By Isabella Biedenharn
Updated September 07, 2016 at 05:08 PM EDT
Courtesy William Morrow

Greg Iles will conclude his Natchez Burning Trilogy in March 2017 with Mississippi Blood, which sees Penn Cage fighting to exonerate his father, Tom — who doesn’t want an ounce of his son’s help. Tom would prefer that his secrets die with him in prison — secrets like a second son, Penn’s half-brother, born of an affair Tom had with a nurse in the ’60s. But that particular secret isn’t content to stay hidden, either, and eventually Penn joins forces with Serenity, a young, famous author who’s taken Tom’s case on as a subject so they can figure out the truth together.

EW is proud to share the exclusive first look at Mississippi Blood’s cover anda sneak peek inside the book. Check them both out below and purchase a signed copy here.

Excerpt from Mississippi Blood by Greg Iles

We found the house Carl Sims had described without too much trouble. It was more shack than house, really, but it stood alone at the end of a dirt road, just as Carl’s father, Reverend Sims, had said it would. The road itself didn’t register on my GPS unit, but it was there nonetheless. Mrs. Washington’s shack leaned like a listing ship or a house drawn in a Dr. Seuss book, but no canted house in Whoville ever looked so poor. I could see through cracks between the unpainted barn boards of the front exterior wall, and a patched tin roof had been dented by a hundred fallen limbs. Behind the dwelling was junk-filled gully filled with trees being slowly strangled by kudzu.

The raised porch was the kind that often sheltered a mean dog who would attack anyone who approached, but no animal emerged as Serenity and I walked up the steps. No one answered our knock. Then a curtain fluttered in the widow to our right, and a gray cat leaped onto the sill and regarded us with intense curiosity.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“She’s in there.”

I heard a strange clump and shuffle that reminded me of someone walking on crutches, or on a walker with tennis balls on its feet. Then the door opened, and I saw what looked like the oldest woman in the world standing before us, gripping a dented aluminum walker. Sure enough, the ends of its four legs had been jammed into slits in faded green tennis balls. The old woman blinked at the daylight with yellowed eyes set in a head that trembled constantly on its neck.

“Mrs. Washington?” I asked.

“Sho’ is. And you’re Dr. Cage’s boy. I can see it in your face.”

“Can you really?”

She nodded. “You’ve got his eyes. Kind eyes. Dr. Cage was a true healer.”

“Thank you, ma’am. This is my friend, Serenity Butler. She’s a writer, too.”

“Is that right? Well, I can’t read no more, since my eyes gone bad. I used to take the Reader’s Digest. But ya’ll come on in. And please be patient. I can’t get around like I used to.”

The old lady stumped toward a battered La-Z-Boy recliner. “If any of my babies get in your way, just give’em a shove with your foot.”

Only then did I realize the house was full of cats. Felines of all sizes occupied every horizontal surface. At least a dozen animals perched on various pieces of furniture, and two sat atop an ancient Frigidaire visible through a door at the back of the front room. I smelled at least one litterbox, but the house didn’t actually stink, as I would have expected. Maybe Mrs. Washington spent what energy she had cleaning up after the cats rather than doing housework.

I wasn’t sure how to start the conversation, but Serenity took care of it. She walked over to a photograph of a strapping man in blue overalls with a bandanna on his head and asked, “Is this your son, Mrs. Washington?”

The old lady laughed. “Lord no, that’s my husband, Lemuel.”

“He’s a handsome man.”

“Yes, indeed. Lem was a good man, too, but he’s gone thirty years now. Got crushed by a log, loading a pulpwood truck. Chain broke.”

“I’m sorry,” I said automatically.

“My family were pulpwood cutters,” Serenity said. “Cutters, haulers, you name it, they did it. Bleeding for turpentine, if you go further back.”

Mrs. Washington had gone still. Then she squinted at Serenity. “Is that right? Where you from, girl?”

“Up around Laurel. Longleaf pine country, back in the old days. All those old trees are long gone, though.”

“Sho’ is, baby. Long gone. And the men who cut ’em gone too. Pulpwoodin’s a dangerous business, but that’s about all the work there is down in these woods for a black man. Or workin’ at the sawmill. White men do the proper logging ’round here. Always have. Ya’ll push them cats out these chairs and set down. Tell me what you come to find out from the old Cat Lady. Lots of bad things happened round here back in my day. Nobody cares about that now, though. Nobody even remembers.”

“We care,” Serenity said. “Do you remember?”

The watery eyes closed, and the lined face tightened with grief. “Oh, Lord, yes. I wish I didn’t. But I’ll never forget.”