A chill wind wrapped itself around Marina’s shoulders as she walked away from the Fortress, her thoughts of the dismal prison cell adding to the gloom of the late afternoon. The sun had disappeared and the early evening sky threatened rain.
Marina pulled her coat closer to her body. “300,” she thought. “300. What on earth does that mean?” She was to tired to solve this now. It was getting late so she decided to return to the hotel. Perhaps a good night’s sleep would sharpen her wits.
She awoke the next morning to the sound of traffic outside the hotel window. ‘300’ immediately popped into her mind but with no further idea of its meaning. “Mark was right. This is nothing but a wild goose chase,” she thought. She would reluctantly abandon the whole idea and spend her remaining time in St Petersburg sightseeing and getting to know the city of her ancestors.
She found the tourist pamphlets she had collected from the display in the hotel foyer the day before. Maybe she would visit the Hermitage Museum or perhaps there was still time to take a tour to the Peterhof Palace. Frustration niggled in her head as she tried to decipher the leaflets. Most of the wording was in Russian with very little English. She wished she’d paid more attention to her mother’s lessons. A colourful leaflet displaying pictures of animals, birds and fish caught her eye but this time the wording was all in Russian. Marina turned the leaflet over hoping to find an English translation. ‘Зоопарк’ appeared in bold letters at the top of the page. She stared at the unfamiliar writing – could this be the 300 scratched in the cell window?
Marina took the brochure to the hotel reception. “Could you please tell me what this is?” she asked the young girl behind the desk, pointing at the brochure.
“It’s the Leningrad Zoo,” the girl explained. “In Alexandra Park.”
“Is it far from here?”
“No, not too far. Just catch the Metro to Gorkovskaya. It’s only a short walk from the station.”
A visit to a zoo would not have been high on Marina’s list of must-see attractions but a voice in her head told her she should go. What did she have to lose? She owed it to Ludmila and the family to follow every possible lead.
Despondent giraffes and lethargic lions did nothing to excite Marina once she’d found her way to the zoo. She could only feel pity for the poor animals in their enclosures and couldn’t help comparing their plight to the cell she had seen at the Fortress the day before. “This is a complete waste of time,” she thought. “Finding any connection to the clue here is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.”
Fat droplets of rain splattered onto the ground causing Marina to look around for shelter. She noticed a sign pointing to ‘The Museum: Zoo during the Siege’ and made her way towards a building with the strange name of ‘Brown Bear’.
A notice at the door informed her that the museum was divided into three zones. The first zone was modelled on the room of a servant of the zoo, she read, at the time of the siege with historical artifacts on display, the second was all about the care of the animals and the third was devoted to the scientific research work at the zoo.
Entering the room in the first zone Marina felt as if she had stepped back in time. She imagined herself living in St Petersburg during the siege in this room filled with heavy wooden furniture and she could almost smell the smoke coming from the small inadequate metal stove. She looked around at shelves filled with old dusty books and overly decorated antique ornaments and pictured people shivering from the cold, living on meagre food and prayers. Prayers . . . There before her on the wall hung a crucifix. She studied it closely, looking for the now-familiar groove. Could she really be lucky again? Turning her head to make sure she wasn’t being watched she felt along the groove. This time her hands found the opening at the back of the crucifix easily.With trembling fingers she pulled out a yellowing piece of paper. Not daring to look at it, she placed it in her handbag. She hurried from the room and made her way to the entrance of the museum. She could wait no longer to read the words.
He was invited to dine but he came to die. Three times he died before he drowned.