In the video, everything is there: victim, investigators, and killer.
Roxy Kapi’olani is standing with her mentor, Dr. Isaac Siddig, a few feet away from the body. Dr. Siddig is speaking with a clinical detachment, pointing to the mess of bloody, shredded fabric that was once a jacket. Another man, Alexander Karlov, is sweeping away snow with the branch of a fallen pine tree. They begin arguing about the investigation. Dr. Siddig wants to touch the remains, but Alexander won’t violate Orthodox burial customs.
Oksana Kursanov walks into frame. When she sees what’s left of her husband, she screams and falls into the snow. She recognizes Nikolai’s haircut and gently touches it as if the hairs might snap off at the roots. Alexander’s men stand back, watching with hunting rifles cradled in their arms. They belong to Tiger Encounter; one of Russia’s official agencies that handle cases of tiger attacks. They’ve seen this before, though perhaps not quite so gruesome. One of them says something in Russian and Alexander translates for Roxy and Dr. Siddig, his soft voice barely picked up by the video camera’s microphone:
“Normally, there is more of the body left.”
Their hunting dog is barking in the background.
The victim’s friend and neighbor, Dmitri Baer, steps away so the videographer can do a closer examination. There is a head, there is a spine, there are ripped clothes, and there are portions of the right leg. Red snow betrays evidence that more of a body existed at some point. The sub-zero temperature has mummified Nikolai’s face, his eyes frozen in surprise.
The videographer, one of Alexander’s men, sighs deeply. He’s passionate and beautiful: he isn’t ashamed to break down and cry, whether it’s a human attacked by a tiger or a tiger attacked by a human. Maybe he’s looking away and just blindly pointing his camera, because the focus moves away from Nikolai’s frozen face and toward the tiger tracks in the snow.
Now, the hunting dog can be seen ten feet away, directly behind Roxy Kapi’olani, barking into the Russian forest of birches and Korean pines.
And there, hidden behind dry grass poking out of the snow: a tiger, watching them.
Roxy studies the video again and again until she’s desensitized to the brutality of the kill. She needs to see it for what it is: consumed prey. She needs to compartmentalize the man and examine the body from the perspective of a big cat biologist. Her superior is testing her.
“Turn off the audio,” Dr. Siddig suggests.
Roxy lowers the volume. They’re using an old tube TV and VHS player because that’s how Alexander’s team videotapes things. His agency doesn’t get much money from the government so they scavenge whatever supplies they can find. Roxy and Dr. Siddig are in an old Soviet army barrack that’s been converted into a ramshackle research facility for visiting wildlife scientists.
“See?” he asks.
Roxy strains her eyes. Is it the frozen face he wants her to see? Something else? He’s patient. He keeps his distance, sitting away from her and working on something in his notebook. While she’s been studying the video, he’s also said his afternoon prayer.
“I’m sorry,” she says, exasperated. “You’ll just have to tell me.”
He reaches over and presses the “pause” button. The video freezes in the grainy way VHS tapes do, losing a little clarity. Dr. Siddig’s finger touches the screen, circling around the mangled corpse of Nikolai Kursanov. “Look at the paw prints here. The tiger arrives. Look here, where the snow is disturbed: the tiger sits to consume his meal. Look over here: the tiger leaves.”
The realization hits Roxy. “There’s no sign of an actual attack.”
Dr. Siddig nods. “What if Nikolai was already dead when the tiger found him?”
The next morning, Alexander takes them to Nikolai’s cabin in the forest. It’s an illegal cabin—all the hunting cabins around here are illegal, built inside what’s supposed to be a protected forest. Alexander lights the iron stove and the smell of burning wood fills the small space. Roxy stands close enough to feel the heat on her numb nose.