From New Zealand author Donna Malane, My Brother's Keeper is a dark and twisting mystery that leaves no stoneor pageunturned.
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 thoughtthat 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?
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
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.
Read an Excerpt
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.
Dad puts his key in the lock and pushes the door open with his shoulder. It makes the same screech it always makes but inside the house is bigger than it was before. Like a house we've visited but not lived in. The furniture is placed perfectly like in a TV programme. Falcon's toys are still on the mat. Pearl looks like someone else's budgie. Even though I know she likes it when I make kissy sounds through the bars, I don't do it. Dad puts the jug on. I don't know what Mum does. I go straight to bed without asking if I can watch TV. Dad says he'll come in later and tuck me in and then Mum says goodnight but she isn't looking at me when she says it.
My room isn't my room any more either, even though Baby Bear is still on the pillow exactly where I'd put him. Mum says I'm too old to be taking a teddy bear with me everywhere, but I don't take him everywhere, not to school, anyway. The night is very dark and it goes on forever. I can't stop shivering from the cold of the sheets. I feel as if I'm drowning in the darkness.
In the morning it's still the weekend so I don't have to get dressed for school. The house is very quiet like its holding its breath under water. My feet are huge with cold but I stand in the same place, not moving, just listening. Whiskey is waiting to see what I do before she moves her fat bum off the warm place she's made for herself. She's a lazy arse. I only tell her she's a lazy arse when Mum can't hear me or she would smack my bum for swearing. When I pull my old jersey over the top of my pyjamas my skin feels crumpled and itchy but I stop shivering. My feet are still freezing. There are no socks in the undies drawer but it doesn't matter. The flappy slippers from the hospital wait for me beside the bed. Dad must have put them like that when he tucked me in. It can't have been Mum. She would have put Whiskey out the window and shut it again tight so the rain wouldn't leak in and fill up the whole room.
Mum is staring out the kitchen window with her arms crossed under her titties, making them stick up like an advertisement for a chicken going into the oven. Dad is drinking his tea from the yellow mug with the happy face on it that someone from work gave him. Falcon's favourite red chair is pushed up against the wall beside the fridge. His T-shirt with the plastic pony on the front is scrunched up on it. There are globs of banana from yesterday on the seat and the sparkly rainbow sticker on the leg from when he was just a baby. I wonder what it will feel like to miss him. Will the feeling go on forever?
Dad says some things while I'm eating my cornflakes. He only says them so it's not so quiet. Mum doesn't turn around. My cornflakes taste funny. When I have to stand beside Mum to put my bowl in the sink she slides her eyes sideways at me. My stomach feels sick. I go outside to play the 'knife in the grass' game but it doesn't really work with one person and, anyway, I know I'm cheating because I always throw it into the grass where I know my foot can reach. The lawn is muddy because of the rain and the knife goes in fast and squishy. Then the policemen arrive, only one's a lady and she doesn't have a police uniform on but she does have a badge and she shows it to Mum.
They bring all the cold air from outside into the kitchen and they sit at the table. The lady policeman has her knees tight together under her skirt but the policeman sits at the corner of the table with one knee on each side of the table leg. The lady policeman takes out a yellow notebook with a spiral at the top and puts it on the table but she doesn't open it yet. No one says anything except for the tap that drips into the sink: plonk, plonk, plonk. Then Dad scrapes his chair back and says to Mum she should do it and get it over with. She looks at him with her lips tight and I think she's going to cry but she doesn't. The policeman has a bit of bogey sticking out his nose but it doesn't make me want to laugh.
The police car is parked in the driveway with its front just touching the towbar of Dad's car, which Mum says is the love of his life. Mum's car was a piece of shit. I try saying it like her — piece of shit — and then I say shit again three times just to hear what it sounds like coming out of my mouth. The intercom in the police car is talking as if it doesn't know the people aren't in there. I see myself in the police car window. I look scared. I wonder if Mum's new car will be a piece of shit too. There'll be plenty of room for me in the back now without Falcon's booster seat.
The sky is weird. It hurts my eyes. In some places it's blue, like the sky should be, but where it meets the land there are clouds all hunched up. They look like the mushroom clouds atom bombs make. They're eating the sky right up and God knows what will happen then. I want to find a big tree to lie under but the grass will be too wet. My stomach hurts.
Dad comes out of the house and waves his hand at me like I'm very far away, but I'm standing right in front of him. Dad must be feeling the weirdness, too. Whiskey winds herself around Dad's leg. Her back is arched right up and her tail is like a toetoe, only it's golden and black. She's rubbing against Dad but she's looking at me.
Dad says, 'Come inside. The police want to have a word.'
'I don't want to,' I say.
'Just tell them what you remember, love,' he says.
He holds the door open for me with his arm stretched out and I go in underneath it like I'm playing Oranges and Lemons, but I'm not.
Dad sits me on his knee like when I was little but my feet touch the floor now. My bony arse must hurt him but he doesn't say anything. Mum doesn't look at me. She has a tissue bunched up in her fist and her sleeves are fat with the ones she's already used. The notebook with the spiral is open on the table. The lady policeman has written enough to cover the whole page. There's an empty space at the bottom. I guess that's for writing down what I say.
'Sunny?' she says, making my name a question. 'Can you tell me what happened in the car yesterday?' I don't know if I can so I don't say anything. Mum takes her glass to the sink and fills it from the tap. She fills it right to the top so that some spills over the edge and all over her hand but she doesn't drink any.
The policeman coughs. When Dad and the lady policeman look at him he smiles at me and says, 'How old are you, Sunny?'
'Seven,' I say. Then I say, 'Just,' because he's a policeman and I want to tell the whole truth. 'I'm two years older than Falcon and it was his birthday yesterday.'
Dad makes a harrumphing noise and his leg jigs up and down making me wobble but he's not playing 'bronco riding'. He stops jiggling and turns the harrumphing into a cough.
'That's why Mum was taking us to The Warehouse.' I don't say anything else while she writes it down in her notebook. I don't want to have to keep saying it. I want to say it once and get it over with like Mum did.
'To get your brother a birthday present?' I nod because my throat feels tight like Whiskey's belly when she's full of kittens.
Mum puts her glass of water in the sink and then turns around to face the table. Her arms hang down her sides like she's forgotten about them. She's looking at the policeman holding Falcon's Robot Man. His hands are between his knees like the Robot Man is heavy but he's not. He's just plastic. He makes Robot Man's arms go up and down like he's marching. Robot Man probably has Falcon's slobber all over him because Falcon's always putting him in his mouth.
Excerpted from "My Brother's Keeper"
Copyright © 2013 Donna Malane.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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