Arkady's father had been posted in a number of godforsaken places in the middle of Siberia. In the wintertime he would enlist a native guide and head into the taiga, with Arkady following their snowshoe tracks. The natives made their living by trapping or shooting sables through the eye, leaving a pelt smooth and intact. General Renko nearly matched the hunter's marksmanship. With a rifle, Arkady was lucky to hit a tree.
"So you have never shot or tagged a bear." Nina's voice sank.
"No," Arkady said.
"Maybe we should just shoot him," Victor said.
"Shooting a bear is the last thing we want," Nina said. "You have no idea how difficult and expensive it would be to find another bear with a clean bill of health. Besides, Masha might reject a new bear."
That was always a possibility, Arkady thought.
Sasha's eyes took on a more focused glint. As he rose to his full height, a rank smell steamed off him. There was a honking and clatter as the surface of the pond rose. Sasha lifted his head and watched ducks and geese rise in formation, then locked eyes on Arkady, took a sly step forward, and extended a paw as if to say, "This way to your table, monsieur." This was followed by a roar that shook the earth.
The zookeepers lowered their poles like lances and slowly began to move in.
"Stop!" Victor shouted. "Stay where you are!"
The young men tripped over their feet as they backed up.
Nina cocked the tranquilizer gun. She fired but the dart fell short.
She reached for another dart, inserted it into the chamber, and pulled the trigger again. By this time, Sasha was no more than ten meters away from them. Again the dart fell short. A dud. Nina's hands were shaking. She shoved the gun into Arkady's hands.
He loaded and fired. A pink plume like an artificial flower appeared in Sasha's forehead. The bear swatted at it once, twice, and was asleep before he hit the ground.
After leaving the zoo, Arkady bought a bouquet of flowers and headed to Yaroslavsky Station to meet Tatiana's train. The station was a byzantine creation as frightening as a child's nightmare. It rose up in the middle of Moscow like a goblin, windows for eyes and a dark slanted roof capping a huge entryway ready to devour all who entered.
As the Trans-Siberian Express drew up to the platform, third-class passengers with no time to lose rushed off the train, leaving the pigsties they had made of their cabins. Crumpled wrappers, sausage ends, greasy cheese, spilled beer, and empty bags of potato chips littered the compartments. Oilmen, gamblers, and miners—the sort that never dug grit from under their fingernails—found their wives. Babies howled with discomfort while older children rubbed sleep from their eyes.
Wealthy tourists disembarked from luxury carriages to meet porters who rescued luggage and bags of souvenirs. Tatiana would be riding in the second-class carriage, neither hard nor luxurious but perfectly suited for those doing business in the new Russia.
Hundreds of travelers fanned out across the great hall or ducked into Metro tunnels. Arkady scanned the crowd searching for Tatiana, listening for the decisive tap of her heels on the marble floor. He tripped over Gypsies who were sprawled out on the floor like so many pashas at ease. Babushkas defended sweet-smelling loaves of bread and bottles of homemade pickles from police dogs. Boys handed out fliers advertising local bars, cafés, and strip clubs.
Rather than argue with Arkady about the risks she took, Tatiana often simply left without telling him where she was going. Two months earlier she had disappeared from their apartment, leaving only a railroad timetable on the kitchen table with the route to Moscow from Siberia underlined as if to say, "Catch me if you can." She had circled November 14 and 13:45 as her return time.