Disclaimers: The characters in this story belong to the author; please dont use them or steal them (honestly, theyre just not worth it). This story contains violence, a few naughty words, and scenes of intimacy between two women. If thats too much for you, or if you shouldnt be reading this for legal reasons, please move along and find something else. Theres a lot of other really good stuff out there.
Also, I should just point out that I know only a little about India, so if Ive made some terrible error here, please let me know and Ill try to correct it. I really appreciate feedback, so if you have any please send it firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you, and enjoy J
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
-The Tyger by William Blake.
Jagged shadows twisted wraithlike through the jungle undergrowth, flickering between the trees and grasses, forming a body for a pair of ice-blue eyes that shone with feral intensity in the darkness. She moved soundlessly along invisible trails, leaving not a trace of passage in the moist earth, avoiding twigs and surface roots with uncanny ease. From time to time she would pause to sniff the heavy air, and shafts of sunlight would reflect off bone-white teeth as her lips pulled back in a slight snarl, the rumbling purr that followed almost subliminal in depth.
She had stalked her prey for many hours now, and the stress was starting to wear on aching muscles. She would need to strike soon, before she tired, but she had learned a long time ago the merits of caution and patience. Prowling carefully around a shallow gully, her body held close to the ground, she listened to the unaccustomed sounds of the three men who had foolishly wandered into her hunting grounds.
David Tow swatted fiercely at a fly and scowled at his companions. "How much further? Weve been walking for hours."
The man in the lead glanced back and smirked, enjoying his partners irritation. "Whatsa matter, Dave? A few insects too much for ya?"
"Damn straight! I cant breath in this place without swallowing a bloody bug!"
"Be another hour at least till we reach Corbins camp," said the leader. "And thats if he hasnt moved on."
"Moved on?" The third hunter, a short, wiry man with asian features, wiped his sweating brow angrily. "What dya mean, moved on Jaz? He knows were comin, right? Why would he clear out?"
Jaz shrugged with a wry grin. "Jack Corbin dont like to wait around. If he finds a trail, hes gonna take after it whether were there or not. So pick yer feet up boys, and hope we aint too late."
Grumbling, the two men followed dejectedly in silence for long minutes. Dave eyed the jungle nervously, hearing the strange, alien cries of unseen animals. The dense foliage was constantly in motion all around, giving the eerie impression that invisible creatures lurked behind every shadow. "This place gives me the creeps, Tae," Dave muttered to the asian man.
Tae shrugged, unconcerned. "You never hunted India before, huh?"
"Nope, mostly in Africa...you know, elephants and stuff. Bigger game, bigger target. Its a lot more open than this you can see whats coming."
Tae grinned. "Hunting tigers and leopards aint like that," he said. "You just gotta be real careful, and hope they dont find you before you find them."
Dave shivered a little and clutched his rifle tighter, his eyes wide as they scanned the mysterious jungle undergrowth. "I got a bad feeling about this gig," he said in a loud whisper. "I been hearing things bout India the last few years."
"Me, too." Taes expression hardened. "But Im not letting a few rumors and ghost-stories keep me from hunting that white gold thats out here."
"Damn straight," Jaz put in, dropping back to listen to the conversation. "You know how much we stand to make from this hunt, Dave? Hell, its spicy enough we got Jack involved, and he dont waste his time on bullshit!" He grinned wolfishly. "When we walk out this jungle, were gonna be rich men."
"Thats if we walk outta here, Jaz," Dave said ominously. "From what I heard, lotta guys like us arent gettin to be that lucky." He slapped at another flying insect, feeling sweat trickle down his spine. "You hear about that team came out here three years back? Right in this same park, too, and huntin the same damn thing as what we are."
Taes face grew very still and he nodded. "I heard the bodies were so ripped apart the rangers didnt even know for sure if they were human. Had to get some medical guy out from Delhi just to figure out all the parts."
"Bah!" Jaz waved his hand dismisively. "Amateurs! So they made a mistake and got shredded for it, big deal! All I know is, theres a helluva good chance theres a white tiger out here, and I want a piece of it. If you babies want to back out, go ahead. But remember a chance like this only comes along once in a dozen lifetimes." So saying, the tall hunter stalked off, taking the forward position and eventually vanishing into the thick undergrowth.
Tae and Dave exchanged glances, then sighed. "Hes right," Tae said after a moment. "Poachings a dangerous game anyway you cut it. This is too good an opportunity to pass up."
"Yeah, I guess. Still " Dave pulled the butt of his rifle into his shoulder. "Im not letting some freaky tiger-ghost take me out."
"Thats the spirit." Tae grinned and slapped his companion heartily on the back. "Now, you guard the rear, and Ill run the flanks, okay?"
Dave nodded. "Be careful," he warned. "Therere rangers out here too, dont forget."
"I wont." The short asian man waved and then disappeared off the practically non-existent trail, leaving Dave alone.
Dave nervously eyed the jungle, remembering some of the horror stories hed heard before coming here. India wasnt the same hunting ground it had once been, he lamented. Since the government had implemented the so-called "Project Tiger" back in 72, things had started getting tougher, but in more recent years, they had gotten worse still. The Chinese were now almost militant about clamping down on poaching, and were urging their neighbors to do the same. Only the lure of hunting the great white tiger had called Dave away from Africa and he could only hope the wild rumors of mysterious jungle terrors the so-called Indian Menace were nothing more than exaggerations intended to scare away the gullible. Patting his rifle reassuringly, the poacher smiled weakly.
"Ya wont be sneakin up on me, whatever you ar-"
It happened so suddenly Dave didnt even have time to squeak. A tremendous force crashed into him from behind, knocking him to the forest floor and pinning him down. Dave struggled, winded from the impact, trying to flip himself over and call a warning even as the adrenaline surged through his blood. He felt a large warm body pressing him down, smelled the strong animal musk of sweat and death, then something crushed his head into the moist earth and stars flashed behind his eyes as his air supply was suddenly cut off. His hands scrabbled desperately for a weapon, but hed lost his rifle in the fall. He tried to yell, then felt something burn across his shoulder. Panic engulfed him and his struggles grew more frantic as the burning turned to searing agony.
Something was clawing at his back and shoulders!
With a supreme effort, Dave managed to turn his head a fraction just enough to dimly make out the light-orange stripped with shadowy dark lines that colored his attacker. Before he could draw breath to scream, however, something sharp pressed into his throat and tore upward. Dave managed a strangled croak, which turned into a shallow gurgle as his vision dimmed, then faded into black.
Ice-blue eyes framed by darkness and death snapped up at the sound of someone crashing through the jungle. A low growl rumbled from somewhere deep in a coarse throat as the slight asian man appeared, his rifle shouldered. Hazel eyes widened as he came to a sudden stop.
Sharp teeth bared as she rose from her kill, turning malevolently intelligent eyes on the stunned man.
The rifle dropped as Tae stared, too stunned to move. Only when he heard the terrifying growl and saw the strange, striped form bearing down on him with unbelievable speed did he think to pull frantically at the trigger.
The gunshot startled the birds in the canopy above, its sharp report echoed by quickly-silenced screams.
* * *
Ashley Richards covered her mouth, her emerald eyes wide as she stared at the two mauled bodies laying on the forest floor. Grady Neilson, her friend and partner, offered a comforting pat on the back and tried to urge her focus away from the grisly scene. Ashley shook his hand away and took a step closer, sparring a quick glance behind her to where Simon Reynolds was comforting his shocked assistant, before turning back to study their bloody discovery.
The mans body lay face down on the forest floor, his rifle a few feet away. Great tears in the back of his shirt revealed a series of deep, bloody scratches. From the amount of blood soaking the earth around his neck, it was obvious the mans throat had been torn out, and the churned dirt around him gave testimony to his desperate struggles before death. A second body lay nearby, similarly mauled.
Ashley studied the two bodies with dread curiousity. "What the hell happened here?" she pondered aloud.
Grady watched the young woman who had been his friend and workmate for over three years as she inspected the carnage, marveling not for the first time how Ashley never seemed to loose her composure. Her features were pale, but unafraid as she knealt to get a better view. As soon as Grady saw the young womans hands unconsciously start to pull the camera hanging around her neck up to eye-level, he cleared his throat. Ashley glanced back.
He lifted an eyebrow meaningfully at the camera and shook his head. Ashley blushed.
"Oh right." She gave her hands a stern, slightly puzzled look, and silently ordered them to behave.
Grady hid a smile. No matter what the circumstances, if something interesting or new came along, Ashleys first response was always to take a picture. Hed seen the young woman standing in the path of an elephant stampede, clicking away happily, completely oblivious to any peril. It was the type of fearlessness, coupled with an innate and insatiable curiousity, that made Ash such a difficult yet colorful friend to have around.
It was also what made her one of the best wildlife photographers in the business.
Theyd been in India now for eight weeks, and had been about to wrap up their assignment when rumours filtered down from the parks department about a white tiger that had been sighted in the Bandhavgarh National Park. Unwilling to pass up such a remarkable opportunity, Ashley had used her considerable charm to convince a reluctant Grady to delay their return to the United States. Joining Simon and his assistant, Grace two scientists who were tagging and monitoring the tiger populations in the area the group had set out into the jungle, accompanied by their native guide and tracker, Tarun. No sooner had base camp been established than the sound of a gunshot echoed from the forest depths, and Tarun quickly rushed to invesitgate. Though he warned the group to remain at camp, Ashley had insisted on going with him, and the others had joined her, their curiousity piqued.
None of them had expected the carnage they found.
Ashley looked up from her study of the first dead man as Tarun appeared from the undergrowth. The Indian guide was a tall, muscular man prone to wearing open-necked shirts and cargo pants. Ashley raised a blonde eyebrow questioningly at his dark expression.
"Theres another one down the track," Tarun reported calmly in his heavy Hindi accent. "Looks like he tried to make a run for it. Made it about thirty feet before he got taken down." Hands on his hips, Tarun scowled at the torn bodies, then at the ground around them.
"What killed them?" asked Grady, the slight quaver in his voice giving lie to his outward calm.
"A tiger?" Ashley supposed.
Tarun shook his head. "Tigers dont kill like this," he said knowingly, "and they usually avoid humans."
"Looks like a big cat of some kind. I mean look at those claw marks." Ashley pointed. "What else could it be?"
"Tigers dont slit their preys throat," Tarun argued, "Not so cleanly. And they leave tracks. Whatever did this didnt leave any trace behind." He shook his head, clearly more upset by the lack of tracks than by the bodies themselves.
"What should we do?" asked Simon timidly. The premeturely balding, middle-aged zoologist looked at the bloody remains for a second, then hastily averted his gaze. "W-we cant just leave them here, can we?"
"No." Tarun sighed. "Ashley, could you and Grady go find some good-sized branches? Ill get the rope from the packs and we can make a set of litters. Well drag them back to camp, call the rangers, and get them to come deal with this."
Ashley frowned. "Are you sure we should move them? I mean, wont someone want to you know investigate the scene of the crime? Look for evidence?"
Tarun gestured to the ground. "No-one will find anything here," he said angrily. "There is no evidence, no tracks, and I doubt the rangers or the police will waste much time on this at all. Theyve got better things to do with their time."
"What do you mean?" asked Grady.
"Look at these guys." Tarun pointed to the rifle one man still clutched pathetically in his bloody hand. "What do you think they were doing out here with guns like that? Theyre poachers! Probably here to kill the same tiger you people came for!" He shook his head and spat angrily on the ground. "We take them back to camp and turn them over to the authorities. Where it goes from there is none of our business."
Ashley glared at the dark man for long moments, and it looked to Grady as though she planned to take further issue with him. Then, she smiled a little coldly and said, "Fine," grabbed Grady by the arm, and pulled him away to look for suitably strong branches to make a litter.
Nearly five hours later, Ashley watched from her fallen log seat as Tarun shook hands with a uniformed ranger and exchanged a few quiet words of thanks. It had taken over two hours to drag the bodies back to their base, even with all five of them putting in an effort, and a quick radio call had allerted the proper authorities who had immediately sent out a jeep team to relieve them of their charges. Though Ashley didnt speak Hindi, from the tone of the conversation shared by Tarun and the head ranger, it seemed the uniformed man wanted to deal with everything as quickly and quietly as possible. As their visitors left, Tarun strode over to the others and took his seat beside the small campfire theyd lit as the sun disappeared, offering them a grim smile.
"Well, thats that," he said simply.
Ashley glared at him a little, her emerald eyes not a little sharper than usual. "So theyll look into it, right?"
Tarun shrugged. "Maybe. But like I said, a couple of poachers wont warrant much interest." He paused a long time, then added ominously, "Besides they know they wont find anything. From what that guy told me, theyve been seeing this sort of thing a lot the past few years."
Grady leaned closer. "What sort of thing?"
"Poachers turning up dead in the jungle, ripped to pieces." Tarun pulled a toothpick from his pocket and chewed it thoughtfully. The look on his face was the same one Ashley remembered seeing her father wear when he told ghost stories during family camping trips. "Not just here, either. Up in the Himalayan mountains, and on the grasslands something hunting them down, then disappearing. It leaves no trace except the dead."
Graces eyes were wide as saucers as she stared at him in terror. "Wh-what is it?"
Tarun shrugged and sighed dramatically. "No-one can tell for sure. But some of the more superstitious elders are spreading rumours about a spirit at work." He eyed his attentive audience. "They say the goddess Durga has sent the great tiger she rides down here to protect its children."
Ashley snorted. "You dont believe that, do you?"
He smiled a little, then shook his head. Though she was at times infuriating, Tarun had to admit that in the few days hed known her, the young blonde had proven more impressive than her slight, elfin features suggested. "Whatever killed those men was flesh and blood," he said quietly. "I dont know what it was but Ive seen tiger attacks, and that wasnt like any tiger attack Ive ever heard of."
Simon cleared his throat. "Could it have been " He hesitated. "Well could it have been a man?"
"Humans leave more tracks than any cat." Tarun fixed each member of the group with a hard stare, finally settling his gaze on Ashley. "I think it would be for the best if we take extra care when we go out there. Id like the chance to spend my commission."
Each of them nodded sincerely, even Ashley. Tarun smiled.
"Good." He clapped his hands and stood up. "Anyone hungry? I know I am after all the excitement."
Somewhat unenthusiastic murmers of agreement met his change of subject; everyone still felt a little quesy with the memory of the slashed bodies so fresh in their minds. As Grady helped Tarun with the supplies, Ashley felt the hairs at the nape of her neck prickle, and she repressed a shiver. Glancing over her shoulder into the dark, the photographer frowned thoughtfully a moment, then turned back to the fire.
She had the eerie sensation that someone or something was watching her.
* * *
Perched in the branches of a giant tree, she watched the nearby campfire illuminate the faces of the group below. These people were not here to hunt, she could tell but she meant to keep an eye on them nonetheless. As she looked on, her eyes slightly narrowed at the obvious spirit of comraderie displayed by the group, she found her attention settling more and more on the shorter of the two women. Something about the blonde stranger fascinated her. Called by a rare curiousity she couldnt explain, the dark figure abandoned her lofty post and crept slowly closer to the camp, nostrils twitching at the dimly-remembered scents of civilisation. Eventually she settled down in the thick undergrowth, perfectly camoflagued in the firelight by the dark stripes across her form. Her shimmering blue eyes held an expression of almost fascination as she watched the blonde woman pick at her food.
The woman was small of frame, almost elfin, yet even her simple movements bespoke a natural grace and strength. Her features were beautiful, but not uncommonly so still, the flash of her smile when one of her companions said something funny lit up her face and made her stand out from the others. Merriment and life sparkled in her eyes that were the same shade of green as the jungle foliage. There was something strange about the woman something unusual. For the first time in many years, the watcher felt an uncommon tingle of interest grip her, making her want to move closer to the strange blonde.
For over an hour, she lay hidden in the shadows, body pressed against the dewy earth, watching, unable to tear herself away from the clearing. She knew she needed to leave, knew she would need to hunt soon if she wanted to eat that night but she couldnt convince her limbs to move. Even when the various people in the camp bid one another goodnight and retired to their individual tents, she couldnt shake away the strangers lure. For another hour she lay there in silence, frozen, wresting against this insane desire to actually enter the camp and see the woman again. Eventually, realizing she wasnt going to get anywhere if she didnt satisfy this interest and move on, the dark figure rose and prowled forward, leaving the shadows behind.
Wary, alert, ready to bolt at the least sound or scent out of place, she ventured slowly towards the small dome tent the blonde had disappeared into. Pausing outside, she sniffed the air cautiously, uncertain whether to proceed or retreat. After a minute, unable to resist, she pushed her head through the gap in the tent and stepped inside.
It was dark in the tent, but years of hunting at night allowed her to make out the softly snoring form wrapped in a sleeping bag. Head cocked to the side, she moved closer only barely resisting the urge to brush aside a lock of honey-colored hair that obscured her view. The stranger looked peaceful in slumber, her lips bowed slightly as though smiling at a pleasant dream. The dark figure bent forward, memorising the scent of the blonde woman, mesmerized, unable to prevent the low, rumbling purr that rose from deep in her belly. So caught up was she in watching the sleeping woman, it took her several seconds to acknowledge when the pale lashes flickered and parted, revealing fuzzy verdant eyes that quickly widened.
The flurry of movement startled her as the wakened blonde surged backwards, tangled in the sleeping bag, frantic to escape. A heartbeat later, the still night was shattered by a piercing scream. Stunned, the dark figure stood frozen for a long moment, ice-blue eyes locked with emerald green, both breathing hard in shock. Then, the sound of alarm came from the other tents in the camp, and she scolded herself for ever doing this. Before the dazed blonde could draw breath for another scream, the shadowy figure whirled around and fled, disappearing instantly back into the jungle.
Ashley struggled to regain control of her rapidly beating heart, still trying to get her mind caught up with what was going on. The strange creature was gone, and she stared wide-eyed at the tent doorway, shaking a little, her breath coming in hard gasps. A moment later, Grady and Tarun appeared, the native guide holding a rifle and searching everywhere for a target.
"What happened!?!" Grady demanded, moving forward to comfort his partner, wondering where the danger was.
"I saw it!"
"What? What did you see?" Tarun stood guard at the doorway, now scanning the jungle.
Ashley stammered, confused. "I-I dont really know." Her eyes narrowed as she tried to remember exactly what shed seen in the indistinct light. "I-it had blue eyes and stripes "
"A tiger?" Tarun eyed her nervously, wondering. "Are you saying a tiger was in the camp?"
Ashley shook her head. "No, it wasnt a tiger, it Well it looked almost human."
"Im not sure." Ashley shrugged helplessly, recovering her nerves quickly now that the intruder was gone. "I couldnt see it very well. But it stood upright like a human. And its eyes were human." She put a hand to her forhead, wishing shed gotten a better look. "Im sorry. I just woke up and it was there, right in front of me." She chuckled shortly at herself, willing herself to calm down. "It scared the shit out of me."
"Hey, its okay. Youre safe now." Grady gave her a quick hug and a reassuring pat on the shoulder. Tarun was shining a small flashlight at the ground outside the tent, then off into the jungle. He scowled.
"Therere no tracks," he reported.
Ashley eyed him sternly, instantly on the defensive. "Are you saying I imagined it?"
"No Im saying that what you saw was probably the same thing that killed those men."
He smiled at her. "Thats okay."
"Whyd it come here?" asked Simon nervously. The timid man looked somewhat ridiculous standing there in his flannel pijamas, but Ashley restrained the urge to giggle at him.
Tarun shouldered his rifle and glared at the jungle. "Maybe it was curious about us," he guessed. "Perhaps it wanted to get a closer look."
"Maybe." Ashley gave her friends a shy smile. "Um Im sorry I woke you all."
"Dont mention it." Grady grinned at his partner. "You look pretty shook up. Sure you dont want some company for the night," he offered. "Ill be a gentleman."
"Hah!" Ashley punched him softly on the arm. "Ill be fine. Whatever it was, I think I scared it as much as it scared me." Her eyes softened. "But thanks for the offer."
"Okay. You call if you need anything."
Grady and the others trailed back to their own tents, leaving Ashley to herself. She could hear them whispering among themselves and smiled a bit sheepishly. It had been a long time since shed been that frightened, she realised. The shock of waking up to those piercing blue eyes was still making her body tremble a little. Acknowledging that she was so keyed up right now that the prospect of sleep was gone for at least a few hours, Ashley lit a kerosene lamp and reached for the pile of books that lay next to her backpack. Grabbing one, she flicked it open and began to read about the great cats she was here to shoot.
Not so far away, a dark, striped figure used sharp claws to pull itself up into a tree. Settling down, still breathing a little hard from the encounter, the figure rested long moments in silence, still wrestling with the desire to return and see again those mesmerising eyes that seemed to call her to them with a song stronger than any shed heard before.
* * *
The next morning, Ashley slept in a little after finally drifting off early in the morning, her eyes strained from lying awake reading by lamplight. By the time she emerged from her tent, tousled and blinking against the light, the rest of the group had been up and about for over an hour. She joined the others around the cold ashes of the fire, noticing Tarun was absent probably off checking for signs of their midnight intruder.
"Sleep okay?" Grady inquired as she sat beside him, his sincerity ruined only by the amusement in his eyes. Ashley was usually the one who had to come kick him in the ribs to get him moving in the morning. The blonde scowled.
"Fine from about three oclock onwards. After that thing woke me up, I had so much adrenaline in me I could have run a marathon. I stayed up and did a bit of reading."
"Mmm, I saw the light. Im afraid the coffees cold, but I saved you some breakfast." He handed her a bowl of porridge, and she rewarded his consideration with a charming smile.
"Thanks." She eagerly spooned the sweet oats into her mouth, humming a little as the suger on them helped kick-start her recalcitrant body. "We gonna get the hide set up today?"
Grady nodded. "Yep. Tarun already found us a good spot down by the river. Said there were some good tracks and markings there, so you should get some good shots if youre lucky. Then, once weve got you all set up, I was thinking Id head over to the east ridge." He gestured with a stick towards a ridge of rocky, trecherous-looking mountain that rose from the plains some distance away. "The view should be terrific."
"Great maybe Ill come with you."
"Sure, if youd like."
Grady and Ashley made a good team, and the magazine they worked for had taken advantage of their dynamic by making a point of sending them out together as often as possible. Ashley had an innate talent for photographing wildlife, impressing her peers with a seemingly endless supply of breathtaking shots that made others in the field jealous of both her talent and good fortune. She was always ready when an opportunity presented itself; even now, first thing in the morning, her camera was strapped around her neck, ready to go. Grady, on the other hand, was a scenic photographer, and he never failed to find the beauty and majesty in whatever landscape he was presented with. Together, they had become two of the most renowned nature photographers in America, their styles complementing each other and earning them both a string of interesting and ever-more challenging assignments in the past few years.
Grady enjoyed working with the vibrant, twenty-six year old photographer although in the last twelve months or so he had begun to notice that more and more of their assignments sent them into potentially dangerous regions of the world. He had heard that Ashley was impressing her superiors with her work on dangerous wildlife and he had seen her take increasingly greater risks to capture the perfect images that earned her a reputation for fearlessness and tenacity. Grady knew there was no point trying to talk Ashley into playing it a little safer the young blonde seemed completely immune to any sense of how dangerous her work truly was, her focus at times blinding her to any peril. Grady could only shake his head in wonder, and pray she didnt run out of luck.
Ashley finished her breakfast and turned her attention to Simon and Grace. "Will you guys be staying with me in the hide?"
Simon nodded. "Well let you get your shots, then well tranq the tiger and tag it. Its pretty routine stuff." Simon was completing a research paper on the population of the Bengal tiger in the National Park, monitoring their movements and habits. "If we can provide evidence to back up the reports of a white tiger, well probably call in a team to come out and collect it." He shook his head a little ruefully. "The zoosll go crazy if we find it."
"Mmm." Ashley had done a fair bit of research, and knew the potential benefits that could be derived from the discovery of a white tiger in the wild. In the last hundred years, only a dozen or so white tigers had ever been reported in the wild, and with the rapid decline in the population of Bengal tigers the only species to produce the white strain that number was likely to drop a good deal further very quickly. The few specimens in captivity in the United States all owed their ancestry back to Mohan, a white male who had been captured by a Maharaja back in 1951, and who had then been mated with his daughter to produce more white tiger cubs. This inbreeding was the only way of securing the color-strain unless another tiger could be captured who had the double recessive allele that produced the white pigmentation. That meant that the possibility of genetic defects, miscarrages, and early death rose with every new generation.
Ashley recalled the pictures shed seen of white tigers, taken from captive specimens in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. The feline eyes that would normally be a tawny gold were instead a clear, piercing blue, and the chocolate-colored stripes had patterned a snow-white coat. The young blonde shivered a little in anticipation. If she could bring home photos of a white tiger from the wild well, her already impressive reputation would soar. Not to mention the sheer challenge of such an endevour. It was an opportunity few ever saw, and Ashley didnt intend to screw it up.
"Well " Ashley slapped her thighs and stood up. "Sitting around here wont get the hide built. Grady, why dont you get the gear and meet me down by the river. Ill go wash these up." She scooped up the dirty dishes.
"Fine. Simon, could you give us a hand with the heavy stuff."
Leaving the others to get the aluminum poles and camoflague netting that made up their traveling hide, Ashley made her way down to the river with the dishes. They had set up camp some distance from the water source, not wanting to impact on the wildlife by scaring them away from their drinking spot, and the hike served to wake Ashley more thouroughly. By the time she reached the edge of the sluggish river, she was sweating lightly in the humid heat but feeling quite happy. Ashley liked the jungle, and the Bandhavgarh National Park was one of the nicest she had ever traveled too. Set among the Vindhayas, in Madhya Pradesh, the park was small of size but boasted the highest known density of tiger population in all of India and was furthermore known as White Tiger Territory.
Of course, tigers werent the only thing worthy of note out here. There was so much to see in any direction insects of every type and birds of every color. It was never truly quiet here, the jungle creatures constantly communicating in their mysterious ways. This was Ashleys first trip to India, and what she had seen was enough to make her want to plan a return visit. While she didnt much care for the crowded cities she had never liked the feeling of being crushed against so many other people the more rural areas were fascinating. There was a general atmosphere of respect for the animals of the land that was rare in most developed countries. Ashley had seen monkeys, peacocks, and even the deadly cobra living in apparent harmony with the people, who, rather than try to drive them away, tolerated and even payed tribute to their company. In one of the larger towns, Ashley had seen street performers dressed up like monkeys mimicking the actions of the miscievous creatures, and had been told by a tourist that the performers were paying homage to Haruman, one of the Hindu gods.
As someone who had always loved animals, and who now made a living from photographing them, Ashley could appreciate the kind of relationship the people of India had with their native wildlife. Outside of tribal cultures, it was rare to find such deification. Wandering along the course of the river now, Ashley paused to listen to the distant singing of a group of gibons, then started looking around for a safe place to wash the empty bowls.
Rounding a corner of the river, Ashley stopped suddenly and gasped. Before her, his back turned to her, stood a large, red-haired man apparently in the act of relieving himself against the trunk of a slender tree. He glanced back at the sound of her gasp, his eyes widening. Ashley stood frozen, her surprised mind taking several moments to piece together the mans army-surplus clothing, rugged features, and the menacing-looking hunting rifle leaned against the tree. It suddenly occurred to her that this was another poacher and that, furthermore, he probably wouldnt want anyone knowing he was here. Unfortunately, by the time shed processed that thought and started to turn around to run away, the man had zipped himself up and grabbed for his gun.
Ashley backed away, slowly putting down the dirty dishes and raising her hands cautiously. "Please dont hurt me." She judged her chances of escape, not liking the odds. "I-I promise I wont tell anyone youre here."
The man shook his head regretfully. "Sorry lady," he said gruffly. "Cant trust no-one in my line of work. Guess this is what ye get fer strayin off from the tour group, huh?"
"I-Im not a tourist. Im a photographer," Ashley explained, holding up her camera as evidence. "I have friends theyre not far away. If you kill me, theyll call in help and this whole placell swarming with rangers."
The poachers eyes narrowed shrewdly. "That true?"
"Uh huh." She nodded frantically. "Let me go, and I swear I wont tell them about you. You can just go your way, and Ill go mine. Whatdaya say?"
He considered a long moment, obviously wondering whether to believe her or not. Eventually, he shook his head again. "Sorry lady, but I cant do it. Only one way to make sure ye stay quiet so dont make it harder than it has to be." He slid the bolt on his rifle back, then continued his advance.
Ashley drew a deep breath through her nose and was just about to scream for help when a chilling, terrible sound stopped her the sound of a low, rumbling growl so primal and fierce it stopped the poacher dead in his tracks. Slowly, the two turned as one to face the new danger. Two sets of eyes widened, and Ashleys jaw dropped as she stared past the man to the strange figure crouched on the mammoth trunk of a fallen tree.
It was a woman. But a woman unlike any Ashley had ever seen before. Even though she was bent double in a feline pouncing position, it was clear that the woman was tall and powerfully built. She wore only a brief outfit consisting of a halter-top style shirt and a short skirt, both made from what Ashley was certain was genuine tiger fur. The outfit was almost invisible, however, for the womans entire body was colored the same way, her skin painted with ocher and pale ivory tones patterned with tawny brown stripes. Even her classic, angular face was done up to mimic the mask of a tiger, the stripes framing cold, clear blue eyes that were currently fixed firmly on the quavering poacher. A mass of dirty black hair tumbled down the womans shoulders, so thouroughly tangled it manifested in thin dreadlocks that reached half-way to her waist. Ashley saw the womans right hand tapping against the bole of the tree, and noticed four hooked talons jutting from between long, powerful fingers. Though primitive, Ashley had no doubts that the claws were as effective a weapon for the woman as they would be for a real tiger.
Hearing a hoarse, strangled gurgle from the poacher, Ashley managed to tear her focus from the strange woman and spared a glance over to her adversary. The mans face was extremely pale behind the thick beard, his eyes bulging from their sockets in abject terror. The hands that gripped the rifle were shaking so badly Ashley thought for a moment the poacher was about to have a heart-attack. Frantic eyes darted left and right, searching for an escape. When the tiger-womans rumbling growl rose an octave, and her lips parted to reveal pearly-white teeth, the man apparantly decided to take his chances. He dropped the rifle, turned, and ran as fast as his trembling legs could carry him into the jungle, leaving Ashley behind with the strange intruder.
Emerald eyes widened, and Ashley found herself suddenly caught in the penetrating gaze of twin sapphires.
Ashley swallowed hard as the tiger-woman gave a feral smile, revealing what seemed to the young blonde to be uncommonly large canine teeth. The full force of those unsettlingly clear cobalt eyes settled on her, the growl still rumbling but softer now. Ashley wanted to follow the poachers example and run away, but her legs refused to obey any such orders to do so. When she heard a quiet snick sound, she looked down and was appalled to realize her hands had lifted the camera about her neck and entirely of their own volition snapped a quick shot of the predatory figure on the log.
The striped woman suddenly rose from her crouch and stalked very slowly closer. Ashley held perfectly still, hardly daring to breath. "Shit, Ashley, what the hell have you gotten yourself into this time," she muttered under her breath, her focus trained with fatalistic fascination on the sharp claw-like weapons held in each of the womans hands. The tiger-lady approached along a zig-zag path, her expression intense and curious, and Ashley remembered watching her nieces two year old cat move the same way when she was stalking a mouse.
The comparison was not particularly encouraging.
The woman closed the distance between them, pausing when she got to within a few feet of the unblinking blonde. She leaned forward, her head cocked to the side as she sniffed interestedly, then stepped nearer still until Ashley could see the grainy texture of the paint that covered her body could make out the lighter highlights in her dark, tangled hair. The woman circled Ashley, sniffing, her eyes roaming up and down. The young photographer held herself stiffly under the scrutiny, following the stranger with wide eyes.
"I really hope I dont smell like dinner," she breathed quietly to herself. She suddenly noticed that the woman was no longer growling instead of the low, ominous rumbling, the stranger made a series of short, sharp barking coughs that Ashley wasnt quite sure how to interpret. When the tiger-lady finished her inspection and stopped in front of her, Ashley offered a tremulous smile. It was met with a slight softening of stern features, and the young blonde noticed for the first time an expression of wary intrigue and reluctant fascination on the strangers face. The woman made the strange coughing bark again, the sound completely inhuman and beyond Ashleys ability to replicate.
"Y-youre not planning to eat me are you?" Ash asked hopefully.
The dark head cocked to the side, a crooked smile tugging at the painted lips. Before Ashley had time to wonder if her words were understood, the sound of crunching footsteps and echoed conversation came from around the river-bend. Blue eyes widened instantly, darting to the forest. She gave Ashley a last, curious look, then whirled around and fled back into the jungle, wild hair whipping about her face as she ran. Ash noticed that her running style was unusual perfectly suited for moving swiftly through the dense, unpredictable undergrowth. Within a heartbeat, the woman had disappeared as though shed never been there.
Not a moment later, Grady and Tarun rounded the bend in the river, lugging between them the heavier components of the hide. Behind them trailed Simon, carrying the lighter coils of rope. "Hey, Ash!" called Grady. "Give us a hand."
Ashley shook her head dazedly, still rooted to the spot. Grady finally realised something was wrong with his partner then his eyes fell on the poachers abandoned rifle and he dropped his load and rushed to her side.
"Ashley what happened? Are you okay?"
Ashley pointed a shaking finger to the jungle. "D-did you see her?"
"The tiger woman." Ashley finally snapped out of her surprise and gestured wildly at the jungle. "She ran off when she heard you guys coming! Sh-she saved me from a poacher I found here he was gonna kill me, and then she was there, and she scared him off! She had claws a-and she was all stripy-"
Grady grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her to stop jumping around. "Slow down," he insisted, glancing worriedly at Tarun who had picked up the rifle. "Tell us what happened from the beginning."
Ashley explained the strange encounter quickly, her excitement building to the end of the story. As she spoke, Tarun inspected the rocky ground carefully, then moved over to the fallen log. When Ashley had finished, the Indian tracker smiled and pointed to something.
"Therere scratch marks here on the wood," he said happily. "No tracks of the woman but the poacher left a trail so obvious a blind elephant could follow him. He was running from something."
"Of course he was running," Ashley said angrily, planting her hands on her hips. "I just told you about the woman."
"And I believe you," he mollified her calmly. "Im just saying she didnt leave any footprints only those scratch marks. Did she threaten you at all?"
Ashley considered. "I-I dont think so. She growled a bit, but she didnt seem to want to hurt me. It was more like I dont know. Like she was curious about me."
"Did she say anything?"
Ash shook her head. "I dont know if she knew how to talk. She looked like some freaky, female version of Tarzan only with tigers instead of gorillas." She sighed, wishing now that shed had a little more time with the bizarre woman. "I wonder what shes doing out here."
"Killing poachers," Tarun stated. He shouldered the rifle and scowled. "Lets just hope she doesnt think were here to harm anything. Come on lets get this hide set up."
"Wait a minute!" Ashley glared at the man. "Arent we going to report this? I mean shes out here all alone. Shouldnt we you know tell someone?"
"And what would we report? That theres a jungle woman out here who thinks shes a tiger? Bah! No-oned believe us for a minute. Weve got no proof, no evidence, and no tracks-"
"We do so!" Ashley held up her camera. "I took a picture of her. If we show it, theyll have to believe us."
"She has a point," Simon chimed in, catching the young womans excitement. "Imagine it a woman living out here alone in the jungle! If we could find her "
Tarun considered, but still shook his head. "Im not calling out the rangers for this. She could be anywhere, and theres a whole lot of places she could hide. Wed never track her down."
"So we just forget about her!?" Ashley spluttered for a moment, furious. "How can you be so cavalier about this!?"
"Because theres nothing we can do," he said firmly. "Youre here to photograph and tag tigers, not some crazy woman who thinks shes a tiger. Im not being paid to track down someone who doesnt want to be found."
Ashley glared at him for a long time, and was just about to argue further when Grady stopped her. "Hes right, Ash. Weve got a job to do lets not get sidetracked. If we try to hunt her down, she might turn nasty. Lets just do what we came here to do quickly, and get out before she decides were a threat."
Ashley looked at her companions, but now even Simon shrugged helplessly. It was clear she was on her own. "Fine. Well let it go." Folding her arms across her chest, Ashley glared at her companions and gave every indication that she was not pleased.
Grady sighed, knowing Ashley was going to be a pain in the ass to work with for a while. "Should we at least report the poacher?"
"I suppose. But the rangers know theres been increased activity." Tarun shrugged and shouldered the poachers rifle. "Without his gun, he wont be able to do much damage."
The four spent the next hour working in relative silence to set up the hide, Ashley treating her companions to the silent treatment and occasionally complementing that with cold glares aimed mostly at Tarun. Although the more conventional way to deal with tigers was to track them on elephant-back, Grady insisted the hide would work better. Though she didnt say anything, Ashley suspected her partner was a little afraid of riding the great beasts. Hed refused to ride camels before, too. Still, she didnt mind. The lumbering, awkward gait of the elephant made it difficult to focus for a shot, and Ashley thought the added danger of being on the ground would be more than compensated for by the additional quality of the pictures she could take.
Once the hide was up, the group decided to take a hike along the river to where Tarun knew a waterfall was located. Grady spent over an hour setting up shots and capturing the beauty of the scene, while Ashley wandered around looking at the various birds and the group of curious monkeys who decided to investigate their presence. All through the day, however, her mind continually returned to the strange woman. Who was she? What was she doing out here? Ashleys curiosity was fully roused by this mystery. By the time they finished up and returned to camp for dinner, the young photographer had worked herself into a nice little obsession, and she knew without a doubt she had to learn more of the stranger. Fortunately, she considered, the woman seemed quite curious about them. Ashley suspected she would return in time was perhaps watching them from hiding even now.
After the others had gone to bed, Ashley stayed awake beside the dying campfire, hoping the tiger lady would pay another visit now that she was alone. She waited nearly an hour, concentrating carefully, trying to sense the womans presence. Eventually, she sighed and reluctantly accepted that the stranger wasnt going to be paying a visit tonight. Rising from her solitary vigil, rubbing sleepy eyes with the back of her wrist, Ashley had barely taken two steps back towards her tent when suddenly, something in the far-off distance drew her attention. Squinting a little, Ashley smiled to herself.
About half-way up the side of the nearby ridge of mountain, a faint orange speck of light glimmered in the darkness like a lonely star.
"There you are," Ashley whispered to herself, grinning as she marked the location in her mind. "Well, well, well seems youre not so much an animal that you dont know how to light a fire."
Grinning as she kicked ashes over the fire to extinguish it, Ashley hummed to herself and went to bed already planning a little hike out to the mountains in the morning.
* * *
Grady watched with a deep frown as his partner stuffed a rubber poncho into her backpack and threw it over her shoulder. Ashley had wolfed down her breakfast that morning, telling Simon and Grace to mind the hide; she was taking a walk.
"Where are you going?"
Ashley glanced at him, the mysterious smile on her face all too easy to interrpret.
"Shit Ashley please tell me youre not going off hunting that damn woman!"
Her smile grew a fraction wider.
Grady threw his hands up in the air in disbelief. "Jesus! What the hell is wrong with you!? Why do you have to go looking for trouble all the time Ashley?"
"Im not looking for trouble," she said very calmly. "Im just going on a little hike out to the ridge, just like you suggested doing."
"Then at least wait for me to get my gear so I can come with you. Or wait for Tarun to get back." The Indian guide had gone off searching the forest for something, and now Grady was sure Ashley had timed her departure so she wouldnt have to deal with him.
Ashley shook her head. "Sorry Grady, Im going alone. Besides, you have your own work to do, remember?" She smiled fondly at his exasperated expression. Grady was always trying to look out for her, and while Ashley knew she didnt need his help, it was nice to know someone cared. "Relax Ill be fine."
"Ashley, this woman is almost certainly the one who killed those poachers," Grady tried to reason. "Shes a murderer! You saw the bodies you want to end up the same way?"
Ashley paused a moment, her features paling a little as she remembered the shredded, mauled bodies the blood-soaked ground. Then she shook away the memories. "Shes had two opportunities to hurt me, and so far all shes done is growl a bit. I dont think she sees us as a threat."
"Then cant you just leave things be? Please!?" He took the shorter woman by the shoulders gently and caught her eyes. "For me? You know I try to stay out of your way when you want to go off and do something dangerous but this is just plain foolish! Im asking as a friend, Ash just leave the woman alone."
The sincere, pleading tone of voice very nearly worked. Ashley could tell Grady was genuine in his concern, but she couldnt let something this interesting go without investigating. The curiosity that had been born in her blood simply wouldnt permit it. She shook her head. "I cant," she said softly. "If it were anything else but this But if I dont do this, itll eat me up from the inside out till it drives me insane! I have to try to find her."
Ashley shrugged. "I just do." Standing on tip-toes, she planted a quick, soft kiss on Gradys cheek. "It looks like about a two hour hike out to the mountain. If Im not back by nightfall, dont come looking for me." She held up a hand to forestall his next words. "I mean it. Youll only get lost in the dark. Wait till morning at least. Okay?"
He nodded reluctantly. "Just be sure that doesnt happen." He sighed, running his fingers through his uneven hair in what Ashley knew was a gesture of frustrated acceptance. "What makes you think shes over near that mountain anyway?"
Ashley winked. "Just womens intuition, I guess." Adjusting the straps on her backpack a final time, she waved and walked out of camp.
The hike was as long as she anticipated, but Ashley took her time and enjoyed the journey. A few times along the way she stopped to take photographs, capturing a few shots of a group of young monkeys as they played among the short, twiggy bushes their parents sat under. By the time she reached the ridge, Ashley was breathing hard, and the front of her loose cotton shirt was damp with sweat. The young blonde led an active lifestyle that kept her extremely fit, but in the Indian heat that didnt count for much. Thick, ominous-looking clouds had moved in from the north, turning the air humid. Taking a rest and refilling her water bag at a fast-running stream that circled the base of the mountain, Ashley studied the slope before her carefully, searching for the most likely site for a camp.
It didnt take more than half an hour of exploring before she found it; a broad-entranced cave that tunneled into the side of the rocky mountain about half-way up. Ashley studied the undisturbed dusty ground at the mouth of the cave, smiling a little when she saw a few scuff-marks that might have been footprints. Pulling out a flashlight, the young blonde hesitated only long enough to flick it on before she slowly crept into the darkness.
The torch-light quickly revealed the signs of occupation Ashley had hoped for. Several small boulders had been positioned around a modest campfire in the center of the spacious cave, a blackened, cast-iron pot still sitting in the cold ashes. There was no sign of the mysterious woman, and Ashley didnt know whether she was disappointed or relieved. She shone the light on a simple sleeping mat, then spotted several wooden crates stacked at the rear of the cave. Investigating, she found cans of fruit, heshen sacks filled with rice, a fully-stocked first-aid kit, as well as toiletries and hygiene products. The photographer grinned fully.
"Not enough of a ghost that you dont need to eat, I see."
The cave narrowed towards the rear, but Ashley saw it continued on some distance and opened up further down. She was just about to continue her explorations when a now familiar rumbling growl stopped her, raising gooseflesh on her arms. Green eyes widened in alarm as she felt the dark presense behind her, and she slowly turned around to face the mouth of the cave.
Sure enough, there stood the tiger-lady, watching her with eyes that gleamed with a feral intensity. Suddenly, Ashley wished shed listened to Gradys pleas, remembering the bodies in the jungle. There was little doubt the claw weapons the woman held had been responsible for the bloody carnage.
"Umm " Ashley held up her hands peacefully. "I-I didnt mean to intrude," she stammered. "I saw the firelight last night and I just wanted to, um say thank you. In person. You know, for yesterday, when you saved me from that guy by the river? My names Ashley. Ashley Richards."
The ice-blue eyes held her for a long moment, then the growl died away to silence. The painted woman glanced around the cave, then, apparently deciding everything was as it should be, she stode towards her blonde visitor.
Ashley swallowed hard, her hands trembling nervously, but the tiger-woman ignored her completely and simply retrieved a scoop of rice from one of the sacks of supplies using a wooden dipper. She then went back to the campfire and emptied it into the pot, stirring in water before she began to build a fire over the dead ashes. From time to time, she glanced at the uncertain blonde, but had apparently dismissed her presense for the most part.
Ashley stood frozen as she watched the strange woman light the fire using a spark struck from a shard of flint. When the light grew sufficient, she shut off her flashlight and very slowly moved closer to the crouched figure.
"Umm listen, I-I really didnt mean to just barge in on you like this," she said quietly. The dark woman glanced up, her expression blank. Ashley studied her curiously, her eyes narrowing. "I dont suppose you speak English by any chance?"
Ashley sighed. "Great. I guess youre not going to be much of a conversationalist then, huh?" She run her fingers through her hair and watched as the woman stirred the rice with the dipper, then added vegetables from a nearby pouch. "Well, I came out here to thank you, but you cant even understand me, so I guess thats gonna be tough. I should probably just be thankful you havent decided to add me to your dinner menu. Umm " Ashley shrugged helplessly. She wanted to sit down and study the woman further, but the silence was getting uncomfortable. She nervously started backing towards the mouth of the cave. "Look I think I should probably head back to my friends. Theyll get worried if I dont return by sundown you know how it is. But it was really nice to meet you, and I really appreciate you scaring that poacher off yesterday." She paused. "Well I guess Ill see you later." Turning reluctantly, the young photographer started back outside.
The single word, spoken in a raspy, hoarse whisper, stopped her instantly. Ashley spun back around to find the tiger-woman looking up at her frankly.
"What did you say?"
There was a long silence, then the woman shrugged and turned her attention back to her cooking. "Theres a storm coming down from the north," she said softly in a low, ragged tone. "Youll never make it back to your friends before it hits. If you like, youre welcome to stay here till it passes."
Stunned, Ashley stared at the crouched figure in amazment. "You can talk!"
The woman glanced up again, a hint of humour touching her cobalt eyes and a smile twitching her lips. "So can you."
Ashley instantly moved closer, still shocked. "I mean you speak English. Why didnt you say something instead of letting me prattle on like an idiot!?"
The womans smile widened, showing teeth. "It was nice just to hear someone talking," she said eventually, coughing to clear her throat when her voice broke. "Sorry its been a long time since I last spoke."
Ashley shook her head a little in wonder, then, remembering shed been invited to stay, she quickly sat down on the boulder opposite the painted woman. "Im Ashley," she said, holding out her hand.
The woman studied her hand curiously a moment, but made no move to shake it. "I know. I heard you the first time."
Ashley grinned and took her hand back unpeturbed. "Do you have a name?"
The woman hesitated, and Ashley had the impression she was taking a moment to remember something. "Leandra," she said after a long moment. "My name is Leandra Thornton."
"Well its nice to meet you, Leandra Thornton," Ashley said politely. Outside, a sudden clap of thunder exploded in the distance. The wind began to pick up, and the young blonde saw her companion was right; a storm was about to break. "Thanks for letting me stay here. Id hate to be walking back in that."
Leandra shrugged. "You hungry?" She held up the still simmering rice. "Its not much, but its quite edible. Theres enough for both of us."
"Yeah, thatd be great." Ashley suddenly realised something about Leandras voice her accent was familiar. "Youre an American, arent you?"
"I suppose I was before I came here." Leandra hesitated, then added, "I moved around a lot."
"I see." Ashley sat quietly while the striped woman stirred their meal. Thinking about what she was doing, the young blonde suddenly couldnt help but grin. Here she was, in the middle of wild India, sitting in a cave opposite a woman dressed up like a tiger who was cooking them lunch. The situation was so bizarre it felt surreal. Still, Ashley wasnt going to complain, and she let herself study Leandra a little more fully.
Leandra was long and lean, but her arms, stomach and thighs fairly rippled with powerful muscles beneath the paint. Ashley guessed she was at least six feet tall, positively dwarfing her own five foot four stature. Her motions were graceful and elegant yet Ashley detected a slight stiffness when she used her right arm. She had high cheekbones that made her vivid blue eyes stand out all the more, and straight, angular features reminiscent of those found on ancient sculptures. The thick, dreadlocked hair gave her an impression of savage ruggedness. Her feet were bare, and she smelled pleasantly of musk and earth. In all, Ashley thought the strange woman was probably extremely beautiful under all the paint and hair.
Only when she glanced to the side and saw the two sets of hand-held, makeshift claws did Ashley remind herself this woman was a killer.
"What?" Ashley looked up to find Leandra regarding her curiously. "No, nothings wrong. I was just " She gestured to the claws. "I mean." She studied the woman with what she hoped was a non-judgemental expression. "You killed those men didnt you?"
Leandra picked up the claws and held them up to the firelight. "They were hunting the tigers," she said simply. "I hunted them."
"You murdered them," Ashley corrected.
Ice-blue eyes hardened. "They were scum," Leandra hissed sharply, a growl rumbling in the back of her throat instinctively. "They deserved what they got!"
"Deserved to be slashed to pieces?"
"Yes!" Leandra suddenly settled down, the growl vanishing. "Have you ever seen what poachers do to the animals they kill?"
Ashley shook her head.
"They butcher them completely. Not a single part of a tiger is wasted. The bones are ground up and used in medicines that claim to cure muscle pain and arthritis. The tails are made into soaps to cure skin diseases. The flesh is cooked and made into Tiger soup, the brain into a cure for acne. Even the whiskers are made into charms of courage and protection. Those men hunt the tigers without a care for the fact that theyre almost wiped out. All they care about is their own greed!"
Ashley swallowed nervously. "So you pass judgement and execute them?"
"Yes." Leandra scowled. "They deserve to die. I know I used to be one of them."
"Oh." The young photographer blinked in surprise. Eventually, she asked softly, "What changed you?"
The smile she got from Leandra was wistful, and she noticed the dark woman stretch her right arm stiffly. "Lets just say someone sat me down and gave me a stern talking too," she whispered hoarsly.
An awkward silence reigned for long minutes, Ashley barely repressing the urge to fidget. "How long have you been out here?"
Leandra cocked her head thoughtfully. "Not sure. What year is it?"
"You mean you dont know?"
Blue eyes scanned the spartan cave. "No calendar. Out here, theres only day and night, not month and year."
Ashley considered that, then said, "Its April, 1998."
Leandra absorbed that, then grinned. "In that case, Ive been out here nearly four years." She shook her head a little, adding almost to herself, "It feels like a lot longer."
"Four years!?" Ashley stared at her in wonder. "All alone in the jungle for four years!?"
"Not alone the tigers keep me company."
There was silence except for the sounds of the storm that had settled in outside until Leandra decided the rice was properly cooked. "I dont have any bowls or spoons," she apologized, instead dishing the meal out onto two huge palm-type leaves. She handed one to Ashley.
"Thats okay. Im sure Ill manage." The hungry blonde used her fingers to shovel the rice and vegetable mix into her mouth. Green eyes widened in surprised pleasure. "Mmmm This is pretty darn good."
Leandra shrugged, but stayed silent. Her hunting had yielded poor results the last few days, forcing her to rely on her emergency staples.
As she ate, Ashley noticed the clear blue eyes would frequently dart up to study her, then quickly look away. It seemed Leandra was as curious about her as she was about Leandra. She couldnt help but find the tall womans nervous, shy interest a little bemusing. She was also surprised to hear the low, rumbling sound of a feline purr coming from her companion as she enjoyed her meal, and she smiled.
"I guess you dont get a lot of visitors out here, huh?"
Leandra shook her head, eating her meal slowly and carefully. "Not ones that are welcome."
"And I guess, from all the stories of poachers being killed in other parts of the country, you must travel around some, right?"
"Wherever they go, I go." Silence for a moment. "I like it here," Leandra continued quietly in her deep, raspy voice. "Sometimes I camp near the Himalayan mountains. It gets cold up there."
Ashley gestured to the wooden crates. "Where do you get the supplies?"
"Sometimes from the poachers," Leandra replied. "For some things I have to go to the villages though. I take what I need."
Ashley gave the womans carefully painted body a meaningful once over. "Why do you paint yourself like that?"
Leandra shrugged a little uncomfortably. "The tigers are colored as they are for a reason," she said quietly. "It helps them hide in the shadows and the grasses. I live as they do so Ive had to learn to mimic their actions and appearance." She cocked her head curiously and pointed at Ashleys camera. "Youre a photographer?"
Ash grinned, accepting the change of topic easily. "One of the best," she said proudly.
"Here to photograph the tigers?"
"Yep among other things."
Leandra grinned fractionally. "I could smell the plastic from your hide at fifty paces. A tiger could smell it from a hundred." She gave the blonde a knowing look. "I think youre looking for the same thing those poachers were looking for."
"The white tiger?" Ashley shrugged. "I only want to take pictures of it they want to kill it. Theres a big difference."
"Mmm." Leandra chewed thoughtfully, her expression difficult to read. "Sometimes people come here hoping to find a particular thing, but instead they find something much different than they expected." She smiled coldly. "Those three men came to hunt a white tiger. They werent prepared for what they found instead."
Something about the strange look in Leandras eyes suddenly clicked in Ashleys head. She stared at the woman suspiciously. "Im gonna go out on a limb here and guess there is no white tiger, is there?"
Leandras expression didnt change.
Ashley groaned. "It was you all along, wasnt it? Some idiot tourist or something got a quick look at you, and they thought it was a white tiger."
"Ugh thats just great! You know, Im supposed to have already finished this assignment and be back on a plane for home. I only delayed it because I wanted a shot at that bloody cat." She shook her head ruefully and finished the last of her rice. She and Grady had tickets to fly out in a fortnight, and they couldnt refund them. Still, ever willing to look at the positive side of life, Ashley decided not to let the delay bother her. "I guess I should probably make the best of my time though as long as Im stuck here."
Leandra licked her fingers thoughtfully as she studied the blonde. "So youre disappointed?" she asked. "About not finding what you came for?"
"Well yeah, actually. I mean, its a once in a lifetime thing, you know?" She sighed. "Im glad I took a shot at it. And, on the bright side, I got to meet you!" She grinned. "Its not everyday I run across such a unique individual as yourself. So I guess the trip out here was worth the hassle Im gonna get when I return to work."
Licking the last hint of flavour from her palm leaf, Leandra stood and wandered over to the cave mouth, looking outside as the rain began to ease. The thunder had moved into the distance now, the storm slowly passing over them.
Ashley watched the strange woman with fascination, her eyes on the way her feet seemed to flow over the ground rather than touch it. "How do you that?"
She gestured to the ground that was almost baren of footprints. "You dont make any noise when you walk and you dont leave footprints. How?"
Leandra smiled mysteriously. "When you spend enough time in the jungle, you learn to hide your movements. Its simple really, once you get the hang of it. See ?" She demonstrated how she placed her feet when she walked, the weight evenly distributed, then rolling with the heel as she lifted up. Ashley grinned and shook her head in amazment.
"Thats pretty cool. You know, youve got half the people out there thinking youre some kind of vigilante ghost. Ill bet the poachers are terrified!"
"They are and with good reason."
Ashley joined Leandra at the cave entrance, and they watched in companionable silence as the rain pushed further south, eventually easing to a light drizzle. The young blonde knew it was after midday by now, and she had to get back to camp before Tarun decided to come after her, but she was reluctant to part with her new acquantance. Leandra was still flicking curious glances at her. Still
"I really should get going, I suppose," she said quietly.
"Umm you know, if youd like to come down and join us at the camp, Im sure youd be more than welco-"
"Thanks, but I dont think Id fit in." Leandra held up a painted hand and wiggled striped fingers at the blonde.
"Yeah, I guess youre right." Ashley sighed. "Well, it was really nice meeting you Leandra. And I really do appreciate you saving me yesterday."
Ashley was about to turn to leave when a hand grabbed her arm suddenly and stopped her. She glanced back with a raised eyebrow and saw Leandra obviously struggling with something. She waited patiently until the dark woman sorted herself out.
"I um I know a place not too far from here," she said very quietly. "Its a favorite roosting spot for peacocks. If you wanted to maybe I could take you out there before you leave? I-Im sure you could get some good pictures of them, I mean."
Ashleys smile took in the whole of her face. "Sure. That sounds great. How about we go there tommorrow?"
Leandra smiled too, her expression relieved but still shy. "Okay. Ill um come get you in the morning, alright? Just take a walk or something and Ill find you."
"Absolutely." Ashley brushed a lock of hair behind her head. "I dont suppose you want the others knowing about you, huh?"
Leandra shrugged. "Tell them what you want," she said, her voice starting to crack from being used for the first time in years. "As long as they dont tell the rangers about me, its okay."
"Great. So, Ill see you tommorrow?"
And with a few backward smiles and a happy wave, Ashley started making her way down the slope back to her friends. Leandra watched her go with a slight smile still curving her lips. Only when the blonde was out of sight did she turn back to the cave and seat herself comfortably on one of the boulders by the fire.
It was strange, the dark woman mused to herself. She had been alone for a long time now; four years seemed like too small a figure for the length of her self-imposed exile. It had been so long since she'd last spoken, the sound of her own voice had surprised her when shed used it today. It seemed deeper than she remembered it. Even her own name had taken a moment to dig up from where had lain, unused, for so long in the back of her mind. Now, if she took a deep breath, Leandra could still detect the last traces of the blonde womans scent in the air. The scent of deoderant purfume cotton. Things she hadnt thought of in a long time. Ashley hadnt just brought herself into Leandras cave she had brought with her a glimpse into a world the dark woman had turned away from long ago. Leandra now remembered what it felt like to hear another person talk to have company. And she remembered other things, as well. Flashes of various images and remembrances returned to her; the tall, monolithic skyscrapers of the city the softness of clean, feather-down blankets the simple luxury of being able to eat without having to hunt first.
Leandra sat quietly, remembering things she had thought forgotten, and looking forward to hearing the sound of Ashleys voice again in the morning.
* * *
Returning to the camp, Ashley endured Taruns frustrated scolding with a patient smile, content to ignore his reminders that he had been hired to guide them and keep them safe, and that he couldnt very well do that if she was going to constantly run off alone. When his words had no effect on the cheerful blonde, Tarun threw his hands in the air and stormed off, muttering about how hed never get work again if one of his customers got killed while under his care. Ashley watched him go with an amused smile, then settled herself comfortably on the ground by the fire. Grady joined her.
"Im guessing from the satisfied look on your face that you found what you were looking for?" he said, curious despite himself.
"Indeed I did." Ashley folded her hands behind her head and leaned back against the tree branch behind her.
"And her name is Leandra, and shes very nice."
Grady made an impressed sound and raised an eyebrow. "You spoke with her?"
"Yep. It just so happens shes an American. We had quite a nice little chat. She even cooked us lunch."
Grady shook his head in wonder. This was the sort of thing that could only ever happen to Ashley, he marveled. The young woman seemed to have a nack for finding adventure wherever she went. "So whats her story? Why is she out here?"
"Well, she um " Ashleys smile faltered a little. "Actually, she didnt say exactly why shes out here," she admitted after a moment reflecting on her meeting with Leandra. "I got the impression she follows the poachers around and, um "
"And kills them," Grady finished.
Ashley shrugged. "Therere militant groups all over the world that track down and exterminate poachers," she argued in Leadras defence. "We saw some of that in Africa." The situation with the African elephants was so dire that the government had been forced to take drastic action to stem the trade in black-market ivory. "Leandras not any worse than the men who are hunting the tigers to extinction."
Grady merely grunted, knowing better than to argue with his partner. "Did she say why she dresses up like a tiger?"
Ashley grinned. "I think she wants to live like they do, and it helps her to look the part," she explained. "Shes strange even when she talks normally, her voice sounds like it comes from deep in her chest. She actually purrs when shes relaxed! And I mean real purring, too, not fake stuff like she has no control over it." She shook her head, remembering. "She really does behave a lot like a cat."
"So I take it shes going to leave us in peace?"
"She knows why were here, and she doesnt mind." Ashley considered whether to tell Grady that there was no white tiger, but decided against it. While Grady probably wouldnt mind, Simon and Grace would be very disappointed. Ashley thought it did the scientists good to have the hope of maybe finding the rare creature. "I think she was just curious about us before, and thats why she came snooping around the other night."
"Uh huh. So I guess she wants to be left alone now, right?"
Ashley grinned, knowing Grady was hoping that with her questions about the tiger-woman answered, she would let the matter go. "Actually, she invited me out for a walk tommorrow morning," she said casually. "Theres some place she knows where I can get some good shots of some peacocks, and she offered to show me."
Grady eyed her carefully. "Are you certain thats a good idea? Is she safe?"
"Oh, for crying out loud, Grady," Ash snorted. "Shes not going to hurt me! Shes been out here a long time with no-one to talk too! I think she just wants a little company, and Im more than happy to give it to her." She glared at her partner till he looked away. "Shes interesting, and unusual, and shes probably very lonely. It doesnt do any harm to be nice to her especially if she can get me closer to the animals."
"Alright!" Grady held up his arms in defeat. "Do what you want; you always do anyway! Im just trying to watch out for you, thats all."
Ashley smirked. "I know that but you havent even met her, so dont judge her just on the fact that shes a little different. Ill be fine."
Grady let the matter rest, and turned the conversation to more work-related issues. Ashley spent the afternoon seeing to her equipment, then wandered down to the river to join Simon and Grace at the hide. When night fell, the group came together around the campfire for dinner. Tarun was still upset at Ashley, but it was clear Grady had spoken with him about her, and he didnt argue further about her actions.
Retiring to her tent, Ashley lit the kerosene lamp and began flicking through her texts on the great cats again, this time looking at the descriptions therein with her thoughts on her new acquaintance. She knew already that tigers were solitary animals, their only contact with others of their species occuring during breeding times, or the long period a cub would spend with its mother. Their habitat was widespread, the great cats seemingly able to survive in any terrain that provided "some form of dense vegetative cover, sufficient large ungulate prey, and access to water." She read a few passages of their hunting methods, not surprised that the tiger relied largely on stealth and camoflague to bring down prey. A tiger charge was apparently swift, sudden, and capable of tremendous power but only in a short burst. A tiger would try to take its prey from behind, using its weight to bring the quarry to the ground before biting the neck and holding it down with a forelimb. Sometimes they could jerk up swiftly and break the neck, and sometimes they would grasp the throat and strangle their prey (a technique that had given rise to the legend of blood-sucking tigers, which Ashley thought was ridiculous since cats didnt have lips and therefore werent able to suck anything). Reading that, Ashley remembered the bodies of the poachers theyd found. The deep, slashing claw marks across their backs and the way their throats had been torn open She shuddered, certain Leandra had learned her killing style from the creatures she protected and imitated.
Reading the passages, Ashley wondered what Leandra must have experienced in her four years in the jungle. The young blonde didnt need to be a psychologist to realise that such an extensive period without social contact must have taken a toll on Leandras mind.
"Four years " she mused quietly. "Fours years of living like an animal of trying to be an animal." She shook her head in wonder. "I wonder how much a person could forget about being a human in that kind of time."
Putting aside her books and shutting down the lamp, Ashley lay in her sleeping bag deep in thought, picturing the dark womans behaviour today. Leandra had seemed okay. While her voice had been raspy from ill-use, she had spoken clearly and thoughtfully. She was polite. Ashley had a feeling she relied more on her sense of smell than a regular person would, but that was understandable. Lying in the dark now, Ashley recalled the little information Leandra had given about herself.
So, you said you used to be a poacher, right? she thought to herself, trying to piece together the dark womans history. I can picture that. Itd probably be the sort of thing that would teach good survival skills. But then, one day someone says something that maybe gives you an attack of conscience. So you decide to turn over a new leaf and do something to help the animals you used to hunt. And so you you
Unfortunately, that was where Ashleys pondering ran in a brick wall. There are a lot safer, smarter and lets be honest more effective ways to fight poaching than to come out here alone, dress up funny, and then start killing off the hunters one by one. Ashley sighed.
"Theres something else," she whispered. "Im betting it must take a lot for someone to just turn away from the rest of the world and decide to live with the animals instead."
The young photographer then recalled the strange, almost desparate look in the icey-blue eyes as shed been about to leave. The yearning expression on Leandras face just before shed offered to show her the peacocks.
"Youve been out here a long time," she whispered to the absent woman. "No-one to talk too no human contact except the men you hunt. You probably feel more kinship with the tigers than you do with your own species. And yet today, you not only talked to me, but you wanted to see me again." Ashley considered that, feeling rather privelidged that Leandra had opened up a little to her. "I bet youve forgotten what its like to have a friend who can actually talk with you." She smiled to herself at that. "Pehaps I should remind you."
Closing her eyes, Ashley snuggled into a pillow of folded clothes and let herself drift off the image of piercing blue eyes and a powerful, tawny-gold figure the last thing she remembered before sleep claimed her.
* * *
Ashley grinned with delight as she finished off another roll of film and changed the cartridge with an absent-minded ease mastered only after years of practice. Before her ranged a group of four peacocks and perhaps a dozen peafowl, the males displaying their magnificent shimmering tail-fans in the early morning light. The happy young blonde gave her unusual companion a radient smile before focusing for more shots.
"This is fantastic!" she exclaimed for the fifth time. "I cant believe how close they let us get!"
Leandra smiled quietly, her attention more on the photographer then the birds. Sitting back on her haunches, the dark woman relaxed a little and just enjoyed Ashleys vibrant, excited voice as she clicked away.
They had come out here just after first light, hiking the short distance to the clearing in relative silence. Upon arriving, Leandra surprised her companion by folding her hands over her mouth and giving a piercing, very authentic-sounding peacock call which instantly attracted a host of birds to them and got them preening and excited much to Ashleys delight. Now the sun was well into the sky, and Ashley was almost out of film. Leandra hadnt spoken much, but it didnt bother the young blonde, who talked a little about her family and her work just to fill the quiet. They each felt somewhat awkward in the presence of the other, but it didnt matter.
Finally finishing off the last role of film shed brought, Ashley fiddled with her camera a few moments before settling down next to her companion, still trying not to be too obvious about staring at her unusual appearance.
"Wow! I cant believe how many pictures I got! I mean, I had a few shots already of peacocks, but nothing like these ones! I wish Id brought more film, but I didnt know it was going to be this good." Grady had been trying to get her to update her equipment, always raving on about the superiority of digital cameras over the older models. Ashley refused to listen, however, prefering the comforting reliabilty and simplicity of using real film. Now, she smiled at the dark woman, noting absently that even Leandras sitting style was vaguely feline. She could also hear the sound of quiet purring, and knew from that her companion was in a good mood. "Thank you for bringing me out here."
They watched the magnificent birds continue their antics for long minutes, enjoying the display. Leandra cast Ashley several furtive glances, unable to contain her interest in the young blonde. It had been so long since shed wanted to be around another person, but there was something about Ashley that called to her. The photographer was cheerful and charming, her passion for her work evident in her enthusiasm. She talked about life in a world Leandra hadnt been a part of for many years. Just watching her and being near her made the dark woman feel at peace in a way nothing ever had before. She didnt want to loose that sense of tranquility yet, that sense of human connection shed all but lost during the last four years but she wasnt sure how to keep hold of it either.
"You know " she said quietly after a long contemplation, "if you wanted me to, I could show you some other places I know. Theres a spot up river a few miles where the elephants usually water. And there are lots of other birds and things you could photograph I-I wouldnt mind taking you to see them."
Ashley smiled at the dark woman. "Thatd be great." She could sense again that her companion was very nervous, and actually found the strong, predatary womans uncertainty rather cute. "But you know Leandra if you want to spend time with me, you dont have to go to all this trouble."
The dark womans expression grew even more nervous and she started to fidget with one of the cords of hair hanging over her chest. "Wh-what do you mean?"
"I mean its okay if you want a little company," Ashley said gently, her eyes soft and open. "I guess you havent had a friend for a while, right?"
Shy, timid blue eyes glanced up, then quickly away. "Welll maybe not in the people sense, no. But I do have friends out here." She nodded at the peacocks.
Ashley chuckled. "I probably dont want to meet some of your other friends though, huh?"
Ashley quieted and studied the painted woman for a moment. "Id really like to be your friend too, Leandra," she said quietly. "If you want some company, you can just say so and Id be more than happy to spend time with you even if its just for no reason. You dont have to offer to take me to see the animals you can just ask." She paused, a little uncertain. "You know I read that tigers are solitary. They spend almost all their time alone. But youre not a tiger Leandra, youre a human being." From the guarded look in the dark womans face, Ashley realised shed hit a nerve. "Its not such a good thing for a human to be alone for so long."
Leandras posture stiffened. "I know that," she said coldly, the previous purring now replaced by a threatening growl.
Ashley raised her hands in a calming gesture. "Im not trying to make you angry Leandra," she said soothingly. "Im sure you have a reason to be out here like this and Im not saying you shouldnt be here if its what you want. Im just saying that maybe it would be good for you to be around another person. Like me, for example." She smiled a little, reassured when Leandra realised the noises she was making and consciously stopped them with an embarrased look. "When was the last time you spoke actual words Leandra? I mean, before we met?"
The dark woman shrugged. "I guess about three years ago," she admitted quietly.
Ashley eyed her companion curiously. "Does anyone in the outside world know youre here?" she probed gently. "Family? Friends?"
Leandra shook her head, faces flashing before her mind that she didnt want to remember. "Anyone who knew me probably assumes Im dead," she whispered. "I doubt theyd miss me much anyway."
The young photographer scooted a little closer, amused to see Leandras nostrils twitch as she sniffed the air. There were a thousand and one questions burning on the tip of her tongue a thousand things she wanted to ask Leandra about her life and what had brought her here but she restrained the desire to give them voice. Working with animals all her life had taught the young woman that you didnt get close to a wild animal if you moved upon it too quickly; calm and patience worked best, and she decided to employ those same tactics with Leandra. "I think you need to be reminded that youre not an animal," Ashley said, very slowly reaching out and pushing back the mass of dreadlocks. "Under all this paint and hair, theres a beautiul woman, not a giant cat. You dont want to forget that."
Leandra was almost dizzy from the scent of Ashley, her body trembling a little with fear as she wondered how to react to the photographers intimate proximity. The instincts that had been born in her these last four years urged her to push the blonde away and retreat, but Leandra suppresed them and, not knowing what else to do, sat very still as Ashley studied her face. "I havent forgotten," she whispered. "But its nice to be reminded sometimes. And um Id like to show you the animals anyway, if you want to see them."
"Okay then." Ashley smiled gently, then backed away and resumed her seat. "Id like that."
A long period of silence followed, before Leandra glanced shyly at the blonde. "You know " she said quietly, "Im not crazy or anything."
Ashley chuckled at the comment. "I never thought you were."
"Good." Leandra offered a slight smile. "I was just confirming it."
Ashley grinned and cast her eyes over the tall womans striped body. "Im not gonna lie and say I think youre exactly normal Leandra, but Ive been around long enough to tell the difference between eccentricity and madness. I wouldnt be here, with you now, if I thought you were insane."
Leandra considered that, then nodded. She didnt want to scare away her new friend, and acknowledged the fact that her appearance and behaviour were somewhat bizarre. It was good to know that Ashley wasnt sitting there thinking she was some kind of mad-woman.
The two women sat quietly and watched the peacocks finish their preening then wander off looking for food. They remained until all the birds were gone, enjoying the peace of the forest and the sounds of the creatures at play all around them, each casting occasional sidelong glances at the other.
* * *
Through a pair of binoculars, a tall, well-built man watched as the group of five gathered around a small fire to share their evening meal and talk as the sun went down. Dressed in camoflague fatigues, shirt and vest, with several belts strapped around his waist and legs holding such things as a water flask, compass, and a broad-bladed hunting knife, the six-foot tall man cut an impressive, confident figure. His dark blonde hair was held back in a loose pony-tail, a few strands pulling loose in the humidity and clinging to his sweat-streaked face. His skin was deeply tanned, wrinkles forming at the corners of his eyes from years of squinting into the sunlight. Intense green eyes burned from deep in hollow sockets as he observed the gathering from a distance.
Behind him, another man watched in similar fashion, this one sporting bright red hair and a thick beard. A deep scowl pulled the corners of him mouth down when he spoted a familiar figure sitting comfortably on a fallen log and laughing with her friends.
"Thats her," he said. "The little blonde bitch on the right." He shook his head. "Told me she was a photographer or something. Guess its probably lucky fer me I didnt kill her, right Jack?"
Jack Corbin grunted, shrewd eyes taking in the details of the camp and its inhabitants. "That balding guy aint no photographer," he decided quickly. "Him and that brunnete sitting next to him are scientists or some such probably doing research. The Indian guy must be their guide getting paid to babysit make sure nothing bad happens." He focused carefully and managed to bring the young, petite blonde into sharper detail. She didnt look like much, he thought, wondering whether he should believe the man behind him. "Blondies no worse for wear after your little encounter with the Indian Menace," he observed.
The grizzly red-head scowled darkly. "Maybe she ran away like I did. Or maybe that thing only kills guys like us. How should I know what happened?"
Corbin nodded and replaced his binoculars in a case attached to the belt around his waist. "Tell me again what it looked like?"
"It was a woman," the man explained for the dozenth time. "Only she was like a tiger. She had claws and her skin was stripy and she moved like a cat." He sighed. "I swear, its the truth."
"And you ran away?"
"Damn right I ran! If you saw that thing, youd a run away too!"
Corbin just grunted, still unsure what to make of this report. "I had three other men coming in for this hunt," he said quietly. "Theyre two days late now I guess that means they didnt make it."
"If they got caught by the ghost, they sure as hell didnt make it."
Jack Corbin was not a man prone to flights of fancy. He had traveled to every continent on Earth, had tracked and hunted almost every creature capable of killing a man, and had never encountered any beast that couldnt be overcome with caution and a loaded gun. His reputation was widespread among those who lived in the shadowy world of the black-market animal trade, and though he could have lived a soft life of luxury from the money hed made in his dealings, Jack prefered the excitement and danger of his work.
Three years ago, hed heard the reports of a poaching expedition that had been massacred in the Indian forests, the details of which had been enough to make even a ruthless hunter like Jack a little nervous. Still, at the time hed just assumed it was some kind of scare tactic being used by the rangers to frighten away poachers; the stories of some mystical tiger-like spirit stalking the jungle, ravaging those who dared to hunt the great cats hed scoffed at the lunacy of it even as many of his comrades started avoiding the Indian territory. In the three years that followed, more rumours had filtered down to him of men lost in the jungle sometimes never found, sometimes discovered by rangers, mauled and shredded with fearful savagery. Now, lured here by the chance to hunt the rare white tiger, Jack wasnt sure what to make of the story brought to him by his companion but he intended to tread carefully. Jack hadnt become successful as a poacher and smuggler by being foolish or rash.
The red-head shuffled uncomfortably as he watched Jack think. Shaun Duggan had never hunted with Jack Corbin before, but he knew the man by reputation and what hed heard both frightened him, and gave him confidance of success. "So whatre we gonna do?"
Jack considered long and hard. Eventually he nodded to the distant campfire. "Well watch them closely," he stated. "If theyre here for the tiger as well, maybe we wont have to work so hard to find it. We can just let them do the work for us."
"A-and what about the ghost?" Shaun asked, uncertain whether hed been believed or not.
Jack shrugged. "We find it, and we kill it." He turned away, shouldering his rifle and heading back to his own camp some two miles to the west. "If its real enough that it can kill a man, its real enough that we can kill it."
"Simple " Jack grinned. "First, we lure it out of hiding. Once I get a good look at it, Ill decide the best way to take it down."
Shaun had his doubts about whether the strange tiger-woman could even be killed he had been raised by his grandparents, who had instilled in him all their own old-world superstitions. To Shaun, the idea of a supernatural spirit guardian of the tigers wasnt all that far-fetched. Still, he kept his apprehensions to himself, fearing less the uncertain danger of the ghost than the very real danger of his companion.
On the way back to camp, Jack pondered the safest way to lure out the strange menace rather enjoying the first true challenge to his ability in a long while.
Continued in Part 2.
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