When Toni Credella teams up with a tough private investigator in hopes of getting her own PI license, she finds herself investigating one crime too many. What's the connection between the murder of a homeless woman and a young girl who met a mysterious death decades earlier? Why has that forgotten girl's body been buried in a public place for so long? The search for answers sends Toni on a roller coaster ride of suspense, mystery and danger. To get her feet safely back on the ground, she'll have to catch a killer before he catches her.
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Louise Titchener is the author of over forty novels in a variety of genres. She lives in Baltimore with her Philosophy Professor husband.
"This is one of those books that sucks you into the action from page one. I had a feeling for the city of Baltimore from the very start, from the row house that Toni was trying to restore and renovate to the large businesses downtown to the water slapping against the docks on the harbor shores. In Toni Credella I found a character for whom I could really feel. She is faced with so many obstacles but still cares about the people around her. Louise Titchener has written a truly suspenseful book."Sue Johnson -- MyShelf.com
"The author keeps the story interesting by the number and variety of sub-plots- Toni's budding relationships with different men in her life; banter with her sister who's having her own marital difficulties; and encounters with the world of the homeless. The tale moves quickly towards a climax on a construction crane and a conclusion that ties in past history to present violence. BURIED IN BALTIMORE is an intriguing read centered on a unique and appealing heroine; I hope to see a sequel."Hillary Williamson -- Bookloons
"Who loves mysteries? It's usually people who love to be carried so much into a story that they forget the real world or people who secretly would love to play detective with the narrator. Titchener's characters are typical, yet they alternately generate irritation and intrigue with their unusual reactions. So real life characteristics interplay with the reader's predictions, stalemates, and finally amazing recognition of a skilled, intelligent, funny, and sympathetic heroine who doggedly follows her clues to the very end."Viviane Crystal -- The Write Lifestyle
"Toni!" Alice's voice whined through the open window.
"Who's that?" My sister Sandy stalked across my guest bedroom and peered down at the street below. Wild-eyed, Alice stood on the stoop. She wore a grimy pink sweatsuit, tight in all the wrong places. Clumps of matted gray hair festooned her shoulders.
"Toni, please! I ain't got no place to crash. I feel sick. Think I'm gonna puke."
Sandy shot me a horrified look. "Don't tell me she's a friend of yours."
"She's a street person around here. She lives on handouts."
"Toni, have a heart. Let me in."
Sandy's eyes widened. "Don't tell me you've ever let her into your house!"
"Once or twice on super cold nights."
"Are you out of your mind?"
I pushed the sash up and leaned out. "Not tonight, Alice."
"Toni, please, please. There's people trying to kill me."
"Sorry Alice, I've got company."
"Okay, Toni. You'll be sorry for treating me so bad." Head sagging into her shoulders as if she were a weary old turtle, Alice slouched into the darkness
Sandy asked, "What did she mean about people trying to kill her?"
"It's a delusion." I stared after Alice. "Ever since I've known her, she's talked about an assassin trying to get her."
"Jesus! How long have you been chummy with this nutcase?"
"About three months. I met her just after I moved in. She panhandles for drinks around here. Poor old gal. Except the homeless shelters, she really doesn't have any place to go. Maybe I should have let her in."
"Is there something wrong with my ears? Toni, for God's sake, get away from that window before another piece of human trash floats up to your door."
My scowling sister had her arms crossed over her chest. Normally, Sandy wouldn't set foot in my house. But she'd just had a row with Al, her husband. Since, according to her, she couldn't stand being under the same roof with him now, her choices were few.
"So, where are the kids?" I asked.
"I left them in Little Italy, with the folks."
"Won't that interfere with Mom's life of drudgery? How can she stir the Credella Cauldrons with your three underfoot?"
Sandy snorted. "When will you get it through your thick head, Toni? Maybe we didn't like growing up as kitchen slaves in the family restaurant, but Mom likes to cook. Though how she'll manage this weekend with Billy, Matt and Alex, I'm not sure."
I agreed with that. Sandy's three boys are just like their thick-necked dad -- noisy, bad-tempered and pig-headed.
Maybe I'd better tell you about myself. My name is Toni Credella and I'm twenty-nine and dyslexic. Four years ago I shot and killed my husband Nick with his service revolver. He and Sandy's husband were boyhood pals and got their police training together. The night Nick died he was beating me up. Though a jury acquitted me on grounds of self-defense, my family didn't. We're reconciled now, sort of, but it's been a rough four years.
"I'm beat. Mind if I crash?" The springs squawked as Sandy dropped onto the bed. She and I are both short, busty brunettes, but marriage and kids have padded her with a few too many pounds. She grimaced. "I'm afraid to ask where you dug up this bed."
"Same place where I picked up all the rest of the furniture in my castle -- Good Will and local auctions. Relax, nothing's going to crawl out of the mattress." I gave her shoulder a pat. We argue all the time, and I despise her husband. But Sandy's still my big sister. "Sweet dreams. I'll see you in the morning."
I left her and headed downstairs. When the city of Baltimore sold me my early nineteenth century rowhouse for a song, it was an abandoned property with Contemporary-Urban-Horror decor. Bums and druggies had spilled food, dirty needles and obscene graffiti.
But underneath the dirt and broken plaster the place had high ceilings, a fine old marble fireplace and possibilities. Sort of like Alice, I thought. If you cleaned her up she might not be a bad looking lady.
When I walked into my kitchen, I felt proud. It was really beginning to shape up. Sure, the cabinets were antique and I'd scrounged the appliances at Good Will. Yet, now that I'd scrubbed everything down and painted it white, it didn't look half bad.
Whistling, I got to work laying black and white tile on the ruined floor. An hour later it was about time for the evening news. That's when the phone rang.
"Yes." Recognizing my favorite local detective, Gus O'Dell, I worked to keep a cautious note out of my voice. O'Dell and I had become friends when he helped me out of a tough situation a few months back. But the friendship was uneasy because we both knew there was an unresolved man/woman thing between us. I was still coping with the damage from my marriage with Nick and wasn't ready for a man/woman thing yet.
"You still up?"
"Sure. I'm working on my kitchen."
He clucked. "Harriet Homeowner strikes again."
"So? I never thought I'd be able to own my own house."
"If you can call that dump a house."
"Don't start, O'Dell. All day I've had my sister Sandy making cracks like that. It wouldn't be any trouble to hang up on you."
He gave with a heavy sigh and I realized how tired his voice sounded. Bone weary. Exhausted and discouraged. "Sorry. Toni, I know it's late, but can I come over?"
I raised an eyebrow. This was a first for Gus O'Dell. Oh sure, when we'd first met he'd asked for a date. When I'd refused, he'd backed off and had seemed to accept a "just friends" status.
"Not tonight. Like I said, my sister is here."
"Would you be willing to go out for a beer? I need to talk." Long pause. "I'll pick you up."
"Nothing blasting off for the moon wouldn't fix."
"That bad?" O'Dell had done me favors. Despite the sexual vibes between us, he'd never pushed and he sounded bummed. "Sure. I'll meet you outside. Just tell me when."
Not wanting to bother my sister, I didn't spend a lot of time prettying myself up. When Gus O'Dell came by in his unmarked BPD Cavalier, I sported my customary dress up outfit -- jeans, sneakers, a baggy pullover and a corduroy blazer left over from my days as a young abused matron. Except a pair of gold hoop earrings, I wore no jewelry. My hair blew around my face. As I moved it out of my eyes, I shivered in the September wind and watched leaves and bits of litter swirl off the curb on my street.
"Are you supposed to drive this thing when you're off duty?" I asked as I climbed in.
"No, but tonight I'm in the mood to shit on rules. This crummy job is eating my soul. Or don't you think my soul is worth a free ride in a cheap Chevy?"
"Don't ask me what souls are worth. If it's more than I can count on my fingers, I'm lost."
Twenty minutes later O'Dell and I sat with our backs pressed against the wall at a seedy bar close to North Avenue. Grime filmed the vintage overhead lights, and the guys on the barstools looked as if they'd taken root.
"Why'd you pick this place?"
O'Dell took a long swig of his Rolling Rock. "Suits my mood. Pleases me to know that at any given moment some punk is vandalizing a car around the corner."
"Then your mood must be rotten. You didn't say word one all the way down here."
O'Dell is tall and skinny, with the kind of bony, half-loony face that Tony Perkins sported in Psycho. Only O'Dell never looks crazy. Most days his demeanor runs the gamut between bored and cynical. He made me think of an iron kettle on a gas flame turned up high, its lid locked tight over scalding steam getting hotter by the second.
"Prescient," O'Dell muttered. He cast me a sideways glance. "I bet you're surprised I know a word like that. Pretty good for a homicide cop with no education, wouldn't you say?"
"You're asking me? I can't read, remember?"
"You can read. I've seen you."
"Stop putting yourself down, Toni. You know you could have any guy you wanted."
"Sure. What's this all about, Gus? What's got you so down?"
"Just a typical hellish workday. Starts out with a Korean grocery store that's been robbed half a dozen times. Only this time the owner's there with his shotgun. Blood everywhere and the two thieves, a couple of teenage kids, leave the premises in body bags. Only now the owner is scared their pals might come after him. He's right to be scared, but I have no way to protect the man.
"After that my day goes from rotten to untreated sewage. A shootout between a couple of kids at Flag House. After that, a domestic with no survivors. Finally, I end this duty from the pits of hell with a dump job." He spat out the words.
"Whatever it is, it doesn't sound good."
"Unidentified body found buried under a pile of bricks near Fells Point. Been there for years. According to forensics it used to be a young girl, white, early twenties."
"Where in Fells Point?"
"Close to rotted docks between a parking lot and that burned out warehouse they say is the oldest building standing in Baltimore. Know the spot?"
I nodded. "When did you find her?"
"I didn't. It's a construction site. They were cleaning out the area to begin building a sixteen story condominium. She's my case now, though. I haven't been able to track down her identity."
I pushed my beer away. What had happened to this girl? It could be so many things -- an angry boyfriend, a chance meeting with a crazy. Maybe she'd been a runaway who'd accepted a ride with Mr. Wrong. Now, she'd never tell her story.
"You know," O'Dell muttered, "most cases really don't get to me. I've grown a pretty thick shell. But after a day like this I want to quit and open an antique store."
"You in antiques?" I laughed.
"Yeah, you're right. Baltimore has too many antique shops. Crime now, that's a growing field. Speaking of which, how's your decorating business going? Putting up lots of wallpaper?"
"Tell you the truth, wallpaper's kind of out. I'm getting calls for faux painting, though. Tomorrow I do a ceiling in a lawyer's office." I picked up my beer again. "Actually, now that you raise the subject of my shaky employment picture, I got an idea the other day."
"Maybe you could give me some advice," I hesitated, then plunged in. "How hard is it to get a private investigator's license?"
O'Dell stared at me. As I gazed back, I noticed a nerve start to tick in his jaw. "Why would you want a private investigator's license?"
"I didn't say I wanted it."
"You wouldn't ask otherwise."
"It's a way of making a living, isn't it?"
"A lousy way. And I thought you might cheer me up. Toni, with your record, you haven't got a chance of getting a detective's license."
"If you're referring to my husband, I was tried for that and acquitted on grounds of self defense."
"Doesn't matter. Every police officer in Maryland except me would like to see you behind bars, so forget it."
No longer was I interested in trying to ease the sting out of Gus O'Dell's bad day. I stood. "It's late and I'm ready to turn in."
"I suppose now you're pissed because I'm not encouraging you to make a fool of yourself applying to be a private investigator."
"I'm not mad, I'm just tired. Take me home, please."
"Sure." Wooden-faced, O'Dell plunked some bills down on the pock-marked table. "Women," he muttered.
We walked out of the bar like we were both wearing starched underwear. The night had turned colder. The shops on the strip of city block outside the bar looked so sleazy and abandoned, I almost expected a tumbleweed to roll past. Across the street the pink neon outline of a nude woman winked in the window of an adult book store. Next to it a movie theater with broken panes in its marquee advertised an art film. No customers stood at the ticket window.
"Toni." O'Dell's voice was gruff.
"Listen, I didn't mean..."
As he spoke, we rounded the corner to the shadowy side street where he'd left his car. The tinkle of breaking glass rang out. My head jerked to the left and I spotted a dark figure on the curb side of the Cavalier.
In a blink, O'Dell was in front of me, shoving me back with a thrust so hard I sprawled to the pavement. A gun had sprung into his other hand and he was sprinting toward his car shouting "Stop, police!"
The dark figure galloped the other way, clutching some sort of club or baseball bat. He was quick, but O'Dell moved like a greyhound. As I pushed myself off the ground, Gus shoved his gun into his holster and tackled the man with the bat. After the briefest of flurries, he had him pinned against the side of a rusty Suburban parked fifty yards down from the Cavalier. The bat lay on the pavement, rolled a little distance from O'Dell's, arched, wide-spread feet.
I heard them yelling at each other and trotted forward to get a better look.
"Motherfuck! Get your hands off me!"
"Don't give me that shit, asshole!" O'Dell was rigid, aggression rolling off him in waves. He slammed his captive flat against the Suburban's side panel. They were both panting, their ribs heaving and the muscles of their bodies strained. I heard little grinding noises as they struggled against each other.
O'Dell was winning. "Having a little fun with your baseball bat? Tonight you smashed the wrong piece of glass!"
I recognized the glass breaker right away. It was a skinny black kid in jeans and a torn jacket. He'd been panhandling near the bar. When we'd walked past he'd asked for money, but we'd ignored him. It's what happens when you live in a city where panhandlers flock like starving pigeons. You pretend you don't see them.
He went limp, and then gathered himself up and spit full in O'Dell's face.
"Jesus!" O'Dell yanked out his gun and jammed the barrel of his revolver into the kid's ribcage so hard he squealed. In one fast hard motion, O'Dell flipped him around and dragged his arm behind his back until I heard the bone in his arm socket crunch.
The sound sent a sliver of ice through me, as if I were feeling the pain myself. "Gus, he's only a kid!"
"Did you see what this little fuck just did?" O'Dell snapped on a pair of handcuffs.
Behind my breastbone I felt a sick trembling. My stomach clenched. "Yes, but..."
O'Dell's face was a mask so rigid and scary it shut me up. In my mind's eye I saw another face twisted with fury. I saw my husband Nick coming at me with his fists balled.
"That's called assaulting a police officer," O'Dell snarled and frog marched the kid down to his Cavalier. Yanking it open, he shoved him inside. An instant later I heard him call for help on his radio.
Rooted to the street, I stood shivering. I felt as if I'd stumbled into a horror show where a friend pulls off his kind mask and reveals a monster. A minute or two later O'Dell emerged from the car dragging his captive with him. All the fight had gone out of the kid. He hung his head. His hands dangled in the cuffs like a broken puppet's. He was weeping and moaning.
"Are you going to just stand there in the middle of the street?" O'Dell yelled at me.
"What else should I do?" I wished I'd never agreed to go out for a beer.
"Get in the Cavalier."
"It's full of broken glass."
About five minutes later a cop car rolled around the corner. The door opened and a white-haired officer in uniform unrolled his six-foot length. Even in the dark, his low-slung belly and meaty Irish mug made him look as if Central Casting had sent him. I recognized him. His name was, appropriately enough, Duffy.
"Got yourself into a bit of a ruckus," he remarked as he ambled over to O'Dell.
"Nothing I couldn't handle," Gus muttered.
Duffy ran an experienced eye over Gus's captive and then eased around the Cavalier to look at the window broken on the passenger side. "Tsk, tsk. I should think a young man of your wide experience would know better than to park an official vehicle in a favorite trashing spot like this."
"Maybe I was in the mood to get trashed."
"Maybe you were, but that's not what they're going to want to hear back at the station when they have to file a request to get this vehicle repaired. And you out on a date with a pretty young lady, too. Guess I can see why you wouldn't want to transport her in your own heap of rust."
For the first time, Duffy seemed to see me. As he looked over the top of the Cavalier, his eyes slitted into cushions of lined flesh. "Do I know you, young lady? You look familiar."
"My name is Toni Credella."
A charged silence ensued. Duffy knew me all right. He'd worked with my husband. Deliberately, he turned back to O'Dell, focusing this time on his prisoner. "All right, my boy," he said with mock cheer, "you won't be breakin' anymore windows for a day or two. You're coming down to the station with me."