Today's Reading

The next image is an overhead of an octagon-shaped viewing area. A raised central platform surrounded by eight glass walls fronting eight large cages, all big and empty. The next shot details the inside of the octagon. Different vantage point, but the same glass cages. At the center of the photo, a canary-yellow arrow appears, pointing to a dark wooden table surrounded by six cheap plastic chairs that sit in the middle of the central platform.

Lion taps a finger on the table. The arrow disappears and the photo zooms. Close-up of wood grain in high relief, and atop the grain: five lines of silver powder and a silver straw. Three faint lines, already inhaled, two left intact, each the same hue as a classic Airstream.

Same silver as Bo's tattoo.

A click in his brain as data bit finds data bit. Neurotransmitters dump into synapses, end result, more questions: Is this a Rilkean thing? A drug thing? An animal rights thing? Whatever thing it is, Arctic sure managed to dig up his backstory. Lion definitely understands why they want him for this job.

The South Africa article is about a family on safari: kids, grandkids, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, a clan of nearly eighteen. Without explanation, they departed camp in the middle of the night and were found the next morning, sleeping amid a pride of lions. Everyone makes it back to camp safely; no one can remember why they left.

Corresponding photo shows the safari camp, a picnic table painted fire-engine red in the center. Another yellow arrow, pointing at the picnic table. Tap for close-up. Same silver straw, same silver powder residue.

The final article is a detective story, told twenty-first-century style. Airplane records show Robert Walker, fifty-four, departing Dallas, landing at LaGuardia. A kid taking a selfie catches Walker in snakeskin boots and desert fatigues stepping off the plane in New York. A cam era over baggage claim has him lifting a camo-colored duffel and black gun case into a luggage cart. Uber gets him curbside to his Hamptons residence. His alarm system confirms entry. Drone footage from who knows where reconfirms. Four minutes later, Alexa has him asking about a silver residue on a table in his study. Two days after, an anonymous 911 from an untraceable burner brings in the cops. They re port the house empty, so the press reports Robert Walker MIA.

Something not quite right is the only thing Lion gets from the story. He takes another hit from the joint and tries again. Still can't put his finger on it.

And no follow-up article.

But he finds two corresponding photos in the stack. The first shows a tartan graveyard that must be Walker's study. Plaid wallpaper and mounted animal heads covering every inch. Lion sees a Lucite end table beneath a giant elk, an unzipped gun bag sitting beneath the table and a .300 Winchester Magnum visible through its acrylic surface. A familiar sheen on the tabletop.

He taps and zooms, bringing the tabletop into close-up. Now he sees what he already expects to see: silver straw, silver powder lines.

The second photo takes him a second. It's another shot of Walker's study, the lens pointed straight at the animal heads. Deer, antelope, gazelle, zebra, tiger, and then human, male, roughly midfifties. The missing Robert Walker? His head neatly mounted to oval-shaped mahogany, hanging on the wall like just another trophy.

Lion double-taps the image for the zoom, maybe hitting the mesh electronics a little too hard, maybe not yet believing what's he's seeing. Close-up reveals a wide, pale forehead, a tight web of crow's-feet jutting off hazel eyes, and a receding prep school haircut from another decade. Walker's jaw seems clenched, his neck muscles bulging, and nothing below his neck but high-gloss dark wood.

Decapitation.

What the hell has he gotten himself into? The Red Ice icon pulses hot pink, just once, then fades to black. And he knows, in the same way the rain knows gravity, Arctic is what he's gotten himself into.

But he's not gonna think about it right now. His attention is fixed on the dark ovals of Walker's eyes. Something in those eyes, Lion will think later, something else he should have seen coming.

HUNTING THE HUNTERS

Holding the photo of Walker's head on the wall, Lion finds it takes a few minutes for the gruesomeness to pass.

Once it does, he notes a different sensation, a lack of sensation. He's still staring at the photo, but not feeling much of anything.

And not the way things normally work.

He tries holding the image at different distances: arm's length, close up. Tap to zoom, double tap for wide. Five more minutes pass and still nothing. Em-trace machinery failing to em, and the taste of ash in the back of his throat.

Joint residue, or does em-tracking failure really taste like ash?

Answer probably still unknown. Em-tracking is a fairly new addition to the human repertoire. Not surprising, Lion knows, because the idea of empathy itself only dates to the late eighteenth century. The notion was invented by psycho-physiologist Wilhelm Wundt to describe our ability to experience another's experience, and different, Wundt thought, from sympathy and compassion. Empathy is about the transmission of information; sympathy and compassion are reactions to that information.

This excerpt ends on page 20 of the hardcover edition. ...

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