My Brother's Keeper - By Donna Malane

Chapter 1


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 non-judgmental word to describe her relationship with my sister’s killer, ‘your association with Vex.’

Karen shrugged, but it was more