isn't a tiger?"
"I don't know. That's what we're here to find out."
"Where to first?"
"The hotel," she said. "I want a shower after flying for so many hours. After a change of clothes and a quick meal, we'll head downtown and talk to the police."
Below them sprawled the city of Hyderabadgleaming office buildings and brilliantly painted temples. Annja leaned back away from the window and nodded thoughtfully.
"If the police haven't gotten anywhere with the case, then we'll try to find this creature ourselves. And that means going into harm's way."