Assistant Commissioner of Police (Crime Branch) Aditi Kashyap was no stranger to murder, crowds and mayhem. The situation on the ground, however, reminded her more of a mob waiting for a Bollywood superstar than a crime scene. High-powered flashes went off incessantly as a weak sun rose from behind a skyline of buildings. A perpetual buzz of conversation filled the air, punctuated by shouted instructions from journalists and policemen alike. Cars, ambulances, transmission trucks and vehicles of every kind blocked the road, creating a traffic jam that stretched for two kilometres.
She decided to walk through the mess to reach the crime scene, leaving her Jeep and driver to make their own slow way to the spot. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for she slipped quietly into the cordoned-off area, avoiding the throng of mediapersons who waited to shove a microphone in her face and wring out whatever they could to use as a comment.
Sub-inspector Dubey, a rotund, avuncular man, noticed her arrival and came up to her. He began, quite thoughtfully, by saying, “Madam, shall I get you chai?”
Dubey gestured in the direction of the roadside vendor who had set up his small tea and biscuits shop to service the burgeoning crowd that thronged every side of the field, held back only by the police cordon – onlookers eager to delight in the tragedy of others, if only to temporarily escape their own mundane burdens.
Aditi Kashyap was not impressed. “What is going on, Dubeyji? Clear the crowd right away! That chaiwalla too. Is this a crime scene or a circus?”
Leaving Dubey to follow her instructions, she walked towards one of the red-flagged areas, where the forensics team was still working. Haldenkar, an enthusiastic young officer, saluted as she approached and raised the yellow tape marking off the area to let her through.
A woman in jeans and a black kurta was crouched over a spot formerly occupied by what Aditi guessed had been a hand, from the shape of the chalk outline. The bodies, or what remained of them, had already been moved into a makeshift tent, where another team was working on them.
“Hi, Naina,” Aditi greeted the forensic analyst.
“Morning, Aditi. No point calling it a good morning, I suppose?”
Aditi smiled, knowing that Naina’s surliness was pretty standard amongst the young women in the police department and driven by the need to look and act tough to seem adequately competent. Cases like these, however, made up for all the crap she put up with.
Crouching down next to Naina, she said, “All right, what have we got?”
Naina shook her head. “Prima facie it looks like an animal attack, but…”
“I don’t know, Aditi. There are signs that this animal was hunting. It waited for the right moment to strike, rather than act on impulse. Why would an animal stalk and hunt out these men – unless there was a human mind directing it?”
“You mean a trained animal? Like a dog? That’s unusual…but not impossible,” Aditi said.
“Yes and no,” Naina replied. “It will take at least thirty-six hours to get the species identification from the saliva DNA, but I’m willing to guess this was no dog. I took partial teeth imprints off of one of the other bodies. This was a large – no, a huge animal. Plus, it appears to have taken that other guy’s head off in a clean bite.”
“So something big enough to bite a human head off at one go?”
Aditi stood up and surveyed the scene as a whole. She would examine the ground herself, but she also knew to take expert input where she got it. Whether their grumpy old forensics head agreed or not, Naina was one of the best in the business. Nevertheless, the question had to be asked.
“On a scale of one to ten, Naina, what is the possibility that this whole thing was staged? As in, they’ve made it look like an animal attack in order to deflect the investigation?”
Naina looked up at Aditi, shielding her eyes against the sun with one hand. “Well, if you’ve watched enough CSI, you might believe that all this is an elaborate set-up. But this is India, and these are drug-running scum. Why go to all this trouble when a bullet from a homemade desi revolver will do the trick? Hire a kid from a small town, give him 10,000 rupees, and your job is done. Frankly, Aditi, you have your investigation cut out for you.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way now, would I?” Aditi joked. “Thanks, Naina.”
Naina nodded. “For what it’s worth, most people would be happy these guys are dead. But now that it’s breaking news, we can’t let it go, can we?”
“No. We can’t.” Aditi moved away. Dubey and Haldenkar joined her.
“Haldenkar, what’s this on the news about a witness?” Aditi asked.
“Madam, the witness is a resident in Horizon Seaview – the apartment complex on the other side of the field. Apparently, he is a stargazer. He was watching with a telescope when he saw unusual activity in the field. He called the control room at around 4 am, about the time when the safaaiwallas came here to dump garbage and found the bodies. I’ve interviewed him already.”
“Madam…he said he saw a lion.”
“A lion?” Aditi could not hide her disdain. “You mean, with a mane…the big furry hair and all?”
“No, madam. He said it was a female lion. I asked him repeatedly, even suggested to him that leopards and other wild animals sometimes wander in from the hillside forests. But he was adamant. He said it was a lion, but without the hair.”
Aditi was struck by two thoughts at once: Naina’s words about a large trained animal conflated with the realisation that the witness was likely to create even more panic than had already set in, with his absurd statements.
She said, “Send two constables to the man’s apartment. They are not to allow any reporters near him. Wait, on second thoughts, you go, with a small team. Take him into custody. Say it’s for routine questioning. I’ll speak to the commissioner about it. We can’t have this man stirring up more problems than we already have.”
“Yes, madam. Madam, is the commissioner coming to the spot?”
“No, Haldenkar. He will stay away till we can give him more to say about this whole mess. Besides, it shows lack of confidence in us if the commissioner rushes to the spot. Let’s come up with some answers soon. Any leads other than what forensics has told us? Any ideas?”
Dubey, who had been silent all the while, spoke up. “Madam, maybe…I mean…’ He stopped, a look of incredulity on his face at what he had been about to suggest. But it was too late to backtrack. Aditi was looking at him with a patient anticipation that few officers spared for their subordinates. It would not do to disrespect or disappoint her, no matter how absurd his idea.
“Madam,” he began again, “my son…he’s a teenager, only fourteen last month. He went for a movie with his friends. English movie, U/A certificate one only…He came back and was telling his mother about the film. It was about a man who turns into a wolf at the full moon and…’
Dubey stopped, looking mildly embarrassed.
“Dubeyji, are you suggesting that a werewolf did this? A supernatural fantasy creature?” Aditi asked, her expression deadpan.
“Not wolf, madam. Lion or…”
Aditi did her best to not react. She took a deep breath, trying to erase the last thirty seconds of her life from memory before she lost her temper in public. Dubey wisely held his tongue, but Haldenkar misunderstood her silence. He chipped in, “Good idea, no, madam? That witness also said he saw a female lion…”
“Haldenkar, you think some US-returned MBA-type with a multinational job has ever seen a lion, except in a zoo or safari, that too from the safety of his air-conditioned car? Arre woh sala toh…he’d have been petrified by a cat.” Aditi cast around, exasperated, looking for a way to convince the two men that their utterly ridiculous idea was…well, utterly ridiculous.
She continued, “Tell you what. Speak to the forest department. They have motion-sensor cameras around the forest area, don’t they? See what the footage shows. I’m sure it will turn out to be a leopard come down from the Powai hills. You check immediately.”
Haldenkar nodded vigorously, happy at having “hard evidence”, as he preferred to call it, to pursue. But Dubey appeared to have found his courage and with it, his tongue, again. “But madam, what if…I mean…you know?”
Aditi calmly considered the middle-aged Dubey. He was a good man and only a couple of years from retirement. She said, “Then, Dubeyji, we will have to figure out how to get an arrest warrant for an animal. Procedure toh hoga, na?” Haldenkar burst out laughing and Dubey joined in, being unnaturally loud.
Aditi looked from them to the taped-off crime scene and then glanced in the general direction of the jungle.
She could really do with that chai now, after all.
Excerpted with permission from Beast, Krishna Udaysankar, Penguin Ebury.