Today's Reading

"I'll show you the same mercy you showed my tiger. How would that suit you?"

"If I'd known it belonged to you—"

"Enough. You will only make things worse by lying."

Aung hangs his head. "I'm sorry, Lady."

"You are now." The woman lights a sizable cheroot and blows smoke from the corner of her mouth. "Since you are fond of tigers, I will introduce you to my favorite. Contrary to their fearsome reputation, tigers are intimidated by humans. They will rarely attack unless they are absolutely starving, or they mistake a person for some other kind of prey. But this one is different. He has killed at least eleven people. We call him 'Throat-Ripper.'" She motions to the soldiers.

The soldiers set their rifles down, march over to Aung and Zaw, and haul them to their feet.

"Please!" Aung shouts. "Please, Lady! Mercy!"

There is a mesh-lined enclosure set half a dozen yards inside the forest. The soldiers drag Aung, kicking and screaming, toward it. Zaw allows himself to be conveyed along limply, unresisting, like an empty sack.

"The boy is only thirteen!" Aung shouts desperately. "It was all my idea! He didn't even know what I was planning to do!"

One of the soldiers unlocks a gate in the fence. He swings it open, and the others toss Aung inside, then Zaw. The first soldier closes and locks the gate.

Aung lurches to his feet and presses his face against mesh. "He's only thirteen!"

The woman watches as the tiger slinks from a tangle of underbrush in the corner of the enclosure. It pads back and forth warily. Aung tries to frighten it off with kicks and shouts. The tiger retreats, and then circles back around a few moments later. Aung curses at it. The tiger snarls.

Zaw remains curled up on his side, face buried in the dirt.

The tiger pounces. It drags Aung down to the ground. It savages his body, tearing skin and cracking bone. After swallowing a few chunks of flesh, its hunger appears satiated. It licks its chops and saunters over to Zaw, sniffs him curiously, and then, seemingly bored, walks off in search of shade.

The woman smokes her cheroot and waits for the tiger to return and kill Zaw, but when it does not, she grows impatient. "Just shoot the boy and deliver both heads to their village in a basket," she orders.

The matter settled, she, the young woman, and the man with the holstered .45 return to the jeep and head back the way they came, leaving a cloud of red dust in their wake.


CHAPTER ONE

Four thousand kilometers to the north, Inspector Lu Fei is hunting a beast of a different stripe.

Hunting is perhaps the wrong word—conjuring, as it does, the image of a man in camouflage, toting a high-powered rifle, pursuing his prey with a single-minded determination, undeterred by bad weather, rough terrain, hunger, thirst.

Lu, on the other hand, is sitting idly on a cement bench in a tiny plaza outside the entrance to an open-air market in Raven Valley, a modestly sized township seventy kilometers from Harbin, the capital city of Heilongjiang Province. The July sun beats mercilessly down upon on his shoulders like droplets of molten lava. His armpits are soaked with sweat. His toes are swimming in his shoes.

He badly—desperately—needs a beer.

On the edge of the plaza is a food cart selling cold sesame noodles and tofu pudding. The vendor is—a tad gratuitously in Lu's opinion—flaunting a cooler filled with Harbin lager. Row after row of emerald-green bottles, beaded with condensation. What joy it would be to place one of those glass angels against his feverish brow. To sip that crisp golden nectar!

But no. Duty calls.

Duty, in this case, being a fugitive named Chen, wanted for peddling black market animal products—meat, bones, teeth, skin, scales, genitals; anything that can be eaten or processed as a medicinal remedy—to various restaurants and apothecaries in the area. Marketing exotic wildlife to gastronomes and men who suffer from erectile dysfunction is an old story in the People's Republic, but in the wake of the coronavirus and intensifying international pressure by conservationists, the government has finally gotten serious about cracking down on the trade.

Chen has thus far managed to keep his center of operations secret, no small feat in a country where two hundred million surveillance cameras monitor its citizenry, but he was recently spotted on CCTV cameras buying groceries at Raven Valley's Ding Hao market.

Hence, the vigil under the blazing sun. The sweaty armpits. The unrequited desire for a beer.
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