"Apparently, one of your keepers has gone soft in the brain," Victor said.
"And what do you auction at a zoo?" Arkady asked.
"The highest bidders are given the honor of having a baby giraffe named after them, or a private visit with a koala bear. Things of that nature."
"In other words, it's a crass display of money," Victor said.
"We depend on wealthy people in high places to support the zoo."
Not bad, Arkady thought. Had President Putin himself attended? He was known to like photo ops with lion cubs.
"Tell me about the bears," he said.
"The female, Masha, is docile enough, but Sasha, the male, can be aggressive."
"Poor bastards. They'll probably be hosed down," Victor said. "At least, that's what they do to me in the drunk tank. Bears should be rambling through the wilds of Kamchatka in all their glory, scooping salmon out of streams and scaring the wits out of campers. Instead, they're an embarrassment to nature."
"Animals don't suffer from the zoo experience," Nina said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Bears live longer in captivity than in the wild. They don't mind."
"And if you tickle a lab rat, it will giggle," Victor said. "Can you kill a bear with that?" Victor nodded at her tranquilizer gun.
"Of course not," Nina said. "The gun is for the bear's protection."
"Does the bear know that?"
"It's just compressed air and barbiturates." She pulled a dart with a pink pompom at its end. "We call it 'chemical immobilization.'"
"Masha's on the move," a zookeeper called out.
Masha wanted no part of the scene; she stood, sadly turned, and waddled back toward the open door of her caged den. A champagne bottle slipped from her grasp and rolled away. She sighed. The brief excursion had been excitement enough for her.
"She likes her den," Arkady said.
"It's called a habitat," Nina corrected him.
"It's a fucking circus," said Victor.
Sasha was brokenhearted by Masha's betrayal. He got to his feet, moaned, and swung his head from side to side.
"Now what?" Victor asked.
Nina dropped her voice. "It depends on whether Sasha follows Masha or goes to sleep. All we can do is wait."
"How smart are they?" Arkady asked.
"At a guess, I'd say as intelligent as a three-year-old. That's a very unscientific estimate."
"A three-year-old giant with claws," Victor said.
"On that order."
"Let's hope he needs a nap," Arkady said. "Are bears your specialty?"
"Primatology." She swept hair from her forehead. "I study apes."
"Me too," said Arkady.
"You had pets when you were a boy, didn't you?" Victor asked.
"Some." Arkady didn't have ordinary pets like dogs or cats. He had collected geckos and snakes, whatever he could catch on the Mongolian steppe.
"I understood that you have experience hunting bears," Nina said.
"Victor told me that you were a regular big-game hunter."
Arkady turned to Victor. "You said that?"
"Maybe I exaggerated."
"No, I never shot a bear. Maybe a rabbit."
"Then I've been misinformed, as usual."
"I'm afraid so."