It's the second-to-last day of archaeological field school. Dr Temperance Brennan's students are working on a site of prehistoric graves on Dewees, a barrier island north of Charleston, South Carolina, when a decomposing body is uncovered in a shallow grave off a lonely beach.
The skeleton is articulated, the bone fresh and the vertebrae still connected by soft-tissue; the remains are encased in rotted fabric and topped by wisps of pale, blond hair - a recent burial, and a case Tempe must take.
Dental remains and skeletal gender and race indicators suggest that the deceased is a middle-aged white male - but who was he? Why was he buried in a clandestine grave? And what does the unusual vertical hairline fracture of the sixth cervical vertebrae signify?
While Tempe is trying to piece together the evidence, her personal life is thrown into turmoil. When a bullet - intended, perhaps, for her - puts Tempe's estranged husband Pete in hospital, her unexpectedly emotional response complicates her on-off relationship with Detective Andrew Ryan.
But before long, another body is discovered - and Tempe finds herself drawn deeper into a shocking and chilling investigation, set to challenge her entire view of humanity...