RUSSIA: Police in southern Russia are investigating the latest suspected contract killing to rock the bloody and lucrative world of caviar smuggling - the death of fish-sniffing marvel Rusik the cat.
After wandering hungry into a customs checkpoint as a stray kitten last year, Rusik soon became the scourge of the Stavropol region's brutal fishing mafia, by hunting out caviar being smuggled from the Caspian Sea towards Moscow, and on towards a Western market willing to pay top dollar for the roe of the rare sturgeon.
"One day Rusik just leapt into the boot of a passing car at the checkpoint and immediately sniffed out some sturgeon," police officer Sergei Kovalenko said of the talented Siamese. "After that, we decided to use him all the time in our searches." After a year of unheralded crime fighting, which saw him easily eclipse local sniffer dogs for fish-finding skill, Rusik's human colleagues went public on his prowess last week. It proved to be a fatal error.
"The cat finds it in any hiding place," a police spokesman proudly told Russian media of Rusik's fish-hunting ability.
But now Rusik is dead, mown down by a car in which he had once discovered smuggled sturgeon.
Local police, recalling vows of revenge from embittered smugglers and long-sceptical of coincidence in the cut-throat world of organized crime, immediately suspected a mafia hit.
Rusik's demise was just the latest heavy blow to Stavropol's cat-friendly crime-fighters.
The Siamese used to split his shifts with another cat called Barsik, Mr Kovalenko said.
But Barsik - or "little snow leopard" - succumbed a few weeks ago after eating a poisoned mouse during downtime in a nearby field.
Now Mr Kovalenko and colleagues are considering allocating funds to finding cats with the ability of Barsik and Rusik.
"We may use cats again," he said sadly. "But the chance will only go to cats with a very special talent."