Sasha's eyes were set in a huge pan-shaped head and he studied Arkady as someone who might share his misery. The bear was a towering beast but his customary roar was weakened by alcohol. His mate, Masha, sat on her rump, a half-empty bottle of champagne pressed to her breast. A plaque on the zoo guardrail read "Sasha and Masha, American Brown Bear (Ursus arctos horribilis')." That sounded about right, Arkady thought.
The bears had been released by somebody who had left a poster that declared "We Are Animals Too." Arkady wasn't going to dispute this.
At four in the morning the dark made every fairy-tale feature of the park into something grotesque. Statues became monsters. Shadows spread wings. Lions softly growled and polar bears manically paced back and forth.
Arkady was an Investigator of Special Cases, and if a bear running loose in the heart of Moscow was not a special case, he didn't know what was. Victor, his partner, was an excellent detective when he was sober.
By the time they arrived, the zoo director had tagged Sasha and Masha with tranquilizer darts loaded with barbiturates that, combined with champagne, made a heady cocktail for even an Ursus arctos horribilis.
Masha slumped against a stone wall. Sasha's every burp was a foul bubble and each snore resonated like a broken drum. One moment he seemed inert, the next he jerked upright and swept the air with a massive paw. A half dozen young zookeepers held poles like lances and cautiously surrounded the bears from a distance.
They were greeted by Victor's sister, Nina, the zoo director, a take-charge kind of woman dressed in a sheepskin coat and hat. She was toting a tranquilizer gun.
She gave Arkady a firm handshake.
"Did you call for more help?" he asked.
"I don't want police charging around the grounds," she said. "That's why I called you."
"I 'am' the police," Victor said.
So much for Nina's estimate of her brother.
Sasha and Masha were thirty meters away, lurching toward an ice cream cart. Together they shook it until the handle broke, then rocked it from side to side until it fell over. Discouraged, they lumbered back to their stone wall and collapsed to the ground.
Arkady's father, General Renko, had hunted bears and warned him about people who thought they could outrun or outclimb them. "In case of an encounter, do not run; a bear is faster," he said. "If he catches you, play dead."
Arkady hoped that these young zookeepers had been trained to deal with brown bears. He had the feeling that Sasha could knock them over like tenpins.
"Tell me about last night," Arkady said.
"We had a fund-raiser for patrons of the zoo in the main hall and there was a good deal of drinking and celebrating. We feed them, offer them champagne, and while they're in a generous mood, we hold an auction. A cleanup crew put all the empty and half-empty bottles in bins to be picked up in the morning. It appears Sasha and Masha got into them."
"How did they get out of their cage in the first place?"
"There's been a lot of agitation by animal activists lately. It looks to me like an idealistic animal lover snuck in after everyone had gone, released the bears, and put up his poster as a protest. It had to be someone that the bears were familiar with."
A classic inside job, Arkady thought.