Wounded Bride is the first book in a hard-boiled detective series.
I’d like to share the first two chapters with you.
Saturday, March 17
Maria Mateo woke from a sound sleep and fumbled for the ringing phone.
Her heart pounding, she answered, “Mateo.”
“Did I wake you?” came the voice of her new partner, Milton Moore. They hadn’t yet had the conversation about why his name was Milton.
“No,” she started to lie, then, “yes, but it’s time to get up anyway. What time is it?”
“It’s five in the morning. I wouldn’t call you this early on a Saturday, but there’s been an incident.” He sounded hesitant, as if he were unsure if she could handle “an incident.”
She took a deep breath and asked, “What sort of incident?”
“A bakery was broken into this morning. The owner’s name is Megan Score. She was the one who called 911, but that’s all I know. Let’s meet there in fifteen minutes. Google Maps shows that’s the travel time from your place.”
“How do you know where I live?”
“Take it easy, Mateo. You have my address too; it was part of the papers they gave us when we were set up as partners. Didn’t you read it?”
“No. I . . . I had an appointment yesterday and didn’t get home until dinner time, then I relaxed until it was time to sleep, and I only just woke up now. In fact, I’m still not awake. I need coffee, so make it twenty.”
“Coffee is covered. I got it black and picked up sugar packets, cream, and some of those Splenda things in case you prefer those. I also purchased some bagels and cream cheese. I hope you like that.” His thoughtfulness made her regret her harshness.
“Thanks, Moore, see you in fifteen.” She hung up, stuffed herself into her clothes, grabbed an apple, and left her three-bed condo. A minute later, she was climbing into her car.
A quarter of an hour after that, she pulled up to the address in a business district. The first things she noticed were two patrol cars plus Moore’s car. He was standing beside it, and she walked over to him.
“It’s bad,” he said. He reached into his car and pulled out a cup and a paper bag, which he handed to her. A knot formed deep inside her, and she lost her appetite. Moore had been on the job a lot longer than she, and if he said it was bad, then it was probably terrible.
“What happened?” she asked, taking the lid off the coffee and adding two creams and three Splendas.
He took a sip from his own cardboard cup and said, “After patrol secured the scene, the paramedics got in and I heard them on the radio talking to the hospital. Let’s go inside. Megan’s the only one here now.”
“So it’s not Megan who went to the hospital?”
“No, let’s go.”
Mateo took a large gulp of coffee, put it and the bagels in her car for later, and looked more closely at the bakery. It was a brick and glass building, painted brick red, with large, tall windows that flanked a glass door. Through the door, she could see a long, low counter with displays on and under it. Well, they had once been displays, but now they lay broken and smashed. Cakes and other baked goods were strewn about the place. She saw a chocolate cupcake lying on its side on the counter and shivered. Chocolate cupcakes were her favorite. Well, had been . . . Best not to think about it.
She walked resolutely through the door, trailed by Moore. Megan was in the back, sitting on a wooden bar stool in front of a long work surface that was littered with the detritus of a night’s hard baking. Unlike the front showroom, the kitchen did not indicate any signs of having been disturbed, but Mateo was angry that the woman had been left here. She should have been removed from the scene immediately.
Megan was of average size and exceptional beauty, probably in her mid-twenties, with green eyes, silky-looking auburn hair, and milky skin that got pampered with expensive creams and lotions. Her expression was blank, and even a little bit idiotic. Mateo wondered if she’d had a facelift or Botox, but maybe the dead visage was the result of emotional trauma.
“Are you Megan Score?” Moore asked her, even though her name tag said MEGAN in bright green pen. The woman shivered and nodded. “I’m Detective Milton Moore, and this is Detective Mario Matea.” He blushed. “I mean Maria Mateo. Sorry.” He looked at the floor and Mateo felt both sorry for him and apprehensive. Did he know? No, he couldn’t possibly know. Concentrate on the situation.
“We’re here to talk to you about what happened this morning,” she said, rescuing the man who’d given her free coffee and even included Splenda and bagels. “Could you please come with us? We’d like to take you to another location. I’m sorry that you were left here alone.”
“It’s okay, I work here alone a lot.” Her voice was flat, as if she had no emotion left.
“We can all sit and talk in one of the patrol cars.”
“All right, but I . . . I feel a little bit faint.” Mateo stayed by her side in order to catch her if she started to fall, and they went out through the back door. They all sat in the back of one of the patrol cars, with Megan beside the unlocked door so she wouldn’t feel threatened by the close proximity of two cops.
“Please, Ms. Score, please walk us through what happened.”
“You can call me Mega,” she whispered. “Mega, it’s my nickname. If you don’t want to use it, Megan is fine, but not Ms. Score. I can’t believe what he did. What he did to her.”
“What happened, Mega?” Mateo asked, giving her an encouraging look. She wanted to reach out and pat her arm, but wasn’t sure if she should make such a maternal gesture.
“It was two o’clock in . . . in . . . the morning. Sorry, it was around two, and I heard the window break in the storage room. I was working with Kilo. Her real name’s Kathy Rogers. She was closer to the window when it happened, she was getting flour to refill the canisters. She screamed and he came flying at her with a baseball bat. He used it to break the window. It was light enough to see. We have lights on all night, we have to see what we’re making, you know? So I saw this guy all in black with the bat, and he came in through the broken window, and right at poor Kilo, who screamed and dropped the flour. It spilled all over the floor. She tried to move and dodge, but he pushed her to the floor. I heard her skull hit the ground. It sounded . . . it sounded like . . . I don’t know how to describe it. I’m sorry, I need to put my head down.” She leaned forward, and put her head between her knees. After a few moments, she raised her head slowly, and Mateo saw her eyes fill and tears went down her face. “I’m sorry, I’m no good, I need to be a witness and I can’t, I have to faint like a stupid Victorian flower.”
“It’s okay.” And Mateo couldn’t resist any longer and patted Megan’s arm.
“Thanks. Okay, I can talk again, I think. He came at her, just pushed her to the floor, and, and I, I couldn’t move to protect her. Kilo, Kathy, she fought, or tried to, but he just kept hitting her. Sometimes he used the bat, but mostly just his hands. He also kicked her in the side, and hit her head. It was so, so bad to watch and just stand there like a stupid, ugly, inanimate object that couldn’t do a thing. Is she dead?”
“She was alive when they loaded her into the ambulance,” Moore said. “We haven’t heard anything about how she’s doing.”
“What happened next?” Mateo asked. She could have kicked herself for the expectant tone of her voice and the insensitive phrase she’d used. This wasn’t a movie plot, this was Megan’s morning of horror.
“He left her on the floor after kicking her. I heard her ribs break, I didn’t know it would sound like that. It was like when you break pretzels. I’ll never eat those again. I used to break them when I was a kid and pretend they were bones. God, I am so horrible. I heard that, like some Halloween prank, except it was real, and I just stood there thinking about moving, but not moving. God, I am really losing it.” She put her head down again and took deep breaths.
After a few minutes, Mateo said, “Can you continue with the events, or do you need to rest for a few more minutes?”
“I can go on, I have to, for what I didn’t do to protect Kilo. He finished knocking her out, and then he came for me. Or I thought he did. But he missed, and went by me, and threw around all the displays. He didn’t eat anything. He just broke all the displays, and mashed the cupcakes and things we’d baked. He ground them under his boots. He didn’t really steal anything, just ruined everything, but he didn’t touch the kitchen. Just the display room. Kilo, she’s getting married, and her wedding cake was there, and he just threw it to the floor. I couldn’t see that, but I heard it fall. She’s getting married today, I’m supposed to be a bridesmaid, but we still wanted to work and make the cake together.”
She paused for breath, and Mateo asked, “I’m wondering, since both of you were going to be busy today, why bake more than the wedding cake?”
“Why not? We love baking.”
“Do you have an assistant to run the bakery when you’re away?” Moore asked.
“No, we were going to give them away to a homeless shelter. You know, the man, he made me wait. I couldn’t have gone for the phone, even if I could have moved. He finished ruining the cakes, then he came up to me and pointed a gun at me and told me not to move or he’d blow my head off.”
“What did he sound like?” Moore said.
“Like, like I don’t know, his voice was normal. Low, quiet, but also deep. Like a barrel with somebody whispering deep inside it. He made me sit for hours, and Kathy just lay there, bleeding, broken, and not moving much. If she stirred, he’d get up and hit her in the head with the bat again. He killed her, I know it.”
“Did you recognize him?” Mateo asked.
“I feel I should have, but I didn’t. I’m useless. You should arrest me for being such a weakling. Kathy and I have been friends since we were in kindergarten, for Christ’s sake, and I can’t even protect her.”
“It’s okay, you likely would have been badly hurt if you’d tried to stop him,” Mateo told her. “What is Kathy’s fiancé’s name?”
“Jerry, Jerry Stone.”
They let Megan go home after she’d assured them she was all right.
They entered the molested bakery and looked around.
“The guy came through this window,” Moore said, showing her a shattered pane in the back of the storage room. Mateo looked carefully, but didn’t see any blood or pieces of cloth in what remained of the window.
From the window, there was a clear path of floured, bloody prints to the door of the room, which led into the kitchen, then into the showroom. They reminded Mateo in a weird way of how you were supposed to grease and flour a brownie pan before spooning in the batter.
The floor where Kathy had lain was splotched with red, but Mateo didn’t think Kathy had lost much blood, at least not externally. Mateo bent down and examined the place where Megan had said she’d stood frozen and then held at gunpoint for two hours or more.
“I think there’s some blood here, but I’ll let the techs deal with it,” she said.
Moore came over and said, “Yeah, that’s blood, right close to where Megan stood. Let’s follow how the guy went through the place.” They walked into the kitchen, which contained cabinets, large appliances, and what seemed like miles of workspace.
“I’d better check all this stuff,” Mateo said. “Maybe our guy hid something important in here.” She opened a cabinet and saw a lot of pans. “Holy man, there’s enough cake pans in here to make a couple million cakes.”
“They do make a lot of them sometimes,” Moore said. “This cupboard’s full of different kinds of tongs.”
“Oh, knives!” Mateo said, when she opened the next door. “Wow, those look sharp. No blood, so I guess they were only used on cakes.”
“No blood on these utensils,” Moore said. “Let’s check the fridge and freezer.”
“I’ll do the fridge, you do the freezer,” Mateo said. She pulled open the heavy door and saw a whole dairy department full of jugs of milk, blocks of unsalted butter, and masses of cartons of eggs. “Nada,” she said, slamming the door.
“Ditto,” Moore said. “Just frozen pastry shells or something. No ice cream.” He sounded disappointed, and she hoped it was for the lack of ice cream, and not for the dearth of bloody evidence.
“All right, let’s go check the showroom,” she said. She was not looking forward to seeing all the wrecked cakes again.
They stepped into the display room, and everything got worse.
“How did we not see that?” Moore asked at her side.
“I don’t know. She mentioned the wedding cake, but I didn’t see it on the way in.”
“Kind of hard to miss, except it’s not hard to miss,” Moore said.
“She didn’t think to tell us it was behind a curtain,” Mateo whispered. “How I wish she had. God, Moore, I know it’s only a cake, but . . .” The wedding cake was to their right, peeking out from behind a white lace curtain. What had once been a three-tier cake was now a mishmash of different shades of green icing and horrible-looking green cake. Here and there on the floor of the main display room, other bits of cakes lay, icing smeared and smothered under what had definitely been a boot heel. The place smelled of sweet things, and gave Mateo the creeps. She wanted to leave as fast as possible. In spite of being unnerved, her stomach protested its emptiness. “What kind of cake is this?” she asked, jabbing her finger at the disgusting green wedding cake. “I didn’t even know cake could be anything but chocolate or vanilla.”
“It’s just food coloring,” he said. “It’s probably vanilla, but I can’t tell for sure.”
“I’m sure glad I wasn’t invited to this wedding,” Mateo said. She knew her anxiety was getting to her, and she wished she could just stop talking. “Never mind.”
They looked around the rest of the bakery, but found nothing interesting. It was time to head to the office, and then go see Jerry Stone. After all, the husband, or husband-to-be, is always the first suspect.
Jerry Stone lived in a small house with his parents in a quiet residential neighborhood. All that was about to change. After the wedding, Kathy and he would move into an apartment in a busy section of Chicago, far from trees, green lawns, and laughing children, but newlyweds couldn’t afford the kind of house he wanted for his family.
He closed the front door quietly, and prepared to start his morning run. He was a sprinter, and loved the early morning calm and quiet with nobody about but a few hardy souls who loved to run as much as he. A few old ladies walked slowly along, being led by their dogs, but they never bothered him and the dogs were mostly well behaved.
He looked at the front yard of his family home, and felt nostalgic already. Kathy was wild in bed, but their new apartment meant they’d have to be careful about making a lot of noise; there was a family with kids right below them, and he knew how sound could travel through thinly constructed buildings. Oh well, it would only be for a few years, and then they could move and make more noise. Heck, they could scream and nobody would hear them. He thought, then, of Kathy and the love they’d make in their hotel room on their honeymoon. They were booked on a flight to Marseilles the very next afternoon. They could lie on the beach and screw as much as they pleased for two whole solid weeks. After that, they’d romp quietly but hugely in their new apartment.
So intent was Jerry on his morning musings that he neither saw nor heard the person behind him until it was far, far too late.