Marina breathed in the cold air as she stood at the top of the aeroplane steps. The sun was shining but the bitter St Petersburg wind needled her face as she descended to the tarmac.
Mark had tried to talk her out of coming.
“So you’re going all the way to Russia to follow-up some so-called clue left by old Aunt Ludmila?”
“It’s not a so-called clue,” she’d replied. “It’s my family’s legacy. They lost everything and now I have a chance to reclaim some of it.”
Now she was here, the task seemed enormous. All she had to go on was a scrap of paper and some judicious Googling. As she queued at Passport Control, she wondered if she was doing the right thing. But once she’d checked into her room at the Pushka Inn, she was impatient to begin her search. Aunt Ludmila’s note had hinted at hidden treasure and Marina had spent hours in the last few weeks imagining what it could be.
She opened her suitcase to retrieve her walking boots, her bobble hat and her warmest gloves and set off into the cold St Petersburg afternoon. Aunt Ludmila’s note had mentioned Christ’s blood and a few minutes on the internet revealed that the city’s most famous church was called The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. She had decided before she left London that this was where she would begin her search.
After twenty minutes’ walking she saw the church come into view and it took her breath away. The magnificent onion domes and mosaics stood out like jewels against the clear blue sky. Marina couldn’t resist taking some photographs and texting one of them to Mark with the caption, “Here I am!”
It was late afternoon and the tourist crowds were thinning out as she entered the church. She thought about Ludmila’s note and wondered again what she had meant by ‘Catherine’s gift’. Mark had sarcastically suggested it was Catherine the Great and they had laughed about it, but afterwards, Marina had imagined that it was. Ludmila’s family were aristocrats after all and their ancestors could well have been close enough to the Empress to have been on the receiving end of a fabulous gift.
Not knowing where to look for clues, or even if she was in the right place, Marina wandered aimlessly around the church, taking in the sights and smells, trying to sense a connection to the place and to her forebears.
And then she saw it: above an altar at the side of the church stood a small group of saints.
His saints smile upon us, Aunt Ludmila’s note said. We are not worthy to gather the crumbs from beneath their table.
Her heart thumping, Marina approached the altar and looked upwards. The saints were indeed smiling down on her. She followed their gaze downwards to the box behind the altar they appeared to be standing on. Could this be where Ludmila’s ‘crumbs’ were hidden?
There was a chain across the front of the altar, prohibiting tourists, but Marina wasn’t going to let that stand in her way. She looked around her. The only security guard she could see was busy taking photographs for a small group of Japanese tourists. She had to move fast. She slid under the chain and approached the wooden structure under the feet of the smiling saints. She ran her hands over it, knocking softly on it with her fists. With some trepidation, she slid her hand into the small gap underneath the box and felt something stuck to the underside. Taking a deep breath and glancing round to check on the whereabouts of the guard, she pulled gently, then more firmly, until, with a snap that was louder than she’d hoped, the object came away in her hand.
It was a crucifix, identical to the one she’d found in Ludmila’s room. She turned it upside down and there, in the base, was the familiar carved groove. She fumbled for a nail file in her bag to open it. Inside was a piece of fragile, yellowed paper.
Marina didn’t stop to read it. She put it carefully into her bag, replaced the crucifix and slipped out of the church.
Once outside, she opened the note with trembling hands.
Ask Peter and Paul for guidance, it said. Trotsky will never be free.
Marina re-folded the note and strode away from the church.