From his best-selling book The Scene of the Crime, Steve Braunias imagines the innocent explanation for Mark Lundy on the night his wife and daughter were murdered.
Everything in the following version of events of an unsolved family tragedy — well, apart some of the dialogue, travelogue, and various assorted details pertaining to sleep — was taken from witness statements and police interviews presented during the murder trial of Mark Lundy at the Wellington High Court in 2015. Does it most resemble the truth? Does it get closest to what happened in Petone that night?
I puzzled over these questions whenever I fled from court and took the train to Petone. I walked the length of the main road, Jackson Street, from the railway station to the vaguely terrifying other end, with its broken windows and wasted dudes in hoodies. It worked up an appetite. I filled my face with biscuits from the Girl Guides office, cheese from The Dutch Shop, and shortbread biscuits filled with raspberry jam from The German Bakery. I considered the menus at Magik Wok and Mr Ji’s, and settled for the shredded pork lunchbox and black glutinous rice with coconut milk at Foo Wah. Its shredded and glutinous delights barely touched the sides.
I needed something else. I needed the kind of food a fat man would eat, and I made my way to the tuck shop where Lundy always used to eat whenever he came to Petone. It’s now called the Shoreline, a small, narrow shop, and there was a queue outside the door at lunchtimes. Punters chose from waffle dogs and scotch eggs and yoyos. I went for the healthy option, a bun topped with tinned spaghetti and melted cheese. Lundy had ordered a bacon and egg sandwich that morning of the deaths, and had eaten it in his car. I took my feed and ate sitting on the sand. Black-backed seagulls floated on the gentle tide. On the wharf, a fisherman marked his line with an orange balloon. He was after kahawai. I ambled over for a chat. He’d heard that someone caught a kingfish earlier that week. It was a beautiful summer’s day. ‘If it wasn’t for this breeze,’ he said, ‘we’d cook.’
The drab, grey beach, the inelegant lump of Somes Island in the harbour, the dark surrounding hills … Petone held the answer to the crime. This is where it started with Lundy that night, or where it ended. Petone, the gateway to the teeming bogan savages of the Hutt Valley; Petone, where the first colonists arrived on 22 January 1840, on the Aurora, and were taken ashore on small boats. Maori gave them fish and potatoes. It was a day in summer, but the scene would have looked miserable — a tatty shoreline, a swamp. ‘A wild and stern reality,’ as early settler John Plimmer put it. Petone’s settlement and its emergence as an industrial kind of Hell was recorded at the Settlers Museum, across the road from the Shoreline tuck shop. For years, blood and offal ran red into the harbour from the Gear Meats slaughterhouse; and the satanic mills of Colgate, Rinso and Lux created Petone’s working-class foundations. There was a small Maori urupa, with its water tap to cleanse the hands of visitors to the cemetery, squeezed in a depressing rectangle of land in between factories.
What happened in Petone on the night of the dead on 30 August 2000? Something? Nothing? The more time I spent in Petone, the more I was convinced that the jury — that everyone in the courtroom — needed to be taken there on an outing, to peer into Lundy’s motel room, to queue for a yoyo or somesuch treat at the Shoreline, to perambulate The Esplanade where he said he had parked under a streetlight in the early evening and read The Icarus Agenda by Robert Ludlum (‘Readers will be hooked’ — New York Times), and to try to picture the Crown’s lurid, possibly fantastically improbable version of events, which had him driving under cloak of darkness along The Esplanade and the Hutt motorway to execute his family and thence return to the Hutt motorway and The Esplanade at, oh, say 5am.
They could stand on the beach and look out to the waters of the Cook Strait, then turn, and look at the Foreshore Motel on the corner of The Esplanade and Nelson Street, where an escort arrived at Unit 10 on that cold night 15 years ago. She gave evidence via videolink. She was shown sitting at a boardroom table. She wore a white blouse, as though she were playing the role of a secretary. Her sad, battered face suggested a hard life, the usual misery of men and methamphetamine. It wouldn’t be accurate to describe her behaviour as tense or anxious. It was more like she was showing signs of a fast-approaching panic attack. Each question nailed her to a cross.
‘Did you knock on the door?’
She took a long drink of water, and whispered, ‘Yes.’
She breathed in and out rapidly, and croaked, ‘I was let into the room.’
‘Did you have to get the paperwork out of the way?’
She stared at the camera, and said in fright, ‘What?’
‘Did you ask for the money?’
She took slower breaths, and said, ‘Oh. Yes.’
She told the court she was in the room for about an hour.
She phoned for the driver to pick her up. He said he wasn’t far away, probably five minutes.
‘No,’ she said.
She picked up her handbag, checked the $140 was inside. The client got off the bed and put on his green tracksuit pants. He said his name was Mark.
She said, ‘So, what do you do, Mark?’
He said, ‘Sell kitchen sinks and taps.’
She said, ‘Really.’
He said, ‘I fax the orders to my wife, and she does all the paperwork. It’s a very successful business — I’m the number one salesman in the Lower North Island!’
She said, ‘Uh-huh.’
It was nearly 1am. He wanted her to leave. She wasn’t what you’d call beautiful, and already he couldn’t remember what name she gave. In any case, he’d got from her what he wanted. It was late; he had a busy morning ahead of him. He had people to see in Seaview, in Johnsonville, in Mt Cook. One customer owed him money, but he couldn’t remember the address. He’d ask Christine for it in the morning.
The driver from the nearby Quarry Inn escort agency in Seaview finally arrived. ‘Well, good night,’ she said at the door.
‘Good night,’ he said.
After she left, Mark went outside to his car. He’d left it on the street earlier that night, when he’d parked under a streetlight and read a novel by his favourite author, Robert Ludlum, until it got too dark. He thought he’d better move the Fairlane into the motel carpark. He felt a bit boozed and couldn’t be bothered angling it directly in front of his room, Unit 10, so he left it in front of Unit 1.
It was a cold, still night in late August. There wasn’t a moon out, and the sky and the water of Wellington harbour were as black as each other. He could see across from Petone to the city and the streetlights glowing high in the Hutt hills. To his left, a lighthouse flickered at the entrance to the Cook Strait. He shivered, and went inside.
He got back into bed. The rum, the sex … He felt relaxed, content. Life was good. A new laminate product had arrived that week; orders were going to go through the roof. The wine venture wasn’t dead in the water yet, not by a long shot. In fact he was going to call his designer first thing in the morning and get her to mock up an advertisement for a magazine aimed at retired police officers. He was bound to attract a few investors to back the land deal he had going in the Hawke’s Bay.
But even if it fell through, no worries. They’d survive. You just had to work hard, and neither he nor Christine were afraid of that. They were a good team. He was away from their Palmerston North home a lot, on the road, selling the sinks from The Netherlands and the taps made in Taiwan; Christine stayed at home and did the books. Actually she was probably doing her brother’s GST that night. Glenn had come over that morning to see if she’d finished it. He was at the house yesterday morning, too, asking about it.
Christine’s family were always at the house. Her mum came for lunch every Wednesday, and popped in most days for a cup of tea and to see Amber. He smiled in the darkness. Amber. He was crazy about Amber, loved her with all his heart. She’d phoned that afternoon to ask if it was alright to have McDonald’s for dinner. When he was away, Christine and Amber always ate takeaways. Christine probably cooked twice a year. Of course you can, he said. Thanks, Daddy, she said.
She was such a good little girl. There were never any problems with Amber. She had her routines: she’d go to bed at 7.30, read, and have lights out by 8.30, 9 at the latest. Christine made Amber’s nighties. She’d be wearing one tonight — probably with socks. She often forgot to take them off when she got into bed.
Christine always slept naked. She heated up her side of the waterbed. She might even still be awake; she was a real night owl, reading her mother’s subscription to Mills & Boon, playing Solitaire and Patience on the computer, watching TV. He felt a twinge of guilt about the escort. She wasn’t the only one he’d gone to. A man had his needs. Sex just wasn’t a thing with him and Christine anymore, but he still loved her. In fact he couldn’t wait to see her again. He was in love with her, always would be.
He nodded off. He got up once in the night to go the bathroom, but otherwise slept soundly. He was up just after seven and went into the office to see if the manager had batteries for his electric razor. The guy didn’t have any. They talked about nothing in particular. Mark went back to his room, dressed, and checked out. He drove along The Esplanade to his favourite tuck shop, and bought a bacon and egg sandwich for breakfast. He also bought batteries. He shaved in the car, and ate his scoff, parked on the foreshore looking out to the harbour.
He went about his rounds, and phoned Christine for the address of the client who owed them money. She didn’t pick up, and didn’t return his calls. He continued to phone. He started to get worried. Then a friend phoned and said get your arse home now, there’s police tape outside your house. He set off. It came on the radio that there had been a death in Palmerston North and police were treating it as suspicious. He drove, fast, and howled.
The Scene of the Crime by Steve Braunias (Harper Collins, $35) is available from Unity Books.