The Informant

By Grippando, James M.

Avon Books

Copyright © 2004 James Grippando
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0061012203

Gerty Kincaid expected the worst.

An Arctic front was dipping through Dixie, and southeast Georgia was bracing for its first blast of winter. By nightfall, said the weatherman, it might even snow. After seventy-eight years, Gerty wasn't tickled by the novelty. In the small town of Hainesville, January at its worst meant ice storms and downed power lines--not fluffy white snowfalls and a winter wonderland. There was no sophisticated meteorological explanation for it. That was just the way it was--and always would be.

That simple logic was like the town creed.

Life in Hainesville, they said, was as predictable as the sweet smell of azaleas in the spring and the April crop of onions. Vidalia onions, to be exact. They were the town's bona fide claim to fame, but it wasn't very southern to brag, so nobody claimed it. Hainesville was a one-stoplight town, population 532. It relied on one schoolhouse, a white clapboard rectangle serving kindergarten through twelfth grade. The First Baptist Church was the sole house of worship, built of bricks from the red Georgia clay. And there was just one doctor, a semiretired family physician who'd been honored with a parade, marching band, and key to the city when she moved down from Atlanta.

By early Friday evening a wind sock full of bitter northeasterlies was blowing through town. The smell of charred oak wafted from the chimneys of old homes with no electric heaters. Gerty was bundled up warmly in her beige trench coat and plaid wool scarf as she hurried up the curved sidewalk that led to her front door. Covered by a thin glaze of icy rain, the front steps and pathway glistened in the dim yellow porch light. It was slick and treacherous. She could have walked it blindfolded, however, having lived in the same old two-story, white frame house for nearly fifty years, the last ten alone as a widow.

She tucked her shopping bag under her arm while digging through her purse for the keys. The brass ring was enormous, cluttered with house keys, car keys, keys to an old shed that had burned down in '67--even keys to luggage she'd never actually locked. She kept them all on one ring, having promised herself that the day she could no longer tell the good ones from the bad would be the day she'd accept her daughter's persistent invitation to move in with her.

"Ah, fiddlesticks," she muttered. Her fingers ached with arthritis, and the tattered knit gloves only made it harder to grab the right key. The key ring jingled and jangled like a wind chime in her shaky hand. Finally she got it. With a quick shove the door opened, and she rushed inside to keep out the cold.

An eerie yellow glow from the porch streamed through the slatted windows on the door, lighting the needlepoint words of wisdom in the gold-leaf frame hanging on the wall. Gerty had designed and stitched it herself. There But For the Grace of God Go I, it read. Southern For "Better You Than Me."

She flipped the light switch in the foyer, but the expected illumination didn't come. Must be a power shortage. But then she realized the porch light was still burning outside the door. Maybe a blown fuse?

It took a minute to hang her coat and scarf neatly on the rack. Then she fumbled for her key again in the dim yellow light. She needed the key to secure the lock. Her granddaughter, now a big-city girl with self-proclaimed street smarts, had come down from Richmond over Thanksgiving and replaced the old-fashioned chain and dead bolt with new high-security locks, the kind that required a key to get out of your own house. The idea was to keep burglars from reaching through the window from the outside to unlock the door on the inside.

It seemed like overkill to Gerty. What was next, a blood test to sit down at your own dinner table? She knew it defeated the purpose, but she'd developed the habit of letting herself in, then leaving her keys right in the lock on the front door.

As her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, she started across the living room. The curved back of the Victorian sofa was visible in the shadows. A shaft of light from the porch reflected off the oak-framed mirror above the fireplace. The century-old floorboards creaked beneath her feet.

"General Lee?" she called out. "Where are you, baby?"
Her voice had an apologetic tone. She'd promised to be home
no later than five o'clock, and the general was one kitty who didn't like his dinner late.

"Come on, sweety. Mommy's sorry she's late."

She stopped at the table by the staircase to try the crystal lamp. It didn't light. The whole living room appeared to be without power. Strangely, though, the time displayed on the digital clock on the table seemed about right, and she watched one of the digits fall, which confirmed it was working. Seven-forty-two p.m.

She started down the narrow hall toward the kitchen. Halfway down, she was completely beyond the outer limits of the faint glow from the porch. She'd reached total darkness. With each additional step she relied more on memory than on vision. She slid her hand across the wall to feel for the light switch. A quick flip of the button brought an erratic flicker from the fluorescent bulb over the stove, giving her a start. Her pulse quickened, but the calm returned as she scanned the familiar old kitchen.

"General--" she started to say, then stopped. The bright crimson droplet on the floor caught her attention. At first she thought it might be coffee she'd spilled earlier in the day, but it seemed thicker and redder. She took a paper towel from the countertop and bent down to dab it. She blinked at the way it smeared across the linoleum.

She rose slowly and noticed a whole string of deep red drops, each about a foot or two apart, reaching from one end of the kitchen to the other. Most of them were small, but some were as big as quarters. The trail ended at the back door, which had a pass-through in the lower half that allowed her pets to come and go.

"General Lee?" Her voice shook with concern. Had he cut his paw in the darkness? she wondered. Was he hemorrhaging? Maybe he crawled outside to die in the weeds. In a panic she rushed for the back door, but it was locked and there was no key in the dead bolt.

"Damn these new locks!"

She raced from the kitchen, retracing her steps through the pitch-dark hallway and into the living room. Her breath was short and her heart was pounding as she neared the front door and reached for the keys in the lock, right where she'd left them. She froze.

The keys weren't there.

She stared in disbelief. Her hands began to shake, but she was standing completely still when the floorboard creaked directly behind her.

She wheeled and gasped, looking straight into the eyes of a dark silhouette--a huge man dressed from head to foot in some kind of black hood and tight-fitting bodysuit. She was about to scream, but his hand jerked forward and grasped her throat. His quickness stunned her. The strength of his grip made her knees buckle.

"I can't . . . breathe." Her voice broke as she fought for air.

"I don't . . . care." He used the same broken cadence, mocking her struggle.

As his grip tightened, the knife appeared. It hung before her eyes with the flat side toward her, and she saw her own terror in the eerie reflection. She could hear his voice, even make out a few words. He was talking at her, demanding something. The intense fear and pain made it all seem jumbled. The room began to blur. But the voice grew louder.Continues...

Excerpted from The Informant by Grippando, James M. Copyright © 2004 by James Grippando. Excerpted by permission.
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