The smell crouched in silence. As Cooper peered through the screened door of Grasslawn, the great house on Beach Boulevard, the smell attacked with a paradox all its own; paradoxical because it reeked of both honeysuckle and rusty iron. Cooper’s common sense told him the two were incompatible, but here they were one and the same. Was the honeysuckle’s candied sweetness exemplary of the innate happiness of life, while the metallic rancidity of the iron was indicative of the predestined sadness that can befall it? An education began for the gangly young man on that sultry, July morning in 1938. One that would teach him life is a combination of both honeysuckle and rusty iron, each being inseparable, but intimately in tune with the other’s idiosyncrasies.
Cooper was not alone in his aversion to the paradox. Papa Barnes, Cooper’s grandfather and the local sheriff, had the same misgivings. Together they gazed into the dim darkness of Grasslawn’s entrance hall, discerning vague shadows of what lay beyond.
“Come on Coop,” Papa Barnes said as he opened the screened door. “We aren’t gonna learn anything lollygagging on the front porch.” The screened door opened with a shriek, but the house was saturated in silence.
Stepping into the entrance hall, the two men stopped dead in their tracks. At the end of the hallway was a body lying face-up at the foot of an elegant curved staircase. The body’s eyes screamed at Cooper and his grandfather. As they stared at the body, pencil-thin rays of sunlight crept through the folds of the thick drapery hanging at the windows. The rays scampered across the floor, illuminating what had fathered the paradoxical smell. The body lay fermenting in an immense pool of coagulated blood, which to Cooper reeked of honeysuckle and rusty iron. The fermenting blood had once given life to Sebastian DePellepoix, of the New Orleans’ DePellepoixes.
“Papa? Is Mr. Sebastian…”
“Dead? Afraid so. Appears he’s been dead for some time.”
“Poor Mr. Sebastian. He was a nice man and…Papa! Look at those letters! He must have scribbled them in his own blood before he died!”
“Yank those curtains back so we can see better.”
When Cooper opened the tasseled drapery, the sunlight splashed into the hallway and revealed yet another horror. A second body, its back covered in blood, lay face down on the floor of Sebastian’s richly-appointed study. His study was a gentleman’s paradise resplendent with leather-bound first editions and paintings of the French countryside.
“Boy, stay where you are,” Papa Barnes said. “Let me take a look-see.” Entering the study through a soaring arched entrance, Papa Barnes knelt beside the body, gently turning its head.
“Sweet Lord in Heaven!” Cooper replied. “It’s Johnnie Necaise!”
Upon discovering the murders, neither Cooper nor Papa Barnes was surprised someone had murdered Johnnie Necaise, but Sebastian’s death seemed a senseless waste. Papa Barnes attempted to roll Johnnie’s body over on its back, but he stopped suddenly. He moaned in disgust. He quickly let go of the body and put his hand to his mouth and gagged. The body was grotesquely disfigured. Papa Barnes’s reaction to the disfigurement, coupled with the body’s own reeking pond of garnet-colored blood, sent Cooper reeling backward. He ran to the screened door and out onto the front porch. Gagging over the balustrade, he spit up the breakfast his grandmother had cooked and wiped its dripping residue from his mouth.
Little did Cooper realize the smell that nauseated him that morning would follow him for the rest of his life. He would experience both happiness and sadness again and again: in the laughter of his family; in the unspoiled kisses of his wife; in a German prisoner-of-war camp; in the pleading eyes of his loved ones; in the fury of swirling waters. But all of that was yet to come. These murders were part of the present, not the future, and solving them would take Cooper on an odyssey. An odyssey that would wrap itself around the little town of Port Haven, Mississippi, and two of its most powerful families.
That odyssey would change Cooper’s life forever.