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Burned in Baltimore

Toni wants a decent home of her own. Instead, she gets "Metal Men," a drive-by shooting, a puzzling death by fire, a mysterious faucet, two hunky men vying for her favor and more flack from her family. Is Toni up to the challenge? You needed to ask?

A Hard Shell Word Factory Release

Louise Titchener

    Louise Titchener is the author of over forty novels in a variety of genres. She lives in Baltimore with her Philosophy Professor husband.


AUTHOR WEBSITE:http://mysteriousbaltimore.homestead.com/mysteriousbaltimore.html


"Ms. Titchener captures the spirit, dialogue and character of life in the big city for the working classes. No romanticized Cinderella story here, Titchener goes for reality. And it works. The dialogue is so realistic that the reader may wonder how long she's been eavesdropping on her neighbors. Her characters are real (thank goodness for that)."

Ann M. Beardsley -- Scribes World Reviews

Chapter One

IF I HADN'T been babysitting little kids I would have run down the street yelling for help. Alex, my four-year-old nephew, froze on the doorstep. "Somebody's inside your house, Aunt Toni."

As breaking glass pinged behind my living room window, the hair on the nape of my neck lifted.

"Alice Mae," I whispered, "take the boys next door and ask your Aunt Stell to call the cops."

"I'm scared."

"It's all right, honey. Just do what I say."

"It might be a bad man in your house."

Alice Mae's mouth had gone white. Her eyes blinked like strobe lights. I'd seen that panicky expression on her seven-year-old face a lot. According to her foster mom, Stell Rowdale, the poor kid had been dragged out of the womb fearing the worst.

"Don't worry, hon, I'll be careful."

She took my nephews to the stoop on the right. I headed the other direction, figuring on sneaking into the alley behind my kitchen. I sprinted down the concrete runway between postage stamp backyards, zigging and zagging to skirt broken bottles. This wouldn't be the first time trouble had invaded my house.

Most likely my intruders were thieves. But what did poverty-stricken me have worth stealing? For months I had been fixing up the old rowhouse the city had sold me for peanuts. It was all I had.

Cautiously, I slipped up to my backyard. Glass sprinkled the ground. The window's torn frame stuck out from its formstone bed like a scarecrow's broken elbow. Through the gaping wound in my kitchen wall I heard crashes, bangs, whispers, and rough male laughter. Indignation balled in my chest. Where did these bums get off breaking up my property?

Stell flew out her back door. Her generous unbound breasts bounced under her faded flannel work shirt, and strands of gray hair whirled around her weathered cheeks as she galloped toward me. "It's those fuckin' metal men!"

Until that moment I hadn't noticed two oversized supermarket shopping carts parked on the cement pad to the right of my window. Twisted drainpipes and odd lengths of broken copper plumbing overflowed them. Mixed in amongst the jumble were faucets, doorknobs, even a stained glass window.

"Better clobber those packrats before they take your place apart." Stell seized a short length of thick copper pipe from one of the carts. As I was grabbing another, she whammed the stone at the edge of my ruined window.

"Come out of there! I already called the cops. If they don't bash your lowlife brains in, I will!"

A worried face appeared in the empty space that had been my window. The man's toothless mouth dropped open. "It ain't nothin' but a coupl'a women," he shouted to his cohort.

The remark along with the sight of this guy and his pal making free with my belongings freaked me. "Get out of my house!"

I used my foot to ram one of the carts off the edge of the cement pad. It crashed on its side, spewing trash. Ignoring the mess, I charged. Too furious to be scared, I thrust the pipe at my intruder.

"Shit!" He screeched and reared back. "Damn bitches tryin' to smoke me, Lem!"

A male voice inside counseled, "Jesus, Lord! Ain't worth it! Get the hell out!"

Stell grabbed at my shoulder. "Leave it to the cops, Toni!"

I was too busy jabbing and thrusting with my makeshift lance to listen. I swung my leg over the windowsill and fought to push myself through. Shark's teeth of broken glass lined its gaping rim. Later I would find my hands cut and bleeding and spend hours picking tiny triangles of glass out of my flesh. Now, anesthetized by rage, I rocketed onto the kitchen floor and scrambled to my feet. The intruders were already in full retreat.

"Jerks!" Yelling every epithet that came to mind, I galloped after them and spilled out onto my stoop.

The two intruders were halfway down the street. I saw them clearly, a couple of skinny men in baggy pants and ragged jackets. One wore a green knit cap over his dreadlocks. A fringe of pale gray hair danced around the other's bald spot like a grass skirt.

For two blocks I chased them. A blue van swerved around the corner, nearly flattening the one with the bald spot. He dodged after his partner and slammed straight into Cedric Rowdale, Stell's nephew. Shoving at the youth, he charged past. Cedric was pushing himself off the sidewalk where he'd fallen when I reached his side.

On the curb behind me, Alice Mae hopped from foot to foot and looked scared. I re-crossed the street, caught her hand and led her to Cedric.

"Man," he said, "what you waving that big pipe around for? You planning on busting somebody up?"

Chest heaving, sweaty hands still clutching my makeshift weapon, I explained about the break-in.

Cedric grimaced. "No way you gonna catch them two. By now they half way to North Avenue. What you plan if you do catch 'em?"

Good question. I'd been a fool to chase after thieves.

"I know them from around the way," Cedric said. He was standing now, brushing off the pants that drooped so low on his stringy hips that they threatened to drop to his ankles. "Names Lem and Willy. Used to hang 'round my old neighborhood."

Cedric told me that Lem and Willy were a pair of crack addicts who earned their drug and liquor money by stripping abandoned houses. "You lucky you caught them before they tore all your plumbing out. That's how they bankroll their habit. Strip a place in no time flat and sell the metal by the pound down to the recycle place on Greenmount."

Back in my kitchen I found Stell and the kids gazing at a pitiful sight. "Lord!" I cried as I bent over my sink. Its chrome faucets with their antique ivory handles had been pried off. Water dripped where a section of copper plumbing underneath the sink had been wrenched loose. Blood from my cut hands mixed with the puddle on the floor and left pale pink blotches on my jeans and sweatshirt as I tightened down the stopcocks.

"Any sign of the cops yet?"

"Nope," Stell answered.

I knew all too well that small-time break-ins like mine wouldn't interest the police. My brother-in-law is a cop and my husband had been one, too. Before I shot him.

I gave the stopcock a vicious twist. When the flood slowed to a trickle, I rocked back on my heels, lost my balance, and landed squarely in the dirty lake that covered my newly installed tile floor. It was too much. "Why are things like this always happening to me?"