The cabbie that drove me to the northside didn’t seem real happy about dropping me on Allen Street by myself, but I tipped him handsomely and he went away. I’d seen too many truly scary things lately for a rundown neighborhood to have much of an impact on me, at least not in the daytime, anyway.
The dead-end alley in which Alina’s body had been found didn’t have a name, was cobbled in the old way, with stone that time and weather had heaved and cracked, and stretched a good several hundred yards back from the road. Trash cans and Dumpsters were wedged between windowless brick walls of a decaying subsidized-income tenement building on the right and a boarded-up warehouse on the left. Old newspapers, cardboard boxes, beer bottles, and debris littered the alleyway. The ambience was similar to that of the abandoned neighborhood. I had no intention of remaining in the area long enough to find out if the streetlamps still worked.
Dad didn’t know I’d seen the crime-scene photos he’d tucked beneath the blue-and-silver folder containing the financial plan he’d been working on for Ms. Myrna Taylor-Hollingsworth. In fact, I had no idea how he’d gotten them. I was under the impression the police didn’t ordinarily release such things to grief-crazed parents, especially not shots so graphic and gruesome.
Identifying her body had been bad enough. I’d found those pictures the day before I’d left for Ireland, when I’d gone into his office to swipe a stash of pens.
Now, as I walked to the end of the alley, I was seeing the photos superimposed on the scene. She’d been lying just there, to my right, a dozen feet away from the twelve-foot brick wall that cut off the alley and had aborted her run. I didn’t want to know if bits of her fingernails were broken off in those bricks from a frantic attempt to climb the sheer face and escape whatever had been pursuing her, so I looked away, down at the spot where she’d died. They’d found her slumped back against the brick wall. I’ll spare you the details I wish I didn’t know.
Driven by some awful darkness inside me, I dropped down onto the dirty cobblestones and slumped into the exact position in which my sister had been found. Unlike in the pictures, there was no blood splashing the stones and brick walls. Rain had washed away all signs of her struggle weeks ago. Here she’d taken her last breath. Here all of Alina Lane’s hopes and dreams had died.
“God, I miss you so much, Alina!” I felt every bit as brittle as I sounded, and once more the tears came. I swore it would be the last time I cried. And it would be, for quite some time.
I don’t know how long I sat there before I noticed the cosmetic pack Mom had given Alina for Christmas, half-buried beneath the trash. Twin to the one I’d had to abandon at Mallucé’s, the tiny quilted gold bag had been badly weathered, bleached by the sun and soaked by rain. I pushed aside old newspapers, picked it up, and cradled it in my hands.
I know what you’re thinking. I thought it, too—that there would surely be a clue in it. That Alina had tucked away some clever reduction of her entire journal or some sophisticated little computer chip that held all the information I needed to know, and miraculously the police had overlooked it and serendipity had steered me to this alley at just the right moment to find it.
Life is rarely so convenient, as Barrons would say. We’ve all seen too many movies, I would say.
There was nothing inside the battered pack except for the items Mom had chosen for us, minus the tiny metal fingernail file. Nothing in the lining, nothing tucked away in a compact or lipstick. I know, because I practically ripped everything apart looking for it.
I won’t burden you with my thoughts of Alina as I sat there, or the grieving I did. If you’ve lost someone, then you know what kind of things go through your head and need no reminder from me. If you’ve not yet lost someone—good—I hope it’s a small eternity before you do.
I said good-bye and I said hello, and as I was pushing myself up to go, my eye was caught by the silvery glint of metal near my feet. It was the tip of Alina’s fingernail file, badly scraped and dented. I bent and pushed aside the trash to retrieve it, not about to leave one bit of her behind, and sucked in a sharp breath of disbelief.
I’d comforted myself with the hope that Alina had died quickly. That she hadn’t laid in that alley alone, bleeding to death for a long time. But she couldn’t have died too quickly, because she’d used her fingernail file to gouge something into the stone.
I knelt on the pavement and brushed away the trash, then blew off the dust and grime.
I was both disappointed and grateful she hadn’t written more. Disappointed because I needed some major help here. Grateful because it meant she’d died in minutes, not hours.