Week 25

Putin emptied his glass and set it down. “Good. I’ll be taking the bedroom, of course, but the couch is all yours. Goodnight.”

Before Mila could respond, he rose and walked away. Closing the bedroom door, Putin smiled briefly. “Take that, old sow,” he thought.

In the morning, Putin called the Commander’s secretary to say that he had a family emergency and would be gone for a few days.

The Commander and Mila had been much more compliant than Putin had expected. He could already move into phase two of his plan.

Putin packed a suitcase, walked out past snoring Mila—her bulbous body scrunched on the couch—and caught a cab to the airport.

During the flight to Irkutsk Oblast, he passed the time sipping vodka and flipping idly through a book of Boris Vallejo illustrations.

Once in Irkutsk, he found the car rental agency, surveyed the lot full of yellow Ladas, and chose the least dirty one.

For hours he drove ever deeper into the forest, navigating without a map, guided by his keen Putin Sense, intuiting where to find Snowy.

Finally he stopped in front of a small gash in a wall of trees, and exited the Lada. Without hesitation, Putin marched into the wilderness.

Miles in, he paused and tilted up his nose: He smelled battle. A ferocious cry shattered the still forest air. Putin ran to its source.

At the edge of a clearing, Putin stopped. Through the trees, he saw a sight that made his pulse race with excitement.

A massive herd of sabertooth deer were attacking a tiger, bucking, and charging, a riot of gleaming fangs and white-tufted tails.

The noble cat fought with a terrible fury, gnashing its great teeth and cutting deer in two with slashes of its vicious claws.

Still the deer charged, diving at the cat with fangs raised, screaming their terrible war cry. Blood ran thick on the forest floor.

As Putin watched, transfixed, a figure appeared by his side: It was Snowy. He turned and their gazes met. Putin smiled as Snowy bowed.

“Does this one please you?” Snowy asked. Putin nodded without taking his eyes off the slaughter. “Good. I have already recruited him.”

Soon the battle was over. The cowards who survived had fled, and the tiger, blood matting the fur around its awful maw, began to groom.

Putin waited for the victor to finish its bath and then emerged from the forest, walking over and around the many disemboweled corpses.

As he approached the tiger, Putin could see its full, massive bulk. His eyes flashed excitedly, anticipating future sparring matches.

The tiger met Putin’s gaze to show recognition, and then rolled onto its back, exposing its soft tummy in a sign of submission.

Putin knelt to stroke the purring beast, tousling its fur affectionately. “I will name you Murder Cat,” he said. “Our Sargent at Arms.”