Donna Malane Excerpt: My Brother’s Keeper

From New Zealand author Donna Malane, My Brother's Keeper is a dark and twisting mystery that leaves no stone―or page―unturned (available December 19, 2017).

Diane Rowe is a missing persons expert. Ex-con Karen needs Diane's help to track down her fourteen-year-old daughter, Sunny, whom she's lost contact with while she's been in prison.

To Diane, this appears at first glance to be a simple case of a mother wanting to reunite with a beloved daughter. Tracking the girl down is easy. However, convincing her to meet her mother is no easy task. And at the back of Diane's mind is a nagging thought―that guilt and innocence aren't straightforward and nothing is quite what it seems. Does Karen really want to fix the wrongs of the past or is there something darker at play here that will take all of Diane's skills to uncover?

CHAPTER 1

MONDAY 19 NOVEMBER 2012

The strips of crimson decorations dangling from the light fittings reminded me of intestines. Clearly, I was not in a festive mood. But at least I’d swum my fifty lengths. Okay, widths. My hand was already on the exit door when the intercom announced two minutes’ silence to mark the anniversary of the Pike River mine disaster. Twenty-nine men dead. Two minutes’ silence. It didn’t seem a lot to ask. I waited, self-consciously clutching my takeaway coffee with raisin scone balanced precariously on top. Toddlers in the kids’ pool squatted, saveloy bums dipping the water, as they peered into their parents’ suddenly still faces. The splashing, squealing group had become a facsimile of the dead miners. Slumped. Unplugged from the grid.

In that hypnotic once-in-a-lifetime vacuum of silence my bloody phone rang.

Which is why I came to be waiting for Karen Mackie in Deluxe Café. She needn’t have worn what she’d referred to as her ‘kimono-style’ pink blouse. I’d have recognised her anyway. No amount of exotic garb could disguise the institutional grey of her skin. That’s not fair. Her skin wasn’t grey. A bit worn maybe, but living in skin for thirty-odd years does that. I don’t normally have an attitude towards former prison inmates, but there was good reason for my prejudice against this one. On the phone Karen had introduced herself as Vex’s ex-cellmate. Vex was serving time for procuring the murder of a young prostitute called Niki. Niki was my little sister.

Karen started right in, giving me no chance to set the ground rules. ‘I want to hire you to find my daughter, Sunny. That’s Sunny spelt with a “U”. For sunshine,’ she added with a shy smile. ‘Her father was granted custody when I went away.’

‘Went away’, huh? So we were going to talk in euphemisms.

‘I’ve already done a basic internet search but couldn’t find much. Justin probably changed his name. Changed their name, I mean.’ A plastic bag bulging with papers and photographs sat on the little wooden table between us. I let it lie there. ‘I want you to make sure she’s safe.’

Okay. That got my attention. ‘You think he’s molesting her?’

She lifted her shoulders but that was all the answer she gave.

‘Have you told the police?’

Again the shrug. ‘They don’t take much notice of anything I have to say.’ She stared at the plastic bag, willing me to pick it up. ‘It’s all in there. Names, photos, contact details.’ She flicked a look at me and then dropped her eyes to the bag again. ‘I haven’t seen Sunny since the day I was arrested. She was seven. She’ll be fourteen now.’

She saw me do the calculation. In New Zealand, that kind of time is reserved for the very worst crimes. Her body straightened and she clutched at the handbag in her lap.

‘I’ll pay you, of course.’

I thought about it for a full five seconds. That’s how long it took me to calculate my fiscal position. Since we were in the game of euphemisms I’d describe my present bank balance as ‘lean’.

‘These are my terms: if I find the person you’re looking for but they don’t want to be found, I won’t tell you where they are. But you still pay me.’ She thought about it, then nodded. Once. ‘It’s not because you’ve been in prison.’ I needed her to know that. ‘They’re the terms I have for everyone.’

She nodded again. ‘Okay.’

I slid a prepared one-page agreement across the table to her, the same one I use for all my clients, and she reached for the pen and signed without reading a word of it. Her hand was shaking but I could see she was elated, excited as a child. Grateful. The page was pushed back across the table. I spun it around to face me. Her signature was back-sloping but that wasn’t the only sign Karen lacked confidence. Her nails were bitten. She had trouble looking me in the eye and somewhere along the line she’d picked up an odd blinking mannerism.

‘Sunny won’t want to see me but that’s okay. It’s not why I’m doing this. I just need to know she’s okay, that’s all.’

I let some of my attitude go but I was struggling with how she had heard about me. The spectre of Vex stood between us.

‘Look, Karen, I have to ask about your…’ I hunted for a nonjudgmental word to describe her relationship with my sister’s killer, ‘your association with Vex.’

Karen shrugged, but it was more a ‘lost for words’ shrug than a ‘I don’t give a shit’ shrug, so I didn’t take offence. ‘I told her I needed someone to search for Sunny and she said she knew a woman who specialised in finding missing people.’ She must have taken my habitual frown personally because she added, ‘You don’t get much choice of roommate in prison.’

We sat in silence. I was thinking I had no right to judge her. I had no idea what was going through her head. Maybe there was nothing. Seven years in prison you might learn how to do that. I was the first to speak. ‘Okay. I’ll do some preliminary work. See what I can find out about where your ex might be living. I can’t promise anything but I’ll give it a go.’

‘Thank you.’ She sniffed loudly. No doubt wiping away tears is a no-no in prison. I felt my attitude thawing and thought it wouldn’t hurt to give her something. Some little fragment of hope.

‘Your daughter might want to get to know you now that you’re out of prison. You can never tell with fourteen-year-olds. Don’t rule it out.’

I saw her slam a door on the gift I’d offered. ‘There’s something you need to know,’ she said, straightening her back. ‘I tried to hurt her.’ For the first time she looked me in the eyes. ‘That’s what I went away for. I tried to kill my daughter.’

I think I said ‘Oh’.

The two women sitting at the table beside us had gone very still. Deluxe is a tiny café and I was pretty sure they’d heard her. I made a mental note not to choose this place again for meetings with clients. Karen kept her eyes on me but didn’t drop her voice. She knew they were listening.

‘My excuse back then was that I had a heavy P habit. Half the time I was off my face, the rest of the time I was doing everything I could to get that way. But that wasn’t what it was. I was empty.’ She stared directly at me. ‘That was before I found God. Before He found me.’ I didn’t even try to hide my scepticism but she lifted her face as if to take the blow full on. ‘He gives us all His love, you know,’ she said, dry as a desert storm. ‘The kids were making a racket. I took the handbrake off and let the car roll into Lake Pupuke. There was a man feeding the swans in the next bay round who saw it. He dived in and managed to get Sunny’s seat belt undone. He pulled her to the surface and gave her mouth to mouth. He saved her.’

There was nothing, absolutely nothing I could say. But she didn’t need me to respond.

‘Thank God,’ she added, in that different way Christians say it. ‘The judge gave me some credit for telling the truth. For not pretending it was an accident.’ I saw the blotches of red bloom across her neck, saw the internal struggle as she forced the confession out of herself like some kind of exorcism. I wouldn’t have been surprised if her head had spun around 360 degrees. Well, okay, maybe a little surprised. ‘I tried to kill her. I tried to kill my beautiful little girl.’ The air seemed to have gone out of her. Her whole body slumped, deflated. She wasn’t the only one. We both needed a minute. So did the two women beside us. They stared bug-eyed at each other and hadn’t said a word or moved a muscle since Karen’s confession began. I was struggling with how to ask the question when she answered it unprompted.

‘There’s no answer to “why”. No excuse.’ She hitched the shrug that I already recognised as habitual. ‘Sure, I was an addict.’ Her voice broke but she brought it back under control. ‘But I knew what I was doing.’

We went over a few details of how I liked to work, she wrote me a down-payment cheque, I punched her number into my mobile. All the time I was trying to think of some way to get out of this deal. The signed agreement on the table was like a rebuke. Call me picky, but I didn’t want to work for a woman who tried to kill her own child. I gathered up the bag of documents, still trying to think of a way out of the deal when she unexpectedly clutched at my shoulders and pulled me into an awkward embrace. I felt the fragile bones beneath her skin.

‘I’m not that person any more. I would never harm…’ She held me at arm’s length, her palms damp on my shoulders. ‘Just find Sunny and make sure she’s okay. That’s all I ask.’

For the first time since she entered the café, Karen smiled. It looked genuine to me, but what do I know? Moments before she’d told me of her attempt to murder her daughter I’d been warming to this woman. I didn’t speak until we reached the door. Something was bothering me. I had to fight against the Wellington wind to be heard.

‘Seven years is a long time to serve, even for the attempted murder of a child.’

Karen stalled with her back to me. ‘I had two children,’ she said. She turned her head but kept her body facing away. ‘It was Falcon’s fifth birthday. He thought we were going to The Warehouse to buy a PlayStation.’

She walked away down Cambridge Terrace in the direction of the Basin Reserve. Her heels made the lightest of clicks on the pavement.

 

Copyright © 2017 Donna Malane.

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Donna Malane is an award-winning television producer and scriptwriter. She has written for all genres of television, including drama and comedy. Surrender, her first adult novel, was the winner of the inaugural New Zealand Society of Authors-Pindar Publishing prize.

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