I don't claim to be psychic, but as soon as the phone rang, I knew it meant trouble. I could sense it, smell it, even though the ring was no different than usual, a raucous electronic bleat more like a Bronx raspberry than the jangle of a bell. And I’d been on edge most of the day, waiting for the call from Nunna, my foster mother, to let me know that she and her new husband, Walter, were back from their month-long honeymoon.
I glanced at my watch. Six-thirteen, later than I'd thought. I'd been packing with such single-mindedness that I'd lost track of time.
The phone rang again. I crossed the room to answer it, my cane thumping against the bare hardwood floors. I picked up the phone. "Nunna?"
"This ain't Nunna. Leigh Warren, right?" It was the voice of a stranger. Male. Caucasian.
"Yes. Who's this?"
"Don't you worry about it," said, his voice hoarse, his breathing raspy, labored. "Why ain't you here where you're supposed to be? Everything's gone wrong and it's all your fault!" He began a coughing fit, the deep, phlegm-filled hack of a heavy smoker. "Now you listen, 'cause I'm not saying this twice. Since you ain't here, I'm takin' your granny and grandpap."
"What?" Who the hell was this?
"Right now they're okay," the voice continued. "Whether they stay that way is up to you. Do what I say and I'll turn 'em loose. Try something smart and you'll be planning their funeral. No cops, no feds. Nobody. Am I clear?"
Uneasiness slithered up my spine. "Look," I said. "You've obviously got the wrong number, because I have no grandparents. And if this is how you get your jollies, I suggest you see a therapist PDQ. Now--"
“Shut up! I don't give a shit whether they're blood kin or not, I've got 'em. Want me to read off their driver's licenses? Nunnally H. Layton. Nunnally. What the hell kinda name is that? Five-eleven. Hunnert and eighty pounds. This ain't no pipsqueak here, is she? Birth date June second, nineteen and twenty-five. Walter Lee Sturgis. Five-ten. Hunnert and sixty-five pounds. Birth date--"
"All that proves is that you have their licenses," I interrupted him, still resisting. "For all I know, they could have lost them somewhere or you could have stolen them. So why should I believe you? Let me speak to Nunna."
"You'll speak to her when I'm ready to let ya and if you don't shut your yap, I may just flush the little pink pill she been yammerin' on about taking at six o'clock right down the toilet. You ready to listen now?"
The only way he could know she took them at six A.M. and P.M. is if she had told him. "Please, don't hurt them. What is it you want? I don't have much money, but--"
“Shut up, goddammit! I talk, you listen. Forget money. Money won't do me no good. All I want is what's owed me, what's mine. You got it, I want it. You bring it to me, or else!
"Bring you what?" I yelled. "What is it you want?"
"My medal! It was supposed to be mine and I mean to get it!"
"Medal?" I swiveled on the crate, eyes scanning the knickknacks on the etagere, the paraphernalia on the walls. I made a rapid mental inventory of the flotsam in my jewelry box. Nothing remotely fit the description. “What medal? I don't know what you're talking about!"
"Bullshit! Either I get that medal or your folks are dead! I'll call you back:'
"When?" I shouted. "What time?"
The response was a dial tone.
I slammed the phone down, picked it up again and punched 1, Nunna's number on speed dial. It rang and rang and rang. No answering machine for Nunnally Layton Sturgis. "If nobody answers," she told me, "anybody with a lick of sense will know that either I'm--I mean, we're--- not home, or don't want to be bothered, and the reason's nobody's business but mine. I mean ours. " Marrying again at seventy-five, she had yet to adjust to thinking of herself as plural as opposed to single. But I'd let the phone ring twenty times. if Nunna had been there, she'd have answered out of sheer aggravation.
I replaced the handset and sat, hog-tied with indecision. I had to do something. But what? Don't jump the gun, I told myself. It's a prank. It had to be. All I had to do was confirm it.
Grabbing my cane, I hurried to retrieve the black hole of a purse I'd left next door in 503, where I'd been bunking with my friend Janeece for the last couple of weeks. Rushing back to the apartment in which I'd lived for the last seven years, I rooted in my bag for my address book, so old that rubber bands had long since replaced the spiral binder. Flipping pages, I found the telephone number for Mrs. Elias, Nunna's neighbor. I began to dial, then disconnected. I didn't dare tie up the line. If he called back and the line was busy, no telling how he'd react. I'd have to use my cell phone.
Mrs. Elias picked up on the first ring. "Yes, whaddaya want?" Mrs. E. considered Mr. Bell's invention a nuisance to be borne with rudeness.
"Hi, Mrs. Elias. This is Leigh Ann." Here in the North I might be just plain Leigh. Down home in Sunrise, I was Leigh Ann or the response would be "Who?"
"Leigh Ann, bless your time. Ain't this a nice surprise? You married yet? That--Dillon of yours won't wait forever.”
There were no secrets in Sunrise. "No, ma'am, but it's on again for next month. I'm just checking. Have Nunna and Walter gotten back yet? I thought you might have seen them drive up."
"Well, yes'm, I did. I'd been watching for them in that big silver thing they wasted perfectly good money on."
I collapsed in relief, so happy that I'd checked down home before making an idiot of myself.
"Coulda took a train or a bus if they needed a bathroom close to hand, " Mrs. E. rambled on. "But no, they—“
"What time was that, Mrs. Elias?"
"What time was what?" she asked.
God, give me strength. "What time did they get back?"
"Let's see now. Musta been around two. She didn't call to let you know she was home? Tsk. I reckon she'll phone you up when they got back.”
In other words words, they'd gone to return the Airstream and were perfectly all right. "What time did they leave?"
"Couldn'ta, been no more'n ten or fifteen minutes later. Didn't even take their suitcases in. 'Course they might have unloaded while I was on the phone. My oldest called...”
The foregoing is excerpted from Killer Riches by Chassie West. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022